Printara managed to push Allaynah down underneath her, she placed both her legs across her stomach pinning her down. Allaynah tried to push her off but Printara managed to pin one of Allaynah’s arms between her legs while holding her other arm down by the wrist. With her free hand she raised a fist to pound it into her defenceless sister’s face. Her fist landed with a dull thud and Allaynah tried to cry out but was half choked by the weight on her chest. All around them dozens of pairs of eyes watched passively, none of the women were willing to intervene in this violent dispute. None except the painted one. Printara’s fist rose up in the air ready to strike again but was captured in mid air by the painted woman who then yanked the confused Pintara up onto her feet and pushed her away. Allaynah was dazed and struggling to catch her breath from the beating she had received, but Printara bared her teeth furiously at the strange woman, “she stopped me from going with the other women. I am teaching her a lesson!” Printara cocked her head down and prepared to throw herself onto Allaynah again.
The painted woman drew back her right arm and proceeded to land a punch so hard it caused Printara to flip over and hit the ground flat on her back with a thud. Printara was now too breathless herself to get back up. The painted woman leaned over her threateningly.
“Your sister saved your life, and if you ever try to hurt another one of our tribe again I will beat you so hard you won’t ever get back up again, do you hear?”
Printara nodded in stunned submission. The painted woman turned around to face the other women of her tribe, “that goes for all of you. If any of you attack another woman of this tribe, I will deal with you swiftly. Attacking a fellow Paximani is treason, and traitors beg to suffer and die!”
A sea of bewildered eyes looked up at her. If perhaps they weren’t so tired, hungry, and afraid, some of them might have protested what the painted woman had just done. But at the moment, she was feared as the strongest woman in the group, and although the women were silent and submissive, they gave neither disapproval or approval for her actions. The only woman to thank the painted one was Rosha who was trying to sit the battered Allaynah back up. Allaynah’s confusion started to pass and she began sobbing into Rosha’s shoulder. Some friends of Printara who had also wanted to become wives to the Bellamani men helped to move her away from her sister and the painted one.
“I… just wanted her to be safe… why does my sister hate me so?” Sobbed Allaynah.
The painted one knelt down beside her and murmured in her deep voice, “You were brave sister. Your blood sister was wrong to punish you. In time she may learn to see the wrong she has done you.”
“She has always been that way to me. She’s never been happy to have me.”
The painted one nodded, “but you have always wanted to embrace her?”
Allaynah nodded, “When my father left the village, all I wanted to do was be her best friend. But she never wanted me.”
“She has venom in her spirit. Powerful magic is needed to cure her.”
Allaynah looked at the stoically neutral face of the painted woman carefully, “you remind me of my grandmother.”
“Was she a wise woman?”
“She was a druidess, many outsiders came to visit her for guidance. Her name was Yala.”
“Yala,” repeated the painted one, “I have heard of her. She was very wise, hold her spirit close, we will need her wisdom in the days to come.”
Allaynah nodded, although she didn’t understand what the painted woman meant by her words. The Bellamani women guarding them could see that the fighting had passed, and growing bored they left the group of Paximani women alone unguarded. Despite the absence of spears now pointed at them none of the women dared stand up to walk around the camp. The group remained huddled together.
Triani looked at the darkening evening sky and turned to the group around her, “It is getting dark, when are they going to feed us? When will they show us to our tents?”
The painted one grunted at this, but it was Rosha who answered, “Triani, I don’t think they’re going to feed us.”
“What? But we haven’t eaten all day, and they can’t just leave us here on the grass all night. We’ll be bitten and stung by insects all through the night.”
Allaynah spoke up, “Alas Triani, I don’t know why they would bother to feed or shelter us. We’re nothing to them.”
Kaybekah interjected, “That’s not good enough. We need food and shelter, we haven’t even got any clothes. Rosha, how do you say ‘we want’, ‘food’, and ‘tents’ in Bellamani.
Rosha stared at her puzzled, and looked Allaynah for guidance but Allaynah was so tired and hungry she was just shook her head dismissively and lay back. Rosha turned to the painted woman who was sniggering to herself cynically. Rosha interpreted all this to mean it was ok to tell Kaybekah what she wanted to know. Rosha carefully articulated the words, “Oh oh nawna gub gub.” Kaybekah repeated them awkwardly and so Rosha asked her to repeat it again until she could say it properly but Kaybekah lost patience and stood up and marched to the edge of the group.
“Oh oh nawna gub gub!” she shouted at the nearest group of Bellamani women. They responded by chattering amongst themselves and grinning ear to ear. One of them disappeared and a few moments later Neelah returned.
Kaybekah looked pleadingly at Neelah and repeated her demands flourishing them with a stamp of her foot. Rosha tightened her grip on Allaynah in anticipation of more violence which seemed imminent as Neelah walked straight up to Kaybekah on her toes and leering into her eyes just centimetres from her face. Kaybekah quickly crumpled to the ground and shuffled her way backwards on her bottom back into the mass of Paximani captives.
Neelah then glared at the rest of the group and gave a speech in Bellamani that only Rosha and perhaps one or two other Paximani women understood. Everyone looked to Rosha to tell them what Neelah had just said.
“She said that if we cause any more trouble she will turn us into food and tents for her warriors.”
Neelah noticed the group huddled around Rosha and through gestures and commands ordered that Rosha stand up and step forward. Rosha timidly exchanged a few sentences in Bellamani with Neelah who summoned her to stand in front of the group. Neelah spent some time talking to Rosha while Allaynah watched frightened for her young cousin’s safety. Neelah pointed to the mass of Paximani women and Rosha turned and started speaking, although her voice was too tired and shaky to travel far. Neelah shouted at her to speak louder and she Rosha did, albeit through a veil of tears.
“You will have no food tonight. Gathering parties will be organised and sent out at dawn. Then you can eat what your gatherers scavenge. Choose your best gatherers to go out.”
The painted one stood up and spoke to Rosha, “What about shelter? Will we have tents?”
Neelah did not take her eyes off the painted one, who alone showed no fear of the Bellamani leader, as Rosha translated what she had said. Neelah answered while staring down the painted woman.
Rosha relayed the answer, “There are not enough skins to make tents for you, so you will have to sleep on the ground.”
This time Kaybekah stood up and spoke, “But we can make huts, our men made huts out of mud, wood, and reeds all the time. Get some of your men to make us some huts to sleep in so we will be warm at night.”
Allaynah heard whispers from the women around her asking why they didn’t just ask the Bellamani women to send some of their men over to build huts for the women, after all the men would be all to happy to build their women some huts they said. Allaynah couldn’t understand how so many of her tribeswomen were unaware that their men were all dead. She questioned her own recollection of the previous day’s events, but then wondered it maybe these women hadn’t witnessed any of the fighting? Or what was it that her grandmother had told her? Bad women lie, and evil women believed their own lies to themselves. It was something like that.
Rosha was translating Kaybekah’s speech to Neelah when the warrioress started laughing sinisterly. All this activity had caught the attention of the Matriarch who came over to see what was happening. Neelah explained that their captives were wanting the Bellamani men to build them huts out of wood, reeds, and mud. While Neelah was laughing the Matriarch was looking intense. She turned to Kaybekah.
“How do these huts of yours keep out the rain? What is their roof made out of?”
“O Matriarch, they were made out of reeds and mud to keep them together.”
“But mud would wash away in the rain, and the roof fall in. So how did your men stop this from happening?”
Kaybekah blushed, it was obvious, such a hut couldn’t keep the rain out, and yet, that’s how the huts were built and they didn’t leak when it rained. “I have no idea, the men did something to keep the rain out, I know not what.”
Neelah smirked at this, but the Matriarch looked thoughtful, “Do any of you Paximani women know how your men made these huts?”
The group was silent as questioning glances were exchanged to each other. But no one knew. At least, no one who knew said a word about it.
Kaybekah continued, “but why not ask your men to build us some huts?”
The Matriarch glared malevolently at Kaybekah, “Bellamani men are not toilers, they are warriors, they take what they need from the weak and undeserving. They most certainly don’t do anything for Paximani whelps like yourselves!”
Fearing she might have said too much Kaybekah sat back down again. But the painted one was still standing and caught the eye of the Matriarch.
“You, painted one, come here, I want to look at you more closely.”
Without any trace of fear the painted one walked up to the Matriarch who proceeded to pull up her arms and examine her unusually developed muscles.
“You have the arms of a man Paximani, how does a woman of your tribe come to be so strong?”
“I am a huntress,” the painted one said abruptly.
“Can you hunt the game of this land?”
“Of course, I can.”
The Matriarch leaned over and stared into the painted one’s eyes, who stared dispassionately straight back at her.
“Go and hunt me some game to eat.”
The painted one stepped to the side and started to move towards one of the camp exits.
The Matriarch barked some orders to her warrioresses who step aside allowing the painted one to pass before shouting out to the painted one.
“But remember, if you don’t come back with meat for me this time tomorrow, I will eat this one instead,” the Matriarch gripped Rosha’s shoulder with one of her great paws. The painted one looked away for the last time, walked through the entrance and vaporised into the dusk shadows.
Neelah and the Matriarch departed along with their accompanying warrioresses leaving Rosha standing alone. Allaynah was the first to come to her to embrace her. Triani and Kaybekah followed.
Triani tapped Rosha on the shoulder, “excuse me Rosha, but how come you can speak Bellamani?”
“My clan lived in a village by the ocean. We made our living through fishing and trading with the tribes south across the sea. We traded with the Bellamani for many years, all of my clan can speak the languages of the tribes we trade with.”
Allaynah had a thought, “what about the Matriarch? How come she knows our language?”
“She would often meet with us to trade, I assumed she was a trader for her tribe too, at least before she became the Matriarch.”
“Rosha, how much do you know about the Bellamani?”
“Not much, I only went on a single trade journey to their land. I stayed there for a score of nights.”
“Tell me about their homeland,”
“It is always hot, and it rains a lot. There are big lizards that live in the water that can eat a man.”
“It sounds like their homeland made them very strong,” said Allaynah mournfully.
Allaynah sunk down on her knees and started pulling up tuffs of grass to make a pile to rest her head on like many of the other Paximani women were doing. She was thinking about everything the Bellamani had said, especially the Matriarch’s curiosity about the huts and how they kept the rain out. Animal skins were non porous, so the tents the Bellamani used were water proofed that way, but the Paximani men didn’t need animal skins to make water proof huts. Why would the Matriarch want to know this? Surely the Bellamani make their own huts? Everyone makes huts to live in. Tents are only for when travelling or raiding. Then a question popped into her head.
“Rosha, did you ever see the Ballamani living in huts in their home land?”
Rosha shook her head, “No. Always in tents. Why?”
Allaynah hesitated before answering, but Rosha insisted that she tell regardless of how silly she thought she sounded and eventually Allaynah relented to her cousin.
“Well, I know this sounds silly, but what if the Matriarch wanted to know how to build huts?”
Rosha stared blankly not understanding what Allaynah was suggesting, and Allaynah instantly regretted saying it, “Nevermind, it was just a silly idea. The Bellamani live in tents, our people live in huts, it’s not really an important difference. Get some rest, we will have a busy day tomorrow.”
At the mention of the word ‘tomorrow’ Rosha started to grimace. Realising why Allaynah beckoned her cousin to rest next to her on her grass pillow and huddle up with her
“There, there, Rosha, don’t you worry. I am sure that painted woman is a great huntress and she will be back tomorrow with some game for the Matriarch.”
“But why should she? She is free now, they let her go. She didn’t care when the Matriarch said she would eat me.”
Allaynah rocked her cousin gently, “She just didn’t want the Matriarch to see how much she cared about you. It’s a kind of trick. She’s a huntress, they are like that. Trust me, she cares about you. She will return.”
“But what if she doesn’t find any game?”
Allaynah considered this, “I don’t know her very well, but I suspect she will come up with something. She’s resourceful.”
Allaynah’s words greatly soothed Rosha, and despite her empty stomach and trying day Rosha fell asleep, while Allaynah lay awake wary that her sister, Printara, might take the opportunity of the painted one’s absence to attack her in sleep. She looked around her and realised she didn’t trust any of her tribes’ women besides Rosha. She mused about asking Triani or Kaybekah to take turns watching over them, but at the same time she worried they would tell everyone and the idea would get to Printara and she would certainly do it. No one could be trusted. Especially with all those tribeswomen ready to marry the men who had just murdered their fathers, brothers, and sons. How had this happened? How had her tribe become so self-loathing, so divided against itself? So desperate to capitulate and join with those who had murdered so many of them? She wished her grandmother were here. She could hear her grandmother’s voice warning her mother this would all happen one day. But why? What did grandmother say? She quietly said a prayer to her long dead grandmother.
“Dear mother of my mother, blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh, spirit of my spirit, your grand daughter Allaynah calls out to you from the land of the living. Our lands are lost, our tribe divided against itself, our men are all dead, and the women lie naked on the cold earth. You warned my mother of this time, when I was a little girl, please mother of my mother, whisper into my ear again all the wisdom you once shared. Help me to remember how to be a good Paximani woman in the spirit you chose to live by.”
She paused for a moment, and then added an addendum to her prayer, “Also mother of my mother, look over the painted one. Guide her to success in the hunt tonight.”