Her palms prickled and a hollow dread feeling swept from her belly up to her chest. Tamza stood to the side of the stage in the great marketplace, staring at the wooden planks, forcing herself to notice every flaw, raised nail, splinter. To not think about what was coming.
She had positioned herself behind a group of loitering fire eaters, to keep as much distance between her and the audience. Most performers had been on already, to cheers or boos, depending on the fickle mood of the onlookers. Some, like her, were still waiting their turn. But Tamza’s act was the headline of the Festival of Many Gods, and tonight, for the first time, she’d be performing without her father.
She’d be the one speaking… from that stage… to the entire town gathered in the square.
Tamza gulped down the ticklish nerves that crawled up her throat. It was almost time.
She watched as the first roof runners appeared, leaping like cats and scrambling down from the two and three storey, flat-roofed mudbrick houses, skidding along the narrow alleyways between buildings and into the square. They dashed through the crowds and dodged past stalls selling festival trinkets, beer from great earthenware jugs and roast goat. The runners glided across the shallow River Gharak that snaked its way through the centre of the square, and deftly avoided the handmade deities balanced on floating platforms that bobbed jovially down the river as part of the festival’s flotilla. The competitors took the quickest route to the finish on stage.
Vizier Hannijad waited there, a wide smile on his handsome, young face, a cup filled with barley wheat beer clutched in one strong hand. He hiccupped. The entire town knew that the Vizier was a drunken idler who could barely walk five paces without assistance, and much older than the image he chose to project. His ability allowed him to contort his outward appearance as he wished, and he wished to be youthful, attractive and as muscular as the agile men and women who now approached him. He sat, wheezing, on a wooden chair intricately carved with inscriptions, decorated with rare wood inlays and shells from the small pebbly beach next to the harbour. The runners had to touch his broad chest to win.
Next to the small platform, that acted as the stage, was a group of musicians, consisting of strings, percussion and woodwind instruments. They played a favourite Vaasarian tune, that raced along, getting faster and faster. The music had picked up pace as the leaders of the race were spotted, the crowd clapping and bellowing their support.
Tamza’s heart beat in time with the frantic pace of the music and the audience’s roar rattled her bones. It all became too much. She didn’t see whose fingers brushed the Vizier first as she turned back to the makeshift hut behind the stage where her father’s soothing voice drifted out, calming the occupants inside. He had told her to go and watch the show, her anxious dithering disturbing that night’s star performers. The noise of the festival was agitating them, as it always did, on this first dance of the new season. But tonight was worse than usual. They sensed her fear.
Tamza pulled back the woollen cloth hanging across the entrance and went in.
“Papa, you’ve always done the introductions, always led the choreography. Come on with me one last time, I’ll do it on my own for the Celebration of Cultural Activities next month…” Her voice wavered, her nerves betraying her.
“Nonsense,” Sumear replied, but didn’t look at Tamza. He fussed over Ursah-bear. She allowed him, and only him, to scratch behind her small rounded ears. Bears are not for petting, Sumear had always told Tamza, unless they give you permission. Ursah-bear hummed happily, head bumping Sumear’s chest to ask for more. He rubbed his forehead between her black eyes.
“You’ll be brilliant, Tamza. You’ve spent weeks training them, and the town will love it. You know they take it as a sign for the coming season when the bears perform well at their first dance out of hibernation.”
Tamza groaned. Yes, she knew. The townsfolk would be spooked for the season if the bears put a step wrong, if Tamza messed this up.
“This is your season to take over from me.” Sumear mumbled into Ursah’s huge head, “I’m getting old, and tired, yes, yes I am.”
Tamza knew this to be false. Her father was almost sixty seasons old and had sun-weathered brown skin and a few wrinkles, but he was as energetic as ever. Tall and lithe with the strength to pick up Ursah’s cub and throw him in the air and catch him. Sumear’s thinning grey hair was closely cropped and he’d been to the barbers the previous day to trim his beard short with precise edges, as was the latest fashion. He looked undeniably sprightly.
“Old and tired, pah!”
Sumear turned his bright blue eyes to her. “Tamza, you’ve been coming on stage with me since you could walk. And you’re how old now?”
This was a little joke between them. Her father always claimed to forget her age, so he wouldn’t be reminded of his age. She was twenty-four seasons old and he knew it. She didn’t reply, just frowned.
“It’s time for you to take over, daughter. Now, I heard the roof race finishing music, which means you’ll be on soon. Get your bears ready.”
Tamza turned to Rae-bear. The huge, brown bear was nearly twice her height, but the same age as her, born in the same season. They had grown up together. His coat looked ragged, the winter fur sheaving off in great clumps to reveal glossy new fur beneath. He was stood on his hindlegs, swaying, nose in the air. Eyes glazed.
Tamza clicked her fingers. Rae-bear looked down at her, but didn’t drop to all fours.
“Please, focus. We have a dance to perform. The town is counting on us to usher in a new season full of joy, food and festivities.” Tamza spoke these words, but they came out as tongue clicks, yowls and chuffs. In the language of bears, as was her ability. She could speak the human tongue and that of animals, birds, bees. Anything that made a noise to communicate to another, she could translate. As could her father.
Rae-bear grunted in return, growling the words. “Many, many, many.”
Tamza took a deep breath, she didn’t need reminding of all those people in the crowd. But soothing Rae-bear ignited a small flame of bravery in amongst her dark fear. “Yes, there are many people here. But no more than last season, or the one before that. Concentrate on the moves I taught you. Go through them in your mind…”
But Tamza didn’t finish as a shout came from outside and a hand thumped the side of the hut. “The Guardian-Of-Many-Gods is on. You’re next.”
Tamza froze, the little, brave flame extinguishing.
Sumear touched her back hump and smiled. “Come on.”
They left the hut and walked to the stage, the bears waiting to be called.
Sumear beamed with pride as he kept his hand on her back. He was handing over his duties to her, his only daughter and only surviving child of four. I hope I don’t fail him. As they neared the stage Tamza’s breath caught in her chest at the thought of thousands of Vaasarians scrutinizing her every move, her every word. She hated people looking at her, had always been painfully shy, even as a child.
They stood by the steps that led up to the stage. Tamza could smell the crowd before she could see them. The heady aroma was sweet, each Vaasarian making an extra effort with their grooming for the festival with fragrant oils rubbed into hair and skin.
Tamza scanned the audience. Most were in costume related to their personal God of choice, for in Vaasar you were free to worship whatever and whoever you pleased. But some, like her, were not in costume. Tamza wore a loose-fitting, black woollen cloak to the ground, with a fine black woollen headscarf that she tied in such a way that only her forehead and eyes were on show. Both cloak and scarf had belonged to her mother. There was no rule to be covered, Vaasarians were free to wear whatever they liked, Tamza just preferred it. Her identity was not a mystery as her sparkling blue eyes and rare black wool clothing were known to all. But in the past nine seasons, since her mother’s death, only her father and her bears had seen her face.
The Vizier in his chair had been moved to the side of the stage, the musicians had trailed off and the crowd quietened, in awe, raptly listening to the Guardian-Of-Many-Gods, the patron of this particular festival. He wore a simple, rough-hewn tunic, not wanting to show alliance to any one God, as he chose to worship and celebrate all Gods. He was talking about the coming season, how four more Gods had been added to the flotilla, how they had been blessed with a sunny day…
Tamza wasn’t paying any attention, couldn’t hear his words over the din of dread that clattered between her ears. So many.
People clung to the legs of the Vizier statues around the square, had climbed the rickety scaffolding of the half-built Vizier Hannijad statue to get a better view, crowded on the small bridge and sat on the levelled tree trunks and wooden planks that were used to cross the river. Some had used their magic to stretch tall or float in the air for a better view.
Nearly all five thousand of Vaasar’s inhabitants were crammed into the square, on top of roofs and lining the streets and alleyways that led off into the various quarters. Everyone loved a festival in Vaasar, only the sick and mothers nursing newborns would reluctantly stay at home.
Tamza saw her sister-in-law, Yaseena, and her two children. They had hustled their way to the front. Lil Araf, named after his father, Tamza’s brother Araf, and Baby. Baby was no baby anymore, now nine seasons old and a strapping boy who looked just like Araf. He had been born the day before Araf had set sail and his parents had agreed to name him properly when his father returned from sea. Araf didn’t return, and the baby was never given an official name. Baby had inherited Araf’s ability to change his skin colour to a deep green and was stood flashing his skin at Tamza with a huge grin on his face. Yaseena was dressed up as the God of Harvest, heads of corn dangling from her body. She waved, and the corn rustled. Tamza lifted her hand gingerly in reply. It trembled.
The silence was complete, only the Guardian’s voice filled the air. Soon to be my voice, I pray to Bear-God that I don’t forget my lines.
Sumear patted Tamza’s back and nodded at the stage. Tamza looked at the Guardian-Of-Many-Gods.
“And now, the performance we have all been waiting for…” The Guardian paused, arms raised in the air. “Our bears!”
The audience cheered and clapped, dimming to an eager silence once again.
“I’d like to invite onto the stage…”
Tamza took a deep breath. For seasons, the Guardian had introduced “Sumear and Tamza” and now he would say, “Tamza.” Just her name. She put a foot on the steps, took a deep breath, straightened her back and plastered a wide smile on her face that illuminated her eyes. I will make you proud, Papa.
She waited for the Guardian to speak her name. He was taking a long time about it. Perhaps he’s forgotten? But he looked confused, his arms dropped and he leaned forward, squinting.
As if he had been struck by lightning, he started bouncing around on the stage, pointing, screaming, “Fire! Fire! Fire in the south, in the reed hut quarter! Fire!”
A low, baffled mumbling came from the crowd, who looked around to try and see, but the Guardian had a higher viewpoint.
Another shout, from a woman watching the spectacle from one of the rooftops. “Fire! The palace! Fire!” She pointed past the stage to the palace on the hill in the distance. Her shout echoed but no one took the information in. The woman shouted again, insistent. It was a few moments before the news clicked and Tamza turned to look at the palace, flames licking up towards the great dome.
More shouts, about fire in the east – the storehouses! And then shouts about flames from the boatyard in the west.
“Fires on all sides?” Sumear said, eyebrows knotted. “That’s highly improbable…”
“Are we under attack?” said a musician stood nearby, incredulously, laughing.
Tamza and those around her, including Sumear, smirked and shook their heads as if to say, “Of course not!”
But the answer was suddenly as clear as the seawater in one of the rockpools by the harbour. Yes, they were under attack. The town of Vaasar was being struck by an outside force, for the first time in its history.
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