The unpunished sins of the world will beget the dro-shalum. ~ Sabar’Uto folk belief
A love song caressed the music chamber of the Sabar’Uto King’s eldest daughter. The young female’s voice gathered sweet energy as she imagined the ardor of some mythical perfect husband. “My devotion will bring fine sons, and forever will his strength protect me.” She finished the final line and her preferred lady-in-waiting plucked the last note on her harp.
“Let’s practice it again, Demeda. I want our performance to be the best,” said the lady-in-waiting.
“Mallah, why be so competitive? There’s no prize,” Demeda said. She flopped onto a pile of cushions and ran her fingers through her lustrous black hair.
Mallah huffed. “Don’t quit now. We almost have it perfect,” she complained.
A gaggle of servants rushed by in the hall. Their tittering indicated some rare excitement. Sensing hot gossip afoot, Demeda sat up. “Whatever are they about, Mallah?” she wondered. “That’s the third time I’ve heard running in the hall.”
Mallah did not look up from the harp as she tightened a couple strings. “Some cook has probably cut her hand and they are rushing about to get bandages,” Mallah proposed absently.
“We are no where near a kitchen,” the princess protested. She got up from the pile of down-stuffed pillows.
Mallah looked up now, perturbed to see her cousin distracted.
Princess Demeda put on her slippers that had a ruby set over each toe. She casually walked about in more wealth than a whole village could produce in a year, but she thought nothing of it. The Sabar’Uto were wealthy and powerful. The tribe boasted that it set the standard for civilization and that the Gods had revealed the gifts of art, state, and agriculture to it before all others.
“You never finish anything!” Mallah complained and got up from the harp. She was plump compared to the graceful and lithe Demeda and her nose was big. Some women whispered vindictively that Demeda favored her cousin Mallah because her portly plainness enhanced the beauty of the princess, but Mallah had no reason to think ill of Demeda. The Princess had never showed herself to be anything except a true and kind friend with her only fault being a tendency to bore easily.
Demeda swung open the lightly polished wood doors of the music chamber and surprised three maids in the hallway. The young women bumped into each other as they halted and bowed to their mistress.
“What is going on?” Demeda demanded.
Mallah came up behind her and rested her chin on Demeda’s shoulder.
The maids each bowed again and then by some unseen agreement one of them emerged as their representative and spoke. Her dark eyes flashed with fear, like a little child who has been told a scary story.
“My Princess, the men are all in a dither. The soldiers are moving from the palace. Word is the city gate has been barred,” a maid said.
“Why?” Demeda asked and put her arm around Mallah as her friend moved beside her.
The maids all glanced at each other. They acted like a curse would be laid on them if they answered with any detail, but finally the one who spoke leaned forward and whispered, “It’s the Kez, my Princess.”
Although Demeda knew little of the affairs of men, she could think of no reason why the Kez should cause such a commotion in the Sabar’Uto royal palace. As far as Demeda knew, the Kez were outlaws that claimed to serve some god, which one she could not remember if she ever knew.
The maid had wit enough to see that her princess did not grasp what was happening. All servants knew that their cloistered mistresses were often the last to hear of the deeds done in the outer world.
“My Princess, there is a new warlord among the Kez. They call him Amar. People are saying that he is dro-shalum,” the maid explained.
It meant curse-demon, as in a curse that has taken the physical form of an avenging beast. Demeda frowned thoughtfully. She was not some peasant to be enthralled by supernatural fears.
“Nonsense. He is just an outlaw,” she scoffed.
The three maids shrank back with grave expressions as if their Princess’s disregard for the dro-shalum had turned their luck bad.
“Oh, my Princess,” the maid continued. “There are stories flying across the land. It is said that this new Kez warrior can sneak with the shadows. That kings wither and die in his presence.”
The maid’s drama finally impressed Demeda somewhat. “Then let us go see this shadow warrior,” she declared with obvious glee to have something interesting going on.
Mallah poked her side and admonished her royal friend that she would get them in trouble.
“We won’t get caught,” Demeda said confidently because she was adept at sneaking about the palace.
“My Princess, he is not coming in the palace,” the maid said. “As I said, the city gates are barred against him and will not be opened.”
“Why should my father, the King, fear a lowly outlaw?” Demeda said.
The maid meant to answer, but Demeda was not interested in talking to her any more and she shooed the women away. They trotted down the hall intent on their gossip. The Princess withdrew into her chamber with her friend.
“Have you heard any of this talk?” Demeda asked.
Mallah shook her head and settled onto a square green cushion next to the harp.
“Don’t you find this interesting?” Demeda said.
Mallah answered, “Yes, but I can’t do anything to find out more. We are the last to hear of anything. You know this, so why don’t you be patient.” She strummed the harp and smiled slightly with satisfaction.
A sour look crinkled Demeda’s young and delicate face. It was annoying that servants had better access to the happenings of the world than she did. She got most of her news and gossip from her brothers. She was rather crafty at teasing information out of them. But Demeda reflected that lately they had been tight-lipped, preoccupied even.
Something was going on, and Demeda was not content with the ignorant talk of servants. She tugged on Mallah’s elbow and told her to come along. Her friend cast upward an affectionate look from her dark eyes and resigned herself to the Princess’s desire for mischief.
They went to Demeda’s dressing room and grabbed a pair of cloaks and tepas. Demeda whipped the close-fitting tepa over her head and started tying shut the face flaps with its row of small bows. Her fingers worked the strips of fabric swiftly. She had a lot of practice keeping her face covered, as was required of all females past puberty.
“We’re going outside?” Mallah asked as she swung on her cloak.
“You can see very little from the women’s circle,” Demeda noted.
Mallah had little expectation of seeing anything no matter how far they got, but joining her royal friend on her unsanctioned outing might be fun.
The palace of the Sabar’Uto King was a massive structure that rivaled all other known constructions of man, even temples. The stone palace was built into three concentric circular buildings. The outer ring was a fortified wall with stables and barracks. The second and middle ring housed the male members of the royal family and male servants along with all the formal rooms for conducting affairs of state and the typical kitchens and workshops that were necessary. The innermost circle was for women. The wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters of the royal family lived there with female servants. Women guests were lodged here as well and the female residents rarely got to venture out, except for planned family outings to the countryside and the seasonal trek to the summer palace in the foothills.
Demeda had lived most of her life within the well-fitted stone walls of her family’s palace. Most of her view was of sky, the walls of the men’s circle, and the inner garden where flowers were cultivated among a ring of elderly chestnut trees. But today she would peep a little farther, and she took her friend’s hand and scurried from the secluded apartment of the King’s precious eldest daughter.
They did not care what servants saw them. The female workers would never tell the Princess what to do. There were men enough to do that.
Upper levels of the women’s circle were connected with stone bridges to the men’s circle so that it was not necessary to go down to the ground level just to cross – an arrangement that was convenient for the King to reach his wives. The upper bridges were generally unguarded. Demeda chose the bridge that went directly to the section of the men’s palace where her brothers lived. With the excitement caused by the reported arrival of the mysterious dro-shalum, Demeda doubted that her brothers would be lounging about, and she was right. Mallah and she slipped unnoticed into the men’s circle. Even though Demeda was only in her family’s home, her heart still beat faster because she was forbidden to enter the men’s circle without an invitation.
The decor revealed that they had entered the world of men. Tapestries showed broad landscapes where great and elaborate hunts for boar and stag were depicted. Sculptures of horses and men and other animals adorned the mantelpieces and weapons hung from the walls. Some were actual working weapons and others were fanciful decorative weapons.
Demeda was tempted to snoop through the personal effects of her brothers, especially her full brothers Kalzen and Ulet, but she was in a hurry. Perhaps she would have a chance on her way back.
The apartments of her brothers were eerily abandoned. The male servants must have all congregated to gossip at some other level and her brothers were likely with the King. Demeda took a back hallway that was mostly used by servants so as to avoid the main staircase of the men’s circle. Mallah and she went out a door to stand on a balcony that overlooked the main courtyard between the men’s circle and the outer ring of the palace. They crouched behind the stone rail and were surprised to see so many men-at-arms mustering in the yard.
Demeda observed her father’s war chief, Daboh, in his full warrior regalia mounting a white horse.
“Do you think we are being attacked?” Mallah whispered.
Demeda peered over the edge a little farther. She shook her head and then announced that they needed to go higher.
“We dare not take the main stairs,” Mallah said.
Demeda agreed and they rushed back inside. Eight extra stairwells ran up and down the men’s circle, and the women scurried toward the nearest one. It was cramped and dark and the flap of their slippered feet racing up the steps sounded loud.
They were out of breath when they reached the top. Wind was whistling in the open door, but the fresh air was welcomed by their hungry lungs. Demeda and Mallah burst out of the stairwell and startled four men who were talking and pointing across the city. They were servants and the appearance of two women in their midst caused them to react with disapproval and shock. Demeda’s red cloak over a yellow gown marked her as a royal female. Simply being near the unchaperoned females was a terrible risk for the common men.
“Go back!” shouted a cook with a rude and authoritative tone. “This is no place for women.”
His male dialect sounded rough. The speech of men was always slightly foreign to female ears, but Demeda took strength from the panic on the men’s faces.
“I have my father’s leave to be here,” she lied.
Ignoring the skeptical grimace of the cook, Demeda took Mallah’s hand and marched into their midst at the edge of the roof. The wind was strong and with the spring equinox still weeks away, the claws of winter remained sharp. Demeda was grateful for the warmth and protection of the normally stifling face cover. The men backed away from the intrusive women. They were stymied as to what to do. No one dared actually touch the females to force them away.
Demeda could see over the outer wall of the palace. Most of the city of Chadenedra consisted of low wooden buildings, punctuated by stone or brick temples, and neighborhoods of nicer buildings of stone and timber. Streamers of smoke rose from chimneys. Snow blanketed roofs. Various flags and banners fluttered around the important dwellings. An impressive wall of timbers embraced the city.
“Are you up here to see this outlaw who has so many in an uproar?” Demeda asked.
Demeda knew that her high-born female dialect might be difficult for the males to understand, so she restated her question in simpler terms. Still, she got no answer, so she shaded her eyes and peered toward the city gate. As the maid had reported, it was shut, which was abnormal for the middle of the day. Beyond the town on the dark lanes marked by dirty snow she saw an ominous group of four or five dozen darkly clad warriors. She could tell little at such a distance except that they were clearly not farmers or traders.
“We should go,” Mallah said. She glanced warily at the men who hung back anxiously. She was unused to being unprotected in the presence of men and all of her cultural fears of female vulnerability were barking in her mind.
Demeda squinted at the group outside the city. She longed to go out there and know their business. Who were they and why had their approach caused such an instant alarm? Although she gave into Mallah’s insistent tug on her arm, Demeda resolved to find out.
She turned and snidely thanked the men for enduring their intrusion. Her delight in effectively pushing around some hapless male servants was fleeting. Her oldest brother, Ulet, emerged from the stairwell, evidently in pursuit of her. His squarely cut bangs of black hair framed an angry face – an emotion that ill-suited his seventeen-year-old face. Despite his youth, he was well grown with strong wide shoulders, lean torso, and strong fast legs. His red cape flapped from his shoulders as if applauding his disapproval.
“Sister,” Ulet said. The face covering could not hide her identity from him. Ulet knew those bright defiant eyes and their long black lashes. “Come with me,” he commanded in a voice that absolutely mimicked their father.
To enforce his will, four of his personal bodyguards came out of the stairwell behind him and positioned themselves around Demeda and Mallah.
Demeda refused to let her shoulders sag in defeat.
Ulet proceeded to scold her. “Why do you shame us cavorting with male servants?”
“I am not cavorting. They just happened to be here,” Demeda answered without the appropriate guilt.
Exasperation rivaled Ulet’s indignation. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“I was trying to see this outlaw that everyone but me seems to know about,” Demeda replied and her words rushed out excitedly as she continued. “Why do we bar the city to him? He only has a few warriors. Surely he can’t attack. Why do we fear him? Who is he?”
Ulet would have been irritated if the subject did not concern him so. With a flick of his fingers he indicated to his men that it was time to go. The bodyguards politely ushered the women into the stairwell and Ulet led the way down.
The close stone walls of the stairwell felt hot and confining after the open freedom of the roof. Demeda understood keenly that she was being returned to her pen like a stray heifer. She wondered who had seen her and Mallah. Due to the speed of her detection and Ulet’s personal response she had to assume that one of her servants might have alerted him. The silent complicity of her servants could no longer be counted upon. Ulet obviously had spies in the women’s circle.
Descending the steps, Demeda took Mallah’s hand. Her trustworthy cousin silently gave her some solace.
When they exited the stairs and headed directly for the bridge to the women’s circle, Demeda balked. She slipped in front of her outwardly indifferent brother. She touched his arm to try and stop him. His biceps tensed beneath his thick felt shirt.
“Ulet, tell me about this outlaw. What is going on?” she pleaded.
He shook at her grasp gently. Her interest in a strange man was unseemly.
“He’s just an outlaw,” he said and kept moving forward.
Demeda hung onto him. “Is Daboh going out to arrest him?” she asked.
Ulet halted and Mallah and the bodyguards stumbled to a fast stop behind him. Ulet was amazed by the thoroughness of Demeda’s spying during her brief escape.
She could see that some of his anger was passing. The part of her brother that was loving kin still remained. And some juicy secret itched inside him and he wanted to scratch it, just as when they were little.
“Can we talk?” Demeda whispered invitingly. She hoped that he still wanted the safety of her confidence, where there was no male judgment.
Gruffly he told his men to deliver Mallah back to the women’s circle.
Ulet and Demeda stepped into a small private dining room. The fireplace was cold but a shaft of light from the window fell on the blank table and brightened the room. Ulet looked out the second door of the room into the servants’ hall to make sure no one was listening.
Demeda pulled open the drapes to let in more light. Clouds were moving in and slapping back the yellow warmth of the late winter sunshine. She then untied her face covering and let her tepa fall back. Her brother was accustomed to the lovely sight of his sister. Polished wooden combs accented with silver beads held her thick wavy black hair back from her face. Her warm caramel skin was kept abnormally light by lack of exposure to sunlight, but her pristine fairness enhanced the dripping molasses beauty of her eyes. No male outside her closely related kin had seen her uncovered since the passing of her childhood. Like all of her brothers, it was the duty of Ulet to keep it that way until she was delivered to a husband.
Ulet ran his hand along the thick stone mantel of the fireplace before picking up a bear statuette of black stone off the shelf. Turning the statue over in his hands, Ulet started to speak. “The outlaw is called Amar. The Kez have been demanding retainers from every tribe,” he said.
“What’s that?” Demeda asked. Her scant education had not included any terms of business.
He graciously explained that the Kez wanted regular payments of treasure and goods in exchange for securing safe relations between tribes and helping to defend outlying towns from marauding nomads. The Kez, as servants of Vu, had always sold such services, but it had been upon request. Now the Kez had turned aggressive and were trying to assume a mandatory monopoly over such activities.
Demeda listened eagerly. To hear such things was so much more stimulating than the ceaseless tedium of pregnancy, birth, and arranged marriages that dominated conversations in the women’s circle.
“Are tribes paying?” she asked.
Ulet nodded but added, “The Temulanka have refused them, and we are doing the same.”
“Of course,” Demeda agreed. The Sabar’Uto would not want to appear weak in the eyes of their powerful rival to the north, the Temulanka Tribe. Her people had warred with the Temulanka for most of her childhood, and even Demeda was aware that the peace was tenuous. The wounds of war festered more than they healed.
She watched the statuette rolling in her brother’s hands and noted how his grip tightened after each turn. She looked up to his face that was so like hers except cast in a masculine mold. A hint of little boy vulnerability hid behind the corners of his manhood.
In a lower voice, he said, “We have barred Amar from the city because there is a rumor that he has some strange power. The King of the Patharki was brutally murdered after receiving the Kez. He was pulled from his throne and butchered in the presence of his war chief and bodyguards.”
Demeda gasped and thought of her father. The vision of him dead in the carefully crafted safety of his home was unsettling.
“Do you believe he is dro-shalum?” Demeda asked.
Startled, Ulet asked her where she had heard that and she told him. Ulet returned the bear statuette to the mantel. “I think maybe so,” he confessed.
Demeda’s skin tingled with the superstitious rustling of rising hairs. She had never experienced such a rush of foreboding and excitement.
She collected herself and quietly asked what the King would do about the Kez. Ulet said that their father would wait and see. Perhaps the Kez would do nothing. They had not communicated any specific threats. Only the shocking crimes attributed to Amar had frightened the lesser tribes into paying.
“We will see what happens in the spring when,” Ulet abruptly stopped. He had let his guard down with his sister, who he had enjoyed an abnormally close relationship with because of their closeness in age. He physically withdrew from her. The indulgences he had shown Demeda over the years would have to end. It was wrong for a man to take a woman into his confidence. That lesson had been drilled into him during his upbringing, but he had always found the advice hard to follow around Demeda. He suspected that any man would find her disarming.
“What?” Demeda asked, moving so that she faced him again. She was close to getting him to reveal something even more interesting than Amar. She could feel it, and it was probably what had been keeping her brothers distant and taciturn of late.
Ulet pressed his lips shut, but Demeda saw sympathy on his face. Insatiably curious now, she grabbed his hands and kept him from moving away.
“You need to get back,” Ulet insisted.
“What about the spring? Does it concern me?” she demanded, and the spirit of truth lighted his face.
Ulet softened his stance and gently held her hands. “You must not say that I told you,” he murmured.
Demeda gave him her assurances as she always did when he gave up to her a secret that he longed to tell.
“A marriage has been arranged,” he whispered.
Demeda went cold and her stomach became heavy with expectation. The news was not unexpected. At the age of sixteen, it was high time that she was wedded, but as the eldest Sabar’Uto princess and daughter of the King’s first wife, her marriage was no trifling affair. It would be a matter of political alliance to bolster her father’s power. A suitable husband would have been carefully chosen by her father.
Ulet continued, “A tutor will be sent to you soon to teach you the common dialect. It will be a diplomatic marriage.”
She gasped. She would be married outside her tribe and probably never see her kin again. “Who?” she cried.
Ulet looked pained. “You don’t need to know right now,” he said.
Infuriated by his attempt to dodge the most important detail, Demeda pushed him hard in the stomach. “Tell me!” she yelled.
She raised her hands to push him again, but he yielded. Miserable, he said, “The Temulanka King.”
His answer was so appalling that Demeda immediately clung to the hope that he jested. The concept that she would be wed to their worst enemy was ridiculous.
“Ulet, stop being cruel. Who is it?” she asked again. Fragile hope quavered in her voice.
“It’s true,” Ulet said. “I spoke against it. I swear, Demeda. I told our father that I would not see my sister given to our enemy. But he said that it must be done. We can’t have war and this will bring peace.”
The horror of it was so immense that Demeda knew that she had only begun to be outraged. The Temulanka King already had wives. She would not even be the first wife! Although she had always known that she was meant for a political marriage to serve her family and her tribe, she had never conceived of such an insult.
“I won’t do it!” she declared.
“You must. You cannot defy our father. You know this,” Ulet said. He was stoic now, trying to remove himself from his sister’s suffering.
She narrowed her eyes. “Men start wars and then send their women to finish them,” she snarled.
Her emotions were exploding like a lightning strike catching in a dry forest. The flames were racing up the tree trunks. Her grief and rage and utter helplessness consumed her with hot burning fate. Many would pity her, but none would help her.
She ran from Ulet. She ran across the bridge to the women’s circle, heedless of her flapping hood and exposed face. She would cry for days, wailing in dismay until there was only the refuge of exhausted depression. Cradled in Mallah’s arms, she sobbed of her terror of the Temulanka King, their blood enemy, rutting upon her.
“My own tribe is my enemy to send me to such torture,” she decided.
Mallah petted her frazzled hair and whispered that it was not so. “You will do this to help your tribe, to keep us safe. I’m sure the King will explain this to you. You will see, Demeda. Perhaps this will be the end of the wars. Think of the sons you will save,” Mallah said, trying to help Demeda find solace in her duty.
But Demeda only growled with discontent. “They’d spend their daughters to save their sons. I swear by all the Gods and Goddesses, they’ll find no peace between my legs.”