To Hold a Soul



Mbuta worked with her back to the kiln, keeping her body warm while her hands were immersed in the cold clay.  Outside rain thundered against the catala branches of her roof. Occasionally a gust pushed the rain sideways to slip in the smoke vent and sizzle on her kiln.  The sounds mixed well with the sqursh sqursh of the clay between her fingers. Amidst all the noise she almost missed the rhythmic brring of someone running their knuckles down the reeds of her door.


She grumbled as she wiped her hands on a patch of scrap leather.  People needed to learn to keep extra soul pots around so they didn't have to come out to her home in such weather and disturb her while she was mixing clay.  She crossed the little room and pulled the twine that opened the outer reeds into a neat roll. She peered through the slits in the vertical reeds, batting her eyes against the cold rain.


A woman stood outside, fingers gripping the shoulder of a girl who waited, hands clasped behind her back, head tilted down but eyes peering up.  They were not dressed for the weather. Both stood bare to the waist, wearing only thin cloth pants that stopped mid-shin. The mother clutched two bundles under one arm.  When the woman finally opened her mouth to speak, Mbuta pulled the vertical reeds and said, "I should have a pot that will fit. You can borrow it for the night until I can craft you one."


Mbuta stepped aside and allowed the woman and child in.  Strangers, possibly visiting hunters. It was careless of them to lose a pot, but lucky they were near enough to find another for the night.


"Which of you is it for?"


"My name is Sweltii.  This is my daughter Brindit."


Mbuta pressed her hands to her side.  Those were names from the Clutha forest people on the other side of the Hantuu river.  These were no hunters.


"You've come a long way."


"My daughter wishes to make pots."


Mbuta hmphed and turned her back to them.


"My daughter wishes to make pots."


"Women do not make pots."  Mbuta crossed her arms over her chest.


"She cannot hunt.  Plants will not grow for her.  She loses herself gathering. She will not bond and make babies.  She wishes only to make pots. None of my husbands will claim her."


"Then find a man in your village to teach her."


"There is no man to teach her in my village.  There is no man on our side of the Hantuu that will teach her.  One would have had her as servant. Another refused. And another and another.  One would take her but I saw how he would take her and refused."


Mbuta felt her hands tighten and forced them to relax.  She had been orphaned in a raid--a raid from across the river.  Too young to bond, she'd been given as servant to a potmaker, and he had taken every service from her that pleased him.  So she had taken from him the making of soul pots, and though it was for men to craft and build, her skill was great, and when Tduto died she took his clay and continued his work.  The people of her village found it good, though the master potmakers declared her work tainted.


Mbuta turned.  "Why do you wish to make pots, little reed?"


The girl shrugged without lifting her head.  She said something too soft to hear.


"Speak up," Sweltii said.


"I like to see the places souls can go."


Mbuta pulled a handful of clay from her vat.  She held it in front of the girl. "Can a soul go here?"


The girl pulled her left hand from behind her back and traced a wavy line through the clay.  "Yes," she said. "But it would not stay. Something is missing."


Mbuta straightened.  "I will teach her."


"She has the twist," Sweltii said.  "Show her."


The girl pulled her right arm in front of herself.  It had turned, torquing flesh and bone, so her hand faced out when it should face in and her elbow bent only at crooked, diminished angles.


"They say those with the twist never get the shaking worms.  And hers is mild. I can work with her."


"She is stubborn and hears like the Hantuu."  Her mother took a sidestep closer to the girl.  "She is messy. And clumsy."


Mbuta tried not to smile.


"She will find discipline here.  She will be well fed. My home is well cared for by the men who trade for pots in the village.  They have come to accept me here and will welcome your daughter."


"It is doubtful even one man will bond to her."


"When it is time I will see if I cannot find a man that might bond to a woman potmaker."


Sweltii set the bundles on the floor and faced her daughter, placing her hands on the girl's shoulders.  Mbuta turned her back again, this time crossing to sit on the floor and work her clay. It was not her place to see the mother and daughter part.


"Master."  Brindit's tiny voice barely carried over the squelching sound of the clay.  Mbuta ignored her. The girl tried again, louder. "Master potmaker."


It was loud enough this time.  "Close the door. Dry the floor with the cloth hanging beside it.  Spread your bundle in the corner there." Mbuta pointed a hand back over her shoulder.  "Then sit beside me and we will start lessons." She waited until Brindit sat cross-legged beside her.  "First, you are to call me grandmother. I am not a master potmaker, and neither shall you be. Not unless you become a man.  Now put your hands in the clay, and I will talk to you about colors you must hear and musics you must see and the taste of shapes.  You must understand this before you shape clay, to take care that the pot never holds a soul, only shelters it. Because to hold a soul is to destroy it."


#


Mbuta stretched her arms up over her head and rolled her shoulders back.  She squeezed the back of her neck with her hand, trying to rub the stiffness out.  Every morning it was worse. Even in the hot, wet weather, with the kiln pulling sweat from her every pore, the ache in her joints persisted.


"Would you like me to roll warm stones on your back, grandmother?"  Brindit was awake, already painted brown with wet clay. She was always up early and going to bed after Mbuta fell asleep.


"Work your wheel, little reed."  Still a little reed, even after seven years under Mbutu.


Brindit obeyed.  She was never reluctant to work the wheel, though it must hurt the twist in her arm very much.  Sweltii had been right. Brindit had wanted to work clay the moment her mother had walked away. After the first evening, Mbuta forbade her from touching clay until she learned the nature of matter and being, but she had woken to find Brindit working clay in the night, shaping it and stroking it.  So Mbuta had to have one of the men build a chest to lock away the clay. Brindit had learned more quickly then, forced only to think and never to touch.


Once her learning had begun, her skills quickly grew.  She felt the being in all matter. She shaped the immaterial into material with ease.  Mbuta knew no other potmaker with such talent, and many people traveled from far-off villages to obtain one of her soul pots, even though she was a woman.


"I could make a pot for your pain," Brindit said.  She did not look up. Her knee worked the wheel, one hand shaped the clay, and the knuckles of her twisted hand spun patterns into the surface.


"Don't be silly," Mbuta said.  "There is no such thing."


Brindit spun her pot, silent, the pattern snaking across it like something alive.  Her short, braided locks of hair hid her face as she bent closer to her work. Graceful as always, but there was an unusual tension in her this morning.


"Jndito at the village has asked about you again," Mbuta said.  Brindit tossed her head. Her braids flipped away from her face but slid quickly back.  "He is a skilled craftsman. His father made my doors and windows that open and close so well.  He has brought you many fine gifts since you brought his mother back from where she walked with the soul eaters."  A feat no one but Brindit had ever accomplished. The pots were refuges, a place for the soul to jump to during the mind's nightly rest should an eater come to prey on the unguarded soul, so loosely bound to its sleeping body.  To have gone into the forest and hunted the eater, to have called the soul from the eater's gut, and to have returned it to the mother after she had wandered with the soulpack, helping the pack manipulate the material world--this was more than any master potmaker had ever done.  "Jndito was rightly awed. But I believe it is more than that which draws him to you."


Brindit leaned forward and smelled her clay.  She breathed in deeply, sighed audibly. Mbuta stood, knees popping.  She left her own clay and sniffed Brindit's work. Beneath the earthy smell was something sweet, fruity, musky.


"You mixed neruda flowers in."


Brindit kept her face down toward the pot, but Mbuta could see the smile lift her cheeks.


"Let's fire it and see if the scent remains."


Brindit lifted the pot from the wheel and carried it to the kiln.  "Grandmother, Jndito says that men have come from beyond the Hantuu, from far beyond the Clutha forest and the Widest River."


"There have always been places beyond those places.  People were bound to live there, too."


Brindit ran a knuckle along the rim of the pot, deforming the edges so they waved.  "Yes, but--"


Mbuta waited, adding wood to the kiln--the good knitak wood, hard, heavy, and dry.  It crackled and released a spicy, warm scent, like the cin'mon the traders brought last dry season.  The fire flared white and hot, but Brindit did not put her pot on the rack.


"He says they come on huge ships from across the Widest River.  They have sticks like blow-guns that kill from far away. Too far away.  And they steal our men and women."


Mbuta huffed.  "So you are surprised?  Raids are nothing new. Is it so strange that in a place so far away it is the men that fight and raid?  You are a girl and make pots, do you not? The women here will protect our men if they are able, and if not then they will raid another village to find men and bring new crafts to our village.  Perhaps they will find someone who does not frighten like a little sprout for you to bond to."


Brindit's cheeks darkened.  She ran a knuckle along the rim of the pot, changing the wave, bringing the crests to a point.  She tasted it with the tip of her tongue, squinted.


"Jndito is not a frightened little sprout," she said.  "His uncle is healing a man who escaped these men. He says they will cross the Hantuu soon.  He says they took him all the way to their ships on the Widest River, and there they had men and women tied in the dark below, and no one understood their tongues.  They had our people doing labor, forcing men to lift things when they could have crafted a thing to lift it. Ships full of people left the shores and never returned."  She paused, stroking her pot. When she spoke again, her voice had dropped to something even quieter than her normal soft tone. "And they've taken away their soul pots.  The soul eaters feast. They breed and follow the invading men in great packs. But they devour only our souls, not the invaders’." Brindit looked out the window, pressed her knuckle into a spot on the pot.  Mbuta shivered, though she stood beside the white heat of knitak flames.


"Little reed."  She stroked the soft, slick braids that sprung from Brindit's head.  "Perhaps Jndito makes up stories to frighten you. Or perhaps this may all be true.  But we are potmakers. It is for the warriors to fight. The men may craft them new weapons.  Our leaders may find a way to make peace. It is for us to make pots. This is what potmakers do.  If we are called on to help by our craft, then that is our duty. But what can a potmaker do in the face of such things?"


Brindit bent her head, her short braids hiding her face again.  "You are wise master potter," she said. Then she breathed softly into her pot and set it on the rack.  Mbuta touched the girl on the shoulder, left her hand there, feeling the hard bones that had writhed beneath.  She thought of ships full of men and women, soulless in the dark. The eaters breeding.


"Let's fire these pots.  I want to know what your neruda flowers will bring."


Brindit jerked from beneath her touch.  "Wait. There is one more I have to make."


"The wood is burning--"


"One more.  It will not take long and the rack is not full."  Brindit smiled. It was rare as blue orchids, shimmering out of the shadows of her face.  "It is for you, grandmother. It’s special."


"Hurry then."


Brindit returned to her wheel.  She winced slightly as she pulled free a partly-formed mound of clay from a bucket she had set aside.  Mbuta shook her head. How the arm must hurt her. She should have lived a peaceful life as a clan mother as so many of the twisted did.  Mbuta decided she must go tonight and have Jndito declare openly to her. A man around to help her with her duties would ease her life. Mbuta would not be around forever.  On days like this, she felt she had very little time left at all and the long rest would be welcome. But Brindit's life needed to be settled before Mbuta could close her eyes forever.  She sat down on her pillows with a sigh, watching Brindit work.


Mbuta had not realized she had fallen asleep until she opened her eyes and saw the silhouette at the window.  Brindit peered out of the slats. Every evening she was there, at the window, gazing out as the sun angled in, the last light before the night opened its eyes to watch their sleep.  A wind stirred through the forest, rustling the trees and carrying the distant sound of drum and flute, and a smell, too, smoky, oily, unpleasant. Mbuta wrinkled her nose and tried to breathe through her mouth.


Brindit turned.


"You should have wakened me," Mbuta said.  "Did my pots go in?"


Brindit did not speak.  Her nostrils flared, taking in the bad smell.  She stepped to the kiln. Brindit opened it and slid the rack from its brackets.  Mbuta realized with surprise it was already cooled. Brindit must have begun the firing just after Mbuta fell asleep.


"You should not let me sleep the day away.  I've work to do. Knjino--"


A crack like a pot exploding in the kiln stabbed the quiet.  The drums stopped. The flute silenced. Only the wind continued, unafraid.  Brindit did not flinch. Her face gleamed with sweat.


"You are wise grandmother," she said.  "Thank you."


Shouts in the village.


"Little reed--"


Brindit held up a small pot, its edges spiked, its body graceful, wide at the top and swooping narrowly to open again into a round and laughing bottom.  It had fired to a soft brown that glowed in the late evening light. Mbuta could not look away from it as Brindit leaned forward and kissed it gently.


The shouts raced away.  The oily smell vanished, leaving only the earthy scent of clay, something spicy beneath it.  Light and color rushed along as if the world had been tossed into a river and mixed with the water, dragging Mbuta with it.  It jerked, split, spilled, stilled. She could see herself on the pillows, body slack as if it were already in the long rest.  Brindit stood above the body and tilted the head, closed the eyes. She pulled a black mourning blanket from beneath a pillow and covered the body.  Mbuta tried to will the body to speak for her, but she could make no sound. She felt no body at all--no limbs to move, no eyes to focus, no pain. This was not how a soul pot worked.  What had Brindit done to her?


Brindit knelt.  She seemed to be looking directly at Mbuta--not her body but herself, the self that watched.  She tucked the pot she’d made Mbuta well beneath her bedding. Then she held up another, pointed to it, and tucked it beneath Mbuta.  They hid, nestled beneath her empty body.


"Look into the pot, grandmother.  You must show them, master potmaker.  You will understand."


Mbuta wanted to call out to her, to ask her little reed what she meant, what was happening, what she'd done.


The cracking sound again broke the night.  It was close, deafening. This time Brindit did flinch, eyes squeezing half shut.  The door broke open, reeds snapping and splitting. A shining blade appeared, slicing down and smashing the lovely double reed door that Jndito's father had crafted so well.


Hands pushed back the reeds.  The blade shoved through again.  More hands. Three men stepped through when the door had been entirely torn into splinters.  Brindit stepped away from Mbuta's body and backed toward the kiln, her twisted arm hanging to one side, her head low, hair wild and dancing.


One man, his skin pale and reddish, his hair orange as sunset, stepped away from the other two and looked around.  He opened his mouth and words came out, words Mbuta did not know--but somehow she understood. She was listening with her soul.  Brindit had taken her from her living body and hid her in the pot, and, free of her body, her soul knew the meaning without hearing the words.


"Potmakers."  The red-haired man scowled toward Brindit, lip curling up.  "Useless anyway. This one's got that disease and that one's so old she looks dead."  His words were alien, the sounds alternately hard and slurred, without rhythm. Mbuta felt violated by knowing their meaning.


Another man, fine-featured, with hair black like Brindit's but silky and falling past his shoulders, looked at Mbuta's body.  His eyes were covered by two glass circles connected by wires supported on his tiny nose and ears. He squinted. Then he walked to her body and touched her.  "This one is dead."


Brindit had backed around the kiln and up against the shelves that held their pots.


"Less work for us."  The red-haired one. "Jonus, take care of that one."  He tipped his head toward Brindit. "The Cardino wants all slaves converted and his nons had a time of it with the last batch when one of these potters came over with the rest of the cargo."


The tiny featured one laughed, but there was a shudder of fear under the laugh.  "They’ll be wishing they’d been delivered into the gentle hands of nuns. Those nons make our Jonus look like a kitten."


The one called Jonus looked much like the red-haired one but fairer and taller, more orange in his color, and skin splotchy and speckled.  He looked unwell. Mbuta wondered if he had the shaking worm. He advanced on Brindit, and Mbuta strained against the bounds of her pot, desperate to jump free, possess the man and have him kill the others.


Where are our warriors?  They should have been here protecting Brindit.  Raiders always go for the best crafters. But they don't want her anyway.  They're going to kill her. This is no raid.


Brindit's twisted arm hung at her side.  She moved it slightly behind her as the man approached.


"I've never seen a woman potter," the tiny-featured man said.


"Must have been too ugly to marry.  I can't tell what they would find pretty anyway."


Jonus said nothing.  He took two more steps toward Brindit.  He paused a second, but that was all she needed.  The twisted arm was easy to deceive with, it looked so useless.  But behind her she'd picked up a pot, and now that the man was near enough, she swung it around and crashed it against his head.  It shattered, taking his eye and splattering Brindit's face with blood. She grabbed up another pot and threw it at him, and another, tossing the pots she had loved as if they were nothing.


She screamed as she threw them.  Mbuta had never heard her scream, had never heard her even raise her voice.  Now over and over she shouted, the words mixed with incoherent cries. "They'll eat your souls.  They'll eat your disgusting souls. They'll feast on you. She'll teach them to devour you."


"What's it saying?" the red-haired man asked.


"Something--she's hungry?  It doesn't make sense. She may want you to eat something," the tiny-featured man said.


"Jonus?" the red-haired man said, shifting his attention.


Jonus had crooked his arm over his face and waited out the rain of pottery.  He looked as soulless as a follower of the soulpacks. A body to follow commands.  Brindit panted, pain raising dark spots on her cheeks. She ran out of pots and Jonus pounced.  Brindit glistened with sweat. Slick as she must be, Jonus had no trouble pinning her with one large hand.  He was enormous beside her. He lifted her in one hand from the neck and smashed her against the shelves of pots.


"Be sure to destroy the pots," the red-haired one said.


Jonus took Brindit's body, her good hand gripping his wrist as if she might free herself, and began shaking her, flinging her body against the pots to sweep them off and shatter them on the floor.  Brindit's hand loosened, fell away. Her body dangled. He dropped her on the broken pottery. Mbuta wished she could look away but it was not her eyes that saw. At least it was over now. They would go away.


Then Jonus raised a foot and stomped, grinding his foot back and forth on the thin, graceful throat.  He did this, blood oozing around his boot, broken pots grinding, until the fine-featured man said, "Please--"


Jonus lifted his foot.  Then he walked out of her home.  The red-haired man followed. The fine-featured man looked around, his thin lips pressed tight, then pulled the mourning blanket from Mbuta's body.  He ran a hand over the fine cloth and traced the patterns dyed into the material. Then he, too, left, taking the blanket with him.


Once the men were gone, Mbuta could not turn her attention from the distant and faded sounds from outside, the acrid smell of burning, and Brindit's body.  She knew the village must be burning, wondered if it would spread as far as her own hut. Probably it would not. The villagers were superstitious about potmakers' homes and built them as far from other residences as possible.  So Mbuta could not hope for the release of flame. She wondered if she would be trapped forever in the pot, like some djinn the traders from across the desert spoke of. Why had Brindit done this thing? If it was to save Mbuta, why had she not saved herself? Had it been because Mbuta had rushed her to fire the pots?  Or had it been her plan all along, to distract them if they came, to save Mbuta . . . and the two pots hidden beneath her? What did Brindit want her to see?


Outside she heard the strident death-calls of the druap.  Her village's herd was large and healthy, roaming an expanse of well-tended forest.  There was no reason for such slaughter. She could almost imagine some strange culture that killed men and women.  She could imagine them not knowing the great skills of the people they stole for labor. These things were ignorance.  But why kill beasts? Why would they slaughter animals that provide food and leather and soft fur? The druaps' screams grew louder.  The stench of their urine took to the wind, bright and stinging. One of the druap tumbled through her door, a bone protruding from its arm.  It was a juvenile, destined for a long life before its slaughter. The golden fur, usually so soft and elegant, was matted with blood. It blinked its large, amber eyes, too close to human in their pain.


It died on the floor.  In one hand it clutched a leaf from the itin tree.  Where had he found one of those? No itin grew in the forest where the herd was kept.  The leaf was a mystery. Mbuta fixed her attention on it, tried to see nothing else, tried not to hear the sounds from outside.  It was a great relief when night came to hide the room.


#


Again she found she had slept.  The smoky smells had changed to those of smoldering ash, burnt meat, bitterness.  The world was utterly silent and dark. Her neck throbbed, stiff and aching.


Mbuta's eyes snapped open.  The leaf, the druap, the shattered pots--Brindit.  They all lay where they had been. Mbuta stumbled out her door and fell to her knees on the ground.  She coughed. The hot air was choked with dust and ash. The silence was too great. She covered her ears with her hands and bent her forehead to the ground and keened softly to the earth, begging the clay to take her away to the long sleep.


Soon the heat stole her voice, leaving it dry and cracked.  Mbuta fell to her side and curled up on herself. She wanted only the peace of the long sleep, but now that she had given all her voice to the ground she could hear Brindit's voice, telling her to look into the pot.


Mbuta rolled to her knees.  The pot was inside. She could not bear the things that waited inside.  Her roll will be there, kept well-oiled as her mother surely taught her.  It would be spread neatly in her corner, the blankets folded atop it, the bowls of clay and stone and flowers Brindit collected arrayed along the wall beside it.  A loop of her mother's hair hung on the wall, though the two had not seen each other since Brindit had been left in Mbuta's care.


These things were all dead.  They should be burned with their owner.  Mbuta rocked slightly on her knees. I will burn the hut and sift the pots from the ashes.  I cannot go back inside.


But there was no time to wait for fire to burn and cool.  Mbuta had to go in. She stood, every pain coming alive again.  She swayed in front of her door. Move you stupid gnat, she told herself.  Her feet would not obey. She could not move. Inside everything was broken.


"Do you need something, grandmother?  Is your girl inside?"


Mbuta's shoulders stiffened against the sound of the woman's soft voice.  She turned to see Nrietu, her naked body painted the color of forest. She stood very still, nearly invisible.  Other warriors no doubt stood hidden just inside the shadows of the trees.


"No, Nrietu.  Brindit was killed."


Nrietu inclined her head, the bones and leaves entwined in her locks whispering in the voice of the forest.  "You must come to the refuge. I will gather your belongings for you," she said and stepped forward.


Mbuta flung out her arms.  "No!" She could not bear the thought of the warrior in her home, seeing Brindit shattered with her pots.  "I will be only a moment." Mbuta shuffled inside. She bundled a few items she knew she must have. Then she took her knife and did what she knew she must do.  She cut free three of Brindit's braids and slipped them in her belt. She also cut free a tuft of the druap's fur. Then she took her bundle and the two pots Brindit had last made and left her home.


"It must be burned," she told Nrietu.  Then she joined the warriors in the shadow of the forest.  There were only six, sitting in silence and passing small pieces of yam wrapped in itin leaf.  They'd all come for pots at some time in their life.


Mbuta sat against a tree and unwrapped the pot that Brindit had bid her look into.  It was very different from the one that her soul had hidden in while it watched the slaughter.  It was far more subtle. Its shape was like no soul Mbuta had ever fitted, and the texture of the clay was both soft and gritty, not like the smooth clays that were normally used.  There was roughness and delicacy, a touch of something wild as the forest. It smelled of distant fields, their sweetness light on the wind, and of something dank, rotting--the neruda flowers, transformed by the fire.  Mbuta put her tongue to the clay, tasted its earthiness, the metallic bite beneath, the heat of the fire. She was sure nothing like it had ever been made before. Hesitantly, she looked into the pot.


Her hands weakened.  Her heart tried to come out her eyes.  She wanted to throw the pot, or even just let go, let it roll away and find its own destruction, anything but meet the gaze of what looked out at her.  Finally, she closed her eyes.


What have you done, Brindit?


"Eat, grandmother."  Mbuta opened her eyes, though first she covered the mouth of the pot with her hand.


Squatting by Mbuta was Ltria, who had come for the first time last dry season for one of the tough, small soul pots favored by the warriors.  This had likely been her first raid. Her upper arm was wrapped tightly in a healer's leaf.


"Eat, grandmother," Ltria said again.


The young warrior held a piece of yam out to Mbuta.  She shook her head, the thought of food closing her throat.


"These men have killed every potmaker they have encountered.  It is a mystery to us why they would do this. It is a mystery to us that you live.  We came with hope only of finding any unshattered pots that we might use."


The other warriors had paused in their eating to watch the exchange.


"It is a long way to the refuge, grandmother."


Mbuta took the food and turned her back.  She ate the yam, though every bite locked her throat so that she had to chew it to mush before she could force herself to swallow.  The itin leaf she rolled into a ball and tucked inside her cheek to chew later.


Nrietu returned.  Mbuta saw no smoke from the direction of her home.


"Why have you left my home unburned?" she asked.


"Because so few are left.  And the kiln is needed. You will not be asked to return."


Mbuta turned her back to her home, to Nrietu, the warriors.  The women paid no heed to the insult. They filed past her on silent warriors' feet and disappeared into the forest.  Ltria was last and paused at Mbuta's side. Mbuta took a step forward. She stopped, lowered her head, clutched the pots closer to herself, and let out a sigh.  Ltria waited, unmoving. Mbuta looked down at her feet, studied the tufts of hair on the toes. Would these feet take her to the refuge?


Ltria put a hand on Mbuta's arm.  Together they began to walk. The warriors ahead had already vanished among the lush, green whisper of leaves.  Mbuta felt loud and clumsy beside Ltria, following her blindly through trailless forest. Her clothes snagged on every twig and branch.  Biting insects caught in her collar and waist. Sweat soaked every inch of her. Worst of all, it felt as if her bones had been removed and fired in the kiln and placed back inside, still glowing red from the flames.


In the thick of the forest the changes in light were hard to read, but Mbuta was sure it was nearly twilight when Ltria's hand tightened and pulled them to a stop.  The other warriors appeared out of the thickening darkness. Nrietu put a hand over her mouth, tilted her head, then gave the complicated hand signals that only the warrior women learned.  Mbuta watched, feeling dull.


The warriors scattered, and Ltria led Mbuta to a thick stand of tittip, its leaves an arm's breadth and taller than two men together.  They crouched among the leaves, Ltria perfectly still, though a hairy spider crawled slowly across her naked body, each leg lifting one at a time and setting down again.  Mbuta knew she, too, must remain still, because though she longed even more now for the long sleep, she had the pot to protect. She must meet with Dre, the Master of Warriors, at the refuge.  She would know how to use the pot that Brindit had made.


Mbuta clutched the pot tighter.  The skin on her forehead wanted desperately to be itched.  She wondered if she might very slowly just lift her arm and swipe her forehead clean.  Thrashing sounds and harsh voices stilled her just as she was about to give in. Men spoke in the blurry tongue of Brindit's murderers, only this time she listened with her ears and understood nothing of their jabbering.  Mbuta clutched the pot tighter, listening to the crash and trample of their approach. She had only to remain still. She did not need to think about the itching, the tickles, the heat, how loud her breath must be.


They were coming so close.


She could not see them through her nest of leaves, but every sound they made was crisp and perfect--the heaviness of their breath, their voices, too loud and disrespectful.  She could even smell them. They did not smell human, yet they did not smell of the forest. Mbuta tried to hold her breath against their stench, tried to close her ears to the noise of their voices, but she was as trapped in her stillness as she'd been when her soul sat in the pot.


Just sit still.  The warriors will kill them once they pass.  This must be an ambush.


Mbuta held her pot, closed her eyes.  The skin beneath her breasts grew hot and sticky.  She longed to shift them. But the men kept coming.  Her armpits and the skin where her thighs pressed together burned with heat and sweat.  She wanted to lift her arms, spread her legs just a little. But the men kept coming. The tickles along her hairline wouldn't stop, and she thought how easy it would be to take the hem of her shirt and wipe the sweat away.  But the men kept coming. Mbuta had to stay still.


The procession of men went on until Mbuta lost circulation in her feet and parts of her arms.  Twilight deepened and the air stilled. She had grown so accustomed to the sound of their destruction that she hadn't realized it had faded until Ltria stood and stretched.  Mbuta stumbled as she tried to raise herself then clasped Ltria's offered hand. They stepped free of the tittip. Mbuta fell back, almost dropping her pot. She had no voice to describe what she saw.  The forest had crumpled beneath the feet of the men, and slipping along that bed of their destruction in a slick black river were soul eaters--soul eaters that should have been invisible to her. The last light of day still lingered, but on that trail was only darkness swollen with bloated, fattened soul eaters, bodies like panthers, but faces insectile with a jittering circle of teeth.  They feast. The soul pack stretched beyond the bend in the trail.


 The pot had done something to her vision, that she could see this horror now.  Brindit must have had such vision all along. Do these invaders know what they've done? Mbuta wondered.


Ltria stepped toward the path of the soul eaters.  Mbuta hissed.


Ltria put her mouth to Mbuta's ear.  "We must cross to meet the others."


"Not now," Mbuta said.  The soul eaters flowed past, on and on.  She could not bring herself to walk through them, even though they could not harm her waking body.


"Grandmother--"


"Let us cross later.  The trail--" Mbuta needed to draw in extra breath.  The words did not want to come. "The trail is filled with soul eaters."


Ltria jerked back.  Her eyes traced the path.  "I did not know potmakers could see--"


Mbuta lifted the pot to Ltria.  "Look inside," she whispered, not sure if it would work for a warrior as it did for a potmaker.  Ltria looked inside. Her hands shook and her legs bent slightly. Mbuta grabbed the pot in case it fell.  Ltria pushed it away. When she looked again at the path she gasped.


"They feast," Mbuta said.


Ltria nodded.  "Come this way."


It was full dark.  Ltria kept a hand on Mbuta's elbow, guiding her, crossing only after all traces of the soul eaters had gone.  Mbuta was sure the night would never end, but just as the first sunlight dappled the forest floor, they came to the refuge.  Ltria lowered her into the mouth of a cave that was concealed by a thick stand of tittip. It was only a five foot drop into the earth, but touching her feet to the floor of the cave and stretching her arms over her head sent shocks of pain through Mbuta that left her panting.  She blinked back tears, then hobbled toward the soft glow of hot coals deeper inside.


Mbuta collapsed on a mat that had been laid out by the coals, unable to even look at the people around her.  She clutched the pot to her stomach, curling around it. Dry heat radiated through her skin, soothing her aches.  The people around the fire blurred. Brindit stood up from among the blurred people. Mbuta smiled, glad she'd made it after all.  She held the pot out. Now Mbuta could sleep and Brindit, who was so much younger and so much more powerful, could decide what was to be done with this creation of hers.  Brindit shook her head, walked through the fire, and sat down beside Mbuta, kneading her shoulders.


"Grandmother," she said.  Mbuta sighed.


"Grandmother Mbuta."


"That hurts," Mbuta told Brindit.


"Wake up, potmaker!"


Mbuta opened her eyes.  Brindit was not beside her, kneading the aches from her body.  Instead Ltria shook her. "Dre must see what you showed me," she said.


Mbuta pulled herself up wearily.  Ltria led her to the back of the cavern where a lonely drip of water plunked into a pool somewhere beneath them.  Hot coals lit the faces of four warriors. Their faces were hard, eyes catching the heat of the fire and throwing it back like anger.  Mbuta felt a flow of strength from them. They would know what to do with Brindit's pot.


The oldest woman leaned back, balanced on the balls of her feet, and crossed her arms.  Her hair was twisted black and grey streaks. The deep lines of her face molded in shadows.  One large, strong hand unfolded and extended toward Mbuta. Mbuta laid a palm over it. The skin was hard and calloused.


"I am Dre, Master of Warriors.  Ltria tells me we have need to speak."


A council of old women, Mbuta thought.  It should be Brindit here.


"You must know of my girl Brindit."


"Hunter of soul eaters.  Yes. All know of her."


"She understands the soul eaters like no other.  She heard of the coming of these men. She has made us a weapon."  Mbuta presented the pot.


Dre raised her hands in front of her face.  "These are weapons." She pulled the blow gun from her back, gestured to the satchel of poison darts tied to her arm.  "These are weapons." She drew an obsidian knife from her leg sheath. "This is a weapon." She pointed the knife at Mbutu's pot with disdain.  "That is a pot."


"Look inside of it," Mbuta said.  She hoped Dre would understand the power it offered.  Perhaps one needed to be a pot maker, to realize what this meant?


Dre took the pot and looked inside.  The coals shifted. One tumbled from the top and let loose a shower of sparks.  Below, the water dripped. One of the warriors patted out the hot coals that had landed on a mat.  Finally, Dre closed her eyes and returned the pot to Mbuta.


"An eater.  What will it do?" Dre asked.


"Brindit has bound it, as the soul eaters bind our bodies if they eat our souls.  You warriors could command it, make a weapon of it, as the soul eaters make weapons of our soulless bodies.  You could command the soul eaters to consume the invaders, to use their own bodies against them."


"I do not have the knowledge to do this thing.  I am a warrior."


"You will see now, as Ltria and I do.  You will see the soul eaters."


"That is not knowledge, it is vision.  You should take this pot to the master potmakers."


Mbuta shook her head.  "They are weak men. This is a fight.  It is for women to use."


Dre shook her head.  "This is my world." She waved the knife.  "The world of the material. You chose the world of the immaterial.  You may fight your battle there. I will fight my battle with this."


Mbuta left to sit amidst the refugees from her village.  A boy made room for her, moving himself farther from the heat.  He tucked a blanket around her, then returned to sitting with his hands over his face.


Mbuta wanted to sleep, but now she was too angry.  How could they ignore Brindit's work? How could they not help her use the power the girl had left?  There was no way Mbuta could use Brindit's pot without help. One old woman could not wield such power.  She had to have others.


"Good Warrior Ltria!"  Mbuta called.


Ltria strode from the warrior's coals.  "Grandmother potmaker."


"Are all of the survivors here?"


"Yes.  I had word that the last group arrived shortly after our own."  When Mbuta glanced around at the sparsely populated cave, Ltria continued.  "We have spread them throughout the caves in case we are found."


"Are other judges here?" she asked.  If anyone could help her, surely the elected clan heads would.


"Other than Dre, three are here.  The rest are missing."


"Only three?"


"Our village has only twenty-three warriors left," Ltria said, as if Mbuta had meant to lay blame.  "Ten died in the fighting, twelve are missing." Her voice cracked on her last words. She was a young warrior and had not yet mastered the hardness of a seasoned raider.  "Soon we will bring our judges to the other villages, to see if we can stand together against these colored raiders."


Colored.  The term fit.  They seemed to come in so many colors--their hair and eyes and skin seemed to have been tossed on them at random, as if they had not been born from the earth, but instead crafted by some child.


"I must speak with the judges before they go."


Ltria nodded.  "Grandmother."


Mbuta waited, leaning back to back with the boy, sharing warmth.  When the judges finally arrived and squatted before her, Mbuta was groggy with half-sleep.  She noted the Master of Potmakers was not among them. Guilty with the relief she felt, she shared with them the pot Brindit had made, explained what lay inside, what vision they would have.  But their answer was the same. They could not help.


"Go to the master potmakers, Grandmother Mbuta," Yanna, Master of Hunters said.  She pulled the blanket more tightly over Mbuta's shoulders. "You carry a great burden.  Seek to share it with them." With that the judges left her, escorted by three warriors, Dre leading.  The boy who had been leaning beside Mbuta jumped up and grabbed Master of Hunters Yanna's hand.


"Mother, I will come and help guard you with the warriors."


A ripple of laughter disturbed the calm of the warriors.  Dre glanced toward Mbuta, then away. "Tanasti, warrior work is the silent work of women.  Your mother tells me you are apprenticed to the Master of Weavers of the Nimibi. This is a great honor.  Do you not respect the Master of Weavers?"


"I want to kill the men that took my fathers.  I want to protect my mother."


Ltria put a hand over her mouth to smother her smile.  Mbuta wanted to reach out and take the boy's hand. But this was his fight, not hers.


Master of Hunters Yanna stepped forward.  She crossed her arms over her chest. "Tanasti, you do great insult to the warriors--"


"The colored men fight!"


The hard, snapping sound of a slap followed a blur of movement.  Tanasti's head jerked away. He closed his eyes, face tightening, but he did not move otherwise.  Everyone remained still. Throughout the cave, voices had stopped. Only the cave continued to speak in slow drips of water and hollow whispering drafts.  The dank smell of its breath grew suddenly overwhelming. Then the judges and warriors walked away, leaving Tanasti.


When he finally sat down, he turned his back to Mbuta, but did not lean against her and share her warmth.  He folded his arms around his bent up legs and dropped his forehead to his knees. Mbuta sighed and stood. It was time for her to speak to the master potmakers.


Ltria had not moved far from Mbuta.  She sat on a mat holding a pot of body paints for two other warriors.  They reapplied their paint around the freshly dressed wounds.


"I would like a council of the potmakers called," Mbuta said.  "I would like a message taken to the judges who travel with Dre that the potmakers of the surrounding villages must come to this refuge.  Tell them Mbuta, master potmaker, bids them come."


Ltria hesitated, setting down her pot of body paints before answering.  "Grandmother--if they will not come? What then?"


"Tell them in our time of danger it is for the judges to make peace amongst the tribes and guilds, it is for the warriors to make war and raid and protect, it is for the growers to provide, and the craftsmen to invent.  For the potmakers, it is to make pots. Tell them Brindit, master potmaker, remembered this, and they will save us all if they will come."


"I will do this thing, Grandmother."


Ltria stood to do her bidding, but Mbuta laid a hand on her arm.  Ltria turned. "One more thing. If a captive could be obtained, one of these colored people, bring him to me unharmed."


#


The next day Mbuta was woken by Jndito.  They embraced, and he told her of his escape from his colored captors.  They kneeled before one another and locked hands. Mbuta passed him one of Brindit's braids.  He held it a moment at his lips before looping it in his belt. Then Mbuta told him the secret of Brindit's pot.  Looking inside, Jndito said, "So she shall save all my family now."


He swore service to Mbuta, and under his quick command the refugees rallied to Mbuta's side.  By the time the judges returned with the potmakers of Droban, Mbuta had instructed the men of the refuge in the construction of a kiln.  An offshoot of the caverns was found and converted for firing. The warriors had led others out for the collection of wood, clay, water, neruda flowers, and the other ingredients of Brindit's soul pot.  The potters of the Droban had attempted to help in only one way: the two that survived the raids had come to her and begged her to stop her foolishness.


Kodo, grey and stooped with age, had seemed to think he was being kind.  "For a woman to make soul pots--this perversion we let pass in respect for what you suffered as a girl.  But then to take an apprentice . . . the world has righted that imbalance." He reached out a soft, smooth hand, patted Mbuta's knee.  She grit her teeth in repulsion but remained still. "It is time for you to rest. You are old and will be cared for."


His apprentice, Gtura, pretended no sympathy.  "You are an abomination, woman. We'll not have you polluting the craft this way under our shared roof."


"Jndito, Ltria," Mbuta said.  One of the two was always in earshot.  "Please, show them."


The potmakers were forced to look inside Brindit's pot.  Gtura shuddered and flung himself away. Kodo closed his eyes after a time and shook his head.  "This is why women should never have made soul pots."


"This will save us all."


Kodo nodded.  "Yes, but it will also change everything."  He stood. "Let us hope this new power is used only on our enemies."  And he walked away. Gtura stumbled behind him, and the two remained in a distant part of the caves, far from Mbuta.


But other potmakers answered the call of the judges.  Those from villages that had already been attacked were first to join.  Others, from farther away, answered the call after word spread from those who had looked into Brindit's soul pot.


As potmakers arrived, Mbuta greeted each with Brindit's pot.  Then Mbuta would tell them Brindit's secret.


"Many of you have heard tell of the girl potmaker who went into the forest to save Jndito's mother.  A soul eater had consumed her and held her empty body in thrall that it might use her to hunt other souls.  This girl potmaker hunted the soul eater and freed the soul, returning it to the mother's body. She never revealed how it was done."


Always there was silence, tense expectation.  Mbuta would set Brindit's pot before the gathered men, then go on.  "Inside this pot is the soul of the soul eater, the bit of the material world that lies inside its immaterial body, as our material body holds a tiny bit of the immaterial.  Brindit could always see the soul eaters. She could see them and designed this pot to hold their souls, as they hold ours. And this pot holds the soul eater in thrall, as the eaters can hold our material bodies in thrall when they possess our soul."  She told them of how the soul eater had first rejected her colored prisoner's soul, that perhaps the eater had not recognised the soul, having come from so far away. "But I have taught it to eat the souls of the colored people. And now we possess a new weapon against them."  Then she would call to the soulless body of her colored prisoner, and it would kneel before her and await her command. "And so this is how we shall fight the colored invaders."


#


Mbuta stood beneath the canopy of trees, clutching her soul pot.  Ltria and Jndito stood one to each side of her. Behind them, her army of potmakers.  Tanasti approached, a large pot in his small hands. "My thrall is in position." Every man and woman with Mbuta held a pot with the soul of a soul eater inside, and each soul eater held the soul of a colored raider, slowly digesting.  Those raiders had for weeks now been sabotaging and spying. Today was their first real battle. They would kill those who were not asleep and free the captives from the ships, careful not to waken any others. And Mbuta's army would come.  Her army of soul eaters, trained to devour the souls of the colored men.


The distant sound of the Widest River crushing itself against the land crept up the hillside.  The ugly voices of the colored raiders also carried. Most were bedded down for the night except for those left on guard.  But they would not see Mbuta's army, visible only to those who had looked into the pots. Spread out across the hillside, the seething bodies of the soul eaters prowled, hungry.  Very soon, they would devour.


When she raised her arms, pot held high to signal the attack, her aching bones fired pain across her neck and shoulders.  She thought of Brindit, who would have made a pot for her pain. She thought of Brindit's power and kindness. As the soul eaters leapt forward, she thought of Kodo's words.  It will change everything. Such power now, in the hands of the potmakers, to command the soul eaters. Let us hope this new power is used only on our enemies. Brindit let herself die to pass on this knowledge.  Was this what she had wanted? What would she think of how they used her pots? Below them, the soul eaters began their feast.





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