2: Ora's Prophecy
Phlames acted as extensions of being, as if casted to be an extra limb on the body. The magical essence swirled from the skin like perspiration and after practice, could be directed into the hand. People used the phlame for a variety of purposes, depending on the welder’s training. Primarily among the forest tribes, it became useful for combat or hunting by forming long whips or balls of energy that stunned the target. A few elderly masters discovered the effects on nature, able to heal and flourish the landscape but the skill belonged in legends, many convinced it was a story rather than truth. No matter, everyone had their own phlame. Except Ebskil.
“Come on,” he grunted, trying to feel the energy and envision the phlame forming in his hands. Nothing happened. “Please! Gods, I don’t even care if it isn’t green! I wouldn’t cuss at a blue phlame like the annoying mountain tribes. Please! Do something! Anything!”
His desperate pleas went unanswered. After a few more minutes, he gave up, exhausted and still a failure. He secretly tried this every morning in his tent, motivated by his father’s stress over it, but to no avail. What am I doing wrong? he wondered. No one offered wisdom.
“Maybe I just let Momil be chief. He would love that,” he grumbled and stormed outside.
The sun peaked through the treetops high above and he sighed at the greenery, which seemed to mock the absence of his green phlame. The forest looked plain, lacking the additional decorations arranged for the manhood initiation. Dried, weaved chains of leaves had been disposed of and all the handmade torches hidden in tree hollows until the following year. Ebskil couldn’t spot a single mask either, which had been worn for a week leading to the final bonfire night. The near non-existent signs of celebration eased Ebskil but he knew the same pressure remained; he was a man without a phlame. This truth gnawed at the back of his mind.
His father and mother arranged the phlame display at the initiation bonfire to fool the tribe. They instructed precisely where Ebskil needed to step and where he should stand to speak his claim of protection. In the shadowy area, his hands had remained hidden and no one saw that the glorious phlame came from behind him, wielded by his father. Although a few days passed, he kept waiting for the secret to be discovered yet no one approached.
“Oi!” A cracked voice shouted.
Tamil jumped over a large tree root and stumbled downhill on monster-sized feet. His high-waisted pants flapped in the wind while his bare, upper-torso flab bounced. As soon as he stood beside Ebskil, he slapped his pale back hard. Today, they wore the same coloured pants and burnt orange headbands for the phrophecy reading.
"Mosquito," Tamil explained simply, proud of his red handprint marking. “Are you going to see Ora?”
Crap. I can't escape now. Ebskil wanted to avoid the visit. “I heard some Lacha birds migrated south of here and I was gonna check that.”
“Nah! Ya coming with me now! Ya ma came by and told me ma to tell me to take ya to Ora too. We are the last to see her.”
Ebskil groaned. “Why do we have to see the old, crazy bat?”
“Tradition is tradition. 'Go and find ya part of the tribe or I will flog ya', me ma said.”
“But how do we know if she spouts truth or nonsense? Who is she to tell us what we will be.”
“Exactly!” Tamil agreed. “Who wants to find out if ya will be a disgrace to ya family!”
Ebskil tried to offer his friend some comfort. “Ya will be a warrior and your ma will be overjoyed. Look at the size of you! The enemies will run away, fearful to face a warrior like ya.”
“Nah, ya should have heard her this week. She reckons I am the same as me old man. Lazy. Fat. Grumpy.”
“She got the fat part right.”
Tamil playfully shoved him and Ebskil tripped over sideways at the power from his stocky friend. He scraped along the dirt and a bunch of insects smashed into his mouth. The taste was more mortifying than the pain from his grazed knees and hands. Laughter filled the air and Ebskil glared upward.
“What a pair we make! Fatty and Clumsy!” Tamil exclaimed with a great grin and helped his friend to his feet. “How are ya supposed to be chief if ya can’t walk properly?!”
“Least I won’t get a beating from me ma about what Ora says.”
Tamil’s face darkened dramatically and his grin fell in an instant. “Oi, don’t jinx me.”
“Believe me, my prophecy will be worse,” Ebskil admitted pessimistically.
The men continued their work in silence, trying to find comfort in the rustling leaves or wildlife noises surrounding them. An unusual flower path led the way to Ora’s home, which climbed over roots and wound around large boulders. Moss covered more of the earth the further along they went until the landmark waterfall told them the place was near. At the top of the hill, a large, mystical tree greeted them. In height, it surpassed all the other trees, growing beyond their reach, and the width had to be wider than two tribal huts in the valley below. On low branches, small trinkets of bones and clay pots dangled, hinting at the rituals which occurred inside.
After blowing the carved whistle, placed into a crevice in the tree, Ebskil and Tamil ventured further into the place. They struggled to snake through the roots which hid a hut built into the tree trunk. The men looked at each other, neither willing to enter first.
“Should we leaf pick? Loser has the smallest leaf,” Tamil suggested, referring to a child’s game. Ebskil nodded. “Ready? Go!”
Ebskil searched the ground with his eyes closed. His hand brushed around the forest floor and he willed his fingers to feel for the largest leaf. The dried foliage made it difficult to determine shapes or grab one that remained intact. Tamil counted down and Ebskil panicked, blindly grabbing a shape. He really didn't want to go first.
“Show!” Tamil ordered and they revealed their find.
The defeat was humiliating. Tamil waved a bright, green leaf while Ebksil held a twig with the lamina crumbling away as they stood. Sighing, Ebksil entered the hut and tried to ignore Tamil’s shouts of relief. He always had the worst luck. Maybe, I should volunteer instead of wasting time gambling with fortune, he thought as he pushed the door open.
“Ah, welcome young Ebskil of the Lef family and new man of the Valley clan,” an old, strained voice croaked.
Ora sat in the middle of the room, where rays of light landed through cracks in the trunk. She looked small and her grey, matted hair touched the ground along with red beads, which clung onto the strands. The layers of colourful clothes, wooden jewellery and charcoal markings on her skin made her look more like the tribe oracle than normal. With the clan’s green eyes, she started at him as if lost in a trance.
Around her, carvings climbed up the wooden walls. Each told of the tribe’s history or legends about their gods. To many, the ancient language looked like scribbles and Ebskil struggled to understand it, especially when the smoke fogged the room. He choked on the fumes, hating the incense; it always made him unspeakably tired and nauseous.
After smearing red paint under his eyes, leading to his temple — complying with tradition of entering a sacred space — and wiping the excess over his neck, Ebskil approached the elder. He sat on the flowers laid in front of her, ignoring the bugs which crawled among them.
“Greet the gods,” Ora ordered.
“May ya all welcome me,” Ebskil said softly and clapped his hands, slapped his chest and raised his dominant arm while keeping his eyes low. Slowly, he dropped his hand and touched the ground, as if connecting to the earth.
“They welcome ya, new man.”
Ora offered some dark water from a carved bowl, which Ebskil unwillingly drank; it tasted of dirt and charcoal. He coughed at the fowl liquid but Ora seemed to be oblivious to his disgust, already casting her own phlame. It spluttered alive, the green twinkling and she sprinkled some dust to make it flicker in shades. While the phlame danced in one hand, Ora began chanting and her eyes glazed over. It felt like minutes ticked by before she spoke again.
“Are ya ready for your prophecy, Ebkil Lef?”
Ebskil swallowed audibly. “As ready as I will ever be.”
The phlame crept away from Ora’s hand and began to cover her whole body. Her clothes did not burn and she showed no sign of discomfort. Then, she stared at Ebskil with dark, emerald eyes and it felt like she saw into the depths of his soul. He was unable to move or breath. The helplessness nurtured his panic.
Born with the blessing of a full moon,
You must not fear to attune.
In your path is peril and despair,
and many other burdens to bare.
Yet, after sacrifice will come light,
and a hero emerges to cease the endless night.
The spell, which trapped Ebskil, lifted and he sucked in a desperate breath. After the fog cleared from his head, formed from the gross liquid she made him drink, he tentatively sat up straight again. From the whole prophecy, one word rang loud a clear. A hero. He flinched when thinking about this. He heard that part of the prophecy since infancy and each time, it added more dread to his weak heart. Most men would now seek clarification about Ora’s mysterious riddle but Ebskil did not dare. Instead, he avoided the source of his anxiety and remained convinced she told this prophecy to the wrong person.
“What of the Phlame-less?” Ebskil blurted, the discomfort the question brought apparent in his voice.
All night, he practiced how to ask about phlames subtly but without success. No one wanted to discuss the awkward topic and he hated being the cause of conflict. He preferred to be accommodating and agreeable with others, especially when he found himself lacking in every other quality from brute strength to intelligence. Yet, this was his only chance; Ora held the wisdom of generations of tribes.
Ora looked up in surprise, her phlame withdrawn, and dusted her hands. “Phlame-less?”
“Y-yeah. Y-ya see, I overheard that some people can be born without a phlame.”
“There are some born this way-” Hope fluttered in Ebskil, “-but they always develop it soon after.”
Ebskil swallowed his sudden despair and continued to push for more information. “How? Do they eat some ancient berries? Or do they go to the mountains for wisdom—”
Ora spat on the ground angrily. “Mountain tribes know nothing but arrogance. Spineless, pathetic wind-breathers-”
“What do the Phlame-less do to get their phlame?” Ebskil interrupted, trying to redirect Ora's thinking.
“It comes naturally. It always does or they are banished. Ya need not worry. Ya phlame burns bright.”
“Banished,” Ebskil muttered to himself and fear consumed him.
His parents hadn’t told him this. What should he do? The tribe expected a chief with a phlame when the eclipse came in a few years. They needed a protector. He had nothing to offer. Panic made him shake. It felt impossible to breathe.
“The gods wish ya to leave this place. They must greet the next new man and give the last prophecy. Goodbye, Ebskil the hero.”
On numb feet, Ebskil wordlessly moved towards the hidden door behind Ora and emerged into the blinding light of day. Too caught up in his own problems, he didn’t notice his younger brother, Momil, fall to the ground and rub his head. He must have been eavesdropping against the door.
“Momil?!” Ebksil exclaimed and some fear left him, replaced by anger. “What the hell are ya doing?!”
“I was just passing—”
“That is a load of crap. Were ya listening? Ya know that is punishable. Father will not have his own blood breaking laws.”
“I wasn’t! I swear! I came to tell ya to mark tha back valley path. Father wants a man to do it.”
Ebskil frowned but a flicker of relief settled, since his brother appeared to be oblivious what was spoken in the ancient tree. “Ya is meant to do it. Yesterday, father told ya and he warned it needed to be done before sunset today or—”
“Please help me!” Momil begged suddenly. “I forgot cos tha boys and me played chunt yesterday! Please!”
Of course. Momil only talked to Ebskil if he wanted something. “Fine.”
“Ya the greatest! Can you manage it all?”
“Are you not helping me?”
“Nah. Me and the boys have the final round of chunt today. I gotta win! They will call me a coward if I don't show.”
Ebskil ground his teeth. Momil didn’t ask for help, he actually asked Ebskil to do all the work. It vexed him but through his irritation, he grasped onto some composure. The neighbouring tribe would be visiting at the end of the week and if the job was not done, they would look like fools. It would be easier to do it than argue with Momil's ego and pride. Besides, he might gain some muscles doing the tedious task.
Just as Momil opened his mouth to say something else, probably to worm his way out of more work, the brothers hear dthe horn. The eerie sound echoed in the forest, scaring the birds and spooking the toughest of predators. Sometimes, when blown in the dead of night, the noise reminded Ebskil of dying animals.
“What horn are they using? I haven’t heard that before,” Momil said and stared towards their home.
No one had come unannounced to the Valley tribe in years.