Volume 1: Grassland – Reading sample
The lush plant cover undulated like a green ocean, waving gently in the wind. The grass spread out in all directions as far as the eye could see.
There was an abundance of water. Long ago, the people dug long trenches to drain the land and make it arable. Like silvery threads, the canals traversed the lowland plain. On the slanting ledges, once scarce water whorl-grass had reclaimed its habitat.
To protect from flooding, a dike had been fashioned. Should the river carving a winding path through the grass rise above its banks, only this artificial wall would block its progress. The land was utterly flat. Not a mountain nor a hill. Nothing hindered the eye from wandering freely to the horizon.
Plant-life was primarily made up of sweet grasses. Bent grass, bromegrass and red fescue grew in casual communities, interspersed with taller species like amaranth and cat tail grass. The miniatures, like annual rough bluegrass, hugged the ground.
In Spring, the grassland bloomed. Sorrel, long-headed poppies and headwark dappled red, yarrow and ash weed white, buttercup and crowfoot yellow, solitary cornflowers blue. Colors flooded the green expanse until late summer, when they faded, leaving space for memory.
The heart of all things, the Great Plain, ended at the river in the Northeast and at the dike in the Southwest. Westward, one of the manmade trenches posed a watery divide. In the Southeast rested several dense, weedy sloughs with a young forest of birch and beech trees beyond them.
The prevailing silence was broken only by the wind’s soughing. Not the slightest indication hinted at what transpired here beyond the world’s view.
Chapter 1: The Cave of Insight
Mibora could not sleep. She had lain awake the entire night. Although still a child, she already colored her chin-long hair like the Grass Women. Green strands, gummed together by grass juice, stood up every which way on her head.
She blinked in the pre-dawn light. Nearly every villager envied Mibora’s eyes. Only the eldest could remember having once seen eyes of such brilliant green. Green as the grass.
Finally, day announced itself through the cracks in the Great Lodge walls. Here, in the center of the village facing the Major Haunt, lived Mibora’s father, Calamus, with his family. A tall man of fifty-four seedings, often lost in thought, he was the Grass People’s Chieftain. Mind you, Calamus was no ascetic, but strongly built with broad shoulders and a burgeoning paunch he sometimes did, and sometimes did not, successfully curb. His strength rippled palpably when he moved. Like all Grass Men, Calamus kept his hair shaven to short stubble. Mibora was the younger of the two daughters he had with Poales, Doyenne of Healing.
Today! Finally! Her Big Day! The day Mibora had been anticipating for so long. Today would decide if she has what it takes to become a Gröön Scheem, a Green Shadow. Gleaning Day. Today, Mibora will prove she’s no longer a firstling. That she’s one of them. She might be small for her age, but she’s sturdy, a single tensed muscle. Nothing soft, nothing round.
“So quiet?,” her mother asked at breakfast. Poales was slim, her beauty wild and uncompromising. A long braid flowed elegantly down her right shoulder. Even with her forty-six seedings, she moved like a dancer. She held herself erect, her presence much larger than her height. Like Mibora, she shaped few words. Calamus and Cypera were the talkers. What they did have in common was Poales’ eye color, a perspicacious grey-blue, like the channel pebbles in Spring, when the water is exceptionally clear and illuminated by the first rays of the coming Summer’s sun.
“I bon’t myow waff myou myean,” Mibora mumbled, shoveling down her breakfast so she could leave the lodge as quickly as possible and meet the Green Shadows. Cypera knew what was up and threw Mibora a conspiratorial wink. When it came down to it, Mibora could rely on her sister. She would never betray her secret.
Some people in the village underestimated Cypera. At thirteen seedings, she was already a beauty other than her mother’s classic elegance. Her whimsicality reminded of butterflies and together with her love of stories and dream travel, people often failed to recognize just how serious, ambitious and clever she was. Only three seedings older than Mibora, Cypera was already a head taller than her little sister. Just a few inches shy at the time of this telling, she will be taller than her mother one day.
“Done!” Mibora cried, knocking over her cup in her excitement, but quick as lightning, she caught it deftly so very little landed on the lodge floor. Full of vim, she banged the cup down on the table and charged outside.
“Wait up, I’m coming with you!” Cypera called, taking a last bite and following her sister with light-footed, effervescent skips so typical of her.
“What’s gotten into those girls?” Poales murmured with smile, winking at Calamus and re-filling their cups.
Mibora and Cypera raced together, tagging each other and giggling as only sisters can do. Why can’t it be like this more frequently?, Mibora thought. Much too often, her relationship with Cypera was burdened with a tension neither of them spoke about.
“Hold on a sec, Cyp.”
“What’s up?” Cypera came to a halt.
“What …” Mibora began.
Mibora sighed. “The Green Shadows … I hardly know anything about them. Just that you and mom are members …”
Cypera’s expression when she looked at her sister was hard to read. “I have been with the Scheem for two years now. I am the youngest member they have ever accepted. I passed the Gleaning with eleven seedings.” Her eyes sized up Mibora. “We will see if you break my record today.”
There it was; the tension. As daughters of the Chieftain and Doyenne of Healing much was expected of them. The entire village watched their development, often whispering behind their backs. Who did they take after, the mother or the father? Did they inherit their parents’ abilities? Would they be able to step into their shoes when the time came? From the cradle onwards, rivalry had always been a part of their lives. It was up to them to pick a path that would not tear them asunder. Sometimes Mibora doubted they would succeed in the long run.
“That’s not what I meant. You and mom … you wouldn’t have joined the Shadows if they had evil intentions, would you?”
For a moment Cypera looked at her in shock, then angrily, “Are you serious? Of course not! The Sisterhood of Shadows protects our secret wisdom and abilities. We use them solely to protect and nurture our community. What can you be thinking?”
Mibora suddenly held her belly, “My stomach hurts … I think the food was spoiled.”
Cypera scrutinized her sister before deciding, “It’s not the food. You’re chicken!”
„Don’t be silly, Cyp! Me and scared? Have you forgotten the time we paddled over the canal? Who was chicken then?” Mibora flushed in annoyance. Her skin, dyed green with grass juice, took on a dark-olive tone.
“Calm yourself, little bit, I didn’t mean it like that. Everyone is frightened on Gleaning Day. Four out of five candidates fail to pass the test …”
But her words only exacerbated Mibora’s anger, who was given to occasional fits of rage, “Little bit? Little bit? I’m only three seedings younger than you! Who do you think you are?” Why?, she thought angrily, Why does she always have to belittle me as if she were so much bigger?
Laughter broke out behind them. They turned and saw Carex, Mistress and Protector of the Green Shadows. Behind her were nine women, the other members of the secret Sisterhood. They wore clothing made of grass fibers and braided belts on which hung pouches and the sheaths of their knives. Skin and hair were dyed green. Their ages varied, the youngest was twenty, the oldest more than sixty seedings. All of them radiated a calm, self-contained and confident strength that could be unleashed at any moment.
Among the women, Mibora made out Acorus, Doyenne of Grasses and Avenella, Doyenne of Battle. But one Green Shadow was obviously missing; Poales, her mother. So she really didn’t know that today was Gleaning Day – my Gleaning day, Mibora thought. Or are mothers prohibited from attending their daughter’s trial? She had never asked Cypera if Poales had attended her trial.
Carex interrupted her thoughts. “So, you’re not afraid? Then nothing can go wrong! Come, follow me!” The Guide of Shadows strode away, from crown to sole a born leader. She was quite a small woman, hardly taller than Mibora, slightly stocky and certainly beyond fifty seedings. She wore her hair short. What Carex lacked in stature she more than compensated with charisma. One look from her steel-blue eyes could inspire laughter, weeping or absolute silence. This ability to impact people could not be learned. It was an inborn gift.
Wide-eyed, Mibora studied the two braided belts full of dangling pouches that Carex wore crossed over her chest. What could be in them? All other Scheem wore a single belt, the number of pouches varying from woman to woman, though the Doyennes had by far the most. But Carex alone carried so many pouches that one belt was not enough. Strange … I will understand all this once I have become a Green Shadow. But first I must pass the trial!
Mibora and Cypera hurried after Carex, followed by the rest of the group. With each step Mibora’s excitement grew. She couldn’t wait to reach the Gleaning place and get the trial over with, no matter what it was. Patience was not one of her strengths and waiting her least favorite thing to do. Since the Gleaning place changed each year, she had no idea how far they had to go. She trembled with nervousness.
There it lay, hidden behind thick growth, the cave that would decide Mibora’s entire future. The entrance was round, beyond only blackness without a recognizable end.
“Now we will see if you have what it takes to become a Green Shadow …” Carex remarked ominously. The sisterhood members had formed two rows, creating a lane that led directly to the mouth of the cave.
“What must I do?” Mibora asked, trying to camouflage her quavering voice with determination. Her big sister didn’t miss it though. Cypera was at the beginning of a row and watching her closely. Her expression was unreadable, but she seemed just as tense as Mibora.
“You enter the Cave of Cognition You remain there for one hundred heartbeats. Not a single one less! No matter what happens inside. If you succeed, you will return to us as a Gröön Scheem, a Green Shadow.”
“A-and, if I don’t …?” Mibora stammered, “what happens when I fail?”
“Then you will spend the rest of your life knowing you lacked the courage to be a Shadow. But don’t worry, that’s the fate of most women in our village.” Carex turned to the others, smiling. “Enough talk! Sisters, the moment the candidate enters the Cave of Cognition, begin counting the heartbeats, loudly and clearly!”
There was no turning back now. Mibora took a long, deep breath. What could I have been thinking? She attempted to collect her wits and anchor her fear in a place deep in the back of her awareness. Poales had taught her that. As Doyenne of Healing, her mother knew such things. She also knew that one day her daughter would need to know this. Life in Grassland was turbulent and unpredictable. It was good to know how to control fear, but important not to forget it and become careless.
The girl took her first step into the lane, Green Shadows to either side. The women began to whisper softly. They sounded like the wind lightly brushing the grasses of the Great Plain. As Mibora slowly approached the cave’s mouth, their whispering became louder with each pace. Now it was rain falling on leaves. Mibora couldn’t make out words. It was more like interwoven sounds, flowing and whispering, whispering and flowing.
Louder and louder, the Green Shadows intoned until they abruptly stopped altogether. Exactly when Mibora reached the end of the lane and the entrance to the Cave of Cognition. It seemed as if the Green Shadow, the grass, the entire world was holding its breath.
Mibora entered the darkness.
End of reading sample.
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