Since this “chapter” is waaaaaaaay too long, it might as well live on here in its fullness. “Post for posterity.” I like the dialogue telling the story, but if you’re paying attention, action is missing. Time for a wolf/cheetah/bear attack or something. It’s going to be edited to Hell, but there do need to be some key points.
* * *
Tapi sighed in the way of very patient grandmothers. “Because of that ‘king’, it’s already the afternoon and there’s a lot of mountain to go.”
“It’s not so bad. Traveling with my favorite Tapi makes it easy for me to walk. What’s your excuse?” Cambali raised the part of her eyebrow that didn’t have rings in it.
“Hunger, rain, thunder, the wind, I’m soaked, I’m tired, we’re probably lost, certainly doomed with an army around. I guess that’s everyday from now on, eh?” Tapi shrugged. “Ah, but you’re right, what new things to learn in all the new places!”
“That’s not what I said,” Cambali bumped into her.
Even a person who wasn’t a monsoon person could tell when the sun set. It grew very dark, like the coat of a full-bellied panther. The rain fell gently now, the wind still fierce, pushing the girls towards the small river village.
Tapi managed to grumble, “This morning you said that we’re ‘chickpeas now’ and not Charcoal People.”
“That’s right! We fight for ‘chick-peace’!” Cambali tried to frantically wave but she was too tired.
“That’s our motto? Is that what you’ve been thinking about while you’ve been so quiet?”
“Mmm,” Tapi grumped, “And you know the first place we’re going for help is other Charcoal People? You aren’t really going far.”
“They aren’t real Charcoal People. They live at the mouth of the Porunai and give us the sacred mud.” Cambali pinched Tapi.
“Ah. And Dad has a summer home there because…? He doesn’t want the fresh mud of the monsoon’s tilling?”
“All right,” Cambali said.
The storm was kind and lightning lit the way, finally showing the angry, smiling heads of the statue at the entrance. The poor girls were almost crawling with hunger, their heads drooping under their yellow cloth. They were spotted by villagers doing last-minute work on their high, tree-trunk fence.
A small group of concerned citizens rushed to greet the crawling girls. They brought better rain gear and an old, worried mother who shrieked when she saw it was two dear girls out in the middle of the mud.
“It’s the middle of the night!” she scolded. She didn’t even wait until they were clean. “Are you senseless? You’ll be dead from fever in minutes!”
“Ma’am,” Tapi started politely, “We’re starving…”
“And filthy,” Cambali added.
“…That’s probably why we look sick.”
The men went back to work on the walls. New wells had been dug and were ready to collect the rain. A few leftover mudbricks stacked nearby. Tapi nudged Cambali before she could poke her.
Like all mountain villages in monsoon lands, the houses were built on mounds or stilts. Great pits were already dug deeper to collect floodwaters, but the high walls were still being worked on. “Why?” Tapi wondered. “Shouldn’t they be done by now?”
The old woman took them to her house, grumbling about the strange brains young people had. When the girls were clean, which took a while with all the ghee worked in there, the old mother instantly knew them.
“You’re Charcoal People!” She pestered the girls while she served a simple supper. The home was lit dimly but warm and dry. The girls almost forgot what it felt like not to be pelted by rain.
“N-no,” Cambali said. “Just weathered travelers seeking adventure and new things.”
“Mmm,” said the old woman. She thought, and as she did she curled forward to doze a little on her seat. Whatever space didn’t have a goat, chicken, or cow on it was crawling with little children. Every now and then something needed a gentle swat to behave. Only other old mothers knew how the old woman slept through such noise and movement.
“In the rain!?” she awoke. Tapi poked Cambali in the ribs and she clinged as she jumped. “Without supplies?” Poke, ching! “Without protection?” Poke, ching!
“Now, I’ve lived a long time,” the old woman began.
“Me, too,” Cambali and Tapi both said at the same time, though both meant different things. They looked at each other and giggled. The mother stared hard at them to pay attention. Some say that was the first day of the “Evil Eye.” It was a look Tapi tried hard to remember to use herself.
“I’ve live a long time and I know Charcoal People. You’re here every year, we share festivals! Your chief has a summer home here!” Poke-ching!
“Can we stay in it?” Tapi wanted to ask, but Cambali interrupted her.
“How do you know we’re Charcoal People?” Poke. “I mean, what makes you say we’re Charcoal People?”
“Your bright, musical jewelry, of course. Only Charcoal People have metal like that. Your clanging,” she pointed at Cambali, “could be heard for miles on the wind. Some were sure it was ghosts coming! So many confessed to so many misdeeds to be spared the horror…” The mother shook her head sadly, ashamed for everyone.
“Well, so we are Charcoal People. We just wanted to travel without being noticed.”
The woman didn’t know what to say next. The poor girls clearly had no clue what they were doing and were to be pitied. Did they even know where they were going? She wanted to scold them in so many ways, but first, “What are your names?”
“Cambali and Tapi,” the girls said together without thinking.
“CAMBALI?!” the woman shouted, startled.
“Cambali?!” The cry was echoed outside as the whole village had gathered to listen. A few cows even braved sinking in the mud for this new thing.
“And Tapi,” Tapi said. “The spirit of the Porunai!” but she disappeared against the mud bricks.
Several men and boys of varying ages, some handsome, strong, and hairy, others not-quite-so, burst into the home. The children scattered, the animals carried on calmly.
Cambali frowned deeply, the candlelight showing off her pimply, ghee-bright, skin.
Each man preened a little, some carrying uprooted plants or other quick-gifts. They all said the same thing, “I’m here to marry you!”
“Suitors,” she hissed.
The mother was still shocked. Suddenly her perfectly clean house and fine clay dishes and freshly dried food weren’t good enough for the young Lady. “Sundara,” she whispered. “It means ‘the beautiful one’ and this child is certainly that!”
Even without ash, the wild, tangled hair stuck with peacock feathers, the bright eyes shining in defiance at the suitors… Her blotchy skin couldn’t hide that she glowed, fat with awesome strength. The men fought each other to be near her.
Well, they fought with bad poetry. That was painful enough.
“Stop it!” Cambali yelled at all the noise in a tone Tapi had never heard from her. “This is what I didn’t want!” Tapi noticed she still took the sweets from the men. Everyone leaned in to listen.
“Since everyone in the village knows now, I guess you should show us to our father’s house. It’s late. We are travelers and we are tired. And we want to leave early in the morning.”
“What wisdom from so young a mouth!” Everyone cheered as they fought over who would shield the sisters from the rain. Normally oiled skins were used, but there were enough suitors piling on top of each other there was no need. Cambali sighed louder than ten monsoon’s thunder. She was too tired to roll her eyes. (Tapi did that for her.)
After the house was made ready, the girls curled up and went to sleep, the whole village standing watch, chittering like birdlings.
The morning sun rose despite the cloud cover. The old mother was as swift as the wind to bring the girls a nice breakfast.
And some supplies for the road. And, more importantly, some advice.
Neither girl was ready to be woken up by noisy tidying up of a clean room. Cambali was too happy to eat the sweet, sticky rice and mango, however.
“Now, listen!” the woman hard-stared at them first this time. “It’s a dangerous time to be traveling! The Charcoal People’s home is in Chera land now, so many might think you’re the enemy.”
“’The enemy’? Of who?” Cambali asked.
“’Of who?’ Of anyone who wars! War is always in the air, no matter the season or the year. The Chola People and the Pandyans fight along the northern borders. The Chera and Chola fight for northern woods. The trees are needed for walls, against floods and fighters.”
“I thought Pandya loved the Charcoal People?” Tapi asked. “Wouldn’t we be safe in their country?”
The mother frowned, a thousand new wrinkles shadowed her skin. “Pandya’s ruled by a wild one. He’s young, too. Angry. Men and boys are joining his army by the elephant-ton.”
“What’s the king’s name?” Cambali was thinking of Nitham.
“N. Cheliyan,” the woman said.
“’N.’?” Cambali and Tapi asked together.
“The third, of course,” she said gravely. “He’s going to march North from Madurai soon, but there are already Chola men in his lands.” She leaned in close to Cambali, her eyebrows knit together in worry. Cambali noticed that she had smeared kohl to give herself one long eyebrow, too.
“The whole world knows of you, the story of your famous birth 14 Springs ago. ‘During the floods, the earth quaked and the babe walked up from the great depths below even as the earth drank up all the floodwaters.’”
“That’s not what happened,” Cambali said, even though a tiny bit of it is true.
“I don’t think Mom would like to hear that, either,” Tapi agreed.
“H’sh! You are known, Charcoal Girl. Not everyone celebrates. You already have enemies. Please, in the name of everything, be careful!
“If you don’t want to be what people say, then you better start loving yourself. Only then can you even start to know who you are.” Tapi nodded sternly, though the woman was clearly talking to her sister.
The woman pushed a lidded bowl towards Cambali. “So you two can mark yourselves like your custom. But only,” she paused. Cambali opened the bowl to find the soot and ghee mix. “Only would you mark me with a little, too?”
The girls grinned wickedly and covered the poor, happy woman in the mix.
The sun shone slightly as the girls made their way to the lake-mouth. The copper in the mud twinkled in the weak sunlight. Tapi swelled with pride, she swore she saw someone point at her in admiration. The waters were rising every second and the mud-houses on the banks were ready to collect.
They couldn’t follow the Porunai in the monsoon, the waters were also too treacherous to try to raft down. Once they were out of the Medicine Hills they’d be in Pandya. Better to enjoy the quiet beauty of Spring’s fury while there were still peaceful moments.
They weren’t really worried. The old woman was right, there was always war somewhere. The bards always sang about new hero-kings in great battles. Tradesmen always wanted more charcoal for their fires so the iron they worked would have the Charcoal People’s rumored power.
War was as new as ants in honey.