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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Guest Short Story: "The Kalengu" by Christine Rains

We at Raven and the Writing Desk have decided to invite some guests to donate a short story or blog post to the blog. Our good friend Christine Rains has given us her story "The Kalengu." Thank you, Christine, and we hope everyone enjoys it.



THE KALENGU
By Christine Rains


The sack opened and I could see nothing. Yet everything spilled out. It rolled out with such speed and intensity, the fields lit up with green growth as if a light had been switched on.
             
There were gasps all around me, but I was silent as I looked up at Cyrill who held the sack. He hadn't said a word either, but I thought I saw sadness in his dark eyes as he released the energy. I wanted to ask him why his gift didn't make him smile, but Thierry laid a hand on my arm to direct my attention to him.
            
 “Did I not say I would take care of you and yours, cherie? The whole village will have food to last them through the dry season now.”
             
There were cheers from the villagers and I could hear my mother weeping with happiness. I didn't feel that same roar of joy and it made me feel guilty. Thierry hadn't used what I provided for him to buy food for the village, but he had used the Kalengu's magic.
             
Thierry laughed his booming laugh and turned to shake hands with my father. I refused to twist my head to look in their direction. It was all I could do not to flinch when Thierry laid his arm over my slender shoulders.
             
“Did you want to stay for the celebration, cherie? There will be a pig and they'll sing songs about my generosity.”
            
 “No, we can go back to the manor.” My voice seemed lost amongst the great whoops and hoots around us.
             
He reached under and tilted my chin up so that I had to look him in the eye. “Are you sure, Olivia? It will be a long time before you see your family again.”
            
It didn't matter. They had given me to him and celebrated it. “I'm sure.”

* * *
             
The trip back to Madagascar from the mainland seemed shorter than the one that had taken us to my village in Zambia. I had only been with Thierry for a few months after one of his scouts had discovered me. It had been my first trip back to see my family and it would be my last. I'd leave them to their green fields and flimsy Christian ideals.
             
They believed he was taking me to marry and the magically grown crops had been his wedding gift to me. I was sure that Thierry had no interest in women, though, but he let them think as they wished. It was easier for us all that way.
             
The trip to the island was also the longest I had been in Cyrill's presence. I had been with Thierry a few times when the sorcerer hung back in the shadows of the room. I'd never heard him speak. I only knew that he had generous lips and eyes that were so dark they seemed obsidian.
             
He made me uneasy. He never stared or did anything improper, but I could feel my skin crawl and the little hairs stand on end. I decided it was the least I should feel with a powerful sorcerer who could feed an entire village with an empty sack.
             
I was left on my own as usual once we were back at the manor in Morondava. I might have spent my time exploring the grand house, but there were too many men about and I was a young woman with no attachments. Though, even if I had a husband, it would not deter some men. It was safer to be in my room with the door locked.
            
I had a balcony that overlooked the sea. I spent a lot of time thinking about stealing a boat and running away. My skin was pale enough to pass as white and I could hide in South Africa. I had no desire to return to Zambia and the waters to the north were full of pirates.
             
The wind whipped through my long hair as if encouraging me to take the leap and run off into the sunset. Thierry would never suspect I'd do such a thing, his meek little Olivia. There was more fire in me than I let anyone see and I wanted my freedom.
             
A knock at my door reminded me that the manor's matron, Rosine, was bringing my dinner.  She was a kind crone and always gentle with me. I heard some men talking once below my balcony that Rosine was far younger than she looked. I think perhaps he was trying to convince his friend to try his luck with the matron.
            
When I unlocked the door, it wasn't Rosine who carried in the tray, but the Kalengu. My mouth fell open and I stood stunned for a few seconds until my senses came back to me. I closed my mouth and walked in, leaving the door open.
             
Cyrill set the silver tray down. Turning, he clasped his hands behind his back and regarded me with an unreadable expression.
             
Neither of us said anything for several heartbeats. I jostled my weight from foot to foot. I had to break the silence. “Thank you for bringing me my dinner.”
            
“I brought us both dinner, if you don't mind.” His voice was deeper than a volcano's rumble. It vibrated down to my very core. “I had yet to get to know you. I do make it my practice to know all in Thierry's employ. Sit.”
            
 He pulled out one of the chairs for me. I hesitated, glancing back to the still open door, and then sat down. My hands folded onto my lap and clutched the white fabric of my dress. “You are one of his bodyguard's, yes?”
             
He nodded as he sat down across from me. “I do several things for Thierry.” His long legs looked cramped under the small table. “I am Cyrill, by the way. I do hope you like lemon chicken.”  He lifted off the lid of the tray with a graceful sweep and set it on the far side of the table.
            
“Yes, I do, thank you. My name is Olivia.”
            
“I'm aware of that.” Cyrill placed fine china plates with our meal beautifully presented in front of each of us. I never noticed how fluid his movements were, but then again, most of the time I had seen him, he was standing still.
             
I caught myself rubbing my arms and willed my hands to stop. I wet my lips and tried to think of something else to say to him. “Your accent isn't like any other I've heard.”
             
Cyrill shook out his napkin and laid it across his lap. “No, my people, though few, have their own language. I come from the hills in Cameroon far from any elegance like this place. It's lovely here, no?”
             
“It is.” I did the same with my own napkin. Although I agreed it was a beautiful place, for me, it was only a pretty prison. I wasn't about to say that out loud to one of Thierry's men, though. The only education I've had were Bible studies, but I wasn't naive.
             
We ate in silence and it made my stomach clench up so that I could barely finish half of what was on my plate. I felt that he still rumbled even when quiet. It was not a sound, but a feeling that rolled over my skin.
            
Once he was done, he patted his lips and set his napkin on the empty plate. “I'm sure you're curious as to what I did today just as I'm curious as to what you can do.”
            
I wouldn't deny my desire to know what he could do. My heart beat a little faster when he mentioned what my family had deemed “the devil's curse.” Magic was an abomination, but not the sort that healed or fed them. I almost believed it, too, when Thierry told me what I could do with my talent.
             
I looked up at him. “What was in the sack?”
             
Cyrill's mouth quirked up into a hint of a smile. “Energy. Could you not feel it?” I shook my head and he continued. “Perhaps you have not the training for it, but with the sorcerers here that Thierry has gathered, you can learn to master your talents. I am one of the Kalengu.” His chin rose up with the name. I had heard him called that by some other men, but I didn't know the word.
            
“My people were banished to the hills of Cameroon long ago for not accepting Islam. We kept the old ways and we are still strong. I can take the energy from any living thing with spirit and transfer it elsewhere. The Kalengu have the highest honor amongst my people.”
             
And individuals like me are spit upon by my people.
            
“I had taken the energy from other crops and given it to the dying crops of your village.” He paused as if waiting for a thank you. I wasn't going to give it to him.
            
“What happened to the crops you took energy from?”
           
“They died, of course.” Cyrill shrugged his shoulders. He pushed a little ways away from the table to give his long legs room before leaning back in his chair. I shivered and there was no breeze coming in from the open balcony doors.
           
“What you can do is very interesting. Most people like us have an element that is of one of the Four Primes, but not you. You, a simple girl from a small Zambian village.”
            
I felt a flare of anger in me at being called a simple girl. I bit the edge of my tongue and held it in. It was only when I let myself calm down that I glimpsed in his dark face an expression that said he didn't believe his own words. I cocked my head to the side, but it didn't help me read him any better.
            
“I've a small talent, truly. I hadn't thought it any use until Thierry directed me with it.” That much was true. It was fun to play with as a child, but once I was caught by my mother, I had to pray until my knees bled that I would be rid of the witch's curse. God would not suffer a witch, after all.
           
“Not small at all. You could be the richest girl in your country if you so willed it.” Cyrill laced his long fingers together, regarding me still with those onyx eyes.
            
“Money is not all that important.” I would live on the streets if only I had my freedom.
           
He picked up a fork and held it out to me. “Here. Let me see what you do.”
            
I didn't want to perform for him like a circus animal. I had to do as Thierry said on demand, but I was not under Cyrill's care. It also made me all the more uneasy that he wanted to see it. I shook my head.
            
“I can't do something that big. As I said, my talent is not so great.”
            
“Perhaps you need some more training to open you up to your full potential. You're young yet, Olivia.” He said my name like something sacred and I felt myself staring a little too long at him. My heart thumped so loud, I thought it had leapt out of my chest.
             
I yanked my eyes from him and reached out to pick up a silver napkin ring. “This is the average size for me.”
            
I held it cocooned within my hands and closed my eyes. I didn't really need to concentrate as much as I pretended, but it made for a better show and allowed me to say I could only do so much. I had never found my limit and I didn't plan on doing so. I called the glittering yellow to mind and felt my hands warm. It barely constituted a thought.
             
I let out a long breath and opened my hands the same time I opened my eyes. The ring was solid gold. “I can do any mineral that I know of, but Thierry, well, he likes gold.”
             
Cyrill reached out and his hand hovered over mine. “May I?” I nodded and he plucked up the ring. He examined it, even smelled it for some reason, before setting it down on the table with what I took to be an impressed expression. “You have the Midas touch.”
            
 “The what?”
            
His laughter was deep and quiet, nothing at all like Thierry's. “It's a Greek myth about a king who asked the gods to give him the gift to be able to turn anything he touched into gold. Of course, as with all gifts from the gods, it didn't work out as he had hoped.”
             
I could understand that part completely. I was also smiling. My little hairs were no longer standing on end. Perhaps I could find a sympathetic soul with Cyrill. I had no desire to learn anything more of my talent, but I assumed that he knew what it felt like to be apart from everyone else.
             
“Ah, but Thierry, yes, he would like the gold best.” Cyrill pushed back his chair and tidied up our dishes on the table, setting them on the tray. “It makes you extremely valuable to him and his vision of what he wishes to be. Just as I am valuable to him. You understand this, yes?”
             
My brows furrowed a little. I knew precisely why I was valuable to Thierry and his greedy ambitions. He already ruled the underground of a few African countries. He used not only terrorist tactics, but magical force as well. “I understand.”
             
Cyrill made a small noise and bobbed his head once as he stood up. He reached over and smoothed out the crease in my brow with the pad of his thumb. His touch was warm. He leaned in so that his mouth was by my ear and spoke in less than a whisper. “Perhaps if Thierry were deprived of your talents and mine, he would not bring such expressions to the faces of pretty girls.”
             
He gathered up the tray as he straightened himself out. He dipped his head to me. “It was a pleasure sharing dinner with you, Olivia. Perhaps we can do it again some time.”
             
I stood up, but I still had to look upwards to gaze into his eyes. “Yes, it was lovely, thank you.”
            
I escorted him to the door and we said our good nights. I locked it behind him and frowned again. What did he mean by that whisper? Was it a warning not to run off or was he letting me know that he was thinking of escaping just as I was?
            
I didn't know the man, and though I had relaxed some in his presence, I wouldn't deny that I still felt a dangerous edge to him. He was hard to read. Yet he had come to share the meal, listen to me and share with me his own story. He didn't seem to be fond of Thierry. I didn't know why he was working for him. Perhaps he had a story like mine.
            
I held on to that thought as I readied myself for bed. My fantasies of stealing a boat and escaping now included Cyrill. I felt braver even with the imagined thought of him by my side. I fell asleep and dreamed of freedom.

* * *
             
Cyrill shared a meal with me every other day for the next few weeks. I had planned on leaving sooner, but I grew to like his company. I liked to hear his laugh and listen to him talk. He was wise beyond his years and only ten years older than myself. Sometimes he seemed much older to me, but other times, he was a young man full of life complimenting me on my dimples or dress.
             
I worked for Thierry every day. He preferred to have me transform intricately worked metals into gold. The jewelry would sell for more that way rather than in block form. I made sure not to exceed the “limit” I put on myself, but I felt that I could do bigger pieces. I tried it with silverware in the privacy of my room one night and grinned at my accomplishment. I did, of course, transform it back into its original state afterward.
             
Rosine came in one morning with my breakfast after a particularly late night with Cyrill. She scowled at me and I had no idea what I had done to draw her ire.
            
“You watch yourself with that man, child. He'll do you no favors.”
             
I helped her strip my bed and fasten new sheets to it. “Cyrill has been a gentleman. I know some might think it improper for an unmarried woman to spend tim-”
            
“It has nothing to do with that.” Rosine snapped and tucked in my sheets with a fierceness I had not seen in her before. “You need to tell him to go away next time he comes. Don't be talking to him.”
            
I finished with my side and looked at her with a bit of wariness. “I don't understand. Are people gossiping about us?”
             
“People will gossip about whatever they want.” She made a dismissive gesture and came over to grasp my hands in her wrinkled ones. “Promise me you'll have no more to do with him, child.” She squeezed my hands harder and they hurt. “Promise me.”
             
I yanked my hands back with a whimper. “I promise.”
             
I had no idea why she was so fervent about it. Perhaps she didn't like Cyrill or maybe she fancied him for herself. If it wasn't for the way her eyes bore into me at the moment, I might have laughed at that latter thought.
             
Rosine nodded to herself and took my soiled sheets off to be laundered. I sat down to my breakfast alone to daydream of Cyrill and I on a boat free from Thierry's demands and overprotective matrons.

* * *
             
To my surprise, Cyrill was the one that brought me breakfast the next morning. I hadn't shared a meal with him so early in the day before. I was glad I was an early riser and was fully dressed when he knocked.
           
“I thought perhaps you would enjoy an outing today.” Cyrill sipped orange juice from a long stemmed glass. “I have some business I must do in town, but it should not take long.”
           
I was eager to get away from the manor. Thierry had taken me a few times to town, but I hadn't been allowed to wander and explore. I skipped what remained of my breakfast and sought out a pair of shoes to look nice with my dress.
             
“You might want to wear shoes that are good for walking,” Cyrill suggested and then lowered his rumbling voice. “We'll be going a long way.”
             
I froze for a few seconds. A long way? We had never discussed the things I daydreamed about, but when I looked over my shoulder at him, he gave me a single nod as if he were sharing my thoughts.  I knew he wasn't happy working for Thierry. He had talked fondly of his home and I said I would love to travel.
            
I could take his dark gaze to mean nothing else. I put on a pair of flat shoes with thick soles.  They were finely made and would last me a long time no matter if we were walking the town, through the hills or on a ship in the ocean.
             
Cyrill offered me his arm as we readied to leave the room. “You do realize, there's no turning back once we walk out this door.”
            
“I don't ever want to come back.” I replied in a soft but determined voice.
             
The Kalengu led me through the halls and it was at the front doors that we were stopped. My heart was pounding in my chest, but he was calm.
            
“Thierry wishes to see you both.” The armed guard motioned in the direction of his boss' study.
            
“Of course,” Cyrill said smoothly and did not blink an eye as he changed our direction.
            
I tried to convince myself that Thierry wanted only to remind him of his business in town.  Thierry liked things done in particular ways and would settle for nothing less. I had never seen him displeased with anyone, but I've heard the horrors the guards talked about underneath my balcony. No matter how well I had been treated, Thierry was not a kind man.
             
As we approached the study, another man was leaving. He flashed us a toothless grin and cradled a big clay pot against his body. I didn't need to hear the scuttling in it to know what he was: a Crab Sorcerer. They read people's fortunes by the tracks their crabs made in the sand in their pots.  Crab Sorcerers were common in my country and they were tolerated because many believed them to be frauds.
             
He cackled as he slipped by us and waddled off down the hall.
            
I was very aware of my sensible shoes as we entered the study. Thierry was seated behind his desk, fingers splayed across his rounded belly. Rosine stood to one side with her eyes on her feet.
           
“Close the door, Cyrill. I need to have a quick chat with our lovely girl here.” Thierry spoke in a nonchalant drawl. I thought I might faint on the spot.
             
Cyrill released my arm and walked back to close the door. The sound was loud and ominous.  He returned to take his place beside me, his hands behind his back.
            
“Olivia,” Thierry made as if to sing my name. “Do I not treat you well? Do you not have everything you could ever want here?”
             
“Yes, Thierry.” There was no other answer I could give.
            
“I'm glad that's how you feel.” Thierry leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk.  “Rosine here tells me you're quiet and clean. Both of us appreciate that. I'm sure you're concerned about an old woman doing all that cleaning by herself. But has Rosine ever told you how old she is?”
             
I shook my head and let my gaze flicker over to the matron. She hadn't looked up from the floor yet. She looked older than my grandmother. I knew it's rude to ask an elder their age, especially a woman.
           
“Go ahead, Rosine.” Thierry urged her. “Tell our sweet Olivia how old you are.”
             
Everything in the room was suddenly still.
             
Finally, Rosine let out a long breath. “I am twenty-five.”
             
There was no way I could hide my shock. The matron couldn't be that young.
            
“Ah, but it's true.” Thierry didn't smile, but I could hear it in his voice. “Now tell Olivia why your hair is gray and your skin wrinkled.”
             
This time, there was no hesitation from Rosine. She raised her head and shot a venomous glare at Cyrill. “It was him. He took my life's energy from me. He left me with only the last vestiges of it!”  She cursed in a language I didn't know and spittle flew from her lips.
             
Cyrill didn't show any reaction at all to her vicious accusation. He didn't look at me when I glanced up at him either.
            
“And tell her why your energy was taken from you?”
             
Rosine's hands balled up into fists and she shook with her anger. She managed to unclench her jaw to answer. “I tried to leave Thierry. I tried to run off.”
             
My breath caught in my throat and I made a small choking sound. The room spun around me, but I somehow kept steady on my feet.
             
Maybe Cyrill took her energy, but surely he would never do that to me. I wasn't running off on my own. We just had to get through this, convince Thierry that he had nothing to worry about, and then we could go to town to take the first boat away from here.
            
“Rosine was such a silly girl to try to run off. I was insulted. And who could blame me after showing her all the same hospitality I've been showing you, cherie?” Thierry's eyes focused on me and he smiled. It was hollow and chilled me to the bone. “Yet I'm a good man. I let her keep some of her life, but not enough so that she had the energy to run away again. You'd never run off on me, would you, Olivia? It would sadden me to have Cyrill take the life away from such a pretty girl.”
             
“Oh, no!” I squeaked. “I have a good life here.”
            
I wanted to cry. Not for Rosine, but for the realization that I didn't know Cyrill at all. Was he truly the same man who sat with me and talked long hours after our meals? Or was he a cold-hearted monster who cared not for the life he stole from others?
            
“You're very valuable to me, cherie. More so than Aristide or Rosine.” Thierry's tone carried no fond emotion. “Cyrill is like a brother to me. He and I have an understanding. He's loyal to me and I let his sister live here.” He looked pointedly to Rosine as he said so. “She's given the highest level of health care available for her frail old body.”
             
The horror of it all struck me. I felt tears in my eyes. I had thought Cyrill might be there because of some terrible thing like being blackmailed or bought as I had been. He spoke too fondly of his home to have left it willingly. Yet even if he was brought there against his will, he had committed an awful act in doing that to his sister. It was no wonder she hated him. I cringed away from him as if being near him would cause me to wither away, too.
            
That pleased Thierry and he leaned back, putting his booted feet up on the desk. “I think we're done here for the day. Go on to town and enjoy yourselves.”
           
“No.” Rosine muttered and then louder, shouted, “No!” She screamed and ran at her brother with a knife she pulled out of her apron. Her eyes were overflowing with madness.
            
Cyrill held up a hand and she made it within a foot of him before she crumpled to the floor.  Her already wrinkled flesh dried further and crinkled like paper. Her last breath was a shuddering rasp as the knife slid from her hand.
             
I took a few shaky steps backward, afraid I might faint and land on her body.
            
“How unfortunate.” Thierry stood up and came around his desk. He laid a gun on the top. I hadn't seen him pull it out. “The poor thing was getting more unstable these days, though. It seems as though your magic, mon ami, takes more from the mind than the body even.”
            
“I always thought it was the soul that suffered most.” Cyrill said. He was still holding up his hand.
             
“Mayhap it is,” Thierry replied in a thoughtful tone, but it masked the true intentions as his hand whipped out like a striking cobra to grab my arm. He yanked me to him and pressed the gun to my temple. Beads of sweat trickled down the sides of my face and I went absolutely still.
            
“Put your hands behind your back, mon ami. It seems you and I will have to renegotiate your terms of service.”
             
Cyrill's cheek twitched. He held his big hands out at his sides. “The girl has nothing to do with this. Let her go.”
             
“No, I think not. The girl has everything to do with this.” Thierry caressed my forearm with his free hand. “Do you know what Aristide and his crab told me this morning?”
             
“Some nonsense about your future.” Cyrill shrugged. No matter his calm words, he seemed to me like a tightly coiled spring.
             
“No, mon ami. Aristide told me of your plan to run off with this pretty girl. Maybe you like her company or maybe you like her special touch, hm?” Thierry pressed the muzzle harder against my head. “She's mine, Cyrill.”
             
I winced and instinctively raised my hand up to touch the gun. I was not stupid enough to try to yank free or move it. I didn't doubt for a second that Thierry would kill me. My hand trembled on the gun and my eyes met Cyrill's.
             
“Her company is fine and her face fair, but yes, it's her special touch.” The Kalengu drew out those last two words.
             
I almost shouted out with the realization of what he wanted me to do. I made sure to hold still as I changed the gun into gold. Thierry wouldn't know I could do something so large. All the metal, including the bullets and gun powder, was transformed. Cyrill was so good that I didn't even see the yellow reflected in his eyes.
             
Thierry laughed and his body shook mine. “I knew you were more like me than you liked to admit. Perhaps if you serve me well, I can lend her to you for whatever reason you may want her.”
             
“She's mine.” Cyrill growled and both his hands came up.
             
Thierry pulled the trigger and I cried out, but there was no explosion. He made a choked noise of surprise and then threw me to the side as he tried to tackle Cyrill. Thierry did not make it three feet before he fell to his knees, a withered old man.
             
“Cyrill,” he croaked. He tried to pick himself up, but didn't have the strength.
             
Cyrill reached over to grab my hand and pull me to him as he backed up to the door. “As you made me take my sister's energy, I have stolen yours. I left you with perhaps a week's worth of life and that is a mercy. I never wanted to be a murderer, but you have soiled my hands. I can redeem myself, but there will not be enough time for you.”
             
Thierry attempted to call out again, but his throat convulsed and he fell over. I gripped Cyrill's arm and gazed up at him. “He'll have us hunted down.”
            
“No. He'll try to find some way to live, but he will die.”
             
“Why don't you,” I swallowed hard. “Kill him now?”
             
Cyrill reached up and caressed my cheek. He bent forward and kissed the spot on my temple where the gun had left an indentation. “He has no soul for me to steal.”
             
I wasn't sure if he meant that literally or figuratively, but we were fast down the hall and out the front doors. There wasn't another chance for me to say anything more. As we walked to the car, I decided there wasn't anything left to be said about it. Cyrill smiled and opened the car door for me. I smiled the whole drive into town and paid our way on a ship with gold coins I made from copper.




Author Bio: Christine Rains is a geek, stay-at-home mom and writer. When she's not playing games with her son, she's playing games with her friends. She has four degrees which do not help at all with motherhood, but all that knowledge makes her a great Jeopardy player.

Christine has two novels published, ten short stories and one forthcoming. Her writing covers all genres of dark fiction, but she loves to lose herself in urban fantasy worlds most of all. Please visit her web site at http://christinerains.net/.

4 comments:

Cherie Reich said...

I love this story, Christine, especially the twists at the end.

Aubrie said...

I love this story! It has such a nice ending to it. You don't know what to think of Cyrill at first, and he turns out all right!

Great job, Christine!

Christine said...

Thank you! I always enjoy reading this blog even if I often don't get a chance to comment. I'm happy to have been a guest here. :)

Cats! said...

That was really good! Love it.