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A tale of a hero

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Once upon a time, in a faraway land scorched by the sun at day and frozen by the winds at night, there were two villages separated by the vast and brutal desert plain and by the decades of history almost as brutal. One of them was inhabited by the Zebras of the Moon, who worshipped the Moon and called him Mwezi, the other belonged to the Zebras of the Sun who preferred the Sun to the Moon and believed that she was called Aduu.

In the Sun village there lived a peasant whose household was happy and prosperous – as prosperous as the weather and the beasts of the desert would allow, at least. Her name was Si’ooftuu, and she had a daughter whose name was Zecora. Si’ooftuu would often tell her daughter tales from long ago, when she used to be a warrior. She would tell Zecora, how she and her companions had reached into the deep south of the land and battled many strange and glorious creatures, like birds the size of half a zebra who have lightning and thunder at their whim, or a spider who could hear everything that was happening upon the earth at the moment and see your thoughts through your skull, or a bird that had no feathers, and yet had teeth and wings like those of a bat and was so large, you could think it was night as he was flying above.

Zecora loved nothing more than those stories, and when her mother would finish telling, she would often ask: “But, mother, why would you ever leave the warpath for the life of a simple peasant? You could be the greatest hero. Everyone would bow to you and tell the tales of you to their daughters.” And Si’ooftu would smile and answer: “One day you will learn, child, that a simple life in obscurity is preferable to a life of glory and fame. I just pray you wouldn’t have to learn it from your own experience.” Zecora would then pretend to agree, but deep down inside she dreamed of fame and adoration that only the life of a glorious warrior could bring.

She waited with great impatience for the day on which she would receive her flank brand, but when the day came, she was gravely disappointed, for her brand showed the symbol of Aduu – the Sun ornament. That symbol was reserved for the priestesses, who would stay beside the shrines and conduct rituals and talk of magic and beasts and herbs and poetry and histories and heavenly bodies, and never have any family and barely leave their haven. Zecora’s mother, however, was overjoyed and personally led her daughter to the wisest priestess in the entire village, who went by the name of Bareedduu.

Bareedduu smiled at the zebra and her daughter and said that she would be most happy to take Zecora as an apprentice. From now on, the young zebra would live in the same house as the priestess, until her training was over.

As the mother said her goodbyes and left, wiping away tears of joy secretly, the priestess asked her new apprentice:

“You don’t look so happy, and why would that be?

I see you are angry to the highest degree.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a warrior,” Zecora answered. “The priestesses sit in the temple, the peasants toil away under the sun - it’s only warriors who always get to have adventures and glory. Why, if you’re lucky, you may even get a seat in the Council!” She knew priestesses normally spoke in rhyme, but since she wasn’t one yet, she thought it was fine to forgo it.

Bareedduu smiled indulgently and answered:

“You’re still but a child; but some day you will learn:

The healer’s craft gives you the highest return,

The knowledge of zebra’s body and its seams

Gives one the power beyond her wildest dreams.”

So began Zecora’s training. She learned what rituals to conduct when someone is born, or when someone dies, or when the two get married, or when you need some rain. She learned all the stories of heroes from the past there were to tell. She learned all kinds of ailments that could afflict a zebra, and how to make them go away with herbs and magic. She learned of all the lands beyond her own, and of the plants and the beasts that lived there. Zecora was particularly surprised to learn that far beyond the desert lived horses that didn’t look at all like her or her mother, but were blue, or yellow, or pink, or had wings or horns. Little by little she started to think that maybe being a priestess wasn’t all that horrible, and yet she couldn’t see how one might attain power through healing.

Many summers have passed since the beginning of Zecora’s training, when one day four zebras went out to hunt and never came back, however long the villagers waited. Then the other four came out to look for them and never came back, either. Then a party of warriors went out to help them, taking with them a partisan appropriately named Gaaddisa, or “Shadow”, for the exceptional craft of stealth that he possessed. They were absent for nine days. On the tenth day, Gaaddisa returned alone, exhausted, emaciated and terrified. Bareedduu and Zecora took him under their wing to try and help him recover, and as soon as he was able to speak, he told them this:

“As we were wandering deeper and deeper into the desert, without seeing a trace of our lost friends, we came to a canyon large and deep. We descended into the canyon and started crossing it by the twisted narrow paths. As we did so, suddenly we heard a wailing, as of someone weeping. The sound was so close to us – it came from behind the nearest turn of the path. One of our warriors said: “That must be one of our friends. They are lost and scared – we must help them.” She went behind the turn. The wailing stopped for a moment, but then began again, yet the warrior’s voice wasn’t heard. Minutes passed but she never came back.

Then we knew something terrible had happened. The warriors told me to sneak up and see what that thing behind the corner was. I climbed over the cliff and crawled forward until I came across a small opening. Through it I could see a huge cave and the horrible thing that lived there. It was a hyena, but one the size of a young elephant. It was tearing away at the warrior’s pelt and munching at her flesh, while lifting its head and wailing from time to time. In the corner there was a pile of bones.

I returned and told my friends of what I saw. They were as horrified as I and decided to go together and to take revenge for our late friend’s death. All ten of us held our spears ready and advanced towards the cave.

As the beast heard our steps, it reared its head and growled. We surrounded it and were ready to attack, when it lifted its left paw and smashed three of us, then lifted its right paw and smashed the other three, then opened its maw and swallowed the remaining three alive.

All of it happened in a heartbeat, and the only thing that saved me was that I was trailing slightly behind the rest, not being as talented in combat and, therefore, held as a reserve. I could only run away in terror, for there was nothing I could do.”

Bareedduu listened to him with great attention. Then she gave him a good meal and cleaned his pelt, and as she did so, she collected the strange strands of sand-colored hair that were clinging to it. As he fell asleep, she told Zecora jubilantly:

“It’s springtime now, and the lovely air

Has made the beast lose much of its hair,

The luck is kind, myself to work I’ll set

And with this hair, the glory I shall get. ”

With that, she closed the door to her room and on the next day emerged back and said:

“The work is done, Zecora, let us go,

Don’t fret – the beast can’t touch us anymore.”

Zecora followed her gladly, for she was rather attached to her mentor and didn’t want to leave her alone on such a quest. Bareedduu took with her a map that one of the village travelers had made. The canyon was marked on the map, so it wasn’t hard for the two priestesses to find it.

As they walked through the canyon, there was no wailing or any other sounds. Instead, what led them to the beast’s cave was the stench of rotting flesh – that of the hyena and of their massacred friends. The ground before the cave was drenched with blood, and inside they found the beast’s cadaver. As a healer, Zecora was no stranger to all sorts of unpleasant sights, but this proved to be dismaying even for her. The beast’s body was covered with numerous sores of disgusting color. Its face looked contorted in pain. Zecora noticed multiple scratches on the cave walls and the fact that the hyena’s claws were broken.

Bareedduu was most happy with how her witchery turned out and said:

“Now let us cut off its disgusting head

To prove the rest we have avenged our dead.”

And they did so, and made their way back home, and told of the artful way Bareedduu had defeated the beast, and zebras would hail her as a hero. The elders offered her a place in the council, and she gladly accepted it.

The council’s work was to solve disputes, distribute the crops and deal out justice. Once a lone vagrant raider was caught violently attacking zebras at the border of the Sun village. She was brought before the council and people asked for Bareedduu’s opinion. Bareedduu resolved the issue by blinding her permanently and sending her to wander the desert. The people applauded Bareeddu and said: “She has given this wench a proper punishment and kept our people safe.” Zecora thought to herself that in pursuit of justice her mentor might have been too harsh, even though the raider herself was cruel.

The other time one of the well-to-do peasants caught a poor young motherless zebra stealing from her and brought the thief before the council. Bareedduu cast a spell on the child, and the spell sucked all the strength from her legs so that she couldn’t move them anymore. The people applauded Bareedduu and said: “She resorted to stealing, because she didn’t want to work – well, now she never will work or steal!” And Zecora thought to herself that the poor child probably should have got a fairer treatment.

Once a young and hot-headed zebra, who was a well-known troublemaker, was heard saying: “The cult of Aduu is violent and corrupt! I’d much rather move to the village of Mwezi, for the Moon isn’t quite as cruel to his children as the Sun.” The day was busy, and there were a lot of witnesses to her statement. She was dragged to the council, and upon listening to the people’s testimony and the blasphemer’s own admission of guilt, Bareedduu cast a spell of muteness on her and prohibited all the priestesses to treat this particular zebra’s sunstrokes (for her speaking ill of Aduu’s priestesses) and chilblains (for her preferring the cold God of the hostile village). When Zecora learned of it, she flew into a fit of rage and proclaimed to her mentor:

“I loved you once, I do not anymore,

Your thirst for blood I cannot now ignore,

To cripple her for speaking out of line

Cannot agree with the belief of mine. ”

The people and the council were furious at the young apprentice. The head of the council stood up and proclaimed: “How dare you defy this lady who has saved us once and has been still saving us every day from that moment! You are a traitor to the village of the Sun. Leave and never return”. The people and the other council members cheered. Bareedduu didn’t spoke in Zecora’s defense.

The only one who didn’t turn away from Zecora was her now elderly mother. She hung her head and left the village where she had spent her entire life to follow her only child into the exile. No one bid the venerable warrior to stay.

Si’ooftuu had told Zecora of the Green Lands far in the North, but she had only seen them in the maps, and no one would give them a map now. So the mother and the daughter set out in general north direction, finding their way by the sun and the moon. They survived on camelthorns and the little water they managed to find in rare dirty wells scattered across the desert. As Zecora walked, her mother shambled, as Zecora started to shamble, her mother started to crawl, as Zecora started to crawl, her mother fell to the ground and never stood up again. Zecora buried her in the ground as deep as she could dig with her hooves and wept. She wept until the night fell, and as she stopped weeping and her eyes could see again, she saw a light in the distance. She went towards the light, and, as the distance grew smaller, she recognized it as a fire surrounded by the camp. Above the camp fluttered the flag of the Moon village, all around zebras with spears and daggers held guard. Zecora sneaked to the camp to eavesdrop on the enemy’s warrior plans.

The Moon warlord stood surrounded by his stallions and spoke:

“As Mwezi is my witness, this time we shall defeat the Sun zebras once and for all! They are used to the light of day and the heat of the Sun, but we are the beasts of the night, and we love its cold! We work and fight by night all our lives, and they exhaust all their strength during the day, which makes them easy prey! We shall attack at night, and there is no way they can protect themselves.”

Zecora decided to run back to her village as quickly as she could and inform the zebras of the impending danger. She expected them to meet her with stones and pitchforks, but instead they screamed in happiness even as they saw her in the distance. She was welcomed with open arms, and the head of the council herself approached her and said:

“My poor dear Zecora, shall you forgive us this terrible transgression that we have committed against you? The wretched Bareedduu has wronged you so and bewitched us all with her evil magic, but we have finally seen the light. Of late she had wrongly accused my noble son of theft and roistering and sent him a falling sickness. This deed opened my eyes to her true nature, and I had her promptly executed. Alas, we have no mage or healer greater than her, and you were her only apprentice to whom she may have conveyed her skill and secrets, and so we have been in quite a sorry state until you have come.”

Zecora told everyone of what she had seen and heard and asked to give her the things that were left after Bareedduu, if there were any. Among the priestess’s belongings she found a herb that was said to cause illusions. When night fell, Zecora started as large a fire as she could and burned the herb on the fire. As the Moon Zebras were coming, the wind blew their way, and some of them said they heard a sandstorm approaching, the others swore left and right that they heard the sound of thunder and the flapping of thunderbirds’ wings, the others still believed there was a moaning that could only come from thousand of zebras afflicted with a horrible plague that gnaws away on your insides. So the warriors of the Moon turned and rode away to safety.

As soon as everything was over, there was much rejoicing and cheering from Zecora’s fellow villagers. “Stay with us!” everyone bid her. “You shall be our hero and sit in the council, for you have resolved the matter much less cruelly yet more efficiently than the wretched Bareedduu used to.” To that Zecora answered:

“The heroes only should retire or die,

Before their glory makes them go awry.”

As she said that, she took Bareedduu’s map, for she used to have the best maps in the village, and left for the Green Lands, never to return.