Wolves howled to the ominous moon.Owls screamed to their prey as they scurried in the darkness. Trees bowed to the invisible wind of devil’s hour. All of nature seemed to warn Kiona, of the Thracian tribe, Native woman of Dardania and mother of none, to go home. Yet,she persisted. Even with the knowledge of going against her husband, Raffi’s, wishes, she persisted.
Raffi was a strong native man with callused rough hands from hunt. He fed the whole village with his success and clothed his beautiful Kiona better than the rest.
Their mud hut was large enough that Kiona had servants. They brushed her hair with porcupine needle brushes and adorned gold bangles to her ankles and wrists daily. Meals were brought to her in hand whittled wood bowls. Servants bathed Kiona and scrubbed any roughness off her skin, keeping her feet soft and smooth with rocks and salt from dried ocean beds. Which made them ache worst from this hike now.
She had left her bed as soon as Raffi begun the rhythmic breath of slumber. Under the instructions of her tribe shaman, Lerier, she told her Raffi nothing. The crow-faced shaman had a voice shrill enough to splinter the skull bones of elk. Kiona suffered while listening to the traditions required to approach the Roman-disbanded magic maker, Moldan.
Sent away from his tribe, Moldan was rumored to be the white-faced devil that dealt with dark magic to give life. He was the only one who could help Kiona now. When all the goat milk brews and cow blood wines failed from Lerier, Kiona begged for more.
Two traditions, Lerier had demanded. To walk with naked soles to keep the against your flesh and to drink the peyote tea to keep Father Time warped and at bay.
So, Kiona had removed her emerald studded moccasins and instructed the servants to keep care of them. She drank the tea brewed from the impossibly pink cactus flower.Buttons crushed and boiled, filling Lerier’s hut with the smell of burning grass and blood. She set out without fear in her heart, determined to find Moldan and offer a trade. To cure her barren womb in exchange for her greatest beauty: the mud mask tradition. Her tribe were the only ones ancient and wise enough to master the mud mask and it was retained for only the most beautiful native women.
Kiona was desperate for the last great possession she could gain. Worth more than the gold bangles, the bead adorned dresses and the tallest hut of the village. That possession was a child, a baby, an heir. She was certain Moldan would accept her beauty in exchange for an infant. Her’s was matched by no others.
She followed the shaman’s directions perfectly. Across the river, blue of a dead lover’slips. Over the beach, burnt sands of deceased ancestors. To the edge of the forest, dark of the heart of Moldan. Kiona touched her toe to the edge of the Ramnes deserted forest, this was the line of the beginning of their lands.Before they had run from Moldan themselves, anything to retreat from his desiccation of life.
The beginning of the wooden path lay beyond the first line of forest. The peyote did its task of numbing Kiona. Her steps were in a dream world, silent compared to the speech of the night. The bugle of mighty elk, the bark of hungry coyote and the demonic screech of ravenous mountain cat. She kept her hands to the thin of the trees, feeling their velvet bark and allowing their strength to remind her this night was real and would end with an infant of her own.
Kiona stepped to the wooden slab path, created by circular inner cuts of surely the tallest tree in the Ramnes forest. Each piece cried its life lines to the next, the rings of rainy season growth and thin scabs of drought pain. Her eyes were trained on the majestic beauty of the tree rounds making the path, she hadn’t noticed the height difference of the next step and caught her foot with a large sliver. It cut deep and straight into the soft flesh of her foot. Her mouth opened to echo a cry of surprise but the beauty of the blood swirling on the wood. Crescent moon shaped smears of her own blood, blood she will share soon with a child, a baby, an heir. Kiona glanced up to the black of the sky and was disappointed the moon hid behind clouds grey of Lerier’s hair.
The taste of sickly-sweet lemon lingered on her tongue from the cactus-derived peyote tea. It tamed her mind and outlined the forest sharper, she continued her ascent down the tree round pathway and the trees bowed to her. They breathed as she breathed, her steps slowed as the trees faded into a black curtain beyond the path. The beige of the wood below her feet faded and soon she was accompanied by only darkness. Into the mouth of hell, called Moldan.
“Pray to the wilds,”Kiona whispered, “this Roman man help me.” Raffi had refused to let her approach the white-faced devil, “to give, is to take,” he had said. Citing Moldan would not accept her mud mask beauty. Raffi had told her it would not be enough, as if Kiona’s beauty were not enough! She had scoffed at him.
The mud was from Illyrian, a many moon’s travel from their own village of Dardania. The servants pounded and smooth the mud in wooden bowls, let it dry then added salt enriched waters to pound and smooth all over again. The mud was worked over and over again until Kiona would deem it acceptable. Each morning she would slather it over her face, protecting her delicate pedal like skin. Before it dried, more would be put on. It protected the richness of her face, never did the sun burn her skin, the cold bite her nose or the wind tare at her cheeks. She would be forever youthful but this was not gifted to anyone. There was a magic behind their mud masks, one passed down from ancestors. Others tried but failed when the mud flaked and fell. Protecting nothing except the secrets of the beautiful Dardanian native women. Her beauty did nothing to convince Raffi of this trade she wanted. He had forbid her to approach Moldan, demanding her obedience. His gentle fox-like face shifted to the glare of an awoken grizzly. It was a sin in her tribe to go against her Raffi’s word.
Kiona continued forward, nothing to tell her way through the wall of black. Sounds were heightened and malevolent in nature. Owl’s “hoo, hoo,” transformed to death screams which echoed in every direction. The depths of the forest swallowing them, as if they were a gift from their feathery winged gods and Kiona was the herald.
The path grew shade and outline once more, it dipped and swayed as if the wood rounds sat atop a ragging river rather Mother Earth. They shifted and bent until they became perfectly symmetrical lines. The trail grew in front of her.Long as an omen, centered with a tree-stump railing. Rows of young birch trees with their tops cut off. Bloody sap trickled down and leaked onto the now light cream shade of the flat long planks that built the path. Kiona picked up the pace to get herself from the bleeding trees. She could nearly hear the cries of the cut tree souls, they too insisting she turn home.
“This is necessary,” she spoke to her trepidation as it attempted to tip her, “for an infant. My love will forgive me.”
Her words echoed ahead of her, taking on a voice of their own. Octanes dropped and it were another’s voice repeating, “my love will forgive me.” Mocking her, reminding her of her deceit to her Raffi. Kiona kicked up a foot and began a hefty trot,she needed away from the hallucination of the waving foot path. The talking trees and the screaming owl. The path grew as she ran, the faster she ran, the faster it grew. Adding fifty planks for every lunge, there seemed no end insight.
The voice chanted louder, manipulating the words, “will my love forgive me?” It swallowed the screaming owl and the panting of Kiona’s breath. She stopped her running as it only made the path grow faster. She focused on keeping her steps steady and slow and soon the deep voice that echoed her words dimmed and died with, “forgive me.”
Kiona felt the presence of eyes watching her movements, she quickened her steps. The holler of her name shattered the silence she had taken advantage of. It pierced through the scream of the god owl. She told the fear in her mind it was a trick from the peyote, the drug seeped further in, she told herself. Moldan’s abode was in front of her somewhere through the veil of darkness and her subconscious was playing tricks to steer her away, she told herself. But her heart genuinely knew the truth. Her name hollered was by a physical being, she sensed it.
An image of Lerier shaking her head at Kiona flashed in her mind’s eye. When she had approached to request the tradition of trade with Moldan the disbanded. The old woman had grasses and herbs weaved through her hair to fill in the bald patches and shook her head. Kiona had thought she would refuse but instead she laughed and offered the information easily. The image was bold and bright in the darkness,the beginning of a chance at an infant.
Kiona held her sight ahead even though the echoing of her name in the dark woods sent sand to fill in her feet. She felt she would topple at any moment in dread and shake.She could cry and curl up as an invalid. That would never get her what she wanted even though her husband warned her of the risk. She knew the repercussions of disobeying her Raffi. That could be fixed, she could sway him out of anger.
The railing sap bled into the middle of her path, so thick it dampened her feet. The scent rolled up thick and putrid. The wood planks expanded and shrunk as if breathing. They rolled in succession, still she kept her eyes trained forward. To the end of the dark path. To the blackness that showed no end but Kiona held strong, she pushed through the blanket of dark and the halo of hallucinations.
The gold bangles bounced majestically on her ankles, creating a melody to walk with. It drowned out the screams of the owl and the ghostly holler of her name. She touched her finger to her cheek; the mud mask was damp still. The coolness added a relief to her fear, it was something that she drew comfort from.
With old age, the masks would eventually falter and fade, leaving the Thracian people youthful and wrinkle free. No jewelry would be pierced into their skin, their gold was worn to be removed just as the mud was worn to be removed.The thickness and weight show class in the tribe. Raffi had earned his first gold bangles with a mighty elk kill. The antlers were called devil horns as he danced with the cape of the kill. The bangles heavy on his ankles around the fire light. Raffi dressed his woman well with gold but it did nothing to keep her truthful. She had promised to not approach Moldan. The risk to her life too great, Raffi had stated. But this night, Kiona trekked into danger alone.
Her finger traced the sun burnt clay mask, the deep cracks and crevasses outlined to her smart centered nose. Many had tried outside their native village, they failed and ended with a stank layer of dead rot below the thick clay mask. Their faces peeled off from lack of oxygen, color echoed kohl but the smell was unbearable.
A mixture of the moonlight along with the peyote induced a glow of colors off the gems on her hand made deer-hide dress. They filled the black sky with a soft apricot, illuminated with celestial coral. It stopped short, above her knees, with many folds of fabric weaved together by thin animal bones. The sides revealed sensual slivers of Kiona’s skin which now allowed the cool of the late-night wind to brush through.
A new shrill cry came above the screaming of the owl and the hollering of ‘Kiooooonnaaaa.’ The cry stopped the demon whisper of her name and caused Kiona to stumble her steps and nearly fall. High pitched, as if an animal being torn from its mother’s womb, the cry cracked the mud and pulled the cool of the dampness from her face. The wretched sound settled deep in her mind. A quick glance behind her proved the path still empty but a blink of red eyes appeared to her right. Among the line of trees darker than the sky, a second later and they were gone. Kiona shrieked and set off on a second run. Exhaustion was crept at the edge of her mind, maybe this was a horrible peyote induced dream after all.
The cry transformed from a horrid octane of sound into a vibrant shock of color. It bounced off the sleek blonde planks, trapped between the walls of darkness created by the trees standing as erect as soliders. Lilac, cyan and scarlet twisted together to braid a rainbow which illuminated the remainder of the path and showed her the entrance to Moldan’s. She had reached it! The shock of light ricocheted around,creating millions of tiny diamonds floating in the air.