This was inspired by a picture prompt, and I thought I'd share the image and the results. I hope you enjoy the brief read...
Waukeen gulped a few swallows of water, conscious of conserving the precious fluid. He had been at the drum nonstop through two moon rises. He couldn’t say exactly how many hours passed, but his formerly smooth scalp badly needed shaved.
As son of Chief Wauk, he lamented that more than the gnawing hunger or numbing fatigue. Word of encroaching war took precedence over ritual grooming.
His fingers holding the flask felt odd clutching something other than the bamboo bachi. He’d had these sticks since he was a boy, and always held them the exact same way, the grain familiar as his own fingerprints. Any other grip lacked the sharp sound needed to carry. Other, more decorative sticks waited at home, and he retained hope of returning soon for a victorious, celebratory performance.
He listened for a long moment, then repeated the rhythm precisely. When he finished, Waukeen waited for his brethren across the southern valley to relay the message to the next drummer. Then Waukeen would receive a new communiqué. The length of each passage, the pauses in between, were specific rules handed down from a generation so distant that none alive new who decided them.
The system worked, and that was enough. News of distant happenings, good or bad word simultaneously translated in Waukeen’s village, occupied those dedicated to the service. Musicianship was Waukeen’s gift to the Forest People. He mused for a moment on the sad message he’d imparted the year before, when his mother died in childbirth. Waukeen shook his head, refusing to be distracted by old sorrow. If war came, he’d have more grief than he could stomach.
A twig snapped in the trees at his back. Too exhausted for more than a faint prickle of adrenaline, he relaxed upon hearing the voice of his clan-sister, Eilakarn. She was much more welcome than a tiger or baboon.
“My mother sends her regards, Waukeen.” When he nodded tiredly, she said, “I see your water is holding out. I have brought fresh, as well as food from Eila’s kitchen.”
“I can’t take time to eat! I thank you for the thoughtfulness, though, and apologize for my harsh tone. I know you’ve walked far on my behalf.”
“We are all tense. And you must be exhausted. As for the food, you will eat. I even brought your favorite.”
He could smell the dumplings now, rice flour wrappers filled with minced elk meat and wolfberries. His stomach growled and she laughed. With the next messenger still completing his staccato phrase, Waukeen enjoyed the moment. The pair could have been embarking on a carefree summer swim for the joyful sound of her laughter.
“I’m glad you’re amused.”
“Well, your belly sounded like a bear.”
“Wait. I must listen.”
She folded silently to his side as the eerie sound of a lone Taiko carried from the north. The musical words were a mystery to Eilakarn, and barely understood by Waukeen. He knew the message said something about their warmonger neighbors, the Roon, but that went without saying. As the last beat echoed, his hands took over from instinct. He felt his clan-sister’s eyes on him and sensed heat rising in his cheeks.
Waukeen had successfully ignored the fact that her witness to his drumming was taboo. Only married women were allowed to attend performances by men. The driving music was considered too passionate for virginal ears, the body movements of drumming too sensual. Performing the music, on the other hand, was said to release sexual tension. For his part, Waukeen looked forward to the day he could watch a woman play.
As his latest finishing note reverberated, he set down both sticks and picked up his water. Eilakarn took his free hand in hers. She turned it palm up and traced the calluses, smiling boldly. A shiver travelled down the young man’s spine.
“What news have I been relaying?”
“First, eat,” she ordered happily, releasing his limb and opening her basket.
He didn’t wonder at her mood, simply grateful for the lightness of it. And the smells of the food dispelled any lingering dread. The dumplings were specially made, smaller than normal, so that he could chew and swallow quickly. The gesture struck him as both sad and thoughtful.
“Eila has outdone herself,” he remarked, mouth watering at the offering.
When Eilakarn didn’t reply, he looked up. Her long, dark hair framed a beaming smile.
“What is it?”
“Our warriors turned back the Roon. The battle is over. Your father is well and on his way back. When he returns, we can be married.”
“These messages have been honoring the fallen.”
“Yes, Waukeen. First our men, and then the Roon. You should soon be done and we can go home together.”
As she snagged a morsel and popped it in his mouth, Eilakarn leaned forward for a kiss. Her lips felt warm and very soft. He regretted the slight scratchiness of his chin whiskers against her silky cheek.
Against her mouth, he repeated, “And we can be married.”
She sat back, giggling, and rubbed his head. “After you have a bath and a shave!”