The Wayab's Tower
(A Student Contributor)
During a sudden storm, travelers are terrified to discover who will be sharing their rain shelter with them. But an old woman remembers that the feared Ahu'a Henem Balam was not always to be feared...
The rain had started suddenly. At first, those on the road only felt the occasional drop, but the heavy, gray clouds swarmed and soon the wide path was only a series of muddy islands in a brown river. Fortunately, they spotted a rain shelter nearby, and the travelers hurried under its roof.
The shelter was round, with low woven walls and a palm-leaf thatch. The roof was well made, and there was no wind to blow the rain inside, so the travelers had peace as they wrung water from their skirts and hair and settled to wait out the storm.
Then he came—a tall man, unbowed by his obvious age and with brown eyes that flashed like the water in the flooded road outside. His flint-gray hair was slicked against his skull, and though his high boots were splattered with mud, he wore a white cape that was immaculate.
The rain shelter went still, and a space appeared around him as the people shrank away.
If they were hoping to avoid his notice, they failed.
One of those who had pushed away from him was a young man, wearing the scummy loincloth of a laborer. The tall man turned, flashing eyes locked on the youth.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Y-yes. Y-you'r-re the Ahu'a Hene-em Balam. Th-the wayab."
Ahu'a Balam chuckled and turned away from him. Colors flashed on his white cape, as if tiny rainbow creatures were hidden in the weave.
Behind him, the laborer slumped in relief.
It was a market day, and farmer's families had been out on the road. Their children, perhaps by instinct avoiding the strangeness of Balam, clustered together on the opposite side of the shelter. An old woman stood with them, leaning heavily on a twisted staff. Her gray hair lay in two braids, not the coils of a wife or widow, and she watched the wayab with a curious glint in her eyes.
"Oh, come now," she said to the children around her with gentle forbearance, "you've nothing to fear from him."
"From Ahu'a Balam?" one piped. "But he's a commander of the way! I've heard he can turn into a huge cat and roam the hills. When he finds children out in the dark, he eats them! He's heartless!"
Others near him nodded in shy agreement, casting nervous glances at the elderly lord.
"Oh, child." The old woman sank down to a crouch, weight braced against her staff. "It was fear of the way that made him like that."
"He feared the way?" a girl asked, flipping damp black hair from her eyes.
"Never." The woman chuckled. "No, the fear was not his. You want to hear the story? Come, Auntie Isheb will tell it to you.
"Henem Balam was born a prince," she began, with a covert glance in his direction. "His father was an Ahu'a, the lord of Mishec city."
"Now Wayab Balam is Ahu'a of Mishec," a child interrupted.
"Yes, dear. Now, Henem learned the way at an early age, taught by one of the priests of the city. He let it be his one passion, and he excelled in it like no other. Eventually his father had to force him to learn to rule, but he had little heart for it. Now it is said how the people of Mishec rule themselves, and it is true, for the most part. He was never a cruel lord, but often absent.
"Wayab Balam had a palace in the west, a place he had built away from people where he could experiment and work with the way. His father remained in the city. After many years, when he felt the day of his death approaching, he sent for his son. It was time for Henem Balam to be married."
Isheb took a deep breath, and her eyes returned again to the wayab.
"The woman who would be his bride was from a state on the coast. I forget the name…Tichen, or Comozel. Probably Comozel. I heard it so often then, but now when I need to recall…my age, you see, clouds these things." She smiled in a way the children didn't understand. "Her name, though, I remember."
She paused. The children waited.
"She was Izahel," Isheb said with peculiar vehemence, "called by some Izahel Kazam, the Fair. Her beauty, his power. It was a good match.
"Her father and his shared blood over their betrothal, and a date was set. But Balam's father sickened, and died before he could see his son wed.
"Izahel's father would still have honored the betrothal, of course. Oaths sworn in blood are not lightly broken. But Comozel went to war, and the Ahu'a was killed in battle. With both those who had made it dead, the oath of betrothal was forgotten—"
"But didn't Izahel and Henem Balam love each other?"
The old woman smiled softly. "They thought they did. Perhaps…Balam certainly loved her. And because of that love, he showed her some of his arts of the way. She wasn't used to it…it frightened her…and because of that, her love for him became less. And without the oath to bind her, she was hesitant to come to him.
"Ahu'a Balam waited for her. At his palace in the west, he built a tower. Every day, he would climb to the top and watch for her coming. He neglected his studies of the way, he neglected his rule. He forgot his servants. And always, he waited.
"When two years passed and Izahel had not arrived, the wayab summoned creatures, and sent them from his tower to search for her. Only one returned, to say that she was still in Comozel—or Tichen, I do forget—and that she had fled them in fear of the way. So Balam himself went to Comozel to find her."
A child gasped, and pointed to where the lord stood. He had turned in their direction.
Auntie Isheb rolled her shoulders and smiled. "Yes, I think it was to Comozel."
Balam turned away. No one dared look at him to discover what his expression said.
The woman continued. "He found Izahel at her palace. She welcomed him politely, but scorned his love. In the years since they had last met, she had surrounded herself with those who had no use for the way. Now these friends also scorned him.
"And then her husband returned."
The rain outside seemed to be lessening. Isheb glanced over the low walls of the shelter and rubbed her damp, aching joints. "Balam left quietly, but he was not the same man he had been before. His love of the way had turned to bitterness, and each time he used its secrets he could think only of how he was mocked at Izahel's court. So he trained himself to use darker way, to do fearsome and terrible things. He knew that there were none who would laugh at him for those. He shunned companionship, and often he would go on long journeys across the countryside. His servants never knew what he did when he was gone. It is said he would change form and stalk the hills, hunting, even trying to forget he was human." She leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "But he never ate children."
A few in her audience giggled. One woman standing near Ahu'a Balam saw his hand tangle in the cloth of his white cape.
"When he returned from each journey, he would have artists carve things into the walls of his palace. Horrible things—drowning men, captives kneeling in defeat, warriors dying in battle. He spent nights pacing in his chambers and left the stone floors scored with the marks of claws. Other times he went to the cities and pretended to be a lordling or a merchant, and tricked others into enjoying his company—though they suffered for it in the end.
"And after one such trip, when he returned, he found that all his servants had left." She bowed her head and sighed. "It had been a long journey."
Her audience said nothing, but shrank back. The crowd frantically parted as Ahu'a Henem Balam pushed his way before the old woman.
"How do you know this?" he said. His voice was soft, like the growl of a great cat, and his hands were clenched white.
Isheb rose, leaning against the staff. "Many speak of Ahu'a Balam when asked, especially when he is not present." She smiled, revealing whole, if browned, teeth. "And I have asked after him often."
"Why?" It took many of those in the shelter a time to figure the expression on the lord's face: they had not thought a wayab would show confusion.
"When he was young, Ahu'a Balam was a kind and noble ruler. Those of his servants that most loved him from those days followed him to the palace in the west. One had sworn to follow him to the ends of the earth."
It was obvious now that she spoke not only to Balam, but to everyone in the shelter. "But some places she could not follow. Then she climbed to the top of the tower in the palace, and waited for him. She neglected her work, she neglected herself. But she waited for him. Always, he returned.
"Always, she saw his bitterness, his hatred expressed in the carvings he made, in the way he summoned. But he never harmed those who served him.
"But in the end, he abandoned them."
Her aged shoulders slumped. "I waited in the tower for you. I was the last to leave."
Balam said nothing, but his arms lay stiff against his sides.
"Where did you go?" she asked.
"To Comozel," he replied, "to watch Izahel buried."
"Ah." She smiled. "It was Comozel."
He looked past her, outside. "The rain has stopped," he said. "Go in peace, all of you."
They went. All of them, except the old woman. Children threw glances at her as they were led away.
"It takes a long time to bury a princess, doesn't it?" Isheb cackled.
"A long time to mourn." He drew the white cape around him. "Where were you going?"
"Anywhere. I travel all around now. Once I went to Mishec. I did not feel your presence there. And once, I went west…"
"Your tower is hidden, isn't it? I couldn't find it."
He bowed his head a while. When he looked up, his eyes flashed. "Will you still serve me?"
"Do not speak of me again. And do not seek me." He laughed, bitterly. "Especially not in the west."
"As you will." She slid to the ground, resting her back against the wall. "Good day, my lord. It was good to see you again."
She said nothing more. After a moment of silence, he left.
The old woman stayed in the shelter. Another rain passed by late that afternoon, lighter than the first. No one stopped at the shelter. She was alone as night fell.
In the darkness she heard breathing, the heavy pad of feet across the floor. She saw gold eyes flash in the darkness and smelled dank breath on her face.
She chuckled and reached up. Her hand closed on soft fur, stroked it.
The night was silent, except for the quiet breathing of the old woman and the purring of the great cat.
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Copyright 2008, Therese L. Arkenberg. All rights reserved.
Therese Arkenberg is a student at Carroll University in Wisconsin. On the rare instances where she puts down her pen, she bikes the trails in her area, reads a book (more often a textbook these days than not), or attempts yet again to organize her desk and her collection of stuffed animals. She has fiction published or forthcoming from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and the anthologies All About Eve, Thoughtcrime Experiments, Warrior Wisewoman 3, and Sword and Sorceress XXIV. Her novella, Aqua Vitae, has been accepted by WolfSinger Publications for a 2011 release. Several of her short stories are also available at AnthologyBuilder.com.