Dindi can't do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she longs to become a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers who wield magic. No one of her kind has ever succeeded. But Dindi has a plan.
Dindi scanned the crowd, hoping to slip into the plaza unnoticed. Barter Hill swarmed with people because aunties from the three clans met here to trade every half-moon. A kraal at the bottom of the hill held aurochsen and horses. Interconnected rectangular adobe buildings created a square around the top of the rise. The old uncles, to suit their dignity, leaned against the wall on a log bench, under the shade of the eaves of the buildings, drinking corn beer, chatting amiably. They hid their thighs with waist blankets and caped themselves in shoulder blankets that reached the ground. Dindi slithered by them.
Unfortunately, the first person Dindi locked eyes with was Great Aunt Sullana. Though the whole plaza separated them, Great Aunt Sullana tore across the market like a tornado on the Purple Plains. She would demand to examine Dindi's basket, and finding nothing in it except a kitten, pinch her cheek until Dindi stuttered some explanation. The natural and obvious defense would be to lie, but frankly, Dindi had always been a terrible liar. Her whole face ripened like a tomato, her eyes slid this way and that, she couldn't convince a child honey was sweet never mind fool Great Aunt Sullana, who ate secrets for morning meal.
Evasion her only option, Dindi darted past a couple of elder women haggling over an exchange of vegetables for pottery. Married women, with their salt-and-pepper hair coiled in stacked rings atop their heads, sat with their wares on blankets arranged all around the dancing platform. Dindi wove a path around multifarious piles of tubers and bone awls, behind bunches of water gourds hung like grapes over racks of smoked venison. Aunties shouted and tried to call her attention to bargins by slapping her calves with horse-hair whisks.
Great Aunt Sullana changed course to track her. Dindi hopped behind a group of bare-chested warriors who mock-fought one another, to the annoyance of an auntie whose tower of baskets they upset. A gaggle of girls giggled at their antics. Great Aunt Sullana kept walking in the wrong direction. Dindi sighed in relief.
A slow drumbeat reverberated throughout the market square. The Tavaedies! No one could see the drum, but each beat shook the ground like earth tremors. Heads jerked up and eyes began to sparkle. Rattles and flutes supplemented the drumbeat. From a hole in the ground in a clear space just in front of the dancing platform, a line of masked dancers emerged. Each costume was slightly different, determined by the dancer's color of magic and the dance the troop performed that day. A large headdress and a matching mask of either cloth or paint disguised each face. Each Tavaedi wore a costume entirely dyed and painted in shades of one of the primordial six colors.
Dindi had never told anyone she aspired to become a Tavaedi. She wasn't interested in reaping snickers or commiseration. Besides, what did she care what the others thought of her? She knew how hard it was, but she had a plan.
Every head in the square was riveted on the Tavaedies. Drum, rattle, and flute flared into dramatic music. The masked men and women leaped into motion. Occasionally, to emphasize the moves, the dancers chanted or shouted as well.
Dancing wove magic. Some ritual dances, or tama, ensured bounty, others averted drought. This tama, Massacre of the Aelfae, recalled history. The Tavaedies only performed it once a year, and as a child, it had been her favorite--until she understood what it was really about.
Half the Tavaedies wore wings. "We are the Aelfae, we are the Aelfae," they chanted. The other half of the dancers carried spears. "We are the humans, we are the humans."
The dance showed a clan of Aelfae, the high faery folk who had lived in the Corn Hills before humans came. High fae were not like low fae, pixies and brownies and sprites and such, but possessed grace and grandeur beyond anything human. In form they were as tall, or taller, than humans, although more beautiful, a strange, glowing people, with wings like swans. There had
once been seven races of high fae, and of them all, the Aelfae had been the most beautiful and powerful and wise.
The fake Aelfae took the stage first. They flapped imitation wings. To pretend they were flying, they engaged in numerous acrobatic flips, handsprings, handless cartwheels, and somersaults over each others' backs. The fake Aelfae flitted about the platform until the "human" dancers with spears arrived.
She had to focus. She had to get this right, every move, every detail. She intended to teach herself everything she could from watching them, so when the time came they would invite her to join their secret society. She wasn't supposed to know, but she had eavesdropped on enough conversations to learn one secret about the Initiation. Each Initiate would be asked to dance a tama, and only those with magic would perform it correctly.
The two sides began to mock-fight. They punched and kicked and crossed spears, they threw one another and made dramatic vaults over one another's heads to attack from the rear. The humans began to slaughter the Aelfae. Maybe the dance exaggerated the humans' prowess, but the Aelfae fled, wailing, across the stage. None escaped the humans.
While they danced, Dindi reproduced tiny imitation movements with her hands and feet-- nothing noticeable to anyone watching her--to help her commit the steps to memory so she could practice them on her own later. At first, when Dindi had started observing the dances with the object of learning them, she had missed most of the steps. Every moon, she noticed more.
Lately, as the Tavaedies danced, she had begun to see the most amazing thing. The interactions between the dancers were not random. They formed rows and columns, circles and chevrons, shaped arrangements of dancers. And these patterns glowed. It was as if the dancers created ribbons of living light by their movements, tracing out incandescent symbols with their bodies. The dancers themselves glowed too, in the same color as whichever costume they wore. Even now that Dindi knew what to look for, she couldn't see it all the time, only if she concentrated.
The human dancers encircled the last of the Aelfae dancers, who fell into an artful pile of corpses.
"The Aelfae are no more, the Aelfae are no more," victors and corpses droned in a mournful dirge.
The chant hit her with a wave of melancholy. The interlocking patterns of light the dancers had created rippled outward like disturbed water, and when the light hit her, vertigo robbed Dindi of her balance. She stumbled, nearly fell.