It was a dark night, evenly lit up by countless stars. They shone and twinkled, as stars are wont to do.
A million dazzling specks of illumination, and yet the night was still dark.
The small burning log Lela held in front of her was swallowed up by the darkness just a few feet in every direction.
She ran, instinct more than anything else guiding her. She’d been this way before.
Unease had been palpable over the village for days. Silence in places that were never quiet. Averted eyes told of an irrational fear laying a pall over the village.
Lela almost tripped over a fallen log as memories from earlier that night shot a bolt of fear through her and she stumbled for a second, but her lithe frame never gave up balance … catlike, she regained her balance so quickly it looked like she had done it on purpose.
“You need to leave,” her parents had shaken her from her sleep.
“Go to the tree … Now!”
“Which …” she tried to feign ignorance but was cut off.
“We know … go there, hide until you know it is safe, you hear? Don’t come back until you know for sure,” Mama ordered.
A quick hug and Lela fled.
“Run,” she’d whispered to herself, “You’ve got to get back in time.”
The air was cool, whipping past her as she ran. It was refreshing, so much so that she lost herself in the activity of moving.
She leapt over bushes and ducked under low branches, her nimble mind navigating her through the dense forest.
This was what she loved the most, tearing into the forest as far as she could go, much farther than she was allowed to go, deeper and deeper each time … until she’d stumbled upon the ‘fabled’ baobab tree.
Wide, almost too wide, but beautiful in its girth and awe-inspiring. You knew it was special by how massive and tall it appeared.
Set far from all the others, it was a spectacle, rising majestically into the sky.
She approached cautiously, almost afraid of what she would find but tinged with an excitement.
She had been going back ever since she first discovered her baobab, whenever she could sneak away unnoticed and slip back unannounced and unmissed.
Just then she stopped, catching her breath. The sky was mesmerising, a sprinkling of stars bright in the dark-deep of the heavenly carpet.
Against the outline of tree branches, it was a sight that caught your breath.
Lela stood captivated, transfixed then started as she recalled the reason she was out here.
She ran on and the fiery flame she held in front of her trailed glowing sparks as she swept through the forest, shocking sleeping creatures and disturbing nocturnal ones.
Squawks and the fluttering of wings accompanied her until she burst into a clearing. There it was.
Reaching up into the orchestra of stars, the baobab’s branches seemingly organised yet scattered wildly, tempestuous in beauty.
Lela felt the familiar surge of energy as she dashed toward it and disappeared inside its boughs.
“Kneel … I’ll not be asking again,” a tall, angry looking Manu said, his blade raised.
One by one the village people huddled in small groups and slumped to their knees. Some squatted, afraid but not willing to show it.
“The elders decided a long time ago, we’d do away with our old traditions. That we would surrender our fierceness … for what?” the man spat, his eyes glinting in the red and black shadows cast by the flares held by his hoard of lieutenants, who were shifting uneasily as if not as sure as their leader, but lacking the conviction that made him the only truly dangerous one.
“We were destroying everything around us,” a clear voice answered in the night as an old man stepped forward.
“The trees, the forest, the rivers … all we cared about was opposing one another. We were fighting ourselves …”
“Be silent!” a young man roared. In a few broad strides he was at the elder’s throat with his blade, “We can do it whichever way you prefer, but I would suggest that you listen carefully. Now, kneel.”
Manu was a man angry at the world for his own failings. He had found solace in being angry, found a cause to channel his rage into the flames of passion around him.
A supposedly boisterous, charismatic but weak character, he sought power, needing to feel in control and be seen as worthy and powerful.
“Why can’t we use their side of the forest? Huh?” Manu had whispered harshly to a group of men.
“We could get a lot of really good wood,” agreed another.
“Clear the land, graze the cows …” intoned another.
“There so much in that forest, just waiting for us …” Manu drifted off, seeing in his mind’s eye a tree taller than any he had ever stumbled upon, but one he dreamt of many a night.
Lela ran back carefully now that she had got what she came for.
Trying to land softly on the balls of her feet, trying not to rattle the pouch strapped to her back, her heart hammered so hard, she thought the whole forest could hear her.
This had started as a secret hobby but now games time was over and she was heading down a path she’d always known she would tread, but somehow had never mentally prepared for.
Ducking under a half fallen tree, she stopped short as her eyes registered the orange dots of fire ahead; she was back at the village.
Slowly, a shadow slinking in and out of sight, Lela moved closer and flexed her muscles, warmed up and surer than she had ever been.
Calculating where she would have the clearest view, she inched over to the tree and began scaling it.
From her vantage point, she adjusted the ornately carved bow in her arms and lifted the first gleaming arrow into its notch, then let loose.
The arrow, hollow and specially designed to let off a chilling scream, caused everyone to freeze momentarily, unsure of what was happening.
Then there was another, and another as Lela settled into the routine.
She was clam now, firmly focused and otherworldly.
“What’s this?” Manu shrieked as an arrow whistled past his head. What devil screamed so? Are these flying things alive?”
Manu had never planned to die for this cause or any other for that matter.
“Argh! The hell with this!” he turned and stumbled away from this accursed place.
The sight of him streaking across the village and into the darkness caused a mass desertion, every villager for himself.
Lela’s fingers relaxed as she let off a few remaining arrows and smugly watched the retreating backs of the attackers.
Then she dropped lithely off the tree and into the forest she ran. A gleaming sprite.
The myth of the “guardian of the forest” was told many times and until her death, many swore they often glimpsed a catlike shadow, deep in the thick canopies of green.