The 2021 Detroit Metro Times Fiction Issue

Page 7 of 20

Chapter 1

By Beverly Jenkins

Central Africa

Aya loved being human. As the daughter of the Sun and the Moon, she had the ability to take on any form: an eagle in flight, a leopard chasing prey, a honeybee seeking nectar. By shrouding herself in flesh, she could walk among the people of the villages, relish the warmth of her mother rays, enjoy the gentle kiss of her father's night breezes, and savor the solid strength of Africa's soil beneath her feet. As a human woman, she'd witnessed childbirth, learned the art of cooking, planting, and the songs that mourned the dead. As a male, she'd joined the hunts, woven bolts of beautifully colored cloth, and posed as a warrior to a king. Her mother, the Sun, cautioned her against spending so much time as someone other than herself, but Aya, filled with youthful arrogance and hubris, chose not to listen.

On the day that would change her life, she learned a local village would be naming its king's infant son. She especially enjoyed celebrations. No matter the occasion, there were always delicious foods to eat, skilled musicians, songs, and dancing. As night fell, and her father, Moon, rose in the sky, torches were lit and the revelry began. Aya had just joined the circle of women for a dance to honor the child's mother when a horde of men brandishing swords and guns rushed into the torch-lit village. The king's warriors took up their spears and shields to meet the foe. Chaos ensued. People ran. The screams of women and children filled the air. The intruders were slavers, a pestilence that had been scouring the continent for decades. Aya was forbidden to intervene in human affairs, but seeing the newly named baby snatched from his wailing mother, she raised her voice to chant down the whirlwind, only to be felled by a crushing blow to the back of her head.

When she regained her senses, she was lying on the ground. The sun was high in the sky. Groggy, head throbbing, she started a chant to return to her true form, but pain doubled her over instead. There was iron encircling her ankles. It was the only man-made substance capable of binding a Spirit, and it burned like hot coals against her skin. Fear grabbed her. Looking around, she saw that she was not alone.

Seated nearby were hundreds of men and women shackled by leg irons and tethered to each other by lengths of heavy chain. Slavers stood over them, guns at the ready. Her fear increased. To her shock, shimmering behind the faces of some of the captives were other Spirits of wood, air, fire, and earth, who'd apparently been masking as humans, too. Now, like her, they were caught and powerless. There were also demon spirits, who though bound, smiled greedily from within their human facades in anticipation of feeding upon the misery and terror. Aya closed her eyes and sent up an urgent plea to her mother for help but received only silence. She pleaded, begged for forgiveness. Again, nothing. The enormity of her plight was staggering. She had no idea where the slavers were taking them or why. Being immortal and considering herself above the petty worries of humans, it hadn't occurred to her to enquire about the fate of the thousands of Africans taken captive before. Now, she wished she had done so. A short distance away sat scores of chained children. Their anguished cries tore at her heart, and she wondered about the fate of the king's son. But it was her own fate that was most chilling. Until she found a way to be free of the iron, her true self would remain trapped.

She and the other captives were dragged to their feet and forced to march days on end, their destination unknown. Some died along the way. Those who balked or could not keep pace were shot and left behind.

Weeks later, she and her exhausted companions found themselves on the coast and were fed into the belly of an enormous wooden ship bobbing atop the water like a waiting beast.

Beverly Jenkins is the recipient of the 2017 Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the 2016 Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award for historical romance.

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