Zecora knew, as she had always known. Even as a foal, she had a deeper connection with the spirits of the world than most others. She had always known she would be a Shaman, and knew the sacrifices that it would take, the life she would never be able to live.
So too did she know that the spirits were not all-demanding. A Shaman might be the vehicle that the spirits could use to lend advice and assistance to the world of the living, but as with all living things, there were certain needs to be met. One of those needs was the sense of connection to loved ones and family; a gentle reminder of the reasons why the Shaman had made such a sacrifice in the first place.
Having prepared for this day by making sure she would not be disturbed, Zecora found herself sitting in front of her little meditation fire. She gazed into the flames, knowing beyond the slightest shadow of any doubt that her people back in her homeland were now performing a ceremony to call her spirit forth, so that it might be with them once more.
Zecora recalled the tears her Mother and Father had shed, when she announced at the slight age of six that she would be Shaman. It was not tears of sadness, however, but tears of joy and pride. They supported her fully in her quest, and not once had they, or she, wavered. She had been apprenticed to Hidaya, the Shaman of her village, and he had realized straight away that this little zebra filly would be his replacement on the day he left for the Summer-lands.
Hidaya had been a kind soul, both very patient and very kind in his teaching. Never once had he been impatient with her, even if she did not understand the lessons he was trying to teach. His very first lesson was still very clear in her mind. In his very soft, very quiet voice, ‘On the day you become a Shaman, Zecora… you must remember that you no longer speak just for your self. You speak for all the Spirits, and you must be very measured in what you say.’ At the time, she didn’t know what he had meant. When she questioned him about it, he had only smiled and ruffled her short mane saying in that same soft, gentle voice, ‘You will understand when the time comes. It is different for us all.’
She remembered the feeling of despair that had grown in her heart, when her parents had fallen to a hyena attack. Father and mother both had been warriors and had immediately charged to the fight. Ah, how their eyes blazed brightly as they galloped! They fought as they had lived, with love of life and sense of duty. They had held the main thrust of the attack back long enough so that the other warriors could join them in the fray. All the hyenas had fallen, but so too had her parents. She recalled standing proudly at their funeral pyre, watching their spirits depart. She knew it was their duty to fight for the safety of the village, but she was still a young filly and it was a hard thing to say goodbye. She remembered Hidaya gently bumping his shoulder to hers, leaning down and whispering that going to the Summer-Lands was a time of celebration, not despair. It was there that all souls reached their true potential, that joys were realized, and that even the Shaman might finally and truly live as all were meant to. Her parents would finally be able to lay down their spears and shields and know peace unending.
The despair faded, then, as she saw the truth of it. As she watched her parents’ souls prance off towards the stars, she could sense their growing ease, their growing happiness. She could not find it in herself to deny them that, and so found herself smiling, sending the sort of prayers that only a daughter can, to her parents. She remembered seeing her parents turn back, one last time, with a gentle smile of gratitude and pure adoration and love for her, before slipping past the veil that only the dead can pass.
Zecora was not Shaman, not yet, and so was still yet encouraged to enjoy life. Years later when she had reached her age of majority, she remembered her first crush, Azizi. She felt her heart warm, recalling their time together; the nights sheltering under the Tamboti trees during the infrequent rains. She recalled them laying together, watching the lightning and the storms, just savoring the moment. Her Precious One was a warrior in training, and both knew that they would have to part someday. But that was the way of all things; nothing lasted forever but for the Summer-Lands. It was no excuse not to enjoy the time they could share together.
She recalled discovering her talent for herbalism and alchemy. It had been not long after a rainstorm worthy of legend that Azizi had been stung by a scorpion out in the remote fields. There had been no time to run back to her village for Hidaya’s wisdom and herbs. She had known despair then, too, as she held his shivering form to hers, tears gentle as rain on his neck as she silently prayed to the Spirits for help.
The spirits answered. A little fennec swirled into being and silently gestured to her to follow. She had slid Azizi’s head from her hooves and followed the spirit’s instructions, gathering the needed herbs and grinding them between two flat stones that she still had to this day. From the dust of those herbs she had made both a tea and poultice to treat her beloved Azizi with. Azizi had recovered, but it became rather obvious quite quickly that Zecora had had her first encounter with a spirit of Mischief.
Thanks to the…unnecessary herbs the fennec spirit had told Zecora to add to the antidote, Azizi’s ardor was sufficient to render her far too sore to walk home. The spirit simply grinned and evaporated in front of her; the price it had required for saving Azizi’s life had been met, or rather, was about to be. It was Azizi that had to gallop back to the village and explain to Hidaya what had happened. To this day, she would swear that she heard his barking laughter clear from the village. She had rested her face on her hoof, laughing too; for it was truly amusing when one thought about it. When Hidaya and Azizi had returned from the village with herbs and teas in tow, the three of them had spent several hours laughing until they had no more tears to shed. But that wasn’t all; Hidaya had ALSO seen fit to notify the village proper as to the precise details of her encounter with both Azizi and the Spirit of Mischief. Upon her return from the fields in the company of Hidaya and Azizi both, they were greeted by raucous cheers, applause, and the singing of the bawdy ‘Ballad of Zecora and the Spirit of Mischief’.
Forever after, Zecora had been very, very careful to make certain of what herbs went into her potions and poultices. She had a true gift for it, and soon she became known as a medicine woman as well as a Shaman in training.
Time proceeded apace, and eventually came the day where she had been summoned to Hidaya’s hut. He was wearing his full, formal Shaman attire; Zecora knew it was time. It was then that she was told that there were to be two more sacrifices to be made, one of which Hidaya knew of, the other would be told to her by the Spirits themselves. In order for a Shaman to serve the spirits, she must bridge the world between the living and the dead. She would undergo her own funeral so that the village might lay her spirit to rest. Since her body would yet live, she would bridge the two lands as only a Shaman could; she would see the spirits and be able to interact with them far more readily. After the funeral, though, she would have to depart her lands, never to return until she was summoned back to fill her role as Shaman to her village. Yet still, since she was technically a Spirit, there would be times that Hidaya could summon her so that she might be able to visit, after a fashion.
The second sacrifice would be far more personal, and unique to her. Hidaya had been required by the spirits to speak for them in low, measured tones and never to raise his voice while offering advice. For her, it would be something else, entirely. What it was, would only be made apparent to her when she became fully vested in her powers and responsibilities.
Hidaya had made a tea, and had set it before her. Part of her transition to Shaman would be to remain immobile through her funeral. The tea would help her remain calm and placid, yet still fully aware of the goings on around her. She had drunk the tea, and felt her limbs grow still. She smiled to Hidaya, and then closed her eyes, lowering her head to her chest as if she had passed on peacefully in her sleep.
Zecora’s immobile form had been carried out to the center of her village. There, grave goods had been brought and heaped up in front of, and around her; everything celebrated her life. Stories were told, laughter shared, and a grand party was held in honor of her life. She felt warmth in her heart, and a joy within her began making her feel light-headed. She remembered a light nibble on her neck and a whisper from Azizi, ‘I will remember you always, my love. Be well, in the Summer-Lands’. Gentle touches from those she had shared her life with, as it now wound down to an ending… of sorts.
For it was when Hidaya came forth and separated her spirit from her body for a moment that she felt a surge of life and love that bound her to this place, of all places. In her heart and mind, she saw an array of spirits, all smiling up at her. She recalled somehow knowing that she must choose the one that meant the very most to her and that that spirit would forever more influence her destiny. Zecora had grinned to herself, for she already knew which spirit must be chosen. ‘Little one, you cannot hide from me. For it is with your own eyes that I see.’ She had been surprised at the rhyme; she never had before, in her years of training.
Yet knowledge settled in, when the fennec spirit came forward with that signature toothy smile and had said, ‘You speak for us now, and I’m your guide. Mischief is loved, but mischief unrestrained is always dangerous. I bind your speech with this: When you speak for the Spirits, then you will speak in rhyme. This will help you think and doublethink what it is you say so that you consider your words with care.’
The spirits welcomed her to their world, and then gently sent her back to the midway point between them; this then is where she would be, until her time as Shaman was done.
The potion wore off, and she found strength in her limbs again. She knew what she must do, and she rose from her funeral bier. Folks smiled warmly to her, tears in their eyes. ‘We wish you well, oh Spirit. But it is time for you to depart our lands until your time has come to return. Know well that we love and respect you, and shall remember you always. We would know where you go, so that we may sing the songs.’
Zecora had smiled and nodded, tears in her own eyes but again tears of joy and not sadness. She would serve these zebras and serve them well; the time HAD indeed come for her to depart to learn of other lands and other ways so that she might help lead her people in due time. ‘I now go where the spirits will. I will be in a place near Ponyville. In the Everfree forest will I be, I wish health and life unto thee.’ With that, she had picked up her meditation staff and walked from her village with the heat of her just-lit funeral pyre behind her warming her as she departed for lands unknown.
These thoughts were broken as she saw and felt the room around her begin to fade. She smiled, resting her head on her meditation staff, closing her eyes and relaxing. Her spirit was being summoned back home for a visit, and she truly was looking forward to it.
Zecora found herself in Hidaya’s hut, with him chanting over the old stone brazier with the fragrant herbs blooming out in waves of multi-colored smoke.
In that gentle voice she had so longed to hear, Hidaya had smiled and said gently, “Welcome home, Zecora. For the duration of your stay, you speak for yourself alone. You are here as a Spirit, not Shaman, so that you might renew the bonds to your people.” He chuckled. “Your people await.”
Zecora had bobbed her head, smiling. “I’ve missed you too, Hidaya. It’s very good to see you again.” She turned and silently walked from the hut; spirits do not make noise as they walk. Once outside, she saw that the entire village had turned out to welcome her home… and right in the front was her beloved Azizi, and his new wife and foal. Zecora beamed brightly. “Azizi! Congratulations on wife and daughter! They’re both precious, and I’m so glad you’ve found someone to be happy with.”
Azizi grinned, nosing his wife and daughter. “Thank you, Zecora. The blessings of a Spirit mean much to us as you well know.” His eyes twinkled. “But I have a problem that I must ask your help with.”
Zecora knew THAT look from him, and knew that she had already lost whatever fight Azizi was starting to pick. She simply grinned, eyes glinting. “Name it. You know I’ll do what I can for you.”
“My daughter, she is to be a Keeper of Ballads. And she’s very specific on which ballad is to be her first to learn. You must teach it to her.”
Zecora tossed her head back and laughed as hard as she had, back on that day it had happened. The entire village joined her, and she caught a little flash of motion from the corner of her eyes as the fennec spirit winked, then slid softly from view.
“Very well, then, Child. Listen, as I teach you the ‘Ballad of Zecora and the Spirit of Mischief’.” She began to sing, as did her village.
They were her people, after all, and she was their Shaman-to-be.