When he was aware of himself again, he was following the giants with tattoos and sharpened teeth back to the ledge, where he and Nylyvad were taken separate ways, he into an upward tunnel and she downward. He wasn’t sure whether he was awake or asleep, and when he mustered the courage to ask the giants, they didn’t answer.
Awab would learn that there were actually several divine chambers around the top of the nest, each one an empty room of angular walls, though with slight differences that allowed him to keep track of them. There was one for his head, one for his left hand, one for his right hand, one for his left foot, and one for his right foot, and no more. Every morning the giants brought him from his sleeping hut to one of these rooms and left him there to sit against the wall and wait. When it rained, water poured down the inner walls through gaps between them and the ceiling, and Awab was forced to stand and wait. He didn’t understand what he was doing there, but he understood very little of anything anymore.
There was something strange about the view from the ledge where he slept. On his first night he had been able to see the land splayed out before him like a dead animal, its rivers and plains and forests underneath the bright sky, but now he could see hardly anything except for a gray void.
Around noon a giant would come to the door and take him to the dining room, far lower in the nest, where he sat with the other people of the forest and they ate what was given to them. Here they were allowed to speak, though he only understood Nylyvad and the Misre. The Misre knew little more than he did, having been taken shortly before him, but they were able to speak with more of the people of the forest and learn from them.
“Have any of us seen their lord?” Awab asked one day.
“Only a few favored ones,” said Pevar. She was the thin-faced woman the Misre had given together with her husband Gihwir, and she spoke in a low voice. There were many subjects that she refused to talk about altogether, and Awab was never sure whether it was because she didn’t know or it was too dangerous to tell. “It is a tall tree to climb to find our god’s favor, and few make it to the highest branches. But they say he has a special fondness for us over the giants, even if he forbids us our sacred dances.”
Nylyvad and the Misre told him something of their own tasks in the nest. While Pevar worked in the kitchens, both Nylyvad and Gihwir were assigned to the cauldron down beneath the ground, and they whispered of the magic that poured in torrents around the walls of that great room. Awab told them of the divine chambers, which though they were called divine, had no such magic. At least, there was nothing like what Nylyvad and Gihwir described, with its colors and voices that called in every ear, promising hidden knowledge. Some had died there, torn apart in the fury of the cauldron, and the overseers had warned them all that this was the fate of those who surrendered to the voices.
His curiosity stirred, Awab began to pay more attention in the divine chamber, but he learned little more, and his questions to the giants went unanswered. “The plans of our god are a mystery,” said Pevar. “There are many parts of his stronghold that no one is allowed to enter, and others that no one is able. No one human, anyway.” The creatures with unfinished faces were always present in the halls of the nest, going about the silent business of their lord and apparently paying no mind to their fellow servants who were made of living flesh.
As for the smells of the place, they were dominated by the cold scent Awab had noticed at first. “The odor of magic,” Gihwir said. “It’s like nothing else in this world, is it?”
Awab had gotten to know well the paths between the ledge where he slept, the divine chambers, and the dining hall. The others explained the routes they took to and from the cauldron and their own sleeping place, and piece by piece Awab understood how the red god’s stronghold fit together. He envisioned it in his mind and saw the dark places he did not know. He imagined the rainwater running down from the divine chambers, through the channels in the rock that he passed every day, and gathering at last in the cauldron at the base. But between the mid levels and the cauldron was a region outside his knowledge, a region that made the water into something more. The ways of gods, he knew, were beyond his understanding, and he didn’t try to figure out the mystery. He would leave that to the giants and the gods.
Though he was far from home he counted the days and marked the times when his people would be dancing the sacred dances in the forest. He sang to himself under his breath and waved his hands, but nothing more. Pevar had told him that early on a few men had tried to dance, and the creatures had broken their legs. “He will allow no power besides his own in his realm,” she said. “Not even Vuvudru.”
And slowly Awab saw Nylyvad fall into silence. He knew why, of course. There was nothing to do but go from place to place as the red god, the Lord of Sa Ruh, commanded. One morning he emerged from his hut to find Nylyvad standing near the ledge, staring out. The ledge always made Awab sick to his stomach, not so much for what little he could see but for the idea of the drop, yet he swallowed his fear and approached her. “Nylyvad,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder. “It’s been strange here, hasn’t it? But we are still alive and well, and there is still hope.”
She looked at him, her face perfectly still and composed, then she stepped forward and balanced on the edge. Awab hesitated too long and by the time Nylyvad tilted forward it was too late for him to do anything but lunge forward, grab at her, and then his horror doubled as her weight pulled him down with her. For a long moment he felt himself falling, Nylyvad’s hand in his, the water so far away that his mind could not grasp it. He shut his eyes.
There was a lurch, as if he had struck ground, but he felt no pain. Though his eyes were closed, he saw sight flash after sight before him. A shining hatchet, an impossibly aged man, a serpent winding up a tree, a drop of blood splattered on a leaf.
“Foolish children.” The voice came from above him. “Do you think you can escape from me that easily? I can reach out my finger and catch you without effort. See where I bring you.”
Awab looked, but all was dark. He felt with his hands and found that he was surrounded by rock, buried in a narrow crawlway. There was emptiness ahead, so he pulled himself forward, keeping his head shielded with one hand. There was no sign of Nylyvad by sound or touch, though he called for her.
Soon there were glimmerings of light to give him hope, and soon he emerged into a room where a waterfall splashed into a shallow river. A warm light came from lamps fixed to the ceiling, hanging in woven baskets. He drank and examined himself, finding himself unhurt in any way. He wondered if Nylyvad was all right, but right then most of his thoughts were on finding his way back to the places he knew. The smell here was new to him, full of minerals and moist things, and in it he could scent fresh air from the tunnel through which the river ran. He braced himself for the cold and walked into the river, ducking into the tunnel and back into darkness.
Again he heard the voice. “I give you your life back; I have your service in return. I have tasks in my realm for which I can use you.”
“You brought me from my home. I didn’t choose to come here,” said Awab. The voice didn’t answer.
After some time there was light again, and Awab emerged with the river into an open chamber, where the river fanned out into a pool that vanished through tiny outlets in the rock. He splashed onto dry land, where a giant was waiting with a towel to dry him. “Our lord will see you now,” the giant said. Awab looked back and saw that his was not the only river that emptied into the pool. The giant gave him a shove. “I will see to your friend.”
“I’d rather wait for her.”
The giant dropped the towel and grabbed Awab by the leg, yanking him upside-down and shaking him in the air. “You will obey our lord! How dare you defy him?” He seemed about to throw Awab but thought better of it and set him down, though not gently. “He has different tasks for you and your friend. Go! I swear by the Lord of Sa Ruh that I won’t harm her.”
So Awab went through the doorway and through a tunnel into another chamber where a red crystal rose from the floor to the ceiling. The crystal was surrounded by kneeling white-robed giants, the nearest of which immediately pulled Awab down to the ground with them. Awab wondered why they were kneeling, and then a voice filled the chamber. “Understand that there is no escape from me. You do as I bid. You must.”
Awab thought for a moment he saw a face reflected in the crystal that was not that of anyone in the room. It was the face of a man, he thought, though it was curiously child-like in shape. If this was the red god, the Lord of Sa Ruh, then this was a wonder indeed.
“You are Awab son of Pfedru and Rangyg. I am your god, your lord and master. You forget whatever gods you serve in your forests, whatever spirits you fancy you see. I am greater than them. I take power unto myself that you cannot understand.” And Awab felt a crushing presence upon his mind, forcing him to cry out in terror and the knowledge of his own weakness. “I watch you, little Awab, and I choose you from all your kin to be my emissary.”
“But I do not love you,” said Awab.
“That is well. Go. I command you when I choose.”
The chamber rumbled, and the giants lifted Awab to his feet and hurried him out, through the symbol-marked door he had seen when he first arrived at the nest. He walked slowly back to the ledge, which he shuddered now to look at. He was suddenly very tired, and as he seemed to have been released from work for the day, he went to his hut and fell asleep.
Early the next morning he rose, his worries about Nylyvad returning to him suddenly. To his relief he saw Nylyvad sitting cross-legged in front of her hut. “I’m glad you’re all right,” he said to her.
She looked up at him and there was something strange in her eyes, as if a dark spirit had fallen upon her. “Thank you. I’m sorry for what I did. If I’d thought you were going to fall with me, I never would have. But it is so cold here.”
“I know what you mean. We must have hope, though. Nylyvad, I have spoken to the Lord of Sa Ruh. I will do everything I can to make sure we return home, I promise.”
“Maybe,” she said, looking down. It was clear she doubted him, and after a few more words of encouragement, Awab left her. He went back to his own hut and waited for the giants to take him to the divine chamber, but they didn’t come, not until he heard a deep bell toll from beneath him. “That is the call for our meal,” Nylyvad said, and rose from her still meditations. Awab went with her down to the dining hall and sat next to her as they ate from the honyegem bowl set before them.
After the meal, he decided that since he had apparently been given a day to himself, he would explore some of the dark areas of the nest. He left the dining hall and took a right instead of a left, going where this new tunnel took him, all the way to an archway shining with light. He was at another of the exits from the nest, this one smaller and lower, so that if he chose he could jump down with no more than bruises. He thought about it then, imagined himself running off into the wilds, and had to laugh. There was no hope of him escaping the Lord of Sa Ruh, and besides, he had promised Nylyvad. He turned and went back into the nest, adding this tunnel to the image he kept in his head.
The rest of the afternoon he spent going up and down in the halls of the nest. Many of the doors he found were locked, but there were a few he could enter, and within he found rooms with strange shapes and filled with strange objects. He was leaving one of these rooms, a small wedge carved into the rock and focused on a pillar of translucent crystal, when one of the giants came marching towards him to seize him by the shoulder.
“Come with me,” the giant said. Awab followed the giant to a room in the upper part of the nest, lit by a window to the outside. The giant stood in front of this window and turned to face Awab. “Our lord has commanded me to teach you some of the things you’ll need to know in the future. I gather you understand the Sa Ruh language well enough. My name is Meahr, of the Pe Soa’ tribe.”
“I am Awab, of the children of the Gorob.”
“It is good to meet you at last, Awab.”
“You knew of me?”
“Oh, but of course! I have been in the chamber of sight and seen with the spirits of water. I have seen you, Awab, and I admired your inquisitiveness. I’m grateful to our lord for choosing me to be the one who will answer your questions.”
“You’ll answer my questions? I have many.”
“Those I am able. Those I am allowed.” Meahr smiled; like so many of the giants, his teeth were filed into sharp points, giving him a predatory appearance.
“What have I been doing all these months in the divine chambers?”
“You were being watched. Studied, I might say.”
“Why?” But Meahr only smiled again, without answering. So Awab asked instead, “How did you become a servant of the Lord of Sa Ruh?”
Meahr pointed to a scar that ran down the side of his face and crossed his lip. “This is the mark of the men of Pe Soa’. We receive it when we become adults.”
Awab nodded. Meahr bent to the floor, which was covered in thick dust, and began to draw on it with his finger. Awab recognized in Meahr’s scrawlings the nest, its island, and the river, but Meahr added more beyond those familiar settings, on both sides of the river. He pointed to a mark he had made in the southeast and said, “This is my home, the sacred land of the Pe Soa’. We were once the children of the Antelope, but the Lord of Sa Ruh has taken us into his service. It happened long ago; I have never known the Antelope. Since I was a child I have always been destined for sacred matters rather than spears and women, and so after my initiation I was given a great feast and sent away in a boat up the river to this island. Here I was taught in the secret doctrine of our lord and trained to do his bidding.”
Awab listened carefully to Meahr’s story, though much of it meant little to him. How could the Pe Soa’ be children of an animal? How could a child be destined to serve a god? But he didn’t ask these questions that occurred to him, saying only, “Are there many tribes among our lord’s servants?”
“Very many, from both river folk and herders in the north. And now from the children of the forest in the west, too. His power grows great, and you should count yourself fortunate to be one of his hands in this world. You will see many things, Awab, many strange places. You will be rewarded with whatever you desire.”
“I desire to go home.”
Meahr looked out the window. “That will change,” he said. “You will see.”
“I’ve done what has been asked of me. I haven’t complained or fought. Will I never receive a due share of what I’ve done?”
“You haven’t done anything yet, Awab, not anything important. And this is not one of your little forest councils. You will obey our lord or perish. I would have thought you had learned that by now.” Meahr turned back, smiling again. “But don’t be afraid. He is fair, and will give you what you deserve. Let this be your first lesson. See how the stronghold rises from the island, and the island from the water, and the water from the void. Before the Lord of Sa Ruh came, there was nothingness. For your own sake, be content with what he gives!”
Awab was startled by Meahr’s sudden aggressiveness, and he looked down at the ground, his eyes darting back and forth. But he recovered himself and stared into Meahr’s face. “I will obey your lord, but I will also see my home again. I swear by the earth itself.”
After a moment, Meahr said, “I believe both your promises, somehow. I can’t do anything about the second, but I will tell you what you need to know for the first. Our lord has rivals, evil gods who desire to break his realm apart and slaughter us all. Though he works without ceasing to fight their plots, he has mortal tools as well. I don’t know exactly where he’ll send you, but your people are honored up and down the river as magicians, soothsayers, or shamans, depending on the tribe. I myself know little of why he sends most of us, but I do know that you are going to the Cu Tan, a fishing folk in the south. I’ll tell you what I can about the island of our lord, but mainly I’m supposed to tell you about the Cu Tan. They serve the Lady of Mar Gjol, a fearful goddess who rules death and the storm.”
Awab grew weary of the lesson as Meahr went on, though he hid it out of politeness. He was nervous to leave these tunnels and go out under the empty sky, to a people who worshiped yet another red god, but he hid that also. Meahr gave him a sudden glance and said, “It is frightening to leave the stronghold of our lord for the first time. He is a god of the home, of safety in the midst of chaos. But he will go with you, never fear. He isn’t bound by the threshold form you saw. He goes with us all and protects us. I myself have felt his hand upon me and seen him protect me from hunters who sought to kill me.”
Over the next months Meahr taught Awab how the Cu Tan language differed from that of the Sa Ruh and Misre, and had Awab reciting lists of words until he could think of nothing else. He spoke less with the other children of the forest than he used to, for although they never said anything about it, it was clear to all that he had been lifted away from them, that the red god had taken him even further from his home.