Sacred Dance: Chapter 7

The news spread through the palace in the flow of the water before it was carried in words.  The water’s light was dimmer, its current more troubled, and as he sat by his waterfall, Awab knew that something was approaching.  He dipped his finger in the bright-water and felt how it shifted around his skin.  “Blood,” he said.

“Not yet,” said Cer Lu, placing one of his game stones.  “But soon.  I’m surprised you can read the signs.  Is that a gift of the forest children?”

Awab didn’t answer.  How was he to explain what came without thought?  How was he to give away what belonged to the sons of Neevak?

“You’ve never seen war, have you?  It is not like hunting the foolish Dakpar.  War is her kindness to us to drive us onward.  When one man kills another, only the strongest is left.  You understand?”

“My people hide in the forest to escape that precious kindness.”

“So you are weak and small.  Our lady gives us strength!”  Cer Lu slapped his hands against his thighs.  “You are stronger now than you were when you came here.  That is our lady’s kindness to you!”

Awab smiled and said, “Who will you be killing?”

“Our lady will tell us soon.  Ah, but if it is the Lord of Sa Ruh, no doubt she will send you back to him.  You won’t be forced to fight your master, but you may have to fight me.”  He showed his pointed teeth.  “Then I will gain honor.”

“I would rather not fight anyone.”

“Hide behind your god, then.  Who knows?  He may protect you.  But our lady has power your lord does not know.”  He nodded towards the board, a stack of honeygem rectangles connected by a complicated series of wires.  It was not an easy game to learn or to play, but the Lady of Mar Gjol had devised it, and so her servants played nothing else.  “Don’t forget your move.”

Awab had not forgotten the game, but he had made a silly mistake early on that had put him in a very bad position.  Usually he and Cer Lu were equally matched, but now his men were nearly surrounded by Cer Lu’s and his palace was empty.  All he could do was drag out the game as long as possible in the hope that Cer Lu would make a similar mistake, but so far there had been no opportunity for him to escape.  He moved one of his men up a space, closing a gap in his formation.

Cer Lu’s smile widened as he moved one of his own pieces to enclose two of Awab’s.  Awab saw now that there was no way to protect his palace.  But he knew that Cer Lu wouldn’t accept surrender, that he had no choice but to play to the end.

So when at last Cer Lu slipped a man into Awab’s palace, Awab grimaced and congratulated him on his victory.  “The fortunes of war,” said Cer Lu generously.  “Now I will go and see if our lady has word for us.  If it is your wish.”

“It is,” said Awab.  Cer Lu left, and Awab began moving the pieces from the boards back to their bag.  When that was done, he returned his attention to the bright-water.  He brought his face close to it until the light hurt his eyes, then took a deep breath through his nose.  It stank of blood and feathers.

“No need to fear, Aci!” said Cer Lu when he returned, clapping his hands.  “We do not fight the Lord of Sa Ruh, or any of the lords.  We fight the <i>gjeambí</i>!”

“The what?”

“Bird, its bill pointing down.”  After some further questioning, Awab was fairly sure that Cer Lu meant an ibis.  “The god the men of the north worship.  They’ve troubled our lady long enough.  The savages won’t be happy until we’re dead, all of us, but they don’t know the power of our lady!”  He was more cheerful than Awab had ever seen him, even breaking into a laugh a few times.  “You and I, Aci, will fight side by side, and then you will see the worth of the wild men!”

It did not sound appealing to Awab in the least, but only confirmed his resolve to steal Earah’s mask as soon as possible.  The Lord of Sa Ruh had only appeared once in his dreams after he found the mask, and though Awab had begged him to tell how he could escape the Lady of Mar Gjol’s magic, all the god had said was, “I give you all you need.”  Awab knew better than to push further.  He feared the Lady’s unknown magic, but not as much as the Lord’s wrath or the prospect of battling these followers of the Ibis, whoever they were.

“When will it happen?” Awab asked.

“You can’t tell from the water?  Soon.  She must gather us together and make us fit for the war first.”

“I see.  I think I’ll go for a last walk around the palace before I’m strapped to a shield.”

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“No thank you,” said Awab, then stood and left his room.  He hadn’t gone far in the direction of the mask room before one of the fish-mouthed servants began following him, as those creatures sometimes did, but he hid his nervousness and continued walking, praying silently to Vuvudru that it would go away before he reached the masks.  At last his nerve broke and he turned to face the creature.  “Go about your own business,” he told it.  “I wish to be alone.”

Though it had no eyes, he felt that it was staring at him as it thought over his words.  He had never learned how much the creatures understood: he thought it was more than those the Lord of Sa Ruh had made, who understood no language, only the basic symbols, but the Lady’s creatures never spoke and took orders poorly.  This one, however, turned back after a minute and plodded down the corridor away from him.

After that he passed a file of giants with spears marching through a broad hall, the first of two such halls he had to go through on his way to the treasure room.  “Aci!” one called, but they didn’t otherwise bother him.  He walked faster, though, and wished he had thought to take a route that avoided these halls.  The second hall was more crowded, filled with giants talking among themselves, the excited rumble of their voices too fast and complex for Awab to understand any of it.  He worked his way through the crowd, but one giant stopped him, grabbing him and saying, “Here is Aci!  What say we teach him what it means to be a warrior for our lady!”  And he lifted Awab up onto his shoulders, which were greasy with sweat.  Awab looked around helplessly at the cheering giants.

“Now, little Aci!  What songs of battle do you know?”

Only the old men of Gorob knew the battle songs, but Awab did know hunting songs, many of which were not sacred but for common use.  “Ba, old elephant,” he sang, his own language feeling strange on his tongue after so long.  (How long had it been?  It was easy to lose track of the seasons within the halls of the red gods.)

“Ba, old elephant,
“Father of the forest.
“Bba, old elephant,
“Tremble in your tusks.
“Va, old elephant,
“Hear not the hunters.
“Vva, old elephant,
“See not our spears.
“Wa, old elephant,
“Wwa, old elephant,
“Songs and spears!”

The giant beneath him cried, “That is no war song!  Hear how the folk of Mar Gjol go to their battles!”  He thrust out his chest, nearly sending Awab tumbling off his back, and sang in a booming voice.  Awab understood little of it, but he knew the words for blood and the words for death, and what he did understand was enough for him.  He jumped off the giant’s back and landed awkwardly on the ground, hurting his ankle, though he hid his pain and hobbled away from the laughing giants.

He made it to the mask room without further delay and without being followed.  As soon as he stepped inside he felt the presence of the idols all around him, blind yet staring.  He pressed on towards the far end, where Earah’s mask hung, tore it from the wall, and felt its weight in his hands.  It was from a heavier wood, but he had no time to examine it, other than to make sure it was the same mask he had been shown in his dreams, with its streaks of white and wide eyes.  He ran past the idols with it tucked in his pouch under his arm.

This time he chose a more prudent path, avoiding the two halls, though he knew he would have to pass through the hall at the entrance.  He hadn’t gone far before he heard the sound of the alarm, shaking the palace like a struck drum, and he fled.  But he heard the slaps of moist feet on stone, and saw creatures emerging from the corridor ahead and behind of him.  They latched onto him, their hands immensely strong.  “Thief,” he heard a voice say, croaking and snapping.  He didn’t know what had spoken at first, until he saw one of the creatures with its wide mouth open, the membranes within flapping back and forth.  “Thief!”

He tried to break away, but only lost his grip on the pouch.  It dropped and fell open as it did, and Earah’s mask spilled out.  As soon as it touched the rude unformed foot of one of the creatures, the creature opened its mouth and howled.  Its breath stank of dead fish.  Awab snatched up the mask and the creatures backed away from him, all silent except for the one that howled.  He burst through their circle, brushing the creatures aside, and ran without looking back.

But the creatures were certainly not the only ones who heard the alarm, and Awab didn’t make it much further to the entrance before he was confronted by giants.  He thrust the mask at them, but all it did was make them laugh.  A heavy arm slammed into his head and another giant kicked his arm so that the mask dropped from his numb fingers and broke to pieces when it hit the ground.  He staggered and was sick to his stomach.

“You’re not very grateful, are you, Aci?  Our lady feeds you and shelters you, and this is how you repay her?  I’d teach you a lesson if she didn’t want to chastise you herself.”  He laughed again and lifted Awab over his shoulder.  Awab felt like weeping, but instead he kicked the giant in the stomach, hard enough that the giant doubled over.  Awab fled again, but he knew that he was only putting off his certain fate.  He had failed, and now he would die for it.  The gods had toyed with him long enough; now he was to be cast aside.

They took him before the Lady of Mar Gjol and pushed him to the ground, where he lay listening to the water splashing beneath the wooden slats as he stared with one eye up at the gem that was the Lady.  He heard her voice, but the words flew over him.

“Foolish worm!” she was saying.  “Do you not know that I see all in my kingdom?  Do you think I cannot see my brother’s hand behind your eyes, sending you where he wishes?  And now I have you to amuse myself with, to make an example of before all my loyal servants.  Do I flay you alive?  Do I send you in battle against the Ibis?  You don’t last long against his warriors, tall and fierce!”

Something sharp lashed against his back and he yelled, for the pain was terrible, worse than fire.  Again it struck him and he cringed, awaiting a third blow that never came.  Instead the Lady spoke in a hushed voice that hurt his ears nonetheless.

“I send you in chains to see my battle.  In chains you live, until my brother sends for you.  Then you go.”

“You are merciful, my lady,” he said, for he had expected to die then and there.

“I tell you about my brother whom you serve.  He tells you to steal my mask, but you are only a mask yourself.  He sends you, but he has other spies pretending to serve me.  You steal the mask, but it is a false mask so while I chase you, his true servants escape with the true mask.  Now he has the mask, and he leaves you for me to punish.  Do you understand your lord better now?”

They took hold of Awab and carried him out of the Lady’s chamber, two giants lifting him and one striking his legs with a rod.  He did not go back to his old room, but was deposited in a round chamber underneath the level of the water.  Though the walls did not leak, he eyed the cracks in the stone with some concern.  He was left alone there in the dark to “face your sin,” as one of his captor put it, and sat in silence, for he was not a giant in need of constant distraction: he was one of the children of the forest, and he could wait as long as he had to.

Cer Lu visited him once.  He explained that the Lady of Mar Gjol had given him to another master, a warrior named Dol Jat, whom it was a great honor to serve.  “She says I am going to war too,” said Awab.  “No doubt I will slay many of the Ibis before I fall.”

“No doubt,” Cer Lu said, his long face somber.  “Then they will name you the Ibis’s Judge.  Goodbye, Aci.”  Awab did not ask before he left if Cer Lu had betrayed him.

Chapter 8

Sacred Dance: Chapter 6

Awab was disturbed from his dreams by a sound like the trumpeting of an elephant. He sat up and wondered whether it was day yet: one of the worst part of living in the red gods’ hives was the absence of the sun. The trumpet echoed through the air again, so Awab jumped out of his bed and pulled back the curtain to fill the room with light, then stood in front of the water for a while, blinking and half-falling asleep again.

“Awake!” Cer Lu shouted in his ear. “Our lady calls us to the hunt! Awake!”

Awab jumped, but he was alert now, and as he followed Cer Lu out of the room he said, “My people in the forest were hunters. I’m looking forward to this.”

“Good!”

Cer Lu led Awab to the great entrance hall, where giants were climbing aboard boats and loading them with spears. One particularly large boat held a framework of wood in the shape of an eye, which Awab wondered at as he followed Cer Lu into one of the lesser boats. “Will I have a spear?” he asked.

“They are too large for you, I think. And I think you are not used to our lady’s prey.”

“Is it something very large? Elephants?”

“You will see. It is not elephants. But, little Aci, isn’t everything large to you?”

They crossed to the far shore of the river, where they left their boats and the hunters fanned out through the grass, those in the front holding their spears aloft while others formed a line behind them with weighted nets. When a giant emerged from one of the mud houses, he was impaled with a throne spear, his death marked by the hunters’ jubilant cries. “This is a battle, not a hunt!” Awab protested.

Cer Lu looked at Awab and made a mocking noise in his throat. “Oh, it is a hunt. The hèru should know better than to get in the way when we are hunting Dakpar!”

A ululation went up from somewhere ahead, and then Awab saw them, men with skin like red mud running near-naked through the grass. Spears flew and some fell, but others kept running.

“Well, Aci?” said Cer Lu after a moment. “Show us your skill!”

“These are men, not beasts!”

“They are Dakpar, Aci. Listen how they cry.”

The sounds the Dakpar made were easily audible even at Awab’s distance, shouts that were broken up by clicks and guttural sounds. But apart from the bursts of the clicks, the noises didn’t seem much different to Awab than the often-harsh vowels of the Sa Ruh and Mar Gjol tongues. He didn’t say that to Cer Lu, of course. He only looked down at his feet and said, “It has been a long time since I last hunted, and as you said, your spears are too heavy for me.”

Cer Lu nodded seriously. “I am sorry. That is the lord of all hunts. I would be there among them if I had more glory to myself. But we can watch, at least. See how our lady’s servants run! See their aim and the points of their spears!”

Awab did not watch. He had seen men die in accidents or be torn by a leopard, but this was different. It had turned his stomach when the wild man had taken a victim last night, and this was the same thing on a vaster scale. He tried to convince himself that the Dakpar were like hairless apes, but what chimpanzee had ever spoken like that?

When it was approaching noon, the trumpet sounded again. The hunters had vanished in their pursuit of the Dakpar, but after a few moments they began to appear again, coming back through the grass with poles slung over their shoulders. Cer Lu went to them and knelt when they were close enough, and when Awab saw how the corpses of the Dakpar were hanging from the poles, their hands and feet and elongated earlobes dangling down, he fell to the earth.

Laughing, Cer Lu scooped Awab up in his arms as he passed by. “That is weakness, nothing. We will fill your stomach and strength when we return to the palace of our lady!”

For a moment Awab saw the giants strapping the Dakpar to the eye-shaped wheel, but he turned his head away, and so never learned what the wheel was for. He shut his eyes and tried to dream of home, yet when he opened them after some time he saw only the great entrance hall, and Cer Lu bringing him a plate of roasted grains.

He received no summons the next day and so went wandering in the palace, hoping to make a map of it as he had for the Lord of Sa Ruh’s nest. None of the giants or the creatures bothered him, allowing him to go freely from the gates at the front to the spires that rose from the top of the palace, each spire holding a shimmering white crystal. He found many strange and powerful items throughout the palace, totems and pools of swirling water, but nowhere did he find a mask.

Cer Lu caught up with him when he was peering down a dark tunnel unlit by the glowing water that otherwise filled every part of the palace. He put a hand on Awab’s shoulder and said, “It would be best for us to go back. This is not a place we should be.”

“The wild men will hunt us down, I suppose.”

Cer Lu nodded down the tunnel. “No, they do not come here. But where do you think the creatures go when they wear out? Where do you think they are born? This is their grave and their womb, and it is not a place for the likes of us. Even the man of great honor would perish. Come with me, Aci.”

So Awab followed him to the great hall, and as they walked Awab asked, “Does your lady collect many treasures from her realm?”

Cer Lu gave him a curious look. “Are you interested in such things? I’d thought the children of the forest lived without possessions.”

“We had few things in the forest, but in truth nothing like what I’ve seen in Mar Gjol. It is, ah, I can’t find the words.”

“At times neither can I,” said Cer Lu. “But yes, our lady is worthy of gifts from every corner of Mar Gjol, and she receives what she deserves. Now see, Aci.” They were in the great hall, the entrance to the palace, and Awab saw many giants wearing a new form of dress, bright red strips of cloth hanging down their shoulders. “This is one of the feasts for us to celebrate our lady’s bounty. All Mar Gjol gives her gifts, and in return she makes the river pour out its blessings. Fish and fruits and all good things she gives us. Now we celebrate. See the glow around the walls? She is pleased.”

Cer Lu clapped his hands and took a pair of red strips from another giant, draping one over his own shoulder and one over Awab’s, where its ends dragged on the ground. Awab made an effort to hold them up, but it became too much trouble and he just let them fall behind him like a tail.

He was startled to see the woman with her face full of scars there, mingling with the other giants despite the way she stood out among them. Just lke Awab, in fact. Then she cast her gaze on him and spread her arms. “Here is the gift of Sa Ruh,” she said quietly, and Awab didn’t know if anyone else could hear or was even listening. “But there is such a thing as a poisoned gift. I am a storyteller, Awab. My chosen name is Nasari. Would you like to hear me tell a story?”

“I will not close my ears. But I know the Sa Ruh words better than the Mar Gjol words.”

“That is well. When he first sent me here, I knew few Mar Gjol words myself. But this is the story of how fire came to mankind.” They had moved aside from the crowd and sat together near the wall. The smell of decay was strong, mixed with an acrid tinge. “Once in the dawn of things, after the tears of the heavens but before the gods rose up to rule the land, our ancestors did not know how to make fire, but ate their meat raw and slept in the darkness. They lived like beasts and ran through the plains fearing nothing.

“Spider looked down from his web, and seeing the weakness of man he chuckled to himself. ‘Poor little flies,’ he said. ‘I wonder if Lion would mind if I drop in to give them a little help?’ He spun a line and went down to the village where the people where sleeping in the early morning.

“‘Now what shall I do?’ said Spider. ‘I know! I’ll give them a piece of my silk.’ And carefully he wound some silk around a spindle and dropped it in their midst.

“They used the silk to make a shining silver robe, which they gave to the most beautiful maiden of their tribe, and immediately she burst into flames that ate her up but left the robe behind, untouched. They cried out and wept and prayed, but no one dared touch the robe again. They left it and went on their way.

“‘Well!’ said Spider. ‘I’ll have to fix this!’ He climbed down again and gathered up the robe in his arms. Then he covered it with colorful feathers and left it for another tribe to find. This time it was a great hunter who claimed the robe for himself, and he too was eaten by the fire. So Spider took up the robe again, wondering to himself what he should do, but finally let it fall where it would and climbed back up to his web.

“Those who found it next were more clever than the others. They did not wear the robe, but wrapped it around a log and burned it down to embers that they put in a pot and took with them when they left. So fire came to earth, all thanks to Spider’s mischievousness and love of mankind.” She put a finger to her lips. “That is the story we tell, but the story in Mar Gjol is somewhat different. Here they say that it was a woman who stole fire from the treasury of heaven and that she was punished for it with beatings and stripes. The Lady of Mar Gjol is not fond of thieves. Be careful, Awab!” Then she slipped away and he lost sight of her completely, though the hall was full of light.

Awab sat down against the wall, a rivulet of bright-water running down near his shoulder. He watched the giants as they arranged themselves in an enormous circle with a smaller circle within it, the two rings beginning to turn in opposite directions. Musicians stood outside the circle, striking their drums and shaking their rattles. Awab began to feel ill, and rose again to slip out one of the exits quietly, though standing only made him feel worse. The smell of rotting corpses filled the air.

“It is her power, dangerous to the uninitiated,” a voice said above his ear before he got very far. “If you are trying to avoid it, you are wise.” Awab looked behind him and saw another giant, this one a man with a cup in his hand. “Drink,” he said.

It looked like normal water, but Awab didn’t find himself thirsty. He tried to push the cup away, but the giant forced it on him, pouring the water down his throat. It burned somehow, as if he was drinking fire. Even his eyes felt dry and painful. He coughed and cursed, but the giant only stared at him without blinking. Awab stared back. There were shadows all around him now and a sound like stone rubbing against stone. The giant began to change before Awab’s eyes, his skin drying and pressing against his bones before falling away completely, revealing his bare skull. Worms crawled up and down his shoulders.

Awab felt worse then ever, his stomach lurching within him. He turned away from the horror and stumbled into the midst of the ring of giants. They were singing, but in martial tones that filled him with dread. He felt as if he were an animal running through the forest while the hunters followed with spears and shouts. They pushed him from side to side until his legs finally responded to his fear and he ran.

He ran through the halls of the palace with no idea of where he was going, his thoughts all in a storm. He fell once or twice, but his panic pursued him, forcing him to his feet again. Only when he passed under an arch carved with skulls and realized he was in a part of the palace he didn’t know did his panic fade to become the normal uncertainty of one who was lost. The room was dark and he turned to go back under the arch, but now that his eyes were adjusting he began to see things along the walls. There were pillars of wood carved into nude bodies and crowned faces that stared at him as if to drive him away, and he hid his face. Such things were often haunted by spirits that it would be foolish to offend.

But there were other things in the room, beyond the idols. There were human figures wrapped in linen, their bodies twisted where they lay. There were masks set atop their faces or hanging from pegs on the wall, and as Awab passed his gaze over them, he saw the mask from his vision, hanging several feet over his head. He looked at it for a time, then turned away. He could do nothing with the idols watching over him, and whatever unknown magic the Lady of Mar Gjol had set over her treasures.

It took him a long time to find his way back to his room. The sick feeling in his stomach returned and he lay down to watch the water flowing endlessly over the rocks. He slept eventually, but was haunted in his dreams by the face of the Lord of Sa Ruh, and when he woke he didn’t know if it had been a true visitation or only his fears taking form. He didn’t leave his room at all that day, not even to eat.

But in the evening Cer Lu visited him, looking solemn as he faced Awab across the room; Awab was sitting against the far wall reciting to himself the story of Mabbid and her fight against the serpent. “I am sorry beyond words,” Cer Lu said, falling to his knees. “The sun in the sky is moved to hide itself by the strength of my sorrow. You are still too weak for the frenzies of our lady, and it is out of weakness that the madmen are made. Name my punishment! I will suffer it gladly.”

Awab stopped reciting and sighed. “I will not punish you,” he said. “But remember how small I am! Don’t step on me as you walk.”

Cer Lu raised his eyes. For an instant there was something almost greedy in them, a hunter seeing a chance to take more than his fair share of the game. “Thank you, Aci. I have told our lady about your weakness and she will give you time to rest. Rest. Our lady is cruel to her enemies but has mercy to her friends. You are a friend of our lady.”

Awab looked away from Cer Lu’s face, troubled by that flash of cunning. He knew he had no friends here, and certainly the Lady of Mar Gjol was not one, but he had foolishly trusted Cer Lu; now he realized his mistake. “Thank you,” he said. “You may go.” When Cer Lu had risen and left Awab alone, Awab returned to his recitation. There had no particular reason at first he had chosen the story of Mabbid, but he had begun to suspect the story meant something more than he knew. “The serpent writhed in her hands; it spoke to her at last.”

Chapter 7

Sacred Dance: Chapter 5

The day came when a message came from the Lord of Sa Ruh and one of the giants came to lead Awab. But he saw Pevar coming up the passage from the cauldron and with a gesture of patience to the giant, Awab went to her and said, “I will be leaving now on our lord’s business. I don’t know when I will be back. Please tell the others.”

Pevar embraced him after a silent moment and said, “Of course. May the good spirits look after you, Belsar and Delbiru and the rest. Maybe outside you will even be able to dance.”

“Maybe,” Awab said. “Thank you.”

Then Awab left her, and the giant shepherded him to the red god’s chamber, where he knelt before the crystal and heard the god’s voice echoing through his mind. “You go where I send you and do as I tell you. I watch over you and keep you safe, but you obey me above all else.”

“I understand,” said Awab.

“I send you to the children of the river, to the slaves of my sister. You are an adornment for her court, but you are my servant above all else. You do my bidding. Go. Go. Go!”

At this last word Awab stumbled and felt himself falling, even though his feet were planted on the ground. For a moment he felt as if he were in two places at once, then he was lying on his back in darkness. He was in a box of some sort, twice his height and humming faintly. His skin itched all over and he scratched himself to no avail before he climbed out of the box and hopped down to the ground.

Looking around in confusion, Awab recognized the enormous unlit chamber in the depths of the hive, the one that he faintly remembered visiting long ago. There were other boxes next to his own, and when he stepped closer to look inside one, he could just make out the form of a giant lying within, either asleep or dead.

He jumped when a hand fell on his shoulder. But it was Meahr, who said nothing but took his hand and guided, almost pulled him, up the stairway to the ledge of huts. Awab noticed that the tunnels of the hive were much quieter; it was almost as if he and Meahr were the only ones there.

“Will I go alone to the Cu Tan?” Awab asked.

“I have been commanded to go with you as far as Earah’s Pillar. From there the Cu Tan themselves will take you.” Meahr stopped for a moment and grinned at Awab. “Perhaps you will have enough time to master the epithets of their vulture goddess.”

As instructed, Awab shed his white robe and lay it over the top of his hut. He felt freer without it, now that he wore only his breechcloth and the air could dance upon his skin. He followed Meahr down to the entrance, a different gate than the Tonc gate that had welcomed him to the stronghold. It was the wet season of the year, but it wasn’t raining at the moment, and Awab looked around at the field of rock with a shudder. But the scent of the running water, rich with the mud of its banks, filled his nose, and he breathed deeply. Meahr urged him to hurry onwards to the boat that was waiting for them, and Awab shuddered again when he saw that its pilot was one of the faceless creatures. Meahr touched its chest with a chalk rod and it began to row.

Awab did learn all the epithets of the Lady of Mar Gjol, who, Meahr told him, was vain beyond anything human. “The Cu Tan won’t bother you too much if you slip up. They know you’re a foreigner, and the children of the forest are strange anyway. But the Lady of Mar Gjol, she won’t be happy.”

“Have you ever met her?” Awab asked.

“Not in her threshold form, but I have seen the madmen who are her dearest slaves. They are frightful,” and Meahr showed his teeth. “But our lord was with me and kept me safe from their blows, just as he will you.”

Their pilot did not sleep, but worked tirelessly to propel them on down the river, sometimes sparing a hand to bail water out of the boat. When they were not asleep or engaged in a lesson, Meahr trawled for fish with a net while Awab stared down at the water. Occasionally Meahr tapped the creature again, commanding it to bring the boat to shore when the rain was too hard.

Their voyage took several days, but Awab didn’t find it tedious. Meahr’s lessons taxed his mind, the strangeness of the boat ride was constantly around him like a cloud of flies that he couldn’t shake off, and of course he was aware of where he was going, among strange people and a terrible goddess. As the days wore on, Meahr spoke less and less, using only the Cu Tan form of speech when he did. Finally he pointed ahead, at a pillar of honeygem rising on the right side of the river. “That is the pillar Earah established in the elder days, when gods fought gods and storms tore the sky end to end. But Earah made peace between our lord and their lady, and so it’s been to this day.” He sighed and looked at Awab, putting his hands on Awab’s shoulders. “Now you will go on with the Cu Tan, and I will go back to our lord. I will pray to him on your behalf until you return safely.”

Awab said nothing, but bowed and shut his eyes. Then he peered ahead, looking for any sign of the Cu Tan. He breathed in through his nose and then he scented them, several giants hidden from sight among the trees. He pointed, and Meahr used his rod to direct their pilot towards shore. Handing his satchel to Awab, he called out, “The Lord of Sa Ruh sends his compliments to the Lady of Mar Gjol, and as a token of his good wishes, he gives her a manservant from the people of the forest.” There was a long silence, then the sound of a drum beating slowly and steadily. “Time to go,” Meahr said, and Awab climbed out of the boat to stand on the shore, near Earah’s pillar. Again Meahr tapped the creature’s chest to send it rowing back up the river.

Awab stood exposed on the shore for what seemed like half a day until the giants emerged from their concealment and approached him, walking cautiously with spears raised. They surrounded him, then one laughed like a jackal and said, “See the little one! But our lady wants you, and we must obey.” Awab had to concentrate to understand this, and by the time he did, he lost the rest of their conversation. But the meaning of their spears was clear enough, and he followed where they led him, down a slope to a cove in the riverbank where a large boat was tied.

The Cu Tan had no such creatures as the Lord of Sa Ruh had, so the giants did their own rowing, slower than the creatures’ and with more frequent rests. The giants were not unkind to Awab. Though he was aware that they disliked him, he was in their goddess’s graces. One even said to him, “Please speak well of us to our lady when you come before her.”

Left without true company once again, Awab felt despondency tugging at him, a temptation to lie down in the bottom of the boat and drift away. But he was stern with himself, telling himself in his own language, the language of home, that giving up would do him no good, nor any of his brothers and sisters. So he endured the journey and the giants’ scorn, sitting with his hands over his head as arrows flew; “The outcasts, those without god or master,” one of the Cu Tan said, spitting; until at long last they reached a wooden wall stretching along the side of the river.

This was the first stage of Awab’s journey to the Lady of Mar Gjol. The giants pulled the boat up to the shore and then lifted Awab into the air suddenly and handed him to another, an especially large giant who carried him like a child through a gate in the wall. The earth behind seemed to be torn up, as if furrowed by an enormous hand, and in the midst of the furrows was a ring of stones on level ground. The giant brought Awab to this ring and set him in its center. From here Awab looked down to the wall behind him and then what was ahead: a marshy land split by countless streams, as far as Awab could see.

“Touch the stones,” said the giant. Awab wasn’t sure he understood correctly, especially the word “stones,” which he could only guess meant something like its cousin in the language of Sa Ruh. But the giant patted the stones that made up the ring, adding, “They are older than our lady, but they will allow if we know them,” an explanation that made nothing clear to Awab. But he reached out and touched the top of the nearest stone, then trembled, aware suddenly that he was in the shadow of a great power. The giant touched it after him, then hoisted him up again and carried him down a path towards the marshy land. There was a two-man boat tied to a small tree waiting for them; the giant dropped Awab into it not very gently before taking his own seat.

“Cu Tan,” the giant said, waving his arm. “We are Cu Tan. This is our home.”

And Awab fell asleep, exhausted and overwhelmed. When he woke it was evening, and the boat was near a village of mud-and-reed huts. There were giants was on the shore looking out towards him and calling him something he didn’t understand. “Áci,” they were saying.

“Here we are,” said Awab’s pilot. “We sleep here tonight.”

Before, in the nest, Awab and the giants had both been subject to the law of the Lord of Sa Ruh, but here Awab felt abandoned in the midst of this crowd of giants, pressing around him and patting his head and smiling at him in unpleasant ways. Though his stomach was empty and he didn’t want to be rude, he was able to eat little of the food they offered him. Nor did he get much sleep after all, as giants, both adults and children, kept prodding him even as he lay curled on a mat in one of the huts. It was crowded and hot, but at least it was dry. Awab listened to the rain coming down and thought about his home, about the depths of the Gorob and the dances in the branches’ shadow. He prayed silently that he would return someday.

The next morning his giant guide took him back to the boat, and calling out a brief farewell, began to row away, further up their river. Awab could see mountains in the distance but shut his eyes and turned his head. He had dreamed of them last night, dreamed of going up into those peaks to find a tree whose leaves turned into sand and fruit into stones. He had stood with crumbling rock in his hands, and then reached up to touch the sky. But his hand broke through and darkness began to pour out through the hole, night itself swallowing up the day. An ill omen, and he hoped that he would not be taken there.

They passed more settlements, where the giant traded for food for both of them, and Awab was cooed over by the curious villagers. Then they entered a part of the land where the trees had been cleared away and the grass grew tall. When it wasn’t raining, Awab saw giants moving through the grass with baskets on their bowed heads.

Eventually Awab’s guide pointed to a series of posts planted in the river ahead and said “Home.” Awab peered around, looking for a sign that anyone lived in the area, but saw none. The giant took the boat in between two of these posts and shouted in a voice much louder than he normally used, “Be seen!”

Something passed through the air in front of them like light shining off water, and when it was gone it left behind it a sign indeed, a palace of white stone discolored at its base by the river. Awab’s eyes widened at this, but the giant only dropped his hands back to the oars and took them up to the palace, alongside the great blocks of stone and around a corner to a series of steps that rose from the water into a hall where giants mingled with wide-mouthed eyeless creatures. One of the giants was waiting for them there; he lifted Awab up and set him down inside the hall.

“Where am I going?” Awab asked.

“Come with me,” the giant said.

The creatures here had a very different smell from those in the service of the Lord of Sa Ruh. Instead of a dull mineral scent, they smelled of the muck of the river, and their mouths gaped like gasping fish. Awab kept his distance from them, and they made no sound but only turned their faces to him as he passed. As for the giants, they whispered and pointed. He saw no other children of the forest as he followed his newest guide to a doorway in the back of the hall and through it, but he was comforted to once again be in narrow spaces, away from the open sky. The light here came not from the nets and globes of Sa Ruh, but channels of luminescent water that ran through the walls. Awab paused for a moment to look at one such channel, and saw a tiny fish swimming in circles.

Suddenly the giant turned on him, when they were alone in the passage, and said, “You have no friends here, Aci. Not among us, not among the Go’lan, and certainly not with our lady. Guard yourself and your words.”

Awab nodded to show his understanding. The giant smiled on one side of his mouth. “It is well. You are the page of our lady, and I am your page. You can call me Cer Lu.”

“Cer Lu,” said Awab.

The giant turned back and led Awab to a room cut in half by a glowing stream. The narrow bridge that crossed the stream was guarded, if it could be called that, by a man who crouched on hands and feet and snarled as they entered. Awab caught his eye and was unable to look away, feeling something rip through his mind. He sank to his knees dizzily and nearly fell over, but Cer Lu picked him up and shouted at the snarling man, “Shut your eyes! Go into the night!”

The snarling man fled into the shadows far from the stream, but gave a final bestial howl. Cer Lu took Awab’s arm and pulled him across the bridge. He was still trembling and there was still a whirlwind in his head, but as it faded he became aware of himself again. They were in a different room now, and Awab asked, still somewhat confused, if they were going to see the Lady of Mar Gjol.

“Oh, certainly. But you must go alone. She will destroy me if I behold her threshold, but she will not destroy her gift lest your lord take offense. But you will suffer if you don’t respect her. That is the truth.”

Now they were at a door with a symbol Awab didn’t recognize. Cer Lu stopped and gestured for Awab to go on through. He swung the door open and stepped inside.

The threshold of the Lady of Mar Gjol hung from the ceiling in a stone bowl, a great red crystal appearing no different from that of the Lord of Sa Ruh. The room was illuminated only by torches, though a faint glow came from between gaps in the slats of the floor. Awab knelt, and after some time had passed in silence, he said, haltingly, “The Lord of Sa Ruh sent me.”

“I am happy.” The voice pierced through Awab’s head like a weaker form of the snarling man. “You are like the old brothers.” Or maybe it was “our old brothers” she had said. “You do as I say and march with my elcwóh. You ride with the storm.”

“I will,” said Awab, bowing his head further.

She laughed and it was like rain pouring through his skull. “Go and ask your page to take you to your room. Tomorrow you attend my great feast, and the day after you attend my hunt.”

Awab went and obeyed. Cer Lu showed him to a surprisingly large room with a bed and two waterfalls running down a wall, one of normal water and one of glowing. He showed Awab how he could pull a curtain in front of the glowing waterfall to darken the room, then left. Awab lay on the bed, which was soft and comforting, especially after all those weeks curled in the bottom of a reed boat, and very soon he was asleep.

The next day Cer Lu took him to the feast, where he sat in a place of honor with giants beneath him offering him bowls of food. He shifted uncomfortably on his chair and looked to the giants who sat on either side of him, wondering what role they played in the Lady of Mar Gjol’s palace to be honored like this. Cer Lu wasn’t even in the dining hall; he was with the other servants, Awab presumed. He tried to listen to the conversation around him, but the words flew by too fast for him to catch, so he sat in his loneliness until the giant on his left turned to him and said, “Tell us a story of your people, favorite child.”

“I will try. Forgive my mistakes.” Awab hesitated over which story to tell. Not how Vuvudru made man; any story about the gods ran the risk of offending the Lady of Mar Gjol and her followers. Not the story of Tybvad and Areg; that was too close to the dances. The story of how the children of Gorob went to war with the chimpanzees? But he didn’t know the word for chimpanzee, or many of the animals that appeared, in either the Sa Ruh or Mar Gjol languages. Thinking at last of one that would work, he filled his lungs and began. He spoke haltingly, and often enough slipped into Sa Ruh tones or threw in a Gorob word.

“Long ago,” he said, “there was a time when it rained without cease, so that the river ran over its banks and threatened to swallow my ancestors. The people gathered together on a high mound to discuss what they should do. Ketffu spoke first, in a voice like burning fire, and said, ‘Let us fight the river and force it to yield!’

“Then Bavab raised his arm and spoke. ‘Let us not offend the spirits of the river and the clouds. Let us dance in their honor and maybe they will relent.’

“They all considered these things in silence, then a young man, Pytwod son of Pytwod, stood up in the middle of the people and he said, ‘I will climb up to heaven and ask the cloud spirits why they are sending us all this rain.’ And he did! He found the tallest tree in the forest and climbed to the very top, where the branches met the sky. He called to the spirits and they answered in the falling of the rain. He listened, and then he climbed down and went back to his people.

“Pytwod said, ‘I have asked the cloud spirits why they sent this rain, and they told me this. They intend to drown the world until the water lifts us up to be their companions. But I told them that if they relented, I would go with them into the heavens.’ And he did. He climbed back up the tree and never returned, and the rain stopped, and the river returned to its old paths.”

There was silence when Awab finished. Then one of the giants at his side roared with laughter. “Well,” he said, “I understood half of that, Aci, but it was an entertaining story.” And the others all cheered. Awab began to doubt whether they really understood even half, or whether they flattered him to flatter their lady. But he smiled and accepted their praise.

“Have you no rainmakers in the forests, to start or end the rain?” one giant asked.

“The rain comes and goes of its own will,” said Awab.

“Our lady cares for us, but in the north there are women who avoid certain foods and shed their blood so that their gods will hear them when they call for rain,” the giant said. This started a conversation that Awab couldn’t follow, but seemed to be about whether there were tribes where the rainmakers were men, or if they were women everywhere.

Suddenly the hall was quiet again, and Awab, who had been quiet already, looked around to see what had silenced everyone. It didn’t take long: a man with a wild look in his eye was crawling into the room, and everyone around the intruder was backing away. Awab cast glances at the giants on each side of him; they seemed to be tense, but not alarmed. One reached over and touched his shoulder. “See, Aci, it is one through whom the spirit of our lady has passed, scraping away his old thoughts and leaving her shadow. He is à bah, ríncco, rà’á’n.” None of these words Awab knew. “I wonder if he has a message from our lady’s shadow.”

Awab kept himself perfectly still as the crazed man writhed towards him. A witless mouth fell open and croaking words came forth, but they were so distorted that Awab couldn’t make out any of what he was saying. But the giants next to Awab looked away. When he had finished speaking after his fashion, the crazed man turned quickly from Awab and seized one of the giants below, tearing his throat with his teeth and dragging the victim away into the darkest corner of the hall.

“And that may be the fate of any of us,” said Awab’s interlocutor.

“Which?” Awab asked. “The mad man or his victim?”

“Either.” He laughed, but Awab didn’t find it a pleasant sound.

“Did, did the mad man say anything?”

“Yes. But the ravings of his kind say many things, few of which can be believed. He said that our lady sees more than we know and knows more than we see. That’s true, but he also said that you are lower than you stand, which is for you to understand.”

Awab wasn’t sure if the giant had just made a pun, so he only smiled and shook his head. He understood nothing. They offered him more fish, but he had lost his appetite after seeing the crazed man. He sat and watched as the giants in the hall fell into drunkenness, raving and throwing honeygem bowls at one another, and though he knew he could be in danger, he felt so distant from everything that he could barely move. He felt the presence of someone else in the room, as if a thing larger than any of the giants was sitting above them all. He found himself thinking of a spider, a massive spider hanging from the ceiling, its legs dangling down over them. He shuddered, and the spider wavered and blew away as if in a fierce wind. None of the giants with him seemed to have been affected as he was, and he stared down at his feet until the giant on his right, who hadn’t yet spoken to him, said, “Aci is tired. I will take him back to his room.”

Though Awab was more dazed than tired, he let the giant pick him up in the odd fashion of this village and carry him out of the hall. A woman was leaving at the same time, and she stopped to stare at Awab. Her face was obliterated in a mass of scars and she smelled of decay. There was something familiar in the shape of the scars, but before Awab could make it out, she was gone again.

The giant deposited Awab on his bed like a child, but Awab hardly cared. He shut his eyes and tried to ignore the tiny spiders scurrying across the ceiling that his mind conjured up. He felt strangely sick to his stomach, though he hadn’t touched any of the beer the giants had passed around. Groaning, he turned over and buried his head in his arms.

Awab did not fall asleep, but drifted between awareness and sleep for a time. He saw a man walking towards him, like one of the giants but with a flatter face and lighter skin. The man addressed Awab in a voice like thunder, in the tongue of Sa Ruh. “Do not forget that I send you to do my bidding. Do you obey me?”

“I do, my lord,” said Awab, for he knew who spoke to him.

“Then go. My sister keeps the mask of Earah in her halls. Find it. Bring it back to my domain. Thus I command you.” The man raised his hands, showing Awab what he was holding: a mask of painted wood with wide eyes and white stripes like tears down its cheeks. Then Awab opened his eyes and was awake. He rose to walk over to the waterfall splashing quietly behind the curtain, and there he stood until he decided in himself what to do. Then he relaxed and went back to bed, and this time he slept.

Chapter 6