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 Dakʘar. 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 Rúh, 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 Màr Jòl 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, Áci!” said Cer Lu when he returned, clapping his hands. “We do not fight the Lord of Sa Rúh, or any of the lords. We fight the ɟɛmbí!”
“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, Áci, 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 Ęrah’s mask as soon as possible. The Lord of Sa Rúh 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 Màr Jòl’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 Rúh 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. “Áci!” 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 Áci! 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 Áci! 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.
“Bva, old elephant,
“Tremble in your tusks.
“Va, old elephant,
“Hear not the hunters.
“V̱a, old elephant,
“See not our spears.
“Wa, old elephant,
“W̱a, old elephant,
“Songs and spears!”
The giant beneath him cried, “That is no war song! Hear how the folk of Màr Jòl 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 Ęrah’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 Ęrah’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, Áci? 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 Màr Jòl 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 Màr Jòl had given him to another master, a warrior named Dol Yát, 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, Áci.” Awab did not ask before he left if Cer Lu had betrayed him.