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.

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