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.”
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.”