Soon the giants took him from his cell and carried him out of the palace, where a boat was waiting for them, tied to one of the many mooring posts around the walls. “Where are we going?” Awab asked.
“Don’t you know, little one? We are going to war. The Second Totem have left already. We must catch up to them.” True to his word, the pilot did not delay, but began to row as soon as Awab was in the boat. His arms bulged and strained; he rowed almost as powerfully as one of the Lord of Sa Ruh’s faceless creatures, and it was less than an hour before Awab saw the boats massed together on the river ahead, in numbers that staggered his mind. Surely so many men couldn’t have been within the palace. They must have been gathered from all the realm of Mar Gjol to fight. “Tell me, Aci, what blows will you strike for our lady?”
Awab didn’t answer him. He was glad for the number of the giants, which would make it easier for him to escape. For that was the only plan he could think of, to run away and hide from both the red gods and the warriors of the Ibis. Maybe he could return south to the forests, not to his own family but others of his own kind, further into the shadows where no foreign god would follow. He had promised to help Nylyvad, but to his shame he couldn’t imagine himself going back to confront the Lord of Sa Ruh, not in the least. What could a man do against a god?
The boats on the river ahead were larger than his own, large enough that his pilot could draw the smaller boat alongside one and giants could attach ropes and pull the small boat over and inside. They stared at Awab with obvious hatred, and he was suddenly afraid that they would take it on themselves to punish him for his offense against their lady. But he met their eyes until at last the nearest giant laughed and they turned away. Not one of them spoke to him after this, not even his pilot.
Awab sat in a corner pressed close by boxes of stinking dried fish and watched how the giants yelled to those in the nearby boats as a wooden totem was hoisted up in the middle of the gathering, tall enough that it could be clearly seen even from the furthest boats. There were certain signs surrounding the totem, strips of colored fabric and drums on which giants tapped out a rhythm that meant nothing to Awab, but which obviously meant something to the giants in the boats, who began to row.
The boats moved out across the river, separating from one another as they went. Awab peered over the edge of his boat at the water, then lay back against one of the great shields and stared up at the sky, praying that he would escape safely. He observed that the giants prayed as well, to their Lady Mar Gjol, and that the chief man of the boat had a shard of crystal, the same shade of red as her threshold, which he held up for them to bow to. They made Awab bow also.
Though he had planned to run away when they stopped on dry land, the army of Mar Gjol did not stop even at night, but took turns rowing while others slept. Sometimes there was excitement as they came across a group of hippopotamus that had to be carefully navigated around, and that was dangerous work, as Awab knew the great animals would crush the boats in their mouths without a thought. But it was done with little damage or death in the end, and one of Awab’s giants told him that even the beasts feared the Lady of Mar Gjol.
Once Awab saw men running along the side of the river with spears, but they slipped out of sight and were gone. Awab didn’t know if his giants had seen them; they certainly said nothing about it.
There was enough space on the boats for the warriors to practice wrestling and fighting with clubs, while Awab watched with trepidation. By now he was considering leaping into the water, though his wisdom told him that if he was not drowned or taken by a crocodile, the giants would simply spear him or fish him back aboard to die in battle later, but the looks the giants gave him were frightening. He wondered how long it would be until they reached the lands of the Ibis, and what sort of god this was that was named after a bird.
Awab stood and stretched his arms over his head. He heard a loud buzz and slapped at his neck where he thought the bug had landed, but felt nothing. Turning, he saw one of the giants staggering with an arrow in his chest, tipping over the edge of the boat and falling into the water. Awab ducked to the bottom immediately, but another giant stood frozen foolishly until he too was struck and fell inside the boat yelling something about his Lady.
But the other giants in the boat moved quickly, raising their shields and rowing into a formation that put them on the inside of a wall assembled in moments from wooden frames held up around the outer boats. Arrows were loosed back at the enemy on the bank until the air was filled with them, and Awab cowered in the bottom of the boat, thankful that Vuvudru had made him so small. Awab thought the enemy were chanting in their own language, but it was impossible to be sure, for the giants of Mar Gjol had begun to yell and beat their drums. Then suddenly all was silent again, except for the wounded man gasping and shouting incoherently. “Our lady did not say they would be here so soon!” one of the surviving giants said, but another struck him with a blow that knocked him down to Awab’s side with blood trickling down his face. The giant rose and bowed, accepting his rebuke.
The giants took the boats to shore and began to unload their weapons and provisions, guards with spears and bows standing around them. Awab and his companions were among the last to step onto land, the giants carrying their wounded friend. The arrow had gone through vital organs in the man’s torso, but Awab suspected his death would not be quick. “Let me go and die with spear in hand!” he was saying. They gave him a spear and he stood, though it was obvious he was in agony. “I will find the children of the Ibis for you and call out when I have found them.”
He left them, but he never returned or shouted as he had promised, and Awab never knew what became of him. He sat with an eye out for a chance to escape, but the close presence of both the Mar Gjol army and the unseen followers of the Ibis kept him where he was. If he was to die, he preferred not to be taken like a hunted animal.
“Come on,” a giant said, prodding him with a staff. “Don’t think you’re unlucky enough to stay with the boats. You’re coming to battle with us, to die for our lady!”
Awab stood unwillingly and went where he was led. The land had changed in their voyage, but more so the air, which smelled of aridity and grass. Though trees grew thickly along the shore, within a few hours’ walk away from the river, the trees thinned away. There were those among them who took the role of trackers, but none of them found the traces of footsteps that Awab did, not that he was inclined to correct them. He himself had no desire to fight the Ibis.
The giants with Awab paused at the edge of the trees, and there passed around cups of water. It was hot, with little protection from the glare of the sun, and Awab was tired and half-sick. The water helped, as did sitting in the shade of a tree with long straight branches, but too soon the giants were pulling him to his feet and laughing. “You should have been training with us! But we’ll get you in shape soon enough. Or if not, the Ibis will pull you into shape with his beak!”
“Have you ever seen the Ibis?” he asked.
They laughed again. “The Ibis is not like our lady or even your lord. He was born in the first days, when we hadn’t yet taken clay to our spirits. See him? In nightmares, maybe.” Awab started when he heard a sound like the cry of an elephant. “That is their horn! Now we shall see who trembles!” One of the giants began to spin a carved piece of wood around his head, creating a loud high-pitched roaring that met the cry of the Ibis and fought with it in the air until Awab’s ears felt ready to burst.
“There! Do you see them?” asked a giant at Awab’s side and pointed into the distant plain, though Awab could see little. “Now we fight!” And he yelled something at the top of his lungs and hoisted his spear in the air. Then there was a charge, though Awab only half-understood where they were going or what they were doing. But he saw his chance, and with all the giants blind with their lust for battle, he turned back into the woods and shimmied up a tree, his muscles aching from lack of practice, and he hid himself among the branches.
From there he saw the two armies meet, the men of Mar Gjol and the followers of the Ibis bellowing their warcries. He watched until he realized how many were falling dead, then he started to climb down again. He would have to keep out of the sight of the Mar Gjol warriors who were guarding the boats, then go south along the river back towards the great forests of his home. Maybe he would perish on the way, but any chance for life was better than none.
Awab was accustomed to going without food and didn’t suffer much the first few days, though he glad when he caught a hare and built a fire to cook it. As the hare roasted on its stick over the flames Awab began to dance, jumping and spinning to thank Vuvudru and all the spirits for his freedom, striking his head on the ground to mourn for Nylyvad. But he stopped when he heard voices in the northern trees. “Násùùj seeh hìscel, téélíín dúr en.”
Abandoning the hare, he slipped into a thicker part of the woods away from the voices, then climbed up into another tree. There he watched as giants came into the clearing and stomped around, talking and pointing in various directions. These giants were painted with white dots over the skin, like stars in the night sky. He kept perfectly still and made no noise at all until they were gone, then he waited a while longer before climbing down. They had taken the hare, of course.
He slept that night hidden in a space between two large trees that grew close together, waking frequently lest a lion surprise him. But it was not a lion whose presence caused him to stir in the early light. The giants he had seen before were close by. He hurried westward away from the river, and as he turned south again he wondered who these giants were and how long he would be in their shadow.
Awab halted suddenly when he heard noises from ahead of him. He crouched low to the ground, then there was a snapping sound behind him and turned, but something fell over his head and body, enveloping him in a net of thick strands. He snarled at his own stupidity, to be caught in such a trap, and struggled to break free, but the giants were looming over him now, laughing and tugging on the edges of the net, prodding him with a stick. Now he was an animal indeed.
They picked him up in his bundle and carried him to the river, where a boat was waiting for them, much like the large boats of Mar Gjol but painted with colorful lines from prow to stern, and delivered Awab to the next stage of his life.
Gea ritánc hur lantó,
Gea ritánc lu lantó bir ngul.
Talà peal waà peal sa rúh,
Ko’ sóábáterr hátáncim.
Ìto’nalà herra muri,
Icàrwoaalà loh majánc,
Osc bealúan sik húr agju.
Ko’ sóábáterr hátáncim.
There is a god among us,
We have a god on earth.
Our Lord is the Lord of Sa Ruh,
Blessed be his form.
He gives us laws,
He protects us from demons,
No one is stronger in magic than him!
Blessed be his form!
-A Sa Ruh chant