Sacred Dance: Chapter 16

When Awab came before the king the next morning, Qhamifdir seemed tired too, and his thoughts seemed to be far away. But Awab didn’t pry; he only went to his cushion and sat. After a moment Qhamifdir said, “Things come to a head today, little dwarf. You’ve met Palatu, I believe, and she’s looked after Duri for generations. But there was a time when Palatu was stronger, even if her priests have made her a meek wife for Qhusir. Duri doesn’t need a meek wife. We need a goddess who will strike her enemies and bite their throats. The Magharun know that.”

Qhamifdir fell silent and tapped his fingers on the table. Then he said, “I’m not being foolish to tell you this. Pa’ knows I’m not. The deed’s been done, and now I must do what I swore to Sanith. You will know who Sanith is soon. Now she’s a goddess for Duri. She gives what she promises.”

Awab swallowed and said nothing. He remembered the dark Palatu he had seen in her shrine, and the sound of Sanith’s name ran down his spine unpleasantly.

“Sanith promised to confirm the reign of me and my descendents for a thousand years. The price was high, but Hathara and I were willing to pay it.” His eyes darted to the door, though Awab had heard nothing. Awab could smell the king’s nervousness.

At last Qhamifdir began to calm down, and relaxed in his chair. But the room still felt very small and narrow to Awab, and he looked out the window to calm himself. The window faced the west, towards the great river, and Awab let his thoughts wander as he stared, thinking of his home in Gorob. He wondered if Bvebvekso was growing closer to manhood, and wondered if Oryk had married Elyvvu. Long ago he had given up hope that he would return triumphantly to her. It was his family he missed above all else now, and yet he found himself thinking of poor Nylyvad.

“Are you a fool, Hugguzi? Do you think the Crocodile lacks ears?”

Awab looked up, surprised by the sudden voice and angry with himself for not paying attention. Jutundaq was standing in the doorway, looking more like an elephant than ever. Qhamifdir jumped and began to stammer.

“The queen mother won’t protect you. The old man’s washed his hands of you. And if you think Sanith has any power here, you are a fool,” Jutundaq said, his voice falling like heavy feet. Then, unexpectedly, he grinned from ear to ear. “It’s time for the Crocodile to stir the waters.”

“My father,” Qhamifdir began to say.

“Would be disappointed in you. What is your fifth name? Your fourth is Umirdaq, but it has two meanings, doesn’t it? Your wife told us when we pressed her. Um Irda. Child of the Blessed Lady!”

“Guards! Help! Treason!”

“Do you think we don’t have soldiers of our own in Hiltar? And all the palace knows what you and your witch of a wife did to your infant son.”

Qhamifdir bolted towards the window, knocking Awab aside, but Jutundaq was faster despite his size. He seized Qhamifdir and shook him. “Shake a king, shake a king! Tell me what prize you bring!”

Awab fled out the doorway now that Jutundaq was out of the way. He didn’t even know for sure where he was running, only that he had to stay away from the king and from the Hiltar priests. And from Nasari, and Scaka, and the veiled. Balihagu was safe, maybe, but where was Balihagu? He heard high-pitched voices behind him but couldn’t understand them. There would be guards at the gates, but would they care about a dwarf, or only keep the royal family and chief men from leaving?

He didn’t have the chance to find out. Before he knew what was happening, his feet were off the ground and some dark fabric was over his face. “Who are you?” his captor demanded in a heavy accent.

“Awab!” he said through the fabric. “I was brought from the forests of the south; I am a stranger here!”

“I know that. Who are you?” They were walking somewhere now.

“What do you want to know?” Awab asked desperately.

“It is a simple question. Who are you ? You know, if you don’t answer I might just kill you.”

“They say I am sacred, but all I can say is that I’ve served the gods who rule in the lands near my home.”

“Foolish fancies, fanciful foolishness.”

“I was a good judge among my people. Many looked to me to divide the meat of the hunt.”

“Ah, here we are at last.”

Awab thought from the feel of the air that they had passed outside by now, but the cloth filled his nose with its perfumed scent just as effectively as it covered his eyes. Then they were inside again. Awab’s captor whirled him around several times before setting him down on the ground. The cloth came off his face so he could see and smell.

The room where he found himself was open to the sky, though the walls were immensely vast, looming over him with their serpentine paintings. At the center of the room was a pool of water, clear and shallow around the edges but darker in the middle. The smell of the air was sharp and bracing, enough to sting Awab’s nose if he breathed in too deeply.

“Who are you, little dwarf? You are the Crocodile’s child, as you are about to learn.”

There were muffled shouts from somewhere nearby, and from a doorway nearly hidden in the shadow of a pillar, several men appeared dragging Nasari behind them. She didn’t seem to be fighting, though she was cursing through the cloth over her mouth. Her words sounded like curses in some language that was neither Duri or Mar Gjol.

“The Crocodile knows you even if you don’t know yourself,” Awab’s captor told him. “You are a judge, that is true. So watch and let your eyes be witnesses before the gods.”

Nasari was close enough now for Awab to see clearly what was happening to her. One of the men with Nasari took something like the fang of a snake and used it to cut the back of Nasari’s hand, leaving two vertical marks that welled blood. Then Nasari was dragged to the edge of the pool and her hand was thrust under the water, the blood spilling out into a red cloud. Something stirred in the darkest part of the pool. Nasari was silent, but her eyes were wide and her lips trembled.

Then the water broke at the surface of the pool and a head emerged, like that of a crocodile but far larger, with a pale light glowing in its eyes. The head sank beneath the water again, but drew ever closer to Nasari, and its jaws opened. Awab began to cry out, but his captor stuffed the cloth in his mouth to deaden his voice.

The crocodile was in the shallows of the pool now, every scale of its body reflecting the light so brilliantly that Awab was forced to squint. But even through half-shut eyes he saw those jaws enclose Nasari’s hand, trails of blood winding around blackened teeth. Then Nasari screamed and the crocodile was gone, its dark shape vanishing back into the depths. They pulled Nasari away from the pool, blood pulsing from the stump of her hand.

Awab was terrified, but doubly so when his captor began to carry him towards the pool himself. He kicked and punched until he dropped to the ground, his captor rubbing his arms and glaring. “Do you think you can escape him who dreams? What! Fool! Are you a dwarf in mind as well as body? Come here and I’ll teach you what a servant of the Crocodile can do.”

There was a deep rumbling sound from the pool. Awab tried to run, but found his legs wouldn’t move. The giants looked from one to another in surprise, and spoke quickly. Awab had been struggling with their accent before, but now he found them completely uninterpretable. Whatever they were saying, it was interrupted when Jutundaq himself entered the room, alone, walking with a restrained energy, as if he wanted to skip like a child but dignity prevented him. He looked from person to person, from Awab to the Crocodile’s servants to Nasari, who was curled up by the edge of the pool (her arm had somehow stopped bleeding). Then he laughed.

“I hope none of you have forgotten the difference between the judge and the plaintiff. That would be embarrassing for us all. The Crocodile has cleverer servants than that, I hope.” He took Awab and slung him over his shoulder, and though Awab struck Jutundaq’s back repeatedly, he might as well have been punching the hide of an elephant. “Leave the Spider’s girl here a while to feel His breath in her blood. Our king is on trial and I don’t want to miss that for the world.”

He chuckled and carried Awab outside again, singing one of the sad Duri songs with an upbeat lilt that sent a chill down Awab’s spine.

“I’m sorry you had to see that, but he wants you to know all the facts. It is his wish, it is his whim, and it isn’t my part to question . I’m glad you were able to see that! Few have seen the Crocodile in his glory. Not even King Qhamifdir himself. If he had seen the shadow of the Crocodile’s form, I don’t think he’d have gone hunting after Sanith. But we are all mad dreams, all of us!”

“Bad dreams,” Awab said. He thought he had spoken only to himself, but Jutundaq heard him and began to laugh right in Awab’s ear until they reached their destination. It was a ring of stone Awab had seen before, on the west side of the palace gardens, and though it was usually abandoned, now it was surrounded by giants, some bald like priests and some armed like soldiers.

Jutundaq put Awab atop the wall where he could see the marble plain that the great square stones encircled. There were too many giants nearby for Awab to even consider running, so he sat and watched while Jutundaq continued on into the plain. In the middle he met with a small group of other giants, and among them was a kneeling Qhamifdir.

“The king is not with the Crocodile,” Jutundaq said in a sudden booming voice. “Let him be broken and buried in the sands. Let Hagu’ take him and feed his heart to Aluggra. Let his name be forgotten.”

The sky had been empty except for the sun’s harsh light, but now Awab looked up to see clouds of swirling sand descending from the east. Jutundaq paid no heed but continued to rant in words that Awab found more and more difficult to understand.

“We are to impress upon our souls the image of the gods, but this man, if I can even call him a man, chased after demons by becoming a demon himself. He shed the blood of his own firstborn son, the heir of Qhusir, an innocent child! If he is not a servant of Saku, then he is dust.” Awab understood this much, concentrating hard on the words, but soon lost the trail again.

Then Jutundaq had wrapped a cord around Qhamifdir’s neck and was pulling tight, until the king fell to the floor and did not move. The armed men remained silent, but the priests raised a shout mingled with hyena-like laughter. Suddenly dizzy, Awab stumbled off the wall and vomited.

“Here we are, here we are, here we are. And here he is. Take him to the tombs of his fathers. We have a worthier man to take his place.”

“Are you all right?” someone asked Awab in a gentle voice.

He coughed and looked up. A man whose face was totally covered by a veil was standing over him, and immediately he scrambled to his feet and ran, despite all the soldiers. None of them even seemed to notice him, however, and he fled into the gardens, finding a place where reeds grew thick along the stream and hiding himself among them. What was he going to do now? Where was he going to go? Balihagu was his only hope, he realized, but where could he find him?

Once Awab had gathered his courage, he left the reeds and went into the palace, which he found largely empty. There were faint smells and rustling sounds that told him he was not the only one in hiding. He glanced into the hall where he had first been brought before the king and turned away after an instant: the gods on the walls were suddenly flat and dead.

As he wound his way towards his room in the hope that Balihagu would look for him there, he heard someone walking slowly around the corner ahead of him. He started to double back, but Nasari’s voice rang out. “I see you there, little judge. Or didn’t you know the Spider has many eyes?”

He stood still and waited for Nasari to come around the corner to him. When she appeared at last she was limping, with the stump of her wrist clutched close to her chest. “Where’s Balihagu?” he asked, though he felt foolish as soon as he said it.

“Forget Balihagu,” she said. “He is a blind man who lives among the blind.”

“When they brought you to the pool,” he began to say, intending to ask about her hand, but she jerked her head sharply to cut him off.

“I am a messenger of the gods, and the gods tell me we need to leave Duri. Scaka too, once I find him. We don’t have much time. They’ll be coming back to the palace within a few hours.”

“I saw one of the veiled outside,” said Awab, swallowing as he remembered his fear. “I was running from him.”

“We have less time than I thought. The veiled are outside even my masters’ sight.”

“I thought we all were dreams of the Crocodile.”

“Is that what they told you?” She gestured for him to follow her, and he saw that the stump of her wrist was whitened.

Nasari brought Awab to a little room near the palace wall, where Scaka was sitting against the frame of the doorway, whistling a melancholy Duri tune. “Are you here to kill me?” he asked.

“The hour has come for you to return home.”

“But I don’t know where my home is,” he said, spreading his hands.

“Wherever you were born, it certainly wasn’t here. Your skin was darkened under a fiercer sun. Come with us! The gods have commanded it.”

Scaka sat without a word, looking from Awab to Nasari with a face apparently empty of all thought. Awab thought he sensed someone behind him and swung about nervously, but there was no one there. Finally Scaka said, “I will go. But what will the veiled say?”

“They are ghosts of the past. Forget them.” She took Scaka’s hand and led him out of the palace, Awab following.

Then Balihagu was standing in their way, his sword drawn. “I told you to stay away from them, Awab.”

“At least Nasari is leading me away from battle and death,” Awab said.

“Things will be better very soon, now that Qhamifdir and his sins are gone. Please, trust me. Come back to the palace with me. As for you, Scaka, go where you want, but don’t forget the veiled.”

“I trust you,” Awab said, “but I won’t return to the palace.”

Nasari stepped between them, her arms folded over her chest and her shoulders hunched in a strange pose. She began to speak, but Balihagu made an impatient gesture and lunged towards her with his sword. Nasari moved as fast as lightning, striking his arm with the side of her hand. He stumbled and let the sword drop from his grasp. “What did you do?” he asked, his voice desperate and strained.

“Think not that thou wilt ever raise that arm again. An a man lifts his hand to smite the spider, none should blame the spider for its poison.” She gasped and relaxed her shoulders. “Come, Scaka. Follow me, Awab. The power of the gods is in me right now, but my time is short.”

Balihagu reached into his belt with his other hand and took out his iron knife, then tossed it to Awab. Awab nodded before following Nasari and Scaka.

As they entered the western part of the city, there was a strange scent in the air, something like the odor of the city of the dead. Awab looked behind him again, and this time he saw three men, their bodies covered in cloth like a shroud, their faces veiled. He hurried to catch up with Nasari and whispered up towards her ear, “The veiled are here.”

She glanced back, then gripped Awab’s hand. “Run!”

They ran through Turisu, following some path that only Nasari knew. The smell of the dead did not fade, but the veiled did not follow them. “Who are they?” Awab asked, panting from his exertion.

“They came from the south,” said Nasari, her voice unchanged. “They carry some great god’s power with them. I know nothing more.”

“I will be offending the gods if I leave, then,” Scaka said, slowing his pace.

“You’ll be offending the gods if you stay. Didn’t I tell you that the veiled were ghosts? Their time is over! But here we are.” They were close to the docks; Nasari had stopped at a stone that sat at an awkward angle in the ground. She put her hand on it and muttered, “Targón sea.” Then she gestured for Scaka to push it over. It moved easily when he put his weight against it, revealing a pit from which Nasari pulled several sacks. “The Spider makes excellent provision for himself,” she said as she distributed them among the three.

For a moment she stood by the stone, looking towards the Duri river. Awab wrinkled his nose as the scent of death grew stronger than ever. “I think the veiled are here,” he said quietly.

“Then we must confront them,” she replied. “Pray to the Spider that he will wrap us in his web.” It did not sound like a pleasant prayer, so Awab only watched as Nasari stepped out towards the three veiled men. “What do you want with us?”

The answer came in pleasant tones. “Scaka cannot leave Turisu. He was brought here for good reason and may not leave.”

“I am a servant of the most holy gods. It is their will that Scaka leave.” She was carrying one of the bags, which she now set on the ground.

“No.” The nearest of the veiled raised his arm, still hidden within the folds of his robes, and the earth at his feet rose with it, rippling towards them. Nasari reached into her bag and took out a golden rod, its head carved like a lion’s head. She drove it into the ground and the wave of earth halted a few hands away, then reversed and rumbled back towards the veiled. The other two thrust forth their arms and the wave froze, then twisted and tore a rift between them.

“Now follow me!” Nasari commanded in such a firm tone of voice that Awab couldn’t help but obey. Nasari ran past them towards the river, and Awab and Scaka followed with their bags. Awab smelled dry bread inside.

Nearby there was a small boat, just large enough for the three of them and their provisions. As soon as she was inside, Nasari sank down to the bottom and gasped, “South.” Then her eyes shut and she was asleep. Awab noticed that her severed wrist was black again, yet still clean, as if it had been injured and healed years ago.

Awab and Scaka exchanged glances, but only for a moment. The threat of the veiled was still present in Awab’s thoughts, and he used Balihagu’s knife to cut the rope holding the boat to its mooring post. Together he and Scaka managed to set up the single sail, though Awab thought it seemed less taut and clean than it should have been. But it caught the wind and took them out from Turisu. Awab looked back at the towers and pyramids and fell into a kind of thoughtful quietness. The city retreated, its mysteries still unexplored. All the myriad of gods that dwelt here, in this land of dry earth and pale faces, remained enigmas to him. He looked at Scaka, but could think of nothing to say to him, so he sat and waited for Nasari to wake.

Ramūtun ālbin kīm dūrī. Tū māsū jal ālbin kīm dūrī, surunlā ādtī lu’. Hatiflāzū ridin gūlis zu’ununzū miszū ūr rāmiszū. Scuwuxlāzū ggar ūkaq sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin hil dūrī. Tū mūnā jal ālbin hil dūrī, tatilālā pidrūkū ramurūdū. Scuwuxlāzū dashanāfiz sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin tīrī dūrī. Tū bilqūnā jal ālbin tīrī dūrī, hataflā at dumūsak. Scuwuxlāzū ībin sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin ūkaq dūrī. Tū sirtin jal ālbin ūkaq dūrī, jal scākaf. Matinlāzū ūr qhūsir. Scuwuxlāzū waqtaībin sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin bus dūrī. Tū albinbū jal ālbin bus dūrī, nufurlā qadārū. Scuwuxlāzū waqtā sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin fiz dūrī. Tū xaltin jal ālbin fiz dūrī, qalālā at dīrat kūlat. Scuwuxlāzū tināhil sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin ābin dūrī. Tū lukādir jal ālbin ābin dūrī, luggudlā lastū ālbin artin. Scuwuxlāzū nutaūkaq sītām.
Ramūtun ālbin ibin dūrī. Tū bilparsū jal ālbin ibin dūrī, taratlā at tunūzū. Scuwuxlāzū panāfiz sītām.

Remember the first king of Duri. Masu was the first king of Duri, who united the lands of the river. He slew the monster Gulis and made its horn into his crown. He ruled for a hundred and four years.
Remember the second king of Duri. Muna was the second king of Duri, who found the tablets of the gods. He ruled for ninety-six years.
Remember the third king of Duri. Bilquna was the third king of Duri, who was slain by the goddess Dumusak. He ruled for eight years.
Remember the fourth king of Duri. Sirtin was the fourth king of Duri, who was a cripple. He spoke to Qhusir. He ruled for forty-eight years.
Remember the fifth king of Duri. Albinbu was the fifth king of Duri, who fought the Ghadari. He ruled for forty years.
Remember the sixth king of Duri. Xaltin was the sixth king of Duri, who was born to the Lady of the Marsh. He ruled for thirty-two years.
Remember the seventh king of Duri. Lukadir was the seventh king of Duri, who stole the wives of the Arken king. He ruled for twenty-four years.
Remember the eighth king of Duri. Bilparsu was the eighth king of Duri, who was overthrown by his brothers. He ruled for sixteen years.
-A Duri king list from Hiltar

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