“There was once a mighty man among my people who was a great hunter, one of the greatest that has ever been in Gorob, but he always kept the largest and best portions for himself, saying that without him his companions would have nothing. He boasted about how strong his arms were, how sharp his eyes, how quick his mind, until everyone was angry with him, but they didn’t dare say anything for fear that he would leave them. He was, after all, a very great hunter.
“This hunter began to claim more and more for himself: the best hut, the finest clothing, the prettiest woman in the tribe as his wife. Still no one dared to say anything, until one day he declared that he would climb the trees into the sky to be a great man among the spirits who dwell there. His companions looked at one another in bafflement, and even the sky rumbled, for what was a mere man that he should rule in the sky?
“A bird flew down to whisper a secret in the ear of one old woman. She smiled and slowly walked towards the great hunter. And then she began to laugh. It was the first time anyone had ever laughed in the history of the world, and at first everyone feared she might be choking. But then, one after another, they all began to laugh, pointing at the hunter who had his chest puffed out and his arms raised to the heavens. He shrank down into himself and fled, embarrassed beyond words. And this was why the creator gave us laughter, to bring down the proud.” Having finished his story, Awab crossed his arms and sat back against the side of the cliff.
“It is a good story,” Scaka said.
“Yes,” Nasari said from above. “Did you tell it to your masters in the south?”
“I would have been too afraid,” said Awab.
She smiled, that was all. Then she slid down to stand by Awab’s side. “I think I know where the Spider means us to go now. I remember my dreams better and better every day.”
“Not further into the wilderness, I hope,” Awab said with a groan. He didn’t speak the rest of his thoughts aloud: how tired the sun made him and how even the plentiful water Nasari somehow found was never enough to satisfy him.
This was not a land meant for man, but for spirits that didn’t need water or shelter but whenever he asked Nasari what they were doing out here, she would only answer, “I thought you were curious about the veiled.”
“Only about how to avoid them. Is this their home? It suits them.”
“No,” Nasari said. “But it is the place where we must go if we want to escape their reach. Here we can find sanctuary until the gods speak to me again.” She raised her missing hand, where faint streaks of white skin were beginning to appear.
“Are there gods in this land?” asked Scaka. “The Duri said that only monsters like Ugdar and Gulis dwell in the wilderness.”
Nasari put her fingers to the ground. “The Spider is here, as he is everywhere. Other gods were here once, before the desert came, though that was in the time before time. But listen hard enough and you can hear the puppet gods, moving even now that their strings have been cut. Such is the power of the Spider.” She smiled suddenly, wrinkling her scars into ugly patterns. “But I hear them, and they are calling us back to the east.”
“Finally!” Awab exclaimed.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be happy about it if I were you. We return to the lands of gods and men, and that’s worse than any monsters. Your judgment awaits you, Awab, and Scaka, your gods await you. It won’t be pleasant for either of you.”
“Will it be pleasant for you?” Scaka asked, fixing Nasari with his sad gaze.
“You will be amused to hear what that fortune-teller said about me. She told me I would someday look in the water and smile. Such nonsense. Every day I smile to see the marks of the Spider. That is who I am, and that is enough of an answer for you.” She picked up her lion’s-head staff where it lay on the ground and began to walk eastward. Scaka and Awab took up their bags and followed.
By the time the sun was rising towards its peak, they had come to a pillar of broken stone half-buried in the sands. There may have been inscriptions on it once, but by now they were worn away, leaving only traces. Nasari seemed fascinated by the pillar and circled it several times mumbling to herself. They lay beneath it to sleep away the heat of noon, and Awab was so exhausted that he fell unconscious immediately.
The next thing he knew he was being shaken awake. “Nasari is gone,” Scaka was saying as he lifted his hands from Awab’s shoulders.
“Why would she leave after everything she was saying?” Awab blinked and looked around in the light of late afternoon. There was no sign of Nasari. “She’ll probably be back shortly.” He didn’t want to think about what they would do if Nasari had indeed abandoned them. He hadn’t had any water since late last evening, and he was desperate for a drink.
“We should look for her,” Scaka said with worried eyes.
Awab nodded. “All right. It won’t be hard to find our way back to this pillar if we don’t go too far.” He rubbed his eyes and stood up, swaying somewhat on his feet. Pointing he said, “I’ll go south; you go north. Come back when the pillar is no larger than your thumb.” And wrapping his head covering tighter over his scalp he began to walk, glancing from side to side for any sign of Nasari, inhaling deeply the desert air. For a moment he thought he smelled her (there was a distinctive scent to her arm of late, reminiscent somehow of rotting flesh but not unpleasant). Just for a moment, though, and then he lost it.
Something shimmered in the distance ahead, probably a mirage, but as Awab drew closer to whatever it was, he saw it to be three or so stone blocks in a cluster. Nasari, or a woman her size, was sitting atop the nearest, her head bowed over her staff. Awab approached her and called her name.
She looked up but said nothing. She struck the stone with her staff once and a note rang out, high and strong, sending a thrill through Awab. It was answered from somewhere in the north by a tone that harmonized with it, and Nasari’s face changed. She jumped down and ran towards Awab, pulling him along behind her.
“What happened?” Awab asked breathlessly, but didn’t really expect an answer. “I sent Scaka in that direction to look for you.”
“You should have waited,” she said.
“Are we in danger? Are the monsters real?”
“Hush! Keep your voice down! Whether or not you believe in monsters, you believe in the veiled, don’t you?” Awab shuddered and kept his mouth shut after that. They passed the pillar and Nasari slowed her pace, holding her staff straight in front of her. “Too soon,” she muttered. “The gods haven’t yet returned to me in their full strength. Awab! What did those jesters of the Crocodile say to you? Did they bring you to the pool?”
“I don’t remember what they said, and they didn’t put me in the pool, though they tried.”
“No, of course. Well, we’ll have to do what we can. The veiled may be wicked and strong, but they are full of fear, the same fear they put in their enemies. Don’t you look forward to finding out who they are?”
“I don’t want to know anything about them.”
“I think you’ll have to learn something before the time of judgment comes.” Awab pointed ahead to a body crumpled on a flat outcropping of rock, one of several that emerged from the sands. Nasari hurried to roll him over: it was Scaka, and though his eyes were shut he was breathing steadily. “Ah,” she said. “They’ve set a trap for us. Wake up, Scaka!”
Scaka jolted upright and looked around in bewilderment. “I thought it was raining. All I had to do was reach out my hand to draw it from the sky, and there was water, so much water to drink.”
“The veiled are here,” Nasari said.
“The veiled followed us all this way? How? Why do they hate me so much?”
Nasari lifted her staff and spun it in the air. “Hear me!” she said loudly. “I know you’re listening to me! I don’t know which god you serve, but I am a priestess of the Spider! I am a messenger of the Crocodile! The Lion has given me an emblem of his authority, and I have heard the voice of the Tortoise in my dreams. You’ve set yourself against every god under the sky! Let us go in peace, and maybe they’ll have mercy on you.”
The earth rumbled, and from behind one of the nearby rocks filed three veiled men. Scaka put a hand to his head as if in pain.
“Let him go and let us go,” Nasari said.
“If the gods stand between us and the lives of our people, we will walk through the gods,” said the nearest of the veiled.
“None of us have any desire to hurt your people.”
“Nor do we desire to hurt you, yet we will if we are denied. The little man of the forest alone we shall spare, in thanks for the kindness of his forefathers.”
“Try to hurt me!” said Nasari with a laugh.
There was a long silence, then the second-nearest of the veiled stepped forward and tore off his veil, dropping it to the earth. He was not one of the Duri: his skin was dark and his face resembled Scaka’s to a surprising degree, tall and narrow with deep-set eyes. “But we must,” he said. “You bring the end of days to my people, even if you don’t know it. My name is Horfos and I swear by my masters.”
Now that the man’s veil was gone, Awab was no longer as terrified as he had been. “Then tell us how!” he shouted, his irritation overcoming his fear. “How can we help you if we don’t know what we’re doing to hurt you?”
“I am telling you,” said Horfos without losing his calm. “But you aren’t the leader of this band, my little friend. Your ignorance is excusable. But we took Scaka’s memory and placed him far from his home for a reason. You don’t wonder who Scaka was, that we thought it had to be done?”
“Why don’t you tell us?” Nasari asked. Scaka sat staring down at the ground, not meeting the eyes of the man who had been veiled.
“There are no words for it in the Duri tongue. Can you speak Huggir?”
“Not well, not yet.”
“Then what Scaka was cannot be explained. But if he returns to our people, he will destroy them as he did before. You must trust me. Trust that I have done what is right and paid with my life. For I was veiled; now I am nothing.” From within his robes he drew a curiously jagged knife, its blade of honeygem, and passed it to one of his still-veiled companions, who put one hand around Horfos’s middle and used the other to slice across his throat. Horfos fell silently and rolled into the sand.
After what he had seen under the Lady of Mar Gjol, Awab had thought himself inured to sudden violence, but his stomach churned now. Even Scaka seemed shocked out of his stupor, and he stumbled over to Awab, whispering, “I don’t remember any of this. I don’t!”
Nasari remained motionless. “Very well,” she said, “You are mistaken if you think I care more for your people than for the gods. Neither you nor I have much power here in these blasted lands.”
“We have Scaka’s soul,” said one of the remaining veiled.
“I have the song of the Lion. You see a little remains to us, here and there. But the gods will not let you take Scaka. Awab! Come here!”
Awab swallowed and didn’t move. Nasari called him again, so he summoned all his courage and went to her. She knelt and whispered to him, “Take this staff and go to the rock where Scaka is. When I tell you, strike the base against the rock.” Then she pressed the staff into his hands, though it was as tall as he was.
He hurried back to Scaka and squatted with the staff across his knees. Nasari was standing facing the veiled, who took several steps toward her. “Return Scaka to us and we will let you go in peace.”
“There is no peace for the enemies of the gods,” Nasari said, and held up her empty arms, her sleeve falling down to reveal the white streaks of her scarred wrist. “This is your last chance. Go! The Spider tells me that you are exiles from your home just as much as Scaka: what right do you have to speak for them?”
But the veiled continued to approach her, and the ground rumbled again. She thrust out her wrist towards Awab and said, “Now, Awab!”
Awab struck the rock with the staff and a tone rang out across the sands. It was answered with a mournful growl, and a strong animal scent filled his nose. He narrowed his eyes and thought he saw a vast shadow like a lion stretched over the rocks. There was another roar, louder, and the ground trembled until the veiled were thrown to the ground, but neither of them made a sound.
“Now we can go,” Nasari said.
“They’ll follow us,” Scaka said, glancing around him.
“No. If they didn’t believe that I was on the gods’ business before, they believe it now.”
“Was that the Lion?” Awab whispered in the language of Mar Gjol. “I thought you were a priestess of the Spider.”
“This is a year of great importance, when the gods meet together in council,” Nasari said. Then, for an instant, the scars on her face twisted. “And you saw what was done to me in the Crocodile’s pool. I am no longer quite a priestess of the Spider alone.”
They left the veiled, following Nasari back towards the lone pillar. Awab glanced back and saw the two veiled had turned their backs and were walking away, just as Nasari had said. Only then did Awab remember his thirst, and he signaled as much to Nasari.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “There’s water in the rocks not far from here.” And so there was, and Awab drank greedily from the cool water that burbled forth near the bottom of a deep crevice. They rested there until the sun began to rise over the flat horizon, and then Nasari announced, “The Lion has spoken to me. Now that we’ve escaped the veiled, he has a task for us among the people of the east. Come.”