Sacred Dance: Chapter 18

To Awab’s relief Nasari brought them into a greener land, where streams flowed down through the rocks and were lined by flourishing palms. He ate until he was gorged with dates. Then they passed on downstream, following Nasari still, and came across a herdsman of the giants watering his cattle, his face reminding Awab strongly of Scaka and the veiled.

“Hello!” Nasari called. “We seek Kifson and his court.” The herdsman only eyed them warily, so she turned to Scaka and told him, “You translate for me in your native tongue.”

“I haven’t used it in years, and I don’t trust my memory of it,” Scaka said.

“What else can we do? Translate!”

So Scaka approached the herdsman and said, with frequent hesitation, “Kifsonko gulyc pemeriste.

The herdsman stood in silent thought for a while, fingering his chin and looking around. Finally he said, “Huk scemyc fuse,” and pointed, making it obvious without Scaka’s translation what they were to do.

Nasari nodded. “That seems right, from what I can sense. Thank him, Scaka, and tell him he has pleased the gods. I think the court of Kifson will only be a few days away.”

“Who’s Kifson?” Awab asked.

“The Spider told me the name. I know he’s a great man among his people, but nothing more. But I do as the gods command me.”

“Do you trust them?”

“Does it matter? They are the gods, and I must obey.”

They continued on on the path the herdsman had pointed out, a well-worn cattle trail that led them away from the stream and past a few villages where dark-skinned giants challenged them. On both occasions that this happened, Scaka said something that made the giants bow and offer them food, an odd-tasting meal that Awab wouldn’t have found appetizing if it weren’t for his immense hunger.

When Awab and his companions reached a larger village with walls of stone sprawled over a tall hill, Nasari pounded her staff on the ground. By now her wrist was pure white again, and Awab almost thought he could smell the divine power that was in her. “This is the home of Kifson,” she said.

They were met by fierce guards, well-armed with shield and spear. Awab saw how Scaka watched their faces for any sign that they recognized him, but found none. “Tell them that the Lion sent us,” Nasari said, flourishing her staff. “Tell them that we bring a message for Kifson.”

Ragj-gjanu nyc awocna, isedwanyc kifsonyc pemulte,” Scaka said.

The guards whispered among themselves, then one put out his hand and said, “Hympulyc nyc lengse.

“He wants you to give him the staff,” Scaka said to Nasari, who shrugged.

“Of course. If the gods want me to have it again, they’ll bring it back to me.”

She put the staff in the guard’s hand and he examined it closely, but refrained from touching the carved lion’s head. Then he motioned for them to follow him up the hill and through the gates to a central square where a man with one shriveled leg sat upon a tall gilded stool, something like the throne of the king of Duri but without back or arms. He was attended by a crowd of other giants, one of whom, a pinched-faced man, came to meet them and spoke in a quiet voice with their guard, then went back to the man on the stool to whisper in his ear.

“I am Kifson,” the man on the stool said in passable Duri. “I am the king of the Leftan and a son of Huggir. What have the Lion said?”

For a long time Nasari said nothing, and Awab felt the hostile gaze of all the giants on them. He dropped his eyes to the ground and imagined himself dancing the sacred dances again. It had been so many years…

“The Lion has a warning for you, Kifson king of Huggir,” said Nasari fiercely, and Awab groaned. “What is this thing you have done, bowing to a petty god no higher than yourself? Have you forgotten the Lion’s power?”

“You are brave,” Kifson said, and Awab was uncomfortably aware that he and Nasari were the smallest ones there. Even the women accompanying Kifson were taller than Nasari, with slender necks and long legs. “But you are a stranger here, and I will explain things to you. The Lion is the greatest of all gods. He rules over Lamris and Safram and the rest. Everyone knows this. But the Lion is at times only a shadow, but the Shadow is always with us. The Shadow’s hand is strong! But if we fail him we die. We will show you the graves.”

“We have seen enough graves in Duri,” said Nasari. “The Lion may have turned his eyes from you for a time, but your service to your Shadow has offended him enough to send us to rebuke you.”

By now the pinched-faced man had given Kifson the staff to look over. He trembled as he handled it, then said, “You put us between two fires. You threaten us with the Lion, but while we speak the Shadow is approaching. What do you want us to do?”

“Take me to the Shadow.”

“But it isn’t that easy. But you will see. Wait and see.” He made a gesture that apparently meant something to the guards, who began to guide the three of them away down the hill.

“Do you know me?” Scaka cried suddenly, holding up his hands. “Do any of you know who I am?”

“You are a stranger to us,” said Kifson. “But you will be wise if you remember not to speak without permission.” From the other side of the hill there was a cry, like that of a woman in distress. Scaka’s head turned towards it, but Kifson pounded the lion-head staff on the ground. “Forget what you hear. It is not your business. See what Paggul will show you.”

He spoke in whispers to the pinched-faced man, apparently Paggul, who bowed and joined the guards who were leading them away from Kifson. “Do you understand the Duri language?” Nasari asked him, but he didn’t answer. They passed among the stone buildings and began to wind eastward around the hill, but then they heard the cry again. This time Paggul hesitated a moment, fondling a stone amulet on his chest, and in that moment Scaka broke off from the others to run towards it.

Paggul seemed frozen, but the guards lacked his indecision and ran after Scaka with unpleasant-sounding yells, lifting their spears. “Wait!” Nasari called. She invoked the Spider and muttered, “If only I had that staff.”

But there seemed to be a blessing on Scaka’s feet, for he outran the pursuing guards and disappeared around the edge of the hill. Only then did Paggul speak, in Duri that was far better than Kifson’s repetitive phrases. “You may as well see what the Shadow does to us. Kifson hopes to hide from it, but who can hide when the sun goes down and the Shadow stretches over us?”

He took Nasari and Awab around towards the west, where the sun was setting. There was a depression in the side of the hill lined by wooden posts carved into grotesque shapes, and in its center was a single post that rose above the rest, with one of the giants standing next to it. As he approached, Awab saw that the giant was bound with ropes to the post, and that she was a woman. The far side of the depression sank into a cave that tunneled into darkness under the hill.

“I think I begin to understand,” Nasari said. “Whatever their Shadow is, they offer it victims to keep themselves safe. Many of the great gods desire the blood of men, but we would not be here if this sacrifice wasn’t an offense to the divine honor. There is some lesser being stealing the worship that the Lion deserves.”

“What do we do about it?” Awab asked reluctantly.

“I think Scaka is already doing it,” said Nasari, pointing. Scaka was running down into the depression, having wrested a spear from a guard somehow. He swung it around as if he had gone mad and made his way to the woman in the center, whose bonds he cut with the spear’s edge. Then he stood with her against the post as giants shouted at them from the lip of the depression. The place had been largely abandoned when they arrived, but by now giants were coming around or down the hill to surround the depression. They were throwing stones too, and Scaka shielded the woman with his body.

Then the darkness moved. That was the only way Awab could conceive of what was happening within the cave, where all was black and yet seemed to be changing. Something was emerging that lacked form or cohesion, yet struck a familiar note in Awab’s mind. He found himself thinking of the Lord of Sa Ruh and the Lady of Mar Gjol, though he couldn’t explain why. Was this a red god? But neither Lord nor Lady had looked anything like this. It seemed then to be a great python formed out of the darkness that slithered out of the cave towards Scaka and the woman. “Fuse. Rata fuse,” Scaka shouted, almost screamed. The python raised its head towards him. Awab’s feet felt rooted to the ground, but when he saw Nasari begin to move he was able to run past her, down the slope of the depression.

He wondered what he was doing even as he ran, but before he had any time to think, the shadow was drawing back into the cave. By the time he had reached Scaka, there was no sign of the python, only the blackness of the cave, and it wasn’t long before even that was reduced to natural darkness. Awab looked up at the woman whom Scaka had saved, and judged her to be beautiful by the standards of the giants. She wore a skirt of black-dyed threads and trembled as she backed away from Scaka, putting her hands out in front of her. “Aken,” she said. “Aken, aken, aken.

Paggul walked past Awab to sit down in front of the cave. His face was utterly impassive, and when he spoke at last it was in Duri. “I wonder if you know what you have done here.”

“Not fully,” said Scaka. “I don’t know nearly as much as I should about myself or anything else. But I do know that I’ve stopped something terrible from happening to this woman.”

“This woman,” said Paggul, turning his head to look at Scaka out of the corner of his eye, “is Dormil, daughter of Kifson. What happens to her is by her own will.”

“Then Scaka has saved her from giving herself to an enemy of the Lion,” said Nasari. “Scaka has done you all a great service.”

“What you saying?” Dormil asked in Duri that was nearly impossible for Awab to understand without concentrating. “When Shadow comes, he eats food or eats us, all big!” Scaka stepped towards her, and she struck him away.

Paggul raised his eyebrows. “Very well, you have saved Dormil. But when the Shadow comes again, and it will, it will have three morsels to devour.” He clapped his hands. Scaka had dropped his spear and when the guards came for him he offered no resistance. Awab and Nasari too were taken away from the place of sacrifice, back around the hill to a hut with a tall pointed mud roof, where an idol had been set up, resembling a snake-headed man perched atop a squat pillar. “The Shadow came to us in the time of Kifson’s grandfather, when a man went after his cattle into the wilderness and found a ruin of the ancestors. He found this idol and brought it back to his home hoping it would bring him good fortune.”

Nasari laughed loudly. “He was a fool.”

“That was the beginning. Since the Shadow has lurked in every patch of darkness in the Leftan realm, it speaks to us in our dreams, and it demands that we give it offerings to devour.” His eyes flicked back and forth between the three of them, and with one hand he tugged on his hair. “I wonder how much you know about the gods and their ways. You claim to speak for the Lion. The woman bears a sacred mark, and I have heard that there are dwarfs who carry messages from the gods. But even among the gods there is war and there are different tribes.”

“Yes,” Nasari said. “You dishonored the Lion when you decided to serve the Shadow.”

“But what do you want us to do? What good comes of honoring the Lion if it only means we are all dead?”

“The gods have given me power to do their bidding. Let us go into the cave and we will deal with the Shadow,” said Nasari earnestly.

“Us?” Awab almost said before catching himself.

He glanced at Scaka, whose usual gloom had seemingly returned to him now that the struggle to save Dormil was over. But Scaka did speak, the words emerging slowly. “I looked into that cave and that darkness. I don’t want to look again.”

“Your companions may not be as bold as you,” said Paggul with a twist of his lip. He was not a handsome man, and with his lip twisted like that he embodied every story Awab had heard about ugly giants. “But fight the Shadow if you want, and we’ll see whose god is stronger.”

“Was it you?” Awab asked suddenly.

“Was it me what?”

“Was it you who found the idol in the desert?”

Paggul smiled. “The man who did that would have to be very old by now, wouldn’t he? You three will stay here in the presence of the idol until he opens his mouth for you.” He was still smiling as he left, signaling for giants with spears to lead them into the hut and bar the door behind them.

The first thing Awab said to Nasari was, “Your gods have certainly led us to a fine hunting ground.”

“They have,” said Nasari, missing Awab’s irony. “But it was more the Lion than any of the others. I can feel the Crocodile drawing me south, but the Lion wants us to deal with the Huggir, with the Shadow, and with Scaka, or else.” Whatever the else was, she did not elaborate. “What about you, Scaka? What do you say? I was hoping they would recognize you here.”

“I’ve seen Dormil,” Scaka said. “That’s more than enough reason for me to thank the Lion. Or would you rather have her eaten by their god?”

Awab shook his head. “No, but when we’ve all been swallowed up, how do you know that she won’t follow us down that snake’s throat? Only a few months ago I thought I would never see my home again; lately I was beginning to hope. I’d rather not die here and I’d much rather not have my spirit devoured by their Shadow, but what can we do about it?”

“They will take us before the Shadow,” said Nasari in an odd high voice with her eyes shut. “There we will stand between the darkness and the gold and we will bleed.”

“Comforting words,” said Awab.

Nasari apparently caught his irony that time. Her eyes snapped open and she said, “But they are, little judge. Take care lest you decide poorly. The gods haven’t forgotten us, neither the Spider nor the Lion.”

“Will I see Dormil again?” Scaka asked.

Nasari looked down at her wrist, from which the light had faded. “Maybe,” she said. “I cannot say.”

Then Nasari rubbed dirt on her face and knelt, muttering words under her breath, seemingly engaged in one of her rituals. Scaka stood without moving for some time, staring at the wall of the hut, or past it, and what he was thinking about Awab couldn’t say, though he suspected it was Dormil. As for Awab himself, he sat on the ground, longing to dance but too shy of his companions’ presence, and trembled when he thought about what was to happen in the future. After a while he went around the walls of the hut, which had no windows, only a narrow gap between the roof and the top of the wall.

When the light began to fade, the door opened and a giant brought them bowls of food: a soft doughy substance and a sour white liquid, both strange to Awab after the bread, lentils, and beer of Duri and the barely adequate subsistence in the wilderness. The guard took them out one by one to relieve themselves, and when Scaka was gone, Awab asked Nasari, “Do you know anything about who Scaka is? Were you hoping for something when you brought him here? It can’t be a coincidence that he knows their language and that he looks as if he could be one of the veiled.”

“It isn’t, I’m sure of that,” Nasari said. “But the gods have told me little.”

“What they did to you at the Crocodile’s pool changed you, I think.”

“When I was a little girl I existed in myself,” Nasari said, using a construction in her Duri that Awab didn’t understand. “When I was initiated into the priesthood of the Spider, I was opened unto the Spider’s web. When the Crocodile marked me, I was opened even more to the gods. The old gods are not the sort of beings that one can list, but I know so many of them around me.

“The Spider, my old friend, everywhere and nowhere, weaver of a thousand webs, cunning and hidden.

“The Crocodile, ensconced in his domain, with his subjects’ names held in his teeth. Close enough to mankind to be seen and touched, as I’ve learned in my pain.

“The Lion, rising from the hills in his unfathomable pride, shaking the earth with his roar.

“The Hyena, dancing and laughing and playing with us as the pieces in his game.

“The Ibis, plucking his secrets from the depths to give mankind.

“The Mantis, waiting for his children to return from the underworld.

“Old Tortoise of the Island, the mystery of mysteries, hidden under his shell, wiser than the wise, older than the old.

“I see and know them all now,” Nasari was saying as Scaka returned. “Even if you’ve never trusted anyone in your life, you should trust me, for I have power and wisdom around and inside me. I will bring you safely home, Awab, if you will trust me.”

Awab shook his head. “I don’t need to trust you: I go with you because I have nowhere else to go.”

“That may not be enough. But it will do for now. What about you, Scaka? Do you trust me?”

“No,” Scaka said. Nasari laughed and with her hand took out a chunk of the dough to eat. “But I will do whatever I must to save Dormil.”

“You’re smitten with her, are you? Well, that may be good: the Spider loves to weave lovers together. But don’t do anything anymore without telling me.”

“You’re our head, it seems, leading us on to victory.”

“Well put,” Nasari said, and lay down on the ground. They had not been given bedding. “Now we sleep, and in the morning maybe the gods will arrange for you to speak to your princess.”

As darkness fell over their prison, Awab’s thoughts kept returning to the Shadow in its cave, and he shuddered to imagine that it was crawling over him now. He slept fitfully; in the middle of the night he thought he heard a howl but couldn’t be sure whether it was human or animal. He was not feeling at all well when dawn came, and one of the giants took them out to stand before Kifson himself.

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