Sacred Dance: Chapter 22

“Vuvudru,” Awab said, “sent several sons and daughters to help the children of the tree: Ulbud, Obo, Mabbid; Loffed, Tyrag, Xyma; Amba, Famba, Pytwod. Each brought their own gift for the children of the forest, but this is a story about Ulbud. Ulbud, you know, dressed in black robes and carried a spear. He was a teacher, and his gifts he carried on his tongue. He showed Bavab how to fight with only one hand, and Ketffu how to set traps for the beasts of the forest. He taught us many songs, though most have been forgotten over the years.

“One day Ulbud was walking in the branches of the great tree and looking down at the camps of our father. ‘This is not right,’ he said. ‘Yesterday were there not the camps of Ulbud, Obo, and Mabbid, of Loffed, Tyrag and Xyma, of Amba, Famba, and Pytwod? What is this new camp I see?’

“He went down to the camp and asked the people who had led them there. ‘It was the giants,’ they answered. These were the fathers of the Misre, you see, our brothers who speak the giants’ words. ‘The giants came to us and promised to lead us to a land where we could be free,’ they told Ulbud.

“‘Free from what?’ Ulbud asked, but they did not answer. Troubled, Ulbud climbed up into the trees again and called his brothers and sisters. There were a few that did not come to him, for they were no more, but the rest soon gathered around Ulbud as he pounded his spear against the trunk of the tree. ‘Do you see what the giants, the elder children of the wasteland, have done? They have led our students astray.’

“‘What should we do to bring them back?’ asked another. ‘Should we offer new gifts, things they have never before seen?’

“‘Should we compel them with force?’ asked another. ‘Should we stretch out our arms and crush them if they do not return?’

“‘I will speak to them,’ said Loffed of the nimble tongue. ‘I will persuade them to return.’

“So Loffed descended to the ground and wrapped the light of the clouds around himself. Shining brightly, he called the leaders of all the camps to himself and addressed them. ‘Children, dearest children, what is this I hear? Why have you listened to the words of the giants, who come from the wilderness and have spirits of violence within them?’

“‘They told us about a land where we could be free,’ was the answer.

“‘Free from what?’ asked Loffed, but they said nothing more. ‘Let me tell you about the wilderness. The giants are not alone in the wastes. There are certain beasts that have great power over them and over the earth, and these beasts will not be kind to you, but rule over you as cruelly as they do the giants.’

“‘Cruel?’ asked the children of the forest. ‘Take away the light of the clouds from around yourself and let us see your true form.’

“‘Am I your servant, that I should obey you?’

“Let us see your face, and if we die, we die.’

“‘So Loffed ascended the tree again and spoke with his brothers and sisters. Then each of them descended the tree, and last came Obo with a boat on his shoulders. He set the boat down in the river, and one by one Vuvudru’s children entered the boat before they drifted away into the west. But Loffed left one final word for the children of the forest, promising that some day they would return and the trees would grow a new kind of fruit to heal all wounds and dry all tears.”

“You added the part about the beasts, didn’t you?” asked Nasari, her face unchanging.

“I did,” Awab said. “In the story as the elders told it, Loffed had a different warning.”

“What was it?”

“Not for the ears of giants!” Awab replied, and laughed.

Chapter 23

Sacred Dance: Chapter 21

The arrangements were made for the assault on Tabnar, though whenever Awab put it in those terms, Gurtac frowned at him and said, “I only claim what belongs to me in the first place.” Thirty or so men joined them for the journey to Tabnar, armed with their spears and shields, and even bronze swords, though Nasari muttered that iron would be better. As they gathered together at the eastern gate, Dormil ran up to embrace Gurtac, but at the same time she said something to him in the Huggir tongue that did not sound loving. He only shook his head and turned her back to the city.

“What did she say?” Awab asked Gurtac.

“My wife has learned at the feet of the veiled, and she asked me to show them mercy. But they have done too much harm to me and my city, and I will leave them in the hands of Nasari and the Lion.”

“I do not know the Lion, but I doubt Nasari will have much mercy.”

“No? Well, we will see very soon now.”

There was a well-trodden cattle path that they followed away from Leftan, and Gurtac told them that it led to Tabnar. He spoke in Huggir to the champions of Leftan, but in Duri to Nasari and Awab, and it was only in Duri that his voice shook with doubt. “I don’t like to think about what those monsters could be doing in my city,” he said. “I had a troubling dream last night.”

“Tell me it,” said Nasari. “It may be important.”

“It was a simple dream. I stood over Paggul’s withered corpse and watched as it began to breathe again. From his mouth there came a red mist that wrapped around my arms and choked my nostrils. Then the dream ended.”

“The interpretation is also simple. Tell us, Awab, what do you think the red mist signifies?”

“The Shadow, the god of the idol,” said Awab.

“What else? Paggul should have died long ago, but his master is still quite alive, if you can call the existence of that sort life. What is more, the gods have given me hints that the Shadow will be waiting for us in Tanbar.”

Gurtac struck his fists together. “So we’ve failed, and our triumph was for nothing?”

“That is the way of this world,” Nasari said. “There is a story about how the Spider defeated the three-headed giant. I could tell it to pass the time.”

“I would like to hear it,” said Awab.

“Long ago the Spider decided to try his hands, all eight of them, at keeping cattle, and so he descended to earth, where he took for himself one of the herds of the Lion. He amused himself with this task as the months passed by, leading the herd to water and pasture and defending them from earthly lions with magic spells. But one day a three-headed giant came forth from his home under the mountain.”

“Which mountain?” Gurtac asked.

“I don’t know if it exists anymore. The giant certainly doesn’t. Anyway, he saw the Spider’s herd and said, ‘I will make myself into a great man. I will take some of the Lion’s cattle for myself, and then I will drink their blood and milk and breed calves with which to enslave men.”

“I don’t understand how he could enslave men with calves.”

“That is a mystery of the Lion, I believe. Ask your own priests about it. As I was saying, the giant took three of the Lion’s herds, one for each head. He locked them up inside his mountain and gloated over them in the shadows. The Spider heard about this from a honeyguide and said to himself, ‘This won’t do. No monster like that should keep the cattle that my brother meant for mankind.’

“So the Spider crept up to the giant’s mountain, carrying a net of silk on his back. He went up carefully and quietly, and when he found a suitable crevice in the rock, he hid himself within it and waited. Eventually the giant emerged and went down to the river to fill an enormous pot with water. When it was safe, the Spider left the crevice and passed through the gateway into the giant’s home, where the stolen cattle were lowing. He went from one to the next, binding them together with the silk of his net until he was able to guide them with no more than a twitch of his hand.

“Then he heard the sound of the giant’s footsteps outside. He clambered up the wall to the ceiling and hung there as the giant returned, bearing the pot on his shoulders. ‘What is this?’ the giant said. ‘I smell a stranger in my home. A mortal man he is not, but what he is I cannot say.’ He peered around with all three of his heads, and though he looked north, west, east, and south, he didn’t think to look up. Finally he grumbled and poured the water into a channel for the cattle to drink, then sat in the corner with his heads in his hands. He nodded, dozed, and finally fell asleep.

“Then the Spider hurried out of the cave, and he pulled the giant’s cattle behind him. But as the last of the cattle came forth, a lame-footed old cow, the giant stirred and opened his eyes. ‘Hey now!’ he shouted. ‘What is this you are doing? Who is this stealing my cattle, my own?’

“‘A little spider!’ the Spider called back.

“Enraged, the giant burst out of his cave and pursued the Spider and his cattle, breathing fire from his mouths. But the Spider had laid a line at his feet, and suddenly he stumbled over it and sprawled on the rocks, his necks broken.

“The Spider laughed and sang in his triumph. He led the cattle to join his own herd and danced around them, weaving spells of health and fecundity. But even the Spider cannot see everything, and he didn’t see how the blood of the three-headed giant sank into the earth to impregnate it so that it gave birth to the Sinneari, the evil spirits of the dust, who torment mankind to this day.”

“What are the Sinneari?” Gurtac asked. “I have never heard of them, and don’t remember being tormented by them.”

“It is a very old story. Many things have been forgotten since those days, but just because you don’t know the name of the Sinneari doesn’t mean they can’t hurt you!” She smiled and wrinkled up her scars. “There is another, deeper, story, which stands behind both the story of the giant’s blood and the battle we are in now, but I am forbidden to tell it. But you see that even the gods cannot wipe evil from the world.”

Not long after Nasari finished her story, they were met by a lone man who tried to run when he saw them. But Gurtac sprang forward and caught him, questioning him in the Huggir tongue. When their brief conversation had ended, Gurtac let the man go.

And after a few days they marched up through a gap between twin hills to behold a city surrounded by stone walls. Awab glimpsed obelisks like those of the Duri but smaller and less colorful. Yet he heard Gurtac take a sharp breath and felt his hand rest on his shoulder. “See my home, Awab. At last I have returned, and if it pleases the Lion I will never again be Scaka, the broken one.”

Gurtac marched up the path to a pair of gates, his champions at his side or trailing behind him. Striking a pose with his chest forward, he shouted, first in Huggir then in Duri, “Gurtacu, scektynko cidu, murxalko cidu, ragj-gjanko sudko gulwamu, toscac agjoltur, rako sarncemxuc bastangta ahafotur, rako belsenyc ahecte. Malu ryc anylymle? Gurtac son of Scektyn, son of Murxal, heir of the Lion’s daughter, who bleeds for the rain, who strikes his enemies from the land, has come for his throne. Who will stand against him?”

There was confusion among the men in front of the gates, then one of them came forward and spoke. “Nylse, ipa gulncemko wanyc kamulle.

Ku gulncem,” Gurtac said. “Horncemxuko guloltur tabnaryc abarite, kuko. I am the king. It is not the veiled who rule in Tabnar, but I.” Then he continued, as men in colorful robes appeared on the wall, “Husko fulnenxu satarolite? Raksenu darsutwadi adancolite? Toscac kahoclis, horncemxu husyc sangle? Or are your cattle not thirsty? Or is the sky not sealed like bronze? I may call down the rain; what will the veiled do for you?”

At this one of the newcomers waved his hand and said, “Sorpanyc fylse.

The doors in the wall swung open, and Gurtac and his companions entered. Awab felt countless eyes on him, but resisted the urge to bow his head away from their gaze. After all, he reminded himself, he had served the red gods in their chambers, heard the confidences of the King of Duri, and seen the Crocodile with his own eyes.

Then he caught the scent of the veiled. He tugged on Nasari’s sleeve and pointed in the direction from which the scent came, though nothing was visible to the eye. She nodded and lifted her staff in the air, muttering in her own language.

Gurtac led them to a grand building that rose into a pyramid at its peak but held an open space below where guards surrounded a throne, much like that of the king of Duri. A boy sat on this throne, trembling as Gurtac approached. But he apparently summoned his courage and said in a piping voice, “I am the king of Tabnar. Who are you?”

“My name is Gurtac,” he replied, softly but firmly. “I am the son of Murxal, daughter of Budren. The kingship that descends from the Lion’s daughter passes down to me. Who are you, child, and by what blood do you claim the throne of kings?”

“I am Passaf, son of Ciflen, daughter of Hennit.”

“Well, cousin, if they told you I was dead, they lied to you. I promise that if you step down, I will protect you from any harm.”

Passaf glanced back and forth between Gurtac and his guards, his chin bobbing. “They said they would keep you away.”

“Who?”

“The veiled,” Passaf whispered.

Nasari strode forward, holding her staff as if to strike him, and Passaf shrank back, but didn’t move from his throne. “Show them to us, boy. Show us the veiled.” He pointed upwards, to alcoves near the roof where men were sitting with the hems of their robes dangling over the edge. Their faces were totally covered.

“You’ve lost!” Nasari shouted. “The Lion has chosen his champion. Kneel to Gurtac and he may have mercy.”

“We will not go back to our exile in the wilderness,” one of the veiled said, with an edge to his otherwise gentle voice. “No matter what you say, the gods have chosen us and blessed us with their gifts. Our sons and daughters are in every court of the Huggir. Wherever you go, from the Duri to the Chosol, you cannot escape our power.”

“Shall we put it to the test again?”

Passaf,” said the veiled, “hyc pesarenus angse.

Trembling, Passaf raised a honeygem rod in his hands. A chill ran through Awab’s body, and Nasari made as if to drive her staff to the ground, but it fell from her hands and she sprawled on her stomach. Awab didn’t know whether she or Passaf looked more surprised, but the guards of Passaf began to pound the butts of their spears on the stone tiles at their feet. More confident now, Passaf lifted the rod again and a wave of cold air struck Awab like a blow. He fell, catching himself with his hands before he could hit the hard stone. The champions of Leftan were falling around him.

But Gurtac alone stood firm. “The throne is mine,” he said. For a moment Awab thought he saw Dormil standing behind Gurtac, holding him upright, before his vision cleared.

The veiled leapt down from their perches, one by one, surrounding Gurtac and the others, and the earth shook when they touched it. “Tabnar was built atop our master and now he wakes.”

“Honeygem. Your master is a red god!” Awab shouted in the language of Mar Gjol, not knowing what to call the red gods in Duri.

Nasari stirred and lifted her head. “So the gods want a fair challenge?” she asked in a weak voice. “But not with us, I think. Without the gods, we are a disfigured woman, a little judge, and a handful of strutting men. Who is your real foe?”

“You will die, or be banished in forgetfulness, or serve the new lord of Huggir,” said the veiled as if Nasari hadn’t spoken. “It is your choice to make.”

The earth shook again, and the roof seemed to break, a crack running across it from one end to the other, glowing with a dark red light. The light seemed to cast a shadow, the distinct form of a giant with a spear slung over one shoulder. “You are Ulbud, aren’t you?” Awab said to no one in particular, using his own language. Then he said to the veiled, “You promised that you wouldn’t hurt me, didn’t you?”

“What are words?” the veiled said. “Our lord is the lord of deeds.”

Awab lifted himself onto his hands and knees as a distinctive scent wafted into the palace. He turned to see what was happening at the entrance, and he saw a long shadow stretching over the ground with no obvious source. “Paggul,” he said. “Paggul!”

The old man stepped under the palace roof, smiling at all of them. “Serve the new lord of Huggir, yes. But the new lord of Huggir is very old indeed. He saw your master rise and he will watch him fall. As for you, children, you say you have the Lion with you, but he is not as solitary as he thinks. There are statues buried in the sand. They were carved long ago but no one remembers who carved them or why. Yet when the Lion roars, the sand blows away and their forms are revealed. That is my god: the Shadow, the Dead God, the Eternal Breath.”

Gurtac alone stood between the veiled and Paggul. He looked at both in turn, then laughed. “Well, if I am to serve one of you and defy the other, I would prefer to see which of you is stronger before I make my choice.”

“We are stronger,” said the veiled.

“We are stronger,” said Paggul, and his shadow fell across the throne. The veiled raised their hands in unison and shouted. Passaf threw himself to the ground beside Awab, trembling. The shadow grew until it swallowed Awab’s vision entirely, and the cold wind took him away for a time.

When he was aware of himself again, the roof had broken completely open and his body was covered in dust and pebbles, but fortunately no larger stones had fallen. Suspended from the four sides of the pyramid was a red god, shining bright like the sun. Where Paggul had been there was only the great serpent, the shadow of the giant stretching out behind it. Only three of the veiled remained. The bodies of the others lay shriveled on the ground. As for Gurtac, he sat in the throne unbowed, though he gripped his knees with straining fingers.

But Awab saw that the shadow of the serpent twisted away from the places where the light shone most brightly. He saw for an instant the face of the red god, young and old at the same time as it gazed down on them. He heard its voice saying, “You who are my servants, who share a fraction of my power, strike and do not be afraid. The fury of your enemy is great, but he is nothing more than an illusion in carved stone. I am the sun and I will burn him.”

“Even the dream of a real god has more power than you.” Paggul spoke now, his voice emerging in a croak from the serpent’s mouth. “I am old, and I remember when you and your kind were born. Have you forgotten that you were men once? Have you forgotten that the true gods made you?”

“You were made as well, from time and weather and memories,” said one of the remaining veiled. “But our master made himself great from nothing. He is the stronger.”

And the light shone until Awab had to shut his eyes. The last thing he saw was Gurtac throwing up an arm to shield his face.

When the redness faded from the inside of his eyelids, Awab opened them again. Paggul was standing by the prone Nasari, and he was a man once again, the skin on his face cracked like old leather. But he was smiling. The lion’s-head staff was in his hand. “If I call on my fathers and my mothers, do you think they will fail me?”

The earth shook worse than ever. With a sound like thunder the crystal fell to the ground in the midst of the veiled, narrowly missing Gurtac and the throne. Then Gurtac sprang to his feet, the iron knife appearing in his hand, and he threw it to Awab as he ran past him to hurl himself on Paggul, knocking the old man to the ground. He wrested the staff from him and struck him with it. “Awab!” he shouted. “The red god!”

Awab squeezed the hilt of the knife, his heart racing and his head in a whirl. He stared at the red god, and at the veiled behind it, hearing the voice chanting threats in his mind. He thought of the Lord of Sa Ruh, brooding over his tombs, and of the Lady of Mar Gjol, driving her warriors on to the slaughter. “Enough,” he said in the tongue of Mar Gjol. “We have had enough.” In a sudden rage he took the knife and drove it into the crystal near one of its sharp angles. The god broke, shearing in two along a line from the knife’s point, and something like blood poured out, splashing over Awab’s face and arms. For a moment he was back in the jungle, leaping away from the fall of the elephant as its stomach spilled open.

He stood, his heart racing, as the veiled turned to flee, those of them who survived. Gurtac stood over the body of Paggul (Awab could not tell whether he was alive or dead) and tore the stone amulet from his neck. “We’ll shatter this,” he said, “and scatter the dust in the river.”

Passaf had been struck by a piece of stone, and he whimpered and clutched his injured leg, but tried to crawl away as Gurtac approached him. Gurtac grabbed him by the shoulder and Passaf’s eyes widened, but Gurtac only said, “I do not seek your death. Your masters are gone, and that is enough.”

Awab found Nasari and shook her to waken her. Slowly she opened her eyes and looked around the ruins, then she lowered her head, bowing to him. “You have made yourself judge over the old and forgotten, and so you have become worthy to decide. We are near the end of our journey.” Awab didn’t understand this, and if she had been anyone else he would have assumed her to be speaking in delirium.

Gurtac brought Nasari her staff and she used it to prop herself up on her feet. Then Awab, Nasari, and Gurtac went out from the ruins of the palace, Gurtac bearing Passaf in his arms. Outside there had gathered a crowd of giants, some on their knees with their arms lifted, others standing. All were silent, but when they saw Gurtac they raised a hideous-sounding wail. Gurtac checked the noise with a gesture. “Ku husko gulncem. I am your king.”

Awab found himself alone with Nasari shortly afterward, Gurtac being busy with his new subjects, speaking to them in his own language, giving what seemed to be orders and taking what seemed to be advice. But Awab and Nasari were left out of his counsels, and now they sat by the half-destroyed palace. It had begun to rain a light rain that was steadily dissolving the red god into a rust-colored mud. Paggul still lay where he was, though someone had thrown a cloth over his face to hide its gruesome features.

“How can you trust the gods now?” Awab asked, twisting his foot as he spoke. “They took their power from you just when you needed it the most.”

“Their purpose was to set the old red god against one of their dream gods. They wanted to see which would prevail, or if one of us would lift a hand on our own behalf,” Nasari said calmly. “They made no promise to me. The dream gods and the red gods make promises, because they are foolish, but my masters know better than to bind themselves to an uncertain future.”

“The wise weed bends to the wind,” Awab said, but he was still troubled. “Where do we go from here, if the Lion’s work is done?”

“South, until we find the lake that pours the river from its mouth.”

But Gurtac would not let them leave until after a great feast and the slaughter of many cattle. “For the king has returned, the veiled are banished, and the Shadow is defeated all in one day.” Dormil came to Tabnar, and Kifson and other chieftains of the Huggir, and they swore their loyalty to Gurtac with strange ceremony, with shedding of blood and sharing of meat.

“My companions,” he said to Nasari and Awab. He sat on his throne, which had been moved from the old palace to sit in the open place where they had sacrificed to the Lion. It was here that he held judgment and received audiences until the time when the palace would be rebuilt and cleansed from its evil. “My friends. You have done as you promised, and I owe everything I have to you. Now it is time for me to keep my promise. What do you ask of me?”

“I only ask to go home in peace,” Awab said.

“Then wherever you go in the realms of the Huggir, you will be under my protection. And you, Nasari?”

“I will ask nothing for now. Perhaps in the future the gods will ask something through me, and then I will be sure to let you know.”

“Very well. But I refuse to let you leave empty-handed. Take at least these rings, and when you see them on your fingers think of me.” He gave each of them a golden ring, and Awab bowed and thanked him, even if the ring was a little too large for his finger. “A boat too I will give you to speed your journey.”

Then Awab and Nasari left Tabnar and the Huggir lands, following the river south, and Nasari chanted to herself in her own language as she held up her staff before her in the prow of the boat.

Wanyc ovenle huk hanggarko tabnarko gulncem angnus gjarsenxuoci fulnenko rifscinta aburnus.
Tabnarko gulncem dulu ken, awecna im huggirko toscncemu rako palsenyc.
Musu musyc ahigjunni, ken pes rasyc akyrtur.
Toscncemu rako scigko fulnenxuc alyfsonni, amulunni defgunu hascncemko teltisyc.
Asu hanggaru talncemko cidu arenna, anylunna rako colncemxuimi.
Lamrisu ryc myrsenta agena, ahocna lamrisu ryc cinoci.
Nciltisu hanggaryc akyrtur anylfana, gulncem tabnaroci.
Hanggaru tabnaryc colncemxuimi awecna, ahecna mesccyrko somrygyc.
Hanggaru ragj-gjanyc ahuguna, ahocna ncilxuko lussenyc.
Rako fessutyc ascerna itoscac agjolna, awocna wansenyc isorpanxuc adorunna.
Kyrsenyc bastangoci kangymle, kakyrle nulncemyc.
Rako filoxu ryc samaklur sahecna, agarunna kudlunu rako sarncemxuc.
Hanggarko tabnarko gulncem angnus abarte gjarsenxuoci fulnenko rifscinta aburnus.

Hear the story of how Janggar became king of Tabnar in the years when the cattle were as large as elephants!
There was no king of Tabnar then, and each man of the Huggir went his own way.
When chieftain warred with chieftain, there was none to judge between them.
A man stole his brother’s cattle, and a young man took his neighbor’s wife.
Until Janggar son of Taljem rose up, and stood in the midst of his friends.
Lamris spoke to him in a dream, in the night Lamris called him.
The goddess appointed Janggar to judge, a ruler in Tabnar.
With his friends Janggar went to Tabnar; he came to the city of Mesccyr.
Janggar pled with the Lion; the first of gods he called.
He cut his skin and bled for the rain, raised his voice and knocked down the gates.
“I will create justice in the land; I will judge the wrongdoer.”
His foes came to kill him; lightning slew his enemies.
That is how Janggar became king of Tabnar in the years when the cattle were as large as elephants!
-A Huggir poem

Chapter 22

Sacred Dance: Chapter 20

Awab became aware that he had been dreaming, that he was lying in the house of Paggul and the nearest woman was a giant on the far side of the room. He sighed and stood up, patting his stomach, still full from yesterday’s feast. To his pleasure his foot was alive again. The sun had risen, and he went to the door to look out at the royal square. Neither the stool nor Kifson were visible, so he stepped outside and stretched, glad to be out from the noxious air of Paggul’s house. Briefly he wondered where Paggul’s body was, but decided it was better not to know.

It wasn’t long before Awab gathered a crowd of curious giants around him, all of them regarding him as if he were the performing monkey in the Duri court, waiting for him to do something to entertain them. He scratched his head, and a child laughed. He made a face at the child, who giggled and ran away. Then he sat down against the wall and tried to ignore the watchers.

Nasari emerged from the house not long after, and Awab noticed that the watchers were careful to keep their distance from her. She glared at them until most of them had gone about their business, then she said to Awab, “Be careful. Kifson may have offered us his protection, but he may not be able to guarantee it. Remember the fate of the king of Duri, and he was far greater than any Huggir chieftain.”

“I am careful, but I’m also weak.” Awab shrugged. “I think we should leave today. Scaka has a wife and a place for himself here. What keeps us?”

“Maybe we should leave. The gods will tell me. But I am particularly eager to hear if Scaka has remembered anything of who he is. And here he comes now! Let’s hope his bride has pierced the veil around his mind.” She went to greet and congratulate Scaka and Dormil, and after a moment’s hesitation Awab did the same. Dormil had changed her clothes: her dress was now woven with golden threads.

But Scaka only shook his head when they called him that name. “I was called Scaka by the Duri, but the name of my strength is Gurtac, which was given to me among the Mirkysc.” Though he spoke with confidence, he hadn’t lost his air of sadness.

“Dormil brought you back to yourself, then,” Nasari said.

“Yes.” He held Dormil close to him as she inclined her head onto his chest. “I remember now. I remember who I was, and I thank both of you for setting me free. The veiled are fit to be slaves, not masters.” Dormil raised her hand towards his neck, taking a firm hold of his chin. “Dormil does not agree with me,” he said, his voice somewhat muffled by her grip. “But they have done the Huggir a great harm. Come with us down to the cistern and I will explain.”

Dormil was the one who knew the way up to the ring of stones that shielded the pit, into which Awab stared as Scaka, as Gurtac spoke. It was dark and vast and Awab wondered how long it would take to reach the bottom if he fell.

Gurtac put his hands behind his back and faced the rising sun as he told his story. “I was born on the other side of the river from this town, in the city of Tabnar, to the Mirkysc clan, in the line of Sorgjan. My mother was the younger daughter of a king and my father was a rainmaker. I am told that when I was born a traveling stranger prophesied that I would be either the salvation or the destruction of my people, and many cattle were sacrificed to make sure I would have a happy and fortunate life. You can judge whether or not those sacrifices were in vain.

“As you can imagine, from my childhood on there were many who sought to guide me. My father especially hoped that I would inherit her gift of calling the rain, and I remember his pride the first time I succeeded. He announced to the entire court that I would succeed him when he grew too old to shout to the heavens.

“Such were the hopes of my father. But there were many who feared me as well. The king was one of them, for I was in the line to succeed him as well, if anything should happen to my two cousins. My cousins themselves didn’t fear me, and indeed they were good friends. I went hunting with them often.” He sighed and looked down towards the ground.

“That is where the trouble started. The king, my grandfather, became suspicious and paranoid, believing that I was plotting to kill my cousins with the excuse of a hunting accident. He sent some worthless members of his warband to follow and threaten me, and finally he accused me in front of his entire court. Of course my mother and I argued with him, but he had it fixed in his head that I was a threat to his heirs, and so he sent me away from Tabnar to live in the desert with distant Sorgjan kin.

“My father must have chosen the place of my exile, because in that wilderness my kinsmen put me through the rituals that sealed my heart to the Lion who is above all gods, and my hands to the rain. There I became a true rainmaker, in the land where rain did not fall.

“But word came from Tabnar that there was trouble in the city. One of my cousins had tried to assassinate our grandfather and failed. This had naturally made the king even more paranoid than before, and in his madness he sought to rid himself of every rival, even though he was an old man whose natural time was near. He had my other cousin and my mother both killed, but he would not kill me, for to shed the blood of a rainmaker is to invite a curse on your land.

“I returned to Tabnar, fully intending to take vengeance, to kill my grandfather and take his throne. But he had called on the veiled, and the veiled took me. You know the rest.”

“But I don’t,” said Awab, since Gurtac seemed to have finished. “Who are the veiled?”

Petsenko wamxu. I am not permitted to speak of it.”

“But we have the authority of the gods, don’t we?” Awab asked, and Nasari nodded. “What if we ask in their name?”

“The Lion wishes it,” Nasari said softly. “Speak in the Duri language, and the words are not forbidden.”

Gurtac cast a glance at his wife, who nodded slightly. Awab wondered how much of what they were saying she understood. She certainly knew the word ‘veiled’: was she giving Gurtac her permission? But he paid close attention as Gurtac spoke. “Among the Huggir the veiled are both feared and respected. They are a society of men who hide their names and faces.”

But then a hare ran across the ground in front of them, darting from a bush to a pile of rocks. Dormil grabbed Gurtac’s arm and hissed something in his ear, then said more loudly, “No! They watch!”

Gurtac looked troubled by the omen. “Dormil is right. Not here, not now. When we leave Leftan. There I’ll tell you.”

“You’re coming with us?” Awab asked.

“I don’t know where you’re going, but I’m going to Tabnar to take back what the Lion has given to me.”

“Then we are going to Tabnar,” said Nasari.

Awab sighed. He wanted to ask why, but knew that her only answer would involve the gods. Once again he considered leaving and going his own way down the river to his home, but he had learned by now that there were petty gods and demons everywhere, and he judged it would be safer for him to stay with Nasari and Gurtac than to go off by himself.

“Good,” said Gurtac. “I think I’ll be needing your help. The veiled are strong, and I don’t know what things are like in Tabnar.”

“As the Lion’s servant wishes. And what about your wife?”

Dormil was apparently aware that Nasari had mentioned her, for now she put herself forward and said, “I go with Gurtac!”

“I imagine that Kifson will be pleased to have the king of the Mirkysc as a son-in-law,” said Nasari. “Have you told him yet?”

“No,” Gurtac said. He shaded his eyes from the morning sun and looked down towards the royal square. Awab squinted in the same direction, but there was no sign of the stool or its occupant. “When he wakes, then I’ll tell him, and see what help he’ll give me.”

Nasari nodded and then handed him the lion’s-head staff. “Do you feel anything, or hear anything, perhaps, when you touch this? Thunder? Water? Sand?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

She took the staff back and nodded. “I’d thought it might be time for you to receive the Lion’s power, but it seems such is not his will, not yet anyway. When does your father usually wake, daughter of milk?”

“Before noon, sometimes early and sometimes late. Late, if he has drunk much,” said Dormil.

“Then it may be some time yet. You’re sure you won’t tell us about the veiled here?”

Gurtac made the Duri sign against evil, and Dormil gave him a curious look. “No,” Gurtac said firmly.

Dormil’s look passed back to Nasari and Awab, whom she eyed for a moment with her brow wrinkled. “I am happy if you eat with us,” she said then, even if she didn’t sound happy.

“Thank you,” Awab said.

In the following days Awab spent most of his time by himself or with Nasari, who at least didn’t regard him as a curiosity like the Huggir did. Gurtac was always with Dormil, of course, and he seemed like a different person now than Scaka had been. The sadness in his face was no longer that of a man who had lost something, but that of a man who knew and accepted some painful responsibility. He was sure of himself, at ease in a way Awab could never be, not among these strangers. But Nasari, like Awab, stood apart.

“How long will we stay here?” Awab asked her each day, and each day she answered, “Until the gods tell me otherwise.”

Then Gurtac called them to his home, where he sat outside the door toying with a flint knife. He looked up at Nasari and said in a soft voice, “You saved me from the Duri and the veiled, and you helped me find my memories again. I have no right to ask more of you, and yet I will. My grandfather is dead, but the veiled have put a child on my throne in his place. Can you help me take back my city?”

“Yes,” Nasari said. “Not I, but the gods.”

He relaxed and bowed his head. “I am in your debt. Ask anything and I will give it, for when I am king in Tabnar, my arm will be as mighty as that of the Duri king himself.”

She smiled a thin smile. “Will you be mightier than the Lion?”

“I take your point. But I will keep my promise to you, Nasari, and to you, Awab. Anything you ask I will give, so long as it breaks no sacred law. My word is as sure as the sun.”

Nasari turned to face the east, away from the river and towards the highlands. Her eyes shut as she stood perfectly still, and in the silence Awab could hear her breathing. He gave Gurtac a sideways glance, but Gurtac seemed to be looking the same direction, deep in thought. Finally Nasari spoke. “Can Kifson spare you any champions?”

“I can ask, but I think he will.”

“He would like to be father-in-law of the mighty arm in Tabnar, I imagine,” she said with one corner of her mouth drawn up into the neighboring scars. “Good. You will not sneak into Tabnar like a bandit from the wilderness, but as a king to claim what is yours. You will call down the rain to be your herald, and when the veiled come to stop you, the Lion will crush them under his paw.”

Gurtac rose to his feet. “So be it! Come, let us speak to Kifson.”

But before she followed Gurtac to the royal square, Nasari turned to Awab and said in the Mar Gjol tongue, “I don’t know why the gods have taken such an interest in the affairs of the Huggir. It may have something to do with the red god who ruled over Paggul, but whatever the truth, I promise you that the gods will not let you perish. You will leave this land alive.”

“That should comfort me, but it doesn’t, somehow,” Awab said.

“Maybe that is wisdom.”

Chapter 21