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.”