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

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