Sacred Dance: Chapter 24

At several places the river divided, and each time Násárí directed them down the correct branch, first towards the east and then towards the west, away from a row of silver-peaked mountains. And at last the river became a lake, as their boat passed under an arch of rock and into a vast expanse of water. The wind was strong against them, but Násárí stood up and spread her arms. She called out in something that sounded like no human tongue and the wind howled past them but did not hinder them.

And after a time, as evening was falling, a mist rose from the water to hide the world from them. The only thing that remained visible was an outcropping of land directly ahead of them and growing larger. Awab began to hear things, fragments of voices that he couldn’t understand, and his hands faltered on the oars, but he gathered up his courage and continued to row, helped by Násárí, who had begun to move with a more-than-human energy, her arms beating back and forth like the wings of a bird in flight.

Then the prow of the boat ground against sand. Awab remained seated, uncertain what to do, but Násárí climbed out and stood, leaning on her staff. Then she fell to one knee, but said nothing. They waited as the mists swirled around them, the chill clinging to Awab’s cheeks.

The voices were louder than before, and Awab turned to look behind him. There were human figures there, mirages shimmering over the water. There was a hooded man holding a feather in his hands, a huntress with a bow on her shoulder, a man who limped on one foot. There was a woman he knew to be Palātū, though he couldn’t tell whether she was the loving mother of the statues or the naked blood-soaked woman of his dream. There was the serpentine shadow of the Dead God, and there were the Sinnęrí clustering together.

Even they have come to hear your decision,” Násárí said. Then she was seized by a spasm that threw her on the ground, and the staff fell from her hand. The stump of her other hand was paler than ever before, as if all life had been drained from it. She spoke in a new voice, like that of an aged woman, a great-grandmother too old to do anything but sit in the corner of the hut. “We are here, and thou art here, and all of ye are here. But where are the sanguine children? It were a pity an they should break their troth.”

No,” said a voice coming from the mists ahead. They cleared somewhat, and Awab saw Cer Lu walking towards them, bearing an amulet around his neck that was something like Paggul’s but larger and crimson-colored. “No, my lady is here, and all her brothers and sisters. They have learned much since you fought them all those ages ago. They have grown in power. It won’t go so easily for you this time around.”

It took Awab a moment to recognize that Cer Lu was speaking no language in particular, but that Awab was hearing him as he heard the red gods, his own thoughts being crafted like clay to carry Cer Lu’s meanings. He looked back and forth between Cer Lu and Násárí, and felt smaller now than ever before.

From the mists behind Cer Lu other men and women appeared, most of them giants, whether in the white robes of Sa Rúh or other strange costumes, but a few of the children of the forest also. Besides Cer Lu, the only person Awab recognized was Nʉlʉvad, and his heart leaped when he saw her, though she kept her face lowered to the ground.

Násárí continued in her whispery voice, “Sith ye have come, let us declare the hour. Stand, sylvan child. Thou hast been given honor beyond all thy brothers and sisters, beyond thy forefathers who sheltered the sanguine children in their trees. Thou wilt be umpire between us and them. Go up, sylvan child. Go up to thy seat of doom.”

The mists cleared further in front of Awab as Cer Lu walked past him to stand beside Násárí. Now Awab could see a series of steps leading up to a ring of stones atop a hill. There was something like a chair in the center of the stones, though it was more like a stone itself, from which only the bare outline of a chair’s shape was emerging. Awab obeyed the old voice and went up to take his seat. From there he could see more flat stones rising out of the mists, and even the ghostly figures that seemed to be standing atop them.

Násárí and Cer Lu appeared larger than they should have been from that distance. Awab looked at them, at Cer Lu standing with one hand on his crimson amulet, and at Násárí crouched on the ground, scarred and mutilated. He said, “State your case. The eldest first.”

Násárí rose and stood on one foot in an odd pose, her arms held straight out from her body but crossing at the elbows. “So. Thou wouldst hear the tale of the gods? Then listen! We are the elder brothers of the earth; we ruled all the vast world once. The forest of the sylvan children, the rivers of the fishers, and places thou nor thy kin have ever seen, full of uncouth men speaking in uncouth tongues. And all was well then, and we kept you well, and ye did worship us all. Was it not good then, ye ungrateful, ye sanguine?”

No,” said Cer Lu. “But we will speak of that when it is our time.”

Thou seest that to a few it seemed not so. They clasped to them spirits and took of them names and power, thinking it good to challenge even us. The sanguine children desired to sit where we sit and stand where we stand, and they lifted their hands against us! We smote them to the ground and in our wrath made of the rivers a desert. They fled and hid in the forest where thy forefathers dwelt. And they would be cleapt gods!

Today they crawl out from their caves to challenge us again. Folly! Maybe they have gathered to them a handful of worshipers, but we are the gods who have ruled over ye since years were counted. Thou hast seen our might. Thou hast seen our dominions. An thou art wise thou wilt dismiss the sanguine children to their own place again.” Násárí dropped her other foot to the ground, then sat cross-legged and said nothing more. Awab nodded to Cer Lu.

He was right in one thing,” Cer Lu said. “The old gods are not your brothers, but the brothers of the earth. They give themselves the names and forms of beasts: do you really think it good to worship beasts? The red gods were once men and women, it is true, but long ago they raised themselves up to immortality and power. They challenged the old gods, who feared mankind and kept us in a pathetic childhood, scattered across the land with neither cattle nor houses. And the red gods set us free.”

A lie,” said Násárí in the roaring voice of the Lion. “What power have the sanguine children that they might triumph against us?”

You speak out of turn. You are not as strong as you might claim. You admit that the red gods mastered spirits like yourselves! And with them they wrested the dominion from your claws and it fell and was lost.” Cer Lu stopped to wipe his brow and regain his breath. “By right it belongs to those who bested you. It belongs to the red gods who have done so much for the mortals under their care.”

Ye have done much?” Násárí asked in the voice of the Crocodile, writhing on the ground. “Ye have made them your chattel, and ye call us hard masters? Awab has seen what it means to serve the sanguine children!”

I have,” Awab said. “But Cer Lu is right and you speak out of turn. The red gods are still making their case.”

Will you let lies devour the truth unchallenged?”

No. But remember that you asked me to be your judge.” Násárí bowed and said nothing more.

Remember what they have created!” Cer Lu bellowed. “Remember the cauldrons of life, the beds of dreams, the palace in the water, the silent servants! Remember the veiled and their power over memories! And what have the old gods given you? Can you name one thing? My masters are tomorrow! Hers are yesterday!” He crossed his arms and faced Násárí.

Slowly Awab nodded. “Both of you, I perceive, claim to be stronger than the other. I cannot judge that directly. Both the old gods and the red gods are far stronger than me, I know.”

Thou sawest the battle in Tabnar,” Násárí said.

I did, but he whom the veiled fought was only a dream, and the battle was settled by mortals. Cer Lu, you called the red gods immortal, but I broke one with a knife of iron.”

Even a god may be vulnerable to the metal of the stars,” Cer Lu said.

I see. Tell me, why are they called the red gods?”

Because they rose from flesh and blood.”

And yet they can by no means escape their flesh!” said Násárí. “Never will they be more than what they are.”

Be that as it may,” Awab said. “The old gods claim right of seniority and fathership over the red gods, and the red gods do not deny the fact. Their claim is one of kinship. I have a question for the old gods.”

We will hear it,” Násárí whispered.

Why do you submit yourselves to this trial at all? Why not ignore the red gods, or blast them from the earth as you did before?”

The sanguine children it was who made the vaunt, not we. Dismiss them!”

And if I rule in their favor? What will you do then? What will become of me then?”

The vow that was made on our behalf will remain. Thou wilt go unhurt. We will grant the sanguine children the lands south of the Síluhs and east of the Stone Men, north of the Serpent’s Mountain and west of this lands. But if thou decidest otherwise, we will drive the rebels into the darkness where they ought to remain.”

And what do you say, you who speak through Cer Lu?”

Cer Lu’s hands worked at the amulet. His skin was glistening with sweat from head to feet. “My masters say that they will reward you handsomely if you choose them, but even if you do not, they will do you no harm.”

Again Awab nodded. “I have heard what both of you have to say before one another, but I would like to speak to each of you alone, to ask certain questions in private. This is the way we judge among the Gorob.”

Then we agree,” said Cer Lu.

And we,” said Násárí.

You both promise not to eavesdrop?”

Cer Lu and Násárí bowed in unison. “Thou wilt find me by the vessel that took you to this island,” Násárí said and withdrew into the mists.

Awab stepped down from his chair and, keeping his eyes lowered, said to Cer Lu, “There is a woman in the service of the Lord of Sa Rúh whose name is Nʉlʉvad. She is of my people, and I promised her that I would set her free. If you agree, I will remember your kindness and decide against the old gods.”

Cer Lu stood silent for a moment, though his lips were moving, then said, “The Lord of Sa Rúh agrees. Nʉlʉvad will be set free.” Awab took a breath to speak, but Cer Lu forestalled him. “Do you doubt him?”

The veiled broke their promise to me in Tabnar.”

The veiled are imperfect servants of the least among us. You did us a favor when you killed him. But didn’t your guide tell you about this place? All promises are kept here. Look!” Cer Lu waved his hand and the mists cleared enough for Awab to see Nʉlʉvad walking up the trail towards them. She didn’t look up, not until she was nearly at Awab’s side. “Daughter of the forest,” said Cer Lu, “the Lord of Sa Rúh releases you from his service. When your brother leaves this island, you will go with him in peace.”

She looked up then, and disbelief fought with joy on her face. “I’m sorry I took so long to keep my vow,” he said. “A little while longer, and we’ll be going back home. Wait here until I return.”

Leaving Nʉlʉvad by the stone chair, Awab went down to the beach where Násárí was waiting for him. Not her, he reminded himself as he saw her sitting on a rock, half-hidden by the mists, but the gods that were within her. The whiteness had spread up her arm and her face was pale. “I am inclined to decide against the red gods, but I would ask one boon, one demonstration of your might. Restore Násárí! Let her be her own woman! Make her well again!”

Násárí’s eyes met his, utterly empty of any human emotion, and he trembled, knowing his bravado for what it was. But she inclined her head. “We will do as thou sayest, for thy sake that thou shalt know our power.”

The earth shook and there was a loud roar from beyond Násárí. Awab turned his head towards the sound just in time for a wave of water to strike him, knocking him head over heels and swallowing him in the torrent until, as his lungs were bursting, he was left lying on a flat rock. The mists were thinner than they had been and he could see the hill and the stones that rose from the ground around it. He saw the coast and the sun sinking below the water in the west. He saw Násárí lying on the sand as if dead.

Awab went to her and turned her over. She was still breathing, but it was her face that shocked him. The scars were gone, leaving clear skin and features that he didn’t recognize. Her hand, too, had been restored, but the staff was gone.

Násárí?” he said.

She touched her face with her hand, her eyes widening. “They’re gone,” she said. “They’re gone, and I’m alone.” She stumbled to her feet then and ran to the water’s edge, where she stared at her reflection for a long time. Then she laughed, and returned to take Awab’s hand. “So you’ve decided for the old gods? That was wise.”

I haven’t judged yet,” said Awab, and climbed back up the hill, Násárí following him. Sitting in the stone chair, he stared upward and saw the mists and clouds clearing, and beyond them the evening star. Then he looked back down at Násárí and Cer Lu kneeling before him. He shut his eyes and spoke. “You both claim for yourselves the title of gods and all its benefits. But tell me, what god must come before the judgment of man? What kind of gods must find mortals to settle their own disputes? No. This is my judgment: neither of you are worthy. Let the Crocodile rule in Dūrī and the Lion among the Huggir and the red gods among the people of the river. Let us all go back to our home in peace.”

There was silence for a moment, then a great wind that stirred up the mists around Awab and the waters on the lake. The dream gods vanished with a howl and the coiling mists swallowed Cer Lu and his companions. “So that is your judgment,” said Násárí, looking at him solemnly. “Come. It’s time to leave this place.”

They left the island and passed through the realms of the red gods without incident. Násárí left Awab on the same shore from which he had been taken by the giants long ago, and he waved farewell to her as she rowed the little boat away. He never saw her again.

He entered the forest, Nʉlʉvad clinging to his side, and almost immediately the years seemed to fall away from him and he was a child of Gorob once again. By the smell of the air and the dirt he could tell that other people had been here recently, but there was no camp nearby. He looked around him at the all-embracing trees and heard the birds begin to screech at one another, then slipped into the shadows, away from the river.

Awab asked Nʉlʉvad if she knew where her tribe was, but she only looked at him with sad eyes, so that he was reminded somehow of Shākā. “My tribe sold me to the red gods. I will live with you from now on,” she said.

It was many days before he found his own people again, or rather they found him, for his senses were not as keen as they once had been. Geruw̱a his brother-in-law saw him first and fell to his knees, yelling something about a ghost, but Awab took him by the hand and said, “I’ve been away for a long time; I’ve been to many places, but now I’m home.”

The men who were hunting with Geruw̱a surrounded him then, chanting and lifting their arms. They led him and Nʉlʉvad to the clearing where the children of Gorob had built their houses. His sister was there with her children, including Bvebvekso, who was grown into a shy boy who kept his distance, but Awab didn’t see Orʉk or Elʉv̱u anywhere. He put them out of his mind for the time and simply enjoyed his homecoming, embracing his old friends and family. They prepared a meal, a feast after the dry bread that he had been eating these past days.

They all wanted to know where he had been and what he had done, so he told them something of his time among the red gods and the Dūrī. But he faltered when the moment came for him to speak about Násárí and the gods, and he only said, “When the chieftain of the Dūrī died, I left and traveled up the river until I came here, and I found Nʉlʉvad again on the way. Now I am very tired and would like to rest.”

The next morning he did ask about Elʉv̱u. “She and Orʉk ran off not long after you left,” he was told. “They’re living with Raf̱ud’s band now.”

It doesn’t matter. Nʉlʉvad is my wife now.”

Awab spent the day building a hut for himself and Nʉlʉvad out of bent branches, with help from some of the others. They danced around it when they were done and feasted again. Yet when he went hunting with them, they did not ask him to divide up the kill. He was no longer a judge: they knew that as well as he.

But he was pleased to find himself to be as good a hunter and pathfinder as he had ever been. He dreamed of the gods occasionally, of far away lands and strange peoples. And every day he rose early before the rising of the sun and worshiped he did not know what.

ŋa, bvonʉd oxeru.
Bvonʉd rʉkteteek
Na, bvonʉd oxeru.
Repfasud patuni.
Mba, bvonʉd oxeru.
Sorʉnʉd kʉβuwu.
Ma, bvonʉd oxeru.
A, a, bvonʉd oxeru.

Nga, the earth shakes.
How the earth trembles.
Na, the earth shakes.
When the great spirits walk.
Mba, the earth shakes.
Let the forest hide.
Ma, the earth shakes.
A, a, the earth shakes.
-A Gorob chant of the Whisper form

Sacred Dance: Chapter 23

South of Tabnar the dry land sank into swamp, but Násárí seemed to know where to pilot the boat so that they did not run aground and the wind drove them onward into clearer water. They passed ships crewed by the star-painted Síluhs, and Násárí greeted them with a salute, though Awab remembered his captivity and was silent. He did ask Násárí if the Lady of Màr Jòl would try to punish him for escaping, but she shook her head.

If the Lady of Màr Jòl thinks she has authority to chastise you, she will soon learn otherwise. But we will not be passing through her land.”

And Sa Rúh? I made a promise there that I haven’t forgotten.”

No. The river has many branches, and we want the one that leads to the island.”

Which island?” Awab asked.

She didn’t answer him, but only said, “We don’t have far to go now.”

Ahead of them the river narrowed somewhat, speeding up as it did to pass between two tree-topped cliffs. Násárí breathed in sharply and said, “The gods tell me that someone is waiting for us here.”

Màr Jòl?” Awab asked. “Sa Rúh?”

We aren’t in those lands yet. No, not those.” She stood up, putting them at sudden risk of turning over, and said, “Huma roŋ.

Awab smelled the air and said, “They have your scent.”

That is the aroma of the Spider. These are my people. “Násárí sel, ólan. Nɔsuŋsuŋli has bórɛnman ndéu sel. Hɛibil ŋo lún sé, tɛbó ali se.

The only reply was a sound from above like the beating of a two-toned drum. Násárí motioned for Awab to help row forward. But when they were passing between the cliffs, something fell and caught fast in the side of the boat. It was a stone hook attached to a rope, and Awab moved to detach it, but Násárí grabbed his arm.

I don’t understand this,” she said. “But if my brothers want to speak with us, then it will be well.”

The rope pulled them close to a crevice, a dark space among the rocks, but something was gleaming there, two pinpricks gleaming like the eyes of an animal. A terror descended on Awab: he found himself approaching every leopard and boar he had ever seen, in the dark night of the forest. He trembled and his oars fell from his fingers.

Don’t be afraid,” said Násárí, putting her hands on Awab’s shoulders. “These are my brethren, my fellow servants of the Spider. They are our allies. Your fear is only a trick of the Spider: ignore it! He is kinder and nobler than the shadows would have you think. Do not look at the eyes!”

There were more than two of the lights now, and Awab followed Násárí’s advice as best he could, bowing his head to avoid them. The terror had settled firmly upon him, but he tried to avoid it by thinking of his family, their faces still clear to him after all these years. He thought of Elʉv̱u until he wept for losing her. Then Násárí nudged him and he raised his head. The lights were gone; the boat was fixed in a narrow cave and there were men standing over it on both sides, their faces all marked with scars just like Násárí’s.

One of the men put out his hand and took Násárí’s staff. He held it gingerly, as if it were uncomfortably hot, and set it on a high flat rock nearby. Then he took Awab under the arms and lifting him up, deposited him next to the flat rock. He brought his ruined face close to Awab’s, then said in Màr Jòl, “This is business of the Spider. Wait here and remember nothing that you see or hear.”

Awab looked to Násárí, and he saw that she was trembling. “Am I not the judge of the gods?” he asked, though his voice cracked as he spoke. “I have fought with a dream of the Lion and slain one of the red gods with my own hands. What have I come here for, if not for this? Násárí has traveled with me all the way from Turīsū, and if the Spider has business with her, I will be a part of it.”

No!” Násárí said in Dūrī. “Little fool! Have you stood at the Gate of the Four Arrows or recited the oath of the narrow way? How do you think you will stand before the servants of the Spider when you cannot even speak their language?”

They are our allies, I thought.”

The man laughed, throwing his head back. “If you want to put yourself in our lord’s web, I won’t stand in your way. Násárí! Who is your master?”

I serve the Spider,” Násárí said.

The man grinned, and it was not a pretty sight. One of his attendants handed him a black string, which he wrapped loosely around Násárí’s neck. “Now tell me. Súŋ rogám se?

Has kɔn tíl wu ɛ́níman páru sel.

She admits it in the language that binds her. She carries a burden from all the gods, she says. And while the Ibis or the Crocodile may trust an emissary who is host to a thousand gods, the Spider is less open-handed. Are you content, little one? Do you understand? Ólan Násárí, tell us with the Spider’s voice that we are wrong!”

Násárí’s head was bowed and her arms wrapped around her knees. She said in a quiet rasping voice, “Ye are not wrong. This servant of mine was Ólan betimes, yet now she is a vessel of low honor. Put her to the question. Ask her what she will when all is done.”

What will you do after the judgment, you who were once Ólan?”

Násárí’s voice returned to its normal lilt, though it was strained. “Nothing. I will be empty and ready for the grave.”

A servant of the Spider is never empty. Are you a fly or a beetle, sucked dry of your life? Then there is nothing left for you but to be devoured.”

Then I will be devoured, but first I will carry my burden to Old Tortoise of the Island.”

There was quiet then, and Awab looked around at the giants, who sat without saying anything. He wondered if they were holding a conversation in their minds, without opening their mouths, or if they were merely contemplating in silence as would the elders of the Gorob back in the forests of home. In particular he looked at Násárí. It had always been hard for him to read the expression behind her scars, but she seemed to be as tired and sad as her words implied. He almost said something to her, he wasn’t sure what, but the quietness of the others prevented him. It would be a day to see when a Gorob son of the forests was less patient than a giant! So he waited.

Hear this, little judge,” said a different man, and he spoke in the language of the Gorob. “The Spider cannot trust Násárí and he does not know you. Another must go with you both. When the judgment is done, you will go home.”

And Násárí?”

Her life is an offering to the Spider. It will end.”

I see. Násárí?” Awab asked in Dūrī. “Why was I brought from my home? Why was I shown before all these gods and giants?”

That is for another to tell, not her,” said the second man. “And the Tortoise will not speak until you have come to his island.”

But Násárí raised her head and looked at Awab. “You know that the red gods came to your forests long ago?”

Yes. They were Ulbud, and Obo and Mabbid, weren’t they?” He wondered if even Vuvudru was a dream god or a red god, if his prayers were heard at all.

garé sahrɛn núsan,” Násárí said to the giants. “Bɛ́fu se ɔ́ gomwalu.

But if Ulbud and Obo and Mabbid were red gods, then why did they really leave us?” Awab asked.

But as he was speaking, the giants took him, lifting him and carrying him further away from the water, up a natural stairway in the cavern’s back, where steps of rock had been worn smooth by trickling water. They emerged up into sunlight at the top of the cliff, and Awab blinked. There was a basin in the rocks ahead, underneath a lone tree. It was filled with water, and the giants set Awab down only to dunk his head in it. It was cold, the shock waking him from the oppressive feeling that had settled on him in the cave below.

When he looked up again, gasping, the water clinging to his scalp, he saw the giants not as human beings stretched out of proportion, but as creatures of congealed dust, faceless like the Lord of Sa Rúh’s servants. He stared at them with wonder but no fear.

See yourself in the basin,” one directed him, and he looked.

In the reflection in the water he wore a crown of leaves, so real that he had to touch his brow to make sure it wasn’t actually there. “What does this mean?” he asked.

So break,” he was told.

I don’t understand.”

The red, the red, the red and the dreams. You have seen.”

I have done what you asked me to do. Do you have anything to tell me that isn’t nonsense? But then, I wonder if you really are who you say you are. Násárí’s told me that you send your spies into every land, where you learn the language, but how did you come to learn my language? Only the Gorob speak like the Gorob, and I doubt you have any spies among us.”

Well and dreams, you see the dreams.”

Are you dream gods like Paggul’s master? Is that what you’re saying? What do you want with us?”

Do you think this is the ordeal? Open your eyes, little judge, and run.”

Awab opened his eyes. He was lying on the ground under the branches of the lone tree, unable to move. There was something lurking in the branches above and he tried to stand and flee, but his legs would not obey him.

Enough!” Awab shouted. “Enough visions and games! Tell me what you want with me and let that be that! I am not one of your initiates, if you are men, and I am not one of your worshipers, if you are gods. I am Awab, a stranger to you, and you have shown me poor hospitality indeed.”

Again he opened his eyes. He was leaning against the basin and the giants were standing around him. One of them bowed. “So be it. Come with us.”

They led Awab down the other side of the slope away from the river, where the trees became thicker. There was a little grove there where the ground was covered in brown dust and strange fruit hung from the branches. The giants sat in a circle around Awab, but he remained standing.

This is our first story. Once there was a wicked man who through the might of his arm and the cunning of his tongue became great among his people. He even compelled spirits of the air and earth to do his bidding. But he refused to give any portion of his victories to thank the gods, so they punished him by sealing him inside a crystal in the heart of the earth, never to be released until he learned gratitude. There he remained as ages passed and all he had created was forgotten.

But at last a boy found the crystal, and in an exuberant impulse he broke it on the ground. As the crystal shattered he heard a voice in his ears, whispering a single phrase. ‘Thank you.’

This is our second story. Once there was a foolish woman who refused to let her children marry and leave her house, no matter how many great deeds they did. Her eldest son eventually lost his patience and lay with his lover in his mother’s own house. In a fury his mother transformed him and his lover into insects, then barred her doors so that her other children could never leave.

And so she died and her children had no issue, and her name was forgotten.

You were a judge in your forests. Can you judge this man and this woman?”

I understand your meaning, I think,” Awab said. “Nevertheless, take me back to Násárí. If you are of her order, then send another with us, but you must not kill her. If you don’t promise that, I will do nothing for you. But if you are gods or spirits, then let us go alone and in peace.”

There was silence for a long time, and a breeze stirred the dust until even the feet of the giants seemed to be a fleeting illusion of wind and dirt. Then one of them said, “It is agreed.”

They led Awab back down to the cave where Násárí was waiting. “He has overcome the Lesser Ordeal. He has heard the first stories. Listen to the words of the Sinnęrí. Go on to the place of the doom of the goods, and there your own doom will be given.” The giants, who seemed smaller now, knelt to undo the hooks that had caught the boat, and then shrank back into the shadows.

Násárí was reluctant to move, but Awab cajoled her into the boat and began to row. When they passed from underneath the shadow of the cliffs, the sun was shining in the west, and the tension seemed to pass from Násárí’s hunched figure. But still she seemed too tired to move. Occasionally she stirred and muttered in a language that sounded neither like that the Sinnęrí had used, nor any that Awab knew. After a little while she helped Awab row.

What were they?” he asked when it was evening and Násárí was dividing bread between the two of them.

Oh, little judge,” she replied. “I am not permitted to speak of the Sinnęrí to outsiders. But perhaps I may tell you a little. You may know that the Spider has other than human servants. They come and go in many guises, sometimes masked as his votaries, sometimes as the outsiders among whom we travel.”

But in your story you said they were a curse on us.”

Of course. What did you think of those we met, who you think might be Sinnęrí?”

I don’t want to think about them any more.”

Do you think the gods are always kind? And if they are not, how much less their dreams and their nightmares, their puppets that have been let loose?”

I am tired.”

Then sleep. The gods will not let us come to harm, with our goal so near. We come to a place where no lies may be spoken and all promises must be kept. From the beginning of the world it has been the seat of judgment between heaven and earth.”