At several places the river divided, and each time Nasari 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 Nasari 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 Nasari, 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 Nasari 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 Palatu, 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 Sinneari clustering together.
“Even they have come to hear your decision,” Nasari 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 Nasari, 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 Ruh or other strange costumes, but a few of the children of the forest also. Besides Cer Lu, the only person Awab recognized was Nylyvad, and his heart leaped when he saw her, though she kept her face lowered to the ground.
Nasari 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 Nasari. 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.
Nasari 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 Nasari crouched on the ground, scarred and mutilated. He said, “State your case. The eldest first.”
Nasari 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.” Nasari 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 Nasari 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?” Nasari 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.” Nasari 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 Nasari.
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,” Nasari 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 Nasari. “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,” Nasari 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 Siluhs 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 Nasari.
“You both promise not to eavesdrop?”
Cer Lu and Nasari bowed in unison. “Thou wilt find me by the vessel that took you to this island,” Nasari 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 Ruh whose name is Nylyvad. 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 Ruh agrees. Nylyvad 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 Nylyvad 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 Ruh 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 Nylyvad by the stone chair, Awab went down to the beach where Nasari 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 Nasari! Let her be her own woman! Make her well again!”
Nasari’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 Nasari. 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 Nasari 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.
“Nasari?” 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, Nasari 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 Nasari 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 Duri 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 Nasari, 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. Nasari 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, Nylyvad 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 Nylyvad if she knew where her tribe was, but she only looked at him with sad eyes, so that he was reminded somehow of Scaka. “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. Geruwwa 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 Geruwwa surrounded him then, chanting and lifting their arms. They led him and Nylyvad 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 Oryk or Elyvvu 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 Duri. But he faltered when the moment came for him to speak about Nasari and the gods, and he only said, “When the chieftain of the Duri died, I left and traveled up the river until I came here, and I found Nylyvad again on the way. Now I am very tired and would like to rest.”
The next morning he did ask about Elyvvu. “She and Oryk ran off not long after you left,” he was told. “They’re living with Raffud’s band now.”
“It doesn’t matter. Nylyvad is my wife now.”
Awab spent the day building a hut for himself and Nylyvad 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.
Nga, bvonyd Oxeru.
Na, bvonyd Oxeru.
Mba, bvonyd Oxeru.
Ma, bvonyd Oxeru.
A, a, bvonyd 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