South of Tabnar the dry land sank into swamp, but Nasari 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 Siluhs, and Nasari greeted them with a salute, though Awab remembered his captivity and was silent. He did ask Nasari if the Lady of Mar Gjol would try to punish him for escaping, but she shook her head.
“If the Lady of Mar Gjol thinks she has authority to chastise you, she will soon learn otherwise. But we will not be passing through her land.”
“And Sa Ruh? 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. Nasari breathed in sharply and said, “The gods tell me that someone is waiting for us here.”
“Mar Gjol?” Awab asked. “Sa Ruh?”
“We aren’t in those lands yet. No, not those.” She stood up, putting them at sudden risk of turning over, and said, “Huma rong.”
Awab smelled the air and said, “They have your scent.”
“That is the aroma of the Spider. These are my people. “Násárí sel, ólan. Noasungsungli has bóreanman soandéu sel. Heaibil ngo lún sé, teabó ali se.”
The only reply was a sound from above like the beating of a two-toned drum. Nasari 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 Nasari 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 Nasari, 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 Nasari’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 Elyvvu until he wept for losing her. Then Nasari 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 Nasari’s.
One of the men put out his hand and took Nasari’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 Mar Gjol, “This is business of the Spider. Wait here and remember nothing that you see or hear.”
Awab looked to Nasari, 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? Nasari has traveled with me all the way from Turisu, and if the Spider has business with her, I will be a part of it.”
“No!” Nasari said in Duri. “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. Nasari! Who is your master?”
“I serve the Spider,” Nasari 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 Nasari’s neck. “Now tell me. Súng tearogám se?”
“Has koan Tíl wu éáníman 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? Olan Nasari, tell us with the Spider’s voice that we are wrong!”
Nasari’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 Olan 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 Olan?”
Nasari’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 Nasari. 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 Nasari and he does not know you. Another must go with you both. When the judgment is done, you will go home.”
“Her life is an offering to the Spider. It will end.”
“I see. Nasari?” Awab asked in Duri. “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 Nasari 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.
“Noagaré sahrean Núsan,” Nasari said to the giants. “Béáfu se óá 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 Ruh’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. Nasari’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 Nasari. 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 Nasari was waiting. “He has overcome the Lesser Ordeal. He has heard the first stories. Listen to the words of the Sinneari. 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.
Nasari 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 Nasari’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 Sinneari 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 Nasari was dividing bread between the two of them.
“Oh, little judge,” she replied. “I am not permitted to speak of the Sinneari 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 Sinneari?”
“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.”