My memory is not as good as it used to be. Sometimes I fear that I will forget who I am and spend the rest of my life sitting on the beach watching the waves rise and fall, a better fate than I deserve, certainly. I shout this to the rocks and the valleys, in the hope that I will not forget entirely. I know that her sacred majesty shares my affliction, but speaking with her is awkward, well beyond the normal difficulties I have with other people. So I live alone here on the island of my childhood, and I shout to the sky. But I do not shout everything. I fear that if I do, the dark twin of my soul will rule me again.
Who I was before I came to N’etsa does not matter, only that my boat was swept away in a storm and for many days and nights I clung to it as it drifted. Eventually exhaustion took me. I came to myself again on a rock slab with the sound of a man’s voice in my ears, babbling in strange broken tones.
“Niskiɬqa leːxlastl’we. M’ piʔew leːhap’t’?”
“Hey,” I said. “Say something I can understand.”
“Hap’t’kwi awaː?” He reached out and touched the side of my face, so I pushed him back. He stumbled but recovered quickly, taking a sharp ax from his belt.
“No cheating now,” I said, raising my hands. “This is a fair fight.” Now I noticed the paleness of his skin, almost as pale as a corpse. Maybe that was why he’d tried to feel my own skin. As for my arm, it ached like Jamba’s own foot. I realized that I was very, very tired, and as I took a step away from the stranger, I collapsed and was lost again.
My next memory is of lying in a low room on a blanket patched together from sealskin, and of the chill that rested in the air despite the fire in the middle of the room. The man staring down at me wore elaborately dyed garments and a hat underneath which strands of dark hair peeked out. I had been clad in similar thick clothes, for which I was glad, though the cold sought its way in through every gap. I stirred my limbs and sat up.
“Silastl’ap n’j’aːxʷmew hi?” he asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“N’j’aːxʷmew kʷiːk’l.” He whistled and a woman with her head bowed pushed her way through the hangings over a doorway. Through gestures he made it clear I was to go with her. But as I rose to obey, he grabbed me by the roots of my hair and pointed to himself. “Tlenik’,” he said, and forced me to bow. I struck his hand away, of course, and the two of us stared at one another, and I thought to myself that there was an emptiness behind his wide eyes. Finally he laughed mirthlessly and sent us away. I followed the woman, crawling through a bent tunnel into the cold open air, and when I looked back I saw that we had emerged from beneath a mound of rocks and earth.
Even though she was wrapped up in her shapeless clothes, the woman was pretty enough; the tattooed line of bright green running down the right side of her head and neck only added to her attractiveness. Later I would find that it went all the way down her arm to the tip of the finger, and I would learn its significance. “I’m Ranggime,” I said as she led me on a trail over ridge and stream. I had lived in a village of perhaps seventy people, and it had been large in my eyes. But this village, surrounded by a wall of stone near the peak of a tall hill, was beyond words, enough for an entire tribe to dwell within.
The woman glanced up at me (for the people of this land were not tall) and said, “Menkwi.” It was a strange name: No One. At the time I knew so little of the world that had taken me.
Menkwi seemed to have no family, living alone in a hut under the shadow of a rocky overhang. She had prepared a thin soup for me to eat, and I found that it tasted as thin as it looked. I wondered why these people lived here in this cold land. Was this, perhaps, the realm of ghosts? Had I drowned and my spirit fled here to suffer and fade? “Ah!” I cried. “Mabbame my father! Ah! My brothers of the Serpent! Woe to me!” And I wept.
Menkwi put her small hands atop mine; they were warm, which gave me hope that we lived still. “Hakledlgiʔs’en,” she said softly.
She began to teach me her language after that, pointing to objects at first and then describing events. And by Mabbame, what a language I found it to be! The tongue taught to us in dreams by the spirits: sounds crammed together without fluidity, words flipped topsy-turvy, ten ideas in one verb. I don’t think I ever really mastered it, though I learned enough to get by. In time Menkwi became not only my teacher but my lover, though what with my taboo days and her bad omens we were apart more often than we were together. Yet even now I remember the heat of her body and I almost miss her, for I am alone.
It became clear to me in time that what she was teaching me was not the language the other people of N’etsa used, though it was similar. I asked her about it, and she answered, “This is the language of my own people. Tlenik’ is a cunning man. He wants to understand us but not the other way around.”
“You aren’t from N’etsa?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t remember where I was two years ago. But I speak with strange words and I have no relatives, so I must be from somewhere else.”
“Then we are fellow aliens,” I said, and kissed her.
As for the natives, they avoided us as much as they could, making curious signs with their hands when we approached. Sometimes, though, when we returned from the nearby hot spring with our buckets of water, we found that they had left seal meat and fat on our threshold. I was very sick for the first few weeks.
I didn’t see Tlenik’ again for eight months, when he at last appeared at our hut, his eyes piercing and his expression fierce and wild. I wouldn’t fear him now. I wonder if I did then. Probably, as he was the chief of the Hin’etsa warriors and the husband of the oracle, and all I knew at the time was that he was to decide my fate. But as I wrote above, my memories are not as sharp as they should be. “Should be,” I say, as if I could reach into the Otherworld and pluck a reality by which to judge this one. My counterpart walks among the rocks, and he is able to call up his memories perfectly. They leap straight from mind to throat for him, but the channels of my brain are frozen over. That is a phrase I picked up from Tlenik’, who had his own problems with the past.
But I wander from my story. Tlenik’ had come to interrogate me now that I could speak with him, though I stumbled in my words and his accent differed greatly from that of Menkwi. He asked me where I was from and I told him the name of my home, but it meant nothing to him. Then he asked me why I had come to N’etsa, and I told him that I was lost. “Many of us are lost,” he said., and studied me for a moment. Menkwi emerged from the hut to stand beside me, and in a flash Tlenik’ struck her to the ground. “Leave us to speak alone,” he told her. And before I could move, he pointed a short spear at me.
“I’ll teach you better when I get a chance,” I said.
“I look forward to the lesson,” said Tlenik’ as Menkwi went away, hunched over. “But right now I have many questions for you. The ocean brought you here, I am told. We aren’t friendly with any spirits, but the spirits of the ocean aren’t as malicious as some. Do you have a message from them?”
“No, I bear no message; I’ve talked to no spirits. I’m just a man.”
“The oracle says otherwise. She says the spirits have been stirred up by your arrival, and have begun to speak in strange tongues.”
“Perhaps they came with the same storm that brought me; I know nothing of spirits. I have always obeyed the taboos and honored the ancestors.”
“You are a quarrelsome man. I want your word that you will do nothing to hurt the oracle when I bring you to see her. If you lay one finger on her, we’ll torture and kill you.”
“That’s fair. I promise I won’t touch her.” No good could come of hurting one who spoke to spirits, anyway.
I followed Tlenik’ down into the center of the village, where a single large house stood apart from the rest. A small ring of lichen-covered stones had been piled up around it. The stone that sat over the door was painted with a symbol that meant nothing to me, and seated in front of it was a stately woman who looked impassively at me, like she might look at a rock. A hood obscured her hair.
“You are the stranger,” she said, and it was not a question. “You are the one who will upset what has been built and restore what is upset. So the spirits have told me.”
“I am Ranggime, a simple man,” I replied. “I know nothing of prophecy.”
“Menkwi is an evil woman. I foresee that if you do not stay away from her, there will be much trouble for us all.”
“I see no harm in her, even if Tlenik’ does treat her cruelly.”
“My husband is kinder to her than she deserves.” Suddenly she cupped a hand over her ear. “I can hear them!”
Tlenik’ shut his eyes. “What do they say?” he asked in a sing-song voice.
All around us the people began to chant, loud enough to drown out whatever the oracle was saying. I was relieved by the din; I had little wish to hear whatever words these alien spirits used. The most important thing you should understand about me is that I have been afraid all my life.
At last the oracle raised her hands and shouted, and the chanters went silent. Her gaze fell onto me again. “You will follow my husband now, and he will teach you what it is to be a Hin’etsa man. Menkwi must suffer her punishment.”
Nothing suited me less, but a man torn from his home and family and set among strangers is made weak and must go where others lead him. I glowered at Tlenik’. “I am a son of Mabbame,” I told him. “Never forget that.”
“Many things are easily forgotten, but not that,” Tlenik’ said. “Is there more, oracle?”
“There is no more,” said the oracle. “Leave me.”
So Tlenik’ took me by the arm and brought me down to the water. “No matter what the oracle said, you shall not learn the sacred stories. I will tell you only the things children know. The Hin’etsa and the Xwēlm’di were brothers once, who fled their home to escape the cruelty of their mother. They came here to the cold peninsula, but they were not the first. This is a land of unclean spirits, gibbering and crawling through the crevices, flying through the air, gnawing at our fires. The Hin’etsa feared the spirits, but the Xwēlm’di embraced them and learned things that should not be learned. We fought and divided the land between us, driving the Xwēlm’di further south, closer to the Otherworld. Let them be near to their spirits, let them worship their mad queen.”
“But the oracle speaks to the spirits,” I said.
Devotion shone in Tlenik’’s eyes. “The oracle is not like the rest of us, and you should learn to speak of her with respect. There were lights in the sky on the day she came to us in her boat; things are allowed of her that the rest of us must fight against. Pay close attention to these signs to ward off the spirits.”
He demonstrated quite a few hand motions that he said would keep evil spirits far away from me, and I mimicked his signs. He nodded. “Well done. It is not only spirits that threaten us here, but the ice and the wind. All of us must do our part to keep our village alive. You look strong enough, so I’m sure you’ll be a great help.”
Understand that the place I’d been born was a great deal further north than this, where the sun shone more brightly and more often, and we had little need to concern ourselves with fighting the cold. My first months in N’etsa had seemed like a nightmare, and even though my blood had chilled over time, I could only be truly happy under a pile of blankets, next to a fire, or in Menkwi’s arms. “We can’t win against the cold,” I said. “I don’t like fights I can’t win.”
He shook his head. “You can’t win against death, and yet you fight for your life. Come with me. I will show you how we hunt birds.”
The birds of the N’etsa island were curious creatures, and none more curious than the black-and-white birds that strutted around and sported flippers instead of wings. They were easy to catch with the bolas Tlenik’ carried, though he warned me that the spirits were watching and that we shouldn’t linger in that place. After that we walked to the southern village, where we stayed the night in the chief’s own house, and in the morning we went hunting seal. “You will stay here, I think,” said Tlenik’, “away from Menkwi.”
“What by the Serpent did she do to you?” I asked.
“She betrayed a sacred trust. She threw the land into chaos when she murdered the one to whom she owed all her loyalty. If I had my way, she would be strangled, but the oracle says that would be unjust, since she doesn’t remember her crimes.”
“Then blood stains her hands no matter what she remembers,” I said. At the time I was dismayed to learn that I had embraced an oathbreaker, and the words fell from my tongue of their own accord. Now I know better than to speak so glibly. In this land sins fly from mind to mind. Tlenik’ may have been right, but how cruel it must be to suffer for forgotten crimes. Ah, but I suffer for crimes I remember all too well.
I think Tlenik’ looked on me with more kindness now. We certainly quarreled less as we worked together; he introduced me to the elders of the village, then said some things in their own language. One of them was familiar with the Xwēlm’di tongue and spoke to me, asking me about my tribe.
It was here that I began to realize something was wrong with Tlenik’. He spoke often of his high place among the Hin’etsa and the wisdom of the oracle, but nothing of the recent past apart from his condemnation of Menkwi. When I pressed him, he only grew irritated and told me to keep my thick head where it belonged. So I spoke instead to the elder who knew Xwēlm’di and asked him about Tlenik’.
“Tlenik’ was a great warrior, one of the greatest of the Hin’etsa,” he said, eying me. “He fought against the Xwēlm’di and slew many. When the oracle was invested, she chose him as her champion and husband. There is little more to tell.”
“What about the oracle?” I asked. “Where did she come from?”
“That is one of the mysteries of our people. Forget your questions, Ranggime. They will only draw the attention of the spirits. Accept your place among us.”
Tlenik’ left for the central village after a time, leaving me alone to work with these people who mistrusted me and whose tongue was strange. Many of them had the same wild-eyed look as he, and there was weeping in the night. I didn’t know then whether that was normal or not for these people, for this land. I would learn that it was not.
When winter began to release its grip on the island, I saw that the villagers were beginning to prepare for battle. The signs were obvious: the preparation of their spears and bows, the ritual chants, the building of war-canoes. But it was all on a scale larger than any battle I’d ever seen, though I gave up war years ago.
I questioned Hallakk, the elder who could speak with me, and he told me that the time was near to restore the oracle to her dominion over the Xwēlm’di. “I thought she was Hin’etsa,” I said.
“She is both Hin’etsa and Xwēlm’di. She is our oracle and their queen.”
This perplexed me, but I knew better than to pry any deeper. I wondered what would happen to me when the men went to the battle, since they certainly wouldn’t trust me to fight at their side, and yet my cheeks burned with shame to think of remaining behind. Was I a woman, a child, an old man, weak and powerless? This was not the first time I had felt despair in this land, but now I wanted to lay down on the ground without blankets or fire and let myself die. I sat down against a rock and my head sank onto my knees.
“Are you praying?” Menkwi asked.
“I am not,” I said, looking up at her. She was standing there staring at me intently, the sunlight reflecting off her tattoo in an odd way that reminded me of a writhing snake, like the Serpent that had crawled down from the sky at the beginning of time and given us the laws of our tribe. I completely forgot all of Tlenik’’s warnings and stood up to kiss her cheek, feeling an impulse to worship. Here was beauty a man could die for.
“We are in danger,” she said. I had gone some distance from the village itself, so we were alone. “I’ve been speaking to the oracle, and I think she’s insane. Half the time she’s kind to me, but the other half she rages like a storm. I don’t know if its her spirits or her own mind, but I think she’ll kill me if I stay here.” Her eyes pleaded with me, but I found myself wondering who she really was, who I would really be helping.
“Tlenik’ said you are a murderer.”
“Maybe I am! Only the spirits know. But I’m sure that I’ll find out if we go to the mainland. It’s my home; it’s where my memory was stripped from me.”
“We’ll have to build a canoe,” I said. “But that won’t be difficult.” I had made my decision. If the spirits struck me down or drove me mad, then so be it, but I would do deeds to be celebrated in song and secret chant for generations.
I stole an unattended ax from the village and set to work, cutting one of the strange scraggly trees and hollowing it out. I worked in a secret place, a cavern down by the water that was hidden by the shape of the coast above, and when I was done I brought Menkwi down to see it. She clapped her hands and hugged me. “I’m going home!” she said in delight.
The land of the Xwēlm’di was visible from the southern tip of the N’etsa island, and fortunately it was a clear day. I admit I had trepidations about setting forth on the water again, but Menkwi’s enthusiasm was enough to shore up my courage. We pushed away from the shore and set out.
It would be a comfort to believe that our fates are set irrevocably by our birthplace and the stars above us, but I have never been comfortable letting anything else tell me what to do. Nevertheless, there are times when despite all our strength matters go against us, and so it was then. Our departure had not gone unnoticed by Hin’etsa sentries, and we hadn’t gone far before they came after us in their own canoes, and they were the faster. “Leːhemst’ sn kaχa,” they were shouting as they surrounded us. That was a sentence I could understand. “You will die for this!” We were forced at spearpoint to paddle back to the island, where Tlenik’ was standing on the shore waiting for us.
But he did not at all act as I had expected. He spoke sharply to the other Hin’etsa, then said to us, “Come with me.” Then he took us up to the crest of the hill overlooking the southern beach. “If I had my way,” he said, “Menkwi would be drowned in the sea. But I know she has turned your head, Ranggime, and that is one of the reasons I must send her with you, hoping that the oracle’s advice is true and her prophecy false.”
“Send us where?” I asked.
“To Xwēlm’.” He stared me in the eyes, and then I knew for sure that he was lost. “I want you to find my memories.”
Ah, poor Tlenik’. He had been sorely mistreated, and unlike me he didn’t deserve any of it. He sent us in the hope that we would bring him back peace, but war was all we would bring in the end. He had told the other Hin’etsa that we had a command from the oracle and they were to let us go on our way.
At the time I understood nothing of what Tlenik’ meant. How could I find another man’s memories for him? All that mattered was that he was letting me free. Perhaps in Xwēlm’ I would be able to live in peace with Menkwi as my wife. I joked to her that if she had children they would come out in patches, black like me and white like her, but she didn’t seem to find it funny.
After a long afternoon of rowing we reached the far shore, and though we hadn’t gone a great distance, I felt a new chill in the air that almost burned my throat. But Menkwi smiled and put out her arms. “This is my home; I can feel it,” she said. We found a suitable cove where I carried the canoe inside, and there we slept.
At dawn we took to the water again, traveling northeast along the coast, and it wasn’t long before we saw people at last, fishermen who shouted to us, “Sun’s blessing!” Menkwi shouted the greeting back, and when I asked her what it meant, she said she had no idea. We paddled to shore, where all the men stared at me and prodded at my dark skin and whispered among themselves. When Menkwi told them that we had escaped from the Hin’etsa, they invited us to their village to tell our story. But they kept their distance from Menkwi, and when we came into the village, they did something curious, wrapping a red cloth around her right hand, hiding it and its portion of the tattoo from sight.
Sitting around a fire in the great central house, we ate a meal of unpleasant slimy fish and bitter leaves. My gorge rose, but I acted as if I enjoyed it so as not to offend our hosts. Halfway through the meal, the men and women around us began to press us for our tale, so Menkwi spoke. This was a part of her story I had never heard before.
“I don’t know who I am or where I came from. My memories are lost. I remember waking on top of a high hill. There were two other women there, but they hurled insults at me and I fled in terror. I was lost and confused for some days, and I was starving when one of the women returned, and with her a band of men who spoke in the Hin’etsa tongue. They took me as a captive, and I think the men wanted to hurt me, but the woman forbade them. They got into a battle or two on our way to the sea, but won them all and took me across the channel to the island.
“I was a prisoner there, but I given food and treated well. The woman was their oracle, their leader, and they did as she said even though they hated me. I don’t know what I could have done to them. I’ve never meant anyone harm. The only person who was truly kind to me was Ranggime.”
She glanced at me in her shy way, and I took up the thread of the story, telling how I was from a faraway land and had been brought to N’etsa by a storm.
“Ah,” said a man who seemed to be the chief. “But what brings you back to Xwēlm’?”
“I promised Menkwi I would help her find her memories,” I said.
“This is certainly the land for that. Here memories flow like water from mind to mind.” He nodded. “I have decided. We will call the spirits to aid you.”
Fools! Fools! I strike my hands against the rock until they bleed. They lived on the fringes of the Otherworld, but they, like every other mortal, knew nothing of that alien realm, filling in their lack of knowledge with superstition and craven awe. I spent much of my life in the hills that ward the Otherworld itself, looking down on its sheer white vastness, and I have felt the fear that creeps upon one in the long hours of the night. We know, we whom they call bandits and animal-men, what these spirits bring with them. They cannot be fought or appeased, but we can avoid drawing their attention.
At the time I only watched as these Xwēlm’di drew a circle in the dirt and chanted what sounded to me like gibberish. A chill ran up my spine, and Menkwi pressed herself closer to me. For a moment it seemed as if I understood the nonsense, as if it spoke to me beneath the level of words. Below it all was a steady drone. And then I saw them. They were writhing around the edge of my vision, streaks of white with almost human forms, like the pale-skinned folk of this land.
“Help them,” the Xwēlm’di said, then a word of nonsense that I realized was “help them” reversed. This seemed the worst sorcery of all. I stood up, and the white figures fled. Menkwi put her hand out to me pleadingly; I took it and lifted her to my side. I made to speak, but words clotted in my mouth. The air itself seemed to be something other than air, something that burned my throat until I thought I could stand it no longer and with a rush of warm wind all returned to normal. The Xwēlm’di scraped away the circle then, acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and perhaps for them it hadn’t. I was the stranger here, the man from the far north, closer to the sun and with ancestors that were unknown here.
“What is the matter?” Menkwi asked me. Of course, she was a native.
“Nothing,” I said. I didn’t sleep well that night, what with the cold and the recent ceremony. It was a relief when morning at last came. When Menkwi and I asked the chief where we should go now, he pointed away from the ocean, towards the south.
“The queen will be dwelling in one of the six cities of her realm,” he said. “You’ll find out more the closer you get to her, I’m sure.”
“Thank you. I should warn you that when we left the Hin’etsa, they were preparing for war,” I told him. “I don’t think it will be long before they come here.”
“We will be ready for them. We have strengths they lack even in their dreams.”
We left that village with farewells and gifts, but I thought there was something dark in the way they pointed after us and whispered among themselves. I am not certain, but as we took to our canoe again, I believe I saw the white forms sliding along the water’s surface. We traveled along the shoreline until it began to rise into impassible cliffs, and I decided it would be best to go by foot after that. I judged it to be high tide, so we hid the canoe among the rocks (though I doubted we’d ever return, and if we did it would be rotted), then set out.
“There are bound to be more villages along the coast,” I said, and I was right. But at the next village we approached, arrows went flying over our heads and the men with the bows shouted for us to stay away. I was puzzled by the difference between this village and the last, but we did as we were told. I wasn’t too discouraged, for in the west I could see a river and what looked like houses near it. As we drew near to the river, it became apparent that it was not just another village on its banks, but what looked like several villages brought together, each the size of the grand villages of N’etsa. I was astonished: why would so many people live so close to one another? How could they? This was not a lush land, but perhaps the river gave enough food for them all.
There was a stone wall around the city (this was the word Menkwi used for it) the height of a man, but there were gaps every so often, each guarded by men with spears. They watched us without a word until we were face-to-face with one such group, then said, all three in unison, “Sāt’el. Speak.”
“What do you want me to say?” I asked. “We’re looking for lost memories, and hope for your hospitality.”
“Please,” said Menkwi. When she spoke, the guards stared at her, and one of them broke from his still pose, running back into the city.
“Lost memories?” another said. “Stolen memories. Hidden memories. Name, woman.”
“I am called Menkwi. I don’t know my true name.”
“There are few with the mark of the Traveler. We will consult the listeners.”
It wasn’t long before the third guard returned and said, “The listeners will hear you.”
Despite how strange all of this was to me, I was pleased with how things were turning out. We seemed to be on our way to finding out about Menkwi’s past, and I hadn’t forgotten about Tlenik’ either. We followed the guard into the city, where almost immediately my eyes and ears and nose were overwhelmed. There were people everywhere, men and women and children milling around, as many as ants, talking and shouting. Menkwi and I held one another’s hands tightly to avoid being separated, and we nearly lost our guide several times before reaching our destination, a deep square pit in the center of the city, bounded by a line of stones. A crude stairway went down into the pit, and our guide said, “Sāt’el is the City of Descent.”
So we descended the stairs, step after step as darkness swallowed us. It was late in the day and the sun was low enough that the walls of the pit blocked its light, so that despite the grand fireplaces in each corner of the pit, it was difficult to see much of anything. But as my eyes accustomed themselves to the dark, I was able to see the chair at one end of this vast open chamber, and the man seated in it with a mass of something on his head that was either a hat or hair allowed to grow and tangle in on itself. It was not to this man that we went, but to the other side of the chamber, where a number of recesses went back into the rock.
“How long it must have taken to dig this!” I exclaimed, but even as I spoke my voice fell. The silence was like a heavy rock, especially compared to the din of the surface. No one said anything in reply. As we drew near to the recesses, I saw that there the men in each of the spaces, sitting with their eyes closed. Nearer still, and I saw that their earlobes were longer than natural, hanging down against their faces.
“The listeners,” our guard said.
The nearest opened his eyes. He looked straight at Menkwi, then spoke in a voice that was like rocks shifting against one another. “Galnsq.”
For a moment it seemed like everyone was frozen to the ground, then the guard began to wail, repeating “Galnsq” again and again. When I stepped towards him to try and get an answer out of him, he raised his spear to prod me in the arm, tearing my sleeve and scratching my skin. “You shouldn’t have come back,” he said. “You won’t find many friends here.”
“Who am I, please?” Menkwi pleaded.
“You are Galnsq. You should be dead.”
“Are you a coward, to threaten a woman who can’t do you any harm?” said I.
“I don’t threaten her. I speak the truth.”
I turned to the nearest listener. “What do you mean, Galnsq? Who is Galnsq?”
“Bind and cover her hands. Send word to the queen that we have found her. Let them both be cast into the pit until she comes.”
I wondered that surely we were in the pit already, but the guard jabbed me again and I did as he ordered me, going towards another corner of the chamber with Menkwi. I suppose I could start calling her Galnsq now, but I find that the two names mean different things to me. Menkwi is the quiet, cautious woman who clung to my side, while Galnsq is the cunning leader who stirred up war in Xwēlm’ and called upon the Buried. But the more I reflect, the more convinced I am that they were not that different after all, that Menkwi was more calculated than I had suspected. After all, what did I, an alien, know about any of the people I met? I stumbled from place to place, never really understanding what I was doing. I was a fool.
The pit the guard had mentioned was outside this chamber, up on the surface, dug into the gap between three great rocks. There were no other prisoners in it, and Menkwi and I were lowered into it with blankets and a pot of water. Some wood and a lit brand followed, allowing me to build a small fire underneath a small tunnel that served as a chimney. And there we sat and waited.
I am being vague with respect to days and months, for the days in this land stretch and shrink and it is now difficult for me to remember precisely when things happened. I told Menkwi more about my home and my old life, but she refused to believe me when I described the moas and the great trees of the forests. “Did you have a wife there?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I was a wanderer, under the eye of the god Ombarro.”
“I wish I could tell you where I come from,” she said, looking down at the dirt, away from my face. “I don’t know who this Galnsq is or what kind of woman she was. I hope she was like me.”
I remember she said this, very clearly. Most people, I think hope that tomorrow they will be much the same as they were today. I despise myself, and so I hope that tomorrow I will be different, yet the dawn comes regardless of our hopes. But in Xwēlm’ it may happen that yesterday is as invisible as tomorrow, so that we fear one as much as the other. I pity Menkwi and yet I envy her. If I could forget the things I’ve done, but ah! I have no one to aid me. I must live with my memories, as I cannot bring myself to die.
It seemed at times as if we would be in that pit forever. I paced and shouted, but those above utterly ignored us, until the day came at last when the queen came with her court to Sāt’el. She came herself to the edge of the pit to look down at us, and though her face was swallowed up in the light, I could see the shawl around her head festooned with dangling objects. She turned away, then after a short while a rope ladder dropped down and we could climb out.
The queen sat on a colorfully painted chair, surrounded by warriors and the men with elongated earlobes. The objects hanging from her shawl were seashells, pearls, and tiny things I couldn’t recognize, though I know now that they were the gifts of the hills, taken from the rocks. She was older than Menkwi and her eyes were sad. “I am Galnsq,” she said, “queen of Xwēlm’.”
Among my people we try to avoid giving a child the name of someone already living, so I was perplexed by this. I glanced from her to Menkwi, who seemed equally confused. “I am Ranggime,” I said, “a son of Mabbame. I come from across the northern sea.”
“I am called Menkwi, and I have lost my memories,” said Menkwi.
“I know you, girl, but you are a surprise, Ranggime. I doubt the spirits are pleased with you. Please tell me, what has the shaman said?”
One of the men on the outskirts of the gathering replied. “He’s said nothing about Ranggime, but he warns that the woman will be a thorn in our hands.”
“That I know without need of spirits. Do you have any idea who you are, girl?”
Menkwi shook her head.
“You are a shell,” she said, but kindly. “My name is Galnsq, and I wanted to be queen. My ambition reached such heights that I tasted forbidden flesh and became a Traveler so I could take what I wanted. I stole her body.”
“I don’t understand,” I said when it seemed like she had paused. “What is a Traveler? You stole her body, does that mean you kidnapped her?”
“Look at her tattoo,” said the queen. Though of course I had seen it a hundred times, I obeyed. “Thoughts can travel along that line, from brain to hand. With the proper ceremony, she can put her mind in the skull of another, or take the wisdom of another for her own. So I did. I placed myself in the skull of the queen of all Xwēlm’, and I left behind my body without memory. I am you, girl, or perhaps you are me. And I am sorry beyond words.”
Thinking back now, I cannot begin to recall all the emotions that passed over Menkwi’s face. The one that settled in the end, once the others had gone, was meek and subdued. “What will become of me now?” she asked.
“I wish we had taken more care to keep you out of the hands of the Hin’etsa. It’s obvious now that they meant to use you against us. Their oracle is cunning. I am sorry. You should never have gone through your ordeal, but you will be safe under my protection.”
“Thank you,” said Menkwi, bowing her head.
“I made you what you are, and I must bear the responsibility. I will not abandon you.” She clapped her hands and spoke in a loud voice. “Let this woman and her companion be honored guests of Sāt’el! Let the Shaman of the Descent guard them both from evil and enlist the friendly ones in their cause! The queen of Xwēlm’ will keep them from wandering into harm!”
“We hear,” said the people around her, from her attendants to all the villagers who stood within earshot. “We will obey.”
“There is another matter,” I said, and the queen smiled at me. “One of the Hin’etsa, a man named Tlenik’, says he too has lost memories.”
“I know of Tlenik’, but nothing of his memories. I will see what I can find.”
We feasted that evening on fatty meats and bitter vegetables, which I did not find as repulsive as I once had. My tongue and stomach had adjusted themselves to my new world even if the color of my skin had not. Then, as the sun was setting into the western ocean, a man began to dance around us. He wore a wooden mask carved like a bird’s head, as far as I could tell amid its swirls of color and chaotic lines. “Sa, sa, sa, sa, sa!” he chanted, took our hands, and pulled us away from the feast, into the darkness beyond the fires.
The shaman was waiting for us there, sitting on the ground with folded legs. I recognized him as the man who had been in the chair down in the pit, but I still couldn’t tell whether he wore a headpiece or simply long hair. He spoke in a deep quiet voice. “What is your name?”
“Ranggime,” I said.
Menkwi hesitated, then said, “Menkwi.”
“You speak as you know how,” said the shaman. “Only the spirits speak as they do not know how. I spoke to the spirits around you about you. Sa, sa, sa, sa, sa, sa! They are fond of you, woman, but they don’t much like you, man. You come from the old world, but the spirits are trying to make something new. Keep your head low, or they will die. That is the fortune the spirits give you.
“As for you, woman, you face a choice that the spirits have made for you. Go in his way or go in their ways. Die and be remembered or live and be forgotten. But the spirits forget nothing. They forget everything. Sa, sa, sa, sa, sa, sa!”
I had been close to the spirits before, during my initiation into manhood, when the pain and the dancing had overwhelmed my thoughts. I had received the blessing of the village near the coast. But this was something different from either. At first the nonsensical chanting meant nothing to me, then, as the shaman continued to speak, I felt the ground and the sky shift around me. It is something that fades in the memory and cannot be described even a day later, but I will do my best.
It seemed to me that the ground was no longer under my feet, but rather to the north, while the starry sky was to the south. Above and below me were vast expanses so that I thought I would fall. The syllable “sa” unfolded itself into whole epics of meaning and I was aware that I was in the presence of things both older and younger than man. Older, because they had been here before the Xwēlm’di and the Hin’etsa. Younger, because they had not been born of earth, and wherever they passed they tore up the ancient land to make it anew.
I clutched at the wall of the city to try and keep myself from tumbling away. The shaman’s voice continued to whisper in my ears, but it was drowned out by the sound of vast yet distant footsteps. Something was coming my way. I reached out in desperation and found another hand to cling to. I pulled myself closer and after a moment of turmoil I found myself standing on the ground again, with the stars far above. I was holding Menkwi’s hand, and the shaman had stopped chanting.
“You have seen,” he said. “You will never be the same again. The spirits have touched you as they have touched all of us.”
“I can’t say I feel any different,” I said, but I was lying.
The shaman was silent, but his eyes spoke to me nonetheless. He was warning me, I was sure of that, but we were from different worlds and I couldn’t tell any more clearly what he was saying. Then suddenly he leapt to his feet and chanted, “Sa, sa, sa, sa, sa, sa!” There were more people around us now, dancing in a ring and chanting with him. I felt the earth begin to tilt again, so I tightened my grip on Menkwi’s hand and fled with her out of the ring. We found a quiet place to sit and watch the dancers, until my head began to hurt, and then we looked the other way, out to the coast.
We stayed in Sāt’el with the queen several more days, but the shaman returned to his pit and didn’t see us again. At the time I was, if not pleased, at least content with how things had turned out. But then, I hadn’t been to the hills yet, nor had I seen the Traveling.
And one night as we lay in our blankets, Menkwi whispered in my ear, “We have to leave.” I turned my head to look at her, perplexed.
“Why?” I asked. “This Xwēlm’di queen seems to me to be wise and just.”
“I’ve been listening for stories of what she, what I, did before the ceremony. Even in her own court people talk, and they are frightened of her. They say she, I, was a monster. There were six cities of Xwēlm’di before I came along. I set warrior against warrior and drew it all into my hands. See what I’ve done now! I’ve made myself their sacred queen! But another self enjoys the rewards and I am to be hidden away.”
“If they’re frightened of her, she is frightened of me. What one Galnsq has done, another might do after her. I have no doubt that she wants me out of the way. Maybe even dead.”
“You think we should leave again,” I said with heavy heart. “Well, if you’re right, she won’t be happy. How are we to escape?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. Wherever we go in Xwēlm’, she has eyes and her hand can reach us. But I’ve learned there are hills in the south where men and women go if they want to be free from obligation to queen and shaman.”
“And what sort of man, what sort of woman, runs off into the hills, do you think? Murderers and beasts!”
“Didn’t you leave your home?” she asked pointedly.
“That was different. I’d sworn myself to Ombarro. I wasn’t afraid of my home, and I wasn’t cast out either.”
“Please, Ranggime,” she whispered. “I want to go. We need to go.”
“Then we’ll go,” I said.
But I did not know, and she had forgotten, that there were other than human ears listening to us. The spirits fly from place to place and pay no mind to our walls. It was raining hard the next morning, which I foolishly thought would give us an opportunity to leave unnoticed. After covering ourselves thoroughly we went out into the rain, which was mixed with ice and pelted us in misery. We went quickly up to the southern wall, where I lifted myself to the top and pulled Menkwi up, then descended and fled from the city.
We followed the course of the great river that runs north and south across the Xwēlm’di land, splashing through the cold puddles and clambering over slippery rocks. I didn’t dare rest until noon, when we collapsed against a ridge of earth that shielded us from the rain. Menkwi had brought food in the pockets of her garments and we ate, then continued on.
By the time night fell another city like Sāt’el had come into view before us, with its stone wall and clustered mounds and stone huts, but a narrow tower stood above it that appeared and vanished again in the rising mists. We pressed on through the darkness until we reached the wall and entered the city, lying down in the nearest hut to sleep. It would have been warmer in one of the underground houses, but they were all collapsed. I dreamed of the tower that night. I seemed to be climbing the steps that spiraled around its interior, but no matter how many steps I took, I came no closer to the top. Menkwi was up there already, calling to me until a veil of mist passed between us.
The mist was full of shapes that I could barely make out or tell one from another. I thought I saw a dog’s mouth snarl at me, then gape wide as if to swallow me up. I saw an enormous grub wiggling towards me. I saw a mass of pale men running, their faces images of horror. There was something behind the men, though for the most part it was blocked from my view, and the pieces I did see dissolved into mist before I could make sense of them, but I felt the horror of the pale men in my own heart. They began to fade and reveal the thing behind them, but I turned away in dread.
Then I felt the cold mist become hot on the back of my neck. “Sa.” I jerked forward and fell from the steps.
“Wake up, Ranggime,” Menkwi said, shaking my shoulder.
“I thought I was in the tower,” I said, blinking and looking around at the vacant interior of the hut. In the morning light I could see better, and there was no sign that anyone had ever lived here.
“I was in the tower too. I climbed to the top and looked out a window at the dead city, but it wasn’t dead. They were still here.” Her voice sank to a whisper. “I don’t think we should sleep here again.”
“No. For me it was a nightmare, and it refuses to leave my mind. We should be on our way.”
“What did I do to this place?” Menkwi asked. I didn’t have any answer. We passed the tower, and although I didn’t want to go any closer, Menkwi slipped through the door and returned a moment later, looking puzzled. “The stairs are broken.”
“We shouldn’t linger,” I told her, but nonetheless she darted away again to a wall that was covered in blue and red paint. I followed her reluctantly to examine the painting, and the examination confirmed my reluctance. A face stared out from the wall at us, but I do not think it would be fair to call it human. It had eyes, nose, and mouth, but they were placed subtly wrong. How can I describe it? It was a matter of impressions, and I had the impression of a lizard or a bird rather than a man. I shuddered and looked to the figures that hovered above that face, but they were no less unsettling. They seemed to tell a story from south to north, showing first a man seated atop a tower, with mist either entering or leaving his ears, then a fire blazing around the tower. But when I looked closer I saw the fire was full of little faces whose agony was apparent despite their size. The third of these figures was harder to make out, but it seemed to be a woman in a garment woven from snakes. Though all these people were as pale as the Xwēlm’di, the cast of their faces was different and their hair was drawn in tight curls on their head. I shuddered and pulled Menkwi away from the wall when she seemed enthralled by these images.
“I almost remember,” she whispered.
“Good, but I don’t want to be here when the mists return.”
“There are no remains, so where did all the people go? I wonder.”
“I wonder too, but I don’t want to pry into the mysteries of the spirits.”
Finally she stopped resisting and followed me to one of the gaps in the southern wall. The moment we were outside, I felt a heavy weight lift from my shoulders, but Menkwi was frowning. “They wanted to tell me something, if I had stayed a little longer.”
“They wanted to swallow us both,” I said, and didn’t look back as we continued into the hills.
We followed the river towards its source, somewhere in the folds of earth ahead. The moss grew thinner and bare rock more frequent as we went, and I thought it was getting colder, though that may just have been my imagination. I began to hear a persistent sound that I took to be the whistle of wind up in the heights.
I saw in the distance, away from the river, oblong mounds of earth and asked Menkwi about them, but she of course didn’t remember. Now I can say that they are the tombs of the Buried. The Hin’etsa and the Xwēlm’di were not the first to trespass in the realm of the spirits.
It was late in the day, and we had stopped to roast a bird I’d shot with a makeshift sling, when I became aware that we were not alone. There were at least three men lurking in the rocks above us and I pondered what to do as I kept one eye on Menkwi turning the bird over the fire.
The decision was made for me when one of the men rose from his hiding place and called, “Hold! Who are you? Don’t you know where you are?”
“We’ve come here seeking to escape the reach of the queen,” I said, looking in the direction of each of his companions so they would know I saw them.
“This is the place you want, but there is a price to pay. These are the lands of beasts who were once men. We sit on the edge of the world. Follow me, then, if you want to meet our king.”
He led us further along the river’s course, then changed direction suddenly, taking us eastward between two pillars of red rock. There seemed to be steps here, though they were rough and wide enough that I couldn’t tell if they had been deliberately carved. We entered a narrow path that wound back and forth until the sun vanished from our sight, then emerged into an open place where men sat around fires or lay wrapped in blankets in crevices.
One of the men with us went to a lightly bearded man who sat by himself against a rock wall. They spoke too quietly for me to hear, but I know what they said. Our guide was telling Kinswehi about us, and Kinswehi was wondering if he could use us against the queen, or if he should just kill us. He liked to kill, liked to see the blood and the pain. He liked it! If the men of the hills were beasts, Kinswehi was their chief, with the soul of a beast from birth. He should have been left to die rather than allowed to suck at his mother’s breast, yet here we were, a pair of fools in his hands.
Yet what else could I have done? I knew nothing! Nothing of Kinswehi, nothing of Menkwi. Nothing!
I remember our first conversation very well. Menkwi stood by quietly, but her eyes and ears took in every word and every motion. “You aren’t Xwēlm’di. You aren’t Hin’etsa. Who are you?”
“I am a son of Mabbame, from the north, and I was brought here by a storm.”
“Ha? A storm? What do the spirits want for you? Or are you outside their sight? What crime against the queen brought you here? Why are you in the company of Galnsq? I see you, Galnsq, looking oh so innocent. I look forward to killing you!”
“You’ll have to kill me first; I won’t stand by and let you murder her.”
“Has she deceived you too? Well, you won’t be the first to die because of her. Oh, no! And it won’t end until we’ve restored the six cities. Until we’ve broken her soul as well as her body.”
“Unjust,” Menkwi said close to my ear.
“Is it considered just in your land to kill a woman with no memory of her crime? Her memories have been stolen from her, and we know only a part of what she is said to have done.”
“This is my land! I decided what is just! And I say that Galnsq deserves death a hundred times! You don’t know what she did? I’ll tell you what she did! In the morning. Night is not a good time for these things.”
We were guarded, of course, to keep us from escaping, and neither of us slept for long that night. Dawn arrived from the east all too soon, and we were brought to Kinswehi.
“Here you are, here we are. Ah, but I forgot! You must be hungry after your travels in the wild. See, I have food for you. Eat! I am a master of poisons, yes, but this meal isn’t deadly.”
I was hungry enough that I ate, though I can’t recall if I believed Kinswehi or not. Menkwi didn’t touch the food. And Kinswehi proceeded to tell us all about Galnsq.
She had been a woman of L’ilgw, the lost city, the City of Ascent. Her beauty had been recognized early and she was betrothed to one of the great men of the city, a teacher and hunter who had two wives already. But she disliked him intently and instead spent a great deal of time with the shaman of L’ilgw, sitting at his feet and listening to the mantras of the spirits. On the appointed day the great man took her as his third wife.
After that he began to change. He dismissed his other wives with their children, then began to teach new things to the people of L’ilgw. Those who remember what he taught, and are still alive, have no desire to speak of it, but it is known that he criticized the boundaries that were maintained between man and spirit. He spoke of the great southern wastes and even what lay beyond. The shaman fell into silence and nonsensical words. Frightened, many of the people left for the other cities and villages, but Galnsq’s husband continued his teaching. He said that L’ilgw was the greatest of the six cities and should rule over the others. There were battles and raids and blood shed on the snow as Galnsq watched and laughed, for she loved power.
There was only one woman in N’etsa and Xwēlm’ who was more powerful than her, and that was the queen of Xwēlm’. Her role had been sacred before, but now she revealed herself to be a clever strategist and inspired commander. It was she who turned the tide of the war against L’ilgw.
No witness except Galnsq herself saw what happened next. Galnsq climbed to the top of the tower of L’ilgw and did something there that destroyed the city. Things from the south came and devoured it; men of the hills saw terrible shapes of cloud and storm pass over their heads. Galnsq survived. Among whatever rituals she performed was that which makes a Traveler, so that when she emerged from the ruin of L’ilgw she bore the green mark on her arm. She went to the queen of Xwēlm’ and submitted herself, but she meant only treachery. She tore the queen’s memories from her and sent them far away, setting her own memories in their place.
“And I? I was only a rustic Labtsl, inspired by the glory of L’ilgw to fight in her army. And I was good at it. I am very good at killing. But Galnsq betrayed us! She destroyed us! She left us to starve in these hills! If any woman deserves death, it is her. Do you understand why she must die? Do you understand now?”
“No. It is right that you seek vengeance, but you should seek it against Galnsq herself, who has usurped the place of the queen. Menkwi has done nothing.”
“You dare? You dare speak against me? I’ll kill her! I’ll kill you too, with fire and hook!”
Menkwi spoke in a soft voice as Kinswehi paused for breath. “I don’t remember what I did,” she said, “though from what you’ve told us, I doubt I can ever atone. But give me the chance at least to take my memories back. I want to die as myself, not the poor fool I am now.”
He tugged on his hair in thought, seeming calmer now. “Well. Well! Fairly said. I’ll give you your chance. But I’ll never trust you. If you begin spinning your webs, if you do anything to my brothers! Well! I’ll strangle you with my own hands.”
She bowed. “I have no desire to harm you.”
“As for you! You, burned by the sun! Tell me why I should let you live!”
I was bewildered and angry, but not such a fool as to let my anger get the better of me. I saw, of course, that Kinswehi was insane, worse than a mad dog, and wondered why none of his followers had put a spear through his heart yet. Ah, but that was Kinswehi’s way. A monster to those outside his band but an elder brother to those within it. He fooled his followers into believing (they actually believed him!) that he loved them. He was a liar and a hypocrite and a thief and a murderer.
I hate him like no one else. I place my hands against the ground to calm my rage, then I remember his tortures and am enraged again. How could such men as Kinswehi be allowed to draw breath in this world?
I don’t wish to remember the tortures he put me through. “I know Galnsq. I don’t know you. This is how we learn the truth.” Then the fire. It will be over soon enough. He cut off my fingers, two of them, I think, but the memory escapes me. Why did Menkwi do nothing to help? She left me to suffer my agonies; she was too busy trying to make Kinswehi her friend. She flattered him and promised him her aid. She disparaged the old Galnsq who now lived in the body of the queen, and despite his caution he began to believe that she was a new woman.
“We both want revenge, don’t we? And on the same woman. Well! Maybe you won’t have to die after all. And your companion? He was easy to break. He’s harmless, isn’t he? Only a fool who drifted the wrong way.”
What should I speak of next? I remember looking up at the stars and wishing I was dead. I remember Menkwi trying to comfort me, but there was a distance between us now. I longed for home, for the warm forests full of singing birds. I knew I would die here amid the gray rocks.
“Awake! Take up a spear! Today we go to war!”
They put a spear in my hands and I followed them on their trail down to the northeast, where a defenseless village stood before us. It was not my first raid, but I felt strangely distant from it all, if my memories do not deceive me. I remember seeing Kinswehi fight and slaughter men face-to-face, laughing as he did. We took their stores of food for ourselves, then returned in triumph to the hills. I sat alone again, and this time Kinswehi came to talk to me. He was actually nervous, for he wasn’t sure what to do with me. I fell in between his two tribes of brother and enemy and he could never make up his mind about me until it was too late.
“How are you? Well?”
“My belly is full again, and that’s good. How is Menkwi?”
“Menkwi? Oh, Galnsq! She’s just as I recall her. Bold, foresighted, cunning! I remember why I followed her the first time. You and I, we both love her. In our own ways. No?”
I thought to myself that his Menkwi sounded nothing like mine. I was at last beginning to understand how she wore the mask she needed at any time.
“Come with me. I have something to show you.”
He led me on a trail to the south, up into the peaks where strange stones sprouted like mushrooms, until the day was nearly done and we reached a sheer cliff that rose above us, maybe five times a man’s height. He pointed out handholds in the rock and we climbed up. As I lifted my head over the edge, a sharp cold wind struck me, and shielding my eyes against the motes of ice, I looked and saw a sea of white mist that swallowed up the horizon. Now the whistling sound I had noticed upon entering the hills was louder than ever. For a moment I thought I saw mounds like the tombs of the Buried.
“This is the end of the world,” said Kinswehi. I looked down and saw that he had traced a great symbol in the snow and was walking around it. “Nature is wild and dangerous, but kin to us. The spirits from beyond are strange. Impossible to understand! This is their realm, not ours! Here the walls between you and me, one and another, are broken. The shamans say that they can love us. The shamans give us dances to draw the spirits or drive them away. But there are forbidden dances too. The dance of the King. The dance of the Traveler. Wisdom they give to the shamans, yes? Power they give to others.” He took a piece of flesh from his satchel and began to eat it.
“It isn’t natural,” I said as I began to see things in the blankness of the mist: lines of color, dark clouds, and half-formed faces. I heard things in the whistling: words of nonsense, words of my own language, and “Sa, sa, sa, sa, sa.” Kinswehi was climbing up alongside me, and I turned away to face him. He smiled, looking like a wild beast more than ever. There seemed to be flashes of green light from the mists, shining over his face.
“They love to twist and change things. Twist and change us!” He put his foot against me and pushed me before I could react. I lost my grip and fell.
I fell for what seemed like a long time. I don’t want to talk about this.
I returned to the camp and danced with Galnsq so I wouldn’t go mad. I knew men who had gone out of their wits in the solitude and whiteness of the hills. As for Galnsq, my feelings towards her were muddled. Did I love her? Did I admire her? Both and neither. She asked me where Ranggime was and I told her I didn’t know. I’d taken care to keep my departure with him a secret. She touched the mark on my cheek, and though she said nothing about it, I knew she was frightened.
Men dream strange things this close to the otherworld, but my dreams that night were especially strange. I thought a man cut off my head and exchanged it with another. He introduced me to everyone we met as a chief of a great tribe, though I knew I was only a hunter. We went off into the sea in a tiny boat and I never saw my original head again.
I did not know when I awoke whether I loved or hated the queen. I did not know whether we should follow up on our raid by attacking more villages, or stay back and not further draw her wrath. I was beginning to understand the curse of the Traveler. Don’t misunderstand me, or think me better than I am. I still loved to kill, but I remembered the taboos of the Mabbame and feared what might happen if I broke them. I believed in both gods and alien spirits now.
I conquered my qualms, though, and did as my brothers urged me. Taking sixty or so with me, I went down towards the plain, but we found the queen’s army there before us. “We know these hills better!” I told my brothers. “Spirits help us if we don’t take them in our trap!”
This was our land, not theirs. Some of my brothers had been dwelling here their entire lives! We came down from the slopes with our spears and pressed them until they fled back to the north, those who weren’t dead. We were pleased with ourselves for that. We cheered and danced in our stupidity, and followed them down to the plain, straight into their own trap.
The queen herself had accompanied her army. She was there to gloat over us, but I was surprised, for I had never seen her in person before. She was as beautiful as report made her. She looked at me with scorn, though. “You have taken the Traveler’s mark for yourself, Kinswehi,” she said.
“I thought it wise,” I replied. “There were things I needed to know. This was the only way to learn them.”
“And what did you learn?”
“That Ranggime was a good man. And I am not.”
She looked at me hard, but rare is the man, or woman either, who can outstare me. “Kinswehi, child of Labtsl. You have rebelled against your queen and butchered your fellow men of Xwēlm’.”
“Galnsq, child of L’ilgw. You have rebelled against your queen. You have divided Xwēlm’ with a bloody spear. You have used the forbidden dances to steal that which you could not take by force.”
She nodded slowly. “I remember those things. But these are not the hands of Galnsq, nor is this her face. The memories that went with this body are lost to me, but am I not still the queen? Is not Galnsq the woman you have back in your camp, even if she remembers nothing?”
“Ha! It would please you to believe that. Better a queen than a wretched traitor!”
“Are you, then, both Kinswehi and Ranggime?”
“Maybe I am,” I said. We said! “Maybe he tells me that I should work with you. That we can be friends. But I think we have fought too much. I think you and I must be enemies.”
“Maybe. What I wanted to ask you is if you would help me drive the Hin’etsa out of our land.”
“Are they here already?”
“They are,” she said in perfect calmness, like a sheet of ice. “They have landed on our shores and burned our villages. Their commander rages as a possessed man; I believe you’ve met him.”
“Tlenik’,” I said. “I made him a promise. I don’t think I’ll get to keep it.”
“You may yet, if you help me. I have business with the oracle of N’etsa, and I mean to bring us to her stronghold.”
I laughed. “You are bold! I wish I’d known that earlier. But what about my brothers? What guarantee do you give of their safety?”
“A simple one. I’ll let you go, and they’ll follow you. I want you to be the lightning that strikes the ground before me and after me, to put terror in the hearts of our foe and make them scatter, and when the fighting’s done I will pardon all your offenses.”
“That’s fair,” I said. I had never heard that the queen was unfaithful to her word, even if she was my enemy. And I had liked her when we met before. “Anyway, what other choice do I have? You could kill me right now.”
“I could, yes. Come with me and I’ll show you my plans for the campaign.”
I sent most of my brothers back to the camp in the hills with orders to prepare, but kept P’alndl and some others with me. We went to the queen’s tent, where she had laid out a map of Xwēlm’, the five cities marked by tiny gems in the skin. I smiled when I saw it. But my smile fell away when I remembered it had not been Kinswehi who had been in this tent before. And it troubled me as we talked that I couldn’t tell if it was Ranggime or Kinswehi who liked her so much.
Ah! I would give anything to be Ranggime. To have my hands clean of all this blood! When he was young he had sworn to Ombarro and wandered from the path of killing. But I had to be forced from my path. Ranggime thought of me as a beast. He was right. And like a beast, I am put in a cage where I can do no harm to anyone.
First, though, I became a trained beast, striking where the queen needed me. Tlenik’ was a heavy-handed fighter, and even I could outmaneuver him. He was outnumbered, too. Xwēlm’ was a greater land than N’etsa and its men were used to war. But was it easy for us? Certainly not! N’etsa had the oracle.
Shamans may commune with the spirits, but the oracle was a spirit. So men said, anyway. They said she could see the future clearly, without error. But if so, how did Xwēlm’ have a single victory? They said she could change the weather according to her whims. That I do believe. Storms came upon us with driving rain and icy winds. The mists of the south spread further than they ever had. The fish of the river grew smaller and fewer, until starvation threatened. But finally I harried Tlenik’ into a valley in the northeast, and there the queen was waiting for him.
When it was done, Tlenik’ was brought before her, bleeding and bruised but with fierce eyes still. “Kill me,” he said. “You’ve killed my brothers; now kill me!”
“You will suffer first,” I said, but I remembered Kinswehi tearing hooks through my face and fell silent.
“No,” said the queen, casting her cold gaze on me. “Not yet.”
“You’ve taken my memories,” Tlenik’ said, crying out in a loud voice. “What more will you do to me?”
“It was not I who took your memories.” She tilted her head so Tlenik’ could see that she lacked the Traveler’s mark.
“One of your slaves, then,” he said impatiently. “Does it matter which one?”
“It was none of my slaves. Tell me, Tlenik’, what have you forgotten?”
“Where the oracle came from,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “I remember when she was a beautiful young woman; I remember asking her to be my wife; I remember her ruling over N’etsa, but I don’t remember how the spirits came to her and we chose her as our oracle.”
“No. She took that from you because she feared you would fight against her if you remembered the truth. I know you’ve heard of the Dance of the Petrel.”
Even I was shocked by this. But it explained much of what I’d seen in N’etsa. Tlenik’ asked, “Are you saying she has done this thing, and scattered my memories to the clouds? If so, may the spirits consume her! But why should I believe you, my enemy?”
“Come with me and see for yourself!”
Tlenik’ stood there, still and silent. Then I knew that he would reject the queen’s words. I knew what he would do next. I moved towards him, but not fast enough. Tlenik’ broke away from his captors. He leapt towards the queen with raised fists, and struck her once before one of the men grabbed him and drove a spear through his chest.
“I’m unhurt,” the queen said calmly as her attendants swarmed around her. “I’m only sorry that Tlenik’ chose this path.”
I was not sorry. Tlenik’ had been deceived, but why should he have trusted the queen over his own wife? “He was loyal,” I said. “I’ll make sure he’s buried with the honor he deserves.”
I come now to a part of my story I would rather not tell. No one likes to be fooled. Even more so, no one likes to fool himself. My thoughts were on Galnsq. I saw her in the queen, changed, pacified, more straightforward. I followed the Galnsq who was in the queen and forgot about the Galnsq who was behind us. Menkwi. That’s what they called her in N’etsa. And Menkwi was more like the Galnsq I knew of old. She smiled and clung to an arm, but behind her smile she hid plots and schemes. She was not a woman to leave behind in the hills. But that’s what we did, isn’t it?
So of course Menkwi came after us. She had a few of the men she’d managed to draw after her. I knew them, foolish boys. She’d told them some tale about how the queen had taken me captive and they needed to rescue me. As if they could do anything against her army! But they were loyal and true. None of them would have betrayed her after promising to help her.
Of course they were caught by her sentries and taken to her. I told the boys that I had chosen to ally with the queen of my own will and explained her offer. “Do you think I did the right thing?” I asked them.
“Yes,” said young Xildslem after some thought. “But what about Menkwi?”
“I will explain everything to her,” I said. “Go see P’alndl and do as he says.
The queen had asked for Menkwi to be brought to her tent, so I went there to find them both. Menkwi was sitting on the ground, smiling up at the queen. The queen for her part was frowning. “You say you remember nothing, but you connive to follow after me. By the lore of the dance you should be as clear as a sheet of ice, but you are murky,” she was saying.
“I only want to know the truth,” said Menkwi.
“We were liars. We wouldn’t recognize the truth if we saw it, but the queen of Xwēlm’ would.”
I was confused by this. I did not yet see within myself the contradictions that the gift of the Traveler brought. Perhaps I still don’t see them. Ranggime is dead and I am alive. If only it were the other way around! Then maybe I would see justice in the dealings of spirits and men.
“Kinswehi!” said Menkwi, turning her smile to me. “You are well, I hope.”
“Who is? But I’ve agreed to follow my queen. Come with us and we’ll deal with the oracle in N’etsa.”
Her smile drooped, almost becoming sour. “Ranggime and I are two of a kind: he and I are both strangers cast adrift here. What is your queen to us? And all I know of the oracle is that she kept me safe from Tlenik’’s wrath. Why shouldn’t I thank her? What will you do for me?”
I have no doubt she knew I’d killed Ranggime, though she knew it would be a mistake to challenge me. I doubt she had any idea I had performed the Dance of the Traveler. I felt a sudden urge to lash out at her. To taunt her and terrify her. How dare she mention Ranggime as if he was anything like her? Ranggime had never wanted to seize power for himself. Ranggime had never lied.
“I loved you,” I said to her. “But I have seen you with too many different eyes to believe you. Do you want my advice, my queen? Don’t listen to a word she says.”
“I know very well that Galnsq is a liar,” said the queen. “I know every lie she’s told and every promise she’s betrayed. But she lies only when she has to. For a liar cannot tell the difference between truth and lie, and uses whatever tool comes to her hand. Tell me, Menkwi, if we go on to N’etsa, what will you do?”
Menkwi’s eyes widened. “I will go with you, of course. What else?”
Looking into those eyes I was torn. I could say nothing either for or against without betraying myself. So it was the queen who said, “No. I will never trust you, I fear. But neither do I think it just to punish you for the sins I remember committing. You will remain here.”
“I accept your judgment,” said Menkwi, bowing her face to the ground. “May you triumph over the Hin’etsa and their wicked oracle.”
“If she has done wicked things, it is because we drove her to it. When a man has been stabbed in the back, it’s hard for him to fight fairly after that.” She sighed, the trinkets in her hair striking against one another. “But I must uphold justice in my land, even against myself. I have spoken. Leave me.”
Menkwi rose from the dirt and followed me out of the tent. She didn’t say anything at first, but when I opened my mouth she interrupted me. “She only wants her memories back,” Menkwi said. “I understand that hunger. Come with me, Kinswehi. We will go to the oracle and warn her of the queen’s plans. We can save her, and you can have your vengeance on Galnsq.” We were out of anyone’s earshot, of course.
“She was right about you,” I said. “Best keep you under guard. A deaf man, if possible.”
She sniffled. “So you’ll abandon me. Despite all your words, you’ll abandon me.”
“Yes. I will. I must.”
Suddenly she smiled again. “Very well! You do what you must, and I’ll do what I must.”
I knew what she meant by this; I watched her walk away and I knew she would do just what she said. I knew I would have to go after her.
I returned to the Xwēlm’di camp around sunset, having stopped to rest and wash my hands in a brook. I learned from P’alndl that the queen had been looking for me, so I went to her study, where I found her meeting with her chieftains. There I waited until she sent them away and turned to me, her face solemn. “Where have you been?” she asked.
“Menkwi wanted to go to N’etsa,” I said.
Slowly she nodded.
There is little more to my story. We fought the Hin’etsa on land and water. We drove them back and burned their boats. Their oracle cursed us, but none of our captives dared repeat her words. Without Tlenik’, what did she have except the gift of the Petrel? And that was a gift that drove its recipient mad.
So I returned to the center of N’etsa. The oracle sat before her house with her eyes closed, even when we approached her with our spears. “You are defeated,” said the queen. “Your attack on Xwēlm’ has fallen back on your own head.”
The oracle opened her eyes. “Has it?” she said, and laughed. “But I am the queen of the six cities! If I cannot come to Xwēlm’, let the Xwēlm’di come to me!”
“I am the queen of the six cities. You are a woman who took another’s memories, then called upon forbidden spirits. What sort of queen are you?”
“I am the queen who was raised by a strong father to be strong after him. I am the queen who saw the things of color rise from the mists. I am the queen who fought and overcame Galnsq the rebel!”
For the first time I saw the queen’s calm break. Her arms trembled. She took hold of the oracle’s hood and threw it back, revealing a black splotch across her left cheek. “You are the queen who sees past and future, though your masters hide from you your own end.”
“You’ll kill me?” asked the oracle, and began to laugh. In a different voice, one that sounded like the cry of a gull, she said, “But you’ll never kill me. I was and so I shall be, though I am not.”
There we performed the rite of the Traveler. I stood between queen and oracle and the oracle’s memories passed through me like a sharp wind, present and then forgotten. When it was done the oracle fell away weeping, but the queen said nothing for a long while. It is difficult to deal with so many memories. I pity the queen, for she was much more like the oracle than Kinswehi was like Ranggime. But at last she said, “Hear the judgment of the queen of Xwēlm’. The oracle of N’etsa has received her just punishment. Let her go and beg her living. Henceforth this shall be the sixth city of Xwēlm’, to replace L’ilgw, and when a shaman arises he shall dwell here.
“As for you, Kinswehi, ask no reward beyond your life, for you have done terrible things in your war against me.”
“I ask only this,” I said. “Let me return to Labtsl where I was born. I would rather die than remain here. It is not only in the mind that memories dwell. Let me go into exile.”
It is not the spirits. It is us. It is true that this land changes us as other lands do not, but it is our greed and lust that determine the pattern into which we are warped. Let me go to my island. Now I will be silent.
Il’skiwem Smlitiχ lazm’ nise, lazm’ lazm’akkw nise.
Klekiwem jajabst, esl’in aːq paːl qawmst
Tlan’sli se Smlitiχ? Ald se medl?
Teln jabamst’ xlegʷdi laːndi kʷ’i.
Il’skiwem Alwiʔ lazm’ nise, lazm’ lazm’aqʷ nise.
Klekiwem ewegl, esl’in sat’ jabst ald χawin
ɢil’amdi skiskilew se alwiʔ? Silkdi skiskilew se jans?
The dance of the Traveler!
Smlitiẋ learned it in the south, in the far south.
The Traveler taught him, the spirit that flies here and there.
Its color is green!
Will Smlitiẋ be a shaman? Will land become sky?
Memories vanish with the winds.
The dance of the Petrel!
Alwi’e learned it in the south, in the far south.
The Petrel taught him, the spirit that descends from the sky.
Its color is black!
Will Alwi’e overcome his enemies? Will sun overcome clouds?
It rains without fail.