Spirits of Rock and Sky > The Servants' Path

Tumnil and a Departure

Nei Lotun, Initiate of the Ninth Circle, turned his head down and away from the Lights of the Provider. He had spent too many heartbeats standing in the field of ripe seedgrass, staring up at the bright white spheres and the black Sky beyond. Spirit-lights danced before his eyes, obscuring nearby seedwraps and distant trees. Lotun suddenly recalled childhood games, young Wohken Brothers and Sisters of the Nei Family staring intently into blue flames until glowing images filled their vision. That was more than four generations ago now. Such fleeting memories made the elder Wohken feel the weight of cycles pressing down upon him. Lotun pulled on the hood of his long, gray flax robe as he waited for his vision to return.

The Order of the Provider, Lotun's surrogate Family for many generations now, cultivated ritual in the same manner as it cultivated seedwraps, trees and the other aspects of the Divine That Grows. The ritual of staring up at the Lights, high on their ancient and divine pillars, belonged to Lotun alone. He had stared at flames as child in the Gap, hoping to take some childlike conception of a flame spirit away with him. Now, in service to the Provider, Lotun hoped that something more of that greatest of divine spirits would accompany him in the jouney to come.

Almost two wakes had passed since Lotun had performed the Rituals of Preparation. He should already have departed, but he tarried in leaving the greenery of Tumnil for the dark rock of the World. Perhaps he was not as old as he felt. Perhaps there was still more to be done in the current cycle of planting, ritual observance and harvest. But no, Lotun had performed the Rituals. He stood in the central fields of Tumnil staring at the Lights, rather than directing acolytes and supplicants in their duties. Lotun's thin legs ached from standing still and the Initiates at the base of the nearest Light pillar were staring.

Lotun bent to pick up his staff, his vision finally returned to him. Touching the engravings, made by an Initiate now long dead, restored Lotun to some of his original determination. Adjusting the leather sling containing his Gift, he turned his back to the Lights and the curious Initiates. With his staff to support him, he began to walk through the knee-high seedgrass. A nearby path would take him to the Lightward edge of Tumnil, the end of the domain of the Provider.

Tumnil 243 was very angry, but tried her best to control herself. Showing anger to an Initiate of the Order was a good way to permanently postpone her own Initiation. A slight young Jentik, she had not quite reached her first full generation. Tumnil 243 had come to Tumnil little more than twenty tenwakes ago. She had stayed, entranced by the mystery and majesty of the Order. Stayed as an acolyte and made many friends, or so she thought.

"Friend Deru," she managed in a controlled voice, "you gave your word to me that I would be given a place in this journey to the High Plateau."

Deru of the Third Circle, a broad man and one of the few Enierd in the Order, frowned. The black Clan tattoo on his brow took on a disturbing shape as he did so. Deru was aware of the acolytes and robed Initiates watching and listening from behind his back. Heavy leather packs lay on the earth path and trodden seedgrass, awaiting their owners' backs. A tall Uk tree cast its shadow over the group.

"As I have already made clear, you are not needed here." Deru spoke with a deep voice. He illustrated the group behind him with a sweep of his powerful arm. "Twenty packs, twenty to carry them. I suggest that you return to the fields where you are needed." Deru executed a short, and somewhat insulting, bow of dismissal.

Tumnil 243 narrowed her lips, divining the real reason for her rejection in the number of tall, pale Susyan who waited behind Deru. Two of the Susyan exchanged glances, but said nothing. The muscular Enierd turned from Tumnil 243 and began to organize his charges.

Tumnil 243 looked at her bare feet and the earth of the path. Acolytes, supplicants and Initiates went about their business. Her anger was fading and turning to disappointment. She would just have to walk the few kloms back to the Hall of Acolytes. She would return her few possessions to the leather-walled dwelling she shared inside the Hall. She was not sure what she would say to Tumnil 146. Poignant farewells were hard to retract.

Lotun coughed politely as the young Jentik appeared ahead of him on the bend of the narrow path. He had been walking through a field of full-grown Wauken's Seedwraps. The leafy green and yellow stems stretched for a span above his head and clustered thickly, obscured vision. The Jentik, clad in leather traveling clothes and carrying a bone-framed pack, apparently did not hear him and kept walking. With her head down, she would have collided with Lotun had he not put out a hand and come to an abrupt halt himself.

"Slow yourself, friend Jentik! At my age, such inadvertant collisions can be hurtful." Lotun thought his voice sounded peevish, one of the privileges of age he tried to deny himself.

The Jentik seemed upset, distracted. She shook her head and bowed deeply. "Oh! I apologize, honored elder…friend honored elder.” She belatedly made the Sign of Respect, her palms pressed together. "My spirit was many kloms from here. I had no intent to cause you injury. Please accept my apologies."

Lotun made the slight Bow to the Unknown in return. There was a short and awkward pause while both waited for the other to speak, or to move aside on the narrow pathway. Lotun sighed, and spoke in a friendlier manner. "My Family has always held that it was auspicious to meet with a Jentik on the first wake of a journey. I am pleased that I had the honor."

"I am two hundred and forty-three." Tumnil 243 pulled a strand of dark hair from her face. "I should have been journeying also this wake, but Deru turned me away. Enierd!" She stubbed at the pressed soil of the path in momentary anger before her face fell once more. She said in a softer tone, "I was to travel to the High Plateau."

Lotun leaned upon his staff and ran a nail along one of the more deeply engraved symbols. He could hear the undercurrent of yearning in the voice of Tumnil 243 when she spoke of the home of her Tribe.

"I know of Deru. He is a friend to the Feller of Trees, but no friend to Jentik, it would seem." Lotun straightened. "My legs ache from standing. Let us walk."

A look of surprise spread across the face of Tumnil 243, and remained there as Lotun edged around her on the path. Seedwrap leaves brushed at his robe and face. "Well? Do you not think you can keep pace with an old Wohken?"

Lotun and Tumnil 243 rested atop a knoll at the darkened edge of Tumnil, shadowed by trees and span-high seedgrass. Lotun sat cross-legged. His staff rested across his knees and the Gift of the Provider lay in his lap. The young Jentik sat on her pack, her arms about her legs and her chin resting on her knees. The Lights of the Provider lay many kloms behind the elder Initiate and the young acolyte, hidden from sight by the nearest woods. Long shadows cast by the tallest, spear-thin Polpas trees stretched towards the point at which the seedgrass ended and the dark rock of the World began. The brighter stars, now visible in the black Sky, descended slowly towards the distant, unseen Great Temple of the One God.

Lotun looked downwards as he performed the last of the Rituals of Preparation. His Gift of the Provider, a small and pitted box of divine material, lay in his lap. He touched the Gift in the Cadence of Water as Tumnil 243 watched closely. After five heartbeats, it sighed.

"It is done," said the elder Initiate. He lifted the Gift in his thin hands and opened it to let water pour onto the seedgrass around him. "What came from the Provider will return to the Provider. Thus I seek His blessing as I leave His domain."

Lotun glanced at Tumnil 243. She had been watching the Ritual intently, oblivious to the beauty of moving stars and long, straight Polpas shadows that pointed to distant rock.

"One wake, it will be me." Her voice was determined and quiet.

"As the Provider wills," replied Lotun, nodding in a kindly fashion. "You know the rituals well. I believe Deru was wrong to refuse you a place." He looked outwards to the few visible stars in the black Sky, half his face in shadow as he returned his Gift to its sling. Tumnil 243 was silent, and the moment extended for many heartbeats.

Without looking away from the Sky, Lotun said "I have walked this path ten times since your birth, and many times again before that. There have been long journeys and half a generation since I walked it with another." He paused for a few breaths and turned to the Jentik acolyte. "But that is no reason to deny you as did Deru. It is tradition." Lotun began to pull himself to his feet, using his carved staff for leverage.

"Honored elder..." began Tumnil 243, but Lotun cut her words short with a wave of his hand.

"Please, friend Jentik. I am no Father, no Amral in my Family. We both serve our God, and my age brings me humility. Lotun is my name, and it will serve for now." He stood looking out upon the expanse of rock that would lead to the communities of the Enierd. "Come. We have a long journey ahead of us."

[ Posted by Reason on December 21, 2004 | Permanent Link ]

The Meet at Naskal

"But…is it not our duty, given to us by the Provider, to use the Gift for all who request it?" asked Basir 1.

Five wakes had passed since the elder Initiate and Jentik acolyte had entered Basir, a small Enierd community. There were no Jentik in Basir. Tumnil 243 had been elated to become a Namekeeper, even for such a short time. The burly Chieftain of Basir had laughed and told the acolyte she was welcome to stay should she so desire. Basir 1 was clearly pleased with her new Common Name.

"The Susyan were ill mannered. They intended to raid Naskal during the Clan Meet," replied Lotun. "I saw no reason for gifts of the Provider to help them in their endeavor." The travelers had met a Susyan raiding party on the open rock. Lotun refused the warriors water and food once he learned of their destination. "The Seers tell us that we have responsibilities, friend Jentik," Lotun continued, pointedly. "We cannot provide for those who kill themselves in pointless fighting."

"You are lecturing, friend Lotun." Basir 1 smiled timidly. "You had asked me to tell you if you began to sound like a Cru tutor again."

"You are impertinent, friend Jentik, but I shall not hold it against you. I understand the exuberance accompanying a new name among your Tribe." Lotun paused to gather breath before ascending a gentle rise of undulating rock. It was treacherous footing for the careless.

Lotun and Basir 1 had adjusted slowly to the purple gloom after cycles spent under the Lights of the Provider at Tumnil. The shifting whorls and paths of the Light of the One God had dimmed over past wakes. Shadows were ink-black in the territory of the Enierd. As Basir 1 also paused, Lotun said, "You have not yet told me your Birth Name. I admit to a certain curiosity."

The Jentik turned. "Tukarn 784. An unlucky number." She chewed at her lip. "My sister would tell me so from my earliest cycles." Basir 1 waited for the old Wohken to start walking again.

Lotun sighed and hefted his staff. "You were born on the High Plateau," he said. "A second daughter at that. Now you are serving the Provider. I would not consider that unlucky, friend Jentik."

The rock ahead of the travelers led upwards to the top of a broad hill, broken by many shadowed hollows. Lotun and Basir 1 ascended in silence, concentrating on their footing in the dim light. Lotun halted when they reached the hillcrest. He pointed towards distant mountains, dim purple-edged masses that obscured the lowest stars. Below the mountains, in the shadowed darkness beneath their foothills, were the flickering blue and yellow lights of a large community. "Naskal," said Lotun, with feeling. "There will be route markers. We should find them, as there are many ravines below us."

Naskal sprawled. Basir 1 stared as she followed Lotun between buildings and past groups of solid, stocky Enierd. The most distant parts of the community must have been kloms from the two servants of the Provider. At half that distance, the great Chieftain's Hall towered over surrounding dwellings. Large open flames cast flickering shadows on the Hall's patchwork leather banners, each inked with the current Chieftain's symbols. Other, smaller flames burned throughout Naskal. Shifting blue and yellow light illuminated the wood, bone and leather of Enierd dwellings. The Sky was an unbroken expanse of darkness; stars and the Light of the One God remained unseen in the flame-light.

Everywhere Basir 1 turned, bulky and muscular Enierd moved purposefully to their destinations. Ink-black tattoos were proudly displayed by Enierd of all ages. Children darted between the older Clan members, shouting and laughing. Warriors or crafters stood outside dwellings and conversed loudly with one another. Flames cast long shadows that danced on walls and the black rock underfoot. Many Naskal Enierd wore armor of layered, patched leather bearing faded Clan tattoos.

Lotun paused to speak to Basir 1 as she took in the sights and sounds of Naskal. "Many Meets are held here. Naskal is a Causi community, but watch carefully and you will see Jatu tattoos." Broad, armored Enierd moved aside to allow the Initiate and the acolyte to pass. Many inclined their heads or raised their hands to show respect.

"I must find the Namekeeper, friend Lotun," said Basir 1, a little anxiously.

Lotun nodded, and called out to the nearest tattooed figure. "Friend Enierd! My acolyte seeks another Jentik. We would be glad of your help."

"The contests of the Meet will be held below the Fourteen Towers. The circle has been forming for two wakes, so I am told." Lotun was speaking to Fasius, a Susyan Initiate of the Fifth Circle, a full two hands taller than the elder Wohken. Fasius deliberately slowed his pace as the two servants of the Provider walked through a more peaceful section of Naskal.

"It will be a Meet worth seeing, by all counts, friend Lotun," rumbled Fasius. "My fellow Susyan would have made a heroic raid, but I am glad that they will choose another wake." The Susyan Initiate nodded to himself. "The Sky Spirits will not cease their vigil for one missed opportunity."

"I suppose not," said Lotun, while slightly inclining his head. "Friend Fasius, it has been good to speak to you once more. We both postpone duties that must be performed."

"You are of course correct. As before, my humble frame is honored by your presence, friend Lotun." Fasius bowed in a surprisingly deft Fifth Acquiescence. "I hope to greet you again before you depart Naskal."

The two Initiates made the proscribed Gestures of Parting. Fasius strode away at his normal pace towards busier parts of Naskal. "Sky Spirits!" Lotun muttered irritably under his breath. He chose a route that would not cross Fasius' path and set out to find Basir 1. She had promised to meet with him below the seventh of the Fourteen Towers before their wake was finished.

The Jentik that had been Basir 1 and was now Naskal 27 awaited Lotun beneath the seventh tall wooden tower. Blue flames burned at the top of each high structure in the line of fourteen. A great and noisy throng of Enierd had gathered beneath and around the Fourteen Towers - thousands of stocky, tattooed figures crowded the normally open rock before the Tower. Hundreds more were arriving or leaving. Further beyond the Towers, the crowds had formed a great open-centered circle aound an ancient platform built of bones and skulls.

Even though used to the Supplicants' Shelters at Tumnil, Naskal 27 found the noise and bustle of the Meet disturbing. Finding the Namekeeper of Naskal had not taken long, but the very elderly Namekeeper had been unfriendly and brusque. Naskal 27 was trying not to let it bother her further.

"Friend Jentik!"

Naskal 27 heard Lotun's voice above the noise of the crowd. She looked for the elder Wohken, but could see nothing but Enierd. Three spear-bearing warriors moved, one to draw aside a staring child with a darkly tattooed face. Lotun stepped through the resulting gap to the base of the tower, accompanied by a tall, striking Enierd. This newcomer wore engraved wooden armor, his bare arms richly inked with abstract shapes and Midrin characters.

"This is the eighth tower, friend Jentik," said Lotun in a tone of annoyance. "The Enierd count from the outskirts of Naskal inwards."

"I am sorry, friend Lotun..." Naskal 27 frowned. She seemed about to say more, but did not speak further.

"It is of no matter." The Enierd spoke with a deep voice. "I am sure that the Provider Himself would pick the wrong tower to count from, no?"

Lotun glanced briefly and pointedly at the Enierd beside him. "This is Oraet of Clan Jatu."

"And Chieftain of Harisa. My friends still require sustenance, at your convenience of course." Oraet bowed as to an equal. The leather straps of his armor creaked.

Lotun sighed. "Very well. Now that I have found..." he looked inquiringly at the Jentik acolyte.

"Naskal 27," she said, still frowning.

"...Naskal 27," Lotun continued, "I may perform my duties for your Clan. Lead on, friend Chieftain." The elder Initiate placed only slight emphasis on the word "friend." Naskal 27 glanced at Oraet and then Lotun but remained quiet.

The Jatu Chieftain led Lotun and Naskal 27 through the crowded edges of the great circular gathering. The noise of ten thousand gathered Enierd was constant and unbroken. Warriors sparred in practice for Meet competitions while others exercised or prepared alone. The young of the Clans mingled with adults throughout the Circle. In places, children organized their own preparations rather than assist older companions.

Oraet and the two servants of the Provider passed an old tattooist working her art on a member of Clan Causi. Under her bone needle and patient eye, a rippled semicircle of skin slowly darkened. Nearby, a warrior carefully and painfully sewed up a cut in one thigh, the leather of his armor peeled back, dark and glistening with blood. Raised voices around the injured Enierd argued over responsibility for the injury. A hundred paces further, and three standing Enierd locked hands and arms in a traditional form of wrestling. Friends and younger Enierd surrounded the wrestlers, jeering and calling encouragements.

Further still around the Meet circle, an elder of the Tribe recounted a tale of battle for a rapt audience of old and young. He shook a plain bone club for emphasis, speaking passionately of the crack of wood striking wood.

As Oraet passed each group, he nodded and called out in response to greetings and raised hands. Lotun, silent, did not seem to pay attention to the Meet crowds. His left hand rested upon the Gift that hung from his shoulder within its sling of supple leather.

Naskal 27 trailed behind the two men, looking about her at the many new and strange sights. These Causi and Jatu were so different from the few Enierd of the Order of the Provider. They were different from the restrained and respectful Enierd crafters who came to Tumnil as supplicants. The atmosphere of the Meet was so vibrant and alive, the participants enthusiastic and eager. Naskal 27 wondered again why it was that both the Namekeeper and Lotun seemed so on edge, yet as she became used to the noise and spirit of the Meet, she began to enjoy herself despite the moods of her elders. Enierd in the circle smiled and sought her attention as she passed. Naskal 27 smiled in return.

Lotun sat cross-legged on uneven rock, surrounded by Enierd from Harisa. Most of the Enierd also sat, waiting patiently. Some of the youngest threw leather pouches back and forth behind their older peers. Oraet stood beside Lotun and watched. The Gift of the Provider rested upon the rock in front of the elder Wohken. "From the Provider comes life," intoned the Initiate. The two broad Enierd men seated in front of Lotun repeated the phrase in their deep voices.

Meet competitions had already commenced in the open center of the circle. The noise of the assembled Clans rose and fell with each new event. Lotun made the three Gestures of Gifting, his thin, veined hands forming long-familiar patterns. He leaned forward to touch the Gift firmly in several places while bowing his head and closing his eyes. His lips moved soundlessly in one of the Gift Devotions. The Gift itself sighed loudly, drawing breath. Lotun straightened to open the small, dark box. The closest Enierd leaned forward to see more clearly.

"We thank you for your gifts, honored servant," rumbled the first of the Enierd in traditional response. Lotun removed two lengths of divine food from the Gift. The Enierd gratefully accepted the flesh-like strips. He stood and a scarred Harisan woman took his place in front of the elder Initiate.

Lotun closed the Gift and shifted his position on the rock. His legs were already growing numb and there were many Enierd to provide for yet. Lotun closed his eyes for a moment and tried to banish his weariness. In earlier times he would have thought little of two wakes without sleep, but the prospect had become far less attractive with age. A generation ago there had been another Meet in Naskal, but then he had been with a different companion...

"Friend Lotun!"

The Initiate was pulled from his drifting thoughts by the strident voice of Fasius. Opening his eyes, he saw Harisan Enierd turn their attention to the tall Susyan as he strode through the Meet circle. "You seem tired, friend Lotun!" Fasius called. "I myself awoke but a short time ago, and you have been traveling for most of a wake..."

Naskal 27 stood beyond the crowded Enierd, fifty paces from Lotun and Oraet's companions. She had picked out the flax robes of at least twenty Initiates in the Meet circle, but it seemed as though Enierd appetites could never be slaked. The Jentik acolyte was becoming tired.

The attention of the gathered Clans focused on the competing Enierd at the center of the Meet circle. A thousand voices shouted with each success and failure. The rush of noise and feeling was unlike anything Naskal 27 had ever heard. Despite her fatigue, she felt caught up in the spirit of the Meet. She imagined herself, tattooed, broad and muscled, competing with other skilled Enierd inside the circle.

A great flame had been lit at the center of the circle, rising from the large bone platform to illuminate competing warriors and crafters in blue and yellow hues. Naskal 27 watched four Enierd who fought, laughing, with hair-padded clubs. Elsewhere, tall, bearded Causi men hefted and threw great spheres of wood. The single great flame cast shadows of the competitors that shifted and danced over the assembled Enierd of the circle.

The contrast of dark and light between tattoos and skin fascinated Naskal 27. If only she could stay awake, the acolyte felt as though she could watch the display for wakes on end. As she watched five Enierd wrestling as a group inside the circle, Naskal 27 caught sight of a tall Susyan man in the flax robe of an Initiate. The Initiate approached Lotun through the waiting Harisans. He called out, but Naskal 27 couldn't make out the words over the noise of the crowd. The two Initiates conversed, it seemed, and the Susyan took Lotun's place amid Oraet's hungry companions.

Lotun slowly rose to his feet with the aid of his staff. He paused for a moment before tiredly walking through the crowd towards Naskal 27. Behind him, the Enierd roared as a favorite fell in one of the staff-contests.

Later, the Wohken Initiate and the Jentik acolyte rested, seated against a wooden platform at the edge of Naskal. Lotun's staff lay against the old, cracked beams between them. Sounds of the Meet were muted by distance and intervening buildings, but still carried the fevor of the crowd.

"I must apologize, friend Jentik, for my mood this last wake. As we get older, I am afraid that we suffer fools, the impatient, and tiredness less gladly. I have had my fill of all three this wake."

"An Initiate does not need to apologize to an acolyte, friend Lotun." Naskal 27 paused and rubbed at her eyes. "You don't consider me a fool or impatient, do you?"

The old Wohken smiled and glanced at Naskal 27. "You are young, friend Jentik. I think that you will have to admit to impatience. It is only natural. But no, you are no fool."

"Then the apology is accepted, friend Lotun." Naskal 27 made her acceptance with a mock tone of formality, accompanied by the appropriate ritual gesture. She stifled a yawn. "How much longer will the Meet continue?"

Lotun yawned himself. "They will still be testing their skills when we awake, friend Jentik. There are many guesthouses in Naskal. We should find one before our eyes close of their own accord." Lotun rose, his knees cracking loudly as he straightened. He took up his staff and adjusted his robe as Naskal 27 climbed to her feet. "An Initiate should always apologize for slighting an acolyte." Lotun said after a few heartbeats of thought. "Just as a Camnel should apologize to the slighted Unranked. Power and influence..." he paused as he stretched his thin arms and yawned again. "Power and influence can wait for another wake. We should sleep."

[ Posted by Reason on December 29, 2004 | Permanent Link ]

Pathway of the One God

Purple sheets and whorls of the Light of the One God rippled through the Sky above a cluster of black-inked leather tents and Itmos walking wheel carts, huddled against the sidewall of the Pathway of the One God. Pilgrims and traders, intent on their own journeys, passed by, but Lotun and Jeu 4 left the flow of travelers to approach the Itmos tents. The wind carried a thin line wood smoke and the sound of prayer; Lotun paused for a moment, leaning deeply on his staff. He glanced across at the acolyte and gestured towards the Itmos camp. "Does it not offend you, friend Jentik, that they burn the Divine That Grows as an offering to the One God?" His robe caught in the chill wind, flapping as he wrapped it more tightly about himself.

Jeu 4 halted, surprised. "My spirit was elsewhere, friend Lotun. Should I be offended? Tumnil 146 taught me that the Divine Will of the Provider is free of obligation. You have said that our God is no jealous and demanding gift-giver." She looked at the elder Wohken inquisitively, holding her hair aside as the wind tugged at it. "Is this to be another lesson?"

"Youth is ever impatient." Lotun smiled and turned from the cold air to adjust the sling containing his Gift. "I had no lesson in mind, but we have traveled far this wake. My legs are no longer young, and they demand that we rest." Neither Initiate nor acolyte cast shadows onto the Pathway rock. During their wakes of Lightward travel, the Light of the One God strengthened and spread over the Sky until only the deepest hollows and overhangs were shadowed.

Lotun had taught Jeu 4 while crossing rugged Enierd territory from Naskal to the Pathway. "Lecturing," she called it. While the Jentik acolyte was familiar with rituals and ceremonies of the lower Circles, she knew little of politics and theology within the Order. Discussion seemed to speed the long journey. The two Servants of the Provider had passed through many small Enierd communities, nestled amid crags and deep valleys. Jeu had been the last of these, built on the floor of a broad ravine. The Chieftain was friendly, and Jeu 4 had been reminded of her brief stay in Basir.

"Perhaps the pilgrims will offer us a tent for the next sleep." Jeu 4 indicated the Itmos encampment. "The air chills me. This wind reminds me of the Plateau."

Lotun shook his head. "It has been many tens of cycles since you descended the Stairway, I see. The Pathway will become colder yet, but you will grow used to it. You have more fat on your bones than I." He stared along the length of the Pathway, clutching his robe tightly against the wind. Hills and mountains rose to great heights to either side, placing the travelers at the base of an imposing valley pointing to the distant Temple. The Temple itself, Avatar of the One God, appeared as a distant, thin mountain where the Sky touched the rock, lit by the Light of the One God. "Yet we will speak with the pilgrims." Lotun continued. "I, too, feel the chill, and more so than I used to."

"It is truly an honor to have such guests stand before us. The Basei Family is humbled by your presence." Ger Basei, a bearded Itmos of indeterminate age, scented with wood smoke, swept elegant and flattering bows to both Lotun and Jeu 4. The intricate array of bone ornaments sewn to his leather traveling clothes rattled as he moved.

While Lotun and Jeu 4 had waited politely for the Family head, other Itmos had emerged from their tents to see the newcomers. A multitude of ornamented, curious Basei Family Itmos now surrounded Lotun and Jeu 4. Most talked to one another, quietly and sidelong, while eyeing the Servants of the Provider. Their padded, elaborate traveling clothes bore carefully mismatched decorations in tens of different styles. Jeu 4 was about to speak, but Lotun placed a hand upon her shoulder. He bowed to Ger Basei. "Your honorifics are far from necessary, friend Itmos. We are all equal before the Provider."

"But some are more equal than others, neh?" Ger chuckled and smiled broadly, clattering as he spread his hands. "Allow me to thread the first needle and offer you shelter. I see that you carry no tents, and I am sure I am not alone in feeling it to be colder every time I set foot on this Pathway."

"We would be..." Lotun was cut off by a thin voice from the small crowd.

"The Pathway of the One God, Ger Basei, not 'this Pathway.'" An elder Itmos, clad in the leather robes of a Wanderer, emerged from amid younger members of the Family, given respectful space by those around her. Her deeply lined face and thin lips bore an expression of disapproval. "It is the Time of Quiet Worship." The elder priest's voice was sharp, but her hands wavered as she supported herself on an untrimmed, engraved Uk branch. "Why are we standing and working our jaws, when we should be making our devotions?" She swept the younger Itmos with an unblinking stare, ignoring Lotun and Jeu 4.

"What? Now we are not allowed guests?" A woman muttered from the assembled Itmos. Others voiced similar sentiments in low tones, but most avoided the Wanderer's gaze. Jeu 4 caught Lotun's eye, but the old Wohken touched her shoulder once again. He held up one wrinkled finger to indicated they should wait.

"Feus, Maneet, see to a tent for our visitors." Ger spoke loudly, over the head of the priest. Two muscular young men reluctantly left the group, grumbling as they made their way towards the walking wagons beyond the ornately decorated tents.

The Wanderer briefly glanced at Lotun and Jeu 4 before fixing her stare upon Ger. "Ger! I believe it was you who was complaining about the shortage of leather for the Family only last cycle." The elder Itmos turned to Lotun, omitting any sign of respect or greeting. "With regrets, honored servant of the Provider, Ger forgets himself."

Ger folded his arms and cleared his throat. "But Ger remembered to trade for six skulls of leather in Uv, not twenty wakes ago. Perhaps you do not recall, Keun, busy as you have been with preparations." Several of the watching Itmos smiled and whispered at this, but straightened their faces quickly enough when Keun turned back to face Ger. "You are more than disrespectful, Ger! When I consider that I foolishly agreed..."

"...to my partnership with Rusi?" Ger raised his voice over that of the aged priest, waving a hand towards the nearest tents. "I know, I know, enough!"

"Why are you shouting my name?" A woman called in a tone of some irritation from the doorway of a tent adorned with faded Tun abstract figures. She brushed hanging statuettes from her way and started towards Ger and Keun. The three raised voices of Ger, the Wanderer Keun, and Rusi quickly became four and then five. Other members of the Family watched, talked amongst themselves, or wisely decided to drift away.

As the argument escalated, Lotun sighed. "This may take longer than I had anticipated."

"They are not all like this, are they, away from Tumnil?" Jeu 4 seemed quite shocked.

"Fortunately not, but there are few Itmos I would choose as traveling companions. Perhaps, friend Jentik, we should seat ourselves until they are done."

"Or at least exhausted." Jeu 4 watched the Itmos with a reluctant fascination. Younger members of the Family added their voices to the noisy altercation. It showed no signs of dying down. "How can they be so nasty to each another?"

The two sat side by side on the smooth rock to wait for the Itmos to recall they had guests. Lotun crossed his legs, set his staff across his lap and tucked his robe against the wind. Jeu 4 loosened the straps securing her leather pack. The cold air pulled at her hair. "The answers to that question, friend Jentik, are too many and too much for one wake. But that you ask it explains why peaceful men prefer the company of Jentik." Lotun watched the arguing Itmos; Jeu 4 set down her pack.

Ger pulled at his beard. "I must apologize once again for our poor sense of hospitality." He gestured expansively around himself to the group of seated Itmos. His partner, Rusi, a pretty woman in the first swell of pregnancy, nudged him none too gently in the ribs. "And to honored servants of the Provider, at that," she said. "We must all be fools," she added with a little more emphasis. She shoved her partner harder, grinning. Ger smiled fondly at her.

Lotun and Jeu 4 sat facing the Itmos partners, surrounded by the rest of the Basei. Feus and Maneet knelt on traveling clothes, stealing clumsy glances at Jeu 4. The Itmos possessed an ample store of food and water; Ger had insisted the two guests eat and drink from his supplies. He would not hear of Lotun troubling himself or the Provider to bring forth more food when none was needed.

By the time the earlier argument had died down, most Basei Family members had prudently returned to their devotions. Keun retreated to her own tent, a traditionally sparse Wanderer design, out of place amid festooned leather. Feus and Maneet eventually returned from the walking wagons with sewn sheets of leather, twine and short bone supports. As younger Itmos unpacked and arranged engraved wooden bowls for the meal, Feus and Maneet erected a new tent beside Ger and Rusi's elaborate leather dwelling. The Family emerged once more to sit on the smooth pathway Pathway and talk amongst themselves, bowls in their hands. The elder Wanderer did not join them.

"What about Keun?" Feus spoke up. "You have only apologized once for her, three times already for the rest of us!"

"She has her eye on you Feus!" A younger Itmos called, eliciting muffled laughter from the children, wrapped against the wind in thick, inked traveling clothes. Feus scowled.

"Quiet, the lot of you!" Rusi shouted crossly. "The least we can do is show our guests," she indicated the young Jentik and elder Wohken with a motion of her bowl, "that we are capable of civilized conduct!" The conversation paused, leaving only the melodic clatter of wind-blown ornaments hung from nearby tents.

Lotun coughed politely and placed his bowl in his lap. "Your apologies, friend Itmos, are hardly necessary. The hospitality of your Family does you an honor."

From her position next to the elder Initiate, Jeu 4 watched the Itmos with great interest. She chewed on a strip of divine food from the Basei Family stores, her bowl half-filled with water from the same source. Like the Naskal Enierd, these Itmos were a far cry from the courteous and well-spoken supplicants she met at Tumnil. Jeu 4 was beginning to think that Jentik were the only people who were the same everywhere. As Lotun engaged the effusively good-humored Ger, the acolyte turned to Feus and Maneet. "You travel widely, do you not, friend Itmos?" Maneet, caught staring, gaped at the sudden attention. Feus nodded slowly. "So you must have an idea - why do people not act the same way in different places?"

The loud tapping of a staff on rock and the thin voice of Keun came from behind the Jentik. "You waste your time. Philosophy may as well be another spirit in the Sky for those two." Other conversations slowly came to a halt once more. The elder Wanderer made her slow way between younger members of her Family, leaning heavily on a crooked staff grasped with unsteady hands. On reaching Feus and the embarassed Maneet, she glared. "Move yourselves! Show respect for your elders and grant me the rock to seat myself." Both young men quickly shuffled across the flat Pathway rock, displacing younger children and almost upsetting hastily snatched bowls of divine food.

Keus arranged her leather robes to seat herself. Rusi rose to aid the frail elder, but was waved away. With the aid of her staff, Keun slowly, and with difficulty, sat to face Lotun and Jeu 4. Rusi knelt down once again beside her partner, concerned.

"I had thought you tired, Keun," Ger declared, with sincerity. He gave his partner a worn bowl, engraved inside and out with faded Midrin expressive characters. It passed from hand to hand to Keun.

Lotun inclined his head and touched forefingers to the rock in the oldest Wohken greeting of equals. "What would be the answer to the question posed by my companion?" he inquired. "I would be curious to hear the words of the One God that pertain to this matter, friend Wanderer."

Keun turned the wooden bowl in her wrinkled, unsteady hands. "Do you wish to hear the words of the One God or the words of Keun, Servant of the Provider? The words of the One God reach the ears of only the most devout."

"The words of Keun will suffice for this poor Servant." There was a light tone to Lotun's voice, but his lined face was serious. He leaned forward.

"Do not mock me." Keun spoke thinly and deliberately. "Old as you may be, I served the One God while you were still nursed by your Family."

"Served His Divine Will well, I have no doubt. But what of the question of my companion, friend priest?" Lotun sat up straight and put his bowl to one side. The other Itmos watched the Initiate and the Wanderer, some whispering to each other.

"Really," began Jeu 4, "it is of no consequence if..."

"Yes, the question!" Maneet exclaimed in an over-loud voice, seemingly as surprised as anyone else at his outburst. He flushed, looking at the Sky and then the rock beneath him.

Lotun smiled at Jeu 4, who had turned to look to him for guidance. Keun pursed her lips and eyed Maneet sidelong. "Very well." She rapped the Pathway rock with her staff, looking around to make sure she had the attention of her Family. "The Jentik asks why it is that we do not act as ourselves in different places, under different circumstances." Keun did not look towards Jeu 4 for confirmation. "Only a Jentik would think to ask such a question, but there lies a lesson for the devout Itmos."

Keun paused for a moment, and Lotun interjected. "Jeu 4 is of the Jentik and thus is closer to the Gods. Her connection to the divine leads her to act with consistency and concern for her true self. I have heard this argument before, friend Wanderer."

Keun frowned and sucked in her cheeks before replying, in cutting tones, "My Family has not, Servant of the Provider. You show a lack of respect for my faith and you explain yourself tritely." After a moment, the priest continued in a more level manner. "The Jentik are indeed closer to the creator of us all, the One God. Their behavior is divine in its consistency and they possess an innate appreciation of spiritual truth that others must strive for. The Jentik among us now is an innocent, an excellent example. It would not occur to her to disguise her spirit or change her actions whether we were Itmos, Susyan or outcast Dispossessed. She is her true self before everyone."

Jeu 4, like Maneet, stared at the rock she sat on as the priest spoke, twisting the leather of her pack between her fingers. Lotun leaned forward to interrupt again. "Well put, friend Wanderer. But if you are to hold up my companion as an example, you should at least have the courtesy to use her name."

"You are not one to talk of courtesy, Initiate," Keun snapped irritably. "Act as a guest, and I will act as a host." Lotun spread his arms in a conciliatory fashion and briefly inclined his head before waiting for Keun to continue. The Itmos raptly watched the priest, Initiate and Jentik acolyte.

Keun tapped her staff against the rock before speaking further. "All who dwell in the world, even Jentik, are sometimes untrue to themselves. But the One God desires this truth of us. The brightest stars," the old woman raised a wavering hand to the Sky above the Pathway, "are the spirits of priests and the faithful who guided themselves honestly and forthrightly. For if you listen to the inner voice, to the part of you closest to the One God..."

"Or to the Provider, friend Wanderer." Lotun spoke quietly but firmly. He placed one thin hand upon his Gift, nestled in its leather sling. There was silence for a moment as the two elders regarded one another. Ger coughed nervously and low conversations broke out amongst the assembled Itmos.

Keun finally broke the silence, her voice as firm as Lotun's despite the constant quiver in her hands. "All Gods are the One God, Initiate." She regarded Jeu 4 for a moment, and then returned her gaze to the Wohken. "I see where you wished the words of Keun to lead. Very well, but we will speak no further this wake. When we speak again, it will not be of faith."

Lotun inclined his head politely. "As you wish, friend priest. It will be my loss and regret." Keun scowled as she examined the Initiates's lined face for signs of insincerity. Finding none, she struggled to her feet before walking slowly towards the tents beyond the gathered Family. Her staff tapped on the rock as she departed, that noise accompanied by the wind and the rattling of Itmos bone ornaments. It was not until Keus entered her tent that the Family began talking again. Ger struck up a conversation with forced cheer, while Rusi sat silently beside him. She and Jeu 4 seemed lost in thought for the rest of that wake.

"Are all priests of the One God like Keun when not at Tumnil, friend Lotun?"

Lotun shook his head and leaned thoughtfully upon his staff. "No, friend Jentik. Most are less wise, less devout, and less tolerant." A hint of sadness entered his voice.

"I took nothing to heart, friend Lotun, and you should not worry. I am still thinking about her answer to my question." Jeu 4 paused for a moment. "Will we be journeying to the Temple?"

"Once again, no. It has been a time since I have traveled there. I had thought to do so for your sake, but there will be generations yet in which you can stand beneath the Avatar of the One God."

Jeu 4 shook her head. "I am not devout, friend Lotun. In my heart and spirit, I am a Servant of the Provider. I may pray to the One God, but I do not need to stand inside the Great Temple to do so."

Lotun smiled at the acolyte. "Good, Jeu 4, good. I did not want to disappoint you. You have seen the true feelings of priests for our God; that is something that all Initiates should remember."

"I will remember, Lotun. It does not discourage me." Jeu 4 adjusted her pack, settling it against her back. The two Servants of the Provider walked away from the decorated Itmos tents, retracing their steps to the base of the Pathway and thence to the territory of the Lightward Susyan.

[ Posted by Reason on January 26, 2005 | Permanent Link ]

Lightward Susyan

Lotun and Jeu 4 rested on a broad, uneven ledge high on the flank of a steep hill. A stairway had once offered an easier path, but little remained now save for brittle, desiccated wood shards. The Light of the One God had dimmed over the last ten wakes, the two travelers now far enough Godward for their shadows to preceed them as they entered Susyan territory. All but the brightest Lightward stars were still obscured by whorls and sheets of ever-fainter purple light, but the Sky was black over Susyan rock. Dim stars became visible as they wheeled down towards purple-tinted mountains. The far distant, scattered flames of Susyan communities made it seem as though the Sky were viewed through great holes in the rock of the World.

Lotun's voice broke the silence. "Can you see Mera's Mountain, Jeu 4? My eyes do not reveal it to me."

"The Light is too dim this wake, Lotun." Jeu 4 shook her head in disappointment. "Perhaps we could not see the Mountain in any case. It must be a hundred kloms from here."

"I know this hill well, Jeu 4. I have stood here in past generations and seen the shape of Mera's Mountain by the Light of the One God." Lotun leaned back against the rock of the hill. "There is no need to travel further this wake. We can wait."

Jeu 4 shifted to straighten the uncomfortable folds in her leather clothing. She looked out at the distant flame-lights. "You are in no hurry to journey among the Susyan, Lotun."

The elder Initiate had closed his eyes and folded his sleeves about his thin hands.

"Lotun?"

Lotun sighed. "I have no great liking for the Susyan. As a Wohken, I am liked little in return."

"But you are an Initiate!" Jeu 4 exclaimed. "The Order has the respect of all of the Tribes. Your heritage should not matter!"

"It matters all too much, alas. It is possible to respect and dislike at the same time, Jeu 4. As a Jentik, that is something you may become all too familiar with." The old Wohken reached down to wrap his robe more comfortably around his legs.

"To the Susyan, I will be a Jentik before I am a servant of the Provider?"

"The Susyan have their own views of your Tribe, Jeu 4. They admire you and seek you out, but their legends place your ancestors above their own."

"They are jealous?"

"Respect and dislike, my acolyte, respect and dislike. Such is the worst you can expect from the Susyan."

"I am not an innocent, Lotun. I know what it is that the Susyan want from me." Jeu 4 looked down at the leather pack on the rock beside her. "Deru knew too," she added with a touch of bitterness.

"I was implying no slight." Lotun moved his hands within the flax sleeves of his robe. "But there are more subtle motivations at work for the Susyan than mere physical or emotional attraction." He smiled to himself and stretched his legs. "Ah, but many tens of cycles have passed since those wakes!"

Jeu 4 could think of nothing to say in return to this last remark. She sat in silence and watched the movement of the stars.

"What are they doing, Lotun?" Jeu 4 looked down from yet another ridgeline at the Susyan below. The terrain had been uneven in this last wake.

"The resolution of ... a dispute, I imagine." Lotun was out of breath, the result of a scramble and fall on the steeper side of the ridge. His heart still beat fast and his knee ached from a hard knock against a projecting spur of rock. The marked routes did not get any easier with age, the Initiate reflected, limping to catch up with the Jentik acolyte. Once beside her, he leaned on his staff and attempted to regain his composure. Below the Servants of the Provider, in the long shadow of the ridge, two Susyan slowly circled one another at the edge of an encampment of small tents. One lashed out, and the two combatants suddenly strained against one another, chest to chest. The fight did not seem to have the attention of more than a few of the other Susyan.

"They are violent." Jeu 4 shook her head.

Lotun nodded as he rested on his staff, taking the weight from the dull pain in his knee. "Yes." He paused, seemed about say something else. "Yes, they are."

"Will we descend once they have fought?" As Jeu 4 spoke, the Susyan clashed again and thrust apart from one another. One stumbled, almost falling - the other stepped forward to take advantage.

Lotun sighed, his breathing still labored. "We will. But I must rest a moment more ... I am not as young as I would like."

Jeu 4 turned to regard the old Wohken with concern. He waved her away when he saw her expression. "No, Jeu 4, I need no aid. Merely a few moments to collect myself." He smiled reassuringly.

"Of course, Lotun." Jeu 4's look of concern remained. The old Initiate winced as he bent his injured leg, but nonetheless eased himself gently down to a seated position.

"But the skin is not broken, honored Servant. The binding must not be loose if you are to walk." Rela, a broad and scarred Susyan, pulled the leather binding more tightly. The elder Wohken's knee had swelled and bruised atop the ridge. By the time Lotun and Jeu 4 had descended to the Susyan tents, the Initiate had barely been able to walk.

Lotun gritted his teeth as the leather tightened painfully. "Enough, I said!" he growled, and wrested the loose end of the leather away from Rela. "Do you want to sever my leg?"

"He is practiced, Wohken," an older Susyan called, slapping her carved bone armor for emphasis. She watched with some amusement from a nearby tent, the leather freshly inked in the Susyan style. "I would let him continue if I were you." She chuckled.

"I did not ask for your opinion, friend Susyan," Lotun snapped. He bent forward to tie the end of the leather himself, still in some pain. "Practiced ..." he muttered to himself.

Lotun sat on a leather cushion in front of a tent that had once belonged to a Lord, if the faded Midrin was to be believed. Rela shrugged and stood. "As you wish, honored Servant." He adjusted the ties securing his bone-reinforced leather, watching as Lotun finished the last knot.

Few in the camp gave any attention to the Servants of the Provider. From the prayers softly chanted on the far side of the encampment, it seemed these Susyan were pilgrims, more concerned with ritual than visitors. Lotun rested his weight against the leather of the Lord's tent and tried to ignore the pain. The pilgrims probably journeyed to worship at Bones of the Ancestral Sky Spirits, the remains of divine beings from whom the Susyan claimed descent - a view of the past very different from Wohken Family teachings. Lotun surveyed the camp, looking between the small tents. An older warrior dispersed the young Susyan who crowded Jeu 4. He would apologize to the acolyte later, once he felt up to standing, but she seemed to be conducting herself well enough for the moment.

Jeu 4 had been an unwilling center of attention since she assisted Lotun over the last paces of the slope above the Susyan camp. She had wanted to stay with the old Wohken, but the he had clearly been embarrassed to need her help in descending the ridge. Three young men had been only too happy to maneuver Jeu 4 away from Lotun while older, armored Susyan examined his injury. Most of the Susyan seemed lost in their devotions, for which Jeu 4 was grateful. Still, after the formalism of relationships at Tumnil, the lack of subtlety in the approach of the young Susyan - one barely old enough to grow hair on his chin - was disconcerting. The Jentik acolyte attempted to remain polite. It helped that her thoughts were elsewhere; she wondered how Tumnil 146 was faring. She missed her companion less of late, as the tenwakes continued to pass. It bothered Jeu 4 that her emotions could fade so quickly; was Tumnil 146 feeling the same way? The three Susyan continued to guesture, boast and proposition, apparently oblivious to her disinterest, but Jeu 4 was pulled from her thoughts as a man joined the group to order the young Susyan away.

"I said to go, Nateve! You will not enjoy it when the Sky Spirits recall this wake. Return to your devotions!" This new Susyan, tall even for his Tribe, wore many-layered leathers scored and shaded with Tun Abstracts. He towered over Jeu 4, beardless and longhaired as seemed to be the fashion among these Susyan pilgrims. He watched the three young men walk away, casting sour backward glances, before turning to Jeu 4. He made a slight bow. "I apologize for their lack of respect. Young men do not think with their heads." His voice was deep.

"Thank you," replied the Jentik, now distracted from her thoughts of Tumnil and her lover. "I had thought that I would have to tolerate them for many more breaths." She looked past the tall Susyan to where Lotun sat, apparently resting, his eyes closed.

"You could have told them to leave you in peace. Even Nateve would have respected that."

Jeu 4 inclined her head politely. "I will remember that for the next time."

The tall man smiled down at her. "I imagine that there will be many next times. Where do you and your Initiate journey to?"

Jeu 4 noticed a thin trail of blood winding its way from a leather wrap on the Susyan's lower arm. She had assumed the wrap was decorative, but it seemed it served another purpose. "You were fighting," she said, frowning as she stared at the blood. "We saw you from the top of the ridge."

The Susyan followed her gaze to his bandage. "By the Sky Spirits..." he muttered, pulling at the wrap before continuing in a more normal tone. "It is not easy to tie these with one hand." He looked enquiringly at Jeu 4. "Might I borrow your hands before my blood wets the rock?" He held his arm up to divert the dark trickle as it ran past his wrist.

The young Jentik was hesitant. "I am not sure that I should, friend Susyan." She paused for a few heartbeats. "Why were you fighting?"

"Help or not, this must be redone," said the tall Susyan matter-of-factly. He gracefully sat on the rock before Jeu 4, crossing his legs as he held his injured arm level. "My name, which I prefer to 'Susyan,' is Vasun." He began to untie the thongs and leather on his arm with his teeth and free hand. Jeu 4 watched, still standing. After ten breaths, Vasun paused and looked up at the silent acolyte. "You are judging me. I am not sure that I like that."

The Jentik shrugged. "You ignored my question. I'm not sure that I like that." Conversing with confidence was easier now that Vasun no longer loomed over her.

"I see ..." Vasun smiled to himself, holding the half-untied bandage over his wound. "I will make a bargain with you." He returned his gaze to the Jentik, waiting for approval.

"I am listening." Jeu 4 adopted a tone she had once heard Tumnil 146 use, trying to keep her expression neutral.

"Help me with this," Vas'un inclined his head to indicate his arm, "and I will explain to you why I challenged Usor..."

"Yet he seemed genuinely concerned I did not see it his way, Lotun. I feel that I disappointed him." Jeu 4 and the elder Initiate remained awake, but most of the camp slept.

"Would you want to agree with him?" Lotun asked, quietly. Nearby, two Susyan women meditated in silence, sitting crosslegged in front of their tent.

"No ... but that is not the point," Jeu 4 sighed.

"I think that you have lost the point," Lotun smiled. "You did not disappoint me, Jeu 4, and you should not worry about disappointing the Susyan. You handled the warriors here all too well without me." Both Servants of the Provider followed their own thoughts a while under the dim purple Light. The stars slowly changed direction overhead.

"Will you be able to walk next wake?" Jeu 4 looked at Lotun's bound leg.

Lotun spread his hands, palms turned upwards. "I do not know. But if not the next wake, then the following wake will have to suffice."

Jeu 4 nodded.

"I'm sure that we can both survive another wake here with the Susyan." The two sat in silence, watching the movement of the Sky and the changing Light of the One God as the Susyan slept.

[ Posted by Reason on February 5, 2005 | Permanent Link ]

The Kalmet and the Glowing Ones

Hotal 71 ceased her efforts with the fire-starting bow and bent to blow gently on the newly glowing ember. Shavings of Estin's Wood reluctantly caught light; scented smoke rose past the young Jentik's face. The wind made it difficult for Hotal 71 to make fire in the rock hollow, but Lotun blocked the steady breeze with his robe and body. The small flame cast orange and yellow light over the rock and Servants of the Provider, overwhelming the diffuse Light of the One God. The acolyte sat up, placing the small fire-starting bow in her lap. She massaged her hands, aching from the time spent over the wood shavings.

"Are you ready?" Lotun asked, with a smile. She had laughed at his expense after he had failed to create any embers. Lotun's leatherbound, painful knee prevented him from crouching above the wood. His attempts to find a position in which to use the fire-starting bow had finally worn down Hotal 71's reserve - she had giggled and then laughed. Lotun had not been amused, but now the acolyte suffered cramped hands and sore thighs. The wind blew apart the thin trail of smoke rising from the smoldering wood. It followed the moving air, scenting Hotal 71's hair.

"Let me move before we begin." The Jentik shifted around the small hollow in the rock, flame-cast shadows moving with her. The Light of the One God was bright this wake and covered much of the Lightward Sky.

Earlier that wake, the stars had slowed, stopped and finally reversed the direction of their movement; the elder Initiate and young acolyte had both made the Three Essential Observances as the Time of Still Sky came and went all too quickly. Hotal 71 would have commenced an artwork had she still dwelled on the High Plateau. Lotun would have joined his Family at a Shrine of the One God had he been among his Tribe. The travelers were alone on open rock in Susyan territory, however, and the Provider required different rituals.

"Do you recall the gestures?"

"Tumnil 146 taught me not many tenwakes before we departed. I remember, Lotun." Hotal 71 was nervous; as an acolyte in Tumnil she would not be doing this. Lotun should be the one to perform the Ritual of Still Sky, but the Ritual required that the Initiate who spoke and gestured also light the wood. The young Jentik breathed deeply and deliberately to calm herself. Fragrant smoke rose from the embers before her as Lotun waited patiently, the breeze tugging at his hair. Hotal 71 mouthed the words to herself in preparation for the long chant.

"Servant. Jentik." The sudden voice was soft but purposeful. Lotun and Hotal 71 both straightened, startled from bowed meditation over the last glowing sparks amid charred wood shavings. A tall flax-robed man, a Susyan, had come upon them so quietly that neither had noticed and stood, respectfully, a bare five paces away. Light from the Sky cast his shadow away to the ridge he must have crossed. The man raised a finger to economically gesture left, right and upwards. "Wind. Sweet smoke." A thin fuzz of new hair barely covered his scalp, the serene composure of his expression barely changed as he spoke. A small leather bag tied by his side swung as he bowed to the seated travelers. "Tomen."

Lotun reached for his staff and began to get to his feet, favoring his injured leg. Hotal 71 regarded the newcomer with curiosity. His robes were unadorned but otherwise similar to the Initiate's robe Lotun wore. Yet this Susyan was no Servant of the Provider.

"Tomen of the Kalmet?" Lotun pulled his robe into shape as he spoke, leaning on his engraved staff.

Hotal 71's eyes widened. "Kalmet!" she whispered to herself.

The newcomer nodded once. "Yes. Time passes. I am capably pursued. I regret what will come."

Lotun frowned, taken aback. "Pursued? Do you seek my protection?"

Tomen waved a single finger in the negative. "Not warriors" he replied, indicating the Wohken and the Jentik with a small, quick movement of his hands. Lotun drew breath to speak, but the Kalmet opened his palm. "Listen. Few heartbeats remain. Underdwellers follow." He moved his shoulders in what might have been a shrug. "Too far from the Underworld. They will go farther. Your smoke is Estin's Wood. No warriors. Underdwellers also have noses." Tomen made a short, wry smile with one side of his face.

"What is he saying?" Hotal 71 asked, confused.

"We must leave. He is telling us that Glowing Ones are close. Gather your pack!" Lotun swapped his staff to his other hand and hefted the leather-wrapped Gift from the rock at his feet, wincing at the pain from his bound knee. "While we are in ceremony and while I cannot run," he muttered to himself, "the Provider must not want this journey to be easy for me." Hotal 71 hurriedly gathered her few loose possessions and stuffed them into her pack. Their shadows bowed and dipped across the irregular rock.

"Servant?" A look of mild concern suffused Tomen's face. "'Cannot run?'"

Hotal 71 crouched in front of Lotun, both pressed back into the inadequate shadow of a small overhang. It had been the best they could find with the Light of the One God so bright this wake. Both breathed heavily from their exertions, trying to make as little noise as they could.

"What is he doing?" Hotal 71 whispered quickly between breaths. Tomen stood a bowshot away, atop a ridgeside facing their hiding place. The robed Susyan was shouting; short bursts of sound carried away by the wind.

"Attracting their attention," hissed Lotun. "Quiet! We do not wish to do likewise."

The Jentik chewed on her lip. That Lotun was worried made her fearful. She repeated to herself the curt reassurances of the Kalmet: he had said the Underdwellers would have difficulty seeing into shadows in such a bright wake. But didn't the Glowing Ones live in the dark under the World? Were they not familiar with utter darkness? Hotal 71 tried to avoid the conclusion that shadows would not hide her from an Underdweller. Her heart beat all too loudly against her ribs. "Why doesn't he run?" she whispered to herself.

Lotun gripped Hotal 71's arm tightly and pulled the Jentik back into the shadows until she was leaning against his bony shoulder. "Quiet..." he breathed close to her ear. The Kalmet had turned from the top of the ridge and quickly vanished from sight. "They must be coming."

Heartbeats passed in an agony of suspense, but the first Underdweller appeared all too soon, preceded by a dancing shadow and the echoed clatter of bones. Hotal 71 caught her breath. The heavily built Glowing One was clad in laced bones and tattered leather. Long, thick lengths of matted hair bounced as she loped towards the ridge where Tomen had stood. The Jentik's first coherent thought was that the Underdweller appeared little different from Dispossessed petitioners at Tumnil. Under the purple Light of the One God, the divine blue-green glow of Underdweller flesh was hardly noticeable. Another Underdweller followed, bone club held in both hands as he leapt across a depression in the rock. A group of three scarified near-naked men followed him, the glow of their skin stronger in the patterns cut into their bodies. They ran in silence amidst the noise of wind and the rattle of bone on bone. More Glowing Ones came into view, rapidly ascending the rock slope as their leader reached the ridgeline. She came to a halt, breathing heavily, and turned to watch the first of her followers run past out of sight. Lotun's grip tightened on Hotal 71's arm, as it seemed the Glowing One looked right at them. Hotal 71 held her breath and closed her eyes, willing her racing heart to slow or beat in silence. More than twenty Underdwellers ran and leapt along the slopes of the ridge - the last passed within thirty paces of the travelers' hiding place, looking neither left nor right. The silence of the pursuit scared the Jentik as much as the fierce expressions and readied weapons. She offered up a wordless prayer to the Provider and the One God. Her heart pounded, but the expected shouts of discovery did not come. The sounds of bone on bone slowly faded, and Lotun relaxed his white-fingered grip on her now bruised arm.

"They have gone, my acolyte." He breathed deeply, once. "We should do the same, quickly now."

Lotun and Hotal 71 had slowed their pace somewhat since the first hurried and difficult kloms, and now rested. Lotun was unable to travel as fast as he would have liked in any case, and his limp became ever more pronounced.

"In all my cycles, I have not seen such a thing," said Lotun, rubbing his injured leg as he sat against a large, ancient wooden route marker. "There was a story that went untold this wake, Hotal 71."

The Jentik stood nearby, staring into the far Godward darkness, the Light of the One God to her back. Her shadow stretched out before her for ten spans. "Do you think Tomen will escape them?"

The old Wohken did not reply for a moment. "Do you want my honest answer?" His voice was carefully level, and Hotal 71 shook her head without turning around. Lotun watched her. "I have met few Kalmet. They are not like you or I, but I am not sure I could act so well under the same circumstances. We will speak of this to other Initiates so that it may find its way back to Tumnil."

The young Jentik sighed to herself. "Look," she said, sadly, pointing Godward. "I can see the Plateau." In the far, far distance, faint purple reflections of the Light of the One God outlined the vertical kloms of her Tribal territory.

[ Posted by Reason on February 5, 2005 | Permanent Link ]

Crei's Stairway

"Age carries wisdom to the heart, Tumri 301." Lotun sat on the divinely shaped rock of the broad first step of Crei's Stairway. The Light of the One God, spread in whorls across three hands of the Lightward Sky, shone bright that wake despite its distance; Lotun's shadow reached the sheer rock wall fifty paces away at the Stairway's first turn. The elder Wohken Initiate massaged his left knee through his flax robe, leg stretched out before him. "My heart tells me that I will not be climbing to the Plateau in this or any other wake."

The Jentik Tumri 301 watched anxiously. The two travelers had halted at the head of Tumri's broad rock vale; the flame-lights of that mixed community flickered kloms away, near a hundred spans beneath the Stairway. Near-vertical crags towered above the two Servants of the Provider, highlighted in purple tints by the Light of the One God until vanishing into the haze and darkness of heights unseen. The Plateau cliffs made toys of the surrounding hills, valleys and Susyan communities – mountains placed next to World Fragments. Lotun sat on the first step of a divine Stairway, a path that twisted and turned its way through the high crags for vertical kloms.

"But we have come so far! You must climb with me!" Tumri 301 pleaded. It had been strange to be amongst so many of her Tribe once more in the community below the Stairs, but the High Plateau beckoned. Lotun would not be hurried, however; wakes of ritual and conversation with other Servants of the Provider had passed slowly, each heartbeat a frustration for Tumri 301.

"Calm yourself, my acolyte. Think the steps of the Three Uk Branch Observance." Lotun sat up patted the smooth rock of the step to his side. "Sit for a moment." He waited for Tumri 301 to seat herself and sighed, looking towards the Lightward Sky. "I will not be ascending the Stairway, Tumri 301. Ah, but I want to. I would have liked..." He paused for a moment and shook his head.

The young Jentik placed a hand on the elder Wohken's flax sleeve, concerned. "Why sadness, Lotun?"

"In time. Understanding comes in time." Lotun flexed his knee slowly, lost in thought for a moment. "Visit the Tale Spire for me. I had hoped to read some of the older writings, closer to the peak."

Tumri 301 removed her hand, regarding Lotun while chewing on her lip. The air tugged at their hair, dark with youth and light with age.

Lotun looked across at the acolyte. "Go, Tumri 301!" he said firmly. "How many cycles has it been since you have spoken with your mother and sister? Thirty? Forty? You should start to climb." He reached for his staff. "I will wait for you; there is much to be done in Tumri. Take as many wakes as you need."

"Thank you, Lotun." Tumri 301 reflexively bowed her head, raising her hands to make the Fourth Gratitude. She pointed to the Initiate's knee. "But should I not help you return to the guesthouse?"

Lotun gave her a scathing look as he pulled himself to his feet. He limped for a few steps, wincing, and then rapped his staff against the rock. "It is a gentle incline. I will manage."

"It is colder than I recalled." Tumri 301 shivered despite the leather wrap as the frigid wind blew through her hair and chilled her face. She nestled against Tumri 62 under the layered leather; the two Jentik huddled close to Tumri 712 at the foot of a smooth vertical cliff and the next line of Stairs.

"This is the rock on which we have always paused," said Tumri 62 as their heads rested against one another. Her lips brushed the acolyte's numbed cheek and their dark hair tangled in the wind. "My mother insists - I have argued this before." She hugged Tumri 301 under the shared wrap.

"I would have argued too." Tumri 301 pulled her legs in closer. "If it were not so cold, I would be stood and arguing now!"

From where they rested, the Jentik could see only the Sky and the nearest purple-edged, cragged spire that shielded this part of the Stairway from the worst of the high wind and the direct Light of the One God. The brightest of stars were visible, moving slowly in unison towards the High Plateau and their final destination beyond the hoarfrost at the edge of the World. At the sheer edge of this rock platform, buffeted by the high air in its passage to the World Beyond, the view was nothing less than breathtaking; Tumri 301 had watched and watched until the cold drove her into the arms of Tumri 62. A hundred kloms of mountains and high ground stretched into the gloom of distance, each peak edged with reflected, divine Light from the distant Sky. Shadows stretched far and even the greatest flames in Susyan communities were mere sparks amidst the open rock of the World.

Tumri 301 had met with the mother and older daughter early that wake meeting them a hundred spans and many steps above Jesin's Outlook. She had greeted and spoken with other, descending Jentik, but the climb passed more pleasantly in the company of Tumri 62 and Tumri 712. The acolyte was bothered by Lotun's absence, more than she had expected, but Tumri 62's attentions were a consolation. The younger Jentik had barely passed her first generation of life, yet reminded Tumri 301 of Tumnil 146 and the many cycles that must pass before any happy reunion. Tumnil's soil and seedgrass was a thousand kloms away; Tumri 301 missed the lush greenery, bright color and scent of the Realm of the Provider.

"You are sewing thoughts." Tumri 62 prodded the acolyte's ribs. Tumri 301 wriggled, but quickly gave up and consented to being held by Tumri 62.

"I hope that you are being careful with the wrap, daughter of mine," Tumri 712 called.

"Yes!" replied Tumri 62, raising her voice to be heard over the wind. She bent her head to whisper, "It was crafted by my great-grandmother." The two young Jentik pulled the shared wrap tightly, with care, and sat in silence. Tumri 62 stroked the acolyte's hip through her leather tunic.

"Why did you leave the Plateau?" Tumri 62 asked impulsively. "It seems strange to have gone away for so many tendays."

Tumri 301 thought on that. "My mother told me that I would follow the Servants of the Provider on their path through Tukarn when I was young. I do not remember, but I spoke for many wakes with the eldest Jentik who served the Provider and came and went as they pleased."

"They convinced you that your path led to Tumnil?"

"No ... I convinced myself. The stories of Tumnil would not leave my heart." She shifted position to meet Tumri 62's eyes. "I will become an Initiate one wake. I will bear a Gift. To bring food and water to those who need it, to aid the Divine Will of a God. Do you understand?"

Tumri 62 nodded. "We all support and help one another, but I do not think that I could take your path." She rested her forehead amid Tumri 301's windblown hair, her breath warm on the acolyte's neck. "I could not part from my family."

Tumri 301 dug an elbow into Tumri 62's stomach. "I have not parted with my family! They are just as important to me as your mother and sister are to you."

"I am sorry, I did not mean..." Tumri 62 spoke repentantly, hugged the acolyte again. Tumri 301 looked up to the Sky. The two Jentik watched a bright star move slowly out of sight beyond the heights of the smooth cliff wall, two identical faces turned to the spirits above.

"Have you touched a Gift?" asked Tumri 62 suddenly. "What do they feel like?" She pressed her lips against Tumri 301's ear and whispered, "What is it like to touch a divine creation?"

"The Halls of Tumnil have the feel of rock, but warmer." Tumri 301 paused before continuing, aware of her companion's breath. "I have touched the pillars which support the Lights of the Provider and felt the movement of His Divine Will. It is ... it is ..." Tumri 301 moved her hands under the wrap as she sought the right words.

"The most important truth in the World?" asked Tumri 62 softly. "I too have spoken to Servants of the Provider. I think that we all have." She sighed. "Perhaps, one wake, I will journey to Tumnil. I would like to see the Halls and the Lights, to see the leaves and curvetips as they were before they dried."

"Then go! Or you might find one wake that your chances are gone." Tumri 301 shook her head as it rested against Tumri 62's soft neck. Her thoughts were of Lotun, but she tried to put them aside.

"Did I speak wrongly?" There was an edge of concern in Tumri 62's voice. She sought out the acolyte's hands under the leather wrap.

Tumri 301 linked fingers with the other Jentik. "No ... no, you didn't. I am sorry - my heart was elsewhere." She squeezed Tumri 62's hands, and pulled them to her lap. The chill wind gusted suddenly, lifting a corner of the wrap to disperse the warmth beneath. The Jentik almost knocked heads, shivering, as both reached for the errant corner.

"How soon?" the acolyte asked, almost plaintively. "My lips must be hoarfrosted."

"Soon, I hope," replied Tumri 62, glancing at her resting mother. She leaned her head and smiled against Tumri 301's numbed cheek. "Your lips seem perfect to me..."

Tumri 301's thoughts were floating free again - it was hard not to think of Tumnil 146. Perhaps she had been hasty in thinking that her feelings had faded. Tumri 301 resolved to talk to her mother and sister - they would understand, even if they would only tell her what she already knew, that time and patience were the path of the heart.

The acolyte Dairin 472 paused before the small dwelling, hair tangled by the cold Plateau wind. Thousands of Gift Statues surrounded the dwelling, a confusion of figurines and larger works almost obscuring its ancient wooden beams. All depicted Jentik - Jentik of every conceivable age, pose, expression, mood and dress. It had something of Tumnil about it, thought Dairin 472, as though the Statues had grown over uncounted generations to cover the empty dwelling, like vines on a fallen Uk tree.

After the time of Still Sky, Lotun had given the acolyte the remaining block of scented Estin's wood. She had traded it in Tukarn for a statuette from the dwelling of her sister's companion. Jentik carved from the bone of Jentik, it had so much of Tumnil 146 in it, in the hand covering the smiling mouth and laughter-lines at the corners of the eyes. Dairin 472 had not been able to resist, and now she sat at the feet of a life-sized Gift Statue, its face serene despite the splits and dessication of generations-old wood. With the point of her small bone knife, she worked a short message into the base of the statuette. Dairin Jentik smiled at her as they passed in ones and twos, and the sound of wind flutes rose and fell from nearby dwellings. She would leave her Gift Statue somewhere close to the walls of the dwelling, Dairin 472 decided, amidst the larger wooden sculptures.

The acolyte smiled to herself, thinking of past cycles as she regarded the sculpted bone. She had yet to visit the Tale Spire, however, and it would not do to disappoint Lotun. Having finished the brief inscription, Dairin 472 rose to wind her way carefully amongst the statues to leave a Gift of her own.

[ Posted by Reason on July 10, 2005 | Permanent Link ]

Susen and the World Crafter

Susen 83 dreamed, moving in her sleep. Within herself, the young Jentik stood poised on a wooden beam atop a pyramid of laced ribs, beneath a Sky filled with twisting whorls and arcs of light. A crowd gathered close to watch her balance; Lotun, Tumnil 146, the Kalmet Tomen, and the tattooed Chieftains of Basir and Jeu stood out from the throng, as though more favored by the divine Light of the One God. So many upturned faces, and balancing atop wood and bone was not easy. The beam took a will of its own, jolting and shifting, and Susen 83 struggled and flailed to stay level. Deru of the Third Circle shouldered to the front, shouting unintelligible and angry words. Others in the crowd called and clamored as the Jentik lost her balance...

"Wake up! Wake yourself!" Someone shook Susen 83's shoulder. The acolyte shifted on the hair-stuffed leather mat, blearily opening her eyes to the tiny bone and leather dwelling, the low doorway, and flickering blue and yellow flame-light beyond.

"Our God is coming! Come!" Nei Tesin leapt to the doorway of the small dwelling. Susen 83 sat up slowly, unsteadily, still lost in the net of recent sleep. She had slept neither well nor long, and the dream stayed with her - but there was shouting nearby, the sounds of a crowd.

"Lotun is waiting! Our God is coming! Hurry!" Nei Tesin danced from foot to foot, glancing out of the doorway, a small flamestick in one hand, glowing red with embers. Flame-light spilled around Tesin's thin figure and into the dwelling; the shouting beyond was beginning to sound more like chanting. The Jentik acolyte pulled her sleep-crumpled clothing back into place, but Tesin, impatient as ever, had already vanished from the doorway. Susen 83's dark hair stuck to her face, tangled from sleep. She groaned, rubbed her eyes one last time, and rose to see what it was that had happened. A sudden shudder from the rock below ran through the panels of the dwelling, and Susen 83 recalled her place in the World and what was soon to come, here in the Realm of the World Crafter.

Meeting after meeting with pilgrims and priests had punctuated the long, dark wakes of travel across the open rock of the Realm of the World Crafter. Susen 83 soon lost track of Sects and tenets, what she could say to whom, and when to stay quiet. Such a bewildering plethora of beliefs and behaviors! Even Lotun seemed lost at times, but his mood had improved immensely since the cycle in which his knee, though still stiff, ceased to pain him.

The two Servants of the Provider did not stop at those High Communities closest to the far Light of the One God and the edges of the Realm. Rather, they journeyed directly to Susen, greatest of the communities, home to the Circle of Worship. Lotun pronounced the lesser communities of the Realm too dangerous. Without the protection afforded by flax robes and the Gift of the Provider - by the long reach of the Order - all too much could befall a lone Jentik.

Susen 83 suspected that leaving the Godward Susyan far behind - and traveling towards the territory of Lotun's people - had helped the elder Initiate's disposition as much as any other cause. She had asked Lotun of his Family many times in the past few cycles, but he never gave more than the briefest of answers.

Lotun and Susen 83 had traveled in the company of a band of Wohken pilgrims, four tens strong, for the five wakes prior to ascending the Three Thousand Steps of bone to the High Community of Susen, crossing broken rock as busy as a great Lightward Pathway. Nei Tesin, of Lotun's Family was amongst these travelers; Initiate and pilgrim had greeted one another formally, in the manner of Wohken, intricate as the rituals of the Order of the Provider.

While Lotun performed the duties of an Initiate, bringing the divine gift of the Provider to resting pilgrims, Susen 83 had surreptitiously questioned the young Tesin. To her disappointment, the Nei Family was large, spread across many communities close to the great Gap. Lotun was not of a rank in the Nei Family - and too long a Servant of the Provider - for Tesin, a mere Second Lutnen, to know of by reputation or otherwise. So Susen 83 learned little, but she and the Second Lutnen were attracting thoughtful glances from older, partnered Wohken by the time the pilgrims reached the Three Thousand Steps.

Now well and truly awake, Susen 83 hurried from the small dwelling, pausing only for her pack and to tie her hair against the unpredictable, chill wind of Susen. The uneven rock of the community was even more crowded than in the previous wake. Pilgrims and priests of all Tribes - and of those of mixed ancestry besides - jostled with one another in throngs around blue flames lit throughout the community. Smoke was on the air, billows rising from yellow-burning wood closer to the ancient, imposing Halls of Worship at center of the community.

Flamelight hid stars and the faint Light of the One God, turning the Sky to the same absolute black Susen 83 recalled from Tumnil. Even the great mountains that framed Susen had vanished into the utter darkness beyond flames and crowded worshippers.

Tesin was nowhere to be seen; a line of worshippers, all dressed in inked and ornamented leather robes, stepped past the Jentik acolyte, chanting to add to the noise of the crowds. As Susen 83 gathered her resolve to plunge into the crowds, Tesin emerged from the throng, ducking underneath joined hands.

"What is keeping you? Our God is close!" Tesin enthused, flushed from exertion in the wavering yellow-blue light. The young Wohken reached for Susen 83's hand, and for the moment she let him dictate their path. Four tall Susyan, clad in shaped wooden armor, as was their tradition, began a chant that rose and fell as the acolyte and the young Wohken threaded their way through the gathered worshippers.

Pressed between the devout, Susen 83 felt the rock shudder once more under her feet, and the cries of worship grew ever louder. Tesin looked back and squeezed her hand, an excited grin on his face. "Do you feel that?" he shouted. He pressed forward again without waiting for an answer, leading the Jentik acolyte at a fast pace. Men, women and children of all Tribes - even some few broad, tattooed Enierd - stared into the black Sky or made devotions upon their knees. Susen 83 had not seen such crowds since the Meet of Enierd in Naskal, many cycles ago. She slowed, pulling Tesin towards her. "Where is Lotun?" she asked, leaning forward, repeating the question so that he could hear her over the raised voices of the Sects.

Tesin turned and the two were cheek to cheek for a moment, his face resting against hers. The both pulled away, but the pilgrims pressed them close. "With the other Servants of the Provider," he said, suddenly serious, "before the Priests' Dwellings." He paused, his free hand finding her waist, but at a loss for words as he stared at her face.

"Do you want to kiss me?" Susen 83 asked, returning his stare with a degree of confidence that she did not entirely feel. Tesin looked away in embarrassment, and stammered something, letting loose her hand. The two were jostled where they stood by a sudden movement among the pilgrims about them, the moment lost.

A new chant began to rise into the darkness above the flames, and the scent of smoke grew stronger. Susen 83 took a hold of Tesin's upper arm. "The Priests' Dwellings?" she asked, and the Wohken nodded. As they resumed their progress through the crowd, Tesin avoided Susen 83's eyes. The Jentik thought about what she should feel.

The rock shuddered underfoot, and the thronging pilgrims shouted as one. "I felt that one!" exclaimed an aged, shrunken Itmos, lost in flowing Map Maker's robes. "But I fear I will be deaf before I feel another!" He laughed and nudged his neighbor, a glowering Susyan of the Fifth Circle.

Worshippers and pilgrims gave the gathered Servants of the Provider respectful space, for which Susen 83 was grateful. She and Lotun stood near the voluble Map Maker, on sloping rough rock. Beneath were gathered more acolytes and Initiates of the Order than the Jentik had seen together since Tumnil. Younger acolytes tended a small, blue flame-light, and such was tradition in Susen, Lotun had explained.

A stern Nei Family Capnen had been speaking respectfully to Lotun when Tesin and Susen 83 pushed their way through the last of the crowds. Tesin had left with the Capnen, after a long last glance at Susen 83. It bothered the Jentik acolyte, but she let herself be distracted by the chanting and calling crowds, the lights of fires far and near.

"The World Crafter is close now, Susen 83," said Lotun, speaking loudly and carefully so as to be heard over the noise of the massed pilgrims beyond them. "We see that which occurs but a few times in each generation." The elder Servants had secured the best of vantages by their presence. The arc of dwellings further upslope, towards the nearest of Susen's enclosing mountains, hidden in absolute darkness, had been built to give priests of the Circle of Worship the best possible view of their community.

"There are so many worshippers!" said Susen 83, with renewed surprise. By the blue and yellow light of flames and fires, the acolyte could see that thousands of the devout of the Realm must have ascended the Three Thousand Steps in just the last wake, drawn by the World Crafter.

"There are more above us, climbing the mountains by well-prepared ways to better see their God." Lotun pointed up into the black Sky, but Susen 83 could see nothing beyond the flame-lit dwellings of the community. "Below, on the plains," Lotun continued, "there are Devoted Followers, adherents of the Second Path, and ten thousand other worshippers; the greatest congregation of men and women beyond Tumnil, my acolyte."

Susen 83 could hear the tone of awe, or perhaps admiration, in the voice of the elder Wohken. "Do you pray to the World Crafter, friend Lotun?"

Lotun spread his arms in an encompassing gesture, lifting up his staff. "In His Realm, at this time, who would not?" He smiled at the Jentik and rested the base of his staff between his feet once more.

A shudder passed through the rock of the World, and a great and deafening shout went up in unison from worshippers, pilgrims, and priests. The voices faded and a silence fell, strange on the ears after the noise and commotion of past wakes. The inconstant, chill wind became audible as it tugged at robes and hair, blowing flames into strange shapes.

Susen 83 looked to Lotun, her heartbeat loud in her own ears, but she didn't dare be first to break the silence. Lotun placed a thin finger to his lips and turned his eyes to the black Sky above the great dome of the Hall of the Council at the far side of Susen. Starting there, Susen 83 saw the flames and fires extinguished one by one. At the closest yellow blaze, leather-robed priests threw huge wraps to smother the flame-light.

The youngest acolytes snuffed the blue flame on the slope below the elder Servants. Smoke scent weighed heavy in the chill, moving air as the last light vanished from the silent community, the blackness absolute all around.

Then the brightest stars returned to the black vault of the Sky - save for where they were hidden by a great darkness towered over the community and its sheltering mountains. As the last echoes of flame-light left the eyes, the faint and distant Light of the One God lent dim purple substance to the buildings of Susen and the high mountain ledges. It limned the ancient dome of the Hall of the Council. Beyond and above the Hall, beyond and above the mountains, massive curves and corners in the Sky became edged in divine Light and part of a whole. The shadowed and mighty Avatar of the World Crafter, standing on rock far below Susen, stared down at His worshippers in the community of the Circle.

Susen 83's breath caught in her throat at the view revealed to her. She heard voices, near and far, muttering or whispering awed prayers. A priest on the far side of Susen began to incant a litany, and in less than ten heartbeats, a hundred, a thousand voices had taken up the chant. The silence was broken, and, underneath the strange vertical vista of their God, the priests and pilgrims worshipped.

[ Posted by Reason on April 16, 2006 | Permanent Link ]

Tamisan Within the Great Gap

Tamisan 14 rubbed her neck. A dwelling-wall of honored ancestral bones obscured the nearest flames to cast her in near-darkness. She could see far beyond and above the Gap community of Tamisan. Tamisan 14's view climbed the perfectly smooth, vertical wall of rock far above; she leaned her head back to stare once more at the bright stars and kloms-distant reflections of the Light of the One God at the uppermost reaches of the Gap.

The Jentik acolyte had gazed upward to the slow-turning blackness of the Sky since sleep overtook Imis Batih, Initiate of the Second Circle and her sole present company. The Initiate's wake had drawn long indeed before meeting Lotun and Tamisan 14. Now his flax robe fell awry against the wall of honored bones, and his back slipped from the cracked Uk wood post supporting his weight. His hands rested about a small painted pack, his flax-wrapped Gift upon the smooth Pathway rock beneath the fading inkwork of ancestral wall-bones.

In earlier breaths, the two Servants of the Provider had talked of woodcrafting and art. Batih had devoted himself to a crafting Brotherhood before his initiation into the Order; he carried the tools of a woodcrafter in his travels as a Servant of the Provider. His decorated pack contained half-completed statuettes and engravings; the Initiate had been only too pleased to show Tamisan 14 a small Polpas wood figure of the Father of the Imis Family, a gift for a future wake. Their conversation had lapsed, however, as the Initiate dozed.

Tamisan 14 found herself wishing that the Namekeeper of Tamisan, a kindly elder Jentik, had stayed to keep her company. The Namekeeper's clothes bore unfamiliar inked patterns, and Tamisan 14 had wanted to ask of their origin. The Namekeeper had duties to attend, however, and left with a smile and few words.

Heartbeats and breaths passed. Tamisan 14 wondered, not for the first time, how long it would be before Lotun returned. This darkened reach of the community was quiet, and the young Jentik was bored. Lotun had asked Batih to wait with Tamisan 14 while he visited his granddaughters in the Nei Family. The acolyte was curious, and more than a little offended at not having been invited to join the elder Wohken. Despite wakes spent with Nei Tesin in the Realm of the World Crafter, and despite the cycles of travel with Lotun, Tamisan 14 still knew very little about the Nei Family. Lotun had become almost evasive about the matter as the Servants traveled through the Godward territory of his Tribe. The young Jentik had given up her questioning as the High Gap Mountains drew near: jagged silhouettes against the Sky and far swathes of the Light of the One God.

Now, seated upon the divinely smooth rock of the Gap Pathway, wakes had passed since Tamisan 14 had seen the Light of the One God in the Sky rather than as reflections upon the vertical kloms of the Gap walls.

Traveling Lightward through Wohken territory was far different from the long Godward kloms among the Susyan. Lotun was greeted with respect and deference in every community, with ritual and formalism to match that of the Order of the Provider. Wohken took great note of Lotun's status and position within the Order and his Family. Even elder Fathers and Amrals were courteous.

Initiates of the Order of all Tribes had been a common sight upon the open Godward rock of the Wohken. Lotun and Tamisan 14 had met an aged, pale-bearded Seer of the Order at the Tasam Family Shrine, where the Light of the One God sometimes vanishes behind the bulk of the High Gap Mountains. Lotun and the Seer had conversed for an entire wake and long into the sleep that followed. Tamisan 14 had slept restlessly, half-waking at times to hear the Initiate and Seer speaking of duty and the Provider in low, serious tones. Lotun's mood was different in the wakes that followed, but the Jentik had not yet asked why. Now she wondered.

Brought back to thoughts of sleep, Tamisan 14 watched the slumbering form of Imis Batih. The fingers of his left hand twitched slightly; he dreamed of matters more interesting than watching a sleeper, the young Jentik supposed. She tired of being alone with her thoughts and the view of the divine Gap above Tamisan. Tamisan 14 climbed to her feet, looked around and stretched. Lotun had not expressly told her to remain with Batih, she reflected. The Jentik picked up her pack and walked towards the nearest pathway through the close-spaced, sprawling Wohken Family dwellings.

Lotun moved slowly through dark and narrow ways between low, leather-walled Tamisan Family dwellings. He still favored his left leg, but now from habit rather than injury. The nearest flames burned fitfully some fifty paces away, leaving but a dim glow to spill over the enclosing walls.

Not since the death of his partner nearly a generation ago had Lotun come to Tamisan, the community of his birth. Tamisan 14 had asked him of that time in his life - in the rushing manner of the young - before the travelers had even reached Naskal in the territory of the Enierd. Lotun had never wanted that conversation with the Jentik acolyte, however. Knowing that he would rejoin his partner, when their spirits returned to the World to serve the Provider once more, was little comfort during lonely wakes of travel upon the open rock.

Lotun and his partner had visited Tamisan many times as Initiates of the Order. The cycles passed into generations; their children, and later their grandchildren, grew as honored members of the Nei Family. Lotun sighed as he walked, recalling past cycles and happier wakes. He touched his thumbnail to characters deeply engraved in the age-worn wood of his staff.

Children rounded a nearby corner and sprinted past Lotun with the exuberance of youth, the foremost giggling as she ran. The oldest and last paused hastily to make a sign of respect to the Servant of the Provider before running to catch up with the others. Lotun halted, his reverie disturbed. He leaned upon his staff and watched the rapidly retreating backs, recalling games that he and other children had played in the twining paths of the community. Generations had passed, he and his companions had parted and grown old, but Tamisan remained the same. Here then were new children and a new generation of the World, spirits returned from the World Beyond to new lives. Lotun nodded to himself. Would the respectful child journey to Tumnil to become a Servant in some cycle yet to come? Would he return to Tamisan in his old age, to this same narrow path between Family dwellings?

Lotun tapped his staff on the smooth Pathway rock at his feet. "Foolish thoughts," he muttered to himself, and returned to walking. No more than a few hundred paces remained before he would reach what had once been his home, but his pace was ever slower. The elder Initiate had not yet thought of an appropriate greeting for his Family - a formalism of great importance, coming as it would from one absent so long. The passing of time in service to the Provider had brought Lotun few regrets, but those few rested here in Tamisan. Lost once again in his thoughts in the now-empty path between ink-marked leather walls, Lotun walked on.

Tamisan 14 frowned as she turned one way and another, her bone-framed leather pack hanging from one shoulder. Seven flames lit this busy junction of passages between dwellings, burning on bone pipes atop carved wooden wallposts. Shadows flowed over the ornate leather, engraved wood and inked flax of passing Wohken, over the walls and smooth Pathway rock; a distracting net of light and dark.

Tamisan 14 was lost again, just as in Godward Wohken communities of past wakes. No sense lay in the placement of dwellings and branching ways between; a plait of leather woven of generations, and not for the Jentik eye. Wohken found the way easily enough, perhaps by means of the intricate motifs upon every wall and corner, but the twisting paths confused Tamisan 14. She sighed.

"Might we aid you?" A friendly voice inquired. A few of the passing Wohken had stopped to speak with Tamisan 14; two young men bowed formally, while a woman politely pressed her hands together in greeting. Their leather shirts and trews bore similar Tribal motifs, clear in the dancing flame-light.

"I seek the Nei Family dwelling," said Tamisan 14, spreading her hands, "but it is not easily found."

The foremost of the young men nodded in understanding, and glanced over his shoulder at the woman. She made a gesture of demurral, and the young man turned back to Tamisan 14. He bowed again, and the Jentik fought the urge to bow in return, settling instead for a brief inclination of her head. Her hanging pack was beginning to rub, and she set it to the smooth Pathway rock.

"I am Busai Wane, Second Lutnen," he touched an ornate sewn-leather design on his chest, "and First Lutnen of the Tamisan Brotherhood of Woodcrafters." He brushed his hand across other motifs sewn to his shirt, painted to the semblance of engraving tools. Tamisan 14 now noticed small ornamental bone tools hanging from a necklace. "I," continued the Wohken, "will guide you to the door of our honored friends, the Nei. That is, if you will permit me."

"By all means," replied Tamisan 14. She had been subject to far longer and more ornate introductions in past cycles from Wohken seeking to impress her - or Lotun. Her elder companion had told her the more Lightward-dwelling Wohken found such boastful formalism amusing.

"Return soon, Wane," remarked the woman, pointedly. "Our Father will be angry if this meet is delayed by the absence of a Second Lutnen."

"Of course, Sister," Wane replied respectfully. The three Wohken briefly clasped hands. The other young man gave Busai Wane an envious parting glance before falling in behind his Sister.

His Brother and Sister gone, Busai Wane looked at Tamisan 14 more carefully, his eyes following the lines of her clothing in the flame-light. In the first Godward Wohken communities visited by Lotun and Tamisan 14, where priests of the World Crafter preached from wooden platforms and the Light of the One God was far and dim, this constant inspection had been disconcerting. Lotun had explained with amusement - after the Jentik had been more than impolite to a staring Wohken boy - that her lack of motifs led people to suppose they had simply missed her Tribal markings. Perhaps her motifs were small or subtle, as would befit high ranks in certain influential Brotherhoods; Tamisan 14 should treat such attentions as a compliment.

The acolyte waited for Wane's gaze to return to her face. He was short and thin in comparison to the Jentik build, but his loose leather shirt concealed much of that difference. His dark, straight hair was neatly cropped short in a common Wohken style, and framed a not unattractive face.

"I bear no motifs," Tamisan 14 said. "I do not dwell among Wohken..."

"Then you must be the acolyte brought by Nei Lotun," interrupted the Wohken, nodding as he spoke. "I am honored to provide some service to you." He bowed his head, pressing his hands together, and then pointed to one of the many gaps between the dwellings that surrounded them, a pathway flanked by two of the seven blue flames. "You have almost found your way, but must first circle the Low Hall of Scrolls."

Wane led the wayalongside the Hall, pointing out inked wooden panels that marked the doorless structure as the territory of the Brotherhood of Knowledge. "See - the looped and knotted rope over the Formal Representative scroll curl? Scribes of the Brotherhood climb into the Dwelling through the Wisdom Hole in the roof."

"Why?" asked Tamisan 14. "Do they fear the scrolls will escape them?"

The Wohken laughed. "Perhaps. But it is tradition, and so best we respect the elder Amrals of the Brotherhood. I would show you the fine-woven rope ladder, but that would take us from the pathway - and too many breaths." He shrugged. "The Families of Tamisan have heard my name shouted by Busai Dijin too many times already in the past cycle."

"Busai Dijin?"

"Our honored elder Father. I am ill-thought, lazy, and an impossible choice for any potential partner." The Wohken smiled as he said this.

"I cannot see why." Tamisan 14 spoke without thinking, regetting her words in the very next heartbeat. She sought to find some tactful words in the awkward breaths that followed.

"Ah, but if only I were Nei," sighed Wane eventually, spreading his hands. The Wohken looked at Tamisan 14 in a more openly appraising manner. "We must turn here."

The two entered a broad, darker path between Family dwellings and the cracked wooden wall of the Low Hall of Scrolls. A pale-bearded elder Wohken passed them by, long leather robe hung about with carved bone motifs. Busai Wane stopped to bow deeply, receiving a curt wave of the hand in return.

Wane waited for the elder to run the nearest corner. "You have traveled with Nei Lotun," he said thoughtfully, and set to walking once more. "The Nei of the Brotherhood speak of him with great respect: the Nei who well serves the Provider. What is his spirit?"

Tamisan 14 thought for twenty paces or so, recalling the recent cycles of travel. "Wise," she said, finally.

Wane looked at the Jentik, half-smiling and expecting more. "Wise?"

The acolyte nodded. "Wise."

"I see." The young Wohken gave Tamisan 14 an uncertain glance. The Jentik's attention was upon the next junction, however.

"Which way must we take now?" The wall of the Low Hall of Scrolls came to another corner ahead, lit by a single small blue flame, its bone flame-pipe projecting from the wall of the Hall. Narrow paths between dwellings led in different directions. A tall wooden block rested on the flat Pathway rock, dominating the small open area beside the Hall corner post. Lines of Midrin Expressive characters ran across every part of the block, obscured by deep splits and cracks in the ancient Uk wood. A line of Wohken, each with a long braid of hair laced in the same style, bowed to the script in their passing.

"Walk the leftmost way," said Wane. "You will see the Nei dwelling between the fine Polpas wood of the Tamisan Meten and the poor ancestral leather of the Won."

"My thanks, Busai Wane. You have been most kind, and without need." The Jentik and the Wohken paused as the braided Brotherhood passed, their uneven shadows cast upon the path behind them. Tamisan 14 looked to her left, along a straight, dark gap between two smaller, leather-walled dwellings, both extravagantly inked with scenes of Tribal history.

"There stands the dwelling, beside the flame-lights beyond this dark," declared Busai Wane. "Please - be first upon the path." He swept his hand to the inked walls.

"You will be late for your meet," said the Jentik, looking askance at the Wohken as she started towards the Nei Family dwelling.

"A guide should not abandon his duty in the final steps, whether it is to Brother, Sister or honored guest," said Busai Wane, with a smile. "Our friends of the Nei Family would not know you walked a trustworthy path."

Tamisan 14 nodded in understanding. What minor favor it was that Busai Wane wanted from the Nei Family? That thought would not have occurred to the acolyte but a few short cycles past.

The script-carved block and blue flame-light behind her, Tamisan 14 turned her attention to the lit dwelling at the end of the slender, darkened path. Was that Lotun's robe among the Wohken gathered before the Nei Family dwelling? The acolyte quickened her pace, past the intricate art of prior generations; Busai Wane followed silently. Who were the dark-haired women with Lotun, their backs to her?

Tamisan 14 emerged into the open space before the engraved wooden panels and tall bone posts of the Nei Family dwelling. All was lit in yellow by a wood-flame of welcome, and fragrant smoke rose to be caught by the Gap wind above Tamisan's dwellings. Lotun was leaning to speak with one of the dark-haired young women. The other turned, and smiled when she noticed Tamisan 14.

"Sister! Welcome!" the young woman called. She put a hand on Lotun's arm, the sleeve of her loose shirt rich with Wohken symbols. "Grandfather!" She tugged at Lotun's arm. "Sister! Who is she?"

Tamisan 14 came to an abrupt halt; Busai Wane almost walked into her. The acolyte put a hand to her mouth in surprise. Both young women were Jentik!

Lotun and the other Jentik turned to look at Tamisan 14. The elder Servant's expression moved from surprise to what might be sadness. Tamisan 14 now saw other, older Jentik, also dressed in the Wohken style, amongst the Wohken of the Nei Family in the gathering. Busai Wane put his hand on Tamisan 14's shoulder, concern upon his face, but the acolyte could only stare in silence at the scene before her.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Tamisan 14 demanded.

Lotun raised a veined hand in defense. "Was it wrong of me, Tamisan 14?"

"Yes! You decided my spirit without even looking to my voice - no less than Deru in Tumnil. Everyone in Tamisan knows that Nei partner with Jentik. Even the Namekeeper! Everyone except me!" Tamisan 14 sat down on the smooth rock at the base of the side of the Nei Family dwelling and rested her face in her hands.

Lotun shook his head. He leaned on his staff and looked down at the young Jentik. "I was not protecting you from anything. My reasons were selfish. I did not want you to think that you were here, on this journey of the Provider's duties, because you were Jentik. I did not want you to think that because my partner..." Lotun sighed, and lapsed into silence for a few breaths. "You are as gifted as the best of your Tribe. You know what I did not want you to think."

Tamisan 14 raised her face, resting her chin on her palms. "That would not have occurred to me, Lotun." She shook her head as she spoke. "You have been a teacher, a mother to me. You should have told me - at least after a few cycles, when we came to Susyan territory."

Members of the Nei Family were talked nearby but out of sight; their voices blended into the sounds of the community. Crafters hammered wood upon wood somewhere in Tamisan, the sounds carried by the wind above the dwellings. Lotun ran his thin fingers over the engraved characters at the top of his staff.

"Perhaps you are right, Tamisan 14. Perhaps you are not. But now that you know, do not turn your spirit against me for doing what I thought to be right. The Seers tell us not to look backward and desire to change the past...

"...but to look forward to the duties of the future. I know. Tumnil 146 taught me that chant many cycles ago." Tamisan 14 looked up at Lotun. "As a wise elder who has partnered with Jentik, you do not know me as well as you should."

"You and your sisters are not as alike as you would have us believe, no more than any two curvetips atop the Provider's soil. I know that, at least." The Initiate looked at Tamisan 14's face, almost sadly. "I would have liked for you to meet my partner."

"Future duties, Lotun," said the Jentik, gently.

Lotun nodded. "Future duties." He looked at the rock of the Gap Pathway at his feet for heartbeats, and then stood as straight as the weight of generations allowed. "Come. With all we have spoken, you should meet with my Family. You will make this journey alone in generations to come, and the Nei will always welcome you to Tamisan..."

[ Posted by Reason on September 2, 2006 | Permanent Link ]