Part I. The Principle Law.
The First Immutable Law:
None shall speak for the Gods.
Chapter 1. Symbologists, Memories, and Dreams.
I. Adelmar's Recollection.
Timeline: Late Morning, Thorsday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
Assigned as sentry when Ripkira called the noon halt, Adelmar was in a foul mood. With winter's imminent arrival, and their Ancient Enemy suddenly departing the field of battle, his dreams were dashed - and doubly so.
Dreams of glory, gone. For there could be no heroes, without conflict.
Dreams of vengeance, vanished. Along with the groth, and the elusive chance of it each battle brought.
The only other survivors from his town were Lucinda and Beltamar. Many times had they dodged death together, seen comrades slain, gathered the Chukrah of the fallen for the Rite of Return. He smiled ruefully. They were staunch brothers in arms now, seldom parted for long.
How he longed to bear Beltamar's Chukrah to the hoard. Battle after battle he fought with all the tenacity he possessed, struggling to survive and succeeding, albeit barely. And after each conflict, he dared hope. Yet always, his searching eyes found Beltamar.
By petitioning against him at the Convocation, Beltamar had earned his hatred. Petitioning, and prevailing. Jalgar, that stone faced bastard, had ignored the scribes, all of whom had termed his petition 'exemplary', obviously favoring it over Beltamar's. Lip curling in scorn he recalled their lackluster approval of Beltamar's petition - damned with the faint praise of being merely 'qualified'.
In every way had his petition surpassed those of all others, and there had been many. Jalgar had listened to the scribes exalting him, in the reserved manner of their class. Yet, after listening apparently attentive to the scribes' quietly whispered advice, the deceitful old hunter had completely disregarded their wisdom. Rather than dismiss Beltamar's inferior petition outright - the just thing to do - Jalgar had come up with a bizarre plan of his own.
A ploy, clearly designed for no purpose other than denying him.
Adelmar almost spat at the memory. Long habit granted him control, the near lapse bringing him back from rage's abyss. He quickly smoothed his face. Within an instant it showed nothing.
He shook his head at the oft replayed memory's strength. He should have seen it coming. Jalgar, the indecisive piece of groth dung, had resorted to the same tactic to decide Ryntam's match, earlier. The cowardly old bastard had called for a Chukrah match. Naturally, with such matches assumed blessed by the Gods, the Scribes had readily agreed. Confident in his unassailable petition, he too had willingly assented. Beltamar, seemingly puzzled to be in the final two, had merely nodded and said nothing.
Having secured the agreement of all Jalgar had proved himself the devious trickster he truly was. His stony face had showed nothing!
Adelmar's face contorted in fury, self control's last remnants failing at memory of Jalgar's fateful words. Hurriedly he re-composed his visage, clenching his spear haft as though squeezing life from Jalgar's throat. The old hunter's deceit was forever etched in his mind, as surely as the Immutable Laws of the Gods were carved in the Pinnacle of Malmaxa.
Silently, Adelmar mouthed again those fateful words, "All are agreed, the Chukrah match is called. Daniskira, of the final two petitioners, approach either. Let us see which is true." Those treacherous words flowed smoothly in his memory, their path cut deep from constant repetition.
Thus had Jalgar sprung his trap.
In Chukrah matches it was customary to approach the best petitioner, first. And in all ways he was - taller, broader of shoulder, and impeccably attired to Beltamar's plain features and mismatched garb. Yet this had served for naught. Daniskira, young, beautiful, clearly unsure of such arcane decorum, had fallen into the shameful snare set by her father. She had looked first to him. Oh, how his heart soared again at the embrace within her eyes. Then, to his eternal dismay, she had turned to Beltamar. His heart pounded in his chest anew - just as it had done then, near six cycles past.
Time did not diminish this memory. In recollection's reflection he watched again, disbelieving, as Daniskira took several hesitant steps... to halt before Beltamar.
Thus had Jalgar's treachery borne its terrible fruit - Beltamar was positioned two paces closer to Daniskira than was he.
In the mirror of his mind, for the ten thousandth time, Adelmar watched their Chukrah touch and felt his heart burst, again. An unmistakable glow, the red of Beltamar's mixing with Daniskira's purple. That swirling pulse of light had sealed their match.
Compositus, concluded - for them.
His petition? Failed. Forgotten.
To have been so close. A mere two paces and all would have been different in his world. Though relegated to second string he had made a match, conceived a healthy son, and feigned joy. What fool could believe he was content? Were those denied justice ever satisfied with their lot?
But Beltamar accepted his pretense of happiness as truth, never spoke of it... even dared treat him as friend!
The trusting fool has no knowledge of the just hatred I bear him.
Adelmar, spitting abruptly, tensed his body then relaxed completely and rolled his head about his shoulders to lessen his tension. With a final shake of his head he cast out his troubling reminiscences and turned his full attention to the watch.
The Gods rewarded the diligent, and the patient.
He, was both.
II. Liaju's Dream.
Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
Liaju was troubled, something her twin and father felt, the familial bond between them being strong. Troubled, by omens within her dreams. Twice troubled that disclosing them brought distress. Needing the council of her father and brother, yet lacking the courage to raise the matter she remained silent. She hoped for them to inquire into her woes, and soon.
On glancing at his daughter Jalgar noticed the sweat beading her young, unlined face. Though late in fall the weather remained unseasonably warm, Liaju's hijath was damp. With a small copse of shade trees promising escape from the midday sun, he headed beneath them, and called a halt. Finding a small clearing within the thicket he selected a comfortable looking bough, and said "Liaju, Rethga, sit close. We have matters to discuss."
Obediently, the twins followed their father. Taking off their packs they brushed aside the debris of twigs and pebbles before sitting, backs against the trees to which Jalgar had gestured. Liaju signaled her hounds by clicking her tongue, gestures told them to keep watch, and where. Knowing they would remain here till the sun passed its zenith all - people and hounds - sprawled out comfortably. There was adequate time for talk, and rest.
Looking quizzically at Liaju, Jalgar said "Something troubles you, daughter?"
Still gathering her courage, Liaju shook her head, and said "I am well, Father."
Weighing Liaju's words and deeming them less than truthful, Jalgar frowned. Voice rough edged, he said "Don't play your games with me, Child! Your words are not complete. We know you are well, in body. Do you think us fools? I ask of that which troubles your spirit. Speak of it now, that your twin and I might bear part of your burden." He held his countenance stony, to ensure she understood this was no time to defy him.
Untroubled by her father's proclivity for harsh words, Liaju nodded acceptance of his admonishment. Rethga, more sensitive to such outbursts, silently cast his eyes downward.
Absentmindedly peeling the bark from a fallen twig, Liaju drew on her resolve. Having rehearsed this very speech many times, and with her father's demand finally presenting opportunity to speak, she finally said "I have slept poorly for many sixdays, yet when I finally succumb to body's exhaustion I am sorely troubled by ominous dreams. They are complex and ever changing, yet constant and somehow similar. Though I have spoken of them to the Circle of the Learned, full insight lacks. I do not wish to bring dire thoughts to the minds of any, yet with my dream's disclosure... I do."
Scowling, Jalgar said "You lend too much weight to the thoughts of others, girl. It is hot, we are weary. We would hear what troubles you. Not that telling your troubles might trouble us. Now, speak."
Suppressing a smile at her father's impatience, but refusing to be hurried or diverted from her prepared speech, Liaju said "My esteem of you both, is high. To me, the easiest of the Immutable Laws has always been 'Honor your family and wear their marks, always.' My family is honorable, and just. The marks of you I bear... an inspiration to me, always." With that Liaju uncovered her right shoulder, kissing the tattoo upon it.
Jalgar's anger, and his impatience, dissolved at his daughter's gesture. She had just kissed his symbol. He responded by clenching his right fist, kissing his knuckles and placing his hand on his chest, over Liaju's mark. He then looked to his son before kissing his fingers again, and placing them over Rethga's mark. Though the familiar, comforting ritual took only a heartbeat to complete it renewed the bond between father and children.
Sighing softly, Liaju said "Now... I must burden you, alongside all the others, with knowledge of these troubling dreams. Forgive me." Uncomfortable and agitated, her face showed her sadness.
Realizing the depth of Liaju's distress, Jalgar softened his face and his tone, and said "Fear not. Your family are with you always, though perhaps only in spirit. We would gladly share your burden. Speak on."
Relieved his father's bad humor seemed passed, Rethga encouraged his older twin with a smile, saying "Your burdens are mine, as mine are oftentimes yours. Tell us your thoughts. Grant us your dreams."
Drawing a deep breath, Liaju began. Her voice gained surety as she said "My dreams are long and fitful, disturbing my rest, troubling my soul. Seeming fresh and new each night, yet within them the same elements always unfold. They are these. We wage a war we cannot win, yet our enemy does not prevail. Prime beasts are in the rut, yet their herds ever dwindle. Unfulfilled Chukrah grow in number but gather only dust - not fresh souls. The herd bull, magnificent and unassailable, is matched and vanquished - by one ancient and infertile. Three beasts are cleanly slain - four times. From a dream within the dream I watch as a Seizen Elder struggles to match his progeny. Somehow I know that the matches favored least might succeed, while those deemed most favorable... lead to terrible ends."
Jalgar and Rethga looked to one another. The dream's elements struck a chord within them, as though once heard and long since forgotten. Together they turned back to Liaju, their attentive expressions biding her continue.
Liaju did not speak. Instead she focused on her feet.
After a time she closed her troubled eyes, leant back against the bough, and said "Think on these things. I would hear your thoughts and see if they align with those of the Circle. Many sixdays have these dreams plagued me, a few days more is of no matter. We will speak further when you are prepared. I will await your council, patiently."
Glancing at his son, Jalgar saw the boy opening his mouth to speak. A quick shake of his head stilled the lad.
Rethga met his father's eye, then nodded agreement. Liaju had done as they requested, and shared her burden. It seemed fitting they should do as she asked and consider her dream before blurting out thoughtless, only partly formed ideas. Waiting till later would grant him time to phrase his question, with care.
Father and son lay back. They would remain within the shade till the sun, passing its peak, began its decline.
This was fitting since Wodansday, being mid way through the sixday, was a day for ease.
III. The Symbologist's Arrival.
Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
Zunesan was kneading dough when she heard the faint rumbling in the distance. Dusting her hands together, making small puffs of flour in the air, she walked outdoors. Normally she shared the home with her match, Jalgar, and their youngest twins. Today she was alone, the three having left on a hunt the previous day. Shading her eyes from the sun's glare left a streak of floury white in her dusky black hair.
Of short stature, Zunesan was deeply tanned from many hours spent outdoors. Her eyes, gray today green tomorrow - their color changing perceptibly with her mood - were compassionate. Her gentle hands, always ready to soothe, were popular with the young. Children came to her willingly, swallowing her remedies or wearing the poultices she made with few complaints. Having worn a Herbalist's Chukrah for well over twenty cycles Zunesan could make the most unpalatable potion potable.
Through the midday glare she made out a flock of rowdy children drawing ever nearer. Shade her eyes as she might the heat shimmer, and the distance, prevented her from making out any individuals. Eventually the chorus the crowd sang became audible "Dah nee skee raa. Dah nee skee raa."
Their chant heralded the arrival of Zunesan's third child. Thrilled, she exclaimed "Daniskira!", as she held her skirt high and ran toward the sound. Catching sight of her daughter, encircled by children, she sped to her. The youngsters parted reluctantly, allowing mother and daughter an embrace. After waving to Kareena and Seinath, sedately following far behind the crowd, Zunesan turned about and continued toward the village, arm in arm with her child, at last.
They had not traveled ten paces before Selene, squeezing through the close packed children, appeared. Giving her grandmother a quick hug she asked the question most urgent to her fifth-marked mind, saying "Is Eden here yet, nana?"
Laughing, and feeling slightly guilty at not seeking out Selene, Zunesan said "Yes, they are on the village's far side. I'm sure they will arrive shortly, once they hear the children's chant."
Selene's delighted smile lit her face. She would not have to wile away the time awaiting the arrival of her cousin, and best friend.
Sight of Selene prompting a further guilty thought Zunesan glanced back, seeking sign of Daniskira's match. He was nowhere in sight. Saddened at what this must mean, she turned and embraced her daughter, again.
Daniskira smiled gently while returning her mother's hug, and cocked her eyebrow in question.
The expression, so reminiscent of Daniskira's childhood, flooded Zunesan's mind with memories thought long forgotten. In an instant they returned, full force, fresh and piquant, almost overcoming her with their strength. Composing herself, she voiced the question troubling her, saying "What of your man, child?"
Smiling, in realization she was forever youthful in her mother's eyes, Daniskira said "Beltamar has been called to war, mama. He is in the Gods' hands."
After maintaining her daughter's gaze for a few moments longer, Zunesan accepted the fullness of these words, and said "The stars we see are the stars he sees. He resides in our hearts, till his safe return."
Nodding somberly, Daniskira responded, saying "Fear not, for the Pilgrimage to Malmaxa begins forthwith. With the imminent onset of winter our Ancient Enemy must depart the field of battle, as they do each cycle. Our warriors will be returning to us with all haste, lest they offend the Gods."
IV. Beltamar's Remembrances.
Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
For this late in fall it was uncomfortably warm. At noon's approach Ripkira had called a halt - marching through midday heat was for the foolish. With the cohesion born of long familiarity the remnants of her force fanned out beneath the sparse trees. Those assigned as sentry moved to the wood's edge, to take up watch. The remaining warriors mingled with the artisans, ushering the jumenta drawn wagons into the deepest shade.
After shucking his shield and spear Beltamar unhitched a pair of the shaggy haired beasts and set them to graze. Removing his pack, he untied his bedroll from its base and spread it beneath the cart with a flick of his wrists. Within a few moments he had removed his belt and taken a quick pull on a water pouch. After propping his sword and spear against his shield, where they were close to hand, he sprawled out on the bedroll. His pack served as headrest.
Others had done the same and Beltamar found himself sharing the wagon's shade with three others, but there was adequate space to stretch out. Since they would remain here at least two, perhaps three hours, there was plenty of time for rest. Letting his mind drift, he thought back on the cycle's events.
Beltamar counted this cycle as his worst, ever.
Eight lunas since he last saw his beloved mate, Daniskira, and their progeny, Selene. Eight times had he seen the moon rise to fill the heavens with her light, then wane to nothingness. He took some comfort knowing his family gazed on Luna's glory. By her next rise to full he would be with them, once more.
Too long apart but near over, now.
Vividly Beltamar remembered his call to war. Daniskira's beloved Segattoo had dropped their flowers, signaling the start of a new cycle. Arm in arm they had said their farewells to her family, where they had spent each winter this long cycle. Selene's anguished cries, at being parted from her cousin Eden, rang again in his ears. Diminutive Eden had held him, arms encircling his leg, her tiny hands refusing release while she pled for him to stay.
That bittersweet memory always brought a lump to his throat.
Their return home had taken nearly two sixdays. To be once more with Daniskira and Selene in their own dwelling had been blissful, but too short. The warmth of spring, vanquishing winter's chill, had heralded the summons to arms.
Selene had cried bitterly when he left. Only fifth-marked, she had been unable to accept this was his warrior's duty. She had perceived his willing - nay, eager - departure as a bitter betrayal. Though Daniskira shed no tears her limpid brown eyes told the tale of her heart. Their parting kiss had been the endpoint to five cycles of joy.
Then had this cycle begun, in earnest. It was by far his worst.
The scout who brought them news of the war, the Elder Mithial, granted them but an hour to gather their equipment and say their farewells. On the march to the battle lines Mithial had said "...drawn out farewells serve no one..."
To this old lie they had all readily agreed. What little we knew... The many of the fallen needlessly denied true farewells, snatched cruelly from their families. And for what? A few hours on war's path - nothing, save that.
Their troop of warriors - twenty four strong at cycle's start - had set out burning with youth's fire, each certain of their invulnerability. Two battle hardened veterans had led fourteen men and eight women only once-matched.
Lucinda, Adelmar, and he... were all that remained.
Slashed in number from twenty four to but three! The fall of each bringing the survivors closer, for shared hardships and grief forged strong bonds. To them fell the Rite of Return at the upcoming Convocation. Should they fall now all this would be for naught. That would be a bitter failure as, with winter's approach, this cycle's war should soon cease.
The Gods' workings were strange, indeed.
Having left their town they had traveled for three full sixdays before joining this unit, their assigned battle group. The South Western Force. Over three hundred warriors had they been at first assembly. Past a hundred artisans accompanied them - cooks, herbalists, smiths, scribes, and more. An army marched on its stomach, it was said. But that was only a small part of the truth. He likened an army unto a village. It needed food, healers, repairs to equipment, grindstones to sharpen blades, artisans for many things that were taken for granted -till one was faced with their lack.
Of all a warrior's needs perhaps the greatest was for laughter. Without humor warriors were soon mired in pits of blackest despair.
In the early days, during their march to the battle lines, Beltamar had felt a true warrior should be stern of face and hard of flesh. He, and the younger warriors from many villages, had witnessed the veterans' raucous behavior with consternation. When he had inquired why this was tolerated, his commander's response had been 'In war you have many choices. You can choose to attack, or to defend. To fight, or to flee. To laugh, or to cry. If you don't laugh you will surely cry... so why not laugh?'
The matter of laughter had changed after their first battle. He had found himself, bloodied sword in hand, shield arm shaking from exhaustion, body parched with thirst. Fighting an implacable enemy bent on your death forced you to go far beyond the possible. For a Chukrah matched Warrior the debt of this effort came due the moment victory was fully realized.
Around him had lain the bodies of many. At his feet, a warrior from his village. Ulthar, pale from blood's loss but alive, Chukrah pulsing softly as it sealed his wounds. Ulthar had looked up at him, disbelieving, and exclaimed "We live!" They had burst into shared laughter at their amazing good fortune.
Kneeling beside Ulthar, he had helped him into a sitting position, to await the Herbalists. Moments later they were in a brotherly embrace, tears of anguish washing them free of gore, but not of guilt - for some of their town lay among the slain.
How easily did laughter turn to deepest sorrow? Ulthar was slain two sixdays later, not fully recovered from his wounds. Though he could not find laughter after that battle he had eluded tears.
Tender remembrances must wait till he returned Ulthar's Chukrah to the hoard. Ulthar, the first of the slain for which he had claimed the Rite of Return. Five additional Chukrah lay in his pack now. Six warrior souls - secured for eternity, their journey to the hoard imminent.
There were, indeed, things worth crying over. Life, death, and love - with the greatest being love. Of the trivial things over which people grow frantic... most are matters more deserving of laughter than anguish. He could laugh at them now.
A harsh laugh, true, but it seemed better than tears.
Rolling onto his side, pleasing thoughts of Faroene flowing, Beltamar passed from doze into sleep.
V. Deception's Cloak.
Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
Mithial froze mid-stride, hackles prickled by his hunter sense. Motionless he called to his Chukrah, invoked the Vanish Rite. With a surge of power the pendant cleaved to him and deception's cloak fell, hiding him completely. Slowly he finished the step, soft soled moccasin making no discernible sound as it touched ground. Stretching to his full height he scanned left, searching for the seeker, but finding nothing. Rotating only his upper body he traversed the terrain to the right with his eyes. There! Directly behind him on the craggy hillside, several hundred paces distant, was a lone groth. Tracking him.
Her large size, of over four hands, showed the beast to be female. She was moving slowly down the path Mithial had so laboriously traversed to attain his hillside vantage. Sighing in resignation he continued his search for additional enemies, while carefully turning toward her. On facing her squarely he planted both feet firmly in the loose shale, secure in both his invisibility and the knowledge she was alone.
There was adequate time to recover from this ill turn of fortune.
A single arrow from his longbow would fell her. Wait till she was less than fifty paces and he could not miss. Though his rite hid any scent within a pace of him, he deemed the risk too great. Even in this still air the reek of her blood would spread, alerting any other groth nearby. Mithial's hijath, loosely covering his head, hid the frown creasing his wrinkled brow. The Gods delighted in playing havoc with risky plans. Putting aside all thoughts of slaying the groth he considered matters, carefully.
After lunas spent pursuing a routed enemy all sign of them had simply vanished, some three days past. One day they had been there, the next - after a late fall rainstorm - they were gone. His memory of an ancient map had revealed a plateau with a large meadow and a small stream promising excellent grazing for the jumenta. It had also unveiled a tiny valley hidden in the foothills, reachable only by a narrow path. Ripkira had chosen the cramped valley over the plentiful grazing. The unit was headed there now, to wait out the final days before the journey to Malmaxa began. They should arrive within the valley's close confines by nightfall.
Just this very morning, Ripkira had sent him to scout for their Ancient Enemy. Not ahead into the valley, as he anticipated, but west across the plain to these distant foothills. For a moment he wondered at her amazing intuition. Everyone, him included, had assumed there were no groth within leagues of the unit's position.
Yet here one was, tracking him.
Where one groth was, more were sure to be.
Mithial's eyes, constantly searching, flicked back to the lone bitch. She was forty paces closer. Time grew short. Quickly, using spit soaked scales flicked downhill, he laid a false trail. Deceiving the mindless beast was a simple matter. That she was here at all - was not. Once she was diverted he would find a better vantage and watch till nightfall. Any groth nearby would reveal themselves when the sun's demise, heralding night's chill, forced the cold blooded beasts underground.
It would be a long, hot, and uncomfortable day, but he might uncover their lair. Under cover of darkness's cold he would head to the secret valley, and report to Ripkira.
Thought of seeing her brought a smile.
Chapter 2. Vision Shifts, and Dream Elements.
I. Cousins' Reunion.
Timeline: Late Morning, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
From the noise raised by the mob of excited children Zunesan knew any attempt at speech would be fruitless. To walk near her daughter must be enough, for now.
She looked ahead expectantly. Ryntam, accompanied by Yitara and Eden, would soon appear. They had arrived yesterday, mere hours after Jalgar set off on his hunt, and were staying in an unoccupied dwelling on the village's far side. With far more homes empty than occupied there were many such - this dwelling was the same one they had used each visit this long cycle. Casting that troubling thought aside, she waited patiently for sight of Daniskira's older twin - this was a day for happiness, not contemplation of ill matters none could change. She let thought of having all her surviving progeny close assuage her.
A full cycle had passed since Daniskira, a Symbologist of growing renown, attended the village last. Though numbering near two hundred the village had no Symbologist of their own and Daniskira was always greeted with joy, by all. During the last Convocation, with Daniskira newly Chukrah matched, Zunesan had made arrangements for her to attend the village's marking needs each winter. Requiring time for recuperation from her studies, Ryntam had arranged to come as well, thereby turning it into a family reunion. For the last five cycles each winter had seen their entire family, grandchildren included, together.
Winter, normally dreaded for its bitter cold, was anticipated with longing by all of Zunesan and Jalgar's family.
It had been no surprise when the cousins, Eden and Selene, being conceived at the same Convocation, having strong familial ties and complementary feminine natures, had developed a powerful bond. With each passing cycle it had grown, till they felt more twin than cousin. They looked forward to their time together with delight, their inevitable separation at winter's end... with woe.
As Daniskira's renown had increased the length of her stay grew longer to accommodate the demands on her from the region's people. Seizen, daring travel in winter's weather, came from afar to be attended by Daniskira. All those to whom she granted a mark counted themselves blessed - for her symbols were precise and filled with elegant artistry.
Interrupting Zunesan's idle thoughts, Ryntam finally appeared. She was accompanied by her match Yitara, who held their progeny's hand.
Eden, skipping gaily alongside her father, affected an air of calm - a pleasing mix of her mother's composure and her aunt's serenity. Anticipation of seeing her cousin gave her away. Catching first glimpse of the clamoring children, she abandoned all pretense. Relinquishing her father's hand she raced forward, yelling "Selene! Selene!" at the top of her tiny lungs.
Emerging immediately from the crowd, Selene responded "Eden!", with similar excitement. Clutching one another the cousins embraced, dancing a jig of joy, while still enmeshed.
Reaching them, Daniskira scooped her tiny niece high into the air and continued toward the village, without breaking stride. In mock amazement, pretending to stagger beneath diminutive Eden's weight, she exclaimed "My, how much bigger you are! Does your mother plant your feet in dung to cause this growth?" Feigning horror she glanced at Eden's bare feet, twitched her nose briskly, and added "Why from their color, and their stench, she does indeed!"
While laughing uproariously at this jest Eden, from the vantage granted by the elevation of Daniskira's arms, quickly peered about. Joyous smile reduced, she looked down and asked "Where is Uncle Beltamar?" Her voice quavered slightly.
Lowering Eden into a brief embrace, Daniskira, with a tender kiss, whispered "Called to war, Eden. Comfort your cousin in this, she did not take it well."
Giving her aunt a tight squeeze, her strength belying her small size and her youth, Eden buried her face in Daniskira's neck. After blinking away her tears, and placing comfort in her tone, she whispered "I am sure he is well, Aunt. Poor Selene, I will soothe her fears."
Her niece's words brought a tear to Daniskira's eye, and last parting's memory to her mind. After a few heartbeats of closeness she relinquished Eden and returned her to earth, beside her own daughter.
Trotting alongside, Selene had been waiting impatiently to hold her cousin's hand, which she grasped eagerly. Without a backward glance the pair vanished into the crowd.
Turning from the children Daniskira spread her arms wide, to her twin. Releasing Yitara, in momentary favor of her sister, Ryntam reached out and hugged Daniskira.
After granting her daughters a moment Zunesan encircled both with her arms, murmuring endearments.
In an instant the womenfolk were meshed, striving to regain a cycle of absence in a single embrace. Still holding hands, Eden and Selene re-emerged to grasp their mothers' legs with their free arms, beaming happy smiles at one another all the while.
Strong emotions of remembrance, the shared joy of togetherness, the bittersweet tang of partings - past and future - filled all in their familial hug. Inexplicably all burst into tears, after the way of women showing joy.
Excluded from this feminine exchange, Yitara frowned slightly and shook his head, bewildered by womanly ways.
Alongside the family the crowd of eager children, sensing the renewing of bonds, fell silent.
If only for a few moments.
II. Elements, in Dreams.
Timeline: Late Afternoon, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
With the sun past its midday heat Jalgar roused himself and stood. He gazed down on his progeny for a few moments, before grunting to awaken Liaju and Rethga. Within moments the twins were awake and alert. After stretching they continued their steady march, toward the place picked for their next hunt.
Jalgar walked ahead of Liaju and her twin. In his right hand he carried a long spear, massive bronze head blacked with soot to dull its gleam. The spear's shaft was as thick as Jalgar's wrist - clearly this was no throwing weapon. Jalgar, a tall slender man, was dressed in loose fitting tanned leathers the colors of the waist high dry grass and vegetation through which they walked. His sharp hazel eyes were clear and alert for any danger. They belied his age - evidenced by a wrinkled brow. His prominent nose was underscored by a bold, full mustache. The rest of his face, normally clean shaven, bore a day's stubble. Around his waist Jalgar wore a wide leather belt from which hung several water pouches, a sheathed knife and some larger pokes. On his back he carried a simple woven pack filled with the items deemed necessary for a sixday hunt. Draped over his head, slung so as to cover his head and throat, he wore a loose fitting hijath providing shelter from the sun. Taking the end hanging down his chest he mopped the sweat beading his brow.
The weather remained too warm for this late in the season - it was already the second sixday into fall's last luna.
Behind Jalgar trailed Liaju and Rethga, fine young adults, and eligible for their twelfth marking. He had already made the arrangements with Daniskira, a Symbologist of increasing renown and, coincidentally, his fourth child. She should be at the village on their return from this hunt, ready to grant her siblings their twelfth marks. Thought of Daniskira brought to mind her elder twin, Ryntam, also due shortly. He longed to see them, near a full cycle having passed since their last visit.
Positioned some ten paces behind and to Jalgar's left walked Liaju. She was slender, of average height for a girl of twelve cycles. Liaju would become a woman once she completed the Final Rite - matching her Chukrah at the Convocation. Until then she remained a child, as she would forever in Jalgar's heart. Her deep chestnut hair was tied with several brightly colored leather thongs and hung well below her shoulders. Liaju's hijath was much more colorful than her father's -decorative as well as functional, in the way favored by women. It draped loosely about her neck, its ends covering her bosom.
The nostrils of Liaju's small, upturned nose twitched occasionally as she sniffed the air for the odor of herbs. Her deep brown eyes roamed constantly, on the same search. Liaju hoped to become a Herbalist like her mother, Zunesan. Her gray dress, made of fine, tightly woven cloth, hung just below her knees and was secured by a belt of green. Her shoes were of soft soled leather. Sheathed on her belt was a small knife, but no visible weapon. She had no need for such, for to either side trailed her hounds - a bitch and its mate. Guard enough, this close to the village.
About ten paces to Liaju's right walked Rethga, the same distance behind Jalgar as she. The three formed a loose triangle, a pattern which offered some protection from surprise but, more importantly, allowed them to cover more ground.
Rethga was a handsome lad with a thick mop of dark brown hair, not as lustrous as his twin, nor as carefully tended, or clean. His eyes were a shade of brown between his father's hazel and Liaju's dark. Though not yet endowed with the facial hair common to mature men, a mustache's shadowy start was evident. Rethga's attire closely matched that of his father, except for the quiver of heavy shafted arrows slung alongside his burlap pack. In his right hand he carried a longbow, bowstring downward. It was strung, but no arrow was nocked.
Having traveled nearly four leagues from their failed morning hunt the family finally approached the next site. Jalgar had selected it some sixdays past, during another, unsuccessful, hunt. To improve chances of bagging game it was becoming necessary to scout potential spots sixdays ahead of hunting them.
These were strange times, indeed.
Clearly, man was not the only creature disturbed.
Arriving at the campsite shortly after dusk Jalgar turned to Liaju, gave her a tight hug, and said "I am pleased you shared your thoughts with us, daughter. Burdens such as these are heavy when borne alone, yet they are eased with the aid of others. Know that we love you, greatly."
Looking up at her father seriously, Liaju said "I love you too, papa. Even when you shout."
Casting talk aside, the three busied themselves in the routine of preparing camp. In this tight knit group all knew their function. Each laid their pack down and the two men put down their weapons, Jalgar placing the spear tip toward the direction they had faced. Liaju selected places for the hounds to take up guard and directed them there with small flicks of her hands. Rethga gathered three rocks of sufficient size to house a small cooking fire, which he set and deftly lit.
From her pack Liaju removed some ground corn for the mush base along with heavily spiced charqui, prepared from livestock meat, and some dried vegetables. A copper bowl appeared from Jalgar's larger pack and Liaju placed the dry ingredients within it, deftly mixing them with her fingers.
After adding the contents of two water pouches to the bowl, Jalgar carefully balanced it on the three rocks, over the small blaze Rethga had lit. From some small containers Liaju sprinkled additional herbs and salt into the pot.
It would take well over an hour to simmer the dried foodstuffs into stew. This granted them time for talk and, with the surety of the hounds on guard, they relaxed completely. Lounging close enough to hear one another speaking quietly, but far enough away from the flames to not become fire mulled or blinded, they spoke idly for a while.
Dusk's deepening dark, the smells of spicy food simmering, low voiced conversation, laughter shared while sprawled about a small fire. Each treasured these moments.
Turning to his twin, Rethga phrased the question which had concerned him since her disclosure, saying "Having thought on your dream... it troubles me there are six elements therein. You have discussed this with the Circle of the Learned. What thoughts have they shared on the nature of these dreams, sister?"
Startled by her brother's words, and more so by the insight within them, Liaju immediately sat up straighter. She had expected days to pass before her father or brother had fully considered her dream and wished to speak further on it.
Seeing her father was wide awake and attentive, Liaju said "Only after many visits did the Circle discern what you discovered after but a single telling, Brother. Only after many dreams related, and many hours of discussion of each, did they uncover this knowledge. There are, indeed, six elements within each dream. This is an unsettling matter of itself, for six is the Number of the Gods - and thus a powerful portend."
Both Jalgar and Rethga, disquieted, grunted agreement.
Nodding, her face serious, Liaju said "Other consensuses reached are these. Of the element of war... at every Convocation many are matched for the Warrior class. We field more warriors than is prudent, yet we gain no ground. While our warriors slay many our enemy remains forever steadfast and ultimately... we fall. We fight a war faring terribly for all, but neither side relents. We are unable to break the cycle of birth and death, by conflict."
Father and son nodded gravely. Though neither was a warrior they knew this to be true.
Continuing, Liaju said "Of the element of dwindling herds. None know better than you the dire straits in which all unbound beasts dwell. The herds of all species, domestic and wild, decline in number. Though the most expert of herdsmen complain of the infertility of their nullipar, there are no portends as to the true cause."
Again the men nodded, in troubled assent.
All three leant forward urgently now, thoughts of the simmering meal forgotten. Knowing her father would be troubled by her next words Liaju paused briefly, before saying "Of the element of unfulfilled Chukrah. In my dreams the Convocation fares large. The numbers of the Seizen, our people, decline precipitously. The Chukrah hoard grows, while the number of twelve cycle souls to bind in the eternal match dwindles. The Chukrah, perpetually awaiting the next Convocation in hope of a soul to bond them, bear terrible loneliness. Since the eternal match is not one of choice there are now Chukrah unmatched... for scores of Convocations."
At this Jalgar, the only one of them as yet Chukrah bound, visibly sagged. The bond was mutual, fateful, and permanent. Once made it could be broken by nothing, not even death.
The thought of lying companionless, in unbearable solitude for hundreds of cycles gravely troubled Jalgar's Chukrah. With this knowledge weighing heavily on him Jalgar pressed one hand to the earth, for support. With the other he touched the gleaming disc, his caress reassuring. He knew the nature of his Chukrah, as no other could. With its distress a glimmer of life flickered deep within the usually opaque pendant. It assumed a greenish inner glow as it shared its wordless vision of what Liaju described with its bearer.
Terrible, unrelenting loneliness.
Perceiving the unhappiness unleashed within her father, Liaju soothed him with a gentle touch. Though not yet matched she had some insight into the bond's nature. Hers and her twin's approached, fast.
They would begin the Pilgrimage to Malmaxa on the Thorsday following this hunt. There, as twelfth-marked Seizen, they would enter the hoard and within its labyrinth seek out and bond their soul mate.
Their eternal match, their Chukrah.
Hoping to distract Jalgar from his distress Liaju went on, saying "The Circle of the Learned say that in troubled times the people are oft blessed with twinned progeny. Yet the boon of the Gods - twins - remains rare. From your loins alone has sprung the only sixth child of a sixth child in spoken memory." She smiled at her brother as she said this.
Rethga was this rarest of gifts, considered by all to be most favored - a Gift from the Gods to all the Seizen. Continuing, Liaju said "The Gods granted towns, villages and structures to the Seizen. These would suffice for many times our current numbers. The straits within which we travel... are direr than those besetting the beasts."
Liaju, emphasizing her last point with a pause, took a moment to drink from one of her water pouches, then said "Thus we find three elements of the dream self evident. Of the remaining... the vanquished herd bull, the three beasts slain four times, and the match choices of the Seizen Elder. Though much discussion has taken place, no insight has been attained."
Concluding her discourse, Liaju said "The Convocation arrives with the coming full moon. The Circle of the Learned, though torn, has reached a troubling consensus. Some felt the portends in their entirety of six must be shared. Others... that knowledge of the quandary of the Seizen Elder would sway many matches, bringing disquiet. Should this disquiet spread to the Chukrah it would bode gravely for the Seizen. Whether to share knowledge, or deny it, troubled all. The final accord reached is to withhold the last element. Of the Seizen Elder's struggle... none save the Councils will gain knowledge."
Breaking the long silence which followed, Liaju said "None Shall Speak for the Gods." After raising her eyes to the heavens she added "That is the Principle Law. The Gods gift me with portends they embed within troubling dreams. Yet, they hide understanding of their desires. Why do they make gaining knowledge of their wishes so arduous?"
Wishing to comfort his twin Rethga opened his mouth to speak, then shook his head - reconsidering. After a moment he belatedly said "Difficult matches. In my heart I am a Hunter, but, should the Chukrah I match hold the souls of Herbalists I will accept it, gladly." He chuckled, pleased with his comment. It served double duty as a jibe at Liaju, as clearly set on a Herbalist's path as he was a Hunter's.
When his father frowned and Liaju looked at him quizzically, Rethga realized his attempt to lighten the mood had failed. Feeling compelled to speak, but knowing he could offer little for fear of breaking the Principle Law, he said "The Gods' workings are mysterious, known to themselves alone. When walking dangerous ground a wise person treads silently, in hope of remaining unnoticed. I shall remain silent, in hope of gaining wisdom."
Jalgar, replaying Rethga's words silently within his mind, bit his lip and wondered if someone had inadvertently disclosed details of the Chukrah match. Unable to think who might have done so, or why, he decided the boy was just being insightful, and concentrated on what he could say to help Liaju.
After long consideration, Jalgar said "I do not attempt to speak for the Gods. Yet, at risk of offending them, I offer you what little I have gleaned on this matter. Could it be that they desire each to discern, for themselves, the nature of mortality and the unvoiced wishes of the immortal? If someone offered words purporting to come from the Gods there are many who would pay them heed. Would the listeners be fulfilling the Gods' will? Or would they merely be the unwitting lackeys of whoever claimed to speak for them?"
Nodding, Liaju looked at her father, understanding within her eye.
Returning Liaju's forthright gaze, Jalgar shook his head slowly and said "You are wise beyond your cycles, Liaju. Yet even you might succumb to this insidious temptation."
Shaking her head, Liaju opened her mouth to speak.
Before she could voice her denial Jalgar raised his hand, silencing her.
When Liaju reluctantly closed her mouth, Jalgar said "You avidly seek knowledge in all things, do you not?"
She nodded agreement.
Jalgar said "And if I, your father, were to grant you this knowledge would you not accept it?"
Again she nodded.
Shaking his head vigorously Jalgar refuted her, saying "Though you honor me... you must always question knowledge. Only after it passes the tests of your own mind and heart, dare you accept it as truth."
Liaju and Rethga both frowned as they considered this. Eventually they nodded in unison, understanding dawning.
Satisfied his progeny perceived his meaning Jalgar, as was his wont, repeated the lesson, saying "Question always. Listen to your heart, and to your mind. Refute all which flies against either. Trust yourself above any other. Perhaps these are lessons of the Gods?" He chuckled, then added "Or, more likely, the ramblings of an old fool. Think on this, I fear I can offer nothing more."
After a moment Liaju said "I shall. My heart is lightened - would that I had shared my burden with you both, long past."
Rethga simply absorbed his father's words, and nodded.
III. Shifts, in Vision.
Timeline: Mid Afternoon, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
As the sun passed its zenith midday's heat lessened. Mithial, beneath the shade of his hijath, awoke from his doze and instinctively checked his rite. After scanning the hillside carefully, and finding nothing, he slacked his considerable thirst. Having been exposed to the sun for hours the water was tepid, but still satisfying.
Corking the drained pouch he reattached it to his belt, taking the chance to glance at his Chukrah. His soul mate, pulsing with the pale green of spring leaves newly unfurled, wordlessly echoed his contentment.
Mithial caressed the flat hexagonal pendant absently. It was smooth, grooved, and inanimate to any touch but his. To him it was intimately filled with an echo of his own life force. With its aid maintaining the rite required no significant effort, but after hours beneath deception's cloak disorientation invariably struck.
Still shaking off his vague confusion Mithial reconsidered his purpose here. Ripkira had sent him scouting for sign of their Ancient Enemy?
Blinking away the last of his lethargy, Mithial rose slowly and looked down into the valley. It was filled with denser scrub than the rocky hillside. With their excellent camouflage Groth would be difficult to see, unaided. Calling to his Chukrah he felt his vision slowly change as it responded to his appeal. Gradually all detail faded, eventually replaced by an indistinct gray blur. Within this featureless haze pricks of brighter color coalesced, forming easily distinguished blobs. Most were moving, each leaving in its wake a vague slash of diminishing brightness.
Mithial drew breath sharply, in surprise. Every one of those mustard colored blobs revealed a groth. Concentrating hard he held his head and eyes motionless, striving to ignore the multiple wavering trails. Any movement, however slight, blurred the entire image, washed out all color and returned everything to hazy gray. He counted the blobs of brightness quickly, a difficult task while holding his eyes completely motionless. Reaching thirty, and becoming more nauseous and dizzy with each moment, he gave up and guessed.
Experience told him they exceeded forty.
That number in this unremarkable little valley could mean only one thing - a lair, and a large one. There might well be a hundred more basking in the warmth of some underground cave. He must determine its exact location and, if possible, an accurate estimate of its size.
Still startled at the high count Mithial shook his head, deliberately disrupting his altered vision and actively wishing it normal. Feeling the change in his Chukrah he waited, patiently, for his eyesight to return. After a heart's count to three hundred the shape of the valley became discernible, by five, shrubs and boulders. Finally, at seven, his vision was crystal clear once more. Most of the nausea and light headedness faded with the count, leaving in their place bone deep weariness.
Slowly Mithial lifted one end of his hijath, mopping his brow with the soft cloth. His forehead was beaded with sweat, more than the day's uncharacteristic warmth warranted. Legs a little shaky he moved slowly to a different boulder, one offering some shade from the sun's new position. He absently verified his Vanish Rite still held as he sat in shadow's relative cool. Letting the sweat soaked end of the hijath fall to his chest he pulled its middle forward, over his eyes.
Drained by his efforts, Mithial lounged against the boulder, sipping from another pouch and chewing on charqui as he thought. As soon as he recovered his strength he would circle north. By sunset he should be on the northern side of this valley, looking south.
With the sky cloudless the day's heat would rapidly dissipate, come nightfall. The cold blooded groth, deprived of warming sunlight, would make a beeline for their lair. They needed its warmth. That should allow him to determine its precise location. He dreaded thought of this. Where his Vanish Rite was near effortless, invoking a vision shift was exhausting and left him feeling both weak, and shaky. Performing it twice in a single day would leave him debilitated.
But there was no help for it.
Ripkira needed solid information, not vague guesses and suppositions.
A short rest and he would be sufficiently recovered to move. Later, with the safety of full night he would stumble back across the plain, to the unit, and Ripkira.
Closing weary eyes, Mithial dozed.
Seeing Ripkira would be adequate reward, for these exertions.
Chapter 3. Of Chukrah, and Segattoo.
I. Promises, Fulfilled.
Timeline: Late Afternoon, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
With evening's onset imminent Daniskira took leave of her mother and sister to fulfill her promise of a tale, to the children. On stepping outside she was soon surrounded by fifth-marked, returned from their afternoon chores and eagerly awaiting her. With their excitement building rapidly she turned her wagon toward the square and led her jumenta to the fountain. The children parted before her then closed in behind the wagon, following like a flock of obedient lambs.
On reaching the fountain Daniskira took a moment to caress the village Chundrah. It was depleted of energy, its pulse barely perceptible, but she drew strength from its radiant warmth and relaxed completely within its protective aura. Reluctant to release the obelisk she drew a deep breath before turning back to her wagon.
Once satisfied the cart was positioned to show off her Segattoo to best advantage, Daniskira straightened her skirts and turned to face the crowd. Sitting on the fountain wall and speaking in a gentle voice, she asked "Who would like to hear a tale?"
In one voice the throng of children yelled "Me!" The fifth-marked among them, oblivious to decorum, rushed to gain place as near her as possible. Within moments all were seated, gazing at her in near silence, eagerly awaiting the story's start.
Word of Daniskira's arrival had spread and from all sides people converged on the square. Adults and their eleventh-marked progeny were trailing in, their labors of the day completed, or postponed. Noticing them, Daniskira made a show of dusting off her blouse then slowly washed her hands and face in the fountain's run off while the newcomers found room nearby. Daniskira's tales somehow returned the older listeners to the worry free times of their youth - few willingly missed them.
In the pleasantly warm haze of early evening Daniskira prepared to tell them the tale of how she acquired her magnificent Segattoo. Only once all were seated and comfortable did she finally turn and face the crowd.
Arrayed behind Daniskira, in the specially made holders in the back of her wagon, stood her Segattoo. Their placement ensured they would be illuminated by the sun's last, spectacular rays. Standing silently she gestured toward them, timing her gesture as the sun's lower edge touched the horizon. A collective gasp of awe rose as the Segattoo's multi-colored spines caught dusk's display, reflecting it in magnificent, warmly colored beams.
Included within those gasping was Daniskira. The beauty of her plants never failed to touch her heart. Segattoo held a crucial role for the Seizen and every household maintained at least one, custom requiring the person attended to provide their own Segattoo. From their many hued spines came the colored resins used to form the ritual marks of family, worn by all. From its bowls were the sharp, dye laden spines plucked, and used by the Symbologists to make the marks.
Daniskira, a Symbologist of widespread renown, knew Segattoo better than any. Her two plants, now on display before the villagers, were maintained with devotion. Having tended the Segattoo lovingly since finding them on one of her unsanctioned adventures she took great pride in them - their spines were of particularly vibrant hue. Those adventures had oftentimes left her parents worried, though thankfully they never resulted in permanent harm.
With the stage set and every person in the square awestruck by the brilliant play of light upon the iridescent spines, Daniskira began her tale, saying "This evening I will tell how I discovered my Segattoo."
As always, her timing was impeccable. The sun vanished as she spoke, taking with it day's last gleam, and the voices of all gathered.
Daniskira's voice, low pitched and urgent, filled the sudden quiet -
grasping the attention of the receptive crowd.
The children were hers, completely. As were the adults.
II. Meals, Shared.
Timeline: Early Evening, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
After the stew had cooked sufficiently Jalgar gave the pot a brief stirring, savoring the odors of a fine meal ready for consumption. Before eating Liaju rose slowly to stretch her legs and return circulation to her body - they had been sitting too long. Her father and brother also stood and stretched. Though they trusted the hounds for first warning it served little if your limbs refused to respond. Once limber they seated themselves for the meal.
Each took out their own wooden bowl and Jalgar divided the stew amongst them, the portions based on the needs of those sharing the meal. Jalgar received the largest, with Rethga's portion slightly smaller. Liaju, nearly a hand shorter than her twin, received an appropriately smaller amount. Taking a sheaf of journey bread from his pack Jalgar broke it into three and gave pieces to Liaju and Rethga.
Together they began to eat, dipping the firm bread in the stew, savoring the delicious melding of vegetable, grain and meat. Only the lack of venison's tang detracted from its flavor.
After leisurely consuming their food each took the time to drink from their water pouches, washing down their last mouthfuls. Pouring a small amount of water into their bowls they swished it about, loosening the last particles of food. With the crust of bread each had left uneaten they carefully wiped about their bowl, cleaning it and mopping up the moisture.
Clicking her tongue Liaju called her hounds. They appeared silently alongside and sat patiently. Breaking the crust in two she gave a piece to each. After devouring the crusts the hounds moved to Rethga, he repeated what Liaju had done. Finally they circled to Jalgar who, smiling, repeated the ritual.
All deserved their share, hounds included.
When the dogs had finished the scraps all rose and moved down to the nearby stream to refill their water pouches. Two kept watch while the third was occupied with these tasks. Partly filling all pouches each rinsed them out, and emptied them some distance from the stream - so as not to disturb the clean flowing water. Only after their pouches were freshened did they fill them, taking care to gather only the cleanest surface flow. Every pouch received a pinch of cleansing herbs. Once the pouches were rinsed and refilled the hounds come forward to drink. Singly they took their ablutions in the woods while the others stood guard, before washing in the stream.
On returning they found the fire reduced to a bed of coals and began preparations for the night's slumber. Each lay with their feet toward one of the rocks, warm feet making for a warm body. Their heads they placed outward from the fire, using their packs as pillows. Of the three only Liaju covered herself with a thin blanket, withdrawn from her pack. With the weather so warm the men, feeling no need of coverings, preferred to simply lie beneath the clouded sky. Trusting the hounds to give them fair warning they settled down.
Having shared the burden of her dreams with her father and twin Liaju's woes no longer seemed as distressing, or as weighty.
More confident she would glean the Gods' will than she had been since her troubling dreams began Liaju gladly succumbed to sleep's allure, moments after lying down.
She slept well that night, for the first time in many lunas.
III. Tales, of Segattoo.
Timeline: Late morning, Cronusday, 6th sixday, 3rd Luna 3588
Flashback: Daniskira's Segattoo.
Both Segattoo already stood eight segments high when Daniskira discovered them. Rare finds indeed, possible thanks only to the remoteness of the dwelling the family occupied that long cycle. Their home was in the southernmost village, still inhabited, from Malmaxa. The forest in which these Segattoo thrived lay still further south.
Daniskira had spent the entire morning travelling to the wood, moving as quickly as her sixth cycle legs could carry her. She had first spotted it while standing atop a hill the previous sixday, a hill a full two hours walk closer to the village. What aroused her inquisitive nature had been the particularly tall, straight bodied trees which formed this forest. Since it was too late to reach the wood on the day she first saw it she had laid plans for a special outing to reach it.
So it was that she arrived here now.
The sun was approaching its zenith when Daniskira, accompanied by her hounds, entered a clearing within the woods. The plants were positioned, one to her right, one to her left on the far side of a small pond. First sight of the Segattoo took her breath away. Their spines shone so brightly that for an instant she thought them the bases of a miniature rainbow.
Gradually daring breathe once more she realized there was no rain, and the rainbow's arc was absent. The brilliant display emanated not from a trick of misted light, but from two magnificent Segattoo. So glorious they could only be gifts from the Gods.
Her hounds, after tasting the pond's water, satisfied themselves there was no imminent danger to their young mistress. The dog, Whasin, proceeded to mark the area as his, in the manner of his kind everywhere. Finally, with their sniffling investigation completed, both lay near Daniskira, their relaxed posture granting her ample surety the area was safe. Though apparently sleeping contentedly, they remained as alert as only dozing dogs can be.
Looking on the Segattoo in awe, Daniskira contemplated their beauty over the next hours.
Midday came and went, all thought of the straight bodied trees she had come to investigate, forgotten.
She gazed on the plants, from one to the other, marking forever in her memory the wonder of their construction and the beauty of their brightly tinted protective spines. The sun's light, reflected from these very spines, was more splendorous than any rainbow.
She considered the plants with an intensity beyond her cycles. First looking on them at length from across the clearing, later moving near to examine them from intimately close by. While drinking her fill of their wonder she realized this was a defining point in her life.
Sitting so close she could reach out and touch the plants, random thoughts flitted through Daniskira's young mind. As she often did while alone with only her hounds for audience, she voiced her thoughts aloud, saying "My brothers will be so jealous when they see them... I'll use their spines for my sixth marking... Ryntam will be so envious... No, I'll share with her. Well, the spines, if not the plants themselves..." After a pleasant interlude filled with idyllic dreams she saw the Segattoo through new eyes.
Eyes opened to their true wonder.
The plants looked like nothing else she knew or had heard described. Sad truth be told, Segattoo were seldom described at all. They were just... Segattoo, an accepted part of Seizen culture - so mundane as to not require consideration. That such splendid plants could be taken for granted gravely distressed Daniskira, and she determined to award all Segattoo their due.
In this frame of mind she threw out the widely accepted logic which held 'Segattoo are nothing more than peculiar cacti.' Needing to understand them she delved deep into the plants' true nature, actively seeking valid comparisons.
Segattoo were comprised of a tower of individual segments. Surely they must be like something? "A stack of clay bowls?" she murmured aloud, before discarding the idea.
Where clay bowls were inanimate, the Segattoo were filled with life. Narrowing her eyes in concentration she said "Besides clay bowls don't have identical segments, each with their own perfectly matched branches." Unsatisfied with the comparison, of living plant to dead clay, she dismissed it. But, liking the idea of a stack of bowls of decreasing size she retained that part of her thought.
Standing, walking around the plants she realized each individual bowl bore a vague resemblance to a pumpkin. Well, Segattoo were green, while pumpkins were orange. Conjuring a pumpkin in her mind's eye she compared it to the plant's bottom bowl. Where a pumpkin had ten vertically aligned segments the Segattoo had only six. Yes, it did seem much more like a pumpkin than a clay pot.
Again Daniskira shook her head, dissatisfied with this comparison as well, even though it seemed closer. Speaking aloud, she said "Yes, pumpkins are alive at least, but they are just... well, they are just common! Besides, who would stack pumpkins one atop another? That is just silly. The Segattoo is the Gift from the Gods - it is special, very special, while pumpkins are plain and ordinary. Perhaps it's alright for there to be nothing with which to compare them, after all they are unique. But I do like the idea of bowls, so that's what I'll call them."
With this determination made she examined the plant's lowermost bowl, the largest. Evenly spaced around it, about halfway up each of its six vertical segments, was an upward sweeping branch. The branches were fairly short and did not quite reach the top of the bowl. But, considering their short length, they swept up and out in a gentle, pleasing curve.
Without realizing she did so Daniskira held out her own arms, hands open, palms toward her face, copying as best she could the branches' arcs. Looking at her arms she described what she saw aloud, saying "Limbs held toward the heavens, in supplication to the Gods."
She felt a thrill of pleasure at this. So eloquent, so simple, so... true.
Voice filled with certainty, she said "Why they aren't branches at all, they are the Segattoo's limbs! Besides they are covered in hair, just like my arms. What mere branch has hair?"
The thought of hair grasping her imagination Daniskira turned back to the Segattoo to examine the bottom bowl again. For the first time she looked closely at the spines covering it. Though transparent they were large and distended, each about the length of her small finger. "These look more like a porcupine's quills than hairs - no wonder they are called quills." She looked closer still, eager to find any difference between the large quills and the hair like spines on the limbs, besides size.
The quills were swollen, each filled with transparent fluid. This discovery provoked a memory, "Vhials, a name reserved for only the bottom spines." Having no idea what the word meant, or why it was reserved exclusively for only the spines on the Segattoo's lowest bowl, she determined to ask her mother at first opportunity.
The entire plant was wonderfully well proportioned. Stepping back she noted its overall symmetry. The bowls gradually reduced in size, each a virtual replica of the bowl beneath, upon which it sat. The only perceptible difference between them, besides size, was the rainbow of colors within their spines. Each bowls' quills were an entirely different hue.
Looking upward Daniskira considered the second bowl, slightly smaller, mounted neatly on top of the first. The spines on this were a vivid, startling white at its base. By its middle, after its limbs protruded, the white gave way to rich cream. The cream transitioned to translucent yellow, gradually solidifying into lustrous shades of bronze and gleaming gold by its top.
The third bowl housed reds. The lowest spines were the pink of puckered lips, awaiting a kiss. Creeping higher they turned bright and bold, becoming ever darker, ending in hues of dried blood so dark they were barely distinguishable still as red.
The fourth held purples. Strangely the color intensity reversed, its quills gradually growing lighter as her eye crept upwards. It started with deepest plum, fading through mauve, till, at its top was pale lilac.
Above the purples, on the fifth bowl, were blues. The lowest spines were of an intensity seldom seen in nature, perhaps the center of a deep lake of melted snow, cold and crisp, brilliant, and blue. As had the purple bowl, these spines lightened as the eye climbed. Midway sported spectacular midsummer lightning and, by its top, they faded with most of their brilliance washed away.
Next, a range of aqua, palest winter sky, now darkening again as her eye climbed, though the transition was not bold. By the top of the sixth bowl... hints of morning sun's glimmer, reflected from a frozen sky.
The spines of the final colored bowl, the seventh, were green. Beginning was the pale of newly unfurled leaves in spring, the ending... forest's dark.
The Segattoo's topmost bowl held no hint of color. There was no transition from dark to light, from faded to vibrant. Only spines of deepest, deadly... impenetrable black.
Standing her full height of almost five feet, slightly shorter than most fifth-marked, Daniskira found she could just look down on the topmost bowl. "Nine hands tall! Who knew Segattoo could grow so huge? Papa will never believe my luck! No-one has Segattoo as glorious as these."
The topmost bowl was about the size of her cupped hands and, dead center on its top, was a small, gray object. Thinking it some vile parasite sucking the blood from her Segattoo, Daniskira examined it reproachfully, eager fingers ready to pinch and destroy. Instead, she squealed in delight. This aroused her sleeping hounds who instantly transformed into growling, hackle raised defenders. Calming them with soothing tones, she called them to her and petted both, attending the bitch first, as was seemly.
Returning her attention to the strange gray object, recognized now as part of the Segattoo, she noticed it was six sided and flattened. It was shaped precisely like a miniature Chukrah! It even sported swirling grooves which led to a central gem, formed by a speck of sap. Puzzled, she voiced her surprise, saying "I never noticed the Chukrah on top of the Segattoo before." Her discovery delighted her, even while it confounded her she had never before heard this obvious comparison mentioned.
A moment and she turned to watch her dogs. Whasin, the dog, was taking another circuit of the nearby foliage. He suspiciously sniffed each plant, judiciously reapplying his scent as necessary. After watching his antics Daniskira looked at the bitch. Baykin lay relaxed, tongue lolling, back in her spot, from where she looked at her mate. Baykin's eyes bore a resigned expression. In a fine mood after her delightful discovery, Daniskira burst into laughter saying "Boys do the strangest things don't they girl? Even boy dogs." Turning toward her mistress's voice, Baykin wagged her tail. Daniskira took it to be in agreement.
By this time Daniskira's time with her Segattoo had nearly expired. She knew she must set off soon if she was to arrive home before deep dark. Moving to the clearing's far side she sat between her dogs, gaining once more a vantage which allowed her to fully absorb the majesty of her plants.
She found herself reluctant to leave but finally, with the midday heat long since lessened, she stood and looked on her Segattoo one last time. It was in that moment that Daniskira, not yet sixth-marked, set her heart on the Symbologist's path.
Beginning her homeward march accompanied and guarded by her faithful hounds, she considered her options. During the long trek something changed within her, the depth of consideration applied to the plants - her Segattoo - was that of a long matched Symbologist.
Her first thought was to hold the plants unto herself, let no one else know of their existence. She could visit them, spend hours of solitary enjoyment with them. But reaching the plants would take an entire day... her visits could not be often. She might behold her glorious Segattoo only once each sixday, likely even less. The thought of spending so little time with them simply would not do. Emphatically, the child revealing itself, she said "I don't like that! I don't like that at all!"
Knowing she could not transport the plants without aid, she considered enlisting the covert aid of her older twin brothers, Brandeis and Kerbasi. They were almost full grown and soon to be twelfth-marked. Surely they would lend aid to their beloved baby sister? Both, set firmly on the path of the Warrior, were training in a distant village. She would have to await their return. They would arrive home in the fall, shortly before the village departed for Malmaxa. But at least she could visit her plants, till that time came.
Though conceived, she and her twin were not yet birthed during the journey, but her brothers had often regaled them with tales of travelling from the holy place to the village. Apparently it had taken many sixdays to complete. Thinking back on their stories she found nothing more precise regarding the trip's duration. What did 'many sixdays' mean? One luna took exactly six sixdays, if it was less than that then surely they would have named a precise number of sixdays? If it was near a lunar cycle they would have simply said "a short cycle" or a "luna". Frowning in frustration at the vague, imprecise descriptions boys used, she decided "many sixdays" must be more than six, but less than twelve.
Armed with this unsatisfying estimate, she determined that they might only be home for one or two sixdays before the Pilgrimage to Malmaxa began. Would that be sufficient time to arrange for her plants' retrieval? Knowing her brothers they would spend the first sixday catching up with their friends, while eating and sleeping far too much. There was no chance of their help then. The second sixday papa would want them to accompany him on a hunt, as he always did after any absence. Weighing these factors deliberately as she walked she decided this could only be a method of last recourse. The chance of losing her plants, because her brothers were engaged in trivial matters, seemed too great.
The last option conceived was to enlist the aid of her father. Contemplating this she knew he would be horrified when he learnt how far afield she ranged. Thinking he ensured her safety he would tighten the leash, unbearably. Papa was simply too protective of her. She felt no danger in her trips, was always protected by her hounds. "Mmmppphhh" she said aloud "Why do parents think their children are just children?" Hearing the words issuing from her own mouth, she giggled at how ridiculous they sounded.
About this time Daniskira realized all her thoughts of the magnificent plants were in the possessive form. The desire to show "her" Segattoo to all the Seizen grew with each homeward pace. Smiling to herself, she asserted "I found them! Well, perhaps not found, but the Gods revealed them to me. Clearly they were intended for me, alone."
Gradually her choices crystallized. By saying nothing of the plants, she could maintain her freedom, but would surely lose them. Though her brothers would willingly help... if time proved too short she chanced losing her Segattoo. Only with her father's aid could she be sure of securing them, but at the certain cost of her freedom.
The risk of loss inherent in the first two options clarified her decision. She could not bear even the slightest chance to lose her Segattoo.
Acknowledgement of this realization eased her heart and she increased her pace to a brisk, jaunty stride.
Daniskira, on arriving home considerably past nightfall, was accosted by her mother at the door.
Near hysteria, Zunesan demanded "Do you have any idea how worried you made us? Where, precisely, have you been all day?"
At sound of her mother's voice Ryntam popped her head out from her room, where she was likely engaged in reading things she should not. A single icy glance from Zunesan sent her silently behind the curtain.
Seeing the hearth was cold, and only then realizing how late it was, Daniskira glanced sheepishly toward her father, for support. Finding him unsympathetic she responded by excitedly informing them of her find, and begging her father's aid in their recovery. During her well rehearsed and eloquent plea, addressed directly to her father - more susceptible to her wiles than her mother - she baited the trap by saying "I'll do anything, papa... anything... if you'll help me get them."
At these words her father, as hoped, suppressed a smile and turned to Zunesan, to verify she had heard what had just been said.
Catching the gleam in her match's eyes Zunesan narrowed her own, and nodded.
Their youngest had definitely proffered a formal trade.
Understanding the Segattoo clearly meant a great deal to Daniskira, and sorely distracted by the bargain she had offered, Jalgar agreed to transport the plants home. Daniskira must have exaggerated their size, who ever heard of a Segattoo nine hands tall? Ridiculous, ours stands only five hands, and it is by far the biggest in the village. He was confident he could carry a couple of "little Segattoo". Besides, he had already planned to scout the area his daughter had just described. Tall, straight trees were of great value for their lumber, and furred beasts commonly inhabited such woods. Pleasing his youngest greatly would be reward in itself. Daniskira's open ended offer, mistakenly spoken as a formal trade, was something he could not refuse and fully intended taking advantage of. Yes, Daniskira's wandering days were numbered, and none too soon.
Zunesan was his witness.
There would be no wheedling out of this bargain.
Everything considered, the trip would serve multiple purposes, all good. But Jalgar remained silent about these benefits. That Daniskira believed he did her a great favor brought a smile, quickly suppressed. He was not without his own guile.
Recalling her question about the vhials, Daniskira looked up at her mother and appeased her by asking "Mama, why are the quills on the very lowest part of the Segattoo called 'Vhials'?"
Distracted from her distress by her child's question, Zunesan pondered it before saying "Vhial is an ancient term... In truth, I know not its origin. But only the transparent spines from the Segattoo's base bear this name. No, I cannot say why. All the others, which bear color, are called quills."
Shocked there was knowledge her mother did not possess, Daniskira gaped at her in open mouthed astonishment.
Noting her daughter's expression, Zunesan smiled and said "I don't know everything, child." After a moment she chuckled, and added "Ask your father, he is certain he does. Such a question will test him, nicely."
Turning to her father Daniskira caught him scowling at her mother. She raised her eyebrow quizzically.
Smoothing his face, Jalgar said "Aaahhh, yes, vhials..."
Eyes gleaming with wicked delight at Jalgar's discomfort, Zunesan laughed openly at his obvious attempt to delay, but said nothing.
Jalgar's only visible reaction was a barely noticeable narrowing of his eyes, as he noted Zunesan's glee. Turning from her to Daniskira he smiled down at her for a moment. In a voice filled with assurance he said "Why, 'Vhial' is merely a name, child. Oftentimes names have no meaning, save the pleasing nature of their sound. Just like yours... Daniskira, does it not roll smoothly off the tongue? Similarly is Vhial nothing more than a pleasing sound."
Turning, voice filled with humor, face with wide-eyed innocence, Jalgar looked directly at Zunesan, and said "I thought everyone knew that."
Zunesan stopped laughing. Jalgar began.
Taking notice of the playful interchange between her parents, Daniskira frowned. They seemed to delight in these exchanges, though neither ever achieved a decisive victory over the other. Yet, from their silly smiles and poorly hidden glances, one to the other, both acted as though they did. Normally she would turn away, ignoring their antics, knowing they would soon vanish into their room to engage in whatever game it was that adults played behind closed curtains. They were already beginning their giddy giggling, obviously sharing some hilarious private joke, no doubt at her expense.
Pursing her lips, Daniskira frowned first at her mother, and then her father. Neither spared her even a glance. With her phrasing a serious question, about something clearly of great import, this was no time for their childish frolicking. Why, this concerned her Segattoo! Seeing they were now oblivious to her presence she turned away in disgust and strode out the front door, suddenly eager to feel the Chundrah's caress.
As the door swung shut on its leather hinges Daniskira shook her head pensively. That her mother didn't know the origin of vhial was surprising, even shocking. And as for that ridiculous tale her father told - vhial was just a name - indeed!
A few paces from the door Daniskira stopped as a disquieting thought struck. Could it be that her parents didn't know everything? They often told her they didn't, but until this moment she had always thought they were simply avoiding complex explanations, perhaps in hope of sparing her difficulty in understanding.
Till now she had never even considered the possibility of their infallibility, failing.
Drawing a deep breath Daniskira walked on, her eyes raised to the stars.
She was more than a little shaken by her revelation.
Accompanied by her father Daniskira spent the next morning leading him to the site of her Segattoo. By mid-morning Jalgar was looking on her with emotions ranging between suspicion and respect. Taking a short break, to sip water from a stream, he silently noted the dogs' alert postures. Though not war hounds they were adequately sized to defend their young mistress, and their demeanor indicated they took this responsibility seriously.
After drinking his fill, Jalgar called the bitch to his side and petted her, murmuring words of gratitude for their care of his precious child. Releasing Baykin he watched as she lapped, her eyes ever alert. Whasin, her mate, remained watchful the entire time, only going to drink when Baykin had drunk her fill and took over guard.
Turning to his youngest, Jalgar said "You trained your hounds well. To know they always accompany you eases my mind, somewhat."
Frowning quizzically at her father, Daniskira said "Train them? I don't know what you mean papa, I just love them. I think they consider me their pup."
Nodding slowly, Jalgar said "Perhaps they do. We will keep one of their offspring for your new brother or sister. This is worthy behavior, we must encourage it."
Leaping up at her father's words, Daniskira squealed in delight, the noise bringing forth low growls and raised hackles from both hounds. At a calming motion of her hand they quieted instantly, but both remained even more alert than before. Each eyed Jalgar suspiciously.
Looking at her father, who smiled and nodded happily at each hound, Daniskira said "A baby comes?"
Jalgar, turning his gaze on Daniskira, smiled and said "After the Convocation, child. Should the Gods be willing, and your mama chooses to keep me. By the baby's birth Baykin's first pups will be weaned. We will choose the best bitch from her spring litter for this honor."
At mention of her name Baykin turned toward them, tail wagging. Following her father's eye Daniskira, seeing her bitch's behavior, laughed and said "You heard that, girl? We're going to have a new baba soon, and papa says you can finally have pups of your own, come winter. Won't that be wonderful?"
Baykin's tailed wagged faster and her mate barked spontaneously, as if in agreement.
On reaching the clearing they were rewarded with the same splendid view Daniskira had been granted the previous day. Jalgar was awed, both by the colorful sight and the Segattoo's staggering size. Recovering his wits, he managed to stop himself exclaiming at their enormity. Ruefully, he recalled his offhand skepticism when Daniskira had mentioned their height.
Nine hands had she said, and nine hands they were.
While Daniskira prepared a midday meal Jalgar scouted the area. He soon gave up any attempt to count the straight bodied, hardwood trees. There were far too many. With adequate time till the Pilgrimage's start the artisans could harvest much fine lumber from this forest. This promised to be a fortuitous cycle for the entire village, all because of 'two little Segattoo'. After eating, and complimenting Daniskira on her excellent cooking, he spent the entire afternoon extracting the first Segattoo from the earth. Having accomplished this not insignificant task he realized, to his chagrin, that he could not possibly carry it from the woods unaided.
Fortunately the skies were clear and the weather comfortably warm, allowing them to camp in the clearing within the woods. Daniskira quickly snuggled into her father's shoulder, where she was sound asleep within moments.
Jalgar was not so fortunate.
His struggle to conceive a workable plan to transport the Segattoo ruined his sleep. How he could carry a nine hands tall, spine protected plant - without becoming his own Symbologist in the process - entirely eluded him.
In the morning, after slowly consuming a troubled breakfast, Jalgar told Daniskira "We must return to the village for help. We will have to leave the plants. With the aid of another we may be able to carry them, but we will undoubtedly need two trips. Sorry child, but I cannot bear a Segattoo of such size alone."
Daniskira, distraught at these terrible tidings, burst into tears. Sobbing plaintively, true tears flowing free, she exclaimed "We can't leave it, Father! It will die! I cannot kill a Gift from the Gods. I cannot!"
In her young mind Daniskira feared that once they departed this wondrous place they would never return. The thought quickly set and was believed completely, and unshakably.
She could not permit such a dire deed to take place.
Making no attempt to staunch her tears, or her heart rending wails, Daniskira craned her neck to peer, wide-eyed, up at her father. She crumpled her body, making it even smaller than it was. Reaching out both hands in feeble supplication she emulated, perfectly, the graceful lie of the Segattoo's limbs.
Responding tenderly to his child's plea, Jalgar took her small hands in his and squeezed reassuringly.
Unresponsive, Daniskira held her hands limp - remaining a miserable depiction of dejection. From her eyes issued unstaunched flows. She let woe's twinned rivers course down her cheeks, making no attempt to slow them. All the while she watched her father closely, seeking sign he might relent. Seeing none, she dropped her gaze and sagged against him. Almost falling she forced him to catch her, lest she collapse into earth's embrace.
Once safely ensconced within her father's encircling arms, Daniskira slowly stifled her sobs. Snatching deep, uneven breaths, she slumped - as if about to faint.
Clearly, this cruel stress was more than any little girl could be asked to bear.
In a harsh tone, Jalgar exclaimed "Daniskira, calm yourself!" This was his usual manner when distressed by his progeny, and normally brought them instantly to heel.
Daniskira did not respond, in any discernible way.
Surprised by her passive demeanor, Jalgar attempted to reassure her by softening his tone and gently explaining "Segattoo are hardy, they can survive many sixdays without water. Here, let us cover its roots with soil, till our return."
So saying, he bent and scooped a few handfuls of earth to cover the exposed roots which lay, as limp as his daughter, beneath the plant. He took special care not to impale his hand on the spines, suddenly monstrous and angry appearing.
Unresponsive throughout, Daniskira remained so slack spined Jalgar was forced to hug her to him the entire time.
Sensing her father's resolve weakening, Daniskira ratcheted up her sobs and unleashed a fresh wave of tears. Suddenly stiffening, she escaped her father's supportive arm and staggered, stiff legged, toward the plant. Trance like, she held both arms to the Segattoo, begging its forgiveness for their monstrous deed. Deliberately, she let her feebly wavering fingers come dangerously close to the Segattoo's bristling black spines. On hearing her father's sharply indrawn breath she sagged, toward the waiting quills.
The effort of standing unaided was simply too much, for a child as distraught as she.
Jalgar's hands shot forward, grasping Daniskira's shoulders. His long fingers supported her arms as he carefully pulled her back. Thankfully he met little resistance.
Shakily Daniskira pointed one weak, limp hand at the far side Segattoo. It stood, magnificently illuminated in sunlight's first brilliant beam. With a pitiful sob, she murmured "It's no good Father, already it dies. I have killed a Gift from the Gods." She pitched her voice dull, resigned to the terrible knowledge that she, by her action alone, had slain this wondrous plant.
Drawing a shuddering breath and suppressing another sob, Daniskira said "Look, already it loses its luster. Compare it to its twin, still rooted within mother earth."
Unable to prevent himself, Jalgar snatched his head about and saw the brightly illuminated Segattoo toward which Daniskira's wavering hand pointed.
Guilt at his thoughtless, vile deed struck Jalgar a merciless blow.
With sinking certainty he looked back to the one he had so casually unearthed. There could be no denying his complicity in this callous crime. The uprooted Segattoo was, indeed, dying.
Perceiving her father's panicked glance from plant to plant, Daniskira knew she had won.
The uprooted Segattoo stood in morning's shadow. Its mate, illuminated by the first beam of sunlight spearing the dense wood, gleamed and looked... splendorous.
Distracted to defeat by the wiles of his youngest, Jalgar was forced to admit, in a subdued voice, "It does seem to lack in glory. Strange... Segattoo are normally so hardy." Turning to Daniskira he softened his demeanor further, and added "What would you have me do, child? You know I cannot carry it, alone."
Elated at her victory, Daniskira struggled to maintain her dejected appearance, while thinking swiftly. She looked about in all directions, suddenly frantic for inspiration. Having exhausted all other avenues she looked up, in desperation. Her unspoken supplication to the heavens themselves was immediately answered. Towering over her were two tall trees, bereft of branches for most of their height - save two sets of branches, intertwined between both boughs.
Facing her father, she exclaimed "A travois! Make a travois! Suspend the plant between the poles." Raising her eyebrow quizzically, as though daring any to challenge the capabilities of her father, she added "Surely this will be easy, for one such as you, papa?" A little flattery could bolster boys to attempt foolish feats. She hoped the same was true of grown men.
Jalgar considered her suggestion briefly, before conceding. It was a potentially workable plan, and the perfect application to show the village craftsmen the quality of the plentiful hardwood available for harvest. Nodding slowly, greatly relieved at Daniskira's improved demeanor, he said "Very well, I shall attempt it."
Besides, he was seldom able to resist any reasonable request from his doe eyed daughter.
Commitment to the foolhardy endeavor made, Jalgar set out in search. Soon he found two suitable saplings standing tall and straight, their trunks mostly unadorned by branches. There were countless such within this wood, each striving to reach sunlight through the forest's dense canopy. Knowing the artisans would be pleased, he cut and smoothed a matched pair. Good straight trees, such as these, had uncounted uses. Once trimmed they were a little thicker than his wrists in diameter, and longer than he was tall.
Considering how to suspend the plant such that it would be safe, yet secure and upright, took Jalgar some time. Daniskira looked on wearing an expression of complete surety in his ability, bolstering his confidence in the endeavor.
Jalgar knew he must go shirtless for the return trip. It was late spring, the sun not quite in its full summer glory. He would suffer sunburn, but Zunesan had poultices for such. Committed to the plan, he removed his leather tunic and tied it securely between the saplings where it would serve as a pouch for the plant's base. Removing his hijath and opening it to its full width he folded it in half and draped it over his head, letting it hang down his back. Though its cloth was light in weight, it was densely woven and would offer some shade.
Carefully Jalgar moved the Segattoo onto his tunic using the thick, hard leather gloves from his pack. They had been brought with intent of carrying the "little" Segattoo. Ruefully, he recalled thinking how children were prone to exaggeration... they can't possibly be nine hands tall... With care he stood and raised the matched saplings to his shoulders. They rested on his hijath, holding it in place even as it protected his skin from their bark's touch. Slowly he stepped forward, dragging the travois.
Daniskira clapped, in excited delight.
A surge of pride in his child's intellect, and his ability to execute her clever plan, swept through Jalgar. Moments later his foot caught on a root hidden beneath layered leaves, lying in wait for the unwary.
Jalgar heard Daniskira yelping in alarm as he plummeted face first into the soft earth. A moment later agony flooded his buttocks and back. In a massive spasm his entire body wracked at this unexpected assault.
The Segattoo, toppled onto his back, finally had its revenge for Jalgar's callous mistreatment. It impaled its torturer with hundreds of razor sharp, resin filled quills. Only the instinctive, involuntary flexing of his body saved Jalgar. His torso's sudden contortion knocked the plant from him, preventing the quills releasing all their riches into him.
Watching in horror, Daniskira saw her father fall, heard the smack of his body striking the ground. This was followed by a tearing sound as her Segattoo teetered forward and crashed onto his back. It lay upon him for the briefest of instants before he flexed his powerful muscles, casually throwing it off.
Slack jawed with dismay, Daniskira watched her plant, now clad in her father's hijath, pivot upright. It balanced, perfectly upright, for a moment before teetering and falling onto the leaf cushioned earth between the travois poles.
Fighting gut wrenching waves of nausea, riding hard on agony's heels, Jalgar lifted himself, shakily, onto all fours. His back attested he was staked over an anthill, besieged by a myriad fire ants, each biting furiously. His buttocks, that they had been numbed by long immersion in an icy river.
Echoing through pain's twisting tunnel, he heard Daniskira's voice saying "Do you think it's broken, papa?" His fogged mind spent several eternal moments considering which part of him she described. From the lack of sensation below his hips it was likely his legs. Belatedly, realizing Daniskira expressed concern for the Segattoo, not him, and that the numbness in his buttocks was from the vhials, not some terrible injury, Jalgar collapsed face forward onto the ground, laughing. With that release the torment of his back seemed more manageable. Relinquishing control, he relaxed and lay quivering with hysterical glee on the bed of leaves.
Placing her clenched fists on her hips, Daniskira looked sternly down on her father and said "It's not funny, Father! You could have broken a limb right off my Segattoo!" On noticing Jalgar's freshly tattooed back she added "Oh, how pretty. Your back bears every color my Segattoo holds! Mama is sure to like it."
Several heartbeats later, on realizing the potential for pain, she added "You're not hurt are you, papa?" This was in afterthought.
Laughing heartily into the earth, Jalgar forgot the excruciating agony, for the moment.
A long while later, considerate of the numbness in his buttocks, Jalgar rose shakily to his feet. Dusting off the loose earth and debris he reconsidered the matter. Adding two branches, crosswise over the travois, would lock the Segattoo in place, preventing it falling either forward or backward. Using his leather gloves he began the careful task of maneuvering the enormous plant back onto the reinforced travois. He remained all the while under Daniskira's watchful scrutiny.
While supervising her father's labors, Daniskira suddenly recalled the miniature Chukrah on the top bowl. Reluctant to interfere with his efforts she remained silent, but craned her head to look down, on the once again upright plant.
The tiny Chukrah was gone, leaving in its place a tiny egg shaped button. Bright green in color, where before it had been the dull gray of an inert Chukrah, it could only be the beginning of a new bowl. Delighted at having witnessed the birth of a Segattoo segment, Daniskira considered sharing the knowledge with her father. A glance, revealing his effort and concentration, dissuaded her. Better not risk distracting him. Remaining silent, she determined to examine other Segattoo and see if they also grew fresh bowls.
Further captivated by this interesting insight, her determination to study Segattoo with the diligence they deserved redoubled.
No longer would she accept that Segattoo were mundane.
Having loaded the plant in its new, more secure berth they continued homeward. Jalgar moved with significantly more care and there were no further incidents of him displaying wanton disregard for the safety of Daniskira's Segattoo. He seemed to have learned his lesson.
As Daniskira feared she ended the day by relinquishing her freedom. Her parents, callously revealing their side of the trade she had offered, forbade her making any further unsupervised trips until she reached her twelfth marking. She surprised them by willingly agreeing to honor this odious and grossly unfair trade, provided her father retrieved the second Segattoo with her. Ryntam surprised her by showing no hint of jealously, and no desire to accompany them to fetch the first's twin. Secretly, she was relieved. She suspected her father, with his strange sense of fairness, might insist she relinquish the second plant to Ryntam. Her sibling's peculiar lack of interest ensured they would remain a pair, and hers, alone.
A full sixday passed before they ventured back for the second. It took Jalgar that long to recover from his self inflicted symbol. Still, he considered it a bargain. To please his youngest immensely, gain two splendid Segattoo and lose the worry of where Daniskira was... this was a most satisfactory trade, indeed.
There was never any question as to whose Segattoo they were. Having found and secured them - at great personal effort - Daniskira attended to them with genuine love.
In their turn the plants responded with spines of the most vibrant hues imaginable.
They also granted Daniskira many fine Segattoo offspring.
Timeline: Evening, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
"Of my Segattoo's progeny? That... is a story for another day" Daniskira said, winding up her tale.
The adults and eleventh-marked clapped in delight. The fifth-marked children, seated at Daniskira's feet, immediately began pleading for more.
Standing up and stretching languorously, while contemplating the flavor of mulled mahahsee, Daniskira said "Provided your chores are done... return at sunset tomorrow. We shall see if another story comes to mind."
With a few insignificant grumbles and pleas from the youngest the gathering quieted.
After catching the eyes of the fifth-marked, Daniskira added "Consider what I have related to you this evening, children. Though joyous, there are lessons therein."
IV. A Question, of Chukrah.
Timeline: Night, Wodansday, 2nd sixday, 9th Luna 3600.
With Liaju sleeping soundly, Jalgar and Rethga spoke in low tones of the following morning's hunt. It would be their second since leaving the village. The first, at sunrise this day, had failed. No beasts had been sighted, though they had waited till well into morning. After departing the failed site they had walked an arc, with the village at its center point, to where they now were. Each hunting site was located about a day's walk from the village, any closer and there was no game at all.
Having decided they would not visit the new site until morning, for fear of laying warning scent, Jalgar went over the plan with his son. They would be up well before first light, in position near the game trail before dawn.
Plans laid and clear Rethga, speaking quietly so as not to disturb the soundly sleeping Liaju, said "On our return to the village I undertake the first Rite of Passage, my Vision Quest. With it I embark on the path which leads forever from childhood. Daniskira will grant me my marks, preparing me to undertake the Final Rite - entering the hoard for the eternal match. I will match a Hunter, I am certain. But, might you enlighten me how I might find my Chukrah?"
This matter was in the Gods' hands, and Jalgar knew nothing he might say or do could influence it. Though he believed his son suited to his path, that of the Hunter, there was no guarantee. The eternal match was not one of choice, but of fate.
Turning to face Rethga, Jalgar said "Strange. You are confident you will match a Hunter. I have trained you as a one, true. But the Chukrah match is not assured, boy. I too was certain of my class when I entered the hoard. I was to be a Warrior. Yet, before you now... sits a Hunter."
Shocked at these unexpected words, Rethga sat bolt upright. That his father could be anything but a Hunter had never occurred to him.
Seeing the boy's posture, and sensing his turmoil, Jalgar said "Discard your distress, boy. This is my true Chukrah, as I am its true soul mate. Of your question, know this and rest peacefully in the knowledge. Your Chukrah will sing to your very soul. You can neither mistake its plea, nor deny its call."
Rethga, his frown betraying his confusion, said "But, how? How will I know the Chukrah I find is my true match?"
Torn between the desire to warn his son and knowledge he must remain silent, Jalgar hesitated.
Finally, couching his words in vague mystical forms, Jalgar closed the matter by saying "Your rightful Chukrah, sensing your approach, will sing out to you. The answer of your heart to its plea, and your hand to its caress, will burn away all doubt. As surely as the sun vanquishes the night."
Unaware he was clenching and unclenching his right hand, Jalgar stretched out with his left and clasped Rethga on the shoulder.
After a few heartbeats, Jalgar hooded his eyes and added "Pain is a strange companion, boy. When it is with you... you are certain you can never forget it. Yet once it is passed you can seldom recall its frightening visage, fully."
Jalgar hoped Rethga heard his warning, and heeded it.
... continued ...