Signs in the Wind
Inching precariously down the face of the boulder called “the dawn watch” by the men who stand guard over the camp, Chilcoat reached the niche etched into the stone by countless ancestors before him. Sweeping the surface with his hand, he removed a family of bugs that had taken up residence.
As he settled in for the short wait, he focused on the sun rising above the far hills on the distant horizon. Since he was taller than most, he had to slouch to fit his head into the saddle carved painstakingly into the rock face. As a master-hunter and guardsman, it was his duty on the morning-watch to check for the season change. He knew it wouldn’t yet be time, but it was his responsibility, and one of the young men of the tribe might see him, so he sat dutifully in the cold. His knee was starting to complain about his inactivity as he stirred slowly, swinging his feet around to the east.
A rat complained about the ownership of some morsel down by the trash dump at the base of the rocks. Tangar, the tribal Seer, sat in the darkness waiting for just such an opportunity. He moved quickly to better locate the varmint and threw a barrage of stones. There was a short skirmish and he emerged triumphant. He had earned his keep, and was justly proud. He would hold his head high at this morning’s meal.
Chilcoat reflected on his own age and the stiffness he felt in his knee. He was only in his mid twenties but had lingering pains from a rockslide that nearly killed him as a young boy. The incident left his knee scarred in such a way that he feared he, too, would soon be hunting rats and grubs. It had also scarred his memory with a bitter taste of an unfair god that stole his parents before he even knew them.
He pulled his long dark hair back from his face and held his hand up to block the first full rays of the sun as it peeked over the horizon. It was just to the left of the distant hill. In a few weeks, it would align and it would be time to move the village to the lowlands.
A cool breeze snapped at his cloak and cleared his path back to the village as a band of clouds gathered in the south. He passed the first hearth on the outskirts of the village and smiled at Tangar sitting proudly while his daughter, Tarra, worked diligently to prepare the rats he had provided. There were two large ones and a single small one, and the broth was rich with grains from the summer harvest. Chilcoat nodded approval to the old man who sat erect in acknowledgment and beamed with pride at still being the man of his lodge, able to provide for his families’ welfare.
Chilcoat moved slowly to his own hut. His sister-in-law, Charona, tended the cooking fire near the entrance while he washed up and huddled under the blankets next to Caran, his wife. He always enjoyed this moment of warmth and union.
He was nearly ready to doze off when she stirred gently to caress him before getting up to tend to her morning duties. Brushing her ample flow of brunette hair back from her face, she wrapped her comfortable figure in her morning coat, and left through the drape that served as the door to their hut.
The village soon stirred and began to make too much noise for him to get any more sleep, so he sat up close to the fire and lit a pipe of smoking herbs. The familiar warmth swept through him and the prospect of the morning meal sounded good. As he finished his smoke, Charona entered with a bowl of morning stew and a large piece of flat bread. The size of the bread spoke of a stew that was without body. He needed to hunt today even though he had been on watch most of the night. That usually didn’t work out very well, but he had no choice, his family needed meat.
While the season had started well enough, in the last few weeks, it had suddenly turned very harsh. The animals they depended upon were skittish and hard to find. It made teaching his son, Chilton, very difficult. They spent much time searching and little time actually hunting. Perhaps it’s a blessing, he thought. He had had to teach the boy many tricks he, himself, hadn’t learned until he was much older. Hunting in the lean years is a much greater challenge and, perhaps, will serve the boy well.
The thin morning stew was only roots and grain, “dirt stew” the men called it when they were drinking late in the evening. It’s warm, but it isn’t the meal I need. Maybe I should be hunting rats with Tangar.
She watched Chilcoat awkwardly as he stirred the thin broth. “Is there anything I can do for you? I’d like to thank you for your kindness.” She smiled slightly and rearranged her cloak exposing the warmth of her neckline.
“Ah... nah, I’m all right.” He considered the chill of the day and the prospects of trudging around the hills searching for game as she continued to clean up the bedding. Her cloak loosened slightly exposing more of her ample charms. “Ah... maybe a few moments of your time would be nice.”
She knotted her long dark hair back from her face and burrowed under the blanket he had wrapped around himself.
As they lay quietly recovering, Caran called for her to gather more firewood. Charona knew they didn’t need more wood, but it gave her an excuse to leave. She took the cue and left Chilcoat with a slight hint of a smile.
The ground swayed under him as he bent to the fire and lit his pipe. He hadn’t felt such uneasiness since he had been sick last season. He steadied himself for a moment and realized that it wasn’t his condition but that the earth itself that was gently rolling. He quickly joined his family gathered around the cooking fire. They looked to him as if he could explain the earth’s unsettled behavior. The dogs skittered nervously around the group, cowering at the slightest movement or sound.
Rancon, their nearest neighbor, stuck his head out of his hut and called to him. “Did you feel that?”
“Yeah, it felt like I was still drunk.”
Rancon wrapped his coat closely over his shoulders and picked his way across the clearing to stand barefoot in front of him. Sipping a cup of morning broth, he gestured toward the south. “Looks like a storm; seems like there’s always a storm when there’s an earthquake. Kind of late in the season for a storm from the south though—must nearly be time to move to the lowlands and we’re still having summer storms...”
Chilcoat followed his gesture and was surprised at how quickly the clouds had gathered. The gray blanket was just coming over the horizon when he finished his watch, and now it was nearly upon them. It wasn’t going to be a good day for hunting and he wasn’t really in the mood for more dirt stew.
He considered some alternatives. Maybe someone will trade for some herbs or hides, or maybe Charona can serve one of the elders for a few days in exchange for extra meat... I’ll have to ask around. Larkon had had a good hunt a couple of days ago and he has three sons that are always in need of a woman’s touch.
Just as he had convinced himself that things were going to improve the dogs started to dance around nervously and, again, the ground trembled. It started gently at first, and then a great wave caused a pile of wood nearby to tumble with cooking pots falling from their platform.
“Whoa! That was a good one,” Chilcoat remarked as the commotion subsided. “Maybe it’s a sign that we should leave the highlands early this year.”
Rancon collected some of the wood that had fallen. “Maybe so, we should ask Tangar to divine the meaning.”
“That’s a good idea, sometimes you surprise me Ran,” Chilcoat slapped his friend on the back. “It’ll give the old boy a chance to lead again. He deserves a little boost... I noticed him hunting rats this morning. He’s good at it, but it’s a bit of a comedown for the clan seer. I tried giving him some of my last kill, but the old bastard wouldn’t take anything from the likes of me. You know how he is.”
“You two have a falling out? You’re his son man... make him take it.”
“That’s what bothers him. I’m not his son. I’m just the kid he pulled out of the rubble. The kid he wants no part of now that I’ve grown past his chants and prayers. I have no patients for his mumbo-jumbo and that pisses him off, I guess.”
“That’s pretty harsh isn’t it? I mean, you used to tag along on his spirit-walks. What’s changed?”
“I don’t know. Him and a couple of his buddies dug up some old scroll and they think they’ve figured out some obscure crap that he wants me to buy into. He keeps calling me ‘the man foretold’ that has some mystical path to follow, and I’ve got no time for such nonsense. That—and I started to show too much interest in his herbs, I guess. He got mad and told me ‘You can’t rely on them’.”
“Well, that much is true. You won’t find me eating his poisons, even if it means you’ll do my hunting for me.”
“I’ll do your hunting alright, just as soon as you make the pain in my knee go away.” They had a good laugh while they finished their stew and returned to their families.
As the morning routine finished, Chilcoat approached Charona about serving the Larkon boys for a couple of days and set the rest of his family to work getting ready for the annual journey north. The storm had gathered strength and rumbled as it poured in over the hills.
Stopping at the edge of Rancon’s clearing; he called out, “Hey Ran, are you going to come with me to talk to the old man?”
“Yeah, sure, give me a minute to get some shoes on.” He finally emerged from his house and, after taking a quick look at the sky, returned for a moment pulling his raincoat over his head. “This looks like it’s going to be a real mess.”
“That’s the spirit. I always like to hear that positive attitude when things look bleak.” The old friends took the main path through the village and tried to attract as much attention as they could without being too obvious. They wanted everyone to know that they sought the wisdom of the Seer. “It never hurts to pump-up the old man’s pride before you try to convince him to find in your favor.”
As they stood at the edge of Tangar’s clearing thunder rumbled in the south. Pulling the arrows from his quiver, Chilcoat quickly sorted through them and selected a dart from the cluster. He placed it across the flat stone next to the fire pit and called out for all to hear. “Tangar, I’ve come to report a quiet night with only the dogs being restless near dawn, and we would humbly ask your guidance.”
Thinking quickly, Rancon pulled a rabbit hide from his belt and placed it with the arrow. “Tangar, we’ve come to ask your wisdom.”
Larkon and a couple of others from the village approached from behind, tucking in their coats and pulling on their shoes, as they stumbled up the dusty path in front of Tangar’s lodge.
Tarra emerged from her father’s hut and quickly counted the number of people gathering in the half-light of morning. “What do you want? He’s resting and doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
“Aw, come on Sis. You know you’re going to have to let me talk to him. It’s official business,” Chilcoat goaded her.
“Don’t call me that. You’re not my brother, and your ‘official business’ can wait until he calls on you at the evening meal.”
Tangar emerged wrapped in his ceremonial robe and pulled the hood to cover his bald head against the chill. He looked deep into the eyes of the two men standing at the base of the path and glanced quickly at the offerings on his hearthstone. “What have you come to ask? Can’t you see I am resting?”
Chilcoat smirked slightly at Tarra’s disdain and pulled his small hunting pouch of smoking herb from his belt. He tossed the pouch on top of the rabbit pelt. “We’re sorry to keep you from your rest, father, but we knew you would be disturbed, as we are, by the ground quaking. What does it mean, and why are we plagued with a storm so late in the season? Tell us if we should prepare to leave for the lowlands. Are the gods telling you what we should do?”
Tangar looked gravely at the gathering crowd and gave a quick nod before returning to his lodge. The two men followed and entered the hut as Tarra held the flap open. She quickly tiptoed across the clearing in her morning cloak and retrieved the offerings. Her hair was a tumult of ginger that she pulled back from her lightly freckled face as she closed the door behind them.
The men sat on the meager cushions scattered on the floor while Tangar assessed the offerings. The rabbit pelt was of good quality and met his immediate approval but it was of lesser value than the arrow. He pulled his hood back and rubbed his naked head twice, as was his habit when he had something to resolve. Turning his attention to the arrow, he smoothed the feathers skeptically and gave the remaining arrows in Chilcoat’s quiver a quick glance. He would need to replace the feathers before he used it for bird hunting. His eyes had grown dim with the years and colored feathers made a missed shot easier to find than the dull brown plumes that currently adorned the shaft.
Putting the arrow aside, he turned to the pouch of smoking herb. He opened the small purse and poured the contents carefully onto the flat stone near the fire. He was pleased with the quality of the herb as he took a small pinch and held it to his nose. He tossed the empty bag back to Chilcoat and dug into his own pouch for his pipe. After burrowing through the leather purse for several moments, he withdrew the small clay cone with a great deal of satisfaction.
He tapped the end of the pipe on his palm several times and blew through the stained yellow barrel to be sure it was clear. He then took a pinch of the dried leaves and packed them firmly into the pipe. Making a loose fist, he wedged the cone between his fingers, lit a kindling twig, and held it to the pipe. He pulled his closed fist to his mouth and drew a breath slowly through his fingers. With the practiced hand of an expert, he metered the acrid smoke with fresh air, mixing it in his palm. His lungs were also showing their age, and he found that he needed very little smoke and plenty of cool, clean, air to keep from choking.
He opened his fist and rolled the pipe thoughtfully between his fingers as the pleasant warmth of the herb spread through his body. He felt the comforting pleasure he had felt so many times before as he looked upon the young men awaiting his wisdom. He considered the pipe for a moment and then held it out toward each of them in turn. They both nodded acknowledgement, but didn’t take the pipe from him. They knew that custom required him to offer it, but that it was also the custom to decline herbs given in compensation.
He placed the pipe carefully on the hearthstone and looked up at the two men sitting across the fire from him. “You’re anxious to return to the lowlands? You know the season hasn’t yet turned. Why do you think we should put the people through this hardship so early?”
“Father, please hear us out. You know that I’ve watched the signs of the season, and I know that it isn’t yet time, but the time is near, and the hunting’s poor, and now the earth trembles beneath our feet. I think it would be good to start our preparations as soon as possible, and make the journey in an easy walk instead of running from the winds of winter as we have done so many times in the past. This storm is another sign...”
“Sign, now you’re reading signs in the winds? You know what the scrolls tell us… ‘Look to the sky for your signs and know that God will give you no other sign than the knowledge that you live in heaven’. You don’t need me if you can read the winds. Perhaps you should take my cloak now...” The old man tugged at the decorative band around his collar.
“No father. You know I have no taste for spirits and signs. I don’t want your cloak now, or ever. I’m not trying to read the signs as you do. It just seems to me, and others, that the season has turned early this year. You know this happens and it makes the journey hard on the very young.”
“Now you’re telling me that I am too old to know the concerns of the young?”
“No father, I ask only that you explain the signs and tell us what we must do. Are the gods telling us to leave this place before the ground falls away from under our feet?”
Tangar considered his words and knew that what they asked was on the minds of everyone. The tribe expected, and deserved, an answer to the meaning of the quake, for while quakes are common in the highlands, they’re always a warning from the gods. Someone had apparently done something that offended YodHeaVau and he needed to determine what to do about it. Usually he could find someone who had done something that offended the spirits, but that would take time to divine, and this request for a quick answer wouldn’t give him time to find an infidelity or transgression to blame this on. The old man finally spoke. “Let it go. It’s not of your concern now. Let me rest.”
The three men rose and passed through the door. Each stopped and looked at the sky as they emerged. The clouds streamed ominously across the sky. Tangar spoke in calm measured tones loud enough for those gathered to hear. “You’re correct to come to me with this. I’ll need time to divine what Hea is saying, but it is best that you begin to prepare for the journey.” The old man took a small scepter from his daughter and waved it, first at the clouds covering the sun, then at the men standing before him.
Tarra retrieved the scepter and held the door open for her father. She looked irritated at Chilcoat. “You can go now.”
Rancon spoke quietly to Chilcoat as they left. “You seemed to have pissed her off too.”“Yeah, she doesn’t think I show enough respect for the old man and his mumbo-jumbo. She’s his understudy in all things mystical and thinks I should bow down to her, or something. I mean, I just can’t see her that way. She’s my little sister, sort of.”