A Pleasant Walk
By midday, the heat was unbearable and the children were insistent that they go to the lake. Caran relented and dragged the morning laundry down to the shore. The water felt good and the children finally stopped whining. She was in bliss for a few moments. Tarra also stirred early from the day’s rest but decided against a wake-up dip in favor of a quick sponge bath and a few moments alone.
Chilcoat finally stirred and celebrated the solitude with a quick smoke sitting by the morning fire. As he finished, he lamented what little herb remained and considered where he might be able to find more. That’s another thing I miss about Tangar, he always knew where the best herbs grew. Maybe the tanasin stick leads to some smoking herbs. What the hell is tanasin anyway? He rummaged through his collection bowl but didn’t find the stick. Looking up, he noticed Tarra tending to the breakfast dishes. “Have you seen that stick you’ve been poking me with?”
She stopped her scrubbing long enough to pull the twig from her hair and toss it to him. The light caught her hair in scarlet profusion as it fell silently across her shoulders and tumbled down her chest.
He caught the stick and smiled in response to her questioning gaze. “The old man’s been with me lately. He has nothing to tell me, he just comes around to remind me of how things used to be… What does the stick mean? Has he really spoken to you?”
“I don’t know. It’s like a shooting star. He’s gone before I can be sure he’s there. I did the dance of the wands as well as I know how. It seemed important to him. He spent a lot of his strength teaching me, just before he—died.”
She dried her hands, pulled the medicine bag from its hanger and approached to kneel next to him. Spreading the cloth flat in front of them, she took the tanasin stick from his hand, inspected the blunt end carefully twisting it in her fingers to look at all sides. She then scanned the sunburst painted on the cloth and placed the stick down flat, lining it up with first one notch, and then another in the sun’s sculpted surface. “I think it fits this one best,” she gestured.
The stick lay angled from the sun’s face like a twisted little antler protruding from the otherwise regular border of flames. “I think that’s the southeast trail that leads over the low hills. See, it has bumps here in the middle of the first section. That means that in about a half-week you’ll reach some hills. That seems about right doesn’t it? I mean if you took the southeast trail, you’d get to some hills in about three days, right?”
“What? Yeah, I guess so. So you’re telling me that this stick is a map I am supposed to follow?”
“Yes. It’s the wisdom of the Seer… Papa was clear, ’the sticks speak to the children of Yod, telling a story you must follow to seek wisdom from Hea, the father, and bounty from Vau, the mother’.”
Chilcoat reached out almost touching the twig. “What else does this tell you? So far you have me lost in the hills and we’re only partway up the stick.”
“See how it forks to the right just before the end of the segment. I think that must be a branch in the trail. The second section seems to be flat, but it has lots of little bumps and notches along its length. I think that means the second week has many rocks, but at least it seems to be flat. The last section is shorter, maybe only three days walk, and branches back to the left. Then it finishes up a sharp kink right at the end.”
“You’re telling me I’m supposed to walk for two and a half weeks out, and two and a half weeks back in this heat, just to find out if the old man’s pulling my leg?”
“Yeah, I guess so…”
He sat silently gazing at the crooked little stick lying in front of him. Picking it up, he looked carefully at its intricate notches, bumps, and bends. A warm vision of Tangar sitting solemnly at his hearth carving the stick flashed across his mind. “Tanasin, huh? What the hell is tanasin?”
She timidly whispered. “It’s a spirit-herb… I think.”
“A what? A spirit-herb... You mean if, and when, we should find it, it’ll be some kind of poison that’s going to screw with my head? This just keeps getting better and better.”
“I don’t know for sure, but the herbs of knowledge demand tribute.”
Chilcoat stuck the twig behind his ear and waved at the cloth. “You better pick this stuff up for now. I’ll have to think about it for a while.”
She hung the medicine bag around the shoulders of the mannequin. “I’ll come with you if you want.” She offered timidly as he got up to leave.
“That cat has a mate and he’s probably staked out the oak groves in those hills you have me going through. If I go, I want somebody who can guard my back not do my dishes.”
“I want to go. I think I can help.” She defiantly grabbed the twig from his ear and jabbed it into the rope of her hair she quickly twisted together.
Chilcoat ask Rancon to takeover for him while they were gone and filled him in on the quest, just in case he needed to send a search party. Lannon was eager to join the adventure and since Bartan had volunteered to take over his guard duty, he was free. Charona didn’t like him going on such a silly mission, especially with the aspiring priestess tagging along. “She’s so young, and so is he.”
Caran was somber but knew Chilcoat was determined to do something to help the people and if that meant following the duty of the Seer, then, that is what he would do. She pulled Tarra aside. “I know you feel you’re doing what you should, but I ask you to think carefully about it. You’ll be alone with two men for many days. There’ll be no privacy and much danger. If things go badly, you’ll be a burden on their ability to protect you. Are you sure you’re ready to accept the responsibility of hurting another?”
“No, I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I don’t know what else to do. You know as well as I, that things aren’t right. The heat is killing us slowly. The eyes of many of the old have faded long before their time. They have become burdens on their families, and the hunting is bad, especially with that cat around. Daddy would know just what to do; he would perform the duty of the Seer and take a spirit-walk. But, he’s gone... and Chilcoat resists his ways. I know it’s not my place, but I want to help.”
“I know, I know. But there’s a pain in my heart that begs you not to go. I’ve grown to love you dearly, and I am afraid that I’ll lose you. Or maybe I am afraid that I’ll lose him—to you.” The two embraced softly and lingered for several moments in silence.
Tarra finally broke the spell. “You’ve nothing to fear from me. I love you too dearly to ever hurt you.” They kissed gently and held each other tight. The two stood alone amongst the scattered bedding and explored feelings that left both of them a little aroused and confused.
“I’ll tell him that he must be careful. I don’t want either of you hurt.”
“I’ll be careful,” Chilcoat offered from the doorway as he entered. He stepped forward and held both of them warmly lingering for several moments holding Caran. “This’ll be a simple walk in the woods and we’ll be right back. If we find something... great... if not, well maybe then we can put the old man to rest.” He turned to Tarra. “Let me see what you are going to bring.”
She stood perplexed for a moment thinking first of clothing and food then considered the medicine bag. She quickly rummaged through it and made a small first-aid kit then dumped the remaining contents behind the mannequin. She stood a quick muster in front of Chilcoat and asked if he could think of anything else she should take.
“Water, we’ll need lots of water, and some jerky just in case.”
Lannon and Charona arrived and made last-minute preparations for the long trek. Chilcoat considered waiting for the cool of the evening but decided that they should get started while they could still see the trail clearly. Final goodbyes were made and they were just about to leave when Chilcoat paused by the door. He looked at Tarra skeptically and then at the mannequin standing next to him. He grabbed the tallest rod sticking out of the head of the figure and wrenched it free. “Here,” he held it out to her. “You’ll need this. Do you have the damn twig?”
She nodded timidly patting the bag she had slung over her shoulder. The three specters skirted the edge of the village not wanting to attract any more attention than they already had. Their cloaks swished and rustled in the dry grass that had overgrown the seldom-used trail.
Chilcoat stopped their progress early in the evening, reasoning that while it would take them longer than the stick metered, it would be a lot safer to wait for daylight. They sought out a stony clearing amongst the tall weeds that choked the shallow valley.
By first light they were ready, if not anxious, to resume their trek. Tall reeds closed on the stream that trickled along the gorge and blocked any breeze that might try to stir the valley. The soggy hallway meandered along the valley floor and there were signs of snakes and small game that used the path. The undergrowth smelled of summer and hummed with insects but it also blocked the view of any predator that might be lurking.
The men grumbled and growled a familiar guttural chant and frequently struck out and slashed at the bushes with their spears. Tarra didn’t know the hunting song but she occasionally interjected a shrill screech that she figured would serve to alarm anything hiding in the bushes. Each time she did it, Lannon gave her a dismissive groan, but she went ahead and did it anyway.
By midweek, they reached the first of many hills scattered before them. Lannon quickly trudged to the top of the first hill and surveyed the scope of their challenge. From the crest of the knoll, he could see the trail continuing along the low pass toward a small cluster of oak trees. From there, the hills continued in golden profusion in all directions. The oaks spilled down the face of the hills giving the distant vista a mottled appearance. “It looks like it’ll be days to get through these hills at the rate we’re going. There are some trees up ahead about a mile. Why don’t you guys go set up a camp and I’ll see if I can scare up some game back in the hollow?”
Chilcoat was a little dismayed at their progress, but was relieved that the stick had been right so far. “You be careful and don’t be long. If that tom’s around, he may have the same idea.”
“Yeah, I won’t go too deep. I think I spotted a rabbit run a little ways back. If I’m lucky, we’ll have fresh meat.”
They loosened their clothes to fit socially acceptable policy while they waited for Lannon to return. The shade of the oak grove was a relief and the rest was welcome as they reveled in the coolness of their naked forms. Tarra pulled the stick from her bag and puzzled over its contours again. “This section is just straight, so I guess that means we stick to the trail. But, right here, just before the end of the hill section, it jogs to the right. I think the trail must split there and we’re to take the right fork.” She poked at a particular bump on the twig.
Chilcoat grunted indifferently raising his head to gaze out to the horizon. Checking his water supply, he measured out a small sip. “You need to drink. Not too much, but you have to keep wet.”
Lan finally returned with a rabbit that he presented to Tarra in a dismissive gesture dropping it at her feet. He then proceeded to remove his cloak and loincloth, settling in for a well-deserved rest. His speed in meeting a socially correct level of cover was slow and animated as he paused to drink and wipe his brow before sitting and covering his semi-aroused state.Tarra watched the display with some note. She had never really been the target of such a preening exhibition. It was a little flattering, but not really of interest to her. She quickly set to work preparing the rabbit and refused to return his gaze.