The trio spent the hottest part of the day under the oaks swatting flies and trying to stay out of the sun. As the afternoon began to cool, Chilcoat stirred and roused the others. Again, Lannon was slow in donning his cloak with plenty of time to exhibit his masculinity to the young girl.
“If you wave that thing in my face one more time, I’m going to cut it off while you sleep and feed it to the dogs.” Tarra pulled her cloak into place and turned to retrieve her walking stick.
Lannon stood speechless with his cloak loosely draped over his shoulder and his loincloth hanging limply from his hand.
“Ha! She’s got you there.” Chilcoat scoffed as he headed out from the protective cover of the oak.
Tarra was quick to follow, letting out one of her now familiar screeching howls, as she hurried to catch up. Lannon groaned and quickly finished getting ready. He lingered a macho distance back as the troop wound its way among the rolling meadowland.
By the evening of the eighth day, they found a fork in the trail and reconsidered their options. They could continue for a few more hills and get a glimpse of what tomorrow’s trek was going to be, or they could make camp in the pleasant comfort of the oak grove. They decided to just set up camp and try to get some rest. Lannon ventured to the top of the nearest hill while hunting, but reported that he couldn’t see anything, and didn’t catch anything either.
As the night progressed, each stood watch listening for the cat and letting the others rest. Their meager fire was probably enough to keep it away, but Tarra gathered a couple of tumbleweeds just in case. If I can’t scare it away by waving them around, I’ll light them on fire while the guys get up.
As soon as there was enough light to make out the path, they started their walk. It was as cool as it was going to get, and they wanted to make the best of it. Lannon quickly reconnoitered the path to the left and returned with a report of more hills. The fork to the right led them past the final hills and out into a stony basin. It looked as though the rains had channeled through depositing the austere landscape with scrub brush and rugged water washed stones.
Chilcoat gestured toward a ravine that was still deep in shadow. “The trail will be hard to follow in all of this rubble. Does the stick tell you anything that will help?”
She quickly retrieved the implement and held it up in the early rays of the sun. The second section of the twig was straight and flat with an intricate snakeskin pattern etched into it making a series of textured patches. “I guess that means beware of snakes, other than that I don’t see anything. The bumps are sort of like little rounded stones, but there’s no hint of a trail mark.”
“Here, let me see.” Chilcoat took the stick and held it up at arm’s length rolling it slowly in the light. “You know if you role it like this, the lines zigzag back and forth. Maybe the trail zigzags?”
“No, I think the trail is straight like the stick, but straight where? It could head off in any direction across this wasteland. No, wait, the final little tip jogs back to the left and tweaks up a little at the end. There must be some mountain or ridge or something, maybe you can see it from the hilltop.” Tarra turned pointedly to Lannon.
“Yeah, alright, but I warn you it might make me hot.” He smirked at her frown and jogged off toward the nearby hill. Chilcoat couldn’t help but smile at their adolescent flirtations but hoped it wouldn’t lead to too much friction. Lannon returned in a few minutes and unconvincingly said, “There might be a rock outcropping off to the left just over that way.” He gestured with his arm as he took a drink of water. “But I can’t be sure. It’s pretty far away, and the light isn’t good. There’re still lots of deep shadows. It may just be a boulder or something, but it is the only thing sticking up on the horizon. The rest is just rocks, nothing but rocks and scrub brush.”
Chilcoat turned to Tarra. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? I mean, my trust in the old man and his damn sticks is starting to wear thin. The more I think about walking all over the place looking for some weed, the more I think he was wrong to have faith in such things. We could head back, spend a little time hunting in the oaks, and go home as heroes with a deer or a pig.”
She clutched at the stick thoughtfully running her thumb up and down along its length looking deeply into his eyes. “You’re the Seer. We’ll do as you wish. It’s only a stick.” She twisted her hair into a tight rope, piled it on the back of her head, and pinned it in place with the wand.
Chilcoat flinched at her challenge. “Alright, we’ll go on, but if we don’t find water today, we’ll have to turn back. This heat has taken a toll.” Gathering up his things, he headed off in the general direction shown by Lannon. “It seems to be a little downhill this way so there might still be some water down there.”
The trail meandered among rocks and boulders weaving a rough arc toward a low point in the gully that sheltered a small pond. The water was a pale shade of yellow but it was usable when boiled and a welcome encouragement to the troop.
The harsh landscape offered little except snakes and lizards to eat, so by the end of the second week they had nearly exhausted their supplies. They were happy to, at last, reach a sandy embankment leading up to a large grassland. They could make out a small gray rock outcrop in the distance standing defiantly against the monotonous flat skyline.
A spit of terrain jutted into the arroyo making a convenient backdrop for their evening camp. It gave them a safe boundary on three sides so they quickly built a fire, and Lannon provided a large snake for dinner. He thought about taking advantage of the serpent when he presented it to Tarra for preparation, but decided to respect her boundaries, electing simply to drape it over the hearthstone.
Tarra diced the snake into bite-sized pieces and rummaged up some skewers from the surrounding bushes. When it was ready, she prepared to offer the first piece to Lannon as was the custom in honor of his having provided it. She took the uncooked tail and impaled it on a skewer so that it draped as a limp little sausage from the end of the twig. She then divided the remaining pieces carefully distributing them with the largest pieces shared evenly between the men. She held the tailpiece in one hand and the hunter’s share in the other as she walked awkwardly toward Lannon holding the tail in front of her loins. She wiggled it as he turned to accept the meal.
He hesitated a moment trying to think of some way to retaliate then took the skewer rattling it toward her. “Ah, just what I was hoping for, a piece of tail from the priestess.” He stabbed the skewer into his hair so that the limp little appendage dangled in front of his face. “What do you think? The other guys will be jealous that I was the first to get such an offer.”
She clinched her teeth and shoved his food into his hand turning quickly to get the other servings. “Dream on, Lan… you’ll need more than that to convince anyone you’re worthy of my favors.”
She sat reflecting that it had been years since she had called him Lan. When they were children he was the eldest of their playgroup and everyone called him Lan, and she was Tar. Children couldn’t be bothered with full names or titles of respect. She had always looked up to him since he was the oldest and wisest of their little band of ruffians, but now he seemed no older or wiser than he was then. She watched as he laid back to enjoy his meal with the serpent tail dangling in front of his face.
The stars winked indifferently at her frustrations until she felt his strong young hand gently squeezing her shoulder. At first, it seemed a comforting caress but quickly transitioned to an irritation as she regained full consciousness. “Get up, it’s your watch.” Lannon’s familiar voice grated the still night air. She groaned meekly as she stirred from her bed.
“I think there’s a pack of javelina scouring the gully over there, but they shouldn’t be a problem. It’s a good sign the cat isn’t around.” Lan settled on his back and pulled his cloak over as a bug guard. “You might keep an eye out toward the savanna though... I think there may be some ground apes watching us.” He gestured dismissively toward the grassland that spilled out to the horizon.
She couldn’t be sure he was serious, but she would stay alert anyway. She checked the fire and noted that he had tended it just before he retired. Maybe there’s hope for him after all, she thought as she sat cross-legged holding her walking stick and watching the stars. Chilcoat snorted and grumbled and was soon joined by Lan in a sort of conversation with first one then the other growling threats into the night. She watched the goat-herder march imperceptibly across the heavens and listened for any noise in the bushes.
The apes, if there were any, didn’t present themselves and eventually it was time to rouse Chilcoat for his turn at watch. She knelt next to him and hesitated watching his rhythmic breathing. As she placed her hand on his shoulder, his arm seemed so much more massive than she had ever noticed. She nudged him gently pulling her hand back at the first sign of movement. After two more attempts, he grumbled and acknowledged that he was awake. She lingered for a moment with her hand still on his shoulder feeling the heat and dampness of his body. “It is your watch.”
Tarra wiped her hand nervously on her cloak and settled in for some rest. Her hand fell near her face as she tried to find a more comfortable position. She could smell his scent. It wasn’t like her father or any of the boys she knew. She didn’t bother moving her hand; she simply closed her eyes and drifted into a half-sleep.
By morning, the bugs from the grassland were humming and the camp was quickly broken with both Chilcoat and Lannon peeing on the fire. Tarra ignored their display even though Lannon coughed and choked loudly as the smoke from his effort drifted in her direction.
She busied herself once again consulting the stick. The final section—at last, she thought, as she held it up in the first rays of the sun. It jogged to the left and was flat and smooth with a fine web of grass etched into its surface. Just before the end, it bent upward crowning the nub with a crooked little finger. “Since there’re no hills to send Lannon up, we’ll have to figure it out from here.” She smirked at Lannon’s obvious irritation.
A dull haze hung on the plain giving the grass a slight gray tint in the morning light. The trail leading away from their camp meandered aimlessly across the grassland and promised only ticks and thorns.
After three days of growing anticipation, they reached the base of the cliff. Their disappointment was palpable since there was no apparent trail or fabled reward of tanasin for their effort, just a massive granite crag rising abruptly out of the grassy plain. The heat was relentless and Lannon balked at Tarra’s suggestion that he climb the cliff to reconnoiter.
They skirted the edge of the rock face looking for something that might provide a hint of their goal. Tarra was paying particular attention to the plants growing along the cliff face but found nothing of interest. She was familiar with most of the scrub-brush clinging to the rocks and none of it was anything special.
By early evening, they had searched a little over a mile to the south and returned to where they had started. This time the conversation was more philosophical. They found nothing that they considered worthy of the weeks of toil and hardship. She found some conche growing near the edge of the rock face that she needed to replenish her supply, but it wasn’t tanasin, and it wasn’t on the cliff.
The rock face caught the light from the setting sun and amplified it into pulsing waves of heat. As they rested and ate, Chilcoat thought cynically of Tangar. Is this just one of your jokes, a fool’s errand to teach your foolish children one last lesson? Whatever value you found in your sticks and stories is gone... He plucked the twisted little twig from Tarra’s hair.
“You could ask.”
“I said I was sorry.” He slowly ran his finger along the length of the stick. Thinking back over the last couple of weeks, he remembered the hills, the rocky gully, and the grassy plain. He couldn’t help but admire the old man’s attention to detail in carving the wand. He had captured the spirit of those places in astonishing detail with only a few strokes of his knife blade, but now the stick didn’t speak to him. He sat in the sandy clearing and held the stick up to the sky studying the details of the final little quirk at the end. It jigged back and forth irregularly and ended abruptly with a small blunt tip. He wondered if maybe it was broken and missing a piece that had more information on it.
The cliff face glowed orange in the failing light and provided a flaming backdrop as Tarra stood over him expectantly. She had pulled her cloak up to expose her torso and stood with her arms spread to capture the slight breeze that whispered in off the savanna.
He held the stick up to her. “You got any ideas? We seem to be at the end of it and I don’t see anything.”
She stood with her hair aflame and her sleeves forming small drooping wings against the orange glow. “Maybe we should just make camp and think about it for a while.”
“Maybe… Lan, how about doing a little scouting for us again? When you’ve rested, you can go on around the next bend before the light fails and see if there is anything worth looking at. If you find something we’ll check it out tomorrow, if not, well—we’ll have something to talk about when you get back.”
“I’ll see if I can scare up something to eat while I’m at it.” He pulled his hair back and wiggled the snake tail at Tarra as he inserted the skewer along his scalp. He had taken to using it to hold his cape off his forehead and took advantage of the opportunity to irritate her before setting off in a slow jog toward the next rock outcropping. She turned away without speaking and studied the silhouette of the stick against the orange background.
Chilcoat watched her for a moment then jumped to his feet. “Let me see that.” He once again took the stick and held it at arm’s length. This time he used the glow of the cliffs as a background. He remembered how Tangar had told him stories when he was a child. He vaguely remembered a story of great adventure with flaming cliffs and magic people that lived in great stone houses. He wondered if these were the flaming cliffs. He couldn’t remember what the moral of the story was. There was always a moral to his stories. Maybe that’s why I didn’t listen as well as I should have. I always felt cheated when the old man would drag me into a good story of adventure and then ruin it with some moral that just seemed to confuse the ending. I could never know when he was telling the truth and when he was making things up to fit his lessons. The flaming cliffs had always been one of those he had chosen not to believe. “Flaming cliffs,” he muttered. “Damn you, old man, and your flaming cliffs.”
“What’s that? Flaming what?”
“Oh, nothing, just trying to remember something. Here, why don’t you see if you can get something flaming.” He took the ember pot from its place and handed it to her. Sticking the twig behind his ear, he set off looking for stones to build a hearth.
By the time the fire was built, and bedding material gathered, Lannon straggled back with a single plump quail hen that was quickly prepared and eaten. He said that he had covered nearly a mile further along the cliff but that he didn’t see anything that looked very promising. “There’s a place that I might be able to climb, but the light was pretty bad by then so I’ll need to look at it again in the morning to be sure.”
“Did you see any tanasin?”
“How the hell would I know? There are lots of bushes, but I don’t know which one you’re looking for.”
“Wishful thinking, I guess. Does that mean we stay another day?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Chilcoat spoke after thinking for several moments. “Since the hunting’s been good, we can stay another day. Maybe we can stock-up for the trip back.”
The watch schedule was set and Chilcoat sat by the fire with weapons at the ready. He smoked a pipe full of herbs and watched the sky for signs, but only an occasional shooting star drew his attention. The absence of the sky-fire still haunted his thoughts. The weather over the last months had been horrific. The rain and wind with storm after storm of relentless lightning had etched his memory. Day and night, the conflagration had hissed and pulsed like a living creature while the rain fell relentlessly. The coming of summer and the absence of the sky-fire had been such a welcome blessing at first. The clouds cleared and the sky was quiet. It was such a good sign. Everyone hoped that life would return to normal and the warm summer months would bring their bounty, but instead, the heat was killing everything.
It was odd, he thought. The night was frightening when lightning ruled the heavens, and now, it’s the daylight we fear. The night has become a friendly shelter from the heat of the sun. In the clear night sky, the stars seem closer and brighter than they ever have.
A skirmish in the grasses beyond the edge of the clearing drew his attention as he grabbed his spear and watched the darkness for movement. A second scuffle, a bit to the left, showed a rabbit fleeing. Probably a snake, he guessed. He absentmindedly stoked the fire and watched the sparks rise to the heavens. The radiance of the cliff drew a light breeze in off the grassland as the heat rose up the face of the rocks. That’s good, he thought. Our scent won’t draw any unwanted attention drifting across the savanna. I haven’t seen any cats, but I’d be surprised if there isn’t a couple nearby.
The goat-herder was fully above the horizon now, so it was time to wake Tarra for her watch. He tended the fire one last time and readied his bed before reaching to wake her.
She had her cloak drawn over her slight frame as she lay with her back to the fire. He touched her gently on the arm and felt her moist warmth soaking through the fabric. She soon rose and left him to his rest as he lay quietly thinking about the warmth lingering in his fingers and the commitment that he felt for Caran.