The Little Man
Lannon gathered his things and turned to the cliff resuming his climb along the narrow ledge. He was soon behind a rock outcropping that was beginning to calve away from the cliff. It blocked his view down the mountain, but it sheltered him from the heat of the sun and served as an easy path cut into the rock face. By wedging himself against it, he easily scaled the last several yards until it opened onto a large plateau. There were clumps of bushes and a cluster of trees that blocked his view toward the south and a wide expanse of low shrubs scattered across the vista. He turned and waved to the specks at the base of the cliff before cautiously walking out onto the flat terrain. It all seemed extremely odd. It was very quiet yet he sensed the presence of something, maybe a cat, he wondered as he pulled his knife to the ready.
After several minutes of walking, the bushes changed variety in a gentle curve leading away to his left as if they were chasing a stream. He followed their arc until it intersected a different type of bush trailing a similar curved path leading back toward the cliff’s edge.
The clay under his feet was smooth and unbroken with only occasional vines and runners obscuring it. People have obviously been here and have left their mark, but not recently. It doesn’t look like anyone has tended these gardens in years.
As he rounded the curve, he noticed a cliff edge horizon ahead. He approached carefully while still scanning for signs of attack from the bushes. He stared blankly for several moments as he looked down into a courtyard hidden from the savanna below. A huge triangular gallery of windows and doorways two levels deep stretched out before him. The walls followed the same gentle curving arc of the gardens and formed a terrace with three well-worn stone stairways that led down into a plaza in which a large round platform stood. He walked around to the closest stairs and cautiously descended into the courtyard. Pausing at the first level, he peeked into the nearest doorway.
Moving down the second run of stairs, he wandered around the courtyard for several minutes peering into doorways. There were remnants of recent animal habitation, but no signs of people.
He used a second set of stairs to return to the plateau and immediately recognized a path branching out across the flat terrain. There were feral crops scattered in sparse clumps and patches across the landscape.
He wandered the curved paths amongst the segmented garden undergrowth and eventually found a small spring that trickled into a pond, but he still hadn’t found the stupid bush he was looking for. He hesitated for a moment and decided that it didn’t warrant further consideration. He quickly found his way back along the path to the cliff face and onto the ledge overlooking the savanna. He stood waving and yelling to his companions. “Come up here, you won’t believe this!”
Chilcoat curtailed his hunting foray and stood questioning his perception. “What’s wrong? Do you need help?” He shouted back up the cliff.
“Come up! You have to see this. I found a palace.” He stood waving his arms.
“What? You found what? Bring it down so we can get out of here.”
Tarra joined Chilcoat and they tried to make sense of what they heard. They decided it didn’t really matter; Lannon apparently had found something and wasn’t coming down, so they would have to go up. The camp was broken down and they began the long trek up the cliff. The path was more treacherous to negotiate than either of them had anticipated. It gave Tarra a newfound respect for Lannon’s rock climbing prowess and Chilcoat an envy of his youth.
By late afternoon, they stood bewildered in the courtyard. Lan had spent the time harvesting a sample of some of the plants he had found growing in the residual garden and had created a display on the platform in the center of the courtyard. “Well, what do you think? Are any of these the bush you’re looking for?”
Tarra ran her hand along the carvings that lined the edge of the stage. “Are you kidding me? Look at this place, and all you can think about is plants?”
Chilcoat spoke to Tangar as he wandered slowly around the courtyard peeking into doorways and probing piles of refuse. “You crafty old bastard… What have you gotten us into now?”
Lannon sat on the edge of the platform. “This place gives me the creeps. It’s like it’s haunted or something.”
“This might be it.” Tarra offered as she sorted the bundles of herbs into accept/reject piles. “I think you can eat these, but I’m not sure what this is. I’ll need to test them. Where did you get this?” She held up a short branch.
“Up there.” Lannon gestured to the edge of the cliff dwellings over his shoulder. Tarra dropped the stem she was holding and started up the nearby stairs.
“You be careful up there.” Chilcoat called after her as he ventured into what looked like the main social hall. It had two large doorways and three windows low on the wall facing onto the courtyard. The doors led into a spacious room with more doorways at the rear leading deeper into the mountain. “What’s back in here?”
“Beats me. I spent most of my time picking weeds for the princess.”
“Hmm… Smells like rats and probably a snake.”
“Yeah, what do you suppose this place was? Who lived here, and where did they go?”
“Or, more importantly, why did they leave? I don’t see any signs of war so maybe they just ran out of food.”
“I don’t think so. There seems to be lots of food and water up on the roof and it’s so hard to get here I can’t imagine an enemy forcing anybody out. Maybe they all got sick and died.”
“Maybe, but then there should be bodies or something. There isn’t anything left. If they left in a hurry, they would have left things behind. There isn’t anything. The place is empty.”
“Maybe it all rotted away.”
“Yeah, maybe, but it seems like there would be something left.”
“Maybe that’s what all this is.” Lannon poked at a pile of refuse with his staff.
“Well, I don’t know, but I guess we should find Tarra and get this over with.” They returned to the central plaza and made their way up the stairs to the garden. They found Tarra tugging on a large plant near the far end of the garden. “Have you found it?”
“I think so. But I need help pulling it out.”
“Here, let me.” Lannon elbowed her aside and leaned into the task.
She cut the root from the stalk and washed it in the nearby pond. “There, I think this is what we came for, the little man from the Sky Temple.” She held the small tuber up by its trunk.
Lannon grumbled as he washed his hands. “Little man, huh? Well, it doesn’t look like much considering the pain in the ass we’ve gone through.”
“No? If I am right, it is a spirit-herb and you should respect it. We need to burn these branches and offer prayers for taking him from his home.”
Chilcoat recollected, “Sky Temple? Yeah, I remember Tangar telling stories about a Sky Temple. That was all just a bunch of fairytales about magic little people flying around in the clouds with wings on their feet.”
“Yeah, well here’s one of those little people.” Tarra held the root with its two legs hanging down from its body. “See, it has arms and legs and it even has a penis just about your size.” She pointed out the small nub between the leg branches to Lannon.
He looked to Chilcoat for guidance but with none coming decided not to bother acknowledging her assault. “How long is all this praying going to take? If we have the damn thing, can’t we just go home and worry about oblations later? This place gives me the creeps.”
“No! The little man needs to know we have taken him for a good cause or he’ll haunt us with bad spirits.”
Chilcoat stood gazing across the feral landscape. At the far side of the plateau, the sun was setting near a large rock that he was sure must have some astronomical significance to some ancient people. “Again with the spirits, that old man is going to drive me crazy with his stories and spirits and crap. What are we supposed to do now?”
“The rest of the plant needs to be offered in thanks before the sun fully sets and then the root needs to be prepared and the Seer will take the gift meal with the Spirit.”
“That’s it? That should be easy.” Lannon assessed the pile of branches.
“Yeah well, then the Seer spends the rest of the night walking with the Spirit.”
“Why doesn’t that comfort me?” Chilcoat knew the answer.
“Well, you wear the robes.” Tarra looked contemptuously at him.
“Yeah, don’t remind me.” Chilcoat bent to retrieve his weapons. “Well, pick them up. That pile of rocks looks like a likely spot.” He gestured first at the pile of branches then to the far edge of the plateau.
The group wound their way across the garden landscape and approached what appeared to be a crude altar of some sort. It had a large hearth bed nested in the front and a chimney stone near the edge of the cliff. A hint of soot from some ancient fire still clung to the face of the stone. The hearth needed clearing of displaced stones, but the dead leaves made a good start for their ceremonial blaze. They soon added the green branches, and the three of them sat quietly chewing on dried meat and watching the smoke drift across the garden. Tarra had trimmed the tips off the extremities of the little man and placed the root standing near the hearth as if it was watching the blaze.
“That’s a little silly, isn’t it?” Chilcoat scoffed at her actions.
“It’s cooking. You want to eat it raw?”
“I don’t want to eat it at all. What’s it going to do to me? I don’t think poisoning myself is such a good idea, you know?”
“Daddy often walked with the Spirit.”
“Yeah and look what it did for him. He was always talking to himself and making up stories and who knows what all.”
“He knew about this temple. He brought us here, didn’t he? Just because you didn’t listen to him doesn’t mean he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“Yeah, yeah… I know, I just don’t like being out of control, and talking with spirits is just a little too weird for me.”
“I’ll be with you.” She held her hand out to him.
“Oh, you’ll be with me all right, and you too Lan. I don’t want to fall off this rock.” He peered over the nearby edge onto the savanna spreading in all directions below.
Tarra plucked three leaves from the last branch before placing it on the fire. She rolled the leaves into a tight bunch and tucked them into her pouch as the fire crackled and hissed its complaints. The smoke rose up the chimney stone and quickly dissipated into the evening sky.
“Well, at least there aren’t any cats to worry about.” She gingerly turned the root to cook on the other side.
“We’ll see. I think there’re snakes and a cat could get up here if it wanted to,” Lannon offered.
“Yeah, I guess it could, but why would it waste its time?” Chilcoat tried to sound confident.
After several minutes, Tarra plucked the root from its perch and dropped it quickly on the hearthstone. Small trails of steam rose from the tips where she had trimmed it. “Are you ready?”
“No. Don’t you have to do some kind of song and dance or something?”
She peeked at him from behind a veil of unruly hair as she cautiously considered the small tuber placed before her. She carefully measured the legs of the little man and couldn’t help but snigger at the shriveled little member where the legs joined the trunk. She held it tightly to the stone and cut the feet off then solemnly took the remaining body and held it out toward Chilcoat. “The strength and wisdom of Yod is within you. May He whisper ever gently on your soul.”
She turned and laid the body gently on the embers of the fire. It smoldered for a few moments before bursting into flames. It burned brightly then settled into an even glow of coals, occasionally flickering a greenish-blue flame. “He lies quietly, that’s a good sign. His spirit is happy to be a part of the sacrament.”She diced the remaining ‘feet’ of the little man into smaller and smaller pieces then mashed it into a paste that she scraped into a small ball on the edge of her knife. “Well this is it. You want to eat it or put it in some tea or something?”