Chilcoat took the knife and sat looking at it for several moments in the flickering light of the fire. He had seen Tangar contemplate similar prospects, but he had never considered that he would be on this side of the decision. It had always just been an evening of light entertainment watching the old man chanting and talking to plants and rocks. Sometimes he would be ill or wander off and need help finding his way back, but Chilcoat had always just been one of the guardians who witnessed the ceremony from behind a cloud of wine and smoking herb. The old man and his spirits were nothing more than a trivial sideshow during an evening of games and stories with his hunting buddies.
He poked his finger at the little ball of paste clinging to the kitchen knife then tasted his finger. Shrugging his shoulders, he scraped it onto his tongue and wrinkled his nose as he swallowed it. He sat expectantly waiting for rejection. It didn’t taste very good, but it seemed as if it was going to stay down, so he sat back and waited for something to happen.
Tarra smirked as she cleaned her knife and stoked the fire. She had tended her father for many years while he performed his priestly duties and she had witnessed this sort of response many times. “Let me know if you want anything.”
“Hmm? Yeah sure.”
“Yeah, me too,” Lannon chimed in.
The three sat quietly for several minutes enjoying the clear night air. The plateau raised them above the ground haze that perfumed the savanna so the sky was majestically pure. Chilcoat stared at the flames and said, “I wonder who used to live here.”
“Maybe it was the children of Yod,” Tarra ventured.
“Yeah, that’ll make the story better in the telling,” Lannon offered. “Whoever they were, they were here a long time. The stones are worn from use and the sheer size of the place must have taken generations to build.”
Chilcoat prodded the fire into a shower of sparks that danced up the chimney stone and winked out of existence. “If this isn’t the Sky Temple, it ought to be. That crafty old man brought us here for something, but I don’t know what… Well, old man! What do you want? Tell me what I’m to do. The heat now, the storms of winter, the sky-fire—what does it all mean? I’ve taken your damn poison, so speak to me, or leave me alone!”
“I doubt that threatening him is going to work.” Tarra looked scornfully at Chilcoat and added, “What was the story of the lost tribe and the Sky Temple?” She asked more as a prompt to herself than expecting an answer.
Chilcoat reflected on how Tangar had charmed the children with his easy smile and colorful stories. “The only thing I remember is that the old man would chant a climbing song and make all the children pretend to climb great ladders to the temple. Once they got there, they’d receive a reward of fruits and honey. We should look around and see if we can find any of those ladders. It would sure make the climb easier, and maybe we can find some of that honey too.”
Lannon tried to defuse the suggestion. “Yeah, well, let’s wait for morning to do any looking around in this creepy place. If the spirits of the Shanare want us to find their ladders, they’ll do it in the morning.”
Chilcoat burst out. “Shanare! That’s it. The Shanare would climb the ladders to the temple! How did that song go? ’Climb, climb, climb oh children of—something, something, Shanare. Climb something, something—temple.’ It was something about learning to climb the straight ladder to the rewards of heaven. I just figured it was a way to scare us into doing our chores and gave us a dance we could all do together. I’m proud of you, Lan. I didn’t know you remembered your school days so well. How about you, Tarra—do you remember the song?”
“No, most of my schooling was herbs and potions. Daddy spent most of his time hunting and was too tired for dancing by the time he got home. We would study songs and chants but dancing wasn’t usually part of it. I think I remember him talking about the lost tribes of the Shanare though. That’s what they always say when they find something they don’t understand, ’the Shanare did it’. I don’t remember much except that the lost tribes wandered the wilderness in search of ’the light of Yod’.”
Chilcoat reflected on his youth. “Yeah, yeah, ’the light,’ I remember. He was always talking about the light as if it was something you could actually find. I just figured it was more of his spirit crap and nobody could ever really find it.” The stories taught by Tangar were a jumble of bittersweet memories and morals that always left him wondering what was real and what was just an old man trying to seem important to a bunch of kids.
Tarra rose and walked to the edge of the plateau near the far side of the altar. From there she could see to the horizon beyond the savanna. The moon had turned the landscape to grays and blacks, but she could make out the hills at the far edge against the field of stars. “Maybe they found the light and that’s where they went.” A tear escaped as she remembered her father and his teachings.
Chilcoat rose to stand by her. He put his arm around her shoulder and marveled at the feeling of warmth that seemed to radiate from her as they watched the goat-herder peek above the horizon. Lannon had dozed off by this time and the little man had lost all form as the fire glowed in a simple pile of embers.
“Look. Is that a fire?” Tarra pointed across the grassland toward the distant horizon.
Chilcoat followed her gesture, but his vision flickered with sprites from the herb. “I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s anyone out here but us.” He pulled her close as the fragrance of her hair mesmerized him.
She turned to face him in a brief embrace. “You’re wrong, Daddy watches to be sure we follow his ways, and Caran watches over us through her love.” She turned to tend the fire and arrange her bedding by pulling her cloak neatly across the grasses she had gathered into a mat. “You should try to get some rest.”
“Hmm? Yeah. I guess so. I don’t think the old man is going to talk to me tonight—herbs, or no herbs.”
Chilcoat lay trying to come to grips with the concept of being the newly ordained ‘Seer’ of the lakeshore clan. His stomach rumbled from the poison Tarra had given him. It all seems so contrived and unnecessary to have to eat her damn spirit-herb after finding this strange temple, and besides, the herb isn’t doing anything except keeping me awake and upsetting my stomach. He fought with his bedding trying to settle his robust frame on the meager pile of leaves and grasses she had gathered for him.
She was also keeping him awake. Her delicate figure played erotic mischief in his thoughts as he struggled to find a better position. The churning in his stomach brought him back to reality as the duty he felt for his family overpowered his lustful desires.
He opened his eyes and was startled that the stars overhead connected in a web that created figures across the sky. He knew the poison was playing tricks on his mind and wondered what Tangar would’ve said about it. “Is that why you’ve brought us here, to show me the web of heaven?” Chilcoat grumbled to the spirit of the old man.
Tarra stirred sleepily and spoke from behind a screen of auburn hair fallen across her face. “Are you OK ?”
“Yeah sure, just wondering why we’re here.”
“Mmm,” was all she said before reclining on her mat.
He watched her settle into a comfortable contour that started him again thinking of things best left alone. He considered taking a walk, but decided it would just upset his guardians. He was curious about the abandoned temple they had found, and the people that must have lived here, but he didn’t trust his perception so he just closed his eyes and waited for dawn. He was disappointed that Tangar had not seen fit to speak with him as he drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Tarra stirred Lannon to take the dawn watch and reclined to try to sleep. She had cried quietly watching Chilcoat’s fitful slumber; even this reminded her of her father and his bouts with the Spirit. His words echoed in her thoughts. “Cry the tears of the heart; they are the most sacred prayer.”
By dawn, Lannon managed to snare a rabbit that had taken up residence in the gardens and Chilcoat rose early to take care of some pressing personal needs. Lan quietly tended the fire, giving Tarra a few extra minutes of rest, but as soon as the light allowed, he roused her to start cooking.
“YodHeaVau, thank you for what we receive.” She offered the entrails in a smoky profusion of sparks and sizzle. “Well, how was your night?”
Chilcoat sat quietly with his pipe by the fire staring blankly at her for a moment. “OK I guess—not what I expected. I think that we need to explore this place better today and then we need to get home.”
“How much exploring?” Lannon looked uncomfortable. “I’d like to get home as soon as possible. I’m worried about my brothers and that cat and all.” He glanced at Tarra for support.
“We know why you want to get home.” She rearranged her cloak to cover her torso. “Did you dream?”
“Oh yeah, I dreamt all right! I have no idea about what, but I dreamt all night. I don’t know if I was dreaming when I started thinking about why Tangar has brought us here. I prayed to Yod for guidance, for the people, and He brought us to this place. I think we need to know a little more about why.”
“Yeah, I know, I just want to know how long we’re going to ‘explore’, that’s all. I’ve already looked around and it all seems pretty empty.”
“Where does the water come from?” Tarra queried. “This is a big place—lots of people, lots of plants. Where do they get all the water?”
“Yeah, there are a lot of questions I’d like answered.” Chilcoat drew lightly on his pipe. “The Shanare, if that is who they were, were a mysterious people.”
They answered the water question in quick order when they found a large cistern along the eastern edge of the garden. The winter’s rains had filled it to overflowing, causing the pond they had found earlier. They split up and went from room-to-room with spears at the ready. Tarra was at a disadvantage since her staff had only recently been fitted with a crudely pointed stone. They quickly confirmed the company of rats and snakes, but the lack of any recent signs of people was disappointing.
Chilcoat found a workshop off the plaza that had a ladder that seemed to be in a state of repair, but there was no stack of ladders or scaffolds. “That means the ladders must be down on the savanna so they must have left on their own.”
Lannon added, “Most of the places I went in had another room or hall leading further into the cliff. A couple of them smelled musty, maybe plants.”
Tarra poked at a pile of straw collected against the stage. “Well what do you want to do now? Do we make some lamps and go further, or do we go home?”
Chilcoat considered her questions and gazed around the courtyard. The sun was nearly overhead now and the heat was starting to become uncomfortable. “Let’s go in here. It’s cooler inside.” He gestured toward the large social hall they had first explored. He quickly searched the pile of sand near the doorway for snakes and spread it evenly to form a smooth surface. Using his staff, he drew a bulging triangle. “This is the plaza out there; this is where we are in this hall.” He drew a box off the side of the shape. “Here are the stairs.” He scribbled quickly in the sand. “Let’s see, the cistern is over here, and the gardens are all around here. The altar stones are over here some place, and the path up the cliff is here I think.” They made some minor adjustments of size and orientation until they all agreed on the basic layout.
Lannon continued to sketch the map. “The workshop is over here, and what looked like it might be a bath area was over here, I think.”
Tarra added, “There’s a kitchen hearth here, and some kind of altar or something over here. Basically, everything you need is all here in one little cave.”
“How many rooms are there? I went into about ten on the second floor and each of them had a second room and most seemed to have more beyond that. If we each went into about the same number of rooms, that’s enough space for nearly fifty families. It’s not enough for the whole tribe, but some may not want to come.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. Are you saying that the whole tribe should move in here?” Lannon gestured toward the courtyard.
“The sun doesn’t feel so harsh here among the stones but I don’t think all of them should come. When we get back, and tell the people of this place, there’ll be many who will want to see the Sky Temple. Some will want to move here to be with their ancestors, and I think it will be good to lessen the strain on the lakeshore gardens. I think this place is an answer to my prayers, but you know how people are, they’ll want assurances I can’t give them. Either we can make a pact never to speak of this place again, or we’ll have people asking us for directions. Times are hard, and the people are looking for relief. Do we tell them of what we’ve seen, or do we hide it as just a spirit-walk gone wrong?”
Tarra combed her fingers through the cool sand spread on the floor. “I think we have to tell them, and I think you’re right, there’ll be those that’ll want to come. I want to come.”
Lannon stood guard looking out onto the plaza. “What if the Shanare return and want their temple back?”
“We’ll give it back. We’re not here to take what isn’t ours, but I doubt that anyone would care if we use this place for a while. It doesn’t look like anyone has cared for this place in a long time.” Chilcoat rose and placed the butt of his staff in the middle of the drawing. “Then it’s settled. We’ll rest another night, and start for home tomorrow. Maybe we can find those ladders down on the savanna so it won’t be such a pain to get up here next time.”
Tarra drained the last bit of sand through her fingers. “Does that mean that you’re coming back?”
“I think I’ll have to, it’s the Seer’s duty to lead the people. I mean, I ate the poison, I saw the light, and I have a vision.”
The trio spent the afternoon going on small excursions to far off points on the plateau and into some of the more accessible inner sanctums. They found a second cistern and Chilcoat confirmed the sanitary facilities through frequent use. The figures carved into the central altar stone drew much speculation; they seemed to be ceremonial pornography with a pair of chubby people intertwined in various highly contrived positions.
They plotted an alternate route back across the savanna, but the trail quickly became a familiar struggle of dust and bugs. As the sixth week ended, they made their way to the outskirts of the village. The dogs and children greeted them as they found their way to a quick bath in the lake before going home.They told the adventure briefly around the evening fire for all of those who cared to listen, but most had already gone to work and considered the whole thing a frivolous waste of time. They would discover the mysteries of the Shanare on the re-telling at the morning meal. For now, the three adventurers were out of cycle and needed to rest while the others were hard at work trying to salvage their lives.