Will You Stay?
By morning, rumors and exaggerations had grown the tale to include a monstrous cat and several evil spirits. When Chilcoat arrived at the morning circle, Lannon had dispelled some of the embellishment but couldn’t speak to the evil spirits.
“Look, it was a long walk with many dangers. Lan was vital to our being able to be here today and Tarra was equally important for what we did. I’m not saying I think it was the smartest thing I’ve ever done, it was just something that I owed my father—Tangar. We went to a place that will sound strange to you. I want to say, up-front, that I am not sure what this place is or what it meant to the people that once lived there, but I think it’s important to our people now.”
“What sort of spirit-walk did you have?” Bartan called from across the fire. “It sounds to me like you’ve fallen under the spell of that witch-child.”
Chilcoat snapped around to glare at him. “I know some of you will question what I say. It’s important that you do. I wear the robes of the Seer and I fulfilled the ritual as I should, but Tarra had nothing to do with it. All that happened was that I had a crappy night’s sleep. I didn’t see visions or hear voices, other than my own. That’s not the important part. The search for the herb led us to a temple from some ancient time. No one lives there now. It’s just a big empty lodge on a mountaintop far away. I know it sounds like I’ve walked with evil spirits to believe such a thing, but Lannon and Tarra can attest to what I say.”
“We don’t care to hear from your son or your consort. We know they’ll back up anything you say,” Bartan challenged.
“Bartan, I know you don’t like me, and that’s OK. You don’t have to like me. All I’m saying is that times are hard. The crops are poor, the heat is unbearable, and the loss of Larkon has tainted the hunting. I think it’s best to let that cat forget the scent of man for a while. I’ve spent a lot of time considering this, and I think that if half of the clan stays here in the meadow by the falls, they can stay clear of the cat and stay cool enough to get through the summer. The other half of the clan can move to the old temple with me and see if we can get the gardens to grow. Look, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I’m not saying this temple-place is some kind of miracle garden in the sky. It’ll be a lot of hard work and danger. It’s a long hard walk and some may get hurt, some may even die. It’s not a choice anyone should make lightly.”
“And who is to lead this half of the clan?” Bartan demanded.
“There are many strong men who will step up to the challenge. The one that people respect and follow will be their leader. If you think that’s you, you’d better check with the people that you think you’re leading. I, for one, don’t think you’re the man for the job. But, I’m not part of that decision. I’ll be going with my family and anyone else who is willing to suffer the hardships to move to the old temple. We may come running back begging for mercy, but I think we have to do something.”
“I have a sick kid, so I’ll be staying here by the falls,” Rancon offered. “If anyone wants to stay here at the lake, I’ll be here with you.”
“I am sorry to hear about your son, but it’s good that someone with some sense will stay here.” Chilcoat tried to encourage his old friend.
The conversation deteriorated into a general chatter as the family groups wandered off toward their waiting beds. Any decisions about going or staying would need some behind-the-scenes negotiations. Lan gladly returned to Charona but that left Chilcoat and Tarra alone while the rest of the village slept. They ended up spending some of the afternoon reclining in the shallow water of the lagoon.
“When do we leave?” Tarra questioned as she absentmindedly arranged her hair and forced a wooden pin in place to hold it off her naked shoulders.
“Probably by the end of next week, if I can get people moving.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Shaky… I keep thinking about Tangar and his damn herbs. It all seemed like a waste of time to me. I could’ve done without the loss of sleep, and I don’t remember anything worth screwing up my stomach for.”
“Yod spoke to you and now you see His wisdom.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You didn’t have to spend all day sitting on the fool’s throne.”
“It was a noble duty you performed well.”
“You aren’t using the tanasin stick anymore.” Chilcoat gestured at her hair.
She blushed at his observation. “No. It’s back with the others. I figured I should respect his tools. We may need it again.”
“What for? I’m not going to forget that walk anytime soon.”
“For our children’s children.”
“Can you see that far?”
After a moment, she rose, pulled her cloak over her slender frame, and turned to leave. “They depend on you. ’The man foretold’.”
He laid back in the water and dropped his head in to wash away the thoughts of the old man, his sticks, and his daughter. The job of organizing people for the trip, and what to do about ladders, occupied his mind. The tall grass of the marshland also worried him. With children and old people in tow, the snakes will be a concern, and any stragglers will certainly draw the interest of a cat.
By the time he returned to his hut, Tarra was busy reassembling her little mannequin in tribute to her father. She removed the stone tip from her walking staff and replaced it in its central position in the bundle that made up the figure’s torso. She removed Thoma’s story wand from its hand and the heart stick she had placed in its chest. They lay awaiting their inclusion while she cinched the binding straps tightly around the bundle.
She spent considerable effort positioning the various sticks to mimic human proportions and was intently tying the legs in place when Chilcoat entered. He only vaguely acknowledged her presence and dismissed her undertaking with a small shake of his head as he settled into his place by the fire. Caran and the children were still sleeping, so he helped himself to some tea and drew quietly on his pipe.
The talking-stick and the stone from her staff drew his attention. Tangar had used the twisted little stem to tell stories and enchant people, while the stick Tarra had given to the mannequin as a heart, was stark in comparison. It had dried completely during their absence and had taken on a reddish-brown hue with a gray patina left by minerals from the water. He picked them up and considered their worth.
The talking-stick, with its intricate patterns was now simply scratches meaning nothing to anyone. It was the prized possession of a man no longer able to appreciate its value and the other was a worthless token from a fool’s errand that another now treasured.
The spearhead was a crude example of hasty stonework that needed more delicate dressing to be worthy of a real weapon. In the fashion of a woman’s blade, it had a single sharp edge, which had served Tarra to scrape the few hides they had gathered on their quest, but otherwise only vaguely resembled its intended purpose.
He used the edge of the stone to scrape the surface of the little gray stick. It left a pattern of irregular brown stripes that vaguely resembled flowing water. Interesting, he thought. With a little more care, he was able to whittle the stubby end of the stick leaving serrated grooves that reminded him of the falls where he had found it. He then made three simple bands ringing the shaft above the water symbol. He started to etch his mark in the lead band and considered the mission for a moment then put Tarra’s symbol followed by his own in the second band and Lannon’s in the third. He was then able to squeeze in three little notches resembling the tanasin symbol before he ran out of room at a branching joint on the twig. He admired his handiwork blowing loose shavings from the grooves and looked up to see Tarra disdainfully glaring at him from across the room. He quietly returned the sticks to their former place on the hearth and casually used the spearhead to tap the residue from his pipe.
She resentfully retrieved the sticks and returned them to their positions within the sculpture. As she replaced the heart stick, she paused for a moment to note the symbols he had etched into its surface. She didn’t understand why she felt as she did, but it bothered her that he had imposed on her fantasy. She seated the stick deep within the chest of the figure. “Why did you put my mark first?”
“You started this madness with your spirits and sticks and now we’re committed to a new world. So maybe it’s credit for starting this whole thing, or maybe it will turn out to be blame. If that damn spirit-walk wasn’t part of it, it would all seem more sensible. I mean, if I’d just stumbled onto that temple while hunting, I wouldn’t think twice about using the ruins, but with the stick, and spirits, and all, I just don’t know if it is the right thing. ”
“You want to ask Daddy?” She held up the medicine pouch.
“No, we’ll let the old man rest for a while, he deserves it.” Chilcoat drew deeply on the last bit of herb in his pipe and settled in next to Caran. She flinched from the sunburn she had gotten while they were gone but nestled in next to him.
Tarra finished her project by placing the medicine bag over the shoulders of the little figure and then settled in for some rest. She lay sweating amongst the bedding and tried not to watch while Chilcoat and Caran took some discreet marital privileges. It usually didn’t bother her, but the heat made the little sounds and smells particularly irritating. Despite her resentment, she couldn’t help but peek when it became obvious that it would soon be over. She was surprised to see Caran watching her. Caran gave her a faint smile as Tarra blushed and pretended to sleep. The interlude was soon over and Chilcoat quickly fell to sleep.
Caran took advantage of the respite to cool her reddened skin with a sponge bath and rearrange her bedding. As she settled in again, she touched Tarra on the arm and gave her a gentle squeeze and the hint of a knowing smile.