The next few days were near repeats of the previous. The long hard hours of dragging, less-and-less capable, equipment across the unforgiving landscape was taking a toll. By the time they finally reached the savanna, everyone was ready to be done with the purgatory of stone.
Waves of brown grass spread to the horizon, broken only by an occasional cluster of trees. The incessant wind diminished to a gentle breeze and brought with it the heavy bouquet of plants and bugs. The camp was again hastily set, and a very tired community resigned themselves to rest fitfully on the edge of a new adventure. The arroyo made a reasonable barrier to the west, but the savanna teemed with beasts of fair size, and ill intent, so the night was not without alarms. The young women performed their sentry duty well, and on two occasions had to roust the young men to deal with dogs and a possible cat sighting.
There was no apparent trail, so they headed off at a gentle angle across the plain guided by a clump of trees that generally aligned with the direction they wanted to go. Chilcoat struggled with the sling on his arm and pulled his cloak back over his head sweeping a couple of bugs out of its shelter. “We need to keep that bunch of trees to our left, and it’s probably a good idea to give them a wide berth since they undoubtedly harbor a den of cats. The pond probably still has a little water in it, but we’ll have to time our visit to avoid predators. Lan, you take a hunting party and a cart to get water.”
Tarra called to the crowd, “We’ve walked this path before so wear your leggings tied tightly and rub this bug repellent on your chest and arms. The grass blades are sharp and will scratch and the ointment will help to keep some of the bugs away.” She held out a large pot of yellow salve.
The group looked unsurely at her so Chilcoat dipped his fingers into the pot and drew his arm into his robes and began rubbing it onto his chest. Tarra set the pot down and roughly yanked on his cloak, pulling it over his head. As he stood in his under clothes, she dipped her fingers in the ointment, spun him around roughly, and began rubbing it in. Others in the group began doing likewise and the anointing turned into a giggling grab-fest with everyone trying to be sure they had applied an ample amount to all of the hard-to-reach places.
They quickly struck the camp, and the first carts began to make their way slowly southward. The grasses were ripening early in the heat and the pests were taking advantage of it. Dust rising from their movement mixed with the heat to make the miserable walk even worse. They began beating their walking sticks and utensils rhythmically on the carts and chanted threatening guttural conversations punctuated from time to time by yelps and screams. The song boosted morale and served to announce their passage to any territorial beasts they may run across. While the progress was slow and unpleasant, it was steady and less laborious than the past weeks had been.
Spirits improved after the sun went down, and everyone had had a chance to recover from the day’s exertion. The central fire burned brightly with showers of sparks rising to the stars. The men gathered to smoke and discuss tomorrow’s plans, and the women drank tea and resolved political issues.
Tarra tried to join the young women on watch duty but soon found they considered her too old to join their alliance. She knew she would be the eldest in the group, but not by much. She was lonely for someone her own age. She was too old for the kids, and too young for the grownups. She returned to the tent and once again sat in the doorway watching the night sky and listening to the family exchange going on inside. “Lan is only a little older,” she complained to the sky. She absentmindedly began grinding herbs to make a new batch of bug repellent and chanted softly.
Lannon came and sat next to her. He nudged her shoulder with his own. “We’re almost there.”
“Yeah… I hope we don’t have any more trouble.”
“I hope we can find some more water tomorrow. The grass doesn’t look like it has had much rain lately, and we could all use a drink.”
“Are you going to lead a party to look for it?”
“I don’t know, depends on what he says, I guess.” He gestured at Chilcoat’s slumbering hulk lying nearby and looked doubtfully at the spear she had fashioned. “He may need me here.”
“Yeah, or maybe Charona will need you.”
“Yeah—maybe she will.” He rose rattling his snake tail necklace at her. “Maybe she will.”
Tarra renewed her effort grinding herbs and fought back tears of frustration. After a few minutes, Caran came and sat in his place. “He’s still a boy in many ways, just as you’re still young. I know you feel alone here and for that, I’m sorry. It’s—unfair that you were unable to wed at the gathering. ‘Unfair’ isn’t the right word... I now see the wisdom of your father in what Chilcoat did. I was mad at first, but now I see that he meant only to protect you as your father would. It wasn’t to hurt you, it was his love for you, for your father,—for who you are to become. You’re important to who we are. You’ve saved him for me and I’m forever grateful. You’re welcome here, we love you.”
“Welcome as what? Am I your sister? I don’t feel like your sister.”
“No—you know we haven’t been able to treat you as a sister. You’re—one of us.” Caran drew her close for a long hug. “We’re a family, and you’re part of it. Just how you fit in is up to you. You can choose to pout and feel sorry for yourself or you can enjoy our offer to be one of us.” The hug turned into more of an embrace as they held warmly together. “I need to tell you something, and I don’t want you to tell anyone.” Caran whispered in her ear. “Will you promise?”
“Of course, I have no one to tell.” She peeked over her shoulder at Chilcoat and considered the warmth she felt for them.
Caran whimpered quietly. “My eyes—trouble me. I am afraid that I’ll soon be blind and that I’ll be a burden on you and the others.”
“I’ll stay close by you and help you see.”
“No! That’s exactly what I don’t want. If Vau has seen fit to give me this affliction, I’ll suffer it as best I can, but I don’t want you, or anyone else, to be troubled with it.”
“It isn’t trouble. It’s what we are; it’s what we’ve become. I’ll stand by you in everything you do... Well, maybe not everything,” she glanced at Chilcoat. She knew she didn’t hate him for what he had done. She understood that he had acted from the duty he had learned from her father. Perhaps that was why she resented Chilcoat’s authority. She knew it was her father speaking, her father that had left her too soon. She wanted to punish someone, and she knew Chilcoat was strong enough to take it.
“We’ll see…” They laughed knowingly and once again hugged warmly.
Lannon led a crew to look for water but, by evening, they returned with only a few casks filled. The water they found was murky and tasted flat even after boiling. They would try again tomorrow, but they didn’t hold out much hope once they moved beyond access of the central basin.
The weeks dragged on and the ridgeline along the horizon slowly grew closer. The bug repellent ran out, but the bugs didn’t, so the last few days were a challenge, especially when they decided to not thread-the-needle between two clumps of trees. By going around, they avoided a possible run-in with a pride of cats, but it added an extra day to their journey. When they finally reached the guide stone, it was late evening and everyone was ready to rest. The warm evening breeze swept across the savanna and rushed up the cliff that loomed over the camp. Chilcoat felt some satisfaction that no one had been lost on their venture. There are many pulled muscles, sunburns, and strained backs that will need time to recover, but everyone is in one piece. The guide stone seemed familiar and somehow comforting to him has he leaned on the crude slab.
Tarra approached quietly placing her hands on the sighting handles. “Do you want the guide stick?”
“No. I don’t think we need it. I think we can find the path again after all the damage we did to it last time we were here.”
“We should celebrate or something? I feel like we should do something to mark the occasion.”
“Yeah? Everyone’s too beat to do much celebrating, besides, maybe praying is a better outlook to have right now. Will you do it?”
“If you wear the robes, I’ll help.”
“Robes? You don’t make anything easy do you?”
“I’ll make it as simple as I can.” She left to get her things.
Chilcoat kindled a fire in the center of the guide stone where they had rested before. He was just about ready to call everyone together when Tarra approached chanting softly. She was wearing her ceremonial robes and carrying a neatly folded package with Tangar’s scepter lying across it. People stopped their evening duties to watch as she approached and laid the package on the platform at his feet. She bowed submissively and backed away spreading her arms with her robe forming wings hanging nearly to the ground.
A chill ran down his spine as he watched the angelic figure. He had never really paid much attention to her ritual duties when Tangar was around. She was just part of the show, but now that he was also part of it, he saw her graceful gestures as if for the first time. She was beautiful, and gave a somber reverence to what otherwise would have turned into a quick pep talk with his hunting buddies. He retrieved the robe, shrugged off his sling, and quickly pulled the robe on. By the time he was ready, she had joined him near the fire and held the scepter out to him. He took a deep breath and accepted the twisted little staff, quickly dropping it to his side.
“Can I have your attention?” He spoke in clear tones for all to hear. “I want to thank you all for your cooperation in getting here. You’ve done well and we’ve grown together helping each other, as we should. Tomorrow we’ll enter the new village, and we’ll have even more hard work ahead of us, but tonight I want to ask that we all thank YodHeaVau for preserving us in our quest and Tangar for his guidance.” With that, he raised the scepter toward the moon as it peeked over the horizon in the east and then pointed it at the cliff standing before them. “Praise to the oneness of us all.”
Tarra chanted softly and scattered incense on the fire causing a swirl of smoke and sparks to rise into the starlit sky. Everyone joined in the song and seemed somehow more settled in their preparation for the evening. He handed the staff back to her and quickly shed the robe to her waiting hands. He considered his sling for a moment but didn’t put it back on.
“Very nice.” She smiled timidly as she folded the robe over her arm and took the sling from his grasp. “Thank you for remembering Papa.”
He sat for a few minutes smoking his pipe and thinking of the old man and his daughter as the crowd broke up. He had to admit that she wore the robes well, but he still didn’t feel right about his involvement. It all seemed too foreign to him. There was something there, but he wasn’t sure what, and that made the warrior in him uncomfortable. It’s like the feeling I get when I know a cat’s around, but I’m unsure where. If I knew more, maybe I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable, but right now, I just wish I could get the vision of her out of my mind.
Caran drew close in reassurance and Tarra brought their bedding so they could sleep on the relative comfort of the platform. She had changed out of her robes, but she carried a small packet of herbs and the bundle of medicine sticks. She sprinkled the powder on the fire causing it to give off a fragrant smoke and an eerie blue-green light while she organized the sticks into groups.
“Now what?” he goaded. “Are you going to send me on another quest already?”
“No, I just wanted to let Papa dance with the wands again; he deserves it for bringing us here. Maybe he has something else to tell us.” She collected the bundle together holding them warmly in the smoke for a moment and dropped them on the medicine cloth. The jumble of twigs scattered lightly into a random pattern with some falling out of the center cluster. She gathered the outliers and set them aside then collected the remaining sticks and repeated the process twice more. On the final drop, only four twigs remained in the center.“He really likes that tanasin stick,” she laughed pointing to the twig lying on the bottom of the pile. “I guess that’s a good sign. Maybe the other three sticks are us laying here on the guide stone.” They sat quietly watching the stars for several minutes leaning on each other for comfort and enjoying the warmth of their growing bond.