The Game Begins
The table turned out to be less than unique. It seemed a few others had discovered similar pieces but hadn’t spoken of it for fear of offending the social committee. All of the tables were different in some details but all had the same pattern etched in their surface. Most people thought that it must have something to do with gardening assignments, or perhaps it was a game, as Tarra had imagined.
She retrieved the medicine cloth from the pouch, where it had been hastily crammed, and spread it on the table. Taking the kasis stick from the bundle, she absentmindedly twirled it in her fingers thinking of Caran and the emptiness she felt. Her eyes again clouded as she sat alone on the floor of her living room. She finally realized that the stick was still in her hand and put it on the table in the center of the sunburst design. It was the summer village and the stick didn’t really belong there, but it gave her a feeling of closure to think about how the cloth had played such an important part in her life.
She placed her hands down flat on either side of the stick. “Father—please show me the way. YodHeaVau, I’m humble before You. I need Your strength... Chilcoat needs Your strength. He has slipped from Your warmth in his time of pain.”
She retrieved the talking-sticks standing by the door, and placed them on the cloth. It didn’t feel right. The skinny little guide stick looked odd next to the intricate carving of Thoma’s wand. She gathered them up, turned the cloth over smoothing it into place, and then replaced the sticks in the center of the winter village sunburst. She shuffled their order several times but it still wasn’t comfortable.
“Papa, I don’t want to keep you from your peace, but I’m alone. I have no one else now.” She leaned on the table and cried until she slept.
Startling awake, she scattered the cloth and sticks across the floor. She had a kink in her neck and her face was red and sore. People were beginning to stir in the central plaza and she needed to take care of a few things before her gardening duties. She looked bleary-eyed at the garden map etched in the tabletop and her eyes immediately fell on the sector where her herb garden was located. She gathered some of the junk from the floor and rose to get ready for work. In a painful tribute to its existence, she soon found one of the half-finished game figures with her bare foot. She limped across the floor grumbling about her housekeeping needs and tossed the little figure onto the table next to the sticks.
By morning, she had gathered several ripe herbs but the yield was poor. The soil on the plateau wasn’t favorable for many of the seeds they had brought from the old village so it was a struggle keeping up the supply of some very critical plants. She reflected that, Vau hasn’t smiled favorably on this hilltop. It’s a great fortress, but it isn’t a good garden.
The seasons changed in an endless progression of heat and cold that were unprecedented in anyone’s memory. Hea punished the people relentlessly. Everyone spent daylight hours indoors and nights tending to social needs. It wasn’t easy, but everyone eventually grew accustomed to the schedule.
Tarra spent months nurturing different strains of plants and compounding different concoctions. She eventually found some effective lotions and teas that satisfied all but the most critical ailments. She tried to keep up on her religious duties, but found it difficult to put on her robes and call people together to chant and pray. At first, people were demanding that she do her little song and dance, but now that things had settled into a routine, no one wanted to spend time worshiping such an unfeeling god.
People made and broke social bonds, children were born, and people got old and died. Tarra matured into a young woman who demanded respect as she performed her duties. With the passage of time, the tribe had evolved into mostly young, mostly healthy, people. A great deal of wisdom was lost and many of the young grew impatient with the old ways. Chilcoat retained leadership through confrontation and bluster, but he had grown older and knew that a younger, more active, warrior would soon replace him. Lannon was his choice, of course, but others had formed factions that would not be ignored in the selection process.
Chilcoat sat at the sighting stone once again and watched the sun set. Another summer was ending. He knew the signs well by now. He had confirmed that indeed the stone placements around the plateau were seasonal beacons. Autumn would soon be on them, the harvest would be in, and it would be time to prepare for the journey to the winter village. The tribe hadn’t been to the gathering since they had moved to the ‘temple in the sky’. That was funny, he reflected. Very few ever thought about the temple stuff anymore. The citadel had quickly lost its aura of divine presence and was now simply a difficult climb after a successful hunt.
“I think we should go.” Tarra said, interrupting his reminiscing.
“What? Go where?”
“To the gathering. I saw you watching the signs. I know you.”
“Yeah, I know. It’ll be hard. Not everyone can make it.”
“I think there’ll be those who won’t want to go. It’s a long walk and unless you’ve something important to resolve, it’s not worth it.”
“Do you have something important to resolve?”
“I still need some kasis and there are a couple of other things I want.” She placed her tools against the stone. “You may be able to find something you need as well.”
“Maybe I’ll be one of the ones to stay behind.”
“You know you can’t pass up another chance to lead. Besides, who’s going to know the right path?”
“Speaking of right path, you haven’t been holding any services lately. Is something wrong?”
“People just aren’t interested. I got tired of getting all dressed up and not having anyone show up... not even you.” She looked coldly into his eyes.
“Yeah, well when you didn’t help Caran…” He caught himself making excuses to the girl.
“Yod knows your pain, yet you turn away from Him.”
“He doesn’t care for me, and I don’t care for Him. Besides, I didn’t want people to talk about—us.”
“People talk about us whether we’re involved or not. The witch has your heart, haven’t you heard?”
“That’s just what I’m talking about. You’re not…”
“I’m not what? And how would you know?” She drew a small pouch from her purse. “Here’s a potion I’ve mixed for you. It’ll take all the bad memories from you and you’ll do my bidding without question.”
He stood speechless as she grabbed his hand and stuffed the packet into it. Turning quickly, she headed out across the garden without looking back. He sniffed at it cautiously. It was just some tea she had brought for break time.
He gathered his hunting gear and headed out. Several of the other men were already on their way down choosing bands to venture onto the savanna. He soon found Lannon and headed off toward the western trail that led out to the watering hole. Hunting was always good there, but it was dangerous, and a long walk.
Chilcoat finally spoke as they made their way across the savanna. “It’s time to prepare for the gathering.”
Lannon adjusted the grip on his spear. “Gathering... Are we going to the gathering this year?”
“I don’t know. I’m just saying it’s time. I’ve seen the signs.”
“I’m not sure I want to go through all that. Charona and I don’t have much of a place at the gathering, and that’s one damn long walk just to play grab-ass with a bunch of cousins.”
“I figured you might feel that way. Tarra wants to go and so do some of the others.”
“Oh, I see. You’re doing her bidding again?”
“No! I’m not—I’m…”
“Relax; I’m just busting your chops. I heard her talking to you. She’s still quite a handful.”
“Want some witch’s brew?” He pulled the tea packet from his belt and offered it to him after taking a small pinch and placing it behind his lip.
“I’ll pass, that spirit-walk stuff isn’t for me.”
Chilcoat hadn’t thought of Tangar and the spirit-walk for quite a while. He remembered how disappointed he had been that nothing had really happened. He didn’t get great wisdom or insight. He didn’t talk with God; he had only a vague memory of a bad night’s sleep and a deep-seated resentment for all things mystical, including Tarra and her herbs.
Whenever someone got sick, he couldn’t help but think of the old man and his herbs. Maybe he could have saved Caran. Maybe his daughter didn’t know what she was doing. Maybe the old women were right, maybe Tarra had poisoned her. It didn’t matter now. Caran was gone, the old man was gone, and he wasn’t ready to deal with all that had happened. He resented how the old man and his witch-daughter had brought them to this strange place and then ignored his prayers. “Him and his sticks and herbs…” he grumbled.
“Oh, nothing, just lamenting my lot…”
“Are you going to go?”
“I’m going to try. There’s a lot of planning that needs to be done, and I need to convince the right people to go along.”
“Right people? Got anyone in mind?” Lannon adjusted his bowstring.
“I think there are a few who need to get away for a while. This’ll give them the excuse they need.”
“There’s a couple I’d like to be sure make the trip.”“We’ll compare notes; in the meantime, I think we’d better get some meat on the table.”