Chilcoat stood on the edge of the cliff facing north in the morning haze. In the distance across the savanna, he could see a hint of the rocky arroyo and the hills beyond. He didn’t look forward to the walk. A couple of people had tried to make the trek in years past, but all of them had either returned after a few days or never returned at all.
Tarra approached with a bundle of herbs in each hand. “Well, what’s it going to be, you and me alone, or the whole gaggle?”
“Neither. I think only a few should make the trip. I don’t want any unnecessary risks, and we need to keep this place going, or there’ll be nothing left when we return.”
“Will we join the others?”
“Rancon and the rest of the summer village?”
“See that pass?” He pointed across the savanna toward a small dip in the hills. “That’s the way we came from the lake. I think the winter village is more over in that direction.” He gestured further west along the horizon. “If we can find a pass over there, we may be able to cut weeks off the journey, but we won’t be able to join the others.”
Tarra sorted through the plants she had gathered. “Sounds good to me. I’m all for keeping the hike short.”
“It would be good to see how the others are doing.”
“We’ll see them at the gathering.”
“Maybe... For now, we need to gather everyone and ask for guidance.”
“Are you going to dress the part?”
Chilcoat winced at the thought of dragging his robes out, but a vision of Tangar flashed through his memory. The old man had always made a big deal about getting ready for the journey. Maybe that’s what I need. A little more formality might shore up my position. “I’ll do it if you will.”
“It’s a date. I can be ready in about a half hour.”
“You bring the stick. I’ll meet you on the pedestal.”
He returned to his shop and dug out his ceremonial robe patting it and sneezing from the cloud of dust. As he pulled it on and smoothed it into place, he could feel a lump in the breast pocket. He cautiously extracted the delicate gift and again thought of Tangar. He was about to replace it when he heard Tarra’s voice calling everyone to service. The lilting chant echoed around the courtyard as she slowly descended the stairway from the garden fully draped in her robes. She now filled the garment in a heavenly visage of warm freckled flesh peeking seductively from the pristine white cape. She waved her arms in slow beckoning motions, trailing wings of sheer fabric in a rhythmic flow. The normal morning commotion soon stopped as everyone watched the specter float down the stairs and up onto the central platform. He took a pinch of smoking herb from his pouch and carefully filled the pipe.
He hadn’t smoked since Caran had passed. It never felt right, but, “if I’m going to wear the robes, I’m going to be prepared.” The new pipe flowed quickly nearly choking him. The herb was a local concoction that smelled slightly of damp socks but it left a pleasant flavor and a light feeling of well-being. He emerged from the shop just as Tarra finished the last refrains of the call to service. She stood in the center of the platform with her arms held out offering the scepter her father had wielded for so many years. Most of the township gathered in silent wonder at the apparition. It had been years since they had seen anything so formal.
Chilcoat solemnly approached the platform and stood for a moment staring at the flaming hair of the angel before him. He accepted the scepter with both hands and she backed away bowing slightly as he turned to face the crowd. Raising the scepter in the direction of the rising sun for a moment, he spoke clearly. “I’ve watched the signs for many seasons now and it’s time that we prepare for the journey to the gathering. I know that some of you are not able to make this trip and that’s OK. It’s good that we have those who can stay here and tend the crops. We’ll offer those who are of age for bonding if their families wish. It’ll be a hard journey, but I think it’s time that we try to join the other clans and tell them of this place.”
The crowd rumbled with excitement. There had been some suggestion that Chilcoat had no desire to undertake the journey, but his theatrics and confidence carried the day. There was little doubt who was in charge and who wore the robes of the Seer.
“In future years, when the trail is well set, others will be allowed to go for less critical reasons, but this year, only the fit and able are welcome.”
Tarra sang a hymn of closing and the meeting broke up before the sun’s rays grew too harsh. Some of the crowd lingered to see if they could catch Chilcoat for a side discussion, but he followed the ritual strictly and returned the scepter bowing respectfully to her station before he quickly adjourned to his shop.
Tarra likewise maintained protocol and majestically ascended the stairs returning to her apartment in a whisper of flowing gowns. She quickly hung her robes away and sat silently at the table dressed in her sleeping clothes. She was still excited from the ceremony and confused about what to do. She had convinced herself that she wanted to go to the gathering, but now that it was going to happen, she was unsure that she was ready. She knew that if she could find a mate from one of the other tribes, she would no longer need to hear the whispers of the old women, but she really didn’t want to leave her people. I’ll have to find a mate who was willing to leave his tribe and come to stay with me in the temple. I like the idea of calling it a temple again.
Looking at the collection of trinkets that cluttered the alcove next to the door, she noted the spirit sticks standing stoically with the two incomplete game pieces. The spearhead lay at their feet. She gathered the little diorama together and brought it to the table placing the two sticks in the center.
“Will you speak with me Papa, Grandpa? We need your guidance. Hea continues to punish us. Will you speak with Yod for us? Show us how we are to understand our place.” She ran her fingers over the intricate carving of Thoma’s wand as the words of her prayer hung in the air unanswered. A tear formed but she wouldn’t allow herself to dwell on it.
What little carving Chilcoat had done on Tangar’s wand seemed simple and dull next to the complex carvings her father had spent so much time on. She picked up the spearhead and considered embellishing the carving but knew it wasn’t her place. The blade felt cold in her hand, its translucent amber beauty misleads its purpose. I’ll need to mount it on a good strong shaft for the trip. She remembered the words Chilcoat had quoted. “It was an unfeeling sliver of Hea that can kill a beast, or even a man, without the slightest remorse.”
The game pieces now drew her attention. She stood them up and decided that the one with a little brown stub protruding must be Chilcoat and the one with the equally unattractive little brown dimple must be her. She played with fitting them together but decided that it wasn’t a very good fit. She chased them around the design on the tabletop making little squealing noises but soon grew tired of it and picked up Thoma’s wand again. She used it to push Chilcoat’s figure along the garden path making rude comments about how slow and awkward he is.
She remembered how her father would take a stick from the fire and draw maps and figures in the sand when he was arbitrating an argument. He would sometimes take a spirit-walk and call the conflicting parties together around the fire while he spent hours considering circles and lines. He would ask them questions and move stones and twigs in and out of the different figures he had drawn. She would watch him whenever she could, but it never seemed to make much sense to her. She suddenly realized that the figures from her childhood were the same intersecting circles etched on the tabletop. She tried to remember what he had said about them, but she could only remember vague chants about the harmony of YodHeaVau and arguing with people about the placement of sticks and stones within the symbol. She moved everything to the center of the diagram and went to bed.
Lannon spoke from the doorway as she pulled her work clothes into place and headed out for the evening labor. “Good show this morning Slim.”
“Are you coming with us?”
“Nah, I don’t need the aggravation.”
“Do me a favor and see if you can find me a good staff for a spear.”
“There’s another reason I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be on the wrong end of that blade. Here, let me have it. I’ll see what I can do.”
“What are the others saying?”
“Do you care?”
“Not really. I just wondered if the rumors are starting.”
“They never stopped. ’The witch has enchanted him and is going to lead our children to their doom’.”
“Maybe they’re right; he wants to take a shortcut.”
“That should make it more fun. You can add a new notch to his story stick.”
“What do you know of…? Oh never mind.” She felt strangely violated that Lannon knew of the wand.
Chilcoat assembled a scouting party and ventured across the savanna to the northwest. The trail wasn’t difficult but it led through lion country and the hills beyond were monotonous possibilities of alternative routes. They got close enough to locate two good prospects but would have to let the selection go until the actual journey. It was too far for the scouting party to go without better preparation, and if they were going to go to all of that trouble, they might as well make an attempt at the journey.
When they returned, Chilcoat climbed the stairs with purpose and walked along the causeway straight to Tarra’s apartment. He had never actually been there, so as he approached the door, he turned to see if anyone was watching. He scanned the windows and doorways of the dwellings and, spotting a curious onlooker, waved acknowledgement. He didn’t want to seem to be hiding his actions.
“Tarra—are you awake?” He called into the gaping doorway.
“Please come in.” She called from the sleeping chamber. She was getting used to the protocol that the townspeople showed her. She liked being able to invite people in to visit but was glad that she could un-invite them just as easily.
“I’m going to call a meeting. I’ll need the stick.”
“It’s a scepter, get used to it. What’s the occasion? I might need something.”
“I’m going to start the selection process, so I figured I’d make it official. I don’t think we need a big ceremony or anything, I just wanted to sort of bless it, you know.”
“I’ll get ready.”
“Ah—can you just give me the stick now and I’ll handle it from here.”
She looked coldly at him. “You said we needed guidance. If you want YodHeaVau to smile on your quest, you need to do His bidding. You need to follow His ways.”
“Woman, you are to do my bidding and not argue with me.”
“I’ll not give you the scepter in this way. It is over there, you’ll have to take it.” Tarra turned away and busied herself by covering the table with a scrap of cloth. She smoothed it into place and put her collection of trinkets on it. “Well—if you have what you want, you can leave.”
“Look, I’m all for a little show, but I just wanted to keep it simple, that’s all.”
“I’ll be discreet if that’s what you want. I just think it’s important to keep the traditions.”
“You and your damn sticks, I don’t suppose you have a guide stick that tells us which pass to take through the hills?”
“I have this.” She picked up the stick he had started to carve and pressed it into his hand.