True to her word, Tarra kept the ceremony simple. She wore her robes but somehow seemed less ethereal as she walked to the platform chanting her call to prayer.
Chilcoat, also, was less formal as he casually accepted the scepter and dropped it to his side. “As I’ve said, only the fit will make this journey and we’ll return as soon as the bonding is complete.”
“I want to stay and visit my sister.” A voice called from the group along with supporting jeers and grumbling.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to wait for another season. We’re going to mark a trail and let the young form bonds, but we’ll be unable to visit family and friends. There’ll be times for that soon, but not now.”
“You can’t deny me! I want to see my family and join in the celebration. I’ve listened to you long enough with all of your doom saying and witchcraft. You’re not a true seer and you’ve led us only into hardship and suffering.”
Chilcoat walked slowly across the platform to confront the distraught man standing amongst his supporters. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’ll not endanger any that I don’t have to, and you’re not eligible to join in this passage. You’re right. I am not a seer as Tangar was. I sat at his knee and I learned many things from him, but I don’t follow his ways of herbs and spirits. For that, perhaps I’m wrong, but I am who I am, nothing more. I’ll lead you for as long as you’ll let me. After that, I’ll pass and another will take my place. That’s as it should be. If we can find a suitable route, you are welcome to lead the journey next year, but until then you’ll have to stay here.”
He turned with a flourish of his robes and raised the scepter to the setting sun. “Hea, bring us the life force of Vau to nourish the humble children of Yod, but please spare us Your wrath. We’ve suffered greatly under Your merciless cleansing and ask only that You find us worthy.”
Tarra took the cue and sprinkled incense on the brazier that stood in the center of the platform. The sparks wafted on the evening breeze and disappeared into the darkening sky.
Her action distracted Chilcoat for a moment. “For now, I’ll count on two hands those men who will come with me, and I’ll count on one hand those women who will join us. Tarra, bring a stool and I’ll sit here and listen to all of those who think they are in need.”
He selected a band of young people who were of bonding age. The mix included several of the young bucks who were beginning to form factions of disruptive influence. It will provide them a challenge to prove their manhood and serve to break up some ill-considered relationships.
When the selections were complete, and everyone had had a chance to speak, Chilcoat rose from his stool and looked wearily at Tarra handing back the scepter. “Lannon has served me well and will assume my duties while I am gone, and Tarra will remain to nurse any who become ill.”
“No! I need to gather herbs, I have to go.” She made her position clear for all to hear.
“You’re too valuable here with the elders, they need you more than we will.”
“You don’t know that. My knowledge may be of more use to this bunch of children on the trek.” Some of the older ‘boys’, that had been selected, stirred in discomfort at her dismissal but decided they didn’t want to get between them. “I have to restock some very special herbs, and unless you think you’re up to the task, I need to go. These people need these things.”
“You can come to seek your herbs then, and you’re free to enter the joining ceremony, I’ll be happy to offer you if you wish.” Chilcoat smiled slightly with relief that he was able to make an open display of their relationship.
“I’ll decide that when we get there. In the meantime, I need to get ready.” She bowed respectfully offering the scepter up in reverence before she turned to leave in a purposeful display of flowing robes.
“Yes, that goes for all of you. Both those selected, and those who will remain behind, must make preparations. Each will have added burdens they must accept. I think it’s important that our young take part in the bonding, we must keep the bloodlines pure, and it’s important for these men to find their position in the tribe.” He gestured toward the young men that had recently risen in defiance. “I want you all to understand that none of you are being forced to go. There’s no shame in waiting for another season. The trail will be better set and you may have fewer doubts about your desire to enter in bonding. It’s a reckless venture that’ll be dangerous for everyone involved. Those who remain will have to pick up the duties of these healthy young bucks, and those who come will have to do only what I tell them to do, and only when I tell them to do it. If you don’t agree with that, you can come to my shop and we’ll resolve it, otherwise, I want you all to prepare in the way Lannon instructs you. Bring nothing more nor less than instructed. We’ll leave at first light in three days. Be at the guide stone, and be prepared, or you’ll not be allowed to come.” He straightened his cape and left the platform.
No one came forward to decline the mission, but many of those not selected took every opportunity to ask him to reconsider their worthiness.
On the third morning, Chilcoat arose from a fitful rest atop the guide stone. He questioned the wisdom of the venture as he rubbed his knee into action. He had grown soft living in the citadel and he grieved the loss of his bed as he stretched watching the stars fade. He looked back up the face of the cliff and wondered if Lannon was at the dawn watch. He felt for the lion’s fangs hanging from his neck. Lan had entrusted him to take them to the gathering for his brothers. He’s a good strong leader and will get much-deserved honor when he makes the trip himself and tells the story, but for now, the fangs will go to his brothers in memory of their father.
The day was the marking of the seasons. The sun aligned with the chimney stone and Chilcoat lamented not sitting comfortably at the dawn watch drinking his morning tea and smoking his morning pipe. Standing on the edge of the platform, he called out across the small encampment. “Everyone rise and shine. It is time to get started.” Tarra soon stood beside him and began a light melodic chant meant to cheer the uneasy mood.
The trip was uneventful except for a snakebite that took one of the cocky older boys that had become complacent. Chilcoat had cautioned him more than once, but the lad knew more than the master, and wouldn’t listen.
They had to double back on three separate occasions, but they eventually found their way to the coastline and were soon standing in front of the temple. Everyone welcomed them to the festivity and the storytelling began. All of the stories were pretty much the same except for the citadel, of course. Everyone had tales of suffering and hardship with many deaths mourned and few births celebrated. Chilcoat sought refuge in the men’s tent and quickly found a cup of wine and a pipe full of herbs amongst old friends.
The joining ceremony grew more important in everyone’s minds as the day drew near. Chilcoat found Tarra talking lightheartedly with the other shaman. They had questioned her ruthlessly for many hours at first, but they eventually warmed to her charms and welcomed her into their alliance. She brought a young tanasin plant for the elder’s gardens and asked to understand its use better. She learned that she had been correct about the leaves, but there was much risk with their use.
The high-elder approached Tarra as she gathered up her things getting ready to leave. “You probably don’t remember me. I’m Talbot and this is Stafon, the Seer of the western tribe. We were friends of your father and wanted to say how sorry we are for your loss.”
“Thank you. Yes, I remember you both. I’m glad to see you again.”
“You flatter us, you were so young. I’m sorry we were unable to talk with you on your last visit. Things were a little hectic. We would like a moment of your time, if you don’t mind.” Stafon gave a quick hand gesture to a young monk standing nearby who moved to intercept the approach of a couple of council members. He led them away with congenial gestures and feigned interest in their issues as Stafon led Tarra into the inner sanctum of the high-elder.
“Forgive us for intruding on your time, but we have only a few moments. We are of the ’old-order’, just as your father was, and must guard what we say. The ’enlightened’ council doesn’t agree with our teachings and will oppose what we are about to tell you.” Talbot moved quickly to uncover a stack of scrolls buried within a pile of carpets. “Your father’s passing has touched us deeply, not only because he was a dear old friend, but because his passing fulfills a prophecy foretold in these scrolls.” He gestured at the dubious looking pile of rags.
“These are the lost scrolls of the Shanare.” Stafon pulled his hood off exposing his bald head and thin, somber, face as he caressed the scrolls lightly with his fingertips. “The monks of the new-order have forbidden their use. They claim the enlightenment has made them useless to the new ways.”
“Ah—they don’t look very lost to me.” Tarra bent down and nudged the rolls aside counting them.
Stafon could hardly contain himself. “Well, the council has, sort of, lost track of them on purpose. That’s not the important thing. The important thing is that you are here. You are to read them. To fulfill the prophecy foretold: ’the Keeper of the Word and Warrior of Truth’.”
Talbot placed his hand on the shoulder of his old friend. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You see Tarra, these scrolls are very important to your future, to everyone’s future. They are yours to keep. The Keeper ’must receive the scroll of heaven, freely given by the one foretold’ to fulfill the prophecy.”
Stafon addressed the young monk that entered the room and nodded meaningfully. “Shadoc, this is Tarra. I want you to stay close to her. The council will be upset if they discover we have spoken with her. I want you to be sure they don’t suspect our involvement.”
Talbot covered the scrolls and quickly left the room with Stafon closely in tow.
Tarra stood a little bewildered as Shadoc directed her to leave by way of the side door. They stood in the shadow of the tent for a moment then ventured nonchalantly into the traffic flow of people headed for the gaming fields. He put his arm around her shoulder and pointed out various team members as they moved casually past a cluster of shaman that had gathered around the high-elder.
Tarra shrugged his arm off as they rounded the corner. “Was that really necessary?”
Shadoc smiled confidently. “I don’t know for sure, but it seemed like a good idea.”
“Well, next time ask.”
He stopped and faced her solemnly. “Tarra, can I put my arm around your shoulder?”
“What do you know about all this stuff? Talbot is the high-elder—can’t he just ‘find’ the scrolls and make everybody read them.”
“The new-order is very powerful and only tolerates him because they think he’s going to die soon. The irony is that they’re probably right.”
“You don’t know that. Besides, who are you anyway? What makes them think I need your protection?”
“It’s not really protection. It’s more of a diversion so you stay out of the council’s view while you learn what you are to know.”
“And you know what that is?”
“No, you’re to teach me.”
The pair spent many hours pursuing the other shaman and asking questions about their trade. Their relationship was flirtatious and a little arrogant as they gathered seeds of wisdom scattered amongst a good supply of fertilizer provided by their mentors. They talked of the joining and participated in their own little bonding ceremony, but they both realized they could not seek joining without one or the other tribe suffering from their loss. There were too few practitioners to allow them to live in the same tribe.
The shaman’s tent was an honored place, just outside the main courtyard, with several young interns scurrying about tending to mundane tasks. Chilcoat stood awkwardly outside and addressed Tarra. “Do you want me to take you to the ceremony?”
Tarra introduced Shadoc and proceeded to avoid the question by simply changing the subject. “We’re going to get the kasis vine tomorrow, you want to come?” She waved the guide stick at him.
“Ah—no, I’ll pass if you don’t mind. You two go and have a good time. I’ll nurse my sore muscles here and see if I can catch up on a few personal things.”
“Suit yourself but I’ll miss your smiling face.” She smirked at his pained expression. “The stick shows a week, so we’ll be gone for a while.”
Shadoc finally spoke, “It’s along the shoreline north, so if you need to come and get us, we’ll stick to the shore as best we can.”
Chilcoat looked sternly at him assessing the flimsy little bow he carried. “How are you with your weapons?”
“I’m fair, I guess.”
“And I have my spear.” Tarra flashed the delicate amber blade into Chilcoat’s vision.
He winced upon recognizing the familiar form. “You’ll miss the joining. Are you sure you want to do that?”
“I’ve seen the pickings and I think I can pass for another season. Besides, it’s important that I make this trip. I’ll be back soon, and we can start home.”
The slender lad tried to stay in the conversation. “Same here, I have things I want to do before I’m ready to take on being a husband.” Chilcoat looked at him dismissively and turned to leave.
The next few days were an odd combination of celebration and mourning. Chilcoat and a couple of his old chums tried to fit in with the games by competing in events they hadn’t taken part in since they were adolescents. It was a mixture of sweet memories and comic relief as he and his drunken friends tried to match the youngsters. The mourning came when he collapsed laughing and sweating on the sideline and realized that he had no one with whom to share it.
He worried about Tarra and asked around about the young man. Shadoc turned out to be a perfect fit for her. His fellows considered him more-than-fair with weapons, but he was an odd mix of warrior and shaman in a very young package that many had a hard time dealing with. They are reflections of each other, he thought.
Rancon had brought a small group from the highlands last season but said they would not have anyone of age for this season and would probably not come. Chilcoat was glad to hear that he was doing well and had taken command of his tribe. He handed the lion’s teeth off to the elders in a public recounting of bravery shown by Lannon in saving his life. He asked that they pass the fangs to his brothers and tell the story to them if they should return next season.
Strangers approached him and asked questions about the ‘temple-in-the-sky’ and the wonders of the Shanare. He tried to be patient with them but couldn’t help but get short with some of their fantasies. When the elders finally called their general session, Chilcoat took advantage of his position to demand a time to speak. He was glad Tarra wasn’t there to insist that he wear his robes.
He spoke so that all could hear. “I know you’ve all heard of our great fortune—what some of you call the ’Sky Temple’. It truly is a place of wonder, and I invite you all to come and visit, but I must warn you, it’s a place of great hardship. The crops don’t grow well in the poor soil, so we can’t support large numbers. I know some have said that it is the promised temple of the Shanare. I don’t know that. No one knows that. If you think you have proof, bring it forth for all to judge. Until then, it is simply a stronghold provided by Yod. It has saved many of our tribe from the fury of Hea, but others are blind, and many have died from the cleansing. So I’ll leave it up to the elders to show wisdom in how to deal with this new tribe.”
As expected, the elders needed time to consider their stance on the issue and adjourned to their meditation hall. They would burn many bowls of herbs before they would come to any agreement, but Chilcoat was sure they would opt for the non-committal, “Let’s wait and see how it all works out.”
As far as new people wanting to come to the citadel, the bleak prospect of the long walk discouraged most of them. All of the women and two of the young men that had come with him elected to join their mate’s tribe, but the others brought new partners back with them offsetting their numbers. Overall, it was a good gathering. It wasn’t as large as others had been, but all of the suitable bonding candidates found mates. People were not as fussy as they used to be and everyone felt the need to do what’s right for the good of the clan.
Tarra returned with her bounty of leaves from far off lands and told stories of miles of endless sand and sheer cliffs rising from the sea. She wasn’t happy about leaving her newfound companion, but they both understood the need to return to their people. Their parting was warm and promised of future commitment that tore at Chilcoat. He resolved to be brotherly about it, but their apparent intimacy disturbed him. He hated himself for thinking she had poisoned Caran but couldn’t get it out of his mind and now that she had so easily found another, he felt somehow cheated that he had lost her.