The relentless succession of storms, and the eerie glow in the northern sky that pulsed and throbbed in iridescent sheets of green and violet, lasted for months. The elders met many times over the winter to discuss the condition they decided to call “the cleansing.” They had managed to consume nearly an entire year’s supply of sacred herbs and still they had no answer that explained the misfortune that had befallen them.
As the gathering ended, Talbot took Chilcoat aside. “Tangar was a dear friend of mine and he spoke faithfully of your spirit. His robes should remain in reverence for a year while candidates are considered, but this year is an exception. It isn’t good for a clan to be without a Seer in these times, so please take his robes and fulfill your duty.”
“Duty? Tangar was a father to me that taught of responsibility and courage, not potions and chants. I know nothing of being a seer. I never really considered the idea. When a rockslide killed my parents, Tangar took me in until I was of age. It was a somber, healing, time but it wasn’t a time of learning the spiritual dealings of a seer.”
“Nonetheless, Tangar spoke of you as the man foretold to fulfill his duty. He thought highly of you.”
Chilcoat remembered the old man fondly despite his gruff veneer. He remembered, when he was young, how the old man had often said, “YodHeaVau has chosen you to walk a noble path.” He had always thought it was just the old man trying to make a brokenhearted young boy feel better about his folks dying. He had never considered that he would someday wear his cloak.
“I always stayed away from his spirit stuff; it’s just too ‘unnatural’ for me. I mean, I’d sit around the fire with him and share a pinch of smoking herb, but I didn’t like to see him on his spirit-walks. I know it’s the Seer’s duty, but it was disturbing to see the man I loved and respected drinking and eating things that didn’t seem wise... all to satisfy some old ritual. It just didn’t set well with the things he taught me. He’d sit for hours staring at the fire not talking and when he spoke, he didn’t make any sense. The clan needs a Seer to settle big issues, but the cost to his health was too great, and the guilt he often bore when things didn’t turn out well weighed heavily on him. He took it as a solemn duty, but he often found himself alienated and bitter with the obligation.”
Talbot looked solemnly at him. “It is a duty we owe to our people...”
Chilcoat sat quietly on the small rock outcropping just outside of the mountain village. He stirred slowly, thinking once again of the passing of Tangar. The old man seemed to talk to him in these moments of solitude. His words haunted him: “It is our duty to guide the children in knowledge and faith.”
Chilcoat smirked. The problem with his sanctimonious pronouncements was that he considered everyone his children. “What am I to do to meet this duty?” he called to the wind. His only answer was the distant cry of a night-bird.
The magnitude of the sky dwarfed him in wonder. He had never felt so small, as he remembered how the old man had taught him of the movements of the sky. The moon cast a cold light on the lake and drew his attention to the skyline beyond. The weather was clear, at last. “Maybe this is the end of the storms,” he hoped. “It’s been a long winter with endless storms and poor hunting. Would you have known what to make of it? No one else has a good answer.”
He considered the ceremonial robes hanging in his hut. He hadn’t worn them yet. He had told the elders that he would care for them and consider any candidates who may step forward, but the council admonished him that their ownership would be their decision not his.
The garish drape of layered cloth nagged at him. There had been a few occasions, since the clan arrived back in the high country, that people had came to his door looking for resolution from the Seer. He had turned them away to settle their conflict without his involvement, but people questioned his wisdom at nearly every meal. The people wanted someone they could call on in times of conflict and doubt, and no one else had the stature to satisfy everyone.
Bartan had come forward almost immediately to lay claim to the job, but the tribe quickly dispelled his desire with an open vote of no confidence. Rancon had considered the office for a short time but had decided that the toll on his family would be more than he was willing to make. Chilcoat knew his concern all too well. He now understood why Tangar had seemed so distant and cold at times.
A single blue-green finger of sky-fire pulsed far across the horizon and seemed to almost point at him as he pulled his cloak tight around his shoulders and tended his pipe. I need to settle the issue.
Rancon had recently challenged the Larkon boys about their hunting etiquette and the friction between them was becoming a concern. The boys were trying to take a cat they had supposedly spotted, and the regular hunting teams were suffering. Chilcoat understood their youthful ambition to get the beast, but it wasn’t providing meat for the table, and their incessant prowling around in the bushes was frightening the real game away.
Chilcoat knew he was the chosen one. Maybe that was what bothered him about it, he had no choice but to put on the robes and start acting like a leader. He accepted the duty of arbitrator, but he had learned from Tangar to be uneasy about the herbs. He had browsed through his medicine pouch when they had first given him the robes, but he had no idea what any of it was, much less where it came from, or when to use it. “If they expect me to act as a diviner of mystical things, I’m going to have to ask somebody what to do with all that stuff.”
He drew deeply on his pipe one last time and watched the last light of the moon slip behind the distant hill. The finger of sky-fire flared slightly and then faded to a deep black sky with countless stars blinking in silence. The image of Tangar sitting by the evening fire drifted through his thoughts. “I know, old man, I know. I should have listened to you closer. If you just hadn’t been so damn—scary.” He muttered to himself as he stirred from his spot and began picking his way along the path leading back to the village.
The robes hanging near the door moved restlessly as he held the entry flap aside. Cool air swept across the floor and stirred the meager flame, casting mysterious shadows around the room. He drew the flap closed and knelt to tuck it in to keep the pests out. As he finished he looked up at the robes that stood over him in critical judgment. They seemed to turn to face him as he took his place by the fire.
After the normal evening banter of gallant hunting efforts, Lannon and Charona retired to their sleeping space just off the living area. Tarra looked dismissively at them as she pulled her cover tight over her shoulders and twisted away from the family scene.
Chilcoat sat next to Caran watching the fire. “The old man came to me again.”
“That’s not surprising this time of year. He seems to like calm summer nights. Did he speak clearly?”
“No. Does he ever? It was just a gentle whisper about the robes. He wants me to wear them.”
“Are you sure? You’ve never done that sort of thing.”
“I think I have to. People keep coming around wanting counseling and it’s starting to cause problems when no one steps in to resolve things. I’m just not sure of some of it. I mean, I watched a strong man shrink to a wisp of his former self with all his herbs and potions. Duty, or no-duty, I’m not ready to do that.”
“Then, he taught you well the duties you must perform. People will come to you whether you wear the robes or not. People look to you.”
“Yeah, but that’s just advice from a friend, not spiritual guidance.”
“Is there a difference?”
Chilcoat watched the shadow of the robe dance on the wall across the tent and rose to adjust the flap in the roof to meter the smoke out. He took the sleeve of the robe between his fingers and gently felt its fine-grain leather.
“The robes of a prince,” Caran offered.
“A prince of fools,” he added, as he reached behind the exhibit and dug out the medicine pouch. Soot covered the tightly bound satchel that was suffering from general neglect. Patting it gently over the flames, the dust turned to a shower of sparks that swirled and rose quickly through the roof flap. He prayed that they would rise to Tangar’s spirit and that he would provide guidance for what he was about to do.
Untying the cord, he spread the contents on the floor in front of him and sat cross-legged sorting the bundles into several small piles. The larger ones were mostly sticks and twigs, the midsized bundles were dried leaves and flowers, and the smaller packets were seeds and powders of different colors and textures tied neatly with a stick holding the knot closed. He recognized some of the leaves, but the twigs could be anything, and the powders were obviously the result of grinding something up, but which leaf or twig they were was a complete mystery to him. He sniffed at a couple of the powders, but decided that may not be a good idea when he nearly choked on one.“It’s no use,” he grumbled, packing the bundles into the pouch and stuffing it back in place behind the robes. “I’ll let them be for now and ask one of the elders about them when we go to the gathering next year.”