The intense blue of the sky beat down between the stone spires, and a trickle of water music accompanied the creaking of the leather saddles, and the hollow sound of scrabbling hooves. You could hear it, that trickle music, if you filtered out the background of the hundreds of bleating goats and sheep, and the low complaining of the cattle as they were driven up to the high summer pastures. The smell of dung and sweat were familiar and comforting, as was the steady creaking of saddle leather.
The dogs ran by quickly, anticipating the animals that had started up the wrong crevice towards some tempting grasses. They barked sharply and turned the upset sheep back to the river of animals headed up and up the main way. They were within an hour or so of today’s resting place, where they would pitch their felt tents over the stone walls they repaired every year on their endless cycle of up and down the mountains to the valleys below.
Raab pushed back the brim of his rust-colored hat, the ancient high peaked style still held to fiercely by the Taanen tribesmen. So versatile in every kind of weather, useful to hold anything from foraged eggs to cool water, and identifying them to both friend and foe alike. The musket and sword were fastened securely to his saddle. His long spear with the leaflike blade was held in the crook of his arm. A wolfskin cloak was rolled behind him. His milkskin was under his leg, fermenting its contents against the steaming side of his horse.
High above, he knew without looking, the forward and rearguard scouts were scanning the landscape, looking for smoke that would tell of foe’s camp or the summer fires which started through lightning strikes in the stunted twisted remnants of the forests. The storms were infrequent, but violent and sent writhing floods down the canyons, so quickly the parched earth had no time to soak in the waters, so brown floods rushed through pale, crusted landscapes. Only the constant movement of people and animals ensured the Taanen would go on, and go on they would.
Every twisted defile in every canyon, every shadow on every peak, every oddly formed rock on their route was storied, their mental maps thickly written in verse and song, all of Taana a storied place. Some stories were from the rider’s own time, and some had been passed from so long ago, some even from the First World, like the Shell Cliff. But the storied places each held history, comedy, tragedy, triumph, and finally, wisdom.
Behind him a day for example was the place the great bear had come down and, in hunger-driven greed, killed three sheep, with snaps of jaw and paw, before two warbrothers darted in on foot and speared it in the heart fearlessly. The bear skull still perched there on the rock, bleached in the winds and sun of two decades since they placed it there. Raab carried the scars from the claws on his leg and chest proudly, and half the claws themselves on a thong around his neck. His warbrother Chaani had the other half still, on a similar thong, in his own camp on the other drainage leading to the Last Meadow.
Just behind him was the place Raab’s grandfather had been trapped by the pursuing Enemies. He had killed three of them before the other four had cut him down. Grandfather had been able to sing his spirit into the immense boulder behind him as he was dying, before the Flatlanders could cut his head off and steal his spirit for their desert sorceries. Now every time Raab’s Clan passed in their seasonal rounds, he spoke to his grandfather there in the great rock, and he poured out a libation of the fermented milk from his saddle pouch for the spirit in the rock as he had this morning. More than once it had warned him of things to come, of Enemy and Storm.
At tonight’s camp there was the ancient shrine of the Mountain Spirits, established back so long ago, it had passed from memory, but always just was. The story was that the hero Kaahan had a dream of the Mountain Spirits there, and if he established the shrine and people honored it, deaths from the mountain floods and storms would be abated. The story went, as long as they did so, the Taanen would always survive the mountain hazards. So they made sure they honored it, and so the Mountain Spirit Meadow had been one of their stops from time immemorial.
In four sleeps they would reach the monastery and do some trading and visiting, and… he shook his head. “Waugh!” Ah well. His twins, his two youngest children were on his mind again.
His daughter Saani rode ahead of him, and glanced back at him, and smiled, tossing her spear up high and catching it again with her other hand. Showing off again. He smiled indulgently. At twelve winters, she was a good herder and a better hunter. Although all the Taanen learned to fight and were skilled at spearwork early, she had a gift, and was as good as any of the boys her age. She had beaten many of them in their games, which threw them off considerably, though they would not show it and lose their pride along with the game.
On the other hand, her twin was dragging behind again. He looked but the boy was too far back to be seen. Always daydreaming. And it had gotten worse, ever since Laanina had been taken last summer. That daydreaming was a dangerous habit for the life they lived, but it was who Raabi was. Though it had become worse over the last year, really it was who the boy always had been. He could not help it it seemed, no matter how his family tried to shame him into better ways.
He could tell something extra was on his son’s mind, worsening over the past month or so anyways. He was always staring off when watching the goats, or outside at night, looking at the stars, or staring at a rock. He was a Taanen, but this inattention to reality meant he would die and Raab didn’t want to see his baby boy die, even if he was weak. The Taanen were strong people, and they did not really understand how to handle weakness in the ones they loved. They just looked away, embarrassed.
No one in the band troubled them over it. After all Raabi was kind and helpful. He was no coward, he was a brave boy like all Taanan, but he was slow in his reflexes, and he didn’t have the decisive risk taking and mean streak that was needed to survive in the life they led. He had slow deep thoughts and said unexpected and odd things, that discomfitted people and they made excuses to walk away.
He and his wife had discussed it, and they realized that what must have happened that when the twins were in Laani’s belly, their bodies formed from bloodclots, the male and female spirits had crossed paths and gone into the wrong bodies. That was the only thing that made any sense. It was something Raab lived with and had made a sort of peace with.
He had still his eldest son Taam and two daughters older than the twins. Two of his older sons had been killed in raids, and one daughter had been carried off by the Enemy. He often wondered about her, and asked every trading party about her, but no one knew of her. She would have been memorable. The pain and hatred for the Enemy rose in him when he thought of Bird. Her name was Laanina, but they always called her Bird. He took a swig from the fermented milk, and kicked his horse forward.
“Go find your brother, and tell him to get his butt up here!,” he said as he passed by Saani, who nodded and wheeled her horse back towards the rear.
She made her way back through the stream of animals, smiling and nodding to the other herders as she made her way back to the rear of the column.
She passed Jaasha, her cousin and Bean, Jaasha’s husband, who waved. Jaasha said, “He’s back there, Saani. Shell Cliff caught his attention, looked like.”
Saani sighed. Her bro. They pretty much knew each other’s thoughts, yet sometimes there was a chasm between them. They saw the world so differently. She engaged with it, sweat and blood and panther’s grin. He was like a mist driven by a wind she could not see. Why hadn’t she been born a boy and he the girl?
Yes, she knew the story of the spirit trade when they nestled together in their mother’s womb. Yes, at least she had been born among the Mountain People rather than the Taanen enemies, the dour Flatlanders, the Kwaaboi, whose women were treated like slaves. Those crazies who had stolen her older sister and killed two of her brothers.
The Mountain People had a traditional acceptance of female warriors who rode with father and brother and husband, side by side, not behind as servants. The Mountain People were pragmatic and needed all the warriors they could get in the eternal battles against the more numerous and better organized desert tribes who tried to steal their mountain and valley pastures by justifying it as a Holy War against demon-worshippers. She gripped her spear tightly for a moment and patted her horse’s neck for reassurance.
The Taanen’s main advantage was that they knew the mountain country inside and out, and they were as good on foot as on horseback. Depending on the terrain, they could even move faster that way, nimble as goats. While the pot-bellied Kwaaboi were awkward on foot, walking like ducks (she laughed), they were like lightning on their horses, and as dangerous. Yet, the two nations were evenly balanced overall, and raids back and forth were like the seasonal rains and snows, pushing here and retreating there.
She saw Raabi, who had dismounted, and sat there motionless on a stone, staring at a cliff face. The Shell Cliff they called it. The old traditions say that when the Flood receded from the First World’s destruction, Creator decided to make these mountains by scraping the bottom of the sea for mud to heap up high, and then blew on the mud to harden it, and bits and pieces of the First World’s seabottoms could be seen in the mountains here and there. Sometimes strange animals and fish, sometimes seaweeds and shells.
Interesting, sure. But she couldn’t understand why Raabi was just sitting there, staring like a sheep at the thousands of shells embedded in the rockface. She dismounted in one easy movement and walked over and sat by him. “What’s the story, guts-and-glory?” she said.
He just looked at her with his pale and distant eyes. “Saani, did you ever notice how these shells are only with other shells, and the fish are only with other fish? That these things are all of a kind, and not mixed together?”
She shrugged. “Uh, not really, but what’s your point?”
“Well, if the story was true about Earthmaker taking big handfuls and making these mountains, wouldn’t there be more random mixes of these things, because of how big Earthmaker’s hands would have to be to make these mountains? It doesn’t make sense.”
She paused for a minute. “Not really. I mean things that are alike would live together, right? So they would be grouped together in those scoops, like shells with shells and fish with fish.” She smiled triumphantly. “Or Taanen with Taanen, and Flatlander with Flatlander.”
He smiled but shook his head again. “But just think how big his hands would have to be. Things would be bound to get mixed up in such big hands. Couldn’t it maybe be that different parts of these mountains came from different places. Or maybe even, different times? “
She rolled her eyes. Here he goes.
“No really, hear me out. Maybe he took different parts of the mountains from different places. Or maybe even from different times. He either would have to have mountain-size hands, or it would take him forever to heap this much mud up, like thousands of thousands of years.”
She sighed. There was no stopping him when he got in these moods.
“Saani, did you ever see the babies inside eggs or inside animal mothers when we prepare them for food? They change in appearance, as they get bigger. From bloodclot to baby animal born. But in between, some look like lizards and some like fish. It’s like they change over time and go through certain stages, depending on how old they are, how long they have been in the mother.” He traced a shell clump with his fingers.
She saw his point, sure, but that was just how things were. Things took form in the blood of the mother, and slowly became the baby, being shaped by the thoughts of the mother and formed from what she ate. That was why it was important for the mother to think only on good things during her pregnancy, and eat only certain foods, so the baby would be formed right. Those babies who weren’t right, who were formed wrong, were left to the mountain spirits, and no one wanted that to happen. All children were valued and all had to become future warriors, so the mothers were very careful, nursed them long, spaced them out, and it rarely happened that misshapen children were born or mothers died, unlike the ancient times in the stories.
“These shells are egg-shaped, and so maybe they came before the fish, in the womb of the mother. Maybe there was no Earthmaker heaping up mud for mountains. Maybe instead there were eggs, like in a Mother, that then become fish and then birds or animals. Over a very very long time.” He swallowed. “And then maybe even us. People. The most different of all of the living things. So maybe we are the most recent of all these things, born in and from the Mother. The World itself.”
Saani shrugged again. The Taanens generally believed what they wanted to, though there was a general shape to their belief. The Creator or Earthmaker as a Father, looking through his Sun Eye and his Moon Eye at the Mother Below, at her skin the earth and her hair the trees and grass, and the waters her blood. They had sex, and made life from her blood in the morning of each world. Several worlds had passed, one after the other, each ending in its time, by fire, or ice, or flood in the evening. IN the Nights at the end of each world, Father and Mother lay together and made new life and new worlds. Forever, Mother and Father would be in cycles of night and day, making new worlds and at the evening those worlds each would pass, to make room for the next one.
In this cycle, there were many children, seen and unseen, good and bad, harmful and helpful. Mother and Father let them run around indulgently during the day of the world, amused at first, then growing tired of the foolishness and then wickedness of the children. And at the end of the world, they spanked them and put the children to bed, cleaned the house in terrible ways, and made the world over again. Over and over. At least that’s what she had been able put together from all the stories, and what sort of made sense to her. But then she didn’t dwell on it like Raabi did. He was not satisfied, but always seemed to be groping towards something that was still in the shadows of his mind.
“I don’t know, Saani. It just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t make sense to me.” He still peered at the shells, as if his spirit could sink into the rock like their great grandfather’s spirit did, and find out from the rock itself.
“Well, Father told me to come back and get your butt up there, so we’d better go now. We don’t want him to come back looking for us. We aren’t far from tonight’s camp anyways.” Saani walked over to her horse and jumped up easily, swinging her leg over the saddle.
Raabi sighed and climbed up on his horse as well, chest first and then leg over. They started riding up, past the Bear Skull and then through the animals, until they caught up with father. Raab looked at them both. His last two. His babies. He sighed and then smiled.
+ + + + +
Once the herds had reached the camp meadows, the huts’ chest-high rock walls had been repaired from the winter storms that had knocked over a few stones here and there, and pushed down a wall or two. Then the dozen felt tents were spread over the center poles and their edges tied to the rock walls securely against the sudden mountain storms. The meals were begun, the animals cared for, and the evening watch set on the cliffs above.
The families gathered in silence and Laani held the stone platter as Raab took morsels from the bowls presented by each of the father’s and put it on the intricately carved platter. Only the best. Then they all walked over to the stone shrine and Laani laid down the platter on the Mountain Spirit shrine, a large flat boulder, with carved wooden figures and holy symbols set upright and around it, to which prayer cloths had been tied.
“O wondrous Ones,
Thou who wait in stone
Thou who walk in wind
Thou who ride the flood
Thou who spear with lightning
Thou who drown with rain
We, your poor brothers and sisters,
offer you our best
Though our best, it is poor fare
But we offer it in respect
In this, Thy House
In hopes that thou may bless us
and watch over us
and in return we pray that
Our Father and Our Mother keep and bless thee.”
They all bowed and walked backwards several steps, and then turned and did not look back, lest they accidently see and anger Them, who would send shadows that evening to eat the life from the food.
It was a happy evening in the Taanen camp. The animals were feeding quietly, the weather was calm and the stars were bright. The soft glow of cooking fires and murmur of conversation drifted out the stone doorways, and figures moved from hut to hut, sharing food and talking about the day’s events. High on the cliffs, the scouts kept watch, for wolves and worse. Spears and knives were examined and sharpened, and muskets laid against the walls inside. People were content and happy. Talk drifted to the next three days to the monastery, where trading would commence for the medicines made by the monks there.
As it got later and people began to return to their own huts, Raab sat quietly by the fire, while Laani fed dried cattle dung to the flickering flames in the stone cooking ring. A pot of milky tea sat to one side and Saani placed a pinch of juniper scales on the hot stone in the coals, and the smoke wafted upwards. The hut filled with the sweet smell. The family sat there silent and rosy cheeked, staring at the coals contentedly. The older son and daughter had returned to their own families in their huts, leaving only Raab, Laani, Saani and Raabi.
Raab took a drink of his tea and coughed. “Raabi, your Mother and I have been thinking about something. We wanted to talk to you about it. See what you think.”
He sipped again as Raabi looked up.
“My Son, we thought, maybe, it might be good for you to spend some time with the monks at the monastery. See if it suits you.” He took another sip. There, he’d said it.
Raabi swallowed, in both terror and excitement. The monastery! He had felt its draw every year on their trip. The immense walls, the quiet patience of the monks and nuns there. The chance to learn. To think long and carefully. To learn of the ancient mysteries.
But to leave his family! The comfort of home and the people that were as much a part of him as were his legs or his hand or his nose. He could not bear the thought of it. His dry throat rasped his words, “Father, I want to stay with the family.”
“I know you do, and I want you to. But this is just a short time, for a couple of moons. We will pick you up again on our return from the Last Meadow. It will be an adventure for you. And you may learn something of real use to us. Improve your reading and writing. Maybe learn how to make a medicine, like that salve for the sheep, or some other help. Sleep on it, son. I won’t make you do it. But I think it would be good for you.” And for us, he thought, but did not say.
Raabi gulped and said nothing. There really was nothing to say. He retreated to his bedroll without another word. Soon the others had laid down as well, and the fire’s banked coals glowed very faintly in the dark. He laid there, his eyes wide open, listening to the deepening breathing of his family.
Sure, it sounded like he had been given a choice, but he knew despite the phrasing by his father, he did not have one. He knew he wasn’t cut out for an endless life of fighting and breeding animals. He knew he liked to think too much, and when he thought deeply, he didn’t pay attention. And that would eventually get him killed, or worse, someone else killed, maybe even his own family. He knew that, because he already carried a secret.
He carried the guilt that he had seen the trace of dust in the distance when he and his sister Bird were getting water at the spring in the lowland valley the previous winter. He had seen it, and he knew of the possibility it might be an Enemy, but he was just too interested in watching the ant nest as Laanina filled the waterskins. He had watched from behind the rocks as the five Kwaaboi raiders had carried her off, screaming.
He wished he could have stopped it. He felt like a coward, though his reason told him he would have also disappeared that day if they had seen him, as a slow-moving boy of only eleven snows. But he had never told anyone he had seen the dust when they might have had a chance to run, not even Saani. And that guilt was eating his guts every day. So he just traveled farther and farther from himself, in his mind.
Everyone knew the monks had mastered the mind and its tricks, and knew many things. They had come from many foreign places and their faces and ways were strange to the Taanen. So maybe this was the thing to do. To go there and see what could happen.
Hope began to stir in his chest. To reclaim himself somehow, the part that had gone with Laanina. To become what he knew what he was born to be. Perhaps even someday, to find Laanina, bring her back, and redeem himself. Yes, he thought, his family together again. He would fix it. Still, it took him a long time to finally fall asleep, his face buried in his father’s wolfskin robe.