The Boy from Parkho Khatune
The woman had a horn growing out of her forehead. It looked something like that of a rhino, but of course much smaller and darker in hue. It protruded about the length of a man's pinky finger, about half that length above her left eye. The boy had never seen a person with a horn before. There was discoloration on a small bump above her right eye as well, in roughly the same place. Was it the start of a second horn?
She sat cross-legged on the fox-skin rug with her eyes closed, gathered up the dragon bones, and chanted into closed fists. The woman almost seemed to pulsate with light, like the small brazier behind her, as she worked her spells.
He had heard of ogres and dragons with horns, and once his grandmother had told him that wise old sorcerers sometimes grew horns after they'd aged a century or so. This woman looked human enough. She was not much older than his grandmother, who'd been the oldest lady in Parkho Khatune when she'd died. The woman with the horn had his grandmother's eyes. He had seen more gray eyes like hers among the highlanders of Fandrin Village in the one month he'd been among them than he'd seen his whole life behind the walls of Parkho Khatune. That wasn't many. Just like in his home village, most eyes here were brown. And even here there was no one else with amber eyes like his.
She rolled the dragon bones for the second time and squinted over them, then marked a tally in the sand in front of the rug. He caught a glimpse of the horn's tip as she bent her head, noticed three short hairs growing out of it, and averted his gaze just as she looked up from her work.
"On the morrow you will climb for a better view of the world, boy. So doing makes one vulnerable to those who watch from below. Mind that. Mind it well."
She reached out with a bony finger and tapped him on the temple.
"Along the way, you will find the guard-posts of those who have gone before. You must light them as beacons, that they may become guideposts for those who follow. These things were told to me of the bones."
She gathered them up again with her left hand and with her right splayed a row of six amulets on the floor beside the tally. There was a fold of skin partially covering one side of the horn's edge and he could see tiny blue veins just beneath the surface, but he kept his eye on the amulets.
"Take the one that's yours, boy."
The boy's eyes were drawn to one of the amulets in particular, a round red disc of bone embellished with a faded black half-moon. To his eyes, there seemed to be a slight disturbance in the air along the edges of the amulet, as if some strange power emanated from within. He reached out and took it slowly, almost fearful that it might burn him with its touch. When he brought it to his eye, the amulet looked completely normal. It felt warm, as if he'd taken it from someone's chest rather than from the sand.
The old sorceress' eyes grew wide for only an instant before her countenance became stern again. "Very well. Your choice requires further tests, young supplicant. Allow this ritual to provide your cleansing, so that you may enter the home of the Ancestors an empty vase, and expand your influence as you expand your awareness."
The old lady rose with uncomplaining difficulty and walked to the door of her hut, pulling back the flap to allow him to exit. The sun was brighter than his eyes expected, but by its position he could tell that it was now late afternoon. He saw teams of peasants working on the terraces in the valley below, and the Snowmelt rushing from the mountains in the east to meet the River of Sorrows. On its banks sat the village of Fandrin, where the valley opened up to the west. Grand Mother Arine motioned to her right, where the terraces gave way to tall cliffs that rose before blue Eastern mountains. There were three cave openings in the cliff wall nearest them, and the sorceress motioned for the boy to enter the closest one. He wondered if he should be relieved that he was not entering the middle one again, where he'd spent the previous night amid the stench of rotting corpses, or be wary of some greater trial ahead. Walking forward toward the nearest cave mouth, he told himself that it mattered little compared to the will of the Ancestors and that of Mah Kam-Ur, the Great Bear Mother who chose life or death for the People of the Language. She had always been the chooser, and even Grand Mother Arine and the Ancestors only messengers of her will.
The cave he had entered the night before had been small, long and narrow, so that he had been forced to crawl to reach the flame-lit room deep beneath the rock. The cave he entered now was immense, its mouth yawning high above his head. The light of the sun showed well into its interior, but the chamber inside was so vast that it was not entirely illuminated. He felt the cold expanse as he stepped inside and heard the faint drips of unseen water resounding in the depths. The echoes gave him a sense of smallness within the chamber's void. The ceiling was lost above in darkness, and the only part of the far wall he could make out was where it shown with the light of a small fire. There he saw the shapes of men, but if they spoke he was too far away to hear. He made his way toward them through the darkness between the light.
When he reached the fire a man the boy recognized as Sapa of the Rik-Sika stood to greet him.. Renowned hunters and warriors of Bai moiety, the Rik-Sika were chosen from among young men of the thirteen villages. The boy had been under the tutelage of both the Rik-Sika and several other orders since he'd arrived in Fandrin, but had not expected to actually be chosen by them. He felt his heart beat faster as he realized that his tests were far from over. Sapa Mainu looked down to the boy's right hand. It still held the amulet Grand Mother Arine had given him, unnoticed since he'd walked into the cave. The Sapa regarded him with a sideways cock of the head, squinting, then took the amulet and tossed it to one of the other men seated by the fire.
"Ahem...so it is...so it is....welcome young son of the Phoenix. It seems that you have passed the tests to become a member of our lodge. Have a seat at our fire. We are just now discussing tomorrow's journey. Seems that it will be a long one." Sapa Mainu sat down on the wooden bench beside the man he'd handed the amulet to, a gaunt fur-clad Rik-Sika with the feathered crests of a Bonpo.
"A long one, he says, and it will take longer to get there than just the morrow."
The Bonpo were the people's sorcerers, knowledgeable in healing spells as well as the removal and administration of curses and blessings on persons, places, and possessions. The boy recognized the gaunt man as Master Resak, spiritual leader of the Rik-Sika.
"Brothers, we are heading upland!"
There were a few grunts around the campfire, and a few of the men said something about a place called High Home, but Sapa Mainu spoke again and the commotion ended.
"Hear me, my brothers. In the morning, you must be prepared for a week long journey. We will leave at first light, and spend tomorrow night among the Zhul at the Highland Gathering Ring. If the She-Bear be merciful, we will return to Fandrin with a new member of our order. Tonight, let us drink wine and welcome him!"
The Rik-Sika stomped the ground and shouted their welcomes in unison.
One of the Rik-Sika's eyes widened in mock concern as he passed the wine-skin to the boy.
“And may the Kami save his soul,” he said, as his head shook in the negative.
The others laughed loudly at the jest. All except for Mainu, who only smiled as he contemplated the flames.
“Aye, Varma,” the Sapa murmured, “May they save us all.”
The boy took a long drought from the wine-skin and passed it to the next man on the bench. As the skin made its rounds the boy studied each of the faces in turn. They were the faces of his new brothers, who he'd be spending the next week with on the trail. He wondered if any of them had been behind the masks last night, in the middle cave of corpses. There were twelve men in all, including the Sapa and Bonpo. All were wearing amulets similar to the one that Grand Mother Arine had given him. Most had long beards or mustaches, and bright red plumes hung from their hair.
The Bonpo began to thread a necklace for the boy's amulet as he shared a tale. It was the story of an ancestral hero of Bai moiety, the kinship line to which the boy, Grand Mother Arine, and the Rik-Sika belonged. The hero was known as Shentak and had died nearly five generations past, sacrificing his life to defend the Phoenix tribe from invasion. Ogres had come down from the high mountain passes to rape, steal, and eat the flesh of the civilized. The boy had heard the tale before, but never with such drama and flamboyance as that of Master Resak. Perhaps the strong wine made the story even more exciting- he was too young to have had much experience with strong drink. Resak even acted out the battle scene with the great ogre chief, who in defeat dealt Shentak a fatal blow. When the Bonpo mimed the hero's burial and the placing of the Heart Blade upon his chest, it was done with such reverence that the boy's eyes watered and nearly teared.
"...and tomorrow we journey to the final resting place of Shentak the Steadfast, Marver the Protector, and of the Mountain Queens." He cocked one eye and scanned the faces gathered around the fire. "It is a sight that only few of you have seen." The Bonpo's face relaxed. He held both hands open and smiled. "But tonight there is celebration in the valley. Let us put these concerns away until morning. It seems the drums have already begun."
Some of the men voiced their approval of the Bonpo's performance as they took their leave of the fire, and clasped his shoulder in gratitude as they passed. Only Sapa Mainu lingered, stirring the embers in silence.
The boy followed his new-found brothers from the cave. The sun was gone and darkness was already falling. Grand Mother Arine's hut sat silent, nestled in the rocky crags beside the cave opening. The old sorceress was nowhere to be seen. They took the rocky path down the terraces toward the light of a bonfire in the center of the festival grounds. As they walked the winding path to the assembly, he could hear the drum rhythms that called the villagers to the celebration. Tonight's feast had been provided by Grand Mother Tulu of White Tiger moiety, who shared the rule of Fandrin with Grand Mother Arine and High Priestess Arteq. It marked the beginning of winter's thaw and the coming of spring. The talk was that she had ordered the slaughter of six hogs to go with the last of the stores of salted salmon, ama cakes, and beer so strictly rationed during winter. As the boy entered the gathering place, he could also see the flank of an elk being roasted on a spit. A group of young girls were rolling out dumplings on a plank near the cook-fires. Villagers milled and chatted of the day's events, or helped the women prepare Grand Mother Tulu's feast. In front of the bonfire, a group of four drummers sat thumping out festive rhythms, and small children and dogs played chase, wrestled, or darted in and out of the crowd.
As more villagers filed in, pleasantries were exchanged and beer was passed out to the guests by Master Lugen, the head brewer of Tulu moiety. The brewer gave the boy a suspicious but well-natured look when his turn came up in line, but filled the cup for him just the same. The boy gave his elder a thankful nod and found a seat before the drum clearing where the youth had gathered to view the upcoming performance. The simple-minded villager known as "Scout" also sat among them, though twice as old as any of his other peers. The people called him "Scout" because he'd never earned a name, and had spent his entire life inside the village, terrified of the world outside.
The boy drank several more cups of the heady beverage that night. The next was after the Bonpos had sacrificed a yak to the Spirit of Spring and a fowl to the Spirit of Winter, another after he'd eaten his fill of the tasty fair that Grand-Mother Tulu's daughters brought out in huge trenchers, and still another during the Dance of the Nereid. That last was performed in unison by acolytes of Mah Kam-Ur to the beat of the drums and the melodies of flute, song-bow, and horn.
Each time the boy returned to have his cup refilled by the brewer, he was given the same playful look. The brewer must have taken great pride at the boy's complimentary patronage, because each time he returned to the seat with a cup spilling over the brim. By the time of the last performance, the boy was good and dizzy.
After a mime which told the story of Borgar of the White Tiger Clan and his union to First Mother Bai, the gathering became more informal. Some of the townsfolk began to dance by the fire, the musicians began to follow a more light-hearted motif, and many in the crowd took up the singing of old familiar songs. "Scout" laughed and clapped his hands but could not keep up with the beat, despite his enthusiasm. Master Resak led a group of ecstatic dancers in a trance circle, some of them Rik-Sika, but most young women of the Bai and Tulu noble families.
One of the men who had been at the cave gathering was sitting on the ground a stone's toss away from the boy, whispering in a pretty brown-haired woman's ear, which by the smile on her face she must have thought amusing. He thought it probable that he and the other nameless boys would have the dugong all to themselves this evening. Women did not invite the nameless to their chambers at night, though they often invited grown warriors of the Rik-Sika.
Stumbling back to the dugong through the shadows he miss-stepped often and took the wrong turn twice. Even so, none of the people seemed to notice him or even look in his direction. This is how it had always been since the boy had been a child. Rarely had he been noticed or acknowledged, even in his own village, and had often been able to sneak away unseen without his mother or uncles having the least inkling that he was gone. Sometimes, when provisions were shared among the people, the host would skip him over entirely. He rarely said anything, so as not to embarrass the host. But when he had received no name at the Naming Ceremony, he had thought that his propensity to be overlooked had finally caused him real harm. Now he wondered if this seeming invisibility was what had led him to be chosen by the Rik-Sika. In the old stories, one of their most impressive powers was to walk among the shadows completely unseen. In fact, the only lesson that Master Resak had given him and the other initiate boys was a spell for moving silently, after which they had all played a game of hide-and-seek. It had been the Bonpo who found him after all of the initiates had given up.
When the boy from Parkho Khatune finally reached the dugong, he climbed the ladder to the common room to find it empty and dark. Drunk as he was, he made it blindly to his furs as the world spun out of control. The darkness seemed to flash and whirl, but he faded blissfully into a dream.
In the dream, he rose above his own sleeping body in spirit form. A huge amber Heart Blade lay upon the chest of his material self below, as if he were dead. His bed looked the same, but they were in a cave which seemed to have no exits, all of its walls painted with scenes of the hunt and the legends of the Ancestors. A great hulking She-Bear slumbered in the corner, an incarnation of Mah Kam-Ur herself, and in the center was a small pool of water with a red-trunked tree growing on its rocky bank. Though the cave was well lit, there was no light source to be seen. He moved rapidly through what looked like a stony tunnel beneath the earth, floating through an endless maze of side corridors, branches, and even sheer drops straight into the bowels of the Earth. There did not seem to be such thing as falling in the dream-world, and he could float up or down effortlessly as well as forwards and backward. Only he didn't seem to be choosing his own path. Some other consciousness was trying all of the pathways for him in succession. Even the tunnel itself began to spin as his vision blurred.
He was back in the middle cave from the night before. He and the other boys were led into a macabre circle of blood-soaked, headless animals. Flies buzzed over the intertwined bodies as the boys stared out from the center, their eyes stretched open and unblinking.
Joe Lyon Layden is a prehistoric fiction author and primitive musician. To receive a free copy of this entire novella as well as three free songs and monthly updates, freebies, and discounts on Joe's ongoing work, please sign up for the newsletter below.