It was seventeen days past the spring equinox and the late morning sun felt warm on Kairma’s back as she was loading baskets of food onto a battered pine cart. She was looking forward to making the long trip to the Godstones. Of her many responsibilities, taking the religious offerings to the altar was the one duty she felt most competent executing, while the Crystal, lying heavy between her breasts, reminded her of the many she did not.
She straightened up to her full six feet five inches and stretched her back. At sixteen, she wasn’t particularly tall for a Survinees, whose women were on average six feet six inches and whose men were often over seven feet. Like a newborn fawn, she had long legs that never seemed to go in the right direction, and like a fawn, she was just a little clumsy.
Looking toward the east, she saw the sun rising above the deep green pines, cresting the gray granite wall of the canyon she called home. Winter snow still covered the hills around the valley and the nights were cold, but the sun rose in a cloudless sky, hinting at the warm day to come. Around her, the mountain was coming to life so different from the long, snowbound winter.
Kairma greeted two dark-haired boys of eight and ten. The boys shyly put their right hands to their right eyebrows in a formal greeting as they offered her their family tribute basket. In a low melodic voice Kairma said, “North, east, south, and west. May Nor bring them home safely.” The children repeated the prayer and then ran off to help their mothers and fathers prepare for the first hunt of the spring.
Villagers scattered about in preparation for an extended hunting trip on this, the first full moon of the spring. Kairma arranged the woven hemp baskets in the cart while she watched brawny men of varying ages pack their hunting gear. Bows, slings, bedrolls, and cookware littered the ground. Women aired musty blankets and swept out storerooms. Dark-haired children darted about with excitement while the scent of baking bread drifted on the morning breeze.
Three muscular young men passed by talking excitedly. As usual, they didn’t look at Kairma. She recognized Efram, a mean-spirited boy who often made rude remarks about Kairma and her family. He was one of the boys who’d most recently passed his Seridar, so this would be Efram’s first hunt. Her older brother, Zedic, had also passed his Seridar on the last Harvest Moon—the beginning of the new annum. She smiled, remembering how proud Zedic had been when he took first place in the sling competition.
Thinking about her brother, she searched the small groups of men to see if she could find him. As a member of the Healing family, Zedic wouldn’t be required to hunt until he took a mate, but Kairma thought it was unusual for him not to be among the animated young men preparing for their first real adult adventure.
As she watched the men stringing bows and packing gear, she noticed Collin wasn’t among them either. That’s odd, she thought. Collin loves adventure. I wonder where they are.
A formal greeting was offered as Kairma accepted another basket from a small girl with dark auburn hair. The color was unusual for the people of Survin, whose hair was generally deep brown to black. Taking the small basket, Kairma placed it with the rest; the cart now precariously close to overflowing. The little girl smiled widely, her blue eyes sparkling. Kairma smiled back at the pretty child, who quickly ran away.
Realizing she would have to leave soon, Kairma looked again for her brother, hoping he would join her today. Zedic was nowhere to be seen, but she saw three young boys, all identical, come running from the Chancery. They squealed loudly as they each fought to carry the bedroll to her father, Tamron. She laughed as they ran by. Well, I guess Zedic isn’t helping Mother with the boys. And if he’s somewhere with Collin, that somewhere could be anywhere. I wish he had told me where they were going. It’s not like Zedic to keep secrets from me.
The morning had been hectic and her braids were beginning to unravel, so Kairma sat down on a three-legged wooden stool and began to re-braid her ivory hair. As she combed her slender fingers through her waist-length hair, she thought about the many times Zedic and Collin had walked with her to the Godstones in the past. The three of them were rarely separated with the exception of when she attended her lessons.
Zedic was already looking more like a man than a boy. At six feet eleven inches, he was already an inch taller than his best friend, Collin. She knew Zedic would mate soon, and their childhood adventures together would come to an end.
She watched her father pack his gear and talk enthusiastically with the other men. Most of the men of Survin liked to hunt, and her father was no different. She found herself thinking how much easier life would have been if she had been born male.
Like Zedic, Comad Tamron of the Survinees wasn’t required to hunt. As members of the Healing family, the village provided for the needs of the Comad and the Miral. Kairma suspected her father always went on the hunts because he had never truly been comfortable with the position into which he’d married. Tamron didn’t like receiving gifts he hadn’t earned.
Kairma was proud of her father. He went out of his way to help others and contributed greatly to the success of the colony. As a baby, Tamron had come to Survin with a group of strangers, and although the group was allowed to join the community, he was still an outsider, and several people were openly bitter about his marriage to the Vice Miral.
Kairma finished twisting her hair into its customary braids and called to her little sister. Kinter could try her patience sometimes and today would be no exception, she was sure. However, she couldn’t go to the Godstones alone and she had few choices for assistance. Some little time passed and Kairma still hadn’t seen Kinter. Curling her tongue against her teeth, Kairma let out a long, low whistle followed by two short notes. Tying her braids up in a muted umber scarf that completely covered her hair, she watched Kinter slowly ambling down the center of the canyon, clearly upset to have her playtime interrupted.
“Have you seen Zedic?” Kairma’s voice even more husky than usual. She laid a blanket over the baskets of food. “I can’t find him, and Mother will be angry if I go to the altar alone.”
“He’s already at the Godstones…” Kinter sneered, flipping a long dark braid over her shoulder. “With Collin. I saw them sneak off just after breakfast.”
“Why did they leave so early?” Kairma asked, ignoring her sister’s taunt. “Zedic should have waited for me.”
Kinter busied herself by pulling new green buds off the limb of a briar bush. “Zedic told Mother he was going to help Collin get blooding rods for tomorrow night.”
“So what makes you think they went to the Godstones?”
Kinter screwed up her pretty face. “I followed them down to the lake and saw them head toward the mountain. Where else would they be going?”
“You know, they might actually be going to find blooding rods.” Kairma wouldn’t admit it, but she thought Kinter was probably right. She took her little sister by the hand, knowing Kinter dreaded the four-mile walk to the altar. “Well, I guess that means you’ll have to go with me then.”
Kinter frowned. “Why can’t you go alone? Zedic and Collin can walk you home, Mother will never know.”
“Well, just in case I can’t find them, you had better come with me.” Kairma headed purposely toward the road with Kinter in tow. “And I don’t want to be all day at it, so come on.” Grabbing the cart by the handle, Kairma began to walk down the path. “You have your sling with you? Gramme heard a wolf a few days ago.”
Nodding assent, Kinter kicked a rock and fell grudgingly in behind Kairma.
The two girls walked along the winding path down the northern slope of the mountain, toward a small lake. Kinter was in no hurry and Kairma had to prod her along at every turn. “Kinter, do you have to walk so slow? I really would like to get back home sometime before dark.”
Kinter made a face but began walking a little faster, and the old cart creaked and rattled in steady rhythm as they made their way through a thick forest of ponderosa pine and scrub oak. The natural path twisted and turned following a small creek, winding its way down to the northwest. The narrow creek spilled into a pretty lake surrounded by large conifers, mountain mahoganies, and aspens. At the edge of the lake, the trail widened and made a sharp turn to the left. Here large granite boulders lined the roadway, and sunlight glistened off the mica like newly fallen snow. Fox squirrels and yellow-bellied marmots darted for cover as the girls approached.
Kairma pointed to a large golden eagle making lazy, graceful circles in a deep azure sky. “Of all the birds I have ever seen, that one is my favorite. It must be wonderful to have that kind of freedom.”
Kinter looked up, shielding her eyes from the bright sunshine. “I like the hawk myself. The other day I saw one pick up a snake that was at least a meter long. It was amazing.” In an imitation of the great bird, she circled around Kairma, swooping up a stick and pretending to fight with it. “The hawk has it all: beauty, grace, power, speed—what more could you want?”
The two young women chattered as they walked uphill the last mile and a half to the Godstones. Here the road wasn’t as steep and didn’t wind as severely as the narrow path that led from the canyon. Kairma’s long bronze skirt tangled around her legs as she walked. Picking it up, she cursed to herself. I hate skirts. I wish Mother would let me wear leggers. Who cares if people can tell if I’m in my moontime? It’s not like they look at me anyway. She looked at Kinter, who was dancing gracefully up the road in a skirt that swirled gently about her knees. Ugh. The girl just annoys me. Like Mother, she’s always worrying about what someone is thinking. I would bet my life that if I weren’t heir to the Crystal, the rest of the Survinees wouldn’t even know I existed. Annoyed, she blew out a soft sigh and bit down on her lower lip.
The responsibility of the Crystal frustrated Kairma. She couldn’t imagine herself capable of being the Vice Miral in ten harvests, let alone in one. It seemed to Kairma that the older she became, the more unanswered questions she had.
The girls approached the temples from the southeast. A wide grassy area measuring three hundred by sixty feet across lay in front of the great monument. The young girls crossed this grassy field and walked up a ruined stairway to another field as large and flat as the first one. A wide path led to two majestic temple buildings of pale gray granite and soft pink quartzite. Between the two once-elegant buildings ran an aisle twelve feet wide. The aisle led to the crest of a huge amphitheater, which could easily seat several thousand people. The great temple ruins were hundreds of harvests old. Turning back to the southeast, the mountains rolled out below them for as far as the eye could see and faded into a malachite haze in the distance.
Zedic and Collin were making slow progress on their recent discovery. The morning waxed as they removed layer after layer of dirt from a large golden rectangle that was embedded in the side of the mountain. Zedic brushed his hands on his brown leggers to wipe off the dirt. It didn’t help much, and Collin was as dirty as he was. Collin’s once curly black hair now took on the appearance of dun-colored weeds, and the emerald charm that hung from a leather thong at his neck was now the color of the oak-eagle claw that held it. Zedic laughed, and said, “We come home covered in dirt or mud more often than not, but you never seemed to notice.”
Zedic ran a hand through his dark, shoulder-length hair and stood back. “What do you think it is?”
“I’d about bet,” said Collin while absentmindedly twirling a lock of dark hair around his finger, “it’s meant to block some kind of passage.”
“Like a door of some kind. I thought the same thing. Whoever built this cave could sure do some fancy work with alloy.”
Collin looked sideways at Zedic in feigned horror. “You don’t believe it was the Whitish, do you?”
“Oh, sure it was,” Zedic said with a laugh, “and they made that alloy cart we found last summer, then buried it in dirt till you couldn’t even tell what it was.”
Collin thought about the massive cart that sat in front of one of the White Ones’ caves. It was a monument to their diligence. He and Zedic spent days digging away the dirt that encased the cart only to find it too heavy to move once freed. The caves around the mountain often held surprising treasures from a long-dead world where gods had once ruled—a world of magic the Survinees couldn’t begin to understand. When Collin was nine, he found a large cache of brightly colored stones. The charm he wore was fashioned from one of these stones. Although the Healers began to use the gold stones because they were malleable, the rest of the village found his collection interesting but useless. They had no need for pretty rocks. Sometimes Collin liked to sit on the cart and contemplate who had once acquired all those stones and why.
Zedic playfully hit his friend’s arm, breaking him out of his reverie. “Hey, Mr. Rogue, we still have work here.” Zedic’s mother referred to Collin as that rogue boy, and Zedic teased him about it regularly. It wasn’t just Zedic’s mother who felt this way; many of the Survinees believed Collin was a troublemaker and a renegade. They never hesitated to tell him he should apply himself to the Words of the Ogs. However, the young man had wild fantasies, and far too many questions—questions that could not be answered by the simple teachings of the Healers. Collin vowed that one day he would know the truth. With the appearance of the strange traveler who had recently come to their mountain and this latest discovery, Collin was sure he would find his answers.
“Stones! I need a drink. You look like you could use one too.” Collin reached for one of the waterskins by their meager tools.
“You look like you need a dip in the lake,” Zedic said as he shook gray dust from his own straight black hair.
After their short break, they returned to moving dirt away from the huge rectangular object they recently discovered. It was covered with carvings made by a method totally unfamiliar to the boys. The large brass-colored rectangle was held in place by a darker gold frame and set in the solid silver-gray granite of the mountain. They could make out faint lines around the outer edges and a line dividing the form in half, from top to bottom. Clearing the dirt from the base, they could see that it sat on a large gray rock.
Collin stood up and stretched his back. “With a little leverage, we might be able to pry the block out of its stone frame.” He wedged his knife in between the inner alloy rectangle and the stone of the mountain. “Stones! My knife is stuck. Zedic, give me a hand here.”
Zedic tried to chip the rock around the knife with his alloy hammer. The frame didn’t budge and neither did the knife.
When Kairma and Kinter reached the Godstones, the sun was at its zenith and the morning’s chill was a memory. Now the sky was a clear and brilliant blue that almost hurt their eyes. After carrying the cart up the wide stairway to the great temples, the girls pushed it through the long passage that led to their place of worship. On the mountain crest, four carved granite faces stood majestically against the broad sweep of sapphire sky, looking to the east. Observing the Godstones, she shuddered. They were magnificent, and each head was more than sixty feet tall. Kairma couldn’t fathom how they came to be.
The girls emptied the cart and set the baskets of food on the altar. The tribute food was divided into four sections: meat to the north; bread to the east; cheese to the south; and fruit to the west.
Kairma untied the leather thong that secured the multifaceted crystal in its soft suede sack. The palm-sized crystal only weighed a few grams in her hand, but the weight of the responsibility was something that could not be measured. She gingerly took the artifact out and placed it in the center of the wide granite and quartzite block. Brilliant rainbows danced across the altar.
Kairma and Kinter knelt at the base of the altar and with two fingers of their right hands they touched their foreheads and said, “Remember.” Touching each of the four corners of the altar they said, “North, east, south, and west. Father Nor, please accept these sacred offerings of your humble Survinees.” Bringing their fingers to their lips they said, “Thank you. May we always be worthy of your grace.” It was an abbreviated version of the religious ceremony. Kairma knew it really bothered Kinter when she didn’t say the entire twenty-minute sermon.
“Kairma, we have to say the whole thing. What’s the point of coming all the way down here if we’re not going to do it right?”
It wasn’t like Kairma to renege on her duties, but right now she was more interested in finding Collin and Zedic. She blew out a sigh. “Okay. We’ll do the whole sermon.” Touching her forehead, Kairma began again. “Remember. North, east …” Kairma had relented, not because she felt it was that important, but because she knew Kinter would tell her grandmother, and Kairma hated disappointing Isontra.
As she said the words she’d repeated more than a hundred times before, she wondered what Collin and Zedic were doing.
When they finished the sermon Kinter went to sit on the large block wall that separated the temple landing from the hundreds of seats of the majestic amphitheater. “How long do we have to stay here?”
“I want to find Collin and Zedic and see what they’re doing.” Kairma looked around, searching for a sign of the boys.
Pulling out the small set of pipes she liked to play, Kinter began blowing a soft melody. “Don’t get lost,” she said. “I have better things to do than sit here all day, you know.”
“Yes, I know. I won’t be long.”
Kairma wandered down the steps toward the base of the great monument. She gingerly stepped over broken stairs and weed-infested seats. Look at all the grasses and shrubs growing in the cracks of the rock walls. With care, the temples could be returned to their original splendor. I wonder why we let it fall to such disrepair. She decided, as she walked, that when she became the Miral she would rebuild the Temples of the Godstones. She looked up at the gods of the mountain. Is that why I am heir to the Healing Crystal? So your altar will once again be a place of beauty and splendor? The Crystal is such a great responsibility for someone like me. I just don’t understand sometimes.
There, to the right of the amphitheater, she saw Collin’s favorite walking stick leaning against a boulder beside a discarded pathway. She glanced up at Kinter, who was still daydreaming by the altar. Walking cautiously to the right side of the monumental godheads, she felt her stomach tighten. Warnings about the power of the gods and the penalties of blasphemous acts were a part of her upbringing and not taken lightly. She stood at the base of a long, steep, granite stairway she had never seen before. The construction of the stairs was another mystery among so many at the Temples of the Godstones.
Although she could feel the presence of the two boys just above her, she didn’t feel like testing fate outright. So she called from the landing of the third set of steps, “Zedic? Collin? Are you up there?”
Zedic ran to the opening of the crevice while still carrying his alloy hammer, nearly tumbling down the first step in his hurry. Zedic adored his younger sister. Kairma reminded him of their grandmother in many ways. She was at once quiet and maybe a little shy, but with a temper and tenacity that assured she’d get what she wanted. He knew he had taken a chance by not telling Kairma he was coming here with Collin this morning. Her feelings would be hurt, but Collin had insisted on absolute secrecy. He hurried down the first four levels of stairs, stopping a few steps above his little sister.
“What are you doing up there?” Kairma asked, peering past Zedic.
“Nothing,” Zedic said, striving to regain his breath as he leaned against an iron railing that moved slightly from his weight. He was excited but tried to act nonchalant.
“Is Collin with you?” Kairma stared into Zedic’s dark gray eyes.
“Yes. How did you know we were here?”
“Kinter told me.”
“Great Stones!” Zedic exclaimed as he straightened his back. “How did she know we were here?”
“She followed you to the lake this morning and saw you turn up the trail. Where else would you be going? When I got here, I just looked around and I saw Collin’s walking stick.” She handed the staff to Zedic. “For wanting to keep a secret, you sure leave a lot of clues.”
Zedic flinched. “She followed us this morning, huh? That sounds like Kinter. Now she’ll tell Gramme, and I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Kairma hesitated. “What are you doing up there, Zedic?”
“It’s not important.” Zedic moved protectively to the center of the stairway. “How are we going to keep Kinter quiet?”
“We? Does this mean I’ve been invited to see what you’re hiding?” Kairma flashed a mischievous smile.
Zedic flushed. “I have to talk to Collin first, but what about Kinter?”
Kairma deliberated and then a narrow smile crossed her lips. “I might know a way to keep her quiet.”
“How?” He walked down the remaining steps and stood beside her. “If I know Kinter, she’ll tell Gramme just for the pleasure of watching us squirm. You know how many times I would have gladly choked Kinter for tattling. She’s a sly one and if you don’t watch your step around her, you’ll fall into one of her little traps, and then you will really owe her, not unlike now.”
“I have my ways, and Kinter has a price.” Kairma grinned. “Can I come up now?”
“Wait here.” Zedic trusted Kairma not to say anything but he still needed to ask Collin. It was Collin’s claim since he was the one who had first found the half-buried stairway. Zedic hurried back up the long stairway.
Kairma sat on the steps and waited. She constantly had to remind herself that Kinter would eventually grow out of this horrible tattletale stage, but in the meantime her little sister would strike a hard bargain. Kairma knew what Kinter wanted most, but it wouldn’t be easy to convince Zedic. She watched Kinter from the vantage of the stairs as the pretty, young girl braided a strand of beads into her long chestnut hair. Kinter looked restless. It wouldn’t be long before she would come looking for Kairma.
After what seemed to Kairma like a very long time, Zedic returned, out of breath from running up and down the long staircase. “Okay, Collin said he doesn’t care if you know about our discovery as long as you swear not to tell anybody else.”
“Your discovery? What’s up there?” Kairma had a puzzled look on her face.
“Swear on the Godstones you won’t tell anyone?”
“On the Godstones?” Kairma’s large horizon-blue eyes widened, her pink lips making an O.
“On the Godstones!”
“Well, okay,” she relented. “I swear,” she said, putting her left hand to her right shoulder, “on the Godstones, I won’t tell a soul …” She smiled deviously. “What foolishness my brother has found behind the Godstones.”
Zedic grinned hugely. “We think we found a passageway,” he said proudly. “There’s a large piece of alloy blocking it. Collin is trying to free it now.”
Kairma, caught up in his excitement, momentarily forgot her fear of the gods and scrambled past Zedic. “Can I help? Is it another building, a new temple? Why hasn’t anyone found it before?”
Zedic hurried to her side. “There is a large boulder that blocks the opening at the top of the eight hundred stairs. We couldn’t move it so we’ll have to climb over it. The path is overgrown with shrub, you might get a little scratched up.”
“Climb over, huh? This will be fun.” Her voice held a hint of sarcasm, but Zedic knew she wouldn’t hesitate to make the climb. Collin was the only person in Survin who liked rock climbing and exploring caves more than Kairma.
Zedic frowned and reached out to stop her ascent. “Wait. What are we going to do about Kinter?”
“Oh yeah.” She bit on her lip thinking. “Well,” she said with a grimace, “you know how she’s always wanted to wear the Crystal.”
“No!” Zedic turned white. “You can’t give her the Crystal!”
“I’ll just let her wear it awhile.” She looked down into the valley where she had left Kinter. “I don’t think she can make it work, although I’ve never let her try.” I can’t even make it do anything, and I’m the heir.
Zedic shook his head. “I don’t think that’s the answer. There has to be another way to keep her quiet.”
“I can’t think of anything else that little brat would settle for.”
“But the Crystal?” Zedic said nervously as he ran his hand along the handle of his hammer. “I don’t like it. Maybe I could carve a new doll for her.”
Kairma paused, her upper lip curled. “Zedic, she doesn’t play with dolls anymore.”
“You’re probably right, but I don’t feel good about letting her wear the Crystal.”
“It’s just for a while, and you know it’s what she wants most.”
Due to a critical illness which almost took Kairma’s life, Kinter had briefly been in line to inherit the Crystal and wasn’t at all happy when her older sister was restored to health. Kairma thought how strange life was. Kinter wanted the Crystal more than anything, and Kairma would like nothing more than to let her have it. In the short annum and a half that Kairma was ill, Kinter attended the Healing lessons, learning more than Kairma had learned in three annums. Kinter often suggested that she was more qualified than Kairma to become the Vice Miral, and at times Kairma believed her.
Zedic turned and headed back down the stairs. “We had better take care of her now. Not that I think there is much more one could give her, but if she comes looking for us and sees the passage, even the Crystal may not be enough.”
Kinter didn’t feel like sitting at the Godstones all day. Zedic and Kairma had just reached the bottom of the stairs when Kinter came walking toward them in a hurry to get back home. Kairma offered to let Kinter wear the Crystal for a week if she would be willing to wait at the temple for them to return and not tell anyone what they were doing. Kinter thought her silence was worth much more.
Kairma’s eyes rolled at Kinter’s demands, but she said, “Okay! You can wear this for the next three weeks. But if someone gets sick, you’ll give it back. You promise?” She untied the cord and handed it to Kinter with the sworn promise of silence, adding, “I’ll have to have it on Nor Day too. Gramme expects me to do the benediction.”
Kinter felt a surge of jealousy as she tied the cord about her neck, but she laughed meanly. “I won’t have to tell anyone because the gods will send Whitish to eat you for nosing around up there!” She stroked the soft, tan bag that held the Crystal “And then they’ll have to make me the Healer. People think you’re strange anyway.” She leered at Kairma. Kairma didn’t reply.
Zedic scowled. “Don’t be silly. Whitish don’t eat people. Collin and I have been near the caves lots of times and they’ve never bothered us.”
“If Collin was with you, it’s no wonder.” Kinter looked toward the stairs to see if he was within earshot. “Collin’s not like us. He’s eerie. I think he’s friends with them. People say he has the devil in him.”
Kairma quickly came to Collin’s defense. “He does not! And he’s not friends with the Whitish either. He’s just not afraid of them. That’s not so peculiar.”
“You mean…” Kinter hesitated, and then looked directly at Kairma, “like you’re not peculiar?”
Kairma flinched at Kinter’s accusation. “Just because he doesn’t always do or say what people think he should, doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him.”
“Oh, you don’t think Collin’s weird, huh?” Kinter said. “I don’t know what the two of you see in him. He drags you up here to do who knows what, and he runs around with that stranger, Trep. He’s always sneaking off somewhere. He even tries to talk like Trep. You’ll see. Collin has strange ideas and he’s going to hook you two into them.” She looked up the long stairway. “I’d never ask my friends to climb on the Godstones.”
Before Zedic or Kairma could react, Kinter abruptly turned away and headed off to fondle her newly won prize. Making her way across the valley floor, she was angry. Let them climb on the Godstones if they want. Someday the Crystal will be mine for good. They never should have made me give it back in the first place. In the end, people will see the truth; Kairma isn’t the right person to rule Survin.
Sitting by the altar, Kinter pulled the Crystal out of its protective sack. She held it up in the air above her head, watching the sunlight dance across the many colored facets, and daydreamed about being the next Vice Miral.
After a few minutes of amusement, Kinter took out the small pipe from her skirt pocket and began to play a tune that had been running through her mind the last several weeks. It was going to be a love song. The object of her desire had not acknowledged her yet, but in time she was sure he would. He was refined, well-respected and handsome beyond belief. Her song was written for the most charming man in Survin, Naturi. Her feet dangled gracefully as she sat on the worn block wall, the wind playing in her long chestnut hair. The melody from the pipe drifted on a gentle breeze, reaching the others on the mountain like a soft birdsong.
Kairma hurried back to the long stairway, eager to see what Collin had uncovered.
“That child!” Kairma exclaimed. “Sometimes I wonder how we can be sisters.”
“You shouldn’t have given her the Crystal,” Zedic said nervously. “I don’t trust her to have the sense to take care of it.” Zedic moved ahead of Kairma, leading the way up the narrow stairway.
Kairma shook her head. “She prizes it far too much to let something happen to it and I know she’ll give it back if I need it. She did promise. Her promises are expensive, but she’s always been good to her word.” Then under her breath, almost as a second thought, she added, “I don’t know what she thinks is so wonderful about wearing it anyway. The way people treat me, you’d think I was poison ivy.” But Kairma knew it was her pale hair and skin that caused people to shun her.
Most Survinees were in awe of the Crystal and respected its power. Kairma was learning about medicine and the supposed nature of the Crystal, but didn’t believe her other abilities were related to it. After all, Kinter was wearing the Crystal now, but Kairma could still see Zedic’s pale yellow aura as plainly as the dark green spruce that encroached on the ancient stairway. As long as she could remember, no one had ever mentioned having this ability. Maybe the Survinees had good reason to fear her. Maybe she really was peculiar.
Zedic climbed quickly to the top of the boulder blocking the passage and offered Kairma his hand. Reaching the clearing in front of the block, they saw Collin had freed his knife and was clearing the remaining debris from the base of an intricately carved alloy rectangle.
Kairma tripped over a rock and stumbled into Collin, her eyes fastened to the mountainside. He caught her before she could fall, grinning with self-satisfaction. Kairma was stunned.
The ancient shrine wall was about one hundred and fifty feet high. Her pale fingers caressed the white granite columns cut into the mountain itself. They flanked the entrance to what appeared to be a long-forgotten temple. Tilting her head back, she scrutinized the great bronze-colored rectangle. Etched in the hard stone above the massive entry was the script Kairma had learned as a child. Each letter was more than three feet tall and perfectly formed. The great bronze rectangle was divided down the center, each side nearly four feet wide and almost fourteen feet high. There were two jet-black ball-shaped objects the size of Kairma’s fist jutting out from the center division about waist high. Just below the balls were large swirls of black alloy arching away from the portal. She was breathless. “Oh, my Stones!”
Collin beamed. “Hey, Boo! It’s really something, isn’t it?” His voice was soft and comforting, like warm summer rain. She turned to see a crooked but endearing smile play across his lips.
Collin absentmindedly played with a lock of hair as he watched her. He loved the sound of her slightly husky voice when she was moved by something. He held back the urge to giggle at her awestruck face.
Collin started calling Kairma Boo when she was six annums old. Zedic, Collin, and Kairma were playing in one of the many caves in the area. Zedic and Collin stood outside the opening where they’d left Kairma several yards behind in the dark. As she came running out of the cave, Zedic jumped at her from the side of the opening and yelled, “Boo!” Momentary fright crossed Kairma’s face, to be quickly replaced by fury when she saw Zedic. She went at him with both fists in tight balls, knocking him down the hill. Collin fell to his knees laughing at the startled look on Zedic’s face as he tumbled head over heels down the grassy incline. After that, Collin called her Boo when she tagged along with Zedic. Kairma would get so mad that she would try to wrestle Collin to the ground. Collin, being two annums older than Kairma, had no trouble keeping her contained. By the time Kairma turned nine the name was permanent, and she no longer got angry about it. That’s not to say she wasn’t willing to tumble with Collin for other reasons, but over the last few annums Kairma had learned to control her temper and the scuffling was kept to a minimum. This had more to do with Collin not teasing her as often than Kairma’s willingness to back down from a challenge. She never backed down from a fight with anyone.
Kairma walked to the side of the immense rectangle and, using the hem of her supple suede skirt, she brushed away more dirt from a cylindrical ornament on the left side where it was embedded between the wall and the deep golden rectangle. “Look at this,” she cried, “and there’s another one up here!” Evenly spaced along the left side of the rectangle were four cylinders about the size of the handle of Zedic’s hammer.
Collin was momentarily torn between looking at what Kairma had uncovered and the pale thigh she so innocently showed by raising her skirt. Although he’d known her all his life, recently she had had a different effect on him. Somehow, now she seemed more interesting than when she first began to tag along with Zedic. He used to tease Kairma unmercifully in hopes that she would leave them alone. Now he was glad she had found them here today, but wasn’t quite sure why.
Hoping Zedic hadn’t noticed his brief hesitation, he quickly brushed the dirt from the remaining cylinders. “I’ve got something like this in my pack,” he said as he pulled out a small piece of alloy. “See, it looks like a butterfly with holes where the color should be.” Folding the wings together he held it up to one of the cylinders on the wall. “I don’t understand why someone would wedge this in the wall.”
Zedic walked up to look closer. “Must be to hold the block in tight.”
“Can I see it?” Kairma reached between Collin and Zedic, who were studying the artifact. As she brushed against him, Collin felt a strange tingle in his lower belly. Thinking it must be coming from the Crystal, he looked down, but the space between the upper curves of her breasts was bare. The tingling increased as he noticed the beads of sweat mixing with the dust from the mountain. Trying not to stare, he stammered, “Where’s the Crystal?”
“I let Kinter wear it so she wouldn’t tell anyone where we are.”
He handed her the alloy butterfly. “Kinter? My Stones, Kairma! Do you think that’s a good idea? What if she loses it or something?”
Kairma rolled her eyes. “Kinter losing the Crystal is the least of my worries. Getting it back at the end of the three weeks might be a larger problem. She values it far too much to lose it. She’s young, but she’s not stupid.”
Collin looked at her, shaking his head incredulously. “Kinter?”
Kairma ignored him as she ran her fingers around the smooth edges of the alloy butterfly, poking her fingers through the holes and working its wings back and forth. With what appeared to be uncanny insight Kairma said, “Look!” She closed the wings between her hands. “If this side is attached to the wall,” suggesting her left hand, “and this side is attached to the inner block,” referring to her right hand, “it would open like this!” Putting her fingers in the holes, she opened her hands to demonstrate.
“Collin, I think she’s right!” Zedic grabbed the ball on the right side and pulled on it.
They pulled and pushed on the vast block but nothing happened. Exhausted they sat back and stared at the slab of alloy.
Collin went to his pack and pulled out a piece of fatty meat and a cup. “I’m glad I didn’t eat all of my lunch.” He smiled at the others. “Maybe if we grease it up a bit, it’ll come loose. That’s how I got that one to move.” He motioned to the object Kairma was holding.
Collin built a small fire and placed his uneaten meat in an alloy cup. Once held over the flame, the fat melted into a shiny pool around the meat. “Zedic, pick the largest leaf you can find and curl it into a funnel.”
The afternoon passed to early evening as the three companions worked intently on the remarkably created block. They poured the grease on the cylinders and watched it disappear into the crevice of the block. Again they pulled on the block to no avail. They poured more grease over the ball and it turned back and forth slightly. Zedic turned it with all his strength and pulled. There was an audible click, and then the sound of rocks grinding together. The huge slab moved ever so slightly, engulfing them in dust and foul air.
At just that moment, the shadow of a large cloud passed over them. They looked at one another and shuddered. It was hard to discount all the tales they’d heard about the powers of the gods.
Suddenly Kairma said, “Zedic! We have to go! The sun will be down before we can get home again! I can’t believe Kinter hasn’t come looking for us.”
As Collin brushed the dust from his leggings and looked longingly at the block, he said, “We don’t have to go right away. The moon will be full. It won’t be difficult to see our way home. Don’t you want to see what’s in there?”
Zedic looked thoughtfully at the door and then up at the sky, and once more at the door. Collin and Kairma waited for Zedic to reply. They knew Zedic was considering the situation from every conceivable angle.
Collin blew out a sigh. “Come on, Zedic. Stop chewing on it and spit it out.”
When Zedic finally spoke, his tone was methodical. “We don’t have any torches. Even if we did go inside today, we wouldn’t be able to see anything. I am also surprised Kinter hasn’t come to find us. She must be too afraid of offending the gods to climb the stairway. That’s the only thing I can think of that would keep her away.”
Sounding disappointed, Collin said, “Well, I guess you’re right. We can always come back tomorrow.” He looked slightly hurt as he gathered his daypack and staff.
Kairma had already climbed to the top of the boulder. “Come on, you two. We still have to find Kinter, and making her happy now might not be easy.”
Collin and Zedic joined Kairma on the narrow path. Wasting no time, they hurried down the stairs and across the narrow valley that separated the Godstones from the amphitheater. Quickly climbing up the tiers of seats, they reached the two large temple buildings where they found Kinter sitting by the altar.