Heir to Power – Chapter 3

Zedic was an early riser by nature and tried hard to please his mother. Not only did he do his own chores, he often helped dress and feed his three younger brothers as well. The four-annum old triplets could be a handful at times, and Jettena liked to keep their home clean. Zedic didn’t understand why his mother always wanted fresh flowers in the Grand Hall meeting space and enough terrid brewing for twenty people when they seldom had visitors. But that was his mother’s way, and Zedic was a good son. He dusted off the Grand Hall table and brought in another armful of wood. His mother would still be mad about last night and he wanted to make sure he did everything he could to help her today.

After placing the logs by the hearth, he went to the dining area to see if there was anything else she needed. He could see Kairma and their mother in deep conversation about one of her lessons. It was obvious Kairma wouldn’t be going to the Godstones with him this morning.

Lost in thought, Zedic quietly slipped back out of the warm kitchen. Mother never lets Kairma do anything fun anymore. Sometimes I wish she wouldn’t push her so hard—it’s not like Kairma has to know everything today. After all, Gramme will probably be around for at least another fifty annums. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we all went to the Great Stones before Gramme. Pulling his tan cloak from the rack by the door, Zedic walked out the back of the Chancery and through the Grand Hall and hospital that made up the north entrance to the sleepy little village of Survin. There was a chill in the air as he looked up at a clear sky. Maybe it’s better if Kairma doesn’t come along. No telling what we’ll find behind those doors. It could be dangerous.

Zedic headed down the northwest trail toward the Godstones. Like last night wasn’t Dangerous! Mother was right, I should have known better. I could never let anything happen to Kairma, or Kinter for that matter. I would die for either of my sisters. He looked around suspiciously. She had better not be following me again today. No, I think Kinter was too scared last night. How do I let Collin talk me into these things anyway? We could have all been killed. He shuddered. I wonder what that Whitey would have done to Kairma if I hadn’t kicked him.

As he walked, he searched for small elms and aspens that, when stripped of branches, would make good poles to mount the game the hunters would bring home today.

“Kairma, finish your breakfast. A growing girl needs to eat,” Jettena said as she pushed a plate of oatmeal toward Kairma. A moment later she turned to scold the three little boys who were throwing food at each other. “I don’t know why you boys waste your food like this.” Catching a piece of sausage in one hand and the perpetrator with the other, Jettena’s stance spoke louder than her words. “It’s a good thing the men are hunting today!” She set the meat down. “If you’re not going to eat, then go clean your room.” She watched the three boys settle down and begin picking at their food once more.

Satisfied that she had the boys under control, Jettena turned Kairma. Her daughter grimaced and said, “I’m really not hungry, Mother.”

Jettena looked thoughtfully at Kairma and then started peeling knotwood tubers for the noon meal. “You need to eat, dear. You have a long session with Gramme today and a good breakfast will help you think.” Rinsing off a tuber, she thought about her daughter. Kairma seems distant lately. Maybe it’s just her age. She’s growing up fast. Even with her colorless hair and those pale eyes, she’s truly becoming a stunning woman. Maybe I should ask Mother to talk to Kairma about mating. I’ve noticed the way Naturi has been looking at her lately and I wouldn’t want Kairma to make the same mistake I made when I was her age.

Kairma looked imploringly at Jettena. “But Mother, I wanted to go with Zedic and Collin today.” Kairma’s eyes momentarily darted away. “They’re going fishing down at the lake.”

Jettena sighed loudly. “I really wish your brother wouldn’t spend so much time with that rogue boy. He’s trouble sure as a Tribute Moon shines. He was with you yesterday too, wasn’t he?” Before Kairma could answer, Jettena shook her head. She smiled softly, taking a different tact. “What do you need to know about fishing anyway? You’ll be of age in a few moons and I know Naturi has thoughts of contending for you. I’m sure if you have a fancy for fish, he would find a way to catch all you might want.”

“Yes, I’m sure he would, Mother.” Disappointment crossed Kairma’s face, and Jettena worried Kairma might not be ready for her Seridar.

Kairma’s lower lip pushed out. “Can’t I go? Just for a little while? Please, Mother.”

Jettena shook her head slowly, and her long dark braid wriggled with the motion. Flipping the braid back over her shoulder, Jettena said, “Gramme’s expecting you soon. You have responsibilities and much to learn. I don’t understand you, Kairma. You should be honored to be heir to the Crystal. Now finish up here and get on your way.”

Kairma nodded as she picked at the last of her breakfast. Watching her mother peeling roots, Kairma suddenly asked, “Why does Gramme teach my lessons and not you? According to Gramme, the Crystal is supposed to be passed from mother to daughter. Why don’t you wear the Crystal anymore?”

Not breaking the rhythm of her work, Jettena sat down on a nearby chair. “When you were attacked by that terrible White One, it was Gramme who healed you. She’s older and knows much more about Healing than I do, and for that I am very thankful.” Jettena touched Kairma on the cheek. “We surely would have lost you if it hadn’t been for Gramme.” Jettena picked up another knotwood root to peal and continued. “With you so awfully sick and Zedic helping your father most of the day, I really had my hands full with Kinter and your little brothers.”

Silently, Jettena reflected on that long annum. The triplets had been born just before Kairma fell ill. Their history had mentioned twins, but the triplets’ birth was seen as a sign of great blessing. Everyone in the village had brought gifts, and the celebration lasted for several days. Some people even said Jettena was destined to be the greatest Miral of all. They sang songs about her children and even seemed to fully accept Tamron, the outsider, at long last.

Shortly afterward, the White Ones attacked Kairma, and Jettena’s world came crashing down. Now, no one speaks of multiple births and few people come to visit. Because of Kairma’s similarity to the White Ones, among others things, the community clearly avoided her child, and the resentment of the village forced Jettena to question her own status.

“It made good sense to give the Crystal back to Gramme until the boys were older and I would have more time to study,” Jettena said as she let out a soft sigh. “And then baby Sonty was born.”

Kairma giggled. “Father keeps you busy, doesn’t he? With seven of us to chase around, I guess you never had much time to be a Healer.”

“No, I never did.” Jettena cursed under her breath. I might have enjoyed the honor of being the Healer if things had been different—if I had been stronger.

Lost in the reflection of how things might have been, Jettena got up from the table and put the chopped roots in the large black pot on the fire. She was only fifteen when Zedic was born and it wasn’t long before Kairma and Kinter were born. Isontra’s aunts, Madison and Isabella, had passed away, and Isontra had no siblings to foster Jettena’s young children in those early annums, making it difficult for Jettena to concentrate on her lessons. As the annums began to slip away, she tried hard to keep up her studies, until that dreadful day she fought with her mother over the fate of Kairma.

Sonty woke up from her brief nap and Jettena went into the sitting room where the small child lay on a thick fur coverlet. Looking down at her youngest child, a sad smile came to her. Would being the Healer have given me as much happiness as my children have? Would I have missed watching my children grow up? Did mother regret not being there when I learned to talk and play games? Picking Sonty up from the fur cover pad, Jettena noticed the deep gray of her eyes, so like Tamron’s. If she had gone through the full Mating Rite, would she have been mated to Tamron at all? Life didn’t seem fair to her, but she was not unhappy.

Jettena watched Kairma head down the long hall lined with ancestral portraits. In the next annum, Kairma’s own portrait would hang there, but whose face would be there next to the white-haired girl?

Collin sat in front of the rectangular doors of the unexplored site, going through his pack to see if he had everything they would need today. Zedic and Kairma would arrive soon and with their help he was sure they would be able to move the large door from its position. While he waited, he thought about the events of the previous night. He had been right—the White Ones were on their way to the Godstones to take the tribute food. He was intensely curious about them. How can we share a mountain with someone, or something, for that many annums and know so little about them? Maybe if we understood everything that was written on the tablet of Nor or in the oldest scrolls we would know. If Nor promised this land to his children and his children’s children, why didn’t He ever mention the White Ones? It’s too bad much of the script is missing.

He walked to the boulder that sat at the top of the stairway. White Ones are ugly and mean-looking, but they’re much too weak to be the ones who built these temples. He climbed to the top of the massive rock and looked out over the valley, hoping to see a sign of Zedic and Kairma. Even though they outnumbered us last night, they didn’t really attack. Maybe the one that tried to touch Boo was curious about her. Was he trying to help her or did he really mean to hurt her? Collin looked back at the golden doors and sighed. Maybe the answers are in there. If there’s some kind of passage behind those doors, I’m sure we’ll find something interesting. I’m really glad she came up here yesterday. He shook his head, wondering where that last thought had come from. Where are they? Zedic knew I’d be here early.

While Zedic made his way to the temples to meet Collin, Kairma made her way down the long hallway that led to her grandmother’s suite of rooms. This section of the Chancery had been recently enlarged to include a separate seating area and a private cleansing room. The Chancery was the largest structure in the small mountain community, and now it was the only one with a private waste and shower room.

At the northern end of the canyon was a square passageway though the thick granite cliff. From inside the tunnel, the heads of the Godstones could be wholly viewed. This was smaller and easier to keep warm than the similar channel at the south end of the canyon so the Survinees chose this as their hospital area. Naturally, the Healing family built their home adjacent to it. Over the centuries, generations of Healers had built additions and enlarged the original grounds, and the Chancery now was a stately manor covering some three thousand square feet.

Kairma rapped on the exquisitely carved archway leading to Isontra’s rooms. Walking through the doorway while putting her right hand to her right eyebrow, Kairma offered grandmother a formal greeting. No matter who Kairma was, Isontra was the Miral, and one always greeted the Miral formally.

From the bedside where she sat, Isontra said, “Come in dear. I have been waiting for you.” Kairma’s grandmother was a tall, wiry woman of nearly sixty annums, immaculately dressed with almost perfect posture. She nodded to the writing desk by the window. “I was up early today. The dreams are back, but not to worry—I got it out of my system with a heavy dose of writing this morning.”

As Kairma took her usual seat in a tall, wooden chair by the table, she noticed the odd inflection in her grandmother’s voice. Gramme is usually such a happy person. Something’s bothering her. I hope she isn’t too mad about last night. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” Kairma said. “Mother and I were talking about the Crystal.”

Giving her that searching look that made Kairma believe her grandmother could read minds, Isontra asked, “Where is the Crystal, Kairma?” The old woman laid down the long white veil she was embroidering and walked to the table where Kairma stood nervously chewing her lip.

Kairma put her hand to her breast. Stones! What can I tell her? I can’t say I gave it to Kinter to keep her quiet. She looked away, not wanting her grandmother to see the apprehension in her eyes.

“It seems to me I remember seeing Kinter wearing it this morning,” Isontra said knowingly as she sat in the chair across the table from Kairma.

“I let her wear it because she helped me take the tribute to the temples yesterday,” Kairma lied. In added defense, Kairma stressed that Kinter would take good care of the Crystal and that it was only to be for a little while.

Isontra’s steel gray eyes blazed furiously. “My dear Kairma, the Crystal is not to be used for bribe or gift; it is not yours to barter away. I’m not sure if I should be more angry with you or with myself. Perhaps I’ve not made your lessons clear enough. The Crystal belongs to the world. You are only the trustee. Surely, by now you must realize its value. I want you to keep it with you, always.”

Kairma felt her face warm. “I’m sorry. I’ll get it back from her right away.”

“Please do!” Isontra looked into Kairma’s pale eyes. “The Crystal has been entrusted to you, Kairma.” She slowly shook her head. “These aren’t games we play. It’s time for you to grow up. You’ll be mated come this Harvest Moon. You must adjust to your new way of life while your mother and I are here to help you. The Crystal is a constant reminder of who and what you are. Never forget that.”

Isontra looked resigned. “Have I not acquainted you with the history of the Crystal? Yes? Well, I must have left something out of your lessons. Maybe if you understood more about it, you would then truly appreciate your responsibilities.” Her smile slowly returned as she reached across the table and patted Kairma’s hand. The thin woman’s hands were small and cool. “Sometimes I don’t know what gets into you, dear. You should be proud of your ancestry.” Leaning back in her chair, Isontra fussed with her hair, now almost as white as her granddaughter’s. “I wasn’t going to give you a history lesson today, but it looks like that will have to change.” Replacing the finely carved sticks that held her long hair on top of her head, Isontra considered where to begin today’s lesson. “In the beginning, the Great Amanda of pure Efpec blood was entrusted with the Healing Crystal by the angel. She was told to safeguard the Crystal until it could be returned to its place of origin. Once placed in Nor Mountain, the Crystal will make all life peaceful and profitable; it will end all pain and sorrow.”

Kairma sighed loudly. She had heard this story many times before, but Isontra’s words were stern. “Many of our people have died protecting the crystal and its secret. In the wrong hands, Kairma, the Crystal could do great damage.”

Isontra went to the heavy tapestry that hung across the door to the archives room. Bringing back an armful of rolled-up scrolls, she gingerly laid them on the table in front of her granddaughter. Kairma could see that they were some of the very oldest records. The writing had faded and the animal skins had become brittle. Isontra explained. “There have been many recorded battles in our history, Kairma. Some of them were quite bitter.” Isontra unrolled a tattered scroll and gingerly placed it on the table. Like the Mirals before her, she had to fill in words that were faded or missing as she read.

ATD 107-3-23. Some men surprised us at sunrise. I don’t know if they were from Charles’ original band but it seems quite likely. We lost twenty-one men in the ensuing battle and Belendra was severely wounded. We managed to fend them off with arrows for the time being, but I am sure they will be back soon with reinforcements.

She set that scroll down and picked up another worn scroll that she read.

ATD 107-5-17. The latest battle has lasted two days and we lost three more men. I had thought we were well-hidden and have since banned the use of fire. The colony is weak from travel and our supplies are low. They are unhappy about eating cold and uncooked food but are willing to start moving west across the plains at sundown. Belendra is very ill. I don’t think she will survive another move. It truly pains my heart to lose my mother. She has been a strong Miral and has given us all much hope. As the new Miral, I will continue in her place and do my best to lead the survivors to Nor. Daebra is reaching maturity and the time has come to make her Vice Miral. I am hoping to be able to spend the needed time with her. Until then, my first concern must be the safe keeping of the Crystal and my colony.

The fire began to wane so Kairma got up and put more wood on the receding flames while thinking about the many times she’d been told these same stories. The ending was always the same. We fight, and then we run and hide because we are the chosen people—the keepers of the sacred Crystal. After refilling their cups with steaming terrid, the kettle was nearly empty. She set it aside and returned to the tall, wooden chair at the table while Isontra unrolled another scroll and read from it.

ATD 108-12-12. It has been more than six moons since we have seen any sign of the strangers. We seem to be relatively safe here and hopefully we can rebuild our strength. The bluffs of the river have helped to conceal our temporary winter shelters and the time has done much to improve the colony’s morale. We will construct more permanent structures over the summer and stay through the coming annum. We will consider further search for NOR once our supplies and health are improved.

Daebra has given birth to her first daughter, Ellanda. She is a strong and healthy child. I regret that Belendra did not live long enough to see her. I am teaching Daebra the script and will soon be turning the Ogs over to her. She has a natural gift for medicine, but the loss of many of Amanda’s records is disturbing. We are having great difficulty with the inconsistency of botanical data and history.

The rest of the page had faded beyond legibility and Isontra identified with Crysten’s distress over the loss of such important documents.

Standing beside the table, Isontra laid the scroll aside and gazed into Kairma’s eyes. “It is of the utmost importance that you understand the hardships our ancestors incurred protecting the Crystal. These documents are all we have on which to base our current decisions. The fact that our ancestors pledged their lives to the safe keeping of the Crystal is reason enough to do the same. I know you have questions. We must continue to study if we hope to learn why.” Isontra gently rolled the scroll and tied it with a leather strap. “The medicinal data is important for the well-being of the colony, but it is because we can read and write the script that we can pass our knowledge to future generations. The script is absolutely necessary to continue our duty. If keeping the Crystal safe is our first priority, it is the keeping and continuing of the Ogs that is our second greatest responsibility.” She walked to the window and looked down the canyon. “If we forget our past, we will not be able to make informed decisions in our future, and if we lose our ability to understand the medical records, we will lose the colony.”

Kairma began to fidget. She wasn’t good at sitting still for long stretches. Isontra noticed and smiled. She motioned for Kairma to get up and join her at the window. The day was sunny and from where they stood, they could see six other homes constructed of knotted pine logs and gray stone. Spring was the time for airing out feather mattresses and opening the wooden shutters that kept out the cold and snow. Isontra loved the spring, but Kairma preferred the late summer when the nights were warm and there was fresh fruit to eat.

Isontra patted her hand. “You understand how important it is to find ways to keep essential data safe, don’t you? Things like recopying the damaged scrolls. To ensure the script would never be forgotten, the ritual of naming all future generations by the Script Key began. You see, you were not named Kairma as a fleeting afterthought. You are the next trustee.”

Kairma’s eyes widened as she mentally listed her maternal heritage: Amanda, Belendra, Crysten, Daebra, Ellanda. Excitedly she said, “The Script Key! A B C D E. Oh, now I know why it was important to learn all thirty-six names in order.” She unconsciously bit her lower lip, puzzled. “I know I’m the first born, but Kinter starts with a K too.”

In a soft and reassuring tone Isontra replied, “Surely you remember, her name is Lakinter, we dropped the La when you became ill. We were afraid we were going to lose you.” She reached out and took Kairma’s hand. “When you were well enough to continue the lessons, we returned the Crystal to its proper trustee. By then, we’d gotten into the habit of calling your little sister Kinter.”

Kairma felt a little better. She wasn’t bothered purely by the general attitude of the community toward her, but Kairma couldn’t help thinking how much faster Kinter learned things. Returning to the table, she vowed to apply herself more in her lessons. She helped unroll another scroll for her grandmother.

Isontra nodded solemnly. “Yes, we must never forget our heritage. Many of our greatest people have died fighting adversaries who had evil designs on the power of the Crystal. This brings me to another important consideration. How should we deal with this stranger who has come to Survin?”

Zedic had reached the front entrance that led to the Temples of the Godstones above the amphitheater. The neatly stacked square stones of the temples’ walls amazed him. They seemed as old and as solid as the earth itself. Walking through the passageway, he gazed at the workmanship. Gods must have built these.

Stepping through the temple passageway and walking across the wide terrace, he looked down the tiers of a great amphitheater, which led to the base of the huge mountain from which the great monument was carved. Looking up at the Godstones, he felt minute and insignificant. He walked down the stairs wondering if the gods would understand what he and Collin were about to do.

He saw Collin sitting on a rock near the bottom of the stairway that led to their secret hideaway. Standing and mimicking his newest friend, Trep, Collin shouted, “Come on, Zedic! The sun’ll be gone before you ever get here! Hey, where’s Boo? I thought she’d be right on your heels. Don’t tell me that little scare last night is gonna keep her away?”

“No, she couldn’t come this morning,” Zedic said as he adjusted the pack he was carrying. “When I was bringing in the firewood, I heard Mother tell her Gramme was expecting her for a lesson today.”

Collin nodded appreciatively. Everyone knew Kairma’s responsibilities took precedence above all.

“Well,” Zedic said slowly as he stared up the long stairway. “I guess I’m ready to see what’s behind that barricade.”

Collin’s light laugh made Zedic turn toward him. “Don’t tell me you’re spooked too.”

Zedic grimaced. “Not really, but they are sure ugly things, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.” Collin straightened his shoulders in an act of gathering courage and headed up the stairs. “They sure are.”

Collin wasn’t easily daunted, but being that close to the dreaded White Ones the night before had given even the self-possessed Collin second thoughts about dark places. “Well, they’ve never bothered us in the daylight before and I sure want to know what’s in that mountain. Are you coming?”

Zedic shrugged his broad shoulders but smiled. “Sure,” he said. And then the boys eagerly climbed eight hundred stairs to find out what was in the unknown recesses of the mountain.

The stale air had cleared from the previous day’s work and the narrow crack in the passage stood ominously before them. They tried to widen the opening, but the golden slab stood fast. Using flat rocks for shovels, they cleared away more dirt and tried again to move the obstruction from its position. They melted more fat and oiled the hinges on the left side again. No luck. There was still too much dirt at the base.

They continued to work through the morning but still hadn’t succeeded in moving the obstinate block.

Zedic looked up at the sun just past its apex. “Let’s have something to eat. All this digging has really made me hungry.”

Collin nodded in agreement and the young explorers sat down to take a well-deserved break.

Kairma went to the dining room where her little brothers were arguing over a game of stacking sticks. Jettena, busy cleaning berries and arbitrating the skirmish, looked up as Kairma came into the room. “How is the session going?”

“Good,” Kairma replied. “We talked about history mostly.”

The girl took the stoneware pan from the low-burning fire and refilled the terrid kettle from Isontra’s room. “Now I know why my name is Kairma.” The dining area smelled of freshly baked bread. There was a large pot of bean soup on the fire, and Kairma realized she should have eaten more breakfast.

Jettena set down the barely ripe berries. “You must be studying the Script Key.”

“Yes, Gramme reminded me that Kinter’s name is really Lakinter.”

A small line formed between Jettena’s brows, and Kairma knew she was about to be lectured. “Careful,” Jettena warned. “I wouldn’t take to calling her that now. She’s pretty attached to the name Kinter.”

“Well, I’d better get back.” Kairma smiled, envisioning the look on her sister’s face if she called her by her given name, and left the room.

When Kairma returned, the Miral was sitting at her large pine table, a pile of old leather scrolls stacked in front of her. She was thumbing through the scrolls, looking at each of the titles.

“Thank you for refilling the terrid kettle,” her grandmother said. “Please sit down.” Isontra paused and took a long sip of the hot drink. “I don’t know who first discovered this wonderful drink, but I am forever in his or her debt.”

Kairma nodded in agreement and took her place again at the large table.

Picking up another scroll, Isontra examined it. “The last strangers to join our village were of the Efpec blood and good people. In fact, your Grampe was of the blood, as is your Father.” Isontra shook her head. “This was not always so. Even now there are those who believe we are wrong to let any newcomers stay.”

Kairma nodded, thinking of how Grimly had successfully split off a small faction of the church. The old man never confronted Isontra openly, but Kairma had heard the whispers of the disenfranchised.

“Ah, here it is.” Finding the record she had been searching, for Isontra began to read.

ATD 174-6-28. I take a moment to record the last few days though we flee for our lives. On ATD 174-6-17 several unknown persons from a nearby settlement attacked us from the south. We were unprepared, and the long battle cost us thirty-one men, eight women and four small children. I, Fontas, have taken the Ogs as Ellanda has fallen and we are forced from our home of more than sixty annums. We are weak, and only 283 of us go from here. I believe our error was in trusting two men who had come upon us during a hunt thirty-six days past. They had shared our meals and services for five days before moving on toward the south. I cannot help but conclude that word of the Crystal had reached outsiders by way of these men. It is distressing to lose so much due to an act of kindness. We shall not be foolish again. It shall be law from this day on: all strangers the Survinees encounter shall be put to death immediately.

A chill ran down Kairma’s back as she thought about those angry words.

Isontra smiled appreciatively at Kairma. “This is the first known record concerning the Law of Fontus, named after the Miral who instituted the law.”

The older woman glanced at another scroll. “Let’s see, this would have been just over five hundred annums ago. This is when Kitru ordered the deaths of a small family of Madics that had been discovered living in one of the Temples of the Godstones.”

Setting that scroll aside, she took a sip of terrid and opened another. “According to this, we allowed someone to join our community. The Miral says that a woman who had recently given birth was found in the low hills to the east. The woman’s husband and child died. The stranger promised to stay in Survin until her natural death, and after much debate she was allowed to join us.”

Isontra studied Kairma a moment. “As you will see, we haven’t always been this generous. In this Og, written sixty-four annums later, Miral Quensi says that while on an extended hunt, our men met six outsiders from the east. They did not allow the outsiders to escape.” She sorted through a few more scrolls. “And here, Rosella ordered the death of a Madic who refused to say why he had come to Survin.”

Isontra was silent a long while, and then looked deep into Kairma’s ice-blue eyes. “It can never be easy to order someone to die. By weighing the consequences of our actions, and understanding that no one life can be more important than the whole of our people, you can make very difficult decisions. We are the Mirals of Survin, the guardians of the Crystal, and hence the decision must be ours alone to make.”

“I hadn’t realized so many strangers had been put to death,” Kairma whispered.

“There were fewer strangers put to death than members of our own family, who were killed because we didn’t take action.”

Isontra leafed through more records while Kairma refilled the cups with fresh terrid. When Kairma settled, Isontra unrolled another recording. “Sometimes the decisions are more pleasant.  This is one of my personal favorites. My mother Hestra wrote.”

ATD 759-4-24. The hunting party discovered a small group of strangers living in a cave to the east of Survin. It was only by sheer luck that our hunting party had taken refuge from the rain in the small hold. The strangers are all quite ill-nourished. I do not believe they had been equipped to last through a winter as bitter as this one has been.

Isontra paused. “I remember. That was a tough annum for all of us.” Unrolling the fragile scroll further, she continued.

Their bronze skin coloring and large stature leads me to believe they must be of almost pure Efpec blood. People of the smaller and weaker Madic blood would not have fared as well under such harsh conditions. The two older men have given me a little data concerning why they were holed up in our mountains. It appears that they are searching for the Mountain of Nor. They are looking for the city of the angel. I cannot recall ever having encountered another people who worshipped Nor. It may be a trick and I feel uneasy about their presence. I will consult the records to establish the proper course of action.

“Two days later she wrote.”

ATD 779-4-26. I do not think the woman will last through the night. She is feverish and weak. Her son seems to be stable as of this recording. She tells me his name is Tamron. Sabra has recently given birth and has offered to milk feed the baby. Isontra has been very helpful. I think she favors the young man, Petar.

Isontra’s face flushed a soft pink and it made Kairma smile. Isontra opened a new scroll and Kairma rested her chin on the palm of her hand, listening intently to the records her great grandmother had written long before her birth. She had heard the stories and even read many of the hundreds of Ogs herself, but each time her grandmother emphasized a different meaning from the ancient words and Kairma learned something new.

ATD 779-4-29. The woman died two days past. The remaining three strangers are improving quickly. I am amazed at the resilience of the Efpec blood. It is understandable how the great Amanda was able to survive and keep safe the great healing power.

Setting the fragile scroll on the table, Isontra went on to explain how the small band of outsiders had generally integrated well with the Survinees. Petar had been allowed to mate with her and had served as a strong Comad until an accident had taken his life. Petar was not of the original colony, although that fact had not been a major issue until Tamron and Jettena had found themselves in trouble.

Kairma was always uncomfortable when discussing her parents’ rushed Seridar. It was a major source of contention among the elders. Kairma glanced away, but Isontra drew back her attention. “As you can see, strangers are not dealt with lightly. There is much at risk.”

Kairma straightened in her chair. “There hasn’t been a real war since Giannia held the Crystal more than five hundred annums ago, and it’s been over three hundred annums since we’ve been forced to put a stranger to death. Maybe the Crystal’s been forgotten?”

Isontra got up from the table. “No,” she said slowly. “I think it’s been very well-hidden.” She walked to the small dark room to put away the bundle of scrolls.

Coming back to the table, she held a piece of slate and some chalk in her long fingers. Isontra always used these when she wanted to draw or write something that she didn’t need to keep. Sitting close to her granddaughter, she began to sketch. Kairma could tell quickly that it was a picture of their canyon.

“When we came here almost five hundred annums ago, we knew this was our home because of the statue of the god Nor to the south.” She drew a square marking their place of weekly worship where the smaller monument stood.

“Everything was perfect, not only because the Monument of Nor tells us this is where we belong, but because the canyon is the perfect place to hide from our enemies. Here, at the south end of the canyon, are the two square tunnels through the rock placed closely together. There is just enough room between the two passageways to let the smoke from the great center fire pit escape. Those two channels make up the Gathering House. You see there is no way to come into the canyon without going through the Gathering House or scaling that granite mountain.”

Kairma’s eyes flashed. “And to get in from the north you have to go through the hospital! It makes sense. For someone to attack us they would have to climb over the mountains or come through one of the passageways.”

Isontra folded her fingers in front of her. “Yes, and even to find their way here, they would have to go through thick forest. We’re pretty well hidden—with the minor exception that you can see the Godstones for twenty kilometers or more.” Isontra blew out a gentle sigh. “I suspect that is what has drawn many of the strangers who have crossed our path over the annums. There may have been some who’ve seen the Godstones and its temples, but never found us here in this hidden canyon.”

Kairma ran her fingers over the chalk drawing. “So we have a defendable home that has kept us safe for five hundred annums. We have the Healing Crystal that is designed to heal the world. We’re here at the Mountain of Nor, and we pay our tributes to the gods annum after annum.” Kairma looked up, her eyes searching her grandmother’s. “Why doesn’t the Crystal do everything it’s supposed to do? Why do people still get sick and die? Six annums ago, we lost more than sixty people to the coughing fever.” Kairma chewed her lower lip in frustration.

Isontra looked long at the pale girl. “I don’t have an answer. All my life, I have searched these records trying to answer that very question. I do believe we will be given a sign when the time has come to change what has always been. Now, what can you tell me about this man they call Trep?”

Kairma hesitated. She really didn’t know Trep, but the thought of having him killed tightened her throat and made her ill. “Well,” she began slowly, “Collin says he comes from the east, from a place he calls Peireson’s Landing. He’s looking for something called artifacts, things made by the gods. Only he calls them the Ancient Ones.” Kairma fidgeted with her braid. “Collin also said he has really interesting things to trade with us. Things like clothing and alloy tools.” It frightened her that Collin seemed so powerfully drawn to the stranger.

Isontra was frightened upon hearing Trep was looking for ancient artifacts. Her first instinct was to terminate the stranger, but she knew the colony had been gradually waning, and the very oldest Ogs warned her that if she didn’t safeguard something called a genetic pool, her people would die. Isontra didn’t truly understand what this pool was, but the message was clear. Her greatest ancestors insisted the number of people in the colony should never drop below one hundred and fifty. After the most recent illness, there were only one hundred and thirty people in the village, and many of those were too closely related to mate. Trep was of breeding age, but the colony really needed ten strangers to rebuild its numbers. She didn’t know where to find their kind of people—people of the Efpec blood. Trep was taller than the White Ones, but he had facial hair he kept cut very short. Isontra had never seen a true Madic, but she knew by the descriptions in the Ogs that the male Madics were small with thick chest and facial hair. Madic people frightened her, but time was running out. “Kairma, I want you to find out what you can about this man. I don’t want you talking to him directly. Do you understand?” Isontra sighed heavily. “As you mentioned, we lost several people to the illness that swept through here six annums ago. We need to find a way to augment our genetic pool.”

“By genetic pool, do you mean the number of people in Survin?”

“Not only the number, but the number of unrelated people. You see, for the past two or three generations, most families have had only one or two children. Women don’t have very many children anymore, and over the last three or four generations, the infant mortality rate has risen dramatically. Now, after the last great fever, we have only six unrelated families left, and it isn’t safe to mate with someone who is too close to you.”

“I didn’t notice it before, but why is our family so large?”

Isontra cocked her head to the side. “Great Stones! It never occurred to me. Jettena has seven healthy children—one of whom survived the White Fever. I’m going to see if I can find any records that might explain that.”

Kairma stared out the small window across the room. “I was surprised when you let Collin bring Trep into the village. It’s because of this pool that we need to make larger, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I broke a rather strong law to allow that.”

“I can hear people talk. Many of the elders are afraid of Trep. Do you think they will accept him in time?”

Isontra smiled. “Funny thing about time—as often as it proves us right, it proves us wrong.”

Looking deep into Kairma’s eyes, Isontra added solemnly, “Remember, your first duty is to the safe keeping of the colony. Until we know if we can trust this man, guard our secrets well.”

Read more about The Healing Crystal trilogy

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