Naturi watched them walk away, thinking he’d love to give Collin a lesson in manners. He hated when Collin called Kairma Boo. It was undignified, and far too intimate. Collin was seventeen now, old enough to take a mate, and Naturi thought he should be more respectful. He bristled at the thought of Collin taking Kairma exploring.
Despite himself, he sighed, thinking it would have been fun to unearth something like the vault. He couldn’t remember ever being a child. From a very early age, his father had wanted him to take Kairma as a mate. Toric had coached him on the fine art of being a Comad, insisting Naturi be the best at everything. There was never time for playing games or climbing mountains. Naturi was taught to be responsible above everything. Day after day Naturi studied the history that led to the laws of the community until one day he found himself facing his manhood rites and wondering what had happened to the boy who wanted to draw pictures.
Life was very different now. His father had changed with the loss of his wife, but it was more than that. It was as if Toric blamed Kairma for Devon’s disappearance even though a White One had attacked Kairma herself only a week later. Toric was sure the White Ones had stolen his wife and was determined to find her. Isontra reminded the Survinees of the bitter conflicts they had with the cave dwellers over the centuries. In the end, in the name of peace, Isontra had forbidden them to search the caves for Devon, or the White One who had attacked Kairma. Toric tried to raise enough interest to go against Isontra’s wishes, but when he could find no backers he shut himself away from the community and his son.
Toric was a great hunter, and Zedic’s casual question reminded Naturi why he chose not to hunt and of the rift that existed between his father and himself. A moment of sadness engulfed him as he thought of the great stag he had killed with his bow four annums ago. The large brown eyes of the beast had looked right at him as he let go of the string that sent an arrow into its heart. He knew how much the colony depended on the men for food, but he felt an odd sense of guilt watching the life bleed from the majestic animal. His father had been very proud, telling everyone how it had been a clean kill. With six horns, it was the largest kill of the hunt.
Shaking the memory from his mind, Naturi continued to work the garden, and began planning the questions he’d ask the stranger. He was a little nervous. This would be the first formal meeting he’d had since the stranger had come to their mountain and there were a lot of people depending on him to do well.
The following day, while Kairma and Kinter studied, Zedic constructed racks to bleed the game in preparation for the returning hunting party. Trep spent the day exploring the ancient monument south of the village. Collin had gone with him, but couldn’t answer many of his questions. He was sure the structure was nearly a thousand annums old. Cryptic writing covered the front of a massive bronze plaque imbedded in a granite block almost as tall as Trep himself.
The sounds of people preparing for a feast and the smell of baking bread drifted into the cabin where Trep finished recording the day’s events on a rough piece of hemp paper. The room was a trifle musty from being unused for several annums, but it felt warm and had the homey smell of wood smoke. It had been a long day and he was tired from the trip to the Monument of Nor. Getting up from the table to stoke the fire, he pondered the meaning of the things he’d seen.
He was preparing hot water for terrid when he heard a rap at the entrance of the small wood and stone cabin. He turned to see Naturi struggling with the heavy hide that hung across the opening to keep out the evening chill. Limping to the door and pulling the heavy leather back to allow Naturi to pass, Trep drawled. “I say, gotcha hands full, doncha?” He offered the greeting Collin had taught him and Naturi returned it easily.
“See ya braight chour skaetches. Goodnuf. Jate?”
Naturi’s eyes darted around the room nervously. “I beg your pardon, Sir.”
Trep pointed to the drawing in Naturi’s hands. “Chour shaetches.”
“Oh. My drawings,” Naturi said.
Trep’s forehead crinkled, and the deep lines of a man who spent long days in the sun formed around his eyes when he smiled. He asked again, “Jate yet?”
Naturi looked confused and a little wary. Trep pointed to some bread and cheese. “Jate?”
Slowly understanding dawned on Naturi’s face. “Oh! Did I eat? No, I am fine. I will eat with my father later.”
Trep held up a mug of steaming liquid. “Caire fur a cup o terrid ta warm ya bones? Don’t know what this drank is, but ate shore is good.”
Naturi laid down his bundle on the knotted pine table by the fireplace. Naturi stared at him for a while, and Trep wondered if he should repeat himself. But before he could, Naturi said, “It is made from ground rose hips, dried blackberries, and dandelion. I believe the Healers add a few more things to the terrid they make. It is a little sweeter than mine.”
Trep thought Naturi looked a little tense as he handed him an oiled wooden cup full of steaming terrid. “Jess finished this brew. Come in, have a sit down.” Trep ran a hand through his shaggy hair, and his congenial smile did much to relax Naturi.
Sitting at the small table where the drawings were lying, Trep said, “It’s gonna get cold ’night. Really wish I hade some whiskey.” He offered Naturi some biscuits anyway. “I was jess finishin’ my supper. Collin has taken sache good care of me. I must thank the boy proper.”
Naturi was still standing there with a puzzled look on his face, and Trep began to speak more slowly.
Getting up, Trep pulled out a chair and said, “Please sit. Late’s see whacha have.”
Unrolling the drawings, Naturi said, “I tried to bring a large selection of drawings. You did not specify what you were interested in viewing. I am flattered you asked to see my work.”
“Cole told me ya did good work.” He lifted a hide. “My, my, Nate. Y’all are pretty talented, very accurate, and so much detail. Think these jess might be some of the best pieces I’ve seen in—oh, I don’t know how long. A good while anyway.” As he poured over sketches of birds and wild animals, Trep noticed most of the creatures Naturi drew appeared gentle, which seemed a contradiction of the austere attitude Naturi presented.
Many of the young man’s drawings were of the local people and plant life, but the one that intrigued Trep the most was of the Godstones. For several minutes Trep puzzled over the drawing as he and Naturi sipped their drinks.
“Is there something wrong with my copy?” Naturi asked, sounding a little uncomfortable.
“Oh no, Nate, it’s fine.” By habit, Trep shortened most names to one or two syllables. His own given name was Trepard, though he hadn’t used it since he was a boy of ten. “It’s very accurate. I jess wish I understood more about these Godstones of y’all’s. This is what brought me here in the first place. Very strange, they are. Cain’t say that I’ve ever seen anythin’ quite like ’em before. In all my travels, I’ve never come across such magnificent stone carvings.” From what Collin had told him, Trep understood the Survinees believed the god Nor had carved the great heads out of the side of the mountain.
Trep got up from the table, limping slightly as he went to a cupboard holding a skin of apple wine. “Ya know, this is one of the best things the Surv’s have going for y’all.” He took two fresh cups off the shelf and filled them with the sweet, fragrant wine. Naturi accepted the cup with a nod, and Trep said, “Things are different down in the city. Ya know, we have several different spirits we store in glass containers. Some of ’em very good.”
Naturi’s face had gone blank again, and Trep cursed the differences in their language under his breath. The friendliness never left his voice as he explained what spirits were and, when Naturi still looked confused, he tried to find an example of glass as well. There was none to be found. With an exasperated shake of his head, he said, “Someday I’ll show ya what I mean.”
The next few drawings were of hunting parties and the game they brought home. Trep examined the drawing of a particularly large bear obviously in no condition to hurt anyone again. “This is interestin’. Is this the usual game the men bring home?”
“No, this was kind of an accident.” An amused light came to Naturi’s eyes. “Hiram and Drew stumbled in between her and her cub. It is really not the kind of thing a smart man does. It took the entire hunting party to bring her down. My father still has a couple deep scars from the encounter. They felt bad for the orphaned cub and Mother fed it through the spring.” Naturi took a sip of wine and stared into the fire. “Sometimes, I think I still see that little black bear down by the lake.”
“I’d been meanin’ to ask about somethin’. I saw most of the men and older boys leave yesterday to go huntin’. Don’t y’all keep any cattle for food?”
This drew another blank look from Naturi, and a longer swig of wine from Trep.
“Okay, so the people in Peireson Landin’—well, not really in the city, but folks outside the city, those on ranches, keep animals in pens. They feed ’em until they’re fully grow’d. Then they butcher ’em for the meat. The ranchers trade this meat for other things they need. Men usually hunt for sport.”
Naturi looked appalled. “The idea of raising animals to eat makes sense, but I do not understand hunting for sport. I would never kill an animal unless I needed to.”
Trep shrugged. “So, as I was sayin’, people come from miles around to trade their herds and grains for cloth, metal, and other supplies. They have some wonderful things at the market.” Noting the perplexed look on Naturi’s face, Trep explained what the market was.
Naturi said, “I find it difficult to imagine a building with so many different wares in it. Do they have this market all the time, or is it like our Awakening or Harvest Celebrations?”
“The market is open every weekend. There’s music, with lots of singin’ and dancin’, and lots of different wines.” He motioned for the cup in Naturi’s hand and refilled it. “The wine there isn’t quite like this here, but very good all the same.” Trep took an appreciative sip and then refilled his cup with more wine. “And the women there! Ahh, the women, all dressed in their finest clothes. The fabric is made of such a fine weave it shimmers in the sunlight and is jess made for touching.” He gave Naturi a roguish grin. “And the beautiful jewels they wear in their hair, if only y’all could see ’em!” He quickly added, “Not that y’all don’t have fine women here, ya certainly do. City women are jess a little more—acceptin’ of my kind.”
Fascinated, Naturi looked directly at Trep. “What is metal? You said people traded for it at the market.”
Trep looked around the room and then pointed to a pan sitting by the hearth. “That’s made of metal, and my knife, and that pail. They’re all made of metal.”
Naturi’s dark eyes sparkled. “You mean alloy. That’s what we call it.”
Trep shook his head, unrolling another picture. “Collin spent a long time with me trying to teach me y’all’s language, but I guess there is still a lot of ground left to cover.” From his extensive travels, Trep had learned how to interpret body language and hand signals. The Survinees’ language was similar to his and obviously derived from the same root language. The well-traveled man wondered when and why people split into separate tribes. Scratching his scruffy two-day-old beard, he suggested, “If ya go to the city, y’all will have to learn to speak their language. I don’t think too many folks would take the time to learn yours. It won’t be too hard. It’s a lot like yours.”
Naturi’s face whitened. “I could never go to the city. It is against the law to leave the mountain.”
Trep studied Naturi’s face. “Your hunters leave. Don’t they ever go down to the plains? Haven’t they ever gone to the city or another village?”
“Sometimes they go near the plains, but contact with outsiders is expressly forbidden. It is, in fact, very unusual that you are here.” Naturi suddenly looked a little uncomfortable when he asked, “How is it that you decided to come to our mountain? Do the city people know we are here?”
Trep leaned his chair back on two legs to study the young man. “I heard a tale about y’all’s mountain. No one mentioned a village. I think y’all can be assured no one knows ’bout it—and I always travel alone.”
Naturi was visibly relieved. “This is good. We like our privacy.”
“Yep.” Trep nodded in agreement. “Y’all are a very private folk.” The attitudes of this strange culture puzzled him. He knew they were hiding for some reason and he was determined to learn why.
Trep took a long drink, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and looked conspiringly at Naturi. “I think maybe ya jess need a good enough reason to go to the city.” He handed the skin of wine to Naturi, who foolishly refilled his own cup again.
“It is all very interesting, but I guess it does not really have an effect on us here.” Naturi took another long drink, feeling the warmth spread through his chest. “Curiosity will only lead to trouble and unhappiness. We have everything we could want right here.”
“Now, that—is what I call a poor attitude. Really, where would y’all be if ya never tried to learn the truth of things? Many modern conveniences have been invented ’cause someone was curious or—jess plain lazy.” He grinned. Then he looked about the room, noticing its gray stone walls and heavy hide door. He couldn’t understand why these people hadn’t developed the same conveniences they had in the city.
“If there was something in the city that y’all really wanted, surely someone would be willing to make the trip.” Trep jumped up so quickly it startled Naturi. “I may have jess the thing, right here!” He ran back to the bedroom and reached under his meager cot, pulling out an odd-shaped piece of metal.
Returning to the great room, he flourished his prize. “This is a karrack and it’s about to change y’all life, my boy!” He gently handed it to Naturi. “It demands the greatest amount of respect, but it’s the most wonderful invention y’all ever laid eyes on.” Trep could feel the effects of the wine and almost stumbled while reaching for the hollow horn filled with fine black powder. Laughing, he ran his hand through his thick hair. “Yes, Sir, that’s some mighty fine wine ya folks make!”
Naturi held the karrack and ran his fingers over the smooth cylinder that extended from the odd-shaped handle. “What is it for?”
“Here, I’ll show ya.” Trep took the karrack and poured some powder into the cylinder. With a long rod he tamped the powder in tight. Then he pulled a small round ball of metal from his pocket, packed it in the cylinder, and followed that with a piece of cloth. “Now come with me. I’ll show you what we do with it.”
As they left the dwelling, the cool evening air felt good on Naturi’s face. He didn’t drink wine often and was feeling flushed and a touch off balance.
The sun was almost gone and he could just make out a patch of crocus by the pathway as he followed the traveler to the edge of the wooded area east of the homes. Trep tiptoed quietly along the edge of the woods and Naturi followed suit. The traveler was searching for something in the tall grasses. Just as Naturi was about to ask Trep what he was looking for, a fat turkey skittered through the grass before them. Trep quickly pointed the cylinder at the bird and karraaackk! Feathers flew and the bird fell lifeless to the ground.
The loud noise caused Naturi to stumble backward into a thorny rabbit bush. Looking back, Trep guffawed loudly. Trep walked over and picked up the bird, saying, “Damn, I missed the head. Now I gotta eat shredded meat. If there’d been jess a bit more daylight, I’d a been a better shot.”
Brandishing his kill, he proudly said, “That’s what we do with a karrack.”
Brushing the leaves and dirt from his clothes, Naturi fell in behind Trep. The awe in Naturi’s voice was barely concealed. “Can that thing kill big game too?”
“Ya could kill a man, or even one of y’all’s White Ones at a hundred feet. That is …” He winked at Naturi, “That is if ya can see him.”
Naturi looked puzzled as he looked down at Trep’s feet. “A hundred feet?”
Now it was Trep’s turn to be puzzled. He thought for a moment, and then drew a line in the dirt. Walking off several paces, he turned to Naturi, who was intent on watching, and said, “There! That’s ’bout ten feet.”
Naturi’s face lit up. “About three meters!”
Trep laughed and slapped Naturi on the back. “Yeah! Meters are kind of like what we call yards.”
“You have very strange names for things in the city. I think it would be hard to learn your language.”
When they returned to the cabin, Naturi moved the drawings from the table onto a nearby chair so he could help Trep pluck the feathers from the freshly killed bird. “The karrack could be a very useful tool. I can see how my people could benefit from it. Could we have that one?”
Trep’s eyebrows shot up. “I think not! There’s no way I’d part with my Mojo. She’s been by my side for the best part of twenty years.”
“How could I attain one? I think we would like to have several.”
“That sure don’t surprise me. I thought it’d get your attention.”
Smiling to himself, Trep grabbed a pot and filled it with water from a large wooden barrel by the hearth. “Well, y’all would have to go to the plains. That’s where they make ’em.” He hung the pot over the fire and sat back down at the table.
Naturi looked wide-eyed at Trep. “They make them? But that’s solid alloy, except the handle.”
“Sure, they make lots of things of metal, I mean, alloy. They jess heat it up and shape it into anythin’ they need.” He carefully slit the bird open and removed the entrails. “All ya need is somethin’ to trade and y’all can have jess about whatever you want.”
As much to himself as to Trep, Naturi said, “What could I find to trade? I have some skins and a nice bow, but I do not think that the plains people would have use for anything like bows and drawings, not if they have all the things you say they have.”
Trep took another drink of wine. “The way I see it, y’all gonna have to trade somethin’ they don’t have, or cain’t get, like this apple wine or your sketches. I know some people would surely like to have ya draw their picture too. Some folk are quite vain, I suppose.” He put the clean bird on a skewer and placed it over the fire, and then walked over to the chair and found one of the larger sketches. “This here’s a nice one. Someone would be willin’ to trade for some of these drawin’s, I’m sure.”
Naturi laid the feathers out to dry by the hearth. There was almost enough down to fill a small pillow, and the longer feathers could be used as quills for sketching. “Do you think my sketches are that good?” Naturi grinned, intoxicated with pride and wine. “I never thought anyone else would enjoy them. I make them for myself.”
Trep held up a picture of a very old man and studied it carefully. “Yep, these are as good as any I’ve seen in the ancient books. I know a man in Peireson Landin’, has a collection of very old books with fascinatin’ pictures and fancy writin’.” He winked at Naturi. “He won’t let jess anyone touch ’em. I guess I understand. They’re very fragile.”
Laying the drawing on the table, Trep went to the hearth to rotate the bird. “I saw them once. Cain’t read a lick of the old writing myself—don’t know anyone who can.” He settled back into his chair. “I sure would like to know what they say, though! There is a museum in the city with some fine artifacts, Narvin’s personal collection.”
“Healers can read the script.” The words were out before Naturi could stop himself. He grimaced and quickly added, “Well, at least I think they might know.”
“Really!” Trep almost dropped his cup in delight. “You mean there might be someone here who understands the ancient writings? Oh, this is my lucky day!” His eyes blazed enthusiastically as he held up his cup in a toast to Naturi. “Nate, my good man, I’ve traveled this land for many years lookin’ for clues about the Ancient Ones. Yes, Sir! If I could find out what they wrote about, and I tell ya, they wrote a lot in their time, I know I could find out what happened to ’em.”
Naturi was truly frightened by Trep’s excitement and he worried the traveler’s quest for information would lead him to the Crystal. His blunder about the Healing family reading script weighed heavily on his mind. Naturi asked timidly, “The Ancient Ones? Do you mean the gods of Nor?” He busied himself with the drawing on the rough-hewn table, trying desperately not to meet Trep’s gaze. His head was spinning and not just from Trep’s enthusiasm.
“Yes, yes, whatever y’all call ’em, I’ve always believed there were others that come before us who might not have been gods.” Then he added with a mischievous smirk, “It’s got me in more than a few scrapes, ya know. Not everyone agrees with me.” He picked up the drawing of the Godstones again. “There’s jess too many things in this world that lead me to believe that we cain’t be the first folks to walk these lands. I heard a lotta strange legends, most of which I think I can safely ignore, but, ya know, some jess stick with you.”
If Trep was searching for the Crystal, he would most likely mention it now. Looking into his cup of wine, Naturi asked, “What legends are you interested in?”
“Oh, the list is long. To believe that some god put us here to serve him, with no kind of plan, well, that’s jess hard to swallow, for me anyway. Lotta folk believe that, though. Or, that we fell from the sky. Some folk really believe we came from the stars!” He chortled. “Now, don’t that beat all? Oh, and the legends that speak of magical powers? No, there’s no such thing as magic, jess things we don’t understand, yet.”
Naturi pressed on. “You mean you do not believe in the power of the Godstones or any magical powers?”
Trep glanced curiously at Naturi, and then checked the water and added leaves from a small sack. He stoked the fire and turned the spit holding his dinner again. “In all my travels, there are no other Godstones.”
Naturi’s eyes widened in surprise because he had assumed everyone worshiped the god of Nor.
Trep smiled. He loved talking about religion. He found most people would vehemently defend the most outrageous beliefs. “Oh, I assure ya, other folks have their gods, but they’re all different. No, I only pursue the legends that are somewhat the same everywhere. Those, I believe, are probably based on some truth. Like the ones that talk ’bout the location of ancient cities.” He poured a fresh cup of wine for Naturi. “There’s this legend about the Star of Genesis. I heard it when I’s a boy. I jess cain’t buy somethin’ that has the power to turn the world into paradise. No, someone would have found it and used it by now.” He waved his arm, gesturing to his surroundings. “Are we livin’ in paradise? No. I think it’s jess a made-up fable to give us hope.”
Naturi almost choked on his wine, and it didn’t go unnoticed by Trep. The traveler looked at the young man and wondered, How odd! They’ve heard of the Genesis Star here. That’s a legend I haven’t heard much about north of Charltown. Seems that Narvin may have done some research on it. I’ll have to ask him the next time I make it to Peireson Landin’. Out loud he said, “As far as the Star is concerned, I jess wrote that one off.”
Naturi asked cautiously, “If there really was a Star, and you found it, wouldn’t you become a very powerful man?”
Trep smiled candidly. “Suppose I would.” He looked at Naturi, and then brushed the question off as a boy’s curiosity. The wine was obviously relaxing the young man. “If, and I stress if, there’s any truth to the legend, then I guess I owe it to the world to put it to good use. World’s been pretty good to me. But listen, do ya honestly believe there is a magic that can make people fly to the stars?”
Naturi said, “I never heard it could do that. Only that it would make the world healthy and happy.”
Trep looked sideways at Naturi. “So, you’ve heard of the Star?”
Naturi panicked. He’d said more than he had intended. Conversation was too easy with this congenial man. The words tumbled out in a rush. “I have only heard stories about what the gods could do.”
“The gods, huh?” he asked as he settled back in his chair. “Tell me about this Healin’ family. How do they come by the learnin’ of ancient writin’? Do you think I could talk to one of ’em sometime?”
Naturi cringed. It was obvious that Trep was not going to forget his blunder. Naturi was cornered and would have to come up with something. “Well, like I said before, I think they may know how to read the script. Maybe, I heard that once—when I was younger.”
Trep sounded anxious now. “It’d please me to no end if y’all could find out. I’ve looked everywhere for someone who could read the ancient writin’. Cain’t tell you how important this is to me. Bein’ able to understand all the ancient writin’ could change our world. They did some pretty fancy things in their time. If we figure out how they did things, well, that would be almost like findin’ the Star itself, wouldn’t it? Better even, I think.”
Naturi sipped his wine and pushed another drawing toward Trep in an effort to change the subject.
Trep caught the gesture and inquired about a picture of an old man holding a torch to a pile of leaves. Naturi was grateful for the reprieve. “That’s Hiram, the one who got in trouble with the bear.” Naturi pointed to a long scar down the old man’s arm. Outlining the torch and the leaves, Naturi continued. “When he was a young man, some people wanted to use some of the caves across the valley for more homes, but the Whitish lived in them. The only way to get rid of them was to build huge fires and fan the smoke into the caves. They say that the Whitish ran out of the caves and attacked the men.” Naturi paused. “I drew this from what he told me as I was not yet born at the time.” Feeling more at ease discussing the White Ones, Naturi refilled his cup and took another healthy drink.
Trep looked long at the picture. “Is that so? Do they attack often?”
“No, Sir, not usually, but four annums ago one bit Kairma.”
“The pale looking girl who wears the scarf? Isn’t she from the Healin’ family?”
Naturi regarded Trep with mild surprise. Trep had an excellent memory. He scrubbed a hand over his face and his tongue felt thick and found it hard to focus. “Yes, but she was very strong and didn’t die. Kairma’s the only person to ever live through the White Fever. They say that most people die quickly. Not Kairma. Her hair turned white and she was sick for a long time.” He set his elbow on the table and supported his chin with his palm. He worked his mouth to form the words, “The elders i’sisted she be taken to the Godstones, but Miral Isontra refused them.” Naturi’s forehead wrinkled, and he nodded thoughtfully. “She often refuses to listen to the elders.” There was a hint of awe in his tone.
It was obvious that Naturi didn’t drink often. Trep smiled and said, “I don’t understand. Why would they take her to the Godstones?”
Naturi tried to clear his head. He started to take another sip from his cup and then pushed it away. “Well, when someone is ready to die, we believe that iss better to meet the gods while you still have ’nough strength to be ’ware. We take dying members to the temples and leave them with blankets, food, and water. The Healer takes more food and water each day until the gods receive them. One of the Healer’s duties is attending to the gravely ill until it’s time for them to be buried. When the time comes, everyone from the village attends the service.”
Naturi’s velvet voice took on a melancholy hue. “The Temples of the Godstones are for the dead. We go there to mourn or to visit with those who have left us. Sometimes I go up there to talk to my mother even though I know she didn’t go with the gods. She wasn’t even sick when she left us.”
Trep said, “I’m sorry to hear ’bout your ma. The loss of my own mother was very painful.” Trep studied Naturi for a moment. “Did I hear ya say Miral Isontra wouldn’t let ’em take Kairma up to the gods and she lived through the fever?”
“We thought it was odd at the time, and some people are still upset about it. Diakus doesn’t even consult the Healers anymore. But Diakus is wrong. Kairma lived.”
“So Miral Isontra is a strong Healer? She’s in charge of things around here, ain’t she? She’d know how to read the writin’ if anyone does, right?”
Naturi winced and tried to swallow the dryness in his mouth. “I’ll try to find out. Have you ever seen a White One?” Again, Naturi attempted to change the subject.
“If I understand what y’all’s White Ones are, cain’t say that I have actually seen one.” He dropped his voice to a conspiring whisper. “They must be pretty evil by the way y’all talk about ’em.”
“You mean they don’t have Whitish in the city?” Naturi asked pointedly.
“Not sure. I’d have to see one for myself. Seems to me there’s a colony of Worms who live outside the city. They kinda sound like your Whitish here. Could be the same kinda folks. I think Worms have to stay out of the sun, but they never hurt anyone.”
“Why do you call them Worms?”
“Like y’all’s White Ones, they live in the dark, usually in large cellars. I guess since worms live underground, we jess started calling those folks Worms. Don’t really mean nothin’ by it.”
“We believe the gods use the Whitish to punish us when we do something that displeases them. My father says this house is empty because Roak and his family refused to give tribute and the Whitish came for them.”
Trep said, “I cain’t help but notice that there are many empty homes. Are the other empty homes from families that have been taken by the Whitish? Thought ya said they didn’t attack often.”
“Most have fallen vacant because the families have come down with the coughing fever and died.”
Trep nodded thoughtfully. “I think I’d feel a whole lot better if I knew a little somethin’ about these White folks.” Turning back to the drawing of the old man, Trep asked, “Ya think this old man might know more about ’em? Bet he’d be downright interestin’ to talk to. Think he’d mind if we paid him a visit?”
“You might be able to talk to him at the Awakening Celebration tomorrow. I should warn you though. He is very skeptical of strangers.”
Trep grinned. “Everyone here is skeptical of strangers!”
Trep thought about that for a moment. He had met many different people in his journeys, but none as secretive as these. He was determined to find out what they were hiding. He had been in this quiet little valley for almost four weeks now, and until yesterday Collin had been the only person to talk to him. Judging by the reactions of the other people in the village, he was thankful that it was Collin he’d met by the lake when he stumbled onto this reclusive society.
Trep walked back to the fire and took the crisp turkey from the spit and placed it on a wooden plate. Naturi seems friendly enough, but I kind of get the impression we aren’t having an easy conversation, but a calculated exchange of information. Course the wine helped a lot to loosen the young man’s tongue. Kinda feel bad ’bout that. Setting the meat on the table, he offered a leg to Naturi.
Naturi stood up. “I had best be going now. It is late and the hunters have brought home game to blood. I am needed at home. I have already spent much more time here than I had planned.”
Trep stood up and grabbed Naturi’s hand in his, shaking it vigorously, thanking him for coming. “The bird we shot is hot and ready to eat. Are ya sure ya gotta go right now?”
Naturi nodded and smiled. “I had a wonderful, and very enlightening, evening, but I really do have to go.”
Yes, thought Trep. It has been enlightening.
After Naturi left, Trep ate his dinner. He was looking forward to tomorrow’s Awakening Celebration. He hadn’t had much of a chance to meet these strange people and he wanted to understand them. They weren’t mean or rude to him; they merely acted as if he wasn’t there. It was all very curious. The celebration would be a superb place to observe the community. Collin had told him there would be lots of food and drink. Trep loved the thought of a party.
As Naturi walked home he understood why Collin was fond of this man, but Naturi vowed not to be taken in by Trep’s charm. He noticed Trep had a slight limp, and wondered how the man had gotten injured. He hoped it wasn’t due to a violent clash with another person. Trep looked friendly enough, but some men had volatile tempers. Naturi felt the brisk wind working itself into a fury. He was thankful for the granite walls of the tight little canyon, knowing the storm would be much harsher outside. A chill ran down his back and he pulled his cloak tighter.
His mind wandered back to the weapon Trep had showed him. He realized the karrack could make hunting easier and defense stronger. The karrack would make a marked difference in the conflicts with the White Ones, and might have even saved Kairma from the attack. If I can obtain these wonderful weapons, my place as comad will be secured, even if Siede were to challenge me. I don’t think Siede intends to do that, which leaves Efram or Collin. The elders respect neither of those boys. Jared is older. If he were to challenge me, it would be advantageous to have proven I can bring wealth to the community.
Naturi thought about that for a while. This can be very good for the colony. Can it be time to change the old laws? Time to embrace new ideas? Can we learn to make things of alloy? Can the ancient writings teach us lost arts?
He let out a long sigh as he pictured himself winning Kairma’s hand at the Harvest Celebration. At the thought of Kairma, he remembered Trep’s intense interest in the Healing family. Is it this Star that led him here? Is it the Ancient Ones, or is it trying to find someone to read script? That would lead him directly to Kairma and the Crystal. I wish I had not said anything. Oh, why had the subject of script come up? I really let that wine go to my head. What if Trep finds out about the Crystal?
Great Stones! Could Collin have blundered more than I?
Toric was tired from the hunting trip. He entered the home he shared with his son and placed his hunting pack on the floor by the door. He was a stocky man, once proud and tall, but now his eyes reflected the emptiness he felt from the loss of his wife. As he put his bow on the table and reached for a hot cup of terrid, he noticed Naturi’s bow still hanging on the wooden spike where he left it. He cursed under his breath. He had taught Naturi how to hunt when he was only five. At fourteen, Naturi was the youngest boy to pass the Seridar. Why did that foolish boy give up hunting? Is he so sure that he will mate with that white girl? That he’ll never have to kill his own meat again? The two long scars on the left side of his face turned red when he thought about all the annums he had spent training Naturi to be a Comad. Kinter acts more like a leader than Kairma does. They should have given that girl to the gods when she was sick. Can’t they see that there’s something wrong with her?
Toric began the daily ritual of cleaning and inspecting his bow, while cursing that awful annum of Naturi’s last hunt.
It was near the end of a long and bitter winter, before the frost had left the ground, and the colony was badly in need of meat. A party of six men had decided to make the twenty-mile trip to the southern valley to see if they could find game. Naturi had been excited about going on the hunt that morning. He had hunted with the men before, but at sixteen Naturi was likely to have his first kill. They kissed Devon good-bye and promised to come home safely.
Toric had been right. Naturi killed a large buck—the largest of the hunt, but something happened that day that Toric didn’t understand. Naturi became withdrawn and morose. He should have been proud of that buck, but his son didn’t even join the men when they ate the heart.
They had been gone for a day and a half, and when they returned they were cold and tired. Leaving Naturi and the other men to dress the large buck, Toric went home. He pulled back the shaggy hide of the door and called to his loving wife, but no one answered. Devon was gone. He went crazy. He searched everywhere, but there was no sign of Devon, and no explanation for her absence.
A week later he had come to the conclusion that she had been kidnapped by the Whitish and wanted to search the caves. He asked the Healing family for support but Miral Isontra had refused, and even his close friend, Comad Tamron, wouldn’t go against her wishes. Toric was furious with those who had let him down. One week later, a White One stole into the canyon and bit Kairma, but Isontra still refused to mount an attack on the White Ones.
When Naturi came in, Toric was in no mood for conversation. He picked up his cup of terrid and headed toward the back room where he often spent hours thinking about his losses.
Naturi waited a long time before approaching his father with a plate of stew. Toric looked at his son with empty eyes and motioned for him to leave the plate and go. Naturi set the plate down and then sat at the table and looked at his father.
“Well, what is it?”
As if reading his father’s thoughts, Naturi swallowed and quietly asked, “Do you think Kairma was cursed by the gods? I mean, do you think that is why she was bitten?”
“You’re still planning on mating that mutant girl, and you know damn well what I think of that girl—and her family. When Hestra died we lost the Healing family.” He scowled at Naturi. “Ever since Jettena was old enough to look like a woman, she has worked at destroying the Healing family line. Imagine, mating at fourteen annums, and to a stranger. Tamron isn’t even Survinees! Miral Isontra did nothing. But then Isontra married an outsider too. Pooh! Grimly’s right, the old woman isn’t fit to lead!
“But Tamron is of Efpec blood. And he was your friend once,” Naturi reminded his father.
“Don’t tell me who my friends are! That family is a nest of vultures. They make their living off other people’s pain. They’ll use you. Do you understand? Now, leave me to my supper.” Toric waved his arm to dismiss him.
Naturi gathered his composure. “Trep says the …”
Toric shot him an icy look, his shoulders hunched into a fighter’s crouch. “You’ve been talking to the stranger? Have you got no brains at all? Hasn’t the colony had enough bad luck? Haven’t you learned anything?”
Toric was livid. He got up and paced around the room. “I guess not!” he shouted as he stormed out of the room. Naturi followed. He knew he was walking a fine line with his father. Although he never had in the past, Naturi feared at any moment Toric might strike him.
Naturi braced himself and spoke softly. “Father, Trep has shown me something that could make hunting much easier. I think it is worth considering. I would like you to see it.”
“What would you know about hunting? You haven’t even picked up your bow in four annums!” Toric shouted and stomped out the door.