The Nor monument was a spire of dark gray stone with arms of layered rock creating a circle around a squat stone altar. On the face of the spire was a brass plague welcoming the Survinees to this mountain. From here, the Survinees could see heavily forested land to the horizon in all directions. Across the valley to the northwest, the magnificent faces of their four gods looked toward the hilltop where the colony gathered each week to give special thanks to Nor, the great savior who had given them this land. Rows of wooden benches fanned out in a graceful arc facing the monument. Today’s meeting would last most of the day, as there was much to cover with the recent hunt and the revelation of the karrack.
As people filled the seats, Kinter sat in the first row next to her father and the triplets. She had a scowl on her pretty face as she held baby Sonty, partially because she wanted to be at the altar helping the Mirals, and partially because the three little boys were squirming in their seats and making rude noises. She grabbed the closest boy by the arm and whispered harshly, “Stop it, Tad! Sit still!”
She reached over to grab the second boy when Zedic and Collin, who had taken the seats directly behind her, came to her rescue. Zedic was very good with the little ones. He and Collin pulled the boys onto the seats beside them. Kinter put her fingers on her forehead as if her head was hurting and said, “Thank you.”
Collin said, “You know I only tolerated these monsters out of respect for your family.” But the laughter in his eyes told the truth. Collin often played with the boys, and they adored him. For the rest of the service, Tadya sat in Zedic’s lap, Tames sat in Collin’s lap, and Taren was secured in between.
Miral Isontra and Vice Miral Jettena took their places at the front of the gathering. Kairma came from behind the monument, carrying a basket of tributes for the service. She could feel her knees shaking as she lowered the basket to the small stone altar and began to unpack a basket of herbs to be handed out to the congregation. To honor them, the villagers rose to their feet, and in unison, they raised their right hands to their right eyebrows, palms outward. The religious leaders returned the formal greeting and took their places.
Jettena led the colony in a prayer of thanks for returning all the men safely home. She then asked Toric to report on the hunt.
He seemed removed from what was happening. There had been a time when Toric would have gone on at length, explaining every detail of the trip, but now he used only the briefest dialogue. After he took his place by the statue he said flatly, “It went well. Twenty-seven men killed two large bucks and three cattle. Owen was injured when he twisted his knee while chasing a heard of elk into Pine Canyon. He’ll be fine.” Toric looked at no one as he returned to his seat.
Jettena asked Kairma to hand everyone a piece of the dried venison as Pria came to the front to report on the goatherd. When the shepherdess finished, Kairma walked through the crowd as she handed out small pieces of cheese and filled small cups with goat’s milk.
Once Kairma had returned to the altar, Jettena called upon Naturi to report on the fields. He proudly walked to the front of the gathering and thanked all the men and women who had helped him till the ground and plant the seeds. He sounded much like a happier Toric as he took great pleasure in telling the colony what had been planted. His mother Devon had taken great pride in the garden when he was a boy. She had specialized in flowers and herbs. Although some people thought it was a silly notion, after a few annums Devon’s garden proved to be extremely valuable. Come harvest time, Devon had many of the medicines the Healing family regularly searched the forests to find. Finishing his report, Naturi asked for help in keeping the weeds and insects under control and he looked pleased when several women volunteered themselves and their children.
The fields were almost as long as the canyon and half as wide. Everyone benefited from the grains of the field. Cornbread and barley cakes were a standard at mealtime, but Naturi’s green beans and hot peppers were prized vegetables. Jettena thanked him for his report and asked Kairma to hand out the small cakes wrapped in large green leaves.
Once everyone had received the tributes, Jettena motioned for her mother to make her report. Crossing to the front of the monument, Isontra lightly kissed her daughter on the cheek.
Isontra clasped her hands behind her back and, in a strong voice, said, “Over the past winter, I’ve worked hard to teach our future Vice Miral all that I know to be true and healing.” There were whispers among the crowd and Kairma shifted in her seat nervously. She knew what some of the others were saying about her and how they felt. She actually understood their fear. She was afraid too. It seemed like far too much responsibility for someone so young and so different. She was glad Isontra and Jettena would be there to help her in the next few annums.
Trep woke with a terrible headache though he’d drunk only a few cups of wine. He momentarily wondered if someone had put peyotel in his food and realized he’d had at least ten cups of wine, not usually enough to make him stumble, but enough to feel it. Trep rubbed his head. I always drink too much when I’m nervous. Hope I didn’t do anything stupid. He laughed at himself. Well, anything more stupid than upsetting the entire village with my little show.
He was thankful that he and Collin had cleaned up the rabbit and started a slow-cooking stew the day before. He would feel better after something to eat. Noting that Collin was gone, he fixed a cup of terrid and a bowl of stew and then sat down to look over his notes. It must have been the punch; most of his notes looked like gibberish.
After a few minutes, he remembered everyone would be at the Monument of Nor. Today was the colony’s holy meeting day. Collin had told him specifically that he was not invited, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to see what they did there. He had been to the monument two days before and was sure he could get close enough to observe what was happening without anyone seeing him.
He dressed quickly and headed for the door. That’s when he remembered he had guards. He cursed to himself. Of all the dang luck. I really wanted to know what their religion’s all about. Odd that they would keep it a secret. Most folk cain’t wait to regale ya with every notion of their belief system.
Trep poured another cup of terrid and took it out to the man standing by his door. “So, Loren, isn’t it?”
Trep handed him the cup and said, “Where is everyone? They leave ya here alone?”
Loren nodded, suspiciously this time. Trep smiled, and Loren relaxed a little. “Everyone is at the service,” Loren said.
Trep offered, “Ya know, if y’all wanted to go ya might tie me up here or ya could take my karrack hostage. There’s no way I’d leave this mountain without that.”
Loren considered it for a moment. “No, I had better stay right here.”
“Suit yerself. I had a long night so I think I’ll jess go back to bed.” Trep reached around the doorframe and grabbed a stool. “At least I can offer ya a chair.”
Loren smiled a little wider and sat down.
Trep wandered around the cabin for a while, and then he noticed a small window in the back room. It was more like a vent than a window, but he was sure he could squeeze through it. The Survinees had little experience with prisoners and missed it.
He smiled as he wriggled his way out.
He walked behind empty houses most of the way through the canyon. When he reached the Gathering House, he paused. If someone was in the stone tunnel, he couldn’t get through without being seen. He backed up as far as he could and tried to see inside the doors. He could only see in a few feet, but it looked quiet. Crossing his fingers, he took the chance and climbed the stone stairs to the room.
Luck was his friend today and he darted through the empty room and up the path to the monument. Once he was sure no one was following, he cut through the thick forest. Right before reaching the summit, he got down on his knees and crawled the last fifty feet, coming up right below the sitting area on the north side.
As he crawled a little closer he could hear Isontra telling Kairma to pass out herbs from her basket. While hiding behind a thick spruce, he saw Kairma take her place next to the stone monument. He could barely make out what she was saying so he moved up a little closer.
He distinctly heard the pale young girl say, “Nor, Life Preserve, Act of Con, Nor, Sta man, nor of so akot, builder, art lover, poet of nature, gentleman. His age of vision, which saw far ahead, far beyond. He felt the strong heart throb of his beloved people commanding to do greatly and be great.”
The words sounded stilted and confused, but what astounded Trep was what he was seeing! Kairma looked like she was reading the plaque on the statue. Why had Naturi lied about it? They should be proud to understand the ancient writings.
Trep crept closer as Kairma went on reading, “In these mountains he found a wilderness for them and labored to preserve its beauty unspoiled for them and their children’s children. He is still present in the towering love, and in the hearts of the multitudes who will enjoy.”
Kairma turned to the congregation, the Godstones clearly visible from their vantage on the mountain, and said, “I give to you, my people, the four gods of life: Meat, Milk, Grain, and Herbs.”
The congregation turned to face the Godstones, and for a moment Trep thought he would be seen. He slipped off to the side as Kairma raised her arms as if embracing the gods. Hiding behind a thick stand of aspens, he could hear their prayers drifting gently on the breeze.
“For the meat that sustains our strength, we give you thanks.” The congregation slowly chewed the dried venison.
“For the milk that sustains our bones, we give you thanks.” The congregation sipped from their cups.
“For the grains that sustain our blood, we give you thanks.” They put the small cakes in their mouths.
“For the herbs that sustain our minds, we give you thanks.” Then each one ate a small plant.
As the crowd turned back to face the young girl, Isontra handed her three thin sheets of gold. Kairma held her scarf-clad head high as she began to read. “The angel handed the Crystal to Amanda with the instructions to…”
Trep couldn’t believe what he saw. They use the gold to write on! How can a primitive village like this know how to read and write the ancient language? Maybe they use a different form of writin’. Certainly looked like Kairma was readin’ that plaque and I know that’s ancient writin’.
Kairma continued, “And so the Crystal was passed to her daughter, and then to her daughter’s daughter. We, the people of Nor, have been entrusted with the greatest power of the known world. With this power comes the obligation to heal the world, and the responsibility for its protection. We bring this power to you, our gods, here on the Mountain of Nor.” She placed the small gold tablet on the stone altar beside her.
Then opening the soft cloth bag that hung from her neck, she brought out a multifaceted object, slightly smaller than her fist, which glistened with silver, and gold, and all the colors of the spectrum. Holding it high above her head, she turned and faced the Statue of Nor. “I am Kairma, Kairma of Jettena, Jettena of Isontra, Isontra of Hestra, Hestra of Gwenvier, Gwenvier of Faithen, Faithen of Elsubeth, Elsubeth of Duray, Duray of Cammri, Cammri of Bettella, Bettella of Annise, Annise of Zeanna, Zeanna of Yeshesa, Yeshesa of Xennan, Xennan of Wentesa, Wentesa of Velain, Velain of Ulanna, Ulanna of Tressim, Tressim of Shamonda, Shamonda of Rozela, Rozela of Quensi, Quensi of Perridre, Perridre of Olainka, Olainka of Nikile, Nikile of Mishira, Mishira of Loisann, Loisann of Kitru, Kitru of Jazentel, Jazentel of Irrsa, Irrsa of Headra, Headra of Giannia, Giannia of Fontas, Fontas of Ellanda, Ellanda of Daebra, Daebra of Crysten, Crysten of Belendra, Belendra of Amanda, Amanda of the Angel who entrusted her and her heirs with the Healing Crystal until it could be returned to the Sacred Mountain of Nor.”
Trep was actually shaking where he stood. It cain’t be. The legend of the star! It glistens like a star. Of all the places to find it. What was that she said about healing the world?
Kairma knelt on one knee and held the Crystal to her breast. “I am Kairma, heir and guardian of the Healing Crystal. My lord of this mountain, I bring the Crystal to you, that you may heal us.”
Sitting cross-legged before the statue, she placed the Crystal on the ground in front of her and look up at the colony. Her voice cracked with nervousness as she said, “I am your Healer. Bring to me your sick and weary that I may heal them.”
Trep was astounded. Can it really be the mythological Star of Genesis! I didn’t believe it really existed! So that’s what they’re hiding! That explains why they don’t want strangers askin’ questions. He thought for a moment about the names she had recited. I don’t even know my pa’s pa’s name and yet she must have listed at least thirty generations.’ He tried to remember everything else Kairma had said, but his mind kept going back to the Star. How the hell did they come by it? Some “Amanda of the angel” gave it to someone else, to bring it here, the Mountain of Nor? It jess doesn’t make any sense.
He studied the simple villagers. It cain’t be as all-powerful as the legends claim. These folk don’t even know how to work metal or raise cattle.
Trep’s mind was suddenly drawn back to the altar as Isontra stepped up and opened the discussion about the stranger. “I am opening the floor to discuss bringing the stranger, Trep, into our community.”
A low angry murmur swept through the crowd.
“The bow and sling work well for us,” Isontra continued, “but with his weapon we could improve our hunts and defense would be much stronger. More important than weapons is our need for new blood. We’ve lost many of our bloodlines over the past few generations and he appears to have at least a small amount of Efpec blood.”
A few people nodded in agreement.
Grimly stood and bowed deeply. “Miral Isontra, am I to understand that you are in favor of allowing this stranger to live? I must protest this outrageous act of sacrilege. The Ogs are very clear in the matters of strangers and the renunciation of the colony.” Grimly glared, menace in his eyes. “We have allowed strangers to join us in the past and it has always led to hardship.”
Several members whom supported the orthodox vein of the church nodded and mumbled in agreement.
Trep felt the hairs on the back of neck rise, yet curiosity pulled him closer. He could clearly see the muscles of Isontra’s face tighten.
The influential woman looked squarely at Grimly, hands clasped firmly behind her back. “Renunciation? I do not believe we have been considering anything of the sort. Vice Miral Jettena has merely proposed a small change in our traditions, not that we abandon our way of life.”
Grimly shifted on his feet, his voice rising, “Experience is knowing when you’ve made that mistake before.”
Isontra put her hand up to silence him. “Experience is a lifelong process and is absolutely necessary for shaping future decisions, but, my dear Grimly, it is how you interpret the experience that decides your course of action.” Then, addressing the assemblage, her voice softened. “Change is not always baneful. Witness the many changes as a child grows into an adult. Some of these changes are uncomfortable, yet all are necessary to acquire new abilities. Sometimes we stumble and fall, but I ask you now, where would we be if we had never learned to walk?”
Grimly sneered at the old woman. He said, “If we could see how this divergence from our most sacred laws would benefit us, we might be more willing to accept your ideas, but with the past as my witness, many foul things have come our way since Miral Hestra allowed the last outsiders to join us.”
Isontra saw this as the personal attack it was, and she glanced into the faces of the congregation, searching out those who would support her. “Grimly, my good Sir, do you not see all the empty homes of our valley. Do you not witness the declining birth rate of our people? This man offers us a way to change this.”
Grimly crossed his thick arms over his chest. “How do we know what we’re supposed to do in any situation? We listen to you, and you say the Ogs tell us to kill strangers. Now you tell us to let them join us. Maybe if you let someone else read the sacred Ogs, we would know what to do.”
Light danced in Isontra’s gray eyes. “You complain to me that you don’t like changes in our traditions, but what you’re proposing now is unprecedented. The Mirals have been the only ones to learn how to read the sacred script, until now.”
She paused for a moment, waiting for her words to sink in. “I’m willing to teach the script to anyone who is interested in learning. I have often felt the knowledge was too vulnerable, being held by so few. We have to make adjustments in a changing world and, as you know, both Kairma and Kinter are able to read and write the sacred language of our ancestors.”
Grimly cursed under his breath but returned to his seat.
Martena stood. “I realize we have let strangers live in the past. But this stranger told us yesterday that he intends to return to the city.”
Voices rose and Isontra sighed heavily. “Although I would like Survin to have some of the items to which the stranger has access, you are right. We won’t let him leave the mountain with knowledge of us.” The murmurs of the populace grew louder and Isontra had to almost shout. “We spent many hours discussing our options last night. Yes, there is a danger involved whenever we do something different, but this stranger may truly help us.” The crowd settled a little.
Isontra paused until she was sure she had the full attention of everyone present. “I had a dream in which all we know is changed. The signs are clear that we are the chosen people.” She motioned to the statue behind and the great stone carvings before her. “We are the guardians of the Crystal. It is our people who will protect and keep safe the healing power.”
She raised her arms in appeal. “Now the time has come. We cannot sit idle and hope for a miracle. We must test our faith and our honor. I cannot say what is to be the future of our people; only that winter turns to summer and in each end there is a new beginning. May the changes we adopt today provide us with the fruits of a blessed summer.”
The community was at odds with each other and Trep wasn’t sure it wouldn’t get worse before it got better. Suddenly all of Collin’s warnings had depth. He hadn’t realized how precarious his position had been until now. He knew he was in danger, but after seeing the star he couldn’t walk away.
As the service came to a close, Kairma passed out the animal gut string used for the prayer of the Thirty Blessings. Everyone took their string, stretching it between their fingers as Kairma began the litany. “Lord of Nor, we thank you for the Thirty Blessings that guide us and keep us safe.” Placing the string between two teeth she said, “Life.” The others imitated her movements and invocation. Moving the string to another tooth, she said, “Love.” Another tooth was cleaned, and another miracle was enunciated. She repeated the ritual with loyalty, honor, and respect.
After these five miracles, each person rinsed his or her mouth and continued through the next five miracles: sight, touch, scent, hearing, and taste. After another rinse came courage, compassion, tolerance, faith, and friendship, followed by joy, music, art, literature, language, then hope, knowledge, inspiration, intelligence, resilience, and finally health, harmony, medicine, community, understanding.
Once the meeting was concluded, the people stirred to their feet not a little unsettled. It was an acute sense of fear mixed with confusion that arose from the top of the mountain that day. There several small arguments, but no other decisions were made. Slowly people began to break up and head back down the mountain.