Trep scarcely had time to slip into the house before he heard the light rap of Isontra’s walking stick at the door. He quickly tossed some of Naturi’s drawings on the table, composed himself, and went to let her in.
With her silver head held high, Isontra walked purposefully to the center of the room, with Kairma at her heels. “We would like to discuss a matter of great importance with you.” Her eyes briefly assessed the room and she noted that the fire had burned down low and it was quite chilly. As she walked to the table, Trep greeted her formally, then bowed slightly and motioned for the community leaders to have a seat.
“I’m sorry, wasn’t expectin’ company. Here let me clear this off. I was jess lookin’ over some of Nate’s stuff.”
Isontra eyed him cautiously. “Really? You must have very thick skin. It feels as if you have neglected your fire. Would you mind? These old bones chill rather easily.” She gestured toward the cold hearth.
Trep stoked the fire and put on a pot of water for terrid. “I must admit, dear ladies, I am quite honored that y’all have paid me a visit. Seems most folk don’t want to have much to do with me.”
To Trep’s great relief, Isontra smiled and said, “We are a rather private people and do not warm well to outsiders.” She looked at him thoughtfully for a long time. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable when she said, “One never knows whom one can trust. Could it be that you were not sitting here studying those drawings as you claim, but in truth you had only arrived here moments before us?”
Trep felt awkward as he took a seat at the table. “Please forgive me. Of course, y’all are right. I did jess get in. I really mean ya no harm, though. Honestly, I’m jess curious ’bout so many things, and I find y’all so interestin’. I love meetin’ new people, and learnin’ ’bout how they live.” He shifted slightly under Isontra’s icy stare. “Sometimes, I get a bit carried away. I treasure y’all’s little society here.” He paused briefly. “Well, I guess y’all are not that friendly to me, but y’all are real interestin’ and seem to be downright honest folk.”
Isontra nodded. “Shall we begin again?”
Admonished, he replied, “Yes, please.”
“Let us start by having you tell us what you know about us. We will decide from there what is to be done about you.”
Trep swallowed the hard lump in his throat. Then he got up quickly from the table, chiding himself for trying to fool the proud Miral. He had hoped to be in better control on his first introduction to Isontra; she could be a very intimidating woman, without so much as raising an eyebrow. Mentally, he vowed to be honest with her in the future—at least to never be caught in a total untruth.
He pulled three pottery cups from the finely carved wood shelf above the hearth. “I know y’all don’t like outsiders. Cain’t blame ya after what happened to Cole’s kin.” He filled the cups with steaming terrid and set them on the table. “I know a little bit ’bout y’all’s gods from what Cole and Nate have told me.” Kairma looked up from her cup, a little puzzled. Her stunning pale blue eyes unsettled Trep; he quickly looked back to Isontra. “Sorry, I mean Collin and Naturi. As y’all know, Collin asked ya the first day I came here if I could use this home, and he’s been teachin’ me y’all’s way of talkin’. He’s a real bright boy. Makes me think I’d like to have a son someday. And Nate, yeah, he’s real smart too. He’s told me a bit ’bout y’all’s trouble with the White Ones. He tells me ya never let anyone leave the mountain. Must admit, made me more than a touch uneasy. Thought y’all were gonna do me in.” He chuckled nervously. “I’m real sorry ’bout the way I barged into y’all’s games uninvited. Jess thought I had somethin’ important to show ya.”
Isontra took a sip of her terrid and closed her eyes. “I believe Collin invited you to show us your weapon.”
“He did, at that, and I don’t think he meant any harm.”
“Trep, can you tell us from where you have recently returned?”
He looked into his cup, feeling like a child who had been severely scolded. “I was told the meetin’ at the Monument of Nor was private, but …” Trep smoothed his unkempt hair. “My curiosity got the best of me, and as much as I hate to admit it, I did overhear some of y’all’s discussion this mornin’.”
“I thought as much.” Isontra was calm, but Kairma blanched visually as she chewed on her lower lip. “Though I didn’t realize this until we arrived here. How much of the meeting did you overhear?”
Trep squirmed in his seat. “I heard y’all argue ’bout killin’ me.”
“Then you must have learned that we have decided to let you live.” Her tone was serious, but Trep thought he detected humor in her steel gray eyes.
“Yes ma’am, and I thank you. Seems not everyone felt the same.”
“This is true. You do present us with a problem, and an opportunity.”
“I understand that y’all are interested in my blood. I’m guessin’ ya want me to mate with one of y’all’s women.”
“Yes, we are most interested in that.”
“I have a lady in the city. She’s real special to me. If I could go get her …”
“You will not. I’m sorry, but that part of your life is over. I know we seem harsh to you, but our precautions are necessary.”
Trep would have argued the point, but he understood why they would want to keep the star secret, if it was indeed the Star of Genesis.
Kairma was surprised at how drained she felt. Something told her Trep wasn’t being totally honest with them, not that he seemed harmful but that he was hiding something. Glancing at her grandmother, she realized that Isontra was very tired as well.
The two women walked to the door, and then Isontra suddenly turned back to Trep. Her voice was as brittle as ice. “If you fail to prove true, make no mistake, you will be put to death. Trust Zedic and Collin to tell you what you must know, yet ask no more questions.”
They bid Trep farewell and slipped out into the midday sun. Isontra leaned on Kairma’s arm as they walked home in silence.
Walking down the canyon, the sun bright overhead and the sound of spring birds singing in the trees, they saw a few small cliques of people discussing the resolution made at the morning service. Kairma could feel the eyes of distressed people follow as they walked by. It wasn’t a popular decision, but popularity was never one of Isontra’s goals. Kairma wondered if she, herself, would ever have the confidence to stand behind an unpleasant choice because she felt it was best. She admired her grandmother’s fortitude. Isontra held her silvered head high and smiled as she passed. Few people had the courage to go against the Miral’s wishes. As they walked on, Kairma felt the slow warmth of determination swell in her own chest.
The next afternoon Zedic found his father examining the gash in the log Trep had used in his demonstration. Although Tamron thought the karrack was interesting, he was appalled at Kairma’s suggestion of letting anyone go to the city. He was anguished by her proposition that Zedic go along with Collin to trade for these weapons. He knew his daughter well, and from her tone knew that the young people had discussed the matter at length.
Seeing his tall son watching him, Tamron asked, “So, you think this karrack is worth risking your life for, and maybe our lives as well?”
Zedic examined the hole in the log. He was holding his hands under his arms so the twitching in his fingers wouldn’t betray him, but his voice gave him away. “It isn’t that much of a risk. Trep has traveled safely across the land. And the other night Kairma and I were surrounded by Whitish, and even though they outnumbered us they didn’t attack.”
Tamron turned to his son. “You were protected by the gods. It was a Tribute Moon. Have you already forgotten the pain your sister suffered from the attack only four annums ago?”
“No, Father. Kairma still suffers because she looks more like a White One than one of us. But that night we saw the Whitish going down to take the tribute food. Trep believes those are statues of the Ancient Ones, not gods at all.”
Tamron’s temper flared and he backhanded his son. “How dare you speak such blasphemy? The gods will surely strike you dead for this nonsense!”
Although Zedic stood half a head taller than his father, the blow caught him off guard and knocked him to the ground. Getting up slowly, he did his best to steady his voice. “I’m sorry, Father. I didn’t mean to upset you.” He brushed his hair from his eyes and in a tight voice said, “I think there are many things we don’t understand about ourselves and our beliefs. We may find answers that have eluded us for generations. Yes, Collin and I would like to go to the city with Trep.”
Tamron was shaking with anger. “You have responsibilities. You have only now passed your Seridar. You need to think about your family. Your brothers won’t be hunters for at least nine or ten more annums.” He had never before struck one of his children. He knew his anger was caused by the fear of losing his son and not because of anything the boy had said. Tamron started to walk away but turned slowly back to Zedic. The life had been hammered out of his voice as he said, “It makes no difference. The elders have decided to keep the stranger, and there is no circumstance that will convince them to let anyone leave. You will stay here.”
He left his son standing on the archery field.
Collin found him there, weaving long blades of grass into a net. “You planning to go fishing?”
Zedic looked up, and Collin saw the bright red mark on the side of Zedic’s face. “What happened? You run into Efram?”
Zedic’s lip curled wryly. “No. I asked my father if I could go to the city.”
“I can see he was all for it.” Collin tried to sound flippant, but only succeeded in sounding angry.
“I think I surprised him.”
“I bet you did!”
“The elders are never going to allow anyone to leave here.”
“I can’t believe you asked him to go. I know I said I was leaving, but I never dreamed you’d ask Tamron before at least trying to convince Isontra.”
“He was looking at the hole Trep’s karrack made in the log over there. I thought he looked interested in having a karrack, and it just kind of fell out of my mouth.”
Collin looked incredulous. “Zedic, nothing ever just falls out of your mouth. I have to drag it out kicking and screaming.”
Zedic gave him a lopsided grin. “Most times.”
Collin sat on the log next to Zedic. “So where does that leave us now?”
“We need to get back to the vault. I think there’s enough information up there that if we could understand it, we might be able to convince the elders to let us go.”
“I can’t go for a few more days. I have tanning duty, and Isontra won’t let any of us outside until they find that wolf.”
Zedic wrinkled his nose. Tanning was a very smelly job. “I drew roof repair this week. I’d offer to trade, but …”
“Sure you would.” Collin smiled, and Zedic began to relax.
Collin began working long grasses into a braid to augment the net Zedic had started weaving. “We should make plans anyway. See if we can take Trep to see the temples. Maybe he can kill that wolf with his karrack. Now that’d be something to show the elders! The only time he’s been allowed outside of the canyon is to care for his horse. Now that he has his regular guards, I’m not even sure they’ll let him do that. I should have realized how the rest of the colony would react to his karrack. I tried to tell him we aren’t accepting of strangers.”
Zedic stood and stretched his back. “Kairma tells me she and Isontra had the talk with him yesterday, after the Nor Day service. If he didn’t know it before, he knows it now.”
Three days later, Collin, Zedic, and Kairma met on the north side of the west cleansing station. The buildings housed separate cubicles where village members could relieve themselves. The waste ran down into a wide ditch where water from the shower helped wash it away.
In the center of the building was a room where members could shower. A large earthenware barrel held water. By pulling on a rope, the barrel rotated on a stone axel, tipping toward the user. Small holes were drilled into the lip of the barrel causing a sprinkling effect when the water reached the top. In the summer, the sun kept the water a comfortable temperature, and in the winter, a fire under the barrel helped keep the water, if not comfortable, at least not frozen.
“Whew, the scent is potent today. Let’s go over to the grain shelter and talk.” Collin held his nose and motioned for the others to follow.
Zedic jabbed Collin in the ribs. “See if we ever let you pick the meeting place again.”
They checked to see if they had been seen, and then scurried to the top of the old stone building. Pulling Kairma up to the roof, Collin said, “Well, I knew there wouldn’t be anyone hanging around to listen to us there. I didn’t want to take the chance of being overheard.”
Kairma found a comfortable seat, her legs dangling off the side of the low roof. “I don’t have much time. I have a lesson soon, and Gramme’s not been in good spirits lately. I think she’s worried about bringing Trep into the colony. The rest of the elders aren’t fully committed to the idea.”
Collin’s arm brushed hers as he sat next to her and she playfully shoved him with her shoulder. He shoved back until he saw Zedic roll his eyes at him. Kairma giggled and snuck in one more little push. Her husky voice suddenly turned serious. “I think we’re safe enough here. So what is this all about?”
Collin glanced at Kairma. She had been so busy over the last few days he hadn’t had much time to talk to her. Somehow she seemed older now. He decided it was the responsibility of her position, and he was unexpectedly saddened, knowing their days of skimming stones down at the lake and climbing cliffs were over.
“I’m going to the city with Trep,” he said, “but I think we should show the vault to him before I go. Find out what he thinks of those things. Maybe they would make good trade items.”
Zedic frowned. “Don’t you think he’ll start asking questions? What if someone else finds out? Before you know it, we’ll either be punished for digging around the Godstones or we’ll have the whole village rummaging through our find.”
“We don’t have to tell anyone else, and Trep couldn’t care less about our religious laws. What’s the problem?”
Zedic looked at Collin and considered at length. “Trep may not care that we broke a religious law to get these artifacts, but he cares very much about where we found them. I think he would be most interested in our find. Maybe even enough to decide he wants to stay here, forever.”
Collin blanched. “Zedic, you could be right. I can’t let him know about the vault until after we’re in the city.”
Kairma looked uncomfortable. “Collin, the elders will never let you go to the city. I did my best to convince them the night after the service, but they said no.”
Zedic said, “I think you should stay here with me and Kairma. We should try to make sense of what we found. This has got to be the biggest discovery of the last five hundred annums.”
Collin got up and started to pace back and forth. The roof span of the stone building was so short he appeared to be walking in circles. “I know it’s important. I really do want to study those things, but if I’m going to the city I have to leave soon or I won’t get back before the harvest. Trep said it was impossible to cross the plains in the winter. It’s now or never.”
Shaking his head as he paced, Collin said, “Look, the temples have been there for centuries and have survived just fine. It can’t possibly hurt to wait another annum. It has to be kept secret until we get back. I have to get Trep out of here.”
Zedic stood up slowly. “Collin, stop pacing, you’re making me dizzy.” Collin stood still, and Zedic continued, “The only way you’ll get to the city is to defy the elders and if they find you, they’ll kill you.”
Kairma eyes were wide with fright. “Collin, Zedic’s right! They’ll kill both of you. You can’t leave without the elders’ permission. I’ll do my best to talk them into letting you go, but promise me you won’t do anything stupid.” She sounded close to tears. “Please, Collin. Give me a couple of weeks to change their minds. If it can be done, I’ll do it. You know I will.”
Collin pulled Kairma up and threw his arms around her. “I could just kiss you, Kairma! You’re the best! Having the elders’ permission would mean Zedic could go too.” He held her a moment longer than he should have, and then immediately felt awkward. He quickly disengaged and jumped off the low roof. Cheerfully, he said, “Let’s go up to the vault tomorrow. I should be finished tanning hides by mid-morning.”
Kairma jumped down behind him, almost knocking him over. “Gramme won’t let us out of the canyon until she knows there isn’t a hungry pack of wolves waiting for us.”
Ever graceful, Zedic jumped lightly down from the roof. “She’s right, Collin. I think my father might be planning to hunt it down, but I haven’t heard any solid plans yet. I’m sure they’ll talk about it at the next Nor Day service.”
The three comrades headed toward the hospital where Kairma would meet Kinter and Isontra for her afternoon lessons.