The compound was crowded: people heading to the communal cooking Fire, children laughing and fretting, canines barking, guests arriving and being settled. Then, voices, rising in surprise; hands making as if to grasp Tokela as he darted, twisted, and slipped through.
None of it mattered. By the time he gained the stair to Talking Bluff, Tokela was running.
He clambered up the drum heights three strides at a time, refusing to look back or so much as cast a glance at the shining, massive ribbon of water that fascinated… repelled… dominated him. From the moment She had taken his parents, River had been both succour and terror.
Now, it was the latter. He fled Her. Fled Naisgwyrh’uq.
The drumKeeper, lounging by the great talking drums and smoking a pipe with an acquaintance, gave a small yip of query. Perhaps they wondered at his haste. Perhaps it had nothing to do with him.
No matter—he kept going.
Away. Outward. Over stony crags, through a clearing of scattered logs and stumps recently harvested for Fire’s feeding, into a meadow. Tall new grass bent in the wake of his passage, swaying with lastdark’s wet. A clump of grazingKin spooked in his wake.
Tokela wanted trees to take him in, bracken and moss to muffle and hide his passing, hidden pools still enough to be silent and clear enough to wash bone-deep apprehensions. His shadow flitted beside him in an unending race, then flickered and disappeared as he ran from field into forest. The going slowed him, but only a little. Tokela’s feet had eyes; his body tensed keen with running-memory, his nostrils flared to scent his way, his eyes gleamed with the darksight gifted to all kin—footed, furred, feathered, and hoofed—by the Grandmother who bore them upon Her belly.
Over rotting stumps and under low-hanging, mossy branches of standingKin; here a twist, there a leap. One of hedgeKin puffed up to twice its bulk and growled from a burrow entry as Tokela trod too close; a tree-lounging feline twitched its tail, beryl eyes watching avidly for a half-breath then slitting, disinterested.
Finally, quivering limbs and burning lungs enforced a floundering halt. Tokela propped palms on thighs. His eyes stung, his tunic clung to the small of his back, the thin ahlóssa braid wrapped slick and serpentine about his throat.
Truth more and more seemed the ultimate pursuer, and him Dancing it from childish whisper to ripe reproach.
You are a’Naisgwyrh!
Hard to believe, when she didn’t.
Wind had fallen. The only sound was Tokela’s lungs labouring against the cool, damp air. The forest lay sparser here, Sun loosing gilt arrows through the treetops, and…
He’d never seen it before. Never wandered into this particular edge of wild. Yet he’d no doubt what it was: Šilombiš’okpulo. The forbidden place.
And an extraordinary, outLand thing guarded it.
Tokela crept closer, every sense twitching. The arch seemed of rare, long-polished stone; it reached into the ancient canopy and also tunneled deep. A guardian like—yet unlike—the tight-woven trees that led into the compound a’Naisgwyrh’uq. And tall, ai, it reached taller than five of Tokela standing atop himself, gleaming ebon-smooth as the obsidian point to a MedicineKeeper’s knife. On either side as far as Tokela could see, the forbidden place lay choked by a tangle of brier. Coiled unnaturally tight, as if even a stray bough didn’t dare to grow sideways, and the scattered bits of sun that filtered through lent no light. The thing seemed to suck them up, swallow them. Nothing reflected.
Fear and fascination did battle within his breast. Fingers twitching with the urge to sketch it, capture it, Tokela drew closer, step by wary step.
Got a mere five paces away before he realised what he was doing. He halted. Crouched. Contemplated.
None here could say him nay. None would even know. It would be a challenge, to see if he could capture the beauty and terror of such a thing in a mere sketch. Perhaps even carry the memory of it with him…
Take the image of something Shaped back into his home? The thought prompted a shudder, bone-deep. Why would he ever think of such a thing?
Perhaps the thing had the power to turn his heart. He could feel the draw of it, an oddling, silent, thrum mimicking his heartbeat. All the taleKeepers warned how the t’rešalt guarded an evil place, where Chepiś magic had festered and gone mad.
He should go back. Leave this forbidden place behind and never think upon it again.
Deliberately, Tokela rose, eyed the thing, then turned away.
A sharp crack! made him whirl back towards it, hand to knife.
The gate… entryway… whatever-it-was spoke again, with another crack then a deep drone. Shards of what looked like SkyFire chased across its surface—only this flared blue-white, not gold, amidst pitch. Tokela froze beneath the burst of light and sound, staring, transfixed, whilst all the while the thing flashed and leapt, speaking… n’da, it was a Dance. It moved and sparked akin to the rare Star metal he’d occasionally seen in trader hands, or the shimmer-melt writhe of copper in a consecrated forge.
It seemed full of intention. It seemed… alive.
Perhaps it was. If something Danced, his dam’s dam had once said, then it wasn’t a thing. It had a place on Grandmother’s belly. It had a name.
So Tokela jerked his chin upward, answered it with the outLand name used by taleKeepers. “You are t’rešalt.”
Another spackle of light and sound, as if in acknowledgement.
Names had power. His own, never spoken even amidst his family, had meanings coiled like serpentKin beneath: Tohwakelifitčiluka. Eyes of Stars.
Chepiś, it was said, had come from Stars. The same Stars forbidden to any save the ancestors.
Look where it got her.
It got her with me.
Had this been the same place through which his dam had passed to meet with Chepiś? Could it answer riddles?
Tokela wrapped his arms about his knees and rocked back and forth, contemplating the entry with darkened eyes and darker thoughts. The t’rešalt smelt of Sky gathering a storm, and emitted a strange, not-quite-croon that teased at the edges of hearing.
A question? An answer?
He lurched upward, drew the dagger from the sheath at his calf, and strode forwards.