The Totem-Maker: Lore and Lessons (part one)
Lore and Lessons
I ordered my mission as Cime’s old teachings, as stories I knew, and my intuition compelled. Before us in stages, we sent our scouts. They returned, and reported the way clear, or needing the labor of clearing. Pravor Castor, far more travelled than I, told me we must ride, and our drivers guide the wagons, well-spaced through the mountains. Within shout of one another if bandits showed, but for the practicality otherwise, of falling boulders killing only a few, destroying only a part of our supplies. On our third day (I got it from him, patient in outfacing his sly jokes), Castor forecast a month’s ride, the gods giving kind weather. Else a winter in camp.
“Castor, the Prince will long since have counted our cause lost, in such case.”
“Totem-Maker, he has never counted our cause but lost.”
“He will hold off attacking, do you think? For the time a reasoning man would allow we might yet send word?”
“A reasoning man! When I see him, I will tell him you said that, at once.”
“I love the Prince, but Noakale is all his reason. Does he not say so himself? Now, answer.”
“He will hold off attacking for, perhaps, a season. Or let me say, for the remainder of this season. By autumn’s end… But far sooner, if his men begin to squabble and steal, will he curse you and send his army to the Citadel’s gate.”
“Madness. The Emperor may dispatch the whips from coast to coast and never raise such a force, as to throw life after life into the flames. Any foothold gained would be self-imprisonment.”
“Yes, but you would counter the Emperor’s plan with no plan at all.”
“Because! Who controls the Citadel controls all the known country hereabouts, but why does the fact of power justify the seizing of it?”
Castor left me, laughing, for this.
By day, snowfields on the mountain flanks making for me a fine reading light, I sat Cuerpha and studied Noakale’s gift. When my head wanted a rest, I exchanged her book for needles and yarn, and knit myself new entries for my dictionary. The tales, I recounted in camp to my companions, so to fix them well in memory.
We slept in twos and threes, and we did not tether our animals. Too often in the dark, and especially then (though I suspect it was loneliness and quiet…by day we could see, and our guides sang sweet ballads to chase away the gods’ anger), terrible splinterings, or rumbles well-disguising their source, would wake us and we would roll tight against the rockfaces where many before us had left signs of their sheltering.
We passed a place with the road gone, and no help for it. The mountain in her rage had half-leveled herself here, a great tonnage of boulders, spiked with trunks of trees. A few lived, of trees…
But Castor pointed to me, just as I’d started a remark on the worthy quality of resilience, that this fall of rock was haunted. A landmark for wayfarers, a warning.
He pointed, and I saw; quite several of a travelling company could be discerned…their bones. Portions of flesh, where flesh sits thin, had mummified, but next to a desiccated arm, an open cavity between ribs…
Of course, the dead men, and women, perhaps, had been food for scavengers.
Their faces—for, yes, they had them, the shape and suggestion of faces, so human after all—were pitiable, and not frightening.
“But you see, had they been wise… They were caught, all, none free to free his friends. A long death. We do not hope for that!”
No. Castor was ushering us, at our distance from one another, down and up a makeshift road the traders had ploughed out for their wagons.
I took some dismay, that beauty so rich, air so cleansing, sounds so echoing of all times, as though each eagle’s cry froze a fresh note upon the last, should lie in a land so perilous. When we reached a cavern, allowing us to gather, to rest our animals, fill our waterskins, send out foraging parties, I had even less chance to feel at peace, to listen and see with all senses undisturbed.
“Yes, we fill the skins,” Castor had told me. He enjoyed introducing new fears. “In some places, there is no snow. Water flows here underground, if it flows at all.”
Now, I will speak to my reader of thoughtful things.
Once before, I have told how it came to me, leaving the first country of my birth, arriving on the shores of the Balbaecan plain of the Alëenon, that strangers knew not our gods. They had raised there gods of their own. My years were but twenty-two, and often I had seen impiety, I had known men and women to laugh at the rituals, give alms with a sportive wink… I had felt offended by this. I was of the priestly class. I was a being like no other, granted of my Father-God, Lotoq, the powers of a seer.
I wished always to be pleasing to Lotoq, and tried to cultivate humility. Too easily small authority, a gift, becomes a possession. Purity in self-effacement is pursuit, not achievement. I say this, because if you have attempted it, you will guess the trap. Can I love Lotoq for the power I hold, if I am not to recognize that I hold power?
But my wish to be godly was pride. I still could see, wanting not to, that impiety was never so roundly and swiftly punished as in stories we tell, to teach, what wisdom perhaps…
We must find in ourselves the reward of. Often, impiety is not punished at all.
Crafter Becomes Maker
(2021, Stephanie Foster)