The Totem-Maker: Lore and Lessons (part three)
Lore and Lessons
After long tedium, after a doze of minutes or hours, for which Bani’s father rebuked himself, the sun left in a wink. It seemed so to the men hidden on Lotoq’s flank; the rays reached only the rim of the bowl, gilded it, and left cold shadow within.
Noises from the workers were of scuffling and fastening, and a subdued humor.
Then, once more, the near-recognized voice of the halfwit: Aaaaaaaaaah!
Shut up! Shut up! Bani’s father knew the halfwit’s fellows said nothing other; and they smacked him with their hands. His cries…he had fallen to the ashy earth and curled there like a child, became incoherent speeches, resolving bit by bit into a repeated phrase, and open weeping.
The workers clustered away from the wagon. Their antics had much to teach, things the company of Bani’s father had come to learn. But the wagon bed…
Now the sky had darkened, they saw that it glowed, a line of green that glimmered as lightning will, far away. A lamp to itself, this stone of evil…it could not be named otherwise…showed among the rest a sinister split down its middle.
The Kale-Kale went to their homes for the night. Their disguises they sought to improve; they thought of hollowed reeds for their water skins, fleeces to rest their knees on, and foodstuffs their dreams had wandered to the day before.
Then armed they went, and doubled in their number.
For they had counselled late, until the stars told the hour of departure neared and they must sleep. This violation of the god’s fortress, the frightful stones stolen from him…
The signs read thus: the strangers meant to work some potent magic.
Sacred things are a gift from the gods to men. We know this, for the gods live in happiness without us, and did for uncounted time before they toyed with the creating of us. The gods allow us to breathe and touch holiness, to draw from it what we will. This is their mercy to us. They punish those who offend them, regardless, yet their powers are their own, as the garment of a giant must fall to folds around a man, leaving him undressed. So the bolts of the gods slay the righteous and the unrighteous alike, for they cannot temper their might to the size of humankind.
The chieftain of the Kale-Kale knew this. “This is why we must act in defense of our Lotoq, to allay his wrath. The mountain god will quiet himself if we please him. He will not wait long to shrug, if we do not.”
Bani writes how the fathers of the tribe then bemoaned that warfare should come upon them. “Such belongs to the Emperor. He has catapults and engines of fire, and we have only our axes and arrows.”
Another replied: “No poor man sees the Emperor. In his courtyard petitioners wait for days, granted audience only when he takes a whim to it. The god cares nothing for the vanity of a foreign conqueror, and will not forgive this delay. When his flames fall from the sky, they fall on us—even at times do they spare the great men of the city. Yet, how much do we deserve this fate, if we tell ourselves that idling is acting, provided we intend a great result?”
The fear of evil at length was enough. Fifteen men went, where five had gone before, and armed with weapons of three sorts: a weighted net to tangle feet; a light, feathered spear to strike from a distance; and a short axe for fighting hand-to-hand. Wrapped again in their dusty cloths, prepared for vigil or for combat, they padded onto the flank of Lotoq, with a greater confidence and a greater fear.
The day was cloudy. The lake of Lotoq danced with plumes of steam. Hours passed, while the orb that now and then pierced the haze rose to its midday post. The Kale-Kale watched, and the tunnel mouth yawned. A small mounted company at last nosed into view, their ponies’ hooves picking through the rough stone and ash. These men wore breastplates, and bound to their saddles carried casques and lances. The halfwit, with a lance, was prodded ahead. Today his attitude was of frozen doom.
Some order came from the headman, the poor fellow able to take only a step or two. The headman then commanded others, of the workers, now filing to the lake on foot, to seize him and walk him forth. At the wagon’s side, the halfwit shook his head in a waking fashion, and spoke to his escorts. They dropped his arms.
He bent to the bed, drawing out a stone…with no glow in daylight, therefore no crack to be discerned, but surely the green and evil one. To Bani’s father, and to a man called Rathinihama, the elder who led them, the halfwit’s task became apparent. He carried the stone slowly to the lake’s edge. He would submerge it, and the proof they needed to gain the Emperor’s ear be lost.
Rathinihama stood, and cried, “Halt!”
The man let the stone fall. Split in full, it exposed a wondrous crystal, faceted in yellows and emeralds. Steam rose and obscured the sight of it for seconds, then vanished on a sharp breeze. The legs of the halfwit gave, his body landing face to the sky, eyes astare. He seemed in some way stunned or overcome, for it was clear he was conscious.
The headman, his pony reined back to the tunnel mouth, his cloak held to shelter him, changed the start he’d given to a smile. He made an obeisant move, a lowering of his head, hand to heart. He spoke, and gestured, and his men put their weapons away, while the workers sat crosslegged—what must be this people’s offering of peace to a stranger.
Rathinihama climbed down, and Bani’s father behind him. The thirteen unhid themselves, and climbed down, too. Their spears they brandished.
“I have some of your language,” said another of the mounted men, nodded to it by his leader. “You think evil of us, but nothing so. We are thieves, yes.” His smile was engaging. “You have an enemy. Or you call him Emperor, but he is our enemy, yes…he is the enemy of many. The stone is beautiful, is it? Yes, and this Emperor will pay you well…you craftsmen of the Kale-Kale. Ha!” His eye twinkled, as he beamed at Rathinihama. “Down the valley we thieves gladly would steal your wares, I say it! They are finest. But, master, you suspect me.”
In his indifferent way with their tongue, he had meant, you suspect what I am going to tell you.
Lore and Lessons
(2021, Stephanie Foster)