The Totem-Maker: The Citadel (part five)
I cantered on for some time, Cuerpha in the mood for this run, our way sloping downwards. My totem had been seeking me, for the sensible thought came that I ought to seek it.
And with these words I addressed it: I know you won’t intervene. I ask only to be made conscious of my folly. I ask this pity I feel for myself to cease; or if it cannot cease (for, Totem, I have met many venerable ones who seem slave to it), then let it shout so loudly its warning, that it shames me to hear it.
I want no one to make me angry. I want a means of viewing Castor, who provokes me…
My mind filled with the sight of a window, stone-framed; not a tower vantage, but a close one. The land was forested, fragrant with mosses and the barks of trees dripping their balsams. Birds plumaged brown and green moved in and out of thick fern beds. Shafts of sun were like a potion of the gods poured from heaven, a glowing serpentine smoke, a yellow velvet.
A view. But this was Paradise, not—
Not a patch of earth symbolic of toleration, which my heart had wanted my totem somehow to craft. Unless I was to think of our gods’ rewards to their favorites… As, pleasing them, I might join them in their land beyond the stars. What would my totem have me understand? That these riches were earned by the love I found in myself for others? Others I would put aside unregarded, to pursue my course without…
Castor. My zhatabe, and her seeming ploys. I was dishonest to boast that I was even-tempered, calm and helpful, when yes, many times I had turned my heel. I possessed that aura, born from Lotoq, that made even Castor follow and plead with me.
You are not here to win; you are here to lose.
I halted Cuerpha. I had seen a glimpse of water, and knew I must not punish this uncomplaining creature, because my thoughts were deep and I had not puzzled them out.
The water, I saw, was gathered in a pool, the pool’s stream emerging from rock. Here in life were moss-laden trees, a more gleaming edge to their scent than in my vision; and their tops were below my toes. I pressed cautious feet to a precipice, leaving Cuerpha tied, trying the solid earth, never forgetting the fright I’d had at the tollhouse.
It was a hillside strewing boulders, which had slumped to make this shelter, but so long ago the trees stood with perhaps a hundred summers’ growth. I could hear the susurration of a waterfall. I might drink from the pool, but to step in it would be a great danger. Travelers, of course, used this road; their filling of skins had trampled out a footpath that marked the safest way down, hooves leaving rounds and crescents on dun-colored soil, thin and dry.
I led Cuerpha; finally I sidled behind and let him jog ahead. Was I nervous of thieves, or was it the cooking fires in the air, the encroach of mankind not far…? Winding through dense woodland I could see a vista opened and closed upon, blue sky and clouds, and a plain where an army camped.
Here to lose.
My puzzle needed this solving: What would I have done, were I to count myself the winner? How, failing, did I then achieve a better thing?
I heard a sudden chattering, a cat’s chattering when its prey is near. Air rushed, a thrill of strange sound, and a dark-furred beast, a muscled and graceful beast, sailed above me. I, the panther would have taken, but an arrow flew to cross the cat’s path. A magnificent twist midair, and he (or she) altered course, bounding into the trees.
“Hello! A lucky thing.”
I said it aloud. I said next what I meant by luck. “I hope the people here would not kill a beautiful creature. I am sure the gods would punish pride so misplaced.”
My voice was most censorious, but no person appeared to confess having followed me. “This is well and good, Cuerpha,” I said, with only Cuerpha to speak to. I descended making all the rustling and stomping noises I could. “I am weaponless and alone, and these woods hold perils I have not been warned of, and if anyone with a bow wished to show himself honestly, I would thank him for having meant to act in kindness. But the Totem-Maker, like all who live, profits from a lesson learned, or lives no more.”
In my defense, I offer merely that I had been puzzling, and at times I do, I value my peace; and that our poor Earth, since the era of cruel winters dawned with the Wrath, has fewer of its lovely panthers, its brown and green plumaged birds, its ancient and mossy trees… But that I had treasured them—truly, my Reader—more than myself. I had been distracted, interrupted, and was deeply peeved, to think that the people of the Citadel spied, hoped to gain a secret of mine, letting me believe only I and my pony traversed this road. I had been a possession, bought and sold; my choices and my freedom were one, and were I the very byword of Folly, yet I had the right…
Not to be steered by the head, by some guiding hand.
Lessons, lessons. Yes, Totem, I said inside. I asked to be humbled, and I am humbled. I asked for my mistakes to shout; and I am deafened.
I caught Cuerpha’s harness. From the bowl of the pool, I scanned the trees, and the rock face, and I knelt finally, cooled, to fill my skins. I unpacked my own bow and arrow, and my knife…even that, I hadn’t wanted the trouble of carrying.
Then I found my clay flute; began a simple melody. I had an ear for the prettiest tunes, and I invented numbers of them. I felt confirmed, at last, and less contrite for my temper. The ringing woods were stilled, and I sat alone. The archer must by now be certain I had no harm in me.
I ate, remembering I hadn’t yet. I led my pony back to the road.
And here Castor came cantering down to me. The seven sisters had acquired a wagon to ride in; flagbearers, and another wagon, followed. A shaggy sort of ox, with three on its back, ambled after. Then musicians on foot, playing bells on strings, instruments that looked like abaci, calculating changes in a temporal language.
(2021, Stephanie Foster)