by Deborah J. Ross
Shannivar woke again, this time to excited cries. Still groggy from her long sleep, she could not make out what was going on. She stepped from the tent, rubbing sleep from her eyes. A girl of ten or so, mounted on a dun pony, rode into the clan area a cloud of dust. The entire Golden Eagle party gathered around.
"What has happened?" Rhuzenjin asked.
"Come, come and see for yourself! The clan of the Snow Bear have just arrived and brought with them a thing of wonder!"
Shannivar rushed with the others through the encampment, skirting tents and cook fires. There, on the northern side, a caravan had just arrived. The emblem on the totem pole bore the image of a huge white bear. They had no camels, only a string of reindeer. Two of them had been harnessed together to draw a sledge of sorts. Red foam dripped from their nostrils. A large irregular shape, wrapped in tattered blankets, was lashed to the sledge. Under its weight, the wooden runners had carved deep gouges into the earth.
Tenoshinakh and several of the enarees stood talking with the Snow Bear clansmen. One, who was clearly their leader, gestured toward the sledge. His vest was strangely cut, a fur-lined hood instead of the usual felt cap lay folded back across his shoulders.
"Some say it began when the white star fell from the sky," he said in a thick accent. "The night sky turned bright as day, and the ground trembled. Smoke rose up to cover the Road of Stars, but our enaree prayed to Tabilit and it blew away. We thought all was well. Some of our young men rode off to find the fallen star, and came back saying the mountains had broken."
"How can that be?" someone asked, astonishment overtaking courtesy. "The earth endures forever, for so Tabilit has promised. Mountains do not just fall down. Anyone who says so must have drunk rotten k'th!"
"I myself went to see," the Snow Bear man insisted, taking no insult, "the next summer, that is. The story was true. Where once the mountains stood like a wall of stone reaching to the sky, I found only shattered stones. Then in the winter, in the night, strange things began to be seen."
His voice dropped into the cadence of a storyteller. The crowd hushed and drew closer to hear, even those who had been so vocal in their skepticism.
"The Veil of the North was torn asunder. Wolves came howling into our kishlak, our wintering-place, although there was still plenty of game for them to hunt. They threw themselves on the fires, as if they had gone mad."
Shannivar shuddered. Like most Azkhantians, she held predators like wolves and cloud leopards in high respect, as one warrior race to another. Usually, there was no reason to fear them, unless hunger drove them to stalk the herds. Everyone knew that an old or injured predator could be dangerous.
Such tales of madness sent a shiver through Shannivar and made her teeth ache, as if brushed by shadows. Not any natural shadow, but Olash-giyn-Olash, the Shadow of Shadows. Certain things -- unlucky men, diseased animals, ill-fated actions, cursed objects -- were said to have fallen under that ancient malevolent influence. Shannivar had never seen anything to make her believe in curses, not when fortune, illness, or simmering blood vengeance could so easily explain the stupidity of men.
But the madness of animals, and totem animals at that, went beyond ordinary explanations.
While Shannivar stood there, shivering inside, the Snow Bear clansman continued. He spoke of how his people had fortified their wintering-places, the rites and sacrifices they had performed according to the omens received by their enarees. For a time, life seemed to continue as it had before, in the time of their fathers' fathers, beyond memory. The Snow Bear people clung to the hope that all ill had passed.
Then came children, born dead and with strange growths upon their bodies, things like horns and tails, toes and fingers stuck together like hardened daggers.
Last winter, the men had gone out to the pastures to gather in the reindeer as they always did. They found carcasses with throats torn out, but not by any wolf or snow bear. The flesh had been mangled, great chunks of meat ripped from splintered ribs. The liver and heart had been left intact, which no natural predator would do.
The men had followed the trail of blood across the new-fallen snow to find a great bull reindeer, the leader of the herd, standing in a circle of bodies. Antlers and jaws dripped with hot blood. Several of the fallen reindeer still lived, but barely. Strips of hide had been slashed from the bull's sides, and many of the others were injured in like manner, as if the ordinarily placid beasts had turned cannibal on one another.
The voice of the Snow Bear man shook as he said this. Shannivar noticed the glassy expression in his eyes, as if he had looked upon far more terrible sights. He reminded her of an aged lion she had once come upon at the very end of its last hunt, encircled by jackals, too exhausted to run and too feeble to fight. As it gathered itself for a final charge, she had seen its eyes, that look of utter calm, utter desolation.
The Snow Bear man explained that they would have arrived sooner, except that a party of their young men had gone exploring in the mountains and brought back a thing of surpassing strangeness. An omen, some had said, but there was no agreement as to whether it boded ill fortune or good. Their enaree had inspected the find, had prayed and entered a dream trance, only to emerge no wiser. In the end, the enaree had determined the object must be brought to the gathering, where the assembled chieftains and shamans might examine it.
The head of the enarees, from the Rabbit clan by the pelts hanging from his dream stick, gestured that the wrappings should be removed. Eagerly, several of the young men rushed forward, Rhuzenjin and Danar among them.
Zevaron, however, stood like a man transfixed. For a moment, he seemed not to be breathing. His brows drew together and his jaw was set, giving him an expression of dark ferocity.
By this time, the audience had grown. Newcomers strained for a view of the mysterious object. Someone jostled Shannivar from behind.
"Out of the way!" Kharemikhar elbowed his way to the front.
"Oof! Can you see it?"
The wrappings fell away, and the onlookers surged forward. A man-sized lump of stone, mottled gray and brown lay on the improvised sledge. In shape, it resembled an oversized lizard, twisted and deformed. The hind legs were too long, too heavily muscled for an ordinary reptile, the hips placed as if the thing were meant to walk upright like a man.
Was it perhaps only some accidental rock formation that happened to resemble a lizard-man? Shannivar frowned. She had never seen a carving this perfect, the shape and proportion of snout and limbs so realistic.
A murmur of astonishment swept the onlookers. Many drew back, eyes wide. Some made ritual gestures to ward off curses.
"What is that thing?"
Danar slipped through the crowd and knelt to inspect the object, avoiding touching it. "This is perfectly marvelous!" He glanced up, smiling broadly. "Extraordinary! I've never heard of such a fine specimen!"
"Do you know what it is?" Tenoshinakh asked, astonished.
"I've never actually seen one before, but I've read about them in my father's books. Unless I'm very much mistaken, this is a stone-drake. The scholars of Borrenth Springs say they are the result of lightning striking a salamander as it lay on volcanic rock. The rock, do you see, was once molten, and the brilliance of the lightning causes a merging of the elements of stone, fire, and light. The result is a sort of artificial semblance of life, a counterfeit of a natural creature. They're said to be invulnerable to fire and steel, impossible to kill --"
Kharemikhar gave a derisive snort. Danar's smile faded.
"Well, perhaps that's just another of those old stories, things men of times long ago invented to explain the mysteries of the world. But if I may --" Rising, Danar bowed to Tenoshinakh. "-- with your permission," and to the enaree, "and yours, of course, I would very much like to examine this specimen. Perhaps I can correct the errors of the past, or at any rate learn something new about these marvelous creatures."
Tenoshinakh looked to the Rabbit clan enaree. "Is this lizard-man a thing of spirits or of ordinary earth? A sculpture shaped by human hands, like the idols worshiped by the Gelon? Or a once-living creature, magically turned to stone?"
"Or a man, slain by some terrible curse?" one of the other chieftains muttered.
"Why has it come to us?" Tenoshinakh said. "What do the gods desire of us?"
Eyes closed, half-crouched but swaying now, the chief enaree passed his stick over the stone figure. As the rabbit bones and teeth clanged softly against one another, he began to chant. His voice rose and fell like the swooping of a lark. Shannivar could not understand his language; perhaps no one could, for the enarees were said to be gifted with divine speech. Around her, the audience murmured in awe.
Eventually, the enaree fell silent. He remained still for a long moment, his eyes open but blank, focused perhaps on the realm of the spirits. He shook himself and began to speak.
"I cannot see clearly; the spirits remain silent. This object, this drake of stone, must be studied further before any of the uninitiated --" and here he glared at Danar -- "may be permitted to examine it. The council of enarees will search the dream world for answers."
The enaree pointed up to the rock promontory, indicating the stone-drake should be brought there. "Meanwhile, until Tabilit has made her will known, the object must be considered taboo, contaminated by evil. We must safeguard it from idle eyes and even more idle hands. No man may touch it, lest a terrible curse fall upon him, his clan, and all the people of the khural. All those who have had any contact with it --" and here his gaze included Danar and the Snow Bear driver as well, "-- must be purified."
"Cover it up!" Tenoshinakh ordered. "Hurry now! Bring wood to build the dream fires!"
© 2007 Deborah J. Ross