Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Longest chapter yet. Nearly 4500 words.
Flaming torches flickered in the hut's interior, lighting brightly the home of the spiritual leader of the Separated. Lakhoni wondered that had no idea how he should address this man. He had never heard Gimno, Corzon or Anor—or any of the other Separated for that matter—ever make mention of the man. A heavy, almost wet aroma that made his nostrils tingle filled the house. It smelled like nothing he had ever experienced. It was spicy, like one of the ointments Salno had used to clean wounds, but it also felt cool, like a mountain breeze. But there was also an undercurrent of meat that had been boiled too long.
Lakhoni glanced around. The walls of the hut were round, curving out and back to Lakhoni's right and left. He followed Gimno, who followed the red man, deeper into the hut, skirting small tables and stoned covered in the hides of animals of all kinds. A badger skin glittered, looking almost wet, from the flat, round stone it was draped on. Nearby was another, smaller stone with a beaver hide. On the beaver hide were gathered a variety of shining stones.
The curving walls seemed like they should bowing under the weight of the multitude of items hanging from them. Hundreds of bone and wooden pegs had been driven into those stone walls, and hanging from those pegs were more hides and skins along with weapons, raiment, instruments and things that Lakhoni could not identify. One long item that sat on two pegs caught his eye. In the bright light provided by what must have been more than twenty torches, the thing's handle looked to be made of white, polished stone. The base of the handle was wrapped tightly in deep, black leather and the handle—or haft—extended the length of Lakhoni's arm, ending in an oddly shaped head. The head was a combination of a hatchet on one side, and a long, wickedly serrated knife on the other side. But a jagged spike also extended from the head, making the total length of the thing almost as long as one of Gimno's legs.
And the head was made entirely of metal that had been tightly seated on the bone haft.
Lakhoni hurried to catch up to Gimno, then realized that somehow this hut was bigger than he had thought. From the outside, it was clear this was the largest hut in the cavern. But now, as Lakhoni took the time to look, he realized that the hut that could be seen outside was just the beginning. He had assumed that the back wall of the hut would be the wall of the cavern, but it was now clear that the hut had been built to take advantage of a cave that branched off from the main cavern.
More than a cave, Lakhoni realized as they passed a small cavern to their left. A series of caves.
The entire complex was filled with the aroma that had greeted them when they entered. As they walked, they passed more caves, some with hides stretched over wood planks for doors and some open. Lakhoni snuck a glance into one of the open caves, but even as he saw piles glittering things, he heard Gimno's harsh, quiet whisper.
"Cub! Respect this place."
Lakhoni met the tall man's eyes, having no trouble seeing their grim expression in the still-brightly lit cavern. Nodding, Lakhoni lengthened his stride, wondering how long this journey would take. Even as the thought departed, they came to a ladder. The red man stood to the side of the ladder and gestured for Gimno to ascend. Without a sound, Gimno flowed up the ladder, Lakhoni following.
At the top, Lakhoni stopped in total stupefaction. The ladder led to a large, mostly round cavern. But it wasn't the size or shape of the cavern that stunned him. The cavern floor was completely covered with luxurious animal hides, as were the walls. A huge table dominated the room. It seemed to have been cut from one massive tree. The top was flat, while the bottom appeared to be the rounded trunk of the original tree. Standing on many thick legs, the table had been polished to gleam wetly in the light of torches and a fire that blazed in what looked like a large hearth on the far side of the room. Chairs of wood, made comfortable with soft hides, surrounded the table. There had to be at least twenty chairs, one of which was larger and more ornate than the others. This one had been turned to face the hearth.
Hoping his surprise hadn't been noticed, Lakhoni pushed himself off the ladder into the room and stood next to Gimno, the soft hides under his feet a surprisingly warm and pleasant sensation.
"Bonaha," Gimno said, respect in his voice.
"Gimno, my boy." The voice seemed to flow, slick and smooth, like oil from the ornate chair. Nothing else stirred.
"The cub," Gimno said.
"Of course," said the voice. Now Lakhoni saw movement. A small form—Lakhoni recognized its size from the sacrifice of the boy—separated itself from the chair. The figure's hair no longer stood on end, but Lakhoni felt sure that this was the same man that had murdered the young boy.
The man stepped toward Gimno and Lakhoni, a bright smile on his face. "This is the cub you've spoken of?"
The man, Lakhoni couldn't tell if Bonaha was a title or name, squinted and seemed to examine Lakhoni for several long minutes. He faced Gimno, looking up at the tall man.
"And you have brought him for his grooming?"
Gimno nodded. "Yes, Bonaha." Lakhoni heard the respect and adoration in Gimno's voice. It seemed strange for such a tall, imposing man to give such great respect to this small man.
"Well, cub," the man said. "I am Bonaha Comnor. Bonaha means 'Teacher' in the language of our First Fathers and Comnor is my name." The small man raised a hand to Lakhoni's face. His palm felt soft and moist on Lakhoni's cheek. It smelled of flowers. "You will call me Bonaha."
Lakhoni nodded, trying not to squirm under the uncomfortable touch. He forced the images of this same hand gripping a shiny dagger out of his mind.
"Today you will be groomed," the Bonaha said. "Do you understand what that means?"
Lakhoni shook his head. He knew he should say something, but the revulsion in his heart seemed to be choking him. I can't show him. He'll kill me if I do. He forced himself to swallow past the tightness in his throat.
"What?" the Bonaha said, laughter in his voice. "Can you not speak?" The moist hand slapped Lakhoni gently. "Come on boy, you need not fear me."
"Show some respect, cub!" Gimno said, nudging Lakhoni.
"Yes," Lakhoni said.
"Yes what?" the Bonaha asked.
"I can speak."
The small man gave a satisfied nod, his hand sliding down Lakhoni's cheek, onto his neck and then stroking down Lakhoni's arm. Lakhoni forced the need to shudder deep inside himself.
"And do you understand what it is to be groomed by the Bonaha of the Separated?" the man's dark eyes seemed to flash with a wet hunger.
Lakhoni shook his head. "No."
"With respect, cub!"
"Leave it, Gimno," the Bonaha said, patience dripping from his voice. He turned back to Lakhoni and smiled. "It is proper to affix 'Bonaha' to what you say to me."
Swallowing again, willing his heart to slow, Lakhoni said, "Yes, Bonaha." He tried to understand the fear that filled him with every word Bonaha Comnor spoke. The man was small, nearly the same size as Alronna. His voice was soft and kind and he smiled almost constantly. His touch was light and affectionate.
But something in the man's eyes terrified Lakhoni. He frantically tried to find somewhere else to look, but the Bonaha seemed to have trapped his gaze as effectively as a barbed hook would catch a fish.
"Now, being groomed by the Bonaha of the Separated is an important step in your journey," the Bonaha said, turning and stepping back toward his chair. "Through this process, you show your strength and determination to join with us in our divinely appointed mission."
After a long pause, Lakhoni realized he was expected to respond. "Yes, Bonaha."
"How much has Gimno explained of what you will son experience, boy?" The Bonaha turned and walked back toward the crackling fire.
At the same time that he spoke, Lakhoni realized that there must be some kind of chimney that extended from this cave to the outside world. He watched the Bonaha's back as the small man lifted his left hand toward the cave entrance. "Nothing… Bonaha."
It seemed the Bonaha's gesture had been a signal to a man Lakhoni hadn't even seen yet. It was another tall red man who had been standing completely still in the shadows at the end of the cave furthest from the fire. This man folded into a deep bow, then, looking over the edge of the cave floor, snapped once.
"That is fine," the Bonaha said, standing just inside the circle of light cast by the fire. "This grooming takes place sometime around the completion of your fourteenth year—but can change depending on your readiness."
Taking long strides, the red man moved toward the fire, skirting the huge table and passing in front of Lakhoni.
A moment after the man passed him, Lakhoni caught a strong smell of sweat, blood and animal musk.
"Gimno has decided you are ready." The Bonaha turned his gaze on Lakhoni. In the bright glare of the fire, Lakhoni thought he could see the small man's eyes fill with a frightening intensity. "Not that it matters, but what is your age, boy?"
"In the spring I'll have finished my sixteenth year." A memory of the cakes and festivities that happened in his village during that season of birth celebrations flashed into his mind.
"So you are a little old, but that is fine."
A tall shape appeared at the top of the ladder and immediately crossed the room, followed by another of the red men. These two, with the man who had called them, rolled the soft hide on the floor near the hearth back, exposing rough stone.
"My halkeens will assist in this ceremony."
Hearing the strange word, Lakhoni looked back at the Bonaha. The small man must have detected Lakhoni's lack of understanding. "Surely Gimno has told you of these men. They are the Consecrated. Halkeen is the word for 'consecrated' in the language of our First Fathers."
Glancing about, the Bonaha gestured toward the fire. "Now come."
Lakhoni stepped forward, unsure of how close he should move.
"Gimno, you will purify."
Lakhoni felt Gimno's familiar presence to his right as the man moved forward. "Yes, Bonaha," Gimno said. He set his hand on Lakhoni's shoulder and Lakhoni, despite himself, felt a slight comfort steal over him at the well-known feeling of Gimno's rough, strong hand.
Realizing that something he had never seen or experienced was about to happen, Lakhoni berated himself for not paying better attention. He looked closely at the preparations the halkeen were making. One stood near the fire with a long stick of some kind, with which the man was poking at the fire, spreading embers and coals. He seemed to be looking for something.
Another man stood nearer the table and a rasping sound filled the large room as this man began to sharpen a long, slightly curved knife. With a second glance, Lakhoni saw that the curved knife was made of metal. So much metal! Where do they get it all?
The third man had just finished brushing a bundle of dried grass over the space that the rolled up hide had been covering. Now he slipped a soft-looking pouch off a short peg in the wall near the hearth. Crouching down, the Consecrated shook out a pile of jagged bits. By the sound of them on the stone floor, Lakhoni guessed they were rocks and realized they must be obsidian by the way they shone and glinted in the firelight.
"Now, Gimno, take your place at the fire," the Bonaha said.
Gimno took two long strides and took the place of the man who had been prodding the fire. This Consecrated handed his stick to Gimno and moved toward the peg that had been holding the obsidian bits. He pulled a rod of some kind off another peg, where it had been looped with the small leather strip on its end.
"Boy, what is your name?"
Lakhoni tore his eyes away from what looked like sharp thorns on the rod in the Consecrated's hands. "Lakhoni."
"Lakhoni," the Bonaha intoned. "You wish to join the Separated. The Living Dead. Those who will reclaim the Birthright."
The long pause made Lakhoni glance around, wondering if he was to say something. He saw Gimno staring intently at him. Gimno nodded deliberately.
"Yes, Bonaha," Lakhoni said. First Fathers, please help me hide this lie. And please forgive me for it! He didn't know if the Fathers' teachings allowed for necessary lies, but Lakhoni saw no other way.
The Bonaha nodded gravely. "And you willing do this Trial of the Gate?"
"Yes, Bonaha." Lakhoni tried not to think too much about what he was getting into. The wickedly barbed rod continued to draw his gaze. He wanted to slow things down so he could think this through. He looked at the barbed rod, the obsidian chips and Gimno standing at the hearth. What was this Trial of the Gate? Panic began to flutter in his chest.
"This is a test of your strength of character, your determination, and your will," the Bonaha said. "Your knees will rest upon the obsidian. You must be still in the face of that discomfort; showing your ability to stay and fight when all is pain. If you flee this, you will be known as a coward. Cowards are not warriors."
One of the Consecrated appeared behind Lakhoni and gestured for Lakhoni to move to the pile of obsidian.
"You will grip the thorny rod," the Bonaha said. Lakhoni felt a burst of laughter rise in him at the funny-sounding name. He knew that if he gave in to the panic and ran, he would likely be killed. And if he failed this, he guessed he would be very restricted in his movements.
"And you must hold it tightly to prove your determination to fight alongside the Separated, even when it is painful and difficult," the Bonaha said.
The Consecrated who held the rod handed it to Lakhoni. Lakhoni held it carefully at its ends, waiting for whatever signal he assumed would be given. He tried to keep his breathing even, shouted mentally at his heart to slow. He could do this. Gimno must have done it. Every warrior in the Separated must have done it.
He could do this.
"You will be purified with each stroke of the grooming blade. During the grooming, you must remain completely still—demonstrating your will to overcome all difficulty, pain and struggle in the battle to reclaim the Birthright."
"Remember Lakhoni," the Bonaha's voice became soft, intimate. Lakhoni met his gaze. "You must not move. If you do, the grooming blade will cut you, and you will be scarred. A warrior must not have a scarred scalp."
Lakhoni felt as if he could almost believe the Bonaha was concerned about him, but the glittering hunger in the small man's eyes belied that. He glanced down at the obsidian. That shouldn't be too bad. The thorns on the rod looked to be somewhat barbed. If he could hold it just so, he might be able to avoid jabbing them into his hands.
"Now kneel, Lakhoni."
Clenching his jaw tightly, Lakhoni lowered his knees to the pile of obsidian chips. He let out a breath as his weight came fully down. He flinched at the sharp pain that greeted his knees. No, I can't move or jerk. I can't be scarred. He took a deep breath and raised his head, hoping that by not looking at his knees he could put the building pain out of his mind.
It felt like some creature with barbed talons had grabbed him by the knees and was now pulling him downward. He had to fight the instinct to get to his feet and escape the pain.
"Grip the rod tightly. Prove your will to the Great Spirit."
Lakhoni tentatively wrapped his hands around the rod and squeezed. Pinpricks filled his palms, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as the obsidian.
He realized he had closed his eyes, so he opened them. He saw that a Consecrated was kneeling next to him, his hand on one end of the rod Lakhoni held. Lakhoni followed the Bonaha's command and tightened his grip. The pinpricks transformed into small, razor sharp knives slicing his hands open.
"Tighter, boy." The Bonaha's voice penetrated the pain filling him.
Lakhoni realized his breath was coming in short, quick bursts. At least he wasn't gasping, but he felt moisture at the edges of his eyes. Tighter? I can't do this.
He took a breath, trying to make it smooth and to calm his panicking heart.
He wanted to stand. He wanted to throw the poorly named thorny rod into the fire and fling himself to his feet and run away from these people. He wanted to be with his family again. He wanted to hear Sana's singing, his father's kind voice. He wanted to play at hunting with Alronna and talk dreams with Salno.
Alronna. She was out there. Alive.
Put the pain away. Lakhoni felt the command come from deep inside; deeper than the pain and deeper than fear.
He took a breath as slowly as he could. Gritting his teeth, he imagined that the thorny rod was a barbed branch that held Alronna over a tall cliff's edge. He had to hold it so she wouldn't fall.
Lakhoni tightened his grip. Hundreds and thousands of small knives sliced his palm to the bone. His jaw trembled with the pain of holding it closed to keep from crying out. His knees felt as if they were being chewed on by a jaguar.
"It is well," the Bonaha said.
He had closed his eyes again, without meaning to. Lakhoni forced his eyes open, feeling a tremble pass through him. No. He had to be still. Being a warrior meant more freedom.
"We will begin the grooming and purifying."
Lakhoni carefully looked over to the Bonaha, who held the curved knife before him. As the Bonaha moved forward to stand to Lakhoni's left, a band of orange light slid from the hilt to the tip. Lakhoni fought down the urge to throw himself backward, away from the jagged obsidian tearing into him.
Gimno nodded, poking his stick into the fire. He came away with a small, glowing coal whose heat shimmered across its surface in waves. Deep in his mind, past the wall of agony, Lakhoni realized the stick was actually a set of tongs. Gimno stood before Lakhoni, the glowing ember darkening into ash where the tongs gripped it.
Purified with each stroke.
Understanding cut through the haze gripping his mind. Gimno's going to' purify' some part of me with that.
"You must not move," the Bonaha said. "Be the victor. Do not allow the pain to corrupt you. Rather, let it purify." The Bonaha let out a slow, even breath. "Or you will be called coward and will spend your days doing the work of those who cannot fight for truth."
This was too much. No human could suffer this without moving.
But Anor was a warrior… and Lakhoni had never seen any scars on his head. Gimno's head was covered in smooth, unbroken tattoos.
Somehow he had to do this.
Before he could think or take another breath, he felt the cold edge of the Bonaha's blade on the back of his neck. Gimno raised the coal until it was a foot length in front of Lakhoni's mouth.
My mouth? He had to focus, put the fear away. He had to control the pain.
The pressure on the back of his neck increased.
He sucked in a breath as the blade scraped up the back of his neck, up to his head. No added pain. Not that Lakhoni noticed anyway. He tried to put the pain away as the glow of the coal moved forward, but it was too fast-
Bright, freezing pain exploded on his lips. It instantly filled his mouth and triggered a pounding headache. Lakhoni instinctively jerked back, but before the movement grew, he clamped his jaws tightly and planted his rear-end on the backs of his legs. Words and thoughts fled in the face of the burning agony that followed the first instant of explosive cold.
All was silence in the room, save for the sound of the Bonaha cleaning his blade on something that sounded soft.
Lakhoni's heart hammered, his breath coming quickly. His arms trembled. His stomach revolted and he swallowed to keep its contents under control. Burning, throbbing, stabbing—an ecstasy of agony was all he knew. He had to get away.
He must not.
Put it away. He couldn't.
Pressure, then scraping, then a bright inferno on his face. He jerked again, this time more severely. He felt the blade nick him gently.
Alronna's face swam into view.
He sucked in a breath through lips that felt bigger than his face.
He pictured his knees, chewed and bruised by the obsidian. He saw the pain, bright red and deep black. He saw tendrils of pain reaching up his legs.
He cut the tendrils short. Pictured his knees on a soft hide.
He saw his hands, slashed to ribbons. Pictured them whole and grabbing onto a tree branch.
The pressure of the blade returned, this time on the top of his head.
He forced a slow breath into his lungs.
The cooling coal floated near.
He held the breath; felt his heart slam once, twice, then again.
The blade scraped.
Heat near his face.
Lakhoni slowly let out the breath as the coal touched his bottom lip.
He saw the pain explode, willed it to stop. He turned it around and tried to push the agony out with his breath.
Better, but a violent red haze still filled him. The need to flee softened his focus.
He flung his mind after the vision of Alronna.
Another breath punctuated by the sound of the Bonaha's blade being cleaned.
Like in the training circle.
Put the pain away. Find a place for it and shut the door.
The blade's edge pressed the right side of his head.
In his mind, he forced steel into his spine. He breathed deeply, slowly.
He reached into the stone under him, willing himself to become one with it.
Knives and fangs.
A new sensation broke him out of his forced trance. A hand on his shoulder.
Pain exploded all over his body in the moment that he reconnected with his surroundings.
"Lakhoni, you can release the rod," Gimno said softly.
The hand was Gimno's. The tall man's other hand was pulling on the thorny rod. "Let go, cub." Concern filled his voice.
Lakhoni had to remind himself how to open his hands. He had to envision them opening and then deliberately force each finger to move.
The rod dropped slightly as Gimno took it. He quickly hung it back near the hearth and returned to Lakhoni's side.
"Now stand," Gimno said.
"Arise, Lakhoni of the Separated." This time it was the Bonaha who spoke. "Sit down a new being, a new man. A warrior of the Living Dead."
Lakhoni flexed his leg muscles, pushing himself up. He got halfway up when he swayed, fresh pain in his knees making them buckle.
Gimno caught him under his arms and eased him into a chair that someone had moved nearby.
He wondered how long he had been in the trance, forcing fresh waves of pain into a place deep inside. How had he found that place? How could he find it again? Did I really pass?
A Consecrated appeared, handing Gimno soft bandaging cloths and a gut of something that sloshed. Another followed, carrying a sachet of something that smelled crisp like a new morning.
"It is well, Lakhoni," the Bonaha said. "Very well indeed. Your will is strong."
Gimno placed the sachet, which was moist to the touch against Lakhoni's lips. "Hold this."
Lakhoni obeyed, gently pressing the small packet to his mouth. Whatever it held felt incredibly cooling against the fire pulsating there. He felt gentle touches on his knees and looked down. Gimno was kneeling in front of him, washing his injuries.
"And now Gimno administers to you and his Rite of Consecration is completed," the Bonaha said. "Two rebirths in one day." Lakhoni turned to see the Bonaha pouring the contents of a clay bottle into an ornately carved wood cup. The Bonaha took a long sip. "A good day for the Separated."
As Gimno ministered first to his knees, then his hands, Lakhoni felt like mists in his brain were finally dissipating. I passed. And Gimno's a Consecrated. What had the Bonaha called them? The word came to him as a fresh stab of pain in his left hand made him flinch. A halkeen. So what does this mean?
"I know you are not familiar with our rites and traditions, my boy," the Bonaha said. "So listen closely. Gimno will continue to train you, as is his right. But you will shoulder some responsibility for the protection and sustenance of the Separated. When the wounds of your Trial have healed sufficiently, you will receive your first symbol."
Lakhoni wondered at that for a moment, but the Bonaha indicated the tattoo on his chest. "This first symbol is that of the Separated. You become worthy of a new one each time you take a life in defense of the Separated."
Now that the mists had dissipated from his mind, Lakhoni felt clean and sharp, almost supernaturally focused. Understanding immediately what the Bonaha implied, he looked down at Gimno. Gimno: covered in tattoos. The tall man must have had hundreds.
Hundreds of 'symbols.' Symbols of death.
He wondered what was meant by ''in defense of the Separated." He remembered the young boy.
As Gimno's gentle hands wrapped his injuries in soft, soothing ointment and cloth, Lakhoni knew what "in defense" meant.