The Littlest Muse’s Christmas present. I was waiting for confirmation that the Royal Mail hadn’t screwed up before I published it here.
The Muse is nearly three now (how time flies) so I tried to keep the plot fairly straightforward. Baral Favain wasn’t cooperating very well, though, so we ended up pulling in someone else’s myth to make him behave. (The necklace is real, by the way – the Muse used to chew mine when I was holding her, so I figured she needed her own.)
One year, while Baral Favain the Shendi prince was living in his little wooden house in the foothills, the week came for the summer festival, a yearly celebration of such magnitude that all the children and many of the grownups of the kingdom looked forward to it for months ahead of time. Among the farming folk and in the small towns of the plains, it was a custom of the festival to visit their neighbors’ houses, bringing gifts of cake and candied fruits, and to feast and make merry with their families and friends.
Now it happened during this week of feasting and celebration that Olik Petir, the son of Sandrik Petir the farmer, bethought himself of his friend Baral Favain, and his thought was thus: that the town people and the farmers, although they had much for which to thank the Shendi prince, were not the sort to count him as a neighbor in the spirit of the festival, and that Baral Favain would be alone at the time of the year best fitted to companionship and celebration.
And so Olik Petir spoke to his mother, saying, “Mum, can Kettetri Saxlar and I take Baral Favain some cake as well?”
Olik Petir’s mother packed a basket with cake and candies and a flask of the good spiced wine that was common to the festival, and she entrusted to Olik Petir both the basket, and the care of his small sister Kettetri Saxlar, who was very excited because it was the first summer festival she was old enough to remember, and she had already been eating sweets for three days. Olik Petir’s mother was not worried about letting the children walk so far alone, because in the week of the festival, they would not meet anybody but friends, and there were no rivers or lakes or other dangerous obstacles between Sandrik Petir’s farm and Baral Favain’s house.
The children set out across the plains, toward the fuzzy blue of the forested hills. The day was fine and warm, and the long grass whispered in the breeze, tossing a haze of golden pollen into the air. As he walked, Olik Petir carefully cleared a way for Kettetri Saxlar, whose fair hair and dark-brown eyes only just peeked above the grass. Although she was so small, Kettetri Saxlar did not complain about the long walk, because she loved visiting Baral Favain.
Eventually, Olik Petir and Kettetri Saxlar passed out of the warm golden plains, and into the welcome shade of the riyo forest blanketing the lower slopes of the hills. In the height of summer, the trees were laden with their heavy purple gourd-shaped fruits, and Kettetri Saxlar stopped abruptly to fill her pinafore with riyo fruit. Olik Petir offered to help, but she stamped her feet crossly.
“No, Okie, I will carry the purples.”
Sighing, Olik Petir trudged on up the hill, looking back every few steps to see that his sister was all right. After a time, he saw Baral Favain’s house through the trees, and turned back to encourage Kettetri Saxlar that they were close to their destination. She was sitting on the ground some hundred yards away, surrounded by scattered riyo fruits and happily devouring one, smearing bright purple juice over her face and hands.
“I dropped the purples, Okie.”
“Oh, for –“ Olik Petir began in exasperation, but stopped, for he heard footsteps behind him.
“Kettetri Saxlar,” spake Baral Favain’s familiar voice, “wilt thou not leave these and cease troubling thy brother? There are more and better fruits in the groves around my house.” And Kettetri Saxlar scrambled up and ran to Baral Favain, who swung her up onto his shoulders and started back up the hill, with Olik Petir trotting along beside him. As they walked, Kettetri Saxlar caught up fistfuls of Baral Favain’s shoulder-long hair and tugged as if it were reins to lead him by.
“Be gentle, lady,” quoth Baral Favain. “Wouldst thou have me bald?” And Kettetri Saxlar, dismayed, murmured apologies and patted the fiery red-gold mane back into a semblance of order. And Baral Favain and Olik Petir talked of the plants and trees they saw along the way, and of the wonder and beauty of T’Narxai the great god who had made them all.
At length they reached Baral Favain’s house, a wooden hut dug halfway into the hillside to insulate it against the heat of summer and the cold of winter. It was a fine hot day that day, warm even under the trees, and Olik Petir was exhausted from the heat and the long walk.
“Come thou inside,” said Baral Favain. “It is cooler there and presently thou wilt feel better.” In the house, he set down Kettetri Saxlar upon the floor, away from anything that might hurt her, and, going to a cupboard low in the wall, drew forth a cup and a pitcher that even in the warm dry air of the house was beaded with condensation.
“The summer wine is heady for one of thy years,” said he. “Wilt thou rather take some of this? It is milk mixed with honey and spices, and refreshing in the heat.” He left the cupboard open, and a cool breeze breathed from it across the room, ruffling Kettetri Saxlar’s hair and making her coo with delight.
“This is cold!” said Olik Petir in surprise, picking up the pitcher.
In that place, where there are no rivers and lakes upon the land, the only way to keep things cool in the heat of summer is to lower them on strong cords down the deep wells that are dug in the yards of the plains homesteads and in the centers of the little villages dotted about. But this cupboard in the back of the Shendi prince’s house was cold, though it could not be more than the height of a man below the ground.
“Aye,” smiled Baral Favain. “Come, I will show thee. Take this,” he added, tossing Olik Petir a bundle of fine brown wool that proved to be a cut-down cloak. “It is cold where we are going.”
Baral Favain collected his own cloak from a hook by the door, and took Kettetri Saxlar’s hand, and ushered the children out through the blazing light and heat of the yard, into the shabby outbuilding where dwelt the livestock (a milk-beast and a few white egg-birds). In the shed, a flight of stone steps led down into the ground. At the foot of the steps, it was full dark, and the air was as heavy and clammy as the coming of a storm.
“Where are we?” whispered Olik Petir, being careful not to move his feet on the wet loose gravel of the ground, and heard the echo come back, are we, are we, are we.
“This is the river,” said Baral Favain, and lit a torch he had brought with him from the house. By its light, Olik Petir saw that they were standing in a cavern that extended before them farther than the torchlight could reach, and that the whole cave, up to only a few paces from their feet, was filled with dark water flowing swiftly, which seethed and bubbled white where the light touched it.
“There are many such under the plains,” quoth Baral Favain. “Thy wells drop into this river or one like it or into one of the lakes in the wide places of the caverns. The rivers are fed in the mountains and run for hundreds of days’ journey under the plains.”
“Do they stop?” asked Olik Petir, stooping to scrape up a fistful of gravel and toss it into the rushing water.
“Aye, in the sea at the farthest rim of the Shendi tribe’s range. We trade with the sea people, and give them wine and grain and diamonds from the desert in return for the silks and spices they bring from lands thou and I have never seen.”
“What do sea people look like?” Olik Petir said, for he had never left the plains and foothills, or even gone as far as the great city Athemyx where the king lived.
“They have not tails nor horns, an that is thy meaning,” laughed Baral Favain. “I can show thee somewhat of one of their captains, an old friend, from many years before thou wast born. Methinks that an he yet liveth he is no longer like this.”
And Baral Favain took from his pocket a thing like a smooth silver stone, and placed it gently nestled among the larger stones of the river’s edge. As he stepped back, a ghostly image shimmered up from the ground, and Olik Petir blinked at it in surprise before beginning to understand what he saw.
It seemed to be the trunk of a gigantic tree, hollowed out and smoothed, and lying in the river so that one end ran aground upon the gravel. At the far end of the tree, Olik Petir saw a sheet of cloth, spread out to stand up like a sail, and at the near end, a pillar rose up, taller than the height of a man, and decorated with swirling lines and a plume of white feathers. Around this pillar the open ends of the hollow part closed, sealing the trunk securely. The body of the hollow part seemed to be packed with cloth-wrapped bundles and more and smaller lengths of timber.
“What is that?” Olik Petir asked, for he had never seen such a thing before.
“That is a waka of the sea people – an ocean-going canoe, in which they make long voyages to distant lands, guided only by the stars at night. See, the hull is of light timber, and hollow, to float even on the roughest seas.” Baral Favain smiled at the look of amazement on the boy’s face. “Aye, there are far greater and more troubled waters than this river.”
As they regarded the weird ghostly image, which was not lit by the torchlight but had an odd lay of shadows from a harsh and unseen sun, a man stood up from among the bundles in the hollow, and vaulted over the side into the water. The splashes raised by his bare feet in the water looked so real that Kettetri Saxlar jumped back for fear of getting wet.
The man from the waka was tall and strong-looking, and even in the skewed colors of the image Olik Petir could tell that this was such a person as he had never before seen. Unlike the fair people of the plains, this man had dark skin like burnished bronze, smooth over hard muscle, and he wore only a mat of coarse woven fabric, belted around his waist like a kilt, and a pendant of carved bone on a cord around his neck. His hair was black and tied up in a knot at the back of his head, and his face was decorated with swirling deep-green patterns that seemed to be drawn on beneath the skin.
The man looked up and grinned broadly at someone who did not appear in the image. Splashing through the shallow water, calling words Olik Petir could not discern, he took off the pendant, pulling the cord over his head, and held it out. In a few more steps, he had vanished from the image, and only the waka remained, with the seawater lapping quietly around its hull.
“There,” quoth Baral Favain. “That is somewhat thou wouldst not have seen before, methinks.”
“No,” said Olik Petir. “What was his name, your friend? Where is he now?”
“He is named Kupa,” Baral Favain told him. “And it was known of him that he was an explorer and discoverer of new lands, so that where his waka sails now even his own family could not tell thee.”
Kettetri Saxlar, sitting wrapped in the Shendi prince’s cloak upon the stony shore and solemnly sucking her fingers, spoke up suddenly. “Where did the man go?”
“Kupa hath returned to his first wife and greatest love, the endless ocean,” quoth Baral Favain. “The man thou hast seen is far away and long ago, little lady. Come, let us go back to the sunlight and leave the dark river to its windings.”
But Kettetri Saxlar had picked up the silver stone, making the ghostly waka pulled up on the shore shudder violently and vanish, and turned her puzzled face up to Baral Favain. “Why did that man wear a necklace, Favain? Girls wear necklaces.”
“That is so. But among the sea people it is the way for all to wear such pendants, men as well as women, from early youth. Come upstairs – there is something I have kept, and I think the time is good that another shouldst have it.”
So went they out from the cavern of the river, back to the house, where the door and both windows were open to admit the breeze, and the sweet smell of the grass and the riyo trees on the hill wafted through the main room of the little hut. Baral Favain went to the cold hearth, and lifted one of the flat stones to reveal a hollow under the floor. After a moment’s rummaging, pulling out tiny boxes made of oddly-colored wood, packets folded of rich velvet, mysterious parcels wrapped in scraps of silk, and a bundle of papers carefully folded and tied together with blue ribbon, he unearthed a different sort of pouch, one made from coarse dark sacking and decorated with a row of strange foreign feathers.
“This is a kit,” said Baral Favain, “and in larger of these do the sea people store supplies for their long voyages. Here, Kettetri Saxlar – this is for thee.”
“It’s a toy!” Kettetri Saxlar cried in delight.
“A toy kit, aye. For thee to keep thy treasures in. And look thou, art there treasures already?”
Kettetri Saxlar took the kit with a gentleness approaching reverence, and dipped her little hand inside, drawing forth a cord with a piece of carved bone knotted onto it.
“That’s Kupa’s necklace,” observed Olik Petir. And indeed, the pendant dangling from Kettetri Saxlar’s fingers was an exact twin to that they had seen in the hand of the long-ago Kupa – bone carved to look as if it were twisted around on itself like a two-stranded cord. This carved cord, though, was a closed loop, with no beginning or end.
“The carvings of the sea people are all imbued with meaning,” said Baral Favain, sounding as if he recited words long held in mind and oft repeated, “for their language cannot be written. This design symbolizes strength, for when a man walks faithfully in the path T’Narxai sets before him, he is stronger than two, ten, or even a thousand men, and T’Narxai’s power and wisdom know no beginning or ending. The children of the sea people wear their pendants constantly, to remind them always of T’Narxai’s blessing and his perfect will. This is for thee, Kettetri Saxlar, and when thou art older thy brother shall explain to thee again, that thou shalt remember.”
And he tied the necklace upon Kettetri Saxlar’s neck, and she promptly picked it up and put it in her mouth, tasting on it the salt of faraway crashing waves. “Is pretty,” she murmured.
“Aye. But there are better things here for thee to eat. Go thou to the low cupboard, my lady, and bring the honeyed milk and some cups for thee and Olik Petir.”
And Baral Favain busied himself about the shelves and nooks about the room, and soon there was laid, upon a sheet of canvas on the crisp grass outside, a fine repast of fruits and cakes and soft fresh bread and sharp-tasting cheese, and wine for Baral Favain, and icy milk for the children to drink. And they sat upon the ground in the cool wind breathing down from the mountains, and ate and drank and were glad of the festival. And Baral Favain told the children stories of the sea people – stories the Shendi told about them, and stories they told among themselves – until it was time for Olik Petir and Kettetri Saxlar to go home to the farm. The Shendi prince bore Kettetri Saxlar upon his strong shoulders again, and Olik Petir walked beside him through the twilight over the plains.
And that is how Olik Petir and Kettetri Saxlar spent their summer festival.