by Lincoln Sayger
Elga stepped wordlessly to the edge of the shallow river, a short distance upstream of the footbridge, and waited in silence for the eldest to make their way down from the village.
The men and women of her village waited along the opposite shore for her to step into the water and join them on the village bank. The children waited in a row behind her. They stood along the river's latest crest line, so that no child would be in the water. Elga tried to ignore their subdued chatter. Starting today, they were no longer her playmates.
Elga tried to wait patiently, the way the adults across from her seemed to be, but it was hard. She'd been imagining this day for months. She'd been thinking about the decisions she would get to make when she rose out of the water for weeks. And she'd been almost shivering with anticipation for all the minutes she'd been standing here. And already, she was getting to do adult things, even though she hadn't yet been welcomed as one. The children around her wore thin shirts that fluttered in the slight breeze, while she wore a shirt that was thick enough not to cling after a swim, like the ones the adults wore. And perhaps, somewhere in the group waiting across the sparkling water, there was someone she would share her life with.
Eventually, the villagers parted as the group of the five eldest people in the community came through.
They stood on the bank of the river, well above the edge, and the one middle in age called to her, “Elgafrida Mariah Chessmean Beckfar, the village has need of you. Come and take your place along the adults of the village.”
“Grandmother,” she said, though her own grandparents were all younger than this elder, “I can’t come to you, for the river runs between us.”
“Child, step into the river and come to us,” said the youngest of the group. “Though you may be covered in death, you can still arise and come to be a new woman in the village.”
She wanted to go then, but she responded as she should, “Grandfather, I am not ready to come to you, for I should miss my fellow children.”
The oldest of the eldest said, “Woman, you have no peers over there. Your place is in the village. I have been told of your…”
After a long moment, the second youngest whispered in her ear, and she said “your readiness by the other women. You are a child no longer!”
The children on the bank picked up clumps of dirt and threw them halfheartedly in her direction. She held up her hands, and the children backed away. Then, she turned and said, “I’m no longer a child, but I am not an adult yet.”
She stepped into the water and sighed as her knees went in and the water carried her body heat away from her, along with the last moments of her childhood. She reached the middle of the river, barely deep enough to cover the top of her belly, and squatted down until the flow covered her head. She stayed a moment, enjoying the sensations of the water flowing past her, and then she stood up and walked, dripping, out of the river on the side of the village.
“I stand here, on the side of the village,” she said, as custom decreed, “a new woman. I make my own decisions. My parents are no longer responsible for the actions of their child, who has been left in the river!”
The women of the village came forward and enfolded her in awkward embraces. People didn’t hug nonfamily often.
The two remaining eldest said in turn, “Come in to our village,” and “Find ways to bring utility to the community.”
Then the children ran across the bridge, yelling and screaming, and rushed off to play in the village, finally freed of pomp and circumstance.
Elga made her way happily through the crowd, accepting welcomes and advice. The village chief handed her a few gemstones. The baker’s wife gave her a loaf of bread. The witch said, “Come by my house if you want a blessing from the gods.” The weaver’s daughter handed her a length of tan cloth suitable for making into an outfit. And the physicker said, “Be sure to come back and visit the middle of the river every time you have been sick, and after your river times.”
But what she knew she would remember most fondly was that her own grandmother had left her house in the hills above the village and made the difficult hike to come down and see her become a woman.
Elga made her way over and stood by her grandmother until the villagers meandered away to their village tasks, leaving the two alone on the riverbank.
“Mama Electra, thank you for coming down to see me cross over.”
“Elga, I’m so very proud of you. Have you decided what you will do in the village?”
“Not yet, Mama Electra. I might learn to thatch. Or I might start running with the herds. I kind of like growing plants; maybe I’ll learn the secrets of soil. Have you noticed a talent I should explore?”
“I’m happy to say that I think you’d be good at any of those things. But you might also consider becoming an explorer.”
Elga gasped, then said, “Mama Electra! Explorers leave their families and visit dangerous places that don’t have villagers nearby to lend a hand. I could never do that.
“Perhaps. Perhaps you might be surprised.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said dubiously, “but I have a few weeks before I must settle down to a decision. For now, I should probably get over to the witch’s for a blessing.”
Elga froze and didn’t turn as she’d intended.
Her grandmother had said it so calmly and inquisitively, Elga wasn’t sure what to do.
Elga was terribly confused. Didn’t her mother’s mother honor the gods? Didn’t Bosona look down and give light? Didn’t Ganus patrol the village to protect it from danger? Why was her grandmother suddenly being so irreligious?
“You think I’m old enough to make the decision alone?”
“Did I say that? Making decisions alone is rarely wise.”
With that, she turned and walked away from the village. Elga watched her for a moment and then turned toward the village square. She walked past the houses and workshops to the hatch of the witch’s house.
And then she kept right on walking.
She hardly knew why, or what she meant to do, or where her feet were taking her. Elga couldn’t figure it out until she passed the green field and stepped onto the path into the hills, towards Electra’s house.
Lio ran across the bridge with the other children as their former playmate was surrounded by adults offering words to her. Lots of words. Elga would have to deal with lots of words every day, now. Adults used a lot of words instead of doing fun things.
Lio turned by the baker's store and ran toward the edge of town. He slowed as he neared the edge of town and stuck out his hands to touch each of the hatches along the path. Telju Fletcher's hatch was green. Abek Shirer's hatch was brown. And Rava Grower's was extra large. Some were smooth, and others were covered in squares.
He made his way out past the grain field and across the little stream that fed into the river that went under the bridge. He crossed the little bramble patch where the herbalist gathered berries.
He walked along the rail fence, running his hand lightly across the rough surface. When he tired of that, he climbed between the rails and sat on the bottom with his arms over the top rail. From this vantage, he watched the little rodents scurry around in the meadow across the path. He was still watching them when Elga stopped and stood in the middle of the path just in front of him.
He watched her stillness for a long moment. Finally, he asked, "Is this a weird thing adults do?"
She jumped like someone suddenly wakened from an active dream and looked over at him.
"Alwa, Miss Elgafrida."
She scrunched her nose up and said, "Don't start that formality with me, all at once."
"It's proper for me to greet an adult this way."
"I'm only just now an adult. Stay with what you've been calling me."
"Accepted. What are you doing?"
She said, "I'm trying to figure out what my grandmother said to me."
"Deep words of wisdom? On your first day? They don't want to ease you into this whole adult thing?"
She smiled and said, "Not like that. But she said I should become an explorer. Can you picture me walking through the wilderness, alone?"
He put his finger on his chin and then said slowly, "You are afraid of the dark, of strange noises, and of crawling things."
She nodded, her face showing the shame she felt. He pointed at the fluffy clouds in the sky and said, "You want to learn to fly and go up past Jenu's woven clouds?"
"I already said I wouldn't make a good explorer. You don't have to make fun of me, on top of it."
"I didn't mean anything bad by that. But seriously?"
"Give me a rest, Lio."
He crossed his eyes and stuck out his lower lip at her.
She said, "The witch offered to give me a blessing from the gods."
"What did she bless you with?"
"I haven't been yet."
"Why not? Wouldn't that help you understand why your grandmother wants you to leave town?"
"I will, later. I thought I'd go ask her about what she said."
"Really? After she told you to go away and leave your home behind?"
"She didn't mean it like that, Lio!"
"Are you sure? I mean, I almost want you to leave, now. Your own family doesn't want you around."
She looked at him with scorn, and he crossed his eyes again. She ran over and smacked the top of his head with her palm. He screamed a short scream and fell backward into the field. Getting up, he laughed and said, "Go on, now. Fly over the clouds like Riman and see your grandmother."
She reached over the fence and tried to swat him again, but he dodged away and ran back toward the village.
Elga turned back toward the hills and started walking. Lio didn't mean any harm, but his words had hurt her a little. Sure, she was afraid of the dark, but that wasn't something she felt he should have mentioned.
But it was only natural. Lio had been there that night. She an Lio and Tura had been playing Four Fates.
She grabbed Lio's flint knife from the collection of items in the circle between the three of them and told him he had to go to the baker's house and ask if they would adopt him.
He went, glaring at her, and Tura snickered as he walked up the path and up to the baker's hatch.
He glared at her again and knocked on the hatch.
The hatch opened, and there stood Reado, the baker. Lio cleared his throat and asked, "Would you and your wife adopt me?"
Reado's face darkened, and he reached beside the hatch to pick up his broom. He said, "You interrupted my dinner to mock me?" And he swung the broom at Lio.
Lio dodged to one side and took off down the path. Reado shook his fist at Lio, and Tura rolled on the ground, laughing.
Lio ran straight up to Elga and snatched his knife out of her hand. He walked over to the circle and knelt down. He picked up a glass ball with a metal figure in the middle of it.
Turning to Tura, he said, "Talk for two minutes without closing your mouth."
Tura sputtered and grunted and then started making badly formed words, talking without closing his mouth about Lio's parents, his personal habits, and his affection for woodland animals, but he made it for the allotted time and then took his glass sphere.
He looked over the circle and then picked up the carved figurine Elga's mother had given her for her last name day. He said, "You have to go a hundred steps into the woods and bring me a branch from there."
Elga stood up and looked toward the edge of town, to the trees that bordered the village on that side. She stayed in place for a moment, then took several paces toward the trees, akwardly slapping her feet against each other when she took a step. Then, she stopped. The woods were so dark, so full of unknown dangers, so shaky and frightening.
She turned around, almost tripping herself, and ran back to the circle, where she picked up the remaining treasures she'd put in hazard there. She pushed the carving toward Tura and said, "It's yours."
Then, she ran home.
That had been two years ago, and she still couldn't go into the woods at night. So, she'd better hurry to her grandmother's house before it got any darker. She didn't have time to let her thoughts wander.
But as she walked quickly along, more memories came to her.
One day, when she was smaller, she and her friends had been playing hoops in the village path, spinning the hoops around and around. Suddenly, she was distracted and bumped right into Lio's hoop, but she didn't stop to pick it up or apologize. Instead, she wandered into the yard of the chandler's shop, where one of the apprentices was making several wick strings fast to a rod and tying them to little weights.
Elga was fascinated by the way he looped the strings. And then he turned to the master chandler, who picked up the whole rod and swung the weights neatly over a pot of wax, dunking them into it with practiced ease.
She spread her hands away from her hips and stepped slowly toward the scene of the action.
And right into the way of the other apprentice, who was carrying some split logs for the fires under the wax pots. She saw him too late, squeaked, and backed away, but now she was too close to the second pot, and she yelped as her hand brushed against its hot surface.
The apprentice shouted, "Get out of the yard, girl! You're in the way!"
Elga turned and started to run, but her hips bumped against the pot and upset it. It rolled over slowly and poured hot wax onto the ground. The master shrieked and picked up a bundle of wick strings, swinging it wildly at her apprentice and berating him for being an oaf, sparing a word now and then for Elga for being in the way and clumsy.
She gathered her wits, ran back to the path, picked up her hoop, and ran down the stony track, bumping her hoop along the ground behind her.
The path Elga walked now was not stones but smoothed dirt, worn and dried by the passage of many feet. Her grandmother's house was on the village side of a place where several paths into the hills converged next to the rain well.
People coming from several different areas of the hills would stop there on the way to or from town to drink a dipper of cool water. Someone had to lift a bucket out of the rain well for anyone to drink. It wasn't like in the village, where many of the tradesfolk had barrels of water on hand, drawn from the river by their apprentices.
It was the barrel of water that first drew their attention to the smith that day.
She and Kela were doodling on the path with sticks, bored of everything that hot morning, and the smith poured a large pot of water over his head to cool off. The smith needed to cool off even when the weather wasn't hot. The splashing drew the girls' attention, and they stood up from their idle doodles and looked his way.
He returned to the forge, tugging on the rope that pulled down the long rod of the big bellows, stoking his fire to work the metal. He picked up his big hammer and brought it down on the anvil, flattening the work he had placed on it.
Elga and Kela edged closer to his workshop, stopping at its edge, and watched his enormous arms shape the metal with the big hammer. Elga was amazed at how much the metal changed shape with each blow of his hammer. Eventually, she took a step forward, desiring to see more. One step eventually became two. Two became four. Four became six.
The smith stepped back from his anvil suddenly and bumped into her. Elga fell on her bottom in the dirt.
The smith turned and said, "Begone, child. You're in the way. I don't want you to get hurt. Stay clear of the workers."
She stood up and brushed herself off. Kela was snickering behind her hands. Elga walked past her, stuck out her tongue at the other girl, and picked up a stick before walking to the far side of the road.
There were no sticks on the path to her grandmother's house. They'd all been picked up for firewood, this close to the village, and the trees didn't often drop sticks here.
Elga liked a nice fire in the fireplace on a cool evening. She remembered one time in the cold months that there had been a good fire in Mayor Prika's hearth, the night the minstrels came through.
The lead minstrel was a tall man with shadowed eyes and a ready smile.
He told tales of the six gods, Ganis, Jenu, Rame, Bosona, Tik, and Peli. He told of people who went from town to town, and the fabulous items that traded. And he told of Riman's ship.
He said, "Riman was feeling crowded, where he lived, so he built himself a ship with seven masts and asked his wife, Ana to bless it. This she did, calling it the fastest ship in the world. She said, 'You cannot leave me by leaving this place. I will go wherever you go.' When he set his sails, the ship rose out of the harbor and flew through the sky.
"He came to a land where the people were short and spoke to each other in dreams, but the place was not to Riman's liking, and he could not get along with the short people. So, he lifted his anchor and flew again through the sky.
"This time, he came to a land where the ground was like iron and the fish like minnows. He said, 'Can any man live here?' And Ana said, 'Keep moving on.' So he lifted his anchor and flew his ship through the sky.
"When he set his ship to ground again, the land was pleasant and full of green things, much like his old land but uncrowded. Ana said, 'Make your home here until the time for you to return home.' But Riman said, 'I will live here always.' And Ana said, 'One day, you will yearn for home.' But Riman said, 'This place is my choice for a home.'
"And so, Riman took all of his goods out of his seven-masted ship. He wanted to trade and dance and sing, but there were no people in this uncrowded land. So, Riman went to the decks of his ship and pulled people out of its planks. He pulled many people out and sent them in every direction, sending each group off with a lavish feast. And his children's children live in that land to this day."
He told many stories, but this one had been her favorite. She was still thinking about it, after all this time. And she thought about it until she reached her grandmother's house.
Elga stood just inside the hatch of her grandmother's house. Electra had decorated the wooden hatch with sprigs of green leaves tucked into the intricately carved knots that lined its edges. Elga hadn't seen the knot patterns in many homes. Most people's hatches were decorated using squares connected with single lines. The table on one side of the room was set with the kerchief she had seen her grandmother wearing earlier over most of its round top, two mugs, two plates, and two spoons. Electra turned around and put a teapot on the table.
"How did you know?" Elga asked.
Electra smiled, then replied, "I don't know everything. I merely prepared for what might happen."
Elga came fully into the room and pulled out a chair. She and her grandmother both sat down.
"Mama Electra, why did you say those things by the river? I don't understand."
"I said what I felt. I am proud of the woman you have become. And I think you could do a good job at any of those tasks you mentioned."
"Mama Electra, you said I shouldn't go for a blessing."
"Did I? How careless!"
Elga thought about it.
"No, Mama Electra. You didn't. You merely questioned my statements."
The old woman smiled. She said, "Correct. The more closely you listen, the more you will hear."
Elga took up the pot and poured a tiny amount of tea into her grandmother's cup. It was too light. She put the pot back on the table and said, "Mama Electra, what should I hear here?"
Electra smiled again and said, "Your mind is sharp. That is why I am sure you will do well with any job you choose ."
Elga made her face into a little smile that expressed great patience.
The old woman laughed.
"You win, Elga. You are listening, so I will speak.
"Dear Elgafrida, our people do well for themselves in this village. We are able to live on this land and enjoy its bounty, able to grow things and build things, able to track the passage of time. We know many things that are true about this realm.
"But we are a people who choose once and another time to hear, to speak, to act on, and to defend things that are not true about this realm."
Elga listened, wide eyed. Why would anyone choose what was wrong over what was accurate? Didn't the head of tally say that correct measurement and counting were what kept the village from starving? Didn't the keeper of debts say that correct accounts were the foundation of their society? And didn't the flock master say that being off by one goat was the beginning of disaster? How could anyone, let alone a group of them, follow someone whose counts were wrong?
Electra continued, "I see in your face that you think what I am telling you is a wrong saying. I thought so, too, once. So I will not ask you to accept this saying.
"Instead, I will prove to you that our people cherish wrong sayings."
How would she do that? Elga thought. But she remembered Mama Electra saying that wondering was not as useful as asking.
She asked, "How will you do that, Mama Electra?"
"Hmmm," Electra said, "I think it might be more meaningful to you if you do the doing. Will you take an active part in this proof?"
Elga sat for a moment and thought. Did she want to disprove the beliefs of her people? What if she disproved something she held dear? What if she caused problems for the village? On the other end, did she want to keep a wrong count, even if it was given to her by people she trusted? Did she want to tell others a wrong count because she'd been too afraid to look at both ends of the stick?
She emptied her mouth with a swallow and said, "Yes, grandmother. What must I do?
"You must examine the counts. Start with your own words. When you said you should get a blessing from the gods by visiting the witch, what were you really saying?"
Elga creased her brow and thought for a long time. Finally, she said, "I don't know what you mean."
"Try breaking it down into smaller pieces of information. Then tease out what is implied and suggested by the words you are using."
Elga thought for a couple of minutes. Then, she said, "When I said I should get a blessing from the gods from the witch, I was saying the following things:
"I should get a blessing to help me decide my path. Blessings come from the gods. I should seek a blessing from them. The witch can give me a blessing from the gods. Visiting the witch will lead to her giving me a blessing. She has the power to direct the blessings of the gods. The gods have the power to bless my decision with clarity. My decision is important to the gods we worship. The witch wants to help me with my decision by giving me a blessing from the gods. The gods--" Elga gasped. "The gods we worship exist and bless us when asked."
She sat for a long moment in silence. Finally, Electra picked up the teapot and poured tea for both of them. Elga picked up her cup and held it in her hands, thinking. Electra picked up her cup and blew over it. Elga took a slow sip.
Electra said, "Which of those things do you know to be true?"
Elga looked at her grandmother over the top of her cup, terror widening her eyes.
"Mama Electra, I know to be true for certain these things only: You have told me it is unwise to make my decision of a path alone, but I imply that I need help making it. The witch offered to give me a blessing from the gods, and I imply that if I go to her, she will say one. The witch expressed a willingness to give me a blessing, and I imply that she wants to help me with my decision. But I do not know for a certainty that she can give me a blessing from the gods, that they have the power to bless my decision with certainty, that the witch has power to grant a blessing, that my decision is important to the gods we worship, or that the gods we worship--" she paused, feeling very wrong about saying this, "--even exist."
Electra smiled, sipped her tea slowly, and then said, "You have divided the statement very well."
"Is there a way to know any of these things for a certainty?"
"Some. Some may be proven. Some may be disproven. Some may not be proven or disproven by evidence that may be available to you. You can gather information about the gods and examine the traits of each god to see what power and interest they have in our lives. Then, you must see what you believe and understand about the real power in our lives. Finally, you must stand firm in what you know to be a correct count."
Elga sat on the cot in her room and thought about all that had happened in the afternoon.
Tomorrow, her first full day as a grown woman, she would be expected to pick a profession to try, and she didn't know which one to try first.
There were many jobs in the village. Metalworkers, shoemakers, coopers, weavers and tailors, binders of books, chandlers, carpenters, herders, bakers, thatchers, fletchers and woodworkers, growers in soil, minstrels and tallymakers, forcaires, witches and sages, and elders. Of course, she wasn't able to do several of those. She wasn't old enough to be an elder. She had little interest in working metal or paper or wood. Her village wasn't big enough for a lot of other jobs, like keepers of inns or city guards. She didn't think she had the talent to be a baker, minstrel, or witch. She didn't think she had the patience to be a forcaire. But that still left a lot of choices.
She thought about what she'd seen each of the people in the village doing as part of their jobs, and she thought she would enjoy growing things in the soil, making arrows, thatching, herding, making candles, weaving, and making shoes.
But there was also the matter of preparing a right count of the world. What a task her grandmother had set for her! Did she know that this idea set loose in a young woman's mind would make everything harder for her? How was she supposed to make a choice about her place in the village while examining the foundations on which the village stood? What if she moved something and eliminated one or more of the choices? What if she learned something that broke the way farming worked? She might offend one of the gods and bring destruction on her village.
No, Mama Electra wouldn't put her on a path to that, would she?
Elga sat on a fence post in a fairly childish manner and watched the tallymaker Vela count the boards on the cart in front of the carpenter's shop, then the coins in the basket on the ground. When she finished, Vela marked her summary on the page clipped to the tally board and handed it to the carpenter, saying, "You've offered 58 coins for these 32 boards. Is that the count you expected on both sides?"
The carpenter smiled and said it was.
Vela handed the tally board to the cartman and said, "And you offer these 32 boards for these 58 coins, which I've found to be in accord with the standards of the Five Lands. Is that correct?"
"Yes," said the cartman, "this is what I expected."
"By the writ of the elders, I declare these counts and record this trade."
She got each man to make a mark on her tally, and she turned away to walk down the path. The carpenter's apprentices unloaded the boards while the cartman collected his coins and waited for the cart to be emptied. Elga hopped down and followed the tallymaker away from the scene, listening to the woman talk of tasks she performed. She would take this tally sheet and store it with the records her profession kept of each major trade that was performed in the village, then retrieved if a dispute arose over what had happened.
Not every trade was recorded, Elga knew, but for a fee, any trade or agreement could be witnessed by a tallymaker and written down to prove its terms. Minstrels collected births, deaths, deeds performed and tales of prowess in the wider world, but tallymakers protected the integrity of everyday life in the village.
She brought her attention back to the details Vela was explaining about her job. When she had finished her precise on the tallymaker's lot, Elga thanked her and bid her a good day.
Then Elga turned and looked out over the field by the side of the path, at the growers in soil moving among the rows of plants. They had a stately rhythm to their work. It looked harmonious to Elga.
She shook her head. She had a lot to do, still. She already knew the basics of soil tending, but there were other professions she needed to investigate.
She walked back up the path toward the shoemaker's shop and stepped inside.
The shoemaker, Olo, looked up and said, "Ah, Elga, our new villager. Alwa! You'll be curious about my art. Is that right?"
She nodded timidly.
"I can teach you the basics of making a shoe in an afternoon, but to truly learn the art behind it and make a great shoe, you will need to spend months practicing and studying the ways shoe materials bend, break, stretch, and fold. Are you interested in becoming a shoemaker?"
She said, "Yes, please."
"Very well," he said. And he sat down behind his workbench and showed her his tools and talked about the ways he made different kinds of shoes, and even a little about making shoes without many tools. She listened intently and imagined doing these tasks day by day, earning her living by making shoes. Everyone needed shoes for at least some tasks, after all.
Before she knew it, three hours had passed, and it was getting dark. She thanked Olo for taking to her and rushed home.
As she sat on her bed, she thought about the day. She'd talked to a fletcher, a thatcher, a tailor, a sage, a shoemaker, a tallymaker, and a chandler. All of their professions had sounded interesting when she'd been listening to them being described. She just had to decide between them. But the village allowed a former child a few weeks to settle into something, so she had a little time to try a few things.
One profession she had pointedly not visited today had been the witch. She didn't want to think about the task her grandmother had set for her, or of the gods of the village.
Still, she knew that she needed to do something about it. She spent some time thinking and putting mental notes on her fingers, counting off the things about her life in the village that she was least certain were correct.
Of the things she took for correct, there were many she didn't know as really true, but as she thought about it, she noticed something. Some of the things she believed, at least a little, depended on other things she thought were correct.
For one, the witch might plan to give her a blessing and go through what she thought the correct steps, but if the gods of the village didn't exist, or did but didn't care, the motions and words would have no tangible effect.
If they cared but the witch didn't know the right way to reach them, her intent would matter nothing.
Some beliefs rested on others like logs in a wall, and others held together like links in a chain. So some could be tallied only together. With this in mind, she looked at her village's customs and beliefs. She decided that so much of the question her grandmother had raised to prominence in her mind rested on the belief in the village's gods that it would be the best place to start her examination of the count, as her grandmother had called it. One hardly needed to test whether the joining of two boards was sound, if termite tracks covered one of them; the whole work could not be trusted.
Yes, though the people of the village sometimes went a day or more without anyone mentioning the gods-- and, all at once, she wondered why they weren't a more present part of village life-- belief in them still lay under an expansive amount of the count that the villagers defended firmly. Why?
Why did they defend something that didn't show in the way they lived?
Elga stood in front of the whitewashed hatch and knocked. After a long moment, it opened, rolling into its pocket on one side of the opening, and the witch looked out and smiled upon seeing her.
"Alwa, Elgafrida-ku. I'll be with you in a few minutes."
Zeray closed the hatch behind her and motioned to a chair beforeleaving the small vestibule that served as entryway and waiting area. She did return in a few moments, following Meda Grower and saying, "Give the potion to him every four hours until the fever stays down until the next time, and give him plenty of water and goat broth. He'll be his regular self again, soon."
Meda thanked her and left.
"Now! Have you come for the blessing I offered you the other day, or are you thinking of pursuing the arcane and healing arts?"
"I wanted to ask you about the gods, Zera-ku. I haven't heard anyone tell exactly who they are, what they do, and how we know what they want and how to get their blessings. Can you tell me what I need to know?"
"Skies! That's a big question! It sounds like you have a very healthy interest in the arcane," Zeray said.
She stretched her hand toward the inner room, and Elga stepped forward.
Zeray sat down at a table with many tassels, and Elga sat across from her.
Zeray said, "No one knows exactly who the gods are, but we see what they do, and we study the things people do, and how the gods respond, and we derive from this the appropriate rituals and offerings to obtain blessings. We call it the Hazen method. We us a Feme board to tell what they want, but it usually falls along the lines of their sheaves.
"The first of the gods is Bosona, who rules the day, watches over us, gives us daylight, guides us in fairness, and made all the animals that accompany us. He is strongest in the long days of the hot times. Is that what you are seeking?"
"Yes, Zeray-ku, it is."
"Then, second, there is Ganis, who rules the land. He stands guard in several places around our village and runs on patrol between them. He leads guardians, herders, and travelers. And he is strongest in the fading time.
"That makes sense. When the fading time comes, most travelers are heading to their homes or cold-time lodgings. And the herders sit with the kidding goats and lambing ewes in the field," Elga said.
"Right. After the land was filled with animals," Zeray continued, "Tik spread out the oceans and rivers to cool the animals, who were hot under Bosona's gaze. And the water was empty, so he made fish and other water creatures. He is over the fish, the water, and the loden winds. He is strongest in the short days at the turning of the year."
"Isn't he related to painters?" Elga asked, brightening.
"Yes. He loves all those who capture a moment. We have no one in the village who works in paints, but the minstrels tell of those blessed by Tik in other places. He also blesses those who dig for metals.
"But Jenu said that Tik had made the short days too cold, and that Bosona made the hot times too hot and withered the plants. She told Tik to stop making it cold, and she would help the plants and animals in the hot times. So Jenu took the hair of the goats and sheep, along with the fluff of the fluffpuff plant, and she wove them into clouds to block the heat of Bosona's gaze and to wrap the land in the short days. But Tik ignored her and kept making the short days very cold, so that the clouds were not a blanket in the short days."
Elga frowned and said, "I thought the gods would work together."
"They each have a place in the world, and their works all do something to help us, but they each have their own goals, and sometimes, that leads to difficulties for us, but at least they don't fight with each other like the tribes to the loden.
"Anyway, Jenu rules the etwid winds, blesses weavers and thieves, and watches over people and plants as they sleep."
Elga asked, "She blesses thieves? Why does she bless those who alter the proper count by moving what is one man's to the storage of another's?"
Zeray's eyes widened, but her friendly smile remained.
"Jenu is not Bosona, to care about counts and tallies. She delights in concealing things, including those who move unseen."
"I think I like her less," Elga said with her lip stuck out.
"She blesses us with good dreams, and she blesses the growers in air. Each god has a blessing for us.
"Now, Rame is strongest in the new time, when things grow, and that is what she does. She creates plants out of the ground and blesses the growers in soil, babies, and growing things. She rules the inwid wind."
Elga nodded and repeated their names, thinking of their areas as she said each one: "Bosona, Rame, Tik, Jenu, Ganis..."
"And Peli," Zeray finished. "Peli is strong wherever Bosona's gaze does not fall. When he sleeps, she rules. And she rules all times under the ground. She makes and feeds on darkness. She is the ruler of death and comes to take the souls of the dying. She blesses hunters and those who travel on dark waters. And because she values sacrifice and pain, she makes the monsters that roam the wild places."
"Why do we worship her?" Elga asked.
"Why do we live in peace in the village, untroubled by the spirits of the dead? She clears away the fallen stubble of the spirit realm the way Rava and Meda clear away the stubble and weeds from their fields."
Elga frowned. She had heard the name of Peli mentioned and even heard of men bargaining with her, but she hadn't really realized they worshipped a monster breeder and soul stealer.
Zeray said, "That's a quick summary. Do you have any questions at this point?"
"Yes. Ganis is the one they made statuies of?"
"No. That is Ganis, himself. He patrols the land around our village."
"I thought they were statues."
"Ganis sits very still as he watches, but he will outrun anyone who runs from station to station along his route."
Elga asked, "What does Rame do? Did she create the plants and then sleep?"
"No, Elgafrida-ku. She creates them now. Her servants tend the plants and build them up-- spirits in the forms we see: worms, bees, grubs, and beetles move the plants this way and that, adding pieces to them."
"Tik is a man-fish who can swim through the air, the minstrels say. Ganis is a massive dog. What do Bosona and the others look like?"
Zeray nodded and said, "Thos are both right. Bosona is a great-bearded old man with one eye. If it were possible to see past the brightness of his gaze, you'd see his eye-patch, face, and shoulders, at least. But when he closes his eye at the day's end, it is too dark to see him.
"Rame, it is said, looks like a woman with a round belly. Jenu is a beautiful and enticing woman with four arms. I saw her once, and I can understand why men fall in love with her.
"Peli? No living man has seen her. She is thought to be like a swirling shadow resembling an old woman, but eight feet tall."
Elga bobbed her head but said nothing. Zeray thought for a minute and said, "Now, the next part of your question was about the offerings they prefer."
Elga nodded again and said, "Yes."
Then, she sat back and listened.
Elga stood just outside the village by the grain fields and looked to the inwid meadows where the herders grazed their flocks sometimes.
She thought about all the things Zeray had said about the gods. How could she test any of those things to see which were right and which were false? It seemed like a lot to sort out. Perhaps she could pick just a few to put to some kind of test. After she did and said all she could, there would only be a few things she could verify, because she could hardly test the form Peli took or the offerings Tik preferred, unless the gods conveniently showed up and answered her questions.
A sharp whistle pierced the air, muffled slightly because of distance, and she turned toward the sound.
Ganis ran toward her, and she gasped.
Then, she realized that the stone-colored form was much too small, and it was rounding away from her, tightening the edges of the herd, as more whistle signals cut across the air.
Virgil walked toward her, guiding his herd by guiding his dogs with specific whistle commands. Virgil was confident and unhurried. He knew where to put his feet on the hillside. He knew that his dogs would follow his commands. He was adroit, fearless, handsome, charming, and everything Elga was not.
She watched him for a long time, captivated by the patterns the animals made as Virgil whistled the dogs this way and that, and she wondered how he did what he did, moving the herd across the meadow with no apparent effort. She couldn't imagine doing the same thing; not really. Not as she was now-- but perhaps herding would give her those things. She'd ask for a trial.
Maybe herding would turn her from a girl in the way to a woman of confidence and grace. And maybe Ganis, if he were real, would smile on her.
She desperately wanted to know the true count about them. She had to find a way to separate the right count from the assumptions.
But when she thought about it, only a few of the things Zeray had told her could really be tested, since most of them had no visible connection between what they knew of the world around them and the gods to which those results were attributed.
If she found herself face-to-face with one of the gods, she could ask about some of the other things, but how likely was that? And in that case, she wouldn't be wondering if that god were real, because she'd be talking to him.
She did know where to find Ganis, though. She knew the points of his patrol, as Zeray called it, but she had never heard of anyone getting an answer from Ganis to questions asked where he stood. She couldn't even know if Zeray was right. She thought about that for a long moment. Was there a way to show whether Ganis was patrolling the village? She assumed there wasn't, but what is there were?
She would need to be in two places at once, but if Ganis could only be in one place at a time, the same was true for her-- except that it wasn't. She could get help, something Ganis, for all his vaunted speed, couldn't do.
When Elga woke up, she shivered for two reasons. First, she was going to make her first job trial today: weaving. Second, the air held a definite chill. It was unusual, this time of year, but not unlikely. It happened some years, but not most.
She got dressed and went outside to the top of a low rise. All around her, the world was covered with a downy blanket of mist and fog. As she looked up, she saw that the fog continued up the hills and off into the sky. It was all clouds. It was as if Jenu had thrown a blanket over the village to keep it from getting too cold.
The fluffy blanket sat around the buildings. Elga stood still and wondered at the majesty of it and the beauty of it; all the humble buildings of the village draped in clouds.
She was still marvelling at it when she saw a vague shape moving through the cloud. Was it a pelimog? Was it a fluffpuff weevil of unusually large size? Was it a malignant spirit?
The vague shape coughed.
Probably no monster, then. Elga peered at it curiously, then asked, "Who is that?"
The shape jumped and became very slightly more vague, but then it called, "Elga?"
She let out her breath and said, "Lio."
Lio walked forward out of the fog.
Elga asked, "How did you move through the cloud?"
Lio said, "That is an odd question. It moves out of my way. No one can move through a cloud. They're solid. You know that because you can't see through them. I thought being an adult made you smarter."
Elga said, "I know, but it didn't seem to move."
Lio made a resigned but impassive motion. He didn't care why the cloud moved or how it moved. He wasn't trying to prepare an accurate count of the beliefs of the village. But even though she knew that a cloud was a solid object hung in the sky, something about his appearance bothered her.
Elga said, "Stand here."
Lio replied, "Accepted."
"We see there's no cloud in any direction near us, right?"
She moved away until he was at the edge of the circle around her. She squinted at him and said, "There. You are almost touching the edge of the cloud."
He wrinkled his nose and squinted his eyes at her, then said, "I'm not sure if becoming an adult has worked properly on you. It seems to have made you see and think weird things. You are at the edge of the cloud. I'm in a big space."
So, they saw different things, and the cloud didn't open around both of them. Only one. Or it seemed that way to each of them. She took a step away from him. He faded very slightly. She looked at him and said, "I wonder what happens if you wave your arms in a circle."
Lio looked at her with the same look she would have expected if she'd asked him to stick his arm on the end of his leg. But after a moment, he stuck his arms out and spun in a circle, moving his hands up and down. The cloud swirled around him, opening a small space where his hands and arms went. He stopped and looked at her. She did the same thing. When she looked back at him, his jaw was slack, and his eyes were wide.
"How did you weave the cloud?"
Elga thought for a moment. Then, she took three steps away from him. With each step, he grew more faint. She couldn't see around him, and he couldn't see around her.
The cloud wasn't solid or made of fibers. Jenu wasn't weaving the clouds.
Elga moved cautiously through the slowly fading mist, thinking about the trial, unplanned and casual as it had been, and what it meant for the village.
Very little, she had to admit.
But in another way, the realization that clouds were not woven fibers shook her whole understanding of things. While she hadn't attached herself firmly to the gods of the village, this was the first solid evidence she had that not everything taught about the six gods was counted right.
As the fog lifted, she walked a little faster, still contemplating possible reasons the fog didn't open up around two but appeared not to be near either one of a pair of people in it. Evewntually, she had to give the effort up. She didn't have a good idea, and the fog had completely disappeared.
She arrived at Ansa Weaver's hatch, and she looked at the blue surface decorated around the outside with white squares, noticing for the first time that the blue matched the sky on a summer day and the white was a little dusty, like the clouds.
She grasped the bronze knocker and rapped it against the hatch. Ansa opened it and gestured Elga in with an expression of satisfaction on her face. Elga entered the room and looked around. The floor was filled with several looms, chairs, side tables, and racks with places for dowels to hang fabrics-- somehow leaving space for the apprentices to walk between them without bumping anything. Small lights glowed on the tables and in sconces on the walls, casting light on the looms and their occupants.
Ansa closed the hatch and motioned to a chair, and Elga sat on it, careful not to bump a figure of a clawed beast holding a coupel of panels of fabric on dowels in its upraised claws.
Ansa handed Elga a frame prestrung with warp threads, a length of thread wrapped around a thin shaft, and thin piece of wood with "Head Stick" painted on one end.
Ansa pointed to each thread on the frame in turn and said, "Over; under; over; under; essence of basic weaving. Keep edge loose."
She sat down near Elga, picked up her own warped frame, and showed how to make one row of weft. When Elga had woven her head stick between the threads, opened a shed, and tucked her spooled shaft through to the other side of the frame, and dropped the threads back together, she said, "Use this to straighten row."
Elga used the end of the head stick to even up the row, and Ansa said, "Next row same as last, backward. Over now under. Under now over," pointing at the first row, then the warp thread above it. She made a row, and then Elga copied it. Ansa nodded, said, "Keep edges slack," and walked away, looking over the work of each of her apprentices. She nodded frequently, sometimes pointing to an area of concern, but she said almost nothing. Elga hadn't known that Ansa was so quiet.
She turned back to her work, running her head stick over and under, over and under, again and again, repeating the pattern of motions,
lifting the shed, sliding the thread into the shed,
bringing the thread out of the shed, closing the shed,
pressing the threads down to the bed made by the threads of the earlier rows,
checking the edge, and starting afresh, under and over, under and over, on the next row.
After a few minutes, Elga's back started to ache, but she kept working, hunched over her loom. Suddenly, Ansa was beside her, silent as a cloud in her approach. She put her hands on Elga's lower back and shoulder, pressing gently in opposite directions as she spoke in a gentle but insistent tone: "Sit straight, Elga."
Elga straightened her back, and the soreness recede. She repeated the motions, over and again, careful to maintain correct posture, careful of the tension at the edges, but her minde wandered.
She wondered why Ansa barely spoke, why all of her apprentices seemed cheerful in spite of the drought of encouragement, what the clouds were made of, since they weren't woven of wool, why Ansa started her on a frame instead of one of the floor looms that did a lot of the work of moving the threads up and down to make a shed on their own. She wove the head stick through the warp threads and ran the spool through them almost in a daze. She wondered what she'd been taught that was a good count and what was a miscount. She asked herself how she would learn to make good fabrics and what could be made of them and how they'd be made, when all the cloth she was making would be flat. This frame loom wouldn't make cloth a tailor would cut into shapes, with its warp threads so far apart. How long would she weave before she could make something more useful than cloth? She wondered what she wanted to weave that would be more useful. She ran the spooled rod back and forth. She wondered what kind of thread was most useful. She jumped as Ansa put her hand firmly on her shoulder.
"Too tight," Ansa said, pointing at the edges, steadily getting tighter and tighter with each row.
"I'm sorry, Ansa-dona," Elga said quickly, "I'll pull it out."
"No," Ansa said, looking surprised. "Not bad. Ugly. Not weak. Do better. Move forward. Look."
Ansa's hand drifted toward a wall where a large panel made up of smaller panels hung.
The small panels were all made of the same color fabric Elga was working on, but as she looked a little harder at it, she saw that the panels were not straight. Many of them had curved edges, but someone-- Ansa?-- had put them together so they matched. She saw some other panels that had been inserted that showed more evenness and skill, with irregular edges to match the faulty work of the new appentices.
Elga suddenly realized she had seen blankets of this design in the village; river blankets, the eldest called them; prized for the flowing lines. But it wasn't the apprentices who made them beautiful or got credit for them.
"I'll do better on the following rows," Elga said.
Ansa nodded and smiled in a way that warmed elga's insides all the way through. She straightened and walked away to check on the others. The mystery of the cheerful apprentices was solved, in Elga's reckoning.
Elga tugged lightly at the edge threads and went back to work, paying closer attention to the tension and trying not to get into so much of a rhythm that her mind could wander. But she still contemplated the village and its gods. Listening to the soft swish of the head stickls being slid into the warp threads, she wondered about the clouds. Watching her own fingers move the threaded shaft through the shed, she pondered how things could be made of flat cloth. Paying close attention to the tension as she ended and started rows, she thought about everything she now knew about weaving, little as it was, from her short practice, the actions of the apprentices around her, and what Ansa's daughter had told her the other day when she was talking to practitioners of many professions to decide which to try, and of how her life might be if she learned it well and was able to fall into the rhythm day after day while keeping the edges right. It was slightly comforting, the thought of knowing exactly what each day would be like. Perhaps she could do well at this and love the work. She looked down and found that she was at the end of the spool.
In the barest moment, Ansa was at her elbow, holding out a new spooled shaft. Elga exchanged it for hers, and Ansa showed her a method for continuing.
"Many ways," she said, "this is one."
The day went on like this, row upon row, spool upon spool, and the more the day passed, the more Elga's mind wandered. At one point, she came to herself with a start and felt, against all logic, that she'd almost woven her hair into the weft. She was only a little sorry when the apprentices began to set things aside and clean their areas.
She showed her frame to Ansa, who took it and sidled over to a table, where she set it down.
As Elga turned toward the door, Ansa put her hand on the frame and said, "Good start."
Elga smiled at her and then went out.
When Elga left the weaver's house, she turned distractedly toward her home, thinking about the village and all that she'd seen and pondered during the day.
As she came to an intersection, she saw Kela, Lio, and Tura huddled together, and they broke apart, running along three different paths. Elga was reminded immediately of her thoughjts about the gods. None of them could be in two places, but Elga almost could. Che stopped at the corner of the house closest to the crossing path and watched Kela pause in the path and look at the branch she'd drawn. She grinned and started back toward the crossing, watching for the other two. Lio slunk back on his path, watchful, as well. She glanced toward Tura, but he was hiding at the corner of a building, having obviously decided he'd drawn the lowest branch. Kela spotted Lio and ran toward him. He sped to meet her, and as they got close, both called out a number. Kela's was higher, and Lio skidded as he tried to reverse course. His retro effort was not enough, and she slapped his left shoulder. He splayed on the ground, his tongue out dramatically and his eyes crossed. Elga was always surprised how long he could stay like that, and it gave her an idea.
While Kela snuck toward where Tura had hidden, Elga walked over and stood beside Lio.
"Alwa, Lio," she said.
He didn't move or make a sound.
"You can hold that face longer than anyone in the village."
He stayed dead.
"I think you might even be the best in the world."
He stayed dead.
"What can be better? I bet you can outstare a god!"
He started, then went back to being dead, then sat up after a moment and asked, "What would you bet?"
Elga smiled. She said, "I'd wager a small zircon."
"You know the gods? Do you get to meet them when you become an adult? I thought you just spent your time working and talking about boring stuff."
"Grab Kela and Tura; we're going on a long walk."
Lio scrambled to his feet and ran off, but he was back in a short time with the other two.
Elga said, "Thank you for coming on this adventure. The fate of the village depends on your actions this day."
Kela's face changed from doubt to excitement. Elga continued, "We should be done by dark, but I have an important task for each of you."
Lio said, "What about the staring contest?"
Elga said, "That's one of the tasks. Now, follow me."
She led them through the village to the suben road, which led toward Hartsel. A good way from town, she stopped in front of Ganis. A basket sat in front of the large figure, and there were a few gifts of fruit, wine, and gemstones in the basket
Elga said, "The rules of the contest are these: Stare at each other. Whomever blinks the fewest times wins. If one of you leaves, he loses. Contest ends when I return."
Lio pushed his sleeves up on his arms and said, "I'll show you I'm the best!"
Tura laughed, "You? I've never seen Ganis the Vigilant blink!"
"I will!" Lio said.
Elga said, "Come on! We have more tasks."
She turned back to the village and led Kela and tura toward the inwid meadows. On the side of the road stood another shrine where Ganis watched to the etwid over the offerings and the village. Moss grew on the pedestal atop which Ganis stood, but something kept it from growing on Ganis.
Elga turned to Tura and said, "This pedestal is a shame. I need you to get out your curry brush and clean this moss off of the pedestal.Make sure nothing comes up to Ganis until I return."
Tura gave a snappy and melodramatic salute and said, "Aa-aa, moka pittance!"
As he took the brush from his oversized pocket, Elga led Kela back toward the village, turning right when she came to the path that led to the loden, past the bramble patch.
Just where the path joined another to go into the hills and past Mama Electra's house, Gani stood, head erect, eyes toward the village, slightly farther from the path than a large basket containing a few offerings. This path was not as well traveled as the others, so fewer people came to this shrine.
Elga turned to Kela and said, "Ganis is watching the village from here, now. He must like your company. Keep him from getting lonely. If he follows me, you may go back to the village, but don't leave him until I return, accepted?"
She felt a twinge of guilt telling Kela something she thought was miscounted-- indeed, what she was trying to disprove-- but she justified it in her mind as part of the pretend of the adventure game they were playing, even though she knew she considered that reasoning a miscount, too. Wasn't calling a deceit a game's conceit a deceit in itself?
"Accepted," Kela said. She sat by Ganis' feet and put a hand on his paw.
Elga swallowed hard and hurried along the other fork of the path, toward the footbridge etwid of the village. She tried not to think as she hurried past the meadow and down the hill to the bank of the river.
Did it matter what people believed? What did it hurt, really? Yet the right count of so many things did matter-- made the difference between eating and being hungry. How could she know this wasn't one of them? And what of the offerings left for Ganis? Ganis didn't need those, if he wasn't real. But those who left them might.
But was their need for those things greater than their need to feel watched and protected? What would happen to the village if she proved that the six gods weren't there? Could anyone live in peace if no one was there watching over them? Would people work together without the gods? She might be doing them a favor by telling them a comfortable deceit.
She reached the place where Ganis sat looking back at the village across a basket for offerings and thought, Here already.
She tentatively reached toward his ruff but held back from touching him and said, "Did you beat me here, or did you sit here before I left the weaver's? If you're real, show me."
For a bare moment, she longed for him to move, to prove his existence and believe all she'd been told. For a moment, she wanted to believe, even if it was a miscount.
But that moment passed.
She couldn't do it.
She couldn't believe a miscount and had to know whether it was. And it was too late, anyway. She'd already started the barrel down the hill, and it was too late to get in front of it to stop it from hitting whatever was in its path. Even if she didn't go back the others would knwo if Ganis patrolled the village or not.
She had to know. She wouldn't want to miscount what was real, even to be more comfortable, and she had no way to justify making the choice for someone else by telling them a false count. Not when she knew the real one. She moved confidently, this time, pressing her hand firmly to the ruff of the statue's shoulder. It was cold, as stone was in the shade. Ganis was not here; only a statue. She knew it, and she had only to recircle the patrol to seal the proof that he didn't simply race ahead of those who looked at each shrine for him. She was sorry she'd done this. She felt terrible for taking away the slender comfort the offerings gave to those who left them. But she could no longer stand to tell a false count. That was why she'd tried to discover this, in the first place: so she could give a true count, if asked.
She couldn't make the true count go away, so she ran from the statue and back to Lio, who was staring at a statue intently. Taking a deep breath and letting it out in a sigh, she steadied herself to do what she must. Lio wouldn't listen to a flat denial. He had to see it for himself.
"And, stop!" Elga cried.
Lio fell backward onto the ground and moved not at all.
Elga asked, "Lio, how many times did you blink?"
"Fifty-seven," Lio said.
"Ganis, how many times did you blink?"
The statue said nothing.
"Lio, how many times did he blink?"
"None," Lio said, tears streaming from his eyes.
"Don't weep so," Elga said, "Statues never blink."
"He's not a statue."
"Oh, I see. Well, did he run and come back?"
"Of a definite, no! That would have lost the game!"
"I see," said Elga. "Let's see how the others did with their tasks."
Lio stood up and followed her to the inwid meadows. Tura stood by the pedestal, smoothing his finger along a curving path near the top of the pedestal, guiding a trail of ants away from the feet of the statue of Ganis.
"Tura, did anyone approach Ganis?"
Tura jumped up and spun around, wobbling a mock salute in front of his forehead.
"Miss Elgafrida, no one has approached the god."
"And did Ganis leave this spot at any time?"
"No, Miss Elgafrida. He has been here the whole time."
"Liar!" Lio shouted.
"Lio, be still. Listen and watch," Elga commanded.
"You have done good work. This pedestal is a credit to our village's quality."
With that, she turned and led the two boys to the third patrol station.
Kela still sat beside the statue, her hand on its paw. That was it. If he'd moved, she would no longer be here. None of the statues had moved.
"Has Ganis moved from this spot, Kela?"
"No, Miss Elgafrida. I've been keeping him company the whole time."
Tura asked, "How many Ganises are there?"
Lio said, "Only one. How is he staying with each of us at the same time?"
Elga said, "There is no Ganis. Only four statues."
She walked back to town, leaving the children staring after her in shock.
Elga rubbed her eyes and gave her head a little shake, pausing by the statue of Ganis, mythical patrol dog of the village, before setting out across the inwid meadow. The stars winked at her in the sky, giving barely enough light to avoid tripping over the occasional scrubby plant that stood a foot's height above the ground cover.
Ahead, she saw a faint red glow and, beyond that pinpoint, a fainter glow at the horizon. Bosona would be looking down on them before too long.
She made straight for the point of light, and as she approached the place and could see the campfire, she could also make out two other young adults from the village also making for the fire.
The trio arrived at roughly the same time, and while Elga stood near Virgil waiting to be acknowledged, the other two clasped hands with another pair, who started talking in low tones to them without any greeting, telling details of their time on the pasturage. Elga didn't hear much of their talk, for Virgil stood up, put away his whetstone and knife, and spoke to her before a dozen heartbeats had passed.
"A fine morning, Elgafrida. Well rested?"
"Yes, Master Herder."
He nodded in approval. Then, he said, "Today is going to be a hard one. We have a lot to do, and we have to make a selection."
The four apprentices let go of each other and separated. The newcomers went toward the flock, which was clustered near a large barrel and trough, while their compatriots headed toward the village. Virgil continued, "The flock and the herd are a vital part of the village, protecting it, supplying meat, milk, and hides and wool to keep us warm."
Elga smiled, thinking of being part of keeping little children warm and well fed. She liked the idea of being a vital member of the village. "What we do," Virgil said, "is not just raising animals. We keep the animals healthy, but we also keep the village and the meadows healthy. We make sure that there is grass next year, that the rains don't wash the hills into the village. We protect the village, not just the flock, from monsters and wild beasts."
Elga gripped her hands tightly. She had to face something frightening, some time. She liked the idea of protecting those she loved. But did the herders really encounter monsters?"
"You will learn how to feed the animals, how to keep the animals healthy, how to protect the animals, how to read the weather and the ground, how to milk the animals, how to shear, how to manage the dogs, and how to butcher."
Elga had been listening with growing excitement to each of these tasks, but she missed the next few things Virgil said as the last item stopped her mind short. Butcher? She thought the herders only raised the animals, that someone else turned them into meat. She liked meat as much as the next person in the village, but she didn't like the thought of having to kill an animal herself.
"...and then we'll visit the barn for a quick overview of the equipment we have there."
Elga tried to refocus on Virgil. He was telling her about the importance of helping a sheep that had gotten stuck on its back right away, and how to pull it onto its side so it could get up again. He gave her the rule of thumb for moving a herd of goats: don't let them graze below their knees. He told her the proportions of different foods the herd needed to stay healthy. He explained how they moved the herds to maintain their preferred ratio in diet. Elga listened attentively, trying not to get distracted.
He went on, talking about the method the herders used to water the flock so that each animal got enough to keep them from getting dehydrated before their next watering.
"...and we've found that our goats like water a lot less than a soup. They like to drink what has a little flavor to it," he said.
Elga followed him over toward the herd. He said, "Guiding the dogs takes a lot of practice. And before you can control them, you need to understand how they move the flock. And you learn that by doing it yourself. Approach the flock slowly, watching for movement.If the movement is in the direction you want, just keep going in that direction, slowly and steadily. If not, adjust your approach. If it's close to the right direction, raise the hand away from your goal and snap your fingers. Like this."
Elga watched him and thought it was amazing how he made the flock move, even without the dogs.
"When they're getting close to where you want them, back away, maybe move far around to another side. If you approach from the long side or quickly, you can split the flock. I'm going to split some animals off, and I want you to move them in a square around this field."
He whistled and clicked and walked and whistled, and in five minutes, he had a small group separated out and a bit away from the rest of the flock. Elga spent the next few hours moving behind them, walking to one side or the other, slowly getting them moved where she was supposed to, slowly gaining confidence and efficiency with moving the animals. But eventually, she got her small sub-herd moved along one edge of the square without scattering them, rushing from side to side, or falling down in the grass, as she had on one of her earliest attempts. When she crouched to get the animals to stop, then started to the side to make the turn, Virgil called to her and whistled the dogs around to push her animals back into the herd.
She joined him and brushed at a dirt spot on her shirt.
"You're picking that up very quickly. I think you have great potential," Virgil said. He whistled a signal to one of his apprentices, and the boy waved and then started whistling comands to the dogs, moving the herd in the direction of the next meadow on their rotation.
Elga followed Virgil down toward the village. At the edge of the forest, there was a barn that the herders used for their work. He led her to the door nearest them, where another of his apprentices, a boy named Drumei, met them and accompanied them inside.
He explained each of the tools they used, one at a time, and where and when it was used. He talked to her about the sorting sticks, the crooks, brushes, shears, sacks, buckets, salves, balms, collars, and a variety of other types of tools and mixtures.
Virgil quizzed her on the tools he'd gone over, and she did fairly well with repeating the characteristics of most of them.
He nodded and led her and the apprentice to one end of the barn, where a large pen held a number of goats. As Drumei guided the goats along a narrow run, Virgil talked about the criteria they used to select which animals to keep and which to get rid of.
He said, "Among other things, we keep careful track of which animals get sick, so we can see how often they fall ill. We don't want to keep breeding a line that is prone to illness. We look for ewes and nannies that don't let their kids nurse, because they won't have healthy offspring. Look at this one. See how the one teat is lumpy and swollen. We're not going to want to breed her again, because she's more likely to reject her kid at nursing. We look at the younglings and see which animals are producing scrawny younglings. We'll want to avoid continuing those lines, as well."
As he spoke, he used his stick to guide the goats into one of two pens at the end of the run. He continued talking about individual animals, pointing out traits that were attractive or abhorrent, sorting and selecting which animals would be returned to the herd, and which ones would not. She got lost in his words, drinking in the information. She had never known how complex the job of herding was, before today.
She was caught off guard when the last animal went through and Virgil said, "Now, we'll try you out on one of the hardest parts of herding."
She pushed her sleeves up a little and waited, biting her lip anxiously.
Drumei handed Virgil a hammer with a boxy head, and Virgil handed it to her. It weighed about 30 pebbles, and it felt good in her hand. She could swing it easily, but what was she going to do with it? The herders didn't seem to use fences the way the growers in soil did. She followed Virgil around the outside of the pens to a gate in the pen that had been on their left as the sorted the group. There, Virgil hopped into the pen, took a crook from Drumei, and walked slowly into the pen. He reached out quickly with the crook and came away with a goat's leg. Then, he had his hand on the goat's collar and led it out the gate. As Drumei closed the gate behind him, he walked out into the field beside the barn. Elga followed.
He said, "Now, the important thing is to follow through on your swing. If you pull back at the last moment, you won't stun the goat, and you could cause the animal a lot of pain. Aim here. Go ahead."
Elga said, "What?"
Drumei said, "Master Virgil is going to get the goat to lower its head. You're going to stun it with the hammer. Virgil will slit its throat while it's stunned, so it won't feel any pain."
Elga said, "What?"
Drumei wrinkled his brow. Virgil said, "Elgafrida, we have to slaughter this animal. This is part of making sure the herd and the village stay healthy. Are you ready?"
"No," she said. "I can't."
"You can't what?"
"I can't bear the thought of killing an animal."
Virgil said, "The deaths of the animals are part of the circle of our work. You'll have to face it eventually. Do you think you might work up to it?"
Elga stood motionless for a moment, thinking, and then she shook her head. "I don't. I'm not strong enough to face that. Can I be a herder on the other end of things?"
Virgil shook his head. "Every herder learns every part of the job. Every herder takes a turn in each task."
He held out his hand. She handed him the hammer. Drumei spread some feed on the ground, and the goat started to eat. Virgil eased up beside the goat and lifted the hammer.
Elga turned and ran toward the village, but she still heard the dull thud of the hammer as he stunned the goat.
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