Taqu was always considered a peculiar boy. The rest of his tribe readily accepted the fact that Home Island was the only landmass in the world, and as such the only place worthy of thought. Since early childhood Taqu spent many hours each day sitting on the white beach, gazing out upon the blue horizon.
Taqu was always fascinated with the great sea surrounding their island. The rest of the tribe, however, had little interest in what lay beyond that which they could see with their own eyes. The only thing important was that the Edge Of The World was where the sun god came and went each day, and that as long as the water held fish and the trees bore fruit, nothing else mattered. With his peculiar, downright unnatural curiosity, which so differed from the generations of Clan that came before him, Taqu was alone. After all, the great sun god provided for all their needs; what reason was there for anything more?
The Clan was made up of dark-eyed people who were rarely stout or tall, adept at maneuvering through the close-grown tropical foliage that shaded the majority of Home Island but for the beaches and the summit of Mt. Heaven, a tremendous spire that speared upward from the center of the island like an enormous conch shell. Clan folk were descendents of an ancient race of strong, dark-skinned individuals. Taqu himself was no exception to the norm; in appearance his complexion was tanned and his hair raven. Once, Taqu was told he resembled his father, but having never met him, the boy could only shrug his indifference. Because of his abstinence from the games other boys his age would play, he was slight in build. And because of his insistence on questioning the rituals and assumptions of the adults, he was regarded as strange. As he grew, people viewed his curiosity as some sort of debilitating mental illness, for he preferred to stare off upon the ocean rather than partake in normal clan activities.
It was said, that the first clan folk were brought to Home Island ages ago by the great sun god. Here they would live out their lives in peace and happiness, for the island was bountiful in all manner of means to support the Clan. Sweet fruits swelled and fell from the trees all year, fat fish swam into shallows where soft-shelled crabs and mussels could be found in the sand, and a natural spring from somewhere under Mt. Heaven brought forth a continuous stream of cool freshwater.
Timing keeping was in itself a strange concept to most clan folk, for they were familiar with only two seasons: summer and rainy. The passage of time blend from season to season, and apart from this cycle there was often little cause for concern. The Home Island was in a near-perpetual state of tropical midsummer, the warmth and comfort of the daily sun altered only by the occasional cloud cover that never lasted for longer than several days at a time. Even during the Time of Heavy Winds, dangerous storms were few and far between. Shelter was needed more often to hide from the unpleasant coolness that sometimes settled upon the island at night rather than for survival, and the small thatched huts were simple and crude.
In truth, no new homes had been built for generations; the methods of construction all but lost in a blur of forgetfulness and mind-numbing ritual. For reasons unknown to them, the population grew very slowly, and a young couple would move into the home of a recently deceased elder. Those dwellings that were recently constructed were humble mimicries of the old homes in which the most prestigious Clan members lived.
There were some who did not look to Taqu with total pity for his outlandish perspective on things. One was the Clan shaman, an enigmatic individual who was also viewed as an outsider. But these sentiments were born of fear of the medicine woman rather than pity. Her name was Sarum, and it was she who interpreted the will of the great sun god, performed death rites, and anointed births, as well other services to the Clan that no other could provide or hope to fathom.
Often after carrying out her duties, Sarum would return to her lonely hut in the woods. No others dared to follow her, and only under great duress would she be visited in her home, for Clan people were cautious and fearful of things they did not understand. More often than not, younglings learned cautious behavior from the adults not out of discovering the pain that followed an injury, but rather from the threat of having to visit Sarum for treatment. Thus, Sarum rarely had visitors except for important matters, for even one as high standing as the Clan chief, Or'jar, was ever hesitant to speak to the shaman. She was old even before Or'jar was born, and like all others of the Clan, he viewed her as a last resort, avoided whenever possible.
Sarum, in her own way, saw something peculiar in Taqu, but not in the same manner as the rest of the Clan. Perhaps it was because the other children did not play with him because of his oddness that brought Sarum's sympathy. Perhaps it was in seeing him, mocked and teased by the other children and looked upon as a sort of mentally handicapped invalid, even by the boy's own mother, that caused the ancient medicine woman to identify with him. Whatever the cause, Sarum had watched Taqu grow and learn and question the world around him. Whenever she ventured into the village from her secluded abode, her eyes did not stray far from the boy.
The only other person in the clan to view Taqu not as a target to be bullied was none other than the daughter of the chief. Yura was not much younger than Taqu, but young enough to be blithely unaware of the differences between herself and the invalid. To her, Taqu was indeed a strange boy, but not so much as deserving of such derisive treatment from the others of the Clan. True though it was he seemed to concern himself with overly complex and meaningless things. Questions like 'What lay beyond the horizon?' and 'Where the stars went after the sun came up each morning,' or 'why do some families produce children, while others cannot?'
These were the thoughts only an invalid could imagine. The stories, as told by the chief and known by heart by most of the adults, seemed to be insufficient to Taqu. This trait was perceived by most as arrogance and, be extension, another attribute of his abnormality. Still, Yura often visited him on the beach where he often sat.
"What do you see?" she asked him, stepping up behind the boy. Though the day was nearly over, most normal Clan people would have spent it lounging at the lagoon upstream of the river nearest to the village. Taqu, as per usual, preferred to sit alone on the white beach, facing west, always west, huddled in his usual fashion with his legs folded against his chest.
"White capped waves," said the lad. Yura stood for a moment next to him, staring in the same direction for some time.
"Yes, there are many waves," she said with a knit brow. Most other clan would have grown bored with him and walked away already, but Yura still retained the curiosity of a child. "Like always."
He lowered his chin to his folded arms, looking unblinkingly ahead as though he waited for the endless scene of waves to change. It was true, Yura knew well enough, that the ocean was vast and mysterious. She knew that this was why the great sun god made the island for the Clan to live upon, after all. The sea was ever changing, but there was a normality in its constant shifting of shape and color. Never did the ocean sit still, the waves came crashing upon the beach within the same space of time between each other, day after day, carrying and pushing sand and shells and bits of kelp.
"Lets go into the forest," she said, placing her hand upon his shoulder. The gesture seemed to go unnoticed by the lad. "The red-fruits are starting to fall again; and they're soft this time, not hard like before. If we hurry we can get some before the grown-ups scarf them up at the feast!"
"Yura!" came the commanding, masculine tone of a familiar father figure. Instantly the girl shot up from her stoop, and turned to see the chief, Or'jar, standing at the tree line, looking displeased. "Come," he said. It was not a request, and as all people did, Yura obeyed as the chief demanded.
Taqu remained on the beach. He could hear the soft footfalls of Yura as she left his side, but thought little of it. He idly cast a glance over his shoulder and looked upon the set of tracks left behind by the hastily fleeing girl. Then a wave crept up the beach and washed away any trace that he had had a visitor at all. Taqu kept where he sat, allowing the gentle push of warm seawater to move under him, around him, through him, until it dragged itself back to the ocean. Waves like that happened every now and then, but they always returned to that level, no matter what time of day. Perhaps he would return to the village soon. But it was not as though anyone was worried about him, not least of which his mother.
Mother; a word to him meaning the woman who took care of him when he was a baby, but often made attempts to avoid the embarrassment he caused. He had seen the way other mothers coddled their children, tickling and teasing and laughing, but could not, for the life of him, recall his own mother doing the same. Perhaps she had, he reasoned, when he was too young to remember, until he was old enough to walk and speak. That made sense, he thought, since it was around that time he started asking questions in a rather unClan-like manner.
Why had everyone, as far as he could remember, simply endured life without ever wondering about it?
The sea was mysterious, mercurial, and frightening; but above all things, it fascinated him. The sun, the sea, the clouds, the waves; at least those made sense to him. He continued staring, mesmerized by the movement and the sound.
"I've told you before, I don't want you around that boy," said the chief firmly as they descended into the shaded woods. Broad leafed shrubs gave way to tall, rough-barked trunks and the rhythmic sound of the crashing waves faded to a dull, faint roar. Animals could be heard, brightly colored birds warbling their wondrous calls, insects singing in the wind.
"Yes, father," was all Yura could say, expecting the usual lecture.
"He's an odd one," Or'jar continued. "Something about that boy just isn't right. Soft in the head, he's very much unClan."
"I know, father."
"And what good are the sons of an invalid, Yura? It's better to just have nothing to do with him."
As they walked, the father and daughter approached the village where the activity of others could be heard. People laughed, sang, went about their usual business of weaving, stitching, tanning leather, cooking for the evening meal. It was a sight that always brought pride to the chief, for when his people worked they always appeared at their happiest ; unlike the invalid, who never seemed to do a thing except chisel strange shapes into driftwood. Of what use were wooden figurines, anyway?
"Chief Or'jar," many villagers said, nodding their heads with respect as he passed. Yura followed him as any obedient child was expected to do, and after a time he deposited her under the care of his wife, Agal. With some words of advice, Yura's mother swept her up from the ground and brought her inside their hut, to continue her usual lessons. The chief left, his practical mind temporarily put at ease. His wife was a good mother and a patient teacher; she had taught Yura, as well as other younglings, the important points of being a woman. Among these things was how to choose their friends, and how to avoid anything that was unusual. In Or'jar's mind, Taqu was the most unusual thing he'd ever seen on his island.
How the waves captivated, hypnotized Taqu. Especially at the end of the day, when the sun god would begin his daily dive into the waves, setting the sky on fire for a brief time. Clouds on the horizon became lit with celestial flame; gold and crimson beams of light shining forth from the meeting of sun and sea. To Taqu, there was nothing more beautiful than the sea, and nothing more wondrous than when the ocean swallowed the sun god each day.
"Fancy finding you here," croaked the voice of an elderly woman. So engrossed was Taqu that he did not hear her approach, but her voice startled him. He stiffened and twisted to face her. "Imagine seeing you looking at the same thing you have for the last thousand days. Sitting in your usual spot in the sand, ignoring everybody else...as usual."
"Good evening, Sarum," said Taqu, trying to not appear frightened. "It is lovely this evening, is it not?" The old medicine woman craned her wrinkled face toward the horizon.
"Yes," she agreed. "Though, at first glance, not very different from all the others."
"Oh, but it is different," he said emphatically. He looked back towards the sungod. "Every sunset is unique. And even so, this one is special."
"Is it, now?"
"Yes, somehow," was the boy's reply. Though he did not face her, he could tell that she was interested in his observation, and seeing as there was never anyone else to talk to about these things, Taqu gladly shared his thoughts with the old woman. "The sun god does not always dive in the exact same place on the horizon, just as he does not always rise in the same place, on the other side of island. And some days, it takes longer for him to submerge. Other days, he dives in quickly, and night comes fast. But today..."
"How is it different, Taqu?" asked an inquisitive Sarum.
"It's almost what looks like a star, right next to him. We normally cannot see stars until after he dives. It's very unusual."
"That is indeed very un-sun godlike," said Sarum, who had noticed the same thing as quickly as him, but she preferred as ever to have him demonstrate his awareness. "He favors order, not divergence from normal sequence of things. I wouldn't worry about it, though."
"Is the sun god real?" Taqu asked abruptly. Sarum took it in stride, not so much as she was expecting the question, but she was used to his random inquiries. That was why she liked him.
"He's about as real as you believe he is," said she. "The others of the Clan believe in him, and thus he exists in their hearts and minds." Taqu thought for a moment. Suddenly Sarum didn't seem as scary as she used to be.
"Do you believe in him?" Sarum paused.
"I believe that it's time you get back to the village," was the evasive reply. It was the first time anyone had ever asked her that. "Help an old woman to the village, will you?" She offered her arm.
Taqu, who had never seen Sarum do anything more physically strenuous than carry her twisted staff, lurched from his seat to take her arm. If there was one thing that the Clan knew to be positive in the boy, it was his willingness to assist elders, even if he did find her gaze unsettling and her enigmatic manner discomforting at times.
As they hobbled away from the beachhead, the curious light remained even after the sun god had descended, and slowly grew brighter.
Stars shone overhead between the trees, and the smell of smoked meats hung in the air. The village was abuzz with activity, as was the norm when preparing for a feast. Clan people were anxious to eat, for normally they would have simply gone off and fed themselves if not for the special event. Those who were not directly involved with the preparation sat around the primary fire at the center of the village, where they waited eagerly with growling stomachs and eager glances at the cooking hut.
But none dared attempt to eat until commanded by the chief himself, who sat ominously atop his heavily adorned, raised seat. At Chief Or'jar's side was propped the Spear of Leadership, an archaic weapon that had power in symbolism much more than in function. In fact, these days it was hardly used for much except as a symbol of station. In the old stories, however, it is said that the spear was a gift from the sun god. No one but the chief, or the chief's impending successor, ever lay a hand on the intricately carved shaft of the spear, and it had been passed down for generations.
A boy not much older than Taqu was coming of age. By delivering the killing blow to a wild finboar, Kajak had endured the ritual of manhood. Clanfolk occasionally hunted this dangerous creature that made its home on the other side of the island. While a slain beast provided much for the tribe once it was hauled home, they were usually hunted ritualistically to bring a young man into the ranks of the adult hunters.
Finboars were amphibious beasts, and were just as much of a threat to any Clan in the water as they were in the meadows in which they preferred to graze. What Kajak had accomplished was no small feat, and required bravery and skill with the spear that did not come without training and much concentration.
In celebration for bringing down the animal, tonight Kajak would be made a man, and would take his rightful place amongst the adults of the Clan. Kajak himself was extremely proud, enjoying every bit of attention that the ceremony afforded him, and gladly told and retold the story of his feat whenever the opportunity arose. But exaggeration was not a trait common among the Clan. Each time he told the tale, he was honest to each telling; he related his fear, his doubt, even how he had made a mistake and nearly been killed. It made the tale all the more gripping, and that was fine by him. But his pride was surpassed only by one other, the boy's father, who had been among those observing. Tonight, the Clan would deservedly and gladly lose a boy, but gain an adult.
The chief was indeed the head of the clan, as made clear to them with his raised seat near the fire pit. But one thing he could not do was anoint a child as an adult; for that, he would have to wait for Sarum. And no one ever showed their impatience when it came to waiting for the shaman.
He did not feel the need to send a runner to fetch the medicine woman. Sarum had a way of being there when she was needed, or appearing when her guidance or services were required. How she managed to make her way around the island so swiftly was beyond him, but perhaps more importantly, the unsettling woman was almost always absent when she was not needed. True though it was that Or'jar commanded the Clan, and often oversaw many crucial aspects of its wellbeing, but Sarum's sphere of dominance was the spiritual, the afterlife, and the medicinal. Such things were mysterious and esoteric the normal Clan folk, not least of all the chief himself. Fear of the unknown kept them away from her hut, and also allowed the old woman to command as much respect. The sooner she came, performed the ritual, and left, the sooner the chief could relax and enjoy the feast.
There was singing and dancing, musicians performing on their primitive drums made from gourds and turtle shells. Between the smell of cooking food, the sound of good music, the closeness of each others company, and the sights of the younger people dancing happily in the firelight, no one could think of living any other way.
A break in the foliage and Sarum appeared on the scene, a patient Taqu close behind. Under one arm the old crone held a walking stick topped with animal skulls and beaded charms, made from parts of animals the likes of which the Clan had never seen elsewhere. How she acquired such exotic feathers, bones and materials was beyond them, and with each step the staff rattled in a manner that drew as much attention to her as it drove people to part and make a wide path for her.
Taqu took his place along the edge of the crowd, respectfully observing all that happened. Or'jar's eyes briefly darted toward him, but all wariness of the boy was transferred to the limping medicine woman. Everyone knew she was ancient, old enough to know the great-grandparents of those who now sat, or stood, at the center of the village, and her form had gradually twisted and warped with age. But as she made her way toward the center fire, she appeared as strong as the mightiest warrior; a shaman in command of mind and shadow.
The music was stopped, and all fell silent but for the rhythmic steps of Sarum's sandaled feet, the rattling of her staff like the heartbeat of the earth. Even the roaring fire seemed to quiet as she stopped and slowly turned to face the Clan. She stared her withering gaze at various individuals throughout the crowd, building the suspense effortlessly. In some ways, Sarum had come to understand, people of the Clan were like children.
"One among us this night will ascend," she began, tightly gripping her staff with one hand and gesturing with the other hand to the crowd, and then to the star filled sky. "And the Clan will know the mettle of this one as a rightful member of their own, having proven himself in the eyes of the sun god." Kajak positively beamed. Even if it was the ever-frightening Sarum telling the Clan of his bravery, he enjoyed every moment of it.
"Tonight we feast in honor of the hunter," she continued, and with a flourish of her hand she plucked a small sack from her adorned staff head. The small thing smelt of rotten eggs to any who dared remain near enough to use their nose, and with grand ceremony Sarum tossed the tiny bag into the fire behind her.
There was a flash as the flames doubled in height for a brief moment, and the fire turned green, spewing yellow sparks around the medicine woman, the blast of heat tossing her withered locks through the air. A space passed when the shaman appeared much larger than she actually was, her shadow being cast across the village, and all who watched knew that they were getting a glimpse of the true power that lay dormant within that aged form. In that brief moment, Sarum was greater than Or'jar. Greater even than the sun god himself.
As with every ritual performance, Clan people stared with eyes wide open. Those closest to her flinched and stumbled over one another to keep at a safe distance.
Yet when the Clan recovered from their predictable fright as the fire faded, the old medicine woman seemed to shrink, and lean heavily on the staff again. The power had passed, her shadow had faded, and all that remained was a mysteriously frightening old crone. With the rhythmic rattling of her staff hitting the ground between her methodical footsteps, she departed from the village without another word, and Clan people all around held their breath in silence as she passed, some too frightened to watch. Taqu was among those to watch her go. She neither asked for his aid in getting back to her hut, nor did the boy expect her to do so. And with her absence came the return of Clan music, and within minutes food was being passed around on palm-leaf plates. There was no part of the finboar that was not utilized by the clan; bones were carved into tools and ornaments.
Tendons and hide were used for clothing, hair bristles were woven into thread and rope, even the webbing between flippers was preserved for delicate wares. But perhaps most of all there was the meat; Clan people usually lived off of fallen fruits and the fish of the shallows. While there was never any fear of starvation, for the island had provided the Clan with abundant food for generations, the roasted meat of the finboar provided for a welcome uncommon treat. As such, faith in the great sun god, the eternal protector and provider of the Clan, never faltered, which in turn fueled the sun god to keep his children safe; it was believed to be perfect circle of logic in an unbroken cycle.
"This is a proud day," the chief announced at a moment of particular rowdiness. The Clan folk were not messy eaters, but they tended to become easily absorbed in their meal, especially since they had forgotten the purpose of utensils. Most of the people turned their attention toward Or'jar as he stood from his raised seat and beckoned Kajak to his side. "Tonight you are a man," he said to him. "How does it feel?"
Kajak was never a boy to boast at the expense of others, nor was he the type who was prone to exaggerating his exploits, of which there were many. But hidden behind his humbleness there was a quiet, growing desire in the back of his mind, a secret ambition.
More than having a woman of his own, or moving into a hut seperate from his family. Even fathering children - something that was more and more rare - was something for which he cared little. Though these were the primary goals of any normal Clan man, Kajak sought something more. He desired to sit in the chief's seat, to wield the chief's spear.
He believed that he had done well in hiding his ambition from the elders. He had worked hard to elevate himself in the eyes of the chief, and kept his mind open to any opportunity that might present itself.
"I have never felt so honored," he said.
"Indeed," said Chief Or'jar, smiling warmly. "And with manhood comes the greatest honor." He then gestured to the crowd, and Yura stepped forth to join her father at the throne, leaving Agal in the crowd. He placed a hand on either's shoulder, and turned to the gathered Clan, who watched as they ate. Or'jar raised his hands and called for everyone's attention, as he did whenever announcing a marriage.
The Clan watched, seemingly in full understanding of what was about to happen. Arranged pairing was nothing new, and it came as no surprise that Kajak was the chosen mate of Or'jar's daughter, even though she was a bit younger than the traditional age. From the look of the boy, it was no secret to him either. As for Yura, however, she wore an expression of perplexity, as a girl too young to understand the full implications of what was happening around her.
The chief's gaze darted about the crowd, until it at last rested on Taqu's face, isolated in the back of the crowd. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she saw him wearing an expression that was not the blank stare that he so often wore while looking out upon the ocean. For the first time in his young life, Taqu's eyes were filled with regret.
As Or'jar opened his mouth to speak the expected news, a light flashed across the sky. Brighter than any star, it streaked above the clouds like a miniature sun, leaving a sparkling trail of fire behind it. In its wake the sky screamed like thunder, and the Clan staggered and startled with surprise. Some people wailed in fright.
Three times more there were shooting stars, one of them appearing much larger, or closer, than the others, looking as though it had struck the ocean on the far side of the island.
People abandoned their food and panicked to recover their children and take cover. Some cried out in fear, others calling out for direction from their chief, who quickly instructed everyone to get inside their homes. Taqu, on the other hand, thought first of Sarum. She would know what to do. He disappeared into the forest, unnoticed by everyone.
Everyone except for the chief's daughter.
It was not difficult to escape in the chaos that ensued, not that anyone would have made an attempt to stop him. His own mother was amidst the crowd, seeking cover like the rest, and not trying to find him and spirit him to whatever semblance of safety the thatched huts might provide. Without a further thought, Taqu made his way into the forest and tore through the woods to Sarum's hut, running as sure-footedly as he was able in the darkness. He had been there only once before, but like all Clan, he knew exactly where it was and even though Sarum had only just left the village, Taqu had a feeling that she was already back at her hut, able to travel swiftly by whatever mystical means she had at her employ. The medicine woman was as enigmatic to Taqu as the rest of them, but it was her knowledge of the hidden, occult arts that fueled the boy's belief that Sarum would know what was happening.
The urgency of the situation made the run seem to take much longer than it actually did. Fiery stars continued to streak across the sky, though none nearly as bright as the ones seen earlier. The clouds high above flashed as though set aflame like lightning without rain. When he found Sarum's hut, crooked-looking in the shadows, Taqu was relieved to see the warm light of a candle within.
To his knowledge, Taqu had just come closer to Sarum's hut than any other man in recent memory. Not even Kajak dared approach this place. But Taqu swallowed his growing anxiety and fear, and forced the next couple of steps that brought him to the doorway of the medicine woman's dwelling.
"Sarum!" he called, somehow finding his voice. Peaking through the open door, he saw strange things hanging from the ceiling; dried animal parts bound together in twine, bones, feet, pieces of shells, shiny objects collected from the beaches and oddities he could not even describe. In her possession, Sarum apparently had many of the rare objects that the Clan called 'bottles', each filled with some sort of different colored liquid or suspending shadowy shapes in opaque fluid. Hers was a house that was built very differently from Clan homes, in much the same way that the chief's hut and the one or two other ancient homes had been built. Instead of a dirt floor, Sarum's home was propped on stilts, with windows in each wall and floorboards underfoot. The boy tried not to stare at the oddities and trinkets around him, calling for the elder woman again and again.
"There's no time to waste," came a croak from behind the boy. He jumped at the sound, and turned to find the hunched woman standing precariously in the doorway. "I know why you've come, and we must hurry. Something terrible is about to happen - the spirits have whispered this much to me, but I know not what else. Take my hand." She extended her wiry, wrinkly fingers.
Taqu did not understand what she was talking about - omens regarding the spirits were something he did not claim to understand. But he did know it was often better to trust the word of an elder, especially Sarum, than his own self-doubts. He took her hand, as beckoned, and in the next moment he realized he was no longer in the hut.
Trees flashed by, wind tugging at his hair and pulling at his skin. It was as though he were flying through the foliage like one of the many beautiful birds that often flitted between branches of Home Island. He saw that he was being pulled, but by what force he could not tell. The forest dashed past him in a green and black blur, and in spite of the overwhelming, confusing experience, Taqu had a vague understanding of where he was going.
Was this a vision? A dream? Or was he actually flying through the night with the speed of a hare, leaping over rivers and whizzing past trees with the alacrity of lightning?
He was pulled uphill, and on Home Island, uphill always meant towards the central mountain - sacred Mt. Heaven, said to be the final resting place of the spirits of dead Clansmen. Few people ever went there - about as many as visited Sarum's hut.
He scaled vertical cliffs in seconds, not a foot touching solid ground or even a breath being taken, so swift was his ascent. Taqu could hardly believe what he was seeing, nor could he keep his eyes closed. As he flew ever upward toward the peak of the mountain, he could see Home Island in its entirety from a viewpoint he had scarcely imagined; and the island itself with its beaches, forests, lakes and meadows, seemed much, much smaller than ever before. How wide the world truly was!
In what felt like the span of only several short breaths, he reached the summit, and overhead streaked comets of varying color and brightness. Their light brought revolving shadows around Taqu's planted feet as they careened over him and off into the distance, and after each fire passed, the night sky briefly returned to its star-filled state. Taqu had never seen anything more beautiful in his life, but it was irregular. And according to Clan law, any sort of irregularity was cause for suspicion - of this the boy had been frequently reminded. Far below, he could even see the village, and if not for the darkness, he might have been able to make out the tiny figures of panicked people running about the central village fire.
"What is happening?" he asked aloud, only to find that he was alone on the peak. Any other Clan individual would have lost their mind with fear approaching the shaman's hut, much less at having been spirited across the island in seconds to receive a much clearer view of the chaos happening in the star-filled heavens.
Before he could even wonder where Sarum had gone, a shooting star came into view, and his eyes grew wide. He stifled a yelp and threw his body to the ground, and an instant later there was a colossal quaking of the earth as the comet careened downward and smashed into the mountainside. Mt. Heaven shuddered, and the earth crumbled below. The sound was deafening, a boom matched only by jealous thunder, followed by a series of deep cracking sounds as solid rock gave way to the celestial impact. If Taqu had not seen the impact, he might have thought the great sun god himself was cracking his knuckles beneath the mountain.
A fissure yawned below, parting the earth like a stony mouth, and from it welled a river of smoldering, molten rock. Taqu had seen nothing like it before, but he could tell by the hot winds on his face and the trees below being consumed in seconds, that the flow was death to all in its path.
And downhill of the fissure lay the village, Clan people still running around in a panic.
He called to the people below, but the winds ripped his words away. As he focused, he could see the river of fire encircle the village, as though it were a sentient creature cornering prey. He could see villagers running into their straw and wooden huts, but some did not make it even that far before the ground was enveloped in searing lava. In moments the village, and those within, were rendered nothing more than ash fizzling on the surface of a lake of fire.
Taqu's voice was hoarse from screaming against the winds. His eyes were wide with fear and surprise, unbelieving of what he saw, his raven hair flapping around his eyes and ears. For a time he stood unmoving, unbelieving.
And then there appeared a shape in the corner of his vision, and he turned to see the medicine woman, standing quite peacefully just at his shoulder. She had the look of one who saw nothing of what happened below. Deep inside his being, Taqu felt an anger rise. How could the crone be so indifferent? He knew the villagers did not think kindly of her, or even of himself for that matter, but they always showed respect for her.
Before he could express his outrage, a force unseen to him pulled his being away from the mountaintop. A sensation like falling, but without movement, of swimming but without water, washed over him, and when next he opened his eyes, Taqu found himself back within Sarum's rickety hut.
"What did you see?" asked Sarum the moment his eyes focused on his surroundings. How he got to Mt. Heaven, or how he returned, was irrelevant to him.
"How could you not have seen! You were there!" Taqu gasped. He rose from the floor upon which he had apparently been laying. He found it difficult to stand, and help himself upright by clinging to a nearby wicker-woven chair.
"I was here the whole time, boy," said Sarum with the air of someone explaining a basic truth to a child. "You saw something, did you not? What did you see?"
A premonition? Taqu wondered. As in, a vision? He never saw anything like this before, and would not have been able to tell the difference from a fantastical dream.
"Are you saying that it hasn't happened yet?"
"What hasn't happened yet, boy?" was the shaman's response.
"The village," he said urgently. "We must get to the village, before it's too late!"
Sarum merely nodded, content that whatever it was the boy saw, it was important enough to move quickly. She'd always known him as different from the rest. Left to guess the details, the medicine woman suspected that most any other Clan would be quick to disregard any vision, such was how they were taught.
"I will meet you there," she said, taking hold of her rattling, bone-adorned staff. "Go, do what you must."
Taqu needed no further urging, and didn't hesitate. He leapt out from the hut and hit the ground running, the tough soles of his feet providing plenty of grip on the trackless earth. Amongst youngsters his age, Taqu was not the fastest, or the strongest, but this night he ran with all the speed of a frantic leopard. Barely heeding the fire in his lungs as breath was forced in and out, he ran with one face in his mind. He did not fear for the chief, or Kajak, or even his own mother. He ran for Yura.
When at last he came upon familiar trees around the village, he expelled a huge sigh of relief. No fires burned except the torches and cooking fires; there was no molten rock encircling the small cluster of huts, and the place was just as he left it - filled with uneasy, nervous people skittishly looking upon the sky in wonder. Comets still soared overhead.
It was then that Taqu realized he had no idea what he was doing. He did not have any plan in mind, but he knew one thing: if he hesitated, it could mean the end of everyone.
"Chief!" he called, finding the taciturn man standing up from his high-seat, neck craned upward like everyone else. He looked to Taqu immediately, the strange sound of the boy's raised voice, was enough to seize his attention. "The village," panted the boy in ragged breaths. "Not safe! River of fire! Get everyone away from here, there's no time to explain!" Or'jar regarded the boy with an expression mixed of skepticism and astonishment. It was not merely what the boy was saying, but the mere fact that it was Taqu, of all people, who was telling him such an outrageous thing. And in spite of it all, Or'jar was more than willing to believe that the heavens were upset - even a blind man could tell something was unbalanced this evening - but it would take more than the word of an invalid to convince him that his clan was in any real danger.
Just then, Or'jar heard something like screaming thunder, and the brightest, largest comet yet streaked overhead. In the time it took for him to understand how close the shooting star actually was, Taqu began shouting to the people around him, but his voice was muted by the resounding collision that rocked the very earth under their feet.
In growing horror, the Clan realized what had happened - a shooting star had struck Mt. Heaven! A huge portion of the cliff-face shattered in a blast of glimmering sparks, and giant chunks of rock broke away to roll into the forest below.
The chief considered sending the Clan to their homes, but thought better of it - perhaps Taqu was right, and the village was in danger? Or was the boy shouting madness? The Clan had done nothing to upset the great sun god, and as such did not earn his disfavor - surely the village was the safest place to be in any time of crisis, as the sun god would protect them-
"Do as he says!" came the distinct, authority-shriveling voice of none other than Sarum, who broke out from the foliage at the edge of the village close behind where Taqu had come. Her appearance, let alone her words, was enough to convince whatever vestiges of doubt that remained in the chief. The word of an invalid he might question. The word of the medicine woman however, he would not dare. As he bellowed to the Clan all around him, Or'jar caught the first glimmer of mesmerizing flame through the trees. It looked almost as though the forest floor was carpeted in a growing river of fire-
Clan people hesitated at first, but both Sarum and Or'jar shouted, the people quickly vacated the village for reasons they did not fully understand.
"To the beachhead!" Taqu called, and for lack of any alternative, the Clan followed his suggestion, especially in seeing that the chief voiced no objection. It was a mass of confusion and fear, but the sheep-like Clan made haste to the safety of the sea.
Or'jar, so involved with directing his Clan as per the insistence of the medicine woman, was forced to accompany the near-panicked people as they made their way into the forest. In a huge group they trampled plants underfoot, carried their children overhead, and abandoned their tools and belongings. Even the shaman, hobbling in her peculiar gait with her fearsome staff, managed to keep up with the crowd, stopping to assist a child who had fallen behind in the confusion. The youngster, half Taqu's age, did not yet learn to fear the old woman, and so did not hesitate to grasp her hand as she toted him alongside her.
It was not until the noisy, bewildered crowd of people finally reached the beachhead that the chief performed the closest thing to a headcount that they knew. In general, numbers were a thing foreign to the Clan, as they served little purpose other than keeping track of how many children, parents, or siblings one possessed. It was also then that Or'jar realized that Yura was missing, as was Kajak. As he called the name of his daughter, his voice carried far on coastal winds, but there was no answer. There was also no sign of Or'jar's wife, and with a sinking feeling in his heart, he considered the unthinkable: had they been left behind?
"Ulgram!" he called, seeing his second-in-command walking amidst the crowd, attempting to calm people down. He carried with him a fishing pole - one of the few tools brought with the crowd.
He looked up at the sound of his name.
"Make safe the Clan!" ordered the chief. With a startled nod the lieutenant complied. The chief took off into the forest from where they came.
Taqu had since left the group midway through the forest the moment he realized Yura was not among those gathered. He now stood upon the edge of a forested outcrop that, any other day, was just an inconvenient rise in the ground that overlooked the village, and he despaired. There flowed before him the river of liquid fire, glowing in the night like a tremendous burning salamander. Trees were set aflame and toppled as the molten rock easily made short work of bark and heartwood. Huts were consumed in flames almost instantly, as they had been made from driftwood and thatched straw. The homes of relatives and peers fell to the lava, and flying embers that were once bits and pieces of the village singed Taqu's skin.
But Taqu ignored the searing sparks that occasionally landed on his face and arms. His attention was on the central hut, the chief's abode, where two figures wailed in fear and woe. Yura and her mother Agal, perched high upon the tallest vantage of the highest building in the village. They clutched one another in perpetual anguish, the heat of the oozing fire tossing their long hair in unnatural wind. The abode had been erected upon a rise in the earth, more to emphasize status than for any practical reason. But on this night that decision allowed the building to remain as the last one standing, and supported on stilts as it was, provided for a full view of the chaos surrounding the hill.
Taqu called out to them, but could do nothing. Agal held her child with the crushing grip found only in the desperate grasp of a mother. And Yura clung desperately to an item that Taqu recognized immediately: the chief's Spear of Leadership. Waves of heat and fumes caused the air to shimmer between Taqu and them.
Yura was aware of their plight, but held her tears at bay, watching the village burn and topple around them. The moving lake of fluid rock spared nothing. The lava was rising, as well - it would not be long before the first of the abode's stilts would be submerged in slowly encroaching death.
"Taqu!" cried the girl, after wrestling free of her mother's arms for a moment. She hurled the spear with all her might, and the weapon flew a surprising distance, arcing over the coursing river to imbed itself in the warm earth at Taqu's feet. Either the girl possessed hidden strength, or the weapon itself was incredibly light. "Keep it safe, take it to father!" she pleaded, and her mother grabbed her once more. The boy shook his head.
"I will not," he grunted, and looking around him he saw some hanging vines from the trees that had not yet be burned to cinders. Hefting the spear out of the ground, he swung it upward so that the broad blade whistled in the air. The vines were severed easily, and multiple tendrils of cord like plant fell loosely from the branches above.
Taqu began lacing the vines together frantically, working with fingers as a man possessed. A strong length of rope was soon the result, and the boy quickly took to the tree with it coiled around one arm. Then, from a higher vantage than the central house, he began swinging the rope towards the precariously perched pair upon the palmwood precipice.
"Grab the end!" he shouted, and with sudden realization of what Taqu was doing, Agal loosened one of her arms around her child, still holding Yura close with the other, and reached out with the empty hand to grasp the swinging vine. Once they caught it, Agal and Yura held a firm grip.
"Hold on," Taqu called, the sweltering heat causing beads of sweat to form on his brow. He could see the pair across from him, hardly several arm's length away from where he stood perched in the tree. Yura fell unconscious, so stricken by the roasting scene around them were they, and Agal struggled hold onto waking thoughts. As Taqu hurried to tie off his end around the trunk of the tree, bushes rustled below him.
Another astonished boy came forth, unbelieving at first of the scene before him. The sublime glow of the liquid fire was captivating, but not nearly as much as the sight of a certain discarded implement upon the ground - the Spear of Leadership!
Kajak looked upon the chief's spear and after a moment's consideration snatched it from the ground. Disbelieving, he held it until he looked around to see Yura and Agal on the other side of the flame river, stranded upon a shrinking island. But they did not seem to notice him. Instead, they appeared occupied with a vine stretching across. Were they going to try and swing...?
Strange, dark thoughts passed through the young hunter's mind. He now held the chief's spear; what else mattered? There was no need for Yura any longer - as long as he wielded the weapon, he would be chief. Kajak had known this from the first time he laid eyes upon the otherworldly implement, fashioned as though by the great sun god himself. With this spear he could rule over the Clan, over all of Home Island. Not even Or'jar or the shaman could stop him!
He glanced up into the tree nearby, and saw Taqu high above in the branches, attempting to secure the vine upon which Agal gripped tightly. What was the invalid doing here? And then he realized the turn of events - even if Kajak himself recovered the spear, the invalid would return a hero for rescuing Or'jar's daughter and wife. The chief himself would show immense gratitude, perhaps even adopt the invalid as his own, supplanting Kajak's own destined place as leader of the Clan.
This Kajak would not allow.
Spear in hand, the warrior carefully climbed the tree, easily gripping branches with his one free hand as well as his feet. A life of hunting, hiking and games with the other young hunters had rendered him a strong individual amongst the young people of the Clan. He knew it would be short work overpowering the underdeveloped weakling who had so heroically tried to secure the line across the river of flame.
Agal looped whatever excess coil that they could around her body and stood to leap from their perch. Agal had gauged the length of the vine, and surmised that if she jumped and attempted to get another arm's length further, she would be able to swing across without touching the liquid fire below. Yura was gripped with one arm, limbs dangling in the heat.
"Kajak!" Taqu spouted in surprise as the warrior came into view. He strained to keep the vine secure, his skinny arms beginning to shake. "Help me! I might not be able to hold it-"
Kajak wasted no words. Securing his grip, he rotated the spear in one hand and held it aloft with deadly purpose. Taqu had never before seen anything like the murderous, firelight gleam that shown in the hunter's eyes. Holding the vine tight around the tree trunk, Taqu could not move, and in that moment he was certain that he would die.
The creaking of wooden stilts signaled the collapse of the chief's abode as molten rock flowed over what remained of the tiny island and incinerated the supports. As the building gave way, Agal leapt from her perch.
Kajak thrust the spear in a blow aimed for Taqu's heart.
The sudden pull of the vine as Agal's weight yanked the rope taut caused Taqu to lurch downward, narrowly avoiding the killing strike by a hair's breadth. Kajak's precision strike missed, and he drove the spearhead into the tree trunk, severing the vine coiled around it.
At once the cord was loose, and Agal, in mid swing, plummeted downward. There was no time to react, no Clan words to express the plight. Agal fell, even as she still gripped the line, and she sank into the molten rock up to her shins, almost within leaping distance of the unburned shore.
She screamed, her nose filled with the smoke of burning flesh and bone. But she did not fall - the vine that Taqu still held helped keep her balance. With agonizing slowness, and more than a little agony, she attempted to lift one leg out of the searing liquid fire, only to find that her feet had already been burned away. She struggled to maintain her balance as pain blackened her vision and overwhelmed her nerves. Wafts of toxic fumes washed over her, and she was beyond rational thought.
There remained only one thing in Agal's mind: she must save Yura. With deftness born of desperation and deep rooted maternal instinct, Agal took hold of Yura in her arms and forced her stilt-like legs into an agonized step. Her knees no longer existed, and in a final effort she lunged forth, thrusting her unconscious child into the air and towards the shore.
Agal landed in the liquid fire face down, her outstretched arms inches away from the unburned earth before them, and he did not move. Her body was quickly consumed in smoke and sparks, the ash of her remains slowly carried along with the flow of the river of fire.
Taqu saw all that was happening. The searing anguish of Agal's screaming, abruptly cut short with her final fall, had momentarily drawn Kajak's attention away from him.
Murder was something unknown to the Clan. There was no place for violence when the bountiful island provided for all of the Clan people's needs, and death was usually accepted as a natural part of life, something that could not be avoided or contradicted. These were topics that ordinary Clan people did not often venture upon, for their ordinary minds preferred not to think about things better left for the chief or the shaman. Thus, the Clan had always maintained a peaceful, nonviolent existence throughout their uneventful lives.
But Taqu was anything but ordinary. Where any other Clan might have stood dumbfounded, whether out of utter confusion or willingness to accept their fate, Taqu felt instincts driving him to act even as Kajak attempted to slay him.
Taqu could hardly believe what was happening - since the stars began falling from the sky, everything had been turned upside down. He acted without thinking, only on impulse, and seeing what Kajak had wrought filled him with a deep and terrible rage.
Bracing his feet against the trees, Taqu leapt forth upon Kajak, who turned in time to feel a bony shoulder collide with his nose. The two young men fell through the branches, smashing into the mossy earth. Neither moved, and nearby Yura stirred.
Blood dripped from the corner of Kajak's mouth, his neck bent at an unnatural angle, and the shaft of the spear lay cracked under his still form. Taqu groaned, forcing himself to sit up, but his brain was dizzy and his breath was difficult. Pain wracked his back and limbs, and he looked about to see, and recall, all that had transpired. All was quiet but for the dull roar of flowing lava and the sniffling of the chief's daughter.
Through the foliage, a voice could be heard calling for Yura, and Or'jar burst upon them. The instant he saw his child, he dashed recklessly to her and scooped her up in his arms. He saw the prone, twisted body of Kajak, and the unmoving Taqu. Yura was so overwhelmed with tears that she would not speak. Or'jar looked upon the scene and drew his own conclusion, frowning intensely.
"Invalid, what have you done?" he shouted. Taqu did not answer; he was dazed, confused, and barely able to breathe. Or'jar stooped to the ground and knew that Kajak was dead, and noted the Spear of Leadership lodged under his back. "You did this," he muttered accusingly to Taqu, and growling violently, he made to pull the spear free from beneath the corpse. The shaft had been snapped, rendering the spearhead little more than a wide knife.
"Do not return to the Clan," he said, pointing the bloody spearhead at the boy. "And if you come anywhere within sight of my daughter again, I will kill you myself." And with that, Or'jar left the quaking Taqu alone to return to the Clan. There was no greater punishment known to the Clan than exile - it may as well be a death sentence. Home Island was a small landmass, but not too small; a person was more likely to die of despair and shame on the other side of the island or deep in the forest away from the village, rather than of starvation.
Taqu remained beside Kajak's corpse, his mind a jumble of emotions and thoughts. The flow of the fire river did not slow; in fact, it seemed to pick up speed, and it was rising still. The intense heat and oppressive gases made it even more difficult to breathe, and Taqu lurched his aching body from the ground to escape the sweltering air and smoke. Before departing, he cast one last glance over his shoulder. Already the liquid fire was overwhelming the shore, and the remains of Kajak's body were consumed in flames and cinders.
Dazed from everything, Taqu wandered aimlessly into the forest.
The Clan had gathered along the furthest reaches of a sandbar peninsula, where from this distance away from the trees they could see Home Island in a grand panorama. White beaches encircled most of the land, bordered with thick, fruit-bearing trees that swayed in the breeze of the night. It would not be long until dawn, and the sky had since ceased dropping stars from the heavens. It appeared the sun god's tantrum had passed, and that he was content to keep the stars in place high above.
From the center of the island protruded the jagged face of Mt. Heaven, taller than anything else in the world, majestic and frightening in its steadfast beauty. Even from here the clan could see the liquid fire, running downhill like a river of viscous, burning honey. Billowing white clouds of steam rose from the shore far in the distance as the lava met the sea, and on the warm wind one could hear hissing as molten rock rapidly cooled.
Ulgram considered his choice to move further out onto the peninsula a wise one. Who knew what other courses the river of fire might take before it ran dry? Never before had any Clan witnessed so brilliant and dangerous a spectacle - rather than investigate a strange happening, it was the Clan way to simply head in the opposite direction of most obstacles; whether or not they knew it was flowing fiery death.
To pass the time, Ulgram had managed to cast his lure into a school of nocturnal glowfish just off-shore, and catching a few served to keep the anxious Clan around him occupied and amused while the chief was absent. As he baited the fishing line with a piece of clam flesh, the lieutenant wondered where Or'jar had gone. The chief not returning was something the second-in-command preferred not to think about.
Sarum, amidst the crowds of people, was somehow viewed as much less of a terrifying shaman and much more as a compassionate elderly woman. Seeing the distress that many Clan were in, she sought to assuage their angst with stories. At first it was just the children who gathered around her, but gradually more and more adults sat quietly to listen to her tales of the sun god, of the friendly spirits that sometimes showed themselves to help people in trouble, and about the great things that lived deep underground or in the sea.
If one were to observe closely, one might note that Sarum enjoyed telling the stories, as a woman who had nearly forgotten the joy derived from entertaining children.
There were some shouts and hoots, and Ulgram stood to see a lone figure emerge from the forest and approach the sandbar. Handing his fishing pole to the nearest person, he dashed off to meet the individual, and as he approached he saw it was Chief Or'jar. In the leader's clasp he recognized Yura, whose arms clung back even as she slept quietly.
"Where is Agal?" asked Ulgram, looking around confusedly. "And Kajak?"
The chief did not reply, only frowning with his brow furrowed. In one hand he held the broken haft of the spear, and seeing all of this Ulgram was left to guess what happened.
Sarum, too, recognized the approach, and when she stood from her place amidst the crowding youngsters, a path parted to give her passage. Her slow, deliberate footsteps upon the white sand and the rattle of her staff signaled her coming, and no one dared stand in the way.
When she came upon the chief, she saw the same as Ulgram, but much more. She knew that Kajak had hidden a secret desire to possess the spear, and did not care much for Yura. Whatever transpired, it could not have been good, especially with Taqu involved. Where had the boy gone, anyway...
Chief Or'jar locked eyes with the crone. His will was strong, his stubborn silence could hold out against any other Clan, but not under the withering gaze of the medicine woman. Her eyes spoke the question that all those around them feared to ask.
"My mate, Agal, has passed onto the spirit world. As has Kajak," said the chief, staring defiantly at Sarum. He cooed to Yura, whom he held tightly in his arms.
"Mother fell in the fire," she said, mumbling. It seemed that there was little she could remember. Just fire and death.
"Taqu killed him," he added, pulling away from the others. Ulgram followed behind him; he was not much older than Or'jar and was fiercely loyal to him. Everyone was sure that Kajak would be the next chief, but now...
And what of Taqu, Sarum pondered. How could he have done such a thing? There were those amongst the Clan who muttered to themselves about how they never expected this from anyone, least of all Taqu, who in their eyes was harmless. Even the boy's own mother kept silent, seemingly accepting the fate of her son. He was an invalid, after all. Perhaps it's better off he is exiled.
But Sarum would not believe it, and the old shaman departed without a word. Unlike most of the people, who preferred to stay in a group whenever possible, Sarum had no qualms venturing off into the night on her own. Home Island was not without its dangers, but to a knowledgeable person such as she, the forest was as safe a haven as her own hut. And with such knowledge accumulated over many years, she knew better than any hunter how to find a missing person.
The next day, she came back to the Clan, and she was not alone. Taqu followed her like a shamed child, his head low and his shoulders slumped. It had taken all night to convince the boy to return, and to everyone's astonishment he followed the crone into the crowd. For a moment, there were those among the Clan that wondered if Taqu understood what it meant to be exiled, and consequently what it meant if ever he returned. But Sarum kept close by, and no one dared voice their objection.
Since the village had been burned to nothing, and that section of the forest leveled and rearranged by the lava flow, the Clan remained on the beachhead. Chief Or'jar had been pondering their predicament intensely; the possibility of change was something that never occurred to ordinary Clan, but the chief often had to take on such responsibilities as planning ahead for certain circumstances. The power of forethought that he possessed was why Or'jar was chief in the first place, for on an island filled with content, simple people, a man capable of thinking beyond tomorrow was a powerful person.
Yet no one could have predicted this. It was madness to have expected something of this nature to have happened, Or'jar reasoned. Even now the area that had once been their village was a dangerous place to go, but more importantly, now, without homes to shelter the Clan from the unpleasantness of cool summer nights, new problems were presented. And when he saw Sarum, with Taqu in tow, the chief's concentration was broken.
"What is this?" he demanded, looking distastefully at the boy, and then at the medicine woman.
"The boy's life is mine," stated Sarum. "He belongs to me now."
"He has been exiled!" Or'jar nearly shouted. "To return to us is - is - taboo! He will be stoned, cast into the ocean, for this offense-"
"Wrongfully exiled!" she hissed. "Your daughter lives, and not by the grace of the spirits, let alone the efforts of Kajak! Taqu saved her, and your reward to him is death!"
"You take the words of an invalid over mine?" Or'jar challenged.
"Not his words alone, but those of the spirits," said the shaman. "Do you take your words over that of the spirits?"
There was a pause, and for awhile the nearby spectators could only watch the contest of wills. It was Or'jar who blinked first.
"He is mine," said Sarum, "he will be as my shadow. He is not here of his own will, chief. I see use in him, however, and he will do no good wandering the island until he perishes. Besides, I am in need of an assistant. Taqu will live with me, in the dark part of the forest, where he will serve as my helper."
To most Clan, whose most terrifying nightmares often began with setting foot near the remote domicile of the shaman, Taqu would have been much better off exiled. To them, even to Taqu's mother, he was already dead, and it was as though Sarum had gone to the very peak of Mt. Heaven to snatch the boy's spirit and bring it back to the land of the living to serve her. They looked upon Taqu as one might regard a pathetic, raised corpse - something deserving only of pity. No Clan person would ever want his fate.
Even to Chief Or'jar, who suffered no such delusions and knew that the Taqu before him now was the same Taqu that was responsible for the death of his wife and of Kajak. But he could not argue with the collective, unspoken sentiment of the Clan: service to Sarum was a most unfortunate fate, worse than exile.
Or'jar could never forgive Taqu for what he had done, even if he knew not exactly what. The loss of his wife left a hole in the chief's heart that could never again be filled, of that much he was certain, and the loss of his daughter's betrothed was indeed a grievous blow to the Clan. But for the time being, Taqu would atone as Sarum's assistant. Besides, what else could the chief do? Argue with the medicine woman? His time and energy was better spent leading the clan to a new home on a different part of the island.
Or'jar expressed his acquiescence with a silent nod and a dismissive gesture. Sarum, who in truth was not certain how the chief would react to her proposal, merely maintained her stoic expression for no reason other than to appear as though she were in control of the situation. She nodded back to Or'jar solemnly, and turned to look at the deflated Taqu, still staring at his feet. As she left, secretly relieved, the soft padding of her feet upon the white sand signaling her departure, he followed without a word.
As the unlikely pair crossed into the shade of the trees, Taqu remained utterly silent. Whatever went through the boy's mind, Sarum did not know, but she intended to find out. There would be plenty of time for her to teach him to overcome his grief, as well as for teaching him many things that she knew he was meant to learn. She had been watching his development since the day he was born, for peculiar things were always cause for interest in the wizened crone, and now that Sarum had at last managed to detach him from the Clan, his potential would no longer be restrained.
She looked over her shoulder at the young boy, still silent and following her deliberate footsteps. A soft breeze passed through the forest, and tropical birds could be heard singing their morning songs. So serene was the forest that it was almost as though a terrible calamity had not occurred the night before. As though everyone's lives hadn't been changed forever.
Later in the day, when they arrived at her home, Sarum sat Taqu upon a stool at the rounded table she kept against one wall. The boy only just noticed that somehow the tabletop was cleared of baubles and trinkets - when he burst into this very place the night before, he noticed many details, and among them was that the table was covered in things. He did not question how the table seemed to have cleared itself before their arrival.
The boy's thoughts were interrupted abruptly at the sound of something heavy hitting the table near his face. He recognized the things tightly bound leather shapes of varying widths and color, filled with countless sheets of what he supposed were white and yellow leaves. They were items never seen at the village, but Taqu had witnessed Sarum bring one or two with her when she used to tell stories to the villagers long ago. She called them 'books'.
"And now," said the shaman intensely, glaring at the boy, her wrinkly face forming a tiny smile, "your education begins at last."