“Asab could make you an exception. As chief he can do that,” Houlamu had told him before he started on his way.
“Yes, but I cannot make myself an exception, and it is myself I have to live with the rest of my days,” he had replied.
“A short life it’s liable to be, too, in the Unstable Lands,” his friend had muttered.
“I will track my way clear,” he assured them.
“In the Unstable Lands? Where people are swallowed up by unreality, by things that should not exist?” Tucarak was dubious, his tone bordering on the spiteful. “Who comes back from those places? No one goes there.”
“Then how can you say that no one can come back?” Ehomba challenged them, but try as they might they could not think of anyone foolish enough to have attempted such a journey. Not in recent memory.
As he crossed the point of rocks that led to the seal and merape beach, he paused to pick up a handful of the wave-washed thumb-sized gravel. The merapes preferred the purchase the sandless beach gave their hands, and the seals, their friends, went along with this choice. Carefully he dumped the handful in a small wool sack and put it into a pocket, then buttoned the pocket shut. Homesick in some far land, he could pull out the pebbles and they would remind him of the village, his friends, his family. Few of his fellow warriors would have understood. Already burdened with sleeping roll and leather backpack, no one else would have chosen to add ordinary beach pebbles to the load.
He looked back. The village was already out of sight, but he could see the fires from individual houses rising into the pellucid sky. Sight of his home, reduced to smoke. What would congeal out of the smoke that lay ahead? He pushed on.
* * * *
No one knew when the bolt of lightning had turned to stone and embedded itself in the bank of the creek, but there was no mistaking its shape, or the way it made everyone’s skin tingle and hair stand on end when walking over it. This phenomenon made it a favorite haunt of the village children, but none were running back and forth along its tormented petrified length today. It was too early for that kind of exploratory play.
As promised, Fhastal was waiting for him in front of the unnatural natural bridge. “Good morning, big handsome.” She took notice of his pack, his best overshirt and kilt, the necklace of colorful, hand-painted and -drilled beads strung on a leather thong around his throat, the elongated spear he was using for a walking stick. In leather sheaths slung across his back were two additional weapons: the short sword fashioned from the scavenged jawbone of a whale that had been carefully lined on both sides with the inch-long, razor-sharp teeth of a great white shark, and the slightly shorter sword the village smithy, Otjihanja, had forged from one of the hundreds of lumps of nickel-iron that had fallen from the sky in archaic times and now littered the plain to the southeast of the village lands. “Ready to begin the thing, I see.”
“As I must. As the covenant binds me to do.” Despite his determination, he was already having second thoughts. The dying Beckwith’s words were fading.
But try as the herdsman might to shut it out, the stranger’s face would not.
She grinned knowingly, showing an alarming paucity of front teeth. “You don’t have to do this thing, Etjole. No one in the village will think the worse of you if you change your mind now.”
“I will,” he replied laconically as he looked past her. Beyond lay the barren north coast, and farther still the river Kohoboth, that marked the southern edge of the Unstable Lands. “The warrior Tarin Beckwith said that the woman Themaryl would be taken to a country far to the northwest, across the great ocean. How shall I cross it?”
“You must keep traveling north,” the old woman told him. “Make your way through the Unstable Lands until you come to a place where the making of large boats is a craft, and take passage on one of them across the Semordria.”
He looked down at her. “Is there such a land?”
“In my youth I heard tales of such kingdoms. Places where people live by knowledge that is different from ours. Not greater, necessarily, but different. It is likely you may find passage there. If not”—she shrugged—“you may freely return home knowing that you tried your best.”
“Yes, that is fair enough,” he admitted, content with her conclusion. “Obligations do not wait. Best I be on my way.”
A gnarled hand grabbed his wrist. There was surprising strength in that withered arm. The one good eye stared up at him while the other seemed to turn in upon itself.
“You must come back to us, Etjole Ehomba. Among the Naumkib, it is you who stands the tallest. And I am not making a joke about your height.”
“I will come back, Fhastal. I have a family, and herds to look after.” Bending down to plant a kiss on the aged, parchmentlike cheek, he was startled when she shifted her face so that her lips met his. Her tongue dived into his mouth like a wet snake and he felt half the breath sucked out of him. As quickly as it had happened, she pulled away.
“Don’t look so surprised, big handsome.” The smile she gave him took forty years off her life. “I am old, not dead. Now then, be off with you! Discharge your obligation as best you can, and may the spirit of this Tarin Beckwith count itself supremely fortunate to have departed this world in your arms and not those of another.”
He left her there, waving atop the little ridge of rocks among the ghost trees as merapes squabbled for seafruit on the pebble beach below. He watched until she turned and disappeared, beginning the long hobble back toward the village. It would have been interesting, he found himself thinking, to have known Fhastal in her youth.
Better to devote his thoughts to the journey ahead, he told himself. Resolutely, he turned away from the ridge, the village, and the only life he had ever known, and set his gaze and his feet firmly on the path ahead.
He passed the rest of the sheltered cove with its barking seals and chittering merapes lying on the glittering gravel just above the steep shore break. One of the merapes threw an empty oyster shell at him, but it landed well short of his legs. Funny creatures, the merapes. They could be playful or vicious, depending on their mood of the moment. Not unlike people.
Beyond the village lay untold stretches of empty coast, for his clan inhabited the last mapped settlement this far to the north. Traveling to the south he would have been in familiar territory. Though Wallab and Askaskos lay a goodly distance down the coast, their people and those of the village knew of one another, and engaged in regular commerce and trade. Beyond those villages was the larger trading town of Narkarros, and still farther the villages of Werseba, Lanos, and Ousuben. The farther south one journeyed, the more fertile the lands became, the better the pastures. But someone always had to live on the fringes of the known world, his father had told him more than once, and that choice had fallen long ago to the Naumkib.
North of the village the grass gave way to sand and rock in whose bleak confines only the hardiest plants could eke out an existence. Few animals lived there, and those that did had been rendered permanently mean and ill-tempered by their inhospitable surroundings. Expecting to encounter nothing specific, Ehomba was therefore prepared for anything. Where potential strife was concerned, he retained an entirely open mind.
That evening a gale rose up off the sea, indifferent and unfriendly. It blew all that night and the next day, forcing him to walk with a scarf over his face and his eyes locked nearly shut in a permanent protective squint. The harsh wind-blown grains blasted his face and scored his arms. But he was not to be so quickly defeated, and certainly not by mere weather.
“Go back to the open sea!” he yelled into the gusts more than once, raising his arms and shaking his spear at the ocean. Off to his left, the great flat green-black sweep of the Semordria roared its challenge, vast and cold. “Leave me be! I am only a man just begun on his journey, and this is not fair!”
The waves exclaimed on the shore and not even seabirds or the Soft Ones answered, but when he emerged the next morning from his makeshift shelter of blanket and driftwood, the wind had stopped. Given up, he decided with satisfaction, only to be replaced by a cousin of gentler mien.