The climb down the cliff face was uneventful, except for the quiet awe both boys held for the nimble capability exhibited by Parlon. She followed directions without comment, placed complete trust in Nado's instructions, and never evidenced the slightest fear of either the height or the fact that something might happen to prevent her from reaching the bottom safely. They descended without discussion or rest, only Nado's frequent suggestions to Parlon about toeholds echoing off the escarpment wall until they reached the lower half of the climb. The growing sound of the falls overpowered all other sounds save Tagawan's high pitched squawks, as he monitored their progress with his constant wafting flights back and forth across the face. Their descent slowed, as Nado's voice swallowed by the thunder from the falling water. From that point he had to physically guide Parlon's feet to each new hold.
Daryl could only think dreadful thoughts on the way down, while automatically reaching and then releasing hand and footholds firmly imprinted into his long-term memory. He listened to Nado's frequent instructions to Parlon, but his attention was on the coming confrontation with Huslinth. The Shaman scared him to death, and it seemed the better he knew the man the more he came to fear him.
They reached the bottom, tired but not nearly as spent as they had been on cresting the upper lip earlier that morning. Daryl sat, his back braced against the cold wet wall just inside the fold of the hidden cleft.
"It was a good climb," Nado stated, matter-of-factly, using the moisture of the oozing rock wall nearby to clean his face and brow.
Daryl only nodded, still brooding over thoughts of his new obligations and the coming confrontation.
"It was wonderful. When can we go again?" Parlon asked, speaking to Nado, who blushed at such openly expressed attention.
He shrugged his shoulders awkwardly.
After many restful breaths, Daryl and Nado arose to recover their undisturbed spears. They worked their way down the riprap pile and through the close packed saplings until they came to the rounded edge of the cataract pool. The violent waters roiled and heaved below, barely visible. The great mist cloud had, for some reason, momentarily retreated. They stood together, letting the refreshing spray play over the exposed parts of their bodies not covered by leathers. Daryl knew that they could delay only for moments or their garments would become filled and heavy with moisture. It was not until they reached the very top of the curving path up the side of the falls that they rested again. At Tagawan's insistence, their final rest took place at his small still pool, while the bird sat on his perch and busily groomed.
As they relaxed by the pool watching the bird, Daryl eased the large crystal from his pouch. Once out from under the leather covering the sun's red afternoon rays caught the crystal's many shiny facets and reflected a multitude of lights upon the nearby rocks of the natural grotto. Parlon, standing to be closer to the bird, turned with an upraised eyebrow.
"The claiming gift," Daryl announced softly, holding it out before him over the pool and turning it slowly. The sparkle of its reflections was impossible not to look at. All three stared intently.
"I must ask my mother of the proper procedure to follow in presenting it to your father." Daryl said the words but his eyes never left the object. There was a silence of many breaths.
"Possibly, at some time, couldn't you have discussed any of this with me?"
Parlon asked, her voice flat and low with little question in it.
Nado and Daryl looked up in shock. Neither of them had discussed, or even considered, the possibility that Parlon might not agree to the necessity of the union. She'd never spoken on the issue before.
"I believe that the claimant must present himself to the father of the one he seeks to claim," Parlon said, crossing her arms. "This must be done immediately following the communal dinner, although the claimant must forego attending that dinner himself. The claimant then seeks out the father and begs permission to speak to him on a most urgent matter. Once invited in, if the claimant is invited in, the claimant states his intentions but presents nothing. The father then speaks of the great attributes his daughter bears and, if he has an interest in the gift to initiate a transaction, he invites the claimant outside of the structure. There, beyond the view of any other eyes, the two men exchange the gift and the promise." Her voice dropped on the last word.
Once more the boys were stunned. Neither of them had ever heard anyone in the tribe expound upon such a complex social issue so rapidly or accurately.
"The promise?" Daryl finally asked.
"The promise to allow the process to proceed to conclusion, of course," Parlon answered, with some slight measure of seeming satisfaction. She poked the birds soft belly plumage in the momentary silence that followed. Tagawan didn't complain, simply redirecting his sharp beak to work around her intruding finger.
"Ah, Nado, what do you think about..." but Daryl got no further before Parlon interrupted.
"About Nado? I think he is very good looking, although a bit short. I find him acceptable." A cold smile crossed her features fleetingly before she went back to paying attention to the bird.
Nado looked at Daryl's surprised glance with amazement and stunned silence. Finally, he shrugged his shoulders in some kind of frustrated resignation.
"But I meant to say...I mean, I meant to ask..." Daryl's voice trailed away.
"I know what you meant to ask," Parlon replied, her voice as arrogant and cutting as the cold river water flowing over the falls just beyond.
"Well, will you, do you..." Daryl attempted, but Parlon was no longer listening to his stammering attempt to ask her a question. She turned with one look back, displaying the same cold smile, and then trotted up the path toward the village structure.
Both boys stood up at her departure. Tagawan squawked once before going back to his grooming.
"Do you suppose she somehow prefers you to me?" Daryl whispered, his eyes still following her disappearing figure up the path.
"I wouldn't be surprised. What woman wouldn't? I'm a warrior and council member too." Nado finished talking but couldn't keep from starting to laugh before the words were out of his mouth.
"What's so funny?" Daryl asked, his brow knitted fiercely.
"Oh, just the usual thing," Nado answered, near bent over in laughter. "You know, the thing about your brilliant stupidity."
"I don't understand," Daryl said, as his shoulders sagged.
"And I'm not short, either," Nado continued, "but come, let's return to the village so you can nervously pace there instead of here while we have dinner. You can get the claiming deed done that you've been dreading and maybe, just maybe, you'll be able to understand a bit about the things around you again."
The sun still hovered over the distant facing line of the cliff on the other side of the wide flat valley. The evening wind started to rise by the time they had cleaned the rocks and dust from the climb from their skins and equipment. Daryl returned the crystal to his pouch and prepared to leave.
"Good night, stupid bird!" Nado yelled over his shoulder, as he started up the trail. Tagawan ignored the comment, merely staring at them silently from his perch. Daryl had checked many times in nights past to see if the bird remained at the pool overnight. He never found him there after sunset. Where the bird spent his nights was a complete mystery.
On the hike back up the path they spoke of the new discovery at the ruins and the incongruity of Parlon being the one among them to make it. They tended to treat new discoveries as belonging to the one who had found the object or place, but neither knew how that might apply to Parlon's involvement. They did discuss the fact that somehow things were continuing to change around them in ways that they could not seem predict or control.
Upon reaching the structure Daryl set his spear to lean against the outside wall just outside of the family room opening. It stood next to his father's, although not quite as long or thick. But then, no warrior of the tribe carried a spear the size of his fathers, just as no man came to within two hand widths of his height.
The big hunter sat on the far side of the single room, one of the favored family rooms, with a skin covering directly to the outside. Next to him, on his right, was the fire pit with its stone tube overhead to vent the constantly generated wood smoke.
"Father," Daryl acknowledged, as he took his place near the door, using his night fur skins for cushions. His father sat facing him, back to the far wall, and Daryl's stomach, already fluttery because of the impending Huslinth meeting, took another tumble when he saw his father's stern expression.
"A warrior does not leave the village unless he lets a senior warrior know where he's going and what he's doing," his father began speaking coldly, his eyes focused on the floor near the fire pit. "But then, you've had no real training and you've only enjoyed the company of," he delayed for a few breaths, which Daryl knew immediately was to keep from saying 'that cripple,' "Nado, as he calls himself." The tone of his delivery made Daryl wonder if his father might also disapprove of his own shortened name.
He looked across at his father, feeling somehow like he'd failed him yet again. There was a pain in his father's expression that hurt Daryl more than the man's obvious displeasure, and Daryl knew its origin. Since before the great catastrophe it had become obvious that Daryl was different, that he would never take to the disciplined focused life of a hunter, and thereby follow in his father's footsteps.
"I'm told that you intend to begin the claiming process with Huslinth." The big man spoke the words slowly, not finishing, but waiting. Daryl knew his father had been present when he'd made his single granted wish. Other than being made a warrior on the spot, it was his reward for saving the village from the Mur. "What is it that you wish to present for your claim?"
Daryl carefully undid the thong on his small leather knife pouch, removing first the flint and then the crystal. He noted his father's eyes light upon the flint piece. It had so long sat on the fire mantel, one of the undiscussed 'omens' from his island escape after the earth move and great wave. Daryl wondered what his mother had shared of its origin, if anything. Discussions in the family were always hushed and never included them all at one time.
"The gift," he said simply, stepping forward and placing the huge crystal into his father's equally huge hand. Neither of them said anything while his father examined the stone, his large but somehow delicate fingers turning the crystal over and over, while the fire's light reflected through it to cast many small many colored rays against the inside of the dwelling walls. At last he held it between thumb and forefinger, staring at the fire through its facets.
"Where did you get this?" he asked. The question was one Daryl had been dreading. He and his father did not speak often but there was a basic truth to their communications when they did, however distant.
"On the island, when the river came," he replied, not exactly lying.
Many breaths passed, as his father continued to stare into the hypnotic reflections coming from the depths of the clear bright stone.
"Ah, yes. The island. Your story. All that." He handed the crystal back to Daryl, and looked down into his eyes. "There are only two other crystals like that I know of, but neither is of that size." He patted his warrior's pouch "I have one, the one I found in the old stream bed, and the one that Huslinth's daughter wears around her neck."
Daryl was sorry he'd mentioned the island at all. His father's tone remained skeptical, notwithstanding the incident with the Mur. He waited and wondered if his father would ask about the origin of Parlon's stone, but his father didn't pursue the subject.
"It is not a gift. That which you are to offer for the claiming. It's a consideration. A consideration of something to match the worth of what it is that you seek." The big man looked deeply into his eyes as he spoke. "The value of that crystal is far beyond the value of what it is that you seek. It is a shame that it must fall into the hands of Huslinth."
Daryl was surprised, hurt and puzzled. Surprised that his father would believe the stone to be worth more than his prospective marital selection, hurt that his judgment was once again found to be wanting, but most of all he was puzzled by his father's open animosity toward the Shaman.
"You are young for such decisions," his father went on. "You lack any life experience or training. Your brother is just now coming of age to make such complex decisions."
Daryl openly bristled and his eyes blazed. His brother was and had always been tall and thick of body, like his father but, as far as being able to make any rational decisions, he was and would remain mentally incapable.
Their eyes met again, but this time it was his father who broke the gaze. "There is the fact that all of the lives in this village might have been lost without your intervention and actions. Your judgment on such things must be accepted. I should have not spoken my opinion about that."
It was the closest Daryl had ever come to hearing an apology, or even an acknowledgment, from his father for anything. He let silence fill the room, only the low crackling fire making any sound at all.
"The morning from this day, of the third sun, we will move upriver to hunt. You have received little in the way of any training. You will accompany me on the hunting party and I will train you as best I can."
The words left little in the way of reassurance or comfort for Daryl. Now he could worry about going on one of the mysterious and secret hunts, as well. He was woefully conscious of his own lack of training for such things and his great lack of interest. He also knew that none of it was his fault, but he could tell from the tone of his father's comment that the man did not necessarily agree with him.
His father abruptly arose, turned from the fire and moved deeper into the structure by passing through the opening in the back of their room, which was covered by another skin, although not as thick as the layered piece that covered the opening to the outside.
Daryl sat alone, his mother ministering off somewhere to the sick or those in pain, his brother out there wherever his brother went. The two boys almost never spoke, having spent most of their time with children of different ages whom gathered to do entirely different chores and perform different courses of training. Daryl thought long and hard about his family.
Except for his mother, and then only with respect to some things, Daryl felt he had no adults at all to turn to for advice or counsel. He got up, pushed through the opening and went out into the evening air where the sun had already set but light still filtered over the horizon. He leaned next to the warrior spears of his family, his own the smallest. He did not feel like a warrior, not even a small one. Instead, he felt overwhelmed. So many things had happened that he didn't understand. On top of that, together with Nado, and now Parlon, he'd uncovered so many things that were almost beyond understanding at all.
For some reason, and for the first time in many years, he thought of his grandmother. She hadn't appeared in his thoughts for years. Grandmothers in the tribe, those who had survived the passing of their husbands, lost all status and didn't participate in any social functions save the communal dinners that they attended but never spoke at. They lived together in an unmortared room with walls of stones stacked against the backside of the main structure. Daryl had passed by the room only once, as most never ventured to the area that separated the structure from the base of the escarpment wall. The women were not outcast, although they were very much like Daryl had been, there but not there in many ways. They were inside the tribe physically but outside of its normal social structure.
The evening wind was blowing, as he made his way around through the brush to the backside of the structure. He stood distant from a single flapping skin door, hunkered down among smaller trees that grew up from the bracken near the escarpment's rubble pile. There was one less than the fingers of one hand of old women left. Half of the larger number had lost their lives when the caves collapsed in the great catastrophe.
He stood, one hand clutching the stem of a thick sapling, wondering what he was doing there, and what he might have to say to the ancient woman if he talked to her at all. He shook his head and was just about to leave when she stepped into view through the opening. Carefully, he took one step backward, deeper into the trees.
The old woman stood, short but straight and seemed to stare right at him. Daryl swallowed, for some reason feeling a mild sense of fear, although he doubted that her aged eyes could even make him out. Her skin coverings were dark with age and without any of the younger women's decorative sewing or beads, and her hair was pure white, worn in a tight bunch at the very top center of her head. Her facial features reminded Daryl of Tagawan, with his sharp beak and black penetrating eyes.
"Grandson," she said, the word almost too low to make out through the wind blowing through the trees.
"Grandson," she said again, not moving or changing tone or expression.
It seemed to Daryl as if she would stand in the same place and say the same word right into the full darkness of night. "Grandmother," he replied, finally, in the same low tone, bowing in deference, as he came out of the trees. They stood for many breaths, together neither of them saying anything further until she spoke again.
"Why do you stand so distant from me?" Her words came out deeper this time, and had a power that Daryl could not deny. He walked slowly forward until he stood before her, having understood her question more as an order to approach.
She looked him up and down slowly, and then turned. "Come," was all she said before disappearing behind the opening skin.
Daryl hesitated, looking back over his shoulder toward the nearly dark area where the old caves, crushed and broken, lay set into the base of the wall. The skin covering flicked open.
"Such a great honored warrior. Afraid to enter the resting place of old women. My, how warriors have changed." The words came out of the small dark opening and bit into him like a sharp cold wind. He shivered, and then stepped quickly through the opening. In the low light he hoped that his red face would go unnoticed. His grandmother circled him slowly once, as he stood just inside the opening. After she was done Daryl carefully took a place on the clean stone floor sitting with his back against the far wall.
A low fire burned soundlessly in the corner to his right, the dimness of its light not so low that Daryl couldn't see, but low enough to hide almost all detail. The other three grandmothers weren't present inside the room he noted, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Why do you come to me now?" His grandmother looked at him directly when she said the words, adding to his discomfort.
"Ah, I could not come before now. There are things...." he wiped his brow, although it was not wet, then went on, "There are things that I just cannot tell...anyone. There are things that cannot possibly be understood, that cannot be believed..." his voice trailed away, and he again wiped the non-existent sweat from his forehead. He knew that he was making no sense at all, but he could not think of what to say so he could depart with any measure of dignity at all. He felt that he had made an embarrassing mistake.
"It has been such a long time," his grandmother began, and then took a few long breaths, "such a long time since I have a man speak the words of a true warrior."
Daryl gaped at her, his mouth open, not quite sure that he had heard her correctly.
"But I forget my manners," she continued into his stunned silence, "I apologize Grandson. I am here for whatever might be your needs." She bowed her head once.
The old woman was the first person who'd used the word warrior, as it applied to him, with any kind of true conviction, and it made Daryl feel guilty.
"I'm a warrior in name only," he said. " I have no age, no training, nor even any desire. I was outcast and befriended a baby Mur beast by accident. That beast grew to adulthood and to be leader of a herd. Just before it killed Nado and I, it somehow remembered me, and left us. The village survived. That's the whole story. The real story." He stopped, wondering why he'd blurted out the truth. A truth only Nado and his mother knew, and a truth he'd been wisely told never to repeat. The old woman looked at him, her face expressionless.
"And you've told this story to no one else?
"Only my mother," he answered.
"And what did she say?" she asked.
"That I should never tell anyone."
"Your mother is wise." The old woman said. "You are indeed a warrior, and it isn't due to any deed, training or even desire that makes you so. But continue. You did not come here, to this room of old people waiting to die, to tell me this story. Why are you here?" She looked away toward the fire, as if she would wait until he was ready to talk, no matter how much time might pass.
"Grandmother," he began, but she broke in.
"Call me Sho-na. It is the name my husband gave me, and I enjoy hearing it." She smiled for the first time, but it was fleeting. She looked back into the embers of the small fire and waited again.
"Sho-na," he said, hesitantly, "no, I didn't intend to tell you that story, but it all started there," he looked up but she only nodded. He began talking, telling her of the island, about Nado, Tagawan, and even Parlon. Then he went into a detailed description of the ruins atop the plateau, although he didn't mention the room of glyphs and symbols or even the small carved symbols themselves. When he finished she waited, her eyes never having left the fire, except briefly, when he had first mentioned his discovery of the ruins.
He waited what seemed an interminable time, all the while wondering why he had so willingly broken his confidence with Nado about the secret of the ruins and the wise counsel of his mother. The entire situation was just too much for only the three of them to consider.
"What dreams are the dreams of youth," Sho-na finally said, "for yours are not of them. Yours are the dreams of a seasoned and traveled warrior." Her voice trailed off as her eyes swept up to meet his. Daryl was more interested in her lack of surprise at his revelations than about her conclusion. He hadn't really expected such an old and weathered woman of the tribe to believe any of what he told her. And across her mouth a slight smile played for the first time, which puzzled him. He took many breaths to carefully fashion his next question.
"What have you heard of these dreams before?" he asked, and noted her sharp intake of breath. She looked away toward the fire again.
"There are legends of these things, not dreams," she began, "and old, very old legends they are. Of a time before time, and a village that was not a village, and wealth beyond wealth."
"I would know of these legends, Sho-na," Daryl said, even before he thought her to be finished. He then watched her intently as she thought. She brought her strong direct gaze back up from the fire and looked into him.
"I will think about all of this. When you come next we will talk of such things. It is good to see you looking so well, grandson." She stood, and Daryl knew she was finished with him. But a kernel of hope had been ignited with her words. He couldn't figure out why, but just knowing that he was not alone in the tribe, with only Nado and Parlon to support him, made him feel warm. And the legends. The legends Sho-na knew of might help them understand the secrets of the ruins.
"And you, grandmother," Daryl responded, backing toward the door with a formal bow, using the formal salutation instead of Sho-na. Somehow, the formal title seemed more befitting to the strangely regal woman. Daryl made his away along the dark wall back around to the front of the structure, prepared to wait out the communal dinner and face Huslinth, for there was no appetite in him.
The old woman returned to her seat against the wall of the room. Only a few breaths after the boy's departure, another of the old women entered through the opening.
"What is that the boy wanted?" she asked directly, without preamble.
Sho-na looked up at her friend with a thin smile and shook her head.
"My grandson came to tell me that my life is not yet done. That there is much to be considered and much to do."