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The sand chamber where Vexk left Khea was spacious by Vvok standards, filled with light to a degree only the presence of the Line Mother herself should have warranted, and pleasantly scented with an herbal concoction which Khea did not recognize. The fragrance had an astringent greenness to it, vaguely sweet, summoning visions of cool highland forests, running beneath trees with sunlight filtering down, crushed leaves beneath her feet.
The deep inviting body-length pit had been filled with fresh red-orange sand warmed with hot stones, then stirred to distribute the heat. She stepped inside and stooped to sift a handful of sand through her fur. Her skin tingled and she sighed; it was blissful to feel clean again.
After scrubbing thoroughly, she picked up the yellow robes Vexk had laid on the rim; the cloth was of an exceptional weave, soft and smooth. She speculated even Vvok's finest weaver, old Nnenk, could have done no better.
Claws scratched at the door. Her nostrils flared, but she didn't recognize the inquirer's scent. "Come."
A young female stood in the doorway, in all probability no older than she. The newcomer was slight, an unusual build for one who had passed sufficient gleanings to reach this age, but her fur was deep red, shading to pale cream on the throat and chest, then overlaid with black stripes on her back and arms, the most striking color pattern Khea had ever seen.
She forgot herself in an unmitigated stare, then looked away. "Please excuse my boldness." Her ears drooped with shame as she scrambled out of the sand pit. If the cub-trainer or, Voice forbid, old Seska herself had seen her behave so, her ears would have been hanging in shreds.
"Boldness?" The dark-red female hesitated in the middle of reaching for the travel-stained robes lying on the floor, regarding her so unflinchingly that Khea knew she must have a high position in this hold.
Her insides turned to sand, just as they always did when she blundered before her elders at Vvok. She tried to make some sort of response, but could think of nothing to say.
"Was the sand stale?" the other said. "I thought Yrb stirred it this morning, but perhaps she was called away."
Khea's claws tightened. She raised her gaze just enough to look at the other for a half-breath. "The sandwasperfect."
"Oh." The female's large dark eyes studied her. "Is there something else you require then? You seem . . . distressed."
Khea's eyes closed; if only she could start over. Now she seemed to have implied this hold's hospitality was lacking. Would she never stop making mistakes? "Everything was wonderful," she managed finally. "I requirenothing."
"Well, if you will get dressed, Vexk is waiting for you to go with her to the caves."
In her surprise, Khea raised her eyes again. "The caves?"
"Yes, and you should hurry. The creature you brought is quite ill." The dark-red head cocked to one side. "She says it may slip beyond our reach before morning without your help."
"My help?" Khea fumbled the clean yellow robes over her head. "But Vexk said it was beyond Vvok's skill."
"Well, I know nothing about that." The youngster reached again for the robes in Khea's hands. "But Vexk understands the intricacies of harmony/through/balance better than anyone. She is seldom wrong about these matters."
Khea hastily bound her mane back with a length of soft yellow cord. She must be crazy, she told herself angrily as she worked the knot; she had only just arrived and already she was arguing with her betters. If anyone back at Vvok got even a sniff of this, they would cull her on the spot without waiting for the next gleaning.
"Vexk says you are called Khea." The red female glanced over her shoulder at Khea as she turned back toward the door. "I am Cimmi."
"You honor me," Khea said breathlessly as she hurried to follow.
"I do?" Cimmi turned to stare breathtakingly straight into Khea's eyes again, then led her along the passageway up toward the surface.
Confused, Khea focused on Cimmi's feet. The wide corridors were dim and still as they made their way upward. In fact, the atmosphere of the entire hold filled Khea with a sense of something so quiet and restful that she could find no name for it, knowing only that it was something she had never encountered at Vvokand never would.
The young female paused finally outside a large chamber which Khea had not seen before. "Vexk waits for you inside." She studied Khea's face. "I would like to say I am also honored to have heard your name, but I do not know you that well yet." Then, with a flick of her ear, she turned and disappeared down the passageway.
Unable to escape the feeling she had piled mistake on top of mistake, Khea hesitated outside the doorway.
"Come in, child." Vexk's voice floated to her from within. "We must hurry."
Trying not to tremble, Khea lowered her eyes and entered. On the far side of the room, the Outsider lay propped on a pile of cushions with Vexk's pale-gray form kneeling at its side.
"Is it going to die?" she asked.
"All things die." Ears at half-cant, Vexk looked up. "For all we know about this species, it may be old for its kind and this may be its time. I cannot say for sure. Still, we will do what we can." She rose gracefully and walked to the door.
Khea lowered her gaze. "Shall I watch over it then while you prepare?"
Vexk paused. "Has your watching been of any use so far?"
"No." Over by the wall, the creature moaned, then murmured something in its strange high-pitched voice. Khea shivered. It seemed very near death.
"Come with me to the caves where I will show you what will be of benefit." The tall, nearly-white-furred Restorer walked out the door and Khea hastened to follow.
As they emerged outside, she saw Ankt had passed behind the far mountains and the early evening sky now had a faint greenish cast to it. A messenger jit flitted past them overhead and landed on the whitestone roof of the hold. Someone else must be ill, she thought. Perhaps one of the others would be leaving before they even returned.
Vexk followed a dim trail which wove around patches of sand and tumbled rock. She never looked back. What did the Restorer want from her, Khea wondered as she hurried after her. She was only a worthless youngling, not clever or strong, and certainly not fierce. Rumors about the Guild came back to her, strange bits of gossip and innuendo that floated around the halls of Vvok from time to time . . . something about a terrible price that had to be paid for the Restorer's gift . . . some sort of . . . sacrifice.
Her eyes adjusted to the lack of light and she could make out dark irregular openings just ahead, leading inside the red cliffs that bordered the plateauand home.
Pausing just outside the biggest entrance, Vexk waited as Khea followed her up the loose rock. The pale-gray reached down to her and clasped her arm firmly. The touch of her palm was warmer than anything she had ever felt before. "Now you will experience something very few females of the Lines ever witness."
As the yirn topped the wooded hill, Heyoka gazed over Nisk's shoulder down into a small curving valley where a large whitestone compound sprawled. Torches gleamed around the building's perimeter and the dark shaggy shapes of yirn were penned nearby. One bawled and their own beast answered. Nisk pointed with his muzzle. "Jhii."
The air was cool, filled with the heaviness of chilled rock and rotting wood, thick leaf mold disturbed by the yirn's broad hooves. Something chittered nearby in the rocks and then was still. Heyoka caught the hot flash of its scent which caused his stomach to rumble with hunger. Nisk had never mentioned hunting again after Heyoka's ill-omened break for freedom and he could not make himself bring it up. He felt foolish and angry over his failure, and some other more alien sentiment which he could not describe. A human might have labelled it "chastened," or perhaps "humbled," but justly so, as though he should have known better, or been better prepared. This emotion, though, was both more than either of those and less, and decidedly hrinnti and he could not work it out clearly enough to give it a name. He straightened his weary back, careful not to brush Nisk. The touch of the older male's fur made his nerves crawl. He cleared his throat. "Is it a males' house?"
"Jhii is one of the five remaining Great Lines." Nisk thumped a leg against the yirn's shaggy barrel to turn it aside where the trail forked along the ridge. "Jhii's lands lay nearest to Levv."
Heyoka eyed the ominous black clouds gathering overhead to blot out the stars. "Could we shelter there for the night?"
Nisk snarled. "Males do not go running to females when they need a place to sleep or food to fill their bellies!"
His tone was caustic and Heyoka wished heartily he had not asked. Then his nostrils flared at a whiff of unexpected scent just as a silent, sharp-toothed shape launched itself onto his back. Reflexes took over and, without thinking, he fell with the attacker, letting momentum sweep them both to the ground. Flek! his mind insisted as the thing beneath him writhed and snapped, trapped by his weight. He shook its teeth off, then rolled aside and leaped to his feet in a defensive stance, but pain seared through his bad leg. He transferred his weight onto the other, breathing hard, claws flexed. As his attacker scrambled up and leaped for his throat, he caught a brief glimpse of Nisk's black outline atop the yirn, a few feet away, quietly observing. He backed up, stumbled again as his bad leg would not hold himthen his vision shiftedto blue. His opponent now only inched closer, seeming to barely move. Limping aside, he shoved it with almost leisurely precision.
The creature thumped into the rocks in slow motion, then drifted to the ground. Heyoka snatched it up with one hand and raised the other to tear out its throat, but stayed his claws at the last second. It was not a beast, but a young hrinnand female. His instincts screamed flek!, even though he knew better. The green beach flashed back into his mind, the hot-oven stench of sand fused by laser rifles, the screaming of wounded. For an instant, he was there again, trapped in a cross fire, bewildered, overwhelmed by the reek of his own burned fur. With an effort, he wrenched himself back into the present.
Two pairs of eyes glittered down at him from the rocky ledge, both hrinnti. He retracted his claws with a convulsive shiver and dropped the female.
"E-x-c-e-l-l-e-n-tr-e-f-l-e-x-e-s." A dark-furred hrinn leaped down, taking long seconds to land, according to his distorted senses. She brandished a spear with a gleaming metal point at him. "F-o-ram-e-r-em-a-l-e."
The remaining hrinn made no move in his direction. Heyoka backed away, willing his staccato heartbeat to slow, the blood to stop thrumming in his ears. He felt dizzy and sick as his vision gradually shifted, allowing green to show through the stubby foliage, dark brown to creep back into the jumper's fur.
Nisk leaned over the yirn's hump, the cant of his ears casual. "Good hunting tonight?"
"Good hunting, my eyes and nose too!" The dark-brown female aimed a vicious kick at the crumpled youngster on the ground, who didn't move. "What are you two misbegotten males doing on Jhii land?"
As the blue faded, Heyoka sagged back against the face of the rock, shivering, much colder than the temperature of the air warranted. Claws scraped against stone from above as a second youngster peered down.
"And you!" The dark-brown hrinn gestured angrily. "You are no better than this empty-head at my feet! If you had backed up Clea, the two of you could have taken this undersized misfit. There are only two of them, both males, at that. If it were up to you, these scruffy outcasts could enter the hold unchallenged and make off with anything or anyone they choose."
Nisk dismounted. "Actually, we were only skirting the edges of Jhii land."
"The edges! Since when have males worried about where they walk?" She glanced in disgust at the fallen youngster. "Get up, Clea. Running trail as long as I have, I certainly know shamming when I see it."
The young female rolled over on her back, then sat up and hunched over, her eyes scrunched in obvious misery. Heyoka saw streaks of blood matting the fur of her shoulders and back through her torn purple tunic.
I could have killed that child, he thought numbly, and to what purpose? These three had every right to be here.
"Well, at least Clea may have learned something she will not quickly forget." The older hrinn jerked the youngster to her feet. "Perhaps next time, she will wait for her hunt-mates."
Ears down and blood trickling across her muzzle, the youngster took a deep breath and gazed up at Heyoka. "The way you fell off and pinned me, did you plan that?"
Heyoka stared back at the cubling wordlessly.
"At any rate, this one"the dark-brown pointed to Heyoka"has earned the Line Mother's attention. As for you . . ." She studied Nisk. "I can imagine what the Line Mother will have to say about stray males defiling Jhii land."
The evening fire was already blazing in the great circular communal room of the males' house when Rakshal entered from a side tunnel. Although it was past the usual time, only a few of those currently in residence had gathered to enjoy the soothing fragrance of burning gynth leaves. Beside the fire, Jikin, who had given him notice of challenge, conversed with old Jafft in low tones. Rakshal's nose twitched at the smell of that pairing: Jafft had been Nisk's sponsor long before Rakshal had been birthed.
Settling in the shadowy outer circle, he watched the two old males out of the corner of his eye. Although they possessed a great deal of knowledge and experience between them, neither had ever professed to hear the Voice. That was, no doubt, why the Leadership of this house had fallen under his claws now and not theirs.
His ears pricked as feet padded along a side tunnel, then a group of cublings, who had not even received their greens yet, burst into the communal chamber, their black eyes wide with the honor of being allowed into this adult setting.
"Is this where the males meet every night?" one large-eared cubling asked the oldster, Fihht, who had charge of them all.
Fihht's spotted ears flattened. "If you close your mouth, you may learn something." Then he glared until they huddled together and fell silent. "Now, approach the wall and see what you can sniff out."
Rakshal watched the youngsters spread along the curving whitestone wall. These cublings were so young, they had most likely never even seen an adult male before a few days ago. Where had this lot come in from? Rebban, perhaps, or far Kendd? It was late in the year to be receiving cublings, but perhaps these had been born out of season.
None of them were tall enough to smell out the top rows of scent-glyphs, but several got the idea. "They areshapes." A small light-gray youngster looked back over his shoulder at Fihht's scarred old face for confirmation. "All sorts of shapes marked out insmells."
"The expression is `written,' not marked out." Fihht blinked at the cubling in a pleased manner. "Each one signifies one of the sacred patterns that shape existence, and for each, there is a story."
"A story?" a large-boned brown cubling said. "The mothers told us that we would get no more stories once we came here."
"Do you see any mothers here?" Rakshal asked from behind. "This is the males' house." He walked over to the wall, his shadow preceding him. "No mother, or daughter, or even Line Mother has ever set foot here, or has any idea of what is written upon this sacred wall. All of this is males' business. Females can only guess at how we live."
The smallish light-gray, braver than the rest, traced the curving shape of one of the scent-glyphs with a clawtip. "Could we have a story then?"
The other cublings, no more than a few days out of the nursery, looked to Fihht hopefully with bright black eyes.
Fihht wrinkled his nose. "None of the Tellers is in residence right now, and I am not practiced at Telling, but perhaps in a few days, Dyuu will be back from the hunt and"
"I know a story or two." Rakshal met the old male's eyes defiantly, then walked along the wall until he found the scent-glyph he wanted. "Perhaps you would like to hear the tale of `Uwn First-male and the Voice'?" Although he did not look around, he heard the scuffle of small claws as the cublings pressed up close behind him to get a better sniff. "This is one of the greatest patterns, wisdom/through/silence." With an extended claw, he traced the three curving lines interspersed with four dots. "After the Voice had uttered the first word, which brought into being both Ankt and Anktan, the land was barren. Nothing spoke but the wind shrieking through the rocks and, as I am sure you know, that is a very lonely sound. After a time, the Voice wished for someone to talk to, so three more words were spoken over the land, creating Uwn, the first male, and the first two females.
"Now that there were ears to listen, the Voice spoke of many things, how to make fire to stay warm in the cold seasons and how to burn gynth leaves, which soothe the urge to fight, how to hunt striped kikinti and stubby-legged zzil and preserve the meat against times of want, how to dig homes deep into the earth to stay warm in the cold and cool in the hot, and how to find water when the earth is determined to hide it.
"Everything a hrinn needed to know to live a good life, the Voice explained, but soon the two females began to speak to each other and, liking the sound, ceased to listen to anything else. Distressed, the male bid them be quiet so he could continue to hear the Voice's wisdom, but they only snarled and bared their teeth at him."
"Then what?" The brown cubling edged closer. "What did Uwn do?"
"So Uwn went apart from the two females and sat on the highest hill he could find, so high that it poked through the clouds into the night sky and the tiny star points hung close enough that he could reach out and hold their cold white fire in his hand.
"`Why have you come to the top of the world, so near my true home?' the Voice demanded. `And what has become of the two females I made for you?'
"Ashamed, Uwn said nothing and only bowed his head until his nose pressed against the cold rocky ground.
"The Voice saw how Uwn remained there in the windblown cold, his ears pricked for anything the Voice might say. Then the Voice looked down to the lowlands and saw how the two females talked on and on to each other without a moment of silence for listening to anything else. Filled with anger, the Voice turned back to Uwn. `You are wise indeed, Uwn, to understand that when the mouth is closed, knowledge can find the ears. In order that it may always remain so, you and your male progeny must live apart from females, coming together with them only once a year so there will always be hrinn.
"`Since they prefer each other's words to wisdom, females shall always abide with females and go on filling each other's heads with nonsense.'"
Rakshal paused to retrace the three-barred glyph with its dots. "And that is why, since almost the beginning of the world, males and females have lived apart, so males may have quiet in which to hear the Voice. Now that you have come among your brother males, your duty is to be silent and learn as much as you can." Rakshal stepped away from the wall. "Go with Fihht and always remember to close your mouths so you can truly hear."
Fihht's spotted old face wore a new expression as he gathered up his charges and ushered them back through the side tunnel. Rakshal had seen other males look at each other like that many times, but no one had ever looked at him so before.
The emotion on Fihht's face was that of respect.
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