Chapter Three


Izhur


Izhur hurried, grimacing every time the skirt of his long tunic caught on a branch. He had spent too long meditating, trying to find answers to Iluna’s growing talents. She’d almost performed a summoning, and not for any small animal either. Invoking large creatures, dangerous predators, was a skill that most Soragans could only achieve after years of practice, or not at all. She would have succeeded, too, if Yuli hadn’t broken her concentration.

Yuli.

Izhur frowned. The boy had talent, yes, but it was little in comparison to Iluna’s. He was spoiled by his parents, his father in particular. Zodor had filled his mind with self-important nonsense, and if the child was to become the clan’s next Soragan, that would not do.

Izhur decided he would speak with Yuli’s mother, Ida, about the episode in the forest. She was supportive and seemed to understand Izhur’s frustrations with the boy. He nearly always talked to her about Yuli’s progress, as he spoke with Zodor rarely, in the Circle, and only when he had to.

Life as Soragan was easier for Izhur these days. Since that night almost five winters past when he’d stood up to Zodor, the night that Iluna was given to them, things had changed.

Amak and Lral had immediately sided with him, arguing for the clan to keep the babe and raise her as a member. They’d supported Izhur ever since. Elder Jarel had passed to the Otherworld two winters ago and Wogul had replaced him on the Circle of Eight. Wogul was Lral’s cousin and he supported Izhur without question. But Zodor still had his defenders. Ugot was his ever faithful disciple. As was Tod. And Flynth was too set in her ways to fathom changing her allegiance. The whole clan was divided in their support. It was not ideal, and Izhur blamed the stubbornness and rigidity of Zodor. But as the circle of time kept turning, more people saw Izhur’s worth and respected him as Soragan and leader.

Izhur’s tunic caught again. A rose thorn, as long as his thumbnail, had penetrated the soft leather. He untangled it, trying not to tear the hole further.

“Tsk. I’m already late, spurn it to Malfiren!” Sometimes Izhur wished Soragans could wear the short tunics everyone else did in summer. It would be cooler too.

He freed himself of the rose and marched on, quickening his pace and berating himself for losing track of time in meditation.

A scout had arrived yesterday. The Wolf clan’s visitors would make it in time for the evenfire tonight. The Bear and Eagle had been traveling over the last eightnight and joined their clans where the smaller river they called ‘Little Sister’ met with the larger Mittha’s River – the great river that connected all eight clans of Ona’s people. The Wolf had spent the better part of an eightnight preparing for the feast. The hunters had brought in a boar, two does, rabbits, mountain pigeon and quail. When he’d left with Iluna and Yuli that morning, a large harvest of vegetables, fruit and legumes had already been collected. It sat in baskets dotted around the evenfire pit, awaiting the cooks.

As Soragan, Izhur had duties to perform at the evenfire to mark the arrival of their guests. He had to get there before sunset. The daysun danced along the horizon. He cursed himself again and moved on at a light jog.

By the time he arrived the daysun had descended leaving a purple sky in its wake and Atoll’s star, blinking in the east. He rubbed his temple as he slowed to a walk. The evenfire, a large blaze that served them for cooking, celebrating and warding off animals, gave off a bright glow. The dual aromas of roasted boar and venison spiraled and Izhur suddenly realised he hadn’t eaten since dawn.

The three clans had assembled and Izhur blinked at all the people. They easily filled the large circle of space around the evenfire located between a wall of rock that cut off hot southern winds, and their tree-dwells. The Wolf was small compared to the other clans and he was not accustomed to so many bodies. There were at least three one hundreds assembled, waiting for the celebration to begin.

Zodor stood at the front.

“Bollocks of Dragos!” Izhur whispered. He rarely cursed. But when he saw the hunter addressing the crowd, the profanity escaped his lips.

As he drew closer, some of the clan members turned to look at him. Hogath smiled in relief. Villa gave him a frown. That was no surprise; Ugot’s wife had never liked him. Izhur had long ago stopped trying to win her approval, along with some of the others in the Wolf clan. Their type always considered people not born in the clan as outsiders.

“We of the Wolf welcome our brothers and sisters from the Eagle and the Bear,” Zodor addressed the crowd.

Izhur stepped forward to interrupt. “Yes. We of the Wolf, welcome you.”

Zodor gave him a typical hard stare and whispered, “You’re here, Soragan. We had to start without you, the daysun—”

“Yes, thank you, Zodor. I am here now.” Izhur nodded briskly and turned away from the hunter to face the other members of the Circle of Eight. Amak smiled and gave him a wink. Ugot chewed on a tulu nut and gave him a frown. “Where is your cloak?” he hissed.

Izhur closed his eyes. Spurn it! In his rush he’d forgotten his ceremonial wolfskin. He took a breath and opened his eyes. Ugot spat in his typical fashion. He’d have to do it without the cloak.

Izhur turned and faced the three clans assembled beyond the flames of the evenfire. Its heat touched his face. It was his role to welcome them in the name of their universal Mother, Ona. Zodor knew that, just as he knew that Izhur would have come; the hunter should have waited.

“We welcome you in our Mother’s name.” His voice easily floated over the three clans and would have filled the tops of the tree-dwells too. He called on the buzz of energy to lift it, adding a sense of power. The people bowed their heads. “We ask Ona to watch over us during the day with her all powerful daysun, and for the Benevolent Atoll to watch over us in the darkness of night with his star.” Izhur gestured to the east where Atoll’s Star shone more brightly, its familiar blue lighting the darkening sky. “We also call upon the spirit of the wolf, who is most clever of hunters and always protects her own. May the wolf extend her protection to our guests this midsummer.” Izhur finished the blessings then stepped back into line with the rest of his Circle members, ignoring the hard glare from Zodor.

It was now time for the Soragans of the the visiting clans to extend their own blessing. Belwas of the Bear was to go first, as he was the elder of the two Soragans. Izhur smiled at his old friend. It was good to see a familiar face. Belwas had identified Izhur’s gift as a small child. He’d always been a father figure, particularly after Izhur’s own father had died from the water sickness before he could even walk.

Belwas gave him a warm smile in return. He wore a bear skin cloak and the hood was made from the bear’s head. The eyes had been replaced with the lapis lazuli that was common in the Bear’s summer lands. They glistened in the firelight. Belwas turned to speak to the assembly, clutching the large walking staff that seemed to make him more imposing.

”We of the Bear,” his voice was deep and melodic and filled the open space even more powerfully than Izhur’s had, “call upon the spirit of our totem, the Bear, who is the most ferocious of hunters and a playful mother. May she extend to us her protection and joy this midsummer.”

Tyvan took his place in front of the evenfire. Large feathers stood out from his headdress and the shoulders of his cloak. But his skinny frame was a sharp contrast to Belwas’s tall robust figure. Tyvan had only been Soragan of the Eagle since the summer before. He wore a single thread of wooden beads that he received when noviced. He was still to earn his azurite beads. That would come with the next Agria in three summer’s time. His voice was markedly weaker than Izhur’s and Belwas’s had been and his nervousness made him waver. But he did his job and called on the spirit of the eagle to protect the three clans with her wisdom and precision.

With the formalities over, a drum sounded and the crowd mingled. The cooks of the Wolf cut the spitted meat with their precious copper knives and took boiling clay pots off the coals, and began serving the hungry crowd. People embraced and carried on conversations that they would have started two summers past when the three clans had shared midsummer in the lands of the Eagle, high up in the alps. Izhur smiled when he remembered the children’s astonishment at the summer snow.

Kin were reuniting too. There had been many couple-bonds between the three clans over the years. Their close proximity made it easier to visit each other. Not everyone would reunite with family tonight though. Poor Tenila, Belal’s wife, had come from the Otter clan whose lands were far away to the south and took at least a moon of travel to get to. She sat off to one side nibbling on a caroot looking decidedly sad. And Ida, Zodor’s wife, had come from the Snake; they weren’t much closer.

Izhur looked for Belwas. The old bear was the closest person he had to family. He walked toward the evenfire and saw the large Soragan chatting with old Petral. He stalled, not wanting to get involved. Petral was a boor and Izhur had no wish to succumb to a lengthy rendition of the old man’s rheumatism complaints.

The laughter of children came from behind him and Izhur turned to see Yuli chasing three girls from the Eagle clan. They screamed and laughed as they ran around without a care. One of the girls collided into Aunt Zelda’s vast bottom as she bent to get her second serving of seed cake, and nearly knocked the large woman off her feet.

Yuli threw something at the girl. It hit her fair on her forehead, spoiling the band of feathers in her hair. The girl’s mouth opened in shock and she picked the thing up and threw it back. Izhur squinted. It was a cut of meat from the feast, fatty and moist. It fell short of Yuli and he poked his tongue at the girl before bending to pick it up again.

“Yuli!” Izhur gritted his teeth. “Come here, now.”

People turned to see what the problem was and Izhur altered his scowl, smoothing his features. Yuli poked his bottom lip out, but dropped the cut of meat and strutted over to Izhur at once.

“Do you think that Shephet gave us the forest animals for you to throw their meat around like a plaything?”

Yuli’s bottom lip extended almost as far as his round belly. “We were just having fun.”

“Fun? Is that what you call it? Throwing good food around. Scaring poor Aunt Zelda.”

Yuli frowned and bowed his head.

“Yuli.” A familiar voice.

Izhur turned to see Ida. His breath caught a little the way it always did when he saw her. She was easily the most beautiful woman in all eight clans of Ona’s people. With hair that shone like the silk spun by spiders, and skin as smooth as the buds of spring. Izhur checked himself. He was Soragan. Coupling was not an option for him. Not that it would have been an option at all. Ida was Zodor’s wife.

“Go to the tree-dwell.” Her voice was quiet but stern as she looked at her son.

Yuli pouted again and stomped his feet. “No! I was only having fun. How come the girls don’t get into trouble?”

“Yuli, the tree-dwell. Now!” Ida remained calm, but there was fire in her eyes.

“But I’m hungry.” Yuli’s voice changed to a whimper, the way a child half his age might talk when scolded. But it was hardly convincing. His mouth and cheeks were still stained with the honey glaze that sweetened the meat.

“You need to listen to our Soragan. Treating our sacred food in such a way is wasteful. If you were hungry you should have sat respectfully. Now go. We shall talk more, later.”

Yuli stomped his foot again, but turned and headed off toward the tree-dwells.

“Izhur, I am sorry.”

Izhur shook his head. How was it that Zodor was such a pig-headed rock and yet his wife was full of wisdom? She could see the flaws in her sons, even though she loved them fiercely, like a she-wolf.

“It is not your fault.”

Ida smiled and Izhur’s heart fluttered again. “I spoil him too much. Did he disobey you? I will punish him. Aunt Zelda would appreciate her tunics being washed again.”

Izhur smiled. Aunt Zelda’s laziness was renowned. She had swarms of children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, all of whom she used to do her chores while she grew fatter with every summer.

“He was excited to see the other children. Perhaps I was too harsh.”

Ida looked to the ground. “And what of your lessons today? Yuli ran out of the forest like a frightened rabbit. I assume he disobeyed you in some task again.”

“No, he didn’t disobey.” Izhur lied, not wanting to get into the complexities of what they were doing exactly. The clan had allowed Iluna to be part of the Wolf all those years ago, but no one trusted her, or befriended her.

No one except for Izhur and Ida, and old Agath, of course. But Ida had to hide her affections. Zodor detested the girl and his sons had inherited his hatred. No one approved of Izhur teaching Iluna. But he’d convinced the Eight that, if he didn’t, it would be dangerous. This had only scared them more. Now clan members often performed a sign of warding to repel evil – crossing their thumbs and touching four fingertips together in an arch – whenever she walked past. It was a problem. But at least they did it behind her back. Iluna seemed to remain ignorant of their fear.

“He just got scared. No need for him to wash Aunt Zelda’s smalls.” Although the boy could do with some hard physical work.

“Scared? Was there trouble?” Ida’s eyes widened.

“No trouble.” Izhur lied again. He really wasn’t sure how much trouble there could have been, if Iluna had succeeded in the summoning. It was reckless of him to allow it but his excitement often got the better of him. “Sometimes lessons of the Otherworld can frighten small children.”

Ida nodded. Everyone had nightmares about the Otherworld and Malfiren as children. This wasn’t helped by the popular evenfire stories that adults would tell at night.

“Let me know if I can help. His father is keen that he becomes Soragan one day.”

“I will.”

“And Iluna, I’ve noticed her tunic is worse. It has more holes than a hive.” Ida glanced around and lowered her voice. “Tomorrow I will give you another for her – an old one of Yuli’s. He has grown out of it.”

“Thank you, Ida. I will give it to her. She will be grateful.”

Ida smiled again before leaving Izhur to watch the sway of her hips as she walked toward the evenfire.

“Thinking of missed opportunities?”

Izhur jumped and turned to see Belwas grinning down at him before nodding toward Ida. His bear cloak now gone, he stood in a simple light tunic; the multiple colours from the many beads he wore around his neck reflecting in the evenfire light.

Izhur blushed. “Belwas. It’s good to see you.”

The two Soragans embraced and Belwas put a meaty hand on Izhur’s shoulder as they walked over to the feast laid out beside the evenfire.

“Love. It is a difficult sacrifice for us Soragans.” Belwas winked. “Believe me I know what I’m talking about. I had a tumble in the bushes before I bent my head for these heavy rocks.” He grasped the beads.

Izhur shook his head, unable to stop a grin. “I’m not yearning for love, Belwas.”

Belwas winked again. “Well, you should be. Oh, those heady days with Bolga; I’ll never forget her quivering bosom.”

A short laugh escaped Izhur’s throat. “Quivering bosom?”

Belwas looked around. His thick curls glinted in the firelight; there was more grey than black now. ”Let’s stow away to your tree-dwell before we get dragged into another boring conversation. Talking to old Petral about his piles almost had me falling asleep. It’s been a long journey. I need some comfort. And we can talk more freely about your love life then.” He turned back to Izhur. “Or Bolga’s quivering bosom.”

Izhur laughed again. “Come with me then, you old Bear.”








“Still like it strong, Belwas?”

“Oh, yes, and do you have any of that rose stuff? Such a rare treat for us of the Bear.”

“I do, my friend.” Izhur finished pouring the mint water into two clay cups and reached to the upper shelf of his tree-dwell for the jar of ground hips. Strictly speaking, they were for healing, but Belwas had a sweet tooth, and Izhur knew how his old friend enjoyed nature’s gifts. It would help his fatigue, too. It had been a long journey for the Bear. Travelling a full eightnight from dawn to dusk in the height of summer was no easy task. Even for the young.

Izhur added the rose hip powder, along with mountain honey, and stirred.

“This will refresh you.”

“Thank you, Izhur.”

Izhur sat on a cushioned wolfskin next to Belwas. The two Soragans sipped the cool brew in silence, the scent of mint and rose filling the modest space. Three oil pots were dotted around – one on the ground before them and two higher on the shelves, revealing the small collection of clay jars – powders and potions typical of a Soragan’s store. Izhur reclined and allowed himself to relax, listening to the summer crickets as they sang a night song. A breeze, as light as a butterfly’s touch danced through the tree-dwell, cooling them.

“How was the journey?” Izhur asked after a time.

Belwas shrugged as he massaged one foot with a fat hand. “Good. Plenty of game on the way. No injuries or illnesses to speak of. The children behaved themselves. A bit boring really.”

Izhur laughed. “Don’t tell me you were wishing for ill luck!”

“Nothing too grave; just something bad enough to make an old Soragan feel useful again. There wasn’t even a nightmare to interpret.”

Izhur’s smile faded. “Be careful of what you wish, Belwas.”

Belwas eyed him beneath his large brows. “You’re right. I should be happy that my own nightmares have let me alone for so long.”

Izhur frowned. “You’ve had nightmares?”

Belwas grimaced. “Yes, and they all had the unshakeable sense of premontion about them.”

Izhur swallowed. “You’ve seen something ill-omened? About your clan’s future?”

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Tell me about them.”

Belwas stroked his beard with a fat hand. “It was the most difficult, unclear set of images, Izhur. The dreams were filled with bloody destruction, great chaos and horror.” His bushy brows met in a frown. “I find them impossible to interpret.”

“Can you identify the people in them?”

Belwas shook his head. “The dreams were strong in their emotions. I could feel the horror and sadness, but it was difficult to see what was happening.”

“And you haven’t had the dream since you left your river lands?”

“No, I haven’t had the dreams since we left Agria.”

“Agria? Why didn’t you mention it then?”

Belwas shook his head again. “Because it wasn’t until later, in my meditations, that I realised what the dreams were.”

“You’re convinced they were a premonition?”

“Yes, the trouble is I can’t fathom what. There were two images that were clear, and consistently vivid in the dreams. Two animals always appeared.”

“Animals? Totems perhaps. What were they?”

Belwas looked at him. “A raven and a wolf.”

Izhur frowned. He knew that the wolf was Yuli’s totem – and it was considered a very fortunate omen to have the same totem as one’s clan. But the raven? A shiver shook him. Such a totem would be most unlucky.

“Well, never mind all of that,” Belwas interrupted Izhur’s thoughts, his voice back to its usual jolly tone. “How go things for you? Last we met you hadn’t long taken up your new position in the Wolf. Zodor still seems to cause you concern.”

“You noticed some tension between us?”

“I’ve been a Soragan for more than thirty summers, Izhur. These old eyes don’t miss much.”

Izhur sighed. “It’s been difficult. I’ve had to work hard to gain respect. They didn’t accept me at first, the way they accepted Jakom.”

“Jakom was very old. Older than me even. I’ve never seen anyone with the like of his power. Not even the Grand Soragan.”

“I agree. Everyone respected it.”

“Yes,” Belwas assented. “But he was once like you, Izhur. He struggled at the beginning, as we all do.”

Izhur blinked. “I can’t imagine that. I can’t see him ever faltering or not knowing what to do.”

“Well, he did. Just as I did. Wisdom comes with experience, and age, most regretfully.”

Izhur shook his head slowly as he refilled their cups. ”What if I were to tell you that here, in the Wolf, is a Gift-born whose light is even greater than that of Jakom’s?”

Belwas snapped his gaze to Izhur, eyes wide.

Izhur cleared his throat. “Belwas, I need to tell you about our return here from the last Agria. I need to confide in you.”

The old Soragan took a sip of tea and nodded. “You have my ear, friend.”

“When we returned that summer, our forests had been burned. It was clear that a long drought had taken its toll. We guessed that a lightning strike set off a fire in the grasslands south of here and the burning went deep into the forest.”

“Really? Well it doesn’t look that way now. It’s all green as ever in your hinterlands.”

“The forest regenerates quickly. Sometimes we burn sections of it ourselves to enable this regrowth.”

“Fascinating.”

“Yes, but that’s not what I want to tell you.” His eyes met Belwas’s. “That year we’d had much bad luck. One of our little ones had broken his leg coming out of a tree.”

“It happens. I’m sure Amak fixed it well.”

“She did.” Izhur nodded. “And then in the winter our clan suffered the sickness that took Jakom and Istia.”

Belwas’s eyes closed. He and Jakom were close friends.

“In the spring one of our best hunters, Osun, died, fighting off a lion. Even now I can’t fathom how it happened. He was a wise fighter, not foolhardy. His woman, Neria, was pregnant.”

“Yes,” Belwas interrupted. “I remember her at Agria; she had many friends.”

Izhur nodded. “It was the following winter, the night that marked the first of Ilun. That’s when her baby came.”

Belwas leaned forward. “Ilunnight?”

“Neria had struggled with the labor all night and day. When the daysun went down Amak summoned me. I had never attended a birth before, and it was my first Ilun as Soragan.” Izhur’s eyes reached out for comfort in his old friend. “A storm approached, but I persevered. I couldn’t save Neria, but …” He rubbed his temple. “The baby – I saved her, and she had the strongest light I have even seen – in anyone.”

“Indeed? And she lives now?”

“She does. She is a member of our clan. Well, if you can call it that.” Izhur hesitated. The truth was Iluna had barely been accepted at all. She lived with the clan’s tamatu, or low one, old Agath. Their tree-dwell was out in the forest and they had very little to do with the clan. Izhur and Amak were the only ones who interacted with Agath at all. He cleared his throat and continued. “But that is where Zodor and I disagreed; in truth we still do. He ordered her to be sacrificed.”

‘Sacrificed?” Belwas frowned. “We haven’t sacrificed a human for many winters. And who is Zodor to ask that of you? Such an order must come from the Eight, not an individual.”

Izhur clenched his teeth. “As I said, he had great respect amongst us. He was our unspoken leader for a time. He still wields much influence.”

“But so do you now. I have seen that.”

“Yes, it is true. But it is all because of her.” Izhur let out a sharp breath. “I tried to enact their order, to carry out the sacrifice. I went to the altar. I had everything prepared. There was a storm. I couldn’t light the oil pot. I thought the lightning could stand in place of fire. So, I conducted the ritual. But when I raised my arm, ready to strike, lightning bolted to me and the knife was thrown from my hand.” Izhur bent his head. “I never did find that knife.”

The old Bear’s eyes widened before he lifted his cup and finished the brew in one great gulp. “How old is she now?”

“She will be five soon, this winter. They named her Iluna.” Izhur finished his own drink and wiped his mouth. “I’ve been training her, along with Yuli. She has much talent already.”

Belwas inclined his head. “Tell me.”

“Today, she nearly summoned a mountain lion.”

Belwas’s mouth fell open and he blinked. “I best take a look at this child.” He squinted at his cup. “Now that was very refreshing, but I think our conversation requires some stronger elixir.” He pulled out a leather cask from his satchel. “Care for some alza?”