In the year 20,000, settlers from Earth inhabit a system near the center of the galaxy, only to see their nascent civilization decimated by a catastrophic solar event. A thousand years on, Earth is the mythical home of the all-powerful and mysterious Old Ones, and on the verdant world of Amara, the desperate attempts of the dying first settlers to preserve 20,000 years of history and science the stuff of ritual and fireside tales. Yet within these tellings still lie hid the seeds of resurrection.
The Telling of Nabu and the Chancy Way
by Ellen Larson
But as the months grew times ten into decamons, and then times one hundred into centamons, and still no other sign came from the sky, Nabu, gentle Nabu, who never wisht another harm, was consumed by an oily bitterness and did curse the name Amara and yearn for all who lived to share his grief. For fifty decamons did bitterness and despair battle it within him, ravaging his mind and body night and day, till at last despair did prove the victor. So on the very day he marked the end of the one thousandth month since the Darkening, he ceased to accept food or drink, having made up his mind to break the code of Athan, and die unremembered.
On the third day thence, he crept from his golden cave and laid himself upon the smooth lawn beside the pool, that when his spirit departed, the body it had borrowed might return to its home. Waiting for Death, he turned his thoughts to memories of Hestia and those others who were lost, so he might not die utterly alone. At length he grew faint in the fierce heat of Odion, and swooned. Then, whether he slept and dreamt, or whether he listened and heard, the west wind whispered him and said: "Go back to Haven. For she who was your truest companion lives still in a place other than your thought." At which Nabu crawled to the side of the pool and drank. For those words did kindle hope in his heart, the smallest flame of which can dispel the darkness of bitterness and despair.
When he had recovered something of his strength, Nabu clothed himself in gray, and wrapped himself round in his white robe, fastening it with the violet brooch of Hestia. Then he went to the banks of the Angry River and turned his face to the south.
The way was wearying, for it had been some decamons since Nabu had journeyed, and there was no road. How different from the First Days, when, at the side of Athan, he had crossed the face of fair Amara from sea to sea in an hour! Slowly the mountains dwindled behind him, till he found himself in the steppe country, and though the lands to the east of the River did turn gray and barren, it was there he looked most often, for that was the way he knew he must somehow go.
One day he came to a place where a swift-flowing stream joined the Angry River, and there did he stop, the way blocked. The north wind wailed across a gray sky, and his heart turned cold when he did remember the before days, when to cross a raging river, or half the night sky asparkle with stars, was a simple thing to him! But when the gentle west wind blew, he shook himself, and took the only way open to him, back along the stream.
So it was he came upon Priya, alone amid a grove of silver aspens. In her hands she held an axe, and with it she struck at the trees with hearty swings. Having felled them, she stripped off their black branches, cut them to certain lengths, and dragged them to the water's edge. Nabu watched her, standing in plain sight no further off than the bound of a deer, but she paid him no attention. At length he spoke, for she was young and alone, and the aspen logs were heavy.
"Let me help you, youngling. It is foolish to work alone, when two may get on four times as quick."
Priya's blue robes and russet hair swirled as she turned to him, and then Nabu understood why she had not seen him, for her eyes were cast and ugly. But her voice, when she spoke, was full of light and beauty. "Is that a water spirit speaks so, without regard for the right way? It must be, for none of the Folk would address a stranger thus."
Nabu bowed low. "I beg your pardon, youngling. I have been too long separate from the Folk and am out of practice how to speak. Let my good deeds make up for my poor words."
So together they carried the aspen logs to the stream. And Nabu did learn that Priya, though she could not see, was sure of foot and strong. When the last log was laid where she wanted, he spoke again. "Is it the right way to ask why you are so far from the fires of the Folk, and why you are weeding aspens?"
"It is not," answered Priya, though she laughed when she said it. "But I will tell thee, in trade for your good help if not your manners. In truth, I'd rather be at home weeding my garden. I wander because I must. The Folk did close their doors to me, and that is a poor thing, for how will my alyssum and dianthus grow without me to care for them?"
Nabu frowned and laid his hand upon the violet flower at his throat. "This is a weird telling. What could such as you have done for the Folk to cast thee out?"
"I did do no thing, truly. Seems the Folk fear what they do not understand. And they do not understand how I was born without no eyes."
"It is a sorry thing, but only one of uncountable sorrows that have plagued the issue of Amara since the Solar War. Once, the Folk knew that well, and pitied such as yourself."
Priya shook her head. "You are separate from the fires of the Folk for a longish time, indeed. These days they shun all that is degenerate."
"Have you no family to stand up for you?"
"My mother only. As she was strong and fearless, she did protect me--while alive. But a trimonth ago she did die, and from the fire they did send me forth."
"Were you condemned thus to certain death and no one of your fire speak?"
"They did not send me to die. The savant of our fire did give me a task to do, which if I can do it, will prove my spirit is pure, though my body is tainted. She did tell there is a tree still clings to life in the Dead Lands beyond the Angry River, at a place called Haven. Its seed did come from Ge, she said, and though it is old now, it did bear one last untainted blossom. Or I must bring this blossom back, or never feel the warmth of our fire again."
"To ask the impossible of the innocent is one way to bend the code of Athan, which forbids the taking of a life."
"There are some who like you think the savant's words cover a darker intent. Nevertheless, I do mean to heed them according to our code. So it is you find me here, making a raft to cross this noisy River, for though it shames me to say it, truth is, I cannot swim."
Then did Nabu marvel, for Priya was young and blind, the Angry River wide, and the withered heath beyond it wider still. "You shame me youngling, for my heart quaked when I looked this morning upon the River, and thought of the crippled lands beyond. I saw with a coward's eye, but my eyes are open, now. Come! For I too am bound for Haven in the Dead Lands, to seek what is impossible to find. We will journey together, you and I, and when the way grows fearsome, I will lean upon your courage."
At this Priya laughed gaily. "I will wait till I know thee a little better before I name you the more coward of us two. Your knowledge of the chancy way is far greater than mine, whereas I do not fear it because I cannot see it!"
And Nabu said, "You are very wise for one so young, youngling."
And Priya said, "You are very foolish for one so old--Old One."
At which Nabu asked in great surprise, "Why do you name me that?"
"I cannot see, but I can hear, and I never before did I hear the Folk speak in the lingo of Ge, or talk of the Dead Lands as one who did see them. Where is your craft, Old One? Can you not fly like the hawk above the River? Or keep out the wind and rain and poisonous fumes with your mighty shield?"
Nabu sighed. "It is not only the Folk who have lost the craft. It is a sorrow that does not lessen with time, to see myself so helpless, and so little able to help. But I must be done with words like that! We will use your axe-craft to cross the River. After that, it may be that I have some small craft of my own left to help us along the way."
So Nabu helped Priya bind the logs with ropes and make a raft, and together they set out upon the Angry River, to find the way to the Dead Lands.
Thus begins the journey of Nabu and Priya, which was long and weird, and even more chancy than Nabu did foresee. For their raft was caught by the angry waters of the River, and they were carried far beyond their chosen way and cast upon a rocky shore. And that was a strange land where the streams did run with black fire and the very earth did move beneath their feet. Slowly they made their way, though wild creatures from the before time stalked them through the hills, and sickness overwhelmed them in the valleys, and wherever they went they were alone.
When they were come at last to the Dead Lands, they wandered lost for many days in a cold gray rain, till they had no more food or water. Priya thought they would shortly starve or else the tainted air would kill them first. But Nabu gave her a small black pellet, which he said was the same as food and drink, and a small red pellet, which he said would protect her from the tainted air. And with this craft he did keep them both alive as they crossed that terrible land.
Early one morning the rain stopped, and the first yellow beams of Odion painted the sky blue. Priya sat on a rock, lost in thought, for she knew much about the how and why of green things, and could not understand such lifelessness when the suns shone and the rains fell and the ground was covered with soil. "Old One, why do the Dead Lands so hate life? All other places on fair Amara do forget the Darkening and grow green again."
"This is not the taint of the Darkening," said Nabu. "This we did, we Old Ones, who never before knew how to fail. After the Darkening, we gathered at Haven, and there we made our first and last mistake, and here you find the penalty."
"If you were to Haven before, Old One, why do you not know the way?"
"All bare hills and empty dales look alike to me, without the craft to guide me."
"Then we must find our way by other means," said Priya. "Which maybe now we can, that the weeping clouds have blown away." And she went away from him a little and stood in silence for an hour or more. Odion crested the horizon, followed by rosy Kato, and still she stood. The morning breeze blew between her outstretched fingers and ruffled the locks of her russet hair, and still she stood. The shadows of the high clouds fell upon her face and passed away, and still she stood.
At length she spoke. "Tell me, Old One, is there not a troop of mountains to the east, black mountains with two narrow peaks in shape like the horns of an ox?"
Nabu sprang up in amazement. "Yes, youngling. But how do you know this? Are your eyes made whole by this poisonous air?"
"Your questions can wait," said Priya, speaking to him like a grandling to a child, to which Nabu folded his arms and smiled. "Now look you to the north and tell me, is there not a place where the land rises up like the bow of a great sea ship?"
Nabu looked, and sure enough, in the distance he could see where the land rose up like the bow of a ship. "Yes, young old one."
"That way we must go. And when we reach the ship, we must turn eastward and walk toward the left-hand horn. If we can hold true to the way, we will come to a white canyon, and there we will find Haven."
"I remember the canyon, if not the way to get there," said Nabu. "But how can you see these mountains and vales, or know what is east and what north?"
Priya laughed and clapped her hands. "The answer when given is simple. Maybe you cannot feel the difference in the air that comes from the mountains, but I can. Maybe you cannot read from the clouds which way they travel, and why, but I can."
"And do the wind and the clouds tell you also that the mountains are black?"
"Is this my Old One asks such a simple question? The savant did tell me that, of course!"
Nabu smiled. "And did a savant of the steppe also tell thee how to recognize a sea ship?"
"Indeed she did not! But I did not need to know. For you did know, Old One, and looking where I say to look, you did see what I have not eyes to see, nor would recognize if I did."
And so they continued on the way, more eager now, for their travails were behind them and the place they sought ahead. It was hard to keep to a straight line when all about did look the same, and the ground beneath their feet was sidling, but nothing could deter them now.
On the third day they came to a place that Nabu did recognize: the narrow mouth of a canyon, all but hid among high chalk cliffs. Into that canyon they hurried, and searched it high and low, yet found naught but rock and ash. Thus the way ended, and left those two alone among the foothills of the eastern mountains, with nowhere left to go.
"There is nothing here." Nabu sank to the ground. "Everything of craft is gone, nor can I bring back those who are lost. It was only a dream I had upon the grass beneath the golden cave. Now hope has died again, and this time neither it nor I will be reborn."
"Nothing? No!" Priya ran her hands across the white rocks, stumbling over the rough grounds. "But the tree of Ge! The savant's telling did not lie about the mountains, nor the ship, nor canyon. There must be a tree!"
"There is no tree, little one. Nothing has grown here for a hundred decamons, nor will again for a hundred more. We Old Ones saw to that. Forgive us, youngling, forgive me."
Tears gathered in Priya's empty eyes, and she sat down on the hard ground and pulled her robe across her face. "Then it is true my spirit is degenerate. For if there is no tree there is no blossom, and if there is no blossom, I can never go home to my fire, and must always be alone till I die." And she cried bitterly.
"Sh, my child," said Nabu. "I cannot bear it. What you sought never existed, just as what I sought will never exist again--but you at least shall not leave this empty place with empty hands." And he took the violet brooch from his cloak, and gave it to her with hands that trembled. "Here is a blossom of Ge, made there in the shape of the sweet violet. It was a gift to me from Hestia herself, she who considered all Amara her garden. But I give it to you, as I no longer need its comfort." That much only did Nabu speak aloud, but to himself he did add: For I need no comfort where I now go, and only wish that Death might be kind, now I know for certain Hestia's spirit indeed lives nowhere but in my thoughts.
"Thank you, Old One." Priya touched the smooth petals with a sad smile. "It is right that I give you something in return--I have only this small thing, but it means much to me." And reaching beneath the collar of her inner clothes she pulled out a knotted string, on which hung a small, spherical pendant. "They say there is a praeter fire inside it."
Nabu took the pendant in the palm of his hand. It was dark blue, but at his touch its heart began to burn with a light like a yellow flame. "Where did you get this, youngling?"
"It belonged to my mother's mother. She was found deep in sickness at the edge of the marshlands. The Folk did try to help her, for they could see she was with child, but they did not have the craft, and she died without speaking."
Nabu looked upon Priya's face as if for the first time, and swooned. For there he saw Hestia's broad brow and wide mouth, and Hestia's own dinted chin, and wondered why he had not seen before. "This is the pendant I gave to Hestia in return for the brooch I have now given you. I have not seen it since the day she set out to visit the evergreen trees she loved, never to return, some fifty decamons ago. I searched for her and the child she bore for many years, and then I mourned them both. But now I cease to mourn. For she who was my truest companion does live still in a place other than in my thought, she lives in you--my granddaughter."
Priya held the brooch against her cheek, and her tears touched the yellow gems at its center and made them glisten. "This jewel, found in the Dead Lands where nothing can grow, is the blossom I sought. And you are the mighty tree who bore it, you whose seed came from Ge--my grandfather."
And though the suns set in the west to let them know it was time to sleep, and the stars came out in their multitudes to stare, Nabu and Priya were not soon parted from each other's arms.
Their journey away from Haven was swift and easy. And when the Folk did come to know who Nabu was, and saw the glistening flower in Priya's hands, they were ashamed and begged them both to stay. After which Nabu and Priya lived together among them, she in her garden, carrying on her grandmother's work in glory of fair Amara, and he in his chair, writing in his book the right ways he knew from the First Days and before. And thick was that book when it was done, for Death was indeed kind to Nabu, and did not grant him his wish too soon.
So ends the Telling of Nabu and the Chancy Way, and as that ending is a happy one, when others of the First Days are so grim, it remains the favorite tell of many.
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