|The torches rise with glowing fingers like water flowing upward in darkness in a mighty current...|
No, it is only their voices. They are chanting out their hatred now, a grim echo of the prayers we were taught in school.
Gehn is the enemy.
Gehn oppresses us.
Atrus defeated Gehn.
They say it in Rivenese in defiance, but I hear his very inflection, his intonation in their words. The scars are so deep.
I am seated before the gathered Moiety on a wooden stool carved and painted with one of the signs which he has not stolen: a stooping bird of prey, the sort that used to make its nest in the highest branches of the Great Tree. I wonder if the children here have ever seen the bird fly, or whether it still exists.
The chamber is round like a cocoon, its walls cut to resemble a great Eye. Large flat stones leaning against the sides of the room are carved with many of the old symbols of my people.
There is a tall, thin, menacing wooden statue of Gehn, goggle-eyes no more than slits. Before I came, it occupied the place of-- dishonor-- before the assembly. Now it stands off to the side. The daggers in it bite deeply. Why have I been made to take his place here? Do they mean to do the same to me?
Nelah is huddled at my right knee, Eti at my left, both silent as statues themselves.
The chanting goes silent at last, and one of the elders rises to his feet, bowing deeply to me before turning to face the clustered faces, shadowed and flickering in the torchlight.
He gestures to me.
"And not so long ago, there was a woman and a man. One of us."
Two members of the Moiety stand up, masked and covered, and edge their way into the narrow open space between me and the packed crowd. They put their arms around one another and bow their heads.
"One of us," the watchers echo in unison.
"And they had no children, and the man prayed to the Lord Gehn every day that a son might be born to them."
Muttered curses, as always, accompany his name. The man makes a few halfhearted gestures towards Gehn's statue, but clearly the power he holds over their spirits is still too great for them to act this out, even in fiction.
"But the years lengthened, and they had no child. In secret, then, the woman began to pray to the old gods, the Great Wahrk, instead of Gehn. She went down to the water's edge and dared the sea, passing through a cave that opened onto the great ocean."
The storyteller points towards the back of the room. Not far from here there is such a cave, although I doubt it existed before the island split apart.
"She offered up the forest fruits and flowers, fish caught by her own hand. With a knife she split them open, and spilled the blood upon the waters. Sometimes she waded into the waves, offering herself too, should the Wahrk choose to take, instead of to give."
The woman steps away from the man and kneels before the carved stone that bears the wahrk's silhouette, sprinkling a few flower petals.
"One night she heard a rock-splitting bellow, the voice of the Great Wahrk rising from the sea. But this was no hunting cry. It was pain. Fearful but curious, she swam out a short distance and looked across the silver water. And there, looming up from the swell like a capsized boat, was a half-grown Wahrk, struggling and flailing and sending up mighty waves. She approached and saw it was tangled in a fishing-net. Boldly, she drew near and began to cut the cords, singing softly to calm the frightened animal. At length all that needed to be done was done, and the behemoth swam free of the net and turned in the water to face her with swaying head."
"But instead of devouring her, it spoke, and its voice was like braying horns. 'As you have delivered me from the net, so shall your daughter deliver your people from bondage.' And it carried her back to shore before returning to the depths, and she lay on the strand until dawn in a swoon."
"Two months later, the woman felt the womb within her stir like the sea, and she knew their prayers were answered."
A child, head veiled but wearing long black braids studded with white feathers, welcomed onto the stage. The woman gathers the little one into her arms, embracing her lovingly, then lets her free to dash across the stage, whirling and skipping.
Eti glances at me with an opaque look I do not understand, and I am jarred out of the fabric of the fanciful tale. I raise an eyebrow, but she is grim and quiet. The story continues without me for a moment until I find the thread.
"The girl grew quickly, keen-eyed and sharp-witted, and feared nothing that came from the sea or from the land, for she was of both. But her beauty soon caught the eye of Lord Gehn. She was taken from the school and made to serve him in his great stone house, living apart from the village who loved her and the sea that she loved."
An older girl stands as the youngster ducks into the shadow of the grim statue and darts back into the crowd. The pantomime parents cling to the older girl's hands. She pulls away as if being dragged from them, walks over to the statue and kneels at its feet with head bowed, hands clasped over her knees.
My hand drifts, inexorably, to the faded scar at the side of my neck, Gehn's brand of ownership. I still can't abide mirrors, after all these years. In my worst visions, Gehn has put me in a room with mirrored walls so he can watch me, and I can escape neither him nor myself. Nelah looks up at me in concern, and I find a smile for her.
"But at night, in secret, she would sneak out to the lagoon and dive there like the gentle giants of the rocks. And through her understanding of the sea's creatures, she discovered a marvellous thing. There was a boy who lived under the ocean floor! It was Gehn's son, trapped in a cave beneath earth and water, for daring to oppose his father's cruelty. She slipped him food and fresh water through the bars of his cage, so that he would have the strength to endure his torment. And he taught her the Names of all the rocks, the stars, the moon, the waves, and everything that is. And she sang him songs of the geat sea-beasts to keep his spirits high."
On the far side of the stage, four men with arms interlaced step forth to represent the cage. A youth comes with them and crouches down between them, dressed in white garments, a cloak wrapped around his shoulders. The girl crosses over and kneels outside, passing flowers through to him.
The skin at the back of my neck begins to prickle. Surely they can't mean Atrus. Surely they can't mean--
"She swam down through the hole in the water each night, and each day he chipped away at the bars with a stone she gave him. At last, one day, he broke through and floated to the surface. Katran was by the dock, waiting there as she did each evening for cover of darkness. There she met him and joyously helped him ashore. She and her cousins hid him away in their hut, so Lord Gehn would not guess where he was."
The boy crawls out from under the arms of those holding him, and the girl takes him by the elbow and leads him back into the crowd. The Moiety close around him like the sea, hiding him from view.
"So he came to live among the village and to love our people. Meanwhile Katran continued to defy the Lord Gehn in countless small ways. The books that failed to work--she put brine in the paper. The ink that did not write--she put mud into the mixing-bowls. And he never suspected, for she was as cunning as she was brave."
The girl is out in the open again, dancing mockingly before the statue of Gehn.
I cannot believe what I am hearing. They knew me. Many were there and saw how these things truly happened. How can they eat such empty tales? They have fashioned new lies in place of those of Gehn!
I feel sick. I remember the terror and loathing, always keeping my eyes down, glued to that desk day after day until I wanted to drive the pen through my own throat. There was no end to the tedium of copying, and I knew then already that each phrase I found for Gehn took him one step closer to realizing his grandiose schemes, making and enslaving more worlds like mine. I was his weapon. His knife. The surrogate mother of his broken Ages. And I could do nothing--nothing save smile and pretend to cling to his every word in awe, as if he spoke the secrets of the universe. Sooner or later, he would trust me, give me the knowledge I needed, or let slip enough for me to lay my own desperate plans. Or so I hoped, for a while. But my hopes were swallowed with Eaven. My friend's screams still ring in my ears. The Wahrk rose up and pulled him from the scaffold--
Nelah's hand over mine brings me back to myself again. There are tears in my eyes like a rising tide, and I steel my face. Four years with Gehn taught me how to hide my true feelings.
The Moiety are watching me more than the storyteller. I catch whispers. They have noticed my weeping. What must they think?
"'...I shall make you my bride,' Gehn said, 'to rule at my side.' So he spoke, but the tides of fate were turning. The winds were casting the net back over the fisherman, but he had yet to see it. So the false god prepared the village for his unholy union. Meanwhile, Atrus and Katran plotted in secret against him, and each day Katran stood at Gehn's side, deceiving him until Atrus could make his move."
We were such children. We would have been more afraid, had we not been too young to realize how slim our chances were. Through those agonizing weeks, Atrus grew thin and haggard before my eyes, fighting his father's words and phrases as he struggled to repair the flawed Book. And I was some caged animal, binding my face with smiles and fluttering eyelashes, skin crawling as I frolicked at my master's feet. I had to play the part. The perfect student, he always called me. The perfect protege. Meaning only that I gave him less trouble than his son.
"Then the unthinkable happened. Gehn's Maintainers found Atrus hiding in the village, and Lord Gehn decreed that he was to be held prisoner until the wedding day. All were in mourning, for young Atrus had been captured, and it seemed all hope was lost."
The boy is back in the cage, and the girl who is not me stands before Gehn's statue, twisting the end of her braid in a gesture of despair. She must have been watching me.
"The day dawned bright and clear. Gehn had caused twenty-five Wahrks to be lured into the lagoon, and their eerie cries echoed to the skies. The people gathered before the temple, heads bowed with fear and sorrow. But Katran stood proud and unafraid before the altar of a god to whom she would never kneel. Atrus was tied hand and feet to a great pole fixed in the earth for all to see, and all those who had defied Lord Gehn, or helped Atrus and Katran in their struggle, were bound and brought forth. These were the first of the Moiety. They with Atrus would be sacrificed to bless the unholy rites. Such was Gehn's plan."
The preparations for this part are elaborate. A wooden scaffold, carved and painted, is brought forward to represent the temple. The girl and the statue are positioned before it, and five of the Moiety kneel with their hands clasped behind themselves in abject postures. Across from them, the boy stands with his hands behind his back, chin raised, expression defiant.
It was not like that. I wish it had been. My poor Atrus.
He hung from the pole like a string of fish tied up to dry in the sun. He was so pale, his clothes were torn, his face covered in blood. Only by Gehn's gloating could I cling to the hope he still lived--that Gehn was not through with him yet. So I stood by powerlessly, forced to feign joy, turn a blind eye to Atrus' pain, and gloat with Gehn when my beloved awoke to see us two before the great temple. The horror of betrayal in his eyes was like that last look Eaven gave me before the Wahrk's jaws closed over his ribs and cut him in two.
My hands clench into fists in my lap, nails drawing blood from my palms, but I barely hear the storyteller now. The touch of old nightmares holds me in a waking dream. Yet his voice keeps droning on.
"Lord Gehn took Katran's hand and addressed his people as a god one last time. For daring to show Atrus kindness, our punishment was to be the death of our world. He would throw the mountains into the ocean, break the Great Tree, and take Katran from us, carrying her away to be Queen with him over a thousand worlds."
Gehn kissed me that morning. I tried to pretend it was Atrus, but that made the experience infinitely worse. His breath reeked with the poison he always smoked. Afterwards, Eti held me while I wept and dried my tears so that none would see them at the ceremony. Now she will not touch me. Is she angry at me for this mad tale? Why do they not speak of her, or my father, or Enant, whom she assures me are still alive?
"Atrus cried out in a mighty voice, eyes flashing with white fire. 'You shall not have her!' And he called upon the ground and the very sky in his anguish, commanding them to defy the Lord of Ages. The earth shook, Lord Gehn was thrown to the ground, and his temple fractured and fell with a mighty groan into a great crack in the earth."
The girl, pretending to hold the hands of the statue, tips it over, and several helpers jerk the scaffold so that the wood creaks and splinters, the cross-pieces falling to the stone floor with a clatter. The Moiety on the stage rock back and forth.
"A second time Atrus cried out, and the bonds fell away from him and the Moiety. He stood forth to take the magic books that fed his father's power. But Gehn was not quite finished yet. He seized a great spear--"
The banner fell from the spear in a flutter of red and gold. I knew Gehn was too strong for Atrus, even unhurt. I had seen Gehn break a man's back with his hands. Atrus had warned me he was mad. So I did not know, when I took the books, whether his father would stay his hand out of need, or be goaded to greater wrath and kill son and bride both for our defiance.
"The sky turned black, and the sun hid its face lest it see the sacrilege of father killing son. But Katran took up the magic Books while they struggled before the chasm, and cried out loudly that she would destroy them and take away Gehn's powers if he did not release his son. Gehn turned in wrath to throw the spear at her, but Atrus leapt and caught it, hurling it back at his father's feet. It changed as it flew into the shape of a great stone knife and bit deeply into the earth. Then Gehn called upon his power to strike down his son, and all trembled as a great bolt of lightning flew down from heaven. But it turned itself in mid-air and struck the Great Tree instead, to save the new god."
My heart cried out when the Tree was struck. Anna, what have we done? But in the midst of horror I was also giddy with delight, seeing freedom for the first time in my short life, possibilities opening up as the ground opened beneath our feet. We had done this! This was power, power Gehn did not wield! Whatever happened now, we would never be his servants again.
All that remained was flight or death. If he captured and killed us, the people would never question him again. Someone must challenge him and win. I suppose one could say our message was heard, but they have mistaken the pen for the words!
"Atrus raised his hand. Katran understood his command, and let the Books of power fall into the fires of the chasm, first one and then the other. Then Atrus jumped to her side and they fled, running swiftly as the birds that skim the sea."
Every other phrase is wrong. This is like one of those dreams where the tide swells slowly but inexorably, and the ocean comes crashing in and carries away the whole village. I open my mouth to protest, unable to stand any more of this madness, but Nelah's hand suddenly jerks mine hard. I look down at her and see real fear in her eyes. Eti, across from her, shakes her head in a mute warning.
"Gehn followed them in his wrath. Over and around the island he gave chase, while they sped before him on the wind. They hid in the jungle; they climbed the great white rock before the sacred Stones of Teeth; they jumped across flaming chasms. Three times Gehn overtook them, and cast a long spear. Three times Atrus caught it in his hands and hurled it back at his father's feet, where it stuck in the ground as a huge dagger. At last they came to a chasm too great to cross, the Allatwan, and turned back to defy Gehn one last time."
All this is mimed, except the daggers. The boy standing in for my husband produces them from a hidden fold in his cloak and throws them to the floor with a clamor. He and the girl join hands and begin to rush from one side of the stage to the other. They come to a halt before me, facing the statue again. The girl's veil has come away from her face during their dashing about, and she slips me a shy smile. I have little of my own to give her.
"There Gehn pleaded with Katran to forsake young Atrus and help him achieve his plan to rule a thousand worlds. But she mocked him with laughing eyes, and cried out in a great voice of prophecy. 'Old fool! Do you not see it even now? You are God no more, for you have turned your back on Riven, and Riven has turned its back on you.' The ground thundered to prove her words. 'Atrus has taken all your power to himself. Behold the God.' And she fell at the feet of the young Lord, and was first of all to recognize his godhood."
Catherine, I mouth, watching numbly as the girl clutches the boy's ankles. I am Catherine now, if I never was before. I do not know this Katran whom they name. Atrus, I miss you so.
"Gehn howled in rage and threw one last spear that would have killed her where she knelt. But Atrus again caught it in his hand and threw it aside, to land quivering at the tip of the Allatwan. Then he raised Katran to her feet and kissed her tenderly. 'Go,' said he, 'and I will follow.' And behold! Gehn's Book of power, which had fallen into the fire before the temple, was in his son's hands now, still glowing red from the fires that had purged it of evil. Trusting her god, Katran touched the Book, and was borne away on the wind."
The girl whirls away, ducking back into the shadows of the crowd.
I had to go first and show him the way. I knew Atrus would never leave me behind. I trusted his love to follow me without question into the abyss of time itself. Still, it was a hard thing to link away and abandon him there even for a moment. I did not know then how close Gehn was behind us. My heart still quails to think of it.
"Sternly Atrus faced Gehn. 'I could kill you,' said he, 'but a true son does not kill a father, nor a father a son. You shall never enslave another world. I imprison you here, and command you to mend your ways. I shall take Katran and make her my consort, wife of a worthier god. And if you do not treat well her people, I shall send her back here as a dagger to destroy you, and she shall lead them to the paradise you promised and never had the power to give.'"
The boy raises his arms, facing the statue defiantly with head thrown back and white clothes glowing in the torchlight.
"Then he turned and cast himself into the Allatwan. But he did not fall-- Gehn's stories lie. As the young god leapt out over the pool of stars, a great whirlwind formed around him, and he vanished in mid-air, carried away by the power of the Book. After his passing, the sun came out once more, the ground stopped shaking, the sea sparkled with joy, and only the mighty whirlwind was left to show where he had stood."
The youth hurls himself towards the watching crowd. A score of hands catch him, and bear him away into the back of the room, carried on the air. He vanishes through the narrow door at the back.
So the nightmare story draws to an end, but I do not wake. I am still in this dim chamber, and the eyes of my people that look on me in awe do not see me, only a dream. I open my mouth to speak rebuke against the whirlwind of their convictions, but my throat is dry. The storyteller turns to face me, and sinks to his knees with a voice swelling in triumph.
"And now he has sent his consort back to us in fulfillment of prophecy, and Katran shall deliver us from Lord Gehn and lead us to paradise."
The words are daggers in my chest. Atrus is not here to cast them aside, as he did in the story. I have no one to lend a voice to mine in denying this madness. If I speak now, I dash their hopes, challenge their god, and run the risk of drawing the tide of their convictions against myself.
I bow my head. "You honor me more than I deserve," I tell them, my voice strange to me now. That other Katran is speaking again. "I am no god, but mortal like you, a child of Riven like you. I will do my best to serve."
"One of us," he says joyously.
"One of us," they repeat, voices echoing off the walls.
They begin to chant my name, beating their knees with their hands.
The crowd parts as I surge to my feet, overwhelmed with the urge to flee the room.
My voice rings out across the chamber, fury in it I did not know I possessed. "My name is Catherine. Catherine. And you know nothing."
The world swims before my eyes as if the dart's poison were eating my mind once more, and Eti and Nelah are at my side, holding me. Stiffly, I walk through the sea of faces towards the exit, meeting no one's eyes. Cheers and smiles waver around me in the darkness. Many brandish daggers; I wait for them to fall on me in a hail of red rain. Will they salute or stab me?
Outside is darkness, silence, cold confining stone.
It is less of a prison.