Methven - Day Twelve - Part Four
The valley itself showed plenty of evidence of cultivation. For instance, we passed a number of what could only be orchards. Other patches were pretty clearly gardens of one type or another. Still others appeared to be pasture land for herds of the unicorn-like sabat and a smaller beast with a wooly coat that Bruno said was called a k'nant.
Scattered across the valley floor, there were also quite a few outbuildings of various kinds. Some were obviously barns for the animals and their fodder. Others appeared to be factories or workshops and, judging from the column of black smoke and the clangor issuing from it, at least one of them was a foundry or smithy.
It's plain from even our brief exposure to this Clanhome that the Vomisa's is a sophisticated and fairly advanced culture--despite the fact that they don't seem to have cottoned onto the notion of wearing clothes. Mantami's kinfolk know and use the wheel. (There were lots of wagons and carts in evidence, most of them drawn by sabats.) It was way too late in the season for them to be plowing--but they till their fields and I doubt they do so purely by hand. They certainly understand metallurgy.
Of course, a lot of this came into focus only in retrospect. At the time, I was in such an advanced state of exhaustion that it was all I could do to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
Plodding footstep by plodding footstep, Khasim Clanhome drew nearer. It slowly resolved into a set of interconnected buildings that were all one or another variation on an A-frame theme and, with each successive footfall, those structures loomed bigger and bigger.
The damned things were immense.
At first, I thought they were topped by rows of some kind of decorative plumage, like the bearskin hats on Buckingham Palace's Coldstream Guards. Then, as we got closer, I realized that what I'd taken for decoration was foliage, instead. Each of the Clanhome's gigantic main buildings was topped by a V-shaped row of treetops along the peak of its roof.
Finally, the truth penetrated even my soggy brain.
The 200-foot-tall "buildings" we were approaching had been grown, not built. Their frames were the trunks of live, redwood-like trees, which the Vomisa had somehow persuaded to grow together just short of their crowns to form the skeleton of each edifice.
Fatigued almost beyond endurance, I was still awestruck. The sheer scale of their achievement, the incredible patience their monumental architecture had to have required and the absolute mastery of the very stuff of life it demonstrated stopped me dead in my tracks.
Tong, who couldn't have been any less wasted than me, bumped into me from behind, nearly knocking both of us off our pins.
"Fuck's tha matter wit' you, Wildman?"
I just shook my head, too tired to explain.
After a moment, Tong just shook his head and continued trudging, too spent to even give me grief.
We'd started accumulating a following about halfway through our transit of the valley. It was getting late in the day by then and evidently our passage more or less coincided with the end of the field hands' and artisans' shifts, because more and more of them joined us as we went along. We also picked up an even larger escort of kids of all ages from toddlers to those just barely into their teens.
Not a one of them wore clothes to speak of. What I'd suspected from our encounter with the pubescent girl two days earlier was confirmed for me. With the exception of their faces, all the adults were covered head to toe in fur. With the exception of the tops of their heads, all the children were entirely hairless.
Just like Mantami.
It was quite a little parade we led up to the massive double doors in the central--and largest--of the Clanhome's structures. They stood open before us and standing between them was an elderly Vomisa woman wearing an intricately-patterned shawl draped across the grizzled fur of her shoulders.
She held up her hand, halting Natasi, his companions and us.
"Good hunting," she said--the only Vomisa phrase I recognized.
Natasi raised a hand, but, before he could speak, Læ stepped in front of him and raised her own hand in response.
"Good hunting to you, Mother," Læ responded in the Traders' Tongue.
"We welcome you and your companions to our Clanhome," the woman replied in the same language. "Will you join us in a meal?"
"You honor us with your hospitality. May we know our host's name?"
"I am Atanami. I speak now for Clan Khasim. May we know our guests' names?"
"I am Læ, of Centra. Our company includes Drew Wilde, Leslie Pith, Tran Lowe, Blanford Carstairs and Bill Wilson, all of Earth, Carleton Parkins, my mate, also of Earth, Bruno, a Centran like me and Mantami, a child of Khasim Clanhome."
Atanami turned to Mantami.
"You claim kinship with our Clan?"
"I do, Mother Atanami."
"You are too old to be a child."
"But you are not an adult."
"I have not survived my Ordeal, Mother Atanami. But I have sinned."
I sat on my impulse to interfere. It would have cost me too much energy to register an objection and the cat was out of the bag, regardless.
Besides, Læ, Carleton or Bruno would have just told me to shut up, anyway.
"The child is under my protection, Mother."
Atanami turned back to Læ
"What is the nature of your charge, Læ of Centra?"
"It was I who took the child Mantami from these mountains three years ago. I swore to return him safely to his family."
"You have done so. We thank you."
"I have sworn to speak for him when he faces the judgement of the Mothers."
Atanami's eyes narrowed. She spat a stream of high-speed Vomisa at Læ.
Læ didn't turn a hair.
"I shall speak on Mantami's behalf, even so. It is my right."
"So it is, Læ of Centra."
She turned to the semi-circle of Vomisa behind her and barked what were clearly orders at them.
"The claimed kinship of the child, Mantami, will be tested. If he is of our blood, he will be given shelter until the Mothers render judgement."
I had to ask.
"And if he's not?"
Atanami looked at me coldly.
"He will be driven from our valley as an imposter."
She turned back to Læ.
"Come. We will give you and your companions food and shelter."
She turned away and led us into her Clanhome.
. . .
The main hall of Khasim Clanhome's main structure reminded me a little of Westminster Abbey. The Clanhome's main hall was a huge vaulting space. Like those of Westminster, the lower reaches of its walls were covered with a profusion of bas-reliefs sculpted out of the basaltic rock which makes up the the Vomisa Mountains.
The subject matter was a little different, though.
Where Westminster is crowded with images of kings and nobles, Khasim Clanhome's walls were covered with sculptures whose content was frankly erotic. Very explicitly erotic.
The middle reaches of those walls--say from 50 to 150 feet above the floor--were covered with some kind of plaster and that plaster was completely blanketed in frescoes. The subject of those frescoes was the Ordeal I'd heard so much about. They told a story of children streaming out of Khasim Clanhome's valley into the treacherous, snowy mountains and on to other valleys where other Clanhomes lay.
And the trail between the two islands of warmth was littered with the dead and dying children of Khasim Clanhome. Thousands of them.
Around me swirled dense crowds of the same children who would one day be forced to endure that heartlessly Darwinian winnowing. They ran and shouted everywhere, outnumbering the adults by five or six to one, laughing with innocent joy. Laughing.
And Mantami wanted to come back here?
Above those terrible frescoes, the upper walls were draped with tapestries depicting everything from animal husbandry to blacksmithing. Where the walls came together at the hall's peak, banners emblazoned with intricately abstract patterns were hung the length of the ridgepole. Great chandeliers anchored to that same ridgepole dangled halfway to the floor, their chains secured to huge windlasses which flanked the massive double doors set into each end of the hall.
The hall itself was clearly designed as a gathering place. On either side, there were curving ranks of benches, engraved with images of trees, streams and animals, all facing toward the far set of doors. Above those doors was set a largish stage, with steps leading up to it on either side of the doorway. The stage itself held a long, elaborately-carven table, which seemed to have been sculpted out of a single tree. The design chiseled into the table depicted Khasim Clanhome's valley as seen from the stone gates at its entrance. Behind the table there were nine wooden chairs, each carved to resemble a tacht sitting on its haunches, except for the one in the center, which was sculpted as a rampant tacht.
The floor was of stone, but was almost completely covered with animal-skin rugs. In the far corners there were additional doorways, although each was much smaller than the imposing central doors.
We were ushered through those central doors into the next room which, if not quite as big or as sumptuously-appointed as the main hall, was certainly big enough to seat no fewer than a thousand Vomisa at a time. It was filled with plain tables and benches. Atanami led us to a table in one corner of that room and asked us to sit.
Almost immediately, a stream of children began filing in, carrying tableware, cups, platters, serving bowls and the like. In short order, we were fed and given a kind of intensely-sweet wine. The meal wasn't fancy, but it was filling. After its remains were cleared away, we were offered s'lyme, then shown to individual rooms deep within the labyrinth of interconnected dwellings that make up the Clanhome.
A young Vomisa woman showed me to my own chamber. For some reason, she insisted on helping me take off my clothes, too.
I was more tired than I've ever been before in my life. It had been a long, long time since my last ration of hinch nuts and the effect of the simple, but substantial meal I'd just stuffed myself with was more than enough to overcome the cup of s'lyme I'd just drunk.
The Vomisa girl turned down the fur robe that covered my bedding and I crawled gratefully into it.
It felt so good to be horizontal, I barely noticed the woman slipping into bed next to me. I started to protest as she snuggled up against me and began stroking my chest, but sleep just crashed over me like a tsunami. I let it carry me away as her caress slipped lower and lower.
. . .
The next thing I knew, I awoke alone, here in my room. I found what I hope is a chamber pot under the bed and a pitcher of water and an oil lamp on a table by the door.
There was no trace of my Vomisa girlfriend. I hope I didn't insult her by failing to respond to her ministrations, but I definitely needed sleep a whole lot more than I needed sex.
When I first got up, I checked the door and found it wasn't locked. The hall outside is lined with other doors just like mine--all of them closed. I figured the others must be sleeping in and, rather than disturb them, I decided to take the opportunity to bring this journal up to date.
There are still a bunch of drawings I'd like to work on, but this will do for the moment.
If the others are still asleep, then screw 'em. I'm going exploring.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)