Kniva sat cross-legged, savoring the last moments of solitude before the ceremony and peered down over the lip of his cave high on God’s Peak. Below him lay the temple he had built seven years earlier.
Twelve massive stone columns encircled the temple’s open courtyard. Six wicker arches, each stretching between two opposite pillars curved skyward in a series of deliberately random arcs. Below the uneven arches, mist swirled over a pool of dark water.
A curl of that mist reached Kniva, even so high on the mountainside. The mist wrapped invisible tentacles around the robes he wore and also the wooden talisman hanging from the thong around his neck. The talisman was a loop of dark wood, twisted across the middle into the shape of an infinity symbol. Kniva lifted the polished wood and pressed it to his cheek. The talisman felt damp and cool.
Gravel scraped, and Kniva’s brother, Hulgar, came up the two-hundred step stairway constructed on the side of the mountain–the only access to the cave. Hulgar’s chin jerked out a greeting as he emerged into Kniva’s cave. He puffed from his long climb.
Kniva waved a hand in welcome, rose from his spot on the floor, and stretched. He went to the back of the cave to catch two cups of cold water from the spring that bubbled out of the rock. Hulgar joined him at the stone slab that served as Kniva’s table. They drank in silence, Kniva admiring the graceful workmanship of the two-handled brass cup. Hulgar gulped his water noisily.
Kniva tilted his head at Hulgar and then shook it back and forth. “I know you think the army is ready. They’re not.” He waited for Hulgar to erupt.
Hulgar jumped up from his seat and paced, his bulk making the cave seem small. A strip of red cloth tied Hulgar’s blond hair back from his strong-featured face, ruddy from thirty-five years of fighting and living outdoors. A puckered scar slanted across his forehead and blade marks crisscrossed the backs of his hands. Yak-skin boots shod his feet and held tucked pant legs. A bright blue shirt hung out over dusty wool trousers. Hulgar banged his cup down and brought his face up close to Kniva’s.
“How can you say that? You’ve haven’t been on a raid with us for over a year. I can field an army of 10,000 trained fighters, two thousand of them on horseback. The empire will fold up in front of us.”
Kniva kept the smile on his face, and his eyes focused on Hulgar’s. “Maybe. But if we fail to take the capital, we’ll lose everything. The emperor in Neoull is no weakling.” He ran a thumb over the light gray wool of his holy man’s robe and watched while Hulgar scowled and paced once more.
Hulgar stopped with his back to Kniva and ran a hand through his hair. He spun around. “Raemon is a coward.”
“Perhaps,” Kniva said, still smiling. “But it would be foolish to underestimate a man who’s been emperor for more than thirty years. You know as well as I do that if Raemon decides to retreat behind the walls of his city, we have to be able to root him out as well as fight off any relieving armies that might come up from the south.”
Hulgar jammed his hands onto his hips. “All right. In the fall then. And quit grinning.”
Kniva pressed his lips together, but one side of his mouth still twitched. He leaned back against the table. “What about the knife fight I broke up yesterday? The Paco-Glini were ready to cut a few Vanta-Glini throats. The tribes are not as united as you think.”
Hulgar banged his fist on the table. “Give them a real enemy to fight. Then they’ll stop brawling.”
Kniva sipped his water again, lowered his cup slowly, then ran his fingers over his prayer belt woven of enemy bones. “We need more siege towers, catapults, and rams. We need to train a mining corps who can tunnel under city walls.”
Hulgar brought his face close to Kniva’s. “Come with us on the next raid. We’re more ready than you think.”
Kniva didn’t blink. “There are few things I would rather do than strap on my sword and ride with you. But someone has to find more engineers, put the builders to work, and organize the miners. If I leave, who will see to the salt caravans coming down from the north?”
Hulgar exhaled as if to rid himself of a bad smell and turned to look down at the valley below. “What happened to the days when everything a man owned could be packed behind him on a saddle? Now we’ve turned into salt traders.”
Kniva picked up his graceful mug and examined it closely. “The salt trade ensures the flow of weapons and trained men into God’s Peak and takes booty back to the steppes. It puts food in your belly and that fine sword in your hand. It feeds the tribes at home. The salt trade means we are more than desperate thieves who steal out of need.”
Hulgar turned sharply. “All right, all right. It’s just hard to wait. I want to fight, not worry about engineers, especially when most of them are Neoullian.”
Kniva drained his cup. “It’s hard for me, too. But Neoullian knowledge is the god’s gift to us. When you know all there is to know about attacking a walled city, we’ll be ready. Then nothing will keep the Glini from the future they deserve.”
“I just hope it’s not a Neoullian future where we all turn into city dwellers and become so wrapped up in our possessions that we forget about strength and honor.” Hulgar dropped into his chair.
Kniva thought about quoting one of the god’s laws to Hulgar, but he held his tongue. He had no wish to reduce Hulgar to the status of awestruck follower. Hulgar needed to lead the Glini as general and ultimately as ruler of all the conquered lands. Kniva had chosen a different path: servant of the god.
He leaned toward Hulgar. “You and I will make sure it’s a Glini future. All these new endeavors like mining, building, reading, and writing are skills that help us. What about your fine new weapons, your war horse, the handsome cloth of your cloak?”
“We never used to care about such things,” Hulgar muttered.
“Times change,” Kniva said. “Look at the beauty the Glini create once they have the tools, the skills, and enough food in their bellies. Look at this cup, the woven emblem on your shield, the temple itself.”
“Yes.” Hulgar’s voice grew louder. “Now we covet these things. Instead of living with the beauty of a sunrise, we want to possess that beauty and stash it inside our huts.”
Kniva snorted. “You’ve never slept in a mud hut in your life.”
“At least I’m still man enough for that.”
“That’s why the temple is open to the sky,” Kniva said. “It’s a temple to the Glini spirit, not a Neoullian palace.”
The scratch of boots on the stone stairs announced a visitor. They turned to see a helmeted guard poke his head above floor level.
“There’s a messenger,” the guard said to Hulgar. “He says he’s from the Emperor. He wants to deliver his message to the head of the Glini.” The guard’s eyes jumped from one man to the other.
Kniva and Hulgar stared at each other. Kniva wrapped a fist around his talisman. Hulgar grabbed the hilt of his sword.
“Bring him to the ceremonial platform,” Hulgar said. “We will be down shortly.”
The guard left.
“From the emperor,” Kniva said, his eyes bright.
“With any luck it will be a declaration of war.”
“You never stop.”
Hulgar grinned and hiked up his trousers.
The messenger waited on the platform, his head lifted to examine the soaring wicker arches overhead. He turned when he heard the sound of footsteps behind him. Tall and slim, with dark hair in oiled ringlets, he quickly arranged himself with hands clasped at chest level, gaze cast down and head tilted to one side.
Kniva stood slightly to one side and let Hulgar stand in front of the Neoullian. The man took a step back, swirled his cape off his shoulders, and held it out as if expecting a servant to rush to his aid. When no one came to relieve him of his garment, he blinked several times, folded the cape over his arm, and bowed with arms outstretched. “I bring you greetings from the Emperor,” said the messenger, speaking the Glini tongue with awkward pronunciation. He remained in his low bow.
Hulgar stood with feet set wide apart, large arms folded over his chest. “Well?”
The messenger resumed an upright posture, looked around again as if hoping there might be someone to come to his rescue. His gaze paused hopefully on Kniva who remained impassive, arms at his sides.
The messenger cleared his throat, his open hand pressing his chest. “Indeed. If you are the leader of the tribes known as Glini, the Emperor has asked me to deliver an invitation for you to meet with him at his palace in Neoull.”
The man tugged on his sleeves, pulling them down to his wrists. He slapped his leggings with his gloves and raised a small cloud of dust.
Hulgar frowned as the smaller man fidgeted. “What for?”
The messenger drew his head back. “Why, to talk of course.”
“About what?” Hulgar asked.
“I’m sure I don’t know. The emperor does not take me into his confidence. I am merely his courier.”
“Take a guess,” Hulgar said.
The man sputtered. “See here. You can’t ask me. How would I know?”
Hulgar grabbed the messenger by the bright red neck bow and drew the man’s face close to his own, bringing the courier to his tiptoes. “I said, guess.”
Words bubbled out. “He’s angry over your raiding. He thinks a deal can be struck, even if you are barbarians, he said.”
Hulgar tilted his head at the man he held tight in his grasp. “Barbarians? You pigeon-breasted little toad. I could squeeze your head off your neck like a chicken.” He dropped the man.
Kniva took a step forward. “One moment.” He drew Hulgar off to one side to talk out of earshot of the Neoullian. “Tempting, isn’t it.”
“I suppose this means we’ll have to call off the raiding parties.” Hulgar scowled.
“On the contrary. The raids will strengthen our bargaining position. I wouldn’t mind showing up in Neoull with a sizeable army fresh from a successful raid, would you?”
Hulgar laughed and rubbed his palms together. He walked over to the cringing courier, placed one big hand on each of the man’s shoulders, pulled him into a hearty embrace, and planted kisses on both sides of his face.
Kniva felt excitement in the whispers rippling through the throng of waiting warriors jammed shoulder to shoulder when he led the Glini chieftains into the open-air temple. He lifted his eyes to its seemingly weightless wicker arches, overlapping at different heights, with off-center peaks. There was no finish to it, no harmony, no certainty. With uplifting grace they gestured toward the incomprehensible, scorning to demonstrate what humans thought they knew. Kniva had had it built years earlier, and he still loved it.
He wore loose white pants and a long coat over an apron of clicking beads, clothing he favored now that he no longer rode quite so often with the raiding parties. The seven Glini chieftains who followed him into the temple wore complete battle gear, ready to lead their troops as soon as the rites of glory had filled them.
Kniva circled the stones ringing the black waters of the holy pool and mounted the silver-wooded platform behind it. The chieftains lined up behind him. The throng of male and female Glini fighters filled the temple and pushed all the way up the wall of stones that encircled the boggy-edged pool. Hundreds had gathered, their striped pants, brightly colored cloaks, and spikes of lime-stiffened hair bright in the sun.
Above them on the platform, Kniva closed his eyes and grasped his talisman. A queer agitation wormed its way beneath Kniva’s skin whenever he was near the black pool. He took a long breath and considered the pleasure of being nothing more than a normal, pain-free man. Then he let that moment go. The tribes, the god, and the rites–they were all that mattered.
Kniva dallied a moment longer. He sensed the suppressed anger of the female chieftain on his left and the restlessness of the large man on his right. Friends of his childhood, Cazireata and Hulgar shared Kniva’s memories of the days when they’d been children, playing in the dust of a Glini camp. Today Hulgar fidgeted, impatient, his mind already jumping ahead to the anticipated raiding. Cazireata damped down her fury over the rites with a typical edgy calm. Of all the Glini, Kniva knew that she alone wished the ceremony could be avoided—for his sake.
Kniva’s eyes wandered up and down the six wicker arches soaring over the circular yard of the temple, letting in the sky. He squinted. The people beneath him blended into a blur of color, topped by a crisscross of brown against blue—arches and sky. At the bottom, in the center, was a dark spot, the pool. With his eyes nearly closed, the pool appeared to Kniva as a bottomless hole. He began to intone sounds. Any would do. He just knew that sound wooed the god like no other sense.
He was casually examining the steep sides of the hole as he chanted evocative sounds when he realized the distant rumble he detected was neither an approaching storm nor a heavy cart. The pounding sounds came from the hole. Hoof beats thudded evenly, growing louder until Kniva could feel them in his chest. He lifted his head and exhaled.
The booming rhythm grew painfully loud. A specter of blazing light suddenly materialized above the black water of the pool—a golden warrior astride a glowing stallion. The two bounded skyward from the water. They gave off so much light, Kniva had to squint to see them. The warrior wore the garb of the Glini. His hair stood out from his head, with light streaming from every spike and spilling onto the upturned faces below. His stallion galloped up, through, and around the arches as if the air gave solid footing.
The glowing warrior reined in his rearing stallion, hovering amid the swirling mists that rose from the pool. He lifted his sword over his head and brought down the tip to point at the talisman on Kniva’s chest. Lightning shot from the tip of the sword, reaching all the way to the twisted oval. Kniva felt a corresponding flare explode inside him as he stood, arms slightly raised at his sides.
The energy from the god hurled Kniva into an uncharted consciousness where no familiar landmarks gave consolation. The bond with the god was joined in a place beyond words.
Slowly Kniva’s wits returned. He rubbed his fingers over the beaded apron he wore, made from the bones of enemies he’d killed in the holy wars. He clenched and unclenched his hands around the beads. They gave off a clicking rattle, whispering that life was fleeting and death inevitable. He struggled, one breath at a time, to transform the god’s raw energy into words rather than be swept away by it. If Kniva could encompass and comprehend the god’s communication, putting words to the unknowable, he could share this experience with everyone. The peril of divine contact would diminish, leaving only glory behind.
Kniva listened, sensed, tried to understand. In this way, the god had brought inspiration and shown the way forward to the Glini for many years. He had sent the images of the great destiny that lay ahead. He had been the source of new Glini laws and customs as well. Today, Kniva’s mind filled with visions of Glini raiders swarming over the bountiful fields of the Neoullian Empire. The time for full invasion grew near.
Terror melted away. Kniva inhaled the swelling ecstasy from his vision. This was a message he could share. He spread his arms wide. The light that had come from the god now emanated from Kniva.
It mattered little that Kniva had felt the glory many times over the last 20 years. Each time it was far greater than he imagined it could be. The combination of terror and rapture had been enough to turn his black hair completely white during his first contact with the god at age sixteen.
Kniva exhaled, his breath a cloud of light. Glowing, he embraced his brother, Hulgar, then each of the generals on the platform. The golden warrior began to fade in the sky, growing dimmer as Kniva shared the glory. At Kniva’s touch, each one shimmered with dazzling light, swaying and sighing in blissful glory. The more brightly Kniva glowed, the more the warrior god faded until he finally disappeared.
When he came to Cazireata, Kniva made sure not to look in her eyes. He had to treat her exactly like the others, to keep his mind on the divine energy coursing through his body and away from the other sort of power her touch could evoke.
Kniva and the other chieftains came down the steps of the platform to mingle with the warriors and transmit the glory to them. He shared the ecstasy with as many Glini as he could reach, letting them feel it coursing through their limbs. What better way to give them the message that they had been chosen by the god for a great destiny? Early on he had learned to transmute the contact with the god into glorious inspiration, controlling the power he sensed gushing around him until he could share the light from his body and fill those around him with the glow.
Kniva made a slow circuit of the pool and climbed the platform once more, his glow extinguished, his final few moments of energy waning. He held up his arms to signal for silence, and a hush fell.
“Glory comes from the god,” Kniva said. “He sees that we will soon be strong enough for a full invasion of the empire. Until then, accept his glory as a blessing on your raid.”
Kniva left the platform quickly before he was too ill to walk. The ecstasy had a price. Kniva would have to endure a painful illness that would leave him bedridden for several days. He’d long ago made peace with this atonement. If the tribes could experience the god’s glory and share his promise of deliverance, then Kniva, his prophet, would willingly make the sacrifice.
The Glini had needed the god to help them forgo intertribal feuding that had divided them for generations. The god promised the Glini a better life in the fertile lands of the Neoullian Empire if they would unite beneath his banner. The Glini would soon be a match for the empire’s armies. On that day, Kniva would see the tribes win the better life the god had promised. On that day, he would make the Neoullians pay for what they had done to his mother.
Kniva managed to climb the many stone steps to his cave before he collapsed. Hulgar was there to catch him, lest Kniva fall from that high perch. Pain now replaced glory in every one of his limbs. He stifled his groans and let Hulgar place him on the cot off to one side of his cave on the mountain’s face. A small cooking fire burned in a stone hearth near the opening where winds carried away the smoke. A terraced garden to one side produced vegetables and herbs.
Kniva tried to rest, thankful that he had such a sanctuary. He tried to forget the many tasks he had waiting for him. The army had to be trained, the empire invaded, the Neoullians punished. But before those tasks, the agony from the rites must be borne until the suffering lay behind him. Kniva closed his eyes and searched for a way to endure.