There are tales told around the campfire, stories that excite bravery and admiration. They are sagas filled brimful with shouts and hisses, rages and fears. These stories, these epics tell the hearers what it is to be great and terrible. They warn the people how heroes and gods are in the ways of wrath and vengeance.
There are tales told around the hearthfire, stories of families and ancestors, of loves, marriages, births, and deaths. They are pastorals of sighs and whispers of laughter, joy and ache. These stories tell the hearers who they themselves are and where they came from, what their forebears did and why they to this day do what they do and live how they live.
This is a story of the second fire, a story of hearth and home. It begins where most romances end, upon a wedding day. It ends when it is told around the home fires.
The Second Riddle:
The hero calls the gods but once:
To arm him for battle and bless his deeds with greatness.
The householder calls the gods ten thousand times:
To guide his life and bless his family with love.
Who then is closer to Heaven:
The hero in his epic?
Or the householder in his pastoral?
Marriage is a meeting of strangers. Yet romance, that dance of hearts and syncopation of joys, keeps these strangers from knowing how little they know each other until the time comes when they are joined. Thus was it wisely set down that on the night before wedding, the romantic trembling of fear and anticipation should be transformed by ritual and story into the needed seeing of the unknown other with whom new life would be made.
These two who were to be wed, Dominic and Serafina, the immigrant’s son and the native’s daughter, were brought to the temple in the village of Yrary and, for the last time in their lives, separated. When tomorrow came they would come forth in family, but for this one night they would be apart in space, time, and mythology. The couple who had known each other, had loved each other since Dominic’s father had come to the village bringing his four-year-old son and purchased with sword and spirit the farm adjoining Serafina’s home and family, would have for this brief eternal span no connection one to the other.
Within that emptiness, that lack of yet-joinedness, within the star-strewn openness of the sky, a spirit-as-yet-uncreated waited with untrammeled patience to exist. It had waited forever in the bosom of the All, nonexisting with all the other family spirits of clans as yet unfashioned. The not-yet-spirit had the perfect patience of the pre-existent melded with the need-for-being of the soon-born. From the star-swaddling robe of the All, the spirit gazed down upon the Earth, upon the nation of Hracza, upon the village of Yrary, upon the temple, upon the two whose space-between it would fill. Not yet real, the family spirit nestled in the nursery of those unborn, nurtured by the warm love thoughts of the affianced. The All caressed it with that mixture of love and sadness all parents feel when they contemplate the joys and sorrows existence will bring to their children.
Drink deep of romantic love, the All whispered to its newest child, but do not slake your thirst, for the drinks of youth are sweet, but lack nourishment. Better food will come, if you will wait past the hunger that is to follow.
The spirit-to-be obeyed, though it did not yet understand the words of the All.
Kneeling on the cold stone floor of the men’s side of the temple, Dominic’s eyes looked out upon a world limned by Serafina-light. His attentive gaze -- “Attend, Dominic,” the priest had commanded at the commencement of this knelt ordeal -- was supposed to be fixed on the basalt altar and its holy cargo. But Dominic did not see the oaken play-house of the gods, or the unglazed fired plate of Earth, or the rude straw hut of the village spirits. His loveblind/love-illuminated eyes would not see the loci of worship. He would not, could not attend to anything divine that was not his light-of-love, Serafina. His eyes and mind had sought reminders of her within the vigil space. He had looked around and around and finally focused upon the yellow flames of night candles that stood in man-high bronze holders behind the sacred stage.
The taper light was the color of Serafina’s hair; it fell gently upon him as her long unbound tresses did when they held each other. Year by year that cascade of light and concealment had grown, from the golden straw that covered her laughing eyes in childhood to the gleaming threads and sultry vines that framed the five thoughtful sides of her adult face.
Dominic’s heart filled with interlaced memories of Serafina’s hair, a tapestry of years embroidered with gilt-edged events, a young man’s lifetime woven from strands of a single moment. The leading edge of the still-growing tapestry held his mind, captivating him with thoughts of future joys. One moment stood bright in the lacework of his thoughts: the kiss they had shared before Priest and Priestess had separated them under the last orange rays of the passing day. Sunset they had kissed and her hair was so long that it shadowed both their faces even as it caught the light of sky and fire, dazzling his eyes.
Her hair -- the priestess would have cut it by now, just as the priest had shorn his beard -- Serafina’s hair lying close above her neck in the manner of all Hraczan brides. He had known Serafina since they were five years old and had never seen her hair as short as it would be now. A new way for him to see her; his heart leapt at the thought, Serafina in a new light, a renewed gift of love’s vision. There would be a new casting of her face and features, a showing forth of her neck and cheeks that had not been seen since before she came to womanhood.
Dominic thrilled at the thought of newness in Serafina’s appearance as he often thrilled at the newness of her subtle thoughts. What would it be like, that shortened treasury of gold? What would it be like to see the ocean-blue of her eyes without concealment? In Dominic’s mind the ocean was tied to her, though she had never seen such expansive waters. Because of Serafina’s eyes he remembered the boundless breadth of the northern sea clearly, though he had not seen it since his fourth year, the year he entered exile and came, though he knew it not, to joy. Sunlight and ocean bright he would see in the morning, see them both in Serafina at their wedding.
Joyous thoughts, nurturers of spirits, Dominic’s lustrous imaginations rose to the sky, quickening his family-to-be. Enlivened, given voice, the spirit-in-waiting announced its immanence across the gap of heaven and hearts. It jumped heedless from the embrace of the All and cried aloud, I will live in you and you in me.
As it fell toward Earth, it shouted again, “I will live in you and you in me.”
But that voice of family spoke into souls too fired with passion and too resounding with individual memory and idyll to heed its call. Lovers they were, not yet prepared to be a family. Unheard, the spirit-not-real fell away from the souls of the lovers. It would have fallen to the Realm of the Dead and joined the many loves that failed to live beyond romance, but four aged hands caught it and two determined voices drew it back to its birth-hearts with teachings and with stories.
In the starry throne above the world, the All nodded. Its work was being done by mortal hands and voices, as it had commanded in the early times of the world.
“The All has blessed each of us with two souls,” said a voice firmed by decades of authority.
Dominic sat up straight, guiltily shifting his gaze back to the altar. His neck became rigid as if his eyes and heart had never wavered from that devotional direction. To complete the image of attention, he clasped his hands over his bent knees; but a betraying flush rose in his cheeks. Dominic regretted then the loss of his beard.
Georgi, the village priest, walked through the door at Dominic’s right and made his way to the altar, stepping with careful deliberation across the winter-chilled floor. His practiced back bent smoothly as he bowed once before the play-house of the gods.
Georgi turned to look down at the kneeling bridegroom, his ice blue eyes meeting Dominic’s brown ones. “Two souls: the body soul and the free soul. The All has blessed the free soul so that it may move wherever it wills, and has blessed the body soul so that it may become any place the free soul wills to move.”
A lesson? On the night before his wedding? Dominic’s mind rebelled at the thought, stubborn against any turning from the straight path toward Serafina. Would he have to learn this lesson and understand it before they would let him marry her? Despair melted icicles onto the flames of Dominic’s ardor. Whenever the priestess Ludmilla had given her lectures to the young of the village, Dominic had knelt diligently, hoping to take in her words. But at the end of hours of talk his mind would emerge untouched by Ludmilla’s abstractions. The lists of attributes of the All, of the places of the gods of Heaven, of the duties of the gods of Earth, of the dangers that came to humanity from the Ills of the World, of the purposes of the five kinds of disciplined people, and of the esoteric meanings of the quests of heroes, all would vanish from his mind, a rising mist that left only dewdrops of unconnected words and ideas.
“Ludmil . . .” Dominic’s protest died on his lips. Georgi was the one speaking the accustomed words of his priestess-wife. And this was strange, stranger even than any other aspect of the night before his wedding. In all his life in Yrary, Dominic had never once heard the priest speak in abstractions. Georgi taught lessons of the everyday blessings of the gods of Heaven, of the wind and rain and the crops and the beasts and the seasons. He told stories of farmers, craftsmen, soldiers, and sailors meeting the gods of Earth or being assisted by the blessed dead or working under the guidance of the disciplined. Those lessons, those tales of how a proper life was to be lived and what divine assistance would come to one who forged a clan and lived such a life had taught Dominic all he thought he needed to know about the worlds above, below, and around him.
“Georgi --” Dominic tried to muster words into a question, but his mind could not draw them together. He felt the lack of Serafina terribly. She of swift and clear thought had always helped him when his slower wits failed him. He reached across memory, hoping to touch her again as she had been when they had come to the temple together that eve.
They had entered the sacred precincts eager, walking properly but with a push to their gait that betrayed their desire for the night to be speedily over that the day of the wedding might come. They had entered like children before feasts and games and stories by the fire. Eager like lovers.
Parted like lovers. To the men’s side went the groom, to the women’s went the bride. Georgi’s hand upon Dominic’s shoulder had guided him down the center walk of the temple, then turned him left to the oaken door of the men’s side. The priest directed him with a sure and subtle pressure that reminded Dominic of the press of a rider’s legs guiding a horse and the push of the divine wind that directed the horseman.
“The gods await within,” Georgi had said as he gripped the heavy iron ring and pulled opened the door. His hand gave one last guiding press. Dominic had obeyed the touch and entered the sanctuary of men’s ceremonies.
Dominic had bowed as he turned rightwards to face the altar, his spreading arms offering supplication to whichever of the gods had been placed there. But the smooth movement of his sturdy form down, open, and around had stopped in wonder and bewilderment. The altar had been empty. None of the statuettes of the twenty gods of Heaven sat in the wooden playhouse that stood for the halls of the sky. Nor did any of the two hundred gods of Earth stand upon the ceramic plate that stood for the mortal world. Neither did the yearly-made and yearly-burned thatch hut that represented the village of Yrary hold a single one of the spirits of the town’s fifteen established clans, nor did it house the unfinished carving that would stand for the sixteenth clan to be made on the morrow.
When he had seen this divine desolation, Dominic had straightened up from his awkward stance and taken a few hesitant steps to reach the altar. Georgi had said the gods were waiting. The old priest would not lie about such a thing. Where were they, then? Was this a riddle? Some conundrum like, “What gods are present when none are seen?” Dominic hoped greatly that it was not. Riddles numbed his mind, though they opened and fired Serafina’s.
Perhaps they were both being presented with the same riddle. That would make Serafina happy. Dominic had imagined her, pacing around the altar, holding her fingers to her lips as she considered, her eyes, those blue-water eyes, darting here and there, seeking clues to the meaning, and her face coming to a glow in the moment just before she laughed with understanding. Dominic had imagined Serafina, and all else had faded from his mind.
And so Georgi had found him, two hours later, the groom’s mind on his love, not on the strange sight before him, nor on the family he was to make, the family that had almost fallen into nothingness because Dominic was comfortably drunk on the wine of romance.
The night before the wedding was not meant to be a comfortable one for the bride or the groom. The love that had brought them together, whether grown within them or dispensed from their families, had to undergo a sharp and bright transfiguration in sight of Heaven, Earth, and the people in the next day’s ceremony if they were to truly be wed, if their family was to be born.
Georgi cradled the spirit of that family in a sun-illumined bower crafted in his body soul by his well-practiced imagination. The breezes of Georgi’s thoughts whispered to the half-formed spirit of the rarity of its birth. “You are to be more than just a family, you will be a new clan in our village. You will have within you men and women, gods and ancestors. Two peoples come together in you, two strangers meet to make a history and a nature all your own.”
The spirit fed on the words and grew. Its eyes which had previously seen only the undifferentiated All now opened to Heaven, Earth, and the Realm of the Dead.
Georgi watched in awe at what was growing inside his body soul. In his long tenure as priest he had done many things for the village of Yrary. He and Ludmilla had called on the gods for blessings, had rooted out the Ills of the World, had counseled the people in joys and sorrows, had taught and learned. They had performed perhaps threescore weddings so that the clans might continue and carry the village forward.
In all of those weddings the family created had been joined to an existing clan. But such was not possible for the marriage of Dominic son of Horatio, the clanless son of the nationless stranger, alien son of an alien father who had lived among them but not been of them.
Dominic and Horatio had come into the country of Hracza fifteen years before from the newly-conquered Ryneland. The dark-haired man and his son had travelled from the east along the King’s Road and arrived in Yrary riding horses. Riding them! To the people of Hracza only noblemen and cavalry soldiers rode. But the man and the boy had not come with the commands of power or the musters of war. They had ridden in upon their Rynelander steeds, horses more beautiful, wiser, more swift than any Hraczan animal, tall and speedy steeds with ears peaked to catch the call of the wind upon which they might hear their god and ancestor.
The dress of man and boy was as strange as the manner of their coming. They did not wear the wool tunics and pants common to Hraczan men, but heavy shirts of leather painted with horses and boats, fish and waters, clouds and lightning, and they wore kilts which the Hraczan’s took for women’s skirts until they looked closely and saw lines of brass and iron rivets up and down the pleats. No Hraczan woman’s skirt was made to be armor. When the Rynelanders rode in company their kilts would clang against the riveted blankets of their horses to make a sound like thunder, a praise to their God and a warning to their enemies.
Dominic had sat upon his tall red horse without saying a word, his dark eyes saddened, a four-year-old child holding back the tears of dispossession.
His father had come down from his own grey steed setting foot on Hraczan soil, feeling it beneath him. Georgi remembered that Horatio’s hand had wavered toward the sword that hung firm at his right side, as if for a moment he felt himself still among the enemies of the long war. But the war had ended with the Ryneland king’s surrender. The enemy monarch had made himself the peaceful vassal of the Hraczan king, and with a mark of runes upon parchment had taken from his lords all their lands and power and given them to the conquerors.
“My name is Horatio,” the stranger had said. His speech was slow, for he did not know the language well, and the choice that he had made weighed heavily on him. “I come to be a farmer.”
Horatio had spoken to priest, priestess and the assembled clan chiefs. He had declared what he was: dispossessed nobility, his lands taken in the war. No longer proud of birth or station, he had come to the kingdom of the conqueror to give up the life of the nobleman and seek the life of the earth. He had heard that in Hracza families owned farms rather than living together on estates, so he had brought the last of his wealth with which to purchase some land. In the King’s Seat of Hracza he had been told that there was an empty steading in this village, this Yrary, and so had come to seek it.
Georgi remembered the words he had spoken to the tired-eyed stranger. “The farmstead lies empty, but it cannot be bought with gold and silver. He who can clear the house of its ghosts, he who can reclaim it from the dead may live in it.”
On a new moon night, bearing the relic-handled sword of his ancestors, Horatio had crossed the weed-infested fields, passed over the shattered stone of welcome, pushed open the split wooden door and entered the farmhouse of the long dead sixteenth clan. Alone he faced the family of body-soul ghosts who had died in a plague more than a hundred years past. They had not accepted the Realm of the Dead as their new home. Instead they remained upon the Earth and carried through mockeries of their living actions. They tilled the fields so that the land would grow nothing wholesome, they tended the flocks so the beasts grew sickly and skeletal, and they sought to meet with their neighbors who shunned them lest the unhallowed grave touch their clans as well.
Georgi and Ludmilla’s predecessors had tried to lay these haunts and remove the Ills of the World they brought with them, but they had failed. The ghosts had made a place for themselves in the village, had relied upon the bonds of land and kin to keep them on the Earth. They had bred the Ills of Sickness, Land-Blight, and Fear out of the very traditions of tending and clan-fellow-feeling that had made the village of Yrary. Only something untraditional, something new could displace them, for they had a right and a claim to their haunting.
Horatio’s sword, consecrated to the wind god of the Rynelanders, brought that cleansing newness. The power he had wrestled with as a nobleman drove the ghosts down to their proper place among the dead. At dawn Horatio had emerged carrying the broken hilt of his sword which he laid at the feet of Georgi and Ludmilla. Priest and priestess watched as the burden of the nobleman’s calling passed with wind swiftness from Horatio, leaving only a stain of power within his souls.
“Now you may be a farmer,” Ludmilla had said.
To the clans of the village Horatio gave gold and silver for grain and cattle, sheep, and a plow. For half a year, through autumn and winter, through the cold and the stone, he labored unaided by man or god to clear away decades of grave-given neglect. In all that time while the sun waned and the days grew dark and icy, his son watched, never speaking, never smiling or frowning, crying or laughing. Dominic’s face had been autumnal sad and wintry cold.
Spring came to the farm and Horatio planted his grain and grazed his small herds. Spring also brought a foal to the red horse Dominic had ridden. In a private ceremony attended only by the wind, Horatio and Dominic had named the brown foal Breath of Exile.
At the first full moon of the spring Georgi and Ludmilla walked from farm to farm, blessing the crops and the cattle and the sheep, blessing all. The farming gods of each clan took the bounty of heaven and spread it upon their fields and their herds, each according to the needs and ways of their clan.
Priest and priestess came last to the newcomer’s steading. They pronounced the blessing, drawing down the gifts of Heaven for the God of Earth named Farmer. The blessings fell like rain, infusing the ground with fertility, the animals with fecundity, blessing the well with life-giving water and the seeds with sustenance.
But there was no clan god to mediate the blessings, no divinity to moderate the endless giving of Heaven and Earth. The plants grew, but wildly, and the animals mated madly, passionately sloughing off their domesticity. Oxen became aurochs in their hearts and sheep recalled the glories of untended mountain life. Hard put was Horatio to tame them again. Only in two parts of the farm were the blessings received and apportioned with care. The horses were enlivened, but did not partake of the madness of the sheep and the kine, for the Ryneland God had come with them on the wind. The second place of proper reception was the well on the hill that overlooked the farmhouse. Quietly it accepted the infusions of Heaven without producing a water of drunkenness.
All through that first spring Horatio labored to retame his herds and guide the growth of his crops. The weeks-old horse he and the foal’s mother entrusted to his son’s care. Dominic received the obligation with five-year-old solemnity and his accustomed silence.
Each morning Dominic would walk beside Breath of Exile, leading him with gentle touch to a grassy field on the eastern edge of the farm. Border stones upon the ground marked the boundary that set them apart from their neighbors. In that field the horse would graze and Dominic would stroke its back and whisper in its ear. The only words the boy spoke in that time were to the horses.
A young girl from the neighboring farm would come and sit on one of the border stones, dangling her legs over the clean-cut side of the rock and watch boy and horse together, studying them with eyes intense and penetrating as the noonday sun.
For most of a moon she watched and wondered, but could not find the answer to the riddle that lodged in her heart. At the last her curiosity, emboldened by youthful impatience, overcame her and she spoke.
“Are telling that horse a secret?”
The question was so earnest and the need to know so intense that it pulled the answer out of Dominic. The sound of his own voice, sad and rough from long silence were painful both to speaker and listener. “I’m telling him what it’s like to run on real ground.”
Serafina jumped down from the rock, and as the young do who cannot contain the dancing spring of their lives, half walked, half ran across the field to Dominic. “This is real ground,” she said, pointing down to the earth beneath her small bare feet. “It’s got dirt and rocks and hills and trees and grass. What’s not real about it?”
“It’s not open,” Dominic said. “The wind’s stopped by the hills and the trees. It doesn’t rush wherever it wants. And you can’t see to the end of the world. You can’t hear right. The rain falls too light; the grass is the wrong color; there’s too many trees. And you people aren’t right.”
Dominic’s eyes welled with tears, and his voice choked in his throat. But Serafina would not let him fall back into silence.
“Come on,” she said, tugging gently on his arm. “It’s all real. I’ll show you every part of here, you’ll see. Bring the horse if you want.”
Dominic followed Serafina and Breath of Exile followed Dominic. The native led the strangers all over the village of Yrary, naming each place and each person so that Dominic and Breath of Exile would learn their new home, would learn this different rightness.
At sunset, Serafina brought Dominic to her own home and introduced him to her parents, Paolo and Lara.
“Mother, Father, this is our neighbor’s boy,” she said.
Paolo and Lara looked at the dark-haired boy with his smooth oval face and gangly limbs. At first they saw him as all the villagers did, a stranger in their midst. But their daughter’s pregnant exclamation that this was their neighbor’s son opened their thoughts and let them see a sad and lonely child.
“Come and eat with us,” Lara had said.
“I have to take Breath of Exile back to my father,” Dominic said, but the longing to stay was clear to all who heard him.
Paolo looked at Lara. “I will take the boy and the horse home,” he said. “And come back with the boy and his father.”
That night while Serafina taught Dominic the games of Yrary’s children and Dominic told Serafina about the land of his birth, Paolo and Horatio talked about farming, the native teaching the manners and ways of this land to the newcomer. The next morning Paolo and his sons came across the border to share Horatio’s labor in the way of neighbors.
The land was tilled, the cattle and sheep tended. Wheat grew in the fields and grapes upon the hillsides. By trade and breeding and training and the blessings of the wind the herd of horses grew and brought wealth to the farm, for the King’s army and the retainers of Hraczan nobles, knowing the superiority of Ryneland horses, purchased many of them. All of Horatio’s mortal strength went into the farm, so that after only ten years of exile he passed to the Realm of the Dead, his life exhausted by mortal battle, ghost-fight, and wild-taming labor. He died at less than twoscore years of age.
Yet he died leaving his son a farm that mostly worked and prospered, though the blessings still brought wildness and the steading was still empty of household gods. His last words were a blessing to his neighbors Paolo and Lara, for without their aid he would not have survived as long as he had, nor would he have created a right inheritance for Dominic.
When Horatio died, Dominic, born of one land and raised in another, felt as if he had lost all from his birth, as if he came from nowhere, a child of nothing. But Serafina would not let him discard his life. With her sharp mind she prodded him, asking him to teach her the language of the Ryneland, the names of his ancestors and their deeds, the stories of horses and horsemen. Most of all she sought to know the riddles of the sailors who took ship upon the northern sea called the Whale Road and came back from their journeys laden with treasure, spices, and lore.
Serafina would not let Dominic forget, or shut away his past. By riddles and questions, by implorings and lessons she made her way deep into his heart. And he in turn entered hers, so that when the three years of mourning had passed, when Dominic entered his seventeenth year and Serafina her sixteenth, they found themselves one in soul and love.
Paolo and Lara happily consented when they asked to be wed, though many villagers clucked their tongues at the idea of marriage to the stranger’s son. Indeed, the chiefs of seven clans came to the priest and priestess and asked them to refuse permission. What Georgi and Ludmilla replied was never repeated, but for weeks thereafter those clan chiefs had not dared to look either priest or priestess in the eyes.
Yet the day after that delegation was sent away in shamed disappointment Dominic and Serafina had been summoned to the temple. They went with heads bowed, holding each the other’s hand tightly for fear that their hopes would be undone.
“I have spoken to the chiefs of the clans,” Georgi said. His eyes looked baleful but there was a smile upon his lips. “The words I said to them are not for ears as tender as yours. But, in simple, I told them that whether you wed or not is no concern of theirs.”
The young lovers’ hearts were lightened, but before they could thank the priest Ludmilla spoke, and her voice was sad and filled with the compassion of one who must injure the hopes of a beloved child.
“Yet there is a true difficulty that must be overcome before you may marry,” she said. “That is the ill of Dominic’s clanlessness.”
Ludmilla laid out the paradox of their situation. Dominic was not of any of the fifteen clans. That in itself was a minor problem. Outsiders had married into the clans before, and Serafina’s family would have accepted him happily; many of their marriages were made to people from other villages. But Dominic’s farmstead had been properly won and properly consecrated as a separate hearth and home. By his deeds and his labor Horatio had made a new place for his son, a place that could not be given to another clan.
“You have three choices,” Ludmilla said. “First, do not marry.” She waited through the inevitable refusal. “Second, abandon the farm your father made for you and marry into Serafina’s clan. Or third, make a new clan for yourselves.”
“A new clan,” they said without hesitation.
“It will not be easy,” Georgi said. “Love alone will not suffice for all that you must do. There will be labor of spirit such as neither of you has ever attempted.”
For a time neither Dominic nor Serafina spoke, neither wanting to commit the other to a hard course. But their hearts were too close for there to be any other choice.
At last Dominic broke silence. “Tell us what we must do and we will do it.”
“However difficult it is,” Serafina said.
“I will show you,” Georgi said. From behind the central altar in the temple’s heart he brought a piece of uncarved ashwood half as long as his arm. It was rough and knotted, the bark of the tree clinging to it.
“If you saw this in the woods would you pick it up?” he asked Dominic.
Dominic shook his head. “It’s too short for a staff, too gnarled to put in a wall, and too green for firewood.”
“And too dull to be kept for its beauty,” Serafina said.
“This is your clan,” Georgi said. “If you wed today, this is how Heaven would look upon you, as neither useful nor beautiful enough to be picked up and hallowed. By the time you are wed, your family must catch the eyes of the gods so they will reach down and bless you. And by the time you die, your clan must be both useful and beautiful to divinity and humanity if your family is to survive beyond one generation.”
Dominic and Serafina stared at the ill-favored log.
“What do we do first?” Dominic asked.
Georgi went back behind the altar and emerged carrying a short steel knife with a bone handle carved in the shape of a clutching hand. With great care, the priest put the knife against the log and stripped away a lath of bark, beneath which lay good wood waiting to be carved.
Dominic and Serafina, Georgi and Ludmilla, man and woman, priest and priestess labored for two years in the stripping of bark. They cleared the farm of the remnants of old blessings and curses, digging up charms from the fields, planing down the runes that the former clan had carved into the hearth stones. They cleansed the farmhouse with fire, water, air, and earth. They sang chants in old tongues to send the old to the Realm of the Dead and to ask the All to prepare the new to live upon the Earth.
During that time no one had lived in the farmhouse. Dominic stayed with Serafina’s family, being careful in how intimate he became, for Georgi warned him to be neither as distant as a guest nor as close as a family member.
Each morning Dominic would get up and, accompanied by Serafina’s father and three brothers, would work both farms, tending to crops, cattle, sheep, and horses -- especially the horses. Dominic was mindful of his father’s legacy and would each day tend and train the small herd of praiseworthy beasts that roamed his land. In the stable he would speak to the red mare and through her to the Wind God of his ancestors. He would draw down their help, but he could not, though the Wind God asked, give the land to that divinity. If the steading Horatio had made were to be turned fully over to the Ryneland god it would cease to be part of Yrary village and he would lose Serafina. Dominic knew that this would be the hardest part of the coming together. A place would have to be found for his god alongside the Hraczan gods. All through the cleansing he looked for such a place, but could not yet find it.
On a bright autumn day when all trace of old charms, old bones, and old clan gods were gone from Dominic’s farmstead, Georgi brought forth the ashwood, now clean of bark and knots, and held it up to the noonday sun. Light played upon it, showing the variations in grain and color, hinting at the form that lay beneath. It waited only hands skilled and blessed to be released. It was beautiful and utile.
“Now you will wed,” said Ludmilla.
A moon later their pre-nuptial bonfire was lit and the people of Yrary young and old came to sing and dance, and those with skill or traditional claim came to play upon pipes and drums and the hurdey-gurdey. There had been an eating of honey cakes and a drinking of cider pressed from the first apples of autumn, for wine would not be drunk until the wedding itself.
To Dominic and Serafina the party had been a delight. Their eyes only for each other, they did not notice that the elders of most of the clans were quiet in the celebrations and reserved in their dance and drink. The couple saw not, joying in the time to come, and eagerly going to the temple with the priest and priestess for the final hours of preparation.
As they were led up the path, the voices of some married folk of the village carried to them through the night air. “Fare well, good fortune. Listen close, Serafina, think hard, Dominic. The ordeal is only one night. Remember what you hear and say. Remember love. Remember each other.”
And one voice ringing above the others, the deep sound of Serafina’s eldest brother, Ivan, himself married but a few years past. “When they come back, remember to ask questions.”
Georgi had come back to the men’s side, had jolted Dominic from his reverie, had with sternness recalled the voice of Ivan.
“Georgi?” Dominic asked hesitantly. “May I ask a question?”
“Yes, Dominic.” Georgi’s tone was even, but there was a hint of thunder-rumble in his lungs, as if lightning might fall at any moment.
“You said the gods were waiting for me, but the altar’s deserted.” Dominic’s gaze returned to the three barren places on the sacral stone, the spaces of Heaven, Earth, and the village desolate and forlorn. Their terrible vacancy, now clearly seen for the first time, burrowed into his body soul and dragged forth memories of childhood, the loss upon loss of his aching youth. He remembered his mother’s and sister’s deaths, the last view he had of his family steading, the last time he had heard the ocean and the northern gulls, the work-ravaged body of Horatio, his last noble power spent fighting the Earth itself for the crops and legacy that would give life to his son.
“Where are they?” he asked about the gods and the dead.
“Hidden,” Georgi said. “The gods are hidden as they were before Heaven and Earth came together. Hidden as they were before He-Who-Was-Not-Yet-First-Man’s free soul reached out to touch the All. Hidden in the moment before the All rushed into him and turned his body soul into Heaven and Earth and his free soul into First Man.”
“How are they to be found?” Dominic asked. The question had to his ears the sound of ritual response, though he had never asked it before.
“You must follow the path of First Man to Earth and Heaven so that like First Man you can become father to a human family.”
“But First Man was a hero and is a god. I can’t do the deeds he did. I’m just a man.”
“You do not have to, Dominic,” Georgi said, laying a hand tough as gnarled oak on the young man’s shoulder. “You have only to follow what First Man laid down and the gods will respond. Being a hero is like tilling a field of stones and snakes with a plow of rotten wood through the snow and cold and night of winter’s heart. But to repeat those hero’s actions in ritual is like sowing wheat in a field that has been tended by skillful hands and iron plow every spring for seven generations.”
“Will you show me the field and the plow, Georgi?”
“Of course, Dominic. That is why there are priests.”
In the women’s side of the temple Serafina and Ludmilla sat on blue linen pillows stuffed with duck feathers. Young woman and old half faced each other, and half gazed at the altar arrayed with all twenty gods of Heaven, two hundred gods of Earth, fifteen clans, and the stripped but not carved piece of ash wood that would become the new-made clan.
The young woman had spent her time alone surveying the array of divinities, trying to puzzle out their purpose, but she too had succumbed to a reverie of romance broken only by the stately entrance of the priestess.
Serafina stared into Ludmilla’s face. Young eyes suddenly sapphire-sharp in their searching looked up at half-lidded sea-blue wells, deep and concealing, but also gentle and concerned, a calm sea such as Dominic had described as perfect for fishermen, swimmers, and nighttime lovers by the oceanside. Searcher and searched locked gazes for a time in silent speculation. Serafina’s face frowned in intensity and the pentagon of her features grew more angular as she looked within the age- and study-carved landscape of Ludmilla’s sharp, straight face, seeking the meaning of the altar’s fullness.
Was there a clue in the curl of the priestess’ lip or a suggestion in the halfraise of her left eyebrow, or were they mere feints, distractions? Perhaps the pace of her breathing would give away something. But it never has, Serafina thought to herself. She had never fathomed the depths of the priestess’ mind, never guessed at any meaning that Ludmilla had wished to hide from her. The priestess was so old, so much a fixture in the life of the village that to Serafina Ludmilla had not changed at all through the years of the young woman’s life. So much learning and experience concealing the meanings and the mysteries of the gods from those who could not understand them. So much discipline in telling only what was within the ability of the hearer to take in, too much mental acuity for even a sharpminded riddler to penetrate.
Serafina smiled inwardly. Perhaps the way to get inside Ludmilla’s concealment was much simpler than she had considered.
“Tell me,” Serafina said. “Set the conundrum before me and I will solve it. After all, you must mean for it to be solved.”
“There they sit,” Ludmilla said, bowing from the waist toward the assembled gods, the four-foot-long plait of her white hair, uncut since her marriage to Georgi, falling over her left shoulder. Serafina wondered if her own hair would ever be such a testament to a good marriage. “You must take them away.”
Serafina’s thoughtful brow furrowed. Take them away? What was the intent of this riddle? Serafina’s newly-cut hair tickled the back of her neck. The long strands of gold that had adorned her for all those years lay on the main altar in the common center of the temple, alongside the first cuttings from Dominic’s no-longer-extant beard. Blonde against black, they lay waiting to be burned during the wedding ceremony itself, the first sacrifice of new family. In one year’s time Serafina would come back to the women’s side and Ludmilla would bind her hair into a married woman’s plait; for that year all would know by the shortness and the openness of her tresses that she was newly wed.
How could she take the gods away? She was not a priest or priestess to touch the holy carvings and arrange Heaven, Earth and humanity according to the divine ordinances. Nor was she a singer to place the gods within tales and riddles.
It had once been thought by her elders that she might become a singer. She had considered the matter many times, to travel the world unravelling its riddles like matted yarn and then knit them together again into tapestries of music and tale. But the thought of homelessness and the life of the Winding Road was too much for her. She wanted her riddles by the hearthfire, wanted tales to come to her, not through her, and she had learned from the gods of her clan that she need not leave home to find all the mysteries of the worlds before her. If she made the right life, the riddles would come guesting to her hearthfire.
She had considered her choices. At last she had decided that she wanted hearth and home with Dominic, wanted the secret work within with him rather than the public work without. She would not take up the road of the wedless, would not, could not go away and come back to find him wed to another in a home she would never share.
But was she not homeless now? This night she had left the house of her father and mother, left her ancestors and her family gods. Tomorrow she would go to her own home. But tonight like a singer she had no dwelling, she had nothing but the road of her thoughts and the rolling hills of tales and riddles.
Serafina’s heart beat twice as a smile grew on her pale lips. There was the heart of the riddle. She was leaving her old family, leaving her place before the gods, and a new place was not yet made. Bowing to the altar, Serafina, still sitting, turned round on the cushion to face away from the gods.
“Well done, child,” Ludmilla said. She bowed again to the altar; the wooden carvings of the gods bowed back. Then one by one the statues trooped off into the box behind the altar until only one remained, a goddess sitting alone upon the Earth.
“Turn back to the gods, Serafina,” Ludmilla said.
The young woman obeyed and found herself facing the single statuette, the smooth matron face and hint-of-pregnant form of First Woman, who it was said looked after all of her children, the living, the dead, and the yet to be born.
“Now you will hear the first tale of First Woman,” Ludmilla said, “a story you will never be permitted to tell, for only a priestess may speak it, and then only to a woman on the night before her wedding.”
“Do you mean even Georgi doesn’t know this story?” There was a mischievous delight in Serafina at the thought of knowing something hidden even from the priest.
“He knows it,” Ludmilla said. A crestfallen look came forth. The priestess banished the gloom with a riddle. “He knows the tale, but has never heard it.”
The muted raucousness of the village’s celebration had died away into the chill evening’s quiet. The last revelling stragglers made their way down the sixteen cobbled pathways that led, streamlike, from the heart of Yrary to the hearths of the clans. There the people went to rest the night and prepare for the wedding day and the greater revel to follow.
The very young talked of games and food, of gifts carved from wood or hammered from brass, of the crackle and bright of the fire, and the hope of laughing stories to be told.
The youths and the maids had enjoyed the small foretaste of the larger festival to come after the wedding itself. Their talk was all of dances and songs and the many places lit and shadowed by the bonfire in which two might go to be together away from the watchful eyes of parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, priest and priestess.
The elders had been gladdened by the happy spirit raised over the village and even the most grumbling of them (and many had grumbled at the loss of the marriage prize that was Serafina) had acknowledged the many good omens that had come forth that evening. The bonfire had been lit on the second attempt (First would have meant a fitful joining that would burn swiftly, then cool; third would have meant a hard life for the couple and their children). A travelling singer had arrived on foot (On horse he would have come as a herald, passing through on some important errand for a boyar or for the king. Importance to nobles was bad news to farmers, so a horsed singer was a thing to be feared.). This singer had walked into Yrary on the east side, travelling the King’s Road (To the east lay the King’s Seat, capital city of Hracza, so his coming from that direction portended wealth.), and he had refused to sing on the night before the wedding, saying that he would only play after the ceremony (That was a great omen, but what it indicated only the singer himself knew.). Most propitious of all, the sky had cleared at sunset and the moon was seen rising over the single peak of Mount Porol, the mountain southeast of the village. Serafina’s grandmother Ursula swore that she saw the spinster of the moon smile down on them and drop the silver strands of fated union on Dominic and Serafina’s heads, tying them together.
Only two people remained beside the bonfire when the laughers and the talkers had gone -- or rather, one man and one ghost, for it was the tradition in Hracza that the fathers of the bride and the groom tend the wedding fire together. Georgi had made it clear that death was no barrier to such a joyful duty.
Paolo, stoop-shouldered from years of growing wheat and grapes and strong-handed from long tending of sheep and cattle, stirred the sticks with a blackened-to-coal staff and struggled to converse with Horatio’s barelyvisible spirit.
No one had seen Dominic’s father since his death and interment under a cairn erected on the boundary between Dominic’s farm and Paolo’s. No one had expected to. There were three kinds of dead, each with their own viewers. Only family members saw their ancestors, only those who intruded into grave-ruled lands saw haunts, and only those to be revenged upon saw revenant spirits.
Yet there Horatio stood, his remembered face grim and tired from life-long labors. His hair, gone white from ghost-battle, now glimmered snow-like before the flames. But his back was not bent as it had been when he died. He stood straight, gazing out like a noble upon his estates. The winds of night passed through him and seemed to give him savor and sustenance.
Horatio too stirred the fire, though he used the transparent blade of his broken sword, forged anew by death and remembrance. The sticks did not move when the ghost steel passed through them, but fire leapt high when touched by spirit.
“Your son has grown well, old friend,” Paolo said.
Horatio opened his ghostly mouth to reply, but only inarticulate wind came out. The former noble frowned and noiselessly tapped his left arm with the fingers of his right hand as he had many times in life when forced to ponder. Horatio had not been a great ponderer. His mind once set in a course would follow it to the end, whatever travails came upon him, but at choosing which course to follow he had had great difficulties. His son had inherited both of these habits of mind, but that directness did not worry Paolo; his daughter was inventive enough for any family. A marriage of complements was better than one of perfect agreement.
Paolo sought to help Horatio speak, but was unsure how. The only ghosts he had ever conversed with had been his own ancestors, who had only appeared in proper impersonation ceremonies using the voices of their descendants. No -- that was not quite true. Once as a young man Paolo had seen a revenant, the ghost of a neighbor boy who had died in an accident involving cattle Paolo had been driving. The spirit had been quickly laid to rest by Georgi and Ludmilla, and a sacrifice on Paolo’s part had settled the man-price of the spirit. That revenant had not spoken; rather, the trampled form of its ghostly body had with image and gesture shown its distress and its need.
“Can you show me what you want to say?” Paolo asked Horatio.
The ghost contemplated for a few moments, then nodded. He plunged his shadowy hands into the fire, molding the flames like a deft sculptor working with pliable clay. A few touches, a pinch upon the red fire, a glazing of the blue flames and a painting of the hot white, and Horatio drew from the bonfire flickering images of Dominic and Serafina, statues incandescent with the love they bore each other. The images came together and the ghost smiled as a shower of sparks arose from them, warming the great bonfire with new heat.
“Yes, I too am happy about the marriage,” Paolo said.
Horatio released the flames and the fire-forms grew wings, becoming red birds that flew up together into the night sky, to vanish among the star-lights of the All.
Horatio held up his right hand and extended three fingers, pointing to the newly recobbled path that led to the house of the farmstead he had won.
“Three what?” Paolo asked. Then he realized what the ghost meant. “Your three wedding gifts.”
It was the custom that the families of the bride and groom each give three gifts to the newly married. Lara was at that moment preparing the bundles she would give to Serafina on the evening after the wedding. Dominic, being an orphan, had been presumed exempt from receiving such blessings (and that had caused displeased whisperings among the elders). But Horatio, as determined in death as he had been in life, would not let his son lack what was due him.
Horatio reached once more into the flames. As he did a wind rose from the south and rushed into him. He became filled with the swirling of the air. His form became still, then solid, blue and spark-writhed like iron under a smith’s hammer. His sword disappeared in the flames. Wind and steel and flame came together into a living thing: a black horse, an equine patch of evening sky within the fire.
Now the Earth rose into Horatio. He became a clay statue of himself, a crude image. Then starlight fell upon him and his features smoothed and gleamed like fine porcelain. Once again he plunged his hands into the fire. The remnant of his nobility, the stern look, the proud glance, the quiet confidence faded. A plate of alabaster appeared in his hands and took its place floating next to the horse.
A song began, a melody sad and hopeful. It came from a great distance and emerged from Horatio, but it was not being sung by human voice. The shadow body of the dead vibrated like the skin of a drum, like the strings of a mandolin, as if the ghost carried forth the sounding of some instrument unseen. The melody entered the fire and wrapped itself around the flames, becoming a scarf of red and green. The scarf took its place, coiled up next to the horse and the plate.
Sweating fire drops, Horatio pulled the three flickering forms, the horse, the plate, and the scarf, out of the flames and dropped them on the earth. They burned where they touched. The images vanished in dust-quenched fire, but where they had struck lay three fist-sized stones, each of the stones marked with a single letter of the runic alphabet.
“What do they say?” Paolo asked, for he could not read.
His late friend flickered now with little substance. Pale and wan, Horatio looked as he had when he died. With great effort, the ghost shook his head and pointed toward his homestead, then to the temple.
“Give them to Dominic?” Paolo asked. The boy could read; that was one of the things about him that had first fascinated Serafina. “Are these the gifts?”
Horatio nodded then held up his hands to the fire, needing its warmth as much as might a living man who had exerted himself beyond his strength.
At the eastern edge of the village, next to the King’s Road, was an inn. The welcome stone at the base of its door had these runes carved upon it: “Kings Inn at Yrary Village. Be welcome those who travel in peace. Be sheltered those who come in courtesy.”
Few were capable of reading the writing on the stone, but all felt the blessing and the implied warning that it bore. There was only one visitor to the inn that night, a singer named Jannosh. He had read the stone and offered it and the keeper of the hostelry his thanks for the welcome.
Jannosh sat before the fire pit in the common room, drinking an earthy wine of local vintage from a pewter mug of local make. The wine and the mug told him a little about the village and its clans. He would have to learn a great deal more if he was to perform the duties he had taken up that day.
Duties. Jannosh rolled the word around in his mind and found that it carried a tinge of regret. He was only twenty-four years old and not far along in the path of the singer. But he had come on the first night of a wedding, and a rare wedding, one that would create a new clan. He had come following the Winding Road, letting it take him where it would, and it had led him here where lay the chance to take on a great burden in order to do a great good.
That was the way of the Winding Road. You followed its turnings and came in the most unlikely of places to the great choices of your life. So Jannosh had been taught at the Crossroads, and so he had accepted, though this was the first time he had truly come to such a turning.
He had had to decide quickly whether to take up the opportunity the Winding Road offered him or to turn away.
At first he had been tempted to flee. To become the patron of a new clan was to tie his path lifelong to this village and these people whom he did not know. The temptation whispered that if he did as the Road asked him he would lose the freedom-gift of the Winding Road.
Almost Jannosh had given in to the Ill of Fear. But then he remembered a riddle his teacher had given him before he departed the Crossroads:
“Who is the truer traveller of the ocean?” Master Singer Thaddeus had asked. “The sailor who skims its surface seeking the lands between the waters or the whale who swims through the fathoms from the foamy surface to the singing depths?”
A simple riddle, but the simple riddles had the most varied uses. Here in the plain village of Yrary was a chance for Jannosh the Singer to become not a sailor on the roads of the world, singing nothing but empty chanteys, but a whale swimming in the currents of the All singing songs that would touch hearts and give life.
He had accepted the chance, announcing to the villagers that he would sing only on the wedding day.
But there was still regret in him and in that word ‘duties.’ When Jannosh had first come to the Crossroads as a boy he had been filled with tales of heroes, of singers who ordered the stars of the sky or called the seasons to match their melodies, who conquered monsters with riddles and secrets, who sang before the courts of heaven and were rewarded with gifts only the gods may bestow.
Later as a more mature youth, with a beard and callouses upon his fingers, when he had learned the arts of singing and playing, of riddling and remembering, he had wanted to be a singer at a king’s court. There he might bask in the adoration of beautiful ladies and take part in the subtle intrigues and tales of nuance and delicacy. And at war time he would be a herald, and the nobles would come to him with their deeds seeking immortality in song.
Now an adult, he had come forth from the Crossroads knowing that a singer had to answer only to the Winding Road and take what opportunities came to him, for he would never know what lay beyond the turnings and the forks in the path of life.
Jannosh opened one of the many doors in his mind and shook the dusty regrets of childhood from the word ‘duties’. Then he polished the word against other words: ‘needful’, ‘important’, ‘joyous’, ‘life-giving.’
There, now, the shining word ‘duties’ was a thing to be happy with.
He had become an omen for Yrary village, and though the villagers did not know it (for it was a private teaching of the singers) he had become a guide for its people and the clan that was to be made. For as long as he lived the Winding Road would bring him back here over and over again to tell these people their tales.
“First Man came from the waters of the ocean,” Georgi told Dominic. “Imagine the sea, form it clearly in your mind. I have seen it only in visions, but you have gone upon it in fact. Therefore, where for most grooms I would give details of ocean appearance, flecks and scraps from my seeing, for you I say only imagine the deep ocean beyond the sight of land and tell me what you see.”
“The shades of water,” said Dominic. “Did you know that if there’s no land around to distract your eye, you start to see all the colors of the world in the water? Not just the blues and greens the Singers speak of, but the white of the foam and the black down below where the light never goes. And there’s gold where the sun catches the waves. Also you can see brown and red in the crops of the sea folk. So many colors. And the ocean’s always moving. There’s nothing like it on land. Nothing stays still there, everything moves in ripples and waves and eddies, even the flotsam bobs up and down to the rhythm of the waters. The movement and the light catch your eye and hold you, calling you down into it.”
“Now imagine a place between eddies,” Georgi said. “A pool within the eternal waters. First Man came up from such a pool, coming from the deeps, from the darkness and the silence where even the whales do not go. He rose up, up. Almost he left the water to leap into the sky. Almost there were no men upon the Earth, for if First Man had ascended then, he would have joined the All among the stars and Earth would never have been and humanity would never have been. But First Man ascended only to the surface of the water. His foot gripped a wave, and where his heel held, land came forth and there he stood upon the Earth.”
Georgi paused. Dominic waited for the priest to continue, but that seemed to be all Georgi had to say. The priest’s gaze formed into his wife’s schoolmistress frown with which he looked at Dominic expectantly.
“What am I to do?” Dominic asked.
“Emerge from the waters of the ocean,” Georgi said. “Grasp a wave with your foot so that there will be land to tread on.”
“First Woman came up the way of caverns from the Realm of the Dead,” Ludmilla said to Serafina. “She stepped out into the darkness of the land and a strange feeling gripped her throat. For the first time she knew thirst, but she did not know what would slake it, for there was no knowledge of water in the unknowable depths of the dead. She needed to know what she needed and then she needed to find it in the arid, parched lands above.”
“Then I am to know water and find water,” Serafina said.
Serafina looked at the figurine of First Woman on the altar, carved elmwood painted white with blue bands around her neck, wrists, and ankles. The top of her head was adorned with strands of greying auburn hair which had been cut by Ludmilla from the head of the last woman who had died in the village. The hair was placed there so that the dead woman’s soul would be joined to First Woman and she would remember her place in the world and her soul would be open to the calls of her descendants.
Grandmother Vjosa, dead only seven moons, had been a seemingly sour woman who had glared often at the children as they were growing up, and more than once had struck terror in those who would transgress the customs of the village. “Don’t run in the Temple. Don’t scare the cattle. Don’t spit on the border stones.” But Serafina had over the years unriddled Grandmother Vjosa. The girl had come to know that her harsh appearance was an image she set forth to keep the wildness of youth in check. When she had died, Serafina had been the only one of her generation to shed great tears.
Serafina looked at those familiar tresses and they drew her eye to the statue. The figurine grew large and close in Serafina’s mind, becoming more human, more real. The painted image became a living woman. The bands of blue became the sacred jewelry First Woman had taken from the treasured Realm of the Dead, the bracelets and necklace of blue god-bone that would permit her to find her way back and guide others between the two-sided world of life and spirit. Serafina became First Woman struggling in the new world, thirsting for she knew not what. But she also remained herself, Serafina sitting on the floor of the temple, knowing water and the need of water, knowing that she was riddling her way through a story and that her wedding could only take place when the last riddle was solved.
“I will ask,” Serafina said.
“And who will you ask?” said Ludmilla. “There is no else around you.”
“I will ask the Earth from which I emerged,” Serafina said.
There was no statue to help Dominic touch First Man’s divinity. All he had was the story and his own imagination. First Man came from the ocean. Dominic knew the ocean, but what it was like to come up from it?
Wait -- there had been a day long ago, before the grief of departure and the joy of acceptance, hadn’t there? Wasn’t there that day in the boat of Polidore the fisherman, Polidore the Younger, son of Polidore the Elder? Hadn’t Dominic leaned over the side fascinated by the sea songs and fallen into the ocean? Dominic only three years old, only a swimmer in the shallows, not the deeps.
So deep it had been, so fathomless the fathom-fall. The echoes in the waters had told him how far below lay the bottom, if bottom there was. He did not fall far into those depths, yet he heard the goddess of the sea and her thousand daughters calling him into the darkness and the music of their halls, calling him to give up mortality and join the whales and the sea folk, become one of the ever-swimming drowned men. But Polidore had rescued him, Polidore who knew the ways of the sea and her daughters and knew the sacrifices and prayers to restore a child to the breathing world, a human child, not a selkie or a dolphin or whale. Polidore had given up and Dominic had been returned.
First Man had come from that depth, had emerged as Dominic had from the calling realm of the sea. First Man was of the water, a child of ocean, a brother of the whales and the dolphins, born of water in the manner in which water gives birth. Dominic breached the water, a dolphin in the moment where swimming becomes flight. The tip of his tail was the only part of him still of the ocean; if it let go of the water he would rise into the sky. But his tail tip remained. He splashed and his tail became feet. His heel struck the temple floor as the jump ended, and there was land in his mind. The whale, the dolphin, the child of the sea had become a man upon the Earth.
“Well done, Dominic,” Georgi said.
On the altar of the men’s side, on the stone plate of Earth stood First Man’s statue, clad in green for his watery origins, his eyes the grey of the whales who had been his ancestors.
“First Man stood on the new land,” Georgi intoned. “He shook the water from his body and there were lakes and rivers. He exhaled water from his lungs and there were clouds and rain.”
Dominic shook. Rivers and lakes appeared. He coughed and clouds covered the sky. Rain fell.
“The Earth knows nothing of water,” Ludmilla said to Serafina. “It is bare and dry; it has never known the touch of water.”
“Then I will ask the sky,” Serafina said.
And the Sky answered her.
“I hold the waters of the world in my embrace,” he said. “What will you give me for them?”
Serafina considered the riddle of the Sky. She knew that the Sky was one of the names of the All and that as the Sky it was first of the gods of Heaven. She also knew that the gods of Heaven were born of the All, but they took their forms and manners from humanity and from the gods of Earth, the divinities who were born of First Woman and First Man. The gods of Earth were in truth the siblings of humanity, but the gods of Heaven only looked as if they were. Yet both kinds of gods were kin and kind one to the other
“I will give you one tenth of my children so you will be their brothers and sisters,” First Woman said to the sky, for there were twenty gods of Heaven and two hundred of Earth.
“That is not enough,” the Sky said through Ludmilla’s lips. “You must give me two more gifts.”
“I will give you the smoke of sacrifice,” First Woman said through Serafina’s lips.
“And what for the third gift?”
“Through all the days of life and all the nights of death, I will regard you and you will regard me so that we will be the All together.”
“The rains came down,” Ludmilla said. “The parched earth drank deep of the water. There were oceans, lakes and rivers, and green growing things arose in the world.”
“You have land and water,” Georgi said to Dominc. “What will you eat?”
“You have slaked your thirst,” Ludmilla said to Serafina. “Now you are hungry.”
“I will eat what the water and earth bear,” Dominic said, for the path once begun was clear and obvious before him. Georgi was right. To follow a hero was simple. “And I will help them to grow what is to be eaten.”
“You plow the fields and build the farm of First Man,” Georgi said.
“I will ask the earth and sky for their bounty,” Serafina said, knowing the answer before the riddle was fully formed.
“The earth orders itself at your request and the sky rains as you ask it,” Ludmilla said. “You live on the farm of First Woman.”
“But you are alone,” Ludmilla and Georgi said to Dominic and Serafina.
“Then I will seek love,” Dominic and Serafina replied.
The doors to the men’s side and the women’s side of the temple opened as if pushed by a radiant hand. The sun rose in a clear sky. Georgi and Ludmilla emerged from their sides, leading Dominic and Serafina into the central court of the temple. On the stone plate of the main altar, the statuettes of First Man and First Woman stood facing each other while Heaven and Earth witnessed and presided over the moment they met and married.