(This story is 11,150 words long. Reading time is approximately 45 minutes)
The Last Shaman
It was the most striking Dye-la Fruit that Tal-ri had ever seen. Just a few more feet and he would be able to grab it.
He walked along the tree branch at a dizzying height above the ground, moving with his arms outstretched, placing one foot carefully in front of the other.
His focus was on the purple/golden orb that hung like a teardrop at the end of the branch. He went boldly forth, farther and farther from the trunk of the tree, until the branch was swaying noticeably beneath his weight.
Before making the long climb, Tal-ri had prepared a makeshift bed of hay and duff on the ground where he thought the fruit might fall. This was the quickest and easiest way to get the Dye-la fruit out of the tree. But now as he stood next to it, judging it’s weight and the distance to the ground below, he began to reconsider his plan.
“It won’t do to drop it from here,” he said aloud, “I’ll need a rope to lower it cleanly.” He looked down. Beneath his feet hung the fruit, twice his size. It’s many fan shaped leaves flapped in the breeze. Beyond the branch there was nothing but empty space all the way down to the forest floor. The bed of hay that he had prepared on the ground was merely a speck from this height.
“I have to get a better look,” the boy thought to himself. “I’ll have to climb down and then back up again.” He knew that by the time he returned with a rope, he’d probably be joined by a whole bunch of others: parents, friends, on-lookers – all would be curious to see what he was after, and why he needed the rope.
His shaggy black hair tossed about like a flag in the wind. He was short for his age, but agile and well-built. He was comfortable up high, and confident in his movements.
He stretched out his palm and placed it against the warm skin of the fruit. As he did so, a few unexplainable things happened all at once:
First, the skin of the fruit became hot to the touch. It burned his fingers, but out of fascination he kept his hold. The heat intensified and the deep purple color of the fruit began to brighten, as if it were glowing.
Suddenly Tal-ri was aware of a deep, low-pitched hum that seemed to be filling the air all around him. As the fruit glowed brighter, the deep humming intensified. It was an old sound from the beginning of time, from somewhere in the center of the earth.The sky seemed to grow dark around him, but Tal-Ri couldn’t rip his hand from the fruit, which continued to glow and change. Now it was red and it’s round walls began to flicker. The heat was making it’s way through the boy’s hand, up his arm and into his chest. The subterranean humming echoed through his head.
His sight contracted and expanded again. He sunk into a lifelike vision. He was no longer in the tree but somewhere far away.
Spread out below him were the unmistakable flames of an enormous fire. Tal-ri was in the midst of it; the smoke was in his lungs and the light was blinding. Yet at the same time he was high above, viewing the scene as if from a hill far away. Now a cloud of smoke billowed away, revealing a tall windowless tower – the bottom of which was engulfed in leaping flames.
Tal-ri gasped. The tower was unmistakable, for it was the only one the boy had ever seen or known. Now he could also see the roof of the town council building – which he knew as the “great hall” – just below and north of the tower. Behind the great hall he saw the homes, and beyond those the fields – and all of it burning. He saw the main avenue with its sides lined with market stalls and tents. The shrill cry of a woman pierced the air. Tal-ri wanted desperately to turn away from the vision, but with a horrible curiosity he looked closer. Through the smoke and the flames he saw a dark haired woman running down the road.
“No,” he screamed, tears welling in his eyes. The running woman was his mother. He watched hopelessly as she ran. He tried to call out to her but his voice made no sound. She reached their family’s stall in the market. Tal-ri could see the green-thatched roof that his father and he had built last summer. His mother knelt and began throwing crates and goods aside as she searched desperately for something. Finally she grabbed the edge of the stall with both hands and pulled an entire wall down. She leaped into the rubble and continued her search.
Far above her the burning tower was looming. Tal-ri watched in dismay as one of the walls crumbled and caved. If it fell, it would surely fall towards the avenue..
“Mother!” Tal-ri screamed. But she did not look up, she continued her frantic search through the rubble.
The great tower lurched and groaned. The entire valley was filled with smoke and fire and the desolate sound of whipping wind.
The buzzing sound in Tal-ri’s head was now so loud that it threatened to pull him apart. He tried to fight it off and concentrate. He had to help his mother – had to get to her somehow. A jolt of heat and pain like lightning shot through his chest. He screamed and fell and the world went black.
Tal-ri opened his eyes and blinked. A crowd of faces were standing over him. Between their looming heads he could see of the blue sky. He winced and closed his eyes again. The sounds of people talking reached him through a thick curtain, as if he were underwater.
“The boy is waking!” someone said.
“It is a miracle.”
“Do not touch the boy! He needs time. We should not add to his confusion.”
“A fall like that…”
“It is not the first time this boy has done wondrous things.”
“Hush, now, everyone step away!”
Tal-ri tried to move, but the pain in his body was too great. Where was he? What had happened? Suddenly he heard the voice of his mother, it was closer and softer than any of the others, “Son, you are OK. You are going to be OK. Do not struggle. We are here with you.”
Soon after that came the voice of his father, “You have taken a great fall son, but fortune has smiled upon our family. You landed upon the mattress that you built to catch the Dye-la fruit. It was this alone that saved you, though surely it was no accident. Rest now son. Soon we will make you home.”
Their voices were still far away, but hearing his parents relieved him.
“Be still now,” said his mother, “You are OK Tal-ri. We are here with you. Do not struggle.”
Two mornings later, Tal-ri sat cross-legged at the meal table. His father was busy packing supplies in the next room. His mother had just finished preparing three bowls of porridge and now set them to cool on the table. Tal-ri pulled one of the bowls close to him and cupped his hands over the billowing steam. His mother sat down beside him. She gathered her long black hair and let it fall down the length of her back.
“Your father and I are worried about you,” she said, “it’s only been two days since your accident. You need more time to rest.”
“I feel better mother. I promise,” said Tal-ri.
“No one is going to think less of you if you stay home another day.”
“But I want to go back,” he said, “I feel better.”
His mother sighed and said, “Let me see your wound again.”
Tal-ri removed his shirt. He pulled it over his head and wore it on his forearms, leaning on the table so that his shoulder-blades pointed sharply out of his thin frame. A multi-colored bruise ran the length of the right side of his body. It was purple around the ribs and along the length of the spine; on the outer edges it was mottled yellow.
Tal-ri had told no one of the his vision. As much as it pained his ego to admit that he had fallen from the tree, he feared more the mock responses of his friends, or the concerned questions of his parents, if he were to tell them the truth of what he saw.
His mother ran her fingers delicately across her son’s back. Her finger-tips were cold to the touch, and Tal-ri shivered.
“You’re almost as stubborn as your father,” she said softly, “do you know that?”
A smile cracked through the boys steely demeanor. He pulled away from her touch and pulled his shirt back down over his head. Just then his father came walking through the room in a hurry.
“Soup is ready,” his mother said.
Tal-mae-el stopped, his mind lifting from the business of his thoughts, and noticed the steaming bowls on the table. He removed his hat and wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. He was a small and serious craftsman. His blue shirt was greatly faded, but he wore it neatly. It was said of Tal-mae-el that he did well with what he had. That he was an honest and hard-working man. He had “married up”, as they say, when he joined with Lu-el, daughter of Hal-el.
He knelt down at the table and immediately lifted the bowl of soup to his lips. After taking a big gulp, he looked curiously at his son.
“How’s my little boy today?” he said.
“He fancies that he’ll return to class,” said Lu-el, “but by the looks of him, his body needs another week in bed.”
“You know father,” said Tal-ri, “I’m not so ‘little’ anymore. I’m 14 years old and nearly as tall as you!”
“Is that so?” said his father, a smile spreading across his face. “Why do you want to get back to class so soon? Normally you’d be happy to stay home and help your old man. You’re not too busy for your father are you?”
“Father, you know that I am more skilled with ropes and knives than working in the shop with leather and hammers.”
“It’s true,” said his father, “You take after your mother’s father, and not your own, in that regard. You are a skilled hunter, which is why I still can’t understand what happened to you the other day.”
Tal-ri grew stiff at this remark. “It was only an accident,” he said.
“And it won’t happen again right?” said Lu-el.
“Perhaps it was an accident,” said his father, “but such events are often full of meaning, even if at first we can’t understand their importance.”
Tal-ri did not respond to this. Instead he busied himself with his meal.
Lu-el said, “Well no matter what the reason, we are all three lucky that you are alive and well. I see no reason why you can’t return to class today – if that is truly your wish – but no hunting for another month, on this point I will not budge.”
The boy nodded his head. Just then there was a knock at the door.
Tal-mae-el hopped up from the table and went into the main room.
Tal-ri could hear the door open, and the voice of another man conversing with his father. Eventually the men went outside and closed the door behind them.
“Well, that should be one of the tradesmen,” said Lu-el, “I suppose we won’t hear from your father again until the evening. And look, he left his hat!”
“I can catch him.” said Tal-ri. He jumped up from the table, grabbed his father’s hat, and jogged into the main room.
He reached the front door and flung it open. To his surprise, his father had not gone, in fact he was standing just outside the door, conversing quietly with a man of great stature.
They turned and looked at the boy with equal surprise.
“Is there something urgent?” said his father, “Why have you interrupted?”
“Uh, I’m sorry, I just meant to bring you…” Tal-ri’s voice trailed off. He looked down at the hat in his hands.
“It is just as well that you are here son,” said his father, “Pay respect to Shael-gi-nae, the Chief Advisor to the Town Council. You have no doubt seen him before at the town gatherings, although only from a distance. He brings important news to our family.”
Tal-ri set his father’s hat down on the shelf beside him. He bowed and clasped his hands over his heart. “Greetings, townfather,” he said.
Shael-gi-nae was probably a head taller than Tal-mae-el, had long white hair that fell over his shoulders, and wore a large brown jacket decorated with the traditional colors. He carried a thick walking staff, which he leaned heavily on with both hands.
In a deep voice he said, “Greetings, young one, I see that you are well! That was a great fall you took. Most boys and even men do not live to tell of such an event.”
Tal-ri straightened his shoulders and stood taller than he ever had before. “I am well, townfather. It was an unfortunate accident, but I will be back to full strength soon enough.”
There was approval in the old man’s eyes, but his demeanor remained grave. “I bring news from the council,” he said, “As you and father both know, your mishap has been a popular gossip point among the people.”
Tal-ri blushed at this.
“The council knows well of your many accomplishments Tal-ri,” Shael-gi-nae continued, “Many believe, and hope, that you will bring great fortune to our people. Among the younger generations, it is growing increasingly difficult to train talented hunters and foragers. As you can imagine, the council was greatly concerned in the events of two days ago.
“But some on the council were especially interested for reasons which are more difficult to understand. That is why I am here today. There are some on the council who have lived many seasons, who still remember the old wisdom of our ancestors.”
He paused here, as if unsure of how to continue. Slowly he said, “Tal-ri, the council believes it would be wise for you to seek the help of the Shaman.”
A stunned silence filled the air.
The first to break it was Lu-el, who was now standing in the kitchen doorway. “This is not in jest?” she asked, “There are many who doubt the wisdom of Shaman known as Kon-Shae.”
Tal-ri watched the townfather carefully. Had his mother spoken too boldly?
“This is not in jest, Lu-el, daughter of Hal-el,” replied Shael-gi-nae, “The council has decided. And it is beyond your knowledge to judge their reasons.”
Lu-el was obviously not appeased. Now she appealed to her husband, “What do you say Tal-mae-el?”
Tal-mae-el was busy looking at his son, studying Tal-ri as if for the first time. He asked the townfather, “This is about our boy’s… abilities, is it not?”
At this, the father knelt down and placed his hands on Tal-ri’s shoulders. “Son,” he said, “we have long known that you possess a special ear, and a special hand, for the outside world. Although you may be afraid of the task ahead, you should be proud that you have been considered by the council.” At last he added, “I will accompany you on your journey.”
“You may not,” said the townfather. “It is important that the boy travel alone.”
“And this too?” said Lu-el. “It is not enough that he make the journey, he must do so alone? He is barely able to walk at the moment!” said Lu-el.
Tal-ri spoke suddenly, surprising even himself with his boldness, “I am well,” he said, “I am better even now than I was this morning. I will make the journey, alone, if that is what the council deems best.”
“Very well,” said Shal-gi-nae. “I will inform the council that their instruction has been well met. The sooner you start, Tal-ri, the better. It is not wise to delay matters such as these.”
And with that the he took his leave, and the family of three was left to themselves once more.
Lu-el crossed the room and took her husbands hands in hers. She whispered something to him that Tal-ri could not hear. His parents went outside to speak in private, and closed the door behind them. Tal-ri was left alone with his thoughts.
On the second evening of his journey, Tal-ri came down from the high ridges and into the dense valley.
Ancient trees with trunks the size of homes passed the boy on all sides. There was little undergrowth on the forest floor, as sunlight rarely reached the forest floor. These were deep woods, and Tal-ri marveled at the magic about him. What kinds of fruits, creatures, and treasures were hidden here for him to find? If only he had time to seek them out… but his errand required him to press on.
After another few hours he realized that the valley had opened up. It had been a long time since he had noticed a hill or an incline rising on either side. If he was going the right direction, wouldn’t he have seen the river by now?
As he stood trying to clear his mind, he felt the temperature drop and a darkness seemed to close in around him. Next came the low humming sound from out of the earth. He was instantly afraid. He dropped to his hands and his knees just as a throbbing pain shot through his body.
Images began pulsing and throbbing with life. Some colors were dulled while others shone wildly like golden noontime. The trees seemed to be whispering, or sending pulsing signals from one to the other – across the whole vast and endless network of forest. The whispering of the trees was everywhere at once. Tal-ri marveled that he had never heard it before now. The humming noise grew until it blocked out the sound of the trees and overcame his every thought. He closed his eyes and try to shut out the pain. And somehow or another he succeeded, because not only his sight but all of his senses went black, and the boy lay unconscious on the forest floor.
A bird watched him carefully from the limbs above. It flew down to get a closer look at the strange boy. And then it was off again, its grey wings blending into the dusk.
A few minutes later Tal-ri groaned and rolled over onto his back. His black hair fell haphazardly across his eyes. He sat up and shook his head. How long had he been out?
With great effort he stood up and looked about him. The weather was chilly and the sky was growing dark. He was suddenly worried, for he had lost his orientation, and knew not from which direction he had come, nor which way he should proceed.
That’s when he felt a tickling sensation on his right foot and looked down. He saw that he had walked right into a line of marching ants. And instead of going around him and re-routing their course, most of the ants simply climbed over his foot and went on their way. Their road was about 5 or 6 wide, and it stretched as far as the boy could see in either direction. Tal-ri watched them with great intrigue.
And then from the corner of his eye Tal-ri noticed something even more peculiar. It was a small creature, moving across the horizon of his sight. It was a rabbit!
“What business do you have in the bottom of the forest?” Tal-ri asked the rabbit. It did not respond but hopped along. Its hind legs propelled it forward in cautious leaps.
Tal-ri realized that the rabbit was traveling, more or less, in the same direction as the line of ants.
If he had trusted his own intuition, he would have gone in a different direction. But he thought to himself, “I am a visitor in this place and do not understand it like I understand my home. I would do well to heed the signs of those that call this place home.”
And so he set off with renewed purpose. The air was growing colder and the sky was darkening.
And as the boy travelled, other strange events manifested themselves.
First he noticed a family of deer grazing up ahead. This in itself was not spectacular, but when they noticed the boy’s presence, they jumped up and began moving along in one group. And they moved in the same direction that Tal-ri was already traveling.
Birds too seemed to come and go, swept up in the same momentum that Tal-ri was following. That was how he described it to himself. The way the branches of trees were pointing, the way the wind was blowing – every natural thing seemed to flow along with the same momentum that Tal-ri was now keen to. It was as if he were indeed following a river or a stream, and to turn and fight against it would be impossible.
With every mile he grew more and more convinced that he was being pulled.
He could hardly see, but still he found his way. If there were any stars up above, the ancient trees were the only ones capable of enjoying the view.
Eventually he became aware of a faint glowing light in the distance.
For long stretches of time, the light would disappear, obscured by the trees. Then it would reappear again, stronger than before.
A little ways longer and he could discern that the light was indeed a burning fire. It appeared to be a contained fire, not a live one.
As he grew closer he approached with hesitation. Could it be a sign of the Shaman? Or something far more dangerous and foreboding? Few of his people had ever travelled two days journey from the village. And while they all believed that no one populated these woods, no one knew for without a doubt..
When he could finally see the fire in plain view, Tal-ri realized that the trees around him were thinning. They were spaced further and further apart, until suddenly there were none.
He was in some sort of a clearing, or an amphitheater, a broad swath of relatively flat, grassy ground stretched out in front of him. He looked for the stars, but the clouds were heavy in the valley.
In the center of the grassy field he now saw a small hut. It was similar to those in the village, with a wooden decking at the base, and a cone-shaped, cylindrical thatched roof. Only this hut had no walls, just a series of stilts and supports, single beams that held the roof aloft over the deck.
He approached the hut and walked slowly around it in a circle. It appeared he was indeed in a lawn of some sort, circled on all sides by giant trees like a fortress. But there was no sign of another man or woman. No sign of whoever started this fire.
Had someone meant to show Tal-ri a sign. Had they meant to lead him here? And if so, was their intent wholesome or evil?
He stepped into the hut and warmed his body by the fire. He removed a canister from his belt and took a cool, refreshing drink of water.
He sat with his knees propped up, and his arms crossed over his knees, looking into the flames. He tried to discern what to do next. He hoped that he had followed the right course, that the signs that had led him here had been good rather than evil.
He could continue on, but he knew not the direction he should go. And so he sat looking into the fire and enjoying the warmth.
Soon his eyelids grew heavy and his head began nodding onto his arms. It had been a long two days journey. And he had not been fully rested even when he had begun.
As if he were outside of his own body, he realized now that he was lying down on the deck. The cackling of the fire filled his weary mind and body.
The exhaustion overcame him, and he fell fast asleep.
Tal-ri opened his eyes. The early morning light was blinding.
“Good day,” said a voice.
Fear shot through him like an electrical shock. He jumped up and stumbled about, trying to get his bearings.
“Do not trouble yourself,” said the voice, “I mean you no harm. If I had, you would already have received it.”
Tal-ri backed himself against one of the beams that supported the roof of the hut and looked wearily at the speaker.
The man was sitting cross-legged on the wooden deck. He had a straight spine and tall back, and seemed relaxed in his position, as if he had been there a long time. He was wearing a long, thick cloak. From the sleeves of his cloak potruded two, gaunt hands with long sinewy fingers, and these rested gently on his knees. The man had high cheek-bones and dark eyes with which he returned the boys gaze. His hair was long and gray and fell messily about his shoulders and onto his dark cloak.
“Who are you?” said Tal-ri, “What are you doing here.”
The man looked curiously at Tal-ri and said, “It is you who have entered my home uninvited. It it customary these days to treat a host with such hostility and thanklessness? I fear for what has become of our people.”
“Forgive me,” said Tal-ri, his heartbeat slowing a little. “But you startled me.”
“Indeed!” said the man, “You can imagine my surprise in returning home last night and finding a strange boy asleep in my home.”
Tal-ri looked around at the wall of forest surrounding the small meadow, which the hut was placed at the center of. There was no longer any fire in the pit, although he could still feel it’s warmth radiating through the floor decking. He looked at the Shaman curiously and said, ”This is your home – but it has no walls?” In his wonder he forgot to address the Shaman with a proper greeting.
“Indeed.” Answered the Shaman. “But tell me your name, young boy, before you begin the questioning.”
Tal-ri stood up and brushed himself off, so that he was now taller than the seated man. “I apologize,” he said, “my name is Tal-ri. My father is named Tal-mae-el. I was urged by the Council to come and speak with you.”
“Is that so? And what news do you bring me?”
Tal-ri was taken aback. He had expected the Shaman to be delivering him answers, not the other way around. In the meantime he asked, “Tell me Shaman, what is your name? I have told you mine and my father’s, along with my purpose.”
“I am called Kon-Shae,” he said, “My father was Kob-baru, and his father was Kob-sidan, and his father was nameless, as was the fashion in those olden days. But that is besides the matter I suppose. My purpose has many faces, though you could say my job is to mediate between our people and the greater world. Like my fathers and the other Shamans that wrote the history of our people, I am first a listener, next a counselor, and in drastic times a leader. Although these days my position has fallen out of fashion with the leaders of the village, and the people themselves.”
“My father said that you speak to the spirits and also to the ancestors, is this true?”
Kon-Shae replied while looking out into the meadow, “As I said, I listen and I interpret much more than I speak. But your father is innocent enough in his assessment, and close enough to the truth for one of his generation to be forgiven.”
“But come now,” said the Shaman, “I fear we have already delayed to long. You have a message to bring me, and I wish to hear it.”
A gripping fear trapped Tal-ri’s words in his throat. He had not yet spoken the details of his frighting vision to anyone, and had tried to suppress them even in his own mind.
Still, he was infinitely more afraid that his episodes would grow worse, and out of his control. The Shaman was his only hope of getting any answers.
He took a deep breath and slowly began, “Three days ago… three days ago I was high in the crown of a Dye-la tree.”
The Shaman did not say anything, but he now met the boy’s gaze, and watched him with a keen interest.
“In the top of this tree was the largest Dye-la fruit I had ever witnessed. The fruit was a perfect orb, the color of late sunset, and bigger than you and I put together. I walked far out on the limb, high above the earth, in order to see it up close. I meant to harvest it for my family and for the village. I would have succeeded, but…”
Tal-ri went on to relate the entire story. The vision. The fire. The sensations. His great fall. In every painful detail he remembered his experience to the Shaman.
Kon-Shae listened carefully without interrupting.
Tal-ri finished and there was a silence. At the very end he added, “I am afraid, in all truth. I am afraid that these visions will grow worse. I know not where they come from, nor how to stop them.”
“Have you told me everything?” asked Kon-Shae.
“I have told you everything.” said the boy.
“I have only one question for you. I want you to do your best to remember. Did you see any other people during your vision? Any… unusual people?”
Tal-ri thought. He had only ever seen one person in the midst of his visions – and that was his mother.
“I don’t believe so,” he answered. “No, I saw no one else.”
Kon-Shae sat still for a long time. Tal-ri waited anxiously for a response or an explanation. Finally Kon-Shae sighed heavily, dropped his hands to the deck, and pushed himself up into a bent position. Slowly he stood up and gathered his cloak about him.
Tal-ri could wait no longer. “What have you to say, wise Shaman? I have come a long way seeking help. But I have yet to receive any guidance.”
Kon-Shae did not seem angered by the boys irreverence. When he spoke, it was with a heavy resolution in his tone: “You have brought grave news indeed, young boy. I would not expect to receive such a laden message from one as new to the world as you.”
“What does it mean?”
“I know not what it means, though I can sense the changing of the winds’ direction. I know firstly that this is an urgent message we have been given. The people of the village and the council need to hear it. We must act soon.” After a minute he added, “We must set out this afternoon.”
“How evil are these tidings?” asked the boy.
Kon-Shae answered, “I suppose that many will call them evil. Although, in the long gaze of time, it is not so simple to discern whether a certain thing is good or bad.”
“And why is this happening to me? Will these visions stop, or will they grow worse until I am overwhelmed?”
At this the Shaman looked with compassion at the boy. “They will not go away” he said plainly. “A special ability has been born within you. Both by your own will, and by the will of the earth. These ‘visions’ as you call them are slowly changing you. They will be shocking at first, as you know. But overtime you will learn to respond in kind. You will learn to shift with the tide, instead of fighting against it.”
“That is the true task ahead of you, Tal-ri, and for all of our people, it seems. You will learn to harness the energy of our ancestors, and of all the living spirits. You will remember, like the animals, to take shelter before a storm, and to move when the time is right. If not, you will meet with resistance, and will likely be left behind.”
“I do not understand why this is happening to me. Does it happen to no-one else?”
“These days it is very rare indeed. A similar thing happened to me, although I was much older at the time, and much more prepared. You are young and a heavy burden has been laid upon your head. This is what concerns me.”
“What sort of burden do you speak of?”
“That we will only know in time,” said the Shaman, “but I can tell you that your life has begun a new course. And this is only the beginning.”
“This is all too mysterious,” said the boy, “I have so many questions that I don’t know where to begin. With every question three more are born.”
“Well I can tell you where we will begin. We begin by bringing this message to the town council, and through them, to all the people of the village. Your vision of the burning village, it is significant. You will play a large role in whatever changes lie in the future. But it is up to the people to decide together, as we have always done, what the best course of action may be.”
“What will we tell them? What sort of message are we bringing?”
“We will bring the message that the winds have shifted. That a change is on the horizon. And we will hope that the people have not grown too stubborn to respond to such news.”
“Do you think they will accept the message?”
“These days my hope in the council is not what it used to be,” he answered. “They will decide what they will, but I suspect that they will force me into a position where I must do the persuading.”
Tal-ri was confused by this remark. But there was another question that burned more brightly in his mind. Finally he asked the only question that he had ever cared to ask the Shaman. The one for which he had really travelled all of this way, but had been too afraid to ask until now: “My mother,” said the boy, “will she be OK?”
“Doubtless, your mother will play her part in the changes that are to come. But if you are asking me to divine how long she will live, or how any person will come by the ways of harm or fortune, then you ask too much of any man.”
“You say little to ease my fears,” said Tal-ri. “I am eager now to return home, and am ready to begin the journey whenever you see fit. I will return and look after my family and friends with my own eyes.”
“A courageous spirit you have indeed,” said the Shaman, “I will grant your wish. We will be off within the hour.”
Two days later, after making the return journey out of the shadow of the mountains, and into the fertile valley, and finally into the heart of the village, Tal-ri and Kon-Shae went together before the town council.
The arrival of the Shaman was enough to stir the excitement of nearly everyone in the village. Before the Shaman and the boy had even reached the center of town, word had spread to the council, and all were assembled and waiting by the time the odd pair arrived.
They came into a long hall with high ceilings. Tal-ri had only ever seen this building from the outside, and now he looked with wonder at the great tapestries that lined the walls. The tapestries depicted scenes of battle and scenes of great peace, their histories stetched back along the ages, telling the stories of their ancestors for many generations. The ceiling was an elaborate latticed network of wooden beams. At certain spaces there were great openings, and light flooded into the hall and along the walls. The openings were designed so that, as the sun moved across the sky, all parts of the room were lighted in turn. The hall was largely empty, void of any tables or clutter, and every footstep seemed to echo from one end to the other and back. At the far end of the hall sat the council, in three tiers of raised seats, according to their position and rank. Tal-ri had never felt so small as when he stood beneath the gaze of all the elders at once. He felt even stranger now that he was somehow associated with the Shaman, whose reputation was strange at best and malevolent at worse.
Tal-ri looked up at Kon-Shae, the man he had grown to know over the course of their two day journey together. In some ways he was closer to him than anyone else, because he had shared his secrets and the trouble of his visions. He had even grown recently to like and admire the man. But now as he stood before the council, his mind seemed to change and adapt to his surroundings, and he realized how strange the Shaman looked here in the heart of the village. His cloak was dirty and fit him overly large. His long hair was unkempt and his whole appearance ragged. He was a strange creature indeed. Tal-ri found himself wondering, when it was that his people stopped looking and thinking like Kon-Shae, and started looking more like the stern and well-dressed elders that he saw before him now.
“News travels fast,” Kon-Shae suddenly yelled, not waiting to be addressed first by the elders, as was the custom, “Or is it coincidence that you all are assembled here at the time of my arrival?”
“Greetings Kon-Shae, son of Kob-baru,” came the voice of a woman, seated at the head of the assembly, “it has been long since we have seen you in the village, much less between the walls of the great hall.”
“In that case,” said Kon-Shae, “I am sorry that I come bearing such ill news. Would we could return to the days of old when my visits were more frequest and less dire.”
A tall, younger man spoke loudly over the din, “It seems that ill news follows wherever you go, Shaman, perhaps our people would fare better without your news.”
Many nodded and applauded. But others, especially the older members of the council, disapproved of the remark, or at least remained ambivalent. Tal-ri could judge that a division ran through the council, between those who maintained respect for Kon-Shae and all that he symbolized, and for those who viewed him as an outdated artifact.
Gael-gi-ri, the council-woman at the head of the table, spoke again, “Silence, all. Let us delay our judgements until we have heard the Shaman thoroughly.”
Now an old man pushed back his chair and stood. He was the oldest and likely the shortest of all the council members, but Tal-ri could tell from the ornaments on his dark brown jacket that he was among the most venerated.
“Greetings Kane-gi-rae,” said Kon-Shae, “How is the family? You appear older than even your years. Have all these meetings and diplomacies begun to take their toll on you?”
Kane-gi-rae smiled. He did not seem offended by Kon-Shae’s blatant remarks. “Greetings old friend,” he replied in a surprisingly young and booming voice. “It is good to see you, despite the distance that has grown between us. As for my family, they are well. Believe it or nay, my son is nigh the age of you and I, when we fought alongside our fathers in the Battle of Red Gorge! But alas, we are not here to exchange pleasantries. Let us know what news you bring. And how you have received Tal-ri, son of Tal-mae-el, a promising young example of our people.”
Tal-ri blushed at the mention of his name. It was difficult to imagine that the council knew him by name, and spoken of him more than once in their meetings. He did his best to stand tall next to the Shaman.
Kon-Shae cleared his throat and addressed the council. “This is the message I bring: Our people have grown stagnant for too long. I have long feared that a change was on the horizon, but now it comes faster, and with far more force than I ever anticipated. The will of the Spirits is making itself known. And has chosen as its messenger this child before you.”
Now all eyes were on Tal-ri. The council held rapt by Kon-Shae’s words.
“As you know, Tal-ri fell just a few days ago from the tops of a formidable Dye-la tree. He fell not by his own folly, but because a frightening vision was thrust upon him in that moment, as he laid his hand upon the Dye-la fruit.”
This brought forth more murmuring from the council. Many whispered, “I knew it as such.” Many others whispered, “I do not believe it.” Gael-gi-ri rapped her hand on the table and yelled, “Silence please!”
Kon-Shae continued, “He received a vision of the village engulfed in flames!”
There was a collective gasp from the council. Their whispers turned to full-blown grumbling and dissenting. Kon-Shae merely raised his voice and kept on, “The village was in flames. It was not clear, however, whether the people had fled. This we can take as a good omen, that even though a great change is required of our people, perhaps no harm will come of it, as long as we heed the warnings.”
In his recounting, Kon-Shae omitted the part about Tal-ri’s mother running through the marketplace. Tal-ri was grateful for this.
Kon-Shae continued, “Clearly our people are being called to move on from this place we call home. That much is clear. The significance of the village in flames is that we must make haste. We must delay no longer. We have outgrown our welcome in this place!”
Now the council was in an uproar. Many shouted warnings at the Shaman, some argued against themselves. Tal-ri trembled with fear, but Kon-Shae stood stoically.
Kane-gi-rae stood for the second time and passed his gaze over the council. In his honored presence they quieted a bit. Now he turned his attention to the Shaman:
“You bring dire news indeed Kon-Shae, son of Kob-baru! I do not doubt your wisdom, although I question your enthusiasm for the subject. Have you not been preaching for many years that our people should live on the move – like our people of old? I am tempted to think that, perhaps in this young and impressionable boy you have found an opportunity to frighten our people into hasty action. We sent the boy to you for guidance, not to fashion doomsday prophecies!”
Kon-Shae replied, “You know as well as I do that the spirits rarely speak through our people these days. It is less and less with every passing generation. It is precisely because the boy is so young, and his vision so strong, that I am driven to such quick action.”
“Alas,” said Kane-gi-rae, “There are many among us who doubt the usefulness of the old ways. It is an impossible thing that you ask, to convince our people to uproot from their present way of life – and with such haste!”
“Then you have made your decision?” asked the Shaman, “As quickly as I have offered my advice, have you denied it?”
The tall young council member spoke again, “Old man, we have long ago decided that your usefulness has played it’s course. Our people will be better served if you return from whence you came. Take this boy with you, along with your ill tidings!”
This brought cheers from the council. Tal-ri cowered. There was nowhere for him to hide in the great hall.
Now another man stepped forward. Tal-ri recognized him as Shael-gi-nae, the townfather that had visited his home just 5 days ago. He spoke now evenly and with a level head, “Forgive the harsh remarks, Shaman. In these matters, we attempt to solve a puzzle with merely a few of the pieces. It is true that you and your ways have grown out of fashion with the people. But there are those among the people, myself included, who still wish to do right by both the old ways and the new ways… Is there no better solution than the one you proposed? You must admit that it is quite absurd for an entire people to uproot so quickly, at the behest of a single mysterious vision.”
“You are wise to say so,” replied the Shaman, “I wish not that I had lived to deliver such a message. Although I had guessed it for many years, I never believed that it would happen in this way, or so suddenly.”
“We need time to form a plan,” said Shael-gi-nae “are you certain that we have none to spare?”
“I do not know the hour,” he answered, “Only that we have already overstayed our welcome in this place.”
Suddenly Shael-gi-nae addressed Tal-ri, “And what have you to say, young one? Do you see level with the Shaman? This message was delivered through you, and not the Shaman, after all.”
Now all eyes were on Tal-ri.
As he had done at home in front of Shael-gi-nae, Tal-ri again stood tall, braced his shoulders, and spoke with his sharpest demeanor: “What the Shaman says about my vision is true. I have related the full story to him and he has given it to you just the same. I never wished for these… visions… to come my way, but they have, and I must accept that.”
“What of his interpretation of the vision.” Shael-gi-nae asked, “Do you agree with the Shaman’s advice?”
The brash young councilman spoke again, out of turn, “Surely the Shaman has used his power to persuade the boy to his own ends!”
Shael-gi-nae said, “We shall never know if we don’t give him space to speak.”
“Yes,” said Kane-gi-nae, “Let us hear what Tal-ri, son of Tal-mae-el has to say. These events began with him. His mind should not go unheard.”
Tal-ri was taken back. Never could he have imagined the council asking his opinion. What he spoke next was a surprise, even to himself, “I am afraid of the power within me. Already I have tried to ignore it, only to have it return with even greater force. For this reason I agree with the Shaman. This will – whatever it is that is speaking through me – it seems urgent. It is not to be ignored.”
The Shaman spoke again, “The path ahead is clouded, but the choice before us is clear. Our people must leave this valley that we have so long called home, and take up the roaming ways of our ancestors. At least for a season or more, at least until the winds return in our favor.
“I do not envy you, townfathers, for the position you are now in. On your wisdom hinges an important mark in the history of our people. Of this I am sure. You will have difficulty persuading the people. But it is not beyond your ability to do so.”
“This is nonsense!” someone cried.
“Madness!” cried another.
Kane-gi-nae, the great leader, looked gravely at the Shaman. “Kon-Shae, I am sorry that it has come to this. While I do not share the hasty opinions of others on this council, I agree that what you are proposing is impossible. We will take our time, and carry out our due process, to reach a full decision on the matter. But I believe you know which way our decision will sway.”
“Then it is as I feared,” said Kon-Shae, “Our people will enter this new era, not peacefully of our own accord, but chased into it by misfortune.”
“Our people are strong,” said Kane-gi-nae, “We have not been idle while enjoying our good fortune. We have educated our young ones, established systems, stored food for the winter, and built our houses from the earth. Whatever changes come our way, we will meet them, but we will not run.”
This brought much cheering and pounding of tables from the council.
Kon-Shae said, “Then let it be written in the scrolls that I, the last Shaman of our people, have brought a warning before the council which was ignored. The weight of future events now rests on your shoulders.”
And with that he turned and exited the great hall.
Tal-ri ran after him, “Shaman!” he yelled, “where will you go now?” What is to be done?”
Once the Shaman was outside he stopped and said, “You were brave before the council. We have done our part, and now the fates will carry us as they may. I have work to do now, but it does not concern you. Rest assured that you have done your best Tal-ri.”
“But maybe the council will receive us better after their shock has subsided. Maybe tomorrow we could return?”
“They are set in their ways,” said Kon-Shae, “no speech will change their minds now, no matter how strong or how persistent.”
“Well…” Tal-ri clambered for something to say. He did not wish to say goodbye to the Shaman so suddenly. “You won’t begin your journey home will you? We only just arrived today. Where will you go?”
“I will go wherever my work takes me,” he said, “You should go to your parents, Tal-ri, you should tell them about your vision. You should be on the lookout for evil tidings. You have the power within you. Use it to help your family and your friends going forward. We will meet again I am sure. But now I must go.”
With that, Kon-Shae turned again and walked down the road. Tal-ri watched as he turned the corner and disappeared.
Later that night, Tal-ri lay awake in his own bed. His mother and father had questioned him extensively about his trip. He had been overjoyed to see his parents, especially his mother. He told them much, but still held back the full truth of his visions. After talking long into the night he finally retired to his room. He was exhausted but still couldn’t sleep. Now out the window he saw that they sky was turning from black to blue. Was morning coming already?
He thought about Kon-Shae and the events in the town hall. He thought about his vision and everything that had taken place since then. If only he could go back to the trouble-less life he led before that day! How insignificant his old worries seemed.
Kon-Shae. The last of the Shaman. Tal-ri couldn’t shake the vision of the old man from his head. Where was he now? Had he begun his return journey to the valley below the twin peaks? He had told Tal-ri that they would meet again, had he not? What was it he had said exactly?
Tal-ri was troubled by something unnamed. He was drifting in and out of sleep when suddenly terrible image came dancing through his mind. It was quick but vivid. It was, he thought, as if someone had planted it there:
He saw Kon-Shae’s face lit by the glow of a flickering flame. There was a hollow expression in his eyes. The look and feel of the image chilled Tal-ri to the core. The Shaman opened his ghostly mouth to speak – but just then the vision faded.
Dread eclipsed him slowly like a shadow.
He jumped out of bed, threw on his clothes, and ran out of his house into the night. The stars were still out, but the sun would be up shortly. He made his way to the main road that led to town and ran wildly along it. As he ran his conviction grew stronger.
Would Kon-Shae really go through with this? It was impossible. And then he saw it, coming from the center of town, a strange orange glow emanating from one of the buildings. Tal-ri took off running in the direction of the glow.
As he grew nearer he realized he had come to one of the village storehouses. The large buliding was fashioned like a barn, and was full of grain, seed, and other food stores. Tal-ri saw with horror that the building was glowing. There was a fire inside.
The Shaman appeared from out of the burning barn. In his hands he carried a long plank, the tip of which was flaming like a torch. If he noticed the boy, he did not show it. He was carrying his torch across the road, planning to set a second building on fire.
“No!” Tal-ri yelled, but Kon-Shae ignored him. Tal-ri ran and hurled himself at the Shaman. They both went crashing to the ground and the torch flew high and then thudded to the earth.
“What have you done?” yelled Tal-ri. “Are you mad?”
The Shaman got to his feet and grabbed the torch again. “One day you will understand Tal-ri. Our people will not leave this place of their own accord – and it will be their undoing! I wished to spare you from this, but already I see that your power is growing. Tell me, did you not foresee this ending, the same as I have?”
“Please,” Tal-ri said, ”use your power to reverse this evil. If you continue, you will kill many, and for what?”
“I told you Tal-ri that a greater evil lurks around the corner. If our people are not forced into action today… but we can only hope we are not too late.”
The Shaman was as calm as ever. But Tal-ri’s confusion and fear were boiling over.
“You are not one of us!” said Tal-ri, “You live alone, and you know not the faces that you now doom to peril. These are my people, and I won’t let you hurt them.”
“Go now,” said Kon-Shae, “go through the streets and rouse the people. That is how you can help.”
Tal-ri lunged himself again at the Shaman. Kon-Shae swung his torch and caught Tal-ri on the neck and shoulder and sent him sprawling.
As Tal-ri lay on the ground, the dreaded humming noise began to rattle between his ears. The colors all around him popped and surged. It was as if he could hear everything that moved, and the flames coming from the barn lit his world as brightly as the daytime.
He tried desperately to stagger to his feet. Through his pulsing sight he could barely see Kon-Shae, tossing his torch into the loft window of a nearby building. The roof quickly caught fire. Kon-Shae walked toward the barn again. As he passed Tal-ri, he shot him a glance that was like a physical blow. Tal-ri felt a surge of pressure and a renewed pounding in his head, and he doubled over in pain.
Kon-Shae went into the barn and grabbed two more burning beams, one with each hand, so big that he had to drag them behind him.
Tal-ri gathered his composure just long enough to take another charge at the Shaman.
This time he caught him unaware. They collided and crashed back into the barn. Tal-ri was the first to recover. He grabbed one of the fallen torches, swung it with both hands, and dealt a hard blow to the back of the Shaman’s head. The Shaman crumpled and lay still. Just then a loud crashing noise issued from the rafters overhead. Tal-ri just barely glimpsed the falling archway before it struck him and knocked him unconscious.
Somewhere across the town a woman screamed. A foreboding, burnt-red sun was rising in the east. The village was burning, and the people were waking in a panic. Kon-Shae and Tal-ri lay side by side in the dirt, oblivious now to the fire and chaos that was crashing all around.
Tal-ri opened his eyes. He was laying with his back to the earth, looking up at an orange sky. The noon sun hung directly overhead, but it was hardly visible through the smoke and haze.
He coughed and struggled to sit up. His body ached miserably from head to toe. Especially across his upper back where the falling beam had smote him. He was laying out in the open, about 20 yards from the nearest building. Ahead he could see the smoldering remains of the barn in which he and Kon-Shae had fallen.
How had he come to be in this place? Hadn’t he fallen in the barn? His head reeled, trying to make sense of it all. And that’s when he remembered his mother.
A new strength surged through his body. Tal-ri got to his feet and took off toward the market square.
When he arrived at the main road, he was terrified to find that everything looked just as it had in his vision. The only difference was now he was part of the scene, instead of viewing the village from high above as he had in the dream.
Far ahead he could see the broken tower. It had already crashed and fallen. Tal-ri sprinted desperately up the road toward the location of his family’s market stall. He arrived to find it reduced to a rubble of straw brick and wooden beams and canvass.
Madly he threw debris out of his way, casting things aside as he searched. “Mother!” he yelled, but no one responded. He was alone in the town square, the villagers had long fled the scene. “Mother!” he yelled again and again.
And then he heard a broken, barely audible voice, “Tal-ri,” it said.
He looked madly about. “Mother?”
“Tal-ri. Here I am.”
And then he saw her. He had been searching in the wrong spot. She was further up the road. He found her pinned beneath the weight of a large support beam that had come dislodged by the falling tower.
Tal-ri looked desperately about. He needed some sort of prying bar, but he saw nothing of the sort. In desperation he wrapped his arms around the beam. Heaving with all of his strength, he actually caused the massive beam to move. But it was useless to lift it.
“Come here Tal-ri,” said his mother. Tal-ri knelt to her side, hot tears were in his eyes. He brushed the dark hair out of her face and cradled her head in his arms. He tried to speak but nothing came out.
“It is good to see you, son,” she said. “Are you OK?”
Tal-ri nodded. “Yes mother.” His tears flowed freely now.
“I have something for you son. Take it from my hand.”
Her arm was pinned beneath the beam. But Tal-ri looked and saw that she was holding a small box made of stone. The craftsmanship of the box was unlike anything he had ever seen. It was fit together with a single hinge, and rounded perfectly at all the corners. It looked like a smooth, round, pebble you might pluck from the bed of a creek. It was cold in his hand, and on the bottom was an odd foreign inscription.
“You are a special boy, Tal-ri,” said his mother. She spoke slowly in between gasping breaths, “You are more special than you realize. I was going to tell you more when… when the time was right. Even your father doesn’t fully understand… But this is my gift to you. It is from my father and his before him. Please take it and -” she coughed violently.
“You are in pain mother! Don’t trouble yourself with speaking.”
“Do not worry, Tal-ri,” she said, “My spirit goes now to a far off land. Perhaps you will meet me there one day. You are a brave young man. You will lead our people into a new age.”
“Mother, I -“
“Always trust your heart, Tal-ri. It is pure, and will lead you in the right direction.”
A haze was coming over her eyes now. Her breaths were fewer and farther between. “Mother, hold on! I can save you yet!” said the boy. He looked desperately about for some way to lift the giant beam. But now she was dying, he could not leave her side.
He held her head in his arms as she breathed her last.
Tal-ri cared not for his life in that moment, nor for anything else. He lay with his mother for what seemed an eternity. He tried again to remove the beam from on top of her, but to no avail.
Much later as his tears were drying, and as he was coming to his senses, he had the feeling that he was being watched. It was an eery feeling, and Tal-ri knew not from where it came. He sat up straight, still holding his mother in his arms, and looked all about him. The hot and desolate evening was shrouded in a dreary smoke.
And then, far away, almost at the end of the road from which he had earlier come running, Tal-ri could see the outline of a person.
He watched, intrigued, as the person moved closer.
Some of the smoke cleared, and he saw now that it was a young girl. She was aware of him as well, and she kept her eyes on him as she drew near. When she was about 15 yards away, Tal-ri could see that it was indeed a young girl, but there was something very strange about her. She did not wear the clothing of his people that he was accustomed to seeing. She was thin with long limbs, and she walked with the careful steps of a seasoned hunter. Her hair was very long, nearly to her waist, not braided or tied but hanging freely, and in her hair was a streak of blue. Or was it purple? He could hardly see through the haze.
“Hello,” he called boldly, “who are you?”
But the girl did not reply. Now she stopped and stood still, observing Tal-ri from a distance.
“Hello,” he called again, “show yourself.”
Tal-ri felt very strange underneath her gaze. It was not fear that gripped him, but the weight of a mystery he could not unravel. He stood up and made as if to come toward her, but at this she turned and walked away. Tal-ri wanted desperately to go after her, but he could not leave his mother like this.
He returned and knelt by his mother’s side, and before he knew it, the girl had vanished in the haze.
Two days passed before Tal-ri arrived at the makeshift camp that his people were now calling “home.” He arrived in the middle of an all-inclusive gathering. Kane-gi-rae was addressing the people. Shael-gi-nae stood behind hime, along with many other council members – though not as many as Tal-ri had seen a few days before in the Great Hall.
Kane-gi-rae was in the middle of speaking when he suddenly caught sight of the boy. His speech caught, and then he fell silent. The large crowd of people followed their leader’s gaze until they too saw Tal-ri. They held their collective breath as he approached.
Tal-ri’s body was ragged and worn. His clothes and hair were burnt and streaked with dirt. But his eyes dark eyes were conscious and stern. He walked straight through the middle of the large crowd, and stopped just a few yards away from Kane-gi-rae and the council.
“Greetings, Tal-ri, son of Tal-mae-el, You are alive against all odds! How has this come to be?”
“I have seen many things in these past days,” said Tal-ri, “most of which I do not wish to recount. But now I have returned to my people.”
“What of the Shaman?” asked Kane-gi-rae. “And what of your family?”
“The Shaman is…. no more. He perished in the fire.” said Tal-ri.
Many in the audience were shocked and began to whisper.
“As for my family,” he said, “is my father not here among the crowd?”
“I am afraid not.” said Kane-gi-rae.
“That is strange indeed,” said Tal-ri, “But he is not dead, of this I am sure…he will turn up yet.”
This provoked more murmurs from the crowd.
“More importantly,” said Tal-ri, “What has the council decided? What is the plan of action for our people?”
“We have yet to turn our hearts one way or the other,” said Kane-gi-rae, “There are many who wish to set off on an eastward journey, and many who wish to stay and rebuild.”
Tal-ri then turned around and addressed the crowd. He felt the pain and agony of his people like a physical ache in his chest. He spread his arms and addressed everyone at once, his voice traveling strong and clear:
“People of the rich valley!” he called, “These are dark days indeed. But let us not prolong our troubles by sparring back and forth over whether to stay or go. Have the signs not been made clear to us in a dreadful and convincing fashion? It is time that our people pay respect to the spirits and the ancestors, and so remember our past.
“There was recently a wise Shaman who walked among us. He warned our people of this coming doom, but we were too stubborn to listen. We will honor his death, and the death and suffering of all our loved ones, by going forth boldly into a new era. We shall travel East, just as our fathers and their fathers did. In due time we will find a new home, better even than this one, and leave our mark upon the history of our people.”
The crowds received him well. Cheers were raised and many raised their hands in support of the boy’s words.
Kane-gi-rae spoke, “You speak boldly, Tal-ri. Our people are hungry for leadership in this dark hour. But come, tell us, where have you been in the days between the fire and now? We thought that you were dead.”
“In some ways I died,” said the boy, “in others I grew. I have returned now to join my people. We have a great task ahead of us. Our new age is only just beginning.”