In which Tarno and the boys attend the vigil before the feast. NOTE: Yes, this is a slightly different version of the story than is told in Miners and Empire.
Of all the gods, only the Scavenger’s feast fell on the night and the following day, rather than from dawn to dusk. For once the watch turned blind eyes to people in the streets after dark, because the Scavenger commanded it. Tarno banked his fire carefully indeed, then led the boys out of the salters’ district and up to the main temple, in the far northern part of the city, near the old market. Bitter cold air oozed between the houses and warehouses, making Tarno glad that he’d found heavy things for the boys. They’d likely crowd the bonfire even so, but at least they wouldn’t risk losing a finger or ear.
“I don’t like it,” a thin voice said ahead of them. The shapeless bundle of woman waved at the air. “Too cold, too early.”
“Green winter, full graves. White winter, hungry graves,” the equally well-wrapped man beside her recited. “Cold kills the bugs and weeds.”
“And schaef, and fowl, and great haulers,” she declared. “And men.”
And drove up the price of wood, Tarno sighed. Already rumors came in from outside the walls about fuel wood growing dear. “Some say ’tis because the Great Northern Emperor visited th’ land, and the cold stayed after him,” a hide seller from the east had told Rand Graber. “His goddess wants the snow and cold back, so she can extend her domain. I don’ hold to such, but some do, and seek more and more wood to hold against the winter.”
That had led to much talk and market gossip until Rella’s Daughter had explained. “Yes, the Great Northern Emperor is also a priest of Sneelah, goddess of the Cold and Ice. She is also a goddess of battle magic. Battle magic is banned, and for good cause.” The Daughter had pointed with her staff to the painting on the side of Waldher’s new chapel, the painting showing the strange beasts that had appeared in the years after the southern king poisoned the magic workers. “War magic does that to beast, land, and man. After the Great Cold, some men twisted magic to bad uses, and the first emperors had to stop them before the land itself twisted. No battle magic, no shaping beasts or plants. Healing that which ails, yes, but no beast-mage can, oh, make a blue schaef.”
“What about a well behaved great-hauler?” someone in the crowd had called.
“Like as not it will be smart, too, Per, and then where will ye be?” A second voice demanded.
Master Weisblat, the head of the tanners, had offered, “He’ll have his accounts in order for the first time in years, but th’ bird will refuse to pull and will join the scribes, like as not.”
After the laughter died away, Rella’s Daughter had said, “Sneelah’s time is not come. Winters will be hard or easy as they are, not because the Great Cold returns.” Something in her eyes and voice had told Tarno that she spoke as more than just priestess, and he had bowed. The question had not arisen again.
Now, two eight-days later, people flowed into the old market. Not everyone, because some preferred to make their devotions by day, or they feared the cold because of age or illness. Young children and nursing mothers too were exempt from the night worship. Tarno kept one hand on Donton. The boy did not care for crowds or night, and if he began to fear overmuch, Tarno would take him home and pay the forfeit. The stars above seemed to glare down, as hard and cold as the stones under Tarno’s boot soles. Everyone breathed smoke, or so it seemed.
Tap, tap, tap. Metal rang on stone. Tap Tap TAP! Thrice more metal struck stone as the gathered priests of the dark god banged the butts of their staffs against the steps of the old temple. The dark shapes loomed in the cold, flanked by two rats, each the size of a large man. “All hail the Scavenger, lord of the darkness.”
“All hail the Scavenger,” the crowd called in return.
“All hail the Scavenger, lord of the land-hidden.”
“All hail the Scavenger.”
A cold voice chanted, “All hail the Scavenger, lord of death.”
“All hail the Scavenger.”
“All hail the Scavenger, lord of what remains,” a priestess sang.
“All hail the Scavenger.”
The priests turned as one and marched into the open temple doors. The Scavenger-born followed first, then those who could fit into the temple. Everyone else gathered around the fires now burning in the market, close enough to hear the priest and priestess who remained on the steps. The fires’ light made the rat statues seem to move, bending and nodding as the wind stirred the flames.
The priest intoned, “After the Great Ice retreated, only barren land and water remained. Dust covered what was not marsh or lake or river. Of life, no sign remained, for the beasts of the cold had left, but nothing could feed or shelter the beasts of the south. And so the gods took counsel.”
The priestess raised her staff in both hands over her head. “They divided the world and blessed it, Gember and Korvaal, Yoorst and Rella, Radmar and Maarsdam, Waldher and Donwah, and the lesser gods of city and village. Only the Scavenger did not speak, for he had been forgotten. His sister, Donwah of the Waters, found him in the dark, secret places and told him of the other gods’ choices. Great was His anger, but only for the time of the beat of a heart. Then He smiled.”
“Truly, sister, we have the better part.” The priest raised his hands and staff as well. “‘For we have all that is hidden, yours in the waters and mine in all that lies under the land and in the night.’ Only slowly did the younger gods realize their error, that they had chosen the lesser part. For this reason the Scavenger is the great lord, the lord of the hidden, the lord of the broken places, of the secret deeps and all that from them comes. All praise to the Scavenger!”
“All praise to the Scavenger!” The crowd’s words echoed off the walls of the temple and the bonfires seemed to bow to the rats. The rats nodded, accepting the homage, or did they? Tarno shivered. Donwah guarded the mysteries of the waters, but her brother guarded the greatest mysteries of all.
The priestess lowered her arms. “Do not fear the Scavenger, lord of the darkness. Darkness is the time of rest and growing, of prayer and sleep. No man can work without rest, no beast labor all day and all night. Sleep is the gift of the Scavenger as salt is the gift of Donwah and the Scavenger.” She waited.
“All praise to the Scavenger.”
“It is right to give thanks, and praise, to aid the lost, to grant mercy to the dying stranger, to bring gifts of the soil to the light that they may bless man and beast,” the priest chanted. “Do not fear the Scavenger, but go carefully, mindful of his depths.”
“All praise to the Scavenger,” the chilly worshippers replied.
Tarno eased the boys closer to one of the fires, one in a less crowded corner. The Rella-born minding the fire nodded to them as she eased a log into the orange and red flames. Tarno watched carefully, lest either boy get too close and start to scorch his clothes. It happened every year, and he did not care to be this year’s warning. Donton clung to his hand as Kyle eased as close as was safe to the snapping heap of logs and coals. As soon as both stopped shivering and relaxed, Tarno took Kyle’s hand and they returned to the crowd.
The priest’s breath steamed as it came from the shadows under his hood. “Together, Donwah and the Scavenger blessed the Joss Valley with salt. Donwah’s waters enter Her brother’s lands and gather His salt, bringing it to the light. Without Her, men must dig for salt. Without the Scavenger, only the salt of Donwah’s seas would touch the land.”
Tarno made a face in the darkness. He’d eaten bread with raw sea salt as part of his apprenticeship. Ugh. It made the crudest of spring salts taste like pure honey in comparison. “All hail the Scavenger,” he called with the others.
“Oh lord of the hidden, lord of darkness, Scavenger of that which remains, hear our prayer,” the priestess chanted. “Show mercy on us when we forget Your honor, mercy when we fail to return Your portion to You.”
The listeners chorused, “Forgive us, great Scavenger.”
“Lord of that which lies below, hear our prayer, oh Lord of the secret places. Grant us Your gifts of salt and metals, of clay and stones of honor, that we may use them to Your honor and glory.”
“Scavenger, hear our prayer.”
The priestess’ voice sounded dead as she intoned, “Lord of the final secret, have mercy on us as we show mercy to the lost, to the stranger, to those who die far from home.”
“Have mercy on us, great Scavenger.”
Tarno led the boys twice more to the fire before the litany and worship drew to a close. Those not born to the Scavenger could leave and return for the feast after the rise of the sun, as could those with young children. Donton counted, so Tarno left a gift in the box at the edge of the old market, received a blessing, and herded the boys all the way to the south end of Halfeld Flus. Chilled to their bones, the boys climbed into the big bed with him, shivering until they finally slept.
(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved