June 17, 2002
They could smell it before they actually saw it. A pervasive aroma of fish met them some way from the village, and it was soon obvious why -- they passed the great flat stones where the fishermen laid out the fish to dry in the sun some hours before the caravan actually laid eyes on the village itself. al'Tamar said the winds usually carried the smell away from the village when the catch was brought here, which was why the spot had been chosen -- else it would have been impossible to inhabit the village unless it was with cauterised noses. ai'Farra was seen to wrinkle her own aristocratic nose once or twice but made no complaints -- and once they were past the drying grounds it really did get better.
The village of Ul'khari'ma itself was an untidy cluster of fishermen's huts nestled in a protective horseshoe of rock -- the cliffs at the village's back did a ponderous turn and waded out into the ocean, petering finally out into a tangle of rocky teeth around which the water seethed and foamed, breaking up into spectacular fans of white spume. Here at last was the source of the spray scent Gul Qara had given Anghara as her guide. But before the cliffs broke up into the rocks of the reef they reared into the most spectacular Gate of all, the Last Gate of al'Tamar's description. It was actually a double gate. One had simply been driven through the cliff, a great reddish stone arch, broad at the bottom, narrowing at the top into an elegant pointed lintel which would not have looked out of place as a gateway in one of the exotic palaces of Algira, paintings of which Anghara had seen in Miranei. The other, more squat and dumpy, led into a sort of cavern within the cliff itself, the darkness within broken up into a sort of luminescent sparkle where the sunlight touched the still waters just inside the gateway, sheltered from the open ocean as if in a womb.
"What is that place?" Anghara asked al'Tamar as they approached the village, unable to take her eyes from this second gate. It was as though the occasional sparkle of light upon the hidden waters had hypnotised her.
"The Grotto," said al'Tamar. "Boys usually get sent in there on a dare; at least once is mandatory, before they are counted as men. The tale goes that a demon lives in there."
"Did you go?" asked Anghara.
If it had been given to Kheldrini to blush, Anghara was almost certain al'Tamar did. He hung his head.
"Almost," he admitted at last. "But I put it off, and put it off, and then I left, and never went at all."
"Do you believe in the demon?"
He shrugged. "Anything is possible," he said. "I do not think there is one in there, though. Those who did go spoke of it to me, but there is probably just the echo, and perhaps a strange light, and the water, they say, is very deep."
"So why didn't you go, then?"
"And what if I was wrong?" He was grinning now, teasing himself. "Still, I am back. Perhaps now is the time for me to enter the Grotto."
"Perhaps," said Anghara slowly, her eyes still on the Grotto gate. "Perhaps you might have to take me there."
"But it is only the young men..." he began, and then caught a glimpse of the grey eyes in the face bared of its burnoose. His own changed, a glimmer of understanding lighting the gold. "I see," he said. "I think it could be arranged. But perhaps it might be best to speak of it to no-one of Ul'khari'ma for now. Leave it to me."
By this time they had been spotted, and a welcoming delegation waited for them in the midst of the village. It consisted, officially, of a handful of the more senior fishermen led by al'Talip, al'Tamar's great-uncle and the village headman, and an elderly and dignified grey-robed sen'thar woman whose skin the sun and the sea had baked into a brown, wrinkled mask. But the delegation was something of a technicality, with the entire village hanging curiously about, hovering in doorways, peering around the corners of houses, finding urgent business that necessitated the immediate crossing of the village square. Her glance crossing with that of a chubby, round-faced girl who stared at her with undisguised astonishment, Anghara had to smile. It was obvious that they knew whom they were facing, and the presence of Sa'id Al'haria and no less than two other an'sen'en'thari faded into insignificance when they realised that the fram'man from Sheriha'drin was also in their midst. Perhaps she should have had the presence of mind to keep her burnoose fastened until al'Jezraal was done with the formalities.
Such as they were, these did not take long. The new arrivals were greeted, their animals taken into care, and al'Jezraal and al'Tamar were ushered into what looked like al'Talip's own house while the sen'en'thari were whisked away to the local sen'thar's quarters. Anghara did not know how the men fared, but as far as the sen'en'thari were concerned the place was adequate, if a little cramped, -- ai'Jihaar and Anghara were given one tiny room, ai'Farra and her grey went into another, and the grey sen'thar to whom the house belonged slept on a makeshift pallet in a nook by the hearth which usually harboured a servant. The servant herself was banished to her own family's house for the duration of the visit, the little house being simply too small to contain all six women.
The curiosity of the villagers was of course extraordinary, even stifling; al'Jezraal had said not to speak of the purpose of their visit until he had had a chance to talk with al'Talip, but that did not prevent the locals from speculating furiously, and even the sen'thar, who was trained to respect her superiors' silence for as long as they chose to keep it, could not stop her eyes filling with conjecture and deliberation every time she looked at this unprecedented number of an'sen'en'thari under her humble roof. The atmosphere was charged with this, and sen'en'thari were by nature of things more sensitive to it than anyone else. Anghara felt it wrapping around her, heavy and close, reminding her of the air in Khar'i'id; her mind was still full of the scent of the sea spray and the sight of the gate to the Grotto, but she could not seem to marshall her thoughts into any sort of coherent order inside that house. Waiting until everyone was otherwise occupied, she threw her djellaba around her shoulders, drawing up the concealing hood, and slipped out into the night, as much to escape the constant sideways glances of the local sen'thar as to grab a chance to think, alone, about how to unravel the puzzle which Gul Qara had left her heir to.
She had half-expected to find the entire inquisitive village gathered outside the sen'thar's house, but for a wonder nobody was there at all; it was as if the Gods themselves were keeping her paths clear. Anghara wandered down to the small harbour, with the fishing coracles drawn up and upended over the sand above the high tide mark. The entrance to the grotto was a yawning hole full of darkness, and the breaking waters on the reef rose ghostly white into the air and then fell back to vanish once again into the inky sea.
The stone... the sea... the smell of spray...
Almost without thinking she sent out a tendril of gold, imperceptible to most -- even, perhaps, to sen'en'thari who weren't really looking -- seeking a specific soulfire, silver upon blue, like the moon on the waters. Come. Come to me.
And he came, stumbling dazedly on the sand, rubbing at his temples, the sea breeze tangling the long loose copper hair. "You called me?" al'Tamar whispered, coming to a stop as he saw her standing by the boats. "You called me?"
"You heard me," she replied.
The silver-blue light rippled, settled, died into a low glow around his brow, like a circlet of royalty.
"What is it, Anghara?"
"The Grotto," she said. "Will you take me?"
"Now?" he said, taken aback. "Tonight?"
"Tonight," she said. Her voice was quiet, even, low; she was speaking to a friend, but there was Kir Hama command embedded somewhere within, and he heard it.
He rubbed his temple again, and then straightened. "We will need a paddle," he said. "Wait here."
He also wore a dark djellaba and would have vanished into the night as he turned away had it not been for the faint aura of light which clung to him -- it was still a source of endless astonishment to Anghara that someone like ai'Farra didn't seem to be able to sense this when close to al'Tamar. Before long he was back, carrying a broad flat paddle in one hand, undoing the clasp of his djellaba as he walked.
"Leave yours," he said. "They are only a hindrance in the boat. If I had it, I would don my fishing breechclout. It might not go so well with your robe."
"It will go well enough," Anghara said, laying her own djellaba in a pile on the sand, next to al'Tamar's where he had let it drop. "Which boat?"
"A small one. That one will do. Big ones do not seem to like the Grotto very much, at least two of my acquaintance came back in splinters. Hold this."
He handed her the paddle and hoisted the light, small boat onto his shoulder, laying it into the surf as they reached the ocean. Handing her inside, he waded into the water, pushing the boat out, and scrambled up into it when it floated in water which came approximately to his waist. He took the paddle and steered the small craft away from the angry breakers of the reef, towards the low doorway to the Grotto.
He did not ask any questions, and Anghara was grateful; she was in the grip of something very similar to that which had led her to seek the Tanassa Dance on that night in Roisinan years ago, leading to the first meeting with ai'Jihaar. Pressed for explanations, she could have given none -- she went where the Gods took her, hoping to be in the right place at the appointed hour.
The darkness of the Grotto yawned ever deeper and more solid as they drew closer to the Gate. Anghara could see al'Tamar's lips folded tight, his expression at odds with itself, exhilaration and dread warring on his features. This was a sort of proving he had never done while he was here, but it was certain that he had never imagined doing it like this, with Anghara in the prow of the small boat, a film of gold clinging to her hair and hands much as the silver-blue still hovered at al'Tamar's own brow. If there was an unwritten code governing the Grotto, it was more than certain that the two of them were breaking it.
They passed under the archway quite suddenly, as though it had reached out to swallow them -- which it had, in a sense, as they discovered that they were actually in a low, gullet-like tunnel. The tunnel, black as pitch, seemed to curve slightly to the left; al'Tamar steered by touch alone.
"We should have brought a lamp," he murmured, fending off the tunnel wall with the paddle yet again.
Then, with equal suddenness, they were out of it, and al'Tamar's comment became obsolete. They found themselves in a high-domed cavern filled with a strange kind of half-light, a pearly, faintly luminescent glow which seemed to be emanating from nowhere in particular and yet surrounded them. al'Tamar, who had never seen the like before, gasped, freezing for a moment with the paddle just touching the still water; but a stray eddy of some current tugged at the boat, and that was enough for him to come to his senses. He dug the paddle into the luminous water with a gesture that was almost savage. The boat righted itself and glided further into the cave.
Anghara had seen this kind of light before. The black hills of Khari'i'd had glowed with it on the night that she had first seen the hidden valley in the Empty Quarter and heard the voice of Gul Qara; it might have seemed to be no more than moonlight, but now, here, she recognised it, and there was no moon in this cavern. She sat quiet, very still, a slow exhilaration beginning to build within her; her fingertips tingled with the memory of the touch of Gul Qara's smooth grey stone.
"What now, an'sen'thar?" asked al'Tamar in a low voice. The boat hovered in the midst of the pearly waters, almost the precise colour of al'Tamar's soulfire. His words raised a soft echo, and his hands tightened involuntarily on the paddle. Anghara laughed, softly, and the echo threw that back as well.
"You said you didn't believe in demons," she said.
"I said nothing of the kind," he said, collecting himself. "I merely said I did not believe there was one here. But this... this is beyond my understanding."
"And mine," she said. "I do not understand it, but I do know it. Can you get me up near that ledge?"
al'Tamar guided the boat towards the flat stone shelf she had indicated, and she scrambled up onto it out of the small craft as he steadied it against the rock.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"Up," she said, and only now did he notice that there was a cleft in the rock beyond the sill, and something that was certainly hewn by no human hand but was nevertheless a rough kind of a staircase beginning there and spiralling upwards out of sight. For a long moment he could only sit and stare.
"Well?" Anghara said, poised almost on the first step. "Are you coming?"
His head jerked up. "I? Is this for me?"
"For this night's work," she said, and again al'Tamar heard cadences of prophecy scintillate in her words like light on a knife's edge, "you may find yourself wearing the gold one day."
She was an'sen'thar; it lay within her hand to give that gift. And there was deep truth in her voice. al'Tamar dropped his eyes, made the boat fast, and followed her without another word.
The staircase was wickedly uneven, with one step nearly on a level with its predecessor and the very next necessitating almost a scramble; but at least the light was with them still, and things were made easier by not having to struggle up in the dark. It seemed to go on for so long that al'Tamar almost gave up hope of ever leaving it again for the freedom of the open skies -- but then, quite suddenly, the walls simply fell away from beside him and he stepped out onto a broad, flat plateau whose edges plunged sheer towards the sea on three sides and a low escarpment falling away into the reddish expanses of Kadun Khajir'i'id on the fourth. It was quite empty except for a large stone lying on its side almost across the middle of it. With silver-blue Sight al'Tamar could almost see the edges of the great stone shimmer in the night.
"Is this it?" he asked, awed.
"This will be Gul Khaima," Anghara said, breathing deeply of the salty tang of spray that spiced the air up here. "All we need to do is raise the stone."
al'Tamar's initial exhilaration turned almost to dismay as he surveyed the massive stone in question.
"How?" he said. "Can you do it, with... Sight? With the gift?"
"I must not," she said, turning to him, and her eyes were luminous. "This is a place of the Gods, but this oracle is mortal-born. Look, there's the base which will hold it -- but it must be set there by mortal hands, with ropes, with willpower."
"We cannot do it," al'Tamar said, bending to gaze at the depression in the even plateau which Anghara had named as the stone's base. "It will never hold."
"It will," said Anghara. "I have seen it."
· · · · · ·
Changer of Days, Volume 1, by Alma A. Hromic, 2001 - HarperCollinsPublishers (new Zealand) Limited - ISBN 1 86950 390 2. The author was a finalist, Sir Julius Vogel Awards (New Zealand), and nominated for World Fantasy Award 2002. Volume 2 will be released in Australia on June 26, 2002.
The novel is available on line at Dymocks Bookstores (search for "Changer of Days" and it will provide the option to buy the book) or through SFF Net.
The book was reviewed by Jan Baughman on January 28, 2002.
This excerpt (pages 371 - 379) is published with the kind permission of the author, Alma A. Hromic, and the publisher, HarperCollinsPublishers (new Zealand) Limited
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic is an essential member of Swans. She maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com
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