The small armada, now much faster with the additions made to the Gaalian company, wandered ever eastward. Almost every passage found us in a new hamlet, performing and celebrating the new communal dance. On its outward appearance, our travel was as jolly as the first; every village was filled with awe.
Aflatan swept through like a storm blown by Klara, taking the most desirable Gaalians, male and female, from every place to join his company of dancers. Each member added to the overwhelming spectacle. And, of course, they were brought into the ways of the purple weed.
It is at this point that certain of our company from the Long North fell under the sway of the weed as well. Aflatan asked that a couple of us be aboard each vessel, to help the Gaalians master the unfamiliar tasks associated with big watercraft. This happened, above Brendar’s objections.
And so we heard the signs of our own taking part in the weed-eating. Frantic noisemaking, drumming and singing, as well as the sounds of daring physical achievements. We heard the voice of Fim and watched as he leapt, in the dimly lit absence of Gaal, from the highest point of the watercraft. It was a jump no person of straight mind would make, and Fim was very close to losing his life.
On another absence of Gaal, we heard the cheers and splashes of a water race. Fim and Deren were taking on a team of Gaalians to make it around the other boats and back. They caused such a disturbance in the water that a school of the dangerous water serpents came to see if there was a meal to be had.
It is worth asking whether I too felt drawn to try that powerful plant. In truth I was, and may have succumbed to it and the ways of weed-eating were it not for the severe Brendar by my side. His contempt for the plant burnt hot and I knew he thought little of its impact on those under its sway.
On the passage that we neared Tu’Vrahadith, Aflatan asked for all the watercraft to gather near one another. There, Aflatan addressed all—a large company by this time of four full watercraft. He spoke much and rapidly in the Gaalian tongue, so I do not know all he said.
But the Gaalians knew well, and they immediately began drumming and chanting powerful words in unison to match the sweeping of the oars across the water.
In this manner we neared the protected waters of Tu’Vrahadith, a great crowd having gathered to watch. Truthfully, I believe only the very young, the very old and the infirm failed to watch our approach. As soon as the last watercraft had made fast to the land, the company of Gaalians quickened their drumming pace of their feet, and Aflatan walked ashore as would a chieftain.
Fear was visible in the eyes of those from the town’s council who had come to the front of the crowds, who cheered a great cheer of welcome, blowing on every horn they could find, shaking anything that would rattle, and banging on anything that would make a noise.
Aflatan simply smiled, raised his hands to Gaal, then swept them downwards. At this signal, his company of dancers swiftly jumped out of the watercraft and lifted him up to carry through the crowds.
We of the Long North found each other and followed the stragglers. We knew there would be yet another performance and we had little stomach for belooking it.
But rather than move to the open areas near Tu’Vrahadith, the crowd had followed Aflatan out, beyond the white salt border that guarded against the dread Worms from which the town gets its name. The group walked out to the lonely rock steles dotting the horizon.
Finally, worn out from the heat and the long walk, nearly the entire town had stopped to make a massive camp around a carved stone shrine.
The shrine twisted in on itself, like hair done in a braid. Through the hair there appeared a face. The shrine of a Spinning Spirit, perhaps, for I had seen many of these among the hamlets.
I will never forget that face, with its hollowed out eyes perfectly shaped, like many of the Gaalian woman… Nor will I forget the half smile, and the partly opened lips.
The Gaalians built a fire around this shrine as Gaal descended beneath the earth to his rest. The light cast large shadows and the music and dance began.
Driven by hunger, our company looked around for places with food—for many of the Gaalians had assembled into groups and shared what they had with them. This was not much, and they eyed us with great suspicion.
I do not know why we trusted the people enough to wander among them in that way, forgetting how they feared our power in the dark. At any rate, we suddenly found ourselves again surrounded by a host of big Gaalian dancers and their friends. These guided us towards the fire, to be reduced by the power of the light in that darkness.
We called and struggled, asking for Aflatan. But whether he heard or not, Aflatan left us to be placed close to the stinging flames and began his greatest performance yet.
It was a mighty performance, and it filled the Gaalians of that place with awe, just as it had the ones coming before. But we of the Long North sat, roasting in discomfort and unhappiness at our bad treatment.
–I have a terrible feeling about what will happen next.—said Brendar, who was seated next to me.
Indeed he was right, for at the end of their performance, the dancers, led by Aflatan, whipped the crowd into a frenzy, a rotating whirl, the largest communal dance I had ever seen. Their eyes were directed up at the shrine of the twisting braid and the face, which appeared sinister in the flickering lights of the flame.
We of the Long North gathered closely together, forming a semi-circle with our backs to the flames, prepared for what was due to fall next.
–Kin and Karkin—Brendar shouted above the frantic noise.—It is time to remember who you are and where you come from. It is not from here. Feel the blood beating in your body. You are from the Long North. Follow me if you want to see it again.—
We were but a handcount against a raging sea of madness. But the madness seemed not interested in us, so we began to try and press our way through.
It proved tremendously difficult, for the Gaalian communal dances involve the creation of long serpents formed by locking together limbs and stepping in time. These serpents formed a moving barrier to us. Only Kut was able to muscle his way through the first one, and we all followed him.
Scarcely had we made it outside the first few windings of the communal dance, when Aflatan himself, his body flickering with sweat and energy passed us by, a fierce smile and his eyes on fire.
He carried his sack around his back as he approached the shrine and the face. Lifting up his hands, the dance stopped, allowing silence to take its place. Screaming words I did not understand, Aflatan walked headlong into the fire to the chanting of the crowd.
–He has the sack with him.—said Brendar urgently to me.—we must go now.—
The Gaalians were annoyed as we backed through them, keeping our faces like the entire assembly pointed at Aflatan and his amazing feat.
His form swayed and writhed in the fire, singing and uttering strange things. The flames around him had changed colour, to a deep purple. The same as that powerful plant. It also emitted strong banks of smoke.
–Run!—called Brendar upon seeing the smoke.—Run or be lost!—
With a terror I have never experienced in battle before or since, I ran, following Kut and Brendar, hoping the rest were behind me.
We no longer cared who we knocked down in that crowd in our rush to escape. We had been fortunate, for our escape was only partially noticed, for everyone’s eyes were locked on the spectacle of the burning man.
Then Aflatan jumped out of the fire, his clothes burned off, but his flesh unhurt. The crowds gasped with shock and joy. Then the fog made by the burning plant hit them. The crowds coughed and spluttered as they inhaled the smoke. Then it began to have an effect.
I have never heard such a sound. It was as if the rational beings in that gathering were suddenly turned into the squalling Geel, whining uncontrollably as their perceptions changed.
Finally Brendar, Kut and myself made it to the edge of the closely packed crowd, to the rocky indent that formed a circular ring around the shrine. Looking back, I could just see Deren, Fim and the others had fallen behind. They were caught in the great clouds of the smoke and were coughing with the rest of the Gaalians.
–Leave them.—said Brendar.—Leel has written their future among these people.—
I would not have normally obeyed Brendar. I do not think one should ever leave Kin or Karkin in trouble if one can avoid it. It is the law set in our hearts. But I obeyed that time, and so did Kut. We ran away from the assembly, along the rim of that rocky bowl, looking for the entrance we had come through.
Aflatan had placed some of his long serving Gaalian dancers at this place, however—to keep anyperson from leaving, I think. Anyway, these saw our fleeing forms and immediately rushed to meet us.
The first one was laid flat by a blow from Kut, dead. The second called out in pain as Brendar kicked sand in his face.
But more Gaalians began to come from the edge of the crowd who had yet to have the smoke hit them.
–Go.—said Kut.—I will hold them off for you two. Don’t forget to make the offerings on my behalf.—
He squared off against the rushing Gaalians as Brendar and myself sped off into the deep darkness.