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People of the Raven: Chapter One April 19, 2004
by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear

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Excerpt from People of the Raven © 2004 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O' Neal Gear

Early Morning

Seagulls squawk high above me. I cannot see them, my eyes are too heavy to open, but their cries comfort me. Their voices and the wet muddy scent of the river are all I have now.
   "You haven't forgotten me, have you?" the old man sitting beside me asks.
   "You were teaching me about compassion," I say and try to breathe. It isn't easy. I feel as though a huge block of granite sits atop my broken ribs.
   "Yes, good. Stay with me now," he says in a gravelly voice. "Here you are, dying more every moment, and you still believe compassion is some sort of sentimental self-indulgent whining. That surprises me."
   I try to listen, to focus on the Soul Keeper's words, but it's growing harder to distinguish his voice from the rattling leaves and the rushing blood in my veins. All are unbearably loud.
   "I don't think that's exactly what I said." A tired smile touches my lips. "But, I'm listening. Tell me what it is."
   "Let me ask you another question first. You feel pride when you believe you are acting compassionately, don't you?"
   "I am proud to be a compassionate man, yes."
   In a darkly ironic voice, the Soul Keeper says, "I know few people who would consider you compassionate, Chief."
   "You're a hermit. How many people can you know? Five? Maybe ten?"
   I can almost hear the thunderous lowering of his thick gray brows. "True compassion does not make a man feel pride. Its core is humility and sacrifice. If you feel pride after an act of compassion, you've clearly only sacrificed enough to make yourself feel good."
   I struggle to lift my eyelids to look at him, but they are too heavy. "I like feeling good after I help someone."
   "Feeling good is not the goal. The heart of compassion is sacrifice." He halts long enough to inhale a deep breath, then adds, "When a human being sacrifices so much for another's sake that he feels empty and bereft, he has, for one shining moment, been truly compassionate. All other acts of 'compassion' are simple selfishness."
   The seagulls dive closer, squealing and fluttering. On the fabric of my souls, I can imagine their white wings flashing in the sunlight. In my memory, my wife's face flickers, and I wonder what compassion has ever gotten me.
   I tell him: "If what you say is true, it's a miracle anyone is ever compassionate twice."
   The Soul Keeper scoffs, "It's not supposed to be easy."
   Wind Woman swirls around me, and I breathe in the sweet scent of the cottonwoods that cover the grassy floodplain. It's summer, isn't it? I think it's summer. I try to imagine buffalo grazing in belly-high grass and wildflowers.
   "Well," I say through a long congested exhalation, "you are here to teach me what I must know to travel to the House of Air. So. Teach."
   He reaches out and uses a blunt obsidian scraper to cut off a lock of my hair. Soon he will light a fire and smoke the lock in sweet grass and cedar, then wrap it in a buffalohide bundle and place it in a beautifully painted box. He will Keep my soul. Finally, after four days, he will carry it to the sacred center of my people's council lodge, where I will forever advise and bless them.
   At least, I pray that is what he will do.
   One never knows with this old man. He's unpredictable at best.
   If he does not Keep my soul, it will stay locked in my bones, alone, crying out for salvation, and never finding it.
   Because that's what happens to the souls of bad people.
   Or I should say the souls of people who ignored every opportunity for that 'one shining moment...'

Chapter One

The pale blue halo of dawn arced over the eastern horizon and shimmered on the high snow-capped peaks. Mother Ocean still lay in shadow, her voice soft this morning, a bare purl of sound. White breakers pounded jagged rocks then washed onto gravelly beaches. Offshore, fir-covered knobs of rock jutted from the wave-streaked water.
   Just to the north, along the precipitous shore, Waket's Nose--a spear of basalt--thrust up. Streamers of morning mist shredded on the mossy rock and drifted through the few stands of firs that had taken root in the steep sides.
   The grizzled warrior known as Red Dog scratched his bent nose and curiously studied the ancient Soul Keeper, Rides-the-Wind. The old man had seen more than five tens of summers. They must have been hard ones, for deep lines engraved his oblong face and crisscrossed his broad flat nose. His elkhide cape swayed in the fading starlight as he adjusted a set of sticks on the ground, moving them from one place to another.
   "Elder," Red Dog bravely tried to interrupt for the third time, "Starwatcher Ecan sent me. I have urgent news."
   "Ecan considers his bodily functions to be urgent news," the old man snapped.
   "Yes, Elder, but this is different. He---"
   "Don't tell me this is different. I know him. I remember once, three summers ago, when his guards rushed in and pulled me from my robes. They dragged me kicking and scratching to his lodge. I was certain he'd ordered my death. It turned out he'd discovered a star-shaped object in his morning phlegm. He wanted me to kill the evil Spirit before it had a chance to leap back inside him." Rides-the-Wind arched a white eyebrow. "He's an imbecile. Imbecility runs in his family."
   "Well, perhaps, but---"
   "Not yet." The old man aimed a crooked finger at Red Dog. "I'll tell you when I'm ready to listen."
   Red Dog gruffly folded his muscular arms and let his gaze drift to the small fire behind Rides-the-Wind. The hair-stuffed bodies of three toads perched on the hearth stones where tendrils of smoke bathed them. What on earth did the old man use them for? Their bulging eyes seemed to be glaring right at him.
   Mist had just begun to form a tufted rime along the shore. Every now and then, he caught glimpses of orange fire bobbing out on the ocean--whale oil lamps perched in the bows of fishing canoes. A few seagulls hunted along the surf, their calls shrill in the darkness.
   Rides-the-Wind moved another stick less than a fingernail's width from where it had been. In the bare breeze, his long gray hair and beard fluttered, rising around his wrinkled face as though alive.
   Red Dog shook his head. Only pure-blooded North Wind People had hair around their mouths. He'd never liked it. So far as he was concerned, beards had one use, soaking up soups and stews. Though his father had been one of the North Wind People, Red Dog thankfully looked more like his Raven People mother, who did not have beards.
   "What are you doing, Elder?" Red Dog asked.
   "You're blind, are you?"
   "Well...it didn't seem as though you moved your stick very far, so I was confused."
   "What does it look like I'm doing?"
   Red Dog frowned and followed the old man's gaze. The stony point was bare of the ever-present stands of fir and spruce. Rock cairns made black humps on the eastern horizon. The Star People rose along the line between the humps and the sticks he'd planted in the ground.
   "Seeing where the Star People are rising?" Red Dog ventured a guess. "Which sounds a little silly to me. I mean, they rise in about the same place every day, don't they?"
   Rides-the-Wind tipped his antique face up. His brown eyes resembled stones under water, round and shiny. "You know, I think that when Song Maker was pulling threads of sound from the heavens to Sing the world into existence, a few flat notes stuck in your soul."
   "Well, Elder"--What did a man say to that?---"I'm a warrior. My heart has different concerns. While your eyes are trained on the sky, mine are generally scanning the forest for people who might wish to kill me."
   "Given your ability to irritate people, your constant need for vigilance isn't surprising."
   As the Soul Keeper struggled to stand, Red Dog gripped his elbow and helped him up. Rides-the-Wind, though so much older, towered over him. The Soul Keeper waved a hand to indicate the mist-lashed cliffs. "This is a sacred place. The Star People often come down to earth on this very spot. On certain days, they dance on Waket's Nose. And if you are careful and observant, you can calculate when they will arrive because they move a little closer to us every day. Hence the sticks. Each morning I measure their approach."
   Red Dog scowled at the eastern horizon. Only a few Star People remained visible against the gleam of dawn. At death, the souls of North Wind people traveled to the Above Worlds where they became stars. Soul Keepers, like Rides-the-Wind, spent their entire lives trying to seek the wisdom of those ancestors. Such Elders never fought, or used a knife, no matter for what purpose, but dedicated their lives to seeing beyond this world.
   Red Dog asked, "Which one of our ancestors is planning on dropping out of the sky?"
   Rides-the-Wind lifted a gnarled finger and pointed. "That one. See how his hair is blowing out behind him? He's flying toward us very fast." It did look like long hair streamed out behind the Star Person. He glanced back at Rides-the-Wind. "When will he arrive?"
   "When he wishes to. The Star People travel in far greater time circles than we do. I think it will take him a few moons. But when he arrives..." Rides-the-Wind turned toward Waket's Nose; the rocky point jutted out over the water like a giant's beak. "He will soar down right there--at least, that's what my calculations indicate."
   Red Dog's eyes widened. Waket's Nose was noted for strange happenings. As a boy, Red Dog's own grandfather had seen one of the giants appear there. Grandfather had been canoeing with friends when the giant had stepped out onto Waket's Nose and leaped into the sea. They hadn't been able to see the giant's face, but as he plummeted into the water, his hands shook like a Dancer's. A tremendous splash rose when he hit Mother Ocean, nearly swamping his grandfather's canoe and hurling spray for hundreds of body lengths. Summers later, two women from Red Dog's clan had seen a huge mountain goat walking on the water at the exact spot where the giant dove into the ocean. When they stood up and gasped at the sight, a storm rose that overturned their canoe and drowned them all. He'd heard the story from the very person on shore who'd seen it happen.
   Worried, Red Dog said, "I pray I am far away when the Star Person arrives."
   Rides-the-Wind gazed up at the deep blue sky. "Oh? You irritate him, too?"
   "No, Elder, of course not, I---"
   "Myself, I pray to be right here. I would give my very life to speak face-to-face with one of the Star People. The miracles they must see from up there. I can't even imagine."
   For a while, they just stared at the twinkling lights of the ancestors, then Rides-the-Wind heaved a breath, and said, "Very well. What news do you bring from Fire Village?"
   The North Wind People--who had been here since Song Maker created the world---centered their affairs at Fire Village. There, the Four Old Women, the ruling Council, met, decided the law, and governed not only the North Wind People, but also the Raven People, upon whom they relied for tribute.
   Red Dog said, "Chief Cimmis sent me to tell you that the woman, Evening Star, is gone. Escaped from Ecan's lodge."
   Rides-the-Wind's dark eyes blazed. "Fools, you should have never meddled with her. She is more than you know." A pause. "Wasn't Ecan's young brother one of the guards assigned to her?"
   "Kenada is dead, Starwatcher. She slit his throat with such vehemence she almost severed his head."
   For a time, Rides-the-Wind just stroked his long gray beard, as though deep in thought. He smiled warily. "Next you will tell me that Ecan has sent a pack of his mangy guards out after her."
   "Yes, Elder. Runners were sent immediately. I'm sure they've caught her by now, but Ecan orders you to curse her. He wants it done where the Raven People can see you do it. Just in case."
   The old man's withered mouth pinched. "Curse her? In a way that makes the Raven People fear to help her?"
   "Yes, Elder. Exactly."
   "And just why should I do that?"
   Red Dog made an airy gesture. "Well, if you don't, Starwatcher Ecan will kill you."
   Rides-the-Wind closed his eyes and chuckled under his breath. "Humans. Such strange creatures. They forever remain a child in one part only: their fear of death. That's why they dwell on it. Death is the only thing in our lives that never fails to fill us with childlike wonder."
   Red Dog tucked a wind-blown lock of graying black hair behind his ear. Rides-the-Wind rarely made sense to him. "Which means...what?"
   Rides-the-Wind gave him an annoyed look. "You wouldn't understand. When did the woman escape?"
   "Two days. It has taken me that long to find Ecan, and then you. Oh, and Chief Cimmis orders you to return home immediately. He says that while Ecan is away leading the war party, he needs your services in Fire Village."
   "Ecan is leading a war party? He's the Starwatcher, a priest. Or has his appetite for the holy been subsumed by his appetite for blood and terror?"
   "I don't know, Elder. All I can tell you is that the Four Old Women sent a war party to punish some North Wind People who incited disobedience among the Raven People villages."
   "You mean the starving people who defied Chief Cimmis' orders to turn over the tribute owed to Fire Village."
   "Yes."
   "The fools," Rides-the-Wind said softly, "They dance on the tip of Waket's Nose, not knowing how treacherous the footing is."
   Did he mean the Raven People? Or the Four Old Women who ran the Council? Red Dog cocked his head, but the Soul Keeper asked: "How long has Ecan been gone?"
   "Perhaps ten days."
   Wind Mother rushed up the slope and beat her way through the twisted spruce and fir growing at the edge of the cliffs. Their sweet evergreen fragrance bathed Red Dog's face and carried the damp scent of the sea.
   "It is the beginning of the end." Rides-the-Wind shivered, tugged his elkhide hood up, and held it closed beneath his chin.
   "The end of what?" Red Dog asked.
   Rides-the-Wind didn't seem to hear, but added, "Tell Cimmis that I'm not coming. I wish to be left alone."
   Red Dog examined him in detail. "Are you ill, Elder?"
   Rides-the-Wind gave him a look that would have withered polished stone. "Why? Did you become a Healer while I was away?"
   "Uh...no."
   Red Dog chewed his lower lip. Over the past sun cycle, Ecan had become the most powerful holy man in the North Wind Nation. Mostly because he enthusiastically supported the Council's decisions to make war upon the Raven People. Rides-the-Wind, on the other hand, had opposed the Council, and abruptly left Fire Village just after fall equinox. Was it because he'd seen his influence dwindle, and he couldn't stand the humiliation?
   "What should I tell Chief Cimmis about the woman? Will you curse her for Ecan?"
   "On the contrary." Rides-the-Wind reached down for his walking stick where it rested on the ground near the Star sticks. He propped both hands on the use-polished knob. "I will be praying night and day for her safety."
   Red Dog shifted uncomfortably. "Well, prayers aside, I don't see how she can be. Once people discover she's Ecan's escaped slave, no one will dare to help her."
   In the furred frame of his hood, Rides-the-Wind's seamed old face resembled a dried berry. He turned to his fire, picked up his smoked toads, and gently placed them into his pack. Finally, he reached down and plucked a small stone from the ground, holding it up for Red Dog to see.
   "Tell Chief Cimmis that I have a message for him. He stands on the precipice...and if he doesn't watch his step, he and Ecan are going to fall. The drop will cost him everything he holds dear."
   With that, the old man pitched the stone out, over the cliff. In the purple light, it arced down, shattering into slivers as it struck the rock below.

People of the Raven by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear is forthcoming from Tor & Forge Books. See our profile of the Gears, "A Novel Legacy," in May/June 2004.

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Excerpt from People of the Raven © 2004 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear
© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
archive.archaeology.org/online/reviews/gear/
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