My people and their beasts spent centuries carving pastureland from forest, and the scale of Sredna rebukes Imparans who think us rustic villagers. First, of course, they notice the herds. Even Temple personnel used to the Mother and Incarnation are overcome by the looming and stamping; the bellows and trills; the living odor of four hundred ceratopsids in pens that don’t really confine them, only suggest boundaries. Then Imparans realize we lean our triangular lodges on piles and central beams taller than most buildings in their city, simply because trees and ceratopsids make it possible, and they discipline their faces to appear unimpressed. That’s what usually happens.
This time, there are distractions. All morning, I’ve been idle cargo on Miss Chickweed’s back, familiar smells and landmarks making my guidance unnecessary, but now I drum my heels on her shoulders, halting her at the edge of the village. Father is an old-fashioned devotee; he’ll want to honor Miss Chickweed properly. Captain Havva reins her horse, lining up its ears with Miss Chickweed’s dewlap, and the two guards follow suit. Havva may know of the homecoming ceremony, though most in Sredna will not. When was the last time a Mother came home, replaced? Diaus halts his giant charger, showing no sign of impatience. No surprise that he knows the old forms.
Father arrives with a crew of children, pats Miss Chickweed’s beak, and murmurs a greeting that’s also a prayer. My younger brother Drazhan and young cousins strew the ground before us with bracken and hart’s-tongue, hardly wilted. Father guessed shrewdly at our arrival and timed the picking well. Drazhan and the cousins will make a path of ferns all the way to Miss Chickweed’s stable.
Our neighbor Milosh treads the ferns and places himself in our way. He may not know this is forbidden, but knowing wouldn’t stop him. Milosh’s grandfather’s mother was Yaroslava, who was the bane of my grandfather’s grandfather, Pridbor. Milosh tells my father, “Bogdan, this is quite a welcome for a cow sent home in disgrace!”
Captain Havva turns to Diaus. “Please let me address this transgression, Your Majesty.” But Milosh is already coughing smoke. His face reddens, his eyes widen. He bursts into flames. He blackens and crumbles like a log that has smoldered for days and nights.
Captain Havva looks pained. Erdem, the older guard, looks away. Bari, the younger, leans over his horse’s neck for a better view. Something sour turns over in my stomach. Milosh has been part of Sredna all my life. He and his brother Yaromir were dependable enemies, and my father would not have been himself without them.
I say, “Father, please greet Diaus the Patriarch, Light of the Morning, Heat of the Afternoon, God-King of Heraklōs, who escorts the Mother as a courtesy to his divine cousin.”
There’s no ceremony for this. Father says, “Lord Diaus is gracious. Will you honor our home, Your Majesty, as it is the best we can offer?”
Diaus says, “We will see my aunt to her quarters. Then we will see about this village.” The captain glances at me and I nod. Father will have had a stable cleaned and decorated with knapweed and daisies. I kick Miss Chickweed’s frill with both feet. She sighs, first in front, then behind, a stuttering, weedy fart, and traipses heavily up the path. A surprisingly dainty side-bob takes her forequarters around the heap of ash. I don’t see where she puts her hind feet, and she probably doesn’t notice either.
I was raised from birth to be a chamberlain to Dev-Gemot, Beast of Heaven, Lord of Horn and Frill; yet I have not seen his temple service. When I presented myself at the Temple gates two days past midsummer to escort the old Mother home, guards stopped me over my herding staff, with the hook and prod at the end, which looks like a weapon and serves as one in the Sredna Hills.
Guards might have held the staff while I walked through, but it was our second-best formal staff, with three bands of silver on the haft and three pale opals in the socket of the iron head; and a guard captain too refined to address a herder, who turned and said to subordinates, “tell him to wait here”, feared it was too sacred for their hands. Such precautions are typical in Imparum. We say in Sredna that Dev-Gemot is their king but not their uncle.
A stable boy led me the long way around. Wind smelled of the Dismal Sea then changed directions and stank of kaprosuchus fens, and there were chapels for the Mother of Dragonflies and the Tide that Eats the Shore. There were shrines to foreign gods; small gods; and even spirits who don’t incarnate, only possess their disciples. That was on the east side of God Street. The west side was all Dev-Gemot. Cousin Nevena and our best staff, with gold bands and sapphires, had entered the Temple grounds with some pomp that morning for the Procession of the New Mother. Priests value a well-equipped attendant when a greater three-horned ceratopsid is irritably gravid with a new Incarnation.
The stable boy led me a long block south and turned west up an alley, where we picked our way like foxes in a bog, avoiding slops from upper windows of the Temple complex.
“I’ve seen the Mother,” the boy said. “The old one. The new one too, in the procession this morning. I gave the old Mother ferns and she ate them. Have you seen her?”
“I’ve ridden her.”
“You’re a liar.”
That deserved no answer, and the silence of mutual contempt lasted to the paddock where they put the old Mother, known in my family as Miss Chickweed. She was behind a wall two men high, doubtless three or four bricks thick. Like the log stockades of Sredna, it would hold a ceratopsid until she decided to leave. Two guards and another captain crowded under an ash sapling in the alley, sharing bread and olives with their horses and a squabble of gulls. Behind the wall, I saw the top of Miss Chickweed’s frill and the upper two thirds of a chestnut tree, its lower branches stripped of leaves. I said, “They’re not giving her enough ferns and grass.”
The captain was a woman, younger than Nevena and already risen high as she would in the guard, higher than she could have in another branch of the priesthood. The braid at her nape pulled raven hair into glossy wings behind her ears. She said, “You’re not the herder who attended the procession.”
“She’s my cousin. She’ll stay for the hatching. I’ll take the old Mother home.”
The captain pursed her lower lip, though I wasn’t much younger than she was, and the Temple contingent of three guards was little more impressive. Thirty-nine soldiers escorted the new Mother to Imparum. That’s tradition. There’s no traditional retinue for escorting a Mother home, as the Incarnation generally outlives his dam, but I expected more than three. The captain shrugged. “Where’s your horse?”
“You’d have to ask Captain Altan. I rode a Temple horse. I returned it yesterday.”
A guard with gray mustaches laughed and brushed crumbs from his tunic, quilted linen with boiled leather at shoulders and chest. He wiped his hands on his stomach, where traces of a hundred meals were coalescing into heraldry, maybe a kraken in foamy surf. “Our frontiersman doesn’t have a horse!”
“Never mind,” I said. “Open the gate.”
“You can’t walk,” the captain said. “We are allotted two weeks, one week each way.”
“It’s going to take ten days. You can’t rush a ceratopsid.” I pushed at the gate and managed to rattle it a little.
The captain said “Erdem,” and the old soldier turned a bronze key in the lock. He stepped aside and left opening the gate to me. Dev-Gemot honored Miss Chickweed in my fifth year. I had ridden her before that, sitting behind Nevena, then twelve. Now I was twenty-three and Nevena’s assistant, and she was responsible for Miss Chickweed’s successor. From Sredna to Imparum, we had flanked the new Mother on borrowed Temple horses because Nevena thought it best to spare priestly sensibilities. Still, as the captain said, I couldn’t walk to Sredna.
I touched the smooth beak, slid my hand up to the knobbled skin around one nostril. Ceratopsids remember smells. I remembered Miss Chickweed by the double rings around her eyes, inner patches of yellow-green and white around that, like chickweed in bloom. The new Mother had blue patches, and I knew her as Miss Liverwort. Miss Chickweed clucked and swung her head towards me, her beak moving me back two steps. She had smelled and known me before I opened the gate.
I hooked her frill with my staff and climbed hand over hand to her shoulder. The younger guard uttered the name Dev-Gemot as an oath, and the captain told him to hold his tongue. You direct an agreeable ceratopsid with kicks to the back of the frill. Light kicks suffice, but your hardest kicks will do no harm. You also wedge a staff under the frill at the base of the skull to remind her you’re there, like holding your grandmother’s arm so she feels secure. And so she doesn’t forget and cripple you with a toss of her head. In Sredna, we have formidable grandmothers.
Miss Chickweed avoided the worst of the slops, but she wasn’t as finicky as I had been. Guards stood gaping, and I had to settle for that because the stable boy was gone. Passing the captain, I said, “My name is Vasil.”
She said, “I am Captain Havva. Erdem, Bari, if the Mother reaches God Street without an honor guard, I will have you both beheaded.”
Late morning on the third day, we reached the Cebrenia, River of Warbling Newts, northern boundary of the sprawling capitol suburbs. This was a few miles past a pen west of the road with two ceratopsids left from the spring drive and the slaughter-yard just visible to the east. To slaughter a ceratopsid, you take it far from others who might be alarmed and feed it sleep laurel in quantity, leaving it somewhat dazed. This is not practical in Sredna, and we eat little ceratopsid, though we rely on their eggs. Two attendants pet and soothe the animal, and a third bleeds it with a dagger sharpened before each use. You dismember it with saws and smoke the meat, and you replace the topsoil every time, to remove the smell of blood. There’s almost no way to kill a ceratopsid that’s on its guard. Miss Chickweed didn’t acknowledge the ceratopsids in the pen, and she wasn’t impressed to find the chief god of Heraklōs waiting for her across the river with a substantial retinue.
Heraklians, mortal ones, are familiar to Imparans, but I knew them only by hearsay. They have pale hair like sere grass that horses favor and ceratopsids don’t, and their gods incarnate as humans, obliging upper-class strangers to greet one another with scrupulous courtesy. They don’t incarnate as commoners, at least, but they have a tricky fondness for being orphaned and raised beneath their station, so prudent nobles are kind to peasant children until their circumstances are known.
Lord Diaus took no pains to conceal his divinity. His black stallion was twice the size of the eastern steppe horses favored by Imparan guards. The white silk of his mantle, pinned over one bare shoulder, gleamed like polished quartz, brighter than the cloth-of-gold border. Diaus gestured as we entered the river, and a carpet of water lilies sprang up from the water to line our path, unruffled by the current. Horses shied from the lilies and would only climb the north bank through dogwood thickets above and below the miracle-tainted ford. Miss Chickweed snorted and churned lilies underfoot.
Diaus inclined his head to Miss Chickweed before speaking to Captain Havva, who was still pressing her mare through a tangle of red branches and veiny green leaves. He sat his giant horse as though granting an audience from a palace balcony. I sat still higher, on Miss Chickweed’s shoulders, but I wasn’t included in the audience. Diaus ignored me as children of Sredna are taught to ignore widow Zofeia’s tumor.
He looked at Havva in a way that I, not being a god, had been mindful not to look at a captain of Temple guards. He was less pleased with Erdem and Bari. He said, “So few attendants for a Mother of Dev-Gemot? Is Imparum stretched so thin?” Diaus was attended by forty or so guards, lined up five abreast on horses trained to stand like soldiers. The Heraklians wore swords, but unlike Havva’s men, they carried no spears, as bringing two-score spears into Imparum would have been an act of war.
Captain Havva must have known what was common gossip in Sredna, that some priests derided Miss Chickweed for birthing a short-lived god, but she answered Diaus that no human retinue could truly honor a Mother of Dev-Gemot.
Diaus nodded and seemed to observe the nod and accede to his own judgment. “True. And a Mother of Dev-Gemot, Thunder in the Forest and Stillness in the Meadow, is an aunt to Diaus the Patriarch. I will escort her myself.” Diaus twisted in his saddle and waved to his men, and that was a signal for them to turn in formation and gallop west. Returning through fens of boar-crocodiles without their spears or their god would leave gaps in their formation, but they obeyed, as one does when a god’s orders leave no room for interpretation.
Erdem never stopped calling me “our frontiersman,” but he comes from the rural outskirts of the capitol himself, and he didn’t intend it as an insult. Erdem told me Bari was a fool but wise enough to cultivate an important uncle, and he would be raised to captain sooner or later, maybe higher. Erdem said he hoped to retire before that happened, but he said he could pretend to follow Bari’s orders if he had to. It would be harder for Captain Havva, but something like that wouldn’t drive her from the service of Dev-Gemot.
I didn’t talk much to Bari. He didn’t talk much to me. Bari is ethnically Imparan, with hair as dark as Havva’s but coarser and not tempting to the hand, and he ought to see that a human form doesn’t express a godlike dignity, but he has a Heraklian soul. Bari was fascinated by the trick of a god who spoke human language, and he asked all the questions Diaus would tolerate.
“Where did the world come from?”
“It was meant to be.”
“What is the purpose of human life?”
“What happens to humans after death?”
“Will I be a great man?”
“Are there more gods than men know?”
“What is it like to be a god?”
“I might as well ask you what it’s like to be a mortal.”
Bari’s eyes grew big and sincere at this, and he said, “Lord, it’s hard.”
Diaus was watching Captain Havva rebalance saddle bags on her mare. “I wasn’t really asking.”
An hour past a wet depression Erdem called Toad Hole, there was a grove of coiled oaks, loud with the squeals and clicks of tree porpoise. Erdem said tree porpoise climb trees because they can, and perch there out of pride in the achievement, though they don’t eat leaves or acorns. They’re helpless on the ground, easily taken by wolves, bears, and men, and not much better off in trees, though thick foliage hampers the dactyls who pluck them from the branches, and it’s said not one in three who climb the trees get back to their ponds. Erdem told me of a nearby border town—Imparans call it Sirenova; Heraklians call it Sireniya—where oaks are called god trees and porpoise known as priest fish, an obscure impiety that would be at home in Sredna.
Then Erdem said, “Do you hear that, Captain?”
Captain Havva said, “Yes. They’re not all porpoise.”
Miss Liverwort’s procession to the capitol had drawn no bandits, but she had thirteen times as many guards. Diaus, richly dressed and unarmed, was more temptation than deterrent if men failed to discern the airy posture of a god exempted from the pull of his own weight. Even Miss Chickweed was less daunting among trees so large and thick that she could scarcely leave the road. Guards began experimenting with different spear grips and hunching their shoulders in anticipation of arrows, which was not entirely futile with boiled leather shoulder plates and caps. I held my staff like a halberd. Nevena can throw a staff like a javelin to kill a rabbit or partridge at ten yards, but I am not her equal in this, and our second-best formal staff is not well-balanced for throwing.
The roadblock was a single pine log, thick enough to double the height of the stocky man atop it with a short hunter’s bow. There were others among the trees, and if they had as many present as it had taken to place the log, we were grievously outnumbered. The man said, “There’s a toll.”
Captain Havva said, “We represent the Temple of Dev-Gemot.”
“We don’t recognize Imparan authority.”
“When the Temple sends for tribute, you recognize our authority.”
“Yes, we are plundered by Imparum and Heraklōs alike. We have to get something back when we can. One silver each, man, woman, and beast.”
Diaus said, “I’ll pay you, woodsman.”
Havva said, “With respect, Your Majesty, this is an Imparan matter.”
The man on the log grinned as though his rabbit snare had brought down a deer. “A Majesty will cost a gold solidus.” He nocked an arrow, and I kicked Miss Chickweed’s frill. Thinking about more bows in the shadows made me too nervous to stay where I was. Miss Chickweed shouldered between Diaus and Captain Havva. She had little to fear from bone arrowheads, but I was relieved for myself when the man turned and jumped from the log.
Miss Chickweed dipped her head, wedging the log between her nose horn and the horns above her eyes. Shoulder and neck muscles rolled, and I rode the swell like a sea duck. The log was long, the road not wide, and the log was soon braced against trees on both sides. Miss Chickweed gathered her hind legs as though for a leap—ceratopsids can leap, though we discourage it, especially since Yavor died splinting the foreleg of a frisky bull—and surged forward. The breaking log made more of a tearing than a snapping sound, though there were also pops, as though the log had smaller, harder trunks embedded within it. There was no sign of the bowman. I heard a scattering of strangled bleats and looked behind me.
My first impression was that the god of Heraklōs had transformed bandits into porpoise, but it was as likely the bandits had fled into the forest. The dozen porpoise in the road may have been dislodged when Miss Chickweed shook the canopy. Captain Havva had perhaps been startled by a porpoise falling near her and slashed it with her sword. The eyes of the porpoise looked oddly human, but porpoise eyes always do. I think it’s less the eyes themselves than the fleshy eyelids that give them the expressions of fat, bewildered children. I didn’t study the scene for long because Miss Chickweed was impatient. By this time, the fifth or sixth day, she had remembered Sredna and begun to give a ceratopsid’s kwee-uk separation call. It may have been that I missed Sredna as well, and I sometimes thought I heard the booming of a distant answer.
“Where do gods come from?”
“Should I marry Gulid?”
“You will not do better.”
“Why do you trouble yourself over reverence to the Mother and Dev-Gemot?”
“Disrespect to any god is an affront to godhood.”
“Is it the same with men? Disrespect to one—?”
“Yes, but that is no serious offense.”
Around the eighth day, Diaus asked Captain Havva if she had read the Temple chronicles, and she said she had. The road was by then a road to Sredna and nowhere else, and green woodbine with pale cave-spider flowers climbed trunks too moss-covered and branches too intermingled to surely distinguish oak from beech.
Diaus asked if Havva recalled the ninety-fifth, one hundred and fifth, and one hundred and ninth Incarnations of Dev-Gemot. Did she know what they had in common? She didn’t remember, and Diaus said, “They were born of wild ceratopsids from the Savros Forest in Heraklōs. This has always been our understanding. My cousin takes his pick of ceratopsid females wherever they are found and leaves human women to me. I usually choose Heraklian wives, but not always.”
Bari said, “Lord Diaus, I’ve never heard of wild ceratopsids.”
“Even humans and ceratopsids were wild when gods first chose them,” Diaus said. “This was thousands of years ago.”
That’s Temple doctrine as well. The age of wild ceratopsids has passed. Children wandering far from the pastures may find toppled trees and heavy tracks, three hooves to each forefoot and four each behind, but Sredna teaches these are daydreams of the remembering earth. When we loose female ceratopsids to wander at the edge of the forest, we offer them only to Dev-Gemot, and when one conceives, the offspring can only be divine. In this, Sredna practice accords with Temple creed.
Some of my neighbors will quibble over doctrine, but they are not unbelievers. Every Sredna family dedicates a beast to Dev-Gemot, and we never sell this animal or use it for labor. We tend it to honor our god, reaping no benefits excepting eggs when it’s a cow. They say even Yaroslava was conscientious in this.
But when the priest Lazari came to collect a Mother from my grandfather’s grandfather, Pridbor, jealousy made Yaroslava grumble that the pastures would be full of gods if more families kept stockades edging the forest. Pridbor, having endured this before, loudly asked if Yaroslava disavowed all Incarnations begotten on our family’s herd. He only wanted Lazari’s guards to make her unsay her doubts. Sredna would have remembered and discounted her grumbling thereafter.
Yaroslava appalled Pridbor by choosing the spear over retraction. Pridbor tried to apologize to the guard who had to do it, but even that man didn’t want to talk to him. Yaroslava’s descendants proudly remember her as “Foolish Yaroslava,” and we know it means “Brave Yaroslava” in their mouths. If they mumble other things, no one would say so to priests, fearing to be haunted by a Foolish Yaromir or Foolish Milosh.
I didn’t say much that day on the road. Bari regained Diaus’s attention, wheedling him to answer more questions. Erdem pursued a flea beneath his tunic, first with one hand, then with the other. I watched the occasional sunbeam seek out Captain Havva’s braid and waited for it to unravel, as it did most afternoons. Miss Chickweed called kwee-uk, and the forest rumbled back.
“What is time?”
“A way from here to then.”
“Do men have free will?”
“You are free to believe that you do.”
“How may I find happiness?”
“You must endure something so prolonged and agonizing that the relief of its ending will content you the rest of your days.”
“Ah. What will you do in Sredna?”
“I will see that my standards are met.”
At our last campsite, Miss Chickweed slightly gored Captain Havva. Miss Chickweed had been stamping down a bed of ferns, shrubs, fir saplings, anything short of a mature tree, while I found her green stalks of dragontail, which is scarce in the Imparan flatlands. Bari had turned his questions on Captain Havva while Diaus went aside in the forest. The god of Heraklōs had to do that, just as mortal creatures do. Incarnations of Dev-Gemot do as well, and their Mothers. Miss Chickweed left a mountain range of it between Imparum and Sredna.
Bari asked Captain Havva, “You studied theology, Captain?”
“And you were part of the Temple service?”
“I held a dish of incense.”
“It is an honor to hold a dish of incense in the service of Dev-Gemot.”
“But you transferred to the guards.”
“Is it conceivable that a god of Heraklōs could marry a priest of Dev-Gemot?”
“Is it conceivable that a priest of Dev-Gemot could marry a god of Heraklōs?”
Bari shrugged politely and walked across the road, either on business of his own or to question Diaus about his holy excrement. The road interrupted the forest enough to reveal a rivulet of stars; Bari passed through their light and disappeared into the trees. Captain Havva, gathering firewood, stepped over the dragontail Miss Chickweed was hoarding for later. I said, “You shouldn’t—” and Miss Chickweed dipped a horn to pink Captain Havva’s thigh. Erdem lurched forward and hovered indecisively. I did the same as Erdem, with the addition of a wordless and unmanly sound.
Captain Havva staggered, recovered, and managed a shaky bow to Miss Chickweed, balancing mostly on her right leg. Then she sat down on a rock and extended her left leg for Erdem. He went to his saddlebags for a strip of cloth and a handful of steppe grass, which Imparans carry for wounds, trusting it as we do pinewort. I put a hand on Miss Chickweed’s beak, but she was calm, so I went to Captain Havva. I said, “I don’t think—that is, it’s just—”
Erdem clapped me on the shoulder and returned to his bedroll. I looked into Havva’s face and saw little pain. She looked earnest and keen, like Nevena when my father told her she must fathom priestlore because she would head our family. Havva said, “Vasil, do you know how Dev-Gemot became our god?”
At home, the answer is a bargain my ancestors made with priests, but that wasn’t an answer for the forest, so I shook my head.
“When Imparum was twenty-eight mud huts and our forebears only hunters, the man Khassan led an expedition to hunt ceratopsids.”
“The people were savages, but not unimpressive. Khassan attacked the first Incarnation of Dev-Gemot. After killing the others, Dev-Gemot gored Khassan through the leg. Some say the left leg, some say the right; I have heard it debated for hours. Khassan realized his sin, and he prostrated himself, unmindful of the pain, and prayed to Dev-Gemot for healing. Khassan’s descendants are now tens of thousands, and we continue his prayer.”
“Dev-Gemot healed his leg?”
“Healed it or allowed it to heal.”
“I heard Lord Diaus tell Bari he saved Heraklōs from famine and made it victorious in war.”
“Yes, and Heraklians think they sacrifice to gods alone.”
“Well, don’t you—?”
“We sacrifice to Dev-Gemot and to Heaven. Priests may sacrifice to Diaus and not Dev-Gemot or to Dev-Gemot and not Diaus, but sacrifice to any god is a sacrifice to Heaven. It is because Dev-Gemot cares little for his people or for drawing them to himself that he is the truer way.”
My legs were tired from squatting, but there wasn’t another rock, so I put one knee on the ground. The fire snapped behind me, and Havva’s eyes were dark and bright. Diaus and Bari walked out of the trees. Diaus looked at me suspiciously, and I went to my place by Miss Chickweed. Bari said, “Truly Your Majesty, very much like sage and lavender.” Everyone went to sleep.
Father seats us at the summer table in front of the lodge, shaded by the high overhanging roof. Unnerved by the god at their board, Father and Mother resort to the principle that more seasoning shows more effort, and the egg, potatoes, and groats all taste strongly of dill. Miss Chickweed kwee-uks behind the lodge and across the pasture, so Father sends Drazhan to open her stable and let her mingle with the herd. Neighbors loiter in the road to gape at Diaus, worse than Bari but with more excuse. Few in Sredna ever see our own god, who is conceived in our village but hatches in the Imparan Temple. Diaus says, “This village will have a priest.”
One argues sparingly with gods, and after our reception today, I can’t protest that Sredna has a pious laity. If I suggest we live the will of Dev-Gemot, Diaus will say I can’t know the will of a speechless god. He may say such observances as we remember were instituted by long-dead Imparan divines and make us petition for a new village priest, one with scores of retainers who will make himself our ruler. Or Diaus may appoint a local. Sredna begrudges my family’s arrangement with acknowledged overlords; none will love my father as the regent of a foreign god. I say, “The captain studied theology.” She gives me a look purged of expression, but Diaus looks annoyed. My skin tingles, and I cross my eyes trying to watch my mouth for smoke.
Bari says this is a time for herdsmen to be silent, and this deserves a sharp reply, only it is soothing music to the god of Heraklōs. Diaus nods. He chews and swallows odorous potato and egg. Mortals stare covert messages across the table. My parents have much practice and may understand one another’s looks, but the rest of us are frustrated. Then my brother Drazhan rounds the corner of the lodge. He says, “Something’s answering.”
The grass is summer-brown, but my family’s pasture is largely clover, green stems and leaves and white blooms. Havva’s dark head bobs with her limp like a scoter on the waves. We all trot behind Drazhan, calling out questions. He says, “Miss Chickweed calls, and something in the forest answers.” Bari says, “Miss Chickweed?” He scowls so Diaus can see his indignation. I have not used the Mother’s name in front of the Imparans.
Standing at the back fence, Miss Chickweed kwee-uks happily, nearly drowned out by the rending, popping, and crashing of spruce and fir. The trumpeting from the forest is louder than a bull ceratopsid. It penetrates everything now, making shapes and colors uncertain. Bulls in the pasture assume a submissive pose, forelegs splayed, heads pressed sideways into the clover. An improbably large ceratopsid shoulders a last tree out of his way and out of the ground. The falling tree smashes the fence.
Miss Chickweed turns and stands next to the new ceratopsid, her flank to his ribs, and he clamps her frill in his beak. That’s courtship behavior. He has blue-black and silver eye patches. Neighbors trailed us into the pasture, and Yaromir, Milosh’s brother, says, “There are wild ceratopsids! That means—” At a glance from Diaus, he bursts into flames. The new ceratopsid rears on its hind legs, and I say, “That’s an aggressive posture.” Then I’m embarrassed at how obvious that is, but Imparans may not have known.
Bari mumbles to Diaus, and Diaus says, “Yes” and “Yes, now.” Mother nudges Father, and he speaks quietly to Captain Havva. Havva steps forward and spreads her hands, saying, “Come gently, Lord. Forest and pasture are yours. None will dispute your right.” The bull grunts thoughtfully. He looks around as though appreciating the view of Sredna from his hind legs.
Diaus says, “Go on.” Bari steps a little past Havva and says, “Great Dev-Gemot! I am your new village priest! I will see that you are properly respected from now on!” The bull drops to all fours with a thud and a crunch. Crushing Bari beneath his right forefoot seems almost accidental.
I don’t look at Diaus. The bull is staring at him, I think. Havva stands at attention, injured leg and all, so I do the same. Her braid is half undone again. Step by step, just to keep calm, I carefully imagine rebraiding it for her.
Erdem leaves for Imparum by himself. I question this, and he shows me a handful of silver, saying, “If there’s a toll, I’ll pay.” Diaus left yesterday. Today, a breeze moves the treetips and blackbirds rest on the weathered log stockades. Father agrees with Havva that Miss Chickweed will return when she’s ready, and rebuilding the fence can wait until then.
Havva stares past the broken fence to the forest, with more conifers and fewer broadleaf trees than she was used to in Imparum. She hasn’t said how she feels about her new position. I tell her she’ll be happy in Sredna. I promise help and support. “We will prosper, field and herd / You will grow in my regard / Both of us will be the rain / Both of us will be the grass.”
She says, “That’s a bit old-fashioned.” She glances at me to see if I’m offended.
I say, “It’s not my invention. It’s traditional.” It’s the Sredna wedding song. We also have birth and funeral songs, but I don’t recite them. The pasture sounds like bees, and the clover smells like grass and honey, hardly at all like ceratopsid droppings, which have crusted in the sun. Our new priestess steadies herself against my shoulder, bends and straightens her injured leg, and drops her hand again. We stand and watch the trees behind my father’s lodge.