As the door to the Matagarnachin closed behind her, Catrin suddenly realised how glad she was to put the noise and rush of the morning behind her. Elmira and Melissa were still in the bath with Fridei, Shuma, Awrin, and Shari. Jiffrei was complaining to himself about the crush of Shikari guests as he sat down to take a nap in his chair by the fire in the big main bedroom, the children finishing lunch. The welcoming warmth of the place closed around here like a blanket.
I always liked the Catosan Matagarnachini...their ways of showing Holiness are very like our Ortosani. She walked a turn around the room, inhaling the scents of the place, of leather and wood, of the sacred aromatics in the brazier. Walking to the altar, she reached for the chips of purple cedar in their basket and dropped them onto the coals, waiting for the sweet-smelling flare before adding a pinch of the mixed herbs from their bowl on the altar's lower shelf and dipping her fingers into the oil and splashing it into the fire. She made the sacred signs on forehead, lips, and heart, bowing low before the Ikons of Holiness.
Lord Father, Giver Of Fire and Font Of Life; Mother Of All Holiness; Child Born Of No Iniquity; Spirit Of All Creation, look down upon your daughter and her trial... The words of the opening prayer rolled through her mind and silently off her lips as she brought the fire into her mind. ...deliver from me this suffering, cause not the bitter cup to linger long upon my lips, and succor in eternal glory and power the soul of Roban Tavish... She knelt, bent to the floor, touching her forehead to the stone, before drawing her knives and laying them before her. Her long rainbow-steel fighting knife, blooded at the first moonfair of her eighteenth year- her Pritha, which had been her grandmother's in her own time, the blade pitted with the blood of Thomas Jenkins, Marki Charnin the Black Spear, and Hildi Martak, Lady Thunderfist- and her greatest treasure, the little working-knife which Jiffrei had given her on her fifth birthday. The blades glinted softly in the flamelight, red-gold dancing on the steel. She felt the forms of prayer fade on her lips and in her heart. Remember what Patra Pawdrac told you...when the form dies, comen the truth... "...burn away the sorrow in my heart, cleanse me in your fire..." She felt the warmth spreading from her belly, bowed again, her hands raised with palms turned towards her face. feeling the words turn from sound to image, from image to emotion, from emotion to wordless sound and formless thought. The flames of candles, lamps, and brazier seemed to meld together in the centers and edges of her vision, the flame-trance heating her soul red-hot, melting her desire down to pure essence, the ache in her heart begging for relief...
She started at the sound of a voice behind her.
"Catrin? What are you doing? Who were you talking to?"
Her hair still wet from the bath, Melissa Jenkins was standing framed in the doorway, looking like some unknown thing of the Spiritworld, trapped in the Place Between yet somehow visible. She repressed the urge to make the Sacred Signs, beckoning the little girl forward. She moves like something...frightened. Settlers don't Believe...is she afraid of that? Or me? Or us? Catrin had spent most of the morning being very visibly confronted with the discomfort of Melissa's mother, and it was worrying her. All of us she knew before...we all spent so much time around the Humans, trading with them...we speak like to them. Now she can hardly understand us when we speak in our own way...I and the others, especially the youngers...Hellfire, I even -think- the way they talk, now.
"I was praying, Little One...talking to God. Are you allright?"
"I think so..." She sat down on the floor.
"Why only think?" My grief can wait. This is a child... Something jarred in her mind, a bolt of soft lightning. ...a child. Like the daughters Rob and I should have had. Something warmed a little inside.
"I'm...well, I'm...lost." Melissa replied. "Everyone's being really nice, but...I mean, I can understand everybody pretty well, but it's hard sometimes. Fridei thinks I'm crazy and tried to hit me, and Jiffrei's all grumpy, and..." She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts. "How come everybody here talks so different, anyway?" She asked. "You and Shuma and everybody else...you're a -little- different from us, but not like the people here- they have all those different words...?"
"Oh, Little One..." Catrin sighed. "I was talking to God about that just now, I think. And do you know what I think He was telling me?"
"No...wait, what you -think- he was telling you? Does God talk a different way too?"
"Hey, of course. God is...God is so different from we, so much..." She gestured expansively. "...so much -more- than we...He speaks a different language, and Oh! so quietly...you have to be listening very, very carefully. And sometimes you can be wrong, but what I -think- He was telling me was this." She took a deep breath. "Little One, I have lived all of my life close to the Humans, the Settlers, the Shikari. I got accustomed to speaking with them for trade, and...well, I did not -lose- the use of our Frascini words, but I stopped using them nearly so much, hey? I became very...skilled, I suppose, in speaking the Human way. I became -so- good at it that now, I find I even -think- in such a way, when I have been down off the mountain for a time." She sighed. "This is the first time I have been back to Longwood in many moon-turns, Little One. We- Mikal, Taylar, Willam, Feyna, Shimon and I of course- we had been gone for three months on a trading caravan, what we call a Razza. We had traded up and down the river Nerva, selling guns and horses and cattles. We returned laden with gold, and each went to see our families or Shihani to give the gold to the people whose horses or cattles we had sold for them. Then we came back to the Long Hall for two day's feasting to celebrate our rich returning, the ending of the trading season...the night I arrived was the night Rob was killed. We met Old Man Burras on the road, who offered him a rich reward to seek his lost stallions...and into the night he went, saying he would see us soon as a richer man." She sighed, feeling the tear fall from each eye. He laughed and said he would buy Tumash Hurtz's black bull, to start our herd when we married. And then he was gone. "So when you and I met, I and the people with me were much practiced with speaking like the Shikari." I had forgotten. The greif of that night had so overwhelmed her that, she realised, she had not thought of the reason for her visit in the nearly three weeks since.
"So I got to...get to know you all that way first? Now it gets harder?"
"Oh yes. Everything becomes harder, the deeper you go. The forest becomes darker, the beasts more fearsome, the battles more dire. Do you have wild pigs, or screamer-cats, on Shikari lands?"
"I think so, a few...maybe. I've never seen one until now."
Catrin nodded. "Now, a few dozen miles into our land, they are plentiful. And the deeper we go into the mountains, Little One, the more plentiful they and their kind will be. Beyond the mountains, there are greater beasts yet, of kinds which you Shikari have not seen since before the Beginning."
"Really?" She looked up with wide eyes. "Will we go see them?"
"We will, in the Spring. When the snows melt we will go to the Great Pasturelands to hunt them, and to seek for new breedstock, and drive the herds onto the fresh grass."
"Why don't you go now?" Melissa asked, puzzled. "If it's down off the mountain, wouldn't it be warmer?"
"Oh no, Little One." The redhead replied. "There, there are no trees to slow the wind, no mountains to catch the snow, and we are not so close to the sun. But this is all for later- the important thing is, when you are going into a new and perhaps dangerous place for the first time, it is not always bad to have a guide. Not -all- of life is like the Walk, after all."
The little Settler girl looked up at her, thinking. "I don't think I need a guide -all- the time...but can I come to you, or go with you, if I need help?"
"Of course Little One!" Catrin said, reaching down to hug her close. "Think me like a...like a big sister, na? Or maybe a strange aunt?"
"-Are- you strange?" She giggled.
"I am sure I am to you!"
"It is not wrong thing to think me strange, Melissa. I know we are so different from your old life...do little girls carry knives, back where you are from?"
"Do women and men play as we do?"
"Of course not!"
"Is our food the same?"
She screwed up her face. "No! But I -like- your food! It's...it's...it feels -alive-."
"That is because Shikari food is so horribly dull." Catrin said with evident distaste. "Shikari know not how to use pepper, or salt, or any sort of spices...at least not properly. But anyroad, I promise you- soon everything will be much less strange. You will learn our speaking, and our cooking, and our working, you will even learn our fighting."
The girl looked pensive, maybe a little afraid, bit her lip. "Will Fridei get in trouble?" She asked. "Like Timash? I don't want her to...I think she's...well, I like her. She gets grumpy easy, but she helped me all morning."
"Na." Catrin replied soothingly. "She will be on the end of a great many jokes for losing a fight she started, and with a Shaqi yet, but there was no dishonour in that, only horrible bad luck . Timash...what he did was for ruling, to show strength and give fear, and this to a person who should have been being shown that she had no cause for fearing. He was tyrannic- there is his dishonour, and alike the dishonour of a grown man to strike a woman so, and alike again that of a strong person striking a weak. Fridei was tyrannic na- just foolish, and she payen for it."
There was a long silence. Catrin turned, still kneeling beside her charge, turned again to face the altar. Lord Of Love, give me what I need to teach her rightly...she is brave, and she learns swiftly, but she is so young, and all our ways so alien to her...
"Catrin?" Came the question, with a flicker like the flames in the brazier. "Can you teach me praying? I don't really know what this God thing is...but if I'm going to learn all that other stuff I think...maybe I ought to learn how to listen? The way you all do, I mean..."
She looked down in quiet amazement.
"...you know? To listen to little things?"
The moment stretched for a moment longer. A cedar chip popped in the flames.
"Of course, Valta Shaqi." She finally replied, standing and offering a hand for Melissa to clasp before leading her two steps up to the altar. "Here, you see? This is the Altar- the Table Of God. See, we have a sacred fire- like at the feast, hey?"
"Fire's important for talking to God?"
"Fire is one of God's gifts. Fire warms, fire purifies, fire is a gateway to the World Beyond. So for all our holinesses, we have a sacred fire."
"It smells good, like the one at the party."
"Here, see?" Catrin reached under the tabletop, drew out the baskets of cedar chips and splints, the herbs and oil. "It is all for making the fire pleasing, for freeing the mind from the things of this world." She handed the Human girl a few of the little split pieces of purple cedar. "Go on- put them in." The girl could barely reach the brazier, but dropped them onto the coals of the shavings and chips of before. "Good. Now this...just a fingerful, not too much..." She showed her charge how to add the dried aromatic herbs, and the smoke rose dense and earthy-smelling. "And now the oil...dip your fingertips, just so...and splash the flames, hey?" The fire rose a little, the room taking on another scent yet. "Now, Little One, comes the difficult part."
"Now you must learn to take the fire into yourself. Breathe the smoke, feel the warmth, smell the burning...and when the fire is lit in you, into it go all the things which are hurting you or hindering you except for the thing you wish to talk about with God. Burn away all the hurts, the sorrows, the jealousies, the angers...leave behind only the one thing. Then you take that thing to God, for helping and healing."
"Is that what you were doing?"
"Yes." Catrin replied, feeling the now-familiar ache rise in her breast. "I was asking God to use the fire, to clean away and heal the sorrowing for my Rob." She led Melissa back to the open space of floor, kneeling again before the three glittering blades laid on the stone. "Here, Little One- down with me, hey?" She guided the little Settler down, helping her to her knees. "Now draw out your knives and lay them down before you, as I've done." Melissa's movements were unsure and a little clumsy, but she did as asked.
"Why do you do that?" She asked as she straightened. "Fridei said I shouldn't take the big one out except for fighting?"
"Fridei was not thinking you would learn Prayer so quickly, I think. We do this to show God that we are fighters and workers, as He made us to be. And so that we are always reminded that only He lives forever in this world. We are all mortal- we are all borne to die- we are all dying. From the day we are borne, Little One, we are all dying."
"Don't talk sad like that, Catrin..." Plaintive. Oh...they don't know about the Dying Mysteries! The poor creatures!
"It is not sad!" She said gently. "It is a happy thing- this world is only the beginning. Here we grow and become stronger and then we are born again- as we grew in our mother's wombs until we were strong enough to be borne into this world. When we have grown strong enough through our growing here, we will be borne again into the World Beyond."
"And we'll be different? How?"
"We will be reborn as a thing so much stronger, so much more powerful than we are now...can you remember when you were inside of your mother?"
"Because you are so much more now than you were then- you are stronger, greater, more powerful. We will be reborn as something -that- much more than we are -now-. To those already borne into the World Beyond, Little One, -we- are as weak and blind and helpless as a child still within her mother."
"So dying doesn't have to be sad?"
"No, Little One, no...only for those whose names we forget, those who were dishonourable- cowards, murderers, rapists, child-corruptors..."
"Like my Daddy?"
"Yes. And no." Catrin's reply was gentle, but firm. "We cannot be knowing if he is -truly- forgotten- forgotten by God and cast away from the Fire Of Heaven. But -we- can forget him."
"I want to." So quick she is to say it... "I want to forget everything he did."
"Then perhaps that is what you should pray for. To forget him, and his evil, and the things he did to you. To be healed of him."
There was another long silence as the little Settler digested this. "Catrin?" She asked. "You said dying isn't a sad thing- but if it's not, why are you sad for your boyfriend?"
It is not sadness, Valta Shaqi, it -hurts-... "Because...because the sea is wide, Little One. It is wide, and deep, and none may cross it in this world. And I miss him." She choked a little. "I miss him like a piece of my soul. We were going to be married, in the Spring...we had known each other all our lives, Rob and I...losing him is like losing a piece of myself. And it hurts because..." She took a deep breath, composing herself. "Because I should have been there. Because now all the things we should have said never can be. Because now I must wait all the long years of my life before I see him again."
"So it's like if someone moved away?"
"A little." Why does it cut a little less when I tell her?
"Catrin...is it allright if I ask this God thing to help you? Can you pray for somebody else?"
Unbidden, she felt wetness start in her eyes again. She fought for a split second, then bawled openly, falling forward onto one hand and pulling the little girl fiercely against her with the other. She clutched Melissa's neck, tucking them together like two blind kittens, choking on her tears as she wept into the little girl's hair. I killed her father...Firgano or na, I killen her father, yan she asken to pray for -me-...she wishen to give her first prayer for me... "Of...of course...yes! Yes, Little One, you can...you an pray for...for anyone, or anything..."
"Catrin, no, don't cry...Catrin? Catrin, you're scaring me! Catrin!"
"I don't...you...I killed your -father-, Little Shaqi...and you want to...to give your first prayer, your very first...the first thing you...I don't deserve that, Little One...Rob...'
"Catrin!" The little Settler writhed in her arms, weeping herself now. "Catrin, you -saved- me! If this God thing can help you if I ask, I want to ask! I don't want you to be sad anymore- I'm not! You and Shuma and everybody...you saved me! I don't have to get hit or...or touched...or anything anymore! I'm learning how to take care of horses and chickens and a house! I'm -clean- Catrin, and it feels so -good-...don't..."
Catrin would never know how long they hugged against each other, or after that how long they lay on the stone floor as a little of the hurt ran out of her like poisoned blood and pus from a wound gone proud. The crying turned to wordless, formless speech, and then to comforting silence. A tiny sound whispered in the back of her mind, like the breath of a mouse or the kiss of wind from half a world away. It was a long time before her thoughts could even form words again. Thank you. Quiet thanksgiving in her soul. You sent me this little one to answer a prayer I'd not even prayed yet...thank you.