Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
August, 1952, pp. 3-19
Winner of EQMM's Special Award of Merit

THE SINGING STICK

by EDGAR PANGBORN

 

Beyond the river was the melancholy green, almost blackness of advancing pine forest. Ambling naked from his cave into afternoon sunshine, Gnar-of-the-Long-Arms, the Old Man, the leader of the tribe, gazed across the valley. Trouble would come; when it came, the pines would know.

The pines were kindred to the Not-Men they sheltered — bear, wolf, snake; kin to the black leopard who five winters ago had writhed past Samar's spear when that Old Man's foot had slipped, giving Gnar leadership of the tribe. The pines knew.

In Gnar's youth (more winters past than he could mark on the fingers of both hands) the river's far side had been grassland, lifting to the region where Light-God-Too-Bright-To-See followed Light-That-Wakes. A vast boulder over there had once been visible from these cliffside caves, and the blunt profile of the spirit living in it. Now the pines had him captive, hidden away.

The river's near side was still trustworthy — tall-grass meadow, oaks spreading shade that attracted bison, aurochs, deer. Sometimes mammoth splashed through the ford in the south to wander up the valley

Northward down yonder, to the left, Gnar could see the mound, a rockpile clothed in bushes and thin earth, where his elder brother Morg-of-the-Hump had found a cave and chosen to live. Always different, Morg-of-the-Hump carried a private god on twisted shoulders. Morg, the vision-seeker, the finder of new things, like that loop snare — why, it was nothing but a sapling and deerhide thong; but none ever dreamed of such a device until Morg gave it to the tribe. No one knew so much as Morg of the unseen, the ways of the Not-Men, the reading of dreams.

Morg could have become leader when Samar's foot slipped, though it had been Gnar who killed the leopard and spoke the first death-prayers. But while blood from claw-wounds still crimsoned the snow, Morg had placed the spear of Samar in Gnar's half-unwilling hands.

The next summer Morg had taken his one woman, Morca-of-the-Thin-Flanks (he could have had others), and gone to that cave in the grassland, explaining nothing. An unlikely place, foggy at morning, surely spirit-infested at night. Some hated him for living apart; they muttered that his cave-fire would anger the Not-Men of the valley.

No one shared Morg's wisdom, yet often he showed Gnar mysteries. Why? Gnar's mind was one that hungered for reasons.

Early in this pleasant summer Morg had shown him the Singing Stick, a peeled branch of ash grooved at the ends. Morg had said: "Camgar the Great is in this." Gnar had made nothing of it. Then his brother had fastened a deerhide thong at one end and bent the stick to loop the thong on the other end; and had plucked at it. So Gnar understood that the god Camgar was in the resonance. "What does he say, my brother?"

Morg had placed the Stick on a natural shelf beside the Nameless Image and something wrapped in wolf-hide. Morg's answer had been so long delayed it might have had nothing to do with Gnar's question. "Meat enough for all." Morg had not spoken of the Singing Stick again.

The Nameless Image was itself a mystery. Morg said it was not sacred, merely old; he had found it in the dust when he first cleaned the cave-floor for a living place. "Men-Here-Before-Us made it," Morg said. "If a god, it was their god. I honor it, but my brother is greatest of the image-makers: he will have no fear of it." The image was of clay (perhaps) — hard, smooth, blackened. It had two faces on one head; two bodies in one, male and female. The male face was alert, the other brooding. "It tells me, Gnar, that even gods die or go away." A saying Gnar could not accept, but did not deny.

Leadership had not been lightly established for Gnar-of-the-Long-Arms. There had been Suchin-of-the-Hairy-Back: sullen, almost Gnar's match in strength. Not quite, as Suchin learned when he challenged according to the laws. Gnar had let him live. A mistake perhaps; but now in the mild sunshine Gnar thought: I have my ways. Suchin hunts well and is a shaper of fine flints.

He studied the valley with small distance-loving gray eyes, enjoying his idleness. The hard-fleshed arms that gave him his formal name were limp in relaxation, tired from the painting in the cave. Only he could have drawn that large backward swing of head and horns. No image-maker was the equal of Gnar: the elder brother said so. This achievement would urge the Bison-Spirit to guide his people through the valley, now and in coming times.

Valley grass was parting and closing — wolf: insolent, knowing the length of a spear-cast. But the women and children hunting roots in the meadow would have seen or smelled the beast, and would not stray. Gnar's second woman, Croma-Who-Speaks-Softly, was clever with the light spear. Not exciting to look at like Morg's strange woman, but good and teachable — as Gnar's first woman, Camo, had once been good.

Some devil had entered Camo-Followed-by-the-Hawk, to make her a hag of foul temper and senseless talk, imagining herself a bitch wolf, and always crying of invisible snakes. She had to be fed, restrained, not destroyed. Gnar knew that the mad are protected by the great Camagar himself: whoever destroys them is haunted even on the westward journey to the Country-Beyond-Gray-Water, where it is always summer....

Kofar-the-Speechless, the boy who held the torch for Gnar's painting, emerged now and squatted in the sun to scratch and daydream. Born of brown-eyed Croma five and four summers past; runty and dumb, but useful. Gnar wondered often who of the Homeless-Wandering had entered Croma to become Kofar. Squirrel? Kofar had a squirrely look. Few spirits of men need ever join the Homeless-Wandering: urged by the prayers of the living, they made the westward journey. It was the dead Not-Men who made the hosts of the Homeless-Wandering, seeking a final incarnation. In a few summers Kofar would go through his pre-initiation fasting; Morg-of-the-Hump would read the boy's dreams and learn his over-spirit and the true name that cannot be spoken — for Morg was wise in these things.

Mas and Mani, twin sons of mad Camo, were now in early manhood. Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth, Mani-Who-Smiles — their overspirit was the Wolf. That could have been guessed (for Mas anyway) before the dream-reading. They ought to go away down-river, take women from another tribe, choose new living-places: it was time. Mani at least understood it. But there was some tie between the brothers, a magic of twin births. Likely they would go together or not at all.

Mas the rebel, impudent; Mani the respecter of laws. Mas rough and peevish; Mani courteous — like the north wind Sruhurr and the drowsy south wind Sarasha. Mas angered and goaded Gnar; Mani never. Therefore why, even when they were children had he been forbearing, even tender with Mas, scarcely noticing Mani whom Camo had loved best, sheltered most jealously at night? Mani was the stronger, the graceful one. Mas wore a sneer; his body was restless. Mani moved like the south wind, and his smile melted anger. Mani spent too much time with the women and children, making foolish things of mud and woven grass, dolls and ornaments; but though he watched the women too much, Gnar did not think that Mani had overstepped the laws. Mas might well have done so.

Trouble was certain to come if they stayed. Gnar had spoken of it a few days ago — obliquely, not as a command — when Mas and Mani were to go with the six others in a hunting group, leaving Gnar to guard the women and young. Mani had understood, bending to touch the Old Man's foot as a young man ought to do. Seven caves, nine grown men — Mani understood. But Mas had merely fingered his spear in open arrogance.

Gnar's own spear had lifted, shivering. The others froze, till it lowered. Fury had not left Gnar-of-the-Long-Arms, but something (the spirit of Camgar?) was heavy on him. He would have been within the laws to kill Mas: the insolence was enough. But he had simply given the words for good luck and sent the group on its way.

They were good men. Suchin-of-the-Hairy-Back; Mas and Mani; Dashim-the-Chatterer, old, dry, subtle, once ambitious for leadership; Cogan-of-the-Red-Mark, big, sober, master of the hunters in Gnar's absence; Dunifor-the-Stumbler, noisy, bowlegged, good-natured; Sunis-the-Singer, greenly young, inheritor of the cave Morg had abandoned; and Ducam-the-Dreamer, in middle years, stingy with words, face gray-scarred from the anger of a bear, a shaper of flints second only to Suchin. Good hunters all. Crossing the valley, they sang an old prayer-song. At the ford they became silent, then slipped away to the south.

They should soon be returning. Yes, there would be trouble. Gnar thought: I have my ways. The time was not right, and besides...

He needed talk with his brother. Between him and Morg was a cautious unworded love. He wished he might hear the Singing Stick again. After the women and children returned perhaps he would go down there.

His gaze lifted to cloud-shapes. The white flow created an illusion of a cave-bear; a mammoth; by degrees, a possible woman-shape.... Kofar-the-Speechless was watching the clouds too. Do children think? — Gnar chuckled at the notion and forgot Kofar, studying the ford.

Gnar followed a stream below the cliff to within a hundred paces of his brother's cave. In an hour, Light-God-Too-Bright-To-See would be gone. He had kept an eye on the ford — as the lie of the land permitted; now he glimpsed motion and dropped in a concealing crouch. The hunting-group? He curled his left hand, straightening the fingers one by one. The men were his own. But it should have been five fingers and three. But only five men appeared — five men who should have been five and three.

Perhaps the summer had been too lucky, annoying the gods. His eyes probed. He saw Cogan-of-the-Red-Mark. Dunifor was also there, his back curved to a load cut to suit his shoulders: meat, not a dead man.

Mas, Mani, Suchin — missing.... Had the youths gone away for the right reasons? But why Suchin?

They should have helped bring the meat, then sought permission to go, and received the words of luck. Mas might have ignored that, but Mani was a respecter of the laws. And why Suchin? — he owned a cave, and a woman.

Gnar murmured: "First I will speak with my brother." The words had the strength of immediate purpose. A hint of sound made him whirl.

Only Kofar. The child had followed silently and now watched Gnar with a doubtful smirk, runty, pot-bellied, ready to scuttle. It had happened before, this absurd following. Kofar smiled appealingly....

Morca-of-the-Thin-Flanks, she who had never given birth, drooped in the cave entrance, black hair in disorder, watching Gnar with the rigid gaze of something trapped.

"I will talk with my brother," said Gnar.

Morca's hand pressed against her flat chest, then pointed at the late sun, circled about her head, and fell.

The spirit lives where you feel it pulsing. Morca was saying that a spirit had started westward and returned confused, bound to the place where it had left the body. More than that. She was obeying the law which decreed that a widow must not use her voice, nor eat, nor drink, nor care for herself, nor sleep, till the tribe decides what shall become of her.

So Gnar knew his brother was dead.

He thought: My body is weak Will this pass?

Morca had not kept the fire living. Gnar rested a pine branch in its embers, blowing till flames danced at the end.

"Go westward, my brother." He set the torch between rocks, not able yet to look into Morg's large-boned face. Coldness was here, and sorrow, an immortal womb preparing other sorrows. "Go westward; do not trouble us." The words were sanctioned by ages.

There was no blood in sight, no visible injury. Morg's arms spread to the edges of the leopard-skin, fingers extended, stained with earth and grass; stains were on his knees, the front of his thighs and twisted chest. There were abrasions on his nose and chin.

"All shall be done to aid your journey, Morg-of-the-Hump. Do not stay with the Homeless-Wandering." Gnar knelt; his downcast eyes noted twin lines on the earth floor. "Westward it is always summer...." Morg had died in the grass, falling forward, and had been dragged here by one lacking strength to lift him — Morca. That was proper. She would have known he must not lie out for the wolves.

"I will watch without sleep, with the true prayers, until your spear is given to your right hand; your drinking horn shall be with you, and food for the journey." No blood? No injury? Men died, Gnar knew, by violence of others, by the weapons of the Not-Men, or by sorcery: there was no other way. "In Country-Beyond-Gray-Water the Old Men speak your true name; you will have meat and big-thighed women; no storms, but the rain is soft; no hunger, no snows, no dying. Do not let the Homeless-Wandering deceive you: go westward." Gnar lifted the body — with trouble, because a rigid arm would not yield — and turned it gently face down. "Camgar the Great will —" his voice blurred out. Here was the wound, but —

"Camgar will see that the debt is paid. You shall have peace."

Under the distortion of the shoulder was a gash with something hidden in the flesh below it — a broken wooden shaft. So the mangling could not have been done by the withdrawing of a spear-head. A spear does not twist; it drives straight as a hawk. No spear could be as slight as this fragment — frail enough to splinter in one hand.... Sorcery.

Sorcery, yes, but.... Gnar pressed his high forehead in the flat of his arm. A stone can kill, but it will not enter the flesh. Gnar groaned. Was all knowledge slipping out of reach? There was much to do — the prayers, the watching, the dances. He must think of the tribe: how to shield it from the dark powers released by a death. But his mind said only, over and over: I have lost my brother.

A wordless squall — Kofar again. Kofar-the-Speechless blundering in, seeing an angry mouth in Morg's back. From jangled nerves Gnar would have struck the child, but Kofar rushed out after one long scream.

The Singing Stick was not on the ledge where Morg had kept it, nor was the wolf-hide bundle. The Nameless Image watched alone, improperly smeared with dust. Gnar felt true terror. What had Morg said of the Stick? — "Camgar the Great is in this." Had Morg stolen a forbidden thing?

There was a way to learn, if a man could endure it....

The pine torch muttered out. Gnar covered his face, trying not to think at all, yet thinking: I am the greatest of the painters of bulls. Then carefully he said aloud: "Camgar, if my brother offended, I offend also. I heard the Stick. I held it, my hands unpurified...."

Only dying daylight crept in from the cave mouth. Sweat formed; the spirit fluttered and calmed. No answer must be a full answer.

Morca-of-the-Thin-Flanks sheltered Kofar, stroking his back, watching Gnar with dismaying indifference. Gnar understood that women do not think, in any recognizable way; yet they feel much — pain, fright, probably pleasure; they can use speech intelligibly.

The decision of the tribe was with Gnar. He could destroy her, and the tribe would consider it justice. She had never been liked nor wanted by any but his brother. Too wild, thin, disturbing.

She did not cringe. She seemed not even interested. Gnar had examined guilty women: the soft creatures were inexpert at blanking out their faces. They did not act as Morca did now.

"Come with me to the place where you found him."

Kofar clung to her. She walked into the meadow some hundred paces toward the river, and pointed to beaten grass. There was blood — some, not much.

The meadow was endlessly crisscrossed with the Not-Men's marks. Gnar would retain the pattern in detail behind his eyes so long as needed. When the agony of the watching was ended, he could return and still follow a certain trail he saw.

Morg-of-the-Hump had stood facing the mound, stumbled forward, fallen. Then one had come from the river to stand here, balls of the feet pressing deeply as he bent over — to break that magic shaft? And had gone away — back toward the river.

Fresher was the story Morca's feet had written.

Spirits of those killed by violence linger at the spot. Gnar pleaded silently. No word. No breeze, not even a scurrying of mice in the grass.

"You have leave to use your voice. When did you find him?"

"Sunrise." Her throat was dry. "He was not with me in the night. He hunted at night, sometimes... as no other man ever dared."

"He was stiff? Cold?"

She moaned, hugging her thin breasts. "He was — almost warm."

Warmth follows the spirit not very slowly. Morg would have died not long before sunrise. The Moon-Spirit had been brilliant — even ordinary men might have dared to go a short way into the night.

"There was no spear-shaft in him?"

"Spear-shaft? ... Nothing, Old Man. Only the wound."

"His blood was dry?"

"It was drying, Old Man."

"Speak carefully — did my brother expect to die?"

The whites of her eyes gleamed and were veiled. "He did not say so. He was in great unhappiness after the Singing Stick was taken."

Gnar drew back. "You knew of the Singing Stick?"

"He showed it to me, Old Man. He said the noise of the thong was nothing to fear. He fashioned the Stick himself. There were other sticks — those I never saw; they were wrapped in wolf-hide. He took them whenever he went away with the Singing Stick."

"Stick, wolf-hide, spear — no man burdens his hands with so much."

"Old Man, he would leave the spear behind."

"That cannot be truth."

She glanced at Gnar's spear. "It is truth."

"The Stick was taken from him? You say that?"

Now she did look frightened. "Five and four suns past. For that I was to blame. The — the south wind Sarasha — I thought..."

Gnar goaded her with questions, drawing forth the story. As she was minding the cave in Morg's absence five and four afternoons ago, a painted clay necklace fell from the sky, she said. She thought it a gift of the south wind, and left her duty to run after it. And then she hurried to the pool — near the cave, she pleaded, only a moment's walk — to look at her color-spirit in the water. When she returned, Singing Stick and wolf-hide bundle were gone. The Nameless Image was down in the dust — this she had restored at once, praying forgiveness. She had confessed everything to Morg, she said. "He did not strike me. He was only in a great unhappiness, and searched, days and nights, but without fortune."

"Where is the necklace?"

"I threw it in the river. The south wind deceives everyone."

"You were deceived, but not by Sarasha. A man or a sorcerer hid in the rocks above you and threw the necklace to tempt you."

Had she actually not seen through this simple trickery? She drove her hand down the front of her body, leaving a red line, and turned her face away. "Old Man — Morg-of-the-Hump told me, long ago, that if his spirit went westward before yours, the Nameless Image must go to your hands, no other's."

"I will take it." Gnar returned to the cave. Morca ought to have built a signal fire, or screamed loudly enough to be heard up at the caves. Had she only sat there through the day, doing nothing? Guilt? But Morca-of-the-Thin-Flanks surely knew nothing of sorcery.... He sent out a shrill, long cry. The answer floated from the cliffside path; the hunters would come quickly. Five and four suns ago! That was three suns before the hunting-group had set out.

Morca's voice touched him lightly: "It is decided?"

He reminded himself that Morg had set a high value on this difficult woman. "It is decided. After the purifications you may eat, drink, and sleep. You will be among my women."

"I will try to please you," she said indifferently.

He nodded, thinking: The slayer is to be slain, by my hand. I have undertaken it, my brother.

Dashim-the-Chatterer walked with Gnar, a proper half-pace behind. Ahead, two carried and two guarded the body of Morg-of-the-Hump.

Morca followed, with Kofar. Perhaps she did wrong to touch the child before purification. Obviously she must not touch a man; but Kofar was a child of scant promise, who perhaps ought to have been put away. Gnar asked: "Suchin, Mas, Mani?"

Dashim's forehead crinkled. "Old Man, they separated from us three suns east of here. They were to hunt in land not well known to us and return by the ford in the north. Then we were delayed, finding aurochs and following. The three should have been here before us."

"By whose wish did they separate from you?"

"The wish of the young men. Suchin-of-the-Hairy-Back was pleased to join them. Cogan-of-the-Red-Mark permitted it. Is the Old Man angry?"

Gnar-of-the-Long-Arms did not answer. He thought: The two who hate me, and one who honors me. Camgar, O Great Guide, protect the return of Mani who respects the laws. But in justice his mind persisted: Suchin respects the laws. He challenged me according to the laws. Persisting still: Let them all return, even Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth....

There was pain in Gnar, so like pain of the flesh, that he wondered if he had wrenched his body lifting his brother's weight for the bearers. There were images from the past, always of Morg — some from the far past. Morg the boy of twisted shoulders, wrestling with him in the deep sunlight. Morg the man of silences, unpredictable words. Morg-of-the-Hump who never quarreled, yet was feared. Morg telling him — him only — of journeys into the dark where there was moonlight spilling from the wings of owls; Morg saying — smiling on the words — that Camgar was in the dangerous night as surely as in the day. The wise brother putting in his hands the spear of Samar; and showing him the Singing Stick....

I am bewitched. There is sorcery against me. But I will not yield. He wrestled with the pain; his mind was a darkness like smoke, memory a flame seen through smoke, bitter and brilliant; he wrestled with it, finding love to be one form of sorcery not lightly overcome.

Fingering the Nameless Image, yet scarcely aware of it, Gnar fell back to walk beside Morca. Her eyes were stubbornly downcast. "Did any man seek to come to you while my brother lived?"

Her hands tightened to harmless fists. "Is it the fault of women —"

"I look for no fault, but for truth."

She said at last, flushed and sullen: "No man desires me. I am thin. Even the Homeless-Wandering despise me."

Gnar thought: It is like lifting water in the hands — the meaning slips away. A new thought clamored: How can the death be sorcery? A sorcerer steals life without a wound — with fever, blotching of skin, wasting of flesh. He needs no little sticks.... Camgar, O Great Guide, what must I do? ...

Holding the spear on crossed legs, motionless beside his brother, Gnar heard the three return at the end of latest-day. He heard the challenge of the sentinel Cogan, the dark voice of Suchin-of-the-Hairy-Back answering: "One fire only. None to meet us?"

"Death, Suchin-of-the-Hairy-Back." On duty or in time of trouble, solemn Cogan would not have dreamed of using the simple form of address. "No dances till the death dances. We stay apart from the women."

Mas, drawling with anger: "I and my brother have no women."

Cogan's enormous hand cracked on Mas's cheek. Gnar thought: Can my brother have no peace? Then came Mani's voice, warm, placating: Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth meant no harm, Cogan-of-the-Red-Mark. Who has been taken?"

Cogan said only: "The Old Man has begun the watching. Go quietly. Tell of the hunt if he gives you leave."

They were beyond the watch-fire, waiting permission to set down their burdens. Gnar let the waiting be long. When at last he pointed to the ground, Suchin dropped a haunch of elk. Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth, his cheek still reddened, set down another haunch, with the heart and liver. Mani-Who-Smiles had brought the whole carcass of a half-grown doe, blood matted at the base of her torn throat. Gnar glanced permissively at Suchin.

"Old Man, we separated from the others three suns ago —"

"Who decided that?"

Suchin grunted. Mani waited for his brother who was silent, and said: "In the second night my brother dreamed of elk." He glanced again at Mas, who nodded idly. "When we talked of this during Light-That-Wakes, it seemed from certain signs that the elk he found in the dream was moving into the north country."

Gnar motioned to Suchin to continue.

"After leaving the others, we three also separated, each to take a part of the new ground, agreeing to meet at the north ford before the end of three suns. My part was pine forest; I found nothing. At late-day of the second sun I was at the ford, alone. I slept in a tree not too near-the ford, fearing leopard. At the rising of the sun just gone, I hunted near the ford, without luck, but at high-sun Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth came and told of killing an elk. I went with him. When we returned with what we could carry it was late-day, and Mani-Who-Smiles was at the ford with the little deer."

Gnar had watched the dead face of Morg-of-the-Hump. He flickered a glance at Mas. "Tell of the elk."

"A good bull. My first throw cut the flank; I followed till night, again at morning — then he was down. I slit the throat."

"And the deer?"

Mani was staring at the body of Morg-of-the-Hump; the others had averted their eyes; he spoke without sign of pride: "Old Man, no more than a fawn. I came on her where she was lying in tall grass. She fled and my spear found her."

Gnar looked a third time into his brother's face. A third time Morg-of-the-Hump gave no sign. Gnar said: "Take your rest."

Suchin and Mani moved away; the women would attend to the meat. Mas lingered. "Things change," he said, with a studied yawn. "We have been a long time under one leadership."

Gnar's hand was quiet on the spear. "You were taught the laws, wolf-whelp. When the time is right and the dances are ended, I will meet you, and spread your blood on the ground if it must be so."

Mas looked almost tranquil then. He said: "I will meet you." That was according to the laws. He walked up the ledge toward the harsh path to the burial grounds, to rest somewhere out there in the higher darkness with the sky over him, and not in the cave where wolf-spirits had found his mother.

Give my brother light on the westward journey, Camgar, O Great Creator, Restrain the north wind Sruhurr, restrain him...

And there were challenges to be spoken against the invisible: leopard-women of the Homeless-Wandering who would try to entice Morg-of-the-Hump with swayings of lust; devils who might steal parts of his flesh to bind the spirit.

Twice Morca, smeared with mud and ashes, came with fuel for the fire, according to the laws. After the watching she would go to the stream below the cliff and wash away the ritual stains; at the dances in the burial grounds she could gash her cheeks and wail with the other women. Now she moved, as she ought to do, like a small ghost not ready for life. It was physical agony to Gnar when a screech from Camo met Morca's return to the cave. The silence had become a perfect thing, a clear pool in the dark; this noise was a familiar shame. "Snake! Snake!" Camo screamed at Morca. "Look, look at her loins — she never gave birth. A black snake that kills, that bites in the dust — but I bore two sons. There were two wolves —"

Gnar heard Croma-Who-Speaks-Softly cuff the madwoman to silence, not gently. The pool of silence slowly cleared.

A new struggle raged now below the silence of Gnar's mind. The great laws are unequivocal. If he were to do what the strongest part of him was driving him to do, he would be himself a lawbreaker. The bodies of the dead are holy, never to be touched in any but the ritual ways. Yet when we give the body to the earth the spirit abandons it, flies westward with the soul of the spear and the soul of the drinking horn....

If a man dies by the hand of an ordinary enemy, that enemy must be found. But what if, to do this, one must break another law?

Gnar fought with himself till the Moon-Spirit had changed from golden to white. Then he called softly, in simple speech: "Cogan! Cogan! Wake Ducam-the-Dreamer to take your watch and come here to me."

The big man appeared, puzzled but ready. Gnar studied him, shrinking from a decision that could never be recalled. "Cogan, friend — witness what I must do, and do not prevent me. If Camgar strikes me down, then take my place and see that the watching is completed."

He moved Morg's body face down across his thighs; trembling, he spread the bones and forced out the wooden fragment. Its end was a flint, small beyond reason, shaped like a spearhead, grooved like a spearhead to take the shaft. Cogan groaned. Gnar said harshly: "What is sorcery?"

"They are all around us," Cogan whispered. "What have you done?"

"I have done what I must. And I still live, Cogan. Stay with me."

"I will stay, Old Man."

Later, Gnar called Croma-Who-Speaks-Softly and said to her: "Go among the caves; ask if any woman has lost a necklace of painted clay, perhaps five and five suns ago."

When she returned to tell him there had been no such loss, he said: "You are good and useful, Croma. Take your rest."

Much later in the long night Gnar murmured: "It is on you, Cogan, to oversee the feasting. When this watching is done I must go away. I will return before the dances. Or if I do not return at all, leadership is with you, a second brother to me, a respecter of the laws."

The second Light-That-Wakes ended the watching: Gnar went away. At high-sun of the same day he returned from the north, following the stream below the cliff, with the Singing Stick and the bundle in wolf-hide.

When he had left the caves at Light-That-Wakes, the boy Kofar had followed; Gnar had seen him, ordered him back with horrid-looking shakings of the spear. The children should be at the burial-grounds, grabbing scraps from the ceremonial feast, keeping out of the way; and no child should ever go alone below the cliffs. But now Kofar-the-Speechless was crouching on a boulder in the brook, pretending invisibility. Gnar growled. Invisibility failing him, Kofar continued to suck his thumb.

Croma hurried from the cliffside path, distracted. "Old Man, my fourth journey after him. Each time I look around he —" Kofar's matted hair gave a fine purchase. He could not speak, but he could howl.

Gnar howled too, letting the laugh ease the pain in him. Even Croma smiled, rubbing tears of exasperation. Gnar's laugh died; he dreaded the feasting that must go on till twilight — his belly would reject it. Worse, he was not ready for what he must do. His search had found its object, but a gap in his knowledge tortured him. "Croma, leave the child with me. He is troublesome; you have much to do; I will watch out for him. Go back, and tell no one — no one, Croma — that I have returned. I will be at the burial grounds for the dances."

"Understood."

"Is all going well at the feasting?"

"As well as may be when Gnar is not there."

There was wisdom, he thought, in the laws that allowed women to speak sometimes in this way. "It is well. Now leave the child with me."

There was flat ground between the brook and the base of the cliff. An oak gave shade and the grass was warm. Respectfully, Kofar chewed his thumb.

It had been easy, that remembered trail from the spot where Morg had died. It led to a narrow part of the river which was not hard to cross, and continued under the pines on the far side — a trail made not by a sorcerer but by a man whose feet must disturb the ground and leave dim mud-spots on the rock.

Even the hiding-place of the Singing Stick, halfway to the north ford, was plain — irregularities at the foot of a tall pine, a pale mark where a hand, not a claw, had dislodged a flake of bark, an edge of the wolf-hide not quite concealed in a crotch. When first stolen, no doubt the things had been hidden more carefully, or Morg would have recovered them. After he died, perhaps his murderer had had only contempt for lesser men.

The wolf-hide held other sticks, as Morca had said: four of ash, one of oak, three of pine. Gnar laid them on the grass with the Singing Stick and its thong, motioning Kofar away. Each stick was flint-headed, the flints not too carefully made — Morg had never had great skill in that art, lacking the patience. One had an end whittled flat; six were unaltered from the original cut; one pine stick had three wing-feathers of a hawk bound to it with thin deer-hide. The flint on this feathered stick had marks of dry blood in the chipped hollows.

Gnar tried throwing the sticks at the oak. Impossibly light. "Bring them back to me, Kofar." Kofar loved the game....

The one with the whittled end hit the trunk cleanly and clung, but fell before Kofar could touch it. The feathered one revolved, dropping more gradually at the flint end, but it was erratic, hard to aim. True, Morg's arm had been stronger. But how could such trifles kill?

Gnar put the sticks back in the wolf-hide, seeing Kofar's mouth wobble in disappointment. Well, if Morg had told his woman not to fear the noise of the thong, perhaps it could also keep a child from squalling. He fitted the feathered stick to the Singing Stick, as he had seen his brother do, and he plucked the thong. Kofar was white-eyed with awe, too delighted even to scratch. A drum-sound, Gnar thought: darkly soft, yet not magic — a natural thing like the hurry of water over stones. A sound to please a child.

He unfastened the thong, astonished again at the strength needed for bending the Stick. "Kofar, do you know what a sentinel is?" The boy nodded violently. "Stand watch then; wake me at any least danger. Kofar, a sentinel who fails in his duty is thrown to the wolves. Understand?" Kofar-the-Speechless nodded. Gnar wondered. He would sleep of course with ears awake, hand on spear. He lay with his chest sheltering the little sticks and the Singing Stick. "Kofar, wake me when Light-God-Too-Bright-To-See is above the cliff." The boy agreed again, serious and proud. Gnar was touched by tenderness, observing the stern, pot-bellied pose. And then he sank to a deeper world...

Gnar woke, angered at the lateness — it was twilight; angered to see the boy twenty paces away, back turned. Gnar stood up quietly, meaning to steal up and administer a discipline that Kofar would remember into late manhood. But he halted.

Alone, thwarted, bored, incorrigibly squirrel-minded, Kofar had found a short branch of ash and made his own Singing Stick, strung with a cord of braided grass. He squatted by the brook, gravely placing pebbles in the center of the cord, drawing the cord back, snapping the pebbles into the water with a happy clunk. As Gnar watched, Kofar tried the action of a long twig instead of a pebble; it flew merrily over the brook and parted the grass on the other side....

They waited for Gnar at the burial ground; not gorged, for this feasting was ritual. Tomorrow would be feasting of another sort. Gnar had felt heavily old as he climbed the path, sending Kofar ahead. He slapped the little rump, murmuring: "You may be a man in a few summers. Now go to your brown-eyed mother."

The women and children were in a group, but Morca sat apart, head on her knees. She was ritually clean; she should have been with the others. Ducam-the-Dreamer knelt by the drum-log, but Gnar gave no sign. At the edge of bare ground, Sunis-the-Singer and Dunifor-the-Stumbler had made the grave: the seven rocks stood ready to be placed three at the north, three at the south, one at the east, leaving the western side free. The body of More-of-the-Hump waited, clothed in leopard-skin, for a part of his journey would be cold. Gnar saw the spear and the drinking horn.

"Suchin," he said informally, "stand there." He pointed to a place on the open ground. "Mas, son of Camo, stand three paces from him. Mani — there." One of them, he knew, might not have obeyed him but for the silent will of the tribe. Gnar tossed his spear to the ground. He raised the Singing Stick, tense with its thong, and the feathered stick, its best servant. "Suchin-of-the-Hairy-Back, you challenged me once."

"I challenged according to the laws. I accepted defeat."

Gnar drew back the thong. As he had learned from trials in the last hour of twilight, the feathered stick took from the thong a life of its own, quivering, mad for release. "When you hunted in the north, you were apart from the others, not far from our valley. On the second night of that hunting in the north, my brother was slain."

"And the others were apart from me," said Suchin.

"Do you accuse them, or one of them?"

"I know nothing of it. What toy is that, Old Man? Do you threaten me with magic? I had no hand in the death of the wise man."

Gnar-of-the-Long-Arms let the thong relax. "Go back among the others. Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth, you challenged at an improper time."

"The time was wrong," Mas admitted. "Not the challenge."

"It is dangerous to challenge the wise. Camgar the Great has given me part of my brother's wisdom, Mas, using the hands of a dumb child. He has shown me the soul of this device, made by my brother, and called by him the Singing Stick. By this my brother himself was killed. Mas, this Stick is death. And it smells out truth like a wise man, yet it is not sorcery."

Mas chuckled. "Riddles for women around a comfortable fire."

"Go back among the others."

This was the moment Gnar had feared, ever since the evening when the three returned and told of the hunt: the moment when there could be only bleak truth between him and Mani-Who-Smiles. He did not draw back the cord. "Mani, I am old but not blind. Did the little doe flee toward you, Mani, so your spear could find her throat? No, you stalked her; you whistled to make her freeze, facing you, searching for you in the grass. Then the feathered servant of the Stick drew back, like this —"

"It was for the tribe!" Mani screamed. "Morg should have given the Stick to the tribe. I took it for the tribe —"

"And hid it in the pines, carelessly, thinking: 'Now the strength of Morg-of-the-Hump is in me — the rest are children and old women.' My brother would have given this to the tribe in his own time, in his own fashion. As I do now. As I show its use —"

Mani ran stumbling. Gnar lifted the Singing Stick, plucked quickly. The flint entered Mani's back, as one had stricken Morg; he fell as Morg had fallen; after a while he lay still.

There was only one who cried out and started toward him; she stopped, and hid her face again. Camo-Followed-by-the-Hawk had not cried out, but made dry sounds like laughter, mirthless and vague. Gnar said: "The law demands that his body be thrown over the cliff to the wolves."

There was an emptiness of time, no one moving. Then Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth lifted the body in his arms. He crossed to the place where the path went down to the caves. Gnar said for his ears only: "A challenge may be withdrawn before blood, without shame."

Mas said: "Let me pass."

"Are you to meet me after the dances?"

"I do not know. Let me pass, Old Man."

Gnar-of-the-Long-Arms stood aside.

There was the Dance of the Breaking of Bonds. Mas-Watcher-of-Mammoth did not return for his part in it. The hours passed.

There was the Dance of False Offering, when the north wind Sruhurr, in the form of a mask on the body of Dashim-the-Chatterer, foolishly accepted an image of bundled grass in place of the dead man's true spirit. The drum then spoke with a louder courage.

There was the Dance of Enticement. A leopard-woman of the Homeless-Wandering, acting in the body of Suchin's woman, was to meet a mimic death from mimic spears of bright-cloud spirits. Seeing that Morca-of-the-Thin-Flanks did not rouse herself for this, Gnar went to stand over her and ask softly: "Was there ever a necklace?"

She did not look up. "I threw it in the river."

"When?"

"When Morg-of-the-Hump had died, and I knew the slayer."

"It did not come from the sky, but from a youth skilled in warm words. Perhaps he left you sleeping in the sun when he stole —"

Morca whimpered in the dark. "Your spear knows what to do."

"He came often, watching, hiding, searching out my brother's secrets when you thought he came only for you."

"I was — much alone...."

The Old Man Samar would not have hesitated. Gnar thought: Can there be times when the laws themselves must change? And this thought was more terrible to him than the death of a brother; but he said: "It can be forgiven. The law is in me. You will work at whatever is required of you, obey my needs, live as the other women do. You will respect the laws."

That thought burned in him as he spoke the Invocation, calling the south wind to quiet the gray water for his brother. In time, it was Light-That-Wakes. The dances were completed....

A thin finger of morning touched the ledge in the cave where Gnar had placed the Nameless Image. In shadow was the bison of the swinging head; he took no pleasure in it. But there was a strength in the Image, so incomprehensibly old. Made by Men-Here-Before-Us — who could grasp such antiquity as that? "It tells me, Gnar, that even gods die or go away...."

Gnar went unwillingly where one could look down and see what the wolves had left. But the grass was unmarked, except by a new trail of a man crossing the valley to the ford. Gnar descended the cliff wearily, to follow this trail — drowsy, knowing something of the end of it, but not all.

The trail was that of a man heavily burdened, who had crossed the ford and gone on, still burdened, until a turn of the river put the pines between him and the cliffside caves. Here, hidden in a clearing, there was troubled earth, and the seven stones, open on the westward side. The trail continued — the lighter steps of a man hunting a new living-place.

Gnar sat a while in the early sun. The laws change. But the laws also endure: that is my part — the part of the Old Man, the leader of the tribe...


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