Claw of the Hawk
A Dancer of Etan
Orah stood alone on the high cliff as the winds of dawn whirled his golden
hair behind him in soft rhythms of glory. As was customary among the Lords
of Etan, he was wearing a sleeveless argent robe; on his feet were molded
wooden sandals laced halfway to the knee.
The Etan Lord was strong: even standing relaxed, his powerful body flowed
in innocent rhythm, expanding and contracting in divine harmony from
nothing more than the throbbing of his pulse.
Lord was beautiful: if the unknown land below held observers, they might
easily mistake him for a god. Vestige of his pre-dawn climb, his slightly
azure skin glistened, accenting his perfect features in the same way as
the morning dew dances over a flawless copen hyacinth.
Lord was sad: again today, expanding his awareness to the north had
revealed nothing new.
Orah sighed, gave up trying to wrest impossible solutions from the virgin
land below and strode swiftly down the scree and shale, thinking, Two
months northward without a sign. How much further will Althea’s request
propel me? But even as he asked, he knew the answer was in the
question: to fulfil a desire of his sister, the Healer of Etan, he would
travel to the end of their world.
rivers," she had told him soon after the birth of the new year. "Find me
this lost land of seven rivers, Orah. There lies a treasure so precious no
price can do it justice, a secret warded by a power so heinous the future
of Etan itself is held in the balance."
of this world could challenge our father Swayam?" he had laughed back at
her words in utter disbelief.
had only repeated, "Find me this land of seven rivers, brother. For there
the fate of the Etanai will be determined for all time."
understanding nothing, Orah had that day left his father Swayam and mother
Shatarupa, his wife Chavva and his many brothers and sisters and walked
northward from Etan across the ice and then the vast barren plains.
~ ~ ~
rivers. The one below running westward to the sea I shall count and name.
For this much I know: none has passed this way before.
saddened by this long and so far pointless journey over the desolate
plains, but his sadness was tempered by gratitude that he was at last
coming down from Vadil’s continental plateau. Perhaps these lowlands might
hold something more interesting than rough heath and small scurrying
rodents. Nothing of the world outside of their paradise Etan seemed worth
even a moment’s passing glance. Treasure? Danger? What was she talking
about? As Swayam always told us, I have confirmed in these two months:
save for Etan, Martanda is dead.
~ ~ ~
passed near the base of the cliff. It was broad, languid, yellow, green,
oddly warm for early spring. " ‘Haskel,’ I name you, first river,"
Orah said as he waded into the water. "For truly, I am in need of wisdom."
river proved easy — a short, effortless swim. Here the Etan saw the first
animate life in the lowlands — small, silver-gray fish, primitively scaled
on the far shore was dense; Orah followed the narrow beach eastward until
he discovered a small tributary heading due north. Here he discovered that
the water of Haskel had stained his robe a light ocher. A sudden wave of
dismay flowed through him, followed by mindless fear. Pushing his heart
away from the unfamiliar emotions, he reasoned that the two months of
solitude had started affecting him.
not at once recognize how the malefic power of the land was responsible
for altering his mood. But marking his return to calmness, he discovered
he no longer felt alone! He felt two others closely watching him, studying
his progress. One, with a deep hope and fathomless love imperfectly
cloaking a profound despair; the other, with emotions never before
encountered and therefore not understood: contempt, hatred, a dark,
searched the jungle but found no source for the feelings of these two. Was
his mind creating them from loneliness? Fantasizing to compensate for his
~ ~ ~
leading Orah northward through the jungle for an hour, the small stream
bent westward. The Etan continued along it for awhile as its banks
steepened and its current accelerated, but soon its path ended in a small
pool and spring.
turn again northward here or retrace his steps to the bend? The jungle
looked equally impassable everywhere. But when he knelt to fill his pouch
from the pool (When might he find such clear water again?), Orah saw an
odd little rock shaped exactly like a hand, pointing directly northward.
He pulled the moss and lichens from it but could not learn if it were
carved or natural. How can I question its origin? he asked himself,
surprising himself again by the possibility of doubt. No one else has come
here since father Swayam and mother Shatarupa planted Etan. Of this much I
for the sign, Orah shrugged off the mystery. Muttering, "North, always
north," he adjusted his few belongings in his shoulder pouch, then
clambered up the hill and into the jungle.
~ ~ ~
seemed tightly woven from the stream, but they grew closer and thicker
until the passage was virtually impenetrable toward the true north.
Whenever there were openings, even crawling holes, they led westward. He
fought his way until twilight; a more or less dry and open place in the
multiplying swamp was too inviting to ignore.
He did not
trust the plants enough to taste them — he had seen nothing since the
plains that he knew. And the fundamentally disquieting feeling of the land
was increasing; Orah felt anything growing in such an emotionally
distorted space would have a questionable effect on his mind. But the Etan
had carefully portioned his waybread through his two months’ journey,
fasting often rather than partaking of it. As he felt the life from her
work restoring his mind and spirit, he was thankful again that his sister
Althea was an incomparable master of the subtle powers of life, of the
back on the moss, contented with life, dreamily identifying his newly
discovered constellations, Archer, Bull, Ram, Lion... "Lion!" He leapt to
his feet, gaping at the firmament. "The eye! Where is the eye?" The
brightest star of the group was missing.
waited impatiently for the cloud to pass as he quieted his heart, but no
vapor covered the heavens: the eye of the Lion was simply, irrevocably
gone. An eclipse! It must be eclipsed, he thought, but knew it was
impossible. Searching the sky feverishly, he found nothing else amiss.
until the Lion was hidden by the trees, but could wrest no further meaning
from the suddenly imperfect order of Narain’s Garden.
remaining few hours of night were not restful. But at dawn, Orah quieted
the inner conflict, telling himself there was always a logical explanation
had remained utterly still during the night. Apparently neither diurnal
nor nocturnal animals existed below the plains. "A land of questionable
plants and no beasts!" he cried, already learning much of contempt. "Hah!
That is too generous. ‘Nilfecund Swamp’ I name you, first river’s
land: you are riotous with deadly malodorous plants, devoid of animate
~ ~ ~
came to a second river by noon of the third day following. A few noxious
insects had made their appearance, still no mammals. He had therefore
confirmed his mistrust of the plants and moved warily, almost as if
fearing they might attack him for crossing their demesne.
was a memory; he had constantly waded and swum for the past two days. The
first warning he was finally through the Nilfecund Swamp came when he
pushed through two interlaced trees and was pulled by a gentle current.
river was a lighter green than Haskel, but not as wide. Golden light
filtered through the trees to sparkle and dance on its water; dappled fish
leapt for the iridescent lacewings and enormous variegated butterflies
flitting everywhere over its surface.
This is your name, river; you are lovely," he murmured as he swam across.
He felt the vibrant life of the many small creatures of the new shore; he
knew the plants here would not harm him.
his robe, but it was permanently altered: erratic gray and amber blotches
competed chaotically with dull umber stains, the unpleasant memories of
the foul waters and poisonous secretions of the hanging plants and
grasping vines of Nilfecund. Orah lacked the skill to cleanse it.
grew less closely together on this shore, as if they had abandoned the
primitive struggle of the far side, or had once even felt the touch of a
civilized hand. Yes, this land could be the remnant of a garden! badly
deteriorated, but intelligently planted and maintained in the
not-too-distant past. Finding what might have long ago been an orchard, he
filled his nostrils greedily with the blossoms’ sweet scent, wondering the
improbable, How? almost as much as the impossible, Who?
larger grew the trees as the ground rose and became rockier: willow and
cottonwood gave way gradually to spruce and maple, then hemlock and cedar.
The Etan saw a bare hill to the northwest and decided to climb above the
forest and finish recovering from the swamp in the warm afternoon sun.
~ ~ ~
was strange — smooth, spherical, a polished dome of fused ebony metal. He
examined it carefully but could discover no reason for its existence. "Yehokhanan-Ishtar
could perhaps explain it," he said, thinking fondly of his brother, the
Architect of Etan.
responded to his emotion, coloring the metal slightly lighter. His
surprise one of delight, he played with different feelings: friendliness,
love, happiness. With each impulse, the hill brightened; by the end of an
hour, it was a brilliant scarlet.
laughed and, abandoning all caution, danced a movement of unrestricted joy
on the sentient hill, wedding his graceful talent to the flowing color
beneath his flying feet. Faster and faster he leaped and spun; the metal
returned his perceptions in graceful moving patterns, dancing lightning in
harmony with his soaring spirit.
But as his
expression rose closer and closer to the supreme catharsis of universal
ecstasy, a doubt erupted in his mind, Who created this hill? At
once the metal changed to an angry carmine, spotted by a rapidly returning
ebony. Orah at once started down, thinking with fear, It could be a
Etan might truly have gone on then; the fate of the Lion Lords of Gurion
would have been vastly different. But as he was about to step into the
forest, a message from Althea flew to him, bearing the form of a golden
dove. The bird landed gracefully on his hand, folded her aureate wings
with the deftness of a master, then sang in Althea’s voice, "Pass the
night on my thought-hill Ezera, brother; your dreams will be of truth,
they will direct you well into the unknown north."
ruffled her feathers, cooed once softly, then disintegrated with a gentle
cascading of sound and light — like a thousand tiny golden bells dulcetly
ringing, then collapsing into rainbow prisms. Ezera responded with a flash
of purest silver and then with a kaleidoscopic display centered around the
dual themes of aureate and argent. Its gradually slowing rhythms lasted
well past sunset.
hill at last ended its changes in a gentle saffron, the Etan found a
depression near the summit and lay down to watch the stars appear. A low
haze had hung over the swamp every night after the first; he had not yet
confirmed the strange damage to the heavens. But now the sky was crystal
clear, there could be no doubt: the Lion’s eye was as gone as if it had
never been. With this discovery, he heard distinctly what he had subtly
felt since descending from the continental plateau: a distant, persistent
sobbing and an answering, dark laughter of hideous malice, of conscious
desecration, of purest hate. Hearing these perversely related voices was
at once a challenge and an abomination far beyond the range of previous
experience. Orah stared toward the missing star and let the sounds carry
him, sure his imagination must be creating such odd violations of the
drifted to sleep, the keening of sorrow and the echoing scorn gradually
transformed to become the background music in a large hall filled with
strangers, men and women with black and white and yellow and red skin, men
and women not of Etan.
never before known anyone other than his immediate family: they were the
only inhabitants of their city Etan; as far as anyone knew, the only
people on Martanda. And this was his first journey, the first of any Etan
toward the north.
Swayam had not forbidden his odd desire, but the absence of approval was
still a heavy burden. But Althea had constantly nourished the sapling of
his intention, until it had grown to become a mighty oak of unwavering
no longer Orah’s great passion in his dream. Now his life’s duty was
simply to hold a torch. At first he felt it a unique honor, but then saw
that everyone in the hall held similar torches or gems alive with radiant
all expressions of the One, he thought; the walls vanished as the Oblation
Bearers floated away in every direction. No one moved with effort, yet all
retreated from him alone. With a flash of intuition, he realized they all
shared the experience. Like the suns of the expanding universe, he
thought, wondering how to become a star.
question, his dream changed: he was back in Etan with his family. But now
he alone held a torch. Perhaps because of it, the old familiar
understandings no longer applied to him, no longer bound him to their
implicit demands. It was not that he loved Chavva or the others any less,
but now his mind appreciated a more complete truth. Althea alone
empathized fully; the others considered him with a peculiar admixture of
amusement and curiosity, but did not, could not, understand. "How can it
matter? All limited pain leads to universal good," said Yehokhanan-Ishtar.
And Bhishaj, Althea’s husband, said, "It is beautiful, but what of your
dancing? Is not Father’s gift enough?"
was on Orah’s lips, "Dancing is my all!" but his dream changed again: now
he was once more fording the river he had named Haskel. He crossed as
before, but the sculpted stone hand on the tributary was now living but
ulcerous flesh, grotesquely beckoning him northward. The Nilfecund Swamp
was rife with quicksand and poisonous serpents; the Camlo River no longer
deserved its name — it was moiling with crocodiles and small deadly water
snakes. Ezera was the decaying skull of a dead giant, Orah a small black
ant picking at the rotting flesh.
Althea sent to him was pursued by a blood-red hawk, screaming in his
father’s voice, "The desire to possess opens the gateway to hell!"
message also changed, "Run Orah! Flee northward! Etan dissolves!"
The dove disintegrated with a shriek of agony into a flood of gray and
emptiness, a nothingness, was pushing into Orah’s mind, struggling to gain
form. It swallowed Etan, then the world, then devoured entire suns from
its insatiable need. Orah tried to run from its terrible hunger but found
it surrounding him everywhere. It choked him, attacked his soul,
inexorably forced his spirit to mimic its vile nothingness.
with heart palpitating. But he was thinking calmly, A satellite in a
synchronous orbit could block a star’s light. But why would it not reflect
the sun? He sat up. At first the hill seemed covered by pustules,
cankerworms and carbuncles, but then, as he rubbed his eyes, he remembered
where he was and saw the Red Moon Rohini rising through the quiet beauty
of the starlit night. Orah laughed, remembering dancing under Martanda’s
seven moons with Chavva. Ezera responded by transmuting into a crystal
sphere of lambent sparkles and reflections.
depression in the rock which at first had felt perfectly molded to his
body now seemed two sizes too small. He reversed his position so that his
head was toward the south, then let his mind explore the heavens. He sent
a triple fiber of earthbreath toward the Lion’s eye, but something blocked
his power so he could learn nothing.
led him gently back to sleep; his energy trine carried him in dream to a
silver castle hidden in the mountains of the distant north. This vision
transformed into a beautiful woman, golden haired with a pale sky-blue hue
to her skin, yet unfamiliar, not of his family.
"I am Leor,"
she said in a gentle, wise voice. "I have waited for you throughout time."
In spite of (or perhaps, because of) the lovely melody of her voice, the
distant hopeless sobbing and scorning laughter returned.
you?" Orah asked, trying to ignore the increasing cacophony of despair and
youngest sister," she answered, her sweet tone not masking the fact that
she also heard.
not have failed to see your birth." It was the habit of the Etanai to
attend every nativity.
laughter had become so obtrusive he feared Leor might not understand him.
But she replied, "You did not fail, yet did not know me. Althea carried me
here. I am the hidden and forgotten fourth child. To him that can discover
and release me I shall reveal all knowledge. Behold!"
her hand in a commanding gesture; the wailing and the dark laughter at
once stilled. Then she expanded toward him, around him, became more and
more refulgent until sunlight seemed like shade. Orah was alone in the
light, became the light, lost everything of himself other than the
infinite, unchanging, perfectly still yet vibrantly alive light.
~ ~ ~
farsighted Healer saw her brother’s dreams reflect in her thought-hill
Ezera, gaining much of hope and grief in the experience: she alone of her
kindred knew of the ill decaying the firmament.
further unexpected and unfortunate fact was that the Lady Althea of Etan
was not alone in viewing Ezera’s answers to Orah’s first dance in
Riversland. And far away, a saprophagous mocking laugh fed itself on
purest malevolence, fed itself and grew stronger.
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