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Sometimes doubt is the way to faith.
Fur-clad men stood before the largest wattle-and-daub hut as their medicine man approached. Cold wind gusted as he entered the chief’s dwelling.
“The chief is dying,” a fur-capped man with sunken cheeks said. “He won’t last through moontime.”
Eniss-a-ne heard the man’s words and glared before following her father through the deerskin door. The young woman’s presence confirmed the chief’s fate, for Eniss-a-ne always joined the medicine man for serious cases.
The healer’s invocation asking the gods to ease the chief’s journey to the next world broke the winter stillness, and resignation settled on the gaunt faces. The dark eyes of one small man, however, glinted with hope. Allarin, called the Skeptic for his contrarian views, had urged migration of the Bear Clan from the valley. “A cold prison of starvation,” he’d called it and been punished for his words, for they rejected the sacred tradition that said this valley was the clan’s home.
“With the chief’s death, we are released from the imagined bond that keeps us here,” Allarin said in a soft voice. “The winters grow colder, the herd flees, and we eat squirrel. Now is the time to find the path. Surely the new chief will allow this.”
Trees creaked and a flurry of snow greeted these words. The clansmen settled deeper into their cloaks and said nothing. Not that Allarin expected a response.
The medicine man emerged from the hut, followed by Eniss‑a‑ne. She pushed her long black hair back and smiled at Allarin. The Skeptic’s pleasure evaporated when Kerouk, the chief’s son, followed. Taller than the others, he had somehow retained his muscles and vigor despite the lack of food. Kerouk always gets his fill, Allarin thought.
“The chief is dead,” Kerouksaid in a resonant voice. He examined the faces in the group and left his eyes on Allarin. “Now I am your chief. This is the night of the full moon, and our tradition will continue. We will await the sign of our gods in the high meadow.”
Allarin had made known his view of the meadow tradition. Now he held his tongue, sure the timid clansmen would appear as ordered to watch the moon and would return from the meadow without seeing a sign. He was half right.
Under moonlight Kerouk led the starving clan to the meadow, a natural depression embraced on two sides by gentle, snow-crusted slopes. High vertical walls of gray granite formed impassable barrier east and west above the inclines. To the north lay the glacier. In the south a wide hunting plain and a broad frozen lake fed by an iced-over stream fronted a dark forest.
Generations back, clan ancestors had entered the valley from the forest, but today a deadly yellow mist blocked that path. Brave hunters had dashed into the mist, seeking its extent, but the few who made it back reported the toxic cloud was impassable. Allarin was sure the herds took a different, safe trail from the valley.
A mist swirled at the cliff tops, but the meadow was clear. Kerouk lifted a hand, and the men began a rhythmic chant beseeching the gods to reveal their message. The chant stopped when the ground rumbled, but Kerouk pounded his staff, and the chant resumed. The rumbling grew stronger.
Allarin leaned toward Eniss-a-ne. “It’s only the earth moving. We’ve felt it before.”
The girl frowned. “Not like this.”
Light flashed atop the west wall. A bright globe appeared and enlarged, forming a transparent craft as large as ten canoes. The ship teetered at the lip of the stone precipice and then plummeted to the snowy slope, the hull sparking on the granite ridge, gathering speed and acquiring detail but not substance. The vessel cast gleams of light toward the watchers. Behind it, other ephemeral boats condensed magically from the fog and began trips into the valley. Tones of singing crystals rode the breeze.
The chanters cowered, then collapsed inward as the first image reached them and passed through, leaving them untouched. Bolder now, the men faced the next ships and threw back their furs, welcoming the onslaught. The vessels sliced through the group and continued across the valley to the east slope. They sailed up the snowfield and reached the granite wall. With a last brilliant flash, the visions disappeared into the rock.
None were more affected by this display than Allarin. His skepticism did not allow such things. Hallucination from hunger, he wondered. Then he decided it was real, for Eniss‑a‑ne gazed at the east wall, smiling. As the last light vanished, Allarin said, “This may be a sign, but we cannot eat a mirage.”
Eniss-a-ne sighed. “At least it shows the gods exist.”
Allarin wrestled with that notion. “Perhaps, but what do they say? They provide images of boats. Men travel in boats. I think we are told to leave this place before the last grazebeast is taken and we starve to death in the unending snow.”
“Kerouk will say the warm season comes.”
“The warm time is shorter each year, the snow time is longer, and the herds are smaller. Our crops produce little in the cold breadth of the northern ice. Do you not remember a time when meat roasted on our fires and our bellies were filled? If we do not escape, this valley will be the clan burial site. When our ancestors arrived here, the clan was ten times our number. Now the elders die young and the young are few. We must follow the herd, while there are still a dozen breeders like you.”
Eniss-a-ne stiffened. “Is that all I am to you?”
“I mean you are young. You are our future healer and must know that lack of food accounts for most of the ills you treat. You should lead us from this frozen place,” he said, wondering if that meant he could never be a leader.
Kerouk approached. “You are a fool, Allarin,” he growled. “You will mind your tongue, or there will be one fewer to compete as a breeder, as if one so slight would ever be chosen.”
Eniss-a-ne grabbed Allarin's arm as he started to speak, but his retort was cut off by the next sign. On a high slope, bear-like creatures with dark bodies, broad white heads, and shiny turquoise eyes appeared. Moonlight shone through their crystalline forms as they began to prance, leaping to some unheard rhythm, bouncing on the snow, and zigzagging in harmony as they descended the hill. Their broad paws fell silently into the snow crust, bursting diamond showers high into the air.
In stillness they came, bounding and sparkling, the aquamarine eyes probing the circle of clanspeople. The elders chanted, holding the clansmen fixed and cringing as the apparitions passed through them. The air behind the visions faded to darkness as they danced up the east slope and burst a bright shower against the rock wall. Fog settled over the stunned clan. There would be no more signs.
Eniss-a-ne realized her people faced a crisis. Kerouk demanded they stay in the valley and Allarin urged leaving. Both men were stubborn, their minds as set as midwinter ice. Something had to be done to break the stalemate. She found Allarin in his hut, sitting before a small fire. He said nothing, apparently content to feel the meager warmth of dancing flames.
Eniss-a-ne started with a question. “Have you been convinced, Allarin? That we are watched by gods and have seen their signs?”
Allarin added another branch to the fire. “I am still thinking. If those visions were a sign, we are being told to leave the valley.”
“Which is what you want. So now you have support. What will you do?”
“What can I do? The new chief will not permit migration. No more than his father would.”
“He cannot stop a group of the young and fit.”
“Kerouk will never let breeders depart,” Allarin said. “I suppose I could speak to him.”
“You need to do something more than talk.”
“I cannot fight Kerouk. He is a head taller with muscles from always taking his share of every kill.”
E-niss-a-ne examined Allarin, as if to confirm his thinness. “There are fewer and fewer kills. Even Kerouk must feel hunger. We have stored little food, and the worst of winter is yet to come. Somehow you must sway him.”
“He will say the herd will return with spring.”
Eniss-a-ne wrapped her cloak about her and rose to leave. “You don’t believe that.”
Allarin joined a hunting party at dawn, still thinking of the woman’s words. The hunters pushed deep into the plain toward the southern forest, finding but a few rabbits. They saw no sign of grazers or deer. At day’s end, as darkness thickened and tiny, biting snowflakes began to fall, the hunters sat before a small fire eating roasted rabbit. Allarin gazed at the distant yellow fog beyond the trees and considered Eniss-a-ne’s notion that a group could convince Kerouk of the truth.
“There must be a way out of the valley,” Allarin said, “for the herd has left. If we are to survive, we must follow.”
Re-lan, son of the third elder, replied. “Our tradition teaches that this is our home. To join the gods in the next life, we must abide in the land our forebears led us to.”
“But now the gods have given us a new sign in the crystal images. The sign is the ships that tell us to travel. The proof is our starvation. Isn’t it time to discard old customs?”
Re-lan chewed on another chunk of rabbit before he answered. “You have no authority. If Kerouk hears, he will punish you as he has punished others.”
“But surely he will listen if a group of us seek permission to leave.”
“Unless you find the path from this valley, your talk is foolish and too free.”
Days later the hunters returned to the village with a few rabbits, squirrels, and a small deer. Allarin had found no allies in the group. While starving clansmen ate meager portions, Kerouk claimed a whole rabbit for himself, only offering a piece to Eniss-a-ne. She turned away from the extra portion.
Allarin stood. “Eat it, woman, for we can no longer be choosers in this cursed valley.”
Kerouk rose, opened his mouth as if to speak, and then closed it. He swung his walking stick and caught Allarin in the knee. The Skeptic grunted in pain and fell. The chief strode forward, ready to strike again, but Allarin rolled away and then scrambled to his feet. He limped from the group.
Eniss-a-ne followed Allarin to his hut. She added wood to the fire and examined the bruise. “Nothing is broken, but it will hurt for a few days. Wait here.” She stepped out and returned with a chunk of ice wrapped in a skin. “Hold this on your knee.”
Allarin did as he was told. “What would change their thinking?” he asked.
Eniss-a-ne lifted the man’s face. “You know the answer.”
Weak morning sun glistened the snowfield when Allarin reached the chanting site. His now believed in gods and signs, but the moonlight display did not mean he should sit and do nothing. Searching for evidence of the crystal bears was doing something. He scanned where the clansmen as stood to face the ships and bears. The men’s footprints had vanished beneath new snow. Ignoring the pain in his knee, he ascended the west slope from which the ships and bears had descended, looking for anything that might add to the message. At the rock face, he turned back.
The north sky filled with billowing clouds, and the temperature dropped. Once back to the valley floor, Allarin was about to give up when his eyes traced the path by which the ships and bears had left the valley. He considered his interpretation that the ships meant travel. The bears—could they represent the clanspeople?—had followed the ships, all the way up the east slope and into the granite abutment.
He climbed to the east, but reached only halfway to that wall when his shadow vanished and a light snow began. Additional snow cover would hide evidence and keep it hidden until spring. If any of us are alive in the spring to find it. Doubt flooded in and he wanted to turn back, to give up. He was wasting his time. If only he had Kerouk’s strength. He wrapped his furs about him in fading light and admitted he was a foolish weakling. He turned toward the village, then stopped. If he truly believed there was a path, he must find it. Only a coward ignored his belief. Tired and hungry, his knee aching, he resolved to continue his search in the morning.
In a copse of dwarf firs, Allarin made a fire, and sat, cold and without food, thinking death from cold was not so bad. A flash of light at the edge of the fire’s glow interrupted his morose hunger.
He struggled to his feet and went to the spot. A fist-sized crystal sphere covered with fine facets too perfect to be natural glowed on a patch of ice. This had to be the sign, he thought as he picked it up. Warmth and heat infused his body and eased his pain. Back at the fire he discovered the markings, vertical lines he could not interpret. He covered himself with his bearskin and reclined, holding the warming globe to his chest. Dreamless sleep came.
He awoke to grayness, cold, and hunger and retrieved the sphere from where it had fallen. Again warmth suffused his core. He ignored his need for food and resumed the trek up the slope, glad to find his knee no longer ached. The sun crested the eastern wall and beams showed something red in the distance. Closer, Allarin found the color adorned berries the size of acorns, on a bush that shouldn’t be there. He ate, and the first handful of the sweet, juicy fruit stilled his pangs. He shoved aside the fear this was but a death hallucination and walked.
When he reached the barrier, Allarin scanned the vertical rock slab, trying to identify exactly where the apparitions had disappeared. The stone appeared uniform, and he was about to give up when he spotted the dark spot. Lines like those on the sphere streaked the rock face, and drew Allarin’s eyes to an indentation. There, the discoloration became a split, and that enlarged to an opening wide enough for a herd beast. Or a man.
Allarin entered the cleft and found horizontal slabs that rose as steps to the top. He climbed and emerged onto a flat plateau. North of the valley, perhaps a day’s trek away, towered a wall of ice. On the east and west were snow-capped mountains. To the south the plateau descended to the forest that clustered around a depression with a cone-shaped hill. Opaque fumes snaked from the cone to become wisps of yellow vapors in the trees. But there was something else: a path meandered away from the forest to a grassy plain, just the sort of pasture favored by the graze beasts. In fact, in the distance near a broad river he could see black spots. Could this be the herd? He retreated to the crevice and descended, elated at finding the escape path.
On the trip back, however, his elation faded. The clansmen would never risk even taking a look at the plateau, for their beliefs forbade leaving the valley. If only he had some measure of authority. Perhaps the sphere would do it, but how could just having this jewel grant him status? Doubts flooded in, and by the time he reached the outer cluster of village huts, he couldn’t go on. Eniss-a-nee had said, “You need to do something.” So he did what he never did before: he prayed, admitting he needed help. Unheard, Kerouk and Eniss-a-ne approached.
Kerouk spoke calmly. “So you came back. It would have been better to die in the cold. Your words anger me and divide the clan. They question my authority and blame me for the lack of food. This must stop. I think it is time I taught you to think right.” He hefted an ironwood club.
“Don’t,” Eniss-a-ne said.
When Kerouk pushed her back, something snapped in The Skeptic. Anger fired Allarin’s blood, and his fierce eyes showed no fear. With a sense of destiny, he grasped his staff. But Kerouk’s blow snapped the rod in two. The chief swung again, catching Allarin’s head a glancing blow that drove him to the ground. Kerouk was ready to strike again when Eniss‑a‑ne sank nails into his arm.
“Leave him,” she screamed. “He has had his lesson. The clan cannot afford another death.”
Kerouk shrugged, “He is small and useless and cannot take a mate.” The big man picked up his walking stick, lifted Allarin’s loin cloth. “See,” he laughed.
Allarin lost consciousness.
In a dream state, Allarin lay in mist. He felt a presence, but saw no one. When his hand closed on the sphere, the head pain lessened. The crystal changed from clear to blue and began to glow in the shimmered air. From the darkness emerged an ursine beast who spoke soundlessly.
“Use the glass of power, Al-lar-in,” the bear rumbled within the man’s mind, pronouncing his name as three flat syllables. “It will give you the strength and form of a leader, but you must choose the dangerous path.”
Allarin felt a strange sensation of expansion, as if he were being stretched. He stiffened and began to pant. The dream bear pawed his shoulder.
“You must choose,” said the voice.
“A leader has a mate.”
That made dream sense. Just as the sudden presence of a naked human female made sense. Allarin dropped the sphere and put his hands on the woman’s waist. The young form was familiar, beautiful, accepting. He entered the woman and moments later, with an anguished cry, felt a jolting release. He again blacked out.
The dawn was breaking when Allarin woke in his hut, naked under his fur. A crackling fire warmed the air, and Eniss-a-ne sat near, watching, wrapped in her cloak. “I must choose,” he said.
“Choose what?” Eniss-a-ne asked.
Allarin wrestled with the question as he rose. “I will lead.” The arm that wrapped his garment about him seemed muscled. “Let us go,” Allarin said in a changed voice, one now of a deep timbre. “We must prepare to journey.”
“I know how to leave this valley, to find a great plain and a river. I have seen the wall of ice that brings death and the herds that give life.”
Eniss-a-ne came to his side, looked up into his face, and took his hand. “Do we go alone?”
“We need a group able to travel. You know who they are.”
“What will you do?”
“I will tell Kerouk and the leaders that the sign has saved us.”
“He will hurt you.”
“Not if I believe.”
Clansmen had gathered to celebrate the appearance of the crystal bears. Men and women were stacking firewood in front of the dwellings. Kerouk stood to the side directing things and was the first to notice the late arrivals. As Eniss-a-ne went to the young clansmen standing together and spoke quietly, Allarin strode up to Kerouk.
“I would speak with you, Chief. It is time to put aside our dispute, for I know the path from the valley. I know where the herd is.”
Kerouk stepped back, as if startled by Allarin’s new height.
“I will take those who can travel with me,” the Skeptic said, “but we will return.”
“That will not happen.” Kerouk spread his feet, raised his club, and scowled at his unarmed opponent. “Go alone and bring back a herd beast. You can carry one with your new size.”
Allarin let the furs slip from his body, revealing new muscles in thick thighs and bulging biceps. His winter-white skin had bronzed. Somehow, his new belief had transformed him. The crowd shrank back with murmurs of confusion, maybe of awe.
Kerouk hesitated. “Why are you bigger? Is this witchcraft?”
“It is a gift from the gods,” Allarin said, holding up the crystal.
“Muscle will do you little good without a weapon.” Kerouk sent his club at Allarin’s head.
Allarin ducked under the club and circled Kerouk’s waist. He lifted his opponent easily, and flung him to the ground. Kerouk thudded on his back, the air driven from his lungs, and Allarin wrenched the club away and tossed it. The crystal flew with it. Reddened with anger and gasping, Kerouk scrambled to his feet and charged, his shoulder aimed at his opponent’s midsection. Allarin stepped back, and Kerouk stumbled by. The chief whirled and struck Allarin’s shoulder, then sent a fist to his head. Staggered, the Skeptic dropped to his knees.
As Kerouk grab his club, Allarin wondered if his new belief would end in death. He searched in vain for the crystal, then shrugged off his doubt and forced himself up. He launched himself, the club bounced off a shoulder, and Kerouk left himself open. Allarin’s fist smashed Kerouk’s face, sending him down, his nose bloody.
Standing as tall as a brown bear, Allarin loomed over Kerouk. “Enough. Your life will be spared, so you can act as a true chief of the Bear Clan.” He retrieved the crystal and turned to the clansmen. “Listen to my words. This is the source of my strength and is the true sign of the gods. I found it on the path we must follow. The young who can travel must come. We will find the herd and eat.”
Eniss-a-ne handed him his fur. “Twelve will come with us,” she said.
The trek began at first light. Allarin and Eniss-a-ne led six men and six women. Four couples were mated. The elders, absent Kerouk, watched the departure.
“What about the others?” Eniss-a-ne asked.
“I told those who cannot or will not travel that we will return with food. With nourishment, all can follow.” Allarin would come back, for every member of the clan was needed if they were to survive.
Allarin’s mind was filled with even more questions about the meaning of his experience and the reality of what he could no longer doubt. There were gods for him and his people. How else could he explain the bears, the ships, the crystal, his transformation? From that knowledge flowed awe and confidence. He believed in himself.
Two transparent bears materialized beside the group, their lumbering steps shaking the ground. The clansmen entered the east wall and began the climb onto a foggy plateau. The bears faded as the sun warmed the trek, but their paws marked the ground until the mist of doubt parted to release its captives.
I enjoyed this story of courage and the importance of conquering fear for the better good. A great tale!
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