The old man sighed contentedly. Months of eating forage and rations could make even simple waterleaf-wrapped fish taste like the food of kings. He studied his audience by the light of the camp fire. A big part of story telling was getting the timing right. Children sat on laps, or bunched up in whispering groups. Some stared at him boldly, while others peeked shyly from behind fingers or long strands of dark hair. Grandmothers sat patiently, with blanket draped shoulders, tending toddlers or enjoying the silent companionship of one with whom they had grown old. Here and there old men smoked narrow pipes and birthed fragrant clouds.
Two light-hairs stuck out in the crowd, sitting with the Mongweh and his family. In the light of the day the man had hair the color of a winter deer, and the girl, of red honey in the sun. She glanced at him as if sensing his attention and offered a quick smile before turning back to her friend. The old man had been surprised to find that the girl and her father spoke the Yahata’ai language.
Laughter drew his eyes to a group of young men clustered around Hekai, the Mongweh’s eldest son. They ignored the storyteller, strutting like warbirds with ruffs and tails extended. He smiled. Some things hadn’t changed despite the long years. He captured as much of the experience as he could, binding the memories with each of the seven senses as he had been taught. The last time he had crossed this land, the elders of this tribe would have been children. From that time to this he had not seen another of his kind. It was hard to accept that he might be the last. Wherever he went, he spoke to the people, learned their history and recorded their legends. Great stories often grew in unexpected places.
The old man stood. The crackling logs snapped and popped loudly in the silence that followed as eyes turned towards him. He pulled back the hood of his cham and untied the woven belt at his waist. Occasionally the story tellers of other cultures wore similar garments, an ancient reminder of their shared history, but none was quite like this one. Bits of carved stone, tinkling metal, feathers, beads and dozens of other objects hung from the robe. Within its folds cleverly sewn pockets hid many more items both utilitarian and mysterious. Tiny metal guides were sewn in various places, and threaded with sturdy silk cords tied to small rings. The cham was not only clothing, it was a portable stage, with sets, props, costumes and special effects built in.
The old man opened his robe. The firelight illuminated an unusual sword at his hip. It was short, but wider than his palm. The hilt carved of some glossy wood in the form of a large tree, with branches that wrapped the blade up to the narrow guard. A simple thong around his neck held a fist-sized disc that glimmered faintly. His bare chest and legs were lean and muscled. His body was tattooed with scars. Mute evidence of battles fought against blade, and tooth, and claw. It was a map of a history that could not be contrived by artifice. He lifted the token on its thong, and turned so each could see it. A collective gasp rippled through the gathered elders, and tears fell from the eyes of those who understood the significance of the symbol. “I am Kiyo once of the Teogan. The First People. I am Canta’eyeh.” Of all the story tellers of the people, none were as great or as revered as the Canta’eyeh. It is said that they knew all the stories of life and bore the true knowledge of the world contained therein. For two nights the old man had delighted the people with stories that made them sing, and dance, and cry, yet coyly avoided naming himself. No Canta’eyeh had been in their midst, since the fathers of the oldest in the tribe, had been youth and most thought them myths.
The fire flickered in hues of many colors, reflecting off the symbol of the First Tree on the old man’s medallion. He looked at each of the people, young and old, and smiled. His eyes reflected stars and fire. His tone expressed his love. “I have enjoyed sitting with you these past nights and thank you for your gift of food and drink. I also thank you for the gift of your beautiful children.”
No one spoke. The children, sensing something of their parents emotions stared with wide eyes. Even the young warriors had fallen silent. Their bravado stilled by the evidence of battles and struggles beyond their imaginings.
Kiyo smiled to reassure them. He laid the token against his chest again, then paused for a moment. “We are told that all stories are part of the First Story, sung by Yoki as he wooed Amatsin. And that the music of her response gave rise to all of nature. From their union were born all the natural children of the world. We know this. Other races have forgotten and remember only the male influence. The light hairs know him as “The Builder” and the Duar as Fulkan.
Tonight I will sing of Komoro’mai and Merhana.”
Kiyo felt a small charge as he remembered the first time her heard Canta’eyeh Obash recite the tale. It was one of the oldest stories and not often told. The young favored tales of warrior prowess, monsters and heroes. Others preferred the comic, to forget their sorrows for a time. These types of stories were called Yehe’yeh, the little stories. There were also Heo’heyeh, the teaching tales, that reminded people of important principles.
The Keo’heyeh were tales with roots deep in the past. Each contained special meaning and purpose, with elements of history, prophecy or knowledge that must not be forgotten.
The Yahata’ai in their legends speak of their ancestors known as the ‘Bird People’ who came from the stars and traveled across the land with great wings, formed from the hides of the mighty Deragi and the magic known simply as ‘root’. The Bird People mapped and explored all of the world within reach of their wings. So great was their skill, that they vanquished the ancient Khetan who drank the blood and ate the flesh of men.
The most famous of the Bird People was Komoro’mai, a great explorer and prince of his people. One day, as Komoro’mai explored the edges of the vast frozen wastelands of the north, he was swept up by a powerful winter storm. Ice crystals formed on the wings and the weight drove him to the ground. He tried in vain to remove the ice but as quickly as he scraped it reformed. He sheltered beneath the wings as best he could until the storm passed. He dragged the wings as he pushed his body through the night’s accumulation of fresh snow heading towards the river he had seen from the air. Despite the cold he shook his head in wonder at this land. Bitter and frozen it was, yet from the small mist covered river that he saw from the air was born the mighty Sangual that gave life all the land south until it was swallowed by the great desert. With luck he could construct a simple raft and sail far enough to be able to use his wings.
As he walked, his eyes scanned the landscape and for a long time it felt like he walked in a spirit world where everything was dead and white. A change in the wind and something else not immediately definable let him know that the river was near. He crouched and moved forward as giant white wolves and bears were said to inhabit the land and might be drawn to the water. “And Yehti’ai” he thought to himself, and smiled, a legend to scare little children.
Was that singing? He pushed forward slowly, climbing a small knob of land which could as easily have been a pile of dead bodies as rocks thanks to the thick blanket of powdery snow. From his vantage point, he saw a beautiful woman bathing in the waters where the river bent around a large rock. He sat there then, enchanted by what he saw and by the clear tones of her song, until his exhaustion and the cold lulled him into the sleep of ice.
Pain. Hands rubbing his arms and legs. He cried out and opened his eyes. It was Merhana as she would later name herself, the maiden from the lake, a Yehet’ai in human form as he would learn but for now, he slept again. Much later he awoke to find himself beneath a fur with her and when she opened her eyes, for the first time he saw a future, and dreamed of things greater than flight.
They spoke through the night, beneath the tiny shelter that Merhana had provided, oblivious to the winter winds singing inches above them. When the storm ended they dressed and Merhana showed Komoro’mai her lands and people. The world among the Yeheta’ai was marvelous to behold. Vast spires and ancient structures of ice and steel extended above and below the earth.
Merhana gave Komoro’mai a small basket containing snowstone, a waxy substance gathered from the nests of the Keekeri the Dragon Hawk. The Keekeri were large predatory birds that could run on the snow without sinking and fly in all but the fiercest storms. The secret of its ability was the thick oil it exuded and worked into its feathers. Over time the oil built up in the nests as a waxy substance that the Yeheta’ai collected. Applying it to leather or cloth imparted protection from the weather. Most unusually with years of repeated use the strength, flexibility, and clarity of the material it was used on increased, which Merhana said with a laugh made it great for everything except pants.
Komoro’mai spent his days with Merhana and each night sat by a small fire and rubbed snowstone into the wings. Soon they were thin enough for a gauzy light to pass through, flexible yet stronger than a double thickness of the original hide. As he worked, he felt the breeze tugging at the wings and soon took Merhana aloft. They flew higher than Komoro’mai had ever flown alone, until their breath felt thin and then they laughed as they swooped over the land. They saw the breadth of the earth and witnessed the mating of the mighty dragon hawks. They passed beneath the Wanderer as it circled the land, and saw at the edge of vision hazy shapes that seemed to be a city, encircled by towers floating in the sky.
Komoro’mai taught the Yehti’ai to make wings and with time Merhana and her people abandoned their cities of steel and ice and joined The Bird People. In the lush land of the great valley they became one people, the Yahata’ai.
Kiyo stood silently for a moment and looked at each member of the tribe.
In the final years of their lives, Komoro’mai and Merhana bid goodbye to their children. They climbed to the top of the great waterfall and with their wings clear enough to see the clouds through, climbed the wind, spiraling upwards until they were lost to sight.