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The Ring of Five Dragons
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When they were fifteen years old, Giyan and Bartta found a lorg. It was hiding, as lorgs are wont to do, beneath a large flat rock of a golden hue lying like a wart on the belly of a bone-dry gully. Konara Mossa, their Ramahan guardian and teacher, had told them to keep a sharp eye out for lorgs, for lorgs preferred the thin, kuello-fir-scented air that drifted along the shoulders of the Djenn Marre. Beware the lorg, she warned them with a frightening sweep of a gnarled forefinger, for lorgs are evil creatures, ensnaring the souls of dying infants, hoarding them like grains of milled oat grass. Superstitious nonsense, Giyan thought privately. The lorgs might be ugly to look at, but they seemed harmless enough; in fact, they were beneficial inasmuch as they ate stydil larvae, and everyone knew how destructive those insects could be to the oat grass and glennan crops.
It was London, the Fifth Season -- that eerie time between High Summer and Autumn when the gimnopedes swarmed; when, on clear nights, all five moons, pale green as a dove's belly, could be seen in the vast black bowl of the sky; when The Pearl had been misused; when the V'ornn had come to Kundala.
Giyan and Bartta, both Ramahan novices, had had the enormous misfortune of being born twins, an evil omen among the mountain Kundalan, a certain sign of bad luck that their mother tried to rectify by winding their own umbilicals around their soft pink necks. Their father, entering the birthing chamber, had cut the cords with his own hunting knife. While they squalled their first breath of new life, he had had to slit the throat of the scheming midwife, who had whispered goading superstitions in their mother's ear, egging her on to commit infanticide.
They had learned all this years later from their father, just before he left home for good. Their father and mother never should have married, that was the truth of it. Their father was a no-nonsense trader who saw the world in a straightforward manner, while their mother was entangled in the dark skein of magic, superstition, anxiety. They had no basis to form a connection, let alone to fall in love or even to discover a comfortable tolerance.
Cheated out of her attempt to mend her ill fortune, their mother brought the twins to the Abbey of Floating White as soon as they were old enough. In a most unseemly manner, she begged Konara Mossa to train the twins to be Ramahan, praying that their wholesale devotion to the Great Goddess would spare them the usual fate of twins.
And so they were made fluent in the Old Tongue, they were taught from the scraps of Utmost Source, The Five Sacred Books of Miina, memorized and set down over the decades by successive konara after it was lost. They were taught the creation myths, the legends of The Pearl, the seventy-seven festivals of Miina, the importance of London, the Fifth Season, Miina's time, the season of change. They learned the ways of phytochemistry, of healing with herbs and mushrooms, of divining portents, of seeking with opals, and, most importantly, they were taught the Prophesy of the coming of the Dar Sala-at, the Chosen One of Miina, who would find The Pearl and use it to free the Kundalan from their bondage to the V'ornn.
It was curious how two sisters -- twins at that -- could absorb the same lessons and arrive at different conclusions. One saw the vessel half-full, the other saw it half-empty. For Giyan, life at the abbey had brought alive the rich history of her people, where sorcerous beings like Dragons and narbuck and Rappa and perwillon mingled freely with the Kundalan, males and females sharing equally in every facet of life, where those with the Gift were trained to use Osoru sorcery well and wisely, where each festival was an excuse for music, dancing, singing, the fervent excitement of being alive. Now, it was said, only the fearful perwillion remained, slumbering deep in their caves. For Bartta, the history lessons told another story -- of what had been taken from them by the V'ornn, of the diminishing of Ramahan power and influence, of the rise of the new Goddess-less religion, Kara, of the violence of the male Ramahan and the betrayal of the Rappa, of a need to break with the old sorcerous ways -- known only to those born with the Gift -- that had come back to haunt the Ramahan, of the Kundalan being abandoned by their Great Goddess, who had quailed at the coming of the V'ornn, had been rendered irrelevant by the aliens' superior technomancy. Of the failure of the past, of Osoru, of those with the Gift, of Miina's teachings as they had been originally set forth to protect Kundala against invasion.
The twins were hiking north of their home in Stone Border, on the steep and narrow path that led to the Ice Caves. On either side, the brittle sepia-colored land fell away from them, pitching downward to the green-and-blue fields that carpeted the broad, fertile valley far below. Brown kuello-fir needles crunched beneath their cor-hide sandals. Forever after, this soft, dry, intimate sound, so like the rustling of wicked blackcrows' wings, would send a tiny thrill through them, for it was forbidden for anyone but Ramahan priestesses, like themselves, who dwelled in the nearby Abbey of Floating White, to tread this dangerous path.
Giyan paused on the path to stare upward at the immense, jagged, ice-crusted pinnacles of the Djenn Marre. And as she paused, so did Bartta. Giyan was the twin blessed with height, beauty, a slender figure. Even worse, from Bartta's point of view, she had the Gift and could be trained in Osoru sorcery. What did Bartta have save her fierce desire to lead the Ramahan?
"To think," Giyan said, "that no one knows what lies beyond those mountains."
"Just like you," Bartta said sourly, "to be thinking of questions that cannot be answered. Your foolish diversions are why I will be promoted to shima, to priestess, next year while you will no doubt stay a leyna, a novice."
"I am Miina's servant just as you are," Giyan said softly. "We each serve the Great Goddess in our own way."
Bartta grunted. "Well, I'll tell you something. It has become embarrassing to be your sister. Your . . . perverse views are the talk of the abbey."
"Perverse, sister?" Giyan's whistleflower-blue eyes reflected the sting of the rebuke.
Bartta nodded emphatically, happy to have scored a point. "Our world is a simple one. We are good, the V'ornn are evil. How you can distort such an obvious black-and-white truth is beyond me."
"You misunderstand me," Giyan said. "I do not question the evil of the V'ornn's deeds; I merely question this so-called truth of Good and Evil. Nothing in this life is so black-and-white. When it comes to the V'ornn we know them not at all. I sense there is a mystery there we cannot yet fathom."
"Oh, yes. You sense. Your accursed Gift has spoken to you, I suppose."
Giyan turned away, her gaze lost in the snowcapped mountain peaks. She was remembering the hideous vision she had had three years ago. It had coincided with the onset of puberty, on a brilliant summer afternoon in a courtyard of the abbey. One moment, she had been planting herbs and the next the world around her had disappeared. At first, she thought she had gone blind. She found herself enclosed in darkness -- not the darkness of night or even a cave, but utter blackness. Voices rustled like the wings of birds, but she could not make out what they were saying. She was terrified; even more so as the vision took shape. With breathtaking clarity, she saw herself from above. She was dressed oddly, in the pure white of mourning. She was standing on the wishbone of a narbuck, the two prongs in front of her. At the end of the right prong stood a Ramahan in the persimmon-colored robes of a member of the Dea Cretan. At the end of the left prong was a fierce-looking V'ornn in battle armor. She saw herself walking to the base of the prongs, knew there was a dreadful choice to be made, a fork in the path of her life. The V'ornn raised his arms and in them she saw a shining star, which she knew was the Dar Sala-at, the prophesied savior of her people. In her vision, she watched herself walk to the left, toward the Dar Sala-at,. toward the V'ornn . . . . What did it mean? She could not know, and yet she could not forget the power, the sheer force of the vision. She had never dared share it with anyone, not even Bartta. But it had haunted her ever since, and was surely at the core of her unique, conflicted feelings about the aliens she knew she should loathe.
"The V'ornn have enslaved us, maimed us, tortured us," Bartta was saying now. "They kill us at their whim in games of sport. Though the resistance exists and continues to fight back, it is no match for the V'ornn. The aliens have driven us from our cities, forced us to find shelter in the hillsides and mountains until we have become strangers in our own land. They have slaughtered thousands of Ramahan. Our own abbey is the only one left intact. You know this as well as I do."
Giyan turned back from the peaks of the Djenn Marre, from the latent image of her vision. Her thick copper-colored hair flew in the wind. She put her hand tenderly on her sister's shoulder. "I hear the pain and fear in your voice. We have prayed to Miina for eighty-five long, terrible years without hearing a response."
Bartta shook herself away. "I feel no pain or fear."
"But you do," Giyan said even more softly. "It is your deep and abiding fear that in Her wrath Miina has left us in the hands of the V'ornn forever. You told me so yourself."
"A moment of weakness, of illness, of disorientation," Bartta said curtly. "I am surprised you even remember."
"Why wouldn't I remember, sister? I love you deeply."
Bartta, trembling a little, whispered. "If only it were so."
Giyan took her in her arms. "Have you any real doubts?"
Bartta allowed her head to briefly rest on her sister's shoulder. She sighed. "This is what I do not understand," she said. "Even the konara, our elders, have no answer for Miina's strange silence."
Giyan took Bartta's head in her hands, looked her in the eye. "The answer is clear, sister. It lies in our recent history. The Goddess is silent because we ignored Her warnings and misused The Pearl."
"Then its true. Miina has abandoned us," Bartta whispered. There were sudden, stinging tears in her eyes.
"No, sister, She is merely waiting."
Bartta wiped her eyes, deeply ashamed that she had showed such weakness. "Waiting for what?"
"For the Dar Sala-at. The One who will find The Pearl and end our bondage to the V'ornn."
Bartta's expression changed, hardening slightly. "Is this true faith, or is it your Gift talking."
"I have been taught by Konara Mossa to turn away from the Gift, just as we have been taught to shun the Rappa because they were responsible for Mother's death the day The Pearl was lost, the day we were invaded by the V'ornn."
"The Rappa had the Gift, and it led to our downfall." Having spotted a chink in her sister's armor, Bartta's eyes were alight. Spite, the twin of her envy, overrode her inner terror. "And yet, you defy Konara Mossa, you use the Gift."
"Sometimes I cannot help it," Giyan said softly, sadly, "the Gift is too strong."
"Sometimes you deliberately use it," Bartta hissed. "You are being trained in secret, aren't you?
"What if I am?" Giyan looked down at her feet. "Sometimes I question whether this thing inside me -- this Gift -- is evil." Her voice dropped to a whisper borne by the wind. "Sometimes, late at night, when I lie awake, I feel the breadth and scope of the Cosmos breathing all around me, and I know -- I know, sister, in my heart, in my very soul -- that we see and hear and smell and taste -- the world we touch is but a fraction of the Whole that exists elsewhere. A beauty beyond comprehension. And with every fiber of my being I long to reach out and know that vast place. And it is then that I think, How could such a feeling be evil?"
Bartta was looking at her sister with profound jealousy. What you know, what you long for, she thought. As if I do not long for the same thing, and know it will never be mine. She was about to say something clever and cutting, but the sight of the tail stayed her tongue. The lorg's tail flicked once then, illusory as the whiff of water in the Great Voorg, disappeared beneath a long, flat rock of a golden hue.
"Look there!" she said as she clambered down into the shallow gully. Beyond, a steep and treacherous fall ff mined with loose shale and broken twigs. "Oh, sister, look!" And planting her sturdy legs wide, she bent and flipped over the rock.
"A lorg!" Giyan cried.
"Yes. A lorg!" Bartta backed away, fascinated and appalled, as her twin clambered down to stand beside her. The lorg was indeed a hideous beast. Its hide was thick and warty, its watery grey eyes bulging, turning this way and that as if able to see in all directions at once. It appeared all belly; its head and legs were puny and insignificant. It seemed boneless, like the double stomach of a gutted lemur, and this somehow made it all the more hideous.
Bartta hefted a stone in her hand. "And now we must kill it."
"Kill it? But why?"
"You know why," Bartta said icily. "Lorgs are evil."
"Leave it. You do not need to take its life."
With an expert swing, Bartta skimmed the stone through the air. It made a peculiar humming sound, like an angry blackcrow. She had that, at least over her twin, her outsize physical strength. The stone, loosed from that powerful slingshot, struck the lorg with a sickening thunk! The lorg's disgusting pop eyes swiveled in their direction, perhaps sadly, but it did not move. This seeming indifference enraged Bartta all the more. She grabbed another stone, a larger one this time, cocking her arm to throw it. But Giyan caught her upraised wrist in her hand.
"Why, Bartta? Why do you really want to kill it?"
The wind rattled the kuello-firs, whistled through devious clefts in the rocks. A hawk floated on the thermals high overhead, vivid with intent. Bartta's gaze did not stray from Giyan's face. The twin who was tall, beautiful, clever of tongue and hand. An inchoate rage curdled the contents of Bartta's stomach, gripped her throat like a giant's hand. With a violent twist, she jerked herself free, and before Giyan could utter another word, she hurled the stone with tremendous force. It struck the lorg's head, causing a gout of blood so pale and thin it might have been water. Grunting like an animal, Bartta gathered a handful of stones and, as she advanced upon the lorg, peppered it until it sank into the ground, split open like a side of meat.
"There. There." Bartta, standing over it, light-headed, trembled slightly.
Crouching beside the dead creature, Giyan passed a hand over it.
"Great Goddess, tell me if you can," she whispered, "where is the evil here?"
Looking down at her, Bartta said, "That's right sister. Shed a tear for so ugly a beast that would not move even to save itself. If its death hurts you so, use your infernal Gift. Return it to life."
"The Gift does not work in that way," Giyan said without looking up. "It cannot bring life from death."
Giyan took the ragged lorg in her hands and buried it in the shale. Dust and blood coated her hands, remaining darkened in the creases even after she wiped them down. At last, she looked up at Bartta, beads of perspiration standing on her forehead. "What have you really accomplished?"
"We will be late for afternoon devotions," Bartta said. As she set off for the high, glistening walls of the Abbey of Floating White she saw the owl circling the treetops, as if watching her.