Paul B. Thompson, Tonya R. Carter


Part I


Chapter One

Three Acorns

The men of Que-Shu gathered, drawn by the steady toll of drums. A hundred men, straight-limbed and stoic, formed two lines and filed into the Lodge of Brothers. They left their herds in the care of sons who were too young to witness the coming solemn ceremony. Fields and forges stood idle for the duration of the rite. The women and children went about their business. It was not for them to be curious.

No one could ignore the drums, however. Least of all Goldmoon, first priestess of the tribe, daughter of Chief Ar-rowthorn. She stood just inside the door of the chief's house, far enough in the shadows so as not to be seen. Perspiration sheened her beautiful face, and she bit her lip nearly to bleeding. The ceremony about to begin was the Anointing of the Quester; the man to be tested was her beloved, River-wind.

Let him be safe, she prayed silently. You elder gods, keep Riverwind from harm!

Goldmoon did not voice her prayers aloud because she appealed not to the tribe's gods, but to deities worshiped in ages past, before the Cataclysm.

The Lodge of Brothers was nearly full. The windowless interior was stiflingly hot, lit as it was by stands of smoky torches. The men of Que-Shu filled the open space around a low central dais, their leather-shod feet scuffing loudly on the packed clay floor. On the dais, squatting with his face averted and his arms clasped around his knees, was River-wind. As the drums continued their rumble, he did not move. He might have been carved from oak for all the life he displayed. Yet within, Riverwind was aboil with thoughts and anxieties. He had demanded this rite, in preparation for his Courting Quest. Goldmoon and he had pledged themselves to each other, but it remained for the laws of the tribe to recognize their joining. A man did not ask for the hand of the chieftain's daughter without proving himself worthy.

The doors of the lodge were closed. Massive wooden beams were lowered, barring them. Warriors with bare blades positioned themselves in front of the doors. The drums ceased their omnipresent beat.

Arrowthorn, robed in his most richly beaded deerskins, gazed at the men assembled. “Brothers!” he declaimed, “we are here to anoint one who would be chieftain after I am gone. One who claims the hand of my daughter, your priestess. But he that would be a god in the next life must prove himself worthy in this one.” A deep murmur of agreement rose from the throats of the tribesmen.

“Riverwind, son of Wanderer, stand.”

Riverwind rose smoothly to his feet. Though not quite twenty, at six and a half feet he was by far the tallest man in a tribe of tall men. Dark hair hung loosely to his shoulders. Riverwind wore nothing but a red breechcloth, and the lines of his rangy form had been daubed with red paint. He looked beyond Arrowthorn's right shoulder and saw a Que-Shu elder, Loreman, seated on a bench. Hatred seemed to glow from the old medicine man's face. His consuming ambition to put his own family in the chieftain's lodge had been thwarted by the death of his eldest son. Now Loreman could only wait, watch, and listen.

Riverwind knew that Loreman blamed him for his son's death. Not even the sworn word of Goldmoon, who had witnessed the fight, had lessened Loreman's hatred of River-wind.

Arrowthorn was describing the way of the true warrior. Riverwind broke his gaze from Loreman in time to hear the chieftain say, “The path of a leader is often bitter. Are you prepared for the bitterness?”

Riverwind nodded. He was not yet allowed to speak.

Arrowthorn held out his hands. Far-runner, another tribal elder, gave him a thick clay cup, which Arrowthorn in turn offered to Riverwind. A viscous red liquid filled the cup to the brim. By the ruddy torchlight it looked very much like blood. Riverwind accepted the cup, raised it to his lips, and drank.

The brew was made from nepta berries, fruit so vile not even goblins would eat it. Riverwind's jaw locked, and his stomach threatened to rebel. Still, he swallowed the noxious juice and gave the empty vessel back to Arrowthorn. He kept his teeth firmly together and breathed quickly through his nose. Sickness gnawed at his empty belly, but Riverwind mastered it and kept the bitter brew down.

“A chieftain must be evenhanded and balanced in his judgment,” Arrowthorn said gravely. “If necessary, he must suffer for his choice. Are you prepared to suffer for the sake of justice?”

Riverwind inclined his head curtly. It was a good thing he wasn't supposed to talk; he wasn't sure he could speak with the sour berry juice constricting his throat. An elder lifted the heavy cape from Arrowthorn's shoulders. Another man placed two pairs of baskets on the floor, one set for the chieftain, the other for Riverwind. They were deep reed baskets, the kind women used to gather eggs. Snowy white eggs filled them now. Arrowthorn took up his baskets and held them out at arm's length. Riverwind lifted his. He was surprised by their weight. Each basket held only ten eggs. Why were they so heavy?

Loreman was smiling. Riverwind wondered briefly at that sly, knowing smile, then concentrated on his test. He had to hold his baskets up just as long as Arrowthorn held his. If he weakened, if he lowered his arms or wavered enough to break an egg, his test was over. There would be no second chance.

Arrowthorn was thirty years older than Riverwind, but his shoulders were straight and his arms taut with good muscle. Time grew long in the lodge. The Que-Shu men, ever solemn, became restless. There were coughs and uncertain shiftings on the hard wooden benches. Arrowthorn's arms were as straight as iron and as unwavering as the smooth waters of Crystalmir Lake.

Riverwind held steady, too, though his shoulders ached and his joints burned. The nepta berry juice was still trying to come up. Sweat trickled down his chest. The baskets were so heavy! He didn't think he could hold out much longer-he knew he could not-

Riverwind inhaled loudly and deeply. Since standing with his feet rooted and his knees stiff was causing him to tire and sway, he began to stamp his feet. A rhythm came to him, much like the cadence played by the lodge drummers. Soon he was dancing in place, eyes fixed on Arrowthorn, hearing the music his heart played for him.

Arrowthorn was startled when Riverwind began to dance. No one had ever moved during the Weighing before. His own arms hurt, the stretched muscles quivering and tingling as if a thousand ants crawled across his skin. He kept control by sheer force of will. Blood pounded in his head, a throbbing only made worse by Riverwind's stamping feet. Too much. It was too much.

The chieftain's left arm wobbled as a shudder went through his body. An egg rolled off the pile in the basket and splattered on the floor.

“It is done!” cried Far-runner, most senior of the elders. Both men lowered their arms with groans of relief. Arrowthorn slipped his cape over his aching shoulders.

“You have earned your voice,” he said, breathing heavily. “Speak, son of Wanderer.”

“You are a strong man, Arrowthorn,” Riverwind said, massaging his biceps.

Whispers behind the chief abruptly burst out into loud clamor. Loreman was remonstrating with Far- runner.

“The test is not valid,” Loreman said. “Riverwind moved.”

“He did not bend his arms, nor did he lose an egg,” Far-runner replied. “There is nothing in tribal law that says a man cannot move his feet.”

“Riverwind makes mock of the ceremony!”

Riverwind knelt down to examine his egg baskets. As he did, Far-runner said, “Ridiculous! He showed great perseverance and ingenuity.”

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