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Chapter 2: The Golden Steps

Lahall laid out another cloth as Renent watched. She placed on it a flat bread patty that still issued wisps of steam. She worked in a cycle: as she kneaded and shaped dough for one patty, a second crackled on the griddle; a third cooled nearby. Once six stood stacked and cool, she wrapped them twice in a cloth. Gathering its corners together, she tied them with a prompt and confident jerk. Renent’s legs swung on his stool. He wiped his brow. The outdoor afternoon heat was nothing compared to what the stone stove radiated through the kitchen. This was no time to bake, but Lahall was behind schedule.

Renent stared with curiosity. As the household’s cook, Lahall’s duties were diverse. Today, she prepared her master’s family for their trip. Farant always wanted abundant provisions packed when Tormeten traveled—as he sometimes did on business for Lord Crailis—or the household embarked together. Before any journey, Lahall guaranteed that ample food was ready at the front door.

The heat intensified, and Renent’s mind drifted. Tomorrow, the family would go on pilgrimage to the Golden Steps, the site that the youths enacted in Council Hall a few months prior. Renent had taken this journey twice before, once when he was almost too young to remember and again three years ago. For days, Renent had excitedly wandered around Becopton and the stream recalling the last trip. His family and other Becoptonites had traveled west until they reached the Liantin River, the great water that divided the Valley from the South, which was another of Naithan’s three sections. (The third, the Coast, he knew least.) The pilgrims continued on its banks until the Great Ford, the main intersection between Valley and South. They crossed and proceeded through the Southern lands to the Golden Steps and looked upon Qualiae’s handiwork.

Renent returned to the present and resumed his stare. He was curious about Lahall, for she was not of the Valley but of the South. She migrated to Becopton years before and labored as a servant in affluent households. His parents hired her shortly after Renent’s birth. Her hair was turning silver, and her hands bore many calluses. To Renent’s knowledge, she had no family save an orphaned nephew who lived with her but rarely visited Tormeten’s house.

The significance of her origins—Renent reminded himself —was that Lahall did not worship Qualiae, for none of Naithan’s eight Southern cities recognized him. The Southerners, Renent understood, were Jaipnites, worshipers of many gods. For them gods of water fought with gods of the sky, causing rainfall. Disease arose when the gods of different animals fought. When Jaipni—master of the Bay of Actra and the chief though hardly supreme god—wished to quiet the other deities, he sent winds out from the sea and across land.

These were strange notions, Renent thought. If the gods fought so much, how did they cause the people to arise and walk the earth? Why would rain come from gods fighting? Did this mean that they only battled during certain times of year? For reasons unknown, did they make peace during other seasons and then resume their fight on schedule? These questions had no good answers, so the Southerners’ departure from Qualiae mystified Renent, especially since the Golden Steps sat in their midst, spelling out the truth. For Renent, Lahall manifested this oddity. Perhaps he could broach the subject directly.

“Lahall.”

“Yes.”

She did not look up.

“Why don’t you come with us?”

This first question seemed fair to Renent since a manservant would accompany them tomorrow and Xzax’s family came on Renent’s first trip (as well as going several times on their own).

She did look over now.

“I have things to do here. Someone has to watch the house.”

“But isn’t your home there? Don’t you want to see it?”

“My people are from outside Shelvod City. It’s not close to where you’re going.”

“Most people at Gray Stone are from Shelvod, right?”

Gray Stone was a cluster of buildings in the city’s southwest quadrant. Most of Becopton’s Southern immigrants lived there. Renent did not know the origin of that neighborhood’s name, for although he rarely went there, he knew its buildings—while sometimes made of stone—were not more or less gray than elsewhere.

“Most, yes. A few have ancestors from Kelceb; one or two from Tilial.”

She rattled off a couple other Southern cities and some small towns unfamiliar to Renent.

“And people in Shelvod worship Sendora, right?” Renent asked.

Sendora was the goddess of horses, and Renent understood that unlike other Southerners, Shelvodites especially followed her. As far as any Southern idols were visible in Becopton, those of Sendora were most common.

“We do, yes.”

Renent had long wanted to ask his next question. “But you don’t worship Jaipni?”

Lahall paused.

“Well,” she said, trailing off.

Finally, she wiped the sweat on her forehead with her sleeve and spoke stiffly.

“These things are complicated, you know.”

Renent was unimpressed.

“But why do people from different cities worship different gods?” he pressed.

Lahall was silent again for several moments and kneaded her dough rhythmically.

“I think it’s just that Sendora is particularly special to us. The others respect her too.”

“So you worship Jaipni as well?”

“Well, we do. We do.”

“So how many gods do you worship total?”

She went quiet once again and averted her face.

“You should ask Sir Tormeten these questions.”

“But I just….”

“Renent!” she said with an unusually sharp tone. “You shouldn’t ask these questions.”

He fell silent. He felt uncomfortable and feared that he had crossed some line. Since the heat was beginning to overpower him anyways, he soon got up and walked into the courtyard. Perhaps he would go to the stream a final time before the pilgrimage.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

Small groups of Becoptonites went on the pilgrimage every few days during good weather. For leading citizens, these journeys were grand affairs. To build rapport, Lord Crailis wanted at least one councilman to accompany important merchant families whenever they went. This was one of those occasions. Twenty-nine Becoptonites—mostly three key households plus Tormeten’s—departed as a caravan the next morning. They brought a dozen horses and half a dozen wagons.

Typically, pilgrims walked, but the wealthy sometimes indulged themselves. Tormeten, however, kept his feet on the ground. The caravan moved slowly, and he moved back and forth along the line, making casual conversation. Renent stuck with Tormeten sometimes and, at others, joined Farant on her horse or the manservant in the family wagon. His parents choreographed the image of father on foot and mother on horseback (and wagon full of provisions) to maintain a balanced impression of piety and prestige. Renent vaguely understood this and also knew they despised doing it.

The caravan reached the Great Ford in late afternoon. Dusk settled in by the time everything crossed the Liantin. They proceeded toward Kelceb, the Southern city closest to the river. Kelceb, unlike Becopton, was not walled. Valley pilgrims customarily camped just south of it on their way to the Golden Steps. As adults had told Renent, much of the South resented pilgrimages, but Kelceb was quite the opposite. Its merchants made good money from pilgrims by selling food and goods, and many Valley merchants maintained representatives in Kelceb to maximize business across the South. This made the city home to one of the few Qualiaite minority communities in the South.

When the caravan arrived, it circled to the city’s southern side. However, Tormeten left the group and went directly into the city. Since this trip was long planned, Lord Kergerot was expecting Tormeten, whose duties today were both pious and ambassadorial. Lord Crailis sent him with various matters to discuss. Renent did not know what these were but suspected that they involved trade schedules and other uninteresting topics.

The families pitched tents and set campfires. The Kelcebites lined up to sell food, water, necessities, and trinkets. A few pilgrims went into the city to visit friends. The night was dark with only a sliver of the major moon overhead, and the air remained warm. Renent helped Farant prepare the tent while the servant began warming food over the fire. Notwithstanding their ample bread patty supply (which, Renent understood, was more of a backup than an intended menu item), they still bought local food to signal goodwill.

Later on, a torch approached in the darkness. Tormeten returned, and, to the group’s surprise, Lord Kergerot came with him. Renent had seen him once before at one of Crailis’s banquets. He was much as Renent remembered: an overweight man with a bombastic voice and full beard. He held the flame, which made his beard throw a funny shadow onto his face.

“Well, well my pilgrims,” Kergerot proclaimed. “Wonderful to have you here. It’s always good to see our friends from beyond the way. Your noble treasurer’s been telling me all about your trip. Excellent.”

Tormeten presented the leading men and their wives, and everyone bowed their necks.

“Good, good; good, good.” Kergerot responded to each introduction.

Renent’s father and the Lord went out of earshot and exchanged some final words. Afterwards, Kergerot waved to the group and tromped back, his torch bobbing and ultimately disappearing from view. He seemed at ease roaming his city’s outskirts alone at night.

Meanwhile, Renent, along with the few other young children, had found some sticks and threw them like javelins. Renent was not the best shot, and everyone soon retreated to their respective campfires to eat.

Farant sat on a log while Tormeten poked the fire with a stick. The servant, with his master’s leave, was already dozing by the wagon.

They should all try to sleep soon, said Renent’s parents, but they lingered at the fire.

“Why don’t the people here believe in God?” Renent suddenly asked.

Tormeten laughed a bit as he kept poking the fire.

“Why do you ask?”

 “Well, if the Golden Steps are here, wouldn’t they be the first ones to believe?”

“It doesn’t always work like that.”

“Why?”

“It’s hard to say. Some people just close their eyes and don’t pay attention.”

Farant interjected.

“We don’t notice many things around us. Think about our home. You remember what our home looks like, right?”

“Our home? Sure.”

“What about the archway in front. How many stones are around it?”

Renent thought and realized he could not remember. He walked through it several times a day for as long as he could remember. Were four stones on each side? Maybe five. Well, one at bottom was a bit short, so maybe five and four. But what of the arch itself? He clenched his eyes to visualize better. It did not help.

He conceded that he did not know.

“Exactly,” said Farant. “Qualiae’s right in front of them, but they don’t pay attention. I suppose when we get home, you’ll look at the archway, and once you look—actually look—you’ll never forget. It’s the same with them. They just don’t look.”

“But what about Lahall? We talk about Qualiae around her all the time, and she doesn’t pay attention.”

“Well,” said Tormeten, “we don’t talk to her about it. We let her be. All we’ve told her is not to wear her idol necklace in the house.”

His last comment, Renent knew, referenced a falkar, an amulet Jaipnites often wore.

“I talked to her about it,” Renent volunteered.

His parents looked at each other. Even with the firelight distorting their faces, he knew their expressions well. They thought they were subtle, but their faces warned that he was guilty of something.

“What do you mean?” Farant responded. “When did you talk to her?”

“Yesterday.”

“What did you say?”

“Well, I just talked with her about Sendora and Jaipni.”

“Yes, but what did you say?”

Renent recounted the conversation, and his parents looked at each other again.

“Renent,” Tormeten said, “we should tell you something, but you must promise never to tell Lahall.”

“All right.”

“No, really. You must promise. Can I trust you never to speak of this to her? If I can’t, then I must wait until you’re older.”

Renent did not want to seem immature.

“I promise. I really do promise.”

His father looked at him for a moment and seemed convinced.

“All right, then. Farant, will you tell him?”

She paused for a moment and leaned forward.

“Renent, do you know what a ‘pallia’ is?”

He did and considered it odd that she thought he might not.

“A pallia,” he answered, “is someone at peace after death because of someone else.”

That was not quite right, and he realized how hard the idea was for him to express. Renent knew that Qualiae gathered the dead before him and—in the terminology adults often used—he either faced a person in welcome or turned his back, sending that individual forever into darkness.

The criteria Qualiae used to divide people was complicated and confused Renent. However, one piece was clear: if Qualiae chose a person to lead others in this world, then that person’s life already manifested God’s will. Thus, Qualiae could not turn his back on a faithful leader any more than he could turn away from himself. Thus, by the person’s office, that person was in harmony with Qualiae. Judgment of a faithful leader’s actual life could transfer over and benefit someone who would otherwise suffer rejection. Renent was vaguely aware that councilmen and their wives went to the priests and designated a person to receive their judgments vicariously. Adults, however, rarely discussed the process. Renent only knew that the designee was called a “pallia.”

Tormeten and Farant went back and forth with Renent before he could express in words what floated in his mind.

Satisfied, Farant delivered her news.

“Lahall is my pallia.”

At one level, Renent found this unsurprising. Lahall was, after all, the only person around who openly disbelieved in Qualiae. Still, the news made Renent quiet and somber. He was relieved, certainly. Lahall would stand before Qualiae along with him someday, so he could now shed the mental image of Lahall in despair and darkness.

“But now that we have told you, you must never, never tell her,” Farant continued.

“All right. Yes, I see.”

“No. You need to understand this. You can never tell her at all. A pallia can never reject the gift, for even a pallia faces God’s rejection for doing so.”

That was news to Renent.

“Oh,” he said, pausing. “I guess I hadn’t known that.”

The situation was serious. In his hands lay Lahall’s own welfare. If he ever told her, she might reject the gift. He understood his parents’ concern now, and his heart quickened with embarrassment.

“If she ever knew, she could turn away,” his father reiterated. “That’s why we never speak to her about Qualiae. I don’t. Your mother doesn’t. Xzax doesn’t. No one does.”

Nailing the point down, he repeated himself.

“You must leave her alone. You can’t talk to her about this.”

Renent felt smaller now. The keen inquisitor from yesterday was gone. He wasn’t that wise after all, he thought.

The time for sleep had come. Tormeten walked off a little ways. He took a stick, forced it into the ground, and cracked the dry earth. He picked up some clods and ground them to dust in his fists. He poured that dust on the fire, repeating this four times before the flames reduced to embers. No fire of Tormeten’s would ever get out of control. Besides, the night was already unpleasantly warm.

Renent watched his father conquer the flames and then lay down. He tried to forget this evening’s embarrassment and turned his attention to the Golden Steps. Tomorrow, he would see them.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

The pilgrims finished packing just after daybreak. The timing of the journey’s next segment was delicate, for as they proceeded south, they would leave Kelceb’s hospitality for Jaipnite villages that were more displeased with their presence. Pilgrims, as a rule, tried to arrive at the Golden Steps by noon and then return to Kelceb before nightfall.

Tensions had risen in recent years and unpleasant incidents were common. Jaipnites would place dead animals in the road or throw stones from hiding places. Last year, King Grelesten, a Valley Qualiaite, deployed a garrison of eighty troops to secure the road, which caused such outrage among the Southern lords that the King reduced the number to forty. This compromise left few happy, and harassment of pilgrims still occurred sporadically.

Tormeten often spoke of these dynamics in Renent’s presence. Before the trip, he expressed his eagerness to bring a firsthand account back to the Council.

Daybreak revealed that several other bands of Valley pilgrims had encamped south of Kelceb, so Tormeten—being the highest ranked among them—offered to organize one large caravan. Everyone (about one hundred altogether) accepted. Tormeten gathered the able-bodied men for a brief conference. As he told Renent shortly thereafter, his instructions were simple. First, the men should walk along the outer sides with all others in the middle. Second, they should carry a weapon but not unsheathe it unless he so commanded or an exigency required it. He loaned a sword or knife to any man who lacked an adequate one. (Renent knew that Tormeten brought extras for this very purpose.) Third and finally, they could not confront any Southerners but must keep their eyes ahead.

The caravan embarked. The road passed through three villages. The first was largely quiet. Some villagers stood with vague, disapproving expressions, and a few idols sat along the road, meaningfully faced directly at the passersby.

Renent stuck close to his father and asked if the King’s soldiers should have taken them down.

His father mulled this over but said the result would be more trouble than benefit.

They passed through the second town, and there an old man sat facing the road under a canopy and carving what Renent recognized as a falkar, the talisman Jaipnites wore on necklaces. In Becopton, Renent noticed them on people coming to and from Gray Stone. Now, he watched as the man sat cross legged. He was dirty and bent forward, tapping a small chisel on the stone to accentuate some groove. Tormeten commented while not yet in earshot that the man’s proximity to the road was a statement.

After father and son passed by, a commotion from behind startled them. Tormeten spun round with hand on hilt. The pilgrims were stopping. Three young men in the caravan surrounded the falkar craftsman and shouted. Tormeten told Renent to run to the wagon. He did so, which blocked a view of what ensued. When Tormeten returned, he was annoyed and brought the three with him. They had started the altercation, and he was chastising them for it. Tormeten disarmed them and told his servant to keep them by the wagon. The caravan proceeded.

Only on the outskirts of the third village did a problem arise. Small stones came flying from bushes on a hill rising next to the road, and Renent found himself hiding behind a horse. Swords drawn, several pilgrims rushed the bushes, and four perpetrators scattered. When everything calmed down, the pilgrims had two young men in custody.

Tormeten interrogated them. Each was on his knees with a pilgrim’s hands forcefully on his shoulders. Most of the pilgrims, including Renent, formed a circle around the spectacle.

“From where do you come?” said Tormeten, leaning down over the captives.

The two seemed dazed.

“We come from beyond the hills,” one said, pointing east.

His thick country accent—stronger, as Renent observed, than that of the people in Gray Stone—seemed to corroborate this.

“You’ve done this before?”

They hesitated, only to receive the question again more loudly.

“No. No. We tried this because we thought—I mean, we didn’t think….”

“Who sent you?”

“I don’t—I mean, we just came….”

“Did anyone send you?”

“No, we just came.”

“So you just decided to spend your day behind those bushes? Is that it?”

“No, no, that’s not—I mean….”

“Have you ever been to Kaulo?”

Renent knew exactly why his father asked that question. Kaulo was now the closest city to them and one of the South’s greatest. Becoptonites had long seen Kaulo as an epicenter of Jaipnite animosity, and Lord Crailis openly disdained Kaulo’s lord. If these captives were connected to Kaulo, the offense would be all the more serious and dangerous.

However, no clear answer to the question was emerging. One of the two claimed never to have been there, and the other conceded that he had but under benign circumstances.

“When you’re there,” said Tormeten to both, ignoring the claims of the one, “do you talk to people about your attacks on this road?”

“Well, no. We just—that is….”

“But what gave you the idea? Do you go to Kaulo, and the officials there say, ‘Go attack the road?’”

“No, we know no officials. We’ve nothing to do with that. We’re just….”

The exchange continued a bit longer, but the stone throwers would not concede any affiliation with Kaulo. Tormeten released them but not before a final berating.

“You are traitors to the King. He preserves this road for pilgrims, and you defied him. Do not do that again. Pilgrims will walk this road.”

The terrified young men scurried away.

The pilgrims treated Tormeten’s questioning like a performance and cheered upon its conclusion. He gestured for them to cease and muttered.

“All right, all right. That’s enough. Let’s get going.”

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

The road entered the mountains near Naithan’s southern coast. As the ground rose, Renent’s excitement grew. He looked from side to side. This was it. A sense of surrealism settled over him as he tried to picture the Naithanites of former days who had traveled here.

Uman, as the greatest prophet, performed some of his most important acts nearby. Generations after the Oraunt’s fall, Naithan’s king died childless, and the Vizier Roth claimed the throne. However, Qualiae told Uman to deny authority to Roth. The prophet summoned the leaders of Naithan’s cities to the Golden Steps. At the time, the temple was already long destroyed, but its golden foundation endured in the hillside with three steps stretching along its length. Uman stood on that foundation with the leaders gathered on the steps. He announced that not Roth but the godly peasant Raimail was to be king. Roth refused to comply, and civil war erupted. A sorcerer in Roth’s service cursed the steps, turning both them and the foundation into simple stone. To avoid Raimail’s soldiers, the sorcerer then committed suicide and turned himself to stone somewhere near Becopton.

Once Raimail defeated Roth, Qualiae gave one of his greatest revelations to Uman: Naithan’s enemies and traitors would never wipe away the steps. Although now made of stone, they would always be with Naithan.

At noon, the caravan reached a point at which the incline increased sharply. From here, even wealthy pilgrims continued on foot. The trees had become increasingly dense, and the road now wound up through a forest on the mountainside. For the first time, they saw a few of the King’s soldiers. The group tied their wagons and horses in a clearing designated for such purposes. The pilgrims left behind a few people who would follow in a later shift.

Everyone else proceeded up the narrowing road either in single or double file. A sensation washed over Renent as he considered that Uman or Railif or Raimail or another of God’s great agents may have stepped exactly where he did now—unless, of course, as Renent worried, the path changed since then. He kept looking through the trees for remnants of other paths. He saw none.

Shortly, the path opened into another clearing. As the pilgrims moved into it, Renent maneuvered to the front. Before him lay the Golden Steps. The three long steps were about the length of ten horses with a depth of about half his body. Behind them rested the flat foundation. The Umanon merely said that Qualiae caused the temple to appear, but Renent envisioned Qualiae, manifesting as great hand with three outstretched fingers, pressing into the gold, and moving horizontally to form the steps.

Soldiers stood guard to deter Jaipnite miscreants. Several priests watched over the site and lived further up in the forest. None but they went onto the steps.

Still, Renent moved as close as he could. The place looked more organic than he remembered. The steps were worn, and some sections were cracked or angled unevenly. He even saw little bits of stone that had crumbled off and now lay at the base. The foundation was cracked and partially filled in with dirt. Despite the priests’ efforts to keep the surface clean, the mountain’s slope had subsumed the back edge under earth, moss, and tree roots. Piles of leaves surrounded the site—the result of priests sweeping away the forest’s droppings.

As Renent observed all this, he felt a deeper meaning behind it. Qualiae’s promise to preserve the steps was fulfilled, for there they were. They were tattered because he wanted to show the struggle through which they had survived all these years. Malevolent forces had taken away most of it, turned the remainder into crude stone, and even broken that stone to some extent. However, while the forces against Qualiae were strong, they could never overcome him just as they could never fully erase the Golden Steps.

As these thoughts passed through his mind, Renent felt a tear roll down first his right then his left cheek. He was not ashamed, for others around him wept openly. Even Tormeten’s eyes were quite moist. Renent felt awe. He looked at a miracle, for only Qualiae could have preserved these steps.

The priests soon told everyone to sit in rows before the steps. Everyone complied in meditative silence. Renent closed his eyes, and the image of three outstretched fingers returned to his mind. The priests led standard ritual prayers, but, Renent noticed, some words varied from those that Becoptonite priests used. This grated on him a bit.

When the prayers ended, the pilgrims milled about quietly. Many kept sitting. Some went down to replace those left behind. Others paced around or whispered quietly, and a few entered the woods to pray privately.

 

◙ ◙ ◙

 

To reach Kelceb by dusk, they could not linger long. Tormeten conferred with some of the men, and they signaled everyone to begin the descent back down. There they found the wagons and horses undisturbed. The pilgrims ate hastily. The garrison captain had arrived, and Tormeten pulled him aside to quiz him about security.

Renent listened from a distance. The captain seemed hesitant to say whether Jaipnite harassment grew worse or better.

“It seems to vary from major moon to major moon—even from day to day,” he said. “All I can really do is send the men out and hear what they tell me at the end of that day or next, depending on when they report back.”

He explained that he was called to the west that morning to respond to an incident.

“That’s why you didn’t see troops on the road. We were either here or out there. Heard reports of Southerners crawling through these backwoods for no good reason. Turned out to be nothing, though.”

“But what about the road? Is it safe?”

“We ask every pilgrim group that comes through what’s happened. Some come through perfectly. Sometimes it’s not a good picture. We had a girl hit with some stick about a major moon ago. Blood everywhere. But then she was in a really small group. Maybe ten. We tell folks to travel in bigger numbers to avoid that sort of thing.”

“Are the attackers coming from Kaulo?” Tormeten asked next, repeating his question to the two young men.

“I wouldn’t want to say, sir,” the captain replied, obviously appreciating the implications of an affirmative response. “They know me over there, and they don’t like me. That’s sure. Still, they know I’m here. And they know I’m staying here. And they know I’ll be here. If they don’t want Valley dwellers guarding their road, then they can protect it. The King’s brother came down here and said, ‘Either you put troops on the road, or we will. If you want to be responsible for your own guests, then that’s fine, but the road’ll be safe.’ They ignored him, so here we are.”

Tormeten seemed to know that history, so he asked about the now infamous controversy over eighty versus forty troops.

The captain was noncommittal here too.

“We have forty, and I make do with forty, sir.”

Renent’s father did not press further. On behalf of Becopton’s people, he thanked the man for his service and ended the conversation.
The pilgrims moved out. They arrived at Kelceb after stars were visible, but no harm resulted. The next day, they re-crossed the Liantin into the safety of the Valley. Renent contemplated the journey’s events. Part of him wanted to burst into the house and tell Lahall everything, but he knew better now. He kept his happy memories to himself.
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