Sh’ra stood in the middle of a field. Cattle grazed around her. To her side, Lu’rik knelt picking what looked liked a small weed from the dirt, her wrinkled and leathery skin clothed in animal hides. Sh’ra recognized cow, deer, and rabbit. The other skins she could not place. The woman had been silent for a long while. Sh’ra grew restless, shifting from one bare foot to the the other, the mud squishing between her toes. She still had not gotten an explanation for why she could not wear her shoes for these expeditions.
Every morning for the past week, Lu’rik had led her along the mountain paths to this place. Here they would stand until Sh’ra’s legs ached. Lu’rik showing no sign that it bothered her at all. Today, Sh’ra’s patience broke.
“Will you not teach me?”
Lu’rik replied without looking up at her, “What do you wish to learn, dear?”
“To be the Stonebearer! How to use it, how to re-unite the clans!”
“And you think I can teach you this?”
“But Za’reth… He said the horn clan used to train the Stonebearer.”
“Yes, that is true. Long ago, this was our task.”
Lu’rik walked back the way they had come, leaving small footprints in the ground. Sh’ra felt her heart sink, but hurried after the woman. A short distance up the path, Lu’rik stopped. She leaned back against a large boulder that must have fallen from the mountain above centuries ago and wiped the mud from her feet on a small patch of grass.
“Will you not teach me?”
“Ah, there is much I could teach you, but little you could learn. And I fear what you do learn will bring you more harm than good. You are not yet ready for these lessons.”
“Are we ever ready for our lessons, Lu?” A voice called out.
A girl, no older than Sh’ra, in a rawhide tunic and carrying a spear, stepped from behind the boulder. Her arms were bare up to the shoulder, skin tanned by the sun but not yet leathery. A strip of leather circled her head to keep her rusty brown hair out of her face. Her hazel eyes sparkled mischievously.
“Go away U’ri. Your meddling is not going to help this girl.”
“And what you are doing is helping her? She has been following you around for a week. Come Sh’ra, I will show you what you seek.”
“U’ri of Ko’non!” Lu’rik bellowed. “Stop this! You do not understand the path she must tread. We cannot skip steps in this training. She is not ready!”
Sh’ra watched as the two of them fought in front of her, unsure how to respond.
“Grandmother, you can see it as well as I. You taught me! Why do you delay her?”
“She has not asked the questions!”
“How would she know the questions to ask? We cannot keep the old ways in all things. Too much has changed. Too much time has passed. None of the ancients needed such guidance because they lived in the time of the Stonebearers. They grew up understanding and being taught their ways. Sh’ra has had none of this. She is walking blind. And even so, she has already learned to use the stone.”
“Dumb luck, nothing more!”
“Even so, we must teach her! You speak of the harm that will come if we teach her, but imagine what will come if we do not!”
Lu’rik glared at her granddaughter for a moment with eyes blazing. U’ri’s hazel eyes returned the glare with equal ferocity. Finally, Lu’rik relented, bending her head forward. She brought her face around to regard Sh’ra, tapping her lip with a long, knobby finger.
“You speak truth granddaughter. It is good you had me to teach you or I would have been stuck sloughing through this mud for the next month. Come Sh’ra, let us begin.”
U’ri squealed, clapping her hands together and dancing around in the mud, pumping her fists in the air. She ran to Sh’ra, hugged her excitedly and took her hand as they walked.
“U’ri! Stop this before I change my mind!”
Sh’ra smiled. The girl’s enthusiasm reminded her of Tish’ri, the way she had been, except her sister would never have been caught out here in bare feet. U’ri’s grip was strong, her presence reassuring to Sh’ra.
Together they followed Lu’rik as she guided them up a steep path Sh’ra had not seen before, despite having come this way many times in the last few days. It switched back and forth, winding its way up the side of the mountain. They stopped several times for Sh’ra to catch her breath though neither U’ri nor Lu’rik appeared winded in the least. After an hour, they crested onto a small plateau.
On the near side, jagged spires of stone surrounded it like teeth. The far side was open to a view of the valley east of the mountain. Beyond the valley, the Tu’rik mountains spread into the distance, white capped with snow. Sh’ra walked toward the edge to take in the view, but U’ri pulled her in the other direction, toward the wall of stone columns.
“What is this place?” Sh’ra whispered to U’ri.
“It is called the Fangs.”
When they neared the shortest spire on the end, U’ri disappeared into a gap between it and the second. Sh’ra followed to find a narrow staircase carved into the stone, the center of each stair worn down from years of feet and weather. It followed the edge of the platform, through the center of each fang. U’ri was a few stairs up. She leaned down to take Sh’ra's hand again. Holding the girl’s hand almost pulled her off balance several times, but she did not want to let go. Maybe it was the thinness of the air, but for the first time she could remember, she felt giddy. She could not stop herself from laughing as they ran.
The stairs exited onto the top of the highest spire into which a small platform had been carved. It gave them an unobstructed view to the south, east and west, while the mountain climbed above them to a jagged peak on the north.
The view was dizzying when she turned to take it all in. Lu’rik sat cross-legged, her hands on her knees, her eyes closed. U’ri indicated they should do the same. As they sat, Lu’rik extended her hands to them, forming a ring. U’ri made a show of closing her eye and bowing her head signaling Sh’ra to do the same.
In the darkness, Sh’ra felt the wind as it hummed along the edges of the spire. She heard the scrape of pebbles as U’ri shifted her feet to find a more comfortable position. Then, she felt the stone beneath her begin to sway, as a tree moves in a strong wind. Her eyes shot open as they dipped dangerously to the east. She heard straining and cracking deep below and squeezed U’ri’s hand more tightly, thankful she had not accidentally done so to Lu’rik. U’ri opened her eyes and gave her a reassuring smile before bowing her head again. With her eyes open, the movement of the stone was almost imperceptible. Shutting her eyes again, she felt the nausea rise in her stomach as the spire straightened and leaned to the west. She was sure the whole thing was going to topple over, sending her down and down to be crushed on the rocks below — just as he had been.
The feel of U’ri’s hand on hers was the anchor that kept her from bolting back down the stairs to safety. Slowly, she regained her composure. The pounding of her heart in her ears quieted, and she noticed the slight push and pull on her arms from the other two women as the column moved. In her fear, she held her body rigid. They were loose, flowing with the bending of the stone. She joined them in the dance, leaning forward as the stone dipped to east, then back as it swayed to the west, then to the left as it leaned southward. The fear dissipated and she lost herself to the movement.
For a time, all she knew was the wind and the stone and the hands of the two women holding hers. Gradually, the wind died down, then stopped completely. The movement of the stone ceased. They sat silent in the stillness. From the heat on her back, she could tell it was close to midday.
“Listen to the sound and the silence and you will hear.” Lu’rik chanted. “Listen to the stillness and the motion and you will know. ”
Releasing her grip on Sh’ra and U’ri’s hands, Lu’rik leaned forward into a bow with her arms stretched in front of her, palms placed flat onto the stone surface. She spoke a whisper, a prayer to the goddess who hears.
“This is the first truth: Stone is not stone.”
Lu’rik straightened and placed a hand on Sh’ra’s arm. “Speak the words when you know them to be true.”
U’ri bent herself forward, repeating the motion and the words. “Stone is not stone.”
Sh’ra wanted to perform the ritual immediately, but she could not. She felt a gap widening between herself and the other women. They understood something she did not. What did it mean? Stone is not stone? She recited it in her head. Stone is not stone. Stone is not stone. Her mind raced, in search of an answer, of an understanding she did not possess. She bowed forward, placing her open palms on the rock floor. She sensed U’ri beside her, silent but expectant. She focused on the words of the chant Lu’rik had spoken. The sound and silence. The motion and stillness. Something opened within her, some door she had never known was closed or had even existed. The paradox of stone not being stone broke through to a space long hidden, long forgotten, a place where she did understand. She stopped trying to reach the answer. She held the words and knew them to be true.
“Stone is not stone.”