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The cold night breeze shifted, blowing stinging smoke from old Teolin's campfire into Mahti's eyes. The young witch blinked it away, but remained squatting motionless, his bearskin cloak pulled around him like a little hut. It was bad luck to fidget during this last crucial step of the making.
The old witch hummed happily as he heated his knife again and again, using the tip and edge to incise the rings of dark, intricate patterns that now covered most of the long wooden tube. Teolin was ancient. His wrinkled brown skin hung on his skinny frame like old cloth and his bones showed through. The witch marks on his face and body were hard to read, distorted by the ravages of time.
His hair hung over his shoulders in a thin tangle of yellowed strands. Years of making had left his blunt, knobby fingers stained black, but they were as nimble as ever.
Mahti's last oo'lu had cracked one cold night this past midwinter, after he'd played out an elder's gallstones. It had taken months of searching to find the right kind of bildi branch to make a new one. Bildi trees weren't scarce, but you had to find a sapling trunk or large branch that had been ant-hollowed, and the right size to give a good tone. "High as your chin, and four fingers broad"; so he'd been taught and so it was.
He'd found plenty of flawed branches in the hills around his village: knotted ones, cracked ones, others with holes eaten out through the side. The large black ants that followed the rising sap through the heartwood were industrious but undiscerning craftsmen.
He'd finally found one, and cut his horn stave from it. But it was bad luck for a witch to make his own instrument, even if he had the skill. Each must be earned and given from the hand of another. So he'd strapped it to his back over his bearskin cloak and snowshoed for three days and nights to bring it to Teolin.
The old man was the best oo'lu maker in the eastern hills. Witch men had been coming to him for three generations and he turned away more than he accepted.
It took weeks to make an oo'lu. During this time it was Mahti's job to chop wood, cook food, and generally make himself useful while Teolin worked.
Teolin first stripped the bark and used live coals to burn out the last of the ants' leavings. When the stave was fully hollowed he went out of earshot to test the tone. Satisfied, he and Mahti rested and traded spells for a week while the hollow branch hung drying in the rafters near the smoke hole of Teolin's hut.
It dried without warping or cracking. Teolin sawed the ends square and rubbed beeswax into the wood until it gleamed. Then they'd waited two more days for the full moon.
Tonight was the sit-still.
That afternoon Mahti had scraped away the snow in front of the hut and dragged out an old lion skin for Teolin to sit on. He laid a large fire, with more wood stacked within easy reach, and hunkered down to tend it.
Teolin sat down wrapped in his moth-eaten bearskin and set to work. Using a heated iron knife, he etched the rings of magic onto the wood. Mahti watched with rapt attention as he fed the fire, marveling at how the designs seemed to flow from the tip of the blade, like ink onto deerskin. He wondered if it would come so easily to him, when the time came for him to make oo'lus for others?
Now the Mother's full white face was high overhead and Mahti's ankles ached from squatting, but the oo'lu was nearly done.
When the last of the rings was complete, Teolin dipped the mouth end in a little pot of melted wax, then rolled a softened lump of it into a thin coil and pressed it in a ring to the waxed end of the horn. He squinted across at Mahti, gauging the size of his mouth, and pinched the wax in until the opening was about two thumbs wide.
Satisfied at last, he gave Mahti a toothless grin. "Ready to learn this one's name?"
Mahti's heart beat faster as he stood and stretched the stiffness from his legs. His last oo'lu, Moon Plow, had served him seven years. In that time he'd become a man and a healer. Honoring the Moon Plow mark, he'd planted many fine children in women's bellies at Mother Shek'met's festivals. His sons and daughters were scattered through three valleys and some of the oldest were already showing witch's talent.
When Moon Plow cracked, this cycle of his life ended. He was twenty-three summers old, and his next future was about to be revealed.
Drawing his own knife, he cut his right palm and held it over the mouth of the oo'lu as Teolin held it. A few drops of his blood fell inside it as he sang the claiming spell. The black tracery of witch marks across his face, arms, and chest tickled like spider feet. When he thrust his hand into the fire, he didn't feel the heat of it. Straightening, he moved to the far side of the fire and faced the old man. "I'm ready."
Teolin held the oo'lu upright and chanted the blessing, then tossed it across to Mahti.
He caught it awkwardly in his fire hand, gripping it well below the center. Even hollow, it was a heavy thing. It nearly overbalanced, and if it had fallen, he'd have had to burn it and start all over again. But he managed to hang on to it, gritting his teeth until the witch marks faded completely from sight on his arms. He took the horn in his left hand and inspected it. The shiny black print of his fire hand was branded into the wood.
Teolin took it back and carefully examined how the marks of Mahti's splayed fingers intersected the carved designs. He was a long time at it, humming and sucking his gums.
"What's wrong?" asked Mahti. "Is it a bad luck cycle?"
"This is the Sojourn mark you've made. You better spit for it."
Teolin scratched a circle in the ashes at the edge of the fire with his knife. Mahti took a mouthful of water from the gourd and spat forcefully into the circle, then turned away quickly as Teolin hunkered down to interpret the marks.
The old man sighed. "You'll travel among strangers until this oo'lu cracks. Whether that's good luck or bad, only the Mother knows, and she doesn't feel like telling me tonight. But it's a strong mark you made. You'll travel a long way."
Mahti bowed respectfully. If Teolin said it would be so, then it would be. Best just to accept it. "When do I go? Will I see Lhamila's child born?"
Teolin sucked his gums again, staring down at the spit marks. "Go home by a straight path tomorrow and lay your blessings on her belly. A sign will come. But now, let's hear this fine horn I've made for you!"
Mahti settled his mouth firmly inside the wax mouthpiece. It was still warm and smelled of summer. Closing his eyes, he filled his cheeks with air and blew gently out through loosened lips.
Sojourn's deep voice came to life with his breath. He hardly had to adjust his playing style at all before the rich, steady drone warmed the wood beneath his hands. Gazing up at the white moon, he sent a silent thanks to the Mother. Whatever his new fate was, he knew already that he would do great magic with Sojourn, surpassing all he'd done with Moon Plow.
By the time he finished the claiming song he was light-headed. "It's good!" he gasped. "Are you ready?"
The old man nodded and hobbled back into the hut.
They'd agreed on the payment their first day together. Mahti lit the bear fat lamp and set it by the piled furs of the sleeping platform.
Teolin shrugged off his cloak and undid the ties of his shapeless robe. The elk and bear teeth decorating it clicked softly as he let it fall. He stretched out on his pallet, and Mahti knelt and ran his eyes over the old man's body, feeling compassion tinged with sadness rise in his heart. No one knew how old Teolin was, not even the old witch himself. Time had eaten most of the flesh from his frame. His penis, said to have planted more than five hundred festival seeds, now lay like a shrunken thumb against his hairless sac.
The old man smiled gently. "Do what you can. Neither the Mother nor I ask more than that."
Mahti leaned down, kissed the old man's lined brow, and drew the fusty bearskin up to Teolin's chin to keep him warm. Settling beside the platform, he rested the end of the horn close to the old man's side, closed his eyes, and began the spell song.
With lips and tongue and breath, he altered the drone to a sonorous, rhythmic pulse. The sound filled Mahti's head and chest, making his bones shiver. He gathered the energies and sent them out through Sojourn to Teolin. He could feel the song enter the old man, lifting the strong soul free of the frail, pain-wracked body, letting it drift up through the smoke hole like milkweed fluff. Bathing in the light of a full moon was very healing for a soul. It returned to the body cleansed and gave a clear mind and good health.
Satisfied, Mahti changed the song, tightening his lips to weave in the night croak of a heron, the booming boast of grandfather frog, and the high, reedy chorus of all the little peepers who knew the rain's secrets. With these, he washed the hot sand from the old man's joints and cleansed the little biting spirits from his intestines. Searching deeper, he smelled a shadow in Teolin's chest and followed it to a dark mass in the upper lobe of his liver. The death there was still asleep, curled tight like a child in the womb. This, Mahti could not cleanse away. Some were fated to carry their own deaths. Teolin would understand. For now, at least, there was no pain.
Mahti let his mind wander on through the old man's body, soothing the old fractures in his right heel and left arm, pressing the pus away from the root of a broken molar, dissolving the grit in the old man's bladder and kidneys. For all its wizened appearance, Teolin's penis was still strong. Mahti played the sound of a forest fire into his sac. The old man had a few more festivals in him; let the Mother be served by another generation bearing his fine old blood.
The rest was all old scars, long since healed or accepted. Allowing himself a whim, he played the white owl's call through Teolin's long bones, then droned the soul back down into the old man's flesh.
When he was finished, he was surprised to see pink dawn light shining in through the smoke hole. He was covered in sweat and shaking, but elated. Smoothing his hand down the polished length of the oo'lu, he whispered, "We will do great things, you and I."
Teolin stirred and opened his eyes.
"The owl song tells me you are one hundred and eight years old," Mahti informed him.
The old man chuckled. "Thank you. I'd lost track." He reached out and touched the handprint on the oo'lu. "I caught a vision for you while I slept. I saw the moon, but it was not the Mother's round moon. It was a crescent, sharp as a snake's tooth. I've seen that vision only once before, not too long ago. It was for a witch from Eagle Valley village."
"Did she learn what it meant?"
"I don't know. She went away with some oreskiri. I've never heard anything of her return. Her name is Lhel. If you meet her in your travels, give her my greeting. Perhaps she can tell you the meaning."
"Thank you, I'll do that. But you still don't know if my fate is a good one or a bad one?"
"I've never walked Sojourn's path. Perhaps it depends on where your feet take you. Walk bravely in your all travels, honor the Mother, and remember who you are. Do that and you will continue to be a good man, and a fine witch."
Mahti left the old man's clearing at dawn the next day, Teolin's blessing still tingling on his brow.
Plodding over the crusty snow, Sojourn a comforting weight across his shoulders in its sling, he smelled the first hint of spring on the morning air. Later, as the sun rose over the peaks, he heard it in the dripping of water from bare branches.
He knew this trail well. The rhythmic crunch and rasp of his snowshoes lulled him into a light trance and his thoughts drifted. He wondered if he'd plant different kinds of children now than he had under the Moon Plow sign? Then again, if he were to travel far, would he plant any children at all?
He wasn't surprised when the vision came. He often had them at moments like these, tramping alone through the peace of the forest.
The winding path became a river under his feet, and the sinew and bent ash of his snowshoes grew into a little boat that bobbed gently on the current. Instead of the thick forest on the far bank, there was open land, very green and fertile. He knew in the way of visions that this must be the southland, where his people had once lived, before the foreigners and their oreskiri had driven them into the hills.
A woman stood between a tall man and a young girl on that bank, and she waved to Mahti as if she knew him. She was Retha'noi like him, and naked. Dark-skinned and small, her fine, ripe body was covered with witch marks. The fact that she was naked in the vision told him that she was dead, a spirit coming to him with a message.
Greetings, my brother. I am Lhel.
Mahti's eyes widened as he recognized the name. This was the woman Teolin had spoken of, the one who'd gone away with the southlanders on a sojourn of her own. She smiled at him and he smiled back; this was the Mother's will.
She beckoned him to join her but his boat would not move.
He looked more closely at the others with her. They were black-haired, too, but the man's was cut short and the girl's hung in long waves around her shoulders rather than the coarse curls of his people. They were taller, too, and pale as a pair of bones. The young man had an aura of strong magic about him: oreskiri, surely, but with a hint of power Mahti recognized. This witch, Lhel, must have taught him something of their ways. That was troubling, even though Teolin had spoken no ill of her.
The girl did not have magic, but Lhel pointed to the ground at the girl's feet and Mahti saw that she had a double shadow, one male, and one female.
He didn't know how to interpret the vision yet, except that these two were both living people, and southlanders. He was not afraid or angry to see them here in his mountains, though. Maybe it was the way the other witch rested her hands on their shoulders, love so clear in her dark eyes. She looked at Mahti again and made a sign of bequeathing. She was giving these two strangers into his care, but why?
Without thinking, he set the new oo'lu to his lips and played a song he did not recognize.
The vision passed and the forest path returned around him. He was standing in a clearing, still playing that song. He didn't know what it was for; perhaps it was for the southlanders. He would play it for them when they met and see if they knew.