Rediscover this realm of brilliant cruel beauty and seductive immortal ruins, of savage war and grand conquest, of falling stars and silver gods—with this 40th anniversary edition of legendary fantastist Tanith Lee's Birthgrave Trilogy.
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Part I: The Krarl
One summer when I was nine years old, a snake bit me in the thigh. I remember very little of what followed, only being mad with heat and tossing about to escape it as if my flesh were on fire, while time passed in patches. And then it was over and I was better, and running on the green slopes again among the tall white stones that grew there like trees. I learned after that I should have died from the snake’s venom. My body turned gray and blue and yellow from it; a pleasant sight I must indeed have been. Yet I did not die, and even the bite left no scar.
Nor was this the only occasion that I brushed with death. When I was weaned I spewed up everything they gave me except goat milk. Another child would have gone no further, for the krarls generously leave their weaklings as a meal for wolves. Being the son of a Dagkta chief by his favorite woman, my mother’s pleading no doubt saved me. Presently I got over my delicacy and the forbearance of my father was justified.
I survived by fighting and my days were filled up with it. When I was not fighting for my life, I was fighting every other male child of the krarl. For, though I was Ettook’s son, my mother was the out-tribe woman, and I had all the look of her from my very first day in the world. Black-blue hair that was silk on her and a lion’s mane on me and her black eyes, like the blind back of the night sky.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother as she sat combing my hair over my scalp, neck, and shoulder blades. She drew the wooden comb through and through those whips with the sensuous possessiveness of all mothers. She was proud of me, and I was proud to have her pride. She was beautiful, was Tathra, and she was like me. I leaned on her knees as she combed me, and even then, I recall, my knuckles were cut open from some battle, someone’s teeth I had loosened because they had called her names. From the beginning I was conscious of being unique and out of the herd. I never lived an hour without it. It made me sharp and hard and taught me to keep my thoughts in my head, which was all to the good. My mother Tathra shone like a dark star in among the red and yellow people. It was clear, even to the child I was, they hated her for her glamour and her position, and me they hated as the symbol. When I fought them, I fought for her. She was the rock at my back. My ambition was that I must better all of them so that I should uphold her rights and keep her approbation. My father was not exempt from this ambition, nor my dislike.
Ettook was a coarse red man. A red pig. When he came in the tent, then I was put out. With others he would say, “Here is my son,” boast of my height and the muscle growing in me, boast because he had made me, like a good spear. Yet when I displeased him, he beat me, not exactly as a warrior beats his son to tan sense into his hide, or out of it, as the case may be; Ettook beat me with pleasure, because I was his to beat, also something more. I came to see later in my life that each of those blows was saying, “Tomorrow you will be stronger than I, so now I will be stronger than you, and if I break your back, well and good.”
Besides, I had no look of him. Somewhere in him, ignored by the pig that ruled his brain, festered the half-suspicion that Tathra had got me from one of her own folk, before he burned their krarl and took her as spear-bride. He had sons by other women, but Tathra he prized. I have seen him stand and look at some plundered bangle he meant to hang on her, and his cock would push out his leggings just from that. I could have killed him then, that red pig grunting for my mother’s white flesh. Supposedly it is the oldest hate of man for man, but always new. Truly, Ettook and I were not friends to each other.
The Boys’ Rite came due for me when I was fourteen. It fell always in the month of the Gray Dog, the second of the Dog months, during the winter camping.
In spring the tribes went to seek the fertile lands beyond the Snake’s Road; in fall of leaf they came back and moved up into the mountains. The high valleys, contained and sheltered between jagged peaks, escaped the worst of the bladed winds and snow. In certain areas the valley bottoms plunged below the snow line; here grass flourished and evergreen, and waterfalls spilled smashing down, too fast to freeze. In these spots the deer and bear came to browse, sluggish, easy prey for hunters’ arrows.
Ettook’s wintering was shared with other krarls than the Dagkta, with red Skoiana and Hinga and yellow-haired Moi not five miles distant, everyone under a sullen truce. It was too bitter cold for war at that season. The men built long tunnels of packed snow, stone, hide, mud, and boughs, and the tents crouched under them, or in the ribbed caves below the mountain shanks. There was little to do in winter. Storytelling, drinking and gambling, eating and sex were the major pastimes. Sometimes a skirmish between rival hunting bands relieved the monotony. If one man killed another under truce, he must pay a Blood-Price, so the warriors murdered each other carefully and seldom. Krarl ritual was the only other solace.
The Boys’ Rite was one of the mysteries of the men’s side. No male became a warrior without he had undergone it. Since I could remember, I had known it was ahead of me, this milestone of my life, and I dreaded it, and did not positively know why. But I would rather have eaten my tongue than said so. Even my mother I did not tell. I could not let her see me weaken.
There was a girl I had had in leaf-fall. She was a year or so older than I, and had led me on and then vehemently regretted it when I took her teasing for earnest. She had been at me to shame me, for the women hated Tathra most and passed on their hate to their daughters. The girl thought me unready, no doubt, but she was mistaken. She screamed with pain and anger and bit my shoulders to try to dislodge me, but the shireen—her woman’s veil-mask—blunted her teeth, and I was enjoying things too much to let her go just then.
When I was done and found her bleeding I was sorry a moment, but she said, “You out-tribe vermin, you shall bleed too, and yelp when the needles go into you. I hope they may kill you.”
Generally the women feared and revered the males of the krarl, but she had some spirit for me because I was Tathra’s son. I held her by the hair until she whimpered.
“I know about the needles. That is how the warrior-marks are made. Don’t think I shall be squeaking under them like a maiden with the key in her lock.”
“You,” she spat, “you will writhe. You will swell up and die of it. I shall ask Seel-Na to put a curse on you.”
“Ask away. Her curses stink like her person. As for you, you should thank me. I have done your future husband a service, for you were a difficult bitch to get into.”
She tried to poke out my eyes then and I struck her a blow to make her reconsider. Her name was Chula, my first wife, as it turned out later, so the rape was in some ways prophetic.
Still, her words oppressed me. The tattooing, which was part of the Rite, troubled me. I think it had been troubling me a long while and she had only brought the trouble out. My body was strange, so much I already knew, from the snake, and other things. I darkened from the sun. I paled in winter as did all the people, yet there had never been a blemish on my skin and nothing left a scar. As if to balance this, my system showed intolerance to any foreign thing taken in, even food. The rich roasted meats of the kill had me sick if I ate more than a shred or two; their beer was like bane to me. I came to wonder at last what the bright inks of the priests would do, and the needles pushed through my arms and breast. It occurred to me eventually that I should probably die of it as the girl had said, and this filled me with a raging anger. To perish for something I held in contempt, and to leave my mother alone in Ettook’s tent, was gall for me to swallow. And I could say nothing, having created of my fourteen-year-old self a being of iron.
The day before the Rite fell due I went hunting on my own, up and down the snow-clotted sides of the valleys, in the grinding wind. Even at fourteen there was no one better with arrow or spear.
There were two brown does by a pool. I got them both within a second or so of each other. When I went up to let the blood from them to lighten them, something happened inside me like a stone clicking off from the mountain into the air. It was the first time I had ever killed a thing and realized I had taken its life, something that belonged to it. The deer, slumped in the snow, were heavy as lead and flaccid as sacks from which the wine had been emptied. I wished I had not done it then; we had meat enough. Yet I was trying for something, and soon I got up and, going back with the kill, saw a hare and shot that too, and carried it with me to the tents.
The men stared resentfully at what I had got, and some of the younger women exclaimed. A few of the girls’ side were coming to like me a little. Since Chula there had been others, more willing, yet ready to screech and complain after. Still, I had noticed they came back for more.
Ettook was away with various chiefs of the Dagkta drinking on the south side of the camp. He would not be visiting my mother till he returned for the evening meal, or till he was roaring drunk, or both. Tathra sat in her dark blue tent, weaving on a loom got in barter from the Moi. They said they had it from the city peoples west of the mountains, where the great wars had come and gone, leaving only ruin after them.
There had always been war between the ancient cities from time immemorial, but it was a stately war, with rules like a dance. Then someone came who changed things. The tribes had it from scraps and stories blurted by refugees who crossed the mountains to escape the fighting. One tale, discredited at once, was of a goddess risen on earth. More to the tribal taste was the notion of a powerful and ambitious man who drove the old order in to battle for his own ends, was slain, and so left the war to blaze on by itself like a fire, unchecked and leaderless. In the first five or six years after my birth, the cities fell on each other like dying dragons, and were torn in pieces. Thereafter the survivors roamed in packs, pirates of their own places, bitter, insane, and bitterly, insanely proud. There were a thousand or more of these bands, each with a different loyalty, under some crazy captain or prince. Sometimes you heard tales of their raiding over the peaks and men of the tribes taken for slaves. The cities’ lords had always considered themselves remarkable; no human was their equal. The Moi, however, traded with them, by a burned ruin the krarls called Eshkir. The city warriors were strange, by repute, their faces always masked like the faces of our women, yet in bronze, iron, or even silver and gold, while they wore the pelts of animals and rags on their bodies. From the frayed reins of their horses would drip precious jewels, while the ribs of the horse itself thrust starving through the hide. There was a fable, too, that they never ate, these city men, and they had magic powers. They were never seen in winter, the passes being thick with snow, and seldom far east at any time.
On the Eshkiri loom my mother was weaving a scarlet cloth with an intricate border of black, maroon, and yellow. It would be for him. It made my anger worse to see her thus working for Ettook during my last hours in the world. I felt she should be exclusively mine, for I was sure tomorrow meant an end for me, and I was trying to cram today full of deeds.