Food never tasted so good. Had they not been sharing the lamb between four people and a dog, she might have eaten the entire thing herself. Glory felt no hunger, nor did she feel full on her portion. But after so long without even enjoying food, it was as if she was tasting it for the first time. Once she swallowed the last bite and the taste faded from her mouth, she regretted not eating more slowly with smaller bites to savor it better. Courtesy kept her from taking more.
Phoenix felt no compulsion to control his appetite. From the looks Lucka gave him as he went back for thirds, he was pushing the bounds of hospitality. There was plenty left, but so far from civilization, the meat was a luxury. Without a word, Lucka wrapped the remaining meat in leaves and put it in a pit he’d dug beside the fire, raking the coals over it before building the fire back up. He scowled at Phoenix as he continued to gnaw on the bones of his meal. Even the dog looked miffed.
“So how did you come to be in Sarnath?” Mika asked after a moment as if trying to deflect his cousin’s irritation.
“It was an accident,” Glory lied. “We got turned around in the mountains and didn’t know where we were at first. We were halfway down the mountain before we realized we were being followed.”
Lucka shook his head as he pulled out a long stemmed pipe. “Even this time of year when the snow in the high pastures has melted, it would have been wise to hire a guide to see you through the passes. I thought everyone knew the dangers of Sarnath.”
Glory shrugged, looking at the fire with embarrassment. “We were warned about being there after dark, but I was never told why.”
“Long before our ancestors founded Sarnath, there was an ancient city by the lake called Ib. It was populated by silent, rubbery monstrosities which were an offense in the eyes of the gods and men. So when the young warriors of Sarnath slaughtered them, pushing their idols and their grotesque, jellied bodies into the lake, they were lauded as heroes and their actions were commemorated in an annual festival. Even after the high priest Taran-Ish was found in his temple with only the symbol of Doom left to explain his death, the populace was hard-pressed to maintain any fear of the dead.” Lucka laid out the tale of The Doom that Came to Sarnath like a seasoned storyteller. “A thousand years passed until Sarnath was at its height in culture and the arts, and it is then that its Doom came upon it. No one who escaped was ever able to say what exactly had happened. Many died of fear and madness on the road down the mountain, and those who succeeded in fleeing could only state that they had been pursued by an unseen and silent enemy. When next travelers were brave enough to approach the city, nothing remained but The Nameless Lake.”
Glory shook her head in disgust.
“You don’t believe it?” Lucka asked.
“I believe it, but I have more sympathy for Ib than Sarnath. It doesn’t seem as though the creatures, whatever they might have called themselves, did anything to offend the people of Sarnath beyond existing. If they really offended the gods, then surely the gods would have made their wishes known or destroyed Ib themselves. It‘s sad that their ghosts still haunt the lake, but I can understand their anger.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lucka stated flatly. “They were monsters.”
“Your story made no mention of anything monstrous that they did to offend the people of Sarnath,” she said quietly. “If this happened millennia ago, then there’s been ample time for the tale to be embellished with more sinister attributes. What I find telling about your story is that they are merely depicted as inhuman and grotesque. They are not painted as having done anything malicious to their neighbors, and there‘s no justification for the genocide that Sarnath inflicted upon them. They were simply ugly in the eyes of men.”
Lucka harrumphed, sucking on his pipe in silence. Mika looked from his cousin to Glory, clearly puzzled. “But, they chased you from the mountain. They must be monsters.”
“Is an animal that defends its territory a monster, or a man who defends his family?” she asked. “I’m not sure why it took a thousand years for them to take their revenge, but they were there before Sarnath was founded and were to some extent justified in taking back their lands, even if it was the descendants of their murderers rather than the perpetrators themselves upon whom they carried out their revenge. On the other hand, a celebration to honor their killers would only have added insult to injury.” She shrugged. “If it had been up to me, we would never have gone to Sarnath, but I don’t blame them for chasing us away, and we‘re none the worse for wear.”
Lucka grunted and climbed to his feet. “You are welcome to share our shelter for the night,” he said without preamble and withdrew to the hut.
Mika chewed on his lower lip for a moment before getting to his feet as well. “Good night,” he said shyly. The dog jumped up and followed him back to the hut, lying down in front of the door and turning his head to watch their guests. It seemed unlikely that Shemp would let them inside, despite his master’s invitation.
Glory glanced at Phoenix to see that he had already curled up by the fire and fallen asleep, a greasy bone clutched in one fist like a child’s rattle. Even if he had been awake, they were too close to the shepherds to have a proper conversation. There’d be time enough to question him about his lies when they were further along in their journey.
She went back to the lake and washed the grease from her hands before climbing the hill that overlooked the site. More stars speckled the night sky than on earth. They wheeled in strange constellations or maybe there were merely more stars visible, obscuring the constellations with which she was familiar. Glory lay back in the tall grasses and watched the stars gradually drift by until dawn.
to Chapter 6, part 2, page 30