"The path to the summit is well traveled, so stay on the path until you get to the top. You need to stop at Stormplat the first day, but you have to leave early enough to find a place to stay so you’re not stuck trying to find one in the dark. You’ve got bread and cheese for the trip up," Malageth instructed.
"We can’t stay at the inn?" Mantu asked.
Malageth gave him the answer he expected. He really wanted this occasion to be as special as it could be. After all, you only go to Stormtraub once, maybe twice, in your life.
"No, we can’t afford it, and it will be pleasant enough outside. Just make sure you get there early. If you dally, you will have a choice of sleeping on rock or hiking another hour to find a spot. Then, you’ll have an hour’s walk back to get water, before you get started the next morning. That’ll put you two hours behind everyone else and you’ll be late getting to lightning peak, and you don’t want to be looking for a place to sleep in the dark there. You may walk off a bluff. It’s dark as pitch up there. The third day, you will get to the summit, but remember to pace yourselves because the air is a little thinner up there, the going will be slower."
"I’ve also jerked some beef. Don’t eat it all the first day, or you’ll go hungry. Bimeny has the strengthening potion for after the storm, and he knows what to do. I talked to Martiel, the Blacksmith, and he said your Aunt Rangar is going up a day early. This is your cousin Junt’s Stormtraub as well. They are going to try and get one of the caves just below the summit. She said you could stay with them, they’ll save you a place. That way, if you get into any trouble, she will be there to help."
"What trouble? I know what to do. You’ve been teaching me for almost three seasons," Bimeny whined.
"I know, and you’ve been a model student. I am sure you will have no trouble at all. It’s just good to have a little backup, and you’ll worry less, knowing that she is there if you need her. I will worry less knowing that, between the two of you, nothing could happen that one of you couldn’t handle," Malageth explained with a reassuring, motherly tone.
"Well, we won’t need her," Bimeny chided.
"And besides, the caves are dry and if it rains you’ll be grateful that she is willing to share. Look at it this way, it’s easier to wait when you have someone to wait with," Malageth added.
"Now, have you packed everything that you need? You have your wraps that Grandmother made for you?"
"Yes, Mother," responded Mantu and Bimeny together.
"And you’ve got the strengthening potion, wrapped carefully?"
"Yes, Mother," they said, again.
"And you’ve got all the things for the soup, a couple of bowls?"
"Yes, Mother!" they said, again. (It was beginning to sound like a mantra.)
"We have everything. We’ve been through it all three times," Bimeny said.
"Alright then, be off and come home safe," she said.
She took Mantu by the face and looked deep into his blue eyes, like she would never see them the same, ever again. And she knew she might not. Some don’t survive the storm. The lightning delivers quite a jolt, and the stones amplify it in the imbuing process. Some die, some are injured, but no one is ever the same. The imbuing changes the person, giving them what the storm sees as the answer to the future needs of the community. And not just this community, many others attend as well. No one knows how the storm does what it does, or knows what it knows, but it has not failed the planet for as long as history has been recorded.
As Mantu and Bimeny departed, they got to the end of the garden path, when Mantu stopped suddenly.
"What?" Bimeny asked.
"I forgot my stonekeep!" Mantu said.
"You forgot your stonekeep! We went through it all three times!" Bimeny said.
"Stay here, I’ll be right back," Mantu said as he set his pack down and sprinted back toward the house.
"I’m not sleeping on the rocks because you can’t..."
But Mantu didn’t hear him finish, because he was entering the house.
"Mantu, what are you doing back..." Malageth asked, as she got to her feet.
Mantu ran over and hugged her and kissed her on the cheek, and said, "I love you, Mom." Then he sprinted back out the door.
Mantu and Bimeny made the base of the mountain by mid-morning, having bickered the entire way. They stopped and looked up at the mountain, and the distance that they had to cover.
Mantu put his hand on his brother’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. He looked like he was searching for something profound to say as he glanced up the mountain and back to Bimeny’s eyes, but all that came out was, "Thanks."
Bimeny just smiled, and said, "Come on, or we’ll be sleeping on the rocks."
They started silently up the mountain when Mantu spotted the one person he least wanted to see. Raleck, his mother and father, and what looked like half of his family were just ahead. Raleck’s family was very affluent, and he had been Mantu’s rival ever since childhood. Raleck had a habit of pointing out Mantu’s weak points to all the girls. He pointed out Mantu’s tattered shoes and worn clothing. Mantu’s family wasn’t poor, but they didn’t have a lot extra either. But, Mantu knew how hard Reentu worked to provide for his family and Mantu wasn’t about to ask for anything he didn’t absolutely need. He also figured that any girl who couldn’t see past that point wasn’t worth his effort. But he would really have preferred not to be made fun of by Raleck, who hadn’t known a decent day’s work in his life.
"Great! And I’ll bet there is no way around them either," Mantu said under his breath.
"We’ll just stay behind them," Bimeny whispered.
"No, we’ll be late. They’re in no hurry because they undoubtedly have a room at the Inn," Mantu said, as he resigned himself to the abuse he was about to endure.
"Stormtraub Raleck!" Mantu yelled, figuring to speak first and maybe take him off guard.
"Mantu! Stormtraub. Are you coming to see if you can get a blessing to charm fertilizer? It smells like that’s what you must have in your stonekeep," Raleck said, as his mother chided him, but his father was roaring with laughter.
"Better that than a snake charmer," Bimeny fired back. "Isn’t that why you’re here? Maybe you can make your father more socially acceptable? Probably not, it would take more than a blessing to change the fat slob," Bimeny continued to shout as Mantu was dragging him away.
"Great!" Mantu said, "I’m just trying to get by them and you have to stir them all up!"
At that, Raleck ran up and grabbed Bimeny and pulled him back out of Mantu’s hands. "Maybe your brother needs to be a health charmer, if you’re going to have a mouth like that. I’ll teach you your place," and he drew back his fist.
But at the speed of light, Mantu punched Raleck in the face. Raleck let go of Bimeny, staggered for a moment and fell back. Mantu stepped forward and leaned over so that he was just a foot from Raleck’s face and he grabbed his tunic and pulled him forward so that only he could hear.
"You are lucky that weapons are not permitted on the mountain or you would be wearing an arrow right now. We are no longer in school and there are no girls here to impress. If you ever touch my brother again, I will finish this."
At that moment he felt a soft hand grab him by the hair and pull him back. He spun around and swung, and missed, and then saw stars. The next thing he knew, he was waking up with his head in Bimeny’s lap.
"Oh, that hurt," Mantu said, as he tried to focus again.
"I’ll bet it hurts. Raleck’s Dad really hit you. I was worried. You didn’t wake up for a long time," Bimeny said, looking down into his brother’s bloody face.
Mantu looked up at his brother’s upside-down face. "How long?" Mantu asked.
"Quite a while. I think we’re sleeping on the rocks," Bimeny said as he helped his brother to his feet.
"So what happened after I was knocked out?" Mantu asked as he picked up his pack and they started back up the mountain.
"Raleck’s dad started to pick you up and hit you some more and, well, I jumped on his back and bit him on the neck. He let you go and hollered for Raleck to get me off of him. His dad was spinning around so hard and fast, that my feet were kicking to try and stay on. The next thing I knew, I slipped off and went flying through the air. I landed on Raleck with my knee where he least appreciated it. His father was running over to his wife to get her to stop the bleeding from my bite. As I got up to see how you were, Raleck was holding himself and giving up his lunch. He finally got up and hobbled away."
"Wow! You did all that? Are you hurt?" Mantu asked, now eyeing his brother with concern, looking for injuries.
"No, I landed on Raleck. What else could I do? You’re my brother and that was sort of my fault, anyway. Neither one seemed in any hurry for more, so they went on ahead."
Bimeny and Mantu laughed as they discussed the altercation all the way to the Inn at Stormplat. It was approaching dusk when they arrived. Malageth was right, there was no place to bed down, and the Inn and the small town that supported it was built on a huge slab of stone carved out of the mountain.
They figured that since they hadn’t stopped to eat because Mantu was unconscious, that if they topped off their skins with water, then they could go on ahead and not have to come back in the morning. They could also possibly avoid seeing Raleck and his family again.
Up the path a bit, they realized that it was not as good an idea as they first thought. When they were standing there in Stormplat, they had two beautiful moons that gave them plenty of light to navigate by. But once they left the small town, the path was soon swallowed up by the forest. Just seeing the path was arduous and slow going. They didn’t want to wander off the path, and walk off a cliff. The path was also strewn with others who had the same idea. Once, they had strayed so far off the path that they stumbled over a couple who jumped up and screamed, thinking them to be robbers or some beast from the woods.
After great apologies and a lot of bowing, they continued on. They decided that they had better find a place quick, or they would surely find someone who did not adhere to the no-weapons mandate put out by the elders and the council.
They finally found an unoccupied covey in the brush, where they felt concealed and protected, should the weather turn bad during the night. It had turned chilly during their wanderings, but now it was entirely too dark to look for wood to build a fire. They dug in and pulled their blankets over top of them, and fell fast asleep without eating, discussion or movement. They were simply exhausted.
Morning came entirely too early as they were awakened by a large rustling on both sides of them. Startled, they instinctively opened their eyes without moving so as not to give away their position, should it be dangerous. It was too late, however, to worry about that, as they had chosen a small island to sleep in that was in a fork in the path.
The path went a short distance and rejoined itself. They were smack dab in the middle of the procession on the way to the Stormtraub Summit. "Stormtraub, good blessings," people would say as they passed. Mantu and Bimeny muttered the same through a mouth full of jerked meat that Malageth had given them. They were starved, having fallen asleep so quickly last night, and also having skipped lunch due to Mantu’s unconscious state. Bimeny never thought jerked meat could taste so good.
The boys picked up their packs, and fell in line with the procession so they could stop responding to passers-by, and eat their breakfast meal, such as it was, in peace. Mantu was stiff from his altercation with Raleck’s father. It was probably a good thing too, as it made him think to look around and see who was nearby. He was proud of his little brother, but he also knew it was not over. He was glad that Malageth had arranged for them to have shelter after the storm.
He wasn’t quite as concerned about Raleck, because he lacked the courage to attack someone his own size and head on straight up. In short, he was a coward that would choose flight over fight every time, unless he was assured a win. But Raleck’s father was a different story.
Mantu knew that Bimeny knew what do for the effects of the storm, but he feared that Raleck’s father might seek revenge on his brother when he would be helpless after the storm. Mantu felt completely exposed without his bow.
The day wore on, and the mountain seemed to be growing taller by the moment. They were exhausted again by midday. They didn’t know how long they had slept, because they couldn’t see either of their two moons so they could get a bearing. All they knew was that it was not nearly enough. They were in a hurry to get ahead so that they could find a decent place to sleep for the night. They knew the following day was going to be harsh because of the altitude. By mid-afternoon they were so high that they had to get out their wraps that their Grandmother made for them.
They were warm and well made, even though they were getting a little small for them. It had been almost five seasons since Grandma died and Grandpa died shortly after Grandma. Malageth said he just didn’t want to live without Grandma anymore. After five seasons, the wraps held very little of that "Grandma" smell. Bimeny was very young at the time and barely remembered their faces, but Mantu was older and remembered them well. He missed Grandma’s pasapear pie. He remembered the smell of her house when she made it and the crisp taste that it had. No one else made it quite like her. She had her own special blend of spices.
And he remembered how Grandpa used to take him fishing, just the two of them, and they would stay late into the night. Sometimes so late that Grandpa would carry him, sleeping, back up to the house, and put him in bed. He missed those times. Bimeny would never know this feeling. Mantu suddenly felt sorry for Bimeny, and wondered what Grandma and Grandpa would say if they were still here when he came down from Stormtraub.
Mantu hadn’t given much thought to the ceremony and the storm itself. It was something that everyone looked forward to, but it was also pretty scary. Some people didn’t survive it, and those that did were changed forever. But now that they were within a day of it, the reality of what was about them was starting to set in. He fiddled with his stonekeep as he walked along. Bimeny noticed, and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder as they walked. He looked his brother lovingly in his eyes and said, "Hey, don’t sweat it. I love carrots." Mantu had been looking in his brother’s eyes and was suddenly outraged at what he thought was going to be reassurance!
"You little..." Mantu said, as he chased after his brother. The chase didn’t last too long though as they were already high on the mountain. It was getting steeper. Mantu caught up to his brother and tackled him, holding him down as Bimeny laughed at him. Mantu couldn’t be angry. He started to laugh, too, and rolled over on the ground next to him. They took the opportunity to lean back and take a proper dinner break.
It didn’t last too long, however, before they saw Raleck and his father, who had a large wrap on his neck. He held his hand on it as if it pained him greatly. Both parties saw each other at about the same time. There was no place to go, and no time to get there.
"There he is!" Raleck yelled, as he ran, pointing, next to his father who was taking long strides with eyes narrowed.
Mantu was on his feet and standing his ground. Bimeny moved off to the side and put his pack down. If this was going to turn into another fight, he wanted to be ready. Raleck’s father caught Bimeny’s movement, and he made sure not to let Bimeny out of his sight. He stopped an arm’s length from Mantu, positioning himself so he could watch both Mantu and Bimeny.
"Your little brother has quite a mouth on him," Raleck’s father said.
"So does your son," Mantu shot back.
"Hit him, Father, go ahead, I’ll watch your back!" Raleck said.
"Just like you did the last time?" Bimeny said, as he advanced on the two of them, his eyes narrowed and his teeth clenched.
Then, Raleck and his father took a step back and Raleck’s father reached his hand up to the wound on his neck. Bimeny was very young and slight of build, but it was apparent that his previous attack was still fresh on their minds. So was his rather short fuse.
Raleck’s father held out his hand to Mantu to shake in the peace grip.
"I am Rancor. You’re right, Raleck has a mouth on him. There is no need to take this any further. One more encounter, and I might not survive your little brother’s attack long enough to see what the storm does for my son."
Mantu just stood there, sizing him up. Was it a trick to get him to drop his guard, or was it genuine? He needed a moment to think. Raleck, feeling brave, having his father between them, dove at Mantu. Mantu sidestepped him and hit him with his fist, knocking him back. Raleck bounced off of his father with blood spurting from his nose and landed, splayed out on the ground. Rancor looked at his son laying there in a puddle of his own blood. Rancor spit towards his son, and looked back at Mantu.
"He had it coming," said Rancor. He extended his right hand in the peace gesture, with index and middle fingers extended, again. Mantu cautiously clasped his arm in the same manner, and shook it.
Mantu said, "Stormtraub, Rancor, blessings to come your way."
"Stormtraub, Mantu, may you receive the blessings of your choice." The two released their peace grip and Rancor grabbed his sobbing son by his bloody tunic and pulled him to his feet and shoved him towards his mother.
As Raleck stumbled forward, Rancor said, "You shame me, boy. You attacked him while I had my hand extended in the peace gesture. I’ll be happy if the storm just makes you a man!" And Rancor walked around him and off to one of his bearers for a strong drink. Raleck stumbled off to his mother who blotted the blood from his face.
Bimeny stooped and picked something up from the ground and looked at it. Then he gathered up something from the ground and started over toward Raleck. Raleck cowered behind his mother as Bimeny approached.
"Here, you dropped this," Bimeny said, as he extended his hand toward Raleck who withdrew, cowering even further behind his mother. Bimeny looked up at Raleck’s mother’s face. She extended her hand and Bimeny gave her what he had. As she thanked him, Bimeny gave a nod and turned back towards Mantu.
"What was that all about?" Mantu asked Bimeny.
"He lost his stonekeep in the fight. I just returned it to him," Bimeny replied.
"You did what? Those had to be some really pricey stones, maybe even gold. I could have used those and he certainly doesn’t deserve them," Mantu said.
"You wouldn’t want any of his stones, and besides, you wouldn’t have had time to purify them anyway. Who knows what would’ve happened. What if the storm knew they weren’t yours?!" Bimeny shot back. "They weren’t mine, so I gave them back. Your stones came to you honestly. He paid for what he hopes are good stones. None of them came to him naturally, and there wasn’t any gold. The pouch fell open and the stones fell out. I picked them up and put them back in before I gave it back to him. There wasn’t any gold."
"You’re right," Mantu said, quietly embarrassed. He knew Bimeny was right, and he should have known better. And, in fact, he did know better. He would never have even considered it before, it was the stress. He was close to Stormtraub, and was beginning to feel the pressure.
"Let’s go before we get behind again."
Once again, they donned their packs and made for the trail. They glanced over their shoulder to look back at Raleck. They saw his mother with her hands on her hips, obviously giving Raleck something else they were sure he didn’t want, a piece of her mind. The two boys looked at each other, and a smile grew on both of their faces and they continued up the trail.
The boys walked for a long time that day, stopping only to have lunch, and to take care of the necessary. They spoke very little during that time, Bimeny going over the instructions for administering the strengthening solution, going over the rite and remembering the order in which things were to be done. Mantu was just numb. He had gone over all the possible scenarios. His dying, his gaining the world’s greatest blessing, and ruling the world, and... and carrots! He had thought himself into a near panic. More than once, he looked over his shoulder. Not looking for Raleck, just contemplating if he would rather just bolt and run. A lot of people opted not to participate in Stormtraub. They lived full, fruitful lives. But taking the chance and gaining a blessing would change his life dramatically for the better. But at what cost, Mantu thought to himself.
As they walked up the trail, the mountain leveled off for a time, and there was a clearing where many had set up camp. Mantu looked up and saw a lightning bolt shaped rock sticking out of the side of the mountain.
"Finally! Lightning Peak! We made it!" Mantu said. "Let’s find a good spot, eat, and get some sleep."
They found a cutaway in the rock. It was close to the path and protected from the weather. "This will do," Mantu said.
Bimeny set his pack down, reached inside, and pulled out a piece of moss. He turned it over, and from the dirt side poked his finger through it, and dug a small piece of the orange fur-like moss through to the dirt side of the mossy clump. He bunched it together so it looked like a dirt clod with an orange dimple in the top. He reached in the pouch on his side, pulled out a flint and a piece of steel, and struck the steel downward over the moss. Sparks flew off of the flint and ignited the orange dimple. The flame grew just enough to create a warm glow. It put off a lot of heat for such a small flame. They welcomed the heat as they felt the evening chill take hold of the land. They held their palms to the flame and settled in for the night.
"Good thinking," Mantu said. "I never would have thought to bring Fire Moss," said Mantu.
"Me either," Bimeny said. "Malageth must have slipped it into my pack as an afterthought, because it wasn’t there when we went through it. Any of the three times we went through it. I just wish I had found it last night. I’ll warm up some soup, and then we can turn in. Tomorrow, we will get to the summit and tomorrow night you meet the storm." Bimeny was watching his big brother. Mantu had blanched and looked at the path down the mountain when Bimeny had said "Meet the storm."
"Are you scared?" Bimeny asked quietly.
"More than I have ever been in my life."
"You’ll be fine."
"How do you know? The stones I have may be shit."
"The stones you have came to you the way the Elders said. You didn’t pay for the stones, you paid to have someone gather them so more stones had the opportunity to call to you."
Mantu looked at him and laughed. "You need to have an arbiter’s blessing! I’m not worried any more. I’ll just have you go have a talk to the storm for me. I think you could talk the storm into giving me any blessing I wanted."
"How do you know I wouldn’t ask him to give you a cabbage blessing instead?" Bimeny asked, with a wry smile on his face.
"No way!" Mantu said. "You hate cabbage."
The two boys laughed, and ate their stew. The banter seemed to break the tension in Mantu, because he relaxed and didn’t look for the path down anymore. He appeared to have resolved himself to do it, and just let it happen. But sleep didn’t come easily that night, as thoughts of the possibilities crept back in. Mantu had finally just drifted off to sleep when a girl’s voice spoke from the darkness.
"Hello?" she asked.
Mantu and Bimeny snapped awake. "What! Who’s there?" Mantu queried.
A small, round face stepped into the light of the fire moss.
"Hello," she said. "Sorry to wake you, but we were wondering if you would mind sharing your space. We were delayed, and only just arrived. We were hoping to find a place to bed down, but it is dark as pitch out here. We saw your flicker of light and, well... you seem have a bit of extra space over there. We wouldn’t take up much room."
"Who is with you?" Mantu asked.
"Just my sister and I. My mother is going to try and come up tomorrow. She won’t get here until just after the storm. My name is Naetoo and my sister is Martaray."
Martaray stepped into the light and Mantu just stared. His eyes glazed over, and he was speechless. Bimeny just looked at his brother and gave him a hard elbow.
"Oh, uh, sure, come on in."
Martaray was a young girl with very light brown hair and sculpted features. She had almond-shaped green eyes that looked too large for her face. But once you beheld them, you were captivated, paralyzed and spellbound, you just couldn’t look away. She was the most beautiful girl Mantu had ever seen.
Bimeny could not believe this. Two hours ago, Mantu was going to bolt and run. Four days ago, he was ready to promise with Halgreth. Now, he was no longer in fear for his life, and didn’t know who Halgreth was. He just sat there and stared. It was a wonder his tongue wasn’t hanging out!
"Hi, I’m Bimeny and this is my brother, Mantu, the village idiot." Mantu didn’t even hear him. He just continued to stare. "He has just been promised," Bimeny said a little louder. "To a girl named Halgreth." He was almost screaming in his brother’s ear at this point.
The girls said their thanks, smiled and climbed past them, dropping their packs and snuggling in with each other, giggling.
Mantu continued to stare, as Bimeny climbed in the space between the girls and Mantu. Mantu continued to stare. Bimeny sat up and looked into his brothers eyes, gave him a disgusted look, and then reached down and snuffed the fire moss. It went pitch black.
As the smell of the smoldering moss wafted across them, Mantu leaned back and, as he fell asleep, his mind filled with pictures of tomorrow’s perilous outcomes.