Tsemo and Laong followed MikkhY into the dark leaving everything behind except the weapons. When Vladi hesitated, MikkhY urged, "No time to tell your parents! Come on! The land beyond the life-threatening swamp will be our safety area."
MikkhY's boat was just the nut-shell he got from his "uncle" at the first anniversary of his purchase at the slave market as a present. It looked quite fragile and was more than fully loaded when all four were on board, "It's sturdy and fast. Don't be afraid. It can carry us four to the end of the world!" MikkhY reassured the others, noticing Tsemo's scepticism. Quick as lightning they crossed the Bredd-ström and took a small channel into the dense swamps that bordered the coast.
In the early morning light, they went ashore onto a small tree-covered island, "It's called the Smugglers Paradise, a place where the smugglers years ago brought ashore goods and slaves from the other side of the inhospitable sea. Now they use the port of Agysst!" MikkhY informed the others, "Uncle knows the place very well. It was this place he saw me the first time!"
"Did he fall in love with you already on this island? Was it love at first sight?" Vladi teased him, having recovered his wits.
"Nitwit! I was a dirty frightened boy back then, looking more like drowned rat than the cute boy I was after the slavers fed me up."
"I don't understate! Uncle told my father he liked you at first sight!"
"Are you kidding?"
"Sure, he did! You were his favourite from the start and he still spoils you."
While Vladi teased MikkhY the tired fugitives hid the dugout in the dense reeds and made their way to the crooked shack that was left of the smugglers' settlement. Vladi and MikkhY spent the rest of the night in the shed, dozing off immediately while Laong went to investigate the island and hunt for waterfowl.
Tsemo went down to the beach where he waited for the sun to rise. Greeting the great light Tsemo recited:
"The sun from the south warmed the stones of the earth,
And green was the ground with growing leeks.
The sun, the sister of the moon, from the south
Her right-hand cast over heaven's rim;
No knowledge she had where her home should be,
The moon knew not what might was his,
The stars knew not where their stations were.
Then sought the gods their assembly-seats,
The Holy Ones, and council held;
Names then gave they to noon and twilight,
Morning they named, and the waning moon,
Night and evening, the years to number........"
The young shaman bowed his head in awe and thanked the Sun for their escape!
Laong had just pretended to look for prey, in reality, he wanted to make sure that nobody else was on the island. He couldn't find a sign of anyone else on the island but was lucky enough to come across a nest of ducks' eggs. With this loot in the string bag on his belt he returned to the shelter whistling a happy tune.
"You like eggs for breakfast?" Laong interrupted Tsemo's meditation! When Tsemo didn't answer, he apologized "Should I have joined you? I am still a pagan and I prefer hunting to praying. Maybe I never will become a good shaman!"
Tsemo finished his prayer:
"Thence come the maidens mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling down 'neath the tree;
Urth is one named, Verthandi the next,--
On the wood they scored,-- and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates."
Then he rose and turned to Laong, "The Norn's have assigned a duty to every creature. At the moment yours may be the hunt, but in the days to come? Nobody knows in advance." Tsemo smiled, embraced his student and kissed him softly.
"A dozen eggs!" he exclaimed, "You are a lucky hunter my Laong! I would die of hunger without you!"
MikkhY, poking his nose out of the shack and squinting against the morning sun, "No fore-play before breakfast! My stomach is growling. Let's cook the eggs, I like eggs even better than jizz!"
"A moment before you told me something else!" Vladi laughed out loud, rubbing off the spunk from his belly and licking his fingers. "You didn't quite finish your licking, now I have to do it!"
The four relaxed in the morning sun sharing the boiled eggs, knowing for sure that nobody else was on the island. Around noon Tsemo got a bad conscience, "MikkhY, are you sure the priests will not place Aegir and Buri under confinement? They may have tracked down our friends!"
"Guess not!" Vladi answered instead, "On the second day of the celebration all ministers of the Great Mother are engaged in the ceremonies. In the early afternoon, another procession will walk down from Temple Town to the city square with the Great Mother and the newly engaged couples. The priests will play their holy flutes, timpani and cymbals and the temple guards will carry along cauldrons filled to the brim with the Holy Potion. There is no danger ahead as long as the sun is up. However, as the darkness falls and the cauldrons are emptied to the last drop, danger is ahead!
Neither Aegir nor Buri could sleep when Tsemo and Laong had left with the two boys from Agysst in the dead of the night. They worried about their friends! Time and again they discussed the question of whether they should have left the town together with them.
"I love them both!" Buri whispered to Aegir. "We shouldn't have allowed them to leave alone. Each of us two is stronger and more experienced in fighting than all four together!"
"Don't pretend we are stronger than we really are Curlyhead. But that's not the point! Are you really sure about MikkhY? We don't know him at all. Are you quite sure he isn't an agent provocateur of the priesthood? Maybe he has lured Tsemo and Laong into a trap?"
"It's too late now! They have left! We just can hope MikkhY isn't a traitor!"
"Let's pray!" They tried, but neither Aegir nor Buri could cease worrying and didn't drift off to sleep till the grey dawn was approaching.
The sun was already high in the sky when Aegir started up from sleep. Somebody was talking. He didn't dare to move, because Buri was still snoring his head on Aegir's belly.
It was Kiro, who had entered the small room, "You didn't miss anything last night. We walked AtthYs to the gate of the Temple Town, where the guards stopped us. Only AtthYs and the other chosen ones were allowed to pass the gate! I and my friends Kiro, Kimi, and Nilo wanted to know what happened inside, and the other escorts wanted to know too!" he shook his head, "The guards were quite mysterious about the ceremonies that were to take place within the walls."
"So you don't know what happened to AtthYs? Do you?"
"No! I just know the rumours about the ceremonies. But I really would like to know what happened, because I hope to become a chosen one after I have passed the rites of passage!" pulling a sulky face, "Hurry up, the procession should have left the Temple Town already."
The town square was over-crowed with locals and pilgrims from far away as on the first day of the celebration of the annual coming of the Great Mother. Taking rat runs known by Kiro and his buddies, Aegir and Buri arrived in time and got a good place close to the altar. Standing about a half a head above the locals Aegir and Buri were able to watch the procession turning into the square pretty well.
At first sight, the procession followed the same scheme as yesterday. The imposing Temple Guard with the banner headed the parade framed by the two lean youngsters each blowing a shofar. Next came the young musicians' charming sounds out of cymbals and harps. Then strong men carrying big bags made of goatskin on their backs.
"Have you spotted the water carriers?" Kiro raised oneself on tiptoes trying to look over the heads of the grown-ups, "Today they are not carrying water, today they are the servants of the Great Mother!" he told Aegir breathless with excitement. "They are carrying the Holy Potion, the magic potion that makes your head spin, that makes you fly to heaven."
Nilo shifting from one foot to the other and scratching his crotch added: "You'll get light-headed, you'll get excited and you get hot for sex!"
"No chance for you to get a sip, baby." Kiro teased his friend digging him in the ribs, "The brew is for the big ones only!"
For the first time, Aegir took notice of the cups people were carrying attached to their belts, cups made of birch bark, cups made of clay or even made of the skullcaps of dogs or goats. Some skullcaps even seemed to be made of human skulls.
The potion carriers were closely guarded by heavy-muscled Temple Guards with long whips. Every now and then one of them made a sally to keep the spectators at distance, enforcing his attack by loud growls. After the carriers, a second group of musicians followed on, charming lovely tunes out of flutes. This melody announced the coming of the Daughters of the Great Mother.
Today the veiled virgins were not walking alone. Side by side with each of the young beauties was a young man. It was the young man the virgin had chosen to be her future husband. The young men, initiated the night before, were each naked except for a soft short loin-cloth and the mask of a ram concealing his face. Their chests were still streaked with coagulated blood testifying the bloody tattooing of the preceding night. Proudly and full of self-confidence the young men displayed their tattoo, the tree of life promising a happy life, success, and fertility.
Next the big sedan chair of the Great Mother came. To the right and the left of the chair young temple servants walked swinging censers, while little girls threw petals of spring flowers into the crowd. Today the Great Mother wasn't sitting alone on the sedan. To her right on the soft cushioned seat, her husband was sitting enthroned. This place had always been reserved for the young man the Great Mother Agdistis had chosen the day before out of the circle of the young men of the city. But today it was different; the tradition was not followed.
At first sight, the man beside her with his ram-mask looked the same as last year. But the spectators in the first row of the crowd were horrified by his appearance. They had been awaiting a strong young man with bulging muscles and a shiny skin. But today it was different! A scrawny old man, with a hollow chest, with wrinkled skin, and with a bulging pot belly was sitting beside Agdistis. The spectators further away could not discern the difference, because the chest of the man was painted red and he tried to sit upright. All over the place the crowd cheered and waved green branches, while the ones in the front rows stayed silent.
Behind the sedan, twelve young couples walked. The young women bare-breasted, some of them were nursing a baby, others were displaying proudly their swelling breasts and protruding bellies to the citizens and pilgrims. The young fathers displayed their bulging muscles the very short loincloths they wore could hardly conceal what was below. These were the couples joined together at last year's visit of the Great Mother. They were the pride of Agysst, the pride of this magnificent city on the shore of the Black Sea. At the tail of the parade old women walked, the wise-women, the Sybils, the wailers of Agysst dressed in drab cloth, walking with crooked sticks, their long white hair uncombed.
The crowd pressed forward to the altar. Everyone wanted to be the first to receive his share of the Magic Potion, the brew transmuting the mortals into immortals, the weak into invincible fighters, the tired into inexhaustible lovers. Aegir and Buri were also pushed forward by the people behind them, pushed in the direction of the altar. The Great Mother and her gallant, the High Priest, had taken their seats, surrounded by the freshly engaged couples, the veiled virgins, and the tattooed young men. Last year's couples and the wise women had gathered to the left and right and behind the altar, while the whip holders forced the assailing crowd to form a line. Now one visitor after the other was allowed to advance to the altar on knees, to bow deeply in veneration of the Great Mother, to lift his cup high above his head and receive his share of the Holy Potion. Bowing his thanks he downed the liquid with one draught only and gave way to the next in the line.
When Aegir finally had taken his position in the queue and was close to the altar, he could smell the Holy Potion. Writhing with disgust he turned to Buri, "I smell henbane! I get sick from its smell only!" he hissed to his friend, "Let's leave! The Great Mother is serving a brew of henbane! I tasted a brew like this when I was a boy. I was sick for weeks. It probably also contains moonflower and nightshade. This really makes people fly up to heaven!" Aegir pulled his friend out of the line. "We shouldn't take it, remember Tsemo! He is in danger!" Nobody minded when they left the queue and it closed up filling the gap where they had been.
Kiro and his friends were still too young to take part in the spiritual union with the Great Mother. While the adults had lined up to get their share of the Holy Potion, the boys had walked over to the store of MikkhY's uncle. From their look-out on the roof, they studied the crowd.
"Look, old Morl, he is already staggering! He probably got two or three helpings of the brew!" Kimi laughed, "I bet you, he soon will be attacking the next woman, a girly or an ugly old hag. He doesn't care if he is drunk!"
"Look that old woman chaser!" Nilo mocked, "Every kid knows the old lecher can't get hard anymore!"
"Look! Aegir and Buri are already coming back." Kiro pointed into the crowd, "They don't even look psyched up!"
"They are worried. Look at Buri's face; he's probably worried about Tsemo and Laong!"
"Let's hurry down and catch them."
"Watch out! Slow! Nilo!" Kimi whispered holding back his buddy. "Watch out! The grey-haired guy! He is following Aegir and Buri. I saw him last night! He is one of the Temple Guards! He is spying on our friends!"
Behind the house, the three friends separated. Nilo darted straight to Buri and bumped against him, "You dirty stranger!" he swore, "You blurry-eyed son of a bitch!" he insulted Buri and took off.
While Buri looked blank-eyed, Aegir got the message. "You dammed guttersnipe!" he railed and went after Nilo followed by Buri. Next moment they had vanished in the crowd.
Meanwhile, Kiro had planted himself in front of the grey-haired temple guard, "Hey old man!" he accused the man, "Do you remember me? We met yesterday! Why did you push me around! Why did you hit me with your stick? What had I done to you?" the man looked amazed, turned around to look for Aegir and Buri and tripped over Kimi's outstretched leg standing behind him. Both boys took off in opposite directions.
Nilo took Aegir by the hand and pulled him through the crowd. At the opposite end of the square, they waited for Buri and then went a long roundabout route through the poorer quarters of the city back to Kiro's house by the riverbank.
In the meantime, Kiro had not been idle at all. Back at home, he had loaded the traveller's belongings into their boat together with some provisions he had pilfered from his mother's underground storeroom.
"Go, go, go! Hurry up!" Kiro took command, "The sooner we leave the smaller is the risk that the High Priest's spies will track us down." turning to Kimi and Nilo, "Your task is to lay a false trail. You take my boat and paddle upstream! Take the branch of the river which brings you to Temple Town and ask at the gate for AtthYs!" as Kimi and Nilo looked uneasy, "Remember offence is the best defence!"
"And you?" Nilo questioned,
"Not your business! Just leave. See you tomorrow!"
The distance to the next side branch of the Bredd-ström was short. The access to the creek going into the riparian forest was hidden by a belt of reeds and a girdle of water-roses. Only insiders knew of its existence because it was nearly invisible from the river itself. Kiro manoeuvred the big dugout through the girdle of roses into the sluggish flowing creek. Later the width of the creek grew wider as rivulets joined it. Also, its current increased slightly. The river ran in a northerly direction parallel to the shoreline and separated from the open water of the inhospitable Black Sea by a thicket of maple, hornbeam, ash, elm, and elder and broad sand-dunes.
The boat's progress was fast. Aegir however soon became impatient, "Kiro are you sure MikkhY took this creek? Soon it will get dark. There is nothing around, only waterfowl. There are no houses, no villages, nothing. Where can our friends be hiding?"
"Are you sure they took this creek? It seems to lead nowhere!" Buri complained.
"Just wait! I know MikkhY's favourite hideout! Just wait!" Just before dusk, the river split into two arms embracing a small wooded island.
"That's slavers' island" Kiro announced proudly, "I'll eat my hat if that's not the place MikkhY is hiding with Tsemo and Laong. He loves this island, despite the bad memories linked to it. That's the place the slave traders kept him for nearly a month when he was just a small boy. He likes to hide here, when he wants to be alone."
On its way along the river, the boat had flushed numerous birds out of their nests and hidings. The noisy birds had alarmed the Tsemo and the others. The burden of the defence rested on Tsemo and Laong as neither MikkhY nor Vladi had brought weapons along. Laong took his bow and arrows and hid in the reed-belt at the tip of the island because he was a skilled archer. Tsemo climbed a tree to take his chance from there. MikkhY and Vladi hid behind at the landing site to attack the intruders with paddles if necessary.
As soon as the boat came into sight Laong recognized his friends, "Aegir! Buri!" he called out to the others! "This way! This way!" he ordered. "Thank God! Your coming takes a load off my mind!" he shouted aloud. He stormed to the boat waving like a mad-man. "Tsemo, MikkhY, Vladi! No enemy! Our friends have arrived!
Soon all together were sitting around a small fire talking about the events of the last day. "After the High Priest sent his guards to spy upon us we decided to leave!" Aegir told the young shaman and his novice, "Luckily Kiro knew your hiding place!"
"I feel bad about running away without knowing what happened to AtthYs!" Tsemo pondered, "But I had to help him with the Holy Flute! I didn't want him to be sacrificed to the Great Mother!"
"You did right! You really did right, Tsemo!" Kiro comforted him. Suddenly he smiled, "Vladi, do you remember my big sister's birthmark?"
"That big brown mark on her left forearm? Sure, I do, I often enough teased her because of it!"
"The Daughter of the Great Mother, who chose AtthYs as her number one had a mark like that!" he beamed, "My sister got him, my best cousin!" Then he turned to Tsemo and pressed him to his breast, "You did right! Tsemo you are the best! My big sister has loved AtthYs ever since I can remember. But the stupid bastard was always dreaming he could become the chosen one of Agdistis, the man-eating monster!" He rose and began to dance around the fire! "You saved my big sister a sweet husband and me the best brother in law!"
Kiro's keyed up reaction and the subsiding tension after the stirring events of the last few days made them happy and tired. After the dugout was safely tethered to a tree side by side with MikkhY's small boat they retired for a short night's sleep.
In the first morning light, the ways of the two parties separated. They left the slaver's island in different directions. Kiro, MikkhY, and Vladi went back upriver to Agysst, while Aegir, Buri, Tsemo and Laong drifted with the sluggish current down-river to the inhospitable Black Sea. For reasons of safety they stayed the whole day hidden in the reed-belt at the mouth of the river and started their journey to the south after moonrise.
They passed the port of Agysst in the pale morning light at a safe distance, when Tsemo spotted a greyish man-sized bundle floating in the dark water. It was the body of a man. Buri and Laong pulled closer. It was the body of a man naked with exception of the remains of a loincloth and the mask of a ram covering his head. Out of curiosity, Buri turned him over, regretting this immediately. The sight was awful! The man's chest was cut open and his heart was torn out.
"Someone has ripped out his heart!" Buri uttered disgusted.
When the next wave pushed aside the remains of the loincloth, Laong burst out horror-struck, "Someone has cut off his sex! Somebody has emasculated the man!"
"There is not even a drop of blood left in this body. Someone has bled him white! Who's that man? Who did this to him? " Aegir moaned disgustedly.
"It's the High Priest! I recall his mask! At the parade on the second day, he was sitting enthroned beside the Great Mother. The dead man was the High Priest!" Buri stated with chattering teeth.
Tsemo had kept silent all the time. Now he spoke up! "Yes, he is the High Priest! The man-eating Great Mother killed him instead of the young man! She killed him instead of AtthYs, the sacrifice she was after!" Looking up to the sun rising in the east, he intoned:
Beautiful is the first light of dawn
at the far blue eastern horizon.
Oh, living Sun the creator of life,
when you appear at the eastern sky
You fill the land with your beauty.
The boats sail on the river water
upstream and downstream since way is open
as soon as dawn make it visible
The fishes jump in sight of you,
your beams reach the deep
going through the big waters.
Oh glorious sun take this sacrifice
and let live our friends their full life.
I would like to express my special thanks to my friend Anthony for improving my writing.
Comments, reviews, questions, and complaints are welcomed. Please send them to Ruwen Rouhs
Last, but not least I would like to add thanks for reading.