He was called Thranj, which meant nothing, and he was a god, which meant everything.

Among the unmortals, his fellow Gods and those members of their college which did his bidding, he was known as Thranj the Fair-Minded. To the mortals who bent their knees at him, he was either Thranj the Merciful or Thranj the Cruel, depending on their circumstances. But to the demons and their ilk, he was simply the enemy, and needed no other name.

But of course no God has a real name, and the being called Thranj by everyone else called himself nothing at all. The name he had borne as a mortal so long ago had eroded in the passage of time, until only the smallest, hardiest nubbin had remained to be burnt away, literally, painfully, in his transition to his current status. And since that glorious, fire-filled day, he had performed feats which transcended the imaginations of his mortal worshipers, created structures which had dwarfed the greatest works of his mightiest servants, wreaked miracles so magnificent as to be almost unnoticeable by his ablest compatriots. He had surpassed even himself.

Yes, even himself...

Chapter 1

Tarkas paused on the forest trail as he became aware of the sound of voices raised in Song. He waited silently, his head cocked, curious. He'd been a Singer Apprentice most of his life, and his Farmer father's son before that, and had never heard such a sound before. It was early morning, so the wind was low and the leaves unmoving, but the Thranj-be-damned birds were still welcoming the Lady and he couldn't--Frustrated, he brushed his brown hair away from his ears and closed his equally-brown eyes in concentration, even opening his mouth slightly to hear better.

What Song were they Singing?! There were just enough notes to remind him but not enough--Wait, what was that? The sounds had stopped. Why? He knew what was happening now as if he was there. He should be there. He should get moving. But he stood, and his patience was rewarded as the sounds started again. Cadence, he knew that cadence. Male voices? Interesting. Ouch, someone flatted, but--They'd stopped again. Over a flat? Then it has to be--He nodded stupidly to himself, and the motion reminded him of his position, standing like a stump in the middle of the path. If someone should see…

But no one would, he knew even as he lurched again into motion, for this was the main path from his home village of Kwinarish to Lupentha, and his people liked traveling about as much as they liked him right now. They left that unpleasant task for the runners, for whom it was an obligation and a duty, or to the Singers, for whom it was an occupational hazard. He slowed his pace only once more, to retrieve a home-berry leaf from the vine and pop it into his mouth, chewing contentedly. The trail was not a wide one, barely broad enough that his shoulders disturbed no leaves. The foot traffic was little enough, and his people used no wheeled carts in their journeys ('Carry little, travel less' was the catchphrase). To travel with more than was needed for a stay of about a day was considered a gross discourtesy. Tarkas, however, was not going to Lupentha; this trail was merely convenient. His actual destination was reached by a side-path, little-used and often overgrown, which led to a small stand of ritual hardwoods, planted and maintained so as to serve just that purpose to which he was intent on putting it.

The path he sought had been marked with some stones, naturally, since the occasion to use these woods was rare, and the path itself often disappeared. In addition, this path had somehow or other attracted the attention (so to speak) of a transha plant, and so was traveled even less frequently. This one had appeared some years ago. At least, that was when one of his friends had been killed by it, thus bringing the fact of its existence to their attention. It had, of course, been destroyed by the proper means--spear, poison, and fire--yet still the few who had reason to come this way detoured widely.

As did Tarkas, who personally felt that the woodland hazards of thorn, root, and dung were much preferable to agonized death. He eventually arrived, alive if not entirely undamaged, and promptly spotted the tree currently in use, cropped most unnaturally by means of a saw-toothed blade much like the one in Tarkas' pack, the very same one, in fact. And that knife performed its unhappy duty once again, as Tarkas reduced the height of the tree by yet another hand-span or so, then was wiped clean and stored away in the pack together with the slim cylinder of wood.

* * *

It was not hot in the carver's hut, not yet, but Tarkas knew that it would be, and so he wasted no time preparing the cylinder of wood for its fate, the tools already arranged in the proper order and seeming to leap into his knowledgeable hands. Drawknife, adz, paring knife, chisels of ever finer degree, as the simple cylinder of wood was transformed through love, skill, need, and prayer into the symbol that the young Singer needed it to be. The lump of wood became the statue of a human figure, with the young man's words telling it what he needed it to be, his hands and tools teaching it how to become that thing.

"O my lord Hara-Khan," he breathed quietly, over and over, "I have given offense--"


What he had done was to indulge in an excess of festival gaiety on the occasion of the birth of yet another son to Mornish of the Three Bands, which resulted in his stumbling unaccountably and utterly demolishing the hut of his erstwhile friends Merlan and Mershis, as they were inside laying the groundwork for a similar happy event for themselves. They were understandably perturbed by this intrusion, and now Tarkas knelt in a hot and stuffy little hut, without food and drink until his task was accomplished.

He looked up, examining once more the image he was attempting to duplicate, the image of a man, clad in the traditional fashion, a bowl held above his head in his upraised hands. It was not a difficult task; the offering was in the difficulty of working the material and the quality of that workmanship, not so much the actual details. There were fewer of those than usual, for this was a statue in the image of Hara-Khan the Redeemer, Bringer of Light to the Inner Dark, He who Gives All.

Obscurity was his trademark, forgiveness his gift.

* * *

Tarkas was thankful that he had thought to eat more than usual at the morning meal, as his labors now extended well past the midday meal, leaving the late day a torment for him. The evening meal, though small compared to the others, was equally aromatic, herbs, and spices bubbling over a small fire for hours on end. It was maddening, but of course more speed would not have helped. His token of apology had to be presented before the whole village, and they could not be expected to gather except for meals. And so he put the grumbling of his stomach aside, diligently and patiently shaving a curve here, filing a rough edge there, polishing smooth the face that was not a face, the bowl that was more than a bowl.

He finally left the carvers' hut when he smelled the breads beginning to bake. That meant not only that dinner was almost ready, but also that if he stayed inside another stick, he would go irretrievably insane from food lust. The evening breeze, such as it was, felt marvelous against his skin, while his loose hair, damp with sweat, would be a priority after the meal was over. He wished he was married.

But of course he had better reasons for that fervent desire than the short hair of a married man, and she was currently front and center of his own personal stage. Irolla was doing the baking, as expected; she usually did. It was a good arrangement, most times, the wives could spend more time with their men, while she could spend more time with Tarkas, who, as a Singer, didn't spend all the day in the fields or in the woods. He probably knew more about baking than any man in the village.

She looked up, just then, and saw him considering her, and smiled, her eyes flashing blue before looking away again. A deep blue, not slate or sky, impossible to miss or forget. It was a pity about her eyes, he knew, but he couldn't find it in himself to regret, for it was her eyes which had brought her to him, him out of the young men she could have selected from. For he did not fear her eyes as they did.

He had come to see her eyes as a blessing, not as a curse or an omen. But even then, it was his duty as a Singer, or would be, to interpret omens, and he knew as the others did not how much interpretation they could sometimes require. 'She is marked by the Gods', they said. No great feat of deduction, that, but marked for what? Mornish's three bands were similarly symbols of the Gods' blessings to him in his children, the same staggering blue. Perhaps some similar blessing awaits her.

That was no improvement. If the Gods had not blessed her by now--she was of bearing age, but her life had not been especially fortunate--then it clearly followed that either they disapproved or had not yet found reason to approve, and were therefore still testing her, to determine her worth. No man was willing to subject himself to such scrutiny. No man but one.

The only barrier to their immediate union was her mother. In ill health, without sons, and uncommonly independent, her daughter's pairing could only mean ill fortune for her. Tarkas, therefore, steadfastly refused to ask for Irolla, knowing that the only answer would be suffering for all, regardless of the actual reply he received. So he contented himself with the mere sight of his chosen woman's beauty, reaching up absently to ease the discomfort caused by the sweat drying on his cheek. It also happened to be the hand with which he was holding the statue, so he brought himself away from his reveries with a good clout on the ear, self-administered.

She had, of course, seen him do it, but she also had the good sense to hide her amusement until after he had disappeared, grumbling, back towards his own place.

* * *

Tarkas knelt, waiting patiently before the large fire as the others returned from field and forest. They ignored him, as he knew they would, but they shared their pleasure in the privacy of their huts, where he could not see it. They were glad it was over, as always. Life was good; it was a shame to mar the days this way, and the sooner it was cleansed the better. But they would have to wait longer than they thought.

Merlan and Mershis appeared last, as proper etiquette demanded. They had not yet seen what the others had been eyeing so covertly as it stood by its maker near the fire, and the quality of the workmanship elicited a slight gasp of pleased surprise from Mershis. Nonetheless, he and his wife made a pretense of examining the statue closely, as was expected of them. Tarkas merely waited, quite certain that they would find no flaws save for the one which he had inflicted upon the work himself. ("Perfection is for the Gods, my son," he remembered his father saying.)

Not surprisingly, the couple found no reason to reject the offered token. And Mershis graciously handed it to his wife, allowing her the honor of offering it to the Gods. She knelt, her hands darting in and out as she stood the statue in the middle of the central fire. And it stood there, base and bowl blackening, preparatory to consumption. And it stood there, gently steaming in the heat. And it stood there.

Suddenly, it began to rain.

A sunstorm, not common, but not unknown, striking with childish petulance, quick to rise and to subside, prompting a rush to save the meal from a soggy doom. For a while, all was confusion, as everyone, even Tarkas, sought to protect the dinner with leaves, cloths, or their own bodies if necessary. Then they laughed at the fear and rush while they took their places when the rain passed, only to have their laughter and conversation lurch to a halt as if struck to the heart with an angry word.

The central fire was out. Tarkas stood above a sodden mass of smoking, steaming twigs and branches. In the center of this heap stood a wooden, blackened, and strangely unconsumed statue. And in the bowl at the top of that statue, visible to all that dared to look, a bright blue flame blazed away merrily, sustained by nothing at all.