It had been a time of plenty. The winter snows had melted early this year, and the herds of deer had flourished and grown fat. The partridges and rabbits seemed to bound into the traps wherever they were placed, the soft leaves and nourishing roots had been found in abundance ripe for the taking, and all could see that the nuts and seeds and summer fruits were ripening for a plentiful harvest.
A Midsummer Candidature had been commanded by the Shaman of the Seven Tribes, as sometimes happened in bountiful years. From each Tribe, a carefully selected few were to attend at the ancient meeting place marked by a vast standing stone. This stark monolith was said to be visible for miles over the windswept plains on the coast of the Inner Sea, its dull grey surface etched with runes so old that none could now comprehend their import.
The Wise Ones of each Tribe selected a single Candidate from the bravest and most skilful of the young men. The Candidate must have completed the coming-of-age ceremony, with its night-long vigil and solemn vows, but must not yet be married – although I would wager a fine fat coney that, for one selected for this particular honour, the tribal matchmakers and Elder women would already be recommending betrothals to parents and blood relations.
I had been selected as our Tribe's Candidate after an exhausting series of tests and evaluations by the Elders, lasting for fully three phases of the moon. The morning of my departure was marked by a short ceremony, in which the Tribal chief exhorted me to uphold the honour of our Tribe and the memories of our ancestors. By the time I set off, my head was spinning and ears were full of the sage advice and ancient wisdom so carefully imparted.
The Candidate must have an escort, it seemed. In any case, our party consisted of Atilen, one of the more spry Elders of the tribe, escorted by Krakaren, one of the most experienced hunters now acting as our Guide and who, it was said, might join the ranks of the Elders one day, and myself, the Candidate from the Mountain Lakes Tribe. After an easy journey, our small party arrived at the camp on the plain by the sea before evening on the eighth day. We were the last to arrive, and tents were already being set up in a large circle around the standing stone. The gap where we should pitch up was plain to see.
Aliten had instructed us that the protocol was that we should keep ourselves very much to ourselves on this first evening. We soon set up our own bender lodge, cutting flexible branches from the birch trees nearby and covering it with the deerskins brought with us for this purpose, and refreshed ourselves with a modest meal of game and roots around a little cooking fire. Aliten further advised that we should all take to our beds early for tomorrow, he said, would be long and full.
As all know, at this time of the year the sun only really sinks below the horizon for an hour in the middle of the night. With the habit of long practice, I employed a simple mantra to draw a calming veil over my mind. I slept well enough and emerged from my sleeping furs feeling refreshed and alert.
As I and my tribal companions were consuming a breakfast of porridge and dried meat, a runner appeared with a message. I was immediately summoned to attend the Shaman of the Seven Tribes. I bolted down the rest of my food and set off apace for the Gathering grounds, set at the very foot of the ancient monolith itself.
As I hurried up, slightly out of breath, I could see that the other Candidates had already arrived and were standing in front of a tier of seating carved from the rocks that formed the foundations of the standing stone itself. At the apex of the seating sat a wiry old man, grey-bearded and bald, wrapped in voluminous furs of great rarity and beauty. His eyes were bright and his movements firm and precise, despite his reputedly great age. It was the Shaman himself, I had been assured, and he was surrounded left and right on progressively lower seats by his advisors, the Elders, and flanked by a coterie of servants at ground level.
I did not know any of the other Candidates, of course, having never before ventured from my Tribe's homeland in all of my fifteen years. Politely, I stood upright and held up my open palm in the traditional greeting of strangers. My greeting was returned by the others, in some cases slightly diffidently or perhaps with a degree of nonchalant pride.
In short order, the Candidates were drawn together into a line and scrutinized one at a time, the Shaman himself and his coterie of advisors having descended from their eyrie for this purpose. In turn, we were each examined closely as the party of Elders passed along the line, each of us inspected and assessed and even prodded with much the air of one examining a particularly fine deer.
After the inspection, the Shaman slowly returned to his seat, clambering steadily up the worn stones, then stood, turning to left and right until there was silence from the groups gathered below. He clapped his hands three times and spoke in a loud voice, declaring for all to hear that the Selection of the Questors had begun.
Throughout that long day, I found myself in tests and trials, constantly measured against the other Candidates in sports and competitions of all kinds. First, we were taken one at a time to stand before the ranked stone seats. When I was my turn, I was questioned closely on my knowledge of the world, beset with riddles and made to undertake tests of my learning and reason. Later, there was a running race on a route that passed from the monolith itself to a boulder at the edge of the beach and back again. There was the throwing of heavy stones and the lifting of even heavier ones. There was even a series of wrestling bouts; for the most part, I managed to retain my footing and fling a few of the other Candidates out of the circle, although I was of course thrown myself a time or two. At other times, our hunting skills were assessed: the throwing of spears and the setting of traps, as well as gauging our proficiency with bow and arrow shooting at distant targets.
All of these competitions and assessment were performed under the watchful eyes of the Shaman and his coterie of advisors. It was also observed, in silence and at a respectful distance, by my companions and those of the other Candidates.