The sun was sinking low by the time I was released from the events and was able to return mentally and physically exhausted to my companions. I was allowed to rest in out little camp for a time but, when it was nearly fully dark, I was required to join the Shaman's acolytes and the parties of the other Candidates for the evening meal around a blazing campfire almost in the shadow of the brooding monolith itself.
A feast had been prepared with great care and skill by some of the Shaman's servants. The Candidates were offered the choicest cuts of venison and the most tender of the roots and leaves, second only to the Shaman and the Elders, of course. Later on, one of the servants produced a water-skin, which was presented to one of the Candidates on the other side. It was passed around the circle of firelight, each person in the party taking a sip or two before passing it on. I thought little of it, until the skin was passed to me. The pungent smell when I un-stoppered the little sack made my eyes water immediately. I drank as little as I felt I could get away with, even so having to resist the sudden urge to cough and splutter.
The skin did not contain water at all, but the fiery liquor known as Aile, made from fruits and seeds by a secret and arcane process known only to a very few. I had heard about this drink, and its intoxicating effects, but this was the first time I had been privileged to consume it myself. Following the advice of my tribe's Elders, and that of my Father, I again sipped cautiously at the potent liquid, before carefully re-sealing the skin and handing it on to the next Candidate's party. My actions were observed, I was sure of it, with a certain amount of approval by the Shaman himself.
Once the meal had been prepared and consumed, each of the Candidates was called upon in turn to recount a tale from the Old Stories, the ancient shared histories of the Seven Tribes. This too, it seemed, was one of the assessments. Each candidate stood and spoke aloud, recounting the story required of him.
When my turn came, I was instructed to tell the fable of the Darkening of Days. This was one of the direst of the ancient legends, and one which had given me many nightmares as a small child. This story told how the Great Tribes of All the World had long ago made war against each other, sundering the sky and poisoning the land until the power and influence of each had been obliterated by the other. But they had not ceased their battles or their destruction until nearly all of their peoples had been killed and the few that remained fled into the wildernesses and wastelands.
My performance was met with approving nods and glances in my direction by many of the tribes-people gathered around the fire, and it seemed that even the Shaman himself was not totally dissatisfied by my rendition.
After the story-telling, there was little for me to do. I sat by the fire in companionable near-silence with Krakaren, while Aliten went to meet with the leaders and Wise Ones of the other tribes. Long into the night did these elders converse and debate, observing and occasionally pointing out the young men sat around in the firelight. Outside of the Elders' circle, too, there was much speculation upon which of the candidates would be selected. From what I could overhear, it was difficult to tell the opinions informed by carefully considered wisdom from the idle gossip of the ignorant and jealous.
It had been very late before I had returned with my companions to our camp and the welcoming embrace of my sleeping furs. I slept late, and was still groggy when the summons again came from the Elders' circle. The Candidates were now required to sit together, separated from their companions, and await the Shaman's pleasure. I was again watched from a distance by my silent companions and those of the other young men.
Custom and law dictated that just three of the Candidates would be selected to accompany the Shaman himself, on a mysterious quest whose nature was the stuff of legends and fireside stories. After a period that seemed interminable, but was probably less than a thousand heartbeats, the Shaman, flanking by three of the Elders, approached the place at the fire where the Candidates waited with barely-concealed impatience.
All scrambled to their feet as the older men approached, making the ritual signs of obeisance. With a few gestures and fewer words, the Shaman gathered us all together in a loose group in front of him. There had been no opportunity, or more likely a deliberate attempt to prevent the Candidates from learning each other's names. So it was a surprise when, without preamble, the old man spoke a name in a loud clear voice.
A large and muscular young man to my left, one of the few I had been unable to throw in the wrestling matches, let out a huge roar and punched at the air. His distant companions echoed his cry, rending the air with their cheers and applause. The Shaman waited patiently for silence, then spoke again.
The old man pointed at a slender wiry adolescent, one who was particularly skilled with bow and arrow, and whose withdrawn and taciturn nature seemed at odds with his youthful appearance. Hantorg stood quietly, acknowledging the restrained cries of approval from his companions with a single nod of his head.
"And you, Garat."
I started at the sound of my own name, surprised to find everyone looking in my direction. I blinked and looked around, unsure of how to react to this singular honour. In all honesty I did not truly expect to be selected for this great compliment. I had already recognised that I was neither the biggest nor the strongest of the Candidates. I was not the fastest at the hunt or the most accurate with bow or spear or harpoon. Exactly what characteristic the Wise Ones saw in me, what facet of my meagre abilities had attracted their attention, I was unable to fathom.
Nevertheless, it seemed to be true. Krakaren was making enough noise for ten men, and even old Aliten was cheering unrestrainedly. We were released by the Shaman with a single wave of his hand, and I stood and made my way towards my companions. I was slapped on the back, and loudly and heartily congratulated by my own companions, and less effusively by those of the unsuccessful Candidates.
I walked in a daze, unsure what was expected of me now. Fortunately, and seeing my confusion, Aliten took me on one side, and explained in low and hurried tones what was expected of me now. It seemed that the three Questors, as we were now to be known, had a short period to gather together their travelling packs and then meet, ready for a long trek, at the foot of the ancient monolith.
As I approached the standing stone, I could see around me that camps were already being struck; those whose Candidates had not been amongst those selected were packing up and making ready to leave. My own companions would wait for me, although I had heard that if I had not returned after three phases of the moon had turned then they should depart for home, taking with them the news of my death.
I could see my soon-to-be companions converging on a spot by the hulking monument. Just before we met, the Shaman emerged, suddenly standing before us, although exactly where he had emerged from was not at all obvious. He was alone, without the coterie of advisors and hangers-on I had come to expect, and carried a small travelling back-pack. Bengart approached the old man respectfully.
"Let me carry your pack for you, Father," he beseeched, using the honorific sometimes used for the most venerated of the Elders.
"Hah," the Shaman responded in a direct and surprisingly down-to-earth way, "I'm still perfectly capable of carrying my share, thank you very much."
So saying, he shouldered his pack, turned on his heel and set off in the direction of the Outer Ocean. He stopped after ten paces or so and looked back at us, all still standing dumbfounded at the meeting-place.
"Come along then," he urged, "We've a long walk in front of us."
I and the other Questors hurried to catch up with the old man who, despite his years, set a fast pace along the trail that skirted the high-water mark on the strand.
The next few days in the company of the old man proved to be an unexpected and ultimately enlightening experience. I would soon observe that Shaman of the Seven Tribes was not as formal and certainly not as circumspect in his speech and manners as I had been taught to expect, at least in comparison with the leaders of my own Tribe and, I inferred from the reaction of my young comrades, from their Elders either. It was all quite a contrast to the remote and taciturn individual who had addressed us from his high seat at the monolith.
To my surprise, I found the old man was ready enough to answer questions put directly to him, although I would soon learn that foolish enquiries would be treated with the harsh contempt that they no doubt deserved. But he remained silent on one topic: what was our destination.
From the sun and the stars, I could tell we were heading approximately south-west, in the direction of the great ocean at the edge of the world, beyond which there is nothing. We were following the coastline as far as possible, traversing an area not populated by any of the Tribes, a region of stunted trees separated by open areas of sparse grasses and sandy dunes. The wind blew incessantly from the sea, making it feel cool even at this season.
We saw few signs of game and there was little to forage, even in this time of plenty. With good fortune, I was able to trap a coney or two, and Hantorg managed to bring down a partridge with bow and arrow, so we did not go hungry at our evening meal and we did not have to break into the dried rations in our packs. I would discover that we would need those supplies later.