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Meanwhile, back at the stead...

Back at the stead, everyone is enjoying the good weather, but Aren's thoughts are on the ghostly Ancestor that Vizz had spoken with. Pointing out to Wilma that they would do well to find a Guardian to protect them, and that the Ancestors might be able to help, he easily persuades her to leave her mundane dealings with the Exiles and think how this might best be achieved.

"Problem is," muses Wilma. "That there Danlarn prob'ly used all his oomph to talk to our Vizz, funny choice but there you go. Reckon as he might be needing some sustenance, and p'raps some reminders, like some stories and some objects. We've enough of us as is, one way or another, his offspring, so that'll help. We can set a day aside, what do you think? Talk to him proper like and try and set things up, hey?"

"Yes that would be my intent," says Aren. "Perhaps some of the Deep Hunt could advise us on some of the form it should take"

Pulling the wooden box with the Kodja bag out from under some blankets, Wilma says, "We've this, which I reckon is from his time. There's Entislar's Shaper which might be from those times, dunno, and I've a feeling my tree cutting goes back that far. I've a personal feelin' it's from their Tree of Consequence that Danlarn's mamma used to look after, but it's fixin' to die on me. Now, if you'll start callin' yeself the 'Worshipper', reckon as that'll help in our little band, what with me as Crone an' Entislar as Foreman."

"Well Shaper been in the family forever and seems to be happy here, or at least that's how it feels to me. Dunno if that helps." Entislar grins, "I'm willing to help if I can, make a welcome change from shapin' wood."

Wilma smiles at Entislar and turns to Aren, "What's your professional opinion then, Stormlight? Maybe your Shelara could fix something up to look like one o' them hunters from them primitive places, might make 'em feel at home? As fer a sacrifice, reckon as the best'd be some meat, but we're pushed with our livestock, so maybe we can catch something tasty, an' them was hunters."

"Well we prefer skyclad of course but dressing as we think they dressed is fine with me," says Aren. "A stag would be good I suspect. I remember seeing some carvings of those in the old hunters hut back in the old hunting grounds. And the place where he chose to manifest himself may well be a good place to conduct the ritual. Shelara could do a spot of dancing as well the sprits seem to like that sort of thing. And our ancestors hunted with Javelins and spears so my Tin spear Blazer will do as a ritual weapon "

~oOo~

That evening, the ritual fast starts in preparation for the ceremony the following day. At sundown, everyone gathers at the holy place - Aren has been busy nosing around to find where *he* would have chosen as a burial ground and is confident that he has found the spot, so it is here that the Exiles assemble.

Aren prepares sacrifices of Burnt Barley, of a fine male fowl comandeered from a hunter by Wilma and some of the meagre stock of beer. The fasting Exiles remain until midnight at the burial ground and then depart, each going home with a part of the sacrifice.

At the break of dawn the next day, The families have all cleaned their homes and lain their goods out for inspection. The best animals , a sorry lot, are tied to each family's shack, with herd count ropes tied around there necks. Then a feast is laid out for the ancestors and people dress in their best cloths, everyone looking out for signs from the ancestors.

The day proceeds slowly and calmy, the warmth of the day a blessing given the inactivity. After nightfall, the sacred dances begin, accompanied by the banging of pots in the absence of drums. Aren begins the ritual to summon the Ancestors and for the longest time, nothing happens, the Exiles shifting nervously and beginning to mutter discontent. After Wilma has shushed them for the third tiime, a figure does begin to materialize in the firelight...

~oOo~

The figure which materializes, however, is certainly not that of Danlarn, for it is soon apparent that the form is female and the expression on the slowly forming face is one of rage. Once the figure has taken the form of a huntress, it slowly breathes in with a humming sound which wafts eerily across the burial ground. Looking at Shelara dancing before it, the figure, with a flash of movement, draws a ghostly bow, notches an imaginary arrow and fires at the Blue Woman's feet. Shelara stumbles, one of her feet pinned to the ground, and crouches, biting on her arm to avoid crying out in pain.

"How dare you disturb our slumbers thus?" whispers the ghostly woman. Waving her arm in a gesture to include all the assembled clansolk, she hisses at them, scaring a few of them away. "What are these mortals to us?" looking again at the Godtalker, she grows calmer, but the anger is clear in her voice, "You know the words to summon us, but you do not imagine the pain which you bring by making us come. I have left the others behind in their ground, so I can show demonstrate to you the pain which you bring us."

Staring intensely at Shelara's feet, the ghost seems by her will to be pushing the woman into the ground. With beads of sweat forming on the Blue woman's naked back, she pushes on the ground and prevents her foot from sinking into the soft earth, but the huntress has achieved what she hoped, for it is as if Aren's heart has been gripped and stilled by a grim, deathly hand. Looking into Aren's eyes, the ghost smiles a bitter smile, "If you were to lose what you most love, would you wish to be made to smell her hair, to hear her voice, but know that she was rotting in the ground? This is how it is for us, mortal. Now tell me why I should not keep your wife, for my body is all worms now, and hungry worms at that...?"

Dragging his eyes away from his wife's struggles, Aren stares back at the ghost woman.

"Na lass, it is on no whim that we disturb you so, but on a matter so serious that I would risk my heart." He gestures to his prone wife. "No, the very future of our clan is at stake, for we a' sore pressed on may fronts. So we stand here on our ancient clan lands, seeking our ancestors' aid and guidance in finding a guardian to watch over our stead. So this is why we cause you to suffer so. If you not be our ancestor, then please go in peace to your rest. If you are, then allow the others to stand forth and give us their wise counsel. "

Aren the Worshiper, along with the Maker and the Crone, then go on to recite the clan's lineage from its time in Balazar and its triumphs and strengths. This is going to take some time, but they are not in a rush.

The ghostly figure seems slightly mollified by Aren's words, seemingly too tired to argue much further. When she realizes that Aren and the others have begun to recite the entire lineage, her eyes open wide as she grimaces, and she cuts him short. "I understand, thank you. That second Riantha was me. Now I believe the custom is to invite me into your hearth and offer me some sustenance, for while I may seem as of flesh and blood to you, I am barely holding on here. I will tarry a while longer, for I am curious to hear that you seek a guardian, but you would do well not to try my patience further, and you would do better to make this worth my while."

Riantha has not thought to release Shelara, and is clearly waiting for a reply.

Entislar smiles crookedly, "Honoured Riantha, pray enter our hall." He bows and gestures for Riantha to enter.

Aren bows too. "Yes, please enter and partake of our humble feast".

Riantha follows the two men willingly and even pauses to help, with a gesture, Shelara to lift her feet from the soft earth. The ghost then looks askance at Wilma and some of the Exiles as if unused to so many faces.

After a quick glance to ensure she is all right, Aren leaves Shelara outside, showering herself clean again, and follows Riantha and the others inside. When offered the roast fowl, Riantha's eyes widen and her glance at the two men betrays a gratitude and a hunger which they find at once humbling and uncomfortable. When she has finished eating the fowl, she seems more real, but if anything, drunk. Slurring her words, she turns her unfocussed eyes at the men.

"It is in my power to grant one boon," she says. "What is it you would have of me?"

Aren replies, "We seek one who be willing to join the mortal world again and share in its delights and problems. To share in the lives and dreams and worship of this stead and to watch over your descendants as they grow and prosper. But this is also a time of trial for our clan and in our recent past we have been hard pressed on several front so this is not a job for one who is faint hearted. So please tell us is there one who is wise, who's wind is strong and who wishes to join in the lives of the living again as our guardian and protector"?

Entislar, his fellow Exile, nods. "One such as yourself maybe, rejoicing once again in the presence of kin," he says, as he offers a flagon of ale.

Moments turn to minutes as Riantha gazes at the two men through half-lidded eyes, apparently considering their proposition through a fog of rediscovered sensations. She seems as a maiden who supped too many ales for the first time at a festival, weaving gently, focussing on the flagon of ale. Tentatively reaching out a hand for the beer, she finds she can get no purchase, so stoops over it, sucking up the liquid, some of which splashes through her non-corporeal self on to the earth. When she has had her fill, she looks up at the two men.

"I would taste the pleasures of the flesh again."

Looking fixedly at Entislar, she lifts an arm to point at a group of women among the assembled Exiles by the fire. "Give me form, that I can feel a third pleasure this night, that of the blankets. Give me a balm for this curse, and I shall join you on your hunt. Tell me of Man and Woman and I will tell you what I have seen of the Boy."

Leaving the slightly shocked Entislar and swaying Riantha together, Aren walks over the the group of women and smiles broadly at them.

"The fair Riantha looks favourably on our request to be our guardian," he announces. "But first she wishes spend the night with Entislar, in the flesh so to speak. So who amongst you wishes the pleasure of being her vessel for tonight before taking the place of honour at tomorrows feast?"

Aren hopes that the blood is running warm in at least one of these girls tonight. Firstly, a blunt refusal would hurt their tentative relationship with Riantha, but secondly, even though they love each other dearly, he knows his wife's lustful nature, especially in a ritual setting like this. The Blue Women in her could win, and she would take the chance to sleep with another with out being unfaithful according to the law.

Feeling grateful to Aren for his intervention, Entislar looks down the hall then back at Riantha.

"Dear lady, you honour me," he says.

Aren's request sends the women into a rather animated huddle, with several suggested partners and rude remarks escaping to the surrounding men. During this Shelara comes in, still wet, and after a quick word with Aren joins the huddle of woman. To Aren's surprise, the huddle does not last very long and it splits up to reveal Wilma holding young Sabriel's hand on one side and Shelara whispering suggestions into her ear on the other. The flush on Sabriel face is all too obvious against her pale skin.

Meanwhile Entislar smiles at Shelara then turns to Riantha. She places her hand on Entislarís arm and they move towards the approaching group: Wilma and Sabriel walking side by side, with Aren trailing behind. As the groups meet, Wilma leaves them, after giving the nervous couple a few words of encouragement.

Sabriel smiles, somewhat nervously, up at Entislar and then provocatively loosens her maidens braid, shaking out her thick dark hair. Daring to show her availability and her acceptance of what is coming in front of the assembled stead.

"Riantha, itís my great pleasure to introduce you to Sabriel Ravenhair, the fairest and most talented potter in Tarsh, a true artist. Sabriel, this is our honored ancestor Riantha".

Aren addresses Riantha. "Well, my lady. The vessel for tonight waits for you to join her. She is young, healthy and willing, but if you permit she does ask that you not suppress her completely, so that she may remember tonight with pleasure afterwards".

Riantha stands still for a moment gazing intently at Sabriel. She seems to blink, then says "Bless you child for your help." She steps forward and seems to sink into Sabriel. Sabriel's slender form seems to grow, as her posture and expression change, reflecting a more aggressive personality.

Entislar bends down to embrace Riantha/Sabriel. "Oh my Beautiful one, my home awaits," he says, and they leave the hall, as Kollos grins from the shadows and sends Yinkin's blessing their way.

After a moment, the alynx pads away after the pair. The giggling and tittering begins again and then dies down, several of the Exiles readying themselves to make their way to their blankets. Aren looks sharply at them, though, and reminds them that this ritual is far from over, so they disconsolately retake their positions.

~oOo~

A low yeowling begins to be heard in the silence, Kollos seeming to reflect his companion's mood, but the feeling evoked among the Exiles is not one of amusement now, more an awareness of the powers at play. The yeowling increases in volume as Aren and Wilma chivvy some of the unsettled Exiles back into position. Beads of sweat spring up on Aren's brow, the others looking on his with increasing concern, for he seems to be losing his control of the link with the Ancestors. The shadows all about the seated folk take on the shape of ghostly hands rising from the earth. Worst is the alynx's yeowling, now more a ghastly, unearthly screaming, matched by the screams and shrieks of panic as those seated jump up to avoid the clutching hands. Aren begins to feel desperate, sensing that the link being pushed into by beings other than those he sought. None notice as the little boy Odi wanders off...

Entislar has remained unperturbed by the racket from Kollos, grateful perhaps that it at least reminds him what he should be doing. He and his young or very old companion have been making steady progress when the din outside becomes truly intrusive and now quite disturbing. He realizes that his partner seems to be losing her earlier, ravenous, interest, and with a shock sees that she is slowly fading, as if departing, and is sinking into the ground. Looking about desperately, he sees little Odi has wandered close, disregarding the shadowy claws which Entislar now sees at the boy's feet. He is smiling innocently at the pair of them. "Lodi go down too?" he asks of Entislar.

Entislar feels a surge of pride at having been chosen by Riantha, mixed with compassion for Sabriel who bravely volunteered to let herself be subsumed into this ritual. He holds on to the girl and concentrates on keeping Rianthaís spirit from being claimed by whatever is interfering with the ritual, while at the same time trying to fight the spectral invaders. Surging to his feet, still holding Riantha/Sabriel with his left arm, while with his right he grabs Shaper, he steps closer to Odi to try to protect the little one too. Kollos leaps into the fray, placing himself bodily between Entislar and the clutching hands.

Entislar, buoyed by the fierce presence of the alynx, hurls his will against the spirits bludgeoning them flat, and is surprised at how quickly they fade under this assault. He is surprised, too, when he realizes that he and Kollos are not alone in the fight: Sabriel is also present, fighting for the well-being of her clan and friends.

The spirits having departed, Sabriel and Entislar reach out to Riantha and, grasping for knowledge of their mythologies and rituals, try to reestablish or reform the links between them. Each calls on their deities for help, even as their spirits reclaim their bodies. Kollos watches over them, determined to guard them all if further threats materialise...

~oOo~

Sensing the sprits rising around him Aren seeks to strengthen the ritual that they are performing. So, with a quick muttered prayer to Orlanth, he recalls how may times Orlanth was beset by spirits, but defeated them on his own. He reminds those around him of other occasions, when Orlanth joined with his fellow Thunder Brothers - and especially at times like this, Kolat - to fight the entities from the spirit place and to win. Aren encourages those around him to bang on the ground, on tables, on tree trunks, to shout, anything to help drive the sprits away.

In the confusion of the attack, Aren's call for assistance goes unheeded and, instead driving the spirits out, the solitary banging of his spear-butt on the ground only serves to draw all of the spectral hands to Aren. They surround him like a stunted forest of arms, waving in anticipation. Their momentary pause over, they rush at Aren from all directions. The clan looks on in horror as he shrinks down amidst the arms, only at the last second springing high up into the air to land on a rather diminutive cloud, which seems to have woven itself out of the mist. He blows a kiss in Shelara's direction, and, now that he has their attention, repeats his instructions to the folk of the stead. This time they get the message and start to obey him, and suddenly it is the arms that find themselves surrounded by the enthusiastically shouting, stamping and banging clansmen and women.

Pausing only to gather a charge, Aren leaps from his cloud into the centre of the still-questing arms and lands with a clap of thunder. The waving limbs try to scatter out of the way, but are hemmed in by the ring of noise. With almost a sulk, they slink back into the earth and disappear from mortal and magical senses.

"Well done people!" cries Aren. "That showed them whose land this is! Now, back to your positions," he commands, trying not to show the strain in his voice. "It's not that long 'til dawn now..."

The stead folk drift back to what they were doing, athough everyone seems to be sticking together in nervous groups now.

And so it transpires, somewhat to Aren's surprise, that Dawn arrives with out further interruption to the ritual. Everyone is slightly on edge as they wait for Entislar, and hopefully Riantha/Sabriel, to emerge from their resting place.

~oOo~

When at last the flap is lifted, the young woman is crouched prone, her face in the dirt, her backside sprawled on the ground, a pool of blood soaking into the straws. Behind her lies Entislar, contendedly asleep, his head on Kollos' side, a gentle, contended smile on his face. The little boy Odi is sat at the flap beneath Aren's chin, looking up at him and smiling as ever.

Lifting her head, the woman looks half-lidded at Aren, her eyes whitened and blind like an old crone. She opens her filthy mouth to speak through a bloody maw, red saliva dribbling down from her mouth. "I will do ash you ashk", she slurs, "You have sheen ve dangersh haunting vish plashe. To shpy vem for you, I have taken vish one'sh eyesh. To warn you, her chongue. My prishe ish her womanhood."

Entislar looks exhausted. I hope she has not damaged him as well, thinks Aren.

"You ask much of this girl, Riantha," he says. "Could you not share an eye each and leave her womanhood undamaged, to return to her when you move to another host in due time?"

Aren watches the woman expectantly.

"Vhat!" splutters Riantha indignantly. "You want me, this is my price, and you are lucky I only take some sacrifices from this girl" Aren steps back from the look of power and greed radiating from Riantha. "I should have it all, ALL..." she cackles in a rising voice, still drunk from the long unfamiliar sensations.

Pulling himself together, Aren retorts in an equally loud voice. "Sacrifices must be given, not taken like spoils in a cattle raid," he insists.

Riantha draws herself unsteadily to her feet. "That is my offer take it or leave it!" she demands.

Aren pauses briefly before going on, considering his options. At last he responds with a firm "No!", putting so much conviction behind it that she jumps. The shock of the refusal is obvious on Riantha's face.

"You ask too much," Aren continues. "The girl only offered herself as a host for the night. Is this how you repay her hospitality? If so, then perhaps you are not the one that we seek, after all. Perhaps you should go back to your dark place and not presume upon our hospitality any further. First, though: consider what you are giving up with your demands of life and blood."

Picturing his wife's face before him, Aren takes Riantha in his arms and firmly kisses her on the lips. The onlookers swore afterwards they could see the sparks fly. Parting, he smiles. "Are you really ready to give up all this and return to the grave?"

Riantha looks confused, too much sensation too soon pounding in her head. "No," she replies at last. "You are right. I have abused your hospitality, and to be amongst the living again, well... I should be paying you." She looks round at the stead folk. "Well? Do you still want me as you Guardian? My host and I shall share in most things, though I dare say we will both want some time to ourselves. And when we tire of each other then we shall have to find another willing host. But no children while we are joined, on that I insist. The last time was bad enough."

"Thank you Riantha: that sounds reasonable. Now all we have to do is settle out the details." Aren gestures to the still-laden tables. "So - with your permission - can the feast now commence?"

~oOo~