Through the pines trudged a giant with thick, braided gray fur. Two long horns protruded from his goat-like head, both adorned with rings of patina-green copper. He was almost nine feet tall. His name was Kalju, and Kalju reckoned his fur thickest, his horns longest, his wit sharpest, and his magic strongest of all the shamans of the plains.
Laulja the youngling of the tribe Piilursa followed him, together with three other younglings that trained to be shamans.
Presently, Kalju spoke to Maimu, the spear-bearing female youngling, at who Laulja had shot furtive glances ever since he first saw her.
“You may be as tall as I am,” Kalju said to Maimu, “but the spirits do not listen to you as they do to me, and thus the Wendel do not like you as much as they like me.”
Maimu gave a sullen look of disappointment.
“For I am Kalju,” Kalju continued, furry finger high in the air. “Prophet of the Wendel, and wise in all things.” He stopped and pointed at a horseshoe-shaped mushroom that grew on the bole of a tree. “See that mushroom?”
Maimu pushed aside a beautiful long fur-braid and stared intently at the mushroom.
“That is a mushroom I have called the Kalju-Fire-Mushroom,” Kalju said. “If you remove its cap, you will find a spongy interior that is flammable and excellent kindling.”
Maimu stepped back, as if the Kalju-Fire-Mushroom might ignite any moment. “Very wise, o great Kalju, Prophet of the Wendel,” she said.
"We must remember these things,” Kalju said. “Knowledge is your greatest weapon." He wheeled to face Laulja and narrowed his eyes at him. "Laulja, repeat the names of the five mushrooms we have seen today.”
Laulja straightened his back and recited the names: “The Kalju-Fire-Mushroom, the Kalju-the-Great-Cap, the Kalju-Favored-of-the-Wendel-Fungus, the Kalju-the-Prophet-Cap--” he hesitated for a moment and threw an unhappy glance at Maimu “--and the Laulja-is-an-Idiot-Mushroom.”
“That’s right,” Kalju said. His eyes beamed with satisfaction. “And what is the Laulja-is-an-Idiot-Mushroom not for, Laulja?”
Laulja stared down at his feet. “It is not for eating. . .”
“Right again!” Kalju then tapped the trunk of a nearby tree with his staff. “Türann,” he said. “What is this?”
The handsome youngling stepped forward. “That, o Prophet, is a Kalju-Evergreen,” he said. “You have called it evergreen because while it sheds needles throughout the year, it never loses its color. Only when the needles touch the ground do they turn brown, which is why I humbly suggest we call them Kalju-Brown-when-down-Needles.”
Kalju threw up his arms in happy admiration of his best pupil. “Kalju-Brown-when-down-Needles,” he repeated. “It even rhymes!”
As the younglings muttered admiration for the clever naming, Laulja looked at Maimu. But she had no eyes for him; she swooned over Türann, who shot her a self-assured and bold glance.
Laulja snorted. . . silently. How could she want him? All he had was looks and knowledge of trees. Who was ever a great shaman by knowing which trees were always green? Or by knowing which mushrooms did or didn’t give you the runs?
Maybe it was time for him to show Maimu his qualities. Maybe then she would change her mind. . .
The cave entrance before them was low. Laulja would have to stoop to enter. Thick green vines hung from the flat rock outcropping above that formed a natural roof over the cave entrance. An earthy, rotten smell emerged from within.
“A shaman,” Kalju said, “is master of both the Spirit Realm and the Realm of the Living. In this cave, which I have aptly named the Kalju Cave of Trials, you must prove to me your mastery over the Realm of the Living, before I can train you to become masters of the Spirit Realm.”
The four younglings peered into the dark opening. “What is in there?” Maimu asked.
Kalju gestured at his eyes with a wild motion. “Are my eyes better than yours even though I am older?” He said.
Kalju stamped his hoof on the ground. A disturbed owl gave an indignant hoot and flew up from the canopy overhead.
“Perhaps,” Kalju said. “Perhaps my eyes are better, for the Wendel favor me more than they favor you, youngling. But I do not know what is in the cave: it is dark. You must go and see, and be tested.”
Türann was the first to come forth. “I am not afraid,” he said. “I shall go first.”
Kalju studied his prize pupil carefully and then shook his head. The thin gray beard that hung from his chin swayed from left to right. “No,” he said, “You must all go in at the same time.”
The other younglings exchanged nervous glances, but Türann did not waver. “I shall lead us, then,” he said and shook his large, iron-studded club fiercely.
Laulja leaned over to Maimu. “Stay close to me if you’re afraid,” he said softly. “I am already a capable shaman, for I command the spirits beyond and can summon creatures of unimaginable strength to come to our aid.”
Maimu gave him an uncomfortable look. “You still have some sick in your beard from eating the--erm. . . that one mushroom.”
Laulja turned away and stroked his beard until he came upon a sticky, filthy patch. He brushed it out, but then it clung to the fur on his hand instead. He rubbed his hands together and managed only to spread it.
Laulja wiped his hands on his robe. Already the other younglings were making their way into the cave under Türann’s leadership. Maimu was very close to him. Just before they entered, Türann faced her and said: “You need not be afraid, Maimu, the Wendel will protect us.”
She grabbed hold of his hand and threw him a grateful glance.
“And remember, younglings,” Kalju called after them, “face the great nature and her traps and snares like a true shaman, and you shall have proven your mastery over her.”
Laulja sighed. The link between dominance over the eternal spirits and souls of mortals and immortals alike and--well--spelunking was not entirely clear to him. He would have preferred to prove his mastery over the ‘great nature’ by avoiding her altogether.
He snorted and slouched after the others, muttering as he went.
The torch caused shadows to dance across the jagged rock and filled the air with the thick smell of smoke and pitch. The sounds of the younglings’ hoofs echoed through the cave, which grew narrower as they proceeded, until it came to an end and the group could go no further.
“Well,” Laulja said. “This looks like the end, we should go back.”
But Türann raised his hand to silence Laulja and narrowed his eyes as he stared up into the dark. “There’s an outcropping overhead,” he said. “I think we need to go up.”
Laulja fluttered his lips, but the others eagerly voiced their approval of Türann’s idea. They gathered around and joined him in studying the rock wall they would have to brave and the narrow ledge overhead that would be their goal.
Türann eagerly went through the steps of his plan to reach the outcropping: he would go alone. Once he had reached the top, he would throw down a rope for the others to follow him. It would be quite the climb, and light should be sparse. But he was a skilled climber, certain of his own ability. Everyone muttered agreement at this brave plan--especially Maimu, who clung to his muscular arm--while Laulja fluttered his lips even louder.
Finally, Türann uttered a quick prayer to Wuraf, the protector of the gettefolk, touched his horn in greeting to the others, and then--under loud cheers--began his arduous ascent. He took it easy, handhold by handhold, foothold by foothold, always carefully testing the strength of the wall and its irregular surface.
The rock wall was quite high: you could break your neck falling, and already did Laulja picture Türann doing just that. He grinned: that would be nice indeed. . . But Türann seemed too prudent a climber for it.
Yard by yard, the rock wall yielded to Türann as the blessings of Maimu and the other youngling drifted after him. He went a lot faster now; he had apparently grown more confident as the outcropping came almost within reach. Laulja tried to imagine how long and high-pitched a shriek Türann could give before he would smack into the ground.
There was a way to find out. . .
Laulja grinned. It was an evil plan, but it was a nice thought. A shaman of great skill, such as Laulja considered himself to be, had the ability to petition the spirits for favors: simple things, little things. . .
A little push, perhaps.
Türann’s feet slipped. A collective gasp came from the onlookers--even Laulja could not suppress it. Not a high-pitched shriek followed, but a manly cry as Türann hung with one arm around the outcropping. Even from far below, it was plain to see that he was slowly losing his grip.
Just a little push was all that was needed now. No one would even see it.
Laulja closed his eyes--just for a moment--and rocked back and forth. His call was answered by those that dwell on the other side of the Mirror; and the favor he asked. . . granted.
When Laulja emerged from the cave, Kalju stood waiting in the waning sunlight. All the other younglingsgathered around him to tell himof what had befallen the expedition.
Türann spoke most. He told of his leadership andof his great ability. And when he came to speak of how he had very nearly plummeted to his death, he told Kalju that he had managed to pull himself onto the outcropping at the last moment. If felt, so he said, as if the spirits themselves had guided him.
That part, at least, was true.
Laulja didn't really know why he had done it. There had been something he could only call a conscientious override: the instructions he had issued to the spirits as Türann's life hung by a threadhad been the opposite of what he had wanted them to be:
"Help him up," instead of "Cast him down."
Laulja snorted and kicked at a small pebble. He had always been a weakling.
When Türann finished his tale, Kalju looked at Laulja. There was a mystifying smile on Kalju's wizened, gray-furred face. Under that gaze, Laulja felt ashamed of what he had planned--but not executed--in thedarkness of the cave; he hung his head in silence and looked only at the pine needles on the forest floor.
Finally, Kalju spoke: "It is as I, Kalju, Prophet of the Wendel, have foretold: you have ventured into this cave and your mettle has been tested." He raised both hands high in the air and flailed them about in veneration of the spirits. The other younglings muttered excitedly, but Laulja kept his eyes low.
Kalju ceased this display as sudden as he had begun it and gazed at the younglings one by one. "Now," he said, "we must return to the tribe, for the chieftains are eager to hear of this test and who of youI have found worthy to become shaman."
The group fell in line behind Kalju as he spewed his prophecies and resumed his ramblings on the various flora that lived, fought, fed, and died in the pine forest around them. Laulja walked in the back, utterly dejected.
But as the sky darkened, Kalju grew silent. He let Türann and Maimu lead the column, while he himself fell back until he walked next to Laulja. Laulja dared not to meet his gaze. They walked in silence for a while, until Kalju finally spoke:
"To a shaman," he said, "the tribe always comes first." He looked at the muscular Türann who gallantly led Maimu through the pine forest. "The shaman is not a leader, and rarely is he a muscular and handsome hero to the tribe's fairest women. . ." He smiled. "Except perhaps in my case."
Laulja looked up at Kalju, confused. But Kalju smiled at him, his usual theatrics gone. "A shaman is selfless not by conscious action, but by conscientious action," he said. "I shall recommend you to the chieftains as the next shaman, and I shall ask to train you myself."
Kalju then smiled, patted Laulja roughly on the back, and said: "So you had best get used to thanklessly healing and saving a great many stab-happy and overly confidentoafs while they get the honor, the glory, and the girl."
Laulja fixed his eyes on the bragging and proud Türann in front, and--for the first of what would be a great many times in his life--he regretted his selfless actions in the cave.