“They are waiting for you.”
The robed acolyte bows their shaved head and motions toward the Great Meeting Tent.
Akna returns a polite bow, and continues her ascent up the hill.
The path is lined with wooden poles from which dangle religious symbols weaved from tightly bound, dried vines, as well as the bone and metal chimes that pleasantly tinkle in the warm, gentle breeze.
Unlit lanterns sway, eager to shine their light as soon as the sun begins its descent behind The Mountains Beyond the Desert.
Akna pushes open the heavy leather flap of the Great Meeting Tent, and steps inside.
She waits quietly in the dim light as the Elders finish their chants and prayers around the large censer that stands in the center of the tent.
The thin smoke from the censer carries the sweet, spiced scent of the incense inside around the meeting place, and upward out of the tent and to the sky.
The Elders stand, elbows bent, hands cupped, ready to receive blessings. Their heads are bent in supplication. Their faces are covered by handcrafted wooden masks that peer out from beneath the hoods of their brown robes.
Prayers finished, the Elders step back to the edges of the tent, placing the back of their right hands in the palms of their left, as Elder Mother Ookpik approaches Akna.
“Welcome, child.” She raises her hands to her face, then lowers them, palms up, making a semi-circular motion back toward her sides.
“Elder Mother.” Akna returns the greeting.
“The day of The Crossing is upon us,” the Elder Mother continues. “As has been our charge for generations, we offer our blessing before you set out on this honorable journey.”
“Thank you, Elder Mother.”
“Will you honor us with a telling of The Great Tale?”
“Of course.” Akna bows.
And it was in those days that The Great Guardian Utok took notice of the people of Inuu and descended from his Throne in the Sky to walk among them
Finding their skill in hunting, crafting, farming, and all else, above all other tribes, Utok chose the people of Inuu to be his people
He returned to his Throne in the Sky and declared before the other Sky Gods:
Blessed will be the Inuu above all people
I shall give them my ingenuity
But nomads they shall remain
When the truest of Seasons ends
The Crossing they shall make
To leave behind to begin anew
My people reborn by fresh water
They shall never know want
There shall always be Inuu
For there will always be Utok
“Praise be to Utok. Blessed be The Crossing.” The Elders recite the refrain in unison.
“You tell the Great Tale without flaw, child,” Elder Mother compliments her. “While all those who remember the last Crossing have long since gone to dwell with Utok, I know we are truly blessed to have you as the Sign of Season’s End. You will stand tall among the Preparers of the Way, and this will be a most fruitful of Crossings.”
“So say we all,” the Elders say.
Akna bows her head in acknowledgment.
“Now,” the Elder Mother continues. “We must walk ahead to bless the path, the Preparers, and the instrument of your journey. Remain here in prayer until your chosen escort arrives to accompany you down.”
“Yes, Elder Mother.”
“May Utok guide you.”
“May Utok guide you,” the Elders echo.
Akna lowers her head until all the Elders have left the Great Meeting Tent. She then steps forward and kneels before the censer, and watches the smoke drift and swirl.
She tries to focus on the prayers. Tries to clear her mind in meditation.
Pinga’s voice, soft and sweet, flows into the tent like the incense from the censer.
A soft smile appears on Akna’s lips before she stands and turns toward Pinga.
“I’ve come to escort you down.”
Akna nods and emerges from the tent.
Pinga’s long braid, as dark as Akna’s short hair, rests over her shoulder. She is taller, and one summer older, than Akna. Her bright, lavender eyes dance as they look into Akna’s fiery orange eyes.
“I believe I have arrived a bit early, though.”
“We can sit for a while then.” Akna smiles softly.
Pinga looks down, her own smile dancing at her lips, then looks back up at Akna.
They sit, hip to hip, quietly for a while.
“I made your mask, as is tradition, apparently, for The Escort to do.” Pinga breaks the silence and shows Akna the simple white mask with two streaks of purple down the side. “I made the dye from those flowers you like.” Pinga reaches into her pocket. “I also made you this.” She retrieves a hand carved ring of ivory, dangling from a thin, leather strap. “So you don’t forget me.”
“It’s beautiful.” Akna turns to let Pinga place the gift around her neck and fasten it. “And how could I forget you?” Akna turns back to Pinga.
“You’ll be so busy helping prepare things. And who knows how long it will be before the rest of us can follow.”
Akna looks into Pinga’s eyes and slightly shakes her head.
“Am I selfish for not wanting to go?” Akna asks.
“Perhaps. But then I am just as selfish for wishing you could stay.”
Anka’s right hand clasps Pinga’s left, their fingers intertwine and grip tightly.
They lean their foreheads together and each place their free hand over the other’s heart. Breath shaking. and heart beating like the drums of Arknu, Akna raises her mouth to Pinga’s, and they share a deep and final kiss.
The sound of horns, flutes and drums echo up from the valley.
“I guess it’s time.” Pinga places her forehead against Akna’s again and shuts her eyes tight for a moment.
“I will do all I can to make sure I’m with the first group that follows,” Pinga continues. “I promise. I will see you again.”
Akna nods shakily in nervousness and sadness, and the two stand.
Pinga places the mask over Akna’s face.
They both take a deep and steadying breath, then begin their walk down into the valley.
The sounds of the instruments and cheering of the people grows louder as they descend.
Akna is grateful for the mask covering her face, as she finds it difficult to make her expression look like how she thinks she should be feeling, and not as she truly is.
She wonders if her parents, whom she has never met, are there among the sea of people.
She wonders by what fluke it was that she was born the Sign of Season’s End.
It was Utok’s will. She tries to calm her mind.
They come around the final bend, and the Sky Spire standing beyond the throng of people comes into view.
The deafening cheers, the pounding music, and the flapping colored banners, start to disorient her.
Akna briefly looks at Pinga, who does her best to offer a supportive nod and smile.
They approach the Sloping Steps that lead to the Sky Spire, where Pinga is not allowed to follow.
Akna wishes Pinga could see and hear that she repeated the words that Pinga mouthed to her before Akna began her solitary ascent.
The Elders and Preparers stand outside the entrance to the Sky Spire, and bow when Akna nears.
The Elder Mother motions for Akna to acknowledge the crowd, so she turns and raises her hand.
The shouts and cheers become even lounder.
A Preparer touches Akna’s shoulder, and guides her into the Spire.
Preparers hustle about, making their final checks and preparations for the journey.
Akna is led to a room full of egg shaped beds with clear, hard coverings.
“It is a blessing of Utok that I am the one who gets to prepare you for the Long Sleep of The Crossing,” the Preparer says, then motions for Akna to enter a designated egg. “You will need to remove your mask.”
Akna complies as she lies back and places the mask by her hip. Her left hand reaches up and grips the ivory ring.
The Preparer taps the glowing slate that is attached to the egg and nods.
“Preparations are almost complete,” she says and reaches for a small, clear mask that is attached by a thin tube to the inside of the egg. She motions for Akna to raise her head, and the Preparer places the mask over Akna’s nose and mouth. “You will awake in the New Land before you even know you are asleep. Utok bless The Crossing.” The Prepare taps the slate again, and the covering of the egg slides into place.
Akna grips the ring tighter as her vision blurs and darkness takes her.
Akna awakens as her chamber opens with a hiss and whir as the clear top of the egg slides away.
She pulls the small mask off and hears her panicked breathing echo around the chamber. Her hand snaps to the ring still dangling from her neck, and its presence brings some small relief amidst her disorientation.
Akna pulls herself into a seated position, and looks around the room as the blurriness of her vision begins to fade.
Carefully, she pulls herself out of the sleeping chamber, retrieves the white mask, and affixes it to her hip.
Her wobbling legs bring her over to the next closest egg.
She brings confidence back into her legs by walking from egg to egg, seeing that they all appear unused.
Akna exits the room to explore the rest of the Sky Spire, looking for the others that made The Crossing with her.
“Hello?” Akna calls out many times.
She is answered only by the humming of the Spire and sounds of her footsteps down the corridors.
The last syllable is a panicked screech as her composure almost leaves her.
Why am I alone?
Is this a punishment for my desire to have stayed with Pinga? To have spent those moments before The Crossing with her?
According to the Ancient Scripts, it has always been tradition for the Sign of Season’s End to choose their Escort.
Perhaps it had been a test.
Did I waver in my duty? Was my heart split in desire?
Utok is not capricious.
This is not a punishment.
It has to be something else.
Akna eventually finds herself in a room with a large, black rectangle, and a slate with the image of a hand on the surface.
She places her hand on the slate.
Images and words appear on the black rectangle.
She learns that she has arrived to these New Lands without incident. That the supplies for those that will follow have not been damaged. With her, and Utok’s blessing, the Inuu will continue on as they always have done.
Akna is shown an image of stars, and given instructions to follow them as a guide.
With a loud hiss, the door leading out of the Spire opens, and the outside beckons to Akna.
A compulsion fills her, and Akna steps out from the Sky Spire and onto the surface of this new, mostly barren, world.
For days she walks, being pulled forward by some innate desire.
At night, the stars confirm she is headed the right direction.
Her legs burn from within, and she grows weary and famished, yet still she continues onward.
On the evening of the fourth day, Akna sees the flowing river before her.
She collapses on the shore, and strains to push herself onto her back.
As she looks up at the stars above her, Akna’s mind floats the night she and Pinga ran, hand in hand, to lie among the purple flowers, and watch the streaks of fire in the sky.
“Do you ever think about how you will be out there one day?” Pinga asks. “How you will be among the first to see a new world before the rest of us follow?”
“Sometimes. Though I prefer to think about what’s right next to me.”
Akna’s right hand finds Pinga’s left.
Akna’s right hand finds the river that flows beside her.
She grips the ring tightly in her left hand, and remembers the warmth of Pinga’s body, and the sweet scent in her hair.
Tears run down both sides of Akna’s face as the memories begin to melt away, just as her body begins to disolve into the Essence of Life that flows into the river.
Her body is gone, mixed now with the flowing waters, and spreading along the shores of the river.
The Essence of Life permeates the land, and already new life has begun to grow.
Erelong, this new land will be fully prepared, and the rest of the Inuu will follow, settle, and live until the time of the next Crossing.