In the darkness of their hut, Gift tended to his wounds. They were shallow enough – just grazes, really – but it seemed to give her comfort to care for him like this. She used a scrap of worn hide soaked with cool water from a rough clay bowl to wipe the blood clean from his knuckles. For his part, the First simply stared into space, reflecting, planning, trying to see all possible futures. Gift had not spoken to him since he’d saved her and Stone from the Silent Folk, but she looked deeply troubled with her brow creased into a seemingly permanent frown. “What’s the matter?” he asked her.
“Something has changed,” she replied softly without looking up from her work.
“Yes. And in the world.”
The First nodded. “Yes. We are at a crossroads.”
She didn’t understand the expression exactly, but she nodded too. “Today, with the Silent ones, a new thing happened.”
“A new thing?” The idea obviously made her profoundly uncomfortable. These people had endured many changes to their little world recently. Maybe this latest one was a step too far.
“That was not hunting,” she said after a little while. “You did not kill the Silent Folk men for meat.”
“I killed them to protect you.”
Her frown deepened. “You did not need to kill them.”
“If they lived, they’d have warned the others in their village.” But even he knew that was an excuse. He reached out to Gift, cupping her chin in his hand and lifting her head so he looked straight into her dark eyes. “What you saw today; it has a name. It was called war.”
“What is war?”
“Violence. Killing. Destruction. The Silent Folk have been at war with your kind for generations, you just didn’t know it. Now is the time to strike back. To drive them back as they drove you.”
“War,” Gift said. “You have done this before…”
“Yes,” he whispered, suddenly averting his gaze.
“Before you came here. In the land of the sky-fathers.”
“I fought my father, yes. I led a great and terrible war. The stars themselves trembled.”
Gift looked frightened. “Why?” she asked.
“Because…” He sighed and let her go. It would be hard for her to understand. Now, as removed as he felt from his old life, it was hard for him to understand too. He held out his hand to the bowl of water that sat between them on the ground. “Look at this water. It is still. When you strike the bowl, it ripples.” He rapped one of his scratched knuckles against the side and they both watched the small waves radiate outwards, bounce off the edges, reflect and overlap, causing destructive and constructive interference, complex patterns of liquid motion. “But each time, the same, see?” He struck it again, and the patterns repeated, exactly as before. “That is my father’s vision. A stable, orderly universe. Predictable motion, played out over endless aeons, unchanging, cold, sterile. Once, I was content with that.”
“What changed?” Gift’s eyes were wide. She couldn’t possibly grasp the meaning of everything he said, but somehow she seemed to be following the rhythm of his words.
“I saw a better way. Watch.” He stooped down and blew across the water in the bowl. Now the ripples were different, chaotic, moving erratically under the influence of his breath in unpredictable ways. “You try.” She did as he asked, and the patterns were different again, unique to her, in that moment. “See? Life. Meaning. Disorder. That was what I craved. We sang the universe into existence, but I introduced a note of discord. I saw the potential in one tiny change; potential he could not even imagine.”
“And for that, you were sent here?”
“For that, and for other things.”
Gift considered his words. “If you make war again, will you leave us?”
“If I make war again,” he said, taking her chin in his hand once more, “it will mean just the opposite.” He bent in and kissed her and initially she responded, but then pulled away. “What?”
“The Silent Folk…”
“What about them?”
“They are like us.”
He shook his head. “No. They’re nothing like you.”
“They are. They are people. People do not hunt people.”
“They aren’t people.” He took hold of her hand and held it against her chest. “You are people, the Singing Folk. You have mind. Souls. The fire within, remember? The Silent Folk will never have that. They are like the dreams of my father: static, ordered, blind to the wonders around them. If your people perish, this world will forever be unchanging and drab. The songs will end, Gift. The light of you and your kind will vanish for all time.”
“They are people,” she insisted in a quiet voice, avoiding his eyes. “Men and women. Children. Different, but also the same…”
He let go of her hand. “Animals and their young. Like the beasts you hunt. Not people, Gift. You are the people.”
“It is wrong to hunt people.”
“Then they will hunt you.” He stood up and looked down at her. She still wouldn’t look at him and just knelt there with her arms wrapped around herself. He turned away in disgust and stalked out into the light. It was a grey, overcast day now, and the Singing Folk milled around their settlement aimlessly. There was still a pall of silence hanging over them, and at that moment they did indeed resemble their enemies. The First saw it all now; all ends were clear. He must do what was necessary to save this scrap of soul, this fragment of magic in a bleak, cheerless world. On the edge of the escarpment, he found Stone and some of the other men. Stone’s face was bandaged up and he recognised Wind’s work. He had lost an eye, but his face was contorted in anger, not pain.
“It must end,” the First said to him.
“We have remembered the songs of our ancestors,” Stone growled, “the Silent Folk have hunted us for too long.” He pointed east. “Death lies this way. We can run no longer.”
“Yes. You see well, friend.”
“I have been given wisdom, by you. You killed the Silent Folk. You are strong.”
The First narrowed his eyes. “What would you have of me, Stone?”
He lifted his hand to the sky. “You are Snake. You took the fire of the fathers and put it in us. You brought the light of the past and the future and showed it to us.” He placed his hand on the First’s chest. “Snake; Thief of Fire; Light-Bringer.”
He looked over his shoulder, back at the hut where Gift waited. Some of the Singing Folk held back, scared, more willing to run than fight, but others gathered around Stone and his followers, men and women alike. Their faces were determined. Their songs would be of fury and hate now. He knew they would follow him to this new, dangerous future.
“I will lead your people to glory,” he vowed, “and beyond.”