[20:34] It was Tehasha's firm belief that it was important to hold an understanding of the world as a whole, and though it had initially confused Athechelt to be taught anything other than Tarnish, the wealth of information that he'd been presented with so far had laid his concerns to rest.
He understood, in broad strokes, the cosmologies quite different from his own that other, distant kavkema believed in: Akynkulla, Leksharia and Ne͡imakanaach. He had learnt the stories of Taaravahr, taught how metaphorical they were best considered, how they represented the cornerstones of the Tarnish faith despite superficially seeming to share only a few terms with the parent faith.
[20:35] On a secular level, he understood that the physical conflict with the Nayabaru stretched many thousands of years into the past, more generations than he could easily imagine in his head, and for many thousands of years had effectively been decided in favour of the Nayabaru. He understood that there were kavkema near the coastal areas who tried to do something about the status quo, though they were perpetually unsuccessful.
He also understood that his home – central Asheenagiji – was likely as sheltered for kavkema as it was likely to get. And with that came one of the most important rules of all – nearly rivalling the rule to always assist his fellow kavkema, regardless their beliefs: "...stay. You may walk from mountain to mountain – but never guide your people across the desert or into the deltas."
Tehasha was holding out a branch to him in a way that could only be called ceremonial, a gesture that was briefly lost in the aftermath of a detail of her words: 'Your people'.
[22:17] Athechelt felt like his head was swimming, trying to process the sheer scope of Tehasha's stories. It helped that the other faiths shared some common fragments — Garukaron, Yrargyra, Thumak, Maenona — though at times it felt like the stories of Akynkulla or Leksharia treated them almost like people rather than the forces of nature they were. But now and then, he'd see a spark of familiarity in one of them.
Akynkulla claimed the world belonged to Thumak, and for much of it that was in some sense true — but they missed that one could still avoid that taint with sufficient care. Leksharia saw Thumak as a young god with new powers, which seemed to explain the Tarnish — but talking about 'old' and 'new' gods felt strange; how could a new force of nature simply come into being?
Neimakanaach was the hardest to grasp, particularly how it seemed to ignore the problem of suffering, claiming that it, and most other things, were illusory, and proper understanding would render the 'problem' moot. If he ever got the chance to meet a follower of Neimakanaach, he'd have to try and wrestle a clearer explanation out of them.
And of course, all of that was just context. Important context, that gave him a clearer picture of his place in the vast and complicated world, granting him new insights into his own beliefs, now that he had something to contrast them with. Insight into the form of the world, enough to feel like he could almost grasp it in his mind. Enough to understand how fortunate the kavkema in his part of the world were — granted both relative safety from the tarnished Nayabaru, and the knowledge of how to avoid becoming like them. There were kavkema who were less fortunate, born in the coastal regions of Asheenagiji where Nayabaru were more plentiful, who fought to change the way of the world — and while he respected them and wished them well, and if asked would aid them in a heartbeat in whatever way he could, he did not want to be them.
So Tehasha's advice, to stay within the mountains where it was safe, resonated strongly with him. But that phrase — 'your people' — stuck out. Not 'our people'. Athechelt reached forward cautiously, accepting the ceremonially offered branch with a hint of confusion. "...Manem, what do you mean, 'my people'?"
[22:44] "You've spent many months listening to my stories at nearly every waking moment," Tehasha observed. "I have given you the foundations on which you can arrange the stories of the world as that they may guide you forward. You have shown me that you comprehend what is said and done and speak of it faithfully. There are more stories in the past than in the present, but nonetheless, it is you that must carry them forward."
She cast a glance at the branch as though expecting it to be held in a particular way, but there was little judgement in her posture as she relented from the curious gaze without that her unspoken expectation had been met. "That," she said. "Will be your story staff. Prune the branch with care. Once you have turned it into a staff, you will carve slits into the wood, and you will use the quill and the paper slips I have already taught you to hold onto to note down the stories you encounter.
[22:45] "What you hold in your hands is a tool first and foremost. It is as sacred as you choose to make it. It will first hold fragments of those stories that form your foundation, giving you a solid framework to refer to when you find your overview slipping, granting you memories more solid than any you could hope to hold in your mind – and later whatever fragments and lyricism dear to you and the journey of your people.
"As a ryrhakenem, your words carry much weight. You must always think before you speak, because it is your words they will follow."
She hadn't answered his question yet, but the whole thing was beginning to click into place. From her perspective, he was now ryrhakenem – a singer of dreams, a keeper of stories, the mortal voice of memories spanning generations. He was one of the pillars of kavkem society, one of the few amongst the few that allowed Taaravahr never to be forgotten, the knowledge of Kendaneivash not to fade, and the kavkema to keep a faith in their hearts that they were not alone, that despite the dark forces that toyed with them, there were others like them, thinking the same thoughts, sharing the same history. Sharing the same stories.
"As a ryrhakenem, you must choose your notes with care, as well. When you are done carving your staff, I will help you lay your foundation. Discover the essence of the stories, find the words that vividly describe them, and use only those that are necessary to know the tale.
"A story staff is for you first and foremost, and an insurance against your own mortality only second – when in doubt, what you write upon the slips is for your understanding only if it helps you hold onto greater detail."
She exhaled tersely, concluding the deluge of information. "I cannot tell you what I mean with 'your people', Athechelt. When we are done, it is you who will find what I mean with 'your people' – because you will go out and search for the lonely, the neglected, the frightened, and you will give them a home in your heart."
[00:04] As she directed his attention to the branch, things began to click into place, and a sense of fearful tension set into his gut. He knew this night would eventually come — it was, after all, the reason he'd listened to all Tehasha's stories, had practiced recounting them, had studied the art of writing; it was the reason he'd sought all this out in the first place. He just hadn't expected it quite so soon.
Athechelt turned the branch over in his hands, examining it with newfound reverence while listening to his teacher's words. A tool, first and foremost — to guide his memories, to remember what his mind could not. 'You must always think before you speak' — that, at least, he knew he could do. He was softspoken by nature, much more so than Tehasha was. As she finished, though, he found his self-doubt still strongly clinging to his gut. To go out into the world in search of lost souls, to guide and lead them and reinforce their hope.... Could he really do that? Was he really ready to do that?
For a long moment, Athechelt stood there, silently turning the staff-to-be over in his hands, digesting her words, wrestling with his self-doubt. When he finally spoke, it was slowly and methodically. "I am honored that you've given me this, and that you deem me worthy of being a ryrhakenem... but..." He paused, clutching at the branch, his gaze falling to the ground, trying to find his words. "...I'm not sure that I'm ready for this, yet. If I'm ready to lead people. If I'm ready to leave." He looked up to her again, hopeful for encouragement or guidance.
[01:55] Tehasha inclined her head, her plume bristling softly, a gentle stirring in her demeanour. "You are at the cusp," she said, with a gentle firmness. "And while you work on your story staff, I will answer the questions of yours that remain. Remember also that you do not lead by purpose – you lead by circumstance. You hold the truth that the people you encounter use to shape their actions; you do not tell them how to act."
[19:59] Eche shook his head briefly in acknowledgement. He was still not yet ryrhakenem, at least not in his own mind. But that would soon change. His gaze fell to the branch in his hands once more. He could still flee from this responsibility, could still turn from the path he chose and seek another — but the notion of doing so is almost sickening, an insult to Tehasha and ryrhakenema everywhere. All for what — cowardice in the face of responsibility? No, forward was the only option he could allow himself to take, that would let him live with himself.
He brushed those thoughts from his mind, and focused on the task ahead of him. He called to mind the image of Tehasha's story staff as a guideline, trying to visualize it clearly and work out the steps to get something like it from what he had. First remove the bark and excess branches, then carve it to a length where it was sturdy at the bottom, then... well, that much gave him a start, at least. He wasn't much of a builder, but he could do this.
Athechelt shifted into a sit, and began carefully stripping the bark from the heavy end of the branch. He was silent for several long minutes as he worked, too focused on the task in front of him to think to ask questions of his mentor. Eventually, though, he got used to the motions, enough to mull over her comments. "I'm still not sure I understand. What do you mean by 'leading by circumstance'? I've learned your stories — the ones you've shared with me at least — and learned how to find the meaning buried in the metaphors, but... how do I use that to guide people? How do I guide myself?"
[20:30] Tehasha had settled down beside him, leaving him ample room to work on his craft while keeping an eye on the process, occasionally letting her gaze drift into the dark landscape for any signs of danger. Athechelt's question gently tugs her attention back toward her protégé, her gaze steady and gradual in its return, plume subtly fanning out as though to denote curiosity, its motion repeating a few times while she watched him, with a regularity as though it had its own heartbeat.
Softly: "Consider how I have guided you before you chose to join me on this path. How I have guided your mother. Your people will come to you to ask those stories of you that tell of similar situations, looking for a consensus amongst our kind and for knowledge, direct or indirect, that will help them to fell their own decisions. They may search your stories for simple details to guide them – for signs of the landscape that offer safety; for signs what is safe to eat; for patterns in the weather. They will seek out that which anchors them to our common culture, how and when to show respect, when to be courageous, when to withdraw. They will ask you what is right and what is wrong – and it is your answers that will shape their actions."
[22:40] Eche bristled a bit as painful memories came back to him. He and his mother had barely escaped notice by the Nayabaru, but his father hadn't been so lucky. They'd heard his warning cries and ran, and ran, and ran. They'd met another kavkem, who brought them to Tehasha. He couldn't remember now all she'd said to them, but it had helped. She'd offered them a home, protection, a share of their kills... but somehow it was more than just that. Hope in a world that seemed bright and hopeless. A way to process his father's loss, his sacrifice for them.
The bark was gone, now, and he paused for a moment, gauging the length of the branch against how long the staff ought to be. Then he shifted his posture, placing one foot against the branch and digging a talon into it, then pulling on the narrow end until it snapped off. He set the excess length of branch aside and inspected the newly-formed end of his staff — a bit splintered, but that could be fixed. And at worst, it was the less important end anyway — the other end would hold his stories.
"So I have to be careful to answer them truthfully," Eche concluded. "...What if I make a mistake, though? Or what if someone asks me a question and I don't know the answer? What should I do then?"
[22:53] Asha closed her eyes and lightly flicked her muzzle up as if to dismiss an option he hadn't even made explicit. "Your mistakes must be handled in the same way you would handle any other mistake – if you can, correct them. If you cannot..." she trailed off, fixing him with a stern stare that let him fill in the blanks. The world was not as forgiving about mistakes as fellow kavkema would be. At least latter he could practically rely on. "As for the matters you know nothing of," she mused. "There is no harm in admitting to it. Retain your curiosity and collect the stories you come across. No one will ask any more of you and it would be unreasonable for your expectations of yourself to be any higher. Embrace that you are not clairvoyant. None of the ryrhakenema are omniscient. Should one of your people come to think so, then take it as the flattery it is, but explain your limitations."
[22:17] Eche's gaze shifted up to his mentor for a moment, catching the intensity of her glare. No kavkem can be perfect, not even a ryrhakenem. Hopefully, those errors in judgment he makes will be those easy to correct. But if the qanu, the life-worth-living, of a fellow kavkem hangs in the balance.... Well, if he's lucky, it will be some time before he has to make such a decision.
His attention returns to the staff, his claws carefully smoothing out the base, alternating between carving out small chunks and grinding the end of the staff-to-be against the ground. Meanwhile, he begins considering the next steps — there are a few places where excess sub-branches once clung to the branch, making the surface more uneven than it should be. Claws wouldn't do well at smoothing those out, but a sharp rock might work better.
The silence between questions is much longer this time, and by the time he next speaks, he's already begun the process of clearing out a sub-branch around the center of the staff. "Keeping the stories, I know how to do. Interpreting the stories on their own terms, I know how to do. But interpreting them in the light of a question, or a problem, or a situation in the world... that seems a lot harder. How do you even know what story to tell? Or... there might be multiple stories that apply to a given situation, and they might lead towards different answers, how do I tell which one is right?"
[22:47] Tehasha's gaze remained on the staff in the making, inspecting the work without commentary for the moment as she was. With only a moment's pause, more polite than contemplative, she spoke to encourage him: "It is your task to find those associations, by study, by recollection, by practise and by observation. I cannot give you a map – and if I could, I would be doing you a disservice.
"If I tell you that a seed makes a tree, how does this affect your understanding of the world? Poorly – you would be ignorant of all the stages between seed and tree, of the transformation. Once you have witnessed such a thing, however, you understand what it means that a seed becomes a tree.
"If I on the other hand were to tell you that a rock makes a tree, if this were my earnest belief, how would this affect your understanding of the world? It would be wrong – and were you to carefully observe the world, you would know that this it is false, or at least likely to be false. At that point, it is at best a metaphor, and you are best-equipped to decide whether it is a useful one.
[22:48] "Your own experience will guide you. Your own experience will teach you which associations guide your people in the proper direction, which associations are practical, which associations are compassionate."
[23:32] Eche shifts his muzzle slowly from side to side, quietly acknowledging Asha's response. "So I need to make the map myself, guided only by the stories of the past, while still trying to show people which way to go?" Experience was such an enormous part of being a ryrhakenem, and in spite of the time he's spent it still feels like he has so little in the places where it matters most. But he was not the first to walk this path, and he had no doubt that with the foundation Tehasha was helping him build, he could do it. Still. "...How hard was it, when you first started?"
[23:47] That question catches Tehasha off-guard. Her muzzle eases back subtly for an instant. After an unusually awkward moment of silence: "In earnest, I don't recall struggling with it. I suppose I trusted that my errors would be apparent more often than not, either to others or to myself – and I knew that as long as I put my heart to it, as long as I was diligent, it would not reflect badly on me. Yet... I have no assurance that this was not an artifact those I wandered with, or of myself. Perhaps this was hubris."