It was the longest night of the year.

It is the night that Gyrnath mourns his brother, they said. We must not begrudge him this rest. He has been sick with grief all winter long. The days grow cold, the night grows long, without Enin's green touch on the earth and Gyrnath's fires to warm it. We must watch the world in Gyrnath's stead, this night. We go to the peak of the highest mountain and we build the fire to warm the world in the place of the sunfires.

Do you understand? The fires must be kept burning. No matter what, it must not be let to go out.

It was supposed to be a great honor, if you were one of those selected to go up the mountain. Some honor, to sit atop a drafty, chilly mountaintop and watch a great blazing bonfire. None of them would get a full night's sleep, awake in pairs in case the other fell asleep, in order to make sure the fire did not go out. But it was an honor, of a sort, to be entrusted with the sleeping world. It was an honor to watch the firedance.

Once upon a time, the dance used to tell a story. He thought he could see it, if he watched the shapes of the dance and not the figures, if he looked at the shadows thrown on the rock wall behind instead of the dancer himself. There was only one shaman, but he seemed to be everywhere, rattling his scepter. He could not tell what kind of dragon he was, or had been. The fire made everything flicker and dance in eerie golden raptures. There was a rhythmic, musical clatter and click as the shaman moved, draped in an array of furs, horns, claws, and feathers, his tail snaking behind him like a sunset river in the firelight. He could feel himself drifting, caught up in the ceremony, lulled by the rhythmic chanting in the language of the gods.

(The ceremony that brings light back to the world)

We don't keep the stories as well as the Green do, the shaman whispered (but how could he understand him?). They keep our stories for us. We are not well suited to long memories. Our lives are too short and wild. But there are stories in the long lives of the swords. There are stories in the sword dances, if you watch closely enough. They are the stories of battles won and fought, of warriors that have become so deeply entrenched in legend that they have become gods in themselves.

We have our own ways of keeping the legends. We keep them in the things we do, the rituals we practice daily. We are close to the gods by the very virtue of who we are and what we do.

He opened his eyes with a start. Had he been asleep? What kind of a fire-watcher was he, to fall asleep at the blessing ceremony? He thought he had trained that out of himself by now. But then, the fire did not burn any lower. The flames still leaped in a riot of heat and light. Maybe he had not been asleep for very long. Maybe nobody had seen him. But the shaman was watching him from across the fire, half-crouched. The dance was over. He could not tell what color his eyes were, or what color the paint that smeared his face and body were. The fire and the night made everything fight-colored.

"They speak well of you," the shaman said, pointing something that looked unsettlingly like a bone at him. Then he laughed, and threw it in the fire, and it was only a piece of wood that had looked like a bone by the trick of the light. "You think highly of yourself, do you not?"

"Not really."

"Not really. Not really. You are so modest, all of you."

"Not all of us."

The shaman laughed again. It was an unpleasant sound, breathy and cackling, like an ancient crow. The fire outlined every wrinkle and fold in the skin of his face, and he realized that the shaman must be very old indeed. Older than the mountains, maybe, if anything was that old. The shaman certainly looked it. But then, he also had a strange, ageless quality about him. "You are so honest, too. That is a good quality to have." The shaman's expression was suddenly shrewd. "Think you've the qualities of a fire-watcher?"

"They chose me."

"Then you have faith in their choices?"

"Yes."

"What would you say, then, if I told you they drew names out of a hat?" the shaman challenged him.

"I'd say you were lying."

The shaman gave another hoot of laughter. A branch snapped in the fire, sending up a shower of sparks, but neither of them jumped. He thought to wonder what had become of the others at the blessing ceremony, but he found that he couldn't turn to look. Why were they not saying something? Were they asleep as well? Was this a dream, after all? But he could look only at the shaman. He couldn't even move to pinch himself.

"You'll do well, boy," said the shaman, mostly to himself. "You'll do well. Ah, but you're not much of a boy anymore, are you? You're a man. You wear a sword. Ah well, ah well, you're all boys to me. But you'll do fine, yes, you'll do fine." He leaned forward, grinning from ear to ear. "But you know, boy, you'll have a son. Yes, and they'll call him the best. But he'll break your heart, he will, but he'll have come from the stars, and they break everyone's hearts, in the end." He chuckled, a dry, rasping sound, and threw something in the fire that sent sheets of flame licking hungrily into the sky.

Then Dagan woke again, and this time he was cold and shivering. The fire was out, barely smoking, and the shaman was gone. The rest of the party, the other fire-watchers, were waking as well, rubbing their heads and muttering amongst themselves about what had been in the wine. Ah well, they said, nothing for it now. They had to hurry, if they were to have the bonfire lit at the right time. Bloody ceremony. What was that for? The Gods' blessings? Well, they'd better have their blessings, or they wouldn't do this anymore.

Dagan shouldered his pack. He vaguely remembered having a strange dream, but be no longer remembered it. There had been something strange in that wine, hadn't there? He thought it had tasted strange, but he had attributed that to the fact that he hadn't drunk very much wine before. But they were calling to him now, and he had to go. He had to bring the sun back in the morning.



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