Rituals

I was taken to a place just beyond the town proper, nearer the foot of the mountain, which the old woman named B’wrath. It was even more imposing close-up, and whatever sunshine might topple from its peak had stained its face numberless shades of red. In a certain light, it could appear to be bleeding, she said. She stared at me closely to see how much of that I considered. A trick of fading sunlight, I thought, but said nothing.

The old woman walked with me as far as the western limits of the town. She tapped me three times on my shoulder, wished me well on my journey, and turned back without awaiting a response. Her cortège followed behind, five plump men of solemn deportment and purpose. Their identical shadows were like small moons circling an ancient planet.

I promised her I would leave at dawn. She provided me with five bulging water-skins, and slices of meat and bread for my satchel. The number five was a holy number, she said; four would be an insult, and six boastful. The ritual of three taps was for body, mind, and spirit. The closer the taps to the heart, the more reverent the gesture; I should not consider the shoulder an insult. As a stranger, it was an appropriate kindness.

I found a shallow gully near the foot and covered myself with dry leaves. B’wrath’s monolithic shadow smothered me at once, and I fell into a deep and grim sleep.

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