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The Last HammerSong
    by Edmund R. Schubert

  Listen to the audio version

Through the window of his elevated seaside shack, Jafartha watched as a deep red moon climbed out of the ocean to join the two copper orbs that had risen several hours earlier. Though he knew there was still time until the three moons aligned, Jafartha was increasingly anxious. Tonight was too important: it was time for the Procession of Kings. It was time for his youngest son, Kitja, to become a man.

Kitja had always been smart, the smartest in their family by far, and in the past year he'd gotten immensely strong working the family's fishing nets. But Kitja was squeamish -- and that made him weak. He wouldn't try to catch the simka fish; he wouldn't go near a cayalla beetle; and worst of all, he didn't want to cut off his mother's upper left arm.

Jafartha could no longer lie patiently in bed, watching and waiting while the Sky Kings decided where to converge. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat up, propping himself with his lower arms on his knees and his upper arms against the windowsill.

He gazed down below, at the tide surging against the pylons that held his shack high above the ebb and flow of the sea.

A chill breeze blew through the night.

Jafartha closed the window against the cold, but it was no use; the wind blew right through the cracks in the walls of their meager shack. Goosebumps crept over his hairless body, starting in his midriff and radiating down his two legs and out all four arms.

Jafartha hated being cold.

His wife sat up in bed and slid behind him, rubbing his back feebly with her underdeveloped lower hands.

He snorted. Women. Their lower arms possessed less strength than a whimpering newborn.

But when she caressed his scalp with her stronger, upper left hand, Jafartha closed his pale-green eyes and sighed with a deep satisfaction. That felt wonderful. It didn't do anything to change his decision, but it felt wonderful.

Jafartha noticed the warmth of Yonhe's breath in his ear as she whispered, "If you make Kitja amputate my last good arm, I'll never be able to do this again."

Jafartha's eyes closed with disappointment. Did she really think --?

He shook his head.

"No," he said. "We have to look at the big picture. Consider the stature this will bring to our family, and the business opportunities it will create."

Yonhe glanced at him, then at her left arm as if it had already been cut off. "Losing . . . losing the right arm wasn't so bad. But this other one is all I really have. Is there no other way?"

Sixteen-year-old Kitja entered the room with a steaming cup filled to the brim with . . . something. He passed it to his mother.

"She's going to look absurd with nothing but those spindly lower arms," Kitja said.

"She going to look elegant," Jafartha said, caressing the scar at her right shoulder where their elder son, Mafirtha, had done his work. Then he gestured at the cup in Yonhe's hand. "And what is that?"

Kitja replied, "Thyne bark tea. It will make her sleep. Better that she doesn't see what's going to happen."

Jafartha had never heard of such a thing. "Where did you learn this?"

"Grandfather Boonhe taught me the basics of making herbal tea, but this particular recipe is my own."

Jafartha saw the kindness in rendering Yonhe unconscious for the amputation; the ritual was a bloody business. Nevertheless, the damned old grandfather had no right meddling with Jafartha's affairs. This was his family, not Boonhe's.

Yonhe took the cup of tea in her hand, drained it in a single swallow, and nodded toward Kitja. Jafartha didn't like the look that passed between mother and son. It wasn't mere gratitude she expressed; there was something else, something Jafartha couldn't identify. But before he could say anything, his wife slumped in her bed, passing into unconsciousness.

Kitja ritually kissed her cheeks and forehead, then placed a blue feather, one each, into her undeveloped lower hands.

Jafartha wished he would hurry.

No, what he wished was that Kitja would be more like his older brother.

On the night of the Procession of Kings four years ago, Mafirtha had proudly taken part in each step of the ceremony as prescribed in the Eighth HammerSong, culminating with the amputation of his mother's upper right arm. Mafirtha had not blinked his pale-green eyes, not once, throughout the ritual. Nor had he dawdled with tea or obscure feather rituals that had long since lost any meaning.

But Kitja was different.

Kitja was always holding back -- watching and listening to Boonhe's stupid stories; studying the intricate carvings on Jafartha's wharkbone knife; collecting herbs from the dunes behind their house -- instead of diving in and doing what needed to be done.

Kitja was just like that simka fish that followed Jafartha when he paddled his canoe over to the neighboring island each morning, and then followed him home again each evening. On a world full of islands, this damn fish had to take up residence in his lagoon? Jafartha wished the simka fish would either do something or leave him alone. But it merely bobbed on the surface, watching, watching, with its unblinking golden eyes, studying and questioning everything.

Just like Kitja.

Jafartha looked grimly at his son. "Only the finest, wealthiest families can afford to see the ritual all the way through. We are going to show the People -- every man, woman, and child on every island within sailing distance -- that we are still one of those families."

Kitja shook his bald head and grimaced. "Why do we have to cut off her good arm? Why not something symbolic like the useless little ones? She'll barely be able to feed herself with those puny things."

"As her youngest son, you become her good arm. It reinforces the bond that exists between you."

Kitja's lip curled, projecting a perfect blend of disbelief and disdain. "Reinforces the bond? If a bond already exists, why do I have to --"

"-- because that's the tradition, and you can't be a man until you honor the traditions. Poor families can't afford to lose the woman's productivity. We are not poor. Now get outside."

But Kitja didn't move. He simply watched with his brilliant, unblinking blue eyes. Studying and questioning everything. Jafartha hated Kitja's blue eyes. Yonhe had been so thrilled when those eyes turned from white to blue in the first few months after he was born. Mafirtha's eyes had turned green, the same as Jafartha's. Kitja's eyes, however . . . they were the exact same shade of blue as Yonhe's damnable father.

Kitja said, "There was a time when we were rich. Rich with wharkbone. But you frittered that away."

Jafartha looked at the lone knife on the trunk by the door. Wharkbone knives were harder and sharper than anything else known to the People, which was appropriate, since wharks were the craftiest, most pitiless monsters in the sea. Hauling one in -- in a net, of all things -- and walking away from the experience alive, much less with all four arms intact, was rare. Single-handedly killing the beast, eating its meat, and making tools from its bones had made Yonhe's great-grandfather a legend on every island the sun ever shone on. And rich, too.

But things had been hard lately. Jafartha had chased a few high-risk trade deals, instead of pursuing many small ones (as Boonhe had advised), and when none of them went his way, Jafartha had been forced to trade away most of the wharkbone tools that Boonhe had given as Yonhe's dowry. Jafartha's relationship with his father-in-law had grown more and more strained with every piece he traded away.

Jafartha picked up his last wharkbone knife and slid it into the sheath hanging from his belt. "Make me proud. Make your ancestors proud."

Without even looking, he knew the moons were moving closer. But still Kitja refused to move.

Gripped by a fury beyond words, Jafartha seized his son between the upper and lower arms and hefted him into the air, snarling, squeezing all four hands in on Kitja's ribcage.

Equally rapidly, Kitja whirled his arms inside his father's grip and knocked all four hands aside, landing securely on his feet. He gripped his father with his upper arms and lifted him off the floor. "My arms are as powerful as yours -- if not more. Don't treat me like a child."

Jafartha seethed to see Kitja behaving so disrespectfully, but was simultaneously stunned by the display. Kitja had always been smart and had recently grown strong, too, but where had he learned the moves necessary to turn the tables so quickly?

Kitja set Jafartha down.

Strong and smart was beside the point. Jafartha wouldn't tolerate such insolence.

"Only the heads of the finest families get to be on the ruling council. I won't let your squeamishness spoil this opportunity for me."

Kitja stared at his father. "Is that what this is about? You're willing to sacrifice mother's arm so you can sit on the council?"

Jafartha glared back. "Councilor's descendants get a portion of the taxes levied for four generations. Four generations! I'm doing this for you, and for your children's children, and for your children's children's children."

Kitja took a half-step forward and stood with his nose almost touching his father's. "Only if the Councilor doesn't spend a single pound of it, and we both know you don't have that kind of discipline. If you did, you'd have made the dozen deals each month that grandfather advised instead of trying to make it all in one fat deal each year. I won't let you sacrifice mother's arm to cover up your laziness."

In one smooth motion Jafartha wrapped his hand around the back of Kitja's skull, stepped to his left and pulled his son forward, smashing his face into the wall. Kitja fell at his father's feet like a bird hit with a stone. The boy's nose and forehead bled freely.

Jafartha smiled. "One of us is going to see this ritual through tonight. I don't care who, but I do know you'll be a lot more gentle with your mother than I will. Now clean up and meet me outside. Go out there stinking of fresh blood and a cayalla beetle will eat your face for breakfast."

Jafartha turned his back on his son and walked to the trapdoor in the floor of their kitchen. He opened it and slid through, wrapping his sinewy arms around the shack's center pylon and climbing to the boulder-strewn shore. The cold wind continued to blow.

Kitja appeared next to him faster than expected. The boy wore a shirt with long sleeves to protect against the wind, while Jafartha was still in only his knee-length pants.

"Merus and Morlos are already in alignment," Jafartha said, trying to ignore the wind. "You must complete the rituals before Tynus joins them. The first sacrifice must be from --"

"-- from the sea. I know, Father. I know."

Jafartha thought: Yes, I'm sure you do know what the sacrifices are. By now, you had better. The real question is, are you prepared to make them?

Ignoring his son's disdain, Jafartha asked, "Did you set your lines then? Bait any hooks? Set any traps?"

The manling gazed out toward the empty sea, upper arms crossed over his chest, lower hands clasped behind his back. "Sort of."

Jafartha looked in the same direction as his son but didn't see anything. He had no idea what the boy was looking at or talking about, but he was going to wait, too -- wait for his son to do something decisive.

Father and son stood side by side, each staring silently, motionless, at the same red ocean. Jafartha breathed deeply, inhaling the spiced scent of the sea. There were no words for his disappointment as Kitja stood there, doing nothing.

Abruptly Kitja strode to his canoe, which had been resting well above the beach at sundown, staked. Now the canoe pitched in four restless feet of water, an agitated beast eager to escape its bonds.

When Jafartha caught sight of what was in the reed cage that was bobbing next to the canoe, he broke into a run, splashing through the water.

"Kitja!" he cried out, seizing the cage with his lower set of hands. He transferred the cage to his upper hands and gazed into the golden eyes looking wonderingly back at him. "Kitja," he repeated. "You actually caught one!"

The boy studied the fish, nodding with sad satisfaction. "My theory was right: the best bait to catch a simka fish is no bait at all. Tempting-looking treats make it suspicious; the lack of bait makes it curious."

Jafartha was thrilled; he had wanted to kill this fish for years. "The first sacrifice must be from the sea . . ."

"Yes. But why a simka fish?" burst Kitja. "Why not a fish we eat every day? I can catch one right now."

Jafartha's face pinched fiercely. "You set the trap. Are you going to dishonor the Kings by refusing what they've offered?"

Jafartha saw horror in his son's eyes as the legendary wharkbone blade was slipped from the sheath and handed to him. Sloshing around in the seething surf, waves threatening to steal the knife from him, Kitja rocked back and forth with the water. Staring into the reed cage.

He wavered far too long for Jafartha, who smacked the back of Kitja's head, pointed at the cloudless sky, and growled. "Before Tynus joins them."

The third, smaller moon was nearing the face of Merus and moving fast.

Inching the tip of the knife closer to the wide-eyed fish, Kitja froze at the edge of the cage. He looked over his shoulder at his father, but moved not at all.

Running out of time and patience, Jafartha grabbed his son's wrist and thrust the blade between the reed slats, piercing the fish directly between its eyes. Golden ichor trickled down to the water, floating in a glowing mass until the next wave washed it away.

Suddenly Kitja was more animated. As the fish's breathing reduced to short, labored puffs, the boy, with near-surgical precision, removed both of the eyes and threw them as far as he could out into lagoon.

"What was that?" demanded Jafartha.

"The eyes of a simka fish are the eggs for the next generation. But they must be released before it dies, or else the eggs die, too. Simka fish have few natural enemies, and their eyes usually fall out on their own, once the fish gets past a certain age."

A lifetime spent near the sea and Jafartha never knew that. About to ask, 'Where did you learn this?' he stopped himself. Jafartha knew precisely where Kitja had gotten his information.

Angrily, Jafartha said to his son, "Do you think you can make this next sacrifice in a more decisive fashion? A more manly fashion?"

Kitja took a step closer to his father. "I'll do whatever's necessary." His words were delivered quietly, but so hard, so fierce, they gave Jafartha a chill.

What was the boy up to?

Even more defiantly, Kitja added, "Back in the house, you called me 'squeamish.' I'm not. I just don't like this. Mother deserves better."

For a moment Jafartha wasn't sure if his son was referring to the ceremony or to Jafartha himself.

Without waiting for a reply, Kitja walked off through the still rising surf and climbed up one of the shack's outer pylons and onto the flat-topped roof. Jafartha followed.

On the roof Kitja pointed at another reed cage, similar to the one that had been tethered to the canoe. "I heard you up here after dinner, Father. Setting the trap. I guess you didn't think I could set one properly."

That was his son: always watching, always analyzing.

On a more positive note, there was a mature cayalla larva in the cage. Perfect, Jafartha thought. Air and land -- two sacrifices in one. Good fortune; it would save precious time.

Three hand-lengths long and angry, the creamy, wrinkled larva buzzed louder as father and son approached the cage. Lacking the ability of the adult beetle to spit its toxic, dart-like teeth, the larva was still dangerous. Its teeth had plenty of venom, even if they were temporarily stuck in its mouth.

Jafartha walked up to the cage and stuck both left hands into the trapdoor as casually as if he were grabbing a loaf of bread from the kitchen counter. Gripping the creature behind its blind eyes, he drew it from its cage, saying, "You're not afraid of this little thing, are you?"

Kitja took a step forward. "Of course not."

"Good; you hold him then, while I get the knife ready for you."

Sidling closer to his father, however, Kitja seemed unsure of which hand to put where.

"Come on, boy," Jafartha snapped. He reached a free hand out and grabbed his son's wrist, pulling him closer. He placed one of Kitja's hands, "Here -- " he placed the other, " -- and here. My father wasn't half so gentle when he showed me how to hold a cayalla larva."

As if sensing Kitja's agitation, the larva jerked and twisted, biting the air, snapping and writhing.

Kitja extended his arms away from his body, saying, "Don't force me to do this. Please. It doesn't have to be this way."

Jafartha shook his head. "Of course it does. When the Mythographers wrote the twelve HammerSongs, the first eight were about the Procession of Kings. They could have chosen anything to be first. The fact that they chose the Procession should tell you how important this ceremony is."

"But all you ever want to sing are the first eight HammerSongs. Grandfather Boonhe says the rest of them are just as -- "

"Enough whys. And enough of your grandfather's prattling. The first eight teach us everything we need to know. Everything!"

Kitja threw the larvae emphatically down on the rooftop. It made a whump like someone beating a drum with all four hands when it hit.

Immediately the larva began wriggling across the flat surface and toward the edge.

If it tumbled over the side and fell to the beach below, it would burrow into the wet sand, emerging seconds later as an enormous and deadly cayalla beetle. That was the only thing that might render losing the sacrifice insignificant by comparison.

Without hesitation, Jafartha threw himself forward, wharkbone knife in hand. He stabbed at the larva even as he crashed down onto the wooden rooftop.

Jafartha's first blow missed, and the blade stuck in the roof.

The larva wriggled closer to the edge. Jafartha struggled to free the blade. Yanking, pulling, heaving, finally wrenching it up and out.

One last chance. He raised the blade again . . .

And pierced the creature's body.

Blood ran down the side of their home. It would make a permanent stain; there was no washing away cayalla blood.

Jafartha climbed to his feet. "The Mythographers say that it's a bad omen to spill cayalla blood on your house."

Kitja replied, "It's an omen of your own making. I wouldn't have dropped the creature if you hadn't made me."

Jafartha glanced to the sky, scanning, looking from Tynus to the other two kings. Then at his son. The final moon was almost to its place in the Procession.

"We'll discuss your cowardice later; right now we have precious little time to finish this."

Wordlessly, the two of them climbed back around to the kitchen trapdoor, entering the shack from below. They found Yonhe where they had left her, still deep in the grip of her herbal tea.

For the final time, Jafartha offered the knife to Kitja. Just as the boy was about to take it, Jafartha snatched his arm back, lifting the knife high in the air.

"Are you sure you have what it takes to finish this?"

"Depends on what you're talking about."

"Excuse me?"

Kitja began counting points off on his fingers. "Water sacrifice. The blade was in my hand, but whose hand was it that did the deed?"

Jafartha's eyes twitched; something about his son's tone was troubling. He said, "Mine."

"And the air and land sacrifice? Whose hand spilled cayalla blood on our house?"

"Mine . . ."

Kitja nodded slowly. "That's right. Yours."

"Your point?"

"Grandfather Boonhe taught me about another tradition -- the Succession of Kings. It's the last HammerSong, one of the ones you never want to sing. Grandfather taught me that song -- and that there's more than one way to become a man. You were so eager to cut off mother's arm that you never realized I was making you do all the work. The last HammerSong says that if I can get you to perform all of the sacrifices for me, as well as spreading cayalla blood on your own home, then I get to invoke The Succession of Kings."

Wrapping his fingers around the knife's handle, Kitja stripped the weapon away from his father with ease.

Jafartha was too stunned to put up a fight.

Kitja said with regret, "I knew you'd never be able to resist killing that simka fish . . ."

Realizing the ramifications of what Kitja had done, Jafartha's pale-green eyes turned yellow with fear. The Succession. Kitja was actually going to invoke --

No. It couldn't be. No one had invoked the Succession in a dozen generations. It was archaic. It was . . . pointless.

All Jafartha could think to say was: "Why?"

Kitja raised the wharkbone knife high in the air, replying, "Because right now Mother doesn't need a good new arm nearly so much as this family needs a good new head."

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