First Steps of Freedom

Hatuk hadn’t noticed that he’d stopped carving until he felt Tiktik’s gaze.  He began again, but more slowly.  He was following the notes of his daylight listener, Shassaha, whose work was widely considered impeccable.  Still… could she have misunderstood what she heard?  No ha’she’tik had ever survived long after being named Tik’ha’she’tik and exiled, yet Shassaha’s notes clearly stated that Tuktatuk was not only alive, but thriving.

Tuktatuk had been years away from these mountains.  Why he had left to join the world, Hatuk had never understood.  Nor could he ask.  Once a ha’she’tik was named Tik’ha’she’tik, they were struck from history and never mentioned again.  That Shassaha included him in her notes was an act of defiance that Hatuk would be expected to report.

“Was anything the matter?” asked Tiktik.

Hatuk resumed carving, but hesitated again with the decision whether to follow Shassaha’s notes in order to adhere to accuracy or amend them in order to adhere to prudence.

“No,” he said, deciding on the latter.

He caught Tiktik studying his scroll at the end of their shift.

“That was quite the decision,” he said at last.  “I wonder why you chose the way you did?”

“It seemed prudent,” answered Hatuk.

“To protect Shassaha?” asked Tiktik.  “Yourself?  Perhaps our Elga?”

Elga was their muse.  The person whose story they carved so lovingly, day after day.  Somewhere, out there on the western coast of the world, Elga had taken up residence in long abandoned ha’she’tik carved catacombs, and there she had met the exile, Tuktatuk.  By the sound of the conversation, it seemed that she had known the Tik’ha’she’tik for some time.  Why had Shassaha chosen to divulge this information now?  Today?  Hatuk thought he knew.  The conversation Shassaha had recorded had to do with another Tik’ha’she’tik.  A female named Tukshasa that Hatuk had not realized was named Tik’ha’she’tik.  Tukshasa was traveling west to find Tuktatuk.  Could Shassaha be contemplating the same?

Another thought occurred to Hatuk, and he didn’t know why it hadn’t come to him before.  Shassaha’s scroll hadn’t been meant for him.  He watched Tiktik as they made their way toward the dinner hall.  His longtime friend seemed to be working at nonchalance.

“Had you made any plans?” Hatuk asked quietly.

Tiktik didn’t answer right away.  He veered left at a crossroads, turning away from the dining hall and toward the exterior webs that collected the stories of the world.  They would find Shassaha up there, on her way down for dinner.  Hatuk followed.

“We had made some,” said Tiktik.

Oh Tiktik.  What was he about to do?

“Was I supposed to find out?” Hatuk asked quietly.

“That was my decision,” Tiktik admitted.  “I believed that you would understand.  Did you?” he asked after a pause.

Hatuk needed to step away and think this through.  What Tiktik and Shassaha had done could have been viewed as an oversight, but Hatuk saw plainly that they were up to treason and headed for exile.  Worse, it seemed that they wanted exile.

“I – I needed to eat,’ he said awkwardly, already shuffling away from his friend and joining the streams of ha’she’tik headed for the dining hall.

Solitude wasn’t a luxury of the dining hall, and Hatuk had to endure plenty of well-meant conversation before he was able to slip away to a section of the catacombs that had been finished, and therefore received few visitors beyond students, who would be in their rooms creating scrolls at that hour.  His privacy didn’t last long, however.  Several of the ha’she’tik who worked on an adjoining storyline one room over from his and Tiktik’s work strolled past, and he suspected that this was no coincidence.

“Well met, Hatuk,” greeted Tiktuktik.

“How surprised!” added Shassatik.

“Sent by Tiktik?,” Hatuk grumbled.

Tiktuktik and Shassatik looked embarrassed.  “He was concerned,” said Shassatik.

“I kept my thoughts to myself,” Hatuk said.  “He needn’t have worried.”

“And we’d wondered why,” said Tiktuktik.  “Not a word over the meal, when many words were spoken.”

It occurred to Hatuk that he was looking in on a conspiracy.  Not only Tiktik and Shassaha, but Tiktuktik and Shassatik as well.  He wondered suddenly whether he was in danger.

“Not a word,” Hatuk repeated.

“Reason?” pressed Tiktuktik.

“What we were interested in,” injected Shassatik, “was whether silence indicated friendship… or agreement?”

“Some stories were withheld from the scrolls,” added Tiktuktik.  “And Esthivan in their midst, for instance.”

Hatuk bristled.  He had dedicated most of his schooling to the subject of the notorious Esthivan betrayal.  There were few people in this world he hated more.

“Brave Tuktatuk,” Shassatik added, whispering Tuktatuk’s name, “fought it off, protecting your Elga.”

Hatuk had no idea what to think.  Countless nights in his youth he had lain awake, dreaming of living in the olden days, when Tik’ha’she’tik were revered as philosophers and guides for their people, interacting with the world.  There had been Tik’ha’she’tik warriors.  He would dream of being one such warrior, in the time before the betrayal, and he would have fought the Esthivans and beaten them down so that they could not turn on his people.  Had that been how Tuktatuk had survived exile?  Was there extra strength to be found in the mind of a Tik’ha’she’tik warrior?  For a moment, Hatuk was tempted to know.

“He began a rebellion,” Tiktuktik added so quietly that Hatuk wasn’t certain he had heard it correctly.

“Others have chosen Tik’ha’she’tik and made their way to join him,” agreed Shassatik, just as quietly.

“And you?” asked Hatuk.

“Tomorrow,” said Tiktuktik.

“Why have you told me this?” asked Hatuk, his heart filling with anguish.

“Tiktik asked it of us,” Shassatik answered.  “He believed you capable of seeing with clear eyes.”

Hatuk sought his bed.  There, at least, he could be left to his thoughts undisturbed.  The night wore on without sleep, and as he shifted trying to find comfort, his mind strayed again to the waking dreams of his youth.  A warrior Tik’ha’she’tik to bring justice to the betrayers; to protect his people, even after they had wiped his name from history and smoothed the walls that held his stories.

He had heard the rumor now and again that their histories were incomplete.  For a species dedicated solely to recording the histories of the world, it seemed odd that no records existed from before the betrayal.  He had hunted for eyewitness accounts in his youthful passion for the subject, and had been told that the old libraries had all collapsed in with time.  Some he could understand, but all?  The more he remembered, the more he truly examined, the more he realized that Tiktik had been right to think he might be able to see with clear eyes.  A cloud had fallen over the ha’she’tik past and hung before their eyes for so many generations that none thought to question it.  Besides, exile may not be so bad if taken with friends…

The next morning, his scroll had a local tunnel inserted in Elga’s location notes.  Tiktik had not reported to duty, and Hatuk had decided not to report his friend.  It would be some time before anyone came by or noticed.  Hatuk dropped the scroll into a torch basin and watched in light ablaze.  Then he took his first exiled steps toward the meeting point.  They felt different from all of the other steps he had taken.  Lighter.  Free.

Written by W. C. McClure. This short story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome at http://www.farsideofdreams.com. Also, please help support this indie author by buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!