The dust cloud staining the sky beyond the watercourse was too thick yet moving too slow to be stirred up by wild beasts. It could only mark the travels of another band. He'd known they'd meet their brothers and sisters in this part of the land, but he couldn't have known until now it would be tonight.
He must speak to his people of the way things were in the world, and between men. They had heard it all before, of course, but the elder who taught him the tradition insisted it was an important one. And his people seemed to find it comforting to hear the familiar tales retold.
The sun was the width of three fingers above the far edge of the great plain when they reached the banks of the narrow river. The other band was making for the further bank a few miles downstream from the place the chief had selected. They would come together the next day, as was proper.
Men and women on horses swarmed, while those who rode donkeys still straggled in. Chariots were unhitched, and the sturdy wagons were unloaded. Herds of goats, fringed by dogs and scampering children, made for the water. Behind them, the slower but much more valuable beffalow milled, barely controlled by men waving whips and a pack of huge dogs.
The chief strode now here, now there, but his people were used to this routine, and they were good at it. He smiled with quiet pride at the speed with which the domes went up. None of them had to be framed in wood or bone; they had carefully fitted wrought iron frames enough to house the entire band. Once up, the outer hides were swiftly tied on.
Cook fires were lit, and even the stragglers were settling in by now. Hunters had felled enough large game to provide a feast tonight. As they cut up the carcasses, women took the meat and roasted it on spits, or cut it up and threw the chunks into steaming pots. Everyone's belly was taut, and everyone's chin was greasy, by the time the first stars peered down at them.
Men and women sprawled in the grass, too full to move. Some of the children slept beside their mothers, while others chased each other in little circles, giggling. When the chief rose to his feet and stood beside the fire, they all quieted and turned their heads towards him. Mothers nudged their children, those old enough to understand anyway, awake.
"My people, tonight I must speak of how the world was many years in the past. I must tell you of mistakes the elders of that world made, and the lessons our own elders learned from those mistakes. We know only wandering, danger is always a heartbeat away, and we own only what we can carry."
"It was not always this way. Men lived in one place, they were comfortable and safe, and they had many things, more than they knew what to do with. They knew far more, as well. There are fewer of us, and all we know fits in our heads, or on these pitiful few pages of lessons the first of our elders set down for us."
He turned to the bundle beside him and carefully unwrapped the oiled leather. He lifted out, one by one, a few massive books with hand lettered pages, and held them up, spreading the pages so all could see dark lettering standing out against the pale parchment.
There was a hushed murmur, and some of those who sprawled in the grass got up to see the books better.
"Many of you cannot even read these. They awe you. Yet in those times, books were so plentiful they did not even know what to do with them all. They had whole domes, much larger than any of ours, to house them, and no one dome could hold copies of all the books they had then."
"People were as plentiful as ants, and every one could read these books. Still, men knew so much they could not keep it all in their heads and their books. They invented a special kind of net, nothing like the nets we catch fish with, but one that could confine knowledge."
"Men could read books that existed only in this net. I do not understand how that could be so, but all the first elders said it was true. They could even read pages from very, very far away. Beyond these plains are great mountains. Some of you have seen those. Beyond them, so I am told, are hills and more land, then water."
"The water beyond the mountains is not a river such as this, or a lake whose shores can be seen. It is a plain as vast as this one, but it is water that stretches further than anyone can see. Beyond that are other lands, where men lived in those days. If a man wished to do so, he could look into this net and read words written that same day by men living in those impossibly distant lands."
"Even that was not all they could do. Men could toss words back and forth in this net, every bit as easily as we talk to one another. But for all its wealth, for all its wonders, for all the chances men had to listen to and understand one another, somehow these men allowed a monster to grow up among them."
He paused, giving the children time to shiver as they looked out into the darkness and thought of monsters.
"The name of this monster was Rahowa, and it spat poison from its mouth. Wherever it spat, hatred sprang up among men. Some of you think you know what I mean when I speak of hatred. After all, we have hatreds among us. One man will steal from another, and there will be hard words between them. One family will refuse to speak to another over a foolish insult."
"Sometimes, even, one man will slay another over some terrible wrong, or because he has lost his mind. All of these are because of some thing one person did that another person, rightly or wrongly, believed to be unjust. That is bad enough! That is more than we can tolerate! It tears apart our people, and it wounds all of us!"
"But the hatred this monster spat out was much worse. It had nothing to do with what any one person had done. It had nothing to do with hating any one person at all. The monster Rahowa so poisoned the minds of men that they burned with hatred for other men simply because of the colour of their skin or hair, or the kind of clothes they wore."
"They turned against anyone who was different." He paused and looked around him. "They might have stoned our Lucire, simply because of her hair." She shook the cascades of brilliant copper reaching almost to her waist self consciously. The men muttered to themselves. Although a few of them were jealous, the women muttered, too.
"They would have slain Touros, greatest of our hunters, for no better reason than his skin." The big man, darker than anyone around him, grinned good naturedly. The mutters grew louder. "Yes, they would have been so foolish! The first elders all agree they killed even people they needed."
"For all their knowledge, Rahowa was able to so twist the minds of men they became slavering idiots, no better than savage beasts tearing at each other with fangs and claws. They hated men they had never seen before, that they knew nothing about!"
A few children giggled before their mothers shushed them.
"Yes, it was silly! As serious as my words are, as tragic as the consequences, such hatred was silly, and we are right to laugh at it. When the monster Rahowa had spat enough venom, spread enough hatred, men lost their minds and turned against one another. They killed each other and wrecked all that they had made."
"In the wreckage, many more men died because they did not know how to survive in such a ruined world. So much was lost. All those lives, all that knowledge, such great wealth, all gone, swallowed up by a monster named Rahowa."
"It is said that almost man did not survive at all. But a few did live, and the wisest among them resolved to learn from the folly of the elders who came before them. They commanded us to cherish those who are different, to mingle with the other tribes around us, to wed their daughters and permit their sons to wed our own daughters."
"It is the custom, whenever we meet another band, to mingle our camps for a time, to trade with them, and to take time to get to know them. They are our brothers and sisters! Our blood runs in the veins of their children! We must welcome them, and neither fear nor hate them."
"And so, tomorrow, I shall send out riders to carry my greetings to those who camp on the opposite bank of this river. No doubt they shall do the same. Perhaps some of you who have not yet taken a wife, or found a husband, will do so. We will strengthen our bonds with them, and they with us, and we shall live in peace."
He nodded, and stepped back from the fire. With drowsy nods, most of his folk staggered to their feet. A few had to be prodded awake. As soon as the fires had been safely banked, and the last of the animals tended, they sealed themselves in their domes and settled down to sleep. A single man rode about the camp, watchful for wolves, nothing more.
The old chief arranged his body in his pile of skins so that he could remain comfortable while staying warm. That was not as easy as it had been years before when he was young. His wife had died two winters before, but he had not taken another. He closed his eyes and wondered what it must have been like, to speak to men across vast plains of water, and to see or hear their thoughts in reply.
With such understanding of each other, how had they been so easily reduced to hatred? What was it like to fear every chance meeting, every accidental encounter? Just before he drifted off to sleep, he decided it was easier to make sense of the net that spread words around the world than it was to understand such hatred.