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Tales of the Seekers

Tales of the Seekers
Part 1: Ikmos
Tale the First: Storm over Water

Mateo could hardly believe how wonderful it felt to walk in the sunlight again.

True, he wasn't doing a lot of walking, per se, due to his gimpy leg. Seeker Wari insisted he ride the stallion Xakor while the Seeker himself walked. Mateo had never ridden before, but he didn't dare complain about the saddle sores. And after seven years of living entirely in the shade of the Mingled Forest, it was astonishing how good the sun felt on his pale skin.

"How are you faring, Mateo?" Wari asked. He was so tall he didn't have to look up far to meet his apprentice's eyes.

Mateo shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. "I'm well." He glanced ahead at the hilly path they were taking, heading into the morning sun from Culmari. "Do you know where we're going now? You said you would sense the Golden Eagle's guidance, once we were away."

"Well, at present, young one, I believe we are going east." Wari's smile at his small jest was warm through his dark beard. "We will stay on this way until you or I perceive more specific prompting."

Mateo blinked. "You or I? You expect me to feel it too?"

"You have the Second Sight as well, Mateo, and great gifts in it. I will teach you many things, including how to recognize the King's voice, but that is already within you."

Mateo squirmed again and chose to change the subject. "Will you teach me how to ride a horse? This feels very ill."

Wari grinned again. "Of course."

"What else will you teach me, Seeker? What does it mean to be a Seeker?"

The large man looked away thoughtfully. "That is a hard question. It means days and nights of living on the trail, wandering alone in search of darkness. It often means cold and damp, bad food, and hard beds. But it also means conquering evil and corruption, leading lost ones home, and saving those in need of rescue. I would not choose another life."

Those in need of rescue. Like Mateo had been when the Seeker first found him. The boy nodded slowly. "Will you teach me to use a sword?"

Wari chuckled. "Certainly, once we get you one. But a Seeker is more than a warrior, young one. When I am through, you will be a healer, teacher, minister, lawman, and diplomat as well. Already you know woodcraft and archery better than I can ever hope to."

Mateo blushed. He seemed to be doing that a lot lately.

They stopped for the night in a sheltered ravine. Once the horse had been cared for, a fire made, and evening meal eaten, Wari asked to be undisturbed for a little while. Then he unclasped the tibian chain from about his neck and folded the tiny marcellia jewel, Kóa, in both fists. He closed his eyes and immediately seemed to be half the world away from his surroundings.

Mateo gnawed his fingernails and waited. He did not understand the Second Sight, this gift he shared with Wari and the other Seekers. But he saw, dimly, the gold core glowing within those on the side of right. As he watched, the radiance in Wari seemed to sharpen and intensify, drawing tighter, then expanding to encompass the entire campsite.

The boy blinked. Wari had told him that few could See the way he could, sensing the presence of Light with outer as well as inner eyes. Sometimes he wished he could just turn it off and see normally, but lately it had only seemed to grow stronger. Perhaps it was the presence of the Seeker that was drawing out his own gift, or perhaps it was part of the physical maturity he was beginning to develop. Either way, it was disconcerting.

The gold collapsed back inside Wari and faded to the familiar slight nimbus Mateo had to strain to perceive. The Seeker opened his eyes. "The village of Ikmos," he said softly, as if waking from a dream.

Strange cold touched Mateo's heart, and he shivered. "The Place of Water? Why does this dread come to me?"

"Because you sense it as I do. Something is wrong there."

Wari swiftly gathered a few long stems of grass and laid out a crude map on the hard dirt in the light of the fire. Pointing, he explained, "Here is the border of the Keranúm, the Mingled Forest as you woodsmen call it. Here is Culmari on its edge, and this eastward path we are upon. This pebble marks our campsite tonight, a day's journey from Culmari. Three days further east, at a good walking pace, will bring us to Ikmos here, two days south of the Keranúm. You can see that our path tilts south to meet the village, and the Keranúm's border arches a little north. Have you seen this before?"

Mateo had bent down to study the map, his head close to the Seeker's. At the question he drew back a little, startled by how near he had drawn to the man. "Never so laid out on a map, but I know the place by name and reputation. It is a region of shepherds, isn't it? Surrounded by rocky hills. They call it the Place of Water because a good spring gushes in the center of the village, while those around must dig wells."

Wari nodded approvingly. "That is correct. But another factor has been added to this that you may not know of." He placed another pebble at the edge of the Mingled Forest, north and slightly east of Ikmos. "This is a garrison, manned by a coalition of Tappuans and Maychorians. It was first proposed when Tirzah, Prince of Maychoria, married Princess Elladia of Tappuah. Elladia's father, Prince Domyle, had grown quite senile in his old age, and Tappuah's defenses had atrophied. Tirzah sought to remedy that by sending some of his best men up here."

Mateo shook his head. "No, I knew none of that. Elladia and Tirzah were married the year I was born. As a child I never paid attention to politics, and after Father and I moved to the Mingled Forest, well . . ." He tried to smile, but it came out wrong.

Wari patted his shoulder, and Mateo forced himself not to flinch. "You probably wouldn't have known even if you lived in the center of Phelturn itself, young one. This garrison was set up only last month, in secret. Tappuans are still leery of Maychoria's assistance, even after these generations of peace. Even with our rulers joined in marriage, and the heir to the Tappuan crown growing up in Maychoria Castle."

Mateo nodded and sat back, out of easy reach. His heart twinged at his cowardice, but he couldn't help it. "I am Tappuan and you are Maychorian. But that means nothing."

Wari smiled. "You are an unusual lad, Mateo. Your countrymen are not so free of prejudice. But look well." He gestured at the map, now marked with terrain lines as well. "I don't wish to speak words of ill omen, but it would be good for you to know this."

Mateo obediently bent to memorizing the outlines of twigs, pebbles, and grass stems. Wari stretched and replaced Kóa, which he had dropped in the dirt in his haste to construct the map. After a moment something caught the Seeker's eye, and he rose to look about the small campsite.

"Mateo, where is Xakor?"

Immediately the boy was on his unsteady feet, looking around frantically. Xakor was nowhere in sight. He had apparently broken his tether and wandered off in search of better forage than the rich swath of grass they had made sure was in his reach.

"I wasn't watching," Mateo said miserably. "While you were peering into the Spirit Dimension, I was watching you instead." He looked at the Seeker, and there was no color in his face, dread in his eyes.

Seeker Wari stared at him for a moment, his mouth open. Then his face changed and he stepped toward the boy, his hand out, foot heedlessly ruining the map. Mateo stumbled back and would have fallen, but Wari caught his shoulders and held him up.

"Oh, Mateo, no! I'm not going to hurt you!"

Mateo discovered he was trembling violently. The Seeker made him sit back down on the ground and knelt beside him, his hands gentle on the boy's quivering shoulders. Mateo made himself look at the man's face again and saw that firelight or fear had deceived him--what he had taken for anger was compassionate understanding, tinged with horror that Mateo was afraid of him. The boy lowered his eyes, flushing.

"Mateo, years of mistreatment may have taught you that men are cruel, but trust me, young one, not all are so. Those weeks you were ill with fever from your injuries, then recovering, did I not show you that? Did I ever treat you with anything but kindness?"

"I never did anything worth punishing before," Mateo whispered.

"Neither have you now. There is no harm done, none at all." Seeker Wari raised his head and whistled two loud notes, one low, one high. A whinny responded from a small gully nearby, and within moments the stallion had trotted up, tossing his mane like a flirting maiden. "Xakor does this once in a while. He should know better. I always leave him in the best forage area around, and searching for others does no good."

In proof of this point, Xakor went back to his tether-post and starting cropping grass, trailing the broken rope.

"I could just leave him untied, but he might wander out of hearing. Once I wasted an entire day hunting him. It only happened once. I'll adhere to traditional methods of securing mounts, and save the signal for times of need."

Wari sighed deeply and turned back to Mateo. "I did not tell you to watch Xakor, Mateo; you can't disobey a command I didn't give. I see no value in punishing innocent mistakes, and I doubt you will ever misstep out of malice or laziness. Then you would not be who you are, and you would not be a Seeker's apprentice. We see, young one, we know. Seekers rarely make mistakes in choosing proteges."

Mateo kept his face down, ashamed. "I'm sorry," he half murmured, half choked.

"Don't be. You aren't at fault. Your distrust hurts me, but I understand its cause."

Distrust. Mateo was startled to realize it was true--he didn't trust this kind man, this mighty Seeker, his rescuer and guardian. He started to apologize again, but Wari cut him off, gently.

"Don't let it trouble you. Only understand this, know it in your mind and heart--I will never harm you. I will never beat you, I will never strike you. I can't promise to be always perfect and never hurt your feelings or fail you in some other way, but I will never treat you as your father did."

Mateo's trembling began to ease. Somewhere, mind, heart, or soul, somehow he did believe that now.

"I said I would teach you all the varied arts of the Seekers, young one. But now also I say this, as binding as any vow: I will teach you not to fear."

Mateo nodded. He hoped it could be done. The fear was like a black burden, coloring all he saw with malignant shades.

A hand, as gentle as it was calloused, touched Mateo's clenched fist.

"Get some sleep, young one. Ikmos will demand all the strength you can regain between here and there."


The going was harder in the hills. Wari could tell that Mateo longed to get off the horse and ease the cramps of riding, but there was no way he could scramble up and down the rocky path with his bad leg. It still needed several weeks, perhaps months, for full recovery.

The fourth morning dawned crowded with fog. The boy's face was drawn even after a full night's sleep, his forest-hazel eyes bleary with fatigue. Wari berated himself for pushing too hard--the lad was still convalescent. He needed rest.

But Mateo never complained, and Wari knew it was more from courage and perseverance than fear of how the Seeker would react. Perhaps the youngster was learning to trust again, or perhaps it was only his inherent nobility.

Soon after they stopped for midday meal, they came to where the road passed near a shepherd's holding. It was nestled in a slight dip between two hills where earth washed from the heights lay rich and fertile. The fog had burned away by midmorning, and the small farm seemed very cozy and homelike, shaded by a sprawling tree larger than any they had seen for days. Wari touched Mateo's knee, indicating he should halt Xakor, and stepped onto the path leading to the cottage door.

"Hello the house!" he called, respecting farmers' custom. "May we speak with you?"

Mateo dismounted awkwardly, wincing when he jarred the bad leg, and led Xakor over to stand next to the Seeker. The grass around the cottage was trampled, the shutters nailed shut. He shivered suddenly, and Wari gave him an understanding glance.

"Yea, I feel it too. There is terror in this home." After a few minutes passed with no response he called again. "Hello the house! We mean no harm, I assure you!"

Another beat of hesitation, and a woman's voice demanded, "What do you want?"

"Nothing, mistress, only a little of your time to ask what is happening hereabouts. May we approach?"

Another female voice murmured within the cottage, "Look, Mama, he has a boy with him. Why would the collectors bring a boy? Perhaps they are strangers here."

Again hesitation, then the first voice instructed, "Come no nearer than the well. You may water your steed."

They advanced cautiously. "Mama, the boy is limping," the second voice whispered, obviously not meant to be heard. Mateo's cheeks flamed, and Wari had to suppress a grin at the poor lad's embarrassment.

Mateo drew water from the well while Wari turned to face the woman who cautiously emerged from the cottage, standing defensively in the doorway. The Seeker could see two other pairs of eyes watching from the shadows. He bowed courteously, then unpinned the brooch from his collar and held it out for her to see.

"I am Seeker Wari, mistress. My apprentice is Mateo."

She studied the brooch and nodded reluctantly. "Aye, that is the device of the Seekers. But how do we know you do not lie? The collectors have tried many ploys to gain entrance to our home. We fear they will begin raiding by night, next."

"Mistress, what proof can I give you?" He indicated his spattered garments. "We have been on the trail for several days. You can tell by my face I am not known in these parts. My apprentice is very weary and as you saw, his injured leg troubles him." He sighed. "I will do as you ask and come no nearer to you and your children. Only, please, tell me what is happening. Why do you fear us? Who are these 'collectors?'"

"You bear a sword," she said distrustfully.

Promptly, Wari unclasped his weapon-belt and threw Riannan down on the grass between them. "I place it in your hands. Give it back when you feel we can be trusted."

A change swept over the woman's care-worn face. She looked at the sword, then back at the Seeker. Belief and disbelief warred in her eyes.

At last trust won, at least partly. She slowly advanced from the cottage, followed closely by two girls, one perhaps thirteen, the other no more than seven years old. The older girl stooped to pick up the great tibian sword, and the younger one pointed at the Seeker's neck.

"Mama, a gray stone."

"A marcellia jewel," corrected her sister, the owner of the second voice. "He is Seeker Wari."

"Or he killed the Seeker and stole it," the mother said, but her words carried no conviction.

"No one can kill Seekers," the little girl declared unequivocally.

Wari chuckled. "Not quite the truth. But an assassin would have a difficult time completing his mission."

The woman smiled, and some of the worry eased from her face. "I am Vemáley. My daughters are Joqirl and Neuma." She touched older and younger in turn. "My husband and son will return with the flocks this evening."

The Seeker smiled. "It is a pleasure to meet you and your lovely daughters."

Vemáley looked past his shoulder and blinked in surprise. "What happened to your apprentice?"

Wari turned around. Xakor was tethered to the well, but Mateo was nowhere in sight. Focused on his conversation with the wary woman, he had not noticed the boy wander off.

"I don't know," he said. "It's not like him to go off without telling me. And I know his leg was bothering him."

"We should find him," Vemáley urged, worry returning. "Many evil things can happen in these hills, especially lately."

Wari shook his head in confusion. "I can't see Mateo wandering away by himself, especially while I was talking to you. But where is he?"

The three Tappuans spread out through the farmyard, calling Mateo's name. Wari began reaching up to touch his marcellia jewel, his forehead creased in puzzlement.

"Seeker!" The call was urgent, but whispered. Wari turned around.

"Mateo? Where are you?"

"Up here. In the tree."

Wari took a step forward and gaped up at the boy, astonished. "What under the blue skies are you doing, young one?"

Mateo waved a finger at his lips, hissing for quiet. He was standing on the thick bottom branch, Wari's height and half again off the ground. His face was pale with exhaustion, his chest heaving.

More quietly the Seeker repeated, "Why did you climb up there? And, stars above, lad, how did you manage it with your hurt leg?"

Mateo was looking increasingly uncomfortable. "I don't know how I got up here. But I need help getting back down."

"I can see that." Wari noticed that the boy was holding all his weight on his left leg, one arm wrapped around the trunk to support himself. Storm-grey eyes narrowed accusingly. "You hurt your leg again. Young one, this is no way to recover you strength. I'll tell the others you're found." He turned away to call back the shepherd family.

"Seeker, no!" Mateo whispered, gesturing frantically. "Please don't!"

Wari turned back. "What? Why?"

The boy's blush was answer enough. Wari had to laugh.

"Poor lad! Very well, I'll tell them after you get down." He held out his arms. "Go ahead. Jump."

Mateo hesitated, flushing yet more deeply, then awkwardly got down into a sitting position on the branch and pushed off. Wari caught him easily. Vemáley turned around at the sound, just in time to see the Seeker set his apprentice on his feet and pass an arm around his shoulders to hold him up.

"Found!" she cried in relief. "Joqirl, Neuma, the boy is safe!"

The girls returned and joined their mother in clustering around the young stranger and his guardian. "You were up in the tree? Why? How'd you get up there? I'm seven, how old are you?" asked Neuma.

"Hush, Neuma, that's rude," Joqirl reproved, though her face asked the same questions, and many more.

"What were you doing up in the tree, child?" Vemáley asked.

Surrounded by females and entirely unprepared for interrogation, Mateo could only blush furiously. Seeker Wari sympathized with his embarrassment and frustration, but he was as inquisitive as the women.

"Truly, young one, I couldn't have been more surprised to find you standing on your hands and juggling with your feet. What on Madra possessed you to pull such a prank?"

The kit chose that moment to thrust its head out of Mateo's unlaced tunic collar and meow plaintively. "Rascal!" Neuma cried, clapping her hands. "I've been looking all day! Where was she?"

Mateo's face returned to a more normal color as he gently removed the kit from his tunic and passed it to the little girl. "She was in the top branches," he explained, tilting his head to the tree, "caught in a bird snare. What was a snare doing up there?"

"Oh, Thanas," Vemáley said in exasperation. "My son," she added. "He climbs like a brushtail. He tries to catch the migratory birds that rest there sometimes. But it's long past season--he should have taken it down weeks ago."

Mateo untied the snare from his belt and handed it to her. "He won't have to now. I'm sorry for causing you anxiety--I didn't think before acting. The kit was very upset. I don't remember how I got up there, but I hurt my leg again on the way down." He looked at the Seeker apologetically. "I slipped--probably pulled some muscles."

"Oh, thank you, Mateo!" Neuma cried. "I'll get Rascal some food!"

She rushed away as the boy blushed again. Then he caught Joqirl's eye looking him over assessingly, and turned to the Seeker with a face pleading for rescue.

Wari took pity on him. "Come, young one," he said hastily. "We'd better have a look at that leg."

"Oh, bring him into the cottage," Vemáley cried, seeing them prepared to just sit down under the tree. "I'm sure the poor lad will be much more comfortable there. Wind and rain, child, you look peaked. Haven't you been getting enough sleep lately?"

"Don't carry me," Mateo muttered desperately to the Seeker as mother and daughter urged them inside. "Just let me lean on you, please?"

Just outside the door Vemáley paused to retrieve the sword from where Joqirl had leaned it against the wall. With an embarrassed smile, she gave it back to the Seeker.

"Thank you," she whispered.


"They call themselves 'collectors.' They are no better than thieves."

Mateo sat in a chair by the fireplace, his foot propped up on a stool. He had dozed throughout the afternoon, waking intermittently, each time finding the Seeker helping their hostess with household tasks and talking amiably of vegetables, sheep, and the weather. Mateo couldn't imagine himself ever feeling so confident and easy with other people, especially females, nor had he ever imagined his guardian wielding a broom so competently.

Now the boy blinked sleepily at the fire and tried to figure out who owned the voice that had wakened him. Rascal the kit had curled up in his lap at some point and was now purring rhythmically in her sleep. Mateo stroked the silky fur and yawned.

"Mistress Vemáley has told me of their depredations on the people of this region. It is why the King has led me here. But how did this come to be? Village constables are supposed to take care of thieves." That was Wari's voice, deep and rich as the tolling of rest-day bells in big cities like Tappuah's capital, Phelturn.

"That's the trouble, Seeker. They are the constables." This was the other voice, deeper even than Wari's, with the gravelly overtones of a man who had spent his life battling to eke an existence from the land.

Mateo realized why it had roused him. The voice was very much like his father's.

"How did these evil men obtain such an honorable office?" the Seeker asked. "The Servant is bound by law to name only good people to positions of authority."

"Our Servant, also, is evil. He belies his title, and takes what he wants. Sixteen years he has ruled us, each more harshly than the last."

No, it wasn't so much like Mateo's father, after all. This was a just and King-serving man, the boy could perceive even from his voice. A good husband and a loving father.

If only Mateo dared to trust his instincts . . .

"And how did this wicked man obtain his title? He certainly didn't earn it by his merits."

An ironic chuckle. "Nay. Certain enemies took advantage of Prince Domyle's feebleness of mind in the last few years of his reign. Princess Elladia and her husband have tried to mend some of the troubles caused by them, I know. But Ikmos is too far into the wilderness to draw attention or concern from the bureaucrats in Phelturn and Maychoria Castle."

"Has no one journeyed to Phelturn to complain?"

"One man tried, last autumn. An assassin slew him only two days out from Ikmos. I cannot risk it, though my son Thanas burns to go. The womenfolk need us both, and I couldn't bear to lose my boy. He's only seen nineteen summers."

"You're awake!"

Mateo started violently at the loud voice, his heart leaping into his throat. It was the child Neuma, dark eyes sparkling at him over the arm of his chair. Rascal opened one eye and uttered an inquiring brrrt.

Mateo laid his head back against the quilt someone had wrapped around him hours ago and gasped for air. "Don't . . .ever . . .do that . . .again," he begged breathlessly.

"You sure sleep a lot," Neuma informed him solemnly. "You fell asleep even before the Seeker finished tending your leg. Mama kept shushing us and saying we shouldn't disturb you. I was making too much noise and Mama finally sent me out to play, with Joqirl along to keep an eye out. Joqirl was grumpy, but we got to meet Papa and Thanas on the path coming home. Rascal jumped on your lap all by herself, but I would have put her there if I had thought of it. She likes you, you know. Are you feeling better now? Does your leg hurt? Where did you get that scar on the side of your face? It looks new."

Mateo self-consciously raised a hand to cover the scar. He was completely undone by the girl's chatter and too confused to answer a single question.

"Let the poor lad be, Neuma. You'll tire him out again with all your questions." That was the gravelly-voiced man, sitting at the table with Wari. Seeker and shepherd were both looking over at the boy, kindness in their faces.

"Aye, Papa," Neuma said meekly, and trotted over to claim his lap.

The man smiled at his young guest. "You are welcome in our home, Mateo. I am Ranof Hilltrodder."

"I'm in your chair," the boy said sheepishly, seeing that this was the largest in the room. "Forgive me."

"No trouble. You obviously had more need of it. It did the heart good to see you slumbering so peacefully amid all the bustle of Vemáley's cooking."

The almost-grown son, Thanas, burst in the door with such enthusiasm that Mateo's heart found his throat again, almost choking him. Twice disturbed, Rascal rose and thudded softly to the floor, then stalked away in feline umbrage, tail high and twitching. Thanas caught the movement and turned to the boy by the fireplace.

"Good, you're awake! Papa, the sheep are cared for. Now, friend . . ." He drew a stool up by the fire, looking earnestly into Mateo's face. "The Seeker said you are from the Mingled Forest. Tell me, what kinds of birds and animals live there? What are their habits? Have you taken time to study them? What priceless opportunities for research you have had!"

Mateo relaxed. This youth was not interested in tales of hunting skill and battles against evil creatures, as the people of Culmari had been. He was young and quick-tempered, but he cared for living creatures as Mateo did, for their own sake, and the sake of knowledge. This the younger boy perceived in every aspect of Thanas's voice and manner.

The evening passed much more easily than he had expected it to.


It was that time people called the dead of night. The waxing quarter moon had set, and darkness lay still and deep over the Tappuan hills. The only creatures that stirred were predators . . .

Mateo sat up in bed before he fully realized he was awake. Thanas had insisted he take his place while the young man slept on the floor. They had stayed up as late as Mateo's weariness allowed, talking about the birds and beasts they knew.

Now Mateo rubbed his face with hands that trembled. He pushed himself out of the cot and pulled on his tunic, then hobbled over to the lean-to's window, catching himself against the wall to keep from falling. He forced open the shutter, not caring that he was popping out nails, and peered out at the night.

Nothing seemed amiss. Mateo could see most of the outbuildings, and they looked quiet. No sound disturbed the silence, no nightbird called.

No nightbird called . . . That itself was cause for alarm. Mateo strained all the senses he had, and . . .

"Danger!" he yelled, his voice much higher than he meant it to be. "Awake, awake!"

Thanas woke with a snort. "Wha' say?" he asked inarticulately.

"Up, up!" Mateo crawled over the cot to the door and stumbled into the main cottage, calling the alert. "They're taking the sheep!"

Seeker Wari was already up and dressed, though his clothes were rumpled and askew. "I felt it, too," he explained shortly as he passed the boy on his way to the cottage door. "Stay inside, young one."

Mateo limped after him, disregarding the pain in his leg. He smelled smoke. "Seeker, what are you going to--"

"Stay inside, Mateo!" Wari was outside and gone.

Mateo caught the edge of the table and kept himself upright. Thanas had roused his father--the two shepherds hurried past him, pulling on trousers and tunics. The womenfolk tumbled into the main room, their faces white.

Vemáley grabbed Mateo's shoulder. "What's happening?"

"The collectors," he answered, his heart heavy. He saw the orange glow of fire through the open door. "As you feared, they've come to destroy everything."

--end tale the first

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