"You know, when you said the sheep were 'right over there,' I really thought you meant a little closer 'over there.'"
"Quit complaining and help me get to the top of this hill."
Thanas uttered a good-natured sigh and reached down to clasp the younger boy's forearm. Pebbles slid under Mateo's feet as he clambered upward, grabbing a tenacious bush digging roots in the rock. He made it at last and stood with the shepherd youth at the crest of the ridge.
"Did we have to skip midday meal?" Thanas asked.
"You know your mother would have delayed us past all bearing, if she didn't refuse to let us leave at all. It was easier to just leave when they were all busy inside. I thought I told you to stop complaining."
Thanas shook his head. "Seeker Wari hasn't yet taught you gentleness of speech, has he?"
"He said there's a thing called 'people skills' that I lack entirely. At this point I'm more interested in learning to ride a horse."
The sky had grown overcast and gray, but Mateo was squinting, looking all around to be sure of his heading. Arrows of light probed sporadically through the clouds, and he blinked as he caught the glint of light on water.
Mateo tugged Thanas's sleeve and pointed. "What's that? I thought the spring in Ikmos was the only natural source of water about."
The young man looked over and nodded. "Aye, it is. That is a reservoir our neighbor Nirok built to hold rainwater and melted snow that flows from the heights into the lower valleys. It used to cause flashfloods occasionally, but now he has rich bottom valley land for planting hay, and a good irrigation system. Charges a Prince's ransom for hay in the winter, he does."
Mateo shrugged, uninterested in local gossip. His eyes still roved over the hills, seeking the lost sheep. He still didn't understand how he had managed to perceive their distant presence in the first place.
"This way," he said, pulling his friend's arm. "It looks like there are some trees over there."
"A couple of valleys over? Aye, that's common land, where anyone can hunt and gather fuel, though we're barred from pasturing flocks there lest it all be destroyed. Quite a good-sized wood, it is, but not large enough to support all the sheep hereabouts."
The two moved cautiously down the treacherous hillside, Thanas doing his best to support Mateo, whose bad leg was beginning to hurt again. By the time they reached the bottom, Mateo's hands were scratched and gouged, bleeding from digging into handholds that tended to crumble away with any weight. Thanas noticed.
"We should have gotten some rags to wrap your hands, like mine. Climbing can be hard on unprotected hands. And Papa and I usually choose more gentle slopes, too."
Mateo shook his head impatiently. "Never mind my hands. Come, we can follow this valley down for a ways, and cross that low spur there to reach the wood."
Scrub grass grew in the narrow valley, and a few twisted bushes. Mateo paused to kneel by a patch of mud--a clear hoof print was impressed in it. He looked around and saw another sign.
"Sheep droppings," Thanas said when Mateo drew his attention to it. "But none of the grass is cropped. The raiders must have hurried the sheep through here on their way to the wood."
Mateo nodded, then rose, dusted off his knees, and kept walking.
After the hills they had already crossed, the spur was nothing. And then they were among the trees, low-slung branches slapping their faces. Mateo's woodcraft returned to him quickly, and Thanas was astonished by how deftly he ducked the branches, and how little noise he made.
He said something about it, and Mateo shrugged. "It would be better if we had soft leather slippers, but see, step here, and here. Don't step there--that twig will crack, I can tell by looking. Keep your cloak close to your body and don't swing your arms so much. Come, the sheep aren't far now."
Thanas tried to follow his friend's instructions, but couldn't quite get it. The wood was dark, and his eyes simply weren't as sharp as Mateo's. But it was also cold, and he kept his cloak close without a second warning, shivering a little.
"Mateo," he began tentatively, "shouldn't we have told someone where we're going? They're probably worried about us by now."
Mateo paused and turned back to look at him, his face startled. "I never thought of that."
"You didn't? Don't you think the Seeker would like to know where his apprentice is at all times?"
Mateo sighed and continued walking deeper into the forest. "I suppose. I never thought about it. I'm not used to this."
Thanas laughed incredulously and followed him. "You're not used to people, you're not used to having a guardian, you're not used to riding a horse . . . What are you used to, friend?"
The other boy was silent for a moment, picking his way over the damp undergrowth. When he spoke, his voice was empty of emotion.
"I'm used to the forest. I'm used to being alone, fending for myself, fighting the Katamobic beasts of the Mingled Forest and hunting the gentler ones. I'm used to enduring everything that happens to me, with no help, no protection, and no friends, no one and nothing I could rely on."
Thanas didn't reply, trying to understand just what the smaller youth was telling him. There was something under the neutrality of Mateo's voice, something that made his friend's heart ache in sympathy. For once, he didn't know what to say.
They moved on in silence for a time, Mateo leading, his focus on the wood ahead. At last he halted and gestured for Thanas to come up next to him.
"There's a sheep caught in those thorn bushes," he explained, pointing. "I'm going to try to get her out. She knows you--start talking, try to calm her with your voice."
Thanas was good at talking, and he was used to this role, when he and his father would hunt strays. He pushed against the thorn bushes and began chattering in a soothing tone, trying to see the sheep so he could call it by name. Mateo slid free the skinning knife he kept on his belt at the small of his back and began cutting through the clinging thorns.
The ewe balked from the strange boy at first, bleating frantically, but she was caught fast by the thorns in her wool. Thanas spoke a little louder, calling her name now that he saw her, and at a single touch from Mateo's hand, she quieted. The boy sliced her free, sustaining more thorn cuts to his already bloody hands, and lifted her out to Thanas.
"I've got you," Thanas said gently, staggering a little under her weight. He set the sheep down, keeping a hand on her neck. "Wind and rain, Mateo, you're as strong as Papa. I can carry the lambs, but only he can lift the granddams so easily."
Mateo fought free of the bushes. "I won't be able to do that too many more times. I hope no more are so caught." His limbs were trembling.
Thanas took a cord from his belt and tied it around the granddam's neck. "The other sheep will follow her, once we find them."
"Most of them are in a clearing not far ahead." Mateo swiped a hand over his sweaty forehead and motioned for Thanas to follow.
At the third holding Seeker Wari and Teacher Arandfel visited together, they met the constable Tyat Morelo, busily chopping wood outside the cottage. She greeted them heartily, grinning as she rested the ax head on her booted toe. The shepherd family poured from the cottage and outbuildings to meet them, father, mother, and more children than Wari had ever seen belonging to single family.
After the general bustle of greetings and introductions were over, Arandfel, the mother, and all sixteen children went inside for a chat. Wari and the master of the house, Nirok, lingered outside. Tyat and Nirok listened attentively as the Seeker explained the reason for his visit.
"I appreciate your concern, Seeker," Nirok said when he finished, "but my holding is quite well protected. Tyat has been keeping watch over us and the holdings in the immediate vicinity, and the collectors leave us alone."
"So far," Tyat said grimly.
Wari raised an eyebrow. "You fear it will not remain so?"
"I've been able to bluff the cowards off in the past, and a couple of duels with their leader, Gordath, have instilled the fear of Jah in them, but they've been growing bolder of late. If they cannot get what they want by intimidation, I fear they will try something in the night."
"As they did at Ranof's holding last night." Nirok's face grew dark. "That was an evil turn."
"There are more of them now, also," Tyat added. "Servant Hyran has been hiring from the dregs, but now he is searching for talent. Soon they will have men who can actually fight."
"Then we must take matters into our own hands," Wari concluded, frowning. "But I daren't leave . . ."
Tyat nodded. "Nor I. They would take advantage of my--our--absence to harm the people. That is why I didn't seek outside help before. I'm glad you have come, Seeker. We have grave need of you."
Constable Anor watched the two youngsters round up the sheep, congratulating himself on having hidden so well. They had no idea they were not alone in the wood.
The bigger one, almost a man, called each sheep by name as he counted them, his voice calm and reassuring. That was Ranof Hilltrodder's oldest brat, Thorak or whatever his name was. The other boy, the smaller one who seemed to be limping, was a stranger. Anor had never seen him before. Perhaps the Seeker's apprentice? The raiding party had said the Seeker was staying with Ranof and his family.
"You're all safe now," the shepherd brat said to the flock, touching those closest to him. "We're going to be very well. Come, it's time to go home."
The little apprentice looked around uneasily. "Yes, aye, we'd better be going now. Are any missing, Thanas?"
The shepherd--Thanas--nodded, worry clear on his face even so far away from Anor. "More than a dozen of the best, in their prime. The collectors may have taken them for mutton. And one lamb is missing, Jeshera . . ."
"I'll keep my eyes open." He patted the other youth's shoulder. "Come now, I don't want to stay here any longer . . ."
"Is your Seeker's sense telling you something?"
The apprentice glanced around again, even more fearfully. "I can't make out anything specific. Animals I just know are there, while people I need to see. But there's so much darkness . . ."
"It's not that dark yet."
"But it's getting darker. Let's go."
Thanas looked at the crowd of sheep milling about the clearing. "We can't go back the way we came. Most of them can't make that steep hill."
"Just lead us home the shortest way possible. Now, Thanas."
"Nay, wait. Our sheepfold is damaged, it won't hold them . . ."
Anor grinned. The little Seeker was getting worried.
"Aye, very well! Calm yourself, Mateo. Come, Nirok may be able to keep them for a night."
"As you wish, but let's go now, if it so please you."
"No need for sarcasm." Thanas clicked his tongue at the enormous ewe he held by a string around her neck. "Come, granddam, friend Mateo fears the dark . . ."
The ewe obeyed his gentle tug, and the other sheep followed like the blind, stupid beasts they were. The little apprentice hung back to make sure they all went, though he took time to scold his companion's levity. The shepherd laughed and said something Anor didn't hear, as he was already hurrying away as quietly as he could, the mumble of distant thunder aiding his escape.
Before Anor had come to relieve the last watcher, he had met Gordath to tell him of the Seeker's visit to their group training that morning. Gordath had expressed his desire to return the Seeker's warning, in a more lethal manner. It appeared that an opportunity had presented itself.
"We're in for a storm."
Wari glanced up at the elf-Teacher. Arandfel had paused on the path to stare at the sky, his old frame leaning on his staff like an aged tree propped with sticks to weather a gale. The Seeker's attention had been elsewhere, but now he spared a glance for the dark gray above.
"Yes, I believe we are. Perhaps we had better head back to Nirok's for shelter, rather than continuing to the next holding."
"Perhaps." The elf looked at Wari, his blue gaze as piercing as an arrow, and twice as sharp. "Your attention is not on the here and now, my friend."
The Seeker was startled. "No, it was not. But you have brought it back. Is there something you wished to discuss?"
"The Golden Eagle has been whispering. I feared perhaps you did not hear."
Wari stilled himself. Arandfel's gaze was sharp, but its wound was kindly. It was indeed time to listen.
Yet he could not concentrate.
"I see you are still agitated by other concerns, Seeker. That is a rather remarkable apprentice you have."
It seemed a change of subject, but Wari knew it was not. He nodded slowly. "None knows it better than I."
"I heard about your last apprentice, those years ago. I admire your strength of heart. Mateo has troubles of his own, I'm sure you know."
"He Sees far beyond the ken of normal sight. Yet he is afraid to trust that Sight, at least where men are concerned."
"I cannot blame him. But I wish to help him relearn that trust."
"A commendable desire. Do you hear the Golden Eagle now?"
Wari paused, his head tilted as he listened. Yes, the King was whispering. Mateo . . . The Seeker was focused now; he understood.
"Mateo is in danger, or soon will be." Wari touched Kóa, closing his eyes. "Yes, and he is no longer at Ranof's holding. Teacher Arandfel, how quickly can you walk back whence we just came?"
"As quickly as you, young Seeker. My old bones hold the energy to hurry yet."
"Is it my imagination, or is it getting darker out here?"
"It's not your imagination."
Thunder underscored Mateo's words. Dark clouds boiled in the sky, rolling up and over each other, pouring mutters and growls over the small plateau they traversed. They hurried the sheep along, impatient with the strays Mateo was constantly running back to shoo into line while Thanas led the granddam at the front.
Mateo was exhausted. They had stopped to rescue three more strays in the forest, one caught in thorn bushes like the first ewe, one fallen down a small gully with a boulder-trapped leg, and one cornered against the hillside by a hungry fox busy trying to figure out how to kill such a large prey. It was Mateo who cut the thorns, shouldered over the boulder, and chased away the fox, following almost all the way to its den. He no longer tried to hide his limp, yearning only to get back to the cottage so he could sleep for a long, long time.
"There's Nirok's reservoir," Thanas said, pointing to their left. "This plateau eventually slopes down to the valley floor where he plants his hay."
Mateo saw that wind was whipping up gray waves on the water. The same wind sliced at his exposed flesh, and his hands were numb. He clucked at a sheep wandering too near the edge and trotted over to chase it back. Hope added strength to his wavering legs--they were almost there.
Past the dam the plateau dropped almost sheer to the valley, creating a dizzying drop too near for comfort. Thanas and Mateo tried to herd the sheep away from the edge, but the footing grew treacherous here, and the clearest path was only a few paces from the brink. Grape-sized drops began to splash down, at first slowly, but soon faster and faster.
The sheep shivered and huddled together, almost pushing each other off the path as they bawled in misery. Thanas talked non-stop, raising his voice to be heard above the storm, while Mateo shoved back those that got too near the cliff. The plateau was beginning to descend ahead and left--they were almost there.
Even above the clamor of wind and sheep and thunder, Thanas caught the high, thin call coming from elsewhere. He turned back, his face bright through the cold rain. "Mateo! Do you hear that baa? It sounds like Jeshera, the lost lamb!"
Mateo fought to thrust another unyielding wooly body back onto the clear path, his boots slipping on gravel much too near the drop. "What?" he yelled. "I can't hear you! Keep moving, Thanas, the sheep are bunching up for warmth--"
"Jeshera!" Thanas shouted, his voice happy despite the driving rain that straightened his hair and held it tightly to forehead and face. "I hear him! He's nearby!"
"Thanas, keep moving, I can't push them back--"
Mateo's cry ended in a scream as he slid over the edge, pushed by the sheep and his own effort to shove them away from the drop he stood against.
Thanas dropped the lead and hurried back as fast as he dared. The ewe, released, kept moving down the slope. The others followed her, giving the young man more room to maneuver. He threw himself down where Mateo had disappeared.
"I'm here." The boy's voice was faint and strained. Thanas stared down in panic, trying to see through the gray veils of water.
"Where, Mateo? Oh, there you are."
Mateo stood on a rocky ledge fifteen paces down the steep hillside, clinging to the cliff, his face grayish-white through the rain. Thunder drowned his first statement, but Thanas heard the second. "--Jeshera's right here with me."
Mateo gestured down to where the lamb pressed itself against his legs, shuddering and crying piteously. "He must have slipped the way I did--Thanas, come around, the valley floor is closer than where you are now, I'll pass him down to you--"
"I'm coming, Mateo. Hold on!"
"Naturally . . ."
At Nirok's holding, father and some of the oldest children were outside the cottage, having just seen that everything was prepared for the storm now howling in all its naked fury. They heard the Seeker's news grimly.
"Nori!" Nirok shouted to one of the youngsters. "You're the fastest runner! Hurry to Ranof's holding and warn them of what is happening!" The youth was off before his father finished, feet splashing in the quick-forming puddles and rivulets. Nirok looked at the Seeker. "Tyat left to check on the dam. If Thanas and your lad are where you think they are, she will stop and help."
"That eases my heart greatly," Wari replied. "But I would also be there myself."
"This way. Ryl, Lenna, come with us."
The two oldest, twin girls, nodded. They stopped at an outbuilding to gather rope, which they slung over their shoulders, and all five set off at a brisk pace.
At the hay field, in the widest, flattest valley Wari had seen yet, Nirok viewed a ditch with displeasure. Water was beginning to flow down in slow spurts. "It's running over the dam," he muttered.
This was the second mention of a dam. The Seeker asked him to explain.
The farmer did. "If the lads are stranded in that valley, I would rather it were at any other time," he finished. "The ravine is very narrow, and any water running down it will flow swift and hard."
Wari's heart jerked urgently. A further warning? "Hurry."
The going was frustratingly slow. Nirok led the way as quickly as he could, but they had to be careful of their footing. Rain continued to sheet down in torrents, creating running streams where none had been before, streams that shifted their positions as swiftly and whimsically as a gentle breeze on a sunny day. Thunder murmured and boomed in the wake of lightning flashes that split the gray sky with burning white.
They rounded the fields, stepping over irrigation ditches already half full with runoff from the reservoir. They were designed to do so, but rarely did even in storms, as Nirok shouted to Wari and Arandfel. This tempest was among the worst they had seen for years. Arandfel protested that he had seen many worse, but it was small comfort to the worried Seeker.
They met Ranof's sheep, running for higher ground, their bleats almost inaudible over the storm. Nirok urged them on--the sheep would find safety by instinct. Where were Thanas and Mateo?
The narrow ravine, blocked at one end by the dam, had become the course of a shallow but very swift river. Thanas was standing unhappily at the point where the hilly plateau slipped all the way to the valley floor and the river emptied from the ravine, widening and flattening. The young man was clutching a shivering lamb to his chest, and his face lightened with relief when he saw them.
"I was going to go back and help Mateo down!" he shouted. "But all of a sudden this river was in the way!"
"Where is Mateo!" the Seeker cried.
Thanas nodded at the river. "Up there, caught on a ledge! He's above the water at the moment!"
Wari looked up the ravine, toward the dam cascading with gray water. Twenty impossible paces up the river, Mateo crouched on a ledge barely wide enough to hold him. His face was white--he seemed frozen to the rock.
"Hold on!" the Seeker bellowed. The boy nodded, dizzily. Rock crumbled under his foot and fell bare inches to the rushing water, and he shifted his hand to a tighter hold.
"Couldn't he just jump?" Thanas asked. "We could catch him as he comes out here."
"Nay, he'd be dashed on the rocks!" Nirok shook his head, pointing at the opposite cliff. "See how the water bubbles there? The current is too strong!"
Running footsteps drew their attention away from Mateo and his plight. It was Tyat, rushing down the slope to meet them.
"The dam has been sabotaged!" she shouted. "I chased them away before they finished, but two of the principal beams are cut half through! We must get out of here, it will give way any moment!"
They stood still. She stopped and stared at them incredulously. "Did you not hear me? The dam is giving way! We must go!"
Arandfel motioned up the ravine. "When it goes, the lad will surely be slain."
Tyat followed his arm and gasped. "Stone beneath us! I passed by without even seeing him!"
"Hurry," Nirok said. "If we get above him, we can pull him up on the rope."
"No, he is in no condition to climb," Wari answered, looking at the boy. "His hands are too cold to grip a rope. Already they tremble on the rock."
Thanas sounded anguished. "What will we do? We can't let him die!"
"There is only one way." Seeker Wari seized the rope Ryl had laid on the ground and fastened one end about his waist, giving the other to Tyat.
She saw his intent. Without a word she snatched the other rope from Lenna's shoulder and tied the two together. Now everyone understood. All took hold of the rope, Thanas first setting the lamb on higher ground.
Wari pushed his way into the river, forcing a path up the ravine, clinging to every handhold he could find in the cliff and finding new when the old crumbled under his fingers. The water was cold, the current strong. It took every ounce of strength he possessed to simply stand still, much less push forward.
But he did, his progress agonizingly slow, until he felt the tug that signified he had reached the end of the rope. Mateo was still too far away to reach. A roaring creak filled the air--the dam would not hold much longer. Lightning back-dropped the rocky hill, throwing all into stark relief for a split second, and thunder immediately filled the void like the cries of a hunting beast.
"Mateo!" Wari cried, holding out his arms. "You must jump!"
"Mateo! You must jump!"
Mateo felt that the world had gone insane around him, filled with angry growls and flashes of light, battering at him with wind and water. And now the voice of a madman told him to jump into the insanity and let it consume him. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head.
"Mateo, I will catch you! I will not let you drown!"
His hands, slick with rain and blood, almost without feeling, were slipping on the wet rock. Mateo dug his numb fingers in deeper and shook his head again, afraid to open his mouth lest he begin sobbing. Warm tears and cold rain mingled on his face, but cold won. Cold always seemed to win . . .
"Mateo, look at me! Look at my eyes!"
Mateo had never been good at disobeying. With an effort, he forced his eyelids up and stared blearily down at the madman in the water. Rain beat on the man, pasting down his hair, obscuring his features. Mateo's own hair was in his vision, too wet to hold its curl anymore.
"Look in my eyes, Mateo!"
Mateo blinked and shook the wet hair out of his eyes, staring at the man, at his eyes, gray as the storm around them. There was no anger in those eyes, no fury, no wish to inflict pain, no madness or Katamobe-possession. Why had he thought there would be?
"I will not let you drown, Mateo!"
His mind whirled in confusion and exhaustion. This man was not his father. This man was not his enemy. This man was his, his . . .guardian. Rescuer. Friend. This, this was . . .Seeker Wari. Wari.
"Mateo, you must jump! I will catch you!"
Mateo blinked. The storm roared around him, whirled about his body, scratched wet fingers at his skull. Wari burned with gold fire, rivaling the storm for intensity and power. There was no darkness in him.
"Mateo, you must trust me! The dam is giving way!"
No darkness but . . .capability. Darkness could come, if Wari let it. Just as Mateo's father had let it. He too had once glowed with gold, long, long ago. But he let the darkness take him, and the betrayal had hurt Mateo more than any blow from fist or belt ever had.
"You must trust me, young one!"
Trust . . . Did he dare? It was risky business, trust. People could betray it; they could hurt you past all endurance.
"I will not let you drown!"
But Wari . . . Wari would not. Would he? Muted thunder--strange, it sounded almost like a beam of wood beginning to give under enormous pressure . . .
"Mateo, you must jump now!"
Wari wouldn't give in. He would stand firm in the stormiest of gales, even those a hundred times worse than this vortex threatening to suck Mateo in. If only he had some guarantee of that, something certain and solid . . .
"Now, Mateo! You must jump now!"
No guarantee. Nothing more solid than the faith he put in the Maker. Thin as a spider web. Yet, stronger than tibian . . .
Stronger than tibian . . .
Mateo loosed his hold on the rocks and jumped, pushing off with all the strength he had left. The water closed over his head, muffling the horrible crack that tore the air like thunder, yet wasn't thunder. Mateo was drowning in the churning water, the current was going to crush him on the rocks . . .
Wari's arms were around him, stronger than tibian. Wari shouted for somebody to pull, to not let the line go slack. Mateo clung to the Seeker with numb hands, gasping for air as Wari held his head up.
More water pounded them, stronger than anything so far, rushing fast and powerful, almost irresistible. Yet the Seeker resisted it. There were rocks in it, too, boulders, beams of wood . . . Wari shielded Mateo, pressed against the cliff, until the rush slackened and ebbed off, seeming years after it began.
"You're safe now, young one, all is well, I've got you, you're safe . . ."
It occurred to Mateo, fleetingly, that these were the same words Thanas had used to calm the sheep, but then darkness descended and covered him.
--end tale the third
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