Welcome to the first chapter of the first draft of Ishta's Companion, an Ethshar novel. See the Technicalities page for an explanation of how this worked, and the official blog for discussion and questions.
Garander Grondar's son looked out the loft door at the forest beyond the north field. The first traces of autumn color were starting to appear, and what had been a solid wall of green was now speckled with gold. Soon enough the leaves would fall, and the snows would come, and he and his parents and his sisters would spend most of their time huddled around the hearth.
Garander suspected that far too much of that time he would be listening to his parents argue about where the border should be drawn, and who the village would owe allegiance to. He was not looking forward to that.
At least the harvest had been good, and they had gotten it all in; they would have more than enough bread to last the winter. He had learned the winter before last that listening to the adults argue politics was even less fun on an empty stomach.
He braced himself with one hand on the door frame and leaned out, looking up at the northern sky. It was clear and intensely blue. He lowered his gaze again, down across the sky, across the changing leaves, to the shadows beneath the trees -- and there he caught a flash of color that was not turning leaves. That distinctive splash of red and white was his little sister's tunic, he was sure.
"Ishta, you little idiot," Garander muttered to himself. He turned away and half-climbed, half-slid down the ladder to the dirt floor, then trotted out the door and around to the east side of the barn, where he stopped and looked north..
He spotted her immediately. There was his youngest sister, Ishta Dark Eyes, just emerging from the line of trees that marked the farm's northern limit.
"Hai!" he called. "Ishta!"
She started at the sound of his voice, then froze. He started toward her.
She spotted him, and relaxed slightly when she saw it was her brother, and not her father, who had seen her. "Hello, Garander," she said. "Look what I found!" She held out her hand.
He did not look at it immediately; he was looking her over, making sure she didn't have twigs in her hair, or marks on her clothing that would give her away. She was wearing her favorite red-and-white tunic belted at the waist, a pair of oxhide slippers on her feet, and nothing else -- she was still too young to have added a woman's skirt, so her legs were bare from knees to ankles. "If Father found out you'd been in the woods again..." he began.
Then he finally noticed what she was holding out toward him. His eyes widened, and he drew in his breath. "By all the gods, Ishta," he said. "What is that?"
"I don't know," she said cheerfully. "I found it in the forest." She held it up to his face, to give him a better view.
The object was about the size of a plum, but a little flatter and wider. Most of it was as smooth as glass, and as black as their mother's onyx pendant, but on one side was a golden oval, and that oval was glowing, as bright as the finest candle. Garander stared at it in wonder.
"If you look closely, you can see things moving in there," Ishta said proudly.
Garander peered at the glowing oval, and he saw that his sister was right -- there were small shapes dimly visible through the golden light, sliding back and forth.
"Where did you find it?" Garander asked.
"That way," Ishta said, waving in a generally northerly direction. "It was under a pile of leaves."
"There wasn't anyone around who might have put it there?"
"No, silly. I'm not a thief. It was all dirty; it must have been there for ages. I cleaned it off." She pulled her handkerchief out of her tunic pocket with her other hand, and Garander saw it was smeared with black dirt. The glowing thing itself was as shiny and clean as if it had just been polished, but he did not doubt his sister for an instant; she would not have thought to dirty her handkerchief. Whatever the glowing thing was, dirt didn't stick to it very well.
"Oh," he said.
Ishta looked down at the mysterious object, then up at her brother. "Do you think it's magic?" she asked.
"Of course it's magic," he said. "How could it glow like that if it wasn't magic? The question is, what kind of magic? Is it dangerous?"
Ishta looked down at the thing again, and asked, "How could it be dangerous?"
Garander snorted. "It's magic, Ishta. It could do anything. Maybe it explodes when moonslight hits it, or maybe if you say the wrong word it'll turn you into a toad, or maybe it's poisoning you right now, just because you're holding it."
Ishta immediately dropped it, then looked closely at her hand. "It looks all right," she said. "I feel fine. I don't think it's poison."
"Probably not," Garander admitted, "but we don't know."
"If it's poison, why would it have those shapes in there?" Ishta asked, transferring her gaze from her hand to the magical object.
"So you'll look into it to try to figure them out," Garander suggested. "Maybe it makes you go blind if you stare at it."
Ishta frowned, then stooped and picked the thing up again. "I don't think that's it," she said. "Why would a magician make something like that? Why not just cast a spell?"
"I don't know," Garander said. "I'm not a magician. Maybe the kind of magician who made it can't cast spells that way."
Ishta considered that for a moment, turning the glowing thing over in her hands. "You think it's Northern sorcery?"
"Well, it certainly might be," Garander said. "I mean, look where you found it. No one from Ethshar ever lived in those woods!"
"I know I said it must have been there for ages, but it's been twenty years since the war! It can't have been lying there that long."
"Why not? It's magic, isn't it?"
"But it looks new!" Ishta protested. "It can't be left from the war. There must have been scouts and people like that who explored the woods. Maybe one of them dropped it."
"Maybe," Garander admitted. "I think we should tell Father, though. I don't think we should be messing around with magic; it's too dangerous."
Ishta considered this, then ventured, "Maybe we could tell Mother, instead?"
Garander turned up an empty hand. "Why? She'll just tell Father."
Ishta could not deny this; she slumped. "All right," she said. "If we have to."
"Come on," Garander said.
"Do we need to tell him I found it in the woods, though?" Ishta asked, as they started toward the house. "Can't we say it was, you know, just over there, somewhere?"
"I didn't see where you found it," Garander said. "That's what I'll tell him."
After a few silent steps, Garander asked, "Why do you keep going into the woods, anyway? What's out there that's worth making Father so angry?"
"I don't know," Ishta said. "It's just nice. I like the shade, and the trees are so pretty, and there are all these places to explore. There are birds, and squirrels, and chipmunks..."
"And there might be dragons, or bears, or mizagars," Garander replied.
"I don't think bears are real," Ishta said. "I've never heard of anyone who ever saw a live one, except in nursery rhymes."
"That still leaves dragons and mizagars. You aren't going to claim those are imaginary, are you?"
"No, of course not. I know about Uncle Gror and Great-Aunt Sirina."
Those two family legends were hard to avoid. Their mother's eldest brother had served in a dragon's company in the Great War, and had a scale the dragon had shed to prove it, while their paternal grandfather had seen his older sister devoured by a mizagar when they were children.
"But that was a long time ago," Ishta added, "and it wasn't around here."
Garander sighed with exasperation. "That doesn't mean there aren't any here!" he said.
"I've never seen any," Ishta insisted.
But then they were at the door of the house, and there was no time to worry about a reply. Garander opened the door, wiped his feet on the mat, and stepped into the kitchen.
Their mother and sister, Shella of the Green Eyes and Shella the Younger, were standing by the big iron stove, taking turns scooping something from a steaming pot into clay jars. The air in the room was warm and damp and smelled of cooked apples.
"Hai," the elder Shella said, without taking her eyes off her ladle. "Stay back, this is hot."
Their sister threw them a quick glance, then returned to her work.
"Is Father around?" Garander asked.
"He's in the smokehouse, I think," their mother said. "Did you get the hay stored?"
"Yes," Garander said. "The loft's only about two-thirds full, though."
"That should probably be enough," she said, as she put down her ladle and clapped a lid onto the jar she had just filled. She swung the steel band over the top and pressed down hard, putting most of her weight on it, until she was able to hook the loop and seal the jar.
Garander was not entirely sure whether her comment had been about the hay supply or the jar of apple preserves, but it didn't much matter. "Come on," he told Ishta.
A moment later they were at the smokehouse, where their father had just finished hanging the remains of a butchered hog. He turned when they entered, wiping sweat from his face with a dirty handkerchief. "Done with the hay?" he asked.
"Yes, sir," Garander said. "Ah... Ishta found something."
"What kind of thing?" Grondar asked.
Wordlessly, Ishta held it out.
Grondar leaned over to stare at it. "What in the World is that?" he demanded.
Garander glanced at Ishta, but she seemed frozen in place, displaying the glowing object. "We don't know," he said. "Ishta found it."
Grondar looked up from the mysterious thing at his son's face. "It must be magic," he said.
"We thought so," Garander agreed.
"It might be valuable," his father said.
"Or dangerous," Garander said.
"Or both." Grondar frowned. Garander noticed that he made no move to touch the thing. "We'll want to have a magician look at it."
"I could take it to Rulura tomorrow," Garander suggested.
Grondar grimaced. "That doesn't look like witchcraft to me," he said. "They go in more for herbs and potions."
"I know, but she might be able to tell us what kind of magic it is, even if it isn't witchcraft."
"Why would a witch know anything about other magic?" Grondar replied. "No, I think we should send it to the baron, and let his magicians figure it out."
Garander's insides seemed to tighten. "The baron?"
His father looked him in the eye. "I'm not making any secret of my loyalties, son. We're north of the river, and as far as I'm concerned, that makes us Sardironese."
"Some of the neighbors -- "
Grondar cut him off. "Some of our neighbors are fools," he said. "Ethshar of the Sands is fifty leagues from here."
"And Sardiron of the Waters is thirty!"
"Which is much less than fifty, and the Baron of Varag's stronghold is only five, which makes it the closest place you're likely to find real magicians. Besides, it won't hurt us to treat Lord Dakkar with respect. Tomorrow you'll take that thing to Varag and let the baron's magicians take a look at it."
"But Ishta found it!"
"Don't be ridiculous, boy. I can't send a little girl to Varag by herself. You'll take it and see what the baron's people make of it."
Garander looked helplessly at Ishta, who was still standing there, holding the magical object out. She looked miserable, but said nothing.
"Can I bring Ishta with me?" Garander asked. "I'm sure she'd like to see the baron's court, and she is the one who found it."
Grondar shook his head. "No, she'd slow you down, and it wouldn't be safe, taking a girl her age. Besides, I can spare one of you from your chores, but not both. You'll go alone, right after breakfast."
Garander looked from his father to his sister and back, but saw no help in either of them -- Grondar had made his decision, and Ishta was not going to argue. His shoulders sagged.
"After breakfast," he said.
Proceed to an Announcement...