You can support this serial by making donations through Paypal; just click the button!
A sixnight later, while the two of them were feeding the chickens, Garander asked Ishta if she had spoken to Tesk.
“About what?” she asked.
“About him being a shatra
,” Garander said, struggling not to shout.
“Oh. No. We talked about when we were likely to get snow, and whether he needed a winter coat, and stuff like that.”
“But you've talked to him since we found out he's a shatra
“Sure. Twice, I think.”
“And you didn't mention
“It didn't come up. I didn't want to bring it up out of nowhere, as if I'm accusing him of something!”
Garander flung the last handful of grain, upended the bucket, then turned and told his sister, “We are going to go talk to Tesk right now.”
“We are going to talk to him. Both of us. Now
. He needs to know about this.”
Ishta blinked uncertainly, then said, “All right.”
Garander hung the bucket on its hook, pulled his jacket tighter, and marched out of the barn.
The weather was cold, the wind biting, but as yet there was no snow on the ground. A brief flurry had fallen two evenings before, but nothing had stuck. Garander's feet crunched on frozen leaves as he headed for the forest.
“Not that way,” Ishta said, tugging at his sleeve.
“Father could see you,” she said. “Come this way.” She pointed to the north.
Garander followed as his sister led him around behind a woodshed, across a ditch he had forgotten was there, and then behind a big oak – a route that he realized kept them hidden from the house and most of the farm almost the entire way. Ishta had clearly given this matter some thought, and had not just been ducking into the forest from wherever she happened to be. Garander was not sure whether to be relieved at her sense, or worried by her deviousness.
Ishta moved through the woods with surprising stealth; she was obviously familiar with her surroundings. Here and there she paused and looked at something, usually a tree or stone, and after a few instances Garander realized that she was following signs of some sort, presumably markers Tesk had left so she would know where to find him.
He looked for the signs himself, and now that he knew there was something to find, he could usually locate them. Sometimes it would be a forked twig hooked over a branch, or a rolled-up leaf stuck in a crotch, or some other bit of debris that would not have looked at all out of place if Garander had not known there were markers; sometimes he could not find the marker at all. There was never anything as obvious as a mark carved into bark.
He did not have all that much time to look, though, because Ishta was hurrying deeper into the woods, not waiting for him. They were a good hundred yards or more into the wilderness, perhaps more, when Ishta waved – not to Garander, but to someone ahead.
A moment later Garander spotted Tesk, sitting comfortably in a tree, about eight feet off the ground and a hundred feet deeper in the forest. The shatra
waved, but stayed where he was.
The two humans made their way through the wood until they were almost beneath the Northerner; then suddenly Tesk dropped off his perch, seeming to glide down the tree's trunk until he stood on the ground beside them.
“You have brought your brother,” he said.
Ishta glanced at Garander, then nodded.
“I wanted to talk to you,” Garander said.
“About what?” Tesk asked.
Now that the opportunity was here, Garander's nerve failed him; he could not bring himself to speak directly. “About the war,” he said.
Tesk tilted his head slightly, and his eyes seemed to lock onto Garander. “The war?”
“The Great War, between Ethshar and the Northern Empire,” Garander said. “You... you're old enough to remember it, aren't you?”
“Yes. I am older than I look, I think. I remember the war.”
“You said you didn't remember anything before you lived in the woods.”
Tesk moved his shoulders in that odd way of his. “Perhaps I did not tell the exact truth.”
Garander was relieved that Tesk was admitting that – but then he immediately tensed again, as he knew the questions would not get any easier. “But you're admitting that now?”
“I think I must trust you, Garander and Ishta, if I am to remain in this area and continue to enjoy your company. If you meant me harm, you have had sufficient time to incur it.”
For someone who spoke Ethsharitic as poorly as Tesk did, he certainly knew some fancy words, Garander thought. He ignored that and tried to get back to the point.
“Did you fight in the war?”
Tesk threw a quick glance at Ishta, who was not saying a word. “Yes. I fought,” he agreed.
“I... you were a soldier?”
“I was a scout,” Tesk said. “I patrolled the border between the armies, to warn my commanders if the enemy tried to move through the forest. I lived in the woods, unseen. When the war ended, I remained in the woods, unseen – I had nowhere else to go. My home was destroyed in the fighting when I was only a boy – my entire village
was destroyed, and my family killed.”
Ishta made a little whimpering noise at that. Garander refused to be distracted. “So you fought in the war,” he said. “On which side?”
“The war has been over for many years, Garander. There are no sides now.”
“But there were
sides,” Garander insisted. “Which side were you
“The Northern Empire was destroyed. That side is gone.”
“But you were
a Northerner, weren't you? That's why you talk so strangely.”
Tesk remained absolutely still for a moment before finally replying, “Yes. I was a Northerner.”
Garander noticed that he said “was
,” not “am.” Emboldened, he continued, “You weren't just an ordinary
Northerner, were you?”
Tesk did not answer; he simply stared at Garander.
He was not reaching for a weapon. He was not fleeing. He was not attacking. He was not grabbing Ishta as a hostage. He was simply standing there, silently staring at Garander.
“You're a shatra
,” Garander said.
“I did not realize you knew that word,” Tesk replied. “I had hoped you did not.”
“Our father told us about shatra
,” Garander said. “They dressed all in black, as you do, and carried talismans on their back, as you do, and moved strangely, as you do.”
Tesk nodded. “I am shatra
,” he said.
“You aren't human.”
“Are you going to kill us because we know?” Ishta asked.
Tesk blinked, once, then looked down at her. “Why would I do that?” he asked.
“I don't think people around here are going to tolerate a shatra
near them,” Garander said.
Tesk raised his head and met Garander's gaze. “Are you going to tell them?” he asked.
“I... I don't know,” Garander said.
“Why would you tell anyone?” Tesk asked calmly.
“Because... because you're dangerous. I think... I have a duty to warn my family, and my neighbors.”
be dangerous,” Tesk admitted. “Very dangerous. But I have lived here for twenty years and I have not harmed anyone. Why would you choose to change a situation that has been comfortable for everyone for so long?”
“You've lived here for twenty years
?” Ishta asked, startled.
Tesk looked down at her again. “I have. Or in this vicinity, at any rate.”
“Then why didn't anyone see you until I found you?”
“I did not choose to be seen. And I admit that I have often retreated into the hills to the east. I have not always lived this close.”
“But why did you let Ishta see you, then?” Garander asked. “Why did you talk to her? Even if she saw you, you could have slipped away – aren't you supposed to be able to run faster than a human?”
“I could have fled,” Tesk agreed. “I did not want to. I am tired
of living alone in the woods, with no human contact whatsoever. I knew a child could be no threat to me, and I hoped to develop contacts slowly. This is why I did not flee when you
saw me – it was the next step.”
“But you didn't want us to tell our parents.”
“It was too soon. Your parents undoubtedly remember the war too well to accept me without preparation.”
For a moment none of them spoke. Then Tesk said, “I had hoped that your people might have forgotten what shatra
Ishta and Garander exchanged glances. “I hadn't heard of them until Garander figured out that you
were one,” Ishta said.
“I'd only heard a few stories,” Garander said. “I didn't know much about them until I asked Father.”
“Has your father ever met shatra
“No,” Garander replied. “He just heard stories. And he says that in the war, his company had orders for what to do if they ever did
That seemed to catch Tesk's interest; for a moment his expression was much more animated than usual. “What were those orders?” he asked.
“They were to call in the nearest magician or dragon. Or both.”
Tesk nodded. “Those were good orders.”
“So you were
“No,” Tesk said patiently. “I was dangerous
. It is not the same thing.”
“Everyone says that Northerners were evil!” Ishta said. “I thought maybe you weren't, and that's why you're still here.”
“And during the war, my
people said that Ethsharites
were all evil.”
“Ethsharites aren't evil!” Ishta protested. “Northerners were evil!”
“Which side exterminated the other?” Tesk asked. “Is not such indiscriminate slaughter evil?”
“It isn't evil to kill bad people!” Ishta insisted.
Tesk and Garander exchanged glances. Neither of them was quite so certain of Ishta's argument.
After a moment, Garander broke the silence. “If you're a shatra
, you're part demon,” he pointed out. “Doesn't that mean you're evil?”
Tesk took a moment to think before answering that one. “My people did not think demons were inherently evil,” he said. “And it is the human part of me that controls me, in any case. It is the human part you are speaking with. My demon portions give me magical speed and strength and sight and hearing, and other magic, but my thoughts are still human. I do not think
I am evil. I have done nothing to harm anyone since the war ended.”
“How do we know you're telling the truth about that?”
Tesk did that odd shoulder movement again. “How do we ever
know whether someone is lying?”
Garander had no good answer for that.
“In fact, I have done some good,” Tesk said. “There are mizagars in this area, and I have ensured they did not trouble anyone. I outrank them, so they obeyed when I told them to stay hidden and harm no one.”
Garander blinked. He had no way to know whether the shatra
's claim had any truth to it or not. It could
be true, for all Garander knew, or it could be a complete fabrication – but why would Tesk lie about that
? It didn't seem like a sensible lie, and Tesk, however strange he was, did seem sensible.
“Why would you bother?” he asked.
“Because I do not wish anyone to be harmed,” Tesk said. “I understand that the war is over, and my side lost; there is no point in inflicting any further damage. Mizagars do not
understand this; they are little more than beasts. They will take orders from Northern officers, though, to the extent they understand those orders, and shatra
“How can they tell?” Ishta asked. “How would a mizagar know I'm
not an officer?”
Tesk smiled. “You do not speak Shaslan. You do not carry a talisman of rank. You do not know the magic words that force a mizagar to obey you.”
“A talisman of rank?” Garander asked.
“Yes,” Tesk said. He held out a hand, and something gleamed red and gold on his wrist. “This is one. It glows when I wish it to, and is bound to me – it will not glow for anyone else. I have others.”
“Do you have a lot of talismans?” Ishta asked, staring at the one he displayed.
Tesk smiled and withdrew his wrist. “Yes,” he said.
“Do you know about the one I found? I mean, I told you about it, but do you know what it was for, or how it got there?”
“That was mine,” Tesk said. “I discarded it. It relayed orders from my superiors – but my superiors are all long dead, so I had no further use for it. I thought it might be an entertaining toy for you, and left it where you might find it. I am sorry your baron took it for his own.”
“He's not my
baron!” Ishta said.
“Yes, he is,” Garander told her. “Whether you like it or not.”
“Now what?” Tesk asked.
“What?” Garander said, startled.
“Now that you know what I am, and you have heard my account of myself, what are you going to do about it?”
“What would you do if I told our father?” Garander asked. “Would you kill everybody?”
Tesk sighed. “No. The war is over, I do not want to harm anyone, and I am fast enough to escape any non-magical pursuit. If your father sought to destroy me, alone or with others, I would retreat into the hills where I would never be found. I would advise against this, however, because if I leave this area the mizagars may return. They obey my orders, but only for a limited time – two or three months, usually – and they move around, so that ones I have not instructed may wander into the area.”
was a reason to lie about the mizagars – to keep from being sent into lonely exile in the mountains.
“There, you see?” Ishta said. “He won't hurt us!”
“So he says,” Garander retorted. “We don't know he's telling us the truth.”
think he is!”
“I think he probably is, too,” Garander admitted, “but we can't be sure.”
“You must do as you think best,” Tesk said. “You should consider this, though – if I am not telling the truth, why am I here now, and not years ago? Perhaps when you were Ishta's age?”
“You could have been trapped somewhere, and only recently escaped,” Garander said. “Maybe a wizard captured you during the war, and the spell he used on you has only just broken.”
Tesk nodded. “That could be. But if I meant you harm, why are you still alive?”
Then Tesk moved, so abruptly and so fast that Garander could hardly see him; he was little more than a dark blur, like a shadow among the trees, and then he was standing behind Garander's right shoulder, a knife at the youth's throat.
Then he was gone again, only to reappear a few feet away, where he ostentatiously sheathed his knife, sliding it slowly into a scabbard on his belt, deliberately making an audible scraping sound.
“You see why your father's orders were to call in magicians or dragons?” he said.
Garander swallowed, then nodded.
“And I have not yet shown you what the sorcery I carry can do.”
Garander was about to say that that wouldn't be necessary when Ishta said excitedly, “Oh, can you show us?”
That seemed to catch Tesk off-guard, but he recovered quickly and smiled. “A small demonstration, perhaps,” he said. He reached around and brought forward one of the black rods he carried on his back, then asked, “Would that stump make a satisfactory target?” He pointed.
The “stump,” perhaps fifteen feet away, was the remains of a dead tree, seven or eight feet tall and about a foot and a half in diameter for most of its length. It was quite obviously hollow. Garander looked at Ishta.
She met his gaze and nodded.
“It'll do,” Garander said.
Tesk said, “Observe.” He ran his fingers along the rod in a quick pattern of short strokes, then pointed it at the dead tree.
To say that the hollow stump burst into flame did not, Garander thought, convey what he saw; the stump exploded
into flame with a loud “thump,” red and gold sparks showering in all directions. In an instant the entire thing was a column of fire.
“We do not want to draw attention,” Tesk said. He waved the rod, and a sudden mist appeared; the flames quickly died away until only flickering red embers lingered on the greatly-reduced remains of the tree.
!” Ishta shrieked, clapping her hand. “That was wonderful!”
Garander nodded. “Impressive,” he said.
“You do not want your father and his friends to seek me out,” Tesk said. “Either I would flee, which would make it all a waste of time and might allow mizagars to harass your people, or they might catch me, and I would defend myself.” He lifted the black rod. “Even if they win in the end, and kill me or capture me, some of them will be hurt or killed in the process. You see?”
“I see,” Garander agreed. He looked at his sister. “I think I'm convinced,” he said. “What about you, Ishta?”
“I was never going to tell anyone in the first place, Garander!”
“Then we are decided,” Tesk said, “and I am pleased. I did not want to leave.”
“May I try that black stick?” Ishta asked, pointing at the rod.
Tesk smiled. “No,” he said. “It would not work for you. But I have other things I can show you.”
Garander hesitated, then admitted, “I'd like to see them, too.”
“Of course,” Tesk said. He reached around and tucked the black rod back into place. “Let us find somewhere more private, away from the smoke from the stump, and I will show you.”
Together, the three of them retreated deeper into the woods.