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Just a sixnight after Ishta and Garander visited Tesk, the first real snowfall arrived. It began in the night, and Garander woke up to a dimly-lit world covered in white, with big fat flakes swirling outside the window.
At breakfast Grondar said, “The clouds are thinning. It should stop by noon, I'd say.”
Garander nodded, and stuffed another chunk of bread in his mouth.
“You'll need to feed the livestock, of course, but anything else can wait until the snow stops.”
“May I play outside?” Ishta asked.
Their parents exchanged glances; Grondar turned up an empty palm. “Why not?” he said. “But stay close, in case the storm gets worse.”
“You just said it was stopping!”
“Am I a wizard, then, to foresee the future? It looks
to me as if it's stopping, but I could be wrong, so don't go far.”
“Shella, we can work on the mending,” their mother said.
The elder daughter looked up from her plate. “Yes, Mother.”
want to play in the snow?” Garander asked her, teasing.
Shella shuddered. “I have no desire to be cold and wet, thank you,” she replied.
Accordingly, once the table was cleared Ishta and Garander bundled up in their boots and winter coats, while Shella and their mother pulled out the mending bag and settled by the hearth. Garander was still filling a bucket with table scraps for the hogs when Ishta dashed out into the snow. He glanced after her, then continued with the task at hand.
It occurred to him that she might plan to pay Tesk a visit, to see what he thought of the snow; he hoped not. Still, it should be safe enough, since their parents were staying inside. Garander attended to his own business – seeing that the hogs and chickens were fed.
He was done with his rounds and was putting the unused chicken feed back in the bin before closing up the barn when he heard the house door slam. He thought at first it must be Ishta going in, which was unexpected – he had expected her to stay out for hours, enjoying the weather. In fact, he was mildly surprised he had not yet been hit by a snowball. He looked up.
A figure was standing at the door, and it was much too big to be Ishta. Startled, Garander peered through the snow, and realized that his father, Grondar, had just emerged, and was looking around the yard. He seemed to spot whatever he was after, and began trudging northward, past the barn.
Puzzled, Garander was about to call out when he heard Grondar shout, “Ishta!”
Garander turned and looked, noticing that the snow was coming down more thickly now, but he did not see his sister anywhere. “What's going on?” he called.
Grondar spotted him. “Oh, your mother wants Ishta for a fitting,” he called. “She's cutting one of Shella's old tunics down for Ishta, and wants to get the size right.”
“Oh,” Garander answered.
“Do you know where she is?”
“I haven't seen her,” Garander replied. “Do you want me to look?”
His father waved him off. “No, I'll do it. I've found her tracks here. You finish up your chores and go on in.”
Garander hesitated. He was afraid Ishta's tracks would lead into the woods, but he could not think of any reason he could use to insist on being the one to follow her.
And then it was too late; his father was marching northward through the snow, his eyes fixed on Ishta's trail.
Garander latched the barn door, trying to decide what to do. He didn't know
that Ishta had gone to see Tesk, but it seemed likely. Would her tracks still be clear enough to follow in the woods, where the ground was less even and the branches overhead caught some of the snow?
Yes, he decided, they would. And their father might not realize what Tesk was until it was too late; if he thought the shatra
was an ordinary man bent on debauching his daughter, he might do something that would force Tesk to defend himself.
The possibility that Grondar would catch Tesk off-guard and kill or seriously injure him occurred to Garander, but he quickly dismissed it. Tesk was shatra
, and Garander had seen a little of what he could do. It was their father, not Ishta's playmate, who was in danger.
Garander glanced at the house, but decided not to take the time to alert his mother or his other sister. What could he say that would be any use? Instead he turned and set out after his father.
Grondar's footsteps were plain in the fresh snow, and for that matter, Ishta's were still visible as small oval depressions, even though she had been gone almost an hour and the snow was still falling steadily. Garander hurried.
He could see his father perhaps a hundred feet ahead, beyond the barn, looping around the bushes; that was the route Ishta used to slip into the woods unseen from the house. Muttering curses under his breath, Garander followed as quickly as he could. He considered shouting, asking Grondar to come back, but what could he say to convince him?
“Ishta!” Grondar called, and Garander heard the anger in his voice. He guessed that his father had seen Ishta's tracks going into the forest, where she was forbidden to venture. Garander struggled to pick up his pace.
The snow was getting heavier; Grondar's earlier prediction that it would end by noon seemed less and less likely every minute. Garander could scarcely see his father through the swirling white. The footsteps were still clear, though. Garander followed as swiftly as he could, north around the barn, past the bushes, and into the forest.
It was late morning, but the heavy clouds blocked the sun and the snow obscured everything; Garander was not sure just where he was going. The snow clinging to every branch and sticking in patches to the trunks distorted the trees and made it hard to recognize landmarks.
“Father!” he called, though he was unsure what he would say if Grondar called back. He could see his father's coat, the shoulders white with snow, moving through the woods ahead.
And beyond, deeper in the forest, just barely visible through the snow, he saw Ishta and Tesk huddled beneath an improvised shelter, a length of white fabric stretched between two sturdy branches. Garander could not hear them – the snow muffled all sounds – but they appeared to be chatting amiably, untroubled by Grondar's approach.
Tesk must have detected his approach, though; he was shatra
, with supernatural senses.
Even as Garander thought that, he saw Tesk look up, suddenly alert. Then he moved, with that strange, smooth speed, leaping out from under his shelter to grab a tree limb, then swinging himself upward. He seemed to not so much jump as flow
from branch to branch and tree to tree, moving higher and farther away with every transfer. It should have looked absurd, a man jumping around in the trees, but it didn't; it looked graceful and terrifying.
Then he was gone, lost amid the snow-covered trees, and Grondar was bellowing, “Ishta! Who was that with you?”
Ishta started. She was still sitting under the improvised shelter; she did not seem to have absorbed yet what was happening. She looked up, trying to see where Tesk had gone, but it was far too late for that.
“Ishta!” Grondar repeated.
“Father!” Garander called.
Then Grondar had reached the shelter, where he reached beneath the fabric and grabbed Ishta's arm, dragging her out into the snow. “Who was
that?” he demanded. “What is this thing?” He turned his attention to the cloth.
Garander could not see his father's face, but he had the impression that Grondar was staring. As he watched, Grondar released Ishta's arm and reached out to tentatively touch the shelter. “What is
this?” he asked.
Then Garander was finally able to catch up to Grondar. “Father,” he said, “are you all right?”
Grondar turned, startled. “What are you
doing here?” he asked. “I told you to go inside!”
“I thought you might want my help,” Garander said, realizing even as he spoke how ridiculous that was. He quickly improvised, “In case Ishta was stuck up in a tree or something.”
“What would she be doing in a tree? For that matter, what is she doing here
? Who was that? How did he... how did he do
that? What's this thing made of?”
“I don't know,” Garander said. “Father, it's snowing awfully hard now; I think we should all be getting back.”
“In a moment,” he said. “Your sister has a few things to explain first. Ishta?”
Ishta had finally gathered her wits enough to answer, “Yes, Father?”
this thing?” He pointed at the shelter. “How did it get here?”
Ishta turned up an empty palm. “I don't know, Father. It was here when I got here.”
“And you've been sitting under it?”
“Did you notice that it's warm
? And dry? The snow isn't sticking to it. At all. It should be cold and wet and covered in snow, and it isn't.”
“It isn't?” Ishta seemed genuinely surprised. She turned to look at the shelter. So did Garander, coming up beside their father.
The fabric was indeed warm and dry.
,” Grondar said, feeling the cloth with the palm of his hand. “Wizardry, maybe.”
“I don't...” Garander began; then he caught himself. “Maybe.”
“So, Ishta,” Grondar said, glowering at his daughter. “Who was that you were talking to? How did he jump like that?”
Ishta looked at Garander, but he was not offering any help with this; he shook his head very slightly, hoping his father wouldn't notice the movement.
She decided there was no point feigning ignorance. “He said his name was Tesk... I mean, Kelder of Tesk,” Ishta said.
“Where's Tesk?” Grondar asked.
Ishta turned up a hand. “How should I know?”
Grondar frowned. He glanced at Garander. “I never heard of it,” Garander said. “But I'm not very good with geography.”
“Did you see the way he bounded up into the trees, and leapt from branch to branch?” Grondar demanded. “He didn't look human!”
“He looked human to me,” Ishta said.
“Where did you find him? Did you know
he was out here?”
Ishta hesitated. “I found him right here, sitting under the cloth,” she said.
“Did you know he was there? Did you come here looking for him?”
“I never saw the cloth before!” Ishta said.
“Did you ever see him
Ishta looked to her brother again, but once again, no help was forthcoming. “I might have,” she admitted.
“So you've been sneaking into the woods?”
“Father,” Garander interrupted, hoping to distract Grondar before he could work up serious anger, “shouldn't we be getting in out of the snow? It's coming down pretty hard.”
Grondar looked up. The sky overhead was solid gray, and largely hidden by swirling snow. Then he looked at the shelter again. “We'll take this with us,” he said. He grabbed the edge of the fabric and tugged.
It stayed where it was. It flexed in his hand, and the branches it was draped on bent slightly, but the cloth stayed firmly attached to the wood, though Garander could not see any pins or cords or other attachments.
Grondar's eyes widened, and he pulled harder. The fabric still didn't yield. He reached over and grasped the edge right next to one of the tree limbs, and yanked at it.
The limb beneath the fabric bent, but the cloth remained solidly attached.
“I don't see any nails,” Garander offered. “Maybe it's glued.”
“Maybe it's more magic,” Ishta said. “It's Tes... Kelder's; maybe it won't let anyone else move it.”
Gronder looked up into the trees where Tesk had vanished. “You think he might come back for it?”
“If it's magic, it's probably valuable,” Garander said. “He wouldn't just leave it.”
“So if we wait here – ”
“Father,” Garander said, “if he wanted to talk to us, he wouldn't have run off in the first place – and if he does
come back, he might bring help. If he's got a magic cloth like this, he might have magic weaponry, too, or magic to summon allies. Or he might be a magician himself. I really think we should just leave it and go home.”
Grondar glared at the cloth. “Maybe we could break off the branches and take the whole thing with us.”
“Father, if he's a magician, or even if he just has magical allies, do we really want to steal from him?”
Grondar hesitated. “If he has allies or weapons, what's to stop him from killing us all in our beds?”
“Common sense, Father. Why would he want to kill us? If he meant us harm, he could have come any time – why would he come now, in the snow, when he would leave tracks?”
“He didn't leave any tracks when he ran away.”
“There aren't a hundred trees around our house to hide in; he'd leave tracks there
“Not if he has the right magic. Maybe he can fly, or tunnel through the earth.”
“Or poof, just appear! But why would he want
“Why was he sitting out here in the snow, talking to your sister?
” Grondar shouted. “Who is
Garander flinched. “Can we talk about this at home, please? It's cold, and the snow is covering our tracks, and I don't want to get lost in the woods, and Mother's waiting.”
Grondar took one last look eastward into the depths of the forest, then turned and said, “Fine. We'll go. But we will
talk about this when we get home, Ishta, and I expect a good explanation!”
“Yes, Father,” Ishta said in the scared-little-girl voice she used when she was trying to appease her parents. Garander was amazed that that still appeared to work. It didn't work on him
, and hadn't for years; it just annoyed him. Their parents, however, seemed more susceptible.
Together, the three of them turned and began trudging back toward the family farm, leaving the miraculously warm and dry shelter where it was. The tracks that Garander and his father had left were still fairly clear, despite the heavy snowfall, so there was no immediate danger of losing their way.
They had gone perhaps a hundred feet when Grondar paused for a few seconds to look back at the abandoned shelter, allowing Ishta and Garander to get a few yards ahead of him. That gave Garander a chance to lean over and whisper, “You idiot! What were you doing out here in this storm?”
“I wanted to be sure Tesk was all right!” Ishta whispered back.
“He looked fine to me
, the way he went jumping through the trees. Why didn't he see Father coming and get away sooner, before he was spotted?”
“He thought it was you
,” Ishta said. “He said it was you. With the snow and everything, I
thought it was you, too – you're more like Father than you think. I didn't know it was him until he started shouting.”
Garander was not sure what to make of that. He asked, “So why did you stay out here once you knew he was safe?”
“We were talking!”
“You shouldn't have been! Not when you'd left tracks.”
didn't know anyone was going to come looking for me! Why did
“Mother wanted you for a fitting; she's cutting down one of Shella's dresses for you.”
Grondar's voice interrupted. “What are you two whispering about?”
Garander looked back to see their father catching up. “Ishta was wondering why you were looking for her. I told her Mother wanted her for a fitting.”
“That's right, she does! I'd almost forgotten about that; she's going to be annoyed it took this long to fetch you.”
“Then I'll hurry!” Ishta broke into a run.
Garander ran after her. Grondar, he noticed, did not; their father was not as young and energetic as they were.
That was fine with him. That would give them another chance to talk.
The two burst out of the woods into the farmyard, and veered leftward around the bushes. Beside the barn Ishta abruptly slowed, looking back to be sure they were out of their father's sight, and ahead to see that no one had come out of the house to see what was taking so long.
Garander came up beside her, and matched her pace.
“Ishta!” he said. “Maybe we should tell them the truth.”
She glared at him. “Are you crazy
“He saw that cloth! He knows that's magic. You think he's going to believe you went into the woods in the snow for no reason, and just happened to find a mysterious stranger sitting under a magic tent?”
“It's not a tent.”
“Well, whatever it is, that's not the point! The point is that he won't believe it if you say that's what happened.”
“All right, fine, but we don't need to tell them he's shatra
, do we? Can't we just say he's a magician?”
“I mean, how would we
know anything about shatra
?” Ishta said.
“Because Father told
us about them, silly! You think he won't remember that?”
“Maybe he won't!”
“You're being ridiculous.”
“Well, you... you... you're right.” She sighed. “But I'm not going to say the word until someone else does.”
Garander glanced back to see Grondar rounding the bushes. “Fair enough,” he said. “Now, come on, let's get inside where it's warm.”
Together, brother and sister trotted toward the house.