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Once inside, there was a brief dispute over priorities.
“Ah, there you are! Get over here and try on this dress,” their mother said, looking up from a jumble of green fabric.
“There's something I need to discuss with these two,” their father answered.
“It can wait,” the elder Shella said, raising a needle and thread. “I want to get this done, so we can eat lunch!”
“I think – ”
“You can talk while we're working. Ishta, put it on!”
Ishta threw her father a quick glance, then began taking off her coat. She didn't hurry.
Grondar fumed while his children removed coats, scarves, gloves, and boots, and put them all neatly away; he rushed to strip off his own outerwear, and stood waiting as Ishta ducked behind the bedroom curtain and changed into the green dress.
Garander, once he had his own gear put away, looked out a window. The snow was still coming down; the overcast so thick it was hard to believe it was midday. Quite aside from delaying any discussions of Tesk, he was glad to be safely inside; this snowfall was turning into a far worse storm than any of them had anticipated, worse than it had any right to be so early in the season.
He hoped the shatra
would be all right, out there in the snow – but Tesk had lived alone in the wilderness for twenty years; he must have survived worse storms than this. And he could safely retrieve that magical cloth, now that Ishta and her family had gone.
That cloth had been a surprise; Garander had never seen anything like it. His father had guessed it was wizardry, but from everything he knew, Garander thought it must be sorcery – all of Tesk's equipment appeared to be sorcerous, not wizardly in nature.
Then Ishta emerged, the green dress hanging loosely on her. She stepped up on the stool as her mother approached with a mouthful of pins.
“Now,” Grondar demanded, “how did you meet this Kelder of Tesk?”
Ishta glanced at Garander, then said, “I met him in the forest.”
Her mother had been pinching in the fabric under Ishta's left arm; now she held that with one hand, took the pins from her mouth with the other, and asked, “Who's Kelder of Tesk?”
“Someone our daughter has been meeting in the woods.”
“A grown man, from what I saw of him,” Grondar replied. “Not that I got a good look.”
Ishta saw the stricken look on her mother's face and said, “It's nothing like that! We just talked. He never touched me.”
“You'll swear to that?” Grondar asked.
“Of course I will! He didn't, I swear by all the gods!”
“Then why was he talking to you at all?”
“He was lonely, I guess.”
“All right, then I'll ask again – how did you meet him?”
“I... I was wandering in the woods, and there he was, sitting on a branch.”
“What were you doing in the woods?”
“Getting out of the sun. I knew if I went in the house Mother would find something for me to do, and if I went in the barn you would, and besides, I liked being outside in the fresh air. It's nice in the woods.”
Grondar frowned. “Out of the sun? When was this?”
“A couple of months ago.”
“You're forbidden to go into the woods!”
“And you went anyway.”
She nodded again.
“And you've... all right, so you met this Kelder of Tesk in the forest, and you talked to him?”
“What did you talk to him about?”
Ishta turned up an empty palm, which tugged at the fold her mother was pinning. “How the trees grow, and what colors the leaves were, and what animals lived in the trees. Things like that.”
“Did you ask him where he was from
, and what he was doing in the woods?”
“He wouldn't tell me.”
“You did ask?”
She nodded again.
“You didn't think that was suspicious
“I like him!”
Grondar growled. “Of course. So you met him in the woods, and you talked, and then what?”
“Then I went home for supper.”
“And what did he
“But you saw him again?”
Ishta looked decidedly uncomfortable. “A few times.”
“No!” She hesitated. “Maybe once or twice a sixnight.” Garander thought it had been more often than that, especially before they had realized he was shatra
, but he didn't say anything.
“How did you know where to find him?”
“I didn't always; sometimes he'd
. Sometimes he'd mark a trail for me, though.”
“But he was always out there somewhere?”
“I guess so.”
“Where does he live
?” Ishta's mother asked, as she tugged at a seam.
“In the woods, he says.”
“Blood and death, why would he do that
?” Grondar asked.
Ishta turned up a palm.
Grondar frowned again, and said, “From what I saw just now, he dresses strangely.”
“All in black.”
She nodded again.
“Does he always dress like that, or was it because of the snow?”
“He always does.”
Ishta's mother had finished pinning one side, and transferred her attention to the other.
“It looked like he was carrying some things.”
“He has a pack, and he carries stuff on his back,” Ishta said.
“Like that magical cloth.”
Ishta's mother looked at her husband, startled. Her elder daughter said, “Magic cloth?”
“A sort of tent,” Grondar said. “It stayed warm and dry even in the snow.” He met Ishta's eyes. “That was in his pack?”
“I guess,” Ishta said. “I never saw it before today, and he already had it hung in the tree when I got there.” She hesitated, and then added, “I didn't know he had it. I went out there to make sure he was all right – he doesn't have a home to go to, and I thought the snow might make things hard for him.”
“But he had his magic.”
“Did you know he was a magician?”
Ishta glanced at Garander, then nodded. “I knew he has magic stuff.”
of a magician is he? A wizard?”
Ishta shook her head. “He's not a wizard.”
“A witch, then? Some of them like to wear black.”
“Ishta, tell me what kind of a magician he is. Because the only other kind I
know of that usually wears black is demonologists...”
“No! He's not a demonologist, Father. He's a sorcerer.”
“Ah.” Grondar leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest as he considered his youngest child. “A sorcerer. Who lives in the woods, with no home to go to. Who talks to children, but runs away at the sight of an adult.”
“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?”
“If I were making up a story, Father, I'd do a better job of it. I'm telling the truth.”
Grondar considered that for a moment, then abruptly turned his attention to Garander. “And you,” he said. “Why did you follow me out there? Did you know she was meeting this mysterious friend of hers?”
“I... thought she might be,” Garander admitted.
“So you knew he existed?”
“Did you meet him the same time your sister did?”
“No, sir.” Garander shook his head. “I only found out a couple of sixnights ago.”
“And you didn't think to tell me
about it? Or your mother?”
“I... I felt I owed Ishta a favor for letting the baron keep her talisman, sir, so I agreed not to say anything. He seemed harmless.”
“Harmless? He's a sorcerer
“Well, but... she's been meeting him for months, and he hasn't done anything. He's just lonely.”
is this sorcerer so blasted lonely? Why is he lurking out there in the woods instead of coming out in the opening and earning an honest living?”
Ishta and Garander exchanged glances. “I... I don't know, sir,” Garander said.
That was his first outright lie. He had shaded the truth, and answered vaguely or selectively, but this time he was simply lying.
Grondar stared at him. Garander could almost see his father thinking.
He knew his father was not a stupid man, so he was not surprised to see Grondar's mouth open slightly.
“Oh,” he said, staring at his son. “A sorcerer. Sorcerers don't generally go leaping about like that. Not ordinary
sorcerers, anyway. Not our
sorcerers. But this man – is his name really Kelder?”
“No,” Garander admitted.
“Did he tell
you his real name?”
“I... I can't pronounce it. We call him Tesk.”
“A sorcerer dressed all in black, with a name that isn't Ethsharitic, hiding in the woods, afraid to let anyone but children see him – he's a Northerner, isn't he?”
Garander nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“He's been hiding in the wilderness for twenty years
he was a Northerner?”
“Yes, sir.” For a moment silence fell; Garander could almost feel Grondar's glare, and finally he said, “The war's been over since before we were born
, Father. He knows it's over, and his side lost; he doesn't want any trouble. If he meant us any harm he could have killed us all in our sleep, but instead he's just talked to Ishta and kept her company.”
“If he killed us, that would alert the baron that there was something dangerous in the area.”
Garander didn't have a good answer for that.
“It's been twenty years – how much magic can he have left?”
“I don't know,” Garander said.
Grondar turned to Ishta.
“I don't know, either,” she said. “He won't talk about things like that.”
“Grondar,” her mother said, “are you seriously telling me there's a Northern sorcerer still alive in the forest near here?”
“Oh, yes,” Grondar said. “And he definitely still has some
magic – there's that magic cloth, and you should have seen the way he moved! He didn't even look hum...”
He stopped in the middle of a word, staring at his wife.
“What is it?” she asked, frightened.
“He's not just a sorcerer, is he?” Grondar asked, turning back to Garander.
“I don't know what you mean,” Garander said – lying again.
entirely human, is he?”
would he be?” Shella the Younger asked.
,” Grondar said.
“I don't – ”
“It's a shatra
, isn't it?” Grondar interrupted. “That's how it could survive alone in the woods for twenty years. That's how it can move like that. That's why it doesn't dare let anyone who remembers the war see it – it knows
that we might let an ordinary Northerner live, but shatra
are just too dangerous. It'll be hunted down and destroyed if the barons or the overlords find out it's there.”
Garander didn't say anything, but Ishta wailed, “He's my friend! I don't want him
to be destroyed!”
“But it really is a shatra
“Yes,” Garander said. “He is. But he's been there for twenty years and never hurt anyone! We didn't even know he was there
until he got so bored and lonely he let Ishta find him!”
“But it's a shatra
! It probably killed hundreds of good people during the war!”
“And our people wiped his out
! He says there wasn't a single survivor when he went back to his home village.”
“Is that supposed to make me trust
“No, I'm just saying the war was different! Both sides did things no one would do now.”
Grondar stared at his son for a moment. “I wouldn't be too sure of that,” he said. “The same people who ran things during the war are still running things now, pretty much. General Gor and Admiral Azrad call themselves overlords now, but they have as much power as ever. General Anaran may be dead, but from what I hear, his son Edaran isn't very different. The barons who meet at Sardiron are mostly the same men who tracked down and slaughtered the surviving Northerners. The wizards and theurgists say they aren't ever going to use their magic for war again, but I haven't heard anything like that about sorcerers or demonologists, and the wizards could change their minds. You three don't know what the World is like, growing up out here; people are still the same as ever. And shatra
are still half-demon monsters. Maybe this Tesk really does want to live in peace, but that doesn't mean it can
Garander stared at his father for a moment, then said, “You know, there are other Northern monsters in the woods.”
Grondar blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“There are mizagars.”
It was Grondar's turn to stare. “How do you know?” he asked.
“Tesk told us.”
“And you believe him?”
“Yes!” Ishta shouted. “Yes, we believe him. He's my friend. He never lied to us about being shatra
; why would he lie about the mizagars? They obey him. He told them to stay away from us.”
“It didn't lie about being a shatra
because that's obvious!” Grondar replied. “I saw it for maybe half a minute at most, from a distance in the snow, and I
figured out what it was. It knew it couldn't fool you about that. But mizagars? Did it show you any evidence?”
Ishta looked at Garander, who turned up an empty palm. “No,” he admitted. “But wasn't this Northern land during the war? Shouldn't
there be mizagars? You always warned us about them.”
Grondar frowned. “Maybe the gods and wizards killed them all.”
“Or maybe surviving shatra
who don't want to restart the war are holding them back.”
“And maybe they all flew away to the third moon. We
don't know what happened to them, and I'm not going to take a shatra
's word for it.”
“So what are you going to do about Tesk?”
Grondar hesitated, then looked out the window at the snow piling up on the barn roof.
“Nothing,” he said. “At least for now. I don't know how to catch it, and if I tried it would probably kill me. Even if it didn't want to – it's not human, and it can't always control its own actions. According to the stories I heard during the war, sometimes the demon takes over when it needs to fight; that's part of why we needed wizards or dragons to fight them, the demon part is more ferocious than anything that belongs in the World. So I'm not about to go after it, and with this snow I'll know if either of you
goes into the woods after it, so you won't go warn it, either. When the weather lets up and we've all had time to think about it, maybe I'll send word to the baron. Or maybe I'll decide it's best left alone. I don't know. And neither do you – I don't care how much fun you had playing with it, it's dangerous
, and you need to stay away from it!”
“That's right,” their mother said, clearly upset. “You stay away from that thing! And Ishta, hold still, unless you want me to stab you with this pin.”
Ishta stamped her foot, then straightened up and froze into position.
Garander looked at her for a moment, then at his father, then at the kitchen. “I'm going to get lunch,” he said.
“You'll stay out of the woods?”
“Then let me give you a hand with the food.”
Father and son headed for the kitchen.