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Welcome to the ninth chapter of the first draft of Ishta's Companion, an Ethshar novel. See the Technicalities page for an explanation of how this works, and the official blog for discussion and questions.

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Chapter Nine


      The snow stopped around mid-afternoon, leaving about a foot on the ground. Grondar and Garander slogged through it to the barn, where they checked on the livestock, then found shovels and began clearing paths between the various outbuildings. By suppertime they were both chilled to the bone and thoroughly exhausted.
      As they worked Garander saw his father staring at the snow-covered woods, and studying the snow for tracks. He was obviously not convinced Tesk would remain safely hidden away. For his own part Garander thought the shatra was probably just fine where he was, out in the forest somewhere. He wondered whether Tesk even felt the cold; demons were supposed to be immune to heat and cold, weren't they?
      By the time they finally went inside for supper and peeled off their sodden coats Garander was too tired to care what Tesk was doing. He was much more interested in eating the stew his mother had prepared, and then collapsing into bed.
      The next day was mostly sunny, but cold; not much of the snow melted, and the glare off the white surface made any outdoor activity unpleasant. Accordingly, Grondar and his wife and children mostly stayed inside, huddled around the hearth, once the necessary chores were done.
      At first they were largely silent, talking only about the minutia of their lives – how much firewood was stocked in the shed, what vegetables were in the bins, whether they had enough thread to do all the sewing Shella of the Green Eyes had planned, and so on. Shella the Younger asked Garander a few questions about what he had seen women wearing in Varag.
      But then Grondar asked Ishta, “What did the shatra tell you about mizagars?”
      “What?” She looked at her father, startled.
      “You said the shatra told you things, and that there are mizagars in the forest. What did it tell you about mizagars?”
      “Oh. Well, he said they had been created by Northern sorcery three or four hundred years ago to watch border areas where the Empire didn't want to bother putting soldiers...”
      Garander listened with interest. Now that Ishta was no longer trying to keep anything secret, and seemed to be over her anger at the loss of her talisman, she seemed eager to talk about Tesk, and to repeat everything he had told her over the past few months – not just about mizagars, but about trees and moss and squirrels and birds' nests and spiders and leaf mold and a hundred other things.
      It occurred to him, as he listened, that Tesk knew as much about the forest as Grondar knew about farming, and Ishta had been far more interested in learning it than she ever had been in what her father had tried to teach her.
      But then, she had always loved the woods, even before she knew anyone was living out there.
      After supper, as the family gathered around the hearth again, Ishta was tired of talking, but now Grondar was the one who seemed eager to speak. Instead of talking about the farm as he usually did, though, he talked about his days in the Ethsharitic army during the Great War. He had served seven years in the Central Command under General Anaran, but he had never actually met the legendary war leader. He had never seen any shatra, or any mizagars, either. He had seen dragons, but only from a safe distance – a mile or two. He had seen three wizards, but never spoken to any. His company had had a witch to look after their health, but he had never seen her do any magic other than healing. He knew there were wonderful stories about gods and heroes and monsters, battles and magic, stratagems and surprises in the war, but most of what he remembered was mud and cold and hunger, and never knowing where the enemy was or what was going on. He had been in four small battles and two or three skirmishes too small to qualify, and had seen perhaps thirty of his fellow soldiers die – mostly from arrows or sorcery, not the sort of close-in sword fight that the stories talked about. Sometimes he didn't know how men had died; he saw them lying on the ground, covered in mud and blood, and didn't have time to worry about it. He had never been stuck with the unpleasant duty of hauling the bodies to the pyres, though he had helped build the pyres a few times.
      He described the smell of a battlefield after the fighting was over, the stink of the dead. He talked about the smell of the pyres, and the smoke staining the sky.
      Over the years Garander had heard his father tell a few war stories, but never like this.
      Finally, during a brief pause in the flood of memories, Garander's mother asked, “Why are you telling us this all of a sudden?”
      “The shatra,” Grondar replied. “It's brought the war back.”
      “No, he hasn't,” Ishta said. “The war's still over. Tesk doesn't want it back.”
      Grondar shook his head. “It's not like that. It's...” He took a deep breath and held it for a moment, then let it out. “My life is in two parts,” he said. “There's the war, and there's after the war. Shatra are from the war. If there are still shatra out there, then there might be other things I thought were gone – officers and orders and marching and killing, wizards and dragons, magic and monsters, all those things I never want to see again. And the things I thought I would keep forever, maybe I don't get to keep them – the farm, and my family, and my friends. During the war I never got to stay in one place for very long; we would have to move because the front was moving, or because we were needed somewhere, or because it wasn't safe anymore where we had been. Whole villages would grow up in a month when an army camped somewhere, everyone coming to support the army, and whole villages would disappear overnight when the Northerners came.”
      “Father, he's just one left-over shatra,” Garander said.
      “But what's it doing there?”
      “Nothing! He's just living in the woods,” Ishta said.
      “Why?
      “He doesn't have anywhere else to go!” Garander said. “He can't go home; his home is gone. The whole Northern Empire is gone. And he can't come live anywhere with ordinary people, because he's shatra!”
      Grondar stared at his son for a moment.
      “I'm sorry he's brought back all these bad memories, Father, but he didn't do it on purpose. He doesn't mean any harm.”
      “How do you know?”
      “Because he's had twenty years to do whatever terrible evil thing he might be planning, and he hasn't done it. Listen to what Ishta said – he didn't talk to her about war or killing. They talked about trees and sunlight and field mice.”
      Garander was surprised at the vehemence in his own words. He had never intended to defend Tesk; he had had his own doubts about the Northerner. Something about his father's stories, though, had brought this out – he had needed to convince both his father and himself that Tesk was not part of those long-ago horrors, not anymore.
      “You stopped being a soldier,” Ishta said. “So did Tesk.”
      “It's not just a soldier,” Grondar said. “It's a shatra. It can't stop being that.”
      “But he stopped fighting, just as you did,” Garander said.
      “It's late,” Shella of the Green Eyes said, speaking for the first time since asking what had brought on her husband's stories. She got to her feet. “I'm going to bed. Ishta, you should be in bed, too.”
      With that, the family gathering broke up. Garander banked the fire for the night and made sure the doors and shutters were secure while the others retired to the bedrooms, and then followed.
      He huddled in his bed, waiting until his body had warmed it enough to sleep comfortably, and thought over the evening's conversation. He had expected his father to think Tesk was dangerous, but he had not expected the shatra's presence to trigger all those wartime memories. He hoped there would be no other surprises.
      The next day it snowed again, and they were all busy tending to the farm, but the several days following were clear and cold.
      A sixnight after his first sight of Tesk, around midday, Grondar announced, “I'm going to go see Felder.”
      Startled, Garander asked, “Why? Are we short on something?”
      Grondar glared at him. “No. Do I need my son's permission to visit our neighbor?”
      Garander glanced around at his mother and sisters, but they were obviously not eager to get involved. “No, of course not, Father,” he said.
      Grondar relented slightly. “I want to make sure he's all right, that he was ready for the snow.”
      “Oh.”
      “And I'm going to warn him that we've seen a shatra in the woods.”
      This time it was Garander's mother who spoke. “He'll think you've gone mad.”
      Grondar turned up an empty palm. “Let him.” Then he grabbed his hat and marched out the door.
      Over the course of the next sixnight Grondar visited Kolar down by the ford, and old Elkan, and Rulura the Witch, and finally he went into the village of Ezval to spread the news more widely.
      Garander also visited some of their neighbors, not to spread any news, but to see how his father's reports had been received. He talked to Kolar's son Karn, and Elkan's granddaughters, and a woman he met at the smith's forge whose name he didn't know.
      No one actually seemed to be convinced there was really a shatra in the forest, but they didn't seem to think that Grondar was mad, merely that he had seen something in the woods and had misinterpreted what he saw. He had presented his story in rational terms, and had admitted the possibility he was wrong, while saying he didn't think he was.
      And he had apparently not mentioned that two of his children had befriended the monster. Garander was grateful for that, anyway.
      Karn asked him, “So have you seen this half-demon thing?”
      Garander turned up a palm. “I did see something in the woods. It looked like a man to me, but I couldn't be sure.”
      “So your father isn't completely imagining it?”
      “No, there was something there. I thought maybe it was a ghost, but I saw it.”
      “Huh. I thought it was awfully early in the winter to be going hearth-crazy. If you both saw it, I guess there was something to see.”
      “Ishta saw it, too,” Garander said.
      “What about Shella?”
      Garander shook his head. “She doesn't go out near the woods if she can help it. My mother wasn't there, either.” He noticed the look in Karn's eyes when he said Shella's name; it might not be that long before Karn would be his brother-in-law, unappealing though that prospect might be.
      After the visit to Ezval Grondar seemed to feel he had done his duty, and stopped his expeditions. Two days later the first blizzard struck, and the question of any further visiting was moot. As the snow piled up and the wind howled in the eaves just keeping the family and livestock alive was enough to occupy everyone's time.
      It appeared they were in for a hard winter, as this blizzard was a bad one, bad enough that the elder Shella wondered if they had somehow offended the gods, while Gronder suggested there might be magic involved.
      Whatever the reasons for the storm's ferocity, there was nothing they could do but wait it out.
      As the storm continued Ishta worried about Tesk, but Garander assured her they had experienced worse in previous years, even if she didn't remember it, and Tesk had presumably survived those winters well enough.
      Ishta did not seem entirely convinced, but she was not stupid or desperate enough to go out in the storm looking for her demonic friend; she knew how easy it was to get disoriented in all that whiteness and howling wind, and how quickly a person – or at least the goat they had lost during a storm two years earlier – could freeze to death. They used tethers and guide-ropes just to get from the house to the barn; venturing into the woods was out of the question.
      After a day and a half the storm eased, and as Garander returned from watering the cattle he found Ishta leaning out the door, staring toward the forest.
      “He's fine,” Garander told her as he reached the house. He pulled her inside and slammed the door. “Don't let out all the warmth.”
      “We don't know he's fine,” Ishta said. “I know you said he's survived worse, when I was little, but we don't know that. He might have been hiding in a cave up in the hills or something back then, and maybe this time he was caught off-guard.”
      “Well, there's nothing we can do about it,” Garander replied.
      “We should check on him!”
      “In this weather? We can't.”
      “When the snow stops, I mean.”
      Garander sighed. “Ishta, if he is in trouble, it'll be too late by then, even if we could find him.”
      “We should look, though! He's part demon; maybe he... oh, I don't know.”
      “Neither do I,” Garander admitted. “But if you're really that worried, I'll help you take a look when the weather lets up. You can't go out there alone in all this snow. And we'll have to tell Father – he'd see the tracks, in any case.”
      “But he told us to stay away from Tesk!”
      Garander had momentarily forgotten that; doing his chores in the blizzard had distracted him. He frowned.
      Just then their sister Shella opened the door and stepped in, carrying an armful of firewood. Ishta glanced up at Garander.
      “We'll talk later,” he said.
      The snow stopped completely that evening, and by morning the clouds had blown away, leaving a white world ablaze with light, sun reflecting from every surface. Grondar put the children and himself to work, shoveling out paths and clearing snow from windows and doors; it was tiring, but the effort kept them warm.
      Around noon Garander was up in the loft, clearing the loft door and making sure the weight of the snow had not cracked any rafters, when he glanced out across the north field, toward the forest.
      A thin line of smoke was rising from the trees.
      He blinked, then smiled. There was only one way there could be a fire out there in these conditions. Tesk had survived the storm.
      He took one more look around, gave the loft door a final swing to make sure no snow blocked its movement, then latched it and headed downstairs to tell Ishta that the shatra was alive.
      He found her clearing snow from the chicken run, where she received the news with less delight than Garander had expected.
      “He built a fire?”
      “Well, someone did, and who else could it be?”
      “But anyone could see it!”
      Annoyed, Garander asked, “Who else is there around here?”
      “The neighbors! Felder can probably see it.”
      Garander had to stop and think a moment, then said, “From his house it probably looks like it's ours.”
      Ishta opened her mouth to argue, then stopped. “Oh,” she said.
      “Tesk isn't stupid,” Garander pointed out.
      “What about from Kolar's farm?”
      “I'm not sure he could see it at all; he's on the other side of the south ridge.”
      “What about Shessin... no, I guess not.” Ishta frowned. “Let me see it.”
      The two climbed back up to the loft, where Garander opened the door and pointed out the thin trail of pale smoke.
      Ishta squinted out into the glare. “I can hardly see it,” she said. “It's white smoke. You didn't say that.”
      “I told you he wasn't stupid.”
      Garander had thought that would settle the matter, but that evening Ishta pulled him aside and made it clear that she still wanted to check on Tesk when she got a chance, and she expected Garander to help her.
      “But you'll leave tracks!” Garander protested.
      “Maybe we can hide them somehow.”
      Garander had no idea how they could hide tracks in snow this deep – the blizzard had deposited about a foot and a half of snow, with drifts as much as ten feet high. Of course, the wind that made those drifts had also scoured some areas down to a mere inch or two, and there was a long arc across the north field where that had happened. He wondered whether they could use that somehow.
      It was four days later, though, that Ishta came up with her own solution – hide behind the drifts, where their tracks would not be visible from the house or barn. That would not take them all the way, but it might be enough to keep their father from noticing their trail.
      It was obvious that she was not going to be deterred, so Garander accompanied her, crouching behind the drifts as they wound their way around the barn, past the bushes, across the north field, and into the woods.
      They had scarcely stepped into the shadow of the first few trees when Tesk called to them.
      “Hsst!” he said, and both of them looked up to see him crouched on a tree limb, about fifteen feet up. Garander immediately looked at the snow beneath it; there were no footprints.
      There were mounds of snow fallen from branches, though, which could have been normal, but was probably Tesk's doing. He must have made his way through the treetops.
      “Tesk!” Ishta shouted.
      Tesk immediately placed a finger to his lips. “Sound travels well in this weather,” he said.
      “I'm so glad to see you!” Ishta exclaimed, a little more quietly.
      “And I am pleased to see you.”
      “I was afraid you'd freeze out here, in that storm!”
      Tesk smiled. “I have my magic,” he said. “I am fine.”
      “We saw the smoke from your fire,” Garander said. “Four days ago.”
      “I intended you to,” Tesk said. “That was a signal to let you know I was safe.”
      “So that's why I never saw smoke in the forest before?”
      Tesk nodded. “I do not need fire often. When I do, I have ways of hiding it. I let you see that one deliberately.”
      “I was worried,” Ishta said. “Especially when we saw the smoke right after the storm, but then it was gone again later.”
      “It was intended to reassure you. White smoke will always mean I am safe. If I am not, the smoke will be dark.”
      Ishta nodded understanding.
      “I am glad you and your family were safe.”
      “Why wouldn't we be?” Garander said. “We have a house, we aren't out in the woods!”
      “Still, a storm can be dangerous. I came to see you were safe that night.”
      “You did?”
      Tesk nodded.
      “I didn't see footprints,” Garander said.
      Tesk smiled at that. “I have magic.”
      Garander smiled back, then turned serious. “Father has told the neighbors you're here,” he said.
      “Did they believe him?”
      “I don't know,” Garander admitted. “Probably not.”
      “Then I will not worry about it, but I thank you for the warning.” Then his head jerked up slightly. “I think you should go. Your father is moving this way.”
      Ishta turned to stare back toward the farm, but Garander hesitated. “Would you be willing to talk with him sometime?” he asked.
      Tesk stared at Garander for a moment before answering, “I would. But not now.” Then he turned and slid up the tree, disappearing quickly among the snow-covered branches.
      When the two of them got back to the barn they found Grondar standing by the well, staring out across the north field. He saw them arrive, and for a moment the three of them just stared at one another.
      It was Grondar who broke the silence. “He's still out there?”
      “Yes,” Garander said, expecting a speech about how dangerous Tesk was, and how they should stop disobeying orders and stay away from the shatra, but instead Grondar just nodded.
      “Be careful,” he said.
Ishta's Companion
(A Legend of Ethshar)
How It Works
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Announcement
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Created: Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Last Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2013