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The cold autumn rain and wind had swept most of the trees bare, and covered the sodden ground beneath their branches in a slick brown mat of fallen leaves. A month and a sixnight had passed since Garander’s return from Varag, and he and Ishta had reached a state of silent truce. She had tacitly acknowledged his apology, but was not yet ready to forgive him completely. She spoke to him only when necessary, telling him nothing unless he specifically asked.
For his part, he did not try to force the issue. He spoke to her as he always had, but made no complaint and took no offense if she said as little as possible in reply. He did not spy on her, or follow her around, or make any attempt to supervise her; he was her brother, not her parent. It was pure accident that he happened to be coming around the corner of the barn just as she slipped into the woods.
“Oh, death,” he muttered to himself.
He wasn't really surprised. After all, Ishta had been sneaking off into the woods for years, even when she was getting along with everyone; when she was angry with her family, she had all the more reason to disobey. She was probably hoping to find more Northern sorcery.
He didn't think she had seen him; she had been looking into the woods, not back toward the barn. He hesitated, trying to decide what to do. If he did nothing, just let her go, and something went wrong, she got lost or hurt, he would be responsible and
their father would be furious. The odds were that she would be fine, but the risk was more than he wanted to take.
But if he tried to stop her, that would undo all the peacemaking he had managed since he got home from Varag.
Besides, he was curious. Where was she going in such damp, dismal weather? He stuck the shears he had been carrying in his belt, and turned to follow his sister into the gloom of the forest.
The wet leaves underfoot were slippery and required caution, but they did not rustle or crunch like dry leaves; even though he was just a farmer, untrained in any sort of wilderness skills, he was able to move almost silently through the woods. He was also able to follow Ishta's trail readily, seeing where her feet had flattened the leaves.
She was not wandering randomly; she was walking in a straight line, or as near to a straight line as was possible among the trees, into the forest. Garander thought she clearly knew where she was going. That worried him, though he could not say why. He quickened his pace, and before long he spotted Ishta's green jacket moving through the woods ahead of him.
She didn't look back, didn't see him; all her attention seemed to be focused forward. Then she raised an arm and called, “Hai
!” For a moment Garander thought she had spotted him, but she had still not turned her head, or slowed her own steps. Then he saw movement ahead of her, something dark and quick, and he stopped walking, slipping quickly behind a tree and peering out to see what his sister was up to.
Then there was a man there, standing in front of Ishta. Garander had not quite seen him arrive, but he was definitely there.
Garander did not recognize him. He was still fifty yards away, but even at that distance Garander was fairly certain this man was a stranger. He did not dress or move like anyone Garander had ever seen before.
He was tall and slender, and dressed entirely in black. His tunic was cut tight and short; if he had followed tradition and set the length for life at the distance from shoulder to knee when he was twelve, this man had clearly been a small child, but made up for it later. His black leather breeches were also cut tight, and tucked into his boot-tops.
That was unusual, but the really
strange part, the part that immediately let Garander know that something out of the ordinary was happening, was that he wore a round black helmet that gleamed like glass even in the shadowy woods. It covered his head from just above his eyebrows to the nape of his neck, hiding both ears. Garander had never seen anything remotely like it.
The stranger wore a pack on his back, held in place by wide straps over both shoulders rather than the more usual single shoulder-strap; these in turn connected to the widest belt Garander had ever seen, and the belt and both straps were adorned with various pouches and other attachments. There were several other unfamiliar objects slung here and there, protruding from his harness; they looked like tools of some sort, but Garander could not identify a single one of them with any degree of certainty.
And all of this equipage was black. Some was drab, some was glossy, but all was black.
The man's skin, on the other hand, was unusually pale, and his beard a lighter shade of brown than Garander had ever seen on a human face. Garander was unable to judge his age, except that he was a grown man and not yet going gray.
“Ishta,” the stranger said. Then he looked directly at Garander and said, speaking loudly but with a thick, unfamiliar accent, “Did you know someone followed you?”
“What?” Ishta turned, staring into woods behind her. Garander did not think she had spotted him, but there was no point in pretending any further – the stranger was obviously not going to be fooled. Garander stepped out from behind the tree and moved a few steps toward Ishta and the stranger, to make conversation easier, but stopped when he was still several yards away so as not to seem threatening.
“Hello, Ishta,” he said. “Would you like to introduce me to your friend?”
“Garander?” Ishta said, shocked. “You spied
“I followed you,” Garander said. “I don't think it was spying, exactly.”
“You were spying
Garander sighed. “Fine, I was spying on you. Are you going to introduce me, or not?” As he spoke he was keeping a careful eye on the stranger – and the stranger, he saw, was watching him just as warily. He had not, however, reached for a weapon, and almost certainly some of those mysterious tools were weapons; that was encouraging. It was still suspicious for a grown man to be meeting a girl of eleven in the woods without her family's knowledge or permission, though.
Ishta glared at him for a moment, then said, “Fine. Garander, this is my friend Tesk. Tesk, this is my brother Garander.”
“I am pleased to meet you,” the stranger said. Garander had never before heard anyone pronounce simple Ethsharitic so strangely.
“Yes,” Garander said, rather than making a polite response that would be a lie. “Tesk, is it?”
The stranger smiled. “Ishta calls me Tesk. My real name is Tezhiskar Deralt aya Shatra Ad'n Chitir Shess Chitir.”
Garander listened to this jumble of meaningless syllables and said, “Tesk it is, then.”
“Yes,” the stranger said. “Gorandaar?”
“Garander,” Garander corrected him.
“Why are you here?” Garander asked.
The stranger glanced at Ishta. “Here? Where do you mean?”
“In these woods. What are you doing here? Who are you?”
“I live here.”
Garander looked around for a house, or shed, or lean-to, or tent, or even just a hole in the ground or a hollow tree. He saw none. “Where?” he asked.
“Anywhere,” Tesk replied. “I do not have a shelter. I sleep in any tree that is handy.”
“In a tree?”
“Any tree?” Garandar was trying to make sense of this bizarre claim.
The stranger did something with his shoulders. “One that is strong enough to hold me, with branches to climb,” he replied. “That one, for example.” He pointed to a nearby oak.
“So you don't have a home?”
“I do not.”
“Where did you come from?”
“I do not know. I do not remember. I have always lived in the forest.”
Garander frowned. “I don't believe that. You must have come from somewhere
“Garander, you're being rude,” Ishta said.
“He merely wishes to protect his family,” Tesk said. “That is good of him.”
“He doesn't need to protect me
! He stole my talisman!”
didn't steal it! The Baron of Varag did.”
gave it to the baron!”
“Father made me!”
“But you did it!”
Garander glared at her helplessly, then turned to Tesk. “I'm sorry,” he said. “It's a family disagreement; we shouldn't be speaking of it here in front of you.”
“I am not troubled,” Tesk answered. “I am glad to hear human voices. I have been alone a very long time.”
“You have? How long?”
Again, the stranger made that curious movement, lifting his shoulders and then dropping them. “I do not know,” he said. “Several years.”
“That's why he talks funny!” Ishta said.
“Is that right?” Garander asked.
The stranger hesitated.
“He's forgotten how to act normal!” Ishta insisted.
“Or he wasn't normal in the first place,” Garander said. “It sounds to me as if he grew up speaking another language, and hasn't learned Ethsharitic very well.”
The stranger smiled, a tight, humorless little smile, but he did not say anything; he neither confirmed nor denied Garander's guess.
“If you've lived alone in the woods for years,” Garander asked, “how do you keep your clothes so neat? Why haven't they worn out?”
“They were very well made to begin with,” Tesk said. “I am careful with them. I wash them and I repair them when necessary.”
“Who made them for you?”
Tesk stared at him without blinking for several seconds before replying, “I do not remember.”
“You don't know where you got that hat?”
“No. I have had it for as long as I can remember.”
“Stop asking him silly questions!” Ishta said. “He's my friend, not some stranger who's planning to steal our things.”
“How do you know he isn't?” Garander asked.
“Because he hasn't done it yet! Garander, he's been living out here for ages
, but he hasn't taken anything.”
“So what does he eat
?” Garander demanded of his sister.
She looked at Tesk, who said, “I catch animals for meat. I gather berries and nuts and apples when they are in season.”
“You can live on that?”
“I do not need much. I do not exert myself needlessly.”
Garander had no evidence that this was anything but the simple truth, and in any case it didn't really matter. He dropped the subject and got to the important point. “What do you want with my sister?”
Tesk looked surprised. “Nothing,” he said. “We met by chance. We spoke. We enjoyed the conversation, so she has returned several times to speak again.”
“I have been alone a long time. Any human contact is welcome.”
“Then why haven't you come out of the woods and found a place for yourself among other people?”
Tesk blinked. He took several seconds to consider before answering, “I do not know.”
That surprised even Ishta. “You don't?” she asked.
“I had not thought about it.”
“You can come home with us!” Ishta exclaimed.
“Hold on,” Garander said, before Tesk responded. “I don't know about that. Father probably doesn't want us bringing strangers home.”
“We could ask him.”
“Please do not,” Tesk said. “I am content as I am. I do not wish to intrude on your family.”
“I don't –” Garander began.
“Are you sure?” Ishta interrupted.
“I am quite certain, Ishta. I do not wish to inconvenience anyone.”
“If you're willing to work, it might not be an inconvenience,” Garander suggested.
Tesk shook his head. “No. I am content living in the forest.”
“I should tell our father you're here – ” Garander began.
“No!” Ishta and Tesk exclaimed simultaneously.
“I do not wish to worry anyone,” Tesk said. “He would be concerned about my presence.”
“He'd want to drive Tesk away!” Ishta said.
Garander could not argue with either of these statements, but he said, “I don't like keeping things secret from him.”
do!” Ishta said. “You saw what happened when you showed him that talisman! You still owe me for that, Garander, and I want you to promise not to tell Father about Tesk!”
Garander bit his lip as he glowered at his sister.
“You won't do anything stupid?” he asked her.
“You'll tell me if Tesk does anything he shouldn't? If he steals anything, or tries to hurt anyone?”
“I will not steal anything or harm anyone,” Tesk said. “But I understand why you do not take my word.”
Garander glanced at him, then turned back to Ishta.
“And after this we're even? No more apologies or demands or anything?”
“If you keep this secret I'll forgive you for the talisman. I'll even owe you a favor!”
Garander smiled. “Then how can I refuse? But I will
tell Father all about Tesk if you go missing, or anything.”
Ishta glanced at Tesk, then nodded. “That's fair.”
“Then we're all set.” He turned back to the black-clad stranger. “So what's your native language? You don't sound as if you grew up with Ethsharitic.”
“I have not spoken much,” Tesk said. “For as long as I can remember, I have had no one to speak to.”
That did not actually answer the question, Garander noticed. This Tesk apparently had some secrets of his own. “I'm told that up in Sardiron people mix their Ethsharitic with the old Northern tongue,” he remarked.
Tesk looked puzzled. “Sardiron?”
“Sardiron of the Waters. It's north of here. The Council of Barons meets there.”
Tesk looked politely blank. “Council of Barons?”
Garander sighed. “Some of the commanders of the old army don't accept the authority of the overlords of Ethshar,” he said. “They each claimed a piece of land, and they call themselves barons, and they have a council where they meet to decide what to do.”
“And what do the overlords of Ethshar say about this?” Tesk asked. Garander thought he heard a note of concern in the stranger's voice.
“They say the Northern taint in these lands has driven these men mad, and it's not worth fighting over, and they'll come to their senses in time. At least, that's what I've heard. I've never seen any of the overlords myself.”
“No, of course not.”
ever seen an overlord?” Ishta asked Tesk.
He smiled. “No, I have not. I live in the forest; what would one of the mighty rulers of Ethshar be doing in such a place?”
Garander smiled in return. Although he still had no idea what the man was doing here, he was starting to like Tesk.
They chatted for a few more minutes, and Garander grew steadily more comfortable with the stranger. His speech was awkward, but he seemed pleasant and calm. At last, though, Garander said, “We should be getting back, before our parents miss us. They'll want us to help with supper.”
Ishta opened her mouth to protest, but Tesk said, “Yes. You should. But I will see you again?”
Garander nodded, and Ishta said, “Of course!”
They turned and headed back toward the farm. Garander glanced over his shoulder to see Tesk standing there, watching them go – but then the stranger moved, so fast that Garander thought he must be imagining it, and leapt for a tree branch. A moment later he had climbed up and vanished among the treetops.
Garander looked down at his sister, who had missed the whole thing.
“How did you find him?” he asked.
“The first time? I don't know. He was crouching on the ground looking for something, and I asked what it was he wanted.”
“He wouldn't say. He said it wasn't important.”
“When was that?”
She turned up an empty palm. “Maybe a month ago?”
“How often have you been out here, then?”
She gave Garander a disgusted look. “I've been playing in the woods since I was a baby!” she said.
That was true – and their parents had been trying to put an end to it ever since they first noticed. Warnings about dragons and bears and mizagars had not deterred her; neither had spankings, withheld meals, or anything else. Garander did not really understand why she was so determined; he
had never been so obsessed with the forest. He kept hoping she would outgrow it.
“I meant, how often have you been meeting Tesk?”
“Oh. I don't know, maybe five or six times, counting today.”
“So what do you know about him that he didn't mention today?”
She turned up her palm again. “I don't know,” she said. “I think he's a halfwit, the way he talks, and he says he doesn't remember anything about his family, or where he grew up, or anything.”
“He seems smart enough to me,” Garander remarked.
“But he doesn't know anything!” Ishta said. “He looks
smart, and everything, but he doesn't know anything!”
“I'm not sure it's safe, talking to him.”
“Oh, don't be silly. He's not a bear
, or anything.”
“No, he's not a bear, or a mizagar or a dragon, but he's a man, and men can be dangerous.”
“He's a nice
man,” Ishta insisted. “He talks to me like a real person, and he's interested in everything, not just in farming like you and Father, or clothes like Shella, or food like Mother.”
“I'm interested in other things!” Garander protested.
“Well, yeah,” Ishta conceded. “But I was mad at you about my talisman.”
“So what do you talk about?”
Ishta looked down at her feet as they walked. “Oh, trees, and sunlight, and dragons, and throwing rocks, and the neighbors, and, you know, stuff.”
Garander nodded. “Sounds nice,” he said.
“I told you he was,” Ishta said, raising her head.
Garander did not argue – for one thing, they had reached the edge of the forest, and he did not want to answer any awkward questions should one of their parents overhear their conversation. Neither of them spoke again until they reached the house.