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That night Garander lay awake in his bed, staring at the dark beams overhead and thinking about what he had seen and heard.
Tesk did seem pleasant enough, but why was he there? Why was he dressed all in black? Why did he move and speak so strangely?
That clothing was unlike anything Garander had ever seen before. So were the tools Tesk carried, whatever they were. Those weren't anything he found in the woods, and Garander didn't see how Tesk could have made them without a workshop of some sort. They were much too finished
for anything made by hand out of materials found in the forest.
In fact, they looked downright magical.
Tesk did not admit to remembering any family, or any origins. If he was lying, then he was hiding something. If he was telling the truth, then something very strange had happened to him at some point. After all, he must have had parents once – parents, or a creator.
Tesk's tools, his clothing, his way of moving – they all smacked of magic. It was possible he had been created
by magic. He might be something a magician had made in the shape of a man, or something a magician had turned into
a man – a snake, perhaps, from the way he moved. Garander didn't know enough about magic to say with any certainty what sort of magician could have done such a thing; he thought a wizard probably could and a witch probably couldn't, but sorcerers and theurgists and demonologists, well, he just didn't know. Tesk could be a clay statue brought to life, a creature conjured out of thin air, a transformed beast...
Or a ghost. Maybe he could survive in the woods because he was already dead, and didn't know it. That would explain why he wasn't worried about finding enough food, and his missing memories fit with some of the ghost stories Garander had heard.
But he had certainly looked solid enough, even in bright daylight. That didn't seem very ghostly.
And of course, he might just be a human being, despite the strangeness.
But if he was human, why was he living in the forest? Why did he talk so oddly? Where did he get those clothes, and the things he carried? Why wouldn't he say where he had come from?
Garander tried to find some way of avoiding the obvious conclusion, but he couldn't. Tesk was living in territory that had belonged to the Northern Empire right up to the very end of the Great War, in an area where that talisman Ishta had found proved Northerners had been active. He spoke like someone whose first language was something very unlike Ethsharitic. He wouldn't say who he really was or where he was from.
He might be a Northerner. He might have somehow survived the war, and hidden out in the forest ever since. Yes, the gods had blasted the Empire out of existence, and the armies of Ethshar had wiped out the remnants of the Northern military, but that didn't mean every single Northerner had died. Garander had never heard of any Northern survivors, but that didn't mean much; he was a farmer's son on the edge of civilization, not anyone who heard all the latest gossip. For all he knew, hordes of captured Northerners had been paraded through the streets of Sardiron, or sold into slavery in Ethshar.
But if Tesk was a Northerner, then he was evil, wasn't he? The Northern Empire had been evil – that was why Old Ethshar had fought against it for a thousand years, and why the gods finally destroyed it. That was why killing all the Northerners had been a good thing to do, when killing anyone else was a horrible crime – Northerners were evil by their very nature.
Tesk didn't seem evil.
But appearances could be deceiving; Garander knew that.
And there were exceptions to every rule; Garander knew that
, too. Maybe Tesk really was a Northerner, but still wasn't evil; maybe that was why the gods had spared him when they destroyed the Empire. Maybe he was an exception.
Or maybe not. Maybe Tesk really was
a demon-worshipping monster. And Garander's little sister was meeting him in the woods and chatting with him.
But if he was a Northerner, then he had been living out there in the wilderness for twenty years, ever since the war ended. Thinking about Tesk's appearance, Garander judged him to be in his thirties, which would mean he had been a child when the war ended – but then why did he have clothes that fit him as an adult?
Maybe he was older than he looked, or maybe he had salvaged the clothes somewhere later. A more important question was what the things he carried on his back were.
Ishta had found a Northern military talisman in the woods where Tesk lived. Maybe he wasn't just a Northerner; maybe he was a Northern sorcerer
. Maybe that had been his
talisman. Maybe those things on his back were all sorcery, and his magic kept him young.
That was a frightening thought.
Garander wondered whether he should tell someone about Tesk. He had promised not to, but if Tesk was a Northern sorcerer
And if he was a harmless halfwit who had wandered off from a farm or camp, as Ishta thought, then what? In that case, telling others wouldn't accomplish anything except angering both Ishta and Tesk.
Or what if he really was a squirrel or a snake some passing wizard had enchanted in the waning days of the Great War? What good would it do to tell anyone?
Destroying Tesk's privacy and ruining his own relationship with his sister before he was sure
that Tesk was dangerous did not appeal to Garander. He decided that he needed to find out more about Tesk, and more about Northerners, and see how well they matched up.
Having reached this decision he tried to get to sleep, with only intermittent success.
At breakfast the following morning Garander was so obviously not at his best that his mother asked if he was feeling well.
“It's nothing,” Garander mumbled.
Shella considered this, then turned away. Grondar eyed his son for a moment, then continued eating.
A moment later Garander asked, “Father? During the war, did you ever meet any Northerners?”
any? No. How could I meet any?”
“I thought there might have been prisoners you spoke to.”
Grondar shook his head. “We never took any prisoners.”
“Did you ever see
any Northerners, then?”
Grondar snorted. “More than I wanted to.”
“Of course. Mostly at a distance, though – I didn't see much close combat, thank the gods!”
“So you didn't get a good look at them?”
“Not when they were alive. I helped strip and burn some of the bodies a couple of times, and that
certainly let me see more of them than I wanted.”
“So they really were human?”
“Oh, is that
what this is about? Yes, they were really human. Once the uniforms were off, you couldn't tell a dead Northerner from a dead Ethsharite.”
“You were wondering how ordinary people could serve an evil empire?”
“Well, that,” Garander said. “And I heard stories in Varag that made me wonder. One of the soldiers there said that Northerners didn't move like ordinary people – he said they were faster than we are, and their movements were... funny. Really smooth and graceful.”
His father turned up an empty palm. “The ordinary Northerners were just people, and they moved like anybody else. But according to the stories, shatra
moved the way that soldier said.” Grondar shuddered. “I never saw any shatra
, thank the gods!”
“What are shatra
?” Ishta asked. Garander had not realized she was listening; he threw her a nervous glance, wondering whether she had realized why he was asking about Northerners.
Something about the word “shatra
” was troubling him, but he was unsure what. He had heard it before, in stories about the war, but that wasn't it...
were half man, half demon,” Grondar told his younger daughter. “According to what our magicians told us, it took a demonologist and a sorcerer working together to turn a man into one, and no one on our side could do it. Shatra
were stronger and faster than humans, and they could move so silently that no one could hear them coming; there were stories about sentries who turned around and found shatra
had come up right beside them, or behind them, and they hadn't heard a thing. The stories said that shatra
were inhumanly efficient, that they never wasted any motion, and could hold so still that they blended in with the background. They didn't have any scent – watchdogs couldn't smell them – and they could see in the dark. They dressed all in black, and they were all sorcerers, carrying dozens of powerful talismans, including a big wand that was some kind of magical weapon that could spit fire.”
Garander listened to this description with mounting horror.
“I never saw one myself,” Grondar continued. “I just heard stories. But they were definitely real, because we had orders about what to do if we saw one. We weren't supposed to try to fight it, even if it was just one of them against our entire regiment; our orders were to retreat and call for magicians and dragons to tackle it. One shatra
was a match for at least a hundred Ethsharitic soldiers.”
Garander looked at Ishta, who was staring at their father, fascinated.
This was horrible, even worse than Garander had feared. It sounded as if Ishta's friend in the forest was not just a Northerner, or even a Northern sorcerer, but a half-demon shatra
. In fact, Garander realized what had been troubling him about the very word – hadn't it been a part of Tesk's name
? Right in the middle of that string of syllables? That really didn't leave much room for doubt.
Surely, Garander thought, there must be some sort of mitigating element that would make this less of a disaster! “If they were so dangerous,” he asked, “then how did we win the war?”
“Because there were only a few of them at any one time,” Gronder replied. “Maybe a few hundred, at most. Maybe only a few dozen. For some reason the Northerners couldn't make very many of them.” He turned up an empty palm. “Maybe the demons they used to make them didn't like it, or maybe there were only a few of the right kind of demon available. Besides, they weren't impossible
to kill; a dragon had a pretty good chance against a shatra
, at least a flying dragon, and a good wizard could usually find a spell that would get through even a shatra
's defenses. There was even supposed to be at least one magic sword powerful enough that an ordinary soldier could kill a shatra
with it, though I sure wouldn't want to be the one to try it. A shatra
might do a lot of damage, but sooner or later they all got stopped somehow. If they hadn't, we wouldn't
have won the war!”
“I suppose the last ones were all killed by the gods,” Garander said. “I mean, at the end of the war, didn't the gods kill all the demons?”
“You can't kill
a demon!” his father corrected him. “All you can do is send it back to the Nethervoid. And that's what the gods did – they cast all the demons out of the World, and I assume that would have included half-demons like the shatra
. But I don't know for sure, and I don't know whether anyone really does.”
With that, Ishta finally looked at Garander, and for a moment he feared his sister was going to say something stupid, such as telling Grondar that the shatra
hadn't all been destroyed, but instead she held a knuckle to her lips, indicating that her brother should keep his mouth shut.
So she did understand what they had just been told, Garander thought. She did
know now that her friend Tesk was a half-demon monster left from the Great War, one that had somehow survived the destruction of the Northern Empire.
The question was, what was she going to do about it?
“Are you done eating?” Grondar asked his son. “Because if you are, there are chores that need doing.”
Garander looked down at his plate, then called to his mother, “Is there any more hash?”
By the time he had finished breakfast and completed his chores the morning was almost gone, and Garander was growing steadily more worried. What if Ishta went out into the woods to ask Tesk what it was like being a shatra
? The Northerner might kill her rather than risk exposure.
At last, though, Garander was able to go looking for his sister, and he found her in the barn, petting the old gray tomcat that kept mice from overrunning the place. She looked up at his approach, but stayed seated on the barn floor.
The cat looked up as well, but stayed sprawled comfortably where he was.
“Ishta,” Garander said, “I wanted to talk about what Father told us at breakfast.”
Ishta turned her attention back to the cat. “What is there to talk about? Tesk is a shatra
; so what?”
“So he's dangerous,” Garander replied. “Very
dangerous. You should stay away from him.”
“Because he's a half-demon Northerner!”
“So? If he wanted to hurt me, he would have done it already.”
That was an excellent point, but Garander said, “We don't know that. He's half-demon; we don't know how he thinks. Maybe he's waiting for something – waiting until he can get all of us, perhaps.”
“He asked us not to tell anyone he's there. You offered to bring him in to meet the family, and he said no.”
“Fine, maybe he's not trying to get all of us, but we don't know
, Ishta! We don't know what he wants, or why he's there, or anything
. We don't know whether we can believe a single word he says.”
“Why would he bother lying?”
“Because he's a shatra
! He's a Northerner! Even if that doesn't mean he's evil, what do you think Father would do if he found out? He fought in the war, remember? If Father found out there's a shatra
in the woods he'd tell the baron, or maybe send a message to Lord Edaran if he doesn't think the baron can handle it. You heard what he said; they would bring dragons or wizards to kill any shatra
“Where would Father find a dragon or a wizard?” Ishta demanded. “There aren't any around here!”
“That's why he'd tell the baron or the overlord! They have lots
of wizards in Ethshar of the Sands.”
“That's fifty leagues from here! Why would they care what's in our
“Because he's a shatra
“He's not bothering anyone! The war's been over for twenty years!”
“Honestly, Ishta, I don't think that matters. If anyone finds out he's there, they're going to send for help. They're going to send magicians to kill him. And Tesk is going to fight back, and a lot of people could get hurt.”
“So we won't tell anyone he's there!”
“All right, we won't, but you can't visit him
. Someone might see you.”
“Nobody has yet!”
Ishta hesitated. She obviously wanted to say that Garander didn't count, but at the same time, he had
followed her without her knowledge, and if he could do it, so could Shella, or their father, or one of the neighbors.
“I'll be more careful,” she said. “I didn't know it was important before. Now I do. And you can tell people things so they won't follow me.”
“I don't want to lie for you.”
“But you're my brother! And Tesk was nice to you!”
“Yes, he was
nice to me, which is why I don't want us to get him in trouble.”
“He'll worry if I don't come back.”
Garander hesitated. He had not thought of that.
“All right,” he conceded. “You can visit him again, so he won't worry, but you should tell him you won't be back.”
Ishta didn't answer; she just looked silently stubborn.
, Ishta, can't you see how dangerous this is?”
“I'll be careful,” she said.
“Talk to him about it, if you insist on visiting him,” Garander suggested. “See what he
thinks.” Tesk was an adult; he would probably have the sense to realize how difficult his position would be if anyone else found out he was in the area.
“I guess I should,” Ishta grudgingly acknowledged. “But I don't want to upset him. If he's really half-demon, upsetting him really might
Garander decided not to point out that this more or less contradicted Ishta's earlier assertions. “Good,” he said. “Just be careful.”
“I will,” Ishta said, as she scratched the tomcat under his chin.
Garander hesitated, then turned away. Any more argument would just make her more stubborn, he was sure.
He really, really
hoped she would be sensible and break off her contact with the shatra