31 August, 2007

Chapter Four

If you haven't been following the Saga, then you will probably want to start with Chapter One, or the explanation on the right.

NOTHING MOVED, not even a breath of wind. The wide valley looked much the same as the many others that they had passed through; tall pines on the hills surrounding it, a wide, open space in the middle where a stream would run in the summer, and the whole of it cloaked in the white of the deep snowpack. The only feature that would distinguish it from the others was the small cluster of large blackened holes near the center. A thin wisp of smoke still rose lazily from the largest of the pits.

"What do you suppose we should do?" asked Vuldi in a whisper. His attention was riveted to the charred remains of what was a farm only a short time ago.

"I don't know," said Michael, "What do you think, Tom?"

"I don't know. I guess go down there." They were lying on top of a snow bank that overlooked the silent valley.

"Why are we whispering?" whispered Michael.

"Because whatever did this could still be close by," Tom whispered back. Tom was just a few years older than the other two and was a friend of Michael's. He had joined them at the first farm they had stopped at returning from Greenpine. His family had sent him on ahead to secure lodging for them at his uncle's place in town. They had planned on splitting up again later that afternoon, since Michael and Vuldi were not traveling directly to Sweetwater, but now Michael was not sure what was going to happen.

"Well, just sitting here isn't doing anyone any good," he said as he stood up, "If whatever did this is still around, they would have heard us long before we saw the farm."

Vuldi stood up and said, "Michael's right. Let's go down there and see what happened."

"All right," Tom replied. They moved off the path and into the trees, what weapons they had at the ready. Michael held his strung bow in his left hand and his staff in his right, ready to drop one and use the other, whichever was needed. Vuldi had an arrow nocked in his bow, and Tom held a stone in his sling. What they were expecting, Michael was not sure, but, though fires were not unheard of on the farms, never did a fire claim every outbuilding as this one had. Their snowshoes crunched loudly in the snow to their ears, though in reality they moved so cautiously they could easily have snuck up on any rabbit they came across. The grays and browns of their clothing blended easily with the early morning shadows among the trees, making them invisible to all but the sharpest of eyes.

They came at last to the edge of the trees and paused, looking out on the clearing where the farm used to be. By now the thin wisp of smoke they had seen from up on the hill had disappeared. Not a sound could be heard.

"Vuldi, you stay here and cover us with your bow," Michael said, whispering again, "Tom, you come with me." Nobody seemed inclined to argue. Vuldi simply nodded his head and sunk further into the shadow of the tree he standing by. Tom put his sling away within easy reach and pulled out his long hunting knife. The nervous fear that had been so evident at the top of the hill had faded with their descent, to be replaced with a grim resolve. Something bad had happened, and they were the only ones available to deal with it.

Even with this newfound resolution, Michael felt a great deal of trepidation as they left the imagined protection of the trees. The short distance to the first burned-out building seemed miles long, though Michael tried to take comfort in Vuldi's ability with his bow. Vuldi did, after all, use a bow that no one else save Carral could draw, and his accuracy was not to be scoffed at either. He kept his eyes moving as they advanced on the former farm.

The nearest pit also seemed to be the largest, probably the barn, thought Michael. The closer they came, the more his attention was drawn to the charred remains. A few blackened timbers poked their heads above the rim, like the bones of some great beast. The snow had melted around the stone walls of the lower floor, and then re-froze, creating a treacherous and steep slope downward. He paused at the edge of this slope and looked around. Tom had also come up to the edge a few paces away. He was looking at Michael expectantly, waiting for an idea of what to do next. Michael looked back at Vuldi. If he didn't know where to look, he never would have seen him, Vuldi blended in so well with the trees. Michael began to worry less that any threat still lurked in the area. He motioned Vuldi to join them.

Tom began walking around the perimeter of the former barn, looking down into the ruin. About halfway around, he called to Michael and Vuldi, who had just joined him, and said, "Do you see any yak tracks anywhere?"

"No, why?" Michael called back. Looking around revealed no tracks of any kind, save their own.

Tom called back, "I can't tell if they got out or not." At this statement, both Michael and Vuldi peered closer into the depths. Michael could not see anything beyond the black and gray of ash and charred wood.

"It was snowing this morning," Vuldi reminded them. It was not heavy enough to hinder their travel, but enough to erase any recent tracks.

The other buildings proved identical to the first in all but size. In all there were the barn, the house, and three smaller sheds, all completely destroyed by the fire. What did not make sense was the buildings were spaced far enough apart that a fire in one should not have spread to any of the others. Also worrisome was the lack of any sign that the residents had tried to escape. The boys tried to remind themselves of the fresh snow, but they could not imagine that the family had not tried to save at least some things by throwing them out into the snow. It seemed as if the fire had consumed an already abandoned farm. The young men could not even agree exactly on whose farm it was, none of them ever having been this far to the south.

After their exploration, they regrouped and retrieved their packs, which they had left at the top of the hill above the valley. As they replaced the snowshoes they had used to explore the farm with their skis, Tom spoke up, "If this was the Wintsteds' place, like I think, then the nearest neighbors would be Willum's family."

"We were just there," Vuldi said, and it was true. They had left Willum's place over an hour ago, he and his family being the first stop of the day. The next one was the farm they had just left.

"So, what do we do?" asked Michael, as he stood up, shouldering his pack, "Do we go back to Willum, or do we proceed to the next farm?"

"I think if they got out," said Tom, inadvertently giving voice to the possibility they all feared, but did not want to admit. Tom swallowed, then continued, "I think they would have gone to their closest neighbor for help. They must have been cold, and it's the closest place for warmth."

"I think they would have headed into town. In fact, I doubt they were even here to begin with. I'll bet they they got an early start to the festival," said Vuldi in his usual I'm-right-and-you're-wrong-and-if-you-don't-like-it-here's-my-fist tone of voice. He looked at Tom, who flinched ever so slightly at his glower. They both then looked at Michael as he finally stood up from very carefully strapping on his skis. He looked from one to the other, shifting his pack to sit more comfortably on his shoulders. Suddenly he realized they were waiting for him to make the decision. Tom, he knew, would do whatever the majority said, and Vuldi nearly always followed his lead.

Michael thought for a moment longer, then said, "I'm not sure that it matters where they went. There's nothing we could do, and we need to get on with delivering the council's message." He looked from one to the other as they thought about this. Vuldi, he could see, was already agreeing with him, as he usually did. Michael was perhaps the only person Vuldi would readily agree with, perhaps because Michael was his only real friend and perhaps because Michael could usually keep him out of trouble. Tom, on the other hand, was taking a moment to mull the situation over. Finally, he spoke.

"There really isn't anything that we could do, is there?" he said. Tom sounded a little defeated, and Michael could sympathize; he too would prefer to help than to abandon the family to their fate. "Well, let's get going, then." With a kick, he started off down the gentle slope, Michael and Vuldi following.


They arrived back in Sweetwater late the next day. No news of the family had been forthcoming, though had been able to confirm whose farm it was; the Winsteds', as Tom had thought. He had left them that afternoon as he had planned, when Michael and Vuldi had turned to go further south. He had likely made it to town that night. After several families had announced that they had planned on leaving the the next morning anyway, Michael and Vuldi had decided to simply strike for town instead of heading north to the other farms they had yet to visit, reasoning that everyone would be heading there by now for the festivities.

Late as it was, several hours after sunset, the town was alive with preparations and anticipation for tomorrow, when the celebration would officially begin. The frozen air had come to life with the smells of baking bread in all their variety, from salty and crunchy, to sweet and gooey. The hearty scent of meat pies mingled with the tantalizing smell of fruit pies, made from winter preserves.. Tomorrow, Michael knew, many racks of meat and fowl would find their way onto the spits, with a multitude of sauces and gravies made from their drippings. Many vegetables, too, would find their way up from the cellars and into stews, soups, and steaming pots. Even with the abundance of cooking, the ovens and cooking hearths would be almost constantly tended, cooking even more food, throughout the celebration.

Though most of the activity was indoors, the sounds of merriment still permeated the air as much as the smells. Laughter, both from the children and the adults, called out to Michael and Vuldi, as they made their way to the inn. Only the games and sporting events would be held outside. As Michael let himself imagine the scenes of the coming days, he saw the common room of the inn swarming with people, eating, laughing, playing stones, telling stories, and simply enjoying being together. The homes in the towns would also be packed, but the inn would be the center of everything. There, in the evenings, all the official business would occur. Packed all the way up the stairs, and even spilling out into the kitchen and stables, the people would hear speeches from the winners of various contests, and schedules for the next day's events, as well as the more subdued parts of the Solstice Celebration. It was the stories, however, that would dominate the evening gatherings, and the stories most told would be their own oral history, stories of ancestors who had fought both man and nature to win and preserve the prosperity they now enjoyed.

The thought that maybe they would have to fight again suddenly sobered Michael and brought his mind slamming back to the task at hand. Vuldi had been walking grimly silent beside him, lost in his own reverie, as they approached the inn. Though very little light escaped the tightly shuttered building, noise enough escaped to betray the crowd of people inside. The two of them paused at the door to lean their skies against the wall. A blast of heat, as from a furnace, hit them as Michael swung open the door, as well as a blinding flood of light, and the full cacauphony of noise. They were greeted by many people as they wound their way down the stairs and through the room, looking for the Mayor. The greetings, Michael knew, were more for him than Vuldi. At least everyone was being polite to him.

As Michael was about to answer a question from Crag, a friend a year younger than he, a voice rose above the merry din. "Michael! Vuldi!" it called. Michael turned with Vuldi to see Wil waving at them over the heads of several people he was talking with by the hearth of an inviting fire. Moving towards them, Vuldi right behind, Michael spotted his mother's honey-blonde hair, and then saw that she was watching him approach with a slight smile. He knew she would be relieved to see him, as he was to see her. He wondered again what it could have been that she was doing. She stepped away from the circle of men and caught him up in a tight embrace.

"Are you all right?" she asked with concern.

"Yes, I'm fine," he said, pulling out of her arms, "and you? Where did you go?"

A puzzled look crossed her face. "Meryl didn't tell you?" she said.

"She just said that you had something to take care of, but didn't know what," he said.

Tenahj rolled her eyes and muttered fondly under her breath. "I'll tell you later," she said as she turned back to the circle of people, keeping one hand on Michael's shoulder. The group that had been politely waiting through their reunion, now turned their full attention to him. Michael now saw that what he had thought was simply a gathering of men was, in fact, a council meeting. Councilwomen Andil and Firan had been hidden behind the taller men. Carral was also there, looking pleased to see them both, but his pleasure seemed muted, overlaid with a preoccupation of the situation. The fourth and last member of the council, besides Wil as the Mayor, was Aduon, the town's fuller. There were several other men as well, which was not unusual. The council never met except in public, and would often invite other members of the community to join and lend their counsel.

Michael nodded a greeting to the group, then waited politely to be addressed. He did not have long to wait.

"Michael, Vuldi, we're glad to see you safely home" the Mayor began with sincerity, "Why don't you go ahead and give us your report?"

Michael cleared his throat, conscious of so many people listening to what he had to say. He began by removing the letter from the Greenpine council from inside his jacket. He handed it across the tight circle to Wil, and began his narrative. The Mayor broke the seals and read the letter as Michael listed the families they had visited and their responses, then passed it to Andil standing next to him. The letter passed to the other council members, with others reading it over their shoulders. Michael finished his report shortly after Carral, standing on Wil's right, looked up after finishing the letter. The faces looking at him, eager to hear his news a moment before, now gazed at him with varied emotions, ranging from fear to anger, but all of them grim.

"Is that all?" the Mayor asked when Michael fell silent.

"No," Michael whispered. He swallowed and looked at his feet. Since they had seen the Winsted's farm the thought had floated in the back of his mind that the fire had been deliberate. Walking through the common room just now, he had overheard snatches of conversation that made his blood run cold, that made him suspect the Winsteds' tragedy was not the only one recently. From the reactions of those gathered in the circle, he also suspected the letter from Greenpine told similar tales of woe.

By now the contents of the letter had swept the large room. The laughter had ceased and conversation had died to a whisper. The circle of council members and spectators seemed to hold its collective breath, waiting for Michael to speak. Without looking up, Michael asked the question, though he feared he knew the answer, "Has there been any word of Fil and Fayla Winsted?" He silently winced at the gasp that seemed to come from everyone. The terrible suspicions he had begun to harbor were confirmed when Carral spoke.

"First the Howids," he said, "then the Hewidsons. And now the Winsteds." His tone was one of great mourning. On hearing the names of the other two families, Michael almost staggered from a burning rage that threatened to take over. The disappearance of the Winsteds, and Michael now had no doubt that they had perished in the flames, was tragic, but they were an older couple living alone. The Howids and Hewidsons, on the other hand, between them had seven children, the oldest, only eight years old. The thought of those children being the victims of so malicious an attack made controlling the blind rage near impossible.

Wil spoke, silencing the whispering that had begun and helping Michael distract himself from his burdgeoning bloodlust. "What exactly did you see?"

Michael quickly and succinctly described the scene, how it immediately struck them as deliberate, how thoroughly burned every building was, and how there was no sign of attempted flight. Silence met the end of his narrative. Andil was the first to break it. Addressing herself across the circle to Aduon, she said, "The two in Greenpine make five. Now do you believe?" Her voice, dry and raspy with age, had a bit of an edge to it. It was obvious to Michael that this was a point of heated dispute between them.

Aduon's face could have been carved in stone. The crowd seemed to hold its breath while it waited for his reply. After a pause he folded his brawny arms across his chest and said, "I concede that the creatures appear able to use fire, but I still don't believe they are as organized as you say!" The last few words had to be almost shouted, though they were still nearly lost in the tumultuous and angry shouting that broke out like a storm. While not the majority, a large portion of the room seemed to back Aduon, while the rest stood with Andil. Even the council joined the shouting, with Carral trying to be the peacemaker between Aduon and Andil.

Michael looked out over the heads of the crowd and noted that no one was seated any more, and the crowd had grown, if that were possible. Fists shook in the air, both men's and women's, to emphasize their arguments. Wil finally raised both hands in the air and began calling for silence in a loud voice. When the noise finally fell to a few angry mutterings, Wil put his hands down. People were still shooting arrows at each other with their eyes, and seemed on the verge of another shouting match, but the Mayor spoke calmly, pitching his voice so that everyone could hear him. "Before we continue our polite discussion," he began. With emphasis on 'polite' and a wry smile, Wil seemed to have relaxed many high-strung nerves. Michael looked around again and saw that several people were blushing at the Mayor's rebuke, and some even had the grace to look ashamed and mutter a quick apology. He continued, "I believe we should listen to the rest of what Tenahj has to say. We were just listening to her report before young Michael gave his. This is obviously a serious situation, however one looks at it, and we need as much information as we can get before we form our opinions. Tenahj?" he finished, inviting Michael's mother to speak.

When she did, her voice carried the calm authority and self-assurance that only comes from experience. She, like the Mayor, also pitched her voice to carry through the room. "Thank you, Wil," she said, with a nod of her head, "As I was telling the council earlier, a few days ago I set out to contact the Yekrut, in order to learn from them whatever they knew." She did not need to say what she was trying to learn about. Some low mutterings could be heard at this statement; not everyone in the town held the Yekrut in as high esteem as Michael and his mother did. "When I came to their wintering grounds, I found it abandoned. They had left only a few days earlier, and in some haste, judging by what they had left behind." This revelation came as a great shock to Michael. Their more primitive neighbors claimed that those grounds had been given to them at the time of the Creation. They did not give ground easily. Tenahj continued, "On the return trip, I crossed the tracks of about fifty of the creatures. I followed the tracks west-northwest to an abandoned campsite."

"Campsite?" broke in Aduon, with an incredulous voice, "what do you mean, 'campsite'?"

"Exactly that, Councilman," came the cool reply, "The snow had been trampled over a wide area, there were piles of pine boughs, obviously for bedding, and the ashes of several small campfires were blowing around the clearing. I'm not sure how they kept them from sinking into the snow. I wonder if..." The rest was lost as a new wave of noise engulfed the room once more. Rather than angry shoutings however, fearful mutterings, gasps, and whispers were the prevalent sounds. No one seemed happy about being proven right, in that the creatures were intelligent enough to use fire. The Mayor once again raised his hands in a bid for silence. Again, silence came, albeit slowly.

"Perhaps we should allow Tenahj to finish," he said, as the crowd's attention again focused on the small circle by the hearth.

Tenahj roused herself from her private thoughts and continued, "A further inspection of the camp showed that they used a communal latrine, which they had buried under the snow. I also found scraps of cooked meat, bread, and cheese." She paused, as if thinking about what to say next. No one said a word as the people thought about this astonishing revelation. Michael's own mind was in a turmoil. Not only able to use fire, but used it to cook and bake! These creatures were not animals, they were people. Tenahj spoke again, "I've spoken with several others who have seen tracks, and, from size comparisons, I believe the camp I found consisted mainly of females and their young."

"Females and their young?" Carral broke in, "You mean, as in families? An entire community?"

"Yes," she started to reply, than hesitated, as if reluctant to continue.

The mayor, sensing her reluctance, prompted her, asking, "Is there something else? Do you have any idea why they are here?"

Tenahj looked into the eyes of the council, one by one, and said, with a gravity Michael had rarely, if ever, heard from her, "I can not guess the reasons why they are doing what I think they are doing, but I believe they are searching for a new home, and I believe they have chosen ours." Although Michael did not quite see how his mother had arrived at such a conclusion, he knew she would not make such a preposterous statement without reason. Others among her audience, the council included, seemed to share Michael's faith in her reasoning or, at least did not dismiss it outright. The rest on the other hand, did not. The argument that broke out in response to Tenahj's last words was as much an assault on Michael's ears as the one sparked by Aduon's response to Andil's question at the end of Michael's report. Once again, the Mayor spent several minutes trying to restore silence.

Once their attention was again on Wil, he spoke to the crowded common room. His voice, to Michael's ear at least, carried a hint that the long-suffering innkeeper, though still polite, was beginning to lose his patience. "I would like to remind all those who are witnessing these proceedings, that this is a council meeting, and would ask that you behave yourselves accordingly. Thank you," he added, after a slight pause. "Now, we have heard Tenahj's conclusions about why these creatures are here, and why they are attacking our people." This was greeted by some more muttering, but not enough to distract the Mayor. "Would anyone else like to present their own views to the council?" Several hands shot up into the air as Wil asked this, indicating that they would like to speak.

Before Wil had the chance to call on anyone, Carral spoke up, bringing the hands down again. "Mayor," he said, "I could be wrong, but I believe the question of why they are hostile is moot. The fact is, they have already begun attacking us. We must address the issue of defending ourselves without further delay." Murmurs of assent rumbled through the room. Young as he was, in fact the youngest council member in anyone's memory, Carral had already earned a reputation for wisdom. That wisdom, combined with a quiet, self-effacing attitude, had many people talking about him as Wil's successor.

Whispers floated around the densely packed room as Carral's statement was pondered and discussed. The council, for their part, remained silent for a few moments as they also thought on this.

After a time, his face contorting into an even more sour expression, Aduon spoke. "The blacksmith speaks true," he said, as if the admission were a painful ordeal. "That these things are attacking us, the evidence is difficult to dispute," he continued, coming as close he would to admitting that Tenahj and Andil were right, "Defense should be our primary concern."

The plans for defending the town were about to get under way when Tenahj interjected once more. "There is one more thing," she said, silencing the crowd, "they have magic." Magic! That simple word sent Michael's mind reeling. He knew of the existence of magic from books and traveler's tales, though he had only half believed them. There had been a few travelling jugglers claiming such powers, but their tricks had later proved to be simple sleight of hand, although it was entertaining enough that Michael had learned a few such tricks. But magic, real magic, being able to make things happen by simply wishing it, Michael had never seen.

His mother started talking again, in response to a question Michael had missed. She said, "I followed a single set of tracks to a tree in a meadow, where they stopped. Branches moved independently, like something heavy was moving around up there, but I couldn't find anything."

"Are you saying they can disappear?" asked Aduon. The skepticism in his voice could not be missed. "Perhaps they simply blend in so well that you missed it."

Tenahj looked at Aduon coolly. "Even the best hidden animal reveals itself when it moves, councilman. This moved quite a lot, judging by the branches, but did not even cast a shadow."

Another moment of pondering followed her response, during which Michael watched Aduon's expression turn even more sour as he failed to think of another explanation. He clearly did not want to believe their foes had magic; the town had no defense against it.

"What else can they do with their magic?" a nervous voice asked; Michael did not see whose it was.

Tenahj replied to the unspoken part of the question first, "I don't think they can fight with it. I sent a few arrows into the tree, trying to scare it out of hiding, but it remained in the tree and did not try to attack me or defend itself. I am not an expert in magic, but my guess is, hiding in plain sight is their one ability."

After this, the council got down to business planning defense. People began to trickle out as they received assignments to prepare this or that. A chain of command was established for several tasks including construction of barriers, patrols around the perimeter of the town, chopping more wood for many reasons, and even continuing preparations for the festival. It was agreed, though Aduon agreed reluctantly, that the festival was needed as much as anything to maintain everyone's spirit. Farmers who had already arrived were assigned to help various craftsmen and -women in producing all manner of supplies, while others were sent back out to accompany those who had not yet come in. A special voluntary tax was set up to help pay for supplies, though all labor would be donated to the cause.

Michael wanted to volunteer for a number of tasks, especially when Vuldi was put in a patrol of other young men and women, but his mother would not let him. After several thwarted attempts to volunteer, Tenahj whispered in Michael's ear, "I need you to help teach how to use the tips Carral is making." This made sense, since he and Tenahj were the only ones to have ever practiced with them. It rankled though, that she had already decided what he would do, without consulting with him first.

Since his job had been assigned, and since it was apparent that the meeting was not ending any time soon, Michael slipped out of the room in search of Vuldi, who had left earlier in order to round up the rest of his patrol and tell when they were to go out. It was late, and Michael was feeling the fatigue of the past several days, but he suspected that no one would be getting much sleep for a while.


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