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The Third Stone
Trees and trees and more trees. Theo was sick of forest and heart sore for the calming chant of the ocean. There was nothing like the soft kiss of salt breezes to lift a man's spirits or the rolling tilt of a deck under one's feet to bring home just how alive and vibrant the world was. The endless procession of trees was like to drive him crazy. There was no path even to hint that men other than themselves had ever sat foot within the dense forest.
Six days from Corath and three days since they'd left the slave route and headed into the wilderness east. According to Wing's map they were well out onto the arm of land jutting eastward into the Desharr Sea. The arm couldn't have been more than a hundred leagues long. Theo made that estimate from memories of the sea charts he'd studied regarding the Danarian coast more than any crude guess made by the trappers who'd drawn this map. He had no notion whatsoever of how much distance they'd traveled in the thick of this wood, his land sense being mediocre at best and miserable when surrounded in all sides by woods. Collin claimed they'd traveled at least fifty leagues since they'd abandoned the road. Lhoki guessed a lesser number. Neither one sounded sure enough for Theo to take much stock in their judgment, so he figured that they'd known they'd gone the hundred leagues when they happened upon the sea.
He chewed on a strip of dried jerky as he rode, having come to the conclusion that he still disliked the stuff, but deciding that it made a good distraction from total boredom while riding through trees large enough and close enough to obscure most of the scenery around them. Chewing on jerky and making sure the malicious beast he rode did not attempt to scrape him off against rough barked trees occupied a great deal of his time.
Since they were forced to ride in single file, the conversations were limited. Theo had found himself, earlier in the day positioned between Urchin and Stol. The distance did not discourage their chatter and the two talked across him for a good portion of the afternoon. Once, when Stol was complaining about the teeth straining quality of Jerky, an opinion Theo silently shared, Urchin bemoaned the fact that Dharva was no longer with them, having heard tales of her exceptionally ability with the bow from those of the crew that had benefited from her marksmanship. Stol went on to reminiscence about just how pretty the lady had been, and how sweet and demure.
Theo wasn't certain about the last two attributes, but the first was not far from the mark. He had managed not to think of her for some while, had managed to almost convince himself that the attraction had been nothing more than the temporary infatuation that plagued him more often than not whenever he was thrown into close contact with a young and pretty woman. Spirits, the same thing had happened with Tiana and look where that had landed him. Only he didn't remember little things Tiana did with fondness. He couldn't seem to recall with clarity any more than bits and pieces of conversations he'd held with any of his numerous paramours, while he could recall with distinct clarity every biting word Dharva had uttered. The fact that he missed her kept surprising him. He was normally versatile when it came to forgetting women. He missed arguing with her. He could remember with painful explicitness the smell of her hair from that last night together when he'd gone to spy out the Luck. It was a too vivid recollection and he rode for a good while drowning out the boys chatter, mulling over the very real possibility that he would never see her again. It was a staggering realization that such a thing might hurt.
"Cap'n." The sailor riding before Urchin called back down the line, breaking his concentration. Theo perked up, standing up in his stirrups to see the man through the foliage.
"I'm here. What?"
"Mr. Wing, he wants you at the head of the line."
Theo reined his horse out of line, preying that something up ahead had appeared to put a stop to the monotony of forest. His horse was not happy to be loosing its place in line, having a preference for walking with its nose directly in the rump of Urchin's mount, a situation that Urchin's horse did not always find pleasing. As soon as Theo left the line, Stol's horse eagerly closed the gap, the fasted that old pack horse with its load of supplies and boy had moved all day.
Theo and his horse had a slight disagreement concerning where the horse wanted to be and where Theo wished to go, and it took a fair amount of rein tugging and kicking to win the argument. Eventually he reached the head of the line where Wing and Collin rode.
"What is it?" he asked, picking his way around trees to keep abreast of his first mate.
Wing gestured at the ground. Covered with mulch and low lying brush it seemed like every other inch of ground they'd covered in the last eternity. Theo was not impressed with it or inspired to any greater sense of woodcraft than what little he already possessed.
"What am I looking at? Dirt, debris? The culmination of all my aspirations rotting in the mulch?" He was feeling a little testy. Wing gave him a patient, self suffering stare and explained.
"Look at the fallen wood lying atop the aspirations, Theo."
Theo sighed and leaned down to get a better perspective of the forest floor. There were a good deal of fallen branches, even a toppled tree here and there among them. Most of them were happily rotting, contributing to the continuation of the forest, but scattered among the rotting pieces were chunks of clearly petrified wood. His horse's hoof struck one in passing, and a sharp clatter sounded as iron shod hoof connected with stone.
"Parts of them at any rate." Wing said smugly. "It seems we're on the right track, if this is what the old man was referring to in those damned obscure clues of his."
The bits and pieces of petrified wood they initially passed were nothing in comparison to the ageless forest they found the following day.
As they broke camp, the morning mists thick about the forest floor, the wood became somewhat more open, trees spaced a little further apart and undergrowth not as heavy as it had been. More fallen trees hampered the paths and many of those crumbled, petrified wood. It was an odd thing, finding so much of the stuff lying atop obviously young undergrowth. It was as if the trees had turned from wood to rock in a matter of years instead of eons. As the party rode further east towards the point of Kathari, not only fallen trees but those still standing were dead and stony.
Stark sunlight beat down on the forest floor, unhampered by leaves and foliage. The wood was dead and ghostly, hundreds and hundreds of petrified trees thrusting up from the ground in stark defiance of the lushness they had passed a mere day ago. Some light undergrowth grew, and a few saplings vainly attempted survive, but nothing older than a few years lived. No sounds of animals broke the eerie howl of wind through the petrified forest.
When Theo finally did smell the faint brine of ocean air he was hardly in a frame of mind to appreciate it. He rode at the front of the column, anxious to see an end to this dead wood. When it came finally, it was in the form of a broad field of yellowed grasses leading to a distant rise of tumbled earth and rock. From far away he thought he could perceive the whispery sound of the sea, or perhaps it was only wishful thinking, so badly did he long for it.
Wing came up beside him, walking his horse, up to his knees in the sharp bladed grass.
"Do you hear the sea?" Theo asked hopefully.
Wing nodded, scanning the horizon to the north. It was gray and heavy, a rolling front of clouds that hinted at great masses of water beneath its formidable breadth. Theo followed his gaze, wondering if a storm were about to hit. This arm of land, if the maps were correct was only three or four leagues wide at its narrowest point. It would be no pleasant thing to ride out a harsh storm with as little cover as the narrow band of land could afford. It was late enough in the afternoon that soon they would have to look for a camp site. He studied the rise of land in the distance and thought the huge, tumbled rocks might serve as decent cover if a squall did hit.
"We'll make camp on that ridge." He said. "If the weather doesn't hinder us, we ought to reach the point by early tomorrow afternoon, latest."
"More than likely." Wing agreed, starting forward through the grasses, his horse dutifully trudging behind him, shifting its head to inspect the palatability of the sedge. The others spilled around Theo, trampling paths in the field.
He held his horse fast when the animal wanted to follow its fellows, watching the silhouette of the ridge. The wind carried hair into his eyes and he raked it back absently. For a moment, during the momentary obstruction he thought he saw something move among the rocks in the distance. He trapped the willful locks and scanned the ridge for the culprit, but there seemed to be nothing but stony crevices. A shiver traveled across his skin. He frowned uneasily, giving the horse its head and letting it lope through the grass to catch up with the others.
It took a while to find a path up the ridge the horses could follow, even then it was treacherous enough that they had to dismount and led the animals up. By the time they found a relatively sheltered alcove near the top, the sun had disappeared entirely, swallowed by dark clouds and an horizon that seemed to swell with storm. Debris ripped through the air, wing flung dirt, pebbles and grass that seemed to find its way unerringly into eyes. Fire was a pitiful dream soon wiped out entirely as rain began to fall.
There was no place to strike tents so they stretched the canvas as best they could across the rocks to make shelter. After that there was nothing to do but sit out the storm and wish mercy upon any ship caught near shore in weather like this.
Theo dug in his pack for a dried biscuit. His hand brushed the flat stone master Pyphin had covered in runes. He pulled it out, wondering if they might be close to the artifact it had been designed to seal. It was hardly bigger than a dinner plate and no thicker than his thumb, but the old sorcerer had assured him it was a powerful talisman. One dearly hoped so, after all the trouble they'd gone through to place the thing.
He replaced the stone and put the pack under his head, searching vainly for a position of comfort. The wind howled, gusting into every nook and cranny, bringing cold rain with it to make their lives miserable. Far away, probably over the sea, thunder boomed. Spirits help them if the electrical storm came in from the water and passed over them.
A horse cried out in alarm. A voice from the second shelter called out. "Who's there?"
Theo sat up, reaching for his weapon even as the men he shared his shelter with did the same. He gave Urchin and Stol warning looks and the harsh command to stay where they were before plunging outside of the shelter to see what had disturbed men and horses.
There were already men outside, being thrashed by wind and rain. Wing and Collin and several others who had weapons in hand and faced down two small shadows that stood boldly on the stones some ten feet above their position. Lightning flared, throwing the world into stark relief for one frozen moment.
Two children stared down upon them. From the look of their bodies, clad only in beaded loin clothes and wrapped leather boots, they could have been no more than ten or twelve. Their faces though, were older. Grim and solemn, dyed with paints that also adorned their torsos and arms. The hair that whipped about their faces was matted in braids, that made them seem feral.
"Who are you?" Theo yelled over the storm, when the children made no move to speak.
"This is not a good place." One of them finally shouted down. "The skyfire always finds these rocks when the spirits fight."
Theo glanced at Wing, could see nothing of his face in the darkness, only a nervous shifting of the big man's weight. "Do you know of a better place?" he finally asked.
The two stood for a moment, as though uncertain, then one of them jerked his head over his shoulder. "There is a place over the ridge where you may shelter. But hurry for the skyfire comes this way." He pointed to the north. The clouds flashed ominously, lightning flaring within their hidden depths. Very, very close.
"All right. Let's do it."
Wing bellowed for camp to be broken, his voice overpowering even the storm. He might have been standing on the deck of a ship directing work from the stance and the tone. Theo scrambled after his pack, and climbed to a level closer to the two young boys. They watched him with black, curious eyes.
"Do you live on the other side of the ridge? Is that where you're taking us?"
"We live there." They agreed.
"With your parents? Is there a village?"
They traded looks. There was too much water running in Theo's eyes, beading in his lashes to catch the nuances of the expression and the wind carried away everything but the bare essentials of the words spoken.
"There is a village." Was all he got out of them, for they turned and began weeding their way up the slope. Theo turned to see if his men were ready to follow and found most of them ready and waiting. There had been little in the way of supplies unpacked in the face of the storm.
He slung the pack over his shoulder and followed. They knew the best path, and it was fairly easy going to the top. On the other side was darkness. He could barely see the small forms of his guides, and had to step carefully to avoid twisting an ankle on the uneven footing. The slope evened out fairly soon, higher ground on the seaward side of the ridge. The two children were disinclined to wait for everyone to reach flat ground before continuing on, and Theo was hesitant to let them out of his sight. He called back to Wing to wait to make sure everyone was accounted for and trotted after the boys. Out of the lee of the ridge the wind was dreadful. He could have taken a dip in the ocean and been less wet than he was now. He was shivering from a combination of the two and the damned boys kept wavering in and out the shadows ahead like spiteful wraiths. He tossed his head to fling wet hair from his eyes and the wind dragged it back.
Then there were solid shapes in the night that rose up out of the ground like a slap of stark reality. The wall of a hut, straw thatched and wet. He put his hands to it, then his back, turning to see how far back his men were. Maybe he could see the wavering shapes of hunched men in the darkness, he wasn't sure. Hands on his arm made him jerk. He spun around, still in the grip, blinded again by the damned hair. The only thing that calmed him was the fact that the hands came from a distinctly lower level than his own, and patted his forearm reassuringly as they tried to pull him along the side of the hut.
A thick hide was pulled back and Theo found himself inside a smallish round hut. A fire burned low in the center, smoke rising up and escaping from a vent in the ceiling. Half a dozen young faces looked up at him from around that warmth. Half a dozen looks that ranged from curious to suspicious to plainly hostile. The child that had urged him in stood no higher than his hips, her small face streaked with water, her eyes bright with excitement. Tiny, round fingers still held onto his arm, trailing down to clutch his hand. He stared down into her face in wonder, feeling as if the breath had been knocked out of him at this unexpected turn of events. The two boys that had led them here did not seem to be present, every child, but the little girl holding his hand was dry.
"Theo, where are you?" He heard Wing's bellow from outside. Gently, he disengaged the girl's hold on him and went to the door, holding the flap open far enough to peer out into the storm.
"Here, Wing." He saw figures shifting in the darkness. Wing's unmistakable form ran towards him, stepped into the shelter of the doorway and caught his breath as he stared at the occupants of the hut.
"There's not enough room for everyone here." the little girl said. "But we've a lot of houses. Everyone will be led to a place. You can stay here. And him."
Theo dropped to one knee before her so that he might be more of a level. "That's very kind. Is there a place the horses might have some shelter from the storm?"
She tilted her head at him, her cheeks dimpling in an odd little smile. She turned and looked at the children behind her and made a motion of one hand. Two older girls got up and disappeared past the door flap.
"Horses are scared by the spirit's fighting." she said knowingly.
"So am I sometimes." Theo admitted. "I'm glad you found us."
She reached out and pushed a snaking tendril of hair back from his brow. Her small thumb brushed across the lid of his left eye. He lowered his lashes reflexively, startled and controlling it, for fear of spooking her.
"You've got pretty eyes." she declared after a moment. "Prettier than Adole's and she's got the prettiest eyes in the village."
Wing's low, rumbling chuckle drifted down from above. He bent down an clapped hands on Theo's wet shoulders. "All the girls tell him that, little one. What's your name?"
She looked up the considerable distance to Wing, blinking a rivulet of water from her eyes as she tilted her head back. "Thera. I'm Thera the second."
"Is your mum Thera the first?" Theo inquired.
"I don't have a mum." Thera said, looking back to Theo dolefuly. He cast a glance up to Wing, who shrugged having no more notion how to handle negotiations with a six year old than Theo did.
"Are there adults in the other huts?"
Thera gave him a blank look.
"Grown ups, Thera. Like us?"
"Shimal is the oldest." she said. "I'll go get him, if you want."
"That would be good, Thera. I think he'll probably want to talk to us."
She shrugged as though she thought differently, but brushed past Theo and around Wing to go outside anyway. That left them with a roomful of silent, staring children. Theo figured since he was already on his knees he might as well stay there and crawled the short distance to the fire to hold his hands out and capture some of its warmth. Wing moved up behind him, too uneasy to sit, and towered over all of them. Most of the children's eyes went up to fasten on the big man.
"Sit down." Theo suggested. "You're making our hosts nervous."
Wing made a sound like the gusting of wind in the sails and settled down beside his captain. They sat there, wet and dripping, not secure enough to divest themselves of soaking cloaks. It remained to be seen what sort of welcome they would receive from this village's seniors. Obviously this was a children's hut and even the young occupants did not seem particularly thrilled at their presence.
The flap was pulled aside and lanky, thin boy stepped inside. He shook his braided head like a dog and sprayed the room with water. The little girl crowded around him and ran around to the other side of the fire to settle in between two older children. They immediately put their arms around her to help drive out the cold rain.
The boy in the doorway threw back his shoulders and looked down his long nose at Theo and Wing. He could not have been more than sixteen. He certainly looked no older than Stol. Had the girl mistaken what Theo wanted?
"I am Shimal." the boy said proudly. "I am elder here."
Theo stared at him, confused. "You're the oldest one in the entire village?"
The boy sneered at him as if he were the veriest idiot. "Now that you're here I am not."
Theo opened his mouth, looked to Wing, who had a cavernous furrow between his brows and thought better of saying what he had been about to say. Instead he forced a smile and a thanks.
"We are in your debt for giving us shelter from this storm."
"Only a fool would be out in it." Shimal retorted, his words emphasized by a booming crack of thunder that shook the earth. Theo took a breath, letting the tremors fade before saying.
"We had little choice, the petrified forest on one side for a day's travel and the ridge on the other. The ridge made better sense at the time. Where are your parents, Shimal?"
"Dead." The boy met his eyes and locked gazes with the intensity of a far older, far more world-wise man.
"We're sorry." Wing said, since Theo was busy indulging in a staring contest with a sixteen year old. He jammed an elbow in Theo's side to break his captain's concentration. Shimal shrugged as Theo doubled over, trying to catch the breath Wing had chased out of him.
"You're welcome to stay here until the spirits stop fighting, though I don't see where else you can go. There's nothing but the sea east of here."
"We're at Kathari Point?" Theo gasped.
Shimal shrugged. "Call it what you wish. You're at the sea, at any rate." With that he turned and melted back into the night.
Theo woke up warm and only slightly damp. His back was up against Wing's solid bulk and the little girl Thera was curled against his stomach. The fire was nothing but low embers, but light trickled down from the vent in the ceiling, catching the lazy dance of dust motes in its narrow rays. There was no sound of wind or rain from without, so one had to assume the storm had run its course and gone on to plague the seas south of Kathari Point.
He shifted minutely, trying to disengage his arm from under the girl without interrupting her slumber. Wing's snoring broke rhythm, then found it again. The big man rolled, throwing an arm across Theo's shoulders and a leg across his knees. His hand landed on Thera's face and the little girl's eyes fluttered open. She blinked up at Theo in a moment of confusion, then her face broke into a smile. She rolled away as Theo tried to disentangle himself from Wing. The two of them hadn't slept so close together since they'd been children in Agbar with no blankets or beds to keep them warm. One forgot how deep a sleeper Wing could be.
"Wing! I'm not some tavern wench. Get off me." he finally snapped, jamming an elbow back into the other's ribs. That got some response. Wing sputtered and rolled onto his back, rubbing fists into eyes to chase away sleep.
"I was dreaming about Marissa the Red." Wing said accusingly. "You remember her, the lady merchant from Perth."
"I remember." Theo said sourly, glancing down Wing's length to discover just how vivid a dream it had been.
"I just had hold of her and was about - "
"I don't want to hear about it. There are innocent ears in the room." Theo nodded towards Thera, the rest of the children were already up and gone. Wing looked at the little girl and blushed, immediately rolling over to place his back to her and hide his impressive morning erection.
"Besides it wasn't her you had a hold of, so whatever it was you were about to do would have probably been met with considerable resistance." Theo said. "Remind me never to sleep side by side with you again. Where is everybody?"
Thera shrugged. "Break fast. Want some?"
"That would be wonderful, Thera."
She beamed at him. "You're even prettier when you're dry."
One imagined this little girl was going to grow up to be a devastating flirt. "So are you." he returned and she grinned at him, then hopped to her feet and scampered out of the hut.
They emerged soon after and got their first look at the village in the light of day. About fifteen huts occupied an area of flat stone. There were no trees or greenery about, but the wind from the south and partially to the north was cut off by tall standing stones that seemed more man made than natural. To the east was a rocky expanse of earth perhaps a thousand feet long and then nothing. It seemed to drop away into grayness. The smell of the sea was so strong that Theo knew that beyond that gray void lay the Desharr.
He took a step that way before Wing caught his arm. His first mate was staring at the tall stones to the north. There were time faded carvings on their faces, most of them obscured by countless winds, but a few distinct enough to recognize the symbols as the same as those Pyphin had shown them belonged to the Stone of Kerisai.
"It can't be one of those." Wing whispered.
Theo shook his head. "No. It's supposed to be about man high. But that is the symbol. Where is Collin?"
Wing inhaled a lungful of air, then jerked his head down the muddy row between huts. "Smells of fire and cooking. That way I imagine."
There was a pit beyond the huts, a large crater filled with the ash of many past fires. The smell of fish roasting caught in the wind and drifted tantalizingly by. There might have been thirty or forty children ranging from infants held in the arms of young girls, to teenagers none of which could have been older than seventeen. They gathered about the fire, chattering excitedly among themselves, the lot of them dressed in tanned leathers and beads, most sporting body paint, all just a little bit wild in the eyes and animalistic in the quick, jerky movements of their young bodies.
Fresh fish were strung on lines between two poles and several of the younger children sat nearby scrapping scales and gutting them. Dried seaweed lay out in strips and it was in that that the fish were wrapped to roast over the coals. A fair number of Theo's men clustered together near the fire, some of the children hesitantly talking to the older men. Urchin and Stol were more at ease, being of a closer age, and full of themselves as they chattered, no doubt bragging of their exploits to a group of interested teenage girls. Lhoki hung away from the lot of them, looking sullen and suspicious. None of the youngsters seemed inclined to intrude on his sulking.
Theo found Collin at the foot of one of the great standing stones, staring up at the faded symbol on its face. He leaned a shoulder against the cold stone, facing the gray fog that obscured the sea.
"Familiar sign." Theo said quietly, studying the nails of one hand.
"Hummm." Collin nodded. "It gives me chills, Theo, seeing this. The sign of evil in this world and here we stand at its source."
"You think it's close by, then?"
"My gut tells me it is."
Theo glanced at the swarming tribe of children, working; talking to his men, playing childish games and watching ever so subtly the movements of the adults among them. He gnawed on a thumb nail thoughtfully.
"What was it the old man said? Youthful irrelevance watches the second?"
"Something like that."
"You don't think it's just sitting out here somewhere, do you?"
"No. It would have been placed in a secure place. Somewhere the elements couldn't wear it down. Where it would be protected from any casual passerby."
"Bet they know."
Collin inclined his head. "Don't let the innocence of youth blind you. That stone twists whatever lives too long near it. I guarantee you the stigma of what's trapped in that stone is what turned the forest to stone."
"Oh, thanks for that comforting thought. We slept in the company of these kids." He pushed himself off the stone resolutely. "Okay, then I guess we look around. Circumspectly. See what turns up."
"Where are you going?"
"To look at the sea. By the sound of it, she's not far away."
The cliffs overlooking the Desharr were sheer and white and sickeningly high. For as far as the eye could see, until the curve of the arm hid them, the cliffs presented no shore or beach that a sea faring vessel might risk. Hence the old man's third obscure clue turned to fact.
The wind was strong coming up off the water so far below. It nearly rocked Theo where he stood, toes to the edge of the precipice. The height didn't bother him so much as the angry color of the sea and the furor of it as it tried endlessly to erode the cliffs that barred its way.
"She's still upset over the spirit's fight." The little girl, Thera came up beside him, fearlessly crouching at the very edge of the bluff and looking down at the ocean below. He felt the urge to grasp her and pull her back to a safer distance. But, she probably had played on these cliffs all her short life and who was he to caution her when he stood so close to the edge himself.
"She gets like that." he agreed.
She looked up at him with a tilt of her elfin features. "You know her?"
"She and I have a romance." he smiled at her serious consideration of his claim. "I sail upon her."
"Oh." Thera nodded understanding. "We see tiny boats sometimes, far, far out."
"I imagine they'd have to be, as nasty as this coast is."
Thera's small face split into a grin. "Oh, yes. It keeps them all away from us. No one hardly ever comes here. I don't ever remember strangers, but I'm not that old."
"Really?" He knelt beside her. "Why do you think that is?"
"What? That people don't come here? I suppose its because we're all the way out here, don't you? Why did you come?"
There was nothing but childish innocence in the question she fired back at him. Nothing but childish curiosity in the tone and the look in her small face, but he felt a shiver of unease nonetheless. The wind gusted up from the sea and whipped curving tendrils of hair across his face. He hid his expression behind the shield while he thought up an answer he could tell her, that she could tell her brethren. A simple, easy lie with no conflicting details that might be used against them if they questioned the crew.
"Merely travelers who've badly lost their way." It wasn't such a bold faced lie, after all, when he thought about it. "We're lucky your people found us."
"I guess." she picked at the crumbling earth at the edge of the cliff and tossed pebbled into the air.
"Did your people erect those standing stones?"
"No." she replied, sounding very certain. "They came up out of the earth to protect us, sent by the spirit."
"Oh. What do the carvings mean?"
She slanted a look up at him. "Oh, those are the writings of the spirit."
"What do they say?"
"Oh, this and that. Shimal can read them. I haven't learned yet. They're very important."
"They must be, if the spirits wrote them. Maybe Shimal can tell me what they say?"
"He might. He likes to carry on about the spirits. It makes him feel important."
"Maybe you can ask him for me?"
"I might." Thera admitted, tossing her braids. "After break fast."
Breakfast was a hurried affair. It was grasped in handfuls and carried off to be eaten with all the mannerisms of a pack of wild dogs vying for the choice chunks of prey. The civilized sailors stood with some awe as the tribe of children made short work of the wrapped fish, and only ventured forward to see what had been left behind after the youngsters had scattered.
Food consumed and the threat of competition for breakfast over, they went about their daily routines. A great many of the older children disappeared towards the cliffs, fishing line and nets in hand. One supposed there were paths leading down to the turbulent sea. Others trotted off singly or in pairs, to scout or hunt. A fair number of the girls, and the youngest children stayed in the village.
The oldest boys did, including Shimal, who seemed to be a leader among them. They sat around the fire in twos and threes, mending spears or crude knives, watching the strangers among them with clear distrust in their eyes. Wing had commandeered Collin and handful of the crew to make a foray to the cliffs to see just how far the deadly steep drop extended around the arm. That left Theo in the village pondering how to get Shimal to tell him about the standing stones. A young man uncertain of his guests might not be willing to divulge information about a sacred and worshipped icon.
As it happened, Theo did not even need to make the effort, for not long after Wing's departure, Thera skipped towards him with Shimal ambling in her wake. The boy stood before him, splay legged, hands behind his back, his face darkly stern, like that of a lecturer with a riotous audience.
"She says you're asking about the spirit stones." he said bluntly. No subtle cavorting of conversation with this boy.
"Well, yes. I was curious." Theo admitted. "Obviously they've been here a long time."
"Did your ancestors make them?"
"The spirit did."
The spirit, not the spirits. It was an odd inflection of popular superstition that covered just about everything from the black sand beaches of Vol to the unpredictable mood swings of women. The spirits caused it. As a whole, or a group, since there were four sects of the magical beings.
"What do they say?"
"Stuff. How to worship the spirit, how to do things. Stuff."
"What spirits do you worship?" Lhoki's sly voice drifted past Theo's shoulder, only preceding its owner by a scant moment. Theo frowned, a darkening of the eyes that never reached his lips.
"We don't worship the little ones." Thera blurted proudly, gaining a black look from her elder.
Lhoki sniffed disdainfully. "Sure. You worship the great big ones, right?"
"Bigger than any that might heed to your prayers." Shimal's look went to Lhoki, who postured beside Theo like an overgrown teen himself. Theo was thinking about kicking him, but a chance glance from Lhoki made him pause in his estimation of the extent of the young man's tactfulness. There was something in his eyes that urged, play the game.
"Ignore him, he wouldn't know a spirit from the blue in the sky. He doesn't appreciate your stone idols for what they are."
"They're not idols." Shimal said.
"No? What are they?"
"I told you. Guideposts."
"So you don't really have a icon to your great spirit?"
"'course we do. It's older and better than anything else in the world."
"Sounds like bragging to me." Lhoki sneered. "I wouldn't believe it less I saw it."
"Well you can't. No outsiders."
Lhoki laughed outright and Theo held up a benevolent hand. He smiled sadly at Shimal, who was bristling. "It's all right. We're hardly here to invalidate your religion. It doesn't matter what we believe."
Shimal's brows drew. His glare passed from Lhoki, who was casually studying the state of his cuticles then back to Theo. "Well it is true. There is a icon and it's in a great and holy place."
"Of course." Theo managed to get just enough reproach in his voice to make Shimal wince.
"Show him." Thera demanded, childish indignation making her voice shrill.
"Can't show something's that not there." Lhoki taunted. Theo stepped back and ground a heel into his foot then, afraid Lhoki would take the game too far and drive Shimal away.
Shimal took a breath and his face grew calm. He stabbed a finger at Theo. "Only him. I'll show only one."
"Whatever." Lhoki shrugged, but there was gleam of triumph in his eyes. Theo gave him a look when Shimal had turned to beckon to one of the other older boys. Not sure whether to congratulate or admonish Lhoki, Theo took his arm and walked him a few steps away from the conferring boys and whispered.
"Go find Wing." He bent his head to Lhoki's dirty ear. "Or Collin. I don't care. Just let them know I'm going to see the stone."
"Don't you need that runestone thing in your pack? You want me to get it?"
"Not now. Later, if it's really there."
Shimal walked over and Theo stepped away. Lhoki smirked at the younger boy, who glowered in return, then sauntered off whistling. Shimal turned his gaze on Theo. The boy had damned old, ominous eyes for one so young. That level, wooden stare hid something. He looked around for Thera, but she had vanished, childish attention drawn elsewhere. Shimal beckoned him forward with a gesture of one hand. Three of the older boys waited silently, falling in step with Shimal.
It occurred to Theo, walking in the midst of them, standing half a head taller than the oldest, an adult among children, that he was badly out of place. That everything thing from youth to culture was vastly different. They dressed like savages in loin clothes and decorative beads, with hand hewn knives at their hips. The knives weren't childish. The knives seemed deadly enough for any man. He had a more elegant blade at his hip of similar proportion and a smaller one in his boot, but he would have felt more at ease had his sword not been with the rest of his gear. He hoped he wouldn't miss its company.
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