A novel by Magnus Itland
All rights reserved according to Norwegian copyright law and international treaties.
You are granted a non-exclusive right to download, store and display this story during its creation and until further notice. No modifications, translations or redistribution except what follows from "fair use" rules in your country/state.
This book is a work of fiction. No characters or locations in the book are implied to portray or correspond to characters or locations in the real world.
Likewise the metaphysics in the book are imagined by the author. It is not implied that the magical or religious experiences described can be repeated in the real world. The author is not responsible for any damage incurred by following practices described in the book. (But would eagerly claim credit if anything good comes of it...)
Chapter 1: The Calling
You'd think everyone would want supernatural powers, perfect health and a very long lifespan. Especially when they didn't need to do anything dubious or face divine wrath in the afterlife - possibly quite the opposite.
Certainly Harad, son of Harade, had thought this was a good deal. Almost two years ago, when Harad was 16, he had chosen the path of a Lightwielder: One of those who channeled the holy aura called the Light. His head had been full of fantastic visions. After all, everyone knew that Lightwielders could see in the dark or through walls, heal any wound, know secrets and be warned of dangers, and many other wonders. You didn't need to be born to it either. You could have it for a song... if you only gave up lying, in word or in deed, for the rest of your life. Oh, and confessed all your past lies.
Well, it has been almost two years. Almost two years without lying, and the first of them largely spent confessing the thousands of trivial lies from his first 16 years. Who would have thought it was so much? The Light had this amazing ability to remind him of every tiny little deception and white lie. "Reveal secrets" indeed. He had thought the Light would reveal the secrets of the vast oceans and the starry skies, but it revealed his own shameful secrets. No wonder most people had the wits to stay far away from Lightwielding.
He is still here, a Lightwielder of sorts. Except as an apprentice he can still only channel a trickle of Light. And most of his time he spends here on the small farm, little more than a house and a garden, with the 86 year old widow Betta. While she doesn't look 80 or even 70, she is certainly not a nubile maiden either. The slowing of old age only sets in for real once you have channeled the Light to a goodly degree, and few are those who reach this before their hair is white and their skin is wrinkled. Betta is not one of those few, though she hardly looks a day over 60. Still, that's not a body that keeps a young man awake at night. Except for the occasional snoring, at least.
"You seem lost in thought, Harad."
"I was looking back a little, and reflecting on my life here." That is true as far as it goes, and the Light does not burn him for failing to mention every detail of his thought.
"Yes, you have certainly made progress. To think that it is still less than a year since first you called successfully upon the Light."
"And yet it seems to me that you have made more progress in this year than I have. I can see you shining more brightly when we Sing together."
"It is a true word: When one teaches, two learn. But some of the brightening may be due to your own heightened vision."
"I don't know. The night is still dark to me, the walls still made of wood rather than glass. And you still shoulder the burden whenever we Sing for any real purpose. I could possibly cure a hangnail alone, but not bring a man back from the brink of death."
"Still, every voice counts in the Light. Servants of the Light don't compete, we complete."
There is some comfort in her words, not least because she is even more unable to lie than he is. The more you channel the Light, the swifter and stronger the punishment if you stray from utter honesty. The Light may place no other requirements on you, but this one it enforces ruthlessly. You keep hearing about people who supposedly burned to death for some feeble lie. Of course, this was always long ago and far away. What kind of idiot would even try to do that? It is telling that these stories always come from people who never pledged their life to the Light. Lies are the bread they eat and the water they drink, the air they breathe and the bed they sleep in. It is utterly amazing how freely lies and inaccuracies run through the mouth of a human. Of course, most people don't like you telling them that to their face. Harad has tried.
"You are doing quite well for an apprentice, Harad." Betta lays a hand on his shoulder. "A time will come when you meet other young people who have not spent their time as eagerly as you have, who have walked where you have run. At that time, remember the true words that I told you: Servants don't compete, Servants complete. Never forget this, for it is the nature of the Light itself. A light never ceases to shine, even in a presence of a greater light. It may seem dimmer, but it adds to the light, never to the shadow. Remember this."
Something in her voice makes him ask. "Have you had a Telling?"
"Only a vague one. But you don't need a Telling to know. You will not stay here alone with me for the rest of my life. This is the nature of life, and besides you are restless."
"Does it really show? I try to fight it. It is a very good life I have here, and I am hard pressed to think it can get better. It is just that some days..."
"Some days it seems the cauliflowers have been blessed enough for one lifetime."
Harad has to laugh. She hit the nail there, and her tone of voice was perfect.
"Don't worry, Harad. When you go, the cauliflowers will do quite well."
"When I go?"
"It seems to be time, my boy. I can see Kar, the ferryman's son from Stand."
Indeed, there is a boy coming up the Sandy Road, although Harad would be hard pressed to pick him out from this distance. It is uncanny how an old woman can have sight like an eagle. Then again it could be she knew him from the Telling.
"Go meet him, Harad. He has a message for you."
Harad sees Kar, the ferryman's son, striding proudly up the road. At 15, the boy is barely old enough to be allowed to carry a letter. It is a solemn duty, and not for children or for those not of good repute. To lose a letter is considered a grave sin that will be remembered to your last day, and more heinous yet is reading someone else's letter. If you were to let slip another's secret, you would have to travel far to find a friend ever again. To carry a letter is considered an honor, and Kar is clearly aware of it.
"Greetings! I bear a letter for Harad the apprentice Lightwielder of Stormyr."
"I am he." As if he did not know.
"May you be better for reading it." Kar opens the waxed canvas pouch in his belt and retrieves a folded birchment, which he hands to Harad, bowing. Harad bows in turn, then fishes out two copper coins from his own belt and gives to the boy. He is raised well, and knows that one should always carry a few coppers in case one is rendered a service just such as this. But if this is Betta's Telling come true, he may need silver as well in his pouch before long, what little he has of that.
Kar bows again, and retreats with dignity, not waiting to glean what impact the letter may have. Such curiosity would have been expected from a child, but Kar clearly knows better. He is also two coppers richer and has gained honor. When the time comes to marry, women will know somehow who has honor and who has not, and of course there is the standing among his own peers. Oh well. The life of a Servant of the Light is not measured by the same measures. Harad let the thoughts fly away like birds and opens the letter instead.
The runes are strong and regular, in a hand familiar with writing and not weakened by age. Yet the age of the sender is great indeed, for this is the letter:
"harad at your earliest convenience present yourself at the pale house a task awaits that will take moons at least you will be outfitted my deep regards to betta the faithful"
There is only one Pale House that a Lightwielder - or indeed anyone - in this part of the lands would think of. It is the large stone building on top of a hill outside Krostun, where resides Sarolav the Ancient, a Lightwielder several centuries old. None alive around here knows just how old he is, but tales of him have been passed down for generations even before reaching Betta when she was young. To live for so long, he must have channeled the Light relentlessly day and night since his youth, until his ageing almost entirely came to a stop. The one time Harad met him, the day he gave his soul to the Light forever, he saw Sarolav enclosed in Light so strong that one could not even discern his clothes, if he wore any. Brighter than the noonday was the inside of that house, and the presence of the Light was such that Harad felt like a Darkfriend with the memories of all his lies and could barely stand to stay inside the door, even though he had come seeking the Light.
Returning to the front of the house, Harad stops in front of Betta and reads the letter out loud. Of course as a Servant of the Light he could not lie about its content and read something else, although he could possibly misread if he were weak in the letters. But he is not, and she knows it well. Even though he is her apprentice, she would never have read the letter even if he had given it to her open. A letter is sacred, meant only for the one it is written to. This is the way of all honest folk.
"And so this came to pass on the very same day" says Betta. "The Light works in wonderful ways."
"The Light works in wonderful ways" affirms Harad, for it is a quote from the Book of Light, and it is a good habit to affirm the Book.
"You shall have to travel up the River as soon as you can get a boat to take you. I would not let Sarolav wait. Do not worry; the Light will make do with me when you are gone. If not It would not have called on you to do this."
"I know. It will not be hard for you, but it will be hard for me. There is little I can do alone."
"Even a small Light can banish much Darkness" reminds Betta, and Harad affirms it. It is from the commentary on the Song of Brightness, and talks about literal light and darkness as well as the spiritual. It is a comforting saying indeed. And a comforting Song, able to confer the Sight while singing, long before it becomes a natural part of you. Yes, he has Sung it alone, and it did indeed banish much darkness. Betta is surely aware of this and has chosen her words carefully.
"I will go talk to my neighbor of old. His cousin is plying the River trade from Stand and has several boats and several men. He let me on a boat last time for rowing."
"He should be no less inclined now, I would hope."
"Actually I am not sure I should tell him that I am a Servant unless I am asked. The rowers are a coarse lot and could feel uncomfortable having a Servant in their midst."
"I think they will soon enough find that you are not a coarse man, in any case."
"That may be so. But I still think it would be unfair to try to get a passage as a Lightwielder when I am just an apprentice that can barely do anything useful yet."
"Do as you choose, my apprentice. You are surely old enough to make such a decision for yourself. Otherwise why would Sarolav the Ancient have called you to this?"
Why indeed? But in a few days he will know.
It is a perfect day for sailing up the River, or so it seems. The wind is from the west, as it often is, and lets them make good speed against the slow currents of the broad river. As long as the rudderman keeps them safely away from the sand banks, there is little else to do. Oars would just slow them down, and the men relax and enjoy the trip. They tell jokes - lies all of them for sure - and banter with each other. They also teased Harad for a while, asking if he was going upriver to see a girl, and then making up the most elaborate and detailed fantasies about the girl and what would transpire. Harad tried to shrug it off with dignity, but he is still a bit young for dignity, truth to tell. In the end they did get bored of it though and went on to play dice. He politely refused to join them, and as he does not look like he would have too many coppers to spare anyway, they let him be. Or that was what one of them said. What ordinary people say and what they do are often very different, so who knows.
Of course as a Lightwielder, even an Apprentice, Harad could not in good conscience play games of chance. The Light might tilt the game in his favor and he might not even know it. The Light is often extremely subtle, and sometimes years can pass before you realize what was the Light's doing. Or so has Betta said more than once, though it is not a passage from the Book.
Rather than entertaining himself along with the other rowers, Harad briefly thinks back. He did visit his old neighbor - the neighbor of the farm where he grew up - and the farmer was easy enough to convince. Of course Harad had been there along with Betta the Widow two springs and two summers now to bless the crops. Everyone knows that blessings count, for there is always a farmer here or there who thinks he can do without, and it does not take many seasons before they come to regret it. But common people cannot see how little Harad has contributed to the blessing, like a candle next to a bonfire. To those who are strangers to the Light there is only a vague brightness around those who sing the Light into the world, and most choose to stay a bit away. People are naturally superstitious, after all.
So the neighbor had sent a boy to his cousin in Stand and put in a word for Harad. At Harad's request, he did not mention the Lightwielder part, just that he was an old neighbor and in good enough shape for rowing. Harad does have a little bit of silver saved up, so he just might have bought his passage if all else failed. But he is glad he didn't need to, as the money may come in more useful later in his quest. After all, it is supposed take a long time. While he was promised to be outfitted, there was no mention of luxury. And Harad has a sneaking suspicion that a lot of things are considered luxury by the ancient Lightwielder.
It had been strange, saying goodbye to Betta. In a way, they had been closer than anyone in his life before. After all, when he was very close to his mother, he was just a small boy and could not understand her the way she understood him. With Betta there was a mutual sympathy of two people sharing the same goals and values, even if across a gap of generations. While he hadn't really thought of her as a woman, he had certainly seen her as a close friend. And the truth was that friends did not come easy to a Lightwielder. People would respect you, possibly admire you -- from a safe distance -- but they wouldn't want to get too close.
His thoughts trailing into emptiness, Harad looked up at the blue sky of late spring, laced with long wispy clouds. They had just put behind them a season of blessings, and he remembered with fondness the days of walking along the fields, watching the new growth and singing the Song of Blessing for Plants. The feeling was not unlike the very familiar Second Song, Blessing for Living Things. There were slightly more advanced songs that blessed plants (crops) or animals (usually livestock). They took more Attunement to work, and it was only this season that Harad had been able to truly join in this song. The simpler Second Song was one he could master easily, from the very start. The more general Songs always came first, with the more special Songs later. But the later Songs were more effective once you mastered them, a greater proportion of the Light flowing where it was most needed, or so it seemed.
Danger! While he was briefly living in the memories of the Light, a sudden fear struck him. It was as if the fear came from the Light itself, similar to how the Light would reveal patches of Darkness in his life, lies he had told himself or others and not yet given up. A thousand times the Light has warned him of dishonesty. He knows it, like you know the voice of a family member, without having to ponder or reason. Although it was not a voice, but simply a knowing. It was always like that. 'The Light is not like a man or a woman. The Light knows and makes known.' That was how the ancient commentaries had described it, talking about the Song of Caution. But he was not singing it now, and barely ever has. He may know the tune passably, but had not thought to use it this early, here on the familiar River which runs through peaceful farming and fishing villages. But there can be no mistaking this. It was a Warning. His first. It seemed to have to do with the sky at which he had casually glanced, but he can see nothing there that would threaten. There is only one thing to do. There goes his place as an ordinary guy. He starts singing the Song of Caution.
The rowers stop playing and stare at him, even the rudderman looks at him as if he were mad. For all they knew he could be: The Song of Caution is not one most people hear in a lifetime, for it is rarely used when you already know what the problem is. It is to cast about for danger, in wartime or in foreign lands or when some other threat is at hand. Harad stumbles on some of the words and even a stretch of the tune at first, but then he steadies. The slightly old-fashioned words gradually become familiar as he implores the Light for guidance.
"What is going on here?" demands the boatman, the trader and foreman of the small crew.
"A storm is coming." Harad has stopped Singing, having found some more depth in the Warning. "You were planning to sail past sunset and through the night, riding the good wind toward Krostun. But in the dark, a sudden storm will hit, and we are all in danger. I am but an Apprentice and do not have the power to protect you in a storm. We have to make landing for the night before the storm hits."
"What are you talking about? Those are not storm clouds. Any fool can see that."
"I am an apprentice Servant of the Light. I was listening to the Silence when the Light warned me of a great danger in the sky. I sang the Song of Caution and learned the rest of what I told you. I know no more. The Light is not like a book where you can read as long as you want. It teaches and then falls silent."
"You don't look much like a Lightwielder to me" muses the boatman, "but..."
"How about we put him ashore like he says, while we sail on through the night?" It is one of the oarsmen.
"That we could do" muses the boatman all too easily.
"No! I would be safe but you would likely perish. Don't do that to yourself!"
"I don't think it likely we shall perish under a sky like this."
"Perhaps he really is a Lightwielder. Remember how he would not dice? I know for a fact that Lightwielders don't dice. It is against the Light or something." That was another rower.
"Or he could be crazy and think he was a Lightwielder."
"I think I can find out. Twice I have heard them sing a song of healing, once when my father was gravely ill. For more than an hour the Lightwielder repeated the same song over and over. I am not likely to forget it."
"Sing, boy. But if you are trying to fool us, you will regret it."
Harad picks up the Book of Light from his small backpack. There goes a whisper through the boat. Of course, he had not even considered that seeing the Book would change their minds. Anyway, he immediately opens it on the correct side and starts singing. It feels unnatural to sing it without anyone ill. It makes no sense to draw the Light here for nothing. But as the true saying goes, "there is a blessing of every kind in every Song", it is just much weaker in the areas the Song is not made for. The Light is never offended at being called into the world, as Betta assured him during his first days, when he was singing the songs just for practice. Of course, at the time he had not been able to actually draw on the Light. Now, he can hardly even avoid it when the familiar songs fill him, and he forgets himself in the beauty of the Light.
"Enough." It is the boatsman. "I apologize on behalf of us all. We have done you a grave injustice. Please forgive us."
"Sure thing. It wasn't easy for you to know."
"You are too kind. Please tell us what to do and we will do it exactly."
"Actually I don't know the river like you do, but you need to find some place where we can be safe during a bad storm this night. The best would be if we could somehow have a roof over our head, or at least a wall to keep the wind at bay."
"There is a cluster of farms that we should reach after sundown but before it is truly dark. Is that good enough?"
"From what I could glean, it will be in the dark, since it would have taken us by surprise."
"The place I think of will let us fasten the boat safely, and I know a farmer who lets us sleep in the hayloft for a few copper or pinches of salt. Perhaps he will take us in for free when he learns we have a Lightwielder with us."
"Remember that I am merely an Apprentice."
"If they get to see what we saw, they will not doubt you."
Things certainly took an unexpected turn for Harad. As he steps off the small boat and enters Krostun in the red sunset, the boat's small crew is waving enthusiastically to him and pleading him to come back soon. That's not what he is used to as an Apprentice Servant of the Light, but he can sort of understand them.
The weather was still nice, if unusually warm so early in the season, when they had fastened the boat at the small landing near the farms. The boatsman led the way up to the farm. They met a child who ran off to find the farmer. He listened with a stony face as the boatsman told about the Lightwielder and the upcoming storm.
"He looks mighty young for a Lightwielder."
"I am merely an apprentice. This was in fact my first Warning."
"How long is it since your cattle have been blessed, my friend?"
"Don't see much Wielders out here. It's been a couple years. Last was when our bull fell ill, must be three years this fall."
"See, it couldn't hurt to have this young man sing a blessing? You should be able to see for yourself whether he is of the Light or the Dark soon enough."
"I don't really..."
"He would do it for free, or rather instead of the coppers for sleeping in your hayloft."
"Well, in that case, I guess it could not hurt."
Harad had thoroughly enjoyed the familiar act of Singing for the somewhat surprised looking animals. He has always found the Song of Blessing for Animals to be particularly meaningful. These creatures had been born into a life they could not hope to understand, and with an all too early exit that they could not avoid. Even more so than people, they were prisoners of time and circumstance. But as far as it was up to him, he wanted them to be safe and protected, peaceful and happy, healthy and strong, and free from suffering. It was with all his heart he extended the blessings of the Light to them, passing by each and every one of them again and again, adding what little Light he could to their life. He largely ignored the small clump of people who watched him from just inside the door. He would happily have blessed them as well, but it was rare for a man to seek the blessings of the Light unless he fell ill, and in particular when his life was running out. Which it might not have for many years yet if he had sought the Light earlier. Humans are in many ways more stupid than animals, for animals just don't know; humans often know the opposite of what is true.
He had lost sense of the time when the farmer came and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You should come in the house now. The storm has begun."
Indeed it had, just like he had been Warned. It was all very sudden, as from a dam breaking. Thunder roared like an army of enormous beasts in battle, shaking the ground. Lightning crossed back and forth across the sky, and from time to time touched the ground as well. Hail like large white pebbles were thrown around on the stormwind. The men were quiet and a little pale as they sat around the table and on benches eating a warm evening meal, which the farmer's wife had cooked for them all. The two small children huddled close to their mother. He had asked her if she wanted him to sing the Song of Sanctuary, and she had looked at her husband and then readily accepted. And although he could barely hear his own voice, he could still feel the Light as he touched it and invited it into the world, to surround and protect them. Truth be told, he felt safer himself, although he was pretty sure the Light would have warned him again if he were in real danger.
The men swore later that the thunder had started to recede when he was singing, but he was not sure the Song was meant to do that, certainly not that it could do so with his pitiful trickle of Light. Sudden storms don't last, and he told them this as well, but they seemed to keep thinking that it was somehow his doing, and he could not convince them otherwise. In any case, when it was sleeping time, there was just a natural rain and wind such as there often are in late spring. The men had slept in the hayloft as expected, but Harad had been urged to sleep in the house. He got the bed in which their firstborn child used to sleep, while she crowded in with the two younger.
In the morning he also broke fast with the family, as it was still raining and the boat crew was waiting, hoping for better weather. In the daylight Harad also saw that the older girl was around fourteen or so, and getting shapely as healthy young girls often will. She was also looking at him a lot, but when he looked at her, she looked away. Once their eyes had met, and then she blushed furiously. It was all very strange, since he had barely spoken with her and would never see her again. Also she was too young to need blush for a man yet, he would think. Perhaps she was just shy. Anyway, it was unsettling and more than a little embarrassing. Nor did they speak any further. He went out to the fields and sang the Song of Blessing for Plants, which they could well need after the horrible hail. Around noon they all ate a noonday meal and then parted ways.
The sun did not return until the next day, but otherwise the rest of the passage was uneventful. As Harad is making his way out of the busy town and following the road along the river, he must admit to himself that he has already learned new things about the world. He had meant to hide who he was, even if by inaction, but the Light had not let that happen. Was it for his sake this storm had come? It seemed unreasonable, but the Light works in wonderful ways. It hates all pretense, and had he not pretended to not be what he was? If he was the reason for this scourge, then he certainly has nothing to be proud of. But even if not, pretense is not the way of the Light. From here on, he will be who he is, no pretense.
The way is easy enough to remember once you have travelled it once. After following the docks road out of the town you stay along the river. When you come to the ford, you do not follow the road across but rather take a path that continues on the west side. There by the orchard you take the small path up the hill, and there is the Pale House, easy to see for anyone coming within line of sight. No pretense there. A house built on a hill can not be hidden, least of all when it is blazing with Light from all windows while the first stars are coming out.
Despite his good health, Harad is winded when he reaches the front of the house. He stops to catch his breath before knocking, but again, like the last time, is greeted by a strong voice from within. "Enter, Harad of Stormyr!" Taking one deep breath, he opens the door. What he sees inside is not quite what he had expected.
Chapter 2: One and One
When the color of the sky fades after sunset, and the first stars show in the east, Harad opens the door to the Pale House of Krostun. Blazing light meets him. In the middle of the room stands Sarolav the Ancient, wreathed in Light. It is as if he has not even moved since Harad was here nearly two years ago, as if these two years were just Harad walking out the door and turning around. Then again Sarolav is said to be more than five hundred years old, although no one knows for sure. And even now Harad is not in the mood to ask. For it is not just bright white light that surrounds the ancient Servant, it is the Light itself. The Light protects and heals, but it also reveals and warns. And to an Apprentice such as Harad, the Light very much reveals his folly, the conceit and illusions that he was never able to notice on his own. It fills him with a sense of shame, like a toddler that has just learned that soiling your diaper is not really such a good idea.
All this is familiar enough, though. Having been there once before, he was at least reasonably prepared. The one thing that is new from two years ago is not the ancient Lightwielder, nor the blazing Light that suffuses and surrounds him. It is the young woman standing by the door.
She looks as uncomfortable as Harad feels, if not more so. She also looks to be near his age, but older, perhaps by a couple years. That would make her 19 or 20. She is of slightly above average height for a girl, It could be just the brightness in the room, but she seems too pale to be working the fields. And there is just something about her that makes him sure that she too is a Servant of the Light, like himself, probably another Apprentice by her age. Not that anyone not a Servant would be able to stand in this Light for long. It would convince them so deeply of the error of their ways, they would go insane if they did not flee. It is all he can do to remain calm himself, and he at least has a way to repent and confess his lies.
"Harad son of Harade, Apprentice of Betta the Widow in Stormyr, meet Jeni daughter of Jerine, Novice in Elvos. I charge the two of you with a task: To deliver this book to Toren the Wise, Lightwielder in Svertorsk. Take the time you need, but start as soon as you can. I also give you a letter to Pader the provisioner. He is awaiting you even as we speak. His shop is on the Market Street. Give him this letter, and he will know how to outfit you and help you get started."
The book is bound in waxed canvas, the letter is a simple folded birchment. They are both lying on a small table. Harad has a feeling that he should say something polite, but he cannot think of anything. He cannot thank the man, because in effect they are the ones doing him a service, on their own time, for no pay. On the other hand he would not even consider saying no. A Servant so steeped in the Light knows things no other mortal could even guess at, and he must have a very good reason for summoning them here and giving them this task. As Jeni doesn't say or do anything either, Harad steps forward to the table and reverently picks up the package, putting it in his backpack. At this point, Jeni comes over too and picks up the letter. Sarolav looks at them without a further word. Evidently he has said what needed to be said. Harad bows, then leaves with as much dignity as he can muster. Jeni is out the door before he is.
The night seems particularly dark after such a blazing light, even though it is still a glow in the west. As their eyes adjust, they are able to easily enough pick their way down the hill following the little used path.
"Thank the Fox you finally came! I thought I should go crazy in there!"
Harad is surprised to hear that she is a Foxy. Most Servants don't call upon the Great Ones, as the Light is all they need. But thanking the Light would have been a bit ironic in this case, he has to admit. He can certainly understand her feeling, though.
"I think I must have been there for a quarter of an hour! That hideous strength of his Light made me feel like an earthworm!"
"A quarter of an hour? You must have gone in not long before I first sighted the house. Did he tell you a time to come?"
"No, just at my earliest convenience."
"Me too. How weird is that, that we arrive within a quarter of an hour of each other? The Light sure works in wonderful ways!"
"It would have been more wonderful if you had come earlier. I felt like confessing the whole time. It was awful."
It had been awful, but it had also been awesome. Being able to see so much of his own remaining Darkness... he could not stomach it now, but he hopes he can return here later, when he has worked through more of his dark materials. For a full Servant to be with an Ancient like that must be much like it has been for him to be with Betta. Always an opportunity to see himself and clean out the old stuff.
He should probably say something too. "You are from Elvos or do you just study there?"
"Born and bred! My parents are the city's candlemakers, but I have two older brothers."
"Another coincidence! So have I."
"I wouldn't waste my talent just waiting for some artisan to propose marriage. I could read before I even came to school. That must be a sign, don't you think?"
"That's pretty smart. I couldn't, even though my brothers were doing their letters. I just didn't have the interest that early, I guess."
"I know almost no people are that talented. It would be a shame to waste my life on some menial task and die young."
"I guess so. I never thought of it that way."
"So this... Stormyr, it is one of those villages, right?"
"That is a very accurate description, I'm afraid. It is one of those small forest villages where the birth of a new calf is a village event."
She laughs at that, and he finds that he likes her laugh. It is free but not wild. She also has a nice voice. He does not say that though, because girls often misunderstand things even when you are completely honest.
"It must be pretty easy, to be apprentice in such a small place."
"Yeah, we didn't have much work. I spent most of the time on Betta's cottage. The Widow."
"At least it can't be more boring than being a Novice! We don't even do anything real, mostly. We have reading hours, singing hours, confession hours, and sleeping hours. Anything more difficult than a common cold is handled by the official Lightwielders. If we are lucky we get to watch."
"That is so very different from at home. Betta, the village Servant, always says that where two Sing there are three lights."
"Well, we sometimes get to help, but usually we already have something scheduled for that time. And then we are supposed to do that instead. It is kind of strange to be treated like a small child when you are 19!"
"It must be nice for the city to have so many Servants that not everyone needs to do everything."
"Well, naturally people want to live in Elvos, so it probably isn't hard to get Lightwielders enough. The problem is to not get too many, just like with all other things in Elvos. You can't have three candle makers, for instance, there simply is no need for that many. This is not easy for most people to understand, but you can't just choose to live somewhere. There must be a way to earn money. In a small village, people are farmers so it is not a big deal. But in a city you have to buy your food, so you have to earn money somehow. We earn money from the trade. There is only so much trade, so only so many people can live from it. It really is that simple, but the others just don't get it. Do you get it?"
"Yeah. Of course. We can't live on Light alone, at least the first few centuries."
"That's what people don't get. 'But I want to live in Elvos' doesn't cut it when you come to the marketplace to buy your food."
"Speaking of which, we are in the town but where is the Market Street he talked about?"
"I thought YOU knew!"
"I have only been here once before."
"That is once more than I!"
"Well, there can't be many shops open at this time of the day, so we should just look. It is not the wharf street so we should start at the second."
"I am not stupid, you know."
"Of course not, or you would not have learned to write before you started school."
"So you don't need to tell me how to search for a place when you don't know where it is either."
"I just did not want us to get separated before our quest has even begun."
"That is easy. Just follow me."
Sunset is just a memory when Jeni and Harad find the provisioner's shop. Pader the Provisioner is waiting, as Sarolav the Ancient had said, even though it was well past closing hours. Of course, a provisioner would be more flexible than most. No doubt he was used to an adventurous life himself, as is common in that trade. A good provisioner should be able to give advice as well as goods, and know what people need.
"Good evening! I take it you are the two young people Sarolav told me about?"
"I would hope so." Jeni hands him the birchment, still folded.
The man reads it silently, carefully. "Yes, indeed" he nods, once he has finished. "That seems to be quite a long travel. Few would attempt this without riding horses or a cart, but of course you are Lightwielders."
"Actually I am merely an apprentice."
"I have been told that Lightwielders can run for a year without tiring, but it may be less for apprentices, I would not know."
"Neither would I, having never tried."
The man laughs at this, as if it were a joke. But there is in fact a Song of Endurance that should, among other things, help you keep going for a long time. A year though... surely if you were someone like Sarolav, who didn't have to eat or drink. But that seems a few centuries away right now.
"So," says Pader as he stacks up various supplies, "did Sarolav tell you how I came to owe him this favor?"
"No" replies Jeni, and Harad shakes his head.
"Well, it is the strangest thing. It all happened 23 years ago. I would wager you kittens weren't even born back then, eh? Not? That's what I thought. Well, my dad was no young man anymore, that is true enough, but he wasn't old. He was working at the shop like any other day the day before. But then in the morning he wasn't up for breakfast. Now my dad was always a morning bird, you know, more so than I, so I went to see if he was OK. Well, he was not OK. He was dead. He was still not cold, must have died that morning before he could get up. That was quite a shock, as you can think. Most people these days live to a ripe old age, thanks not least to folks like you. But it was a bit late now, since he was already dead. I was just saying to my wife: If only we had known this yesterday, we would have taken him to the Lightwielder. But right then, the room became as bright as noonday on the snow in the mountains. In came this Sarolav, as if he belonged here. He walked right to the room where my father was lying, and bade us wait outside. I do not know what happened in there, but the light was so bright that it shone through the walls and we dared not even look that way.
"Well, the light dimmed down after a while, and who came out of the room if not my father first, then this Sarolav after. And he told me: '23 years from now, on this very day, after dark, a young man and woman will come from me to you. Outfit them as you think best, for they will be going to Svertorsk.' And then he walked out the door, and I have not seen him since. My father remembered nothing of what had passed, but he was healthy as a hare. There were those who said he could not die again after this, but die he did, three years ago. Now my own son is married and has children, and soon he will be running the shop in my place. But I have waited here for you, to pay back Sarolav for the twenty years he added to my father's life."
"That is amazing!" Harad cannot even begin to imagine raising someone from the dead. He did not even know it was possible.
"There is no such Song in the book!" echoes Jeni, as if she does not quite believe it.
"I don't know about that, but he was dead, I can swear that. I have seen dead people before, and more dead animals than I can count. I know when someone is dead and not. It may be that they can be brought back if their soul has not gone away from this world, or something. Or this Sarolav may be one of the Great Ones, what do I know. I just tell you what I saw."
Jeni makes the sign of the Fox.
"So I have held off some good stuff for you guys. Of course I would not mind if you put in a good word for me with the Light, or whatever you people do, but anyway I want you to have this, and this bag of silver as well. I hope that will take you to Svertorsk and back. I would have given you more stuff, but you have to carry it too. So I have tried to pick the best and the lightest. If anyone asks you where you got it from, be sure to mention my name. Pader the Provisioner of Krostun, that is me. But now you should come with me and eat a real supper, then get some sleep."
The evening meal is quite a bit more exquisite than Harad at least is used to. It would seem that the provisioner has also laid aside some "good stuff" for this. He has a charming wife, and they also meet the son and the daughter-in-law. Both the father and the son have spent quite a bit of time adventuring in the mountains and the forests, and even on the ocean. They have a lot of advice to give and stories to tell, and time passes all too quickly. It must be closer to midnight when they break up.
"Let me show you two where you can sleep" says the provisioner's wife, and leads them to a room that has clearly been cleaned and aired and made ready for them for this night. It must be useful to have 23 years warning of a visit. But with Sarolav being such a man of few words, one small detail has been left to the imagination. They face a nice little room with one large bed in it.
"Rest as long as you will, and be sure to eat a hearty breakfast here before you leave!" And she is gone, as quickly as a mink, leaving two speechless young Lightwielders and a double bed.
Chapter 3: Toward the East
Harad stares at the double bed, then looks to Jeni. Unfortunately, she is also looking at him. He better say something appropriate before she thinks he is thinking something!
"They must have completely misunderstood!"
"That's for sure" replies Jeni.
"Well, the Telling wasn't too exact...
"But you'd think they could see that we weren't a couple."
"I guess after assuming something for 23 years..."
"Assumptions are like walking down a flight of stairs without first checking whether there are stairs."
"I guess I better go explain..."
"And then they will do what? Saw the bed in half? Give one of us their own bedroom?"
"I didn't think of that."
"Thinking is hard, especially if you got no talent for it. You are a Servant of the Light, aren't you?"
"Sarolav never said that we were both Servants, just that he would send two young people."
"Right. But why would I do anything he told me if I was just some guy?"
"Beats me. But I am not just going to assume. You'll see why when you've proven yourself."
"Fine. Let us Sing the First Song."
"The Blessing of Being Together? I am not sure that is an appropriate Song for a bedroom."
Harad feels his ears grow hot as his mind runs down the lane of what that could mean. "The Third Song, then? Blessing for Useful Things?"
"That seems a reasonable thing to do after receiving their hospitality."
Harad clears his throat, takes a deep breath and starts Singing. As soon as he has the melody going, he pours his soul into the words, and through them to the Light, reaching out and calling it through him, then reaching out to the room around him. All objects that serve life and joy deserve to be blessed, protected, strengthened to continue in their duty. He can almost feel the Light flow into them... or rather trickle into them, for it is hardly a flood of Light he can pull into the world. For that, he is still too constrained. Forgotten lies, illusions, delusions... all of them block the Light to some degree. But it is more than that. Mere absence of Dark matter is not enough. Attunement to the Light is needed, and only contact with the Light itself can cause this, again and again, year after year.
He had expected her to join him in the Song, but instead she looks at him with surprise. Did he do something wrong again? He lets go of the Light, although a part of him wishes for it to linger as the song stops. "What is it?"
"Your Light... how?"
"How old are you?"
"I'll be 18 this summer, Light willing. A week before Longest day my mother bore me, Light bless her forever."
"When did you become a Servant?"
"That was also in the summer, two years ago. Although it is little more than a year since first I opened to the Light. Before that, the songs were words, and the Light brought only remorse and shame every time I touched it, even though I felt that something good was waiting behind that wall... like a smell of yummy food you cannot see yet, I guess you could call it. But then one day as we were Singing for a small baby that was very ill, and I poured all my soul into the Singing, and I realized that it didn't matter. My soul didn't matter. I didn't matter. It wasn't me, it was the Light. And suddenly the Light came through me and sought the baby, and there was no wall anymore. It was as if all that time before, I had been harvesting without a scythe, just going through the motions as if I had one... always thinking that it was the movement of my hands that mattered, not the scythe."
"Two years. One year." Jeni shakes her head. "What have you been doing, Singing day and night?"
"Well, not all the time, and of course after Singing I would listen to the Silence and notice all the Darkness that had been exposed in me, and renounce it. And..."
"You are stronger in the Light than I am! And I have been a Novice since I was 13, and have touched the Light for more than three years! How could you grow so fast?"
Harad is as surprised as she is. He has never thought of himself as "strong in the Light". He knows quite well that he is still an Apprentice, his Light like a tiny stream compared to the river of a real Lightwielder such as Betta, not to mention the roaring waterfall that is Sarolav. If his light is a candle. Betta is a bonfire, but Sarolav a living volcano, changing everything around him with his inexhaustible power. No matter how he looks at it, he is just a beginner.
"Promise you won't laugh at me, OK?"
"I have no wish to mock you."
"Fine then." And she starts singing the same song.
After a little while, he can see the brightness grow around her. Yes, she is definitely a beginner like himself, but she really seems to be a little weaker. So this was what Betta meant when she said he would meet someone who had not come as far and as fast as he. It is not really a big difference, though. They are both painfully weak. And what more did she say? Servants do not compete. Harad joins her in the song, and easily reaches out to the Light. It seems eager to join hers, and as always the brightness is greater than the sum of its parts. It really is like there are three Servants instead of two. He is probably never going to find out why this is, it seems to be a secret lost in time - whether past or future, he does not know. Together, their blessings touch every spot in the room, reaching out to infuse every thing with a little strength, a little durability, even a little beauty. It is as if things are just a tiny little bit newer
"We should probably stop now so we don't keep them awake with our chanting." Jeni has stopped at the end of the song.
"Yes." She really is smart, Harad remembers again. He would easily have started over and lost himself in the song again. And then he remembers something else: "You said you would explain why I had to sing now."
She looks embarrassed. "Since you are a Lightwielder, you cannot lie."
"Neither can you."
"But I am a girl. I could not force my attention on a man... I think. Or not all the way."
"But I would not do that!"
"That's what I wanted you to say. Since you cannot lie, if you say you will not take advantage of me, then there is no problem with us sharing a bed. Except it is embarrassing, of course."
"Very embarrassing. And I have no wish to take advantage of you in any way. We are on this quest together and we need to cooperate for the many weeks it will take us to travel to Svertorsk. Even if I had wanted to take advantage of women, which I don't, it could not possibly be you."
"True. But sometimes what we know is right is not what we do. But a Lightwielder cannot lie." She smiles, although it is a rather weak smile. "I'll take the right side of the bed and you can take the left. If blow out the candle there should not be much to see."
"If you want, I can stay up the first half of the night and then wake you. That way we will not have to share the bed at the same time."
"But then we would both be very tired on our first day. It is already late."
"There is the Song of Endurance."
"Are you sure you could even stay awake half the night?"
"No, but I am sure I could try."
"Without singing? I don't think so. Just be sure to stay as close to the edge of the bed as you can, so we don't accidentally touch."
Jeni blows out the candle, and they take off most of their clothes each on their own side of the bed. Harad is surprised that it is not completely dark. Even though it is only the stars that are out, and the windows are not all that large, there is still so much of a glow in the room that he dares not look over at Jeni. He looks away as he very carefully gets into the bed. And even then, it takes some time for him to fall asleep. He does the breathing exercises that he uses to do before Listening to the Silence, but instead of Listening he just continues to quiet his senses. Eventually he drifts off to sleep.
That is, quite distinctly, the word that wakes Harad in the morning. He opens his eyes, and the room is already bright with daylight.
"No, Hirene! Not there! Hee hee hee!" He is in the room at the Provisioner's house in Krostun. And the voice is Jeni. He is suddenly very much awake. In their sleep, he must have moved closer to the middle of the bed. Jeni has curled up on her side, and her bottom is pressing against his body. That is probably the "there", although he has no idea who Hirene is or what she is doing to Jeni's bottom. Why did it have to end up like that even though both of them had meant to stay on their own side? As quickly and carefully as he can, he slides away from her and retreats to the very edge of the bed. Jeni giggles a little more, then falls silent. Whatever she is dreaming, she should probably be allowed to finish and forget it. If she wakes up and guesses that the dream came from something in the waking world, it could get embarrassing. And even more so since it is morning and he is a healthy young man. He needs some time to concentrate and make ready to get up.
Jeni wakes from the sound of his feet on the floor, it seems. He is dressing as he hears her yawn and the slight creaking as she stretches and shifts. "Ah, good morning Harad. That did not go too badly, did it?"
They have a quiet breakfast, the provisioner's wife and a small grandchild keeping them company as the others have already eaten. Then they go into the shop and pick up their things. They leave some things in the back of the shop until their return, since they have new and better that will serve them for their travel. Then they set off for a very distant goal indeed.
The road out of the town is the same that they have already taken, but this time they do cross the Trie. With that, they are leaving Krostun and everything else they have known. Alone together they start walking eastward along the trade road.
"It is unfortunate" reflects Jeni, "that we cannot afford a horse and cart. It would have sped up our travels and we would get less tired."
"True, not many would travel that far on foot. But buying a horse is a serious decision with long-lasting consequences. I am not sure we would be ready to care for another living being at this point."
"You make it sound like we talk about having a baby!"
Harad can feel his ears grow hot. "Sorry, I did not mean for that to happen!"
Jeni laughs. "You know, in context that just makes it worse."
Harad blushes even more. This kind of talk is not something he is used to with Betta. Then again, he doubts there is any song that could make it possible for an 86-year old woman to have a baby. He is not even sure it is possible for someone that old to TRY to have a baby. Certainly Betta never even hinted at anything like that. She seemed perfectly fine with being a widow.
Jeni seems to notice the awkward silence. "Sorry, did I make you uncomfortable?"
"I am not very used to talking to people, I guess."
"People in general, or girls? Do you have any sisters at all?"
"No, just two older brothers."
"That's what I thought, since you mentioned your brothers. Most couples only have three children, after all, or the land would soon be full. Couples that have only girls will often continue until they get a boy, but rarely the other way around."
"Now that you mention it, that's how it was back home too. Back in Stormyr, I mean."
"Of course! That's how it is everywhere. I can't believe nobody talked to you about those things! I really hope I won't have to tell you how babies are made, but sooner or later you'll need to know."
"I know THAT! I just don't know what makes people decide when to have a baby and when not. I guess I always thought that it was the women who decided. They are the ones who give birth, after all."
"Assumptions are like walking down a flight of stairs without first checking whether the stairs are there. In this case, you were lucky and guessed right. By and large, women to take the responsibility for family planning. As the youngest boy, you probably never asked about it, did you?"
"No, I didn't."
"There, you see. I was right again!"
Suddenly Harad comes to think of something. "You said you were a Novice, are there many Novices in Elvos?"
"Many? Are there ever many Lightwielders anywhere on Earth? We are five now, two girls and three boys. One boy has graduated, and we had one girl who was a pretender. She is gone now, of course."
"Well, she did not really go for it. I guess she thought it would be nice to heal people, but she never stopped lying. She repented again and again, but she just did not stop, so there was no helping it. I have heard that if you give up after you have touched the Light, you will die painfully, but I don't think she was ever near that. She just played along and for some reason she was allowed to join us for a few months."
"Strange. When I talked with Sarolav the first time, he told me at the end that it was already too late for me not to be a Lightwielder. And that was almost a year before I actually channeled the Light."
"Well, maybe you were special. I mean, you are stronger in the Light than I even though you are younger and not as smart. So we are both special. That could be why we were chosen for this task."
"But you were with other Novices every day."
"Yeah. The same ones all the time. It gets pretty boring after a while. It is a bit like siblings, except siblings lie all the time."
"Don't you miss singing with them?"
"Not really. I mean, it was OK, but there is a saying that change makes old things new. So I am enjoying the change."
"Ah. Then you would probably not want to sing the First Song right now."
"That was why you asked all that? Why didn't you just ask me?"
"I wouldn't want to ask you something you probably didn't want."
"You just did, didn't you? Just in a surprisingly deceptive way for a Servant."
"You are right! I did kind of ask you. I am so sorry. I was not aware that I was doing it, but it was still wrong."
"You really aren't very smart. Well, it is good that you came to see the truth. And actually I wouldn't mind singing here now. What I was fed up with was the artificial singing that we had to do. How much blessing do you need to stand around in a stone chamber? There weren't even a mosquito, much less bandits, we had nothing to carry and the only way we would get tired would be from standing too long. Now that we actually need blessing, it makes a lot more sense."
As the Song takes hold and they pull the Light into the world, it is as if the cloudy day grows much brighter. The colors become more colorful, and even the gray stones in the road reveal soft hues of blue or green or red that Harad had not noticed before. Every blade of grass seems to shine with the inner light of their life force, and Harad feels a strange connection to all life, as if even the plants and the earthworms were his remote family. All things around him are so beautiful, as if placed there for a purpose; and he is part of that purpose, perhaps even at the center of it. No, the Light is at the center of all things, but also at the horizon far away. He looks at Jeni, and she too is beautiful, more than he had noticed before. The blessings pass between them like fine strands of Light. If he were not singing, he would spread his arms and laugh with joy. It has been days since last he sang with Betta, and he was not aware how much he had missed it. With Betta he usually only sang useful Songs for plants and animals and things. Betta firmly believed that blessing the things around them would leave a blessing in their own hearts, and she was certainly right. But a pure blessing of being together, like this... it is so wonderful, he does not want it to end.
They stop singing when a horse and wagon approach from behind. Not that there is a law against singing on the road, but it does look - or perhaps sound - kind of strange. The town of Krostun is already lost in the low rolling hills behind them, but there are farms along the road on both sides. The mountains are on their right, but still far away. Recently they crossed a stone bridge across a stream that comes from the foothills somewhere and no doubt is making its way to the Anre river, somewhere north of them. They saw it from a high point once, but it is out of sight right now. The cart slowly catches up with them and then slows down.
"Hello there young folks! Are you going far?"
"Very far" confirms Harad. He barely knows where Svertorsk is, and he went to school less than five years ago. There is little chance that this elderly farmer will remember much about maps that he hasn't looked at for forty years.
"Then would you want a ride in my cart? I live closer to Ryke, but I go to the town to get a better price for my vegetables. It is a long way and you must be tired with so much to carry."
Actually they are not tired. The Blessing of Being Together does not lend as much strength as the Song of Endurance, but it certainly doesn't hurt, and they started out rested and fed. Still, they have most of the road ahead, and more importantly: "Accepting a service is also a service." It would not be polite to decline, and the terrain is so gentle that it will not make much difference to the horse. He looks at Jeni and she nods.
"We would be happy to ride with you if it is OK for you and the horse."
"Oh, she has pulled barrels heavier than you two in this cart. Come on up."
"So, where are the two of you from?"
Jeni answers, since she is more used to small talk. "I am from Elvos, and my friend here is from the River villages."
"Stormyr of the forest, but it is quite close to Stand on the River."
"Friend, eh? I thought for sure you were a couple, traveling together like that."
Jeni laughs. "No, we actually met yesterday! But we are both Servants of the Light, so we get along well."
"Servants? You mean Lightwielders?"
"Well, we are really Lightwielders in training. It is a long process, as you may know."
"Yeah, don't see many young Lightwielders. So you are that kind of folks. Well, I guess that is a good thing. But I hope they haven't sent just you two to deal with the trouble in the East."
"Trouble in the East?"
"You haven't heard? Then it was a good thing I met you. There is big trouble up there. I've heard the traders are taking the south route now, to avoid getting waylaid."
"That sounds bad. Traders don't waste their time and money."
"I've heard that some traders from the East never arrived. Something must have happened to them. And it must be really bad."
"I never knew..."
"But Sarolav must have known" interjects Harad. "Yet he sent us."
"Wait, you kids were sent by Sarolav?"
"Sarolav the Ancient?"
"My grandfather told me about something that happened back when his father was young..."
"Closer to Ryke" does not mean "close to Ryke". Technically it only means more than halfway there, but the old farmer lived around three quarters of the way from Krostun. Except the farm was not by the trade road, but off some dirt road into the hills northward. This is where they part company and continue on foot again.
"Did you really believe that story about Sarolav flying? I know all the 122 songs and there is none that even mentions flying!" Jeni looks quite skeptical. And she probably does know them all by heart too, her being smart and all.
"Well, if anyone could fly it would be Sarolav, right? Perhaps he made a new song. That is possible, if you have the skills. There is no song about building houses either, but people still claim that he built the Pale House using the Light."
"People are not servants. They lie as easily as they breathe. If we had been alive a hundred years ago, you can be sure the story had been much smaller and more realistic."
"I am not sure what a realistic version of flying is."
"Perhaps he was running so fast that it looked like he was flying along the road? And then someone forgot to mention the running part, so it was just 'looked like he was flying'. It is not a long jump from there to just 'he was flying' and then others added a little here and a little there when people asked them how he was flying. Happens all the time."
"It is true that people do add and subtract when they tell a story."
"Besides, the Light 'reveals, warns, protects and heals'. If it also flies, don't you think that would be mentioned?"
"On the other hand, the natural light fills the air effortlessly."
"But it does not cause things to fly."
"What about dust motes?"
"They already fly, the sunbeam just reveals them."
"I never knew!"
"Now you do. You are still young, and besides we cannot all be smart."
They walk on. Ryke is so close that a trader with a wagon can reach it from Krostun in a day, and a rider can reach it easily. That is not to say that it is a pure tavern village. There are many farms in these low, gentle hills and dales, and not everyone wants to spend all day traveling to town and back. Of course it helps if you have family in Krostun, as the old farmer had - he had stayed over with his daughter and son-in-law. For most farmers this far away, Krostun is just for special occasions. Their marketplace is in Ryke. Harad can appreciate that as the village finally rises before them. A large stream runs through it, where people can fetch drinking water upstream and wash clothes downstream. To the south there are lightly forested broken hills, while to the north and west there is farmland as far as you can see. It would seem that an arm of the foothills is reaching down here, and Ryke lies just at its tip.
Since they walk slower than a trader's or farmer's wagon, they arrive at sunset. A few hilltops are still lit up, and the mountains to the southeast are shining brightly on their west side. But Ryke is painted in the red light of clouds reflecting the sunken sun. The overcast from the morning has broken up, so the sky is dotted with slowly drifting cloud banks in various colors, depending on how far they are from the sunset. It is a pretty scene, but there is something that makes Harad nervous.
"I don't know if we should stay here. There is something about this place that makes me uneasy. I think it is that tavern."
"Is that a Warning?"
"It is not like the Warning I had when the storm was coming, but then again I would probably have drowned. It is just... it just makes me uneasy. Like it is dirty or something."
"Well, we'll find out when we get there. I don't much want to sleep on the ground when there is a bed to be had. Preferably two beds this time."
The tavern is large and well kept. Harad notices two trader wagons outside. So there are traders passing through? That should help them find out more about those disturbing rumors. The old farmer had been rather vague on where the trouble was. It sounded like he thought it was in the Eastern Mountains, but then again that is pretty much the end of the world for the farmers near the west coast. In truth, it is less than a third of the distance to the east coast and the city of Svertorsk.
The tavern has a spacious common room, the few lamps already lit. There are indeed traders, and it is not hard to tell them apart from the few farmers. The traders have clothes that are both finer and different in colors and cut, clearly bought in some faraway part. At a glance, there are more than half a dozen of them, so it would seem that the men from both of the wagons are gathered here. They have also clearly begun drinking.
"Hey pretty," says one of them to Jeni, "is that your boyfriend?"
"No, just a fellow Lightwielder."
"Lightwielders, eh? How about you light up my night?" And the trader reaches out and pats her behind. The men around him laugh.
Chapter 4: Ryke
Jeni turns to Harad, and her voice is cold as ice as she says: "You were right. This place is infested with vermin."
What chills him is not just her voice, though, but her words. A Servant of the Light cannot lie... as they see it. She really does think of these people as vermin at the moment. Otherwise she would be wracked with pain right now.
"Who are you calling vermin?" The trader grabs her wrist, his face flush with sudden anger. "No one talks like that to Nerlav the Trader!"
"They are not really vermin" Harad pleads, "just misguided humans."
"I think the little miss here needs a lesson in manners!"
The calm is sudden, unexpected. All because of the words that come back to him. As if delivering a message, Harad speaks precisely, distinctly. "My mentor used to say: 'When one teaches, two learn.'" Then, to Jeni: "The eleventh song."
For a moment they both - no, all - look at him as if he has lost his mind. But he just starts singing the Song of Sanctuary. This time there are no blinding flashes of lightning, no pealing roar of thunder. In a room that suddenly falls very quiet, his voice rises clearly, undisputed. He steps right next to Jeni, and as she shakily joins the song, a sphere of light seems to expand from the space between them. Nerlav the Trader lets go of her hand as if burned and steps away, his mouth opening and closing but without sound. The closest traders all move away. They can probably not see the pulsing sphere of Light the way Harad can, but clearly they see something. Every eye in the room is turned their way.
"By Nirgel's Blood!" Nerlav has finally found his voice.
"NOW do you believe?" asks Jeni, while Harad continues Singing.
The trader falls to his knees. "Please don't burn me! I am just a humble trader!"
"Trader may be, but the humility seems very recent." Jeni is definitely not satisfied. "'The Light burns only Darkness.' Have you given your heart to the Dark?"
"Never, Lady! I would never do that! But as a trader I need to make a living."
"I do not believe grabbing strangers is a living."
"Forgive me, Lady! It was the drink. I would not normally do this kind of thing."
"Unless you normally are drunk, I believe you. For the future, bear in mind that you never know who a stranger may be."
"I will, good Lady. I swear by Nirgel's Blood!"
"Do not swear while drunk. And you, tavernkeep, why did you do nothing?"
"I did not hear what words had passed between you. For all I knew you might have insulted him."
"But you would let a man take hold of a visitor before the eyes of all?"
"I would have stopped him if he had tried to do anything more."
"Tell me the truth. The power of the Light compels you!"
"The traders are my livelihood. As long as no great harm is done, I let them have their fun. I did not know who you were, believe me!"
"I believe you. Harad, come. I would rather sleep among the wolves. There will be no blessing for this house tonight."
The mountains have faded to a dull red glow when Harad follows Jeni out of the tavern and into the night. He would dearly have loved to ask those traders about the trouble in the east, but then came this unprovoked act of humiliation. How reliable are drunk and raunchy traders anyway? The matter is out of his hand in any case, as he would not for a moment consider staying behind when Jeni wanted to go. The two of them have to do this together.
"I guess we'll just continue east then?" he asks.
Jeni nods. "I have no wish to remain even in this village. Not that there seems to be more than one tavern here."
"I am not all that tired either. We'll probably find some spot to camp safely away from this place."
Even the red glow soon fades, and the lights of the village Ryke is lost behind them in a small mile. Only stars light up the path, and that is not much. "I can't see the road anymore" says Jeni, and Harad is surprised that he can at all in mere starlight. But there seems to be a faint glow in everything... could it be? Is this the beginning of the Sight? It is so little, he would not have noticed, thinking it was the stars. But if someone less Attuned does not see it, it must probably be that. Not that he can make any haste in such a faint light, it is always on the very edge of darkness.
"The Song of Brightness then?" asks Harad. She nods, and they start singing.
As they call upon the Light, brightness surges out of its hiding place beyond the here and now, and everything is lit up with a different kind of light from that of the sun or the moon. It is as if there is a glow in every little thing, in the pebble by the roadside, in the blade of grass, in the scurrying ant. Each thing is different and yet the same. It is a beautiful light, and it stretches all the way to the horizon and beyond. Thousands of stars sing with brightness in the sky, bathing the Earth in their radiance. Finding the way is not a problem anymore, they can walk as safely and as speedily as in daylight. They cannot speak to each other, of course, but it is not really needed. They both walk in the same Light, after all.
Walking like this, Harad finds it hard to remember that it is less than a week since he left Stormyr and the familiar life there. It may have been a bit boring, but it was also so very safe. Now every mile is a mile into the unknown, revealing new sights he has never seen before. It is as if he has come to a different world. It is as if his old life is just a dream now, and the life here and now not even that: He had not been able to dream of it, because there had been nothing like it before. Walking in the Light, singing together toward new horizons... it is like a new life, like being someone slightly different. And he finds that he likes this new him better than the old.
Jeni surges ahead of him and points to the right. There is a large copse of trees and bushes with a small stream nearby. Yes, they would be out of sight there for any who might pass, and sheltered for wind if it begins to blow up. And fresh water. She has a good eye for this too. She really is smart, not just about books. He nods and follows her as she makes her way from the road through the grass, ferns and shrubs. After a while she stops, the road hidden from view. She lets the song fall, and he follows. There is still a kind of afterglow, but it will fade, he knows that from when he just tried out the song back home. He opens the backpack and unpacks the small tent in the small open space between the largest tree trunks. She opens the small bag of dried cakes. He had almost forgotten how hungry he was: They had not eaten for a while, expecting to have a meal at the tavern. That obviously did not come to pass, and they did not stop until now. It is all he can do to not just wolf down the food without chewing. It is definitely some time before he can live on the Light alone, as rumors have it that the Ancients do.
Suddenly Harad thinks of something. "If the Song of Brightness made the night so bright for us, I wonder how it must be for a mature Servant. It would be brighter than sun on snow, surely?"
"Come on, why would they Sing for brightness? They already have the Sight! Perhaps for a while they would need it to see through walls, but not to walk about in the dark."
"Silly me, I forgot!"
"Well, we cannot all be smart."
He feels so much more stupid because he did think of the Sight earlier in the night, but somehow it slipped his mind on the way here. He has never thought of himself as stupid, and neither did anyone else he knew (or if they did, they didn't say so to him). But compared to Jeni, he feels like he is twelve again. It isn't just that she knows so much, but she thinks so quickly. For him, it takes a little time to sort through things to get the right answer. With her, it just seems to pop out of her brain, just like that. Must be nice.
"Anyway" adds Jeni as an afterthought, "you are likely to find out for yourself before I do."
She hadn't needed to say that, he knows, but she did anyway.
The small tent has just enough space for their two bedrolls, and there is this newfangled invention, "sleeping bags". These are basically quilts but they are sewn together to become a long and fairly snug "bag" with only one opening. No more toes or other parts sticking out of the quilts and freezing till you wake up from it. There is also a thin sheet bag that you can have inside the quilt bag in the winter or use alone in the summer. The whole thing is suprisingly lightweight and very compact when rolled up correctly.
Before going to sleep, they sing the Song of Caution to make sure the spot is not in danger in any way, then the Song of Sanctuary just to "add fat to the butter" as Betta used to say. That is not a lie but a metaphor; he knows because he asked her once. It is saying something true in other words, which is why the Light didn't burn her. So they add fat to the butter, and then go to bed.
It had been fairly hot in the afternoon, but they walked so long into the night that it is rather chilly again. They sleep in the quilt bags, which suits Harad just fine. He is not sure he would sleep quite that well beside a girl packed in just a pale sheet bag. In fact, just thinking of it makes him sleep not so well, so he stops thinking the way he has practiced when Listening to the Silence. But instead of listening, he just keeps going ahead into nothingness until he is small enough for sleep to swallow him.
"Man, it is just too hot in here."
Harad wakes up as Jeni opens the tent flaps wide. The tent had a small "window" in each end with a net to keep out mosquitoes and biting flies, not that these things like the blood of Servants. Perhaps if there had been wind, this would have been enough, but it really is hot. Harad rolls over. Jeni has come out of her quilt bag and is on her hands and knees looking out of the newly opened side of the tent. At least she too sleeps in her smallclothes. Harad has closed his eyes immediately. This has the strange effect of preserving the image in striking clarity, like a painting. He hurries to recall other things he have seen until it disappears. Then he keeps his eyes closed until he hears her moving out of the tent. Just because they are traveling together does not mean he is entitled to seeing things that others do not see, surely. Also, such images will not help him avoid telling himself lies the way he used to do before coming to the Light. Lies about things that might have happened, if...
They take care of the body's real needs, including a breakfast of travelling berry cakes. Some substance in the sour berries keep these cakes from going bad so they can be stored for quite a long time without being as dry as the other cakes. The sweet berries keep them from being too sour to eat. Of course they don't have the rations to last them to Svertorsk or even all the way over the mountains, but skipping a few villages is not a problem. They are both surprisingly hungry even though they have done nothing but sleep since their last meal. "Youth makes you hungry" as Betta would say. She always ate less than him, but then again perhaps the Light was beginning to nourish her?
It is still morning. They have slept only half a night, after the long walk in the dark and all the preparations. Now Harad packs the tent, and they both hurry and roll the bedrolls and the bags. Each of them carries their own sleeping gear, but of course Harad carries the tent, being stronger of body. Soon they are on the road again. With the energy of young people, the shortness of the night is nearly forgotten.
"Did you grow up a farmer, Harad? You kind of look like one. Strong and kind of... square."
"Yes, my family has been farmers as long as anyone can remember. They came to Stormyr eight generations ago, but they had been farmers even before, or so I've heard. Stormyr is still a growing village, and it may well be that my two older brothers will both stay on the farm and clear more forest. In a generation or two the farm may split again. It has done so once before already."
"Already. Once in eight generations?"
"There have been many girls."
"Ah. Well, on average almost half of the children are girls."
"I wonder why there are born more boys than girls. I have heard that it is because there used to be war and many men would die in the war."
"We have been blessed to not have a war in so long a time."
"War seems a strange and senseless thing to do."
"That is why we are Servants of the Light."
"What do you mean? I want to be a Servant to help people and of course to live a long and healthy life, but what has war got to do with it?"
"War comes from too much Darkness. When people live short lives anyway, lives become cheap. And when they live in poverty and sorrow, they easily fall into despair and follow empty promises. When people live good lives that stretch far into the future, they and their children after them, they hate the thought of war, as we do today. They hold their lives valuable, and by the same token they expect others to do the same."
"That makes sense now that you say it."
"Also war is not possible without lies. You have to believe that the enemy is not really as human as you are, but they always are. In a war, both sides think that the other is evil and not even really human. Where the Light is shining bright, lies squirm and flee. When there are Servants in the land, people will listen to them, because they know we cannot lie. But where there are no Servants, Darkness lies on the land, and nobody knows who to turn to for truth."
"You certainly know a lot!"
"Well, this is just common sense. And besides, being a Novice is not like being an Apprentice. It is more like a school. You learn things that aren't useful right away. It is more boring, sure, but you grow as a person from learning more truth."
"I am not sure I would have learned so much even if I had been a Novice. I am not the kind that easily learn long stories. I like things short and practical."
"It is a good thing then that you found a mentor that suited you."
"It is a blessing of the Light for sure."
Because they walked so far through the night, they arrive at the village of Loftim in the afternoon rather than the evening. They have passed through a couple almost-villages already: The land here is fairly fertile and there are many farms. These small farming villages don't have a real center, though, with a shop or a tavern. At best there is a blacksmith. Loftim is the next large village where traders stop overnight. But there are no traders there today, much to Harad's disappointment. He has another idea, though.
"We should see if this place has a Servant of the Light. It certainly looks large enough."
"Unless it is a Lightless place like was Ryke."
"I am not sure Ryke was Lightless. That is a very drastic thing for a village of such a size. People would probably move away. It may have been just the tavern."
"Well, you would not have stayed to find out either, if the Light-forsaking trader had squeezed YOUR butt."
"I think he would have needed to be even more Light-forsaking to do that. It is not something most men would want to admit to."
"I really don't understand that. Just because we are the opposite sex, they can touch us wherever they please? Do you ever see women do that to men?"
"Cannot remember seeing that. But then again I rarely see men do it either."
"Well, it is not the first time. Some men seem to think that a woman does not enter a tavern unless she is looking for man-flesh."
Harad does not even want an explanation of that unfamiliar expression. "I'll go inside then and see if they can tell me where the Servant is."
Jeni looks around at the empty road. "Fine. Just don't tarry."
A woman of barely middling age is busy making some food. Otherwise there is no one there. It is probably too early in the day.
"Could you tell me if there is a... Lightwielder in this village."
"Sure is. Heran the Old. If you follow the road west, it is the second farm on the right hand, a large house not far from the road. You should see it easily. You cannot miss it, the house is almost twice as large as the other farm around it. Is something the matter?"
"Ah, not much. We are travellers and need to talk to him."
"Very well, then. Feel free to come back here if you need a place to stay for the night."
"Thank you, Lady."
So, they had passed it already. Harad tells Jeni, and they trudge back. She has not protested so it was probably a good idea. The house is indeed rather large and well kept. Harad is a little surprised to see a couple children playing outside. A dark-haired girl looks up from whatever they were doing on the ground.
"Excuse me, can I find Heran the Old here? The Lightwielder?"
"Are the both of you Servants?" asks the girl bluntly. She looks like she might still have a year before starting school, or at most it would be her first year, and the question takes him completely by surprise.
Luckily Jeni thinks faster than he does. "Yes, we both are. Will you tell him?"
"Sure thing" says the girl. "Follow me." And she sprints off toward a second door on the left side of the house, further from the road.
When they come in, an old man rises from a bench. Harad sees at a glance that he is shining more brightly than Betta, though far less than Sarolav. Still, even common liars should be able to see the room clearly in the light that shines around him, even when he is not singing. Then again he is old indeed. If he were a common man, he would for sure be in his last decade. But for a Servant, age slows down more the longer you keep channeling the Light. Harad is not able to say how far he has slowed yet, but he knows this man will die Old, not Ancient. Even so, it is a respectable Light indeed. He bows deeply.
"We have come to seek your word" he begins. "There are rumors of danger to the east..."
"I have a Telling waiting for you" the older man says as if oblivious to the other's word.
"One of each, two will come to a Lightless Valley. Danger and death to those who do not sing. Heal the wounds from years of Shadow, to last the whole way. Two will follow: One will love and one will leave. Neither must hold what first was given."
While the two visitors stand dumbfounded, the old Lightwielder sits back down on the bench. He looks like he has carried a heavy burden a long way and finally laid it off. For a moment Harad is worried that the old man will expire right there before their eyes. But the Servant of the Light seems to see his thoughts, for he smiles reassuringly. "Do not worry, I yet have to train my successor before I can go into the Light."
"I shall be a quick learner, great-great-grandpa! But are you sure I cannot go with them now?"
The old man laughs gently. "Not for many years yet! Patience is the left foot of the Light, you know!"
"But he is the one, isn't he?"
"He is indeed, Majita."
"Ah, good then!" She flashes a big grin where two of the pearly teeth are still not fully grown out. Then she turns to Harad and bows a perfect woman's bow of the south, so deep her hair almost sweeps the floor. "Pleased to meet you, my beloved! Please treat me with kindness!"
Chapter 5: Loftim
As usual, Jeni finds her tongue first. "That's just plain disturbing" she says, but not very loudly.
Harad agrees, but perhaps it is a misunderstanding? "What does that mean, you think?" he asks the small girl.
"It means you are my hubby!" she declares without hesitation. So much for the misunderstanding.
"Will be" corrects her somewhat remote ancestor. "It is still some years in the future, I'm happy to say."
"You are the one who told her this?"
"But don't we have a say in the matter? What if we don't want to marry each other?"
"But I do! I very much want to marry you! You will be a wonderful hubby!"
"And why is that, young lady?"
"You will be a hero! Also, you are strong and good-looking. What is not to like?"
There it is again, what is with the way she is talking? Sometimes her words are just too grown-up for her voice.
"But what if I don't want to marry YOU?"
"You will! I will dazzle you with my skills in the Light, my skills in the kitchen and my skills in bed!"
"That is NOT appropriate talk for a six year old!"
"I am already seven!"
Jeni chimes in: "The people of the south look more youthful than we."
The girl does indeed look a bit exotic. There is the jet black hair, and her skin has an almost golden hue, her nose is perhaps smaller than on most children her age... and her eyes are darker, but they are if anything bigger than those of the River people.
His brain catches up. "That is not the point! There are things children should not talk about."
"Well, as long as she does not try to demonstrate it."
"Now YOU are being disturbing!"
"Why do you get upset? She is just a child."
"But he is not! If he has had a telling that we are going to marry..."
"Then obviously it is far into the future. If you are both strong in the Light, you will have decades during which you are almost the same age. There is nothing wrong with marrying her then."
"But what about you?"
"What what about me?"
That's right. Why was he thinking that she would have an opinion on it? They are not lovers, they are just on a quest together. When she said that they were both special and they were working well together, she meant for the quest. She never said - and probably never thought - anything about romance. So why does he feel disappointed now?
"Forget it. Obviously this will be long after our quest is over and we will have gone each our own way."
"I sincerely hope it won't take us decades to get to Svertorsk." Jeni sounds entirely too amused.
"Whether now or later, I will always love you!" declares Majita.
Heran graciously offered them to stay the day and the night. Normally they would perhaps have pressed on, but there is no way they could decline the hospitality of a man who may have saved their lives with his warning. On the other hand, the fact that his great-great-granddaughter believes herself to be Harad's bride is NOT a reason for staying. There are times when Harad feels like running away when the girl grins at him with unbridled enthusiasm.
On the other hand, meeting Majita's mother makes it very clear where she got those exotic features from. The mother is a classic southern beauty: Slender, fine-boned, with golden skin and raven hair, and dark eyes. Her dialect is even more accented than that of the eastern traders, even though she must have been here for some years. There is also a smaller girl, four or five years old, but no son in sight. She still has plenty of time for that, though. With her shy smile and her elegant movements, she looks like a princess from a story book. Compared to her, Majita seems reassuringly solid. Of course there will be further changes once she starts developing her womanly features, but Harad decides to not at all concern himself about that.
Heran is indeed a direct ancestor of the girls, although Harad never figures out if he is their great-great grandfather or great-great-great. He continued to run the farm while also being Servant for the small village - Loftim was a bit smaller then than it is now - and his descendants have continued to live here. His own children are long ago dead. While some Servants marry and have children, their children do not necessarily follow in their footsteps. And of course those who do, rarely live with their parents: There is always a great need for Servants in the world, so having two in the same village would not be good. In a town perhaps, but not out here in a small farming village.
Also Heran is the oldest person by far that Harad has talked with about everyday things. Sarolav is of course much older, but he does not speak unless it is strictly necessary. The Servant in Loftim, on the other hand, is happy to share his memories of the days when he was young. But in the end, it seems that a century (or something like that) does not make much of a change. There are a few more people these days, but that may be because people want to live where there is a Servant. Apart from that, life seems to just go on. Perhaps it would have been the same if he were a thousand years old, unless it was a war. Wars mean change, but not in a good way, and then those who survive go back to their work an all things remain as they were.
Has there ever been a time when life changed? Or has things always and ever been the same? The history books say that there was once a great disaster, The Cataclysm, after which there were few people in the world, and the shape of the world was changed. But nobody knows for sure when this was, except that it was very very long ago, thousands of years. But the scholars agree that some such thing must have taken place, because when you look at a map, you can see that the lands have been riven apart by some unmeasurable force; some of them still fit together except there are now oceans between them. And there are definitely more and more people in the world, even if only slowly, so they must once have been few. But Heran remembers no more of it than Harad does, and probably neither does Sarolav.
"So, they say that Sarolav is over 500 years old? That may well be the truth" muses the old man. "They said so when I was young too, but I always thought it was an exaggeration. But even if it was a lie then, it may be the truth now. I would not know for sure one way or another; I never asked him."
"You knew Sarolav?"
"No, but I met him a couple times. When I decided to become a Servant, I went to the Ancient to get his blessing. But he did not so much bless me as scare me. He told me that being a Servant was not about getting a gift but of giving a sacrifice. And he said to me: 'Do not seek the Light because you fear death; for if you want to live for centuries, you have to die young indeed. The things you loved in your former life will cease to please you, and even what you thought you needed will fade in time. The Light will consume you like a fire from within, and the man who lives will not be the man who lived.'"
"That is a bit different, but he tried to warn me off as well!"
"I think he somehow knows what is driving each of us to choose what we do. He seemed to be expecting me when I arrived, even though I had sent him no word of my coming."
"In the end, of course, I stood by my choice, and I have not regretted it. True, I had to give up more than I had expected. But I also gained more than I expected. And I know now that if I had sacrificed more of my own life earlier, I would have gained more and for longer. But this is who I am; I am no better, and that is the truth before the Light. The Light judges but does not condemn. I have learned who I was, and it is the simple truth. Some years from now, I will leave this life and go into the Light, and what happens after that is not given any man to know. But I do not fear. I have already died a bit, and what came after death was better than what came before."
That is true, Herad realizes. He began to die the day when he first understood that it was the Light, not he, who had the power to heal that baby. He had to give up that part of himself who wanted to be the one doing it, wanted to be in the Light's place and reach out with his healing power. That part of him had to die for the Light to live in its place. And it just continues that way. It really is all about that. But the new is so much better than the old, he wishes he had begun even earlier. The wonders he has seen already, and he has barely begun!
Jeni is getting sleepy this late in the evening, and so they go to bed. Unlike the provisioner, Heran has set aside one small bedroom for each of them. The house is large, after all, and there are only the two children, their parents and two grandparents. There are probably still a room or two not in use. Harad is very glad to have a room for himself. He knows he will sleep better when not risking to roll over onto a woman.
But the joy is muted in the morning, for he wakes from a very embarrassing dream. In his dream, he is indeed married, and his wife is Majita the way she will look a generation from now, when she is the age that young mothers are. And in his dream, they do this and that which married people do, until he wakes from it and has to change his underwear. This happened from time to time, but he wishes that he did not have to remember the dream. It is not good to have dreams that you have to hide forever, it is like a closed room inside filled with darkness. But he cannot possibly ever tell anyone that he dreamed such a dream about Majita, even though she was not a child in the dream. Again he thinks that there must be some way to avoid these things. Certainly if he stopped sleeping, but that seems some way off yet. He is pretty sure Sarolav never sleeps. Perhaps with the Song of Endurance he may be able to stay awake all night? One day he will be, he promises himself. Or rather one night. One night there will be no more lies.
His shame is compounded when he comes to breakfast and sees Majita, who is of course still a little girl.
"Good morning, hubby! Please eat a lot!"
Her mother smiles her shy, southern smile. "Majita here insisted on helping with the breakfast, since it was for you."
That hurts, like a stubbed toe hitting the same place again. And it is about to get much worse.
"You can't believe what I dreamed tonight, hubby!"
He was afraid he would die right there. Certainly his heart skipped at least two beats.
"She was telling me before I was out of bed" laughs her mother. Harad just wants to run like a deer, as far and as fast as his feet can carry him.
"I dreamed that you were a boy my own age and you came to play with me, and we played together all day long and had lots of fun!"
"I think it was a sign from the Light!"
"I don't think Dreams come from the Light" he replies vaguely, trying not to think back to his own.
"Sometimes they can be" replies Heran from the doorway. "In that you can sometimes find a truth in a dream if you see through the surface to what it really tries to tell you."
"See, hubby? If great-great-grandpa says it, then it is true."
But even so, Harad can hardly wait to get on the road again.
"You seem happy to be on the road again" observes Jeni as the village fades behind them. There are still farms, but the Heran farm is out of sight. "You seemed a bit uncomfortable back there, and I can't hold it against you. I mean, being told who you are going to marry! The mind scarcely has the courage to boggle."
"It is probably even worse for the girl. I mean, she is pretty much being promised to some guy!" But at least she doesn't have indecent dreams about it. At least not yet. Light knows what will go through her head when she reaches the age where girls begin thinking about such things... if they do at all.
"Yeah, it would be really strange to be told that you were simply going to marry this or that person whether you wanted to or not. But at least this way we know that you are going to survive at least until she is an adult. That is a comfort, don't you think? I almost envy you that promise by the Light."
"I am not sure that is how it works, Jeni. Remember the old man had to warn us. We could have died - in fact we could still die if we don't sing, and we really don't know what to sing and where and when. So the Telling cannot be for sure, or he would not have needed to tell us."
"These cosmic convolutions make my head spin. So you have the free will to get killed, but you don't have the free will to marry anyone else than this girl?"
"That can't really make sense. I think I have the free will, but the Light knows that I am just not going to use it to marry anyone else."
"Do you really have free will when you can't use it in any other way than the Light has already planned for you to do?"
"It is not that the Light has planned it, exactly... it is just that it knows what I am going to do before I do. That doesn't mean I should do something else just to spite the Light. It will probably make sense at the time."
"It will probably make a lot of sense, since she is cute and looks like she will grow into a stunning beauty."
"Probably, but I don't think..." He was about to say he didn't think that was why he would marry her, but rather it was because she was going to be his equal in the Light, as Heran had said: 'A helper that will be your equal'. But Harad bites his words off. First, if the dream was any hint of what she would look like and how she would act, he might marry her for very selfish reasons indeed. And besides, reminding Jeni that she is weaker in the Light is not going to help them working well together, probably.
"You don't think? Well, I'll think for us both then." OK, so reminding her might not have been a bad idea...
The two young Servants make good speed for not having a horse or a beast of burden. By midday they rest by a small stream where they drink their fill, for the day has become hot. They are still in the lowlands, but further from the coast. The days are hotter so far from the sea, and the nights colder. Even the River would have helped, but the Anre is not large and powerful enough to change the very weather. Besides, they rarely even see the Anre, except now and then when they scale one of the low hills. But they rarely do, for the road winds between hills whenever possible.
After a rest with food and water, they are greatly restored. Before leaving they chanted the Blessing of Being Together with Heran, and the old man's strength in the Light was as great as they had expected. They were filled with energy and vitality that lasts them for quite some time.
Harad has his own things to think about. He had hoped to learn about the danger in the East, and they have learned a bit from the Telling and the conversation that evening. But it seems that Heran has had no interest in listening to rumors. His knowledge is revealed by the Light, and is mostly related to keeping Harad alive to marry the girl. So the message is pretty concentrated, with little surrounding knowledge that could help make sense of the cryptic words. And in his eagerness to be on the way, he did not even think about stopping in the village to hear if anyone else had news to share. Most likely people would be working at that time of the day anyway. Their best chance is the next guesthouse, which should be in the village of Berki.
"It is rather practical" muses Harad, "to travel along the valley of Anre. Since it is mostly farmland all the way to the eastern foothills, taverns are spaced out just so that you get from one to another in a day with a wagon."
"It may be practical for traders, but unless this tavern is better than the rest, I'll rather sleep in the tent. I don't want to have to fend off drunkards every single night for the next week and a half."
"I can understand that. But I have another reason to stop there. I need to hear more about these troubles in the east. The Telling is rather short. The more we can learn, the better we can know when and where to sing, and what."
"But we already know that it is quite a bit further east. What reason is there to think that people a couple days east of Krostun will know much more or different about something that is at best three weeks away, quite possibly a moon?"
"That is true, this is why I look for traders. Preferably sober traders. Also we have precious few stories to compare so far. Even two or three more could give us a better picture. Then we could travel for a while and ask again."
"Why not travel for a while first, until we come to a place where people actually know something?"
"Let me just ask around quickly then, to hear if there is someone who knows. If no one does, we just move on. With the Song of Endurance we may even be able to travel without sleep for a while."
"Not likely, since in the night we will have to use the Song of Brightness."
"Then we should use the Song of Endurance in the evening, so that we arrive more rested in the night."
"Hmm, that is true. But you are certainly eager to Sing at every opportunity."
"Of course! That is how we reach out to the Light, after all. If we could touch the Light only by walking on our hands, I would walk on my hands all the way to Svertorsk!"
"Haha! I wouldn't do that, especially not in a dress."
And so they spend the last part of the day singing the Song of Endurance. They may be only beginners in the Way of the Light, but with the two of them singing together and the Light adding its voice, they are surprisingly refreshed. Harad is beginning to believe that a Lightwielder could indeed run without stop from one end of the land to the other. Not that they could do that yet, but simply walking is easy now, even after a long day.
It is still daylight when they arrive at Berki. The tavern villages are still close together here, and the Harad and Jeni started out fed and rested. Unfortunately there are no trader wagons by the tavern.
"Harad, you do know how these wagons come here, right?"
"They don't fall down from the sky or grow up of the earth."
"What are you trying to say?"
"Think about it. The traders we want to talk to are coming from the east. We are coming from the west. It logically follows that if we move eastward, we will meet them sooner than if we loiter in the villages."
"That is true, but they probably don't travel by night, not here, not unless they are very much in a hurry."
"We won't be traveling all night and sleeping all day either. Thanks to the Songs, we can travel easily in the night, and also need less sleep than traders. So we can be up with the birds and hit the road."
"If only we were stronger in the Light, we would not need to sleep at all. The Song of Endurance would be enough."
"Yeah, but what would be the fun in that? Sleeping feels good. I am sure eventually we could do without food too, but would you want not to eat? Being human is all about having a good time doing the stuff you need to do anyway. To not do it at all would be kind of boring, don't you think?"
"I don't know... channeling the Light feels good too. If it gets better and better as we Attune, it may well be better than both food and sleep."
"But it hurts too. You get to notice all those icky things. That certainly puts a damper on the enjoyment."
"But those are things that should not be there! Lies! It is like closing the window shutters so as to not notice the dirt in the room!"
"Works for me. It is better than hunting down every little speck of dust anyway. You have to find a compromise, because the Light will never stop. It always demands more and more if you give in to it."
"But it also gives more and more!"
"Yeah, I know. But I seriously don't want to end up as a new Sarolav, just standing there day and night and channeling the Light."
"Well, we are a far throw from that! Right now I just want to be able to carry my own weight a little longer."
They walk on, into the softly falling night.
Chapter 6: Secrets
It must be well past midnight when Jeni picks out a camping spot again. She has a better eye for such things than Harad has, strangely enough for someone from the city. Or perhaps she just has stronger opinions: He has seen a few places that they could have used, but she did not show any interest in them. And Harad is content walking in the star-bright night, singing the Song of Brightness and seeing all things glow with beauty.
Jeni is not the first to think this is a good spot: There is a small fireplace made from stones, such as can be found in the nearest stream. They don't make a fire, though, as they mostly carry dry cakes, cheese and bread, and none of these are well suited for cooking or frying. So they eat a quick cold meal before setting up the tent. Since this must be an obvious site, they take care to sing the Song of Caution a couple times, but there is no Warning. They set up the tent - well, Harad does that mostly - and finally sing the Song of Sanctuary just in case.
The night is deceptively chilly as they go to bed, but they both remember from last time that it got quite hot inside the small tent. Jeni just crawls into the light linen bag and pulls the quilt bag over her as if it was a normal quilt, and Harad quietly follows her example. The bag is a bit narrow for a quilt, but it does cover him. Between the bag and the soft spongy bed roll, he is soon pleasantly warm and falls asleep.
Suddenly Harad is back home on the farm, or rather in the forest behind the farm, cutting trees. It is all dreadfully familiar, but there is nothing he can do to stop it. It begins to happen just as it did before, just as it does every time: The large tree sways, then starts falling in the wrong direction. Harad tries to cry out a warning, but it is too late and he only succeeds in distracting his father. The large trunk falls...
And then the tree swivels, as if it had its own malicious will. It turns while falling, turns toward him. He sees the shadow descending, way too slowly, but he cannot move to get away even though it seems he has the time. His legs do not move, as if they were mired in deep bog. He falls on his back, the heavy trunk across his stomach, squeezing the breath out of him. It does not kill him outright as it would have done his father. It just pins him to the ground, so awfully heavy. He can breathe, but only shallowly, and he cannot move. He is going to be slowly crushed to death... unless his father helps him. But he is only standing there, staring without showing any feelings. And Harad knows that this is the revenge because he had let his father die. Now it is his turn. He is getting what he deserves.
He can barely whisper, but he reaches out with his mind and suddenly brightness floods the forest and he opens his eyes and is awake. He gasps for breath and finds that he still cannot breathe fully. He is still pinned down. But it is not a tree trunk that lies across his stomach, but Jeni.
Somehow he has once again in his sleep sought in to the middle, this time of the tent. Jeni has moved about a lot more, though. She is lying across him, still in the pale linen sheet/bag, curled up half on her side and half on her stomach. It must have happened just recently, but she is clearly still asleep, and is not moving now. Waking her now would be quite embarrassing, but he needs to breathe. Squirming, he manages to slide his upper body mostly free and sit up a bit. Jeni on the other hand has slid down nearly to his lap. This does not seem to disturb her in the least. She has finally found a good sleeping position.
There is no way he can let her lie like that, though. He is a healthy young man, after all, and sharing a tent is quite bad enough. On the other hand, waking her now would surely embarrass her horribly. He can just imagine how embarrassed he would feel if he was the one waking up in her lap. No, he has to find some way to free himself before the dreadful dream releases its icy grip on his body and mind, or he will probably start enjoying it. Slowly easing himself to a full sitting position, he very carefully begins lifting her up so he can get out from under her. Of course that's when she wakes up, just as he has his arms full.
"Hey! Uh? Harad?! What are you doing?"
"Uh... I, that is to say, you, I mean..." The rest of the hastily stammered explanation probably makes a little more sense, but not a lot. "...so, I'm sorry."
She laughs. Just like that, she sits there laughing at him, as if his face was not red enough already. And he was worried that she would be embarrassed?
"You really have no sisters! You could just have pushed me away. My brothers did that all the time, and I with them. We were always squirming all over each other."
"You were sleeping with your brothers? I mean, in the same bed?"
"Well, not at your age obviously! But before I moved to the Lighthouse, yeah, sure. The middle brother was horribly clingy in his sleep. He would always wrap his arms, if not legs, around one or the other of us. I was the most restless and would always end up in new and interesting positions. If it was possible without breaking bones, I would be there sooner or later."
"Oh." He cannot remember sharing a bed with his brothers. Then again they were both so much older than he.
"I think this sets a new record however. Lifting me like that, it would have been so very naughty if it wasn't you."
"If it wasn't me?"
"You are just so incredibly innocent. Sometimes it is as if you have never seen girls before."
"Well that is pretty close to the truth. I have seen them in school, of course, but not in their underwear or ... wrapped up." He feels the heat in his face. Should he even talk about such things?
"Wrapped up!" Jeni giggles. "I feel like a Children's Day present! But I think I will unwrap myself now, so you may want to close your eyes if you don't want to see underwear before you marry."
Actually it is too late for that, despite his best intentions, because of that other day in the tent. But he closes his eyes anyway, and wonders if that is a small lie. The Light certainly seems restless inside him.
As they are packing their tent in the growing light of dawn, Jeni suddenly speaks with unusual meekness:
"I am sorry if I teased you too much, Harad. It's just that... I don't know, but when I woke up like that I was first scared. I mean, I was sleeping and then suddenly someone was holding me like that, but then I turned my head and saw that it was you, I was so relieved."
"It's OK. I guess I'm just not very good with girls."
"I noticed you were really quiet during breakfast. I didn't mean to offend you so much. I want us to continue to be friends."
"Of course. It is not really that. I made a fool of myself but none of us were really examples of dignity in there."
"That's for sure!" she laughs.
"What made me more upset was the dream I had just before I woke up. It reminded me of my father's death."
"I never knew! Your father died?"
"Yes. A tree fell on him and he died there. I was alone with him when it happened."
"Usually one or both of my brothers would help him when he was felling trees, and I can't help but think that he would still be alive if they had been there instead of me. I did not see the tree was falling the wrong way until it was too late. I cried out to him and he looked at me instead of at the tree and then it hit him and he died."
"Oh Light." Jeni makes the sign of the Holy Fox.
"I was already 13, they thought I was old enough to help him. But I just stood there and then he died." Harad is surprised to find that he still has trouble keeping his voice normal. It is already years ago and he thought he had accepted it and moved on. "I ran home but when my brothers came he was already dead. They sent me to fetch Betta, our Servant, but she cannot raise the dead. All she could do was sing the Last Blessing for his departing light."
He hasn't talked about it since... ever? He thought it was a thing of the past, until the dream. And now he cannot keep talking. He is just swallowing his failing voice. Jeni puts an arm around him. He does not want to cry. He is too old for that. But he cannot talk either. So he just stands there being held close until the cold leaves his soul for this time.
"You did not need to do that, you know" he says. "You did not even know him. You barely even know me."
"I have parents too" she replies. Simple as that.
Harad is not so sure, but he does not want to quarrel about it. But in his experience, becoming a Servant means losing pretty much everything and everyone from before. Not even his own mother could protect him from the ire of his sister-in-law, and he was very nearly chased from the farm where he was born and had lived his whole life. In the end he moved of his own free will to live with Betta, The Widow as she was called in Stormyr. But even before that, he was becoming a stranger to his own family. Even though they were not Darkfriends, they were all too clearly uneasy around him as he began to change.
Jeni leaves him to his memories for now, and he lets her keep her illusions. It was not the loss of his father that weighed so heavily on him. It was the guilt. If only he had been like his brother, he would have known what to do, and his father would still have been alive. Then again, if his father was still alive, would Harad have been a Servant now? Or was it on that day his path began to change, until it took him here? It is a thought he is not willing to follow right now. He finishes packing, slips on his heavy backpack, and walks toward the road with Jeni by his side.
Despite their hopes, Harad and Jeni don't meet any traders' wagons. Early in the day, they meet a couple of farmers with horses and carts, on their way to the village market in Berki. But that is all. Clouds also begin to sail in from the west, soon covering all of the sky. In the afternoon a light rain begins to fall. When his legs begin to grow tired, Harad asks if they can sing the Song of Endurance. Jeni readily agrees, she is probably feeling it as well even if her load is much lighter. So they walk the rest of the way to the village of Krok in a steadily heavier rain, singing to keep their strength and their spirits up. It works, too. Their backpacks are thoroughly waxed to repel water, and blessed repeatedly, so they don't have to worry about their food getting soggy, at least not until they take it out to eat it. Once they get used to the rain, it is not really much different from any other day.
The village is very quiet when they arrive in the late afternoon. The wayfarer's tavern is also quite empty. As usual along the road, the tavern is only named with the village name, Krok Tavern. In the towns, taverns and inns often have fanciful names, but not so here. What people really need to know is how far they have come and that they can have a hot meal and a place to sleep. The hot meal could have been tempting to Harad too, but he knows how much Jeni hates taverns. And after she was so nice to him when he told her about his father, he does not want to upset her needlessly. Not that he would do that normally either, but it is easier when she is acting all sympathetic.
"Since there are no wagons outside, I think we should ask for the village Lightwielder again."
"What, you are not satisfied with one wife?" jokes his companion.
"Well, it was my time last time, so perhaps you'll find your life partner this time!"
"Thanks, but I prefer to pick my own mate, thanks for asking."
"So do I, but if the Light sees fit to prepare one for me that it knows I'm going to pick, who am I to say no to the Light?"
"We've already been over this and it makes my head hurt. I think it would make your head hurt too if you were able to hold that much in it at the same time."
"I prefer to hold good things in there when possible. Anyway, you can't avoid Servants forever for fear of getting married!"
"You are right about that. I was really just joking. It shouldn't hurt to meet some of the people who have walked the Way of the Light before us. Especially since senior Servants out here in the valleys seem to be less bossy than in the city."
"Well, perhaps they were bossy because you were their novice and it was their job to boss novices around so they can learn."
"Did your mentor boss you around too?"
"Well, sort of. She kept an eye out for work I could do when there was no work to do, but not all the time. I really didn't mind, it is not like I was missing some kind of celebration. I was alone a lot, since we were the only Servants in the village and even the neighboring one."
"Here we are. You go in and ask, OK?"
A man, seemingly in his forties, is sitting behind a counter reading a book. Given how rare books still are, that was a surprise. Recently a few new books have begun coming in from the south. Rather than copying them by hand, some people have taken to making plates which they use to press ink onto the pages. This is not very practical unless you make lots of them, so they try to sell it all over the land. Betta has told Harad that when she was his age, nobody had seen any other than handwritten books. These new "pressed" books had come in her lifetime. Of course, few people in the villages would have bought them anyway. They may be cheaper to make this way, if you make many enough of them, but the traders will not carry them for free out to every little clump of farms.
"Greetings, young man!" The man rises. "Can I help you?"
"Excuse me, but we are traveling through and hoped there was a Lightwielder in this village?"
"Ah yes. There is one, but you might want to seek the next village if at all possible."
"May I ask why? Surely if he is a Servant of the Light, he will do no harm at least."
"That is true. The old man would not harm a sparrow. He might also heal one. But as for healing people, this takes a long time for him. And right this day, he will have no time. A man has come down with a terrible and sudden illness yesterday, and old Moran has been singing over him all night, but he is rather getting worse. A man on horse was sent to Berki to hear if we could get help from there, but that was only today and we do not know if help will come in time, if at all."
"That is terrible! Where is the house of the Servant ... the Lightwielder?"
"It is not far from here to the east, you cannot fail to see it because it flies the banner of the Sun."
"I thought Servants had stopped doing that."
"Some have not, at least. But to be honest, I think you will find no help there today and little enough on a good day. Old Moran is doing his best, but it was never much."
"I will go there at once. Thank you for your time."
"It was nothing."
Of course the last part was a lie, it was more than nothing, or at least different. Perhaps he actually enjoyed a break in his reading, meeting another human. But it was still not 'nothing'. But humans lie as naturally as they breathe. You cannot hold it against them or you would go mad.
Harad tells the whole thing to Jeni as they hurry eastward, and adds: "He may need all the help he can get! If we can at least keep the other man from dying, perhaps help will arrive in time."
They find the house easily enough. It is old but well kept, and it does fly the banner of the Sun, which Harad has so far not seen used, although he is familiar with the symbol from school. Back when not everyone went to school and learned their letters, it was common to use a symbol of the sun to remind people of the Light. But now that it is no longer necessary, many Servants feel that it is misleading. The true Light does not come from the sun, after all, and there is worry that people may worship the symbol in ignorance. This is known to have happened here and there. But someone still using the symbol is not really a matter of life and death. Songs of healing are. So the two of them hurry to the house.
A few scattered people huddle near the door, probably family members of the man who lies on a bed. He is himself an elderly man, which does not make things easier. The light of life burns lower toward the end, and the day comes when it no longer makes sense to try to extend life. But that time has not yet come here. The man is sick and feverish, not yet fading because of old age. The white-haired and white-bearded man who stands beside him singing could easily be older, but is of course in good health. Even novices and apprentices rarely take ill for any reason, due to the many blessings that stick to them, whether their own or their teachers'. Prevention is always much easier than cure. And even cure is easier if it starts early. It hasn't done so here, clearly. The lone Servant is fighting a black tide of disease that has already ravaged the body and is eager to jump to the next.
Ignoring the eyes of the family, Harad moves forward to the bed, right opposite the older man. He can clearly see the Light pouring forth, but he can also clearly see that it is a good deal less than Betta was channeling. It is more than he could do, though, no doubt about that. Probably more than he and Jeni together, but not by too much. If not for the age, he would have thought the Servant a journeyman, one allowed to practice on his own but not expected to take care of a whole village. Still, it is so much, much better than nothing. It has in fact been enough to keep the dying man alive, and still the disease is locked in a futile struggle to finish him off. That is a struggle Harad will not let it win. He glances at Jeni to see if she is ready, then when a new verse begins, he joins in the song of Healing from Illness.
The beauty and the power of the Light opens up to him, and as always Harad is overwhelmed by its purity. Although he is channeling the Light, he is painfully aware that he is indeed the servant, not the master. That purity judges him without even trying. "The Light judges but does not condemn", but he cannot help feeling guilty for the low and base motives he sees in this brightness. Did he only care about the sick man, who he had never seen before? Wasn't it also a will to show off, to be The Lightwielder who comes to save the day? Yes, it was. He is no better than that, not yet. He accepts, he gives the Light right. But he cannot give this his whole attention. He also needs to be aware of the Song he sings, the process of channeling, and the man he is trying to heal.
The Light bursts forth from him and Jeni, blending seamlessly with the Light from the old Servant. Moran? And as the Book says, "when two call on the Light, three are present". It is not so much that there is a third, or in this case fourth, stream of Light. Rather the light from each of them is that much stronger. Another popular image is that of pieces of wood being burned in a fireplace. If you burn them one by one, they will still burn, but if you burn them together, the fire will be much stronger. The image is not quite right, for the wood that burns more brightly will be consumed faster; but with Lightwielders it is the other way around. Even though Harad was just an apprentice, Betta would sometimes claim that she felt that valuable days were being added to her life when they sang together. Moran the Old could certainly need that too. Harad feels a deep sympathy. But for now, it is the other old man on the bed that needs help the most.
If Harad had entertained a fantasy of riding to the rescue and being the man who saved the day, that foolish dream falters quickly. Even in the face of their shared Song, the illness hisses and threatens in the weakened body. It takes an hour before even they can see it retreating. Another hour before the family can see it. They keep singing until long after midnight. By then the man is in a deep, healthy sleep. After such exhaustion, even their voices do not wake him. But the illness is overcome.
Moran takes them to the kitchen and they all share a meal. The old man lives alone in the house. He admits that he has never had a wife, much less children. "It is not easy to find a woman who is willing to live with a Lightwielder" he says. Harad had thought so too, which is one reason he is not put off by the thought of the Light having foretold a wife for him. Wives are, in his opinion, largely better than nothing.
But the old man has more to say. "I realized this while we were singing: I have failed so very much in my task. When I was your age, I was sure that I would live for centuries, performing great wonders to the people. All would look up to me, the worker of miracles, and all good things would come to me on their own." He sighs. "But I was lax. I ended up here, the only Servant for miles. If people wanted a blessing or a healing, they would have to come to me. I liked it that way. In a way, my dream had come true."
He smiles bitterly. "But when I was alone, I did not sing the Songs. And even after a blessing or a healing, I would not spend time in the Silence, pronouncing judgment on the darkness that the Light had revealed in me. And so I failed to make progress, always thinking that it would happen later. Later. Time would do it for me; I would be one of those old venerable Servants who could do great things. But of course the passing of time alone does not make us stronger in the Light. And even the Songs do only so much to attune us, if we don't give ourselves to the Light as it gives itself to us. Now I am old, and my life will be only little longer than those around me. I am little more than a novice still, because I used my freedom as an opportunity for my selfishness."
Harad listens, and he feels a painful kinship with the old man. How often hasn't he too taken the Silence lightly, been satisfied to have achieved his goal? But the Light has its own goal with his life, to help him see his own Darkness and purify him. He hasn't always seen that as so important.
"You are still young" says Moran, as if reading his thoughts. "I can see that you are strong for your age. Perhaps you have had good teachers, who encouraged you to spend your days in practice and contemplation. Please, do not follow my example when you go into the world. Keep seeking the Light always, and let it shine on your own life as well. Otherwise you will find your old age filled with regret, when the dreams fall away and only this wrinkled flesh remains."
"You are still alive" says Jeni suddenly. "No one stops you from doing it now."
"That is true" says Moran, "but already something is lost that can never be regained."
"We will sing with you the Blessing of Being Together" says Harad. "We all need blessing, having seen so deeply into our own shadow."
"Thank you" says the old man with genuine relief.
"We should thank you. 'The weaker is more blessed by the stronger.'"
And so they sing the First Song, several times over, bathing their soul in the mild Light. Then they sit in silence for a while, each of them holding judgment over their own illusions and habits. Well, at least Harad does, and who wouldn't, after seeing what happens if you fail to?
Harad looks up and the light of dawn is filling the land outside, the brightness rapidly filling the room as well.
"We should be on the road again. Will you help us by singing the Song of Endurance with us a few times before we go?"
He does, and the strength that fills Harad is quite a bit more than when he and Jeni sings alone together for the same length of time. There is indeed strength in numbers, and the old man is still stronger than the both of them. He may be disappointed in himself, but he is still a Servant of the Light, a good man and a blessing to those around him. The small village of Krok is lucky to have a Lightwielder at all to take care of them, and they will find him hard to replace once he is gone.
With Moran's blessings and two large loaves of soft bread and a wheel of cheese, they hit the road again. The rain has stopped for now.
Chapter 7: To the hills
Jeni and Harad march for three more days, stopping in the villages only to check for traders, sleeping in the tent a few hours each night. Even though the Song of Endurance helps them keep going, they are still years and years away from being able to live off the Light. They still need some sleep, and lots of food. Marching like this day after day with backpacks (and a pretty heavy one, for Harad) makes them ravenously hungry, and the bread did not last long. Most of the cheese went with it. The fat cakes are always tempting, and it is hard to stop eating once you begin. They are both surprised by how fast they grow hungry again. It is as if something has changed since the first couple days. And it has: Their stomaches are visibly flatter. A week of hard work is starting to show on them. Not that any of them was actually flabby before. And there are probably something like three more months to go.
On the fourth day they hit what they were looking for: A characteristic covered Trader's Wagon comes from the east. This is their chance! As they meet on the road, Harad hails the driver.
"Peace of the road, peace of the Light! Can we have words?"
The driver seems uncertain, but seeing how the young couple hardly looks like highway robbers, he slows down, and whistles twice. At once, two men come out with swordspears. Nasty weapons, these things are usually held and used like a sword with a long handle and short blade; the long arm gives them a fearful force at a distance where usual swords can not reach. A third follows holding a wound bow. Harad would have been very nervous now, if he did not trust the Light to warn him of any danger to life or limb. They have been singing the Song of Caution each night, and surely they would have noticed if they were going to meet traders gone bad. Therefore it must be that they carry their weapons in self-defense.
"Peace of the road, peace of the Light" repeats Harad and bows. Jeni bows too, but less. She has not had too good an impression from traders recently, of course.
"Who are you?" ask one of the swordsmen. He is wearing a light mail, leather covered with a net of metal that might stop a cutting weapon but not a piercing one. Harad does not know much about armor and weapons anyway. Nobody in Stormyr took an interest in such things, and as a Servant he is hardly fated to be on either end on them.
"I am Harad, apprentice Lightwielder of the village Stormyr, and this is Jeni, novice Lightwielder of Elvos. We are on an errand that will take us far to the east, I am afraid. What tidings would we need to know?"
"How far are you going? There is trouble in the mountains."
"We are meant to pass the mountains."
"We have been given the time we need."
"Well then. Unless your errand is in the mountains, you should go south when you come to Kleiv, before the first climb. You will enter the foothills further south and go through the pass between the southern and eastern mountains, as they would call them here, the Midland Ridge and the Western Massive if you know your books. The Lazy pass is the best way, then follow the southern road to Dares before turning north-east again."
"Can you tell us what it is, up there in the mountains, that all avoid?"
"We are not fools enough to see for ourselves, but they say that the mountain villages have fallen to the Darkness. I do not know how these things happen, but they have taken to dark rituals and human sacrifices. They will capture wayfarers, sacrifice them to the Darkness and eat them."
The other swordsman chimes in. "The Light does not shine upon them for the horrible sins they have committed. There is a black cloud always over the mid-mountain valleys, and no sunshine has reched them for two years. Their crops are wilted and their animals dead; they eat their children now, and any wayfarer that is fool enough to get near. They hunt people like a woodsman hunts rabbits. Not satisfied to kill you, they will defile your body in unspeakable rituals, then eat your flesh. Finally they give the bones life with black magic, creating horrible ghouls that help them in their evil hunt. The very souls of these unlucky people are trapped in these bones, so that they cannot escape to the Light."
"The best we can do is stay clear until they have eaten each other and are all dead, or until the Seven raise an army to slaughter them all."
"Unless one of the Great Old Ones comes back to help us, as some say will happen."
"I would not put too much store in that."
"It is said that one of the Great Old Ones has returned in the far south and is gathering an army of Lightwielders. Perhaps if you go south instead of east, you may meet them, though I doubt they would want ducklings like you in that army."
Harad frowns. "You haven't heard this from people who were there, have you"? He knows at once that he was not tactful enough.
"An army of skeletons told us." The voice of the swordsman drips with scorn. "Of course we cannot hear it from those who went in there. They never returned. And neither will you, if you are fools enough to go near the mountains. Not that this is our concern. We have places to be."
The men all go inside without more words, and the wagon rolls away to the west.
"Do you believe any of it?" asks Jeni. "It sounds like tales told ten times and then some."
"I believe something is amiss somewhere in the mountains, but I doubt there is an army of skeletons or anything like that. The Dark is also called Deceit, it never keeps its promises even when it may look that way for a short time."
"You would think the Book of Light would have some advice about these undead if they were real. Like a Song of Turning Undead or some such."
"I agree. I think we should go to Kleiv, then sing the Song of Caution until we learn more."
Each day is overcast now, so even though the summer is beginning it is rather colder than before. There is hardly a day they are not hit by at least one shower. It is a good thing the Trade Road is paved, or they would have been wading in muck. As it is, there is just enough to make the road a bit slippery, and at least there is no dust. The rain makes the grass and leaves green, but it is a green that is not brightened by the sun. Day after day of overcast almost makes them believe the story of the dark cloud covering the mountains so no ray of light would shine on the crops. Except neither Harad nor Jeni has heard of such a thing before. Of course, they are both young. There are books full of things they don't know. It puts a damper on their good cheer, it does.
"I don't really think we have a choice" says Harad as the land is visibly rising to the east. "We were Told that we needed to go to the 'Lightless Valley' and heal wounds, in order for our quest to succeed. Even though going around may sound like the safest thing, there seems to be some other danger that we can only overcome in that valley."
"One of each, two will come to a Lightless Valley. Danger and death to those who do not sing. Heal the wounds from years of Shadow, to last the whole way. Two will follow: One will love and one will leave. Neither must hold what first was given."
"Right. Now if only we knew what it meant."
"Well, the Lightless Valley must be the same place the traders talked about. They made it sound like the whole plateau was overrun with Darkness, but the Telling only mentions one valley."
"It could be that there are many such valleys, and we somehow have to find the right one. After all, it says 'a Lightless Valley' rather than 'the Lightless Valley', so there could be any number of them."
"But without a new Telling, how would we know which one to heal? Anyway, the fact that the wounds can be healed makes it sound less impressive than the armies of walking bones hunting children and traders."
Harad frowns. "True, I really doubt we could heal walking bones."
"I really hope that was a thoughtless lie. I know we could not heal walking bones."
"On the other hand, we may not be doing it alone. Two will follow, remember?"
"But that comes after the healing. It would seem that the healing is necessary to recruite the two who will follow, and who are needed to complete our task. Of course, we don't know who the two are either."
"Perhaps we will get a new Telling before we get that far."
"But would that make it easier or harder?"
They can see the roofs of Kleiv from one of the low rolling hills that make up the valley even here. Actually the hills are not so much hills as they are part of a natural ridge, but countless streams have cut dales between them. Given how small the streams are, it would seem that it must take a thousand times a thousand years to cut those dales so large, only the hills are left standing in between.
Kleiv itself is large for a village, though not quite a town. Since the Trade Road splits here, traders often stop more than one night, and trade among each other as some go up in the mountains and others to the south. There are two taverns here and a horse trader. Surely there is also at least one Servant! Rather than try on their own, they decide to first see if the local Servant may join them in the Song of Caution, to learn more exactly what they are up against.
The local Servant turns out to be a married couple, both of them Servants of the Light. This interests Harad, for obvious reasons, although he does not say that. It is a time of the year when the new crops are already blessed, for those who want such a thing, and well before the harvest. So without any illness or other mishap, there is free time for the Servants. They receive the two young wanderers with friendship. As Servants themselves, they see at a glance that their visitors are fellow Servants, and just how far (or not) they have come on the Way. But when they hear Harad's plan, they refuse. The husband explains:
"What will you do if you get a Warning?"
"What? We will take care."
"But shouldn't you do so anyway? And will you take the other way if there is indeed danger along the east road?"
"We cannot. We are bound to find a place called 'a Lightless Valley' in the mountains and heal some years old injury, whatever it is."
"So singing Caution will not change the fact that you are taking the east road."
"Still, would it not be better to be prepared?"
"A Warning becomes clearer when you have a direction. The greater the chance that you will encounter the danger, the greater the chance of a Warning."
"But you are far stronger in the Light than us. If you two were to add your Light, we should be able to get a much better Warning."
"Normally it is true that adding more Servants will improve a Song. But the song of Caution is a bit different. When we sing it as a group, it might overlook dangers that would not pose a danger to the group. In short, the Song of Caution should be sung after a decision is made, so as to give fair warning of the outcome of the decision. This means you will have to do it on your way."
Despite this disappointment, Harad and Jeni are treated well by the Servant couple. They get to eat a meal with them, and the wife seems amused by the large amounts of food the two guests eat. It is not like they weren't asked to eat as much as they wanted, though, so they did. It has been a while since they have eaten anything but butter cookies. The cookies are rich in fat so you can eat them to not lose weight during a travel, but they are not rich in flavor. Or at least you get thoroughly fed up with the butter flavor after a few days!
After the meal, Jeni and the wife disappear for a while, to discuss feminine issues, whatever that would mean. Harad does not know for sure, and what he can guess makes him not want to inquire further. He is rather happy that there are, to the best of his knowledge, no "masculine issues" to discuss. He wonders if the thing that happens to old men and their bladder is a masculine issue, but he does not feel the urge to discuss it.
Instead he talks about the road ahead. After all, Kleiv is much closer to the mountains, so the Servant may have something useful to say that downriver people would not know.
"Actually we are still quite a bit away from the mountains proper" says the middle-aged man. "The two long rivers have carved a plain of sorts from a land not much lower than what we now call the foothills. The first part of your travel eastward will take you from the valley up to this higher ground. The hills down here are low and rolling, but the hills higher up are much larger. For the most part, the road will go around them and between them wherever possible, so it is more winding than here. But after the first three days or so, it is not a heavy climb anymore for a while. Then come the real mountains. What we call the Eastern Mountains is actually a large massive that goes from near the northern shores and quite a bit south of here. The main body of the mountains are a curious mix of a high plain and jagged peaks. The road goes through several valleys, which are generally fertile enough for agriculture. He higher plain is not, except as a pasture in summer. And the peaks and chains of mountains are near impassable; the road avoids them, though it may sometime make it quite long."
"Are there many valleys?"
"There are something near a dozen through which the road passes. Let me see if I can find a map."
The map does name 11 valleys that have villages along the trade road. Harad tries to fix them all in his mind, though he is aware that villages tend to blur after a while. Still, one of those is the Lightless Village he and Jeni need to "heal", whatever that means. It seems indeed like a task for an Old One and an army of Lightwielders, rather than a novice and an apprentice. But they have to do what the Light wants them to. After all, they are Servants of the Light, not just the other way around.
Luckily Jeni returns from her secret discussions, and she has no problem memorizing the map and the villages. In fact, she knew the number already, though she admits some uncertainty of which village was which.
"I hope you can stay for the night?" says the woman Servant. "It is already getting late, and I hear you have slept in tents for some days now. Also I think you might like a real breakfast before you go."
"I told her I would be happy to see a bed again" says Jeni, "but we should ask you as well."
"Don't worry, we have a room with two separate beds. That should make you both sleep better." The woman grins as if she was making some kind of joke.
It is a sunny summer morning when Harad and Jeni say goodbye to the Lightwielder couple of Kleiv and start eastward again. Their bellies are full from a delicious breakfast, and the day is still not too hot. The road is easy still, but ahead the huge hills are coming closer, blocking out ever more of the sky.
Harad enjoys the day. "I am glad to see the sun again. It has rained a lot for this time of the year lately."
"For us, yes. It is probably normal here."
"Why would it rain more here than back home?"
"Because the wind comes from the west. It has passed over the ocean and is loaded with water. When it passes over the ground near the coast, the ground is warmer than the sea was, in summer, so the water does not condense into rain. But here the wind meets the mountains and is pressed up. It becomes colder and cannot hold as much water, so we get heavy clouds and rain."
"So why is it sunny today?"
"The wind does not alway have the exact same speed and direction. Sometimes, for reasons I have never been told, there is an areas of stillness and air that moves downward. This stops the wind from the west so it does not flow up and become clouds. Such a calm spot usually lasts for days or weeks when it first begins, but it moves slowly and we could be on the fringe of it, so it is hard to say how long it lasts just here."
"How do people even find out things like that?"
"The Light reveals it? Or perhaps they have just studied nature very carefully. There are scholars who do both, you know... we are supposedly on our way to one of them."
"'The Light reveals secrets as they are useful'" quotes Harad. He has never had any such revelations except the Warning, which was very useful indeed, but as people become more Attuned to the Light they supposedly get more and more such knowledge. Knowing how the weather works sounds useful indeed.
In the afternoon, Harad's opinion of the sunshine has changed somewhat. It is now quite summer-hot, and the land is sloping gently uphill. It looked much steeper from afar, but then it looked like an ordinary hillside. He now realizes that it is much larger. And while the road is not steep, it is long.
Suddenly Jeni stops. "Just what I was looking for, I think!"
"This stream. Come on, let us follow it."
"But it is still daylight! There is no reason to camp so early. We could sing the Song of Endurance instead."
"I am not talking about camping. Come."
They follow the stream, which is slightly too large to jump over with backpacks on, as it comes out from a rather dense forest. Overall the hillsides here are full of trees, as can be expected when they have plenty of water and sometimes sun. As the two walk in among the trees, it is as if the world changes. The burning sun becomes a distant memory, the forest bottom lit by a soft light that casts no shadows. Occasionally golden rays make their way through the canopy, but they are thin and not hot at all, as they dance across the moss and the tree trunks. The trees here are mostly large, it seems that lumberjacks have not made it this far yet. There is probably enough wood closer to where people live. The forest seems to have lived its own life for thousands of years, its sleep untroubled by human axes and fire.
The trees hang their boughs over the stream, but from time to time there is still an opening above, more so than elsewhere, and it makes the chortling stream seem like a shining path, blinking in and out of shadow. Jeni makes her way upstream deftly, and Harad follows. He certainly doesn't mind the cool air and the soft light, but they walk for so long that he starts wondering where they are going. But when she stops, he finally becomes aware of the sound. It is different from the small splashes of the stream as it jumps over a stone or a root. There, in front of them, water falls down a sheer cliffside, throwing itself in a pond surrounded by stones in all kinds of sizes. The water must have brought most of those down and also cleared the pond, but now the stream has quieted in the sun.
Jeni dips her hand in the water. "Fresh, but not too cold" she says with a happy grin.
"You knew there would be a waterfall here?"
"I had a hunch."
"But how? We couldn't see it or hear it from the road."
"Careful study of the natural world." She grins again. "I saw the stream, and the terrain where it came from was just about right. There are probably a number of them along the sides of this valley. But this is every bit as good as I had hoped for, and then some."
Harad too dips his hand in the water. It is slightly chilly. Beside him, Jeni takes her boots off. It seems she wants to cool her feet, and he cannot disagree with that. He takes off his own boots and socks, and puts his feet in the water. It is shockingly cold the first few heartbeats, but then just fresh. It is summer already, after all, even if very early summer. This stream does not come from the snow-melt of the mountains, but from the land of hills, so naturally it is not too cold.
Something is out of order. Harad turns his head and sees Jeni has pulled off far more clothes than he expected, and now her traveling dress goes over her head. He blinks, then looks away. "What are you doing?"
"Bathing. Aren't you?"
"I thought you were just going to cool your feet?"
"No, my plan all the time was to bathe. We are both sweaty and could need a bath. And I plan to enjoy it till my teeth start clattering!"
"But I am here!"
"You haven't changed your mind about forcing yourself on me, have you?"
"Of course not!"
"Well then. I am going to be under water except for the next few heartbeats, so you can just look away till then if you want."
He does look away. Soon there are splashing sounds and a small whine.
"You can look now. Actually, you can come now. I'll look away if you want me to while you undress."
"I would appreciate that."
Did he agree just that readily? He would like to think that she asked in such a way that he could not easily choose otherwise, but the Light does not agree. One always has the choice of what to say and what to do. Others can tell us what to do, directly or subtly, but we always choose whether or not to do it. In the end, each of us is responsible for himself. And Harad is responsible for taking his clothes off and getting into the water. Luckily it all happens so fast that there is no time for his imagination to work. And then the chill of the water ensures that he will not embarrass himself in that way at least. Not that he should anyway - he is after all going to marry another woman, not Jeni, so there is no point in thinking about her that way. Even if she... no, no point at all.
Jeni has moved to almost right under the waterfall. This is good, because the falling water makes the surface unclear. That may not be why she does it, though. She is putting her hands into the splashing water so it splashes onto her, making her hair soaking wet. "Wheee! This is fun! You should try it!"
"It is way too long since I have had this fun with water. If ever - I used to swim a lot, but there was nothing like this anywhere down in the flat lands. Say, you're from the forest - can you swim at all?"
"A little. Our neighboring village was on the river. But there was rarely time for it. Chores are rarely that far apart, on a farm."
"Ah, poor you! But at least you won't drown."
"Is it really that deep over there?"
"No. You can stand the bottom. I do that right now."
"Ah. It looked that way, and I thought you weren't made of cork."
She giggles. "Not quite, but I guess I am slightly more cork-like than you."
"Fat is lighter than muscle and bone, and you clearly have more muscle than me, while I have more fat - at least in certain places."
He cannot think of a good answer to that. It makes sense that muscles are heavier than fat, but he never thought about it before. She sounds like a teacher. Actually she probably knows more than his old teacher, but unfortunately that means less than it ought to.
"But most of the pond is deep enough that you can swim if you really want to."
She leans over and starts slowly swimming from the waterfall to the edge of the pond, then turns and swims to the other edge. Harad does not look too closely now that he can see her contours, even if distorted, through the water.
"You should try too."
"I prefer just quietly cooling myself down here."
"You can even dive!"
She dives. Harad is not very used to diving from within the water and especially not by women. When he closes his eyes, it is too late. He has seen something he should not have seen. It remains on the inside of his eyelids for several heartbeats. He hurries out of the water and picks up his clothes.
"Are you getting out already?"
"If I stay there, I can't avoid seeing things I should not see!"
"Do I need to tell you that? You don't have any clothes on, and when you move in the water all kinds of parts of you become visible from time to time."
"You really got to see it all already?"
"Yes, when you dived, the other part of you came up."
"Right, so it does." She giggles. "I did not think of that. Well, too late now!"
"Why am I the one who is embarrassed when you are the one who is exposed?"
"Is that not my question? We are Servants of the Light. Truth is our right foot, isn't it? What could be more true than the form we were born to? Legend has it that ancient Lightwielders do not wear clothes because it is a form of hiding the truh."
"Ancients are wrapped in the Light so they don't really need clothes."
"But that does not change the fact that this is who we really are."
"I am not so sure - humans always wear clothes, from we are very little to we are carried to the grave. Is not clothes really the human condition, then?"
"Lies are also the human condition, but we have dispensed with them. Surely clothes do conceal, not reveal."
"So why do YOU normally wear clothes?"
"Most of the year it is too cold not to. But in summer, only for other people."
"Well, I am other people."
"Not the same way as they. I must admit I was surprised at first, but as I was thinking about it, I realized that I don't mind you looking at me. I rather like it."
"Why? We have known each other for less than half a moon, and we both know that I am going to marry someone else."
"Actually I would not have wanted to marry you anyway. I mean, you are younger than me, and the difference will just grow as we grow older. You are so dedicated to the Light, I can almost see your Attunement grow for each passing moon phase. Even if I wanted I could probably not catch up with you, and I don't want to. I don't want to end up like Sarolav or one of the other Ancients, alone with the Light in a cold stone house or mountain cave or pillar in the desert. I want to live and die a human, just a better one than I otherwise could have been."
"Is that it? You don't really think of me as human?"
"Oh, you are now, but it is probably not going to last. In a way that is sad, but on the other hand I feel happy for you because you clearly want to live like that. The Light is more important to you than money or respect or even love and friendship."
"'There is no greater love than to serve.'"
"I know. But there are needs that are not eternal."
He can hear from her voice that she has come closer, out of the water, and is moving toward him.
OK, that was unexpected, to say the least. Harad and Jeni had bathed in a stream pond to cool themselves off and rinse off their sweat. But then it had turned out this way - Jeni saying that she does not mind him looking at her naked, and even arguing that it would be a good thing. He is still turned away, but she is coming up behind him.
"Harad, I am not asking you to marry me or even mate with me. I just don't want us to be so awkward together."
"It is awkward because you don't have clothes on."
"No, Harad. It is awkward because you are afraid of my body. Do you fear that your body would desire mine if you let it see me like this?"
"I don't know, but more important is that I don't want to know. When I know, the damage is already done."
"What damage? You do not take your pleasure from hurting people, do you?"
"Well then, no damage will be done. I am fine with it either way."
"Whether you want my body or not."
"Well, I am not fine with it."
"You are not exactly my ideal man yourself, you know... you are too young, and kind of rugged... more like a thing built for heavy use than a piece of art."
"But you are kind of cute, and innocent in a good way. I mean, you are not planning things so they will fall into place for you. You just go right ahead and take what comes."
"That's because I am a Servant of the Light."
"But even if you were not lying, you could work toward some goal without telling as long as you don't actively deceive anyone."
"It is a bad habit. When the Light grows brighter, it will judge even that."
"I never said it was a good thing. On the contrary, I say you are good for being so honest, even more than you need just to be a Servant. Although I don't know for sure if it is a sacrifice you have made, or if you are just naturally simple."
"I am naturally simple. I have enough Darkness inside to burn if I should not figure out complicated things to do and then not do them because they are wrong anyway."
Jeni laughs. "That is why I like you so much so soon." But then her voice turns serious again. "Still, you know more than I about being a man. If it really is such a problem just seeing me the way I am, then I will hide myself from you again. I hoped this would bring us closer together, but the opposite happened, did it not?"
"I'm afraid so. I really don't understand why you would want to be naked with a man when it is not necessary."
"Because it makes me feel alive! Because I want to share with you! Because I thought as a man you would like watching a woman!"
"I would, but I do not wish to think of you that way. I wish to think of you as a friend and fellow Servant."
"I would be all that too. You don't need to have a world with two kinds of women, the good one with clothes and the bad ones without. I think that would make things problematic when you marry, at least."
"When I marry, I don't want to have my head full of images of other women."
"She is 7, you know. It is a long time till then."
"I know, but right now this is the best I can do."
"Fine. I've put clothes on. They'll dry as we walk."
As soon as Harad an Jeni are back on the road, the sun starts baking them again. It does not last long before their wet clothes have dried. Then it does not last long before they begin becoming wet again, with sweat, as the road continues to snake its way uphill. Slowly but relentlessly, always uphill. Sometimes there are boulders or small cliffs or patches of naked stone beside the road, but for the most part there is forest. Wild forest where men don't go with their axes. It is quite a change from the lower valley, where there were farms almost all the way and only copses of trees here and there, more often just brush and bushes or large ferns along the streams. The terrain here is not well suited for farming, dotted as it is with boulders and riven by ravines, broken and bent at weird angles. Perhaps one day the ever growing human population will try to settle even here, but for now there is only the road, and even there branches of large trees sometimes reach out from either side as if to try to close a scar.
"For what it is worth, I am sorry." Jeni speaks casually, almost as if talking to herself. He cannot see her, as she is walking behind him right now.
"Me too." Harad has thought about it all the time since, except when looking around, but always his thoughts came back to that which happened.
"I just want you to know this" she continues, and evidently is not talking to herself after all. "If you happen to look at me - any part of me - for some reason or other, it's OK. You are not taking anything from me. I allow you to do it."
"I am not sure if you can do that."
"I say it is OK for me. I am not going to hold it against you now or before the Light. You may have your own reasons to close your eyes. I cannot do anything about those. But for me, I am not afraid. I trust you even if you don't trust yourself."
He doesn't really have anything to answer to that. Is it really so that he does not trust himself? He doesn't think so. He would not really try to do anything that could not stand in the Light. But the thought still makes him uneasy, and he chooses not to keep thinking.
"Do you want to sing Endurance?" she asks behind him.
And so they sing the Song of Endurance, while the sun slowly sinks lower in the sky and the shadows grow longer. The heat of the day lingers even as the sun grows red. They stop to fill their water skins and drink from a small stream, then begin walking and singing again. In the song, Harad remains aware of what has happened, but he don't need to put it into words. This is good, because he just kept stringing together the same words over and over but was never quite satisfied with what he got. Now he can use most of his mind to reach out to the Light and let it into the world. The Light could have made him forget, if it chose to. But instead it shares his awareness of what has been, but it seems to come from a different angle. He cannot really understand what it is shining on, but it is like a lumpy part of his soul, something that is hidden but the shape of it can be seen, just vaguely.
The effect of the Song is clear enough, though. Despite the long uphill road, they are still strong enough to keep walking, walking, walking with their backpacks. They don't hurry: If they were to get too winded, they would not be able to keep singing. They are still just students, after all. Their Light has power to make a difference, but hardly yet miracles.
The sun has set, but the sky is still red in the west when they come to a guest house. There is no real village here, because there are no farms around. A couple houses nearby probably hold people who are useful at such a place, such as a hoofsmith and a wench or two or three. Even if the family was large enough, it would only make sense to have wenches. Harad briefly sees it from Jeni's point of view, and it is not a pretty sight. Travelers would certainly want to be too familiar with the wenches, even if nothing comes of it. That is why you would want someone else than your daughter work that part. But is that really right? Every girl is someone's daughter, is she not? Just because her father and mother is not there to watch her does not mean that she is any less a daughter.
There are no traders' wagons, and Harad did not expect any. The road across the mountains will carry no traders this year. They will take the long road south and then east and north, as they would have done in midwinter, if they had to travel at all at such a time. In summer, the mountains are supposed to be pleasantly cool while the South is uncomfortably hot. But it is better to be hot than dead, or worse, undead. Again Harad feels a moment of panic that he is walking into the cave of the hungry bear, but he seizes control of his faint heart. This is what they are sent to do. The Light is with them.
"Should we get a meal here? There are no traders so you should find no trouble this time."
"With no village, this house is really just a family when there are no traders."
"Do you think we would be intruding?"
"Yes. They may still want our business, but would probably be disappointed or even upset that we move on without sleeping there tonight."
"We could always sleep there..."
"Our silver needs to last us to Svertorsk. Sleeping in inns should be emergency only."
"Right. Let's go then."
Soon it is too dark to move without the Song of Brightness, so they do. Like all dealings with the Light, it does energize them a little. Well, it does Harad, he does not ask Jeni but he assumes that it does all. Still, it is not exactly the Song of Endurance. And they have walked far, uphill almost all the way. Even though the night is really a better time to walk - the air is cooling rapidly now - they are simply too tired. Under the stars and a rising moon, they set up their tent in a glade not far from the road.
"For that matter, we could have camped by the road" says Jeni into the night. "No traders are going to come this way, and there is no village nearby that people would travel to and from. We are probably the only ones on the road for hours and hours."
"Well, we are here now."
"I did not propose that we move back to the road. I am just reflecting on our situation."
"OK." She is probably doing that even when she is not talking about it, thinking all the time. It must be strange being so smart. Then again, she is strange too, so he is not exactly envying her.
The fat hard cakes are quite tasty after a long walk, but their meal is a silent one. Silent and awkward. Harad chews the cakes slowly, as one should with fatty cakes. They are not very filling, but they are very nourishing. During an earlier meal, Jeni told him that about half of the cakes were really fat. That is impressive. If you were to eat such things without doing hard work, you could grow fat as a pig yourself. Not much chance of that here, though. Hours and hours of carrying their backpacks, walking as briskly as they can without getting winded. It is no wonder they get hungry so often.
The glow of the Light that came from the Song fades slowly once the song is over. With them being so inexperienced, it is entirely gone when they go to bed. It is past midnight, and the first light of dawn is still a while away. The nights are short now, but unlike in the Northlands, there is still some dark each night. It is in this darkness that they each find their sleeping gear by habit and turn to the walls.
Even the first night was no more awkward than this, Harad thinks back. Well, perhaps, but not by much. Why did it have to end up like this? Was there something he could have done differently? It is easy enough to think of things she could have done differently, but that has no value before the Light. Each of us has to account for himself. Where did he go wrong? Was it when he went into the water even knowing that he might see something? Or was it when he ran away? He is not sure, but he is sure that it need not have ended up like this. He tries to Listen to the Silence, but he is too tired. When his thoughts stop spinning around and around, he falls asleep at once.
Harad is back on the farm. He is in the hay loft, which is almost empty. His father has dumped a cartload of hay and Harad is dragging it out to the corners, a fitting job for a youngest son. As he comes back for more, his father suddenly dumps a new cartload of hay right on top of him. He struggles to get up, but somehow there is more hay up there, and his father just keeps dumping it on him, more and more, choking him with hay. Harad realizes that he is going to die, that his father is doing it on purpose to kill him, to get his revenge at last. Struggling, Harad reaches out ... Light, help me! And the Light floods him, changes all things in a swirl of brightness.
Harad opens his eyes and it is late dawn. There is still hay over his face though... but much softer than in the dream. He turns his head. Jeni is lying with her head next to his, and her loose hair is flowing over his face and neck. There was never really enough of it to actually choke him with, but the sense of it caused him to panic. He makes himself free quietly. And he remembers. Remembers the other dream, where he was also dying under his father's cold, unflinching gaze. Remembers Jeni comforting him even though she did not need to and he did not ask her to. Yes, she is a good girl. And yes, they have grown strangely close in such a short time. Even though they are not meant to marry each other, she is still his best friend. He touches her hair, softer than any cloth. There is a childlike innocence about her when she sleeps, that melts his heart. And it strikes him for the first time that perhaps she, after all, is the really innocent of the two of them. She is thinking better of him than he is thinking even of himself.
He remains sitting for a little while, just looking at her face and hair in the growing light of the new day. 'I wish I could always look at you like this, with eyes that give rather than take. But I cannot, not yet. Forgive me.'
Harad does not tell her, when they both get up. Not about the dream, not about his thoughts, not about her hair and her innocent sleeping face. But she notices that something has changed, as they munch their breakfast.
"You seem much happier today, and more relaxed. You had a good night's sleep, I'd guess?"
"I think I have a better perspective now."
"Not because of the sleep?"
"It would not have happened without the sleep, I am fairly sure."
"Are you hiding something from me?"
"Not something you would want to know."
"Is this one of the 'healthy young man' things?"
"No, unless you refer to mental health."
"Also, I think I sleep too lightly not to notice."
"Don't let your imagination run away with you."
"Imagination makes up for lack of information."
"I simply realized that I had been unreasonable, and that I am very lucky to travel with a good friend such as you."
"Wow. You really have changed overnight."
"It happens. 'The Light works in wonderful ways that the natural mind cannot understand'."
They pack and get on the road again. The day is still cool after the night, but it is still an uphill struggle. But they are rested, and reasonably fed from two meals without any work inbetween. Their water skins are full, the sun is late in the coming because the land rises to the east, keeping them in shadow until it is full day. It grows warmer rapidly, then, but not yet too bad.
They reach the crest of a hill and looks back. The sight is truly awe-inspiring. From here, they can see the broken hills jumbled down the long end of the valley, and beyond that, the Anre valley itself. It stretches into the distance as far as eye can see. The difference in the terrain is really obvious now. Even the colors are different. The mix of trees that grow up here is a bit different from down there. There are less of the most heat-loving trees, though they still hold their own in hillsides facing more to the south. On the opposite sides of the hills, though, there are trees that stand the snow better. The land has truly changed. Even the smell on the wind is different here. It is more like spring again.
There are still some uphills ahead of them, but less than before. The land is leveling out. After noon the valley has faded for good behind them, the tumbling drop hidden by hills not much different from the hills in front of them and to their left and their right. The land up here is grand, the hills and valleys much larger than down in the flatlands. It seems almost ridiculous to call those "hills" anymore, the ridges they passed during their long trek up the valley. If those were hills, then these would be mountains. But they are not, not really, although some of them have sheer drops on one side or another, gray and bluish stone without trees or grass. But the real mountains are still ahead. Far ahead. They may have as long again to walk as they did to get here.
But at least it is less hot. The sun is as bright as yesterday, if not more so. But there is a cooler wind up here. And of course they don't have to walk uphill most of the time. The trade road does a good job of avoiding the hills, though it gets that much longer by snaking around them. There are ups and downs, but they are milder and they barely gain any height at all. Or at least that is how it feels. There is no reliable way to measure it. But the land is much the same now. The new sort of forest remains the same. And by sunset, they come to farms again.
It is a strangely welcome sight, after two days walking through the wilderness. There is probably more of a winter here than down in the valley, not to mention near the coast where snow rarely stays on the ground. But the growing season is plenty long enough to grow all the usual food: Well-kept orchards dot the sunny slopes, while fields of grain cover the flatter land, with some smaller fields of vegetables. Forest has been cleared, and the shallowest soil has become pastures. The smells are familiar and remind Harad of home. If not for the massive hills dotting the land, it could have been home in late spring rather than the Eastern Hills in the first days of summer.