Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Jaleth and the Dragons by J. R. Sparlin

Jaleth leaves his forest village to partake of a time-honoured ritual of manhood, but he will soon realise how narrow his horizons have been, in J. R. Sparlin's sweeping fantasy.

Jaleth had always loved to watch his father work. He was a timber-shaper, taking the dead fallen trees and making them live again, cutting and carving and shaping them into something new and useful and beautiful, trimmed logs to build the walls of huts, shaped pieces and boards for benches and cradles. Nothing of a tree was ever wasted. The smaller branches and bark and shavings were kept to fuel the fires. The tree had given its life-force; not a single shaving could be thrown away.

It was always Jaleth's job to pick up the shavings as they fell. There were many. His father worked slowly, carefully, shaping the boards with a stone adze, squinting down the length of a board to make sure it was level. He was the best timber-shaper within reach of the sunset.

Jaleth watched the adze scrape carefully along the log, and wondered how much easier his father's work would be if he still had the little finger on his right hand.

He had asked his father, once, a long time ago, and the adze had paused, for just a moment, and then resumed. "Pick up your shavings, son," said his father.

That was a long time ago. Jaleth no longer picked up shavings. He was learning to help his father now, learning when to use a stone axe for cutting and a stone adze for shaping, learning which trees and which logs were best for different uses, learning to respect the tree's life-force by listening to what it wanted to become.

But as he became more proficient with axe and adze, as his arms grew stronger and his sight truer, Jaleth wondered again. Soon, when he became a man, he would have to learn to do without the little finger on his right hand. It would not affect his sight, or his sensitivity to a tree's life-force; but it would be so much harder to work with the adze. The tendons and muscles on his father's right hand were thick and crooked from years of compensating for the missing finger.

The Day of Manhood, his fifteenth birthday, drew near, as the cutting edge of the adze dragged slowly and relentlessly over a board. Jaleth found himself contemplating his little finger, holding it, protecting it from the slightest cut or scratch.

"How badly does it hurt?" he asked abruptly one day.

His father paused in his work, glanced at his own right hand, took a fresh hold on the adze. "Do not think about the pain," he said. "Think of the return. You will be a man. You will have a voice in village affairs. You can stay with me in my hut," he sounded rather wistful, "or you can build your own. You can become a timber-shaper like me, or you could learn another craft. You could marry a wife."

Jaleth's ears burned red. He thought of the village girls. Some were pretty, and most were nice, and all of them giggled - but a wife. He did not feel close enough to manhood, not yet.

He glanced, again, at his right hand. No girl - no young woman - would have a husband with a little finger on his right hand.

"The pain will stop, after a time," his father said, but his voice shook slightly, and a shaving a little thicker than usual fell to the grass.

"But why?" Jaleth said. The questions he had always kept secret in his heart came tumbling out. "Why do the dragons want our fingers? Why is it necessary to lose a finger to be a man? I think I could be a better man with my finger than without it."

There was a heavy silence, heavy as the malformed muscles in his father's hand. Jaleth's questions lay in the grass with the shavings.

His father sighed. "I do not know." He studied his own right hand, absently, front and back. "But some things must be done."

Jaleth woke on the morning of his fifteenth birthday with his right hand clamped under his left armpit. His left shoulder ached with tension. He crawled off his pallet and dragged his feet to the Circle Green in the center of the village.

Everyone was there, standing in a wide circle. Jaleth walked to the middle and stood uncomfortably. He had stood in the circle himself, many times. The other candidates for manhood had always seemed much older than he felt, and much stronger, and much less nauseated.

Rhyse was the oldest man in the village; he spoke first. "Today is the Day of Manhood," he said.

"Yes, father," said Jaleth. All men in the village were addressed as "father" or "grandfather"; after today, he realized with a gulp, he would be called "father" by the younger children as well.

"Are you ready to become a man?" said Rhyse.

"Yes, father," said Jaleth.

"Go, then, and return," said Rhyse. "Face your fears. Be tested. Return to us a man of the village, with the rights of a man, a voice in council, the choice of craft, the right to become a husband."

Several of the girls - the young women - in the circle were studying him. They looked almost - predatory. Jaleth gulped.

Jaleth's father stepped to the center of the circle. His back was straight; he bore himself proudly; he was a man of the village. "This, my son, I have made for you."

It was a stone knife with a wooden handle, carved and polished to fit Jaleth's left hand. Jaleth hung it at his belt.

"I represent your mother in this next gift," said Jaleth's father, "since she is gone, and all her female kin." His voice shook, ever so slightly. He gave Jaleth a leather pouch. In it were healing herbs, and something else Jaleth recognized - a bone flute his mother had fashioned and carved, and once played. It was his father's most precious possession.

"Thank you, father, for this gift." He paused; tears welled to his eyes. "Thank you, mother, for these gifts."

"Return to us," said his father, and stepped back into the circle. He looked as though he wanted to say more.

"Return to us," said Rhyse.

Jaleth turned and walked out of the circle. He did not look back. He could feel the girls' eyes on him as he walked. He walked faster.

He walked through the concentric circles of the village, through the fields of barley and rye, before he looked back.

The circles of the village lay in a little valley, with the green and golden fields rising slightly around it. To the east and south, dark even in the morning sunlight, were the outskirts of the great forest. To the west were the wide meadows and plains that led eventually, it was said, to the sea. To the north was Smoke Mountain, always snow-peaked even in full summer, a little wisp of smoke rising as usual from its summit. It stood alone, rising in a perfect cone to the edge of the sky. Behind it, far away, were other mountains, blue and fading indistinguishably into the sky.

But Jaleth's path lay between the south and the west, to Dragonridge. It was not a long walk, a few hours at most, easily accomplished in one day. If he was not back by sunset, the villagers would come looking for his body.

He walked away from the village and toward the ridge. He found berries along the path, and ate them; he drank from the stream that danced across the path. His steps grew heavier and heavier. His stomach weighed within him as though he had eaten a large meal. The sun was warm on his back, but his hands felt cold.

Finally the land rose before him into a ridge, overgrown with a protective hedge. The path stopped. Jaleth walked on.

No one knew what lay beyond the ridge. Jaleth knew what he must do, what he had to do, yet he hesitated.

He looked around him. It was a peaceful, green place, too peaceful for its purpose, Jaleth thought. Gray stones were scattered here and there. Jaleth sat on one of them and stretched out his legs.

The hedge at the lip of Dragonridge was thick. He could not see through it. He drew his knife from his belt, the knife his father had made him, and studied it. A cruel thing, he thought, for a father to have to make for his son.

He held it in his right hand, then his left. It fit both hands, now. Soon it would not.

Suddenly, in a fit of anger, he sheathed the knife at his belt and started climbing the ridge.

He was not supposed to do this. He was supposed to cut off the little finger on his right hand, climb to the ridge, and throw the finger over it for the dragons. He was then supposed to bandage his hand and walk home. If the dragons accepted his offering, he would live and become a man. If they did not, he would bleed to death and the villagers would come to find his body.

But on Jaleth climbed, to the hedge of Dragonsprint herb that grew at the lip. It was taller than he, and grew thickly, and each long stem had five thin leaves like the five toes of dragons' great footprints found in rocks. What kind of creatures were dragons, to leave their prints in rocks?

He pushed carefully, reverently, through the hedge. It was forbidden to pick Dragonsprint herb wherever it grew, and this was an especially sacred place.

He was glad for his caution, because the ridge dropped off abruptly. Apparently it was only a few feet wide. Jaleth parted the last growth of Dragonsprint and peered over the edge.

At first he was not sure what he was seeing. The hillside dropped down sharply to a wide valley, green with grass like the other side, and scattered with gray stones. But amongst the stones and in the grass were small white objects. Jaleth stared at them for a moment, and then, sharp as a knife cut, he knew. Finger bones. Human finger bones, hundreds and hundreds of them, from all the villages, for hundreds of years. The dragons had not taken them. There they all lay in the grass.

He backed out wildly, forgetting to be careful of the Dragonsprint. At the edge of the ridge he turned and ran down the hill as though every dragon ever hatched were chasing him together, breathing smoke and belching fire, some gliding on wide wings, some running on ferocious legs. He reached the bottom of the hill and looked back. There were no dragons.

He looked around him, breathing heavily. The path wound back towards the village, made by the feet of generations of young men, maimed and bleeding and in pain, but with their lives ahead of them. His life was over. He could not go back to the village, not now. He could not shame his father. He could not exist as an outcast, growing forever older but with the status of a child, dying finally of old age without ever having been a man.

He shouted, screamed, out loud. The sound echoed off the ridge and came back to him, fainter and fainter until it disappeared into the grass. He wondered if the sound carried to the other side of the ridge as well, the sloping secret side where, Jaleth was sure now, no dragon had ever walked.

He looked around wildly, at the wisp of smoke rising from the mountain to the north, at the ridge with its thicket of Dragonsprint, at the path home he could never take.

He turned and walked east, toward the great forest whose shadows loomed in the distance.

He did not have any particular reason to go towards the forest. But he could not stay on the ridge, and he could not go home, and east seemed as good a direction as any.

It was dusk when he reached the first trees. The sun had set behind him, and a little light still tried to reach through the trees, but it could not get very far. Here and there was a stump, where someone from one of the villages had cut down a tree for fuel or timber. The trees seemed to lean together and whisper, and then to lean forward towards him.

He held up his hands. "I have no axe."

The trees leaned back, moved apart. Jaleth decided this would be a good place to stop for the night. He had no blanket, but he lay on the grass and looked up at the stars that were burning into the dark sky. A fresh pang of homesickness shot through him. But the constellations were old friends; after a time, when he had dried his eyes, their familiarity brought him comfort. There was the Boar with its two tusks, and the Village with its concentric circles. There were the Sisters, two stars clustered together so closely it was hard to tell them apart. And there, lunging up over the horizon, was the Dragon, wings spread, eyes burning, mouth open. Jaleth could almost hear it roar. He had been so afraid of the Dragon as a child that he would not go outside after dark, not unless his father was with him. Now he gazed at the Dragon through the trees and the Dragon stared steadily back, but both kept their silence.

He woke as the fingers of dawn crept in through the trees. He stood, and stretched his sore muscles; and he was glad, suddenly, that his right hand was whole and free of pain, glad even here in exile that he had not made the sacrifice demanded of him.

There was a snap behind the trees. Something had stepped on a twig. Jaleth tensed and drew his knife.

There was silence. Jaleth strained his ears, but could hear nothing but the whispering of the trees.

He stalked the direction of the sound, knife ready in his hand. Whatever it was made no sound, but he knew it watched him. He paused behind a tree, his back pressed to the rough bark, and then spun around it, knife upraised; and nearly dropped it.

It was a girl. A pretty girl, with long dark hair, crouched on the ground with fear in her eyes and a spear balanced on her shoulder. It was a good spear, he noted, and a good arm, balanced well. He lowered his knife, spread his hands open. "Peace," he said.

She looked at him, warily, nodded, lowered her spear, but did not stand or spread her hands. "Peace," she said. Her voice had a low lilt to it, as though she was used to singing.

Jaleth found that he did not know what to say. He did not know what to do with his hands. He sheathed his knife in his belt, almost stabbing himself in the thigh in the process, and stared at the girl. He opened his mouth and closed it again, like a fish. "Peace," he finally said again.

The corners of the girl's lips twitched, and began to curve upwards. She stood, slowly, and the fear left her eyes. She wore a dress of woven blue wool edged with white, with a brown leather belt. It was travel-stained, but still the finest garment Jaleth had ever seen. Jaleth was suddenly aware of his own wrinkled leather tunic, the tangles and twigs in his hair, his ears burning red.

The girl smiled. She was ravishing. She nodded over her shoulder, to the east, farther into the forest. "I walk that way."

It was an invitation, of a sort, but Jaleth did not know what to do or how to respond. He did not know what lay to the east in the depths of the great forest, nor why any sane person would go there. Yet he fell in step beside the girl, who glided so quietly between the trees that the grasses did not sway nor the birds take flight at her approach. He was surprised she had allowed herself to be discovered earlier. Perhaps she had made a careless mistake, and stepped on a twig.

The gloom of the forest deepened, shutting out most of the light. "May I inquire as to the meaning of your name?" Jaleth said finally. He could not, of course, ask her name directly. Even asking the meaning was presumptuous. But he thought he might risk it, since she had asked him to walk beside her.

She glanced at him in the gloom under the trees. Her eyes were dark blue, the color of the eastern sky at twilight. She did not seem offended at his presumption. "She who dances under a crescent moon."

Jaleth had a sudden vision. A storm building at twilight, low dark clouds sweeping up over the western sky. But above the clouds the sky was clear; the night-star shone bright, and directly above it the thinnest crescent moon shone silver in the deep blue sky. Below in the grass this girl danced, welcoming the storm, greeting the star, dancing with the moon.

Jaleth shook his head, his ears burning. The girl still watched him, smiling slightly. She wore a necklace, he saw, a crescent moon finely wrought of sparkling gray stone. He had to make a guess at her name. "Same?"

She clapped her hands. "Yes!" she said. She sounded pleased. "What are you called?"

"Jaleth," he said. She, being a woman, could ask directly.

"Jaleth." She nodded. "A good name."

There seemed nothing to say to that. They walked along together, and the forest grew darker, but the girl next to him still glided along confidently, as though she walked in the brightest sunlight.

Jaleth stumbled on roots; he turned his ankles on hidden stones; he slipped on moss. Finally he could not refrain from another presumptuous question. "Where are you going?"

Same turned her head; she raised her eyebrows slightly; but she did not seem deeply offended. Jaleth exhaled. He did not realize he had been holding his breath.

"I wish to discover," said Same, "what is on the other side of the forest."

Jaleth blinked. "The other side?"

Same nodded. The crescent moon at her throat sparkled in the gloom.

Jaleth looked around him. Already he had invaded deeper into the forest than anyone he had ever heard tell of, and he did not know why anyone would wish to continue. The trees were getting bigger, older, great oaks bigger than any tree he had imagined, mighty branches reaching in great spans around the trunks, outer branches intermingling together to form a great green roof. There was much space between the trunks, and very little undergrowth. The oaks stood preeminent in this place, and all other life gave way.

Same still glided between the trunks, making her way east, a tiny blue-clad figure amongst the giants of the trees, yet somehow they did not dwarf her. Her spear was slung across her back, as well as a small leather pack. Jaleth walked beside her, not knowing why, not knowing what, if anything, lay before them, only knowing it was better to walk with her than to crouch in fear amongst the stumps at the edge of the trees.

At length they came upon a rocky outcrop, the root of a hill, or perhaps a mountain, that rose behind it. It was hard to tell; the trees let in too little light. But a stream of water trickled down the hill, over the outcrop, and danced merrily away through the forest. It was a Dragon-font, perhaps, although there were no great five-toed prints in the stone.

They climbed the outcrop, drank, washed their faces and hands. Same washed her legs and feet, too, a process which made Jaleth's ears burn uncomfortably red. They ate what food they had gathered as they walked; red-berries, leaves and herbs, mushrooms, more water from the spring. It was the first month of full spring, and no creature could be killed for food.

Same sat chewing on a yellow-flower leaf, staring off east into the forest. It was, as far as Jaleth could tell, exactly like the forest behind them, except denser and darker and more formidable. The oaks were becoming interspersed with pines; the undergrowth was thicker. The ground rose too, into the hill or mountain or whatever lay before them. It would be, Jaleth determined with a sigh, harder to walk now.

Same ate like a rabbit, nibbling tiny bites from the long leaf, never ceasing to stare at the forest. "Where are you from?" said Jaleth. Presumption seemed absurd; they were walking together.

Same glanced at him, still nibbling on her yellow-flower leaf. "One of the villages north of the Mountain."

Jaleth blinked. He had not known there were any villages north of the Mountain. The world seemed to be opening rapidly, all his expectations and all his knowledge shifting underfoot. Was it only yesterday that he had set off alone to Dragonridge, to cut off his little finger and become a man? And now here he sat on a rocky outcrop in the great forest, in a place no one, to his knowledge, had ever gone, with a girl with eyes like twilight, and found there were villages he had never heard of. As if to echo his thoughts, a slight tremor passed through the rock beneath them, shaking the water in its progress, shaking loose a few pebbles that rolled down to the grass below. But it passed, and all was still as before, the water gurgling along merrily, the leaves whispering high overhead.

"Why did you leave?" said Jaleth.

Same glanced at him again; this time she did seem displeased. "I wished to see the forest."

It was enough of a rebuke that Jaleth should not have continued, but he did. "You left your village, all alone, just to explore?"

Same stared at her hands, clasped tightly in the woven wool of her dress. She seemed to realize what she was doing, released the fabric, smoothed it carefully. "I had to leave."

"Why?" said Jaleth. He should not have asked it. But the world was changing, or had changed, or was shaking apart; the old rules did not seem to matter.

Same took a breath, looked up. "My mother was sick," she said. "She was tired, so tired, and had pains in her stomach. None of the herbs worked. The pains grew worse, and she began to retch, and retch, all the time. I made her soup, but she could not eat it." A much younger girl seemed to be looking out of Same's eyes.

Jaleth felt a lump in his own throat. "What happened?" he said, though he thought he knew the answer.

"She got worse," said Same. "There was nothing I could do." Jaleth could hear the desperation, the horror behind her words, struggling to break free as the waters of a great river struggled to break its banks in the spring floods. "I had tried everything, every herb. All but one."

Jaleth's eyes traveled slowly to her face, froze upon her eyes that gazed at him defiantly.

"Dragonsprint," he said. "You gave her Dragonsprint."

Same's shoulders slumped; her hair fell in a curtain over her face; she brought up her knees and held them. She nodded.

Jaleth stared at her. Pity and revulsion and admiration all fought for his attention. But he also wondered how she kept her hair combed so perfectly after weeks of wandering, and the final crux of his conflicting thoughts was a strong desire to crawl across the rock to her, to take her in his arms and comfort her, to stroke her silky black hair. But that, of course, would be inappropriate, and he did not know how.

"Did it work?" he said finally.

She shook her head. "It did not heal her," she said forlornly. "But it eased her pain, and calmed her retching, and made her death easier. I made it into a tea."

Dragonsprint tea. Jaleth felt a nervous desire to laugh rising in his throat, but forced it back down. So he sat on the rock and watched Same, still curled with her head on her knees, her face covered by the silky curtain of her hair. There were stories about Dragonsprint herb, stories that it would heal when all other cures failed. Apparently the stories were true, yet not quite true.

At length Same looked up at him defiantly. Her eyes were wet with tears like rain at twilight. "They found it, the Dragonsprint, the women who came to help me clean the hut. The village allowed me to stay and bury my mother, but then I had to leave."

She wiped the tears from her face, stood, straightened the spear on her back. Such a fragile-looking girl, Jaleth thought, to cast off alone into the wild world without companions or society. But there was granite in her bones, to have done what she did, and to have paid the price.

"How long ago?" said Jaleth.

She shrugged. "Several weeks, I think. Perhaps a month. I did not keep track, at first."

She climbed down the rock outcrop, sure-footed and graceful with her spear balanced on her back. Jaleth followed her.

Same, of course, wanted to climb the mountain in front of them. They could have gone around, thought Jaleth, silently swearing at the nettles that scratched his legs as they trudged uphill. Or, at least, Jaleth trudged; Same almost danced, leaving only faint footmarks behind her. Jaleth shook his head and lumbered on.

They reached the crest of the hill as the light from the setting sun turned the forest behind them to fire. To the north was the Mountain, a wisp of smoke rising as usual from its high summit. Beyond it, thought Jaleth, lay villages he had never seen, a village that had been Same's home. To the east - to the east the forest spread as far as he could see, finally losing itself in the darkening sky.

The trees were thinner at the top of the hill; they could see all around them; it seemed a good place to camp. Jaleth made a fire, carefully clearing a place on the ground, ringing it with stones, selecting twigs and small branches that already lay on the ground. Same crouched on the ground and watched him with her spear balanced on her back. Her back was to the Mountain and the north; she did not seem to want to look at it. Jaleth built a small pile of kindling and twirled a stick in his hands against it until a spark caught. Another little tremor passed through the earth, quivering the leaves in the trees and the tiny flame under his hand.

They ate, again, what they had gathered in the afternoon. Jaleth thought gloomily of bread, kneaded in stone troughs and baked on the stones that circled the hearth; of boar roasted on spits; of thick vegetable stew set in a stone cauldron to cook slowly at the edge of the fire. But they had red-berries, and yellow-flower leaves, and mushrooms, and other herbs that Same seemed to know.

Same watched the fire, her eyes the color of the twilight sky behind her. The Mountain rose behind the forest. Perhaps it was a trick of the fading light or the smoke of their own fire, but Jaleth thought the Mountain was producing more smoke than usual, small billows instead of a thin continual wisp that drifted away.

It was nearly dark. Jaleth lay on his back and looked at the stars, but they were not clear and sparkling tonight. A haze seemed to cover them, obscuring his sight. Only the Dragon was really visible, lunging up out of the trees, and even the Dragon was muted. Jaleth blinked several times and rubbed his eyes, but it did not help.

"Why did you leave?" said Same.

Jaleth looked at her. She sat on the other side of the fire, staring into the flames, the crescent moon glittering at her throat.

Jaleth took a deep breath. Why not tell her, after all? He sat up and faced her, on the other side of the fire.

"There is a custom - a law - in my village, and those around it," he said. Before today, he had not known that any other villages existed. Or perhaps he had just never thought about it. "On a boy's fifteenth birthday, the Day of Manhood, he is to cut off the little finger on his right hand, and offer it to the dragons. After that, he is a man."

He looked up at her. She was not looking at his right hand, or inquiring his age. She simply watched him.

"It has always been done," said Jaleth. He did not know how to explain the importance of the ritual, its granting of manhood, its deep ties to the very structure of the village.

But Same nodded. "We have a similar ritual, in my village, for the men," she said. "But it involves their - well, you know." Her eyes dropped briefly below his belt, and then went back to his face.

Jaleth's ears burned, but he nodded. A question he had always had was rising to the surface, something he had considered but never dared ask. "Why do girls have no blood rite to mark them as women?" It sounded childish, petulant, even to his own ears as he said it. But he did not understand. Sometime between the age of twelve and sixteen, apparently at random, a girl would take her place as a woman, with a voice in council and all rights of adulthood. There was no outward change. They did not dress differently, nor wear their hair up or down or any way but what pleased them. No one ever argued or asked questions. It baffled him.

Same was staring at him as though he were witless. "We have a blood rite," she said, "given by nature, dragons or no dragons."

Jaleth stared at her, and then suddenly he understood. His ears burned fiercely. He hoped Same could not see in the firelight.

"You did not go through with the rite," said Same.

Jaleth studied his right hand, whole and undamaged except where scratched by nettles. "No," he said.


And so Jaleth told her, told her of the knife and the walk and the path that stopped at Dragonridge, and the hedge of Dragonsprint, and of what he had seen on the other side.

Same sat studying him. It was hard to read her expression in the firelight.

"Had no one else ever looked?" she said.

"No," Jaleth said.

Of course no one had ever looked. It was a ridiculous question. Yet - yet -

Same sat studying him, the firelight glinting off her eyes and sparkling off the crescent moon at her throat.

In Jaleth's memory, only one boy - one man - had failed to return from Dragonridge. At sunset on his Day of Manhood they had all gone, the whole village, with torches to find him. It had not been difficult. He lay on the path in his blood, his right hand clutched in his left, facing home. He was buried as a child. The dragons had not accepted him.

But there were others who had come back - others with wild expressions and tightly closed lips. Jaleth had never been surprised by this, and had always thought it was from pain and shock and loss of blood. But they had known, he knew suddenly. They had looked over Dragonridge and gone through with the ritual anyway, to be able to go home, to become a man, to live out their lives in peace.

Jaleth stared at Same, still studying him silently in the firelight. He remembered his mother, golden-haired, laughing. It was one of his few real memories of her.

And then he knew.

"My father knew," he said hoarsely.

Same still said nothing, but her twilight eyes opened a little wider, and she leaned forward closer to the fire, towards him.

"My mother was from another village," said Jaleth with difficulty. His voice seemed to be gone, snatched away by the dragons. "He loved her from a child, almost. He could not marry her unless - unless -"

"Unless he became a man," said Same softly.

Jaleth stared dumbly at the fire. His father had known, and paid the price, and had only a few years with the wife he loved. Bela, she had been called, with hair like sunshine. And he had raised her son, and made him a knife, and sent him off to make what he knew was an empty sacrifice. And now he, Jaleth, would never see his father again.

They continued to travel roughly south-east. Same still wanted to see the other side of the forest, and as Jaleth did not care what he did or where he went, he followed her. Personally, he thought the forest went on forever; sometimes with trees so thick and close together that hardly any light shone through, sometimes thinning out to small meadows of butterflies and flowers, but always the trees returned. A tremble occasionally rippled through the earth, and a haze hung between him and the stars.

They walked for several weeks, eating the roots and berries and mushrooms they gathered by the way. Same never seemed to grow tired, always half-gliding, half-dancing among the trees with her spear balanced on her back.

Jaleth was watching her one afternoon as she walked just ahead of him, wondering how she kept her hair looking like a dark waterfall. She combed it at night, with a carved bone comb, but it never seemed to trouble her during the day. Jaleth's own hair was a rat's nest to his shoulders of tangles and, probably, nettles.

Suddenly Same stopped, poised with her weight on one foot, and sniffed the air. "Something is wrong."

Jaleth looked around him. The trees looked much as usual; they were in a grove of maples, the tips of their branches thick with pinkish-green new growth.

"Listen," said Same.

Jaleth listened. "I hear nothing but the trees."

Same looked at him over her shoulder, still poised on one foot.

And then he understood. He heard nothing but the trees. No birds, no animals, no songs from the branches, no scurrying and scratching from the underbrush. The birds and animals had left the forest.

He locked eyes with Same, and listened. And he heard as it were an urgent command in every fiber of his body, a command not in words, but with meaning of unmistakable clarity. Flee. Run. Hide not in your holes, for they will not save you; refuge not in the green branches, for they will not shelter you.

His eyes widened. "What do we do?"

"We run," said Same.

They ran south, for that was the direction they were commanded to go. They ran all afternoon through a forest increasingly silent and void of life, as the ground sloped upwards and the maples gave way to pines, until just before sunset they stood gasping at the crest of a hill with the forest spread out around them, the sky in flames to the west and the Mountain smoking in the north.

Jaleth sank to the ground. The command still resonated in his body, but his legs would carry him no further today.

Same still stood, gazing off to the north. She too was gasping, but her legs stood steady beneath her. "Jaleth," she said. She could not manage more than his name.

Jaleth crawled toward her and pulled himself to his feet. His muscles quivered and would hardly support him; he had never felt so weak or so tired.

"Jaleth," Same gasped again.

Jaleth looked to the north. Smoke was pouring from the Mountain. Not thin wisps lost in the wind, not even the heavier puffs from several weeks ago. A column of dark gray smoke rose to the sky, higher than Jaleth could believe, spreading out at the top in the winds of the heavens.

"Jaleth," Same said for the third time. And then the east face of the Mountain simply slid away. They watched helpless, transfixed, as a circle of power swept out from the Mountain, rippling through the trees until it reached them with a roar.

And then the Mountain exploded in liquid fire and ash, blowing itself apart, consuming everything to the east; laying flat the forest in their direction. The sound reached them, a sound that rent the air and the earth. Same screamed and covered her ears, but Jaleth could not hear her over the scream of the Mountain. The earth shook violently under their feet. Jaleth caught Same as she fell towards him, held her in his arms as he had wanted, as he had dreamed of, and tried to shield her with his body from the cataclysm. His body, he knew, would not be sufficient, but it was all he had, and all that he had was hers. And so he lay huddled on the face of the earth with Same until the noise faded to rumbling, as of stones tossed together by reckless giants, and the earth ceased to heave beneath them.

How they slept, how they both could possibly have gone to sleep as the world exploded around them Jaleth did not know. But he woke with the first hazy fingers of dawn that reached the hilltop to touch their faces, and coughed the ash from his lungs.

Same uncovered her ears; her head peered up over Jaleth's shoulder. Instantly he released his hold on her. It was presumptuous, even in these circumstances; she had not invited his embrace; he never would have dared had the earth not been rending apart.

But she did not seem to mind. She rose to her knees, but it was to see, and not to get away from him; she even brushed his arm with her fingertips as she looked to the north. They struggled to their feet and Jaleth looked out with incomprehension over the ruined world in the light of morning.

The Mountain was gone. Where it had stood was a low mound of smoking ash and still-rumbling stone. To the west of the Mountain, and to the south-east where they stood, the trees lay flat on the ground, pointed outward and covered with ash, as though a great fist had come down and smashed them flat. So many trees, so many trees gone. The devastation stopped just short of the hill where they stood; Same's hair was dull and her skin smudged with ash, and Jaleth knew he must look the same way.

But to the east of the Mountain - to the east - there was nothing. Mud and rocks and ash, some still glowing. There was nothing.

"My village," he said. His voice did not sound like his own. "My village is gone." His father was gone.

Same turned her twilight eyes upon him, clear and deep with sympathy even in her ash-smeared face. "We will go and see," she said.

Jaleth staggered over to the nearest tree, whole and standing and covered in ash, and sank to the ground with his back to the trunk. He gazed out at what had been the Mountain, and the forest. "What of your village?"

"It lies far to the north," said Same with some bitterness. "I do not think it is destroyed."

Jaleth leaned his head back against the tree. "It was the dragons," he almost whispered. "They must have lived in the Mountain." That, he thought, would explain the smoke that had always risen in wisps from the summit. "They have punished me for running away."

Same strode over to him. Her eyes flashed like falling stars at twilight. "It was not the dragons," she spat out. "It was a fire-mountain."

Jaleth had never heard of a fire-mountain, and he wondered how Same would know of such a thing, but it hardly seemed important. "It was the dragons," he said.

Same paced to the top of the hill, looked at the ruin of the Mountain, and came back. "Jaleth," she said, "have you ever seen a dragon?"

"Of course!"

"Not bones. A real dragon. A living dragon." Her eyes were intent on him, and for the first time Jaleth saw that there seemed to be stars in their depths, deep and glimmering like the stars that came out at twilight.

Jaleth opened his mouth and closed it again. Of course he had seen dragons. Great skulls, with jaws made to crush and teeth like spears. Smaller dragons with long wings. Most frightening of all, dragons with large leg-bones quick for running. He had seen their bones, and their teeth, and the Dragonsblood, black and with a terrible sharp stench, that bubbled up from the marshes.

"Their bones are old," said Same.

"Their bones are made of stone," said Jaleth stubbornly.

"Why have we never seen one alive?" said Same.

"Because they do not wish it." Jaleth would not, could not, accept what he knew Same was saying. He had looked over Dragonridge and the world had exploded in fire; that was the only explanation.

"The dragons are dead," said Same.

"No!" said Jaleth. It was the one constant he had left, horrifying as it was. He had lost mother, father, village; he would not have the dragons ripped away.

"You saw the finger-bones on the hillside," said Same relentlessly. "You know that no dragon ever came for them."

"That's different," said Jaleth. His mind could not accept this. But somewhere, deep inside him, he knew Same was right. No one he knew had ever seen a living dragon. Their bones were old, old, as though they had turned back into the rock from which all things came. The dragons had not come for the village sacrifices, because all the dragons were dead.

"I stuck a torch in a pool of Dragonsblood once," said Same. "It burns. It is some type of oil. It made a terrible black smoke."

"Have you no respect?" said Jaleth.

Instantly he was sorry. Same's eyes hardened into dark blue stones. She picked up her spear and pack and strode away into the forest.

"Same!" said Jaleth. He flinched. He should not have used her name, not after he had insulted her, not until he had given her a gift and she had accepted it. "Same!" he said again.

He looked around wildly. Nothing in the forest presented itself as a gift. Blood pounded in his temples. He could not believe this was happening; not after Same had slept in his arms.

He would not run after her. If she chose to go, that was her concern. He would not shame himself by following her.

She was almost out of sight in the forest made half of standing trees and half of fallen ones, all covered with ash. "Same!" he yelled again, and coughed as the ash filled his lungs and the fumes filled his brain.

He was not following her. If it happened that they were traveling the same direction, north-east at the edge of the destruction, then that was coincidence. If it happened that he kept her in sight as she swept through the trees, well, that was coincidence too. If they had walked this way for three days, what of it? Others beside himself had the right to walk through the forest if they pleased. She knew he was there. She had to; he made as much noise as a drunken boar crashing through the fallen branches and choking on the ash.

On the third twilight, he sat far away and watched her try to make a fire. She was not very good at making fires, he noted smugly. Over and over a spark appeared but would not catch, and over and over she swore under her breath. Finally the spark caught the kindling and a tiny finger of flame flickered in the darkness. It was too dark to see her now, but he heard her lean back and sigh.

Jaleth stared into his own fire. He remembered the fire that had spewed from the Mountain as it blew itself apart, the burning rocks that had fallen on the forest. He had not known that rocks could burn.

Same appeared before him suddenly out of the gloom. Jaleth gasped, and then coughed. Her own fire, he saw, was extinguished.

"I have no gift for you," said Same.

Jaleth stood. In the firelight he could see that her eyes were sad.

"You owe me no gift," said Jaleth. "It was I who insulted you."

Same shook her head. Tears glinted in her eyes. "I should not have lectured you about dragons," she said, "not when you had lost - not when you had just -" She sniffled, and looked around. "The forest is ruined. There are no gifts to be had here."

"We will speak later," said Jaleth gently, "of gifts."

Same smiled up at him, and extended her left hand, palm facing him, fingers outspread. He raised his right hand to hers and their fingers closed, interlinked. She smiled up again. It felt like a ritual, but Jaleth did not know what it meant. He did not care.

The next day they came to a dry riverbed winding between the trees. Same frowned. "This river was here when I walked this way before."

Jaleth glanced at her. He did not like to ask her many questions about her home, or about the first stages of her terrible journey. She did not often speak of them, and when she did her muscles tensed and she clutched at the crescent moon at her throat. She was fingering it now, staring at the ash-dusted riverbed.

Jaleth looked north, in the direction of what had been the Mountain. He could not see it, but a little smoke still spilled into the sky. How could the dragons - how could the Fire-Mountain - have stopped the river? This bed was wide and deep, with large rocks tumbled along its edges that suggested great force. An island rose in the middle, a little mountain with a base of rock and dried red mud, with a crown of trees still standing, still green. Drywater Island, he called it in his thoughts. It must have been mysterious and secret when it was closed in by the currents of the river. Now it stood, still aloof but no longer secret.

They crawled down the banks and into the riverbed, the dried red mud cracking under their feet and releasing the dank smell of the river. It seemed wrong, Jaleth thought, to discover so casually the secrets of a great river, to walk across its bed without its leave. Both of them glanced nervously upstream, as though they were afraid the river would return in a great and sudden wave and wash them away. Same sniffed the air.

"We diverted a stream once, a little one, to bring water to our village," said Jaleth. It made him less nervous to have something to say.

"It is possible," admitted Same.

"It took terrible labor," said Jaleth. "And it was just a little one." Same nodded. The power to stop the flow of a river like this one was incomprehensible.

They walked by the island, now a hill, and Jaleth could see the tree roots in its sides. It was steep, too steep to climb without difficulty. Perhaps it preserved some of its isolation after all.

On the other bank, in the rock wall, they found the bones of a river-dragon. Its great skull was as long as Jaleth was tall; its teeth half the length of Same's spear; its writhing body and tail the length of twelve men. Its hard bones were just starting to wear away. They gave it wide berth, and found a place to climb the bank behind the barbed tail. They did not speak of it, but neither wished to climb in front of its open jaw and spear-like teeth.

The little stream they had diverted, Jaleth thought, had been looped closer to the village and then allowed to go back to its natural path. Perhaps that stream had later joined with this great river, that had thundered down to meet the sea.

Jaleth's thoughts wandered in this vein for some time, until another thought intruded. This river clearly had flowed toward the east. In all the stories he had ever heard, the sea lay to the west.

On the other side of the river they made camp. Same shaded her eyes, looked west and north at what she could see of the ruined forest and the hills and the tendrils of smoke from the Mountain, and the position of the sun in the west. "Your village should be that way," she said. She pointed in a direction between the sun and the smoke.

Jaleth nodded grimly. He knew, if not with such precision, where his village lay. Had lain. All was destroyed to the west. Where the trees had not been burned, they lay flat, radiating out from the Mountain. All was gray and lifeless and covered with ash. He did not think he and Same could cross it. The ash lay deep, and it was still hot. And even if they could cross it, he knew, the village was gone. Nothing to the west had survived the Fire-Mountain.

He picked up half-burned and dried twigs to make a fire. Same had gone a little way into the trees and was looking around on the ground, foraging for food, no doubt, probably those long yellow-flower leaves she liked. He tended to the fire, twirling a stick in the kindling between his palms, waiting almost in a trance for the first spark to catch and start the fire that would live for the night.

"Jaleth!" Same said.

The spark had not yet caught; Jaleth jumped to his feet and drew his knife. He crashed toward her, bumping his knees, but she turned to him and smiled. "Look," she said.

He looked, and at first did not know what he was seeing. The light was growing dim, and the standing trees were thick. But then he saw. Breaks in the underbrush. Flattened paths left by sledges heavy with goods, food and tools and weapons. The marks of cattle hooves, and the small paw prints of dogs and cats. The footprints of the leather shoes of men and women, and the small barefoot prints of children, allowed down to run awhile before being put back up on ox or sledge or shoulder.

"My village," said Jaleth faintly. He leaned against a tree. Surely - surely they could not have escaped.

Same was crawling around on the ground, looking at the prints. Many were smudged and overtrodden, but many were clear. "More than one village," she said. "Perhaps three or four."

Jaleth gulped. There were four villages in the Circle, the only four villages in existence, or so he had recently believed. "But how did they know?" he said. "They could not have escaped once the Mountain caught fire. And perhaps they did not get away in time." His shoulders sagged; he could not lose his village twice.

Same gave him a guarded look, but rose to her feet and dusted off her knees. "The ash settled over the tracks," she said. "They came here before the fire." She glided back to their camp and began to take the day's leaves and plants and berries from her pack.

Jaleth wandered after her. "How did you know about the Fire-Mountain? What it was, I mean." He sank down next to the pile of twigs that would be their fire. It was a question concerning her past, but he was too shocked and too weary to guard his words.

Same did not look up from her work. "I was the story-keeper."

Jaleth looked up at her, shocked out of his stupor. "Had you an apprentice?"

Same shook her head, the dark curtain of her hair covering her face. "I was the apprentice," she said. She paused, beginning to sort out different roots and plants, but then staring at them and letting them lie. "The old story-keeper died just a few days before my mother. I had no time to take apprentices, much less train them."

Jaleth still stared at her, forgetting his task of fire-starting. The story-keeper. This explained the low lilt in her voice, as if she often sang; the fine workmanship of the talisman at her throat; the way she seemed to know exactly where his village had been. It was rumored that story-keepers knew secrets passed down only amongst themselves. Other things about her he still did not understand, but this explained much. He placed his hand over his eyes and bowed his head slightly. "Keeper."

Same made an impatient movement and again began to sort her herbs. "I am no longer story-keeper." There was just enough light for Jaleth to see that she had a number of long yellow-flower leaves. He picked up the kindling-stick and twirled it between his palms, but his thoughts were not with the fire.

Same's village had lost, had willingly cast out, their only story-keeper. With her had gone the stories of the village, the lists of its ancestors, all its history, all its songs. With her had gone the heart of the village. And they had cast her away for Dragonsprint. It was unbelievable.

Same had finished her sorting and sat huddled by what would be the fire. "What I tell you now," she said, "I should not tell you."

A chill ran up Jaleth's spine. Story-keepers could tell their secrets to no one else. It was forbidden.

She sighed. "I Kept the stories of not only my village, but of others as well. Not all, but some. That is how I knew where your village was, although I had not traveled there."

Jaleth nodded. So the rumors were correct.

"There are many stories of the Fire-Mountain, both in my village and in others," she continued. "There is probably more than one mountain. The stories are old and faint, but many times the Mountain, or mountains, have destroyed villages and forests, and forced people and villages to flee."

Jaleth looked at her in horror. How did the world continue, with fire-mountains continually blowing everything apart?

"More than one?" he said.

She smiled grimly. "They are always preceded by signs. Tremors in the ground. Larger clouds of smoke from a summit. Bulges appearing on the slopes, like great eggs hatching." Like dragons'-eggs, Jaleth thought, but did not speak.

She smiled at him again. "You will never start the fire at that rate."

Jaleth picked up the fire-stick, secured it against the kindling and twirled it between his palms. Finally, as the stars peeped out and the Dragon lunged over the eastern horizon, a spark caught. He fed it carefully, little sticks, little dried leaves, until the fire caught the branches and was alive and burning.

Only then did he look up. He met her eyes, dark in the firelight. "Why was the Fire-Mountain a secret?" he said. "Why do we not know of the other villages?"

His voice was tight, but he was not really angry. Not with Same. But it seemed strange to conceal such things, such things that were, and could not be changed.

Same sighed. "The Fire-Mountain - I did not believe it existed. It seemed unlikely to me that anything like that could occur. And the stories were so old - so faint. Stories - change - with time. Some must be - interpreted." She drew up her knees and rested her chin on them, arms wrapped around distracting legs, staring into the fire. "I thought it was all a part of the stories of the dragons, something old and no longer in the world, or something that had never been." She looked up at him sadly. "The stories are not told because the story-keepers think they would frighten the people, and do them no good. There is no way to protect them, other than to leave and go elsewhere when the signs begin."

Jaleth opened his mouth and closed it. It was galling, but had a certain truth.

"The story-keepers are supposed to keep watch, and move the village if necessary. That must have been what happened in your village."

Jaleth nodded. Old Becca was stooped and gray-haired and kind. She was training her two great-grandsons as apprentices. But there was granite in her spine, and Jaleth could not imagine anyone saying no to her, not to a direct order, no matter how ridiculous it seemed.

"I knew the signs," said Same sadly, "but I ignored them. I did not believe in the Fire-Mountain. I felt the tremors in the earth, and saw the smoke increasing, but still I did not believe." She paused and stared into the fire, but did not see it. "I could have saved - I could have saved much."

"You saved us," said Jaleth.

Same looked at him. "By the width of a few trees."

Jaleth was silent. He was not sure what else she thought she could have saved. The animals and birds had fled the forest. The Circle story-keepers had, evidently, warned their villages. The trees she could not have saved.

"How many villages are there?" he said.

"Hundreds, I suppose." She shrugged. "There is no way of knowing."

Jaleth's eyes opened wide and his jaw dropped. "Hundreds?" It did not seem possible.

"The world is wide," she said with a small smile.

Jaleth nodded. It still seemed beyond comprehension.

"Many years ago," said Same gently, "men fought each other, for women or huts or food. Whole villages, whole Circles, were brought into the fights. Many died without need. These stories I believe."

Jaleth nodded slowly. War he knew of. This was a secret not entirely kept.

Same sighed. "The story-keepers thought," she said, "that if people knew only about their close neighbors, their close kin, those in their own Circles, that war would be less likely. I have never known if this was a secret good to keep." She frowned, twilight eyes on the fire, and looked up at him. "I am not supposed to tell these things. I swore an oath."

Jaleth nodded slowly. "Many things have changed in the world."

She continued to stare into the fire.

He did not like it, that he had grown up believing their Circle was alone. He did not like the story-keepers' secrets about the Fire-Mountain. He wondered how many other secrets they held. Yet he could not fault Same. She had become oath-breaker to tell him.

For no reason he could tell, he suddenly remembered his mother's flute. He had carried it all this time. He drew it out of his pouch. It was undamaged, whole, like his right hand. He ran his fingers along it, then put it to his lips and played a few notes. He did not play it very well.

Same looked up. "That is a good flute." She sounded surprised.

He supposed she would know about such things. He nodded. "It was my mother's." She had carved it, polished it, placed the finger-holes he could still reach without difficulty.

He looked across the fire at Same. "My father knew about Dragonridge," he said. "I know that now." His heart beat faster. "He cut off his finger so he could go back to the village and marry my mother." He paused. "I understand now why he did this."

Dragonridge was gone, he thought, the hill and the hedge and the bones, all taken by the Fire-Mountain. Same looked at him across the fire. He had said more than was proper, but he did not care, and there was no displeasure in her eyes.

They followed the trail for several days. It led to the north-east, away from the desolation and not alongside it. Clearly the village had followed what had once been the great river. The trail ran along it, swerving to avoid the thicker trees but always coming back to the river. Clearly it had guided them; the water had still flowed in its banks while they walked beside it.

Same had strayed into the trees looking for berries. It was good to be farther from the Mountain, farther from the ash and the destruction. A few birds sang in the trees; a few little animals poked their heads from their holes. Jaleth hunted along the dry riverbank for something that looked edible. He was not as good as Same at foraging for food. Several times she had taken the herbs he found and thrown them away. Once, when he offered her mushrooms, her eyes widened in horror and she threw them as far as she could. That distance was not inconsiderable. Jaleth never wanted to be on the wrong end of the spear she carried.

And so he looked for plants he clearly recognized, and had found only a handful when he saw something glinting in the riverbank.

He picked it up and brushed off the dried mud. It was a stone rather smaller than his fist, dark blue and polished on one side, rough and brown on the other. It must have been stuck in the bank like the river-dragon's bones, and the water had polished the smooth blue side. He looked into its depths, and marveled at how like Same's eyes it was in beauty and depth of color.

Then he blinked. Gleaming up at him from the depths of the stone was a white star.

He looked up at the sky, stupidly, since it was midday and no stars were visible. He shook his head to clear it, and peered again into the stone. There was the star, deep in its depths, like the stars in Same's eyes.

Clearly this was a gemstone, and valuable. He wrapped it in leaves and put it carefully in his pouch.

"Did you find anything?"

He turned; Same stood behind him, her hands full of red-berries.

"Not very much," he said.

"With what I have it will be enough." She stowed the food in her pack and they continued on their way.

There were men and women in Jaleth's village who were skilled with gemstones, who could shape and polish and bring forth their beauty. If those craftspeople were still alive, Jaleth thought, and could perfect this star-stone, then perhaps he would have a fitting gift for Same.

The star-stone weighed in Jaleth's pouch, and rather heavily on his mind. It was not that he wanted to keep it; it was Same's of course, made for her by some magic he could not fathom. How could a star come to be within a dark blue stone? It was tempting to think of dragons, but he pushed them resolutely away.

No, the nature of his concern was in what sort of gift to Same this would be. It was valuable, too valuable really for an insult-gift, even though he had insulted her badly. The nature of the gift must reflect the nature of the insult. A less valuable gift was seen as unapologetic; but a too-valuable gift was arrogant, for it would imply that he was very important to Same. Only then would his insult offend her enough to warrant such a gift.

No, the star-stone was not appropriate. Yet give it to her he must, and he knew what sort of gift he wanted it to be. His ears burned as they walked by the trees beside the dry riverbed, and he hoped Same did not notice. He wanted to give Same the stone as a marriage-gift.

He had no business thinking of her this way. She was, or had been, a Keeper. She wore a costly talisman and a blue woven wool dress, when he had never before seen an entire garment made of anything but leather. He sighed. She had given him no permission of any sort to think of her thus. Yet stopping his thoughts, his absurd hopes, was as impossible for him as stopping the great river.

Suddenly Same stopped and sniffed the air. Jaleth looked around uneasily. He did not smell anything but the trees and the undergrowth and the dank empty riverbed, but that did not mean that nothing was there. Women could smell better than men, and Same better than most others.

She continued to sniff, took a few steps into the forest, then lay down with her ear to the ground. She jumped up and glided rapidly away from the trail and the riverbed.

Jaleth followed her. He still did not smell anything. But soon he began to hear, or perhaps to feel through the soles of his feet, up his legs and through his ribs and at last into his ears, the great rushing roar of a mighty water.

Same's footsteps quickened. Jaleth trotted along behind her, and then suddenly the ground sloped beneath their feet, the forest gave way and they found out what had happened to the great river.

It had been diverted, Jaleth thought dazedly, just like the little stream by the village. But this was no little stream. It was a mighty roaring giant, pouring down from higher ground and angry at the loss of its old accustomed way. It flooded now in what had once been a long valley, knocking down trees and carrying them away in its currents. It still swept down to meet the sea - somehow, Jaleth knew this was true - and in time would carve out a new riverbed to rival the old one. But for now it was an angry unruly flood.

Same pointed across the river. Ahead of them and across the water, the trail they followed of sledge and hooves and footprints appeared and wandered off northeast.

Jaleth swore.

"They crossed before the Fire-Mountain," said Same, "before the course of the river was changed."

Jaleth nodded. With the rumblings of the Mountain behind them and old Becca's warnings in their ears, the village had followed the great river, still flowing in its banks, then crossed this long valley and continued on their way. It was something to be grateful for. At least this far, the village had been safe. But unless Same had a story-keepers' secret about how to fly, Jaleth did not know how they were to get across.

He looked at the trees that lay at the sides of the rushing waters. Some had been knocked down by the Fire-Mountain, and carried here by the flood. Some had been knocked down here by the water. Jaleth looked at the trees, and looked at the river, and had an idea.

He walked into the mess of wet rocks and trunks and branches that lined the new bank of the river. He needed the smaller trunks; he had only his knife to work with, after all. He walked amongst the river flotsam, touching the fallen trees, finding some that did not mind being made into a raft.

Same watched him as he dragged young trees up the slope and went back for more. "Are you a tree-speaker?" There was respect in her voice.

Jaleth shook his head. "No. I have only trained a little as a timber-shaper." His voice shook a little; it was his father's craft. "But I can hear the trees, the residue of their life-force, enough to know how to use them or to let them lie."

Same nodded, but she still looked impressed. "Not all timber-shapers can do so."

Jaleth did not see how that could be so. How else would he know which trees to use, if they did not tell him? But he continued to drag the trees up the slope, and trimmed off their branches with his stone knife, and then Same helped him line up the trunks and lash them together with thin green branches. They had no rope. Jaleth watched Same tying knots, interlacing the long green branches securely around the fallen trunks, and wondered if Same's mother had been a weaver. It would explain her fine woven dress. Weaving was a new craft, and not a common one.

The raft they built was odd and misshapen, but Jaleth thought it would float. He could do no more without axe or adze. He made two poles out of two more young trees, trimming off their branches and smoothing off some of the worst splinters.

He looked at the sun. It was midafternoon; there was no reason to wait until tomorrow to try the raft. He looked at it nervously and gave one pole to Same.

They pushed the raft down to the water. Same climbed on top and took both poles; Jaleth took a deep breath, pushed the raft into the current and jumped on.

Immediately he knew this had been a mistake. The river caught the raft, twirled it, bumped it, nearly tipped it, then twirled it the other way. The river was ancient and angry and confused, and glad to have someone on whom to vent its wrath. The river was one long dragon, fluid yet formed, rushing down with no regard for any fate but its own.

It was all he could do to hang on. Same was still beside him, he could feel her wet leg next to his, but he did not know if she had saved the poles. It probably did not matter, he thought, as the raft tipped up and then down alarmingly and a wave of brown water roared over his head. He shook his hair like a dog to get the water out of his ears, and Same squealed. What could it possibly matter, he thought, if she got a little wetter? She was already drenched to the skin.

But this was no time for discussion. Jaleth lay down on his stomach and managed to hold on with his hands and feet. He was not always looking forward, as the raft kept spinning and tipping and threatening to turn over altogether, but he could see that they were traveling at an incredible speed. He did not know where they were going, but wherever it was, they would reach it very soon.

Same wriggled over to one corner of the raft. Jaleth shook the water out of his eyes and saw that she was retying one of her knots. The raft was coming apart. One trunk pulled away; Jaleth grabbed at it with his foot but the current was too strong.

He looked around wildly. They were near the far bank, and it was not steep, but the poles were gone and they would not have done any good anyway.

Then he saw Same balancing on a corner of the raft. She was as he had first seen her, crouched on her toes with one leg in front of the other, balancing her spear on her shoulder. A part of his mind wondered how she had kept from losing her spear, and how she was possibly balancing on this river-cursed excuse for a raft, but then she threw her spear. It flew straight to the bank, far ahead of them, and sank in half its length.

Jaleth opened his mouth to ask her what she was doing, but a wall of river water washed away his voice. Same dragged him up to his knees as he choked and sputtered, but now he understood. A little spinning eddy was carrying them toward the bank and Same's spear.

He could feel her tense beside him; he tried to prepare, but it was all he could do to stay on the raft. Another trunk floated away. They were close to the bank, almost to the spear.

"Now!" screamed Same. They jumped, or lunged, or fell, at the spear; the raft came apart under Jaleth's feet; Same's arm hit him in the ribs; but somehow they both caught the spear. They slammed into the bank and the spear came loose. They would still drown, thought Jaleth wildly, and then as they rolled down the bank toward that great raging dragon that was the river, a tree branch presented itself. Jaleth grabbed it in his right hand and Same in his left, and the branch did not break or bend or slide away, but stayed anchored securely in the bank just above the river.

Jaleth lay gasping at the sky. Same crawled over him and up the bank. Jaleth released his hold on the branch that had saved them and crawled after her. It had been his right hand that caught the branch, his whole and undamaged right hand.

He collapsed at the top of the bank next to Same. He had never been so tired, not at Dragonridge, not when they ran from the Fire-Mountain. The river roared on beneath them, but it would not have them. They were safe, and they were on the other side.

At last he sat up and looked at Same. She was sitting with her knees tucked up in front of her, arms around her legs, staring off to the east.

He turned to look, and forgot his exhaustion and bruises and wetness.

They had come to the end of the forest. He glanced at Same; it had been her wish, her goal, to see what was on the other side.

What Jaleth saw was a stretch of thinning trees giving way to meadows, finally mixing with sand and rolling into long dunes tufted with grass, but always dropping down, always gradually down to where at last he saw the sea, a silver glistening in the east under a darkening sky. Birds flew overhead, birds he did not know with white feathers and black feet, screaming of long journeys and impossible heights and the joys of rocks and wind and storm.

Jaleth looked at the sea, and something awoke within him. He thought of the branch that had saved them, and the raft, and the great silver sea; and he wondered if it were possible to build a raft sturdy enough to go a little way along the shore, and see some of the things of which those strange white sea-birds cried.

To their left was the trail, clearer than ever in the thinning trees. The village had headed north-east, along the edge of the forest. Jaleth stood and held out a hand to Same, but she remained sitting on the ground.

"Should we not go on?" he said finally.

She looked up at him, eyes deep as a sad twilight. "I have nowhere to go."

"But the trail is there," he said. Surely she could not have missed it.

She continued to look up at him. "Those are your people," she said, "your village, not mine." He saw that her spear was on her back. How she had saved it, he did not know.

He sat down next to her again, and winced. His leg was badly bruised. Same had a scratch over one eye and a rather deeper cut on her arm; he supposed he had some scrapes himself. They needed someone who knew about herbs. "They are my people," he said. He tried not to consider whether or not his father was still alive. "If they are my people, then they are your people too."

His ears burned. He had said more than was proper. But Same did not seem to mind. She smiled at him, but it was a sad smile, and then she stood up and brushed the dirt from her wet dress.

Jaleth stood and they continued to follow the trail at the edge of the trees, but doubts assailed him like flying vicious dragons, circling and snapping and charging. He had been so eager to find his village, to help them, to see if they were safe, that he had given little thought to what his reception would be. He had, after all, abandoned them. He had not completed the ritual; he was still a child in their eyes. He could not marry Same, he could not take up his new shining ideas of a craft, he would have to stay with his father in his hut. If, of course, his father was still alive.

And Same - what of Same? She could not give account of herself that they would accept. She had been story-keeper, she had used Dragonsprint, she had fallen. Old Becca probably knew her, or knew of her.

Jaleth kept walking along the edge of the trees, but his head lifted and his jaw tightened. He would go to the village and see his father - if he lived - and his people, and see that they were well, but if he and Same were not accepted he would not stay among them. He would not live as a child, with no craft and no voice. He would not watch as Same was sent away. He would not watch as she took another husband, one without the little finger on his right hand. If they had to, he and Same would leave and make their way in the wide world alone. His heart ached unbearably, but if that was how it must be, then that was how it would be.

They made camp at dusk at the edge of the trees. The sea sighed in the distance; its salt smell wafted up on the eddies of the breeze. Same sat and sniffed the air like a rabbit.

The next day was hot and bright. The sea was a faint strip of sparkling blue in the distance. They stayed in the cool shadows of the trees. Finally, at the same time, he heard a sound and smelled a smell. Same had been sniffing the air for some time, but would not explain.

The sound was the thump of a stone axe against a fallen log. The smell was of fish frying on the stones next to a fire.

Jaleth broke into a run. Same ran too, but she stayed behind him. This, he knew, was not necessary. She could run faster than he.

They ran along the wide trail made by sledge and hoof and footprint, and suddenly, at the edge of the trees, they emerged into a circle of new huts.

Jaleth stopped, panting. A few people had noticed him by now; there were a few cries, a few yells, a scream or two. He did not blame them. He was filthy and uncombed and travel-stained; his bath in the river yesterday had not improved his appearance. Same, on the other hand, looked much as when he first met her.

A few of the boys started to run over to him, but then they remembered the ritual. So quietly, quickly, the village began to form a circle. People came out of the huts and out of the forest and from planting the new fields. Almost everyone was there, old Rhyse and Becca the Keeper, all his friends and all his people. Finally his father ran into the clearing, an impossible hope in his eyes and much more gray in his hair. He saw Jaleth, and nearly kept running to meet him. But he stopped and took his place in the circle, his jaw quivering.

Jaleth took Same's hand and walked to the middle of the circle. No one was supposed to be with him. He did not care.

He looked around the circle, at the faces he knew so well, at the girls staring at Same with narrowed eyes.

"I have returned," he said.

Old Rhyse stepped forward. "What is the manner of your return?"

Jaleth's heart beat faster. "I have faced my fears," he said. "I have been tested. I return to you a man of the village. I claim the rights of manhood, a voice in council, the choice of craft, the right to become a husband." His ears burned, but he did not care. He could sense Same standing beside him, smell her, like a forest clearing at twilight.

"You have returned," said Rhyse.

No one was looking at his right hand. No one seemed to care.

"I choose a craft," Jaleth said. His voice was breaking. "I will be a raft-builder."

There were smiles, nods; Jaleth's father beamed. It was a craft much like his own.

"This is Same," said Jaleth, "who was of the northern villages." There were nods from the circle, and no one looked surprised. Perhaps Becca had told them a few things as well.

They were getting far away from the ritual now, but the old rituals had been swept away by the fire from the Mountain. "I have returned," said Jaleth again. It was all he could say. His shoulders slumped in weariness.

"Jaleth has returned," said Rhyse. He stood straight and proud, even with his gray hair and beard and lined face. His face had more lines than when Jaleth saw it last. "He is a man of the village. Let the children look to him as a father. Give him a voice in council. Let him become husband at a fitting time." His lips twitched; Jaleth's ears burned.

The circle broke, and before Jaleth could take two steps his father's arms were around him. "My fault," his father said brokenly in his ear, "if you hadn't come back -"

Jaleth shook his head. "I understand."

His father peered into his eyes, and then nodded, and then smiled. He held out an arm to Same. "Welcome, daughter."

Same was standing alone in the midst of a group of young and old women who were whispering, looking, admiring her dress, and not speaking to her at all. She looked timidly at Jaleth and his father. All older men called all younger women "daughter," but there was a special warmth in his voice.

"My wife and I," said Jaleth's father sadly, "had no daughters. We did so want them."

Same smiled, and the light returned to her eyes, like a thousand twinkling stars in their depths.

They looked around the new village. It was just like the old one, concentric circles of huts around a Circle Green, but few of the huts were complete. And this village stood within sight of the sea, changeable and sparkling and many-hued.

Finally the fish was cooked and the bread was broken. It was the first day of the second month of spring; the fast was over. Jaleth ate until he could eat no more, and then realized that Same was not there.

He found her outside the outer circle of huts, talking to old Becca. They stopped talking when he approached, and Becca patted his arm and shuffled back in to join the others.

"She knew who I was," said Same. "I thought she would."

Her face was serene in the fading light. It was not the face of a banished story-keeper; rather, Jaleth thought, of one who had found new stories to tell.

Same gazed out to the east. Already the horizon was dark, the sea a sparkling dream. Above it rose a thin crescent moon.

"Shall we go down to the sea?" said Same.

She ran on ahead, graceful as the sea wind in her blue woven dress, until finally she was only a dark shape in the faint silver light of the moon. Jaleth ran after her. The feast would be going on until it met with the sunrise, eating and drinking and dancing around the fires. There was plenty of time to run down to the sea.


  1. exceptionally well written story; rites of passage, coming of age, dawn of a new era and all that these enormous changes mean, very fine chacterisations and dialogue and although it´s fantasy (not usually my thing) totally credible

    Mike McC

    1. Thanks so much for reading and I'm glad you liked it! =)

  2. J.R., such a sweet story with likable characters and a happy ending, plus so much more. There's suspense and wonderful descriptions, a sense of time standing still in a remote kingdom just one mountain away from the rest of the world. I loved it!

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I'm glad you liked it! =)

  3. I like it as a love story, foolish romantic that I am, but even more as something which might resemble something historically in my part of the world (US Pacific NW) where pre-Columbian populations faced similar situations.

    Note that St. Helens blew up close to Portland OR quite recently. I have climbed what remains and half the mountain was destroyed.

    1. Thanks for reading! The volcano in this story was actually based on Mt. St Helens. I imagined this world as a sort of early Neolithic Europe, but I wanted the realism of that particular kind of eruption. I have never been there (I live in Kansas) but I know it was a terrible tragedy and has happened before in the past. So I watched a lot of National Geographic Channel and tried to get it right.

  4. A profound story, multi-layered and rich in metaphor and allegory. The narrative voice is intense yet gentle. A significant achievement, a very fine read, thank you,

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!

  5. Thank you Charlie Fish for publishing my story and for presenting it so beautifully! Thank you everyone for your kind comments!

  6. Bravo! Excellent read, J.R. I loved everything about the journey that Jaleth and Same took, not only individually, but together. Once again, you end the story in just the right spot. However, I want more! Such strong character development - I could see a full length novel picking up shortly after the end of this piece.

    1. Thanks for reading, Erin, and I'm so glad you liked it! I will consider that idea. =)

  7. There's something about the story that speaks to the unconscious mind and our sense of ancestry. It's a wonderfully inventive piece of writing. This well deserves its place as pick of the month.