Part I: The Storm Brewing
The day of the great change came in autumn, when the green wooded mountains were beginning to burn with golden and orange and crimson, and the apples were hanging ripe, and the sunflowers were heavy laden with black seeds, and the wind grew strong again. The wind was strong that day, heaving the branches in waves, scattering bright leaves, strewing dirt and bits of plants up from Aia’s garden.
Aia wasn’t expecting a change that day, but she was wishing for one, as she pulled weeds out of the rows of carrots and squash and beans. Fiercely she tugged at the weeds, ripping out tough, thick roots with firm jerks. Old as she was, she was more than equal to the work—though this, she thought grimly, was a poor way for her to test her strength.
A movement outside the garden drew her eye. There was Nok, the woodscat, padding around the cottage. It had been windy, too, that night a few years back when he had come. That was the last time she had used her power.
She had fallen asleep to the sound of the wind heaving and rushing through the forests, but been woken some hours later by a terrific squawking from the geese’s shed. Wide awake instantly, she jumped up and hurried outside, snatching a lantern on the way. A large, dark animal was pawing hard at the door of the shed. The geese inside were not hurt, only frightened.
Aia flicked her hand toward the creature, and a single strong vibration flew through the air and struck it, accompanied by a deep ringing noise like the clash of huge metal bars. The animal jumped back, stunned.
Hoping to scare it off, Aia raised her hand and swelled the lantern’s flame, so that it leaped up and stood several feet above her head. Now she could see the animal better, a great wild cat, about as tall as a large dog, but longer and more muscular than most dogs. It was dark brown with flecks and streaks of tawny gold, and its staring yellow eyes gleamed like little moons.
At first the cat looked as though it couldn’t decide whether to run away. Then it said, “I give in! Don’t attack. You are stronger.”
“Well!” It was Aia’s turn to stare. “A speaking woodscat! I thought there were none left.”
“Can you understand?” The woodscat looked just as surprised. “I never met a human that understood.”
Aia put the flame back into the lantern. “I can do many things that few other humans can. I’ll not hurt you, but I can’t have you stealing from my flock.”
“Mrrr, but I’m famished!” The cat’s eyes were big and bright with longing; its tail waved excitedly. “Just one bird, that’s all I want. You have so many—I can smell them.”
Aia thought things over briefly. She had no intention of giving one of her geese to be killed, but she did feel sorry for the woodscat. On the other hand, she didn’t want a swarm of hungry woodscats appearing on her doorstep.
“Are there many others of your kind in the forest?” she asked.
The cat looked sad. “No, I’m alone a long time. No more clan. I can’t find any others, not even any scents.”
“Supposing we do this. I’ll not give you one of my geese. But it happens that I’ve been doing some trapping and hunting of my own, with more success than you, so I have some meat already prepared. Would smoked venison please you well enough?”
“Mrrr good!” The cat’s face lit up, and it licked its lips. Aia smiled, and they set off together around the house.
Inside the cottage’s cozy brightness, Aia looked her guest over. The cat was a male, and healthy despite his hunger. She had much she would have wished to say and ask, but remembering how hungry he was, confined herself to the likes of “Watch where your tail waves,” and “Now, keep off my table!”
Only when they were seated and the cat had plenty of meat did she ask, “So what should I call you?”
“Nok,” it replied through a mouthful. “You?”
She told him her name; and, as she watched Nok tear into his venison, she added, “You know, we’re alike, you and I. We’re both made to fight, and neither of us sees much of our kind any more.”
Nok, busy eating, didn’t answer. “It’s this cursed time that did it to us both,” she muttered, not sure whether she was talking to herself or the cat. “These foreign tribes, they know no better than to hunt you. And we—we might have told them, but we were caught up with seeing to our own deaths.”
Nok took the briefest of halts in his meal, long enough to say, “The humans, they hate us, no?”
“No, they don’t hate you. The barbarians don’t know you are a speaking race. They consider your furs a prize, a sign of luck.” Aia sighed. “We of Tuanor forbade any to hunt you. When there was a Tuanor. But if none of us were prepared to protect our own home, who was to defend the woodscats?”
For a long time there was nothing to be heard but the wind and Nok’s munching. At length he took another pause to say, “This not your home?”
Aia gave a short laugh. “Not as it was. No, my home was the kingdom, and chiefly the royal city. Never saw anything fairer. The glory of the world, or of this part of it. White and gold towers … mosaic walls … great roads and river passages where folk came together from all over … and the rich tilled fields all around. That was my home.” She spoke slowly, letting the images grow before her. “I was the servant of the king, defender of his rule, and I suppose I thought myself a fine one.”
By this time Nok had emptied his plate and was licking up scraps. “Well, those who followed me to battle surely did. The Windstormer, that was what they called me. Hm. The real storm was made of plague and famine and quarreling fools who couldn’t see nor care that their kingdom was falling.”
Aia gazed into the fire, lost in the far-off days of sorrow. “‘I live to serve.’ That was what we used to say. Perhaps we stopped living when we could no longer serve. The Windstormer died with Tuanor, and only Aia was left. So I built this place, and here I am, with my geese and goats and bees. And memories. Those at least live on.”
She looked at Nok again. He had licked his plate spotless and now lay sprawled near the fire, his eyes half shut, looking utterly content. Aia gave a little wry smile. “I suppose you can sleep there.”
Since that night, Nok had seldom been far from the cottage. He had never again tried to raid Aia’s livestock, knowing that if he was unable for a long time to catch anything, she would not let him starve. On the other hand, if he was particularly successful, he would sometimes bring a part of his catch back to Aia as a gift.
But best of all, they each had someone to talk to. Often at the day’s end, they would sit by the fire and tell stories. Aia talked of the battles and quests of her youth, and Nok told of the clan into which he was born and the forest trails where he had learned to run and hunt and climb. And if one or both of them sometimes fell asleep in these fireside talks, they got on none the worse for that.
That had been an autumn night. Now it was an autumn day.
Autumn always made Aia feel restless. The thick heat of summer was lifting away; the air was fresh, cool, alive, with livelier winds. The first of the birds were flying away, squirrels were gathering nuts, the trees all across the hills had flickers of golden and orange stirring through their green. Everything was on the move, and she wanted to join in; yet she had nothing more to set her hands to than tending her garden.
“Why did I ever grow old?” she muttered, ripping weeds out of the pumpkin patch with more than necessary vigor. “I might have fallen with Ocothril or Emran Wood-foot, when it was the time for us.”
She couldn’t explain these thoughts to Nok. He would only blink and purr and say it was good to live a long time. She came back from her garden to find him in front of the cottage, sniffing the wind.
“Well, anything interesting out there?” she muttered.
Nok’s ears twitched at her voice. “Something coming up the hill…”
“Oh?” Probably, she told herself, it was only some rabbit or deer, but she was curious enough to ask.
“It’s … smoke.”
“Really?” Aia felt a slight interest—had someone built a fire?
“And sheep, sheep’s fur, but it’s not like sheep … and there’s mud, and berry-bushes, and a green pond…”
“Good heavens, what is it, a farm on wheels?” When Nok didn’t answer, she pressed, “Can you tell how far it is?”
Nok sniffed and listened. “Not far. We’ll hear it soon. It’s small, coming slow.” His tail waved as curiosity lit up his face. “Mrr, want me go catch it for you?”
Aia smiled. “No, I had better go first.” When Nok looked disappointed, she added, “If it’s dangerous you can help me chase it off.” Reluctantly the woodscat lay down and watched her set off into the trees.
Aia strode briskly between the tall trunks, through a dim, green world, with golden leaves spinning down and white-gold light twinkling in. She climbed over rippling mounds of roots and slipped between ragged clumps of bushes. Working hard through her years on the mountain had kept her strong and able. She doubted whatever it was would be dangerous, and if it was some innocent creature she didn’t want Nok frightening it needlessly. On the other hand, she had always been prepared to deal with troublemakers of any sort.
Presently she stopped. There were other footsteps all right, crackling lightly over sticks and leaves, and voices too, high-pitched and irritated.
“You won’t be able to see anything from the top of this hill,” said one. “It’s too full of trees. What are you going to do, perch at the top of a tree like a bird?”
“Well, what do you think we should do, if you’re so smart?” replied the other. “If we just sit here, we’ll be left behind, and we might starve. You know what Pappi always says: if you get lost, find a high place to look around.”
Aia laughed softly. There they were, two small boys, perhaps ten and twelve years old, just a few paces from her now. She could see by their faces that they were brothers. They were coarsely clad and dirty; even she could smell them from here. She couldn’t name the smells as Nok could—except that “sheep’s fur” might be from their sheepskin jackets—but they looked as though they had been all over everything in the woods.
“Ho there!” she called to them. “So you’ve lost your way, have you?”
The boys jumped and stared at her. “Who are you?” said the younger one, as if it was she who was unexpected and didn’t belong. Yet he said it not sharply but curiously, with wide, peering eyes, a little like Nok, she thought.
“I might ask you the same,” Aia replied. “You’ve come a long way, have you not? I’ve never seen the like of you before.” It was true, too. Their garments, the way they spoke, everything about them was unfamiliar. Perhaps they had come from some foreign tribe that wandered into Tuanor after the throne fell.
“Um well, our family’s a long way from here,” the older one answered cautiously. “Do you know the way to the lake at the little river’s twist?”
From the boy’s description Aia recognized Lake Komurot. She remembered a bustling town that had been there. Perhaps it was the same town these boys had come from, or perhaps that had been destroyed and people had built a new settlement there. After all, it was a rich green valley with plenty of fresh water. She was a little surprised that the boy should live there and not be able to name the lake, even if his people called it something else.
“I know it, and I know it’s a long walk. You’re hungry, aren’t you?” When they answered only with awkward silence, she pressed on, “If it’s my help you want, I’ll take you back, but first I’ll fix you something to eat.”
The younger one spoke again, the same curious light in his face. “What kind of food do you have?”
“Eggs, cured meats, fresh vegetables and spices from my garden.” Aia shrugged, indicating she could offer a good many choices. “You like stew?”
“I’m so hungry I could eat a whole horse!” cried the little boy. He looked about to rush forward, but the other tugged on his shoulder, leaned close and said, in a loud whisper that Aia heard fairly well, “Junac! We can’t just go with someone we don’t know! And you know we don’t have much time.”
“Domel, really!” The little one was an equally poor whisperer. “She’s one old woman. Old women aren’t dangerous.”
“Well, what if she’s a witch? Witches haunt forests, you know.”
“Only after it gets dark. And anyway, witches try to trick you with sweets. She just said she’s going to give us vegetable stew.”
Clearly this carried some weight with the older boy—Domel, he had been called. He hesitated, thinking hard. Aia watched and waited, giving them as much time as they needed, silent laughter bubbling inside her.
“All right,” Domel finally said, “but only a short meal. And if we see anything suspicious, we’ll run for it. Right?”
The boys looked up from their discussion, and Domel announced, “All right, Gran, we’ll come and eat with you.”
Aia nodded. “Good. This way, then.” She didn’t let on her surprise, and mild annoyance, at how familiarly they spoke to her. After all, she reasoned, perhaps among their people all old women were called Gran. Odd, though, that their names should be fairly common names for Tuanor.
As she set off up the hill, the boys scrambling after her, she told herself that at least they weren’t stupid children. They plainly weren’t ready to be on their own, but they knew something about finding their way and avoiding danger.
When the trees opened out and the cottage came into view, the boys gasped—perhaps because a house was strange to them, but more likely because Nok, crouched right where she had left him, now came ambling toward them, tail waving, eyes bright with interest.
“Don’t come too near,” she quickly warned him. “These are guests. You mustn’t frighten them.”
The great cat stopped, sniffed, sneezed and bounded around to the back of the cottage. Junac gaped after him, while Domel stared at Aia. “Is … is he yours?”
“He … stays with me.” Aia found that she had trouble explaining Nok. “We’re company for each other. He’ll not hurt you.” When they remained speechless, she went on to the door, letting them follow as they would.
She wasn’t surprised that several minutes passed before they came in. By then she had gotten a pot of water over the fire and was stripping beans from their husks. Domel stood near and watched her closely, his hands twitching. Junac wandered all around, looking everything over. Perhaps, Aia thought with another laugh inside, he was looking for any sign that she might be a witch.
But what he saw was entirely ordinary: a plain wooden table and chair, each carved from the same massive tree—only one chair, for Aia never had company, and now wondered what her guests were to sit on—a rug of goats’ wool; window curtains cut from an old cloak; a couple of shelves bearing plates, bowls, and jars; and, hanging up near the hearth, bundles of spices and little sacks with words written on them, like Raisins or Flour. Junac poked one of these, as if to see whether the label was truthful.
“All right, none of that,” Aia said sharply when she noticed this. “If you prefer to go home this moment, say so and we’ll away. But if you wish to be in my house, behave like my guest. What shall it be?” Junac froze and said nothing, looking uncomfortable.
“Very well, then. If you lack something to do, you can make yourself useful. And you, Domel, you look as though you wanted to join in. I don’t suppose either of you knows how to cook, but you might help peel these carrots and potatoes.”
A little hesitantly, Domel took one of the knives she had put out, gathered some carrots and set about peeling. Junac followed his example, and the rest of the meal’s preparations went on pleasantly enough, as Aia gave directions to her two helpers. The boys proved to be cheerful workers and glad to do a task once they understood it.
When at last the stew was ready, Aia had hardly ladled it into bowls when her guests snatched it up. “Thank you, Gran!” said Domel, and his brother echoed him. They plopped onto the floor near the hearth, leaving Aia no chance to apologize for the lack of chairs. A little puzzled, she drew up the one chair alongside them and sat.
For a time they ate in silence. The boys gobbled up their stew with obvious eagerness, dripping a fair amount onto themselves in the process and thus adding one more smell for Nok to wonder at. Aia had much to ask them—about their people, their home by Lake Komurot, how things were in Tuanor now—but she held back, reasoning that they were hungry and didn’t want to answer a lot of questions. Such things could wait until they were on their way to the boys’ home.
It seemed to her that she had hardly sat down when Domel, his bowl scooped clean, asked, “Um, Gran, can we start back now?”
“Why the great rush? Nightfall’s some hours away yet.”
“Well, the manytribe is about to move on.”
“Many-tribe?” Aia repeated. “What’s that?”
“It’s our people,” he replied. Aia made some further attempt to understand what the word meant, but Domel could only say, “It’s what we call ourselves.” When she asked where his people came from, he shrugged and said, “I don’t know. We’ve moved a lot. And we have to move on again soon. We were getting ready to, when Junac and I went to find roots for our stew, and got lost.”
Aia frowned. “Need they go now? Is there something you mustn’t miss?”
“No, it’s something we must miss.” Junac’s eyes were big and grave.
“The Gomaca are coming for us,” Domel explained. “They’re dreadful fast, so we have to hurry. If we don’t move on, they’ll get to us before the end of the day.”
Something like a chill wind stirred in Aia’s heart. “What are the Gomaca?”
Both brothers looked startled. “You never heard of them? How?” cried Junac.
Aia sighed. “Son, I’ve been on this mountain since long before you were born. Not many come this way. I have no doubt the world’s a different place since I was down in it.”
She had never doubted that, but until that day, she had not had to think about it. She could enjoy the memories of the glorious, doomed kingdom she had loved and defended, the noble comrades and strong enemies of old battles; and she could sorrow, in peace, for its downfall. But never had she had to think, or wanted to think, of how things were for Tuanor after all that. Now here were these children, from a nearby place that she knew well, yet the country they came from was one she hardly knew at all.
“What did it become after we lost it?” she muttered.
“Um, what did you lose?”
At Domel’s voice Aia came back to the present. “I’m sorry. But come, tell me about the Gomaca.”
“Well, they go round killing people to take their things—or they don’t, they make scrabblers kill the people. When the scrabblers have killed the people, the Gomaca take their things to sell them.”
“What? You don’t know scrabblers either?” Junac’s eyes popped.
“All right now, it’s not her fault,” Domel chided him. “They’re a sort of giant lizards, with big teeth and claws, and they run dreadful fast—”
“Dark hide, keen sense of smell?” Aia’s heart sank as she recognized his description.
“So you do know them.”
Her toneless reply expressed nothing of the dismay she felt. “I know them. In my time they were called stone-spawn. And your people, have they no refuge, no help at all to call on?”
Junac shrugged. “I mean, we have a few fortune banners and other charms, but—”
“We’re going to the great river cave,” Domel interrupted. “If we get there by dark, maybe the Gomaca will miss us.”
Aia was silent, gazing into the fire. She had fought stone-spawn in her time, but they had been thought to be cleansed from Tuanor. But then, once she would have said the same of savage tribes who would make use of such creatures to slaughter and plunder. Meanwhile, for Domel and Junac, it was simply a part of life, something to accept and bear with, like harsh weather.
“Gran? Can we go?” Domel pressed.
“I think you gave her a shock,” Junac said, sounding more fascinated than concerned. He watched Aia’s face as if some sudden change might at any moment come over it.
Without answering, she rose and went out to the garden. She had no doubt that she could get them to their people, but she had something else to consider first.
The mountain wind was high and lively as ever, rocking the boughs of the apple trees with their half-hidden fruits, sending waves through the sprawling patches of flowers and the grass all around. Golden and brown leaves scattered about, flying out from the forest, where brightening color was spreading across the masses of trees. High above, the white clouds covering the heavens were gathering into masses of gray.
Aia walked through the garden, looking out over the forest and the sky. What had Tuanor become?
A few hours ago, she would have answered that quickly—a heap of broken shards, the remnants of things that had been. One didn’t try to save or preserve shards; one threw them away. But could she say that now, to Domel and Junac? Was that all they and their people were—a throwaway fragment?
It was hardly a surprise to her that Tuanor after the throne fell was riddled with chaos and bloodshed. But without the king, or any of his vassals and armies, she had never seen much hope of driving it away.
“I failed even with a host at my back,” she muttered. “Thousands of valiant souls, ready to follow me into death’s maw—and it closed on most of them. Death in a noble cause, they say. The cause of what? What did we achieve, for king or kingdom?” She let out a deep, hard sigh. “Am I to start that again?”
The fiery-streaked forests, heaving in the wind, rolled down and down over the mountains, as if she stood at the top of the sky looking out over green clouds. Beyond them, if Aia looked hard, her still-sharp eyes could just catch a glint of the Thelm river winding through a distant valley. The spot wasn’t far from Lake Komurot, where Domel and Junac’s people might even now be rising to flee their doom, despite their missing children.
A foolish question, to ask if she was to start that again. She had not started anything. She had been given a chance, a choice.
“I live to serve.” The words of her old soldier’s pledge came back to her from she knew not where. More strangely still, she smiled as she heard and said them again. It was as though her old comrades were near her once more, not in her memories as so often, but in her spirit, grinning and encouraging her.
Aia smiled, and just as quickly, the smile hardened—not into the old bitter taste, but into a steel firmness. Briskly she made for the spot behind the cottage where the apple trees nearly met the forest.
Nok was there, as she knew he would be, sulking with his head on his paws. “Mrr, why don’t you share the meat today? Why keep me out? You let them come in and eat with you.”
“Sorry, lad. It couldn’t be helped today. But come, if you’ll help me now, you’ll have a specially fine treat when we return.”
“You’re out of your mind!” cried Domel.
“You are a witch!” shrieked Junac, excited.
Aia had expected no other response when she told them that she intended to fight the Gomaca and the stone-spawn. Nor was she surprised at their dismay that Nok was to carry them back to their “manytribe.” They didn’t exactly seem to disbelieve her that he could think and speak, but they were far from comfortable coming near him.
“I’m no witch. I am a warrior of power. There’s a difference.” Aia tried to be patient in her firmness, imagining that she was dealing with some ignorant new recruits. “I cast no spells nor curses, use no potions nor incantations. But I have abilities of a kind that few possess. They made me able once to fight hosts of Tuanor’s enemies. I doubt your Gomaca and … er, scrabblers can be worse.”
Domel’s face was frozen in a confused, vaguely frightened look. “But … you’re … a Gran.”
Again, that twitch of annoyance, but with it things became clear. Words were not enough. These children needed to be shown.
Could she still do it? Surely she could. She had done it so many times before.
Aia looked around briefly, breathed hard, and took a flying leap backward. She sailed through the air, landing about six paces from the boys, and swung her hand, quivering, in a wide circle around her head. White-hot bolts of fire came sputtering, spraying up and raining down, burning the grass in a rush of little hisses.
After so many long years, to perform that tactic again—she was unearthing the Windstormer from her grave. There was satisfaction and joy in doing it again, in beginning a return to who she had been. On the other hand, it wasn’t all that Aia had hoped. It hadn’t come off as it did before. In her days of battle, she had been able to leap twice as far, and the rain of fire had been much thicker and stronger. Cold thoughts pressed in. Had her abilities been fading? Was this plan all the folly of an old woman living in the past?
But when she looked at the boys, these doubts lessened their hold. Domel’s jaw hung wide. Junac looked astonished and delighted. Likely they had never seen such a thing before, and perhaps never would again. If she didn’t come to their aid, who would?
Aia shook off her thoughts and spoke quick and sharp. “If I were a witch, if Nok and I had wished you harm, we would have cooked you up when he first smelled you coming. Time is wasting. Will you trust me?”
Domel managed only a stunned little nod. Junac gave a gasping, thrilled “Yes!” They didn’t approach Nok, but they didn’t run away when he came near, and at last they let Aia help them onto his back. Before climbing on, Domel looked up with a thoughtful frown. “Wait … why would you do this?”
“Why would you fight our enemies for us? We just met you. You’re not even an ally of our manytribe.”
Aia smiled wryly. “I told you the world was different in my time. For those like me, all enemies of innocent folk were our enemies too.”
Excitement dawned in Domel’s eyes. “Are you … are you an adventuring hero, like from the legends?”
“That depends on your legends.” Without waiting for him to say more, Aia turned to Nok. “You have a clear trail?”
He gave a rumbling purr that meant yes. “Plenty of smell. But I won’t go near their kind, not where they can see me. They might shoot.”
“Smart lad.” Aia nodded. “Good luck!” She took a deep breath and looked out over the forests. Once more it was time to travel fast and far. She could feel it again as she drew out her energies. It didn’t come as quick as it once had—quicker than a person could cry out—but with a grim force of will she urged it on. There it was again, that mighty surge of wind rushing up around her, flying round and round in a small storm, drowning out the boys’ shouts. Aia rose swiftly away through the air, up toward the gray and gusty autumn sky.