Of Essence

Chapter One

Of course, it wasn’t.

She had promised.  Sworn, even.  It would be exactly what he wanted.  It would be perfect.  They would love it more than anyone had ever loved anything.

Jopta sighed.  He should have known.  He should never have gone back to Ish.  Or perhaps once, because a second chance was only fair.  But after two remarkable failures, it was absurd – irresponsible, even – to imagine that there would be a charmed third time, that Ish was actually capable of producing a good orb.

He had adjusted the requirements, making the request simpler each time, trying to allow her to succeed.  This third one was so straightforward as to be simplistic:  just gentle ocean waves.

“Only the visual,” he had said.  “No smells, no sounds.  Alright?  Nothing stormy, no need to alternate day and night.”

Ish had nodded vigorously.  “Oh, yes, absolutely.  The ocean in the sun.  Wavelets.  Flecks of white foam on the blue.”

“That will be fine,” Jopta had said.  “Very good.”

“By the flame, by my name,” Ish had intoned, with wide eyes and her hands in the swearing position, “this one will be your precious, beloved treasure.  Ready the day after tomorrow.”

Jopta looked at the box at his feet.  There were three… Well, what to call them?  Lumps?  Blobs?… in it now, since he had added the intended-to-be-ocean supposed-to-be-orb to the two previous ones.  All three were only vaguely spherical and lacked transparency.  There were colors within each one, and some sporadic jittering, but the first no more resembled the sea than the last.

He sighed again.

They were now his property, therefore his responsibility, and could neither be dispensed of nor stored away somewhere and forgotten.  In a year’s time he could bring them to another maker, if he managed to find one who agreed to take them, to be transformed.  But not before.

He wondered if he should put them in three separate boxes, just to be safe.  An orb was systematically placed at a distance from another one, so that each could be fully appreciated, for one, but also because they could sometimes have odd reactions to each other.  They were always set apart from anything containing carbon, as well, to prevent undesirable interactions.

Nobo, Jopta’s dog, came over and examined the contents of the box.  He sniffed at each lump, his tail swishing gently from side to side.

“No danger, then?” Jopta asked him.

Nobo had no further interest in them, and came close beside his master, who obligingly scratched the furry head, particularly right behind the ears.  Nobo’s tail wagged energetically in delight.

“But what am I going to give Sybenc for his birthday now?”

Nobo looked up.

“You don’t have to worry about such things, do you?  Lucky dog!”

He gave Nobo a final pat and lifted the box off the floor.  Even though the dog hadn’t shown interest in its contents just then, Jopta knew better than to leave it within his reach.  He set the box on the big table, rearranged some books on the bookcase in the corner and slid the box onto a higher shelf.  He would have to make a habit of looking at it regularly.  Every morning, perhaps?  Yes, that seemed best.

Jopta was preoccupied with the question of a gift.

Sybenc’s 28th birthday was only a week and a day away.

Beyond the particular importance of an “eight” year – the concept of infinity symbolized by that numeral – and the fact that as he was Sybenc’s only blood relative in Minsillow, he really liked him. He dearly wanted to make his nephew happy with a special present.

In truth, part of the reason he had given Ish so many chances to make a good orb was that, had she been able to do so, Jopta would have invited her to the celebration, in the hope that she and Sybenc would like each other.  He could easily imagine them together…

It was not to be.

The only acceptable alternative required an effort of him that Jopta would really have preferred to avoid.  This was another reason for clinging to the idea of an orb, for convincing himself that Ish could manage.  Jopta, sighing even more deeply than before, resigned himself to leaving early the next morning, and turned his attention to the necessary preparations.

When dawn broke the following day, Jopta was already at a distance from the village, his steps steady on the track that led to the mountain slopes.  In order to find tender new star-tree pods, he would have to climb quite high.  There were star-trees in the forest at lower altitudes, but in this season their pods were already maturing, and could not be used in xelanopi.  Jopta knew where to go, and he knew that it was going to take him over three hours to reach the place.  He would need time to find good pods, to eat something, and to rest.  The return journey would take no less time than the climb and he wanted to be within sight of the village again before sunset.

Despite his worry, he smiled to see how much Nobo was enjoying himself.

“At least one of us is pleased!” he said aloud.

Nobo glanced back at him when he heard his voice, then went back to his own preoccupations, reassured that Jopta wasn’t addressing him.

The grasses to either side of the track were drenched with dew; Nobo’s belly and legs were already wet, as was his muzzle from poking around in them.  Plenty to sniff out and investigate.  Given the knapsack his master was carrying it would be a long walk, so he did not venture too far from the path, instinctively knowing to use his energy wisely.

As they approached a cottage, Jopta whistled for Nobo to come.  He’d seen the woman who lived there, a midwife, leading her horse toward her gate.  Nobo could have odd reactions to horses and mules.  Better to have the dog close by while the two animals were crossing paths.

“Here,” he commanded.  Nobo obediently fell into step immediately to Jopta’s left, paying the horse no mind.  Jopta raised his hand in greeting when the woman saw him.

“Good morning,” she called softly as she unlatched her gate.  “On your way to the mountain?”

Jopta smiled and nodded.  He wished her all the best for her day, walked another two yards, then released Nobo from his side with a word and gesture.  The dog loped off.

A short while later, the man and his dog turned onto the smaller track that skirted the base of the mountain and, after another half hour or so, left it for the path that would take them up the mountain.  The climbing began immediately.  Jopta adjusted the length of his steps and their speed.  His footsteps had fallen on this path, and others much like it, countless times: he knew what to do.  It might have given him pleasure, or at least a sense of satisfaction.  Instead, still, it felt like a chore.  He wondered at this.

Sybenc would be very happy with the xelanopi.  It was a fitting gift, perhaps even more fitting than an orb, after all, because it would be Jopta’s own creation.  Certainly he initiated the orb too, providing the idea, and allowing for a unique creation.  The traditional cordial, on the other hand, was made from a recipe.  Xelanopi was xelanopi.  Yet, he reminded himself, no two mixtures tasted precisely the same, not even two made by the same hand.  Those Jopta made over the years had given him an excellent reputation and he knew that Sybenc was aware of this.  The glass dispenser filled with the bright ruby liquid would undoubtedly be given a place of honor in Sybenc’s home, a source of pride as well as pleasure.

Was it this that rankled, in fact?  The question of which dispenser he would give his nephew?  The thought annoyed him, and he pushed it away, turning his attention instead to his surroundings.

As if on cue, he spotted the first star-tree.  It was a small one, overshadowed by the birch and hazels that grew thick in this part of the forest.  Still, it had several branches that split open at their ends, the five slender segments each extending outward at nearly right angles to the branch and displaying the silvery core-wood.  Leaning in closer, Jopta lifted one of the stars in his open palm for a moment, admiring nature’s ability to produce incidental beauty, then let the branch fall back into place again.  The tree’s new leaves, a green so pure and clear as to be the definition of green itself, bobbed with the movement of the branch and then settled again.  Jopta smiled.

Nobo was sitting just up the trail from him, panting, his tongue hanging to one side.

“Time for a drink, boy?  I could use one myself!”

He slung his knapsack off and set it on the ground, opened the top and pulled out a bottle of water and a small bowl.  There would be water higher up, but no streams ran above ground where they were now.  He poured a little water into the bowl and held it out for the dog, who lapped it all up and looked at him expectantly.  Jopta poured in as much again, and Nobo finished it as well.

“Okay?”

Jopta drank from the bottle himself, shook the last drops out of the bowl and put both back into his pack.

“Onward, brave souls!” he said, resuming the climb.

The pleasant temperature was definitely an advantage to this time of year.  A month or two earlier – when he could have found pods lower down and avoided walking as many hours – it would have been considerably colder, and the path slippery in places.  His spirits lifted a little, and he even began humming tunes as they randomly came to him.  He was older, undeniably, than before.  The thought imposed itself as it had done repeatedly in recent weeks, but now made him shake his head in self-derision.  How banal!  Wasn’t he walking with no particular difficulty?  Without great fatigue?  Pain of any kind?  Then where did the reticence to do this come from?  Was he simply getting lazy?  Clinging too closely to ease and comfort?  If that was the explanation, it was a good thing the course of events had imposed the hike on him!

He straightened his shoulders and began humming again, in time with his footsteps, continuing the slow, zigzag ascent.

By late morning, as planned, he was high enough to find trees with the tender young pods he needed for xelanopi.  The birch and hazel were sparser here, intermingled with blue spruce and sugar pine.  It was quiet, and – Jopta took a moment to look around and breathe deeply – beautiful.

The ground was damp, so he hung his pack from a sturdy low branch, pulled out the tin box lined with cheesecloth, and small whittling knife, and began to search for the best pods he could find.  He needed 12 to 15 for Sybenc’s xelanopi, depending on their size, and hoped to find twice as many in order to make a reserve amount as well.

The difficulty was two-fold.  First, in order to be near enough to a star-tree to remove pods, he had to leave the path and clamber up, or down, between trees and undergrowth and over fallen branches.  Second, he had to hold the box close under the pod he chose with his left hand while he sliced the pod from the branch at its stem with his right.  He must not touch the pod, because even the slightest body heat in his fingers would create a bruise.  Before he reached home again, each bruise would become a hole in the pod’s delicate hull through which the essence leaked out, rendering the entire contents of the box useless.

On the contrary, the hulls of all the untouched pods would become hard in the time it took to make the trek back home, and they would be perfect tomorrow.  He would immerse the pod in the raspberry juice and slice open the top, allowing the star-tree essence to flow out of the pod and into the juice.  After leaving it sit for a day and a night, he would add spices, stir in a little water if the xelanopi was too thick, and it would be ready.

Jopta worked intently for almost an hour, the box steadily filling up.  Nobo positioned himself near the backpack, first sitting to watch Jopta, then lying down and dozing.

When the man came back to that spot, Nobo stood up, stretched, and wagged his tail.

“Lunch break!” Jopta said.  There were 21 pods in his box, neatly arranged, and he was hungry.

He ate standing up, wary of the dampness and chill from any stone or log he might sit on.  Nobo watched closely, but knew better than to beg.  His good behavior and patience was rewarded when Jopta crouched and held the last pieces of bread and meat out to him on an open palm.  They both drank again, then Jopta set his bottle under a steady trickle of water nearby until it was full, stoppered it, and set it at the edge of the trail near where his pack was hanging so that the outside could dry off a bit.  He would put it in before starting back down the mountain.

“Just a few more,” he told Nobo.  “It’s going well, and I almost have as many pods as I hoped for.”

Nobo followed him up the path.  Soon Jopta caught a glimpse of promising silver off to the left, a short distance downhill.  He pushed past the branches of a pine to begin making his way toward it.  Nobo elected to leave him to it, preferring to inquire into the smells along the path.  Once he was past a second pine, Jopta could see the star-tree clearly.  However, he also discovered that there was a cleft between the tree and him.  He moved forward, remaining a safe distance from the lip of the crevice, in the hope that he was near its origin and would be able to see a way around it.  But the slope rose so steeply that he couldn’t see further than his own body-length.  He looked across at the star-tree again, convincing himself that it had more than enough pods to finish the count.  Turning away from the tree and the cleft, he angled uphill as much as he could manage.  Because he was holding the box, he could not grab hold of roots or branches and pull to assist in the climb, and the rocky ground gave little opportunity for solid footholds.  After a few minutes, panting and sweating, he turned around again to gauge his progress with respect to the tree.  It was negligible.

Cursing the frustrating circumstance, Jopta definitively turned his back on that tree, and headed back toward the path.  Perhaps he would have to settle for his 21 pods, he thought with vexation.  It was an awkward number:  too many for one batch of xelanopi, too few for a double batch.

He was nearly at the path again and resigned himself to beginning the homeward journey.  Perhaps he’d be lucky enough to see another tree on the way down, one that he hadn’t noticed in the morning.  He placed his left foot on a fallen branch and pushed to take the next step up.  He heard the wood splinter, felt sudden emptiness below his foot and lost his balance.

“No, no!” he shouted.

Obsessed by the pods, he reached up and forward in an attempt to put the box in a safe place.  He felt his chin strike something very hard, then a horrible sharp pain, then nothing more.

As soon as he heard the shout, Nobo bounded in its direction.  He came to the spot but did not see Jopta.  He stopped, alert to the slightest sound, but heard nothing.  He put his nose to the ground and searched for any indication, moving first up the path and then down again, from one side to the other.  Suddenly, the man’s scent came to him.  Craning his neck, with his front paws as far off the path as he dared, he could just catch sight of Jopta’s side.  Nobo barked once, then once again.  His master remained immobile.  The dog ran up and down along the path just above Jopta’s prone form, whining.  Then he raced down to where the bottle stood and the backpack hung, wavered there a moment, and ran desperately back to the place on the trail directly above Jopta.  He barked insistently, wildly.  He attempted to make his way down, but the rocky slope gave him no grip.

Suddenly he stopped barking, scrambled back up onto the path and began a headlong rush down the mountain.

 

Chapter Two

A new baby girl in the village.  It had been an easy birth.  The mother’s third child.  In Venja’s experience the third baby was often the simplest to bring into the world.  In this case, even the first two births had gone well.  All girls.  She smiled to remember the two curly heads peeping into the bedroom once their new sister was really truly there, and the awe and wonder in the little faces as they examined tiny fingers and very gently stroked the baby’s cheek and forehead.  Likely to make good mothers themselves, she thought.

The late afternoon sun of early spring cast the fields and distant trees in beautiful light and contributed to Venja’s sense of well-being.  She patted the horse’s neck and held the reins very loosely.  They were already on the outskirts of the village and would be in sight of her house very shortly.  But there was no hurry.  She would make strong herbal tea when she got home, and then have toasted cheese on a thick slice of bread for dinner a bit later.  The thought of the melting golden-yellow made her smile again.

She noticed something moving on the track ahead of her.  An animal.  Perhaps a fox?  It was hard to discern, too far away yet.  But it seemed to be coming towards them.

The mare pricked up her ears and quickened her pace a bit.  The cottage was in sight.  The horse, too, knew that there would be food and water for her soon, in the comfort of a warm stall.

It was a dog.  As she came nearer, she recognized the animal as the one she had seen at the start of the day.

Venja immediately became alert.  The animal on its own meant that something was wrong.

She slid from the horse’s back, lay the reins over the top of a bush growing beside the track and walked a short distance forward, then squatted.  The dog had seen her, and raised its muzzle slightly as it continued drawing closer.

Venja stretched her hand out, keeping it low to the ground, palm up.

“Here boy,” she called softly.  “Here boy.”

Nobo stopped, swaying slightly.  The woman was calling to him, but there was a horse not far behind her.  He hesitated.

Venja kept her hand out in the same way, her knees bent and her upper body leaning forward as she moved slowly toward him, talking in a soothing voice.

“Don’t worry about Nim.  She will not hurt you.  I won’t either.  If you came back on your own, it’s that you need help.  Your master needs help, doesn’t he?”

She searched her mind for the man’s name.  Ponda?  Yoldin?

At arm’s distance from the dog, close enough to see his slightly bloodshot eyes and a film of froth on his lower lip, she crouched again and waited for him to sniff her hand.  She scratched under his chin then ran her hand down the throat and prosternum.  The heart was beating hard.

She stood up slowly.

Behind her, Nim stamped a foreleg.

Never taking her eyes off the dog, who continued to gaze at her as well, Venja said calmly, “Whoa girl, easy, easy.  I’ll be back for you.  You can wait another few minutes for your sweetgrass.”

Venja trusted that the mare would stay where she was.  It often happened that Venja only had time to loop the reins over or around something when she arrived at a home before she went inside to tend to a birth.  Nim was used to waiting patiently for her mistress to return, even though nothing actually prevented her from walking off.  Besides, if Nim did pull away from the fence and come the rest of the way to Venja’s cottage, that would be fine anyway.

She wished she had some food to lure the dog along with and hoped her voice would be enough to convince him to follow her.

“Come on, boy.  Let’s get you some water, and maybe something to eat.  You need to get some strength back, so you can show us the way.”

‘Us’.  Who would that be, then?  Obviously going up by herself was folly.  The man was certainly hurt and she could not carry him down across her shoulders!  What if he were dead?  The thought sent an icy chill down her back.

“You ran to get help,” she said to the animal next to her in the same steady, friendly voice, “so that means he was alive.  Right?”

So far, he was coming along with her.

When she reached her garden gate, though, he stopped.  She hooked it open and continued to the house.  As quickly as possible, she went in, poured water into a bowl, and set it just outside the cottage door, leaving that open as well.  She went back in and through the back door to the outdoor storage cabinet.  She had some dried fish that she flaked into another bowl.  Adding a handful of oats and some water, she stirred it up and set it next to the bowl.

The dog was standing halfway between the gate and the door.

“Here boy,” Venja called.  She whistled and shook the bowl with food, hoping the smell would be strong enough to attract him closer.

Nobo cast one look over his shoulder and then trotted forward.  He finished the food in no time, then drank up nearly all of the water.

When he saw that the woman was holding a piece of cheese out to him, he came inside.  Keeping the cheese in her fingers, Venja managed to turn him around and close the door with her other hand.

Nobo immediately became agitated, running back and forth from one door to the other and yapping.

“Okay, okay,” Venja said, trying to calm him again.  “I have to get Nim.  I’ll be right back.  I know that you don’t want to stay here…”

She backed out of the front door and hurried to get the horse.  Nobo barked frantically as he realized that she was leaving.  He jumped up against the doors and the windows, trying to get out again any way he could.  His panic, and the unfamiliarity of a dog in the house, spooked Nim when Venja led her around the house.  She tossed her head and skittered sideways; it was all Venja could do to get her into her stall.

After filling her trough with hay and making sure the mare had water as well, Venja went to her back door and opened it just wide enough to squeeze herself through.  Nobo was there immediately, pushing at her legs in an attempt to get past her and escape from this forced captivity.

Because she could not reason with him, Venja imposed her authority.

“Down!” she ordered in a stern voice.  “Be still!”

This seemed to have an effect on the dog.  He stopped barking and backed off, looking at her.

“Good boy!  Good dog.  Still.”

Nobo went to sit against the inside of the front door.

Venja took a small wooden chest down from a shelf and set it on the table, then sat down herself in order to make an eldbol.  She opened the box and withdrew a small bar of flint, a spark-stick, a conical candle and a twist of fine white floss, placing each on the table in front of her.  She lit the candle with the stick and bar.

She next drew a few fibers from the twist and held them between her closed, cupped hands for a moment, then slowly flattened her hands and gently rubbed them back and forth, rolling the fibers together.  She looked at the strand once, continued rolling briefly, then wound it loosely around her little finger and carefully pulled the ring she had formed off again.  Setting it in the palm of her cupped left hand, she shaped a cave over it with her other hand and breathed a slow and even stream of air out into it.  She did this three times, then spoke the name of the doctor into the hollow of her hands.  Again three long, light breaths, and the message.

“Someone is in trouble on the mountain.  Please bring help.”

Holding the feather-light ring in a loose fist, she brought the spark-stick near the candle flame, waited until it was hot enough, then opened her hand, tilted the stick toward the ring and tapped it once, hard, with her index finger.  A tiny spark flew from the tip of the stick to the ring, which began to glow.

Venja looked at the front door and saw that the dog was now lying across it.  Good that the animal was sleeping, she thought.

Moving carefully and quietly, she carried the eldbol to the back door, edged the door open and reached through.  With a slight toss, she freed the shining ring from her hand into the dusk.

“Fly straight, fly fast,” she told it.

She could do no more now but wait.

She put the materials back into the box, closed it and set it on the shelf again, then turned her attention to making herbal tea and a slice of bread with toasted cheese as planned.

When she’d eaten and washed up, she took her knapsack down from its hook and began to pack it with necessary items.  The dog got up immediately and came closer.  He already looked better than when Venja had first approached him on the track.  She hoped that the food, water, and rest had sufficiently renewed his energy.  She filled his water bowl, and he lapped up a little of it, but then snapped his head up and froze, staring at the door.

“Easy,” Venja said.  “Easy boy.  That will be the doctor.  We’ll soon be setting out.”

She leaned down to hold him by the collar, knowing he would dash out as soon as the door was open if she didn’t.  Nobo barked and twisted his body and head from side to side in an attempt to escape.

She opened her door with her other hand.

“Nobo!”

It was the doctor, Peakatrin, who called out as he came up the path from Venja’s gate.  His voice was familiar enough to the dog that it quieted him.  Venja pulled Nobo back to let him in, followed by two younger men, obviously brothers.  She then shut the door again and released the dog’s collar.

“I’m glad to know his name,” she said.  “And thank you for coming so quickly.”

Peakatrin barely acknowledged the greeting, his face pale.  “Nobo is Jopta’s dog!”

“Yes.”  Now that she heard it, she remembered.  Jopta.

Using few words, she told the three men what she knew.

“What time was it this morning that you saw him?” Peakatrin wanted to know.

“Between 6:30 and 7.”

“Hmm.”

There was no need to say anything more.  They all knew that there was no guarantee of finding Jopta alive.

“Do I take Nim?” Venja asked the men.

They discussed this briefly and decided against it.  Not in the dark.

“Will Nobo obey you, or should I take a lead rope?” she then inquired of Peakatrin.

“Do you have one that isn’t too long?  Nobo is clever and well-trained; I expect he’ll listen.  But wiser to have something with us in case we need it.”

Venja went quickly to the shed beside Nim’s stall and found what she needed.  She rubbed the horse’s forehead, told her she’d be back, shut the top half of the stall door and slid the bolt into place.

The men were already outside in front of the cottage, their lanterns making soft circles of light on the ground. Nobo was at the gate, whining.  Venja pulled her front door closed, adjusted the pack on her back and lifted her own lantern.

They set off.

 

Chapter Three

He became conscious of icy cold before anything else.  Where was he?  How could such cold possibly exist?  It was unimaginable.

He opened his eyes and tried to focus.  He wanted to rub his eyes, to clear them of whatever was impeding his sight, but he couldn’t feel his hands, couldn’t tell where they were.

He began to lift his head.  This provoked such terrible pain that he felt a wave of nausea and nearly slipped back into oblivion.  But it also caused his heart to accelerate.  He concentrated on the pounding in his chest and ears, and tried to move other parts of his body.  Feet.  First one, then the other.  Slightly, and then a bit more vigorously.  Some feeling came back into them, as well as his legs, and his sight cleared somewhat, allowing him to comprehend that his face was very close to the ground, with the right side pressed against something hard.

He kept his head very still, in fear of the pain, and actually closed his eyes again, in an attempt to sense the rest of his body and assess the situation.  Jopta remembered the sound of the branch cracking beneath his foot.  He remembered trying to save the box.  Had he called out for Nobo?

Nobo!  His eyes flew opened and he tried to articulate the dog’s name, to call for him, without moving any part of his face, but only succeeded in creating a scratchy groaning sound.

He had hit his chin, he recalled now, and indeed the pain seemed to radiate from the area around his mouth.  He could move the tip of his tongue inside his mouth, but anything more caused severe jabs of pain that warned him not to insist.

Jopta focused on his legs and feet again, realized that he could feel his torso too, and his left arm and hand.  In fact, he was able to move that arm freely, lifting it a short distance from his side and clenching and unclenching the fingers.  He gingerly brought his hand back toward the ground, patting the area within his reach, and felt small branches and twigs, some loose, some not.

How far below the path was he?  How far from his backpack and the bottle of water?  He became suddenly aware of acute thirst.  How could he move his body without moving his head?  What if he fainted again?

Well, what if he did?  He would no longer be in pain, or asking himself questions, or cold.  Jopta considered trying to make himself faint.  After all, what point was there in trying to do anything?  Even if he were able to reach the water and quench his thirst, what then?  He was hours’ walking from home, from anyone who could help him.  No one knew where he was.  He was already icy cold, and it was still daylight.  There would be hours of dark to come, colder yet…

He felt tears in his eyes.

Jopta had never given any thought to his death.  There were no arrangements to be made, because Sybenc would naturally inherit the house and bit of land which were all Jopta possessed.

And Nobo?

Jopta felt bitter regret at his lack of foresight.  It would have been so simple to ask Peakatrin, Jopta’s one close friend, to agree to take Nobo should anything happen to him.

If he should die.

Jopta forced himself to think the word.  To face it.

Yet, his heart continued beating, knocking gently now in his chest against the ribs that were pushing against…  Wood?  Stone?  Earth?  Impossible to tell.  Some part of the sloping forest floor.

But, he thought, what if Nobo was perched at the edge of the path above him, anxiously waiting for a sign of life from his master?

Full of trepidation, Jopta lifted his right leg at the hip and moved it incrementally to the right.  Then the left leg.  Lifted very carefully, swung slowly until it was touching the right one.  He noticed that there was no pain anywhere except in his face and neck.  He took this as a positive sign and continued the process of moving his feet downhill, until his legs were at as much of an angle to his torso as his flexibility would allow.  He found a place for his left hand to be flat against the ground, near his left shoulder.  Then, gathering his courage, anchoring the toes of his boots the best he could, he began carefully pushing with his left arm in order to lift his torso.

His head swam with the waves of pain this set off, but Jopta continued as long as he could.  Indeed, his face came away from the ground and he was able to shift his upper body so much that his chest came to rest on his left hand and forearm.  He lowered his forehead until it was leaning against rock or wood, and waited for the pain to subside a little and his heart to slow again.

He strained his ears for any sign of Nobo, but heard only a few birdcalls and his own breathing.

At that moment, his right arm began burning.  It must have been trapped under him, Jopta thought, with the blood circulation partly cut.  Now freed, the numbness gave way to pins and needles.  It was horribly uncomfortable, but he knew that this sensation would wear off sooner or later, and he was encouraged to think that he would then be able to use both hands.

He was so thirsty.

When he could wiggle the fingers of his right hand, he recommenced the effort of lifting his torso and shifting it to the left, alternately with the movement of his feet to the right.  Aware that positioning himself perpendicular to the path might send him sliding further down, he soon stopped rotating and began a sort of crawl forward, moving diagonally up the slope, driven by only two thoughts that throbbed in his mind in time with the pain:  Nobo and water.

Finally – how much time had passed since he regained consciousness was impossible to gauge – Jopta saw the ground beneath him change.  He had reached the trail!

Again, he attempted to call his dog, and again failed.  Not only was it painful, but there seemed to be something wrong with his mouth.  He realized that the light was failing, and felt a surge of panic.  He had to find a way to look around him, to try to judge how far he was from his pack and bottle, before nightfall.

He closed his eyes, called on every iota of strength and stamina within him, and moved from his prone position to all fours, then brought his knees up to his chest.  He now intended to stand, but the pain overwhelmed him as he began to straighten up, and he toppled to one side.  His arm instinctively went out to break the fall.  Its jarring impact with the ground sent fiery stabs of pain searing through his skull.

He let out an agonized cry, which only made the stabs ricochet, increasing the pain.

Jopta huddled against the trunk of the tree beside him, leaning one temple against the smooth bark.  He touched the other temple with his fingertips.  Afraid, but needing to gain some understanding of what was wrong, he let his hand move lower very slowly, barely brushing over the skin of his face with the tips of his fingers.

He discovered that he could not distinguish his jawline from his neck, because the lower part of his cheeks and his chin were so swollen.  His lower lip also puffed out, nearly completely covering the upper one.

Realizing that he would not be able to drink, Jopta felt devastated.  He was utterly alone in the silent darkness of nightfall, pinned to the ground at the base of a tree by inescapable pain.  Soon, even articulated thought became impossible.

Chapter Four

The two young men spoke together in low voices now and then.  Peakatrin had introduced them as Bodrun and Kir, the sons of a neighbor.  Venja and Peakatrin were quiet.  It was in her nature to listen rather than speak, and the doctor was too anxious about his friend to chat.

They kept up a steady pace.  When Nobo got too far ahead of them, Peakatrin called him and the dog came back, circled behind them and then trotted ahead again.  He was far less handicapped than the humans by the dark.  For one, his night vision was far better, but in addition he remembered the terrain.

They slowed somewhat as they began to climb and all fell silent.  The swinging lanterns were a help, but on this rougher, steeper terrain the constant movement of their light on the ground made concentration imperative.

They had been walking for nearly four hours.  The moon was up, but beneath the trees of the forest its light was hardly perceptible.  Under ordinary circumstances, they would have stopped to rest, perhaps shared something to eat.  No one even considered making the suggestion.

“Nobo!” Peakatrin called.  “Nobo, here boy.”

When a minute had passed, and then two more, without any sign of the dog, he called again, more insistent.

“Here now, Nobo!”

Venja, who was in the lead, suddenly stopped.  As the others caught up with her, she said, “Listen!”

Short barks, in groups of two or three, separated by brief silence.

“He’s found him!” Peakatrin’s words came out in a rush as he already began walking again.

At regular intervals the doctor called out to Nobo, but the dog had gone quiet.  Peakatrin focused on his feet, breathing hard and pushing himself to walk as fast as he possibly could.  The younger men were immediately behind him; Venja followed.

Something flashed in Peakatrin’s lamplight.  He paused, held his lantern higher and discovered Jopta’s knapsack hanging from a branch.

“Take that, please,” he said to Kir.  Without waiting for a reply, he resumed his climb, now nearly at a run.

“Careful!”  Bodrun reached down for the water bottle that Kir had not seen.

“Thanks,” his brother said.

They looked at each other briefly.  No words were necessary for them both to know what the other was thinking.  They only knew Jopta as an acquaintance of their parents’, a man they saw in the village from time to time.  But Peakatrin’s anxiety had communicated itself to them, and the unusual nature of this night-expedition heightened the tension.

Venja caught up to them, nodded when she saw what they had in their hands, then led the trio onward.  They rounded a first turn, walked a straight stretch, then rounded a second tight curve, and Venja saw the doctor down on one knee, his face close to Jopta’s slumped body.  As she drew closer, she saw that Nobo was sitting on the other side of Jopta, looking back and forth from one man to the other.

Peakatrin looked up when they arrived.

“He’s breathing,” he told them.

Venja let out a sigh of relief.  “Oh, that’s good,” she said, for all of them.

“It’s difficult to tell in this position, but I believe that the lower part of his face is quite swollen.  Kir or Bodrun, can you bring your lantern close to his legs?”

Bodrun circled behind the doctor and straddled Nobo, then leaned slightly forward and lowered his lamp.

Peakatrin peered at Jopta’s trousers, and touched one leg just below the knee.

“Yes,” he said. “The front of his legs, especially the knees, are damp and stained.  He likely dragged himself here.  If that’s because his legs are paralyzed, I fear a back injury, and dare not change his position.”

He paused, looked up at the three attentive faces, then continued, “Bodrun, can you remain in that posture a little longer?”

The young man nodded.

“Venja, can you cradle his head in your hands from behind?  Hardly any pressure, please.  I’m going to open a vial of peppermint essence and hold it as close to his nostrils as I can.  It should make him regain consciousness, but it could be with a start, and we must prevent – as much as possible – any brusque movement.  Kir, come hold Nobo’s collar, would you?  Don’t want him jumping onto Jopta when he sees him open his eyes.”

Venja put her lantern down on the trail, and carefully got into place while Peakatrin took the small glass container from his bag.  He knelt next to Jopta again, his legs close alongside those of his friend.  Once he had removed the stopper, which he put into a breast pocket, he gently rested one hand on one of Jopta’s hands and brought the vial toward his nose as he spoke his name.

Venja felt Jopta’s head push slightly against her hands and heard him make a sound in his throat.

Nobo sprang up and began barking.

Kir pulled him back, trying to hush him as well.

“Don’t move!” Peakatrin was saying to Jopta.

He stoppered the vial and slipped it into the same pocket, knowing it might soon be needed again.

“Nobo, still!” he said sternly.

Jopta was gesturing with his free hand to let the dog come to him.

“Keep hold of his collar, Kir,” Peakatrin commanded, “and bring him closer.”

Venja noticed that Jopta kept his head very still.  She only had to maintain very gentle pressure around his skull to ensure against movement.  Jopta, for his part, could hardly take it all in and did not even notice that someone was holding his head.  He tousled Nobo’s ears and rubbed below his muzzle, while Nobo tried to lick his hand.

He wanted to say thank you, regardless of whatever pain it might cause.  Some sound did come out, but it was only a sort of buzz.

“No, no!” Peakatrin said immediately.  “Don’t try to talk!  Okay, Nobo.  Good dog.  Please keep holding onto him, Kir.  Bodrun, you can straighten up now, but if you could stay right there?  Your light is a real help.”

He turned back to look at Jopta, and slipped his hand under the other man’s, holding it in a light clasp.

“I’m going to ask you some questions.  If the answer is yes, squeeze once.  If it’s no, squeeze twice.”

He lifted Jopta’s hand very slightly.

“Can you feel my hand?”

One squeeze.

“Good.  Can you feel your legs, your feet?”

One squeeze.

“Very good.  Do they hurt?”

Two squeezes.

What about your arms?  Do they hurt?”

Two squeezes.

“Did you fall?”

One squeeze.

“Forward?”

One squeeze.

“Can you show me with your other hand what hurts?”

One squeeze, and the free hand simultaneously moving to show the mouth and the area around it.

“Um.”  Peakatrin nodded.  “Yes, it’s swollen.”

Jopta withdrew his left hand from the doctor’s and made a fist with his right.  He brought the fist up near his chin, then tapped it onto the open palm of his left hand.

“You hit your chin.  When you fell.”

“Yuff,” Jopta said.

Peakatrin scowled and took hold of Jopta’s left hand again.

“Any movement of your head causes violent pain.”

One, hard, squeeze.

“Broken jaw.  Or a dislocation.  Or both.”

Jopta closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again.  His euphoria at seeing ‘Trin, Nobo and the boys was ebbing, he began to feel cold again, and he also remembered how much he longed for a drink.

The doctor was already considering what to do.

“Boys,” he said, “can you find some dead wood?  We can strip the outer layer and make it dry enough to burn, with any luck.”

“What about Nobo?” Kir asked.

“He should be alright.  Let him go to see what he does?”

The dog came directly to Jopta’s side and sat down.

Kir and Bodrun set off.

“Jopta, Venja is holding your head.”

Jopta’s eyebrows shot up, and he squeezed Peakatrin’s hand twice.

“Venja?” he thought.  “Who is Venja?  And what does he mean ‘holding your head’?”

“Yes, she is,” Peakatrin said, reacting to the squeezed ‘no’.  “And she is going to continue to do so, because you are going to move.”

He got up, went to his pack and drew out a packet and another vial.  The packet turned out to be a folded square of waxed sailcloth, which he spread out on the path just beside Nobo and Jopta.  The ground was fortunately quite smooth there, and sloped slightly.  Jopta’s head would be a little higher than the rest of him, once he was in place.

Peakatrin shook two capsules from the vial that he handed to his patient.

“To dull the pain.  Slip them into your mouth and let them dissolve.  You are going to slowly move away from the tree and lie down on your back, on this.  Venja, you’ll manage?”

“Yes,” she replied.

Peakatrin told Jopta, “I’ll also be holding your arms.  We want to lower your upper body with as little strain on your head and neck as possible.”

The anesthetic mixture in the capsules would not take effect until Jopta was already lying down, but Peakatrin needed to examine his jaw and possibly set it back into place.  It was essential that the pain be blocked as much as possible then.

Jopta managed to get the pills into his mouth and he began the shift, with Venja and Peakatrin assisting as best they could.  By the time the young men were back with enough wood for a good small fire, Jopta was stretched out.  He was not comfortable, but the pain was bearable, which was a relief.  The bitter taste left in his mouth by the capsules was even a distraction from his thirst.  Nobo came to lie down at his side, his head on Jopta’s chest.

Venja helped Bodrun and Kir to prepare the wood, then make a small pile of the driest moss and twigs they had found in the middle of the trail as close beside Jopta as they dared.  Kir next set the smaller sticks into a cone above it, then Bodrun brought a flame from one of the lanterns to ignite the fire.  There was some sputtering, but it caught.  The brothers tended it carefully, adding larger branches as they could.  The warmth and brightness cheered them all.

Jopta tried to gesture his gratitude, but only succeeded in worrying them.  Peakatrin was rummaging in his bag, so Venja came to take one of his hands.

“Something is wrong?  Hurting?” she asked, looking closely at his face.

Two squeezes.

He couldn’t place her face, but knew that he had seen her before.  Was she part of Kir and Bodrun’s family?  Their parents, Lumdeen and Fal, had been neighbors of Peakatrin’s for years.  Fal, vivacious and outgoing, never missed an opportunity to chat with Jopta when she saw him coming to visit his friend the doctor, so Jopta had witnessed Kir and Bodrun go from babies to boys to the young men they were now.  Was she an aunt perhaps, visiting at the moment?

On Jopta’s other side, Nobo flopped his tail, looking at Venja with soft eyes.

“You knew, Nobo,” she said, as much to the dog as for Jopta’s benefit.  “You knew exactly what to do.”

Jopta drew his eyebrows together and shook her hand very slightly.

Venja smiled at him.  “Nobo came for help,” she explained.

It came back to him.  The midwife, leaving her cottage with a horse this morning.

This morning?  It felt like the distant past.

He lifted the hand she was holding, keeping hers enclosed, and brought his other hand to cover it.  He could feel tears flowing from the corners of his eyes, and hoped it was too dark for her to notice them.  Her hand was warm and soft within his; he held it close above his heart.

Venja understood, and in turn tenderly covered the clasp with her other hand.

Nobo’s tail flopped more energetically.

Peakatrin, coming round the fire to approach Jopta’s head paused midstep, taking in the scene.

“Well, well!” he thought, smiling.

He cleared his throat.  “Exactly right,” he said aloud, kneeling to one side of Jopta’s head and placing his lantern to the other.  He looked at his friend and continued, “I have to examine your jaw.  Venja is going to keep hold of your hand.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her.  They had worked together many times before, at any birth with complications.  He had absolute faith in her abilities, as she did in his.  Of course they had never been on a forest trail at night, caring for a man…

Jopta squeezed once, and Venja voiced the yes.

“You might feel yourself fainting, Jopta,” Peakatrin said in a matter-of-fact voice.  “Don’t let that worry you.  It’s a natural reaction.  Just let it happen.  I’ll bring you back out of it.”

One squeeze.

“Yes.”

“Can you move the tip of your tongue?”

“Yes.”

“Please gently verify whether any of your lower front teeth are loose.”

“No.”

“Very good.”

The doctor set to work, deftly probing to ascertain – as best he could through the swelling – whether the mandibular joints were in place.  It seemed they were.  This was also very good.

“No apparent dislocation,” he said.

One weak squeeze.

As Peakatrin began to palpate the length of Jopta’s jaw, Venja felt the hand in hers go limp.

“He’s lost consciousness,” she told the doctor.

He gave a single nod.  This allowed him to work more efficiently, and he soon found a break.  There might be others, he knew, but it was impossible to sense them with so much edema.

He spread an ointment of turmeric and wintergreen on Jopta’s lower face, careful to avoid the lips.  It would help the swelling go down.  Next, he created two tiny cylinders with a short strip of muslin that he wound as tightly as possible and tied with surgical thread.

“Bodrun,” he called softly, “a hand, please?”

Peakatrin had him hold the cylinders between Jopta’s teeth, one just behind each eyetooth. He then reset the bone as best he could and wrapped a wider band of muslin from the crown of Jopta’s head down around the jaw several times.

“Let go now,” he said to Bodrun.

He pulled on one of the cylinders, first very gently, then harder, then on the other, testing that they were immobile.  Satisfied, he then wound another, narrower, strip from behind the top of one ear, under the nose, behind the top of the other ear and around the nape of the neck.

“Done,” he said, sitting back.

“Will he be in less pain now?” Venja inquired.

“Somewhat,” the doctor replied.  “Provided there are no other breaks.  And he’ll be able to move his head more freely, because the bands will keep the jawbone stable.”

He took the vial out of his breast pocket.  “Let’s bring him back.”

Chapter Five

The four of them took turns dozing, tending the fire and watching over Jopta, who actually slept for several long stretches, warmed by the fire on one side and Nobo on the other, helped by the medicines and reassured by the explanation that Peakatrin provided.

As the first birds began to call, before the break of dawn, Kir and Bodrun discretely shared some food with Venja and Peakatrin.  They had nothing in liquid form for Jopta, and therefore avoided letting him see them eat.

“What about drinking, though?” Peakatrin asked them as they stood together.  “He can survive without water until we’re back down the mountain; nevertheless, it would be much better for him to drink.  I don’t have a spoon…”

“I may have a solution,” Venja broke in.  “Let me see.  Bodrun or Kir, can one of you come with me?”

Daylight was slowly penetrating the forest and they took only one lantern.

“We’re looking for a shine of silver,” Venja told Bodrun, as they began walking down the trail.

“A star-tree?”

“That’s right.”

He held the lantern high, letting its light play over the trees, first to one side of the path, then the other.  They proceeded slowly, both looking carefully around them.

They went down three turns without sighting any star-trees.

Venja said, “Best go back the other way.”

They returned to their point of departure, still looking, though less intently.  Reaching the group, they saw that Jopta was not only awake, but seated with his back against a rock, facing the fire.  He followed them with his eyes as they approached.  Bodrun snuffed out the lantern and put it down, then they continued their way uphill.

They were only a short distance further when Bodrun caught sight of something odd lying beside the trail.

“What’s that?” he said, pointing and walking closer.

Venja, two or three steps ahead of him, turned back and saw him pick an object up from the ground.  It was a tin box.  He held it out to her.

She took it, turned it around to examine it, shook it gently, then handed it back to Bodrun.

“Your privilege,” she said, smiling. “You found it.”

He lifted the lid and they both peered inside.

“Oh!” exclaimed Venja.  She touched one of the pods with her index and repeated her exclamation.

Bodrun looked at her.  “What is that?”

“A treasure!” she told him.  “These are…”  She broke off, her eyes going wide with sudden realization.

“They must be his!” she exclaimed.  “Jopta’s.  That’s what he came here for.”

Bodrun still did not know what the box contained, but was pleased that his discovery appeared to be of some importance.

“Should we take it back, or continue searching for a star-tree?” he asked Venja.

“No need to find one now!” she answered joyfully.

She saw that he had no idea what she was talking about.

“These are star-tree pods,” she said, indicating the box’s contents.  “And they are even better suited than any we could have found ourselves.  Come on!”

Bodrun snapped the cover back in place and followed her down the path.

“Look!”  Venja crouched beside Jopta and held the box at his eyelevel.  “Bodrun found it for you!”

Jopta’s eyes shone.  He took it from her and held it to his chest for a moment, then put it on his lap and clasped his hands to show his gratitude.  He was already so thankful to all of them, and this added yet another reason.  He wondered how he could ever, ever repay them.

Venja was delighted.  This was good fortune indeed.

“Jopta, can I take one of the pods?  I think I can use it to allow you to drink.”

He readily handed her the box.  “You can have as many of them as you like,” he wanted to tell her.

Venja carefully extracted one of the pods, then gave the box back to Jopta with a smile.

She went to see Peakatrin.

“Can you slice the top off of this, and the very tip as well?” she asked.

Peakatrin raised his eyebrows.  “Planning to intoxicate him, now?”

“Nothing of the sort,” she retorted.  “You’re the one who recommended that he drink.  Water!”

“Ah, well, yes…”  He winked at her, reached for his bag and brought out a scalpel.  “What a shame, though, to lose the essence.  Maybe I should suck it out?”

“And burn the inside of your mouth, as you well know,” said Venja.  “I will be sure to rinse it well before having Jopta drink through it.”

With surgical skill, Peakatrin lopped off the cap and tip, then handed the pod back to the midwife.

“Once he’s had some water, let’s make a start,” he said.

She nodded.

Her plan worked.  She filled the cleaned pod half full of water and held her finger over the tip until it was at his mouth, then slipped her finger aside and put the end of the pod between his lips.  A little water dribbled onto the bandage, but Jopta drank.  She repeated the process again, and again.  Five, six, seven times she poured water into the pod and brought the tip of it to his mouth.

He closed his eyes at the pleasure of it, the wonder of cool liquid in his mouth and slipping down his throat.  Never had he tasted better water or felt such well-being from drinking.  Perhaps he had never been as thirsty before, or maybe there were still some traces of star-tree essence in it.

“Shall I fill it once more?” Venja asked.

Jopta shook his index finger back and forth.  “Oh for the ability to talk to her!” he thought.

Peakatrin came close just then.  “And to ‘Trin!” Jopta added mentally.  But that would have to wait.

“Are you ready to begin the walk home?” Peakatrin was asking him.  “Let me check the bandages first.”

He did, pinning them to tighten them slightly.  Their looseness was a good sign:  the swelling was already going down.

When he’d finished, Jopta stretched his hands toward them and – holding his upper arms – Peakatrin and Venja helped him stand.  He was light-headed, and felt a low throb of pain in his face, but it was bearable.

Nobo stood, shook himself, stretched and yawned elaborately, then kicked out each of his hind legs in turn.  He looked up at Jopta, began wagging his tail, and barked just once, emphatically.

Venja laughed.

“Yes!” Peakatrin said to the dog.  “We’re going!”

Kir and Bodrun had already rearranged the few items in Jopta’s pack so that only his box was left for him to carry.  It bounced very lightly against his back at each step.  Sensing it there made Jopta very happy.

The descent went well, albeit slowly at times.  Jopta could walk well as long as the path was quite smooth.  When there were roots or stony patches to contend with, one of the others would come take his elbow to guide and steady him.  He found it interesting to have to rely much more on his feet and his general balance than on his eyes as he ordinarily would.  Tilting his head to look down – he did it once, out of habit, as they rounded the first turn – set off a burst of pain, so he kept his head level from then on.

They stopped once to rest and drink, a second pod serving Jopta, with Venja’s expert help.  As they got underway again, Jopta realized that he was very hungry.  He wondered how he could eat.  To distract himself, he imagined various possibilities, mostly involving soup, a small spoon and a lot of time and patience.

He visualized himself in his own home, and this brought the orbs back to his mind, and Sybenc’s birthday.  Would he be able to attend the celebration?  Would he want to?  He supposed that a jaw took at least several weeks to heal.  Rather awkward, not being able to talk to anyone at a party.  Would his head still be wrapped in bandages?  If so, he’d make a spectacle of himself.  Frighten any children who were there, most likely.  Best to let Sybenc know that he’d come visit later.  If he felt strong enough, he could even go see him to tell…  Well, to somehow communicate…  By writing, perhaps?  He could carry a slate with him and put messages on it for people to read.  He did not have a slate, but he could get one…

And the xelanopi?  That would also have to wait.  Impossible to make it without being able to look down.  He shrugged.

Venja was behind him and saw that.  She quickened her step and caught up.

“Do you want me to take the pack?  Is it bothering you?”

Jopta gestured no, and searched his mind for a way to indicate that she should not worry.  That he would tell her everything when he could speak again.  All his brain offered him was the traditional symbolic gesture made during the exchange of vows at a wedding.  The two hands were placed flat against the breast, one on top of the other, then turned palm up, still together, still against the chest, and held there for a moment.  Then they were swiveled so that the fingers pointed forward, and slowly extended until the fingertips touched the other’s breast.

He flushed.  Hardly appropriate in this context!  And his imagination, undoubtedly a sort of delirium from everything that had happened and a lack of food, was running away with itself, because he had momentarily visualized himself as the groom and Venja as his bride.

He concentrated on steadying his breathing.

Venja remained at his side as long as the width of the path allowed, glancing at him from time to time and listening carefully.  She was convinced that something was wrong, but sensed that she shouldn’t insist.  After all, despite the physical proximity they had shared in recent hours, the man was a virtual stranger to her.

Her memory skipped back to the moment when she had touched his head.  Holding a baby’s head, her particular privilege as a midwife to cradle a tiny skull before any other person as the new being made its way into the world, was invariably a powerful moment, never routine despite the countless times that she had experienced it.  Making contact with the warmth and solidity of Jopta’s head had been the same, in a way, and also very different.  ‘Special’, was the most appropriate word she could find.

She realized that if they were Kir or Bodrun’s age, the two of them, she might well have slipped her hand into his, right then and there as they walked.

But they weren’t, and she didn’t.

They came to the fork where the mountain path reached the trail that ran round the base of the mountain.

“Everyone okay?  Jopta, do you need to rest?” Peakatrin inquired.

They all turned toward each other.  Jopta shook his index, then pointed forward.  The most difficult part was behind them now; best to keep going.

Before they began walking again, however, a sound or, rather, sounds, reached them.

“Whatever is that?” asked Venja.

Bodrun and Kir looked at each other, cocked their heads, listened a moment longer, then nodded.  “People!” they exclaimed simultaneously.

Peakatrin echoed, “People?”

“We agreed with our parents before we left that were we not back by daybreak, they should come to find us,” Kir explained.  “That must be them.”

“But that’s more than two people!” Peakatrin said based on what he could hear.

“Shall we go ahead?” Bodrun asked.

“By all means,” the doctor said.

They all set off again, the young men walking more quickly and steadily distancing themselves from Venja, Peakatrin and Jopta.

Shortly, there was first a shout and then a clamor.  Soon thereafter, Fal, followed closely by Lumdeen, appeared around the bend, running toward them.

They greeted each other warmly, careful not to jostle Jopta.  Everyone spoke at once.  Nobo danced around their legs, barking joyfully.

Then more villagers rounded the bend, with an ox-cart on large wheels.

Jopta grabbed hold of the nearest shoulder, which happened to be Fal’s, tears streaming.

Fal looked up at him and began crying herself.

“There, there,” she said to him, smiling broadly and patting his arm.  “It’s all behind you now.  We’re so glad to have you back among us!”

“Jopta!” Peakatrin exclaimed in feigned anger.  “This will never do!  Your bandages will get soaked!!”

Lumdeen produced a large handkerchief, which Jopta and Fal both used.

There were more greetings, the ox was unhooked from the cart and led round, and the cart was turned.  Jopta was installed in it, with Nobo beside him.  At the first turn of the wheels, though, the dog jumped out again and trotted along between Venja and Peakatrin.

The procession made its way back to the village, sharing lively conversation and bursts of occasional song.  Jopta was first attentive to it all but, lulled by the rocking motion of the cart, drifted into sleep after a bit.

They reached Venja’s cottage by and by.  She took her leave with a twinge of regret that Jopta was not awake.  She stood at her gate watching them continue toward the village, waving each time Fal turned and waved at her.  When they were out of sight, she closed the gate behind her and went toward her front door.

In the coming days, she thought, she might well need to go into the village herself, and she would visit Jopta, after all.  It would only be natural that she look in on him, to see how his convalescence was progressing.

Chapter 6

Fal had no skill with eldbols, so she went to see Sybenc herself the next afternoon.  Standing at the door ready to knock, she stopped to listen: Sybenc was practicing.  A skilled musician with a beautiful singing voice, he often traveled to perform elsewhere and Fal realized she was lucky to find him home.  She waited until he came to the end of the piece, as much for her own pleasure as out of politeness.

She heard a chair scrape on the floor once she’d knocked, then the door opened partway.

“Yes?”

Jopta and his nephew were of a similar build, and Fal found a strong resemblance in the expression.  Not unfriendly, exactly, but certainly not warmly welcoming either.

“My name is Fal,” she said.  “I’m the doctor’s neighbor, and we were with your uncle yesterday.”

Sybenc’s eyes bored into hers.

“Is Jopta ill?”

“No, not ill.  He fell and was hurt.  He’s alright, but I thought you would want to know.”

She was taken aback when Sybenc frowned and shook his head.  “What kind of a person is this?” she wondered.  Fal didn’t know the details of their family history, only that it was overshadowed by misfortune or even tragedy of some sort.  It seemed that neither man had other living relatives.  She hadn’t doubted her impulse to come see him for a moment, certain that Jopta’s nephew would care and be concerned.

Sybenc looked past her.

“I see,” he said tonelessly.

Fal, at a loss for words and asking herself how someone able to make such beautiful music could be so hard of heart, took a small step backward.

Sybenc, still looking into some middle distance, said, “Thank you for your trouble.”

He brought his eyes back to her then, and bowed slightly.

“Please give my regards to the doctor.”

Fal returned the bow and, without another word, turned to walk away.  Before she had taken three steps, she heard the door shut behind her.

Fal recounted the visit to her husband that evening.  Lumdeen was whittling as he listened.

“Can you imagine?” she concluded.

The more she considered what had happened, turning things over in her mind on the walk home and as she later prepared dinner for her family, the angrier she became.

“How could he say, ‘I see’?  He asked for no details!  What did he ‘see’?!”

Lumdeen stilled his hands and looked up at his wife.

“It is surprising,” he said in his usual, measured way.  “You would expect something different between a nephew and his only uncle.”

“What do you know about them?” Fal asked.

Although she had become familiar with the people of the village since her marriage and making a number of good friends among the villagers, Lumdeen’s family had been there for generations.  Jopta and Peakatrin were also both born there, it seemed to her.

“How long has Sybenc been in Minsillow?” she added.

Lumdeen pulled a few more slivers off of the piece of wood he was shaping with his knife as he thought back, remembered, and then considered what he might reply.  The simple truth was best, he decided.

“I’ll tell you what I know, but it isn’t much and it’s likely to make you curious.  Will you promise to let it be, not go poking through the ashes of fires long dead?  Not bring it up with anyone else?”

He bent over his whittling again, to allow Fal a chance to weigh her answer before giving it.  A promise was never to be made lightly.

Fal knew herself well.  Her natural curiosity would make it difficult to discover part of something interesting and be unable to investigate further.  But, she realized, knowing a bit was better than having no idea.  Perhaps good fortune would reveal other fragments to her in time, after all.

She gave her word and sat down at the table across from her husband.

“I do not know when he arrived, nor how, for that matter.  Perhaps no one besides Jopta does.  One spring, after a deep winter that itself followed a long and difficult autumn, people began to say that Jopta was gone.  Traveling, some believed.  Others said he had moved away.  Lying dead inside the cottage, yet others whispered.  He was still living in his parents’ place then.  I would have asked Peakatrin about it, but he was away at his studies those years.”

He shrugged.

“Looking back at it now, I wonder why I didn’t go to see for myself.  I liked Jopta well enough, we spent a great deal of time together as boys.  With Peakatrin.  And Zaph.”

Fal smiled tenderly at the thought of the tall, solid man as a child, trying to picture him as his younger self.  Lum’s mother, who lived with them for a time when Kir was small, had often found similarities with her own son at the same age.  But Damna died when Bodrun was not yet one.  And Bodrun resembled his father physically more than his brother did.

She came back to the present when Lumdeen continued, “Then there were rumors that he was here, and that there was a youngster.  And one day there the two of them were, come to see me.  As if it were the most normal thing!  Jopta inquiring if I would like to go up the mountain with them the next day.

I did.  And I remember thinking that Sybenc was simple.  He never spoke a word, constantly walking right beside Jopta and manifesting no curiosity about anything.  Jopta rarely spoke to him either, for that matter.”

Fal’s eyes were wide.

“How very strange!” she said.

Lumdeen agreed, nodding.  “I know that he helped Jopta build his own house…”

“But he wasn’t at the housewarming, was he?” interjected Fal.

She remembered that celebration very well: it was part of an important day in her own life.  After almost a year of courtship, having met his mother and come to Minsillow once or twice already, Lum had told her that his childhood friend Jopta was moving into his new home.

When Lum invited her to come with him to the housewarming, he said he wanted her to meet the people of his village.  This made Fal choose the dress she would wear with great care and get her sisters to help weave ribbons into her hair that morning.  Superstition prevented them from saying anything aloud, but Fal’s entire family understood the import of this invitation.  If Lumdeen sensed approval from his friends and neighbors, Fal might soon be planning her wedding!

A slow smile widened on Lumdeen’s face and his eyes sparkled.

“Well,” he replied, “how can I remember that?  I only had eyes for the beauty with ribbons in her hair!”

Fal lowered her eyes and shook her head, her heart soft and full.  She loved him dearly, then as now.  He had indeed proposed to her on the way back that night.

She returned his smile and stretched her right hand across the table, which Lumdeen took and held.

“Perhaps Sybenc was there,” he went on, “keeping quiet and to himself.  That would be like him.”

“But if it’s that difficult for him to be with others, how does he manage to give concerts?” she queried.

“Cannot say,” answered Lumdeen.  “Never knew him to give one here, or even near enough by for us to go to.  He must, somehow though, to make his living.”

“Unless Jopta has a hidden fortune and is supporting him?” Fal suggested.

Lumdeen laughed.

“Those are things for children’s tales!  Jopta, a hidden fortune!”   Teasing, he added, “I will make sure to tell him you think so next time I see him.”

Fal wrinkled her nose and withdrew her hand, pretending to be vexed.

“But you’ll have to wait a bit,” she said, “until he can move his jaw again, so the two of you can mock me together!”

Lumdeen assured her he would.  Then, leaving the banter aside, he asked if she planned to bring Jopta some soup or so the next day.  They discussed this and sat for a while longer before deciding it was bedtime.

Chapter 7

Sybenc leaned hard against the inside of his closed door and struggled to regain some calm and remain reasonable.

The woman had said ‘he’s alright’, hadn’t she?  But she had also said Jopta was hurt.  And evidently whatever the injury was, it prevented him from coming to tell Sybenc about it himself and was serious enough for a stranger to do so.  Peakatrin.  What had she said about Peakatrin?  It was the doctor’s place to inform next of kin, wasn’t it?  Had he sent this woman as a messenger?  If so, didn’t that indicate something minor?

He would have to go, he knew that.

His heart beat wildly.

Couldn’t Jopta have been more careful?  Simply not done whatever it was that made him fall?

The surge of anger freed him from being pinned to the door.  He went to push the chair back into its place at the table, then lifted the cittern to set it aside.  As he held his instrument, he considered taking it with him.  Jopta liked to listen to Sybenc play, and he even sang along with some of the traditional tunes from time to time.  Easy enough to slip it into its bag and bring it.

The familiarity of the walk from one house to the other, his cittern light against his back, and the easy steadiness of his footfall stilled Sybenc’s thoughts.

He knocked at Jopta’s door, calling quietly to announce his arrival, and went inside.  Nobo came toward him from the bedroom, crossing the main room with a wagging tail, and pushed his head against the hand Sybenc extended to greet the dog.

“Uncle Ta?”

The name he had used as a boy came spontaneously, surprising him.

There was no answer.

Nobo went to stand with his nose at the door.  Sybenc opened it to let the dog out and left it ajar.

He made his way quietly to the bedroom.  Perhaps Jopta was sleeping?  Fear rose again.  What would he find?

He stepped through the opening, looked left to where Jopta’s bed stood, and froze.

Jopta’s head was wrapped in bandages.  Sybenc could see his eyes and the end of his nose, but nothing else.  He was half-seated, his lower body under the covers.  Sybenc noticed there were two legs and two feet, and registered relief at that.  But the head…!

Jopta had not expected Sybenc to come so quickly and was deeply moved that he had.  He extended both arms, reaching out to welcome the young man.  The usually impassible face registered surprise, perhaps even shock.  Jopta wished he could say that it looked much worse than it actually was, tell Sybenc how pleased he was to see him, ask how he had found out.  Perhaps Peakatrin had had time to go by Sybenc’s place?  He absolutely needed to get himself a slate!

Sybenc leaned over the bed to take both Jopta’s hands in his and they remained this way for a moment, eyes locked.  Then Sybenc straightened again.  There was a stool in the main room.  He went to get it, set it next to the bed, unslung the cittern in its bag, and sat down.

“Can you talk?”

Jopta wagged an index back and forth.

“Are you in pain?”

Jopta attempted to gesture that as long as he kept his head and neck still, he was not.  This was the truth.  Nothing more than a low throbbing that he felt in the left side of his face.

“You fell, yesterday.  Here?”

He wagged negative again.

They went on like this, punctuated by pauses, for a time.  Sybenc remained tense, and Jopta saw this.  So after a bit, as much for Sybenc as for himself, he pointed to the cittern and gestured that Sybenc could play.

“I will, of course,” Sybenc told him.

He slid the stringed instrument out of its bag and set to tuning it.  Jopta admired the object as Sybenc turned some of the pegs slightly, his head lowered.  The fine-grained wood of the body gleamed, and both the inlayed rosette and the scroll at the extremity of the tuning head were lovely to look at.  Jopta thought back to Sybenc’s first instrument, a much cruder version, and how enchanted the boy had been with it.

Sybenc straightened, smiled for the first time since arriving, and ran his plectrum up and down gently several times before plucking out a first melody.  Soon he added his voice, rendering a familiar song.  After a second one he stopped.

“And I thought we might be singing together!” he told Jopta.

“Soon again, my boy,” Jopta said to himself, again wishing he had a slate.

Sybenc was playing a piece he had composed himself when Peakatrin called out a greeting from the entrance.

He smiled broadly as he came into the bedroom.

“Music is not only balm for the soul!” he said.  “It certainly heals the body as well!”

Sybenc stood to greet the doctor.

“Look!” Peakatrin continued.  “The patient is clearly better already!”

Jopta gestured agreement, and welcomed his friend in turn by grasping his hands.

After Peakatrin had examined Jopta and readjusted the bandages as necessary, he was able to answer many of Sybenc’s questions about the injury.  Jopta hoped his nephew would want to know how long it would take for the jaw to heal, a query he very much wanted an answer to himself.  But Sybenc did not inquire, and Peakatrin did not volunteer any such information.  Jopta was, however, able to make them understand that he needed a slate, and Sybenc promised to bring one the next day.  This made Jopta hopeful that he would soon know.

“Are you getting enough to drink?” Peakatrin was asking him.  He then told Sybenc about Venja’s clever use of a star-tree pod on the mountain.

“Oh,” Sybenc said slowly, looking hard at Jopta.  “A star-tree pod.”

Jopta looked at the ceiling.

Sybenc gave a low laugh.

Peakatrin looked from one to the other and raised his eyebrows.

Sybenc seemed to hesitate briefly, then he moved to pick up the cittern and its bag.  “Shall I bring it back with me tomorrow?” he asked.

Jopta clasped his hands in a gesture of gratitude.

“Will you be alright this evening, Jopta?” Peakatrin asked.  He held up a tiny bottle containing granules, adding, “Three of these if you’re in pain or cannot sleep.  You can just suck them in and let them dissolve on your tongue.”

Promising that he too would be by the next day, he took his leave and Sybenc soon followed.  Jopta made himself get up, drink a little water, and feed Nobo.  Then he gratefully returned to his bed and soon fell asleep.

 

Chapter 8

It was a few days before Venja had an afternoon that left her free to visit Jopta.  She had been thinking about it, as well as what she might bring him.  She dismissed each idea she had, finding one silly, another too intimate.  It couldn’t be food because he would be unable to eat it and the only special drink she had any of was xelanopi, which was obviously out of the question.  She finally decided upon a stoppered bottle made of cut glass that a grateful father had given to her when Venja delivered his first, long-awaited, child.  Jopta could use it for his xelanopi, or whatever else he wanted.  She wrapped the bottle in a soft cloth and placed it in a basket.  She needed eggs, cheese and butter: she would buy them after the visit and use that as a reason for being in the village at all.

At the moment Venja left her cottage, Ish was knocking on Jopta’s door, calling out to him and announcing herself all at once.

“Oh, oh, oh!” she exclaimed when he opened the door, covering her mouth with both her hands.

Jopta would have been surprised to see her on his doorstep, since they hardly knew each other, if Ish were a different person.  But their interaction due to the orbs, limited though it was, was sufficient for him to understand that she was childlike, effusive and unconcerned with decorum.  It was like her – having undoubtedly heard about his fall – to come see him.

He gestured for her to come in and took up his slate.  Better to take precautions, he told himself.

“Welcome.  It is kind of you to come,” he wrote.  “I cannot speak and tire quickly.”

She looked at the words for longer than it took her to read them, slowly nodding her head in an exaggerated way.

“Does it hurt very much?” she asked.

“Today,” Jopta wrote, “it is quite painful.”

This was true.  He had been up and moved around quite a bit the previous day, probably more than was reasonable, and had needed some of Peakatrin’s granules in the evening.

“I know no healing,” Ish said. “I wish I did.  Then I could help.”

She meant well, Jopta knew that.  But given her trouble making orbs, he was glad she wouldn’t try anything to ‘help’ him.  This brought to mind that he had not looked at the box that contained Ish’s creations since coming back from the mountain.  He would have to do that as soon as she left.

“How do you eat?” she asked.

He wrote that he could manage soup and porridge.

“Oh!  You must be hungry!” she exclaimed.

Jopta gestured no.  Just then, Nobo barked at the door.

“Oh!” Ish said again, her eyes wide.

Jopta went to open the door for Nobo, who approached Ish with a swishing tail.  She was clearly afraid of him, and put her feet as close together as they would go while she gathered her wide skirt close around her.

Ordinarily, Jopta would have called Nobo to his side and relieved her anxiety.  As it was, this could not happen.

“Perhaps she will leave?” he thought to himself, with a twinge of guilt for being inhospitable.

Nobo sniffed at Ish’s feet and hem, his tail waving back and forth.  Ish edged around him toward the door and Nobo sat to watch her.

“I will go now,” Ish said to Jopta without taking her eyes off the dog.  “I can come back…”

Jopta moved to open the door, bringing his slate.  “Thank you,” he wrote.  Ish barely glanced at the message.

Nobo got up and walked over to them.  To prevent him from following her outside, Jopta waved briefly and then closed the door.  He bent slightly to one side, careful to keep his head upright, and gave Nobo’s head a pat.

Outside, Ish walked backwards away from Jopta’s door, one slow step at a time, alternately holding her arms wide as if to embrace the entire house and blowing kisses.

Venja, now only a short distance away, slowed her steps and watched this happen, her heart sinking.

Ish.

Venja’s cheeks got hot remembering how she had thought for a moment about taking Jopta’s hand as they were coming down from the mountain.  How fortunate that she had not!  If Jopta was the kind of man to be involved with a much younger woman…  And one like Ish…  She felt the sharp stab of disappointment.  Then, lifting her chin a little and resuming her normal walking pace, she told herself that she was also lucky to have seen Ish making her love-gestures toward Jopta’s place and the man inside.  Had she been a little earlier she’d have found them together; a little later and she wouldn’t have known anything about it and risked making a fool of herself.

The cut glass bottle lying safely hidden at the bottom of her basket, she went on past Jopta’s house toward the village shop.

Chapter 9

The day of Sybenc’s birthday came and went.

It was difficult for Jopta to miss the celebration and not to give a gift, especially on an eight year.  It made him uncharacteristically fretful and somber-minded.  Peakatrin had placed slightly larger cylinders between his back teeth and readjusted the bandages, making it possible for Jopta to swallow somewhat larger mouthfuls, but he still could not chew at all or articulate words normally.  Although he could have attended the birthday festivities, it felt too awkward and embarrassing.

He wrote a letter with his apology and a promise to provide his gift as soon as he could, which he gave to Sybenc the last time he visited before the day itself, asking him to read it once he was back home.  He felt reasonably sure that Sybenc would understand, but to him it was a failure, one that weighed on him.

A day after the bandages came off a few weeks later, Sybenc visited to inform his uncle that he was leaving for Reem, a lovely town on the Palforn River, and suggest Jopta come along.  Jopta hesitated, then declined the offer, on the pretext of still feeling a bit weak.  After Sybenc had left again, Jopta was dismayed to realize he hadn’t even asked about the birthday celebration.

Days slipped by, each one similar to the one before.  Although he knew that he needed to walk in order to regain his strength, and was aware that Nobo was grateful for any real outing, Jopta had to force himself to leave the house.  His spirits did not lift while he was outside and he came home exhausted.  He did remember not looking forward to climbing the mountain before he went, but it seemed to him that, once underway, he had enjoyed it.  Until the fall, of course.  But now…

On two separate occasions he prepared all the ingredients for xelanopi, but put everything away again at the end of the day without having done so much as opened the box of star-pods.  His inability to understand why he couldn’t bring himself to make the cordial deepened his morose frame of mind.  He tried to convince himself that it would be better to use fresh raspberries, meaning he needed to wait another two months until they were ripe, but it was a weak excuse since he had three flasks of juice in reserve.

He knew that he should invite Fal and Lumdeen, ‘Trin, and perhaps even the midwife, to come for a meal.  He quite literally owed them his life; a meal was the very least he could do.  He recalled how he had longed to be able to thank them when he was on the mountain and during the trip down, all the thoughts he’d had about what he would say once he could speak again.  But now that it was possible, the effort felt insurmountable.  Also, Jopta became ever more convinced that he could never properly repay them for their kindness and care, making an invitation to dinner ridiculously insignificant.

If he had an orb for each of them, at least…

Jopta pulled the box containing the result of Ish’s creations off its shelf, set it on his table and stared into it.

The orbs had partially merged, and now formed a single mass with three rounded protuberances.  An indistinct greyish color was dominant, with thin streaks of aquamarine here and there and a single brown spot near the center of one of the parts that had originally been a single orb.  Like a stain.  It had appeared suddenly, but seemed not to be growing in size or deepening in color, which would have been cause for concern.

Jopta sighed.

Having them was not good, since they were made as gifts for another.  They were meant to only pass through Jopta’s hands, not remain with him.  Over and over he berated himself for having gone ahead with the second one, and then even a third yet.  He knew better!  What had possessed him?

Nobo pushed the door further open and came back into the house from the yard.  He went to lap some water up from his bowl, then came to put his head on Jopta’s lap.  His tail swished gently back and forth as Jopta scratched the top of his head.

After a moment the dog pulled away and went back to the door, his tail wagging more vigorously.

“Jopta?” Peakatrin’s voice called from just outside the door.

“Yes!  Come in.”

Jopta rose to greet his friend, who was already bending to say hello to the dog.

Peakatrin had intended to drop by as a friend, not as a doctor looking in on a patient, but something in Jopta’s expression alerted him.

They sat across the table from each other.  Jopta slid the box aside.

“How are you?” asked the doctor.

“Good as new!” Jopta replied.  He opened his mouth very wide, then partially closed it and moved his lower jaw back and forth.

Peakatrin nodded.  “Good.  Very good.”

“Only a memory now!” said Jopta.

Peakatrin leaned in, his gaze steady and intent.

“A memory that still weighs on you?”

Jopta shrugged slightly.  “If I let it.”

He looked down.

Peakatrin asked if he’d been back to the mountain.

“No,” came the reply.  Then, after a pause, “For some reason walking requires more effort than it should.”

There was a note of defeat in Jopta’s tone that Peakatrin had never heard before.  It worried him.

As if guessing this, Jopta straightened his shoulders, looked up at Trin with a smile and said, “What about something to drink?  Something warm, if you have the time?”

“I do have time, but don’t trouble yourself.  Water will be fine.”

“Alright.”

Jopta brought two cups and the water jug, poured each cup full and set the jug on the table.  Doing so, he glanced into the box.

“What’s that?” Trin inquired.

Jopta sighed. “Failure.”

He hesitated.  It was an embarrassment to tell the story.  But it would be odd, even rude, to simply slide the box back onto the shelf now with Trin watching.

Peakatrin saw his friend hesitate, and said nothing, allowing Jopta time to consider whether to confide in him or not.  It would be helpful, of course, if he did.  But it couldn’t be forced.

Staring into middle space, Jopta said, “I wanted to give Sybenc an orb for his 28th birthday.”

“Right,” Trin said with an encouraging inflection.

“I went to Ish.”

When he said nothing further, Trin repeated his encouragement.

“But it wasn’t.  Right, I mean.”  He took a deep breath to push through the uncomfortable memory.  “Not the first time.  So I hoped another attempt would allow her to succeed.  And then…”  He broke off, shaking his head.  “And then she promised the third one would be exactly what it was supposed to be…”

He slid the box over the tabletop toward Peakatrin.

“It wasn’t.  And I should have known.”

The doctor looked down into the box and was surprised to feel a wave of revulsion.  He narrowed his eyes and examined the misshapen mass, wondering if the faint putrid odor he perceived was real or a figment of his imagination.

Without raising his head, continuing to scrutinize the botched and now partially merged orbs, he asked if the brown spot was growing.  It seemed to him that, as he asked the question, the spot darkened momentarily.  But because irregular ripples were constantly moving through the entire thing, he couldn’t be sure.

“Imperceptibly, if at all,” Jopta answered.

As Peakatrin looked back up at him, he added, “I make sure to check on it every other day.”

“I don’t have to ask you if it’s a pleasure to do so!”

“No.”

“Where do you keep the box?”

Jopta pointed to the nearby shelf.

“And to look inside, you take it down and put it here, on the table?”

“Yes,” Jopta said.  He wondered why Trin was asking this.

Peakatrin stood and went to the door, turned and stood as if he had just entered Jopta’s home.  The spot on the shelf was directly opposite, at eye level.  And the table was in the center of this main room.  In both places, the box – and its contents – were in dominant positions.

There was little doubt that the orbs were exercising a negative influence on Jopta.  Perhaps their malevolence was due to them being in possession of a person they were not destined for.  Perhaps it was also a factor of Ish’s incompetence.  Or maybe there was malicious intent.  Peakatrin frowned.  Something tugged at his memory, giving him a sense that he knew the answer, but no coherent thought or realization materialized.

Jopta saw the frown.

“They are not mine,” he said, stating what he knew Trin was also well aware of.  “They, it, should not be here.”

“But… ‘Twelvemonth from inception pass, ere another cast anew’.”

“Yes,” Jopta said gloomily.  “And I haven’t given Sybenc the gift I decided upon as a replacement either.  Nothing is right.”

Nobo got up, came over to his master and looked up at him, his tail wagging gently.  Jopta glanced down and absently scratched behind the dog’s ears.  Nobo continued gazing up into his face.

Peakatrin smiled.  The loyalty of an animal was truly a beautiful thing.

“Nobo disagrees,” he told his friend.  “He knows that you are here, rather than having died on the mountain.  He would tell you, if he could, that Sybenc too cares far more about that than about any gift you might give him.”

Jopta was quiet, considering this.  It was the reasonable thing to think, he saw that.  Yet, he felt a heavy sadness within, and a sense of failure that seemed unshakeable.  The nagging question, which he heard himself voice to the doctor.

“Why, why did I go to Ish?”

“Well,” Trin responded, “why did you?  I mean, what do you remember?  How did it come about?”

“I… didn’t want to give him xelanopi.  It seemed… unfitting…  For his 28th birthday.”

The words came slowly, as if it were difficult for him to remember.

Peakatrin nodded but said nothing, creating a space in which Jopta’s recollections could take shape.

“And…”  The doubt about what to offer the cordial in, a question that had prodded at him even as he was climbing toward the star-trees on the day that…  the last time he’d been up the mountain…  He glanced at Trin, then away again and continued, “And I could not decide if I should give him his mother’s dispenser or not.”

Their eyes met.

Again, Peakatrin nodded.  He knew the story and understood why it was painful for Jopta to talk about anything associated with his sister.

“It’s the only thing I brought back from their home.  It belonged to our damna.”

“Damna Telliot?”

It was Jopta’s turn to nod.  Of course.  Trin had been with him at her house when they were children.  He would remember her.  He gestured toward the trunk in the corner of the room.

“It’s in there,” he told Peakatrin.  “I didn’t even take it out…  Would Sybenc be pleased to have it?  Or would it bring back too many terrible memories?”

“Difficult to assess that.  I understand that you hesitated.”  After waiting a moment, Peakatrin added, “Do you ever talk about Sybenc’s youth together?  Or about his mother?”

He couldn’t bring himself to voice her name.  He had been in love with her.  Like all the other boys.  But it had seemed to his younger self that she had special feelings for him and he had taken it very hard when she left, so suddenly, without warning.  And he’d been heartbroken to later learn the reason for her departure and understand, thereby, that she had given her virginity to another.  Even now, decades later, remembering stirred painful emotions in him.

Jopta shook his head.  “No more,” he said in a very quiet voice, “than you and I speak of her.”

“But has he ever asked you who his father was?”

A shadow passed over Jopta’s face, but he simply said, “No, never.”

They both turned their eyes back to the box, and as Trin once again brought his face closer to it and the bizarre thing it contained, he caught a definite smell.

With a slight shudder, he asked Jopta if he had noticed the odor of rot.

“Yes, more recently.  It wasn’t there at first.”

“Is there any reason at all that Ish would have ill will for you, or hold something against Sybenc?”

Jopta was quiet a long time, and Peakatrin was about to say something else when he responded, “None that I know of.  Unless the vague idea I had that she and Sybenc would like each other… might… if they met…”

He broke off.

“That they could fall in love?” offered Trin.

“I suppose, yes,” the other man replied, embarrassed at the very thought.  Musing aloud, he said, “I also went to her because she is Zaph’s daughter.  A sort of loyalty…  Or nostalgia?”

“Did you tell Ish any of this?”

“No, not in so many words.  I suggested, though, after the second orb was such a disappointment, thinking it would be an encouragement and help her succeed, that I could invite her to the birthday celebration in order that she meet Sybenc herself.”

“Hmm.”  Peakatrin knew that, for all her seeming guilelessness, Ish had powers of perception well beyond women’s ordinary ability to see into others and hear more than what was said.  She must know that her father had been one of Jopta’s close friends.  But how could that create a negative influence?  And why would the idea that she might like a young man, that Jopta saw a possible match for her in his nephew, spoil her orbs?  It was illogical!

Jopta sighed.  “And each time she was so sure that her orb would be ‘exactly right’!  Now look.  Three examples of exactly wrong.”

Trying to lighten his friend’s mood, Trin said, “Well, it they continue melting together, there soon may be only one.”

“Small comfort!” Jopta retorted, rolling his eyes.

Peakatrin smiled and Jopta, seeing the humor and feeling somewhat better for having shared his worries, smiled back.

“Perhaps,” he said, “I should give it to Sybenc anyway.  With some xelaopi, and with my apologies!”

“Yes!”

Any plan allowing action was better than brooding, Peakatrin knew, and getting the orbs out of this house was an additional benefit.

“If they bother Sybenc in any way,” he continued, “he would be justified in going to Ish with them, for her to remedy that situation.”

“Yes, that is true…”

“I could do with new xelanopi myself,” said Peakatrin.  “Will you make enough for me to buy some of the batch?”

“I will make enough, Trin,” Jopta told him, “but there is no question of payment!  I am forever in your debt for rescuing me.  A jug of xelanopi is insignificant compared to that.”

“Jopta!  Your xelanopi is never insignificant, and there can be no question of debt between friends!” Trin said firmly.  “But thank you!”

He stood up.

“I must be going.  Will you walk a distance with me?”

Nobo, catching ‘walk’, came to Jopta’s side immediately, his tail swishing and an eager expression on his face.

The men both looked at the dog and laughed at his predictability.

“With pleasure!” Jopta said as he rose from his chair.

Chapter 10

With new-found energy, Jopta set to work and made xelanopi for Sybenc and Peakatrin the next day.  He used most of the juice and the essence of all of the star-pods that remained in the box.

As he worked with the pods, he thought of Venja.  How she had devised a way for him to drink.  Her presence on the walk down the mountain.  There would not be enough of this batch of the drink to offer her any, but he promised himself that the very next one, which he’d make as soon as raspberries were ripe, would include some for her.

Should he visit her now?  It would be a few weeks before he could pick berries, and he was already tardy with giving her the thanks she deserved.

But going empty-handed…  What could he bring her?

His eyes traveled slowly over everything in sight as he stood in the main room.  What else was in the trunk, besides Damna Telliot’s xelanopi dispenser?  If there were a vase, he could pick some spring flowers to fill it.  That would be fitting.

He knelt, lifted the lid and leaned it against the wall behind the trunk.  The rounded form of the dispenser, wrapped in a thick, soft cloth, took up almost half of the space inside.  Where had the cloth come from?  A bed cover?  Whose?  He did not remember.  Jopta rested his left hand on it, as if the object itself might convey the answer.  Then the question arose in his mind once again:  Should the dispenser go to Sybenc?  Should he put the xelanopi he had made into it, and bring it to his nephew?  Or would it be better to talk with him about it beforehand?  Perhaps show it to him, here, empty, first?

Yes, that seemed best.  Imposing something of his mother’s on the young man, bringing a fragment of his childhood into his home unbidden…  that would be too abrupt.

“I will go to visit Sybenc tomorrow,” Jopta thought, “and ask him to come for a meal.  I’ll prepare a letter with the invitation so I can leave it for him if he’s not there.”

Pleased with this decision, Jopta turned his attention to the other items in the trunk.  An odd assortment of things!  Some were of his making, others were gifts, yet others he had acquired in exchange for some cordial, or because he bought them himself.

There was a wide, shallow bowl made of polished wood.  It was very pleasant to hold, smooth and soft to the touch, and the grain was beautiful.  But the upper edge was damaged in two places.  If it could be repaired, this would make a handsome gift.

Lumdeen!  He was very good with woodwork and would undoubtedly know what could be done and how to do it.

Jopta stood, the bowl in his hands.

But what would he bring Lumdeen and Fal?  He would pay for Lumdeen’s work on the bowl, but they needed to be thanked, as did their sons, for their part in rescuing him!

Having them for a meal, at the same time as Sybenc?  He hesitated a moment, daunted by the thought of five guests all at once, but then told himself firmly that making dinner for six was not beyond him and that he should have offered this weeks ago already.

Then he reconsidered.  If there were other people, he would not be able to talk to Sybenc about the past.  It was tempting to postpone doing so.  The dispenser could remain hidden and the subject unspoken between them, until a better time.

Even as the thought emerged, Jopta told himself that imagining a better time was simply cowardice.  And he had to find a solution for the problem of Ish’s orbs now.

He closed the trunk again and set about writing the letters.

Sybenc was home when Jopta went to deliver the invitation.

“I will come, and this time we will be able to sing together,” Sybenc said.

“And I look forward to hearing about your days in Reem,” his uncle told him.

He went to Lumdeen’s place next, where – finding no one home – he left the letter for them.

Lumdeen himself came by to see Jopta the very next day, thank him for the invitation and tell him that he and Fal would be pleased to come.

“The boys are both away,” Lumdeen explained.  “And it will do their mother good to have some distraction.  She finds the house very empty!”

The three of them were laughing so much that Nobo came near the table and began barking.

“You see?” Lumdeen said.  “Even the dog agrees that it was very funny!!”

Jopta hushed Nobo as Fal shouted out, feigning indignation, “Of course!  Another boy!!  Naturally he would see it your way!”

Lumdeen and Jopta had been reminiscing, bringing back adventures and pranks from their youth.  Some Jopta remembered more clearly, others Lumdeen did, but the one they’d just recounted was crystal clear to both of them.  Even now, they thought it was tremendously clever and amusing.

Their victim was an older, slightly simple-minded woman.  She hung her laundry on the line every Thursday and left it there overnight.  As soon as it got dark, the boys – Jopta and Lumdeen and Zaph and Peakatrin – would sneak into the yard with several lengths of burr-vine and a small spade.  One would keep watch, another dig a narrow hole just below each of the long stockings that invariably hung there while the two others made a burr-vine cling to a stocking, winding the creeper around to mimic the way the plant would naturally grow.  Then the thicker end was placed in the hole, and the dirt pushed back in and tamped down.

“The next day,” Lumdeen was saying, “She would come out and stare, from a distance, and the burr-vines that had ‘grown’ overnight.  She proceeded to take all the other laundry down first and bring it into the house.  Then she came back with the largest pair of scissors I have ever seen, to this day!”

“It’s true!” said Jopta.  “Those scissors!!”  He shook his head, then continued, “She would stand as far back from the vine as possible…”  He demonstrated, leaning his upper body away and averting his face.  “And cut the vine off below the toe of the stocking.”

“Snap!” Lumdeen said, smacking his palms together.

They started laughing again.

“Well I think you are nothing short of awful,” Fal told them decisively.  “The burrs probably even damaged her stockings.”

“Oh, I don’t think so!  They were all very stiff and thick,” Jopta explained, not without a twinge of remorse remembering the poor woman’s face as she carried them, holding them in the tips of her fingers and as far from herself as possible.

“The stubs of those vines remained standing for weeks,” Lumdeen remembered, shaking his head.  “Maybe she never knew that they didn’t come up out of the soil like real plants.”

“Always the four of you?” Fal asked.  “With Peakatrin and who else, again?”

“Zaph,” the men said together.

Jopta got up to get three small glasses, then set his xelanopi dispenser on the table.  He filled each of the glasses in turn, handing the first to Fal and the second to her husband.

Raising the third one, he said, “To being boys together then, and to our friendship now!”

“Accord,” said Fal, relieved that she did not have to give the expected confirmation to a toast feting the tricks they had played, “and to your recovery from injury.”

“Accord, accord,” Lumdeen said, holding his glass toward each of them in turn as he did so, “and to your dinner this evening.”

“Accord!” they chorused.

They sipped, savoring the smooth, cool sweetness.

After a moment’s contented silence, Lumdeen said, “Jopta, you are truly a master at this art!”

“Thank you.  I’m happy you like it.  Speaking of mastering an art, I have something to show you.”

He brought the bowl and explained to Lumdeen that he hoped it could be repaired.

Lumdeen examined the wooden object carefully.

“I could patch it easily enough,” he told Jopta, “but the repair would remain visible.  Obvious.  To my mind, reworking the entire upper edge would be better.  It would look different, then, but it’s a lovely piece, in fine wood.”

“Perfect, Lumdeen!  I knew you would have the answer.  Thank you!”

They agreed on a price and how long Lumdeen would need to do the work, and the men had a second glass of xelanopi.  Then Jopta and Nobo accompanied their guests for part of their walk home.  As he neared his own place again, Jopta smiled and breathed in deeply, remembering recent walks that left him exhausted, and aware of how good it was to feel this way instead.

 

Chapter 11

“Sybenc!  Come in.”

He looked tired, Jopta thought, as the young man slipped his cittern off his back and set it down.

“How are things?”

“It’s good to see you,” Sybenc replied, sidestepping the question.

Then, looking around the room, he added, “What is that sound?”

“Sound?”

Jopta listened, but could hear nothing.

Frowning intently, Sybenc twisted his upper body slowly, first in one direction, then the other, trying to find the source of the faint hum he had detected.  It was irregular, which made pinpointing it more difficult.

He moved around the room, his eyes vague, and Jopta watched him from where he stood.  Although he still could hear nothing, he felt a rising dread at the suspicion that he knew where it was coming from.

Sybenc stopped in front of the shelf, remained immobile for several seconds, then pointed at the box that stood there.

Jopta sighed.  He had envisioned broaching the subject after dinner.  Apparently this was not to be.

Nearing the shelf, he thought he caught a brief, high-pitched, wavering hum.  As he slid the box off and set it on the table, there was a decidedly unpleasant smell.   He felt his face get hot with embarrassment.

He looked at his nephew.

“I wanted to offer you an orb for your birthday.  I’m afraid that this is the unfortunate result.”  He clenched and unclenched his jaw, then forced himself to add, “And I would really appreciate it if you took it home with you.”

Sybenc looked from the contents of the box to his uncle.

Jopta continued, briefly explaining the genesis of the tri-orb as well as the negative effect it seemed to have on him, and concluded, “I never heard the noise before.  Maybe it’s new.  Or maybe it’s inaudible to me?”

Sybenc turned to look at Nobo, who lay quietly on the floor.  “He would have heard it, even if you did not.”

Jopta nodded.

After peering into the box again for a few seconds, Sybenc said, “It will go with me.”

“Thank you!” Jopta said.  The intensity of his relief surprised him.  Had he doubted that Sybenc would accept, perhaps?  He repeated his thanks.

Sybenc nodded in turn.  He picked the box up and set it on the floor beside his cittern.  Nobo watched, but manifested no further interest.

“Please,” Jopta told Sybenc, “sit down.  Dinner is ready.”

They ate and talked, happy to be in each other’s company.  Sybenc told Jopta about the concerts in Reem, Jopta explained further about the orbs.

Then, pouring glasses of xelanopi for them both after their meal and despite the resistance he felt, Jopta said, “I would like to ask you about something that I have, Sybenc.  An object.  It is related to your past.”

Sybenc stared at his glass, holding it between thumb and index.  He could refuse, he knew that.  Jopta would not insist if he did.

“An object?” he asked, his eyes still riveted on the red liquid in the small glass between his fingers.

The answer was quiet.  “Yes.  A dispenser.  It was your mother’s.  It was given to her by our grandmother.”

Sybenc felt his chest get very tight and his head begin to spin.

The silence in the room grew thick.

Jopta steadied his breathing, wondering if he had made a terrible mistake in bringing this up with Sybenc.

More seconds ticked by, then Sybenc said, without looking up, “I remember it.”

It was true.  The image was clear in his mind: the dispenser on a small table in the corner.  When the sunlight, coming in through an opposite window, shone on it at a certain angle, spectrums of color appeared on the wall behind.  One of his earliest memories was standing very still to observe, fascinated, and his mother coming to stand beside him, her hand gently stroking the back of his head and neck, and saying how beautiful it was.  Her voice?  His own?  This he no longer knew.

“But how…?”

When he left the house, he carried nothing.  Jopta was waiting for him at the fork in the road just outside the village, as planned, and they began walking toward Minsillow immediately.  When had Jopta recovered the dispenser?

“How did it come here, you mean?” Jopta asked him.

Sybenc looked at him then, and nodded.  His head was no longer spinning, and the tightness in his chest – if no better – was no worse.

“Do you remember how I came to know where you were?” Jopta inquired gently.

Sybenc thought for a moment, then replied, “Not very well.  Someone you met…”  His voice trailed off.

“No, someone who searched me out.”

He sat down across from his nephew and took a sip of xelanopi, then continued, “A woman from the village, probably the only person there who knew anything about your mother’s past.”

He took another sip, as much to still his rising emotion as to gauge Sybenc’s reaction.  The young man was looking at him with a steady gaze.  His face was calm, neutral.

Jopta tried to keep his voice steady.  “She was with your mother at the last, and heard my name, and Minsillow.  She understood that your mother wished you here.  That may have been so, or perhaps Ennol was simply remembering…”  He paused a moment, then resumed.  “As soon as she could, this woman – her name was Denie, I think…”

“Deenia,” Sybenc said.  “She was my mother’s friend.”

“Yes, she was.  And she cared a great deal about you, too.  She went to the trouble of making the trip here, taking the risk, then inquiring about me, and then coming to see me.  It was a brave thing to do.”

“Brave?  Risk?”

As Jopta smiled at Sybenc’s astonishment, Sybenc went on, “Oh, you mean if Direk had found out?”

It surprised Jopta to hear him pronounce the name of the man who had come to live with Ennol and her son a year or so before her death.  “Yes, that too,” he replied.  “But in addition to the chance that helping you make him angry…”

“He needed no reason for anger!” Sybenc broke in, a bitter edge in his voice.  “It was constant.  From the moment he woke.  And increased as the day went on and he drank.”

Jopta had questions he dared not ask.  They were about a time now long gone, he told himself, and about things that were surely best left in that past.

“Yes,” he said simply.  “Deenia knew that, knew it was dangerous for you to remain under the same roof with him.  But she did not know me, and could not be sure of my reaction.  She did not even know, before speaking to people in Minsillow, that I was Ennol’s brother.”

Sybenc considered this.  He had not thought of Deenia in years.  She was reserved and gentle, with a quiet voice.  Indeed, not someone to easily dash off into the unknown.  In daring to come here, she had rendered possible for him a life he would never have had.

He felt himself nodding slowly and came back to the present, where he met Jopta’s regard.

He nodded once more.  “I see.”

“Once Direk left and the house was empty,” Jopta explained, “Deenia went to see if anything of yours, your mother’s, remained.  She recovered the dispenser then, and kept it until I could come and fetch it.”

“So you have not had it for very long?”

“Oh, I have.  That was years ago now.  You were still living here.”

“But I didn’t know?”

“I left it with Peakatrin, Sybenc,” said Jopta.  “And I did not tell you where I was going before I went.  One of the very few times I did not tell you the exact truth.  It always seemed…” he paused, searching for the right words, “…too soon.  To remind you of your mother, I mean.  To bring back that… time.”

Sybenc finished his xelanopi, set the empty glass back down and cupped his hands around it as if it were a flame whose warmth he needed.

“As a child,” he said slowly, “I felt the grief was endless.  Ever-present.  A bottomless pitch-black pit that I was constantly at the edge of.  Then I became absorbed by music, and it filled all the space I had.  All the space and time that existed, really.  While I played, I mean.”

Jopta acquiesced.  How many times had he needed to come near his nephew, even to touching him, before the boy realized Jopta was talking to him!

“Now…” resumed Sybenc, “it is gentler, not as dense.  And sometimes happy memories come back.  There is… fondness.”

He looked up at Jopta, then away again.

“And, still, regret.”

“I have regret too,” said Jopta.  “So we share that.”

He got up, went to the trunk, lifted the lid and brought the bundled dispenser to the table.

“Oh!”  Sybenc exclaimed with delight.  “This was on my bed!”

They unwrapped the dispenser together and Sybenc folded the coverlet lengthwise and laid it over one end of the table.  Then they sat, each lost in his own reminiscence but comforted by the other’s presence.

“I will go now,” Sybenc said after a bit.  He felt calm.  The word ‘fondness’ came back to him.  There was no longer any tightness, and his head was clear.  “May I take only the coverlet?  And the orbs, of course.”

“Naturally.”

“The dispenser next time.  I am grateful that you have it, that you showed it to me, that it can find a place in my home.”

Jopta nodded at him, smiling.  “That is good, and makes me happy.”

“Again, we did not sing together, Uncle Ta.  Do you mind?”

Jopta didn’t, and said so.  “There will be many future opportunities!”

They stood.  Both crossed their arms at the wrists and clasped the other’s hands at chest height, eyes locked.

“Thank you!”

Chuckling at the unplanned unison of their voices, they tightened their hold on each other’s hands momentarily, then parted.

“I’ll walk a way with you,” Jopta said.

Nobo, hearing one of his favorite words, got to his feet, yawned and stretched elaborately.

“Let me find a sack for the bedcover.  Don’t want it to be near the orbs and take on that smell!”

“No,” Sybenc agreed.  “Rather not.  I’m curious as to whether it will change once they are with me.  What was the name of the woman who made them, again?”

“Ish.”

“Ish,” he repeated, committing it to memory in case of future need.

Chapter 12

Jopta pulled each red berry delicately from its core and placed it either in a basket or a large pail.  The pail contained the fruit destined for xelanopi.  The light, wide basket was for the biggest, most perfect ones he found.  They would look beautiful against the shiny wood of the dish Lumdeen had artfully recrafted.  He thought Venja might appreciate fresh raspberries more than liquor, and hoped he was making the right choice.

He worked steadily for well over an hour, the sun warm on his back, pausing twice for a drink of water.  Nobo had first roamed afield, then come to lie nearby in the shade, at the base of a tree.  Now and then a fly buzzed past, a bird called or sang, the breeze stirred the long grasses.

When he was satisfied with the quantities of fruit he’d gathered, he brought both containers to the shade of Nobo’s tree, and sat down as well, leaning against the trunk.  He drank again, and offered the dog water in the cupped palm of his hand.  He was pleased with his harvest and looked forward to what he would do with the raspberries, but also was content to simply sit there and rest for a while.

His thoughts drifted.

Jopta wondered where Sybenc had placed the dispenser.  He’d come back for it only a few days after their dinner.  Were the orbs changing?  He was grateful to be rid of them.  Taking advantage of the warm weather, he had given the house a thorough cleaning, left the door and windows wide open for the better part of a day to air it out, and had even turned his mattress over.

Nobo raised his head, alerted by a smell, or sound, that Jopta could not discern.  His remained alert for a few seconds, then lowered his head to rest on his front paws again.

Ennol loved this place.  As children, with their mother and Damna Telliot, they came at least twice during raspberry season every year.  He smiled to remember the feeling of the berry on his tongue, held as loosely as possible.  The game was to see who, between Ennol and him, could keep it there the longest.  They peered regularly into each other’s mouths to verify if the berry was still there.  She was older, but more impatient: Jopta often won.  He had been very proud of that.

In honor of the game, his sister, the ruby fruit and time gone by, he chose a large berry from the pail and popped it into his mouth.  He would see how far he got with it!  Then he stood, picked up the pail and the basket and looked at Nobo, who got up as well.  They started back.

He went out again in the late afternoon, alone, carrying the basket in one hand and the dish in the other.  The berries did look beautiful against the polished wood, but carrying them to Venja’s cottage in the wide, shallow bowl was impractical.

He had not written a note, which he deemed impolite in this circumstance.  If she were not home, he would simply leave everything on her doorstep and go back the next day.

Venja was working in her front garden.  She saw him approaching, felt her face get hotter yet because she was sweaty and in work clothes, then reminded herself sharply that he was spoken for already and firmly pushed down the inner voice that suggested such things could also change.

She quickly and surreptitiously wiped her face off with her shirt as she got up from her knees, and went to hold the gate open for him.

“Jopta!  Welcome!”

“Thank you, Venja.”  He stepped into the garden.  “I wanted to bring you something to show my deep – and long-overdue – appreciation for what you did.”

He held both the basket and the dish out to her.

“Oh!”

She took the dish first, with both hands, and admired it.

“It’s beautiful.”

She ran her index lightly around the edge, then felt the smooth underside with her open hand.

“The carved rim is Lumdeen’s work,” Jopta told her.

“Ah, yes,” she replied.  “He is a master craftsman!”  She smiled at Jopta.  “I do not deserve such a gift, and I am very grateful!”

Holding the basket out again, Jopta said, “I first wanted to present you with raspberries.  On something pretty.  But to carry them here, a basket was more practical.”

Venja’s eyes went wide and she smiled broadly.  “I love raspberries!  They will be the first this season.”

Bending closer as she took the basket from him, she added, “And these are specially wonderful ones, Jopta.  Thank you so much.”

Chapter 13

Venja heard the knock on her door and breathed in and out once very deliberately, to steady herself before she opened it.

He was alone, except for Nobo, of course.

She greeted him and invited him in, saying she was all but ready.

“Oh, thank you, Venja, but we’ll stay here.  It must have rained during the night, so Nobo’s wet from the grass,” Jopta told her.

She nodded, turned to put the last few things into her knapsack and shrugged it onto her back.

“Ready!”

It was a perfect morning, pleasantly warm, fragrant from the night’s rain.  Puffy clouds drifted in a blue sky and they could hear birdsong.

They fell into step together, easily matching their gaits.  Conversation was not quite as simple, Venja wondering how to broach the subject of Ish in order that there be no misunderstanding, Jopta ever eager to gain her approval.  She asked how long he had lived in Minsillow, which brought them to comparing childhoods.  Venja’s family was Reemish; she had moved away as a young midwife, there being two midwives established in Reem already at that time.

“Besides seeing family more often, what I miss the most is the river,” she said.  “I go back at least once every summer, to be in the water.”

Jopta imagined her in the water and felt the quick rush of desire.

“I envy you.  I never learned to swim.”

“Mmm.  Of course, here…”

They walked for a time without saying anything, then found other topics of conversation.  The earlier tension progressively lessened, though Venja remained on her guard.  In due time, a fair distance up the mountain already, they found a good spot for lunch.  Nobo flopped down, happy to  take a rest.

First Venja and then Jopta went off into the trees to relieve themselves.

“Well!” Jopta said when he came back and saw the amount of food set out.  “We can camp for several days!”

Keeping her tone as light as she could, Venja said, “I thought Ish would come.”

“Ish?”

He was clearly astonished, which Venja did not understand.

“She doesn’t enjoy walking, or the mountain?”  she asked, simultaneously wondering how that could be.  How else did she get her materials?

Jopta sat down, looking closely at Venja, completely bewildered.  “Ish?” he repeated.  “I have no idea.  Why did you think she would come with us today?”

“Because you…  I thought…”  There was no alternative: it had to be asked.  “Aren’t you together?”

Jopta’s eyes grew very wide and then he squeezed them shut and shook his head energetically to rid it of this horrible thought.

“No!”

Again peering at her, he asked, “How did you get such an idea?”

She detected an edge to his voice.

“I was walking to town a short while after your accident and I saw Ish in front of your house.  Her love gestures left no doubt about her relationship with you.”

Love gestures??”  He was incredulous.

Venja described exactly what she had seen.

Jopta was torn between anger and amusement.

“I remember that visit,” he said.  “I think I can explain.  But,” he continued with a spreading smile, “I would be very grateful if we had some of this feast first!  To give me courage!”

“Of course!  Please, help yourself!”

Nobo came closer to investigate the source of delicious smells.

“Oh,” Venja said to him, “I’m sorry boy.  I brought all this and didn’t think of you!”

Jopta laughed.

“Don’t be taken in by him,” he reassured her.  “He doesn’t need anything to eat now.”  Looking at his dog, he continued, “People food is for people.”

Nobo wagged his tail in response to their attention.

Jopta complimented Venja on the potted meat, the cheeses, her homemade pickle and bread.  Then he told her what had led to Ish showing up, beginning with his uncertainty about what to give Sybenc for his 28th birthday.  He described the search for star-tree pods, his fall, the sensation of terrible cold.

As she listened, Venja felt herself relaxing.  She was moved by his honesty and willingness to share in such detail.

He had brought water, but also a small bottle of xelanopi, that he brought out to serve with Venja’s sweetcakes for dessert.

“To clarification,” he said, raising the cup toward her.

“Accord,” Venja replied, “and to good fortune.”

They sipped.

“Oh, Jopta!  I have never tasted such marvelous xelanopi!”  Her mouth was full of a smooth, rich sweetness.  “I was never particularly fond of the cordial.  But I understand now that was because I never had a master’s!”

The warmth Jopta felt inside went well beyond the effect of a single sip of liquor.

He inclined his head, then lifted it again and looked at her.

“It means a lot to me that you like it, Venja,” he said earnestly.

Their eyes remained locked for a moment, then he continued, “Let me tell you the rest of the story from my point of view.  Will you also tell your part?”

She nodded.

He picked the story up and went on.  At the moment of the narrative when he’d thought of wedding vows he paused, ostensibly to take a drink, considering.

He put his cup on the ground.

“As we were coming down the mountain…”  He stopped and cleared his throat, then resumed, “I thought of this, to express my… feelings.”

He placed one hand flat against his chest and covered it with the other, then turned them together, palm up, still against his body.

Again, their eyes locked.

Venja’s heart beat hard and, as his hands extended toward her, she felt tears come to her eyes.  Time stood still.

She stretched her own hands out toward him.  Jopta took them both, gently.   She remembered how it had felt to cradle his head.  Her entire body longed to be against his, held by him.

Jopta saw her eyes shine and tightened his grip ever so slightly.  He wanted to pull her closer, kiss her, make love to her.

“You are beautiful.”

It was out of his mouth before he’d considered it and he felt himself blushing, but also realized he didn’t have the slightest regret.

Venja laughed, slowly withdrew her hands and said, shaking her head, “You have had too much to drink!”

“I can assure you I have not!” Jopta protested, feigning indignation.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” responded Venja, matching his banter, “have I committed the terrible error of hurting your masculine pride?”

Jopta turned aside and said, “You see, Nobo?”

 

The dog lifted his head and looked from one to the other, then got up and came toward his master.

 

Jopta scratched him behind the ears with both hands and nodded at him.  “This is why we have to stick together!”

 

Venja laughed.  Then she said in a warm voice, “He certainly served you well by coming down the mountain in search of help that day.”

 

“That’s the truth!” replied Jopta.  “Did he come to your door?  Or were you in town and saw him there?  Tell me what happened.”

 

For the briefest moment Venja wondered if he was trying to avoid talking about Ish outside his own house, then she set suspicion aside and began to explain.  When she came to making an eldbol, Jopta interrupted.

 

“You have skill with eldbols?  Oh!  Would you show me how you do that work, one day?”

 

“Yes,” she said, “provided that you let me watch you make xelanopi.  One day.”

 

“Of course!  With pleasure!”

 

Venja concluded her account and suggested that they continue walking.

“Further up, or back down?”  she asked.

“I’m happy to begin the descent,” replied Jopta, “if you are.”

They gathered the things from their meal, put their packs on again, and started their leisurely way home.  They shared their impressions of the last time they had been walking down that path together, then Jopta told her about Ish’s visit, embellishing the young woman’s fear of Nobo just a bit, and miming her gestures, though without malice.  Venja showed him what she’d seen Ish do as she stood outside the house, and they laughed about that together.  She decided that when she went to visit him next, whether it was to watch him make xelanopi or not, she would bring him her intended gift.

As they neared Venja’s cottage, they agreed on a day for Jopta to come back and on when she would go over to his place.

At the gate, she said, “Will you come in?”

“Thank you, but I should be getting home now.”

“Alright.  I had a lovely time.”

He leaned in then, and kissed her.

Drawing away again, his eyes fixed on hers and his entire body suffused with warmth and well-being, he said, “As did I.”

He began walking away, slowly, turning back to look at her and smile every few steps.  At a certain distance he stopped, faced her and waved.  Venja waved back.  He continued, his steps light and easy, and began to hum as tunes that came into his head.  She remained at the gate, even long after he disappeared from her sight, smiling in his direction.