Authors: Lee Duigon
Orth nodded—anything to stop all this talking. He didn’t want to hear any more. So he pretended to understand and to agree, and Lord Reesh let him.
In the end they decided to seek refuge in Oziah’s Wood.
It was Martis’ idea. “From all I’ve heard,” he said, “there are no enemy warriors in the wood. No Heathen army ever went into it. Anyone we meet in there is likely to be a friend. And whether we decide to go to Ninneburky, or on to the mountains, we’ll be safer going through Oziah’s Wood.”
“Yes—let’s go there!” Ellayne said. “That was where King Ozias himself stayed, after they drove him out of Obann City. His enemies couldn’t get him there. Ever since then there’s been a blessing on the wood, my father says.”
“I’ve been there with Van,” Jack said. His stepfather, the carter, often had errands that took him a short ways into Oziah’s Wood. “It’s different from Lintum Forest. You don’t feel scared by anything in there.”
Chillith didn’t care. “Where can I go, but where you lead me?” he said. He’d now been blind for two nights and a day. “Your people in the wood will probably kill me.”
“No one’s going to kill you,” Martis said.
It was with a sense of homecoming that the children followed Martis across the Chariot. He knew a ford where the water was only ankle-deep. From the southern border of the wood, it was only a day’s journey to Ninneburky, provided you could get a ferry across the Imperial.
The bed of the Chariot was stony. Chillith would have stumbled and fallen many times without Martis’ help. Jack and Ellayne rode Dulayl, with Wytt perched atop the load on Ham the donkey’s back.
“We’re going home!” Ellayne said. “I feel like I’ve been away forever, and yet it hasn’t even been a full year. My mother will scream when she sees Wytt! She might even faint.”
But for Jack there was only Van to come back to, and he wasn’t looking forward to that. He hadn’t once missed Van, and he was sure Van hadn’t missed him. On the whole, he’d rather go back to Obann where Obst was and Helki.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Ellayne said. “Cheer up! Do you think you’re going to go back to that old pill of a carter, after what we’ve done? Don’t you know we’re going to be famous? More famous than Abombalbap!”
Jack didn’t even know what “famous” meant. There weren’t any famous people in Ninneburky. He was just the carter’s stepson. He and Ellayne had carried out the mission God had given them, and now it was over.
“First thing,” Ellayne said, “you’re going to come and live with us. Once I tell him about you, my father will want you to. Martis can live with us, too, if he wants.”
“And what about Chillith?” Jack said. “Won’t it get kind of crowded in your house?”
“No—not Chillith. Martis can figure out what to do with him.”
Hard on Chillith, Jack thought. But then the whole business was just silly.
“I’m not going to let you be unhappy, Jack.”
“I’ll be unhappy if I want to.”
“You’ll see what a fool you are, when they have a parade for us.”
Jack didn’t bother to answer.
Martis hurried them along, and by noon the next day they were under the eaves of Oziah’s Wood. It was mostly oak trees, and all their leaves were gold. Jays greeted the travelers with raucous music. Helki would have said they were complaining.
“We have woods like this in my country,” Chillith said. “I remember the smell of them, and the birds sound just the same. But I’ll never see any of it.”
“You have to trust in God,” Ellayne said. “You’ve been a bad man, Chillith. God could’ve struck you dead, but He didn’t. And that makes me wonder if He’s saving you for something else. Something important. You may be blind, but you’re not dead.”
“The blind man is rebuked by children,” Chillith said. Ellayne wanted to say she was sorry, that she hadn’t said it to be mean; but something made her hold her peace. Even so, she believed in what she’d said. Hadn’t God sent her and Jack up to the top of Bell Mountain? And to all kinds of other places she never would have dreamed of going to. Why shouldn’t God do things like that with Chillith?
“Someday, Chillith, I’ll tell you the story of my life,” Martis said. “Whatever you’ve done, I’ve done worse. I didn’t believe in God for most of my life; but now I know I never take a breath without Him. That’s how I live.”
“When didn’t you believe in God?” Jack asked.
Martis smiled. “When I was a servant of the Temple!”
There were paths all throughout Oziah’s Wood, some of them nearly as wide and well-traveled as country lanes. Hunters, trappers, and loggers used them. Martis stuck to a beaten path that led toward the center of the forest. When the day drew to a close, they made camp on it.
They’d just gotten their fire going when two buckskin-clad woodsmen came up the path from the opposite direction. Martis waved to them.
“Come and sit with us,” he said, “and tell us the news of the wood.”
“We will, once you tell us who you are and what you’re doing here,” said the elder of the two men, a greybeard.
“Not much to tell,” said Martis. “There’s a war on, and we’ve come here to get away from it. We’re from Caristun. My name is Martis, and these are my grandsons, Jack and Layne.” They kept Ellayne’s bright blond hair cut short and said she was a boy. It was safer that way: Jack and Ellayne had come to that conclusion themselves long before they’d met Martis.
“What about him?” said the younger woodsman, clean-shaven. “He looks like a Griff to me.” The hair on Chillith’s head was growing back.
“He is,” Martis answered, “but there’s no harm in him. God has stricken him blind, so we’ve been taking care of him. His name is Chillith.”
The two strangers exchanged a look. “You won’t mind if we’re careful about this,” the older man said. “All of us here in Oziah’s Wood have sworn an oath together to keep the enemy out. If any Heathen do get in, we make sure they don’t get out again. My name is Bibb, and this is Deffit. We’re scouting for a band of rangers camped not far from here.”
They sat down by the fire, declining offers of food. They had plenty of their own, they said, without borrowing from travelers. The wood fed them in abundance.
“We caught a Heathen rider, just the other day,” Bibb said, “but we can’t get any sense out of him. He doesn’t understand our language, and we don’t know what he is—not a Griff, not a Wallekki, nor any kind of Heathen we’ve ever seen before. We’d string him up, but first we’d like to know what he was doing here.”
“I speak Wallekki,” Martis said. “I might be able to get something out of him, if he speaks it, too.”
“I speak many of the languages of the East,” Chillith said.
“Well, then, that’s a piece of luck for us,” Deffit said. “We won’t ask you to break camp, after you’ve been hiking all day and you’re all settled down for the night. But tomorrow morning you can pay us a visit.”
“We’ll be happy to,” Martis said.
“Good!” Bibb said. He got up again. “Just keep to this path, and we’ll meet you and guide you to our camp. Some of our lads will be on patrol during the night, so you and your kids can feel safe. We’ll go on ahead now and tell our friends about you. Come on, Deffit.”
After the rangers left, Chillith said, “They’ll probably want to hang me, too, along with their prisoner.”
“We won’t let them,” Martis said.
“And anyhow, they’re not like that!” Ellayne said. “My brother is a logging foreman, and he comes here all the time. So I ought to know.”
Chillith shrugged. “War is war,” he said.
They spent a peaceful night. In the morning Bibb met them on the trail and led them up a side path.
Ten rangers had a camp in a clearing by a little brook, living in tiny makeshift cabins. A few deerskins were stretched on frames to dry. A couple of donkeys and a horse were tethered to a line between two trees. Ham, the donkey that Jack and Ellayne had taken from a tinker who’d tried to sell them into slavery, brayed a greeting to the other donkeys.
Somewhere nearby, Jack and Ellayne knew, Wytt was watching over them from a hiding place in the underbrush. It was a good thing, Jack thought, that the rangers didn’t have a dog.
The men, having been told to expect visitors, were all waiting for them and for news of the outside world. Sitting on the ground with his wrists and ankles bound was the prisoner, silent and impassive. Bibb introduced the newcomers.
“We have trappers’ tea, if you’d like a cup,” he said. “And then we can get down to business.”
It was good to be here, Jack thought, as he sipped his tea—better than home. Maybe when the war was over, he’d become a ranger. It was good to hear men talking who sounded like they’d grown up in Ninneburky, and a few of them probably had.
“Are you ready to try to talk to the prisoner?” Deffit said, after they had all had tea. “I don’t think he’s in a chatty mood; but then he never is.”
“If I could see him, I would know what he is,” Chillith said. “Men of many nations have come west over the mountains. He must belong to one of them. Take us to him.”
Martis and Deffit led him to the prisoner, Jack and Ellayne following with the rangers. The prisoner glared up at them. He was a small man, dark and wiry. Chillith sat down in front of him.
He tried several languages, and then one of them turned out to be right, and the prisoner replied. They exchanged some words together.
“He is of the Shoto people,” Chillith said, “from the western shores of the Great Lakes. His name is Arvaush.”
“Ask him what he was doing in the wood,” Bibb said.
Chillith asked and got an answer. Then their talk became more lively—back and forth at first, but soon the prisoner was doing all the talking, and Chillith all the listening. The Griff sat as motionless as a stone, taking it all in.
Sweat began to show on his face. The muscles around his jaws clenched themselves. The rangers grew impatient.
“For heaven’s sake, what is it?” Deffit cried. “What’s he telling you? Out with it, man!”
Chillith seemed not to hear him. Martis knelt beside him and grasped his shoulder. The Griff flinched, then turned to him, wide-eyed even in his blindness.
“Martis! The boy’s dream—it was even exactly as he dreamed it—”
“Tell us what the man was saying, Chillith.”
Chillith shuddered. He licked his lips, which had gone dry.
“This man, Arvaush, was at the siege of Obann,” he said. “The Thunder King’s army is no more, even as Jack dreamed it the night I was struck blind. This man saw everything. A monster like a walking mountain came out of the river and destroyed the army. Thousands were killed, and thousands more scattered in all directions. Arvaush was bringing the news eastward, and he entered this forest as a shortcut.
“The city stands. It is a miracle! Our troops were in the city, thousands of them. They opened the gates to the army. They burned the great Temple of the Obann God. And yet the city stands, and the great army is no more.”
He stopped to take deep breaths. His face had gone deathly pale. Around him the rangers stood as men transfixed.
“What do you mean, they burned the Temple?” Martis said.
“The rulers of the Temple let our warriors in by secret passages: that was how they got into the city. That was the plan. To create panic in the city, they set fire to the Temple. Then they opened some of the city’s gates from the inside. Warriors came storming in. The city should have fallen. But the great beast came out of the river and made the army mad with fear. It had a boy riding on its back—at least that’s what Arvaush thinks he saw. Warriors slew each other by the thousands, trying to escape.”
“Wait!” Martis cried. He looked as though he was going to faint, Ellayne thought. “The rulers of the Temple let the Heathen in? Is that what you said?”
“Arvaush says so,” Chillith answered. “And a week ago he overtook a coach traveling east, protected by riders under the command of a mardar. In that coach was a passenger. Arvaush saw him: an old man, fat and white-haired, with a wrinkled face. It was the First Prester of Obann—the mardar said so. They were taking him to Kara Karram, where the Thunder King has built a new Temple. It’s been many years in the building and is finished now. Maybe the old man is to be First Prester there and a servant of the Thunder King. That would be his reward for betraying the city.”