Deep in Pelgrin’s green heart, Toli paused beside a spring that trickled out from a hillock of white stone into a crystalline pool. He slid from the saddle and led Riv to drink, then knelt down himself and cupped water to his lips. The westering sun tinted the sky with evening colors of dusty gold and pale violet, flaming the woodland greens and burnishing the boles of towering chestnut and hawthorn with a gleam like bronze.
Soon night would cover the forest with her dark wing, and he would have to find a sheltered hollow or a dry thicket for the night. But something drew him on, tugged at him gently, urging him to go just a little farther.
Do not stop, it whispered in the boughs around him as the evening breezes stirred the green-gold leaves. Ride on.
So after a last drink from the pool, Toli heaved himself back into the saddle and pushed on, sending his senses ahead of him to sift the air for a clue—a sound, a flicker or color, a scent borne on the air— anything that would tell him what had pricked his instincts and was drawing him forward.
It has been too long since I was in the wild, he reflected. My skills have grown dull. Now, when I need them most, how will I find the prince?
He rode along, bending his trail here and there through the wood, straining into the gathering twilight. He stopped, held his breath . . . What was that?
Nothing. He lifted his hands to send Riv forward once more, then hesitated.
There it was again: a soft chirrup, faint as the whirr of insect wings on the breeze. Toli waited for it to come again, and when it did, he knew beyond all doubt what it was.
How long has it been since I have heard that sound? he wondered. Then, placing his hand at the side of his mouth, he answered the call with his own— not as softly or skillfully done, but remarkably similar. He repeated the call once, twice, and climbed down from the saddle to wait, his heart thumping against his ribs.
Through a stand of slim young beeches, stepping noiselessly among the low-hanging branches they came: three Jher kinsmen dressed in skins and wearing deerhide pouches at their waists. They hesitated when they saw Toli, but he made no move toward them, so the forest dwellers advanced.
“Calitha teo healla rinoah,” said Toli when they had come as close as they would. In his native tongue it meant, “You have come far south this leaf time.”
“The deer,” the foremost Jher replied in the lilting speech of his people. “It has been dry in the north forest.” He paused and regarded Toli shrewdly. “I am Yona.”
“I am Toli.”
The three Jher glanced among themselves, excitement mirrored in their deep brown, liquid eyes. “Yes,” said the leader. “We know. We have been watching you and recognized you. Everyone knows of Toli.”
“How many are with you?” asked Toli.
“Forty men and their women and children,” Yona replied. “It is very dry in the north.”
“Here in the south,” put in one of the others, “the deer are fat and run slow. Three tribes are with us.”
“Have you room for one more before your fire this night?”
The three looked at each other, smiled at one another with huge, toothy grins, and hooted in amazement at their good fortune. They all but stumbled over themselves to be the first to lead him back to the Jher camp.
The campfires were lit, and venison roasted on spits over the flames, wafting a tangy scent among the trees and dome-shaped dwellings made of deerhide, bark, and twigs. Toli had not encountered another of his race for many years, and he walked into the Jher encampment as one walking back into his own past. Nothing had changed. Every detail of life for the nomadic forest people remained the same—the deerskin clothing; the meals prepared over open fires; the sparkling dark eyes watching everywhere; the timid children clutching their mothers’ legs; the old men squatting before the flames, instructing the young boys in wood lore—all was exactly as he remembered it, the same as it had always been.
His guides brought him to stand in the center of the camp. A good number of Jher had already assembled to see the stranger, and the sight of this Jher prince dressed in the fine clothing of the light-skinned men produced murmurs and hoots and shy pointing as they discussed him. For here was one of their own—some knew who he was and told the others—yet changed almost beyond recognition as a Jher. None of them had ever seen such a transformation.
In a moment there came a stirring at the outer fringes of the ring of onlookers, and a pathway formed through which passed a shrunken old man. He carried a long staff made from an ash sapling on which were affixed the antlers of a buck. This ancient one leaned heavily upon the staff and tottered forward to stand before the visitor. At his appearance all the other Jher became silent as they waited to see what their leader would do.
For his part, Toli waited to be received by the venerated leader, hands held loosely at his sides, eyes lowered as a sign of respect.
The old man came near and stood before Toli, drawing himself up to full height, gazing at him with quick, sharp eyes. “Toli, my son,” he said at last, using the polite form of address of an older man to a younger, “I knew you would come to us again.”
Toli’s eyes went wide with the realization of who it was that stood before him. “Hoet?” He recovered himself and said, “It is good to see you, my father.”
With that the old man threw down his staff, put his arms around Toli, and hugged him to his breast. At that moment all the other Jher, who had been watching silently, burst forth and began hugging Toli, gripping his hands and arms, patting his head and back in a great show of affection. Toli, the hero of many of their most often told and highly regarded tales and legends, had come home. Tonight would be a celebration.
A huge fire was made in the center of the village. Deerskins and woven grass mats were unrolled and placed around the perimeter, and upon each mat a large wooden bowl filled with fruit. Toli and Hoet were led to the place of honor to squat on their mat while the choicest pieces of meat were passed to them. The other Jher all found places around the fire. Little children scampered through the village, whooping and calling bird sounds to impress the royal visitor.
Hoet hunched beside his guest and gazed at him thoughtfully, patting his arm or knee from time to time as if to reassure himself that it was true after all, that Toli had returned.
When hunger had been appeased, all eyes turned toward Toli and Hoet, and a chant began, slowly and quietly at first, but building rapidly to a crescendo of Jher voices. “Thia secia!” they called. “We want a story! Tell us a story!”
As the honored guest who had been fed and pampered with ceremonious attention, it was Toli’s turn to repay the favor by telling his people a story. He stood and raised his hands above his head for silence, in the tradition of the best storytellers.
But before he could begin, Hoet stood, too, and laid a hand on Toli’s shoulder, saying, “I claim the first story in honor of our brother.”
The Jher gathered around the shining fire nodded and whooped their agreement. Toli sat down as Hoet raised his hands and began to speak. “One day long ago, in snowtime, when all the forest sleeps in white blankets, and the cold makes the deer’s coat shaggy and warm, men of the white race came to the forest on horses. They ran wildly among the trees, and noisily, for the deer fled from the sound of their passing and we heard them from far away, for they had not forest feet.
“They came near our wintering place, though they did not know this. We watched them from afar, and one night encircled them as they sat before their crude fire.” Here all the listeners hooted good-naturedly at the careless white travelers. “When Whinoek’s fire once more filled the earth with light, we approached these white men, and one of them attempted to speak our tongue.” Hoet laughed, and all the others laughed too. Though they had all heard this story countless times, all strained after every word as if it were uttered for the first time.
“This one, Bushface, told us of grave danger in the forest. The vile Shoth pursued them with thirsty knives and hunting birds with poison in their talons. He asked for help. In this, Bushface showed much wisdom, for surely the white men would have sunk down to their death sleep before one more night had passed.”
At this all the Jher clucked their tongues; some smacked the earth with their hands at the mention of their hated enemy’s name. “Should we help them? I asked myself. The answer was not quickly coming—it circled around me like a young deer at a forest pool. For they were white men, the same who cut down trees and kill the deer in numbers and make stone dwellings on the earth. But the Shoth are our enemy, as they are the enemy of all civilized people. So I decided to help them, for Bushface was a man with much power in him, and there was with him a woman, a kelniki”—the word meant wife of the leader—“whose hair shone like the dancing fire. I did not wish the evil Shoth to have such fine hair hanging from their spears. And with them also was a young boy in whose eyes I saw the look of one who is chosen for greatness. I knew I must help them. But how?”
Toli listened to the recital of the events that had changed his life forever, and it seemed that he was once again the young Jher sitting before the fire as he had so many times, listening to the tales of his elders and the deeds of heroes of his race. He remembered back over the years to the day when the white men had come into their winter camp; they looked cold and frightened and extremely awkward in his young eyes.
But the strangers had horses. Oh, how he had wanted to ride a horse! He could still feel the thrill of seeing the animals for the first time up close—so beautiful, so graceful they were, and strong. In his boyish heart he vowed he would give anything to ride one of those horses. So when Hoet’s gaze fell on him, he had leaped quick as a fawn to present himself for the task of leading the white men through the forest to the Wall of Stone.
Hoet had sent him then, and the rest had become legend among the people of the forest: Bushface he had come to know as Durwin, Hawknose became his friend Theido, Firehair was the beautiful Alinea, and Kenta, the boy with glory on him, he chose as his master, Quentin, now become the Dragon King.
“. . . And so he has returned this night to us,” Hoet was saying, “to his own people once again. The glory of his deeds casts Whinoek’s favor upon all of us, and we are accounted worthy.” The old chieftain turned proudly to his guest.
If they only knew how I have failed, Toli thought. Would they still receive me with celebration and feasting? No, they would feel disgrace and shun me; my name would be no longer spoken among them. I would be forgotten.
When Toli turned again to those before him, he found all eyes on him. The fire crackled, and the sparks leaped high into the night sky, glittering in all the black eyes watching him expectantly. They were waiting for him to speak now. Hoet had given him the honor of speaking last; his would be the story the Jher tribesmen carried with them to their sleep, an honor ordinarily reserved for the oldest and wisest among them, Hoet himself.
He stood slowly, unable to put his feelings that moment into words. What can I tell them? he wondered. What could I say to them that they could possibly understand?
The dark eyes watched him; a murmur arose and made its way around the ring. Will he speak? What will he say? Why does he wait? Speak, great one!
The murmur became a voice ringing in his ears: Tell them! it cried. Tell them how you have failed.
Now an awkward silence spread through the waiting crowd. Toli felt their eyes upon him. “I . . . ,” he began, then faltered. “I cannot.” He walked away from the circle of friends. The only sound to be heard was the fluttering of the fire as he withdrew into the darkness.