The Jher village, if that word could be applied so loosely, was as nearly invisible as could be made. Shelters for fifty or more people had been erected out of limbs and branches, bark and leaves. Each was dug into the earth and was shaped like a shallow dome. If there had been no people standing in front of these simple abodes or peering from the narrow slits of doorways, Quentin could have passed right through the rude village and never had an inkling he had been there.
The footprints in the snow on the ground told a different story.
The snow had been compacted by the constant tramping of many feet. It appeared that the Jher had been living in this part of the forest all winter, as indeed they had. Hunting and trapping in the northernmost reaches of Pelgrin, they had established a winter camp in the forest. They would move again in the spring when they returned to their usual habitat —the Wilderlands of Obrey.
Seeing them now in the full light of day, Quentin wondered what he had feared from them in the long night when they had stood at the edge of the campfire’s light. All night they had held their strange vigil, faces shifting slightly as one would go and another appear to take his place. He had imagined all sorts of horrible tortures at their hands. But looking now at their broad brown faces, their finely formed yet sturdy features with their clear, untroubled brown eyes, which seemed wise and all-knowing, Quentin was ashamed he had thought ill of these simple folk.
When dawn had come, the leader, who called himself Hoet, had advanced to the campfire where Theido and Durwin stood waiting to receive them in whatever manner they presented themselves—in war or in peace. Then, quite inexplicably, Durwin had startled everyone, not least the Jher tribesmen, who hooted in amazement, by speaking a few halting words in their lilting, singsong tongue.
Durwin had turned to the others, then addressed them sheepishly. “I am sorry, my friends. I should have told you all sooner that we had nothing to fear from the Jher. But I thought it best to remain on our guard, for it has been long since I encountered any of them about in this part of the forest, and many changes have taken place in the world. I could not be certain what reception we faced. But it is as I hoped—they welcome us as friends.” He had then faced the Jher leader and spoken again in that strange tongue.
Hoet had signaled excitedly to his companions, about a dozen in all, and they had proceeded to murmur together in astonishment at the wonder they beheld—a stranger speaking their language.
And wonder it was. The Jher were a wandering people. Simple, uncomplicated, their ways had not changed much in a thousand years. They built no cities, erected no altars, neither read nor wrote their own language. They were older even than the hated Shoth; older than the land, for all anyone knew. Where they had come from was a mystery long past discovering—one of the many which, like bark grown thick around an ancient oak, surrounded these shy people.
They were seldom seen in the region of Askelon anymore. Civilization forced them farther and farther north and east into the Wilderlands. Few city dwellers ever encountered the gentle Jher, but the peasants living close to the northern edges of Pelgrin glimpsed them on rare occasions. Sometimes they would not be seen in a region for a generation or more and then suddenly appear just as before.
The Jher were a peaceful, timid people who had no enemies, except the brutal Shoth whom they hunted like the deer they lived upon. It was a marvel these unassuming beings could fight at all; they did not seem capable of conflict. But they had among their surprising traits an inbred hatred for the last of their ancient enemy.
Durwin sat in consultation with Hoet, the Jher chieftain, in the midst of the small clearing. Quentin could tell the going was very slow. The same words were repeated over and over, with many gestures and lapses into confused silence. But Durwin seemed to be making headway. He nodded more frequently and seemed to ask questions less often. All this Quentin wildly inferred, since nothing in the Jher speech seemed like words in the ordinary sense. It was more a random uttering of forest sounds and nature imitations than real language. And yet, to Quentin’s ears it was strangely beautiful and even moving, for in it he heard the gentle sounds of the earth as it moved through the seasons, of trees in the wind, of water slapping stone, of animals playing. The language of the Jher was filled with the beauty of the forest and its creatures.
While the two leaders tried to understand one another, Quentin established contact in his own way: gawking unashamedly at the strange people who had gathered around them. The Jher just as boldly stared back, pointing at the outlanders (their term for anyone who was not another Jher) and coveting their horses and steel knives.
The Jher, Quentin decided, were a compact race, tending more toward grace than bulk. They possessed smooth, well-formed bodies, lithe rather than muscular—again, like deer. The Jher had so long lived with the deer, they had become like them; it struck Quentin that they even looked like deer, with their large, dark, fathomless eyes, deep as forest pools and as calm.
They wore deerskin clothing, sewn of deer-gut thread with deer-bone needles. They ate venison and burned deer fat in their lamps made from the skulls of deer. The race had become wholly dependent upon the deer for survival and followed them wherever the nimble animals went, running with them through the seasons.
On any of the crudely decorated items of clothing or personal possessions Quentin happened to see were usually pictures of deer, painted, scratched, or carved into the item. Or perhaps a representation of the sun, which they also revered.
And the people had the same quick instincts and lightning reactions as the shy forest creatures. That, coupled with their acute awareness of their surroundings, made them invisible to the loud, clumsy white races who tramped through the forest unaware that there might be other living souls as close as the larch they passed under.
Quentin was engaged in making hand signals with several of the braver Jher children who had gathered around when Durwin rose and shuffled back to where the rest were seated on deerskins in the snow, awaiting the outcome of the parley.
“Hoet says that we are marked for death,” announced Durwin, who quickly realized his blunder by the stricken looks of anguish appearing on his comrades’ faces. “Oh no! Not by the Jher. Oh my! No. Forgive me—I have been trying to piece together the story and did not realize what I was saying.
“Hoet says that we are being followed by Harriers, which we know. However, the Harriers were closer than we had guessed. Last night should have been our last. He said that was the reason they stayed with us through the night, watching, lest the Shoth try to take us. Without our knowing it, we have stumbled very close to their winter village, and they did not want any Shoth coming so close to them.”
“So they protected us through the night, did they?” said Theido. “I am grateful for their aid. But what will happen when we leave here? The Harriers will be waiting for us behind the next big tree we pass.”
“We have discussed that,” replied Durwin. He smiled and inclined his head toward Hoet, who stood a few paces away. Hoet repeated the gesture. “Hoet says he will give us a bodyguard and a guide to lead us away from the Shoth by ways known to them.”
“How many men will go with us?” asked Trenn. His eyes scanned the group for likely conscripts. “Five or six of the bigger men should be adequate, I think.” In his soldier’s brain Trenn had already formed them into a fighting contingent and outfitted them with the helmets, bucklers, and hard leather armor of foot soldiers.
Durwin looked a little confused. “I cannot say how many Hoet intends to send with us.” He turned and went back to where the chief was standing, arms folded, chin resting on his breast. They put their heads together and began discussing again, hands groping as if to pull words out of the air. Finally, Hoet turned and whistled and waved his hand toward a group of men who were standing by the horses, admiring the animals, tack, and gear. A slender young man, not much older than Quentin, came gliding over and presented himself to Hoet, who presented himself to Durwin.
“Here is our bodyguard and guide,” said Durwin, returning with the youth.
“What?” exploded Trenn, flabbergasted. His eyes started out of his head, and his mouth hung open. The young Jher did not seem a fair match even for one of his own people, let alone three blood-lusting Harriers.
“This is Toli,” said Durwin, introducing him to the others. Then he went around the group, saying each person’s name. Toli did not attempt to duplicate the sounds. He merely smiled and nodded politely.
“When do we leave?” asked Theido with a sigh. He, too, had his doubts about the Jher bodyguard. He cast a quick glance overhead to see that the once-clear sky had become overcast while they waited for Durwin and Hoet’s deliberations to run their course.
“Hoet suggests we sleep now. We can leave tonight. He also says not to worry; Toli will show us a secret way past the Wall that he claims the Shoth do not know.”