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Three Years Ago

Chapter Text

Dromichaetes was tired. His face felt oddly stretched from smiling, and his back and neck hurt. Not for the first time, he thought longingly of his letters. Three fat envelopes and one tantalizingly slim, lemon-scented scroll had arrived that very day. He had been looking forward to sitting down with them when Lym, the miller’s youngest, had come scampering up the hill to tell him she’d seen a Banunu behind the breadcrust tree, and a bit of silver twig on the forest floor. It’s your turn, nana said, the child had had the nerve to remind him. So now, Drom was standing around the edge of the forest, trying to coax the exasperating little creatures to come to their senses.

Not that fodders had much sense to begin with. But they had always been—Drom searched his mind as he scanned the milling crowd of silvers and golds—reliable. Yes, that was the word. They were reliable. They always came marching out of the forests (or down the mountain or up the beach, as it might be) at just the right time, offering themselves to folk who were ready to grow. That had always been the way of it, that was what fodders lived for. What was causing this lot to behave as fickle as a flageolet, Drom had no idea.

“Big Brother,” he repeated soothingly to the nearest gold. “The town is ready for you. All Charlie Glass awaits your arrival.”

“You are a gift, and in receiving, we give one in return,” a voice intoned easily. Startled, Drom whirled around and beheld a familiar figure in well-worn claret leathers. Sholehani had crept up behind him without so much as a how-do-you-do; the old gatherer always moved silent as a coasting owl. Drom wished she would snap a twig or two for courtesy, but at the moment, he was relieved that someone who knew the old words was here.

“They won’t come,” he told her under his breath. “Not one of them. Instead they keep saying—“ Sholehani made a shushing gesture and Drom snapped his mouth shut. Half-dragons! You could live beside them a thousand turns, but they still thought they were better than you. He had half a mind to go home and leave the haughty old woman to sort out this puzzling mess, but she would likely consider that shirking. Sholehani could get a mite zealous about work ethic. She’d once put an arrow through a mason’s elbow when she’d caught him skimping on the mortar. Drom had no wish to sacrifice a joint, especially one that affected his penmanship. It was bad enough that the fodders were unaccountably refusing to leave the forest, and folk were waiting in town wondering why he, Drom the First Rumormonger, was taking so long to lead them down.

“You are the forest made free, the stone that speaks,” Sholehani was saying to the golds and silvers. “You are the essence of Texel the land, ever seeking to fuse with Texel the folk.” The words of the old rite seemed to be having an effect. Almost every fodder had drawn closer, pointy noses turned towards her. “Big Sisters,” Sholehani nodded at the golds. “Little Brothers,” the silvers rustled in recognition, “it is time to go joyously to the fusing.”

“We not go, you come with us,” an Ikuppi piped up from the middle of the throng. “Better in the forest, best in home-caves. No hurting in caves!” The massed fodders nodded vigorously, tossing their gold and silver crowns. Drom allowed himself a moment of satisfaction as Sholehani’s impeccable brow rose. Let’s see how she liked them apples; he’d been picking them for the best part of the morning.

“Harm a power fodder?” The dragon-crone said mildly. “Tell me, what Texeli would do such a thing?”

“None. None,” the silver said slowly, as though puzzled. “No Texel folk hurt Texel land. Texeli never harm Big Sister or Little Brother.” The fodders all around him nodded then waved their frail arms in confusion.

Sholehani seized the moment to return to the inexorable cadence of the ritual. “In caves you are born. Through fields, streams, forests, and mountains you journey. For what purpose?”

“To root,” the fodders gave the ritual answer listlessly. Then, to Drom’ surprise, they toppled over like cut hay, leaving only the mouthy silver standing in the middle.

“Change coming,” the Little Brother told Sholehani stubbornly. “No more rooting, lots of tooting.” He shook his glittering crown, then darted over the prone fodders back into the forest. He was soon lost to view, but Drom could hear him calling. “Change coming! Best in caves! Go home to Mother! Home to Father!”

The gatherer and the gossip looked at each other. “Now what?” Drom asked. He was honestly at a loss. He considered it his job—no, his duty—to minutely describe any unusual occurrences, whether they be recalcitrant fodder or the depth which the parsley had sunk into the nux upon a hot day. Doing something about the situation, however, was well outside his experiences.

“Now, we fetch the folk from the town,” Sholehani answered. “The fodders have hobbled themselves already. We must hurry, but between the two of us, we shall manage to alert everyone who desires to fuse.” Drom saw her survey the clearing full of fodders with their face in the dirt, and give an involuntary shiver. She went on in a tone that seemed slightly forced in its matter-of-factness. “Folk will receive their fodder here in the forest, and probably be happier for the break in routine. Come.” The two of them set off at a trot.

A moon’s journey away along the Vast Eastern Woods, to the south of Snickering River, a broken thing lay in the Valley of the Eye. Even sheared into pieces, the powered armor dwarfed the body nestled within its curves. Already, the land was at work on an orphaned leg, coaxing the flesh and bones into their uniform essence, crumbling them into dots. Out of the fading ruin of a face, a hazel eye stared at a grey stone tower overlooking the lush valley floor, its roof topped with a rose-colored dovecote. Fingers tapped out a brief message on a dimly-lit screen. They left swirling smears of blood on the buckled surface. Then almost dreamily, the hand rose to fling the device away from the crash site, the force of the exoskeleton’s movement dislocating the shoulder with a noise like a bolt driven into green wood. The mouth opened to scream, but instead vomited forth a cascade of dots.

By the time the beacon came to rest in the tangled scrub out of sight of the watchtower, there was nothing left of the visitor except the suit. The land examined it, then retreated from the curious thing. The earth in these parts knew too little of such complex systems, but sooner or later, the knowledge would come; the folk would bring it from other parts, or the object would somehow yield its secret. Thus had it always been.

In the woods, the Little Brother still ran and called. “Change coming! Change coming!”