Fairbolt sat at his desk, glowering at the pile of correspondence in front of him. Plenty of the usual, none of what he actually wanted. Some patrol reports, a camp council report, a few applications from young patrollers looking to exchange in a northern camp, even a medicine tent report warning of a measles epidemic in a camp not too far south. They were going to need help getting through this year's patrols, but Hickory Lake was already stretched to the limit just making up for lost time last summer and with helping cover areas towards the lost camp of Bonemarsh a hundred miles west. What wasn't present was any news of Sumac Redwing, now three weeks late returning from her exchange last winter. She'd gone nearly eight hundred miles southwest, to a winter camp in South Raintree -- New Elm, as he recalled. For the first week she'd been missing he hadn't been concerned; a trip that long more often had problems and delays than not. He'd not have been too concerned the second week either, except for the other troubles that came up just then.
Regarding which, also not present was a report from that hubbub down three hundred miles to the south. About two weeks ago, mid-morning or so, a breathless courier had arrived with the news that there'd been a really bad malice emergence down along the Tripoint Trace, just south of Blackwater Mills. Laurel Gap, the nearest camp to the emergence, was overwhelmed and was calling up the entire hinterland. Seemed the malice was making flying monsters that were picking up and carrying off travelers and patrollers both. Considering how far he was away and that he couldn't possibly have any of his people arrive in fewer than two weeks even if they swapped out horses courier-style, Fairbolt figured he should either send no help or a lot of it: several companies' worth. By the time anyone from Hickory Lake could arrive there, the trouble would either be long over or it would be so badly out of control that the only hope would come from bringing many people. He'd wished he could send Dag, but last he'd heard -- and that was some months back -- Dag was on his way to Graymouth. That was farther south of the troubles than Fairbolt was north of 'em. As for Sumac, she would surely have taken the Trace on her return trip north; she might well have gotten caught up in the mess.
He'd gone over all his patrols in his mind several times over, figuring on having four patrols start out under two captains. Along the way, they could pick up two patrols that were walking sectors not too far off. That same afternoon, before he'd sent anyone, another courier had come by with the equally breathless news that the emergency was over, the malice was killed, and news would follow as soon as they'd figured out what had happened.
Since then, there'd been two weekly couriers from camps to the south. Neither had brought the news that was supposed to follow. This last delivery did include some wild rumors, it was true.... How long could it take them to figure things out, anyway? He got up, stretched out his back, and poked his head out of the door leading to the outer office. "Vion, I need messages sent to Mari Redwing and Dirla Hawk. I'm going to send them out tomorrow morning to search for Sumac, and I'd like them to be here in my office two hours after dawn."
As he stood to leave, Vion asked, "Any news from the south that I should pass on to 'em?"
Fairbolt grimaced. "No, that's why I'm sendin' 'em now. It's starting to look like waiting longer isn't going to be any use to her or us. Maybe they'll be able to send back some news if they find anything out."
Vion left, and Fairbolt returned to his desk. Looked like he was stuck with his least-favorite activity: Waiting. He remembered when he first got the job of Camp Captain. His predecessor had told him most of what he'd be doing was going to be waiting. When he said it sounded boring, his predecessor had grinned blackly and answered he'd wished it was more boring; instead it was like to give a person gray hairs. It hadn't quite had that effect on Fairbolt -- more like the fear and overactive imaginings had sent his own hair fleeing in terror. He didn't have much left now, but he figured this was like to cost him most of what was left of it. He decided to spend some time figuring out if he could do something for the camp with the measles outbreak.
Not two hours later, he'd worked out a way of shifting around the regions of the patrols he would be sending south so that he could take about four weeks of one patrol's worth of walking off the camp's load; he'd also move the summertime children's practice patrols to favor the south to help fill the gaps. It wasn't nearly as much help as they wanted, but it was all he could do. He'd written the changes to his patrol schedules down and was nearly finished penning a letter to the other camp when he felt Dar Redwing approaching patroller headquarters. He considered closing his office door and pretending to be too busy to talk. No. Sumac was his daughter. The fact that she'd volunteered to exchange south in order to get away from him and her grandmother Cumbia was no reason to hold more against him than Fairbolt already did. She'd claimed she needed to get away from the blighted matchmakers who were chasing her all over camp -- she'd even spared a glare for Fairbolt at that; he'd rather thought she also needed some time to herself to assimilate the loss of her Uncle Dag. She'd never made any secret of her admiration for him, regardless of what Dar and Cumbia thought. The news that he'd run off to live with a teenage farmer girl had come as a bad shock to her. The fact that Dar was thoroughly unpleasant in his interpretations of the events of last summer just ensured she would be wanting to get away from him as soon and as long as she possibly could.
Dar was the camp's chief knife maker. As such, he was also the camp's chief maker. There were no special responsibilities that came with being the chief maker; mostly, it meant he had a lot of influence among them. Since many more adults in camp were makers than were patrollers, a camp's senior maker was something of a natural rival to the Camp Captain. Dar took the rivalry rather more seriously than Fairbolt appreciated -- likely he'd be having to stomp on him some time soon. Again.
Dar entered Fairbolt's inner office and got straight to his point. "Why haven't you done anything about Sumac being missing? You patrollers all say the patrol takes care of its own; you need to start taking care of her."
Fairbolt answered calmly. "I have been doing things. I've talked matters over with Mari and Dirla over the last week; they've both agreed to take on the search. I was waiting for news from areas to the south before sending them out; the courier just brought the mail a few hours ago. Nothing useful, unfortunately, but I still plan to send the two of 'em tomorrow morning. I've sent messages to them both, they've replied they'll be in my office shortly after dawn. They'll be on their way out soon after." He briefly wondered what Dar would find to criticize in this -- he'd surely find something. With Dag gone, he seemed to be searching for someone else to take the blame for whatever he thought needed blaming.
Dar frowned. "Why aren't you sending a company or more? It's a long way out and if there's trouble you'd have the people you need to deal with it. She shouldn't have been off exchanging anyway -- she needs to find herself a suitable husband and start producing a family. Why'd you ever agree to her going in the first place? As heir to Tent Redwing she's too important to be sent out like this."
Fairbolt decided to stay calm. For the moment, anyway. He also decided not to try answering Dar's last question; an honest answer would be begging for a fight. "I'm only sending two people because it's a long way out. I can't send a company or even a patrol out for many hundreds of miles -- not only can't I spare the people, but it'd be worse than sending only a few. Two people can travel lightly and quickly, with enough money and supplies to keep going for quite a distance. A patrol would be encumbered by pack horses; they wouldn't be able to swap out their horses courier-style; and if there is bad trouble, they likely wouldn't be enough to handle it on their own. If the people I send are going to have to ask for help from neighboring camps anyway, they might as well be able to ask for as much as will be needed when they know what the need will be. I plan to provide them a note authorizing anything they ask for from other camps -- it'll be plain that Hickory Lake Camp will repay the expense."
Dar's frown did not improve noticeably. "There's another matter. A lot of your patrollers are refusing to carry my knives when they go out. I'm the best knife maker in the camp, they shouldn't be acting like they think there's something wrong with them. Tell them to take my knives. Some of the other knife makers are reporting that a few patrollers are even taking their bonded knives to them, asking for them to be rededicated. They're mostly refusing to do it, but they shouldn't be being asked. You should also tell your patrollers to stop playing stupid pranks. People are avoiding my bone shack because the steps smell like pig piss all the time. I can hardly stand to work there myself some days."
"I can't make people's personal choices about knives for them. If the patrollers don't feel comfortable with a certain knife, they're better off not carrying it. If no one is willing to carry one of your knives, you could tell the family that owns it to donate it for the general good of the patrol; I expect there'll be someone in a few years who won't mind carrying it. I can talk to folks about not asking for rededications, though I expect that'll trail off as they find out it rarely succeeds. As for the pranks, maybe you need to think about how much you've angered some people and try to make amends. How much work are you losing to your various difficulties, by the way? Are the other makers complaining about having too much work as a result?" A safe question, he'd have heard about it if they were. Several of the other knife makers had long complained that Dar hoarded most of the work.
"I still have about two-thirds or so of my usual business. The other makers haven't said anything. But my work is the best around; I shouldn't be being shunned by anyone."
Fairbolt pointed out, "And why shouldn't you? You cost me and the entire camp our best malice-hunter; also an extraordinary company captain. Quite a few people in the patrol were close friends of Dag's, plenty more owe him their lives. Because of your actions with the camp council, and your request to block his camp credit, he's not likely ever to return. Folks aren't going to forget that any time soon."
Dar scowled. "That wasn't my fault. We needed to be rid of his farmer piglet as soon as possible. He was the one who was so besotted that he decided to just up and leave rather than give her up, and I don't see how anything could have been done better."
"Anything but what you did would have been better. I counseled patience, if you recall. You rushed in, ignored my advice, hauled a very sick man in front of the camp council, concealed important details of your plans from me, and robbed him to no useful purpose, and now you expect me not to disapprove of your actions? If you'd succeeded in keeping Dag from leaving us, I might have overlooked them. You didn't and I won't. As for you not having enough work to do, if you're looking for tasks, you might try doing some camp chores."
Dar snarled, turned around, and left, slamming the door on his way out.
Fairbolt recalled the saying 'knife makers care more about their knives than the living.' This was an unfair claim for a good number of the knife makers he'd known over the years, but it fit Dar well -- he was much more worked up about his knife-making problems than he was about his daughter Sumac having gone missing.
The following morning, Mari and Dirla entered Fairbolt's office along with Iwassa Muskrat, their company captain. Iwassa closed the door behind them. Fairbolt waved them to seats around his table. He said, "It's time to send you both south to look for Sumac. I have maps of the regions she likely would have traveled through; I also put in some extras for the areas around Laurel Gap, since I think you could be needing them. There's also an authorization to swap out horses any time you feel the need."
Iwassa added to Mari, "I'm figuring Utau Otter can lead your patrol in your absence. It's getting time to promote him to patrol leader; this'll make good practice for him."
Fairbolt then put a largish bag of coins next to the roll of maps and added, "This should be enough to cover your expenses while you're gone, but if you need more, there's also a note to other Camp Captains promising that Hickory Lake is good for anything you request."
Mari's eyes widened at that one. "Just how many resources do you think we'll need, anyway? I reckoned we'd mostly be asking questions at all the usual stops and maybe asking for help searching from whatever camp turns out to be nearest to where she was seen last."
Fairbolt said, "I don't know what you'll be finding when you get to the Laurel Gap vicinity, but it's likely the area is still pretty stirred up. Folks there might feel they're too busy to want to help much. Other problems could come up as well. Best to be sure I've given you enough."
Dirla asked, with a dubious look on her face, "Do you know anything about the malice that was supposed to have emerged around there? I didn't think they had malices of any sort much at all any more that far south, but this one sounded awfully strange. Filla from Barie's patrol just got in a few days ago, and she had the wildest tale I'd ever heard. Seems her patrol met up with one from another camp that had passed through Glassforge. The farm folk there were telling about how a malice made flying bat-monsters that carried off travelers on the Tripoint Trace. They said a wandering mage was passing through and he made magical shields that protected the farmers from the malice. The malice was flying around mind-slaving travelers, but some of the farmers with these shields snuck up on it and shot it out of the air with a bow and killed it. I'm not even sure where to start calling that story crazy."
Fairbolt grimaced. "I haven't heard much more than that, myself. Certainly nothing that I'm going to call an official report. I rather hope you and Mari will find something out about what happened down there and either send news back or scare up a report from someone to get sent here."
Behind them, the office door opened. Fairbolt looked up in time to see Sumac step into the doorway. His ground, and the others', had been closed up to this point, but he opened it now for a look. She wasn't alone. Her companions crowding behind her were nothing like what he'd have expected. Well, yes, two of them were young patrollers who were probably looking to exchange here, just as he'd figured she might bring. It was the other three who were so ... startling. One was a man with the densest ground Fairbolt had ever imagined anyone even could have. The other two were farmers, a young woman in her early twenties and another -- maybe a young man -- but the ground was hard to make out any details about. Farmers, right. Looked like Sumac was taking after her Uncle Dag after all.
Fairbolt shook his head, reached for the bag of coins, and took out a Silver Shoals silver mussel. He looked over to Mari and asked, "Being first to skin Sumac -- you want shells or city mint?"
Mari turned in her chair, saying, "What ... ? Sumac! You're back!" There was a pause while she and the others opened their own grounds and made the same discovery he had made. As they stared, Sumac and her five companions walked into the room. Iwassa's chair swung around near Fairbolt's as Mari and Dirla stood and turned. Massape, who had outer office duty today, hung in the doorway watching curiously.
Fairbolt put the coin back into the bag and asked Mari, "Is there some new Redwing patroller tradition I ought to know about, or is this a case of 'like uncle, like niece'?"
Mari closed her mouth, swallowed, and answered, "I don't know of any. Gotta admit there are some similarities. Three weeks or so late, arriving in the middle of a meeting between you and me about what to do about that lateness, in strange company, newly string-bound."
Fairbolt had missed that detail; a quick check showed the man with the dense ground had a marriage cord with a bit of Sumac's ground in it around his wrist. He was nearly as startling a sight to the eye as he was to the ground; clearly some kind of medicine maker, but cleaner and better-groomed than anyone who'd just come in from a long journey ought to be. Likely they had camped nearby and washed up at dawn, but even so.... Sumac had a matching cord containing a bit of his ground wrapped around her own wrist. He pointed out, "She doesn't seem to be married to either of the farmers, though."
Sumac spoke up at this one, with her eyes sparkling in merriment. "Well, sir, that really wouldn't have done at all. They're already married to each other, you see, and they're my aunt and uncle as well."
Her husband stirred and said, with a distinctly southern accent, "Sumac, no matter how much it amuses you to call a bunch of youngsters 'aunt' and 'uncle', I don't wish to be introduced as their nephew. That goes double for my rapscallion of an apprentice, by the way."
Mari noted, "She also doesn't have a broken bone." When Dag had shown up last summer late and with Fawn in tow, his right arm had been broken and in a sling.
Sumac said, "That was one of our other companions, Barr. He's not really ready to travel very far yet or to do any patrolling, and anyway, he reckons he'd do best to stay at his home camp."
The farmer boy she'd identified as her uncle spoke up next. "I still dunno how you avoided it. Watchin' you tumblin' down the mountain like you did, I thought sure you'd bust 'em all."
Sumac's husband clutched her hand tightly, but said nothing. She said to Fairbolt, "It is true, though, that I have a malice-and-sharing-knife tale you'll want to get testimony from my companions about. I was also thinking I'd like to cut straight to the end of last summer by addressing the camp council, resigning from the patrol," here she flashed open her ground widely enough that Fairbolt and the others could see that she was newly pregnant, "and leaving camp to go live with farmers."
Fairbolt decided he'd had enough of this. "Sumac, stop with the humor and give me a proper report. Now."
The wicked light in her eyes mostly faded and she stood straighter. "Shall I begin with introductions, sir?"
"That would be good."
She took a deep breath. "Everyone, this is Fairbolt Crow, Captain of Hickory Lake Camp. In the doorway is Massape Crow, his wife, who is a company captain here." Indicating Iwassa, she added, "This is Iwassa Muskrat; captain for the company my patrol is part of. By the table is Mari Redwing, my great-aunt and a fellow patrol leader in Iwassa's company. Next to Mari is Dirla Hawk, Mari's patrol partner."
She then began to introduce her companions. Indicating the man with the dense ground, she said, "This is my husband, Arkady Redwing. He's from New Moon Cutoff in the south, and he's a master groundsetter. Uncle Dag is his apprentice."
That got folks' attention. Dirla gasped, "Dag? Learning groundsetting? But he's not any kind of maker...." Iwassa, who'd been one of Dag's closer friends in the past, was just as astonished, but managed not to say anything foolish. Mari just looked ironic.
Fairbolt, remembering his frustrating arguments with Hoharie last summer, asked, "That ghost hand of Dag's was a groundsetter's projection, then? Hoharie said she was sure it had to be one."
The flash of anger, fury?, that passed through Arkady's ground was impossible to miss. All he said, though, was, "Yes, it is. Did anyone other than yourself and Maker Hoharie know about it?"
Mari spoke up. "I heard Dag say a bit about it last summer, but I'd understood it was gone, maybe for good, and nobody said anything about what it actually was. If anyone else knows about it here, they sure haven't said anything."
Fairbolt added, "As far as I know, the only other person is Hoharie's apprentice Othan. But she told him it was a matter for the medicine tent, and he promised not to speak of it to anyone until Hoharie said it was all right. I don't think she ever did."
Arkady was disgusted. "In that case, after this talk, I'd like to speak with you and Maker Hoharie in private. There are a few things you should know about the correct way to respond when someone begins to show groundsetter potential."
Fairbolt wondered if Arkady realized just how little control he'd had over the events of last summer. Trying to keep his people from running headlong into a ravine had felt a lot like standing in front of a stampeding herd of cattle and yelling 'Stop!' He said only, "I expect I can manage it; can't speak for Hoharie, though."
Dirla broke in by asking Mari, "Why weren't you surprised to learn Dag's studying medicine making? I'll swear you look like you half expected it."
Mari answered, "I remember when Dag was a boy, about fifteen. Such clumsy hands, no patience for making lessons, all he wanted to learn was patrolling. Most of the makers made it plain they wouldn't ever want him for an apprentice, but our chief medicine maker -- Hoharie's predecessor -- was almost in tears over him. Swore Dag had the best medicine-making ground he'd ever seen in a boy his age. Never had a chance of winning Dag over, though. Hunger wins any argument in boys that age."
Arkady's brows drew down in puzzlement. "Hunger? I haven't heard that patrol rations were ever known for being plentiful...."
Mari said, "But Cumbia's rations are tighter even than patrol ones. Always have been. And at least the patrol leaders know fast-growing boys need a lot of food to keep up their strength. Dag grew eight inches between ages fifteen and sixteen, and Cumbia fed him just a little bit more than she did when he was fourteen. She had strict rules about how much to increase rations by each year, and she never took to hearing they should be otherwise. Lots of folk were afraid he would starve -- but when they complained to Cumbia about how every time he approached they got ravenously hungry, she made it known it wasn't their business, she knew perfectly well what she was doing, and boys that age are always hungry. I gave him extra whenever I could, just like about half the camp was doing, but he had no trouble at all figuring out that as a patroller he could eat better than at home." Arkady looked horrified, but said nothing.
Massape shook her head. "That describes Cumbia with Dag just about perfectly. First she decides what she wants him to do or be -- a maker in this case; then she makes it really clear to everyone, especially Dag, that is what is to happen; then she goes and does whatever will make it the most likely he'll choose the opposite. He used to get real nasty back, but there's little doubt she started most every fight they had."
Arkady spoke up. "In any event, I'd also like to talk with Maker Hoharie about some new groundworking techniques. She should be warned beforehand that one of them is very wearing, though."
Fairbolt replied, "I can have Massape send for her" -- he considered his future good health and added -- "after the introductions are over."
Massape asked Arkady, "Anything in particular I should tell her?"
Arkady answered, "Beyond what I just said -- mostly, don't mention Dag yet. We're looking to keep that quiet for just a bit longer."
After a pause, Sumac said, "I'll go on with introductions, then. Next is Remo Lynx from Pearl Riffle Camp. He's twenty-four years old, looking to begin a two-year exchange here at Hickory. He's carrying both a primed knife and a bonded one; he has about a year and a half's experience as a senior partner; he spent several months traveling with Uncle Dag, for what that's worth...."
Iwassa gave a sly smile and said, "Quite a bit, in my experience. Up through last year, whenever families had youngsters looking for a patrol to enter, I'd get all kinds of invitations to dinners and such. The youngsters usually liked the excitement of thinking they were more like to run into malices in his company; their families liked the fact that Dag never lost his partners. I do wonder, though -- usually you like to save the most startling piece of information for last. If Dag being a potential groundsetter isn't it, I want to know what is."
Sumac continued as if she hadn't heard that last. "He also helped deal with the bandits last fall down on the lower Grace; he's done a season's exchange in the south; on the journey north he did quite a bit of scouting in very dangerous circumstances; and he took part in a battle against a new-hatched should-have-been-sessile malice that we came across walking down the Trace."
Several others in the room looked to be just as uncertain as Fairbolt was about that one. He scratched his head and asked, "New-hatched?" Sumac nodded. That didn't seem to fit the rumors well at all. True, the Laurel Gap folk hadn't seen a malice in fifty years or so, but surely they were good enough to handle one that weak? What he could see of her and her companions' grounds suggested there was more to her tale than she was claiming, but it would likely be best to let her get to the more interesting details on her own. He shook off the uncertainty and said to Remo, "That's about the most impressive set of credentials I've ever heard in an exchange patroller. You'll be sought out by every patrol leader in the camp, I'm thinking." Remo smiled slightly and ducked his head.
Sumac continued again, "Next is Rase Poplar, of New Elm in south Raintree. Here's my report on my exchange there, by the way." She reached into her bag, took out a few pieces of paper, and handed them over to Fairbolt.
He took them and asked, "Anything I need to see right away?"
She answered, "No, it's all routine." He put them on the as-time-permitted pile on the table. She then continued, "He's nineteen, and he has a primed knife on loan from the Pearl Riffle folk. He has a few weeks of traveling with Uncle Dag as well, and he's the one killed the new-hatched malice."
Fairbolt said to Rase, "That's impressive, too, you know. I think that was the same age Dag was when he killed his first one."
Rase looked a bit embarrassed and answered, "I was blight-sick for almost a week after, though."
Fairbolt asked, "Startled into opening your ground when the knife broke, by chance?" When Rase nodded sheepishly, he continued with, "I've seen that happen when someone kills a malice their first time. Never known anyone to make that mistake twice, though."
Rase said fervently, "I sure don't plan to!"
Sumac continued with, "There's another patroller planning to come in the fall. Tavia Pelican, from New Moon Cutoff. She's nineteen like Rase; she has about as much time traveling with Uncle Dag as Rase does; she did some scouting under dangerous circumstances, proving resourceful at some important times; and she took part in that battle as well. It'd likely be a good idea to put her into whichever patrol Rase goes into." Fairbolt nodded. It seemed his granddaughters were only going to get one handsome young man out of Sumac's trip this time. Sumac then indicated the farmer woman, saying, "This is Berry Bluefield; she's married to Whit Bluefield here -- I'll tell you about him, next. She was boat boss for the flatboat Uncle Dag and Fawn and Whit took down the Grace and the Gray; her name then was Berry Clearcreek and she goes by Boss Berry on the rivers."
Fairbolt asked, "Clearcreek? About fifty miles downriver from Tripoint, by chance?"
Berry nodded and asked, "You know the area, then?"
He explained, "I'm from Tripoint Camp, originally. Sometimes when we'd take narrow boats down the Grace, we'd stop there and do some trading."
Sumac continued with, "I should likely have introduced Berry first, seeing as how she's head of Tent Bluefield, where Arkady and I will be living. We are tent kin to her, after all."
Berry tossed her head and asked, "You reckon I'll be orderin' you an' Arkady around, do you? I already figured out that ordering Dag around only kinda works -- he's real obedient, does just what I need him to do without complaint ... right up till he decides there's somethin' he needs to do hisself and next thing I know he's off doin' things and I'm wonderin' what's gonna happen."
Fairbolt grinned ruefully at that one. So did Mari and Iwassa, along with Arkady. Fairbolt put in, "Normally, I'd say you'd be surprised what you'll get away with from Lakewalkers -- we learn from birth to obey the heads of our tents, but with these folk? I'm not so sure."
Sumac then said, "Last, but not least, we have Whit Bluefield. He is, in time order: Fawn Bluefield's next-older brother, Uncle Dag's tent-brother and patrol partner, and a fellow traveler down the Grace and Gray. He partnered Uncle Dag in the battle against the bandits -- Uncle Dag says he's the best captain's partner he's ever had; he also partnered Uncle Dag in the fight against the new-hatched malice and did a real nice job distracting it at a crucial moment." She then reached into her bag to pull out a rather thick stack of paper; Whit started unslinging his crossbow from his back; Berry reached into her bag to pull out a cloth-wrapped bundle. Sumac concluded by saying, "And finally, Whit Bluefield is the killer of the flying Bat Malice of the Tripoint Trace. This is my report on the two malices our group encountered on our journey north."
Five patroller mouths hung open. Sumac held the papers out to Fairbolt, wiggling them to indicate he was supposed to take them from her. As if in a dream, his hand moved forward on its own accord and took hold of the papers. He stared at them, trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with 'em. He did decide to close his mouth before something flew into it. Dirla, meanwhile, reached for the cloth bundle now sitting on his table and pulled out most of a sharing knife. The broken-off pieces remained inside the bundle. For some reason, its hilt had been carved down and feathers had been tied to the end of it. Dirla asked Whit, "So, um ..., shot it out of the air with a bow, did you?" Right, then, it had been carved into the shape of a crossbow bolt.
Whit answered, "Well, it was comin' in for a landing, see. Fawn didn't think the sharing bolt would fly so far as my regular bolts do on account of it bein' lighter, so I had to wait till it was close enough. It was also tryin' to ground-rip us as it came in, but our ground shields kept it from bein' able to." He touched a walnut lying in a string of braided hair around his neck. "These shields are proof against malices' ground-ripping and mind-slaving both, see."
Dirla asked Arkady, "I suppose you must be the mage who was handing out magical shields to farmers, then?"
Arkady grinned and said, "Nope. That's Dag. I made Berry's shield, but only after I learned how from watching him do it. I've been teaching him medicine making and groundsetting, he's been teaching me patrolling and magery."
Mouths that were starting to close fell back open again. After a few moments, Dirla managed, "Dag? A mage? That's gotta be crazier than him as a medicine maker. It's been hundreds of years since anyone's been named a mage...."
Fairbolt decided to drop the report on top of Sumac's other one. He had the people who were involved right here, and he planned to get details from them, not from a stack of papers. He looked toward Massape, who gave him a pleading look that all but said, 'do I have to go now?' He decided his future health would best be served by discussing the camp council questions before the battle ones. "Massape, would you go tell Hoharie about the new groundworking techniques? Ask her to come over at her earliest convenience, please. I'll be seeing what Sumac has in mind for this address to the camp council in the meantime."
Massape nodded and trotted out. It was plain she didn't plan to miss much of what was coming. Fairbolt looked expectantly at Sumac and Arkady. "Just what do you have in mind?"
Sumac answered, "Well, naturally we want to tell everyone about how the malice was killed. With the making playing such a big part, we reckon it'll be interesting to makers near as much as to patrollers."
Arkady put in, "It also seems folks in the north might not know as much about groundsetting as they ought. I figured I'd do well to explain how it works and then explain what magery is about. I thought I'd also mention how a particularly brilliant apprentice of mine came up with the groundwork that saved the day during the battle."
Fairbolt considered the wording of that last statement. "You going to mention his name, or not?"
Arkady smiled. "I figure they'll listen better if they don't know who I'm talking about at first. I can't leave his name entirely out, though -- the farmer marriage cord that powers the shield is going to be a dead give-away, once I get to it."
That seemed reasonable enough so far.
Sumac added, "We're actually thinking of something more like a camp meeting, with people from most of the tents present. We'd like to be sure the patrol has good representation, with whichever company captains and patrol leaders can attend. Same goes for knife makers and medicine makers -- as many as can come, anyway. Grandmama, papa -- mama too, actually -- the people from last summer's camp council...."
Fairbolt cleared his throat. "Erm, you looking for some kind of revenge here?" He wasn't sure whether to encourage or discourage this idea. Gods knew he thought folk hadn't appreciated Dag enough as things stood. On the other side, it had been over a month after Dag left before things had really calmed down enough for business to return to normal. This seemed like to stir everyone right back up again, only more so. Still, if trouble was brewing, he could likely break it up. Sumac and Arkady smiled innocently, waiting for a response. He came up with, "I reserve the right to spoil your plans if I don't like where things are headed, but I'll go along for now. Cumbia will already be there -- she got picked for the council this summer; she's head, in point of fact."
Sumac grinned. "I'm glad I've not been here! I bet she's been making the others' lives miserable." Camp council duty was not popular, and, truth to tell, Cumbia seemed determined to make sure Fairbolt would never allow her name to be picked again.
Massape returned with the news that Hoharie expected to be along in a little bit. She was getting another maker to watch over Othan and the doings in the medicine tent, since it looked like she wouldn't be doing much groundwork after she learned whatever these new techniques were. Fairbolt then sent Dirla to go over to Heron Island and Beaver Sigh to let them know there would be a meeting at noon discussing new methods in groundwork and how the flying Bat Malice was killed. Mari he sent off to go around Two Bridge Island. Sumac asked Mari to turn south from patroller headquarters -- this path being the best way to slow the knowledge's arrival at Tent Redwing. Both agreed to suggest nothing about Dag's involvement and left, casting frustrated and curious looks over their shoulders. Fairbolt asked for and got a long tale of Dag and Fawn's journey; first to the Bluefield farm, then to the Grace River, then the riverboat trip, and then their stay at New Moon Cutoff in the south. Hoharie arrived about this point; she nodded to Fairbolt and walked to the back of the room listening quietly to their description of the trip north, and to the tale of the two malices.
When all was explained to Fairbolt's satisfaction, he stood, rolled his shoulders, and suggested that most folk step out, so Arkady could do the groundwork lessons with Hoharie. Arkady asked Berry to stay. Sumac stated she was planning to take Remo and Rase's horses to Mare Island; Fairbolt figured she'd likely take the chance to talk with her mama in private.
While heading out, Iwassa spoke up. "Fairbolt, about Rase and Remo -- and Tavia when she comes, too. If you'll give them to me, not only will I take on any farmers who come by looking to try helping with the patrol, I promise to like it."
Fairbolt called over to Rase and Remo, who were nearly to the outer door. "Rase? Remo? I'd like you to meet your new company captain -- one of my best, by the by. Maybe you'd like to get to know each other a bit?"
Iwassa added, "If we head out behind headquarters, there's a bow range. I wouldn't mind trying out Whit's crossbow, while we're at this -- I like the shorter range. Can't help but think it could be nice sometimes bein' able to kill a malice without having to get within hugging distance."
Once they'd all made it out the door, Arkady sat down and handed Hoharie a stack of papers describing the making of ground shields. Fairbolt also sat back down while she read them over. When she finished with it, he had her help Berry with the making of a farmer marriage cord -- Berry grimaced slightly at the need to cut off yet more of her hair for the task, claiming she'd end up bald for sure. After that making, he showed Hoharie how beguilement worked by having her place ground reinforcements on Berry's fingers and by doing one himself. Then he had her construct the involution for the shield while placing the cord around her neck. Hoharie grunted when she released the involution, commenting, "That'll never be my favorite groundwork."
Arkady then asked Berry to go out and rejoin the others while he talked with Fairbolt and Hoharie.
Hoharie asked Fairbolt, with some suspicion in her voice, "What's this all about, then?"
Fairbolt answered, "Dag and the events of last summer, I believe. I'm guessing we're in for something of a dressing down." Arkady looked grim.
Hoharie asked, with some exasperation, "And just what's the use of this? I don't expect we'll ever get a situation like that one again, so I don't see much to gain in lessons learned. I do have things to do, after all."
Fairbolt frowned at her. "Even if there's nothing useful to gain, I'd take this for Dag's sake alone. I owe him that much."
Hoharie looked mulish. "Any debt I might have owed him was nullified when he left us."
Arkady spoke next. "As it happens, I do expect there will be some benefit to your camp. If the rest of the Redwing patrollers are anything like the three I've met, you've likely lost potential groundsetters more than once in the past."
Hoharie asked, "How about you explain that, and we'll see about the rest later?"
Arkady gave that one a frown. "If you want it now, you'll hear the rest of this, too." Hoharie nodded grudgingly. He started by asking Hoharie, "First, before last summer, did you ever think of Dag as a possible medicine maker, and second, when did you learn of his new abilities; when did you realize he was developing groundsetter potential?"
She answered, "For the first, no, not really. His ground is excellent for the job, of course, but with the missing hand, his 'I only bother to be alive so I can kill malices' attitude, and his obvious success as a patroller, it didn't seem wise to try the idea out on him. I did sometimes wonder how things would have been different if he'd been made to study medicine making instead of patrolling when he was young. With his very dense ground and long range, I did realize he might be able to develop groundsetting abilities, but nothing happened by the time he was forty and nothing kept happening for enough years later that I figured I was likely wrong. For the second ... I first learned of them the day after he arrived back in camp. He showed up in the medicine tent looking for treatment for his broken right arm. I took the opportunity to ask after his stump, and the story of how he'd reassembled a shattered glass bowl by means of what he called a 'ghost hand' came out."
Arkady broke in, "You asked about his stump? Is there something that needs care, there?"
She gave him a strange look. "The cuff rubs up blisters. He always tended to wait until they were in a dreadful state before he'd come in for treatment for them. I'd've thought you'd've seen this by now."
Arkady answered, "I've seen the stump many times -- he takes off the arm harness when he does groundwork, most of the time. I've never seen much in the way of blisters on it." After a short pause, he asked, "Has he not always been careful to wear that sock of his?"
She looked perplexed. "What sock?"
Now he looked more enlightened. "Ah. Must've been an innovation of Fawn's. He wears a light cotton sock between the stump and the wrist cuff. No more blisters. Looks like we've got some benefit already. So, go on, what happened next?"
"It was plain he was alarmed by it all. He couldn't bring out the 'ghost hand' on request, but I did manage to get a fleeting glimpse of it. I told him it was a ground projection and I promised to try to find out more about what it was. He came in a few more times over the week so I could check up on his arm's healing; he never managed to reproduce it for me, and I wasn't having any luck looking up after-effects of maimings and amputations, so there wasn't much I could tell him during those visits. It wasn't until the day before we heard about the Raintree malice that I switched to the idea that it might be a strange manifestation of an advanced maker skill. Even then, I couldn't be sure it was a groundsetter's projection until I saw him doing direct ground manipulation to break the malice's lock over in Raintree. I suppose you'd have figured it out much sooner."
He answered, "Well, yes." He displayed two ground projections, one from each hand, making it look rather like he had four hands.
Fairbolt stared and asked, "Is that what Dag's ghost hand looks like?"
Arkady put back in the right-side projection, folded down his left hand, and shifted the projection to place it coming from the end of his wrist. "More like this, at first. First time I'd ever met someone who was exclusively right-handed and exclusively left-handed. I took care of the asymmetry quickly, so he does both sides now." He brought the projection back in, reached into his bags, pulled out another set of papers, and added, "It is true, though, that groundsetter skills are poorly described in the advanced maker skills lorebook. Comes from how rare the talent is, I'm afraid. I've rewritten the chapter completely to prevent similar misunderstandings in the future. It also has a case study of Dag at the end, along with an explanation of how I brought the right-side projection out. Just in case another potential groundsetter has a broken arm the first time he or she tries to produce a projection. I'd appreciate it if you sent copies of both of these to your neighboring camps." He handed the papers to Hoharie, who nodded agreement and put them with the first set.
Arkady then asked, "After Raintree, when you knew he was developing groundsetter potential, what did you do about it?"
She grimaced and said, "First I tried to get Fairbolt to release Dag from the patrol and assign him to the medicine tent. He wouldn't do it."
Arkady frowned at Fairbolt and told him, "You should have ordered him there, with the threat of having him dragged bodily if he resisted. Why didn't you?"
Fairbolt answered with some irritation, "Look, I'm sure what you folk do is extremely rare and valuable, but I assure you a company captain as capable as Dag is just as much so. At a bare minimum, he saved hundreds of lives last summer going up against the Raintree malice; likely it was thousands or more. I doubt you've ever even treated that many people in all your life."
Arkady smiled slightly. "True enough, though the mage Dag is now may well end up saving millions over the years, in malices that don't ever get as bad as that one did. That's not the reason, though. It wasn't a matter of where he's more valuable, it was a matter of life and death for Dag. I'd think his meeting with the malice demonstrated that very well."
Fairbolt stared, not sure what he was getting at here. "What do you mean? It nearly ground-ripped him, to be sure, but any patroller faces that risk."
Arkady closed his eyes for a moment, then explained. "When he met the malice, it tried to ground-rip one of his patrollers. He tried to stop the malice by ground-ripping it back. It turned on him and returned the favor, quite a bit more effectively."
Fairbolt was stopped cold. "What?"
Arkady explained some more. "The ability to take in ground from a patient is one marker of the groundsetter's gift. When done vastly more powerfully and with no effort to be precise, it becomes a malice's ability to ground-rip."
Fairbolt was still troubled. Hoharie added, "It's just a kind of groundwork like any other. I'd not want to give up matching grounds for healing just because a malice uses the same technique to mind-slave farmers."
Arkady then added, "I expect there have been patrollers in the past whose first use of their latent groundsetter abilities emerged when they tried to do this in battle. General teaching of patrollers needs to include 'do not try to ground-rip malices'. Three reasons why it's a bad idea are: First, it doesn't kill the malice. Second, it lards the patroller's ground with contamination from the malice, which is deadly poisonous. Third, the patroller is then standing next to an angry malice with a wide open ground -- the malice will surely respond in kind. I've put a section on the topic into the groundsetter's chapter there," he indicated the papers he'd given to Hoharie.
Fairbolt nodded, "I'll certainly make sure our patrollers get taught this, though I still don't see why this means we had to pull Dag from the patrol. We hadn't known about that to warn him, and now we'll be warning all our patrollers. Where's the need?" He really wished he'd spent time pulling details of the events from Dag. At the time, it had seemed necessary to keep away from him to better deflect people -- well, Pakona Pike, mainly -- who were trying to claim conflict of interest as a means of pulling Fairbolt off the council vote.
Arkady stared at him for a moment. "That's only one way a person can try to kill himself with the talent. Once he regained the ability to do ground projecting, Dag found several more ways right off. First thing he did was he killed a mosquito by ground-ripping it. He ended up very sick for the next two days. If it'd been a scorpion or spider or venomous snake, he wouldn't have lived even one more day. He was going to try ripping a thorny tree, but Fawn stopped him -- that would also have been fatal. She pointed him to small edible things, which likely saved him several times over, I expect. He still managed to make himself very ill ripping a piece of pie. If he'd ever tried to treat someone who'd developed a tumor by ripping it as he'd been figuring to do, he'd have died soon afterwards from tumors of his own. Do I really need to tell you more?"
Fairbolt felt sick just imagining it. Sorry, Dag. "No.... Right then, pull any patrollers who show signs of groundsetting abilities immediately."
Arkady said, somewhat more conciliatingly, "There is this. Normally, it isn't quite the emergency that it was with Dag. The fact that his talent emerged so late ensured it would also do so very abruptly. Usually it takes two to three years before someone can get themselves into nearly as much trouble as he managed to do."
Fairbolt replied, "But if it's got to happen anyway, best to do it before the possibility arises. I'll remember." He sighed.
Arkady turned back to Hoharie. "So, what did you do when you couldn't convince Fairbolt to assign Dag to the medicine tent?"
Hoharie answered, "Tried to convince Dag to take up medicine making, what else? Not that I had any success there, either."
"Why not? Was he not interested?"
Hoharie grimaced and answered, "Oh, he was plenty interested -- as long as I'd agree to train his farmer girl to serve as his hands. Well, that was plain impossible, but when I told him no, he dropped the idea onto the dirt."
"And what's so impossible about training Fawn to be his hands?"
Hoharie sounded indignant. "Farmers can't...." She trailed off as Arkady reached out and touched the sharing bolt. She started over with, "There was still the problem of her always-open ground and people not accepting her."
He raised his brows and asked, "Why not find out by trying? What harm could it have done?"
She grimaced again. "You sound like Dag."
"And you sound like me when I had the same argument with him. Or, rather," He paused and deepened his voice considerably, producing a tolerable imitation of Dag's voice, "the same fool argument." His voice returned to its normal timber with, "The difference was, I agreed to try it. It worked just fine -- people got used to her being around and stopped being bothered by her inside of two weeks."
She came back with, "Just because it worked in a southern camp doesn't mean it would have worked up here in the north."
"But since it did work in the south, you can't be sure it wouldn't have worked in the north."
She frowned. "Fine, then. If I'm ever again looking to train up a one-handed person who's string-bound to a farmer, I'll be sure to keep it in mind."
He frowned back. "I found better applicability from that lesson, myself. In any event, what did you do next?"
She sighed in some aggravation. "Figured I'd do best to wait until the camp council fixed matters before trying again. Stubborn as he is, I didn't see much chance of changing his mind on my own."
Arkady gave her a piercing look and asked, "Fixed? As in got rid of Fawn?"
She sounded indignant again. "Of course! Farmers don't belong in Lakewalker camps!"
"That farmer saved your life, you know. Weren't you concerned Dag might end up being banished or he might leave instead of giving up Fawn?"
She answered, with some heat, "He wasn't going to be banished! I never thought he'd walk out on his own people!"
Fairbolt looked over at her. "I don't know how you could be sure he wasn't going to be banished. I didn't know and I'm on the council." He'd had nightmares about that one, actually, up to and including the night before the meeting. "As for his leaving, he gave good reasons why it was necessary."
She didn't say anything. Arkady asked, "So why were you sure?"
She looked uncomfortable and half-closed her ground. All she came up with was, "Well.... There was Raintree; he was a hero."
Fairbolt said, "As it turns out, the only reason he didn't get banished is because the request to the council was changed from 'make him accept a string-cutting or be banished' to 'they are not married, so she should be removed from camp and he should be fined.' He let all the benefit of being a hero slip away without making any try to claim to the camp that he should get special treatment, and then he showed up at the grove planning to demand that he be banished."
Hoharie glanced around, still obviously uncomfortable. "Anyway, I was right about him not getting banished."
Arkady looked at her, raising his brows. "You were, yes. Interesting, that." He let that float in the air for a moment, then continued with, "I understand Dag was very sick when you talked to him, and the council meeting was a full month later. Did you try mentioning anything more to him on the occasions when you came by to check up on him?"
She turned red. "I never saw him again. He left first."
Arkady stared at her without saying anything at all for almost a minute. She'd had Dag come by several times in one week for his broken arm; the injuries to his ground had been much more severe and were unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. She was not foolish enough to try to justify her lack of action; she stared down at the table. Then he asked, "By any chance, was there any question about whether he was well enough for such a potentially exhausting ordeal? Did you make any claims about his readiness for it?"
She spoke as though each word injured her on its way from her mouth. "There was some. Once he was walking around a bit, I claimed it'd be a long time till he was fully better and we might as well get it all over with." After a short pause, she added, "Fairbolt dragged me over the coals for this already. There's not much need for more."
Arkady asked Fairbolt, "And when did you learn she hadn't been checking up on Dag?"
Fairbolt grimaced and said, "It was the morning of the council vote, just an hour before it started. I learned from Mari, who was upset about the matter." She'd been in tears in his office, actually; she'd pleaded with him to find some way -- any way -- to prevent the council meeting from happening. When he'd said that he'd run out of options after Hoharie had declared Dag fit, she'd furiously stated that she couldn't see how Hoharie would have been able to do any such thing, considering she'd never come by all that month. She also said she sometimes managed to get glimpses of his ground in the early mornings when he tested his range -- it looked plenty awful last time she'd seen it. He continued with, "It seemed too late to call off the meeting, though I did think that if things got too ugly, I could try ordering Dag to open his ground and to explain to the council why it was in such a bad state. I'd likely have been able to get enough votes to put a stop to things. But Dag cut the council meeting short by refusing to argue his case and by announcing he didn't care how the vote went; he would leave regardless."
Arkady sighed, wiped his forehead, and turned to Fairbolt. "I'm nearly certain Maker Hoharie made a deal with Dar Redwing. She got to be sure Dag wouldn't end up banished; he got the early council date and an agreement that she would take part in shunning Dag. Likely there's also an oath of silence involved. If I'm right, Maker Hoharie gave up her integrity and her maker-patient relationship with Dag and got in return something nearly worthless to Dar -- he likely already was planning the change in the charges. A most unequal trade."
Maker Hoharie closed her eyes and bent her head. There wasn't much reason to doubt Arkady's guess. Fairbolt sighed. "Hoharie. Is this true? Even with an oath of silence, you should be able to deny it if he's mostly wrong."
She said quietly, "I can say this much. Dar spoke with me just before Dag's return. He started with his usual demands to take part in shunning Dag; he also wanted me to stop claiming that it would be a long time before Dag would be well enough to face a camp council. When I wouldn't agree to anything, he got a sly look and said that it looked to him like I really wouldn't want to see Dag get banished. He claimed that it might be possible for him to do something about that, but he'd want something in return. I told him to go away, and he did so. He just said to remember what he'd offered. I hadn't thought Dag could end up banished after all he'd done, but after he refused to train up with me, he started going on about treating farmers. It sure looked like he thought he might end up having to leave."
Fairbolt frowned and shook his head. "I think this is something I ought to take up on my own with Dar and Hoharie and the other camp medicine and knife makers. After the meeting. Is that all, then?"
Arkady frowned. "No. There's one last matter. Why did the two of you treat Dag's new abilities as such a big secret? What possible reason did you have for not talking about it?"
Fairbolt answered, since Hoharie was looking distressed. "We weren't trying to be secretive. It's just that at first, we weren't sure what it was; then once we were sure, he couldn't do ground projections any more. Hoharie said she wasn't absolutely sure the ability would return and that it didn't seem a good idea to raise a lot of hopes in the camp only to have them not work out. It seemed like there'd be plenty of time to wait until we knew. I admit I didn't really want them to return if it meant I'd lose him as a company captain who could soon be Oleana's hinterland general. Then came the council meeting; after that, there wasn't any more point in discussing the matter with the camp."
Arkady frowned again. "You misunderstood me. Why did you keep it a secret from Dag?!"
Fairbolt looked questioningly at Hoharie. "I didn't know we did. Didn't you say you'd spoken with him?"
She said, "I started to tell him, but first he wouldn't agree to train up as a maker, then I had to quash his farmer-healing idea. Then Fawn came in and I lost my chance to discuss it in private. I thought there'd be plenty of time later, then there wasn't."
Arkady frowned first at Fairbolt. "You had time to correct this. You knew before the council that she'd failed in checking up on him; you could have guessed she might have failed in this, too. As his captain, you had the responsibility to be sure he'd been informed." He shifted his frown to Hoharie; it deepened considerably. The anger in his ground glared strongly. "You had a chance to correct your error as well. You could have come by any time the evening after the council meeting to tell him. Why didn't you do so?"
Her answer came in a mumble. "Mari and Cattagus were blocking the entrance to their site and not letting in people who planned to argue with Dag. I did try coming the next morning. I thought it'd take some time for him to finish dealing with that tiny hides-and-poles tent he was living in. I didn't expect him go without taking it down first." After a pause, she added, "I suppose I was also afraid he'd ask why I let the council meeting happen when he was still so sick, so I put off visiting him until it was too late."
Arkady was thunderous. "Do the two of you have any idea what you did to him?"
Hoharie lifted her head, looking stung. "I was sure I'd killed him letting him go off into farmer country weak, sick, with a bad leg, with crippled groundsense, and with almost no money or goods. I don't know how you can possibly make it worse!"
Arkady gave her his grimmest look yet and said, "Let's just see if this is worse or not. When he left camp, he was so weak in his ground I expect he'd have had trouble lighting a groundworked candle. Not two months later, he was far and away the most powerful maker he'd ever known in any camp he'd ever been to in his entire life. Wouldn't you think he'd find an experience like that a bit disconcerting? He had no idea what was happening to him because you didn't tell him anything useful. Ground projections were something he'd never come across, and they came with a highly disturbing ability to take in ground -- which he had no trouble recognizing as ground-ripping. And, as everybody knows, that is something only malices can do. He had nobody knowledgeable he could trust or ask questions of; only a bright farmer girl. She did better than I'd have guessed possible, but she still didn't know any more than he did about his abilities. I've already told you how many times he nearly killed himself trying to make sense of what was happening; don't you think that might have been disturbing to him, as well? He took lessons in how to use his abilities from his experiences with malices, as if he were apprenticed to them! When I took him into New Moon Cutoff, his ground was in such a bad state that I quarantined him for nearly seven weeks and made him open his ground wide every day so I could track how well he was recovering."
He paused and closed his eyes for a moment. Fairbolt could tell that he was remembering the kind of scene that burns itself into the backs of a person's eyeballs. When Arkady resumed, he said, "When Dag showed up at the camp's gate, he had his ground shut tight. I didn't want to believe the tale he and his companions were telling me. In fact, I called him a lot of names and told him to get gone. He did something curious at that point. He popped open his ground, reached out with his ground projection, and drew it across the back of my hand." He touched the back of his left hand. "He did so with enough force to set my hand to bleeding. Not a serious injury -- I've gotten worse from cats. I realized then that I'd likely found myself a new apprentice. So I tried to take control by telling him that he'd done an inexcusably clumsy job of groundsetting and I offered to have his hide. I figured I'd get to see how bright he was -- the smart answer would be to ask me to teach him how to do better, a less smart one would be to try to make excuses. Care to guess how he responded?"
Hoharie came up with, "He's sharp; I doubt he'd make a fool of himself."
Fairbolt shook his head. "Likely the answer is something entirely different, but I'm not going to try to guess what he did do."
Arkady said, "He was testing, too. He'd spent months desperately wondering whether ground-ripping was a normal but rare ability for people, and just as long in terror that it might not be. He wanted to see whether I recognized it. I watched as the terror and desperation drained right out of his ground, just as if I'd opened an infected wound. The waves of relief that poured through him in response were like nothing I've ever seen. He turned white as a sheet, fell shaking to his knees, covered his face with his hand, and began crying and laughing, both at the same time. First time I've ever had anyone respond to a threat to have their hide by them giving it over on the spot. What I witnessed just then was his realization that one of his two main theories -- that he was turning into a malice -- was not true."
Hoharie winced. "I told him to stop thinking it was some morbid death magic!"
Arkady replied, "You should have given him some actual knowledge to put in place of his notions. How hard could it have been to walk up to him and say 'Dag, your ghost hand is a groundsetting projection', anyway?"
Arkady had mentioned that Dag had had two main notions. Fairbolt was sure he didn't want to know what the other one was, but clearly it was owed. "So, what was Dag's other guess?"
"That he was going mad."
Fairbolt closed his eyes. He remembered when Dag had been mad before, and was even more sure he didn't want to hear the rest of this one. "So.... He was wrong there, too, I hope?"
Arkady sighed. "He was under a lot of stress and had been so for a good six or so months. I'd judge that he was awfully close to breaking." He looked coldly over at Hoharie; the fury in his ground showed darkly. "I don't know how much you don't care about him any more now that he's gone, or how much it amused you to set him up for such a dreadful fate, but that was just about the vilest crime I've ever learned of. And I almost abetted you in it. I woke up every night in cold sweats for about a week after I took him in, just thinking about what could have happened if he had broken. Care to picture the results? He decides he has turned into a malice, goes on a killing rampage across the south. How many companies would it take to hunt him down and kill him? How many patrollers would die to bring that about? But afterwards, we could have had our own horrid heroic ballad about the events, and even if someone investigated them, all they'd see is that he'd left his home after marrying a farmer -- no wonder he went crazy. They'd never suspect you at all."
She turned green, then covered her face. "I wasn't trying to...."
Fairbolt, feeling much worse than before, said, "Actually, I'm afraid you haven't quite gotten that one figured out right. Likely because you aren't a company captain. I doubt he'd have gone on a rampage all on his own. Consider what his greatest fear is: A malice taking over a farmer town, slaving the people, and training them up as fighters. He wouldn't be able to do it quite like that, but beguiled farmers will do an awful lot for one. He could set up in Graymouth, train them, arm them, and send out an army. It doesn't much matter whether he thinks he's a malice or just gets angry because he isn't succeeding in getting his message across and decides to show everyone what the danger really is -- either way gives the same result. Hard to say exactly what happens next, but most likely, even if he backs off and tries to undo what he's done, he'd probably still end up setting off a big farmer-Lakewalker war. He's said before, that fight ends with the first malice that's powerful enough to go on the march. End of our long war. It wouldn't even have to have been the Bat Malice, though it'd make a fine contender. I'd say you can claim to have saved the world just by taking him in, never mind later events."
Hoharie raised her head. There were tears tracking down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry."
Arkady didn't look like he was planning to forgive her very quickly. "It's not me you owe that to."
She nodded slowly. "I could write Dag a note. Would you deliver it?"
Arkady nodded back, but said, "Do you really think that'll be enough?"
She answered quietly, "No, but what else is there?"
"All I can think of for you is to remember why all this happened, what you've been wrong about, and try to do better. I expect there will be farmers coming here to help with patrolling in exchange for ground shields soon enough. There's still a lot of room for work improving them -- finding ways for the farmer to control whether they're shielded or not, ways for farmers to know if they're running low on ground food or if they're starting to break down. You could do good work on all of that. Help try to bring about a future where we aren't always staying just barely afloat in our long war against malices."
Arkady then collected the spent sharing bolt and went out to rejoin the rest of his group out back where the bow range was. Fairbolt reached out with his ground and found Massape in the council grove; she appeared to be nearly done setting up stumps. He tapped her ground to let her know he wanted her to come over. He said to Hoharie, "I think you're not like to want to go to the meeting, am I right?" She nodded. He continued with, "I have to go to it, but Massape's on her way over. She can stay with you here or in the medicine tent; would you prefer to discuss that agreement with Dar here or there?"
She swallowed and looked down. "I think here will be better."
The council grove was not too different from the one in New Moon Cutoff, except that there were no chairs or tables, just upended stumps. The stumps were arranged with six at the front, seven facing, and many others behind the seven. Someone had come by and arranged them suitably, probably Massape Crow. There were a few people here already, sitting on stumps or greeting each other. Arkady, looking at the stumps, thought about the differences between life in the south and in the north. He was not used to the poverty here; maybe their work could bring northerners more comfortable lives as well.
A few minutes later, Sumac approached with her mama Omba beside her. She had said earlier that she was planning not to tell her mama about Dag's role ahead of their talk because she'd likely consider it her duty to make sure Dar knew, and they wanted him to be as surprised as everyone else. As they drew near, Omba's eyes grew large. He was getting that reaction from Lakewalkers a lot, here in the north. Folks in the south were more used to groundsetters' dense grounds. Omba turned to Sumac, gulped, and asked, "This would be Arkady, then? The man who figured out how to capture you? And who's going to be carrying you off to parts south of here?" She looked welcoming in spite of that last detail.
Sumac nodded and said, "Arkady, this is my mama Omba Redwing. Mama, this is Arkady. It doesn't look like we'll have time to talk much before things get started, though." More people were arriving, though not yet including Fairbolt and the rest of their companions. Two of the people just now arriving were an older woman with golden eyes and a man with brown-bronze eyes, both mostly ground-closed. Mari was with them, though she walked away from them as soon as she reached the clearing. She found herself a seat roughly behind where Fairbolt would be. These two would be Cumbia and Dar Redwing, then. They came over to him and Sumac. From their almost-but-not-quite-welcoming looks, Arkady guessed that Mari had managed to pass on the news that he wasn't planning to live here and help prop up Tent Redwing. From the descriptions Sumac had given of the fights that sometimes raged in that tent, he was quite sure he'd never want to live there. He still had trouble picturing Dag shouting in anger; Dag had never gotten that overset even when Arkady'd picked fights with him at New Moon or when he'd narrowly missed getting pounded from his choice of how to correct Dag's one-handed groundsetting.
Sumac introduced them to each other. "Arkady, this is my Grandmama, Cumbia Redwing. She's a maker of ropes and cords. This here is my papa, Dar Redwing. He's the chief knife maker for Hickory Lake and our chief maker. Grandmama, papa, this is Arkady Redwing; he's a master groundsetter from New Moon Cutoff in the south." Dar didn't say much right off; he looked appraisingly at Arkady as if he was planning just how to cut him down to a better size. Arkady remembered Sumac's words on their way to camp: 'Papa is sure to try to make his meeting with you into a pissing contest.' He didn't feel a need to compare ranges, so he decided to be more amused than annoyed.
After a few initial pleasantries, Sumac's kin started to make their wishes known. Cumbia said, "Sumac, you can't leave us. Your place is here, you are the heir to Tent Redwing." Turning to Arkady, she stated, "You can't make her leave her people; it's not our way. You are supposed to move in to her tent."
Arkady answered politely, "I understand your feelings, ma'am. But that tradition isn't forced on our people." He glanced over at Omba and then back. "As it happens, my apprentice cannot come up here to live, so instead we will be living with him in his home along the Grace River. He's a potential groundsetter himself; we plan to be partners."
Cumbia frowned and said, "That's absurd. Of course he can come up here. Any groundsetter would be most welcome. If he's your apprentice, he has to do as you tell him to do. Tell him to come up here; he could live in Tent Redwing."
Arkady decided to keep his answer simple. "I'm afraid I don't think that would work out. You'll understand when we've finished our talk. We could discuss this afterwards, if you still want to do so then." It looked like nearly everyone was here.
Sumac added, "And Grandmama, Arkady's not making me leave. I offered to join him in his journey. Right now, it's time for us to go to our places. Let's talk again afterwards."
Fairbolt and the rest of their companions were arriving. Fairbolt went to his spot, while Rase, Remo, Whit, and Berry came over to Arkady and Sumac. As they took their seats, Sumac named the others on this year's council and the people from last summer's council as well. Tioca Cattail, the medicine maker from that group, sat next to Rigni Hawk, also from last year's council; they were friends. The rest of the people from last year were scattered about, though Pakona Pike was on a stump near Cumbia's. Not too surprisingly, any sorting among people seemed to be that people from the patrol favored seats to the right, mostly behind Fairbolt, while makers were left and center.
Cumbia, now sitting two seats away from Fairbolt, frowned at Whit and Berry, who were next to Arkady. "Fairbolt, why are there two farmers here? They don't belong in council discussions; they should leave."
Fairbolt answered, "They have important testimony regarding the Bat Malice; I've heard it and I judge that they should be present to give it."
Cumbia came back with, "Well. I suppose they can stay, but they aren't to speak except during their testimony. Why do their grounds look so strange?"
Berry and Whit were much more amused than offended; they knew perfectly well that getting to go last would make their words that much more memorable. Fairbolt nodded and said, "You'll understand about their grounds soon enough. That's for Sumac and Arkady to explain."
Time to start then. There looked to be about a hundred people present. Arkady recalled Dag's descriptions of the shows he'd put on for farmer boatmen along the Grace; he was going to do something similar now for a lot of northern Lakewalkers. He and Sumac both stood. Cumbia held out the speaking stick for Sumac to collect. When she returned to her spot, Sumac began with, "How de'. As you know, I'm Sumac Redwing -- a patrol leader from here, and I spent last winter on exchange in southern Raintree. On my return trip home, I was bringing Rase -- he's right here beside me -- for a northern exchange when we met up with a group of travelers who were heading north along the Tripoint Trace. We decided to join with them. One person in that group was Arkady Waterbirch of New Moon Cutoff in the south. He's a master groundsetter who was traveling to the Grace Valley to live with his apprentice. Now he's my husband, Arkady Redwing. Along our journey we also collected Remo, over on the end, who was traveling to his home in Pearl Riffle Camp." This wasn't exactly true, but it was close enough. She didn't say anything about Whit or Berry, who fortunately already knew to expect some rude treatment, even from Sumac and Arkady, at the start. "Our journey north was made much more exciting when the flying Bat Malice of the Trace attacked us. It was some of the people in our traveling group who killed the malice; I wrote the official report about it. Since magery and groundsetting had a real important job in the bringing down of that malice, Arkady here will be describing that part first."
Sumac handed the stick to Arkady. He began with, "Good day to you all. As Sumac said, I am a groundsetter. What does that mean to you?" Dar flickered his ground more open and then back as it had been, indicating that he had a response. Arkady tapped Dar's ground in return and asked, "Dar, what would you say?"
Dar looked challengingly at him and stated, "It tells me that you are a particularly skillful medicine maker." And since knife makers have higher ranking than medicine makers, he was claiming to be above Arkady.
Arkady smiled slightly. "Yes, in fact I am a medicine maker. I'm afraid, though, that your answer is rather like claiming that a knife maker is a particularly skillful weapon smith. It's not wrong, exactly, but something important has been left out. Can anyone improve on this answer?"
Tioca Cattail indicated willingness to try, and Arkady responded with a ground tap and nodded toward her. She said, "I believe it means that you can produce ground projections that you use to do direct manipulation of grounds."
Arkady smiled more warmly. "That's the crucial detail." He unfurled his projections and displayed them to the audience. He remembered Dag saying that farmers treated his performances like magic shows and amused himself by imagining juggling fruit to add to the performance. Ah, well, he did grab a lot of folks' attention just by showing them off -- it was plain that nobody here had ever seen the like. "With these, I can treat ailments and injuries that are beyond normal medicine making. Kidney stones, tumors, damaged joints, injuries and infections in internal organs, bad bone breaks, and many childbirth problems can be much better treated by a groundsetter than otherwise. As a simple example of how groundsetting works...."
He put his projections back in, then took the speaking stick in both hands and snapped it in two; a reasonably clean break but with a few small pieces hanging off. Cumbia responded indignantly, "You shouldn't do things like that!"
He smiled reassuringly and, holding the pieces together in his left hand, used his right projection to repair the stick along the line of the break. The small pieces tucked back into their rightful places as he did so. He put a bit more effort into the task than he might have done for pottery repairs, since he expected people would try to test his work by flexing the stick. "This task is apprentice-level work. In fact, my current apprentice's first few weeks with me were spent doing only jobs of this sort." Folks stared in surprise as he pulled on the stick and flexed it slightly. "Groundsetting potential generally shows at or somewhat before age forty, though it is possible for it to come in later. The talent is very rare; maybe ten people in all seven hinterlands have it at any particular time. It is also mostly seen in the south, though I do know of a woman in south Raintree who has it and a man in south Seagate as well. It's so rare because it can only develop in people who have very dense ground, matching the best medicine makers, and who have very long range, matching the best patrollers, and who have a great deal of ground sensitivity. It also requires that at some point after they've developed the potential, they actually try to reach beyond themselves to do something that can only be done with a shaped ground projection. Nearly all people who develop the ability are medicine makers, though there have been a few knife makers and patrollers from time to time. The unfolding of groundsetter potential is usually slow, taking up to three years before a person can reliably produce well-shaped hands on demand. Until that point, if they are already medicine makers, the best action is to teach them some about gaining control and strength and to begin a search for the nearest groundsetter who can teach them more when they are ready. If they aren't, the best use of their time is to begin teaching them medicine making immediately. In either case, once they have control, it is time to get them apprenticed."
Dar flashed his ground and spoke without waiting to be acknowledged. "You can't seriously mean to pull a knife maker from his work to make him do apprentice work in medicine making! That's a waste of a rare and precious skill!"
Arkady answered, "Groundsetting is rarer and more valuable. More to the point, however, is that a person who has developed groundsetter potential is in a deal of danger. Misuse of the talent can be disastrous, with results rather like what would happen if you gave a war knife to an exceptionally strong and well-coordinated two-year-old." Dar appeared to be glad not to have developed the ability. Arkady rather thought he was glad of that as well; from the looks he'd gotten of his ground, he thought that Dar might have failed to gain it for almost the same reason Dag had been delayed -- there wasn't anything that mattered enough to him to make him want to reach out. The difference was that Dar thought it was good to remain stunted in his growth.
Arkady continued with, "Now magery, on the other hand, is another matter. One does not have to be a groundsetter to create something new and different, but it does help. My apprentice is not yet a medicine maker or a groundsetter, but he has been transforming into a mage from almost the day he first developed projection abilities. He's well on the way to becoming one of the greatest makers who ever lived. I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my life to be his mentor. As he explains it, 'magery is an alive thing.' To do truly newer and more powerful groundwork, we makers need to bring aliveness into our workings, which requires that we provide ground-food to them. The problem with this approach in the past has been that it is too dangerous to have our groundwork consume the grounds of our patients, and too akin to malice magery to allow our work to take it in from the environment. He solved the problem by noting that we routinely set aside portions of our own live ground whenever we make marriage cords. If we make extra cords and use them as the source of food for our groundwork, it is much easier to control how much is consumed at a time and to stop the work from continuing past when we want to stop it."
An older woman flashed her ground. Sumac whispered to him that she was Torri Beaver, who was the camp's maker of leather coats like the one she got from Dag that could stop spears; Sumac also mentioned that she was sister to Laski Beaver, who'd been on last year's camp council. Arkady acknowledged her request to speak, and she said excitedly, "This wouldn't just be good for medicine making. I've tried to make my groundwork last longer in the past by putting in a portion that repaired the main making, but the repairing part wore out too quickly or damaged the coat or didn't work well enough. This could be an answer to the problem."
Arkady nodded. "There's no end to applications for this technique, I think. His own first application of it is what I'm here to discuss. It comes from a simple observation: Malices that have consumed people are much more dangerous than ones that have not. If we want malices to be less of a problem, then we want to stop them from being able to ground-rip farmers. His answer is to make a shield that encloses and protects the farmer's ground as a shell does for the nut inside." He began a technical description of how Dag had modified a knife maker's involution to anchor within a nut and to hold living ground instead of dying ground. Some questions from a few makers about the shaping made it plain that they were taking this outlandish notion seriously, even if they were not quite sure that they wanted to expend the effort that would be needed to make these for farmers.
Just about when he finished the description, Torri Beaver spoke up again, with a tone of puzzlement in her voice. "I see a problem here, though it's plain from looking at those two farmers that you must have solved it. It looks to me like you'd have to use the farmer's ground for the food rather than your own if you want the groundwork to remain tuned to the farmer's ground and maintain its link. How are you solving this?"
Arkady smiled. "Well, now. It's time to explain a bit here. These two farmers happen to be named Berry and Whit Bluefield; Whit is the next-older brother to Fawn Bluefield, who is string-bound to my apprentice Dag Bluefield. You knew him as Dag Redwing Hickory Oleana, and most of you here already know how he and Fawn solved that problem."
Grounds all across the clearing closed or half-closed as the astonishment set in. Cumbia's face showed chagrin and hostility mixed together in a strange brew; Dar only showed hostility. As the exclamations of surprise died down, an elderly man stood. Arkady recalled that Sumac had named him Ogit Muskrat; he'd been on last year's council, and she had some choice comments to make about him. He didn't flash his ground or wait to be acknowledged, he just shouted, "This is all a load of blighted nonsense! That Dag Redwing isn't any kind of mage or really good maker with fancy ground. He's just a patroller who showed up last summer with a farmer whore" -- here Whit jumped to his feet and shouted back, "Fawn is no whore!"
Cumbia glared at Whit and said, "You are not to speak until it is time to testify." Berry stood and whispered in Whit's ear; he sat reluctantly.
Ogit continued, "And shamed the whole camp. We should have banished him, but he deserted first."
Now Remo jumped up, shouting, "Dag is no deserter!" When Cumbia glared at him, he waved to Arkady, who promptly passed him the stick. Sure enough, he flexed it briefly before speaking again. He repeated, "Dag is no deserter, and you don't know what you're talking about if you say he is."
Ogit said, "He ran off, didn't he? That's deserting in my book. Maybe he said a bunch of fancy words about some fool quest, but that's just him making excuses."
"Deserters don't stand and tell the camp council that there's a problem that can only be solved by leaving. They sneak out in the middle of the night in shame and despair hoping nobody notices them."
Ogit sneered, "I suppose a boy like you knows anything about that, eh?"
Remo said heatedly, "I should know! I was a deserter. If Dag hadn't taken me on and taught me how to go on even when it hurts too much to want to try, I'd likely have made my journey to Graymouth face down in the river. You can call him a lot of things and I won't argue, but for sure he's no coward and he's no deserter." He passed the stick back to Arkady and sat back down.
Ogit looked away for a moment. Then he said, "Only bad-mannered fool boys talk back to their betters."
Arkady stared at Ogit for a long moment. Then he said, "Nonsense, is this? So tell me, do you know enough about making to explain that these shields won't work?" Arkady was sure he didn't; Ogit's ground had shown no signs of maker abilities when it was open.
Ogit muttered, "I'm not a maker."
Arkady looked at him again. "Then you can't really judge whether the making is good or not. Perhaps you meant to question Dag's role in this?"
Ogit said, "Of course! Like I said, he's no maker either!"
Arkady smiled sardonically at this one. "And yet, here before you stand two young patrollers, one of whom took exception to your calling Dag a deserter. Next is Sumac Redwing, Dag's niece. More strangely still, you see me -- a southern groundsetter. Normally, I would never have left my camp under any circumstances, yet here I've traveled a thousand miles all the way to Hickory Lake. Next, there are two farmers here who don't mind being named as Bluefields; the young man looks much like Fawn does, and he took plenty of exception to you calling Fawn a prostitute. If this isn't Dag's doing, how did it happen and whose doing is it?"
Ogit didn't answer. Arkady continued, "As to whether he meant what he said when he left, if you think he'd say something that serious and not mean it, then you don't know him at all. Further, six little mice in my tent know you are wrong." More than a few people were perplexed about that one. "Six beguiled mice -- I'd hope that the makers in this camp are aware that creating ground shields is not some trivial task someone can toss out in a day. He tried on his own for a bit, then he got help from my camp's chief knife maker; she's very interested in varying the design to protect Lakewalker children's grounds, like the nineteen lost in Bonemarsh" -- that got the attention of a number of makers who hadn't been interested in bothering to save farmers from malices -- "then he began his experiments on lots and lots of field mice. I helped some at this point. Many mice died, but six survived. They followed Dag around in my tent like little ducklings, or hid behind objects and watched him moving." Arkady tucked the stick under his arm and pantomimed six mice's heads swiveling around with his thumbs, forefingers, and middle fingers on each hand. He'd left some food for them on the dock when he'd left; he'd felt sorry for them with their sad eyes seeming to ask him 'what have you done with Dag?' He continued: "The day I met him he made sure to tell me about Greenspring; same for when he met our chief knife maker. Then, when I got him invited to a meeting where he could try to persuade the camp council to offer him tent rights, he spent the time trying to explain his quest to them, making no effort to get them to want to take him in. When I headed north, I met all kinds of folks along the way -- on the road, at Pearl Riffle and Pearl Bend, at Glassforge, and at West Blue. They all had tales of a tall, thin Lakewalker man with one hand and a tiny, young, very cute farmer girl; seems the two of them told everyone they met all about ground and groundsense, patrolling and malices, and the events at Greenspring. For a man who isn't serious about his quest, he sure acts like someone obsessed by it. Most chilling to me was when we were all at Mutton Hash, looking at the town and at the farmer boys playing with Whit's crossbow. Dag talked about how someday a malice would surely come up near or under a farmer town and be missed by the patrol. When that day came, we'd all be in for serious trouble -- thousands of well-armed young farmers marching out from a malice capital; far worse than last summer's campaign in Raintree. I, for one, plan to help prevent that day from coming."
Arkady looked at the rest of the crowd. "If you all are interested, I could explain a few things. I'd be willing to treat the rest of Ogit's outburst as questions: Does Dag have a groundsetter's ground? How is it nobody seems to have noticed the most spectacular unfolding of groundsetter potential I've ever heard about?"
About half the people in the clearing flashed willingness to hear the answers, but before he could start speaking, Fairbolt spoke up. "Actually, I'd like to answer the other half of his outburst: Is Dag 'just a patroller' who shamed the camp and should have been banished? I think Remo did a good enough job on the question of desertion that I don't need to speak to that 'question'."
Arkady held out the stick, and Fairbolt walked up and took it, turning as he did so to face the rest of them. He pulled on it for a moment, staring curiously at the place where the break had been. He started with, "Ogit, please tell me this one thing: What rank was Dag when he stood before the council at the end of last summer?"
Ogit looked aside for a moment, as if the answer could be found in the bushes along the edge of the clearing. "Can't think why you named him captain for dealing with the Raintree malice after all he'd just done."
Fairbolt gave Ogit a slow, cold looking over. "Happens that in all my patrol, there were only three folk who I felt were capable of dealing with a situation as ugly as that one. They were Rig Crow, Iwassa Muskrat, and Dag. Rig and Iwassa were at the hinterland meeting one hundred fifty miles away. That left Dag. In times like last summer's malice outbreak, you don't pick the person who's pleased you best -- you pick the person who has the best chance of bringing his company to the battle in time to act and who has the best chance of bringing them all back home. I think he showed very well that he was a good choice for the job."
Ogit said angrily, "How hard could it have been? Seems easy enough to me -- get in, kill the malice, leave."
Fairbolt smiled grimly. "Let's just see. Rig!" He pointed to a man whose posture even on a stump proclaimed company captain. "Happens that I just learned about a malice over in Raintree. Real bad, hundreds of folks killed so far and it's attacked Bonemarsh Camp, a hundred miles away. I've got you a company of seventy from three patrols, only one of them your own. I want you to go out and deal with the malice. I'm told it'll be easy."
Rig stared at Ogit, in a not-too-friendly fashion. "I don't know what idiot told you it would be easy, but I suggest you don't listen to him. I've studied the report from that campaign; there were plenty of opportunities for Dag to mess up and get his folk killed. He didn't take any of 'em. I've wished I could have talked to him after to learn what he would have done if things had gone differently at some points, but I didn't get back here till about a month after he left. I'm confident I could manage that battle if I got given the job, but I really hope you don't expect me to pull off the kind of miracle that Dag did. I'd not dare promise not to lose any of my patrollers."
Fairbolt then turned to Iwassa and asked, "Anything you want to add?"
Iwassa gave Ogit a stare not too different from Rig's. "I agree with Rig. I would add that if I'd managed that campaign with not more than twenty or so killed, I'd've expected a hero's welcome when I got home. It was a good thing he wasn't expecting any such treatment, because he came home to dead silence and to the news that the girls from Stores tried to make off with his tent while he was away. It also seems that all folk have to do is say to the council, 'this is an emergency', and suddenly it doesn't matter how bad-hurt a person is -- he gets called up anyway."
Fairbolt continued from here. "I will point out that even when his rank was patroller instead of captain, there was never anything 'just a patroller' about Dag. He fought his first malice battle at sixteen; killed his first malice at nineteen. He was so promising as a young patroller that he was sent on a walk around the Lake at twenty. When he finished the tour, he was promoted to patrol leader and sent around a second time. He chose a route that ended in Luthlia; he settled there, got string-bound to a patrol leader named Kauneo Wolverine, and was promoted to company captain. Not quite two years later, that all ended when he led his company to Wolf Ridge. Lost everything that mattered to him. He returned to Hickory Lake two years later; I got him that arm harness he wears and let him join my company as a patroller. I thought I might be able to bring the brilliant company captain back to life. That wasn't to be, but he was still far and away the best patroller I've ever had. I don't think I need to say much to anyone here about his skills -- he's done a good deal of the training of nearly every patroller here with twenty-five years or less of experience, so you've all seen how good he is with bow, knife, horsemanship, and ground-veiling. He volunteered for extra duty so much that he averaged twice the time out that anyone else did, and he racked up a total of twenty-six personal kills.
"As for shaming the camp, well now. I've never been one to take shame at the unfortunate personal choices of my patrollers. If I did, likely I'd not be able to hold my head up around others ever again. All last summer, I can only think of one time that I could truly say I was ashamed to name myself captain of Hickory Lake. It was two days before the council meeting." He closed his eyes a moment, and Arkady could tell that this was as memorable a moment for Fairbolt as his meeting with Dag at the gate of New Moon had been for himself. Fairbolt opened his eyes, grimaced, and said, "I went to pay Dag a visit to let him know what was coming and to be sure he wasn't too weak and sick to go. Thought I'd try to talk him into backing down or at least I'd learn what his plan for the council was. I started by trying to tell him how much we'd lose if he let himself get banished. He explained earnestly how I didn't need him. He was right, but it sure wasn't anything I wanted to hear. All backwards from how it's supposed to go -- he was supposed to plead with me and then I'd tell him we didn't need him. Well, so, I thought I might try again a bit differently. I was looking to tell him how much we care about him, how upset folk would be by his leaving. So I thought a bit about how to say it, and suddenly I wondered -- do we really care about him? Folks owed the lives of their kin and friends to his good captaining in Raintree, but they were still shunning him anyway. So I asked him," here Fairbolt opened his ground wide enough that anyone even half-open could see exactly what he felt, "'Had anyone thanked him for Raintree?' He gave me this look that as much as said 'Fairbolt, you should know better than that' though his words were just 'Not as I recollect.'" The shame in Fairbolt's ground was painful to look at. He paused a moment before he continued, half-closing his ground again. "I made a few more tries, but the wind was knocked from my sails and I was becalmed in the middle of the lake. All I could think after I left him was that we'd taken him for granted one time too many and didn't deserve to have him."
Fairbolt swallowed, waited a moment, and then sent a glare straight at Ogit. "Last of all, about banishing him. Maybe you don't know or care what all he sacrificed to give us that miracle in Raintree, but I do. That vote would never have gotten my support, I can promise you that." He handed the stick back to Arkady and returned to his stump. There was dead silence in the grove.
Arkady let the silence hang for a short time, then he cleared his throat to get folks' attention. "Well, I'm promised to tell you about a person none of you seem to have known. I guess I'll start with Dag's ground. So, Ogit. You tell me he doesn't have a 'fancy' ground. Tell me -- is his range long enough?"
Ogit muttered sullenly, "We all know he's got that. It's the other stuff -- how dense and sensitive it's supposed to be."
Arkady smirked at him. "Then perhaps you'll name a time when you've seen his ground closely enough to judge how dense it is."
Ogit looked away. The bushes weren't any more help now than they'd been before. He came up with, "He always kept his ground mostly closed, even asleep. But somebody would have said if they'd seen it bein' so dense."
Arkady drew breath. "All right then. Can anyone here name an occasion in the last nineteen years when you've seen his ground closely enough to judge?"
Mari and Remo were the only ones to flash their grounds. Arkady picked Mari. She said first, "I'm not sure this is going to help make your case."
"Tell me anyway."
"All right. I've seen it up close twice; both times were in Raintree last summer. The first was about two days after the battle with the malice, when he and Utau had gotten partly ground-ripped. I'd checked Utau first: he found it painful to open his ground; it was scraped raw, and it was a good deal less dense than before. Also it shaking all over like it couldn't stop. Reckoned it'd likely be a few months before that got better. I knew Dag'd be worse -- the malice had come much closer to killing him than Utau. All that was just like I expected. I suppose that he had any density left at all should say he'd had a lot to start with. Worst, though, was that there were these dark bits of malice ground spattered all over his left arm and side. They had rings of blight around them, and it sure looked like he wasn't going to live for even one month, much less recover any time soon. He claimed he got them when he tried to distract the malice -- before it ripped at him. I don't quite know how they happened, though."
Arkady explained how groundsetting and ground-ripping were two sides of one coin, just as matching grounds and ground-slaving were. He gave the audience the same warning he'd given Fairbolt and Maker Hoharie about trying to ground-rip malices. Judging from their grounds, many people who hadn't wanted to believe him at first about Dag were slowly changing their minds. They'd heard some about the battle, it seemed, but this was the first clear explanation any of them had gotten. When he was done, he asked Mari to describe the second time she'd seen Dag's ground.
Mari swallowed. "That one was much worse. It was about a week later, the day after he and Fawn broke the groundlock. The ground-ripping signs were maybe a bit less, but not much to speak of. The blighting had spread enough to look like big bruises marking up most of his left side and shoulder. One real good thing, though -- the spatters were gone. But dense is one word I'd not say for his ground right then. He'd spent four days having that malice's groundwork leach it away to feed the mud-puppies. The worst was his left arm. Almost made Othan lose his breakfast, it was so bad. Mostly its ground was gone, though there were these tatters hanging down here and there. Hoharie did what she could for him -- he could move his arm again after, at least -- but there was no mistaking that he'd be some long time recovering from all that damage."
An elderly woman in the crowd flashed. When Arkady acknowledged her, she spoke with an uneasy tone to her voice. "Nobody said anything about all this to me, and my granddaughter was one of the ones trapped in the lock. What happened to his arm?" She rubbed her own left arm for a moment in unconscious sympathy.
Mari looked at Arkady, plainly hoping he'd explain. He said, "That takes a lot of explaining to tell it in full. For a short answer, think of the lock as being like a trap. When a fox gets its paw stuck in a trap, sometimes it'll chew off the paw to escape. You might say Dag did the same with his ground, only at about mid-bicep." He indicated the point with the flat of his hand against his own left arm. "For a longer answer, I'm going to have to leave out many important details -- ask Maker Hoharie or Mari or Fairbolt later if you want to know more. The first thing to know is that when Dag developed groundsetter potential, he had a broken right arm. As a result, he only knew how to produce a left-side projection. The second thing to know is about the knife that Fawn used: It used to be Dag's own bonded knife, but it had become primed with the death of a person who lacked malice affinity. When she stabbed him in the leg, it didn't break open on its own. Instead, he used his one-and-only ground projection to reach into the involution and break it open. Due to the malice spatters on his left arm, he had quite as much malice affinity as anyone could have, so he melded his projection with the dying ground and used the combination to destroy the malice's involution. With all the affinity the spatters had with the involution, they came right out of his ground when he did this. Any other knife would have saved the nine others in the lock; only that one could save him as well. It was a good three months before he could do any ground projecting at all, after that."
The woman was disturbed. She said, "Nobody said anything.... I suppose I'm one of the ones Fairbolt figures should have thanked Dag, but I didn't know about this!"
Arkady asked, "What did you know about the groundlock? Plainly you knew he'd done a good job captaining in general, yes?"
She answered, "Well, yes, but.... I'd heard that Mallora and the others were trapped and might die, but that Hoharie was going out to see what she could do. After they came back, I heard that Dag had gone into the lock to keep the folks in it from dying before Hoharie could even get there. Then Hoharie'd gotten trapped along with, and then the farmer girl stabbed him in the leg and the lock broke. That's all anyone said. Mallora said she and the others were unconscious by that time, so she didn't know anything useful. Why didn't anybody tell me about all that?"
Fairbolt indicated that he'd like to take this one. Arkady nodded to him. Fairbolt turned to look at her and said, "I did try. You responded much like other folk did -- as soon as I got to where Fawn stabbed Dag in the leg, you said you didn't want to hear about the doings of some farmer. I couldn't push too hard, either, since the only person who saw what Dag did was Hoharie and I sure couldn't claim to understand it. Because Dag wasn't able to do ground projecting any more and she wasn't sure the ability would return, she wanted the details to go unexplained. She said she didn't want to get folks' hopes up too high without being sure she could deliver on them. But the council meeting came more than a month before he was recovered enough for her to know."
Arkady added, "It seems to me that you knew enough to know you owed Dag quite a lot, and Fawn as well. I expect if you'd thanked them for what you did know of, you might have had a chance to learn about the rest."
She looked at the bushes. Nope, no answers to be found there. Finally she came up with, "I'm not thanking some farmer who oughtn't be here anyway."
Arkady remembered with some difficulty that he hadn't been much different from that himself, really, and it wasn't even that long ago. It seemed like years. He said mildly, "Then I suppose it's not much of a surprise to you when farmers don't thank Lakewalkers, is it?"
She didn't answer for a moment, then she said, a bit accusingly, "I still wish I'd known. I thought I'd be able to thank him after the council hearing. Cumb -- Tent Redwing said there'd be plenty of time then, and that we shouldn't let him get the idea that doing heroic things would make it all right to have a farmer girl." Cumb-Tent Redwing gave no sign that she'd heard this. "Instead it sounds like it might've made a difference in him deciding to leave, maybe, if I'd said something to him."
Fairbolt said, "Not you alone, I don't think, but you and others who owed him just as much, maybe."
After a pause to see if she had more to say, Arkady decided to continue. "I think most of you now believe that Dag has developed groundsetter potential. There's still the question of why it happened when it did and why nobody but Maker Hoharie recognized it at the time. Do any folk here want to understand that matter?"
Again, there were positive flickers of grounds around the clearing. Some even from folk who hadn't shown any sign of wanting to know before; none from his brother or mother, but that wasn't really much of a surprise.
Arkady began, "First, you've all known all along that he's a maker, you've just agreed not to realize that you know it. Here's a question for patrol leaders and captains: Suppose you took a patrol out to the wilderness, and a not-quite-seventeen-year-old boy was among your patrol. You find a new-hatched malice, do battle, and kill it about as routinely as such things ever get. But the boy, who never even got near the malice, ends up severely blight-sick; throwing up for almost two weeks, on sick leave for nearly four weeks. What would you conclude?"
One of the patrol leaders flashed his ground; Arkady nodded to him. "I'd reckon that he was a new maker and shouldn't be in the patrol. And yes, I do know Dag's tale of his first encounter with a malice. So do you know why that didn't happen with him?"
Arkady grinned. "Yes, I do know why. In fact, his patrol leader did notice. Once Dag was over the worst part, she ordered him to open his ground and looked him over. She informed him that he was becoming a maker and that it was her duty to pull him from the patrol and send him back home. She even told him that, judging from his ground, it was likely he should be a medicine maker or a knife maker. It seems that to a young Dag, this was a worse fate than four weeks of blight-sickness. He persuaded her to agree to a test. After the patrol was up, they would return by way of the malice lair. If he could improve his veiling enough that he could walk across the blight without getting sick, she'd conceal the severity of his trouble. He managed it, barely. Along with the fact that patrollers need to have good ground-veilings, he learned a very important lesson from this: Never let makers see his ground too closely, or they might order him to train as a maker and not as a patroller. Now, here's another one: Can anyone tell me why he always carries a knife when he travels?"
Another patrol leader took this question. "He was riding courier duty alone in Seagate and spotted a very new malice. Because he had a knife, he was able to kill it before it got to be a problem."
Arkady asked, "Wouldn't you think that spotting a malice that new-hatched indicates some strong ground sensitivity?"
The patrol leader answered, "That's just how he is, though; it's why we put him last in the patterns -- so others will get a chance to spot new malices before he gets them. Oh.... Right."
Arkady continued. "Next, here's one more: Suppose you took a full patrol of twenty-five out into some rough terrain. You have Dag with you, you have as many other highly experienced people as you care to claim to have, and you have some young patrollers. One evening one of the young boys goes off with his partner and they flush a mud-man. It injures the boy badly before his partner kills it; the boy is in danger of dying. His partner brings him back, along with the information that the mud-man is crudely made, likely from a new-hatched malice. You've got a lot of things to get done at once. Either scout or do a pattern, set some guards around your camp, treat the boy's injuries, get someone matching grounds and keeping him stable, get a fire going for boiled water, and so forth. What job do you give Dag?"
Another patrol leader indicated that he'd like to take this question. He started by asking, "Can I have three Dags?"
Arkady smiled and shook his head. "One only."
The patrol leader said, "In that case, it's easy. Put him to matching grounds with the boy -- there's nobody better than Dag for that job."
Arkady answered, "I'd go farther -- there's nobody anywhere that can do that job better than Dag. The amount of pain he can take on while still functioning is astonishing. One more, and then I'll explain my purpose in all this. Now you're taking a patrol out to swampy areas. Lots of dirty work cleaning tack, plus the usual jobs like night guard duty, and such. But this time, you've got a visitor -- there's a fellow from north of the Lake. He's a company captain and he's famous, too. Are you going to give him those jobs or make him walk hip-deep into smelly muck?"
The same patrol leader as last time took this one. "Blight, no! More like I'll let him tell me what to do!"
Arkady grinned. "And yet every time you took Dag with you, you had exactly that situation. He couldn't function as a patroller at all unless he could make you forget his past, so he put a lot of work into creating the appearance of 'just a patroller.' Most of you are smart enough to realize that it's not true" -- he glanced over at Ogit, "but it was so important to act like it is that you all pretended to believe it. Over time, folk forgot why he was an exception to so many rules, they just remembered that those rules didn't apply if it was Dag.
"Now, his groundsetter potential should have shown around age forty; it didn't do so because of Dag's experience at Wolf Ridge five years before. Quite simply, there wasn't anything he wanted badly enough to try to reach beyond himself. If he'd ever found himself next to a malice but with no knife, as happened last summer, it could have emerged right then, with the unfortunate result of him dying immediately or soon after. In order for his abilities to emerge otherwise, he had to be brought back to a state of caring about the world and wanting to live. For various reasons, that didn't happen; he was trapped in a half-living state and he stayed so for twenty years, until he met Fawn Bluefield. Her intense aliveness and passion for the world around her dragged him out of that state, back to caring about the world. It wasn't more than about three weeks after he met her that he first produced a groundsetter's projection; he repaired a shattered glass bowl in the home of Fawn's parents. I've seen the bowl myself -- it has so much of his ground in it that I doubt it'll be possible to break it again for forty or more years. Nobody from here was present to see that one, but his next act was one nobody could miss. He used his projection to help in the task of plucking up Fawn's ground to make her cord. He wore that cord openly, for all to see -- all some camp makers had to do was ask enough questions about how the making was done and they'd have learned something interesting. His next major making was done in the middle of the night before he left for Raintree; he placed a complex, shaped ground reinforcement in Fawn's left wrist so she could feel his ground in her cord -- at her request, by the way. Any maker who spent any time with her in the next month or so would have had no trouble at all spotting it. None did, so the only ones who learned of it were Maker Hoharie and Dar Redwing. Maker Hoharie promptly began long discussions with Fairbolt about training Dag as a medicine maker. Dar chose to do and say nothing, for whatever reasons he had. Dag's next acts we've already discussed. Near as I can tell, no other makers besides Hoharie saw what was happening to Dag because none of them could see past Fawn to look at him."
Arkady paused at this point and took a few breaths. He looked over at the audience to see if anyone had any further questions or comments. Some of them were staring at Dar in a not-too-friendly fashion. Some others were staring at nothing or at the grass. After a moment, Tioca Cattail requested permission to speak. He nodded and tapped her ground. Sounding puzzled, she asked, "So, you're here and string-bound to Sumac, but Dag is your apprentice. Will he be coming up soon, or what, exactly?"
It was plain that she was trying not to guess the correct answer. He decided to just come out and say it, whether it was what she wanted to hear or not. "Actually, Sumac and I will be traveling with Whit and Berry down to Berry's home just outside the village of Clearcreek. We're all planning to live together -- it's a nicely large home, there's plenty of room for us all. Dag and I will be teaching farmers about Lakewalker ways, doing medicine making for them, and making ground shields. It's all part of Dag's plan to get farmers and Lakewalkers working together. We'll be showing how farmers and Lakewalkers can live together as equals while we spread the news of how to make ground shields and why farmers should want them as widely as we can."
She looked shocked, saying, "Treating farmers is dangerous! Shouldn't you be in a camp where you'll have protection? You should treat your own folk first, and look to farmers later -- making shields for them is enough already."
Arkady was well aware of the dangers; he wasn't going to tell her about his concerns. He merely said, "We expect we'll manage. And we are willing to treat Lakewalkers as well as farmers; there are several camps near us -- we expect to train apprentices, teach unbeguiling and ground shield techniques, and treat folk. Our plan is to treat for free any patrollers injured or taken ill while on duty; others will pay in cash or goods, just as farmers will be doing."
Pakona Pike indicated that she wished to speak. He acknowledged her, and she said, "Well! I suppose if you want to live and work among farmers, that's your business." From the tone of her voice, this was like living and working among lice and fleas in her book. "But if you're going to treat Lakewalkers, you ought to take Lakewalker payment. With camps nearby, you can use camp credit just fine, I'd think. That's the proper way of doing things, after all."
Arkady stared coldly at her. "Surely you aren't saying that Dag should accept payment in Hickory Lake camp credit. He can't spend it, remember? Time was, he believed without question that this camp would deal honestly with him: He risked his life over and over to save other patrollers and kill malices, he volunteered to do extra patrols in the worst weather and conditions, he trained most of this camp's youngsters in how to patrol. It never occurred to him to doubt his kin and people. In one vote, you betrayed eighteen years of trust. He won't give you a chance to do that to him a second time, and I wouldn't ask it of him." Pakona did not flinch, but Cumbia Redwing did. Interesting, that. She didn't look like she was planning to change her opinions any time soon, though.
Rigni Hawk spoke up indignantly here, "We did not betray him!"
Arkady raised his brows. "Perhaps you can explain why not? It looks like a betrayal to me."
She looked down for a moment, marshaling her arguments. "The vote over whether their cords were valid or not came up tied. Which meant that it would have to be brought up again to the next council. But with Dag leaving and like to take out all his credit, that would leave his kin with no way of collecting the fine if it were assessed. This ensured that wouldn't happen."
Arkady folded his arms. He asked first, "And how did you vote in the matter of their cords?"
She shifted slightly, plainly a bit uncomfortable. "I said they were valid. But one vote doesn't decide a matter, you know."
Arkady smiled sardonically. "Commendable of you, to ensure that if Dag returned broke, he'd still be able to pay a fine that you didn't think should be assessed. So, how much money is that fine, anyway?"
She replied, "Goods in value equal to four good horses. A large fine that could take some time to repay, if we didn't take precautions."
"And how much credit did Dag have compared to that?"
She looked at the bushes some; Arkady doubted they were any more help to her than they'd been to anyone else. She mumbled, "About ten times that amount." Then she spoke more loudly to say, "But if he'd wanted us to block only part of it, he should have argued for that, and he didn't!"
Arkady stared at her for a little while. She flushed slightly. "You are aware, I think, that he was close to falling over at that point? And that he didn't want a protracted battle that would prevent him from being able to leave the next day? I would also expect that you are perfectly capable of recognizing and refusing an excessive request on your own."
She looked again down a moment, then said, "But for the second reason, it was important to block it all. Namely, we wanted to force him to return."
Arkady frowned deeply. "Meaning you wished to ensure that he would fail quickly and have to crawl back here in shame and disgrace? And you can look at me and say you did not betray him? In any event, I'm not at all sad to inform you that you have failed in that goal."
She flushed again, a bit more deeply. "There was one more reason, and it was the most important. We are not a wealthy camp; we can't afford large losses like the amount of his credit. Normally when a person spends their credit, they buy goods or services from another person in the camp. The credit goes around among our folk and is used over and over without loss. He would have taken it all and spent it in farmer country!" She managed to sound a bit indignant, but the effect fell rather flat.
"And if he'd transferred to another camp instead, you'd have gotten to keep his credit?"
"At least that's more Lakewalkers, it balances out when others come here in return!"
He took a deep breath and counted to ten before talking. "I have a hard time seeing any difference between your stated reason and 'I wanted his money for myself so I took it from him.' How are you not a thief?"
She stared at the grass below her. It looked to Arkady like his darts were hitting Tioca Cattail more squarely than they were hitting her. He paused a moment, to give her a chance to say something, then said, "You gave me three reasons why you felt you should block his credit and I've argued against your reasons. Now I think I should give you three reasons why you should not have blocked it. You can answer them as I answered yours, if you wish. First, I point out that his credit was well-earned. Your camp already benefited more than its value just in terms of lives he saved over the years. Will you say I am wrong?"
She shook her head. "I'll only say I don't think that's enough reason."
"Second. Now I understand no one in this camp troubled to thank Dag for Raintree; not even folk who owed the lives of their kin and friends. All the same, I'd think that they might draw the line at such open ingratitude."
She turned bright red and looked away. It was Dirla who answered him, instead, with a false cheerfulness. "Nope, she's got you there -- there's no end to how shameless the folk of this camp are able to be! Still, you're partly right. I've told her more than once that I don't have any aunts who are blighted thieves." Rigni covered her face with her hands.
Arkady closed his eyes for a moment. "I think I'd better address my third point to those folk from last summer's council who still think it was a good idea to block his credit. The reason I have there is that you may have wanted to leave open the possibility that he would return voluntarily some day. Your action just about ensures he'll never call this place home again."
It was Laski Beaver who chose to answer that point. "Humph. I expect he'll be back soon enough. Next summer at the latest."
Arkady raised his brows and looked at her in some surprise. "Really? And how do you figure that?"
She answered, "He's lived here a long time. You seem to have figured out a deal about him, but I think there are some things we might know about him that you don't. Now, he's a resty fellow, I guess you've seen. Not like to stay put in any place. This medicine-making life you're planning looks too settled to appeal for all that long."
Arkady smiled, "He figures he'll manage. He's gotten awfully war-weary over the last few years, you know. Just now he claims that staying put is," he did his imitation of Dag's voice, "'a fine, fresh new thing he's never done before'; he's expecting to like it, actually. We don't expect much trouble just there."
"Also, he's likely noticed by now that his quest is mostly over. He succeeded in finding a way to protect farmers."
"And we're all very pleased about that, I can tell you."
"But that means his pressing reason for leaving us is no longer so pressing. This doing medicine making for farmers and such is just consolidating your success; it's not that necessary."
"Maybe not, but it's every bit as useful as patrolling is."
"Well, just so you know. This isn't the first time he's done this 'running away forever and never going to come back' stunt. It's more like the fifth time. He never was able to stay away even a year and a half before. Without a compelling reason to stay gone any more, I reckon it won't be more than another year or so before he's back."
Arkady shook his head. "I tell you he's changed and you don't hear me. No wonder you missed the signs last summer. Put simply, this isn't the fifth time he's left Hickory Lake forever; it's the sixth. The four times before now that you spoke of were times when he had no plan, no hopes. He left to go on patrol and all his thoughts for the future were simply to not stop patrolling. But when you get tired or injured and can't walk another mile, there's nothing to do but go home. The first time he left was very different. That time was when he was twenty, starting on his training tours. One thing he did while traveling was to look for a place he could call home, preferably somewhere far from here. He picked Luthlia and arranged his second tour so that he would be able to settle there at the end of it. He made himself a new home and would never have returned at all if the Wolf Malice hadn't destroyed everything he'd built. He returned because he couldn't stand to be around the wreckage of his hopes and dreams. His leaving last summer was like his first one; it was specifically to find an answer for the problem of Greenspring; how to make a life for Lakewalkers and farmers together. To solve that problem was also to find a new home for himself and for Fawn. And so, he now has a home, with folk who care about him for himself and who don't try to compel him to be someone he'll never be able to be. He has hopes and plans for the future, which this camp could never give him. I've seen his ground very closely, and I can tell you he does not regret leaving. Yes, he misses the lake intensely, and yes, he misses the folk he was close to when he was here, but no, he's not likely to give up all he's gained just to return to the half-living state that he was in while he was here."
Arkady paused a moment, then sharpened his gaze at Laski. "I won't say that he'll never return to live in a Lakewalker camp; it could happen, I suppose. But have you yet considered that he might choose somewhere other than here? He has some desirable skills -- malice hunting, company captaining, knife making, magery, and soon enough he'll be able to add medicine making and groundsetting. He and Fawn have already been offered full tent rights by New Moon Cutoff. Laurel Gap has gone further -- they not only offer tent rights to both, they offer the gratitude of the entire camp and an extensive line of camp credit for each of them from the start." The offer had come while they were staying at Blackwater Mills; the folks who delivered it admitted they were aware that Dag and Fawn weren't likely to take it, but they wanted it to be known that the offer was there, just in case it was ever needed. "Now Tripoint Camp and Pearl Riffle Camp haven't made any formal offers, but they've let it be known that any applications for membership from the two of them would be welcomed. By comparison, the offer from here doesn't look very favorable: No chance of tent rights for them; they'd be expected to live in a tent where neither considers themselves welcome; no camp credit until Dag faces a council vote where he can listen to fools," a glance at Ogit seemed fitting here, "claim that Fawn is a prostitute; no visible gratitude for last summer's sacrifices -- instead they were shunned and sent up before the council before he was anything like recovered from his injuries, and then he was robbed by the council and his kin. I think that if you actually want him to consider returning for more than just rare vists, you'd do well to improve your offer."
There was a short silence at this point. Nobody appeared to want to argue with Arkady any more. Fairbolt stood and said, "Before Sumac describes what all happened on the Trace, perhaps folks might stand and move around a little." Pakona Pike and Laski Beaver got up and left; so did about fifteen others. Most of the people stayed, however. Ogit stayed, though Arkady thought he'd be smarter to leave. Rigni Hawk walked over to Dirla to talk quietly. Dirla allowed her to sit alongside, but from the look on her face and in her ground, it wasn't likely the rift in their family was going to be healed immediately. Cumbia looked like she wanted to leave, but she was stuck because she was head of the council. Dar started to leave, but when Omba refused to get up, he was also trapped. He sat back down looking cross. From the 'this is your fault' look that he threw at Arkady, it seemed he'd picked a new target to blame. Arkady didn't really care; he wasn't planning to spend much time here.
After a few minutes, Fairbolt sent ground-touches around to tell everyone to sit. Once they were all seated, Sumac stood again and began her talk. "The tale of the flying Bat Malice happened in a region surrounding a mountain valley about a hundred miles south of Silver Shoals. The Tripoint Trace goes between two mountain passes there. The nearest camp is Laurel Gap -- it's about fifty miles to the west, past a few more mountains. Three summers ago, there was a bad summer drought followed by a big forest fire. That fire played a big role in the following events. First, the area already didn't have many people; afterward, there were no farmers to speak of left. Second, there was no tree cover anywhere in the southern two-thirds of the valley. And third, Laurel Gap had fallen far behind in its patrolling of the area -- they'd put off the worst terrain till after they caught up on the rest. About ten to fifteen miles east of the valley, towards the north end, some large bat caverns can be found. Two of them harbor millions of bats apiece, and one is only accessible with ropes. The air is bad in both caves, patrollers generally only go in for a short distance and then are pulled out by ropes."
"We think the malice emerged a bit over two years ago in or near one of those two caverns; counting this year, it would have had three springs worth of pregnant and baby bats to get its molts from. It would not have been able to get itself out of the cave until it could work out how to fly, nor would it be able to send its mud-men out until they could do so, too. So it spent over two years figuring out how to make mud-bats that could lift reasonably large loads aloft. The ones we saw could carry off a bit over a hundred pounds with some difficulty; too much more and they were like to drop their load without getting it over the nearer mountain ridges. Just to add some confusion to things, another malice emerged late this winter or early spring about ten miles south and five or ten miles west of the other, just a few miles off the Trace in that valley. Like spring-time malices that emerge far away from people sometimes do, this one found itself a pregnant animal for its first molt; seems to have been a vixen, judging from the signs. There'd been tales from travelers along the Trace about huge flying monsters for maybe about two weeks before things got crazy; about one week before, there was a family of settlers heading north that turned up in Blackwater Mills -- one or two of them had strange injuries on their shoulders, they had some injured animals, and they claimed their teen daughter was carried off by monsters; we believe she was its first human victim. It was enough to catch the interest of the Laurel Gap patrol; they sent out a company to the north end of the valley in response. No surprise that the malice took a liking to human food; it started sending many groups of mud-bats to the area around the Trace to catch more. We think the two malices encountered each other the night right after the Laurel Gap patrollers arrived at the top of the valley. Predictable results -- they fought, then the new-hatched malice turned and fled southwest, more south than west. In the morning, the Laurel Gap folk started their patterns and a group of about fifty mud-bats found the eastern-most group. It didn't go well for the patrollers; three were killed, two by their own spooked horses, and a fourth was carried off -- his name is Pakko Sunfish -- and several horses were killed as well. They did figure out that hiding under trees was a good way to keep mud-bats from dropping onto them from midair. They also managed to get a courier to the other two patrols in their company, and so a courier also got sent on the two-day trip back to Laurel Gap to tell them what was happening and to ask for as much help as could be brought. All three patrols spent that day fending off groups of attacking mud-bats; they ended up scattered all over the mountainside, only barely able to communicate with each other."
She paused to take a breath at this point. "On the day the battles started, our group was in the southern end of the valley and the action was mostly in the northern end. Before I tell you more about what all happened, I should describe our group. We were twenty-three people with twenty-one horses and eleven mules; most of the mules and one horse were pulling two wagons. The folk were fifteen farmers and eight Lakewalkers. For the Lakewalkers, we were: First, Uncle Dag, who had a bonded knife and a knife primed with the death of a renegade boat bandit from the lower Grace -- the fellow who'd been banished from Log Hollow a few years ago. Next, Arkady, who is not a patroller, but whose medicine making and groundsetting skills were plenty valuable to us. Then, me. And we also had five young patrollers -- Remo and Rase here were two of them. Rase had a primed knife with him. Only one of the five had ever been in a malice battle before -- that was Neeta from New Moon Cutoff. Remo and his junior partner Barr had some experience dealing with the boat bandits; Rase and Neeta's partner Tavia were inexperienced. For the fifteen farmers, we had Fawn and Whit and Berry Bluefield wearing ground shields; we also had two half-bloods, a brother and sister named Calla and Indigo. Both have groundsense, but neither had any training in the use of it before the journey. Arkady and Barr and Uncle Dag had made some progress with teaching them; Calla was almost to the point where she could veil her ground -- she is able to cast her ground into a cord, by the way. The others were a blacksmith married to Calla, two farmer boys heading to Oleana, a family of four that included a toddler boy and a five-year-old girl, and Berry Bluefield's kin -- an uncle, her younger brother, and a teen boy they'd adopted."
Sumac took another deep breath here. "We arrived in the valley in the morning and started north. We first met up with the fleeing new-hatched malice. Uncle Dag led our five young patrollers and Whit Bluefield here up against it; Rase killed it. He got blight-sick, no other serious injuries. We rested that night and continued north the next day. The malice spent that day trying to collect itself an army -- it left its lair, figured out how to mind-slave farmers, and managed to get about fifteen travelers. Luckily there weren't many people for it to grab. It also sent flocks of mud-bats up against the patrollers on the mountainside. Around evening, we were attacked by a flock of fifty mud-bats. Horses and mules really don't like mud-bats, by the way -- they spook and run off in all directions. We were just then approaching the end of the fired-over land; trees could be found to the north, but not to the south -- which meant that neither north or south made good directions for us to flee. By the time we got our horses under control and found our way to get under the trees and the mud-bats broke off their attack, we'd killed or crippled at least twenty of the bats, probably close to thirty. The score was still more in the malice's favor than ours. We had Tavia's horse killed and her carried off early. Then Barr was picked up into the air; he was heavy for his mud-bat and he fought loose, but he fell about fifteen feet and shattered the bones in his lower right leg. Next the toddler farmer boy was carried off. Last, a mud-bat tried to carry off Fawn. She tangled her foot in her stirrup to stay on her horse, and Uncle Dag managed to get Copperhead to run up alongside. His knife had gone to killing another mud-bat, but he swung with his hook at the one going after Fawn. So it let go of her and grabbed his arm. Copperhead was panicked and gave the best buck I've ever seen; he actually managed to throw Uncle Dag! The bat holding his arm called another over -- yes, the mud-bats could talk -- and got it to grab his leg. The two of them carried him off; he dropped his primed knife to Fawn as they did."
Here Ogit stood and spoke, again without bothering to flash his ground. He said angrily, "That was a blighted fool thing to do, to drop a knife to a farmer! He shoulda let the bats carry him to the lair so he could kill the malice there." The patrollers in the group were split between some who agreed with him and others who understood exactly where this was leading.
Sumac looked at him scornfully. "Ogit, you sound ever so much smarter when you keep your mouth shut. You should try it more often. First, I said the air's poisoned in those caverns; they are also pitch dark and treacherous underfoot, and the malice has the ears of a bat. Poor chance of success for someone almost alone, even for Uncle Dag. Also I did say he had two knives -- the primed one could be used by anyone, but the bonded one requires him and another patroller, such as Tavia. His action gave our group two chances at the malice instead of one."
Ogit said, "You don't know he was planning to offer himself. If he said that later, that's just him boasting."
Rase flashed his ground. Sumac nodded and tapped his ground. He stood and said, "I don't know Dag as much as you do, but I do know he doesn't boast. And Sumac might not know if he was really planning that, but I do."
Ogit hadn't learned from his previous experiences; he said, "Yeah, and how does a boy like you know that, eh?"
Sumac handed Rase the speaking stick. He said, "After Dag and Tavia and the tad were carried off, Arkady fixed Barr's leg, then Sumac took me and Barr and Arkady to a cave to hide in, since we weren't any of us able to run over mountains for fifty miles all the way to Laurel Gap. It was a few hours later that Tavia showed up -- she tracked us to our cave. She told us about how she'd twisted and swung to keep her mud-bat from being able to clear the ridge to the east and how it had scraped her off in some bushes. She heard the baby boy crying and went to him; she found Dag pulling a dead mud-bat off him. They'd survived getting dropped almost unhurt except Dag had a real bad twisted ankle. While they were walking back, he told her about his bonded knife around his neck and said she'd be able to do the deed if it were needed. He used his shirt and her vest to make a sling to carry the boy -- he wouldn't let her carry him because he said she'd need her hands free. But when they crossed over the ridge, they found Pakko Sunfish lying at the bottom of a cliff with a broken back. Dag sent Tavia on and he and the little boy stayed with Pakko. She said to me she'd never thought what it'd be like to be the patroller in the song who'd killed his partner and took the broken knife to his partner's wife after." He handed the stick back to Sumac and sat down.
Ogit grumbled, "He still shouldn't ought to've dropped his knife to a farmer."
Sumac shook her head. Exasperated, she said, "That farmer killed the Glassforge malice, made good use of Uncle Dag's first bonded knife, and helped him make both of his knives. She had more experience with using knives then than you do now."
Ogit stalked off. Arkady thought he definitely should have left when the others did. Sumac resumed the tale. "So we had Uncle Dag with the tad and Pakko Sunfish on top of the mountain to the east, and Barr and Rase and Arkady hidden in the cave, with Tavia heading to them. I had the rest of us go west toward Laurel Gap; Remo and Neeta scouting ahead, myself to the rear. Fawn stayed near me; she kept the knife on her. We'd made it to a saddle between two mountains to the west when the malice and a dozen mud-bats showed up, flying. The malice landed on an outcrop. Fawn gave me the knife and I climbed up around behind it. I got to the top, ran up behind the malice with the knife out, and it tipped away off the outcrop and flew away from me. I was running too fast to stop, so I tried to fly, too. I mostly flew downward, catching plants and rocks along the way to control my fall. The knife tumbled separately, and landed in a bush. Fawn ran to get it, and Whit covered her with his crossbow. I got myself stopped just in time to see all the farmers without ground shields starting to attack me and Remo and Neeta -- the malice had mind-slaved them, though Calla fought the slaving. When I tried to reach Fawn, the mud-bats chased me off -- Remo and Neeta and I fled south while Fawn and Whit and Berry fled north. We managed to lose the bats by hiding in a cranny, then when it was clear enough, I sent Neeta to find Fawn and the others and take them to Arkady, while Remo and I continued on to Laurel Gap. I didn't know they had learned of the malice, or I'd've tried looking for Fawn and the others along with. The malice took our companions down the mountain and up the Trace about ten miles, to where it had the rest of its prisoners. Calla was teaching herself to ground-veil on the fly; she managed to lag behind the others more and more, while her brother tried to make her catch up. Soon as they made it out of range of its mind-slaving, they took off running to find Arkady. Neeta didn't find Fawn, so she went on to look for Arkady as well. Tavia found Neeta and Calla and Indigo and took them to Arkady's cave. This is where Whit and Berry will give their testimony, about what they did."
The two of them stood; Sumac handed Whit the stick. "We went runnin' down the mountain. When we found a good enough cave, we stopped and hid in it. We talked some about what to do, and Fawn got this idea. She took one of my crossbow bolts and she took the sharin' knife. They were about the same length, and the knife looked like it could likely be fired from the crossbow if it got trimmed down and balanced. So Fawn carved the hilt down and tied feathers to it." Here Berry took the sharing bolt out of her bag. "We tracked our friends down the mountain and along the road. Berry scouted out a place to hide near them, and we waited there for the malice to come. Seemed like twenty hours, but it was really just two or so -- it came about an hour after dawn. But it stayed up in the air without comin' down close enough for me to shoot it, so I stood to get its attention. That didn't do much good. It got its prisoners to get up and it wanted them to attack us. Berry went forward with a stick to hold 'em off, and Fawn went out and danced around, callin' out, 'Here it is, this is what you want, you stupid bat-malice'."
Many folk looked perplexed about that. Sumac leaned over and collected the stick for a moment from Whit. She said, "Uncle Dag and Fawn are expecting a baby girl around the start of winter. Fawn was setting herself out as bait." A stunned silence greeted that statement.
Sumac gave the stick back to Whit, who said, "And it worked, too. That malice come right down to us, tryin' to ground-rip us as it dropped. We was startin' to pass out from our shields squeezin' our grounds to keep the malice's ripping from working, but just as soon as it was close enough, I sent the bolt at it and got it in the belly. Its wings flew off and it fell apart in the air; nasty stuff rained down on us. And that's how we killed it."
It was Dar Redwing who flashed his ground. Sumac whispered to Whit, who nodded at Dar while Sumac ground-tapped him. Dar said, angrily, "You had no business using a primed knife in that fashion! If you'd damaged it, you would have thrown away a life's sacrifice for nothing. Farmers should not handle Lakewalker things, especially not our knives."
Berry took the stick from Whit. "And I suppose you think we ought to've told Sumac to go tumblin' down the mountain a few more times tryin' to kill it the usual way? I thought once was enough, myself. As for damagin' the knife, I'd not want to risk a knife most times, but we needed a way to kill a malice that stayed up in the air, out of range. And the Lakewalker who gave his death to that blade is one I'd not be that sad to waste -- he was the banished renegade bandit who killed my papa and older brother, along with a bunch more riverboat folk. But Fawn knew what she was doin' just fine -- she helped Dag make both that knife and his bonded one; she said the groundwork was on the inside surface where the body of the knife was, not in the bone of the hilt. She also said if she did get it wrong, we'd know, on account of the knife would've broke open. So, tell me, is Fawn wrong about the groundwork in the knife? And, did you ever fight a malice battle so's you can know when folk should and shouldn't do things?"
Dar drew himself up. "Of course I've not been in any malice battles! My knife-making skill is much too valuable to waste on patrolling." He didn't answer whether Fawn was wrong or not; it seemed easy enough to see that if he didn't want to admit she was right, he'd have to leave that part unanswered.
Berry answered him, "Well, Mister High-and-Mighty Too-Important-To-Get-His-Hands-Dirty, somethin' had to be done, we had somethin' we could try, and there wasn't any folk we could ask to get better ideas from. And, what we did worked. If you ever want to try bein' out in the dark, hungry and tired and scared stiff some horrible monster is gonna eat your friends and kin, maybe then you got the right to say we shoulda done somethin' different. Until then, you can shut your mouth!"
This got a deal of cheering from the patrollers behind Fairbolt. Once it quieted, Iwassa Muskrat's ground flashed. Sumac indicated Iwassa so that Berry could nod. The captain stood and said, "I have a bit of a different question. I don't question that you put together a good attack plan; I'm impressed, actually. But suppose the knives had been switched, and you had Rase's knife instead of Dag's. Would you have done the same to that one?"
Berry looked uncertain and glanced at Whit. After a moment, he took the stick and said, "Seems to me, if I got Rase's knife, I got Rase, too. 'Cause it woulda been Dag that killed the first malice. So Rase wasn't blight-sick and he went with us goin' west. An' I know I wouldn't've tried to swipe his knife. Now since I got Rase with me, seems to me I oughta ask him. So, Rase, can we use your knife?"
Rase swallowed, stood, and waved for the stick. Whit passed it across to him. "That's hard. I don't know if I would've said yes or no then, not knowin' if it'd work or not. I guess I'll say I hope I'd've said yes. But I want to do the shooting -- if anything goes wrong, it ought to be my fault, not yours." He passed the stick back to Whit.
When nobody said anything for a few moments, Fairbolt stood and said, "The meeting's over; the medicine makers and knife makers here should come with me to patroller headquarters now -- there are some things that need to be discussed."
Dar frowned. "I have important business here."
Fairbolt answered with a stronger frown, "The business you have at headquarters is more important."
Eight or so people left with Fairbolt. Cumbia and many of the others headed off back to their own tents, though a lot of patrollers crowded around Whit to examine the knife and the crossbow and to talk about the Bat Malice. Before any people could reach them, Arkady told Sumac quietly, "I'm afraid your papa is in a deal of trouble."
She asked, "Is it what I feared?" At his nod, she sighed and shook her head. "Another reason not to want to spend the night here. He'll be livid when they're done with him." The two of them had talked about Hoharie's actions, or lack of them, on the journey from Pearl Riffle; it'd actually been her guess that Dar might have made such a vile offer to her.
Dirla and her aunt Rigni came over; so did Mallora's grandmother. The two older women looked at each other, waiting for the other to talk first. Rigni Hawk broke the logjam by saying, "I'm sorry about the council vote. I wouldn't do it the same if I had it to do over. Could you pass that on to Dag?"
Arkady looked at her for a moment. "I can, yes. But, it's a bit late for hoping to change things now with just an apology. Is that all you're looking to do?"
Both Rigni and Mallora's grandmother shook their heads and looked down. Arkady sighed, and gave them similar advice as he'd given to Hoharie -- support Dag's efforts to bring about change. He was then kept busy for a long while talking with the camp's makers about ideas for improvements to ground shields. Even those who were still dubious about making them for farmers liked the idea of designing some for Lakewalker children. It was about half an hour later when the medicine makers and knife makers returned, without Dar. They joined in the discussion enthusiastically, but with no comment about their meeting with Fairbolt.
Change had come to Hickory Lake.