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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Family  ➡  Christian  ➡  Fantasy

Flight of the Wounded Falcon

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Copyright © 2017 Patricia Strebel Mercer

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical re-views and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copy-right law.

 

All characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental but I know they’re alive somewhere.

 

Cover design by Trish Mercer, who timidly asked her daughter’s anthropology professor (with perfect hair) to stand in as Perrin Shin. Dr. David Crandall of Brigham Young University responded to my lengthy email with a brief, “Sure, why not?” then sportingly wrangled two little boys running in opposite directions through the trees while I did nothing to assist but took pictures with my son-in-law, Austin Pearce. Dr. Crandall proved to be the perfect Perrin.

 

Contact author via website: http://forestedgebooks.com

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This book is also available in print.

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[+ For updates about the series, sign up here: When’s the next book being released?+]

More important than knowing when an answer

is “yes” is recognizing when it’s “no.”

MAPS

 

 

A pronunciation guide to some of the more

unusual names . . .

Idumea— i-doo-ME-uh

Mahrree—MARR-ee

Peto—PAY-toh

Hierum— HIE-rum

Tuma Hifadhi— TOO-muh hi-FOD-hee

Jaytsy— JAYT-see

Fadh—FOD

Jothan—JOH-thun

Asrar—AZ-rar

Lorixania—Lor-ix-ZYAN-ya

Cephas—SEE-fus

Boskos—BOSS-kose

Barnos—BARN-ose

Contents

Chapter 1—“Young Pere is an interesting young man.”

Chapter 2—“You’re as bad as your father and grandfather.”

Chapter 3—“But even then, the world still saw you as a hero.”

Chapter 4—“I didn’t sleep much last night—”

Chapter 5—“I got to watch a falcon for quite a while.”

Chapter 6—“We leave at dawn, by the way.”

Chapter 7—“Rector Shin, how look the trees?”

Chapter 8—“What are you hiding, Puggah?”

Chapter 9—“That’s one nasty stick.”

Chapter 10—“Does it ever hit you, just what we have?”

Chapter 11—“Those are the greatest soldiers we’ve ever produced.”

Chapter 12—“And it’s the Creator’s will.”

Chapter 13—“I’ve had enough surprises in my life.”

Chapter 14—“Show me the miracle now!”

Chapter 15—“We can do this for him, and for you.”

Chapter 16—“Discover anything thought-provoking?”

Chapter 17—“How long has this been in here, Father?”

Chapter 18—“The world’s not so simple.”

Chapter 19—“Why am I taking you?”

Chapter 20—“I don’t even know how to say it.”

Chapter 21—“You’re going to have to do much better than that.”

Chapter 22—“Oh, are you new?”

Chapter 23—“You can stay, look around a little.”

Chapter 24—“We give you a bed, a uniform, and a purpose.”

Chapter 25—“I’ve always been able to count on you.”

[+ Chapter 26 --“So General Thorne is the most reasonable person in the world?” +]

Chapter 27—“The world seems to be heavier for you today.”

Chapter 28—“I’m hoping he’s gone for a very long time.”

Chapter 29—“I’ve lost my touch.”

Chapter 30—“Run, run, run?”

Chapter 31—“Does the general know what you are?”

Chapter 32—“You’re bringing back hope.”

Chapter 33—“Is this real?”

Chapter 34—“Men, we’re looking at Mount Deceit, right now.”

Chapter 35—“Where are the other soldiers?”

Chapter 36—“Third problem is the identity of that corporal.”

Chapter 37—“I think I know who he is.”

Mahrree’s Family Charts

Acknowledgements

About the Author

 

Chapter 1—“Young Pere is . . .an interesting young man.”

Year 363

General Lemuel Thorne straightened his already erect back and reviewed the next two hundred troops that paraded before him. He stood on the crest of the manmade hill that crushed an old barn to overlook the parade grounds that were once a farm. The farmhouse had been demolished to make room for the large mess hall that stood near the new main gates of the expanded compound. The first thing soldiers want when they returned from maneuvers is a meal. Thorne knew how to treat his men. It was one of the reasons they were so loyal to him.

He quickly calculated how many more troops were to come. Two thousand now had already passed him, and five thousand still needed to go by in celebration of his 25th year as commander of Province 8 and the surrounding areas.

Some older history books said that Administrator/Commandant Genev had been in charge of the fort for two of those years, but Thorne had disposed of those books as easily as he disposed of Genev, and now no one remembered the old administrator or his time in the village that used to be known as the Edge of the World. It was as if he’d never existed.

The sun beat down exceptionally warm for the 35th Day of Planting Season, but at least it wasn’t pouring rain as it had been for the past three celebrations.

Already the retelling of Thorne’s defeat of the impotent colonel, his traitorous wife, the sergeant major spy, and the loss of the children twenty-five years ago had been recounted by a major in a loud and dramatic voice, complete with reenactments by troops in appropriate costumes. Special emphasis was given to the fact that their general had been only a captain at the time, received a crippling injury, yet continued on to defeat all those who destroyed their peace. Only through General Thorne’s tenacity and perseverance did he eventually overthrow the commandants themselves, who caused so much chaos which still plagued their splintered world.

The speech had been honed for years to motivate the young troops to feats of their own glories despite hardship and pain. The greatest moment of the Celebration would be when General Thorne would draw his sword and remind the men of the growing threat of the other sectors, and how for years Edge, now Province 8, has been the most peaceful in the entire world because of the strong army presence. The future of their area, he would remind them, and indeed of the entire world, depended on General Thorne and his men maintaining peace against the rest of the world that no longer knew order.

But past the gates of Fort Shin where General Thorne stood, through the forest littered with scalding water spouts, deadly gas pockets, and lethal mud volcanoes, beyond the boulder field that could take a full day or more for the average man to scale, up the rocky ridges and slopes of the great and impassable mountains, past the high mountain meadows no one in the known world knew existed, through narrow and confusing canyons that swallowed many stray cattle, and beyond a narrow passageway opened up a valley of immense proportions.

In that valley grew wildflowers, animals, gardens, crops, orchards, vineyards, herds, and a civilization that kept itself unknown and hidden from the world.

To the south and west of the main city stood a building designated for the education of older teenagers. And toward that building another general was jogging in a hurry and wondering if this time he’d be too late to prevent a catastrophe.

Had he lived in the known world he would have been forced into retirement two years ago. But the only ones who retired here were those who were infirm or dying. This general was neither.

While he wasn’t quite as brawny as he’d been as a younger officer, he was still as fit as men a third of his age. The only way anyone could keep him down was to pile a mountain on top of him. He had far too many responsibilities, and the men in the towers had just signaled him that the greatest concern of his life was currently standing on top of a two-level building, having hatched yet another less-than-brilliant plan.

His grandson was ready to fly.

—-

Young Perrin Shin, named after his grandfather, stood on top of the two-story-high schoolhouse and wondered if the wind would affect his attempt. The breeze was only slight, but it could interfere. Then again, a stronger wind may have been better.

Well, he’d find out soon enough. That was the purpose of today’s test—

“You’re going to get in trouble!” whined the voice of a cousin far below.

Everyone had an opinion, and he’d learned long ago to disregard them because they were usually wrong. At seventeen years old, he’d pretty much figured out everything already. Young Pere wriggled his back to straighten out his wings. Or rather, the blanket strapped to the poles attached to his back with harnesses that were to be considered wings.

A crowd of children down below, a mixture of siblings, cousins, and friends watched as he fussed with the configuration, trying to shift the blanket back into place as the breeze ruffled it.

Another girl, about fourteen years old, came around the building. “He’s coming!” the cousin warned Young Perrin.

He knew by the inflection of her voice that she meant trouble was coming. Peering over the edge, he saw the white hair jogging to the schoolhouse.

Young Pere felt torn. On the one hand, he wanted to get this over with before any adults arrived. They always complicated matters, pointing out the flaws in his plans and telling him he didn’t know enough to do what he wanted to attempt.

On the other hand, he wanted Puggah to see this. There were times Young Perrin was sure he saw veiled approval—or maybe even jealousy—in his grandfather’s eyes.

Suddenly there he was, in front of the schoolhouse: large, muscular, and now striding purposefully despite being seventy-two years old. As he reached the knot of children he stopped, put his hands on his waist, and his eyes interrogated each one of them.

One of the boys pointed upward. “There, Puggah.”

The older man didn’t move his head but shifted his gaze to the roof. What he saw made his jaw clench.

“You see these white hairs?” he yelled, pointing to his head. “You’ve given me each one of them! What are you planning now, Young Pere?”

“Puggah,” Young Pere called down. “I know what you’re thinking, but this will work.” He spread out his arms. “I’m going to fly,” he announced grandly.

His grandfather shook his head in disbelief. “Boy, where do you get these ideas?”

“Now Puggah, trust me with this one. I’ve thought this through.”

His grandfather folded his arms. “Since when do you ever think things through?”

Young Pere scoffed at the insult. “All the time! Now, I wanted to see what it would be like to jump from this height—”

“Why?”

Young Pere, surprised by the question, held out his hands as if the answer was obvious. “It just seems like an interesting thing to do.”

His grandfather exhaled heavily. “So you think it’ll be interesting to crash to the ground and break something you have yet to break?”

“I’m not going to crash to the ground,” Young Pere said. “I’m going to float down.” He flapped his arms experimentally. “This will work.”

“If it were that simple to fly,” his grandfather said, “don’t you think others would have done it by now?”

Young Pere knew the strategy: logic. He had a way to counter it. “Puggah, sometimes people are just too cowardly to do the obvious. I’ve researched this, and no one’s tried this before. Probably because they were afraid of falling.”

“Maybe people have tried this,” Puggah acknowledged, “but didn’t survive to write about it. Others just found their flattened bodies on the ground, mysteriously covered in blankets, and had no idea what caused their demise. In all your research did you look up ‘Unexplained deaths in Salem’?”

Some of his grandsons snickered. Some of his granddaughters wrung their hands in worry.

“Oh, ha-ha,” Young Pere called down at him.

“Besides,” Puggah went on, “the Creator didn’t design us to fly.”

Ah, logic again. Young Pere held up a finger. “But Puggah, the Creator also didn’t design us to move from one place to another quickly, but that’s why he gave us horses. I’m just doing what Muggah says: Test everything. Test what you believe, test what you doubt, find out the truth of all things yourself.”

Perrin closed his eyes, knowing full well what was to come next.

“Well, Puggah, I doubt that the Creator did not want us to fly. Therefore, I will test what I doubt!”

Young Pere could read the cynicism in his grandfather’s expression. “You can learn from other’s mistakes, Young Pere. Remember when Mr. Hint fell from his barn roof?”

“But did he have blanket wings?” Young Pere asked knowingly.

“Let me rephrase this,” Perrin said, quietly growling as he always did when he was losing an argument. “The Creator did not design YOU to fly off the roof today.”

“And where’s that written?” Young Pere countered.

“It’s Nature’s Law,” his grandfather called up to him. “All things fall to the ground: Law number 1. Look, your mother’s on her way.” He glanced to the side of the building to make sure she hadn’t already arrived, but everyone would have heard her if she had. “Now come down.”

Young Pere grinned. “That’s what I’ve been planning to do!” and fluffed out his wings.

“Not that way, boy!” Perrin bellowed.

“Puggah, didn’t you ever wonder what it’d feel like to fly?” Young Pere called down.

“Briefly,” Perrin admitted, “but then I worry about what it’d feel like when I hit the ground!”

“See, there you go again: assuming my failure. But Puggah, what if I don’t hit the ground? What if I can defy Nature’s Law? And even if I don’t, won’t the thrill of falling be worth the pain at the bottom?”

Perrin threw his hands in the air. “Just how many times do you have to hurt yourself to answer that question, Young Pere? Look, I understand your desire for something exciting, so if you want something to thrill you, come down here the proper way and, and . . .” Perrin looked around, trying to find an enticing diversion.

“What, race you, old man?” Young Pere sniggered.

Perrin took a deep breath. His grandson had been teasing him about their last race for years now. Young Pere was almost thirteen then, and already larger than his father. Perrin was sixty-seven, and thought he was still quite fast for his age, so he bragged to the family he was about to humble his boastful grandson.

It was Perrin who was humbled, or rather humiliated, in front of the entire family who cheered his grandson’s sizable victory. Not even Uncle Shem had any sympathy for him.

Perrin folded his arms and subtly felt his ample bicep. “Come down here and take me on! You have yet to beat me in an arm wrestle. Today may be your lucky day.”

His twelve-year-old grandson looked up at Perrin and scowled. “An arm wrestle? Oh, Puggah. That’s not thrilling—”

“Hush, Hogal.”

Young Pere wagged a finger at his grandfather. “Not today, old man. I’ll beat you another time.”

Perrin’s mouth dropped open in feigned dismay. “Again with the ‘old man’? Get down here, boy. Let’s see who the ‘old man’ is!”

His seven-year-old granddaughter standing next to him grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “You are an old man, Puggah. But that’s all right. I like your white hair.”

He bent over and gave her a quick kiss on the head. “It’s only starting to go white. But thank you, Morah. Always good to be reminded.” He glanced back up at Young Pere. “Look, my afternoon’s free, so let’s come up with something else exciting, all right?”

Another young man rounded the school house. Cephas was the same age as his cousin and called up a warning when he saw him on the roof. “Young Pere, Aunt Lilla’s on her way. Better get down, now!”

“All right, Cephas,” Young Pere said with as much sincerity as he could muster for his ever-obedient, ever-perfect cousin. “For you, I will.”

He backed up along the roof line, and Cephas and Perrin exchanged looks of relief.

Until they heard the running.

They didn’t have time to shout, “No!”

Young Pere was the first human on that sphere to feel the sensation of flying. And it was as glorious, as he knew it would be! It made his heart quicken, then stop in amazing joy as the air rushed past his face.

Then . . . he felt the sensation of falling.

He wasn’t the first human to experience that. But it was still fantastic in its own right—

Then toppling. All right, maybe not so good—

Then the sensation of hearing his mother scream. Yeah, getting worse—

Then the sensation of impact.

Then pain.

Then darkness and silence.

—-

When Young Pere’s eyes opened, he looked into the face of his mother. She was red, puffier than usual, and her dark blond hair was falling untidily out of its bun.

She cried out as she looked up to the ceiling. “Thank the Creator!”

“You don’t have to yell, Lilla,” said someone behind her.

“Yes, I do!” Lilla exclaimed, immediately smothering Young Pere’s face with sloppy kisses. “It’s the only,” kiss, “way that,” kiss, “my boy,” kiss, kiss, “hears me!”

He’d need a washing rag later.

Behind his mother hovered his grandmother. Mahrree Shin looked slightly disheveled, her shoulder-length gray hair dislodged from where it was usually tucked behind her ears. Something about her appearance was weary. Wearier than usual.

“Say something,” she prompted him, not entirely convinced he was all right.

“Hello, my name is Young Pere,” he said, a bit groggily, “and you seem like a charming young woman. What’s your name, miss?”

Mahrree rolled her eyes. “Yes, he’s fine.” She exhaled as if she hadn’t breathed properly in hours. “Young Pere, you’re being preserved, but for what I can’t imagine.” Muggah leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t you ever, ever scare me like that again,” she whispered fiercely in his ear.

Young Pere tried to smile at her often repeated admonition, but every muscle protested in pain. He tried to sit up and realized he was in his bedroom.

“Wait—I’m at home?”

Another face came over, belonging to his cousin Boskos Zenos. At the same stature as his father Shem at age twenty-two, Boskos also had his light brown hair and blue eyes, which now peered deeply and analytically at Young Pere. He picked up Young Pere’s wrist, felt his pulse, and nodded in satisfaction.

“What, I get only the doctor’s apprentice, now?” Young Pere asked.

Boskos ignored that and looked into each of his dark brown eyes. “How do you feel? Your left shoulder is bruised where you landed on it. Try rotating it.”

Young Pere did so and winced in pain. “Not dislocated this time.”

“Didn’t think so,” Boskos said, peering closer and closer into his left eye as Young Pere tried to lean away from him. “My sister said you bounced when you hit the ground. Are your ribs all right? Your breathing’s been clear and we didn’t feel any breaks.”

Young Pere took an experimental breath. “Nothing feels broken. This time.”

“Good.” His cousin smiled and stood up. “I’ll tell Dr. Toon he doesn’t need to come by again until morning. I can keep an eye on you until then. You need to stay in bed for the next few days if you want to be ready for next week.”

“Sure, Bos,” Young Pere said in his best sincere voice.

Boskos pointed at him. “I mean it.”

Young Pere sighed while his mother resumed her fussing over him, straightening his blankets and brushing aside his black hair.

Boskos turned to the older man leaning against the wall with his arms folded. “Uncle Perrin, make sure he stays in bed.”

Perrin nodded. “I’ll do my best, Dr. Zenos.”

“I’m not ‘doctor’ yet—a few more tests still to pass.”

“For as much practice as you’ve had over the years with this family, I think they should grant you your certificate already.”

Boskos grinned. “That’s what I keep telling them.”

Perrin caught his arm as Boskos started to leave. “After the doctor, stop by and talk to your father,” he said in a low voice. “He was worried.”

“I was already planning on it.” Boskos headed down the hall, calling, “Uncle Peto, he’s awake.”

Young Pere automatically stiffened, knowing what was to come, but every muscle ached as he did so.

Almost instantly his father appeared at the door. Unlike Young Pere, Peto was of average height, with light brown hair and pale gray eyes, but his features were the same as Perrin’s, which meant the same as Young Pere’s. He sat down gingerly next to his son, and when he spoke his tone was tight.

“The doctor and Boskos said they can’t see anything that will be permanently damaged. Except maybe your head.” He ignored the unnecessary grooming of his wife who was mopping Young Pere’s head with an overly damp cloth. “And hopefully your pride. But I have my doubts about that, son.”

He gripped Young Pere’s hand which felt fine until his father squeezed it.

“I’m just so grateful you’ve come back to us again,” Peto said earnestly. “We’ve been praying for you since yesterday afternoon, you know.”

That surprised Young Pere. “So . . . how long have I been here?”

He heard his grandfather answer. “It’s nearly dinner time now, so since yesterday when your father, Uncle Shem, and I carried you home after your bird-brained idea. You’re getting heavier, boy. I remember when I could carry your limp body home all by myself.” Perrin’s face was stern but he couldn’t hide the relief in his eyes.

“Oh,” Young Pere said, making sure they all heard the twinge of regret he added. “I’m sorry about that. I guess it explains why I’m hungry now, though,” and he looked pleadingly at his mother.

“He’s hungry!” she cried. “Oh, it’s been a cold gravy day, I’ll tell you.”

Young Pere knew how bad a situation was based on the worst meal his mother could think of. The nastier the items, the more worried she’d been.

“—A cold gravy day with moldy biscuits and floppy pickles and runny potatoes—”

“Didn’t he say he was hungry, Lilla?” Perrin mercifully interrupted his daughter-in-law before she detailed the saddest dinner in Salem. It was time to make her son the best dinner, as she always did.

“That’s right!” she said happily. “I knew I was right to make those first peaches into pie.” She kissed him and leaped to her feet to rush down the long hall to the kitchen.

But Peto wasn’t smiling. “And that’s all you have to say, Young Pere? ‘I’m sorry, I’m hungry’?”

“Peto . . .” Mahrree said calmly.

“No, Mother, he’s old enough to understand.” He looked intently at his son. “Whatever you do affects everyone around you. Last night your siblings and cousins were sure this time you wouldn’t come back to us. Morah cried herself to sleep. Lori even came over to keep watch last night. Uncle Shem and Aunt Calla have been here twice. Cephas did your chores this morning. Young Pere, whenever you do something ‘interesting,’ everyone suffers. Can you please try to understand that?”

He’d heard this lecture before, and while he was lying in bed, too. He looked past his father and counted the wood planks on the ceiling as he usually did. Eventually he came up with, “It’s not like I’m trying to hurt other people.” He really didn’t know what else they wanted him to say.

“Young Pere,” Peto put his hand lightly on his son’s broad chest. “I worry about you, immensely. I don’t want to lose you. I couldn’t bear for something truly terrible to happen to you. Can you understand that?

Young Pere nodded, but kept his gaze on the ceiling. Nothing truly terrible had happened to him before. Why should it in the future? He always woke up again, sometimes in casts, sometimes with stitches, but in a few days or weeks or moons, he was fine again.

Peto sighed as if wanting to say something else. Instead, he squeezed his son’s hand again. “I’ll go tell everyone else how you’re faring. Although I’m sure your mother has already sung it to the neighborhood.”

Peto looked at his parents since his son wouldn’t meet his eyes.

They both gave him a quick nod. That usually meant he was expecting them to say something profound in a few minutes, right after he left.

Peto patted Young Pere’s chest. “Remember that I love you, son.” He stood up and left the room.

Puggah and Muggah looked at each other, then at their twelfth grandchild who had let his gaze drop to count the boards on the wall. Young Pere wondered who’d go first.

“Do you know how much he worries about you, Young Pere?” Muggah started, because she usually went first.

“Yes,” he said dully. Giving them the answers they wanted made the speeches go by faster. He’d learned that when he was fourteen and had run out of the house into a small twister in the pasture to see just how powerful it was. You would have thought by his family’s overreaction that it had thrown him further than a few dozen paces.

“He gets frustrated because he knows no other way to tell you how much he fears for you,” Mahrree continued. “It’s not really his way to smother you in kisses like your mother does.”

Young Pere didn’t have enough strength to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching upward at that.

She noticed. “Nor would you want that, I am sure!” Mahrree smiled broadly. “You have an exuberant spirit, my sweet boy.”

Young Pere blushed at his grandmother’s nickname for him.

“You have the capacity to accomplish great things. But only if you discipline yourself. You need to find a way to harness your impulses, use them in productive ways . . .”

He sighed and started counting boards again. He’d heard this speech before, several times.

And Mahrree knew it too.

She stopped and leaned over to kiss him again on the cheek. “I love you, Young Pere. No matter what you do. Even when you manipulate my words for your own purposes. I would never have told you to test Nature’s Law by throwing yourself off a building.”

“That’s not what I was trying . . . oh, never mind,” he mumbled.

Mahrree patted his cheek. “I’ll go check on your dinner. Make sure the gravy’s warmed up.”

Young Pere watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was giving her husband an, ‘It’s your turn,’ look as she left.

Perrin nodded at her but didn’t move from his spot against the wall. Instead, he watched for a while until his namesake finally looked over at him.

“It’s your turn, isn’t it, Puggah?” Young Pere asked his grandfather. He usually began with I’m concerned about you, son. Let’s talk. Young Pere assumed that was a leftover phrase from his years in the army.

But maybe Perrin was going for a new approach, because today he only shrugged and said, “Do you need anything?”

“No, Puggah.”

“All right, then.” Perrin pushed off of the wall and came over to his grandson. For lack of something better to do, he ruffled up Young Pere’s thick black hair.

Young Pere wondered if he was envious. Supposedly Puggah’s hair used to look like that. Everything about Young Perrin Shin—from his towering height to his massive build to his dark brown eyes—was a copy of his grandfather, or so he was told.

“You need to rest up. The trail marking trip is in less than a week. Your grandmother in Norden is expecting our visit, and if I don’t bring her her grandson in good health, she just might sit on me.”

Young Pere couldn’t hide the smile that surfaced to his lips. Grandma Trovato was a hefty woman.

“I’ll come back and check on you later. If you need anything, remember you can always ask for me.” He patted Young Pere’s cheek gently and headed for the door.

His littlest sister Morah bounded in, glanced up at Puggah to make sure he was on his way out, then rushed to Young Pere’s side.

“You’re awake!” she chirped.

“Yes, obviously,” he said to the seven-year-old. While he appreciated how she idolized him, it was also quite annoying at times. Except when she was useful.

“Sorry I got the wrong blankets for you,” she said, her face the picture of disappointment. “I bet it would’ve worked with better blankets.”

He patted her hand, which sat tentatively on his bed. “That’s all right. I’m not sure that was the problem, but I appreciate you sneaking them out of the house for me.”

Something still worried her, though. “So . . . you’re not mad at me? I didn’t make a mistake?”

“No, not mad. You did just fine.”

“And I didn’t tell on you,” she blurted. “I don’t know who did. But I kept your secret good, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did,” he assured her. “You’ve proven you can be part of my team,” he whispered the last words, and she beamed like the sunshine. He needed an innocent spy and accomplice, and so far, Morah was showing her worth. Sometimes the adults in the family became too curious as to what Young Pere was up to, and questioned his every movement, request, and effort to sneak off with something tucked under his shirt.

But little Morah? She could charm the claws off a kitten.

“When I’m healed and ready for my next project, you’ll be my number one helper.”

She couldn’t have grinned any wider, showing front teeth which were hopelessly crooked. “All right, Young Pere,” and she put her finger to her lips, just as he had when he’d tasked her to sneak him out blankets for his wings.

He winked at her, and added an eyebrow raise, as if they were conspiring on the greatest adventure Salem had ever seen. “Now, go see if Mama saved me any extra pie. If she hasn’t, slip one into the cabinet for me, all right, my number one helper?”

Her hand did something odd around her forehead, until Young Pere realized she was trying to salute. But, since they didn’t have an army in Salem, and Morah had only met a handful of former soldiers who never saluted—at least, they never did twice, since General Shin despised it when any refugees tried to salute him—her attempt was bizarre at best.

“Uh, thank you for that,” he said to her. “Dismissed,” he said, more as a question than an order. But when he said, “Check on that pie?” it was clearly an order.

Morah grinned and bobbed out of the bedroom, just as a slew of siblings and cousins came flooding in.

—-

The flow of family visitors continued as Young Pere ate his dinner, and second helpings, in his bed. Mahrree sat in the gathering room with an eye on the hallway to see who went in and out, and if her most troublesome grandson needed anything.

But mostly she was watching for . . . Ah, there he was, with his arms full of chopped wood for her and Perrin’s fire. Cephas Briter, only three days older than Young Pere, nodded once to Mahrree before heading down to her wing to deliver the wood. He returned a moment later and made his way through chatting relatives to check on his cousin Young Pere.

Mahrree caught Perrin’s eye across the room, but already he was striding to the hallway and his namesake’s bedroom.

The boys’ relationship was an application in natural laws, Mahrree had decided some years ago: for as much as Cephas tried to pull toward restraint and care, Young Pere provided an equal, and often greater, opposing push for recklessness. At times Mahrree wondered if there hadn’t been some divine appointment as to who was in each family. The Creator must have known someone like Young Pere would need someone like Cephas to provide some balance. Although they had been best friends when they were little, they became opposites as they aged, and now that they were nearly eighteen, they could barely abide being in the same room.

Still, Cephas seemed intent on making an effort, likely because Young Pere was too sore to put up much of a physical fight.

Cephas went into the bedroom only after a younger brother bounded out of it, and Mahrree and Perrin tiptoed up to the door to listen.

“How are you feeling?” Cephas asked amiably.

“Fine,” was the short response.

An uncomfortable silence followed, then, “Don’t worry about your chores for the next few days. I’ve got them covered.”

“Don’t bother,” Young Pere’s response was crisp. “I can do them.”

Cephas scoffed, likely trying to sound light-hearted, but it wasn’t light enough. “No, you can’t. Boskos said you need to rest at least a week, and I imagine you can barely walk. How can you take care of the morning firewood?” In his tone, Mahrree could hear his genuine concern.

But that wasn’t what Young Pere heard.

“Cephas, just do your own chores. I don’t need your charity.”

“Charity? It’s not charity,” Cephas insisted. “I’m doing it for . . . Muggah. She needs the firewood.”

“I can take care of my Muggah. You stay at your house; I’ll stay at mine,” said Young Pere firmly. “Take care of your own family.”

“Muggah is my family, and so are you, Young Pere.”

“And how often do you regret that?”

Cephas groaned, all diplomacy flying out the window. “What, this again? That was three years ago! And I never said I regretted you being in my family. What I said to the lumberjacks rescuing you was that I was sorry that they had to come out all that way. Honestly, Young Pere—you hear only what you want to hear, don’t you?”

“What I want to hear,” Young Pere said in a measured yet hostile tone, “is you not lecturing me anymore. That’s what my parents and grandparents are for.”

“Well maybe if you actually listened to them once in a while, I wouldn’t have to tell you the same things!”

Mahrree and Perrin exchanged the same look, and Perrin cleared his throat loudly to announce his presence before pushing open the door. “Time for family prayer, boys!”

Cephas stormed out, apologetically patting his grandmother’s arm as he passed, and stomped to the bustling gathering room.

Mahrree peered into the bedroom to see Perrin hefting Young Pere, who insisted on getting out of bed. Even now Perrin was still so strong, yet so gentle. He readily hoisted his groaning grandson who matched him in height and bulk, and put a steadying arm around him. After a moment Young Pere nodded that he wasn’t about to topple over, and the two of them slowly lumbered to the door. Mahrree stepped back, knowing her grandson wouldn’t want her to see him so frail, and sure enough, once they finally made it to the hall, he shrugged off his grandfather and shuffled on his own down the long hallway. He had a point to prove to his cousin Cephas, although it was a stupid point.

Mahrree caught her husband’s arm. “I don’t think it’d be a good idea to ask either of them to offer the prayer tonight,” she whispered. “We don’t need another ‘Please bless that my cousin will realize he’s a big dummy,’ prayer tonight.”

Perrin smiled as he likely remembered the prayer recently offered by Morah Shin after she had an argument with Young Shem Briter. “Agreed. Tonight’s my night anyway.”

Perrin kept that family prayer full of civility and gratitude for the welfare of their family. It was nights like that when Mahrree thought maybe he had learned something in his negotiation classes years ago. But it was more likely the tutelage of the Creator over the years that had turned Perrin into the remarkable man that he was now. He had a way of soothing every conflict, of understanding each grandchild, and of always being at the right place at the right time.

—-

“I know I’ve asked this of you before, but any suggestions?” Peto said as he looked at his mug and slowly turned it in his hands. His brown hair seemed to have added a few more gray strands around his temples since yesterday afternoon. They complimented the lines that were etching deeper around his eyes.

He sat at the eating room table with Deck and Perrin. The younger children were asleep, the older children were in their rooms in the western wing, and the women were talking in the gathering room, leaving them alone.

Deck, sitting next to him at the large table, slowly shook his head. “Young Pere is . . . an interesting young man.”

Peto stopped turning the mug, looked at Deck, and said, “Well, that was helpful.”

Deck smiled faintly. “I don’t know how else to put it. He’s not a bad boy. It’s as if he’s gotten into a batch of bad feed and can’t get it out of his system. If he were a bull I might have more helpful ideas. None of my sons have been quite as lively as Young Pere. Yet.”

Perrin chuckled softly from across the table. “If Young Pere were Deck’s bull, there’d be a way to steer him to be calmer, I’m sure.”

“Oh, I’m not suggesting that!” Deck protested while his father-in-law and brother-in-law smiled.

“I know you’re not,” Peto assured him. “It’s just that Lilla and I don’t know what more to do for him. We run from one disaster of his to another, praying he’ll survive long enough to learn some sense. Of our thirteen children, we spend most of our time on him.” He sighed miserably. “I just worry how it’s all going to end,” he whispered.

Perrin leaned forward. “You can’t think like that, about the ‘end,’ whatever it may be. You can’t assume it’ll be for the worst. Miracles still happen, all the time. You of all people know that.”

Peto nodded feebly, staring at his mug again. “I know all about miracles. And I’ve been praying for one for Young Pere. But the Creator can’t force anyone to do anything.” He looked up briefly. “It would be a lot easier if He could.”

Deck nodded in understanding. Some of his brood of twelve had given him and Jaytsy many moments of fear and grief, and with Young Shem only seven years old, there were undoubtedly many more years of worry to come. His children didn’t cause his hair to go gray, they just caused it to go. By the time his youngest would be a father, Deck was sure he’d be completely bald.

“So, Peto,” Deck said gently, “what would Rector Shin say to a discouraged father?”

Peto scoffed. “Has anyone in our congregation had a son like mine? It’s true: the rector’s children are always the worst.”

“But who else in Salem,” Perrin began, “besides a rector who grew up in the world, could have enough patience to handle such a spirited boy? What other grandparents have had so much experience with reckless teenagers? Who else here could possibly help rein in this one before he does permanent damage? Can you imagine if Young Pere was in Edge? Or whatever they’re calling it now?”

Deck shuddered.

Peto remained unmoved.

“This family was prepared to be sent Young Pere,” Perrin assured his son. “The Creator knows you’re the best man in Salem to be his father.”

Peto only shrugged.

“I remember Rector Shin giving a talk not too long ago about choices,” Perrin said, looking off in the distance.

His son looked down at the table and smiled dimly.

“I believe he said, we all make our choices, we all live with the consequences. We all mess up. We learn from the mistakes, hopefully, and make better choices the next time around. Some people take a lot longer to learn a lesson than others do. But that’s why we’re here, working the Test, enduring to the end. And so we sit around the table patiently hoping we see the boy get some sense knocked into him.”

Peto examined his mug. “I didn’t put it exactly like that. But at least I know someone picked up the general idea.” In a whisper he asked, “What have I done wrong with him?”

“Nothing, Peto!” Deck said earnestly. “You have five older children who have matured very well and they know their Creator. You have . . .” he counted quickly, “seven more children who love you and Lilla and show none of the wild tendencies of Young Pere. Some are watching him, that’s true,” Deck’s eyebrows furrowed in worry, “and some of mine watch him too, but I have to believe that everything he does is because of who he is, not what you have done, right or wrong.”

Peto looked to his father for a second opinion.

“I agree. You’re a good father, Peto. Better than I was. Just love him. And make sure he knows you do. But I do have another suggestion. Ask the guide what he thinks about you and Young Pere. He can help you understand what the Creator wants you to know. I think you’re too close to the problem to see it clearly.”

Nodding in reluctant agreement, Peto said, “Huldah was at the schoolhouse yesterday, and she’s quite the informant for her father. I’m sure Shem’s just waiting for me to ask his opinion, but he won’t share it unless I ask.”

Perrin had a look on his face that suggested he had one more thought.

“What is it, Perrin?” Deck asked.

He hesitated before saying, “I’m only going to say this once, because I know neither of you would approve, but I’ve thought this for quite some time.” He paused.

“Well?” prodded Peto.

“With his daring, his ingenuity, and his charisma,” Perrin said, “Young Pere would’ve been a great army officer. He could’ve been the next General Shin.”

Peto and Deck stared at him before turning to each other.

Perrin winced with worry.

But his boys howled with laughter.

“He’d destroy Idumea!” Deck declared.

“Then he’d destroy Salem!” Peto added.

Perrin shrugged. “It’s just that with all the mandatory discipline, the outlets for pent-up energy—”

“You mean forced regulations and trained violence?” Peto restated sharply.

“Yes,” Perrin conceded, “you could put it that way. I think he would’ve responded to the kind of life the army affords. Or rather, afforded when I was his age. I can’t imagine what the state of the army of Idumea might be now. Or the factions. It doesn’t matter, though,” he ended quietly.

“Perrin, he’s already a member of your army,” Deck offered.

Perrin scoffed at that. “Even Mahrree’s a member. And it’s only a militia. There’s a big difference between a standing army and a bunch of farmers, children, and great-grandparents with pitchforks.”

Deck looked a little hurt.

“I’m sorry, Deck. You know what I mean, don’t you?”

Deck nodded. “I do. I just didn’t realize until now that you missed the army so much.”

Perrin looked like he had been stabbed with a pitchfork by a rancher. “I . . . I don’t,” he stammered.

“Oh come on, General. Not even a little?” Peto asked him, suspicious.

Perrin searched for the right words while his sons eyed him warily. “There are aspects that I miss. But there’s far more that I’m glad I’m rid of. I wouldn’t trade my life here with you boys and your families for any command. Truly. I have my own little army right here.”

Peto and Deck exchanged doubtful glances.

“Uh-huh,” Peto said. “But aren’t there days when it was simpler to rally hundreds of men to arms than to get the entire family gathered together for your nightly roll calls?”

Deck laughed while Perrin objected good-naturedly to what he insisted on as a family tradition, but the rest of the family regarded as a joke. “Roll call is important. What if one of your little ones has wandered off and no one noticed until bed time?”

“That’s never happened!” Peto countered.

“Because of roll call!” Perrin insisted. “It even helped Salema find Lek once, remember Deck?”

“Lek wasn’t missing, Perrin. He was just avoiding you,” Deck declared. “You scared him to death with your little ‘grandfatherly talk’ right before their wedding. As if that poor man wasn’t quiet and shy enough as it is. You never gave me that talk. He still won’t tell me or Shem what you said, and it’s been six years.”

Peto and Deck laughed as Perrin sighed. “We get along fine now, right? All my married granddaughters are treated very well by their husbands, aren’t they?” Perrin turned to Peto.

Peto pointed at his father. “Lori’s Sam dared to talk to you again only after I told him about Lilla’s ‘Papa Pere’ nickname. You big, old, soft bear, you,” he teased. “Fortunately Jori’s fiancé-to-be was there at the time so Con was prepared for your little chat.”

Perrin tried to look stern as Deck and Peto laughed again. But he was glad to see them lighter again, now that the latest storm had passed.

Eventually, Peto sighed. “At least Young Pere has the general as a grandfather, and two uncles who are always neutral parties. Someone else he can turn to when he and I can’t seem to connect. Will you promise me, if either of you sees something we should be doing differently with Young Pere, please tell me?”

“Ah, Peto,” Perrin sighed and ran a hand through his whitening hair. “That’s what our wives are for.”

Chapter 2—“You’re as bad as your father and grandfather.”

Mahrree put the last of the dishes in the cabinet and glanced out the dark window to the barn. Everything was quiet now that Young Pere was going to be fine.

Again.

Mahrree had sent fifteen-year-old Kanthi off to bed, assuring her she didn’t mind doing her chore that night. Mahrree wanted time to think, and somehow washing the dishes always helped. She was wiping off the work table when she heard quiet shuffling coming from the west wing of the house into the kitchen.

“Muggah? I didn’t think anyone was still up.”

Mahrree smiled. “Hungry still, Young Pere?”

He bobbed his head guiltily.

Mahrree pulled out a chair and pointed to it.

Young Pere walked uneasily to the table and sat down.

“Sore?” Mahrree asked. “Where?”

“You name it,” Young Pere groaned. “I think, however, there’s a little spot under my left ribs that feels remarkably well. I try to focus on that point.”

Mahrree chuckled, pulled out a piece of peach pie from the cabinet, and placed it in front of her grandson.

“Last piece of pie? Is this Puggah’s?” Young Pere asked before stabbing the fork into it.

“He doesn’t need to grow anymore,” Mahrree said, sitting down across from him.

“Remember, if he gets mad, this is your fault, right?”

“Always is.”

She watched him take a few bites, his body moving awkwardly as he tried to force his tender muscles to cooperate.

“So how did it feel?” she eventually asked.

“Which part?” He took another bite.

“The flying part.”

Young Pere swallowed. “Amazing, Muggah! I was . . . weightless. Can you imagine? I was part of the air—part of the world that wasn’t the world. I can’t explain it. I know what went wrong, though. I need bigger wings to hold out the blankets. And I think blankets are wrong as well. What I really need is—”

“You want to do this again?” Mahrree interrupted him. She was careful to keep her voice calm and unemotional. As long as she sounded like she was trying to help him, he told her all his plans.

No one knew just how many ideas his grandmother had talked him out of. Young Pere most likely would have died years ago, especially when he was twelve and had the idea of turning a small wagon into a device that rolled down the hills with only Nature’s Laws propelling it, and Young Pere’s unreasonable idea of a fifth wheel in his hands controlling the direction. He got as far as putting wagon wheels he modified onto a large crate before Mahrree found him in the barn and reminded him he would have no way of stopping. When he came to her later that afternoon with a plan for stopping his wagon, she told him he might as well call it a break, because that was what all his bones would do when he abruptly ended his forward motion.

While Perrin insisted that many of Young Pere’s ideas came from her telling him to “push the limits of what was known,” even Perrin didn’t know how often Mahrree stopped him from literally pushing himself past the limits.

Except for yesterday.

That Young Pere didn’t tell her any of his plans about trying to fly worried Mahrree immensely. He was now acting without her consultation.

Young Pere looked up from his pie. “You don’t think I should try again?”

“No . . .” Mahrree said slowly, impressed with her ability to not show her shock at his lack of reason. She wondered how many times someone could be hit on the head until it started to affect their ability to think clearly. Perrin had been ‘planked’ at least half a dozen times that Mahrree knew about in order to render him unconscious to receive stitches, and his reasoning skills were still intact.

Young Pere had been carried home unconscious about as many times, but soon some kind of damage would surely manifest itself. Maybe it already was.

“No,” Mahrree said again, noticing the disappointment on her grandson’s face. “Not until at least after the marking trip. Give yourself time to mend and . . . to consider different possibilities to your wing configuration.”

Young Pere nodded slowly, the way he usually did when he agreed with what Mahrree suggested.

It was times like this that Mahrree reflected on the conversation she had with Joriana years ago, days before she married Perrin. Mother Shin explained to Mahrree how Perrin had received all of his scars. Mahrree had taken notes that day but left them in Edge when they left the world. She remembered only a few of the stories now.

As she looked into her grandson’s dark eyes she wondered just how much he resembled his grandfather at that age. They might have been identical. Except that Young Pere had two scars on his forehead, instead of the one Older Pere had. And Young Pere had never been hit with a stick by a girl who wasn’t his sister or cousin.

“All right, Muggah. I’ll not consider another attempt until after we come back.” Something in the tone of his voice suggested his mind was already racing ahead to the day of their return.

Mahrree knew she had to be satisfied with that. “How did the rest of it feel?”

Young Pere narrowed his eyes. “You mean, the falling part?”

Mahrree smiled.

“Actually, quite interesting. I kind of wished it lasted longer.”

What?

He took another bite. “Just to feel it a little longer. The sense of weightlessness. Maybe if I wore some kind of padding next time, and jump from a greater height . . .”

Mahrree closed her eyes. The boy would never live to see eighteen.

She felt a light kick under the table and opened her eyes to find Young Pere grinning at her.

“Gotcha, Muggah!”

Mahrree exhaled. “Oh, you! You’re as bad as your father and grandfather.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, finishing off his pie. “I won’t do anything until we get back. I’m not sure I could climb for a few days anyway.”

Mahrree stood, took his empty plate, and gave him a kiss on the forehead. “Go rest, Young Pere. And think of boring, dull things. Maybe your sisters can teach you to do something safe, like sewing—

oh, never mind. That involves sharp needles.”

Young Pere chuckled as he stood up. His chuckle changed into a groan of pain.

“Need help getting back to your room?” she asked.

“No, that’s all right, Muggah. I think I’m a little past being tucked into bed, even though Mama already did that tonight. I’ll make it.”

She caught his arm. “Promise me? Promise me you’ll always make it?”

He gave her half a smile, understanding her real question. “Of course. You can’t get rid of me too easily, Muggah. I bounce too well.”

“You do bounce, I must admit.” She squeezed his arm and he winced. “Oh, I’m sorry. Go to bed, now.”

Young Pere gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and shuffled down to his room.

Mahrree sighed and went back to wiping the table and noticed how wrinkled her hands looked. It was because of the dishwater, she told herself. It was only rarely that she was vain enough to fret about how she was aging. Perrin still looked at her the same way, just as she still felt her heart skip a beat whenever she saw him.

But then again, nearly every woman in Salem felt the same way about him. She still couldn’t understand how it was that as Perrin grew older, the deep wrinkles around his dark eyes and the whiteness of his hair only made him more imposing and remarkable. No matter the size of the room, every person glanced his way when he entered the door. Then he’d smile and half the women of Salem would try not to swoon.

Well, maybe that was an exaggeration, Mahrree chuckled to herself. But not by much. He received the most stares from refugees coming from the world. Those who still remembered him would do a double-take when they realized the old colonel stood tall and impressive in front of them, more striking than High General Relf Shin ever was. The women would stare at him just a little bit longer, Mahrree noticed, but Perrin never did.

But whenever Mahrree entered a room, she was just another little old grandmother, which was fine by her. There had been incidents in the past when those coming from the world remembered what supposedly drove Colonel Shin to the forests. Seeing that his wife was still alive surprised them.

But Mahrree received their hardened stares only until Shem Zenos arrived, and the anger was shifted to the poor, innocent man’s direction. Those stares would turn into outright shock when they then realized what Salem proclaimed the former sergeant major now to be. For some, it was almost too much.

Then Salem would win them over. Usually.

She wiped clean Young Pere’s dish and put it in the cupboard. He was only half joking about wanting to fall further; she could see it in his eyes. She often wondered what was going on in his head, and how he had become the most daring, fearless, and thick-headed young man she’d ever met.

She sometimes wondered if it was one of those ‘middle child’ cases. They never had this problem in Edge; there were no middle children. Of course, in Salem ‘middle children’ constituted the majority of people, but there was the understanding that some in the very middle, like Young Pere, felt a need to distinguish themselves from their siblings.

Mahrree and Perrin didn’t understand that. They had frequently marveled at the diversity of their posterity. It never ceased to surprise them that each of their twenty-five grandchildren, and now almost twelve great-grandchildren, was completely different from each other. These children shared the same grandparents, lived in the same area—because the houses were so close together the cousins grew up more like siblings—and were exposed to the same upbringing, education, and beliefs, yet still resulted in so many different personalities.

For some reason, Perrin and she had thought that after the first few grandchildren, the subsequent offspring would be variations on the Briter or Shin themes. But each child was so unique. Some were as tall and broad as their Puggah, others were as slight and petite as their Muggah, and the rest fell somewhere in between.

There were grandchildren with every color of hair, from the straight blond hair of twenty-one-year-old Relf Shin, whose little boy Grunick also seemed destined to be fair-haired, to the black wavy hair of twenty-five-year-old Salema Briter Zenos, whose two little boys Briter and Fennic were remarkable blends of Grandpa Shem and Great-Grandpa Perrin. Every shade of eye color was also displayed in the family roll call, from light gray to nearly black.

But the differences between Young Pere and Cephas surprised Mahrree the most.

Their mothers were expecting with them at the same time, so there was a merry war between the two families as to which baby would be delivered first. While there was no official competition in Salem, the rivalry between Jaytsy and Peto was never fully quelled. In fact, it seemed to escalate in a good-natured way after Peto and Lilla married near the end of 339.

Mahrree knew there was going to be continued trouble—albeit friendly—between her children. When Mahrree went to retrieve Deck, Jaytsy, Salema, and little Cambozola—who they mercifully called Cambo—early in the morning of the 89th Day of Harvest, 340, she was there to announce the unexpectedly early arrival of Peto and Lilla’s firstborn during the night. When the Briter family eagerly arrived at Peto and Lilla’s bedroom, Jaytsy stopped and stared.

Peto lay in the bed next to his half-asleep wife wearing a smug smile. In his right arm was nestled one tiny little girl, and in his left arm was the second tiny girl. Lorixania and Joriana Shin.

“Lilla!” Deck exclaimed in an awe-filled whisper. “I’m thoroughly impressed. In less than one year of marriage and in one expecting, you caught up to us!”

Lilla managed a proud but weary smile before drifting off to sleep. It was the quietest Mahrree and Perrin had ever seen their daughter-in-law. Of course, she had been quite vocal for the several hours proceeding. She missed seeing Jaytsy glaring at her brother.

“How did you do that?” Jaytsy demanded.

Peto grinned. “Not going to tell you, now, am I?” He sniffed the heads of his babies. “I married a very practical woman, that’s all. Why have one at a time when you can have two? At this rate, we’ll have six children before you have four.”

Jaytsy would have put both hands on her hips, but one of them was holding her six-moons-old son. Her narrowed eyes were challenging enough.

Perrin and Mahrree, standing together by Lilla’s bed, stifled snorts of laughter as Jaytsy gave Deck a very deliberate look.

His eyes grew large.

Eleven moons later, Pere Briter was born. He was called Pere only a handful of times, because Cambo gave him a new name. Since he couldn’t yet say ‘Pere’ or ‘baby’ or ‘brother’ properly, Pere became Bubba. Everyone agreed that Bubba Briter had a certain rhythm that couldn’t be improved upon. And it was rather fortunate that the Bubba name stuck, because shortly after Young Perrin was born, Lilla called him Young Pere, to go along with Papa Pere, her nickname for her father-in-law. In fact, most everyone had forgotten that Bubba’s given name was Pere, and his bride Alixan didn’t know he had a different name until the day before their wedding.

Not to be outdone, soon after Pere-Bubba arrived Uncle Peto announced at a family dinner that Lilla was expecting again, and in 342 Relf Shin came to Salem.

So, naturally, in the next year Holling Briter arrived, followed by Barnos Shin a year after that.

Then Viddrow Briter came, and Hycymum Shin arrived two seasons later.

It was only a matter of time until both Jaytsy and Lilla would be expecting at the same time. That’s what happened in 346, and it was a race—unofficially, of course—to see who would deliver their sixth baby first.

Each morning their fathers would speak to the bellies to urge them that they needed to emerge before their cousin. Every day the siblings would pat their mothers and tell the new baby to come out and play before the cousin could. In the end, Cephas Briter was born first that Harvest Season, followed by Perrin Shin the Younger only three days later.

Mahrree and Perrin had thought that when their brood of one dozen grandchildren had arrived, that was the end of babies. But Jaytsy said they still hadn’t brought Deck’s mother’s name, Sewzi, to Salem, and eight-year-old Salema, now with five younger brothers, begged her mother daily for a baby sister.

That’s when Peto pulled out the family lines and noticed that while Viddrow, the great-great-great-grandfather who had the dream about recording the family lines before the first King Querul could destroy them, made it to Salem, his wife Kanthi hadn’t yet. So shortly after Sewzi Briter was born, Kanthi Shin, as well as her twin brother Nool Shin, made their appearances.

Jaytsy couldn’t abide the fact that Lilla and Peto had outdone her by having twins again, so in the next year Tabbit Briter came to Salem, but was soon followed by Kew Shin.

Peto also realized that while Tabbit was there, so needed to be Hogal, so in 351 Hogal Shin arrived, followed only two moons later by Banu Briter.

Then Sakal Shin came to Salem, followed by Atlee Briter. Then Centia Shin, and Yenali Briter in 355.

That year Mahrree made family line charts for her, Perrin, and Deck of the ancestors they knew. That way, her grandchildren could see the names they represented, and be the means of bringing some of their ancestors to Salem, at least in name^^1^^.

In 356 the baby race finally ended. Perrin called it a tie. Although Peto and Lilla had thirteen children, it was through only eleven expectings. Jaytsy and Deck, on the other hand, had endured twelve expectings for twelve children.

Perrin said the Briters’ last boy, Young Shem, named in honor of the man who got the Shins and Briters to Salem, should have counted as two babies since when he finally arrived he was so large Perrin declared he could have walked out himself had he been in the right position. The difficulty of that birth brought an end to Jaytsy’s child-bearing, even though she was only thirty-six, and Lilla, at thirty-five, convinced Peto they really had won the baby race with their thirteenth child Morah, named for Mahrree’s grandmother and born several weeks earlier, and they could stop now, too.

Mahrree was quite relieved. She had worried at times that her children were taking her dreams of being surrounded by children too much to heart.

It wasn’t until a few days after Cephas and Young Pere were born that she finally revealed to them the dreams she had experienced since the night she and Perrin were first engaged. She told them about the large house with weathered gray wood—and by 346, when the boys had arrived, the wood on the house had turned gray, and the house had grown even larger than Mahrree had remembered in her dreams—the window boxes, the gardens, the mountains encircling them, and the children running through it all. With the birth of Young Perrin Shin, she and Perrin now had the twelve grandchildren she had envisioned, and even more. There were actually two large gray houses, a garden and an orchard, and she told her family that not only had her dreams been fulfilled, they had in many ways been doubled.

Deck had grinned at that. “Well, maybe we should double the number of children you saw, too.”

Peto rubbed his hands together and gave Deck a challenging look.

But Jaytsy and Lilla, both resting on the sofas in the Shins’ gathering room and cradling their newborn sons, regarded each other wearily.

“Remember, boys,” Perrin said sternly, “there’s no competition in Salem. You need to let your wives recuperate and let them decide if they can handle more. They each now have six little ones. You need to think about your wives!”

Lilla had laid her head back on the sofa and sighed as she patted her third tiny son. “Ah, Papa Pere, they do. That’s how we end up this way.”

Shem and Calla weren’t left out of the baby race, although the competition wasn’t nearly as fierce in the Zenos-Shin-Briter battle. In the rare years there were no Shin or Briter babies, there were Zenos babies. In 341 they had their second son Boskos, and two years later came their third son Zaddick.

But in 345, when Viddrow and Hycymum came, so did the Zenos’s first daughter Meiki. With no Shins or Briters born in 347, Shem and Calla got a little more attention when their second daughter Ester was born, and their last daughter Huldah came just a few weeks before Tabbit Briter.

The three families went without new babies for only two years, because shortly after Young Shem and Morah arrived, bashful and quiet Lek Zenos, and bossy and loud Salema Briter surprised almost everyone with the decision to unite the Zenos and Briter families officially.

Since the time they were fifteen and fourteen, Salema’s and Lek’s mothers had suspected something might be going on between them. And while Shem and Deck brushed away the suggestion of a potential romance between their oldest children, Calla and Jaytsy watched them closely, looking for signs.

When Lek, at age seventeen, came to Deck asking if he could work the cattle with him, Jaytsy had a feeling it was to be that much closer to the Briter household. Deck said it was because Lek’s grandfather Boskos Zenos was a rancher, too, and on that land.

A year later at a family party, eighteen-year-old Lek shyly announced that he had found a bride, and nineteen-year-old Salema shouted, “It’s ME!” Most of the family was sufficiently stunned that they had managed to keep their courtship a secret, but Calla and Jaytsy had beamed smugly at each other.

A year after their marriage, they made Perrin and Mahrree great-grandparents, and Shem and Calla, and Jaytsy and Deck first-time grandparents to Briter Zenos, with more to follow.

Perrin’s dream to become a builder was also fulfilled during those years. He had just finished the addition to their house for Mahrree and him, shortly after Peto and Lilla’s wedding, when the Briter house needed another bedroom added. Although many men in the community came to help, Perrin enjoyed doing as much of the work as he could on his own. He made sure new rooms could be easily added on to each house, and even helped Shem with a few additions and renovations to his house.

By the time the house building was ended, both homes had additions with bedroom after bedroom added next to each other, sharing fireplaces.

Then it was time to start building Lek and Salema a house along the lane between the Zenos and Briter houses, so the home building continued. Lori and Jori married brothers who wanted to live near their parents on the eastern side of Salem, but soon enough Cambo announced his engagement, and the housing boom continued.

One afternoon not long ago, Mahrree looked at the houses and smiled to think that if they had been pushed together they would have been the size of the mansion in Idumea, with more ‘guest houses’ than Joriana could have built. The weathered gray wood looked far warmer than the perfectly set stones of the mansion. And they had more extensive grounds here than the mansion had, with more useful plantings than ornamental flowers and budding trees which produced no fruit.

She had once considered leaving Idumea a sacrifice, but she could never have imagined what greater blessings the Creator had in store for her.

Mahrree looked around the darkening and now spotless kitchen, searching for something else to wipe. To her surprise, the door to the garden opened, and her oldest granddaughter peeked in.

“Muggah! I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“Well, I live here, Salema,” Mahrree said and nodded at Salema’s enlarged belly. “Everything all right?”

Salema patted her future third child. “Everything’s fine. Papa Shem had noticed a light on here when he came back just now, and he wondered if everything was still all right with Young Pere . . .”

The hesitant quality in her voice told Mahrree that wasn’t the entire reason. Salemites were terrible liars.

“Young Pere’s gone to bed for the night, so no—he doesn’t need any of your lectures.”

Salema chuckled and took a rag from the wash basin. “Oh, but I have some good ones, too, Muggah.” She began to wipe the sparkling cabinets, and Mahrree smiled. The need-to-clean-when-worried trait had passed down to her granddaughters as well. And Salema had been delivering lectures to the younger children since she was four.

“I’ve got the ‘Do you realize what this does to your family?’ lecture—”

“He heard it,” Mahrree assured her. “From Peto.”

“Ah, well there’s my ‘Do you realize you have siblings, cousins, and nephews watching your behavior?’”

“Hmm,” Mahrree pondered as she wiped nothing off the counters with Salema. “Your Puggah may have given him that one after I left.”

Salema nodded thoughtfully, a lock of her black wavy hair falling into her face from her loose bun. She brushed it back with the impatience of a general.

Mahrree frequently wondered what Salema could’ve become in the world if she were male. Most likely another Shin officer. But she had to be content with issuing orders to her family.

Interestingly, the only person she deferred to, besides her grandfather, was her quiet and gentle husband. Lek Zenos had an unusual calming effect on her which Deck wished he could’ve learned when his oldest daughter became an overly forthright teenager.

“Well, I’ve got a few others—”

“—that you probably should keep to yourself,” Mahrree recommended. “Or write them down, put them in a box, and read them to Briter or Fennic when they act up.”

Salema scoffed. “My boys will never need those lectures,” she declared, only partly in jest. “Instead, I’ll pull them out for Lori or Jori’s boys. Those two are far more troublesome than mine.”

Mahrree laughed and patted Salema’s belly. “What about this one? It might be a very difficult boy.”

“Oh, the Creator and I have been discussing this one,” Salema said with mock piety. “I’ve told him that it’s time I get a sweet, calm little girl—”

“So someone who takes after her father?” Mahrree teased.

“Yes!” Salema agreed. “The Creator knows how I suffered with five younger brothers before I got a sister, so He best not let something like that happen again.” She nodded up to the ceiling, as if giving a notice to the Creator.

Mahrree rolled her eyes. “Just for that, He’s going to send you a boy. You realize that, right?”

Salema winced. “Please don’t say that, Muggah. Mama Calla already told me that! And,” she looked around guiltily, “she’s actually the reason why I’m here. She was wondering about Lilla. How’s she doing?”

“Upstairs and probably asleep already,” Mahrree said. “She didn’t sleep at all last night, so after she tucked in Young Pere—”

“—which I’m sure he was thrilled about,” Salema chuckled.

“Oh, yes,” Mahrree sighed, “he protested enough. After that, I sent her to bed. She looked absolutely exhausted.”

“Well, good—that she’s resting, I mean,” Salema clarified. “Calla was so worried, but didn’t want to look like she was checking up on her baby sister.”

“You can go back and tell her that everyone’s well, and that Young Pere will even be able to hold your belly for you when it’s time to convince number three in there that it’s time to come out.” Mahrree snorted at what she knew would come next.

Salema threw down her rag in aggravation. “Look, Young Pere doesn’t have any ‘gift of nature’ like Mama Calla! Just because he holds his sisters’ bellies, and they went into labor the next day to have their boys doesn’t mean he has Calla’s so-called power to encourage birthing!”

“It worked with Relf’s wife, too.” Mahrree egged on her granddaughter. “Mattilin gave birth to Grunick the next day—”

“We’ve studied this in my midwifery classes,” Salema glared, looking a great deal like Perrin. “It’s just a coincidence! But if it isn’t, it’s because my cousin brings with him so much aggravation that when he touches women’s bellies, they feel great worry that something awful will happen, which then triggers their deliveries. Extreme stress can do that, you know. And I’m not having another boy, anyway, so I don’t need him anywhere near me!”

Mahrree laughed at Salema’s agitation. “You still have what, twelve weeks left? You’ll be spewing fire by then!”

Salema tried to hide her smile but it leaked out anyway. “Oh, Muggah. I’m sorry, but you know what I mean. Besides, I plan to have this baby by the book. No Young Pere or any other odd family customs.”

“By the book?” Mahrree said dubiously. “There’s no such thing.”

“Oh, there is,” Salema assured her. “I helped deliver a baby just this morning that was very predictable. And my last two were also quite routine, so I should be able to handle this one all by myself—”

Mahrree’s eyes grew big.

“—with a little help,” her granddaughter added.

Mahrree sighed in relief. “Such as your mother, mother-in-law, husband, midwife—”

Salema’s face didn’t move.

“Oh, no, Salema—”

“Muggah, all I need is Lek. We can do this alone. I really do know what to do.”

“It’s different from the other end, Salema!”

“I don’t like bothering Mama and Calla—”

“They want to be bothered by this—”

“My husband is quite capable—”

“Salema, Lek passes out when they ‘steer’ the bulls.”

Salema held up an authoritative finger. “But he’s excellent at calving. Papa even says so, and that’s high praise.”

“And what does Lek think of your plan?” Mahrree pressed.

Salema pursed her lips. “He doesn’t exactly know it yet, Muggah. And I trust you’ll keep this between the two of us?” She arched her one eyebrow as if there was simply no other alternative.

But Mahrree had dealt with stubborn officers. “Salema—”

“Muggah?”

Mahrree’s lips twisted. Salem was a city of honesty, and she knew how to circumvent that when the need arose. “You can trust me, Salema.”

Trust her to confide in her mother Jaytsy, her mother-in-law Calla, and most especially her husband when the time was right.

But because Salema had been raised in Salem, she didn’t understand how someone could sound like they were telling the truth when they were actually lying. She smiled at her grandmother, satisfied that she had won that battle. “Thank you,” she said with a nod. “You’ll be impressed.”

Mahrree put an arm around her granddaughter who stood a head taller than her. “Is that what this is all about? Salema, I’m thoroughly impressed by you every day. You have nothing to prove. Just be safe, and make sure this new one is safe, too.” She patted Salema’s bulge with her free hand. “Please?”

Salema put an arm around her grandmother. “We’ll be safe, don’t worry. I’m not the one who’s causing problems, you know,” she added in a whisper.

But Mahrree scoffed internally. Each of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gave her plenty to worry about, in different ways.

“Go back to Shem and Calla’s,” Mahrree told her, “assure your mother-in-law that her sister is just fine, then you get home and let Lek in on your brilliant little idea there. Let him decide if he can handle you all by himself.”

Salema chuckled and squeezed Mahrree. “He handles me just fine.”

“And none of us knows how he does it.”

Salema laughed, kissed her grandmother’s cheek, and let herself out the door.

Mahrree sighed and put the cleaning rags away, knowing it was time to try to go to bed. It was nights like this that she found it hard to sleep. As concerned as she was about Salema’s overconfidence—and she was sure Lek would balk at her idea—her thoughts traveled back to Young Pere, another overly confident grandchild. Maybe that was a Shin family trait, she considered with a touch of despair.

As Mahrree approached the door that led to their wing of the house—a small gathering room, private washroom, large bedroom, and Perrin’s office—she saw light coming through the bottom of the door. Perrin was still up.

Silently she opened the door to see him sitting in his big chair in their gathering room, reading. The candlelight reflected off his white hair and cast soft shadows on his features. Mahrree stood in the doorway watching him, and sighed in pleasure.

“Why are you awake?” she eventually asked.

He looked up from his reading, his dark eyes brightening when he saw her. “Waiting for you. Talk to him?”

Mahrree came into the room. “Yes. You were right—he came out again for a late snack.”

“Gave him my pie, didn’t you.”

“I knew you wouldn’t mind.”

“Shin men respond well to evening pie. What did he say?”

“That he wouldn’t try anything before the marking party, but I think he’s still planning something. He’s not telling me as much anymore. I’m not sure why.”

“Maybe he thinks he’s outgrowing you.”

“Thanks, Perrin. Just what I needed to hear,” she sighed sadly.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I do. He thinks he doesn’t need his Muggah anymore.”

“But he does,” Perrin assured her.

“But what he needs and what he thinks he needs are two different things.” She sat down on the big chair opposite of him and put her feet up on his lap. Automatically he started rubbing her ankles. “What did you men talk about when we were in the gathering room?”

Perrin shrugged. “Nothing new. Peto’s discouraged again. He still thinks he’s responsible for Young Pere’s actions.”

“That’s not what he said to the Tans when they talked to him about their son leaving for a dissenter colony. Mrs. Tan told me Peto gave them great comfort, reminding them that their son’s actions are his own, and that no matter where he went or what he did, the Creator was watching him. Why can’t Peto believe his own words?”

“I’m not sure,” Perrin said. “Perhaps he thinks he’s being held to a different standard. But he’s going out with Shem tomorrow morning to the entrance. I was planning to tell the guide what’s bothering his rector. Maybe Shem can give him some perspective.”

“He usually can,” Mahrree nodded. “And I’d almost forgotten about tomorrow, with all the excitement of the past two days. I’m glad you reminded me. Now I have something else to worry about.” She exhaled with dread.

Perrin chuckled as he massaged. “It’ll go fine, as usual. I’m actually looking forward to this one. Should be an interesting reunion.”

Mahrree rolled her eyes. “For you they always are! For me there are still days and weeks of analytical glares and careful watching to see if I’m really what everyone says I am. I’m a great-grandmother, for crying out loud! I don’t run around with soldiers!”

He stopped rubbing, his eyes developing a familiar glint. “You run around with me.”

Mahrree shrugged.

Perrin sighed. “I am sorry about that. After all these years—”

“It’s all right,” she assured him. “It really is. I’m not bothered anymore in here,” she pointed to her heart. “Just a little bugged in here,” she pointed to her head.

“But in time, they all remember you as you really were.”

Mahrree smiled, but she wasn’t so sure. This was going to be more personal than any of the others.

To comfort herself, she gazed again at the large painting that nearly covered the wall in their little gathering room. For their anniversary a few weeks ago, Perrin had asked a landscape artist to create for them a painting of the ancient temple ruin where they had trekked so often.

The Shins had expected a small picture, but the artist, knowing how much they loved the site, created an immense painting of breathtaking realism of the entire area, with details and colors that left both Perrin and Mahrree speechless.

But the best part was that she had included both of them in the painting, smiling and leaning on either side of a pillar at the top of the stairs of the crumbling temple. They were only a few inches high, but even then the detail was astonishing.

They discovered later that the artist had been surreptitiously following them. Their grandchildren, in on the surprise, had found occasion to ask them to lean against things so that the artist could quickly sketch them at the correct heights. Mahrree and Perrin had thought something sneaky was going on—their grandchildren giggled too much, and Salemites didn’t do sneak too well—but still they were surprised by the final product.

On nights like this, Mahrree stared at the painting and wished she and Perrin were at the ancient site again, as they had been dozens of times, all alone.

Twenty-four years ago for their anniversary, they’d been all alone in Terryp’s vast land, and they enjoyed it so much they went back three more times. But the distance to the massive step pyramid temples was far, the travel long and often arduous.

However, Mahrree and Perrin discovered they could be up at the nearby ancient temple site in just a few hours, wandering the massive table land and speculating about the carvings on the ruins. The ancient temple ruin, where Gleace saw in vision would be the site of their Last Day, became their new favorite place.

Years ago, Mahrree was Perrin and Peto’s “test mule,” as they called her: she tested every route they found to the ancient site, riding on a rickety old mule. If she could make it, then so could just about everyone else.

But then there were the days when Perrin would whisper into her ear, “Feel like running away and taking Clark for a ride?” and she knew to slip off to the kitchen to pack some food while he grabbed some bedrolls and, like the teenagers in the world who’d skip out of her classes, they’d run away to the ancient temple site, often overnight.

Of course, that was only when Mahrree wasn’t needed to teach her courses at the university, and Perrin’s duties were completed for the day, and they winked at Peto or Lilla so they’d know that Puggah and Muggah were taking off again.

The last time they did it was just a few weeks ago, for their 44th anniversary, just before they’d been presented with the glorious painting. Since Clark was far too old now for such excursions, they’d taken GrayClark 411—the latest Clark descendant chosen from the horse breeders for their barn. But while Perrin said that animal was sturdy enough, he just wasn’t black enough, so he’d swapped it for a new Clark—Mahrree thought its number was 314—to test for a few weeks.

She wasn’t entirely sure how the horse breeders came up with their numbering system of Clark descendants, but suspected the first digit had to do with generations away from the original Clark. Salemites loved to keep track of family lines, even animal lines, and Clark’s family was several hundred, if not thousands, strong. There were the regular black Clarks, the GrayClarks, and the mare Clarkesses, all of which were usually renamed to something more unique by the new owners. However, nearly every Clark that came to their barn kept the number, usually dropping the first digit.

Mahrree sighed longingly as she gazed at the painting. New Clark 314 needed testing, didn’t he? Couldn’t they just run away tomorrow again and escape the world?

But she knew to not even bring it up, because tomorrow the world was coming by again for a visit, and it was expected for midday meal.

—-

Peto stepped into his bedroom and stopped at the door to watch his wife.

She was sitting on the edge of their bed, brushing out her long light brown hair which she usually kept up in a loose bun. She was still just as sturdy as when Peto fell in love with her when they were eighteen, but she had softened over the years, mainly because each baby she bore left behind a layer of softness. While Jaytsy was still just as lean and slender despite her twelve expectings, Peto thought women should be curvier. He loved Lilla’s shape, but learned years ago not to compliment her “squishiness.”

What she added in weight—and how could she not, being the best cook Peto had known next to his grandmother Hycymum—she had lost in vibrancy, primarily because of a certain child who kept her wringing her hands for so many nights.

Then again, Peto frequently reminded himself, he was also far more sober than when he was a teenager. Fatherhood, and being the rector of their large congregation, had the tendency to force a man to look at life through more serious eyes.

“Nool get back all right?” Lilla asked absently.

Peto shut the door behind him. “He just finished putting Clark 314 away. Both Lori and Jori were very relieved to hear about Young Pere.”

Lilla went back to brushing, a little more vigorously. “And what’s Nool’s evaluation of the latest Clark?”

“Well, not that a fifteen-year-old is any authority on horses, but he agrees with Deck and me that this is the best Clark descendant we’ve had. They got to the two Cadby homes in record time, and when I saw him in the barn just now, 14 looked as if he could easily handle another run to the eastern side of Salem and back.”

“Good, good,” Lilla said distractedly. “He’s nice, big and black enough . . . 14 is what we’re calling him?”

Peto smiled sadly. She didn’t care one bit about horses, and didn’t even realize they had a new Clark until he’d been in the barn for several weeks. GrayClark 411, while a beautiful and impressive animal, just didn’t have much horse sense, Perrin decided, and Clark, a very sensible and slightly ornery thirty-year-old, regularly snubbed him.

While the Zenoses had two excellent mares—Clarkess 328 and a GrayClarkess named Silver—and Barnos regularly used another descendant, GrayClark 210, Perrin was highly selective of who replaced the first Clark, who had finally been put to pasture ten years ago. Clark’s approval was also needed as to who he’d share his pasture—and his master—with. Clark 14, a five-year-old great-grandson of Clark, seemed to have been accepted by the herd.

Peto had watched, amused, as Perrin and Clark seemed to evaluate the young stallion a few weeks ago as he trotted around the field. Perrin frequently pointed something to Clark and talked to him as if he expected an answer. Clark nodded and neighed, and seemed to call out to the newcomer. Eventually Clark walked over to Clark 14, nuzzled him in greeting, and Perrin declared they’d found their new horse.

Lilla had thought GrayClark 411 had just gotten sooty.

Peto walked over to her, gently took the brush out of her hand, and gathered her hair in his hands in one large ponytail. Lilla closed her eyes and leaned against her husband with a heavy sigh.

“You all right?” he whispered to her.

She nodded her head, then shook it.

Peto hugged her head into his chest. “Tell me.”

“Oh, Peto! I’ve been all over the place today—weeping for fear, weeping for joy, fearful he wouldn’t come back, almost afraid he would, so frustrated, so angry, so happy, so . . . How can he keep going like this? We can’t! I can’t keep up with him . . . a whole night and day he was out? He’s never been unconscious that long before. And then he gets up and eats and joins family prayer and sneaks pie with Mahrree as if he’s only had a late nap?”

Peto didn’t interrupt her, something else he had learned over the years. There were times she’d lapse into incoherency as she let loose and babbled, but Peto could always figure out the string of her thoughts by the end. When she’d stop to breathe again, he’d be right on track with her.

“Then he just easily apologizes, and Perrin had to help carry him home, and the children were all watching them—why didn’t any of them stop him? Is he now their greatest entertainment? And he didn’t think any of this through, he just went running off . . . What kind of a test is that?! Throw a rock off the roof first, with the blankets, and see how fast it hits the ground! But no, let’s do something stupid to make everyone worry that this time he’s not coming back . . .”

Peto stroked her head as she wept into his shirt. That was why he hadn’t taken it off yet for bed; it would be her handkerchief, again.

“I know,” he soothed, “I know. I’ve felt the same things.”

“Oh, Peto . . . I just dread that, that—”

“That what?” He kissed the top of her head.

“That this will all end horribly for him,” she whispered.

Peto sighed. “Again, I’ve felt the same thing. Said so to Deck and my father.”

She sniffed. “And what did they say?”

“That we can’t think that way, that we can’t think Young Pere will come to some terrible end.”

Lilla sat up and wiped her nose.

“And my father thinks he would have made a great army officer.”

Lilla scoffed a laugh and wiped her eyes. “Papa Pere has some of the strangest ideas sometimes.”

“Deck and I both thought so as well.” He stroked her cheek. “We can’t control Young Pere, Lilla. That’s not our calling. Our duty is to teach him, love him, raise him the best we can, then let him be free to make his own decisions. The Refuser tries to control us, but the Creator never will. We have to be like the Creator. This life is Young Pere’s test, too.”

“Thank you, Rector Shin,” Lilla said formally. “Been practicing that long?”

“The past half hour,” Peto confessed. “I almost believe it myself.” He sat down on the bed next to her and she put her arms around him, kissed his cheek, and leaned against his shoulder. “That’s the problem, Peto: this life is his test as well. A test I fear he may fail.”

“Shh, don’t talk like that,” Peto told her.

“You’re thinking the same thing, Peto. I know you are. We have to brace ourselves for the worst, I suppose.”

Peto rocked her as new tears fell from her eyes.

Chapter 3—“But even then, the world still saw you as a hero.”

Peto was finishing saddling Clark 14 the next morning when the guide of the Creator rode to the barn.

“Rector Shin! How’s my nephew?”

Peto smiled at his uncle-turned-distant-cousin-turned-brother-in-law-turned-guide. Shem Zenos looked just as he did years ago in Edge, but a little thicker, a little grayer, and even gentler.

“Doing better, Guide Zenos. Bruising colorfully, but mobile.”

Shem smiled in relief. “Nothing can keep him down for long, can it? About ready, Rector?”

“Yes, sir.” Peto cinched a strap. “I saw the tower message. We should get there in plenty of time. I suspect that the late snow on the higher elevations delayed them a bit.”

“That, and the old folks don’t like to travel too fast.”

Peto turned and glared good-naturedly at the guide. Because, under all the titles, he was still just Shem.

“Old folks? Shem, you could be considered an old folk. She’s only a couple years older than you.”

Shem narrowed his eyes at Peto. “Sixty-two is not old.”

Peto mounted his horse. “You’re a Grandpy,” he reminded him.

“But I still have three teenagers at home,” Shem countered. “They keep me young, Grandpy Peto.

“You were a grandpy first,” Peto pointed out.

Shem cocked his head. “True, but Briter is only two years older than Ensio.”

Peto chuckled. “Are you trying to prove I’m as grandpy as you are?”

“Hey,” Shem spread out his hands. “I’m nearly to five grandchildren, but you’re already there. And what about Barnos and Ivy?” He raised his eyebrows.

Peto smiled, because at the last family dinner, Barnos’s wife kept excusing herself to run to the washing room. “I think an announcement will be coming soon. No one vomits that much and still smiles.”

Shem chuckled. “Eventually, Peto, because you have thirteen children, you will be grandpier than me!”

Unless,” Peto pointed at him, “Zaddick starts getting serious and ends up giving you fifteen grandchildren, then—”

The men stared at each other, their expressions turning sheepish.

“We’re doing it again,” Shem murmured apologetically.

“Yes, I noticed that too,” Peto responded, unable to look Shem in the eye. “Why do we still struggle so much with this? Competing with each other?”

“If I had an answer for that,” the guide said sadly, “I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I like to blame it on our time in the world, but now we’ve been here longer than we were in Edge, so I don’t know if we can say that. I guess always trying to outdo someone is just our burden to carry, Rector Shin.”

They eyed each other contritely, and Shem could see in Peto’s eyes a few more burdens.

“Come on,” Shem nodded to his brother-in-law. “I have a feeling there are a few things you want to talk about this morning. We have a nice long ride ahead of us.”

Peto clucked his horse to follow, and they rode in silence for a few minutes before Shem broke it.

“Do you want to know what I see, Peto?” he asked as the horses made their way along the road that left the Shin-Briter homes.

“Yes, I do. Tell me everything so I can know what to do better.”

Shem smiled at Peto’s meekness. He had come so far in twenty-five years from the cocky seventeen-year-old boy he used to be. That’s why Shem had such hope for Peto’s seventeen-year-old son.

“Peto, I see a father and a mother who are doing their best to keep a free spirit from becoming ensnared by his own lack of foresight. I see an extended family who shows their love no matter how much he aggravates them. I see a family who remembers that love is the only thing that will not fail with this son.”

Peto was quiet, pondering.

“Are we really doing all that we can do?” he eventually said. “That’s the question that plagues me, Shem. You say we’re doing our best, but are we really?”

Shem let out a low whistle. “What more could you do?”

Peto sighed. “Pray all the time. Hover near him every minute of every day like a paranoid hummingbird—”

“You can’t keep that up, Peto. Nor is that expected of you. You still believe it’s your fault, don’t you? That maybe you haven’t taught him enough, or prayed hard enough, or sacrificed enough for the Creator to turn him around?”

Peto bobbed his head helplessly.

“You know that’s not the way it works, Peto. I’ve heard you talking about this very thing, and you were right. But you just don’t believe it applies to your family, do you? Peto, you have taught Young Pere what he needs to do and know. Lori, Jori, Relf, Barnos, and Hycy wouldn’t be the adults they are today if you didn’t. And Lilla is a wonderful mother. At some point you’re going to have to accept that Young Pere is exercising his will, and that it’s his choice to do so. The Creator’s eye is always on him. He knows full well what Young Pere is capable of, and what kind of trouble he may cause. That’s why the Creator sent him to your family. You’re the only ones in Salem who can handle him.”

Shem looked straight ahead, a new thought coming to his mind.

“I’ll be honest with you, Peto: Young Pere may have to wander on his own for a while. He may have to suffer some grave consequences before he understands what he should.”

Peto groaned. “Has he spoken to you about that again? I made my feelings very clear to him—”

“No, he hasn’t asked again. Not since last year. But Peto, it may be the only way he can learn what he needs to know. And there’s nothing you can do to stop him, but just do all you can to welcome him back home.”

Cringing at the suggestion, Peto said, “That’s what I’m afraid of. What might he have to suffer? I just couldn’t bear to see that. And I couldn’t bear what it would do to my parents.”

“That’s why we’ve been told to put our full trust in the Creator,” Shem reminded. “Young Pere is His son. He has a plan for him. Even if Young Pere moves beyond your sight, he’s not beyond the Creator’s sight. He can heal all wounds and all suffering. He can turn it to one’s good.”

“I know,” Peto said quietly. “It’s just so hard to watch.”

“I know that too,” Shem told him. “Being rector doesn’t exclude you from trials, nor does being the guide, for that matter,” he said with a miserable smile. “The Creator never said He’d spare us from problems if we’re faithful, but He has promised He’ll help us get through them.

“I know how you feel about watching him suffer,” Shem continued when Peto remained sullen and quiet. “I had similar feelings about your father, years ago, when we came back from Idumea. I knew exactly what he needed to overcome his nightmares of his family being killed by Guarders: he needed to come to Salem. I knew this place would heal him faster, but it wasn’t his time. It was terrible to watch all of you enduring that season.”

“That was probably the worst year we ever experienced,” Peto said in a whisper that Shem barely heard over the noise of the horses. “We never would have made it without you, Shem.”

“But it was a necessary year, wasn’t it, Peto? Your father came out of that a different man. More humble, more willing to do whatever was necessary to take care of your family. Willing to realize he needed to rely on the Creator and not himself. Willing to abandon the life he knew for something better.”

“Not really High General material then, was he?” Peto said with a faint smile.

“No, not at all! Thank goodness, because that wasn’t the Creator’s plan for him. But he’s a perfect general for Salem now, isn’t he?”

Peto’s smile grew. “I never could have imagined this outcome back then. I was trying so hard to get recruited to play kickball in Idumea . . .”

He stopped, as if alarmed by the memory.

“I know what you’re saying, Shem,” he continued on another track. “We have no idea what the future holds, or why we have to go through what we do. But the Creator does. He’s already provided for a way home—”

Tears stung his eyes, his words surprising him along with the impression that came to his mind.

“He’s already provided a way,” Peto continued gruffly, “for Young Pere to come home should he wander, hasn’t He?”

“He has, Peto,” said Shem soberly. “Whatever Young Pere does, the Creator is already prepared. Just love the boy. Someday knowing that you love him is what will help him turn everything around. It has to be his choice.”

Peto exhaled. “So we’re looking at some interesting years ahead of us, aren’t we? Shem, please don’t tell Lilla!”

Shem scoffed lightly. “I think she already knows that Young Pere is running headlong into serious trouble. Not just running into forest fires, or falling into frozen lakes, or getting impaled on trees, or jumping off of schools—”

“I know, I know,” Peto cut him off. Even though they still had a few miles to go, listing all of Young Pere’s moments of dabbling with death would take longer than they had. “And Lilla always knows.”

Three chimes in the distance caught their attention, and they squinted at the tower at the canyon entrance.

“Signal’s changed,” Peto said. “They’re making faster time than expected.” He turned to Shem. “Feel like a little race? I need to test Clark 14, after all.”

Shem’s eyes flashed in anticipation before he could fight it down. “No competition in Salem, Rector Shin! How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Peto smiled in a conciliatory manner. “No race then, just an opportunity to let the horses run as they wish for as long as they wish to the tower, all right? To judge Clark 14’s ability, you know.”

Shem growled quietly. “All right, all right. On three, then.” He sighed in aggravation, then suddenly whispered, “Three,” and kicked his horse into a run. Peto heard him laughing as his horse Silver quickly pulled away.

“Oh, I fell for it again . . . Shem!” Peto yelled as he kicked Clark 14 to catch up to him.

By the time they reached the tower it was a tie. It always had to be, or there would be glares and smirks for the next half hour.

They walked the horses up the gentle slope to the canyon entrance as they had done many times before. Shem once again thought a prayer of gratitude for Rector Shin. When Shem had become guide seven years ago, he assigned Peto to be his official accompaniment when they welcomed new arrivals who had a past in the army. The rumors of how Colonel and Mahrree Shin ‘died’ in the forest because of the alleged betrayal of Shem Zenos so many years ago was considered a pivotal moment in the world’s history.

In the army it was still an oft-remembered and discussed event. Soldiers were indoctrinated to believe that trusting a wife or a subordinate was deadly. The greater power you have, the greater deceit will follow you. No one was dependable.

But no one in Salem had realized the impact of the official story until a few years after the Shins had left, when the routes closed by Guide Gleace were deemed safe to reopen after the Administrators were gone.

Salem scouts returned on a limited basis to the world, and nearly six years after the Shins were “lost,” the first refuges from the world came again, the story still raw and painful in their minds.

Shem felt the brunt of that, quite literally, as he rode with Guide Gleace to greet the first sergeant to leave the army of Idumea, with his expecting wife and two daughters.

The sergeant recognized Shem at the canyon entrance, having been a corporal under him during the Moorland offensive when Shem led a group from Rivers. In a flash, the former soldier leaped off his horse, tackled Shem, and started punching him in the face.

Guide Gleace and the escorts had to pull off the enraged sergeant before he beat Shem to a pulp. They did their best to convince him the story of the betrayal and deaths had been a lie, but had little success until Perrin arrived a few minutes later, to the astonishment of the sergeant. He finally began to believe Shem wasn’t the traitor he had been taught he was. Still, it took him a while to see Shem and Mrs. Shin in the right light.

Now the world’s official story was discredited for those coming to Salem before they left on the journey, to help them recognize how much they’d been deceived over the years. But actually meeting Shem Zenos, widely regarded as the destroyer of the newly appointed High General of Idumea, and subsequently of the world’s peace, whose betrayal was considered a catalyst for starting the never-ending battles?

Well, a smiling Shem was still a bit much to take.

Peto had proved to be the perfect antidote for the poisoned minds the refugees came with.

At forty-two years old, Peto looked a great deal like his father when he was the beloved Colonel Shin in Edge. Although Peto was shorter, slighter, and had lighter eyes and hair, the similarities were enough to make those with memories of Perrin Shin stare in wonder. Seeing Peto first did a great deal to soften hearts before they faced Shem Zenos, the chosen guide of the Creator.

Shem thought many times it was no accident that Peto resembled his father so much. It was just another way the Creator had planned ahead. Still, a Welcome Home like this one tied a knot in his belly.

As they neared the canyon entrance, Peto heard Shem take a deep breath, so he tossed him a comforting glance. “It will be fine, Shem. As usual.”

Shem said, with timid hope, “I really don’t think she’ll remember me.”

Peto shrugged. “I don’t know. Honestly, you look the same as when we left. Just longer hair, now going gray, and a little thicker around the middle.” Peto chuckled as Shem sucked in his belly instinctively.

“I only meant that I met her just a couple of times.”

“But you’re a very hard man to forget, Guide Zenos,” Peto said reverently. “Always were. You always had a presence about you. Now we know why.”

Shem looked down, embarrassed, as Peto smiled. Even when he was a young man, people noticed and remembered Shem Zenos. He had a glimmer in his eyes and a sincerity in his smile that struck people as unusual, almost contrived. How could someone be so solid and good?

That was why the rumor had stuck so convincingly, Peto knew. While everyone who met Shem felt drawn to him, when Genev’s story broke about Shem having an affair with Mahrree to destroy Perrin, the cynicism of the world easily believed that no man could have been so genuine, so wholesome. It had to be an act. No one tried to be that good without an ulterior motive. There weren’t wholly pure men in the world.

But Shem had been the real thing, and he wasn’t unique. When they came to Salem, Peto realized there were many pure men and women, but they couldn’t exist in the polluted world.

Once back in Salem, Shem seemed to lose nearly all the little smudges the world had left on him. Although he became softer and gentler and lost his fighting spirit, he seemed to be stronger than ever, in soul and body.

And it was impossible to hide the light in his eyes. It was almost hard to look at him sometimes when he was acting as the guide. The power that came from him reminded Peto of the moment years ago back at the kickball fields when Shem told him his calling lay somewhere else. Back then, he thought Shem was magnified by the power of ten. But now it was sometimes to the power of fifty.

Then there were other times when Guide Zenos was just Uncle Shem, challenging Peto and Deck to yet another wrestling match to ‘educate’ their sons, and fighting the urge to participate in another race. His competitive spirit was the last bit of the world that refused to be easily shaken off.

A horse whinnying in the distance made both men look up. The escorts with their net sling swaying between them were coming into view at the mouth of the canyon. A woman in her late sixties, resting in the sling, sat up as she caught her first view of Salem.

That was Peto’s signal. He smiled, dismounted and waved a greeting at the husband and wife team who had served as escorts this trip.

Shem dismounted, too, and held the reins of Clark 14, along with Silver. He positioned himself behind the horses so that his face was not the first that was seen. Peto’s was always best, and when he grinned, no one could stop themselves from matching it.

Peto walked up to greet the latest refugee from the world with outstretched arms. “Welcome to Salem, Mrs. Yordin! I hope you had a pleasant journey.”

She gasped as she looked up at Peto.

The escorts’ horses stopped and Peto went to the sling to help Eltana Yordin out. She was a formidable female, with a broad build putting her on the tall side for a woman, and making her roughly the same shape as her stocky husband. Her brown hair, mixed with wispy gray tangles, was falling out of her ponytail after her long travels. Her features, while normally sharp and taut, were decidedly softer, especially as she stared at Peto.

“It’s true!” Mrs. Yordin whispered, stunned, as she got to her feet. She grabbed Peto’s face. “Colonel Shin’s family is alive! You . . . you look just like him!”

Peto held her hands and chuckled softly. “My name is Peto Shin. We met at Jaytsy’s wedding. I was only a teenager then—”

Mrs. Yordin nodded vigorously. “I remember you! My goodness, you’ve hardly changed.” She grasped him in a firm hug. “We were so upset about the loss of your family. It was so meaningless. Such a waste. But it wasn’t, was it? I can’t believe you’re real.”

Peto pulled away and noticed a stray tear had slipped from her eye. She didn’t strike him as a woman who’d ever confess to shedding tears, so he subtly wiped it away for her. “Yes, I’m real. Mrs. Yordin, you’re about to discover Salem is a place of miracles.”

She tried to pull her eyes from his to take in all of Salem. “It is! It is. Look at this valley! It’s immense. Gari would never have believed this.”

“I’m so sorry about the general,” said Peto softly. “We all felt terrible when we heard the news. My father loved his enthusiasm and spirit. I could always tell when he’d been thinking about Roarin’ Yordin because he’d slap his desk.”

Mrs. Yordin turned to him, her expression resolute and fierce. But she surprised him by saying, “Gari wept for your father. I’d never seen him do that before, nor since. Not even when our son . . .” Her jaw shifted angrily, and Peto decided she needed another hug in order to hide the disobedient tears leaking out of her eyes again.

Shem, watching from behind the horses, smiled at Rector Shin. Years ago no one would have guessed Peto had the ability to be compassionate.

“You’ll have a new family here, Mrs. Yordin,” Peto assured as he embraced her until she could regain herself. “You’ll find an entire community that will make sure you never feel alone again. You’ll be living in the boundaries of my rectory, and many people are eager to meet you. There are even a few who served under your husband who you may recognize. You’ll find peace and joy again, I promise you.”

Mrs. Yordin pulled away, her face once again set and strong. But her red eyes gave her away. “Wait a minute. What did you say? Are you the rector?” She chuckled in disbelief as Peto smiled. “The future High General Shin the fourth, a rector.”

“I never had intentions of becoming a general or going to command school,” Peto told her. “How could I follow in my father’s footsteps? His strides were just too long.”

“You would have been a great general, Peto Shin,” Mrs. Yordin insisted. “Much better than Thorne and his like. Do you have any idea what they did to the world?” She squinted in fury.

This was where Peto’s real work began: letting newcomers express their frustrations with the world while carefully directing them to look forward to their new lives. While he knew the satisfaction of harping about the past, he also knew that satisfaction was short-lived, soon to be replaced with renewed feelings of anger about a life that couldn’t be changed, words that couldn’t be unsaid, and events that couldn’t be erased. The past was to be occasionally remembered, but not lived in.

That was the greatest task of the rectors working with the refugees: helping them leave that past behind. Those who served in the army seemed to bring an extra helping of resentment with them. That was why almost all of them began their new lives in Rector Shin’s congregation.

“I do have a few ideas as to what’s happened, Mrs. Yordin,” Peto told her. “We’ve received scattered reports throughout the years. But I try not to let the world influence me. There’s too much to do today to dwell on yesterday. And you still have a bit of a journey until we reach your new home,” he hinted.

Something again softened in Mrs. Yordin’s expression. “Peto, I don’t know how to ask this, but . . . your father. Is he really—”

“Waiting for you to join him for midday meal?”

“No!” she cried in delight, but still seemingly not ready to believe. “Really?”

“Absolutely!”

“Oh, Peto—what will I say to him? After all these years?”

Peto put on a thoughtful face. “Just say, ‘Perrin, I agree with your grandchildren. That hair is going white.’”

Mrs. Yordin laughed and dabbed at her eyes. “I just can’t believe it. I’m really going to see Colonel Shin. They said he was alive, but I—”

“Now,” Peto interrupted as kindly as possible, “before we continue, there’s someone else I’d like you to meet.”

“The guide, right?” she asked, suddenly wary.

“That’s right. Now, Mrs. Yordin, you see me standing before you, and you know that my father is still alive. You understand that the story you learned years ago was a lie. Completely, entirely false. Yesterday and this morning you traveled the same path our family took to come to Salem, to avoid imprisonment and execution by the Administrators. Shem Zenos never betrayed us, Mrs. Yordin. He saved us. He brought us out of the world to a place where we could come to better know the Creator. Can you see why the world would want to destroy his name?”

Mrs. Yordin nodded hesitantly. “I’m working on that. I have been for the past eight days, ever since I heard your stories. But none of it felt real until I saw you just now. It may take a little more time to sink in, but yes, I understand about Sergeant Major Zenos.”

Peto doubted that. It was one thing to say one understood, but quite another to meet him face to face. But it had to be done.

He called over to the horses. “Mrs. Yordin is ready to meet you, Guide.”

‘Ready’ was probably a stretch. When Guide Zenos, with his warmest smile fixed in place, slipped out of hiding and walked over to them, Mrs. Yordin gripped Peto’s arm as if it were a handy weapon.

Shem groaned softly to himself. She recognized him, all right.

Peto lightly covered Mrs. Yordin’s hand gripping his arm with his own. “Mrs. Yordin, remember—Shem Zenos saved our family. He has also saved you. When we received word about General Yordin from one of our scouts, Shem sent another scout specifically to find out how you were. The rector, Honri, who you met in Sands a season ago, is one of Shem’s brother-in-laws, sent to bring you home. Shem Zenos never betrayed anyone. He’s worked to save us all.”

Mrs. Yordin’s chin trembled—either out of fury or fear, Peto wasn’t sure which emotion she was experiencing—as she looked into the gentle face of the man who did so much to bring her here. Peto could tell she was pitting against each other the new story she’d been given, and the old one she’d believed for twenty-five years. The battle might take a while.

Smiling, Shem held out his hand to her.

Stiffly, she took it.

“Mrs. Yordin, it’s wonderful to see you again!” Shem said warmly. “I think the last time was when I came by your house looking for Colonel Yordin right after Perrin resigned from the army.”

“Oh, I remember that. I lied to you, too,” she admitted, her teeth gritted. “He was there, he just didn’t dare talk to you then because one of Genev’s men was there, too. He told me to send you away, worried about the future of all of us.”

Shem nodded in understanding. “Genev was behind the official story about our disappearance. His office caused a great deal of harm to all of us. But we can leave that all behind. Salem gives everyone a new chance at life. You will find another chance here too.”

Mrs. Yordin nodded slowly again, trying hard to see the face before her as someone else besides the traitor her husband swore he would have killed if Thorne hadn’t beaten him to it.

“Will you give everyone in Salem another chance?” Shem asked.

“It’s just that . . .” Again her jaw clenched.

“It’s just that what, Mrs. Yordin?” Peto prodded kindly. “Go ahead, say it. You won’t hurt any feelings or surprise anyone. We’ve heard it all by now. This is a good time to get it all out.”

Mrs. Yordin pulled her eyes from Shem and looked back at Peto. Immediately her tension eased as she was reminded of Colonel Shin.

“It’s just that . . . Gari was so sure that Zenos was guilty.” She gave a fleeting look to Shem who pressed his lips together. “He said there was a lot of tension between Zenos and Colonel Shin during the Moorland offensive. They always seemed to have something else going on between them. Things they discussed in private. Lots of looks exchanged. That sort of thing.”

Peto couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yes, they did! Their whole little language of looks, Mrs. Yordin. An annoying hobby they continue to this day. And there was some tension between them,” Peto said more soberly, “because my father wanted to find out the secrets of the explosions, and Shem wouldn’t let him. It was wise that he prevented my father from doing so. He could have created some very dangerous devices that would have been left behind in the world to destroy it further. Shem prevented that.

“But there was also more going on,” Peto continued. “Shem was always like our uncle, like my father’s brother. Living in the world you don’t see it as much since very few men actually have brothers, but once you’ve spent a little time in Salem, you’ll realize that close brothers tend to have a lot going on between them! Now,” he continued, “when we get to our midday meal, ask Perrin yourself how he feels about Shem. And also, ask my mother.”

There it was. The other half of the story. It was best Mrs. Yordin came to it now, rather than at the doorstep of the Shin home.

Mrs. Yordin swallowed. “Your mother,” she repeated tonelessly.

“Yes,” Shem spoke up. “The woman I did not have a relationship with, and never tried. Let Mahrree tell you herself. She’s loved Perrin from the first day she saw him, and that never changed. Anyone close to the family could see that.” With a wan smile, he added, “I would never have had a chance.”

“That was the part of the story that I didn’t understand,” Mrs. Yordin admitted, her brittle demeanor relaxing. “At Jaytsy’s wedding, Mahrree seemed so devoted to Perrin. The way she looked at him . . . All I could imagine was that her mind was poisoned by—” She stopped short and looked solidly at Shem.

“So deep inside you had a feeling that the story was a lie,” Shem said quietly. “Your feelings were correct. You just weren’t allowed to hope they were, were you?”

Mrs. Yordin clenched her fists as if feeling exposed.

“It’s all right, Mrs. Yordin,” Shem said. “It’ll take you some time, but soon you’ll understand things as they really are. The world makes up stories to keep us from finding the truth. You’ll find no such stories here. I promise.

“Now,” he said cheerfully as if there were no sticky past between anyone, “if we want to make it to midday meal at the Shins before dinner, I recommend we get you back into that sling and start giving you a tour of Salem.”

Mrs. Yordin allowed Shem to help her, along with Peto, to sit back down in the netting, all the while watching Shem as if waiting for him to slip up in any small way.

As Shem and Peto started walking back to the horses, Eltana said quietly, “Oh Gari, I wished you could see all of this. And know about the Shins.”

Shem heard her.

He stopped, turned, and looked back. When her eyes met his, the clarity of his gaze took her breath away.

In a voice that sounded like someone who had died six moons ago, Guide Zenos said, “Eltana, he does. You have not been traveling alone.”

Mrs. Yordin couldn’t say anything as another tear insisted on trickling her face, but she eventually whispered, “Remarkable.”

—-

By the time Peto, Shem, the escorts, and Mrs. Yordin reached the lane that lead to the Shins’, Mrs. Yordin was warming up to Shem as he told her about Salem and the home she’d be sharing with two sisters, widows of army veterans.

She also recognized three men she knew along the welcome parade route, and choked up a few times as thousands of people lined the miles of road to wave to her.

The crowd ended at the turn onto the Shin and Briters’ lane. Under the official road name, she noticed a wooden sign, “Shin-Briter-Zenos Eztates,” with an arrow pointing to the left.

Mrs. Yordin nodded at it. “Peto, what’s the meaning of the sign?”

Peto turned in his saddle. “One of my sons, Relf—”

“Wait, your son is named Relf? As in General Relf Shin?”

Peto nodded. “My sister and I have named most of our children after relatives who never made it to Salem. In a way, they’re with us now.”

“What a lovely idea!”

“Well, my son Relf, when he was twelve, was interested in carving.”

“He’s quite the master stone-cutter, now,” Shem said proudly.

“Thank you, Uncle Shem,” Peto chuckled. “I was getting to that. Anyway, he started by carving in wood, years ago. He made that sign so that visitors would know where we lived.”

“But, I hate to say it, he spelled ‘estates’ incorrectly,” Mrs. Yordin pointed out.

“No, no he didn’t,” Peto laughed. “Mrs. Yordin, were you ever in Idumea?”

“Yes, a few times.”

“It’s tradition that on the anniversary of when we first arrived in Salem that we discuss what we left behind in the world with our children. The year Relf turned twelve, we were telling the children about our trip to Idumea, after the land tremor. That’s when Puggah—”

Puggah?” Mrs. Yordin interrupted.

“The grandchildren’s name for Perrin,” Peto explained. “He didn’t want to be called Grandfather or Grandpa, so he was stuck with the name his first grandchild made up for him.”

Mrs. Yordin laughed lightly. “General Puggah!”

Peto laughed as well. “Just don’t say that to his face! Well, on our trip to Idumea, Puggah had noticed many of the housing developments had been given ridiculous names. The one that made him most agitated was Zebra Eztates. He always liked the idea of zebras, but mangling estates like that really bothered him.”

“Oh, I think I know the development you’re talking about,” Mrs. Yordin said. “Did it have names like Elephant Elms and Lion Lane? Mythical Mystical Mansions?”

“That’s the one!”

Mrs. Yordin laughed. “I’d forgotten all about that!”

“Well, Relf latched right on to that. He thought the name Zebra Eztates was hilarious. And he thought that’s what our corner of Salem should be called. Take a look ahead and you’ll see.”

Mrs. Yordin stretched in the sling to see ahead. There was an enormous plank of wood, hoisted in the air by two tall logs, spanning the entire road. In carefully carved letters, and burned to black, was “Shin-Briter-Zenos Eztates.” In smaller letters underneath, which were more easily read as they neared the sign, were carved the words “Begun—338. End—Never.”

“That’s wonderful,” Mrs. Yordin chuckled. But she quieted as she saw the two large homes come into view. “Oh my . . .”

As they approached the Shin home, Mrs. Yordin sat up anxiously. The horses stopped and her escorts helped her out of the sling while Shem and Peto rode to the barn. She was just straightening her Salem-issued traveling clothes when the front door flew open. Mrs. Yordin looked up quickly and gasped at the sight.

Perrin strode across the front porch, down the stairs, and straight to Mrs. Yordin. He held out his arms and offered her his widest smile.

“Eltana Yordin! Welcome to Salem!”

Mrs. Yordin’s hands flew to her face. “It’s you!” she breathed. “It’s really you!” Even with his white hair, he was obviously Perrin Shin. She weakened visibly as he neared. Perrin put his arms around her as she was attacked by sobs she couldn’t fight off. “Colonel Shin, Colonel Shin . . .”

“It’s all right, Eltana,” he said, patting her back. “It’s all right. Call me Perrin.” His voice was tender as he held her, trembling and choking. “Eltana, I’m so sorry about Gari. He was a great man. I’ve missed him over the years.”

Mrs. Yordin nodded into his chest but continued to cry.

Perrin looked over his shoulder to the front porch where Mahrree stood, wiping away her own tears at the sight of Mrs. Yordin’s emotion. She gave a smile of approval to her husband and remained on the porch, waiting.

“It’s as if you’ve come back from the dead, Perrin,” Mrs. Yordin said between sobs. “Or I’ve died and gone to Paradise. If only Gari was here with us.”

“Then it really would be Paradise, Eltana,” Perrin said, holding her tighter. He nodded to his wife and gently pulled away from Mrs. Yordin as Mahrree neared. It was time for the handoff.

Mrs. Yordin, hearing someone approach, turned to Mahrree. For a moment she froze in place, but the warm smile on Mahrree’s face, along with her outstretched arms waiting to give another embrace, melted Mrs. Yordin.

“I’m so glad you could join us!” Mahrree said, putting her arms around the surprised woman.

Mrs. Yordin hugged her back. “You really never . . .” She began, then stepped back to search Mahrree’s face for anything that could signal the stories were true.

Mahrree shook her head. “I’ve always adored my husband.”

Mrs. Yordin sighed in relief. “I knew you couldn’t have . . . I just didn’t want to believe you could ever . . . have done such a thing.”

“Thank you!” Mahrree said. “You have no idea what that means to me, Eltana. That you didn’t want to believe it. That’s the kind of thinking that paved your way to Salem. Come in, you must be starving.”

Mahrree gingerly led her into the large gathering room and braced herself for what was sure to come next.

Eltana didn’t disappoint.

“Look at those paintings!” she gasped. “Why, that’s you and Perrin!”

“Right after we arrived, yes.”

Eltana rushed to the first painting on the wall and ran a finger gently over the frame. “You look exactly as I remember you, so many years ago. And look, there’s a young Peto. And that must’ve been at his wedding? And . . . oh, my. Look at all of those children!”

“Yes,” Mahrree chuckled. “We have a few grandchildren. No limits here, and our family just loves to test the limits, you know.”

Eltana shook her head slowly, marveling at the portraits filling the walls, of children at various ages, and of Mahrree and Perrin slowly aging. “What a life you’ve lived here,” she breathed, almost in envy.

The meals with army newcomers were carefully planned. Those in attendance were always Perrin, the great cheerer of hearts, Peto, the rector over those who served in the army, and Calla, the guide’s gentle and welcoming wife.

The presence of those three always provided a strong counter-balance to the presence of the other two at the meal. Although most people were starting to have better feelings toward Shem Zenos by the time they arrived at the Shin home, the sight of Mahrree Shin still sent many of them back years ago to relive the anger they felt as they first heard the news of her ‘betrayal’ with the sergeant major.

That’s why seating at the meals was also thoughtfully established. Perrin would sit across the table from the former army member so that his was the face they saw the most frequently. Mahrree sat to one side of him, Peto on the other. Next to the newcomer was Calla, and next to her was Shem. That put Shem and Mahrree at opposite corners of the table, and Shem out of easy view of the army member.

The other seat next to the newcomer was usually for the spouse or, in cases like today, Lilla joined them.

All of the Shins’ grandchildren would spend the next couple of hours at the Briters or Zenoses, to be introduced later. There were only so many shocks a person from the world could take at one time.

Mahrree seated Mrs. Yordin at her designated spot across from Perrin and hoped that by the end of the meal the changes in her eyes Mahrree already saw would be complete. She had spent only a few days with Eltana during Jaytsy’s wedding, enjoying her company as they prepared the dinner and directed the soldiers in setting up the tables and chairs. But Perrin had thought so highly of Roarin’ Yordin, Mahrree wanted his wife to feel comfortable with them.

And she did. By the end of the meal she was talking easily with Guide Zenos about the Moorland offensive, and the table thumped several times as Perrin remembered Major Yordin. Even Mrs. Yordin was laughing as Perrin described to Lilla how Roarin’ Yordin received his wounds, and his stubbornness about laying in a position that would alleviate his suffering.

“I wish you could have seen him about a year and a half after you died—I mean,” Mrs. Yordin chuckled, “after you vanished. High General Qayin Thorne was visiting the fort, and they got into a discussion about the Guarders. Actually, an argument would be more like it. Thorne was telling Gari that the Guarder concern wasn’t as dangerous as the growing insubordination of the army. Gari told him the insubordination would reduce if Thorne paid better attention to the condition of the world and acknowledged the real threats. Remember, at this time we were sure there were thousands of Guarders again in the forest.”

She shook her head as if to toss all the details into more correct piles in her mind.

“Their argument escalated until Gari decided to show Thorne just how dangerous the Guarders really were.” Eltana blushed at the memory. “So he pulled down his trousers and literally showed him,” and she patted her behind. “Two full moons that day.”

“Yes!” Perrin laughed and slapped the table. “Excellent tactic, Yordin! I’d felt that desire a few times myself.”

“So,” Peto said thoughtfully as everyone at the table laughed, “the demise of the world could, in a manner of speaking, be traced to one colonel exposing himself to a general? It really was the end.”

“Not like you’d read about that in the history texts!” Mahrree said, wiping her eyes.

“I’m sure Thorne was thrilled about that!” Perrin said.

“Maybe that’s really what started the Great War so long ago,” Shem suggested. “Someone showed the king an unfortunately placed scar and he took it as a personal insult.”

“Eltana, how many people in the world knew about Yordin and Thorne’s argument?” Perrin wondered.

“Only a handful, I suppose.”

Perrin grinned. “How much of our history do we really not know? We’re given the official stories, but I suspect the real truth is far more interesting.” He slapped the table again. “Ah, Gari! You would have been great fun in Idumea.”

“Well, Karna wasn’t thrilled or amused,” Mrs. Yordin said. “He agreed with you, Peto. He told Gari he thought that act might have been the beginning of the end of the unified world. When Thorne marched out of there that afternoon, he threatened to demote Gari all the way down to lieutenant. That was when Karna, Fadh, and Gari began to send secret messages to each other about a coalition. They were trying to recreate the unity of the Moorland offensive. Then with the unrest in Idumea . . .” She shook her head sadly as she looked at Perrin. “And the distances between them?” She sighed. “They were also missing the most important man. They could have had more success had you stayed.”

Perrin sighed. “I couldn’t have been any help, Eltana. I would have been a distraught widower in the dungeon of the garrison, if they hadn’t executed me as well.”

“They would have broken you out, I’m sure of it!” Mrs. Yordin said with fierce determination. “There are ways, you know.”

Perrin leaned forward on the table. “It does us no good to dwell on what never could have been, Eltana. We can imagine different scenarios until the snows fall and still it changes nothing. We need to let the past rest, and focus on the future.”

Grudgingly she nodded and rubbed her finger on her plate. “Would you have chosen Gari as your Advising General if you had taken the High General position?”

“I considered him,” Perrin said. “To be honest, I never made a final decision as to who I would’ve chosen. I was more worried about the Thorne issue. Qayin would never have stepped aside willingly. There would have been an all-out battle, and who knows who would have been dead at the end of it. I just choose not to think about what could have been, Eltana. Everything has turned out for the best.”

Mrs. Yordin raised her eyebrows at him. “How can you say that? The world is in shambles!” Table slap. “We had three factions fighting each other in never-ending skirmishes to take one village away from another! If you hadn’t resigned, who knows what condition the world would be in now! We could have had peace for decades with you as High General before you retired.”

Perrin and Mahrree exchanged the same look. They’d had the conversation before with others who came from the world. Why did he resign? Why couldn’t they just continue as they had? Why did they have to fight the world? Let everything happen? Abandon Idumea? Abandon them?

“Eltana, no one knows what might have been,” Perrin said in a low voice. “You’re imagining only the best possibility. But things also could have been worse. I’d been disenchanted with the army for a while, even before the land tremor and the passing of my parents. I was looking for a reason to quit. The troubles the Administrators faced afterward were of their own doing, not because of my leaving. They’d been traveling down that road for quite some time. I just leapt from the wagon.”

“But Perrin,” Mrs. Yordin leaned toward him intently, “what if you didn’t abandon that wagon? Couldn’t you have taken control of it? None of us knew then how much internal strife the Administrators were dealing with. If the Sergeants Army hadn’t killed them all, they would have likely turned on each other soon anyway.”

Perrin had had this conversation before, too. “Again, realize my staying may not have changed anything. A great deal of their splintering, we were told, started with the passing of the laws to punish Mahrree, Peto, and me. There wasn’t exactly a majority vote that pushed them through. But then how could I, even as High General, have resolved the turmoil among the Administrators?”

“Perrin, you were exactly what Idumea and the world needed!” Mrs. Yordin slapped the table again. “The thousands of soldiers who followed Corporal Hili out of Idumea left looking for someone like you! Karna was the best they could find. The people and the soldiers would have supported General Shin.”

“To what end, Eltana?” Perrin asked cautiously.

“To making you the new Chairman, Perrin! Or even abolish the Administrators and make you, make you . . .” She faltered, unsure if she should say the word.

But Perrin had a suspicion. “King?” he suggested quietly.

“Yes!” declared Mrs. Yordin.

Peto let out a low whistle.

“But think of the condition of Idumea with you as king!” Mrs. Yordin forged on. “I have to tell you, Perrin, Gari mentioned it a few times after the Moorland offensive. He hated the Administrators as much as you did. He thought things could be very different with a change of leadership. With you as the leader.”

She ignored Perrin’s slow head-shaking and went on.

“Gari suspected the Administrators feared that very prospect: that you could’ve deposed all of them. That’s why they kept your probation continuing as long as they did, especially after the play ‘The Midnight Ride of Perrin Shin.’ But even then, the world still saw you as a hero. A hero they wanted and needed.”

He opened his mouth to retort, but Roarin’ Yordin’s widow, who was too much like her late husband, didn’t give him any opening.

“The people will follow whoever will feed them, Perrin! Feed them and protect them. That’s exactly what you did for Edge, and everyone knew it.

“The Administrators were hoping the desire for Perrin Shin in Idumea would die away,” she continued in a fevered pitch. “When it didn’t, they decided to make you the next High General, to keep you close and under their control. But even when you resigned you were still a threat to them. It took Qayin Thorne weeks, but he finally convinced the Administrators that you were capable of staging a takeover. That’s why they wanted to bring you to trial: to demonstrate to the world you were far more dangerous than anyone imagined. Having you ‘die’ was just as effective, I suppose.” She began to lose momentum. “Even more so, considering how they twisted it.”

Everyone fell into ponderous silence.

Eventually Mahrree whispered, “So they really thought Perrin wanted to become king?”

“Hmm,” Peto said thoughtfully in the uncomfortable stillness. “King Puggah. Doesn’t have a very good ring to it, does it? Sounds like something he’d name his horse.”

Lilla covered her mouth in a vain effort to stifle her giggle.

Calla and Mahrree snorted. Shem started to chuckle. Even Mrs. Yordin began to smile.

Perrin winked at his son in gratitude for breaking the tension. “I would have been a terrible king, I promise you that, Eltana. That’s simply too much influence for only one person to have. For the brief moments I was High General, I felt the strength of the position, and I have to admit, it made me a little light-headed. Men can’t help but misuse power. It’s their nature, and the Creator expects them to fight it. The only way one man alone can rule a people is if the Creator selects someone humble enough who will be guided by Him.”

Perrin glanced at his friend, but Shem merely pushed a bit of food around his plate without looking up.

“And there’s only one man who could ever do that successfully, Eltana,” Perrin continued. “But the world, in its short-sightedness, would never accept King Shem Zenos.”

Shem froze, his eyes never leaving his plate.

Perrin sighed and turned to Mrs. Yordin who regarded him dubiously. “Eltana, I admit that I’ve wept for the condition of the world over the years. But it wasn’t my fault, nor would have my remaining solved any of it. I would’ve abused that power as much as any other man. Then it would have been my fault. I stand by what I said earlier: everything has turned out for the best.” He risked a smile. “Besides, how could I have twenty-five grandchildren in Idumea?”

Mrs. Yordin looked sadly at the table. “You could have changed those laws. Lemuel Thorne certainly did!” But she stopped herself and took a moment to regain her composure. “Just so many bad years, Perrin, after you died. Left,” she corrected herself again. “I wish it could’ve been different. But now you’ve just demonstrated what Fadh said to Gari: the men with the best hearts to lead the people are also the same men with too much common sense to want the position. That’s why you would never have done it.”

Perrin smiled at Graeson Fadh’s assessment.

But Mahrree could see by the look in his eyes that he’d be struggling tonight with the effects of another, You could’ve changed the past argument.

“There are many from the world who play this dangerous ‘what if?’ game,” Perrin said to Eltana, and Mahrree knew she’d repeat that line to him later. “There are never any winners. But, Eltana,” he waited for her to look up at him, “I think you’d enjoy our Army of Idumea meetings. One is coming up in three weeks. When word gets out that General Yordin’s wife has joined us, we’ll have so many come we may have to move the meeting to the rectory.”

Mrs. Yordin’s eyebrows went up. “Army of Idumea meeting?”

Peto chuckled. “It was the only way for Father to placate all the men who sought him out over the years to rehash their time in the army. Every other moon, the Armchair Generals—”

Perrin rubbed his forehead at Peto’s nickname.

“—get together to talk about their experiences and run through different scenarios. Kind of helps them to get it out of their system, and keeps poor General Shin from having to spend countless hours debating strategies with old soldiers who served for two seasons over forty years ago.”

Mrs. Yordin smiled slyly. “And why do you call them Armchair Generals?”

Shem grinned. “The meetings are usually held here, and they pull out Mahrree and Perrin’s armchairs to Peto and Lilla’s large gathering room. One chair always goes to the standing General of Salem,” Shem gestured to Perrin, “while the other goes to whoever is lucky enough to have his name drawn out of a bowl. He’s the honorary general for the evening and gets to lead the discussion.”

“And how would they feel about the presence of a woman?” Mrs. Yordin ventured.

Shem nodded to Calla. “I think my wife would enjoy the company.”

Mrs. Yordin turned in surprise to Calla. “You attend?”

Calla shrugged modestly.

But Shem’s grin grew even broader. “Of course! The author of The Army of Idumea: The Shin-Zenos Years always has Peto’s armchair. When the former soldiers start their ‘creative remembering’ and romanticizing their time in the world, Calla here sets them straight with the facts.”

“Someone needs to sit in my chair,” Lilla nodded to Mrs. Yordin. “I stay far away from this house on those nights!”

Mrs. Yordin chuckled and turned to Calla, regarding her with new admiration. “Guide Zenos told me on the ride over here that you were interested in the army while he served, but I had no idea.”

“Mrs. Yordin, you’d give a great deal of balance to the discussions,” Calla told her. “I stopped following the changes in the army once Shem came home, so you could provide the corrective details for the past twenty-five years for those who were in the world more recently.”

Mrs. Yordin nodded thoughtfully. “Sounds quite intriguing. Of course, Gari would know so much more. So would our—” She stopped, not wanting to say the word.

Perrin gave Mahrree a meaningful look.

She knew what to do with it.

“Eltana,” Mahrree asked carefully, “do you know how your son is? How he might take the news that you’re missing?”

Mrs. Yordin sighed, and when she spoke it was with a stab of bitterness. “He didn’t have much reaction to the news about his father two seasons ago. All I got from him was a message that said, ‘Sorry about your loss.’ Can you imagine?” she scoffed. “He won’t think twice about my vanishing, I’m sure.”

“I’m so sorry, Eltana,” Mahrree said. “I’m sure that’s not true. I remember him as a nice boy. I’m sure someday he’ll remember who he used to be.”

Mrs. Yordin exhaled. “Doubtful. It’s not as if he’s even my son anymore. Any man who can desert General Gari Yordin to defect to Lemuel Thorne is not someone I will ever claim as kin.”

—-

They were just finishing dessert when the side door opened.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Papa. We thought you were done.”

Mrs. Yordin did a double-take at the two young men who stood there and stared at the dark-haired boy. “Will the copies of General Shin never end?” she whispered.

Peto chuckled as he got up and went to the door. “They end right here. Well, until you meet Kew. It’s all right, boys. You haven’t interrupted anything.”

“Good,” said Relf, with his arm around his younger brother. “Young Pere could use a little rest, I think.”

Lilla was already on her feet, bustling over to her son. “Young Pere, I thought you were still in bed! Where were you?”

Relf gave a sidelong glance to his brother whose face was twisted in pain. When he saw no answer would be coming, he answered for him. “Apparently he felt the need to prove to Cephas that he could take care of the firewood today. He was successful until a few minutes ago.”

“Come on, son,” Peto said, trying to take his other side. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

“I’m fine,” Young Pere said, out of breath and shrugging off his father’s attempt to help him. “Just need to sit for a moment.”

Lilla pulled out the chair nearest to Young Pere, and he collapsed on it.

“Mrs. Yordin,” Perrin said, “these are two of my grandsons. Relf here, who you can see is not a copy of me, has also made me the proud great-grandfather of the blondest little boy you’ve ever seen.”

Perrin beamed as Relf smiled appropriately at Mrs. Yordin and walked over to shake her hand. But Perrin’s smile turned brittle as he gestured at the wincing boy at the end of the table.

“And this is Young Perrin, who recently had an accident from which he’s supposed to be recuperating.” His voice turned sharp.

Young Pere offered a Perrin-like smile and a weak wave.

“Uncanny!” Mrs. Yordin whispered. She turned back to blond-haired, blue-eyed Relf. “The sign maker, right? I would never imagine that such a fair young man is related to Perrin.”

“He takes after his mother’s side,” Peto explained. “Except in one way. Relf, do the voice for her.”

“Oh, Papa, really?” Relf blushed pink. “She doesn’t want—”

“Yes, she does.” Peto turned to Mrs. Yordin. “You heard my grandfather Relf’s voice before, right?”

“I did,” Eltana said. “I met him a couple of times, and even heard him yelling at Gari’s soldiers once. Why?”

Peto cocked his head to his son. “You have to do it, Relf. She even heard him yelling once.”

“Oh, Papa, I always feel so weird doing this.” He turned to Mrs. Yordin. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m like their one-man entertainment. They think it’s funny and scary at the same time—”

“It is!” Shem declared. “And the original Relf really laid into me a few times, so I know him when I hear him.”

“Relf,” Perrin said, with that authoritative tone none of his grandchildren could argue with. “Prove to Mrs. Yordin that you truly are my grandson. You may not have inherited any of the Shin looks, but you certainly inherited something else.”

The growing amusement and intrigue on Mrs. Yordin’s face made Relf give in.

He sighed and cleared his throat. “Men—” he began, but his Uncle Shem cut him off.

“No, no, no. Lower, Relf. Really hit that deep gravel mark. The one that makes me break out in goosebumps. Come on, now.”

Relf shrugged apologetically to Mrs. Yordin, squared his shoulders and bellowed, “MEN! That is not the appropriate way to saddle a horse!” His voice thundered around the room. “I do not like riding backward!”

While his family laughed, Mrs. Yordin tried to pick her chin up off the ground. “That was . . . that was fabulously frightening!”

Shem showed her his arm, with his hair standing on end.

Relf shrugged and, in his normal soft-spoken way, said, “Sorry. Sometimes they make me call in the younger kids using the General Relf voice.”

Eltana began to chuckle. “I’ve got goosebumps myself!”

“He always has to make an appearance at the Armchair Generals meetings,” Perrin told her. “Half of the attendants never heard my father’s voice, but he scares them, too.”

Mrs. Yordin laughed and she noticed again Young Pere. “And that boy at the end of the table, my goodness!”

Young Pere nodded. “Yeah, I got the Shin looks. And I’ve heard it all before,” he added resignedly. “Perrin’s Shadow, Perrin the Revised Edition, Perrin and Re-Perrin, Perrin’s Little Lieutenant. I’m always open to new nicknames, Mrs. Yordin.”

She chuckled at his pained expression and turned to Peto. “Did you name him after Perrin because he looked like him as a baby?”

Peto shook his head. “No, not at all. We actually had a different boy’s name picked out—Hogal, a great-great-uncle of mine—but the day before he was born, both Lilla and I felt he should be named after my father instead. Since he looks so much like his grandfather, it now seems to be fitting. We still got our Hogal, just a few years later.”

“Perrin, the Salem version,” Young Pere droned on, “Perrin back in time, New and Improved Perrin.” He looked up to the ceiling to see if he had forgotten any. “Ah, and Perrin Squared. Guess that means I’m trouble multiplied.”

Lilla bent over and kissed her son on the head. “No, just a multiple of . . . entertainment, Young Pere! There’s never a dull moment around this boy, Mrs. Yordin,” she said, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving him another kiss.

Young Pere grimaced in pain and embarrassment.

Mrs. Yordin’s smile faded and she looked at Young Pere intently. “Be as entertaining as you want, young man. Just don’t ever break their hearts.” Her voice began to quaver and Calla put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Broken hearts never mend.”

“They do in Salem, Mrs. Yordin,” Guide Zenos said softly. “Place of miracles, remember? Just wait and see.”

—-

Young Pere lounged on the rocking chair on the front porch, tasked with the dullest duty in all of Salem: goat watching. The nannies had been chewing through their ropes lately, then wandering up the hillside behind the Briters, making it difficult for his sisters and cousins to milk them. So his father declared that if Young Pere didn’t want to rest in the house, he could rest outside in the shade of the porch while the day heated up, and make sure no grazing goats escaped.

Young Pere was still trying to figure out if this was punishment or reward for trying to chop the wood and show up Cephas. Sometimes, his father’s assignments felt like both.

Mrs. Yordin had been brought to her new home not long ago, and Mahrree and Lilla were cleaning up the kitchen while discussing Mrs. Yordin’s comments with Perrin, Peto, and Shem who took care of the leftovers and washed a few dishes.

Young Pere had headed out the door at the earliest opportunity since he didn’t know any of those old or dead people whose names they were tossing about, and now his eyes were drooping in exhaustion and boredom. But then he heard the giggle. Or rather, giggles. His head jerked up with the beginnings of a smile.

Quietly he counted, “One, two, three . . . nine. Well, that’s a fair amount today.”

It was a group of girls, the oldest maybe eighteen, the youngest around fifteen, and a few of them were carrying items covered with cloth.

He sat up a little, wished he could make sure his hair wasn’t mussed up—it likely wasn’t, but if it were, it’d only add to his rugged appeal—and he smiled.

“So,” he said casually as the flock of females turned to approach his porch. He raised his voice in relation to their volume of giggling. “What’s all this, then?” He would have addressed them by their names, but he couldn’t remember any of them. He never bothered anyway. They all kind of blended together, with their long braids and their coy mannerisms. Some dark, some light, some in between, and all of them gooey-eyed and tittering.

“Hi, Young Pere,” a couple of them chorused, and a few others hid behind their hands like silly things.

“We heard you were hurt but improving, so we, um, baked you things. To build up your strength again,” said a braver girl. Her eyes roved over his broad shoulders and lingered on his defined chest, his light cotton tunic clinging to him because he was sweating in the heat of the afternoon. The girl blushed a violent purple, and nearly dropped the plate of cookies she carried.

He grinned. Not his usual grin, but his narrower one, which made his eyes squint and the girls’ knees knock.

“Well, that is awfully sweet of you all. Wow, with such attention, I’ll be back to normal in just hours. That certainly looks good,” he gestured to another girl, and in her excited nervousness she stumbled on her way up the stairs.

“Ooh, careful there,” he said, extending an arm to catch her, and holding on to her wrist longer than he needed to.

It worked. She nearly turned into a puddle on the porch before handing over her sweet rolls.

“Sit down, sit down,” he indicated for them all to find a place around his chair, and for a moment he wondered if the old kings of the world on their thrones ever were surrounded by giddy girls. “So what’s the latest news around our corner of Salem?” And he nibbled on a strawberry tart someone handed him.

Beyond his flock, he could see his older sister Hycy coming down the road. She paused, shook her head in disgust—she was tired of him asking again and again what their names were—and took the long way around to the side door. Apparently, she’d been trying to dissuade some of his followers, telling them he wasn’t as great as they thought he was.

It didn’t work. They trailed after him all the more. Someone dangerous in Salem was a rare treat for the excitement-starved girls of the valley.

They stayed for an hour, chatting inanely while Young Pere emptied each plate they brought. Their gossiping stopped abruptly when Puggah opened the door, looked over the scene with veiled amusement, and said, “So what’d you bring me?”

He sat down right in the middle of the gaggle of girls, causing all of them to hurriedly get to their feet, surprised and anxious that the general of Salem had decided to get so friendly.

He chuckled as they snatched up their empty plates and rushed down the stairs, calling back farewells to Young Pere who glared in annoyance at his grandfather.

Only after the girls were out of earshot did Perrin’s smile fade. “Young Pere, it’s not fair to them, and you know it.”

“What, making them feel appreciated? Eating their treats?”

Perrin pivoted on his spot and looked up into his grandson’s eyes. “Using them like this. Don’t do it, son. They are daughters of the Creator, and they deserve better than to be led on by you.”

Young Pere scowled. “I’m not leading them on,” he said, not quite sure what that meant, but knowing it wasn’t good, based on his grandfather’s hardened eyes.

“You’re making them think they have a chance with you. I know you’d never physically take advantage of any of them—”

Young Pere fidgeted at such a worldly idea.

“—but emotionally, you’re being cruel. Each one’s going to go home tonight and fantasize about you choosing her.”

He shrugged at that. “Wouldn’t it be crueler to ignore them? To be rude?”

“I’m not saying that. I’m suggesting you turn down that charm a notch. Save it for the girl who you really want to win over, and not just because she can bake . . . What is that, a piece of cake?”

Below Young Pere’s chair was half a slice, forgotten. Perrin picked it up, nibbled on it, and frowned. “No, not that one. Whoever she was—not that one.”

Young Pere chuckled.

Perrin didn’t. “I mean it, son—quit treating them like your adoring servants. If you’re not going to court any of them, stop flirting with them.”

Court them? Young Pere was stunned by the thought. It’s true, most young men his age were courting girls, but . . . No, he wasn’t ready for that. For any of them.

He had adventures to plan . . . Court a girl?

His distaste for that idea must have been evident. His grandfather shook his head sadly at him, got to his feet, extended a hand to his grandson to help him out of the chair, and said, “Dinner will be ready in about an hour, in case you might still be hungry. That’ll give you enough time.”

“To do what?” Young Pere asked.

“To chase after two females,” Perrin winked. “While you were nibbling away on your treats, the goats were nibbling on the ropes. They left about ten minutes ago. You have my permission to charm them.”

With a groan, Young Pere stiffly and slowly made his way down the steps after the bleating goats, his grandfather’s low chuckle following him.

—-

Perrin’s chuckling lasted only until his grandson, calling uselessly after the goats who never responded anyway, broke into a lumbering and painful trot.

“They named you all too accurately,” he sighed, almost in despair. “You’re too much like me. Please,” he whispered, “stop being me.”

Chapter 4—“I didn’t sleep much last night—”

That evening, Mahrree sat at the small table in their gathering room going over the notes she took during her chat with Eltana Yordin. Each year Mahrree updated the History of the World book she wrote and taught out of at the university three times a week for the first-year students, all of the information coming from Salem’s scouts in the world and the world’s refugees.

She pulled out clean sheets of paper: one, she filled with details to include in the next edition of the History of the World; on another, she made notes about those individuals she and Perrin still remembered.

Many details that they’d been missing for decades were filled in today, only making the story of the world more tragic. There was no way Mahrree could ever see a happy ending for them, no matter how long she waited.

Idumea and the world had continued after the Shins “died” for nearly two years, with commandants appointed by the Administrators heading up the forts, and unrest growing throughout the world.

Gari Yordin, who was transferred to Sands, immediately deposed his commandant and set up barricades to keep away anyone from the Administrators or Idumea.

His open defiance gave others encouragement, and soon after Brillen Karna, who was sent all the way south to Waves, and Graeson Fadh who was transferred to the east at Coast, kicked out their commandants. It wasn’t an accident that the three remaining leaders in the Moorland offensive were now at the distant points of the world, no longer able to coordinate the takeover that High General Qayin Thorne and new Advising General Snyd had convinced the Administrators was imminent.

Chairman Mal likely thought sending those three commanders to the furthest edges of the world was a clever idea, but all it did was spread their influence over a greater area.

Taxes? They wouldn’t pay them.

Curfews? They wouldn’t enforce them.

Idumea? Who cares what they think.

In the rest of the forts, it was clear that the Administrators-appointed commandants had no idea how to run anything except the soldiers in circles. In some villages, commanders sat back and let the commandants do their best, which was dismal, and resulted in insubordination, flagrant rule breaking, and massive desertions.

By the time the Sergeants’ Army, which was led by Grandpy Neeks and Chef Gizzada, destroyed High General Thorne and the Administrators, and the citizens burned down Chairman Mal’s mansion with him in it, nearly every village had chosen sides, aligning themselves either with forts associated with Yordin, Karna, and Fadh, or forts loyal to Idumea.

The enlisted soldiers under thirty, who fled from Idumea following Poe Hili and met up with Jon Offra, were divided among Fadh’s and Karna’s forts, and then suddenly that was the end of the united world. It became as violent and fractured as it was before the rule of kings.

General Snyd aligned Idumea with the fort at Pools, Edge, and a few other central and northern forts. Those in the west followed Yordin, and those in the east and south followed Karna and Fadh.

No one ever could tell the Shins what happened to Commandant/Administrator Genev in Edge. Shortly after the Administrators and Mal were killed, Genev, the sole remaining Administrator, simply wasn’t there anymore. But Lemuel Thorne was, wearing a new major’s jacket and declaring that he was now in charge of the fort; everything that Genev had done was to be erased and forgotten. No one dared ask any questions about what happened to Genev. Then again, no one was disappointed that he disappeared.

A couple of years ago Mahrree and Perrin, again updating their notes, mused about that. “Interesting,” Perrin said, “that the last refugees we asked didn’t even recognize Genev’s name. No one in the world now remembers him. He really was erased from memory.”

Mahrree scoffed lightly. “None of those administrators are ever thought of. For as self-important as they all were, they weren’t important to anyone else in the world. Not even . . .” She was surprised it took her a moment to recall his name, “Gadiman!”

Perrin chuckled. “You forgot Gadiman’s name?”

Mahrree folded her arms. “And how many of the administrators do you remember off the top of your head?”

“Brisack,” he said easily. “Then . . .” He blushed as no other names came immediately to mind.

“I have them written in my textbook,” Mahrree snickered, “in case you ever want to review the names of those to whom you were presented a few times, and who feared you’d overthrow them.”

Perrin peered at her. “Is that the only way you know their names? From your textbook? You’re the head of the history department at the university, and met all of the administrators as well, you know!”

“Met them,” Mahrree acknowledged, “but never had any use for them.”

The world fumbled along for a while after Mal and the administrators fell, stumbling around like a drunk on a dark night, trying this door, trying that. Citizens were irrational, and even burned down the grand orange-and-red Administrative building, which had reminded Mahrree of a massive pumpkin with red tendrils curling around it. After the blaze, it was reported to the Shins that all that remained was the orange and red stones, like a massive burned out pumpkin which had bled. Idumea now had its own ruin.

Chaos erupted after that. No one who came to Salem years later could give Mahrree any specific details of what happened two-and-a-half years after they left because no reliable records could be kept. For several seasons, the world was a scene of nonstop violence. Only the frigid Raining Season that year cooled tensions long enough for everyone to look around and see what had happened.

General Snyd had taken over Idumea and proclaimed himself High General of Idumea, although only a handful of villages were loyal to him, including Edge and Major Lemuel Thorne, who had married Snyd’s niece.

Since Karna already had a large force down in Waves, the southern forts of Flax, Trades, and Orchards pledged their loyalty to Karna and declared him their High General, of sorts. Fadh agreed to support him as well, bringing with him the allegiance of the eastern forts of Coast, Marsh, and Winds. General Karna promoted him to General Fadh, to serve as his advisor.

Over on the western side of the world in Sands, Yordin was rallying forts to him as well. He secured Grasses, Scrub, and Quake, and sent messages to Karna and Fadh that they had friends in the west. General Yordin didn’t bother with appointing an assisting general to aid him.

But cutting through the three generals’ new alliance was Snyd’s forces, all the way north to Fort Shin in Edge. That swath, many miles wide, effectively cut any efforts Yordin could make to join with Fadh in the east to undermine Snyd’s control. Snyd also established a strong presence south of Grasses, cutting off Yordin’s ability to communicate with Karna.

For the next two and a half years, until 343, Karna and Fadh’s faction tried to destroy Snyd’s hold, while Yordin’s forts did their best to irritate from the west. The commanders were finally using the power given to them years ago as the ultimate authority in the villages.

There were no more governments, only the forts. There were no more magistrates or chiefs of enforcement, only commanders and soldiers.

It was then, with the armies of the world battling each other, that Guide Gleace received the prompting that no one was watching the forests, and that scouts could again slip into the world.

Moving through the forests was quite easy during those years. The soldiers were so busy engaging each other that no one was worried about Guarders. In fact, no one even seemed to mention Guarders for a few years, even though the thieving and looting hadn’t slowed. In villages controlled by Karna and his coalition, rectors were allowed to resume their teachings again, and tiny congregations began to form. All the rectors came from Salem, and the routes north through the remains of Moorland were re-cut. Going through Edge was far too dangerous with Thorne still keeping an eye on the forests—the only person who did—directly north of him.

Eventually, a few refugees began to trickle north again. Not in the numbers they had before under Shem and Perrin, but a couple dozen each year were found by the rectors and made their ways to Salem for a peaceful life.

For the next few years the world limped along this way, Snyd and Thorne’s forces against Karna, Fadh, and Yordin’s. Until General Karna went to confront General Snyd about a temporary truce in 352, thirteen years after the Shins left. From what Perrin and Shem could piece together with the reports that reached them, Brillen had been set up by one of his own officers, Major Sargon. He’d been in secret talks with Snyd, seemingly promising him to deliver the southern factions if Snyd would let Sargon control several of the forts.

And so General Brillen Karna went to the border, thinking he was to establish peace with Snyd. Instead, he was assaulted by a barrage of arrows to the chest from Snyd’s delegation. With his sudden death, Major Sargon nobly took over those forts while General Fadh dealt with unrest in Marsh and Waves.

But General Fadh suspected Major Sargon of duplicity, and in the meantime, Snyd’s army was moving east to take advantage of Fadh’s weakening position.

It was less than a year after Karna’s brutal death that Fadh faced Snyd’s armies in open battle, and Sargon rushed up from the south to help. That was when everything took a disastrous turn.

It was meant to look like an accident—one of those hazards of war when blades and men and horses get all confused, but too many soldiers said Sargon’s sword plunge into Graeson Fadh was deliberate.

Most of the soldiers who witnessed Fadh’s murder defected and headed north, especially when Fadh’s wife Shaleea turned up dead the day after her husband’s death. With both Karna and Fadh now gone, Sargon took over the southern coalition himself and sent a message to Yordin that he was now on his own in the west.

All of that left Snyd furious, realizing that Sargon was never about to yield any forts to him. But General Snyd didn’t get an opportunity to get his revenge on Sargon. A year later in 354, Snyd and Thorne had a conflict themselves. Years before, Thorne had married Snyd’s niece, but after she produced only daughters, she vanished. Exactly what happened to her and her girls, no one knew. Shem was sure Lemuel’s wife was still alive, just in hiding.

But there was probably more to Snyd and Thorne’s conflict than just a disappointing marriage. No one knew exactly what happened, but soon the news spread all the way up to Salem that General Lemuel Thorne was now in control of Idumea and the world northeast. Snyd had vanished, and his men were suddenly loyal to Thorne. Not only did Thorne take over Idumea, he changed many laws, including abolishing any laws pertaining to marriage.

As for Snyd, Perrin suggested that he likely had fallen into the same cavern that swallowed him and Mahrree fifteen years earlier. Genev was probably down there, too.

The rectors went into hiding again, and the few, tiny congregations that had existed dissolved, because neither Thorne nor Sargon tolerated any teachings from The Writings, and Yordin didn’t lend the rectors any assistance when his soldiers bullied them.

But still the rectors from Salem remained, working quietly in the world, chatting with people here and there, checking up on names the Shins remembered and finding a few people each year wanting a better life.

A handful of brave midwives also continued to go down to the world—always with three or four security scouts—but disappointingly found few women who needed their services. Fewer women were having babies, and many of them elected for the services of sedation and an attendant to catch the baby after a day or two of mother’s unconsciousness. Still, there were always a dozen or so babies they could deliver each year, and occasionally they found other women to teach. The trickle north to Salem continued.

General Thorne had two major problems when he took over the northern forts: Yordin in the east, and Sargon in the south. And for the past ten years, the three factions had battled each other over control of the world. Villages and forts went to one faction, then to another, then back again. One year Yordin nearly conquered the world, but in the next Thorne took away half of his holdings and reclaimed Idumea. Then Sargon reared up and smashed both of them for several seasons.

Perrin suggested once it was like watching squirrels fighting over the same collection of nuts, but greatly slowed down.

What really perplexed the Shins, however, was that no one seemed to want to abandon that pitiful collection of nuts and go in search of a better tree. It didn’t seem that anyone had any desire to explore beyond ‘the world,’ even though the route to Terryp’s land was wide open. For far too long the people had been accustomed to believing that this bit of land was all that was habitable, and it seemed no one was willing to look elsewhere.

But there was an ‘elsewhere’. The explorers that Salem had sent to the west the year after the Shins arrived came home nearly four years later, appearing in the eastern mountains. They had found the world was large, far larger than any of them had imagined, and the distant ocean in the west did connect to the ocean in the east. Some of the professors estimated the world was nearly 24,000 miles around.

Another group of explorers sent out the next year to retrace the route came to the same conclusion, and also came back with a wide variety of fruits, nuts, grasses, seeds, and vegetables no one had imagined before.

They also returned with the news of hundreds of more ruins, bringing back crates full of pages of rubbings that kept Mahrree and others fascinated and speculating.

It was that realization that the world was so vast, yet only a tiny fraction of it was populated and fought over, that struck the Shins as so tragic. None of the violence in the world to the south had to happen. There was plenty for everyone. But no one wanted to leave what they knew.

Each time new reports reached Salem, Perrin and Shem were tempted to make hash marks on the wall as to who was prevailing that season. After the first few years, they quit paying too much attention to the dizzying and disturbing changes to the world they no longer knew. Instead, they asked newcomers for references of who else was tired of the fighting and wanted to come “home.”

Now, in 363, there were only two factions in the world. When Yordin fell, so did his forts. Thorne’s men swiftly moved in and secured all of them. Now there was Thorne in the north, and Sargon in the south.

That was when Eltana Yordin went into hiding. A soldier who came to Salem a season and a half ago brought the news about Mrs. Yordin’s plight. The soldier had helped secure her in a small house on the outskirts of Sands before he ‘vanished’.

The day after he arrived in Salem and told Guide Zenos and General Shin about her situation, Shem sent word to Nan’s husband Honri to find her. Honri had been serving as a rector in the northern half of world for a couple of years, ever since his wife Nan died, and had found Mrs. Yordin ready to leave everything her husband had lost.

Honri would return to Salem before Snowing Season, trying to find anyone else who wanted to come home first, and also working with some troubled young men to get them into better situations.

Mahrree looked at her notes and sighed. There were still many years unaccounted for, many names whose ends she didn’t know.

Mrs. Karna was too far south to safely send anyone to find her, if she were still alive. Guide Zenos had already inquired that of the Creator and received the answer that attempting her retrieval would cost many lives, with none saved.

Mahrree wondered also about Mr. Hegek and his family. She knew his wife had died a few years ago, but nothing more about Mr. Hegek or his son, daughter-in-law, and grandson.

She also worried about Qualipoe Hili. He’d served in the south for many years under Karna, but after that faction fell to Sargon, no one heard anything more of Poe. Either he’d left the army—citizens were much harder for the scouts to locate—or he, too, had passed away.

Then there was Teeria Rigoff and Milo. Well, not Milo anymore. He’d been killed, too, by Sargon’s allies, shortly after Fadh had been lost. Teeria was somewhere in the south, alone in enemy territory, just as Eltana had been. It was harder to get scouts into the south, especially females and midwives.

And then there was Jon Offra. He’d returned to the world, promising Shem and Perrin he would keep their secret, and he did, most admirably. The fear of the woods north of Edge had never been greater. The stories Offra told were very effective.

In the years that followed, they heard of Offra’s rise in the army, all the way to colonel, under General Fadh. But he was unstable, always moved from one fort to another, where he’d start off strong, then end up terrifying soldiers by screeching that the forests were haunted.

Since Fadh died, Jon Offra had been something of a colonel-at-large, still wearing the uniform, and still rushing into forts all over the world to shout his warnings. Sargon, Yordin, Thorne—none of them knew what to do with him, nor could any of them catch him. And, in a way, he was doing all of the commanders a favor by reminding their soldiers about loyalty and devotion and death.

Some years ago, Shem and Perrin decided to bring Offra home. Four times now they’d tried to bring him to Salem, but failed. He recognized the scouts for who they were and beat them off. Still, they weren’t giving up. Jon would come home, one way or another. First they had to find him.

Eltana said she’d seen him in Sands about a year ago, but couldn’t carry on a coherent conversation with him. But where he was now? Since the man seemed to wander from village to village with no discernible pattern, sightings were sporadic, and predicting where he’d turn up next, impossible.

Mahrree sighed at her list of “Where are they?” putting yet another small question mark next to Jon Offra, and drawing another final line under Yordin.

“Thorne did that,” said Perrin behind her, startling her. “I’m sure he had Yordin killed off.”

He bent down and looked at her notes.

“Ironic, isn’t it,” he said quietly. “Of all the officers I knew, I was the first to ‘die,’ but now I’m the last one alive. Yordin was the last of the greats from the offensive at Moorland. I still can’t believe his son left him for Thorne.”

“Many people have been deceived over the years, Perrin,” Mahrree said. “Who knows what he was thinking, and how long Thorne had been working on swaying him to Edge. Province 8. Whatever it’s called.” She rolled her eyes. “What was the point of that, giving each village a random number? The numbers aren’t even in any logical order.”

Perrin shrugged. “I have to confess the random numbers are rather clever on Thorne’s part. If the south tries to invade, they’ll be confused as to which village is what, since they don’t follow numerically. Province 13 comes after Province 2 along the Idumean River, and before 16? Maddening. As for the renaming of all the villages, I can take a guess. Thorne’s trying to force unification again. He has to have all seventeen villages labeled in a way that sounds like they belong together. If you’re missing one-third of the numbers, it means you’re missing part your kingdom. Or whatever he plans to call it should he succeed.”

“Or general-dom? Now that really would be ironic, Perrin, if Lemuel Thorne tries to make himself head of everything. In so many ways he tried to follow in your footsteps, but he kept misreading the directions you intended to go.”

Perrin whispered so quietly he didn’t think his wife heard him, but she did, and his words chilled her.

“I should’ve let that Guarder kill him at Moorland.”

Mahrree knew it would be a rough night. He never slept well when someone brought the world back to his house again.

—-

Only part of the Shin family was seated to breakfast in the morning when the knock at the door came. Some of the older children were already doing chores or picking the berries from the bushes along the orchard. But at the table, eating breakfast later than usual, was Perrin and three of the younger grandchildren.

When thirteen-year-old Kew escorted Mrs. Yordin into the eating room, Perrin stood up in surprise.

“Eltana. Everything all right? Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind and want to go back already.”

She smiled. “No, not at all. The women I’m staying with are absolutely delightful.” She motioned for him to sit back down. “Perrin, I want to talk to you.”

Perrin remained standing. “Shall we go to my office? We can speak in private.”

Mrs. Yordin shook her head. “I don’t want to interrupt your breakfast. Besides, what I have to say may be of interest to your family.” She looked in earnest at the three children at the table.

Perrin gestured at the chair opposite of him, and Kew stepped over to pull it out for her. Mrs. Yordin sat down and Kew darted out the side door to do his morning chore.

“That one must be the other who’s becoming another Perrin Shin,” Mrs. Yordin said, nodding to where Kew had been standing a moment ago.

Perrin smiled. “But he’s more sober and less brash, so he’ll become like me in looks only, fortunately.”

Mrs. Yordin nodded politely at Morah next to her, and opened her mouth to address Perrin, but Morah said, “Potatoes, ma’am?”

“No thank you, dear. Perrin, I did some thinking about—”

“Applesauce, Mrs. Yordin?” Morah held up a bowl.

“Uh, I already ate, dear. But thank you, anyway. As I was saying, Perrin—”

“Bread?”

Centia, her nine-year-old sister, leaned over. “She said she already ate, Morah! Leave her be to talk to Puggah.”

“But it’s really good,” Morah said, giving Mrs. Yordin her best brown-eyed fawn look. “I helped Hycy make it.”

Mrs. Yordin sighed and smiled. “All right, I’ll take a slice.” She turned back to Perrin again, ready to speak, but not fast enough.

“Wheat or barley?” Morah asked.

Perrin’s shoulders began to shake with silent laughter as he offered no help to Mrs. Yordin.

Mrs. Yordin sighed at the little girl. “What, dear?”

“Which do you like better, wheat or barley?”

“Well, which did you help make, dear?”

“Both!”

Perrin chuckled as he took another bite of his bread.

Mrs. Yordin narrowed her eyes at him. “I’ll have what Puggah is having.”

“Are you sure? Because I might have sneezed on the barley bread. Before it was baked, though, so it’s all right now.”

Twelve-year-old Hogal rolled his eyes and pushed the basket of wheat bread to Mrs. Yordin. “Then this one’s safer, ma’am,” he told her.

The kitchen door opened, and Mahrree and Lilla came in.

Mahrree sat down next to Perrin and nodded to Mrs. Yordin. “Everything well, Eltana?”

But Lilla put her hands on her waist and looked at her daughter. “We heard you through the door, young lady. You have chores to be doing. I’m sorry, Mrs. Yordin. Morah tends to be an over-eager hostess.”

Perrin smiled. “She gets that from her other grandmother. I gain weight just thinking about Mrs. Trovato.”

Mahrree patted his belly and smiled. When he tried on his old colonel’s jacket for their families’ anniversary discussion last season, there was some considerable breath-holding that occurred as he attempted to fasten the middle buttons. But at least Shem had the same problem with his jacket. They agreed the tightly woven wool must have shrunk over the years.

Mrs. Yordin chuckled politely as she took some of the wheat bread. “She’s fine.”

Morah watched her expectantly, waiting.

Perrin smirked. “See why we didn’t have the entire family to midday meal when you first arrived?”

Mrs. Yordin took an experimental bite and nodded enthusiastically at Morah. “It’s very good.”

“Want some more?”

“Morah!” Lilla said sharply. “Eggs!”

Morah sighed as she pushed away from the table, then her face brightened. “Mrs. Yordin, I could make you some eggs when I’m done gathering them. I’m doing better at keeping the shells out.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Yordin, “I think I’ll be quite filled up with this delicious bread.”

“Now!” Lilla said to her youngest child.

Morah picked up her plate and brought it to the kitchen before leaving for the chicken coop.

Through the swinging door of the kitchen came in Young Pere and Peto, both looking weary. They sat down at the table and nodded a welcome. “Mrs. Yordin,” they both said politely.

“Does it ever end around here?” she asked as Young Pere and Peto pulled plates toward them and started helping themselves to the food on the table.

“Of course it does,” Lilla smiled. “This morning is just unusual. Normally we’re all up and out of the house by now and taking care of work, but we had a bit of an unsettled night. Still, it’s good for us to have a lazier morning every now and then,” she said cheerily. “Listen to the birds sing!” She patted Perrin’s shoulder as she passed on her way to pick up some dirty dishes someone forgot to bring to the kitchen.

Perrin gave her an appreciative smile.

“Then perhaps this isn’t a good time?” Mrs. Yordin said hesitantly.

But Perrin shook his head. “For you, I’m available anytime.”

“Thank you. As I was saying, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I didn’t sleep much last night—”

“There’s a lot of that going around,” Perrin said quietly.

Mrs. Yordin looked at him carefully for the first time. She hadn’t noticed until then how baggy his eyes were, as if he had been up half the night. Mahrree wore the same look, as did Peto and Lilla, who came back into the eating room from the kitchen. They all smiled encouragingly at her.

Mrs. Yordin leaned forward. “Well, then . . . Perrin, how many grandsons do you have?”

Perrin sat back, startled by her question. “Thirteen.”

“How many are legal age, or close to it?” She glanced over to Young Pere who sat only slightly more easily in his chair this morning.

Perrin’s brows furrowed. “That would be about . . . eight.”

Mrs. Yordin nodded. “And granddaughters with husbands? How many?”

Now Perrin was mystified, but he still answered. “Uh, three. Will be four at the end of the season when Hycy marries.”

“Good, good. And Guide Zenos? How many sons? Legal age for the world?”

“Three.”

Mrs. Yordin nodded, looking vaguely at the table. “But one’s married to your granddaughter, so he’s already been counted. Could still be enough . . .” she mumbled.

Perrin, Mahrree, Peto, Lilla, Young Pere, Centia, and now fifteen-year-old Kanthi who came into the room all looked at each other in confusion.

Hogal shrugged, picked up his plate, and left for the kitchen. He wasn’t anywhere near adulthood.

“With Peto and the other one . . . Deckett was his name, I believe,” she continued to murmur, “that makes . . . eighteen men. Eighteen would be enough, since Moorland’s gone, although Thorne inanely named the ruins Province 0, plus Idumea—”

Perrin leaned forward across the table. “Eighteen men for what, Eltana?”

She looked up into Perrin’s eyes. “I know what must be done now. The time is right. Perrin, you need to go back to Idumea!”

Someone at the table dropped a fork.

Perrin’s eyebrows shot up. “Go back?”

Mahrree couldn’t even gasp in surprise. She just stared at Mrs. Yordin who had eyes only for Perrin.

“Yes! Back to the world, Perrin! The time is right to reunify the world, and the world would come together under Perrin Shin!”

Perrin sat back and scoffed. “Eltana, that’s absurd—”

“No, no it’s not! Think about it, Perrin: Thorne took over Gari’s forts, but no one was happy about it. They were looking for someone to rebel against him, but everyone’s terrified of Thorne. But Thorne would be terrified of you. What if General Shin suddenly came back to the world, risen from the ‘dead’ with an immense army from Salem behind him? Guide Zenos could help. You could kill the stories as effectively as they killed you. Just seeing you would convince the world that Thorne was a liar and undermine his credibility. Then with the north forts and provinces behind you, you could easily take over the south forts and lead Idumea as it should be!”

Perrin shook his head slowly. “Eltana, Eltana. I told you yesterday I would be a terrible king—”

“But with the guide next to you?” she said, full of enthusiasm. “You said he was the only one that could do it. So let him help!” Table slap. “And each of your sons and grandsons and in-laws could lead the different villages. Just think if there was a descendant of the Shin and Zenos families in every village raising their children, representing their fathers—think of the peace you could bring! Perrin, you could be the greatest general the world ever saw!”

At the end of the table, Peto put his hand over his mouth, as if to stop Eltana’s words, or hold in his own. His eyes locked with Lilla’s as she slowly sat down to stare back at him.

Perrin reached over and took Mrs. Yordin’s hand. “Eltana, look at me—I’m seventy-two. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not exactly a young man anymore. I’m not even middle-aged. I’m old.”

“I am looking at you, and I’ve never seen such a fit seventy-two-year-old man,” she declared. “You haven’t seen the quality of soldiers the world now has—flabby, lazy, weak, undisciplined. Look at your grandsons!” She glanced at Young Pere again and her eyes lingered on him for a moment before she turned back at Perrin. “I met many of them yesterday, and they’re in far better shape than any soldiers I ever saw. In just a few weeks you could teach them enough to march down to the world—”

“No!” Perrin said decisively. “That’s not the Creator’s will. Eltana, we don’t even have weapons. Only long knives used for butchering animals and pitchforks used for cleaning their stalls. We’re not a war-like society, nor should we be. I’m here to secure Salem, not take over Idumea. I’m General Shin in title only. There’s no real army, Eltana. Just citizens who can defend their houses from lost soldiers who might accidentally wander over here. Maybe.”

Mrs. Yordin was not to be deterred. “Then make an army! The sisters I live with and I were talking about it last night. They told me how much everyone in Salem loves this family, loves you. Say the word and you’ll have an army at your disposal, we’re sure of it!”

Perrin sat back and rolled his eyes.

But Mrs. Yordin plowed on. “There are plenty of men here who served for a time who could help train, lots of scouts who know how to get in and out, and every young man I’ve seen so far in Salem is as strapping as Young Pere there. Arm them with pebbles and they’d still win against the clumsy swords and aimless arrows of the current army! By the beginning of Harvest, you could be ready. Perrin, how do you know securing Salem doesn’t mean destroying the threat of the world? You did it in the Moorland offensive. You saw the threat, and you went after it. Do it again! For Gari, for Karna, for Fadh! For all of us who have suffered—”

Perrin pushed away from the table and stood up. “This is madness!” He ran his hands through his hair and paced the floor. “You want revenge, don’t you? For what happened to Gari and your son. And you’re trying to use me to get it!”

She slapped the table. “Yes, I want revenge! I deserve justice—we all do. Your family as well, for all the slander against you. This is why I had to come here: to find you and convince you of your duty to the world.”

He stopped in midstride and pointed at her. “Don’t you dare,” he snarled, “try to tell me about duty, Eltana!”

Anxiously his family watched him rub his forehead, turn sharply, and pace again. They weren’t accustomed to seeing their Puggah so agitated.

“You . . . you don’t know what you’re suggesting,” Perrin waved uselessly. “I can’t do this!”

“Why not?” Mrs. Yordin demanded. “Because you’re afraid you’re rusty after twenty-five years?”

“No!”

“Because you’re too comfortable here in Salem, sitting in this easy life?” her voice grew louder.

“NO!”

“Because you really wanted to abandon us? You live here in luxury—”

Luxury!?”

“Yes, luxury!” she insisted. “Not of gold, but of family and home and peace. We’ve had none of that! That’s it, isn’t it? You’re afraid to see just how horrible the world is, what condition you left us in!”

Perrin stopped his pacing and glared at Mrs. Yordin.

Mahrree shrunk in her chair. She hadn’t seen that expression on his face in many years.

Mrs. Yordin seemed to get a little smaller too, but living with Roarin’ Yordin for so long had taught her how to hold a steely gaze.

“I did not abandon Idumea,” Perrin seethed quietly. “It betrayed me and killed my father and mother. It passed laws illegally in order to kill my wife and planned to imprison me and my son.”

He ignored the shocked looks on his grandchildren’s faces and leaned across the table toward Mrs. Yordin, who admirably didn’t budge.

“Captain Thorne, we found out later, gave an order to my former soldiers to murder my son-in-law so he could take my expecting daughter—”

Now the grandchildren exchanged stunned looks, and Lilla bit her lip. She wished she had sent all of them out for eggs. The younger ones didn’t know all of these details.

“—and all of that gave us no other choice than to leave. I told you before, Eltana: Idumea destroyed itself. I did not cause it, nor can I fix it now!”

“How do you know?” Mrs. Yordin challenged hotly. “How can you be so sure?”

Because I fought that battle LAST NIGHT!” Perrin roared.

Mahrree hid her face behind her hand.

And I LOST.”

Peto looked down at his plate, as did Lilla.

Their children exchanged uncomfortable looks. They knew about their grandfather’s occasional ‘unsettled nights’ which occurred each time someone from the army came from the world. A few of the children in both families had been unfortunate enough to wake up to find their beloved Puggah standing over their beds holding a stick or broom handle as if it were a sword.

Last night, Young Pere was terrified awake by a shouting General Shin in his bedroom.

“I know what will happen if I go back, Eltana,” Perrin struggled to keep his voice from trembling. “We won’t be successful. And they always go for the most vulnerable ones first,” his voice cracked.

“Perrin!” Mahrree said sharply. She offered her grandchildren what she hoped was a reassuring smile. But by the looks of horror on her granddaughters’ faces, she needed more practice.

She reached over, took her husband’s hand, and gently pulled him back to his seat.

He sat down slowly, still staring at Mrs. Yordin.

“My home is Salem,” he told her. “I will not leave it. Not for the whole world.”

Mrs. Yordin’s chin quivered. She obviously was hoping for a more agreeable response. “What if Guide Zenos told you to go?”

Perrin sat quietly as every pair of eyes watched him. Finally, he said, “Eltana, you must excuse me now. My sons, grandsons, great-grandsons, brother, nephews, and grandnephews leave in just three days for one of our trail marking trips. There are still many preparations that need to be made. I hope you enjoy the bread. I’m fairly certain that’s not the batch Morah dropped on the floor. But she baked it after, so it doesn’t matter.”

Perrin stood up and walked out of the house.

—-

That afternoon at a small and neat house north of the Shin-Briter Eztates, a young man knocked at the door.

It was opened by an elderly woman.

“Is Mrs. Yordin in?” the young man asked.

The woman smiled at him. “Eltana,” she called behind her, “we should have had you move in long ago. We’ve never had such a steady stream of men at our door before!”

The young man turned pink and the elderly woman chuckled.

Eltana Yordin came to the door and sucked in her breath. “I don’t think I will ever get used to seeing your face. It’s like going back in time. Come in, Young Pere, please. Somehow I knew you’d be coming by.”

Young Pere hesitated as the elderly woman stepped aside to let him in. “Only if you have time—”

“For you, Perrin—I mean, Young Pere—I’ll always have time.”

Young Pere followed her into the gathering room and sat down on the chair she gestured to.

Mrs. Yordin’s elderly housemate closed the gathering room door behind them as Mrs. Yordin sat on the sofa opposite of Young Pere. She smiled in anticipation.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, Lieutenant Perrin Shin?” She winked.

Young Pere opened his mouth, but then didn’t know how to begin. He wasn’t expecting that wink.

Mrs. Yordin sat back. “Can I say something first, Young Pere?”

He nodded. Maybe her comment could get him started.

“I have to confess, seeing you actually fulfills a fantasy I had as a girl.”

No, Young Pere decided, this wasn’t going to help him much.

“You see, when I was twelve we lived in Orchards, and my parents took me on a trip to Idumea to visit the greatest city in the world. But all I wanted to see was one particular young man who every girl in the world knew about—Perrin Shin.”

Now Young Pere’s eyebrows went up and he felt himself growing hot.

“He was about seventeen years old at the time, just like you, and was rumored to be the most handsome—”

Young Pere was now fully red.

“—and eligible young man. The future High General of the world: tall, dark, and built, with shoulders out to here. An older girl in my school had been at the garrison with her father earlier and saw him. She said all the stories about him were true. She tried to get close enough to meet him, but apparently he had several girls following him around, each hoping for a private moment with him.” Mrs. Yordin narrowed her eyes. “No girls follow you around, Young Pere?”

He decided to tell her, “Only with bandages. Usually my sisters and cousins.”

Mrs. Yordin laughed. “Oh, if only I were fifty years younger!”

Young Pere shifted on his chair, beginning to rethink his visit.

Mrs. Yordin noticed. “I’m sorry. You know, I never did glimpse him when I was twelve. But I sure do see him now. I thank you for that, and I apologize for embarrassing you.”

Young Pere smiled, aware that she was watching for his grandfather’s grin. He might as well let her have it. “That’s all right, Mrs. Yordin. I never realized . . . there were stories about him?”

“There have always been stories about him. From the time he was a teenager until now. No man is more storied in the world than your Puggah. Is that what you came to talk to me about?”

“Sort of. Mrs. Yordin, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what you said this morning at breakfast, about Pugg—about General Shin returning to the world. Do you really think he should?”

Her hand slapping the sofa didn’t sound very loud but it caught Young Pere’s attention.

“I never thought I’d see the day when Perrin Shin would back away from a fight!” she declared. “Salem has made him weak. Have you ever seen him with a sword?”

“We don’t have swords here, ma’am.”

She blew out in exasperation. “He was born to wield a sword, Young Pere. Gari told me about his strength and his speed. When he set his sights on a man, he might as well have dropped dead before Shin ever got to him, because he wouldn’t survive the encounter.”

Young Pere leaned forward, realizing he’d found what he’d been looking for. “They don’t tell us those details on the rare days when we talk about the world. I know he took out a few men—”

Cushioned slap. “And how! Dozens and dozens! He was great and deadly. Even with a bow and arrow, and long knives.” She leaned forward to match his pose. “You really don’t know?”

“He likes to leave the world in the world.”

“Have you read your Aunt Calla’s book? I was thumbing through a copy last night, and it’s all there, up until he left.”

Young Pere shrugged guiltily. It never seemed interesting until now. “I suppose I should check our shelves for a copy. Mrs. Yordin, this morning he said something about Thorne?”

“You really don’t know?” she repeated.

“I know a Thorne served with him for a little while, and that his father became the new High General, but it sounds like there was a lot more. You see, Puggah and Muggah tell us the story of when they came to Salem when we’re thirteen. But I always felt they glossed over a lot of details.” Young Pere hesitated. “Mrs. Yordin, how much do you know about my grandfather, about some sleeping problems he had in the past?”

She sat back, her brow furrowed. “Only more stories, Young Pere. But by the look on your face, those were true.”

Young Pere nodded. “Whenever someone from the world comes here, he relives it. He thinks he’s in a battle and he acts it out in the middle of the night. Usually he’s shouting about Guarders.”

Mrs. Yordin covered her mouth. “I thought he’d be over that by now,” she whispered. “Karna told us what Zenos reported to him, about his nightmares of his parents. Oh, Perrin. Must be terrifying.”

Young Pere wondered who the Perrin was to whom she referred. “You could say that,” he scoffed lightly. “Usually he’s shouting or he thinks we’re dead and he tries to revive us. That’s not the most pleasant way to wake up, I assure you. My cousin Holling Briter used to have nightmares about Puggah having nightmares. Last night I woke up to find him standing over my bed with a fire poker, yelling about Thorne, something about him staying away from his children. So what more is there to him besides being Puggah’s captain? And was he really after my Aunt Jaytsy?”

Mrs. Yordin looked as if someone had let all the air out of her. “Oh, Young Pere . . . I don’t know everything. And if your father and grandparents have never told you the details, then I shouldn’t—”

“Please, Mrs. Yordin, I really want to know.” He sat back and sighed. “I’m old enough to know about my family’s history. All of it, not the washed and dried version Muggah teaches at the university.”

Mrs. Yordin tipped her head. “You have a reason, don’t you?”

“I do, Mrs. Yordin.” And now he pulled out his ability, as he liked to think of it. He hadn’t thought he’d need it on an elderly woman, but realizing she had information and connections—and a lingering crush on someone who looked a great deal like him—he decided it couldn’t hurt.

So he tipped his head to the side, dipping it down a bit so that when he looked up at her, it’d be through his dark lashes. Raising his eyebrows slightly always helped, too. At least, it did on females fifteen-years-old.

“I need to construct an argument,” he began, making sure to lower his voice even deeper. He could hit that gravelly spot, too. “You see, when a man finishes a year at the university and turns eighteen, he starts looking for a wife and begins studying for his first profession. The wife can wait, but my father won’t let me do what I want to do. There’s only a season left until I’m of age and I need to convince him.” Eyebrow raise.

Mrs. Yordin watched him intently, amusedly. “So what do you want to do?”

He leaned forward and hiked up one side of his mouth into an impertinent grin. “I want to be a scout. I want to go down to the world, but,” he sighed sadly and blinked a few times, “Papa and Uncle Shem say it’s too dangerous for a Shin, and that I should never mention it to my grandparents. Uncle Shem said I could go on the expedition he’s sending to the eastern ocean, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to go south. You understand, don’t you?”

Mrs. Yordin nodded vaguely, just like the girls.

“I don’t care about unexplored lands. I want to see what your world really is all about. I’ve always suspected they never told us everything, and now I know they haven’t. I just want to know for myself, Mrs. Yordin. And I’m hoping that you—” he flashed what he considered a full, yet subtle, grin, “can help me.”

Mrs. Yordin exhaled as if coming out of some unexpected trance. “Oh, you are good!” she declared with a chuckle. “You are certainly your grandfather’s boy. I’d heard those stories about him, too.”

Young Pere tipped his head the other direction. “What stories?”

“That he could charm the bloomers off a gi—” She stopped, seeing Young Pere’s bemused and innocent expression. “Um, off a goat, if goats wore bloomers,” she said hurriedly.

Young Pere knew there were strange customs in the world, and he supposed dressing up goats was simply another one.

“Besides,” Mrs. Yordin continued uneasily, “I’m sure Perrin hasn’t been goat charming for many decades now, and I’ve always felt one’s youthful indiscretions should be allowed to die along with one’s youth.”

Young Pere, following only bits of what she was alluding to, picked up on the last of it. “So you agree that a youth like me should have the opportunity to have a few indiscretions?” He hoped it sounded right.

By the growing smile on her face, it did. “Indeed I do. Especially a charmer like you. I suppose Salem is too virtuous to allow for such adventurous dalliances?”

Slowly Young Pere nodded, still not understanding what she was talking about, but knowing his response was what she was looking for.

Then she seemed concerned. “Oh, but with that face, that body, those shoulders, that name of Perrin—there’s some danger, I have to agree with your uncle and father. Then again,” she tipped her head to match his imploring gaze, “only people in my generation might recognize your heritage, and there are very few still alive who would have seen and remembered your grandfather when he was young. The chances of any of them seeing you and making the connection . . .” She sat taller with fresh hunger in her eyes. “You know, you could change your name. You could be a scout at my husband’s fort in Sands and find out what’s happening!”

Young Pere sat back, only so that he could focus his gaze fully on Mrs. Yordin. She was, after all, only a young girl at heart, meeting the young man of her dreams. “I could do a great many things, Mrs. Yordin,” he said self-assuredly. “I just need the opportunity.”

“Yes, yes, you could.” Her gaze turned almost condescending. “But I don’t think you realize how easy it is to be confident in a cozy place like Salem. You know nothing of the world, do you?”

He held in his cringe, tired of hearing that from his elders. “But Mrs. Yordin, why can’t you tutor me? Surely no one has such expertise as you.”

It was working. She was blushing with pride.

“You could prepare me. Teach me all about what it means to be an officer in the army, to be like your husband.”

That one definitely hit its mark. She was now beaming. Maybe if he nudged just a tiny bit more—

“What kind of man did you expect your son to become? Teach me to be that man.”

Mrs. Yordin scoffed a chuckle. “Oh, indeed you are slick. Already you know how to manipulate your audience, almost as deftly as Lemuel Thorne. Yes, you could do it, but I still worry that you won’t understand the world. You have no idea just how easy you have it here.

“Many would give their lives—are giving their lives—to have what you have,” she told him, staring deep into his eyes. “Your people have so much more knowledge. Why, just this afternoon I started to read a book written by one of your scientists. I had no idea there were other spheres like ours going around the sun.

“No one in Idumea knows how to look at the night sky and tell the difference between a sphere—planet, I think it’s called—and stars like our sun. The best the world can do is identify constellations like the Great Turnip and the Sideways Swordsman. The world is obsessed with survival, Young Pere, and nothing beyond. That scientist has even calculated how fast light moves? I just thought it was. I never before considered that light travels at a certain speed!”

Young Pere nodded wearily. “Must be Oromer’s book. He teaches at the university. Every year he and Professor Eints try to get the first year students to debate what the world would look like if someone could travel at the speed of light on the back of a horse.”

“Such ideas!” Mrs. Yordin breathed.

Young Pere rolled his eyes. “Eints asked me what I thought it would look like, and I told him, ‘Blurry.’ He said that was a very unoriginal answer. I mean, what’s the point? It’s all just thinking and speculating. Mrs. Yordin,” he leaned forward to hold her gaze, “it’s just not real. It’s dull.”

She tipped her head, almost like a flirting girl. “That’s just not Perrin Shin’s style, is it? Men with that name need excitement, a challenge, a conflict. Idumea used to be relatively peaceful under your great grandfather, but with just enough conflict to keep men like you entertained. You need that now, don’t you, Lieutenant Shin?”

You know what I need, Mrs. Yordin,” he told her earnestly, almost feeling bad for manipulating her so, but the old woman seemed to be enjoying herself. “I need to get out of here. Just for a couple of seasons to stretch my wings. Sometimes I feel so trapped. You get it, right?”

Mrs. Yordin squinted at him. “Wings? Trapped. Like a falcon in a barn?”

Her phrasing caught him off guard. “Yeah . . . I guess you could say that. Interesting analogy.”

“You have no idea, boy,” she whispered.

“So tell me? Please? Teach me what I need to know so that I can go back to Roarin’ Yordin’s forts and begin to turn this world around. For my family name, and for your revenge.”

Mrs. Yordin grinned and slapped the sofa. “There’s my Perrin Shin!”

Chapter 5—“I got to watch a falcon for quite a while.”

It was late in the evening when Mahrree came home from the Briters’ house where she and Perrin had dinner. Perrin was still there, going over maps with Deck and Peto for their trip in a few days.

Mahrree looked with disappointment at the clean sink. She really needed something to wash. Eltana’s breakfast discussion had sat on Perrin and her all day like a rash they both tried to pretend wasn’t there, annoying and itching at them. It was going to be another sleepless night, she knew it already.

Taking up a dish rag, Mahrree began to wipe the already clean surfaces and cabinets, trying to wash away the memory of her husband’s agitated face. They had lived so peacefully here for so many years. It seemed wrong that someone should come and challenge him to return.

He had never expressed a desire to go back. Even when the family went a few times on the routes near the glacial fort to see the wildflowers and waterfalls, he stayed behind in Salem. “I see those in the mountains here all the time,” was his excuse.

He didn’t want to travel south, ever again. Especially after he had killed Lieutenant Radan who had been trying to escape from the glacial fort to return to the world, to tell Thorne what he had discovered. The further south Perrin went the deadlier he felt, and he never wanted to be deadly again.

But it was that word Eltana used on him. Duty. That flashed something in his eyes, but he refused to talk to Mahrree about it. She would have to trap him on the sofa again as she did years ago to try to get him to talk it out before the trip, or many little boys would be traumatized in the middle of the night by their Puggah.

He always said how satisfied he was with their life here, how he couldn’t have wished for anything else—

But on the nights when his Armchair Generals came by, Mahrree spied the faint longing in his eyes. He’d been taught all his youth that his destiny was to be High General, and he wasn’t.

Eltana’s challenge had pierced him. Maybe now, as he was entering the last stretch of his life, he was hoping to leave behind a greater legacy—

“I’m pretty sure that’s clean now, Muggah.”

Mahrree smiled as she looked up to see Young Pere.

“I suppose you’re right. I haven’t seen you for a while. Have you been resting?”

Young Pere pulled out a chair to sit down at the work table. “I promise you, Muggah, that all I did this afternoon was rest comfortably.”

She pulled out a chair opposite of him, because she’d heard how carefully he’d phrased that. “Honestly?”

“Yes.” He looked at her in a way she couldn’t interpret. He seemed to be analyzing her deeper than ever before.

“But you weren’t around here,” she hinted. She’d checked his room a few times to find it empty.

“I needed some time alone. I went instead to where I could rest and . . . listen to the world.”

Again she noticed the judiciously selected words. “Listen to the world?”

Young Pere nodded. “It was such a warm day, perfect for stretching out in the grasses and seeing the clouds float by, watching the birds fly, listening to the bugs . . . bugging around.” He was trying to be light-hearted, which meant he was trying to draw her away from her suspicions.

“Did you go beyond the pasture lands?” she pressed. “Lying in cattle muck would definitely bring a lot of bugging bugs.”

He cracked a smile. “Yes, I went north. And all I did was sit and listen and think.”

Something sounded deceitful. While Salemites were hopelessly honest, Young Pere had picked up the worldly trait of lying while speaking what sounded like the truth. He probably learned that from his grandmother.

Mahrree sat back. “So what did you think about?”

“Flying. For a time, I watched the birds and their wing configurations. I got to watch a falcon for quite a while, circling above me.”

She didn’t like the way he said that word. “A falcon?”

“Yes,” he said slowly.

Something in his tone suggested multiple meanings.

“When it circled closer I realized it was far more complex than I anticipated. Lots of details I never realized before. I’m going to have to make some modifications to my design.” He turned up a corner of his mouth, and she recognized his teasing, almost flirtatious, smile. It always meant something was up, but she never let him know she was on to him.

She attempted a real smile in return. “I hope it takes you a very long time to do that, Young Pere.”

“Now that I know what to do, I don’t think it’ll be that difficult at all. I really wish I could see a falcon up close, though,” he mused. “Maybe find a wounded one somewhere.”

Mahrree tried to pretend his choice of words didn’t hit her upside the head with such dizzying force.

Her grandson was watching her closely again.

He knew. Somehow, he knew. She’d never written about it, never discussed Qayin Thorne’s attitude toward Perrin as a wounded falcon in a barn, but her grandson knew.

And the most likely person to have told him would have been Eltana Yordin, who, through her husband, would have known just about everything.

“Young Pere, even a wounded bird of prey is very dangerous,” she told him. “Probably even more so, because it’s hurt. It still has sharp talons and a beak. Please don’t try it.”

Young Pere gaze softened as he grinned, suddenly easy. “Don’t worry, Muggah. What are my chances of finding a wounded falcon? I’d have a better shot at finding a dead one.”

“There you go!” Mahrree said with forced brightness. Maybe it was all just a mistake, an unfortunate coincidence that he referred to a wounded falcon.

Why would he be talking with Eltana Yordin anyway?

“Examine a plucked chicken before it’s cooked for dinner,” she suggested.

He scoffed. “A chicken? Muggah, they have wings all right, but they can’t fly more than a couple of feet before flopping to the ground.”

“Precisely. Just like you.”

“Thanks, Muggah. Thanks a lot.”

—-

That night Peto sat on the edge of his bed. He stared at the wardrobe and thought about the old parchment envelope hidden under the sweaters.

His wife came into the room, got into bed, and watched her husband.

“You’re still thinking about what she said, aren’t you?”

Peto nodded once.

Lilla sighed. “I couldn’t imagine leaving these houses. Sending our children in different directions around the world? Not living next door to your sister, or down the road from my sister? None of this sounds right to me at all, Peto.”

Peto nodded again.

“So why are you still thinking about it?”

“Why did she use those words, Lilla? ‘Greatest general the world ever saw’? What if this is the way it’s supposed to happen? Sometimes the right thing doesn’t sound right at the beginning. That’s what I thought about our coming to Salem.” He sighed heavily. “What if our time here was just for now, and not forever?”

Lilla pondered that. “Then Relf would have to remake that sign above the road. He wouldn’t be too happy about it.”

She leaned toward him when she realized that it was one of those rare evenings when her husband had no sense of humor.

“Peto, think about it—do you really think Mrs. Yordin was receiving a revelation when she used those words? You said yourself she knew very little about the Creator. She hadn’t looked at The Writings since she was a child. She just happened to choose words that echoed your grandfather. That’s all. Not really a lot of different ways to say ‘greatest general in the world’ now is there?”

“No, I suppose not.” He was quiet for a moment. “I just hadn’t realized until today that my father thinks he’s old. I was a boy when Grandfather Shin died, and I thought then that he was an old man. I just realized that my father is four years older than High General Shin was when he died. And now I’m the same age my father was then.” He paused again. “There really isn’t a lot of time left for him to . . .”

Lilla crawled over to Peto and put her arms around him. “To become the greatest general the world ever saw? Wasn’t it you who told me that often we put our own interpretations upon the Creator’s words? That we force our ideas onto His plans? Nothing ever works out the way we hope when we do that. But if we surrender to the Creator, then we see how much better His will and plans are. Does any of this sound familiar, Rector Shin?”

He kissed his wife’s arm. “Yes, and you’re right, as usual. I couldn’t imagine leaving here for Edge or anywhere else. I’ve been thinking about it all day and have felt very uneasy. That’s always the Creator’s way of telling me to forget the idea. I was positively agitated all afternoon. Tomorrow I’ll have to ask Shem how Mrs. Yordin took the news there would be no invasion. He was planning to have a little chat with her.” Peto chuckled. “Do you think Mrs. Yordin’s related to your family? She and Calla could’ve probably planned the offensive all by themselves.”

Lilla laughed. “We’ll have to look in the family lines.”

Peto finally pulled his eyes away from the wardrobe and turned to his wife. “Deck set up for the night?”

“Yes. Your father’s asleep already so he didn’t hear him come in. Deck put together the two armchairs.”

“He’s not alone, is he?”

“No, he brought Viddrow with him. He’s sleeping on their sofa.”

“Good,” Peto said. “The only one better at calf wrestling and hog tying is Bubba, but Viddrow’s eighteen now, and should be up to the challenge.”

“Do you really think Papa Pere will have another problem tonight?” she asked. “I never remember two nights in a row.”

Peto shrugged. “There never was a visitor bringing back so many memories before. Shem offered to come over tomorrow night with Zaddick if we think there’s a need.”

Lilla leaned against her husband. “I don’t know how your mother did it. How you and Jaytsy handled it when he first was like this. He terrified me last night, and he was armed only with an iron poker. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for you at Kew’s age.”

“He was terrifying,” he admitted quietly. “And he had that sword. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but now I have even more respect for my mother. Going to bed each night knowing there was a disturbed man sleeping next to her with an affinity for blades? If Shem hadn’t been there some of those nights, I’m not sure if we’d all be here now.”

Peto sat lost in thought, Lilla waiting, before he continued.

“There was one night when I heard him come down the stairs, before we had Shem staying at night. Father went to Jaytsy’s room. By the time I got there he was holding Grandfather’s sword over her. He heard me and turned around. I could tell by his stance that he didn’t recognize me as his son. Lilla, I was so scared. He took one step toward me . . .” Peto shook his head. “My mother moved right in front of me and ordered him to lower his weapon. I don’t know what he heard in her voice, but he put down the sword. I think he would’ve killed me if my mother hadn’t been there.”

Lilla squeezed her husband tighter.

“I knew how deadly he could be. I had watched him just weeks before defending our coach and caravan of food on our way back to Edge. Lilla, he was amazing! Even as much as you hate violence, you would’ve been impressed. Sixteen men. He seemed to barely touch them and they fell to the ground. One swipe, one thrust, one pass-by and they were dead. I was so proud of him. Then a few weeks later I was so scared of him.

“My mother took to hiding Grandfather’s sword each evening when he came home from the fort. A few times she hid it under my bed, and I never slept well those nights, even when Father was sedated. A teenager’s imagination can be overly active, Lilla. It was as if I could feel something coming from that sword through my bed. I thought it had a life of its own.”

Lilla kissed his cheek and snuggled up to his chest. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” she whispered.

He kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry the Briters and our children have to see it as well. But it served a purpose for our family then. We learned to not focus so much on what the world thought, and worried mostly about getting Father well. And staying out of his way!” he scoffed sadly. “I think all our children handle it better, though. It’s been good for them to be of service to him once in a while. At least we have a good idea when another incident may be coming. He just feels so badly that it still happens. He pulled Young Pere and me aside to apologize to us this morning. He said he wishes he could be released from this trial.”

“What did you say to him?”

“I told him I thought the trial was for a reason. He certainly didn’t feel like leading an army to Idumea now, did he? Perhaps this was the Creator’s way of warning him against doing something rash. Maybe he needs such vivid reminders as to what he left behind, so he keeps it behind. He seemed to appreciate that answer.”

“I thought he would, especially since some of that insight was mine,” Lilla reminded him.

Peto chuckled. “Then Young Pere told him he was so used to waking up to see Puggah’s face over his bed that he simply thought he had been in another accident he didn’t remember.”

Lilla laughed softly. After a moment she said, “So you don’t believe your father is to be a general in Idumea.”

“No.”

“Does that make you worry about your grandfather’s dream?”

“Slightly,” he admitted. “But I keep reminding myself that my mother had dreams of a large home and a dozen children. Our families have actually doubled her dreams. I couldn’t figure out my calling in the world and certainly didn’t want to be the fourth General Shin. Then I came here, met you, discovered my love of mountains, and now I work part of the time with my father and part of the time with Shem. When I was a teenager I simply didn’t have enough imagination—all right, I had a very active imagination I’ll admit, just not in the correct directions—to see what my future could hold. How can I now assume to imagine how my grandfather’s dream will be fulfilled?”

“Do you ever doubt what your grandfather dreamed?”

“No, Lilla, I don’t.”

Lilla smiled. “Nor do I. From the first time you showed me the parchment before we married, I knew it was a gift from the Creator. I could feel it. Somehow, someday, the world will still know Perrin Shin the General. Just . . . not this season.”

—-

In the morning Deck and Viddrow slowly walked home, exhausted from wrangling the orneriest bull they had ever dealt with.

“I don’t remember any of the other nights being so violent,” Deck told his son as he stretched out a kink in his back. “I hope no one else comes from the world for at least another year.”

“Maybe next time we should bring your whip,” Viddrow suggested.

“I doubt it would help. The rope barely held. I just hope I’m that strong when I’m an old man,” he confided, “because clearly I’m not that strong now. The two of us could hardly contain him.”

“So do Uncle Shem and Zaddick have Perrin-wrestling duty tonight?” Viddrow asked.

“Yep.”

“Better give them your whip.”

—-

Perrin sat in his office going over lists of supplies and maps for the trip. Tucked in his left arm was Jaysie Briter, the six moons’ old daughter of Holling and Eraliz Briter. Eraliz had brought her over so that she could visit the storehouse for supplies without additional “help.”

Perrin was used to it; he counted on cradling someone small nearly every day. Little Jaysie had immediately cuddled into the favorite sleeping position of every baby born to the families: nestled into Puggah’s strong arm and chest. She’d sleep soundly until her mother returned. Even then, Perrin wouldn’t readily surrender the infant unless pressed.

He heard the knock at the door. “Come in,” he called, quietly so as to not wake the little girl.

The door opened. “Do you know how much I get a kick out of hearing you say that? ‘Come in!’ As if nothing’s changed in the forty-two years I’ve known you.”

Perrin smiled. “What can I do for you, Shem?”

Shem walked in and sat in a chair opposite of the desk. “Is that Jaysie?” He nodded to the bundle in his arm. “She’s getting big, isn’t she? I think every baby we get somehow grows faster than the last.”

Perrin gazed down at his softly snoring great-granddaughter and ran his other hand gently over her wispy brown hair. “That’s why there’s always a replacement around the corner. Jaysie will be getting too big for this when Salema’s third is born. I guess I’ll have to fight you for that one, though.”

Shem chuckled softly. “You will. So, planning the trip?”

“Yes. I’m a little worried about that steep section approaching the ridge. But we’ll see how the little boys handle it this year.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about, Perrin.”

Perrin exhaled. “So I repeat my previous question—what can I do for you, Shem?”

“The question should be, what can I do for you?”

Perrin leaned back in his chair, patting the baby unnecessarily. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t give me that blank look, Perrin. I can see it in your eyes. Your tired, baggy, eyes that haven’t seen sleep in the last two nights.”

Perrin’s face twitched. “Who told you?”

“A few worried people. But I already knew.”

A smirk developed around Perrin’s mouth. “That Creator is one nosy Being, isn’t He.”

Shem didn’t smile. “Yes, He is. He’s greatly concerned that you’re not getting rid of these ideas planted by Mrs. Yordin. That’s why I’m here.”

Perrin sighed and let his gaze drift to the desk.

“Perrin, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” Shem said. “She’s had a very difficult life. She’s seen her husband wounded over and over again battling for villages. Nothing in her life has ever been secure. She’s witnessed the betrayal of her son and then had to endure the loss of her husband. To have him die on the battlefield is one thing, but to have him stabbed to death by Thorne’s spies while he sat at his desk—”

Perrin fidgeted uncomfortably behind his.

“—that’s just too much for any woman to take. That’s why we brought her here. But Perrin, she’s unstable. Both Honri and Woodson noticed it as they prepared her, concerned that she’s not yet ready for Salem life.”

“But I insisted she be brought here, anyway,” Perrin said, apologetically.

Shem nodded. “And that’s all right. I agreed, if you remember, and so did the Creator. We can handle her, and she needed to get out of Sands. But she’s likely never going to be one of us,” he warned. “I went to check on her last night, to see how she’s adjusting. She wasn’t interested yet in talking about baptism, and again, that’s all right. But I was struck by something else. She still wants revenge, as if that will somehow restore her family, and she seemed very calm as we talked, as if she’s already planning something.”

Perrin tried to shrug that off. “Oh, I doubt that. Sometimes you can be a little too cynical.” But Perrin’s tone wasn’t nearly as sure as his words.

And Shem noticed. “That cynicism I learned from serving by your side for so many years,” he reminded. “And I know I need to pull it out every time someone from the world shows up in Salem.”

“Salem would be surprised to see this side of you, Guide Zenos,” Perrin chided. “The ever hopeful, ever cheerful guide of the Creator—”

“General, quit trying to change the subject,” Guide Zenos said in that tone that always made his general go quiet. “Look, I don’t want you to get caught up in whatever she’s plotting. In time I’m sure she’ll give it up after she learns how to grieve for all that she’s lost. But until then . . .”

Perrin stared at his desk again. “All that she’s lost,” he repeated quietly. “And what have I lost, Shem? She was right, you know. I live in luxury. She lived in misery.”

“Well,” Shem said, “you did have a few trials in the world yourself, you know. Parents killed, Mal’s Guarders out to destroy you and your family—”

“And then twenty-five years of easy living in Paradise.” Perrin sighed and kissed the baby’s forehead.

“Perrin,” Shem said quietly, “that’s no reason to feel guilty for anything. You’ve had your share of trials here, too. And remember, Salem’s not a place of comparison or competition. Don’t compare yourself to Eltana, or to anyone. Will you let go of this guilt and stop thinking about Mrs. Yordin’s ideas?”

Perrin ran his hand over the baby’s head again.

“Look at me, General,” Guide Zenos said in a commanding, yet quiet, voice.

Perrin’s head snapped up.

“Will you lose these ideas, Perrin?” he asked more gently.

“Shem, I want to. I really do, but—”

Guide Zenos leaned forward onto the desk. “When I came in I said it was as if nothing has changed in forty-two years, but everything has changed. You know it as well as I do. You have a duty to the Creator and to your family. Not to Idumea and what’s left of it. What happened to Eltana is tragic. We can’t change her past, we can only help her build a new future. You owe her nothing. It’s not your fault that you’re still alive and Gari Yordin isn’t.”

“I’m the last one, Shem,” he said quietly. “The last of the commanders of the Moorland offensive. Do you know what a weight that is?”

“Why are you here, Perrin?”

“What?”

“Why are you here? Do you remember?”

Perrin waved his hand at the maps on his walls marked with routes and trails and tower placements and warehouses for emergency rations and supplies. “How could I forget?”

“Then tell me. What is your duty . . . to the Creator?”

“To secure Salem and to mark the path for His people’s safety.” He easily paraphrased the words of Guide Pax’s prophecy from more than 160 years ago. He could have quoted them because they were seared into his mind and heart.

“And General, have you done that?”

“I suppose—”

“Not suppose, Perrin. Have you secured Salem?”

Perrin sighed. “Yes, Guide. I have done all that I know how to secure Salem.”

“I agree. You have. Then, General Shin, why wish for anything else?”

“I . . . I don’t wish . . .” he faltered.

“Yes you do, Shin! You wish for more.”

“No one wishes for more in Salem, Guide,” Perrin said smartly. “We all have more than enough.”

“But you don’t believe it, Perrin.”

Perrin looked at his great-granddaughter, then, feeling the penetrating gaze, finally looked up into the eyes of the guide. It was no use trying to hide it. Guide Zenos could read him like a book.

“What have I done, really, Shem? I’m a general of nothing,” he whispered. “We both know Guide Gleace gave me that title just to make me feel better about coming to Salem. I’ve trained a few people in how to use farm implements against stray soldiers. I’ve put up a few towers with colorful banners. I’ve hacked out four trails in the forest. I’ve had a few emergency areas stocked. And the rest of the time I sit here staring out the window as a useless old man.”

Shem’s mouth opened, stunned. “Perrin, is that all you really see?”

His friend shrugged and caressed the cheek of the sleeping baby.

“You’ve ensured the safety of the Creator’s people!” Shem exclaimed. “Your tower and banner system has allowed us to send messages to even the furthest reaches within half an hour! You’ve devised ways to evacuate tens of thousands of people within two days or less! You’re the patriarch of a fantastic family that grows every season! No one in Salem is more revered or respected than you!”

Perrin looked out the window, as if not hearing any of that. “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but I have to confess that I do: I’m a disappointment as a general. I haven’t fought a battle, haven’t trained an army, and the only time I held a real weapon I used it to kill one of my former lieutenants. You and I spar occasionally in the barn, and while I’m a bit slower than I used to be—”

“Oh no, you’re not,” Shem interrupted him. “You’re still astonishingly quick.”

Perrin licked his lips, almost hungrily. “See? I could still make a difference in the world. I’m still useful. I sometimes wonder why I was given such a natural ability if the Creator never wanted me to use it again. I sometimes wonder if . . . I’ve missed something,” he finished quietly.

“You’ve never missed anything, Perrin,” Shem whispered earnestly. “The only men with more forethought and insight than you have been the guides. You learned how to use a sword to preserve your family and to get you safely to Salem. No one I know would accuse you of being useless, Perrin!”

“Eltana would,” he reminded him. “What if I could have changed the shape of the world, Shem? What if there is some element of truth to what she said?”

Shem exhaled heavily. “To be honest, I’ve wondered that as well. I even asked Him about it. You weren’t the only one who didn’t sleep well last night.” He paused. “I got an answer.”

Perrin sat up taller, ready to do anything the guide was going to say.

“Perrin, the powers that control the world are too great to conquer at this time, even if we tried together. We like to think we could change the world, but Perrin, the Creator made it very clear to me that the world would change us.

Perrin groaned softly. He’d suspected that answer. That was why he didn’t pray about it. Having the Creator verify it meant he had to abandon the possibility. But—

“We were successful in Moorland, Shem.”

“Because we had to be. It was the Creator’s will that we destroyed it. What they were developing there, that black powdery explosive? That was too dangerous for the world to have. It wasn’t the Creator’s will that they be successful in mastering those secrets, so He was working with us then.

“But if we pursued going back to the world now, we’d be working without His assistance. There’s no success without Him. And Perrin, had we stayed in the world, we would’ve destroyed each other. We would’ve been no better than any other leaders there. We were simply wiser to leave an unwinnable situation. We did all we could for as long as we could. Sometimes getting out is the only solution.”

Perrin nodded reluctantly.

“This sounds,” Shem began carefully, “as if a bit of pride is involved, too. Your past twenty-five years of service haven’t been nearly as dramatic as Gari’s.”

Perrin tipped his head in guilty acknowledgement. “Perhaps a tiny—very, very tiny,” he emphasized, “part of me is perhaps a little bit jealous. I have missed it, just a small part. But the vast majority of me has been much happier here,” he added in a hurry, as if eager to get away from his confession.

“So will you please let go of these ideas?” Shem asked one more time. “Let go of the world and all you think is important in it?”

“Yes, Guide Zenos. I will do my best,” he said humbly. “As Salem’s guard dog, I am accountable to you, the master of Salem—”

“You know I hate it when you put it like that,” Shem said, irritated. “Guard dog, master . . . that’s not us, you know.”

Perrin cracked a small smile. “But I need to remember us in that way, so I remember my place.”

“But your place is as my best friend and brother, Perrin. Isn’t that enough?”

“It is,” he said. “But you’re also my guide, and you issue the orders now.”

“Then I order you to remember how desperately Salem needs you, how important you are to all of us, and I order you to not forget your duty to us.”

Perrin could only nod back to him, a lump in his throat not letting out any words.

The men fell silent, lost in thought.

After a moment, Perrin chuckled sadly. “We’re too old for this kind of nonsense anyway. Can you see us trying to sneak up on the fort in Edge through the forest? With your cracking knees and my stiff back?”

Shem smiled. “They’d hear us coming a mile away. ‘Where’s my walking stick? Shem, I want that stick back!’”

“Then there’s the hollering of the boys . . .”

“And their singing . . .”

They chuckled.

Perrin looked out the window and watched two of his grandchildren running to the Briter house. A third child chased them. In his arms, Jaysie sighed loudly against his chest. He instinctively bent over and kissed her small head.

Why would he want to have an office with any other kind of view?

“Thank you, Shem. I needed that.”

“The laugh or the straightening out?”

“Both, as usual.”

“So no more bad nights coming? Because I have to tell you, they wouldn’t be good on the trip.”

“Agreed. No, I’m pretty sure you won’t need to spend the night at my house.”

“Good. Then I’ll return Deck’s whip.”

—-

Peto peeked into the office.

His father still sat behind the desk, staring out the window, mindlessly stroking the baby’s head.

Shem had left a few minutes ago, but had given a meaningful look to his rector: Talk to your father.

Peto cleared his throat quietly.

Perrin shifted his gaze to his son. “Come on in. What do you need?”

“Just . . . you know,” Peto said as he took a chair. “Eltana. Everything. Just wondering . . .”

“What I’m thinking about her?”

Peto raised his eyebrows.

“Remember shortly after we came to Edge, and Guide Gleace took you, Shem, and me up to the ancient temple site?”

Peto rolled his eyes. “And he saw a vision about the Last Day, a vision we watched him receive? Yes, I think I remember something about that.”

Perrin smiled at his son’s sarcasm. “Gleace said something about the army being scared away.”

“And that immediately worried you,” Peto remembered. “And it still does, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “How can we scare away a third of the attacking army? And remember in The Writings the passage about the aged striking fear in the hearts of the army?”

Peto already saw where he was going with this. “Seeing you ‘come back from the dead’ surely could strike fear and scare away a great portion of the army. But they’re not attacking right now.”

Perrin looked out the window again.

“So what’s the problem, General?” Peto prodded.

“Shem told me it wouldn’t work,” Perrin whispered. “The world’s too much for us now, the Creator told him. This isn’t our path.”

“I agree,” Peto said.

Perrin looked over at him quickly. “You do?”

“Of course. Nothing Eltana suggested matches what’s in The Writings. That’s not the general you’re supposed to be.”

“And how would you know what kind of general I’m supposed to be?” Perrin asked with a subtle sneer.

Peto sighed. He really didn’t know either, despite his grandfather’s prophecy of sorts. But this wasn’t it, and Peto couldn’t explain why. Not to himself, not to his wife, and certainly not to his father who didn’t even know that the parchment detailing his own father’s dream existed.

“All I know,” Peto decided, “is that Salem is our home, and Lilla would hate moving far away from Calla. We’ve simply got to stay here, General, to keep Lilla happy.”

Perrin’s shoulders shook in a silent laugh. “They wouldn’t recognize me anyway. White hair, a little thicker—”

Peto smiled back. “Not exactly the same man they’d remember, no.”

Perrin sighed and went back to stroking Jaysie’s hair.

—-

Young Pere was standing outside of the office with his fist raised in the air for the past several minutes. He’d been sent by his mother to give the men options for dinner, but he’d become too fascinated with the discussion inside to knock on the door.

Instead, his mind reeled with the words of his father. Seeing you come back from the dead surely could strike fear . . .

Perrin Shin might not look like the Perrin Shin of thirty years ago.

But Young Perrin Shin certainly did.

Chapter 6—“We leave at dawn, by the way.”

It was the 57th Day of Weeding Season, the evening before the marking party was to leave.

It was also its annual flurry of activity with every visiting child, spouse, and grandchild staying at the two houses at the end of the lane, and the third down the road.

That also meant it was time for Jaytsy’s yearly, ‘We’ll never get everything ready in time,’ panic. It arrived on schedule, as she was setting out all the food on her long table to make sure nothing was forgotten for thirty men and boys. It was the constant interruptions that often had nothing to do with her task that triggered the panic.

“No, Briter—if your Uncle Cephas doesn’t want you sleeping with him tonight, I’m not about to force him. What’s wrong with sleeping at your house? Banu, why is the goat back in the house? No, she’s not lonely! Sewzi, get that kitten out of your niece’s mouth. Why it hasn’t clawed her yet, I’ll never understand. Yes, Young Shem, you get to eat this, but only on the trip. Get your hands off of it! Dinner’s at Muggah’s and Aunt Lilla’s tonight. Wait a minute, you’re not one of mine. Hogal, I do not need extra bodies around me right now. You’ll see what your meals will be when you get there. Now take your nephew and come back tomorrow morning. And take those sleeping packs with you! Salema and Jori are making the breads at Calla’s right? No, sweety, I’m not talking to you. I’m just talking to myself again. Now who took the dried peaches? I know I had dried peaches. It was that goat, wasn’t it? DECKETT!”

“Remember,” he said, whispering in her ear from behind and putting the bag of dried peaches in front of her, having taken it gently out of her hands, “five whole days with no men around. None at all. From the biggest to the smallest, we’ll all be in the mountains.”

Jaytsy sighed, as he wrapped his arms around her. “Thank you. I needed that reminder. Now, tell me again why I told Lilla I’d be in charge of getting the food ready this year.”

Deck laughed. “I really don’t know why you volunteered for this job! But it looks like you have enough to feed our army. Remember, we’ll be fishing along the way. No one will starve. Perrin still thinks we’re going to get in some hunting, too, but he also forgets how much Barnos and Bubba like to have hollering contests in the canyons.”

Jaytsy leaned against her husband. “And whenever our Cambo starts the grandsons with Trovato blood singing, that’s the end.”

“I think he does that just to watch Perrin cringe. Cambo told Cephas he learned some new songs that should really get Puggah groaning. One of them has to do with prancing, dancing deer.”

Jaytsy laughed. “Now I almost want to go!”

“Oh? Because if you really wanted to—”

“No, I don’t.” Jaytsy turned to face her husband. “The impulse died just as quickly as it rose when I thought about sleeping on the hard ground. I’ll be much happier in our soft bed. But thanks for the offer. I guess you’re going to miss me?” She wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Definitely,” he said. “I really hate cooking in the wilderness. Even your attempts are better than mine or Peto’s.”

Insulted, she smacked her husband gently on the arm.

Deck chuckled and gave her an apologetic kiss.

His grandson groaned. “Grandpa Deck, eww!” Briter Zenos rolled his eyes. “I’m going back to Grandma Calla’s.”

“Tell her dinner’s almost ready at Muggah’s, all right?” Jaytsy called after him as he pushed open the side door to get away from their mushiness.

“You really think you’re going to be all right?” Jaytsy fretted, watching their oldest grandson trot off. “You have so many little ones this year.”

“It won’t be that bad,” Deck said, trying to sound optimistic. “Besides, that’s part of the purpose: to see how the children—and their parents—can handle the paths. If a path’s too hard, we cut an easier one.”

Jaytsy was dubious. “You’ve got Lek and Salema’s two boys, Boskos’s almost three-year-old, Lori’s three-year-old, Jori’s two-and-a-half-year-old, and Relf’s toddler. He’s only a year-and-a-half. I still think that’s insane—”

“But Peto’s insisting. We should see what it’s like with one in changing cloths.”

“Then there’s also Cambo’s three-year-old,” Jaytsy continued. “Good thing Bubba had twin daughters or he’d be wanting to take them along this year, too. At least this way he can help with Lek and Salema’s boys. Makes our Young Shem seem old at seven.”

“Don’t worry. It will be great fun, I’m sure,” Deck said. “We have plenty of older boys who can help with the younger ones.”

Jaytsy shrugged. “Just make sure you and Peto assign each little one to be watched by a bigger one, all right?”

“We always do. It’s Perrin and Shem we need to keep an eye on. Sometimes they get so involved in talking, the next thing you know they’re half a mile ahead of us. Peto was thinking of assigning Young Pere to Perrin. He’s still a bit slow and might be able to keep your father’s pace manageable for the little ones.”

“You really think that will be a problem this year? I thought Father was slowing down himself,” Jaytsy confessed, worried. “When he brought Young Pere home, I thought he looked a little pale from the walk.”

Deck scoffed at that. “Have you picked up Young Pere lately? He’s as big as your father! I would’ve been looking a little pale myself. He’ll be fine, Jayts. He promised Mahrree he’d take that walking stick Shem’s father made him years ago. I think he plans to hit the slow pokes with it.”

“If you say so. It’s just that for some reason, I’m worried about this trip,” she admitted. It’d been nagging at her for the past few days. “Of course, I worry every time, I know. And I also know nothing really bad ever happens—”

“Only to Young Pere,” Deck said soberly, but a smirk was around his eyes. “But he promised he wouldn’t climb any trees this year or chase any porcupines. Or skunks. Or badgers.”

Jaytsy tried to smile and ignore her persistent apprehension. “And you have Shem with you. And Boskos promised Calla he’d bring the bigger doctor’s bag. It’s just . . . oh, I don’t know—”

Deck held his wife’s face. “It’ll be all right, Jayts. We’ll be careful, we’ll watch out for every little boy, and we’ll all return home again to see how all the women fared without the men for five glorious days. Women’s week? Greatest week of the year, I hear?”

Jaytsy chuckled. “Yes, we have plenty of projects to keep us busy. Since Hycy’s getting married soon, Mother should be doling out her wisdom on how to have a happy marriage.” Jaytsy raised her eyebrows in suggestion, and Deck blinked in surprise. “It’s always great entertainment, if you know what I mean. I love how she seems to forget about the many standoffs they had when Peto and I were young. Of course, I then remind everyone that once she was sure her husband was going to kill her, so in front of his officers and her children, she called him the nastiest name in the world, accusing him of being the son of a female pig.”

Deck laughed. “Oh, I certainly remember that night of his resignation, and I’m sure she appreciates you bringing that up!”

Jaytsy giggled. “That’s when she pulls out her well-practiced glare and reminds me we don’t talk about the world unless it’s on the anniversary.

“You know,” she added, suddenly remembering, “it wasn’t until I was older that it occurred to me they probably squabbled just to make up later. I know they argued upstairs, but I think they purposely picked fights with each other to do so.”

Deck frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Oh, yes. When they started shouting, Father would develop this glint in his eye that I didn’t fully understand until I married you.”

“A glint?” Deck asked, and more understanding came to him, enough to make him cringe. “Ugh, I didn’t need to hear any of this about your parents—”

Jaytsy laughed. “Lilla, Calla, and I will just have to make sure the younger girls are in bed before Mother gets too detailed. Poor Barnos’s bride went so red last year when Mother started on her, ‘How to keep your man completely satisfied’ lecture.”

Deck’s eyebrows went up. “Now I’ve heard a lot of Mahrree Shin lectures over the years, but I don’t think I’ve heard that one. Maybe I’ll stay behind and listen in. Could be enlightening.”

Jaytsy winced. “I know you dislike leaving the herd every year, but do you really want to hear your mother-in-law talking about that?”

Deck winced back. “You’re right. Never mind. Besides, I’ll be hearing Perrin’s, ‘Taking care of your wives’ speech on the trail at some point, anyway. With Hycy’s fiancé agreeing to go, Peto and I better give him a warning about Perrin taking him into the woods for one of his private conversations. Although I’m pretty sure Lek or Con or Sam have said something to him already.” Deck looked into his wife’s eyes. “You’re still worried, aren’t you?”

She nodded miserably.

“We’re in the Creator’s hands. We pray for guidance every morning and night. Whatever happens will be His will. You can’t stop His will, Jaytsy Briter. Everything is up to Him, right?”

“Yes,” Jaytsy sighed.

Deck chuckled. “Well, that was a pitiful display of faith! Yes,” he mimicked. “I’ll keep an extra sharp eye out, all right?” he said pulling her in for a hug.

Jaytsy nodded.

The side door flew open. “So this is why you aren’t over for dinner yet? Hugging in your eating room? We’ll never leave on time in the morning at this rate!”

Jaytsy rolled her eyes at her father. “Everything will be ready, General. My goodness, can’t a woman get in a goodbye hug?”

“Of course you can,” and Perrin held out his arms.

Jaytsy and Deck laughed.

“I didn’t mean you!” Jaytsy said. But she released her husband and went to hug her father instead. He pulled away after a moment, but Jaytsy kept her grip on him. “Make sure everyone comes home safely, all right Father?”

Perrin stepped back, held her shoulders, and looked at her critically. “When have I ever failed you?”

“Never,” she admitted. “It’s just that I feel nervous about this trip.”

“You do this every year, you realize that? ‘I’m worried about the little boys.’ We’ve never lost one yet—not even Young Pere—and I’m not planning to lose one this year either. Satisfied?”

Jaytsy exhaled and hugged him again. “Of course.”

“Good,” Perrin said, “because I’m hungry and I want everyone over at our place in five minutes. We need to eat and discuss tomorrow’s plans. Deck, blow the gathering horn. No time to waste!”

“Yes, sir!” Deck said, saluting sloppily, and headed out the side door.

Perrin scowled at the salute. “I’ll get your brood over there, Jaytsy. Really, there’s enough food here,” he said, eyeing the table. “We’ve only got four pack horses after all. Come on!”

Perrin walked through the house to the opposite door, bellowing down the hall and pounding on doors. “Dinner! Now! Move it, Briters! Hey, you’re a Shin. Why are you hiding over here? Your mother’s looking for you, Hogal. You didn’t do your chore. Dinner! Now! Move it!”

Jaytsy rubbed her forehead. “Five days . . . no men . . .”

She jumped when she heard the gathering horn blow loudly, calling for the three Zenos families down the road and any other Briter or Shin family members in the garden, orchard, barn, or fields to come in for dinner.

Jaytsy rubbed her temples some more to ease the throbbing worry.

Another loud pound on a door came from the end of the hall. “Dinner, Tabbit! Now! I hear you reading in there. Finish it later. Don’t giggle at me through the door, young lady. Move it! Jayts, are you ever coming?”

Jaytsy sighed. “Yes, Father!” she called. At the end of the bedroom wing, she heard him whistling his annoying ‘I’m still waiting on you,’ tune.

“Five days, no men . . .” she chuckled to herself. “Five days . . .”

—-

Mahrree did a head count as Perrin stood in front of their family seated on blankets behind the Shin house. Dinner was finished and it was time for last minute instructions.

“Everyone’s back now, Perrin,” Mahrree told him.

“Finally?” he asked.

“Yes! Now do your talking, quick, before someone else needs to relieve themselves.”

One of Bubba’s twins squirmed and raised her hand.

“Please no, Raishel,” Perrin pleaded with the two-year-old. “Just hold it, all right?”

“Then talk fast, Puggah,” she said soberly.

The rest of the family cheered and a few cried out, “Hear, hear!”

Perrin clapped his hands loudly. “Everyone remember their assignments for the morning? Who’s hitching up the Zenos wagon?”

Lek’s and Zaddick’s hands went up.

Perrin nodded. “The Briter wagon?”

Viddrow’s and Cephas’s hands went up.

“The Shin wagon?” The hand of Sam Cadby, Lori’s husband, went up, along with Young Pere’s.

Perrin gave Young Pere a searching look, trying to see if he was up to it.

He sent a challenging look back.

Perrin moved on. “Who’s preparing the pack horses?”

Up went the hands of Holling and Bubba Briter, as well as Con Cadby, Jori’s husband, and Relf Shin.

“Loading the food?”

Jaytsy and Deck’s hands rose.

“Loading the bedrolls and supplies?”

Lilla and Peto’s hands went up.

“Keeping the smallest children out of the way while everyone works?”

Mahrree and Calla raised their hands.

“Hugging and kissing everyone too many times so we leave half an hour late again?”

The hands of every wife went up, to collective laughter.

“And who’s responsible for making sure our stop at the Trovatos’ house in Norden takes only 15 minutes?”

Shem’s hand went up. “I’ll do my best, Perrin.”

Perrin pointed at him. “Do better than that, Shem. We only need three grandsons to go with us to the trailhead, then they bring back our wagons to their barns. We don’t need to give an update about every person, and we certainly don’t need any tag-a-longs.”

Insulted, Lilla put her hands on her hips. “Still bitter about that, Papa Pere? It’s been what, twenty-four years?”

Perrin winked at her as the family laughed. “And Shem,” he said turning to him. “I’m taking only one hug from her. I know that she’s your mother-in-law, but one hug is enough. It’s amazing how strong she is for an old lady.”

Mahrree elbowed her husband. “Perrin, she’s seventy-three, only a year older than me.”

Perrin blinked at her in surprise. “Well . . . you’re not old. You’re Mahrree,” he finished lamely. “Now,” he said, addressing his laughing family. “Do all the visiting family members know where they’re sleeping tonight?”

Several heads of grandchildren, their spouses, and their children nodded.

Lori sighed loudly to get her grandfather’s attention. “Yes, Puggah. I promise you will not find Ensio in your bed again.” She cuddled her three-year-old.

“Good,” said Perrin. “Because he felt a little damp last night when I picked him up to bring him to you.”

“He’d just been bathed, that’s all!”

“I’m sleeping with Grandpa Peto tonight,” Ensio announced.

“Whoa!” Peto said. “Who decided this?”

Lilla raised her hand.

“Sounds like a good plan, Ensio,” Perrin nodded at him. He then turned, folded his arms, and sent a stern look to Wes Hifadhi who was cuddling his fiancé, Hycy Shin.

Wes swallowed hard.

Perrin’s look communicated clearly that while Jothan may have been able to beat Perrin in nearly every wrestling match they had, Perrin still had a few moves left for Wes, who was built solidly as all Hifadhis were, but was merely a fraction of the size of his massive paternal great-grandfather.

It wasn’t that Perrin didn’t approve of Wes. Far from it. A year ago, at an outdoor music festival when Perrin first noticed Wes eyeing Hycy fondly, and Hycy smiling shyly back, he’d starting plotting ways to get them interested in each other, should they not be able to figure it out on their own. To have his family join with the Hifadhi family seemed like an overdue pleasure. Perrin had sidled over to Jothan faster than Hycy had bashfully made her way over to Wes, and elbowed the boy’s great-grandfather.

“What do you think?” he asked, and only later realized to his chagrin that their evaluations sounded more like horse studding. Wes was awkwardly shaking Hycy’s hand, as if having just introduced himself as a new apprentice, and Hycy was giggling ridiculously.

Jothan had chuckled in his low, sonorous way—too far away for them to hear him—as he and Perrin watched the two first-year college students try to start a conversation. “I think they’d produce a terrifying, massive son, or a terrifying, sharp-tongued daughter. In any case, I’d pay all the gold slips in the world to see that.”

The grandfathers laughed and spied on the pair as effectively as only two men practiced in spying could. In the end, or actually, quite near the beginning, their meddling assistance wasn’t needed, because Hycy and Wes certainly figured out courting all by themselves. The wedding would be at the beginning of Harvest Season.

Still, this was his granddaughter, and a grandfather needed to protect his girls. His focused glare communicated that quite effectively.

Peto gave Wes a nod. “We’ve got it figured out, Father.”

“Uh, yes, sir,” said Wes nervously, shifting his gaze between Peto and Perrin. “I’m staying at Guide Zenos’s home tonight.”

Perrin continued his glare.

Wes withered, his dark skin draining of color, and pulled his arm off from around Hycy. She pouted at her grandfather.

Sam Cadby leaned over to Wes and whispered something in his ear.

“And . . . I’m going the moment we’re done with family prayer? Sir?”

Perrin nodded his approval.

Wes wiped his forehead at passing the test, and Sam patted him on the back.

Perrin clapped his hands again. “Any other questions? We leave at dawn, by the way. Mahrree and Calla both have lists of those who are coming by each day to take care of the men’s chores while we’re gone. No questions? Well then, we need to end with a prayer. Since the Zenos family is joining us tonight, and considering the purpose of our trip this week, Guide Zenos, would you please offer the prayer?”

Shem nodded and began to stand up, but then paused awkwardly in mid rising.

“Knees bothering you again?” Perrin smirked.

Shem shook his head. “Perrin, you need to offer the prayer.”

“I did it just the other night.”

But the penetrating look Shem gave him told him that didn’t matter. “Perrin, how often do you have your entire family gathered together?”

“About four times a year.”

“Then don’t miss these rare opportunities.”

Perrin cocked his head at Shem, then shrugged. “All right, Guide. Whatever you say.”

Later, as Shem and Calla walked home along the dark road arm in arm watching their children and grandchildren running ahead of them to the house, and making sure Wes Hifadhi was still among them, Calla rested her head on Shem’s shoulder.

“Shem, what was that all about, having Perrin say the prayer?”

Shem thought about it again, as he had been for the last little while. Perrin gave a typical grandfatherly prayer—expressing gratitude for their life in Salem, for his posterity, for the success of their crops and herds, for the opportunities to serve the Creator, and how much he loved his family. Sincere, loving, heartfelt. But nothing unusual or special.

He glanced behind him to see the shadow of Perrin at the pasture, talking to Clark, probably giving him the bad news that he wouldn’t be able to come on this year’s marking route, again.

“I don’t know, Calla. I just felt I couldn’t get up. Something was holding me back, and I clearly saw Perrin giving the prayer instead. Maybe someone needed to hear him tonight instead of me. I must admit, I was struck by the image of him standing there. For a moment he seemed to me the same as when I first met him as a thirty-year-old captain. How could we ever have imagined such a future for us? Just remarkable. I never cease to be amazed by the miracle. He just needed to stand before all of them tonight.”

—-

Perrin was, indeed, breaking the news to Clark, and softening the blow with treats from his pockets.

“I was surprised to find them, too,” he told his favorite horse as he fished out of his trousers’ pockets the old apples. “A little shriveled, and from the bottom of the barrel in the cellar, but still good, right?”

Clark snuffed and curled his lips around the first wrinkled apple.

“About two more moons until the fresh ones are ready—not too much longer,” Perrin assured him as he rubbed his neck where white hairs were replacing the black ones. “We’re both getting old,” he chuckled sadly. “And, my friend, you’re too old to go with us this year. I’m leaving tomorrow for another marking party. This one is way up in Norden. You remember that trail, right? Did it at least half a dozen times together, didn’t we?”

He offered Clark the next apple.

“But, my friend, you’re thirty years old. It’s been a few years since we’ve been out marking together, but that’s all right. These younger horses need you around to keep them in line. Teach them what it means to be a true Clark Shin. By the way, do you still approve of Clark 314? He’s shaping up well, I think. This trip will test his worth, that’s for sure. At least he looks right—just like you at that age. Shin horses have to be black. GrayClark 411 was sturdy enough, but I think 14 is just a bit brighter, a bit more like you. Ah, what am I saying? No one’s like you.”

He offered the third apple.

“So you’ll be fine here while I’m gone. Kanthi and Tabbit take better care of you than I ever did anyway. You, uh, you’re all right with them braiding your mane, right? I mean, the effect was quite fetching the last time. Apparently they have a new braiding technique they want to try out on you while I’m gone. I swear those girls pamper you more than I ever did.” He chuckled.

Then he went silent, stroking his horse. “Kind of hard leaving you behind again. Each year I keep thinking it’ll get easier, but you and me—we blazed all those trails. Then you carried my grandsons on it. It’s not the same without you there, you know. I was expecting—”

He paused to gruffly clear his throat.

“I was expecting that you’d be up to going with me on the Last Day. I know, I know—silly of me. It’s probably still a lifetime away. We’ll all be long gone before it comes,” he said, not entirely believing that. “I just rather hoped it’d be like when we first came to Salem, with you carrying Mahrree and me. But look at your back bowing,” he sighed sadly. “Wouldn’t have been able to take both of us for the past ten years now, I’m sure. But,” he leaned into Clark, who listened intently, “if the Last Day comes, and we’re still both here, you’re coming with me. No loads on your back, I promise. Just walk with me and Mahrree. Clark 14 can take our weight, but we’re bringing you along. You deserve to be there, after all you’ve done, don’t you, boy?”

He pressed his head against Clark, even though he knew Mahrree hated to smell horse on his face. He’d planned on bathing before he’d go to bed, anyway.

Clark nuzzled him affectionately, and Perrin smiled. Clark always understood.

“Take care, old friend. I’ll see you in a few days.”

Chapter 7—“Rector Shin, how look the trees?”

“I said, we leave at dawn! This is not dawn. This is clearly later than that!”

Perrin stood on the front porch, holding the almost-three-year-old son of Lek and Salema in his arms. Not an early riser, Fennic gripped his blankie and leaned his sleepy head against his Puggah’s shoulder.

“Now,” Perrin announced loudly, as if anyone was listening to him as the families swirled around the wagons, figuring out seating arrangements, and throwing in last-minute items. “Fennic and I are loading up and heading out. If anyone wants to join us, you best get in now!”

With that, Perrin strode off the porch and headed to the first wagon. He climbed up to the driver’s seat, balancing his great-grandson who clung to him, and stood on the bench looking at his family expectantly.

The family noticed, and mothers and wives began to give hugs, kisses, and a threat or two about behaving to their sons, husbands, and brothers who began to make their ways to their wagons. The younger sisters of the three families cheerfully pushed their brothers toward the wagons, then went back to the Shins’ front porch to wave goodbye.

Peto nodded to his father and started to climb into the Shin wagon, but he saw something that stopped him. Shaking his head in apology at Perrin, he got off the wagon and walked over to a stand of trees.

It was a good thing Guarder blood didn’t run too deeply in his daughter’s veins. Had Hycy been dressed in dark clothing like her fiancé, and if she had the deep brown skin like his that matched the shadows in which they were hiding, Peto might never have noticed.

He pulled his future son-in-law out of the firm clutches of his daughter, abruptly ending their goodbye kiss.

“It’s good for a young man to leave his beloved for a time before his wedding,” Peto assured Wes as he dragged away the normally reticent twenty-year-old. “Ask the guide. He can tell you better than anyone.”

He steered Wes, still waving goodbye to his weepy fiancé, to the family’s wagon. Wes reluctantly climbed into the wagon between Young Pere and Barnos.

“Keep a hand on him, Barn,” his father told him. “And you have my permission to push Hycy off if she tries to sneak over here.”

Barnos grinned and wrapped a strong, brotherly arm around Wes as his own wife Ivy jumped up on the side of the wagon for one last kiss.

Lilla, standing near the front porch, caught Hycy by the arm before she had any ideas of copying her sister-in-law.

Peto hugged his nine-year-old Centia and eleven-year-old Sakal one last time, then climbed into the wagon with the rest of the Shin men and boys who were taking their seats.

Perrin shook his head good-naturedly at the farewells at his wagon and looked over at the Briters’. They had the most men and the most worried women. His eye caught Jaytsy’s, who was patting ten-year-old Atlee’s head since she couldn’t reach over to kiss him.

Perrin nodded at her as if to say, Trust me, all right?

Jaytsy nodded back, kissed her husband one last time, and got off the wagon, pulling her three daughters-in-law after her.

Bubba carefully dropped his little twin girls Raishel and Reikel off the side of the wagon and waved to them as they toddled over to their aunts on the front porch.

Holling’s wife Eraliz took their baby girl Jaysie from Banu and waved at him with her little fist.

Deck took one last hug from his eight-year-old daughter Yenali, did a quick head count of the bodies finally taking their seats in his wagon, and lazily saluted Perrin that his load was ready to leave.

Perrin next evaluated the Zenos wagon’s readiness.

Lek was supporting Salema’s large belly as she leaned awkwardly over the bench to kiss Briter. She looked up and waved at Perrin holding her second son, but Fennic didn’t notice. His eyes were closing as he snuggled into his great-grandfather who patted his back in the best Hifadhi beating tradition.

Calla, along with Boskos’s wife Noria, were saying goodbye to their husbands while Boskos’s little boy Utolian waved cheerfully to his baby sister Callia, cradled in Noria’s arms.

Perrin cleared his throat loudly, and Shem broke off his kiss with Calla, who then gently tugged Noria and little Callia away. They joined the rest of the women and girls already on the front porch.

Perrin nodded in satisfaction. “Finally. And now, gentlemen, we get to leave!” He turned around in the front bench and was about to sit down when he saw something that stopped him.

Mahrree stood in front of his team of horses with her hands on her waist. “I think you’re forgetting something, General,” she said as she tapped her foot.

Confused, Perrin glanced at Fennic in his arms, then looked at the wagons. “Head count?”

“All here!” came back the call.

He turned to his wife. “What, then?”

She threw her hands up in the air. “Me!”

Some of the granddaughters began to giggle.

You’re not coming!” Perrin told her.

The grandsons chortled in agreement.

“Of course not, Perrin. I’m talking about my goodbye kiss.”

His family laughed as Perrin’s mouth twisted in embarrassment. “We may have to skip it this year. Fennic’s almost asleep, and I don’t want to disturb him.”

“Oh, PERRIN!” Shem called out in disappointment. “You can do better than that!” He turned in his seat to face the Shin descendants. “Let me tell all of you about a few times back in Edge when Perrin and I were about to leave for—”

All right, Shem,” Perrin called to cut him off before he could relate any one of a variety of stories when a younger Mahrree and Perrin tormented Shem with their long goodbyes while he sat lonely on his horse.

Peto held out his arms for his grand-nephew. “Better go, Father. It’s long past dawn, after all.”

Perrin gave him a playful glare as he passed down Fennic, hopped off the wagon, and sauntered over to his wife.

“You always could stop all forward progress, couldn’t you?” he teased as he neared her. “You know,” he whispered, making sure no one on the porch could read his lips, “we argued this morning.”

“Oh, I remember,” she whispered back, blushing slightly. “But I still want a goodbye kiss. And you better make this good, Perrin. Everyone’s watching.”

“I always loved an audience.” He wrapped his arms around her.

“No, you don’t! And don’t try to dip me, or your back will seize.”

“You just never hush up, do you?” he said, and he kissed her.

Several of their grandchildren clapped and cheered.

Several others groaned loudly.

“All right already!”

“Enough!”

“I just ate breakfast, come on.”

“Puggah, it very, very late now.”

“That’s longer than Papa let me kiss Wes!”

Deck, over in his wagon, cleared his throat as the kiss continued. “Shem, I seem to remember something you used to whistle back in Edge when they kept you waiting . . .”

Everyone laughed as Perrin and Mahrree released each other.

“Perrin, please be careful,” his wife whispered.

“I always am,” he said, a bit insulted.

“Of course you are. I’m going to be lonely, you know.”

“With all of those women all week?”

“Yes, especially with all the reminders of you around me.”

He grinned, gave her another quick hug, and said, “I’ll miss you too, my darling wife. Now everyone will blame me for being late.”

She chuckled and pushed him away. “Then you best be off, General.”

He winked at her, climbed back up into the wagon, took Fennic from Peto, and pointed ahead. “We’re off!”

The ride to Norden was pleasantly uneventful. Only Atlee Briter threw up, but that was expected. He did it every time he was in a wagon for longer than half an hour, and his brother Cephas held him over the side when his time came. After that, he could ride for hours with no more problems.

Nor did Young Pere fall off the wagon this year, which was usually a tradition. But in the past few days, Perrin had noticed that Young Pere seemed to be more sober, more distracted. Perhaps his dive off the schoolhouse had done him some good. Either that or falling off the wagon was anticlimactic in comparison.

Young Pere didn’t even participate in the wagon-jumping contest he started as an eight-year-old. As the wagons drove side by side on the wider roads, the boys would stand on the edge of one wagon and leap to a neighboring one. Perrin always pretended to not see what they were doing, and their fathers never told their mothers precisely how the boys became hurt. Usually, most of the injuries from the marking trips were acquired well before they reached the routes. It was just another reason no women were ever allowed to come.

Perrin glanced back a few times at Young Pere, but his grandson didn’t notice. He just stared off at the mountains with a faraway look, never realizing there was bruising occurring all around him, and for once, he wasn’t involved.

Keeping to his schedules was always important to Perrin, but especially so on the Norden route. It was the furthest from their house and, because of its winding nature, nearly the longest one to traverse, taking a full five days of hiking to mark the entire route, up and back.

Each of the four main routes from Salem to the ancient temple site was different, because of the varying topography. Testing each route on alternating years was crucial to make sure no rock slides or avalanches had rendered any sections impassable, or that any marked trees had been felled.

None of the routes were especially difficult, except for the backup route labeled the Back Door. It was in the middle of the routes and started from the temple land expanse that remained untouched and undeveloped. Lately, people had been calling the miles’ long pristine meadows of the temple The Quiet Lands. No one lived near the Back Door route, so no one was really expected to take it, except in an emergency. They checked on it only sporadically when time permitted.

The longest route was the southern Idumean Trail. It was nearly ten miles, rising up quickly on a steep climb from the valley, then traversing easily along the tops of the mountains until it reached the peaks that overlooked the ancient temple site. While a healthy adult could do the route in a day, as all of the routes could be done—and much faster by a horse and rider who knew the ways as intimately as the Shin, Briter, and Zenos families—hiking the routes usually took about two days, sometimes more, depending on those traveling.

One of the reasons for the slowness was that travelers had to decipher the markings, then forge their own ways through the forests, meadows, and rock. During the marking party trips, they removed felled trees that blocked too much of the route, but otherwise left it wild. While the deciphering process was a bit cumbersome, Perrin and Peto had tested it over and over with volunteers until they were confident that even the weakest and frailest Salemites would be able to reach safety in two days’ time, with help and with few exceptions, and with adequate warning.

The warning system devised by Perrin years ago used a system of gray banners to alert Salemites when soldiers were spotted attempting to climb the boulder field above Edge. He’d been surprised to realize that Lieutenants Offra and Radan had made it into the canyon so many years ago, and now he wanted a notice if anyone should happen to even look at the boulders, in order to give all of Salem ample time to reach safety.

So far, none of those banners had ever seen the light of day, still folded tightly on a little-used bottom shelf of every tower, waiting for the day to send Salemites to the routes.

Even a route of only a few miles, such as the Lower Middle route which started near the Eztates behind Deck’s pastures and led through the gentle hills before reaching the mountains, could take a full day or more for those unfamiliar with the terrain, or not in the best of health or ability.

In Weeding Season, some of the meadows grew grasses even taller than Perrin, which easily confused little children not paying attention. Other routes meandered through dense forests of leafy trees with undergrowth of logs and branches that required one to walk carefully, something difficult to do for the elderly who often only shuffled.

Pack horses didn’t travel too well through those sections either, one of the reasons why Perrin, in his semi-annual lecture about the routes to the Salemites, emphasized that horses be taken only if absolutely necessary. There really wasn’t room on the tops of the mountains for thousands of horses to be stabled anyway.

In fact, no horses could go to the ancient temple site; there was barely enough room for all the Salemites who would take refuge there. The horses that were necessary to ferry those in need to the top would be turned loose in the high mountain meadows to fend for themselves on the grasses and streams. That was one of the reasons Perrin prayed each year that Idumea wouldn’t come in the Snowing Season; he wouldn’t be able to bear watching the animals starve. But, he’d already privately decided, he’d make room and take feed for Clark.

Other sections of the routes near the top were just bare rock, requiring careful navigation that slowed many people down, especially those weary from their climb. That’s why the Back Door route, while being the fastest and shortest at not quite three miles, was also not recommended for anyone to attempt, unless absolutely necessary. The last two hundred paces was a steep rocky face with loose stone and no discernible trail. Perrin and Peto had done it the first year they were in Salem, when it was covered by several feet of snow. That was the slope where Perrin took his tumble and slid down all the way to the horses tethered below, before being stopped by the freezing river.

The route was Perrin’s least favorite, especially when they visited it a few years later to see the rock face the snow had covered. Although the boys loved climbing up it, and Young Pere had always wanted to try leaping off the edge and tumbling down the thick, impenetrable grasses on either side, Perrin had decided that route would be attended to only if they had time. Otherwise it was too risky, especially when four other routes, more accessible to Salemites anyway, existed.

Next year they would do his favorite route, the Upper Middle route, which held breath-taking views as it went over the peaks, affording clear views of the Norden route to the north and the Back Door route at the south.

But every Trail Marking week was a good week, Perrin decided years ago. Taking every male member of the Shin-Briter-Zenos families made the excursions adventurous and humorous, and camping for several days with the finest men he had even known reminded him just how perfect his life had become.

And it would be even more perfect if they stayed on schedule.

They reached Norden not quite as late as Perrin feared, and got back onto the road only half an hour later, after Mrs. Trovato hugged her two sons-in-law, grandsons, great-grandsons, and even all the other boys she wasn’t related to at least twice.

Perrin got hugged three times. Shem wasn’t even trying.

By the time they reached the trailhead to the west, they were an hour behind schedule, because a couple of families near the edge of Norden saw the guide and didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to speak with him for a few minutes, and Shem never turned anyone away.

But Perrin reminded himself that one year they were nearly two hours late, so this was a vast improvement. Never before did they have so many boys with them, so they were doing well. The more he reminded himself, the closer he came to believing it.

It was nearly time for midday meal when the noisy group of men and boys, ages one year and nine moons all the way up to seventy-two, and their four pack horses—Clark 14 included, so he could start learning the routes—stood in front of the forest before embarking on the trail marked only by slashes on trees. The young men borrowed from the Trovatos were already driving the three teams back to Norden. They would come back in five days to return the horses and wagons.

Before anyone stepped into the forest, they watched as Peto stood between the two trees designating the trailhead, pulled out his sharp knife, and etched the slashes he had made four years earlier deeper into the bark of the white aspen trees. The black markings hadn’t healed over, nor had the trees suffered for his cuts. They never found one yet that showed signs of not handling the slashing.

“Rector Shin, how look the trees?” Perrin called loudly.

Peto smiled and turned back to him. “Very well, General Shin! Guide Zenos, shall we continue?”

Shem grinned. “Of course! It’s a beautiful day to do the Creator’s work!”

None of the three men knew how this little ritual began. Probably the second year when they dragged a reluctant Deck along. But each year before they entered the forest, no matter which of the four routes, they went through their routine as the teens rolled their eyes, the older sons smiled at the custom, and the younger boys looked at their fathers in confusion. The last bit of the speech had to be uttered by Deck before they could continue.

They all now turned eagerly to him.

Deck groaned. “Please tell me there’s not much more to this, because I’m already getting hungry. Let’s get moving.”

“Let’s get moving!” chorused everyone, and Perrin and Shem started up into the trees.

Deck and Peto glanced at each other to see who would bring up the end for the first leg of the hike as Perrin and Shem rapidly covered ground ahead, with boys trailing behind them. Deck raised his hand to volunteer and Peto nodded. Peto would position himself around the middle of the pack to watch their sons ahead and behind, while Deck herded the slowpokes at the rear.

The young fathers put their sons on their backs or shoulders, or held their little hands and followed after their grandfathers. The teenage boys came together in a few knots to likely begin planning pranks on each other, and the younger sons scattered themselves among everyone else, picking up pinecones or holding smaller boys’ hands or trying to catch up to Perrin and Shem who set a fast pace.

Deck looked around to see if he could start walking, but his son Young Shem was sitting on a rock picking at something on his boot, and fifteen-year-old Nool Shin was distracted by an oddly shaped tree branch.

“Peto,” Deck called up ahead. “Tell Perrin I want Grandpa Boskos’s walking stick. I have a few boys to prod along here already.”

Peto, talking with his nephew Cephas, chuckled as he saw his father already far ahead of them in the trees, nearly out of hollering range.

“Sorry, Deck!” he called back.

“Uncle Deck, look at this tree branch,” Nool said. “It’s got this little split part and a curve—”

“—which looks perfect.” Deck yanked the branch off the tree and tried it out on his nephew.

“Ouch! Hey!”

“Now if you want to look at the branch you only need to lag behind. I have a poking stick, and you have motivation to get walking. Do so. Young Shem, your boots are supposed to get dirty. They’re going to look a lot worse when we come out of here in five days. Now up, or you’ll miss midday meal in two hours.”

Young Shem jumped off the rock and began to rush through the trees . . . in the wrong direction.

“Young Shem, stop!” Deck called, but it was already too late. His youngest son, the most directionless child he’d ever met, was already swallowed by the trees.

“Holling!” Deck shouted at his third son who was well up the slope, “Young Shem’s yours today, right?”

Holling, in the middle of a conversation with his cousins Barnos Shin and Zaddick Zenos, turned around. “What, already? Has he even started walking yet?”

Deck pointed in the direction Young Shem now stood, unable to see his brother or father because of the young pine trees that obscured his view. “Gotta stay in view of him, Holl.”

Rolling his eyes that his littlest brother could get lost barely five minutes into the hike, Holling, who stood much taller and could spy the seven-year-old’s head bouncing as he jumped while looking for a way out, strode into the thicket after him.

“And this is why,” Deck muttered to himself as he made sure no one else was straying from the non-existent path, “Jaytsy, my love, you don’t get to come. You’d want to tie all of them together in a line, wouldn’t you? Why I didn’t bring my bullwhip this year, I’ll never know . . .”

By the time Deck reached the sheltered plateau where they were to have midday meal, nearly everyone else was already finished. Only twice had the call come for “The Ropes!” That meant a large tree that had fallen needed to be dragged out of the way, usually by ropes tied to the ends and several men enlisted to pull it to the side.

Deck had heard the calls, but by the time he and a slow Young Shem had arrived, trailing after a hungry Holling who kept encouraging Young Shem to walk faster, the logs were already repositioned and the rest of the family was well on the way.

The other men and boys were now scattered around the area, finishing their sandwiches, picking up pinecones for the war later, or laying on the ground to rest for a few minutes. Perrin and Shem were threatening to pack up the food.

“Don’t you dare!” Deck hollered as he marched over to them. “And I’m sitting down while I eat. No rushing me, either.”

“All right, Deck,” Perrin said holding up his hands in surrender. “Bit of a slow hike so far?”

Deck merely grunted as he helped himself to the sliced breads, cheeses, lettuces, and tomatoes laid out on a slab of stone. Perrin packed away the ham slices, knowing that Deck wouldn’t want it. It was rare that he touched meat, and hadn’t eaten beef for decades.

Young Shem sat down next to his father and began to whine. “But I don’t like the barley bread. I wanted wheat!”

Deck twisted his neck that was tight with tension and said, with strained calmness, “Then you may go get the wheat bread. Look—Uncle Shem is holding it out to you, if you’d just look up once in a while and see something!”

Shem tried to hide his smile as he gave his namesake what he wanted. “So, Deck,” Shem ventured, “someone getting a little lost?”

Deck took a big bite. With a mouth full of sandwich, he garbled, “He never looks up. He just wanders off, never seeing where anyone else is going. I think we should put him on a pack horse for the afternoon.”

Perrin furrowed his eyebrows at his youngest grandson who munched his bread while trying to kick dirt off his boots. Young Shem much more preferred to sit in the house reading books with Mahrree, or try to learn the time’s tables just for fun. He shunned the outside nearly as much as his grandmother used to.

“But he won’t learn to pay attention if he’s on a horse, Deck. This is one of the problems we need to anticipate—inattentive youngsters on the trail. How do we keep them watching the route?”

“Perrin, if there’s danger, I imagine the terrified children will be far more attentive,” Deck muttered, “clinging to their parents and not stopping to sit on rocks to scrape off the mud. Young Shem, enough already.”

Perrin and Deck both looked to Guide Zenos for a decision.

Shem shrugged. “I see merits to both your arguments. Young Shem, what do you want to do this afternoon—walk or ride on a horse?”

Young Shem swallowed down his bread. “We’re not done yet? There’s more?”

Shem smiled gently at the seven-year-old. “I’m afraid so. We walk the rest of today, all day tomorrow, then the next morning we’ll make it the temple ruin and explore it for a few hours. Then we turn around and come back.”

Young Shem looked at his father, disheartened.

“We’ve been talking about this for the past few weeks,” Deck nudged him. “Don’t you remember last year?”

“Well, yeah, kind of. We’re doing this again? Why?”

Deck groaned and took another bite. “Would one of you please explain this to him again? I’m not sure I’m in the best state of mind right now.” He much rather preferred to be at home tending to his cattle than trying to herd boys who were much more distractible.

Shem grinned. “Of course. Young Shem, you like stories, right?”

Young Shem nodded eagerly.

Perrin exhaled. “This is going to take some time, isn’t it? I better go check on Peto. I think he’s still at the shelter.”

“Take all the time you want,” Deck said as he took another bite and closed his eyes.

Perrin picked his way through the boys and men, patting little heads, playfully pushing larger bodies out of his way, and hiding his smirk when Wes took a big step away from him. He made his way to the edge of the trees by a large rock outcropping and walked a couple of paces around the rock, following the carefully placed ‘beaver-chewed’ logs that no beavers chewed on, but which pointed to the narrow opening.

“Still here, Peto?” he called in.

“Yes, Father. Should be only another minute,” called back the slightly muffled voice in the small cave.

“Take your time,” Perrin said as he slipped into the crevice that led to the body of the cave. “Deck just arrived with Young Shem and he looks like he could use a few minutes of quiet.”

Peto chuckled. “One of these years, Deck just might enjoy the hike.”

“Only if we let him bring his entire herd.” Perrin squeezed himself into the cave, but to call it a cave was misleading. The rock formation was more reminiscent of the large boulder maze that served as a natural barrier between Edge and the mountains beyond it. Only Salemites knew how to find the path through the rock and knew the locations of the large caverns which served as a shelter for those coming from the world.

When Peto had discovered this rock outcropping sixteen years ago, he had the idea that emergency supplies could be stored for those on the path, just as supplies were stored at the First Resting Station and the hidden fort in the glacial valley.

During the following years, Peto and Perrin sought out other emergency reserves on their marking trips. Now each trail had two or three caverns supplied with food, bandages, and blankets, their locations marked by logs subtly pointing in the correct direction.

In the past few years they’d experimented with keeping a supply of dried fruits, jerky, nuts, and hard breads in the emergency shelters, packaged tightly in crates soaked with other scents to keep out hungry bears or other curious animals. That was what Peto was checking now.

“Still nothing disturbed,” he announced proudly to his father. “Doesn’t look like anything tried to touch the crates at all. Mrs. Appert’s idea for soaking the wood in that herbal mixture was excellent. Look, you can see mice have chewed into the crate holding the bandages, but nothing’s touched the food ones.”

Perrin nodded in approval. “I hope she’s ready to mix up another large batch.”

“We’ll get her some help. Mrs. Yordin needs a project, don’t you agree? I think we should convert all the crates in all the emergency storehouses to the herb-soaked ones.”

All of them?” Perrin asked. “This Harvest Season?”

“Yes, no sense in putting it off.”

Perrin shrugged. “True, but that means the families coming up to replace the stock will have to bring more pack horses than usual.”

“Not a problem,” Peto said confidently. “We always have far more volunteering families than we can use. What if this year we allow everyone to go? Instead of ten families resupplying each trail, why not try thirty to forty? It will give more people practice in deciphering the slashes.”

Perrin scratched his chin thoughtfully. “That’s a lot of people and horses at one time. Could really leave a trail.”

“Is Idumea coming next year?”

“Not that I’ve heard,” Perrin said.

“Any damage to the terrain will be healed in the next couple of years,” Peto told him. “Or just look like an impatient herd of elk plowed through there.”

“Well, Rector Shin, sounds like you’ve already figured it all out.”

“I have, General. Just need your permission to bear-proof everywhere else like we bear-proofed this cavern.”

“Permission granted. But I think this particular cavern is too narrow for bears to get in.”

You got in well enough.”

“Barely.” Perrin sucked in his gut.

Another head poking into the narrow cavern cut off most of their light. “Cephas said you wanted me, Papa?”

“Yes, Young Pere. On my list I want you to add that there’s enough room here for at least three more crates of food, and two more crates of emergency supplies. No sense in wasting this space.”

Young Pere nodded once. “Anything else?”

“Yes. Make sure everyone’s had enough to eat—especially Uncle Deck—then ask Viddrow and Zaddick to start packing up the food. We should be going again soon.”

“All right,” Young Pere said and ducked out without another word. They heard his footsteps leave around the rock.

Peto watched after him. “He’s been terribly good for the past few days,” he said quietly. “I expected at least some complaining from him. He always thought these emergency storehouses were a waste of time, even when we started sending volunteers to restock them every Harvest instead of us doing it. And don’t get him started on the futility of the emergency stores for the valley.”

Perrin wasn’t about to. More than ten years ago, Guide Hew Gleace had told Salem he’d been impressed upon by the Creator that they should have four years of supplies in reserves, “Just in case.” The valley had erupted in a flurry of activity to begin the project, growing extra crops, making new storage buildings, and devising strategies to preserve various foods. It had taken years to stock enough for 150,000 people for four years, but last year Guide Zenos declared that Guide Gleace’s admonition from the Creator was finally completed, and Salemites could be proud of their immense accomplishment. Now when the words from the Great Guide Hierum’s prophecy were to come to pass, about famine after Mt. Deceit’s “awakening,” or if any other disaster hit Salem, the valley would be ready. The storehouses, built sturdy enough to last one hundred years or more, would be resupplied and rotated every year to make sure that Salem’s ability to deal with any disaster, well into the next century, was secure.

Rector Shin had read that announcement from Guide Zenos in their congregational meeting, and while the congregation buzzed quietly and proudly, Young Pere, who was seated behind Perrin, had grumbled, “What, we’ll have to keep doing this waste of time?” Perrin always cringed when he remembered it, because Young Pere was loud enough that half the congregation heard him, and Rector Shin, still addressing the congregation, locked eyes briefly with his son, who merely glared back at him.

Kindly, no one in the congregation had ever said a word to Peto about the incident, but for weeks afterward many sent him looks of commiseration.

“I also noticed Young Pere’s been quieter,” Perrin said. “Maybe he’s slightly jealous of Cephas. He’s been walking and talking with you, and seems quite interested in the routes.”

“Cephas wants to study geography,” Peto told him. “If ever I need an assistant, he’d be the man. He has a good eye for the ground. But I don’t get the impression Young Pere cares that Cephas and I are talking.”

“Well then, Peto, maybe, just maybe, Young Pere’s starting to grow up a bit. Maybe he’s finally looking past himself and what he wants and is considering everyone else’s needs instead.”

Peto sighed. “I hope so. I hope he’s sincere and not creating a situation.”

Perrin squinted. “What do you mean?”

Peto stared at the gap where his son used to be. “Setting us up. Acting the way we want him to, so he can get what he wants later.”

“That’d be rather devious of him,” Perrin decided. “But also typical. Do you know what he might want?”

“Hmm? What?”

Immediately that set off Perrin. “Don’t give me that, ‘Hmm?’ Peto, you heard me. I haven’t heard him talk about a profession yet. But he has an idea, doesn’t he? So tell me, what does Perrin Shin the Younger want to do with his life?”

“Nothing . . . yet.”

Perrin was dubious. “Really.”

Peto shrugged. “He had an idea a year or so ago, but I turned it down. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at his age, either, if you remember.”

But Perrin knew when his son was evading an issue. “So what did he say a year ago?”

“Doesn’t matter, Father.”

“If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t be dodging the question!” Perrin said impatiently. “So what did he want to do?”

Peto finally looked his father in the eyes. “What did you do when you were eighteen?”

“Went to Edge,” he said easily. “Why?” His face fell as he understood. “Ah, Peto—NO!”

“Don’t worry—that’s what I said. And no one can become a scout to the world without the permission and blessing of the family and the guide.”

“Does Shem know?”

“Young Pere went to him first, hoping he’d talk me into letting him go.”

Perrin rubbed his forehead. “That stupid, stupid boy.”

“But it was a year ago, remember? I think he gave up the idea when he saw how adamantly Shem was against it. What he’s up to now, I have no idea.”

Perrin groaned softly, still thinking about Young Pere in Edge. Province 8. Whatever.

“Perhaps . . .” Peto started slowly, waiting for his father to look at him, “perhaps you could walk with Young Pere this afternoon? Maybe slow down the pace a bit? Keep to the middle of the pack? I’ll be bringing up the rear this afternoon. I wanted to spend some time with Wes, have a little future-father-in-law chat with him. Deck could lead with Shem. Maybe you could tell Young Pere you’re feeling a little tired, wanted to walk with someone else who’s been a bit slow today as well—”

“But he hasn’t been slow. Neither have I.”

Peto raised his eyebrows at his father. “You’re getting slower, General. If he’s accompanying you for several hours, maybe he’ll confide in you what he’s up to.”

“Ah. Yes. Good plan. Maybe I am getting slow.” Perrin tapped his head. “You know, Peto, I still think you could’ve had a career in strategy planning.”

“That’s what you said when you made me an honorary lieutenant when I was seventeen, but then you never promoted me,” Peto reminded him, and folded his arms. “Why not?”

“Because when you were thirty-three you were promoted to rector. I realized that in many ways, you outranked me already.”

Peto shrugged at that. “But in the years leading up to that?”

Perrin was examining a crate closely. “Hmm? What?”

His son chuckled.

Chapter 8—“What are you hiding, Puggah?”

Half an hour later on the trail, Young Pere watched his ‘wearying’ grandfather walking alongside him. He wasn’t even using his walking staff. Well, not in the way it was intended. He swatted bushes and tapped a few trees, and occasionally used the hooked end to try to catch the arm of one of his grandsons or nephews.

“I could become a shepherd when I get older, like the elder Boskos Zenos,” he mused out loud. “I see the appeal of wrangling wayward sheep. Oops, sorry about tripping you up there, Vid. Guess I need more practice. Again, Viddrow? If you’d just keep up a good pace . . . oops.”

But he certainly didn’t seem to be ‘wearying’ that he needed to match pace with an equally ‘weary’ Young Pere. Still, Young Pere wasn’t about to let this opportunity go to waste.

“So Puggah,” he started quietly once the pack began to spread out along the trail, leaving the two of them somewhat alone, “when do I hear the rest of the stories?”

“What stories, Young Pere?” Perrin swatted at another shrub, accidentally stripping it of a season’s growth of leaves.

“The ones Relf said he heard when he was planning to get married. The ones Barnos said only the ‘mature’ children are ready to hear. The ones Hycy will most likely be getting all the details about while we’re gone on this trip.”

“Do you have something to announce? I wasn’t aware that you were courting anyone—”

“No, Puggah. I’m not getting married. But I am almost eighteen.”

“Aren’t you getting a little old for stories?”

Young Pere ignored his tone. “What was Mrs. Yordin talking about the other morning? About our family’s slander?”

Perrin paused. “You’ve heard some of this before, Young Pere. Why do you want more?”

“Because I want to know the truth.”

Perrin sighed. “Here’s the truth: The world was a terrible place, it became worse since we left, so we were right in coming to Salem.”

“What are you hiding, Puggah?” he said boldly. “What are you embarrassed about revealing?”

From the corner of his eye Young Pere saw Perrin’s jaw shift. “I have nothing to hide, and I’m embarrassed about nothing.”

“So why does Muggah gloss over those details when she teaches the World History class, and only says that ‘some false stories were spread’? Why do you keep us out of the eating room when newcomers arrive? Why do they all look at Mahrree Shin as if they’re surprised to see her still living with you—”

That drew a reaction.

Perrin turned swiftly to glare at him. “Why are you saying that?”

“Because I want to know,” a prepared Young Pere said coolly. “I’ve seen it, Puggah. People from the world look at her.”

Perrin stopped, gripped Young Pere by the arm, and dragged him into a cluster of trees.

“Listen to me, and listen to me carefully, Young Pere.” His voice was low and bordered on threatening as he pushed his grandson deeper into the trees and out of earshot of the family. “Your grandmother is the most wonderful, honest, and courageous woman I’ve ever met. She’s braver than most of the soldiers I knew. She said and did what was right, no matter what the rest of the world said. And they said plenty! People ‘look’ at her because they’d been taught the world destroyed her, but it didn’t. It tried, though. The whole world was afraid of her, of one little inconsequential woman at the Edge of the World, of what she could see. She saw their lies and had no reservations about exposing them, even if it meant her death, which Nicko Mal had planned. But the world never stood a chance to destroy Mahrree Peto Shin! The only one who could stop her was me. She never backed down without being forced to by a sword! Do you understand that, boy?”

“Yes, sir!” Young Pere responded automatically. The ferocity of his grandfather’s response startled him, and there were bits and pieces he didn’t quite understand. But enough of what Puggah said verified what Young Pere had recently learned from Mrs. Yordin. Finally he was getting to some truth.

“Look,” Perrin’s voice softened a bit, “the world never appreciated the kind of woman your grandmother is. Honestly, I didn’t for many years either. She was always just a small woman from a tiny village far away from Idumea. But years ago my great uncle Hogal told me she had the potential to be the most dangerous woman in the world. I told you some of this when you and Cephas turned thirteen, remember?”

He did, a little. But the story seemed washed back then. He wanted the grittier version. Young Pere tried to nod, but the branch of a pine he’d been shoved into scratched the back of his head.

“At the time I thought Uncle Hogal was mistaken,” Perrin continued, “but he was right. She’d figured out the world, Young Pere. There’s nothing more dangerous than someone discovering your secrets and threatening to expose you.” His grandfather sighed, as if he knew that personally. “So they created lies to discredit her. They had to convince the world they destroyed her, too, just to counter her influence. She truly became the most dangerous woman in the world.” His eyes sharpened with renewed energy as he glared at his grandson. “So yes, people ‘look’ at her—in awe, in fear, in amazement. And so should you!”

If Perrin thought the intensity with which he confronted his grandson would end the questions, he was wrong. Young Pere had been planning this conversation for the past few days, and braced himself for the responses, too.

He took another breath and looked his grandfather directly in the eyes. He was one of the few men who could do so, since hardly anyone else was as tall as him.

“So, General, why would Thorne be afraid of Perrin Shin?”

Perrin cringed. “This isn’t the time—”

“This is precisely the time!” Young Pere insisted. “We have all afternoon. Even longer if we stay standing here in the trees while everyone else goes on ahead.” He offered half a smile to his grandfather.

Perrin didn’t accept it. He groaned softly, turned Young Pere, and pushed him back to the trail.

The two men walked side by side for a few minutes in silence, allowing Hogal and Atlee to run past them up to the pack horses being led by Boskos, whose son Utolian, or Toli as everyone called him, was napping in the child carrier on one of the horses. The two men paced themselves to not catch up to him, and Young Pere waited patiently for Perrin to speak.

“You know, your Aunt Calla wrote all about this in her book.”

Young Pere was already planning to read it when they returned. “I guess it always seemed too hard to read when I was younger. But it’s always better to hear the story from the source, right?”

Perrin growled quietly.

Eventually he said, “He . . . uh . . . he was my captain. In Edge. At the end.”

Young Pere nodded encouragingly.

His grandfather watched the ground as they walked. “His father Qayin and grandfather High General Cush sent him to watch me after I tried to kill an Administrator. I was a little irrational following the murder of my parents. Shem made sure I survived that day.”

Young Pere knew parts of that story, but didn’t know how many more details he dared to ask. Suddenly it all seemed very interesting.

“He was a young captain,” Perrin continued slowly. “Only twenty-two when he was promoted. Before that the youngest man to be made captain was barely twenty-four.”

“Who was that?” Young Pere asked.

“Me.”

Young Pere waited for more.

“Thorne was ambitious, intelligent, talented, and utterly devoid of any conscience. All that he did, he did for ambition’s sake. All he wanted to do was become High General, and he was hoping to do so through me. For a time he, uh, had his eyes set on Jaytsy.” Perrin’s voice developed an agitated quality. “Your Uncle Shem preserved her from future, uh, from . . .” He sighed heavily.

Young Pere could tell he was trying to dance around something, and because the general never danced, he was pretty clumsy at it.

“Anyway,” Perrin picked up again, as if he’d said the words he failed to, “Shem has saved this family so many times, I’ve lost track. After Jaytsy married Deckett, the captain tried another strategy—exposing your grandmother.”

“How would that help him?” Young Pere asked.

Perrin’s jaw shifted again. “I think he thought he was helping me. You see, I did something stupid.”

Young Pere waited for the explanation. They walked over a gentle ridge before Perrin continued.

“I saved his life. On the battlefield. He would have been sliced in two if I didn’t take out his attackers. You should know, Young Pere, I’ve taken a . . . a few lives in my time—”

Young Pere knew that number, from Relf. Fifty-three, including Lieutenant Radan up by the glacial fort. If fifty-three was only “a few,” what would have constituted “a lot”?

“—and I’ve felt the loss of each one. None deserved to live, but their deaths have always weighed on me anyway.”

They silently passed a grazing deer before Perrin spoke again.

“As if that wasn’t enough, I went back after the battle and made sure he received medical attention. I was going against the direct orders of his grandfather just by being out there. He thought he owed me for that, I suppose. He seemed to think he was doing me a favor by revealing that my wife was a traitor to the government. I think he was trying to free me from her somehow.”

Young Pere pondered how to phrase his next question, but decided on the direct approach. “Was she? A traitor?”

He expected to be shoved off the trail again, but instead his grandfather answered with a casual, “Yes. She was. So was I.”

That confused him. “But . . . I thought you were to be High General of Idumea? That’s what we’ve always been told . . . and then you refused it because you didn’t believe in what the Administrators were saying.”

“That’s true. I didn’t believe in them for many years. I had what they would consider traitorous thoughts for a long time. And I shared those thoughts with my wife. Our minds were always the same, and we wanted a very different life than what we had in the world. We didn’t know how to do it, though.

“The problem is that those with power feel very threatened by anyone thinking differently than they do. The world isn’t run like Salem, Young Pere. In Salem, people have the freedom to do what’s best for their families. For some people, having fourteen children is best. For others, having one is best. Some choose to teach their families on their own, others prefer to have the community schools help. Some choose to leave our society to try a different way of life, but are still considered part of our families. Some people work in one profession their whole lives, others change their work every year. We have freedom to think, to challenge, to experiment, to choose.

“The world won’t allow that. Most in the world don’t even have a concept of what happiness is. They think it’s acquiring the next new thing or having more of something than their neighbor. They know nothing of satisfaction, nor have any of those poor, wretched citizens ever felt real joy.

“The only way leaders in the world can maintain their power is by limiting everyone else’s freedom to choose—family size, education, where to live, what to know, to do, to believe, even to worship. When we were there, any time someone even suggested a different way of doing something, that idea was immediately seen as treasonous to those in power. And the idea—or even the person—was quashed.

“Leaders in the world don’t care about those they lead, Young Pere. They care only for the power they have. I was a legitimate threat to that power, and so was my wife. Before we ever heard of Salem we knew we didn’t belong in the world, but we did the best we could while we were there. I couldn’t support the Administrators or do what they expected of me as High General, so I resigned the same day I was given the commission.”

“So you were High General? But your uniform—it was only a colonel’s.”

“Never had time to buy the new jacket, Young Pere. I didn’t let the title rest on me long enough to become it. I couldn’t let it.”

He sighed again and looked up the path in the distance. Young Pere could tell he was working on the next thing to say.

“You see,” Perrin began slowly. “There was a day when . . . how do I put this?” he murmured to himself. “The Remembrance Ceremony,” he said suddenly. “One year after the land tremor, almost a year after my parents passed, I was to stand before the village and read the names of all those who lost their lives in the tremor. I stood on that platform and . . . You have to understand, it’d been a very difficult year. Edge was on the brink of starvation when we returned from Idumea with twenty long wagons full of food.

“During that following year, word spread throughout the entire known world that I would risk everything to feed my village, and the world wanted a leader like that. By the time of the Remembrance Ceremony, I was finishing a bad year after dealing with the loss of my parents, and with my nightmares,” he added apologetically. “As I stood on that platform that morning the crowd took up a chant: ‘General Shin. General Shin.’

“The idea of being general hit me with full force. In a flash I envisioned how things could change if I were High General. First on my list was to properly avenge my parents. Second was to properly remove Chairman Mal. I was sure he was behind it all. And from there . . . Young Pere, I’m ashamed to say, I did picture myself as Mal’s replacement, just like Eltana Yordin said. I could see myself as general of the world . . . or as king.

“Another officer and friend of mine, Brillen Karna, was next to me on that platform. I think he was worried that I might have another episode with my father’s sword, because all I did was stand there listening to the chant and making all sorts of plans in my mind. He asked me if he could help. He only meant to take over the reading of the names, but he’d been my lieutenant at the beginning and was loyal to a fault. He’d help me with anything, and I realized I had a lot of loyal friends in the army. It could work. I could do it. I could take over everything.”

Perrin paused, as if reliving that moment.

Young Pere noticed his gait had slowed considerably and he reduced his to match it.

“I looked up at the crowd that was shouting my name louder and louder,” Perrin continued. “And as I surveyed the crowd, I suddenly noticed my wife. There stood Mahrree, at the very front, with immense worry in her eyes. Behind her were my daughter and son, concerned. And then . . . then it hit me. Quite literally, Young Pere. There have been a few rare times in my life when the Creator reached down and just thumped me upside the head!”

He made a large swatting motion with the walking stick, taking out an innocent shrub.

“I heard the words just as strongly as I felt them. He said, ‘This is not my will for you, Perrin Shin! Do not forget who you are!’”

Perrin smiled easily and held out a hand. “And just like that, I lost the desire for that title of High General. I knew my future lay somewhere else. Where, I didn’t know, but as I looked at my wife I knew I’d be taking her somewhere else, maybe even to Terryp’s lands.

“That day I started planning a way to get the Administrators to open up exploration to the west, and that evening I decided I’d make copies of Terryp’s map that I had hidden in my office to send out to the world. But right then on the platform, I winked at my wife, she smiled at me, and suddenly I knew everything would be right, as long as I never tried to take power the Creator didn’t intend for me to have. I wasn’t a strong enough man to handle it properly, no matter what Eltana Yordin wishes.”

“Puggah,” Young Pere said softly, “I can’t think of any other man than you who could have handled the power.”

Perrin shook his head. “No man can handle that much power unless the Creator assigns him to it. There’s only one man alive right now who could’ve done it, Young Pere. And at midday meal he was changing the cloths of your nephew Grunick while Relf adjusted the pack horses.”

Young Pere stopped in his tracks.

Perrin glanced back at him.

“You mean . . . Uncle Shem?”

Perrin nodded and continued to walk slowly.

Young Pere caught up to him.

“For all intents and purposes, Shem Zenos is King of Salem,” Perrin told him as they walked together. “And tonight that king will undoubtedly help prepare dinner, then serve his sons and nephews, and clean up after them. Then he’ll sleep on the ground under the stars without a servant in sight. That’s the Creator’s idea of a king. The world’s idea? Well, I met King Oren many times, Young Pere. He couldn’t do anything for himself, insisted on sitting in the plushest chairs made of cloth you don’t even know exists, and was the most self-interested and ineffectual leader the world ever saw, just like his ancestors before him.”

“But, Uncle Shem . . . he’s not like a king.” Young Pere struggled with the idea.

“Exactly. He’s more like Salem’s servant, isn’t he? I’ve never known him to say no to anyone wanting a moment of his time. He goes out of his way to comfort someone grieving or in distress. He cares nothing for himself, but only for those he serves. He acts just as the Creator would if He were here.”

Young Pere couldn’t process that. From what he remembered in history, kings don’t tear up when little children bring them half-eaten cakes as gifts.

They walked for a time, both lost in thought, before Young Pere remembered Puggah didn’t finish the story.

“So . . . you left Edge? Couldn’t you have reasoned with the Administrators, or gone off and done some other kind of work?”

Perrin scoffed. “The Administrators were shocked by my resignation and worried about what I might do next. They never would’ve just let me ‘go off’ and do something else. Mrs. Yordin told us they were convinced I was planning a takeover. To show you how reasonable they were, they illegally passed laws to punish us merely for speaking out. We escaped before they could. Shem got us out, right past the captain.”

Young Pere noticed his grandfather avoided saying the name of Thorne.

“It was the captain’s biggest failure. We snuck past his soldiers posted at our house, which Jothan had knocked out with sedation, eluded several more groups in the forest, and got your aunt safely out even though she was within weeks of birthing Salema.”

Heaviness hovered in the air as they slowly walked among the trees, as if something unwelcomed was closing in, like storm clouds on the day of a wedding.

Young Pere waited to hear what his grandfather was avoiding.

“The last man I saw in Edge was him. The captain,” Perrin said, still sidestepping his name. “During the lightning storm that guaranteed our escape, I looked back and he saw me as well. And the look in his eyes . . .” Perrin continued walking in silence for a moment, his face contorting at memories he wasn’t expressing.

“Abandonment,” he said finally. “He seemed to think I was abandoning him. Here he was, trying to capture us to send us to trial, and he has the nerve to look at me like a frightened child watching his father run away!”

He stared into the trees, his jaw shifting angrily as if he’d spied the captain hiding ahead. “He reported that all of us were dead, that Shem was a traitor whom he killed himself. He actually had killed the last son of King Oren, Dormin—a wholly innocent and excellent scout for Salem—with my father’s sword. The captain knew full well that wasn’t Shem. Our capture would have been the greatest triumph of his very young career, and he failed it. When Mrs. Yordin said my return would scare him, she was right. But Shem’s return would be even worse for him. After you’ve bragged to the world that you killed the greatest traitor, the last thing you’d want would be for him to show up years later to tell everyone you missed.”

Young Pere smiled faintly at that. There was more to the story, he knew. But this was the most his grandfather had ever revealed, far more than when he was only thirteen. That version had been brief and neat, like a small puncture wound, and not nearly so full of avoided emotion as this telling. Young Pere felt as though he were gazing into an open wound, still festering after many years. It was all just as Mrs. Yordin had told him.

They walked again in silence, Perrin lost in his thoughts, and Young Pere searching for the right words to express his. Finally he gave it a try.

“Puggah, what would happen to the world if Perrin Shin returned to it now?”

Perrin exhaled. “Don’t know. Not going to find out, either. I’m a bit old for that anyway. Actually, Young Pere, I do know,” he whispered. “Shem says it would be a failure. The world’s too far gone for us to save it. All we can do is save people out of it.”

“Puggah, I wasn’t talking about the seventy-two-year-old Perrin Shin,” he said carefully. “I was talking about the eighteen-year-old one. What if he returned to the world to clear your name, correct the history—”

Perrin groaned loudly. “No, no, no. Young Pere, you don’t know who you’d be dealing with! Thorne was a young, naïve menace then, but now? He’s a battle-hardened general. You have no experience with men like him. The world is not the place for you. We don’t care what the world thinks of us. Besides, you couldn’t handle it.”

Young Pere’s hand clenched into a fist. “I know I could, Grandfather. All I need is the opportunity to prove myself. All I need is a couple of seasons to—”

He should have expected that shove into the forest, but he was unprepared for it until he felt his head banging into the trunk of a tall evergreen. Perrin’s hand on his chest held him firmly in place.

“Young Perrin Shin, I said NO!” His tone made the hair on the back of Young Pere’s neck rise up. “You have no idea what the world is like! It’s far more complex and depraved now than you could ever imagine. The few things the guide has told me—”

“Shem knows nothing!” Young Pere interrupted hotly.

Perrin pushed him harder against the tree. “The guide knows everything! But he’s not going to burden us with that knowledge.”

Young Pere doubted that.

Perrin took a deep breath. “Look, if going back to the world would have been a failure for Shem and me, it will be a complete disaster for you. You don’t understand those people. They’re not even looking for someone to save them from the rule of the generals. The citizens of the world have let the generals take charge. They’re not interested in thought or exploration; they’re selfish creatures who just want to be fed and entertained. You can’t do anything with apathetic people. All those who wanted a better world left for Salem, or are too timid to do so, or died long ago.”

Young Pere opened his mouth to speak, but Perrin grabbed him by the arm with one hand and pointed at him with the other.

“Say no more of this! Ever! If there’s anything you can try to understand today, it is this: I do not ever want you going to the world. You are too important to me to lose you. Please, Young Pere, believe me, just this once. I do know what I’m talking about.”

It was no use to argue with him, Young Pere knew. Not when he had that look in his eyes and Young Pere could feel sap starting to stick to the back of his head. He did his best to nod.

His grandfather released his grip and nodded back. Shaken, Young Pere started back to the trail, but Perrin grabbed his arm and yanked him back. He caught him in a tight embrace which startled Young Pere so much that tears welled up in his eyes.

“I love you, boy,” he whispered. “You have no idea how much. I would do anything to keep you safe. Anything.

Young Pere found it difficult to answer, and not just because his grandfather held him so firmly. “I know, Puggah,” he choked out. “I know.”

His grandfather gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and stepped back to hold Young Pere’s face in his hands. “Your soul is more important to me than life itself. Please, Young Pere.”

A tear of frustration leaked out of his eye and landed on his grandfather’s hand, but Young Pere managed a whispered, “All right, Puggah.”

Perrin smiled and his eyes brightened. “That’s my boy!” He playfully slapped his grandson’s cheek then looked around the ground around him. “Dropped that stick around here somewhere . . . ah, there it is. Old men like me have a hard time getting around, you see.”

Young Pere couldn’t help but snort as his grandfather bent easily to get the walking staff he obviously didn’t need.

“Sure, Puggah,” Young Pere said as they got back on to the trail. He noticed his father not too far behind him, walking with Wes and little Cori.

Peto gave Young Pere a quizzical glance as the two of them emerged from the dense wood.

Young Pere ignored him and continued on. Undoubtedly Puggah would give him a meaningful look later to explain their continual disappearing and reappearing on the trail.

A moment later Puggah was again next to Young Pere. After some silence he said in a cheerful voice, “A few weeks ago I saw Mr. and Mrs. Ison’s daughter talking to you after Holy Day services. She seems to be a nice young lady. Your Muggah said she was quite a smart girl. Did very well in her world history class.”

Young Pere tried not to sigh. There was that less-than-subtle hint again about courting someone. But why would he single out one girl when it was far more interesting working a whole flock? He had experiments to do, limits to push. For example, he’d already perfected getting a girl to go all starry-eyed in only two verbal exchanges or less. It now took only fifteen seconds before their breathing quickened, their eyes grew larger, and their cheeks flushed.

It wasn’t so much what he said to them, but in the way he leaned in and towered over them, putting them slightly off balance. Then he moved in closer than custom allowed, turned one side of his mouth up into a sly smile, and narrowed his eyes slightly as he stared hard into hers. That’s when they practically crumbled before him.

Girls were so easy. No challenge at all. He was considering trying next for a genuine swoon.

For that matter, elderly women were pretty easy, too, under the spell of his ability. Mrs. Yordin’s revelation that his grandfather had a flock of females surprised him so much that he didn’t confess he had one as well. He briefly wondered whose had more members.

He glanced sidelong at Puggah. That’s what he’d look like in about fifty-five years. Not too bad, Young Pere considered. He wondered how long the flock would follow him. Young Pere had plenty of years to play sheepherder.

“Yes, she seemed nice enough. Pretty too, I suppose,” Young Pere offered. That vague description fit nearly every young woman in their congregation, which was useful because he had no idea which one she was.

Perrin smiled. “Best decision I ever made was marrying a wonderful woman. Don’t put it off too long. There are some great benefits to coming home each day to a wife who you adore and who adores you back . . .”

Young Pere tried not to cringe. They still had quite a ways to go, and Puggah was about to give the “advantages of marriage” talk.

Instead, he let his mind wander as his grandfather rambled on about “someone to share your soul with” and “a companion equal in strength and ability to meet the challenges of life.” His mind wandered over the mountains, down through valleys, and past the ruins of Terryp’s vast lands Young Pere visited when he was fifteen. There his mind took a sharp turn east and headed many miles to a place that used to be called Sands.

He wondered what a desert looked like, and how deep the sands went. He’d just have to find out for himself.

Mrs. Yordin was right. The old man next to him prattling on about “understanding the purpose of life” had become weak and fearful.

Young Pere would prove it to him.

—-

Perrin knew his grandson wasn’t listening. He’d seen that glassy-eyed look enough times because he used to have that same expression when he was that age.

They hadn’t spoken for about a quarter of a mile and continued on in silence that late afternoon, nearing their designated campsite where everyone besides Peto, little Cori, and Wes, who were still behind them, should already be. Perrin wondered just where Young Pere was. His body was there, but his mind had been missing in action for quite some time.

There was only one person he thought would know where Young Pere was headed, and fortunately, at moments like this, he wasn’t far away.

Uncle Hogal? Perrin sent out the thought. Hogal, he’s not listening. I’m afraid I’m losing him. How did you reach me?

Ah, my boy, you were ready to listen. You were already in pain, but you refused to acknowledge it. You’d been on the wrong path for some time and had made some serious mistakes. You were ready for something better. Your heart was beginning to soften. But his, I’m afraid, is hardening.

And his arrogance is growing, isn’t it?

It is. It’s going to take a lot more than moving a few bales of hay like you did in Edge to reach this one.

Especially since he already moves hay. Hogal, I’ve told you before: whatever it takes, I’ll do it. Nothing’s more important than my boys and girls. I’ve never forgotten Tuma Hifadhi’s message to me when I was a young father. He told me that sometimes it was only grandfathers who could say what their grandchildren needed to hear. He wasn’t just making small talk; he was a guide seeing my future. He traveled all that way as an eighty-seven-year-old just to tell me that and to give our family a blessing. Now I need to act on that, and I’m ready to do whatever it’s going to take to get Young Pere on the right path.

We know, my boy. We worry about him, too. Remember, the Creator already has a plan, and He’s pleased that you’ve volunteered.

Chapter 9—“That’s one nasty stick.”

The area near the top of the peak was a favorite camping spot. Not only did it afford an impressive view of the surrounding peaks and valleys, it was relatively flat, had soft, sandy patches that were ideal for sleeping on, and was surrounded by pine trees with the densest and most spherical pinecones in the area.

Perfect for war.

Perrin had forgotten about that as they approached the end of their hiking for the afternoon, too lost in thought to consider an ambush. But the first sharp cone that hit him in the shoulder immediately reminded him where he was and what he’d just walked into.

Attack!”

Perrin barely had time to shield his face and dive behind a bush as the barrage of pinecones beat upon his body. Fortunately, he wasn’t the main target.

Most of the boys were aiming for Young Pere. They remembered how two years ago he’d run ahead on the Lower Middle trail, collected a bag full of pinecones, climbed up a tree, and pelted each one of them as they ran for cover underneath him.

The tree had gotten its revenge, however. That was the second time Young Pere slipped and impaled himself on a branch. The year before, on the Idumean trail, three lumberjacks had to cut down a tree to rescue Young Pere when a branch punctured his thigh and refused to let go.

The stick that stabbed Young Pere two years ago had only entered into his bicep, and Peto was confident they didn’t need to recruit assistance to cut his son free this time. Peto had climbed a nearby tree and hacked off the offending branch with his axe to free Young Pere, while Boskos Zenos waited below, his new doctor’s bag open and ready.

So today Perrin was suffering because of Young Pere’s previous pinecone attack, but not nearly as much as his grandson. Perrin took cover under a wide, thick shrub and scrabbled along the ground to a small opening in the foliage where a few stray pinecones fell. He pocketed those, then watched from the concealing safety of the branches and laughed quietly at the scene.

Young Pere frantically searched for shelter from the bombardment of more than twenty men and boys pelting him with pinecones, dodging this way and that, and always into a new assault.

It wasn’t as if they could help it, Perrin decided long ago. Nearly every young man there had an ancestor who had been a soldier. Although Salem was a peaceful land, it was in the boys’ blood to engage in warfare, at least occasionally. Plotting, fighting, shouting, pursuing—they just had to get it out of their systems sometimes.

Still flailing to defend himself from the attack, Young Pere ran over to his cousin Lek, snatched Fennic from his arms, and held him in front of him like a shield.

“Oh, unfair!” Lek cried. “Holding a child hostage? That’s really low, Young Pere!”

“Drop them!” Young Pere yelled, displaying his young cousin who was clutching a pinecone. “Drop them all, or you have to take Fennic to use the tree!”

No one threw another cone, worried about hitting the little boy, but Fennic wasn’t defenseless. With his pinecone in his chubby fist, he smacked Young Pere on the cheek and grinned when Young Pere cried, “Ow!”

“Good move, Fennic!” Perrin called from under the bush. “Attack your captor. Always fight back.”

“All right, all right!” Shem walked through the crowd of men and boys holding pinecones they were itching to throw. A few took shots at Young Pere’s unshielded legs.

“Enough now!” Shem said loudly, keeping his volume to just this side of a yell. “We’re here on a mission of peace, not war. Remember? All cones, DOWN!”

A variety of groans and disappointed complaining accompanied the dropping of the weapons.

“This is not a fair fight,” Shem said, walking among all of them, patting their shirt and trousers’ pockets to find stowed cones that he pulled out and dropped on the ground.

“First we set up camp,” he pointed at the three men designated to set up the shelters for the younger boys, “and get dinner ready,” he pointed at four more who were in charge of setting up the evening meal and fishing for trout, “and gather enough firewood for the night,” he pointed to several boys, “and then you may choose sides for teams and engage in a fair and even tossing of pinecones gently at each other. Understood?”

The boys offered up mischievously cautious smiles to the stern guide.

“Remember,” Shem said, “all of you promised your mothers you’d behave yourselves!”

The pinecone that smacked Shem squarely on the chest seemed to fly out of nowhere. A variety of snorts and guffaws accompanied it.

Shem looked around and glared. “All right! Who threw that?”

“My guess would be someone,” said Peto, who had just arrived with little Cori and Wes Hifadhi, “who didn’t promise his mother he’d behave himself.”

Deck held up his empty hands in innocence.

“PERRIN!” Shem bellowed.

Everyone began to laugh.

“Where are you?!”

Another pinecone sailed but narrowly missed its target only because Shem dodged out of the way.

“Still have some quick reflexes, Sergeant Major. Good to see.”

Shem peered at the thick shrub where the voice came from. “Remember, General, I know where you’re sleeping tonight.

As their family laughed, Shem sauntered over to the shrubs. “Get out of there, Perrin, so we can do some fishing.”

Perrin chuckled. “Gladly. I might need some help, though. My back is, um, a little stiff.”

“Serves you right.” Shem rubbed his chest where the pinecone hit him.

Several of the younger children giggled and ran over to see where Puggah was hiding, and Cephas and Boskos came over to lend a hand.

“How’d you get in there, anyway?” Shem asked.

Perrin grunted as he started to back out. “I dove under here when the attack began. Then I realized that if I crawled forward a few paces I had a clear shot with the pinecones that fell in here. But then you went and called for a truce and ruined all the fun.”

Shem chuckled as Perrin’s boots began to emerge. “Just when I thought you were finally ready to be a grown-up.”

“Puggah, want us to pull you out?” Cephas asked.

“Not yet. I’m caught on something. Hold on, let me just—Augh!” he cried out.

And then Perrin thought, Oh. So this is how it will go . . .

—-

Young Pere put Fennic down when he heard his grandfather cry out, and smirked. About time someone else got hurt around here.

Cephas and Shem, by the bush, were laughing at it along with smaller boys who had run over there.

“Puggah’s stuck!” called a little voice.

Young Pere rubbed his hands in anticipation and ambled over.

“I can get the hatchet, Father,” Peto suggested with a grin as he came over to peer into the bush. “I sharpened it right before the trip, just in case.”

But Boskos narrowed his eyes. “All right, Uncle Perrin?”

“Actually, no,” came his voice, sounding strained. “Something’s stabbed me. In my thigh. I can’t get it out.”

Boskos squatted to look into the bush. “Is it puncturing your flesh?”

“Yes,” his voice came urgently. “I need help!”

The smiles fell from the men’s faces. General Shin wasn’t known to ever plead for assistance. Young Pere’s eyebrows rose, and Peto ran to get the hatchet from the pack horse.

“Puggah,” Cephas said, now down on his hands and knees. “I see the branch.”

“Where?” Boskos asked, leaning over. “Ah, I see it too. Papa, pull back the bush right in front of you.”

Shem yanked, and in his growing worry pulled half the bush out of the ground.

Perrin cried out in pain.

“Perrin, I’m sorry!” Shem said, panicked.

“No, no, no,” he mumbled from under the leaves. “You didn’t do it. I tried to pull my leg out and instead my arm got caught on some pokey thing.” He chuckled weakly. “I think I know how Young Pere feels some days.”

Young Pere scoffed at that. “Not enough bruising yet, Puggah. You’ll need to fall off a short cliff before you’ll know how I feel.”

Shem evaluated the fragments of the bush he tore from the ground. “I don’t see any thorns or prickles on this.”

“Well there’s something tangled in here with something sharp growing on it!” Perrin insisted.

“Out of the way,” Peto called as he made his way through the crowd of men and boys now clustering around the bush. “Shem, where’s the best place to cut?”

Deck, analyzing the bush from the opposite side, indicated to a point near Shem. “If you cut that part off first, you’ll have a better view of the stick that’s impaling Young Pere. I mean, Old Pere. I mean, Perrin.” Over the scattered chuckling, Deck added, “Sorry, Perrin.”

“No, you’re not, Deckett,” said the bush feebly.

Peto went over next to Shem, saw his father’s face through the leaves, and waved to him. “We’ll get you out of here soon.”

Peto carefully hacked at the bush, and after three whacks the men could pull a large section of it free. Peto moved in closer and, with a few more carefully placed hits, another segment of the bush was removed, almost completely exposing Perrin.

The jagged stick imbedded in his leg appeared to be a branch of a coarse vine, an inch in diameter. His light colored trousers around the stick had turned red with blood, and the stain was growing.

Several of the boys stepped back quickly, “ewww”-ing when they saw the injury.

Cambo Briter and Lek Zenos herded the younger boys over to Bubba Briter, who had already taken Boskos’s son Toli way from the action to gather pinecones. Sam and Con Cadby quickly joined them with their sons Ensio and Cori, and a few more boys with weaker stomachs followed.

Peto squatted by his father. “Yep, that’s not the friendliest stick I’ve ever seen, but we’ll get you free of it.” He pulled out his knife and started to cut at the thick vine that was rooted to the ground.

“Stop, stop!” Young Pere cried out as Perrin flinched. “You’re wiggling the stick in his leg when you do that, Papa. Here,” he stepped over next to his father. “Let me hold the stick still so it doesn’t aggravate the wound, then start cutting.”

Perrin patted Young Pere’s hand gratefully as Young Pere wrapped his hands around the stick just above where it entered Perrin’s thigh.

Boskos smiled. “Good observation. Want to be my apprentice?”

Young Pere shook his head. “Not observation, just experience.”

Perrin kept his hand over Young Pere’s as he tightened his grip on the stick.

“Cut right there, Papa.” Young Pere nodded to a point higher.

“Ready?” Peto asked.

Both Young Pere and Perrin nodded.

With quick cuts, Peto severed the stick several inches above Young Pere’s hand.

The remaining boys erupted in cheers.

Boskos snatched up his bag and pointed to a flat area. “Get him over to the sandy section. Atlee, find Puggah a blanket to sit on.”

Barnos Shin and Holling Briter reached down to help up Perrin.

“No, no, no. I can do it,” he said, trying to stand up. But he winced in pain, and his grandsons caught each of his arms to pull him up.

“Let them help you, Uncle Perrin,” Boskos said. “No need to put more pressure on the leg than necessary.”

Barnos and Holling brought a hobbling Perrin over to where Atlee Briter had laid out the blanket, and they gently put him down.

Perrin moaned as he lay. “I thought Shem assigned some people to start dinner and get camp established. I really don’t need an audience.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Deck said, not eager to watch what was about to come. He pointed to several of the boys and reissued orders. Soon most of Perrin’s audience was gone, but they still tried to peek over to see what was happening.

Only Peto, Shem, and Young Pere remained to watch Boskos work. As Boskos kneeled by his bag, Shem kneeled by Perrin’s head.

“It’s not that bad,” Perrin said, reaching for Shem’s arm. “You don’t need to ask for a blessing.”

Shem raised an eyebrow at him. “The Creator has plenty to give out. It’s not as if we’re bothering Him. This is what He’s waiting for. To bless us.”

Boskos looked expectantly at Perrin. “I work best when it’s not just me working. The Creator is the real healer. I just get to take the credit.”

Perrin nodded. “Fine, Shem. Keep it short. He’s a busy Being.”

Shem chuckled and closed his eyes. “Dear Creator, will You please help my son to help my brother to complete Your work? Amen.” Shem opened his eyes and looked to Perrin for approval.

Perrin nodded. “See? Doesn’t have to be long.”

Boskos chuckled and pulled out supplies from his bag. Observing the remaining stick jutting out from Perrin’s thigh, he said, “Exactly how’d you do that, Uncle Perrin? You couldn’t have exerted a lot of force, yet that stick seems to be in rather deep.”

“I don’t know,” Perrin groaned resignedly. “I felt something pricking my leg, but I thought it’d give way if I just pushed past it.”

Boskos peered at it. “An impact like that suggests someone fell on it from a substantial height. Perhaps it’s very sharp—”

“Just get it out and you can stare it all you want, Bos,” Shem said nervously.

Young Pere glanced at Uncle Shem, who was chewing on a fingernail.

King of Salem.

Young Pere couldn’t see it.

“I will, Papa,” Boskos assured Shem. “I’m just waiting for Zaddick to bring me a jug of water. See, there he is. Uncle Perrin, I’ll need to cut the trousers to get to it.”

“Fine, Bos,” he said, flopping an arm over his eyes. “I’ve got extra in my pack.”

As Boskos trimmed the cloth away with a small pair of scissors, Young Pere folded his arms. “Kind of strange being on this side of the action. I’m usually on the ground, or just waking up in the middle of something, or a few hours later. I never get this view.”

Peto shot him a look.

“I’m glad I can entertain you, Young Pere,” said Perrin. “Isn’t there something else you should be doing?”

Young Pere shook his head. “Nope. Not on firewood or food or camp detail until tomorrow. I’m still ‘resting,’ if you recall your orders.”

Peto gave Young Pere another sharp look.

Young Pere held up his hands in apology.

Boskos eyed the exposed stick. “I think I can get it out without cutting any more flesh. Good thing I brought the large bottle of numbing agent.” He rummaged in his bag and pulled out a brown bottle.

“Love that stuff,” Young Pere nodded in approval.

“No!” Perrin said firmly. “I don’t want it. Just yank it, Bos.”

“Uncle Perrin, you’re being unreasonable,” Boskos said. “All it does is numb the area around the wound. I just dab it around, wait a few minutes, and—”

“Shem!” said Perrin forcefully, “Explain to your son I do not want it.”

Shem sent a long-suffering look to his son.

Boskos exhaled in frustration. “Fine, Uncle Perrin. Papa, go get a plank and beat him—”

“Hey!” Perrin said, trying to sit up. “It’s not that bad!”

Boskos gave him a cutting glare. “Think not? We’ll see how you feel in a couple of minutes. This may not just ‘yank’ out, Uncle Perrin. There are a couple of barbs near the base. If there are more in your flesh, I may have to work it, and that will not be pleasant. Do you really want your great-grandsons hearing you in pain? Or are you going to think about their needs and allow me to give you enough local sedation to numb it just enough to allow you to deal effectively with the pain you will still feel? This isn’t the army, Uncle Perrin. This is a family outing with little boys who have long memories.”

Shem raised his eyebrows at his son’s audacity and sent him a smile of admiration. He shifted his gaze to Perrin.

Perrin sighed, nodded briefly to Boskos, and lay back down.

Shem grinned at his son. Not many men could force General Shin to see their way.

Boskos took the jug of water and poured some over the wound.

Perrin writhed in unexpected agony. “I thought you were going to numb it?!”

Young Pere sniggered while Boskos smiled slyly. “First I have to cleanse the area. Wasn’t pleasant, was it? But it’ll be much better in a few minutes,” he promised. He dabbed the brown substance on the flesh around the entry point of the stick.

“Can’t you give him some of the green stuff?” Peto asked, a permanent wince on his face.

“My other favorite bottle,” Young Pere commented. “Pain Tea.”

“Wouldn’t help much at this point,” Boskos told them. “The Pain Tea works mostly on internal injuries. I’ll give him some later, though, to help relax him.”

“Who came up with that name, anyway?” Young Pere asked. “Sounds like it gives you pain, not takes it away.”

Boskos chuckled. “We brew it when someone is in pain. I don’t know who named it one hundred years ago, but the name’s stuck.”

“Don’t want it anyway,” Perrin grumbled.

Young Pere squatted next to Boskos as he inspected the wound. “Think it will need stitching? Or will resin hold it?”

Boskos turned to his cousin. “What do you think?”

Young Pere tipped his head in consideration. “If it’s a straight slice, the resin works fine. But if it’s jagged, or there’s too much hole to cover, you’re best doing stitches.”

Boskos smiled. “Sure you don’t want to study medicine?”

“Too much stuff to memorize. I’m not that good at remembering all the different ailments, herbs, formulas—”

“It’s hard for everyone, Young Pere. But there are ways to memorize it all. We work together to help each other succeed. Seriously, if you—”

Shem cleared his throat loudly. “Perhaps you could discuss this another time?”

Boskos looked up at his father. “I’m just waiting for the numbing agent to work, Papa.”

“Actually,” Young Pere said, “it works pretty fast. The more wounded flesh that’s exposed, the faster it absorbs into the exposed nerves. I never felt the need for waiting a full five minutes.”

“Really? Interesting,” Boskos said. “Uncle Perrin, how does it feel?”

“I’m trying not to think about it,” Perrin answered, his arm over his eyes again.

Boskos poked the flesh around the stick.

Perrin didn’t flinch.

Boskos nodded at Young Pere who smugly smiled in an I told you so manner.

“All right, Uncle Perrin. Some patients like me to tell them everything I’m doing. Others just want me to work without knowing what’s going on. What kind of patient are you?”

“Not a very patient one, Boskos. Just get it out and don’t waste time talking!”

“As you wish,” and he started to pull experimentally on the stick. The barbs did go beneath the flesh, and he silently pointed out that fact to Young Pere, who was watching closely, but also kept an eye on his father and uncle.

Peto had that frown on his face which always meant he was growing nauseated, and turned away for a moment to exchange a quick, shuddering look with Deck.

Perrin winced in discomfort at the tugging of Boskos, but the pain didn’t seem too bad.

Shem’s eyes darted anxiously from Perrin, to his son’s efforts, and back again.

Peto reached over and patted Shem on the shoulder, and he jumped in surprise.

“It’ll be all right,” Peto whispered. “Father’s in excellent hands.”

Shem smiled briefly at Peto’s assessment and went back to watching his son Boskos slowly twist and pull on the stick.

Young Pere noticed something. “Right there, Bos,” he said as he huddled next to his cousin. “Another barb, catching on that ragged edge.”

“Yes, very good. Perhaps a twist in this direction . . . yes, now another barb. Twist the opposite direction . . .”

“That’s it, Bos. You’ve got it. Now twist in the other direction again.”

“That’s one nasty stick.”

Perrin shifted uncomfortably, trying not to listen to them.

“One more twist, Bos.”

“I see it, I see it. Those have got to be the most unusual barbs I’ve ever seen. Go in easily, but refuse to come back out. I’m saving this stick to show Dr. Toon. Uncle Peto, ever see such a vine before in your studies?”

“I specialized in trees and terrain,” Peto said, his voice a touch shaky, “not pokey things.”

“I never realized thorns could be such a menace,” Boskos said, sliding the bloodied stick out a little more and twisting again.

Young Pere rocked back onto his heels, thinking about “thorns” and “menace.” Here it was, many years later and many miles from Edge, and Perrin Shin was still being tormented by thorns. The whole idea sat strangely on Young Pere, like a complex puzzle he wanted to solve, but was almost too frightened to approach. Almost.

Peto glanced over at him, trying to figure out why his son reacted so unusually.

Young Pere didn’t meet his gaze.

“And . . . it’s out!” Boskos announced, holding up the red-stained evidence. “Congratulations, Uncle Perrin. You’ve produced a bloody, thorny stick! The tip is just what I suspected: pointed and sharp. Perfectly angled to penetrate. Must have gone in about two inches. Well done, pushing right past that.”

Perrin sighed in relief. “I have to admit, Boskos, that ointment actually helped. Good job.”

Boskos smiled as Perrin moved his arm from his eyes. “I’m not finished yet, though. We need to close the wound. It’s split open in a jagged way. Young Pere was right—it’s going to need a few stitches.”

Perrin nodded and put his arm back over his eyes. “Just do it, Bos.”

Boskos studied the wound first.

“At least it’s not bleeding much,” Shem offered.

“I rather wished it did, Papa.” Boskos examined the stick he removed. “Uncle Perrin’s not the first to get caught on this. Right here—animal hairs on the barbs. And this speck of dirt here, see it? And right here, this looks like a little bit of moss.”

Shem crouched and peered at the dirty stick. “So this means . . .?”

“Bleeding would purge the wound of any of these objects still in his leg. If any of it is still in him and I stitch it closed . . .”

Peto held his hand over his mouth. His stamina for the situation was beginning to weaken. “What do you recommend?”

“I need to wash it out some more since it won’t bleed sufficiently. And then, Uncle Perrin, after I stitch it, I hate to say it—I’m going to have to mold you.”

“Oh, you can’t be serious!” Perrin scoffed.

Peto began to chuckle. “Father, I don’t know why you’re so opposed to that.”

Perrin tried to sit up again. “Because it’s so ridiculous!”

But Boskos was already at work, pouring more water over the open wound in an effort to dislodge any dirt that might have remained. “We’ve been bread molding people for over one hundred thirty years. Just because no one in the world you came from understands it . . . It really works, Uncle Perrin. Yes, it seems odd, but somehow it sucks out the infection.”

Young Pere smiled. “And if you get hungry, Puggah, you always know where you can get a bite to eat.”

“Don’t eat it!” Boskos said, alarmed, opening the bottle of numbing agent again. “It could kill you.”

Perrin shook his head in dismay. “See, that’s what I don’t understand. Tell me how a moldy piece of bread that can kill you if you eat it will cure you if you strap it to your wound?”

“I wish I could tell you, Uncle Perrin,” Boskos said, again dabbing the brown liquid around the jagged puncture. “But we’re not sure ourselves. It just often works, that’s all we know.”

Perrin lay back down. “It will take weeks to mold some bread. Your mother just baked it yesterday.”

Boskos smiled. “But we’ve been molding several pieces for a few weeks in preparation for this trip.”

“You would,” Perrin chuckled weakly.

“I actually thought I’d be using it on Young Pere, not Old Pere,” said Boskos as he pulled out a needle and thread wrapped in clean, white cotton. “Noria was wondering why I wanted so much cultivated.”

“You must be the only man who’s happy when his wife’s cooking goes moldy,” Perrin murmured.

“She makes it moldy for me. She’s a skilled chemist.”

Shem watched as Boskos squeezed Perrin’s thigh, trying to get it to bleed. “Don’t understand it,” he said. “Perrin was always a great bleeder.”

“Thanks a lot, Shem,” Perrin mumbled.

“It’s the nature of the wound, Papa,” Boskos explained. “Splits like this often don’t gush.”

Peto was beginning to look clammy, and Young Pere was sure he’d be on the ground in a few minutes. Medical talk wasn’t his thing. It was always his mother who sat next to Young Pere holding his hand when the doctors stitched him up or set his broken bones. Mama had a much stronger constitution for these things than Papa, who usually sat outside of the room, waiting anxiously.

Young Pere still remembered when, four years ago, Boskos had come over excitedly to tell them all that he’d passed the entrance exams to study medicine. Peto had made the mistake of telling him that back in Edge he’d considered becoming a doctor . . . for about ten minutes.

Lilla had laughed and laughed about that, much to Peto’s chagrin. “Seriously? You considered being a doctor? When I gave birth to all of you,” Lilla announced to their family, as her husband hid behind his hand in consternation, “your father stayed in bed longer than I did, because he was so woozy from watching me deliver his children!”

Papa had never been able to live that one down.

Young Pere smirked at his father’s graying complexion, then turned to his uncle. “So tell me, Uncle Shem, what kind of a bleeder was Puggah?” With enough details, Peto would be vomiting in the shrubs behind him within minutes.

Shem smiled, oblivious to Young Pere’s plotting to see his father become sick. “There were many slices and nicks over the years. Some in practice, a few in action. Your Puggah was planked at least half a dozen times to stitch those up. Now, I wasn’t there yet to witness the gash the Guarders gave him on his back, but the jagged scar is still there. But I think the best incident was years ago when he was training the cook.”

Perrin groaned, but not because Boskos was dabbing more numbing agent on the edges of his gash.

Peto sat down on a log, looking dizzy. He held his head in his hands and asked, “The cook? I don’t know if I remember that.”

Shem chuckled. “He wasn’t the cook at the time, and you were only a few years old, Peto. He wanted to be a soldier but he was the clumsiest thing I’d ever seen.”

Boskos readied a needle and thick thread.

Young Pere pointed at something on Perrin’s leg and Boskos nodded.

“It wasn’t so much that he was clumsy,” Perrin winced briefly as Boskos began to tug on his skin, “but that he was weak. One of the skinniest things we ever had come in. He barely passed the physical. He didn’t have enough arm strength to steady the sword.”

“I tried, Perrin,” Shem said. “I worked him and fattened him up, but no muscle ever developed on his spindly little arms.”

“So what happened?” Young Pere asked, watching Peto sway slowly back and forth.

Perrin squeezed his eyes shut briefly as Boskos started another stitch.

“I decided to train him one-on-one with the sword,” Perrin said, slightly breathless. “Spent an hour with him every afternoon. After two weeks I thought he might be ready for a little practice in sparring.” He ended with a cringe as Boskos tugged.

“Good thing there were witnesses,” Shem said, frowning at the stitching, “or no one would have believed it was an accident. I saw it. Perrin couldn’t have been easier on him, but the poor boy tried to lunge, tripped on his own feet, and the weight of the sword literally tipped him over. Perrin tried to catch him and got tangled up with him as well. Next thing we know, Perrin’s flat on the ground with the soldier’s sword sticking out of his side! The poor boy was terrified and started crying. ‘I’ve killed Major Shin!’” Shem chuckled at the memory. “He never touched a sword again, if I recall correctly. Kept to the kitchens after that.”

“I think I remember that now,” Peto said, lifting his head. While his color was still off, Young Pere figured he was probably past being sick, since he wasn’t watching the stitching. Maybe next time.

“Weren’t you in bed for a long time, Father?” Peto asked.

“Yes,” Perrin winced again. “Sword went right into my liver.”

“That would cause a lot of bleeding,” Boskos agreed. He nodded to Young Pere in a conspiring manner, and presented him the needle.

Young Pere burst into a grin and knew exactly what to do. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Peto’s mouth drop open in alarm, and Young Pere slid the needle into the ragged flesh.

Perrin didn’t flinch as he mumbled, “Even the slash on my back wasn’t as bad as that sword to my side.”

“Yes, you’d taken a lot of hits over the years,” Shem said, not realizing who of the two young men hovering over Perrin’s thigh was actually working on it. “And you had plenty of stitches, too, but that one was the worst. I had to hide your undershirt so Mahrree wouldn’t see how much blood you’d lost. She was quite upset when she arrived at the fort and saw your condition.”

“How long were you down?” Boskos asked, nodding in approval to Young Pere and motioning for him to do the next stitch. It really was quite simple, nothing to it, just pulling torn flesh together.

“About a week,” Perrin said, oblivious, his eyes shut tightly. “Bos, your father stayed at our house to help take care of me. He even postponed his leave home just so he could stay and help Mahrree. He was about your age at the time. Maybe that’s where you get your doctoring talent.”

Boskos winked at his cousin who completed another stitch and chuckled quietly.

Shem noticed, and recoiled in dismay when he realized it was Young Pere expertly stitching Perrin, under Boskos’s guidance.

Peto was covering his face with both hands, unable to watch.

“I never had the inclination for doctoring, Perrin,” Shem said, wincing in worry. “I just knew there was no way Mahrree was going to tolerate you staying at the fort for a week, and there was also no way she’d be able to move you on her own. You were in agony for several days.”

“I remember. And I don’t know if I ever thanked you enough.”

“Trust me, you did. It was my pleasure to help. But it was hard to watch. You were so miserable. You don’t know how tempted I was to bring you some Pain Tea, but neither the scouts nor I could come up with a convincing story as to where we got it. We couldn’t even slip it into your food or water because it has such a distinctive taste.”

“The one thing I don’t love about it,” Young Pere said as he knotted the stitch he completed.

Shem said, in a faraway tone, “I don’t know why I didn’t realize he would be in a lot of pain as well.”

“Who?” Perrin asked.

Shem scratched his chin. “Uh, I don’t know why I just thought of him, but Lemuel. After the offensive. Even though his internal organs weren’t hit, he did have thirty stitches.”

Boskos let out a low whistle. “A soldier? Where were the stitches?”

“Along the base of his ribs,” Shem gestured on himself.

“Ouch,” Boskos said, pointing to Young Pere where the last stitch should go.

Shem rubbed his chin guiltily. “I wasn’t exactly nice to him. He wasn’t a favorite of mine. He was leaning up against me after his procedure and I purposely let him fall to the ground.”

Boskos looked up at his father whom he had only ever known as a gentle, kind man. “Really? That’s so unlike you.”

Perrin, his eyes still squeezed shut, chuckled softly. “Two things you don’t understand, Boskos. First, your father was a great soldier and an effective leader. Coming to Salem made him lose the first attribute but intensified the second. The other thing you don’t understand is that Lemuel Thorne should have died in Moorland!”

Young Pere jerked at the name of Thorne.

His grandfather flinched at Young Pere’s clumsiness.

Boskos took over the needle and finished the stitch.

“I don’t know about that, Perrin,” Shem said quietly as Boskos clipped the thread.

“And if he’d been paying attention to his attacker instead of watching me take out the Guarder behind him, he wouldn’t have been injured either,” Perrin declared. “Thorne was foolish and reckless, and it was up to me to preserve him.”

Young Pere listened intently.

“True, but we had him under enough control, Perrin,” Shem said, not convincingly, though. “Occasionally I wonder if I had been better to him, befriended him—”

Perrin opened his eyes and tried again to sit up, but immediately thought twice about that. “Shem, I don’t know of any man who tried harder than you. He wasn’t interested in being our friend. He was interested in taking over our fort! He was manipulative and wholly out of line, in many, many ways,” he said darkly. “I don’t know how much more of a ‘friend’ you could have been by not killing him when you had the right and opportunity to do it!”

Boskos, Young Pere, and Peto stared at Shem.

Lek, who was passing by, stopped in his tracks and turned to his father.

Shem grew uncomfortable under their stares. “Now’s not the time, Perrin,” he murmured. He nodded to his oldest son in a manner that meant, Move along, and don’t ever ask about this. Lek obediently walked off, likely because he knew his brother Boskos wouldn’t let the matter drop too easily.

“So,” Boskos said casually, rummaging around in his bag, “this sounds like an interesting bit of history we’ve never been privy to.” He pulled out some bandages and another wrapped package. “I think this is a very appropriate time, Papa. You could have killed a man, and didn’t? Sounds like it would be a great story for the congregations to hear about self-mastery and shunning the ways of the world.” He unwrapped part of the package and held up a piece of bread covered in various shades of green.

Young Pere, anxious to hear of Shem’s experience with Thorne, nevertheless sneered in appreciation at the moldy bread.

“Not everything in history is necessary to remember, son,” Shem said through clenched teeth.

But Peto was watching Shem earnestly. “Did it have something to do with Jaytsy?” he whispered.

Shem’s eyes flared in fury.

Boskos, placing the bread on the wound, paused and saw the unexpected look in his father’s eyes. Young Pere noticed that just as quickly as it rose, the anger faded. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Uncle Shem livid before.

“Yes,” he said with such finality that they knew Shem wasn’t going to say anything more about it.

Boskos and Young Pere exchanged intrigued looks before Boskos unwrapped a long bandage and worked the end under Perrin’s leg.

“Shem,” Perrin said, “even if you had made more progress with him, it’s not as if any of that would have mattered after we left.”

Peto nodded in agreement as Shem shrugged.

Boskos finished wrapping. “Uncle Perrin, how does it feel?”

“What, you’re done?”

Boskos grinned. “Completely! Stitched and molded. You’re ready for anything. Except for hiking and long walks. You need to stay off of the leg for a couple of days. Fortunately, I brought a sling that we can rig on two of the horses—”

“No, absolutely not.” Perrin pushed himself upright. “I am not going to be carried.”

Boskos, wiping his hands on a cloth, wasn’t about to back down. “Look, your grandson and I just put in seven stitches—”

Perrin’s eyebrows shot up. “You let Young Pere stitch me?”

“He’s a natural. Did an excellent job.”

Young Pere beamed smugly and wiped off his hands, too.

“And Uncle Perrin, if you go walking around on that, you’ll tear them all out and we’ll have to put in seven more. I might even let some of your other grandchildren have a stab at it.”

Perrin studied his nephew. “You would’ve been a good fort surgeon.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, Uncle Perrin,” said Boskos dismissively. “You really need to rest that leg. I’m fairly confident the wound is clean, but there’s no sense in aggravating it. You could ride one of the horses if you prefer. Take turns holding the little boys. I know they love riding with you. You could tell them all kinds of stories instead of racing up the trail. Now, tonight we’ll move you to the fire and you will stay there, understood?” He put his hands on his waist. “If you need anything, we’ll bring it to you. Right?”

“Yes, Dr. Zenos.” But Perrin’s smile had undertones of rebellion.

“Tomorrow morning I’ll take a look at it. Maybe we can take the mold off then. In the meantime, don’t disturb it.”

“Whatever you say.”

Boskos stood up and announced to the family, “He’s stitched up. Now, nobody bother him or jump on his leg or trip over him or challenge him to a race, understand?”

A variety of yeses and laughs acknowledged his warning.

Relf Shin and Cephas Briter walked over to help Perrin up.

“We already prepared a spot by the fire, Puggah. You should be comfortable there for the night. How’s it feel?” Cephas asked.

“It stings, but I’ll survive,” he said as he sat down where some logs had been set up as a seat and support. “Thank you, boys. The real pain will come when we get home. I promised your Muggah I’d be careful. How am I going to explain this to her?”

Chapter 10—“Does it ever hit you, just what we have?”

“Young Pere, why are you telling me this?”

“I thought you’d want to know.”

Boskos and Lek glanced at each other before Boskos said, “But Young Pere, we already know this story.”

“What?!”

It was dark and no one was around them, but still they kept their voices low as they stood in the trees. The three of them had gone out in search of more firewood, but Young Pere had dragged his cousins over for a private meeting.

“Our family names have been slandered for years in the world,” Young Pere exclaimed, “And you knew about it?”

“Well, of course,” Lek told him in his mild manner. “They’ll tell you, too, once you become an adult and get married. They don’t want you to hear about it from anyone coming from the world.” He fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable. “It’s not like it’s a story I think often about, you know. My papa and your Muggah?” He frowned and shuddered.

“Besides,” Boskos said, “we don’t care what the world thinks.”

“Really? How can you say that?” Young Pere almost forgot to keep his voice down. “Doesn’t it bother you that the world thinks your father is the worst traitor who ever lived?”

“No, because I know in a way it’s true,” Lek said simply. “And he was right to do what he did.”

Young Pere groaned. “I’m not talking about his getting people out for all those years, I’m talking about the other reason he was a traitor.”

Boskos rubbed his cheeks. “Look, I hated that story when I first heard it a few years ago from Papa and Mama, and I never wanted to hear about it again.”

“I agree,” Lek said. “It made me feel sick to my stomach just considering something that never happened.”

“That’s why we need to fix it!” Young Pere said. “We have to kill that story so it never hurts anyone ever again! Haven’t you ever wondered why the army refugees have such a hard time with Shem Zenos and Mahrree Shin? Shouldn’t that be fixed?”

“It is fixed, Young Pere,” Lek said. “After a few weeks, I don’t see any problems with anyone who’s come.”

“That’s what they say, but that’s not what they feel,” Young Pere insisted. “Mrs. Yordin told me there are a few from the world who she’s already met who still don’t fully trust your father or my grandmother. They’re just faking it.”

Boskos threw up his hands. “That’s what, maybe a dozen people? So what? We know what kind of people they really are, and so does the Creator. He’ll make everything right in the end. It’s not our place to worry about it.”

Lek eyed his cousin. “What do you think you could do to fix it, Young Pere?”

He looked askance as he said, “Not sure yet. But I’m working on it.”

Lek and Boskos exchanged glances.

“Young Pere, nothing needs to be done,” Lek told him. “We’re happy here, our parents and grandparents are happy—”

“Are you sure?” Young Pere stopped him. “How does Aunt Calla feel about all of this?”

Boskos and Lek looked at each other again.

“She knows,” Boskos said. “She helped tell me the story, and she didn’t seem to care. Mama and Aunt Mahrree have been the best of friends for as long as I can remember.”

“We don’t need to discuss this anymore, Young Pere,” Lek declared. “Nothing good can come from talking about an old lie.”

“So you don’t think I should tell the others tonight?” Young Pere asked.

“No!” both brothers said loudly.

The three of them looked around to see if anyone might have heard.

The rest of the family was sitting around the campfire singing one of Lilla’s songs about a lovelorn porcupine.

“Young Pere, all of the older grandchildren already know,” Lek said. “The younger ones will be burdened with these horrible images as they mature, too. Obviously our parents and grandparents think this is the best way to reveal to us things that never even happened, and I feel bad for them that the world makes them have to do this. It just reinforces for me how small and petty the world is, that it’ll make up stories just to feel better about themselves. They’re like children. Deplorable, snotty children.”

Boskos smiled at that evaluation. “I agree. This isn’t your place, Young Pere. Mrs. Yordin shouldn’t have said so much to you. Realize, she’s a bit unstable—”

Young Pere rolled his eyes dramatically.

Lek sighed. “The poor woman. She must’ve seen a lot of horrible things in the world. Of course she’d believe those stories.” He glanced over at Boskos. “You’ve helped Dr. Toon with some of those soldiers who have come from the world, with some of their diseases. So . . . do people really act like that in the world? Doing . . . stuff . . . without marriage?”

Young Pere almost smirked at his cousin’s obvious discomfort. Lek was such a gentle, quiet man who couldn’t imagine anyone doing anything remotely out of bounds. Maybe that’s why Young Pere could never connect with him.

“According to Mrs. Yordin,” Young Pere said, “apparently they do. A lot. There aren’t even marriage laws anymore, remember?”

Boskos sighed. “That’s true, and it’s a big problem. These former soldiers have ailments we don’t have in Salem. Dr. Toon is pretty sure the infections come from . . .” He hesitated, trying to find an appropriate way to put it so as to not shock his older brother. He finally came up with, “Multiple random matings.”

Lek and Young Pere stared for a moment before the light dawned.

“Seriously?!” Lek whispered, aghast. “But . . . why?

Boskos shrugged. “Dr. Toon doesn’t ask too many questions about that, but we’ve talked about it in our class and we came up with some theories. It seems people in the world don’t see intimacy the way we do. It’s an animalistic instinct they think has to be acted upon.”

Lek sat back in disgust. “Like the cattle? Standing out in the field then feeling the need to—”

“Seems so. They’re trying to satisfy urges. Or they’re bored, and it’s casual entertainment. They don’t see intimacy as more than that.”

Lek’s gentle demeanor dropped. “That’s not even intimacy, Bos! Intimacy is when you join your soul and heart and all that you are with the one person you have chosen to love! When the two of you combine your fears and hopes and bodies and thoughts and lives—”

His brother and cousin stared at him as he gestured wildly. No one would’ve suspected that Lek Zenos had a passionate side.

Except for maybe Salema.

“You . . . you . . . you share your vulnerabilities with each other! You trust each other to keep that vulnerability safe. You—”

“Lek, calm down,” Boskos whispered, taken aback to see such a display from Lek. “I know that as well as you do. There may be very few people in the world who know what I feel when I look at Noria, or when you look at Salema.” Boskos watched his agitated brother. “This is going to be a long week for you, isn’t it? Away from her?”

“These weeks always are, Bos,” Lek sighed and shook out his shoulders. “So, the people in the world with their random—” He chose not to finish the phrase. “What do they get out of it?”

“Not what they’re looking for,” Boskos said. “That’s part of the problem with those from the world. There’s great heaviness and sorrow in many of them that they refuse to confront. Dr. Toon thinks that by so many . . . encounters they hurt more than simply their bodies. They feel something is missing in their lives, an emptiness. They try to fill that with another body they don’t love and don’t commit to. But that fills them only for a moment, and then the emptiness is even greater. Then they think, ‘Maybe I did it wrong. Maybe I need to try someone else.’ So they do it again, gratify the urge and emptiness for a few minutes, then fall even deeper into darkness. No matter how many times they do it wrong, it’ll never feel right. The few women Dr. Toon has worked with suffer from depression and even self-loathing. But the men manifest anger and cynicism that’s unheard of in Salem. There’s little he can do medically for that.”

“So what does he do for them?” Lek asked.

“He says that it’s an illness of the soul, not the body. Some he recommends to talk to their rector,” Boskos said. “But for the most troubled men, he tells them there’s only one man in Salem who can help them find their way to the Creator to be healed.”

“Papa?” Lek guessed.

Boskos nodded.

“I’m beginning to see something, Young Pere,” Lek said. “I suspect that the men who still distrust Shem Zenos are the same ones who Dr. Toon sends to him. It can’t be easy to confess all that’s causing darkness in your life. It’s easier to think the man who could help you isn’t capable of doing it, that’s he’s just as loathsome as you are.”

Young Pere was unconvinced, of a great many things. “Maybe.” He had to try one more time. “Just consider this—remember when they were talking about Thorne? The soldier your father could have killed? He’s one of them behind the story! Puggah told me just this afternoon that he should have let Thorne die instead of saving him, and now we know your father could have done the same thing. He’s in charge of the northern half of the world, now, but there’s something that—”

“Should not worry us,” Lek finished.

“But it was because of him they had to come to Salem!”

“For which I am very grateful!” Lek’s rarely-seen passion flared again. “None of us would be here if they hadn’t. If my father ever feels the need to bring General Thorne here, I’ll be sure to thank him for chasing the Shins and Briters out so Salema would be raised here and could become my wife.”

Young Pere sat back against a tree. “You just don’t get it.”

“I don’t,” Lek agreed.

“Neither do I,” said Boskos. “Look, Young Pere, I’m not sure why this bothers you so much. Why don’t you talk to our papa about it?”

Young Pere scoffed at that.

“Young Pere,” Lek said gently, “What do you want from us?”

“Nothing,” he said in frustration. “Nothing at all. We best get back before Fennic or Toli wake up.”

—-

Perrin, seated on a log with his leg elevated near the fire, watched his grandson and nephews return from the trees, each with additional logs. The song had mercifully ended and now a few boys were trying to decide which to sing next.

The three young men, seemingly without wanting to, glanced at Perrin, then their eyes rested on Shem for a moment. Something flickered across their faces as they looked away and put their wood on the pile.

Shem hadn’t noticed them because he was talking with Deck. But their glances put Perrin to wondering.

Lek and Boskos checked on their two sleeping sons, and Perrin watched as Young Pere took a spot behind Hogal to whisper something in his younger brother’s ear. A mischievous look grew on his face, and Perrin decided to keep an eye on whatever was developing.

He glanced at the rest of the young men and boys around the fire. Sam, Con, and Wes were in a quiet discussion which Lek joined.

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed all four of them glance over at him. Perrin hid his smirk, because he still needed to have his, “So, you’re marrying my granddaughter,” talk with Wes. He’d planned to do it on the last day, but maybe tomorrow, while he hobbled along, might be better.

Five-year-old Briter Zenos got up and walked dejectedly over to Perrin, kicking up dust as he went. He stood in front of his Puggah and moped.

“You look like a man with a problem, Briter,” Perrin said.

“I do.”

“And so you’ve come to me?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why?”

“So you’ll fix it.”

Perrin smiled. “Briter, do you know anything about the chain of command?”

“No.”

“Well, Briter, it goes like this: when you have a problem, you go to the person right above you. That would be your papa. Did you talk to him yet?”

Briter shook his head. “He can’t fix it.”

“Ah. You’re sure? Well, then you go to the next in the chain of command. You have two grandfathers here. Did you try Grandpa Deck?’

Briter shook his head again. “No good.”

Deck looked over at his grandson. “No good?”

“Not with this, Grandpa Deck,” he said sadly.

Deck shrugged.

Now everyone around the fire had stopped talking and were watching the exchange between Briter and Puggah.

“So if Grandpa Deck can’t help you, what about Grandpa Shem?” Perrin suggested. “He’s in charge of all of Salem. If he can’t help you—”

Briter was already shaking his head at his Grandpa Shem. Shem gave him a disappointed, pouty face back.

“Only you, Puggah,” Briter said with big eyes.

Perrin smiled. “Well, I’m flattered, Briter. But if you need help finding ‘the tree’ in the dark, that’s where you ask your papa—”

Briter shook his head. “I just use any tree.”

Several of the older boys grimaced and looked around for whatever tree may have been most convenient, hoping they weren’t leaning against it.

Perrin chuckled. “So Briter, I’m now very curious as to what it is that only I can help you with.”

Briter stepped carefully over Perrin’s injured leg and leaned against the knee of his good leg. He sighed loudly, as if ready to pour out his heart.

“It’s this: Cephas won’t let me steal his hotness.”

Perrin blinked. “Say that again?”

“Cephas won’t let me steal his hotness!”

Perrin scratched his head, a confused smile on his face. To Cephas across the fire, he said, “Care to interpret?”

“He wants to sleep with me, Puggah,” Cephas explained. “He thinks it’ll be cold tonight, so he wants to sleep with someone who will keep him warm.”

“Ah,” Perrin said, starting to chuckle. “‘Steal hotness?’” To his great-grandson he said, “And why won’t your Uncle Cephas let you steal his hotness?”

“Kicky legs,” Briter moped.

Perrin raised an amused eyebrow in question to his grandson.

“He kicks all the time,” Cephas said. “I slept with him last year and got bruised.”

Perrin grinned in understanding and turned back to his great-grandson. “Muggah has kicky legs, too. But she thinks it’s me, not her. And so you want me to . . . do what?”

Briter stood tall, put his hands on his waist and puffed up his chest. “Order him, General!”

Briter’s determination and the one eyebrow that shot up was more than Perrin could stand. He threw back his head and laughed.

Briter’s face softened, because surely an order was imminent. He turned triumphantly and glared at his uncle Cephas.

Everyone burst out laughing at his resolute stance. Briter turned back to his Puggah, leaning carefully on Perrin’s good leg and regarded him with proud eyes.

But something burned in Perrin’s heart. It caught him so much by surprise that he almost gasped. He stopped laughing and took Briter’s face in his hands. Something was so familiar about that moment, about that face. And it wasn’t just because every feature of Briter was either a copy of himself or Shem. He barely dared to glance up at the other smiling and chuckling faces around him.

Because he had seen this before. Because he’d lived this moment before—

Then it hit him.

Idumea.

The night he buried his parents. He dreamed.

Just before he felt his parents next to him, he was dreaming about a small child saying something amusing. There were many more people behind him, all familiar somehow . . . would be familiar. Are familiar.

He remembered in the dream that he tried to take control of it, to see if there was a large house behind him like in Mahrree’s dreams.

That was when it all shifted. He had been talking to Hogal Densal that night, then he spent time with his parents . . .

And then he had that dream so many more times that year. So often the Guarders had invaded his sleep, and only with the Creator’s help—and the memory of that little face which he now cradled in his large hands—could he force them away. For seasons he had searched for that face in Edge, the one that he remembered only hazily from his dreams, the face that had given him hope to carry on. He never found it, but he remembered it and clung to it.

It was a promise of something different.

And now, after so many years, that face suddenly came sharply into focus. Indeed, the entire dream that buoyed him so often was playing out in front of him. The little boy before him, the cheerful laughter beyond him, the mass of people who were all his

The familiarity was so overwhelming he could hardly breathe.

Nor could he fight the tears that welled in his eyes. He smiled at that face. Despite his growing out of his baby-ness, Briter’s cheeks were still perfectly squishy.

It was all too much, but Perrin knew he had to say something to the patiently waiting child.

“I have an idea,” Perrin whispered as a tear leaked unnoticed down his cheek. “Go get your pillow and blanket, and come sit with me. I have some hotness to share.”

“Really?”

Perrin nodded and gruffly cleared his throat. Another feeling overwhelmed him and he wished the firelight wasn’t so bright on his face. He couldn’t hide the emotion that came with the knowledge that poured over his soul.

He had made it.

He had made it to where he was supposed to be, to where the Creator wanted him to be. That night so long ago in Idumea he was sure that he was to stay and investigate his parents’ death. He was sure of so many things he only later learned he was completely wrong about.

But that night, long ago, he had listened. He’d been on the wrong path, and the Creator had granted him a glimpse of what his life was supposed to be.

And again, so many times that year, and even a few times later, Perrin recalled that image where he sat with people of all ages that were somehow his. He didn’t realize it then but the dream was like a marking on a tree, assuring him he was on the right path, to keep going to the correct destination.

And tonight, after twenty-nine years, he realized this was his legacy. He’d done the Creator’s will. And he didn’t even have the strength to get up and find a quiet stand of trees to properly thank the Creator.

He wiped his face and watched with blurry vision as Briter gathered his blanket and pillow and rushed back to his side. Perrin grinned as the boy with such familiar features that Mahrree and Calla joked he should have been named “Sherrin” stood eagerly before him.

“I won’t kicky your leg, I promise.”

“That’s all right. I’m sure you’ll do your best.”

“Because it hurts, doesn’t it?”

“A little.”

Briter nodded. “That’s why you’re crying. That’s all right. I cry too when I get hurt.”

Perrin smiled and wiped his eyes again. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Get Grandpa Shem to help us get my bed ready, then we can lay down.”

—-

Young Pere watched as his cousin’s son talked with Puggah. But he wasn’t laughing at Briter’s little soldier-man impersonation. He was watching his grandfather. Why he was wiping his eyes was a complete mystery. He glanced over at his father.

Peto watched Perrin with a bemused expression as well, but smiled at Perrin’s unexplained and unusual emotion.

Young Pere sighed.

General Perrin Shin was weak.

—-

“Doing all right, Perrin?” Shem asked as he stared at the stars above them.

Perrin laid on his bedroll nearby. Their five-year-old descendant was sprawled between them, fast asleep, with Perrin’s injured leg on the opposite side of his kicky legs grandson, just to be safe. Briter’s left hand was on his Grandpa Shem’s chest, his right hand on his Puggah’s.

“I’ll be doing better when everyone finally settles down and we can get some sleep,” Perrin whispered back.

Shem chuckled softly. “It’s always hard the first night to get everyone down before midnight. Just too much excitement. By the last night they’ll be falling asleep in their dinners.”

“Like Ensio? Sam didn’t even notice for a few minutes.”

The two men laughed softly.

“No, Shem. I’m doing very well.”

“Good. Because I couldn’t help but notice tonight you’ve been a little . . .” Shem paused. It didn’t seem appropriate to use ‘emotional’ with Perrin, but no safer words presented themselves.

“I know,” Perrin said, preventing him from having to finish the sentence. “Shem, does it ever hit you, I mean really hit you, just what we have?”

“It does, Perrin. Often when I least expect it. Out of the sky it smacks me: joy.”

“That’s it exactly,” Perrin whispered. “Look at us—sleeping under the stars with our grandson between us. Would you ever have imagined this in Edge?” his voice trembled. “It’s just too much.”

Shem chuckled softly. “Remember when Mahrree said that? After you came back from Idumea and she saw for the first time her repaired house? Too many miracles.”

“And they kept coming, Shem.”

“Yes, they did,” Shem said, patting his grandson’s hand. He glanced over and saw that Perrin was doing the same thing. Perrin chuckled when he realized they were copying each other.

“It’s been a fantastic life, Shem,” said Perrin as he looked deep into the dark and glittering cosmos. After a moment he said, “I’ve been thinking about the night of that first Guarder attack on Edge, when you were hurt. You don’t remember this, of course, but I had sent out soldiers looking for Mahrree. She had taken off to her mother’s. I was in such a panic, and furious that she didn’t obey my order to stay at home.

“When she finally was found and brought to me, I was so angry with her. But Hogal Densal was there. He made me kiss and hug her, in front of everyone. But I didn’t let him watch me kiss her. I always felt bad about that. Then he said something I couldn’t understand at that time. He said, ‘Now I can die a happy man.’ I wondered, when I was thirty-one, how someone could actually say they were ready to die happily. Shem, I now understand him.”

Shem was silent for a moment. “Are you planning to . . . go somewhere?”

Perrin chuckled. “No, Shem, I’m not. I have plans for the next fifteen years, then I’ll make some more for the next five after that. It’s only that I realized that there comes a time when you can look back on your life and feel a sense of fulfillment that you’ve done all that you were supposed to. That you know the Creator is satisfied with what you’ve accomplished.”

“If there’s anyone He’s satisfied with,” Shem said quietly, “it’s certainly you.”

“I could never have made it without you, you know. You’ve taught me so much. You always were my guide and the best brother a man could have.”

“Stop it, Perrin, or you’ll make me cry.”

“I just wanted to say . . . thanks.”

Shem sniffed. “I told you to stop it.”

“You’re so easy, you know that? The challenge is to make you not cry.”

The men chuckled.

“Hey,” they heard a weary voice. “Some of us are trying to s-l-e-e-p, here.”

Perrin looked over at Deck who was patting Cambo’s three-year-old son. Little Decker lifted his groggy head and dropped it again on his small pillow. He wanted to sleep with Grandpa Deck, but didn’t want to fall asleep and miss it.

“Sorry, Deck,” Perrin whispered. But he didn’t know why he bothered. Across the fire the teenage boys were huddled together sharing stories that made them laugh out loud. A little way beyond them were the young husbands with some of their sons sleeping between them at the covered shelter. They were also in deep discussion, but quietly.

Perrin loved watching them, grateful that none of them were soldiers but were instead farmers, stone cutters, shepherds, ranchers, and builders.

Perrin moved Briter’s hand to the ground and rolled clumsily to his side to better see the young men, and maybe work out what they were talking about.

Wes was sitting with them, wide-eyed. Lek held up his hand and made a violent action like a rough cutting motion.

Perrin’s face contorted as he fought back his laugh. He knew that movement. It was the same one that drew a terrified look from Jaytsy’s would-be admirers at The Dinner in Idumea. The description also had a profound effect on his new grandson-in-law, too, after Salema married him. Lek had an excellent memory.

Wes’s eyes bulged while Sam and Con stifled nervous snickers.

Cambo, Bubba, and Holling Briter; Relf and Barnos Shin; and Boskos Zenos all stared at Lek, open-mouthed.

Lek whispered something else, and the young men turned at the same time to stare at Perrin.

He pretended to be asleep, but watched them through the slits of his eyelids.

“He really said that to you?” Perrin could read Cambo’s lips slowly moving. “He didn’t say anything like that to me before I got married.”

“You weren’t marrying his granddaughter, were you?” Con said quietly. “I was just glad Sam gave me a warning before I was called into the general’s office for our little pre-wedding ‘chat’!”

“No wonder why you didn’t dare talk to him,” Boskos whispered to Lek. “I couldn’t figure that out, why you were suddenly afraid of Uncle Perrin.”

Lek whispered something to Wes that Perrin couldn’t make out.

Sam and Con patted him encouragingly on the back, and Wes sat a little taller, as if he were a timid soldier taking courage before going off to his first battle at dawn.

Maybe he’d go easy on poor Wes, Perrin considered. After all, Wes had already heard the threat of what Perrin would do to him with a long knife if his granddaughter ever came home weeping because her husband mistreated her.

The young married men started to lie down for the night and Perrin slowly rolled to his back.

“Perrin!” Shem whispered harshly.

He winced. If he could see the young men, Shem likely could too.

“So that’s what you said to my son?” Shem whispered, barely able to keep his voice under control. “My timid, tender-hearted boy—you threatened him with the Guarder suicide ritual? How could you do that to those boys?”

Perrin smiled apologetically. “Just making sure they know how much my girls mean to me,” he whispered back.

He glanced over to Shem and saw him shaking his head in disgust. Perrin made a quiet noise in his throat. Shem looked over at him. Perrin gave him a complicated look. Shem smiled reluctantly, nodded, and waggled his eyebrow. Perrin was forgiven.

Loud laughter from across the fire startled them as the teenaged and younger boys roared again at whatever Young Pere had said.

Shem groaned and rolled over on to his belly to face the boys. “Young Pere!” he hissed across the fire. “It’s late. Your grandfather needs to rest. Finish the story in the morning.”

“Uncle Shem, I’m almost done.”

Shem held up his finger in admonishment.

“All right . . . one more minute?” Young Pere asked.

Shem growled quietly.

“I promise.”

Shem rolled on to his back and grunted softly at Perrin.

He looked over at him.

Shem didn’t look back, but instead reached over Briter and put something in Perrin’s hand. Two small, sharp pinecones.

Perrin grinned into the dark. Shem turned to him. Perrin twitched his nose. Shem twitched back the distance. Perrin smirked. Shem smirked back the trajectory. Perrin raised an eyebrow. Shem raised back the direction. Perrin winked. Shem winked back.

None of the boys saw where the pinecone came from, but they all saw it hit Young Pere on top of his head.

“Ow! Who did that?” demanded Young Pere, looking around. He didn’t expect the next pinecone to come over the top of the fire in a high arc either, so he didn’t know it was headed straight for him until he looked up at the right moment for the pinecone to hit him squarely on the forehead.

“Hey!”

Shem rolled over again. “Young Pere!” he said sternly, “Enough of your noise. Get to sleep now. All of you!”

Young Pere glared at him accusingly.

Shem held up his empty hands, then put a finger to his lips and tipped his head at Perrin to indicate that he was asleep.

Young Pere looked over at his father who was sitting on the far side of the fire with his nephew Cephas and sons Nool and Hogal, talking quietly. He clearly wasn’t in a position to throw the pinecones, and Peto nodded a firm good night.

Frustrated, Young Pere went to his bedroll.

Shem rolled and turned back to Perrin, scrunching his mouth: Excellent shots.

Perrin wrinkled his nose: Of course. Excellent directions.

The two men shook in quiet laughter until they fell asleep.

Chapter 11—“Those are the greatest soldiers we’ve ever produced.”

There was a stand-off of sorts in the morning. One man kept trying to stand up, and another kept forcing him off his feet.

“It feels fine. Just a little twinge, that’s all. I’ll walk it out.” Stand up.

“That twinge means it needs to heal. You’ll walk out all the stitches!” Push back down.

“I can make my own decisions, Dr. Zenos!” Stand up.

“And if I remember correctly, I can override the commander if I feel he is acting irrationally. Do you really want me to relieve you of duty, General?” Push down.

Camp was packed up, breakfast was put away, the horses were ready, the little boys had taken care of the weeds around the trees, and all that was left was for two men to decide how one of them was going to travel. Twenty-eight males watched two more arguing.

Guide Zenos stood nearby, waiting for his opinion to be asked. He wasn’t about to intervene yet, though, far too captivated with watching his son. He would never have had the guts to take on High General Shin when he was twenty-three years old.

“You’re not a full doctor yet, Apprentice Zenos.” Stand up.

“I’m as real a doctor as you are a general.” Push down.

“Is that a shot at what kind of general I am?” Stand up.

“I wouldn’t know. You’re the only general I’ve met. And right now you’re the moldy, stitched up kind.” Push back down.

“Yes, about that mold—just how much of that did you bring along? Your entire bag is turning green.” Stand up.

“Enough to keep you packed until we get back to Salem which, at this rate, will be today because I have half a mind to bring you home right now!”

“So you admit you have at least half a mind.”

Boskos took a deep breath in aggravation. “Papa!” he bellowed as the family laughed.

Perrin patted him on the shoulder. “Boskos, take a look at me—how many times did I stand up in the last minute? Obviously I can handle this.” He stepped closer and gave his irritated nephew a one-armed hug. “You’re a wonderful doctor, you know that? Thank you for trying so hard to take care of me. Whatever I do is my responsibility, not yours, right?”

Boskos sighed. “All right, Uncle Perrin. But if you do any more damage, promise you’ll tell Aunt Mahrree it’s not my fault.”

Perrin patted his cheek. “Of course. Now, where’s that stick your grandfather made me? I think I may need it this morning.”

Shem was relieved. “Now, Peto’s taking lead this morning. Perrin will walk in the middle of the pack with Deck, and I’ll bring up the rear until midday meal. Then we’ll re-evaluate Perrin’s leg,” he said with a meaningful look aimed at his son. Both of them were sure Perrin would be on a horse or in a sling by then.

“I’m walking with Puggah!” cried Briter. “I didn’t kicky his leg, so I get to walk with him.”

Lek looked to his uncle to see if that was all right, and Perrin nodded and smiled.

“I walking too!” called out Ensio. His cousin Cori ran after him to stand with Briter.

“I see I have my escorts ready,” Perrin said.

“So I better get my herding stick ready,” Deck decided.

Peto started off, handing his long knife to his son Kew at the first trees of the morning. “Your turn to mark. A little deeper. Whoa, not that deep—we’re not trying to cut down the tree. That’s better. You mark the next three trees, then hand off the knife to Atlee and Hogal.”

Perrin waited, leaning on the walking stick experimentally as he watched Peto coaching his son. He’d never noticed before that Peto marked only the first two trees of the routes. All of the other trees he let the boys mark. Perrin wondered how many years he’d been doing that. Since he was almost always at the head of the trail he never saw what was happening behind him.

Soon enough the rest of the boys and horses were on the way, and Perrin started along the bare forest floor with his three little charges. His leg twinged, but not unbearably, thanks to the pain tea. Besides, he had enough distractions.

Briter was trying to tell him a story, but Ensio and Cori kept interrupting him to tell Puggah their own stories. For the next hour Perrin tried to let each boy get equal time while he hobbled along.

Cori’s stories were the shortest but the hardest to understand. They consisted of him saying, “And then Mama gave me a sumpin sumpin and then I went ‘ohh’ and then I dropped it and then I laughed.”

Perrin knew the best response. “Oh really? You don’t say.”

Then Cori would try to say it all again, until he was interrupted by a cousin.

By the second hour they were falling behind back to Shem. Deck kept to the middle and Cambo’s son Decker joined Perrin and his escorts, as did Fennic Zenos and his uncle Young Shem Briter, who liked being among a group of boys where he, for once, was the oldest. He beamed with pride as he helped the smaller boys stay on the trail, and frequently nodded back to Uncle Shem that he had things under control.

Perhaps it was Perrin’s slow gait, or the steepness of the climb, but by the third hour, even though he was very far behind, he wasn’t alone.

Boskos, concerned about Perrin’s leg, accompanied his son Toli who now also walked along with his cousins next to Puggah. Even Relf and little Grunick plodded along with them. They maintained a pace even the youngest boy at not yet two years could keep up with.

Shem remained behind all of them, gently nudging along children who were distracted by a fuzzy caterpillar or a fast snake, and encouraging them to see if they could run past their Puggah again.

Perrin had rarely been in the pack this far behind. Yesterday had been one of the few times he was among the last to arrive at the campsite. That made him uneasy. He always liked to be the first at each of their destinations to make sure all was secure and to direct everyone else in preparations. It didn’t feel right to let someone else take the lead.

But then again, at the lead of their hike today was Peto, followed by Deck. He couldn’t think of two better men for the job.

Perrin had learned years ago that the Creator always allows things to happen for a reason. He understood that morning why he was injured. Never before had he been in the company of so many funny little boys, and for the first time he didn’t look at the trees or the trail, or imagine soldiers along the tree line, or call out for Bubba to haul away logs that clogged the paths.

Instead he listened intently to eight little boys who vied for his attention and frequently asked if his hurt was all better yet. Their concern for his efforts as he had to negotiate a large rock in their path was not only amusing but heartfelt. By the end of the third hour, his shirt pocket was filled with tiny blue flowers the boys picked because flowers helped their mamas feel better.

Boskos and Relf walked most of the time with Shem behind Perrin and the little ones, the three men enjoying watching Puggah try to talk to all of them at the same time. Only occasionally did someone step up to help Perrin over more difficult terrain.

As they approached the area where they’d have their midday meal, Perrin was almost sad that the morning, no matter how slow and painful, was nearly over, even though Young Shem announced they would all continue to help Puggah on the next leg of the hike. Perrin realized he had spent that morning walking with the greatest men he’d ever met.

By the time Perrin and his eight short escorts reached the hidden mountain lake, the teenage boys had already fished out their meal and were roasting several large trout.

Peto stood from the fire he was tending and analyzed his father. “How are you doing?”

“Good, good,” he said, a little out of breath. “Much better now that I smell my favorite meal cooking.”

“Sorry we didn’t wait for you to get here. I thought you might want us to keep to the schedule—”

“Absolutely,” Perrin agreed.

“Over here, Perrin,” Deck gestured to some logs they had set up for him to rest on.

Perrin limped over and sat down in relief.

Young Pere walked over, clapped his hands like his grandfather often did, and announced, “About time you arrived! We’re ready to eat and get moving again. Are you?”

Perrin cringed. That was his speech to Young Pere the year he was impaled by a tree in his leg. Perrin hadn’t been the most understanding that day, and now he was reaping the rewards of that.

He nodded at Young Pere. “You’re right. I shouldn’t hold up everyone else. Back on my feet,” and he made a motion to get up.

“No, no, no,” Young Pere chuckled and pushed him back down. “I was just teasing you, Puggah. Fish won’t be ready for at least . . . two or three more minutes. You have that long to rest.”

Perrin sighed with a chastened smile. “Thanks.”

Boskos came over with his bag. “Time to flip your moldy bread, Uncle Perrin.”

“You sound like a horrible cook,” he said, grunting as he lifted his leg on to the log Deck had provided.

Boskos pulled up his trousers’ leg, unwrapped the wound, and gently peeled off the bread. He frowned as he looked at the stitching.

“Oozing, swollen, and red. Unsurprising. Does it feel tender?” he asked as he gingerly poked around it.

Yes!” Perrin gasped.

Boskos nodded in disappointment. “That’s because you’ve been walking on it.” He turned over the bread and rewrapped the wound with the bandage. “So, are you ready to play big, tough soldier man?”

Perrin leered at him. “And what do you mean by that?”

“Don’t big, tough soldiers ride on horses?”

Perrin sighed. “Sometimes. They certainly don’t ride in slings.”

“And doesn’t the commanding officer always ride on a horse so he can have the best view of everything?”

“All right, Dr. Zenos,” said Perrin with resignation. “You win. Rig up Clark 14 to carry me for the afternoon.”

Boskos smiled. “Besides, some of the little ones will be ready for a nap, so they won’t be able to ‘help’ you as much. Maybe one can share your ride with you.”

Perrin nodded and closed his eyes to rest, and he felt someone else sit down next to him.

“You look pale, Perrin,” Shem said quietly. “Please tell me you’re riding this afternoon.”

“I am,” he said, without opening his eyes.

“Not that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy this morning,” Shem said. “Even though we’re way off schedule, I have to tell you, watching you with your little army . . . Well, I’ve seen you lead a lot of men in my time, but those are the greatest soldiers we’ve ever produced, aren’t they?”

Perrin smiled with his eyes still closed. “Yes, they are, Shem. How could we have wanted anything else? They are our best legacy.”

Shem was quiet.

“You’re not crying again are you?”

Sniff.

Perrin opened one eye. “Maybe you better lead this afternoon. Watching all eight boys take a nap on me might put you over the edge.”

Shem chuckled and patted his good leg. “I’ll go get your fish,” he said, wiping his face.

Perrin spied Young Pere out of the corner of his eye. He’d been watching his grandfather and uncle, and by the expression on his face he seemed to think he saw something very unpleasant.

—-

Perrin didn’t eat alone. Soon his little division was seated on the ground in front of him eating fish, bread, and dried peaches. Their fathers sat with them listening to them recount the morning’s excitement on the trail.

“And then Cori fell over the root Ensio told him not to,” Briter announced. “I told him little boys are like that. They just don’t listen.”

Lek smirked as he heard echoes of his own lectures.

Young Shem nodded knowingly at Briter. “But I thought the best part was when Puggah messed up the words to that song Aunt Lilla always sings—”

“I wasn’t singing,” Perrin interrupted quietly.

Every set of eyes turned to him.

“I wasn’t,” and he took a bite of trout.

“Uh-huh!” Ensio said loudly, pointing at him. “You were too! You kept mixing up the buzzing bees and the bouncing butterflies! You kept singing the butterflies were buzzing.”

Fennic shook his head. “Butterflies don’t buzz, Puggah,” he said solemnly.

Perrin shifted uncomfortably, pretending it was his leg that was bothering him and not the snorts of suppressed laughter of the boys’ fathers. “I don’t sing.”

“That’s true,” Young Shem said, feeling very grown-up. “Not very well.”

Perrin fidgeted as the fathers didn’t even try to hide their laughter.

Relf pointed at him. “I thought I heard something ahead on the trail.”

“Uncle Puggah sing wiff us,” Toli tattled with a smile.

Ensio, Cori, and Grunick nodded in agreement.

“Like thunder,” Fennic said.

“Thunder?” Lek asked his son. “What do you mean?”

Fennic looked at his father. “Puggah’s singing sound like thunder. Far away.”

Briter nodded. “Yeah, that’s it!”

Perrin turned slightly red under the smiles of his grandsons. “I may rumble from time to time,” he confessed, “but I do not sing.”

“Of course, Puggah,” Sam patted him on the back as he stood up. “And I’m sure none of us will tell Lilla that you mis-rumbled the words of her song.” He took a cautionary step out of the swinging range of Perrin.

Perrin snatched up his stick threateningly and Sam took another step backward.

“You’re lucky I can’t move fast, boy!” Perrin growled with a twinkle in his eye.

“That’s why I’m over here,” Sam teased. “I know what you’re capable of, General, even with a bad leg.”

Immediately Perrin’s expression shifted and he tipped his head contritely. Sam hadn’t talked to him for almost an entire season after he married Lori, too terrified to get near him.

Sam’s face softened as he understood Perrin’s unspoken apology and he nodded back.

“Rumble all you want, Puggah,” Relf said as he got up. “We’ll make you an honorary Trovato yet.”

When the meal was over, Deck reconfigured the loads on the horses so that Perrin could ride along with the child carrier. The little boys were already discussing the order in which they would get to ride with Puggah.

Perrin stood up to mount Clark 14, and immediately was grateful he didn’t have to walk any further. An unexpected pain shot through his leg and he nearly collapsed.

Bubba and Cambo Briter caught him before he fell.

“Father! What’s wrong?” Peto came over quickly.

“Nothing, nothing,” Perrin said in a strained voice. “Just stiffened up while I was sitting, that’s all. Boys, can you help me up on the horse?”

“Of course, Puggah,” Cambo said, leading him slowly over to Clark 14 while Bubba moved a few logs to fashion steps up to the saddle.

“But Puggah,” Bubba said as he supported the other side of his grandfather, “remember—I get to ride with you first. I could use a nap.”

“No, Uncle Bubba!” squealed Cambo’s son Decker. “Papa, tell him—I first!”

Cambo chuckled as he eased Perrin up. “He’s right, Bubba.”

Perrin nodded solemnly from atop Clark 14, evaluating his burliest grandson. “Our combined weight would cripple this poor horse. Sorry, Bubba.”

Bubba shrugged. “Worth a try,” he said with feigned sadness. “Last time I rode with you I was maybe nine years old.”

“And about two hundred pounds lighter.” Perrin held out his arms for Decker and, with a grunt, placed him in the child carrier in front of him.

Decker grinned excitedly and bounced in his seat.

They made much better time to their campsite that night with Perrin on the horse and the little boys taking turns with him. Even Young Shem pretended to nap while he leaned against his grandfather for his thirty minutes on the horse.

Perrin didn’t have the heart to tell any of the boys, but supporting their weight as they leaned against him became more difficult throughout the afternoon. Just getting them in and out of the carrier was surprisingly tiring, but he kept a smile on his face as the boys’ fathers hoisted them up and down.

Cori was the last to go in, and Con eyed Perrin with concern as he lifted him up.

“Puggah, are you sure you’re up to this? You look pale. You could just rest for a while.”

Perrin shook his head as he slipped his great-grandson into the carrier. “And disappoint Cori? Besides, I’m still trying to work out what ‘sumpin sumpin’ is. He keeps telling me about it. Maybe if he’s sitting closer to me, I can decipher it. It’s become my goal for the day.”

Con smiled appreciatively. “If you figure it out, would you let me know? Jori and I don’t know what he’s talking about either.”

“Sure thing,” Perrin promised. He caught Con’s arm before he left. “I should tell you that . . . I’m sorry if, uh, maybe I intimidated you before you married Jori. I shouldn’t have done that. To any of you boys.”

Con’s eyes looked damp. “Don’t be sorry. You love your girls. You should. I’m planning to threaten the same thing to all of my sons-in-law.” He grinned and patted Perrin’s good leg. “Does this mean Wes doesn’t get to take a walk with you?”

Perrin chuckled. “Maybe when we get home I’ll sit him down in my office for a few minutes.”

Con rubbed his stubbly cheek thoughtfully. “But that doesn’t have the same effect as, say, the barn. Hold a pitchfork, too. He’s kind of expecting it, the rite of passage to becoming your grandson-in-law. His Great-Grandpa Jothan has already told him so many stories about you. Hate to disappoint him now.”

Perrin laughed. “I’ll see what I can do. Con, I haven’t told you before, but you’re a good husband to my Jori. Thank you. All of you boys are wonderful men. I’ve been watching you over the years. I’m very pleased with all of you.”

Con, taken aback by that unexpected compliment, bobbed his head in awkward acknowledgement. “Thanks, Puggah.”

He smiled at his little boy before joining the others ahead on the trail. Once he caught up to Wes, he put an arm around him, said something in his ear, and Wes turned back to look at Perrin.

Perrin smiled and nodded kindly, but Wes still regarded him with fear.

Con winked mischievously at Perrin and jogged up the path to his brother Sam.

“Con, Con, what did you say to him?” Perrin muttered as he clucked Clark 14 to start walking again.

“Papa says silly stuff,” Cori told him.

“Like you? Like you?” Perrin said, tickling his great-grandson who giggled. “So tell me, Cori, what’s ‘sumpin sumpin’?”

“Just sumpin.”

Perrin sighed. He never was good at juvenile interrogations.

—-

By the time they reached their camp site for the night, Perrin couldn’t hide his exhaustion anymore. He allowed Barnos and Peto catch him as he slipped off the horse, and willingly let them, along with Viddrow and Holling Briter, carry him to his bed roll. He didn’t even look around to see if the camp was set up properly. It likely was.

Shem and Boskos came over to check on him. Without a word Boskos unwrapped the wound, and sighed when he saw it.

“Well?” Perrin whispered.

“It’s redder than earlier. Uncle Perrin, as much as you hate the idea, we need to keep your leg elevated. That means riding in the sling tomorrow.”

“All right, Bos,” he said weakly, his eyes already closed.

Alarmed at his uncle’s lack of argument, Boskos looked anxiously up at Peto and Shem.

Deck walked over to them. “Did he just say, ‘All right?’” he whispered. “Didn’t even put up a fight about the sling?”

The three of them shook their heads and stared at Perrin.

Deck squatted next to him. “Got some more fish for tonight, Perrin. Barnos found some of those herbs Lilla uses and is trying to make it like she does. Do you want that, or the jerky Jaytsy packed? Personally, I’d go for the fish if I were you. Smells pretty good already. I might even try some tonight.”

“Fish is fine,” he whispered. “Wake me when it’s ready.”

“Should only be a few minutes, Perrin.” He looked worriedly at Boskos who didn’t shift his gaze, but continued to stare at his ailing patient. Having no other way to help, Deck jogged over to the fires where dinner was cooking.

Boskos stood up and silently motioned for Peto to follow him. They walked away several paces while Shem kneeled down by Perrin again, and they watched from a distance as Shem asked another blessing for him.

“Uncle Peto, I think we need to get him home,” Boskos whispered. “He’s far more frail than he should be. I don’t like it. Dr. Toon has different molds he’s been experimenting with and probably has something more effective than what I brought.”

“I agree,” Peto said. “But let’s not tell him until morning. He’ll be upset about not getting to the temple ruin this year. It will be the first time he’s missed it.”

“I’ll help take him down,” Boskos said. “I just need another person for the other pack horse.”

“Actually, Bos, I think you should stay. What if something happens to someone here? Young Pere has yet to get into trouble, but it’s coming, I know it. He’s been far too quiet and good. You could write a detailed note for Dr. Toon telling him what you’ve been doing, then a few of us can hurry my father down. We should be able to get there by afternoon if we leave early in the morning.”

Boskos tipped his head. “Sounds like you’re planning to take him.”

“He’s my father, after all,” Peto said. “None of the young fathers should help me, though. They need to watch their boys. Maybe Cephas or Viddrow or—”

“Young Pere? If he’s with you, you won’t worry so much about him. Besides, he could do his own stitches now,” Boskos almost smiled. “You might have some time to talk with him. I think he’d be a great doctor. He could start taking the anatomy courses when classes resume and be ready for the entrance exams by Planting Season.”

Peto patted him on the back. “Not bad ideas. But I’m worried about not leaving you with enough horses.”

“Well, you need one to send a rider ahead to retrieve the wagon from Grandma Trovato’s in Norden,” Boskos thought out loud, “Then you still need two horses to carry Uncle Perrin in the sling down the mountain—”

“That leaves you with only one horse for the food and supplies and children,” Peto said. “I don’t like that, Bos.”

He waved it off. “Now that I think about it, I’m sure we can handle it. It’ll be downhill all the way back. Besides, it’ll be a good experience, remember? Not everyone will do this trip with pack horses. If needs be, we can leave the supplies here and retrieve them later. No, Uncle Peto, one horse will be all we need.”

“Let’s keep thinking about this until tomorrow morning, Bos, then we’ll make final decisions. I have a feeling the Creator will tell us by then what we should do. Let’s keep open minds so that He can.”

—-

Perrin felt the land tremor, and the snow coming through the roof and landing on him. He was in Edge and Idumea at the same time, and the ground wouldn’t stop shaking. No matter what he did he couldn’t hold it still. The snow fell on his face in big white clumps, chilling him all over.

But what bothered him the most was that he couldn’t find Mahrree anywhere.

When he opened his eyes, the sky was dark. In the dim firelight he recognized Shem on one side, Peto on the other, and Deck above him. Someone was working on his leg, and it felt like it was on fire. He recoiled in pain, but didn’t have any strength to move it, even if firm hands weren’t holding it in place.

Deck laid something cool and wet on his head.

“No. Too cold,” Perrin whispered. “No more snow.”

“Father, you have a high fever,” Peto told him. “We need to cool you down.”

“Stoke the fire. Too cold.”

The three men looked briefly at each other. The fire was lit for light, not for warmth on that balmy Weeding Season night. “We can’t do that, Father. The heat might make you worse.”

“Peto, I can’t find your mother.”

Peto took his trembling hand and held it firmly. “I know, I know. We’re taking you home to her. We’ve already sent Barnos on Clark 14 to the Trovatos. The wagon will meet us at the bottom of the mountain.”

“Just find her, son.”

“Perrin, I’m not sure you understand what’s happening,” Shem said, leaning closer to him. “We’re in the mountains now, on a marking trip, but your leg was injured, and now it’s looking much worse. We need to get you to Dr. Toon to try something different. As soon as Boskos has your leg rewrapped, you’re heading down the mountain.”

“After the land tremor.”

The three men looked at each other again.

“Land tremor, Perrin?” Deck asked.

“Shaking.”

“Perrin,” Shem laid a firm hand on his shoulder in a futile attempt to still him. “Can you feel me? The only thing shaking is you. That’s what woke Briter up. Your shaking means you’re suffering from an infection. The only way to treat you is to get you home and to Dr. Toon. Do you understand me?”

“I think so,” he mumbled and shivered.

“He’s ready,” Boskos said, placing a light blanket over Perrin.

“Can I go with Puggah?” asked a little voice.

Everyone turned to look at Briter.

“I won’t kick him.”

Shem pulled his grandson close. “Puggah’s very sick. He’s going home to get better.”

“I don’t want to leave Puggah. We should go with him,” Briter decided. “But I don’t need his hotness. He has too much now.”

Shem sighed. “Briter, the sun won’t be up for hours still. Go lie down with your brother and get some more sleep—”

“No!” Briter started to wail. “Puggah needs me!”

Peto noticed Young Shem approaching. “Uncle Peto, can I go with you? I heard Young Pere saying you were going to help Puggah go home. I can help.”

“Don’t you want to stay with your papa and help finish marking the trail?” Peto said. “You get to see the temple ruin today.”

Now Young Shem tried not to blubber as he turned to Deck. “Puggah needs me, Papa.”

Deck exhaled. “Son, it’s not like you can ride with Puggah.” He glanced up as Young Pere and Cambo led two pack horses over to them.

Lek was testing a long, thick tree trunk they had just chopped down, intended to hold the sling as it straddled between the two horses.

“I hope it’s strong enough,” he said quietly to Young Pere. “Relf and Sam are looking for another piece that you can take along with you, in case this one cracks.”

Shem stood up and felt the diameter of the wood. “Looks adequate. Let’s pray it’s enough.”

Suddenly Atlee, Hogal, Kew, and Nool stood nearby. “We’ve decided,” Nool said, “We all want to go home, too.”

On the ground Perrin shivered again.

Shem knelt down gripped his shoulders to try to calm him. “Boys, now’s not the time. We need to move quickly and soon.”

Boskos nodded in agreement.

Lek, Peto, and Deck hefted Perrin into the net sling already spread out on the ground next to him, and Shem slipped the ends on to the tree trunk.

Zaddick came trotting out of the dark woods with another long trunk. “Relf and Sam said to couple this one with it. Should be more than strong enough now.”

It took three men to heft Perrin and his sling, then attach the sling to the pack horses that shifted unsteadily under the awkward load.

Deck frowned. “I don’t like the looks of this. Those Clarks aren’t trained like the horses used on the routes from Edge. And what if something goes wrong? They’re already looking skittish. Peto and Young Pere can’t lift Perrin and steady the horses by themselves.”

Shem closed his eyes.

Everyone watched him, holding their breath.

When he opened his eyes a few moments later, he looked around at the faces illuminated by the dying fire.

“Wake everyone who’s not up yet,” the guide ordered. “Pack only the necessities. We’ll retrieve the rest later. We’re all going home, but we need to leave in the next half hour.”

Several of the boys cheered, taking care of the first item Guide Zenos mentioned.

“What about marking the path and clearing the downed trees?” Peto asked, no longer really concerned about it, but feeling he should mention it.

“We can finish later in the season,” Shem told him. “Idumea’s not coming this year.”

—-

Mahrree found herself lying awake in her bed and wondered what had disturbed her. She listened carefully to the sounds of the house. Not having any men around always made her a little jumpy, although Salem was the safest place she could imagine. Even with visiting granddaughters and great-granddaughters filling most of the rooms that the boys left, the house seemed a little empty. She was still exhausted, having sat up with the teenage girls and married women until late in the night, talking and laughing.

Jaytsy and Lilla were sure they knew all there was to being a good wife, and Mahrree kept setting them straight again and again. Calla sat back and listened, rocking her latest granddaughter and offering the sagest advice of all, but only when asked. The good-natured arguments certainly kept Hycy’s rapt attention as she learned more about men than she ever had before.

Mahrree tried rolling over to get back to sleep but found her eyes opening again. She sat up and looked around. The sun wouldn’t be rising for perhaps another hour.

But then a feeling of intense worry filled her, as if she was watching something terrible happen, but she couldn’t see what it was. It was followed oddly by great warmth and peace, gently wiping away the concern.

She listened carefully, then heard again what had awakened her.

Mahrree, there’s been an accident. But it’s the Creator’s will.

Oh Father, who is it?

Perrin. He’s starting on his way home.

Chapter 12—“And it’s the Creator’s will.”

Mahrree was dressed and sitting on the front porch watching the tower between the Shin and Zenos homes when the banners changed. The sun had come over the mountain peaks a few minutes ago, and the tower watchman waved down to her instead of hitting his chimes to get her attention.

Mahrree waved back half-heartedly, already knowing what would be rising.

Quickly the flags were hoisted. First was the banner for Perrin—dark and light blue stripes, meaning that the message was for or about him. He and Shem had their own banners, designated to send signals to either of the men throughout Salem and the surrounding communities.

Next was a set of smaller flags, each with different shapes and colors for different letters, spelling out a brief message. Home.

Then another banner, white with red stripes, went up. Emergency.

Mahrree swallowed and tried to fight back the tears. She heard the door at the Briter home fly open and Jaytsy stood there, staring up at the tower.

“Mother!” she cried and rushed over to the Shin house. “Mother! Do you see it?”

Mahrree nodded and patted the spot next to her. “I know,” she said. “The Creator sent me His own message about an hour ago.”

Jaytsy was too worried to sit. “What happened? Do we know who it is?”

“Your father,” Mahrree whispered and nodded at the tower. “Someone up north must have alerted the tower outside Norden. Who knows how long they’ve been traveling back. Couldn’t send the message until they had enough morning light.”

Jaytsy sank next to her mother and put her arms around her. “I knew something bad would happen this trip. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it—”

The front door of the Shin house opened and eleven-year-old Sakal was surprised to find her aunt and grandmother sitting on the steps.

“What’s wrong?” she asked urgently.

“Sakal, go get your mother,” Jaytsy said, and she ran back into the house.

A moment later Lilla rushed out and stared at the tower.

“No!” she yelled, and spun around to look at Jaytsy and Mahrree, both trying to fight back tears.

Lilla was never one for that. She let her tears fall freely.

“What do you think happened? Why am I asking that!” she said, sitting down hard on the steps as she cried. “How can any of us know what happened, but it happened to Papa Pere, right? Isn’t that what the tower means? Here I thought it’d be one of the little ones, or Young Pere getting in trouble—”

“Lilla,” Mahrree tried to slow her down.

“—I’ve been feeling uneasy about this trip for weeks, but there was no reason, I kept telling myself. Why should this trip be different? After all, they have the guide!”

“Lilla—”

“They have a doctor! They have the general! But no!” She stood up. “I’ll get a horse and go find them—try to see what’s happening!”

Before Mahrree and Jaytsy could stop her, they heard someone running from the Zenos road. Calla was holding up her skirt and making quick time across the field. She pointed up at the tower as she came to the front porch.

“Do we know what happened?” she asked as she kneeled down, breathless, in front of Mahrree.

Mahrree shook her head. “Not yet. But it’s Perrin. That much I know. And it’s the Creator’s will.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lilla wailed.

“I don’t know,” Mahrree murmured. “But it’s what I was told, early this morning, by my father.”

That hushed even Lilla, and in silence the women fretted.

Calla gripped Mahrree’s hands and smiled bravely. “Then whatever happens, happens, and all will be well.”

Mahrree smiled dismally at Calla’s calming optimism. Her youngest sister needed some of it.

Lilla started off the porch, intent on going to the barn when Calla called after her. “No, Lilla. Stay here. News will reach us soon enough.”

Lilla spun back around. “But I just can’t sit here and wait!”

“That’s right, you won’t,” Calla said in a firm but gentle tone. “We’ll get an early start this morning on the blankets we planned to tie today. This evening we’ll be busy taking care of whatever we need to do for Perrin and those who come with him, so this is our only opportunity to tackle the rest of the projects, right?”

Lilla’s shoulders sagged. “Right,” she reluctantly agreed. “Jayts, I guess we best start breakfast. Weren’t we planning to do something together this morning?”

Jaytsy tried to smile. “That’s right, we were. We were going to let the younger girls help us—” Her voice trailed off as she wiped away a frustrated tear.

“Let’s go,” Lilla said, full of new determination to do something, anything. “Mahrree, would you wake everyone here?”

Mahrree glanced up at the tower again and slowly stood up.

“I’ll help,” Calla said brightly.

“I really don’t think I need help waking the girls, Calla,” Mahrree said to her best friend.

Calla put a bracing arm around her. “That’s not what I’m going to help with, Mahrree.”

—-

Breakfast was usually a noisy affair on regular days, but when it was women’s week, it was almost deafening. All of the Shin, Briter, and Zenos wives, sisters, and daughters crowded together in one house to eat together and plan the day’s projects.

But this morning was unsettlingly somber. Only the toddlers and babies still babbled, taking advantage of the silence. A couple of girls sat on the Briters’ front porch eating, watching for any tower message changes. Breakfast was finished rather sooner than usual, and the girls and women walked over to the Shins to start working on the blankets set up for tying.

Several male Zenos relatives, over to help take care of the cattle and the men’s chores, read the banner message and offered to head north to see if they could lend a hand once the chores were finished.

Seeing the volunteers going about their tasks in the barn and fields made Mahrree all the more lonely for her own men. She wished that somehow all of them could come home today. It no longer seemed right for them to be gone.

She was making her way over to the Shins with Jaytsy when they noticed a cloud of dust fast approaching. They rushed to the road and the rider soon became clear.

Within moments, Barnos Shin stopped Clark 14 in front of them and slid off the frothing horse. He went straight to Mahrree as women piled out of the Shins’ house to greet him.

“Muggah,” he said taking her gently by the arms, “I see the tower messages reached here. Puggah has an infection in his leg. He’d been impaled on a barbed stick, and Boskos got it out and stitched it up, but early this morning he was feverish and the wound looked pretty bad. At least, that’s what Bos said. I wasn’t about to look myself, though. Papa and Young Pere are going to bring him down out of the mountain. Grandma Trovato was sending a wagon to meet them. Bos thinks Dr. Toon has a better way to treat him. I’m on my way now to go get him. I was thinking Dr. Toon could ride up and meet them on their way home. They should be here by this afternoon, if all has gone well.”

Mahrree hugged her exhausted grandson. “Thank you, Barnos. I can’t imagine how tired you are.”

“It’s all right, Muggah. I’m actually not that tired. Riding down the mountain in the dark was rather invigorating, and I haven’t quite gotten over that yet. I have a note from Boskos to get to Dr. Toon.”

“Then come right back for breakfast,” Jaytsy said, patting her nephew’s arm.

“Can’t. I should get Dr. Toon to them as quickly as possible.”

“But you’ll need a fresh horse, Barn!” Lilla rushed over. “Come back, eat, and we’ll have another one saddled.”

“No, Mama. Can’t spare the time. I’ll borrow Clarkess 85 from down the road. I saw them saddling her up for some errands.” Barnos noticed his wife Ivy trotting over to greet him, but he only waved to her, then mounted on the tired horse and spurred it back to the center of Salem.

Ivy stopped in her tracks as Barnos raced away.

Calla produced a smile as she joined Mahrree. “There, see? Just an infection! Dr. Toon’s the best physician we’ve had in Salem. He’ll have Perrin up and dancing again in no time, if Perrin danced.”

Mahrree wasn’t convinced.

Calla put her arm around Mahrree and started to walk her back to the house.

But Ivy continued to watch as the dust cloud faded away.

“He didn’t even stop for a kiss,” she said quietly to her sister-in-law Lori who stood next to her. “Barn going anywhere without a goodbye kiss?” She glanced over at her husband’s grandmother who heard her.

“Don’t you ever,” Mahrree told her, “ever let him do that again.”

—-

Peto was surprised with the speed in which they made it down the mountain, even though each hour seemed to go by insufferably slowly.

Without stopping to mark the backs of the trees, and focusing only on getting to the bottom as quickly as possible, Peto, Young Pere, Cephas, Viddrow, and Holling brought Perrin to the waiting wagon driven by a Trovato grandson only a couple hours after sunrise. Traveling light and having men jogging next to the pack horses to keep them steady sped up their pace, and Peto assumed that the rest of their party was only a few hours behind them.

Gingerly they loaded Perrin into the wagon, keeping him in the sling and hanging it suspended from two posts on either end. They sent the Trovato grandson back with the pack horses to retrieve the other wagons in anticipation of the rest of the families.

Peto sat next to his father in the back of the wagon with the other young men while Holling Briter took the reins and started the horses in a steady gallop south.

Perrin was quiet now, his eyes closed and his breathing shallow.

Peto put a hand on his arm and discovered that his father had plenty of ‘hotness.’ He wondered how long this bout of calm would last. Perrin had been alternating between stillness and thrashing, between silence and muttering. Peto didn’t need to be a doctor to know the situation was serious.

He felt a hand on his arm, belonging to Cephas. His nephew smiled faintly. “He’s in the Creator’s hands, Uncle Peto. I’m sure of it. We do all we can, then He makes up the difference.”

“I know,” Peto said. “But I also appreciate the reminder.”

Peto noticed Young Pere staring at the distant farmlands. Young Pere glanced at him, at Cephas’s hand on Peto’s arm, then he turned back to the scenery with mild disdain. He’d been uncharacteristically silent on the fast run down the mountain, and said only a few necessary words since they left early this morning.

But Peto had little energy left to worry about his son. All he could focus on was his father, and what his mother would say when she saw him.

—-

Mahrree felt the wagon approaching before she heard it. It was a light uneasiness in her belly that made her get up from the blanket she was stitching to calmly walk outside without causing any of the girls or women around her to wonder why. It was only a little after midday meal and certainly too soon for anyone to be coming.

But they were.

She recognized the wagon as it rushed down their lane. By the time it reached the house, half of the girls and women were joining Mahrree in the front garden, waiting in silence.

She thought she was ready for anything, but seeing Perrin so still in the net litter, instead of sitting next to Holling on the front seat waving to her sheepishly about being injured, was not something she was expecting.

He would never be voluntarily in a sling. Not unless . . .

She ran to the wagon, Jaytsy close on her heels, before it could properly stop. Dr. Toon, riding in the bed next to Perrin, immediately starting issuing orders.

“Mrs. Shin, we need to get him flat and comfortable. Boys, lift him gently. Ladies, out of the way!”

“This way!” Lilla called unnecessarily. The grandsons, hefting the net litter off the posts, knew where Puggah’s bedroom was, but Lilla needed to do something as she jogged to the house and the open door.

Peto hopped off the wagon and went directly to his mother and sister. His light gray eyes were dark and muddled.

Mahrree bit her lip. “Tell me honestly, Peto—how is he?”

“Not good, Mother.” He put an arm around his mother and sister and he walked them to the house.

The grandsons were carrying Perrin through the main door and down to his section of the house, the rest of the girls and women having moved out of their way.

“He was fine yesterday morning,” Peto told them. “I just don’t understand it. Boskos did an excellent job on him. Even Dr. Toon thought so. He and Barnos met us north of Salem. He’s put on a different poultice but wanted to redo it once we got home.”

As they arrived at Perrin and Mahrree’s bedroom, the grandsons were lifting a very still Perrin into his bed. His flesh was nearly as pale as his hair.

Jaytsy whimpered when she saw him, and Mahrree covered her mouth. He looked worse than she imagined, and she thought she’d imagined pretty bad.

“He’s so quiet,” Jaytsy sobbed softly.

“He wasn’t earlier,” Peto assured her. “Mother, go to him. Let him hear you. He’s been worried about you all morning. He seems to think he’s back in Edge during the land tremor, and he can’t find you anywhere.”

Mahrree weaved through her grandsons who stood watching Dr. Toon hastily unwrapping Perrin’s leg, and went to the other side of the bed. She sat down next to her husband and took up his hot, limp hand.

“Perrin. Perrin? You’re home! Can you hear me? You’re home now.” This wasn’t the first time she sat next to an ill man trying to reach him, but she still couldn’t think of what to say that didn’t sound odd not given a response.

Slowly he opened his eyes. It took him a moment to focus on her, but when he did he began to breathe more rapidly. “Where did you go?” he whispered slowly. “We’ve been looking all over for you!”

“I know, I know,” she smiled, relieved to hear his voice, no matter how feeble. “But we’re together again, so everything’s fine.”

“Mahrree, I think I got hurt again. I’m sorry about that. But at least I’ll be home for a while.”

Mahrree kissed his hand. “Yes, you will. And I’ll enjoy that.”

He sighed and closed his eyes as Dr. Toon rewrapped his leg.

Behind Mahrree, Peto reached down to check his father’s temperature. “Still very warm.”

“Plenty of hotness to share,” Cephas said quietly.

The young men smiled sadly.

“Fever can be a good sign,” Dr. Toon said, pulling a thin blanket over Perrin as he began to shiver. “It shows his body is fighting the infection. The concern is if he’s too hot for too long.”

“That’s true,” Mahrree said, noticing Jaytsy, Lilla, and Calla standing in the doorway, looking far too worried. The bedroom was crowded with bodies, and many of the women and girls packed the small gathering room behind them, waiting for news about Puggah. Mahrree had to alleviate some of their fears, along with her own.

“No, fevers aren’t always bad,” she said optimistically. “Jaytsy, you and Peto remember when I was sick with the pox, don’t you? After Grandmother Peto passed?”

Jaytsy sent her brother a faint smile. “Oh, yes I do. Peto wanted to take some ink and connect the pocks on your face. He was sure they would reveal some secret message.”

Peto scoffed lightly as his sons and nephews snickered. “I would never suggest doing such a thing.”

Young Pere, who’d been very quiet, Mahrree noticed, didn’t even crack a smile.

Mahrree touched some of the faded scars on her face. “I was feverish for over three days, or so I was told. Apparently at one point the fort surgeon told Perrin that I wouldn’t make it to morning. But I did. I recovered.” She patted her husband’s still hand. “And so can he.”

Jaytsy smiled more broadly. “That was probably the night Father was so worried that he didn’t want to leave your side. Because he didn’t come down for dinner, we brought it up to him as he sat next to you. It had gone cold, but once again Peto had an idea. He put a piece of bread on your arm to see if you could warm it up. And it was working, until Father realized what Peto was doing.”

Now the boys began to laugh.

Even Dr. Toon smiled and shook his head.

Young Pere’s face didn’t move.

But Peto was aghast. “Why Jaytsy, I would never consider using my ill and beloved mother as a stovetop.” But his eyes thanked her for the memory.

Lilla put her hands on her hips. “No wonder you’re so reluctant to share stories about your past with me. You were awful!”

“I like to think I’ve improved over the years,” Peto told her.

“You have,” Mahrree said, reaching back to pat him. “And Perrin’s going to be just fine,” she declared.

Dr. Toon gave her an encouraging smile. “If anyone can fight it off, it’s the general. I’ll be back in two hours to check on him. Keep by his side and monitor his breathing and heart rate. Send a messenger to my office if anything should change dramatically. When Boskos arrives, he can replace the poultice. I’m leaving an additional one.”

“But they won’t be back for days,” Mahrree said.

“No, Mother,” Peto said. “Everyone’s on their way home. They should be here by dinner time.”

Calla’s eyes grew large. “Everyone? But I’m not prepared! Tonight’s my night for dinner and . . . oh my.” She looked at her sister. “I may need some help.”

Jaytsy put a hand on Calla. “Remember, they’ll be bringing home all the food I packed. Just let them eat what they should have tonight.”

Peto winced at his sister, and Holling put a bracing arm around his mother. “Jayts, I’m sorry to say it, but in order to get everyone down quickly, we kind of . . . left everything up on the mountain. We left them with only one pack horse, so everyone took only what they needed for a quick midday meal. The Trovatos said they’ll retrieve everything else tonight and bring it down tomorrow.”

Jaytsy sighed at Lilla. “Next year, you’re in charge of food again. It seems all I did was pack meals for the bears.”

The family’s chuckling almost drowned out Perrin’s mumbling. “Why is Jaytsy feeding the bears, Mahrree?” he whispered. “Don’t we have enough children?”

Mahrree laughed and smoothed back some of his white, sweaty hair. “I think everyone should go now and let him sleep. I have a feeling we have some hungry boys here.”

“Definitely!” Young Pere said, speaking for the first time. He pushed his way through the bodies to head to the kitchen.

In the gathering room, Barnos was weaving through the women when he felt a hand grab him and pull him into his grandfather’s office.

“Ivy! I was just coming to look for you. I’m sorry I didn’t—”

She stopped him with a kiss.

After a minute she pulled away. “Your grandmother’s orders. You are never again to leave without kissing me goodbye.”

—-

Perrin opened his eyes and was completely bewildered.

The candle nearby dimly illuminated a familiar room. He was in his bed, he was sure of it, but he didn’t know why. He heard someone breathing softly next to him and recognized the rhythm as Mahrree’s. His eyes scanned the ceiling, trying to remember exactly what was going on.

They were in the mountains, right? So why was he now—

He tried to move his leg but a shooting pain caused him to gasp. He remembered everything up until . . . until getting off a horse? Fish?

“Oh, Perrin, you’re awake!”

He felt his wife kiss him and put a hand on his forehead. She was unnaturally cold, and a mild panic rose up in his chest as he fumbled to take her wrist or her throat or anywhere else he could to feel for a pulse.

But she was moving, so she wasn’t dead. So why was she so cold?

Nothing was making sense. Everything felt off.

“Mahrree, what’s going on? When did I get home?”

“Earlier this afternoon. It’s now about midnight. You’ve been very feverish, but I think you’re cooling down a little. Dr. Toon is trying something different on your leg.”

He tried to sit up but felt unusually weak. “I don’t understand . . . How did I get home? What about everyone else—”

“Perrin, everything’s fine. Everyone came home. They arrived a few hours ago.”

“What? How?”

Mahrree kissed him again. “I’ll let Shem explain it. He’s resting on the armchairs, hoping you would wake tonight. I’ll send him in and then get you something to eat.”

Perrin started to raise a finger, a variety of questions and thoughts in his mind, but he couldn’t sort out any of them, so he slumped again into the feather pillows.

—-

For the first time all day, Mahrree breathed easier. He was talking! He was coherent! Already he was shaking it off.

She got off the bed, still fully dressed, and went into the gathering room.

“Shem, he’s up and very confused. I’m going to get him some dinner. Do you want to tell him what’s been going on?”

Shem sighed in relief as immense as hers, and he rubbed the exhaustion out of his eyes. “Absolutely!” He made his way to their bedroom as Mahrree started down the dark hall, where she crashed into a tall body.

“Young Pere? What are you doing up at this hour?”

“Muggah,” Young Pere said, surprised. “I didn’t realize you would be . . . How’s Puggah?”

“He’s awake, finally. Confused, but at least he’s making sense, now. I knew he could beat this,” she added confidently. “Did you need something?”

“Oh, well, I was . . . coming down to check on you.”

Mahrree squeezed his arm. “You still can! Go say hi to your grandfather, help Shem explain what’s happened. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you.”

“Sure, Muggah.”

—-

Young Pere waited until his grandmother was well on her way to the kitchen before he continued on to her small gathering room. He paused and listened to the deep, quiet voices in the bedroom. Someone chuckled hoarsely, and it took him a moment to realize the frail sound came from Puggah.

Young Pere didn’t join them—he hadn’t expected anyone to be up at this late hour—but instead stepped noiselessly over to General Shin’s office and slowly opened the door. He crept into the dark room over to the large bookshelf. He’d seen it there many times before, but never bothered with it. Within a few moments of up-close searching in the pale moons’ light filtering through the windows, he located what he was looking for.

Burned carefully into the leather cover were the precise letters: The Army of Idumea: The Shin-Zenos Years, by Calla Trovato Zenos.

One should always fully research one’s first career before embarking upon it.

—-

“Papa!” Tabbit was breathless the next morning as she reached her father, out in the pasture checking on a calf.

Deck looked up, surprised to see his fourteen-year-old so distraught. “What’s wrong?” His only thought was, Please, not Perrin. Please, not Perrin—

“It’s Clark,” she panted, her eyes red. “He won’t eat.”

Deck was already walking quickly back with her to the horses’ pasture. He realized he should have been thinking, Please, not Perrin or Clark. “What do you mean ‘won’t eat’?” although he already had an idea.

“Kanthi and I can’t get him to take anything. Not oats, not the old apples—nothing. He just turns away. He didn’t eat much yesterday, either, but we didn’t think too much of it. Well, now we do! What do we do?”

Deck sighed, because he’d seen this before. He put an arm around his worried daughter. “Right now, we just hope and pray.”

Tabbit’s chin trembled. “That’s what Kanthi said you’d say. It’s because of Puggah, isn’t it? Clark knows.”

Without thinking, Deck said, “Did you tell Clark what happened?”

But his daughter didn’t think it foolish that their animals understood them. Just because they didn’t answer back didn’t mean they weren’t listening. “No, we thought we shouldn’t. We didn’t want to worry him.”

They were at the pasture now, Kanthi holding a shriveled apple up to Clark’s lips, but he wouldn’t take it. Deck caught the look in Clark’s eyes and . . . there was no look. Where there was normally a bright spark—even at his age—it was dimming, rapidly. Clark turned away, and slowly walked to a corner of the pasture where he drooped his head and stared at nothing.

Deck noticed none of the other horses were nearby. Usually they hovered around him, at an adoring distance, as if knowing he was king of all horses in Salem. Today, they grazed as far away as possible.

Kanthi looked to her uncle, distraught. “He knows about Puggah, doesn’t he, Uncle Deck?”

Deck sighed, realizing that this wasn’t a good sign, for Clark or for Perrin.

“Yes,” he decided. “Clark knows.”

—-

The next two days were as if they were taken out of time. No one was quite sure what to do or how to do it. The women still had many projects to complete—blankets and clothes to sew and new recipes to try—but the presence of the men complicated everything.

And the men didn’t quite know what to do, either. They should’ve been in the mountains instead of at home. But none of the visiting families felt like leaving yet, either. No one wanted to do anything until they were sure their Puggah was going to be fine.

His condition changed hour by hour. The morning after they returned, Perrin was sitting up in bed and talking easily with Dr. Toon and a steady stream of visitors who saw the tower messages and came by to express their concern.

Mahrree wasn’t at all surprised when Yudit, Shem’s oldest sister showed up.

“I heard my ‘twin brother’ is now a layabout?” she said with her hands on her hips and her eyes twinkling. In many ways, she and Perrin were like siblings, only a day’s difference in their ages, and both of them feeling they needed to take care of Shem; Yudit raised him ever since their mother died when Shem was only two, and Perrin took over the duties when Shem went into the world. Yudit was a frequent visitor, a well-matched tease, and as dear a friend as any real sister could be.

Mahrree laughed as she let Yudit in. She was still as big and broad as Shem, and with snowy-white hair that matched Perrin’s. “Maybe you can get him up and kicking again.”

Yudit struck a pose. “Of course I can,” she sniffed haughtily. “Lead me to Mr. Lazybones.”

She followed Mahrree back to their bedroom, and Mahrree announced, “Yudit’s here!”

Perrin groaned and said, “Oh, great. Now I’m going to get it.”

“That’s right, you are! What kind of example are you setting for the children?” Yudit exclaimed as she marched into the room where she stopped unexpectedly. She stared silently at Perrin, her face blanching almost as pale as his, and Mahrree understood her abrupt silence and change in demeanor. Noch.

Her husband had fallen ill last year, and was also very pale, just before he passed away. Surely Perrin’s condition, lying propped up by pillows in bed, reminded Yudit of those terrible, terrible weeks, and Perrin seemed to remember, too.

He forced himself to sit up more properly, as if to prove to Yudit that he wasn’t ailing as Noch had, and she did her best to rally.

“Well, it’s not often we find Perrin down.” But her teasing demeanor was gone, replaced with a subdued tone as she sat down next to him on his bed and tenderly took his arm. “Still so warm. Oh, Perrin. Can I get you some ice? The ice houses are still quite full—”

He patted her hand that was clutching him with her ever-too-tight grasp. “I’m already feeling too chilled, but thank you for the offer.”

They spoke for a few minutes about nothing important, but Mahrree didn’t hear any of it. She was staring too hard at Yudit, trying to suppress her annoyance that Yudit was being so . . . nice. Not that it wasn’t in her nature. She had seven children, and hordes of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who she loved immensely, but there was always a slight edge to her, a sharpness in her affection that Mahrree had imagined must have come from her and Perrin’s ancestor, Lorixania Shin, who had been a massive woman with an affinity for knives and battle.

While Yudit would never take up a blade, she certainly would never coddle someone either. Not like she was now coddling Perrin, worriedly dabbing his sweaty forehead with a damp cloth.

“You look so tired, I really should let you sleep,” Yudit was saying when Mahrree focused on their conversation again. “Don’t try to get up too soon. Rest, Perrin, all right?”

He smiled feebly at her, a little surprised at her earnestness. “Of course. Whatever you say. I know better than to pick an argument with you.”

She grinned at him. “Finally you catch on!” But Mahrree could see that her eyes were swimming as she hastily turned and left for the gathering room. Mahrree followed, if only to assure Yudit—and herself—that this was not like Noch.

But before Mahrree could get the words out in some gentle, kind way, Yudit surprised her with a massive embrace, holding Mahrree so tightly she almost couldn’t breathe.

Only after a long moment did she pull away, and Yudit’s face was wet with tears.

“It’s not like Noch,” Mahrree blurted, knowing that wasn’t the most tactful thing to say, but desperate to clarify that to Yudit.

Yudit tilted her head sadly and gave Mahrree that look she hated, the condescending one she was so good at delivering herself, but resented to receive. The, You don’t really know what you’re talking about, dear, look.

“I’m sure it’s not,” Yudit said generously, but her eyes betrayed her. Salemites were such terrible liars.

For the first time ever, Mahrree was glad to see Yudit leave.

By the late afternoon, Perrin was exhausted and slept through dinner. He didn’t awake until after dark, and Mahrree refused to let him exert himself in any way.

By the morning of the second day he was hotter than ever, but after sleeping past midday meal he looked almost like his regular self again. Boskos checked the wound hourly, and Dr. Toon was by six times a day.

On the afternoon of the second day, Boskos took Dr. Toon aside to look at the stick he’d wrapped carefully in white cotton.

“I thought you’d be interested in seeing it,” Boskos said as Dr. Toon pulled out his warped glass to examine it more closely.

“Yes,” Dr. Toon said slowly. “Very unusual. Peto said he’d never seen anything like it. From your description, you removed it correctly, but I see something right here.”

He handed the glass to Boskos and pointed at a section. “You’ll notice there’s a pattern to the barbs, an even spacing between them. But what do you notice right here, near the sharp tip of the stick?”

Boskos moaned softly. “There’s a barb missing! That thorn is probably still in Uncle Perrin’s thigh.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Dr. Toon sighed. “It’s tiny, but it’s enough to infect.”

“But Dr. Toon, I cleaned it as thoroughly as I could,” Boskos gestured in frustration. “I examined the wound and didn’t see anything.”

“I’m sure you did the best you could,” Dr. Toon said, examining the stick. “It was probably in the deepest part of the wound, a good two inches into the muscle. I doubt I would’ve done anything differently. I’m not sure even bleeding it would have dislodged the thorn.”

Boskos sat down hard and held his head in his hands. “So what do we do now?”

“Nothing more than we are,” Dr. Toon assured him. “The body can fight the infection, and even purge the thorn in time. We just keep molding and poulticing him and forcing him to rest. Remember Boskos, who’s the real healer?”

Boskos looked up with a sad smile. It was drilled into the medical students from the first day of classes, and they recited it every day to remember.

“The Creator is the real healer. It’s ultimately up to Him. We merely take the credit when the patient gets better, and put the blame on Him when things go wrong.”

Dr. Toon nodded. “You did do an excellent job on your uncle. Now we just wait and see what the Creator has in mind for him.”

—-

That evening Perrin, feeling restless, wanted to see all of the family. He’d never felt so distant from them before, even though it’d been only a couple of days since he’d spoken to most of them. It felt wrong not to be counting all of their heads as they came home from the marking trip, and he’d missed the last two nightly family prayers. That was his duty—securing Salem, securing his family, and he’d felt he’d been neglecting all of that as he laid in bed, useless. He needed to see all of them, from the smallest to the largest, just to make sure they were all right.

But at Mahrree’s insistence, he could see them only for a few minutes, and only one family at a time. So, upon his wife’s orders, although he wasn’t sure just when and how she promoted herself over him, he lay in his bed and smiled as little boys and girls brought him more flowers, and teenagers and the young married couples gave him reports on their trip back home. Silently he counted them, just to make sure someone hadn’t been forgotten on the mountain.

In the back of his mind it occurred to him that if someone were missing, they would have discovered it by now, but that wasn’t the point.

Barnos and Ivy came in together to share with him their secret that he was going to become a great-grandfather again in the Snowing Season, and even Wes was able to give him a smile.

But it faded when Perrin asked Hycy to leave them alone for a few minutes. Hycy bit her lip in worry, but Wes nodded bravely to her and shut the door behind her as she stepped out.

“Sit down, Wes. Right there,” Perrin motioned weakly to one of the chairs next to his bed.

“Yes, sir,” Wes said obediently. He wasn’t sure what to do with his hands as he sat down. He tried folding them, clenching them, putting them under his legs, then finally folded his arms and tried to look nonchalant.

Perrin watched him intently the entire time, causing Wes to become the most anxiously relaxed man in Salem.

“You’re marrying one of my granddaughters in a few weeks,” Perrin began. “I like to have a little chat with the boys who plan to take my girls away. They mean a great deal to me, and I want to make sure they are always treated as the daughters of the Creator that they are.”

“Yes, sir,” Wes swallowed hard. “I understand.”

Perrin studied him in silence until a bead of sweat began to form on the poor boy’s forehead. He couldn’t hide his smile anymore, but apparently Wes saw it as more of a sneer because he began to shift uncomfortably.

“You will take good care of my Hycymum?” Perrin finally asked.

“Yes, sir,” Wes said, sticking to the practiced answer.

Perrin nodded. “Good. I’m sure you will. You’re a Hifadhi, after all. That name carries immense weight with me. So, welcome to the family.”

Wes’s eyebrows furrowed. “Wait. That’s it?”

“Well, yes.”

“Um,” Wes said, looking around in dismay. “I thought you’re supposed to . . .”

“Yes?”

Wes repositioned himself on the chair. “I thought there would be an explanation—

Perrin blinked. “Explanation about what, son?”

“Well, you see, Lek, Sam and Con were telling me that, uh—”

“Were they telling you stories?” Perrin shook his head. “Ah, Wes, I’m sorry. There’s something you need to know about this family and those who marry into it: we’re a bunch of teasers. I’m afraid your future brothers-in-law may have been having a bit of fun with you. We have a problem with that. Whatever they may have said was just to make you nervous, especially if it was about me. Everyone gets the wrong impression about me, Wes. Just because I was in the army for many years, everyone thinks I’m something scary. But I’m not, Wes. I’m a big old softy. Just ask Lilla.”

While Wes regarded him with a drop of disappointment, he also seemed drenched with relief. “So they just made up that stuff—”

Perrin gave him his best innocent look. “About what, son?”

Wes scoffed. “You would never believe it, General Shin! Oh, I can’t believe they did that to me . . . and I fell for it!”

Perrin smiled. “I supposed that’s their little ‘Welcome to the family’ prank,” he said weakly. “We’re not very Salem-like sometimes. We need to keep working on that.” He leaned forward slightly. “But not tonight,” he winked. “I’ll tell you what,” he began, and used the last of his strength that evening to push himself up into a semi-sitting position. “When you leave this room, rush out holding your mouth as if you’re trying not to be sick. Make sure you run past all of them, acting horror-stricken, on your way out the side door.”

Wes laughed out loud.

“And then,” Perrin said with a mischievous twinkle, “come back in, tell them you could never, ever marry into such a family with a grandfather like me, and announce that you’re calling off the wedding.”

“Oh General, that’s terrible!” But Wes’s eyes danced as if already seeing the reactions of the family.

“Don’t worry, we’ll let Hycy in on it so she can play up the part. Maybe you can pretend to whisper something in her ear and she can get her own horrified look as well.”

Wes burst into a grin. “You’re right, General—people do get the wrong impression about you!”

“Now, before you bring Hycy back in, promise me one more thing.”

“Anything, sir!”

“Call me Perrin or Puggah or Papa Pere—just not General or sir. That was my father.”

“All right . . . Puggah.”

Perrin predicted the level of fury and timing of his son’s appearance perfectly. He was waiting patiently for Peto when, a few minutes later, he stormed into his bedroom.

“What did you SAY to that boy?!” Peto yelled. “Father, he’s positively sick! He wants to call off the wedding, and so does Hycy! How could you?”

Close on his heels were the young husbands who, just a couple of nights ago, had so carefully prepared poor Wes. Or at least they thought they had. They now looked at their grandfather and uncle with mixtures of shock, anger, and genuine fear.

Perrin merely smiled at all of them.

Suddenly shouts of laughter came from the large gathering room.

Peto’s shoulders sagged as he heard his wife, mother, and the rest of the women laughing. His mouth slowly opened as he turned to look at the confused young men standing with him.

Hycy marched into the bedroom with a huge smile. “Ha! That’s what you all get for trying to scare my Wes! It was great, Puggah. I wish you could’ve seen their faces!”

“I see them right now,” Perrin said with a weak laugh. “Don’t worry, Peto. The wedding’s still on. I just needed to teach a few young men about frightening someone unnecessarily.”

Con pointed a finger at Perrin and started to stammer, “You . . . you . . . you thought we needed a lesson?!”

Perrin held up a hand. “Boys, boys, I’m really quite tired now. I need to get some sleep. We’ll talk later, all right?”

Boskos shook his head at Perrin. “I think he’s feeling better. I’m not sure if I’m happy about that now.”

As the young men filed out of the room, chuckling ruefully and shaking their heads, Lek was the last one, and the look on his face was one of complete confusion.

“Lek, wait a minute,” Perrin said before he could leave.

Shem’s oldest son nodded warily at him. “Uncle Perrin?”

“I’m sorry, Lek. For all of that. I never should’ve tried to intimidate you in the first place when you were marrying Salema. A boy like you didn’t need to hear such stories.”

Lek shifted uncertainly. “So, Uncle Perrin, I’ve always wondered, was there ever a . . . a . . .”

“Guarder suicide ritual?”

Lek nodded. “Or . . . did you just make that up to scare me?”

“Oh, it’s real all right. I saw it happen on two occasions. Gruesome. You see, first the man—”

Lek held up his hands. “All right, all right already. Once was enough,” he smiled nervously. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Uncle Perrin. Someday I’ll figure you out. Obviously today is not that day,” he mumbled as he started for the door.

“Lek . . . please wait.”

He turned around.

“They named you all wrong,” Perrin said quietly. “My great-great-great-grandfather was a brash and aggressive man, from the little I know about him, one of the first generals King Querul the First ever appointed. But you have never been anything but gentle and kind, and I should’ve recognized that marriage wouldn’t change that about you. I should’ve known you’d do nothing but treat my granddaughter like the Creator’s daughter. I am sorry that I sat you down that day before your wedding.”

Lek blushed and looked down at his feet. “No need to be sorry, Uncle Perrin. Always been a great story. And I’ve always wanted to be bold like you. Maybe one of my boys will be, instead.”

“And I hope not. The world doesn’t need more brash men like me, Lek. We need more men like you.”

Lek went purple with bashfulness. “I’ll let you rest now,” he said with a hesitant smile, then headed out the door.

Only once he was alone again did Perrin sigh in exhaustion and slump on his bed. “All right,” he whispered to himself. “What else? What else do I need to fix? What else?” Hastily he made a list in his head, because he was sure he didn’t have the strength to pick up a sharpened piece of charcoal.

Mahrree came in a minute later and carefully laid down next to him. “I think everyone’s come through now. You’re still warm, but not so hot anymore.”

“When do you think they can stop molding me?”

“Dr. Toon says it’s still festering. Not until it stops can they remove the poultices.”

Perrin exhaled. “I’m so tired, Mahrree. I’ve never been so weak in my entire life. I’ll be honest—I’m a little concerned.”

Mahrree tried to cuddle with him without hurting him. “I am too, Perrin. They may have to take the leg if it doesn’t stop.”

“I’m not worried about that,” he said offhandedly. “I’m concerned that maybe . . . maybe I don’t have enough to overcome this.”

Mahrree sat up abruptly. “Not enough to overcome a little thorn? You’ve done it before, Perrin Shin!”

He smiled at her and closed his eyes. “This one’s a little different, my darling wife. And I’m a little older now.”

“What are you saying?” she demanded.

“Nothing, Mahrree, calm down.” He opened his dark eyes. “It’s just that we should consider—”

“I’m considering nothing, Perrin!” she said fiercely. “Shem has asked all of Salem to fast for you tomorrow, to ask the Creator to heal you. There’s nothing more to consider.”

He laid his hand gently on her arm. “We should consider if the Creator says ‘No’. I’ve had more than my fair share of miracles, Mahrree.”

“And we can always ask for one more!”

He patted her clumsily. “Of course we can.”

—-

Young Pere was up late in his room, reading by the candle light. Earlier that morning he had been impressed to read how Captain Shin dragged a reluctant Lieutenant Karna—the officer he mentioned a few days ago who was his friend—through the forbidden forest in pursuit of Guarders. Together they killed their first man and first witnessed the Guarder suicide ritual.

But tonight’s chapter was even more astonishing. The young captain defied all rules of the army by dressing as a man in white and entering the forests again, despite the warnings from Chairman Mal. Young Pere marveled that Captain Shin killed eleven Guarders in the snowy night, one after sustaining the injury on his back that still remained as a faded scar. He blinked in surprise to realize it was a younger Jothan Hifadhi, his sister’s future great-grandfather-in-law, who had finished off one of the Guarders who was choking Captain Shin. He knew there was a history between the Hifadhis and the Shins, but he hadn’t realized how far back it went. And then old Guide Tuma Hifadhi—even further on the family line—made the trip to Edge to bless the Shins with protection, and Shem Zenos signed on officially to be Perrin Shin’s watcher and keeper.

Young Pere set down the book and wondered how it was that the frail man lying in bed, and his ‘brother’ who wept so easily, could have been the same two men who battled Guarders in Edge, tracked and spied on them in the forests, and trained the strongest, most disciplined men in the army.

Maybe Aunt Calla got it wrong. She was, after all, in love with one of the heroes of the story.

Chapter 13—“I’ve had enough surprises in my life.”

The next day was the day before Holy Day, when the visiting families were scheduled to leave for their homes. But no one wanted to go.

Perrin didn’t wake up easily that morning. His breathing was quick and shallow when Boskos arrived.

“He slept all right,” Mahrree told him fretfully as she watched Boskos taking his pulse. “A little bit of thrashing, but that’s just the way he always sleeps.”

“His pulse is getting faster,” Boskos said with a sigh. He looked up as his father came into the bedroom.

“How is he, Bos?”

Boskos looked at Mahrree then back to Shem, as if unable to face her with the news. “I think he’s getting worse.”

Mahrree sat down limply on the bed next to her husband. “No, no, no . . .”

Shem knelt in front of her. “Mahrree, all of Salem is fasting today. He’s in the Creator’s hands.”

“I know, Shem. And so does he. We talked last night. But I’m just not ready . . .”

Shem took her hands and kissed them. “Keep faith, Mahrree. I still need my big brother as well. I keep telling the Creator that.”

It was a very long day. Mahrree rarely left his side, waiting for him to wake up and notice her, to give her some hope. But whenever his eyes opened, it was to look vaguely around before closing again.

At dinner time he finally awoke, just as all of Salem was offering their final prayers for him before eating their first meal that day.

He looked at Mahrree and smiled. “Sorry I haven’t been around too much today.”

“That’s all right,” she said, kissing his cheek. “You’re here now, and you’re going to get better.”

He took her hand and slowly lifted it to his lips. “Of course, my darling wife.” He kissed her hand.

That evening a visitor came to the house, and while Mahrree had been sending all of them away, this one she let into their bedroom, because Perrin had sent for him.

He opened his eyes slowly and tried to smile at his guest.

“Now this is when I should challenge you to a wrestling match!” Jothan Hifadhi announced. “I could beat you with one arm tied behind me.”

Perrin could barely chuckle at the man who, while a couple years older than him, was still just as strapping as he’d always been. The only thing that had changed on Jothan was that his curly black hair had gone gray. Perrin was frequently amazed how much he now resembled his grandfather Guide Tuma Hifadhi.

“You always could’ve beaten me with only one arm,” Perrin said. He nodded to Mahrree to close the door, and she nodded back as she left. She didn’t ask why, but Perrin had told her he needed to speak to Jothan alone.

Gingerly he sat down on the bed next to Perrin and touched his forehead. “What’s going on with you? Trying to heat up the house? It’s already a hot Weeding Day outside. Time to stop this nonsense.”

But Perrin could see through Jothan’s attempt to be jovial. He wasn’t normally so chatty about nothing.

“How’s Asrar?” Perrin asked.

“She’s ill, too, or she would’ve come. She’s afraid you’d catch her cough on top of whatever’s ailing you.”

“Very conscientious,” Perrin whispered.

Jothan startled him by grabbing his hand. “Fight it, Perrin. Please, fight it,” he whispered earnestly.

“Trying to,” he told him. “It’s tough.”

“Yes, you are. Always were.” Jothan’s brown eyes flooded with tears. “We’re going to start having shared descendants in a year or so. I’m eager to see how that great-grandson of ours will shape up.”

“So am I,” Perrin murmured. “You train him well—”

We’ll train him well,” Jothan said, tears dribbling down his face. “Come on, Perrin. You can beat this. This is nothing compared to what you’ve faced before!”

“Trying to,” he repeated. “Until then, Jothan, do something for me?”

“Of course.”

Perrin shifted his thumb to be on top of the faint scar on Jothan’s hand, a thin pale line that still remained on his dark skin from when Perrin tried to stab a Guarder behind him, but instead stabbed Jothan who had come to his rescue.

“A few years ago I spoke with you and Guide Gleace about some impressions I had,” Perrin began vaguely.

“You mean a very vivid dream you had,” Jothan said. “Seven years ago, shortly before Shem became the next guide. I remember it, every last detail.”

“Do you also remember,” Perrin said, “Shem’s response to my dream about him?”

Jothan smiled sadly. “I do. He didn’t want to think about it, at all.”

“I shared it not only with him, but with you and Guide Gleace, because I knew that someday one of us would need to press him to do his duty.”

“And we will.”

Perrin fingered his scar apologetically. “No, my dear friend: you will. You’ll be the only one left—”

Jothan’s chin bobbled. “Stop talking like that. Stop—”

“I saw you there, Jothan. In that dream, I saw you there. He’s going to need you that day, whenever that is. I don’t know if it’s the Last Day, or a day long before it, but he’ll hesitate. He’s going to need reminding, and you will say the words that’ll get him remembering his duty.”

“Because you’ll be busy with some other important task,” Jothan said easily. “Because I’ll be sitting around, doing nothing of consequence, and will have all the time in the world. So to speak.”

Perrin winked pitifully at him, and Jothan squeezed his hand back so tightly that Perrin was sure that something cracked.

“Promise me you’ll watch out for Shem,” Perrin asked.

“You know I will. I’ve been watching out for him even before you were. But only for about a week or so,” Jothan decided. “Only until you’re back on your feet again.”

But Dr. Toon had a different diagnosis when he came by that night to check the wound again. He sent Mahrree to go get some dinner while he examined Perrin alone. His eyes said it all.

“Just let me know, Doctor,” Perrin said quietly when he saw his reaction. “What’s it doing?”

“It’s not healing, General. The discoloration, the striations,” his voice faded. “Honestly I don’t think you’re strong enough to handle an amputation at this point—”

“That’s all I needed to know, Doctor. I’ve known for a while,” Perrin said calmly. “And I’m all right with that. How long do you think I have?”

Dr. Toon sighed heavily. “It could still heal, General. It could surprise us and—”

“I’ve had enough surprises in my life. It’s all right,” he repeated. “How long?”

The doctor shook his head. “I really don’t know. Hours. Weeks. Days. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better idea. Perrin, I’m so sorry,” he said, his eyes growing wet.

“Thank you for being honest.” Perrin offered a small smile. “You’ve done a wonderful job, with Boskos too. Do me a favor, please? Send Mahrree in for me to tell her, but will you let everyone else know? Call the Zenoses over as well. If they are all together it may be easier for them to deal with it. I’ll take care of my wife.”

Dr. Toon smiled sadly at him. “You really are one of the bravest men who ever lived, aren’t you?”

—-

The Shin-Briter-Zenos families assembled worriedly about ten minutes later in the Shins’ large gathering room.

A few minutes after that, they collapsed together into a wet huddle of tears and they stayed like that for the next hour, except for one teenage boy who bolted from the room.

Young Pere didn’t need to be around a bunch of weeping weaklings. When Dr. Toon told them the news that General Shin would likely not recover, he ran to his bedroom, took the book from under his bed, and darted out to the barn. He climbed into the loft, sat down in the straw, and skimmed in the growing dark the pages he finished reading last night.

The rescue of Edge. The attack on the caravan. Colonel Shin’s defeat of sixteen Guarders, without receiving more than a few nicks himself. The death of Colonel Shin’s parents. His furious ride back to get revenge. His probation. The memorial service for the victims of the land tremor. The thousands of people chanting “General Shin.” Perrin Shin rejecting the idea . . .

He slammed the book shut in disgust and threw it into the straw.

Perrin Shin was giving up. Just when he could triumphantly return to the world, he was quitting.

No wonder he and Shem would have failed.

—-

The barn was the only place Deck could think of bringing her. She was too distraught to remain around the children, but needed to weep and wail and beat on his chest before she could return home to comfort their family.

Besides, in the darkening barn she wouldn’t see his tears.

“Deck, he can’t go!” Jaytsy sobbed as she pounded on his chest again. She was beginning to lose strength. Maybe the bruising wouldn’t be so bad.

“We’ve fasted for him! I still need him—there are still newborns to nap in his arms, to know their Puggah! Deck, no . . .” She finally collapsed on to the ground, weeping, cradled in her husband’s arms.

“I know, Jayts, I know. He’s become my father, too. I never expected to mourn a father twice in my life.”

—-

Young Pere, still in the loft of the barn, looked down at his aunt and uncle crying together in the straw.

“Look what you’re doing to them, General Shin,” he whispered angrily. “If you were just a little stronger, a little braver . . .”

—-

In Guide Zenos’s office, the door remained shut long past midnight. On the small sofa, Shem sat with his arms around his wife, quietly telling her all the stories she’d already heard about Shem and his big brother.

If he kept talking, maybe Perrin would keep living.

—-

Peto sat on the edge of his bed again late at night, staring dully at his wardrobe, as if his eyes could penetrate the wood and read the thick parchment folded in the envelope under his sweaters.

His mother had sent him to bed, promising she would send for him if she needed him.

His wife sat behind him, waiting for him to move.

He didn’t.

Not even when the four youngest children crowded into bed with Lilla to be comforted.

He stared at the wardrobe all night long.

—-

In Perrin and Mahrree’s bedroom, their pillows became wet from their combined tears as they held each other as tightly as they could.

Sometime during the night, before he drifted into an exhausted sleep, Perrin kissed his wife.

“But maybe this is the way it’s supposed to be, Mahrree. The last two generals named Shin died in bed while lying next to their wives. Pere by a heart attack, Relf by a Guarder attack, perhaps me by a thorn attack. Who am I to break the tradition?”

—-

The next morning was Holy Day.

Everyone woke with bleary eyes. None of the children in any of the families slept well that night, and many spent the night in the beds of their parents.

If there was competition for who looked worst, Peto would’ve won. He went to check on his father early in the morning, decided he wouldn’t leave his side, and sent Nool to one of his counselors asking that he conduct the congregational services that day.

Then he stood at his father’s bedroom door.

“I refuse to have this conversation with you,” he said, folding his arms.

“Peto,” Perrin’s voice came weakly, but with undeniable firmness, “I don’t have time for—”

“You have plenty of time—”

“No, son, I do not. Now get in here and sit down. Show some respect!”

Peto sighed and sat down reluctantly by his father’s side. “I always respect you.”

“I know you do,” Perrin said dismissively. “Now, you know where all of my papers are in the desk.”

Peto closed his eyes, trying to hold back the tears. “You’re not leaving me. Not leaving us. I refuse to let you go. We don’t need to have this conversation—”

“Peto,” Perrin whispered so earnestly that his son had to open his eyes, “I don’t mind going. I’m not afraid, I’m not worried, and I’m not even concerned about Mahrree. I know all of you will take excellent care of her. It’s all right for me to go; I know exactly where I’m headed.”

Peto sniffed and nodded, blinking back tears as he watched the Greatest General the world never saw.

Never would see. The prophecy was dying.

“I know, too, where you’re going.”

“So no more tears,” the general insisted. “At least, not for me. I’m heading off on an amazing adventure.”

Peto chuckled sadly. “I can’t help it,” he said, wiping his nose. “I just never thought that—”

“Well, we should!” Perrin declared with as much energy as he could muster. “We plan for babies coming into the world, we should plan for our exit out of it as well. I don’t know why we avoid talking about the inevitable.”

“Because baby births are joyful events,” Peto pointed out. “But dying—”

“Oh, there’s always someone happy when someone else has died,” Perrin waved feebly, his eyes twinkling. “But truly, son, there will be great joy. There are a few people I’ve missed over the years who I’m rather eager to see again. I suspect they may be happy to see me again, too. Death isn’t an end. You know that. It’s just . . . a promotion. Graduating from this life, moving on to the next one. If anything, you should be feeling rather envious of me. Think of everything I’ll soon see, know, remember, and learn! Any question I’ve ever had, I’m going to know the answer to, very soon. Really, son, can’t you see how exciting all of this is?”

Peto chuckled with new tears. “This is what I’ll miss. You and Mother have always seen things from odd angles, and I need those reminders that things aren’t always as they seem.” His voice cracked, and he paused to try to compose himself. “I just can’t get over how much I’m going to miss everything about you,” he choked out. “And I do believe I’m allowed to be sorrowful about missing your companionship. It’s not a sin to be sad, you know!”

Perrin smiled faintly, then let it fade. “There’s only one thing I don’t know, son. Get The Writings,” he nodded to the book on the bed table. “Hew Gleace’s prophecy. You know the one.”

Peto pulled the book off the nearby table and opened it to the prophecy a much younger version of him witnessed the guide receiving, along with his father and Shem.

“The Last Day, at the ancient temple site?” Peto guessed.

“Yes. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: Gleace said Idumea would come with about 75,000 soldiers, and one third would be lost to fear.”

Peto nodded as he read the words silently to himself, although he didn’t need to; the entire morning when Gleace saw in vision how the Last Day would play out was so clearly impressed on Peto’s mind that he remembered every detail of it.

“Peto, I still don’t know how to scare them away,” General Shin confided, his voice tinged with desperation. “You and I have done everything else—secured the paths, created emergency shelters, increased the valleys’ storage and resources—but I never figured out how to scare 25,000 men desperate for land and food. I kind of thought I wouldn’t go until I did figure out that mystery, but . . .”

His voice gave out on him, and he cleared his throat gruffly.

“Anyway, son, I’m sorry to leave that burden on your shoulders. It’s been wonderful to have you by my side in all of this. I never could’ve imagined a better life for either of us. Thank you for being with me every step of the way.”

Peto sniffed loudly and wiped his nose on his sleeve like a toddler. Soon he’d be blubbering like one, too. “You just can’t go, Father,” he begged in a whisper. “I can’t do this without you. You’re the general!”

Perrin scoffed lightly. “Just a title, Peto. It meant nothing. We still would have done the work without the title.”

“It’s more than just a title, Father,” Peto said earnestly. “It’s your destiny, your—” He stopped. It was useless, and he knew it. Even if he pulled out the words written by Relf Shin so many years ago declaring that his son would become the greatest general the world ever saw, Perrin wouldn’t believe it.

Because he was dying. Peto could smell it in the air.

As a rector, he’d frequently encountered that unique scent which seemed to slip into the house of the dying as a gentle warning that there was nothing left to be done, but to say goodbye.

He’d never expected to encounter it in his own house. Then again, neither did many of those he served as rector.

Perrin smiled weakly at him. “It’s all right, son. My life has been better than I hoped it would be. And this is a very proper and excellent end.”

Peto could only squeeze his hand and said, “Get some rest, Father.”

While no one went to the congregational meeting, the day still had a sacred feel to it. None of the visiting families went home that day, either, but stayed at the Eztates to be near Puggah who drifted in and out of sleep, and back and forth between consciousness and hallucination.

Mahrree never left his side. Except for once, when Calla insisted she get some fresh air, and Lilla took her turn to sit next to Perrin.

He opened his eyes and he looked around.

Lilla saw her father-in-law awake and jumped slightly. “You’re up!”

“In a manner of speaking,” he said slowly. “Where’s Mahrree?”

“She’s been here all morning, but Calla just took her outside for a little walk,” she said apologetically.

Perrin nodded. “Good. I know she’s been here. Fresh air sounds like a good idea.” He sighed and closed his eyes.

“Do you need anything?” Lilla asked gently.

“No, just your company.”

Lilla sagged. “I’m not sure how entertaining I can be.”

“Oh, you’ve always been entertaining,” Perrin whispered. “From the first day.”

“Perrin, can I tell you something?”

He opened his eyes to see that she looked very concerned. “Well, I’m not going anywhere.”

“Perrin, I need to tell you that, well, from the very first day . . . how do I put this?” She paused, then blurted, “You’ve always terrified me!”

“Me?”

“Oh, yes! When you came to Norden and I saw Peto . . . Well, I’d seen him at Shem and Calla’s wedding, but he was so odd, just sitting in the grasses, staring at me. I immediately decided he was far too serious for me. Can you imagine? But then when you and Shem and Peto came to our place before that first marking trip of yours . . . I saw him and I knew . . . You know how it is, when you see someone and you just know? Like you did with Mahrree, you just knew? Anyway,” she rushed on not waiting for his response, but taking his smile as his answer. “When I saw Peto, oh! I just had to be near him! It was as if he came all that way just to find me. But he was your son. Yes, even though I called you the captain or something like that, I always knew you were the general. How could I not? Remember, I grew up listening to Calla’s stories every night. Most girls hear tales about handsome young farmers, but Calla told me the tales of the Army of Idumea. But I had to go with you on that trip, I knew it. So,” she paused to take a breath before continuing to plow on.

Perrin couldn’t have stopped her even if he wasn’t ill.

“When I saw that bear, on the trail that second day, I knew I had to make an impression on you. I couldn’t fall in love with Peto and fear you. So I thought, I am going to impress him and scare off that bear. So I did. Oh, I was terrified, but I was more frightened of you. I mean, what if you didn’t like me? What if you wanted someone more delicate, or prettier, or not so ‘healthy’ for your only son?” Lilla looked at him with pained eyes. “Yes, I know what you mean by ‘healthy’.”

Perrin slowly raised his hand and beckoned for her to take it.

She did so cautiously.

“Lilla, now I have something to tell you. You have always terrified me.”

Lilla pulled back surprised, but Perrin didn’t release her hand. Instead, he did his best to grin. “Truly, who breaks out into song in the middle of the forest, singing about buzzing butterflies and whatever it was?”

Lilla began to blush, then grin.

Perrin continued, “I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’m lost in the woods with a crazy young woman, and my son is falling for her.’ What father wouldn’t be worried? And then,” Perrin tried to sit up but decided against it. “Then, you hugged Shem, after you scared off that bear. At first I thought it was an excuse to get to hug Peto next.”

Lilla nodded guiltily.

“But then you hugged me as well. Now, that’s just not normal. You hug everybody. All the time. Terrifying,” he added again with feigned solemnity.

“It’s normal where I come from!” Lilla laughed softly.

“No,” he whispered. “I’ve been to Norden, and it is not.” He squeezed her hand with the little strength he had.

Lilla squeezed it back.

“And now,” Perrin said softly, “I do want something from you.”

“Anything, Perrin.”

“My darling daughter, because I do think of you that way, why are you suddenly calling me ‘Perrin’? ‘Papa Pere’ kind of grew on me.”

Lilla’s eyes glistened. “You have always been my Papa Pere, and you always will be.”

That afternoon Perrin asked to be brought to the back porch. He wanted to see all of the family together while he still felt strong enough.

Solemnly they assembled, and Peto, remembering years ago his injured grandfather in Idumea, had two of his sons drag the biggest sofa out to the porch. Then four young men carried Perrin outside and laid him on it. He tried to sit, but didn’t have the strength.

Mahrree assured him everyone could still hear if he lay down. She sat on the porch next to the sofa and held his hand as he looked over the collective Shin, Briter, and Zenos families.

His voice was faint as he said, “It’s hard to believe that just one week ago I stood on this porch bellowing at all of you about your assignments in the morning. I know not all of you were listening to me then, but you are now. I see now that the way to get your attention is to speak softly.” He smiled. “I guess it’s never too late to learn something new. And I’ve never seen all of you so quiet! Another miracle.”

The family chuckled sadly, trying to match his smile.

“I’ve had some time to do some thinking recently, when I didn’t think I was in a snowstorm in Idumea. And since none of you went to the congregational meeting this morning, I decided it’s my turn to deliver the day’s sermon. If that’s all right with our rector and the guide.”

Peto and Shem nodded at him with forced smiles.

“There’s much on my mind, but I can’t seem to organize it well. Forgive me if my words seem confused. And on that, I hope you all can forgive a great many things. I’ve been thinking about answers. About listening. I didn’t always listen well, especially when I was young. I had my own ideas, my own plans. What I needed to know was to recognize when the Creator told me no. As important as it is to know when He tells us ‘yes,’ I think it’s more important to know when He’s trying to tell us ‘no.’ I often ignored Him when I didn’t get the answer I wanted. But when I listened to Him, everything worked out so much better.”

He tried to focus on Young Pere, but his grandson wasn’t focusing on him.

“I’ve also been thinking about . . . hidden help.” His words were slowing and labored; but, ploddingly, he got out each one. “No, I’m not hallucinating. Shem knows what I’m talking about. I know it’s not the anniversary of our coming to Salem, but I want to tell you a bit about the Moorland offensive. I spent days working on a plan to root out the Guarders. I had every detail planned out perfectly. And Shem knew everything I was going to do. It was a fantastic success. I was praised on every front. But a few years later I learned it wasn’t all my doing. In the forest just beyond my sight were masses of Salemites, and they were the ones who made the attack a success. They intercepted a traitor named Beneff on his way to the Guarders, and they made sure that the vast majority of Guarders who ran into the forest never ran back out.

“Some of your relatives were there. Ivy, your great uncle was one of them. So was a cousin of Sam and Con’s mother. And Wes, well, there’s nothing more I can say about your great-grandfather Jothan that I haven’t already said a dozen times before. He did as much for us as Shem. Here I thought it was all my success. But it wasn’t. The Creator sent others to help me, and I never knew they were there.

“But that wasn’t the only time He’s done that. He does it all the time, every day. We are always surrounded by help that we can’t see and don’t realize are there. But they are. I promise you that.

“I have felt them, your ancestors, many times. Paradise isn’t some far off place. Paradise is here. Dying doesn’t mean leaving your family. It just means moving to the other side of the forest, to fight the battles, unseen, from over there. Dying isn’t the end. It’s just a promotion. I’m not afraid to go. After doing this for so long, I’m eager to see what my new rank will be,” he said with a smile as faint as his voice.

The family members who weren’t quietly sobbing tried to give him brave smiles back. Very few were successful.

“I see it’s useless to tell you to not be sad. I suppose it’s all right to be a little sad about someone leaving. But it’s only for a short time. Our lives are only a temporary condition. The Writings tell us we existed long before this Test, and we will continue to exist for long after it. This separation will be but for a brief moment. And we can handle anything temporarily, right?”

Only a few nodded.

He tried to smile again but felt his energy sapping away. His voice would give out soon, but there was one more thing he wanted to say. “You are the greatest army I could’ve ever imagined. I am proud of each and every one of you, and I love you more than I could ever express. I’ve often wondered what my legacy would be. Now I know. Thank you for being my legacy.”

It was probably good that was all he could say, because Jaytsy broke ranks and rushed up to him, sobbing. She kneeled down in front of him and laid her head lightly on his chest. She wasn’t alone; several of her family followed her, waiting for their turns. She kissed her father gently on the lips.

“Just don’t say goodbye, Jayts,” Perrin whispered to her.

She nodded, then reluctantly moved back to let Salema smooth his white hair and kiss his forehead. She would have stayed next to him, except Lilla was waiting.

For the next half hour, the descendants of Perrin Shin each took their turns with him, but no one said goodbye, per his request. Instead they told him they loved him, then halfheartedly moved away to let the next person squeeze his hand, or kiss his cheek, or ruffle up his hair.

—-

Mahrree sat next to him, silently weeping as she watched each of their children and grandchildren have the opportunity to not say goodbye.

It was another tender mercy from the Creator, Mahrree decided. She considered how many times he could’ve abruptly been taken from them over the decades. But he was granted the opportunity to touch them all one last time.

When Deck, the last one to make it to Perrin, bent down to kiss his forehead and thank him for being his second father, Perrin was visibly weakened, not only from his fever but from the outpouring that overwhelmed him.

Mahrree leaned over to him. “Let’s get you inside. Boskos suggested that the afternoon heat might make you feel worse.”

“No,” Perrin whispered. “It’s a perfect day. Let’s enjoy it on the bench by the orchard. We can sit in the shade and watch our grandchildren catch grasshoppers.”

“That sounds like a perfect afternoon to me.”

A few minutes later four of Perrin’s grandsons carried him over to the bench, padded by several thick blankets provided by his granddaughters, and gently laid him down.

“Let me go get your pillow,” Mahrree said.

“Your lap will be the best pillow I could ask for,” he mumbled. Mahrree sat down at the end of the bench and let her husband rest his head. “See? Perfect again.”

She smiled and ran her fingers through his thick hair. “Have I told you today that you are the most wonderful man in the world, and that I love and adore you more than words can say?”

Perrin closed his eyes. “Actually, I can’t think of a day when you didn’t,” he said slowly. “But that’s because you were always the most perfect woman in the world. Thank you for marrying me.”

“Thank you for asking.” But then she realized, “Actually, now that I think about it, you never really did ask me to marry you. You said something like, ‘Can we continue our debates forever,’ but you didn’t actually ask me to marry you.”

Wearily, he opened his eyes. “I’m not going to debate that right now, woman,” he whispered.

“Then just tell me you love me.”

“I love you. I always have.”

“I love you, too. I always will.”

Perrin smiled as he closed his eyes.

Mahrree sat on the bench with her husband’s head on her lap for the balance of the afternoon. The little ones brought them flowering weeds and laid them on the ground below Perrin. He smiled once as he heard some of his granddaughters offer to bring Mahrree a pillow which she declined.

She sat soaking in the warmth of the day, deliberately not thinking about tomorrow, or any days after that, as she slowly ran her fingers through Perrin’s shaggy white hair, damp with sweat, and kept her other hand on his broad chest to feel his heart continue to beat, albeit erratically. This was the only day in their lives that mattered.

At one point he opened his eyes.

“Ready to go inside?” she asked.

“That’s not where I want to be,” he whispered.

“Have to go in again some time.”

“Not planning on it.”

“What do you mean, Perrin?”

“I refuse to die in our bed,” he said quietly. “I won’t let you go back to that every night, knowing that’s where I was when I went.”

Tears filled her eyes again. She didn’t know she had any more. “But . . . what about the General Shin tradition?”

Slowly he whispered, “Since when am I one to foolishly follow the traditions of my ancestors? We should be like Hogal and Tabbit instead. Outside, resting on your lap. Just need a bonfire.”

Mahrree wiped away her tears that had splashed on her husband’s face. “Oh Perrin, what will I do without you?”

“Who says you’ll be without me—”

Suddenly his face contorted, his breathing quickened, and his body tensed and shuddered.

Mahrree put her hand on his chest again and felt his heart racing.

“You’re right, Perrin, as always. I won’t be alone,” she said hurriedly, frantically, unable to bear seeing him suffer. “You can go. Remember, I’ll always love you.” She bent over and kissed his lips.

He stopped thrashing. His body went still. A quiet gasp slipped through his lips.

Mahrree patted his chest for his heartbeat.

But Perrin was gone.

Chapter 14—“Show me the miracle now!”

Shem had mounted his horse and was just leaving a rectory on the south side of Salem when he heard it.

He’d been reluctant to leave the Shins that afternoon, but felt a great sense of peace as he observed Mahrree and Perrin resting quietly on the bench by the orchard. His most pressing duties that day would take only a couple of hours—his assistants had offered to take care of the majority of his visits—then Shem would be back.

Calla promised she wouldn’t leave the Shins’ house, staying close by with Boskos should Mahrree need her.

But as Shem slowly rode Silver through the neighborhood to the main road of Salem, he knew what he’d find when he returned home. He marveled that no one else could hear it, and he half-heartedly waved back to Salemites who seemed oblivious. He fought back his tears as the noise grew louder every moment.

He made note of the date. The 63rd Day of Weeding Season.

For some reason that day sounded familiar. Then he remembered—it was the day Perrin stood again in front of Edge, as a thirty-one-year-old Major Shin, and assured them in a debate that nothing really had changed in Edge.

Then the Guarders attacked. Shem’s skull received the dent along his hairline which he could still feel, and the next day Hogal and Tabbit Densal died. Forty-one years ago.

The sound was now so loud it was almost deafening.

Voices.

Dozens of them. No, many, many more than that. Thousands of them. And they were all crying out in joy. Cheering. Shouting.

One voice, distinctive and familiar, filled Shem’s ears and produced goose bumps on his arm.

It was General Relf Shin. “He’s coming! Joriana, I see him! Our boy is coming home!”

—-

It was so late that night when Peto went to bed that it was actually morning. But time had lost all meaning. He lay in bed knowing that sleep wouldn’t come, despite his fatigue and heaviness, and wondered why he even bothered.

He couldn’t get out of his mind the expression on his mother’s face when she looked up at him as he came out of the house. He was the first to reach her, Jaytsy right behind him.

All that afternoon he, Lilla, Jaytsy, Deck, Calla, and Boskos had watched his parents from the eating room. They sat at the table quietly talking while observing through the open side door as Mahrree stroked Perrin’s head, patted his chest, or ran her fingers through his hair. No one wanted to bother their quiet afternoon, but no one wanted to leave them alone, either.

They all saw Perrin suddenly writhe, and the women gasped in unison as Boskos lunged for his medical bag.

Peto ran out the door straight for the orchard.

By the time he reached her, Mahrree was trying to smile but her chin was trembling so violently that she couldn’t hold it. Peto knew immediately what happened as he kneeled in front of his lifeless father. He hadn’t expected him to go so quickly. He thought maybe in a week, not in a few hours.

Mahrree didn’t want to get up. She wanted to stay there, with his still head in her lap, for as long as she could. And while the family slowly filed past their Puggah again, she remained there, silently weeping and stroking his head or twisting a lock of his hair around her finger.

It wasn’t until Shem arrived that she finally agreed to get up. She didn’t go far, just into the arms of Jaytsy as they sat on the ground next to him and wept together. Peto wanted to sit and sob with them as well, but he felt a weight on his shoulders that didn’t let him do so just yet.

He was now the head of the Shin family.

That meant comforting the many children who kept coming to him for hugs, caressing his wife as she sobbed loudly, and exchanging encouraging glances with his brother-in-law who seemed to feel an equal weight on his shoulders as well as he held his children. Now the entire Briter family saw Deck as their head.

Yudit had arrived a short time later with a bundle of white burial clothing. She said she “just had a feeling.” It was her duty in their rectory to bring the clothing to mourning families, and Peto had never known her to not “have a feeling” when the time came. He wondered just how long she’d had the shirt and trousers, waiting. Yudit rushed to Mahrree and held her as the women wept together.

Nothing seemed real as Peto helped Shem and Deck with the dressing custom. Soon after a death in Salem, the sons and brothers of a man, or the daughters and sisters of a woman, dressed the deceased in pure white clothing to signify their passage to Paradise.

Peto had assisted and advised in the dressing of many men in his rectory, but never had he experienced the astonishing depth of sorrow of dressing someone in his own family. It was a good thing so many were there to help; at some point either he, or Deck, or Shem was so overcome that a grandson had to step in to help fasten a button or straighten a trouser leg for his father.

Several minutes later, General Perrin Shin was laid out peacefully on the bench in the orchard, his body growing cold.

Mahrree sat surrounded by the rest of the family on the ground, her chin quivering to see her husband in radiant white clothing that matched his hair.

At dinner time, which came and went unnoticed as the families sat in weeping clumps in the orchard, Peto made his way to the message tower. It was time to let Salem know.

One of the messengers came quickly down the ladder, followed by his companion. “Rector Shin, I couldn’t help but notice some activity in your back garden.”

Peto could only say, “The general is no longer in pain.”

The tower men sagged in disbelief.

“Please send up a message,” Peto said. “For all of Salem. Fly the general’s banner, then the white one.”

“Rector, I’m so sorry,” one of them whispered, and his younger companion sniffled.

“Thank you,” Peto mumbled. “I’ll be back later tonight with burial details. I have a feeling we’ll need to do something at the arena tomorrow. There may be a few people who want to say their goodbyes.”

The men nodded somberly and headed back up the tower.

Peto slowly walked back to the house. He heard the chimes as he reached the front porch and half-heartedly looked up at the tower to read the message he never thought he’d see.

First up was the red flag, meaning the message was for all of Salem, then the blue striped general’s banner, then the long, slim white banner signifying death.

A crowd would soon come.

Perhaps Perrin Shin had planned to pass away on that bench. It really was the best place to let people see him. Plenty of room, places for people to congregate and talk in the orchard. And it was a beautiful day.

He always had a plan, even up to the end.

Less than half an hour later somber Salemites started to arrive, with food that they placed quietly around the family they knew would forget about eating, and they kept coming, for hours.

Peto also considered that maybe Perrin passed away on one of the longest days of the year, just to give people more daylight. They were all a blur in his grieving mind as they hugged him and the family on their way to touching General Shin’s cold hand.

Except one face was hard to forget, and Peto couldn’t get her words out of her mind now as he laid in his bed and looked at the dark ceiling.

“A place of miracles! That’s what you said. Show me the miracle now!” Eltana Yordin had marched, furious, to Shem and Peto before she went to see Perrin.

Shem took her arms but she pushed him away.

“Is this what you brought me here for? To give him back to me, then present me with another dead general?” she shrieked to the astonishment of the reverent crowd in the orchard. “How many more do I need? What did you do wrong, Guide?” she sneered. “Your people starved themselves for a day, prayed for him, and still he died. Just what kind of Creator do you follow anyway?”

“Mrs. Yordin,” Peto said calmly, aware that the majority of Salemites were watching them, aghast. “We follow a Creator who has a plan for each of us. No matter how faithful we are, we cannot change His plans. It was His will that Perrin Shin return to him today.”

But Mrs. Yordin wasn’t accepting that. “No truly benevolent Creator would allow such a thing to happen, would allow the world to crumble this way! Where is He? Sitting on some distant planet watching us, thinking, ‘Oh look how peaceful that little world is. How lovely.’ If He really knew what was happening here, He’d stop it!”

Shem took her arm again and turned her gently to him. When he spoke his voice was powerful yet kind.

“Eltana, He knows what’s happening. More intimately than you could imagine. And He feels sorrow for the world, more powerfully than you can feel it. But this is the Test, and He will not stop it. But He will reward us when it is over. You can’t stop the pain a child feels when he’s suffering, but you can comfort and assure him the pain will eventually pass. Eltana, choose to be comforted. Trust that in the end, the pain will stop. Choose to have faith and believe. Then you’ll see miracles. Then you’ll feel joy.”

Peto would never forget the look on her face. How she could deny the power and warmth of Shem’s words was beyond his comprehension, but she did.

Enraged, as if all of this had happened merely to spite her, she said, “The only miracle I want to see is a dead Lemuel Thorne! He’s the last general who needs to die—so do it! You know how to use a sword, Sergeant Major, so use it!”

Those words turned nearly every head in the vicinity to stare at their gentle guide.

Shem recoiled, but stood his ground. “That’s not my calling, Eltana.”

“Then whose is it?” Her attention was caught by something just past Shem.

Peto turned to see who she gazed at, and his heart plummeted to his feet.

Young Pere stood several feet behind Shem, watching Mrs. Yordin intently. His arms were folded and he looked remarkably like his grandfather. If he were wearing a blue uniform the resemblance would have been jolting.

Peto turned to Mrs. Yordin. She must have had the same thought, because the ferocity in her eyes turned to calculated determination. She shifted her gaze back to Shem.

“Until I see a dead General Thorne, I cannot believe in miracles.”

The two elderly women she lived hurriedly came to her side. “Come, Eltana, let’s go say farewell to the general. The line’s shorter now,” one of them said, guiding her away.

The white-haired woman who stayed behind put a hand on each of the men’s arms.

“I’m so sorry about her,” she said to Shem and Peto. “She’s been going on and on about Colonel Shin ever since she arrived. But I think his passing may actually help. She hasn’t wept about what she’s left behind, but this might get her dealing with her losses. The Creator’s timing is always perfect, isn’t it, gentlemen? Don’t fret about her. We’ll take care of everything.” She patted the men’s arms and went to stand with her sister and Mrs. Yordin, who refused to look back at Peto or Shem.

Peto turned to Shem, but Shem was watching Young Pere behind him. Something passed between them, a look that only the original Perrin Shin might’ve been able to decipher.

“She’s right,” Young Pere said in a low voice. “We starved ourselves for him for nothing.”

“Not for nothing, Young Pere,” Shem said. “Now we know the Creator’s answer is ‘No.’ Now we know we did all we could, and we can live peaceably with that knowledge.”

Young Pere arched one eyebrow, sending a shiver down Peto’s back.

“Who feels like living peaceably?” Young Pere spun on his heel and marched to the barn.

Peto started after him, but Shem caught his arm. He should have caught his daughter-in-law’s arm instead.

“I’ve HAD it with him!” Salema announced as she appeared seemingly out of nowhere and, with shocking speed and gumption, broke into a waddling run after her cousin.

Peto and Shem were too stunned to react.

She reached the barn doors just as Young Pere did, and followed him in, shouting, “How dare you!”

“Oh no,” both Shem and Peto murmured. Unsure of how to proceed, they looked around for someone else intent on intervening, maybe someone else who’d have insight as to what to say to keep Salema and Young Pere from starting an all-out fight. But Jaytsy was holding three of her weeping children, Deck was engaged in a conversation, and Lek—who both of the men were hoping to locate—was nowhere to be seen.

Shem and Peto looked at each other with dread as they heard the snatches of muffled arguing from the barn. Fortunately, it was well built and tight, or thousands of Salemites would have heard General Shin’s grandchildren shouting at each other.

“—don’t need another lecture, Salema! I’m not your husband or your brother, so—”

Shem and Peto both cringed. A few others standing nearby in the orchard turned as they heard the angry noises come from the barn, and gave the guide and rector pained looks of sympathy before respectfully turning their backs.

“—you WILL listen to someone, before you cause—”

“Another war?” Peto whispered to the guide.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Shem assured him, patting Peto’s shoulder, but already it was too late. They saw Young Pere run out of the barn, at full speed, and head up to Deck’s pasture lands.

Peto lunged to follow him, but Shem gripped his shoulder tighter.

“No, Peto,” he whispered. “He’s not ready to listen. This is how he’ll grieve. Young Pere will return when he’s ready.”

Peto watched him rapidly become smaller on the hillside, and his chest tightened. He couldn’t bear to lose two Perrin Shins in one day.

Salema came out of the barn a moment later, her eyes red and puffy from weeping.

Lek appeared next to his father.

“What’d she just do?” he asked in a low tone as his wife penitently made her way back to them.

“I’m guessing a lecture,” Shem said quietly back. “And it didn’t go well.”

Lek sighed and turned to Peto. “I’m sorry, Uncle Peto. All of this has been . . . well, hard on her. On all of us. I don’t think any of us are reacting properly.”

“It’s all right, Lek,” Peto assured him as Salema neared. Her eyes reflected devastation. “I don’t think there is a proper way to react.”

“I am so sorry, Uncle Peto,” Salema whimpered. “I just was so angry . . . I shouldn’t have yelled at him, then . . .” She slumped into her husband’s arms, overcome with sorrow, regret, and probably some severely strained belly muscles from her jog.

Lek hugged her tenderly and said, “There are times for lectures, and there are times for love.” Then, demonstrating that he recognized the difference himself, said nothing more as he held her.

Peto had stayed up late that night waiting for Young Pere to return. He kept looking out the windows long after the last visitors left, and after the tower messages went up announcing the memorial service for Perrin the next afternoon.

He kept glancing at the hills as he picked up his father’s body, with Deck and Shem, and brought it to rest in the general’s office for the night.

There was something he noticed out in the dark evening, but was too wrapped up in grief and despair was he to do anything about it: Clark was down in the pasture.

He knew. Somehow, Clark knew.

Peto peeked out the windows again as they moved the sofa into the office so Mahrree and Calla could sit together by Perrin all night. Many of his other children came to him, and he and Lilla spent time with each of them in their bedrooms wiping their tears, kissing them good night, and assuring them that Puggah was fine and happy where he was, and that he knew how much they would miss him.

Peto finally assumed Young Pere might be asleep somewhere, probably in the barn.

Before he went to bed, Peto checked on his mother and Calla for the fifth time, and found them leaning against each other in a shallow sleep. Peto crept into the room so as to not disturb them.

He touched his father’s cold face, brushed aside some of his hair, and sighed as he looked at him.

It was over so fast.

Peto leaned over and kissed his father, probably for the first time since he was a toddler. “I still need you, you know,” he whispered. “Please don’t go too far. Let me hear you from the woods every now and then, all right?”

He didn’t know if he expected an answer or not, but he sighed again and quietly slipped out and up to his bedroom.

That’s where he had been for the last hour, staring into the dark. It was useless. Dawn would be here in a few hours anyway.

He slid out of bed so as not to disturb Lilla and Morah, who was snuggled up against her mother, and walked over to the wardrobe. He opened it, felt for the old envelope he knew was still there, pulled it out, and went down to the kitchen where he lit a candle, then dropped the fading envelope on the small table.

General Perrin Shin was gone.

Peto stared at the envelope, wanting to read it again, yet also wanting to destroy it. He had treasured it and carried it for years, and now it felt as dead as his father.

He sat down heavily in a chair and, dropping his head in his hands, finally let the tears fall that he’d been fighting all evening. Now that the house was quiet he could finally grieve.

A warm hand gently touched his neck. “Oh, Peto,” Lilla said softly, and she wrapped her arms around his head and cradled him as he sobbed.

Eventually his weeping slowed, and she pulled out a chair next to him. “The Papa Pere Prophecy,” she sighed as she pulled the envelope to her.

Peto couldn’t help but scoff a chuckle through his tears. “You really should stop calling it that. Not very respectful.”

“He said he wanted me to remember him that way, as my Papa Pere,” she began to choke again. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “It’s your turn. I’ve been so worried about you. What can I do for you?”

He shrugged and rubbed his eyes.

Lilla fingered the envelope. “So . . . what are you going to do with this?”

“I don’t know. He’s gone now, but it doesn’t feel like it was fulfilled. My grandfather Relf was so sure, Lilla, so sure. He wasn’t the kind of man do to anything lightly. ‘The greatest general the world ever saw.’ He was adamant about that.”

“Maybe he was hoping his son would be the general he wasn’t?” Lilla suggested. “Or maybe Perrin Shin’s legacy is the one he’s left for his descendants. All that he did to get them here, what he sacrificed for his family to grow, to know the truth? I know all of them think he was the greatest general in the world.”

Peto sat, despondent. “I thought about pulling it out yesterday, reading it to him, maybe guilting him into getting better so he could still fulfill it. Telling him his old wolf father would have been able to beat it, and live to tell me about a dream! But I couldn’t. I just felt it wasn’t the right time. And now there’s no time left at all. Only you and I know what he could have been. He was a great man, he did so much, but . . .” Peto nudged the envelope helplessly. “Lilla, he’s gone!”

He buried his face in his hands again, his shoulders shaking.

She leaned against his arm, tears streaking down her face as he sobbed.

“I just don’t get it. I just don’t get it,” he whispered. “My grandchildren are supposed to remember this document, but when? I’ve asked the Creator what this all means. All I get back is, Wait.” His hands came down to reveal his face blotchy with grief. “I really don’t appreciate that answer: Wait. You know how many times He’s given me that answer?”

Stunned to see him so low, she gripped his arm. “And how many times did He fulfill that promise, Peto? You’ve waited and you’ve seen the miracle?”

“Every time, Lilla,” he admitted. “But I just don’t see how this one will get answered. It just can’t be. There’s no final General Shin in the world to lead us into a great battle. Even he saw the pointlessness of being called General of Salem.”

“Rector Shin!” Lilla said in a shocked whisper. “Since when do you lack faith?”

“When my heart’s dead, Lilla.” Even he was stunned by his despair. There was nothing left. Nothing. They’d tried so hard to save him, and the Creator took him anyway.

She shook his arm frantically, as if that would shake hope back into him. “That’s when you need your faith the most, Peto! You need to believe that you simply don’t understand all that the Creator has planned for us. You of all people know miracles happen in ways we can’t understand. Your mother got her house and her dozens of children around her, didn’t she? What could’ve been more amazing than that? The Creator already knows the end of everything, so until we can too, you just have to trust Him, and stop trying to second guess Him!”

Peto couldn’t move, but stared at the old envelope.

Gently Lilla took it up, carefully removed the old document and laid it on the table, smoothing it flat. The high-quality ink was still as dark as it was the day the teenage Peto wrote down his grandfather’s words in Idumea. Lilla lightly fingered the signature of Relf Shin.

Peto touched it too.

“Keep it, Peto. Keep it safe. The time’s not right yet,” Lilla decided. “You will live to see the day. See, you wrote that right there. Terrible handwriting, by the way. Looks more like ‘Petu wil leve to sea tha daiu.’”

Peto’s shoulders started to shake, this time in weary laughter. “So maybe we just got it wrong so many years ago,” he chuckled, but immediately the tears fell again. “Ah, Lilla, do you really think so?”

“We have at least . . . thirty more years, I think. So much can happen in thirty years, you know.”

He picked up the parchment again. “It was just three years after this that we came to Salem. Jaytsy was married and expecting Salema. Father had resigned, we were going to be tried in Idumea, Mother would have been executed . . .” Peto shook his head at the memory of it. “So much happened in such a short time, I never would have guessed then.”

“Your grandfather said this was for you,” Lilla reminded him. “Perhaps you’ve held on to this for this very day, for this exact moment. It’s a message from Paradise, telling you that it’s not all over yet. You need to . . . wait.”

Peto analyzed his grandfather’s writing and the note he made in the margin. Where Peto had written “general in Idumea,” Relf had drawn a line to it and wrote instead in his more careful hand, “the world.” Peto felt a warmth he’d felt before and knew it was comfort from the Creator.

But then the feeling changed.

The warmth heated intensely until it burned throughout his entire body. Energy so overpowered Peto that he felt he could have leapt to his feet and run twenty miles in an instant. A smile came across his face that he couldn’t have fought even if he wanted to. New tears filled his eyes, but not of sorrow.

Joy. Pure joy.

He felt a presence in the chair next to him, remarkably like his father. He could even smell him, earthy sweet. The presence overtook him and his eyes closed, now feeling weakened by the sensation.

Lilla gripped his arm and gasped. She felt it too.

Wait.

The word came from inside both Peto and Lilla, surrounded them in the kitchen, then settled on the parchment before them.

As if a great bear wrapped his arms around them, the presence hugged them powerfully from the outside, taking away their breath. Then it seeped into their souls, settling in their hearts.

And it faded peacefully away, except for a small burning that promised to linger.

“Papa Pere!” Lilla whispered.

“Yes, Father,” Peto whispered. “Message received. We’ll wait.”

With his vision so blurry that he could barely see what he was doing, he tenderly picked up the parchment, kissed it, folded it again, slid it in the envelope, and held it to his heart where the flame continued to burn.

—-

Young Pere was awakened by the sound of metal hitting stone, over and over again, tapping rhythmically. He stretched and tried to focus on where he was. And why.

The barn. And because he didn’t want to sleep in that house last night.

He sat up and brushed straw off of his shirt. The tapping continued. Fully irritated, he got up, climbed down the loft ladder, and walked outside.

The sun had not yet risen over the mountain, and out of the corner of his eye Young Pere noticed that Clark was lying in the pasture. It wasn’t his normal state, but the old horse was getting old.

There was also enough light to make out Relf standing at the enormous boulder that straddled the dividing line between the Briter and Shin gardens. For years it had been the spot for gathering the family, for mothers to climb up to search the area for missing children, for children to climb and look for the mothers looking for them, and in the Snowing Season it was the base of icy slides and snowy forts.

But this morning Relf was chiseling it with his hammer. As much as he wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone, Young Pere was so aggravated that he needed to know why Relf was making such a racket. He strode over to the stone where he was startled to see two letters already there.

PE

“Do you realize how early it is?” Young Pere demanded.

“Do you realize how worried Papa was about you last night?” Tap, tap, tap.

Young Pere shrugged. “I was just in the barn.”

“He didn’t know that though.” Tap, tap. “Don’t you think he’s got enough on his mind right now without you taking off in a huff?” Tap, tap, tap, tap. “Papa needs us now. He doesn’t need to be up half the night fretting.”

Young Pere rolled his eyes. “What are you doing to the boulder?”

“It’s no longer just a boulder,” Relf told him. “It’s Puggah’s headstone.” Tap, tap. “We’re burying him here, between the two gardens.”

Young Pere groaned. “I thought it was going to be up on the hillside.”

“Muggah changed her mind.”

“But it’s so rocky here. This will be much harder to dig.”

Relf spun around to face his brother, a lock of his blond hair sticking to the sweat already on his forehead. “Who cares? If we have to dig a little harder, then we dig a little harder! If Muggah wants Puggah nearby, then we will bury him nearby! It’s not about what’s easier or more convenient for you, Young Pere—it’s about doing what is needed for the most good for the family!”

Young Pere was unmoved. “Digging in this isn’t going to do me the most good,” he mumbled.

Relf threw up his hands, nearly tossing his chisel and hammer. “There’s that word again—‘me’. Why should you care so much about yourself?”

“Because my grandfather died yesterday,” Young Pere snapped. “Or maybe you didn’t notice?”

“My grandfather died yesterday too, Young Pere,” Relf said gently. “None of us expected that. None of us are going to get over it soon. We all need to find our own ways to honor him and work through this. I know what you’re feeling—”

“No, you don’t!” Young Pere said sharply. “You just don’t know all there is to know.”

Relf took a step toward his brother.

Young Pere took two steps back.

“It’s all right to feel angry, sad, shocked,” Relf assured him. “It’s what you’re supposed to feel. Just let us feel with you. We can all help each other through this—”

“I don’t need anyone’s help, Relf!” Young Pere said with barely controlled rage. “I don’t need to sit and cry like a baby in the grass with anyone.”

“Well you need to do something, Young Pere,” Relf sighed. “Don’t you dare go into the house with that attitude. Papa and Mama and especially Muggah need our support, not our aggravation. You know what you need?”

“Yes, but you’re going to tell me what you think anyway, aren’t you?”

Relf smiled faintly. “You, my little brother—” he said to his sibling who stood several inches taller than him, “—need to go get a shovel and work out some of that anger. I’m carving now so I can get a start on his name. But I’m also out here so early because I have my own store of anger to take out on this rock. It’s helping, Young Pere. Just look how deep those letters are. When I’m in a good mood, I can never chisel that deep. I should be depressed more often when I work.” He wanted to give his brother a genuine smile but couldn’t find one yet.

Young Pere sighed and looked down at the ground below the boulder. “You’re dropping bits of rock on where we need to dig. That’s going to make it even more rocky.” But he nodded at his brother and went to retrieve a shovel that stood in the ground next to Aunt Jaytsy’s first row of potatoes.

Without another word Young Pere began to dig a few feet behind Relf.

The ground was hard. That’s why Aunt Jaytsy’s garden ended several paces before the boulder. Young Pere didn’t get too far before he had to stop to pull out a large stone and toss it by the boulder.

Relf stopped his tapping, smiled dimly at it, then put the large stone in a crevice of the boulder.

He had plans for that one.

—-

“Peto, he’s back!” Lilla was looking out the eating room window toward the Briters.

Peto joined her by the window and sighed in relief as they watched their middle son digging the grave.

“What are you going to say to him?” Lilla asked. “Today’s really not a day for confrontations—”

“I agree. Just looks like he could use a little help.”

By the time Peto pulled on his boots, retrieved the pick axe and headed to the boulder where Young Pere was digging, Deck was already there with his sons Viddrow, Cephas, and Atlee.

Boskos and Zaddick Zenos arrived moments later, shovels in hand, and Hogal and Kew Shin followed their father. A lot of sons had a lot of grief to work out.

Peto put a hand on Young Pere’s shoulder and squeezed it. Young Pere looked up, nodded once, then went back to work loosening the dirt around another large rock.

None of the men and boys spoke as they worked. The only sounds were those of moving dirt, clashing rock, and Relf’s constant tapping on the boulder. The older boys and men dug while the younger boys retrieved the large rocks and stacked them near the boulder.

Finally, Peto put a hand on Relf’s shoulder. “You’ll need to step aside for a while, son. We need to dig at the base of the boulder.”

“That’s all right,” Relf said. “I have something else I can do in the meantime.” He took the first stone Young Pere had removed from off the boulder and sat down with it, tapping again.

After an hour the grave was ready, and a large stack of stones sat by the boulder.

As the men cleared out the last of the rocks, Peto walked over to Relf, wiping sweat off his brow. “We’re finished, Relf. What are you doing?”

Relf looked up from his work. “It occurred to me that wasn’t the first grave there. There’s another, on the side, but we never properly marked it. I thought I should take care of that. I think Puggah would appreciate it. I remember they were inseparable when I was younger.”

Peto squatted by his son and inspected the stone. The surface was already etched, to be chiseled deeper later. Peto smiled as he ran his fingers across the indentations.

The Cat

336-350

“I forgot his favorite pet was buried there. My father did it himself. Nice touch, Relf.”

“Thanks. And speaking of touch,” he nodded toward Young Pere who was walking back to the barn with Peto’s pickaxe. “I don’t recommend touching him. He’s not taking this well at all.”

“I know,” Peto said. “I think I’ll give him a moment. Maybe after he’s put away that pickaxe.”

Peto was waiting for Young Pere when he came out of the barn. “Sleep all right last night, son?” he asked as casually as he could.

“Sure,” Young Pere answered shortly and brushed past his father on his way to the house.

Peto jogged to catch up. “I don’t think you’ve heard all of the arrangements for today. We’re bringing Puggah to the arena just before noon. That will give people time to see him again and it’s also where we’ll have the memorial service. Then only the family will bring him back here for burial. Your grandmother was hoping each of the boys would help move him.”

“Move him how?” he mumbled.

“Army tradition in Idumea. All of the soldiers help carry the fallen to their graves . . .” Peto couldn’t keep up the conversational tone, because the words coming out of his mouth sounded so wrong.

He was planning a burial? They shouldn’t have to do this; they shouldn’t have to do this

He cleared the lump that choked his throat. “All of you were his army, you see, so it’s fitting that we each take turns carrying him.”

“Sure, Papa,” Young Pere curtly responded as he strode through the kitchen door.

Peto didn’t follow him.

He had wanted to grab his son and embrace him, but Young Pere put off a distinct air of not wanting to be touched.

“Father?” Peto whispered. “This was always the time that I’d look at you, and you’d follow him and get him to talk. What do I do now?”

Just show him you love him, Peto.

Peto smiled at the words that formed so clearly in his mind. He hoped he guessed correctly about who planted that in his conscience.

“How, Father?”

Only silence greeted him.

He strained to listen harder, not entirely sure what that entailed, but doing his best to clear his mind.

“You need to talk louder, Father. You’re too far into the woods.” In his mind’s eye, Perrin was a distant blur at the edges of the trees.

I’m not about to give you all the answers, son. Where’s the growth and learning in that?

Despite his misery, Peto smiled. That was definitely a Perrin Shin response.

“Thanks a lot. At least I know you haven’t gone too far.”

It was most likely his imagination, but Peto thought he heard chuckling, and a cat purring, in the distance.

—-

“He’s going to know,” Kanthi Shin accused her cousin, but Tabbit Briter couldn’t control her tears. They were brushing Clark again, after coaxing him to take a little water from the bucket they brought him. He was flat on his side, ignoring them.

“He already knows,” Tabbit sniffled. “He’s mourning, just like us.”

Kanthi wiped her nose and looked up to see her brothers and cousins heading back to their houses after digging the grave. Each of them stopped to look at Clark, whose eyes were blank and unseeing.

Cephas sighed at his sister and cousin. “It’s not much longer now,” he tried to warn them.

“Don’t say that,” Kanthi said, trying to fight her tears.

Fifteen-year-old Nool Shin shook his head at his twin sister. “Cephas is right. This doesn’t look good—”

“You don’t know that,” his fourteen-year-old brother Kew insisted. “He could just be . . . depressed or something. Even Uncle Deck wasn’t sure—”

Their older brother Barnos paused on his way back to his house and put his arms around his brothers. To his cousin and sister practically draped over Clark, he said, “That’s true. None of us know. You’re doing all you can for Clark. He knows it, and Puggah knows it.” His words stumbled on that last part. “Come on, everyone. Time to get cleaned up. Long day ahead of us.”

Chapter 15—“We can do this for him, and for you.”

Mahrree had never known time to move so strangely, or for her thoughts to be so unfocused. She couldn’t get a grip, couldn’t fully comprehend anything around her.

While Calla slept next to her, Mahrree spent most of the early morning hours staring at Perrin lying stiffly on the board across his desk.

It couldn’t be real. It shouldn’t be real. Nothing was real.

There were grandchildren who came in and talked to her, and she knew she responded, but she didn’t know who it was or what she said.

She wanted to hold on to the next little while, when nothing was different. Everything was mostly still the same. He was still in his office, still in their beloved home, her dream home. She could still see him, and touch him. Just for now everything was still fine, and she clung to that.

But he was so still.

She didn’t notice when the men came to the office, or when people shifted around her. She kept staring at him, wondering when his hair turned so white, wondering if the two of them ever did get to argue about who ate the last piece of pie. They were supposed to be like Hogal and Tabbit—

But they didn’t even make it to fifty years of marriage. It was only forty-four years, just a few weeks ago. Such short weeks.

Such short years.

They were supposed to be like Hogal and Tabbit. He even said it himself, yesterday. It was almost a promise.

Just like Hogal and Tabbit

“Mahrree?” Someone kneeled in front of her and took her face in his hands.

Shem.

“Mahrree, I’m sorry to say it, but it’s time.”

“No.”

Tears flowed down Shem’s face as he slowly nodded. “He’s coming back, remember?”

“But he’s not coming back here,” she whispered. “I’m not ready for this. I can’t let him go. I can never be ready for this.”

“I understand,” he said gently. “How could you ever be prepared?”

She felt two more people sit down next to her. Calla was on one side, Jaytsy on the other. Lilla stood behind Shem, her handkerchief drenched and clenched in her fist.

She knew it didn’t matter that she wasn’t ready. Since when did life—or death—ever care about its victims’ readiness?

The office was filling with family, all of them watching her with the most miserable expressions. They were going to take him, if she wanted them to or not.

Mahrree exhaled, stood up, and stepped over to her motionless husband. Not caring what anyone thought, she kissed him on the lips again.

It was very different than yesterday’s kiss. He wasn’t there.

That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, Mahrree. Let that go. I’m still here.

Mahrree smiled dimly at the words that filled her, head to toe.

I’m rather curious to see if there’s as many at this service as there were in Idumea when I was “lost” to the forest. There aren’t many men who can say they had two memorial services, twenty-five years apart.

Mahrree almost laughed. She certainly smiled.

Peto watched her, worriedly. Everyone watched her closely, perplexed at her swinging emotions.

“I’m guessing he’ll be watching to see who shows up today,” she told them softly. “He missed his service in Idumea twenty-five years ago, after all.”

“Caraka’s coming,” Shem told her. “He saw the people going to his service at the biggest stadium when he left the Administrative offices in Idumea back then. Maybe he can give us a comparison.”

Mahrree nodded and sighed, then patted Perrin’s cold hand.

Stop it, Mahrree. That’s creepy.

You be quiet, she thought back with a smirk.

Go ahead and make me. I dare you.

Mahrree snorted a laugh, which startled her. It certainly startled everyone in the room who stared at her uncertainly.

She covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I know why I did that,” she said, still smirking.

Liar.

Deck nodded to her, with a meaningful look in his eyes. “I think I know why you did.”

Shem tenderly took her arm and whispered in her ear. “He’s been doing it to me, too. He keeps telling me that he knows things now that I don’t. Death doesn’t change our personalities, does it? He’s still such a tease.” Shem was smiling, despite his tears, which made Mahrree start to weep yet again.

“He doesn’t like that, you know,” Shem said, wiping her face.

“Well, it’s his fault!”

“He knows that, too.”

He was there, in the room. More than just his body. She could feel him, and even smell him, earthy sweet. Whenever she buried her face into his neck at night and inhaled deeply, that was the singular scent of his comfort, of his strength, of his love, of him.

With every thought she could generate she sent him the message, Come back to me, Perrin. Like Hogal and Tabbit. You said that, remember? Like Hogal and Tabbit—

Nothing happened, but her family continuing to stare at her in pity.

Unable to bear their sympathetic gazes any longer, and knowing she had to face the inevitable, Mahrree turned to Peto and Deck, dressed in their lightest colored clothing. That was the tradition in Salem. The deceased wore all white, and everyone else wore a light color as well. Paradise was a place of light, not darkness.

She stepped over and patted each of them. “You look wonderful.” Seeing their sons behind them, trailing out to the gathering room, she called, “All of you. Thank you. It’s a long way. Are you sure you don’t want to use the wagon and horses?”

Peto shook his head. “No, Mother; we’ll all take turns carrying him. It’s only a few miles. We can do this for him, and for you.”

“Thank you,” Mahrree whispered.

Reverently, Deck and Cambo went to the front of Perrin, while Peto and Relf went to the back. Together they squatted, then hefted the board carrying his body up onto their shoulders, then slowly carried Perrin out of the office.

For the very last time.

Mahrree blubbered.

In the gathering room stood the rest of the Shin, Briter, and Zenos men and teenage boys in a profound silence. They followed Perrin, ready for their turns to carry him to the arena in the heart of Salem.

Shem signaled for Mahrree to follow, but she couldn’t. Suddenly her heart was so heavy again, her muscles didn’t have the strength to move it. She’d felt Perrin follow his body out, most likely to whisper warnings to the boys about not tripping.

Only because Jaytsy and Lilla took either side of her did Mahrree find her feet moving, and they led her out to follow her husband.

—-

Shem was sure that at any moment he’d lose it. Already during the night he’d wept to sheer exhaustion twice alone in his bedroom, because his wife was sitting next to her best friend in this office. He’d thought about joining them but first he needed to find his own strength to share, which he found in short supply.

He only had to hold it all together until the end of the service. Then, he could collapse into his wife’s arms and sob like a little boy who’d lost his best friend and big brother.

He should stay near Mahrree, he decided, to help her in case Lilla and Jaytsy no longer could. Shem was just about to follow her when Calla caught his arm and nodded for him to wait. They watched as the boys in the gathering room stepped aside to let Mahrree and her escorts follow behind Perrin. The grandsons shuffled in line to follow.

“Calla,” Shem whispered to her as the room rapidly emptied, “I need to be with them—”

“I know,” she whispered, “We’ll catch up to them. But first there’s something I need to know. Wait for just a moment.”

They watched as the rest of the families silently fell in behind the boys and Mahrree, and peered out the window to see them making their way somberly down the dirt road. Lek drove a wagon behind them, in case anyone needed a ride.

Growing anxious, Shem raised his eyebrows in questioning to his wife, but her gaze had shifted inexplicably to the empty sofa where she’d sat all night long.

She nodded once to it and smiled before turning to Shem. “Tell me about Tabbit and Hogal Densal.”

Shem blinked at her. “The Densals?” he asked as they made their way out of the house to bring up the end of the procession. “Perrin’s great aunt and uncle? Why?”

“Because Tabbit Densal sat with Mahrree and me last night for quite some time,” Calla explained.

Shem was hardly surprised. Paradise frequently dropped by and communicated with Calla as if she were an old friend.

“Was she . . . on the sofa?” Shem asked. “As we left?”

“Yes,” Calla said easily. “She said you could explain a few things better than she could. During the night Tabbit told me that Mahrree doesn’t understand, that she’s going to need some help later. Apparently Mahrree was expecting something to happen before now, as it happened with Tabbit and Hogal, but I couldn’t quite understand it all. I suppose my own grief kept getting in the way of my ability to listen. So tell me about the day the Densals passed to Paradise.”

“All I know is from what Mahrree told me, but . . . oh. Oh, now I see,” Shem said as they left the front garden and walked behind Lek’s wagon. “In fact, today is their anniversary, of sorts. You see, Tabbit Densal was Perrin’s great aunt, but the Densals were more like his grandparents. She and Hogal were very close . . .”

—-

Young Pere sat almost at the rear of the arena, leaning forward with his head down on the back of the bench in front of him. The rest of the family were in chairs and benches set up near Puggah’s body at the large center stage, talking quietly with those who came to say goodbye. The great-grandchildren wandered around the empty stage, not quite sure what was going on, but feeling the heaviness of the day and behaving surprisingly well.

Young Pere glanced up occasionally and sighed. The line to see his grandfather wove all the way to the back and out the doors. The memorial service would never start on time at this rate, and the arena was filling with those who already passed his body. People had lined the road as their procession made its way into the heart of Salem, then all of them fell in line behind the family so that thousands arrived at the arena together. This could take all afternoon.

He put his head back down, exhausted. Maybe he didn’t sleep so well last night. Maybe Boskos was right—he wasn’t completely recovered from his fall off the school. Digging this morning didn’t help, either. Whatever it was, Young Pere felt a dark brooding that made him want to lie down on the floor and go back to sleep. In an attempt to stay awake, he listened to the conversations that drifted past him.

“I can’t believe he’s gone.”

“It was so fast.”

“Mrs. Shin certainly seems to be struggling, doesn’t she? Poor woman. She’s smiling one moment, then weeping the next.”

“What are we going to do for a general now?”

“I don’t know. I heard some suggesting that Rector Shin should be given the position.”

A couple of bodies sat down in a vacant bench a few rows behind Young Pere.

“Certainly he should have the position. Peto Shin has done as much to secure Salem as his father has, but what about the title?” The voice sounded as if it came from a younger man.

“I don’t know that he needs the title of general,” said a man who sounded older. “I think Gleace gave Perrin the rank of general just because that’s what he was used to. True, he was also in charge of the militia, but I think Guide Zenos should probably take that position now. Not as if he needs to do much more than retrain the trainers every year.”

The younger man sighed. “I just don’t understand something . . . what about Pax’s prophecy?”

Young Pere held his breath, hoping to hear the response. He’d been wondering that himself.

“Ah,” the older man said. “I thought about that too. I pulled out The Writings last night and . . . Wait, here’s someone who undoubtedly can help. Assistant Holl, do you have a moment?”

Young Pere heard a third man, who was walking past his bench, stop behind where his hunched form remained.

“Gentlemen,” said Assistant Holl, one of Shem’s chosen twelve men, “I always have a moment. Quite a day, isn’t it? So unexpected. What can I do for you?”

“Pax’s prophecy,” the younger man said, “what he saw in vision when he first saw the valley that would become Salem. I thought, that is, I’d always been told that . . . General Shin might have been the Deliverer.”

Young Pere heard the assistant sigh. “Many people have read more into that than they should. Look, I’ve got it right here.”

Young Pere rolled his eyes. Of course the assistant would have The Writings and the verses at hand. He could almost see the dark script as Holl reverently read the words Guide Pax had recorded when he first laid eyes upon the empty valley.

The inhabitants of this new city will live in peace until the end comes, when the enemy will threaten to annihilate them.

But before that time the Creator will send one to prepare them. From the highest ranks of the enemy will He call one to mark the path of escape for the valiant.

The Deliverer will ensure the safety of the Creator’s people, until the coming Destruction. Look, there’s a distinct separation.” Holl must have been pointing to the text. “The lines about one from the highest ranks stands alone. Pax would have reviewed the text before it was printed, making sure the lines stood where they should.”

The older man said, “That’s what I noticed last night. It’s another sentence that talks about the Deliverer before the Destruction. We connect all of them in our minds, but I don’t think we should.”

“I agree,” said Assistant Holl. “No one ever said Shin was the Deliverer. Hifadhi knew he was the one from the ranks of the enemy that Pax spoke of; that’s why Gleace made sure he came here. But neither guide ever said that Shin was the Deliverer, nor have I ever heard Guide Zenos claim such a thing. But Shin certainly did mark the paths, didn’t he?”

“Indeed,” agreed the men. “Excellent job.”

“I saw them a couple of years ago coming out of the mountains after one of their trips,” the older man said. “Perrin was in the lead, looking as strong and healthy as a twenty-year-old. He had one of the smaller children on his shoulders. The boy was sound asleep, flopped awkwardly over Perrin’s head. Sweetest thing I ever saw. Not that I was about to tell General Shin that he looked sweet.

The three men chuckled softly.

“I saw him less than two weeks ago,” the younger man said. “He was helping to carry home that unconscious grandson of theirs—”

Young Pere bristled at the tone of his voice, and clenched a fist when he heard the other two men scoff quietly.

“—and I thought he probably could have carried that troublesome boy all by himself. That’s why I can’t believe he went so quickly,” the man’s voice became quieter. “He was so strong.”

“But he was seventy-two,” Assistant Holl reminded.

“I thought he could have lasted another ten, or even twenty years. I really was hoping to see him lead our people to the temple ruin. I used to imagine it when I was a boy,” the younger man said, sounding wistful. “I used to think it must be getting closer to the day, the older he became. I was expecting the last day to be within the next few years, but now? I know what you mean, Assistant Holl, that we misread The Writings to mean what we hope they mean. It’s just that, well I can’t help but wonder, why have we been preparing so much for so many years? Nothing has happened. I’m wondering if anything ever will happen.”

Young Pere was tempted to stand up and shout his agreement. What was the point of all of this!? They’d been preparing for famines and disasters and invasions since before he was born, and now it killed his Puggah—

The assistant’s voice cut into his thoughts. “A few things to consider. How much more do we know about the mountains, about our ability to move people? I know of many families who take trips along the routes and come back with a greater sense of understanding about the Creator and His will for us. Their faith is increased, and any effort that increases faith is never wasted.”

“True, true,” the younger man conceded. “We took a trip like that when I was young. I loved looking at the marks on the trees, deciphering them, knowing why they were there and who put them there.”

Something in Young Pere’s chest burned. He did his best to extinguish it.

The assistant spoke again. “What we do and learn along the way to our destinations is just as important as the destination itself. Now consider this: does it matter when the Last Day is?”

“What do you mean?” asked the young man.

The older man spoke up. “No, it doesn’t, Assistant. The Last Day for Perrin Shin was yesterday. The Last Day for me may be tomorrow. None of us know when our Last Day is.”

Young Pere squeezed his eyes shut.

“That’s right,” Assistant Holl said. “You mentioned you expected to see the Last Day,” he addressed the younger man. “And you will.”

“Are you sure?” the younger man said eagerly. “What do you know of Gleace’s prophecy at the temple site, after the Shins first arrived? I remember hearing that he said something to Zenos and Rector Shin at the time, something about them being there. So it will be coming, right?”

“Not too soon, I hope,” the older man said with a soft chuckle. “I think I’d rather not be here when it happens. I hope I’m on the other side. I imagine the view over there will be much better.”

Assistant Holl chuckled as well. “Yes, it’ll be coming, and I’ve heard Guide Zenos discuss that prophecy. He did say that Guide Gleace told him and Peto that they would see the day, but honestly, it still may be a hundred years away. They may be watching it from the other side with us.”

“So we keep preparing,” the older man told his younger companion. “It doesn’t matter if I ever head up those trails before the army, or if I personally benefit from our family’s restocking the emergency caves, or if I never draw from the long-term reserves I help fill. What I do, I do for others, for some future residents of Salem. I don’t need to eat those rations or use those blankets. I’m satisfied knowing that I’ve done my part.”

“We’re blessed for obeying,” Assistant Holl said, “and that’s the real test: are we obedient even when we can’t see why we should be?”

Young Pere wished he knew how to slip out without drawing attention to himself. He’d sat near the back thinking no one would be there, but the entire arena would fill up, and he was stuck listening to the conversations around him. More praises of General Shin. More memories about him. More sympathy for the family. And he couldn’t get away from any of it.

He was trapped, like a wounded falcon, in an immense barn.

—-

When Guide Zenos stood up before the congregation filling the enormous arena, he smiled in awe. This must have been better than the memorial in Idumea, he thought.

The many conversations, which had been quiet and reverent, fell to silence as the audience saw their guide.

Shem had dreaded this moment. He knew the program would be moving, as all memorial services in Salem were. He was looking forward to the young grandchildren and great grandchildren singing the “buzzing butterflies” song, complete with Perrin’s modifications, and the older grandchildren singing one of the family’s favorite hymns, led by Lilla.

But Mahrree had asked Shem to give the tribute, and he couldn’t imagine anything more difficult, or more important to him. He never really expected to do this. He always thought that the Last Day would come first . . .

“Just a few days ago my best friend and brother said that getting me not to cry was the real challenge,” Shem began in a loud voice as he addressed the tens of thousands of people in attendance.

The crowd smiled. Guide Zenos’s weepy tendencies were legendary. Children throughout Salem looked forward to his annual visits to their congregations. It was their hobby to guess how long it would take before he’d began to cry, and which word would get him going. Shem didn’t mind—he knew at least that way the youth of Salem were paying attention.

“Then he said a few things to me, and I demonstrated why one of his nicknames for me was Sergeant Sniffles.”

The audience grinned.

You’re losing it already, Shem. You haven’t even said my name, and already you’re about to weep. I can see it in your eyes. You’re just so . . . sweet.

Shem began to chuckle. “But I supposed I earned that. Forty years ago, when he was nearing his thirty-second birthday, and I was a spry twenty-two-year-old, I gave him the nickname of Grandpy.”

The audience chuckled softly.

Oh that’s not fair, Shem!

Shem grinned. “Obviously it didn’t stick once we came to Salem. Here he earned the much more respectable nickname of . . . Puggah.”

Now everyone in the congregation was laughing.

It is too fair, Perrin, Shem thought. You forced me to do this. I have no doubt that if our positions were reversed, you’d be telling everyone about my first kiss coming from Sareen on our first Strongest Soldier Race.

Shem heard a familiar chuckle.

“But the name I loved best for him was brother. And the names he loved were husband, son, father, uncle, Papa Pere, General of Salem, and of course, Puggah. Colonel was somewhere down next to Grandpy. High General of Idumea didn’t even make the list. Perrin Shin was the best friend a man could ever have. Even when he was yelling in my face when I was only twenty-two, demanding to know if I was a spy, and trying to extract a confession. He didn’t know for years how close to the truth he was. He was my best friend even when I chased him down on a mad ride to Idumea when he was slightly crazed, and he thanked me by pulling a sword on me. So I beat him up.”

The congregation wasn’t shocked. Most of them had been through Mahrree’s History of the World class, or had a relative who did. Everyone knew the story of when Shem chased down Perrin to keep him from killing the administrators after his parents’ murders.

Shem paused and smiled. “I’ve always been a little vainly proud about that, I must confess. It was the only time I bested him.”

The congregation chuckled in understanding.

I was a bit at a disadvantage at the time, being overcome with grief. But I notice you’re not mentioning that.

My tribute, my version of the story, Shem thought to the voice in his head. You can clarify the details when we all get to your side of the woods.

“I always loved him. Especially when he saw how homesick I was as a young soldier, and took me into his home and let me call him Perrin. But not in front of the other soldiers. Especially when he stayed at my home here in Salem for days sustaining me and taking care of my family and duties when my father died and my second son was born just hours after his burial. Especially when he sat up with me half the night after I was called to be guide seven years ago. He listened to me describe all the reasons why I was unfit for the responsibility, then reminded me that the Creator qualifies whom He chooses. It was times like those that make me believe that Perrin Shin’s favorite name was Son of the Creator. He knew his Creator and His will. He didn’t always, though. Not until he was eighteen did he begin to understand what the Creator expected from him. He became one of the greatest men ever to have lived in the world, or to live in Salem.”

Shem felt something change. He looked down at Mahrree in the front row and noticed Perrin in white and sitting next to her, his arm around her. He nodded and winked. Shem fought the urge to wink back. Mahrree might get the wrong impression.

“Perrin Shin was born in the village of Pools, on the 51st Day of Harvest, 291, the only child of Relf and Joriana Shin. He was named a version of his grandfather’s name, Pere Shin . . .”

Shem was rather impressed with himself. He didn’t start sniffling until the third story, but it wasn’t the story that got to him. It happened when he looked down again at Mahrree and saw Perrin whispering in her ear, trying to comfort her as she alternated between laughing and crying. He wasn’t there alone. The rows of the family were far more crowded than anyone else could see. Shem stumbled a bit on his words as he realized that every worthy Shin, Peto, and Briter ancestor was sitting next to his or her namesake.

Except for Young Pere. As Shem continued to address the crowd he couldn’t see him anywhere with the family.

Shem glanced down again at Mahrree, or rather, at the spot next to her that was filled by more than just Peto.

Perrin nodded in understanding that someone was missing, gave Shem a complicated look, then vanished.

Shem’s voice trembled again as he started the next story. Perrin was going to be busier than ever.

—-

As the last song was being sung—mercifully without him; Young Pere wasn’t much for singing, unlike his mother—Young Pere finally stood up at the back of the arena, startling the dozen or so people around him who hadn’t realized the hunched-over body among them was a Shin. Without looking at anyone, he made his way to the side aisle and tried to subtly walk up it, in order to be in position by the end of the prayer. Soon he was in place with the other grandsons at the stage waiting his turn to carry his grandfather back home.

As the prayer ended, they all regarded him with the same expression: Where have you been?!

He merely looked past them, and noticed Uncle Shem smiling oddly at him, as if welcoming him back. Young Pere looked away without acknowledging him, and followed his brother and cousins over to the plank.

Young Pere took his position at Perrin’s head, opposite of his brother Nool, while Bubba and Holling Briter took the other end. As the audience rose, together the four young men hoisted their grandfather to their shoulders and slowly left the stage, taking the wide front stairs cautiously, guided by Peto and Deck on either side. They walked down the center aisle of the arena toward the back doors, and, for the first time, Young Pere looked to see who had come.

Everyone. From all over Salem. But what caught his attention were the number of blue uniforms scattered in the congregation. They stood out in contrast to the light-colored clothing everyone else wore. There must have been more than fifty men in the army jackets, each standing at attention, saluting the fallen general as he passed.

Young Pere found his vision blurring and was grateful for it. He could no longer see their faces, but still he could make out their dark shapes and their salutes. His jaw trembled as he tried to focus on the doors, not on the people lining the aisle.

A woman’s whisper, however, surprised him. “Chin up, Lieutenant. That’s better.”

He glanced over and saw Mrs. Yordin standing proudly. She didn’t look up at General Shin, but kept her eyes on Young Pere. He nodded briefly to her and cleared his throat.

Just a little further to go and it’d be all over.

—-

Mahrree had never felt so weak as she made her way out of the arena, following her husband. Although the pace was slow, she stumbled over her feet, even with Jaytsy and Lilla holding her up on either side. When they reached the warm sunshine outside, she knew she couldn’t walk the rest of the way home.

Calla came over to her. “Mahrree, come ride in the wagon.” Lek was already there to help her up on to the seat. Calla sat next to her and nodded to Jaytsy and Lilla that she would take care of their mother so they could walk with their children. Shem, following the men, smiled encouragingly at his wife.

Calla put her arm around Mahrree and she leaned heavily against her best friend. “How are you holding up?” she asked as the wagon started.

“I’m not, Calla. To be honest, I really didn’t expect to be here.”

“What did you expect?”

“That he would find a way to . . . to . . .”

“To come get you?”

“Yes!” Mahrree sobbed. “I sat on the sofa waiting for him, but he never came except to tell me he loved me, to tease me as they took his body, but he was supposed to . . .”

“Like Hogal came for Tabbit after he passed?”

Startled, Mahrree sat up and looked at her. “How do you know about that?”

Calla smiled sympathetically. “Tabbit Densal told me last night. She tried to reach you, but understandably you were a little out of reach. Mahrree, she wants you to know that you still have more to do here. Tabbit didn’t. The Creator still needs you here, but He needed Tabbit there. The Creator has provided you with a large family that will care for you. Tabbit left very little family.”

Mahrree slumped in discouragement. “What more can I do here? What good am I? I teach world history at the university, but anyone can do that. Just read out of my book. And I help teach the little ones at home, but their mothers can do that just as well. I help around the houses with chores, but there’s always another child who needs to learn the work. I just take up space, Calla, that someone else could use better than me. If I were gone, Hycy and Wes could have our section as their new home. My purpose was to take care of him,” she gestured feebly to her husband far ahead. “Now that he’s gone, why am I still here?”

No one in Salem had more experience with widows than the guide’s wife. Calla undoubtedly had heard this all before. “Mahrree, Mahrree—no one else can be Muggah. Look at how devastated this family is to lose Perrin. I promise you they’d feel the same way about you. As much as he was their rock, you’re their soft pillow. They can’t bear to lose you both at the same time.”

“But he did something for them, Calla,” Mahrree tried to explain. “For the entire community! They miss him because he gave them so much. They won’t miss me. I don’t do much more than help a little here and there. I could leave now, be with Perrin, and everyone would continue fine without me. Calla,” she whispered, her voice lowering in despair, “I don’t want to be here anymore. Why didn’t he come for me? What have I done wrong? Why doesn’t the Creator want me?” She collapsed against Calla, who patted her shoulder.

“Mahrree, you’ve done nothing wrong. The Creator is pleased with you, I’m sure of it. He still needs you here. This family needs you. You can’t see things clearly right now, but someday you will. You’re more than just Perrin’s wife, more than just someone’s mother and grandmother and great-grandmother. You are Mahrree Peto Shin, a daughter of the Creator, and you still have something to accomplish before you can go. Tabbit told me you still have a great work to do, and someday you’ll understand.”

Mahrree sighed. “Well, Auntie Tabbit, wherever you are, I don’t understand! I don’t know if I want to. I can’t bear to keep living and feeling this pain, Calla.”

“I know you can’t believe it right now, but this pain will become bearable.” Calla wrapped both arms around Mahrree to help hold her up. “Remember how your mother was? After your father passed? In time she learned how to work with his loss. She carved a new life for herself. If I remember the stories correctly, she took to decorating, and later wanted to decorate the fort? She did your bedroom years later, in something called plaid. You know, Shem still has the occasional nightmare about her supervising his building efforts.”

Mahrree snorted softly at the memory of her red and blue plaid bedroom. How did her mother move past the pain? Mahrree was only a teenager when Cephas died. She was too lost in her own grief to look at her mother’s.

Why was it only many years later that she seemed to understand her own mother?

If only Hycymum had written down how she felt, what she did. Mahrree did remember the entire house being redecorated, but that really wasn’t something that was done in Salem. There were no trends or fashions to dictate what color the curtains should be this year. Mahrree didn’t know how to grieve Salem-style—

She wept, for a long time.

Mahrree sighed as she felt her father come back to her again, as he still occasionally did.

She looked at you each day, and wondered how she could help you through the grief. You became her reason for going on. Helping you move on was what helped her move on. How can you imagine no one needs you? You have children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who desperately need you to help them through this. What could be a greater calling than providing comfort to the grieving? Isn’t that part of the Creator’s work?

Mahrree watched the procession in front of her as it stopped to switch carriers. Young Pere seemed pale as he held the board for Con Cadby to take his place. His eyes met hers, and the darkness in them surprised her. He let the procession carry on without him and watched Mahrree’s wagon slowly go past.

She beckoned for Young Pere to hop on to the wagon. He began to shake his head, then climbed on to the back and lay down in the bed, his arm covering his eyes.

You have plenty of work to still do, Mahrree.

I see that. Thank you, Father. Somewhere in my heart I know you’re right. But I’m going to need some time to find that spot.

Of course you will. You have time. All of you do, for now. By the way, it’s been wonderful getting to know my son-in-law. I always knew that I would like him.

—-

The sun was baking them by the time they reached the Eztates. But large thick clouds building over the eastern mountains threatened rain by the evening. While thousands of people had lined the road again, they respected the family’s wishes and no one was left at the gravesite except for the Shins, Briters, and Zenoses. The family stood or sat around the open grave while Perrin’s body changed hands one last time. The last to move Perrin were Deck, Peto, and Shem. The three of them carried him to the coffin that was waiting, gently placed him in, and watched tearfully as Mahrree gave him one last kiss.

Without a word they closed up the coffin. Then all of the men took hold of the ropes to lower the box into the grave. Every last flower from the gardens of the three large houses in the area, as well as from the gardens of the smaller houses of the married grandchildren, had been picked clean, and the granddaughters tossed the flowers in after the coffin.

Sitting on a chair, and supported on either side by her daughter and daughter-in-law, Mahrree watched as the men filled up the hole. So recently her life was absolutely, wonderfully perfect. Now it was a black pit, deeper than the grave that was filling up.

The shovels were set aside after the last bit of dirt was placed, and Peto kneeled at the base of the grave. Everyone bowed their heads.

“Dear Creator, today we bury our beloved Perrin Shin. We ask that You will watch over this site, keep it safe and sacred, until the Last Day. We also ask that You will help all of us who remain to understand Your will, to feel of Your comfort, and to live as well as this, Your son, lived.”

Chapter 16—“Discover anything thought-provoking?”

The large table in the eating room of the Briter house had been filled to capacity while the Briters were away at the memorial service. Yudit had organized the rest of the Zenoses, neighbors, and the rectory to bring enough food to keep all three extended families fed for a few days. That’s where the families began to slowly make their way after Peto’s dedication of the grave. Eating had kind of been forgotten since dinner was missed yesterday. Breakfast was an afterthought that morning, and midday meal had been skipped.

But now, after the little ones tossed the last of their flowers, and their parents quietly walked them to the Briters to feed them, the crowd around Perrin’s grave began to dwindle. After half an hour all that were left were Mahrree, Peto, Jaytsy, and Shem.

Relf stood to the side, his tools in hand, hoping to get in a few more hours of work before sunset. Tomorrow he’d return to his regular job carving stone for a new rectory in the southwest of Salem, so the time he could spend on the boulder would be limited to just the evenings. But it didn’t seem right to continue working on the stone until Muggah was ready to leave.

Mahrree noticed him standing nearby. “It looks wonderful already, Relf. You should have his name finished by this evening, I imagine.”

“But there’s much more to put on it, Muggah. Plenty of stone. I hope you’ll be happy with it.”

“How could I not be?” But she stared at the pile of dirt.

“Mother,” Jaytsy said gently, “you really should eat something. Lilla said you missed breakfast. You look rather peaked.”

Mahrree was tempted to say, “What does it matter?” But she had already promised her father she would at least try. Instead, she nodded. “I will. I just need a few more minutes. Why don’t you three go ahead? I promise I’ll come to the house in a bit. I’d like a little time alone.”

Peto and Jaytsy looked at Shem who nodded to them. They reluctantly stood up, but Shem kneeled down in front of Mahrree. He took her hands into his and kissed them. “All of this will make sense someday. I promise. Oh, Mahrree, I just can’t bear to see you so sad.”

Mahrree tried to smile, but wasn’t sure what twist of muscles appeared on her face. “What would I do without you, Shem?” Then her smile became genuine as she remembered something. “Do you realize we never did tell him about the sedation we gave him during his trauma when he couldn’t sleep in Edge? I actually planned to tell him about that one day.”

Shem managed a grin. “I think I just heard someone in the woods groaning in frustration and rubbing his forehead. He knows now!”

Mahrree looked up. “We had to, Perrin! We needed to sleep!” She patted Shem’s cheek. “Go, get something to eat. And thank you, for everything. You did a wonderful job today, as usual.”

Shem nodded, touched her cheek, then stood up. He put his arms around Peto and Jaytsy and walked them back to the house.

And so Mahrree sat, regarding with contempt the dirt which was slowly beginning to settle. Relf had wandered over to the barn to give her privacy, but now that she was alone she didn’t know what to do. He really wasn’t there.

She had planned to say some kind of goodbye but it didn’t seem appropriate to do so now, and she couldn’t understand why.

Suddenly her thoughts filled with Young Pere. He had stood next to the grave, put in a few shovelfuls of dirt, but then after the prayer he’d bounded off to the end of the garden where some of the married grandchildren’s homes were. Something was in his hands, but Mahrree hadn’t thought at the time to look at what it was. Now she felt an urgent need to see what he was up to.

She stood up from the chair and Cephas came jogging over from his house.

“Ready to get something to eat, Muggah? I can help you.”

She could always count on Cephas Briter to look after her. She often thought it was no accident he was named for her father. He was taller than the original, but had the same gentle gray eyes that now watched her with great concern.

“Actually, no. Cephas, did you see where your cousin went? Young Pere?”

He exhaled. “Muggah, he’s not doing well at all. I saw him walk off. I know he went past Relf’s house, but I lost sight of him after that. I can go find him—”

She squeezed his arm. “I think I’ll take a little walk and see if I can find him myself.”

“But you’re supposed to go in and eat something.”

“I will. I’m not hungry yet. I’ll just go down to the end of your garden and back. You go to the house and finish eating.”

He stepped uncertainly. “Sure I can’t go with you?”

Mahrree shook her head.

—-

Young Pere sat between the thick pine trees that created a little forest thicket. The younger children loved to play in there, but none of them would be bothering him today. He opened the book and skimmed the last few chapters again.

The probation imposed on Colonel Shin for trying to kill Gadiman and taking the food to feed Edge. The meeting of the northern commanders worried about the build-up of Guarders in Moorland. The research into people missing from the world. The planning of the offensive at Moorland. The two hundred Salemite men that no one knew were in the trees waiting for the escaping Guarders. Colonel Shin breaking his probation after the explosions that burned Moorland. His saving of Captain Thorne, Major Yordin, and more than a dozen other soldiers. Their injuries. The pox outbreak. The land grab. The copy of Terryp’s map, made and sent out secretly by Colonel Shin. The excursion sent to Terryp’s land. The Administrators’ presentation calling it poisonous and claiming that the Creator was nothing more than an ordinary man. High General Shin. Mahrree Shin protesting the findings in public and trying to tell the village it was all a lie—

“There you are! For some reason I had a feeling I’d find you here, Young Pere.”

He slammed the book shut and stared up through the branches to see his grandmother. She seemed so small and frail today. Hardly the fierce and determined woman he was just reading about who tried to proclaim to the world that the Administrators were liars. He couldn’t picture her as that woman, either. Maybe Calla had those details wrong as well.

“Muggah. What are . . . what do you want?”

“I want to know how you are,” she said kindly. “This has been such a strange few days. We haven’t spoken for so long.” She tried to push her way into the tight stand of trees but thought twice about it. Instead she knelt, a little stiffly, on the ground. “So?” she asked him through the branches.

“I’m fine,” he said shortly.

Mahrree sighed. “How can you be, Young Pere? I’m a complete mess. I know you must feel that way, too. You and me, we always feel the same ways.”

“All right, I’m not fine,” he admitted. “But I will be,” he added in gentle defiance.

Mahrree nodded slowly. “I suppose we all be, in time. What are you reading?”

“Uh, oh, um . . . I just was—” He realized it was useless to put it off, and he held up Calla’s book.

Mahrree smiled. “I was wondering when you might be interested in that. Discover anything thought-provoking?”

Young Pere scoffed. “Yeah, you could say that.”

Mahrree narrowed her eyes at him. “Such as?”

“He did a lot more than I realized.”

“He wasn’t always just an old man, was he?” Mahrree said. “That was just a recent development, you know. He was one of the greatest men who ever served in the army. He could have been anything, done anything. But instead he chose to do the right things.”

Young Pere couldn’t help but groan as he said, “Sure, Muggah.”

“What do you mean by that tone, ‘Sure, Muggah’? That seems to be all I hear you say lately. Young Pere, where are you going?”

His head snapped up. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, you seem so distant,” Mahrree said. “You hardly give me more than a couple words of an answer, but we used to chat for hours about your plans. So . . . what do you have planned next? I really could use a diversion right now, you know. Something else to keep my mind off of . . . everything else.”

Young Pere offered a half-hearted smile. “Not entirely sure of my next plans right now.”

“Still want to fly?”

“Oh, most definitely.”

“Working on new wing dimensions?”

“You could say that.”

“Young Pere, will you promise me you’ll come tell me before your next attempt? I know I’m not nearly as strong as your grandfather, so I won’t be carrying you home, but I do want to watch you try.”

Young Pere sighed. “Of course. I’ll tell you before my next flight.”

Mahrree nodded. “What else are you planning? About your future, your first career? Not long until you’re eighteen you know.”

“Yes, I know. I’m not sure yet.”

Mahrree waited for something else from him.

He watched for her response.

An uneasy silence hung between them. That never happened before.

“Anything else, Muggah?” Young Pere finally said.

“Come get something to eat with me?”

“I will later.”

“Promise me?”

“Yes. I’ll be home in a little bit.”

Mahrree smiled dimly. “I can still hide pie for you, you know. Most of the pieces I hid I never intended to give to Perrin—” Something caught in her throat, and if it were possible, she appeared to be even more fragile.

She was right about them always feeling the same ways. The idea that she’d never again hide his pie for Young Pere stabbed him with unexpected grief.

It was her tears that startled him. Although she was staring down at her hands, as if to compose herself, there were too many tears to ignore. She was too much to ignore.

Young Pere leapt to his feet, forced himself through the thicket of trees, and knelt to wrap his arms around her. She gasped in surprise, then collapsed like a wilted flower against him.

“I’m so sorry, Muggah,” Young Pere whispered, trying to keep his own tears in check, but knowing he was failing. “I don’t think I’ve told you that yet. You’ve been through so much. It’s just not fair. I’m so sorry.”

Mahrree gripped his arm and kissed it. “Thank you, Young Pere.”

“I want to fix it all, Muggah. Somehow.”

“Young Pere, there’s nothing that needs to be fixed, but healed. We’re starting that, right now.”

He kissed the top of her head and sat down next to her, keeping a supporting arm around her, but not meeting her eyes. He couldn’t focus on anything just yet. “I can do much more than that, Muggah.”

“What do you mean?” she asked and sniffled.

Young Pere sighed. “I don’t know yet. But I promise, when I figure it out, I’ll tell you.”

“Young Pere, all I need you to do is hug me and talk to me. This, right now, is all that we need.”

She didn’t understand. She didn’t dare even try. But maybe it was because she was simply too sad right now to think of anything bigger.

“Sure, Muggah.”

“There’s that answer again.” She chanced to look up into his eyes, and he glanced over at her, sure that his eyes were as red and puffy as hers.

He shrugged. “It’s an easy answer.”

“Remember, there are no easy answers. Only lazy ones.”

Young Pere rolled his eyes. “You just never quit, do you? Are you going to ask me the color of the sky now?”

Mahrree glanced up. “Looks to be rather unsettled, don’t you think? Sunny here, cloudy over there. A storm may be approaching. We should get in, get something to eat,” she hinted.

Young Pere glanced down at the book he dropped on the ground when he wriggled his way out of the trees to his grandmother. He was nearly finished with it, but . . .

“You’re right, Muggah. Let’s go eat.”

—-

Everyone looked immensely relieved when Mahrree and Young Pere came into the house.

Peto and Jaytsy exchanged looks that Mahrree couldn’t interpret, and Cephas picked up a plate of food he must have set down moments before, probably on his way out to look for them.

Peto came over and put an arm around Young Pere. “Mrs. Ost brought over that spicy dish you like so much. I set aside part of it in the kitchen for you.”

“Thanks, Papa,” Young Pere nodded to his father and walked into Jaytsy’s kitchen.

Peto beamed at Mahrree as she sat down and took a plate of food Sewzi brought her. “How’d you do it, Mother? How’d you get him in?”

“I’m not really sure, Peto. I think I just got the timing right. I also think his stomach was more persuasive than anything I said. I’m sure I heard it growling.”

Peto smiled sadly. “We still have a way to go with him, don’t we?”

Mahrree nodded and noticed the potatoes on her plate. For some reason, at every burial this shredded potato dish showed up. If it was some odd Salem tradition or not, she wasn’t sure, but they always tasted like death to her. Especially this batch: someone made them with onions. Perrin hated onions in potatoes.

And then it hit her again. She didn’t have to warn him about them. Didn’t need to steer him to get a large spoonful from another dish.

She watched her family as they finished eating, as the little ones laughed and played, forgetting what happened that day, as the teenagers talked quietly with each other and occasionally chuckled, as her son and daughter spoke with and smiled at their spouses.

She ate the potatoes that tasted like ash.

—-

Jaytsy couldn’t bear to watch her mother anymore, looking so frail, pale, and picking helplessly at her plate of food. It was almost as if Mahrree was trying to die, too, and Jaytsy understood her desire. So what she should say to her, she wasn’t sure.

Her attention was drawn to two-year-old Fennic Zenos, who was sitting on the floor and picking berries out of his pie. Jaytsy winced. He’d be wiping his sticky fingers on his tunic at any moment, and Salema would be waddling over with a damp cloth just a moment too late—

Fennic’s head popped up, as if he’d heard something, and Jaytsy strained to listen for what caught his attention. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Mahrree watching him, too, having given up on her meal.

Jaytsy had already started for Fennic, intent on cleaning his fingers before Salema noticed his mess, when Fennic jumped to his feet. This time, Jaytsy heard it too. Thunder.

“Puggah!” Fennic cried and ran for the front door.

Jaytsy’s heart sank, and several people around Fennic stared at him, Mahrree included. Jaytsy would try to fix that later, but in the meantime she ran after her grandson who had headed out the door to the front porch.

“Puggah! I hear you!” he cried to the approaching storm clouds.

“No, no Fennic. Oh sweety—it’s not Puggah.” Jaytsy scooped him up and held him close. Tears fell as she looked at his happy little face. “Sweety, it’s just a storm. It’s not . . . he can’t . . .”

But Fennic was watching the clouds rolling in, with great anticipation.

Jayts, he thought my singing—yes, I confess, I did sing with them—he thought my singing sounded like thunder.

Jaytsy gasped as the words filled her.

Another rumble reached them, and Fennic waved happily.

If he needs to hear me in the thunder, then I can be in the thunder. Wherever he needs me to be, just let me be.

Then can I have you anywhere as well? Jaytsy thought back.

Of course. But I think you’d rather I be right here.

The feeling was unmistakable. She’d experienced it many times before: her father’s arms wrapped around her from behind in a great big hug. She could even smell him, earthy sweet, as if the coming rain carried his scent with the wind.

“Puggah,” Fennic whispered to his grandmother.

Jaytsy nodded. “I feel him too, sweety.” She sighed in the feeling of comfort that nearly overwhelmed her.

Joy, pure joy.

“Can everyone feel you, Father?” she whispered.

I’m trying to reach everyone. Some don’t believe it’s me they feel. They’re not expecting it. It took me a while to reach Deck this morning. He couldn’t understand why he kept thinking about me while he was pushing on the rump of that big bull to get him out to pasture. I kept telling him to get his hands off my steak. Suddenly he heard me. I’d never seen him jump so quick. That got the bull out, though.

Jaytsy couldn’t help it—she laughed. The thunder laughed back.

“I miss you. I miss you so much, I don’t know how it’ll ever stop hurting,” Jaytsy murmured as her face became wet with tears and now raindrops.

It will, my darling daughter. Remember—this is only temporary.

“Take care of yourself.”

I don’t need to. I’m perfectly fine. My calling now is to take care of all of you.

—-

Mahrree fell asleep that night on the sofa in her small gathering room. For some reason that was where his scent, slowly fading, was still the strongest.

—-

Young Pere stayed up late reading the last few pages of the book. The confrontation at the Shins’ house. The resignation. Uncle Shem’s spying on General Qayin Thorne in Idumea. Idumea’s decision to try the Shins as traitors. Their escape with the help of the Hifadhis. Captain Thorne’s failed pursuit, and murder of Dormin. Their arrival in Salem.

The End.

He didn’t like the end. It seemed almost cowardly somehow. Exactly who was the coward, he wasn’t sure, nor did he want to decide that.

But there were a few things he was sure about. In the past, whenever Perrin Shin saw a problem, he confronted it. He defied those in authority, again and again. He made plans without consulting those above him. He escaped the artificial and illogical boundaries they imposed, and he was wildly successful. He changed their world.

If one Perrin Shin could do it, so could another. That would be the legacy.

No, no, no Young Pere! You’re reading it all wrong! Young Pere, are you listening? YOUNG PERE!

—-

No one was surprised when, the next morning after the burial, Clark didn’t move at all.

He hadn’t been up in two days. Kanthi, Tabbit, and Deck had tried half-heartedly a few times to tempt him with something, but his eyes had gone glassy, and he wouldn’t acknowledge them, even as they gently splashed water on his lips.

Kanthi and Tabbit and many other grandchildren patted his still form one last time, sobbing as they said goodbye to the horse who had always been an extension of their Puggah. One more painful loss.

Mahrree came to the fence and sighed as she looked at the massive, lifeless animal.

“Of course he’d get to go on,” was all she said after a while. As much as she hated horses, she’d tolerated Clark.

Everyone who had gathered around the pasture was surprised next to see her dip under the fence, walk over to his body, and pat him on his bowed back.

“Take care of Perrin, all right?” she said. “You and The Cat and Barker the barkless dog? Interesting how all of you were dark, shadowy animals. He always loved black creatures. I suppose you can follow him anywhere, and no one will notice. Thank you for bringing me to Salem, and for the many rides to the temple ruins and back. You, Clark, were a decent horse that I really didn’t mind riding.”

The butchers were considerate enough to heft Clark on to a wagon with their pulley system and haul him away before they did their work, so that none of the families would have to witness the old horse becoming food for the sheep dogs.

Peto and Deck were the last to leave the road as the wagon trundled down it. Neither of the men said a word, but watched with tears slipping down their faces.

Eventually they walked back to their houses, arm-in-arm.

There were chores to do.

—-

It was three days later, after midday meal, when Sam and Con Cadby stepped out of their houses to walk together to the weaving barn. Since the two Cadby families returned from the Eztates on the far west side of Salem, they’d been trying to get back into a normal routine.

Con had gathered the young husbands together the night of the burial and told them of his conversation with Perrin on the trail, his apology, and his praise of all of them. Lek also told them about his last conversation with Perrin, and his apology for his threats. The result was teary-eyed young men, and a Wes who was more confused than ever before.

Sam and Con had comforted their weeping wives during the eight-mile wagon ride home. Lori and Jori didn’t want to leave their parents and grandmother the day after the burial, but Muggah insisted it was time for them get back to their sheep, and their little ones needed their own beds. There was nothing more to do, except visit when they could.

The two fathers made their way through the garden where cousins Ensio and Cori were playing with their toddler sisters Gersh and Annly. They patted their children’s heads as they usually did, but paused outside the garden gate, because something seemed odd about their play.

Lori came from the henhouse with a basket of eggs and saw her husband and brother-in-law watching the children. Sam waved his wife over.

“Listen to them,” he whispered.

She stopped at the low fence by the men and watched the four little children. What they were doing wasn’t so unusual. They had dug a little trench and filled it with pebbles. Then Ensio took a mug of water and poured it down the trench while Cori and the girls tossed sticks in it to watch them float away.

Lori looked up at the men. “They do this all the time,” she whispered back.

“No, listen.”

“Over here, Captain! The storm’s coming!” Ensio called.

“All right, Colonel!” answered Cori.

Lori’s mouth dropped open in surprise.

Her sister, seeing them from her window, came out to them. “What is it?” Jori asked as she reached them.

The three of them gestured to the children.

Two-year-old Gersh dropped bits of moss on to the rocks. “That help, Cor-nal?”

Jori looked in alarm at her sister. “Colonel?” she mouthed.

Lori nodded.

Ensio filled the mug again with water from a nearby bucket. “Deluge is coming, men! Prepare the dikes!”

The three younger children stopped and stared at him.

Ensio seemed confused himself.

Con cleared his throat. “Uh, Perrin?” he ventured. “They don’t know what ‘deluge’ means.”

Ensio’s face brightened. “Lots of water coming, men! Walls might break. Here it comes!” And Ensio poured the mug of water down the trench.

The children squealed and laughed as the bits of moss washed away.

“Again! Again!” Annly cried.

“Whatever you say, ‘Tenant!” Ensio said cheerfully. “Puggah says we need more rocks! The trench should be longer so the sticks and moss float farther.”

“More rocks!” Gersh cried and went to pick up pebbles.

Jori, her hand in front of her mouth, murmured, “Ensio said ‘Puggah,’ didn’t he?”

“Remember when we played Flood with him?” Lori whispered. “He’d even get out the pickaxe and dig a proper trench. We’d use buckets of water.”

“And Salema would lecture us on getting dirty,” Jori replied, “but Cambo would throw rocks to splash her on purpose. He knew to throw the rocks when Puggah yelled—”

“Deluge coming, men!” Ensio called again, pouring more water that splashed Cori unexpectedly.

“Hey!” Cori cried out. “Mama, did you see that? Puggah didn’t wait for me to move.”

Jori sniffled. “I did, Cori. That’s just the way . . . he plays.” She looked at her sister for confirmation.

Lori nodded at her nephew.

Cori scowled, then ran to get more bits of moss.

Sniffling in miserable happiness, Jori said, “I got promoted all the way to lieutenant colonel before I decided I was getting too old to play that. I think I was eleven.”

Lori smiled faintly. “I only made it to major before I started listening to Salema. Puggah always called her the Administrator when she left to tell on us for getting dirty.”

Jori snorted at the memory and Lori laughed softly.

Lori cleared her throat. “Puggah?” she said quietly, “will you let us know if anyone gets in trouble?”

Are dirty clothes considered ‘getting in trouble’?

The sisters stared at each other, trying to read on each other’s face to see if the other had heard the words as well.

Jori said, “Uh, no Puggah. That’s only at Salema’s house. Her boys are the ones who can’t get dirty.”

That will change. This next son that’s coming, he’s one messy boy.

Lori grinned at Jori. “Next son?”

Jori grinned back. “Messy boy!”

Their husbands chuckled.

“Poor Lek,” said Sam.

Poor Calla. She so much wants another granddaughter. But that one’s coming as well. Go back to work—I’ve got things under control here. And by the way, ‘sumpin’ is what Cori says when he doesn’t know the name of something. ‘Sumpin’ then can mean anything and everything. That doesn’t help a whole lot, does it?

“Thank you, Puggah,” Jori said, looking around, not sure where to direct her words.

Lori, Con, and Sam nodded.

“Longer, men! Make the trench longer!”

—-

I think you mean for that to be a C, not an O. You best stop chiseling.

Relf stopped and looked at the stone in the twilight. “Oh yes. You’re right. I think I’m getting a little tired.”

Go home for the evening. Give that wife of yours a few moments of quiet. Grunick’s been a bit difficult today. This boulder’s not going anywhere.

“I suppose that’s true. Thanks . . . Puggah.”

—-

Did you check up on the hillside?

The hillside? Twelve-year-old Banu Briter thought to herself.

Her eight-year-old sister Yenali sighed and looked around. “She’s not here anywhere, Banu. She’s gone!”

“No, she’s not. I know she’s somewhere. She never goes this far.”

Go check on the hillside.

“Maybe we should check the hillside,” Yenali suggested.

“Why are you saying that?” Banu snapped, and immediately felt guilty for it.

“Because it seems like . . . the right place to check,” Yenali insisted.

She’s right, Banu. Go check the hillside. It’s getting dark and your mother will start to get worried.

Banu sighed. “All right . . .” She hesitated to say the name.

“Puggah told you to check the hillside, didn’t he?” Yenali smiled.

Banu didn’t respond, but rushed up the hillside behind the herd, her sister in tow. There they saw the goat, chewing on the rope she bit through to escape in the first place.

“You are the dumbest goat in the world!” Banu yelled in relief as she walked up to it and took it by the collar.

Now, now, Banu. Who’s the one who tied her up and forgot about her for the entire day? By the way, you’re welcome.

—-

I know your cousin jumped off the schoolhouse, but why does that mean you should jump off the shed roof?

Atlee Briter, holding the blanket he hoped would catch the wind and ease him slowly to the ground, looked around. He was alone, but felt the words distinctly.

You’re only ten. I thought you wanted to see eleven. Do you have any idea what a broken leg feels like? Remember how much pain Young Pere was in last year when he broke his arm? Again? That’s what you’ll be feeling the moment you hit the ground. But it will be your leg. Don’t do this, Atlee. Just turn around and go back down that ladder. Right now. I’m watching you. Now, Atlee. That’s right. Step back. Watch your footing there. Don’t kick the ladder! Boy, that was close. Put the blanket down first. No, no, no, not on top of the shed. Throw it on the ground. That’s right. Now climb down the ladder. And put it away when you’re done. Don’t want Young Shem following you— Atlee! I said to put away the ladder! Atlee! Get back here!

—-

Salema, you’re too far along to be doing that. Isn’t that why your sister-in-law is here?

Salema, kneeling in the middle of her garden, sat up on her knees. The humidity of the Weeding Day steamed over her, making her feel hotter than she already was. She pushed away a sweaty lock of dark curly hair and glanced at Lek’s youngest sister Huldah.

The fourteen-year-old weeding next to her was watching her.

You hate kneeling in the dirt and you know it.

Huldah’s eyes grew big. “You hate kneeling in the dirt.”

“I never understood why my mother enjoyed this,” Salema admitted quietly.

You might want to check the bread. You’ve lost track of time. Huldah knows what to do here.

Salema stood up. “I should check on the bread. Do you mind?”

Huldah shook her head. “I know what to do. Don’t pull the carrots!”

Salema and Huldah scanned the area as if expecting someone else to be there before Salema started for the house.

By the way, Salema, prepare for another son. The third one’s usually the hardest I’ve been told, but if anyone can handle him, you can.

She stopped in her tracks as she reached the back door. “What did you say?” she whispered.

You better check the bread before it overbakes.

Slowly Salema opened the door and walked into the kitchen. “That’s not what I meant . . . Puggah?”

Yes. And I know what you meant. I’m right about the bread, aren’t I?

Salema pulled out the loaves just in time, her eyes growing moist. “Another boy? Oh, Puggah . . . I just . . . Another boy? I had five younger brothers before I finally got a little sister. I really was hoping for . . .” She sat down hard on a chair and stroked her large belly.

He’s adorable, Salema. He’ll melt your heart, even as he dirties your floors. You really want to tell this little boy that you’d rather he not come?

“No!” She said loudly and gripped her belly tighter. “No, of course not!”

That’s what I thought. I also thought you’d appreciate a little warning.

Salema began to cry.

No, no, no. Salema, don’t do that. I know you’re expecting and everything, but—

“That’s why I get to do this, Puggah!” she laughed in her sobs. “And you’re right—I do appreciate the warning. I never told you this, but I’m sorry about the name: Puggah. If only I could have said my ‘r’s better when I was a toddler—”

Not at all. Best name in the world.

—-

Grab that piece of paper.

Zaddick had gone into Shem’s office to retrieve a file his father had forgotten to take to the council meeting, but he found himself staring at the desk.

The one at the end. It’s upside down, that’s why Shem didn’t recognize it. Now get it to your mother. She was going to bring him dinner at the main storehouse before the meeting. One of the assistants will need that sooner than Shem realizes. He can’t wait until tomorrow like he thinks he can.

Zaddick picked up the file, looked around the office, nodded once in gratitude to it, and slipped out the door.

—-

Lilla, smells wonderful as usual. Be ready for Peto tonight. Shem and the council are going to give him my position, but he doesn’t feel ready for it. I can’t imagine anyone who could do a better job. You’re going to have to help him realize that. He practically did my job for me.

By the way, your father and I have had some wonderful conversations. He’s still watching you.

—-

Mahrree, I’ve reached almost all of them.

It was late at night and Mahrree was sitting up in bed, reading. She used to do it all the time when she was single, but quit after she and Perrin were married because he didn’t like the candle light when he tried to sleep. When she picked up her old habit again, a few days after he passed, she felt guilty about it. But then she remembered what Calla told her: “It’s all right to start living how you need to live.”

Mahrree set down the book. “I know,” she whispered. “I’ve been receiving reports the last few weeks. It’s been wonderful to hear how you’ve gotten around. I went to Salema’s house today and found her and Calla crying at the kitchen table. You want to know what they told me?”

Mahrree thought she heard a chuckle.

“You were there earlier, and Salema’s going to have another son. She thinks they should name him Perrin. Perrin Zenos.”

How many Perrins do there need to be in Salem?

Mahrree grinned. “So far there are four new baby boys named Perrin. Calla told me yesterday that one of Shem’s assistants has started making a list to see how often you’re honored. And wait until you hear this—there’s even a baby girl that was named Perrinia.”

Oh that’s just tragic. What were her parents thinking?

Mahrree laughed softly.

I thought Peto and Lilla naming their first daughter Lorixania was cruel, but at least they could shorten it to Lori.

“I suppose the family could call their daughter Perri.”

Perhaps. I’m not even there to apologize to the poor girl when she’s older. Will you do it, if you ever run into her?

“Of course. You said you’ve reached almost everyone?”

Except one. Want to guess who?

“I know, Perrin. He promised he’d tell me what he’s up to, but he hasn’t said more than half a dozen words to me since we spoke after the burial.”

It’s not good, Mahrree. I follow him around all day when he’s haying, but he’s not listening, not one bit. I can’t force him to hear me. It has to be his choice. But he’s nearly past feeling. He’s too busy planning.

“What is he planning to do?”

I can’t bear to tell you.

“He wants to go to Edge, or somewhere else in the world, doesn’t he? Just to get away for a time.”

How did you know?

“He’s you at that age.”

I know. That’s my biggest worry.

Chapter 17—“How long has this been in here, Father?”

Near the end of Weeding Season Peto approached his parents’ wing of the house and stopped at the door, because he wasn’t sure what he’d say when he opened it. Lilla had prodded him down this far, but left him on his own. He was about to grasp the door handle when it suddenly opened.

“And how long have you been standing there?” Mahrree asked.

“Uh, not too long.”

“Don’t you think you should come in? You have lots of work to do, after all.” In her hands was a stack of files which she held out to him. “I got a start for you. These were from the bedroom, on his side table. But I’m not sure where you want everything.”

Peto sighed as he walked into their small gathering room. “I feel terrible about this, Mother. I—”

“Why should you feel terrible?” she cut him off. “Peto, there’s no one else I’d rather have becoming the next general. Or whatever it is they’re calling you.”

“I don’t have a title picked out yet. I told Shem there was no way ever I’d accept an army title, especially since I took up a sword willingly only once in my life, and that was to use it against my father.”

Mahrree gave him a hug. “You’ll do wonderfully. Your father said you practically did his job for him. Did you want to take over his office, or . . .”

Peto shook his head. “I don’t want to change anything. I’ll just bring some of the plans and maps to my office and reorganize my things to make room.”

“It’s a waste to leave his desk unused and the room untouched,” Mahrree told him. “That’s not the Salem way.”

“But it is the Salem way to honor those who have gone before by leaving memorials. Maybe someday we’ll do something with the office, but not today. We still have to finish Wes and Hycy’s new house before their wedding, and I don’t feel like starting another major project anyway. No one needs the space right now, and no one is in need of a desk. I already checked.”

“But you should go through his desk, see what you may need.”

“Of course,” Peto said, finally taking the stack she offered him.

“And I found this,” she said, pulling a small note from her skirt pocket. “I discovered it on the floor under the bed shortly after he passed, but I wasn’t up to doing anything with it then. I realize now it’s your responsibility, so thank you in advance for dealing with it.”

Peto took the note, the handwriting unsteady as if it were a great struggle to form the words. Although Perrin’s hand was normally neat and tidy, the shapes of the letters were definitely his, likely written when he was ailing.

“He was always one for making lists. Never wanted to forget anything important. Item number one,” Peto read out loud. “Jothan about Shem.” He looked up at his mother. “Jothan came over to talk to him, right?”

“Just before he went.”

About Shem? Meaning?”

“I don’t know what that means,” she admitted. “Although I think Perrin was likely asking Jothan to watch out for him. Take over as big brother, perhaps.”

Peto nodded at that. “Item number two: Drag Jon Offra home. We haven’t had any news about him for a couple of moons now.”

“Eltana hadn’t heard about him since last year. No one has. Nothing recent about our colonel-at-large,” Mahrree said.

“I’ll talk to Woodson about organizing another search party for him. If I explain it was one of Father’s last concerns, they may dare to be more aggressive with him when they track him down again.”

“They could use sedation,” Mahrree suggested.

Peto let out a low whistle. “He’d hate that. And when he came to, he just might run again back to the world to do his duty.”

“Then we’ll have to find some other way to convince him his duty is over,” Mahrree said, unconvinced they’d be successful.

Item number three,” Peto read. “Poe Hili? Father wanted to find Poe?”

Mahrree shrugged. “It’s been quite a while. The last time scouts heard about him, he was all the way south with Karna.”

“But that was ten years ago now. Surely he still wouldn’t be down there, would he?” Peto asked.

Mahrree pondered that. “Well, once Sargon took over the southern forts, there was a movement of defecting soldiers to the north. Many decided Thorne or Yordin had to be better than Sargon. I can’t imagine Poe would want to serve the commander who betrayed Karna and Fadh. But maybe . . . maybe he’s one of Sargon’s men now?” Dread tinged her voice.

“I don’t think so,” Peto assured her. “I’m sure he’d find the north more appealing. He may have left the army after Sargon took over, for all we know.”

“No scouts or recent refugees have had any updates,” Mahrree recalled. “So maybe he did quit the army. Citizens are much harder to track than soldiers.”

“But maybe,” Peto began hesitantly, “maybe Poe has died. Ten years since any news?” and he shrugged apologetically for having brought up the idea.

“Hmm,” Mahrree mused sadly. “Then we likely may never know. I forgot to ask Eltana when she first arrived if she knew of him, but frankly, I don’t feel like talking to her right now.”

“Nor would she want to talk to you, either,” Peto said. “She’s still bitter. I’ve asked another rector to take over counseling her for a while. She doesn’t seem to want to deal with any Shins right now.” He looked again at the note. There were a few more stray lines, but no other items. “I wonder if he finished this,” Peto murmured, the thought of leaving any business undone as troubling to him as it would have been to his father.

“You’ll finish it for him, Rector-General Shin,” Mahrree said, kissing him on the cheek. “I’ll let you get to work, and if I find anything else, I’ll bring it to you.”

Reluctantly he walked into his father’s office. It was virtually untouched since he passed away three weeks ago, and Peto felt as if he were treading in sacred territory. Even though he’d been there nearly every day for decades, today it felt like a completely different room.

“Sorry, Father. I’m just coming to find some things,” he whispered as he sat down behind the large desk. “I hope you don’t mind. I’ve been given your position. I never expected you wouldn’t finish it. I don’t feel ready or worthy, but Lilla told me I’d say that. Apparently you and she have been talking?”

Peto pulled out the top drawer and smiled at the precisely placed quills and parchments. “I was never that neat. Maybe the army was good for something, huh? Taught you to keep things in good order. Shouldn’t be hard to find what I’m looking for.”

He pulled out one of the deep side drawers and easily located the file of what each emergency storehouse along the four trails contained. He opened it and saw a note on top. No emergency storehouses are established on the Back Door route. One should be made.

Peto smiled and nodded. “I considered that as well. Every now and then I remember that route, and I remember your sliding down it in the middle of Snowing Season! I’ll add it to the list. We’ll find a spot for supplies and make sure it’s stocked this Harvest.”

There’s more.

Peto’s hand was on the drawer to close it, but he stopped.

There’s more. In the back.

He pulled the drawer open wider and looked toward the back. There was an envelope, with his name on it.

“How long has this been in here, Father?” He pulled out the envelope and a glint of metal beneath it caught his eye. He reached in and pulled out something he thought had been left in Edge years ago.

The long knife.

Peto chuckled in dismay. “You snuck this out of Edge, didn’t you! We were supposed to leave unarmed, but you couldn’t do it, could you?” He grinned as he turned the sharp blade over in his hands. “What did you expect, an attack in your office?”

Peto’s grin fell as he remembered the end of General Yordin, stabbed to death by his own traitorous soldiers.

“But not in Salem, General. Not in Salem.”

He laid the long knife on the desk and opened the envelope addressed to him. Looking at the words on the parchment was like a gift: one last, unexpected conversation with his father.

Peto, if you’re reading this it means I’m no longer there as general. I’m leaving you this letter with some instructions. Don’t worry—there shouldn’t be anything as potentially scandalous here as there was in the letter I left for Shem in my desk at the fort at Edge years ago.

Honestly, I hope you never find this. I hope the Last Day comes and finds us standing side by side at the ancient temple site, watching the forces of Idumea march in and comparing guesses as to how the Creator is going to end it all. I guess that since you’re reading this it means I’ll be watching from the other side. And that’s all right as well. The view should still be pretty good. I always wanted to see an attack from a falcon’s point of view anyway.

You should be the next one in command for the securing of Salem. You’ve done an excellent job as my assistant, and you should consider finding someone to assist you as well. Perhaps one of your sons or nephews would be interested in taking your former position.

There’s an attached list detailing where each file is. Don’t feel the need to preserve anything in the office to remember me by. How could you possibly forget me? You know what I mean. Take whatever you need. Use this office, use the desk, move everything—I’m not going to care. Do whatever you need to in order to complete this work, to continue to secure Salem, to continue to mark the trails.

I’m proud of you, son. You’ve become something far greater than the next High General of Idumea. You know who you are, and you’re raising a wonderful family. I’m grateful you listen to the Creator and that you never ran off to Idumea to play kickball. I’m still amazed that you’ve given me twelve grandchildren, and that Lilla is willing to give us one more—

Peto smiled. Eight years ago. He wrote this eight years ago, just before Morah was born.

Please know that I love you, that I’m proud of you, and that I know you can do anything, because you listen to the Creator who helps us accomplish everything. Never forget why you are here—to pass His Test.

Love,

Your Father

Peto wiped at the wetness around his eyes and ran his hand over the parchment. Then he noticed a note at the bottom.

By the way, I know about the sedation. Karna was right—the stuff was a miracle. I found the bottle in your mother’s drawer back in Edge when I was trying to find her a change of clothes when she was ill with the pox. I’ve just been waiting all these years for her to confess she used it on me.

Peto threw back his head and laughed.

Mahrree came into the office, alarmed. “Everything all right?”

Still laughing, Peto waved the letter at her and held up the long knife.

Her mouth dropped open as she came over to the desk and gingerly took the knife.

“I had a feeling he wouldn’t leave that behind. But I never knew where he hid it! I think I’ll put it on the table next to the bed. Remind me of better days in Edge.”

Peto wiped his eyes but kept chuckling. “That sounded strange, Mother—better days in Edge meant a knife by the bed?” He still held out the letter.

Mahrree shrugged in agreement. “So what’s so funny?” She took the letter and began to read. “Oh Peto, this is addressed to you. I shouldn’t—”

“It’s all right, Mother. He wrote it eight years ago. Just read the note at the bottom, then.”

Her eyes grew large and she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh no!” She laughed behind her hand. “And he never said anything?”

Peto was delighted to hear her laugh again. It’d been far too many weeks. “He was waiting for you to confess, obviously! I wonder if he knew Shem was involved with it, too.”

“We told him at the burial, remember? Maybe that’s why Shem thought he heard him groaning. He didn’t know Shem knew about the sedation as well. Oh, Perrin!” She laughed again as she sat down in a chair and handed the letter back to Peto. “What else did he say?”

“That I should do his work. That he didn’t expect for me to ever find this. Leaving letters in drawers he thinks no one will read . . . that’s typical. Ah, well,” Peto sighed, looking up at the walls. “I’ll need the maps, Mother. But the rest of the books and things? Well, they can stay. For now.”

Mahrree nodded.

—-

Shem was trying to go home, but when people recognized his GrayClark Silver, or him, they’d sidle up and ask if they could have “just a moment.” Those moments frequently turned to hours, but he’d never turn anyone away. The Creator never would, so neither would he, despite the lateness of the hour or the hunger in his belly.

This evening, the sun was setting before he finally made his way to the stables behind the council building to head for home, but someone was waiting in the shadows. He suppressed his sigh so as to not seem inconvenienced, and said, “Who’s there? Can I help you?”

“No,” said a deep voice. “I’m hoping to help you, Guide.”

“Jothan, you don’t have to hide in shadows anymore.”

“It’s where I’m the most comfortable,” he replied, and stepped over to shake Shem’s hand.

“So what did you need again?” Shem asked. It’d been a long day, and sometimes he found it difficult to keep up.

Jothan put his arm around him. “You got that backward. I want to know how you’re doing.”

“I’m fine,” he said automatically.

“Good. Now tell me how you’re really doing.”

Shem sighed, deflated. “I miss him. What else can I say?”

In the privacy of the dark stable, Jothan wrapped his arms around Shem. “So do I. He asked me to watch out for you, you know.”

Shem sniffed. “Of course he would.”

“And I happily agreed. I’ll be checking on you, Guide Zenos. Every man needs a big brother, no matter how old he is. I can never replace Perrin, but—”

“But a man can have more than one brother,” Shem said, and let himself weep for a few minutes with the only man he knew stronger than Perrin Shin.

—-

It was the first day of school again, and Mahrree had too many mixed feelings to catalogue. It was good to get back into a routine again, and she’d always loved the first week of Harvest Season, because teaching at Salem’s university was a sheer delight.

First, the students actually wanted to be there, unlike in Edge where she was always having to keep an eye on the door, or the window, for escaping students. In Salem, a university education, like everything else, was free. Everyone completed at least the first year of schooling offered. There wasn’t any law requiring them to do so; it was just what everyone wanted to do when they were seventeen and eighteen: learn more about the world around them—experiment, create, go on excursions, and develop new ideas, all in conjunction with the brightest minds in Salem.

And also, Mahrree was quite sure, to meet members of the opposite sex from other parts of the massive valley. By the end of the first semester, there were always many romances, and by the end of that first year, a lot of weddings she was invited to.

Students who lived far away from the center of Salem were housed not in dorms like in the world, but with extended family members, or with those who eagerly opened their doors to any students needing a home to live in.

After that first year, about a third of the students went off to learn a trade or become an apprentice. But about two-thirds of the students continued at the university for up to three more years, depending on the difficulty of their first chosen careers.

Mahrree’s department, history, had some two- and three-year programs, and those who completed them knew far more than anyone in the world to the south of them. There were courses in Salem history, history of the guides and their teachings, writing family histories, and, of course, Mahrree’s world history. In her department was also speculative history, where the archaeology division taught all they knew about writings and buildings and peoples no one had ever met.

And, at the head of it all, was Professor Mahrree Shin. As she walked up to the large stone building early that morning, she expected—as she did every year—to finally see the president of the university standing in front, tapping her foot in annoyance, and announcing, “Mrs. Shin—we’re on to you.”

Mahrree could never understand why they made her the director of the department, why they considered her one of the brightest minds, why they put her over twenty other professors, and put her on the board of directors. She felt like a fraud among a city of purely brilliant, kind people. One day, they’d figure it out.

But not today, and she was grateful for the ability to leave home where everyone doted far too much on her and every corner of her house reminded her of who was no longer in it.

She walked through the quiet corridors—in a couple of hours to be full and noisy with students returning to school—and headed to her office, which she hadn’t been to since school let out two moons ago.

“Hello, Professor Shin!” called out a cheerful voice.

Mahrree grinned. “Hello, Roggie. How goes the sweeping?”

Roggie was a master sweeper. He swept the university buildings in the mornings, never missing a speck, then the temple at night. It was perfect work for him, because, unlike in the world, Salem had several people like him: the special ones.

The first time she met a special one, she was startled by the thick tongue, the drooping eyes, the slow manner of speaking. No one in the world was quite like that.

Mrs. Braxhicks, Jaytsy’s midwife for her earlier deliveries, explained to Mahrree that special ones did exist in the world. “But not for long,” she added bitterly.

“Why?” Mahrree asked.

“Because they’re killed shortly after birth,” Mrs. Braxhicks said, to Mahrree’s horror. “Yet another practice instituted under the first King Querul. Any babies not seemingly ‘perfect’ were to be ‘humanely smothered’ by the midwife.”

“Except not by Salem midwives, right?” Mahrree asked hurriedly.

“Of course not!” Mrs. Braxhicks said, slightly offended. “That was one of the many reasons we started sending midwives into the world—to help rescue the special ones. With some, their mothers didn’t want them, so we brought them back to Salem for other families to raise. But a few of the refugee families had a special newborn, and readily came to Salem when given the option. The world won’t tolerate them, but we love them. They love us back, far too much. And everyone can be useful and have a fulfilling life. Salem demonstrates that.”

So did Roggie. Mahrree braced herself as Roggie came to her with his big arms outstretched. He was a large man, in build and in belly, and with the most painfully wonderful hugs in all of Salem. He always cracked Mahrree’s back when he hugged her, unintentionally. She’d never consider not indulging him. Hugs were mandatory. Roggie and Lilla got along great.

“I’m sorry, Professor Shin,” Roggie said in his deliberate, yet careful way as he crushed her with his affection. “About the general. I liked him. That’s sad he’s gone.”

“Yes, Roggie. It is sad he’s gone. Thank you.” She hugged him back, waiting for him to finally release her, but she heard a quiet sob instead, which, naturally, got her tears flowing again.

“So sad,” Roggie repeated. “So sad.”

Eventually he released her, and hurriedly wiped his face of tears. Immediately his grin was back. “Thought you might not come back to school. Good to see you!”

“I need to be here. It’s good to be here,” she decided.

“It is,” he agreed. When he saw she was heading to her office, he jumped ahead. “Lemme get the door for you, Professor Shin.”

He turned the handle and pushed, but oddly it seemed stuck.

Mahrree blinked. If Roggie couldn’t get the door open, there was little chance she could.

“Lemme push a little more . . . Oh, looks like papers are stuck behind it.”

Mahrree bent down, slipped her hand in the gap Roggie had made, and pulled out a few folded parchments. She could tell they were part of a much larger pile. “Hold on a minute, Roggie. Let’s see what’s happening here.”

She stood up and opened the first parchment.

“What’s it say?” Roggie asked. While in his thirties, Roggie had never managed to learn to read, despite the efforts of many patient tutors. His mind just couldn’t grasp the complexity of the task. But he knew a lot, because he’d sat in many university classes, absorbing what he could. And however often he wanted to sit in a class, he was welcome to. He’d been through Mahrree’s History of the World at least half a dozen times. When she asked for written essays, he’d put a smiley face on a scrap piece of paper and handed that in. She always wrote a smiley face back for his grade.

Mahrree read out loud the neat handwriting on the note. “Professor Shin, I’m so sorry about your husband. I wish I could help take away your pain—” already her voice was trembling, “—but I know he’s gone to Paradise and the Creator, and is watching over you.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Roggie said. “Read another one!” He pointed excitedly to one with a sketch of flowers on the front. “That one’s pretty. Read it!”

Mahrree had to chuckle at his enthusiasm. “Dear Professor Shin, I’ve been thinking about you ever since we got the news about the general. I wanted to tell you about a time when he—

“Oh, I get it!” Roggie nearly exploded. “I get it! They’re doing what happened when the general’s parents died in Idumea because of those bad guys who stabbed them in bed. Sending messages to him? Yeah, that! But for you!”

Mahrree smiled weakly, feeling once again overwhelmed. She peered around the jammed door and saw a stack nearly to her knees. People must have been slipping them under her door for weeks now.

“I can get them all out,” Roggie said confidently, slipping his broom handle into the gap and nudging the notes aside. “See? They’ll all be out in a minute.”

“Thank you, Roggie,” she whispered, and clutched the notes to her chest. There’d be a lot of reading to get through in the next few days . . . maybe weeks, she amended as she saw the pile growing at her feet. For as lonely as she felt, Salem would refuse to let her feel alone. People in the world had done this for Perrin, writing him letters, and he answered them back, generating more letters—

Wait. Was she going to have to answer all of these?

Well, years ago she and Jaytsy and even Peto had helped respond to his letters. She had plenty of grandchildren who could help her with this lovely pile.

By the time she headed to teach her first class, the pile of messages had been stacked into a large crate Roggie had found, that he promised to bring to her home. Finally, she could get back to work and forget, for a few hours at least, the misery of the past few weeks. Weaving through the students walking swiftly to find their rooms, she counted down in her head when the bells would clang.

She always timed her entrance into the first class of the semester precisely, walking in just as the bells rang, sort of an announcement of her arrival. She liked to make an entrance to establish her authority, something she learned back in her debating years when she felt her small stature needing some bolstering.

She swept through the door of her first class just at the moment the bells sounded, to find each of the thirty desks with a student at or near it. Audibly, the students gasped.

That’s a first, Mahrree thought as they stared at her. She wondered if maybe she’d forgotten to put on a vital piece of clothing that morning. Not as if Roggie would have noticed . . .

She smiled and motioned for the few students still on their feet to take a desk. “Good morning. You all seem surprised about something?” Then she thought, Please let there not be something horrendously wrong with my hair—

Her students, a new batch of first years whom she hadn’t met before, looked at each other as if daring someone to speak up.

A girl raised her hand. “Ma’am? We’re just surprised that you’re teaching. The rumor was that . . . you weren’t coming back.”

Mahrree scoffed a laugh. “A rumor? In Salem? What is this, the world?”

Her students glanced nervously again at each other.

“Trust me,” she said slyly, “in a few weeks that’s going to be funny. Now, why would I not be here? I’m not infirm, I’m not dying—”

There it was again, that soft, shocked gasp of surprise.

“Ah, that. Yes, my husband died nearly four weeks ago—” and she was proud of how easily that slipped out, “—but I can’t sit in that house anymore feeling sorry for myself. Not when there are students to teach and gossip to share about the world. Now, your semester is going to be even more interesting than what’s been taught in the past, because over the Weeding Season break, a new refugee came to Salem. Her husband was one of the battling generals until recently, and she came back with a lot of fascinating details, many of which I haven’t been able to put in the textbook yet, so you better be taking notes. And that’s a hint—start taking notes!”

Frantically they scrambled in their bags for paper and sharpened charcoal.

“We’re going to begin a bit backward today, starting with the most recent history first. Here’s a name for you to know,” and she picked up the chalk and walked to the blackboard. “General Gari Roarin’ Yordin,” she said as she wrote the name. “Most of you should have heard about him before, but you’re going to hear a lot more. His widow, Eltana Yordin, arrived in Salem just a few weeks ago.”

Now the gasps were startled and excited.

“Professor Shin?” a young man asked.

Mahrree turned around. “Yes?”

“Will she be coming to speak to us?”

Mahrree’s mouth scrunched. Word had gotten around that her class was one of the most entertaining, because she did only half of the teaching. As often as possible, she brought in the history makers themselves to teach her five groups of students each semester about the history they lived, and even affected.

Jothan Hifadhi came at least twice: the first time to tell them about his grandfather Guide Tuma Hifadhi; the second time, with Asrar to provide details about their adventures as scouts in the forests above Edge. Everyone always wanted to see the faint scar on his hand, given to him accidentally by Perrin when they were both fighting a Guarder on a snowy night.

Mahrree also brought in as many refugees as she could, giving them the hour to tell the students about their villages and the world they left, and why. She’d also bring in scouts and midwives and rectors who served in the world, and Perrin always . . .

Oh, this was going to be a long, difficult semester.

Because Perrin usually came three times; when the discussion was about the kings, who he had met; about Chairman Mal and the Administrators, who he also knew; and the Army of Idumea which, for one full day, he was wholly in charge of.

Then there was the Perrin-and-Shem Show—Mahrree’s unofficial title for it. All of her classes combined in the largest lecture hall in the early evening, with many former students and other professors returning for the lecture when both of the former soldiers came to tell them all about their experiences in the Army of Idumea.

To the first-year students, they must have been an impressive sight, Perrin and Shem walking together on to the stage of the thousand-seat lecture hall, wearing their old uniform jackets casually over their shirts without buttoning them (it’d be too hard to breathe for the two hours if they did), appearing dignified, mature, and wise.

But the reason the hall was always packed to standing-room only was because those who had seen this before knew that within minutes the two revered, older gentlemen would start explaining how it really was, which meant sharing stories, revising each other’s stories, getting in a few good digs at each other as they went into too much detail about the Strongest Soldier Races, and eventually getting into a good-natured argument—or shouting match—which shocked the newest students but made everyone else laugh and cheer.

And it hit Mahrree again, right then as she stared out at these thirty, fresh-faced older teenagers, what else in her life she’d need to revise now that Perrin was gone. Oh, that these students would never experience the Perrin-and-Shem Show! Her chest tightened at the thought of it. She’d still host the evening, and invite Guide Zenos to come again, accompanied by his wife who knew just as much about that army as anyone who served. But while Shem would still tell engaging stories, it wouldn’t be the same without Perrin’s interruptions. Calla would never argue with Shem on stage, but would probably make clarifications in her polite, kind way. It just wouldn’t be the same without the threat of men possibly coming to blows in front of the audience.

Quickly she regained herself, realizing that she’d been staring at the boy who’d asked the question just a little too long, and then she had to remember what the question was.

Would Eltana Yordin be coming to speak to the class?

“No,” Mahrree said decisively.

The young man looked disappointed. “But, Professor, why not?”

How could she explain that Mrs. Yordin was furious that instead of marching down into the world to avenge her husband’s murder, Perrin Shin had, instead, up and died from a mere infection? That she had taken over the Armchair Generals meeting and told every man who had recently attended what a disservice Shem and Perrin had done to Salem and the world by not organizing a standing army. That they had become weak, and complacent, and lazy living in Salem.

But somehow, in some gentle, Salemitish way, Mahrree was going to have to tell these innocent students that Mrs. Yordin was a bit disappointed in everything they were freely and openly giving her.

Mahrree exhaled. This was going to be a long semester.

That afternoon she caught a ride with Roggie, who was heading home to where he lived with his sister and her family. Theirs was one of the first homes off The Quiet Lands which bordered the temple, and Mahrree needed to visit there.

Roggie dropped her off at the end of the long drive, and she took her bag and walked into one of two small houses to the side of it, nestled obscurely in the trees along the river which formed the southern border to the Quiet Lands. One house was for men, the other for women to change from their work day clothing. She put on her white dress, then headed for the wide, stone steps of the temple.

It never ceased to amaze her that such a solid, imposing stone edifice could exude so much warmth and light, as if the Creator Himself was in the building, filling it with joy. The tall columns, reaching up two stories, were patterned after the ancient temple ruins to the west of the Eztates. Jagged rubble from its construction remained along the sides of the temple and portico, and bordered the stairs as smaller reminders of the boulders that created the natural border between them and the world to the south. The wide portico ran the width of the building, and held a few rocking chairs and benches, painted in white, for Salemites to sit and ponder as they looked across the miles of untouched land. Today, the meadows were filled with the last of the season’s wildflowers. Spindly yellow sunflowers dominated the landscape this time of year, as if drops of sunshine were growing among the thick grasses.

Mahrree paused for a moment and just listened.

Silence. Sweet, golden silence.

In the distance, she could hear the river gently humming through the trees, and further a horse softly whinnied, probably in the stables a quarter mile away. But otherwise? Paradise.

Indeed, the temple was as close to Paradise as anyone could be, as if sitting in the massive open room, filled with soft rugs, comfortable sofas, and real evergreens was like going home to visit the Creator in His gathering room. Wholly peaceful, wholly quiet, wholly meant for adults to take a moment out of their lives and pour out their worries and troubles in meditation and prayer.

Mahrree nodded to the three attendants at the front desk who helped open the massive oak doors for her, and they nodded back a welcome. It’d been a few weeks since she’d been there, because of, well, everything.

But Yudit had told her she needed to go back, now.

“It’s where you can feel Perrin again,” Yudit told her last night during her visit. She had presented Mahrree with an unexpected and slightly strange gift: a lock of Perrin’s hair. Sometime when he was laid out in the orchard, Yudit had subtly trimmed a lock of his beautiful white hair and wrapped it in a handkerchief. When she presented it to Mahrree, she confided, “I still have a lock of Noch’s hair. I stroke it sometimes, just to feel something of him again. It sounds odd to those who have never lost a spouse, but—”

Mahrree was already tenderly fingering the white hair, noting that there were two black strands remaining in it, and her chin trembled.

Yudit cleared her throat of her own emotion and said, “I see that you already understand. Calla says you haven’t been to the temple lately, but you really must go. It’s where I go when I need to feel Noch nearby, to tell him about the family, to feel his arms around me again, to feel comfort. It’s a portal to Paradise, Mahrree. Go.”

Mahrree had known that already, yet she had hesitated, afraid that entering the temple might make her feel angrier that she couldn’t be with Perrin on the other side right now, rather than feeling comfort that she was supposed to stay.

Every day she looked for clues and reasons as to why she was still stuck in her body, not running through the cosmos with her husband. Each day she thought, Maybe I’ve done the bit I needed to, and I’ll die peacefully in my sleep and wake up next to him.

But every morning she woke up, alone in their massive bed, still in her body. And she’d sigh, and decide that maybe today would be the day . . .

It’d been four weeks now, and she realized she needed to take Yudit’s advice.

She also needed to remember the agreement she and Perrin had made, many years ago. It was another glorious surprise of Salem—the knowledge that the Creator didn’t intend marriages to be only for this life, but forever. It was a notion people occasionally mentioned in the world: “We’ll be together forever.” But it was intended to be more than just a sweet sentiment; it was meant to be a reality.

After they’d been in Salem for a year, Guide Gleace had explained to them the option of making their marriage lasting—of making a three-way agreement with the Creator that if Mahrree and Perrin both lived faithfully, and both desired to be together in Paradise, the Creator would grant that desire. Only in the temple, their link to Paradise, could Mahrree and Perrin make that agreement, with Guide Gleace guiding them through the vows to seal it. To Mahrree, it felt as if she and Perrin had been married all over again, and by the Creator. Nothing had ever felt so solid or lasting to her as that moment.

Next, they learned another marvelous detail: it wasn’t fair that the world didn’t have a temple, or knowledge of such forever marriages, and the Creator—supremely fair and loving—had provided a way to compensate for that. Guide Gleace told the Shins that they could stand in for their parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles to make those agreements for them. Then, in Paradise, their relatives could decide if they wanted to seal the agreement on their end. No matter where or when someone lived, the Creator would see to it that all of His children had access to all of His blessings, if they wanted them. If not during their lives, then after. Choices, always; not only in Salem, but in Paradise as well.

Immediately Perrin and Mahrree told Gleace they wanted to stand in for their parents and aunt and uncle, and with Gleace again guiding them through the vows, Perrin and Mahrree stood in for Relf and Joriana Shin, and Cephas and Hycymum Peto, and Hogal and Tabbit Densal. Later Mahrree brought the names of the rest of their ancestors which they knew, and she and Perrin, with Gleace, gave all of their ancestors the choice of being together forever.

She tried to pull those forever and eternal feelings out of the air as she strolled into the body of the temple, but she struggled to hold on to them. She knew it was because of her own frustration and grief that she vacillated. Right now she felt so shallow and temporal, so fragile and forgetful. She glanced up at the ceiling, vast and high, letting in chunks of light through the slanted windows in the roof, and wished she could float up and away through them. The tall, purposely wavy windows on every wall allowed even more light to pour in, while distorting the distractions of the world she no longer wished to live in.

Mahrree knew exactly where to go: Perrin’s favorite seat. It was one of many large cushioned chairs in deep blue, set up against a window on the left, next to the long curtains of blood red. Still next to the chair was Perrin’s favorite evergreen—a fat pine with such a deep and sharp aroma that whenever Mahrree encountered its species outside, she was immediately transported back to that lovely room. This tree, like the many others, were planted in massive pots that sat on coasters, and could be slid around on the stone floor between the rugs to create small rooms or privacy barriers.

Mahrree didn’t know if they’d left Perrin’s tree and chair that way on purpose, or if no one had felt the need to shift them. But to see them in their same positions put a smile on Mahrree’s face.

She sat down in the chair, breathed in the tree, and closed her eyes to pray—

And he was right there, his earthy-sweet scent even more distinct than the pine. He was still hers, forever.

Mahrree grinned. “I didn’t feel you at all today at the university,” she whispered.

You didn’t need me today.

“I always need you. Always!”

No, Mahrree, you don’t. You may want me, which is a flattering thought, but you don’t need me.

She sighed. “So is that how it’s going to be? Slowly weaned from you?’

She heard a cosmic chuckle. Well, I suppose you could put it that way, but Mahrree, our family is my calling. And there’s a lot of them. You, my darling wife, are capable and smart and can cope without me, far better than you want to believe. When you need me, I’ll be there. But the fact is, you won’t need me as much as you think you do.

“I’m not believing any of that,” she whispered resolutely.

You have to. You’re in the temple.

She couldn’t help but snicker softly, and thought she heard him chuckling, too.

“All right then, I don’t want to believe it.”

It’s only temporary, remember?

“You being gone? For how long? Years? That’s temporary?!”

When we’re spending the next eons and epochs together, yes, this separation will seem temporary. A mere sneeze of time.

She smiled at that, but exhaled in frustration. “Is it sooner than years?” she asked, full of hope.

It’s not up to me to give you those kinds of answers, Mahrree. Just have faith that you’ll join me when the time is right, not earlier, and certainly not later. It’ll all make sense in the end. What was it that your father used to tell you?

She felt like a pouting nine-year-old as she murmured, “Every story has a happy ending, if we just wait long enough.”

He was right, you know.

“I hate waiting,” she grumbled. “But as long as I’ve got access to you . . .”

Something in the air changed, and her heart sank in dread.

“I won’t, will I. Always have access to you?”

If the cosmos could shrug, it did.

“But you just said I could have you when I need you!” And then she remembered, “But I won’t need you as much as I think I do.”

I will always know what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. And I’ll always try to help you feel me. But when Atlee’s climbing on the shed roof—

“He’s what?!” She almost forgot to keep her voice quiet.

He’s down, he’s down. That was a few days ago, anyway. I talked some sense into him, although I doubt he realized it was me. You certainly want me still chasing our grandchildren, don’t you?

“Yes, yes, of course,” she whispered. “You’re probably in the best position to do so.”

Knew you’d see things my way. You always do, eventually.

She snorted so loudly that several people, sitting scattered in other sofas and chairs, glanced up from their quiet meditations and tried to send her generous smiles to cover their annoyance.

That only made Mahrree want to snort again, and she covered her face and turned to the window, nearly ready to burst into giggles.

Yes, the general’s widow is sitting alone snorting and giggling at the curtains . . . Be ready. Someone’s going to report to Shem that you’re going grainy already.

She thought her coughs to cover her chortling were quite believable.

“You stop that,” she said to the red curtains as she wiped the tears of laughter and misery from her eyes.

All right, I’ll leave then—

“Please don’t!” she whispered earnestly. “Please . . . stay with me.”

For now, I can.

Mahrree sat back in the blue chair and sighed, reveling in the sensation that both of them occupied the same space.

She didn’t leave for two hours, wondering how it was that she could ever go on without his whispering in her ear.

Chapter 18—“The world’s not so simple.”

The good thing about a large family, Mahrree decided later that week, is that there’s always something going on to keep the mind occupied.

The entire family, all of the Hifadhis—of which there was a medium-sized army—and nearly every person in the rectory came together for Hycy and Wes’s wedding. It was wonderful to have everyone together again for a happy event.

Before Hycy and Wes left that evening for their new home, a half a mile beyond Deck’s grazing lands, the immediate family gathered around the boulder that Relf recently finished but covered with a sheet.

Peto did the honors of removing the cloth and the family gasped in amazement at the precise carvings on the boulder.

Perrin Shin

291-363

Beloved Son

Husband

Father

Grandfather

Great-grandfather

Brother

Uncle

Friend

Puggah

Son of the Creator

“It’s marvelous, Relf,” Mahrree breathed. “Truly beautiful!”

Relf blushed proudly, then gestured to the smaller rock next to the boulder. “Did you see that, too?”

Mahrree leaned over to see the marker for The Cat and grinned. “Perfect, Relf!”

“And one more,” he said, lifting another rock that he had just finished. It read:

In memory of Clark, a decent horse

Mahrree chuckled at it.

“These gave us an idea, Muggah,” Relf’s wife Mattilin said. “Tonight might be a good time for it, since everyone’s here. My father gave me these pigments,” she said, reaching behind the boulder and pulling out a bucket. “He loves to paint as a hobby and these paints are weather-proof.” She looked at Relf to continue.

“Muggah, we thought maybe everyone could put their names on a rock,” Relf explained. “As you can see, we still have quite a pile near the boulder. Then we can place the rocks around the boulder and . . . always be with Puggah.”

Mahrree already was teary-eyed. “Then it will be perfect.”

Half an hour later every child, grandchild, great-grandchild—with help—and spouse had painted their names on rocks and placed them around the boulder. Some went on top, others in crevices, and many others underneath in the shadow of the enormous stone.

The sun was just setting as the last stone, with a toddler footprint next to the name of Jaysie, was placed in a crack next to her father Holling’s and her mother Eraliz’s rocks.

Jaytsy stepped back and smiled. “It seemed so lonely before, but not anymore.”

The boulder was now surrounded by rocks roughly the size of kickballs, with different styles of handwriting, and some with small handprints and footprints. Some names were painted carefully, some more artfully, others sloppily, but each distinctly.

The entire family, forever together.

“Mahrree,” Lilla said, “you told me once about rock gardens in the world. I can’t imagine any looked as warm as this one!”

Mahrree put her arm around Mattilin. “Please let your father know I’d like him to come by and see this, so I can thank him personally. It must have taken him a long time to create all that pigment for us.”

“Not really, Muggah,” Mattilin assured her. “Besides, his uncle was one who went to the world as a scout but didn’t return when he should have. Years later he came home, right past Edge. My father always wanted to thank Colonel Shin somehow for making it possible to restore their family.”

Only two days after the wedding, Cephas celebrated his eighteenth birthday, and three days after that, on the 10th Day of Harvest, it was Young Pere’s birthday. Mahrree made Grandmother Peto’s cake recipe twice that week for each boy, now officially a man. Soon they would make their announcements about their futures.

Mahrree already had a pretty good idea what Cephas wanted to do. When the university started up again, he signed up for geography and botany classes. He spent many afternoons in his grandfather’s office reading old files, and Mahrree often joined him to talk about Perrin’s past plans and concerns before Cephas went to spend time with Peto helping him calculate how much wood and supplies would be needed to replace all of the crates in each of the nine emergency storehouses.

As much as she was pleased with Cephas’s desire to be his Uncle Peto’s assistant, she worried about Young Pere. He signed up for anatomy and herb use classes, but when Mahrree asked him how the first week of university went, he merely said, “Fine, Muggah.” He vanished for hours after his classes only to turn up at dinner time, then sequester himself in his bedroom. The only explanation he gave for his absences was, “I just need to think.”

It was what he was thinking about that worried Mahrree so much, because he wasn’t sharing any of his thoughts with her.

—-

“Now,” Eltana called through the closed door, “open it and walk in here like a proper officer.”

The door opened, and Young Pere strode in confidently just as Mrs. Yordin had instructed him: chest out, shoulders back, gaze fixed. It was easy. He always walked like that.

“Good, good,” she said as he circled the room. “Now, the salute. Come to attention and . . . well done. You should—what in the world did you just do?”

“Added a roguish wink,” he smiled. “You know, to project self-assurance?”

Eltana tapped her foot and put her hands on her hips. “A roguish wink. In the army. And just what exactly do you think that’s going to get you?”

“Um,” he faltered, surprised she didn’t think it was charming.

“Yes, that’s what I thought,” she snapped. “I’ll tell you what it’ll get you—one of three possibilities. First, a smack across the face from your commanding officer. Two, beat up by your commanding officer. Or three, taken behind the barn by other soldiers for activities you really don’t want to know about. There are no women in the army, but they make do.”

He narrowed his eyes, confused.

Eltana shook her head sadly. “You really are so naïve, aren’t you?” To the wall she murmured, “I don’t think he’s going to be ready. How can he know the ways of the world? Slagging idiot—”

“Mrs. Yordin,” he interrupted her foray into muttering to herself, as she frequently did. “I’m sorry, but isn’t this why we’re having these lessons each day? To teach me what’s appropriate and what isn’t in the world?”

She eyed him. “Do you know what slag is?”

Surprised at her change in topic, he said, “It’s what’s left over after smelting iron—”

“It’s the most derisive term in the world!” she hissed. “You haven’t done your homework, have you? Yesterday I gave you a list of terms and phrases, and you should have recoiled to hear an ‘esteemed woman’ such as myself using such language as slagging! Back in your grandmother’s day, women pretended they didn’t know what the term meant, and if any woman called someone a ‘slagging son of a sow,’ it was grotesque indeed! Nowadays, though, it’s no big deal. Everyone under forty curses like a soldier, and everyone older than forty does so under their breath. Do you even know what a son of a sow is?”

He hesitated. “Well, a sow is a pig, so her son—”

“Is the most repugnant and vile creature in the world!” she barked. “And should anyone call you that, you best be prepared!”

“Prepared . . . how?”

“To be appropriately stunned, to offer an apology if necessary, or to throw a punch if called for. And to not wink roguishly!”

“Sorry, that time was an involuntary eye twitch—”

“Study, Lieutenant Shin!”

“I am,” he insisted. “I’m not only taking your lessons, but I’ve got four courses at the university. Boskos coerced me into taking anatomy, and there are a lot more body parts than head, arms, legs, and gooey bits on the inside.”

She stared at him for a full fifteen seconds before saying, “You think that was funny, don’t you. You think you’re clever.”

He sighed. “Well . . . yes?”

She threw her hands up in the air.

“Look, look,” he said genially, catching her gently by the shoulder and smiling in that way his grandfather always did.

It nearly worked on her.

“I was just trying to get you to smile. I am learning a lot, and I will be ready in two moons when the next scouting party goes down to Sands. I’ve seen the list my father has of what the scouts learn before they head into the world, and we’re covering all of it, I assure you. In fact, I think you’re a better teacher than Woodson, because you’ve lived for the past fifty years—”

“Sixty-seven,” she interrupted, slightly flattered that he made her so much younger.

“Well, you’ve been in the world, and you really know the army. Trust me, Mrs. Yordin. I can do this. You’ll be very impressed, I’ll get all the studying done, and I’ll even come up with a viable story to allow the scouts to let me go with them, without Uncle Shem’s knowledge.” He gripped both of her shoulders. “It’ll be amazing for all of us, I promise you.”

She stared deep into his dark eyes and said, “You’re so full of yourself, aren’t you? So cock-eyed sure you can handle anything thrown your way?”

“Yes, I am,” and that time, he meant the roguish wink.

“Oh, Perrin,” she sighed, part in hopelessness, part in pleasure. “Sometimes I’m not sure what to think about you.”

“You think,” he said in a manner which bordered on being coy, “that you’re going to give me the list of officers you knew, with their descriptions, and what I should say to them. I’ll study it, I promise.”

Again Mrs. Yordin rolled her eyes. “You really think the world’s going to roll over for you like a submissive dog.”

“Why shouldn’t it? I’m Perrin Shin’s grandson.”

“The world’s not so simple, Young Perrin,” she sighed. “You told me once that Salem is dull. And you’re right—it is. Delightfully dull. After such a life in the world, I’m more than happy to be bored here. But while you think Salem is a 1 and the world is a 10, it’s actually a 78. You’re wildly underestimating the world, and while you study and walk and salute, I have grave doubts that you’ll be able to pull this off.”

Then she said the words which wiped the smirk right off his face.

“Maybe Sergeant Major Zenos is right: you shouldn’t go into the world.”

Young Pere released her shoulders and took a deep, angry breath. That’s what they all always said—he couldn’t do it, he wasn’t ready, he shouldn’t do it.

And now Eltana Yordin was saying it, too.

It was enough.

Doing his best to still be respectful, the words slid out dangerously between his clenched teeth. “I can do it. I can go into the world and snatch it away from Thorne. The plan will work. I will ‘transfer’ into Sands as a new lieutenant, I will gain their confidence, then I will pull your contacts in. We’ll gather enough men and we will go meet General Thorne on some pretext, then I will reveal my true identity and I will use my own blade to cut him down—”

Admirably, she held his hard gaze and interrupted with, “We didn’t discuss you using a blade. You’re too inexperienced—”

“—I will cut him down with my own blade, Eltana Yordin,” Young Pere seethed, feeling unexpected rage channel into every blood vessel and organ he’d memorized so far and even the ones he wasn’t sure of, filling him with power he’d never before felt. It was hot and fierce and fantastic. “I will do it, mark my words. And I’ll return within six moons victorious and with the northern army ready to follow to take over the southern.”

Mrs. Yordin’s expression had changed during the course of his little speech, and now she fairly glowed with anticipation. “Ah, now there’s my Perrin Shin! Keep that. The anger you feel right now, the rage you want to express—hold on to that. Keep it stretched tight. Then you will succeed. Now, salute. Yes! Much better. The fire in your eyes will get you much further than any silly wink. And yes,” she said, pulling out a folded paper from a hidden pocket, “I do have names for you . . .”

—-

Two weeks later, Mahrree was skimming the first set of essays her students had turned in when she was surprised to hear a knock on her gathering room door.

It was Young Pere. “Muggah, do you have a few minutes to talk?”

“I have hours if you want them! Come in, please.” She gave him a hug which he only half-heartedly returned. “Take Perrin’s chair.”

He hesitated before he decided to sit down. Mahrree sat across from him, eager that he finally wanted to talk as they always had.

She suspected that when Perrin was young, he was as clever and mischievous as his grandson, and occasionally Mahrree had imagined she was actually dealing with the teenage incarnation of her husband: slightly rebellious, and certainly imaginative.

But tonight, something was different about Young Pere. The usual glimmer in his eye and his saucy grin were missing. Instead, there was something darker and heavier, trying to stretch him too tight. It put her on guard.

“I wanted to talk to you about my first career,” he got right to the point. “I want to be a scout in the world.”

“Well,” she tried not to sound as surprised as she was. “So how long have you been thinking about this?”

“Since last year,” he told her, and leaned back in the chair, supporting his head with two fingers as Perrin frequently did. It was a confident, even arrogant pose.

She rarely liked it when Perrin sat that way.

“I see,” she said, frantically trying to think of stalling tactics. If only Perrin were here to whisper in her ear. She definitely needed him right then. “You realize becoming a scout takes a great deal of training—three weeks in Woodson’s class just to become an accompanying scout who never opens his mouth in the world. Then after a year of that, you can go on for further training to be a full retrieval scout, which is another year of education. But the biggest obstacle is getting approval from Guide Zenos.” She raised her eyebrows in a He’d never agree and you know it manner.

“And also the approval of the family,” Young Pere said, and nodded to her. “That’s why I’ve come to you first.”

“So you’re asking my permission to be a scout in the world?”

“I’m asking for your blessing.”

“You need the guide’s permission to go.”

“He’ll give it if you agree to let me go.”

“What about your parents?”

“Who would deny the wishes of the great Mahrree Shin?” His sarcasm was only thinly veiled.

Mahrree bristled. So that’s how he was playing this. “You’re using me now? You’ve manipulated my words enough times, now you think you can manipulate me to get what you want? Why? Why do you want to go into the world—the same world which chased us away?”

“To right some wrongs,” he said and tilted his head.

Something definitely had changed in him. Until she could figure out what, she decided to play along.

“To right wrongs,” she repeated tonelessly. “We don’t care about what the world thinks of us, Young Pere. You know that. When have I ever expressed a desire for any of my grandchildren to right those wrongs?”

“I wouldn’t be doing it just for you,” he scoffed lightly, as if her presumption were inappropriate.

Suddenly Mahrree understood. “Eltana Yordin! Have you been talking to her?” Her hand balled into an angry fist, but she did her best to keep her voice calm.

“I have,” he said curtly.

It took all of Mahrree’s strength to not fly off the chair in rage. She massaged her hands instead.

“It’s a little unusual for an eighteen-year-old to spend his free time with an older woman. Mrs. Yordin is not well, Young Pere.”

“She looks healthy enough to me.”

“And so now you’re an expert in the health of women in their sixties? Just how long have you been taking medical classes anyway?”

Young Pere leaned forward, his dark eyes strangely cold as he fixed them on her, and Mahrree suddenly wished he wasn’t sitting in Perrin’s chair. He was nothing like his grandfather now, so unreadable.

“I want to go to the world, Muggah. I know Uncle Shem doesn’t want me to—”

“And one of many reasons why is that you look far too much like your grandfather!”

He shrugged that off. “The only people who would remember what he looked like at my age are either already here in Salem, or dead, like him.”

Mahrree recoiled, first in fury, then in understanding. Young Pere was deep in grieving, and this ridiculous idea was his way of coping.

“But if I want to explore the world,” he continued, “then let me. If I make mistakes, so be it. We’re expected to make mistakes, right? The Creator allows for repentance, so I’ll just fix the mistakes as I make them. I’ve been injured before. Bones mend, cuts heal—”

“Infections kill,” Mahrree interrupted just as coldly. “And the world is full of infections.”

“They kill only the old and weak,” he said, glaring. “I’m neither. I will succeed, Grandmother.”

Mahrree raised an eyebrow, or at least attempted to, at his suddenly formal name for her.

“I thought no one in this family was more open-minded than you,” he continued nonchalantly, and it occurred to Mahrree he’d been practicing this. “More willing to see possibilities others missed. More understanding about the need to break one’s confines and see what else there is. More willing to go against what everyone was telling her, and discover the truth for herself.”

Mahrree sat back. “Calla’s book. You finished it, didn’t you? Read about my anger with the Administrators. Young Pere—”

“You can drop the Young,” he said. “I’m the only Perrin around now.”

That’s not true!” Mahrree whispered severely. “He’s still here! You just refuse to listen to him, just like you won’t listen to me. My situation in the world was different. The Administrators were selfish men trying to hold us back from exploring, trying to keep us from learning, from worshipping, from becoming what we really could become—”

“Just like you’re doing to me,” he cut her off. “Like all of you are.”

“You can explore the entire planet, Young Pere!” She pointed an angry finger at him before he said anything else about being the only Perrin again. “You’ve already seen more than anyone in the world has seen! Salem holds nothing back. We’re trying to protect you, not limit you. It’s like fire, Young Pere. Do you know how many times you touched the hot coals before you finally believed they would be hot every single time? I do! I bandaged you up, six times, Young Pere. And you were probably ten years old the last time you did it. And it still hurt, right?”

Young Pere only stared at her with a look that made her genuinely nervous. He wasn’t rolling his eyes or sighing dramatically as he normally did when they bickered. Tonight, his glare was calculated. He was prepared.

And this was not a typical, good-natured argument.

She had to try something different. Leaning forward to match his pose, she tried to soften her expression. “My sweet boy, what do you hope to find in that world that you can’t find anywhere else?”

“Justice,” he said shortly. “Redemption for our family name. For Mrs. Yordin. For you. For Uncle Shem.”

Mahrree’s stomach twisted when he said, “Uncle Shem.” He knew it all. Everything, already.

Calla had left parts of the ‘official story’ out of her book. Young Pere must have heard the more gripping details of how Mahrree and Shem supposedly had an affair from Eltana, whose take on it would’ve been very worldly indeed. That was precisely what she had hoped to avoid by telling her grandchildren the story herself, when she deemed them mature enough to hear it.

Oh, that Eltana!

“Redemption? Very noble, Young Pere,” she said as calmly as possible. “So why doesn’t it sound like the entire truth?”

He raised one eyebrow successfully, menacingly. “Muggah, remember when we were young, and we played ‘Good Men, Bad Men?’”

“I seem to remember you always being the Bad Man.”

Young Pere finally rolled his eyes. “That’s because no one else was creative enough to come up with a truly interesting plan!”

“Truly devious, you mean. Cephas was always one of the Good Men, asking me what he should do to rein you in.”

His hard eyes met hers. “Maybe it was because I took so much after you and my grandfather. I remember overhearing you once saying that I had a good measure of your mischief.”

“I didn’t mean it as a compliment, Young Pere!”

“You were smiling at the time!”

“Learn to recognize a smirk when you see one!”

Young Pere sighed loudly. “The point is, Muggah, that in the world, the bad men have won—”

“Only temporarily,” Mahrree interrupted. “But the game isn’t over yet. The end of the story hasn’t come—”

“They’ve BEEN succeeding for more than TWENTY-FIVE YEARS!” he roared.

Mahrree was impressed with herself that she showed no more emotion other than raising her eyebrows at his outburst. “I don’t care,” she told him. “And neither should you. But you think someone should stop them?”

He didn’t answer her.

Mahrree had a thought. “Young Pere, what would your grandfather say about your desire to go to the world?”

His eyes narrowed even more. “He’d be fine with it. In fact, I mentioned it to him. He’d admire my bravery, my determination—”

“Now you’re lying. That’s not what he said to you, is it?”

“I never told him I wanted to be a scout,” he said cagily.

Mahrree hadn’t seen such dancing around the truth since Edge. Her former students were very sure-footed, and she learned to recognize the moves from them. That was the reason why Woodson and Shem tested their scout hopefuls against her in ‘lying sessions.’ Only after they could be perfectly dishonest in front of Mahrree did they get to graduate to the world.

Young Pere was failing at every level.

“You may not have said a scout specifically, but I know what his answer would be. No!”

Young Pere was unmoved. “He would’ve said no because he was afraid. He’d grown soft. Yes, I did finish Aunt Calla’s book. The colonel I read about would’ve terrified him. The colonel was brave enough to take a stand, to grab his sword, to do what needed to be done.”

Now Mahrree rolled her eyes. “You think that’s bravery? Grabbing a sword with the intent to do harm? That’s a very narrow definition, Young Pere. Bravery is much more than that. It’s knowing when to fight, but also when to step away from a conflict. It can be much more frightening to put down the weapon and let the world do what it wants with you and your memory.”

“That’s not bravery,” he said unemotionally. “That’s cowardice.”

Mahrree struggled to control her rage. “Are you suggesting,” she seethed, “that your grandfather was a coward?”

“I don’t know what he was, Grandmother. The man I knew certainly wasn’t the man in the book.”

Mahrree slammed her fist on the armrest. “He was greater than the man in the book! He gave up all that he knew, all that the world wanted him to become, to live a life he knew nothing about! He set off not knowing where he’d end up, but he did so because the Creator told him to. That’s bravery, Young Pere! Following the will of the Creator and having no idea where it will lead you? Acting on faith is greater than any act of bravery.”

“Sure, Muggah.”

“Don’t give me that Sure, Muggah! You think he should’ve done Mrs. Yordin’s bidding, don’t you? That he should’ve marched back into that filthy and disgusting world just to get his honor back—”

“To get EVERYTHING back, Muggah!” Young Pere shouted. “Get our family what we deserve!”

“There’s nothing in the world that this family deserves! You think it’s better somehow, don’t you? What the world has to offer is more than what Salem offers?”

“Salem offers death, Muggah,” Young Pere answered darkly. “My grandfather died a meaningless death for Salem. Marking those stupid paths every year, filling those absurd caves every Harvest, and sitting at his desk waiting for something great to happen that never happened. There was no point in him going on if this was all that he had.”

“If this was all he had?!” Mahrree nearly flew off the chair. “He had everything, Young Pere! He wanted children! Grandchildren! He built his office so that he had a view from his desk to watch all of you running by! Do you know how often I found him in there with a sleeping infant in one arm while he worked? This was his dream. Not to be a high general or a king, but to sit at a large table eating a meal with a dozen children tossing rolls at each other. Nothing made him happier. That’s what he’s doing now. He’s not sitting on some cloud strumming a tuneless harp pretending to sing. He’s still with this family, still talking to them, preserving them, improving their aim when they throw those hard little biscuits your aunt Jaytsy makes. Death isn’t the end, Young Pere. As much as some people fear it is, and as much as other people hope it is, it isn’t. You’ve been taught that, I know you have. I taught you! Death’s just the next step in our progression.”

His eyes didn’t glaze over this time. Stone can’t glaze over. “I haven’t heard him.”

“Because you won’t listen! You’re past feeling, Young Pere. You won’t hear him, or me, or the Creator. Have you prayed about this decision?”

“I get no answers,” he shrugged. “No answer means I get to make my own choice.”

Mahrree rubbed her forehead. “If you’re not going to listen to Him, He has to reach you through other means. The Creator is trying to reach you through me! Remember what your grandfather said, the day he died? It’s more important to know when the Creator is telling you ‘No.’”

“All I hear is what you want, Grandmother,” he said coolly. “You don’t want me to go. If I do, then I’ll be beyond your control—”

“My control?” Mahrree scoffed. “Have you ever been under anyone’s control? Young Pere, I love you! Why would I spend so much effort on you if I didn’t? Why won’t you believe me about the world? That we don’t care about what it says? Why is this so important to you? I want to understand, I really do. Please, help me understand what’s going on in your mind.”

Young Pere regarded her as he might a musty old book: outdated and unfit. “It’s gotten to you, too. I thought you might still be different, but you’re not. Salem’s made you weak, and the dullness of this place has made you complacent. You’re afraid of the world. You, who defied it, sent letters to it in protest, stood before five thousand people ready to proclaim everything was a lie? You’re now scared, too. Well, Grandmother, I’m not afraid. You ran away from certain death. I’m not afraid to confront it.”

“Oh, please!” She knew her eye rolling was dramatic, but for some speeches there’s just no other way to demonstrate one’s disbelief. “You just don’t get it, do you? Young Pere, you talk as if death is something to be afraid of. But there’s something more frightening: not living up to The Test! Failing to do the Creator’s will. It was His will we left Edge. And why are you now talking about confronting death? You’re not making any sense. You want to be a scout to get justice—which is not the point of being a scout!—but you also want to die to do so?”

Young Pere blew out in exasperation. “It’s you who doesn’t get it, Muggah! I’m not planning to die, but I’m not afraid of it if it comes. I’m not afraid of anything. I just want to . . . oh, never mind!”

“No, say it. Articulate exactly what you intend to do in the world. You know, scouts are supposed to help rescue people out of the world, not try to undermine the entire thing. Salem’s lost a number of scouts over the years because they didn’t go down with the right frame of mind.”

Young Pere stared off at a corner, his broad shoulders twitching. Clearly, he wasn’t in the right frame of mind, either.

“You want to go for all the wrong reasons,” Mahrree told him. “You’re running on pure emotion. Raw, selfish, angry emotion—”

“I’m not selfish!” he snapped.

“Well then raw and angry, which is still a volatile combination. But you are selfish, because no one, aside for maybe Eltana, wants you to do this. Therefore, you’re doing this for yourself. Selfishness is at the bottom of every stupid act, of every criminal deed. Selfishness is not Salem’s way—”

“Then maybe I don’t belong in Salem!” he shouted at the wall.

“Where’s the logic behind that?” Mahrree shouted back. “And look at me when I’m yelling at you! Where’s your thinking? Give me one good, solid, logical reason why you should become a scout, and . . .” She knew it was the only way to appease him, “I’ll consider helping you get the permission you need.”

Young Pere finally shifted his gaze to her. “Seriously?”

Mahrree sighed. “Yes. But it has to be a good reason.”

“How about, you love me enough to let me go?”

Mahrree stared at him before saying, slowly, “If I love you enough, I will allow you to do something that I believe is potentially damaging to your soul?”

“Yes.”

“Young Pere, you were more logical when you were eight! What kind of nonsense is that? If you love me enough. I love you enough! I love you so much that I’ll refuse to let you do such a thing without a better reason, even if you throw a fit and declare you’ll never speak to me again! That’s how much I love you, you ridiculous boy.”

She gave him a mischievous smile to try to lighten the mood.

But he sat with the weight of the world on him.

“Now, try again,” she said, as cheerfully as she could. Never before had an argument between them generated such hostility. It was swirling around the room like a tornado. There had been times Perrin had barged in on them, glaring at them both, when he thought they’d gone too far in their arguments.

Oh, if only he’d barge in right now!

“Give me a truly logical reason, my sweet boy. No more emotional arguments.”

Young Pere looked off again into a distant corner.

“Would you like some time to think about it?” she prodded. “To formulate a good reason for letting you go into the world in your present state of mind?”

He turned back to her. “Justice isn’t a good enough reason?”

“It’s not the job of a scout to try to exact justice. It’s no one’s job but the Creator’s. Scouts rescue those who want to leave; they don’t interfere in the workings of the world. Try again.”

Young Pere sighed. “What’s wrong with doing something just because I feel like it? Doesn’t the Creator reveal Himself through our emotions as well?”

“He does, but you can also easily misinterpret your own desires as His influence.”

“But what if I’m not? Muggah, I have a very hard time believing you never did anything based solely on emotions. I’m sure there were times you acted just because you felt like it, without logically analyzing it.”

Mahrree’s mouth twitched. “Yes, I have,” she admitted. “And there were times I made foolish mistakes because of my impulsiveness, and I said and did things that I wished I hadn’t. Mistakes aren’t always easy to fix, Young Pere. True, wounds heal, but they often leave scars. Your grandfather had many scars left by the world. Some wounds cripple, some take a lifetime to recover from, and some will claim your life. So why run that risk, Young Pere? Why not ask the Creator instead to have these irrational desires taken away?”

Young Pere stared at the corner again.

Mahrree felt she had little time left with him. He was growing used to avoiding her and her words. Her opinions were becoming irrelevant.

“Young Pere, please . . . I realize this is important to you. I know Woodson’s scouting course begins in just over a week, so that gives us both some time to think about this, and pray about this,” she added when she saw him ready to launch into another debate. “Let’s both ask the Creator to help you make the correct decision, then let’s talk again in three days, compare our answers, and work from there. I promise you that if I feel the prompting that you should go, I will help convince your parents and Shem to let you.”

“So you promise you’ll help me?” For the first time his eyes softened and he was the same young man who, Mahrree would admit only to herself, was her favorite grandchild.

“If it’s the right thing to do, yes,” she said, already praying earnestly that it wasn’t. “I love you more than you can imagine. I’d do anything to keep you safe. Anything, Young Pere. Please? Give us three days?”

Young Pere pondered that, then slowly nodded.

Mahrree smiled. She stood up, held out her arms to her grandson, and he stood up reluctantly and accepted her embrace.

“I love you, Young Pere. Always remember that,” she said into his ribs. “No matter what you do, my sweet boy, I will still always love you.”

“I know, Muggah. Love you too,” he mumbled. He released her and gave her a fake smile that so resembled Perrin’s Dinner smile that Mahrree was momentarily startled. Then he turned and left.

She exhaled only once the door shut behind him.

Well done, Mahrree!

“And where have you been?!” she whispered harshly. “I could have used you here!”

You didn’t really need me. But Centia said they needed a horse to play house with, but Morah thought they needed a dog, you see, and Yenali—

“So what are we going to do about Young Pere?”

Young Pere’s going to make his own choices.

“He can’t go down, Perrin. I feel that in every inch of me. It’d be a disaster—the Creator’s already whispering that in my ear!”

So was I.

“But he won’t believe me. It’s as if the only thing he can feel is anger right now. I’m going to say something, only once, because I have to: had you not died, Perrin, he wouldn’t be making such foolish decisions in his grief.”

He didn’t respond as she expected.

He was going to go down, no matter what, Mahrree. His recklessness and restlessness were going to get him into the world one way or another.

“So I can’t blame all of this on you.”

Nope.

“Worth a shot,” she sighed miserably. “But had you not died, you could have at least helped me with him. And your whispering in my ear is not helping, by the way!”

Sorry. It’s only because I love you.

“Then you should’ve taken me with you!”

You got the message that wasn’t possible yet, right?

“I got it,” she whimpered, tears building in her eyes. “It’s too much, Perrin. Too hard. I’m losing him—I can feel it. First I lost you, then him?”

He’s not lost yet, Mahrree. Neither am I.

—-

“Well, Perrin?” Mrs. Yordin asked as Young Pere sat down on her sofa in frustration.

“Went as well as we expected,” he sighed. “She’s a little unstable. She thinks he’s still around, talking to people.”

“I had that problem at first as well. I thought I heard my Gari everywhere. It’ll fade in time. The more I told myself he’s gone, the more I began to believe it. He stopped haunting my thoughts not too long ago. So what did she say?”

“She’s given me three days to come up with logical reasons for going, because she thinks I’ll be signing up for Woodson’s training course that starts in a week. She also wants us both to pray about it,” he added with a slight sneer.

“Her and her logic,” Mrs. Yordin exhaled. “And her praying! Sorry, I know you’ve been raised with the belief that something bigger and older out there wants to help you, but I’ve never seen any evidence. I appreciate that your people don’t care if I don’t believe, but you don’t have to believe, either.”

He bobbed his head noncommittally. “Sometimes I believe, sometimes I’m not sure.”

“Well,” she patted him on the knee, “I’ve got something to lift your spirits. I didn’t think I’d get it done so soon, but—” She stood, retrieved a bag she’d hidden behind a cushioned chair, opened it, and lifted out a blue jacket.

“It was Gari’s first uniform. I couldn’t bear to leave it behind, so I wore it under my clothes when I traveled here. Fortunately the faded blue of it now matches the current blue of the armies, so no one will know the difference. Try it on, Perrin!” she said excitedly as she handed it to Young Pere.

He grinned, stood up, and slipped the uniform over his tunic. “I didn’t realize the general was as large as me.”

“He wasn’t. Only in the shoulders. I was able to let out the sleeves and lengthen the coat. I covered the faded hemlines with those narrow yellow bands, also in style right now, quite conveniently. Maybe it’s a sign from your Creator that neither of us are too sure about? Stand up straight. Let me look at you.”

Young Pere stood at attention, nailing the stance perfectly.

Mrs. Yordin sighed. “You’re a natural. Ah, Perrin, you take my breath away! Or I should say, Lieutenant.”

Young Pere looked down at the emblems, patches, and markings. Mrs. Yordin had already removed the one from the Administrators, who were long gone.

“I thought a name label is supposed to go about here,” he pointed to over his heart.

“Those weren’t invented yet when Gari was first commissioned. I’m working on stitching a label right now. That’s going to take me a while, though. I’m not that precise a seamstress. All you need to do is choose the name. I still think Briter might be best. There were many Briter families in Sands. If you use a familiar name, you’ll be able to spit it out more naturally.”

He smiled mischievously at her. “What’s wrong with Shin? I could probably remove my grandfather’s label from his old colonel’s jacket when my grandmother is out.”

“No, not yet,” she exclaimed. “We’ve discussed this—it’s too obvious. We need to establish you first under an assumed identity, then spring the trap. No, we’ll stick to something more common.”

She brushed him down with her hands, removing dust that wasn’t there. Her hand lingered at the shiny silver buttons.

“I always wondered if I’d have a grandson to wear this. My son never chose to marry. He had plenty of women though, after the marriage laws were dissolved, so who knows? Maybe I am a grandmother. I like to think my grandson would be as impressive and handsome as you, Perrin.”

Young Pere caught her hand as she tried to unnecessarily polish a button, and she looked up into his face.

“Thank you for believing in me, Mrs. Yordin. You’ve been a great help these past few weeks. I won’t let you down.”

Mrs. Yordin’s eyes grew damp. “I should thank you. You’ve given me more hope than I’ve had in years. Your grandmother doesn’t know what a treasure she has in you. With so many grandsons, she certainly can’t pay enough attention to each of you.”

“That’s why I have you,” he said, and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “May I take this home with me? To keep me focused?”

“I still need to put on the name label . . . oh, but you do look so grand in it, don’t you! Yes, yes—take it home, but keep it well hidden for now.” She wet her lips, almost nervously. “Young Pere, I have to admit—maybe . . . maybe Mahrree’s got a point. Maybe you should enroll in Woodson’s course—”

“But that would ruin our timeline completely!” he exclaimed in dismay.

When you get down there really doesn’t matter,” she said. “But making sure you’re fully prepared—that’s what’s important. We’ll still sneak you down as we planned, but sometime later, after Woodson’s had time to train you—”

He took a hard step back. “You don’t think I can do this either, do you?”

“No, that not what I meant—”

“It is!” he exclaimed, noticing that she wouldn’t look him in the eyes. “I . . . I thought you were different!” he whispered harshly so that the two elderly sisters she lived with wouldn’t hear him yelling. “I thought you could see the potential—”

“Oh, I do!” she exclaimed back, just as angrily, just as softly. “Why would I be tutoring you for so many weeks if I didn’t? But Perrin, I’m trying to put you through three years of officer training in two moons’ time, plus teach you all the details of the world? I’ve overestimated how hard this would be—”

“Because I’m not smart enough?” he snarled.

“Oh, you’re smart enough. And very clever. But also over-confident—”

“I don’t believe this!” he waved wildly and stomped around the room.

“I’m not saying you’re not doing this, but that we need to do this right. Perrin, I’m not smart enough—I’ve realized that now. You don’t even know the history of the world—”

He spun and stared at her. “Have you even met my grandmother?”

“I meant, the version they’re teaching this year. Perrin, it changes every year! If you saunter into a fort with the wrong understanding, you’ll expose yourself. They change the histories frequently, as kind of a code. Only the insiders know what that year’s story is, and if you casually say something wrong, they’ll know you’re an infiltrator. Since Gari died, Thorne certainly would have changed the history at the fort at Sands. He’d have it reflect what he needed the soldiers to believe. I don’t even know what that story is, now! But Woodson might, because your Honri was in Sands for many moons. He’s a clever man, too, and he may have found out the current story—”

Defeated and deflated, Young Pere collapsed on her sofa. “Uncle Honri won’t be back until the first snows fly. That is, if he decides to come back for Snowing Season. He didn’t last year. And if he does, that’ll postpone our plans for what, another four or five moons? Even more? No! I want to go now!”

He wrenched off the jacket, but, calmer than he felt, folded it respectfully, smoothing the blue wool with his hand. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I can see so clearly what needs to be done, but then so many people throw nails in my path.”

“I’m not trying to throw nails,” Mrs. Yordin assured him. “I’m just trying to ensure your success. Do you realize, Perrin, that nowadays men make their own rankings? They don’t necessarily need a superior officer to promote them. Lemuel Thorne certainly didn’t. He deposed of Administrator Genev one day, then the next put away his captain’s jacket and replaced it with a major’s. And not long after that, he suddenly was a general, and no one’s ever questioned it. Do you realize the potential, Perrin Shin? You do all of this right, you can march back into Salem as General Perrin Shin. I want to see that, Perrin. I want that to happen for you. And if you think I’m holding you back now, it’s only because I want to make sure no one in your future ever will.”

Breathless, he stared at her. No, he didn’t realize Thorne had made himself a general. And yes, he could see the potential.

“Think about it, Perrin,” Mrs. Yordin said, placing a hand on his arm. “Think about everything you and I could accomplish, when you’re ready.”

He tucked the jacket into his tunic to smuggle it home. “I already am thinking about it.”

Chapter 19—“Why am I taking you?”

The next afternoon Mahrree was at the Briter house helping snap beans for dinner with Salema, who munched one right after the other.

“Mama,” Salema said to Jaytsy, “why are they so good this year? They just taste so . . . green.”

Jaytsy grinned. “I lived on green beans when I was expecting you. You must have acquired a taste for raw beans then.”

“Well, whatever it is, they’re wonderful,” she said, trying to find a more comfortable position as she looked through the window toward the barn. She was due to deliver at any time now, and her mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother kept a close eye on her, waiting.

But Salema wasn’t as worried as they were. She was sure she could handle delivering this baby on her own. That’s what worried the women. And worried Lek, who begged them to never leave her alone, or him alone with her.

“A twinge?” Mahrree asked as Salema repositioned herself again.

“No, just typical back pain. Sewzi!” she called. “Bring me a pillow, please?” Salema looked out the window again.

“Watching for Lek?” Mahrree asked taking another handful of beans.

“Yes. He brought the boys and me here before he took off. Papa Shem needed him to take care of something, but I’m not sure what.”

“Think he’ll be back for dinner?” Jaytsy asked.

“I’m not sure. He’s been gone for over an hour now.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to put something aside for him in case he’s not back,” Jaytsy said, watching her daughter closely. “That looked like a twinge, Salema.”

Salema sighed. “Mama, I know a twinge when I feel one. I’ve done this before, you know.”

Jaytsy shrugged. “I know. I also know the more babies I had, the less time I had to prepare. What was a long rocking pain with you was an excruciating hiccup by the time I had Young Shem.”

“I appreciate your concern but I really—” She stopped short, took a quick breath, and held it.

Mahrree and Jaytsy looked at each other expectantly then sidelong at Salema.

“Yes, it’s him! Lek’s back. As I was saying, I really can handle this. And no, I’m not feeling birthing pains, so if the two of you would stop watching and questioning me, I’d appreciate it. I’ll have Calla over tonight before I go to bed analyzing my every move, I’m sure!”

Jaytsy and Mahrree looked at each other, a little embarrassed.

Lek burst into the kitchen door and looked at his wife eagerly.

“No, Lek. Nothing. I’m fine.”

Lek sighed in relief and sat down on a chair next to her at the table. He automatically took a bean, bit into it, then pulled a face.

Salema sighed at him. “Why do you do that, honey? You hate raw beans.”

Lek continued to grimace, his lips smacking unpleasantly. “Every time I see you wolfing them down I think, maybe I’ll like them this time. Blech.”

Mahrree chuckled and patted his arm.

“So what did Papa Shem need you to do?” Salema asked, taking the half-eaten bean out of his hand and finishing it off herself.

Lek spat out the rest of the bean into his hand and, slightly disgusted with himself, looked to Mahrree for assistance.

She handed him a cloth.

“Papa needed me to find Dr. Snelling,” Lek said, wiping his hands. “He received a message from the scouts that they may need some help.”

Jaytsy put down the bowl she was carrying to the table. “A doctor? It’s not for Honri, is it?”

“No, Uncle Honri’s fine. It’s another rector who’s supposed to be coming home in a few weeks, the one who was in Mountseen, or whatever province Thorne’s numbered it. Honri has been in Edge ever since he brought Mrs. Yordin there, and had a feeling he should visit Rector Cox in Mountseen. When he got there, he found Cox suffering from chest pains and shortness of breath. Honri’s getting him to Edge, and Papa’s sending an emergency retrieval team to bring him home. Dr. Snelling expressed interest about going down if he were needed.”

“That explains a few things,” Jaytsy said. “I wondered where Peto and Cephas were off to this afternoon in such a hurry. They must be helping get the supplies ready. When does the team plan to leave?”

“In the morning,” Lek said. “Dr. Snelling was quite excited. Mrs. Snelling, on the other hand . . .” He chuckled softly.

“She realizes he’ll be back in just a few days, right?” Salema said. “He’s just helping the ill rector come home.”

“She does. Look, I need to go over to Aunt Lilla’s. Uncle Peto asked me to tell her he’ll be home late. While I run over there, would you please—” He gestured to his wife above her head.

Salema sighed loudly. “I know what you’re doing, Lek. You’re just going next door and will be right back. I promise I will not deliver this baby during those five minutes you are away.”

Mahrree snorted as Lek blushed.

He patted her on the shoulder and tentatively walked to the kitchen door.

“Just go, Lek! I’ll still be sitting here, eating beans.”

Lek nodded at her, then sent a pleading look to Jaytsy and Mahrree.

They both winked back at him.

—-

Young Pere was in his bedroom pretending to study his anatomy notes, but his mind was too far away in Sands to remember anything useful about the spleen.

The side door opened, and he heard his cousin Lek’s voice. “Aunt Lilla? Kanthi said you were here.”

“Tidying up in Peto’s office, dear,” Young Pere heard his mother call from the other side of the house. “Are you coming with good news?”

Lek walked past Young Pere’s open door and into Peto’s office at the end of the hall.

“No—no baby yet. Aunt Lilla, Uncle Peto’s going to be home late tonight.”

Young Pere crept noiselessly into the hallway to hear his cousin’s muffled voice. His mother responded, and he caught the name of Assistant Ahno.

“Yes,” Lek was saying. “They hope to leave by dawn. Dr. Snelling will stay tonight at the Second Resting Station with the other scouts. Papa’s there with Uncle Peto making sure they’re well supplied.”

Young Pere’s heart pounded. An emergency retrieval team, leaving at dawn.

There were no coincidences, his father often said to their congregation. Everything happens for a reason, every opportunity arises as a challenge, a temptation, or an opportunity.

He already had the jacket and the notes. What he didn’t have, however, was Woodson’s extra training. But did he really need that? He’d read Calla’s book, he was clever, he had charisma, he was his grandfather’s grandson . . . What more did he really need?

Heat surged through his body, making his hands tingle and the hairs on his neck stand on end. He’d prove it to them, to all of them—especially to Muggah and Eltana Yordin. What did little old women know about the world and the army anyway?

He already knew enough about the world to conquer it.

Now he just needed to sneak into it.

—-

Peto arrived at the Second Resting Station to see the head of the scouting corps waiting for him. As Peto reined Clark 14 to a halt at the porch, he smiled reassuringly.

But the scout frowned. “You arrive alone, Rector Shin. Am I to guess that you weren’t successful in getting me a doctor?”

“No, I was,” Peto told him as he dismounted. “Dr. Snelling’s wife is doing last minute fixes to the trousers we found him. In case the doctor has to go to any shops in Edge—”

“Province 8,” the scout corrected him.

“—whatever. Anyway, in case Snelling needs additional supplies, we don’t want him looking out of place in the village.”

“Clearly you haven’t been to the world in some years, Peto,” the scout said, shaking his hand. “The fashion of the world is to look out of place. Anything goes.”

Peto chuckled. “Well, we want Snelling looking respectable, which is tougher to do. The worldly trousers we had were a bit too loose and long. Snelling’s a small man, and we didn’t want him tripping over himself. Unless that’s a new trend too, Woodson?”

Woodson grinned. “Who knows. In the last week that may be the latest big thing. It’s hard to keep up with the world sometimes.”

“But somehow you do it.”

Peto followed Woodson into the Second Resting Station, and marveled as he always did how the young man who was his decoy in Edge when the Shins were smuggled out was now the head of the entire corps.

But it was only fitting, he decided. Woodson’s family had originated in the world, too, and Woodson was their third child, so Salem snuck them out. But not quite soon enough. Woodson was born in the forest just above Edge, and always had an affinity for the trees. In fact, if he stood straight and motionless, he resembled an oak, even in his face which had acquired a slightly gnarled texture over the years. Only to himself, Peto thought of him as “Barkman.”

Inside the expansive Resting Station were six other men, dressed in the green and brown mottled clothing of scouts, and each preparing his pack. They glanced up and nodded their welcome to Rector Shin.

“Dr. Snelling will be here in less than half an hour,” he told them. “He’s quite excited to be of service, so you may need to rein him in a bit. Remind him it’s only a quick in-and-out job, and that he shouldn’t speak to anyone if it can be avoided.” He glanced around. “Where’s Guide Zenos? I thought he was briefing you about his brother-in-law Honri? He had a few loose strings he wanted tied up in case he needed to leave the world with you.”

Woodson waved some pages. “Zenos left us his Honri notes. There seems to be a problem with a family west of here. Apparently Rector Anth and Guide Zenos have been counseling a couple. We’re not sure what happened, but Rector Anth came here in a hurry hoping the guide could help him. Shem filled us in enough before he headed out.”

Peto nodded. “Good. If you have any questions, I may be able to help. In the meantime, I see my nephew Cephas was thorough with getting you supplied. He’s headed back to the main storehouse now, so if there’s anything else you can think of, just send a tower message and we can make another delivery before you leave in the morning. The First Resting Station has the collapsible poles for the net litter. Be sure to take those in case Rector Cox’s situation is worse than we expected and he can’t ride—”

Peto was interrupted by a young woman hurrying into the Station. “Rector Shin! There’s an urgent tower message for you.”

“Sorry, men,” he said to the scouting party who nodded for him to check the message, and he rushed outside. The tower nearest the Second Resting Station flew the general’s banner—now the banner for Rector Shin—the emergency banner, and smaller flags spelling out RECTORY.

“The rectory?” Peto whispered to himself. “What would be going on at the rectory? There are no events or—”

A knot tightened in his stomach.

“Young Pere!” he whispered. He spun and ran back into the station. “I’m terribly sorry, gentlemen, but it seems I need to run off as well. Assistant Ahno should be here soon with Dr. Snelling. I hate having to leave like this but—”

Woodson patted him on the back. “Believe it or not, Peto, we’ve done this before. Take care of what needs to be done, and trust the Creator will fill in for us the bits and pieces you and the guide didn’t get to tell us about.”

“Good luck, men,” Peto told them. “Have a safe journey there and home, and I’ll keep you in my prayers.” He jogged out of the station and grabbed the reins of Clark 14. As he mounted and spurred the horse into a run, he ran through his mind all that could have gone wrong.

There were far too many possibilities.

—-

Dr. Snelling and Assistant Ahno arrived a short time later, Ahno huffing to catch his breath.

“Guide Zenos here?” asked Ahno. He was a couple years younger than the guide, but the heavy-set man was not nearly in as good physical condition, nor was he used to riding so hard. Neither was his horse, which was frothing outside.

“No, I’m sorry,” answered Woodson. “Guide Zenos had an emergency to attend to, but he left us the plans.”

“Well, gentlemen, you need to start readying the horses.”

Woodson startled. “What do you mean, readying the horses?”

“You’re supposed to be on the trail in the next hour!” Ahno told him.

“What?”

“The storm!” Ahno pointed up the canyon. “You can’t see it from here, but down in the valley it’s obviously headed for the canyon. On my way here I ran into one of Rector Shin’s boys. He told me the rector wanted you to leave as soon as possible to avoid the rain.”

Woodson looked back at his men. “But Peto left us less than half an hour ago—”

“And I ran into his son about fifteen minutes ago, just before I met up with Dr. Snelling here. From the valley we saw the storm moving in from the east. Big heavy clouds. If there’s a downpour—”

“I know, I know,” Woodson said in irritation. “The canyon channels the water into a small river that can last until tomorrow noon. The horses can’t manage the canyon in that.”

“Isn’t the glacial fort reachable by nightfall?” Dr. Snelling asked eagerly.

“Yes,” Woodson sighed. “I suppose we best get ready. We have to beat that storm.”

The seven men were jogging toward the barn when another rider joined them.

Assistant Ahno smiled. “Ah, you’re the one I met. Does Rector Shin still want them to leave now?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man said, sliding off his mount. His size caught Assistant Ahno by surprise. So did his features. “And I’m going with them.”

Woodson stopped. “You’re the younger Perrin, aren’t you?”

“Well that’s obvious!” Assistant Ahno laughed softly.

Young Pere cringed briefly. “Just Perrin, please. And yes, I am.”

“Why am I taking you?” asked Woodson as he folded his arms.

“Part of my studies, sir.” He nodded to Dr. Snelling. “Dr. Toon wants his medical students to get experience in real-life emergencies, and suggested that I accompany Dr. Snelling as an assistant. If that’s all right with you, sir? Dr. Toon apologizes for not coming with me to explain the new program. He’s engaged with a patient right now, but we didn’t want to lose this opportunity—”

“Sure! Why not?” Dr. Snelling smiled. “Toon always has excellent ideas!”

Woodson narrowed his eyes at Young Pere. “Your father’s all right with this?”

“Who do you think sent me?”

Woodson shrugged and nodded when he saw Young Pere’s pack already over his shoulder. “All right then. Perrin the Youn—, I mean, Perrin—” Woodson sighed. “I’m not sure if I can call you that. I never dared call the general by his first name, even though he asked me to several times. How about I just call you Pere?”

Pere nodded. At least the ‘Young’ was gone.

“So Pere, how fresh is your horse?”

He glanced back at the weary animal he “borrowed” from Uncle Deck. “That one’s not a Clark.”

“That’s all right,” Woodson said. “We’ve got a few Clarks and GrayClarks in the barn. Come saddle one up.”

—-

Half an hour later the men were almost ready to leave. Assistant Ahno was securing the packs on to the pack horses when another horse rode up to them. The men were startled as they noticed the woman with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail.

Young Pere did a double take when he saw her. She was slender, maybe in her early thirties, and startling beautiful with sharp yet delicate features. She wore dark colored breeches and a dark top, and a pack was slung across her shoulders. Traveling clothes of the women of Salem.

Woodson walked up to her. “Can I help you?”

“Yes. It looks like you’re leaving. May I join you?”

Woodson blinked at her. “We have another tag-a-long? You know, people don’t just casually join an emergency retrieval team. We put visitors through training about world language differences and customs . . .”

His voice trailed off when he saw her determination. He tried one more thing. “And women come only with their husbands, for protection.”

The woman looked at him with hardened eyes. “I no longer have a husband. But I do have a great aunt in Edge who recently lost her husband and is desperate for family. The rector there had been working with her, trying to get her ready to come to Salem, and has been sending me messages about her. He was trying to set up a visitation for me, and it was supposed to happen in a few weeks, but I just found out your plans have been pushed up. I’m ready if you are.”

Woodson slowly shook his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. . . . What was your name?”

“Just call me Amory.”

“Well, Amory, Guide Zenos is very particular about who goes on these trips—”

“Yes, I know. I spoke with him not too long ago. He’s been tutoring me on the ways of the world when he’s had time, and he’s the one who told me about the emergency trip to Edge. He’d be here himself to give you permission to take me, but some of my neighbors have been having some marital problems that grew a bit violent. He’s there now with our rector trying to sort it out. It wasn’t exactly the best time to pull him away just to come introduce me to you, wouldn’t you agree?”

Woodson scratched his head. “No, you’re right. You’re fortunate to run into us. We weren’t scheduled to leave until morning, but with the approaching storm—”

“Yes, I think it’s quite providential that I happened to run into you just now. Must be the hand of the Creator. I’m ready to go,” Amory hinted.

Woodson turned to the rest of the scouting party. They nodded to him as well.

“Well,” he sighed, “it’s only a quick in-and-out. Come to think of it, that’s how my first venture into the world was.” He nodded to Young Pere. “I was your father’s decoy that night. The scouts put a lot of faith in me even though I wasn’t yet fully trained, so I suppose it’s time for me to put some faith in two others.” He looked at Amory and Young Pere. “Rule one: talk to no one but who we allow you to, make contact with no one without our permission, and keep a low profile. Quick in-and-out. Understand?”

Young Pere and Amory both nodded and said, “Understand.”

Woodson walked over to Assistant Ahno and shook his hand. “I thank you for your help, Assistant. When Rector Shin or Guide Zenos returns, I assume you’ll fill them in on our departure?”

“Of course, of course! May the Creator guide and protect you until you return.”

—-

Peto reached the Main Storehouse to find Cephas standing outside, talking to a couple of young women. He was grinning at the conversation until he looked up and saw his uncle riding fast.

“Uncle Peto, something wrong?”

Peto reined Clark 14 to a stop. “Do you know anything about the emergency message?”

Cephas frowned. “Emergency message? No, I didn’t see one.”

“It was for the rectory, but I just came from there and everything is quiet. No sign of mischief, or fire, or—”

He paused when he saw the inquisitive faces of the two girls.

“—of anyone else. I was hoping you might have heard something.”

“No, I’m sorry, Uncle Peto. Do you want help looking?”

Peto scoffed in exasperation. “I don’t know what I’m looking for! I’m going to ride for home, see if the message was from there. If you hear or see anything, let the towers know, all right?”

“Of course, Uncle Peto. Good luck!”

Peto spurred Clark 14 and headed west.

“Dear Creator, what’s going on? Father, do you know?”

Young Pere has decided to fly again, Peto. This time he’s succeeding.

A few minutes later Peto burst into the door of his house. “Lilla!” he bellowed. “Now!”

She came from the kitchen, flour on her hands, surprise on her face. Sakal and Centia came from the kitchen, too, alarmed to hear their father shouting.

“What’s wrong?” Lilla asked, brushing her hands on her apron.

Peto grabbed her by the arm. “We’re riding—NOW! Sakal, Centia—finish dinner yourselves!”

Lilla’s eyes were huge as Peto dragged her out the side door. “I don’t understand—”

“Young Pere’s trying to fly again—”

She sprinted for the barn.

—-

“This is your last chance to glimpse the valley,” Woodson said as the horses climbed higher up the canyon. The rain was beginning to fall and the view of the valley was quickly obscuring. “If you want to wave goodbye, do so now,” Woodson called as he waved to the valley. “Silly tradition, but . . .”

Dr. Snelling and the other scouts twisted in their saddles for a quick wave.

Young Pere didn’t bother. He was too focused on what lay ahead, planning his moves for the next few days. Getting out was far easier than he imagined. Amory had it right—the Creator’s hand must have been involved. There was even a rainstorm covering his tracks as he left his confines, just like a storm had washed away the tracks of another escaping party, many years ago.

Assistant Ahno didn’t question the directions from his father, the men in the tower accepted his message with a nod, and Woodson hesitated for only a moment. There certainly was one advantage to living among people who are completely honest in all things: they were amazingly gullible.

Young Pere was a little disappointed with the ease of his success. The only difficult part was timing everything, but even that came together in just a few minutes. That Uncle Shem didn’t arrive while they were getting ready was another stroke of luck. Whatever couple was fighting, he sent them a silent thank you. He hoped taking over the fort in Sands wouldn’t be as simple. He was looking forward to a real challenge.

He put his hand on his pack again just to make sure it was still secure. Inside and folded tightly was Lieutenant Roarin’ Yordin’s jacket, along with a pair of blue trousers that closely matched it. Tucked inside the jacket was a list of all the officers he was supposed to memorize, which he’d get to later. Mrs. Yordin would forgive him for not saying goodbye.

Young Pere noticed Amory didn’t turn around, either, to wave farewell to Salem. She merely pulled her overcoat tighter around her body and adjusted the hood to keep the rain off her face. She glanced at Young Pere again, as she had many times in the last hour, and gave him a faint smile before his horse fell in line behind hers as the trail narrowed.

Chapter 20—“I don’t even know how to say it.”

 

Peto watched, unnoticed by his sister’s family, as they sat around the enormous eating table. He stood partially concealed in the kitchen as they reached over each other and asked for help and spilled food and occasionally stabbed someone with a fork.

It was customary in Salem that the day before Holy Day was a day of preparation, so that nothing unnecessary needed to be done the following day. Those evenings would bring the entire extended family together for a large dinner, with leftovers for each family to share the next day after the congregational meeting so even the cooks could have a day of rest.

Deck and Jaytsy’s table was full to overflowing that night, as it was every other week when it was their turn to host the married children. Mahrree was in her customary spot, and Jaytsy had slid herself over to be where Perrin used to sit. The added presence of Lek and Salema with their two boys, Cambo with his wife and son, Bubba with his wife and twin girls, and Holling with his wife and baby daughter had the effect of pushing Yenali and Young Shem to one of the two smaller children’s tables set up in the corners for the grandchildren.

Peto smiled dimly that the same thing would happen in his house later, but with much less energy because of what they already knew.

He stepped fully in the doorway, quietly waiting for someone to notice his presence over the chaos of dinner. He wasn’t in a hurry to share his news. Still, it couldn’t be put off.

Deck finally looked up from trying to get a piece of bread to his granddaughter. “Peto! What brings you here? Lilla’s cooking is much better than Jaytsy’s.”

That brought a howl of derision and laughter from his children.

Mahrree shook her head and smiled at Deck, while Jaytsy put her hands defiantly on her hips.

Peto saw the momentary reprieve and took it. “I’m just here to see if Sewzi has learned anything new from her aunt. The herbs on those turkeys look familiar.”

He made his way around the table, ruffling hair and poking children, but paused at Salema’s large belly and patted it.

“Never come out . . . never come out . . . never come out,” he said to the bulge.

“How’s that supposed to help, Uncle Peto?” Salema laughed.

“Maybe I’m the opposite of Calla. She tells the girls when to come out, maybe I’ve got some gift for boys. They tend to do the opposite of what they’re told, after all,” he winked as the family laughed.

But Mahrree squinted knowingly at him. He only reverted to his youthful obnoxiousness when he was avoiding something.

Peto made his way to stand behind his brother-in-law at the other end of the room. He snatched a turkey leg from his plate and sampled a bite.

“Hey! That’s not yours!” Deck exclaimed, to more laughter. Deck rarely ate meat, and had given up beef years ago, just like Guide Gleace. None of the ranching boys ate beef, either. They raised cattle because they loved them alive, not necessarily on their plates.

But on Deck’s plate today was one of many wild turkeys which were slowly taking over the western side of Salem, and they had to be culled because no natural predators ventured so far into the valley. Because nothing should be wasted in Salem, on these rare occasions Deck ate poultry. Except for right now.

Peto chewed thoughtfully on the turkey leg, pointed it at his fifteen-year-old niece, and said, “Very good, Sewzi. This family will survive.”

Sewzi beamed with delight.

“Do you have any other reason for being here other than to criticize my cooking?” Jaytsy said, trying to conceal a smile.

“What you mean is, am I here for any other reason than to compliment your daughter?” He dropped the turkey leg on Deck’s plate and wiped his hand on the back of his brother-in-law’s shirt.

Deck covered his plate dramatically with his hands to avoid further thefts. His younger children and grandchildren giggled.

Peto knew he shouldn’t procrastinate, but he didn’t know how to proceed. As the laughter died down, so did his smile, and soon everyone was watching him, noticing the change in his demeanor.

“I did come for another reason. I don’t even know how to say it,” he said with such soberness that everyone at the table fell quiet, probably for the first time ever.

His eyes met Mahrree’s, who stared at him in dread.

“Young Pere’s joined the retrieval team heading for Edge.”

“Peto, no!” Mahrree cried as the Briter family gasped. “He promised me we would discuss this!”

What?” Peto exclaimed. “You knew?!”

“No, it’s not like that,” Mahrree said hurriedly, standing up. “I’ll go talk to him—”

“Mother, it’s too late.”

Mahrree stopped. “What do you mean, it’s too late?” She turned to Cephas. “They’re not leaving until morning, right?”

Cephas looked at his uncle.

Peto’s face was drawn and tight. “They saw a storm coming in from the southeast and decided to leave as soon as the supplies were ready. They’re already gone.”

Cephas was on his feet in an instant, shoving the chair behind him. “Uncle Peto, we might be able to catch them—”

“Already tried,” Peto cut him off. “Lilla and I just came back from the canyon entrance. I’ve never seen her ride so hard.”

The family waited in heavy silence for him to continue.

“By the time we got there, only Assistant Ahno was there, and he was mortified when he saw us. Apparently Young Pere claimed Dr. Toon had sent him to assist Dr. Snelling. Ahno had no idea Young Pere was leaving without our permission.”

“Young Pere lied?” eight-year-old Yenali exclaimed, stunned to hear that anyone she knew lied.

Jaytsy hushed her.

Peto nodded sadly before turning to Cephas. “That emergency I was talking about that was supposedly happening at the rectory? I went back and spoke to the tower men about the message. They showed me the note sent up to them. It was in Young Pere’s hand—his diversion to get me away from the Second Resting Station.”

Mahrree’s eyes grew wide. “Why, that little—”

Peto continued, addressing the stunned Briters, “He gave them an additional message meant for Shem telling him he was needed at home, but the tower men already knew Shem was dealing with a crisis in the south, so one of them rushed over to the Zenoses to see what the problem was. Naturally, there wasn’t one. While I raced home answering the first diversionary message, Young Pere found Ahno, told him I gave orders for them to leave immediately because of the approaching storm, and, well . . .” Peto shook his head. He hadn’t encountered so much deviousness since he left the world.

He also missed seeing Yenali counting on her fingers how many lies Young Pere told.

Mahrree sat down, stunned. So did Cephas.

“He could have worked for Genev,” Jaytsy whispered. “With stories like those.”

Peto scoffed lightly. “Father said I could’ve had a career in strategy planning, but it’s Young Pere who has the real talent. And, unfortunately, he was right about the storm. It was already raining in the canyon when we arrived. The retrieval team will be lucky to get past the more treacherous routes. There’s no way Lilla and I could risk going up. Already the water was funneling through the entrance. The canyon will be impassable until the morning,” he finished in a whisper.

“Oh, Peto,” Jaytsy exhaled. “What can we do?”

Peto only shrugged.

Mahrree couldn’t speak louder than a whisper. “I just don’t understand it. Yes, we talked last night, but he never hinted at anything like this.”

Sewzi began to cry softly.

Peto moved over to behind his mother and hugged her in her chair. “He’s been harder to reach. And ever since Father . . .”

He decided not to finish that sentence.

“He has to make his own choices, and deal with the consequences.” The last words choked in his throat.

“Peto,” Deck’s voice was very quiet, but sounded booming in the gloom. “Do we know if Edge was his final destination? If Thorne should see him, with his looks, should he be discovered . . .”

The married children at the table glanced at each other in alarm.

Mahrree hid her face behind her hand.

“The last report was that Thorne was leading a large contingency down to Midplain,” Peto said. “Apparently there have been some disaffected soldiers there and threats of rebellion. Honri’s source didn’t think Thorne would be back in Edge for at least a season or two.”

Deck’s shoulders sagged in relief, but his eighteen-year-old son shifted in agitation.

“Uncle Peto, we’ll just go get him back,” Cephas decided. “He’s always been like this. We’ve retrieved him from trees, families of skunks, when he was stuck in caves, and when he wanted to see that forest fire up close. We’ll just bring him home again.”

Peto couldn’t answer, because he knew the retrieval team was already gone.

Viddrow chuckled softly. “Remember when he wanted to see how thick the ice was?”

Holling smiled. “I think I was fifteen. So was Barnos, so you must have been thirteen, Vid, and he and Cephas were twelve. He had a good plan, at least. He laid down on the bank and slid himself out across the ice, spread eagle, to avoid putting too much weight on any one part. We all heard the ice cracking, but he was sure it was further down the pond. Then suddenly, sploosh! He was gone.”

Some of the younger children giggled, but the adults didn’t smile.

“He was sick for weeks. He coughed so hard I think he cracked a rib, didn’t he?” Viddrow added with a sad laugh.

“That’s enough,” Jaytsy said sternly to her sons, and looked at Peto who was lost in thought, staring at nothing on the table. In a soft voice she added, “We nearly lost him.”

Mahrree nodded. “There were many nights we thought he wouldn’t make it to the morning. To get Lilla to leave his side was almost impossible. She’d allow only Perrin or me to stay with him at night.” Mahrree looked at the children around the table. “Your mother and Aunt Calla took care of the Shin family for those weeks, so your aunt and uncle could spend all their time with Young Pere. If you boys hadn’t gotten him out of the water when you did, he probably wouldn’t have made it.”

Cephas turned solemnly to his uncle. “But that’s the point. We got him back. It took all of us to pull him out of the water, and we even got wet ourselves. But we saved him, Uncle Peto. Let’s just do it again.”

Not for the first time did Peto wish Young Pere had a sliver of Cephas’s thoughtfulness. “Young Pere’s been very blessed to have family and cousins who rescue him every time he’s reckless. But this is different. He’s moved himself out of our reach, and should he fall in the water again, none of us will be there to pull him out.”

His nieces and nephews looked down at their plates.

Deck sighed heavily. “Peto, I don’t know what to say, except that we will all pray for him, always.”

Mahrree added, “And the Creator knows where he is. Young Pere’s not out of His reach.”

“But Muggah,” Cephas said, trying to be gentle, but his doubt was clear. “If Young Pere’s not listening?”

“All we can do is hope,” Mahrree said to him, “that sometime Young Pere will learn to listen.”

Yenali piped up. “He always listened to Puggah. Maybe the Creator can send Puggah to him.”

Stillness filled the room as all eyes looked at the eight-year-old, who took a squirting bite of her corn on the cob.

Peto’s tears would no longer be held back. “That’s a good plan, Yenali,” he whispered. “And it’s all we’ve got right now.”

A few minutes later Peto walked with Mahrree to the Shin house. Neither of them spoke, too lost in their own thoughts and fears.

Lilla was waiting outside, facing the direction of the canyon as if from several miles away she could see any progress of her son, making his way up in the thunderstorm that clouded her view. She glanced over, saw Mahrree and Peto approaching, and rushed to hug her mother-in-law.

“We couldn’t get there in time! I can’t believe he’s gone! Just like that! No message to us, no goodbyes, nothing? As if he didn’t care what this would do to us!”

Mahrree stepped back and held Lilla’s arms, trying to still her agitation which made her entire body tremble. “I’m so sorry, Lilla. Somehow it will be all right.”

“Do you really think so?” Lilla asked.

Mahrree paused, knowing that she said the words flippantly, desperate to see poor Lilla calmed, but it wasn’t working.

“I hope so,” Mahrree said. “And I pray so. But honestly, I don’t know.”

“I don’t know yet either, Mahrree!” Lilla wailed. “I can’t feel anything about him. Usually I do. Usually I can feel when he’s about to do something stupid again. And then I would wait for the yell, or for the children to come tell me where he’s stuck or bleeding or both, but not now.” Panic was rising in her tone. “It’s as if he’s gone beyond my reach, beyond my ability to feel him! Mahrree, what will we do?”

“All we can do is pray and ask for help.”

Lilla turned to the canyon again.

Peto wrapped an arm around her as she sighed. “I know who could have stopped him.” Without another thought, and with no reservation, she looked up to the sky and said loudly, “Dear Creator, please hear me!”

Behind her, Peto and Mahrree exchanged looks of surprise, then watched to see what was going to come out of her mouth next.

“If it’s Your will,” her voice, despite her volume, began to quaver, “please send Papa Pere to bring home my boy!”

Peto wrapped her fully into him as she began to sob.

Mahrree patted Peto on his arm as he led her into the house. Several children waiting at the door came to their parents’ aid, leaving Mahrree alone in the garden. She felt the same as Lilla, but not as loudly. No one ever felt as loud as Lilla.

She looked to the sky over the mountain, darkening from the setting sun and the storm that was covering it. Normally she loved that violent color of gray and blue, with jagged lightning cutting in with lines of white.

But not tonight. Tonight, the color of the sky terrified her.

“Dear Creator,” she asked quietly, “if it is Your will, please send my grandson help. And Perrin, if you can, go find Young Pere and stay with him. Don’t leave him until you can bring him home to his mother and fath—”

And then she could no longer speak, because her breath was gone, because an enormous warmth suddenly surrounded her, like a large blanket.

But it wasn’t a blanket. She could even smell him, earthy sweet, and the intensity with which he enveloped her was nearly overwhelming. She stood in that blissful state for a few moments, fully wrapped in all that was her husband.

Are you sure, Mahrree?

“Yes. I’ll be fine without you. Look how many men and women you’ve given me to care for me. I understand now what you’ve been trying to tell me: I don’t need you nearly as much as Young Pere does. Oh, but how I will miss you!”

It’s only temporary, remember? Besides, Young Pere is why I had to pass on. He’s my calling now. The Creator knew he’d do this and that someone needed to go with him. Mahrree, I hope you can forgive me, but I volunteered for this.

Tears were dribbling down her cheeks. “I know,” she whispered. “Somehow I knew that.”

It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, especially about dying.

She chuckled pitifully at that, her tears increasing. “Stay by his side, Perrin. Don’t ever leave him. Please. Knock some sense into him, and then come home with him.”

I will. I always love you. And I’ll come back again, with him. I promise.

And then . . .

He was gone.

As quickly he’d appeared, he’d vanished. Perrin was gone, truly gone, headed south.

Weakness, emptiness filled her unlike anything she’d felt since the day he died. But she wasn’t alone, because something else came. Softly, carefully, consolingly.

She found her thoughts full of her father as her mind heard the words, See why I always liked him?

 

—-

The pounding on the door startled the two elderly women who lived in the house, but their housemate, Eltana Yordin, only glowered at it. She was slightly suspicious that whoever was beating down their door with such urgency may have been someone who had finally pieced together that she’d been coaching Young Perrin Shin for many weeks. It was about time.

With deliberate slowness, she opened the door.

“Where is he?!” bellowed Shem Zenos, and the sisters shrank in astonishment.

But he didn’t notice, because he was glaring at Eltana with fire she didn’t think the guide possessed anymore.

While Young Perrin was overdue for their discussion that day, she wasn’t about to make any of this easier.

“Why, whoever are you talking about?” she asked with disgusting sweetness.

“Young Perrin Shin! Assistant Ahno told us he’s headed up the canyon to Edge!”

Eltana blinked at that. No, the plan was for Sands, in about four moons—

When she didn’t respond immediately, Zenos stood taller. “So you didn’t know, then?”

She nearly exclaimed, He’s what!? But instead she said, as calmly as she could, “When did he leave?”

“A few hours ago. I’ve been trying to piece together exactly why and for what purpose, and the trail has led me here. What’s his intention?”

The two sisters quickly stood up and bustled away to the kitchen.

Eltana didn’t invite in the sergeant major, and saw behind him two younger men, likely rectors from other areas. Based on their coloring, they definitely weren’t Shins, thank whatever creator may exist. She wasn’t sure why they were there, although she was fairly confident Salem didn’t have any kind of incarceration.

Stunned to realize that Perrin had already left, and realizing she had to cover her involvement in it—just in case there was incarceration—she firmed her stance. “Perrin Shin was interested in returning to the world, and he and I spoke about it on occasion—”

“They found your notes, Mrs. Yordin!” Zenos shouted.

Her jaw clenched. He was supposed to burn those, or take them with him. Never leave evidence, she’d told him repeatedly. Never leave a trail . . .

“What do you want from me, Sergeant Major?”

“Answers!”

She firmed her stance. “I don’t have any for you.”

“What did you put in that boy’s head? He’s grieving, he’s irrational, and he’s impulsive, as you now see.”

Her mind was spinning, trying to figure out what Perrin was doing, and . . . He left without even saying goodbye to her?

She realized she was still being yelled at.

“What else did you give him? I saw the notes—names and locations in Sands. That’s his final destination, is it? Some of those names were those who betrayed Gari. Do you expect Young Pere to exact revenge?”

“No!” she shouted back. “He’s too inexperienced. They’d destroy him first.”

The foolish boy left the notes. Oh slag, he left the notes—

“Oh, wonderful,” said Zenos, oozing with sarcasm. “You’ve sent him to be butchered, then?!”

“NO!” she cried again. “I sent him to catch them in their lies! To gather information! Then, once he’s been trained up a bit, finds his footing, gathers our allies, learns to wield a sword—”

Zenos sagged. “Oh, Eltana, what ideas have you fed him?”

“Perrin can do anything!” she declared, hoping that was true but beginning to doubt it. The slagging boy left the notes

“He’s NOT PERRIN!” Zenos roared. “He’s NOT his grandfather! He has the looks and the voice and far too much of his confidence, but not the steadiness, and not the ability, and certainly not the wisdom. Eltana, you’ve set Perrin’s grandson on a road to self-destruction.” He leaned against the doorframe and held his face in his hands.

She didn’t know what to do with the abrupt change in the sergeant major. For a moment she thought he almost might be sobbing.

“He can do it,” she insisted, but she felt her own confidence flagging. He was supposed to get more training. They had four moons—

“You underestimate him,” she decided, hoping she believed that. “All of you do. He’s capable of far more than any of you realize.”

Zenos’s hands slid off his face, and he delivered her the most cutting glare she’d ever felt. And having lived with Gari Yordin, that was saying something.

In a voice that shook her to her toes, Zenos said, “It’s you who underestimates the world. It will crush Young Perrin Shin. Your selfishness is devastating an entire family. I hope you get the satisfaction you’re hoping for, because it’s going to cost far more than you ever anticipated.”

There was nothing more to do but slam the door in his face, because suddenly she felt drained and hopelessly weak. She stumbled to the first chair she could reach and collapsed into it.

Gripping her head, she murmured, “Left too soon. Oh, you left too soon. Again, Perrin, you’ve left me too soon . . .”

 

—-

Later that evening Mahrree sat rocking Morah, who cried softly, as Peto and Lilla tried to explain again to her and Centia exactly where, or where they thought, Young Pere had gone.

The rest of the family sat in the gathering room quietly listening, shaking their heads, and softly sobbing.

Mahrree kissed her granddaughter’s head as she whispered, “But he said I was part of his team, now.”

Mahrree didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she understood the sentiment—they were losing their team. Two were now gone.

Until that evening she’d never noticed how present Perrin had still been. Sometimes it felt as if he hadn’t even died six weeks ago. He was always still there to talk to, and a few times she was sure she heard him laughing. He was always somewhere, nearby.

But his lingering wasn’t meant to be permanent. He had greater work to do besides playing with his grandchildren and lying next to her in bed at night while she read. He was far away on a mountain side, heading to Edge, trying to find a lost lamb.

Or rather, a stupid young ram.

Morah slid off of her lap, kissed her Muggah good night, and Hycy held her hand as she trudged sadly off to bed.

Relf comforted his mother as Barnos put his arm around his father. Lori and Jori would be arriving shortly, Mahrree was sure. The tower message was sent to them over an hour ago, and both young women were as solid on horseback as their mother. The rest of the family sat on the sofas together, sighing and sniffling, helpless.

Kew came and stood behind his grandmother, as if desperate to find something to do. At thirteen, he was rapidly becoming another copy of Perrin. Over the season, he’d grown taller than Mahrree, and his brown hair was darkening to almost black. But his eyes were far more gentle than Young Pere’s, as was his quiet and frequently clumsy demeanor. In an effort to help, the poor boy tried massaging Mahrree’s shoulders, and she tried not to wince in pain. Instead, she appreciated the intention and patted his hand gratefully, hoping he might ease up a little.

But he didn’t, because the sudden knocking on the door was so loud and urgent that he accidentally pinched Mahrree’s neck in alarm.

The rest of the family jumped in their seats as Nool began to open the door.

Shem shoved it the rest of the way and hurried in, as if he’d been running for hours and didn’t know how to stop himself. They hadn’t seen him since the crisis began, but messages had been flying back and forth as everyone frantically rushed around accomplishing nothing. Mahrree nearly shrank back as she saw Shem’s expression. His earnestness was almost frightening as he went straight to Peto.

“Any word? Any updates? He’s still gone, right?”

Peto, momentarily startled by Shem’s intensity, stammered, “N-no. Nothing new. He’s still gone.”

“And you did not give him permission, correct?”

“Of course not!”

“Did he ask to go? Did he hint at all—”

“Yes,” Mahrree blurted miserably.

Shem spun to her. “What?!”

That time she did shrink back as the full force of his barely contained rage was shifted to her. “Last night, we talked. All right, we yelled. He told me he wanted to be a scout, and was asking for me to convince all of you to let him go. But I didn’t!” she exclaimed as Shem began to huff. “I told him no! Actually,” she knew she had to amend that, “actually, I told him we both needed to pray about it, then discuss it again in three days. Shem, I was trying to buy us time!” she defended as he clenched his fists. “Woodson’s course doesn’t even begin until next week, and I figured I’d have a solution for his request by then!”

Everyone stared at her, Shem the hardest. “What, exactly, did you tell him you’d do? Did you tell him you’d help him?”

Mahrree swallowed. It was no use lying to the guide, and that’s who he was right now. Not her little brother, but the Creator’s guide who, she suspected, already knew the answer. “I told him,” she confessed nervously, “that if—IF—the answer to my prayer was that he should go, that I’d help him. But I told him it’d be a disaster! That he shouldn’t go!” she immediately added as Shem rubbed his forehead vigorously in the best Perrin tradition. “I wasn’t ever going to give him permission, Shem! And I was going to tell you and Peto and Lilla about our conversation after he came back to discuss things with me. I was sure . . . I was sure he’d change his mind.”

But something had changed in Shem’s countenance, and he stared at Mahrree. “You told him it’d be a disaster. That he shouldn’t do it.”

Suddenly Mahrree saw her mistake. “Oh, no,” she murmured.

Lilla’s eyes widened with worry.

Sometime during that conversation, Jaytsy and Deck had arrived and were standing anxiously at the open door, listening, along with a burly man who was vaguely familiar to Mahrree.

“I’ve just come from Eltana Yordin’s,” Shem said heavily. “She definitely was coaching him, but she seemed alarmed he was already gone. I suspect that she may have said something along the same lines as you, Mahrree: that he wasn’t ready to do this.”

“So naturally,” Lilla spoke, her voice pitching shriller with each word, “he decided to prove everyone wrong! Oh, that stupid boy! It’s a raw bacon and egg pie day today, that’s what it is! With sour cherries and mushrooms on top—”

Peto was already pulling her into him, and she sobbed against his shoulder.

“One thing a Shin can’t do,” Shem said, suddenly sounding weary, “is to accept when someone in authority tells them not to do something.”

Mahrree held her face in her hands. “It’s the Stupid Shin trait, all right,” she said despondently. “Someone issues us a challenge, and we unwisely chase after it. Lilla, I’m sorry your son took after the wrong grandparents. He read Calla’s book recently. Or rather, misread it. He took from it only the elements that fit his agenda.”

“I had to talk Perrin out of it,” Shem whispered, as if he were speaking words he never intended to. “Out of doing Eltana’s bidding to go down in the world and take it over.”

“Well, maybe if Young Pere had been listening in,” Mahrree sniffled, “he would have been talked out of it, too.”

“He likely was,” Lilla said, pulling away from Peto, her face blotchy and furious. “He’s always eavesdropping. That’s probably how he heard about the retrieval team, when Lek came to tell me! And if he heard you and Perrin talking,” she said to Shem, “he likely heard only what he wanted to hear, shoved that in a sandwich, and ate it!”

She turned to sob into Peto’s shoulder again. “I knew he was going to do this!” Lilla choked out between sobs. “I knew he was going to do this someday!”

Shem sighed, then noticed the Briters at the door, and the man standing apologetically behind them. He beckoned him to come in.

“Good evening,” the man said awkwardly to the family that stared at him. His voice was much quieter than such a large man should have. His eyes were bloodshot, and one of them was bruising and swelling. In his hands was his straw hat, crinkling quietly.

“Kellen,” Shem said kindly, “exactly when was the last time any of us saw Amory?”

Mahrree frowned, trying to follow what was going on.

Kellen looked down at his feet. “Probably a little before dinner time. You and I were talking out in the field about, about her decision. The rector left her alone to come speak with us. When we got back, we couldn’t find her.”

Shem turned to Peto, Lilla, and Mahrree. “Do you know Kellen and Amory Riling?”

Peto shook his head, and Lilla glanced up from his shoulder to shrug, her eyes too blurry to focus.

“Would Young Pere?”

“Not that I know of,” Peto said, looking confused.

Shem turned again. “Mahrree?”

Mahrree smiled sadly at Kellen, now remembering his name and face. The first time he walked into her world history class, she thought he was the very definition of the phrase “big and burly.” But she’d never known a gentler young man. Now he seemed as timid as a wounded sparrow.

He tried to return Mahrree’s smile, but it was a pitiful attempt.

“Kellen was in my world history class some years ago,” Mahrree told Shem. “Amory was also one of my students, I think a year or two later. But I don’t think Young Pere would know either of them.”

“What’s this about?” Lilla asked.

Shem didn’t immediately answer but seemed lost in thought. Or rather, lost in contemplation. “Amory is most likely also with the retrieval team—”

He stopped, closed his eyes and sighed.

Mahrree swallowed in dread. She knew that behavior of his. He was being told something, and she already knew it wasn’t good.

“No, she is with them. Ahno couldn’t remember her name, but it’s Amory. She told Ahno she’d obtained permission from me while I was counseling a couple. But what she failed to tell him was that she was one half of that couple, and I did not give her permission to abandon her husband and three daughters.”

Kellen was sagging, and Deck took his arm and led him to a chair.

Shem stepped over to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “We’ll get you through this, Kellen. All right?” He shook his shoulder a little.

Kellen looked up at him, doubtful.

Deck remained by his side, his hand on his other shoulder.

Shem looked around the family. “I need to tell you all that this will not end easily.” He took a deep breath before dropping the next load on them. “It’s been impressed upon me that neither Young Pere nor Amory will be returning with the team when it comes back next week. They will not be back in Salem for . . . quite some time.”

Lilla cried out and again buried her face in Peto’s chest.

Mahrree hid her face behind her hand again, and Kew sat down hard next to her.

Kellen leaned over in his chair and held his head.

Shem could barely choke out the next words. “You deserve to know and to be prepared. Their leaving will bring great turmoil to all of Salem. I am sorry. For all of us.”

Quiet sobs were all that was heard in the room.

Peto, still holding Lilla, looked Shem in the eye. “Guide Zenos, what would you have us do?”

Shem turned to Peto. “Well, we pray. We pray as if it all depends on the Creator. Then we get to work as if it all depends on us. At first light, I’ll send a group after the retrieval team. Hopefully they can pick their way through the mud. We’ll do all we can to reach them.”

“But you just said—” Mahrree began to point out that he’d told them they wouldn’t be coming back soon, but Shem’s sharp glare stopped her. He tilted his head toward weeping Lilla, and Mahrree understood. Even when there’s nothing to be done, something had to be done anyway. Just to know you tried.

Shem glanced over at Deck, then at Relf, Barnos, and Wes. “There’s something more. We didn’t finish marking the Norden route. We need to do that, as well as mark each of the other routes and resupply the emergency caves. Now, in the next few weeks. Before the harvest needs us.”

The room gasped.

“All of the routes? Guide, why?” Jaytsy asked.

“I’m not entirely sure, but I have the distinct feeling that we won’t be able to do so in the coming years. We’ll send only a few men on each route, on horses, to complete the markings as quickly as possible. Peto, you and Cephas move up your plans on resupplying the caves. See if the volunteering families can do it by the beginning of the next moon. If they ask why, just tell everyone we’re trying a new procedure. There’s no need to alarm anyone, especially since I know for a fact that Idumea’s armies aren’t coming next year.”

“Shem,” Mahrree pressed gently, “then . . . why?

She felt sorry for Shem tonight, who seemed to be shouldering the burdens of the entire valley. “Sometimes we just do what we’re commanded to, because we’re faithful. We don’t need reasons; we just need to obey.”

He looked around the room of stunned family, and something in his firm demeanor melted slightly.

“But,” and he waited until everyone looked at him, “we still have time. And now, we’ll kneel together. If you hear a loud cracking noise, don’t be alarmed. It’s not a lightning strike or a breaking tree. It’s just my knees.”

Even Kellen’s somber face turned to a small smile as Shem kneeled with great emphasis, and a distinct and loud cracking sound filled the room.

Mahrree cringed, and Shem smiled at her discomfort.

“Your turn, Mahrree. How loud can you crack?”

Now the entire family smiled sadly as Mahrree stood up from her chair and winced as she kneeled next to Shem, supporting herself on his shoulder. There were only a few small popping sounds.

Shem shook his head in disappointment. “Should’ve been in the army, Mahrree. That’s how to properly ruin your knees. Either that or run a few races.”

The rest of the family and Kellen joined them in a large circle and listened to Guide Zenos pray for guidance, strength, wisdom.

When he prayed for someone to watch over the lost ones, Mahrree felt another stab of loneliness. When he asked for those at home to be consoled, she felt her father close again.

What she really wanted to feel was Young Pere’s hug from last night. She had no idea it’d be the last time, and she tried desperately to think what her last words were to him.

It was something about always loving him, wasn’t it?

Then again, it didn’t matter what she said, but what he remembered; what he shoved into that sandwich of his and swallowed down to take with him.

Didn’t she call him a ridiculous boy?

When Shem finished the prayer, the room felt slightly lighter, with a tiny bit of hope. Enough, Mahrree hoped, to sustain them.

She went back to her chair and dabbed at her eyes, while Peto and Deck spoke with Kellen. The young husbands huddled together, waving over Kew, Nool, and Hogal to discuss the tree marking needs, and the rest of the family consoled each other. The sound of galloping horses approaching the house indicated that Lori and Jori had arrived, and Lilla tore out of the house to greet them, followed by Hycy.

But Shem came over to Mahrree and kneeled again in front of her for a private conversation. First, there was more cracking.

“Do you do that on purpose, knowing how it makes my insides squirm?” Mahrree asked.

“Yes, I do,” Shem confessed. “I can make them crack as loud as I want. I was just hoping to see something else on your face besides that miserable expression again.”

“Well, you’re such a ray of sunshine on a bleak, dark day.”

Shem shrugged. “Guides don’t tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear—”

“Shem, it’s all my fault,” she interrupted in an urgent whisper. “I totally messed up with him.” Trembling, she said, “Is this why I wasn’t allowed to go with Perrin when he died? This?! To say all the wrong words to my grandson and send him running into the world that he can’t handle?”

“Oh, Mahrree—no!” Shem said, grabbing her hands to hold them. “This is not your fault, not in the least! You can’t . . . you can’t think like this. You’ve had enough experience with him to know that he’ll do whatever he sets his mind to, no matter the evidence around him that it’s a bad idea. The Creator could send a mountain to fall on top of him to stop him, and still Young Pere would find a way to disregard it.”

She could only bob her head noncommittally. He was trying to make her feel better, but on a raw egg-and-bacon-pie day like today, nothing was going to work.

Shem could see that, and he sighed. Then he said, “My visit at Eltana’s didn’t go well.”

Mahrree couldn’t help but smile wryly at that. “I’m sure it didn’t. What did you learn?”

“She was startled to hear that he’d left already. Clearly, that wasn’t part of her plans. Nor was him leaving her notes in his room for you and Lilla to find when you were searching it for clues.”

Mahrree grumbled. “I’m sure she told him something like ‘hide all evidence of this clandestine collaboration,’ and like an innocent Salemite, Young Pere had no idea what ‘clandestine collaboration’ means. Oh, Shem. He’s just too stupid to survive down there!”

“I’ll try to get more out of Eltana later,” Shem promised. “Maybe something that can help us. I wasn’t entirely in control of myself when I confronted her,” he admitted.

A corner of Mahrree’s mouth lifted into a smile. “You mean, you let her have it?”

“That, and then some more, I’m afraid.”

“I only regret that I missed witnessing you chew her out,” Mahrree told him. “But it’s an image I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.”

Shem’s face was a mixture of regret and pride. “Ask the women she lives with about it if you need more details. I think I terrified the poor things.”

Mahrree wanted to smile at that, but she just couldn’t. “Shem, I don’t know how much more I can take. Now I’ve lost both my Perrin Shins.”

“Our Perrin is gone as well, isn’t he?” Shem whispered. “I could feel someone else was missing besides Young Pere.”

Not for the first time that night Mahrree felt the tears building.

“Ah, Mahrree, I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I think I know how you feel. I don’t know what I’ll do without my big brother whispering in my mind. He went to find Young Pere, didn’t he?”

Mahrree could barely get out the words, “I told him to go.”

Shem leaned forward and put his forehead against hers. “I don’t know yet what will happen to Young Pere,” he whispered, “but if anyone could reach him besides you, it’s Perrin.”

He kissed her on her forehead, then stood up with a little bit of effort and a little more creaking.

Mahrree winced at his noise.

Shem walked over to Kellen. “Let’s take you home. Your little girls will you need you tonight. I’ll speak to Rector Anth so that he and his wife can work on getting you some help until your parents arrive. It’s fitting that tomorrow is Holy Day. We all need a little rest after today, I think.”

Peto and Deck each gave Kellen an encouraging embrace, and he wiped at his eyes. “Thank you, Guide. All of you. I hope you find your son.”

“I hope you find your wife,” Mahrree told him.

“She hasn’t wanted to be my wife for some time now,” Kellen said despairingly. “I don’t really know what she wanted. She just kept saying she wanted something more, that she wanted out. She was insisting on a termination of marriage today,” he admitted, looking at the floor hopelessly. “I just know I love her. I think I always will. But I’m not enough for her, I guess.”

Shem put an arm around him. “No more guessing, no more worrying about what should’ve been. All we can do now is take care of today and start working on tomorrow. Your daughters will be worried, and Mrs. Ling has a strange idea that children should be in bed before sundown. Not the most fun baby tender we could find, is she? I’m sure we can find someone more agreeable. We are all family, after all. We have help on every side.”

Chapter 21—“You’re going to have to do much better than that.”

 

It was darkening by the time the retrieval team reached the glacial valley fort. The riders were drenched, but they’d avoided most of the dangerous runoff. At the fort obscured by tall pines they could change, eat, and sleep before the next leg of the journey down to Edge. Province 8. Whatever.

The guards at the fort were surprised to see them arrive early, and that there were ten in the group instead of eight. But it wasn’t a problem. The fort was supplied to take care of the needs of fifty people, with room to sleep twenty-five at a time.

Young Pere and Amory found themselves in the narrow eating area of the fort, filling up on stew while the team discussed travel arrangements in the front reception room, and Dr. Snelling received a tour of the long narrow building that followed the contour of the large stand of pines and aspens that surrounded it.

The two tag-alongs ate in awkward silence for a few minutes, occasionally glancing at each other with polite smiles. No one had conversed while riding up the mountain to avoid exposing themselves to the rain, and now Young Pere felt uncomfortable sitting so close to a woman he didn’t know. Finally, he thought of something to say.

“I’m sorry to hear about your uncle.”

But she didn’t hear him, because at the same time she said, “You’re Perrin Shin’s grandson, aren’t you?”

They looked at each, confused, then chuckled.

“What did you say?” Amory asked.

“I’m sorry . . . I don’t remember now.”

“But you’re a Shin, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am. Call me . . . Pere.”

“That’s right,” she nodded with a smile. “Young Pere. I was sorry to hear about your grandfather. Rather sudden, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was,” Pere mumbled.

“I saw him a few times when he came down to our tower station,” she recalled. “I was only a girl when they were building the one next to our home, and I’d go out and watch. He was quite unforgettable, wasn’t he?” she said, a little dreamily.

Pere didn’t know how to respond to that. She had the same faraway look in her eyes Mrs. Yordin had when she talked about his grandfather.

“I’m a little surprised they’re letting you go,” Amory said. “Would seem rather dangerous, I’d think, to let the world know the Shins still exist.”

“Why do you say that?” he asked cagily.

“Because your grandmother would.”

Pere sneered slightly. “My grandmother?”

“Yes. She was my world history teacher. Told us all about the ‘demise of the Shins’.”

Pere scoffed. “She’s everyone’s world history teacher. And she didn’t tell you everything. I know. I had to take her class as well.”

Amory smirked. “So why are they letting you go?”

Pere hesitated to remember his story, which he hadn’t yet rehearsed enough. “As part of my training to become a doctor.”

Amory sat back and smiled demurely. “No it’s not. You’re lying.”

“I am not!”

She rolled her eyes. “Salemites are terrible liars. You’re going to have to do much better than that.”

“Why do you think I’m lying?”

“Because you hesitated to respond, your eyes darted when you spoke, and your shoulder twitched. You’re giving yourself away. You have to control your eyes, your body, and especially your breathing. Don’t twitch, don’t back down, and don’t blink. Here, watch me.”

She leaned in close to Pere and her sparkling green eyes held his brown ones.

“But first I have to admit something, although I can’t believe I’m saying this because I just barely met you. Looking into your eyes is having a startling effect on me,” she said in a sultry tone, “and there’s nothing I want more than to slide my hands all over your chest to find out just how firm you really are.”

Pere knew he wasn’t breathing and he didn’t know how to start again. But he did know enough not to let his eyes bulge as he stared at her in shock.

Amory leaned back and smiled. “You believed me there for a moment, didn’t you?” She tossed her blond hair as if forgetting it was tied back in a damp ponytail.

He remembered not to inhale again and gave her his well-practice half smile back. “Of course not,” he said staring back into her eyes.

Amory smiled. “Much better. Good eye control. But your shoulder twitched again. You’ll need to work on that if you want to pass yourself off as whatever you’re planning to do down there.”

Pere swallowed hard. “You won’t expose me?” he whispered.

“As long as you don’t expose me,” she whispered back.

Pere smiled, still feeling a bit shaken by her closeness. “That was quite a line there.”

She chuckled. “That’s how I started. Sweet talking my husband,” she said with agitation. “If I could say those things to him without flinching, I knew I could say anything to anyone. He was such a simpleton. He believed me, every time.”

“How did he . . . pass away?” Pere asked carefully.

Amory scoffed. “He’s not dead. He wouldn’t know how to die. All he knows is how to put wheat in the ground, take wheat out, then do it again and again. Nothing is duller than being married to a wheat farmer. Can you understand dull, Pere?”

“Oh, yeah. I understand dull.”

“I’m sure you do. You’ve been stuck in Salem like me. It’s not like I didn’t try to love him or try to see him as something more,” Amory said, rather flippantly. “But after twelve years you begin to realize that’s as good as it’s going to get, and that’s depressing. I’ve been wanting to get away from him for a while, and told him I wanted a termination of our marriage. He could go anywhere, do anything. He could even have the girls. He was the one who wanted them in the first place. But,” she sighed and picked at her stew, “I was too convincing earlier in our marriage. He was sure I adored him and that if I talked to Rector Anth and Guide Zenos enough, I’d remember how much.” Amory shuddered. “It was just too much. The stupid man couldn’t get it through his fat head that I wanted out! Even when I threw the kettle at him, he just stood there and let it hit him in the eye.”

“So you are part of that fighting couple Shem left to see?” Pere guessed. “I wanted to thank you for that. He’s my uncle, in case you didn’t know. He never would’ve let me leave, but you were a sufficient diversion.”

She raised an eyebrow. “That’s right. I forgot he’s your uncle. No wonder you were in such a hurry to get the team moving before he returned.”

“Yeah, I’m the one who told them to leave early because of the storm. Great timing, huh?”

“And for that I should thank you. I was planning to spend the night hiding in the barn until morning. Instead, I’m already out of Salem. But I’m telling you, Pere, you’re a terrible liar. Your guilt is all over your face. But there are ways to improve that. You need to think differently.”

“How?”

Amory glanced around the narrow room. Her eyes rested on the mug and she held it up. “Water, right?”

“Yes.”

“Is it always water? When it freezes, we no longer call it water. We call it ice. It’s changed. Is it still water?”

Pere narrowed his eyes at it. “It’s a form of water.”

“That’s right. Still water, in a way. Its form has changed. Now what about when it’s boiled away or evaporates?”

“When it’s steam?”

“Yes, is that still water?” she prodded.

“I’m not sure. You can’t even see it anymore, unless it hits something cold. Then it turns back to water”

“But what about outside on a hot day?” Amory said. “I put a bucket of water outside for the dog, and a few hours later it’s gone. You can’t see anything.”

“Well, sort of,” Pere said. “Enough evaporates and it eventually becomes clouds.”

Amory held up a finger. “So are clouds considered water?”

Pere thought for a moment. “Not really, I suppose. They hold water. They are water, in a way.”

“But you wouldn’t look up into the sky and say, ‘What interesting water formations,’ now would you?”

Pere smiled. “No, you wouldn’t.”

“Pere, you remember that axiom they had us practice with handwriting when we were young? ‘Nothing is more beautiful than truth’?”

Pere’s eyebrows furrowed, wondering where she was going with this. “Yes,” he said slowly.

“Now think about this, who’s to say what is beautiful, and what is true? I mean, my second daughter is a repulsive thing, but still people croon and say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful child!’ Something can be oozing out of her nose, her hair’s impossible to brush, and she has a lazy eye. Still my husband’s grandmother will say, ‘How adorable!’”

Already Pere could tell he wasn’t dealing with the most loving mother in Salem. “There was a baby in our congregation a few seasons ago. Really quite an unpleasant looking thing, but you’re right—everyone said how beautiful he was. I don’t know how that mother kissed his face.”

Amory scoffed. “I produced three of those. The oldest is so shy now she won’t even make a peep, and the youngest just whines and whines. And my middle girl? Hideous, as you’ve heard.”

Pere didn’t know whether to chuckle or silently weep for those girls.

“Beauty is subjective, Pere,” Amory plowed on, already forgetting the daughters she’d left behind. “For some, nothing’s more beautiful than a cow, while someone else thinks nothing’s more beautiful than a flower. Different people, different definitions.”

Pere nodded. “I think I get what you mean.”

“So if beauty is subjective, isn’t truth as well? Isn’t truth what each of us decides is real and meaningful for ourselves?”

Pere thought about that. “But The Writings say there is only one truth.”

“Who wrote The Writings, Pere?”

“The guides.”

“And who are the guides?”

“Men chosen by the Creator.”

“And are men ever mistaken? Do they ever not quite get the truth exactly right?”

He hesitated. “Well, sure. But not when they are acting as the guides.”

“And how do you know when your uncle is acting as the guide?” Amory pressed. “Has he ever made a wrong decision or told you something that didn’t work out right?”

Pere sighed and remembered when the guide asked him to fast for his grandfather to ask for another miracle. None came.

“I can see by your face that he has,” Amory said quietly. “You need to work on that. Pere, truth changes its form, just like water. One moment it’s ice, an hour later it’s a cloud. It’s still there, but in different forms, with different names and different ways of showing itself.

“I told the scouts that I have no husband,” she continued. “In my mind, I don’t. That’s my form of the truth. I don’t need Guide Zenos’s permission to terminate my marriage. He can have his own truth, but he has no right to impose his truth upon me. Your thinking and reasoning have been controlled by Salem since the day you were born. But I’m telling you, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can see whatever truth you wish. And when you understand that, you’ll have no more problems telling anyone anything.”

Pere tried to follow all of that, and his mind got caught up in water and ugly babies and cows.

“I never lie, Pere,” Amory said firmly. “I only tell my view of the truth.”

He smiled, as coyly as she had earlier. “You say you never lie, yet a few minutes ago you looked me in the eyes and told me what an effect they had on you.”

“There are many levels of truth, Pere,” she said with a flirtatious grin. “Just like there are many shades of blue. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine just how much blue I really meant.”

Pere looked down at the table in embarrassment. He was used to being the one in control of the swoon.

“How old are you anyway, Pere?”

“Eighteen.”

Amory groaned. “That’s too bad. I thought you were a lot older than that. You look older.”

“That’s good to know,” Pere said, looking up. “How old are you?”

Amory sighed. “Thirty-four, last season. On my birthday I decided I didn’t want to spend the next thirty-four years stuck in the same life. I’m still relatively young, still rather attractive—”

Pere didn’t mean to cough in surprise at her humble evaluation of herself, but he did.

Amory smiled slyly at him. “Oh good. Thank you.” Her green eyes sparkled. “I still have time to find something better for myself.”

“You think it’s in the world?”

“Don’t you?”

Pere shrugged.

“What are you going for anyway?” she asked.

Pere hesitated. “I’m not really sure I want to confide that much in you.”

To his surprise she shrugged. “That’s all right. I’m not telling you everything either.”

“So there’s no aunt you need to visit?”

She scoffed as if that were obvious. “What’s your final destination, Pere?”

He raised one eyebrow at her.

She smiled in understanding. “So, do you have a plan for getting away from the scouts once we reach Edge?”

“Perhaps,” Pere answered. “Do you?”

“Not completely. I don’t really know anything about the world except what I learned from your grandmother, and that was several years ago when I was at the university.”

“Do you . . . need some help?”

“I can help you in return, you know.”

“Help me how?”

Amory smiled in a way that unexpectedly stirred him. “We can discuss that later, once we’re safely in Edge.”

 

—-

It was still dark outside when Pere gently shook Amory’s net litter. She was asleep, alone, in the forward office, and the guard was outside in front for the night.

Her eyes immediately popped open and she quietly slid out of the litter. She grabbed her pack and overcoat, and slipped out the side door, following Pere. He already had on his overcoat and pack, and they hurried to the stables.

Pere repositioned his pack. It was much heavier now, with food to last several days and a few handfuls of gold and silver slips taken from the supply room. He had wrapped them in Yordin’s lieutenant’s jacket to muffle their noise, and hoped it’d be enough. He didn’t know how much money it was, or how much they’d need.

“Can you ride bareback?” Pere whispered to Amory as they crept back to the end of the fort. “We’ll get out much faster if we don’t need to saddle up.”

“Yes, as long as the horses don’t run.”

“We’ll gallop to the end of the valley, but then the trail narrows so the horses will have to walk single file. You’re not afraid?”

Amory shook her head. “Look, the two moons are nearly full. The storm’s passed. We’ll be fine.”

“We just need to get past the guards posted at the end of the valley. Let me handle it.”

They slipped into the stable and a moment later came out with two horses.

“This is just too easy,” Pere muttered as he and Amory mounted. It had to be a sign. Now all he needed was the guards to be gullible one last time. They walked the horses away from the fort before spurring them into a fast gallop south to the end of the valley, about a quarter mile away. Pere knew where the guards would be hiding and slowed down at the mouth of the dark valley. The two bodies dropped out of their hidden platforms in the trees just as he imagined they would.

“Where are you going so early in the morning?” one of them asked, jogging up to Pere.

He glanced over to make sure Amory’s hood was up as planned. He could see nothing of her face.

“Sir, we’re in a great hurry. Dr. Snelling here is concerned about the rector’s health. We decided to get an early start.”

“A doctor? Great!” said the second man. “I hope you have a moment. You see, I’ve had this pain right here—”

Pere shook his head. “I’m sorry, we really need to be going. Dr. Snelling has lost his voice riding up in the rain last night, and it’s too dark to properly see you anyway, sir. But we’ll be back in a couple of days. Dr. Snelling can certainly see you then.”

“But what if the pain is gone by then?”

Amory cleared her throat roughly, sounding convincingly male.

Pere nodded and turned to the guard again. “Please, time is of the essence. Dr. Snelling is eager to get down.”

“Of course, of course. I hope you feel better, Doctor.”

Amory cleared her throat again and nodded under her hood.

The guards stepped aside to allow the horses to pass. Not until they were a great distance down the narrow mountain trail did Amory finally push back her hood and chuckle.

Pere glanced back at her. The sky in the east was just beginning to brighten, and he could make out her features clearly. Even in the early morning light she was breathtaking.

“Doing all right, Doctor?”

Amory laughed lightly. “Will the First Resting Station be as easy?”

“Should be, since we’re not going into it. The trees are marked for an additional route on foot. I studied my father’s maps before we left. Some years ago he had the forests above Edge and Moorland marked like everything else. Once we hit the forest, we just need to find the correct route. We’ll have to abandon the horses then. It might be about a mile through the trees. You’re up to that, right?”

“Don’t I look like I’m in good physical condition?”

Pere let out a low whistle he hoped she didn’t hear. “Yep,” was all he answered as he turned back around.

 

—-

The sun had just crested over the mountains. For the last five minutes Woodson and his scouts had been looking around the fort for their two missing members.

That’s when the four horses and riders came racing into the valley. While the animals were exhausted and frothy, three of the riders continued on in a gallop past the fort, while the fourth rider dismounted and jogged over to Woodson.

Woodson gestured to the three Clarks growing smaller in the distance. “What’s that all about?”

“They’re after Young Perrin Shin and Amory Riling.”

“Oh, no,” Woodson whispered, suddenly understanding. “They’re not here anymore, are they? That’s why we can’t find them.” He whistled loudly to get the attention of the other scouts and waved them back in. “Listen up!”

The rider, still trying to catch his breath, told the men between gasps, “Guide Zenos didn’t give permission for his nephew to join the team, nor for Mrs. Riling. She abandoned her family, and Young Perrin Shin may be headed to Sands.”

“Sands!” Woodson exclaimed. “What’s he going to do there?!”

“Unsure. It seems Mrs. Yordin has been meeting with him regularly. She’s not been cooperative yet.”

Woodson rubbed his temples. “The guide must be infuriated with me!”

“No, just with himself. Even Rector Shin was tricked by Young Pere. Guide Zenos just wants them brought back immediately.” He waved at the three riders nearly out of sight. “That’s what they’re trying to do. Could use your help, though. Don’t know how much longer their horses will last.”

“Of course,” Woodson sighed in frustration. He turned to the scouts who now joined him. “Go find the doctor! We need to leave now to catch our two runaways.”

Dr. Snelling came out of the fort and stretched with a broad grin on his face.

“What a fantastic place! Why, I could stare at this valley all morning—”

“Stare when we return. We’re leaving now!”

 

—-

As soon as the sun came over the mountains, Pere and Amory clucked the horses into an uneasy trot down the narrow trail. The horses slipped and shifted nervously.

“Are you sure we need to hurry?” Amory called up to Pere as her horse lost his footing again. “We should be at least an hour ahead of them.”

“Yes, we need to hurry,” he answered. “As soon as they realize we’re missing, they’ll start looking for us. And if I know Uncle Shem, he’ll send a messenger to the fort telling them we’re supposed to return to Salem.”

“Well, he couldn’t send a messenger until first light—”

“Don’t be too sure. Shem was an expert at traveling in the dark as a younger scout. He could pick his way through any obstacle and find his way through anything in the blackest of nights. And he’s the one who’s been training the guards and scouts for the past twenty-five years. All of them can probably do what he could do.”

Pere was aware that his voice sounded a little admiring, and he tried to squash it.

“The retrieval team is probably already on its way. But Uncle Shem said he could do this route in four hours or less if the conditions were right. So far the trail on this side of the mountains is dry. The storm must have stopped at the glacier valley. At this rate we can make it to Edge before midday meal, but only if we hurry.”

“Sounds like you know what you’re doing. So I suppose you’re in charge, Pere,” Amory said.

“Yes, I am,” Pere whispered. Then added, “And I will be.”

Within two hours they reached an outcropping that overlooked Edge, just before the boulder field began. Pere stopped his horse and allowed Amory to catch up while he took in the village that lay below him.

“There it is,” Pere said, disappointed. “It’s not nearly as impressive as I imagined . . .”

Amory scoffed. “This isn’t the whole world, Pere. This is just one little piece of it. Imagine this multiplied by twenty, with Idumea in the middle. Idumea is four times the size of Salem. You’re looking at . . . ‘Norden’.”

Pere tipped his head. “Hmm. Probably right. That must be the fort,” he nodded at a large wooden expanse of buildings, walls, and banners. He could barely make out figures walking back and forth like mites.

“So what are you planning to do here?” Amory asked.

Pere looked at her askance. “Nothing.”

“Come on, tell me. You’re going to join the army, aren’t you?”

Pere didn’t flinch, didn’t blink, and didn’t back down. “Absolutely not,” he said.

Amory gave him a dazzling smile. “Excellent! So you are! Well that makes sense. What else would the grandson of Perrin Shin, who is bored in Salem, do otherwise? I can hardly wait to see you in uniform.”

Pere sighed. “You figured all of that out?”

Amory chuckled. “Not too hard, Pere. But I didn’t read it on your face, if that’s what you’re worried about. You’re a quick study. So what’s your plan?”

Pere smiled slyly. “You’ll just have to wait and see, like the rest of the world.”

She smiled coyly back. “Ooh, I’m intrigued! I love surprises!”

Pere felt a knot growing in his stomach as he looked at her. He pressed his lips together firmly and nodded. “Best be on our way. The access to the boulder field is some ways down there. That’s where we continue on foot.”

Amory winked at him. “Lead on, Colonel Shin!”

Pere raised an eyebrow at her.

She raised both of hers at him.

The knot in his belly tightened.

It took Pere a little while to find the correct access point to the boulder field. There were several blind entrances and when he finally found the right markings, he groaned in frustration.

“These are hard to decipher,” Amory said with a sarcastic laugh. “I’m so glad I’m with someone as smart as you. No wonder it took you half an hour to find it.”

Pere grumbled. “I wasn’t exactly expecting this,” he said running his hand over the precise etchings in the stone that said, “Foot Entrance” with a large arrow pointing to the correct opening. He shook his head again at the stupidity of it all. He half expected to see a container of swords nearby that said, “Take one!”

“Then again,” he said, “it’s not like anyone from Edge is going in the opposite direction. This sign is only for Salemites. They couldn’t make it any easier, could they?”

They left the horses and entered into the interlinked caves created by the large crevices between the boulders. Less than half an hour later they were out, having followed more etched arrows along the stone leading them easily through the maze. They found themselves at the forest, and before them was a chasm that spewed out steaming water.

Amory knelt by it and cautiously touched some of the water on the edge that spilled into a little stream headed down the hill. “This is amazing! I read about these, but never imagined I would see one. Hot spring, right?”

Pere kneeled down next to it and tested the water with a finger. “Nearly boiling!” he exclaimed. He looked at it for a moment, then put his palm completely in the water and yanked it out again.

Amory blinked at him in surprise. “You already knew it was hot, so you put your hand in again?”

Pere hated it when people questioned his actions. “I just wanted to see exactly how hot it was, all right?!”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s stupid to get burned.”

“I’m not burned,” he said, shaking his hand and ignoring the burning sensation. “Come on. This is when the trip gets really interesting. Right there, see the slashes? Now those are what I’m looking for. Watch your step. The ground can be treacherous, so don’t stray.”

Amory stepped in behind Pere who started carefully through the thick trees. They hadn’t traveled too far when a strong smell reached their noses.

“Ew, what is that?” Amory scowled.

“I’m guessing that’s sulfur.” Pere sniffed the air. “My father said it smells like rotten eggs. It means there’s activity nearby. All the more reason to stick to the path.”

“What path?” Amory said, still scowling.

“This one,” he said, pointing to another directional slashing on the trees. “The angle at the top shows the direction we go, the number of slashes underneath tell us how many tens of paces before we need to look for another marked tree. Two slashes, twenty average paces, due south. Now, if you look from where we came,” he said as he turned around—

And stopped.

He scanned the thick forest behind him, panic rising slowly in his gut.

“What is it?” Amory asked.

Pere didn’t answer but continued to look at the trees, the panic now reaching his throat and choking it. Frantically, he rushed back to the tree with the bear-like slashes and noticed something he hadn’t before.

“What is it?” Amory asked again, more urgently.

“Uhh . . . there are no markings to get back,” he said. “When we mark the trees to the ancient temple site, we mark the backs of them on the way down, to help those who may need to return to the valley. But these backs aren’t marked. Wait a minute . . .”

He spun and raced up through the forest to the boulder field, sprinting until he reached the boulders.

And his heart fell.

There were no etchings on the rock saying, “This way to Salem.” All of the boulders, and the cracks between them, looked exactly the same.

“All right,” he told himself, “no problem. I’ll just mark them now. The foot path was right before the hot spring, which is . . . Where’s the hot spring?!”

Just that quickly, he was lost.

“Hot spring, hot spring, hot spring,” he muttered uselessly as he jogged up and down the boulder line, but there was no spring anywhere, as if the meadows had swallowed it up in the last ten minutes.

“All right, all right, all right,” he tried to calm himself. “Just head back down to the trees. They’re only trees. You can handle this. Just find Amory again . . . Where’s Amory?”

Suddenly he realized something: getting into the world was simple. Getting out was not.

Throwing caution to the wind, he bellowed, “Amory? Amory!”

In the distance he heard a faint call back. “Pere? Where did you go? Pere!”

He followed the voice, trying to watch his footing as well as watch for markings on the trees.

“Pere! PERE!” her shrieking eventually grew louder.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” he called. “I hear you. Keep your voice down!” and he finally broke through the underbrush to find her in the same place he left her. Or so he assumed.

She rushed over and threw her arms around him.

“All right, I’ll admit it. This forest is scary,” she whimpered into his neck. “You were gone only a few minutes, but that slick of mud there began to bubble! This place is so weird!”

Pere took a deep breath and tried to still his heart. It shouldn’t have been beating so quickly, and he realized part of the problem may have been that Amory wasn’t releasing him. She likely needed more comforting, he decided, based on her frantic panting now into his chest and judging by the fierceness of her embrace, as if he were the only man alive who could keep her safe. The proper thing to do in such a situation, he realized, was to help calm her down.

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” he repeated as he ran his hands over her back. “We can still see the markings going down. Right there on that tree. I’ll just slash the rest of trees as we pass them, so when we return we can make it at least this far back up.”

She pulled away from him a little and looked up into his face. “When are you planning to return?”

He was aware that his arms were still wrapped around her body. Her surprisingly firm and narrow body. “Not for some time. I just plan to keep all my options open.”

She looked down at his chest and, as if suddenly realizing she was still hugging him, abruptly stepped out of his arms.

“When are you planning to return?” Pere asked, feeling immensely embarrassed and unsure of what do with his hands now that they weren’t touching her anymore. Remembering what he needed to do, he reached for his pack and pulled out his knife.

She watched his every movement. “I haven’t decided yet. I’ve been so concerned about getting down that I hadn’t planned that far ahead. I’m not even sure if I want to return.”

“Really? What will you do in the world, then?”

She smiled demurely at him. “Tell me all your plans, and I’ll tell you all of mine.”

Pere eyed her. “Understood. Let’s get moving. This may take longer than I anticipated.”

Amory exhaled. “Twenty paces, due south? Let’s go.”

It was less than a mile through the forest, but even with its steady slope it took Pere and Amory a couple of hours to reach the end of it. His stopping to slash the backs of the trees was only one of the causes for their delay. The other was staring in surprise at the violence of the ground around them.

In one clearing, a hot fountain of water shot into the air at least thirty paces above them. Not too far beyond that they found enormous caverns spewing steam and emitting low growlin