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So, the warrior knew me. I was not so unrecognizable as I had feared after my adventures on the ocean.
The elk rider stumbled up behind me and reached for his knife on the ground. He shouted at the newcomer in their own tongue, and the club-wielding warrior responded, gesturing for him to stay back.
“Your friends still wish to kill me.”
“That is their task. Guarding these shores.” He gestured to me. “Come away. Let them regain their feet.”
“I hope I did not wound their pride overmuch. They fought bravely.”
He led me a short distance toward the trees, along the brook. The elk, with its cut harness hanging loose, pranced away nervously. My host turned over his shoulder, saying something to the men I had beaten. They picked themselves up, but their rage turned to a kind of hushed whispering.
“What did you say?” I asked.
“I told them there is no shame in losing a battle to you. I told them your name, or at least, the word for your name in our tongue.”
“They’ve heard a tale or two.” He grinned and sat on a rock, grunting as he lowered himself. He let his club rest beside his knee. I sat beside him, grunting myself. “Nice to see age has had some effect on you. Some of the stories, the ones that don’t say you’re dead, say you’re bound to spirits, to youth and strength.”
“As much as I wish it, I know too much for that. And, I must say I am at a disadvantage.” I bowed somewhat where I sat. “I guess I have landed on the shores of Rowatokon, which was my destination eventually. So that is fortunate.” I waved out to sea, to the red glow on the horizon and the ship wreckage. “But I didn’t arrive in precisely the manner I’d hoped.”
“So it would seem.”
“And you know me, but here is where I am disadvantaged. I must apologize for not knowing you.”
His grin went lopsided. “I had hoped you might.”
“The club. You know something of the Open Path.” He nodded. “Then I have a guess.”
Then, it was my turn to laugh. “I’m certain I’ll mispronounce your name. Ask a wee tyoo.”
He chuckled. “Askuwheteau.” He repeated, more slowly, enunciating for my benefit. “As-Kuh-Whaeh-Tow.”
“As am I.”
We sat on the rocks and I listened to the brook between the sounds of waves. I breathed deep. “This is a cold country.”
“It’s midsummer. Come back in two months.”
“I’d rather not. I’ve much work left to do.”
“So you said. You came here for a purpose.”
“One beyond not dying in the ocean, yes.”
“And you know we don’t allow outsiders.”
“Not,” I said, “to be too blunt, Askuwheteau, but who will throw me out?” He made a sound and scowled. “I mean no harm. You can trust me. But I need the knowledge your people protect.”
“Yes. And a boat.”
“I’d heard you could swim fifty leagues.” He pointed out to sea, eyes scrunching. “Ulara is that way.”
I swiped a hand at the waves. “Twenty-three, once, and that was, oh, far too many years ago. No, I require a certain boat, and the Rowatokon have the skills and knowledge I need to make it. As I recall, the Askuwheteau I had heard of was a Story-breather, and Story-breathers have the authority to admit outsiders into your kingdoms.”
“Well.” He stood, stretched his back. “I am a Story-breather, and what you have heard is true. I have heard something of you, and we’ve fought a bit, and we’ve talked.” He faced me where I sat. “And I don’t doubt your identity. It’s long since I thought I’d meet a warrior who could throw me down the way you did.” He rubbed his lower back and made a face. “I have three conditions.”
He extended a hand, and I took it. We clasped wrists and I stood, met his gaze. After a long moment, he leaned forward, and I did the same, and our foreheads touched. He laughed. “Good. You’re not entirely barbaric. That’s one. Come.”
We walked and rejoined his Sunshadows. He spoke to them and they led the way back into the trees. We went in silence, and the warriors dispersed amongst the trees and stone and moss. The mist grew thicker, and in the dark beneath the trees, the guardians vanished, the white mottled paint on their faces and arms blending with the dappled sun-spots that came down through the cedar canopy.
I started to speak, but Askuwheteau held up a hand and whispered. “We do not speak in the south forest, or on the north coast.”
We went in silence, and though I burned to know why we mustn’t speak, I did not ask. We came to a river and took bark boats that maneuvered gracefully and silently, as I was pleased to note, between rocks and over rushing white waters. We left the boats and crept through a pine forest, our feet silent on the needles and the sound deadened but for the beating of crows’ wings. At a cliff, we climbed down, traversed switchbacks down along a narrow path.
At the base of the cliff, the Sunshadows went on but Askuwheteau stopped. He faced me. “Here we may speak. The last two conditions: one, that you show me the technique you used to turn my club.”
“I showed you once.” I stayed serious as long as I could, but my grin crept out despite my efforts and his shock turned to stung amusement. “Of course,” I said.
“Very funny. Two: You must remain here, for three days. This part cannot be negotiated. Stay below the cliff, within twenty paces of it. We’ll bring food and water and wine. I’ll return on the third day, and then you may see it.”
“Muspuahtche. The City Before the World.”
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