1. The first
Later, far from the winds of Osterland, this piece of Har's life will become a riddle. It will be studied by black-robed scholars in libraries lit by the gentle spill of the afternoon sun, by white-robed students who close their books mid-read in response to their fellows' calls to explore the Caithnard bars.
Who paid for his shape with the scars on his hands and to whom?
It will have an answer. It will have a stricture.
Har will be amused by this, for in the days from which the riddle sprang, Har and Suth were playing their own early riddle games, where few were written down and fewer still had formal strictures. When they met after a time apart, eyes glinting with stories, they ate images and knowledge straight from each other's mind, always hungry for more.
That summer, Suth met him in a small, nameless town that would later become Yrye, where they were raising a house. Har had been restless since that spring: aware of some whisper in the depth of his mind where the land-law lived that slid away whenever he tried to focus on it. Though not a patient man, he had enough of a predator's instincts to know when it was necessary to lie in wait, and he could afford to; his instincts didn't warn of danger. He burned off the restlessness with hard work under the pale Osterland sun, the roughness of wood beneath his hands and the hub of voices around him.
Suth wasn't there when they took their places in the morning, but when they broke in the afternoon he was at Har's shoulder, brushing dirt off wind-reddened hands, picking up his shirt from the pile on the ground. They clasped each other on the shoulder, not gently; darted into each other's mind where they jostled in rough greeting.
Suth's eyes and mind held more laughter than usual.
Har went in search of its cause and caught a glimpse of the backlands, of wind and speed, before Suth directed a cuff at his shoulder and another at his mind. "In good time," Suth said, breaking eye contact and pulling his shirt over his head. He reached quick fingers to Har's side, where fabric now hid a shallow scar the length of his palm, and said, "That's new." Warmth and a sting: Har would strip later to see the scar whitened and diminished. Suth took in return the image of two traders, faces shocked white, breath sawing in and out from fear, when they realized whom they'd unwittingly involved in their long-running dispute.
Which had ended. Swiftly.
They ate with the others on long benches in the kitchen of the woman who acted as midwife to the region. The people of the town had not met Suth before, but they noted nothing odd in his presence. Har and Suth sat shoulder to shoulder, sliding in and out of the tumble of conversation around them and each other's minds, gathering gossip and odd stories, hints and tidbits of a longer conversation to come.
They slipped away without warning or announcement, though when Har gathered his pack from its place near the door, a small bag of food rested on top. Har slung the pack on his back, gathered the woman's attention from across the room and sketched a gesture of thanks, well-pleased by her hospitality. Osterland was not a generous land: its people had to be.
They walked wordlessly into the wilderness that surrounded the town, stopping in the night to build a fire. "These too are new, and you did not get them by arguing with traders," Har said, uncurling Suth's fingers to reveal his palm to the flicker of firelight, the curved scars of which Har had caught glimpses.
"Yes," Suth said. "A...gift...from or to the heart of Osterland, in my explorations of it." His voice held a hint of wonder and a hint of apology and a hint of challenge, of laying out a riddle.
Har set the three against each other until they stacked into something of an answer and said, "You. What have you been doing that I've felt it in my dreams? You owe me a season's worth of peace."
"Peace?" Suth said, light mockery in his voice of Har, of himself. Peace was not a coin either of them traded in. "No. I have been traveling with the vesta." Suth gave it to him in a rush then, meat to a starving man, the heat and the swiftness of a vesta through the perceptions of a wizard, the twist that would turn one into another, Har's own land seen through a vesta's eyes.
If Har had been standing, his knees might have buckled. Suth's fingers were tight on his arms. Their eyes met, and the lines around Suth's eyes, the laughter in them, deepened at the demand in Har's. "You are tied to their heart, and they to yours," Suth said quietly. "It will be easy."
When Har returned from the wilderness, he had scars on his hands, and a season's worth of memories of running, of the taste of water, of the scent of coming snow.
2. The easiest
Har learned the wolf shape almost by accident.
In the year after he first took the vesta shape, Har had, with as much caution as he was capable, taught himself how to see the night sky as an owl, how to plummet from the sky as a white falcon, how to dart away on a fox's quick feet. He took the knowledge of each shape from the animals who sometimes came to him on his wanderings, drawn by the bindings of Osterland. But in none of those shapes did he feel the ease of the vesta form: they were pleasure, not joy.
He returned to the vesta form in the following winter, spending time with two herds before departing from them at the beginning of snowmelt. On his journey back to human habitation, he smelled the blood, dismissed the instincts that warned him to shy away, and made his way to the four slaughtered carcasses.
He had seen vesta killed in skirmishes with wolves over the winter, but this was not that. Their horns had been sheared off, their hooves removed, and their hearts. Har knelt in the snow, touching the cold fur with cold human fingers, loss and anger and a sharp longing for a shape that would let him hunt down those who had done this rising in his throat. It came out as a snarl of grief. Then, as his mind moved from these humans hunters who had broken the laws of Osterland to the true hunters of Osterland, the vesta's enemies who were bound just as tightly to Osterland and Har, it came out as a wolf's snarl.
He left a wolf's tracks in the frost, and went hunting.
3. The hardest to learn
Har was a wolf in Lungold and its surrounding areas for the first six months after the disappearance of the wizards. He was a white falcon flying up and down Trader's Road for another four months after that. He was a crow in An, an owl in Ymris, and a man in Herun, asking if a Morgol's vision could see what he could not. On his return to Osterland, he was a man in Yrye for three solid years. The town grew four times larger; Har had a hand in every building they raised.
Animals began coming to Yrye in the winters during those years. They carried him news and nosed at his hands, and he touched their minds lightly and saw Osterland anew, the safe close spaces and the wide expanses, pure, uncomplicated by human memories or grief or anger.
In the middle of the third year, a young Herun lord came to Yrye and asked Har to teach him what pieces of wizardry Har knew. The boy's eyes held hunger and nervousness. Har stringently weighed the idea despite his own dislike for it: in the harshness of Osterland, one gave what one could in response to need. He would not be the best teacher for this boy who held nothing of Osterland in him, but there was no one left who was better.
Because one of the other tenets of Osterland was that one gave in return for any help one received, he set a condition. He challenged the boy to a riddle game, giving him twenty riddles that would send him around the realm in search of answers. The boy blinked, gaped a bit, gathered his dignity: "If you are disinclined to teach me, you could say so. There's no need to, to drive me off on a fool's errand."
"No," said Har. "But you offered money before. Payment. And this is the coin I deal in."
The boy left sulking, saying that he would try to learn what he could from the library at the Morgul's court. When the tales of the encounter made their way back to Har as rumor, he learned that he had evidently made a proclamation that anyone who won a riddle game with him would get the first thing they asked for in return. (Suth would laughed at the idea. Suth, in fact, would have started the rumor himself if it had occurred to him.) Har played riddle games with three strangers who showed up in response, lost the second, gave the man the glass of water he asked for, and then the dinner and wine Har would have given to any traveler to his realm.
At the end of the third year, when the fourth stranger came, Har had been out most of the night, helping to beat back the fire at a farmer's house. There was soot still on his hands. The stranger did not take kindly to the idea that his host was not in the mood for a riddle game, that he might have to wait for his pleasure and his sure reward. Har said softly, dangerously, "If you feel you are owed a riddle to answer, then answer this: what happened to the wizards of Lungold?"
"But…that's not a riddle!" the man exclaimed. "I can't answer that: no one knows the answer!"
Har held him still with his gaze until the man flushed red, blustered a bit about how he hadn't meant that, but unanswered riddles were hardly fair for games, were they? "Go home," Har said when he petered to a halt.
But he was the one who walked away. He walked out of Yrye on wolf's paws.
A trapper's net shocked him out of that shape three years later. He felt, looking back at the last seven years, a fool. One year of searching, three of staying visible so that a dead man would have a place to find him, three of howling his loss to the sky: ridiculous.
He lasted a season in Osterland, reacquainting himself with his land in human form, before the trail of certain trappers who had seen his absence from human affairs as a license to traffic in vesta pelts led him to Isig.
Isig was not Osterland, but some things struck a chord of familiarity: the combination of richness and spareness in the land itself, the way the people treated strangers with both carefulness and care. It engendered in him an easy curiosity that he hadn't felt for some time.
On his third day there, Danan of Isig settled into the bar stool next to his. They eyed each other, and then the laugh lines around Danan's eyes deepened. He seemed placid, untroubled, content in the quiet immensity of his power. "I am told you sell amber," Danan said, his voice pitched at a soft rumble that would not be heard by those around them.
"At fair prices, even," Har agreed. "But that is not the only reason I came to your land. There are traders who have broken the laws of mine, in selling vesta pelts, and I came here in search of them."
"I wish you luck," Danan said politely, but something that Har only recognized as hope as it disappeared left his eyes.
Har shook his head, feeling the familiar bitter bite of failure. "I know nothing more of Lungold then is common knowledge, and if my path had led me here I would tell you."
"Someday, perhaps," Danan said. He shook himself and waved the bartender over. When they each had a mug of beer, he said, "I know Yrth traveled to Osterland several times: did you ever meet him?"
"Yes. He and Suth came together once and stayed for a time. We ran in the shape of wolves, and he harped one night for them, a song I have never heard before or since," Har said. He paused, then added, "I liked him."
"Yes," Danan said. He smiled, touched Har's shoulder lightly, and slid off the bar stool. "Thank you. You would be welcome in my house, if you would like to come."
Har went there a few days later, after he had sent two traders to Yyre to await his judgment. Danan left him at peace to wander through the mountain, though sometimes he would show up at Har's side to guide Har to a cavern, or point out a rich vein with his large, squared hands. In the evenings Har gathered with Danan's family; like Danan, they took a wolf showing up at their door with equanimity. He and Danan shared stories. They both had ways of keeping themselves informed about a broad variety of activities throughout the realm, the same delight in the stranger tidbits of knowledge, though Danan's mild curiosity took a very different form than Har's wanderlust.
"A tree?" Har said one night, startled, as they sat in front of the fire. Danan had two children climbing on him. Periodically, he would scoop one of them off his shoulders and deposit them back on the floor, giggling.
Danan looked startled in turn. "That surprises you? A much simpler shape, I would think, than the vesta."
"Hmm," Har said. He frowned down at his hands, flexing his fingers. A shape with little movement, without even the simpler patterns of an animal's mind. "I wouldn't even know how to go about it," he said, surprised into making the admission aloud.
Danan pried a child from his back, transferred her to his lap, and began tickling. Over her wild shrieks, he said, "It would be easy enough for you to learn, I would imagine."
It took longer than either of them expected, which Danan found bemusing and Har frustrating. "Mostly the same trees grow here as they do in Osterland," Danan suggested, some unsuccessful days later. "But perhaps you need to picture them there? Picture the land you're rooted in?"
He sat by Har's side while Har tapped into his memories, his land-law, gathering in his conscious mind the way all the trees in Osterland learned to bend before the wind, images of their bare branches laden with snow, their unfurling, tentative buds in Osterland's short spring, the way they rooted themselves to serve as windbreaks. Something settled around him, the sort of stillness that Danan carried with him always, unbroken even as Danan himself saw a messenger striding to meet them and got up. Har watched Danan talk to the man, words he could not quite make out, and felt curiosity with no urgency.
"Better, I think," Danan said softly, tilting his head as he stood over Har.
Har let the stillness run away from him. The bite of his own usual curiosity returned. "News of importance?" he asked.
Danan grunted, dropped to the ground to sit beside Har again. "War in Ymris. An uprising in Aum." His eyes held mild distaste. "I have long been grateful that Isig does not lend itself to wars over territory." His eyes crinkled as he smiled suddenly, then went straight-faced and solemn as he did when he was teasing any of the children of this place. "And, of course, that we border a country whose land-ruler is a peaceful man."
Har raised his eyebrows. Danan chuckled, a low rumble that was more felt than heard, and knocked shoulders with him. "I have heard myself called many things, but not that," Har said.
"No. And yet." Something serious in his face, behind the teasing.
Har shrugged impatiently. "War is wasteful. And Osterland is itself."
Danan grunted softly in agreement. "I would wish you what peace you can find, though," he said after a moment.
"Do I look like a man who wishes for a peaceful life to you?" Har said. He heard the warning in his own voice. His shoulders were tight.
"No," Danan said. "Har. You pursue your traders; you catalogue all the knowledge you can glean from me and my land. You are very good at keeping yourself busy. And you look like someone who is being clawed apart daily from the inside by loss."
A breath. Two. Three. Danan's gaze was steady. There were things Har could say, in denial of that fact, or in defense of it. But past his own reflection, Har could see the swell of a grief that had fewer jagged edges but ran as deep as his own. He read in it the years of friendship between Danan and Yrth accreting like tree rings, the years of loss and unanswered questions accreting as well.
He reached out and touched Danan's wrist, breathing in Danan's sorrow instead of his own. Eventually, he followed that sorrow into quiet, into movement, tree branches bending in the wind.
"Come," Danan said some hours later, tapping against the bark of his back. "Stay here too long and I'll have to answer to the High One for why I have a land-ruler rooted into the side of my mountain. Also, it's dinner. Come and eat." Har dwindled into himself, flexed his fingers, and scrubbed them through his hair to remove what felt like stray leaves or twigs or bugs while Danan laughed at him silently.
That night, when they were the only two left in front of the dying fire, Har said, looking down at his hands clasped around an empty wine glass, "We walked in each other's minds like friends walk into each other's houses, sure of a welcome; sometimes when I passed a mirror I was surprised to see my own reflection instead of his. He left more unanswered riddles in my keeping than the manner of his disappearance, and if I looked up tomorrow and saw him walking next to me, I would not be surprised. I do not know how to put him to rest; I do not know if I want to," Har said. He set down the wine glass carefully, unfurled his empty hands in a gesture of helplessness and acceptance, revealing his lack of answers. "So."
"So," Danan echoed, weary understanding in his voice. "There are children here who did not grow up with Yrth, who will only know him from stories that the older children tell them….Har, you've told me of the shapes you took in your searches around Lungold: what shape could you take that would give you comfort now? Despite today's success, I don't believe it's that of a tree."
A breath. Two. Three. Har curled his fists slowly around scarred palms. Danan stood, touching the top of Har's bent head briefly. "For now, go to sleep."
He left a few days later, after many embraces from Danan's family. He stepped in front of Danan last of all. "Thank you," he said. "If I find answers, I will send them."
"Safe travel," Danan said, and smiled deeply when Har turned into a vesta before him. The children clamored and exclaimed over a vesta's beauty, which Har permitted for a while. Then he said thank you again, mind to mind, and bowed his head. Danan rested a hand on his back, and bent his head gravely in return.
Har took the long way home.
4. The old man
Har was never quite sure when he first took the shape of the old man. It began as a disguise of clothes and attitude, akin to his trader's guise in Isig, a way of seeing his kingdom without being treated as a legend. Then he added touches here or there: his hands became more gnarled, his hair thinner. At some point when he passed a reflective tin bathtub it occurred to him that he should change the color of his eyes, and so they became a rheumy, pale green.
Sometimes, he learned, his people were less inclined to offer hospitality to men who were not lathe-sharp, blue-eyed strangers. Sometimes, it pleased him to learn, they were kinder, with someone who they saw as less capable.
Aia was one of the latter: he stopped at the house where she lived with her brother and his wife to ask for directions, and she offered him water to drink and food for the journey as well. Her hair was catching in the sunlight, her fingers precise and careful as she sketched directions in the air. Her eyes held a deep well of calm. Har felt that he didn't have to try very hard at his guise of foolishness that day.
He went back the next day as himself.
They were, for the rest of their lives, vague about the manner of their meeting, saying something about it happening in the course of Har's travels. "I don't want to become a figure in the riddle they would make out of it," Aia had explained quietly the day that Har had asked her to come to Yrye with him, after she had placed her hands in his and said yes, when they were lying underneath the quilt on her bed with their foreheads resting together. "The woman who did the right thing and got rewarded for it--"
"--you are assuming that people will think you got a reward--"
"--paired in people's heads with the riddle about Ingris and Deth. I will be your wife, not a stricture."
He cupped her face. "Agreed."
1. The one he didn't
Har's first thought was that gossip had mangled the story enough that the place names had become confused: a story about a thing without a name was infinitely more likely to come out of Hel than Hed. On the other hand, the word "land-ruler" was also part of the story, and no man named Kern was land-ruler in any part of An.
"Also, you've never been to Hed," Aia said wryly, and sent him on his way.
The first week of trying to gather stories was aggravating; some people clammed up around strangers and others wanted to tell him rather more than he needed to know. The second week was hilarious for pretty much the same reasons, both because the repetition became farcical and because Har had drunk a great deal of beer by that point. In the third week he spoke to Kern himself. "People are telling the story around the realm?" Kern asked, sounding puzzled.
"Yes. It has reached a great many ears."
"Huh," Kern said.
"You wouldn't be curious if you heard a story about a thing without a name?" Har asked.
Kern considered this. He was about halfway through a bottle of Ymris wine, so it took him a bit. "But then you tell people the story," he said, "and they ask what it is, and there's no answer. If someone told me that story, I'd want to thump him over the head when it didn't end properly." He sighed morosely. "Most people around here seem to feel that way." He eyed Har. "You wouldn't happen to know what it was, would you?"
"No," Har said.
Kern sighed deeply and took another swig of wine. "Probably came over from Hel," he said. "Wandered onto a ship by accident and ended up stranded here. From what I heard they've got all sorts of things in Hel."
In the third week, Har sat on the dock at Tol, almost entirely sober, and considered the descriptions he'd been furnished. He had a mental image of the thing, doubtless inaccurate given that it was based on unreliable acounts, and no idea of its purpose.
It was an idle thought: that if he changed into its shape, he might know its motivations, its tenets for existence. He would, if he'd had a chance to give it a second thought, have dismissed the idea as foolhardy. But even as the idle thought crossed his mind, he found himself in vesta shape, his heart beating wildly and his instincts thrumming for a swift flight.
He fell out of his shape and to his knees, the planks of the dock rough beneath his hands. When, bewildered and wary, he tracked back over his thoughts, he found a wild, sharp yearning for Osterland rise within him, his land-law like a living thing resistant to this danger.
He sat for ten minutes more on the dock, until his hands stopped shaking. He considered riddles, and recklessness, and cowardice, and Kern's thing, and the suspicion that he was going to return home to find Deth at his doorstep. Odd bits of land-law, bindings that were usually unconscious, were suddenly sharp and clear before him.
His hands stopped shaking. The yearning to return home was becoming more imperative, not less. He took an owl's swift flight into the night.
5. At the beginning of an age
Har was watching his harpist during the song, but when it was finished he surveyed the hall. Morgon and Raederle were there, sitting hand in hand, looking tired but peaceful. Morgon's mouth quirked into a smile when he saw Har's eyes on him.
Aia reached them first, holding Raederle tightly and saying, "Oh, my dears, you are so welcome," cupping Morgon's face in her hands to examine it and then saying fiercely, "good." Har studied Morgon's face for himself, echoing the sentiment.
"In the sea, for a bit," Raederle was saying in response to Aia's questions, "and Hed, and then Anuin." Her eyebrows drew together briefly, the memory of pain, Duac's death still fresh. "We were thinking of--may we stay here for a bit?"
Morgon's eyes met his. The same quirk of a smile. "I'll try not to demand impossible things this time."
"You could," Har said, and took their hands to draw them closer to the fire.
They were both quiet guests, disappearing some days into the wilds of Osterland; Har thought he heard the shadow of Morgon's harping. They told their stories piecemeal, or Morgon would share something he had heard from the winds. He and Hugin spent a week among the vesta. When they came back Morgon settled at Har's feet, eyes tranquil, and said, "I told him, in the Tower, that I was afraid when I realized how much I loved the realm, these places where I didn't belong. And he gave them all to me--it still catches me by surprise sometimes, that I can love it without fear. "
A gentle flow of images flowered in Har's mind, a sharing of the odd and lovely things of the realm: underwater creatures that made their own light at the bottom of the sea; a flower in An that only opened once every ten years; a pure black creature in Ymris so shy it died if it saw a man; a pale blue seabird with a wingspan of a man that could fly days without a rest; a fish in the Ose that could leap a foot in the air. "I've never actually shaped one of those," Har said thoughtfully, tapping into the sense of his own land-law.
A touch of Morgon's hand to his shoulder and they were blinking in sunlight, wading into water before immersion, to become quicksilver movement through the water, bright joy in the air.