"All right?" asked my master.
I could not speak for a moment, nor breathe. All air had been squeezed from me, as though I had fallen over the cliff and been crushed as thin as a blade. I stayed where I was, kneeling upon the ground, my head bowed as I struggled to keep from fainting.
I could feel my master's hand upon my shoulder: calm, assured, strong. I was trembling beneath that hand as though I were a babe just born.
I would not cry – I was too old for that – so once I had caught my breath, I channelled all my fear into sarcasm. "Oh, I'm splendid," I said. "What's the next part of my training? Placing myself in front of a Xai crossbow?"
My master chuckled softly as he pulled me to his feet. "It's an unnerving journey," he agreed, "but you did quite well. You even refused to hold my hand."
"But you took my hand anyway." It was this fact that caused uncommon anger and resentment to well out of me toward my master. "You knew that I wouldn't be able to make it across otherwise."
For a moment my master said nothing. He was dressed as always in the robes of his mastery, a black robe surmounted by a bright silver robe to warn all who approached him of who he was. It had saved him from death on several occasions, though in Xai territory it was more likely to bring him death. His silver hair flowed over his shoulders, framing a face that was lined with years of experience and judgment. Though deeply tanned, the skin was unmarked but for a faint scar upon his right temple, and even that he had gained in his childhood, as he had once told me. For a man who had faced death several dozen times before I ever met him, he offered a remarkably serene appearance.
Only his violet eyes could pierce, and they did so now as he said softly, "Try to keep your voice low, Erastus. You can express your feelings without placing us in danger."
I felt shame wash over me, as it so often did. My master never scolded, never pointed out when I had forgotten a teaching long learned. He simply offered me the teaching once more, without comment.
"I'm sorry, master," I murmured, hanging my head. "I know I shouldn't be speaking to you like this."
My master's hand raised my chin, forcing me to look up at his smile. "The day you cease to tell me what you feel will be a sorry day for us both, Erastus. As for the rest of what you say . . . I'm quite sure that you could have made it across the cliff without touching me. I, on the other hand, was frightened. Holding onto you helped to ease my fear."
I knelt down in the dry grass to pick up my pack, keeping my face averted from my master. When I was very young, and had first come to be with my master, I had tried to believe him when he spoke such words. I had not succeeded, but I had tried. It had taken time for me to realize that there was no fear in my master, no weakness, nothing that I could have pointed to and said, "You are like me." No, all that was in him was courage and strength and an immense generosity that would not allow him to let his apprentice name himself for the coward he was.
Now all I said as I placed the light pack over my shoulder was, "How far do we have to go?"
"I was hoping that you could tell me."
I stared at him, then began muttering curses to myself, looking down at the ground. Finally I raised my head and said, in as steady a voice I could, "I apologize again, master. I know I should study our travelling route beforehand."
"No matter on this occasion." My master's voice was as gentle as always. "It would have helped if you had checked on the information, though. We might become separated during our journey, and I can testify from experience that wandering lost in the wasteland is not pleasant. Besides, the day will come, not long from now, when you will be the one who has to provide the mastery on such journeys." He picked up his pack in a graceful motion, slung it over his shoulder, and began to stride forward.
I hurried to catch up. We had reached the edge of the wasteland now, and before us, all the way to the horizon, lay nothing but hard-baked soil, prickly bushes, and short, stubby grass that was grey from lack of moisture. I found myself looking automatically for green upon the wasteland, but I could see no sign that a spring was nearby. My master was right: to become lost in such a place would indeed be unpleasant, if not downright deadly. And I, as so often before, had carelessly forgotten my duty to prepare myself to take over our mission, lest my master be injured and require my help.
But there was a reason for that carelessness, of course. Now, as I endeavored to keep up with my master's long, tireless stride, I looked over at him, struggling to find the courage that would allow me to say the words. But, I thought miserably, if I had the courage, the words would never need to be said.
"What is it, Erastus?" My master did not break his stride nor look my way as he spoke.
"Master . . ." I stared down at the fragile grass we were stepping upon. It was being crushed with every step we took, turning it to dust. The dust was hard to see; dusk was beginning to fall, and I hoped that my master knew of a shelter where we could huddle during the cold night. But of course he did. He always did.
I could feel the words choking within me, but I finally managed to force them out. "Master . . . you spoke before of my taking mastery one day. I don't believe I'll ever be able to do that."
He stopped then, turning toward me, his eyes slicing into me like the blade he never bore. His pack dropped to the ground. He said nothing.
Trying to keep my voice steady, I said, "I'm not like you, master. I don't have your courage; I can't remain strong when danger arises. I'll never be a Peacesteward. I—"
I stopped; he had stepped forward, and his lips closed upon my forehead. For a moment he let them rest there; then he raised his head and touched my cheek with his palm.
"Erastus," he said softly, "sometimes a master knows an apprentice better than he knows himself. Believe me when I say that you are a Peacesteward, in all but name. I would give you your robes of mastery tomorrow, if you wished."
I shook my head, blinking away the tears. "You've tried to comfort me with such words before, master, but it's no good. It took me an hour to find the courage to cross the cliff – a full hour! If we'd been in danger, my cowardice would have had us killed."
"A coward would have run," he said softly, his hand still upon my cheek. "You faced your fear and took the time you needed to gather your courage – and if we had been in danger, you would have calmed your fear in a shorter time." The side of his mouth rose in a slight smile. "And believe me, you did better than I on the first occasion I crossed the cliff. Why, if you could have seen—"
I waited for him to finish his sentence; then I realized he would not, and I tensed.
For a full minute, it seemed, we remained as we were, his left hand upon my shoulder, his right upon my face. His eyes did not move from me; I knew they did not need to. I strained to hear what he was hearing.
Finally he let out a shallow sigh and stepped back from me. He picked up the pack quickly.
"Who was it?" I asked in a low voice. "The Xai?"
"I hope so," he said.
"Hope so!" I stared at him, incredulous. The last time we had encountered the Xai, only my master's swift move to stand in front of me had kept me from being pierced by a Xai arrow. There had been a moment when I feared that the Xai warriors would shoot anyway – more than one Peacesteward had died in their territory – but these warriors had shrugged and moved on to easier targets.
"What could be worse than the Xai?" I asked.
"The Juud," my master said softly. He had taken hold of my arm, and we were moving toward the horizon again, swifter than before.
It took me a moment to understand; then I felt my stomach clench. "We're on their sacred ground?"
My master nodded; his eyes were turning slowly left to right, looking in all directions. "I'd forgotten this was one of their sacred areas. It has been many years since I was last here."
"It's my fault." I swallowed heavily. "I should have studied our route beforehand. I told you I'm not fit to be a Peacesteward."
My master laughed softly. "Erastus, if being a Peacesteward required one to be perfect, the Peace Guild would have stripped me of my robes long ago. Do your best, and hope that any mistakes you make won't be mortal ones."
I shook my head. "I just don't have the qualities a Peacesteward needs."
"Oh? That wasn't the impression I got on our last mission. Or am I mistaken in recalling who it was that negotiated the peace between two nations that were about to tear themselves and the surrounding countryside into pieces smaller than dust?"
The words warmed me so much that it was a moment before I could say, "A Peacesteward needs to do more than hold the peace; he needs to train others to hold the peace. And that I can't do. I may have been able to fool those armies into thinking I wasn't terrified we'd be caught up in a thunderstorm of war, but I'd never be able to fool an apprentice. He'd know from the start that I'm a coward—"
My master threw back his head and laughed.
I stopped, astonishment mingling with deep pain. My master had never laughed at me, not in all the years we had been together. Always he had been patient with me, watching with a grave expression as I made brainsick errors, never so much as smiling as I showed myself to be a fool. Had I simply reached an age where he thought I was old enough to accept his true opinion of me? I swallowed the sickness in my throat and resolved to take this like the beatings I had received as a child, before I met my master.
He was still laughing softly – I had never heard him raise his voice, not even when we were safe in the Peace Guild's sanctuary. He wiped tears from his eyes and turned to me, smiling. "Erastus," he said, "of all the things you need worry about in life, the last concern you need have is that you will be unable to hide your fears from your apprentice. Believe me, that will be the easiest of your tasks."
"How can you be sure of that?" The pain within me had begun to ease, but I remained tense, still anticipating a blow.
He gave me one of his half-smiles then, almost a grin. "I managed it with you, didn't I?"
We walked in silence after that, pausing only once to take out our water flasks and wet our mouths. Behind us, the pink rock that marked the approach to the cliff was fading, hidden both by distance and by the darkness that was beginning to embrace us. I scrutinized the landscape, trying to memorize a path back in case my master should ask me for the information.
Beside me, my master said, "I'm not growing any younger, Erastus, and I would very much like to see you don your robes before I die. But if you don't yet feel ready, take all the time you need to prepare yourself. I know, without a doubt, that in the end you will become a master."
I gave a snort as I put the water flask back into my pack. "You have no gift for foreknowing, you told me that yourself."
"Oh, I need no foreknowing to be certain of this. The day I first met you—"
He turned his head, and I swirled around. I too had heard the horses.
The land was flat to the horizon; where they had leapt from I could not say. Possibly from the sky; the Juud often gave the impression of living in a different world.
They were clothed all in robes: not heavy robes, like that which a Peacesteward wears, but robes of gauze, colored grey like the dust and the sky. The robes wound around their legs and their torsos and their arms and their faces. How they could see to steer their horses I had never been able to figure out. The horses were as grey as they were, with black eyes that sparked with light.
I saw all this in the dim light of the setting sun. The moon would not rise for many hours, and I could barely see the Juud as they surrounded us in a ring. I looked over at my master. He was standing erect, with his hands hanging loose at his sides, his silver robe catching the last glints of daylight. I hoped that the robe would be enough to protect us.
One of the Juud came forward from the rest – it was impossible to see which one it was. I felt my breath grow more rapid, and I tried to steady it. "What matters is not what you feel but what you do," my master had told me on the day we first met, and I had tried to live up to those words ever since. Now I resisted the impulse to swallow rapidly and kept my face expressionless as the Juud rode forward.
My master waited until the Juud's horse had paused, then bowed low. I did the same. When I looked up, I saw that the Juud was not looking at me, but at the tall man beside me.
"Clovis Pelegsson," the Juud said softly, "we would not have thought that you would break our holy laws."
I felt a prickling along my back, as though I had Xai warriors behind me – as, in a way, I did. I turned my head slowly to see whether any of the Juud bore weapons, but this was a foolish act. The Juud had no need for weapons, never had. The Xai warriors could have testified to that.
"Corena," my master said, with another bow of the head to acknowledge her. "If we have wandered onto your sacred ground, I ask your pardon. We had word that you and your husbands had need of a Peacesteward."
"The Juud have no need for Peacestewards," the Juud replied softly. "We never have. Our husbands obey us in matters where the gods have demanded; we obey them in all other matters. The dispute you refer to has been settled."
I felt my back prickle again. Below the scar, my master's temple deepened. "I am sorry," he said quietly. "Perhaps, if we had come earlier, we could have been of use. May I express my sorrow to whichever of you has been widowed?"
"I will extend your joy to her when I see her next," replied the Juud. "My own regret is that we should meet you in this way. We had always considered you our friend."
Despite myself, I made a small noise in my throat. The Juud's face, still veiled, turned toward me. My master said quickly, "The regret is mine. I had mastery upon this journey, and I failed to study the territory beforehand sufficiently. I hope that you will accept my apologies for our intrusion into your sacred place."
"Apologies make no difference," said the Juud serenely. "All must be paid for, if not in this time, then in other times. That is why we sent the offender forward to his next life, so that he might have the opportunity to make expiation for his crime. That is why you must leave this time as well."
The Xai language, which both the warriors and their wives spoke, had no differentiation between singular and plural. I could not tell whether one of us or both had just been condemned to death.
It made no matter. I stepped forward and said swiftly, "The mistake was mine! I was the one who was supposed to study our route; it is I you should punish—"
"Erastus." My master's voice was stern; his hand clamped down upon my shoulder and pulled me back. I could feel the fingers dig into my shoulder as he said to the Juud, "Corena, if you kill me, you will have trouble with the Peace Guild. You know this; you know what the consequences were for your husbands the last time a Peacesteward was killed on their territory. Punishment I am certainly willing to accept for what I did, but I ask you to think again before selecting death as the punishment."
"All must be paid." The Juud's voice sounded almost patient, as though she were lecturing a child. "Each action in life finds its payment; the old pays for the young's foolishness, the young for the old's. The offender was old; now he is young once more, and when his payment is made, he will be free of his debt. Then he will no longer be imprisoned by his folly. We have helped to shatter his chains."
Only my master's grip, tightening on my shoulder, kept me from speaking. "Corena," my master said in a voice level but tight, "the Peace Guild—"
"We do not quarrel with your Guild. You are messengers sent by the gods; you show our husbands their folly before they have let their folly grow too far. We do not interfere with the mission of the gods' messengers."
My master's hand was still tight upon me, but I could not hold back. "What do you mean?" I cried. "Are you going to kill him or not?"
The head turned toward me again. "You ask whether black is white," the Juud replied calmly.
For a moment no one spoke. The Juud horses shifted in their place; the expressions of the Juud were hidden beneath the misty grey. Then my master released me and stepped forward, his palms turned forward in the manner of a supplicant. "The wise judgment of the Juud is renowned throughout the world," he said quietly. "I place myself in your hands."
"No!" I rushed forward, avoiding my master as he reached out to grab me. Coming up to Corena, I took hold of her horse's rein and said, "Punish me, not him! I'm the one who deserves to—"
My cry ended in a sharp gasp. My master's hand had fallen upon me, and this time he had placed the grip on me that he usually reserved for warriors who needed to be taught that he was not a peaceful man through lack of strength.
"Corena," my master said softly, "will you allow me a moment alone with my apprentice?"
The Juud inclined her head formally. "You may have an hour to prepare yourself." She turned her horse, and in the next moment she and the other Juud were galloping across the dust, toward the horizon where the sun was now a thin, red line.
I looked behind us quickly, trying to judge how far we were from the cliff. My master shook his head. "That wouldn't be wise," he said softly. "The Juud power extends beyond their territory." He took my arm and turned me, gently this time. I could barely see his face, so thick was the dusk now.
"Listen, Erastus," he said. "We are Peacestewards – I in mastery and you in apprenticeship. That means our mission is to hold the peace among the peoples of the world. And one of the oldest rules of the Peace Guild is that, unless it should be necessary to prevent a worse peace-breaking, we do not violate local laws. If we do so through folly or ignorance, we accept whatever punishment is given for the lawbreaking."
I swallowed around the tight ball in my throat. "Then let me take the punishment, master. It is my folly that brought us here."
"Nonsense. I am the master, mine was the responsibility to see us through this journey safely. In any case . . ."
He fell silent. The wasteland was quite empty; I could hear only the scuttling of small burrow-beasts, the harsh rattle of the wind against the prickly leaves, and the slight jingle of harness in the distance as the Juud came to a halt. My master turned away suddenly, staring toward the east, where the sky was harsh black with tiny swordpricks of stars upon it. He said, without turning, "I don't believe I have ever spoken to you of my first master."
"Your first master!" I stared at his back. I had met my master's old master only once, a few years before his death: he had been a jolly, lighthearted man, fond of rambling conversation – skilled in peaceholding in his own way, but it had been hard for me to see how a man like that had shaped my master into what he had become.
My master nodded. "We were together for only a short time, but I might as well have donned my robes of mastery after we parted – he taught me all I needed to know of strength and courage. He was a very great man, the bravest man I ever knew, and I would not be a Peacesteward today if it weren't for him."
He was still addressing the black sky; I could see only the dim outline of his back. I asked tentatively, "How is it that you parted, then?"
"He gave his life," my master replied quietly, "while saving mine."
The wind picked up speed, causing the bushes to rustle their leaves loudly. Dust spun into my eyes. I blinked it away, saying awkwardly, "I'm sorry, master. That must have been hard for you."
"Very hard. After his sacrifice, I suffered pain and guilt for many years." He turned, and I saw through the dusk that the left side of his lips was curled up in a smile. "My wound did not heal fully until I met you and came to realize that matters would be with you and me as they had been with me and my master."
I opened my mouth to protest, but my voice was blocked by his fingers, which descended lightly onto my lips. My master's smile had disappeared, and he looked down upon me gravely. "I tell you all this, Erastus, so that you will understand. I owe a debt to my master, and a debt like that cannot go unpaid."
I looked down at my feet, too dark now to be seen, and tried to swallow the tears travelling down my throat. Finally I said with clogged voice, "You sound like a Juud."
My master chuckled lightly. "The Juud's wisdom is indeed renowned – I sometimes think they would do a better job than the Guild in holding peace. Now, listen carefully: I do not know what sort of punishment I will be given, nor how long it will be. But if I am not returned by daylight, you are to go back to the House of the Peace Guild—"
"No." I spoke firmly this time, trying to sound less like a child. "I'm not leaving you here, not while there's a chance you're still alive."
"Erastus, you are my apprentice. You will do as I tell you."
I stared at him with my brows low, my jaw tight, and my chest aching from the pain of our words. After a moment he gave another soft chuckle and pulled me forward so that he could kiss my forehead.
"Stubborn," he said. "You've always been stubborn, from the day I first met you. Ah, well." He released me and took several steps away, then several more, and he had disappeared into the dark before I realized he was gone.