Evening was dawning, and the cloak of darkness seemed to spread from the wall of the Horizon into the sky and across the land, huge shadows stretching from the Night at the edge of the Known World. The village of Nephra was a mound of red and gray and black in the northern distance, and the color of the dirt path Strin and Fred followed melded into the dim grass as the sunset deepened. The few houses they passed were quiet and self-content, like men on a hillside watching the clouds blow past and reveling in the immutability of the moment.
Fred told tale after tale as they walked. Strin did not bother to mention that he had heard most of them before and several of them numerous times. In a way, Fred’s memories populated the silent land and filled it with shadows of events long past, and for the ones remembered, hundreds more watched from eternity.
Suddenly, a low sound, like a grumbling mountain, filled the land. It passed through Strin and Fred and stopped them. They looked at one another. “Ah, a Rutsuian,” Fred said, amused. “Welcome home.” He broke into a sprint.(1)»
Thick, nightmarish clouds began to roll from the Horizon, boiling from it like steam, and wind tugged viciously at Strin’s drizbane as he ran behind Fred. The wind thrashed, clutching and dragging at Strin, and though he ran, he struggled to move forward. Fred strode in place—he no longer looked amused, but pressed forward with a determined face.
The darkness descended as the clouds continued to billow out from the Horizon. Strin could see the shape of Fred ahead of him, then the outline, then nothing but the remembrance of his image. Strin heard a crashing sound like hail on rooftops, but he knew that it was not hail; it was rock and other debris thrown about by the wind.Strin had learned not to fear Rutsuians—rather, not to panic during a Rutsuian, for any sane man feared what a Rutsuian could do. But every Horizon house was fitted with a magical shield to protect it from the flying debris, and every Horizon house lit an emergency fire to guide those stranded in the storm. Nearby, a hazy orb of light sprang up before him, and he ran toward it, ducking low as he ran. He would avoid most of the debris that way. The groaning continued, like an old man in pain—low, long, and despairing. The groaning and the darkness appeared in the nightmares and ghost stories of children. Even now the sound touched some deep, raw nerve within Strin.
Pebbles and clods of dirt ricocheted off the thick hide of Strin’s drizbane, and he felt a few larger pieces skim his hat. He held the hat down with his hand.
As he pushed forward, his foot twisted over something long and soft. Kneeling down quickly, Strin felt an arm. He felt his way to a face and felt blood. Pushing close, Strin found Fred’s gray face turned to one side, black streams of blood flowing from a gash.
“Fred.” Strin’s voice was soft and gentle in the rage. He prodded Fred lightly, but he did not respond, so Strin positioned Fred on his shoulder and ran, bent and stumbling in darkness, toward the light.
A light blazed deep blue beside a small farmhouse. Strin banged on the door. A young woman opened it and stepped aside to let him enter.
“Where can I lay him?” Strin asked. The girl stared at Fred’s limp body. “Miss, is there a place to lay him?”
“Ananya.”(2)» Her voice sounded distant. She looked to Strin. “My name’s Ananya. You … you can set him on the rug over here.” Her eyes drifted to Fred again, then to the rug she referred to. “This one.” It was the only one in the room. “I have something for that wound. I’ll get it.”
Strin set Fred down, and a moment later Ananya knelt beside him. She wiped the blood from Fred’s forehead and proceeded to apply an ointment to the wound. She then prepared a strong tea filled with local herbs and forced it down Fred’s mouth.
“He’ll come around soon, Strin.”
“You remember me?” It always amazed Strin the number of people who recognized him. He had never known their names, though he fought to find memories of each.
“The whole Horizon knows you, Strin,” she said, smiling faintly. “And Fred … ,” she studied him and sighed. “Well, around here, it’s hard to forget Fred.”(3)»