Jerya moved quickly, climbing the steps almost at a run, hurrying beneath the Dawnsinger's tor. There was nothing to be seen above but rippled and bulging stone, but every time she passed there she felt as if the rocks themselves were watching her.
Just beyond, by two lesser pillars of rock, the path split; but one was forbidden, the Singer's private path to… who knew what? Curiosity burned within her, as always, but there were some rules even she dare not break. She kept to the main path, moderating her pace now, calming her breathing. Above, the moons were pale ghosts of themselves in the bright sky.
The day had begun cool, the stonecourt still in shade, yet Jerya had felt the promise of heat in the air. She bent to her work with extra speed, attending to the ebb and flow of gossip even less than usual. As the heat and glare grew, the women began gathering their things and grumbling their way inside. When no one was looking, Jerya had simply stepped back between two of the great boulders and waited for the court to empty.
At the next fork, both ways were open to her, but today's destination was already settled in her mind. Today the forest called, and she spared only a fleeting glance for the other path rising to the right, towards the moor.
She had climbed that way times beyond counting. On top of the moor her small world became great. Above all she went to gaze on the mountains, watching the day's light shift slowly across their scarred and seamed faces, revealing new ridges or hinting at what lay in the depths of the gullies. Ever and again she had tried to imagine what it would be like to be there.
She knew rock, lived within it, slept in a cell carved from it. She knew all Delven's steepest, narrowest ways, had often hitched up her skirts to climb over boulders and through crevices. Sometimes it seemed that the mountains might be just be the same, only a thousand times higher. If that were all, it would surely be possible to climb them; but something in her heart felt that there was more to the mountains than that.
Whatever the truth might be, she would never know. She could not reach even the base of the mountains and return before night—no one could, not even the fleetest of the men—and the mountains were beyond the reach of Dawnsong. As for what lay beyond the mountains… folk rarely even spoke of that.
Once she had lingered overlong, transfixed as the moons rose over the skyline, the Three preceding the One, chips of light climbing above the sunset-painted peaks. Then she had had to race back to Delven, scurrying frantically down the rough path and through the darkness of the forest. Her aunts had been furious, but behind their ire she sensed a deep fear. To be caught out by night was alarming; to be caught out by night in an Unsung place was the darkest of terrors.
It was midday when she reached her tarn. Jerya needed no Dawnsinger to tell her so; it was written in the light on the surface of the water. Only when the sun stood at its highest could its beams reach down through the canopy of the great trees.
The water was still, but stirrings in the trees high above made the light dance. It had looked just the same the first time she'd seen it: another day like this, heat simmering in the stonecourt. Then, too, the call of green shade had been irresistible. A glimpse of the sparkle on the water had lured her from the path, skirting brambles, twisting between rocks and under a final shielding wing of foliage before that moment of revelation.
The water nipped at her feet, icy after the warmth of the air. But she had learned. She slid full length into the tarn, came up gasping. She wanted to scream, to laugh, but honoured the silence.
Once she could breathe again, she began to swim.
Other women did not swim. Many, she thought, might never have seen water wide enough or deep enough. Some might not even know what swimming was. But Jerya, who read books—who had read every book in Delven's meagre stock—had encountered the word, and deduced its meaning. Having discovered the tarn, she tried it herself. She could put a foot to the bottom almost everywhere, so it seemed safe enough, but it had taken more than one season to find a method that felt right. Now, though, she swam easily, barely splashing. Her hair trailed behind her, lightly caressing her back. She felt weightless in the water, light as a soaring hawk.
She swam for a while, feeling the alternation of sun and shadow, warmth and cool in the water. Then she floated where it was warmest, and tried to think of nothing. But her mind, being her mind, immediately threw up the question, if you think of nothing, are you thinking at all? And then, What is nothing anyway?
She laughed silently. Questions, she thought, always questions. It was a common plaint of her aunts: "Jerya, why do you ask so many questions?" Once she'd replied, to Aunt Vilina, "I don't know, aunt, but that's a question too!" She'd barely escaped a slap for that.
She looked at a floating leaf, a patch of yellow pasted to the water's surface, and thought, not for the first time: why do things float?
It began, years ago, with one simple question: why do sticks float and stones sink? She'd asked Sarria this time, but Sarria only said, "What sort of question is that, girl? It's the way things are." They often said that, an answer that wasn't really an answer at all.
Later she had overheard Sarria retelling it; heard her own name, in all-too-familiar tones (half-amused, half-exasperated), and listened though she knew she shouldn't. "…What she asked me this time? Why do stones float and sticks sink?" Jerya had jammed a fist in her mouth to stay silent. Sarria had mixed them up—and none of the others had noticed! They'd only chuckled, as they often did. Well, chuckles were better than the alternatives. Once she'd asked Hyadelle something and, receiving the usual answer, retorted, "The Dawnsinger would know." Hyadelle grabbed her arm, hard: there'd been a bruise. "None o'that, girl! Never even think it, hear? You don't go near the Dawnsinger, understand? An' if she comes by, you step aside and let her pass. Understand?" Hyadelle shook her fiercely. "You understand?"
"I understand, aunt." But she didn't, not really.
Eventually she'd concluded there was no point in asking her aunts—or the other girls—anything. Not anything… interesting. And she couldn't ask the Dawnsinger, so who was left? Only herself.
Why do sticks float and stones sink? Well, she'd thought, early on: is it always so? She'd discovered that, if you were careful, you could take a tiny pebble, the merest sliver of stone, slide it off your finger, and make it float. Looking as close as she could, she'd seen it made a tiny dimple on the surface of the water. But it floated, if you were very careful.
So some stones floated. Later, diving in the deepest place, she found some sticks on the bottom. She collected one, brought it to the shore, noticed its slimy, queasy, feel. It seemed to stay damp even after it had lain a long time on the sand. A word came to mind: waterlogged. Another she must have read.
She'd taken a dry stick, one which floated easily, and held it under the water; observed bubbles of air forming on it, breaking clear and rising to the surface. In a small, slow, way they looked just like the bubbles she could make by blowing out a breath under water.
And she'd thought: water belongs below, air belongs above. It wasn't right, she knew; "belongs' wasn't the right word. But perhaps it was a groping reach toward something true.
What else could she do? How else could she… she found, or formed, another phrase in her mind: question-test. What question-tests could she do? A few days later she'd filched one of the lightest bowls from the kitchen-chamber, tucked it into a pocket, and brought it here.
Floating it in the tarn, she'd dripped water into it, seen how it dipped deeper but continued to float, dripped again. The bowl had been half full before it finally tilted to one side and slipped beneath the water. She'd had to dive to retrieve it, laughing at herself, but knowing that if it was lost or broken it would be missed and she would have to own up.
Playing some more—question-testing—she discovered that with great care she could place the bowl upside down on the surface of the water and it would float there, sticking right up, only its rim immersed. With even greater care, after several attempts, she managed to keep it there while she dipped her head under and saw the air inside. Its surface, bulging a little, looked silvery, almost like metal; yet when she, with infinite gentleness, poked a finger at it, it felt… well, it felt like nothing at all.
And how did any of this get her closer to answering the original question: why do sticks (mostly) float and stones (mostly) sink? It wasn't that stones were heavier than sticks. A large stick was heavier than a small stone, yet the stick floated and the stone sank. She, herself, floated, yet she was heavier than any stone she could lift. What about a stick and a stone of similar size…? Surely, then, the stone would be heavier than the stick.
Maybe that was the next test. She began to swim towards the shore.
And then… A far-off crashing, loud in the great hush of the forest; a wood-pigeon, perhaps, shouldering through the foliage. Jerya drifted, listening for its crooning call. Instead she heard the crashing again, and then again. It took the rhythm of a stride, someone tramping along the path, not trying to be quiet. Wearing boots, so a man. She floated silently, treading water gently to keep her face in the air, waiting for him to pass.
But the stride stopped; she heard what could only be someone pushing aside the brambles. A sudden cold sick feeling twisted her guts. Two strokes took her into the cold water under the overhanging rock, but what was the use? Her clothes were lying on the sand.
The footsteps halted. Jerya was sure he had not passed the final barrier of foliage. She held her breath and willed him to turn away. "Jerya?" The voice was uncertain. It sounded like Rodal, but his tone was strange.
He called her name again, and slow certainty gripped her: something was amiss. "I'm here," she called quietly. "Wait there."
"Very well." It was Rodal; she was sure now.
Standing on the soft dry sand, she squeezed water from her hair, towelled herself with her apron, shook a few questing ants from her garments, her headcloth. Dressed, she turned; some premonition demanded she absorb that image of water dark under sun-strewings, vast green-pillared shade beyond.
Rodal was waiting where she'd thought. He began to speak, then stopped with his mouth open. A long breath leaked from him.
"What is it?" demanded Jerya. Then she realised her hands were full. The blue of her headcloth—washed so many times it was almost beyond blue—was the answer he had not voiced. Looking up again, she saw his eyes trace the fall of her hair.
This, she understood, and it gave her something to do. She wrung out her hair a second time. Then, with the unthinking deftness of a lifetime's practice, she folded the cloth around her hair, wrapped the whole tightly on her head, drew the tail across beneath her chin and tucked it in securely.
Rodal's broad face visibly relaxed. "Come," he said, turning away.
Her skirt snagged once on the brambles. It didn't usually; haste, or something, had made her clumsy. When she reached the main path, Rodal was some paces ahead. "Wait…" she called. He stopped, half turned. "Tell me… what's happening?"
"I don't know."
"You must know something."
"Little enough, besure. Holdren wanted you. When he found you weren't with the other women he set us all to searching, the women in the courts and caves, the men afield. And…I've seen you come this way many times."
And found my tarn; my place… "You… Did you…?"
"No!" he protested hotly, so that her suspicions shamed her. "But you've made yourself a path, clear enough to a tracker's eye. You must have come many times."
"I never thought anyone else would…"
"I like to walk in the forest also… Beyond the ridge, on the sunset slope."
That he could share one of her secret loves, feel somewhat as she did, was as unexpected as a miscounted step in back-cave gloom; literally, for she stumbled on the level path, saved herself from falling only by catching his arm.
"I thought I was the only one," she said, quickly releasing her grip.
"The only woman, perhaps," he said, looking straight ahead.
She wanted to grab his arm again, to make him look at her. "And among the men?"
"We all go into the forest, of course. And I don't think the others feel nothing for it. But I think I'm the only one who wanders for no reason."
"No reason? You don't mean that, surely?"
He smiled; he almost glanced at her. "Well… None that I could speak of."
"You could speak of it…" She broke off, not wishing to appear forward, but Rodal seemed to catch the unspoken words: with me. He stared bleakly at her, sweeping a hand over his sandy hair.
"Rodal, you do know something."
"No. Only a notion… something in the way Holdren spoke."
"Somehow… as if you were going away."
"Away? But women don't…"
He said nothing, only glanced at her, level… they were almost the same height, she realised.
A memory surfaced: sitting in the shade with the women, watching the half-naked men wrestling in the sunglow. She had liked best to watch Rodal—but that was usual, most of the women did. Even ones who scarcely glanced up from their needles when their Own-men wrestled could be seen stealing glances at Rodal. Young as he was, he'd gone close to three years undefeated in wrestling and throwing. He had triumphed with the heavy stones too, last time.
She felt her thoughts gathering impetus, like running down a steepening downhill path. What Rodal said about her 'going away'…. how could that be? But whatever was afoot, it was surely better to know than get mazed among unnamed fears.
She stepped on again. The great trees withdrew behind. A band of lighter wood, rowan and larch and sunny tangles of man-high undergrowth, screened the deep forest. Then they came into full sun, day-bleached colours and sudden heat. A butterfly tumbled away, bright as a candle-flame. They crossed flower-deep meadow, passed a row of beehives, skirted threadbare ground where goats were tethered. A stone path, a dodge under the leaning thorn-tree at the gate-like nick in the rocks beneath the tor, and she looked down into the stonecourt of Delven.
The whole village seemed to be gathered, men as well as women. All eyes seemed to follow her as she started down the steps, but it was the silence that made her shiver, in spite of the heat. Now she grasped Rodal's fear.
She halted at the foot of the steps. Rodal darted a look over his shoulder, then stepped aside. Holdren faced her, tall and thin, space around him though the throng pressed behind.
"Come," he said, no more, but Jerya trembled. Behind his headman's gravity she sensed unease. She followed him, back up the steps she had just descended. At the top, just as Jerya was wondering where Holdren could possibly be leading her, he turned sharply to the right, onto the other steps, the one flight in all of Delven she had never climbed.
The breath fled Jerya's body. Holdren was halfway up before she could gather her wits and her skirt-hem and scramble after him.