Prologue: The Tree by the River
The water glistened in the warm afternoon sun, and the light sparkled and glimmered on its surface, stirred by the soft summer breeze. Sparrow walked on her unsteady little legs towards it, arms out and a big smile on her face. Her parents had fallen asleep under the apple tree where they had taken their lunch.
Sparrow had slept too, but woke and began to explore, first the soft grass and the flowers that grew nearby, then the slowly swaying leaves of the apple tree above her head. She giggled and laughed softly with the joy of it, and then she saw the sparkles.
Even her inexperienced, innocent thoughts were stymied briefly by the riverbank when she came upon it. She stood, weaving forward and back unsteadily as she eyed the shine and sparkle of the water. Just a moment's unbalance, as she turned her head to look at her momma and papa for reassurance, and she was falling towards the water below her.
A large pair of arms, covered in a white, woven fabric caught her and lifted her high into the air.
"Careful little one. You don't want your parents to wake to tragedy, do you?" Came a voice, whisper soft and reassuring. Sparrow was carried softly back to the grassy shade of the tree, beside her parents.
"Here baby, play with this a while." The tall figure said softly, pulling a necklace from around his neck and placing it over the toddler's head. "You will need this some day, precious one. Goodbye for now. Grow tall and strong and beautiful."
Hobby Dambro stirred, her eyes opening and saw her husband Bane asleep beside her. She sat up in a panic looking for her daughter, only to spot her sitting in the grass, idly playing with something, a bright smile on her face and a happy twinkle in her eye.
"Oh thank the Spirits!" She said out loud. "Bane! Wake up! We fell asleep!"
A kick in the ankle got Bane up, grumbling at first.
"What?" He asked.
"We fell asleep. Sparrow was awake before us!"
"Is she safe?" Bane Dambro asked, ready now to panic himself.
"Yes, she's right here, sitting in the grass and playing, happy as can be."
"Thank the Spirits!" Bane said. Hobby laughed.
"I just said that myself." She answered.
"What's that she's playing with there?" Bane asked as Sparrow put her plaything in her mouth, as infants will do.
"I don't know lets see." Hobby said, moving over beside her daughter. "Bane! This is a necklace. Look at this stone!"
Bane Dambro got up then and came over to his daughter, picking her up in his arms. The little girl giggled at that and dropped her bauble, distracted, as she wrapped her arms around her daddy's neck. He reached a hand down and grabbed the cord around Sparrow's neck and pulled it up.
"Bear crap and the Spirits take me!" He stuttered. "That's a Skystone! One of the biggest I've ever seen!" He began to pull the cord over Sparrow's neck when Hobby said "No!" rather forcefully.
"What?" Bane said again. It was his most often used phrase with his wife. She outclassed him in a lot of ways, and he knew it, and always felt like he was catching up just in time to be left behind again.
"You know my gift." Hobby said. "I think there's Magic here. Let me touch it."
Hobby Dambro touched the stone lightly, with just a forefinger. The sensation was unmistakable. That was her gift, minor though it was. She had a sensitivity to magic, and often had insight into it that others couldn't see.
"This is powerful magic Bane. It has been gifted to our daughter and it watches over her."
Bane Dambro did not have his wife's cleverness, or her sensitivity to magic, but he did have an innate sense of when Arbor was stepping into his life, and when to leave things well enough alone.
"Good enough then." He said with a smile. "Let the Spirits guide us then, and this bauble never leave our precious Sparrow. Now, the afternoon sun tells me we'd better be heading back to the farm, or it'll be supper time before we have the afternoon chores done."
Hobby smiled at her husband and slid up beside him to nestle under his free arm. He was tall and lean, hard as stone and just as enduring, and it felt good to be in his arms.
Mat sat on the blanket, watching his mom spoon the potato salad onto his plate. There was a nicely roasted sausage already on the plate, and some pear and peach slices. If it wasn't for the promise of food, Mat might have preferred to spend the sunny afternoon back at the bottom of the valley with Hawk and Juniper. Even Den would have probably been willing to do something fun on a day like this.
"Here you go Mat." His mom said, handing him the plate. "You can have another glass of the fruit juice too, if you want."
"Can I have a glass of wine?"
"We didn't bring any wine with us for lunch sweetie, sorry." His mom said. "Andy! Lunch is ready, come eat!" His mom said loudly.
"Sorry, I was busy thinking about something." His dad said as he came around the tree they were sitting under. "Mm! That looks very good! Don't you think so Mat?"
"Yea Dad. The potato salad smells like Grandma Liz' too! Yummy!"
"Your Mom is a very good cook, Mat. But she won't disagree that Grandma Liz is the best cook in the known universe."
Mat thought about that while he chewed a bite of the still hot and almost sizzling sausage. His dad was the High Wizard of Arbor. If he said someone was the best at something, it was probably true.
"Are we going to be going back down to the tower after lunch?" Mat asked.
"Don't talk with your mouth full dear, and yes, we are, why?"
"Hawk and Juniper wanted to go swimming at the swimming hole this afternoon, once the sun was high enough."
"Who was going to be there to keep an eye out?" his Dad asked.
"I think they were going to get Ketch. He's been promising to show Juniper how to do a back flip off the diving rock."
"That'll be fine." His mom said, distractedly. Dad had sat down next to her and kissed her cheek as he took his plate.
"Of course it will, with Trellis off visiting her parents for the next month, Ketch might actually be able to concentrate on something."
"You'll be home for dinner on time though, Mat. No being forgetful this time."
"I promise. 'n we might be done early if Hawk's dad gets back. He warned us he's not sticking around if he does."
"Winter should be back sometime tomorrow afternoon at the earliest." Andy said.
Little was said for a while after that as everyone dug into the meal in front of them.
"Mat, sit up please, and wipe your hands, I want to give you something." Cor said when they were down to the last of their meal.
"Okay." Mat said, sitting up on his knees and wiping his hands on his napkin. He had just managed to resist wiping them on his jersey.
"My seven year old boy, your birthday is not for a while yet, but today is the day for me to give you something. I want you to promise me you will wear it always and never take it off, okay?"
"Okay." Mat said, wondering what was up.
Cor reached for the necklace she always wore, the one with the skystone on it and pulled it over her head. She reached out and placed the loop of the cord around Mat's neck and gently placed the stone that hung from it on Mat's chest.
"Tuck that in beneath your shirt so it doesn't flop around, and remember how special it is and to never remove it."
"Yes Mom!" Mat said, fingering the stone, holding it up to examine it closely, as he had done many times in the past. This time it seemed different, with the stone hanging from his neck instead of hers.
"Your Dad once wore a necklace just like this one, but he gave it away to someone who needed it. Perhaps some day you will find it where you least expect it."
"Okay. Thank you for the necklace. I won't take it off." Mat said, giving her a kiss and a hug.
"You two wander off for a moment and let me get things packed up."
Mat and Andy walked along the brow of the hill to where they could see the tower and the river running below it, heading for the narrow, almost impassable mouth of the valley.
"Show me something new." Andy said suddenly.
"Okay." Mat said, holding up a finger and pointing to the air in front of them. A small, shiny speck glistened in the sunlight. The speck quickly blossomed into a thin disk that grew slowly larger and larger, spinning in midair, until it was three feet across.
"Is that gold?" Andy asked.
"Yup!" Mat said, letting the disk sink slowly to the ground.
"Where did you get it?" Andy asked.
"Its in the ground around here. All over the place, but mostly there's a bunch of it over there about a hundred feet and down about twenty feet, under a bunch of mud and rocks."
"What did you do to get it out?"
"I just told it to come here, and to get together."
"Good job, son!" Andy said. "What do you plan to do with all this gold?"
Mat hadn't any plans, and realized his Dad would be disappointed to hear that.
"Umm... Christmas presents?"
"I think that's a fine idea, but since you took this from the ground and made the plan after, I think you should make sure that you make each present yourself, okay?"
"Okay, thats a good idea." Mat answered. "Sorry Dad."
"That's okay, you were responding to my question, but you always have to be thinking of the consequences of your actions when you use the Gifts, or when you work Magic. Its our burden and our responsibility."
The Shadar River Valley ran from the snow-capped and rugged rise of the Kataline Mountains to the white sand shores of the Summer Sea. Misty Creek was a small stop along the winding and ever-changing banks of the Shadar. That it was a stop at all was due to the presence of a mineral hot spring that flowed out of the hills behind it. It was the waters from the spring that gave birth to the name Misty Creek. In the cool days of winter the surface of the creek swirled with steam as it slowly gave up its heat during the short quarter mile run to the Shadar.
The hot spring was really a series of springs, spread across the hill, all within about three hundred yards of each other. They varied in temperatures from the mildly warm to boiling hot, and over the course of many centuries a series of baths had been built to take advantage of them, combining the various springs into three main baths, there was a warm bath, more of a swimming pool than a bath, a hot bath that was what most folks used for a good therapeutic soak, and there was the 'really hot' bath, that only the died-in-the-wool bathers could handle.
A wizard, Greenwish the Wanderer, had worked some magic on the stones of the baths some centuries ago, and the minerals of the spring did not stain or clog the baths, but no equivalent miracles had been worked to allow the citizens of Misty Creek to have the convenience of hot running water in their homes, and the few who tried eventually gave up after the heavy mineralization began to show its effects. Despite the presence of the spring, the local folks' homes were mundanely furnished with their water in the same ways as the rest of Arbor.
A few hundred miles downstream from Misty Creek, Three Falls was one of Arbor's premier wine growing regions, but here in the upper valley, they grew carrots, turnips and strawberries, and in the hills, they cut timber. In particular there was a small industry associated with the cutting and seasoning of the Shadar Knotted Pine. The wood was dense as softwoods went and had a distinctive burling and internal knotting that made it sought after by cabinetmakers.
Bane Dambro was a forester, and one of those who harvested the Knotted Pine exclusively. He had a small drying shed and his own cutting rig. He didn't have the money to afford his own band saw, but he did have a horizontal box saw rig that he powered with a mule driven wheel that let him cut his raw logs into timbers. He hunted the smaller, slower growing trees, and hand-crafted all the lumber he produced. It was a specialty market that he catered to, but the prices they were willing to pay more than made up for the extra time and effort. The extra efforts had moved Bane into the upper tier of the society in miniature that was Misty Creek. Despite this, his wife Hobby seemed to hover at the edges of Misty Creek's social happenings. They had discussed it and decided it was probably a combination of her minor talent making most folks a little uneasy, as well as some resentment of her quick wit and sharp mind. Hobby Dambro did not suffer fools gladly, and there were a few in Misty Creek, just a few.
Sparrow Dambro walked, almost unknowingly, a fine balance between the two positions. She was a ten year old tomboy, one of the kids, and mostly unaware of the opinions adults, beyond her parents, had of her. Bright, energetic, outspoken Sparrow — that was the community's unspoken opinion, and all that was fine for now, while she could remain one of the kids.
At the moment, Sparrow sat in the crook of a tree, fingering the stone of her necklace and watching the river flowing past the tree and the riverbank beneath it. Flare Bindon had thrown a mud cake at her and gotten her shirt dirty, and she had come up the river to her favorite spot to clean it. The warm sun soon had her shirt dry enough to put back on, and she climbed into the crook of the big branch that hung out over the waters and stared at the sun-dappled flow. It was almost hypnotic, the way the lights danced throwing light through the warm, still air.
Still stroking the skystone, Sparrow slowly slipped forward and off the limb and down into the water below. Strangely, she made no splash. Not even a ripple.
It was the middle of the night and Mat was sound asleep, and had been for hours when suddenly he woke, chilled and disoriented. The sound of splashing fading from his ears. He unconsciously reached for the skystone around his neck. The stone seemed warm to the touch. Much warmer than usual, and in touching it, he felt a connection of some kind. There was a sense of someone searching for a lost path or forgotten road.
Mat tried to reach out, to touch the mind that he could almost feel at the other end of the connection, but it was just out of reach. All he could do was send a wave of calm comfort and reassurance. He sat on his bed, rigid in concentration for almost a half an hour before suddenly the feelings ebbed, fading into relief and gratitude before dropping away completely.
There was no hiding the changes from Hobby Dambro. Her talent for sniffing out Magic may not have had the scope and range of a major Talent, but it was sensitive and accurate within arms length distances. Her daughter didn't even try. She walked into the house, back early from her play.
"Momma. You need to call me River from now on." River Dambro said. The girls once warm brown eyes were pale blue.
Concerned, Hobby ran over to her daughter, pulling in to her arms to give her a motherly going over. A touch was all it took for her to know.
"Transformation?" She gasped. "Oh my precious! You are so young!"
"I am River now." River repeated.
Hobby ran to the window closest to Bane's shop and called for him, with some urgency to come quickly. She was back then, examining her daughter, counting fingers and toes and the back of a hand to the girl's forehead. She caught herself and felt foolish. Her daughter was Transformed, not sick!
"What's wrong?" Bane said as he came crashing through the door. His eyes caught the change in his daughters hair and eyes immediately.
"Sparrow?" He asked.
"River" She answered.
"Transformation has found our daughter, Bane. She is River Dambro now."
"Transformation? Spirits take me!" Bane swore. Fatherly instincts took over then though. He too rushed over to touch his daughter's face with a rough palm. "You are okay though? No pain, no madness?"
River nodded hesitantly. She wasn't sure if she would recognize madness in herself.
"She is a major Talent of some kind. I can feel it, but the strength of it is a little blinding to my talent, I'm having trouble gaining an understanding of it."
"It is wonderful Momma. Will you come to the river with me? I'll show you."
Hobby Dambro glanced at the kitchen and at the daylight outside.
"After dinner perhaps, or tomorrow, we will take a day to picnic beside the river, like we used to."
Over dinner, Hobby began to worry about how the changes would be perceived by the rest of the Misty Creek Community. There were few here with any talent. Hobby's own gift was one of the strongest ones known, and it was a minor one.
"We will have to keep an eye on the situation." She said. The children will be cruel and kind in turns, as children always are. The adults will grow fearful and suspicious over the least little thing you do, dear."
"We will take a few days to gain some understanding and to think further on the future. We will not waste our energy running about senselessly, like water bugs." Bane said.
"Yes dear." Hobby said.
"Yes Daddy." River added.
There were chores after evening meal, and Bane had a load of lumber due to be turned in the drying shed, and Hobby had an inspiration for making slow roasted chicken and biscuits to take to the river for a picnic. In the minutia of these details, the Dambro family turned back to normalcy for a while and spent another evening, perhaps their last, as the family they had been the day before.
River had been afraid she would be unable to fall asleep that night, buoyed by the excitement of her Transformation and the newness of her feelings, and the tantalizing edges of new senses and understanding. She barely had time to think of it once her head hit her pillow. She was very quickly sound asleep.
There were morning chores, and a trip to the market for Bane to deliver their day's milking. Changa, their milk cow produced far more milk than they could use in a day, so half of each day's milk went to the market. Brew Olminte, the dairyman, bought their excess. Those without a milk cow were able to buy milk, and both the dairyman and the Dambro's made a little money.
Sparrow Dambro had been in charge of the herb garden and the chickens. River Dambro picked right up where her former self left off, and happily fed their current brood of hens, and the small cluster of chicks that had been allowed to hatch. She studiously ignored counting heads, knowing they were having roast chicken for their midday meal.
The herb garden required only a perfunctory examination. The burlap fence that kept the pests out didn't appear to have any new signs of assault, and the herbs were in no need of weeding today, it having just been done a couple of days before. There hadn't been any rain in a few days, and the night air was dry enough that River thought the garden could use a little watering. The root garden was her mom's to tend, and they would need more water than the herbs did. River got a watering can and filled it from the barrel beside the kitchen door.
While Bane was at the market he took the time to make sure word was spread that his family was off on a picnic today. Back at home, he spent some time making sure the drying shed was set for the day, with the ventilation set to the proper level. It was going to be hot today, and that was good for the wood he was curing, but if the moisture coming out of the drying wood built up in the shed, the humidity could throw the whole curing process out of whack.
The Dambro family went to 'their spot', under a familiar shade tree north of Misty Creek, past the big bend in the Shadar that spun the river East and almost into the Katalines, where they swept south before running into Brightwater Bay and becoming the Vanellan Archipelago.
The warm summer sun and the smell of GhostWing flowers, giving up their fragile, seed-laden petals to the wind, accompanied by the happy sound of the river running nearby was like a balm. Hobby sat, hip to hip with Bane and unpacked their lunches, watching River do cartwheels in the grass as if life was unchanged. Bane closed his eyes for a moment and took in the rich smell of this place, the grass, the river, the flowers and the tree. It was such a physical sensation he could almost feel it under his hands like a plank of knotty pine, worked smooth and warm in the drying shed. He opened his eyes, and saw his daughter, with her bright blue eyes inches away and a smile on her freckled face. She giggled and he pulled her in for a hug.
The slow roasted chicken was just as good as Hobby had thought it would be, and the salad of summer vegetables and fresh herbs made a perfect match, with the buttermilk and cheese dressing she had made for it. There were Blush Melons for dessert, a rare treat that Bane had picked up at the market while dropping off the morning's milk.
The melon had River's hands and face sticky with the sweet juices from it. Even Bane and Hobby, much more careful eaters, were battling the sticky residue.
"We need to go to the river to wash this mess off." Hobby said, folding a towel over the picnic basket.
"You two first." River said when they reached the riverbank. "I'll go last, so you can see."
The warm summer day did nothing to temper the cold temperatures of the Shadar's water. The fine, sandy soil along the river made an ideal cleaning accessory, and soon both parents had clean hands, and with the aid of a towel rather than the sand, so were their faces. They both stood and with Bane's arm around hobby's shoulder, they waited.
River Dambro, fingers idly stroking the familiar skystone, threw herself into the water, and disappeared without a splash. Bane and Hobby both gasped in momentary panic, but held their ground. A hundred yards away, upstream from where River had disappeared and on the opposite bank, a spout of water rose, touched the shore, and in a glimmer of movement, River Dambro stood once again on the shore. She had to yell and wave before her parents spotted her, but with some reassurance that she was okay, they were able to relax a little. River dove back into the water, again without a splash and a moment later was beside them on the bank and in their arms.
"I become the river." She said in hushed tones. "I know everything that is happening on it and in it, from one end to the other. It is hard to keep the thoughts straight in my head, so much is happening at once."
"You can move within it then, to where you want to be?" Hobby asked.
"No, I am already there." River corrected. "I am the river, so I am already everywhere the river is, and just choose to return to myself at whatever point I want."
"I wonder if it is just the Shadar, or if you can do this with any river you touch?"
"River can try Misty Creek tonight, after dinner. We don't want to do it when there are people around." Hobby said. "We need to protect our daughter."
"Of course." Bane agreed.
Mat stood at the bottom of the hidden stairs leading up the mountainside. His dad had said it was time for another visit. He had been to the pool twice in his life, once when he was born, and once when he first began stick lessons with Master Jo, to receive his moonstone staff. This was his third visit.
"Okay Son, lets climb." Mat knew this was one of those times when his Dad was being Weaver, and not Andy. He had grown up used to the concept that both his parents had two faces, their public Arbor faces as Weaver the Wizard and The Wind of Arbor, and their private non-Arbor faces as Andy and Cor McKesson. This dual nature didn't bother him, he was used to it, just as he was used to being Matthew Gerald McKesson when they visited Grandma and Grandpa McKesson on Meadow.
Climbing these stair was a ritual for his Dad, Mat could feel it. The wizard Weaver could have transported them directly to the ledge if he wanted to. The Light wielder Andy McKesson could have jumped them directly to the focus as well. Mat was ten, but he had seen many instances where his parents were both gladly guided by the Spirits. The Spirits were no less real to Mat, despite his lack of direct experience with them.
The first thing Mat did when they exited the stairway onto the ledge was walk to the edge and look out over the valley. He had fallen in love with the view from here when he had come as a five year old and stood where he was now. The feeling exhilarated him now, just as much as it did then. He wondered how his mother felt when she was within the wind.
The pause to regard the view was momentary, he shared it with his dad, and then turned with him to look at the pool and the spring of Magic-laden water that poured out of the side of the mountain.
Weaver dropped his robe and waded into the pool, and Mat walked toward the pool, dropping his robe as well. He got to the edge of the pool, his foot hovering over the water before he froze, unmoving. He had broken into a sweat and stood, blinking owlishly.
"Poppa, I don't think I can do this!" Mat said, in a bit of a panic.
"Its okay, son." Weaver said. "Do what feels right instead."
"Mat reached out with his seldom used gifts and stepped up into midair, walking in the open air towards the spout of the spring where it sprung forth from the naked face of the mountain at the back of the ledge. A deep, gonging note seemed to ring out from everywhere at once, and then in a blur of movement and alteration, Mat, son of the Weaver the Wizard and The Wind of Arbor slipped into the stone face of the mountain, and was gone.
Weaver, High Wizard of Arbor and Lord of the Valley of the Wind sat in the pool, his eyes closed and a tear slowly crawling down his cheek. The future came, often as he saw it, and once it had, there was no swerving it from its course. This event had been a crossroads, a fork in the road and his Arborian gift of prescience told him that this path would be a long and hard one, but it held promise and hope to go along with the promise of pain and despair.
With sure foreknowledge, he jumped to the tunnel entrance to the Valley. It had been the first major work of Magic that Weaver had performed on Arbor. The magic ran deep in to the stone and rock beneath and around the valley. It made so much sense that in his moment of Transformation, his son would be drawn to it, it only stood to reason.
"Dad?" Came the call from the chiseled figure that stood in the shadow of the tunnel.
"Son, Transformation has found you, and a future I have seen has been chosen. I have to be very careful now and act only as your father and not as Weaver the High Wizard. Future events hang in the balance and I dare not disturb their course by acting. Say what needs saying, and lets go home."
"My name is Obsidian." He said, just as Weaver, High Wizard of Arbor, had known he would.