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Which side are you going to be on?"
The wind was high, the air drier than the leaves and brambles that crunched under Julian's feet. It was dry as fire, dry as the sun. Dry as drought--but Julian shuddered to even think the word. Drought.
"I'll be with the Dust," Davi was saying, his voice hardly carrying over the wind. "They'll choose me, I know it." He was up on the road, swinging a willow wand in his hand, whipping it around like a flail, like a scythe. He laughed, dry and dusty. "You'll be with the Water men," he shouted back at Julian.
"Then we'll have to kill each other," Julian answered, not listening, really, to his own words. One of the lambs was caught in the brambles and was calling Julian with frightened, mournful bleats.
Then Julian looked up at his friend. Davi should have replied by now, laughing him off or telling him it wasn't true. But Davi only whipped the branch, back and forth in front of him, cutting through the dry wind.
Branches and thorns caught Julian's knees, scratched him, bit through the windings around his legs. He wondered what made Davi talk about it, today, yesterday, almost every day for weeks now. Then he remembered, vaguely, like the smell of a rainfall just before he woke, that Davi's brother had gone only a few weeks ago. Who had taken him? Julian wondered. Dust? Water? He reached the lamb and sank his arms into the brambles, scratching bright blood onto his white skin.
"Or are you staying here?" Davi's laugh came whistling through the wind like the wand striking the air. "With the women and the girls? Tending sheep. Will you wear a dress and a shawl with your beard, like Telan?"
Julian spun around, wanting to chase Davi, race him, make him take it back. The branches caught his clothing and he couldn't move. He watched his friend stride down the road, distant, taller and broader, his copper-flax hair chopped blunt and short. He was nearly grown. He would be taken soon. Julian lifted the lamb over his shoulders and began to pick his way out of the brush.
One day, not long after that, Davi put a stick and a skin of water in Julian's hands, and they walked out from Kiela. They were going to see the men.
Kiela was a large town, larger than they knew. Its fields spread out over acres of land, even up to the mountains. Houses, pens with their crooked-ringed fences, fanned rows of plantings--it seemed to go on forever before they walked out of it. They mounted the feet of the hills and looked down on it, their home, the world of their childhood. How small it was there, distant in the vastness of the land.
They walked northward, very far, farther than Julian had ever walked. His feet began hurting him, he could feel every stone through the thin leather of his shoes, and he began to sweat inside his woolen tunic, beads of water slipping down his sides. Was it getting hotter? The land around him, beneath its tangle of scrub and brush, looked dry and sandy. It was spring, it should have been raining, the clouds heavy and thick. He looked up at the sky. The sun came out from behind the mountain in a blinding swell. Julian ducked, squinting, trying to shade himself with his thin hands.
Ahead of him, Davi laughed. "Is the sun burning you? Pretty Bioran boy. You should be brown, like me."
He wasn't brown, Julian thought loudly. The book-man was brown, although Davi would only laugh at him again for still going to see the book-man. Davi was honey-colored, wheat-colored. His hair wasn't even quite brown. But Aunt Ana said they were brown, and so they were. "We're all brown in Kiela," she would say, then she would smile at Julian, and say to him as if it were a secret, "except Julian."
When they neared the village, Julian did not at first see it. He saw only dark spots on the land, piles of sticks, scattered like a child's toy. Only when they came closer, and the spots began to grow, did he see that they were houses. Shacks, rough and broken, each so far from the next. There were no pens, no rows of grain. The land was unplanted and untended. Behind each house was a tiny scrap of a garden, stuck through with the drooping heads of tired stalks. Here and there an animal wandered, a mangy sheep, a bone-thin chicken. Women stood bent at their doors, and children sat in the shade and the dust beside their walls. Between those walls the dry land stretched out, barren.
And Julian saw that the faces on the one side of the village, where a few shacks were clumped near to each other, were brown, wheat honey and darker. On the north side, farther from them and across the rocky barrens, the women and their thin children were white, colorless as Julian, and their hair was the same white cornsilk gold. It was as if they were not one village of Biorans, but two villages, two different peoples, foreigners to each other. Julian thought of the gatherings in Kiela, the Aunts and all the people together in a circle, and knew there were no such gatherings in this place.
"Look," Davi whispered then, and the whisper was lost in a distant rumble. "The men are coming."
They swept down from the mountain like a dust storm, like the heavy rains of late summer. They trampled the gardens and flooded the shacks. With the swing of knives the beasts were cracked in a bloodred blur. Tiny scurries of children ran into their shelters. In the clouded distance Julian saw one of the women, her pale hair flying, swing at the storm with a rake. From the mass of men one was singled out. He grasped the woman, pulled her into the house, and Julian saw nothing more of them. In the sound of chaos a narrow scream drifted, and was lost.
The boys pressed themselves behind the small shelter of a hillock. "They're Dust," Davi breathed at Julian's side. "You can see the marks on their faces."
But Julian did not see the Dust men. On his back, low to the ground, looking at the sky, he only saw the sun. It stared down at him, hot and angry. Where was the Water, he wondered, or Davi said it. Where was the Water?
Then, as if summoned, they came. From the south, behind the hillock where the boys crouched, the Water men came, pounding the earth as they ran, tearing the air with their shouts. Their voices were so fierce and loud with rage that Julian would not have known they were human.
And beside him, Davi echoed their cry in a voice Julian had never before heard. He leapt to his feet, thrusting his walking stick out like a weapon, in the path of the Water men.
"Davi!" Julian tried to shout, but his voice was dust in his throat.
He saw one of the men then, heavy with rage, his dark face burning red, his hair like dirty flax. On his face was a mark, painted or cut or burned there, the curve of a line ending in an arrow. Julian wondered who the arrow pointed to. Then the man raised his weapon--what weapon Julian did not see--and brought it down where Davi stood below him.
Julian covered his face and rolled away.
Will I always be a coward? he thought. He did not look out to the field where the men were fighting, and he covered his ears with his hands. He did not know what the sound of it was and he did not want to learn. Eyes closed, trembling, he did not feel the change in the air or see the darkening sky until it was suddenly split with thunder, drowning out the noise of men. Julian opened his eyes. The storm clouds had come, heavy and angry. They opened and the rain fell, striking Julian's face and his arms, pounding on the earth.
In the haze of the rain he could pretend he did not see the men in the distance. The rain washed out all sound of them. Julian crept from his hiding place, going on his elbows, wormlike, until he reached Davi, and he pulled him away into the shrubs. There he hid until the rain was gone and it was silent.
There was rain in the air. tod could smell it, only faintly at first, just a hint. That was all he needed, though. He could smell a coming storm cloud from miles off, or at least he assumed that's where it was, since he couldn't see it. But after that first scent of rain, it would not be long before the light around him darkened and he felt the pressure in the air change; then he would hear the rain. It was something, he supposed--this sense of smell in exchange for his sight.
It would be good to hear the rain, Tod thought. There hadn't been rain in some time, which was unusual for spring in Biora. The people were terrified of drought. The children told stories of the ten summers of Light, and when Tod first heard them he thought they were nothing more than the tales children tell to scare each other; but even the women, the elders of the community, repeated the stories, and when they spoke it was with gravity and warning. The ten summers of Light, Tod gathered, were ten years of drought, when the clouds that were customary in this cool northern country were burned away by the sun and the rain did not come. Biora was almost destroyed, to hear the elder women tell it. Tod couldn't imagine that there was really no rain at all, but there must have been a drought and it must have been serious. In his old and poorly remembered years of school in Dabion, he'd learned that Biora was once the source of science and philosophy, and Bioran scholars had traveled the Five Countries to spread their knowledge. That all ended hundreds of years ago, though--Tod couldn't remember which years--and since then Biora had been cut off. Something terrible must have happened behind those northern mountains, to undo all those years of learning. Tod had been in Biora for years and he had yet to meet anyone who could even read.
There was another sound outside. Tod looked up toward the window of his small shack. He could not see much through the window, but it was still a comfort to have it there, letting in the air and the light. He could see light, and contrasts and shapes, although much of his sight was gone. It had been gone for ten years, more or less. He found he didn't miss it so much. He could still work without what he'd lost, and that was all he needed to do.
"You are the book-man," Aunt Ana had said when she first met him. She had been so sure, so certain, that Tod had been unwilling to disagree or even ask how she knew.
Later, when he did ask, she'd said, "A Sage told me." Aunt Ana was the only Bioran Tod knew who had ever spoken to or even seen a Sage.
But she knew he was a bookbinder, even if she didn't know at first what that meant, really, and soon the whole town knew. Aunt Ana was the closest thing Kiela had to a Lord Justice, or a mayor maybe, as far as Tod could tell. She told everyone he was the book-man, and soon they were coming to him with their books.
He'd never seen books in worse condition, what he could see of them. They had been stowed away in chests, hidden in basements that had been dug for shelter during the ten summers of Light. Their boards were gnawed, their paper was fragile, and the leather of the binding was flaking off like old frost.
"You can fix it?" Aunt Ana said as he pored over a worn volume.
This had been only shortly after Tod had come to Biora, shortly after he had lost his sight. He wasn't sure he could fix it; there was no paper in Kiela, none of the tools he needed, even if his sight had been good. But even then he wasn't willing to disappoint her. "Yes," he answered, and held the book up to the pale light, angling it in front of the window and trying to catch the shapes of the letters on the page. "What does it say?"
If he could have seen Aunt Ana's face, he might have said she raised her brows in a way that indicated the question was irrelevant. "We don't know," she said, and with that she was gone. Others came later to bring what tools and supplies they could offer, and Tod made do with them. He mended stitching and encased delicate paper in new covers. Tod Redtanner, bookbinder, was back in business.
So when he heard the noise outside his window this humid spring morning, Tod expected that it would be one of the aunts or some of the children, maybe, bringing another armload of books to him. It was a surprise, then, when he heard the knock at the sill of his window and a voice, accented and uncomfortable with the distant dialect, calling, "Mister Tod?"
"Julian!" Tod cried, getting to his feet and picking his way to the door. He hadn't expected Julian to be here, so late in the evening, and he was doubly surprised that he neither heard nor smelled the sheep that the young man was normally herding. "Come in," he offered, holding the door wide.
Not that he needed to offer. His visitors seemed to think of his home as theirs. He was not part of their village, here at the foot of the mountains where the Sages who'd arranged his exile had put him, and he was wildly foreign and strange to them. Still, they seemed to take it upon themselves to care for him, to adopt him, since he had no one else. Every day, almost, someone was here, cooking for him, tidying his kitchen, tending his garden. Whether their attention was a gesture of generosity to someone in need or condescension to someone who obviously couldn't look after himself, Tod didn't know, but he didn't really care. He appreciated the company, blunt and insistent though it might be. Julian was through the door and into his kitchen before Tod had even pulled the door back all the way. Tod smiled in his own darkness and returned to his table.
As he got back to his work--sanding down boards for the new covers of books, a task he could do with only the tips of his fingers and no light at all--he realized that the sun wasn't the only thing missing. Julian, normally a cheerful boy, was unusually silent. He was doing something in the opposite corner of Tod's shack, blocking the small candle with his body. From the sound he thought that Julian might be patching a chink in the wall with some mud he'd brought from outside.