Szeth Flashback Three
Szeth felt that somehow, he was in the shadow of the mountains even long after the sun had gone now. The bleating of lambs filled the air, each call jostling one another, emerging from the darkness around him, with a nervous energy reminiscent of a slaughter. Dozens of shepherd families crowded in this ravine, homes left behind as they were too close to the coast, too near to the ravaging stonewalker raiders and their dark ships. Szeth and his sister had to work hard to keep their flock, driven hastily through the oncoming dusk, from bleeding into the others. It wasn't impossible to sort flocks that intermingled; indeed, it might be inevitable, considering how shepherds and their families kept pulling further and further back, up against the slope of the mountains, nervously pushing to be as far from those raiders as possible, inching as close as they dared to the place that soil gave way to the stones. These mountains were holy, too, but not so much as the ones that emerged from below. The mountains were a fortification against the outside, a wall to hold out the strange people of the other world. They weren't an object of worship so much as a beautiful sign that the spren love the Shin.
Szeth and Elid eventually got their sheep into a huddle, separated enough from the others. The beasts wouldn't sleep easily tonight; they could sense the concern of their masters. Or maybe they sensed more? He looked to the sky and the surrounding clouds covering over moon and star. The night felt oppressive to him. Lanterns made points of light all through the valley below, but they almost seemed to be swimming in that blackness, like they were stars and he was somehow floating above them.
He left his sister to count the sheep and found his mother beside some improvised firepits, discussing an evening meal to hopefully calm everyone down. Lentil soup; no meat, of course. They weren't soldiers.
She put Szeth to work, which is what he realized he'd wanted to do when wandering this direction. Gone and buried was his desire for some simple time to express himself. He needed to sweat, to work out his nervousness, and standing around with the sheep wouldn't have let him accomplish that. So he mashed vegetables with vigor. No chopping; the farmer owned several knives of fine steel, crafted using metals that had been made using mythical powers from the east, so no stone had touched them in their forging. But none were available. So you used your mortal and pestle, crushing the onion, garlic, and carrots together, each of which had been lightly brazed to soften them. This went into the large clay basin, and you repeated with some more. Good, thick work.
In the distant darkness, music started playing as someone got out their flute. This cut off shortly, leaving the air to the nervous bleating. The farmer wouldn't want to give away their position in the night, in case raiders slipped past their soldiers. Szeth had heard this was the reason for no bonfires and minimal lanterns. Indeed, he worked at his mashing only by the shadowy light of the firepit, which had been dug into the ground.
Szeth enjoyed working on soups like this, even if the onions made his eyes water. The cook, who oversaw the feeding of the people in the lands and made certain nobody went hungry had created these interesting wooden ladles for measuring. His current one had the bowl of the ladle split into three sections, with some smaller measuring sections along the handle. All he had to do was fill up the largest of the compartments with carrot, the middle one with onion, and the next one with garlic. Then, he filled in the little divots on the handle with salt, ground pepper, and thyme, respectively. He could dump that all into his pestle and begin mashing, and would always have the right proportions. Once that was done, he added it to the basin with one scoop of lentils and two of water. With the measuring ladle, he could work without supervision, filling the basin on his own, never worrying about his measurements or being forced to try to tell if the soup tasted right.
Despite the late hour, he didn't feel tired; he was too nervous for that. But he continued, glad for the work. He enjoyed it specifically because it was almost impossible to do it wrong. Why couldn't more things in life have a tool like this for exact measuring? He hadn't forgotten about the choice his family had made in moving the stone. And unfortunately, now that he had time to think about it, he found himself increasingly uncomfortable. Not just about what they'd done, but that all three other members of his family would have agreed to it so quickly, without apparent concern. Why was he so different?
Fretting over this brought him little satisfaction, though he did finish an entire basin of stew. He left it simmering and moved to another, though the cook herself soon strode past and checked on his work. If she'd arrived in person, that said something about the level of the disturbance. The girthy woman was dressed all in color, with a red skirt, blue sash, and yellow blouse. Dark, curly hair up in twin buns on her head, skirt parted at the front to show off another splash of yellow underneath. She was one of those who added, a ruling counterpart to the farmer of the region. "Needs more pepper," she declared of the stew he'd left behind.
What? No! He'd done it perfectly! Szeth watched with horror as she added some pepper, then bustled off, calling for a group of shepherds to come in and get bowls in a rotation. Why... why would she say that? She'd created the measuring tool herself. If you followed that, then the soup should taste right. It shouldn't need to be changed in any way. Unless... he must have done something wrong. Why couldn't he get things right, even if he had the tools?
He tried to get back to his work after this, but was distracted as another vibrantly dressed figure stepped up to the fire. The farmer was dressed in his robes; he wouldn't work in those, but wore them over his traditional farming clothing, which would be soiled from his day's activity. The dirty clothing was a symbol, but so were the colors he bore, and so it was best for him to both not change and change at the same time. In this case, a violet outer robe and an inner sky-blue one of a filmier material. No mere splash of color for the farmer; he was color. The farmer was he who added. He had pale skin, like Szeth's family; not exactly uncommon in this region, though those of darker skin were more prevalent. "Ah," he said, seeing Szeth. "Son-Neturo. I had hoped to find your father here at the fire."
"I'll find him for you, colors-nimi," Szeth's mother said from the darkness nearby, where she'd been distributing bowls to those who'd come to eat.
The farmer bowed his head and spread his hands, indicating he'd accept her offer of service, as one should always try to do. Then he accepted a bowl of food from the cook as she bustled the other direction. Szeth guessed he'd have refused that if others had been unfed if she hadn't done it herself, but one did not contradict the cook when she delivered food.
The farmer settled down, then, robes rustling, on a log near Szeth, who continued working on the large basin of stew. The man's presence made Szeth uncomfortable. Was he supposed to say something? Entertain the main? Szeth began sweating, despite the cool night air.
"I have heard from your father about you, son-Neturo," the farmer said, "that you are becoming an excellent dancer. Perhaps you could dance for my workers and I in the field sometime."
"I... I don't know, colors-nimi," Szeth said, blushing in the night. "Entertaining the farmers is usually a job for the musicians, isn't it?"
"It's a job for any who wishes it," the farmer said.
"Does it add, though?" Szeth asked. "Dancing doesn't make anything or feed anyone."
"Ah, you are so young yet," he said. "If you think that to sweeten a person's life and make the hours is not a form of feeding them..." The farmer smiled. The man had a kindly face, oval, like a grain of wheat topped by flax and hair. His hands were calloused, with dirt under the nails. A true sign of nobility.
"Colors-nimi," Szeth found himself asking, "how do you know what to do?"
"I'm not sure that I follow you, child."
"How do you know what is right?" Szeth said. "The right choices to make; how do you decide what they are?"
The farmer sat for a time, stirring his food, taking a bite now and then. "Do you know the difference between men and animals, son-Neturo?" he asked softly?
Szeth frowned, but couldn't find words. It seemed like a question with a great number of possible answers, and he didn't want to say the wrong one.
"Men," the farmer said, "can take actions."
"Animals take actions, colors-nimi," Szeth said.
"It may seem that they do, yes. But if you consider, you will realize they do not. Does the rain act when it falls? Does the rock act when it rolls down the hill? No, the spren move these things. They cannot act; they cannot choose."
Szeth thought. Was the farmer testing him? Because his own experience taught him otherwise. Yes. It must be a test. "I have a sheep," Szeth said. "Molli. She always comes close to me when I'm sad and licks my face. She chooses, colors-nimi."
"Does she, now?" the farmer said, sounding amused. "I think not. But I suppose it is wisdom after a fashion to think your own thoughts, son-Neturo." Maybe it wasn't a test. "Well, regardless," the farmer said. "Acting. Choosing. This is what defines us. And so, you ask what I know what to do? I don't. That is the simple answer. I try, I see, I act. The spren move most things in the world, child, but not us. There's a reason in that. One that the Stone Shamans teach, and one I ponder as I work."
"So I must learn what to do...?"
"By trying," the farmer said.
"That's not specific enough," Szeth said, smashing vegetables in his pestle with vigor. "Two people can try and come up with different answers. Surely the spren have the truth for us. Surely, if we ask, they will tell us what to do."
"If they did," the farmer said, "would that not simply be the same as moving us? Making of us rain or rocks or... other things that do not move on their own?"
He'd been about to say "sheep," Szeth thought.
As the farmer finished the last of his soup, then glanced up toward the sky, the darkness vaguely broken by the peaks of the mountains. "In other lands, rulers don't act," he said. "They decide, but don't act. That is why I must go each day to bring life from the earth. Why I must add, rather than subtract."
That part made sense, but still, Szeth found that this conversation had yielded fewer answers than he'd hoped. If the farmer didn't know the right thing to do, then what hope did Szeth had? Perhaps, he thought, I can find the spren and ask them. They lived inside of everything, but were coy, emerging only at very special times. Szeth had only seen a spren three times in his life that he could remember, and each glimpse had been fleeting, over before he could really do more than stare in shock.
The farmer stood up as, nearby, Szeth's father arrived at the dim fireside. "Check your mixing tool, son-Neturo," the farmer said. "You've been adding too much pepper to the soup." He walked over and joined Szeth's father, speaking to him softly while washing his bowl at the feeding trough.
Szeth finished his current basin of soup, then got a bowl for himself and one for his sister. He hiked off through the darkness again, up to the armpit of the valley where she was set up and looking pensive, sitting on the grass, her small ceramic lamp in her lap. She looked up as soon as he arrived, walking to him eagerly. Was she that hungry? "Szeth," she whispered. "We're missing three sheep!"
"We'll find them in the morning," he said, handing her a bowl. "Probably with one of the other flocks."
She nodded, and by the flickering light glanced at him, then at the food, then away, nervous.
"What," he demanded.
"Molli is one of the missing sheep," she said. "I know how you favor her, Szeth. It's all right, though. I'm sure she's just with one of the other flocks."
He frowned. Molli did not like other sheep. She was almost blind, yes, but she could smell them. "You're sure?" he asked. "She's not here?"
"No. Do you remember bringing her?"
"I gathered her to the herd before we struck out," he said. "But I mean, there was so much chaos..." He met his sister's eyes, then turned to the southwest, toward the ocean and their home. A red haze stained the air in that direction. The stonewalker raiders; they liked to attack at night. Their metal lanterns were more effective than the ceramic ones the Shin used, and their powerful bows could set the roofs of fishing villages ablaze.
The farmer brought in soldiers, he thought, of our own. They'll be defending the coastlands. It was highly unlikely any stonewalkers would strike in as far as Szeth's family's homestead. "I'll just," he said, "go check some of the other nearby flocks. She's easy to spot." He lit himself a lantern and sheltered it with a covering, then went searching. But as he worked, calling to nearby shepherds and asking after missing sheep, a feeling of dread built inside of him. Molli always found her way home. He wasn't certain how she did it, but she was the one he didn't need to worry about when the flock strayed. She always came home.
And so, after searching five other flocks, Szeth found himself again gazing to the southwest, toward that blazing horizon. Perhaps it was his conversation with the farmer, emphasizing that the defining feature of human beings was their ability to choose. Perhaps it was the way his family had done what they had earlier in digging out the rock. Perhaps it was the general air and tone of the day, whispering that there were no right answers, just decisions to be made.
But in that moment, Szeth made his decision. A wholly uncharacteristic one he likely wouldn't have made on any other night, even facing the same dire circumstances. He put out his lamp, trusting on the filtered moonlight breaking through the clouds, then went stalking into the night. Toward their homestead to find Molli. By himself.