As she watched, the lines trembled. At first, it was small and infrequent, barely noticeable, but they grew larger and closer together. She watched. And slowly, she understood.
“Za’reth, someone is coming up behind us.”
He turned to look, but only empty road stretched into the distance.
“How do you know?”
She raised her hand holding the stone.
“The lines, they are…” She struggled to find the words for what she was seeing. “They are rippling, like someone threw a pebble into a lake. Only, the ripples are growing stronger and closer together.”
This seemed to satisfy him because he immediately led them off the road, behind an outcropping of boulders. They dismounted, tied up the horses and waited. Sh’ra expected the ground beneath her to be vibrating when she stepped off her horse, but her body felt nothing of what she saw through the stone. Za’reth sat down, his back against the boulder, his eyes closed, head rested against the stone. In the morning light, she could see his traveling clothes were well-made despite their simplicity. He kept his wavy gray hair short around the side of his head, and only a little longer on top. Combined with the sharpness of his facial features, he had the look of a much younger man. Only the wrinkles around his eyes gave him away, wrinkles showing many years of laughter and several of sadness.
“They are not pursuing us. I made sure of that. More likely, it is a merchant rushing to catch a ship soon departing. Still, it is better that we are not seen.”
Sh’ra could not shake a sense of dread. From her sitting position, she leaned forward, placing both hands on the ground, the stone beneath her right palm. She poured herself through it, pushing to see further, seeking the origin of the vibrations. As she moved along the threads to the north, the ripples grew into soaring waves. She began to feel like a small row boat out to sea in the middle of a storm, thrown around on waves hundreds of times her size. The movement of the lines created the same sense of queasiness in her gut. As the next wave crested, she let go. For a split second, she hovered above the lines, seeing them stretched out in all directions, then she was slammed back into her body, rocking her back on her heels. Frustrated, she prepared herself to try again. Za’reth interrupted her before she could.
“Do not go too far. You are not ready. Rest. They will come and they will pass us by.”
“What is the danger? I could almost tell how many there were and their exact distance!”
“Yes, there are stories of Stonebearers performing similar feats, and many greater. But you are not them, not yet. The danger is that you would lose yourself or get tangled into one of the threads and not be able to find her way back. Lu will be able to explain it better when we reach her. It is women’s business after all.”
“What happens if I can’t find my way back?”
“Scholars have theorized, but no one really knows. Many Stonebearers died this way in their training. Some of the others reported feeling their presence when they cast themselves out onto the threads. Are they to be believed? What happens when the mind is separated from the body? The body dies, but the mind? ”
He said it casually, as if reading from a book. Sh’ra shuddered – fear at how close she had come to this... separation, settling into her throat.
“I don’t think I want to find out.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Wind howled through the rock. From the a nearby grove of trees, Sh’ra heard birds singing.
“Who is Lu?”
“Lu’rik bin Ur’in is the Keeper of Bones for the Horn clan.”
“How can she teach me? No one from our clan has held a stone of power in generations. Certainly no one from the Horn clan ever has. You yourself said they were forbidden. So how could she teach me?”
“She has lived longer than most and has protected the old ways since long before you or even I was born.”
“Yes, but that couldn’t be more than eighty or ninety years! How could she know anything about the stones?”
Sh’ra felt a rising sense of panic. The stone she held in her hand was her path to freedom for her family, but it could very likely kill her in the process. It was becoming clearer to her that she knew nothing about how it worked and there was no one to teach her.
“Calm yourself girl. The Horn clan is where the Stonebearers began their training. They never used the stones themselves but they were responsible to teach those who did.”
“The Horn clan? How? What could the Stonebearers learn from them?”
“Your ignorance betrays you again. What do you actually know about them? Have you ever met any of them?”
“I saw one at the market, when I was a child. It was a man, covered mostly in rags, selling some of his cattle. I could barely see his face through his long beard and wild hair. My father wanted to buy one from him, but the man would not even speak to him. He just sat their with a blank expression on his face, and a bag full of carved wooden cows. Father took one from the bag and set it on the table, explaining to me that each of the figurines represented one of the man’s herd. The man held up three fingers. Father said he would only pay two, but the man didn’t even respond. He just went on holding up his three fingers like he hadn’t even heard.”
Za’reth laughed, a long booming belly laugh.
“I see you met Lo’ik. What did you learn from him?”
“What did I learn? What was there to learn? He was just a stupid horner who didn’t know how to sell his cows like a normal person. I went back and watched him for the rest of the day. He didn’t haggle with anyone. He just sat there like he had no thoughts in his head, with his bag of wooden cattle, holding up his fingers.”
“That is where you are wrong girl. I learned everything I know of trading from him.”
“You? But you’re the wealthiest merchant in the city!”
“Was. No longer. They will have seized everything I own by now.”
“But, why? And how could they do that?”
“Not they, him. Ur’in. I am a traitor now Sh’ra, same as you, perhaps worse than you.”
He held up a hand to silence her next question.
“I hear them coming. Can you tell how many?”
Sh’ra stood to go see, but Za’reth yanked her back down.
“Don’t go out there! Use the stone.”
“But you told me not to! You said I could die!”
“This is a safe distance.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Use the stone! Tell me how many there are and when they have all gone. It will not do for us to be seen by them, even from a distance.”
Sh’ra sat back down, relenting. But when she held the stone there was a knot of tension in her chest. It was hard for her to concentrate, to release herself into it. Every time she reached out, she struck the knot of fear. She breathed deep, trying to undo it, but it seemed to only grow. She threw herself at it with a rush of anger. She might as well have been throwing a pebble at the granite doors of Ma’ha’reth's Keep, expecting them to be battered open with the force.
“I… I can’t do it. It… doesn’t work for me anymore.”
“What do you mean it doesn’t work? The stones don’t just stop working!”
“Well then, I stopped working! I can’t get through. You made me afraid of it with your talk about losing myself and now I can’t get through! Why don't you do it since you know so much!”
She flung the stone at him. It struck the ground near his feet, bounced, and ricocheted off the rock next to him. He shot to his feet, looking like he was about to strike her. She ran. Across the clearing, toward the grove of trees, she ran. With tears streaming down her face, not caring if anyone saw her, she ran — seeking the comfort of the trees.