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Moonset, just before dawn; swollen moon collapsing into a notch between black mountains; river talking quietly to itself among the stones; pine and horsemint scenting the air as Abasio brushed by them on his way down the farm lane. Big Blue whickered softly from the corral, more a question than a good-bye, but for that brief moment Abasio longed to be back on his bed on the back porch, curled under his light blanket in the morning cool. It was the same home-longing that had stopped him a year ago at the valley road and last winter when he got as far as Wise Rocks Farm. This time the doubts and longings didn’t sneak up on him, didn’t send him scurrying back to the farm before anyone found out he was gone. This time wasn’t practice, it was real.
Besides, he could always come back.
Ma had come back. She’d run off to Fantis when she wasn’t much older than he, been picked up and sold as a conk to somebody or other, she never would say who, but she’d come back. Grandpa said yes, she had, but she wasn’t the same. Abasio couldn’t imagine her any different. She was just Ma, quiet and busy, sometimes clucking after him like a mother hen and sometimes going off into the woods and losing herself. She always came home eventually, sometimes grabbing him, holding him close, and crying, “Abasio, oh, Abasio, don’t ever leave me! Stay here where it’s safe!”
It was safe, no question about that. Every day was like every other day. There were critters to feed, there were fields to sow or harvest, there were crops to store, there were repairs to be made to this thing or that thing. Once every twenty days or so, they’d load the wagon with wool or grain or root crops and drive into Whitherby to trade for sugar or salt or lantern oil. Once or twice a year there’d be trouble with a troll, or they’d sight a dragon hovering over the western mountains. In the cloudy mirror beside the washbasin on the back porch Abasio saw his face slowly changing, getting solider and bonier, with soft hairs sprouting on his chin and lip. His body was changing too. He could feel life roiling and surging inside him, beating at his skin from inside, like some wild thing wanting to get out. He felt like the gullies in spring when the snow-melt came bashing down the mountains, eating furious holes in the banks and running off in all directions. If he went on feeding the chickens, harnessing the horses, putting out porridge for the goblins, letting life boil away like the water in the gullies, then like them he’d dry up, and his whole life would be gone.
The decision had been some time amaking. When he’d been a kid, maybe nine or ten, he’d figured adventure could come to him on the farm. In stories it did. A Hero from some archetypal village could come by and recruit him as a squire. A dragon could come, or a giant, for him to slay, which he’d do cleverly, surprising everybody. He really expected something like that to happen. Every day he sort of looked for it, but years went by, and no dragon appeared closer than the distant peaks, no giant came anywhere near, and the only Hero he saw was the one in the archetypal village over the high ridge, and then only when Abasio climbed up there to peer down at the villagers and wonder about them. He finally had to admit that adventure wasn’t going to come to him. He had to find it.
So he was going, early in the morning while Ma and Grandpa were asleep. It was cowardly, he admitted that, even sneaky. But giving them a chance to argue with him would only make everyone unhappy. No matter what they said, he had to see all the stuff the truckers talked about: festivals, games in the arena, women who danced and sang and flapped their bodies like fish. Young ones, not all gray-haired and anxious, the way they mostly were in farm country. He had a right to see that, and he didn’t need to feel guilty about it. He wasn’t taking anything that didn’t belong to him: his own life, his own body, his own clothes, his own books. Even though Ma’d told him over and over nobody read books in the city, he had to take a few. He’d take Big Blue, too, if there were some way to do it, but everyone said there wasn’t any place for horses in the city. No place for any animals there, except maybe dogs and rats.
The moon was already half-sunk behind the hills when he came to the end of the farm lane. He turned right between the two ruts of the valley road, seeing an occasional glimmer where the bounding waters of the Crystal River dodged back and forth among big rocks, making deeps and shallows and music all at once. He passed between the two abandoned farms north and south of the road, then trudged past Wise Rocks Farm, where the two arms of the mountain flattened out into Long Plain, county-wide and three counties long, so said Grandpa. It was more flat-land than Abasio had ever seen before, that was certain, dotted with farms and fields and little streams and with several roads running north and south along it, including one highway. The Long Plain highway went north to Fantis, and it even had a lot of pavement left.
The sky was gray when he got that far. He’d counted on getting away unseen by anybody, but as he came through the last copse before the plain, he saw three men approaching from the south, Whitherby direction, one of them leading a donkey. Grandpa had often said that prudent men avoided confrontations, particularly when outnumbered, so Abasio slithered back among the trees and sat on a stump out of sight. He wasn’t out of earshot. He could hear every plop of the donkey’s hooves and every note of the eerie melody one of the men was whistling. Then both the footsteps and the whistling stopped.
“This is your valley, is it not?” asked a powerful baritone voice.
“It is, Whistler, it is.”
The answering voice was higher, older, with an edge of accustomed sadness to it. Abasio surprised himself by thinking the man, whoever he was, had seen some unhappy times.
The baritone again. “Sudden Stop and I, we wish you well. Take care.”
A bass rumble of agreement, more thunder than words.
The high voice. “That’s kind of you and Sudden Stop, and it was kind of you to accompany me this far. I don’t imagine much care will be needed hereabouts. Farmers are peaceful folk.”
Bass and baritone laughter in doubtful duet, words Abasio only partly heard, something to do with there being other things around besides farmers.
Footsteps again, two people moving on toward the north, more swiftly now, one man and donkey turning slowly up the hill toward Abasio. Hastily, he got to his feet. He didn’t want anyone to think he was lurking, like some villain.
At the fringe of the copse they met.
“Well now,” said the donkey-man. “Aren’t you out early.”
“Yes, sir,” mumbled Abasio, digging one toe into the ground while the old man gave him a looking-over that missed nothing, not his dirty fingernails or the sack he carried or the expression on his face, which any chicken-eating dog would have recognized as one of guilty defiance.
“Running away to the city, are we,” the old man said with a sigh. Sadness in that sigh, but a thread of amusement too.
Abasio pulled himself up straight and said firmly, “Going to the city, yes, sir. I’m old enough.”
“Oh, indeed you are. The average citizen of Fantis is just about your age. About fourteen, I’d say.”
Abasio was trying to think of a dignified reply when the left-hand pannier on the donkey wobbled, catching his eye. Two tiny hands were holding on to the rim of the basket, and a tousled little head emerged from its depths, the eyes regarding Abasio thoughtfully. He knew at once it was a little girl, though there was no outward evidence to indicate her sex. No hair ribbon. No ruffles.
“Man,” said the child.
“Thinks he is, at any rate,” the old man agreed, grinning at Abasio.
“Go,” said the child, jiggling herself in the basket as though annoyed at this unscheduled stop. “Go!”
Without even thinking about it, Abasio stepped forward and lifted the child from the basket. He seldom got to handle children, and he liked them a good deal. They shared many of the interesting qualities of animals, besides being able to talk.
“What’s your name?” he asked, jiggling her, while the old man regarded him thoughtfully.
“Orpn,” she said, leaning forward to give him a hug and several wet kisses. “Orpn.”
“Orphan,” clarified the old man. “She’s going up there”—and he pointed up the valley—“to the archetypal village.”
“I hope you’re sure-footed, old man,” said Abasio, concern making him sound suddenly older than his years. “That’s a break-bone trail. The better road comes in from the north.” He looked at the baby girl worriedly. The donkey could no doubt make it without trouble, but still…
“Too many people north of here,” said the old man. “Too many other things as well.”
The old man reached for the child, settled her in the pannier, then took Abasio’s hand in his own and held it for a moment as though taking his pulse.”