Green hills covered in scattered scrub and small ugly trees stretched in all directions and the sky was a beautiful dark blue, just on the edge of turning into night. To the west the Sun was setting, dipping out of sight and turning the sky there orange. Just over the southern horizon the Eye was just becoming visible, shining its dull red glow, and the vault of stars was beginning to shed its daytime cloak. The Moon glowed her usual white, with the Wound plainly visible.
A young man sat with his back against a stunted tree idly whittling on a chunk of scrap wood as he surveyed the land around him with clear green eyes. He had shaggy brown hair that hadn’t seen a barber’s shears in months and drifted down into his eyes from time to time when it escaped the leather thong binding it up in back. It wasn’t long enough to braid, and besides, he hadn’t earned that right yet. A staff with a gnarled knot at one end leaned against the tree, resting against his shoulder, retained by the crook of his carving arm and shoulder.
Around him a flock of sheep cropped grass and chewed their food, rich with wool as it was nearing time for their shearing. Soon, but not yet. They ate and looked around placidly, stupidly. His uncle Eachann often said that sheep were the dumbest animals in all of Creation, with the possible exception of Humankind. Whereas sheep were dumb and slow, they possessed none of the tenacity or downright meanness of geese, which his uncle maintained were the spiritual progenitors of Humans.
“Uallas, my boy,” the oldster would say, and the young man could hear his uncle’s thick Eastern accent in his memory, “Men are spiritual half breeds. We’re made of different stock from all the animals. We’ve the spirits of sheep and geese, and the ferocity of bulls, when we’ve a mind to it.”
It was a bit heretical, Uallas thought. He knew his mother always nervously looked around whenever Uncle Eachann would talk like that, looking to see if any of the proctors heard him, but the old man was unafraid of being thrown in the town stocks for a few days; as tough as old hickory he was.
He put a few more cuts into the piece he was working on, subtly nicking the wood and scoring it just so. He had nimble fingers and strong hands, good for a shepherd to have. He looked around again, making sure that nothing was creeping up on his flock. He changed his breathing to long, deep, quiet breaths and tuned out the noise of his body, straining to hear if anything hand changed.
After several moments he nodded absently, satisfied, and stood up. The nearest of the stupid sheep, a fat old one he’d named Biddy, shifted and eyed him nervously. He turned his knotted staff end for end so the crook was upward and stepped out walk a circuit of the flock.
Sealgair popped her head up as soon as Uallas stood. He whistled softly and patted his thigh. The dog, a smallish black and white mutt, trotted over and assumed a subservient position by his right hand side, just a little behind him and to the side. She looked up and he gave her a scratch behind the ear. She panted and gave him a happy dog grin. The two set off and circled the flock, with Sealgair keeping a ready eye out while Uallas counted the flock. He should have 37 of the placid little turd factories in his flock.
“Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-size, thirty-seven!” He exhaled in relief as he counted the last of the sheep and moved back toward the little ugly tree. He patted Sealgair on he head and gave her another scratch then sent her off to the other side of the flock once more. He knelt by the tree, and the small fire pit he’d constructed earlier that day, and set about building a small fire. There was just enough pottage left over from breakfast that he just had to heat up and it would make a fairly decent dinner.
He stoked the fire and got a few sticks of dried wood burning well, and sat patiently while they burned down to red embers, occasionally looking up at the sky.
The Eye always looked back. He wasn’t so sure that it was the symbol of Humanity’s evil that the friars said it was. He was never sure how people were supposed to be involved in a star in the night sky, but there were all sorts of stories about that.
He liked stories. Some people told great stories, some told awful ones. He poked the coals and fished out the sealed earthenware pot from his pack. It was wrapped tightly to keep the lid on, in an old linen rag that had once belonged to his ma, before she’d died of the plague a few years ago. It’d been a cloth, once upon a time, now it was a rag, worn and frayed, but still loved. He carefully folded it and put it away, then moved the earthenware pot with its scorched bottom over to the red coals and nestled it in.
One of his favorite stories-
“Is about the Sword of Light?” asked a small voice off to Uallas’s left.
His heart nearly stopped. He whirled to look, scrambling back from his position and grabbing his shepherd’s staff to get it between him and the… whatever it was. Sealgair reacted to her master’s sudden movement, standing to see over the settling grazers to see what was happening, and the nearest sheep bawled in indignation at the surprise. Uallas blinked.
Cowering away from him up against a thigh high wall of moss covered field stone was… well… a girl. She was small, he could tell that much.
“I’m sorry! Sorry! Please don’t hurt me!” called the lilting voice. The girl was huddled into a mass of clothing and hair, just peeking out with one eye, her face not visible at all. So much of her was brown, the brown of homespun, the brown of skin used to the touch of the sun, but her hair was a reddish color that Uallas had never seen before in his life. and the eye was so emerald green it seemed like a a jewel from the bishop’s hat was casting firelight back at him.
Uallas blinked, then stammered. “Um, I’m not… well I wasn’t planning on hurting anyone.”
“Oh,” she said, it sounded shaky, very unsure. “You seemed really, really ready to though.”
The girl unfolded a little bit, lifting her face up out of the folds of her brown homespun. In the dull light of the Eye and the dim glow of his fire he could make out that she had fine boned features, with a pointed chin and narrow face. After a fashion he supposed she was pretty, but pretty like a lady from a painting in a book, not pretty like Orlaith, the Miller’s daughter. She cocked her head at him, and blinked her large eyes.
“Um… well… you surprised me is all,” he said. It felt like a lamed calf when he said it. Pitiful, really. His voice felt coarse in his throat.
“Oh,” she said again. “I’m glad, I was pretty sure you were nice.”
Her words confused him. She was speaking nonsense. How long had she been there?
“Not that long,” she answered with a bright smile.
“W- wait… are you listening to my… my mind?” he asked, a dull dread creeping into his thoughts.
“Um,” she said, recoiling a little, very slowly, “That would be bad, right?” She moved like someone who was sure the dog was going to attack. Wait… wouldn’t that make him the dog?
“Well, I suppose so, yeah.”
“Then no, I am definitely not reading your thoughts.” She said it with such certainty that he wanted to believe it, but he wasn’t that dumb. Sure some folks in town called him the dumb one, the idiot, but that was because he didn’t like talking to any of them. They were all cruel, anyhow, and had been especially cruel to him and his mother after his father had died. He’d read that followers of the Church Eternal were supposed to be hospitable and welcoming to strangers, but apparently that hadn’t extended to his mom, or to her only surviving son.
“So,” Uallas said, drawing it out and relaxing his posture, “Who are you?”
“You can call me Miri,” she aid, uncoiling from her own defensive posture a little.
Sealgair chose this moment to come over and investigate the new person. As she came over, ‘Miri’ shifted her attention to the dog. Her stance became restless and she clutched her hands tight, but as Sealgair came closer the girl’s stance shifted. The dog loped in and Miri suddenly knelt down, a glowing smile suffusing her face. She wrapped the dog in a hug, one which Sealgair apparently relished, for she looked up to meet Uallas’s gaze while she panted happily.
Miri leaned back on her heels, breaking the embrace, and Sealgair marched over toward Uallas. She promptly planted herself on his right side and leaned into his leg, panting happily and looking up at him. He reached down and scratched her ears.
“Well, Sealgair likes you, so you can’t be all bad,” Uallas said.
Miri smiled brilliantly at him. “She’s a beautiful soul. She loves you very much. Dogs are excellent judges of people.”
That’s what he was about to say, too. When she smiled at him a pair of dimples formed. She smiled with almost childlike glee, eyes squinting almost closed, showing teeth and everything.
“So, Miri, what are you doing here, who are you, and… well… what are you?”
The girl’s joy evaporated and she looked up at him, biting her lip. “I just wanted to hear a story, and… maybe… share some food?”