Mesa friend to talk to

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This year marks some big anniversaries in the world of groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. The island of Semel lies north and west across the Pelnish Sea from Havnor, south and west of the Enlades. Enlad has its glorious history, and Havnor its wealth, and Paln its ill repute, but Semel has only cattle and sheep, forests and little towns, and the great silent volcano called Andanden standing over all.

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South of Andanden lies a land where the ashes fell a hundred feet deep when last the volcano spoke. Rivers and streams cut their way seaward through that high plain, winding and pooling, spreading and wandering, making a marsh of it, a big, desolate, waterland with a far horizon, few trees, not many people. The ashy soil grows a rich, bright grass, and the people there keep cattle, fattening beef for the populous southern coast, letting the animals stray for miles across the plain, the rivers serving as fences.

As mountains will, Andanden makes the weather. It gathers clouds around it. The summer is short, the winter long, out on the high marsh. In the early darkness of a winter day, a traveler stood at the windswept crossing of two paths, neither very promising, mere cattle-tracks among the reeds, and looked for some of the way he should take. As he came down the last slope of the mountain he had seen houses here and there out in the marshlands, a village not far away.

He had thought he was on the way to the village, Mesa friend to talk to had taken a wrong turning somewhere. Tall reeds rose up close beside the paths, so that if a light shone anywhere he could not see it.

Water chuckled softly somewhere near his feet. He had used up his shoes walking round Andanden on the cruel ro of black lava. The soles were worn right through, and his feet ached with the icy damp of the marsh paths.

It grew darker quickly. A haze was coming up from the south, blotting out the sky. Only above the huge, dim bulk of the mountain did stars burn clearly. Wind whistled in the reeds, soft, dismal. Something moved on one of the tracks, something big, dark, in the darkness. He spoke in the Old Speech, the Language of the Making. He made out the big head more by touch than sight, stroking the silken dip between her eyes, scratching her forehead at the roots of the nubbin horns. Will you lead me where I need to go?

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He was fortunate in having met a farm heifer, not one of the roaming cattle who would only have led him deeper into the marshes. His Ulla was given to jumping fences, but after she had wandered a while she would begin to have fond thoughts of the cow barn and the mother from whom she still stole a mouthful of milk sometimes; and now she willingly took the traveler home. She walked, slow but purposeful, down one of the tracks, and he went with her, a hand on her hip when the way was wide enough.

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When she waded a knee-deep stream, he held onto her tail. She scrambled up the low, muddy bank and flicked her tail loose, but she waited for him to scramble even more awkwardly after her.

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Then she plodded gently on. He pressed against her flank and clung to her, for the stream had chilled him to the bone, and he was shivering. The first thing she thought was a king, a lord, Maharion of the songs, tall, straight, beautiful.

The next thing she thought was a beggar, a lost man, in dirty clothes, hugging himself with shivering arms. Have I come to the village? Come in then. She brought him a bowl of broth. He drank from it eagerly yet warily, as if long unaccustomed to hot soup. He was beginning to tremble less.

His bare feet were a sad sight, bruised, swollen, sodden. But not in winter.

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He finished his soup, and she took the bowl. She sat down in her place, the stool by the oil lamp to the right of the hearth, and took up her mending. Did you meet weather, up on the mountain? She got a good look at him now in the light of lamp and fire. He was not a young man, thin, not as tall as she had thought. It was a fine face, but there was something wrong, something amiss. He looks ruined, she thought, a ruined man. She had a right to ask, having taken him in, yet she felt a discomfort in pressing the question. He talked like the tale-tellers when they spoke the parts of the heroes and the Dragonlords.

Maybe he was a teller or a singer? But no; the murrain, he had said. The plague is terrible among the cattle. And getting worse.

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He said nothing. She could see the warmth coming into him, untying him. They were too small for Berry and too big for her. For this fellow, it would seem. Things came round if you could wait for them, she thought. He glanced at her. The marsh fever. You have to watch out for that, here. The water.

I live with my brother. We keep a dairy. I make cheese. He sounded a bit sleepy. It did not fit him. Nothing about him fit together, made a whole. Yet she felt no distrust of him. She was easy with him. He meant no harm to her. She thought there was kindness in him, the way he spoke of the animals.

He would have a way with them, she thought. Her room was behind the chimney. Let the traveler have a good bed for a night. There was a terrible shortage of coppers in her household these days. He woke, as he always did, in his room in the Great House. He did not understand why Mesa friend to talk to ceiling was low and the air smelt fresh but sour and cattle were bawling outside.

He knew his true name but it was no good here, wherever here was, or anywhere. There had been black ro and dropping slopes and a vast green land lying down before him cut with rivers, shining with waters. A cold wind blowing. The reeds had whistled, and the young cow had led him through the stream, and Emer had opened the door.

He had known her name as soon as he saw her. But he must use some other name. He must not call her by her name. He must remember what name he had told her to call him. He must not be Irioth, though he was Irioth.

Mesa friend to talk to

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