Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Ninety Three

Sebastians' head still hurt a bit, but at least the dizzy spells were gone.

He arranged the lovely little stones methodically, first in one array, then another, checking several permutations before he looked up. Pancho was almost done putting things away.

"Pancho, thanks. I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't found me before the storm."

The other man was silent for a moment. Then he whispered, "I don't know what I would have done, either."

Their eyes locked for a moment, then Pancho laughed and smiled, "But I did, so we don't need to go down that path."

He put his head over the edge of the platform and called down to their friend, "Do you want any refreshment? We have some lovely juice we squeezed from berries a few weeks ago, and a sort of cake that is great with it."

The creature looked up and smiled, or at least that is how the men interpreted the change in its face, "I would welcome the juice, friends! But I have no need for solid sustenance at this time."

Pancho handed down a flask of juice on a rope while Sebastian put the stones back in a pouch for carrying. They eased themselves over the platform and down the ladder, Pancho going first in case Sebastian got into difficulty.

Pancho was still a bit worried about Sebastian. Though his color ws beginning to return, and he held himself straight again, there was a far-off look in his eyes, as if he were seeing through things. It was unnerving.

The creature took the bags and pouches from the men as they got close and tied them with a bit of rope into a large bundle. Pancho began to protest, but the creature laughed and said, "I am strong as the largest beasts you employ to haul and carry for you. This small load is a trifle to me, but would be a burden for you. We will move faster this way." And he began to move along the path.

Indeed, even loaded with all the equipment, the creature's stride was swifter than Pancho and Sebastian could manage at a walk, so they trotted along after their friend like toddlers following their mother on market day.

Sebastian wondered if First Weekend had occured at the village market yet, and if Esmeralda would tell her story again. He had always thought it was made up, but now he wondered, having seen so many things far beyond the story's imaginative telling...

He missed keeping the table for his mother and explaining to the visiting merchants how she had learned to do the work. He missed tagging along after Otto and Owen (what would they think of me now, he wondered), helping them with odd tasks in exchange for bits of candy from people. He missed sitting by the fountain with the other children from the village, talking about the unfairness of chores and schoolwork.

He realized the creature had asked him a question, and he looked up, blinking his eyes. "I'm sorry, friend, I was lost in thought."

"Hmmmm." The creature stopped a moment and looked at the light on the shrubs by the side of the path. "I was inquiring what sort of things you enjoyed, back in your homeland. Apparently young Pancho here has been away from home so long that he has forgotten a good deal."

Pancho chortled at the joke, and pulled a long blade of grass from its sheath, nibbling on the nutty-sweet pith.

"Oh, I was remembering the First Market my village holds each vernal season, as soon as the snows have melted enough for travel to resume on the mountain. There were stories, and candies, and lots of other children to play with."

"I see," mused the creature, solemnly, "and what of the things you did not enjoy? Something brought you on the journey to this place."

Sebastian looked at his hands, grown calloused and strong, and shifted his shoulders in his shirt, now stretched in places by large muscles. Then he looked the creature straight on. "To be honest, the very things I used to resent, I now take some pride in. I now enjoy a bit of hard work, for it makes the rest period afterward mean something. I enjoy the puzzles of calculating materials and distance because they mean something now, though when I took lessons at the school I did not care much for them."

A shadow drifted lazily across the path some distance ahead, and a bird cawed raucously behind.

"Of course," the creature replied, beginning to move again as a light breeze blew a small pile of leaves into a dancing troupe, "What would you have done differently, young Sebastian? How would your path have then been different?"

Pancho glanced back at Sebastian. This was a topic they had discussed many times, always coming to the same conclusion.

"I would have listened more respectfully to the learning my parents and other elders tried to impart. I realize now that it came from their own lives and might have helped inform my actions. But," Sebastian jogged briefly to catch up again, "Though many things since I left home have been painful and frightening, I do not know what I would change. Certainly, I never intended harm to my cousin or grandfather, though I know that I hurt them grievously -- and the rest of my family as well."

He considered a moment before adding, "But without the path I have trod, I would not have met Pancho, or the Watcher, or you. I would still be a very sheltered child in a small village, struggling to find my place in life. I think, in many ways, I am glad for the decisions, and even the mistakes, I have made because they have brought me to this moment."

The had arrived at the small, sheltered pool. The Watcher looked up and stared at Sebastian, "Well said, young one! You will make your family proud."

The creature set the bundle down, and nodded at the Watcher, then disappeared down the tunnel to the cavern.

He popped his head back up and smiled again, "I'll see you two again soon!" and then he was gone into the cool darkness.

Sebastian and Pancho sat down a respectful distance from the Watcher, relieved to see him, and stretched their legs. They looked curiously at him, trying to find something that was different. There was something...

Pancho noticed it first, and elbowed Sebastian, whose jaw dropped. The Watcher was not wearing his robe. In fact, though his clothes were still dark, his attire was not dissimilar to Pancho and Sebastian's.

And he was smiling.

In his hands, he held a key.