Saturday, June 20, 2009

Wizards First Rule - Chapter 23

CHICKENS SCATTERED AT THEIR feet as the hunting party surrounding Kahlan and Richard led them into the Mud People's village. Set on a slight rise that passed for a hill in the grasslands of the Wilds, the village was a collection of buildings constructed of a kind of mud brick, surfaced with a tan clay plaster and topped with grass roofs that leaked as they became dry, and had to be replaced constantly to keep the rain at bay. There were wood doors, but no glass in the windows of the thick walls, only cloth hanging in some to keep out the weather.

Set in a rough circle around an open area, the buildings were one-room family homes clustered tightly on the south side, most sharing at least one common wall, narrow walkways passing between the homes here and there, and communal buildings grouped together on the north. A variety of structures placed loosely on the east and west separated them. Some of these were nothing more than four poles with grass roofs, used as places to eat, or as work areas for making weapons and pottery, or as food preparation and cooking areas. In dry times the whole village was shrouded in a fog of dust that clogged the eyes, nose, and tongue, but now its buildings were washed clean by the rain, and on the ground a thousand footprints were turned to puddles that reflected the drab buildings above.

Women wrapped in simple dresses of brightly colored cloth sat in the work areas, grinding tava root, from which they made the flat bread that was the staple of the Mud People. Sweet-smelling smoke rose from the cooking fires. Adolescent girls with short cropped hair smoothed down by sticky mud sat by the women, helping.

Kahlan felt their shy eyes on her. She knew from being here before that she was the object of great interest among the young girls, a traveler who had been to strange places and seen all sorts of things. A woman whom men feared and respected. The older women abided the distraction with understanding indulgence.

Children ran from every corner of the village to see what manner of strangers Savidlin's hunting party had brought back. They crowded around the hunters, squealing with excitement, stomping their bare feet in the mud, and splashing the men. Ordinarily, they would be interested in the deer and boar, but now those were ignored in favor of the strangers. The men tolerated them with good-natured smiles; little children were never scolded. When they were older, they would be put into strict training where they would be taught the disciplines of the Mud People-of hunting, food gathering, and the ways of spirits-but for now they were allowed to be children, with almost free rein to play.

The knot of children offered up scraps of food as bribes for stories of who the strangers might be. The men laughed, declining the offerings in favor of saving the tale for the elders. Only slightly disappointed, the children continued to dance about, this being the most exciting thing that had happened in their young lives; something very much out of the ordinary, with a distinct tinge of danger.

Six elders stood under the leaky protection of one of the open pole structures, waiting for Savidlin to bring the strangers to them. They wore deerskin pants, and were bare-chested; each had a coyote hide draped around his shoulders. Despite their grim faces, Kahlan knew them to be more friendly than they appeared. Mud People never smiled at outsiders until greetings had been exchanged, lest their souls be stolen.

The children stayed back from the pole building, sitting in the mud to watch as the hunting party brought the outsiders to the elders. The women had halted their work at the cooking fires, as had the young men their weapons making, and all fell silent, including the children sitting in the mud. Business among the Mud People was conducted in the open, for all to see.

Kahlan stepped up to the six elders, Richard to her right but back a pace, Savidlin to his right. The six surveyed the two outsiders.

"Strength to Confessor Kahlan, " said the eldest.

"Strength to Toffalar " she answered.

He gave her face a gentle slap, hardly more than a pat. It was their custom to give only small slaps in the village proper. Heartier ones like Savidlin had delivered were reserved for chance meetings out on the plain, away from the village. The gentler custom helped preserve order, and teeth. Surin, Caldus, Arbrin, Breginderin, and Hajanlet each in turn offered strength and a small slap. Kahlan returned the greetings and the gentle slaps. They turned to Richard. Savidlin stepped forward, pulling his new friend with him. He proudly displayed his swollen lip to the elders.

Kahlan spoke Richard's name under her breath with a rising inflection and a cautionary tone. "These are important men. Please do not loosen their teeth."

He gave her a quick glance out of the corner of his eye, and a mischievous smile.

"This is the Seeker, Richard With The Temper" Savidlin said, proud of his charge. He leaned closer to the elders, his voice heavy with meaning. "Confessor Kahlan brought him to us. He is the one you spoke of, the one who brought the rains. She told me so. "

Kahlan began to worry; she didn't know what Savidlin was talking about. The elders remained stone faced, except Toffalar, who lifted an eyebrow.

"Strength to Richard With The Temper, " Toffalar said. He gave Richard a gentle slap

"Strength to Toffalar," he answered in his own language, having recognized his name, and immediately returned the slap.

Kahlan breathed out in relief that it was gentle. Savidlin beamed, showing his fat lip again. Toffalar at last smiled. After the others had given and received a greeting, they smiled, too.

And then they did something very odd.

The six elders and Savidlin each dropped to one knee and bowed their heads to Richard. Kahlan instantly tensed.

"What's going on?" Richard asked out of the side of his mouth, alerted by her anxiety.

"I do not know," she answered in a low voice. "Maybe it's their way of greeting the Seeker. I have never seen them do this before."

The men rose to their feet, all smiles. Toffalar held his hand up and motioned over their heads to the women.

"Please," Toffalar said to the two of them, "sit with us. We are honored to have you both among us."

Pulling Richard down with her, Kahlan sat cross-legged on the wet wooden floor. The elders waited until they were seated before seating themselves, paying no attention to the fact that Richard kept his hand near his sword. Women came with woven trays stacked high with loaves of round, flat tava bread and other food, offering them first to Toffalar and then the other elders, as they kept their eyes and smiles on Richard. They chatted softly among themselves about how big Richard With The Temper was, and what odd clothes he wore. They mostly ignored Kahlan.

Women in the Midlands tended not to like Confessors. They saw them as a menace who could take their men, and a threat to their lifestyle; women were not supposed to be independent. Kahlan disregarded their cool glances; she was more than used to them.

Toffalar took his bread and tore it into three sections, offering a third to Richard first and then a third to Kahlan. With a smile, another woman offered a bowl of roasted peppers to each. Kahlan and Richard both took one, and following the elder's example, rolled them in the .bread. She noticed just in time that Richard was keeping his right hand near his sword and was about to eat with his left

"Richard!" she warned in a harsh whisper. "Don't put food in your mouth with your left hand."

He froze. "Why?"

"Because they believe that evil spirits eat with their left hand."

"That's foolish," he said, an intolerant tone in his voice.

"Richard, please. They outnumber us. All their weapons are tipped with poison. This is a poor time for theological arguments."

She could feel his gaze on her as she smiled at the elders. Out of the comer of her eye she saw with relief that he switched the food to his right hand.

"Please forgive our meager offering of food, " Toffalar said. "We will call a banquet for tonight."

"No!" Kahlan blurted out. "I mean, we do not want to impose upon your people. "

"As you wish, " Toffalar said with a shrug, a little disappointed.

"We are here because the Mud People, among others, are in great danger. "

The elders all nodded and smiled. "Yes, " Surin spoke up. "But now that you have brought Richard With The Temper to us, all is well. We thank you, Confessor Kahlan, we will riot forget what you have done."

Kahlan looked around at their happy, smiling faces. She didn't know what to make of this development, and so took a bite of the flat-tasting tava bread with roasted peppers to gain time to think it over.

"What are they saying?" Richard asked before he took a bite himself.

"For some reason, they are glad I brought you here."

He looked over at her. "Ask them why."

She gave him a nod, and turned to Toffalar. "Honored elder, I am afraid I must admit that I am without your knowledge of Richard With The Temper. "

He smiled knowingly. "I am sorry, child. I forget you were not here when we called the council of seers. You see, it was dry, our crops were withering, and our people were in danger of starvation. So we called a gathering, to ask the spirits for help. They told us one would come, and bring the rain with him. The rains came, and here is Richard With The Temper, just as they promised. "

"And so you are happy that he is here, because he is an omen?"

"No, " Toffalar said, eyes wide with excitement, "we are happy that one of the spirits of our ancestors has chosen to visit us. " He pointed at Richard. "He is a spirit man. "

Kahlan almost dropped her bread. She sat back in surprise.

"What is it?" Richard asked.

She stared into his eyes. "They had a gathering, to bring rain. The spirits told them someone would come, and bring the rain. Richard, they think you are a spirit of their ancestors. A spirit man."

He studied her face a moment. "Well, I'm not."

"They think you are. Richard, they would do anything for a spirit. They will call a council of seers if you ask."

She didn't like asking him to do this; she didn't feel at all right about deceiving the Mud People, but they needed to know where the box was. Richard considered her words.

"No," he said quietly while holding her gaze.

"Richard, we have an important task to attend to. If they think you are a spirit, and that will help us get the last box, what does it matter?"

"It matters because it's a lie. I won't do it."

"Would you rather have Rahl win?" she asked quietly.

He gave her a cross look. "First of all, I will not do it because it's wrong to deceive these people about something as important as this. Secondly, these people have a power; that is why we are here. They have proven it to me by the fact that they said one would come with the rains. That part is true. In their excitement, they have jumped to a conclusion that is not. Did they say the one who would come would be a spirit?" She shook her head. "People sometimes believe things simply because they want to."

"If it works to our advantage, and theirs, what harm is there?"

"The harm is in their power. What if they call the gathering and they see the truth, that I'm not a spirit? Do you think they will be pleased that we lied to them, tricked them'? Then we will be dead, and Rahl wins." She leaned back and took a deep breath. The wizard chooses his Seekers well, she thought.

"Have we aroused the temper of the spirit?" Toffalar asked, a look of concern on his weathered face.

"He wants to know why you are angry," she said. "What shall I tell him?"

Richard looked at the elders, then to her. "I will tell them. Translate my words."

Kahlan nodded her agreement.

"The Mud People are wise, and strong," he began. "That is why I have come here. Your ancestor spirits were right that I would bring the rains." They all seemed pleased when Kahlan told them his words. Everyone else in the village was stone silent as they listened. "But they have not told you everything. As you know, that is the way of spirits." The elders nodded their understanding. "They have left it to your wisdom to find the rest of the truth. In this way you remain strong, as your children become strong because you guide them, not because you provide them their every want. It is the hope of every parent that their children will become strong and wise, to think for themselves."

There were nods, but not as many. "What are you saying, great spirit?" asked Arbrin, one of the elders in the back.

Richard ran his fingers through his hair after Kahlan translated. "I am saying that, yes, I brought the rains, but there is more. Perhaps the spirits saw a greater danger for your people, and that is the more important reason I have come. There is a very dangerous man who would rule your people, make you his slaves. His name is Darken Rahl."

There were snickers among the elders. "Then he sends fools to be our masters, " Toffalar said.

Richard regarded them angrily. The laughter died out. "It is his way, to lull you into overconfidence. Do not be fooled. He has used his power and his magic to conquer peoples of greater numbers than you. When he chooses, he will crush you. The rains came because he sends clouds to follow me, to know where I am, that he might try to kill me at a time of his choosing. I am not a spirit, I am the Seeker. Just a man. I want to stop Darken Rahl, so that your people, and others, may live their own lives, as they wish." Toffalar's eyes narrowed. "If what you say is true, then the one called Rahl sent the rains, and has saved our people. That is what his missionary tried to teach us, that Rahl would save us. "

"No. Rahl sent the clouds to follow me, not to save you. I chose to come here, just as your spirit ancestors said I would. They said the rains would come, and a man would come when they did. They did not say I would be a spirit."

There was great disappointment in the expressions of the elders as Kahlan interpreted; she hoped it wouldn't turn to anger.

"Then maybe the message of the spirits was a warning about the man that would come, " Surin said.

"And maybe it was a warning about Rahl," Richard answered right back. "I am offering you the truth. You must use your wisdom to see it, or your people are lost. I offer you a chance to help save yourselves."

The elders considered in silence. "Your words .seem to flow true, Richard With The Temper, but it is yet to be decided," Toffalar said at last. "What is it you want from us?"

The elders sat quietly, the joy gone from their faces. The rest of the village waited in quiet fear. Richard regarded the face of each elder in turn, then spoke quietly.

"Darken Rahl looks for a magic that will give him the power to rule everyone, including the Mud People. I look for this magic also, so that I might deny him the power. I would like you to call a council of seers, to tell me where I might find this magic, before it is too late, before Rahl finds it first."

Toffalar's face hardened. "We do not call gatherings for outsiders. "

Kahlan could tell that Richard was getting angry and straining to control himself. She didn't move her head, but her eyes swept around, gauging where everyone was, especially the men with weapons, in case they bad to fight their way out. She didn't judge their chances of escape to be very good. Suddenly, she wished she had never brought him here.

Richard's eyes were full of fire as he looked around at the people of the village and then back to the elders. "In return for bringing you the rain, I ask of you only that you do not decide right now. Consider what manner of man you find me to be." He was keeping his voice calm, but there was no mistaking the import of his words. "Think it over carefully. Many lives depend upon your decision. Mine. Kahlan's. Yours."

As Kahlan translated, she was suddenly suffused with the cold feeling that Richard was not talking to the elders. He was speaking to someone else. She suddenly felt the eyes of that other on her. Her own gaze swept the crowd. All eyes were on the two of them; she didn't know whose gaze she still felt.

"Fair" Toffalar proclaimed at last. "You both are free to be among our people as honored guests while we consider. Please enjoy all we have, share our food and our homes. "

The elders departed, through the light rain, toward the communal buildings. The crowd went back to their business, shooing the children as they went. Savidlin was the last to leave. He smiled and offered his help in anything they might need. She thanked him as he stepped off into the rain. Kahlan and Richard sat alone on the wet wooden floor, dodging the drips of rainwater leaking through the roof. The woven trays of tava bread and the bowl of roasted peppers remained behind. She leaned over and took one of each, wrapping the bread around the pepper. She handed it to Richard and made herself another.

"You angry with me?" he asked.

"No," she admitted with a smile- "I am proud of you."

A little-boy grin spread on his face. He began eating, with his right hand, and made short work of it. After he swallowed the last bite, he spoke again.

"Look over my right shoulder. There is a man leaning against the wall, long gray hair, arms folded across his chest. Tell me if you know who he is."

Kahlan took a bite of the bread and pepper, chewing as she glanced over his shoulder.

"He is the Bird Man. I don't know anything about him, except that he can call birds to himself."

Richard took another piece of bread, rolled it up, and took a bite. "I think it's time we went and had a talk with him."


Richard looked up at her from under his eyebrows. "Because he's the one who is in charge around here."

Kahlan frowned. "The elders are in charge." Richard smiled with one side of his mouth. "My brother always says that real power is not brokered in public." He watched her intently with his gray eyes. "The elders are for show. They are respected, and so are put on display for others to see. Like the skulls on the poles, only they still have the skin on them. They have authority because they are esteemed, but they are not in charge." With a quick flick of his eyes, Richard indicated the Bird Man leaning against the wall behind him. "He is."

"Then why has he not made himself known?"

"Because," he said, grinning, "he wants to know how smart we are."

Richard stood and held his hand out to her. She stuffed the rest of the bread in her mouth, brushed her hands on her pants, and took his hand. As he hoisted her up, she thought about how much she liked the way he always offered her his hand. He was the first person who had ever done that. It was just one part of why it felt so easy being with him.

They walked across the mud, through the cold rain, toward the Bird Man. He still leaned against the wall, his sharp brown eyes watching them come. Long hair, mostly silver-gray, lay on his shoulders, flowing partway down the deerskin tunic that matched his pants. His clothes had no decoration, but a bone carving hung on a leather thong around his neck. Not old, but not young, and still handsome, he was about as tall as she. The skin of his weathered face was as tough-looking as the deerskin clothes he wore.

They stopped in front of him. He continued to lean his shoulders against the wall, and his right knee stuck out as his foot propped against the plastered brick. His arms lay folded across his chest as he studied their faces.

Richard folded his arms across his own chest. "I would like to talk to you, if you are not afraid I might be a spirit."

The Bird Man's eyes went to hers as she translated, then back to Richard's.

"I have seen spirits before, " he said in a quiet voice. "They do not carry swords. "

Kahlan translated. Richard laughed. She liked his easy laugh.

"I also have seen spirits, and you are right, they do not carry swords." A small smile curled the corners of the Bird Man's mouth. He unfolded his arms and stood up straight. "Strength to the Seeker." He gave Richard a gentle slap.

"Strength to the Bird Man," he said, returning the easy slap.

The Bird Man took the bone carving that hung on the leather thong at his neck, and put it to his lips. Kahlan realized it was a whistle. His cheeks puffed out as he blew, . but there was no sound. Letting the whistle drop back, he held his arm out while he continued to hold Richard's eyes. After a moment, a hawk wheeled out of the gray sky and alighted on his outstretched arm. It fluffed its feathers, then let them settle as its black eyes blinked and its head swiveled about in short, jerky movements.

"Come, " the Bird Man said, "we will talk. "

He led them among the large communal buildings, to a smaller one at the back, set away from the others. Kahlan knew the building with no windows, although she had never been in it. It was the spirit house, where the gatherings were held.

The hawk stayed on his arm as the Bird Man pulled the door open and motioned them inside. A small fire was burning in a pit at the back end, offering a little light to the otherwise dark room. A hole in the roof above the fire let the smoke out, although it did a poor job of it, and left the place with a sharp smoky smell. Pottery bowls left from past meals lay about the floor, and a plank shelf along one wall held a good two dozen ancestral skulls. Otherwise, the room was empty. The Bird Man found a place near the center of the room where the rain wasn't dripping, and sat down on the dirt floor. Kahlan and Richard sat side by side, facing him, as the hawk watched their movements.

The Bird Man looked at Kahlan's eyes. She could tell he was used to having people be afraid when he looked at them, even if it wasn't warranted. She could tell because she was used to the same thing. This time he found no fear.

"Mother Confessor, you have not yet chosen a mate. " He gently stroked the hawk's head while he watched her.

Kahlan decided she didn't like his tone. He was testing. "No.

Are you offering yourself?"

He smiled slightly. "No. I apologize. I did not mean to offend you. Why are you not with a wizard?"

"All the wizards, save two, are dead. Of those two, one sold his .services to a queen. The other was struck down by an underworld beast, and lies in a sleep. There are none left to protect me. All the other Confessors have been killed. We are in dark times. "

His eyes looked genuinely sympathetic, but his tone still was not. "It is dangerous for a Confessor to be alone. "

"Yes, and it is also dangerous for a man to be alone with a Confessor who is in great want of something. From where I sit, it would seem that you are in greater danger than 1. "

"Perhaps, " he said, stroking the hawk, his slight smile returning. "Perhaps. This one is a true Seeker? One named by a wizard?"


The Bird Man nodded. "It has been many years since I have seen a true Seeker. A Seeker who was not a real Seeker came here one time. He killed some of my people when we would not give him what he wanted."

"I am sorry for them, " she said.

He shook his head slowly. "Do not be. They died quickly. Be sorry for the Seeker. He did not. " The hawk blinked as it looked at her.

"l have never seen a pretend Seeker, but 1 have seen this one in the rage. Believe me, you and your people do not want to ever give this one cause to draw his sword in anger. He knows how to use the magic. 1 have even seen him strike down evil spirits. "

He studied her eyes for a moment, seeming to judge the truth of what she said. "Thank you for the warning. I will remember your words. "

Richard spoke up at last. "Are you two about done threatening each other?"

Kahlan looked at him in surprise. "I thought you couldn't understand their language."

"Can't. But I can understand eyes. If looks caused sparks, this place would be ablaze."

Kahlan turned back to the Bird Man. "The Seeker wishes to know if we are finished threatening each other. "

He glanced at Richard and then back to her. "He is an impatient man, is he not?"

She nodded. "l have told him so myself. He denies it. " "It must be a burden traveling with him. "

Kahlan broke into a smile. "Not at all. "

The Bird Man returned her smile, and then addressed his gaze to Richard. "If we choose not to help you, how many of us will you kill?"

Kahlan interpreted the words as they spoke.


The Bird Man studied the hawk as he asked, "And if we choose not to help Darken Rahl, how many of us will he kill?"

"Sooner or later, a great many."

He took his hand away from the hawk, and looked at Richard with his sharp eyes. "It .would seem you argue for us to help Darken Rahl. "

A smile spread across Richard's face. "If you choose not to help me and remain neutral, foolish as that would be, it is your right, and I will harm none of your people. But Rahl will. I will press on and fight against him with my last breath if need be."

His face took on a dangerous expression. He leaned forward. "If, on the other hand, you choose to help Darken Rahl, and I defeat him, I will come back, and . . ." He pulled his finger across his throat in a quick gesture that needed no translation.

The Bird Man sat stone-faced, no quick retort at hand. "We wish only to be left alone, " he said at last.

Richard shrugged, looking down at the ground. "I can understand that. I too wished only to be left alone." His eyes came up. "Darken Rahl killed my father, and sends evil spirits that haunt me in my father's guise. He sends men to try to kill Kahlan. He brings down the boundary, to invade my homeland. His minions have struck down my two oldest friends. They lie in a deep sleep, near death, but at least they will live . . . unless he is successful the next time. Kahlan has told me of many he has killed. Children; stories that would make your heart sick." He nodded, his voice soft, hardly more than a whisper. "Yes, my friend, I too wished only to be left alone. On the first day of winter, if Darken Rahl gains the magic he seeks, he will have a power no one can stand against. Then it will be too late." His hand went to his sword. Kahlan's eyes widened. "If he were here, in my place, he would pull this sword and have your help or have your head." He took his hand away. "That, my friend, is why I cannot harm you if you choose not to help me."

The Bird Man sat quiet and still for a while. "I can see now that I do not want Darken Rahl for an enemy. Or you. " He got up and went to the door, casting the hawk into the sky. The Bird Man sat once more, sighing heavily with the weight of his thoughts. "Your words seem to flow true, but 1 cannot know for sure yet. It would also seem that although you want us to help you, you also wish to help us. I believe you are sincere in this. It is a wise man who seeks help by helping, and not by threats or tricks. "

"If I wanted to get your help by tricks, I would have. let you believe me to be a spirit."

The corners of the Bird Man's mouth turned up in a small smile. "If we had held a gathering, we would have discovered you were not. A wise man would suspect that too. So which reason is it that made you tell the truth? You did not want to trick us, or you were afraid to?"

Richard smiled back. "In truth? Both."

The Bird Man nodded. "Thank you for the truth. "

Richard sat quietly, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. "So, Bird Man, I have told you my tale. You must judge it true or not. Time works against me. Will you help?"

"It is not that simple. My people look to me for direction. If you asked for food, I could say `Give him food,' and they would do so. But you have asked for a gathering. That is different. The council of seers are the six elders you spoke to, plus myself. They are old men, firm in the ways of their past. An outsider has never been given a gathering before, never been permitted to disturb the peace of our ancestors' .spirits. Soon these six will join the ancestors' spirits, and they do not want to think they will be called from the spirit world for an outsider's needs. If they break the tradition, they will be forever burdened with the results. I cannot order them to do this. "

"It is not only an outsider's needs," Kahlan said, telling them both her words. "Helping us also helps the Mud People."

"Maybe in the end, " the Bird Man said, "but not in the beginning. " "What if I were one of the Mud People?" Richard asked, his eyes narrowing.

"Then they would call the gathering for you, and not violate the tradition. "

"Could you make me one of the Mud People?"

The Bird Man's silver-gray hair glistened in the firelight as he considered. "If you were to first do something that helped our people, something that benefited them, with no advantage to you, proved you were a man of good intentions toward us, doing so without promise of aid for your help, and the elders wished it, 1 could. "

"And once you named me as one of the Mud People, I could ask for a gathering. and they would call it?"

"If you were one of' us, they would know you had our interests in your heart. They would call a council of seers to help you. "

"And if they called the council, would they be able to tell me where the object I seek is located?"

"1 cannot answer that. Sometimes the spirits will not answer our questions, sometimes they do not know the answers to our questions. There is no guarantee that we could help you, even if we held a gathering. All I could promise is that we would try our best. "

Richard looked down at the ground, thinking. With his finger, he pushed some dirt into one of the puddles where the rain dripped.

"Kahlan," he asked quietly, "do you know of anyone else who would have the power to tell us where to look for the box?"

Kahlan had been giving this consideration all day. "I do. But of all the ones I know of, I do not know of any who would be any more eager to help us than the Mud People are. Some would kill us just for asking."

"Well, of the ones who wouldn't kill us just for asking, how far away are they?"

"Three weeks, at least, north, through very dangerous country controlled by Rahl."

"Three weeks," Richard said out loud with a heavy tone of disappointment.

"But Richard, the Bird Man is able to promise us precious little. If you could find a way to help them, if it pleases the elders, if they ask the Bird Man to name you one of the Mud People, if the council of seers can get an answer, if the spirits even know the answer . . . if, if, if. Many opportunities for a wrong step."

"Was it not you who told me I would have to win them over?" he asked with a smile.

"It was."

"So, what do you think? Do you think we should stay and try to convince them to help, or we should go to find the answers elsewhere'?"

She shook her head slowly. "I think you are the Seeker, and you will have to decide."

He smiled again. "You are my friend. I could use your advice."

She hooked some hair behind her ear. "I don't know what advice to give, Richard, and my life, too, depends upon you making the right choice. But as your friend, I have faith that you will decide wisely."

"Will you hate me," he grinned, "if I make the wrong choice'?"

She looked into his gray eyes, eyes that could see into her, eyes that made her weak with longing. "Even if you choose wrong, and it costs me my life," she whispered, swallowing back the lump in her throat, "I could never hate you."

He looked away from her, back down at the dirt awhile, then once again up to the Bird Man. "Do your people like having roofs that leak?"

The Bird Man raised an eyebrow. "Would you like it if water dripped on your face when you were asleep?"

Smiling, Richard shook his head. "Then why don't you make roofs that don't leak?"

The Bird Man shrugged. "Because it cannot be done. We have no materials at hand to use. Clay bricks are too heavy and would fall down. Wood is too scarce; it must be carried long distances. Grass is all we have, and it leaks. "

Richard took one of the pottery bowls and turned it upside down under one of the drips. "You have clay from which you make pottery."

"Our ovens are small, we could not make a pot that big, and besides, it would crack, then it too would leak. It cannot be done. "

"It is a mistake to say something cannot be done simply because you don't know how to do it. I would not be here otherwise." He said this gently, without malice. "Your people are strong, and wise. I would be honored if the Bird Man would allow me to teach his people how to make roofs that do not leak, and also let the smoke out at the same time."

The Bird Man considered this without showing any emotion.

"If you could do this, it would be a great benefit to my people, and they would give you many thanks. But I can make no promises beyond that. "

Richard shrugged. "None asked for."

"The answer may still be no. You must accept that, if that is the answer, and bring no harm to my people. "

"I will do my best for your people, and hope only that they judge me fairly."

"Then you are free to try, but I cannot see how you will make a roof of clay that will not crack and leak. "

"I will make you a roof for your spirit house that will have a thousand cracks, but will not leak. Then I will teach you to make more for yourselves."

The Bird Man smiled and gave a nod

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