The Light at the End of the World

Page 113 Ephus Returns

“Quiet! Yarrow shouted. “Sit down, all of you.” We did as she said, Ephus sprawling like a bear come back to the den. Yarrow turned to him. “Well?”

“I have seen Strangers,” he began, the laughter gone from his voice. “There are Others in the forest, north of here, heading south. I hailed them with our greeting, saying, ‘Olan.’ They didn’t answer, just stared.” What strange people, not to know our words!

Yarrow frowned and looked hard at Ephus. In the past, he’d spoken only of wonders and dangers far away. I’d never heard of strangers in the valley. Why would strangers go where they didn’t belong? “These Others,” she said, “how do they look?”

“Their hair is yellow, their eyes the color of water, their men as tall as horses.”

People glanced at each other, shaking their heads. Birch turned to me and covered her mouth. “Yellow hair!” She giggled, as if Ephus had told a good joke. Yarrow silenced her.

“I have never seen Others like these,” he continued, “but I have heard of them. They are called Arn. They once had a home, northeast of here, beyond the mountains, in a place now covered by water. They travel without ceasing. They are quiet and keep to themselves. They’ll move on.”

“How many?” Yarrow asked.

“As many as the fingers on two hands. Their winter must have been hard. They have few children.”

We watched Yarrow’s face to see what we should feel. She nodded, waiting for the voice inside that would give her a plan. Finally she spoke. “It will be good to see these Arn. Ephus, after they cross the meadow, you and Zalec go to them. Take them meat. Build them a fire so they can rest. When they have eaten, return and tell us. We will not bring them here.”

Ephus nodded. “Wake me when the sun’s straight up,” he said, strectching out to rest.

All that morning the camp buzzed like a hive. Who were these people? To have no home, to speak different words, to have yellow hair, how could such things be! I dropped my work and motioned to Birch. Now that Silka had Rube, Birch was my closest friend. We ran to the ledge and huddled behind a boulder, watching the meadow for the first hint of movement. Birch was young and trusting. She believed everything I said, which made it easy for me to lie.

“What do you think they eat?” she asked, scanning the quiet valley.

“I have heard that some eat children.” Her eyes grew wide. “But not these Arn. Different ones. These are friendly.” Unlike Silka, Birch was truly good. It was no fun to torment her. She jumped up and ran to the cave, returning with a bulging pouch.

She opened the bag. “Here. Take some.”

“What do you have?”

“Walnuts. For the Arn.” I filled my bag.

Magla had put out the fire, not wanting the Arn to see the smoke. The day was getting warm. Ephus and Zalec left at noon, slipping down the hill and moving west through the trees. They’d wait in the woods for the Others, meeting up with them after the strangers had crossed the open ground. Like birds on a long branch, the People lined up on the ledge, hidden by dark rocks. We waited, the sun hot on our faces. Finally we saw a movement.

Across the meadow, where a distant forest met the field, a small band of travelers emerged. They paused. I could just make out the shafts of their spears. Then they entered the grassland, lumbering under large packs, moving toward our hill. I tried to count them.

Suddenly Birch gasped. “Look!” she cried. “Wolf People!”

I stared harder, confused. Then I saw an amazing thing. Plodding along with the Arn were four-legged creatures, three of them, each carrying a small pack. Animals who walked with humans––how could that be? We stared in stunned silence as the strange group trudged across the meadow and disappeared from view below our mountain.

Zalec returned late that afternoon. Though he was a man who rarely spoke, we clustered around him like sparrows to seed. “Ephus says to join him,” he said. “The Arn await.” Birch jumped up and clapped her hands.

Yarrow nodded. “We’ll go now.” She followed Zalec along the ridge and down the slope, the rest of us hurrying behind.

“This way, just ahead,” Zalec said when we approached a small clearing. It was a place I knew well, having gone there often to dig onions.

Yarrow held up a hand, “Listen.”

We hovered in the lengthening shadows, the sun hanging low in the sky. Surely we’d be safe. There were as many of us as the fingers on four hands, the Old Ones and babies having stayed behind. From up ahead came the sound of laughter. Ephus. “We will meet these Others,” Yarrow continued. “Meet them in a place we know. If they should strike…