As he stared toward the window, Zach realized that the light outside must be from the full moon—it had been nearly full the previous night. He rose and crept to the window, pushed the oiled skins to one side. The clearing was empty, but the moon seemed to fill the sky, and he thought of Evvy, and the many times they had shared the moon’s beauty on their travels together. For a moment he wondered if Evvy might be watching the moon too, across the continent, perhaps standing next to her husband, Will. Wondered, with a pang of loss, if she ever thought of him.
Now his eye was caught by movement—shadows in the trees, seemingly swaying with the rhythm of the music. What could he be hearing? he wondered. Who could be making these beautiful sounds? Then he heard something that made the hair on his arms stand on end. Interspersed with the beautiful, insistent, rhythmic songs, were the unmistakable strains of a feathered lyre.
He must have been followed after all—followed by whoever had purchased his things. He looked frantically around the room for something he could use as a weapon, but saw nothing.
The music continued, the rhythmic drums and tambours being answered first by the birdsong instrument, and then by the feathered lyre. Presently, all four sections of music began to play together, blending in a harmonious and hypnotic welter of sound.
Zach no longer knew what to think. Despite the volume of sound, the feathered lyre still stood out, almost as if its tones were calling him. As he watched, the clearing filled with perhaps half a dozen large men, their entire bodies seemingly covered with long, coarse hair. Some held hand-drums, others played wooden flutes—the birdsong he had heard. All swayed and danced with the rhythm, their deep voices singing syllables in an unknown language and blending with the music. These were not men, Zach now realized, but some sort of animals—a distant memory from his childhood studies came back to him of apes, large manlike creatures that had lived in jungles on the other side of the world until they had all been driven to extinction.
I am dreaming, he thought.
He scanned the group of ape-men closely, searching to see who was playing the feathered lyre, but all of them had either drums or flutes.
Now a very tall, thin figure strode forth from the shelter of the woods. His long, dark-skinned face was framed by wild, curly gray hair, and he was very definitely human. In his hands he held the feathered lyre. Though Zach could not see it clearly, he somehow knew that this was his feathered lyre. Looking directly at the gap between the oiled skins, the man met Zach’s eyes, then deliberately stroked the strings, bringing forth a loud discordant sound. Immediately, the other musicians stopped playing and melted into the woods, leaving the clearing to the tall stranger.
The stranger stood, gazing fixedly at the cabin, his body relaxed and offering no hint of threat. There was something familiar about him, but Zach could not say what it was.
Not knowing if he were walking into a trap, Zach crossed to the doorway and stepped out into the bright moonlight. The stranger smiled.
“Greetings, Zach,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you. My name is Shardyl.”
Zach remained at the doorway staring at the tall man in the clearing. “How do you know me?” he finally asked.
“I’ve heard of you many times, in many places,” Shardyl replied. “I’ve long hoped our paths would cross.” He stepped toward Zach, holding out the feathered lyre. “I believe this is yours,” he said.
Zach took it, his hands feeling an almost sensual relief as they touched the familiar wooden frame. “How—how did you get this?” he asked.
“I did not steal it, if that is what you are thinking,” Shardyl said. “At least not from you. It was sold by your Owner to one of the players in the Pros. When he fell into a drunken stupor after the Bowl Game I liberated it from him. I doubt he knew what it was, and doubt also that he missed it.”
Zach felt his head swimming with questions. “Are you... are you a member of the Pros?” he asked.
Shardyl laughed. “Not at all, but I know them well.” He pointed toward the woods behind him. “I must get my pack,” he said. “Then we’ll go inside and talk. I’ll try to answer as many of your questions as I can.”
Zach watched while Shardyl disappeared into the trees, then returned with a very large leather pack. The man was nearly as tall as Zach himself, though very lean, and apparently quite strong.
Inside the cabin Shardyl placed his pack on the table, then sat on one of the benches and opened it. He produced a large waterskin that proved to contain brew, and several strips of salted dried meat.
“I’m sure you’re hungry and thirsty,” he told Zach. “Please eat and drink as much as you want.”
Zach nodded his head in thanks. He had seen so many strange cultures, encountered so many different people that he made the conscious decision for the time being to take Shardyl at face value. Whatever world this tall stranger came from seemed immensely different from the many others he had seen.
He gratefully accepted a drinking horn from Shardyl, filled it with brew, and drank most of it in one long draught. As the bitter warmth began to spread from his stomach through his body he felt himself relax.
“What are you thinking, Zach?” Shardyl asked after drinking from his own horn.
“I was just thinking.... that I look forward to telling my brother about this encounter,” Zach said, so surprised at the question that he blurted the answer.
Shardyl again laughed, briefly. “Ah, Will the Principal,” he said. “No doubt he would be very interested to hear what you have experienced.”
“You have heard of the Principal?”
“I have met him,” Shardyl said. “It’s difficult to believe that two brothers could be so different.”
Zach was so astonished he couldn’t think what to say in response, so said nothing. “Please,” he said after a long moment. “Tell me who you are and why you have followed me.”
“It is a very long story,” said Shardyl. “And it started before the Change.”