THE LONE AND LEVEL SANDS || CHAPTER 9

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Submitted Date 05/09/2019
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A river wound through the valley, and Tarlos assumed it was a tributary of the Styx. But where the Styx was dark and corrosive, this river was clear enough that he could see all the way to the river bed. Fish darted by, blue and orange and white. Something in his heart knew for certain that this water was safe to drink, and he brought some to his mouth in cupped hands. The water was the sweetest he had ever tasted, and it was cool and refreshed him.
Tarlos followed the river as it fell into the valley, and he marveled at the strange plants and weird colors that covered the place. He was used to a country being all one color of varying shades. The desert was brown, red, and in places it was yellow with clay. Here existed together more colors than Tarlos thought possible, all in the same area.
A gentle humming was in the air as if the atmosphere was electrified. The harmony was pleasant, and it sounded faintly of a woman singing. Tarlos could not help but smile as he walked along and listened to the humming, and he felt it vibrate in his bones.
Tarlos walked and listened and viewed the country for some time until a new sound joined the electric humming. It was a deeper voice, belonging to a man, and Tarlos stopped. He looked around, and he saw nothing more than long green grass beside the river, and a small hill with a single willow tree. The singing continued, and Tarlos pinpointed the sound to be coming from the hill.
He approached with excitement, but also with caution. He knew that he had no right to be in this country, being a mortal, and the Ageless may not take kindly to his being here. But this is why he had come, this was the purpose of his journey, why he had crossed the desert and ran through Shar's tunnel, narrowly escaping the heat of the sun. This is why he had floated down the Styx with a man who had no name. He would not turn back now after he had come so far.
Tarlos stretched out on his belly and lay in the long grass, then crawled slowly up the hill to the willow. The humming was deep and sweet, and the melody was eerie and beautiful. It filled Tarlos with various emotions, emotions that would accompany a father returning to his family after a war, a lost dog finding its way back home, the birth of a child. But the father was missing an arm, the dog was blind, and the mother had died in childbirth. Tarlos lay in the grass and listened to the song, and he felt elation and a deep sadness at the same time.
"Do you like to read?" came the voice of the man who sat beneath the willow.
Tarlos remained still, not sure who the man was speaking to.
"You, in the grass, trying to hide. Do you like to read? Come sit beside me."
Tarlos raised his head above the grass and saw the man. His face was wrinkled and leathery from the sun and from age, and his beard was long and white. His eyes were blue, and they sparkled at Tarlos through squinting eyelids. The man wore a light-orange robe that was draped loosely around him, and on his feet were simple leather sandals. He leaned against the willow, and he held an open book in his lap.
"Come sit beside me," the man said again. His voice was friendly.
Tarlos stood and walked toward the man. He did not feel his feet touch the ground, and his mind was convinced that he was hovering above the earth. The man stretched out a hand and smiled beneath his huge beard, and Tarlos took the hand in his own. He sat beside the man, and the man lifted his book.
"Do you like poetry?"
Tarlos shook his head. "I don't read much."
"Oh." The man clicked his tongue. "That's a shame. I absolutely love it. Couldn't live without it. Listen to this." He flipped a few pages of his book and cleared his throat before reading.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

"That's by a man named Percy Shelley. Oh, and here's another of my favorites." He turned the page and read.
Your eyes met mine
And my heart leapt, as a butterfly from a flower
How wonderful it is
To be worthy of your gaze

The man sighed and looked at Tarlos with his piercing blue eyes. "Isn't that beautiful?"
"Who wrote that one?" asked Tarlos. He was not really interested, but he felt the question bubble up inside him nonetheless.
"At the time, he called himself Thoth, but he's had many names. He lived many, many years ago; and he will not be born for millennia yet."
"What does that mean?"
The man winked. "It doesn't matter. So..." He closed his book and set it aside. "What's your story?"
Tarlos swallowed and shifted his position so that he sat on bent knees. "Are you one of the Ageless?"
"Hmm. I suppose that is one of the names we have. Yes, I am." The man's smile faded a bit, and Tarlos got the feeling that the man knew why he was here.
"I will tell you my story, if you will listen," Tarlos said. "And I have to tell you the whole thing, so you'll understand why I'm here."
The man nodded and waved his hand, signaling for Tarlos to go on. Tarlos took a deep breath and began his story once more.

When Tarlos finished speaking, he felt as if no time had passed. A cricket had landed on his leg when he began the story, and it sat still until the story was over, and then it sprang away. The Ageless man did not look bored or disinterested, but he did look worried. After Tarlos's story was over, the man sighed and ran his fingers through his white beard.
"So, you believe that the only thing waiting for you after death is a dark room filled with people who dress in feathers and eat clay." The Ageless shrugged. "I think I can sympathize with your cause, then." A slight chuckle rumbled in his chest.
"Well, how do I do it?" Tarlos asked, leaning forward on his knees. "How did you become immortal? Show me how. Please."
The Ageless man frowned, and he shook his head. His long white beard brushed against his robe and made a sound like wind through fallen leaves.
"Why do you want to stretch out your grief for so long?"
Tarlos leaned back and furrowed his brow in confusion. "What do you mean?"
The man placed a caring hand on Tarlos's shoulder. "Why don't you remember Krastos in happiness, and live the rest of your life in peace with him in your heart? That way he'll never truly die."
Tarlos began to protest, but the man held up a silencing hand and Tarlos shut his mouth. The Ageless man continued,
"Have you ever stopped to think about how blessed you are? You have a body of flesh and blood, and the gods have given you one of their Powers to hold. Already that makes you more fortunate than others. You were a prince of a great kingdom, and now you are king. You have riches, and you have subjects who love you and respect you. Your parents loved you, as did your brother. While others eat stale bread and drink dirty water, you have butter and wine. While others use old ropes as belts, your tunics are made of silk and cotton, entwined with golden thread."
He continued, "Can't you see? You've worked yourself out trying to achieve this goal—a foolish goal, I'd add—and all the while you've forgotten that your life is the true blessing. You're dirty, you're tired, your muscles are about to give out, and for what? You're that much closer to your death."
The old man shifted on the ground. "Life is beautiful and fleeting, and it is beautiful because it is fleeting. You wouldn't appreciate it otherwise. Yes, the gods took your brother, but life is meant to be taken. It's meant to end. And yet you build, you create, you fight, you love, as if it would go on forever. Death is a river that floods its banks and takes fallen cherry blossoms down its current." On cue, a breeze picked up and took a few willow leaves away over the hill and into the river.
Tarlos listened to the Ageless man, and as he listened a small seed of betrayal grew in his bosom. He was finally in the Ageless country, and he was actually speaking to an immortal man—and what was the man telling him? That his entire journey had been a waste of time. No, not just a waste of time. A waste of life.
Tarlos said, "Then how is it that you and your kind are immortal? Why can't I be like you? Shouldn't that be my choice?"
The man shook his head. "Listen, my young friend. It's a different matter for me and mine. Before the world was created, Shar and Moresh came from the void and created the cosmos. They had children, who became the other gods. They created animals, and they caused them to live and die because it was good for the earth to have a cycle of regeneration. The animals ate what the earth gave them, and when the animals died the earth took their bodies and became more fruitful.
"After a while the gods decided to make people, and they formed them from stardust. The people looked like the gods, had thoughts and desires like the gods, and they were powerful and immortal like the gods. These people were created especially to be caretakers of the earth while the gods were the caretakers of the rest of creation—other worlds and other peoples. And these first immortal people were the Ageless, and the Ageless cared for the earth for countless years.
"But Ablis, who was once the god of balance, thought that the Ageless were redundant. Why have god-like beings taking care of the earth when there are already mortal animals aiding the earth in its regenerative cycle?
"Ablis took some of the other gods, and they created a new people from mud and wind and fire, and Ablis breathed life into them.
"Because I have breathed life into them, Ablis told the other gods, these people shall know the balance of things, and will know good from evil, and their lives will be two-sided: they will spend some years on Earth tending it, and then they will die as animals do. That is the way of things. Life is a cycle, and Mankind should not be above the ways of nature.
"But when Shar and Moresh discovered what Ablis and the other gods had done, they rebuked him and cast him out. The other gods fell at their parents' feet and begged forgiveness for creating without permission, and they were forgiven.
"Shar and Moresh looked at this new mortal people and said, We cannot destroy this creation, for all life is sacred. Therefore, we will take our original people, the Ageless, and place them in a safe place, away from these mortals—for the mortals know both good and evil and will surely fight one with another, and they will hate and destroy and steal as they love and laugh and sing."
The Ageless man finished his story and nodded with a smile. "That's basically what happened. So, as you can see, there's just nothing to be done. You were created as a mortal, and you will die as a mortal."
The blood in Tarlos's face drained, and he felt it pool warm and then cold in his feet. He stumbled, feeling several things at once. Anger at the gods. Betrayal from the Ageless. Sadness for Krastos. Hatred Ablis for creating mortal Man in the first place. The old man had explained it well enough for Tarlos to understand, and now Tarlos knew that there was no hope.
In a fit of rage, Tarlos spied a large boulder at the bank of the river, and using every iota of energy he had left, ripped it from the ground and hurled it across the valley. He watched it soar through the air, and then land in a crater as it created a mushroom-shaped cloud of dirt.
The Ageless man stared in horror at Tarlos, and Tarlos stared back with tears in his eyes.
"It should be my choice," Tarlos squeaked, then felt that familiar tear in his head that signaled the last of his mental energy. He winced, felt the blood rush from his head, and he collapsed.
The next day, Tarlos wondered at the fact that no one knows they are asleep until they wake up. He lay in a soft bed, softer than he had ever slept in before. The sheets were white and softer than cotton or silk, and the blankets were thick and fluffy. His pillow was plump and firm, not at all like his own pillows back in Kesh, which tended to become lumpy or flat.
Pale morning sunlight came through a window beside the bed, and Tarlos saw that the window was made of a transparent material he did not know. At first thought, he guessed it was the glass that the woman at the tavern gave him to drink from, made into a flat shape. But he touched it and felt that it vibrated ever so softly, and light colors danced around the spot where his finger met the window. The room was on off-shade of white, accenting the bed, and the sunlight coming through the window made the walls look yellow. Beside the bed was some sort of chest, and on the chest were pictures of the Ageless man and a woman beside him. Tarlos stared in awe at the details of these pictures. Whichever painter had depicted the man and woman was a god of art. He could not believe how realistic they looked—like a moment in time had been captured and stuck to paper.
Tarlos sat up in the comfortable bed, and the blanket fell to his waist. He was wearing a blue shirt, made of a strange but soft material. Someone must have changed him as he slept. This thought unnerved him. He stepped out of bed and walked to the bedroom door, which had a carved picture of a large sprawling tree on it, and he twisted the brass knob. The door opened without a sound, and the smell of food wafted through the place. Tarlos's stomach growled and his mouth watered.
He followed the smell of food down a hallway into a room where a woman stood over a stove, or what he guessed was a sort of stove, as there was no fire coming from it and no smoke to be seen. On the stove sat a pan, and something in it sizzled and popped with grease.
The woman turned to Tarlos as he entered the room, and she beamed at him.
"Oh, good morning! You woke up just in time for breakfast, albeit four days late. Did you sleep well?"
"I didn't even realize I was asleep," Tarlos said. "I didn't even dream. I feel more rested than I have in a long time."
"Good!" She smiled even wider. Her hair was long and grey, and it was pulled pack in a single tail behind her head, and it reached to her waist. She was thin, and her skin stretched over her limbs giving evidence to her old age. Her eyes were a stark icy blue, and wrinkles surrounded them and continued down her mouth. "Pancakes are already on the table," she said. "Bacon is almost done. My husband is already eating; go and join him at the table."
Tarlos remembered the French toast from the tavern in the dead country, and the thought of such a sweet breakfast made him cringe. He hoped that these pancakes would be different and more suited for breakfast food.
The Ageless man he had met under the willow sat at a small wooden table. He was reading a book, and Tarlos thought it was a different book than before. In the middle of the table was a plate stacked high with flat round cakes.
The man looked up as Tarlos sat down. He smiled, but the smile was not as genuine as his wife's. Tarlos wondered if there was something bothering the man.
"Sleep well?"
"I did, thank you. What are you reading today?"
"It's called The Epic of Gilgamesh. It's a story from a world not so much unlike your own in many ways. The story you told me about yourself reminded me of it, and I thought I would revisit it, along with some other thoughts."
Before Tarlos could inquire further, the woman with the grey hair and blue eyes came to the table with a steaming pile of bacon on a plate. She set it next to the pancakes, and she helped herself to a few strips.
"Go ahead, dig in," she told Tarlos, and he did. "Do you like syrup on your pancakes?"
"I don't know." Tarlos poked at his pancake with the metal prong. Fork, he reminded himself, remembering the tavern.
The man said, "I've always preferred peanut butter on mine. Have you ever had peanut butter? No, I guess you couldn't have. Here, try some."
He gave Tarlos a jar with the word Jif written in bold red letters on the label. Tarlos scooped some on his pancake—first a small bit, and then a heap after he tasted it. They ate, and Tarlos's stomach finally stopped growling after four pancakes and nine strips of bacon.
"You passed out after throwing that rock," said the man. He used a finger to lap up the last bit of peanut butter from his plate, then licked it from his finger. "I figured you could use a soft bed and a meal. After what you've been through, my goodness."
Tarlos set his fork down on his plate and pushed it away. He closed his eyes and sighed. "What am I going to do now?" He was speaking to himself, but the question came out of his mouth anyway. "Go back to Kesh? To being a king?"
The man said, "Yes, why not?"
"What's the point? If I'm going to die anyway, why even live?" Tarlos felt a lump in his throat, and his breath staggered. "Everywhere I turn, I see death."
The woman and the man looked at each other, and for several seconds they said nothing. Tarlos swore that they were communicating with each other through their ageless eyes. At length, they looked away and turned to Tarlos.
"I mentioned that I had to consider other things," the man said. He folded his hands on the table, interlacing his fingers. "There was one thing about our conversation the other day that I couldn't stop thinking about. You claimed that it should be your choice whether or not to be immortal, if that possibility existed. As the Ageless, we're endowed with every attribute of the gods, but confined to this world only. I hold all four Powers, as does every other Ageless. I can hear the thoughts of your mind and heart, and I can feel the pain that you feel. I think it's only right to give you that choice. Or rather, a chance to make that choice."
Tarlos's eyes popped open wide, and he stood from his chair. It fell backwards and clattered to the floor. "A chance for immortality? But you said it was impossible for a mortal to become immortal!"
"For most mortals, yes. But you're a Holder, and that means you carry a small bit of god blood in your veins. You also mentioned to me that your mother was thought to be descended from the Ageless. It's not impossible, as some of us choose to have children, but it's rare. If it isn't true, you still have a chance. If it is, you have a greater chance. But it's only a small one. And it's...rash."
"What is it?" Tarlos put his hands on the table and leaned close to the man and woman. "Whatever chance there is, I'll take it. I don't care if I have to swim to the bottom of the ocean."
"Oh, it's nothing like that." The man smiled, and the woman smiled with him. "Nothing that easy. Sit down, Tarlos."
He sat, and the atmosphere of the room became reverent, and the air was thick and solemn. The smiles on the man and woman's faces faded, and they grasped each other's hand.
"Tarlos," said the man, "who created Earth?"
He paused for a moment, only to consider that this might be a trick question. "The gods."
The man nodded. "And mankind?"
"The gods."
"Animals? Plants? The stars and moon and sun and everything in the cosmos?"
"The gods."
Another nod. "And who created the gods?"
Tarlos's eyes narrowed, and he sat back in his chair. The question made no sense to him, like asking what color hunger was. He shook his head and shrugged. "I don't understand."
The man continued, still holding onto his wife's hand. "Your world is one of many, Tarlos. You've met people from another world on your way here, yes?"
He was right, and Tarlos nodded. "They spoke of things I didn't understand. Places I've never heard of."
"There is an infinite number of universes that lay beyond the veil of this one. The gods Moresh and Shar, and their children, all the gods you worship, they created and care for this universe. But as the Ageless care for this earth while the gods care for this universe, there are other entities that care for all universes."
Tarlos frowned as his eyes widened again, and there was a funny buzzing sensation in his throat and belly. "Do you mean...are you saying...the gods...have gods?"
The man tilted his head and shrugged one shoulder. "I guess that's one way to say it, simple enough. The Old Ones created the gods, just as the gods created mankind."
"Do they ever speak to mortal men? Do they give blessings the same as gods?"
Both the man and the woman shook their heads. The man asked, "Have you ever sat to watch ants crawl in the dirt?"
Tarlos nodded.
"They're so tiny, compared to you. And so stupid. They have no idea what goes on in the minds of humans, if they could even comprehend your presence. And you only wonder in passing what they think about, or if they even think at all. Imagine two ants walking opposite directions around a rock, and you are looking down at them so that you can see them walking around the rock, but from the ants' perspectives they don't see each other, and so you know that they will bump into each other before they do. They know nothing of the man watching them, who to them would appear as far away as the sun. They know nothing of the world outside a few feet of their colony. They know nothing of astronomy, predicting the weather, adding and subtracting numbers, or that there are billions of colonies just like theirs around the world. And yet, from their perspective, they are intelligent, they are loyal to their family and to their queen, they hunger, they protect, they live and they die, and that's enough for them. It's a simple existence compared to that of a human, but it's all they know.
"As an ant is to a human, that is how a human is to an Old One. You are one ant in a colony of trillions throughout the universe, which is only one of an infinite number of universes, and you understand the mind of an Old One just as well as an ant understands you."
The man finished, and the room was cut into silence. Tarlos realized his mouth was gaping slightly, and he licked his dry lips. He took a few seconds to drink in what the man had told him before croaking, "So why would one speak to me?"
The smile finally returned to the man's face. "That's why it's important that you're a Holder, and a possible descendant of the Ageless. You have a small piece of the gods in you, and therefore are more closely related to the Old Ones than other men. There may be a chance—although it is a small one—that you could have an audience with one of the Old Ones. After all, it was they who created the concept of immortality in the first place, long before the gods were created."
Tarlos had a thousand questions, but he ignored them all in favor of the only one that mattered. "Where can I find the Old Ones?"
The man made a gurgling noise in his throat, part groan and part chuckle. "They don't live in a where, exactly. They're all around us, everywhere at once, beyond the realm of this physical universe, in the same way that a person lives outside a pond full of fish. But there are certain places within our worlds that act as doorways to their realms. I know of one. It's a book, and the book is inside a mountain to the south-east of here. Read from the book, and you will be taken to the realm of the Old Ones, if they choose to acknowledge your existence at all. I'm not sure which one you'll meet, though I have an idea, but whichever it is may be able to help you. A small chance, remember."
"But they care for humans?"
"As I said before, no more than a man may care for a specific ant that lives in a hole four thousand miles from his house." The man laughed. "But they have a deep connection to all things, because everything in creation—all worlds and universes—came from them. And as I also said, you are a Holder and have a stronger connection to their children, who are the gods of this world. I think that gives you a better chance than most. But the chance is still small."
After the pancakes and bacon were all eaten, and the dishes were washed and put away, the Ageless man brought Tarlos outside. Now that Tarlos could see the house from the without, he saw that it was small and modest; not at all what he would have imagined for an immortal being. It was one story, with only a few small windows, and the roof was low and covered with black tiles. The door was slender and red, and it bore the same carving of a tree that was on the door to Tarlos's room.
The yard around the house was green grass with small patches of flowers of every color. Fruit trees stood scattered around the place, and bees buzzed from flower to tree, coming from and going to a series of man-made beehives several yards from the house. Small wooden birdhouses hung from the tree branches, and swallows and sparrows fluttered around the place, bringing food to their young and singing in the sky.
"Is this all of yours?" Tarlos asked.
"It is. And it takes more work than you'd think."
The man led Tarlos around the back of the house. There a large flat field spread out in front of a large barn or stable, and various animals wandered the field. Tarlos recognized swans and geese and even an ibis or two, and there were horses and cows as well, lounging in the noonday sun.
"Where are the other Ageless?"
"They have their own homes elsewhere. This way." He opened a door on the side of the large barn-like building and followed Tarlos inside.
It was musty and smelled like dung and straw and mud, and it was a smell that Tarlos was used to. It reminded him of Kesh. Tools hung on the walls, equipment sat on the dirty straw-covered floor beneath them, and saddles and harnesses sat on wooden stanchions.
To the right of the door was a row of stalls, like those where the stable master of Kesh kept his horses. But these stalls were enormous, large enough for a person to live comfortably with his family and not want for room.
"Now don't be shocked," said the Ageless man. "She's big, but she's gentle and friendly. Give her a minute to get the smell of you before you go petting her. And don't touch her around the eyes, if you please."
He opened one of the enormous stall doors, and it swung backwards into the main room of the barn. Tarlos took a step inside and craned his neck around the corner of the stall. There in the corner was the largest black horse he had ever seen, laying on the dusty floor with her legs folded up beneath her. She was more than three times as big as any horse in Kesh.
"What is..." Tarlos whispered. He was not afraid of the giant horse, but he would rather it did not awake until he knew exactly what it was.
"This is Calliope," said the man, and at the sound of her name the horse raised its enormous head and shook the sleep from it. "A pure descendant of the first horses that Poseidon created, from a world parallel to yours." He reached into his pocket, produced a large carrot, and held it out. Calliope stood, made a humorous backstretch like a cat after a nap, and sauntered over to them. She ate the carrot in one chomp. "She knows the way to the mountain."
"You want me to ride that thing?" Tarlos asked, still whispering. The horse towered above him, all muscle. Her legs were thick and heavy, and the joints around her shoulders were wound tight with rope-like tendons that made small hills beneath her skin. She was a powerful creature, Tarlos could see, and he did not want to offend her.
"I told you, she's gentle. Hold out your hand. Here." The man gave Tarlos another carrot, and Tarlos held it out to Calliope. She lowered her massive head to the carrot and sniffed it with huge black nostrils. The air blew Tarlos's hair back, and he swallowed his nerves down.
She reached at the carrot with her lips, careful not to bite Tarlos's hand, and she swallowed the carrot. She raised her head and shook it again, lowered it down to Tarlos once more and gave him a sniff and a huff, and then nuzzled her nose against his forehead. Tarlos could not help but smile.
The Ageless man smiled as well. "There now! What did I tell you?"
Tarlos rubbed Calliope's cheeks and patted her thick neck. Her mane was grey and had been trimmed close to her neck.
"Let me just get her saddled and ready to go, and you can be off as soon as you're ready." The Ageless man walked across the stall to a door on the other side and pulled out a cart carrying a large seat with straps hanging from it everywhere.
Tarlos said, "You don't have to do this, you know."
"Do what?"
"Let me use your horse." Calliope nuzzled against Tarlos's shirt, searching for another carrot. "I mean, I appreciate your help. I do. But I don't understand why you're helping me."
With the help of a crane-like device that leaned against the stall wall, the Ageless man lifted the saddle into the air, and like a well-trained animal, Calliope positioned herself below it.
The man asked, "Do you think the world is mostly good, or bad?"
"I never thought about it."
"Yeah, I'm not sure myself. I've never been to any other world in the Continuum, so I can't really compare humans on our Earth to others. But I think for the most part they're good. Are you good?"
Tarlos considered it for a moment, thinking about his life in Kesh. He was a good person, wasn't he? He had done good things, right? Thinking hard, Tarlos was surprised and disappointed that he could not remember a time when he went out of his way to do a good deed, to help someone in need, to give a compliment, to raise the spirits of a sad friend.
And I killed my father. And caused the death of Krastos.
He frowned and felt heat rise to his throat and burn at his eyes. "I think...I'm...I don't know."
"A good answer," said the man. "A bad man thinks himself to be righteous; a good man is not so sure." He strapped the huge saddle around the horse. The saddle was built like a padded chair, with a raised and rigid backrest. There were loops in which to place the legs and straps to hold the rider down around the chest and lap. There were no reins.
"Oh, before I forget." The man reached into a small pocket at his breast and took out a small green capsule. "Calliope knows where to go, so you don't have to steer or give her directions or make sure she isn't going to crash into a mountain or anything. She's very confident in her ability to get anyone anywhere, and she sprints at near supersonic speeds when she has a mind. I'll give you a coat. The wind screaming past you tends to get mighty cold. Now, this capsule is a type of medicine, you could say. Nothing magical about it. Swallow it and you'll fall into a sleep so deep you'll wake up thinking you'd gone back to the womb. You're going to want to take it after she picks up speed."
Tarlos pocketed the capsule and felt the tooth in his new pants. "Oh, did you...? Thanks. For the tooth."
"I didn't know what it was, but it was in your pocket, so I saved it for you. Seemed important."
The man checked all the straps on the saddle one more time, then gave Calliope another carrot, gave her a pat on the neck, and ruffled her short mane. He left Tarlos alone with her while he went back to the house, and he came back with a heavy coat made from a material thick like wool, although Tarlos doubted that was what it was. The woman with the grey hair and blue eyes came as well, carrying a small sack of food. Bread, cheese, apples, and water. Tarlos thanked her, and she brought him in for a hug.
"Good luck to you," she said. "I hope you find what you need, and not just what you're looking for."
Tarlos gave her a kind smile. The man helped him climb the several feet onto Calliope's back, and he helped Tarlos strap in. When all the straps were in place, Tarlos could not move his legs or bend forward. He felt secure and comfortable.
"Got your pill?"
Tarlos nodded.
"You can back out any time."
Tarlos shook his head.
"Any last words?"
Tarlos snapped a wide gaze at the man, about to ask what exactly he meant by that, but the man was laughing, and his eyes were kind.
"Kidding. Good luck out there."
Tarlos nodded. "Thank you. For everything."
The man and the woman held hands, and with his free hand the man slapped Calliope on the rump. "Get on with you," he said, and Calliope galloped at full speed from the barn.
 

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