After cleaning up the morning meal, Defi's usual routine was to read until it was time to go to Sarel's orchard. But the increase in his need for slime food made him pay more attention to the farm.
He wanted to see for himself what the western boundary was like. It would be bad if he bought land he couldn't use. The glyphmakers' tools had cost more than he initially thought.
"I'm going for a walk," he informed the three. Turq was lounging on his head as usual.
"Can we come?"
"Certainly." The western boundary wasn't too far away. He only had three hecte of land after all. He could stand on a small hill and see that all of it won't even reach the horizon.
"Are those flowers? In the rainfall month?" Markar muttered to himself.
"Sansu trees. They were withered, so they're likely taking advantage of the abundant rain." He led them away from the trees, past the skeleton of the warehouse and the debris surrounding it. The workers had removed all but the bones of it.
Had it rotted so badly?
He poked around the warehouse skeleton for a while, and found stacks of termite-infested wood in one corner. Termites. Ontrea had them in great quantities, the dry land seeming spawning them instead of plants. It was one reason people chose to build in stone.
There was a pest-control emblem on the house. He wondered why the warehouse had not been similarly equipped. Possibly the emblem had deteriorated and the previous owners hadn't known.
"Are you building a house?" Bree looked like he wanted to climb the warehouse frame.
Defi continued on quickly, not wanting to tempt the seven-year old more. "Yes. I'm building a house for my slimes."
"There's going to be more."
"You like slimes that much?" Renne asked.
"Hm. They have hidden qualities." He patted Turq's side fondly.
The path he was taking wound by a pine grove where he assumed the house got its firewood - cones and needles and branches.
He stopped. He still hadn't checked if there were pine nuts. "Did you know some pine trees have edible nuts?"
"Are we looking for some?" Markar asked with some interest.
"Just one pinecone each. It mustn't be too old, and the scales, the petals of the cone, shouldn't be spread all the way." He made his way into the grove, toeing the needle-strewn earth. The children scattered.
Defi picked up a pinecone. It was larger than his fist, the scales spread out beautifully, almost artfully. Veneered, he could scatter it around the house with a few others as a rustic decoration. Come to think of it, a few pinecones this large would look good in an Ontrean water garden.
He put it back down. Maybe if he found one that looked better, less damaged. Besides, he was hunting pine nuts. It would be better to climb the trees, but he wasn't going to endanger the children. The branches of the pines looked a bit brittle.
Not surprising, really.
Some minutes later, he found himself heading back to the path with no pine nuts and instead carried a large cone with scales having an attractive dustiness on the top and like shining silk on the underside. The damp of the earth hadn't yet damaged it, nor had the fall from the tree.
"Children," he called. "Five-"
He was interrupted by the three popping out from everywhere. He twitched. And yes, that was Bree wriggling out from under a bush. He went immediately to pull the boy out.
He looked at the cones the three brought.
Renne's was perfect for pine nuts, the cone looked to have just ripened and the scales just started spreading. There was sap glistening on the twisted twig connected to it however. She had definitely climbed a tree for it.
He gave her a look. She crossed her arms, unrepentant.
Markar's was... he blinked. Markar had also chosen his cone based on aesthetics. It was pleasing to the eye, the longer scales at the top of the cone spreading widely and regularly, and the shorter ones making a pleasant star shape when looked at from the bottom.
Bree's cone was all closed, but it was the largest of all. It would be good for pinenuts as well, but Defi couldn't be sure whether the nuts inside would be good or not.
"It looks like only two brought pine nuts."
"I beg to differ," Markar smiled smugly. He pointed to his cone, a specific spot. Defi leaned in. Sure enough there was a single large nut clinging to the cone determinedly.
He huffed a laugh. "Just me, then. Very well. I'll choose the good food for lunch."
"Are we eating the nuts?"
"Too few. But we're bringing them back to the house anyway." He noticed Bree's look of disappointment. "What's wrong?"
"Mine's not big."
"Bigger isn't always better," said Defi. "Like..."
"Mushrooms!" Markar said.
"Yes, like mushrooms. The seller ladies in the market said that palestave mushrooms are better when smaller, because they're crunchy rather than the squishiness of the big-"
"No," Renne tugged on his sleeve, rolling her eyes. "Farmer's mushrooms, look."
Under the pines, around the exposed roots, were golden mushrooms, fresh and still spreading. He'd seen farmer's mushrooms in the market, both fresh and dried, so he knew they were edible.
"We're taking them, right?"
"Later, when we return." Defi said. He hadn't known mushrooms grew in pine groves. What a good discovery.
"Bigger isn't always better," murmured Bree as if memorizing it.
Defi patted the quiet boy on the head. "It's not. But do you know, something small like this cone you picked, if it was allowed to grow, and hadn't fallen early, it would be bigger than all the cones we have today. This cone that you found, it has potential."
"Hidden qualities," Bree beamed.
Defi laughed. "That's correct. It has hidden qualities."
They decided to leave the cones there, and return for them and the mushrooms on the way back.
The land rose sharply near the western boundary, stone and steep hills reminding Defi that the Lowpool was a water body bounded by cliffs.
Defi clambered over a pile of rocks that was the marker for the western boundary, and admired the delicate yellow flowers that spread across the former farmland.
The vegetation was sparse however, a mark of how far-reaching a few patches of semi-mystic herbs could drain the land's vitality.
The farmland sloped a little, but evened out in places. There were hills to the north and west, marking the former reach of the Garge homestead.
To the southwest, the land flattened again, a tiny valley, before rising into gentle hills which even from where they stood looked evidently cultivated. Those farmed hillsides formed into long winding terraces that were pleasing to the eye, contoured about the rolling landscape.
He'd been wary because this part of the land had been sold to the town. Didn't that mean it was poorer than the other parts of the homestead?
So far it didn't look that bad.
He stepped into the meadow and pulled out a flower by the roots. It came up easily, with a few tugs, despite the long trailing roots and the growing rhizomes entangled in said roots.
Even this close to the boundary, the soil was starting to recover. He smiled. It really wasn't bad.
He turned to see the children had disappeared.
"Children!" he called, hoping they'd pop up from the scenery like they did earlier.
Creator, what would he tell Aire and Lergen if he lost them?
He hadn't been distracted that long. He'd have seen them if they went in the direction of the trees or the meadow. That meant...they went up the rocks.
Of course they did. Why not choose the most dangerous path?
He peered up the steep, rocky hillside and saw the hint of a trail. An animal trail. Did they follow it, those curious children? Even only acquainted with them, he could not help noticing their uncommon perception.
Was it a trait of werefolk?
Defi stepped on the narrow trail, quickly following.
He sighed in relief as the soft earth on the side of the trail, near a bush, showed signs of footprints. The earth around the prints showed small cracks, the exposed soil fresh and moist. It had not been long since someone passed.
Or three someones.
The path wound higher, narrower. He looked down on the land below, marvelling at the verdant freshness that stretched all the way to the horizon glorious and unbroken.
Was there a view like this in Ontrea?
He kept walking.
It was possible. Defi had not seen all of Ontrea after all. Perhaps this natural grandeur of greenery would not be found even in Rimet, but in the far south where the rivers converged.
Voices ahead broke him out of his musing.
He quickened his steps, going through a copse of trees he could not identify.
He stopped at the treeline as laughter from three children sounded in the air. He looked around quickly and hid a grimace.
How could someone be so happy so near the edge of a cliff?
He must have made a sound, because the laughter cut off.
He stepped forward to see them looking in his direction. He let a wry smile lift the edges of his lips. It appeared they were as wary of him as he was of them.
"Tell me when you go somewhere," he only said. "I'd like to know if there is a need to alert the search parties if you disappear. Also, where did you get that?"
He pointed to the handful of starcherry in Markar's hands. They were laughing earlier and the contortions their faces went into at the sourness.
Renne pointed. "That way. Also, did you see this view? You can see all the way to the end of the lake."
Defi moved with studied nonchalance to the edge of the cliff, braced his hand on a jutting rock nearby. The view was truly worthy of stopping a moment.
To the west, mountains rose, majestic spires encircling. To the north, a jagged landscape of rising mountainsides, stooping hills, and trees. And far far on the horizon, a haze of blue mountains shrouded in mist.
Just below, the river wound lazily, with the eddies at the center gaily cavorting. As if to the northwest, nearing the great river, the same tributary did not roar against its constraints and rush furiously against the banks, did not sweep away all within its path, did not take life so easily that a body turning up floating in the Lowpool was considered a common occurence; as if it was not called the Treachery.
To the southeast, a part of the Lowpool showed clearly, glimmering in the sun, a fine sapphire edged in green. They were high enough to see part of the pale cliffs that bound the lake, and so it looked like a jewel set in silver and bone.
"Dangerous and beautiful," he said.
One of Renne's ears perked up. She studied him. "Are you afraid of falling?"
That was not what Defi referred to, but he answered just the same. "I am not afraid of the fall. I am afraid of the certainty of meeting the ground that comes after the fall."
She snorted a laugh. "Isn't that the same thing?"
"With the right preparation, you need not meet the ground." Defi moved away from the cliff edge. "There are places where the canyons are deep and the wind rushes through the gaps as wildly as the rushing river, where I have seen people ride the wind."
"Do you jest?" Markar said doubtfully.
"When I was younger, my mother took me to see the wind-dancers in...I forget the place, there are many canyons," Defi coughed before he continued. "They made wings out of treated cloth, like the flying squirrel, and strapped discs of thin wood to their feet. They jumped from the cliffs and the wind lofted them above us. That dance, it was the most graceful, most mournful thing I have seen."
"People can fly," Bree murmured.
"I'm not sure it can be repeated with only sorcery and without the specific location and paraphernalia," said Defi immediately, looking at Bree as if the boy would run toward the cliff edge and jump.
"People can fly," repeated Bree, happy.
"With the right preparation," Defi stressed. "Anything can fly. An ancient teacher said this. It is taken to mean that in time, all problems will gain solutions. If you want to fly, you must first...uh, you must understand the language of the wind."
Renne and Markar raised their brows at him, unimpressed. Defi had truly not seen their blood relation until now.
"I'll grow bigger and learn to understand the wind!" Bree declared. That quiet child, to think that his first firm and loud assertion would be half an impossible task.
Defi felt a little guilty.
The boy was only seven, he told himself. Surely he would forget something like this.