Thomas cried out something. He saw the girl, a look of anguish on her face, reaching into her small pack. Her hand emerged holding a grayish, egg-shaped object which she thrust out toward him. “Here!”
He had to drop his useless knife to take the thing she pressed into his clutching fingers. It was hard and heavy in his grasp. Before he could wonder what he was supposed to do with it, he felt the mirage-plant’s grip loosening. It was as if his skin and clothing had suddenly developed surfaces of oil and melting ice. In a moment he had pulled free and was several meters away. He lay gasping on the sand while he watched the frustrated tendrils wave about disconsolately and then withdraw.
Olanthe, the Thunderstone in its battered case still under her arm, came to kneel beside him; she reached out a tentative hand to take back the small gray Stone that Thomas still held; but instead he shot out his own hand and took her by the wrist.
“One moment, my girl. Bring out yet another Stone and destroy me with it, if you will, but first I will have some explanations.”
Still, when she made no answer but only struggled silently to pull away from him, he let her go. When he had done this, she was willing to sit on the sand nearby, looking apologetic. “I -I have no more Stones. There are no more.”
“Aha. That’s something. Yes, that’s good. If it were the Oasis of the Dozen Stones, I don’t know what -” He broke off suddenly and looked up. “The sun is being hidden once again. I take it we may soon expect another thunderbolt?”
She waved a slenderhand impatiently. “Oh yes, of course, since the Thunderstone has changed hands again in coming back to me. But that’s all right. I’ll leave it here on the sand, and we’ll just go a little distance off and wait. Then after it’s been hit I’ll be able to carry it safely.”
“May I suggest that you leave it at a safe distance from the mirage-plant? So that we won’t have to… hey? And while we sit through another rainfall, you might explain to me the virtues of this other Stone.”
The clouds were swiftly thickening once more. Thomas and Olanthe, their clothing not yet dried from the previous storm, left the Thunderstone in a gentle hollow between dunes and went a few score paces distant to sit together under the useless shelter of a desert bush.
She blurted out, “I didn’t want you to know about the Stone of Freedom too. Otherwise I could have simply walked up to the mirage-plant and taken my property back.”
“Yes, I see that, now.”
“I’m sorry. Those suckers didn’t draw any blood, did they? Good. Well, now you know our secrets, and I must trust you. We need help at the Oasis. The invaders are-we can’t endure them.”
“Who can? We may be able to help each other.” The new rain began to fall. Thomas was thoughtful. “Tell me more about these Stones.”
The origin of the two Stones, Olanthe said, was lost in the past. Since the beginnings of the history of the Oasis the farmers there had possessed them both. The folk of the Oasis for the most part lived in harmony with one another, content to stay half-isolated from the rest of the world, though they had been friendly and hospitable to visitors and exhausted travelers who strayed in from the desert. The secrets of the two Stones had been kept within their settlement.
The desert soil was rich, lacking only water. And whenever the fields of the Oasis needed rain, he who held the Stone of Thunder at the time would present it to his neighbor; so water came just to suit the farmers’ wishes, and drought and flood were alike unknown. The other talisman, called the Stone of Freedom or the Prisoner’s Stone, was kept hidden, and only the elders of the Oasis knew of its existence. It was of little use to honest men as long as freedom ruled the land.
Then the foul invaders from the East had come, in force too strong to be resisted. The elders had somehow managed to preserve the secrets of both Stones.
“Alas, it was my own father who broke the pact of secrecy. Oh, he acted not through any wish to help the invaders, no, the very opposite.” After saying that Olanthe fell silent for a moment, her eyes downcast, rain dripping from the brim of her wide fieldworker’s hat.
“How, then?” Thomas wiped rain from his own eyes. This was becoming a soggy desert indeed. He felt vaguely cheered by the reflection that a certain mirage-plant might be the first of its species ever to drown.
Olanthe was looking down at her hands folded in her lap. “The commander of the invaders’ garrison… that is…he wanted…”
“Something to do with you?”
“Yes… me.” She nodded, and looked up. “When I was unwilling, they made threats…” She fell silent, until Thomas reached out and took her hand.
“Afterward – ” She had to clear her throat and start over. “Afterward, my fatherwas -he happened to have the Thunderstone in his fields at the time. He unearthed it from its hiding place – ”
The latest bolt came smashing down at the Stone forty or fifty meters away, making Thomas jump for all that he had been expecting it, jarring his teeth and bones anew.
“-and, pretending to curry favor, he gave it to the garrison commander. My father acted as if he was pleased that the pig had taken a fancy to me. My father told him that the Stone had something to do with the Oasis’ rain, but of course he never mentioned lightning.
“They-they stood talking inside the invaders’ compound, there, in what used to be a park. My father said later that he could hear the thunder starting overhead while they stood there, and he smiled at his enemy, the man who had…and then the commander turned away, with the Thunder-stone under his arm, to walk across the parade-ground to his quarters. He never finished his walk.”
Thomas nodded. He squeezed Olanthe’s hand slightly. She went on: “Next day a soldier picked the Stone up and brought it right to the one who had been second in command, and was now in charge. They knew it was something of magical importance, but they guessed no more than that. Before another storm could break over their heads they had put the Thunderstone into the pouch of a courier reptile and dispatched it to the wizards at the Castle. We knew this because we could see the growing storm follow the reptile out over the desert. We knew the storm must catch up before the leather-wing reached the Castle. It was necessary for someone to go out and recover the Stone, before it fell again into the hands of enemies or strangers. Without it, the Oasis would die for lack of water.”
“How were you chosen?”
“A girl can search as well as a man. And others of the enemy would be-would be after me, now that the old commander is dead. And my father would do something else -and perhaps bring destruction on us all.
“So the elders were willing enough that I should leave, and they gave me the Stone of Freedom, which for its bearer sets fences and guards and all confinements at naught. Now I must return the Thunderstone to the Oasis somehow, and then -I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“I see.” Thomas shifted in his drenched clothes. The rain was thinning again. The Thunderstone had not been moved far by the latest bolt -he could see it, a small dark lump on the sand.
He stretched out his hand with the Stone of Freedom in it to Olanthe. “The Stones are yours. But tell me, what use are they, what use is life itself, to your people, as long as the invaders are there?”
She accepted the Stone. “What can we do? What are you getting at? I must take back the Thunderstone or all will perish.”
“The Oasis can live for a few more days at least without it. And remember this: while it’s there, the enemy may find it, realize what it is, and perfect his power over you.”
She asked again, pleading now, “What can we do?”
Thomas smiled. He stood up, just as the sun broke out once more. “I can think of several things. And I know those who will be able to think of more. Come with me to the swamps!”
Dazed as he was by the blow on the head, Rolf still had wit enough left to realize that the soldiers thought him nothing more than a thief, who had been trying to get aboard one of the barges in the river. They asked him no questions, and he said nothing at all.
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