Home lay to the east. If he could be sure of anything he could be sure of that. Zoltan gritted his teeth and persevered. If this enchanted slope got any steeper he was going to have to climb it on all fours. His wet boots were drying now, and his feet had begun to hurt in them, but he plowed on anyway, climbing and climbing. All right, then, he would climb on all fours …
He had just let his body lurch forward and gripped the earth with his two hands to crawl when a recognizable pair of boots, elongated toes comically turned up, came into view a few meters in front of his nose.
Zoltan looked up to see a familiar figure in storybook wizard’s conical hat and figured robe. The wizened face was angrily looking down, the gravelly voice shouted abuse at him.
“Do you want the bad people to have you again, Zoltan? You’re a dummy! Don’t you ever want to get home to your mother?”
Zoltan stopped, abashed. Slowly he stood up. Still facing east, he had to lean forward to keep his balance. He hadn’t realized mat this trick was his benefactor’s doing also. “Sorry,
sir. I’m only trying to get home. And my home is to the east of here.”
The magician’s face paled; no, it wasn’t that, it was his whole figure, becoming faintly transparent. Yes, Zoltan could definitely see through the old man’s image, out around the edges. But it shouted at him as loudly and vigorously as ever “Zoltan, you dum-dum, Zoltan! I’m trying to help you! I brought you as far as I could through the water, but now you have to walk. You can’t go right home. There’s something else you have to do first. Didn’t I say that? Didn’t I say?”
None of this sounded at all to Zoltan like the sort of thing that any respectable wizard, or any elderly person, ought to shout. But Zoltan, above all, did not want to meet the bad people again.
“Yes sir,” he said. And with slumping shoulders he turned and walked on, in the way that he was being guided. It was easy walking that way-it was all downhill. When he looked around with another question, the figure of the wizard was gone again.
Much of the morning had passed. Zoltan’s boots-after he had paused to take them off, drain them thoroughly, and dry them as well as possible-were becoming wearable again. Walking south continued to be easy. He thought, from time to time, about trying to turn east again, but so far he hadn’t quite dared. So he hiked on through an open but inhospitable landscape, going he didn’t know where, and he was getting very hungry. The provisions he had stuffed in his pockets on leaving home had long ago been reduced to watery garbage.
The pins and needles and the stiffness had worked out of his arms and legs by now. But now all of Zoltan’s limbs, his whole body, were beginning to grow weak with hunger.
He looked about him hopefully for fruit on the strange low bushes, or for any of the kinds of plants whose roots he knew
were edible in a pinch. He had not yet reached the starving stage, where he would be willing to go grubbing after insects, but he wasn’t sure that stage was far away. Nothing more appetizing than insects had appeared. And already his thirst was coming back. The land around him did not promise anything in the way of water.
Except-yes. He was coming over a low rise of ground now, and straight ahead of him, perhaps a kilometer away, a short, straight line of fresh trees were just coming into view, like the boundary of an oasis.
Maybe this was why the wizard had insisted that he go south. Keeping the trees in view, Zoltan held a steady pace.
Presently, having crossed what seemed like several extra kilometers of barren landscape, he began to approach the supposed oasis closely. When Zoltan actually came within a stone’s throw of the line of trees, he found them low and thick, making up a formidable thorny hedgerow a straight half kilometer or so in length. Their sturdy freshness certainly indicated a nearby source of water.
Zoltan turned at a right angle and walked beside this tall hedge until he came to a small gap, where he cautiously pushed his way through. The barrier was not as thick or difficult as he had expected, and he discovered that he had just crossed the boundary of a surprisingly well-kept farm. The border hedgerow was much more pleasant to look at from inside. From this angle it was a flowering hedge, thick enough to keep livestock from straying, but he could catch glimpses of the desert outside. The barrier did not appear to be at all difficult for a human to push through, once you made up your mind that you really wanted to do it.
Within the outer boundary of trees, the land was divided into fields and plots by shorter, thinner hedges. The entire farm, Zoltan saw, peering around him, extended over at least a square kilometer; it included pastures, orchards, cultivated
fields planted in several kinds of crops, and, in the distance, a cluster of farm buildings. There were enough trees near the buildings to partially obscure them.
Zoltan started walking in the general direction of the buildings, along a path that wound gently between the bordered fields. Meat-cattle grazed contentedly in a lush pasture. Then the lane that Zoltan was following broadened, leading him between more short hedges toward the small house and the farmyard. Even more surprising than the cattle and the pasture were the bountiful crops in the well-cultivated fields. Here and there he could see small irrigation ditches, which explained some of the difference between the land of the farm and that outside its boundaries.
At a little distance he beheld a single human figure moving, hoe in hand, working its way methodically down a double row of some kind of vegetables, just where a plot of garden bordered on an orchard.
Zoltan hesitated briefly, then turned aside from the cow path and entered the field where the lonely worker labored. Treading carefully between the rows of vegetables-noticing in passing how healthy they all looked-he approached the man cautiously and saw nothing in him to be alarmed about. He was a bent figure, somewhat gnarled, with calloused hands and a sun burnt neck. Whether he was landowner, serf, or hired hand was not obvious at first sight; the man was dressed in rough clothing, but Zoltan had plenty of experience with powerful people who were disinclined to wear finery.
The man, intent on his labor, did not notice Zoltan’s approach. His back to Zoltan, he kept at his hoeing, the implement in his rugged hands attacking weeds, churning the rich black soil with a regular chuffing sound.
Remembering his manners, Zoltan kicked a clod of earth
when he was still a few meters from the man, making a slight noise. Then he cleared his throat and waited.
The man looked round at him with only minor surprise. “Well! What be you doing here, then?” he asked mildly enough. His words came in what was certainly a country dialect, though Zoltan could not place its locality.
“Trying to get home, sir.” The sir was something of an afterthought; but the man’s tone had certainly not sounded like that of a serf or slave.
“Home,” said the man, leaning on his hoe. “Ah, home!” he cried, as if now he suddenly understood everything. Then with an air of profundity, he said “Ah!” again and turned away and shot up a long arm. Pulling down a waterskin, obviously his own supply, from where it hung on the stub of a tree limb in the shade, he offered it to Zoltan with a quick gesture. “You’ve come a far way, then. What’s your name?”
“My name is Zoltan. Thank you,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand after the most delicious and invigorating drink he’d ever had in his life. For a moment he’d wondered if it was something more than water.
“Zoltan-good old Tasavaltan name.” The man nodded judiciously. “I am called Still, young sir. Just plain Still is quite good enough for me, though it’s Father Still that some folk call me. Appears that old age is starting to creep up. But I keep busy and I hardly notice, most days.” The old man laughed heartily-Zoltan decided that he must really be an old man after all, despite the vigor of his gardening. “But you’ll be wanting food, too-and I’ve already finished off the last of my lunch. Go on to the house, go on to the house, and she’ll take care of you.” He accompanied this advice with violent gestures, as if he thought that Zoltan might after all not be able to understand his words.