Where he stood it was not wholly dark. The air moved against his face. Far ahead, dim, small, there was a light that was not werelight. He went forward. He had been crawling for a long time now, dragging the right leg, which would not bear his weight. He went forward. He smelled the wind of evening and saw the sky of evening through the branches and leaves of trees. An arched oak root formed the mouth of the cave, no bigger than a man or a badger needed to crawl through. He crawled through. He lay there under the root of the tree, seeing the light fade and a star or two come out among the leaves.

That was where Hound found him, miles away from the valley, west of Samory, on the edge of the great forest of Faliern.

“Got you,” the old man said, looking down at the muddy, lax body. He added, “Too late,” regretfully. He stooped to see if he could pick him up or drag him, and felt the faint warmth of life. “You’re tough,” he said. “Here, wake up. Come on. Otter, wake up.”

He recognized Hound, though he could not sit up and could barely speak. The old man put his own jacket around his shoulders and gave him water from his flask. Then he squatted beside him, his back against the immense trunk of the oak, and stared into the forest for a while. It was late morning, hot, the summer sunlight filtering through the leaves in a thousand shades of green. A squirrel scolded, far up in the oak, and a jay replied. Hound scratched his neck and sighed.

“The wizards off on the wrong track, as usual,” he said at last. “Said you’d gone to Roke Island and he’d catch you there. I said nothing.”

He looked at the man he knew only as Otter.

“You went in there, that hole, with the old wizard, didn’t you? Did you find him?”

Medra nodded.

“Hmn,” Hound went, a short, grunting laugh. “You find what you look for, don’t you? Like me.” He saw that his companion was in distress, and said, “I’ll get you out of here. Fetch a carter from the village down there, when I’ve got my breath. Listen. Don’t fret. I haven’t hunted you all these years to give you to Early. The way I gave you to Gelluk. I was sorry for that. I thought about it. What I said to you about men of a craft sticking together. And who we work for. Couldn’t see that I had much choice about that. But having done you a disfavor, I thought if I came across you again I’d do you a favor, if I could. As one finder to the other, see?”

Otter’s breath was coming hard. Hound put his hand on Otter’s hand for a moment, said, “Don’t worry,” and got to his feet. “Rest easy,” he said.

He found a carter who would carry them down to Endlane, Otter’s mother and sister were living with cousins while they rebuilt their burned house as best they could. They welcomed him with disbelieving joy. Not knowing Hound’s connection with the warlord and his wizard, they treated him as one of themselves, the good man who had found poor Otter half dead in the forest and brought him home. A wise man, said Otter’s mother Rose, surely a wise man. Nothing was too good for such a man.

Otter was slow to recover, to heal. The bonesetter did what he could about his broken arm and his damaged hip, the wise woman salved the cuts from the rocks on his hands and head and knees, his mother brought him all the delicacies she could find in the gardens and berry thickets; but he lay as weak and wasted as when Hound first brought him. There was no heart in him, the wise woman of Endlane said. It was somewhere else, being eaten up with worry or fear or shame.

“So where is it?” Hound said.

Otter, after a long silence, said, “Roke Island.”

“Where old Early went with the great fleet. I see. Friends there. Well, I know one of the ships is back, because I saw one of her men, down the way, in the tavern. I’ll go ask about. Find out if they got to Roke and what happened there. What I can tell you is that it seems old Early is late coming home. Hmn, hmn,” he went, pleased with his joke. “Late coming home,” he repeated, and got up. He looked at Otter, who was not much to look at. “Rest easy,” he said, and went off.

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Categories: Ursula K. Le Guin