Then the old sorceress—her with the maxims and the cryptic allusions to lore he’d never heard of—dictated that it was time to rest, to gather strength and to recruit allies and to otherwise make ready for the final journey to the Fastness at the Top of the World.
He acceded. All the Doughty Companions did. The others returned to their homes, each following their unshakable nature. They went to glittering measureless caverns, to leaf-woven palaces atop ancient trees, to a ship that forever sailed, never seeing port.
The old sorceress disappeared into the dawn mist without another word. She did that all the time.
Him, though, he had no place to go. All the cantrevs of his homeland had been burned; nothing there now but the stubble of new green that would never be sheafed and dried to straw, nothing but foundations.
His foundation, even. His time before he was called, when he had lived with the woman and man he’d thought were (and so were) his mother and father.
Not knowing what else to do, alone except for the Red Mare and the Sword That Sings he wandered until he came to the low old hills where the Commotfolk lived. It seemed like as good a place as any.
He unsaddled the Red Mare and told her to return to the limestone pastures of the south, to run again among the Membership of All Horses. She tongued out the bit and promised she would come when he called.
The Sword that Sings advised him that there was a storm rolling in from the north and he should seek shelter. He saw a boy, not much younger than him, driving goats along the road a little way ahead.
“There’s a storm coming,” he called to the boy, “and I seek shelter.”
The boy sniffed the wind and looked at the sky. “No storm,” he said. “But you’re welcome to whatever shelter we can offer.”
The Sword that Sings sniffed a different kind of sniff, a haughty one.
But no storm broke that night.
These were the people he found himself among. Large families who planted crops and tended herds. Crofters who wove and baked and smithed and traded, who made barrels and wagon wheels, who brewed and who gathered herbs, some by moonlight, in the forests. They all kept gardens.
By general consensus, it was decided that he would stay with the old widow woman and help her in her vineyards. He did not know why they called her old. Her hair was black and curly, her eyes green and bright. Her twins, a girl and a boy, were only just walking.
She was older than him, but not nearly so old as the old sorceress.
“I won’t be here long,” he told her. “I have to journey to the top of the world and fulfill my destiny against the Dukes of Hell.”
“First milk the cow,” she said.
It was a restless cow. She shied from him, then tried to kick him. The twins watched from the hay loft where he was to sleep and giggled.
Eventually, he realized that the Sword That Sings was singing to the cow.
“Cut that out,” he said, and hung it in its jeweled scabbard from a peg in the main room of the house, next to his travel-stained cloak. The cow behaved after that, but the widow woman made him wash the cloak.
It was autumn when he came to the Commots. He figured he would be there until spring, rightly intuiting that winter was a bad time to try to reach the top of the world.
But it was a good time to catch up on all that needed doing in the Commots.
The widow, who was impatient with his clumsiness in the vineyards, took to sending him to help her neighbors and her friends and her relatives.
“Leave the sword,” she would say as he as he girded himself in the frosty mornings to go learn to mend tack or pump the bellows. “The Dukes of Hell don’t bother us around here.”
He did not do as she said those first few times. But when the twins took to whacking at one another with sticks from the kindling pile he’d stacked, he returned the Sword that Sings to its peg. For good measure, he hung his clean and patched travel cloak over top of it.
“You could at least run a whetstone along me once in a while!” the sword complained. But he knew full well the sword retained its razor edge.
Then one morning she sent him to the weaver’s. The weaver’s shop was a long, low, thatch-roofed building attached at one end to a cottage and at the other to a shed occupied by an unusually cooperative mule.
Unlike the widow, the weaver was definitely old. The weaver looked, in fact, as old as the old sorceress. Of course, the old sorceress had walked the world for ages uncountable, so the resemblance was purely cosmetic.
The weaver’s hands trembled, and he was nearly blind. The weaver’s works were beautiful.
“How do you make these tapestries and rugs and shawls?”
The weaver smiled, showing a mouthful of healthy teeth. “I’ll show you.”
That night, the widow asked him if he’d finally found his place.
“I’ll work with the weaver until I have to leave,” he said. “But when the weather breaks—”
“I know,” she said. “The Dukes of Hell. The Fastness at the Top of the World.”
But here is what happened.
On the longest, darkest night of the year, the weaver died in bed. The Commotfolk went to check when they heard the mule braying a dirge.
“That’s not a bad dirge at all,” said the Sword That Sings.
“Who’s going to weave the weaver’s funeral shroud?” asked the wheelwright. In the Commots, people were buried in fancifully colored and fantastically patterned shrouds.
The widow pushed him forward.
“I think I can manage it,” he said.
Months later, on the morning the first cuckoo could be heard calling in the forest, the widow gave him a long, speculative look. It was his turn to make breakfast, and so he was brushing oatmeal out of the twins’ hair.
“Is today the day you call to the Red Mare? Will we get to meet your friends who live in all those fancy places?”
He gave the widow a long, speculative look.
In the end, the old sorceress managed to recruit a replacement. She’d been in the business long enough to know who was replaceable and who was not. She thought so, anyway.
The Doughty Companions stayed in the measureless caverns and in the treetop palaces and on the ship that never saw port. The Red Mare ran unbridled all the rest of her long life.
The new weaver remembered little that he had learned from the old sorceress and everything he had learned from the Commotfolk. He helped as he could. He wove, of course, but he also brewed a little, and did some carpentry. Springtimes, he worked the hillsides, following the companionable mule as it drew the Plowshare That Sings.
He never did get to the top of the world.
He got to its heart.