"Targold, do you see anything that you recognize or remember?" I asked the boy's ghost as I walked up the hill.
"There used to be a logging trail at the top of the ridge, that was as far as I was allowed to go," he said. "And three big standing stones with circles carved into them. My Grandmamma told me that the stones meant that our side of the mountain was protected by magic, and that's why I wasn't allowed to go on the other side of the logging trail."
Grandmamma was a clever old liar, I thought. Magic circles to scare the boy back home. Well, she probably just wanted to make sure he was safe. "Any special trees you used to like to climb in?" If he recognized a tree, and could see changes in it, I might be able to tell how long ago he died. Not that it mattered, it was just another way to pass the time and take my mind off the chill of the air and the emptiness of my water skin. There was a spring on the other side of the mountain, but I would have to head west a ways to strike it. When I met Targold I was a bit farther east than the last time I came through here, twenty years or more ago.
"One had a hole in it that I saw woodpeckers in," said Targold. "They had red heads. I got in trouble that day for being late for milking the cows."
"Kids who come home late get into trouble all over the world," I said. "I had that experience many times myself."
"Did you have cows, too?" he asked.
"No, but I still was supposed to be home in time for the evening meal. Sometimes there were things so interesting to see that being hungry didn't seem so bad."
"The tree I liked best was on its side," said Targold, pointing higher up the hill. "It was big and long and I would walk along on top of it. It was smooth on my feet."
The brambles near the bottom of the hill had given way to mossy rocks and fallen leaves. I found a path that led upwards and to the west, a nice smooth game trail that would speed us on. "Huh!" said the boy. "I don't remember this."
"Game trails come and go. More deer, better paths. Less deer, no paths."
"Like the cows on the hill in their pasture. I used to think a giant came and made a stairway, until Dad showed me how the cows' feet squooshed the dirt and followed each other in a line."
"Cows like as little incline as possible so that they don't have to expend a lot of energy," I said. "So they make their own gentle slope."
"In-cline?" asked Targold. "Grandmamma used to say that Daddy was 'in-cline' to sit on his arse in front of the fire too much."
"Hey, wait, Aser! There's my tree, over there, see it?" His semi-transparent arm pointed to the left and up. And sure enough, there was a huge old oak on its side, the bark gone, with a surface as smooth as a floor. Stretching for perhaps fifty feet, its bare branches formed a maze of bars that a boy could practice climbing in for hours, and a cluster of laurel arched against the side of the great trunk on the uphill side, over a mossy area that undoubtedly was the resting area for deer, and would have made a fabulous secret place for Targold to visit, away from his farm chores.
"That is a magnificent tree," I told him. "Does it look different than it used to?"
"Not a tick's worth," he said. "On the other side of it, I carved the shape of my hand, let's go and look at it!"
I walked around the huge span of whitened roots, and there on the side of the tree, about as high up as my chest, was a palm-shaped carving, dug into the wood probably with a little belt knife. There was some weather staining on the carving, but not much. Targold had been here less than five years before, at the most.
Had his parents forgotten about him after he died, or were they merely not sentimental that they never visited his grave? Did they plow the field and just give him a nod at a distance too far for him to perceive? Or had they moved out of the area completely? I had no idea, and would not go back to find out on this trip. In the fall perhaps, after I'd visited with Eduin and Eveska, I'd seek out people who had a deceased son they thought of as "Ignatz Clovis" and let them know that his body was safely in a cemetery to the south, not defiled as the dug-up earth under the rock might make it seem.
"See? There's my hand, my left hand. I used my right hand with my knife. Grandmamma used to say that since I used my right hand to pick things up and to eat with, that I could probably learn to write some day. She said people who always use their left hand, like my sister, never could learn to write good, and they shouldn't even waste a teacher's time trying to learn. But my sister could sew good enough, even with her left hand." For a ghost, Targold was very 'present.' He was as talkative as any boy the age he was when he died, and not very concerned that he was dead or that he had lost a lot when he died. I wondered if anyone had paid much attention to him while he was alive, other than when Grandmamma decided to share her bullshit admonitions.
"Well, Targold of the Tree, are you ready to travel on?"
"Targold of the Tree! I like that! Yes, let's go -- are we going to cross the magic border at the top of the ridge?" his ghost stretched far above my head as though trying to sight the pinnacle.
"We are going to cross that magic border before noon," I assured him.
"Oh, this is going to be fun," he said with his ghostly smile. "The stones are that way."
The climb under the tall trees was not difficult, and we made good time. With me talking aloud to the ghost, the game stayed away from our path, and the rattle of the leaves under my feet sent up a pleasant odor and warned the snakes to move away. The morning changed from chill to balmy, and a little breeze picked up to cool my neck and legs.
After a period of quiet, when the only sounds were the movement of my feet in the fallen leaves and the occasional whisper of the breeze, Targold asked me, "Are you a girl?"
"Not for a long, long time," I replied. "I'm kind of an old woman now. But I was a girl once."
"How come you go around by yourself looking at the world, then? My grandmamma said girls can't go off alone, not ever. Didn't anyone ever tell you that?"
"No, I was a different kind of girl. Can you see the mark on my face?" I asked him.
"Yes! It glows like a firebug! And you have the same mark on your shoulder -- it even glows through your dress!"
"This is a robe, not a dress. There's a difference. One is dignity, one is vanity. Anyway, the tattoo on my face and shoulder mark me as a shaman, one who sees the unseen, and helps people when they are in need, and brings medicines to people who are sick. So almost everyone in the world will not harm me." At least not unless they can catch me, I thought, remembering the dwarf gangs and the lizardmen and the evil wizards and a number of pissed-off elves that I had provoked in the past. "Thus my people travel the world and are taught to travel the world, be they women or men."
The specter laughed, a lovely, innocent sound to hear.
"What is funny about that?" I asked, puzzled.
"I never heard anyone use the word 'thus' before! You're like somebody in an old story the tinker used to tell when he came around to fix Mamma's pots and kettle!"
"Well, I did say that I was old, now didn't I?" and I laughed a little, too. I looked up from watching where my feet were placed and stopped. There was the top of the ridge, and on it, the standing stones Targold had told me about, shining light gray in the sunlight that broke through the canopy where the logging trail ran.
The north side of them, as we approached, was covered with lichen, giving them a flaky look on their rough granite sides. The south side of them, though, was polished and clean, and each one of the three had circles engraved into them: the easternmost stone had three circles side by side, the center one three circles in a vertical pattern, and the one on the west had six circles -- in a circle. I frowned at them, as they didn't denote a desmesne border; the border of this desmesne was well on the other side of the Gershom Caravan Trail. I had come across no castles along this way, and had no idea what the symbols meant. I looked around for other clues, and found none. Even the logging trail had not been used for a while, and grass grew in patches and clumps on it.
"Can you read those magic runes?" the ghost asked me, standing close. "What do they mean?"
"Don't stand too close to the shaman," I told the boy sternly. "When you touch me, I get the icy heebie jeebies."
"Okay, sorry." He moved a step away.
"The precision of the carving bespeaks itself of the Elven Folk," I decided to say. "And do stop giggling over the word 'bespeaks,' would you? The stones are old, and not tended, hence the lichens on them. And indeed, elves do not do things in threes -- they have a lot of time on their hands and tend to do things in twelves or fifteens. I could hazard a guess that some humans hired an elf to make the carvings and polish one side of the stones -- perhaps all the humans could afford, because elf artisans aren't cheap, even the non-artistic ones. When they carve, they charge by the linear inch."
"Elves!" Targold whispered in awe.
Slightly irritated by the immediate typical fascination people have with elves, I went on. "It's possible that the circle denotes a family, and that there were three brothers and their families who lived here: that would be the side by side circles. And perhaps that three generations lived here, too: that would be the vertical," I said tracing my finger around them. "And the larger circle of circles might be a sign that all who lived here lived in harmony and supported one another."
"Wow, that's fantastic! Who were the people, do you think?" said the ghost, touching the circles through my hand and giving me instant chilblains.
I shook my hand and tried to remember he was just a kid. "I don't know. I'm just guessing. It could just be a drunken elf practical joke that they set up, so that passers-by would stop and puzzle over the sign while they kept out of sight in the bushes and laughed their butts off. Probably spent about sixty years doing that, and then finally lost interest."
"But what about the magic spell?"
"I see the spirits of people who haven't traveled on to the next world, Targold, not magical walls or hexes and things. That's more like mathematics, which I never cared for much."
"Mathematics! That's a magical word, for sure -- I remember my dad saying that we lost a corn crop in the aftermath of a storm, that was why we had to eat a couple of our cows. Do you think an evil mage might have done it with mathematics? Tell me, tell me about mathematics!"
Well, it was a subject that would pass the time.