‘Changer's Wood’, Stephen Taylor

Illustrations © 2017 Pear Nuallak

 [ Shipwreck, © 2017 Pear Nuallak ] It was the first shipwreck on Half-Ring island in years. It was the first real ship to sail within sight of the island in over a decade. Black luck that it had wrecked.

“We found a few bodies,” Adge said quietly. “Two men. A woman. And the boy here, of course.”

“He’s still alive?” Iridi asked.

“Hmm. Maybe hurt a little, but he’ll be fine.”

Iridi scowled. Glad as he was that the boy hadn’t drowned with the others, it was sobering news. It was too similar to the last shipwreck, all of fifty years before. Iridi’s own shipwreck.

He sat with Adge in a low hut near the south end of the wastes. It was hot as smelting bronze, and the windows cut into the round hut offered only a warm whisper of a breeze. Adge, who was a few years older than Iridi, dabbed his forehead with a colorless piece of cloth almost as scarred and patched as his own skin. Iridi just let the sweat run down himself. There was no stopping the scorch of summer on Half-Ring island.

“What do we do with him, then?” Iridi asked. It was an uncomfortable question, one Adge no doubt had hoped to ask rather than to answer.

“Well, I suppose we can wait a day or two,” Adge stammered. “Maybe his boat wasn’t alone. They might have been part of some sort of trade caravan.”

“I don’t think ships travel like that.”

“How’d you know? You aren’t much of a sailor, if you remember.”

No, Iridi wasn’t. His only memory of sailing over the open ocean was the day, fifty odd years ago, when he’d wrecked on Half-Ring. Since then he’d never tempted the blue depths again. Give him dry, burnt land, copper and cracked from aeons of unrelenting sunlight but strong enough to break any wave or storm.

They agreed reluctantly to leave the boy there in Lilé’s hut for the night. While he rested and recovered, perhaps they could find a family on the island to take him for a day or two.

“Surely any other nearby ship will look for him by then,” Adge said.

Again Iridi scowled. Was age all scowling and frowning, wrinkles and stiff eyebrows that couldn’t bend into smiles? He was beginning to wonder. But he felt sure, no matter what hope Adge fostered, that no ship would come. No ship had come for Iridi. Who would expect to find a solitary boy still alive out here, beyond the routes of any sane sailor in the known world?

He and Adge stepped outside into the last few hours of sunlight. Days were long on Half-Ring. They’d only have five or six hours to sleep before dawn stung the island again.

“How many people know about the boy yet?” Iridi asked.

“You and me. Lilé. Wrend, Temp. Maybe a few others.”

That was unfortunate. Temp was a gossip, and Wrend was the worst complainer on Half-Ring. “No doubt the two of them will blame the boy’s arrival for everything to go sour in the last turn of the moon,” Iridi sighed. Plague, drought, misconception, tidal waves and any other heartache Half-Ring’s people knew.

Adge grunted and shrugged his bony shoulders. “Gossip or complaint, it’s still a bad portent.”

Iridi bit back a sharp reply. “I’ll look in on the boy first thing in the morning. We can see what he knows, and whether another ship is likely to come for him. Until then, let’s keep his presence quiet.”

“Whatever you say.”

They nodded goodnight to each other, and Adge walked off along the flat, cracked road of red earth.

The fifty years since Iridi’s own shipwreck had shaped him into a leader on Half-Ring island. He, along with Lilé, Adge, Anón and a few others, made most of the important decisions nowadays. Their island had no king or queen like Iridi remembered hearing about as a boy. They didn’t need one. There was nothing to rule over but a few ragged villages of redstalk farmers, shallow-water fishermen and bird trappers.

It had all been strange to Iridi when he’d arrived. He’d been a pale boy from some nameless place endless leagues to the north and east, and the sienna-skinned islanders had no trust for him. Then he showed them his magic craft—a wonder on any island, a miracle on Half-Ring. Ever since that, Iridi had been a valuable member of the island community. He still wondered sometimes whether people really trusted him, but what else did he have to go to? He had no family. As far as he knew, he’d been alone since before his shipwreck.

He smiled bitterly as he thought of the fair-skinned boy Adge had fished up. He supposed he should feel more sympathy for him, alike as they were.

Iridi waited outside Lilé’s hut until she arrived from a meeting with Anón and Temp. She was a sturdy woman with hair turning the colors of sun-split storm clouds. She waved dully as she reached the hut.

“You’ve seen the boy?”

“Only just,” said Iridi. “Any others to be found?”

“Temp says no. Oh, and Wrend asked about your latest prentices.”

Iridi spat. “Can’t he leave it alone for a minute? We have other things to worry about!”

Lilé raised her eyebrows. “Not as he tells it. He says the shipwrecked boy is the reason Anón’s crops are having trouble. And the reason the last few stone trees rotted.”

Living bones, it had started already. The boy hadn’t been there five hours before rumors and curses and omens started sprouting up around him. Iridi hated every bit of it. He’d be tied and left on the wastes in open sunlight before he let a helpless boy be blamed for the misfortune of the forsaken island.

“Why does Wrend care about prentices, then?” he asked, trying to keep his voice level.

“Your magic could be useful, as he sees it,” Lilé replied. “You can’t be everywhere, healing crops and fixing broken latches at once. Maybe if you had a few prentices you could stave off whatever curse the outland boy brings.”

“You know it’s not the boy that’s cursed, Lilé.”

“But Wrend doesn’t,” Lilé said. She was always so coldly practical. Iridi could never tell if it made him like her more or if it just annoyed him. “So. How are the prentices?” she asked again.

“Worthless. None of them has the gift.”

“As usual. I suppose it’s your own outland curse that lets you work your magic and stops any island-born child from doing it.”

It was a shame Wrend and his gossipy wife Temp were too stupid to see it.

“I’m coming back in the morning to check on the boy,” Iridi said. “He should have someone talk to him who knows a thing or two about being shipwrecked.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll mind him until then. Where are you off to now?”

“The wood. I need some time to rest.”

“Isn’t it exhausting enough to plod out there?”

“Everything’s exhausting at our age,” Iridi said.

He put Sunset Village behind him and walked toward the coast. It was one of the few parts of the island that rose upward, great stretches of red and brown earth sloping into a few wind-beaten cliffs that looked like a hand extended to shield Half-Ring’s eyes from the setting sun. In the deep shadows of those cliffs was a little half-grove of trees. Changer’s Wood, Iridi had named it fifty years back.

He pulled the changer from his pocket as he went. It was a small piece of yellow gemstone set in varnished wood and shaped like an ancient tree. His talisman from the world he’d once known. His luck piece. His magic, brought with him from the far north where such things still existed.

The trees of Changer’s Wood were also yellow, cloaked in leaves bright as sunlight on clear water. They stood one by one, scattered twenty or thirty steps apart. It was the closest thing Half-Ring had to a forest, or what Iridi remembered vaguely of forests. It was there that he went when the changer stiffened against his side and his magic drained out. It was there, in the silence of golden leaves, that he let it recharge and regather.

Perhaps Wrend would soon realize that it was the changer, not his own skill, that let him mend cloth, invigorate withered redstalks, bind broken wood and clay or suck water from deep in Half-Ring’s wellsprings by magic. He couldn’t teach another changer into existence. It was no wonder every prentice Wrend suggested could do no more than stare in awe at Iridi’s magic. It wasn’t because they lacked the gift for it. It was because the gift came from the changer itself, and there were no more of them on Half-Ring. Just the one Iridi’d had since he was a boy.

He sat beneath the yellow leaves until the sun was nothing but a bleeding ember in the west. The quiet of the trees replenished the magic he’d spent fixing ropes and farming implements that day, and let his worries dry like sweat. Not truly gone, but thinned to nothing more than a mild smell.

One worry remained in the back of Iridi’s mind as he returned to Sunset Village and found his own tiny round hut. It rolled back and forth in his mind as he lay on a thin pallet stuffed with grass and rockvines. He worried for the outland boy. He worried because he couldn’t bring himself to hope that this boy, too, would have washed up on Half-Ring with a means of magic in his hands. And without it, he had no life ahead of him there.

There were three villages on Half-Ring, and Iridi had agreed to work in its central one that next day—a messy scattering of huts and leans called Heart Village. It would be a few hours walk each way for him, so he made sure to stop by Lilé’s hut first. It might be his only chance to see the outland boy.

“He’s awake,” Lilé said at the door of her hut. “Won’t talk to me, though.”

“Maybe he’ll speak with another outlander,” Iridi said.

“He won’t know the difference, old friend. Your hair’s as sun-colored as ours now. Even your skin looks like Half-Ring dust now.”

He’d seen to that himself, dyeing himself bit by bit over the course of years. He depended on blending in completely.

“I’ll try my luck with him, Lilé,” he said stiffly, and walked inside.

The boy was still in bed, eyes wide and nervous. He glanced at Iridi as he entered, then looked away quickly, red flushing up into his cheeks. He had to be terrified, gods help him.

“You haven’t eaten yet, eh?” Iridi asked with a jab of his old fingers toward a bowl of ground grains.

Nothing from the boy.

“Eat up. It’ll help you get your bearings, I think.”

Still nothing.

“What island is yours?” Iridi asked. He was running out of patience. Old age was stripping it all from him, every virtue he’d once prided himself on.

The boy’s eyes shifted, but still he said nothing.

“You can tell me, boy. Is it Korol? Kap? Maybe one of the Alidas?”

At last the boy responded. He turned slowly to meet Iridi’s eyes. “Close to the Alidas,” he said. He spoke in a way that sounded delicate even beyond his young age.

Iridi could remember very little of his childhood knowledge of the world’s oceans and islands, but he remembered a few nearby the Alidas, where he’d been born. “How about Ithil?” he asked. “Or Ruish?”

“You know Ithil?” the boy asked.

“Only from afar. I sailed by it once, when I was young like you.” Iridi nudged the grain bowl. “Eat. You probably need it.”

The boy pushed himself up ever so slightly on the short bed of cloth that Lilé had made him. “Where am I now?”

“South and west, probably a year’s sail away.”

“I was only on the boat for a few weeks—” the boy said desperately.

“I’m only fooling,” Iridi said quickly. “It just feels farther than it really is. You see, I’m from the Alidas myself. Or, I was once.”

Perhaps the boy did feel some connection there. His face softened a bit. After a moment he reached out and accepted the bowl of grains Lilé had left.

“What are you called?” Iridi asked.


“Uril, you can call me old man Iridi. Did the woman here tell you about the boat you sailed on?”

Again his eyes went wide. “… it’s sunk,” he said simply. “She said it hit a rock.”

So Lilé had delivered the hardest message. Iridi offered a silent prayer of thanks for that. “Who were you sailing with?”

Eyes wider yet, Uril lowered his face into his food. “No one.”

“But there must have been someone on the boat with you. A sailor, or some uncle or cousin looking out for you?”

“No one. They didn’t care about me.”

“What about your parents?” Iridi asked.

It was a painful question. It stung him to ask, and he was sure it would prick the boy to be asked. But he had his own morbid curiosity to satisfy. He wondered whether it were possible that Uril had been abandoned as completely as he himself had been fifty years before.

“I don’t have parents,” Uril mumbled. “Just me.”

Hearing that made Iridi suddenly dizzy. He staggered backward and had to reach a dry hand against the walls of the hut to steady himself. Memories collided like banks of cloud in a lighting storm—because he too been alone when he was shipwrecked, bereft of any family. By every god, he and Uril were too similar for him not to feel the boy’s terror.

Uril noticed his discomfort. Somehow he had the manners, presence of mind or just the fear not to comment on it. It wasn’t until the boy finished his food that Iridi found it in himself to speak again.

“Listen, Uril,” he said. “Listen close, and don’t forget what I’m about to tell you.” His voice weakened to a hoarse whisper. “We’re alike, you and me. We’re both outsiders from the north. So we have to watch out for each other on this island.”

The boy’s face clouded over. “Is it safe here?”

The question made Iridi ache inside. All the loneliness he’d felt for five burning decades swept over him. The feelings of being the white-skinned outlander. The envy as his friends married Half-Ring girls, or as younger fools like Temp and Wrend earned the ear of the island that he’d had to toil so long to gain. The questions of what life he might have had if his ship hadn’t struck rock near this island. It almost made him stagger again.

“Yes,” he forced himself to say. “Yes, we are safe here.”

Just outsiders. Just omen-bearing, cursed, unwanted outsiders.

Iridi stepped back and sniffed. Uril seemed to have a pleading look in his eyes, and it was all Iridi could do to avoid it now.

“I should be going,” he said. “I have work in another village today, but I’ll be back to see you later.” He’d almost left before he remembered the real reason he’d even come to see the boy. “Oh. One more thing. Was your ship sailing alone, boy?”

Uril nodded.

“No one else that knew where it was, or might come looking for it?”

“Just us.”

So the boy had no one. He might not even be missed.

“Why?” Uril asked.

Iridi pushed back his grim feelings and faked a shrug. “An old man gets curious. And it would be a nice thing to see a northern ship again, after all the years I’ve been here.”

“They threw me off.”

Iridi turned again to leave, not registering what the boy had said, but he stopped once more. Surely he’d heard wrongly. “What’s that?”

“They threw me off the ship.”

“… Who threw you off?”

“The sailors. They threw me off when we came close to this island.”

That couldn’t be true. Gods, could the boy really be so cursed as fools like Wrend might think?

“Tell me,” Iridi said quietly. “What happened?”

The boy pushed himself up to where he could look Iridi in the face. “They said something about the island, and some of them were cursing. Then they threw me off.”

Just like that? “Had you hit something, or wrecked already?”

“No, but we were caught in the waves, and we were close to the rocks.”

The emptiness expanded in Iridi’s stomach. He swallowed to stop himself from swearing. How could they do this to the boy? To any boy?

“Now,” he stammered, thinking fast. “I once saw a man throw his child from a boat when he was about to hit a bar of stone beneath the water.”


“To try and save the child, see,” Iridi said. “The boat was due to wreck when they crashed, so he threw his lad to make sure the boy was clear of the rocks when they struck.”

It was true. It was a stretch, but maybe that had been in the minds of Uril’s companions when they hurled him from their ship. Iridi tried to smile and believe it, and Uril seemed to accept what he’d said. Let him think that, no matter what the truth might be. Let him believe that he’d been saved, not abandoned.

“I’ll be back later,” Iridi said.

Uril nodded his head and lay back.

Iridi only had a few minutes to confer with Lilé before he headed out for his daily work. She reported that no one else had been found along the shore, and that no other boats had been spotted.

“So. What do you suggest we do with him, Iridi?” she asked.

It was an impossible question. The only ship on Half-Ring that could get Uril to any decent island was Anón’s, which wasn’t even finished yet. And they could never take the boy far enough to find any family. The best they could do was try to find some boat, some farmer, some craftsman to take him on as a worker.

They already knew that Uril wouldn’t be welcomed on Half-Ring.

“I need to tend some crops below Heart,” Iridi said. He steered away from Lilé’s patient, questioning gaze.

“Don’t be long. We need to decide something soon.”

“Why? Nothing will change between now and tomorrow.”

“Maybe. But if it does, the boy will be blamed.”

For the ten thousandth time, Iridi inwardly cursed these shallow, selfish islanders he’d grown up with. He couldn’t change them, though, and Lilé was right. They would make black signs and dark meanings of everything that happened while an outland child was on Half-Ring.

The morning and afternoon rubbed away like dirt on the palm of a hand. Iridi spent a few hours using his magic to heal redstalk, windgrain, mudroot and finpetal crops outside Heart Village. The sun was red, and the earth was redder. The south wastes—ten barren miles of straw-colored grass and brittle stonetrees—curved like a cresting wave around Heart. Its people were strong and resilient, but visiting it always left Iridi feeling scarred, battered, drained and old.

“I have a new prentice you could try,” Wrend called as Iridi prepared to leave. “Maybe this one will have the gift.”

Not that again. But Iridi couldn’t say no to every child and youth Wrend suggested, so he bobbed his head and mumbled something about meeting the child in a day or two.

He was so tired when the day ended that he didn’t even have time to stop at Lilé’s. The walk from village to village also meant that he’d have no time til after sundown to revisit Changer’s Wood. No time to renergize his magic. The changer felt limp and cold in his pocket, lifeless as a husk. Maybe he could see to it early, before he went to work on Anón’s ship.

He didn’t sleep—not properly, anyway. He tossed and turned on his cot, bumping his elbows against the clay and earthen walls of his hut while his mind bounced from dream to dream. Dreams about shipwrecks and red-skinned strangers. The night was stifling, and he realized late that he hadn’t taken the cloth covering away from his windows, so his own hot breath was trapped inside with no evening breeze to cool him.

A few hours after the sun was completely gone, Iridi gave up on sleep and walked out into the night. He carried the changer with him, and he turned straight toward Changer’s Wood.

The trees seemed to glow in the blackness of night, pale gold leaves lighting the ground below and the coastal cliffs behind. It was blissfully silent—just the thing the changer needed to rebalance its power. Iridi sat under the westmost tree and sighed to himself.

For the first time in over ten years, he tried earnestly to remember his home island in the Alidas. All that was clear to him was a blue mountain peak crowned with snow. He couldn’t remember parents. He couldn’t remember sisters or brothers or cousins. He couldn’t even remember why or where he’d been sailing. Just the fifty years after, trying to make his way on the red island.

He’d been uneasy all day, and the night before, as he thought about Uril. Then, sitting in the quiet light of golden leaves, he realized why. It wasn’t that he was afraid for the boy, or even that he was particularly sad for him. It was that he was afraid for himself.

All these years he’d tried to become a Half-Ring islander. All these years dying his skin and hair, practicing the island accent alone in his hut, watching the others to know how to move and what to eat. More than half of the islanders grew up with Iridi as one of them—the magic man from Sunset Village. But surely a few others remembered, and had been freshly reminded now, that Iridi wasn’t from Sunset. He was from his own island, far away. He’d never be one of them.

The changer throbbed in his pocket, a small heartbeat revived by the night’s silence. Even now, it was his only safeguard. It kept him useful. It gave him license to stay. He could almost feel its magic escaping as he thought about it, pouring out like wine from a punctured skin.

It weighed on his mind three hours under the yellow trees, another hour as he walked back to Sunset Village, and it stayed with him through the short time he had left before dawn.

In the morning he stopped in to see Uril. His visit was short. No news of other outlanders. No ships. Not much for the boy to do but look around the village. And even that was risky, since seeing him might remind the islanders of bad luck.

“Is this my home now?” Uril asked.

His question made Iridi flinch. It was so innocent, so sincere.

“No,” Iridi said quickly. “We’ll find a way to get you on another boat north. Back where you belong.”

The boy’s face betrayed neither fear nor relief at this, so Iridi left it at that.

The walk to Sighter’s Rock was long for him nowadays. It took him almost four hours to cross through the low, winding acres of crops and sun-stained dirt around Heart Village. Finally he found the ground sloping downward, and he spotted Sighter’s Rock below him. It was the biggest of the villages, with a pier right on Half-Ring’s rocky corner and a few twisted streets with wooden buildings, where the other villages used only clay. If Anón’s ship sailed well, Sighter’s Rock would continue to thrive, trading with other islands. Maybe traders would even come to them, Iridi thought idly as he inched down the hill to the village.

His old friend Anón greeted him at the village’s edge. Anón was a big man, bald now, but with a steady energy that made him feel ageless. Iridi had been twenty years or so when Anón’s mother first sent him to see the magic man, and Iridi had struck up a sort of friendship with the bright-eyed boy. Now Anón led the village of Sighter’s Rock.

“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t make it,” he laughed as he walked down the windy road to town with Iridi.

“That road gets longer each time I come,” Iridi replied. He was sweaty and dry-mouthed, more than ready to rest in the shade for a few hours. But that wouldn’t do. “Tell me more about this boat of yours that I’m here to see.”

The new boat was a beauty. It was twenty paces long and wider than most of the huts of Half-Ring. Only reeds and redstalks grew on the slopes above Sighter’s Rock, so Anón and his craftsmen had had to gather wood from all over the island to complete the boat.

“Almost a year of work now,” Anón said proudly as he led Iridi to his clay and stone workshop beside the pier. “But all we need to finish it is your binding spell.”

The size of the craft daunted Iridi from the moment he saw it. It would be a challenging spell to pattern, especially as tired as he felt just then. He gritted his teeth and gripped the changer, which was hidden beneath his gear belt.

With painful slowness, Iridi bent his mind toward the boat. The changer responded to the gentle turning in his hands—his weaving of the binding spell. Where would he be if he hadn’t learned these crafts as a child on one of the Alidas? Perhaps Half-Ring had once owned crafts like this. They’d always been easy for Iridi to control, though he wondered how much more his changer could do that he’d never learned. Too late now, countless leagues from anyone else who could share its mysteries.

His concentration broke halfway through the spell. One of his hands had bumped against the great hull of the boat, which rested on stone balustrades each the thickness of three grown men, and the catch in his motion snapped the spell like a brittle branch.

Anón was there instantly, putting a steadying hand on Iridi’s shoulder. “Are you alright, old friend? You look exhausted.”

Sweat stung his eyes, and his head was reeling. He teetered back a moment, and was grateful to have Anón there to keep him upright.

“Come sit down and I’ll get you some water.”

“No,” Iridi said. “I need to finish the spell.”

“Rest first, Iridi. You can come back to this after you have a drink.”

It was no use arguing. He could barely stand, let alone focus enough to bind the boat’s hull with his already weakened magic. Anón brought him water, grain mash, flatbread and a whole yellowfin fish, try as Iridi did to wave the food away.

“I should have been a better host and had you to my home for a meal before expecting you to work on the boat,” Anón said.

Iridi scowled as he chewed on his mash. “You shouldn’t have needed to. Curse this old body and mind of mine! I can never tell where my breaking point is anymore.”

Anón smiled faintly. “I’ve heard twenty men and women say that while we worked on this ketch.”

“Age is a sickness,” Iridi spat. “Don’t catch it, Anón.”

“Can you put a spell on me to ward it away?”

“I probably couldn’t ward age away from this rock I’m sitting on right now. I just feel so beaten today.”

His friend waited in silence as he scooped more of his grain from the bowl and chewed the last bit of yellowfin.

“The boat can wait, you know,” Anón said at last.

“It’ll probably have to. Confound these old hands.”

As Anón took Iridi’s bowl and cup, he said, “Stay the afternoon. My boy is working in Heart now, so you could sleep on his old cot tonight and walk back tomorrow.”

It was a sour thought, because it seemed like bending in beneath his age and his weakness. “Maybe that’ll give me enough rest still to work this binding spell,” he said for his own benefit as much as Anón’s.

“And if not, no matter. You’re welcome here.”

Once more Anón smiled. Then he was gone, taking the empty dishes back to his home and leaving Iridi sitting against the balustrades alone.

You’re welcome here, he’d said.

He reached to his belt for the changer, which still throbbed. It even hummed lightly, as if it wanted its magic to be set free for use on the boat or a crop blight or a roof that needed patching. But it had failed—Iridi’s magic had failed—and still he was there. To Anón the failure seemed no worse than forgetting to check a fish net.

It had happened a hundred times before. He’d failed to mend something for Lilé, or botched a spell to strengthen a newborn lamb, lost his focus as he tried siphoning water from beneath the wastes, overdone a binding spell and stuck a clay dish to the table on which it was crafted, but it made him wonder how his superstitious, self-absorbed Half-Ring friends could treat his failure so lightly. How could they fear his very outland nature so much, yet accept him so naturally, even without his magic?

Fifty years of hurt and loneliness suddenly became a question in Iridi’s mind. Maybe Half-Ring had accepted him all along.

Anón was back with one of his workers, a young woman whose mother had once scolded Iridi for tramping on her mudroot. She smiled and offered to show him what they’d done to extend and strengthen the pier.

“First, let me try my hand at this boat once more,” he said. He felt a new vigor welling inside him.

“Are you sure?” Anón asked. “I’m grateful, of course, but I understand if you’d rather not.”

No. His mind was calming, and his body felt invigorated by his new clarity of thought. He waved Anón and the woman aside with the stubbornness his age afforded him. Then he stretched into the motions of his binding spell.

That time, he completed it. Wooden beams, previously held with gum, bone glue, copper nails and latches, now fused tightly as if they had grown into the boat’s curved shape. It was fine work, and it was his work.

Anón laughed like a child. “It always amazes me, Iridi, no matter how many times I see you work your craft.”

“May we both live to see the craft a thousand times more,” Iridi replied. “Now, I think I’ve changed my mind about staying the evening. I’m going back to Sunset.”

“Are you sure?” the woman asked. “It’s a two hour walk at least.”

Only two? How could anyone walk it that quickly? “Yes, I’m sure,” Iridi said. “Thanks for the meal.”

“At least take some wine or water for the way back,” Anón said, and went off to find a skin.

As he climbed the winding Sighter’s Rock road and set out around the wastes, Iridi considered what would become of him if his magic ran out that very day. He thought about it all the long walk back to Sunset Village.

It was only an hour or so from nightfall when Iridi finally reached Lilé’s hut. Uril was there, sitting in the red dirt and playing with a rusted chain puzzle. His skin was red and raw, burned no doubt. He stood when he saw Iridi.

“Come with me, Uril,” Iridi said without halting. “I want to show you something.”

The boy’s blue eyes widened. “Ma’am Lilé said not to leave here.”

“Lilé!” Iridi yelled into the hut. “I’m taking Uril for a while! Come on. She’ll forgive an old friend like me.”

 [ Changer's Wood, © 2017 Pear Nuallak ] An old friend. He finally felt like one.

Iridi led the boy west across the coast path, straight to the long shadows of the cliffs, where Changer’s Wood glinted like a scattered patch of suns growing on reeds.

“What’s this place?” Uril asked as his eyes looked between the yellow trees.

“I call it Changer’s Wood. It’s a place I come when I want some silence.”

Uril was already nearly as sweaty as Iridi, who’d been walking almost five hours now. He retreated into the shade of the rocks and the trees, though his eyes danced in wonder around the scattered treetops. It was a wonder Iridi still felt, after fifty years of gold leaves and blazing sunlight.

“I need to ask you a few things, Uril.”

A nod. “What things?”

“You have no one to go to, if you leave this island. Is that right?”

Another nod, though more hesitant. “Why do you want to know?”

He asked it as if he were asking about what they’d eat that night. By the gods, that same question could crush any grown man or woman.

“I think you should stay here,” Iridi said quietly. “You can live with me, if you like.”

“Because you’re from the Alidas?”

“And you’re from Ithil. See?”

“We’re alike,” Uril said. “I remember what you told me.”

His open trust made Iridi ache inside. Would that he could earn it well. “What do you think of being my prentice?” he asked.

The boy frowned a little. “You mean like a craftsman?”

“Of sorts, yes. I’ve no helper on this island, and as you can see I’m getting old and stiff. Maybe one of these days I’ll need to give my trade up.”

The boy’s frown deepened. He kicked at the dirt, eyes moving away from Iridi. “Is it always so hot here?”

For what felt like the first time in a month, Iridi laughed. “Only when the sun’s up. So, yes. It’s always like this.”

But Half-Ring was a peaceful place, where the boy would come to be loved. It could be his home, if he wanted it to be. Iridi just wished he’d understood that fifty years sooner. Maybe he would have if he’d had someone to guide him. Maybe he could be that guide for Uril.

“What do you think?” he asked. “I’ll teach you the trade, and you can stay here with me. You can tell me about Ithil, and I’ll tell you what I remember about the Alidas.”

Uril nodded yes.

“Here, then. I have something for you.” He pulled the changer from his belt.

“What is it?” Uril asked.

“It’s part of our trade. Yours now, really,” Iridi said as he pressed the yellow gemstone into Uril’s pale little hand. “Sit quietly here a while and I’ll start teaching you how to use it.”

They sat until the sky and ocean, cliffs, wastes and even the gold treetops had darkened. Then Iridi led the way back to his hut, where, for the first time in fifty years, he felt like he belonged.

© 2017 Stephen Taylor

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