This was supposed to be an easy assignment. Find the Water People, Master Ulreg had said, in the Valley of Lakes. They gather at the full moon of every month. All Launtis had to do was to deliver the King’s invitation to the Summer Feast, he said.
But there was one problem.
The Water People would not stop talking.
Launtis, ever prepared, had arrived in the valley long before the Water people. As the sun had set over the western mountains, he watched the shadows grow long and the moon peek over the eastern mountains. Then he heard them.
He first thought that great waters rushed toward the valley from the cliffs above, but when the first of the Water people emerged from the shadows, he discovered that the sound came from the echoes of their voices across the valley.
The people flowed into the valley like the water for which they were named, their clothing flashing silver-blue in the moonlight, their hair white as waterfalls. Some laughed, a high, trickling sound like woodland streams. Others whispered, a soft, many-toned sound like rain upon leaves. Still others roared, with the deafening thunder of a river pouring over a cliff and pounding into a basin below. Some voices ebbed and flowed, like waves curling on the sea shore and retreating again. A few made soft, percussive speeches, like the falling of drops onto a still, glassy lake.
They nodded at Launtis, smiled in greeting, and flowed around him, never breaking stride. He searched for hours for a king or a representative to whom he might deliver the message, but all looked alike to him. He tried shouting above the din, but he soon gave up. He could not even hear himself.
Still they smiled and flowed and talked.
“Yes, the stranger is welcome.”
“A stranger is here! He is welcome!”
No one seemed interested in hearing what the very welcome stranger might have to say.
At last, Launtis sat on a stone at the edge of a lake (one of many in the valley), and cupped his chin in his hands. The reflection of his mournful face stared back at him.
And here he had been for hours, while the night grew older and his chance to give the message slipped away with every passing moment. Dawn would come soon, the meeting would end, and he would have failed.
Launtis snorted, though it could hardly be heard above the cacophonic babble around him. He should have known. Since when did Master Ulreg give him an easy task?
From the very first assignment as apprentice to the aged Interpreter, Launtis had had his foot—both feet, actually—in trouble of all kinds.
“I can speak twelve languages,” Launtis had said confidently, on that bright morning, almost a full year ago.
“Can you now?” Master Ulreg opened one eye. He reclined on the southern slope of a hill, breathing in the warmth of the light contentedly, with his hands folded on his stomach. His long gray beard flowed over his chest and Launtis tried not to notice that a few ants explored it with curiosity.
“Twelve languages,” Master Ulreg muttered, closing his eyes again and sighing. “Which ones?”
Launtis straightened his lanky body and hoped he looked impressive. “I can speak the languages of Ice, Fire, Stone, Wind, Evergreen, Freshwater Fish…”
“Can you speak Songbird?” Master Ulreg interrupted, without opening his eyes.
“Songbird? Of course. My teacher said that is one of the most fundamental lan…”
“Go to the forest,” said Master Ulreg. “Tell the Songbirds that it is time for their yearly treatment.”
“Lice,” said Master Ulreg shortly. “I brew them a medicated bath yearly. Go on.”
Launtis’ grand hopes for interpreting for kings and chieftains evaporated. Perhaps it was a test of his skill. Yes, it had to be a test. Launtis was half a mile down the road before realization struck him. Red as a beet, he returned to the hill.
“Which part of the forest should I go to?” he stammered, hoping that the question was vague enough to hide his real purpose.
In answer, Master Ulreg lifted a hand.
“The Forest,” he said dryly. “Is that way. Keep walking and you’ll find it.”
He pointed in the opposite direction of Launtis’ first dash.
Launtis was half-way down the hill before another thought struck him and he again turned back.
“Will take five days,” Master Ulreg finished. “You’ll find supplies in the cabin. Have fun!”
Fun. If only Launtis had known. Ten days later, Launtis arrived back at the cabin.
“Did you deliver the message?” Master Ulreg asked, stirring a large iron pot over the fireplace.
“Well, Master Ulreg,” Launtis began. “I began to speak to the Songbirds, but they…”
“I see. You didn’t deliver the message.”
Drat the old man. He could have at least had the courtesy to listen to Launtis’ carefully-planned speech. Launtis decided that his new master was very rude.
“Well?” asked Master Ulreg.
“Well what?” Launtis asked, slumping onto a nearby wooden chair dejectedly.
“Master Ulreg, they don’t understand anything I say.”
“You said you could speak Songbird,” Master Ulreg said, peering over his circular spectacles.
“I can,” said Launtis miserably. “Maybe they speak the wrong dialect.”
“Could you understand them?”
“Yes. Eventually. They sing everything. I tried to find one that would talk to me. No one would.”
Master Ulreg poked Launtis’s breastbone with a crooked finger.
“A language is not just words. It is the way the words are said.”
“You mean,” said Launtis slowly. “You have to sing the words for them to understand?”
Master Ulreg simply gazed at Launtis. “Go back and try again.”
Ten days later, Launtis returned, followed by a fleet of Songbirds. Somehow the completion of his assignment did not make up for the fact that he spent the next several weeks nursing his blistered heels and sore shins, and sneezing his way through a wretched cold.
The next assignment had been no better.
“Go tell the Mountain People,” said Master Ulreg, “that the Flatlanders would like to meet next year in the Flatland capital about matters regarding the stone trade.”
“I don’t know Mountain,” stammered Launtis.
“You know Stone, don’t you? It’s the same thing, only on a grander scale.”
“How many days’ journey this time?”
Wordlessly, Launtis began to pack. Then he stopped. “Did you say the meeting will be held next year?”
“Why should I go now then?” He noticed Master Ulreg looking hard at him over the spectacles and added by way of apology, “Sir.”
“Because the Mountain people are not hasty folk. They need time to consider the proposal, and time to get to the meeting place.”
When Launtis still hesitated, Master Ulreg said, almost cheerfully, “Go on. I have every confidence in you.”
Given Launtis’ inauspicious beginnings, Launtis felt suspicious of Master Ulreg’s confidence, but he went anyway. This time he made sure to ask for directions.
Again, he returned empty-handed, and in a foul temper.
“They just groan, and they hardly move. I can’t understand a word.”
Master Ulreg set down his quill pen. “Slow down. Learn the culture. You will see.”
Launtis stayed with the Mountain people a whole month before he learned their dialect. Master Ulreg stood at the cabin door when Launtis arrived.
“Well, my boy?”
“They elongate their words,” replied Launtis hoarsely. “It took me four days to give the message.”
“Excellent! Come, I have some tea to soothe your throat.”
Launtis thought the third assignment could not possibly be worse. He was wrong.
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