Sticks & Stones - Information and Reviews
Sticks & Stones by Norm ThabitSteef's world is tranquil and idyllic to Steef. Waterspills and flutterbyes. Wondrous beasties, magical bees and one amazing tree.

His five Masters have contrived that peace for him at great risk. The world they know is growing dark. Politics and intrigue rule.

Reality is defined by the Guilds, whose purpose once was to serve, but who now serve only themselves. The Guilds would destroy the child if they could, for Steef possesses an unheard of ability to wield all seven Powers.

If he reaches manhood, the Guilds will be his.Steef's only defense is secrecy, and the only secret place left is a remote valley ruled by the long neglected HornCats.

The HornCats are truly noble beasts, unfortunately all other creatures to them are tasty.To his Masters, Steef is even more frightening. Eager. Warm. Relentlessly curious.

A perfect little boy who can kill with a sneeze. Yet they must train him! The valley will not be tranquil for the Masters. If they succeed in maintaining their confidentiality, survive the HornCats and keep Steef from blowing himself up, then Steef might reach his eighteenth birthday.

And he just might want to come out of that valley.
- A Great Masterpiece
I read this book when it first hit the internet. As I read this book it took over my mind. It was so inventive and imaginitive that I could not put it down. The book has already sold out once before on the internet and I believe that it will do it many more times.

P.S. Me and mom just wanted to say hi Norm.
by Bobby Thompson, Rocky Mount, NC
Dec 19, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
- Sticks and Stones
Absolutely wonderful. I didn't think it was possible to bring me to tears, but this book did it. Thank you Norm. Can't wait to read the sequel. BUY THIS BOOK AND AND THE SEQUEL!!!!!!!!!!
by Drew B. Morris, Lenoir, NC USA
Dec 07, 2005 (Paperback Edition)
- wow this is good.
Wow,this book is amazing it starts off slow but when it gets going it goes. This amazing tale brings the reader into a vast and incredible world of magic. I coudn't put it down and when i finished i was completly and uttterly mad, mad because it way to short. if you like the Harry Potter, lord of the rings, or any other captivating or interesting book you will love this.
by A Customer
Nov 30, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
- Enjoyable and Entertaining
"Sticks & Stones" is a fantasy novel, in a world where most people have one of seven types of magic, and everyone else has no magical ability at all. A magical healer (A--) discovers an incredibly powerful baby (S--) with all seven types of magic -- where previously, everyone thought it impossible to have even two. Also, this baby's talent is significantly stronger than that of ... Read Full Review...
by Margaret P. "mhp2027", Boulder, CO USA
Jan 22, 2007 (Paperback Edition)
- A delightful story on many levels
For readers of fantasy, this is a delightful story that moves on several levels. The characters are very human with various superhuman qualities. Good battles evil, but with unique weapons and without "out of the blue" interventions. It may take a while to get into the story, but it unfolds at a quickening pace. Occasionally preachy characters enter, but more often the messages of the s... Read Full Review...
by Curtis Tutterrow, Lenoir, NC
Sep 18, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
- Truly Amazing...
"Science fiction? Fantasy? (or "Science fantasy" as Norm calls it) No thanks... I'm not into that stuff..." At least... that's what I THOUGHT... until I read this... I'd been told this book was amazing... and I'm not usually into stuff like this at all... but I decided to pick it up anyway and give it a try. Then I couldn't put it down!! It was so easy to f... Read Full Review...
by Leslie K., Rocky Mount, NC
Dec 26, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
- Awesome Read!
This is one of the best examples of the fantasy genre I have read in a long time. A complete surprise from a new author! This is an intelligent, thoughtful mix of Tolkein and Rowling. A wonderful fantasy world that is completely believable with three dimensional characters that you love or love to hate. I would highly recommend this book to everyone that loves fantasy and to anyone who enjoys a c... Read Full Review...
by Donna Nichols, Granite Falls, NC
Sep 18, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
- Read, and re-read
Some stories deserve to be read more than once. This is one of those books! I read this one several years ago in paper, and re-read in that format another time or two. I enjoyed it so much I gifted several sci-fantasy fans I know with their own paper copies. So happy to find it in Kindle format ; I've read it again. Overjoyed to find its sequel just noww available in Kindle store too (Sticky ... Read Full Review...
by Tim P
Apr 24, 2012 (Kindle Edition)
- Sticks and Stones by Norm Thabit
I am not much of a fantansy fan but my husband raved about this book so I had to read it. The author writes in such a way that it grabs your attention. The reader cannot help but be facinated by the hero. Although it is written about an alternative world, it is so thoroughly explained that the reader begins to see the world in which the characters live. I couldn't put it down.
by Brenda Patton, Morganton, NC US
Sep 18, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
- "Welcome to the Steef Guild" Norm Thabit
I quoted the author because that's the statement that is reserved only for those that have been on this amazing journey. Please become a participant yourselves!

As the reader, you are instantly transported to a new world that is so believable, you catch yourself daydreaming ... seeing the author's vision as clear as Steef's power! Not only am I ready for the next installment, I can&#
... Read Full Review...
by "j_simmons", Atlanta, GA
Dec 11, 2003 (Paperback Edition)
Quick Book Info
Published2003-Aug-28 (Print)
2012-Apr-21 (Kindle)
Page Views4,364
Reviews24 Reviews
Rating5.0 of 5 Stars
Paperback448 pages
LanguageEnglish
ISBN-100595289312
ISBN-13978-0595289318
ASINB0062M2BJ8
Dimensions1.1" x 5.8" x 9"
Weight1.5 lbs
GenreFiction, Fantasy, Action & Adventure, Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology, Contemporary
Order LinksAmazon

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Sticks & Stones - Chapter 1 Excerpt

Sticks & Stones



by Norm Thabit



All Rights Reserved © 2003 by Norman Joe Thabit

ONE

      She loved to watch his face. So much expression. Wonder. Joy. The only time he wasn't wide-eyed was when he was contemplating something new. His mouth would set, the brows would crinkle over faraway eyes. When understanding struck, the wide came back to the eyes and the smile was always broad. Always. Even if the topic wasn't joyful, or fun, or even pleasant. She had asked him about it, cycles ago. He was still adolescent then, and the answer typically exceeded his age.
      "How can you be so happy about something so horrid?" she had asked. The topic on this night had been a stew of potion that would do foul things, and smelled it.
      He just broadened his smile and said, "I'll never use this on anyone and now no one can use it on me." He paused, and added, "Knowledge is sweet."
      "But the smell!" She was getting shrill from frustration.
      "The flowers on my walk in the morning will just smell sweeter for tonight's memory," he replied, ignoring her distress.
      He really talked like that. All the time. Enough to make anyone crazy. This from a teenager.
      Well, she wasn't frustrated with him any more. They had been together for seventeen cycles and she had given in to his constant barrage of joy, now passing her time watching his face. Etching it into her memory, for he was leaving this Valley. And though it was to be a short journey, she was afraid. She had thrown everything she could think of at him, as had the select few she brought in for his instruction. They had taught him all their tricks, except that lately he had been teaching them. But there was one terror left to him and she couldn't prepare him for this one. People.
      He would be eighteen soon and he had to go to the Mating Registry. He was amused.
      "I don't need or want a Mate," he said. "You've told me I don't have to take one, so why go? I'll just stay here. I'm perfectly happy here."
      "You're always perfectly happy," she replied, "But you are going, just the same. You don't want a Mate now, but if you don't Register now, finding one later will be almost impossible. At least not a girl of Power." She didn't think he would find one anyway, but for his sake, she couldn't not have him go, in spite of the risk.
      "Okay." Just like him not to argue if the reply made sense.
      The woman's name was Arima. She was a witch, though she didn't think of herself that way. To her mind, she was a Healer and a teacher and a Grader. She was also one hundred and twenty cycles old. Old by human standards, but not for her craft. Arima was tall for a woman, with a slender build and slender face. She had let her hair go completely white, not caring for the artificial looks of cosmetic Healing. She wore the traditional grey tunic of a White Master, with a round White badge sewn onto the bodice below her left shoulder. On that badge was the number Ten, with the additional markings for Master and her Grader status.
      His name was Steef. At eighteen, he had grown about as much as he would. Half a span shorter than her, he would have been slender as well, if not for the muscles developed from cycles of climbing through mountains and caves. His dark brown eyes looked darker still against wheat colored brows and hair. He wore simpler garments, which were clean and in good repair, but had no adornments of style or wealth. His badge was also White and bore a Five with no other markings. He didn't much care for the badge.
      Seventeen cycles ago, he had been just a few sevendays past his first birthday when his parents had arrived at Arima's tent for his Grading. Parents of Power were required to have all children Graded between their first and second birthdays, and Arima had been assigned the territory of plush mountains and valleys where Steef's family worked their land. She held two Gradings each cycle. This one, at the harvest Festival. And another at the planting Festival. For an entire sevenday, the people would come down out of the hills, to the tents set up on the flatland. Vendors and craftsmen would sell their goods to the simple folk, who would celebrate for a while and then disappear again with their purchases back into the woods.
      The small family had appeared at threequarterday on the last day of Festival. About as last-beat as they could get. All music had stopped, thankfully. As the ranking White here, she was supposed to sit in on at least a few of her own Guild's musical offerings, but she never did. She enjoyed listening, but hated to play. Most of all, she had lost her taste for Guild activity. The only noise filtering into her tent now was related to packing and leaving. She hadn't seen any children for two days, since most parents came to her early on in any Festival, even before they visited the other tents and vendors. But then, most parents were excited about having their children Graded. Steef's parents were terrified.
      She was in her tent, doing some packing herself, putting away badges and stones, when two of her Buzzbies 'Pop!'d in. They started circling inside the tent frantically, buzzing too fast to keep up.
      "Pill, would one of you please tell me?" she asked calmly. Both of them stopped buzzing and 'Pop!'d to a hover directly in front of her face.
      "bzzzzzzzzt!"
      "You know I can't understand you there. Now deliver your message properly, or leave. I'm busy." She was still calm. That wouldn't last.
      The Buzzbies pivoted to face each other, then one of them landed on her left shoulder and walked quickly to the bottom of her ear.
      "There is a child outside!," buzzed the small, quick voice.
      "That is not real news," Arima replied, "Though it is rather late in the Festival."
      "This is no ordinary child!"
      "I get a lot of 'not ordinary' children," she sighed, "Can you be more specific? No, I'll just go see myself."
      "Get your eyelenses!Do it now!"
      Well, that was intriguing. She picked up her lenses and went to the tent entrance. Pausing, she put the lenses on before opening.
      What she saw were two slender young adults, both of them fair-skinned with blond hair and brown eyes. Both were Green Two's, their respective staffs no more than sticks, really. The Father was holding a blanketed bundle of Power. Arima felt it almost like a blow. The Mother had been crying. A lot. The Father was shaking and looked grim.
      "Bright day, children. Please come in," Arima spoke in soft tones for their sake, while shielding her eyes. She was glad to have an excuse to turn away, and almost sprinted to her trunk where she retrieved a stronger set of lenses, the ones she used at Guild meetings. Turning back, she brought a bench for the couple and gestured for them to sit. After another pause, she took up her staff, just in case.
      "We warned you."
      "No you didn't. Not really. We'll talk later," replied the now flustered witch. "About your sense of humor. Again."
      "'Scuse me, Mum," spoke the Father. His voice shook too, "Were you sayin' somethin'?"
      "Just to myself," she responded. Bringing her tone back under control, she asked, "Please tell me what you fear? You will come to no harm here."
      The slender Mother had been looking for a chance to explode, and it began almost as a screech, which became an intelligible wail, "My babe's go' no Power! He's gonna be a 'Nert, an'...now it'll be 'fishul!"
      Arima understood instantly. Parents could usually see their child's Power at birth, when the cord was cut. An obvious flash of raw Power was often visible, even for parents who didn't have the Sight. These people had expected to see their baby's Power and hadn't. They were now sure that the child had no Power, which would mean a future of common labor. Inert... Powerless... people had little hope in this world. She resolved to be comforting.
      "There are times when parents can't see their baby's Power," she replied soothingly and almost truthfully, "And I definitely feel Power here." This part was true. It was giving her a headache. "Would you please unwrap the child?" She had assumed that it was a Cloaking blanket, for she hadn't Seen any Color. With the raw strength she could feel, a Color should be obvious.
      The Father pulled the flaps open to reveal a boy child. "He's called Steef. He jus' passed his firs' birthday."
      Arima's life changed on that beat. The blanket hadn't been Cloaking anything. It was just a blanket. She couldn't See the child's Power Color because there was... no Color. He Pulsed... with waves of... Clear Power. She rocked back, her breath catching in her mouth. Hands shaking, she swallowed down an instant impulse... to run. It was then that the child turned his small head and caught her eye. A tiny hand reached in her direction, companied with a laugh. A gurgling, happy laugh that washed through Arima like a Healing. Her shakes stopped. Her fears left her, for no apparent cause. Just a baby's laugh. Of course, this wasn't just... a baby.
      She turned back to the couple and spoke, holding their gaze seriously, "You need have no fear of Steef being Inert," she assured them, with a hard swallow, "His Power is strong! You couldn't See it.." she hesitated and drew a breath. She couldn't believe she was saying this, "Because... it has... no Color!"
      They had imagined many different answers, but that wasn't any of them. The Father sounded almost angry through his fear, "Don' play with us, Mum! He's gotta have some color! Red, Green, Bl... Black even! There's only seven of 'em and Clear isn' any!" He was getting louder.
      The old witch didn't reply right away, giving everyone a pause for calming. Maybe some tea she thought, turning to the fire and the pot that rested on it. She poured a cup for each of them, and offered. They hesitated.
      "I oath that it will not harm you. It is only tea," again as soothingly as she could muster. That wasn't entirely true, but she had made the tea for herself earlier, with only a bit of relaxant. They could all do with some. And she'd only oathed that it wouldn't harm them. She sat then, hoping that the casual gesture might relax them further.
      "Let me explain," she went on. "It is true that there are only seven forms of Power found in people. White, Black, Red, Yellow, Blue, Green, or Brown. Those of us that can channel Power are blessed with only one. But there are legends from the past...that sometimes...a Clear would occur. A person that can channel any of the Colors of Power. Some of us in the White Guild have believed in those legends...some haven't. And in you walk...with a Clear. A strong Clear. We must take him for strength testing." Arima marveled at how calmly she was saying these things. What had the child done to her?
      There was no sound in the tent for several beats. This had been a lot for the young couple to take in after an already long, stress-filled day. They looked at the witch. Looked at each other. At the babe. They relaxed a bit. Their baby wasn't Inert after all.
      Then the Father had a new thought, and with it, new tension. "Strength testing!?" he cried, "Can' you tell us his strength? In't that what you do!?"
      Arima smiled for the first time since they'd arrived, "Yes sir, that is exactly what I do. I am a fully certified Master White, qualified to Grade any Color, any strength. But no one in my lifetime has seen a Clear and no one I know of would know how to Grade this child's strength." She took a beat for that to sink in, before proceeding, "But there is a way."
      The Father blinked, eyes getting wider, "Your pardon, Mum. Meant no disrespec'. Bu' we been savin' all we can jus' for this Gradin', an'... an' we can' 'ford," his air failed him. The mouth was still working, but nothing was coming out. His Mate took his arm and they both just shook together.
      Arima rose again from her chair. She was a White, after all. Among other things, a Healer. She stepped up to the two of them, put her staff into the dirt floor between them, gathered just of a bit of Power, and pushed it gently through her staff. The stone at the top of her staff Pulsed briefly with a small White light. They didn't see it of course, but the effect was immediate. Straightening themselves on the bench, they began wiping tears from each other's faces.
      The old Healer made the effort to actually kneel before them, "This is nothing but good news for you. And your child! He is not Inert. He has great Power. Unique, special Power! And there will be no fee of any kind. Not for anything done here... or later. I may invite some other Masters for his training, and I oath you, they will not charge either. I will see to that. There really is only one problem for you to deal with. If word gets out about Steef and his gift, people will come just to see him. His life will be much like this Festival, only all cycle 'round. It's not a proper upbringing." Pausing, she lowered her voice, "We must consider how to keep these matters to ourselves." One finger went to her lips, which she bent into a knowing smile.
      Finally, the Mother spoke again, this time her voice was soft with relief and fatigue, "Wha' should we do?"
      Still smiling, Arima reached and took the young woman's hand. "We must make a brief journey...to another Valley...some distance away. Can you gather your things quickly...and quietly?" she asked. This last thought had a bit more urgency. The hope of secrecy was building inside her.
      The Father spoke again, with a nod, "Yes Mum. All our travel belongin's is packed outside." He took a breath. "Please, Mum. Where would we be goin'?
      The old woman straightened once more, with creaking knees that needed a Healing they would not get now. Walking slowly to her piles of cases, she opened one, and dug into it. From somewhere near its bottom came an old blanket that had once been expensive and fine. Turning to the Mother, Arima said, "If you would, please put this around your Son. It will Cloak his power from prying eyes." And mine. To the Father, she answered, "As I said, the boy needs a proper Grading. For that...we must go to the Cats."
      Before either of the parents could digest those words, they witnessed the first of what they later just called 'wonders'. Arima turned her head slightly, and spoke into the air, "Pill, would you please inform Masters Lexter and Bone that we will require private transport tomorrow at first light? Thank you."
      "They won't like the short notice," came a voice from under her hair.
      "No they won't," she replied. "Remind them if they complain...politely mind you...that I have come to their families on short notice myself when a Healing was needed." She quickly added, "And don't tell them where we're going."
      "They'll want to know how long the journey will be."
      "Fair enough," she sighed, "Tell them they can be back by dark."
      There was a 'Pop!' from Arima's left shoulder that sounded louder than it was, the tent was so quiet. Both of her visitors jumped slightly on the bench. Turning her head to the Buzzbie under her right ear, she said. "Pill, I need you to go to Master Seafer. You will find him at..."
      "We know where he is. Why Seafer? There's a perfectly good Green Master here at the Festival."
      Arima knew that Master Zellin was near. She didn't trust him, but she didn't want to say that. Besides, she wasn't looking for a Green, especially. She was looking for Seafer, who happened to be a Green. But she didn't like lying, even to a Buzzbie. "Seafer has something we will need," she replied patiently, "He is old and stubborn, though. Older than me. Surely more stubborn. He will not want to listen. Tell him exactly this: 'Arima says she has found what you have been waiting for.' Repeat that until he stops yelling. I want him to meet us at the Valley of the Cats. And tell him to bring his treasure. All of it. Insist on it. That will get his attention."
      Another 'Pop!' from her right shoulder and the young couple, whose mouths were now hanging open, jumped again. Followed by a third 'Pop!' from her left shoulder as another Buzzbie arrived. She was about to speak to it when she noticed their faces and caught the laugh that wanted to come.
      "They are Buzzbies," she smiled brightly. "Pill, would you show yourself please?"
      The left-side Buzzbie crawled out from under her hair and moved onto her shoulder, just as a fourth 'Pop!' announced the arrival of a new right-side Buzzbie.
      "Give them a closer look," she said. "Their child is going to give you something to talk about for tens of cycles."
      Unfolding its wings, the Buzzbie lifted off her shoulder, buzzing across the space between them. Hovering just before the bewildered couple, it stopped at their eyelevel. They saw what looked like an oversized bee, perhaps double their baby's fist. To them, it was a bee...just bigger.
      Arima had seen that look before, and went into what the Buzzbies called her 'teacher' mood. "Don't ever call them bees. It really makes them mad. They are every bit as intelligent as we are."
      "Smarter," came a voice from her right.
      She frowned. "Hush Pill. Anyway, they ride under my hair on both sides. They have such small voices that they have to speak directly into my ears for me to understand. About the only thing they're good for besides wisecracks, is carrying messages."
      The Mother found her voice again and asked, "Wha' was the poppin' we heard?"
      "Well, they don't just fly. They really don't even like to fly. But somehow they can 'Pop!' themselves instantly to anywhere they want to go. They refuse to explain to anyone how they do it. I personally think they don't know themselves...."
      "Ha!"
      "...You get used to the popping after a while."
      "They mus' be really fas' if they're back already."
      This time she did laugh. Just a light chuckle. "Oh no! These two are not the ones that just left! Every time one leaves, another takes its place."
      The young man had to get into the conversation, "Please Mum, bu' you called 'em all by the same name?"
      "I call them Pill", she gave with a nod, "It's their family name. Only the Creator himself could ever tell them apart."
      The hovering Buzzbie must have tired of the conversation. It suddenly Pop!'ed back under her hair, delighting her guests.
      "Well, you mus' be Powerful for true," breathed the Mother, "To command such magical beasties."
      Arima smiled again, softly. "Not really. They hang on to most everyone of Master strength. Truth is, they're just plain nosey. I couldn't get rid of them if I tried. A Black could... maybe... if any Black could ever hit one."
      "As if anyone would try."
      "Pill," continued Arima, "Go to the LaborMaster. Tell him I will need three warm bodies to fetch my things to Landing Field before dawn." And again to the couple, "Have you had lastmeal? I expect not, though you won't admit it. Well, I have some tubers and a bit of meat. Let's prepare it, shall we?" This last to the young woman. Arima's calm was wearing off, and nerves were making her chatty. "You'll stay here tonight, of course. Tell me your names, and we'll get acquainted."


__________

      There was still no sun when Arima arrived at the Landing Field. Her choice to go early had been wiser than she had given thought to, for few people were about. A busier time, and her entourage might have caught unwanted attention. Three laborers with their pack beasts laden with her cases, and two young adults clinging to a baby and their pitiful few bundles. Awaiting them at one corner of the field were two sleepy, grumpy Masters in their boat.
      The boat was the second 'wonder' for the young couple. From the ground, it looked like a huge bowl, with a pole sticking straight up above it at one edge. The bottom of the bowl/boat was sitting in a deep hole in the ground. They could make out many such boats, in holes all over the large field. The party climbed a ramp to an edge halfway around from the pole, and stepped in. The bowl/boat was five staffs across. Its top-edge was protruding two staffs above ground, with another staff's measure of depth below ground. There was a seating bench below the rim, all around the boat, interrupted only by a passway through to the bottom. The laborers carried Arima's trunks past two wide eyed parents through this passage and deposited them at the bottom of the boat.
      "'Rima!" cried the shorter of the two Masters, and he didn't sound happy, "Why in the name of the Creator are we up so early, and where are we going, and why all the mystery?" His tunic had a Brown patch that said Ten.
      Arima winced at his volume, "Bone, if you know how early it is, then you should know not to shout and wake people," she whispered fiercely. "And we'll discuss our trip in a few beats." This last was given with a small glance at the laborers, who were waiting to be paid. Tending to that, she patted them on their way and waited until they were well out of earshot.
      "Masters Lexter and Bone, let me introduce to you Stem, and his Mate, Maleef. Children, Master Lexter here," she pointed to the tall slender one, who wore a Blue Ten, "Is our Steerman. Master Bone is our Lifter." She had left Steef out of the conversation. "Masters, these young people and I will be traveling to the Valley of the Cats. We would like to leave as soon as possible, please." Arima gave her sweetest voice, hoping she was appearing calmer than she felt. She made her way to a bench in the back of the boat, and sat down. Stem and Maleef followed slowly, for they were looking at everything around them.
      "They must not get out of their valley much."
      "This is probably their first time," replied Arima, "And before we're done, they'll never want to leave home again."
      "Who's 'we'?"
      "You'll see."
      As they sat down next to her, she could see they were full of questions. She loved questions, so she got them started. "What do you want to ask first?" she asked cheerfully.
      "Well, Mum," replied Stem, "Now tha' you mention it, I always though' Browns was miners an' worked in dirt. So wha' is a Lifter?"
      What a wonderful question! It would take some time, and distract them while they got under way. She noticed that Lexter had unfurled his sail and Bone had already clamped his staff into its saddle. The Brown now had both hands around its shaft, and they would be Lifting any beat. Arima deliberately locked the young couple's eyes before she spoke.
      "These two Masters are a perfect partnership," she began. "Master Bone is a full Brown. And you're right, Stem. Some Browns are Miners. But a Master Brown can project their Power onto anything that comes from the ground. Dirt, stone or metals. This boat is made of a combination of those things. Bone here can make it lighter and lighter until it rises up off the ground." She felt the boat Lift slightly to prove her point, so she leaned in a bit to hold their attention. "Now here's the tricky part. Bone can Lift it, but he can't make it go anywhere. Without a Steerman, we'd just go straight up, and straight down. So he partnered up with Master Lexter there. Full Blue. He can control the weather..."
      "Yes Mum," Maleef interrupted, "We ha' to hire a Blue sometimes to bring us rain for our crops," she said.
      She's getting into it. Good. "That's right, Maleef," Arima nodded, "What strength was this Blue?" Arima knew that they were already above the trees, but she couldn't allow her eyes to wander.
      "Her number, you mean, Mum? Why, she wore a Seven."
      "Well, Master Lexter over there is a Ten. All Masters have to be Tens. And even then, they study for cycles and cycles before they get a Masters rating. Lexter does more than bring rain." Arima was gesturing now, but carefully. She didn't want a sweep of her hand to make them look out. "He can call the wind. Call it and Steer it. Once Bone gets us high enough, Lexter's wind will Steer us to our destination." Oops, that was the wrong thing to say.
      Stem alerted. "Wha' do you mean 'high enough'?" he asked. But Maleef was already looking up and out. Arima braced herself for Maleef, for she was holding the baby. What they saw was the top of a mountain passing under the boat. The tents of the festival were specks and getting smaller.
      They took it pretty well. Stem just went pale and silent. Maleef squeaked once and fainted. Arima caught her, careful not to actually touch the baby and lowered her to the bench. Putting her hand on the young woman's brow, she probed gently and found nothing of concern. Just a faint. She would wake soon. Arima let her rest. Turning to Stem, she found him taking breath in large gulps, and actually getting some color back in his lips. She rose and made her way to the front of the boat.
      "'Rima, why would you be goin' to the Cats?" inquired Bone. Lexter didn't even turn around. He rarely spoke at all. She liked that about him. Bone hadn't stopped, though, "You haven't been there in cycles. Somethin' special about these two?" He jerked a thumb towards the back of the boat.
      "No," her face giving no emotion, "There's nothing special about them." Well, it was true. It was the baby that was special. "But the Festival is almost over, and it has been a while since I checked my Grading." This was her first outright lie, and she was glad it was Bone. A good Red would have seen right through her.
      "Well them Cats might not be too glad to see you any more," he went on, "Hope they fed last night."
      Me too she thought. What she said was, "How long, Lexter?"
      He turned slightly to give her a thin smile. Turning back to his mast, his voice was gentle with contentment, "Just before quarterday, Arima. I'm enjoying a bit of natural tail wind."
      Enjoying is the right word for it. The man just loved to fly his boat, and the masts of these things were surely the largest staffs anyone could have without being showy. Expensive, too.That would explain why most of them had relatively small stones in them. She looked to the top, but she could never see the stone that had to be there. Oh well. "Thank you Lexter. And you, Bone. While we're here, do either of you need any attention?"
      "Not while I'm Steering, Arima," answered Lexter, without turning this time. "Perhaps when we land."
      But she could count on Bone. "Well, my creaky-bone's come back in my hands an' knees, 'Rima. An' Lexter don't need me for a while." He grinned. She'd never met a Brown that didn't have joint problems. Too much of their youth spent playing in rocks.
      "Go lay down, Bone," she smiled, "I'll be right there." As he stepped away, she got closer to Lexter, and spoke quietly, "Is it back, my friend?"
      Still watching his Steering, Lexter nodded slightly.
      "We'll tend to it as soon as we're down. You should really come see me more often." He just smiled again. "Meantime, keep us in the light, would you? Wouldn't want to fuse one of Bone's knees."
      That did it. The smile cracked into a chuckle, "I don't think he'd notice the difference, Arima. But I'll give you your light."
      She patted his shoulder and turned to Bone. He was also a Master in receiving Healings, and already lying on the bench, his thick frame lying as straight as he could get it. Big silly grin, he enjoyed his Healings as much as Lexter enjoyed flying. She stepped over and knelt at his legs. Putting her hand on each of his knees in turn, she could feel some swelling and fluid in each. She laid the stone of her staff directly on the first knee, and then paused. She concentrated on the sunlight hitting her back, gathering the heat, storing the heat, letting the Power fill her until...she pushed... and the stone Pulsed White. The knee relaxed. The fluid drained. The swelling was gone. She repeated the process for the other knee.
      "Scoot down here Bone," she commanded, "And we'll do your hands." He was forty cycles younger. He could do the scooting. There was no one here to help her knees. Soon he could make fists with both hands again. "Now turn over, I want to check your back." Sure enough, it was knotted up. "Bone, you really should try to lose some weight," she scolded as she Pulsed. "It would help your back. Now help me up."
      The rest of the journey passed quietly. Stem and Maleef huddled together, with a near death-grip on the baby. Soon enough, Arima began to recognize the familiar shape of ridges that was the northern edge of the Valley. In the far distance rose the peak of high mountains that shielded the southern side. She had been here often in her youth, though not much any more. She thought back, and with a shock realized it's been eleven cycles! She wondered if she would know any of the Cats at all. That could be really sticky.
      As the boat glided over the first ridge, she saw two of the great beasts lift themselves off of rocks and turn down a path into the Valley. She took it as a hopeful sign that they still watched for human visitors. She could tell from the condition of the Valley that it was still being occasionally tended. The Valley itself was just under sixty leagues long, and twelve leagues at its widest point. Actually almost a longish bowl that ran mostly north and south. A small river meandered generally through the center in a winding path. While the bottom of the Valley was mostly flat, the sides leading up to the ridges were steep. That shape was why the Cats had relocated here to begin with. They could get in and out, but the herds of feed beasts that roamed the flatland were trapped. She saw a small group of cattle off to the east, and some sheep down in the center of the flatland, near the Landing Field. The Field itself was huge, having once been used constantly. Nearly a hundred landing bowls still dug into the plain, but it was apparent from the grass in them that they didn't get used now. Only a couple of them looked as if they'd been used at all, and it was toward one of these that the boat steered, as it began descending.
      Arima gave her head a bit of a shake to clear out some memories, and spoke quietly, "Pill, please go see where the ClanCat is, so I'll know how much time we have." Pop!
      "Pill, please go see what Master Seafer's progress is. I really want him here for the Grading." So he'll believe me. Pop!
      Two more Buzzbies Pop!'ed in. Lexter brought the boat to a stop directly over a landing bowl, and Bone set it down gently. They had arrived at the Valley of the Cats.
      "Bone, now that you're feeling better," Arima spoke with more energy and confidence than she felt, "Why don't you and Stem see to the trunks while I have a word with Lexter."
      Pop! "The ClanCat is an eighthday southwest of here. Already heading this way." Pop! They didn't like to crowd each other. Usually two Buzzbies at a time.
      She and Lexter climbed over the edge of the boat and stepped lightly onto the ground. "They shouldn't have quit digging the bowls this deep, Lexter," Arima mused. "I've never liked those wooden ramps."
      Lexter's laugh sounded almost like a cough. Probably out of practice. "Guess it gives the carpenters something to do, 'Rima."
      They walked far enough away to be out of earshot, then Arima gestured for Lexter to sit. She knelt beside him and set the point of her staff in the dirt between his knees, where it sank down on its own deep enough to stand upright. Then she put her hands on either side of his head and closed her eyes. Slowly, she moved her hands down to his shoulders. "Lift your arms." Her hands went into his armpits and continued their journey down his sides to the waist. If she was going a little faster than usual, it was only because she already knew what she would find.
      "Well, it's been worse," she spoke almost to herself. Lexter had organ-moss. Nasty stuff, it would grow on the linings of a person's organs and eat into them, disrupting their function. Left to itself, it was always fatal. Most Power people suffered with it. Some a lot. Some a little. Browns seldom had much, while every Blue she'd ever met was full of it. She had a theory that it had something to do with the Sun, since Blues worked in sunlight constantly, while Browns sometimes didn't see it for a cycle. She didn't share her theory with anyone. No one had listened to her for twenty cycles, anyway.
      "All right, my friend," she said briskly, "You know how this works." She rose and grasped her staff, while Lexter stretched out. Hers was the only profession where someone else would touch one's staff while it was working. She tuned it for his body rhythm, and then tuned it for the Power she was getting from the ground. "I'll be back." She left him there, holding her staff between his knees, and headed back towards the boat.
      Pop! "Seafer is eleven leagues away. They are making good progress. The Steerman is young and apparently likes a lot of wind." Pop!
      Bone came huffing up to met her halfway. "Moss again, 'Rima?" he asked softly. She didn't know he could speak softly.
      "Yes, Bone, but not as bad as before. We seem to be keeping up with it."
      "Well!" he boomed. That was the Bone she knew. "If you're determined to stay, we'll be goin'!" He nodded up the Valley. Turning, she could see a few Cats in the distance, loping their way.
      "We are staying, Bone. We'll give Lexter a few hundred beats, then you can go. "We'll be needing you back, though, when the Festival traffic is over. We will probably be ready for transport in three or four days. Can you come get us then?"
      "Sure 'Rima." He grinned and winked, "That is, if we can find you."


__________

      Lexter and Bone were still in sight, when a second boat appeared over the ridgeline. She could just make out the people in each boat waving at each other. Probably wondering why these crazy old Masters were acting REALLY crazy.
      The three of them were sitting on her trunks. It was hard not to look. More of the big Cats were appearing at various spots from the trees around the Valley. Finally, Stem couldn't take it any more.
      "Please, Mum," he was trying to keep his voice strong, but it broke into squeaks here and there, "Wha' exac'ly are we doin' here?"
      Arima was too occupied with the approaching Cats to realize how tired she was. She'd had a full Festival, the shock of her life yesterday, a short night, and a stressful journey. She watched as the first Cats arrived and stopped, starting to form a circle around them. They left a wide enough area for the approaching boat to land, as it was about to. Later , it would occur to her to ask pardon of the poor young people.
      "We are going to witness one of the true marvels of our world," she mused. "Or we're going to be Cat food."