Clover sometimes forgets that her Uncle is not like anyone else’s uncle. It’s just that he has been living on his little house by the sea forever. Well, for at least as long as she can remember, which is practically the same thing. She also forgets that he is not her uncle by blood. Or that she will never, ever see his face. Well, maybe she doesn’t so much as forget those things as much as that they’ve never been very important.
She is aware that the other guild members treat him as if he’s someone very important. They let him get food first. They stand back when he passes by. They nod and look very serious when he talks, even if he’s just saying something about the weather. Sometimes this makes him uncomfortable. Other times it makes him laugh. She often meets the others coming up from the path by the cliffs, when she goes down to visit. Even the braggart Crook is humble and quiet as he takes down the fleeces to be spun and woven.
“He’s a great man,” they say to her. “A great man. Very kind. But not proud. Not proud at all.”
Mutters of agreement usually follow this pronouncement.
Clover always asks him about this later. But only because she wants him to tell her the story about the dragon. And he does, although never in her Papa’s earshot. Papa hates dragons. He won’t even say the word dragons, and gets angry if he hears anyone else even mention the word dragon. Mama says that dragons are nothing but leathery flying wolves, except more dangerous. One used to eat all of their sheep. She won’t say why it is Papa hates dragons so much, but she did say that something happened a long time ago, and it didn’t end well for either her Uncle or Papa. And she should never talk to her Uncle about it, because the poor man had enough guilt on his shoulders as it was.
Clover thinks that the dragon that her Uncle met didn’t sound that bad. Just like a grumpy old lady, like Mother Hogget. She told him this and he chuckled a little.
“Yes. I suppose she was just like a grumpy old lady.”
And suddenly he became sad. She could tell this because his shoulders slumped and he bent over his loom very quickly, as if he were looking for mistakes. Papa said it was hard to tell what her Uncle was thinking, because you couldn’t see his face, but the same could be said of sheep. And Clover thought she was pretty good at understanding sheep. It was all in the way they stood, in the way that they looked at things. Whether they were crouching down, or upright, smelling the air.
I“What happened to the dragon, Uncle Bobbin?”
“She died, I think. Like lots of people.”
He shook his head sharply, as if he was trying to shake the memories away, and then bent back over his weaving. And Clover reminded herself that she should not ask about the dragon anymore, although sometimes she forgot.
It is hard for children of Clover’s age to feel anything about a time so long ago, Bobbin thought. Even before her parents had married. Before they had met! It might as well have been a hundred years ago. She would understand one day, of course, that it had been hard for Rusty to leave his own guild and come to leave here, a world away from the cracked, dry plains of his youth. To leave the Forge, and what remained of his family, to rebuild on their own. But as Bobbin had said to him then, everyone only has so much to give.
Easy to say those words to someone else, of course. Harder to remember it and live by them yourself. Especially when the sea-and Loom-called him home. He had tried so hard. And still....he looked down at his weaving. The warp had been threaded incorrectly this entire time and he hadn’t even noticed. A whole day’s work wasted. He’d have to take it off and start again.
“You know,” he said to no one, “If I’d have really failed then I wouldn’t be here, having to throw away a whole day’s work.”
That was the thing, really. It was one thing to say that you had saved a person’s life. It was another to say that you had saved many people’s lives. And then, another, far stranger thing to say that you had saved the whole of reality itself. When Saltbrush came visiting with his flame haired children Bobbin allowed himself a small flash of pride. He could remember standing on the hill a lifetime ago and looking down at the many crumpled forms and noting-strange what you notice at such a time-that one of the bodies had red hair. And Bobbin had bought him back, like all the others.
One day, sometime after all that had been done with, Bobbin had sat with Rusty and Fleece and watched the sun set. They were all a bit drunk. They had talked of inconsequential things; the upcoming wedding, Bobbin’s plan to restore the tapestries, whether or not the undersecretary for the Guild of Musicians had a passion for one of the Shepherds. And then Bobbin had gestured towards the sky.
“We saved all this.”
A remark so absurd that the other two laughed.
They had saved it, though. Every grain of sand and every leaf and every drop of water in the ocean. They had saved it all. Everything. The smell of woodsmoke and the howling of wolves in the hills and roar of the taverns in the next valley and the songs and the laughter and the dreams and the tears and, well, everything. Everything that was existed because of them. It was difficult to comprehend.
And then the little traitor voice spoke, the one that seemed to get louder every year. Pity about the Guild, it said. You couldn’t save them. And then it would say that really, Bobbin was happy that he hadn’t. After all, hadn’t they tortured him for years? Either shunned him or beaten him. Then they’d abandoned him to deal with Chaos, and, and … after a while he’d gotten better at drowning out the voice, by telling himself that Weavers were not immune to being stupid and scared. These were people who had never seen anything beyond their little island. They believed what the elders told them, and did what ever they said. It had cost them their children.
He had fought, in the beginning, to change the rule about inter-marriage. He tried to get some of them to leave the island, to meet people from other guilds, to see that there was a world beyond the village and the graveyard and Loom’s high, rocky cliffs. They had obeyed, but out of duty rather than any real desire to see things change. He was the head of the Guild. What he said, went. For most Weavers, anyway.
Lachesis refused to even acknowledge his existence, wandering up into the hills and sitting on his old cliff. Somewhat ironic, Bobbin thought. And Atropos had stayed in the land of the dead rather than watch the Son of Cygna take over his guild. Clothos, however, had swallowed her pride and been helpful. She had not objected to his raising a monument to Hetchel. She’d sat in on his meetings with truculent guild members and offered advice. But even her wise council could not stave off the inevitable.
Nine years. Nine wasted years. All those dead children. He saw their parents watching him, as he laid those tiny bodies in the earth. Nine years. It was a wonder he still had enough heart left to break. Some came to him, begging him to restore their children back to life. Others grew angry; how could he, of all people, deny them this? And he would remind them that unless they sought marriage outside the guild, it would always be thus. It was a monstrous thing to say. He understood that now. But it had to be said. But only after losing both her daughter and her fifth grandchild did Clothos agree.
Bobbin had left in the middle of the night, to avoid the inevitable scene. The others would have begged him not to leave, even as they resented him for not being able to save their dying guild. Clothos had agreed to take over. And the voice told him that abandoning people that needed him was much, much easier the second time around.
He had re-threaded the loom, pretty much without noticing. But the light was dying. There would be no more work today. Instead of lighting his lantern and going up the village for the evening meal, as he did usually, he lay down on his bed, and prayed for a dreamless sleep.
Sheep, thought Fleece, were the only creatures in creation that looked for the quickest way to die. You had to watch them almost constantly, to stop them wandering off cliffs or falling into bogs or getting eaten by wolves. So she was good at watching. All shepherds were. Good at … observing, as Bobbin would say. She liked that Bobbin knew better words for things than she did. She liked his cleverness and quickness with words. She liked that she did not always understand his sense of humor. It made him keep some of that mystery he had when she’d first met him.
She’d thought him a wizard then, a powerful, benevolent wizard who had saved their sheep from the dragon and then her own people from death. But Bobbin Threadbare had been a scared, lonely young man. A boy, really. He’d admitted to her later that he barely understood his power, let alone how to control it. Even though she had only been a few years older than him when they had first met she still thought of him as the uneasy boy, who’d only got a bit taller and a lot sadder. The shy way he talked to women, for example. Despite his cleverness he was no good with people he didn’t know. Or sometimes even people he did know. He’d laugh a little later than everyone else at her husband’s jokes, as if it took him just a little more time to understand them.
The dark times were never really far from his mind. She could tell that from the way he stooped under a weight that nobody else could see. Time only seemed to make it heavier, not lighter. Bobbin’s problem was that he thought too much. Spent too much time alone. Fleece herself rarely thought about those days, though she supposed that she was busier. A Guild to run. A husband to feed. A growing family. She patted her stomach, suddenly distracted, trying to remember when the last full moon had been. After a while she gave up. She’d find out soon enough.
He hadn’t come to supper last night. Not that unusual; all those years spent alone meant Bobbin wasn’t used to paying heed to other people. Many years ago, his presence at mealtimes made the other shepherds uneasy. Now they were used to him. Fleece had seen this before. Well, she’d seen it in sheep. But the animal and its keeper were not really so different. Once her father had found a strange lamb wandering some distance away from their fields. At first, the flock had been hostile; then they ignored the scrawny thing. Finally, a couple of years later, the little ewe had bought two little lambs into the world, hardy little beasts who took their place in the flock as if it were their birthright.
Fleece had high hopes for Bobbin’s lamb-making potential, so to speak. But he held some of himself back. Women could often sense this. They had drifted away, unable to break through Bobbin’s...whatever it was. Still. There was time left for him.
She found herself on the way down to the beach with barely any thought. Some instinct, perhaps; the one that told her when one of her flock was in trouble. ‘Looking for the quickest way to die’ was perhaps a correct judgement on everything he’d done since the rest of his guild had flown off all those years ago. For someone so clever he had often spat in the face of common sense. Reckless, socially awkward, bad with women. If he’d been a sheep he’d have ended up in the stew. But here he was, and he was hers, and she was going to look after him. Whether he wanted her to or not.
She wasn’t surprised to see Rusty moving across the beach, a cloak wrapped around him. It was one that Bobbin had made, shortly after he came here, Rusty being used to the heat of the Forge and lacking any clothing suitable for the winter. Bobbin had left it in their cottage, without saying anything. Rusty wore it everywhere, but never mentioned it or how it came to him. Fleece chuckled. Next to sheep, men were the strangest creatures in creation. Maybe she’d bring up that up, just to have them argue with her about it.
Bobbin’s figure appeared on the horizon, walking towards them. He met Rusty first, of course. They both turned; Bobbin appeared to gesture towards her. She waved; they waved back. Yes, she thought, I will start an argument. Because Bobbin loved arguing, and so did Rusty, and so did she. They would argue and they would laugh and they would watch the sun sink over the horizon, its rays catching in the bones of the glassmakers’ city. And perhaps Bobbin would be reminded that it was good to be laughing with friends, it was good to feel the cold wind lifting off the sea, that it was good to know that hot mutton stew was only a short walk away. It’s good to be alive, Bobbin, she thought, as she went to meet them. Despite all the suffering, despite the destruction, it was good to be here and alive with people who loved you. Time would teach him this. If a drop of water could wear away a stone, then even Bobbin Threadbare could learn to find some kind of peace.