Chapter One

 

 

HE WAS a man, not a child, but there was a wide-eyed innocence about him that made him seem little more than a boy at times. Jasper first saw him while riding TJ away from the usual trails, trying with one extra-long ride to make up for all the days and weeks he’d recently missed and to fortify both himself and the horse against the days and weeks he was sure to miss in the near future. Jasper had sensed the boy’s gaze before he’d seen it, but when he called out a greeting, the face in the trees vanished so quickly Jasper wondered if he had imagined the whole thing. Occasionally, he ran into some of the people who lived in and around Brightam’s Ford on the trails, but he’d never before seen someone lurking in the woods, watching. It struck him as odd, and it crossed his mind that it might be one of the forest spirits he’d heard lived in these woods, but he’d almost forgotten about it by the time he’d returned TJ to the stables.

The incident would have completely faded from his mind if not for the stormy night two days later when he saw the boy again, this time huddled against the outside of the barn, using the building to keep the worst of the wind and rain off his barely clothed body. This time, when Jasper called out a greeting, the boy didn’t disappear, though he did scoot backward, his eyes wide with fear as Jasper approached.

“Are you all right?”

The boy didn’t answer, but when he moved, it was toward Jasper, his gaze fixated on Jasper’s mouth and filled with wonder instead of fear. He touched Jasper’s lips with gentle fingers and cocked his head to the side as if he were asking a question, though he didn’t say anything.

“What’s wrong?”

The boy gasped and jerked his fingers back as though he’d been bitten.

Jasper caught the hand, wanting to look for injury, but as soon as he touched the boy’s skin, his fingers began to tingle and his mind was filled with a sound that soon resolved into a soft voice.

How did you do that? It’s like the noise came out of your mouth and it sounded different and I felt it, but how is it possible? Why aren’t you answering me? Can’t you hear me? Do you not know—?

Jasper jerked his hand back, releasing the boy, and cursed when both the tingling feeling and the noise stopped. “Hailstones.”

 

 

IT WAS easier than Jasper had thought it would be to get the boy inside, and that was where Jasper discovered he wasn’t really a boy. He was tall and thin, with youthful features and an innocent look to his face, but he was definitely an adult. With a smile of thanks, he accepted the clean, dry clothes Jasper offered, and disappeared into the indicated bathroom without saying a word. He emerged a few minutes later dressed correctly, and he handed his own wet clothes to Jasper with another smile.

Jasper handed him a cup of tea, which the not-boy took with a nod as he sat at the table, making himself comfortable. They sipped their tea as the easiness faded and awkwardness crept in with each moment of silence. What was there to say when one person apparently didn’t even know what speaking was?

 

 

THE clock read 2:00 a.m. and the house was silent. Jasper wasn’t sure what had woken him, a sound he could no longer remember, perhaps, or maybe just the sense of someone else in the room. He was no longer alone.

He couldn’t see anyone with his head on the pillow, so he sat up, and stood when sitting didn’t reveal anyone lurking in the shadows. He found the boy curled up on the rug at the foot of the bed. At some point before he’d come into Jasper’s room, the boy had discarded the shirt he’d been wearing, leaving only the loose cotton pants Jasper had given him to sleep in.

A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the room. Another storm, mere hours after the first one had ended. The wet season, as predicted, had come early. The animals were secure, and the house was safe enough from flooding, but it changed Jasper’s plans regarding the boy. It wasn’t safe to travel in the wet. Too many things could go wrong.

Thunder crashed and the boy awoke with a start, gasping and scrambling away from the noise. He sat in the corner by the closet, pulled his knees to his chest, and stared at the outside wall and curtain-covered window with wide eyes. Lightning flashed again, followed almost immediately by another crash of thunder and then the rough pattering of rain on the roof.

The boy whimpered and started rocking back and forth, his eyes never leaving the window.

Jasper approached him slowly, the way he did TJ when the horse was injured, and knelt in front of him. “We’re safe here. This house was built to withstand the storms.” He put a hand on the boy’s arm, bracing himself for the mental assault that never came. His skin tingled and he thought if he concentrated he might be able to hear something, but there were no words streaming into his mind this time, just a feeling of absolute and overwhelming terror.

He pulled the boy to his feet and led him through the closet to the room hidden behind it.

The room wasn’t fully stocked yet as Jasper hadn’t anticipated needing to use it so early in the year, but there were some essentials left from the last wet season, and it would be enough to get them through the night. This wasn’t a dangerous storm and if he needed something that wasn’t in the room, he could leave and get it without any danger. Only the boy’s fear had made him think of the room.

The boy didn’t stop trembling until the door was latched shut, drowning out the sounds of the storm. In the worst of the season, they would be able to hear the storm even in here, but this was just a little storm, a warning that would be gone in a few hours. It would be weeks yet before the almost constant storms would begin and the booms of thunder would penetrate the thick walls of the safe room.

Jasper pulled two bottles of water out of the ice box and handed one to the boy. He would have to buy more supplies this year if there were going to be two of them huddled in here, especially if the boy’s fear sent them away from the windows every time the sky darkened. Jasper typically used this room only during the worst of the storms, when there was true danger. He hated it, hated being enclosed in the confined space, but it was a small price to pay for the luxury of having windows in the dry seasons. Every wet season, he thought about moving to someplace without any windows, where he wouldn’t have to hide, and every dry season, when he looked out the windows at the blooming fields or at the crisp, white snow covering the ground, he would wonder why he ever had such a foolish thought. One month spent mostly in this room was a small price to pay for the ability to look out the window at unending beauty the other eleven.

The boy downed the water in one go and handed the empty bottle back to Jasper. He was calmer now, though he kept his distance from the door as he started exploring the room. He touched everything, brushing his long fingers over every surface and pausing occasionally to examine something more closely. Once, he nodded, a satisfied smile on his face.

The last thing he inspected was the door, and on this, he looked at every minute detail, pushed against the heavy wood, tightened the locks, and peered closely at the hinges. Ten minutes passed before he abruptly turned away and climbed into the bed, apparently satisfied. He curled up on his side, his back to the door, and stared at the wall.

“You’ve been caught in a storm before.” Jasper didn’t need to see the nod to know it was true. It was the only thing that explained the boy’s fear of the relatively mild storm they were being treated to at the moment.

Jasper had seen one of the big storms once, when the outer walls of the community shelter he’d taken refuge in had proven unable to withstand the force of the wind. He’d been one of the last to leave the big upper room for the safer underground chambers, and as he’d left, he’d looked over his shoulder and seen part of the wall ripped away. The night had been spent huddling in terror, and he’d left the coast the following dry season, moving inland where the storms lost a little of their strength and the truly dangerous season was shorter. If the boy had actually been caught in one of the violent storms, even this far inland, Jasper could very well understand his fear.

He joined the boy on the bed, putting himself between his guest and the door. “I wish you could tell me about it.”

The boy rolled over and grabbed Jasper’s arm and suddenly Jasper’s mind was filled with images of astounding clarity.

A small cave, little more than a nook in the hillside, filling slowly with water from a nearby stream that had long since overflowed its banks. Tree branches and dead animals clogging the entrance and then being savagely ripped away, taking some of the rock with them. Huge, painful drops of water blowing all the way to the back of the cave and lashing unprotected skin until it bled. A lightning strike nearby destroying the illusion of safety.

The images kept flashing, one after another, each worse than the one before. Jasper struggled, trying to break free, but the boy didn’t let go until he’d shown Jasper everything. Then, just as suddenly as they’d begun, the images stopped, leaving Jasper trembling and fighting for breath.

“Is that…?” He couldn’t finish the sentence, but the boy knew what he was trying to say and nodded. “No wonder you’re afraid.”

The boy curled up tighter and hugged the pillow to his chest. Jasper pushed past his own fear and laid a hand on his shoulder. No images flooded his mind, and he let out a sigh of relief. “We’re safe here. The room is secure and this is a mild storm. We could be out in the bedroom for this.” There would be worse to come, though, and they both knew it.

 

 

WHILE the boy still slept, Jasper slipped out of the room so he could check the animals and assure the boy the storms were indeed over, at least until late afternoon when the rains were sure to start again. There were, of course, ways to tell from inside the safe room, but Jasper doubted the boy would believe them, not until their accuracy had been proven.

The horses were as happy to get outside as Jasper, though he noticed they didn’t stray quite as far from the barn as they usually did. The unexpectedly early storm had unnerved them, and even the bright sunshine couldn’t drive away all their uneasiness.

Nor did it drive away all of Jasper’s, though for quite different reasons.

He hadn’t even known the boy?no, the young man?for a full day and already he’d begun thinking and planning for a future that included him. It was ridiculous, really. Jasper didn’t even know the other man’s name and he was planning on buying double supplies to make it through the wet season. It had made sense in the dark when the wind and rain had been lashing at the house, but now in the bright sunshine and with stout walls between Jasper and the boy, it seemed off.

Not wrong, just weird. He wasn’t considering discarding the idea, but it struck him how naturally it had come to him, how comfortable he’d been with it.

 

 

WHEN Jasper went back inside, he was surprised to see his guest had ventured out of the safe room. He sat on the windowsill of Jasper’s bedroom, his hands and nose pressed against the thick glass. His eyes darted everywhere, from the water slowly trickling off the house to the horses in the field to the woods lying beyond and finally to the western sky. It was there he paused, his eyes narrowed and focused instead of wide with wonder.

Jasper didn’t need words to know what he was thinking. “It won’t storm again until evening. It’s too early in the season for the daytime storms.” It was too early in the season for even a relatively mild storm like they’d had the previous night as well, but he wasn’t going to point that out.

The boy jumped, looked at Jasper for a long moment, and nodded, but his gaze returned to the west, his eyes alert for every nuance of color and wisp of cloud.

The sky was blue in all directions and wouldn’t darken for several hours yet, but that was something the boy would learn on his own given time. When he’d first moved here, Jasper had spent days with his face pressed against the same window, watching the sky darken and the clouds thicken until it was no longer safe to stay close to the thick glass. Now he could tell at a glance how likely and close a storm was, but those hours had given him the knowledge.

The boy had the right idea, though his efforts would not be worthwhile until afternoon.

Jasper’s stomach growled and the boy looked over again, his eyes widening as though surprised Jasper was still present. He probably was; the look on his face had shown an intensity that blocked awareness of everything but what he focused on. It was definitely time to pull him away or he’d be there all day.

“Would you like breakfast?”

The boy’s stomach growled, echoing Jasper’s own, and he nodded, though his eyes flickered back to the window.

Jasper held out his hand. “Come on. After we eat, we can go into town and buy some supplies. I haven’t stocked for winter yet, and I wasn’t planning on having a visitor, so there’s not much left.”

It was uncertain how much the boy?no, the man, Jasper had to keep reminding himself?understood, but he took Jasper’s hand and let himself be led to the kitchen. He ate with such enthusiasm that Jasper wondered when he’d last eaten… and if he had enough in his account to cover all the food he was certain to need.

 

 

HALFWAY to town, Jasper risked a glance at his companion. “What’s your name? Can you tell me? I need to call you something. People are going to wonder who you are and why I’m buying so much more than usual.” He shook his head both at the sentiment and the way he was rambling to fill the silence. “I may not go into town very often, but it’s not a big place, and they all know me.”

The boy peeled his gaze from the truck window and peered at Jasper over the knee he’d drawn up to his chest. He was obviously uncomfortable in the moving vehicle, but since the storms had started, Jasper hadn’t dared take the horses. Brightam’s Ford was a half-day’s journey on horseback and Jasper didn’t trust they would make it back before the rain began to fall.

Slowly, the boy?man?reached out and placed his hand on Jasper’s arm. Jasper felt the almost familiar tingle under his skin and then?

Tobias.

“Is that your name? Tobias?”

The young man - Tobias - nodded and when Jasper next risked a glance he saw a quizzical, expectant expression on Tobias’s face. It took him a moment and Tobias’s fingers twitched toward his arm again, but then Jasper realized what his companion wanted to know. He felt like a complete idiot for not realizing it earlier.

“I’m Jasper.”

A grateful smile blossomed on Tobias’s face and Jasper almost drove off the road looking at it.

 

 

BRIGHTAM’S FORD was a small town by the coastal standards Jasper had grown up with, but it was a typical size for the inland areas. Despite the relative safety of the continent’s interior, people still flocked to the coast with its bustling metropolises and access to shipping lanes. The sea was an additional danger in the wet season, but when the storms ended, it would be covered with boats shipping goods and people from one town to the next. There were trains to take goods and people inland, and a car could potentially make the journey, but neither was as easy or as accessible as the large boats that trawled up and down the coastlines nine to ten months of the year.

The coast was the place to be if you wanted money or power.

When he moved inland after the incident at the shelter, Jasper found a peace he hadn’t realized he was missing. Here he had space and land. The inhabitants of Brightam’s Ford provided all the social contact and worldly goods he needed and the solitude was ideal for creating his art and writing, which he shipped back to a friend on the coast to be sold. He’d taken odd jobs to get by back when he’d lived in Crittendon, but out here the money that came back from John was more than enough to support him and the animals.

At least, it had been until he’d found Tobias huddled by his barn. What that would do to his accounts remained to be seen.

Jasper parked the car in the lot in the town center. Tobias was out before the engine was off, but he froze, wide-eyed as he stared at the buildings. Here it was mostly shops, but there was one inn to service the occasional traveler and the railway station could be seen just over the hill. To Jasper, it was small, but Tobias was looking at it as though he’d never seen so many buildings clustered in one place.

“Come on.” Jasper gently tugged on Tobias’s sleeve, steering him toward the grocer’s. “Let’s get what we need and then if there’s time, I’ll show you around.”

Tobias’s eyes grew even wider, but he followed Jasper into the shop and gamely pushed the cart as Jasper filled it. They got bottled water, canned goods, and dried meat to tide them over during the lean storm season, and they even picked up some fresh fruit for a treat. Tobias added a few things to the cart as well, a few raw vegetables and?to Jasper’s immense surprise?a few sugary treats.

When they went to check out, Jasper realized he had not come up with a story to explain Tobias’s presence… or his silence.

Braden, the store’s proprietor, greeted Jasper with a warm smile as he tallied up the items. “Who’s your friend?”

“Someone I used to know back on the coast. The son of an old colleague. He wanted to come inland, and I said he could stay with me for a bit to see how he liked it.”

“Ah.” Braden paused in his calculating and looked critically at Tobias. “He seems a bit….”

“Astounded?” Jasper carried on with his spur of the moment tale. “He’s never been away from the coast before. It’s a lot emptier out here. He doesn’t know what to think of all this open space.”

“They never do.” Braden chuckled and shook his head. “I remember when you came out here, you thought it was so far from your ranch to town. Now I bet ya don’t think anything of the trip, or wouldn’t if he weren’t with ya.”

“It’s not quite driving down the road yet, but it’s not as exhilarating as it used to be either.”

“Didn’t think so. You’re becomin’ a regular ’round here, Mr. Borland.” He finished putting the food in to Jasper’s canvas sacks and swiped the card that accessed his accounts. “Yer friend gonna come over and say hello?”

“Doubtful. He’s shy, painfully so.”

Braden handed over the slip for Jasper to sign. “He’ll fit in ’round here, then, but he’ll have t’ say a couple things to people. Not much, you know, but he can’t spend the rest of his life staring out that window there.”

“He’ll come around.”

“Good.” The slip of paper with Jasper’s signature disappeared into the cash register. “You stay safe this wet, ya hear?”

“You too.”

Jasper took the bags from the counter. Tobias stepped forward, grabbed half with a smile at Braden, and then stepped outside without waiting for Jasper. He was leaning against the car, the bags at his feet, when Jasper found him.

“Do you want to look around some or just get lunch and head home?” They theoretically had time to sightsee and still get home before the storms hit, but Jasper was relieved when Tobias shook his head and climbed into the car. The meaning was clear enough.

Jasper opened the driver’s side door and peered in. “We should at least eat. It will take us a couple of hours to drive back. There’s a nice café up the street, and the inn serves decent food, or?” He paused when the terrified expression on Tobias’s face registered. Eating anywhere was clearly out of the question.

They had to eat, though. “How about I go get sandwiches and we eat in the car?”

Tobias slowly nodded and Jasper set off toward the café, wondering if he’d ever learn the secrets hidden by Tobias’s silence.