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The fierce heat radiating from the forge was enough to deaden the senses all by itself, never mind the creaking and moaning of the bellows and the steady tap-tapping of Kevin's youngest apprentice out in the yard working at his assigned horseshoe. The stoutly-built stone shell was pure hell to work in from May to October; you could open windows and doors to the fullest, but heat soon built up to the point where thought ceased, the mind went numb, and the world narrowed to the task at hand.
But Kevin Floyd was used to it, and he was alive enough to what was going on about him that he sensed that someone had entered his smithy, although he dared not interrupt his work to see who it was. This was a commissioned pieceand one that could cost him dearly if he did a less-than-perfect job of completing it. Even under the best of circumstances the tempering of a swordblade was always a touchy bit of business. The threat of his overlord's wrathand the implied loss of his shopdid not make it less so.
So he dismissed the feeling of eyes on the back of his neck, and went on with the work stolidly. For the moment he would ignore the visitor as he ignored the heat, the noise, and the stink of scorched leather and many long summers' worth of sweathorse-sweat and man-sweatthat permeated the forge. Only when the blade was safely quenched and lying on the anvil for the next step did he turn to see who his visitor was.
He almost overlooked her entirely, she was so small, and was tucked up so invisibly in the shadowy corner where he kept oddments of harness and a pile of leather scraps. Dark, nearly black eyes peered up shyly at him from under a tangled mop of curling black hair as she perched atop his heap of leather bits, hugging her thin knees to her chest. Kevin didn't recognize her.
That, since he knew every man, woman and child in Northfork by name, was cause for a certain alarm.
He made one step toward her. She shrank back into the darkness of the corner, eyes going wide with fright. He sighed. "Kid, I ain't gonna hurt you"
She looked terrified. Unfortunately, Kevin frequently had that effect on children, much as he liked them. He looked like a red-faced, hairy ogre, and his voice, rough and harsh from years of smoke and shouting over the forge-noise, didn't improve the impression he made. He tried again.
"Where you from, huh? Who's your kin?"
She stared at him, mouth set. He couldn't tell if it was from fear or stubbornness, but was beginning to suspect the latter. So he persisted, and when she made an abortive attempt to flee, shot out an arm to bar her way. He continued to question her, more harshly now, but she just shook her head at him, frantically, and plastered herself against the wall. She was either too scared now to answer, or wouldn't talk out of pure cussedness.
"Jack," he finally shouted in exasperation, calling for his helper, who was around the corner outside the forge, manning the bellows. "Leave it for a minute and c'mere."
A brawny adolescent sauntered in the door from the back, scratching at his mouse-colored hair. "What" he began.
"Where's this come from?" Kevin demanded. "She ain't one of ours, an' I misdoubt she came with the King."
Jack snorted derision. "King, my left"
Kevin shared his derision, but cautioned"When he's here, you call him what he wants. No matter he's King of only about as far as he can see, he's paid for mercs enough to pound you inta the ground like a tent-peg if you make him mad. Or there's worse he could do. What the hell good is my journeyman gonna be with only one hand?"
Jack twisted his face in a grimace of distaste. He looked about as intelligent as a brick wall, but his sleepy blue eyes hid the fact that he missed very little. HRH King Robert the Third of Trihtown had not impressed him. "Shit. Ah hell; King, then. Naw, she ain't with his bunch. I reckon that youngun came with them trader jippos this mornin'. She's got that look."
"What jippos?" Kevin demanded. "Nobody told me about no jippos"
"Thass cause you was in here, poundin' away at His Highass's sword when they rode in. It's them same bunch as was in Five Point last month. Ain't no wants posted on 'em, so I figgered they was safe to let be for a bit."
"Aw hell" Kevin glanced at the waiting blade, then at the door, torn by duty and duty. There hadn't been any news about traders from Five Points, and bad news usually traveled faster than goodbutdammit, he had responsibility. As the duly appointed Mayor, it was his job to cast his eye over any strangers to Northfork, apprise them of the town laws, see that they knew troublemakers got short shrift. And he knew damn well what Willum Innkeeper would have to say about his dealing with them so tardily as it waspissant fool kept toadying up to King Robert, trying to get himself appointed Mayor.
Dammit, he thought furiously. I didn't want the damn job, but I'll be sheep-dipped if I'll let that suckass take it away from me with his rumor-mongering and back-stabbing. Hell, I have to go deal with these jippos, and quick, or he'll be on my case again
On the other hand, to leave King Robert's sword three-quarters finished
Fortunately, before he could make up his mind, his dilemma was solved for him.
A thin, wiry man, as dark as the child, appeared almost magically, hardly more than a shadow in the doorway; a man so lean he barely blocked the strong sunlight. He could have been handsome but for the black eyepatch and the ugly keloid scar that marred the right half of his face. For the rest, he was obviously no native of any town in King Robert's territory; he wore soft riding boots, baggy pants of a wild scarlet, embroidered shirt and vest of blue and black, and a scarlet scarf around his neck that matched the pants. Kevin was surprised he hadn't scared every horse in town with an outfit like that.
"Your pardon" the man said, with so thick an accent that Kevin could hardly understand him "but I believe something of ours has strayed here, and was too frightened to leave."
Before Kevin could reply, he had turned with the swift suddenness of a lizard and held out his hand to the girl, beckoning her to his side. She flitted to him with the same lithe grace he had displayed, and half hid behind him. Kevin saw now that she wasn't as young as he'd thought; in late adolescenceit was her slight build and lack of height that had given him the impression that she was a child.
"I sent Chali aseeing where there be the smithy," the man continued, keeping his one eye on Kevin and his arm about the girl's shoulders. "For we were atold to seek the Townman there. And dear she loves the forge-work, so she stayed to be awatching. She meant no harm, God's truth."
"Well neither did I," Kevin protested, "I was just trying to ask her some questions, an' she wouldn't answer me. I'm the Mayor here, I gotta know about strangers"
"Again, your pardon," the man interrupted, "But she could not give answers. Chali has been mute for long sinceshow, mouse"
At the man's urging the girl lifted the curls away from her left temple to show the unmistakable scar of a hoofmark.
Aw, hellfire. Big man, Kevin, bullying a little cripple. Kevin felt about as high as a horseshoe nail. "Shit," he said awkwardly. "Look, I'm sorryhell, how was I to know?"
Now the man smiled, a wide flash of pearly white teeth in his dark face. "You could not. Petro, I am. I lead the Rom."
"Kevin Floyd; I'm Mayor here."
The men shook hands; Kevin noticed that this Petro's grip was as firm as his own. The girl had relaxed noticeably since her clansman's arrival, and now smiled brightly at Kevin, another flash of white against dusky skin. She was dressed much the same as her leader, but in colors far more muted; Kevin was grateful, as he wasn't sure how much more of that screaming scarlet his eyes could take.
He gave the man a quick run-down of the rules; Petro nodded acceptance. "What of your faiths?" he asked, when Kevin had finished. "Are there things we must or must not be adoing? Is there Church about?"
Kevin caught the flash of a gold cross at the man's throat. Well, heyno wonder he said "Church" like it was poison. A fellow Christernot like those damn Ehleen priests. This was a simple one-barred cross, not the Ehleen two-barred. "Live and let be" was a Christer's motto "a godly man converts by example, not words nor force"which might well be why there were so few of them. Kevin and his family were one of only three Christer families in town, and Christer traders weren't that common, either. "Nothing much," he replied. "King Robert, he didn't go in for religion last I heard. So, what's your business here?"
"We live, what else?" Petro answered matter-of-factly. "We have livestock for trading. Horses, mules, donkeysalso metal-work."
"Don't know as I care for that last," Kevin said dubiously, scratching his sweaty beard.
"Na, na, not iron-work," the trader protested. "Light metals. Copper, brassornament, mostly. A few kettles, pans."
"Now that sounds a bit more like! Tell youyou got conshos, harness-studs, that kinda thing? You willin' to work a swap for shoein'?"
"The shoes, not the shoeing. Our beasts prefer the hands they know."
"Done." Kevin grinned. He was good enough at tools or weaponwork, but had no talent at ornament, and knew it. He could make good use of a stock of pretty bits for harnesses and the like. Only one frippery could he make, and that was more by accident than anything else. And since these people were fellow Christers and he was short a peace-offering He usually had one in his apron pocket; he felt around among the horseshoe nails until his hand encountered a shape that wasn't a nail, and pulled it out.
"Here, missy" he said apologetically. "Little somethin' fer scarin' you."
The girl took the cross made of flawed horseshoe nails into strong, supple fingers, with a flash of delight in her expressive eyes.
"Hah! A generous apology!" Petro grinned. "And you cannot know how well comes the fit."
"It is said of my people, when the Christ was to be killed, His enemies meant to silence Him lest He rouse His followers against them. The evil ones made four nailsthe fourth for His heart. But one of the Rom was there, and stole the fourth nail. So God blessed us in gratitude to awander wherever we would."
"Well, hey." Kevin returned the grin, and a thought occurred to him. Ehrik was getting about the right size to learn riding. "Say, you got any ponies, maybe a liddle horse gettin' on an' gentle? I'm lookin' for somethin' like that for m'boy."
The jippo regarded him thoughtfully. "I think, perhaps yes."
"Then you just may see me later on when I finish this."
Chali skipped to keep up with the wiry man as they headed down the dusty street toward the tsera of their kumpania. The town, of gray wood-and-stone buildings enclosed inside its shaggy log palisade depressed her and made her feel trappedshe was glad to be heading out to where the kumpania had made their camp. Her eyes were flashing at Petro with the only laughter she could show. You did not tell him the rest of the tale, Elder Brother, she mindspoke. The part that tells how the good God then granted us the right to steal whatever we needed to live.
"There is such a thing as telling more truth than a man wishes to hear," Petro replied. "Especially to Gaje."
Huh. But not all Gaje. I have heard a different tale from you every time we come to a new holding. You tell us to always tell the whole of the truth to the Horseclans folk, no matter how bitter.
"They are not Gaje. They are not o phral, either, but they are not Gaje. I do not know what they are, but one does not lie to them."
But why the rule? We have not seen Horseclans since before I can remember, she objected.
"They are like the Wind they call uponthey go where they will. But they have the dook. So it is wise to be prepared for meeting them at all times."
I would like to see them, one day.
He regarded her out of the corner of his eye. "If I am still rom baro, you will be hidden if we meet them. If I am not, I hope you will be wise and hide yourself. They have dook, I tell youand I am not certain that I wish them to know that we also have it."
She nodded, thoughtfully. The Rom had not survived this long by giving away secrets. Do you think my dook is greater than theirs? Or that they would seek me out if they knew of it?
"It could be. I know they value such gifts greatly. I am not minded to have you stolen from us for the sake of the children you could bear to one of them."
She clasped her hands behind her, eyes looking downward at the dusty, trampled grass as they passed through the open town gate. This was the first time Petro had ever said anything indicating that he thought her a woman and not a child. Most of the kumpania, including Petro's wife Sara and their boy Tibo, treated her as an odd mixture of child and phuri dai. Granted, she was tiny; perhaps the same injury that had taken her voice had kept her small. But she was nearly sixteen wintersand still they reacted to her body as to that of a child's, and to her mind as to that of a drabarni of sixty. As she frowned a little, she pondered Petro's words, and concluded they were wise. Very wise. That the Rom possessed draban was not a thing to be bandied about. That her own dook was as strong as it was should rightly be kept secret as well.
Yes, rom baro, I will do as you advise, she replied.
Although he did not mindspeak her in return, she knew he had heard everything she had told him perfectly well. She had so much draban that any human and most beasts could hear her when she chose. Petro could hear and understand her perfectly, for though his mindspeech was not as strong as hers, he would have heard her even had he been mind-deaf.
That he had no strong dook was not unusual; among the Rom, since the Evil Days, it was the women that tended to have more draban than the men. That was one reason why females had come to enjoy all the freedoms of a man since that timewhen his wife could make a man feel every blow, he tended to be less inclined to beat her . . . when his own eyes burned with every tear his daughter shed, he was less inclined to sell her into a marriage with someone she feared or hated.
And when she could blast you with her own pain, she tended to be safe from rape.
As she skipped along beside Petro on the worn ruts that led out of the palisade gate and away from town, she was vaguely aware of every mind about her. She and everyone else in the kumpania had known for a very long time that her dook was growing stronger every year, perhaps to compensate for her muteness. Even the herd-guard horses, those wise old mares, had been impressed, and it took a great deal to impress them!
Petro sighed, rubbing the back of his neck absently, and she could read his surface thoughts easily. That was an evil day, when ill-luck led us to the settlement of the Chosen. A day that ended with poor Chali senselessher brother dead, and Chali's parents captured and burned as witches. And every other able-bodied, weapons-handy member of the kumpania either wounded or too busy making sure the rest got away alive to avenge the fallen. She winced as guilt flooded him as always.
You gave your eye to save me, Elder Brother. That was more than enough.
"I could have done more. I could have sent others with your mama and papa. I could have taken everyone away from that sty of pigs, that nest ofI will not call them Chosen of God. Chosen of o Beng perhaps"
And o Beng claims his own, Elder Brother. Are we not o phral? We have more patience than all the Gaje in the world. We will see the day when o Beng takes them. Chali was as certain of that as she was of the sun overhead and the grass beside the track.
Petro's only reply was another sigh. He had less faith than she. He changed the subject that was making him increasingly uncomfortable. "So, when you stopped being a frighted tawnie juva, did you touch the qajo, the Townsman's heart? Should we sell him old Pika for his little son?"
I think yes. He is a good one, for Gaje. Pika will like him; also, it is nearly fall, and another winter wandering would be hard on his bones.
They had made their camp up against a stand of tangled woodland, and a good long way off from the palisaded town. The camp itself could only be seen from the top of the walls, not from the ground. That was the way the Rom liked thingsthey preferred to be apart from the Gaje.
The tsera was within shouting distance by now, and Petro sent her off with a pat to her backside. The vurdon, those neatly built wooden wagons, were arranged in a precise circle under the wilderness of trees at the edge of the grasslands, with the common fire neatly laid in a pit in the center. Seven wagons, seven familiesChali shared Petro's. Some thirty seven Rom in alland for all they knew, the last Rom in the world, the only Rom to have survived the Evil Days.
But then, not a great deal had survived the Evil Days. Those trees, for instance, showed signs of having once been a purposeful planting, but so many generations had passed since the Evil Days they were now as wild as any forest.
Chali headed, not for the camp, but for the unpicketed string of horses grazing beyond. She wanted to sound out Pika. If he was willing to stay here, this Mayor Kevin would have his gentle old pony for his son, and cheap at the price. Chali knew Pika would guard any child in his charge with all the care he would give one of his own foals. Pika was a stallion, but Chali would have trusted a tiny baby to his care.
Petro trusted her judgment in matters of finding their horses homes; a few months ago she had allowed him to sell one of their saddlebred stallions and a clutch of mares to mutual satisfaction on the part of horses, Rom, and buyers. Then it had been a series of sales of mules and donkeys to folk who wound up treating them with good sense and more consideration than they gave to their own well-being. And in Five Points she had similarly placed an aging mare Petro had raised from a filly, and when Chali had helped the rom baro strain his meager dook to bid her farewell, Lisa had been nearly incoherent with gratitude for the fine stable, the good feeding, the easy work.
Horses were bred into Chali's blood, for like the rest of this kumpania, she was of the Lowara natsiyiand the Lowara were the Horsedealers. Mostly, anyway, though there had been some Kalderash, or Coppersmiths, among them in the first years. By now the Kalderash blood was spread thinly through the whole kumpania. Once or twice in each generation there were artificers, but most of rom baro Petro's people danced to Lowara music.
She called to Pika without even thinking his name, and the middle-aged pony separated himself from a knot of his friends and ambled to her side. He rubbed his chestnut nose against her vest and tickled her cheek with his whiskers. His thoughts were full of the hope of apples.
No apples, greedy pig! Do you like this place? Would you want to stay?
He stopped teasing her and stood considering, breeze blowing wisps of mane and forelock into his eyes and sunlight picking out the white hairs on his nose. She scratched behind his ears, letting him take his own time about it.
The grass is good, he said, finally. The Gaje horses are not ill-treated. And my bones ache on cold winter mornings, lately. A warm stable would be pleasant.
The blacksmith has a small sonshe let him see the picture she had stolen from the qajo's mind, of a blond-haired, sturdily built bundle of energy. The gajo seems kind.
The horses here like him, came the surprising answer. He fits the shoe to the hoof, not the hoof to the shoe. I think I will stay. Do not sell me cheaply.
If Chali could have laughed aloud, she would have. Pika had been Romano's in the rearingand he shared more than a little with that canny trader. I will tell Romanonot that I need to. And don't forget, prala, if you are unhappy
Ha! the pony snorted with contempt. If I am unhappy, I shall not leave so much as a hair behind me!
Chali fished a breadcrust out of her pocket and gave it to him, then strolled in the direction of Romano's vurdon. When this kumpania had found itself gifted with dook, with more draban than they ever dreamed existed, it had not surprised them that they could speak with their horses; Lowara Rom had practically been able to do that before. But draban had granted them advantages they had never dared hope for
Lowara had been good at horsestealing; now only the Horseclans could better them at it. All they needed to do was to sell one of their four-legged brothers into the hands of the one they wished to . . . relieve of the burdens of wealth. All the Lowara horses knew how to lift latches, unbar gates, or find the weak spot in any fence. And Lowara horses were as glib at persuasion as any of their two-legged friends. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the Lowara would return to the kumpania trailing a string of converts.
And if the kumpania came across horses that were being mistreated . . .
Chali's jaw tightened. That was what had set the Chosen at their throats.
She remembered that day and night, remembered it far too well. Remembered the pain of the galled beasts that had nearly driven her insane; remembered how she and Toby had gone to act as decoys while her mother and father freed the animals from their stifling barn.
Remembered the anger and fear, the terror in the night, and the madness of the poor horse that had been literally goaded into running her and Toby down.
It was just as well that she had been comatose when the "Chosen of God" had burned her parents at the stakethat might well have driven her completely mad.
That anger made her sight mist with red, and she fought it down, lest she broadcast it to the herd. When she had it under control again, she scuffed her way slowly through the dusty, flattened grass, willing it out of her and into the ground. She was so intent on controlling herself that it was not until she had come within touching distance of Romano's brightly-painted vurdon that she dared to look up from the earth.
Romano had an audience of children, all gathered about him where he sat on the tail of his wooden wagon. She tucked up against the worn side of it, and waited in the shade without drawing attention to herself, for he was telling them the story of the Evil Days.
"So old Simza, the drabarni, she spoke to the rom baro of her fear, and a little of what she had seen. Giorgi was her son, and he had dook enough that he believed her."
"Why shouldn't he have believed her?" tiny Ami wanted to know.
"Because in those days draban was weak, and even the o phral did not always believe in it. We were different, even among Rom. We were one of the smallest and least of kumpania then; one of the last to leave the old waysperhaps that is why Simza saw what she saw. Perhaps the steel carriages the Rom had taken to, and the stone buildings they lived in, would not let draban through."
"Steel carriages? Rom chal, how would such a thing move? What horse could pull it?" That was Tomy, skeptical as always.
"I do not knowI only know that the memories were passed from Simza to Yanni, to Tibo, to Melalo, and so on down to me. If you would see, look."
As he had to Chali when she was small, as he did to every child, Romano the Storyteller opened his mind to the children, and they saw, with their dook, the dim visions of what had been. And wondered.
"Well, though there were those who laughed at him, and others of his own kumpania that left to join those who would keep to the cities of the Gaje, there were enough of them convinced to hold to the kumpania. They gave over their Gaje ways and returned to the old wooden vurdon, pulled by horses, practicing their old trades of horsebreeding and metal work, staying strictly away from the cities. And the irony is that it was the Gaje who made this possible, for they had become mad with fascination for the ancient days and had begun creating festivals than the Yanfi kumpania followed about."
Again came the dim sightshalf-remembered music, laughter, people in wilder garments than ever the Rom sported.
"Like now?" asked one of the girls. "Like markets and trade-days?"
"No, not like now; these were special things, just for amusement, not really for trade. I am not certain I understand it; they were all a little mad in those times. Well, then the Evil Days came . . ."
Fire, and red death; thunder and fearmore people than Chali had ever seen alive, fleeing mindlessly the wreckage of their cities and their lives.
"But the kumpania was safely traveling out in the countryside, with nothing needed that they could not make themselves. Some others of the Rom remembered us and lived to reach us; Kalderash, mostly."
"And we were safe from Gaje and their mad ways?"
"When have the Rom ever been safe?" he scoffed. "No, if anything, we were in more danger yet. The Gaje wanted our horses, our vurdon, and Gaje law was not there to protect us. And there was disease, terrible disease that killed more folk than the Night of Fire had. One sickly gajo could have killed us all. No, we hid at first, traveling only by night and keeping off the roads, living where man had fled or died out."
These memories were clearer, perhaps because they were so much closer to the way the kumpania lived now. Hard years, though, and fear-filleduntil the Rom learned again the weapons they had forgotten. The bow. The knife. And learned to use weapons they had never known like the sharp hooves of their four-legged brothers.
"We lived that way until the old weapons were all exhausted. Then it was safe to travel openly, and to trade; we began traveling as we do nowand now life is easier. For true God made the Gaje to live so that we might borrow from them what we need. And that is the tale."
Chali watched with her dook as Romano reached out with his mind to all the children seated about him; and found what he had been looking for. Chali felt his exultation; of all the children to whom Romano had given his memories and his stories, there was one in whose mind the memories were still as clear as they were when they had come from Romano's. Tomy had the draban of the Storyteller; Romano had found his successor.
Chali decided that it was wiser not to disturb them for now, and slipped away so quietly that they never knew she had been there.
The scout for Clan Skaht slipped into the encampment with the evening breeze and went straight to the gathering about Chief's fire. His prairiecat had long since reported their impending arrival, so the raidleaders had had ample time to gather to hear him.
"Well, I have good news and bad news," Daiv Mahrtun of Skaht announced, sinking wearily to the bare earth across the fire from his Chief. "The good news is that these Dirtmen look lazy and ripe for the pickingthe bad news is that they've got traders with 'em, so the peace-banners are up. And I mean to tell you, they're the weirdest damn traders I ever saw. Darker than any Ehleeneedress like no clan I knowand" He stopped, not certain of how much more he wanted to sayand if he'd be believed.
Tohnee Skaht snorted in disgust, and spat into the fire. "Dammit anywayif we break trade-peace"
"Word spreads fast," agreed his cousin Jahn. "We may have trouble getting other traders to deal with us if we mount a raid while this lot's got the peace-banners up."
There were nearly a dozen clustered about the firepit; men and a pair of women, old and youngbut all of them were seasoned raiders, regardless of age. And all of them were profoundly disappointed by the results of Daiv's scouting foray.
"Which traders?" Tohnee asked after a long moment of thought. "Anybody mention a name or a clan you recognized?"
Daiv shook his head emphatically. "I tell you, they're not like any lot I've ever seen or heard tell of. They got painted wagons, and they ain't the big tradewagons; more, they got whole families, not just the menfolkand they're horsetraders."
Tohnee's head snapped up. "Horse"
"Before you ask, I mindspoke their horses." This was a perfect opening for the most disturbing of Daiv's discoveries. "This oughta curl your hair. The horses wouldn't talk to me. It wasn't 'cause they couldn't, and it wasn't 'cause they was afraid to. It was like I was maybe an enemywas surely an outsider, and maybe not to be trusted. Whoever, whatever these folks are, they got the same kind of alliance with their horses as we have with ours. And that's plainly strange."
"Wind and Sundammit Daiv, if I didn't know you, I'd be tempted to call you a liar!" That was Dik Krooguh, whose jaw was hanging loose with total astonishment.
"Do the traders mindspeak?" Tohnee asked at nearly the same instant.
"I dunno," Daiv replied, shaking his head, "I didn't catch any of 'em at it, but that don't mean much. My guess would be they do, but I can't swear to it."
"I think maybe we need more facts" interrupted Alis Skaht. "If they've got horse-brothers, I'd be inclined to say they're not likely to be a danger to usbut we can't count on that. Tohnee?"
"Mm," he nodded. "Question is, how?"
"I took some thought to that," Daiv replied. "How about just mosey in open-like? Dahnah and I could come in like you'd sent us to trade with 'em." Dahnah was Daiv's twin sister; an archer with no peer in the clan, and a strong mindspeaker. "We could hang around for a couple of days without making 'em too suspicious. And a pair of Horseclan kids doin' a little dickerin ain't gonna make the Dirtmen too nervous. Not while the peace-banners are up."
Tohnee thought that over a while, as the fire cast weird shadows on his stony face. "You've got the sense to call for help if you end up needing itand you've got Brighttooth and Stubtail backing you."
The two young prairiecats lounging at Daiv's side purred agreement.
"All rightit sounds a good enough plan to me," Tohnee concluded, while the rest of the sobered clansfolk nodded, slowly. "You two go in at first morning light and see what you can find. And I know I don't need to tell you to be careful, but I'm telling you anyway.
Howard Thomson, son of "King" Robert Thomson, was distinctly angered. His narrow face was flushed, always a bad sign, and he'd been drinking, which was worse. When Howard drank, he thought he owned the world. Trouble was, he was almost right, at least in this little corner of it. His two swarthy merc-bodyguards were between Kevin and the doors.
Just what I didn't need, Kevin thought bleakly, taking care that nothing but respect showed on his face, a damn-fool touchy idiot with a brat's disposition tryin' to put me between a rock and a hard place.
"I tell you, my father sent me expressly to fetch him that blade, boy." Howard's face was getting redder by the minute, matching his long, fiery hair. "You'd better hand it over now, before you find yourself lacking a hand."
I'll just bet he sent you, Kevin growled to himself, Sure he did. You just decided to help yourself, more likeand leave me to explain to your father where his piece went, while you deny you ever saw me before.
But his outwardly cool expression didn't change as he replied, stolidly, "Your pardon, but His Highness gave me orders that I was to put it into no one's hands but his. And he hasn't sent me written word telling me any different."
Howard's face enpurpled as Kevin obliquely reminded him that the Heir couldn't read or write. Kevin waited for the inevitable lightning to fall. Better he should get beaten to a pulp than that King Robert's wrath fall on Ehrik and Keegan, which it would if he gave in to Howard. What with Keegan being pregnantbetter a beating. He tensed himself and waited for the order.
Except that, just at the moment when Howard was actually beginning to splutter orders to his two merc-bodyguards to take the blacksmith apart, salvation, in the form of Petro and a half-dozen strapping jippos came strolling through the door to the smithy. They were technically unarmed, but the long knives at their waists were a reminder that this was only a technicality.
"Sarishan, gajo," he said cheerfully. "We have brought you your pony"
Only then did he seem to notice the Heir and his two bodyguards.
"Why, what is this?" he asked with obviously feigned surprise. "Do we interrupt some business?"
Howard growled something obsceneif he started something now he would be breaking trade-peace, and no trader would deal with him or his family again without an extortionate bond being posted. For one moment Kevin feared that his temper might get the better of him anyway, but then the young man pushed past the jippos at the door and stalked into the street, leaving his bodyguards to follow as they would.
Kevin sagged against his cold forge, only now breaking into a sweat. "By all that's holy, man," he told Petro earnestly, "your timing couldn't have been better! You saved me from a beatin', and that's for damn sure!"
"Something more than a beating," the jippo replied, slowly, "or I misread that one. I do not think we will sell any of our beasts there, no. But" he grinned suddenly "we lied, I fear. We did not bring the ponywe brought our other wares."
"You needed six men to carry a bit of copperwork?" Kevin asked incredulously, firmly telling himself that he would not begin laughing hysterically out of relief.
"Oh nobut I was not of a mind to carry back horseshoes for every beast in our herd by myself! I am rom baro, not a packmule!"
Kevin began laughing after all, laughing until his sides hurt.
Out of gratitude for their timely appearance, he let them drive a harder bargain with him than he normally would have allowed, trading shoes and nails for their whole equippage for about three pounds of brass and copper trinkets and a set of copper pots he knew Keegan would lust after the moment she saw them. And a very pretty little set of copper jewelry to brighten her spirit; she was beginning to show, and subject to bouts of depression in which she was certain her pregnancy made her ugly in his eyes. This bit of frippery might help remind her that she was anything but. He agreed to come by and look at the pony as soon as he finished a delivery of his own. He was going to take no chances on Howard's return; he was going to deliver that sword himself, now, and straight into Robert's palsied hands!
"So if that one comes, see that he gets no beast nor thing of ours," Petro concluded. "Chali, you speak to the horses. Most like, he will want the king stallion, if any."
Chali nodded. We could say Bakro is none of oursthat he's a wild one that follows our mares.
Petro grinned approval. "Ha, a good idea! That way nothing of blame comes on us. For the restwe wish to leave only Pika, is that not so?" The others gathered about him in the shade of his vurdon murmured agreement. They had done well enough with their copper and brass jewelry, ornaments and pots and with the odd hen or vegetable or sack of grain that had found a mysterious way into a Rom kettle or a vurdon.
"Well then, let us see what we can do to make them unattractive."
Within the half hour the Rom horses, mules and donkeys little resembled the sleek beasts that had come to the call of their two-legged allies. Coats were dirty, with patches that looked suspiciously like mange; hocks were poulticed, and looked swollen; several of the wise old mares were ostentatiously practicing their limps, and there wasn't a hide of an attractive color among them.
And anyone touching them would be kicked at, or nearly bittenthe horses were not minded to have their two-legged brothers punished for their actions. Narrowed eyes and laid-back ears gave the lie to the hilarity within. No one really knowledgeable about horses would want to come near this lot.
And just in time, for Howard Thomson rode into the camp on an oversized, dun-colored dullard of a gelding only a few moments after the tools of their deceptions had been cleaned up and put away. Chali briefly touched the beast's mind to see if it was being mistreated, only to find it nearly as stupid as one of the mongrels that infested the village.
He surveyed the copper trinkets with scorn, and the sorry herd of horses with disdain. Then his eye lit upon the king stallion.
"You theretrader" he waved his hand at the proud bay stallion, who looked back at this arrogant two-legs with the same disdain. "How much for that beast there?"
"The noble prince must forgive us," Petro fawned, while Chali was glad, for once, of her muteness; she did not have to choke on her giggles as some of the others were doing. "But that one is none of ours. He is a wild one; he follows our mares, which we permit in hopes of foals like him."
"Out of nags like those? You hope for a miracle, man!" Howard laughed, as close to being in good humor as Petro had yet seen him. "Well, since he's none of yours, you won't mind if my men take him"
Hours later, their beasts were ready to founder, the king stallion was still frisking like a colt, and none of them had come any closer to roping him than they had been when they started. The Rom were nearly bursting, trying to contain their laughter, and Howard was purple again.
Finally he called off the futile hunt, wrenched at the head of his foolish gelding, and spurred it back down the road to town . . .
And the suppressed laughter died, as little Ami's youngest brother toddled into the path of the lumbering monsterand Howard grinned and spurred the gelding at himhard.
Kevin was nearly to the trader's camp when he saw the baby wander into the path of Howard's horseand his heart nearly stopped when he saw the look on the Heir's face as he dug his spurs savagely into his gelding's flanks.
The smith didn't even thinkhe just moved. He frequently fooled folk into thinking he was slow and clumsy because of his size; now he threw himself at the child with every bit of speed and agility he possessed.
He snatched the toddler, curled protectively around it, and turned his dive into a frantic roll. As if
everything had been slowed by a magic spell, he saw the horse charging at him and every move horse and rider made. Howard sawed savagely at the gelding's mouth, trying to keep it on the path. But the gelding shied despite the bite of the bit; foam-flecks showered from its lips, and the foam was spotted with blood at the corners of its mouth. It half-reared, and managed to avoid the smith and his precious burden by a hairone hoof barely scraped Kevin's legthen the beast was past, thundering wildly toward town.
Kevin didn't get back home until after darkand he was not entirely steady on his feet. The stuff the Rom drank was a bit more potent than the beer and wine from the tavern, or even his own home-brew. Pacing along beside him, lending a supporting shoulder and triumphantly groomed to within an inch of his life and adorned with red ribbons, was the pony, Pika.
Pika was a giftRomano wouldn't accept a single clipped coin for him. Kevin was on a first-name basis with all of the Rom now, even had a mastered a bit of their tongue. Not surprising, thatseeing as they'd sworn brotherhood with him.
He'd eaten and drunk with them, heard their tales, listened to their wild, blood-stirring musicfelt as if he'd come home for the first time. Rom, that was what they called themselves, not "jippos,"and
"o phral," which meant "the people," sort of. They danced for himand he didn't wonder that they wouldn't sing or dance before outsiders. It would be far too easy for dullard gajo to get the wrong idea from some of those dancesthe women and girls danced with the freedom of the wind and the
wildness of the stormand to too many men, "wild" and "free" meant "loose." Kevin had just been
entranced by a way of life he'd never dreamed existed.
Pika rolled a not-unsympathetic eye at him as he stumbled, and leaned in a little closer to him. Funny about the Rom and their horsesyou'd swear they could read each other's minds. They had an affinity that was bordering on witchcraft
Like that poor little mute child, Chali. Kevin had seen with his own eyes how wild the maverick stallion had beenat least when Howard and his men had been chasing it. But he'd also seen Chali walk up to him, pull his forelock, and hop aboard his bare back as if he were no more than a gentle, middle-aged pony like Pika. And then watched the two of them pull some trick riding stunts that damn near pulled the eyes out of his sockets. It was riding he'd remember for a long time, and he was right glad he'd seen it. But he devoutly hoped Howard hadn't. Howard hadn't but one of his men had.
Daiv and Dahnah rode up to the trader's camp in the early morning, leaving Brighttooth and Stubtail behind them as eyes to the rear. The camp appeared little different from any other they'd seenat first glance. Then you noticed that the wagons were small, shaped almost like little houses on wheels, and painted like rainbows. They were almost distracting enough to keep you from noticing that there wasn't a beast around the encampment, not donkey nor horse, that was hobbled or picketed.
I almost didn't believe you, Daivie, his sister said into his mind, wonderingly.
His mare snorted; so did he. Huh. Thanks a lot, sis. You catch any broad-beaming?
She shook her head, almost imperceptibly, as her mount shifted a little. Not so much as a stray thought her own thought faded for a moment, and she bit her lip. Now that I think of it, that's damned odd. These people are buttoned up as tight as a yurt in a windstorm.
Which means what? He signaled Windstorm to move up beside Snowdancer.
Either they're naturally shielded as well as the best mindspeaker I ever met, yet they do have the gift. And the first is about as likely as Brighttooth sitting down to dinner with an Ehleenee priest.
Only if the priest was my dinner, sister, came the mischievous reply from the grassland behind them. With the reply came the mock disgust and nausea from Stubtail that his littermate would even contemplate such a notion as eating vile-tasting Ehleenee flesh.
So where does that leave us? Daiv asked.
We go in, do a little dickering, and see if we can eavesdrop. And I'll see if I can get any more out of the horses that you did.
Fat chance! he replied scornfully, but followed in the wake of her mare as she urged her into the camp itself.
The fire on the hearth that was the only source of light in Howard's room crackled. Howard lounged in his throne-like chair in the room's center. His back was to the fire, which made him little more than a dark blot to a petitioner, and cast all the available light on a petitioner's face.
Howard eyed the lanky tavern-keeper who was now kneeling before him with intense speculation. "You say the smith's been consorting with the heathen traders?"
"More than traders, m'lord," Willum replied humbly. "For the past two days there's been a brace of horse barbarians with the traders as well. I fear this means no good for the town."
"I knew about the barbarians," Howard replied, leaning back in his padded chair and staring at the flickering shadows on the wall behind Willum thoughtfully. Indeed he did know about the barbarianstwins they were, with hair like a summer sun; he'd spotted the girl riding her beast with careless grace, and his loins had ached ever since.
"I fear he grows far too friendly with them, m'lord. His wife and child spend much of the day at the trader's camp. I think that, unlike those of us who are loyal, he has forgotten where his duties lie."
"And you haven't, I take it?" Howard almost smiled.
"M'lord knows I am but an honest tavernkeeper"
"And has the honest tavernkeeper informed my father of this possibly treacherous behavior?"
"I tried," Willum replied, his eyes not quite concealing his bitterness. "I have been trying for some time now. King Robert will not hear a word against the man."
"King Robert is a senile old fool!" Howard snapped viciously, jerking upright where he sat so that the chair rocked and Willum sat back on his heels in startlement. "King Robert is far too readily distracted by pretty toys and pliant wenches." His own mouth turned down with a bitterness to equal Willum'sfor the talented flame-haired local lovely that had been gracing his bed had deserted it last night for his father's. Willum's eyes narrowed, and he crept forward on his knees until he almost touched Howard's leg. "Perhaps," he whispered, so softly that Howard could barely hear him, "it is time for a change of rulers"
Chali had been banished to the forest as soon as the bright golden heads of the Horseclan twins had been spotted in the grasslands beyond the camp. She was not altogether unhappy with her banishmentshe had caught an unwary thought from one of them, and had shivered at the strength of it. Now she did not doubt the rom baro's wisdom in hiding her. Dook that strong would surely ferret out her own, and had rather not betray the secret gifts of her people until they knew more about the intent of these two. So into the forest she had gone, with cloak and firestarter and sack of food and necessaries.
Nor was she alone in her exile; Petro had deemed it wiser not to leave temptation within Howard's reach, and sent Bakro, the king stallion, with her. They had decided to explore the woodsand had wandered far from the encampment. To their delight and surprise, they had discovered the remains of an apple orchard deep in the heart of the forestthe place had gone wild and reseeded itself several times over, and the apples themselves were far smaller than those from a cultivated orchard, hardly larger than crabapples. But they were still sweetand most of them were ripe. They both gorged themselves as much as they dared on the crisp, succulent fruits, until night had fallen. Now both were drowsing beneath a tree in Chali's camp, sharing the warmth of her fire, and thinking of nothing in particular
when the attack on the Rom tsera came.
Chali was awake on the instant, her head ringing with the mental anguish of the injuredand God, oh God, the dying! Bakro wasn't much behind her in picking up the waves of torment. He screamed, a trumpeting of defiance and rage. She grabbed a handful of mane and pulled herself up onto his back without being consciously aware she had done so, and they crashed off into the darkness to the source of that agony.
But the underbrush they had threaded by day was a series of maddening tangles by night; Bakro's headlong dash ended ignominiously in a tangle of vine, and when they extricated themselves from the clawing branches, they found their pace slowed to a fumbling crawl. The slower they went, the more frantic they felt, for it was obvious from what they were being bombarded with that the Rom were fighting a losing battle. And one by one the voices in their heads lost strength. Then faded.
Until finally there was nothing.
They stopped fighting their way through the brush, then, and stood, lost in shock, in the blackness of the midnight forestutterly, completely alone.
Dawn found Chali on her knees, exhausted, face tear-streaked, hands bruised from where she'd been pounding them on the ground, over and over. Bakro stood over her, trembling; trembling not from fear or sorrow, but from raw, red hatred. His herd had survived, though most had been captured by the enemy two-legs. But his two-leg herdChali was all he had left.
He wanted vengeanceand he wanted it now.
Slowly the hot rage of the stallion penetrated Chali's grief.
I hear you, prala, I do hear you, she sent slowly, fumbling her way out of the haze of loss that had fogged her mind. Kill! the stallion trumpeted with mind and voice. Kill them all!
She clutched her hands at her throat, and encountered the thong that held the little iron cross. She pulled it over her head, and stared at it, dully. What good was a God of forgiveness in the light of this slaughter? She cast the crossand all it impliedfrom her, violently.
She rose slowly to her feet, and put a restraining hand on the stallion's neck. He ceased his fidgeting and stood absolutely still, a great bay statue.
We will have revenge, prala, I swear it, she told him, her own hatred burning as high as his, but we shall have it wisely.
Kevin was shoved and kicked down the darkened corridor of the King's manorhouse with brutal indifference, smashing up against the hard stone of the walls only to be shoved onward again. His head was near to splitting, and he'd had at least one tooth knocked out, the flat, sweet taste of blood in his mouth seemed somehow unreal.
He was angry, frightenedand bewildered. He'd awakened to distant shouts and screams, run outside to see a red glow in the direction of the Rom campthen he'd been set upon from behind. Whoever it was that had attacked him clubbed him into apparent submission. Then he had his hands bound behind himand his control broke; he began fighting again, and was dragged, kicking and struggling, up to the manorhouse. He'd seen, when his vision had cleared, that his attackers were some of King Robert's own mercs. He'd stumbled and nearly fallen on his face from the shockhe'd figured that the town had been taken by Ehleenee or some marauding band
The door to King Robert's quarters opened and Kevin was shoved through it, skidding on the flagstone floor to land sprawling on his face at someone's feet.
"And here is the last of the suspects, my lord," he heard Willum say unctuously. He wrenched himself up onto his knees by brute force. Lounging at his ease in King Robert's favorite chair was Howard, sumptuously clad and playing with his father's new sword. Beside, him, in the blue and red of Howard's livery, was Willum.
"What the hell is that shit supposed to mean, asshole?" Kevin was too angry to mind his tongue, and a blow from one of the mercs behind him threw him onto his face again, made his brains rattle in his head and jarred his teeth to their sockets. His vision swam and he saw double for a long moment.
He pulled himself back into a semi-kneeling posture with aching difficulty.
"Keep a civil tongue in your head in the presence of your King, boy," Willum told him, with a faint smile. "You're suspected of conspiring with those false traders"
"To what? Invade the town? Don't make me laugh!" Kevin snorted. "Take over with a handful of men whenwhat the hell do you mean, King?"
"My father has met with an accident," Howard purred, polishing the blade of the sword he held with a soft cloth. The steel glinted redly in the firelight. "He went mad, it seems. I was forced to defend myself. I have witnesses"
Willum nodded, and it seemed to Kevin that there was a glint of balefire in the back of the man's eyes.
"So I am King nowby right of arms. I have declared that those so-called traders were no such thing at alland I have eliminated their threat."
Slowly Kevin began to understand what it was he was saying. "Yougood Godthat camp was mostly women, children"
"The spawn of vipers will grow to be vipers."
"You broke trade-peace! You murdered innocent people, babies in their beds!"
"That hardly sounds like the words of a loyal subject"
"Loyal my ass! They deserved my loyaltyall you should get is the contempt of every honest man in this town! We're the ones who're gonna suffer because of what you just did! You broke your sworn word, you bastard!" Bound hands or not, Kevin lunged for the two of them
His arms were caught and blows rained down on his head and shoulders. Still he fought, screaming obscenities, and only being clubbed half-unconscious kept him from getting to the oathbreakers and tearing their throats out with his teeth.
When he stopped fighting, he was thrown back at Howard's feet. He lay only half-conscious on the cold stone floor, and through a mist of dancing sparks could see that Howard was purple again.
"Take him out and make an example of him," the patricide howled. "Burn himhang himtear his guts out!"
"No" Willum laid a restraining hand on his ruler's arm. "Not a good ideayou might make him a martyr for those who would doubt you. No, I have a better idea. Did we get the horse barbarians as well? I seem to remember that you ordered them to be taken."
The new King regained his normal coloring. "Only the boy," Howard pouted, calming. "The girl managed to get herself killed. Damn! I wanted that little bitch! I thought about having the boy gelded and sold"
"Good, do that. We'll put it out that it was the horse barbarians that killed the tradersand that the smith conspired with them to raid both the traders and the town. We'll have it that the boy confessed. I'll have my men start passing the word. Then, by afternoon when the story is spreading, we'll put this fool and his family out of the gatesbanish them. The barbarians aren't likely to let him live long, and they certainly aren't likely to give an ear to any tales he might tell."
Howard nodded, slowly. "Yesyes, indeed! Willum, you are going to go far in my service."
Willum smiled, his eyes cast humbly down. From his vantage point on the floor, Kevin saw the balefire he thought he'd glimpsed leap into a blaze before being quenched. "I always intended to, my lord."
Chali crept in to the remains of the camp in the gray light before dawn and collected what she could. The wagons were charred ruins; there were no bodies. She supposed, with a dull ache in her soul, that the murderers had dragged the bodies off to be looted and burned. She hoped that the mule would haunt their killers to the end of their days
There wasn't much left, a few bits of foodstuff, of clothing, other oddmentscertainly not enough to keep her through the winterbut then, she would let the winter take care of itself. She had something more to concern her.
Scrabbling through the burned wood into the secret compartments built into the floor of every vurdon, she came up with less of use than she had hoped. She had prayed for weapons. What she mostly found was coin; useless to her.
After searching until the top of the sun was a finger's length above the horizon and dangerously near to betraying her, she gave up the search. She did manage to collect a bow and several quivers' worth of arrowswhich was what she wanted most. Chali had been one of the best shots in the kumpania.Now the Gaje would learn to dread her skill.
She began her one-person reign of terror when the gates opened in late morning.
She stood hidden in the trees, obscured by the foliage, but well within bowshot of the gates, an arrow nocked, a second loose in her fingers, and two more in her teeth. The stallion stood motionless at her side. She had managed to convince the creatures of the woods about her that she was nothing to fearso a blackbird sang within an arm's length of her head, and rabbits and squirrels hopped about in the grass at the verge of the forest, unafraid. Everything looked perfectly normal. The two men opening the gates died with shafts in their throats before anyone realized that there was something distinctly out of the ordinary this morning.
When they did realize that there was something wrong, the stupid Gaje did exactly the wrong thing; instead of ducking into cover, they ran to the bodies. Chali dropped two more who trotted out to look.
Then they realized that they were in danger, and scrambled to close the gates again. She managed to get a fifth before the gates closed fully and the bar on the opposite side dropped with a thud that rang across the plain, as they sealed themselves inside.
Now she mounted on Bakro, and arrowed out of cover. Someone on the walls shouted, but she was out of range before they even had time to realize that she was the source of the attack. She clung to Bakro's back with knees clenched tightly around his barrel, pulling two more arrows from the quiver slung at her belt. He ran like the wind itself, past the walls and around to the back postern-gate before anyone could warn the sleepy townsman guarding it that something was amiss.
She got him, too, before someone slammed the postern shut, and picked off three more injudicious enough to poke their heads over the walls.
Now they were sending arrows of their own after her, but they were poor marksmen, and their shafts fell short. She decided that they were bad enough shots that she dared risk retrieving their arrows to augment her own before sending Bakro back under the cover of the forest. She snatched at least a dozen sticking up out of the grass where they'd landed, leaning down as Bakro ran, and shook them defiantly at her enemies on the walls as they vanished into the underbrush.
Chali's vengeance had begun.
Kevin was barely conscious; only the support of Pika on one side and Keegan on the other kept him upright. Ehrik was uncharacteristically silent, terribly frightened at the sight of his big, strong father reduced to such a state.
King Howard and his minions had been "generous;" piling as much of the family's goods on the pony's back as he could stand before sending the little group out the gates. In cold fact that had been Willum's work, and it hadn't been done out of kindness; it had been done to make them a more tempting target for the horse barbarians or whatever strange menace it was that now had them hiding behind their stout wooden walls. That much Kevin could remember; and he waited in dull agony for arrows to come at them from out of the forest.
But no arrows came; and the pathetic little group, led by a little boy who was doing his best to be brave, slowly made their way up the road and into the grasslands.
Chali mindspoke Pika and ascertained that the smith had had nothing to do with last night's slaughterthat in fact, he was being cast out for objecting to it. So she let him bebesides, she had other notions in mind.
She couldn't keep them besieged foreverbut she could make their lives pure hell with a little work.
She found hornets' nests in the orchard; she smoked the insects into slumberous stupefication, then took the nests down, carefully. With the help of a scrap of netting and two springy young saplings, she soon had an improvised catapult. It wasn't very accurate, but it didn't have to be. All it had to do was get those nests over the palisade.
Which it did.
The howls from within the walls made her smile for the first time that day.
Next she stampeded the village cattle by beaming pure fear into their minds, sending them pounding against the fence of their corral until they broke it down, then continuing to build their fear until they ran headlong into the grasslands. They might come back; they might not. The villagers would have to send men out to get them.
They didand she killed one and wounded five more before their fire drove her back deeper into the forest.
They brought the cattle inside with thembarely half of the herd she had sent thundering away. That made Chali smile again. With the cattle would come vermin, noise, muckand perhaps disease.
And she might be able to add madness to that
Bakro? she broadbeamed, unafraid now of being overheard. Have you found the mind-sick weed yet?
But to her shock, it was not Bakro who answered her.
Daiv struggled up out of a darkness shot across with lances of red agony. It hurt even to thinkand it felt as if every bone in his body had been cracked in at least three places. For a very long time he lay without even attempting to move, trying to assess his real condition and whereabouts through a haze of pain. Opening his eyes did not lessen the darkness, but an exploratory hand to his face told him that although the flesh was puffed and tender, his eyes were probably not damaged. And his nose told him of damp earth. So he was probably being held in a pit of some kind, one with a cover that let in no light. Either that, or it was still dark
Faint clanks as he moved and his exploring fingers told him that chains encircled his wrists and ankles. He tried to lever himself up into a sitting position, and quickly gave up the idea; his head nearly split in two when he moved it, and the bones of his right arm grated a little.
He started then to mindcall to Dahnahthen he remembered.
Hot, helpless tears burned his eyes; scalded along the raw skin of his face. He didn't care. Windoh Wind.
For he remembered that Dahnah was dead, killed defending two of the trader's tiny children. And uselessly, for the children had been spitted seconds after she had gone down. She'd taken one of the bastards with her thoughand Stubtail had accounted for another before they'd gotten him as well.
But Daiv couldn't remember seeing Brighttooth's bodyperhaps the other cat had gotten away!
He husbanded his strength for a wide-beam call, opened his mind
And heard the stranger.
Bakro? came the voice within his mind, strong and clear as any of his kin could send. Have you found the mind-sick weed yet?
He was so startled that he didn't thinkhe just answered. Who are you? he beamed. Pleasewho are you?
Chali stood, frozen, when the stranger's mind touched her ownthen shut down the channel between them with a ruthless, and somewhat frightened haste. She kept herself shut down, and worked her way deeper into the concealment of the forest, worming her way into thickets so thick that a rabbit might have had difficulty in getting through. There she sat, curled up in a ball, shivering with reaction.
Until Bakro roused her from her stupor with his own insistent thought.
I have found the mind-sick weed, drabarni, and something else as well. She still felt dazed and confused. What she replied, raising her head from her knees. And found herself looking into a pair of large, golden eyes.
Kevin had expected that the Horseclan folk would find them, eventually. What he had not expected was that they would be kind to him and his family.
He had a moment of dazed recognition of what and who it was that was approaching them across the waving grass. He pushed himself away from the pony, prepared to die defending his loved ones
And fell over on his face in a dead faint.
When he woke again he was lying on something soft, staring up at blue sky, and there were two attentive striplings carefully binding up his head. When they saw he was awake, one of them frowned in concentration, and a Horseclan warrior strolled up in the next moment.
"You're damn lucky we found you," he said, speaking slowly so that Kevin could understand him. He spoke Merikan, but with an odd accent, the words slurring and blurring together. "Your mate was about t' fall on her nose, and your little one had heat-sick. Not to mention the shape you were in."
Kevin started to open his mouth, but the man shook his head. "Don't bother; what the pony didn't tell us, your mate did." His face darkened with anger. "I knew Dirtmen were rottenbut this! Only one thing she didn't knowthere were two of ours with the traders"
The nightmare confrontation with Howard popped into Kevin's mind, and he felt himself blanch, fearing that this friendly barbarian would slit his throat the moment he knew the truth.
But the moment the memory surfaced, the man went absolutely rigid; then leapt to his feet, shouting. The camp boiled up like a nest of angry waspsKevin tried to rise as his two attendants sprang to their feet.
Only to pass into oblivion again.
Chali stared into the eyes of the great cat, mesmerized.
My brother is within those walls, the cat said to her, And I am hurt. You must help us. True, the cat was hurt; a long cut along one shoulder, more on her flanks.
Chali felt anger stirring within her at the cat's imperious tone. Why should I help you? she replied. Your quarrel is nothing to me!
The cat licked her injured shoulder a moment, then caught her gaze again. We have the same enemy, she said shortly.
Chali pondered that for a moment. And the enemy of my enemyis my friend?
The cat looked at her with approval. That, she said, purring despite the pain of her wounds, is wisdom.
Daiv had just about decided that the mind-call he'd caught had been a hallucination born of pain, when the stranger touched him again.
He snatched at the tentatively proffered thought-thread with near-desperation. Who are you? he gasped. Please
Gently, brother came a weaker mind-voice, joining the first. And that was one he knew!
The same. Her voice strengthened now, and carried an odd other-flavor with it, as if the first was somehow supporting her. How is it with you?
He steadied himself, willing his heart to stop pounding. Not good. They've put chains on my arms and legs; my right arm's broken, I thinkwhere are you? Who's with you?
A friend. Two friends. We are going to try and free you. No-Voice says that she is picking up the thoughts of those Dirteaters regarding you, and they are not pleasant.
He shuddered. He'd had a taste of those thoughts himself, and he rather thought he'd prefer being sent to the Wind.
We are going to free you, my brother, Brighttooth continued. I cannot tell you how, for certainbut it will be soon; probably tonight. Be ready.
It was well past dark. Chali, aided by Bakro, reached for the mind of Yula, the cleverest mare of the Rom herd. Within a few moments she had a good idea of the general lay of things inside the stockaded village, at least within the mare's line-of-sightand she knew exactly where the Horseclans boy was being kept. They'd put him in an unused grain pit a few feet from the corral where the horses had been put. Yula told Chali that they had all been staying very docile, hoping to put their captors off their guard. Well done! Chali applauded. Now, are you ready for freedom? More than ready, came the reply. Do we free the boy as well? There was a definite overtone to the mare's mind-voice that hinted at rebellion if Chali answered in the negative.
Soft heart for hurt colts, hmm, elder sister? Na, we free him. How is your gate fastened? Contempt was plain. One single loop of rawhide!Fools! It is not even a challenqe!
Then here is the plan. . . .
About an hour after full dark, when the nervous guards had begun settling down, the mare ambled up to the villager who'd been set to guard the grain pit.
"Hey old girl," he said, surprised at the pale shape looming up out of the darkness, like a ghost in the moonlight. "How in hell did you get. . . . "
He did not see the other, darker shape coming in behind him. The hooves of a second mare lashing into the back of his head ended his sentence and his life.
At nearly the same moment, Brighttooth was going over the back wall of the stockade. She made a run at the stallion standing rock-steady beneath the wall, boosting herself off the scavenged saddle Bakro wore. There was a brief sound of a scuffle; then the cat's thoughts touched Chali's.
The guard is dead. He tasted awful.
Chali used Bakro's back as the cat had, and clawed her own way over the palisade. She let herself drop into the dust of the other side, landing as quietly as she could, and searched the immediate area with mind touch.
Nothing and no-one.
She slid the bar of the gate back, and let Bakro in, and the two of them headed for the stockade and the grain-pits. The cat was already there.
If it had not been for the cat's superior night-sight, Chali would not have been able to find the latch holding it. The wooden cover of the pit was heavy; Chali barely managed to get it raised. Below her she could see the boy's white face peering up at her, just touched by the moonlight.
Can you climb? she asked.
Hell, no, he answered ruefully.
Then I must come down to you.
She had come prepared for this; there was a coil of scavenged rope on Bakro's saddle. She tied one end of it to the pommel and dropped the other down into the pit, sliding down to land beside the boy.
Once beside him, she made an abrupt reassessment. Not a boy. A young man; one who might be rather handsome under the dirt and dried blood and bruises. She tied the rope around his waist as he tried, awkwardly, to help.
From above came an urgent mind-call. Hurry, Brighttooth fidgeted. The guards are due to report and have not. They sense something amiss.
We're ready, she answered shortly. Bakro began backing, slowly. She had her left arm around the young man's waist, holding him steady and guiding him, and held to the rope with the other, while they "walked" up the side of the pit. It was hardly gracefuland Chali was grateful that the pit was not too deepbut at length they reached the top. Her shoulders were screaming in agony, but she let go of him and caught the edge with that hand, then let go of the rope and hung for a perilous moment on the verge before hauling herself up. She wanted to lie there and recover, but there was no time
They have found the dead one! Texal o rako lengo gortiano! she spat. The young man was trying to get himself onto the rim; she grabbed his shoulders while he hissed softly in pain and pulled him up beside her. What? he asked, having sensed something.
No time! she replied, grabbing his shoulder and shoving him at Bakro. She threw herself into the saddle, and wasted another precious moment while Bakro knelt and she pulled at the young man again, catching him off-balance and forcing him to fall face-down across her saddle-bow like a sack of grain. NOW, my wise ones! NOW!
The last was broad-beamed to all the herdand even as the perimeter guards began shouting their discovery, and torches began flaring all over the town, the Rom horses began their stampede to freedom.
The cat was already ahead of them, clearing the way with teeth and flashing claws; her task was to hold the gate against someone trying to close it. Chali clung to Bakro's back with aching legsshe was having her hands full trying to keep the young man from falling off. He was in mortal agony, every step the stallion took jarring his hurts without mercy, but he was fastened to her leg and stirrup-iron like a leech.
The herd was in full gallop nowsweeping everything and everyone aside. There was only one thing to stop them.
The narrowness of the postern gateonly three horses could squeeze through at any one time. If there was anyone with a bow and good sense, he would have stationed himself there.
Chali heard the first arrow. She felt the second hit her arm. She shuddered with pain, ducked, and spread herself over the body in front of her, trying to protect her passenger from further shots.
Bakro hesitated for a moment, then shouldered aside two mules and a donkey to bully his own way through the gate.
But not before Chali had taken a second wound, and a third, and a fourth.
"I'll say this much for you, Dirtman, you're stubborn." The Horseclan warrior's voice held grudging admiration as it filtered out of the darkness beside Kevin. He had been detailed to ride at the smith's left hand and keep him from falling out of his saddle. He had obviously considered this duty something of an embarrassing ordeal. Evidently he didn't think it was anymore.
Kevin's face was white with pain, and he was nearly blind to everything around him, but he kept his seat. "Don't call me that. I told youafter what they did to my blood-brothers, I'm not one of them. I'm with youall the way. If that means fighting, I'll fight. Those oathbreaking, child-murdering bastards don't deserve anything but a grave. They ain't even human anymore, not by my way of thinking."
That was a long speech for him, made longer still by the fact that he had to gasp bits of it out between flashes of pain. But he meant it, every wordand the Horseclansman took it at face value, simply nodding, slowly.
"I just" A shout from the forward scout stopped them all dead in their tracks. The full moon was nearly as bright as dayand what it revealed had Kevin's jaw dropping.
It was a mixed herd of horses, mules and donkeysall bone-weary and covered with froth and sweat, heads hanging as they walked. And something slumped over the back of one in the center that gradually revealed itself to be two near-comatose people, seated one before the other and clinging to each other to keep from falling of the horse's saddle. The clan chief recognized the one in front, and slid from his horses's back with a shout. The herd approaching them stopped coming, the beasts moving only enough to part and let him through.
Then Kevin recognized the other, and tumbled off his horse's back, all injuries forgotten. While the clan chief and another took the semi-conscious boy from the front of the saddle, cursing at the sight of the chains on his wrists and ankles, it was into Kevin's arms that Chali slumped, and he cursed to see the three feathered shafts protruding from her leg and arm.
Chali wanted to stay down in the soft darkness, where she could forgetbut They wouldn't let her stay there. Against her own will she swam slowly up to wakefulness, and to full and aching knowledge of how completely alone she was.
The kumpania was gone, and no amount of vengeance would bring it back. She was left with nowhere to go and nothing to do with her lifeand no one who wanted her.
No-Voice is a fool, came the sharp voice in her head.
She opened her eyes, slowly. There was Brighttooth, lying beside her, carefully grooming her paw. The cat was stretched out along a beautifully tanned fur of dark brown; fabric walls stretched above her, and Chali recognized absently that they must be in a tent.
How, a fool? asked a second mind-voice; Chali saw the tent-wall move out of the corner of her eyethe wall opened and became a door, and the young man she had helped to rescue bent down to enter. He sat himself down beside the cat, and began scratching her ears; she closed her eyes in delight and purred loudly enough to shake the walls of the tent. Chali closed her eyes in a spasm of pain and loss; their brotherhood only reminded her of what she no longer had.
I asked you, lazy one, how a fool?
Chali longed to be able to turn her back on them, but the wounds in her side made that impossible. She could only turn her face away, while tears slid slowly down her cheeksas always, soundlessly.
A firm, but gentle hand cupped her chin and turned her head back toward her visitors. She squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting these Gaje to see her loss and her shame at showing it.
"It's no shame to mourn," said the young man aloud, startling her into opening her eyes. She had been right about himwith his hurts neatly bandaged and cleaned up, he was quite handsome. And his gray eyes were very kindand very sad.
I mourn, too, he reminded her.
Now she was even more ashamed, and bit her lip. How could she have forgotten what the cat had told her, that he had lost his twinlost her in defending her people. For the third time, how a fool?
Brighttooth stretched, and moved over beside her, and began cleaning the tears from her cheeks with a raspy tongue. Because No-Voice forgets what she herself told me.
The enemy of my enemy is my brother.
My friend. I said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Chali corrected hesitantly, entering the conversation at last. Friend, brother, all the same, the cat replied, finishing off her work with a last swipe of her tongue. Friends are the family you choose, not so? I
"You're not gonna be alone, not unless you want to," the young man said, aloud. "Brighttooth is right. You can join us, join any family in the clan you want. There ain't a one of them that wouldn't reckon themselves proud to have you as a daughter and a sister."
There was a certain hesitation in the way he said "sister." Something about that hesitation broke Chali's bleak mood.
What of you? she asked. Would you welcome me as a sister?
Something he sent, shyly, maybesomething closer than sister?
She was so astonished that she could only stare at him. She saw that he was looking at her in a way that made her very conscious that she was sixteen winters oldin a way that no member of the kumpania had ever looked at her. She continued to stare as he gently took one of her hands in his good one. It took Brighttooth to break the spell.
Pahtwo-legs! she sent in disgust. Everything is complicated with you! You need clan; here is clan for the taking. What could be simpler?
The young man dropped her hand as if it had burned him, then began to laugh. Chali smiled, shyly, not entirely certain she had truly seen that admiration in his eyes
"Brighttooth has a pretty direct way of seein' things," he said, finally. "Look, let's just take this in easy steps, right? One, you get better. Two, we deal with when you're in shape t' think about."
Threeyou'll never be alone again, he said in her mind, taking her hand in his again. Not while I'm around to have a say in it. Friend, brotherwhatever. I won't let you be lonely.
Chali nodded again, feeling the aching void inside her filling. Yes, she would mourn her dead
But she would rejoin the living to do so.
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