Sungold turned and ran up the valley to the Gate, and leaped lightly through the cleft, and Harry was aware of Narknon shooting past her as she slid or fell out of the saddle and into Jack's arms. Gonturan clattered to the ground. "Brandy," said Jack, and put something between her teeth; she drank a mouthful, gagged, and shoved the thing away.
"Good for you," said Jack, but the lightness of his tone was forced, and they both knew it. "Are you hurt?"
Harry shook her head dizzily. "No. You?"
"But—?" Harry looked around. Narknon was beside her, covered with blood, but little of it seemed to be her own. Her flanks heaved and her green eyes were glassy, but she sat in her usual precise manner and, as Harry watched, slowly, stiffly, began to try to lick herself clean. The archers stood with empty quivers on their backs, cleaning their long daggers. There were fewer of them than there had been when she sent them into the valley's forested sides less than an hour before; and more than half of their cats were gone. She saw Kentarre, who had a rag wrapped around one forearm, but was on her feet. She saw Senay and Terim. Terim's horse was bleeding from a tear on its side, and Senay stood at its head, a hand on its crest, whispering to it, and Terim spread some pale ointment on the wound. The only wounds she saw were minor ones; none who were worse hurt had returned to the Gate.
"Is this all of us now?"
Jack nodded. "I'm afraid so."
There was barely half the tally of the defending southerners that had stood at the Madamer Gate in the morning; and there was an ashen cast to the faces that remained, for the northwest wind was not good to breathe. Unwounded limbs were numb and slow, and brains were clouded with a nagging dread that had little to do with the mortal risk of battle.
Kentarre said, as she bound up another archer's arm, "Thurra is known to love slow bloodshed, and he can afford not to hurry, for nothing can stand against him. But you have done him a blow he did not expect, for you tore down his standard."
"Thurra?" Harry said in disbelief.
Kentarre nodded, and Terim and Senay both stopped what they were doing and looked at her. Kentarre said: "I recognized him at once. He laughs during battle, and he always rides a white stallion who loves bloodshed as much as he does.
"Why do you think there are so few of us left after so brief a meeting? We are strong fighters, and we fight with the strength of despair besides, for we are terribly outnumbered. But anyone who is struck by the white rider dies on the first blow."
"Not everybody," said Terim. "Not Harimad-sol."
Kentarre nodded solemnly. "Why do you think we follow her?"
Harry said, with her left arm across Sungold's saddle to help hold herself up, "I did not die only because he chose not to kill me. I cannot match him, even for one blow." Sungold turned his head, and Harry reached stiffly out to put her fingers on his soft muzzle. She rested them there for a moment, and a little warmth crept into her nerveless hand. "And, perhaps, a little because I ride a better horse than his."
There was a commotion then, somewhere behind them, near the mouth of the trail; and then one of Jack's men laughed, and the commotion subsided. Harry looked inquiringly in the direction of the laugh, and saw a tall slim figure stride forcefully into the clearing, leading a tired horse.
"Dickie!" she said; and blushed uncomfortably, because she knew how he hated the old childhood name. "Richard—" she began, humbly, but he had reached her by then and threw his arms around her. She hugged him back, although her right arm was still not functioning very well and the left was weaker than it should be. He let her go at last, and her eyes blurred, and she couldn't tell if the brightness in his eyes was her own tears, or his.
He said to Jack, although he was staring at his sister, and his hands were closed on her arms as if she might disappear if he let her go, "I returned two days after you had left, sir. I had gotten no satisfaction on my mission, as you anticipated."
"They told me what had happened, and where you were going—and who was with you—and I took a fresh horse and followed you." He smiled at last. "Harry, damn you, we all thought you were dead."
She shook her head. "I'm not, you see." She smiled back. "Not yet, at least."
Richard let his hands drop. The shadowed army lay spread below them, and the north wind, which had quieted a little after Tsornin beat back the wizard's stallion and Narknon pulled down the red-and-white standard, began to howl around them again, and sting their eyes and throats.
"Took another horse?" said Jack musingly. Richard had dropped his reins when he reached for Harry, and the animal stood, weary and patient, where it had halted. "This looks like Bill Stubbs' horse."
Richard turned back to his commander and grinned. "It is. It always was too good for him; and I needed something fast, to catch up with you before it was all over."
"You've just blighted a spotless career with horse-stealing?" Jack said mildly.
Richard sobered. "If you like. You know that all of us who have come here—thrown in our lot with the old Damarians—are finished as far as Her Majesty's Government is concerned. You knew that when you decided to come."
Harry stared at Jack, although in the back of her mind she had known this all along. "Is this true?"
Jack shrugged. "Yes, it's true. That's why the two dozen of us who came are all grizzled old veterans—we don't have much to lose. But Richard, you—"
Richard made an abrupt gesture with one arm. "I knew what I was doing. Blood calls to blood, I suppose—for all that I've resisted it the last few years." He glanced at his sister. "It was your coming out here to Daria—Damar—and loving it, loving the desert, even though you knew nothing of it—I could see it. You were as bad as Colonel Dedham—begging your pardon, sir—by the end of the first month. It made me ashamed. I—I couldn't talk about it … "
Harry realized she was being offered an apology, and nodded. It didn't matter any more. He was here, and that was what mattered.
"Then, after you disappeared," Richard went on slowly, "these last long months, I've thought a lot—I even thought that you weren't dead—and the thought felt like betrayal … You know, I came here, to the Gap, without ever having to think about it. I knew which way to turn, all those mad little trails on the way up here. I always knew."
"Blood calls to blood," Harry said. "Why didn't you ever tell me there was Hill blood in us?"
Richard looked surprised. "Father told me. I—I assumed he'd told you. I didn't want to talk about it. There was a lot I didn't want to talk about."
Harry said, "I found out a week ago, when Jack told me."
There was a silence, and Richard began to laugh. "My God. Then becoming a king's Rider must really have been a shock to you. It was shock enough to me, when Tom Lloyd told me." He took her right hand and turned it over to look at the palm. "I was proud of you. That's when I knew I had to follow you—not only to see my sister again. To—reclaim something. Or admit to owning it all along."
The north wind snapped at their hair and eyelashes, listening to their conversation. Harry wondered idly if it understood Homelander speech.
Kentarre had left them; she returned now and said, "My lady. The North prepares to move against us again."
Richard turned to face his sister; he put his shoulders back as if bracing himself for a blow. "Command me, sol," he said awkwardly, in Hill-speech. Then in Homelander he went on: "As I came late, perhaps you'd like me to commit a daring single-handed raid."
Harry smiled in spite of herself. "No; that won't be necessary. We'll arrange ourselves across the Gap, here, and on the plateau." She paused. "I can't risk what's left of us going into the valley again … "
She raised her voice: "We're here to slow the Northerners down. We'll do the best we can. But we're overmatched—vastly more overmatched than I expected. I don't expect any of you to fight to the … last. The day is half over; if we can hold them till this evening, they'll have to wait till morning to try again." Harry closed her eyes and thought, I hope. Even demons see better by the light of day—or do they? Swimming through the mist behind her eyes then, she saw Corlath and his army; they were beating back a horde of Northerners that outnumbered them by no more than three to one. The black mass that filled the valley below the Madamer Gate was twice the size of the army that sought to pass the Bledfi Gap. Corlath's stallion ran red from its nose as it leaped and struck; Corlath's sword was dull with blood. She recognized Fireheart first; it took her a moment to recognize his rider, for Corlath's sash was the wrong color. She saw Mathin, who grinned fiercely as he fought at Corlath's heels. "If we have gained a day, we have gained … something. Tonight, those of you that remain … may scatter. Fade into these Hills; make your way back to Corlath if you can."
Senay said: "Why do you say those of you, lady? Do you not come with us? Are you so certain of death?"
Terim, very low, said, "Do you seek it?"
Harry sighed. "I can't leave. This defense, here, was my great idea. I can't leave. But what's-his-name, out there, will take care of that, when next we meet." She tried to speak lightly.
"Very noble of you, my dear," said Jack, "but we will, I think, stand with Harimad-sol. We can hold here … perhaps three days, if Thurra is so fond of slow death. Three days might give your Corlath a breathing-space; and it's always remotely within the realm of possibility that Sir Charles will believe the letter I wrote him, and the Northerners will find the Outlanders a little more troublesome than they expected for a few more days of preparation. We will stay." The last three words he said in Hill-speech, and Senay and Terim and Kentarre repeated, "We will stay."
Terim said, with his usual buoyancy, "Harimad-sol, you cannot ask us to give up so easily, after we have come so far."
Harry blinked. She looked out over the valley; the Northern mass was beginning to shift forward again. "Very well," she said gruffly. "I suggest everyone eat something and take a few minutes' rest; for Thurra is moving. And … thank you." She smiled. "Perhaps we will hold out three days."
"And think of the songs they'll sing about us," said Jack.
He handed her a bit of meat in a hard roll, and she began absently to chew it. Her right arm was still nearly useless, but her left hand closed and opened when she told it to, the elbow bent, and the shoulder swung. She squinted up at the mountains around her. The peaks that surrounded the Gate were perhaps four times a man's height from the shallow plateau where she stood; then beyond them the mountains sloped up again, and a little distance from the stony Gate some small trees covered the steep ground and spilled out toward the valley below them. She looked around, toward the forested arm where the archers had stood.
She found she had finished her roll. "I'll be back in a moment," she said. Jack and Richard looked at her questioningly. "In plenty of time to stand against our friends." She picked up Gonturan and awkwardly wiped and resheathed her, and began to clamber slowly up the western side of the Gate. She could only use her left hand, and even its grasp was not strong.
Jack said sharply, "Harry, what have you done to your arm?"
She waited till she was standing on the low crest to answer: "Strained a muscle, I think," she said. "Don't worry." She turned away as Jack opened his mouth; and from where her little band stood, disappeared around a spur of rock.
Richard started after her, but Terim moved in front him as Jack said, "No. If she wants to be left alone, we'll leave her alone. I don't like it either, but she—or the thing that's riding her—still knows a little more about this than the rest of us. Or so I believe."
Richard shrugged, but his eyes stayed on the spot where his sister had disappeared.
"She did promise that we could die together," Terim said cheerfully.
Jack rubbed his face wearily. "I'm not thinking about dying yet." He looked out into the valley, and slowly he brought his glass to his eye. More figures, some riding on strangely jointed steeds and some lumbering along on their own heavy feet, were pouring into the valley; there was no end of them. They roiled up the slope toward the Gate, the slope Harimad-sol had so laboriously pushed them down less than an hour before. He could no longer see the lower half of the rocky bowl at his feet for the creatures that walked upon it. He dropped the glass. "However foolish that may be."
Richard took the glass from Jack's hand and gazed through it. He saw Thurra's white stallion near the front; but there was no standard-bearer.
Harry stumbled up, and up farther; and then her feet found something like a path or a deer track, and she gratefully followed it. She came above the trees again, and looked down. Below her was the valley, full of tiny crawling things; nearer her, but still far away—I hadn't realized I'd come so far, she thought, startled—was a small flat space behind a cleft in the rock, where her people waited. She looked down dispassionately; the thought flickered through her mind that she was too far, and should return at once; but there seemed to be something she should do first. Her numb right hand crept its way up the scabbard of Gonturan till it felt over the hilt to rest on the stone at her peak; Harry found that she was panting for breath. "Lady Aerin," she murmured; and the scene before her wavered, and she blinked, and suddenly she could see as an eagle sees: she recognized the white stallion that Thurra rode, with the red ribbons in its mane and the red blood dried on its neck and flank, and saw the red- and green- and black-eyed faces of those who followed him, and the queer beasts many rode instead of horses, that had clawed feet and forked tongues. She saw the north wind pluck at her brother's hair and realized abruptly she felt no wind on her bare mountain top; and with that there was a stab of pain from the base of her neck down her right arm, and her hand grasped the hilt of the sword and drew her. She raised her slowly above her head, point upward, as if to cut the clouds that Thurra had brought, and throw them down on his head in knife-edged fragments. The pain in her neck rose and flooded her brain; "Corlath, help me," she said to the air. The small knot of people on the plateau behind the Gate looked up suddenly as a blaze of light fell over them and splattered like water; and they saw Harimad-sol on a peak behind them, where no peak had stood before; and around her head and shoulders was blue-and-white fire. She raised her right arm, and Gonturan sparkled so fiercely they could not look at her; and Harimad-sol stabbed skyward once and again and shouted words that each felt they heard distinctly but could not repeat or understand; but Ken-tarre and Jack recognized the Old Tongue of the Hills, the Language of the Gods. Blue fire began to run down from the stone on the hilt of the sword and splash to the ground, where it seemed to eddy around Harry's feet, and bits of it flaked off and floated into the air, and the bits spun and glittered like prisms, and tossed tiny rainbows down the sides of the mountains, although the rainbows had more blue in them than most rainbows.
In the valley they heard hoarse cries, but the voices did not seem to reach the Blue Sword or the woman who held it, but fell back into the valley like fish who had leaped too high, gasping for their lives. They heard the white stallion scream, and heard an awful voice they knew to be Thurra's, but no one turned to look; everyone stared upward. Even the horses stood with raised heads and pricked ears, facing as their riders faced; and Narknon, who had not followed Harry although she could have, stood stone still but for her lashing tail; Sungold pranced, looking up the rocks he could not climb. The blue light fell into his eyes and mouth and nostrils till he looked like a ghost horse.
The hillside began to move. Pebbles, then larger pebbles, then rocks and boulders began to tumble into the valley. The woman's clear voice went on, and the incomprehensible words poured over the Hillfolk and the Outlanders with the brilliant blue light; then the noise of the mountains falling grew louder, and many fell to their knees and bellies because they could not keep their feet. They could no longer see with their eyes, though the light burned into their brains, and they no longer heard with their ears, for the roaring of falling earth blocked them, yet they heard in their minds the blue-lit words going on and on.
And then it was over. The horses shook themselves; some had to haul themselves, sweating, to their feet. The human beings turned over where they lay, and looked up at the sky, which was blue and cloudless; and shivered, and cautiously stood up. Jack looked up first; there was no sign of Harry. At first he thought it was because his eyes were still blind from the light, but he could pick out the shape of the mountain peaks around him, and he could work out where Harry had been standing; but where Harry had been was there no longer. He was sure he was looking in the right direction. Puzzled, then, he looked around for confirmation; his eyes crossed Richard's; he was going through the same bewilderment. They turned together to look out over the valley.
But there was no valley. There was a smoking rubble of broken stones and uprooted trees; the cliff face beyond the Gate itself had sheared clean away, and the Gate would be a pass through the mountains no more. They stood at the edge, looking down, and then out and across; there was no sign of life anywhere. The only things that moved were clouds of dust. The dust was curiously blue-edged, and twinkled in the sunlight. A little breeze began. It came through a wide breach in the mountain that had not been there before; surprised, it began to investigate the new landscape. The weary anxious people and beasts on the ridge that was once a Gate turned a little to face it. It smelled good, of young green things.
"The north wind is gone," said Jack.
"Yes," said Richard. "This wind blows from the south and east."
They stood for a moment, collecting their thoughts.
"We should look for Harry," said Richard. "Shouldn't we?" He sounded very young.
"Yes," said Jack.
"That was Harry, wasn't it?" Harry's brother said, a little uncertainly.
Jack smiled a small smile. "Yes. Or it was Harry as much as it was anyone. Terim," he went on in Hill-speech, "we would like to look for Harimad-sol. She might be too … exhausted to return to us. Will you come?"
Terim said, "Yes," and Senay joined them, while the rest would wait for word. Sungold followed them to the foot of the rock wall Harry had disappeared beyond, and whinnied anxiously after them, and reared and pawed the rock behind them as they climbed away from him.
"We'll bring her back," Jack said to him. "Be patient."
Narknon came with them.
The four of them seemed to move very slowly; or perhaps their feet moved at a reasonable pace, but their minds could not keep up. Narknon, instead of ranging around them as she usually did, trotted at their heels and paused when they paused. Jack felt that he was grinding out thoughts that moved as grudgingly as centuries, and when he shook his head, his brain seemed to turn over uneasily, like a bad swimmer in deep water. His eyes hurt in their sockets, and he still saw Harry with her sword raised and the blue fire around her, although the picture was memory now, and his eyes focused on scrub and dirt and rock and blue dust.
They all stopped as they came to a slope with trees growing above them. "This can't be right," said Richard; "we saw her on bare rock."
Jack peered up at the sun. "It is right, though; or at least this is the right direction. If the sun hasn't moved, which I don't guarantee … perhaps these trees grew while the mountains were falling."
Jack began to climb again as if he were sure he knew the way; Terim and Senay followed, for they were less shocked by Harimad-sol's performance than Jack or Richard, and did not expect the landscape near such a piece of sorcery and kelar to conform to the usual physical rules. They had looked at the sun too, and knew they were heading in the right direction. Richard was last. He felt old, and his bones creaked, and Narknon made him uncomfortable. He knew of the Damarian hunting-cats, but he had never before met one.
There was a tiny path, as if made by small hoofed animals, up the slope, and Jack followed it hopefully; and after only a few minutes they broke through the trees and into a small glade, with fresh green grass in it, the first good grass they had seen since they left Senay's village. Harry lay crumpled near one edge of the glade, with Gonturan, dull as pewter, the blue stone of her hilt opaque, lying on the grass beside her. Harry lay on her side, curled up, and both her hands touched the sword; the left awkwardly fell over the hilt, the right grasped the blade just below the guard. Jack came into the clearing first, and he was the only one who saw—or thought he saw—a figure in the trees just behind Harry; he thought he saw a glint of red hair. But he blinked, so he could stare again harder, feeling for his saber; and when he looked again, the figure was gone. He was never sure afterward if he had seen anything but an odd fall of leaf shadow, although he knew the Hill legends, and knew who had carried Gonturan before his young friend.
"Harry," said Richard, and ran forward, and dropped to his knees beside her. The others, who had a little more faith in Hill magic—or who understood a bit better that whatever had happened was finished now, for good or ill—followed more slowly. Jack looked around. There was nothing like the stone knoll where Harry had stood anywhere near them; the trees—real trees, not the grey and stunted things they had seen around the Gate, and in the valley that was no more—stood high overhead, rustling softly in the green breeze from the east; and beyond the little glen there was nothing but more trees, more sweet greenness, for however far the eye could reach, no sunlight-glint of a clear space anywhere.
Harry was dreaming something, but Dickie was calling her. Aerin was leaning over her, smiling the wry smile Harry knew well by now; it was a smile of affection, but more of understanding. Aerin spoke to her, for the second time; she had a low rough kind voice. "This is what one mad Outlander on a Hill horse would have done; rather like something I once did. But it's not fair that the heroes get all the adventures and all the glory alone; your band will be sung of for centuries to come, and Jack's great-great-grandchildren, and Richard's and yours, and Senay's, and Terim's will remember the Madamer Gate and how the mountains fell and crushed Thurra's army. I found out that those at home don't like having no part in adventures—I didn't learn very much, but I did learn that; and it's as well if someone can learn by my mistakes … "
"Corlath," said Harry miserably; and Aerin answered her gently: "Corlath is waiting for you." Harry wanted to say, That's what I'm afraid of. But Dickie was calling her. It couldn't be Dickie, she hadn't seen him since … She opened her eyes. Her memory of the immediate past was not good, but she knew she had called on Aerin, and asked Corlath for help in whatever Gonturan's past, master might send her, and that something had happened; and that Aerin had spoken to her about it … and Corlath … Her head hurt. "Richard," she said.
The other three sat down with a sigh beside her, and there was a silence that no one seemed to know how to break. Narknon put a paw on Harry's chest and began licking her face; a hunting-cat's tongue is much harsher than a housecat's. Harry thought her skin would crumble and peel off, but she didn't have the strength to push her away. At last Harry said, and her voice sounded low and hollow, "Not that I feel much like moving just now, but don't we have some fairly urgent business in the valley? Or have three days gone by while I … and … "
Richard said, "There is no valley."
Jack said, "The Northerners are now lying under a very large pile of rock, which used to be a mountain range. You appear to have pulled it down around their ears, and, Harimad-sol, I salute you." He touched his forehead and flicked the fingers out in the particular curl that is the Hillman's gesture of respect to his king.
Harry smiled weakly. "That's blasphemous, you know. I'll have you court-martialed."
"By Homelanders or Hillfolk?" Jack inquired blandly. "Can you stand?"
"I am gathering my courage to find out," replied Harry. She had flopped over onto her back—Narknon was now nibbling lovingly on her hair—and then hauled herself up on one elbow; now Senay and Richard propped her up on both sides, and she reeled to her feet. Her leather vest seemed as stiff as iron. "I feel like a potato that's recently been mashed," she said. Narknon leaned against her knee and purred madly.
"Shall we carry you?" Terim said, hovering anxiously, torn between respect and caution.
"Not yet, thank you," said Harry. "But you could hand me Gonturan. I don't quite feel like bending over just now."
This was said in Hill-speech, so it is possible that Richard did not understand. But of the other three there was a brief but obvious moment when no one moved, and everyone thought of the blue fire on the mountaintop, and everyone's palms prickled. Then Jack took a step forward and bent and picked up Harimad-sol's blade, flat silver now, glinting faintly in the sunlight, and offered the hilt to her. One narrow gleam of white fire ran up the edge of the blue sword, and outlined Jack's fingers. Jack's and Harry's eyes met, for it was only when it was too late to stop her words that she realized what she was—or might be—asking. "Thank you," she said. "I probably should have bent over myself, to find out if I could." She resheathed the sword. Jack looked at his glowing white hand, and rubbed his palm along his thigh. There was a tingle in that hand that buzzed up his arm and fluttered for a moment in his brain. It was not an unpleasant sensation.
As her fingers closed on Gonturan, Harry realized that her body was functioning; that she would be able to walk. She kept her hand on the hilt of Gonturan and took a step forward. "We'll stop where we are tonight," she said. "Tomorrow we ride back to find Corlath." She shut her eyes a moment; the world spun, then steadied. "They're farther west than they expected to be. Six days, if we hurry. If we can hurry." She frowned, her eyes still closed. "They are beating the Northerners back; they are winning." She opened her eyes again. "They're winning," she repeated, and the color rose in her cheeks, and her three friends smiled at her.
Harry concentrated on walking, and by the time they came to the rockface at the Gate she had gotten pretty good at it; she still kept her eyes on her feet, but she slid and scrambled down by herself, while Jack and Richard, who had gone before her, tried very hard not to reach up and help her. When she got to the bottom, and her people were standing around her, and Tsornin was bumping her shoulder angrily, asking her why she had gone anywhere he couldn't come too, and her Hillfolk were flicking their finger salute at her, Kentarre very deliberately touched her forehead too and flicked the fingers out, and all the archers followed suit. And Jack's Outlanders stared and bowed and pointed saber hilts at her, and she realized how quiet they were. Too quiet. She turned to look at the valley.
She turned white, and then Jack and Richard did put out hands to steady her. "My God," she said. "That was a bit of … something, wasn't it?" The dust still swirled in clouds over the desert of rubble they looked at, and it hung thickly enough that they could not see beyond it. There were threads of blue woven through and over it, as if there were a webbing holding it in place. The sun burned brightly over the blue-shot fog, and hurt the eyes. The dust got into eyes and noses and throats as they breathed, and mouths as they talked, and their voices grew hoarse with it.
"Kentarre," said Harry. "Will a lot of rock simply falling on him stop someone like Thurra?"
Kentarre shrugged. "My sol, I don't believe it has been tried before."
Harry smiled wanly.
"It will at least have stopped his army," said Terim; "few of them have any kelar of their own."
"They have never needed it," said Senay, "for Thurra has always been stronger."
Jack said, "There's more than rock out there. There's something holding the rock down." He stared out, the flecks of blue teasing the corners of his eyes.
Kentarre and Senay and Terim, who knew the legends of the Northern mage, were silent. "It is possible that he will rest here," said Kentarre at last. "But we can say that today is ours."
"Today is Harimad-sol's," said Terim firmly, and Senay's face lit up, and she cried, "Harimad-sol!" Kentarre drew her dagger and tapped herself on the chest with the hilt and then shook the point over her head. "Harimad-sol!" she called, and "Harimad-sol!" the other archers echoed, drawing their daggers in the same gesture; and Senay's people picked up the shout next. Jack's men, shaken out of their half-fearful amazement, began to applaud and stamp, as if they didn't know what else to do; and it was Richard who yelled, "Angharad!" whereupon the Outlanders shouted "Angharad!" too, and a few whistled, as though Harry had just sung an aria at the opera. When at last they stopped, everyone was smiling and easy again, as if individually inspired landslides and earthquakes were quite a normal feat of warfare, or at least of leadership. Then everyone heaved a sigh and settled down, and supper fires were lit; and Narknon appeared, dragging a brown deer larger than herself, and looking terribly pleased with herself. The sunset that evening over the mountains was violet-blue.