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CHAPTER FIVE

Corlath was on the ground at once, calling orders that sent long-robed figures scurrying in all directions. Harry sat alone on the big bay horse, who stood quite still; to her tired and befuddled gaze there were dozens of tents and hundreds of people. Men came forward from the mouths of tents and out from shadows, to make their bows to their king—to congratulate him on the success of his venture? Harry thought. Was it successful? Some were sent at once on errands, some faded back into the darkness from which they had emerged. The two men who had ridden with the king dismounted also, and stood a little behind him as he looked around his camp. Harry didn't move. She didn't quite believe that they had arrived—and besides, where was it they were? She didn't feel that she had arrived—or didn't want to. She thought wistfully of her despised bed far away in the Residency, and of fat dull busybody Annie. She wished she were home, and she was so tired she wasn't sure where home was.

When Corlath turned back to her she woke up enough to slither down from the horse's tall back before he tried to help her; this time she did no fancy sliding, but turned to face the horse's shoulder, and kept her hands on the saddle till her feet touched the ground. It was a long way down. She was sure it had gotten longer since the last time she dismounted. Fireheart stood as patiently as the fourposter pony as she leaned against him, and she patted him absently, as she might have patted her own horse, and his nose came round to touch her forearm. She sighed, and thought of Jack Dedham, who would give an arm to ride a Hill horse, even once. Perhaps it didn't count if you were riding double with a Hillman.

Harry had her back toward Faran and Innath as they led the horses away. Faran said, "That was a longer ride than I enjoy, at my age," and Innath replied laughing: "Indeed, Grandfather, you had to be tied to your saddle with your long white beard."

Faran, who was a grandfather several times over, but looked forward to being a king's Rider for many years yet, and wore his dark-grey beard short, grinned and said: "Yes, I long for a featherbed and a plump young girl who will admire an elderly warrior for his scars and his stories." His eyes slid round, and he looked straight at Harry for the first time since Corlath had carried her, a black-wrapped bundle lying so bonelessly quiet in his arms that it was difficult to believe it contained anything human, to the shadow where two men and three horses awaited him. But Harry was frowning at her dirty feet and did not notice.

"The Outlander girl," Faran said slowly, with the air of an honest man who will be just at any cost. "I did not know the Outlanders taught their children such pride. She has done herself honor on this ride."

Innath considered. To do yourself honor is high praise from a Hillman; but as he thought of the last two days, he had to agree. He was almost a generation younger than his fellow Rider, however, and had viewed their adventure differently. "Do you know, I was most worried that she might weep? I can't bear a woman weeping."

Faran chuckled. "If I had known that, I would have advised our king—strongly—to choose another Rider. Not that it would have mattered much, I think: she would merely have had the sleep laid on her again." He pulled a tent flap aside, and they and the horses disappeared from Harry's sight. She had recognized the Hill word for "Outlander," and wondered dejectedly what Corlath's companions, who had so pointedly ignored her during their journey together, were saying. She wiggled her grubby toes in the sand.

She looked up and noticed that she was standing only a few feet from the—what does one call it on a tent? Door implied hinges and a frame—front of the grandest tent of all. It was white, with two wide black stripes across its peak from opposite directions, meeting and crossing at the center, and extending to the ground like black ribbons. A black-and-white banner flew from the crossed center, the tallest point in the camp, as the tent was the biggest. "Go in," said Corlath at her side again; "they will take care of you. I will join you presently."

As she approached, a man held aside the golden silk rectangle that served the great tent for a door. He stood to attention with as much dignity as if she were a welcome guest, and perhaps a queen in her own country. This amused her, with a stray thought that the Hill-king seemed to have his followers well schooled, and she smiled at him as she went inside; and was gratified by the startled look that crossed his face when she managed to catch his eye. At least they aren't all inscrutable, she thought. One of Dedham's subalterns might have looked like that.

It was also comforting to have succeeded at last in catching someone's eye.

What she did not know was that the honor guard at the door, who stood to attention because he was an honor guard and it would have been beneath him to be less than courteous to anyone who had the king's grace to enter the king's tent, was saying to himself: She walks and smiles at me as if she were a grand lady in her own home, not a prisoner of—of—He stumbled here, since neither he nor anyone else knew exactly why she had been made a prisoner, or an involuntary guest, or whatever it was that she was, except that it was the king's will. And this after a journey that made even old Faran, who was not flesh at all but iron, look a little weary. This was a story he would tell his friends when he was off duty.

Inside Harry looked around her with awe. If the camp from the outside was white and grey and dun-colored, as dull but for the black-and-white banner flying from the king's tent as the sand and scrub around it and brightened only by the robes and sashes some of the men wore, inside this tent—she was sure it was Corlath's own—there was a blaze of color. Tapestries hung on the walls, and between them were gold and silver chains, filigree balls and rods, bright enameled medallions—some of them big enough to be shields. Thick soft rugs were scattered on the floor three or four deep, each of them gorgeous enough to lie at the foot of a throne; and over them were scattered dozens of cushions. There were carved and inlaid boxes of scented red wood, and bone-colored wood, and black wood; the largest of these were pushed against the walls. Lanterns hung on short chains from the four carved ribs that crossed the high white ceiling to meet at the center peak, above which the banner flew outside, and below which a slender jointed pillar ran from floor to ceiling. Like pillars stood at each of the four corners of the tent, and four more braced the ribs at their centers; and from each pillar a short arm extended which held in its carven cupped hand another lantern. All were lit, bathing the riot of deep color, shape, and texture in a golden glow which owed nothing to the slowly strengthening morning light outside.

She was staring up at the peak of the roof and feeling impressed at the smooth structure of the tent—her own knowledge of tents was limited to stories of the Homelander military variety, which involved ropes and canvas and much swearing, and leaks when it rained—when a slight noise behind her brought her back again to her presence in a Hill camp. She turned around, nervously, but not so nervously as she might have; for there was a graciousness and—well, humanity, perhaps, if she tried to think of a word for it—to the big white-walled room that set her at ease, even against her own better judgment.

Four white-robed men had entered the tent. They brought with them, carrying it by handles set round the rim, an enormous silver basin: bath-sized, she thought. It had a broad base and sides that flared gently. The metal was worked in some fashion, but the play of the lantern light over the patterns prevented her from deciding what the designs might be.

The men set the great basin down at one end of the tent, and turned to leave, one after the other; and each, as he passed her standing uncertainly near the center, bowed to her. She was made uneasy by the courtesy, and had to stop herself from taking a step or two backward. She stood with her arms at her sides, but her hands, invisible in the long full sleeves of her battered dressing-gown, closed slowly into fists.

As the four men passed in front of her on their way out, several more were coming in, with silver urns on their shoulders; and the urns, she found when the carriers emptied them into the silver bath—it had to be a bath—were full of steaming water. No drop was spilled; and each man bowed to her as he left. She wondered how many of them there were engaged in water-carrying; there were never more than a few in the tent at once, yet as soon as one urn was empty the man behind was there to pour from another.

It took only a few soft-footed minutes, the only sound that of the water falling into the basin, for it to be full; and the stream of men stopped likewise. She was alone a moment, watching the surface of the water glint as the last ripples grew still; and she saw that some of the design on the bath was simply the presence of hinges, and she laughed. This was a traveling camp, after all. Then four men entered together and ranged themselves in a line—like horse-herders, she thought, presented with an animal whose temper is uncertain—and looked at her; and she looked at them. She rather thought these were the four who had brought the bath in to begin with; but she wasn't sure. What she did notice was something else, something that hadn't quite registered while the steady shuffle of men and urns had gone past: that each of these men had a little white mark that looked like a scar on his forehead, in the center of the brow, above the eyes.

She wondered about this; and then she wondered about what looked like towels lying over the shoulders of three of the men; and then the fourth one came toward her with a motion so swift and polite, and somehow unthreatening, that he slipped the Hill cloak off her shoulders and folded it over his arm before she reacted. She spun around then and backed away a step; and was almost certain that the look on this man's face was surprise. He laid the cloak down very gently on a wooden chest, and motioned toward the bath.

She was grateful that at least he didn't bow to her again, which probably would have made her leap like a startled rabbit. It wasn't, she thought, that the gesture held any unpleasant servility. But it felt like an indication that she was somehow in command of the situation—or ought to be. The lack of servility was therefore alarming, because these men were too capable of observing that she didn't feel in the least as if she were in command.

They looked at one another a moment longer. She thought then incredulously: Surely they're not expecting to give me a bath?—and noticed with the sides of her eyes that the other three men were standing behind the bath now, and one of the towels when unfolded was revealed as a robe, with a braided gold cord at the waist.

The man directly in front of her, who had removed her cloak, reached out and laid his hands on the belt of her dressing-gown, and she suddenly found that she was angry. The last two days had been one indignity after another, however politely each had been offered; and to preserve what self-respect she could—and what courage—she had preferred not to think about them too closely. But that she wasn't even to be allowed to bathe without a guard—that she should be expected to submit tamely to the ministrations of four men—men—like a—like a—Her imagination chose to fail her here, far from home, with the terror of the unknown, and of the captured, only barely kept at bay. She threw off the man's polite fingers with as much violence as she could and said furiously: "No! Thank you, but no." There are enough of them, for God's sake, to stand me on my head if they want to force the issue, she thought. But I am not going to cooperate.

There was a ripple of golden silk at the sound of her voice, and a new shadow appeared in the lantern light. Corlath, who had been hovering just outside to see how his Outlander was going to behave, entered the tent. He spoke two or three words and the men left at once; each bowing, first to her and then to their king. A corner of Harry's mind, which refused to be oppressed by the dreadfulness of the situation, noticed that the bows were of equal depth and duration; and the same mental corner had the impertinence to think this odd.

There was another little silence after the four men had left, only this time it was the king she was facing down. But she was too angry to care. If she said anything she would say too much, and she hadn't quite forgotten that she was at the mercy of strangers, so she bit her tongue and glowered. Why was this all happening? The bit of her mind which had commented about the equality of bows presently observed that anger was preferable to fear, so the anger was encouraged to carry on.

Evidently Corlath had already had his bath; his black hair was wet, and even his sun-brown skin was a few shades lighter. He was wearing a long golden robe, stiff with elegant stitching, open at the front to show a loose cream-colored garment that fell almost to his sandaled feet. In her own country she would have been inclined to call it a nightshirt under an odd sort of dressing-gown—although nobody ever wore a scarlet cummerbund over one's nightshirt—but it looked very formal here. She mustn't forget to glower or she might feel awed. And then, inevitably, afraid. She recognized the quality of his silence when at last he spoke: the same feeling she had had when she first spoke to him, at the small campsite between the arms of a sand dune, that he chose and arranged his words very carefully.

"Do you not wish to bathe, then? It is a long ride we had." He was thinking, So I have managed to offend her immediately. It is done differently where she comes from; she can't know and must not be able to guess—but how could she guess?—that in the Hills it is only the men and women of the highest rank that may be waited on by household servants of both sexes. I feared—but for what good? We know nothing of each other's customs, and my household men have only done as they ought: treated the king's Outlander with the greatest honor.

Harry in her turn had unbent slightly at the "we." It was friendlier than the accusatory "you" she'd been expecting. She hadn't unbent so far, though, as to prevent herself from saying coldly, "I am accustomed to bathe alone."

Ah. Yes. I don't suppose I should mire myself with involved explanations at this point? She doesn't look to be in the mood for them. He said, "These are men of my household. It was to do you … courtesy."

She glanced away and felt her anger begin to ebb; and so she was unprepared when he took a sudden stride forward as she dropped her eyes. He grabbed her chin and forced it up, turning her face to the light and staring down at her as if amazed. Her abrupt reversion to existence as an object to be bundled about, turned this way and that at another's will, made the anger boil up again at once; and her eyes glittered back at him without a trace of fear.

He was staring into those eyes, as the light played full across them, and thinking, That's why. I don't understand it, but this must be why—the first step to why. He had just caught a glimpse, a suspicion, when she turned her head, the way the light fell, and he had put his hand out before he thought. Her eyes, under his gaze, shimmered grey to green with bubbles of amber that flickered like lightning in the depths and floated up to break like stars on the surface: bottomless eyes, that a man or beast fool enough to look at long would fall into and drown. He knew—he was one of the very few who need have no fear—that she did not know. She met his eyes too clearly: there was nothing in her eyes but simple and forthright fury—and he couldn't blame her for that. He wondered if she'd learned by accident not to focus her anger, or whether people she hated had a habit of falling downstairs or choking on fishbones—or if perhaps she had never hated. One doesn't generally look into mirrors when one is especially angry; one has better things to do, like pace the floor, or throw things. Perhaps no one had ever noticed, or been in a position to notice. And the thought came to him vaguely, for no particular reason, that she couldn't ever have been in love. If she had ever turned the full intensity of her kelar-brilliant eyes on any average mortal, they would both have had a shock; and she would never again have had the innocence to meet anyone's eyes as she now met his.

He dropped his hand from her chin and turned away. He looked a little ashamed, she thought; and he said, "Forgive me," as if he meant it. But he looked more thoughtful than anything else, and, she realized with surprise, relieved, as if he had made—or had made for him—some important decision. What can be wrong with my face? she thought. Has my nose turned green? It has always been crooked, but it never astonished anybody before.

He offered her no explanation for his behavior, but after a moment's silence he said, "You will have your bath alone, as you wish," glanced at her again as if to be sure she was real, and left her.

She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered; and then thought, Very well, I do want a bath, the water's cooling off, and how long is a bath expected to take before someone else comes trotting in?

She took the fastest bath of her life, and was bright red with scrubbing but quite clean when she tumbled out again, dried off, and slithered into the white robe left for her. The sleeves came to her elbows, and the hem nearly to her ankles. There were long loose trousers to go underneath, but so full as to seem almost a skirt, and they rippled and clung as she moved. The clothing all was made from something adequately opaque, but when she had tied the golden rope around her middle she still felt rather embarrassingly unclad; Homelander garb for its women involved many more layers. She looked at her dusty dressing-gown, but was reluctant to put it back on; and she was still hesitating over this as she dried her hair on the second towel and tried to part the tangle with her fingers, when Corlath returned, carrying a dark red robe very much like his golden one—and a comb. The handle of it was wide and awkward in her hand, but it had familiar teeth, and that was all that counted.

While she watched through her wet hair, the bath was half-emptied as it had been filled, and the rest carried out still in the silver basin. The four men at its handles walked so smoothly the water never offered to slop up the sides. Then there was a pause and one of the men of the household—or so she supposed the forehead mark indicated—entered carrying a mirror in a leather frame and knelt before her on one knee, propped the mirror on the other, and tipped it back till she could see her face in it. She looked down, bemused—the man's eyes were on the floor. Did household servants of the Hills all take lessons in tipping mirrors to just the right angle, relative to the height and posture of the person to be served? Perhaps it was a specialty, known only to a few; and those few, of course, would be preserved for the royal household. She parted her hair gravely and shook it back over her shoulders, where it fell heavily past her hips. The deep red of her robe was very handsome; the shadows it cast were as velvety as rose petals. "Thank you," she said in Hill-speech, hoping that she remembered the right phrase; and the man stood up, bowed again, and went away.

Meanwhile a long table was being erected under the peak of the tent, next to the central pillar. It consisted of many square sections, with a leg at each corner of each square, set next to each other in a long single row; she wondered how they managed to stand so level on the whimsical layers of carpet. Corlath was pacing up and down the end of the tent opposite her, head bent and hands behind him. Plates were arranged on the table—each setting, she saw, was given a plate, one of the curious flat-bowled spoons, two bowls of different sizes, and a tall mug. The table was very low, and there were no chairs; some of the cushions scattered all over the tent were gathered up and heaped around it. Then large bowls of bread and fruit and—she thought—cheese were brought in, and the lamp that hung from the wooden rib over the table was lowered till it hung only a few feet from the plentiful food. It was just a little above her eye level as she stood watching. The lanterns that hung from the ceiling beams were suspended on fine chains which were attached to slender ropes looped around a row of what looked very much like belaying-pins on a ship lined up against one wall.

Corlath had stopped pacing, and his eyes followed the lowering of the lamp; but the expression on his face said that his thoughts were elsewhere. Harry watched him covertly, ready to look away if he should remember her; and as the lamp was fixed in its new position she saw him return to himself with a snap. He walked a few steps forward to stand at one end of the long table; then he looked around for her. She was not in a good position for judging such things, but she felt that he recalled her existence to his mind with something of an effort, as a man will recall an unpleasant duty. She let him catch her eye, and he gestured that she should take her place at his left hand. At that moment the golden silk door was lifted again, and another group of men filed in.

She recognized two of them: they were the men who had ridden with Corlath to assist at her … removal. She was a little surprised that she should recognize them so easily, since what she had mostly seen of them was the backs of their heads when they averted their faces, or the tops of their heads or hoods when they stared at the ground. But recognize them she did, and felt no fear about staring at them full-face now, for they showed no more inclination than they ever had for looking back at her.

There were eighteen men all told, plus Corlath and herself; and she was sure she could have recognized them as a group, as belonging together and bound together by ties as strong as blood or friendship, even if they had been scattered in a crowd of several hundred. They had an awareness of each other so complete as to be instinctive. She knew something of the working of this sort of camaraderie from watching Dedham and some of his men; but here, with this group of strangers, she could read it as easily as if it were printed on a page before her; and their silence—for none bothered with the kind of greeting Harry was accustomed to, any Hill version of hello and how are you—made it only more plain to her. Rather than finding their unity frightening, and herself all alone and outside, she found it comforting that her presence should so little disturb them. That instinctive awareness seemed to wrap around her too, and accept her: an outsider, an Outlander and a woman, and yet here she was and that was that.

She sat when everyone else sat, and as bowls and plates were passed she found that hers were filled and returned to her without her having to do anything but accept what was given her. Knives appeared, from up sleeves and under sashes and down boot tops, and Corlath produced an extra one from somewhere and gave it to her. She felt the edge delicately with one finger, and found it very keen; and was faintly flattered that the prisoner should be allowed so sharp an instrument. No doubt because any one of these men could take it away from me at my first sign of rebellion, without even interrupting their chewing, she thought. She began to peel the yellow-skinned fruit on her plate, as the man opposite her was doing. It seemed years since she had faced Sir Charles across the breakfast table.

She didn't notice when the conversation began; it proceeded too easily to have had anything so abrupt as a beginning, and she was preoccupied with how to manage her food. From the tone of their voices, these men were reporting to their king, and the substance of the reports was discussed as a matter of importance all around the table. She understood no word of it, for "yes" and "no" and "please" and "good" are almost impossible to pick out when talk is in full spate, but it was a language she found pleasant to listen to, with a variety of sounds and syllables that she thought would well lend themselves to any mood or mode of expression.

Her mind began to wander after a little time. She was exhausted after the long ride, but the tension of her position—I will not say that I am utterly terrified—served admirably to keep her awake and uneasily conscious of all that went on around her. She wondered if any of these men would give it away by look or gesture if the conversation turned to the Outlander in their midst.

But after a bath, and clean clothes, even these odd ones, and good food, for the food was very good, and even the company, for their companionship seemed to hold her up like something tangible, her mind insisted on relaxing. But that relaxation was a mixed blessing at best, because as the tension eased even a little, her thoughts unerringly reverted to trying to puzzle out why she was where she found herself.

Something to do with that abortive meeting at the Residency, between the Hillfolk and the Outlanders, presumably. But why? Why me? If I could be stolen from my bed—or my window-seat—then they could steal somebody from some other bed—and Sir Charles seems a lot more likely as a political figure. She repressed a grin. Though a very unlikely figure for riding across a saddlebow. There had to be a better reason than that of physical bulk for the choice of herself over … whoever else was available. She had been spirited out of her own house, with the doors locked and the dogs out, and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia asleep only a few steps away. It was as if Corlath—or his minions—could walk through walls: and if they could walk through the Residency walls and over the Residency dogs, probably they could walk through any other walls—at least Homelander walls—that they chose. It was uncanny. She remembered that Dedham, whose judgment she trusted above all others' at the station, and who knew more than any other Homelander about his adopted country, believed in the uncanniness of certain of the Hillfolk's tactics. Which brought her back to square one of this game: Why her? Why Harry Crewe, the Residency's charity case, who had only been in this country at all for a few months?

There was one obvious answer, but she discarded it as soon as it arose. It was too silly, and she was convinced that, whatever failings Corlath and his men might be capable of, silliness wasn't one of them. And Corlath didn't look at her the way a man looks at a woman he plans to have share his bed—and his interest would have to be very powerful indeed for him to have gone to so much trouble to steal her. He looked at her rather as a man looks at a problem that he would very much prefer to do without. She supposed it was distinction of a sort to be a harassment to a king.

She also swiftly, almost instinctively, discarded the idea that her Homelanders would mount any successful expedition to find her and bring her home again. The Hillfolk knew their desert; the Homelanders did not. And the Residency charity case would not warrant extraordinary efforts. She thought wryly: If Jack guesses where I am, he'll think I don't need rescuing … but poor Dick; he'll manage to convince himself that it's his fault, he brought me out here in the first place … She blinked hastily, and bit her lips. Her crossed legs were asleep, and the small of her back hurt. She was accustomed to sitting in chairs. She began surreptitiously to thump her thighs with her fists till they began to tingle painfully to life again; then she began on her calves. By the time she could feel when she wiggled her toes, the hot stiff feeling around her eyes had ebbed and she could stop blinking.

The men of the household entered the royal tent again, and cleared the table. The bread and fruit were replaced by bowls of something dark and slightly shiny. When she was offered a bit of it she discovered it to be sticky and crunchy and very sweet, and by the time she had eaten most of her generous serving, and what remained was adhering to her face and fingers, she noticed that a bowl of water and a fresh napkin had been placed at each person's elbow. There was a momentary lull while everyone sighed and stretched; and Corlath said a few words to the men of the household, which caused one of them to leave the tent and the other three still present to go around the walls extinguishing the lanterns, all except the one lamp that hung low over the table. The heavy woven walls shone in the daylight so the inside was palely lit; and the lamp over the table burned like a small sun, casting half-shadows in the quiet corners of the glowing white walls and in the hollows of eyes. None spoke.

Then the man returned, carrying a dark leather bag bound with brass in the shape of a drinking-horn. A thong hung from its neck and base, and this the man had looped over his shoulder. He offered it first to Corlath, who gestured to the man at his right. The man of the household handed it gravely to him, bowed, and left; there were none in the tent now but those twenty who sat round the table.

The first man drank—one swallow; she could see him letting it slide slowly down his throat. He balanced the bag on the table and stared at the burning lamp. After a moment an expression passed over his face that was so clear Harry felt she should recognize it immediately; but she did not. She was shaken both by its strength and by her own failure to read it; and then it was gone. The man looked down, smiled, shook his head, said a few words, and passed the horn to the man sitting on his right.

Each man took one mouthful, swallowed it slowly, and stared at the lamp. Some of them spoke and some did not. One man, with skin sunburned as dark as cinnamon but for a pale scar on his jaw, spoke for a minute or two, and words of surprise broke from several of his audience. They all looked to Corlath, but he sat silent and inscrutable, chin in hand; and so the drinking-horn was passed on to the next.

One man Harry remembered in particular: he was shorter than most of the company, while his shoulders were very broad and his hands large. His hair was grizzled and his expression grim; his face was heavily lined, but whether with age or experience or both she could not guess. He sat near the foot of the table on the side opposite her. He drank, stared at the light, spoke no word, and passed the horn to the man on his right. All the others, even the ones who said nothing, showed something in their faces—something, Harry thought, that was transparent to any who had eyes to see beyond—some strong sensation, whether of sight or feeling—she could not even guess this much. But this man remained impassive, as opaque as skin and blood and bone can be. One could see his eyes move, and his chest heave as he breathed; there was no clue for further speculation. She wondered what his name was, and if he ever smiled.

As the leather bag rounded the bottom of the table and started up the other side, and Harry could no longer see the faces of the drinkers, she dropped her eyes to her hands and complimented herself on how quietly they lay, the fingers easy, not gripping each other or whitening their knuckles around her mug. The mug was still half full of a pale liquid, slightly honey-sweet but without (she thought she could by now conclude) the dangers of the gentle-tasting mead it reminded her of. She moved one finger experimentally, tapped it against the mug, moved it back, rearranged her hands as a lady might her knitting, and waited.

She was aware when the drinking-horn reached the man on her left, and was aware of the slight shudder that ran through him just before he spoke; but she kept her eyes down and waited for Corlath to reach across her and take the waiting horn. This was not something an Outlander would be expected to join in—and just as well. Whatever the stuff was, watching the men's faces when they drank made her feel a little shaky.

And so she was much surprised when one of Corlath's hands entered her range of vision and touched the back of one of her hands with the forefinger. She looked up.

"Take a sip," he said. She reached out stiffly and took the brass-bound bag from the man who held it, keeping her eyes only on the bag itself. It was warm from all the hands that had held it, and up close she could see the complexity of the twisted brass fittings. It carried a slight odor with it: faintly pungent, obscurely encouraging. She took a deep breath. "Only a sip," said Corlath's voice.

The weight of the thing kept her hands from trembling. She tipped her head back and took the tiniest of tastes: a few drops only. She swallowed. It was curious, the vividness of the flavor, but nothing she could put a name to … 

She saw a broad plain, green and yellow and brown with tall grasses, and mountains at the edge of it, casting long shadows. The mountains started up abruptly, like trees, from the flatness of the plain; they looked steep and severe and, with sun behind them, they were almost black. Directly in front of her there was a small gap in those mountains, little more than a brief pause in the march of the mountains' sharp crests, and it was high above the floor of the plain. Up the side of the mountain, already near the summit, was a bright moving ribbon.

Horsemen, no more than forty of them, riding as quickly as they could over the rough stony track, the horses with their heads low and thrown forward, watching their feet, swinging with their strides, the riders straining to look ahead, as though fearing they might come too late. Behind the riders were men on foot, bows slung slantwise over their backs, crossed by quivers of arrows; there were perhaps fifty of them, and they followed the horses, with strides as long as theirs. Beside them were long brown moving glints, supple as water, that slid from light to shade too quickly to be identified; four-footed, they looked to be; dogs perhaps. The sunlight bounced off sword hilts, and the metal bindings of leather arms and harness, and shields of many shapes, and the silver strings of bows.

The far sides of the mountains were less steep, but no less forbidding. Broken foothills extended a long way, into the hazy distance; a little parched grass or a few stunted trees grew where they could. Below the gap in the mountains by any other path but through the valley would be impossible, at least for horses. The gap was one that a small determined force would be able to defend—for a time.

The bright ribbon of horsemen and archers collected in the small flat space behind the gap, and became a pool. Here there was a little irregular plateau, with shallow crevasses, wide enough for small campsites, leading into the rocky shoulders on either side, and with a long low overhanging shelf to one side that was almost a cave. The plateau narrowed to a gap barely the width of two horsemen abreast, where the mountain peaks crowded close together, just before it spilled into the scrub-covered valley, and the rock-strewn descending slopes beyond.

The horsemen paused and some dismounted; some rode to the edge and looked out. At the far edge of the foothills something glittered, too dark for grass, too sharply peaked for water. When it spilled into the foothills it became apparent for what it was: an army. This army rode less swiftly than had the small band now arranging themselves in and around the pass, but their urgency was less. The sheer numbers of them were all the tactics they needed.

But the little army waiting for them organized itself as seriously as if it had a chance of succeeding in what it set out to do; and perhaps some delay of the immense force opposing it was all that it required. The dust beyond the foothills winked and flashed as rank after rank approached the mountains … 

 … and then time began to turn and dip crazily, and she saw the leader of the little force plunging down into the valley with a company behind him, and he drew a sword that flashed blue in his hand. His horse was a tall chestnut, fair as daylight, and his men swept down the hill behind him. She could not see the archers, but she saw a hail of arrows like rain sweeping from the low trees on either side of the gap. The first company of the other army leaped eagerly toward them, and a man on a white horse as tall as the chestnut and with red ribbons twisted into its long tail met the blue sword with one that gleamed gold … 

 … and Harry found herself back in the tent, her throat hoarse as if from shouting: standing up, with a pair of strong hands clamped on her shoulders; and she realized that without their support she would sag to her knees. The fierce shining of the swords was still in her eyes. She blinked and shook her head, and realized she was staring at the lamp; so she turned her head and looked up at Corlath, who was looking down at her with something—she noticed with a shock—like pity in his face. She could think of nothing to say; she shook her head again, as if to shake out of it all she had just seen; but it stayed where it was.

There was a silence, of a moment, or perhaps of half a year. She breathed once or twice; the air felt unnaturally harsh on her dry throat. She began to feel the pile of carpets pressing against her feet, and Corlath's hands slackened their grip. They stood, the two of them, king and captive, facing one another, and all the men at the table looked on. "I am sorry," Corlath said at last. "I did not think it would take you with such strength."

She swallowed with some difficulty: the lovely wild flavor of the mad drink she had just tasted lingered in the corners of her mouth, and in the corners of her mind. "What is it?"

Corlath made some slight gesture—of denigration or of ignorance. "The drink—we call it Meeldtar—Seeing Water, or Water of Sight."

"Then—all that I saw—I really saw it. I didn't imagine it."

"Imagine it? Do you mean did you see what was true? I do not know. One learns, eventually, usually to know, to be able to say if the seeings are to be believed or are … imagined. But imagined as you mean it—no. The Water sends these things, or brings them."

There was a pause again, but nobody relaxed, least of all herself. There was more to it than this, than a simple—simple?—hallucination. She looked at Corlath, frowning. "What else?" she said, as calmly as if she were asking her doom.

Corlath said, "There is something else," as if he were putting it off. He hesitated, and then spoke a few words in a language she did not recognize. It wasn't the usual Darian she heard the natives around the Residency speak, or the slightly more careful tongue that Dedham and Mr. Peterson used; nor did it sound like the differently accented tongue the Hillfolk spoke, which was still recognizable to those who were fluent in Darian. This was a rougher, more powerful language to listen to, although many of the sounds—strange to her Homelander ears—were common with the Darian she was accustomed to. She looked at Corlath, puzzled, as he spoke a little further. She knew nothing of this language.

"It is not familiar to you?" Corlath said at last; and when she shook her head, he said, "No, of course not, how could it be?" He turned around. "We might sit down again," and sat down with great deliberateness. She sat down too, waiting. The look she had seen before on his face, that of a man facing a problem he would far rather avoid, had returned, but it had changed. Now his look said that he understood what the problem was, and it was much more serious than he had suspected.

"There are two things," he said. "The Water of Sight does not work so on everyone. Most people it merely makes ill. To a few it gives headaches; headaches accompanied by strange colors and queer movements that make them dizzy. There are very few who see clearly—we nineteen, here tonight, all of us have drunk the Water of Sight many times. But even for us, most of us see only a brief abrupt picture—sometimes the scene lasts so little time it is hard to recognize. Often it is of something familiar: one's father, one's wife, one's horse. There is a quality to these pictures, or memories, that is like nothing else, like no voluntary memory you might call up yourself. But often that is all.

"Occasionally one of the people of our Hills sees more. I am one. You have just proven yourself another. I do not know why you saw what you did. You told us something of what you saw as you were seeing it. You may have seen a battle of the past—or one that never happened—or one that may yet happen; it may occur in Damar, or—in some other country."

She heard may yet happen as if those three words were the doom she had asked for; and she remembered the angry brilliance of the yellow-eyed Hill-king as he stood before the Residency far away. "But—" she said, troubled, hardly realizing she spoke aloud—"I am not even of your Hills. I was born and bred far away—at Home. I have been here only a few months. I know nothing of this place."

"Nothing?" said Corlath. "I said there were two things. I have told you the first. You told us what you saw as you saw it. But this is the second thing: you spoke in the Old Tongue, what we call the Language of the Gods, that none knows any more but kings and sorcerers, and those they wish to teach it to. The language I just spoke to you, that you did not recognize—I was repeating the words you had said yourself, a moment before."


CHAPTER FOUR | The Blue Sword | CHAPTER SIX