home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add



CHAPTER SIX

She remembered little more of that day. She settled herself on a heap of cushions a little way from the long table while the king and his men talked; and if they spoke at all of her, she did not know it, but she did notice that none but Corlath ever allowed his eyes to rest on her. The feeling she had had earlier, before she had tasted the Water of Seeing, that the closeness among the king and his men in some way supported her, was gone; she felt lost and miserably alone, and she decided that when there were eighteen people pretending you didn't exist in a small enclosed area, it was worse than two people pretending you didn't exist outside under the sky. The shadows nickered strangely through the tent, and the voices seemed muffled. There was a ringing in her earsa ringing not like the usual fear-feeling of one's blood hammering through one's body, but a real ringing like that of distant bells. She could almost discern the notes. Or were they human, the shifting tones of someone speaking, far away? The taste still on her tongue seemed to muffle her brain. And she was tired, so tired

When his Riders left, Corlath stood looking down at his captured prize. She had fallen asleep, and no wonder; she was smiling a little in her sleep, but it was a sad smile, and it made him unhappy. However much formal honor he showed her, seating her at his left hand, setting his household to serve her as they served himhe grimacedhe knew only too well that by stealing her from her people he had done a thing to be ashamed of, even if he had had no alternativeeven if she and the kelar she bore were to do his beloved country some good he could not otherwise perform. Perhaps she could learn to see something of what made the Hills and their people so dear to him as a man, not as a king? Perhaps her Gift would bind her to them. Perhaps she would hate them for her lost land and family. He sighed. Forloy's young wife had not wished to hate the Hills, but that had not helped her.

Harry woke in the dark. She did not know where she was; the shapes beneath her were not of pillow and mattress, and the odor of the air had nothing in common with Residency air, or Homeland air. For a moment hysteria bubbled up and she was conscious only of quelling it; she could not think, not even to decide why she wished to bottle up the panicher pride automatically smothered her fear as best it could. Afterward she lay exhausted, and the knowledge of where she was reformed itself, and the smell was of the exotic woods of the carven boxes in the Hill-king's tent. But as she lay on her back and stared into the blackness, the tears began to leak out of her eyes and roll down her cheeks and wet her hair, and she was too tired to resist them. They came ever faster, till she turned over and buried her face in the scratchy cushions to hide the sobs she could not stop.

Corlath was a light sleeper. On the other side of the tent he opened his eyes and rolled up on one elbow and looked blindly toward the dark corner where his Outlander lay. Long after Harry had cried herself to sleep again, the Hill-king lay awake, facing the grief he had caused and could not comfort.

When Harry woke again, the golden tent flap had been lifted, and sunlight flashed across the thick heavy rugs to spill across her eyes and waken her. She sat up. She was still curled on and around a number of fat cushions; the back of the hand her cheek had lain against was printed with the embroidered pattern of the pillow beneath it. She yawned and stretched, gingerly pulling the knots of midnight fears out of her muscles. One of the men with a mark on his forehead approached her, knelt, and set a small table with pitcher and basin and towels and brushes before her.

She saw nothing of Corlath. The tent looked as it had when she had first entered it the day before; the low tables had been removed, and the peak lamp raised again.

When she had washed, she was brought a bowl of an unfamiliar cereal, hot and steaming like Homelander porridge, but of no grain she recognized. It was good, and she surprised herself by eating it all with good appetite. She laid down her spoon, and one of the men of the household approached again, bowed, and indicated that she should go out. She felt crumpled, in the same garments she had slept in; but she shook them out as best she could, observed that they didn't seem to wrinkle horribly as Homelander clothing would have done, raised her chin, and marched outto be met by another man with a pair of boots for her, and a folding stool to sit on while she fumbled with the lacing. She felt a fool, let loose, however involuntarily, in a highly organized community which now wished to organize her too: like the grain of sand that gets into an oyster's shell. What if the grain doesn't want to become a pearl? Is it ever asked to climb out quietly and take up its old position as a bit of ocean floor?

Did she want to go back? What did she have to go back to?

But what was Dickie thinking of her absence? She had no more tears at present, but her eyelids were as stiff as shutters, and her throat hurt.

People were moving hastily across the open space before the king's tent; and as she watched, the outlying tents began to come down. They seemed to float down of their own accord; all was graceful and quiet. If anyone was doing any protracted cursing over the recalcitrance of inanimate objects, it was only under his breath. Her brother should see this. She smiled painfully.

She blinked, her eyes adjusting slowly to the bright sunlight. The sky overhead was a cloudless hard blue, a pale metallic blue. It was morning again; she'd slept almost a full day. To the left rose a little series of dunes, so gradually that she only recognized their height by the fact that her horizon, from where she stood, was the tops of them. Somewhere in that direction lay the General Mundy, the Residency, her brotherand farther, much farther, in that same direction, over desert and mountain, plain and sea, lay her Homeland. She felt the sand underfoot, nothing like the springy firm earth of Home, no more than the queer soft boots she wore were like her Homeland boots; and the strange loose weight of her robes pulled on her shoulders.

The king's tent was being dismantled in its turn. First the sides were rolled up and secured, and she saw with surprise that the rugs and lamps, chests and cushions, were already gone from inside; all that remained was the sand, curiously smoothed and hollowed from what it had borne. She wondered if they might have rolled her up like an extra bolster if she had not awakened; or if they would have packed up all around her, leaving her on a little island of cushions in a sea of empty sand. The corner posts and the tall central ones folded up on themselves somehow, and the roof sank to the ground with the same stateliness she had admired in the smaller tents. She counted ten of the household men rolling and folding and tying. They stooped as they worked, and the great tent in only minutes was ten neat white-and-black bundles, each a mere armful for one of the men. They walked to a line of horses who stood patiently as their high-framed saddles were piled with boxes and bundles such as those the king's tent made. She noticed how carefully each load was arranged, each separate piece secured and tested for balance before the next was settled. At the end all was checked for comfort, and the horse left with a pat on the nose or neck.

Horses were the commonest animals in the camp; there were many more horses than people. Even the pack horses were tall and elegant, but she could pick out the riding-horses, for they were the finest and proudest, and their coats shone like gems. There were also dogs: tall long-legged dogs with long narrow beautiful skulls and round dark eyes, and long silky fur to protect them from the sun. Some were haltered in pairs, and all were members of three or four separate groups. Sight-hounds, Harry thought. The groups roamed as freely as the untethered horses, yet showed no more inclination than they to wander from the camp. She noticed with interest that a few of the pack horses were tied in pairs, like the dogs, and reflected that perhaps it was a training method, a younger beast harnessed to an older, which could teach it manners.

There were cats too. But these were not the small domestic lap-sized variety; these were as lean and long-legged as the dogs. Their eyes were green or gold or silver, and their coats were mottled brown and amber and black. One animal looked almost spotted, black on brown, while the next looked almost striped, fawn-pale on black. Some wore collars, leather with silver or copper fittings, but no leashes, and each went its solitary way, ignoring any other cats, dogs, or horses that might cross its path. One came over to Harry where she stood; she held her breath and thought of tigers and leopards. It viewed her nonchalantly, then thrust its head under her hand. It was a moment before Harry recovered herself enough to realize that her hand was trembling because the cat was vibrating as it purred. She stroked it gingerly and the purr grew louder. The fur was short and fine and very thick; when she tried, delicately, to part it, she could not see the skin. The cat had very long blond eyelashes and it looked up at her through them, green eyes half closed. She wondered how all the animals got on together: were there ever any fights? And did the big cats ever steal one of the green-and-blue parrots that rode on a few of the Hillfolk's shoulders?

The tents were all down, and she was amazed at the numbers of beasts and people that were revealed. She wondered if the people were all men but herself, thinking of the attempt by the men of the household to wait on her at her bath the evening before. She could not tell, now, by looking, for everyone wore a robe similar to her own, and most wore hoods; and only a few wore beards.

"Lady," said a voice she knew, and she turned and saw Corlath, and Fireheart followed him.

"Another long ride?" she said, feeling a flush in her cheeks for being called lady by the Hill-king.

"Yes, another long ride, but we need not travel so quickly."

She nodded, and a smile came and went on the king's face, so quickly that she did not see it, as he realized that she would not plead, nor ask questions. "You will need this," he said, and handed her a hood like the one he and most everyone else were wearing. She stood turning it over helplessly in her hands, for it was little more than a long tapered tube of soft material, and not too plainly meant as one thing or another to someone who had never seen one before. He took it away from her again and put it on her, then produced a scarf and showed her how to wrap it in place. "It grows easier with practice," he said.

"Thank you," she said.

Another voice spoke behind them, and both turned; a man stood with another horse at his heels. This man was dressed in brown, and wore leggings and a tunic above his tall boots and bore a small white mark on his right cheek; and Corlath told her that so the men of the horse, the grooms, dressed; men of the hunt, who cared for the cats and dogs, were dressed similarly, but their belts were red, and they wore red scarves over their hoods and their white mark of office was on the left cheek. "II thought all the Hillfolk wore sashes," Harry said hesitantly. "No," Corlath answered readily enough; "only those who also may carry swords."

The brown-clad man turned to the horse he had brought them. "His name is Red Wind, Rolinin," Corlath said; he was another red bay, though not so bright as Fireheart. "For the present, you will ride him."

She speculated, a little nervously, about the for the present. She was pleased at the idea of not bumping on somebody else's saddlebow, but as she looked up at the tall horse, and he looked kindly down on her, she collected her courage and said, "II am accustomed to bit and bridle." She thought, I am accustomed to stirrups too, but I can probably cope without themat least if nothing too exciting occurs. He looks like he'll have nice gaitsOh dear.

"Yes," said Corlath in his inscrutable voice, and Harry looked up at him in dismay. "Red Wind will teach you how we of the Hills ride."

She hesitated a minute longer, but couldn't think of anything further to say that wouldn't be too humiliating, like "I'm scared." So when the brown man went down on one knee and cupped his hands for her foot, she stepped up and was lifted gently into the saddle. No reins. She looked at her hands as if they should be somewhere else, rubbed them briefly down the legs, and then laid them across the rounded pommel like stunned rabbits brought home from a hunt. Red Wind's ears flicked back at her and his back shifted under her. She closed her legs delicately around his barrel and he waited, listening; she squeezed gently and he stepped gravely forward; she sat back and he stopped. Perhaps they would get along.

Corlath mounted while she was arranging her hands; I suppose they'll expect me to learn to mount without help too, she thought irascibly; when she looked up from Red Wind's obedient ears Fireheart moved off, and Red Wind willingly followed.

They traveled for some days. She meant to keep count, but she did not have the presence of mind immediately to find a bit of leather or rock to scratch the days on as they passed, and somewhere around four or five or six she lost count. The days of travel continued for some time after the four or five or six; every muscle in her body ached and protested from the unaccustomed exercise, after months of soft living at the Residency and aboard ship. She was grateful for her weariness, however, for it granted her heavy sleep without dreams. She developed saddlesores, and gritted her teeth and ignored them, and rather than getting worse as she had expected, they eased and then went away altogether, and with them the aches and pains. Her old skill in the saddle came back to her; she did not miss the stirrups except while mountingshe still needed someone to be a mounting-block for her every dayand slowly she learned to guide her patient horse without reins. She could bind her boots to her legs and her hood round her head as deftlyalmostas though she had been doing these things all her life. She learned to eat gracefully with her fingers. She met four women who were part of Corlath's traveling camp; they all four wore sashes.

She learned the name of the friendly cat: Narknon. She often found her keeping her feet warm when she woke up in the morning. Narknon also, for all her carnivorous heritage, had a taste for porridge.

Harry continued to eat at the king's table for the evening meal, with the eighteen Riders and Corlath; she still sat at the king's left hand, and she was still politely served and equably ignored. She began to understand, or at least to suspect, that Corlath kept her near him not only because the Hillfolk were not accustomed to dealing with enemy prisoners, but more because he was hoping to make her feel like a respected guesthe was quick to answer her questions, partly perhaps because she did not abuse the privilege; and there was often almost diffidence in his manner when he offered her something: a new cloak, or a piece of fruit of a sort she had never seen before. He wants me to like it here, she thought. She still slept in the king's tent, but a corner was now modestly curtained off for her, and when she woke in the morning and put the curtains back, Corlath was already gone. One of the men of the household would see her, and bring her towels and water, and breakfast. She grew fond of the porridge; sometimes they made it into little flat cakes, and fried them, and put honey over them. The honey was made from flowers she had never seen nor smelled; the rich exotic fragrance of it set her dreaming.

She never asked Corlath why she was here, or what her future was to be.

In the mornings, after breakfast, while the camp was broken, or, if they were staying an extra day while messengers came from nowhere to talk to the king, she rode Red Wind and, as Corlath had told her, taught herself, or let the horse teach her, to ride as the Hillfolk rode. After her riding-lesson, if they were not traveling that day, she wandered through the camp, and watched the work going forward: everything was aired and washed or shaken out or combed, and the beasts were all brushed till they gleamed. No one, horse or dog or cat or human being, ever tried to stop the Outlander from wandering anywhere in particular, or watching anything in particular; occasionally she was even allowed to pick up a currycomb or polishing-cloth or rug-beater, but it was obvious that she was so permitted out of kindness, for her help was never needed. But she was grateful for the kindness. She spoke her few words of Hill-speech: May I? And Thank you, and the Hillfolk smiled at her and said, Our privilege, slowly and carefully, back to her. Sometimes she watched the hunts ride out; the dogs hunted in their groups, the cats alone or occasionally in pairs. There did not seem to be any order to those who rode with them, other than the presence of at least one man of the hunt; and she never saw any return without a kill: desert hares, or the small digging orobogCorlath told her the namesor the great horned dundi that had to be hung on a pole and carried between two horses.

She was homesick in unexpected spasms so strong that Red Wind, who was a faithful old plug by Hill standards and could be trusted to children and idiots, would feel her freeze on his back, and toss his head uncomfortably and prance. She had not wept herself to sleep since her first night in the king's tent and she thought, carefully, rationally, that it was hard to say what exactly she was homesick for: the Homeland seemed long past, and she did not miss her months at the Residency in Istan. She recalled the faces of Sir Charles and Lady Amelia with a pang, and she missed her brother anxiously, and worried about what he must think about his lost sister. She found she also missed the wise patient understanding of Jack Dedham; but she thought of him with a strange sort of peacefulness, as if his feeling for his adopted country would transcend the seeming impossibility of what had happened to her, and he would know that she was well. That sickness of dislocation came to her most often when she was most at ease in the strange adventure she was living. She might be staring at the line of Hills before them, closer every day, watching how sharply the edges of them struck into the sky; Red Wind at Fireheart's heels, the desert wind brushing her cheek and the sun on her shoulders and hooded head; and suddenly she would be gasping with the thing she called homesickness. It would strike her as she sat at the king's table, cross-legged, eating her favorite cheese, sweet and brown and crumbly, listening wistfully to the conversation she still could not understand, beyond the occasional word or phrase.

I'm missing what I don't have, she thought late one night, squirming on her cushions. It's nothing to do with what I should be homesick forJack would understand, the oldest colonel still active, looking across the desert at the Hills. It's that I don't belong here. It doesn't matter that I'm getting burned as dark as they are, that I can sit a horse all day and not complain. It doesn't matter even that their Water of Sight works in me as it does in only a few of their own. It is only astonishing that it would work in one not of the Hills; it does not make that one any more of the Hills than she was before.

There was a certain bitter humor to lying awake wishing for something one cannot have, after lying awake not so long ago wishing for the opposite thing that one had just lost. Not a very useful sort of adaptability, this, she thought. But, her thought added despairingly, what kind of adaptabilityor geniuswould be useful to me? She traced her life back to her childhood, and for the first time in many years recalled the temper tantrums that she had grown out of so early it was hard to remember them clearly; but she did remember that they had frightened even her, dimly, still a baby in her crib, realizing there was something not quite right about them. They had scared two nursemaids into leaving; it had been her mother who had at last successfully coped, grimly, with her and them. That memory brought into focus another memory she also had pushed aside many years ago: the memory, or knowledge, of not-quite-rightness that grew up after the tantrums had passed; and with that knowledge had also grown an odd non-muscular kind of control. She had thought at the time, with a child's first wistfulness upon being faced with approaching adulthood, that this was a control that everyone learned; but now, lying in the desert dark, she was not so sure. There was something in her new, still inexplicable and unforeseeable life in the Hills that touched and tried to shape that old long-ignored sense of restraint; and something in her that eagerly reached out for the lesson, but could notyetquite grasp it or make use of it. There was, too, a reality to her new life that her old life had lacked, and she realized with a shock that she had never truly loved or hated, for she had never seen the world she had been used to living in closely enough for it to evoke passion in her. This world was already more vivid to her, exhilaratingly, terrifyingly more vivid, than the sweet green country, affectionately but indistinctly recalled, of her former life.

She did not have much appetite for breakfast the next morning, and fed hers to Narknon, who gave a pleased burp and went back to sleep again till the men of the household routed her out when they took down the king's tent. They were nearly to the foothills by the time they halted that evening. The scrub around them had begun to produce the occasional real leaf, and the occasional real leaf was green. For the first time, there was an open stream that ran past their camp, instead of the small secret desert springs; and Harry had a real bath in the big silver basin for the first time since her first evening with the camp, for there had been little water to spare since then. This time the men of the household left towels and a clean yellow robe for her, and left her, as soon as her bath was full.

They made camp behind a ridge that ran into what was certainly itself a hill. The tents were pitched around a clear space at the center, with the king's tent at one edge of it. That clear space always held a fire in the evenings, but tonight the fire was built up till it roared and flung itself taller than the height of a man; and as everyone's duties were completed, all came and sat around it till they ringed it. The dogs' pale coats turned red and cinnamon in the firelight; the cats' shadowy pelts were more mysterious than ever. The wall of the king's tent facing the fire was rolled up, and Harry and the king and his Riders sat at the open edge and stared at the fire with the rest.

After a time no more dark figures came to join the circle; the fire shadows fell and sidled and swam so that Harry could not guess how many people there were. The fire itself began to burn down till it was no more than the kind of glorious bonfire she and her brother had had now and again when they were children and the weather and their parents' mood had conspired together in their favor.

Then the singing began. There were several stringed instruments like lutes, and several wooden pipes for accompaniment and harmony. She recognized ballads even when she could not understand the words, and she wished again that she could understand, and fidgeted on her rug, and glanced at Corlath. He looked back at her, intercepting her frustration, and while there was nothing particularly encouraging about that look, still there was nothing particularly discouraging about it eitheras was usual with the looks he gave her now; as was also usual, there was an edge of wistfulness, or sheepishness, in his glance. He had either lost or, as she thought more likely, learned to restrain the slightly resentful puzzlement she had seen the night she had drunk the Water of Sight. She stood up and went over to him and sat down beside him, and pulled up her knees and put her chin on them and stared at the fire, and listened to the words she could not understand. She knew that there had to be at least one more person in the camp who spoke Homelander, the man who had acted as Corlath's interpreterand, as Peterson had guessed, unnecessarilyat the Residency, but she had never learned who that man was. Someone else who might have spoken to her, and taught her some more Hill words, that she might be able to talk to those around hermight be able to translate the words of the songs they were singing now. But someone who had chosen not to make himself known to her; someone who liked his skill so little that he felt no pity for her isolation: she, an Outlander, who did not belong to the desert and the Hills.

Corlath was watching her face as these thoughts went through her mind, and perhaps he read something of them there, for he said without prompting: "They sing of what is past, hundreds of years past, when the possession of kelar was so common it was hardly thought a Gift, any more than the length of your nose is a Gift.

"Those given the kelar are far fewer today than they were then. Iwebelieve that we are soon to learn at our gravest cost the worth of what we have lost."

He thought, wearily, looking at her and unable to read her expression, What does she see? What do we look like to her? And with a flash of anger he thought, Why is it so arranged that I must hope for the comprehension of an Outlander? Why must it be an Outlander who carries so precious a Gift? A Gift she may choose to repudiate oror use against us, who need the strength so sorely? Harry hugged her knees closer, and for a moment she saw again a bright narrow thread of riders trotting up a mountain way. So I have the Gift, she thought, but of what use is it to see uninterpretable visions? She came back to herself as Corlath said: "We sing because we have returned to our Hills; tonight is the first night we sleep again in their shadow.

"Listen. They will sing a ballad of Lady Aerin, Dragon-Killer." Harry listened, listened hard, with the muscles of her back and of her thighs, as if the Hill-speech were a fractious horse she might tame; and out of the firelight came a figure, wavering with the leap and flicker of the flames, and with hair that was fire itself. A tall broad-shouldered figure with a pale face, and in its right hand it held a long slim blade that glittered blue. Harry stared till her eyes felt as dry as sand, and then the figure's face swam into focus, and it was a woman's face, and it smiled at her. But it didn't smile, it grinned, the wry affectionate grin of an elder sister; and Harry's head swam with love and despair. Then the woman shook her head gently, and her aureole of hair flamed and rippled about her, and she reached out her empty left hand, and Harry found herself on her hands and knees, reaching her hand back. But a gust of wind came from nowhere and whipped the fire as though it were an unruly dog, and the figure vanished. Harry fell where she had knelt, and pressed her face to the earth. One real dog sat up and howled.

Corlath picked her up as gently as if she were a baby, fallen down after its first steps; and she found there were tears running down her face. He stood up, holding her in his arms, and she cared nothing but that Lady Aerin, Firehair and Dragon-Killer, had come to her and then left her again, more alone than she had ever been before. She threw her arms around the Hill-king's neck and buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed. And Corlath, holding her, her tears on his neck, felt his resentment waver and dim and fall to ashes; and he felt pity instead for the Outlander, as he had felt pity when she tasted the Meeldtar. The Gift had been a hard enough thing for him, he who had grown up with it, had always known it existed and been trained from childhood in its use, or at least its acceptance. He had had his father to tell him what to expect, and his father had not scorned him when he wept as the Outlander now wept; had, in fact, cradled and comforted him and soothed the headaches the kelar brought. He would help this girl now, as much as he might, stranger and thief as he might be to her. He would do what he could.

Harry woke up the next morning in her usual corner, behind the usual curtains, her face still smudged with dirt and tears, and she remembered what she had done rather than what she had seen, and she went hot with shame and swallowed hard, wondering if she dared show herself outside her curtains, even for water to wash in. She could not think about seeing Corlath again at all. She thought, He must have laid the sleep on me again, as he did when he first took me away; put me to sleep like an unruly child because I behaved like an unruly child. Narknon didn't care; she walked up Harry's legs and rubbed her head against Harry's smudgy face, and Harry blinked hard and petted her fiercely.

She put back her curtains with an effort, and washed her face, and ate her breakfast as she might have eaten wood chips, silent and stony-faced. A voice broke in on her sorry reflections, and she looked up, surprised, and was still more surprised to see one of the Riders: the short square grim man she had noticed during her first meal in the king's tent: the one man who had tasted the Water and made no sign. He spoke to her again. Whatever the words were, they had the inflection of "Good morning," so she said, "Good morning." Some expression passed lightly over his face, and still he looked at her till she began to wonder if "Good morning" in their language sounded like a terrible insult and he was now considering whether to strike her dead on the spot or spare her ignorance. Maybe he was only musing on how best to handle an unruly child.

But he spoke to her again, slowly, patiently, and she was distracted from her shame of the night before. He broke his words down into syllables; so she took a deep breath and said them back to him. This time the flicker of expression was definitely kin to a smile, although she would never have seen it if she had not been watching his face so closely. He corrected her accent, and she said the phrase again, and this time apparently she said it properly; for next he bowed, laid a hand upon his chest, and said, "Mathin." She said "Mathin" back at him, and she knew his name already from Corlath's speaking it and his answering. Then he stretched his hand out till the tips of his fingers did not quite touch her collarbone. "Harry," she said, thinking that the two-syllable version of her impossible name would keep them both out of trouble; and Richard wasn't there to disapprove. "Hari?" he said, a little taken aback; and she nodded, and made him a small bow.

It must have been a long day for Mathin. She knew he was one of the eighteen Riders, yet he did nothing till sunset but take her around the camp and touch various objects and speak their names. She also learned some useful all-purpose verbs, and the namesor at least she heard the names and tried to remember themof about half of the men who sat around Corlath's table. She knew Faran and Innath already, for she had picked out their names from Corlath's calling of them, as she had Mathin's. They met her eyes as they were introduced, and quietly bowed, as if she had nothing to do with the awkward baggage their king had taken from the Outlander town in their company a few weeks ago; as if they were seeing her for the first time. Forloy was the man with the scar on his chin; Dapsim rode the black mare who won the horseraces often held in the evenings, till the other riders would no longer let her run. She did not see Corlath that day, nor the next. The camp remained where it was, in the shadow of the Hills, though the evening fires were small again, and there was no more singing. The hunting-beasts went out every day, and returned laden with a far wider variety of wildlife than the desert had offered. Harry learned that Narknon hunted alone, and was famous for permitting no other beast near her; she occasionally made friends with a human being, but she was very choosy about such friendships. Harry felt flattered. As the days passed, lean faces and flanks grew a bit plumper on men and beasts; but Narknon still begged for her porridge.

Mathin came for Harry after breakfast each morning. By the end of the third day she was speaking in sentences, simple, painful, and ungrammatical ones; but she found that certain Hill words were creeping into her Homelander vocabulary and staying there; and the few people besides Mathin she tried to speak to stopped to listen to her and to answer. She was no longer invisible, and that was the best of all.

She was fascinated by the specialties of the language she was learning; there were, for example, a number of kinds of tent. The king's great tent, with its internal grove of poles to hold it up, was called a zotar, the only one in this traveling camp. The smaller tents, where most of the people were housed, were called the barkash; the stable tents were pituin. Then there were several terms she didn't have quite straightened out yet that referred to how the thing was made, how many corners it had, made of what material, and so on. A dalgut was a cheap, poorly made tent; there were no dalguti in the king's camp, and to refer to another man's tent as a dalgut, if it wasn't one, was a profound insult.

She woke up earlier than usual on the morning of the fourth day of Corlath's absence, and, despite Narknon's protests, went outside to stare at the eastern greyness that heralded the swift desert dawn. She heard the desert lark's song, a little speckled brown bird the Hillfolk called a britti. The camp was astir already; several of the men whose names she could recall hailed her as Hari-sol. She'd heard this the last two days and wondered if it was a term of respect, of definition, or a way of spinning out a name she could see did not meet with unqualified approval.

As the early light flowed down into the mountains, she saw the trees and rocky ridges pick themselves out of the shadows and assert their individuality. She didn't notice till they rode into the center of camp that Corlath and three companions had returned. She turned around on her heel as she heard his voice, but her attention was distracted at once. Corlath still sat on Fireheart, who stood as still as a great red rock; and beside them stood another horse, riderless, as tall as Fireheart and a stallion like him, but golden, a chestnut as gold as the kicking flames of the bonfire three nights ago. She walked toward them silently, her bare feet in the still-cool sandy earth, but the chestnut horse turned his head and looked at her. She heard Corlath murmur something as she drew near, and at his words the horse took a step toward her, and lowered his head till she was looking into a calm, mahogany-brown eye. She raised her hands and cupped them, and she felt his warm breath, and his soft nose touched her fingers.

Corlath spoke aloud and a man of the horse appeared at once, carrying a saddle, golden leather only a few shades darker than the horse, with red stitching; and he set it delicately on the chestnut's back. The horse ignored him, not even shuddering his golden skin as the saddle settled into place; but he lipped Harry's fingers, and leaned his cheek against her shoulder.

"I brought him back for you," Corlath said, and she raised her eyes and found his resting on her; "I seem to have chosen well," he said, and he smiled.

The brown-clad man had girthed up the saddle and stood watching her expectantly. "Come, we will try his paces," said Corlath. It wasn't till she was tossed into the saddle and felt the great horse quiver under her as her legs found their places against the long supple flaps of the saddle that she realized that Corlath had spoken to her in the Hill tongue.

It was a glorious morning; more glorious than any she'd known since she had awakened as a disheveled huddle on the lee side of a scraggy little dunemore glorious than any since she'd set sail from the Homeland. "His name is Sungold," Corlath told her, and this he translated. "Sungold," she said. "Tsornin."

Corlath sent Fireheart forward at a long-striding trot, as though they would leap into the dawn; and as soon as her legs closed against the big chestnut's sides he surged forward to follow. She was, for the first few minutes, fearful of her own lack of skill, and of the strength of the big horse; but she found that they understood each other. She felt half grateful, half ashamed, of the time and patience the good Red Wind had spent on her; and at the same time she felt almost uneasy that it was too simple, that she understood too readily. But she was too caught up in the beauty of it to wish to doubt it long. If she thought of it at all, she drove it out of her head at once: didn't she deserve something for all her bruises, of both body and spirit, over the last weeks? She could think of nothing better than the feel of Sungold's mane as it washed over her hands.

When the sun was almost overhead, and its rays were dazzling when they reflected off Tsornin's bright neck, and the emptiness of her stomach was beginning to force itself into her attention despite everything, Corlath said, "Enough," and wheeled Fireheart back toward camp. Sungold waited for her signal, and she stood a moment, first looking at Fireheart's quarters jogging away from them and then up, where a brown hawk swung on an updraft, high overhead. Just to test the magnificence of her power, she kneed her horse a half-turn to the left and shot him off at a gallop; and just as he reached the peak of his speed she brought him back to a gentle canter, circled once, and sent him after Corlath, who had paused and was watching her antics. They stopped beside Fireheart and his rider, and the two stallions nodded to each other. Harry expected a lecture on frivolity, or something, and lowered her eyes to Sungold's withers; but Corlath said nothing. She looked up again as she heard the ring of metal on metal; Corlath had drawn the sword that hung at his side.

She watched, surprised, as he held it, point up, and the sun glared fiercely on it. She remembered that this morning, as he rode into camp, he had been carrying it, the first time she had ever seen him armed with anything more ostentatiously threatening than a long dagger, or the slim short knives all the Hillfolk carried to cut up their food and perform any minor tasks where something with a sharp point was necessary. She'd forgotten about it as soon as she'd noticed Sungold; and now that she saw it more closely she decided she didn't much like the look of it. This was obviously a war-sword; it was much too unwieldy for anything but serious hacking and hewing.

Corlath took the deadly thing in his left hand and handed it to her, hilt first. "Take it." She grasped it, warily, and when Corlath let go it did not knock her out of the saddle, but it tried. "Lift it," he said. And as she tried, "You've never held a sword."

"No." She lifted it as if it were a snake that would crawl up its own tail and bite her. Corlath edged Isfahel out of harm's way as her arm and shoulder experimented with this new thing. She swung it in a short half-arc, and Tsornin came suddenly to life, and bounced forward on his hind legs, neighing. "Ouch," she said, as he came to earth again; his ears were tipped back toward her, and all his muscles were tense.

"Sungold's a war-horse," Corlath said mildly. "You're giving him ideas."

She turned to glower at him, and he rode up beside her and took the sword back. There was a gleam of humor in his eye as he returned her glower; and they turned back toward camp together. He said something that she didn't quite catch, and as she turned to him to ask him to repeat it, Fireheart leaped forward into a gallop that flattened out to full stretch at once. After a moment's shock she recognized the challenge, and Sungold bolted after them, and gained ground till her face was flicked by Fireheart's streaming tail, and then Sungold's nose drew even with Corlath's toe; and then they were sweeping into the camp, and the horses steadied down to a canter, and then a walk. Their nostrils showed red as they breathed, and Sungold turned away from the camp, asking for more; but Harry said, "I don't think so," and Sungold heaved a sigh and followed docilely at Fireheart's heels. It was only when she dismounted that she realized she was still barefoot. Corlath and Harry had breakfast together, on one square of the long table. Harry did not speak, except to Narknon, who was inclined to be sulky; and Corlath's attention was for the men who came to speak with him, about the minor things that had gone wrong in his absence, and about messages they had received for him; and Harry understood much of what they said, and wondered if Corlath cared that it was no longer entirely safe to talk secrets around his Outlander. After they had eaten, a man of the household entered the zotar and handed the king a long thin bundle wrapped in linen. He bowed and retired; and Corlath shook the thing free of its covering and held up another sword. This one was appreciably smaller than the one he himself wore, but Harry still watched it with dislike. Corlath ran a quick hand over the scabbard with the linen cloth and then offered her, again, the hilt. She took it reluctantly, and rather than drawing it smoothly out, she backed up awkwardly, so that it rang free with a sullen clunk.

"You'll have to do better than that," said Corlath; and she was sure that he was amused.

"Why?" she said, anger beginning to uncoil itself somewhere deep inside her and make its way to the surface. "Why? What have swords and" she gulped, for she loved Sungold already"war-horses to do with me?"

He came a step or two closer to her as she stood with the point of the sword unhandily dug into the heaped carpets, and her arm out, as if to keep the undesired object as far from her as she could; and he looked, thoughtfully, into her eyes.

"It is because of what you have seen," he replied. "When you tasted the Water of Sight you saw a war-party coming to battle; I and all my Riders heard you cry out what you sawin the ancient tongue of our forebears here, the tongue that was spoken when Damar was one land, a great and green land, before"

Before my people came, she thought, but she was not going to say it aloud if he was not. "And several days past the entire camp saw the Lady Aerin come out of the fire to greet you, carrying the Blue Sword, Gonturan, with which she won back the Hero's Crown and defeated the armies of the North." He hesitated. "Aerin had not been seen since my father's father's day; and yet she has always looked after her country well, since she first rode out to face the Black Dragon, before Gonturan had come to her hand; and our dearest legends speak of her."

The bright bubbles of anger in her eyes burst and disappeared. She bowed her head; then bent her elbow and brought the sword under her eyes. The long wicked edge of it winked at her. It had a silver handle, nearly plain, with a few faint graceful scrolls on the underpart of the hand-guard, where it met the hilt. She stared at them unhappily: the sweep and arch of them seemed to her a more likely ornament for a church pew than a sword. Her wrist began to quiver with the unaccustomed weight.

He said, as gently as he could: "Here, anyone who is granted the Gift of Seeing is given to what they see; it is thought to be a guide, a direction, a help sent by the gods; or by the heroes of our past greatness, who still care what happens to their children's children. Children now sip the Water when they meet their tenth birthday, in the hope that they may be told what apprenticeship they are most fit for. Many see nothing, for, as I have told you, the Water does not work for many people; and then the simpler considerations of parentage and availability are allowed to decide. But all our priests were given Sight of the priesthood on their tenth birthday; each of my Riders saw himself carrying a swordmany of them will only choose a war-horse the color they saw themselves riding in the vision."

She broke out frantically: "But this is nothing to do with me. I am an Outlander, not of your Hills at all. If it is war I have seen, my people have feared war too; it is not strange that even I should feel it. This thing you have done to me, I" She choked off, for she had heard herself speaking: Outlander she had instinctively said, and she was speaking swiftly in the Hill tongue that she had onlyor so she had thought and now desperately was not surebegun to learn, haltingly, a few days before. She heaved a breath that had she been a year younger might have been a sob; but it was not. She stood, trembling, holding the sword, waiting for it to speak to her too, to tell her her awful destiny.

Corlath took her right wrist in his hand and then turned her around till she was standing next to him; he rearranged her fingers on the hilt, curled her thumb under it for her. She felt at once, wearily, that this was the way it was supposed to be held; and wondered if swordsmanship, like riding a war-stallion and speaking a language strange to her, was suddenly going to awaken in her blood like a disease.

"Lady," Corlath said over her shoulder, his right hand still supporting her wrist, "I know it is difficult for you. Perhaps this may make it easier: you have given my people hope by your presence, by your visions, by your very foreignness. It is the first hope we have had since we knew that the Northerners would come. We need that hope, my lady. It is so nearly the only thing we have." She pulled away from his hand on her arm so that she could turn and look up at him. She stared, appalled, and he looked gently down at her. A frown collected slowly on his brow. "What is it they call youHari? That cannot be your name."

She grimaced. "No. it's a" She did not know the Hill term for nickname and her mysterious sixth sense didn't seem to want to provide it for her. "It's a short-name. I don't like my real name."

"And it is?"

There was a pause. "Angharad," she said finally. He turned this over on his tongue a few times. "We will call you Harimad," he said. "Harimad-sol, for you are of high rank. Few See so clearly that others too may see, as all saw Aerin-sol come out of the fire.

"Try to have faith: even in these things that are strange to you. My kelar told me to bring you here, and your kelar speaks through you now. Lady, I know no more of your fate than that; but I believe, as do all the people in this camp, that your fate is important to us. And Aerin, who has long been the friend of her people, has given you her protection." That does not make Aerin my friend, she thought sourly, but when she remembered the elder-sister grin Aerin had given her, she could not believe ill of her. And Corlath's kelar told him to bring me here. Oh dear. I suppose that explains something. Harimad. Mad Harry. I wish Aerin would stay long enough to talk to metell me what is going on. She looked up at him and tried to smile. It was a gallant effort; it was even almost a smile. But Corlath's gold-flecked brown eyes saw more than just the gallantry, and his heart went out to her; and he turned away from her and clapped his hands, and a man of the household brought the hot brown drink Harry had first tasted behind a scrubby small sand hill, barefoot and in her Homelander dressing-gown, and that she had learned since to call malak.

That evening Corlath and the Riders and Harimad-sol ate a great dinner of many dishes, and Harry made first acquaintance with the Hill mustard made of the jictal seeds, which burned out not only her mouth and tongue, but her throat and stomach lining; and the front of the zotar was rolled up, and outside much of the rest of the camp sat on rugs before small low tables and ate also, under the moon and the white stars. Harry began pulling nervously at her sleeves and twiddling the ends of her belt as the end of the meal approached; there was a tension hanging over the camp that she did not like, and she hoped that the tooled leather bag was not to put in an appearance tonight. It did not, but she suspected Corlath of eyeing her nervousness wryly.

The conversation went too quickly for her to catch all of itor perhaps her sixth sense had overstrained itself and was restingbut she understood that the purpose of the journey they had been on was to discover how well, or ill, prepared the many small mountain villages, north, south, and east of the great central desert, were for holding off Northerners; and how many horses, arms and warriors, supplies and supply transport, each could provide. It had not been a very cheerful journey, not least for the western excursion into Outlander territory, where a stubborn and pompous old man had refused to listen to the truth; but Corlath had expected what he found andshe thoughtsaw no use in being discouraged. They were near the end of their trek now: in the Hills before them, although still several days' journey hence, was Corlath's city, where his palace lay, and where what there was of a standing army was quartered. Harry rather thought, from the way they referred to it, that "the City" was the only city in Corlath's realm; his people were not much interested in building and maintaining and living in cities, beyond the king's own, which had the advantage of being thick with kelar. But the Hillfolk were an independent lot; they preferred to hold their own bits of land and work them, and neither cities nor positions in a regular army appealed to them.

As she heard the word often, Harry was beginning to understand better what the word kelar indicated. It was something like magic; a Gift was the specific manifestation of kelar in a particular human being. Kelar was also something like a charm or a sorcery that hung in the air in a few places in the Hills; and one of those places was the City, where certain things might happen and other things be forbidden to happen, in ways quite unlike the usual physical laws. When all else was lost, the Hillfolk could retreat to the City; if the Northerners took or laid waste to all else, a few might live still in the City, for in it was some of the strength of the Damar of old.

She began to speculate about the City, to look forward to seeing it. Around her the Riders and their king spoke of repairs to be made, and new forging to be done, and the best blacksmithsdhogosand leatherworkersparisiin the Hills. Narknon had her front half in Harry's lap, and was purring to rattle the bones of them both.

It was very late. The Riders stared at their empty cups, the men outside stared at the stars; Harry was falling asleep, still listening to the hum in the air, and still unable to account for it.

"Mathin," said Corlath, and Harry twitched and woke up. Mathin looked up the table, and his eyes rested briefly on the golden-haired girl in the maroon robe before he looked at his king. "The laprun trials will be held six weeks from tomorrow on the plains before the City." Mathin knew this perfectly well, but out of the corner of his eye he saw the girl look up at Corlath, puzzled, and then glance down the table at her patient language teacher. "Harimad-sol will ride in them."

Mathin nodded; he had expected this, and, having taken some measure of Hari in the days past, was not displeased. Harimad-sol herself swallowed rather sharply, but found she wasn't too surprised either; and after a day of war-horses and swords could guess the sort of thing the trials (what was a laprun?) would prove to be. Poor Mathin. She wondered what he thought of the idea-six weeks to knock the rawest of beginners, even if kelar-guided, into shapeand resigned herself to not knowing.

"We will ride out two hours before dawn tomorrow," said Mathin.

Six weeks, thought Harry. How much can you learn in six weeks, even if Aerin is keeping an eye on you?


CHAPTER FIVE | The Blue Sword | CHAPTER SEVEN