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Kelyn ducked her head against the wind that whipped through the Keturan foothills, unchecked by anything other than a few thin stands of trees fighting to sink roots into the rocky soil. It was a familiar scourge, this wind, and served to dry her tear-touched cheeks, leaving them tight over her bones and tingling with cold. She closed her arms more securely around her load of precious wood. She thought she'd been readyshe'd certainly seen it comingbut the calm practicality that led her to gather the first of the pyre wood three years before Lytha's death had now utterly vanished.
Kelyn looked back on the summer three years earlier, the summer when the changes started, and shook her head, a minute gesture lost in the hair that lashed around her face, try as she might to keep it tied back. Oh, the summer hunting group had adapted to their fitful advance into maturity, had held together even as they grew to be different. Aside from the loss of Mungo last year, they'd remained successful and safe, and had even taken a handful of younger siblings on their easier forays. And Kelyn had continued to deal with her own clumsiness, overcoming it by hours of practice and strength of concentration, until even Mungo, right before he died, ceased to tease her about those moments she tripped over ruts no one else could even see.
Those changes meant nothing next to this. Up until now her life had revolved around this thin-soiled meager subsistence farm, set on the rocky, deeply rolling hills below the rugged peaks of Ketura. Her mountain summers were for gathering meat and plants to tide herself and Lytha over the winter, although the year had long passed since she had become capable of surviving on her own. The winters were for making the round, rock-walled home more comfortable to live inand lately something for Kelyn to tend her mother through. And what was this farm without her mother to center it? Was it even a farm anymore? Was it still her home?
Lytha had come here a lifetime agoKelyn's lifetimeto birth her daughter and raise Kelyn in her father's land. A land, she'd said, more suited to raising the daughter of the Wolverinelegendary even at that young ageand for keeping Kelyn too busy with life and survival to get into the trouble for which any child of the Wolverine would no doubt have a knack. Trouble from which no one parent alone could keep her. Lytha had never expressed any expectation that Thainn would or should consider staying with her. She never seemed to mind that the burden of raising that daughter had fallen on her shoulders alone.
The early spring wind, cold and biting, lifted the edge of the fur-lined cloak Kelyn wore, and she cursed her laziness for not having slipped her arms through the looping inner straps that would have kept it closed securely around her despite the wood she carried. She trotted quickly to the emerging shape of the pyrebehind the house, where the prevailing wind would carry the flames away from the thatched roof.
Kelyn dumped the wood beneath the pyre frame, ignoring the two long-dried limbs that bounced off her foot, and hastily gathered the cloak around herself, warming her cold fingers in the luxurious fur of the snow panther she'd slain in the highest peaks of the mountains. Luxury, that is, if she'd tried to buy it in even the rudest of marketplaces, days of travel from here. Here, it was another of the furred skins mounded around the sleeping pallets, all results of Kelyn's skill with staff and knife and sling. This one, with the supple fur of the snow panther at her shoulders and waist supplemented by two rock cat skins to protect her to mid-calf, was just more striking than most.
Despite the cloak's warmth, when the next gust of wind hit, Kelyn stiffened. Wind carried noise along with cold, and now it brought her the faintest of whoops, the louder neighing cry of a horse calling to its companions. Kelyn whirled into the wind, squinting into the tears it brought to her eyes while the cloak flapped fiercely against her grip. There, just cresting the top of the barren hill opposite the farm. Riders. Three of them, hovering on the ridge itself, their horses plunging against their bits and calling out to the fourth, whose rider galloped it foolishly down the side of the hill. Kelyn sent a curse at him, wishing him the fall he deserved, but the sturdy little horse plunged onward, and after a moment, the other three followed.
Strangers. Ketura! They weren't here to lay offerings on her mother's pyre. Kelyn hesitated only a moment, just long enough to pick out the wavering shape of a raised sword. Looters, then, reiversvultures who had detected the scent of death from afarfor what little this area's inhabitants owned, they clung to far too fiercely to encourage casual raids. The looters' quick presence stunk of magic.
Kelyn ran for the roundhouse, shoving aside the flapping leather doorway and leaping down three steps to the dirt floor in the same motion. She had to move fast, choose what to save. She flung her satchel on top of the rough wood chest that held foodstuffs and supplies, and grappled with the heavy chest a moment before she got enough of a grip to heave it up against the dirt-and-rock wall of the house. She snatched a handful of furs and tossed them leather-side-up over the chest, and, with a loud grunt of effort, hoisted their largest water crock, a container almost the size of her torso, high up into the air. It crashed down to soak the leathers, chest and all.
Pounding hoofbeats marked time for her, growing louder, growing closer. Kelyn moved to the strong fire, hand hovering until she spotted and snatched the coolest end of a burning limb, and then dashed outside with it, running around the house to light the entire lower edge of the thatch without even sparing a glance at the waiting pyre. A signal fire was her only chance to call for help, and she'd be damned to a Silogan hell-cave before she used her mother's glory, her pyre. A glance at the galloping, whooping looters told her she didn't have the time, but she ran back inside the house anyway, scooped up her mother's bundled, stiffening body, and carried it as carefully as possible to the pyrethough she had no time to get Lytha up on the frame, oh no, the looters were circling the house now, looping around the pyre and plowing through the dried stalks from last summer's garden. Kelyn made one last, desperate dive for the house as the looters mocked her, circling closer, mimicking the fear they were sure they saw.
They saw wrong.
As her hand closed around the staff leaning up beside the doorway, her concentrated frown turned into a fierce grin. Tugging the tie that released her cloak, she kicked it away so she couldn't trip in it, and turned to face the looterswho by now were whooping with anticipation as well, for the first time able to see that the tall, lithe young body before them offered as much as the house.
Then they saw the look on her face. For a moment, in silent accord, they halted, cruelly pulling up their horses to regard her. The wind died. Behind her, Kelyn felt the feeble heat of the strengthening flames eating at her house; before her, the four men stared at her, not sure what to do with her.
Abruptly, they grinned at one another, pleased with their anticipated take. Pointing at her defiant stance, they broke into laughter. Kelyn stood her ground, vowing to ram her staff so far down each of those throats she'd see it come out the other end. As the laughter died into silence and the only sound was the snorting of the horses and the building crackle of flame, the men exchanged a glance, their unbound hair whipping in the sudden return of the wind.
Finally one man dismounted, throwing the reins to his companion. Sword out but at his side, he walked toward her, extending his hand in a peremptory gesture, waiting for acquiescence.
Kelyn lifted a lip in silent disdain, as eloquent as any poet.
The man stopped short, surprise quickly turning to annoyancebut not as fast as Kelyn went from defender to attacker. Shifting her hands down on the staff, pivoting around one foot, she loosed her hunt cry into the midst of them, bringing the staff around to slam into the man's arm at the elbow. She couldn't hear the cracking bone above her own cry, but white bone ripped clear of the shirt. As the man screamed she reversed her direction and grip and felt the solid blow of the other end of the staff just below his ear.
His body wobbled, then fell. Kelyn leapt for his sword, unfamiliar as it was, and crouched over him, staff in one hand and his sword in the other, her back still to the flaming house.
"Barbarian bitch!" one of the men shouted at her, the first intelligible words from any of them and heavily accented at that. She spat at him, and they didn't take it any more lightly just because the wind caught it and the spittle landed on her chin. They attacked, rushing her one after the other, trying to draw her off balance with the charging intimidation of barely controlled horses. Her staff became her shield, wielded one-handed and as often as not almost torn from her grip. The sword, badly balanced and as odd to her hand as a one-ended staff, nonetheless managed to cut flesh, scoring on the leg of one man, wounding the horse of another.
But all too soon she was panting, tiring, and becoming aware that this was what their game was all aboutwearing her down until she could no longer lift sword or staff to defend herself. An ill-judged dodge brought her into the shoulder of one of the horses, and Kelyn tumbled, unable to hold onto the staff. By the time she was back on her knees, the next horse was rushing her, its rider wearing a grin of delight on his dirty face.
The horse was huge in her vision, its chest as wide as the horizon itself, its sharp hooves reaching for herKelyn flung herself to the side, under the reaching sword of the rider, and used the strength of a two-handed grip to plow her borrowed blade right through the animal's belly, closing her eyes against the warm spray of blood.
The horse grunted, surprise more than pain, its legs giving way with the shock, and its rider tumbled off with his momentum. Not even fully on her feet, Kelyn lunged for him as he rolled, landing on him with her knees and bringing the sword hilt down into his face just as he could see she was right there, his eyes widening with realization far too late to do him any good.
Kelyn staggered to her feet to find the others pulling up a distance away, watching with shock of their own, their confident expressions turning into something more grim but just as determined. For the first time she was aware of the ache in her arms, the bruises and cuts she had sustained, and the fact that her tunic was torn and pulled most of the way down her shoulder. Behind her, the roof had flared into its brightest flame and was starting to gutter, the wind turning into more hindrance than help. If no one had seen the smoke by now, they weren't going to.
One of the riders seemed to notice Lytha's body for the first time. He took his horse in a prancing, jerky trot around the pyre, and looked back at Kelyn with a leer. Kelyn stiffened. Would he? The beast would even consider desecrating her mother's body?
Think, Kelyn! He just wanted to get her away from the house, get her to leave herself open on all sides so they could both attack at once.
And was she supposed to cringe there and watch this filth touch her mother? The other rider laughed as his companion dismounted, watching for Kelyn's reaction to her choice.
That Lytha herself would have certainly wished her body trampled and defiled before her daughter submitted to filth such as this was both clear as sunlight and totally irrelevant.
Kelyn's hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist around the sword hilt. She would not be helpless without it. Her staff was by her feet, and her knife still in her belt. She was an accurate throw, and could hit either man where they stoodexcept that a thrown weapon was a lost weapon. Clenching her teeth, Kelyn held the sword straight out from her side and dropped it, forcing her fingers to uncurl from the blood-sticky grip. Giving up. Orat least presenting a fair semblance of a young woman giving up.
They laughed, all confidence again despite their downed comrades. Head down, hands out, Kelyn moved away from the house a few steps. The dismounted looter looked at her, his laugh turning nasty. And then he reached for Lytha's wrapped body.
"No!" Kelyn's outraged cry brought nothing but further laughter, and her decision was made. Out came the knife, whipping through the air to bury itself in the man's lower back, while Kelyn herself twisted and dove for her staff, knowing she had the time to grab it but not the time to bring it upsudden hoofbeats did nothing but confirm the horseman's charge and the weary determination of her effort to be inhumanly quick
And then Kelyn realized that the hoofbeats were too far away to be the man before her, and that they came inconsistently against the gusting wind. Rolling to her feet, she discovered a new player galloping in, coming from the direction opposite the looters, resolving into two figures clinging tightly to a sturdy, short-legged plow pony. Another blink of time and she thrust her staff defiantly into the air, renewing her hunt cry in a greeting to Iden and the still stocky, ever stronger form of Frykla behind him. They matched her cry with their own, and Frykla brandished a short sword as the pony swerved around the pyre and headed straight for the remaining horseman, making the odds a sudden three against one.
He was no fool. He turned the horse on its haunches and spanked it with the flat of his sword, pushing the astonished animal into a run for his life. The horse barely made it up to speed before the running animals merged into one awkward shape. When they separated, Frykla was on the ground with the looter jerking out the last of his life beneath her.
That was it, then. Kelyn closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. Her knees were wobbly, her hands trembled, and her stomach roiled at the thought of these first human lives on her hands. But with another deep breath, she decided that perhaps she trembled because of the cold bite of the wind against her battle-sweaty skin, and that her knees were simply tired. She turned to find her cloakand tangled her feet together, landing on the ground with a tired grunt.
She didn't bother to curse. From here she could see the cloak and she merely crawled to it, fastening it securely before climbing to her feet and trying to tug her tunic into some semblance of its former shape. Wiping blood and sweat off her face, she strode to the looter who was twitching next to Lytha, jerked the knife out of his lower back, and matter-of-factly drew it across his throat. She cleaned the blade on his clothes and sheathed it before dragging the body away from Lytha, dumping it well behind the house.
Of the other two, one man was already dead, and the other, his nose smashed beyond recognition along with one of his eyes, was just groping his way to his hands and knees. Kelyn kicked him down again and ran her hands over his body, wondering how anyone who wore such greasy leathers and who smelled so bad could think to call her barbarian. She relieved him of his knife and several flat weapons with a number of oddly shaped blades. She was turning one over in her hand when Iden and Frykla trotted back up, dropping off the pony to survey the ruins of her house with uniformly grim expressions.
"He lives?" Frykla asked, eyeing the man with distaste.
"For now," Kelyn told her, experimentally tossing one of the strange blades. "I'm of a mind to tie him to one of those horses and whip them on their way to the border." Let others of his ilk see what happened when they crossed the border with mayhem in mind.
Iden nodded once, satisfied with the idea. The looters' horses stood around in uncertain poses, not quite willing to leave each other or Iden's pony. Even the one who had been chased off with the last bandit was slowly meandering back toward the house. "I don't understand," Iden said, gradually taking in the sight of her mother's prepared body. "We all knew Lytha was ill, but not . . . we would not have left you alone in your time of mourning. That these men knew you were in a vulnerable time"
"Maybe this has something to do with it," Frykla said, lifting her hand. A sharp, black-dyed bone needle, far too thick for sewing, dangled from a long thong, glittering impossibly.
"Sorcery." Iden made a face.
Kelyn reached for the needle. "I thought I smelled magic in this." She held it by its thong, careful not to touch the bone itself. "Rika might know what it is."
"Destroy it," Iden grunted, and Frykla nodded quick agreement.
"How? Crush it and release Ketura knows what into my body?" Kelyn leaned over the man beside them, who had managed to crawl several feet away, as if he'd hoped they wouldn't notice. "Save your effort," she whispered harshly into his ear. "You'll need it, soon enough." She jerked a pouch from his belt and dumped its meager contents on top of him, replacing them with the needle and stuffing it all into one of her cloak pockets.
Frykla moved to what had been the door to the house and was now a gaping hole in the circular rock wall. "What of your house?"
Kelyn joined her there. Burning thatch had fallen inside to ignite anything that was flammable; the air was redolent with the lingering odor of burnt fur and charred leather, while cinders still swirled aimlessly in the currents that the wind, gusting over the rock walls above, created on the floor of the dug-out circle. Against the wall, a steaming leather mound marred by random scorch marks was the only object not made of rock that seemed reasonably whole.
Ignoring the cinders, Kelyn hopped down into the room and strode over to the chest, throwing off the furs to find the satchel and chest untouched. Iden and Frykla made no comment as she rummaged through the contents of the chest, adding this to her satchel, putting that aside. When she stood, the satchel was full. She rolled up the still-damp furs and tied them that way, then tossed the bundle over the rock wall. "Take whatever's left for yourselves," she told her friends.
"But, Kelyn" Frykla started, glancing up at Iden.
"Come stay with us," Iden told her. "We'll build you a new house when the ground thaws enough for the digging."
Kelyn looked at them, imagining herself the third person in the small home of the newly handfasted couple, and shook her head.
"Then talk to Gwawl. You know he wants you. And he's started his own home, not far from ours"
Kelyn shook her head again, more firmly this time. "I'll take no one who wants me out of pity," she said. "And . . . I've a craving lately . . . To see things. To know more than this land can teach me." She couldn't leave while her mother had still lived, and even then, the house had exerted a pull on her. Now both were gone. She looked at Frykla and Iden and shrugged. "The gods seem to have given me a shove."
"All gods should be like Ketura, and stay out of our business," Iden muttered. "Gwawl has no pity in him, Kelyn, you should know that. Nor do you need it."
"Kelyn" Frykla started again, and again her protest died in her throat, this time at Kelyn's expression.
"Come," Kelyn said. "Lytha waits. Do me the honor of standing by while I light the pyre."
"Move, you son of a donkey," Kelyn muttered hours later, tugging on the reins of the horse she led. It didn't know her, it didn't trust her, and as far as she could tell, it was only half tame, anyway. She began to have second thoughts about gifting it to Rika, but she supposed if anyone could handle the beast, it would be Auntie Rika. Rika, nobody's relative yet everybody's aunt. She had midwifed Kelyn, treated Lytha's illness, and provided everyone in the area with charms and wards for years beyond memory, although she only rarely dealt in curses.
Her attention on the horse, Kelyn stumbled over something in the rough path and nearly fell, losing her satchel and staff in the process. At least neither had fallen into any of the numerous muddy patches around her. The path wound along the hillsides, over rocky outcrops and through thin patches of lower Ketura's stunted little hardwoods and stocky pines; the track was never any good at this time of year, and yesterday's sleety rain hadn't helped any. Kelyn scooped the satchel up without pausing, and the horse chose that moment to stop short, snorting suspiciously and almost jerking Kelyn's arm out of its socket.
Kelyn closed her eyes and gathered the shredded remnants of her temper around her. When she opened them, it was to glare at the horse. "You could be drying in someone's smokehouse right now," she told it in a dangerously quiet voice. "It could still happen."
"Now, now, child," came a voice from the small stand of trees ahead of her. Kelyn started, even though she'd already recognized Rika's warm, creaky voice. And she berated herself for being taken by surprise, even though no one ever saw Rika before Rika was ready to be seen.
"Aunt," Kelyn said. "I was coming to see you." She hesitated, then blurted out all at once, "Ithis horseLytha's dead"
"Yes, I know," Rika said, her voice tinged with sadness. She stepped out of the trees, an elderly woman barely bowed, like a fine straight piece of wood made only stronger with age. Her hair was long and wild, and often looked about to spring free from the thong that held it. But her impossibly wrinkled skin, as usual, nearly masked her expression. She murmured again, "I know."
Kelyn thought about asking just which of those things the old woman had known, and thought better of it. "I brought you this horse. I thought you might be able to do something with it. If not," she said, and shrugged, "you can always fatten it up over the summer."
Rika held her hand out. "You've had a long day, I see. Give me the horse, and we'll go sup together."
Kelyn hesitated, thinking how much harder it would be for the old woman to lead this fractious creature along the muddy path. Then again, she'd never seen Rika trip over her own feet. She handed over the reins.
"There, there," Rika murmured to the horse. "Wouldn't you like to be in a nice little shed, with plenty of hay for your supper?"
Rema's Blessing, the creature's ears perked forward and then actually drooped in contentment! Kelyn kept her disgruntled noises to herself, and wondered again that if Rika could accomplish such things, surely it wouldn't be too much to ask for a little charm against clumsiness. . . .
She followed the now-placid horse to its new home, keeping a cautious distance from its heels all the same.
Rika put the horse in the tiny outbuilding that held her goat and had Kelyn carry its gear into her roundhouse, where the oil lamp would offer better light than growing dusk. After a great deal of tsking at the dry, unmaintained leather, she allowed that it would fix up to be a nice kit, and she would likely get a good price for it if she decided to butcher the horse for winter. Then, while Kelyn sat in numb fatigue, she fried sweet root and flour cakes at the fire, slathered butter on them, and handed Kelyn a share any growing boy would be challenged to put away.
Kelyn did it handily, without pausing. She chased it down with goat milk and sat, glaze-eyed, before Rika's fire. Rika finished her own meal in a more refined fashion, seated on the rock bench that curved against the wall of the house, then pulled her short milking stool up next to Kelyn and sat. "Thainn is a loner; he was always so. He trusted no one, not truly. But he touched Lytha, and she, I think, touched him, for she was a remarkable woman. I knew so when I first saw her, so far from home, carrying little more than your staff, a sturdy knife, and a tinder bag with only the remnants of an old mouse nest. And coins. A handful of gold, traded"
"For the ruby Thainn gave her." Kelyn didn't bother to hide her flat disinterest, even in the startling news that Rika had known her father. Everyone knew how she felt about Thainn.
"Her journey here alone made for a tale as stirring as any of Thainn's," Rika said gently. "You gave her a proper send-off?"
Kelyn blinked. "Yes," she said. "A huge pyre. Iden and Frykla were there."
"She would have been proud of how you handled yourself this afternoon," Rika said. At Kelyn's sharp look, she chuckled and said, "No, child, the details are your own. I felt the magic and scryed out the men just as they reached you. And now I see you here with one of their horses. I can come to my own conclusions from there."
Kelyn thought there was probably more to it, but her attention was elsewhere, and abruptly so. She reached for her set-aside cloak and pawed through it, looking for the right pocket. Ahthere! She thrust the newly acquired pouch and its contents at Rika. "What can you tell me of this?"
Rika upended the pouch and shook the bone needle into her hand, heedless of Kelyn's wince. "It can't hurt me, child," she said. "Nor you." Kelyn gave her a skeptical eye, but Rika ignored that, too. "Here is the magic I felt. It's a nasty thing, not something I would deal with."
"They rode upon us before anyone else knew of Lytha's death," Kelyn said, and then amended that to, "Anyone else besides you, I suppose."
"Yes, I felt her pass," Rika murmured. "After working so long together to fight her malaise, we had some small connection. As I have with you, and every other child I have helped to birth." She held the needle up, turning it to display the glitter of its cold beauty in the firelight. "Think of it as a kind of vulture, Kelyn. Something that points to folk who are in mourning and vulnerable, or who live alone and in death have left their treasures, whatever they might be, unguarded and free for the taking."
Kelyn snorted. "And what would they have found at our home that would be worth even the bother of riding out there?"
Rika smiled at her. "You alone would be worth twice whatever distance they rode," she said, her wrinkle-enclosed eyes filled with affection. When Kelyn snorted at that, too, Rika merely said, "Your cloak, then. Used as the lining for luxuriously fine cloth, it would fetch much more than you imagine at market."
Kelyn had nothing to say to that. She thought the cloak meant much more to her, who had faced and slain the creature, than it would mean to someone who had the money to buy it. But then, she was not one of the city dwellers, who were, from what little she had seen, bent on cluttering their lives with objects. She had what she needed to live, and she wanted nothing else.
"Shall I destroy it for you?" Rika said, and nodded at the needle.
Kelyn shook her head, though she could not have said why. What she wanted to say she suddenly found awkward in her mouth, and she wished that, of all things, this would be one of those things that old Auntie Rika knew before she ought. But then, maybe some things were meant to be said, though the words might have been more carefully chosen than those she blurted out. "I'm leaving."
Rika's eyes might have widened a little, but it was brief and looked not at all like surprise. "Perhaps it is time."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Kelyn scowled at her, forgetting for an instant the respect and awe this woman commanded in her.
"It means that you are alone in the world, and it is time to find your self."
That brought nothing but another frown. "I know who I am."
Rika turned brusque. "Like everyone else, you think you do." She handed the needle back to Kelyn. "Let this be your guide. Follow it to your self, and to your father. When you find your father, you will find you."
So shocked that she could not do so much as reach out for the spelled needle, Kelyn found herself staring opened-mouthed. "My father," she sputtered finally. "I need nothing from him! He's nothing but a" cocker! "a witless warrior!"
"I don't recall your mother ever speaking such about him," Rika said, and there was something in her voice that shamed Kelyn. She looked steadfastly at her own feet, at the ends of those too-long crossed legs, her hands curled in her lap. Finally, Rika leaned over and gently dropped the needle into Kelyn's grasp. "Stay the night here, child. And in the morning, go looking for your self. Your path will end at your father."
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|Copyright:||© 2000 by Doranna Durgin|