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The Unknown Quest

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The Horns of Elfland

Book One:

The Unknown Quest

Mark Ash

Shakespir Edition

Copyright 2017 Mark Ash

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

All characters in The Horns of Elfland are the creation of the author, with one exception (who is here with his express permission!) Any resemblance to any real persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Blow, Bugle, Blow

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They fade on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Author’s Comments

A Taste of Book Two: The Unnamed Blade

PROLOGUE

For a long while the darkness had been absolute. The gradual paling into charcoal grey was so slow as to be almost imperceptible.

The silence slowly melted into less-than-silence; it was some time before Mishka became aware of a sound like a gentle breeze – a breeze that was rhythmical, regular. It was slightly longer still before he recognised it as the sound of something – something very big – breathing.

The faint light that diluted the darkness seemed to have no particular source – it was simply present. In the absence of real shadows, the deep shadow at the far side of the huge stone vault of the cavern, some fifty feet from where Mishka sat, began to assume some significance.

Mishka stayed very still. He had chosen this deepest, darkest spot in the cave system in which to hide, secure in the knowledge that nothing and no-one would be here. The realisation that something was sharing the cave with him crept slowly over him like a chill prickling on his skin.

He stretched four of his five unfeelable senses to their limits.

The deeper shadow over there in the darkness was too indistinct to be given a shape – it was simply a deeper shadow with the vaguest of outlines, a vast bulk of blackness.

The breathing was slow – very slow. The lungs must be huge to contain that volume of air, thought Mishka, listening to that slow rhythm.

He closed his eyes and flared his nostrils, scenting – and tasting – the air of the cave. Mingled through the old, clean, neutral smell of the rock and the dust was a faint musky smell – somewhat reptilian in character. In a subtler way, it was reminiscent of the great snake-caves near Nahrsalk.

At the thought of Nahrsalk, Mishka trembled. Grief struck deeply through him at the loss of a mentor, a friend, a soulmate whom he had thought could never be lost. His fingers rested on the hilt of the sword, caressing the three black stones embedded there. The sword was silent now, its wild music stilled. He could have awoken the music again, had he wished – but to do so would cause more pain than was bearable. The Bondmaker could not forge a bond across the abyss of death.

Mishka hesitated before using his sense of touch. It was too closely akin to the feelable sense of Awareness – and he didn’t know whether the great being on the far side of the cavern was possessed of the sense of Awareness itself.

Awareness would allow no anonymity. Mishka rested his fingertips on the floor of the cave, picking up vibrations. The heartbeat of the great creature was slow. One beat to every six of his own, as near as made no matter. Mishka took a deep, slow breath and opened his mind, stretching Awareness tentatively outwards.

The mindmusic of the great being was more closely akin to his own than he had expected – but echoing across vaster reaches of time than even he could fathom. And it answered that other question, too. That being certainly possessed Awareness – hugely so, in fact.

Do you know who I am? he allowed his mind to ask.

There was soft mental laughter.

Yes, Beastmaster, I know who you are.

There was a soft mental whisper of sound, and werelights sprang to life in the cavern, bringing weird colours to the stalactites hanging in the vast vaulted roof and the stalagmites growing like bizarre trees from the floor.

Mishka looked across at the great glowing lamps of eyes in the bronze-scaled vaguely packbeast-like head of the dragon.

I have been waiting for you, said the dragon.

How did you know I would come? asked Mishka.

Because I know who you are, said the dragon.

Why were you waiting? asked Mishka.

I knew you would bring the Bondmaker.

The dragon lifted its head, snaking its neck with a soft, slithering scale-against-scale sound. Mishka watched the ripple of muscle in its massive upper shoulders as it tensed the great wing muscles, quivering the gleaming leathery wing-skin.

The sword must lie safe, said the dragon.

I know. But I don’t know where.

No. But I do, said the dragon. The place was there before the sword was forged, waiting.

So how do I get there? asked Mishka.

I take you, replied the dragon. You have not asked who I am, little one.

No, said Mishka. I had not thought that you were real.

Just a tale told to Children, said the dragon with a soft laugh.

Something like that, agreed Mishka.

And was the tale told to you? asked the dragon.

Many tales, many times, many years ago. I believe you are Hlammaeth.

I am, said Hlammaeth. Come, little one. We have a sword to conceal.

CHAPTER ONE

The sun was just beginning to dispel the soft greyness of pre-dawn, backlighting the early mist with hints of pink and gold. Sleepy twitters from waking birds were gradually augmented until the full dawn chorus was filling the air.

Nemeth ducked under the tent flap, wiping the sole of his left foot hard on the grass as he came in. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand about going out barefoot in the morning,” he said to no-one in particular, “it’s treading on a snail.”

Jevann turned over, rubbing his fingers through his chestnut hair. “I don’t even like treading on snails with shoes on,” he replied sleepily, sitting up and glancing around the tent at twenty-plus still-sleeping Children half-buried under an assortment of furs and hides.

Nemeth gave him a steady look and raised one eyebrow, grinning. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a snail with shoes on, let alone trodden on one.”

“Idiot,” said Tarke affectionately, handing him a steaming mug and throwing her waist-length almost-black plait back over her left shoulder. “Did you go to look for Sherath, or just to admire the sunrise?”

“Both,” said Nemeth, sitting cross-legged next to her in one easy fluid movement. “He’s on his way back – could be a while, though.”

He didn’t sleep too well, Nemeth added strictly for Tarke’s Hearing.

I noticed. Painful dreams, said Tarke softly.

***

Sherath paused in his uphill climb to shift the weight of the alp-ox calf, easing it on his shoulders. He had gone out as much in search of solitude as of food, but at this point some company to share the burden would have been appreciated. … it’s the kind of morning Shiyeth would have loved, he found himself thinking. He switched the memory off with a soft coldness that buried it along with all the rest, and walked on again, aware that just because a twin was dead some three-hundred-odd years didn’t mean he was any the less missed. It was a while since memories of Shiyeth had intruded on his waking thoughts… probably something to do with last night’s dreams, he reflected.

He made another minor adjustment to the weight on his shoulders before striding out again up the mountainside path. The early morning breeze backed round capriciously, blowing tendrils of Sherath’s streaky ashy blond hair into his eyes as he walked.

It also brought him a soft, suppressed, pain-filled sound, as of an animal in desperation. He dragged his Awareness sharply out of his inner thoughts, a quick frown briefly furrowing his brow. Wallowing so much in memories that you miss something that obvious? he reprimanded himself, extending the Awareness out in the direction of the sound, and quickening his stride.

Animal, herbivore, large….. alp ox, his Awareness ran the identity across the surface of his mind quickly, and then qualified it with … female, in labour. A moment’s hesitation. She’s not going to be overly receptive if you approach her carrying a dead calf.

He grinned to himself, sighed, and put the dead calf down, dragging it under the cover of a bush. Not that that’s going to hide it from anything with a nose…. He approached the clearing cat-footedly quiet and from upwind, pausing in the cover of the trees.

The alp ox was lying with her back against a fallen tree, her head turned back along her flank, her coat dark with sweat, and the whites of her eyes showing. She was breathing rapidly and shallowly. As Sherath watched, she strained again, her legs stiffening and her eyes bulging with the effort. Sherath closed his eyes and ran Awareness through the animal, feeling for the calf.

Oh, wow. What a pickle. Head back, legs back, half-turned sideways. You have about as much chance of birthing that as you have of flying to the moon, he added, pulling a small nut-wood box from the breast pocket of his deerskin jacket and very carefully extracting a small thorn dart from it with a tweezer-like split twig. He inserted the thorn into the load-hole of the blow-pipe that hung on a leather thong around his neck, sighted on the soft skin of the animal’s exposed underbelly, brought the pipe up to his lips and blew the dart out sharply in one easy, practised movement. He was extracting a second and longer thorn from his box even as the ox’s eyes rolled upwards in their sockets and she went limp. He walked across the clearing, crouched by the ox, and ran the second thorn carefully into the muscle of her neck.

That ought to keep you asleep for a while, m’dear.

He shifted round to the rear of the ox, easing his hand and arm along her birth canal. Pretty dry. Birth sac not ruptured. The back half of his mind flashed an old, old memory of Kail the Healer birthing a mountain sheep while he himself looked on as a young Child.

The mechanics of birth are simple, Kail had commented. The channel through which the young animal is to be born has to be large enough for it to pass through. The flesh is elastic, so it’s the distance apart of the bones that is of prime importance here. To a certain extent the joints will open and stretch, but that’s a minor factor.

Secondly, the animal must be presented to the channel in a way in which it can pass through. For the larger animals, the optimum presentation is both forelegs and head to present in a straight line, with one foreleg slightly in advance of the other. Both hindlegs presenting is the second-best option. For the smaller animals, head first is the best, rear-end first the second-best.

Thirdly, the channel itself must be moist. If it is dry, it may tear.

Sherath allowed the old memory to fade away into the background, and gently eased his hand further in until he could feel the rubbery birth sac, stretched along the back of the unborn calf. His fingers could feel the dorsal spines of the vertebrae clearly through the sac, and the vaguer outline of ribs on either side. Awareness told him the calf was alive, but weak from hours of intermittent and inescapable pressure. He tried to find an area of birth sac that he could either pinch or twist, but the presentation of the calf left no fluid-filled hollows available within reach to help him. He paused for a moment, easing himself into a lying position to try and extend his reach, but still got no further ahead.

Hmm. Okay, you do the moving, he thought, and jabbed the calf’s curved back hard with two extended fingers. The calf squirmed to escape. Sherath jabbed it again, then pushed it in the direction of its squirm against the massive (and thankfully now flaccid) uterine muscle. Two more hard jabs and readjustments of the calf’s position, and then his fingers found the hollow between neck and shoulder. He took a pinch of the birth sac between his fingers, twisted it sharply and then pulled. For a moment the sac just stretched, then it tore, releasing a sudden flood of warm viscous fluid along Sherath’s arm.

The relief from that clinging sticky tightness was almost incredible, and Sherath realised with a grin that he was almost breathless. He felt a sudden rush of sympathy for the female ox.

The calf, feeling the sudden change in its environment, perked up and squirmed again – this time of its own volition – and Sherath grabbed a fold of skin on its neck, trying to keep it lying in at least something like the right direction.

It was several minutes hard effort to hook his fingers round the calf’s foreleg below the elbow and coax first its knee and then finally its hoof forwards; and even longer to do the same with the other foreleg, which had the full weight of the calf resting on it. The sweat was running down Sherath’s skin in trickles before he finally got both the calf’s forelegs into position, and, having achieved that, he withdrew his arm from the animal, flexing the muscles and working his fingers cautiously.

He sat back on his heels for a minute, breathing deeply and reflecting that the enforced rest would probably have done the mother ox almost as much good as anything else, before lying down again and starting the slow work of bringing the calf’s head forwards and into line with its forelegs. Once finished, he took hold of both tiny hooves, and gently pulled the calf’s forelegs and head forwards into the birth canal before finally bringing his arm back out and massaging it to restore the circulation.

He sat up, stretching his back and shoulders, and then got to his feet and removed the long thorn from the ox’s neck before retreating into the undergrowth downwind of her.

It took perhaps three minutes for her to wake. At first she woke slowly, giving a soft moan of remembered pain, and a half-hearted strain at the calf inside her, which slid easily forwards. The ox came awake fast and strained again with renewed vigour, and within a few more minutes her calf’s forelegs, head and shoulders had appeared, and she reached her head round and started licking at it.

Sherath grinned to himself, and back-tracked towards the kill that he had left under the bush.

He paused about a hundred yards from the spot where he had left his kill, and once again had to smile to himself as he caught the sounds of soft juvenile growls and the occasional more adult warning grunt.

A young female snow leopard, having fallen on the bonanza of the freshly-killed calf, had brought her cubs down from their rocky lair to feast.

Sherath crept closer and watched the big cats for some time, letting his Awareness drift round the family group, admiring the sleek muscular litheness of the female and the well-rounded health of her fuzzy-coated young. In a few more weeks they’d lose the fuzz and be as sleekly spotted as their mother. He let his Awareness stay with the female, shutting his eyes and feeling the power of her muscles, the suppleness of her joints, unstiffened by age or injury. He became Aware of what it would be like to be a snow leopard, down to such details as the way that whiskers functioned, and the delicate mechanism of claw retraction. He allowed his Awareness to sink deeper into leopardishness, shutting his eyes to let the feeling take over.

Scents became deeper, richer, he felt his scalp muscles pull his ears into a twitch as something tiny rustled in the bushes behind him; then suddenly the whole world around him seemed to shudder and jar, becoming unfocussed and disorienting. His skin began to crawl and tingle all over with a weird confusion of both having and not having fur. And, over all, an inescapable feeling of femaleness. He drew a sharp breath in, opening his eyes abruptly; and pulled his Awareness swiftly away from the leopard, shaking his head to clear the sensation. The tremor from his head ran right down his back and into his tailbone; he rose softly to his feet again, somewhat shaken.

***

Nemeth waited about half a mile away from the tents, sitting with his back against the rough bark of the tree and his long legs stretched out along the branch. He reached out softly with his mind to track Sherath’s approach and smiled at the swift flash of recognition as he made contact. There was restlessness and something approaching laughter in Sherath’s thoughts.

Good hunting? asked Nemeth softly, curious about the laughter.

Interesting, Sherath answered. I’ve brought back a sheep, anyway.

Nemeth watched his half-brother walking beneath the trees, his easy grace all but concealing the strength which lay beneath and made light of the mountain ram lying like an enormous woollen collar across his shoulders.

Nemeth dropped lightly down from his branch to walk beside Sherath. “Here, let me take that sheep,” he offered, lightly testing Sherath’s mental defences as he did so.

Sherath grinned and shifted the ram across. “Be my guest,” he said. “Why are you probing?”

“What are you hiding?” asked Nemeth curiously. “I thought you were out after a calf.”

“I was,” said Sherath, stretching his arms up above his head and flexing his shoulder muscles. He glanced sideways and caught Nemeth’s eye. “Okay,” he said, and let Nemeth have a brief review of the morning’s events.

Oh, strange, said Nemeth with a smile when they got to the leopard episode. What do you make of that, then?

Almost forgot who I was, said Sherath lightly.

You’ve not been yourself since you woke, Nemeth said.

Sherath laughed. “True,” he answered. “You’re fidgety, yourself,” he added. – What are you attempting to hide from me?

Hark who’s talking! replied Nemeth with a laugh. I suppose you’ll tell all in your own good time, he added. “All I was ‘hiding’ was that everyone’s on the fidget, today. And I was only ‘hiding’ it because I didn’t want to distract your attention from whatever it was you were thinking about.”

“So that you could probe more effectively?” asked Sherath with a smile.

“Okay, yes, partly that. You weren’t the only one with painful dreams last night,” he went on. “Jevann was suffering, too.”

“I noticed,” said Sherath. “He started not long after midnight, with that recurrent nightmare he has.”

“‘Not my nightmare’,” quoted Nemeth, “‘but someone else’s. The Child’s.’”

I was listening in, said Sherath softly. This time, it was different. He stepped outside the nightmare and watched it. It was as if he – and I – were there with the Child. Vivid. Painful. And lingering echoes of ill-intent that came not from the Child’s nightmare, but from elsewhere. Ill-intent that was real, that the Child had suffered personally. He suppressed a shudder at the particular nature of the Child’s memories. Sick, he added.

Nemeth was silent for a few moments, sharing the already-shared memory. – It’s a strange place, he commented, after a short while. Oddly symmetrical.

Too many straight lines and square corners, added Sherath. Yes, I know what you mean.

And very odd background noises, too, commented Nemeth. Not like anywhere I’ve ever been; imaginary or otherwise.

Makes one wonder where Jevann dragged it up from, said Sherath softly.

And why? suggested Nemeth. It’s been recurring for how many years?

A dozen or so, said Sherath, casting his mind back. There have been others, also in the same odd surroundings, but this particular one keeps coming back. It’s the first time he’s been able to step outside it, though – that I’ve known about, anyway, he added as an afterthought. Why is everyone else fidgety?

Restless. Itching to be on the move again. The finely carved nostrils of Nemeth’s hawk-like nose flared as if scenting the breeze for danger.

And what are your thoughts?

Are you asking me for my opinion as Challenger or as brother? asked Nemeth.

Either. Both. And what does Tarke think? Sherath’s eyes quizzed him.

As Challenger, I’m wary of taking us into anything that smells too strongly of danger. As brother, I can handle whatever danger I’m scenting at the moment.

You wouldn’t admit to not being able to handle it, anyway, said Sherath with a laugh.

I might.

Since when?

Tarke wants to get to the bottom of what’s bothering Jevann. Jevann’s not just fidgety – he’s almost driven to be moving. Specifically South East.

Towards Dakesht?

That general area. Tarke’s suggestion is that you try to piece together what’s happening as we move.

Seems reasonable, agreed Sherath.

CHAPTER TWO

“Remind me,” said Tarke as she sat down on a boulder and shrugged her shoulders out from the straps of her pack, “why have we just spent the past month travelling to ‘some unknown place north-east of Dakesht’?”

Nemeth grinned at her. “Because Jevann and Sherath, between them, felt compelled to do so?” he answered.

Sherath walked back to join them. – I don’t take any of Jevann’s ‘compulsions’ lightly, he said with a smile. Particularly not this one.

We’ve shared dreams on this one, said Jevann, catching up and dumping his pack down next to Tarke’s. There is a need to be here, and it has something to do with the dreams. Don’t ask me what, he added, sitting down.

Louka settled herself between Jevann’s feet, using him for a backrest. “I picked up echoes from a dream of yours, last night,” she said, squinting sideways up at Jevann. “It woke me, so I just listened in. You were right about ‘sharing’ the dreams with Sherath. You were both dreaming exactly the same thing.”

You were eavesdropping on my dreams? asked Jevann, ruffling her hair.

“Yup,” she answered, grinning.

“And mine, Jevann,” Sherath added. “Are no-one’s dreams their own these days?”

“Not when they wake me up like they did last night,” retorted Louka. “It sent the hairs up right along my back.”

We need to set up camp before we can talk this one through, said Sherath quietly, assessing the smaller Children’s state of sleepiness.

Tarke looked around. – You’ve been pushing us all a bit harder than usual, for you, she said. Do we have a deadline?

We don’t know, said Jevann.

But we might have, added Sherath.

***

Thunder rumbled in the distance; smoke still rose from what had been a village. From the edge of the woodland Nemeth scanned the valley. There was no sign of life other than the wildlife. There was no sign of life in the village either – the place reeked of death and pain. Amongst the smouldering remains of the roundhouses lay blackened lumps. Lumps with twig-like arms curled. Nemeth looked back along the badger-trail he had been following, catching Sherath’s eye where they had halted the smaller Children.

Keep them back there, Sherath, said Nemeth quietly. I’m going to go down to check this out.

With care, Nemeth, said Sherath. Though their noses have already told them what’s down there.

Nemeth grinned – a wry grin. – And am I not always careful?

No, not unfailingly so. Sherath’s amusement sang along the mind-link. Whoever did this may not yet have gone far, he added. Remember we need you.

Nemeth grinned back. – I’ve no intention of getting myself killed. He cast Awareness throughout the valley, sensing only the fleeting touch of the smallest creatures, the slow Presence of the trees, a brief awareness of himself from a deer hind on the farther side and from rabbits who paused briefly in their grazing as his mind touched theirs. In the sky a falcon, to the west a vixen with cubs…. but no Men.

They’ve gone. May Dominn curse them for this.

He moved out from the shadow of the trees, swiftly crossing the open space before the village.

He stood before the largest roundhouse, laying a hand on what remained of the burned thatching, listening, feeling for echoes.

His lips tightened into a thin line and his eyes narrowed as he left the shrine. Children had been put to the sword; grain stores burned. He walked around the farthest house.

Before him stood the remains of standing stakes with piles of ash around their bases – five of them. To each stake had been bound what had once been the oldest of the Children.

He walked back to the woodland, head down and fury burning in his soul.

Sherath met him by the beech tree.

“The same?” he asked quietly.

“The same. We can’t leave this place like this.”

“No. A decent burial and some recognition is needed, at least,” agreed Sherath.

“Let me have Tarke, Louka and Jevann,” said Nemeth. “We can get ready for that – but we’re going to need some protection here, which only you are likely to be able to provide.”

Sherath glanced across at him. – Hmmm, he said.

I’m not blind, you know, said Nemeth, grinning.

***

Sherath leaned against the oak, using the Presence of the tree to bring calm to his thoughts, and to focus all his Awareness into reaching for Power.

Are you okay? asked Tarke quietly.

Yes, I’m okay. But don’t creep up on me like that! Sherath added, opening his eyes and smiling down at her. You almost made me jump out of my skin.

What rot! You knew I was there all along.

Yeh, okay. I knew you were there. I’ll be as quick as I can – but I don’t know how long this will take. Sherath laid one hand briefly on Tarke’s shoulder, and turned back along the trail through the woodland. A hundred paces out, and he paused, head lowered and eyes shut.

He pictured the illusion he needed in his mind – the track must go past the remains of the village, not to it; must lead any wanderer – chance or otherwise – away.

He felt the Detour set around him, and turned away westwards to the next passable trail.

It took him perhaps two hours to circle the village, working his way through the woods that surrounded it, turning all paths away. By the end of that time he was bone-weary; the distance was nothing, it was the sustained use of Power which was exhausting.

He walked slowly down to the village. Nemeth, Tarke, Louka and Jevann waited close to the newly-built fire. The earth floor of the roofless roundhouse nearby was freshly turned where the remains of the Children of the village had been buried, and extra earth – and the charred remains of roof timbers and thatch – were being barrowed to it by the younger members of the group.

“We found barrows and tools,” said Sienne as she passed by, sombrely.

“We’re as ready as we’ll ever be,” said Nemeth.

“We shouldn’t be having to do this,” Sienne said.

“No,” Sherath agreed grimly. He walked over to the grave house, and sprinkled a few drops of water from the smallest waterskin into its doorway.

The Children put down tools and barrows, and ringed the graved house, hands linked.

“Rekyem etern donn eys, Dominn; e luchis perpetu luchat eys…..” they chanted softly….everlasting light shine on them; Dominn who forgives our sins give them eternal rest…

Thunder moved closer, a gust of wind brought the first drops of rain, spattering the ground around them.

….free us from eternal death; and in the light of Your world let us be cleansed in the fire of Your judgement; Dominn temper Your justice with the mercy of Your love for us Your Children….

“….e luchis etern donn nos, Dominn.”

Rain plastered the hair to Sherath’s head, ran down his cheeks. “Dominn, where were You when they needed you? Have You forgotten the Children?” he whispered.

***

The last dregs of the storm rumbled away into the distance; the earth smelt fresh, wet – renewed. Tarke watched from the edge of the clearing as Sherath climbed up the rocky outcropping away to the west. Shreds of red-edged dark cloud drifted across the sky.

Nemeth came quietly to where Tarke sat, and crouched beside her.

“Will the Detour hold? Does he have the strength to renew it if necessary?” he asked, concerned.

Tarke pushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, tucked it behind one ear. “He has more strength than he realises,” she answered. “And much more than you’d think.”

Nemeth dropped to a sitting position, picking up small pebbles and skittering them across the gravel below.

“There are times when he gets my back up,” he said with a grin.

Tarke smiled, still watching Sherath. “He knows,” she said.

“Don’t you ever find him just a bit too cautious?” Nemeth asked.

“As Guide, he has an example to set – it goes with the territory. You’re our fighter – Sherath has to be our thinker. Between the pair of you we might have one good leader.”

Nemeth pushed her playfully off balance. “Twit,” he responded. “I’d find it easier to be less of a fighter if I didn’t constantly feel that I had to be angry on his behalf as well as my own. He seems a cold fish – colder as he gets older. Never angers. Never loses control.”

“Don’t for one moment believe he’s not angry,” said Tarke. “But the control – certainly. He doesn’t want to turn into another Shithri – and that’s exactly what puts him at risk of doing so.”

“All too deep for me,” said Nemeth. “How so?”

“No proof positive – just strong hunches. It seems to me that he uses Power proper. Which he shouldn’t, as you well know, be able to do. His use of control seems to be use of Control proper – not just will power. Not a wise thing to use against yourself.”

“Does he know?” Nemeth stopped skittering rocks across the gravel.

“I doubt it,” said Tarke.

“Maybe he should,” said Nemeth.

“And who’s going to tell him? You? Or me?”

***

Sherath gathered strength around him, felt the expansion of strength as a physical thing throughout him.

I will NOT anger. Dominn, this is unjust! Where is the justice in vengeance on Children whose forefathers sinned?

I will not anger.

He pulled in the anger, compacted it and drew it down within himself into a small cold knot which itself burned like ice.

I will not anger. I will NOT lose control – no matter how far I’m pushed. I will NOT anger. But I really don’t need to be pushed any more like this. This was unnecessary.

He hunkered down, looking into the last fading red-purple stripe left by the vanished sun.

I must go back.

“Dominn Luchi,” he whispered. – LordLady of Light. Some couple of hundreds of years ago I swore to you that, whatever it was that my many-times-great grandsire left undone, I would do. All I need to know is what it was that You wanted done, and how to do it.

He sat silent for several minutes, opening his mind to anything that cared to occur to it.

The several minutes stretched into an hour or more. Eventually, but abruptly, a thought occurred to him, and a memory of a large and beloved cat, and he smiled.

Okay, Ierreth, my old friend and Mentor, all I need to know is WHAT needs to be done. Knowing what, I can find a how.

He lay back, looking up at the stars; the Hunting Cat whose shoulders pointed to the Northern Star, just visible over the Northern horizon; the clouded glow of the StarStream spanning the sky.

Okay again, he said. It’s not vengeance, nor pushing. Simply the Evil One making the most of an opportunity – as always. But I am here. Waiting. And what I can do is – at present – limited by what I can be.

***

The foot of the rocky outcropping was in deep shadow when Sherath eventually reached it. He paused briefly, suddenly Aware that he wasn’t alone.

“Tarke?”

“Only me,” she answered, getting stiffly to her feet.

“You shouldn’t have waited for me,” he said, slipping an arm over her shoulders and steering her towards the camp, its fire barely visible, flickering through the trees. She shivered slightly. “Here, take this,” said Sherath, pulling off his jerkin and handing it to her.

“You’ll freeze,” she said, taking it anyway.

Sherath laughed. “I won’t get cold. Too insensitive to feel cold.”

“I’ll believe many things of you, but not that one.”

“No. You were never easy to fool, were you?”

“You’re right,” she said eventually, walking beside him. “You’re not cold. Warmth comes off your skin like the glow off a heatstack. All your coldness is inside you, I think. You gather in all the heat of your anger and turn it into coldness.”

Sherath drew breath as if to speak, and she silenced him with an elbow to the ribs which made him cough.

“No, listen,” she went on. “Your Task is as Dominn’s Interpreter and our Guide; Nemeth’s is as our Strength and Challenger. I am Tasked to be Counsellor – and not just for the little ones. My Tasking requires me to Counsel wherever needed – even if that means for the Guide or the Challenger – or both. You know that with Tasking, there are certain ‘givens’ – and one of mine is to see when and where my Task leads me. Given?”

Sherath grinned. “Lead on then, Little Sister. I follow.”

And you can drop the formality, for a start, Tarke added, laughing. “Stay close. There’s something you need to watch. Nemeth, too.” They sat down next to Nemeth who was lying next to the fire and feeding it with small branches. The rest of the camp was in silence except for the barely discernible breathing of the sleeping Children sheltered under hide covers in the largest roundhouse.

Nemeth looked up at them, and grinned. “I saved some food for you.”

“Just as well,” said Sherath, hooking a piece of steamed mutton on the end of his belt knife. “Tarke’s about to do her Counsellor thing.”

Tarke threatened him with a mug of cold water.

“Okay, pax!” he said, ducking away.

“One day,” she said, “you are going to take me very seriously indeed. Remember that one.”

I will, said Sherath.

Me, too, said Nemeth.

“Watch now,” said Tarke, half filling three pots with fresh water and returning them to the heat of the centre of the fire. She pointed to the first pot, lidless. “This pot is Nemeth.” The second pot she lidded tightly. “This is Shithri – and could also be Sherath.” The third pot she covered with a holed lid. “This too could be Sherath. The choice is yours. Eat.”

They ate in silence for a while. Eventually the ‘Nemeth’ pot began to simmer.

“Feel the heat above the pots,” said Tarke indistinctly through a mouthful of honeyberry pudding.

Sherath and Nemeth glanced at each other.

“Humour her,” suggested Nemeth.

I’ll catch you such a slap in a moment, said Tarke.

You and whose army? asked Sherath. Okay, okay. Only joking. Call it reaction to the day, if you like. He held his hand over each pot in turn.

“What do you feel?” asked Tarke.

“The air above the first pot is hot. Above the second pot barely warm. Above the third hotter than the first – but only over the hole,” said Sherath.

“I’d have to agree with that,” said Nemeth, testing them.

“And within the pots?” asked Tarke. “Theorise.”

“The first pot will be coolest, the second hottest,” Sherath answered quickly.

“Yes. Keep watching,” said Tarke.

“Shithri was a fool,” said Sherath after a while. “He had the ability to use total Control, and couldn’t even control his own temper.”

“Shithri made one mistake,” said Tarke.

“Quite some mistake,” murmured Nemeth with a grin. “Flooding most of the fourth level.”

Sherath laughed. – With a mistake like that, who needs more than one?

“That wasn’t his mistake,” said Tarke emphatically.

“He certainly didn’t do it deliberately,” said Sherath. “Some places you can rearrange the geography with impunity – but not on the fourth level.”

“If that wasn’t his mistake, what was?” said Nemeth.

“Shithri’s mistake – if I read him right – was that he Controlled his temper too well.” Tarke smiled. – Keep watching the pots, she added.

The first pot had started to boil rapidly, water frothing close to the top. A jet of steam spurted constantly through the hole in the lid of the third pot.

Pass your hand over the pots again, Tarke suggested, looking at Sherath.

He reached a hand out swiftly over the pots. “Well? The air above the second pot is still cool.”

“And where is the heat?” Tarke asked.

“Still in the pot?” suggested Nemeth.

“Right. And what happens next?” asked Tarke.

“You tell me,” said Nemeth. Sherath had started to grin.

“You don’t do enough cooking,” said Tarke. “Sherath knows, don’t you?”

“He doesn’t cook much either,” Nemeth replied.

Sherath reached over suddenly, pushing both Nemeth and Tarke flat to the ground a split second before the second pot exploded in a shower of scalding water. The iron lid flew through the air towards the three of them at enormous speed; Sherath lifted a hand towards it, felt the sudden strength flare through him as he whispered ‘GO’ – watched the lid, untouched, veer safely away from them; muffled the sound of the explosion with a second surge of strength and heard it fade into silence; looked down at Nemeth’s startled and Tarke’s grinning face.

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I’d forgotten. And you think that was Shithri?”

“I’m sure of it,” said Tarke, sitting up and brushing leaf-mould off her hair.

Sherath crouched beside her. “I won’t be another Shithri,” he said. “Your Task was well set, and I am in your debt, Counsellor,” he added formally.

Nemeth sat up, rubbing his shoulder, and proffered a leaf smoke-roll. “One thing I feel the need to draw your attention to, there,” he said.

“What?” they spoke in unison, turning towards him.

“I heard no request for Granted Power,” said Nemeth thoughtfully. “The Power you used was Assumed.”

“He’s right, Sherath,” said Tarke quietly. “And it’s not the first time you’ve Assumed Power. Where did you think that Control you have been using on yourself came from, if not from that?”

Like I said before, I’m not blind, said Nemeth. And neither is Tarke.

CHAPTER THREE

Sherath sat on the top of the rocky outcrop, watching the sun rise.

Are you coming down, or shall I come up? asked Sienne’s Voice.

Which would you rather? he answered.

What’s the view like from up there? Sienne asked.

Pretty good.

Then I’ll come up. There was a pause of a few seconds. You must climb like a cat, said Sienne. Sherath smiled to himself.

Sienne’s head and hands appeared over the edge of the outcrop, the gusty wind blowing her mane of dark curls around her face. She hauled herself up over the edge, sat beside Sherath, pulled a short strip of hide out from a pocket and bound it round her head in an attempt to tame the unruly hair.

“Did you get any sleep at all last night?” she asked him with a wry smile.

“Not much, granted,” he said. “How awake are the rest of them?”

“Nemeth and Tarke are still dozing. Everyone else is up and about. Jevann wandered off somewhere by himself before I was up, and the little ones are still working on carting soil to the grave house. Louka and Jekavi are cooking breakfast.”

“Now that does sound like a good idea,” said Sherath, getting to his feet and stretching.

“You mean you dragged me all the way up here just so we could go back down again?” asked Sienne.

“Nobody dragged you, Little Sister,” replied Sherath, holding a hand down to her to lift her back to her feet. “It was your choice, remember? What did you want me for – or did you just come up to admire the sunrise?”

“The little ones wanted to know whether we’re moving on again today. They could do with a rest,” Sienne added.

“And they sent you to ask me?” Sherath asked.

“Not exactly. They want to know; you don’t always seem that approachable; I knew that they wanted to know, so here I am.” She looked up into his face.

What’s troubling you? she asked.

The idea that I could seem unapproachable, he said. That’s not supposed to be the way it is. Do you ever feel like that about me?

Not really. I came to find you, after all. It’s not that you’re ‘unapproachable’ – just that you’re … preoccupied, perhaps, is the right word.

Preoccupied I can accept, said Sherath. But not to the extent that any of you would actually rather not come and find me if you need to speak to me. Just out of curiosity, how does Jevann seem to you all, at the moment?

I can’t answer for everyone, said Sienne with a laugh in her Voice. But ‘preoccupied’ sums him up pretty well, too. What exactly is going on?

That could be exactly the question that’s preoccupying both of us, answered Sherath with a grin.

Oh, very cryptic! said Sienne, scrambling backwards down the first part of the rocks. I warn you, though, it’s getting to the stage where we all need some answers. Or, if not answers, at least to know what the questions are.

That can certainly be arranged, said Sherath, climbing easily down behind her. But you may have to wait until Jevann reappears – in this instance I know rather less than he does.

***

Jevann looked across at Sherath. The smaller Children settled down into positions of alert anticipation.

“Well?” asked Sienne, looking from Sherath to Jevann and back again.

Sienne ‘needs to know’, said Tarke, affectionate laughter in her Voice. There were chuckles from the other Children.

Jevann raised an eyebrow at Tarke. – Tarke, dear friend, Sienne’s ‘need to know’ may well be part of one of the most important patterns there is. Not necessarily today, or this year. Don’t ask me when, or why, its…. his Voice tailed off as he looked up at the wisps of cloud – all that remained of yesterday’s thunderstorm.

… just a feeling, Louka finished for him.

Jevann laughed. – As always. Just a feeling.

And Jevann’s ‘just-a-feelings’ are as important as Sienne’s ‘needs-to-know’, said Sherath, stretching stiff shoulders. “I am very tired,” he added.

“Lack of sleep,” said Sienne, grinning at him.

Sherath laughed. “Not entirely.”

You reinforced all those Detours last night, said Tarke, strictly on Sherath’s mental wavelength.

I did indeed. We’re going to need them.

“So when are we moving – and where?” asked Sienne.

“We’re not,” said Jevann. There was a quiet chorus of cheers from the smaller Children.

“How long are we staying?” asked Louka.

“Who knows?” said Nemeth. “More importantly, though, why are we staying?” he looked across at Jevann.

“Who knows?” echoed Sienne. Jevann reached across and cuffed her hair playfully. “Less of the disrespect, little one! I can still best you in a wrestle!”

I wouldn’t wager on that one, said Jekavi, looking across at his brother with a smile. Sienne bends the rules beyond all recognition.

Hark who’s talking! said Jevann. You and Sienne are worse as a pair than the sum of its halves.

They always were, said Louka. Trouble, mischief, you name it!

Alternatively, said Sherath, looking across at Louka with a twinkle in his eyes, … ingenuity, creativity, determination, focus, planning, cooperation ….

All good stuff, agreed Tarke.

“If we’re staying,” said Jekavi looking appraisingly around him, “there’s work that needs to be done here. Roofs that need to be rebuilt; stocks that need to be re-stocked…” he got to his feet. The smaller Children stood up and clustered around him expectantly.

“Off you go, then,” said Sienne. “I’ll fill you in on the details later.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?” he asked.

Nemeth gave a shout of laughter. “You have to be joking! When there’s something that can be found out by staying here?”

“I take your point,” said Jekavi. “Come on then, little ones. Let’s play ‘make a home’.”

And that will keep them occupied for quite some time, said Louka. Meanwhile, we share Sienne’s ‘need to know’, Jevann. So tell us.

Refill my cup, dear heart, and I might just consider it, replied Jevann, holding the wooden mug out in Louka’s direction, lying back down and settling himself comfortably.

“This has something to do with someone we have never met,” said Sherath. “But someone Jevann has ‘seen’ more than once.”

“Many times,” agreed Jevann. “It first began some twelve or so years ago – when we were up in the Far North. With dreams – more specifically, mostly one dream, often repeated.”

“I gather it’s been the same dream for all those twelve years,’ said Sherath.

“Mostly,” agreed Jevann.

Show us? suggested Sienne. Take us into the dream?

It’s not pleasant, said Jevann.

***

…..The girl was running down the side of the road, her breath catching in her throat, the night air burning her chest, and tears on her cheeks cold in the wind of her passing. The footsteps behind were gaining on her with every step.

She knew that the dragon would get there – but would it get there too late?

Hold on, hold on…. keep going, I’m on the way… just hold out a little longer… the dragon’s voice was within her mind, yet as clear as if it were singing in her ears.

She felt a rush of air around her, as if driven down by mighty wings, as the man’s hand closed on her flying coat, dragging her to her knees…

The Child woke, screaming.

The mother was suddenly beside her, cuddling her, and the Child’s terrified screams settled into sobs.

“Oh, Gwynnie, sweetheart, it’s okay, it’s all right, Mummy’s here, darling,” the mother crooned into the Child’s ear, stroking the damp hair away from the Child’s face. “It’s all right, it was only a nasty dream. It’s all gone now,”

“The dragon,” whispered Gwyn, eyes still fixed on something only present in her imagination, “the dragon…”

“It’s all right, darling, the dragon’s gone away.” The mother looked up as the father sat on the bed beside her.

“Nightmares again, Kate?” he asked.

Kate nodded.

“Why didn’t the dragon come, Mummy?” asked Gwyn.

“It was just a dream, darling. The dragon’s gone away.”

“But it was a good dragon,” wailed Gwyn, bursting into fresh tears. “It was going to make the man go away. It was the man that was nasty, not the dragon! Why didn’t the dragon come, Mummy?”

“The dragon will come next time, sweetheart, if it’s a good dragon. It can be your own special dragon, to chase the nasty dreams away,” said the father. “Would you like a drink? You’re all hot and sticky.”

Gwyn nodded. “Hot Ribena, please,” she said.

“Not too hot, Jeff,” warned Kate.

“Okay. On the way. Mummy will stay with you while I go down to the kitchen.”

Gwyn heard the sound of Jeff’s footsteps on the stairs, the kitchen door opening, and almost immediately the soft pattering gallop of Sukey coming upstairs.

“Oh, Sukey!” came Jeff’s voice from the kitchen.

Sukey jumped onto Gwyn’s bed, snuggled up close to her, licking Gwyn’s chin and purring frantically, paws kneading the bedcover. Gwyn’s arms went round the cat automatically, holding her close.

“Can Sukey stay with me, Mummy?” she asked.

Kate stroked the long tabby fur. “Okay, darling. Sukey can stay with you tonight.”

Jeff came back into the room.

“Here you are,” he said, holding out the cup. “I’d better take Sukey down before she scratches you. We don’t want any more nasty dreams, do we?”

“I want Sukey,” said Gwyn, one hand holding the cat, the other holding the cup.

***

Louka looked across at Jevann, troubled.

“I see what you mean by ‘not pleasant,” she said quietly.

“And that bit’s only her nightmare,” said Jevann. “Her own reality is even less pleasant.”

“She exists?” asked Nemeth, resting his knuckles against his lips.

“She exists. I’m sure of that,” said Sherath.

“Absolutely,” agreed Jevann.

“How old would you say she was, there?” asked Tarke.

“Four, maybe five, summers, perhaps,” said Sherath thoughtfully. “In normal terms,” he added.

“Certainly not much more than that,” said Louka, recalling the image of the Child.

“Poor little scrap,” breathed Tarke.

Sienne threw a small rock with some force against a larger boulder. “And the reality? Her reality? How much have you seen of that?”

“Only little glimpses,” said Jevann. “Things she remembers when she wakes up from the nightmare. That’s the only time I can ever see bits of that, before I wake up myself.”

“Who’s the man who chases her?” asked Louka. “She knows who he is, doesn’t she?”

“Oh, she knows,” agreed Jevann. “I first saw him as a boy, not a man. His name is Bobby.” He took a deep breath. “He is seriously not a nice boy. Are you sure you want to know more?”

Sienne look across at him, scowling. “I hate him already,” she said. “But I’d like to know why.”

“It’s because the Child hates him already,” said Sherath.

“With good reason,” said Jevann. “You haven’t seen this one, I think, Sherath.”

“I’ve hardly seen anything,” said Sherath. – You’re the one who ‘sees’ things, he added with a smile.

***

The cat was curled up on the bed close to Gwyn. It laid its ears back at the boy, and growled softly. Bobby raised two fingers to it, peering into the room to locate the hamster cage on the dressing table, then cautiously tiptoed across the room. Sukey got to her feet, crawling across Gwyn’s bedcover, tail twitching, ears back. She growled again. Gwyn stirred, restlessly.

Bobby opened the cage door, feeling for the food bowl, and deftly extracting a sunflower seed. He held it towards the hamster, which had stopped running in the wheel. Hammy pattered across the cage, used to being hand-fed, and took the proffered seed, sitting up to munch it. Bobby found another seed, putting it on the cage floor, then made a grab for the hamster as its nose dropped towards the seed.

“Gotcha!” he whispered. He took the hamster over to Gwyn’s bed, and sat down. Sukey backed away from him, the growl almost constant now.

Gwyn stirred again. Bobby grinned, holding the hamster up in front of him, fingers tightening round it, feeling the tiny heart fluttering.

“Hey, Gwyn,” he whispered. “Look what I’ve got.” He prodded the lump that was Gwyn under the bedclothes. “Look, Gwyn.”

Gwyn’s eyes opened, sleepily, half focused on Bobby.

“I’ve got your bloody hamster, Gwynnie. And you know what? I can’t read my book because of the bloody noise he’s making. I think it’s time he shut up, don’t you? He got out, you know – and Sukey’s up here, isn’t she? Cats eat hamsters, Gwynnie – didn’t they tell you that?”

Gwyn’s lower lip started to tremble.

“Don’t you whinge,” said Bobby, leaning towards her, dark eyes glittering. “You want me to call Dad up?”

“No,” whispered Gwyn. “Put Hammy back – please, Cousin Bobby? Put Hammy back.” Tears trickled down her cheeks. She sat up, moving away from Bobby, hugging her knees.

“What, so he can carry on making that row? You’re joking!”

Bobby lifted the hamster in front of his face again, looking at it. He grinned, lifted the hamster to his mouth – and bit, hard. He felt the tiny skull crunch between his teeth.

Gwyn screamed. Bobby dropped the hamster, wiping his mouth on his pullover sleeve, and grabbed at the cat, tabby fur coming away in his hand. Sukey yowled, clawing at Bobby’s hand.

SUKEY!” screamed Gwyn. Sukey freed herself and ran under the bed. Bobby dropped to the floor, picking up the hamster as he heard the sound of his father’s feet thundering up the stairs.

“What the hell’s going on here?” asked Uncle Paul, bursting into the room.

“The hamster got out,” said Bobby. “The cat got it – I couldn’t catch it in time.” Uncle Paul looked down at him. Bobby held out his hand. “She scratched me – I took it away from her – but it’s dead.”

Gwyn’s screams, thin now, almost drowned his words. Paul gathered the child into his arms, cuddling her.

Bobby sucked the blood off his hand, looking at the scratches.

“Okay, okay,” whispered Uncle Paul, stroking Gwyn’s hair. “It was an accident, kitten. It was an accident.” He looked again at Bobby, his eyes cold for a moment. “It was an accident. You’ve got blood round your mouth, Bobby,” he said.

Bobby sucked his bleeding hand again, then held it out as if in explanation.

“You’d better go and clean that up,” said Uncle Paul, still holding Gwyn.

***

Sienne picked up several more small rocks and threw them, hard. One struck sparks as it glanced off the boulder.

Nemeth looked across at her. – I feel the same way, he said.

“Why did he do that?” Sienne demanded of Sherath, turning to face him.

“Because the Child loved it,” said Sherath, glancing across at Jevann for confirmation.

Jevann nodded. “And because he could,” he added.

“And for no better reason than that?” asked Louka, shocked.

“For no better reason than that,” agreed Jevann.

“Am I right in thinking that the other man there,” Nemeth said, flashing an image of Uncle Paul, “is the boy’s father?”

“As I see it,” agreed Jevann.

“How much of what we see is what you have seen, and how much is what we know of what you personally feel about it?” asked Sienne.

Good question, little one, commented Sherath. Perceptive.

In answer, said Jevann, I can’t tell. I am sure that what I have seen has happened. I can’t tell where, or when. It’s complicated – because I feel that the nightmare of the chasing man has not happened in reality. But that it may, and that the Child herself has ‘seen’ it in the same way that I ‘see’, sometimes.

You feel that it is the Child’s own Precognition, and that it is – or may be – valid? asked Louka.

She is no longer a small Child, Louka mine, said Jevann.

‘Yours’? queried Louka with a smile.

Term of affection, said Jevann, smiling back. What I have shown you here is what, from the Child’s point of view – as she would be now – happened maybe eight or ten years back. She is no longer a little one. And the attack of Bobby on that desert mouse happened some time after the Child first had the nightmare.

“I think the boy’s father knew – or suspected – what he had done,” said Nemeth.

“Why did he do nothing about it, then?” asked Sienne, still scowling.

Because the boy has some kind of power over him, said Jevann with a shiver. He has a fear of the boy. Funny – I’ve only just realised that one. Thank you, Sienne.

What for? she asked.

For asking me the question which showed me an answer, said Jevann.

That’s complex, too, commented Sherath. He rolled himself a leaf smoke-roll, leaning over to pick a burning twig from the fire with which to light it. “I’ve noticed before, Jevann, that, when it comes to your own particular Talent, the question itself frequently prompts the answer. Interesting.”

Jevann stretched himself out and shut his eyes again. “I’m not complaining about it,” he said smilingly.

“Are there any good memories? Is there anything good?” asked Louka.

“Yes, there are good memories,” said Jevann. “Mostly associated with packbeasts and people who work with them.”

Does she have friends? asked Sherath.

– The packbeasts, and some of the people who work with them. The little desert mouse was a ‘friend’. So was the cat.

So ‘was’ the cat? What happened to the cat? asked Sienne.

Jevann opened one eye and looked over at her. “The cat died while she was away,” he answered.

“How did it die?” asked Sienne, unsure if she wanted to know the answer.

“It ate poison,” said Jevann softly. He abruptly sat upright. – and it was Bobby, again, who did that, he added. I didn’t know that before, either.

Has he killed everything that she loved? asked Tarke, appalled.

Her mother and father still live. And she has an enormous dog, now, which is also a friend. Another thing I didn’t know before. My head is aching with all this seeing, he said suddenly. I’m going off for a swim. Anybody care to join me?

***

Sienne came back to the village in the early evening, with Jekavi and the little ones. She sprawled next to Nemeth, and pinched a piece of steamed mutton from his plate.

“Oi! Get your own!” he said.

“Too tired to,” she answered. “We’ve been busy.” She chewed thoughtfully on the mutton for a while. “Incidentally, Nemeth, we found a really good bee-tree.” – And you like honey, she added.

Nemeth gave a crack of laughter. “That’s right, little one. Motivate me. That is always supposing that what you actually meant was: ‘Nemeth, please will you raid the honey from the hive for us?’”

“Something like that,” Sienne admitted.

“I thought perhaps you did,” he said. “And this wouldn’t be a bad time too, as it’s dusk and they’ll be getting sleepy.”

“Count me out, I’m too tired,” said Sienne.

“So you said,” commented Sherath with a grin. “Though I’m not at all sure I entirely believe you.”

“Who’s going to stay behind and look after the little ones if I go with you?” asked Sienne.

“Who’s going to show us where this bee-tree is if you don’t go with us?” asked Louka.

“I will,” said Jekavi. “When I’ve eaten.”

Louka ruffled Jekavi’s red hair. “You get more like your brother every day,” she said with an affectionate glance in Jevann’s direction.

CHAPTER FOUR

Shelagh sat in the tackroom, mug of coffee in hand, and heaved a sigh. “Well, that’s the last of them gone. I think this week’s gone quite well. How do the rest of you feel?”

“Knackered!” said Tina with a grin.

There was a chuckle from the rest: Claire sprawling on a pile of rugs in one corner; Julie cleaning a stripped-down bridle, balancing her coffee on one knee; Gwyn looking out of the doorway to where Sugar and Snow were grazing in the orchard.

“Shall I bring those two in?” she asked.

“Better had,” said Shelagh, “or they’ll be down with laminitis again.

“Poor little sprats,” said Claire. “It must seem mean – they get onto some decent grass for two hours, must think they’re in Heaven, and then some miserable toad puts them into the barn for the night with nothing but a section of hay!”

Gwyn grinned. “Cruel to be kind,” she said, picking up two lead ropes. “I’ll be off home soon,” she added. “My parents are due back later this evening; I’d like to be there when they arrive.”

***

The house was very quiet. Gwyn dumped her bag in the kitchen and put the kettle on, glancing at the clock. Shaka paced up and down the hall, uneasy.

“What’s your problem?” Gwyn asked, looking at him. The wolfhound lay down on the rug, sighing.

The silence seemed somehow oppressive – unusually so. Gwyn was generally at home with silence. The ticking of the clock, usually barely audible, began to seem loud.

Gwyn shut her eyes, leaning back against the larder door.

Vivid images flashed, nightmarish, through her brain: noise, jarring, screams somehow muffled, and then a crushing blankness. This has already happened, something in her head seemed to be saying.

She jerked away from the larder, shaking her head to clear the after-image.

“What the Hell…?”

She found herself shaking, and wandered into the sitting room, turning the light up full, needing light. She drew the curtains, and filched a cigarette from the silver case on the mantelpiece.

Daddy wouldn’t be best pleased, she thought. Mind you, it wouldn’t be the first time. She lit it, her hands trembling. Shaka had followed her into the room, and pressed against her legs, quivering, his tail down.

***

Gwyn finished the third mug of coffee and looked up at the clock again. Half past eleven…they should have been home by now.

There was the sound of footsteps on the front path; a knock at the door. The hairs stood up all down Gwyn’s back as she got to her feet.

Gwyn looked out through the spyhole. The two police officers – a man and a woman – were clearly visible under the porch light.

She opened the door.

“Yes?”

“Miss Law?”

“Yes.”

“Guinevere Law?”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid we have some bad news. May we come in, please?”

***

Funny just how quickly three weeks can go, thought Gwyn, sitting with one hand on the phone. Sweat trickled down the small of her back. Somewhere in the recesses of her brain she was aware of the throaty purr of the MG in the road outside as she dialled the stables’ number.

Come on, Shelagh…answer the phone.

“Hello, Winscombe Riding School.”

“Shelagh?”

“Is that you, Gwyn?”

“Yes. Look, I’m sorry I haven’t been over – “

“Good God, we never expected you, under the circumstances. Is there anything I can do to help you?”

“I hope so …” God, I really hope so, she thought. “Shelagh; I need a favour. Urgently.”

“Fire away. What can I do?”

“I’ve got a big problem. As from next week I’ve got nowhere to live – Uncle Paul’s my legal guardian, and because he’s offered to keep me at his house the council won’t house me anywhere. He refuses to pay the rent on this house just so I can stay here – I really can’t go and live with him, Shelagh. I know you’re looking for working pupils … can you take me on? There’s nothing he can do to stop me being in live-in training, if I can support myself I’ll be okay… can you take me on?”

“I can do better than that – I can take you on as staff, Gwyn. You know at least as much as most qualified staff, and we can put you through the AI exam within a few weeks. When do you want to come?”

“Would now be okay?”

“What, tomorrow?”

“No, I mean right now. I need to get out of this house. I need company – I’m going spare here.”

“Right now…will you be in time to catch the late bus?”

“Yes, if I run.”

“I’ll have the kettle on. Do be careful – you’ve heard our news about the local nasty?”

“I’ve heard. But Shaka will be with me, anyway.”

“Yes. See you soon – and welcome aboard!”

“Thanks, Shelagh.”

***

Bobby leaned against the front door, his ear to the keyhole.

Oh, yeh!….Gotcha now…Ambush!…You are in trouble now, sweetheart….you are in DEE-EEP shit. Love it! Yeah.

He grinned, chewed thoughtfully on his lip; tapped his hand against his hip – tap, ta-tap TAP! …Go for it!.. he felt the smile lines crinkle round the corners of his eyes and his eyebrows lifted for a second. Oh, what fun! Yeah. He turned back down the path and hopped over the door of the MG, letting off the handbrake and running it silently down the hill.

Oh, a-hunting we will go … on your trail, sweetheart, on your trail. Come to Cousin Bobby – kitten – I’ll be there ahead of you.

Two girls on the corner watched as he started the car. He grinned at them, lifting a hand.

“Nice!” said one.

“Just a bit,” agreed the other, grinning.

Then he was gone. The breeze of the car’s passing blew their skirts round their legs.

***

Gwyn got off the bus into the darkness, Shaka close to her heels. Only a half-mile walk to the stables. She hitched her bag over one shoulder, and let Shaka off his lead.

“Stay close,” she whispered to him, and set off towards the lane turning. The breeze rustled through the treetops as she rounded the corner of the lane. A car turned off the main road and drew alongside. She turned her head.

“Want a lift?” asked Bobby with a grin. “Hop in.”

“I can walk, thanks,” she said, laying a hand on Shaka’s collar.

“I’ll keep you company,” said Bobby. He idled the car alongside at walking pace.

“Bugger off,” said Gwyn.

Bobby stopped the car and got out. “Don’t be daft.”

She saw the glitter in his eyes; the lazy smile as he looked down at her. He blocked her way, rocking gently on the balls of his feet.

Shaka growled, the hackles lifting on his neck.

Gwyn stepped around Bobby. He turned as she walked past, feeling the excitement building up as he laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Stop there!” he said. She slapped his hand away and turned to face him.

“Love it!” he said, grinning. “Do it again!”

“I’m not stopping. You stop!” said Gwyn. “You just stay right where you are and leave me alone!”

“Make me. Tell you what – I’ll do you a deal. I’ll give you a count of twenty. Yeh?” His eyes held hers, laughing. Play the game, sweetheart, play the game…

“Piss off.” She turned away and walked down the road. He watched her go.

…eighteen, nineteen, twenty…. here I come, ready or not!

Shaka heard the footsteps just before Gwyn did, and whirled to meet Bobby, the growl starting deep in his throat. Gwyn tried to grab him, but he sprang away from her and raced back down the lane. Gwyn saw the flicker as the moonlight briefly caught the blade that appeared as if from nowhere in Bobby’s hand, the grin on his face as he crouched to meet the dog’s spring…

SHAKA! NO, not Shaka too, you bastard!”

Shaka crumpled as the knife whipped across his throat, and Gwyn turned and ran, tears blinding her ... magic dragon, where are you now? WHERE ARE YOU?

***

Somewhere, worlds away, a silver dragon lifted his head as if listening. The Mists rolled around him.

Raffi, he said, – there is work for us.

He turned his head to gaze at the other dragon, slate grey. Raffi looked up.

Work? For me too? You sure, Gay?

Quite sure. One for me and one for you….

***

…Gwyn was running down the side of the road, her breath catching in her throat, the night air burning her chest, and tears on her cheeks cold in the wind of her passing. The footsteps behind were gaining on her with every step.

The recall was total – this WAS the dream – but now she knew who the man was, too. She knew the dragon was coming (how the hell can there be a dragon?) – but would it get there too late?

Hold on, hold on…. keep going, I’m on the way… just hold out a little longer… the dragon’s voice was within her mind, yet as clear as if it were singing in her ears.

She felt a rush of air around her, as if driven down by mighty wings, as Bobby’s hand closed on her flying coat, dragging her to her knees…

She screamed … and heard her own scream echoed by Bobby’s harsher yell. “Bloody hellfire!”

Bobby released the coat, cowering by the roadside, looking up into the blazing eyes of something from his worst nightmares.

On your feet, mate, whispered a voice in his head, and he knew the dragon had spoken to him. A strange compulsion brought him scrambling to his feet to face the dragon which hovered above, its neck stretched down towards him, its eyes afire with a cold light which seemed to look right through him. He felt the whoosh of air as a second dragon appeared and landed close to where Gwyn had fallen; it looked towards him for a moment, a half smile in its eyes.

Oh, a-hunting we will go… it sang, half to him and half to the silver dragon, which chuckled.

Run, said the silver dragon within his mind; I’ll give you a count of twenty; play the game, Bobby, play the game …

Bobby ran; ran back towards the car; ran as if all hell had been let loose behind him. The silver dragon watched him get into the car and start it up, fumbling with his keys. He dragged the car round in a screeching turn and was out on the main road in an instant. There was no other traffic; the world seemed to have stopped around him.

He heard the voice of the dragon in his head – eighteen, nineteen, twenty…here I come, ready or not! and whimpered, knowing it was coming…on your trail, Bobby…do you like it this way? Hot enough for you?… Yeah? he heard its quiet laughter.

He felt the air burn around him, heard his hair singe beside his ears; felt the intense heat without being burned; felt the enormous expanding pressure as the petrol tank blew, and the somehow incredible total absence of sound, the cessation of all awareness; felt his life drifting quietly away from him into the darkness … there is nothing more… is this all there is? what was left of him wondered as it dissipated in the breeze.

The silver dragon hovered for a moment over the wreck of the car, then banked in the breeze, turning on a wingtip to fly back down the lane. He settled lightly by the grey dragon.

How is she? he asked.

She will be okay. The grey dragon gave him the dragon equivalent of a whimsical smile. What happened to the car, Gay?

Who knows? What does happen to cars?…wiring fault?

I think that’s houses, actually, Gay.

Well, houses, cars – what’s the difference?

Don’t you think you may just have exceeded your spec.? Death’s not in the job description – unless you know something I don’t….

I’ll risk it, Raffi. I’ll risk it. He passed his tongue over the tip of his nose.

Raffi grinned. – You already did. Shall we go?

Gay cocked his head sideways. – You go ahead. I have some unfinished business to attend to….

Raffi sucked air through his front teeth. – Careful, careful! Two excesses in a day might just be pushing it!

Gay smiled thoughtfully. – You always did see too much, Raffi. But my thanks for the friendly concern. In this case, I might just get away with it. Besides, this is nothing that we can’t handle. See you in the Mists.

The shape might be inappropriate, old friend.

Very true. Gay’s outline shimmered in the darkness.

“Better?” asked the man who was left standing where the silver dragon had been.

Infinitely so.

“Wings? Yes/no?”

No need to ham it up, Gay, really. Take care.

“Shall do. Look after her.”

***

Jackie looked down, puzzled, at the appointments book on the desk.

“Don’t remember that one,” she mused. But it was there – and in her own writing. She glanced up at the clock. And should be arriving at any time.

The door swung open and a man in a light coloured suit stepped in, smiling at her.

“You must be Jackie.” He held out a hand, and she shook it, making the mistake of looking into the eyes …what an amazing colour…she thought.

“And you are?…”

“Mr Gabriel.”

“From which company, sir?”

“Heaven Scent. I’m expected, I think.”

“Yes, … yes, of course. Go on in.” She blushed flusteredly and pointed towards the inner door with one hand. “I’ll fetch a cup of coffee.”

Paul looked up as his office door opened. Oh Lord, another bloody pansy, he thought, fixing a smile onto his face. Gabriel sat down casually on the chair beside the desk.

“I have something you may be interested in,” he said, pulling a data stick out of his jacket pocket. “Allow me.”

He inserted the stick into the computer.

“This won’t take long.”

Paul sat, wordless, and watched. Watched himself on that first of so many ‘babysitting’ evenings. ….“You ticklish here, kitten?”…..watched Bobby biting the head off the hamster, and himself covering up for him… watched Gwyn’s nightmares…watched….

“There is plenty of evidence against you,” said Gabriel quietly. “It is all there for the Judge.”

Paul swivelled his chair angrily, and reached into the desk drawer. He pulled out a cheque book, riffling its pages. His eyes were hard.

“Judges and juries, my friend, can be bought,” he said.

Boy, do I have news for you. Gabriel smiled. “Not this one – mate. See you in Court.”

CHAPTER FIVE

She awoke to a sound like the sea, and opened her eyes slowly. There was little but mist to see, but a definite feeling that she was not alone.

Are you awake, little one? came a soft voice within her head.

“Am I alive?” she asked, bewildered.

You are certainly not dead, came the reply, with a ripple of amusement.

“Where are you?” she asked.

You are lying within my arms, came the answer, again amused. Look up, little one.

She looked up, seeing only a vague grey shape above her in the Mists. She had the feeling that she probably ought to have been terrified – but there was nothing in either the voice or the shape to inspire terror.

You have trouble seeing through the Mists, he said softly. You are leaning on me; look at me closer.

She swivelled round, propping herself up on one elbow. The limb against which she had been leaning was warm, the fur on it as short and smooth as a mouse’s – and dark grey. She was aware of warm amusement – friendly amusement – from the creature as it watched her; a total understanding from it of the confusion within her own mind.

She turned the other way and found herself leaning up against the creature’s chest – again covered with short smooth fur – and was aware of the slow pace of its breathing and its heartbeat like the subliminal beating of a distant drum…..a distant drum?…..

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away.” Someone from your own world wrote those words, little one. It is good to remember them. Incidentally, I can Hear some – but not all – of your thoughts. Only those which will cause you no pain for me to Hear. There is an unwritten rule of ethics in empathics which limits my Hearing…as it will limit yours. Do not be afraid of me…

He lowered his head and blew softly; his breath gave the same warmth as lying in sunshine. He laid his muzzle on the opposite limb to that which she leaned on, and regarded her lazily out of the corner of his eye – the twinkle of amusement was evident. She looked at the eye…. what an amazing colour…

His laughter reached her clearly – the skin beside that massive eye crinkled.

Not a very original reaction, little one. But I thank you.

“You’re the dragon – but you’re darker. I thought the dragon was silver.”

He is. My brother is silver. He is not back yet; he had… ‘unfinished business’, I think was his description. He will be back soon.

“What happened…”

– … to Bobby? He is no more. There is nothing left.

“Am I in Heaven? Is he in Hell?”

There is no ‘Hell’; there is only Death. And no, little one, you are not in Heaven. You are not even dead.

“Well where the hell am I, then? Oh, sorry – “

No need for sorry. Don’t let it worry you. You are – Somewhere Else – in the Mists. You are not alone –

“That much I can see!”

or I should say ‘we’ are not alone. You are never alone; you never were.

“How come you think in English?”

I think in Voice. You Hear in English because that is how you think. If you thought in Russian you would Hear me in Russian. What you Hear is concepts which you verbalize in words with which you are familiar. For instance, if I think God, you hear ‘God’, because that is the word which, for you, matches the concept which I project. For me to Speak actual words to you is difficult, for then I have to translate a concept into a word which is foreign to me. It can be done…. for example, the word for God in the place to which you are going is ‘Dominn’ – their title of respect for an adult male or a Master or a Lord is ‘Domine’; for the female equivalent ‘Domina’.

The dragon paused for a few seconds, looking measuringly at her. He breathed warm air across her again. She felt something, somehow, change within her, as if the world – or worlds – had rippled around her for a few moments and then resettled.

Incidentally, the dragon continued, you now Hear me in the language of the Children of that world. That language is now your language. The word ‘Dominn’ carries no implication of gender, and Dominn is the only One to whom that word is ever applied. It has no other meaning. They do not see Dominn as exclusively male, but as both male and female and everything in between…

“Is there anything in between?”

The laughter was there again. – Yes, there is everything in between. There is that which is female in every male, and there is that which is male in every female. The balances between male and female vary from each individual to the next. Those who deny any good part of themselves because it does not fit a stereotyped pattern deny also part of Dominn. In terms of gender, the best rule is: be yourself; be wholly yourself. Each of us is as Dominn intends them to be, whether male or female … or anything in between. Today I feel mostly male – it is not always so. The strength and protection I offer you is mostly male. The healing that I offer you is mostly female. The affection that I offer you is completely friendly and gender is therefore irrelevant.

“Do you have a name? What should I call you?”

I will Hear you by whatever name you call that fits your concept of me. However, I feel your need to attach a name to me. The concept behind my name is that of Dominn’s healing. You may think of me as ‘Raffi’ – what you would term a ‘nickname’ – I am commonly called by that name among friends. The silver dragon comes … do not be afraid of him, either.

“‘Him’?”

He is as I am; neither sex but all genders. He is usually mostly male.

“What is his name?”

It will be easy for you to think of him as ‘Gay’. Another nickname.

“‘Gay’ has several meanings on my world, Raffi.”

The amusement was there again. – I am aware of them even as you think them. There is that meaning which means bright and colourful, cheerful, happy; joyful as in music; or that which means homosexual, or simply stupid or foolish. The meaning of his full name is that concept which encompasses the given strength of Dominn. Where I am healing, he is strength – but as I also have strength, he also has healing. Each of us – human or … otherwise … has gifts according to their kind. Most of us have at least some of all gifts, but our Talents and our strengths lie in different directions. As your body is comprised of hands, feet, eyes, and so on; so your self is comprised of different parts. And each self is a different part of a greater whole – the worlds need many parts of different functions even as your body does. So a healer is neither more nor less than a prophet; as a mathematician is neither more nor less than an artist … equal, but different. All are needed.

You think of your given name as that sound which is spoken as ‘Gwyn’; but your concept of yourself is not just as that sound, but of your whole self. There can be many ‘Gwyns’ but only one you. What is the meaning of the word ‘Gwyn’?

“It’s a Welsh word. Meaning white, or pale, or fair – because my hair was very fair when I was born, I think. So Mummy said, when I asked.”

And ‘fair’ has also more than one meaning. Fair means pale or white; or blonde; or beautiful, comely; fair is not only the opposite of dark, but also of ‘unfair’, ‘unjust’. So the hidden concepts of your name imply that you are not only beautiful, but also just. Is this the whole of your given name?

“No. The whole of my name is Guinevere – which is really going back to the meaning of fair as pale. And my surname is Law.”

Law. Interesting. Here is Gay.

The silver dragon back-winged to a soft landing close to Raffi, stretched with an almost feline grace, yawned, and curled up, fixing his glowing gaze on them and resting his chin on the tip of his tail. A thin wisp of smoke curled from his nostrils. She was aware of the waft of warm affection for him from Raffi, and the smile.

Very artistic, Gay. But not entirely necessary.

Gay grinned. – I’m a dragon, aren’t I?

At the moment, yes.

Well then. Well, little one? How’s your life? There was lazy laughter in his eyes as he turned them on her; she was lost in the eyes....what an ama-

Yes, I know. Thank you. The eyelids blinked, slowly, and he cocked his head from one side to the other. The whole aura was of self-aware, self-confident amusement. You may wish to know that your Uncle Paul decided that the world was no longer big enough to hold him.

Raffi turned his head. – You didn’t…

No, I didn’t. He did. He was still alive when I left. I wonder why he kept a gun in the desk?

“He killed himself?”

To the best of my knowledge.

“Why?”

Presumably because he knew what he had done. You feel sad?

“I don’t know. I don’t feel the same about him as I did about Bobby. Which is silly.”

Raffi rested his muzzle on her shoulder. – Not silly. Your Uncle Paul was capable of feeling both affection and remorse. Bobby could feel neither. Yet Uncle Paul made Bobby what he was. There is weight in both sides of the balance. Dominn’s Justice will prevail. As always. There is no need for you to feel any pain – you cannot forget. It is good that you have forgiven.

Which you have, added Gay. I feel it. Always remember that it is that which has happened to you which has made you what you are. And what you are is what is needed now – but not here.

“Must I leave here – now?”

Raffi’s breath came warm against her cheek. – You cannot stay with us for long. For a little while longer – which is necessary, but not for long. Your sense of loss saddens me – but I thank you for it. In one way, both Gay and I will be always with you and, in great need, can be called. Remember that, somewhere. You will remember little else of this.

There was sadness in his Voice.

It is not forever. We will meet again, said Gay. What were you discussing? Anything interesting?

Raffi touched Gay’s shoulder briefly with his muzzle.

We were discussing the meaning of names. He turned his head back towards her. You said your other name was ‘Law’.

“Yes.”

Gay lifted his head from his tail, his gaze shifting from Raffi to her and back. – Hmm. Yes. Interesting, eh?

I thought you might find it so. The given name ‘Gwyn’ means fair, which also …

Yes, I am aware.

She was aware of the mix of emotions and interests in the interplay between the two dragons. Something more here than meets the eye…

Raffi and Gay stared at her. The surprise from both of them was tangible. Then Gay laughed.

Well, little one. You are very perceptive.

“So tell me.”

Raffi blew gently on her hand. – We may not. It is not permitted at this time. What is your understanding of the concept of ‘Law’?

“Law is about justice – “

Gay’s laughter was convulsive. He rolled himself back onto his side, wiping a laugh-tear from the corner of his eye, and turned his … amazing colour … eyes on her. His nostrils quivered with suppressed amusement.

Not generally, in my experience. Not the Law of Man, at any rate. There are more gross injustices perpetrated and upheld in the name of Law than you would believe. No, Law has often very little to do with Justice, little one. They are NOT synonymous.

She found herself grinning – Gay’s laughter was infectious. Raffi’s gaze radiated reassurance.

The Law of Dominn, however, is always just. But the workings of it may seem a little obscure at times.

Gay inched his head forwards until his jaw rested over Raffi’s leg and his muzzle touched her feet. His head was as long from muzzle to crown as her own body from head to feet. He kept his eyes fixed on her.

Does our size make you uneasy, little one?

“No. I like you that size. You make me feel very safe.”

Good. So do I. And you are always safe with us.

“Would it make a difference if I didn’t like you that size?”

We do not have to be this size, said Raffi. And we are not always dragons.

“Why are you dragons now?”

Because you have seen Gay as a dragon every time.

“Bobby saw you as a dragon…”

Yes. But not as quite this dragon. The tip of Gay’s tail twitched. I was very … angry. His eyes clouded briefly, and he looked away. For which I have some explaining to do … and which I regret – in part.

“Were you a dragon when you saw Uncle Paul?”

No, not then. I appeared to him as a man.

“How do you appear as a man?”

Raffi turned her gaze away from Gay by brushing her hand with his breath. His eyes fixed hers. – little one, believe me it would not be wise for you to see Gay as a man. You find him hard to handle now – as a dragon.

“You see too much, Raffi. I was curious.” She patted his nose.

His thoughts smiled at her.

Sleep, little one. You need sleep. In your sleep you will learn…

You will have the gifts of Voice and of Hearing, said Gay. These you will need. You have already some gift for healing. You have already the strength that will be needed, fair one. Your name means fair. There is an old name amongst the Children which also carries both meanings: of beauty and justice. Not in common use now – nor has been for an almost uncounted number of generations. Farinka. In your case Law can also mean Justice. Sleep now. Raffi will hold you…

Raffi’s voice was like a whisper in her mind; – People on your world, Farinka, forget how good it is to be held… it is not so on all worlds. We feel your need to be held; sleep now… the dragon arms curled round her, his breath covering her like a warm blanket. She drifted into sleep.

Raffi lifted his gaze briefly to meet Gay’s eyes.

Better me than you, he said.

You are right, of course. There are times I wish I were human, Raffi…

I know. Raffi let his thoughts mingle with Gay’s. She is asleep.

Gay dropped his silver muzzle, touching her gently. – She is asleep. Oh, Raffi… there are times when I need to be held, too.

Dominn holds you always, Gay.

Gay’s eyes closed briefly. – Yes. That is true.

Raffi nudged him. – You are hurting because you were angry. You were angry because you love. Love is good. Dominn understands. So do I.

It is enough.

CHAPTER SIX

She woke to early morning light filtering in to her through the overhanging ivy that covered the entrance to the shallow cave – barely more than an indentation in the cliff face – in which she lay curled under an animal skin of some kind. There was a bed of springy green bracken beneath her, and she could hear the sound of running water close by.

She lifted her head, shaking it to clear her thoughts; and kept still, listening. She could almost feel her ears swivelling as if she were a deer, tracking sounds outside the cave. There was the sound of early birdsong; a lark somewhere whose carol came down to her clearly, the shrill warble of some small bird, and somewhere close at hand the loud tchack! of a Jackdaw.

She remained still and closed her eyes, concentrating.

The scent on the breeze – through that of the ivy – was that of late summer or early autumn. There was a slight nip in the air….there was a mouse drinking at the edge of the tiny stream which sprang from the cliff face, there was a group of four or five rabbits nibbling the grass close by – and the watching eyes of a vixen close to them. She had cubs to feed, and was hungry. The vixen’s scent came to Farinka on the breeze. Gradually the vixen recognised the Awareness of a creature other than herself, and one of her ears flicked, distracted. The rabbits froze. Farinka withdrew her Awareness from the vixen … and opened her eyes, sitting up slowly and pulling the … bearskin … closely around her shoulders. She smiled briefly to herself, Aware of a ‘memory’ which wasn’t really hers, and which hadn’t been there a moment ago. She crept on hands and knees to the cave entrance, and peered out through the ivy. She caught the quick flicker of movement as the mouse made a dive for cover.

A faint smell of woodsmoke drifted up the hillside towards her. There was a sudden scuffle below as the vixen sprang out upon an unwary rabbit. The others scattered, white scuts bobbing against the grassy background. The vixen trotted off, the rabbit dangling from her jaws, her brush held stiffly behind her as a counterbalance.

Farinka crept back into the cave, picked up the smooth wooden bowl, and went out to the spring for water. The rock beneath her feet had not yet had a chance to warm in the early sun, and the spring water was very cold. She hastily splashed her face and washed her hands. The cold made her skin tingle.

Her boots – fashioned again from some animal skin; and whose soles were wearing thin – lay beside the crude backpack …where she had left them the night before… another of those ‘non-memories’, she thought to herself. She pulled the boots on and tied the laces round the ankles; rolled the bearskin up next to the pack, and quickly pulled the hooded jacket – again skin – over the crudely knitted woollen vest. It felt like lambswool. Underpants, she noticed, were of some kind of creamy woven thread, and very soft. The trousers were of the same skin as the jacket ….deerskin…. and surprisingly comfortable …they had had a long time to adjust to her shape… although they were by now a little short, barely reaching to the top of the boots. She would have to make some more soon. She pulled the polished wooden comb through her dark chestnut hair, re-plaiting it deftly into the long braid which swung down beyond her waist, and tying a soft leather band around her head, Indian-fashion, to keep the side strands from blowing into her eyes.

She searched the backpack for the last of the bread ration which was stowed in there, and buttered it with herb-flavoured bacon-dripping from a small wooden pot. She sat in the cave entrance, eating slowly, and looking around.

The sun climbed slowly up the sky; the warmth gradually crept into her. She stood, collected her things together, filled her waterskin from the spring, tied the bearskin roll to the top of the backpack, and slipped her arms and head through the straps, hefting it to adjust the balance before tightening the hip strap. She trod, quiet as a cat, down the sheep-track on the side of the hill, making for the smell of the woodsmoke.

***

A group of young children was playing a marbles game in front of the wooden shack at the eastern end of the village. One caught a glimpse of movement on the hillside, and drew the attention of the rest. It was seldom that a stranger came near, these days – the occasional travelling shaman or healer, sometimes a trader (though they usually had a packbeast with them), sometimes a solitary hunter; and sometimes an outcast from another village. Though they had never seen a Seeker, they had heard of them in bedtime stories; everything about this stranger was right for the part.

One child ran toward the village hearth, calling to his mother to come and see. The rest of the children ranged themselves across the wide pathway to intercept the stranger, their faces alight with curiosity.

Farinka had been watching the children ever since stepping over the brow of the hill; by the time she reached the village they had been joined by a small group of women. The faces of the women were less alight – though no less curious. Farinka could feel the suspicion that tinged their curiosity. The oldest of the women addressed her; a tall dark-haired, big-built woman with deep brown eyes and weather-browned skin.

“Ubiyee? War gosta?”

“Seeking,” she heard herself answering. Her mind re-ran the questions. – Who are you? Where are you going?

“Uzai dah?” asked one of the children, and was quickly hushed by another.

Her mind interpreted swiftly: Who’s your father? “My father is dead,” she answered….their dialect is strange… she passed a hand across her forehead. She could almost feel her mind click into a more appropriate way of listening.

“I Seek – and I beg shelter for some days.” She caught the oldest woman’s eye, and smiled, projecting all the warmth she could into the smile.

The woman’s face lit up. “Of course – of course. You are very welcome, Seeker. Drink with us now.” The rest of the party around her relaxed as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown; she was engulfed by questions from the children, and managed to find answers for nearly all of them – from where, she never quite knew, but the answers were there, and seemed to satisfy her audience. There was only one question to which the answer was missing.

“What do you Seek?” asked a young woman with rich auburn hair. Farinka felt a sudden chill inside her.

“I may not tell you, it is not permitted,” she answered. “Please don’t ask me. May I ask you some questions?”

She learnt that the men were away, had been so for some days, hunting; that there was an undercurrent of concern that they had been away for longer than expected; that the village healer was lying sick and unable to speak in one of the houses, and that the healer’s apprentice was with the group of men who were away.

She learnt that the Headman, Piet, was the partner of Annse, the big dark woman who had first spoken to her; the auburn girl’s name was Marte and she was promised to the Headman’s brother Jaimeh; and also that Piet’s uncle Bern was regarded with wary caution by the women of the village – this she gathered from an Awareness of the tightening of their thoughts when he was spoken of.

She finished the cup of hot herbal tisane. And made up her mind.

“Take me to your healer’s house – I may be able to help her.” That sudden knowledge had wafted into her mind, leaving her feeling confident.

“You have skill as a healer?” asked Annse, her eyes brightening.

“Some. And my own supplies of herbs are low.” This she had noticed that morning. “Maybe your healer can also help me.”

Marte took over watching the stewpot. Farinka walked with Annse to the house of the healer – one of the few stone buildings in the village – and stood for a moment in the doorway, her eyes desperately trying to adjust to the darkness within. She felt another sudden ‘gear-shift’ within her mind; the subsequent ability of her eyes to adapt to the available light was instant. And permanent…she realised.

“She cannot abide the light,” whispered Annse as they entered. Annse approached the crude bed, laying a hand on the shoulder of the woman who lay curled under the skin cover.

“Karinna, a Seeker is here. Will you accept her Touch?”

The lump under the bedcoverings barely stirred, but from the doorway Farinka was Aware of her consent. She stepped over to the bed, casting Awareness over and through the body of the woman who lay there.

….there is such stillness … too much stillness. The woman’s breathing was rough, as though each breath was the result of conscious effort rather than unconscious instinct. Farinka half shut her eyes, knowing that the knowledge she needed was within reach. She bent over the still form, putting one hand on the hot brow.

There was poison, somewhere – a slowly absorbed toxin gradually building up in the body. There was also fever, and the brain was reacting to it … that’s the reason for the photophobia… there was also a definite, but small, alien presence which was the cause of the problem.

A parasite of some kind … this is a tick paralysis. With some complications. She spoke to the woman.

“I can help you, Karinna. There may be a little pain.” She slid her smallest knife – more of a scalpel – from its wrist sheath into her left palm, going to the banked fire and stirring it into life. She held the blade in the flame until it glowed, then returned to the bedside.

The tick was easily found – clear instinct led her hand immediately to it. The flat of the hot blade settled the tick’s accounts, and the sharp point made a small incision where it had bitten. Two ticks had bitten, and though the second bite was clean, the first had festered where the tick had been knocked away, leaving its jaws embedded in the skin. There was angry red around the first bite, and the scalp was hot to the touch – and painful. A second incision opened the festering point, and pus spurted out. She was vaguely Aware of something more happening through her touch, but couldn’t put a name to it.

“Annse, can you fetch for me the camomile tea? With flowerheads in?” Farinka glanced up briefly at Annse, who nodded and went out, returning a moment later with a pot held in a rough cloth cradled in her hands. Farinka pulled a small square of clean linen from her pocket, dipped it and wrung it almost dry, then bathed the small wound, closing it by knotting together a few hairs from each side of the cut. A few flowerheads fished from the hot tea and briefly cooled were enough for a small poultice, which she held in place with a strip of cloth torn from the roll beside the sick healer’s drying herbs. She smiled down at Karinna; “You will be well soon. Rest now. I will find someone to make you more comfortable.” She patted the woman’s hand.

“How long will it be before she is well?” asked Annse in a whisper as they left the house.

“A few days, probably. She must be kept comfortable – change the rushes on the bed, burn the old rushes. Turn her regularly so her skin doesn’t get more sore. Give her a fresh cover, and bathe her. She will have some small sores where she has been lying still – these must be washed with camomile, or comfrey …” – Annse’s face was briefly puzzled. Farinka hesitated. “Um… knitbone. Cook some camomile into lard, and use the lard to grease the sores. The lard must be cooked smoke-hot, and put into a new wooden pot with a tight lid. Cook in a little salt, too – it will help it to stay fresh. Though it may sting on the sores. If that stings her too much, use honey instead of the ointment.”

Annse’s face brightened. “I asked because we have had no healer since the men went away – there are some small things Karinna would have done, which need to be done..?”

Farinka grinned. “Yes. I’ll do them. Whoever needs me, send them to Karinna’s house – I will need her herbs. We need not disturb her.” A sudden tiredness washed over her. “Where may I stay, Annse? I need somewhere to put my things – and to rest. For a while. I have been Seeking for a long time.”

“I forget my manners, Seeker. Come with me – there is a small house empty. I will show you.”

‘Small house’ was a generous overstatement, Farinka thought as she looked at the building. Most people at home would have been ashamed to have called it a garden shed – but it would suffice.

She collected fresh dried rushes to heap against one wall for a bed, unrolled the bearskin to air it in the sunshine beside the doorway, and lay down on the rushes. Just half an hour… she thought.

***

She was woken some time later by the sound of voices outside, the quiet sound of unshod hooves in the dust. She sat up. From the angle of the sun, she had slept for at least three hours. She rubbed her eyes, deftly re-did her hair, and used some of the spring-water she had brought with her to wash quickly, taking a few sips, before stepping outside.

A group of shaggy, sturdy ponies was hitched to a rail about thirty feet away; most of them were still laden with packs slung across their backs. There was some kind of argument in progress around the farthest pony. Annse’s voice was raised in protest.

“By all that’s sacred, why have you brought this Demon-spawn into our village, Piet? Have you no sense? They will come for it!”

“And we shall be ready for them,” said Piet, glowering at her. “Believe me, woman, we shall be ready. And by the time they arrive we’ll know all there is to know about the murdering swine. Look at us! Look, woman!” He swept a hand wide.

From the doorway of her house Farinka looked at the returned hunters. They were weary, dusty; some had smears of blood on them which Farinka could see even from that distance.

Piet went on. “Eight of us went out. Only seven have come back. Think on that one.” He turned to the pony and untied something from its pack; something which thudded to the ground by the pony’s hooves. The pony lowered his head as far as he was able, trying to sniff, careful not to tread on whatever it was.

Farinka walked slowly across.

The thing on the ground was the body of a small girl; golden-skinned and with sleekly smooth dark hair. Farinka cast her Awareness quickly over. …Not dead; unconscious – and badly beaten. Sudden recognition hit her, and her pulse quickened. This was a Child.

Annse caught sight of Farinka from the corner of her eye.

“Piet,” she said, resting a hand on his arm. “I forgot. We have a visitor. A Seeker.”

“A Seeker?” the big man whirled round, looking appraisingly at Farinka. His face broke into a smile. “I greet you, Seeker. Perhaps the Luck you bring us will remove the Curse of this Demon-spawn.”

“Our Headman, and my man – Piet.” Annse introduced her.

Piet was still watching her, his eyes curious. “May we know your name, Seeker?” he asked. “It would add to our Luck!”

She heard Annse’s gasp of horror. “Piet, you know better than to ask!”

Farinka smiled in reassurance. “It’s okay – with me. My name is Farinka,” she answered, looking at the Child.

Piet slapped the pony’s rump, “Get over, Brownie,” he said. The pony jumped aside, landing on three legs so as to avoid treading on the Child. Farinka found herself Aware of the depths of its animal concern. Piet quickly unstrapped the rest of the packs from the pony; he looked up at the rest of the men.

“Well, get on with it!” he said. “Time for socialising later.”

The ponies were unloaded swiftly, the men going about their work quietly. Farinka crouched by the Child. She looked to be about five years old – but somehow Farinka knew that in this case, looks were deceptive. There was the impression of a much greater age – a sort of timelessness. Piet caught sight of her, and frowned.

“I’d keep away from that Demon-spawn, were I you,” he said abruptly.

Farinka looked up at him and met his eyes squarely. “This is a Child,” she said.

Piet stopped his work. “That’s no child,” he said. “That’s a devil. The woods close to our hunting grounds are accursed – swarming with these devils. We’ve been trying to eradicate them for generations. Thought we had, at one time – but more moved in. Where do you come from that you don’t know about them?” He stood close to her.

She stood up. “I come from very far away. But I have seen no devils on my way.”

“No – they’ve more sense than to tackle a Seeker, I’ll bet.”

“Devil or not, this Child’s wounds must be treated.”

Piet frowned. “You are a healer?”

“I am.”

“Don’t waste your time, Seeker. My men also have wounds which need seeing to.”

“I will treat this one first,” said Farinka, her eyes challenging his. “And then I will treat your men. And then any others that need treatment.” She bent to pick up the Child.

“On your own head be it,” said Piet as she carried the child to her house. “But that devil will be wearing iron before it wakes up. I give you my word on that.” There was an unspoken threat in his voice. And also fear, Farinka noticed.

The Child weighed little … hardly there at all, Farinka thought as she carried her. She laid the Child down gently on the pile of rushes, aware of a gradual awakening of sense in her at the same instant as she heard heavy footsteps approaching the house. The Child stirred restlessly.

Be still, little one, keep very still, her Voice was urgent. Show no sign that you are awake.

She turned to look at the man who stood in the doorway; a big brute of a man, thickly bearded and with unkempt dark hair. He stank of old sweat. She felt the hackles rise on her neck. He was looking steadily at her, then sniffed and turned away.

Farinka turned back to the Child. Its Voice was the lightest of mental whispers, and hesitant, filled with dawning recognition, disbelief, and wonder.

…Domina?…..Domina? The Child opened her eyes and looked up. Her eyes were hazel-chestnut – two shades darker than the leaves in autumn.

Farinka cast Awareness beyond the house walls for long enough to know that no-one was within earshot, and crouched by the Child.

“What is your name, little one?” she asked in a whisper.

“Shiffih,” came the answer, even quieter. “And yours?”

“Farinka. Lie very still. I must do something about your hurts.”

“They’re not much. No bones broken. Just sore.” – Mostly the feet, was the mental coda.

Farinka grinned. – So I see. What did they do to you?

They tied me behind the packbeast and galloped it.

Farinka winced. – Yes. Nasty. They are going to be sore for a long while, little one. Most of the skin is torn. However, I will do as much as I can.

They will kill me, you know. And you, too – if they find out what you are.

Don’t worry about a thing. Farinka’s eyes laughed. They have no idea who I am! And I will not let them hurt you, either. Although we will have to play their game for a while. They spoke of chaining you in iron?

The Child grinned; there was a mental chuckle. – It’s a myth. It makes no difference because I am not enabled; I have no Power anyway. And if I were enabled, it would still make no difference. I don’t know why they believe it does.

Farinka smiled. – So it won’t bother you?

Not at all. Except for the weight.

Hush now. I must concentrate on this. Farinka indicated the torn feet.

***

Farinka walked towards the village hearth confidently. Piet caught her eye, and stood up.

“Well? Will you now see to the wounds of my people?”

Farinka hunkered down by the fire. “I will. I might as well do so here – I’ll need hot water, after all.”

“Is the Demon-spawn not awake yet?” It was the ugly brute she had seen before who had spoken.

Farinka fixed him with her eyes, and felt his mental cringe – and a burning resentment as he felt himself cringe.

“No. Nor will she be for quite some time.”

“She should be chained!” said one of the younger men in a shocked voice.

“Hush, Jaimeh,” said Marte, tugging at his sleeve.

“Well, he’s right!” spoke up another one bitterly.

“Gort, Jaimeh!” said Piet, “I agree. But there’s no need for this.” There were fearful, angry glances exchanged between the adults present. “I’ll see to it. By your leave, Seeker.”

“She can stay in my house,” said Farinka.

“You’re daft, girl!” the ugly man said.

Piet turned to him. “Enough, Bern. You forget your manners. She is a Seeker, man!”

“Yes, I’m a Seeker. And as such you have to agree that I am better able to keep your Demon-spawn safe than you are!” Farinka told Bern bitingly. He glowered at her.

“Hush, Seeker,” said Piet very softly to her. “She can stay in your house. But she must be chained – or I’ll have a lynch mob on my hands.” They walked away from the hearth. “How long will it be before she wakes?”

“I have no idea.”

“I need to know where the rest of them are hiding – then we can drive them away – or kill them. We can’t have them even as close to the village as the hunting grounds. They could attack at any time, Seeker!”

“Do they attack? If you haven’t captured one of them?”

Piet scratched his head. Farinka followed him into a workshop. He rummaged through a pile of chains, muttering to himself. “… no, too heavy. Can’t afford that one. Too long … this one’s not iron … aahh! Yes.”

He held up a short length of light chain. “This will do. Not strong, but it is iron. And in answer to your question – I don’t know. We’ve never actually been attacked – but I’ve heard of people who have heard of places that have been.”

“Would you accept the possibility that, although the people from whom you heard this may have told you in good faith what they had heard, what they heard may not, itself, have been truth? And who started the trouble you had while you were out?” Farinka asked, looking at the chain.

“Well, there you have me,” said Piet, sitting on an anvil and filling his pipe from a pouch at his belt.

“Well? What happened?”

“We were hunting. We have regular hunting grounds within a day’s journey from here. The mountain sheep and goats graze up on the alps to the east; there are always some to be had. Trouble was, when we got there, they were there before us. Lying in wait.”

“They?”

“Demons – devils! Them! Hunting our grounds! They use some sorcery – animals drop, and they run out to pick them up. Some of the men got – out of hand, I suppose you could say – and chased after them. The little one was closest to the rear. She fell. Bern picked her up…” his voice trailed off, remembering. “Well; the others kept chasing, and suddenly they started to drop like flies, one after another – asleep, bewitched; who knows? Rovik was after one that had climbed a tree. He fell – three man-heights. Broke his neck.”

He took a drag at his pipe, found it had gone out, and went through the lengthy process of relighting it. “By the time Rovik died – it took a couple of minutes – the devils had gone. Disappeared like smoke in the wind – and our men were waking up. As if they had just had five minutes sleep.”

He dragged again on his pipe. “We carried Rovik back to where Bern … was. He’d hog-tied the Demon-spawn. Was trying to make her talk. Didn’t work. Probably just as well I got back when I did; Bern can get nasty if his will’s crossed. And I think we’re in enough trouble already. I don’t want her killed … but I don’t see how to stop it happening. I should have made them turn her loose; she’d have found her way back to the others. But I was angry. Rovik was my sister’s son.”

He was silent for a few minutes. “Bern made her walk most of the way home. Tied her to his beast’s pack. I stayed behind with Jaimeh to bury Rovik. The others went with Bern. Jaimeh and I caught them up some time later. The Demon-spawn was unconscious. They’d tied her on Bern’s packbeast. We brought her home. Managed to hunt out some game on the way, so at least we’ve got meat, and hides.”

Farinka sat, thinking. "So basically, you could say that your men chased these – Devils – away from a group of wild animals that they were hunting, on ground owned by no-one. Attacked them, in fact. Captured and beat one of them. And in return the 'devils' did no deliberate harm to any of your men -"

“Rovik died, Seeker.”

“That was an accident. If they can kill wild animals, they could have killed your men as they lay sleeping. And they could have made you sleep, and killed you – but they left you with Rovik, who needed you. Left you untouched, Piet. Didn’t they?”

Piet sighed. “Yes. They left me untouched.”

“And now your men are planning to torture and kill one of them – for what?”

Piet shrugged.

“You talk like a sensible man, Piet. I think I can help you – my Luck protects me, and to some extent your people, as they have given me Shelter.”

Piet turned his eyes towards her. She felt the microsurge of hope within him. “What will you do?” he asked.

“I’ll treat your people. And I will take your – Demonspawn – with me when I leave. Until then, she’ll be safe enough chained and in my house – which is also Lucky. I’ll need one of your animals to carry her until she wakes. Then I can turn it loose – will it come back to you?”

“Yes. We feed them well. You could have my own beast – “ Piet offered.

“I’d rather pick one for myself, if possible,” Farinka answered with a smile. “Not that there’s likely to be anything wrong with yours, but different beasts get on with different people in different ways.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” said Piet with an answering grin. “You know how to handle them?”

“Yes. I’ve been training … packbeasts … for years.”

“A female trainer?”

“Customs are different where I come from, Piet.”

“Obviously.” He dragged on his pipe again. “We must chain your charge,” he said at last. “And my men are waiting for your healing.”

“I thought one of them was the healer’s apprentice?” Farinka queried.

Piet glanced up at her as he stood. “Rovik was.”

“I see.” They went towards Farinka’s house. “Marte would make a healer, you know, Piet.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. Talk to Karinna when she is well.”

“I will. And I understand we have to thank you for Karinna’s life – we owe you a life in return.”

“She is improved already?”

“Yes. Noticeably.”

“Good. In return – I need some of her herbs. I also need bread – and meat if you can spare it. Anything else you can spare me to eat which I can carry. And – I’ll accept the life of your Demon-spawn. A life for a life.”

“The men will accept that. It is an honourable way out of the problem, Seeker.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

The packbeasts had been led away to graze on a grassy meadow close to the stream. Farinka and Piet walked across the meadow slowly.

There were perhaps twenty animals in all, including mares and youngstock. All but one were shades of black, bay, dun, brown or chestnut. Farinka’s eyes were drawn to the only grey amongst them – a bigger, finer animal than the others, close to pure white with just a hint of silvering here and there, and he looked to be around fifteen hands. None of them were gelded, but in spite of some petty bickering among the other males, none of them approached this one.

Piet laughed when he saw which way she was looking.

“He’s no good,” he said with a grin.

“Why not?”

“Well, he’s a white one. If you’ve handled so many packbeast – “

“Never one like that,” she said.

“You’ve not had one of these?” Piet asked. “You’re lucky. The whites are no good to anyone. They won’t be tamed – won’t even be caught. You can’t even eat ‘em – that’s the worst luck anyone can bring on himself, so I’ve heard. You eat a white one and the others will never work for you again. One day soon he’ll be off – he’ll just go. They always do. Some folk even say it’s unlucky to have one around – but I’ve never found it so. We’ve had several. Usually one born every couple of years – but then the adults always get to serve the mares they want – the other stallions won’t fight ‘em for it. Not that they want many; they’re unusually choosy.”

He stopped and sat on a fallen tree, looking at the beasts.

“The red mare’s a good one – but she’s got a foal at foot and he’s not old enough to wean. You could have any of them, really.”

Farinka kept watching the grey colt – for he was not really mature enough to warrant the title of stallion. Perhaps three, maybe four, she thought, looking at him. Ever since she had walked onto the meadow he had been watching her, sometimes out of the corner of his eye while he grazed, sometimes lifting his head and gazing squarely at her.

“I’d like to take him – if he’ll let me,” she said.

“Well, you being a Seeker might make a difference. There are old, old legends,” he added thoughtfully. “You’re welcome to try. I tell you now he’s never been touched – he certainly won’t let me near him. I’ll leave you to it. If you can’t catch him, pick another. I’ll see you back by the hearth, with whatever you bring back.” He stood up, looked at the grey thoughtfully, and strolled off in the direction of the village. Farinka noticed that he stopped under the shade of a big tree, almost hiding behind it, to watch her progress.

Farinka cast her Awareness towards the grey, almost as though focussing a spotlight on him. As soon as her mind touched him he lifted his head, instantly Aware of her. A kindred spirit, she found herself thinking. He stopped chewing, blades of grass sticking out from the corner of his lips.

Well, big fella?

He tipped his head on one side, and chewed thoughtfully. She sensed the lack of fear in his thoughts – and a burning curiosity, almost excitement. He swallowed, and kept his gaze on her.

Will you let me come to you, big fella?

He dipped his head once – it was so like a nod of assent that she almost laughed. She stood up from the log, leaving behind the rope halter that Piet had left with her, and walked across the meadow. He kept his eyes constantly on her, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his ears pricked, his nostrils flared. She came to a halt a few paces from him.

Well, I’ve come to you. Now you come to me.

She held her hands out in front of her, palms inwards.

He took three steps forwards, sniffed at her curiously, and in a sudden gesture of friendship – not quite of submission – lowered his head between her hands as if into the halter that she did not hold.

She rubbed the sides of his head, working her hands up behind his ears and onto his neck, stepping close enough to reach both arms around his neck. He rested his head over her shoulder, blowing sweet grass-scented breath warmly onto her neck, then curled his neck around her and lipped at the jacket, pulling her closer with his jaw.

They stood still for a few moments.

“Why do I get this feeling that you were waiting here for me?” she whispered. “Come on, then. We’ve got a long way to go together.” She patted him, then turned back towards the village, keeping her hand resting on his withers. He trod as quietly beside her as the riding school’s Riffie had always done back at home.

Piet was by the hearth when she walked into the village proper, looking as though he had been there for ages. The other men watched curiously as she led the grey over to her house and told him to wait there. One of them walked over towards him, but he laid his ears flat and threatened with one hind leg.

“Don’t try to touch him,” advised Farinka. “Do you have a brush I could clean him up with?”

A selection of brushes and combs was found for her, and a hoofpick.

She spent some time working on him, teasing the tangles out of his mane and tail, cleaning out his feet, brushing away the loose fuzz from his moulting summer coat; aware all the time of the watching gaze of the village people by the fire – and of Shiffih from inside the house. The Child was lying, silent and still, on the bed of rushes, her eyes never leaving the white packbeast.

He’s beautiful, she said after while. Has he got a name?

I’ve no doubt he has, replied Farinka, but I don’t know how to ask him what it is.

Shiffih smiled, her eyes twinkling. – He’s very dusty. Maybe we should call him Dusty.

Farinka found herself grinning. – Possibly a bit down-to-earth, she said.

Well, okay. How about Moondust? Shiffih suggested.

Yes, that would suit him. I expect the people here have been calling him Whitey, or some other truly inspired name.

Shiffih grinned, and a low chuckle escaped her.

Careful, little one. Stay very quiet. They have no idea that you’re awake. Which also means that you’ll have to act like a pack again when we go. Okay?

Yes, I know. But it won’t be for long.

Farinka left Moondust standing quietly outside her house while she collected together her things. Annse came over to her. Moondust rolled one eye in Annse’s direction, but allowed her to enter the house.

“I’ve found a sheepskin and bellyband for the beast,” said Annse quietly. “And some bands to tie … her … across him. I’m glad you’re taking her – it would only have caused trouble for her to stay here – whether she lived or not.”

“Thank you,” said Farinka, glancing over to where Shiffih lay, eyes closed now, on the rushes. “And thank you also for your hospitality. I wish you Luck.”

Annse’s face creased into a smile.

“Seeker, our thanks for your Luck. I will tell the others.” She went back out, circling warily around Moondust.

By the time Farinka had tied the sheepskin onto Moondust and felt ready to go, it was dusk, deepening into early night. The fire flickered in the village hearth; the children had said goodnight and goodbye and retreated to their beds; and she had drunk a cup of hot mead with the villagers.

Farinka undid the chain from Shiffih’s wrists and ankles, and replaced it with soft suede bands. She lifted the Child easily and swung her across Moondust’s back, tying the bands to his bellyband.

Piet came over to her.

“It won’t make any difference if you turn that one loose when you don’t need him,” he said with a grin. “He won’t come back to us. He’s chosen to go with you. Keep him – and welcome.”

Farinka briefly hugged Piet.

“My thanks,” she said. “Look after Annse.”

Piet’s brow creased for a moment. “What makes you say that?”

“She’s pregnant,” replied Farinka with a grin.

Piet’s face lit up. “Wow! And we’ve been trying for years! Thank you, Seeker!”

“Believe it or not, I had nothing to do with that one,” said Farinka, still grinning. “I must go. I want to be well clear of your village before real dark – the ‘devils’ will leave you well alone if they know that this one’s not here.”

“I hope that you’re right,” said Piet. “Take a halter – you might need it.”

“The rope’s a bit rough for his nose,” said Farinka.

“I’ve got a soft hide one we use for training,” said Piet.

“Thank you. That would be useful.”

***

The firelight was no more than a dim and distant flicker behind them as they made their way along the track towards the hunting grounds. They passed under the shadow of the trees, Moondust’s hooves making little more noise than Farinka’s boots on the soft carpet of leaf-mould. After about a quarter of a mile into the woods Farinka felt the hairs on her back prickle. Moondust flicked his ears back, then shifted his head towards her and blew on her arm.

Yes, I know, she said. little one, we’ve got company.

The big man. He’s about two hundred yards behind us.

I’m going to untie you so you can sit up. Stay on Moondust – he can get you out of danger.

What about you?

I’ll be okay. You go on ahead. I’m staying here.

Farinka unbound Shiffih quickly, and the Child shifted one leg over Moondust’s back to sit upright. Moondust hesitated uneasily, but Farinka whispered “Carry her for me,” to him, and sent him on and stepped behind a tree, loosening her knives in their belt-sheaths.

She could hear Bern clearly. She stepped out onto the path when he was some ten yards from her, and he stopped abruptly. An ugly grin spread across his face.

“Well, Seeker-girl? You want some fun?”

Farinka’s knives flickered into her hands, blade upwards.

“Make my day,” she said, walking towards him. “Try it.”

He backed off, pulling his own belt knife and throwing it swiftly.

Farinka twisted aside and let the knife pass her, embedding itself in the trunk of a tree.

Bern made a bull-like lunge at her; Farinka dodged aside, crouching, and came round behind him in a roll, slicing across one of his heels with her left-hand knife and cutting through most of the tendon.

Bern let out a howl of rage and pain, falling heavily on his side. He twisted towards his knife-hilt, sticking out of the tree, but Farinka was there before him.

“You want this?” she asked. Bern shook his head.

Farinka held one of her own knives between her teeth and pulled Bern’s blade from the tree. She threw it back down the track towards the village. “Go fetch it,” she said. “Don’t come back. And Bern – my Luck no longer protects you.”

She watched him get slowly to his feet and hobble down the track, glancing back over his shoulder occasionally until he could no longer see her in the darkness. There was the soft sound of hoofbeats, and Moondust was standing close to her, Shiffih holding tightly to his mane with one hand.

“Has he gone?”

“Yes.”

“You should have killed him, Domina. He has a badness in him.”

“No. That would have been pointless, little one. And unnecessary. Are you hungry?”

“Yes.”

“We’ll find somewhere soon to eat.”

The night thickened round them, what little moonlight there was barely reaching the track at all through the tree cover. In places there was a small patch of light, where a tree had fallen and the saplings under it had not had time to reach the leaf ceiling; but eventually they came to a small clearing into which the moon shone clearly.

“We’ll rest here,” said Farinka. “Don’t jump down – you’ll hurt your feet. I’ll lift you.”

Shiffih slid down into her arms, and tried to stand, wincing as she did so.

“Sit,” said Farinka. Shiffih sat.

Farinka took the sheepskin and bellyband off Moondust, and he wandered around the edges of the clearing, picking at the grass occasionally before settling himself in the middle, turning round twice and lying down with his head facing back along the track. He rested his muzzle on the ground, but his eyes stayed watchful for some time.

Farinka made rough sandwiches from bread and meat, and Shiffih chewed on a couple of willow leaves before eating the wedges.

“Helps take the pain away,” she said through a mouthful.

“Don’t chew too much. You’ll upset your stomach.”

“Mm.”

“You can use Moondust’s sheepskin for a cover. I want to be moving again as soon as the sun comes up, so get some sleep.”

Farinka covered Shiffih, and unrolled her bearskin, using the backpack as a pillow.

In the centre of the clearing, Moondust kept half an eye and half an ear open for trouble.

A mile behind, Nemeth sat on one of the lowest branches of an oak, his back against the trunk, keeping an eye on the village in the distance.

***

Morning found both Shiffih and Farinka cold and stiff. There had been a heavy dew in the night, and the skin covers were themselves covered with droplets.

Farinka shook most of the water off them, and hung them in a patch of early sunlight while she and Shiffih ate a cold breakfast. Moondust was grazing as though there was no tomorrow, relishing the wetness of the grass. Occasionally he stopped to rub his forehead against his leg, as if it were bothering him.

Farinka watched him for a while, then went over to him.

“What’s fretting you, lad?” she asked him.

In reply he snorted, and rubbed his forehead vigorously against her shoulder, almost knocking her off balance.

“Hold still a minute and let me look,” she said, catching hold of his head between her hands.

There was a thumbnail sized patch of bare skin showing in the centre of the hair-whorl on his head. It was slightly raised. Bee sting? she wondered, and touched it gently to see if it was warm. A jolt ran up her arm as if she had put her hand on an electric fence – but without the pain. She felt momentarily dizzy, and shook her head abruptly to clear it. The lump was quite warm.

“Did something sting you?” she asked. Moondust shook his mane and blew into her ear, then wandered over to the skins hanging in the sunlight. He glanced over to her suggestively, and pulled at the sheepskin.

Shiffih burst out laughing.

“I think he wants to make a move,” she said.

“Could be,” agreed Farinka. She tied the sheepskin onto him and lifted Shiffih up. “I’ll walk,” she said.

It was close on mid-day by the time they reached a broad alpine meadow dotted with wild sheep and goats, and carpeted with rich grass, an abundance of herbs, and a mass of many-coloured wild flowers. The hum of bees was audible.

They had been climbing steadily for the past eight miles or so, roughly following the course of a stream which rippled over pale pebbles. Minnows flicked in and out of the rushes by its banks where the stream had spread in flatter areas, and three times Farinka caught sight of the swift flash of vivid blue as a kingfisher hunted the water from overhanging branches.

Farinka lifted Shiffih down from Moondust’s back, and removed the sheepskin, sending him off onto the alp. He got down and rolled several times, then scrambled to his feet and shook himself. He came back over to them, slaked his thirst at the stream, and returned to the alp to graze.

Farinka and Shiffih sat on a sun-warmed rock by the stream, having drunk their fill, and ate yet more meat sandwiches.

“There’s watercress here,” said Shiffih, rummaging along the edge of the stream and emerging with a dripping handful. She washed the wildlife out from the leaves in the swift water, and they supplemented the sandwiches with greens. The cress was less bitter than Farinka had been used to, and much crisper.

Farinka stood, eventually. “Well, sitting here is getting us nowhere fast,” she said. She felt her attention curiously drawn to the track up which they had climbed, and flicked Awareness quickly along it.

For a moment she had a vague feeling of something – or someone – there, but the tingle was replaced by a sudden blank patch which tried to deny that it was anything but her imagination. She scratched her head, still looking. Well, there had been no sense of threat.

***

Back down the hillside, Nemeth was suddenly conscious of a mind-touch. He shielded almost instantly, grinned to himself, and carried on grilling the trout he had tickled from the stream. It would be nice to find out more, he thought to himself. The trouble with that game is that it’s mutual.

***

That evening Farinka collected together enough dry moss to start a fire, and spent several minutes with a flint from the path and the knife-sharpening steel from her pack trying to get a spark to land in the right place. Eventually there was a glow in the moss, and she cradled it in her hands, blowing gently on it to coax it into a small flame. A few dry twigs later she had the makings of a small fire, which Shiffih fed with larger sticks which she had been gathering.

“There are rabbits just down the path,” said Shiffih in a whisper. “Shall I get one?”

“That sounds good,” said Farinka.

Shiffih pulled a small catapult out of her pocket, and chose three or four round pebbles. “May I borrow a knife?”

Farinka handed one over with a smile. “Good hunting.”

“Back soon,” said Shiffih, and trod carefully away, placing her feet with caution. Farinka had made crude soft shoes for the Child out of some small pieces of lambskin from her pack, but Shiffih’s feet were still pretty painful.

***

Nemeth sat quietly high in a tree, watching Shiffih as she sat half hidden by a bramble thicket, downwind of the rabbits which nibbled the short grasses alongside the trail.

She fitted a pebble into the catapult, picked out one rabbit – young, not too tough – aimed carefully and killed cleanly. The other rabbits darted away; Shiffih stayed quite still. In a few minutes the rabbits crept out again and started to graze. Less than half a minute later another one dropped like a stone. The rest disappeared again. Nemeth could almost feel Shiffih wondering whether to go for a third one, and was relieved when she decided to.

He could never quite get over just how stupid rabbits were, for in another couple of minutes they were back again. Instinct didn’t take account of invisible predators. The third rabbit was swiftly accounted for, and Shiffih came out from beside the bush.

Nemeth sent a thought gently across to her.

Good hunting, Little Sister.

Shiffih froze, her eyes looking for him.

Nemeth?

Here. He swung down from the branch, dropping almost soundlessly and wiping his hands on the front of his tunic.

Shiffih ran to him, screwing her eyes up against the sharp pain from her feet, and was folded in his arms as he lifted her. She wrapped her arms round his neck and buried her face in his shoulder; allowing her joy in seeing him to wash over him, and feeling the backwash of his relief enveloping her like a blanket.

I thought I’d lost you, Little Sister, he said, breathing in the scent of her hair and shutting his eyes.

I’ve been in good hands, she said.

Yes, I know. I wasn’t sure at first. Who is she?

A stranger. Domina.

Really? How?

I don’t know. Will you eat with us?

I’d love to. I’ll give you a hand with these rabbits.

He put her down, and they sat together skinning and gutting the rabbits. Nemeth folded the usable portions into a bundle which he slung across his chest, then lifted Shiffih and carried her, piggy-back, up the trail.

Moondust snorted as Nemeth appeared.

Farinka looked up and saw him standing where the path widened; a boy-man who looked about eighteen or twenty but was probably much older – he had the same timeless quality that she had noticed in Shiffih. He was about six foot two, his wavy hair black-brown with a hint of auburn, tied around, as hers was, Indian-fashion, and about shoulder length. His skin was somewhere between gold and olive, and his eyes almost the colour of amber; his cheekbones were high and broad, and the nose between them almost aquiline enough to be beaklike; he was muscular without being beefy, lean without being light, powerful without being threatening. The overall impression included heavy overtones of a very large, partly-tamed bird of prey.

I don’t bite, he said. His eyebrows lifted in a whimsical half-smile. Promise. He grinned, his eyes laughing. “Is this a private feast or can anyone join in?”

“How long have you been shadowing us?” Farinka asked. “And who the hell are you? And yes, you can eat with us.”

Nemeth put Shiffih down gently and came over to the fire, sitting cross-legged in one fluid movement.

“I’ve been covering your rear since just before you dealt with that evil swine from the village. Incidentally, well done. I’m glad I didn’t have to interfere – much better that they shouldn’t know I was so close. As for who I am,” he went on, deftly clearing the centre of the fire off the flat stone that was underneath, “I’ve always been of the opinion that there is a certain family resemblance.”

He looked over at Shiffih, then grinned at Farinka.

“Now you mention it,” she said.

“He’s my brother,” said Shiffih.

Nemeth pulled the rabbit joints from their bundle, wrapped them in some comfrey leaves which Farinka had laid by the fire, and heaped hot embers over them. He shifted to lie on his side by the fire, reaching into a small pouch at his belt, and rolling himself a leafy smoke-roll, one handed.

He glanced up at Farinka. “Do you?”

“Please,” she said.

He threw it over and rolled himself one. “It’s supposed to be a vice, I know,” he said, grinning. “But so what? It’s a very minor one.”

Farinka lit up from a small twig, handing it over to Nemeth.

“I’ll leave my questions until we get back – that way you won’t have to answer everything twice,” he said. He looked over at Moondust, who was dozing, resting one hind leg. “It’s interesting that he knows what you are. Must be pure instinct. Incidentally, do you know what he is?”

“I know he’s a bit different,” Farinka said. Nemeth grinned again.

“Come with me,” he said, getting to his feet and holding a hand out to help her up. He kept hold of her hand as they walked to Moondust, who turned his head towards them.

Nemeth shifted his leaf-smoke-roll to his left hand, standing behind her and taking her right hand in his; resting that hand on the lump … horn bud … on Moondust’s head. He rested his cheek against her head, still grinning.

Now do you know what he is?” he whispered by her ear.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Farinka woke to the smell of bacon cooking over the fire. Nemeth was sitting, again cross-legged, close to the fire, using the central flat stone as a griddle, and flipping bacon slices over with a stick. Farinka sat up, running her fingers through her fringe.

Nemeth looked up and grinned at her. “Breakfast in about five minutes,” he said. “Have you got any bread left, or did we have the last of it last night?”

“A bit left – not much, and a bit stale, but it won’t show once it’s toasted.”

“Chuck it over,” he said, holding a hand out.

Farinka dug the bread out of her pack and threw it. Nemeth caught it left-handed without appearing to make any attempt to see where it was first.

“Flash beggar,” said Farinka, smiling at him. He grinned down at the fire.

“Takes years of practice,” he answered. “Wake Shiffih, will you? She’s still out to the wide.”

Farinka gently shook the sleeping Child huddled under the sheepskin. Shiffih mumbled complainingly, then said, “Okay, okay! I’m awake!”

“I’m going for a wash at the stream,” said Farinka.

“Fill a waterskin,” suggested Nemeth.

Farinka picked up a skin, and departed through the trees, unplaiting her hair as she went, her pack slung over one shoulder.

The stream water was cold – as always – but brought her wide awake in no time flat. She rinsed out her underthings in the stream water, and put on the other set from the pack, hanging the washed ones from a branch which had just begun to catch the sun. A stiff breeze was beginning to blow, and struck very cold on her skin.

“What’s keeping you?” Shiffih called.

“On my way,” she called back, rapidly tying the laces on the deerskin jacket and pulling a comb through her hair. She walked back, re-braiding her hair as she went, and found Nemeth and Shiffih tucking into bacon sandwiched between crude slices of smoke-flavoured toast.

Nemeth handed her a wedge wordlessly. He had balanced a small handle-less iron pot on the fire, and as it started to simmer added a handful of brownish lumps to it.

“What’s that?” asked Farinka through a mouthful of bacon buttie.

“A mixture of chicory and dandelion root,” he said.

“Smells almost like coffee.”

“Really.” The grin was sudden, and charismatic, and lit up his amber eyes. “I’ve never smelt coffee, but I’ll take your word for it. Try some.”

She held out her wooden bowl.

“Tastes not unlike coffee, too,” she said, sampling it.

Remember coffee for me? he suggested, catching her eye.

She shut her eyes and thought of coffee, feeling the touch of Nemeth’s mind – gentle but surprisingly powerful – as he shared the memory.

Some day I’d like to try that, he thought. Where did you find it?

Back where I come from it was pretty common.

And from where do you come? his Voice was subtly compelling – three shades stronger and it might have been considered coercive.

Not from this world, she thought, almost to herself.

I did wonder. There’s something – otherworldly – about the touch of your mind. Much that is unfamiliar to me; and that which is familiar to this world has the flavour of freshly-learned about it.

You see a damn sight too much, Nemeth. Piss off out of my mind, she added with a mental grin.

He chuckled. – You can deny me at any time, Domina. His eyes were laughing.

Did no-one ever tell you two that whispering is rude? said Shiffih. Nemeth laughed, and relayed the gist of the conversation to her.

By the time Farinka had retrieved her nearly-dry underclothes from the stream area, Nemeth had stamped out what was left of the fire and covered the remains with loose earth and leaf-mould, gathered together everything from the camp-site, checked over Shiffih’s feet, and was trying to approach Moondust with the sheepskin. Moondust kept casually walking away from him.

Nemeth gave up in mock-disgust, turning to Farinka as she came back into the small clearing. “Would you like to get this recalcitrant beastie ready?” he enquired politely. “He knows damn’ well what I want, but he won’t let me near him.” He grinned.

Big fella, stop being a pain and stand still for Nemeth, she suggested.

Moondust snorted and walked to Nemeth, lipping at his face gently. Nemeth rubbed the itchy horn-bud.

“Big fool,” he said affectionately, and strapped the sheepskin over the colt’s white back. He slipped the soft hide halter onto the readily-offered head, pulling gently at Moondust’s ears and carefully sorting out the mane and forelock from under the headstrap.

“You look as though you’ve done that before,” said Farinka, watching him.

“Not for longer than you would imagine, Domina.” His eyes went suddenly unfocussed, remembering.

Farinka let her Awareness drift gently over him, and got an impression of a vast span of time.

“Why so long?” she asked quietly, walking over to stand by him. Shiffih came over to join them.

“I have neither touched a unicorn nor seen one close-up since our Elders passed away,” said Nemeth. “You see, they’ll never let a Child come near them unless an adult is there too. I had thought that perhaps he might – knowing that you were nearby – but he didn’t.” – Arrant traditionalist, he said to Moondust, patting him on the shoulder. “It must be purely instinctive. We used to think, when we were small, that it was just something that the adults forbade them to do in case Children were accidentally hurt, but it seems to be inherent. Part of what makes him what he is. And, in any event, no-one could actually ‘forbid’ a unicorn anything.”

“Could no-one have trained him?” asked Farinka.

“Hardly.” Nemeth grinned down at her. “You really don’t know, do you? There have been no Elders on this world for nearly three hundred years. Which is why, as a species, we are endangered. Biologically, it’s very simple – Children have been being hunted by men during all that time, and we cannot breed, as we are. There are no replacements for those who are killed – and until yesterday I would have said that it was only a matter of time until there would be none of us left at all. But,” he added, “you are here, Domina. How, or why, I have no idea. Our lives and our future are in your hands.”

Farinka listened in astonished silence. Then, eventually; “How old are you?” she asked.

“Somewhat over three hundred years,” he said. “And Shiffih here is a mere infant of around two hundred and ninety-five. Very strange things happened when the Elders passed away. We were suddenly beset by puzzles that we had no way of working out. Some of which only became apparent very gradually – it must have been nearly ten years before we really noticed that the little ones were getting little bigger as time went on.”

“I was only a baby when it happened,” said Shiffih. “I don’t remember the Elders at all. And I had never seen a unicorn.”

“And now you’ve not only seen one – you’ve ridden one,” said Nemeth. “And, what’s more, you’re about to do it again.” He grinned, then turned to face Farinka again. “You’d better ride as well,” he suggested. “I’ll be setting a swifter pace than you might be used to.”

“I’m not soft,” she said indignantly.

“I’m not suggesting you are, Domina. But I’ve been able to run more than forty miles in a day any time in the last three hundred years, and I doubt if you’re quite that fit! Hop up.”

“Okay, you win.” Farinka vaulted up, and Nemeth lifted Shiffih up behind her. “Hold my tunic,” Farinka said. “Trotting’s not quite so simple as walking.” She took the end of the halter lead from Nemeth.

“Lead on, Macduff,” she misquoted.

His eyebrows lifted. – [_?_]

“Never mind.”

“ ‘kay.”

***

It was some twenty miles and more than two hours later that Nemeth broke from his steady jog to a walk. They had been passing through heavily wooded country most of the time, sometimes on a fairly clear trail, sometimes ducking and winding between the trees, occasionally dropping into a small valley and jumping or fording the streams with which the area was liberally supplied. As they ascended the woodland changed gradually in character from mostly deciduous to mostly coniferous, and in the few clear spaces Farinka could see that the tops of the surrounding mountains had a light covering of snow. Between the trees there was little wind, but once out of them the wind-chill factor was very noticeable.

“Time to rest,” said Nemeth.

“What, you tired already?” asked Farinka as he lifted Shiffih down.

Nemeth laughed. “Not much. But Moondust could do with a break and a bite to eat. This is a good meadow.” Farinka slid down and stripped the sheepskin and halter off the unicorn – she still found it difficult to think of him as such, the horn was so embryonic, but already it was more noticeable than it had been the day before. The lump was perhaps an inch high, and very warm to the touch. Once released, Moondust made for the stream and dipped the horn-bud into the cold water before drinking and then trotting off onto the meadow. He got down for a roll, stood straddle-legged and shook, then settled down to graze.

“How good are you at catching trout?” asked Nemeth.

“I’ve never tried,” Farinka answered. “Tell you what, you go fishing and Shiffih and I will go watercressing.”

“Good idea. You might see if you can find some woundwort while you’re about it – Shiffih’s feet would appreciate it, wouldn’t they, Little Sister?”

“Definitely,” said Shiffih. “They itch.”

“Believe it or not, that’s a good sign,” said Farinka. “Come on then. You’ll have to show me what woundwort looks like – my knowledge of plants is pretty limited. I think I can only recognise the ones that Shelagh grew at the stables. She was quite into herbal remedies.” They wandered downstream, leaving Nemeth to find suitable cover for a trout-tickling point.

They sat in a small sun-trap formed by an outcrop of granite, out of the worst of the wind, for perhaps two hours, eating grilled trout stuffed with watercress and wild ramsons which Shiffih had found, drinking dandelion and chicory ‘coffee’ – danchic. Shiffih made daisy chains from some late daisies and wound them round her neck and wrists, and Nemeth and Farinka smoked a leaf smoke-roll each.

Eventually Nemeth glanced up at the sun.

“Time to be moving,” he said. “We should be home before dusk, with luck.”

Farinka called Moondust and rigged his tack while Nemeth and Shiffih removed all traces of their makeshift camp. This time she insisted on running with Nemeth for at least some of the way.

“Why?” he asked with one of his grins.

“I don’t want to tire Moondust,” she answered.

“He wouldn’t tire,” said Nemeth. “Unicorns aren’t packbeasts, you know. And you can’t weigh much.”

“You’d be surprised,” said Farinka.

“Even I could run carrying you,” said Nemeth, “and Moondust’s a lot stronger than I am.”

“If I ever want you to, I’ll let you know,” said Farinka, laughing, and turning to Shiffih, whose eyes were alight with fun.

“Don’t tempt him,” said Shiffih. “He’d do it just to prove his point!”

“Enough, Little Sister,” said Nemeth. “Up with you.” He lifted her up and she twined her fingers into Moondust’s mane.

The wind was at their backs as they rounded the buttress of the mountain, and their route wound gradually downwards. The character of the trees slowly changed again, and Nemeth pointed out deer-spoor to Farinka as they jogged along.

It was only about half an hour before she felt herself beginning to tire; her legs began to feel heavy and her breathing was noticeable. Nemeth looked sideways at her as she jogged alongside him.

“It was your idea,” he said wickedly. “All right, I admit it. You’re better than I expected. But enough is enough.” He slowed to a walk, and Moondust drew level with them and pushed at Farinka’s shoulder with his muzzle.

“See, he agrees with me,” said Nemeth. The sudden wicked grin was there again as he lifted her onto the unicorn’s back as easily as he had lifted Shiffih, and she looked down into the amber-hazel eyes that laughed up at her.

“Okay, I give in. If I’d had three hundred years to spend getting fit I’d be able to run all day as well,” she said.

“Undoubtedly.” He patted Moondust’s shoulder. “We’ll walk for a while to rest him. There’s a roedeer-spot a bit farther down; by your leave I’ll wait awhile and get one. They come there to drink late afternoon most days.”

As they walked down the hill they joined a noticeable trail. There was deer-spoor in the earth of the trail; Nemeth crouched to look more closely.

“They’ve not been this way yet today. Might have come up from lower down, though,” he said. “If you keep quite still – preferably up a handy tree – I stand more chance of getting one.” He stood up.

Farinka turned Moondust towards a tree with a low overhanging branch, and stood on his withers to climb up, giving Shiffih a helping pull after her. Nemeth crossed to the other side of the trail where an ancient horse-chestnut grew, jumped and locked his hands round a branch and pulled himself up. Farinka could see him clearly as he pulled a blow-pipe from his belt and – using a springy V-shaped twig as tweezers – something tiny from a small wooden box in his jerkin pocket.

What’s that? she asked Shiffih.

A thorn dart.

How can he kill a deer with a thorn dart?

The dart won’t kill it – it will just make it sleep.

How come?

Dozewort juice on the point. Sends them to sleep for a few minutes. If you leave them alone, they just get up and walk away as though nothing’s happened. When Louka broke her arm Sherath used a dozewort thorn on her so he could straighten it. You don’t feel anything or remember anything that happens when you’re asleep.

Short-acting anaesthetic, thought Farinka. So that’s the ‘sorcery’.

I’ll have to show you dozewort, if we see any. Never try to pick it with your bare hands – if you fall on top of it you could stay asleep until something came along and ate you, said Shiffih.

How nice. But at least I wouldn’t know anything about it. What would be likely to eat me in these woods?

Wolverine, cougar, bear, big lynx; maybe wolves if they were very, very hungry. Or a stoat pack, in the winter. Stoats kill more people in the mountains in a hard winter than wolves do. A stoat pack can kill a full-grown packbeast.

Nemeth looked across at them. – Good timing. Here they come. He looked up the trail, lifting the blow-pipe to his lips.

What if he misses? Farinka asked Shiffih in a mental whisper.

We never miss, Shiffih answered in a slightly shocked tone.

Could you do that, then?

I could stun and kill a roedeer – but it would be pretty pointless if I were on my own.

Why?

I’d never be able to carry it home!

Why didn’t you use a dart on the rabbits?

Waste of dozewort. And darts. Rabbits are easy to kill with a catapult. You only use a dart on something that you can’t kill cleanly with a stone. Hush now – they might Hear you.

Four roedeer came walking down the trail – an old doe with a fawn close beside her, a young doe, and a yearling buck at the rear of the line. Nemeth dropped the buck; the others bolted. Nemeth swung down from the branch as lightly as a young jaguar and pulled the buck off the path before opening its throat with one belt knife to bleed it. He lifted it one-handed by the hind legs to let the blood flow out faster.

Farinka jumped to the ground, holding her arms up to Shiffih.

“I’ll catch you,” she said. Shiffih dropped down into her arms, and by the time they reached Nemeth the carcase was fully bled.

“Good hunting,” said Farinka, trying not to look at the severed throat.

Nemeth caught her eye. “Do you like venison?” he asked.

“I’ve never tried it,” she replied.

“It’s a good meat.” He laid the deer down, looking at her.

“It was a beautiful animal,” she said softly.

He put one arm round her shoulders. “You have to kill them to eat them,” he said quietly. “He knew nothing about it. No fear, no pain – nothing. When men hunt them, they chase them, sometimes one man after another, sometimes with packs of dogs; sometimes they try to kill them with arrows – and it’s a rare man that can kill a roedeer with one arrow. Sometimes they leave them wounded and they can take days to die if the men don’t find them and finish them off. Sometimes men build deadfall traps or deer-snares – they don’t usually kill cleanly, either. This way is better – the best. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to go. He had a good life, wild, free, untouched. A dart is kinder than a lynx or a wolf pack, Domina.”

“I’d rather go in my sleep,” she said.

“He did,” said Nemeth, tightening the arm around her fractionally. “How do they kill meat animals on your world?”

She gave him a brief mental picture of an abattoir. Under the tan, Nemeth went momentarily pale.

Ye gods, … and THIS upsets you?

I know. Silly. But I’d never been in one of those places.

Then this is the closest you’ve been to death?

No. She shut off her thoughts, remembering Hammy and Shaka.

Nemeth was aware of the anguish in the brief instant before her mental shields went up.

Domina, forgive me for asking… how old are you?

“Seventeen.”

Shiffih and Nemeth held her in a three-way hug.

“I remember seventeen,” he said. “Just.”

“Me too,” said Shiffih.

“It wasn’t the same for you, Little Sister,” said Nemeth. “You were much the same as you are now.” He sighed, and let them both go. “Call Moondust back, Domina. I’ll carry supper home.”

Farinka vaulted onto Moondust, and Nemeth hoisted Shiffih up behind her, then lifted the deer fireman-fashion and settled it over his shoulders, the head and forelegs hanging down on the left and hindlegs on the right. He caught hold of the legs, shrugged the deer into a comfortable position, glanced up at Farinka.

“Ready?”

“Yes. Lead on.”

He set off down the trail at the same steady jog that he had been using all day.

That must be fifty kilos of deer he’s carrying there, thought Farinka. He wasn’t joking, was he.

I told you so, said Shiffih.

You’re not supposed to eavesdrop, little one, said Farinka.

Your thoughts were open, replied Shiffih with a mental smile. And Nemeth Heard you as clearly as I did, Domina.

This is true, said Nemeth. Farinka could feel the extent of the mental grin.

All right, sunshine. But I can do things that you can’t do, she said.

Also true. Catching unicorns is one of them.

Moondust snorted – almost derisively. Farinka laughed.

He Hears you, Nemeth.

I know. But I don’t know when we will Hear him.

CHAPTER NINE

Nemeth slowed to a walk and Farinka urged Moondust alongside him – the trail at this point was quite wide.

“Nearly home,” said Nemeth. His breathing was deep but still not fast; but the tone of his voice was weary.

“Tired?” Farinka asked. Nemeth grinned up at her.

“A bit.” He flexed his shoulder muscles under the weight of the deer, and stretched one arm and then the other. “I admit I’ll be glad to put this down. And have a wash.” His hide headband was dark with sweat, and his dark hair curled damply round his neck and ears. Farinka noticed that the hip-tie band of his leggings was also soaked.

“You’ll get chilled if you don’t get dry soon,” she said, glancing up at the sun.

“Not me,” he answered, his eyes laughing. “I don’t have quite the Control that Sherath does, but given a sufficient supply of food I’m quite capable of stopping myself chilling.”

“How?”

“You mean you can’t?” He glanced up at her, his eyes quizzical. She shook her head. “It’s just a question of shifting your body system up a gear. Uses quite a bit of energy, granted. And I can’t always do it very well. You should be able to – here, anyway, even if you couldn’t on your own world.”

“Why should I?”

Nemeth halted, and sighed. “Because, Domina, you are enabled. You should be able to Assume Power with the same ease that any Elder could. It is quite possible that you may not be able to – as there is no-one to train you in the use of Power. You are the only enabled one on this world.”

“Couldn’t you teach me? If you can use Power?”

Nemeth walked on. “I could teach you a little – but it would be very little. I could teach you only what every Child knows – a little about Granted Power, a little about the uses of Power; things that I know can be done because I have seen them done – although not recently. No, Domina,” he paused. “You would be better learning from Sherath. He seems to be able to Assume Power – sometimes – and he shouldn’t be able to. But again, he’s had no training in its use; his Assumption and use of Power is as instinctive as Moondust’s unwillingness to let me near him in your absence. We’re an untrained lot. My hope is that you will be able – eventually – to train us.”

“Me? But I don’t know anything!”

You’d be surprised, said Nemeth. I feel some of what you could be when I Hear you. The harmonies of the music of your mind are very revealing. You use Awareness as easily and as strongly as I can. You have the ability to use Command; you almost did on Moondust this morning. There was a hint of Command in your tone. While you were running with me you were using Control on yourself – albeit only lightly, but more Control than I can summon. More in Sherath’s league. Not bad for an untrained seventeen-year-old from another world! His Voice was full of laughter. We are at the boundary, Domina. Lead us in.

Farinka lifted her leg over Moondust’s neck and slipped easily to the ground. Nemeth had stopped by the unicorn, and laid a hand on the silver-white shoulder.

Farinka stepped forwards, cautiously. The track carried on straight ahead, and there was a strong compulsion to follow it. Farinka stopped, and grinned. The compulsion was too strong to be natural – it simply reeked of Power. She listened to … what was it Nemeth had said? … the harmonies of the music of the mind which had placed that … Detour … where it was. It was a sensation not entirely dissimilar to looking at a photograph of someone you’ve never seen – enough information to be able to recognise them when you did see them, but not the same as looking at the person.

The music of the mind that had placed the detour was very much like Nemeth in many ways, and yet markedly different in others.

Sherath placed this? she asked Nemeth.

Yes.

There’s a strong likeness, Farinka commented.

I’m his brother, as well.

And how many of your family are there?

Only three and a half of us left, now. Leave it – we’ll talk about it later this evening.

Is it important?

Very, I suspect.

Farinka grinned back at him.

“Well, come on, then.” She walked through the detour, following a narrower trail than the main trail they were just leaving – and one which was not apparent until the detour was passed. She felt, rather than Heard, Nemeth’s and Shiffih’s use of Voice on a wavelength other than her own, suddenly aware of what Shiffih had meant by ‘whispering’. Not all thoughts were open to all people. She was also aware of the briefest of mind-touches from someone up ahead – and instantly recognised the touch as belonging to the detour artist. Sherath.

“Yes,” said Nemeth with affection filling his voice. “Sherath. We are here.”

They had walked out from the trees and into a clear valley area – perhaps a hundred yards across by twice as long with no trees – in which stood several small round dwellings. Not far from the central hearth was a circular mound ringed by a stone wall, and covered with grass and wildflowers. A rowan sapling grew in its centre. There was a fire burning in the central village hearth. A group of about twenty Children, of varying apparent ages were sitting around the fire; silent; their faces turned towards her, their eyes travelling from Moondust to herself and back again. A single figure stood, and leaving the rest walked towards her.

She kept her eyes on him, and her Hearing open.

He was as much like Nemeth in body as he was in mindmusic – just over six feet two tall, the same well-muscled but not heavy build; the same almost feline fluidity of movement; the same ageless, timeless quality; and the same massive Powerful strength. The differences – his hair was streaky ash blonde with almost silver-white highlights, his eyes an unusual light greeny-blue, his nose had less of a hawk-like quality, and his skin was a paler gold. He walked with the deliberate, delicate, graceful, powerful and silent precision of a large, possibly-safe leopard.

He came to a halt at arm’s length from her, glanced quickly at Nemeth and up at Shiffih where she sat, silent but grinning, on Moondust’s back; there was a spark of unspoken greeting in the exchange of glances; then turned his … sea coloured … eyes back to Farinka. There was a slow smile in the eyes.

Domina? said Sherath, his Voice no more than a whisper in her mind. She felt his subtle shift from Voice to Awareness; and shifted from Hearing to Awareness herself in response, feeling the sudden totality of the music that was Sherath’s mind-touch. Not so much a mingling of thoughts as an awareness of identity, of the importance of what made Sherath himself; and a knowledge of his own awareness of the same things that made her herself.

She drifted out of the mind-touch as slowly as waking from a dream; opened her eyes without ever having been aware of closing them. The corners of Sherath’s eyes creased into a smile as he looked down at her.

“Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Around three hundred years, added Nemeth with a grin.

***

“Well,” said Nemeth, draining the last of the danchic from his wooden mug, “I’m going down to the pool. I need a wash.”

Tarke wrinkled her nose. “I noticed,” she said. He threw a small pebble at her, stood up and stretched lazily, and wandered into the westernmost stone building, ducking his head under the lintel on his way in. The door itself was nothing more than a large hide hung from the lintel and tied open.

Tarke turned to watch the smaller Children as they followed Moondust around, patting and stroking him when he allowed them near enough. She caught Farinka’s eye as she turned.

“They’re fascinated,” she said. “Most of them don’t remember ever having seen a unicorn – to them, unicorns have always been a bit of a myth. I think only the oldest of us have ever touched one. Sherath, Nemeth, Louka, Jevann and myself. We were all close to Journeying.”

“There’s so much that I don’t know,” said Farinka, half to herself.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know, as well,” replied Tarke. “That’s most of the problem. Having problems that those of us who are left were too young to be given the answers to.”

“What happened?”

Tarke settled herself more comfortably, taking one of the leaf smoke-rolls from the pile that Nemeth had left on the end of the log, and lighting it. She looked a question at Farinka, and handed her one.

“It was a sickness,” she said sadly. “Many of the Children were very ill. Some Children died. The Elders seemed to be immune at first – they had none of the early symptoms that we Children had. No snuffly nose, no headaches, no fear of bright light … nothing until the spots. And within a day of the spots appearing, they died. All the Elders went, within a week. By that time, some of the older Children were well enough to look after the little ones and babies. We’ve found out since then that the pattern was the same in every one of our communities. In the past two hundred and fifty-odd years we’ve travelled over most of this land, and the story in every group we’ve met has been the same. In the past twenty years, we’ve met no other groups than our own – not alive, anyway. We came to this village in the spring of this year. Men had not long left it. There was no-one left alive.”

“Why do they kill you? They talk of you as devils – why?”

“Partly because it’s been such a long time. Three hundred years is about fifteen generations of men. Things that happened to my ancestors fifteen generations ago are generally regarded – even among us – as folklore. Things that happened even five generations ago have become distorted. There have been only Children for those three hundred years, and for the first hundred we kept very much out of the way of men.” Tarke reached for her mug of danchic and took a sip.

“Why don’t the Children grow up?”

“We can’t become adults without Journeying to the hidden valley. We don’t know what it is about the valley – or possibly the Journey itself – which changes Children into adults and enables them to use Assumed Power, and to have Children of their own. We just know that without that Journey it doesn’t happen.”

On the other side of the fire, Sherath chewed a piece of rough skin from his thumb. Farinka reached towards him with her mind, but his thoughts were not open. Quite definitely closed, in fact.

“So what’s the problem? Why can’t you go there?”

“Partly because it is hidden – the way to it is obscure. Even more obscure now – because of a little mishap that Shithri had,” replied Tarke.

Farinka was aware of Sherath’s grin. – Just a small mishap, yes.

Tarke grinned back at him. “Who’s telling this, you or me?”

“Carry on,” said Sherath, reaching for a smoke-roll.

“The other reason is that – Children have always been told – Children can’t enter the valley without an adult to take them. It’s like a locked door. The key is an adult.” Tarke examined the last half-inch of her smoke-roll, gave up on it and threw it into the fire.

Catch 22, thought Farinka.

“So what other reasons – if any – do men have for killing Children?”

“There’s an old story about a curse that was laid on the King – Shiannath – because he didn’t do something he was supposed to have done. It mentions the Children – by which it meant all of us, adults too … “The Children of Shiannathri”. According to that, we’re doomed to constant persecution. And I must say,” she added thoughtfully, “that things do seem to have been following the pattern that legend says they would. Although it never mentioned the sickness. But so much of the curse is obscure, as well. It does seem to hold out some hope for us, I think. Not all doom and gloom.”

Farinka looked up to see Nemeth returning to the fireside. He sat down by Sherath, and frowned, looking at the depleted smoke-roll pile.

“Why can’t any of you roll your own?” he asked.

“You’re so much better at it,” said Sherath with a smile.

“True,” said Nemeth. “Is anyone doing anything with that deer, or have you left that job for me as well?”

“Jevann and Louka have butchered it. It’s in the steam pit – but I don’t know if any of it will be ready for eating tonight,” said Tarke. “There’s mutton in the steam pit that’s ready now, if you’re interested.”

“Interested? I’m starving.” He stood up, and called “Food, everyone. Come and eat.– and someone else can sort it out, he added.

There was a general gathering of people as they made their way over to the fire. Sienne dragged a wicker box out of the nearest stone cot, and bowls of various materials were picked up by all and sundry.

“Throw us one,” called Nemeth with a grin. Sienne laughed at him, and skimmed a plate over, frisbee-style.

Sherath and Tarke went over to the steam pit, removing the turf cover and a layer of thin slates from one end, and hooking out several large pieces of aromatic spiced mutton onto a smooth hide which they carried to the fireside. Gradually the noise subsided as people settled down to eat, carving slices and chunks with belt knives. There was an assortment of fruit and berries, and a few unripe green hazelnuts.

“These will be good, soon,” said Jevann indistinctly.

“They’re okay now,” said Shiffih, helping herself to another handful of them.

Jevann reached for another piece of deadwood to add to the fire, which now provided almost all the available light. The moon had not yet risen, and the sun had set some time before, leaving only a thin streak of light in the west – more a reflection of light from the undersurface of the cloud than anything else. Gradually the smaller Children took themselves off to the largest roundhouse to sleep.

Farinka was vaguely puzzled. Tarke caught her thought, and smiled.

Yes, it’s a puzzle for us, too. They are still small Children, in spite of their age. You are younger by far than the youngest of us, and yet also older than the oldest of us. You are also a puzzle, Domina. Tarke’s mind touch was sharp and bright, but softened like distant lightning; there was a hint of bubbliness about it and a vast deal of warmth.

“Why haven’t they aged normally? Have you any idea at all?”

“Only theories,” said Sherath, picking up a mutton bone and chewing small shreds of meat from it. “It must be something to do with the fact that there are no adults. Maybe small Children need adults in the same way as older Children need to Journey.” Farinka looked up and caught his eye, suddenly aware again that he was guarding his thoughts very carefully. Not merely keeping them closed, but using Control on them as well. … later, Sherath. I think there are things I have to ask you. He raised one eyebrow, and grinned.

Nemeth moved closer to the fire, stretching the soles of his bare feet towards the warmth. “Shiannathri’s Curse raises some interesting questions – particularly when one bears in mind your presence here, Domina.” His eyes flicked over to her for a minute; then he looked across to Sherath. “Wouldn’t you say so, Sherath?”

“Yes. Somewhat.”

Farinka flicked ash into the fire, then took another puff from the smoke-roll. “So tell me what you know about the Curse.”

“Actually,” said Tarke slowly, “I’ve often wondered whether it wasn’t more of a precognition than a curse.”

Jevann looked over sharply. “Really? You’ve never said so before.”

“Do you think I could be right, though?” she asked.

Jevann looked thoughtful, running his fingers through chestnut hair made even redder in the glow of the fire. “Yes, you could be right. Something about the wording – and it’s got that ‘retold dream’ feeling about it that Seeings sometimes have. So non-specific. And, though I say it myself, a touch of weird,” he added with a grin.

Sherath laughed. “Domina, Jevann is the nearest we have to a Seer. I wouldn’t call him weird to his face, but since he makes the admission himself…” Jevann threw him a smoke-roll.

“Light up and shut up, Sherath. You’re a fine one to talk about weird, anyway.”

Farinka touched Jevann’s arm lightly. “Tell me about precognition. I had dreams, back home. Sometimes they came true. Sometimes only bits of them came true. Sometimes I knew something had happened even though I was miles away. Tell me?”

Jevann glanced briefly across at her. – I know, he whispered on a wavelength that was solely hers. There was a kind of languorous depth to his mind-touch – like a very slow but very deep river.

“You’re honoured if he does, Domina,” said Nemeth. “Jevann’s pretty cagey about his particular Talent.”

Sherath caught Nemeth’s eye. “Under the circumstances, this might be the right time to open up, though.”

“Yes.” Nemeth looked expectantly over at Jevann, who settled himself more comfortably.

Jevann’s eyes focussed on nothing, looking more through the fire than at it.

“Seeing’s a dodgy Talent. It can tell you something about what may happen – but never everything. It’s always incomplete – and sometimes downright misleading. Not by what it shows you, more often by what it doesn’t show you.”

“The truth and nothing but the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth,” said Farinka.

“Yes,” said Jevann emphatically, his eyes finding hers. She felt a sharp flicker of Awareness from him. “Yes. And not always nothing but the truth, either. And it’s so important to have all three aspects. Having said that, though, Seeing’s usually about such mundane things. And almost everyone has that kind of precognition. Have you ever gone to pick a bowl out of a box, and known you’ve seen that particular bowl at that particular angle with precisely that shadow falling across it, sometime before?”

Farinka smiled. “Back home we’d call that déja vu. From another language. Meaning ‘already seen’.”

“Yes. Very common. The thing that escapes most people is that they usually genuinely have already seen it. As a precog. But it’s so mundane it doesn’t stick in the memory. So … unimportant. And then you find the box lid gets blown down and hits you on the head as you reach in – which is the bit of the whole truth that the precog didn’t tell you about.”

There was generalised laughter.

“Sod’s law,” said Farinka. “Yes; I know what you mean.”

Jevann smiled across at her, green eyes laughing. “Yes, Domina; you do know what I mean. Precog comes in a lot of different ways, even to one person. And in more different ways to different people. Each person with a precognitive Talent seems to focus on a particular kind of happening; other than the general mundane stuff which everybody gets. You know, if you get that – déja vu – and you try to remember exactly when you saw it before, then you’re getting there. This lot,” he waved a hand around, “take it all for granted and never try to look further.”

“Jevann’s been spending over two hundred years looking further,” said Sherath in a stage whisper. “No wonder he’s weird!”

“‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away,’” said Farinka softly.

There was silence for a minute. Then Jevann spoke.

“Where did you find that one?” he asked quietly.

“It was something someone from my own world wrote,” said Farinka. “But I’d never heard it until after I left. Raffi told me.” Her brow creased suddenly, chasing a very elusive memory – like the shadow of a dream.

Raffi? asked Sherath. She shot him a brief mental picture of Raffi and Gay and the Mist.

Ye Gods! You’ve spoken with Dominn’s Dragons?

Farinka looked at him; his sea-coloured eyes seemed to reach into her mind with a blazing intensity, and excitement.

“Sherath?” said Nemeth.

“Well, Children,” said Sherath, his eyes leaving Farinka’s. “We are sitting in the presence of one who’s spoken with Dominn’s Dragons, it seems.”

“Whew!” said Nemeth. “Tell us more.”

Farinka stirred the ashes of the fire with a twig. “I actually can’t remember a lot,” she admitted. “Just fragments.”

“Not surprising,” said Tarke. “According to … myth … that’s always what happens. You seem to have walked into our lives surrounded by myths and legends, Domina.” Tarke looked up, smoothing a long strand of wavy dark hair into place behind one ear.

“Raffi did say that it was important for everyone to be … wholly yourself… whatever yourself is. Not to deny parts of yourself because they don’t fit someone else’s pattern. That a healer is just as important as a prophet, and an artist as important as a mathematician.”

She looked round, seeing the unspoken question on all the faces. “Someone who works with numbers,” she explained.

“Sienne,” said Jevann, looking across affectionately at the girl beside him. Sienne grinned mischievously.

“Numbers are fun,” she said.

“No-one’s arguing,” said Sherath.

“Numbers are also very useful,” said Farinka. “And knowing how they work is worth knowing. But Raffi’s point was that all Talents are equally important. Including Sienne’s numbers and Jevann’s precog. Which I still want to know more about.” She looked up, her eyes laughing.

“Yeh, right,” said Jevann. “I’ve never seen anything that didn’t involve me,” – or you, he added very softly. “Quite often just small things that were going to happen – although I don’t know when. That’s the part of the truth that’s most often missing. Precog might tell me, what, and where, and how – usually misses out when. Sometimes only gives me an idea of where – like the one about getting a bowl out of a box – without saying what; sometimes I get a half-dream and just wake up remembering one phrase that someone says, in a particular place, but no context other than that – and I wait years to find out the when and the why. Infuriating, sometimes. And usually because the why is so ordinary. And the whole precog so pointless. Precog – for me, anyway – usually seems to pick up on things that have no meaning, and I can’t seem to try and find out in advance about anything that I’d actually really want to know. It’s an undirectable Talent. But often if someone asks a question I find myself knowing the answer, just out of thin air.”

“But the Curse of Shiannathri is definitely important,” said Tarke.

“Vitally so,” added Nemeth.

“So what does it say?” asked Farinka.

“Sherath,” prompted Tarke, glancing over to him.

Sherath gazed through the fire, his eyes fixed on nothing. “It doesn’t start at the beginning,” he said. “And parts of it have always been missing. And some of it doesn’t … sound right … even when you try to think about it. And all of it is pretty obscure – although as of today some things are a bit clearer.”

“Like most precogs,” whispered Jevann. “Hindsight is always clearer than foresight.”

Sherath looked up at him. “Very true. Anyway …” he was silent for a few moments. “’… and the Children of Shiannathri shall be driven into exile after denying the holy will of Dominn, and their Children’s Children will be hunted and persecuted, misunderstood and cast out from the minds of Mankind … and the sons of Shiannath’s line shall not be joined in spirit with the Dominae of their world until the Farinka Domina is joined in spirit with a son of Shiannath’s line … and they shall dwell in the hidden places and come again before the sight of Dominn, and the child of Justice shall bring them again to the land of the lake and through accepting the unfinished quest they shall be restored to light.’” He looked over at Farinka. “Farinka. Domina.”

There was a shuffling of bodies into more attentive positions.

“In our world,” said Tarke, “the title ‘Farinka Domina’ is used for a mythical saviour or healer. We’ve always read the Curse with that meaning for those words, as that is the meaning they’re always given. But because of that the Curse has always been obscure. How can a – the – ‘Farinka Domina’ be joined in spirit with a ‘son of Shiannath’s line’, if the sons of Shiannath’s line cannot be joined in spirit?” She looked at Farinka.

“Catch 22 again,” said Farinka.

“What is ‘Catch 22’?” asked Jevann.

“It’s just when something can’t happen until it happens; or you can’t do something unless something else happens, but if the something else happens then you don’t want to do the first thing – silly things like ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ type of thing.”

“Good question,” said Sienne. “Which did come first?”

“The egg,” said Farinka. “Since the ancestors of chickens, which weren’t chickens themselves, laid eggs. Out of which, eventually, a chicken hatched. But you see the point.”

“Yes,” said Tarke. “But the Curse distinctly says the sons of Shiannath’s line cannot be joined in spirit with ‘the Dominae of their world’.”

“And until now, that was all that’s ever been available,” said Nemeth with a grin.

Farinka looked at Tarke. “Do you see that as a reference, now, to the fact that there are no adults here?”

“No. Because the sons of Shiannath’s line couldn’t be truly joined in spirit ever since the time of Shiannathri even when there were adults. And that didn’t apply to all – only to those of the direct line of Shiannath.”

“Like Shithri,” added Nemeth.

“So what’s the significance of that?” asked Farinka curiously.

“One of the significances of that is that it relates to what you asked earlier today about how many were in my family,” said Nemeth, grinning.

“And you said ‘three and a half’,” said Farinka. “So what’s the half?”

“Well actually it’s more two and two halves, but one of the halves is more of a half than the other,” said Sherath.

“Now I am confused. Explain.” She glanced at Nemeth.

“Because the sons – interestingly, not the daughters as well – of Shiannath’s line couldn’t be joined in spirit with only one Domina, which is all that generally can happen, they could sire children from more than one mother. Shithri sired children from three different mothers,” said Nemeth. “Shiffih and I share a mother. Sherath had a different mother. His twin brother died of the sickness. So Sherath is one of the ‘halves’ – he’s my half-brother.”

“And what about the other ‘half’?”

Sherath and Nemeth glanced at each other.

“The Drifter,” said Sherath. “Shenwaith.”

“Yes,” said Nemeth. “Less of a half because he’s only half-Elven. His mother was human.”

“Whaaat?” said Farinka. “You’re Elves?”

Sherath burst into laughter. “All of us here are Elven,” he said. “Including you, Domina. Didn’t you know what you are?”

“No. Give me a smoke-roll, someone.”

Nemeth lit one and passed it over. They sat in silence for a while, Farinka mulling over everything in her mind. “Hang on a moment,” she said after a while. “Shiannath; Shiannathri. Same person, obviously – why’s the name changeable?”

“The title ‘Ri’ is attached at the end of the name. Not like men’s leaders,” said Sherath. “Men would say ‘King Shiannath’, or ‘Lord Shiannath’. Elves say Shiannathri.”

“So Shithri was Shith,” said Farinka.

“Yes,” said Nemeth. “He was also our sire. The Children of the royal line are recorded as Rihal in the Archives and other records. Thus Nemeth-Rihal, Shiffih-Rihal, Sherath-Rihal.”

Farinka drew in a deep breath. Prince. Princess. “Yes. Right. What about the other ‘half’ – Shenwaith?”

Sherath grinned. “Technically, he doesn’t count, being only half-Elven,” he said. “He could never be King, because as a half-Elf he can never be fully enabled. It’s probably just as well, under the circumstances.”

“What circumstances?” Farinka was suspicious.

Nemeth answered. “Shenwaith – the Drifter – as half-Elven, is also half-human. Which means that although he isn’t enabled and never fully can be, he is capable of siring his own children. Which, if he were full-Elven, would also be sons of Shiannath’s line.” He looked at her. Sherath lay more comfortably by the fire and grinned at Nemeth.

“What’s the rest?” asked Farinka.

“Shenwaith does have a son,” said Nemeth. “Shengard. Who is quite a likeable sort, really.” – if you like fur, he added under his mental breath.

Fur?

Tarke poured herself a mug of danchic. “Shenwaith lives in the cave system in the Western mountain range. Always has done. From what we know, his mother was the daughter of a human lordling who left home when her father objected to Shithri. The father had no idea who Shithri was, of course. They lived together for some time in the caverns, with various friends and pets – the cave system is well-supplied with its own variety of wildlife. When Shithri left, Shenwaith was approaching what humans would term manhood – he was about sixteen. We don’t know when his mother finally died, but it must have been quite some time ago. Shenwaith inherits his own longevity from Shithri – with a lot of other Elven characteristics. He stayed on in the caverns; comes out occasionally for a bit of company. Doesn’t mix much with men – even over there they’re very suspicious. He hunts, gathers or grows all his own food. He also grows some rather unusual mushrooms in one of his caves.” She stopped, smiling at Nemeth.

“Never again,” said Nemeth. “I prefer my mind to stay in the same place as the rest of me.”

“What about Shengard?” asked Farinka.

“You’re very persistent, aren’t you?” said Sherath. His eyes were laughing. “We’re just coming to that. Via Shenwaith’s unusual mushrooms.”

“I think it must have been the mushrooms,” said Nemeth. “I mean, Flizz is quite attractive in her own way, but ...”

“… she is a cave troll, when all’s said and done,” Sherath finished for him. “And Shengard – “

“ – is a half-troll. And also a half-Elf,” said Nemeth.

“He must be a quarter-Elf, surely,” said Farinka.

“No, it doesn’t work like that. You can be Elven, half-Elven or not Elven at all,” said Tarke. “If a half-Elf and a human have children, some of the children will be all human and some half-Elven. Nothing in between. Full Elves become adult and are fully enabled only after Journeying. Half-Elves become adult anyway but can never become fully enabled. And they always live longer than humans.”

“What about if two half-Elves have children?”

“Most of the children would be half-Elven. Some would be full Elven and some all human.”

Mendel’s peas, thought Farinka.

Whose peas? questioned Sherath.

Something we can discuss some other time, she answered.

“Let me get this straight,” said Farinka turning to Nemeth. “Flizz is a troll, who has a son who is a half-Elf, who was sired by a half-human who is incidentally your brother?”

“Half-brother, please,” said Sherath, laughing. “Not our fault – everyone has some strange relations.”

“Personally, I’ve never had any quite that strange. But I do see your point,” admitted Farinka. “And you and Nemeth are the only surviving sons of Shiannath’s line – sons of the last king?”

“Yes,” said Nemeth. “We are. Which rather makes me wonder how accurate the Curse of Shiannathri is – if it is a precog,” he added thoughtfully.

Don’t I get any say in my own destiny?

You do. Even Shiannath refused a quest, said Sherath, his eyes understanding. Which is possibly why you are here now. Besides, you could always choose Shengard. You might find you liked fur.

Don’t forget the tail, added Nemeth.

A tail, too?

Sherath grinned. – Prehensile.

Oh, thanks a lot.

Domina; the precog could equally well be wrong, said Nemeth. According to Jevann, they sometimes are. So stop worrying.

I wasn’t worrying. Just nit-picking.

The whole thing is irrelevant at this stage, anyway, said Sherath. We have a hidden valley to get to before it becomes relevant. Which will take some time, he added.

“It’s getting cold,” said Jevann. “And also late. And whispering is impolite, you three.” He grinned, and stood up. “Domina, I’ll show you a small house you can live in if you choose some privacy.”

CHAPTER TEN

On the following morning, the younger Children escorted Farinka on an inspection tour of their small village. Hamlet, really, as there were only ten roundhouses in all – not counting the grave-house mound, which had once been a roundhouse. The two oldest of the little ones, Thani and Kuli, both with nut-brown hair and eyes, and sun-brushed golden skin, were alike enough to be easily recognisable as brother and sister, and their appearance was of youngsters in their early teens. Lekki and Linka, the two youngest, were also clearly brother and sister, each with almost white-blond hair and greenish eyes. They seemed a year or so younger than Shiffih appeared – about four or five in human terms – but Farinka knew that was just an illusion. They were younger, certainly, but by how many years, decades or scores of years it was impossible to tell. There were five of in-between-looking age: dark-haired Asha, tawny-haired Sharni, honey-blond twin brothers Keshteth and Yarith, and auburn Taari, who was wearing her hair in intricate braids.

Shiffih had taken on the role of tour leader, and was proudly explaining to Farinka what everything was. Between the various roundhouses, the pathways were topped with a mixture of cobbles, gravel, grit and sand, and around each building was a strip about a metre wide where an imposing variety of herbs and flowers grew in an anarchic riot of scent and colour.

The tour started at the uphill side of the village, where a smallish water-wheel provided power for the workshop house.

“Jevann and Jekavi made a lot of what’s in here,” said Shiffih. “The wheel was just for milling when we arrived, but they added all this stuff.” ‘All this stuff’, Farinka noted, impressed, was a system of pulleys, gears, and bands which could be linked and unlinked to, variously, a potting wheel, a lathe, a grinding wheel for tool-sharpening, and a small loom – as well as the millstones which had been there originally.

“That’s awesomely well constructed,” she commented. “They did this by themselves?”

“Yes. They’re both good at that kind of thing.”

Leaving the workshop house, they looked briefly in through the doorway of the forge house.

“Sherath’s domain,” said Shiffih with a grin. “He hasn’t needed to make anything new for a few weeks, so the forge is cold. This is where the kiln is, too – on the other side of the hearth from the forge.”

“Who makes pots?” asked Farinka, interested.

“Lots of us make things,” said Thani, “but Louka makes the best ones. Tarke and Sienne are both good at weaving, and Asha and Yarith are pretty good, too. Sharni and Taari are good at growing things.”

Next were the cookhouse, the bakehouse and the brewhouse; all combining a functional practicality with a kind of cosy homeliness. The cookhouse included a storage area for preserved foods, and a striking array of cooking utensils, pots, pans, mugs and bowls. Most of these, Farinka noted, were not just practical, but decorative as well; made variously of wood, pottery and bronze.

There was also a stone sink with a tap over it.

“Where does the water come from for the tap?” she asked.

“We’ll show you!” came a chorus of voices; Lekki and Linka took one of her hands each and led her, followed by the rest of them, around the side of the cookhouse.

“See,” said Shiffih, “the stream leaves the workshop house up the hill and then comes down here.” She pointed to a pair of huge stone troughs, one sited uphill from the other. The overflow from the upper trough ran into the lower one, and a wooden pipe ran from the bottom of the lower trough in through the cookhouse wall. A second pipe for overflow disappeared briefly underground.

“This is the silt trough,” said Kuli, patting the upper trough. “It catches any silt, so the water in the main trough is cleaner. There’s a big wooden plug in here,” – he demonstrated – “so that the silt can be cleared out. And the water from this trough can be run two ways, depending on where this sluice is. In this position it goes on down into the original stream, and in this one” – he demonstrated again – “it runs through the latrines to flush them out.”

The latrine house stood somewhat downhill from and to the rear of the cookhouse, with its doorway facing out into the woodland area behind it.

“You’ve already seen that,” said Linka, smiling shyly up at Farinka.

“Yes, sweetheart, I have. One side for liquids and the other for solids! And the solids go down into a cart with soil and kitchen waste, don’t they?”

“Yup,” said Lekki. “And then get carted away to the muckheap down there.” He pointed down a path which sloped away down into the woodland.

“And the overflow from the cookhouse trough comes out here, on the stream side of the sluice,” added Kuli. “That all rejoins the original stream.”

“And the flush from the latrines? Where does that go?” asked Farinka.

“Down through that hollow log pipe into the boggy patch in the dip in the woodlands,” replied Taari, twisting the end of one auburn braid between her fingers. “It soaks away there and eventually, when the bog has filtered it, it trickles away to join a different stream lower down the woods. Our water comes from the stream that runs from the spring in the cave, away up there.” She pointed up the rocky hillside.

“It’s all incredibly well thought through,” remarked Farinka. “The way you’ve directed the water and so on. Did all of you build all of that, too?”

“No, most of that was here when we came. That’s how you can tell this was an Elven place; Men just don’t do water management systems like Elves do,” said Thani.

“We think that’s why they get sick so much more,” added Shiffih, as they made their way back to the central hearth and the four remaining roundhouses which surrounded it.

The hearth area was a veritable hive of activity.

“There’s one real major problem about travelling during the winter,” Tarke was saying as she divided a heap of assorted clothing into two smaller piles, “and that is food.”

“Nut and fruit season is only just starting,” said Louka, sitting with her back to the fire and restitching the side seam of a sheepskin jacket.

“Yes, but we’d be hard put to it to gather enough not only to feed us as we travel but also to keep for later on. No matter how much ground we cover in a day, we’re still going to be travelling during the hungry gap. Meat won’t be a problem – the hunting on the plains is always good, though everything will be a bit lean by the time the hungry gap hits us.”

“Including ourselves,” murmured Sienne, sorting through a collection of pieces of hide and cloth.

“Quite,” said Tarke. “And we will need fat as well as meat – for energy as well as warmth. Which means we either need to carry a fair bit of fat from the word go, or else a fair quantity of nuts and oily seeds, which would do just as well. The problem being that either of those options adds to the weight, which adds to the amount of work anyone carrying that weight is doing, which in turn adds to the amount they need to eat to do the work.”

“What about fruit and grain?” asked Sienne.

“Fruit can be dried, which makes it a lot lighter,” said Louka, “and also makes it last longer. But it does need to be carried in something that keeps the rain out. And it will rain.”

“And snow,” added Sienne with a smile.

“Yes, and snow.” Louka knotted the end of the sinew threads and pulled the knot tight with her teeth. “We need wax for these jackets, or they’ll end up waterlogged and heavy, too.”

“Good point,” said Tarke. “If we can find wax, we have also found honey.”

“Which is also heavy to carry,” said Louka lazily.

“Good for a lot of reasons, though,” said Tarke crisply. “And now is the right time of year for honey-hunting. Who shall we send?”

“Not me,” said Sienne. “I always get stung. Tell you what, though – I can take some of the little ones mushrooming for a few days. Mushrooms dry easily and weigh next to nothing. Why does Sherath want to travel over the winter, anyway? Wouldn’t it be simpler just to stay here and start out in the spring?”

“You’re joking,” said Louka. “Granted, we’ve got enough food stored here to see us over most of the winter, but if we started travelling in the spring we’d hit the centre of the plains in the summer – “

“When it wouldn’t rain or snow,” Sienne pointed out.

“Quite,” said Louka. “And the plains are very dry in the summer. Not enough water. And that would also mean that we’d hit the western mountains just as autumn was coming on. Not a good time to cross the western mountains. And we’d hit the winter having been travelling for ages and with even less stores of food with us.”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Whichever way we do it, it’s going to mean travelling through the winter at some point,” said Tarke. “But it’s better to do a winter journey after a good summer’s rest than after several months of travelling.” She picked up a pair of deerskin leggings and inspected the seams critically. “Hmm. These seem okay.”

“More than I can say for this,” said Louka, holding up another heavy jacket with three large tears across the back of the shoulders.

“Isn’t that the one that Nemeth was wearing when he had that argument with the snow leopard?” asked Sienne.

“Looks like it,” said Tarke. “I should hand that over to Jevann and see if he can make boots out of the pieces. He’s always looking for sheepskin pieces.”

Louka flexed the skin experimentally between her hands. “This would wear through in no time. Would never last as boots.”

“Boot linings, then,” said Tarke. “Jevann will find a use for it.”

Louka put it on one side. “Same again for these?” she asked, holding up ripped trousers.

“Yup. He’s lucky he was wearing winter gear, wasn’t he? Would have made a nasty mess of him otherwise.”

“Instead of which he made a nasty mess of it,” said Sienne.

“Not mess,” said Louka. “Nemeth’s never messy about a kill. Did anyone ever find out what he did with the skin?”

“Not sure,” said Tarke. “He certainly cured it, but I don’t know what he intends doing with it. It would make a very warm jacket – but probably not big enough for Nemeth.”

“It was big enough for the leopard,” said Sienne.

“The leopard would still be wearing it if it hadn’t attacked Nemeth,” Tarke pointed out.

“Leopard’s legs aren’t half as thick as Nemeth’s arms,” said Louka. “He’d have to take sleeves out of the main skin. Or have it sleeveless. Talk of the devil,” she said, looking up as Nemeth came back into the village at an easy run. “Where have you been?”

“Fishing,” said Nemeth, slinging his pack down beside the fire. “I fancied trout for lunch.”

“You’ve been gone since before dawn,” said Sienne.

“Yes, well. I thought some other people might fancy trout, too. So I got quite a few. About enough for half of one each – or a bit more bearing in mind those who won’t want it.”

“Well done,” said Louka.

“Have we got any ‘tatoes left?”

“Loads,” said Tarke. “In the sand pit. And that’s another thing I’d like to be able to take, but they weigh too much.”

“I’ll have a think about it,” said Nemeth.

“While you think about it would you like to think about where we can find a good bee-tree?”

“Bees? Yes. Passed several honey trees this morning.”

“How far did you go?” asked Sienne.

“‘bout eight miles,” he answered. “Covered most of the small streams that drain down into the river out of these woods.” He tipped fish out of his pack onto the slate slab. “I gutted them as I caught them, but I think I’ll bone them. Do fishy-‘tatoes. If someone else can get the ‘tatoes ready,” he added, looking pointedly at Shiffih, Thani and Kuli who were busy brushing whichever bits of Moondust they could comfortably reach. “They’re going to brush that animal into non-existence at that rate.”

“I don’t think Farinka will let them,” said Sienne.

Nemeth looked over at Farinka sitting in the sun with most of the little ones. “They’re not pestering her for stories again, are they?” he asked.

“They’ve just come back from showing her all around the houses,” said Louka. “But don’t worry about it, she likes telling them. She’s got a lot of new stories.”

“Understandably,” said Nemeth. “And all ours are new to her, too.”

“They’re good stories,” said Sienne. “Ones she had in books when she was small.”

“You’ve been eavesdropping, have you?” asked Nemeth with a grin.

“Not eavesdropping. Listening quite unashamedly. You’ll have to get her to tell you the one about Winnie-the-Pooh and the Honey Tree, if you’re going honey-hunting.”

“Maybe,” said Nemeth. He stood and walked over to Farinka. “Domina, my apologies for interrupting, but I need to borrow some of the Children to get ‘tatoes washed and cut up. That is, if they want fishy-‘tatoes for lunch.” He smiled at her. “Sienne says you have a good story about a Honey Tree.”

“Winnie-the-Pooh,” said Lekki, who was sitting closest to Farinka.

“Go and help the others, Lekki,” said Farinka. She stood up, brushing dust off the seat of her trousers, and walked over to Moondust and his three groomers. “Enough, you lot. There’s no more dirt left to clean off.”

“What about his feet?” asked Shiffih.

“Let me,” said Nemeth, picking up a hoof and running the finger-guard of his knife-hilt around the sole like a hoofpick. “Off with you. Scat.” He grinned up at the Children, and went on to the next hoof.

Farinka watched him. “They seem to like the idea of fishy-‘tatoes,” she said.

“Usually popular. How do you like the idea of honey-hunting?” He put the last hoof down, and leaned against Moondust’s shoulder.

“I’ve never tried it. Back home, honey came out of jars and milk came out of bottles.”

“Milk out of bottles? So who put the milk in the bottles?”

“Big dairies. Farmers keep cows and milk them with milking machines, they sell the milk to dairies who put it into bottles and sell it to the rest of us.”

“Strange world,” said Nemeth.

“It seems to work. Mostly,” said Farinka. “Some people – not a lot – keep a couple of goats or a cow for milk just for themselves, and milk them by hand. But almost everyone gets their milk out of bottles.”

“Mothers would rather feed their babies on cow’s milk than on their own?”

“No, most mothers feed their own babies. But people go on drinking milk all their lives. And using it for cooking; making cheese and butter, all sorts of things.”

“Interesting. Do you want to help me get honey?”

“Yes, okay. So long as I don’t get stung.”

“I’ll do my best,” said Nemeth. “But no guarantees. I must carry on with these trout or the ‘tatoes will be ready before the fish are.”

***

“Moondust seems to want to come with us,” said Tarke.

“It’s probably safer if he does,” said Farinka. “That way none of the little ones will try to get too close to him.”

“So long as he doesn’t get himself stung,” said Sherath, “I don’t see that him being with us is likely to cause any problems.”

“We’re going to have to shift along a bit if we want to get to the best tree at dusk,” Nemeth pointed out. “We were later starting out than I’d expected. You fit for a seven-mile run, Domina?” He grinned.

“I’ll ride, in that case.” Farinka caught hold of Moondust’s mane and vaulted onto his back. “He can help carry honeycombs home,” she said. “No reason why he can’t do his share of the work.”

“There are a couple of fallen trees up ahead; you’ll have to go through the woods to get round,” Nemeth called back over his shoulder.

“Anything you can get over, Moondust can,” said Farinka, chuckling.

“Whatever you say,” said Sherath with an answering grin.

“Save your breath for running,” advised Tarke, jogging lightly beside Nemeth, her dark plaits swinging as she ran.

The feet of the three Elves and the unshod hooves of the unicorn made little sound on the soft carpet of leaf-mould and grass on the track. Twice they startled roedeer from amongst the trees, coming upon them almost noiselessly.

Nemeth rounded a corner of the track. “Here are the trees,” he called, and put a hand on the trunk to vault over, with Tarke half a pace behind him. Sherath hurdled the tree and ran on, glancing back as he did so.

Moondust pricked his ears and lifted his head, and Farinka caught hold of a handful of his mane and nudged him into a canter. His muscles bunched under her as he jumped cleanly over, snorting on landing, and lengthening his stride as he eyed the second tree.

“Mind your backs!” Farinka called, and – steady, you nutter!

The three Elves leapt aside as Moondust sped past and launched himself into the air over the second tree.

Maniac! Farinka patted him on the shoulder. Now settle down. Moondust bounced into a walk, and swung round to watch the others vault over the tree, with a look on his face as if to say ‘What kept you?’ He nudged Sherath with his muzzle as the Elves caught up with him; Nemeth and Tarke took the lead again, and Moondust kept pace with Sherath behind them.

He enjoyed that, Domina, said Sherath, his Voice light.

Me, too, she answered.

Sherath grinned as he ran. – I noticed. You made it look very easy.

It is, when you know how.

It’s the knowing how that counts. Where did you learn that trick?

Back home.

You rode unicorns on your world?

No. Just packbeasts. I used to do a lot of riding. And quite a bit of teaching, too.

Could you teach me? Sherath’s Voice was curious.

I can’t think why not. You learn most just by doing it. The basics are very simple. You could learn a lot by Hearing how I react to Moondust. Better still, jump up behind me. You’d get the feel of the movement and be able to hold onto me to keep your balance.

Would he mind?

He shouldn’t. I’ll stop him for you. She slowed Moondust, and Sherath patted the unicorn’s rump before vaulting up.

You need to sit as far forward as you can, said Farinka. You’d upset his balance otherwise. And you need to have your weight evenly balanced so you can move with him. Stay relaxed on him so your body absorbs his movement. The more you tense up, the more you’ll bounce and the more uncomfortable you and he will find it. Open your mind to mine – you can pick the feeling out of my mind; feel what I’m feeling. She nudged Moondust into a trot again, feeling Sherath’s Awareness within her own thoughts; feeling his concentration. Don’t close your mind at all – you’ll need to stay open because I’m going to ask him to canter to catch up. She nudged Moondust on, and after a moment’s adjustment Sherath relaxed into the rhythm.

Sherath, why do you guard your thoughts when the subject of the hidden valley comes up? Farinka asked.

Domina, that is called taking advantage.

Yes, I know. Farinka slowed Moondust to a smooth trot again. You’re keeping very quiet about something, though. And I think it has something to do with the fact that you can sometimes Assume Power when you shouldn’t be able to. Am I right?

You’ll keep this quiet, Domina?

Yes. Strictly between you and me and Moondust.

I had another brother. My twin, Shiyeth. We should have Journeyed together, but I broke my leg a week before we should have set out. We were very close, Domina. There was an overwhelming sense of loss behind his Voice.

Twins often are, little one.

Not so little. His arms tightened round her for a second. I must weigh more than half as much again as you do.

I understand grief. Farinka switched subtly to Awareness, thinking of Hammy – not just the loss, but also the manner of it; of Sukey (and knowing that Bobby had done that, too); of the death of her parents and the terrible sensation of being trapped with no-one to turn to but Uncle Paul (and all that went with that); and finally of the way that Shaka had died trying to defend her – and the anguish of that still almost overwhelmed her. She shut her eyes, trying to hold back the tears. Shaka; Shaka … why?

You’ve lived a lot in your seventeen years, haven’t you? There was enormous sympathy in the harmony of his mindmusic. And enormous comfort in being held; the holding as much mental as physical. Not an easy childhood, Domina.

No. Not easy. And nothing left to want to go back to.

Shiyeth Journeyed without me; he and a few others from our area. Shithri took them himself, with Rekkya – our mother – and our Guide, Lukann. Louka’s sire. Louka’s sister Larke also Journeyed; she and Shiyeth would probably have paired eventually, though neither of them was really sure.

How old were you?

Not very old. About thirty five. Give or take a year – I don’t remember exactly. It was a long time ago. It is forbidden to bring anything out of the hidden valley which you did not take in with you; though the unicorns came and went as they pleased. A unicorn would often come out of its own accord with a group of people who had Journeyed; we think they also had other ways of leaving, not known to us. Shiyeth had never been happy that I could not Journey with him. He brought something back for me.

What?

A leaf from one of the willow trees by the lake. Lukann suspected something, I think. He said nothing, but spent a long time talking with Teketh – Tarke’s sire and our Counsellor – on his return. And Teketh spent much time with Shiyeth. Shiyeth, as an adult, had sufficient Control over his thoughts that he could not be caught out unguarded – as you’ve done with me. I knew that I didn’t have the same Control, and that it would be only a matter of time before I gave Shiyeth away if the leaf were in my possession and could be found. It was too precious to me to destroy, and too dangerous to ‘lose’.

So what did you do with it?

I was still in some pain from the leg which had been broken; it took over half a year to mend properly. As a Child who was on the point of Journeying I was trusted to prepare most of my own medications. Willow is strong against the pain that causes heat and swelling – either as chewed leaves, or as tea, or the bark and leaves as a poultice. I ate the leaf. It worked – very well, I might add. Far, far better than I had ever experienced before. And the leaf was still with me – I had not destroyed it, could never lose it – but by the same token nobody could ever find it. And if nobody could find the leaf, Shiyeth could not be accused of bringing it out. I was somehow changed almost immediately – but it’s only within the past year that I have truly discovered that I could Assume Power – and that only a little. A fraction of what an enabled adult can Assume. But the fact remains that although I am by no means adult, I am also not entirely Child, nor have I been since that time. I am … aware, to some extent anyway … of things of which Nemeth knows nothing, though in all other respects he is my equal. I can no more father children than Nemeth can – but I am less Child than Nemeth.

I see. Farinka suddenly winced as something occurred to her. Omigod … and I though being a teenager was bad enough just for a few years! And that’s pretty much how you’ve been for – what? Three hundred years?

Do you see?

Aware enough to think about, but not aware enough to know, replied Farinka.

Aware enough to think about things on a rather more … subjective … level than Nemeth. And rather more aware of you, I think.

I feel that you are still unhappy with yourself for having eaten that leaf, though, Sherath.

Not entirely happy.

Hasn’t it occurred to you that if you were completely unable to Assume Power you would also have been unable to provide the protection that all of you needed? That your group – and the last surviving sons of Shiannath’s line – would probably have met the same end as the Children who lived in that village before you? And that therefore perhaps what you did was as much a necessary fulfilment of Shiannath’s Curse as my own presence here? That your action, and Shiyeth’s, and even the fact that your leg was broken so that you couldn’t be enabled at the same time, were possibly written in advance, as might have been the things which happened to me which made it possible for me to be who I am, and where I am? Part of a Plan whose end only Dominn can see?

Sherath’s arms tightened momentarily, and his thoughts lightened. – There may be something in that, Domina. Thank you. You would make a good Counsellor – or a good Guide.

They rode in silence for a while. The sun began to dip more markedly, its last light coming slantwise through the branches.

Sherath, why was Shiannath cursed? There’s that bit about denying Dominn’s will – but I find it hard to think of Dominn as that vengeful. It’s not in my concept of Dominn – nor I think in the concept of Dominn that Raffi and Gay gave me. And they were closer to Dominn than I could ever be. Was Dominn’s will something to do with the unfinished quest?

Everything to do with it. Shiannath was given a quest, and refused it. And according to the Curse, everything happened because of that.

And what if it was just a rather muddled vision that some kind of Seer had, and felt they had to find a reason for – however obscure? Seeing things that happened after that, but not because of it? Have you ever felt that Dominn had abandoned you?

At times, yes. I’ve felt that. Not necessarily abandoned me personally – I’ve never yet been refused a request for Granted Power – and to the best of my knowledge none of our own group has, either.

Could that Seer not merely have seen certainly the truth, but not the whole truth? Have foreseen the after-effects of the sickness that killed the Elders; have foreseen me coming here – all of which would have been genuinely precognitive – and then muddled it in with Shiannath’s unfinished quest into a hotch-potch with a common cause?

What about the sons of Shiannath’s line being unable to be joined in spirit?

I think that’s different, Sherath. If the quest was given to Shiannath because he was the king; a quest that only one of the royal line could undertake, then it might seem fair to hold future sons of that line to that until the quest was accepted. If the acceptance of that quest was absolutely vital for some reason known only to Dominn, then something like that might seem just and fair. But not the sickness and everything that followed it. I don’t think they’re necessarily linked.

Again, there might be something in what you say. It’s an interesting line of thought – and one that had not occurred to me in nearly three hundred years. But in that case why the lack of ability to be joined only until a Domina not of our world appeared?

Does it become clearer if you know that as the second part of your name is Rihal, the second part of my name on my own world is Law – and that Gay told me that in my case Law could be equal to Justice? In which case I might be not only the Farinka Domina referred to, but also the Child of Justice?

You are certainly the only one who can lead us into the hidden valley – which is where the lake referred to lies.

And if the quest required the talents of one of the royal line, it almost certainly also requires that whoever undertakes it must be enabled? Yes?

Yes. Ye Gods, yes! So even if one of us accepts that quest – which, incidentally, I have sworn to Dominn that I will try – there is no way since the sickness that it could be done without you first being here.

So what was it that Shiannath refused to do?

Uh, yeh; right. Well unfortunately we don’t know. Shiannath took that piece of information to the grave with him.

So you’ve sworn to undertake an unspecified quest? Signed yourself to an open-ended bargain?

It had to be done, Domina, by one of us, sometime. And I think Nemeth’s found the honey tree.

It looks like it. So here’s where we start getting stung.

Or not, with any luck and a little skill, replied Sherath with a mental chuckle.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Nemeth crouched thoughtfully by the base of the tree, adding small twigs to the pile of dried moss-fuzz and half-dried bark pieces. He pulled some brownish-green leafy-looking bundles and some sprigs of herbs out of his pack, and added them to the top of the pile.

“What are those?” asked Farinka.

“Hops and valerian. Makes them sleepier than just smoke alone.”

“Does it work?”

“Pretty well. I’m hoping it will, anyway, as it’s me that’s most likely to catch it if it doesn’t.” Tarke and Sherath returned with armfuls of fresh green grass and moss which they placed over the top of the pile. Nemeth tented over the top with an old sooty deerskin, tying it round the trunk of the tree so that it reached just over the wide crack where the root-buttresses met. He struck a spark into the base of the pile, blowing until it sprang into flame, and then weighted the deerskin down with stones, leaving a small drawhole at one side.

“The whole tree is hollow,” he explained to Farinka. “It acts like a chimney. Pulls the smoke right up between the combs. The bees are pretty dozy at this time of day anyway. A lot will fall down inside the tree, and whatever’s left crawling on the combs will be fairly easy to handle.” He sat back on his heels, looking up the trunk of the tree. “See up there? That’s the top of the chimney.”

Smoke had already started to come out in thin wisps from a big hole about twenty feet up the tree; the wisps turned into a steady stream as they watched.

“Keep right away from the tree, Domina – don’t even touch it. The whole trunk would amplify even the smallest vibration – and that would wake the bees up quite quickly. Noise doesn’t bother them much – vibration does.”

“How are you going to get the combs out?”

“From the top. That hole’s quite big, and the combs are likely to be within easy reach.”

“Won’t climbing up cause vibration?”

“It would. Which is why I’m going up the horse chestnut there and then across. They don’t expect to be raided from the top, and any movement up there would be like wind movement rather than honey-raider movement.” He stood up, picking up two hide sacks and tying them round his waist with a long coil of thin rope, then headed over to the horse chestnut tree.

Four pairs of eyes watched him climb – Moondust’s nose gradually tilting upwards and his ears pricked. The branches of the two trees intermingled about thirty feet up from the forest floor, and Nemeth walked out along one, catching hold of one of the honey tree’s branches with his hands and transferring himself first hand-over-hand and then swinging his legs up and over the honey tree branch until he could crawl along it. The climb ten feet down the honey tree was easy, and Nemeth came to rest astride the branch next to which the top hole of the chimney opened. He wafted smoke away from his face.

“Okay,” he called down softly, “open that deerskin up so I don’t get smoked out as well.”

He tied the hide sacks to the branch with the rope, pulled a belt knife from its sheath, and reached carefully into the tree, linking his feet under the branch for added security.

The first sack took about ten minutes to fill, with Nemeth carefully brushing bees from each wedge of comb he pulled out and letting them fall back inside the tree. A soft humming sound was becoming audible.

“Better give them some more smoke,” Nemeth called. Farinka and Sherath tented the fire again, and Nemeth edged back along the branch, tying the first sack shut and lowering it on the rope.

Clouds of smoke poured out from the top of the chimney again for a few minutes; the humming subsided gradually.

“Okay,” called Nemeth, and the fire was untented again. He moved back to the hole and started to fill the second sack while Tarke untied the rope from the first sack, securing its neck instead with a short length of twine.

Moondust had wandered away from the tree, and was staring down the track towards the open ground which led down to the river, his ears pricked and his nostrils quivering. A slight breeze blew his long silvery forelock away from his eyes. He snorted, and walked down the track.

“What’s he got wind of?” asked Sherath, looking at him.

“Something interesting rather than dangerous, I should say,” said Farinka.

Moondust whinnied; there was an answering whinny from some distance away.

“Wild packbeast,” said Tarke. “Stallion, by the sound of him.” Moondust whinnied again, and trotted away.

“I hope he’s not going to get into a fight,” said Farinka.

“You’re joking,” said Sherath. “No packbeast will fight a unicorn. He’s just gone to socialise.”

“Do you suppose he misses the company? He’s never been on his own before.”

“Quite possibly.” Sherath stood quiet for a moment, and then grinned. “Tarke, if we could get hold of another couple of beasts, it would solve a lot of our weight-carrying problems, wouldn’t it?”

Tarke looked up. “Wouldn’t it just! Do you think we can?”

“We might not be able to, but Farinka and Moondust probably could. Domina?”

Farinka looked up at him. “It’s possible. He Hears me, and if they can Hear him … yes. It could be done. We’d need colts rather than mares – strong colts.”

“Why not mares?” asked Tarke.

“Because at this time of year they’d be in foal, and the foals would be due while we were travelling.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“And the wild stallion wouldn’t mind losing a few potential rivals – whereas he might well object to being relieved of his mares,” added Sherath.

“This is also true,” said Farinka with a laugh.

“More smoke, please!” called Nemeth. “Now would be good!” Tarke tented the fire quickly, and Nemeth lowered the second sack, flinching occasionally. He stripped off his jacket and shook perhaps half a dozen bees out of it before dropping it to the ground.

Sherath untied the rope from the sack, and Nemeth fixed a running loop round the branch and abseiled down the tree. He untied his boots and kicked them off as soon as he hit the ground, cursing under his breath.

“Ow, nuts!”

“What, yours?” asked Sherath, laughing.

“Almost. Excuse me a moment, Domina,” Nemeth said with a wry grin, stripping off his trousers and shaking another three bees out. “Vicious little devils! I’m going to take a quick plunge into the river. ‘Bye!” He sprinted away down the track.

Sherath slung the honey sacks over his shoulders and set off down the track towards the river; Tarke pulled down the rope, chuckling; Farinka picked up Nemeth’s clothes, and they jogged after Sherath.

The wild packbeasts were the other side of the river, milling around on a broad grassy meadow. Moondust was the centre of a great deal of attention, and there was much squealing and shoving amongst the packbeasts as they jostled for positions from which to sniff. The unicorn and the herd stallion were indulging in a mutual neck-scratching session.

Hey, big fella! called Farinka, looking over at him. The unicorn came towards the bank of the river, looking across at the three Elves, and then rather surprisedly down into the water as Nemeth surfaced a few feet out from the bank, blowing water out of his nostrils and pushing his hair away from his eyes. Moondust snorted as Nemeth stood, water streaming off him, and walked towards the bank.

Nemeth, we’re going to try and bring a couple of packbeasts back, said Farinka. Colts. I’ll try and explain to Moondust, if I can. Can you keep close to him so the others see that you’re nothing to be frightened of.

Can do. Will he let me ride him?

Big fella? Let Nemeth up.

Moondust dipped his head, then nudged Nemeth with his muzzle, lipping at his hair.

I think he’s got the message, said Nemeth, holding onto a handful of Moondust’s mane and vaulting up. Which ones do you want?

There’s a big cream dun colt which looks strong; the palomino –

The what?

Gold with a white mane and tail. The pretty one.

Yes, I see him. Anything else?

Maybe that mouse dun – dust coloured – one.

Moondust walked purposefully over to the herd stallion – a fully mature animal with a rich bay coat and very black points. Farinka pictured the animals that she wanted, trying to get the image across to Moondust. The unicorn and the herd stallion walked among the other packbeasts together while Moondust singled out the right animals, gathering them into a group. He looked across the river to Farinka; then trotted through the herd, making for a pale grey filly, and chivvying her round to join the others.

We only want colts, big fella, said Farinka.

Moondust snorted and stamped a foot, looking over the river.

I think that’s called making a deal, said Nemeth. After all, why not? She’s his own kind. And with two unicorns to act as interpreters, we’ll have less of a problem with the others. They’ll do what these two tell them, I think.

Good point. How old would you say she was?

Three-ish? No really noticeable horn-bud, and her coat’s not fully faded out yet. She should be almost white next year. I doubt if she’s in foal, either, somehow. He wouldn’t be quite so keen if she were.

Okay, then. Bring them across.

How?

Leave it to Moondust.

Moondust and the herd stallion scratched each other’s necks briefly once more, and then the bay gathered the other packbeasts together. Moondust rested his jaw over the grey filly’s back, then gave her a gentle nip on the withers and shouldered her towards the river. She baulked at the bank, digging her toes in; Moondust blew into her ear and nudged her again, then went round behind the three colts, nipping them lightly on the rump to drive them into the water. They splashed across, having to swim for a few yards in the centre, and then plunged up the bank on the near side, their hooves squelching in the mud at the water’s edge.

Nemeth slid down from Moondust’s back and patted his shoulder. “Good lad,” he said.

“Nice swim?” asked Farinka, handing him his clothes.

“Cold. Want to try it?”

“No thanks. How are the stings?”

“Pretty numb at the moment. Those black bees pack a much nastier sting than the brown ones. Mind you, it’s worth it for that amount of honey. We must have got forty or more kilos of comb from that tree. All grub-free, too – I checked.” He climbed into his clothes.

“Yes. We’d better get this lot home – it’s getting very dark,” Farinka commented.

Sherath approached Moondust, patted him, and slung the honey-sacks, their necks tied together, across the unicorn’s withers, securing them by carrying the rope round Moondust’s neck, between his front legs and round his girth in a figure-eight, and tying the end across the bases of the sacks from the neckrope to the girthrope on each side to stop them bouncing.

“He might get a bit sticky, but that should stay put. Are you riding, Domina? We need to move pretty fast,” he said, glancing down at her.

“Better had,” she said. “I need to introduce us to that filly, though. She can lead if she’ll go ahead with Nemeth, and Moondust can bring up the rear to make sure the others follow.”

Farinka walked towards the filly. – Hey, pretty one. Good girl, let me near. The filly shifted her weight uncertainly from foot to foot, but let Farinka stroke her shoulder, gradually relaxing as Farinka’s hands worked their way up and into the tangled mane. – Good girl. Good lass. Farinka reached both arms round the filly’s neck, whispering into her ear and then stroking round the sides of her head, rubbing the base of her thumb across the bald spot where the horn bud would soon be. There was a faint tingle as her hand passed over the spot, and the filly whickered softly, curving her jaw round Farinka’s shoulder.

She knows you, Domina, said Nemeth, approaching slowly.

Yes. Pretty one – Moonwind – stay close to Nemeth.

She pulled the filly’s head round gently and Nemeth held his hands out. Moonwind lipped at his hands, then dipped her head and followed him and Tarke towards the woodland edge.

The three colts, with a little encouragement from Moondust, followed behind.

We’ve had good hunting this evening, said Sherath in a satisfied tone.

Would dozewort knock those colts out? asked Farinka.

Yes. Knocks anything out.

For how long?

About four or five minutes.

Could they have it again before they woke up?

The best way to keep them asleep is to knock them out, make a scratch and bind dozewort leaves against the scratch. Or leave a dozewort thorn in them for a while. They’d stay asleep until almost five minutes after you took the dozewort off, then. Why do you ask?

I was thinking they’d be a lot more manageable and much safer round the little ones if they were gelded. None of them are old enough to be stroppy all year round, but by next spring they might well have ideas of their own on the subject. If they were gelded now, they’d get more manageable than they are, rather than less.

Would you know how, Domina? Sherath asked. I don’t think I could do that, somehow. My imagination’s too good! he added with a wince.

Farinka laughed quietly. – No, possibly you couldn’t. I’ve seen it done a few times – often enough to know how, I think. All you need is a very sharp blade and a way of making sure they don’t carry on bleeding. Some kind of fierce clamp is best, but I don’t know if you have such things.

Hot metal? To sear blood vessels shut?

Would work – carefully used.

Sherath retrieved the deerskin fire-tent as they passed the now-quiet honey tree, tying it on his shoulders like a cloak, and stamped out what was left of the fire, covering the ashes with earth. Farinka had to nudge Moondust into a canter to keep up as Sherath lengthened his stride to catch up with the others again.

The first four miles were all steadily – though slowly – uphill. Sherath ran in silence alongside Moondust’s shoulder, deep in thought. The moon shed very little light on the track; the leaf cover was still thick enough to obscure most of it. Farinka was surprised how well she could see in the dark, and Moondust was striding out confidently – more confidently than the packbeast colts in front of him. He hurried them up from time to time with a rumbling snort and sometimes a soft nip.

Nemeth, how’s Moonwind doing? Can she see okay to clear those trees up ahead?

She’ll be okay; unicorns see as well in the dark as we do. The other packbeasts see less well – more like men. But I suspect they’ll have the courage to follow where she leads. There’s enough open sky where those trees fell to allow quite a bit of light through – it’s not like most of the track. If they can’t manage it they’ll find a way round the ends, Domina; they seem quite happy following us. How’s Moondust doing with the honey?

The weight’s no problem. He’s getting sticky shoulders in places though.

If he can carry you and Sherath at once then you and forty kilos of honey wouldn’t bother him, Domina. I was thinking more about the ropes hurting him.

They don’t seem to be; he’s moving easily enough.

Those trees are about a hundred paces ahead of me now. I’m sending Tarke on ahead so this filly can see what’s needed.

Keep your feet out of the way of her hooves, Nemeth – we can’t afford to have you going lame.

Don’t worry about me, Domina; I’ve been looking after myself since before your five-times-great grandsire was born.

Yes, okay, she retorted. I get the idea.

The moonlight struck down through the trees just enough for Farinka to see Moonwind lift and clear the first tree. The palomino colt, after a moment’s hesitation, followed her over with the cream dun close behind him. The mouse dun colt dug his toes in and jibbed at the last moment; Moondust reached forward and bit his rump sharply, and he cat-jumped from a standstill with Moondust almost on his heels.

Nice work, Moondust, said Sherath. The unicorn flicked an ear back as Sherath hurdled the tree.

Moonwind cantered on eagerly and soared over the second tree, leaving Nemeth behind; the palomino and cream dun jumped neck and neck just behind Nemeth. Moondust bounced on the spot and made a deep grunting sound in his chest – the mouse dun colt cantered on and jumped easily and cleanly. Moondust went from bounce to canter, put in three strides and took off, almost landing on the colt in front.

They did well, Domina, called Tarke appreciatively from up ahead. Almost home now. A few more minutes. I hope they’ve left something for us to eat; I’m starved. And thirsty.

***

The beasts were grazing at the top end of the valley, Moondust’s silvery hide showing clearly under the just-past-full moon, with Moonwind and the cream dun colt showing rather less clearly. The others were indistinct outlines, grey against grey.

There were just the six oldest Elves left close to the fire; Louka with a mug of steaming danchic cradled in her hands, her feet snuggled into new boots which Jevann had finished making that afternoon, and the hood of her jacket pulled up; Jevann all but asleep, using Louka’s crossed legs as a pillow and looking up at the broad strand of the StarStream across the middle of the sky through half-closed eyes; Nemeth leaning back against the big log, his hands linked behind his head and Tarke using his bent knees as armrests as she polished the inside of a new wooden bowl with a round stone and the last of the old beeswax; Farinka sitting close enough to watch the patterns in Tarke’s bowl coming to life under the polish, and knotting together halters for the packbeasts out of strips of rawhide, trying to think of ways of making sturdy comfortable packs for them, and wishing her deerskin jacket was a bit warmer. Sherath noticed her shiver slightly.

“Cold, Domina?”

“Just a bit.”

“I’ll top the fire up.” He got to his feet and added more logs to the fire, then grinned down at Jevann. “Are you intending staying out here all night? And if so shall I fetch a cover for you, as I’m on my feet?”

“It’s not a bad night for staying out,” said Jevann sleepily. “Can’t be bothered to get up. And yes, please, I could do with something over me.”

“Since you mention it,” said Nemeth, stretching his arms, “my big buffalo hide’s rolled up just by the doorway.”

“Your wish is my command,” said Sherath with a smile. “Any more, anyone?”

“Just bring several,” suggested Louka. “It’s not going to be damp, but it’s not going to be warm, either.”

Sherath ducked his head as he passed through the doorway of the big roundhouse, appearing a few minutes later with his arms full of assorted furs and hides, which he unrolled by the log, pulling a big rug – almost a carpet – of joined sheepskins from the top.

“Big enough to share,” he said, carrying it over and draping it round Louka’s shoulders and down over Jevann. “Good night, sleep tight – “

“– and don’t let the bugs bite,” finished Louka. “Thanks, Sherath. It’s getting to that time of year again, isn’t it?”

“Mm.”

“What time of year?” asked Farinka, looking up from the last halter.

“Winter sleeping,” said Sherath, sorting through the roll of hides; “like Elf sandwiches. Big groundsheet of mixed hides, then a layer of assorted Elf Children, and topped with another layer of hides. Very warm, and surprising how many can fit in a very small space. About ten of the little ones are running a mini-version of it in the middle roundhouse at the moment.”

He unrolled two buffalo hides, one almost hairless and one relatively new. “Get up a moment, you three. I want to use one as a groundsheet.” He spread the old hide out, and Nemeth and Tarke reseated themselves as before. Farinka sat on the top of the log, watching. Sherath spread the other hide cape-wise behind Nemeth’s shoulders and Nemeth pulled the sides round.

“What are you going to do with the snow-leopard skin?” Tarke asked him. “We were talking about it earlier.”

“It’s a case of have already done,” said Nemeth. “I made a jacket. Not big enough for me – but it would fit you very well. I was keeping it for the winter for you.”

“Nice of you,” said Tarke.

“That’s because I’m such a nice person,” replied Nemeth with a grin. “Mind you, if it had been big enough for me I wouldn’t have been giving it away. Talking of things for the winter, Domina, you’ve got none at all, yet, have you?”

Farinka lit a smoke-roll. “No. Deerskin’s nice for summer, but not warm enough for winter.”

“There’s bound to be things that will fit you,” said Louka. “You’re much the same height as Tarke and myself, and a bit leaner. We’ll sort some things out tomorrow.”

“I’m in the process of making you some winter boots,” said Jevann. “I noticed the soles of yours are wearing very thin – you’ll be through them soon.”

“Thanks, Jevann. Much appreciated.”

Sherath unrolled the last of the hides – another ‘carpet’ of six sheepskins – and slid under it, his head close to Nemeth’s hips and the log along his side.

“Plenty of room, Domina. You can use my arm for a pillow. Should be warm enough even with thin deerskin.”

“That’s Sienne’s favourite pillow you’re borrowing there, Domina,” said Nemeth.

“I’m sure she won’t mind,” said Sherath. “She hasn’t had nightmares for months now.”

“They seem to come in patches, don’t they?” said Louka. “Mostly in the winter.”

“What sort of nightmares?” asked Farinka.

“Being hunted nightmares,” said Sherath. “One of the reasons why she likes to sleep close to someone big and warm. It makes her feel safer.”

“I know what you mean,” said Tarke. “If someone bigger and stronger than you is wrapped round your back, nothing can get at you from that direction, and they’d be able to see anything trying to get at you from in front. Like being in a safe cave with the added advantage of being warm, too. When the little ones were babies they always snuggled up with someone else.”

“They still do when it’s not too hot,” said Nemeth, “only with each other, mostly, now.”

“Jekavi seems popular for curling up with. He’s always got three or four round him,” said Louka.

“Runs in the family,” said Jevann with a lazy smile. “Seriously, though, it’s probably just that he’s the biggest of the little ones. Bigger than Sienne, now – he’s not stopped growing the way she seems to have done.”

“She’s no smaller than her mother was,” said Tarke. “And her father was smaller than yours.”

“True,” said Jevann. “Jekavi’s getting to be quite good at making boots. He’s done most of the little ones’ winter boots for this year – I hardly helped him at all. Mind you, it’s taken him long enough to want to help; seems to want to try his hand at everything before he decides on anything.”

“Well, why not?” said Louka. “His real Talent’s not very usable without a permanent home.”

“Painting. No, not very practicable.”

“Jekavi’s an artist?” asked Farinka.

“Very good,” said Jevann. “He did some amazing paintings in some of the cavern system when we were all younger. Used to make boats, as well. Good ones – didn’t leak.”

“Yes, the best boats are like that,” said Farinka, grinning.

Jevann pulled a face at her.

“Does everyone do something particular?” asked Farinka, “or do you all do everything.”

“Jevann makes most of the boots and shoes – simply because he’s the best at it,” said Louka. “Sherath does any metalworking that needs to be done. Not that we’ve had the opportunity or the need to do much in the last few years. Nemeth does quite a lot of hunting – again, because he’s good at it.”

“And also because he likes to get away from the rest of us sometimes,” added Tarke. “Sienne’s very good at finding growing things to eat – she sees things that other people miss. Seems to have an instinct for knowing where food’s to be found. Nuts, berries, mushrooms, roots – almost anything edible, Sienne can find. And she’s good at getting the little ones together to go gathering stuff. Louka and I work most of the hides and skins – I’m better at curing them, and Louka’s better at turning them into clothes. Cooking’s mostly a joint effort – there’s nearly always someone around who actually wants to cook on any particular day. If it’s fish, Nemeth always does it. He’s very good at fish. Also very good at catching them. They swim right into his hands.”

“I think he just asks them to jump out of the water and they find themselves doing what they’re told without thinking about it,” said Louka.

“I’m just good at being invisible,” said Nemeth. “Tarke, this log’s hurting my back. I’m going to lie flat.”

“Bother. I was quite comfortable like that,” said Tarke.

“I’ve got the same problem,” said Louka. “Shift your head, Jevann. You’re getting heavy.” She slithered down and lay between Jevann and the fire. “Give me some of that cover – it’s supposed to be big enough to share.”

“You’ve got most of it already!”

“I have not! You’ve got yards of it behind your back, look.” She pulled the cover out from behind him.

“Hey, that was keeping me warm, Louka.”

“Yes; I’d like some of it to keep me warm, too. The ground’s cold.”

“There’s a big bearskin in my cot,” said Farinka. “You could use that to lie on.”

“Thanks,” said Louka. “I’ll fetch it.”

“That’s quite some bearskin,” said Nemeth. “I noticed it before. Looks like one of the big mountain bears. I owned a hide like that once. ‘Mazingly warm.”

Louka came back carrying the bearskin cloakwise; it almost totally covered her. She gave Jevann a soft kick. “Get up, lazy, if you want a groundsheet.” Jevann rolled out of the way, keeping the sheepskins wrapped around himself. Louka spread the bearskin, fur-side-up, and Jevann rolled onto it, lifting one side of the sheepskins to let Louka in.

“Who does your healing? Or do you all?” asked Farinka.

“The Guide is almost always the Healer as well,” said Tarke. “Although most of us have a fair degree of Healing Talent – it’s part and parcel of Awareness. There are some traditional Tasks which are set for us – three, mainly. Guide, Challenger and Counsellor. Sherath is our Guide – responsible for our spiritual welfare. Nemeth is our Challenger – responsible for our physical welfare. I am Counsellor – responsible for our emotional welfare. Although each of us can do many things, and each of us will turn to someone of their own choice when they need someone, the ultimate responsibility in each of those three given areas is as given.”

“Fairly heavy responsibility,” said Farinka. “So, who guides the Guide? Who counsels the Counsellor? Who guards the Guards?”

Quis custodiet ipsos Custodes? echoed Sherath softly.

You speak Latin? asked Farinka, equally softly.

‘Latin?’ What I thought was in Old Elvish, he answered.

“Dominn never asks more of you than you can give,” said Sherath. “Nothing is impossible to handle, with Dominn’s help. But it is a mistake to ask Dominn for the wrong things. You only ever really need to ask for three things – by the way, this is me speaking as Guide, not as Sherath; I make mistakes on my own account often enough. Knowing what I should be doing is always easier than actually doing it.”

“So what are the three things?” asked Farinka.

“Steadiness – to deal with the things you can’t change; determination – to change the things you can and should; and insight – so you can tell the difference. The last may be the hardest. I know I’ve tried to change things that can’t be changed – or maybe they could, but either not by me at all, or not by me at that time. I’ve missed opportunities to change things that I could have changed, as well. You’re usually given another chance, if you choose to take it. Other than those three things, there is the basic request for Granted Power – when you need to use Power that is not readily available. Children learn soon enough that that particular request will always be refused if you want the Power for the wrong reasons. Granted Power can’t be used for evil. It is difficult to use Assumed Power for evil. It can’t be used in attack, and is hard to use in defence if using it causes injury to someone. It can be done, but it needs an enormous amount of strength. You can’t fight battles with Power.”

“Do you have to ask for Voice, and Hearing, and Awareness?”

“No, never. Not even as small Children,” Sherath replied. “They’re as much part of the inherent Elven heritage as longevity and dexterity. Natural. Even the half-Elven have those abilities in full measure – they’re not Power as such. Just natural Talents. There are half-Elven occasionally in the villages – hence the tradition of the Seeker. The half-Elven, even though they may not know what they are, begin to be obviously different after a while because they just don’t age the same way. So they leave the village on a ‘quest’ – without having to say what it is. And the tradition among Men is that it’s very unlucky to ask a Seeker what they’re Seeking, fortunately. And because of the natural Elven skills – the Awareness and Healing particularly, Seekers are considered to be ‘lucky’, so they’re usually welcomed at other villages. They obviously can’t stay in any one place for very many years – but there’s nothing stopping them going back two generations later.”

“How come there are half-Elven in the villages?”

“They go back a very long way,” said Tarke. “We’re not sure how many generations ago was the most recent – other than Shithri, who doesn’t really count because of Shiannath’s Curse – but just occasionally an enabled Elf doesn’t meet someone they want to join with straight away – although usually they’ve got a pretty good idea before they Journey. Not always. And they could always go out to other Elf communities, looking for someone – and often went via man-villages – the original ‘Seekers’. And just occasionally they had half-Elven children. And, of course, when those half-Elven children grew up and had children of their own, half of their children would be half-Elven, too. And so on.”

“What if two half-Elven parents, who don’t know what they are, have an Elf-Child?” asked Farinka.

“Changelings,” said Sherath. “It does sometimes happen. Very, very rarely – because there are not that many half-Elven around. But changelings are there in the human folklore. They say the devils steal the human babies at birth and put their own babies there to be mothered instead. The Children are usually at least six before people notice something wrong.”

“What do they do – kill them?”

“No. They take them out and leave them in the woods so the devils can take them back. But they sometimes kill the mother – or at least never let her have more children.”

“And do the Children die – if they’re left in the woods at that age?”

“It can happen. But they’re almost always found,” said Louka. “Lekki and Linka were left that way – twins. We found them close to here about a hundred years ago. They’re changelings. In fact they were probably born in the village that you brought Shiffih out of. It’s the only village anywhere near here.”

“Domina, you are learning fast about us,” said Nemeth. “We know almost nothing about you, except that you don’t come from this world. For seventeen years old, you’re very old in a lot of ways – and I don’t just mean because you’re adult. Will you tell us what your life was before you came here?”

Sherath’s mind-touch enfolded her a split second after the fear hit; full of warmth and strength and sympathy and understanding – after all, he’d seen some of it earlier. She took a deep breath.

“Whew. It’s not easy to know where to begin.”

“Begin at the beginning, Domina,” said Sherath, and then – I am here with you. Don’t let it hurt you any more; it’s past, but it’s also important. You are the child of your past and the mother of your future. And I am with you.

He held her a little closer as she started to speak. Like being in a safe cave, only warmer.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Farinka patted the shoulder of the palomino as he rolled onto his chest, shaking his head to clear the after-effects of the dozewort.

“Come on, sunshine,” she said. “On your feet. You’re okay.”

“That’s quite a good name for him,” remarked Tarke. “Sunshine. He’s the right colour.”

“Yes, he is, isn’t he?”

“More of an ‘it’ than a ‘he’, now,” said Tarke, grinning.

“True. Bit like Nemeth,” said Farinka.

“He wouldn’t forgive you if he heard you,” said Tarke.

“I heard,” said Nemeth.

“It’s impolite to walk so quietly,” said Farinka.

“At least I will be totally male,” said Nemeth. “It’s only a matter of a Journey.” He looked down at Farinka, his eyes full of amused challenge.

You doubt me, Domina? He laughed. “True?”

“Yes, true.” – and no, I don’t doubt you for a moment, Nemeth, she added.

“Good.” – Remember it.

Tarke laughed. “Okay, you two, enough. What are we going to call the others? They ought to have names.”

“You could call the rabbit-coloured one Rabbit,” suggested Nemeth.

“You’re joking! You can’t call a packbeast ‘Rabbit’,” said Tarke. “He’s more mouse-coloured, anyway.”

“Strange,” said Farinka. “You definitely couldn’t call him Rabbit, but for some reason Mouse doesn’t sound so daft. Wonder why?”

“Because it’s more often used to describe the colour, at a guess,” said Nemeth, sinking into his usual cross-legged position. “How do you describe rabbit-coloured without calling it ‘rabbit’?”

“The correct name for wild-type colour is agouti,” said Farinka. “School Biology,” she added. “Funny what you remember. But his colour is called mouse dun.”

“Now that is a nice name,” said Nemeth. “Agouti.”

“Yes,” said Tarke. “What about the creamy dun?”

Sunshine scrambled to his feet, shook himself, and walked away to join the others.

“He seems okay,” said Louka, joining them. “Hardly notices it, does he?”

“Doesn’t seem to,” agreed Farinka. “We’re just trying to think of a name for that cream dun one.”

“What have you called the others?”

“Sunshine and Agouti,” said Nemeth.

“He’s almost barley-flour-coloured, isn’t he?” said Tarke.

“Or oats. Or wheat,” said Louka. “Too grey for maize. Not grey enough for stone.”

“Not unlike raw flax,” said Tarke. “A bit darker, perhaps.”

“Flax. I like that,” said Farinka. “It feels right. Where did Sherath go?”

“Hunting,” said Nemeth. “I left him by the alp. There were some alp-oxen up there – he was going to try and bag a calf if he could get near enough. I brought a sheep back.”

“How big a calf?” asked Farinka.

“Quite big, at this time of year. Would probably weigh what I do,” said Nemeth.

“That’s a bit heavy to carry home,” said Farinka.

“Don’t you believe it. Sherath’s carried me before now. Besides, there’s a good hide on a calf that size. Very warm; the alp-oxen grow their winter coats early.”

Farinka felt a twinge of uneasiness run through her. She shivered.

“Cold?” asked Nemeth.

“No. I’m going to go down and meet him.” She stood up; Moondust raised his head from his grazing, looking at her. He snorted, and trotted over, followed by Moonwind.

“Take both of them,” said Jevann, walking over with the sheepskin backcloths in his hands.

“You think so too?” asked Farinka quietly.

“I think you should take them both,” he answered. “But I don’t know why. Be careful, Domina.”

“I will.”

She belted the sheepskins over their backs. Moondust was keen to go.

If you stand still, you idiot, I could get on, she chided him. He stood, snorting, as she vaulted up. Come on, then.

She had to slow him back to a trot from the edge of the woodland to the main trail where the detour was, but once on that trail the unicorns opened out into an easy canter which ate the miles; the trail seemed almost to flash by, but the canter felt slow and steady. It was a matter of only half an hour before they reached the meadow where she, Shiffih and Nemeth had stopped to eat on the way to the Elf village.

I thought this was further away than this, she thought.

Moondust snorted – there was a definite feeling of amusement in his snort, and in the brief instant of Awareness which he flashed her before lengthening out to a gallop across the grass. The meadow passed in a blur.

You must know something I don’t, big fella, she said to him, patting him. Once between the trees again he slowed to a smooth trot. Farinka noticed that she was more out of breath from riding than either of the unicorns was from running. She lay on his withers, her arms clasped round his neck, to avoid low branches.

As fast as you like, Moondust. I won’t fall. He stretched out to a canter again, dodging and weaving between the trees, Moonwind always no more than half a length behind; sometimes they hit a deer-trail for a while, more often they were moving through areas with no clear path. – Don’t you ever need to rest? she wondered. This time the amusement – from Moonwind as well – was palpable.

Okay, okay. I’ve never met unicorns before. Just horses.

The canter was less easy to stay on downhill than it had been uphill, but still smooth. By the time they reached the main alp both unicorns were breathing heavily, and their flanks were damp.

Walk now. I want to look; quietly. She cast Awareness ahead, feeling for the touch of Sherath’s mind. It was there, the far side of the alp. As her mind touched his she felt his Awareness of her, tinged with relief.

Domina. I’m glad you’re here. There are men here – one of them’s hurt. If I dared let them see me again I could probably help, but as it is I’m in as much danger from them as he is from his wounds. His Voice was weary.

Are you okay? Did you get the calf?

Yes. To both questions. The calf’s hidden – so am I, now. How far away are you?

Not far. What happened? How did they see you?

A cougar jumped them. I was somewhat less than careful. I managed to distract her, but she’s not gone far.

Stay hidden; I’ll come over. She extended her Awareness away from Sherath. The men were not far from him, at the foot of a granite outcrop. Piet, Jaimeh, Gort, three others from the village. She set Moondust into a canter again.

“Piet! It’s only me. Do you need help?”

Piet stood up, running towards her.

“Seeker! Thank the Gods! Jaimeh’s hurt – hurt bad.”

Farinka slithered down from Moondust’s back and patted him. The unicorns backed off as Piet came up; his eyes were full of fear and worry.

“How badly is Jaimeh hurt?” Farinka asked.

“His arm. A mountain lion got him; bit him badly. I think the arm’s broken, as well.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.” They went over to where Jaimeh lay, and Farinka crouched by him.

He was pale, sweaty; his breathing fast and shallow, and he was shivering. The arm was a mess – the upper arm muscles badly ripped, and both elbow and shoulder at angles they weren’t designed for. There was also a lot of blood.

“This is not good, Piet,” said Farinka, looking up at him. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I don’t think I can do this on my own. There’s someone here who can probably handle this better than I can.”

“Who? Seeker, do you not trust me?” Piet asked.

“Did you see someone else when the cougar attacked?”

“I thought I did, for a moment. But then I wasn’t sure. You mean there was someone?”

“Yes. What you’d probably call a ‘devil’. He’s not; he’s a Seeker of sorts as well; with a far harder quest than mine. And also a Healer. Would you trust him?”

Piet crouched by his brother. “Jaimeh?”

“Whatever she says,” said Jaimeh, barely audible. “I’ll trust anyone the Seeker trusts.” There were murmurs of assent from the other men.

Sherath?

Yes, I heard.

I think it’s quite safe. I feel no threat from any of these. Use your own Awareness. What do you think?

I think you’re right. I’ll come down. Sherath climbed down from the top of the granite, landing lightly two or three paces from where Jaimeh lay; his Awareness wide open. He faced Piet.

“Who are you?” said Piet, looking up at Sherath.

“Sherath. And you are the leader of these men?”

“Yes. Piet. And this is Jaimeh – my brother. Can you help?”

“I expect so,” said Sherath confidently, crouching by Jaimeh and putting his hand gently on the injured arm. He shut his eyes; Farinka felt the deft probing of Sherath’s Awareness, and also a constant drain of Power being used for some other purpose. Sherath opened his eyes.

“It’s not broken,” he said, stripping off his jacket and putting it over Jaimeh. “He needs to be kept warm, Piet. Give me your jacket as well.” He held out his hand for the sheepskin which Piet handed over, and covered most of the rest of Jaimeh.

He’s in a lot of pain, Sherath, noted Farinka.

Yes; I Hear him quite clearly. And the other one is very worried. His feelings are wide open.

Yes. Easy to Hear.

Domina, I’m going to have to use dozewort on him. It would be inhumane to attempt anything with this arm while he’s awake.

Okay. I don’t think Piet will be too worried if we explain.

She looked up at Piet. “We’re going to have to make him sleep, Piet. It’s no magic, just the juice of a herb. He’ll wake quite soon. Don’t be worried.”

“Okay.” Piet was watching as Sherath used twig tweezers to pick a thorn dart out of the box. “May I see?”

Sherath held the dart up, his eyes still on Jaimeh. Piet reached out his hand toward the dart.

Don’t touch, Piet. Sherath’s Voice was soft but with just a hint of Command, his back to Piet.

Piet snatched his hand away.

He Heard you, Sherath.

Yes. And he didn’t know he had.

“The thorn would send you to sleep as well as Jaimeh,” Farinka said to Piet.

“Jaimeh,” Sherath said softly, “the thorn will just scratch you. It will make you sleep. There is nothing to be frightened of. Trust me.”

“Yes, I trust you,” murmured Jaimeh.

“Good man.” Sherath drew the tip of the thorn across Jaimeh’s wrist, and then ground it into the earth with his boot. He looked up at Farinka. “I’ll need your help, Domina. I’ll also need some herbs – willow, camomile, comfrey. And some strips of soft hide to bind the arm with, and a larger piece of hide to hold it up once we’ve finished.”

“My men can find herbs and hide,” said Piet.

“That’s good,” said Sherath, his eyes meeting Piet’s. “The herbs need to be dropped into boiling water – I know there’s a pot ready on your fire. I need some of it left to soak in the water, hot, and some cooled down to be warm enough to wash the arm with without burning.”

“I’ll see to it,” said Gort. Sherath looked up at him, the corners of his eyes creasing into a smile. Gort found himself smiling back.

“Take the others with you,” suggested Sherath. “I’ll need space and quiet.”

Domina, I need you to hold Jaimeh’s upper arm as best you can without adding to his injuries; hold it tight. I’m going to have to pull as well as twist to get this elbow to come round. Okay?

Okay. Sherath took hold of Jaimeh’s wrist and hand, and looked up at Farinka.

Sure you’re okay?

Yes. Go for it. Oh, yuck! That crunched.

They do, sometimes. Sherath grinned. You still okay?

Yes. What next?

Just steady him while I do the shoulder. Sherath shifted his grip to Jaimeh’s upper arm, locking his own arms together around it and bending the arm up at the elbow. Then he did a kind of twisting pull on the arm. Farinka shut her eyes, expecting another crunch, but there wasn’t one. Okay, Domina; you can look now. Sherath caught her eyes as she opened them; his own eyes laughing. It wasn’t that bad, was it?

No. I’m just not used to it.

Don’t worry; I am.

I noticed.

He’s going to be awake in a minute. I’ll use another thorn on him. Sherath sat back, checking the pulse at the wrist. He looked up at Piet.

“There’s a good strong pulse in this wrist. He hasn’t damaged the blood supply at all – so everything should be okay when it heals. Don’t look so worried, Piet. He’s young, he’s strong. The worst danger to him is that he’s lost a lot of blood. But I think he can make that up all right.”

Jaimeh stirred restlessly and opened his eyes, half woozy.

“Okay?” Sherath asked him. He nodded. “I’m going to send you back to sleep for a few more minutes.” The thorn was in the tweezers and across Jaimeh’s wrist almost before Sherath finished speaking.

Gort came over with a pan full of warm herb-scented water. “Is this enough?” he asked Sherath. Sherath dipped a finger into it.

“Yes. That’s right. You’ve kept some hot?”

“Yes. Will he be all right?” Gort’s voice was concerned.

“Yes. It’ll take some time, but he’ll be fine in the end.”

“He’s promised to my sister,” said Gort quietly, looking at Sherath.

“I didn’t know Marte was your sister,” said Farinka.

“Well, half-sister. Her mother died birthing her. Sir, why are you helping us?”

“You’re fond of your half-sister, aren’t you?” said Sherath.

“Yes. I am.”

“The little one that you let the Seeker bring back to the woods?” Sherath’s eyes met Gort’s, then Piet’s.

“Yes?” said Gort. “What about her?”

“She’s my half-sister. And I’m pretty fond of her, too.”

“We’ll never trouble you or yours again,” promised Piet.

Sherath smiled up at him. “Yes. I know. My kindred are not devils or demonspawn; we’re all Seekers and Healers.”

He washed the torn upper arm muscles carefully, running the herby water through every tear and into every toothmark before replacing the muscles in their right positions and smoothing the skin down over them. Farinka could feel something in addition to Sherath’s Awareness as he worked; she suddenly recognised it as the same thing that had come from herself when she was working on Karinna’s sickness.

“Tell me something, Piet,” Sherath asked. “Have there been any Seekers in your family?”

Piet grinned. “My father’s father was one.”

“How about your father?” asked Farinka.

“He died young,” said Piet. “Well, not so young – but we always thought of him as young. He’d have been close on fifty.”

“What happened to him?” asked Sherath.

“Got into a fight with an alp-ox and came out of it second-best,” said Piet. “People say I take after my father. Now how old would you think I was?” he asked Farinka.

“I wouldn’t like to guess,” she said. “Maybe twenty-five, thirty?”

“Forty this year,” replied Piet somewhat smugly.

“I’d never have guessed,” said Farinka, watching as Sherath started to bind the wet herb leaves around the arm as a poultice.

I’d say he probably takes after his grandsire as well as his sire, Domina, said Sherath, his Voice amused. And he has no idea, does he?

Not a clue.

“If you ever feel the urge to be a Seeker like your grandsire, Piet, you’d be sure of a welcome amongst my people,” said Sherath. He smiled up at Piet, winding the last of the bandage and tying it in a flat knot.

“That’s kind of you, sir,” said Piet. “I might do that, one day. When I have a son old enough to take my place.”

Does he have any children, Domina?

Soon.

What’s his woman like?

Not like him. I’ve a feeling Jaimeh is, though.

Yes. I’d say so. And what about this Marte that he’s promised to?

I don’t know, said Farinka thoughtfully. Possibly. I thought when I met her that she’d make a good Healer. There’s something about her, certainly. And in a group that small there’s a good chance they’re related somewhere along the line.

It would pay to keep an eye on them for the next several years.

I think so. Same line as Lekki and Linka?

Quite likely. Sherath sat back on his heels and rubbed his hand across his eyes.

Are you okay?

Tired, Domina. That cougar’s still close. I can’t hold her off forever. Feel her?

Yes. Hungry. With cubs somewhere.

Jaimeh groaned as he came back out of the sleep, shaking his head to clear it. Sherath helped him to sit up, and made a sling out of the last piece of hide.

“Feeling better?” asked Sherath.

“Much better. Weak, but not so much pain,” responded Jaimeh.

“There are just a couple of other things I’d like to check,” Sherath told him. “Have you got any deadness, or tingling, anywhere in your hand or arm?”

Jaimeh half-frowned as he concentrated. “Not that I can tell just yet,” he answered.

Sherath touched each side and the tips of Jaimeh’s fingers and thumb in turn. “Can you feel here? And here? Anything feel strange?”

“No, that all seems just as usual,” Jaimeh said. The he yawned mightily.

“Bring the rest of the herb tea over, Gort, would you?” asked Farinka. She turned to Jaimeh. “You’ll need to drink some of this three or four times a day. Don’t take willow more often than that – willow’s good, but too much willow is not good. You can drink as much camomile and comfrey tea as you want. Add a little salt and some honey to it. And you’re going to need to eat well to help your body make more blood – you lost a lot here.”

“What sort of food?” said Jaimeh, taking the mug of herb tea which Gort held out to him and sipping gingerly at it.

“Liver, kidneys, spinach, kale, watercress, nettle,” said Sherath. “Plenty of fruit, plenty of nuts. You’ll probably find that you hunger for the things that you need – your body will know what’s needed. Talking of hunger,” he added, looking up at Piet, “there’s still a hungry, angry cougar close by. You need to get Jaimeh home as soon as you can – one of your packbeasts must carry him. But if you don’t leave something to keep that cougar occupied she’s going to come after the easiest prey – which is Jaimeh, as he’s already weak. I’d suggest that you leave one of the sheep you got. Slit it open for her – her cubs will go for that and that will help keep her off your trail. Get Jaimeh home and into bed, and make him rest. His elbow and shoulder will take many weeks to recover their strength; as soon as he can move them freely without pain, he needs to do gentle exercise with the arm. Build up the exercise slowly, but don’t even start it for at least two weeks.” He rubbed his hand across his eyes again.

Domina, I want to get us away soon. I’m running out of strength to keep that cougar away. And soon she’s going to notice it.

Piet wrapped his own jacket around Jaimeh’s shoulders and handed Sherath’s jacket back to him.

“Our thanks, again,” he said humbly.

“No trouble,” said Sherath. “Go, Piet. Get him home. I’ll put the fire out for you. Just drop a sheep; I’ll split it for the cougar. Go. Luck go with you.” He stood and put an arm round Piet’s shoulders. “May Dominn bless you,” he added quietly.

Farinka watched them make their way back down the trail.

“Domina, bring the unicorns over to the stream so they can drink. I’ll fetch the calf down. The cougar won’t come near you while those two are with you.”

“What if she comes near you while they’re with me?”

She’d better not, said Sherath with a grin. I’d rather use Power on her than a knife, but if I have to, I could. The problem with that is that it would leave her cubs motherless; they’re not old enough yet to survive without her, and we simply can’t afford to spend time this year raising baby cougars! His mental tone was one of laughter.

Farinka called the unicorns over, and watched from the streamside as Sherath climbed up the granite outcrop and carefully lowered the calf, crouching and leaning his weight back against it.

Why don’t you just drop it?

Might bust its guts. Which makes a mess of the meat. Besides, I don’t want to spoil the hide. Talking of guts, I’ll leave them and any other bits we don’t want for the cougar.

How did you get it up there?

Carried it.

What, climbing?

Yes. Have you eaten anything at all today, Domina? Or is that a stupid question.

Wasn’t hungry.

You need to learn to be hungry again if you’re going to keep up with us on a Journey. You don’t eat enough. How do you fancy liver? Piet left a pan by the fire.

I thought you wanted to get away.

I also want you to eat. Would Moonwind carry what’s left of the calf back?

She should. I don’t want to ask them to go fast – they worked hard enough this morning. She’ll be all right going slowly.

If we go slowly we won’t be back home before dawn tomorrow. Sherath saved the calf’s liver and sliced it into boiling water in the pan by the fire. There are ramsons and onions in the glade just the other side of the stream. Watercress would go nicely, too, he suggested.

Farinka brought the unicorns up from the stream, her hands full of edible green stuff. Sherath added the plants to the pot, and the unicorns went back onto the alp to graze. – Stay close, big fella, Farinka said to Moondust.

“It’s not likely to rain tonight, by the look of the sky,” said Farinka thoughtfully. “We could always sleep out and travel on tomorrow.”

“It certainly won’t rain,” agreed Sherath drily, stirring the contents of the pan with an ash twig. “But by the feel of it there’s going to be a frost. And neither of us has more cover than what we’re wearing – under which circumstances it would be unwise to attempt to sleep in the open. It would be better to keep moving – however slowly. This food is almost ready. Not brilliant, but at least it’s hot.”

***

It was full dark by the time they reached the upper meadow; the moon was surrounded by a faint halo, and there was a suggestion of crunch about the grass underfoot.

This is going to be a very sharp frost before dawn, said Sherath. He was walking ahead with Moonwind, his hand resting on her withers, the hood of his jacket up.

You could just be right, replied Farinka. Beside her, Moondust trod in Moonwind’s hoofprints. He snorted gently. Farinka pulled her jacket more closely round her, shivering, her feet working on auto-pilot.

You’d be warmer if you were riding, said Sherath.

I want Moondust to have a rest. He worked hard this morning. At least Moonwind was carrying nothing.

She’s hardly noticing this calf, said Sherath. Mind you, there’s only around fifty kilos of it now it’s gutted. Domina, Moondust can carry you. I can feel how cold you are. And tired. She felt the strong warmth of his Awareness as it flicked from her to Moondust. Moondust stopped and snorted again, nudging her shoulder gently with his muzzle. He can feel it too, Domina, said Sherath, walking back towards her.

Okay. You win.

Sherath gave her a leg-up onto Moondust’s back.

I could have vaulted, she said.

Why bother when you don’t have to? His Voice was warm as he looked up at her. Come on. Keep moving. He walked on down the track. Moondust stayed where he was and stamped a foot. Ahead of him, Moonwind stopped again, looking back. What’s his problem? asked Sherath.

Moondust looked at him and whickered gently. Sherath came back to him, stroking the unicorn’s soft muzzle and then slipping his arms round Moondust’s neck. The unicorn curved his jaw round Sherath’s shoulders for a moment. Sherath stood back, and rubbed his hands round the back of Moondust’s ears. The unicorn dipped his head and rested the tip of his horn – now nearly four inches long – against Sherath’s forehead. Sherath jumped back.

Wow! Weird. He touched Moondust’s horn, curious.

Nemeth doesn’t feel it the same way, said Farinka.

He will, eventually. Sherath moved as if to walk on again, but Moondust caught the sleeve of his jacket gently between his teeth and pulled him back.

I think he thinks you’re more tired than he is, said Farinka.

He could be right, at that, admitted Sherath. Okay, Moondust. You win. He vaulted up behind Farinka. You can share my jacket, he said, untying it and wrapping it round her.

It’s almost big enough for two. You’re very warm.

And you’re freezing. I should have noticed earlier, Sherath noted with contrition.

I think you’ve got enough problems of your own, Sherath.

Don’t worry about me, Domina. Do you think Nemeth could Hear you from here?

Couldn’t he Hear you?

You could put more Power into your Voice than I can at the moment.

I’ll try.

***

Nemeth stopped in mid-sentence, Listening.

“You can stop pacing, Jevann, they’re safe,” he said.

Jevann sighed with relief and came and sat by the fireside, helping himself to danchic from the big pan.

“Thanks, Dominn,” he whispered. “Where are they?” he asked Nemeth.

“On their way. Should reach home around dawn. I’ll get up early and make sure they’re okay.”

“Are you sleeping out?” asked Tarke.

“Not tonight. Too cold.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Louka agreed.

“The little ones have got the right idea,” Jekavi noted. “There’s room for six or so in the middle house,” he pointed out.

“Sounds good,” said Sienne sleepily, running her fingers through her fringe.

Louka finished the last of the danchic and stood, stretching. “I’m going in, then. I’ll sort hides out.”

Tarke stood up and stretched too. “I’ll help you. We’ll see the rest of you in a bit.”

***

The sky in the east was just beginning to lighten to the greenish-blue before dawn as the unicorns stepped out from the woodland edge. Nemeth got up from his place by the fire, and walked to meet them.

Sherath slid down from Moondust’s back, staggering as he landed. Nemeth put an arm round his shoulders.

“Sorry. My legs have gone to sleep,” said Sherath quietly.

“And the rest of you’s not far behind, from the look of you,” said Nemeth, sounding worried. He reached up a hand to help Farinka down, catching her as she almost lost her balance. “You’re both frozen,” he said. “And you’re exhausted, Sherath.”

“Yup,” said Sherath, turning and leaning heavily against his brother for a moment. Nemeth ran Awareness through Sherath’s mind.

“You’ve been using too much Power for far too long,” he whispered. “What on? What happened?”

“Cougar,” said Sherath, standing up again and turning to lead Moondust towards the fire.

“Sssshew! Cougar,” said Nemeth. “No wonder you’re tired. Here, Tarke and I will sort the animals out.”

Tarke! Come and give me a hand, he called.

Farinka was still standing where she had landed, trying to keep her eyes open. Nemeth put one arm round her shoulders and the other round Sherath’s and steered them gently towards the smallest roundhouse.

“Go and sleep,” he said. “Don’t wake up till you’re ready. I’ll make sure no-one bothers you. They can wait for their news.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“This is infuriating,” announced Jekavi, sitting down heavily on the ground and glowering at Flax, who had trotted away, shaking his mane, and come to a halt about twenty feet away. Flax watched Jekavi for a few moments and then settled down to grazing again. Jekavi picked one of the long grasses and chewed it, looking at the three packbeasts.

“You can’t blame them, really,” said Tarke, sitting down next to him. “The last time they were handled they were castrated.”

“I know. But they were asleep when it happened.”

“Doesn’t stop them feeling sore when they wake up,” Louka pointed out. “They’re not going to want to be caught.”

She looked over towards the fire, where Nemeth sat, cross-legged, watching them and grinning.

Don’t just sit and grin, said Louka. Think of a bright idea.

Nemeth stood up and came over, seating himself by the others.

“Why don’t you just dart one of them?” he asked.

“Because you and Sherath are the only ones with darts, since you won’t let anyone hunt any more without at least one of you,” Tarke said.

“True. But you could always have asked. Which one do you want? And why?”

“Flax,” said Jekavi. “I want to try this backpack on him to see if it will fit comfortably.”

“Okay,” said Nemeth. “Go and get some grain or something, and a halter. If you give him something good to eat as soon as he wakes up, and then maybe hold him and brush him while he eats, he might settle down enough to realise that you’re not going to hurt him. I’ll wait till you get back.”

Nemeth sat, watching the packbeast grazing. The others left him.

You’re a fool, Flax, thought Nemeth. If you just gave in gracefully we wouldn’t have to dart you. And you’re not really scared at all. He looked over to the two unicorns grazing close together. Hey, big fella! he called. Moondust lifted his head, shaking his forelock away from his eyes, and looked over. You could make life much easier if you’d only tell them we’re not going to hurt.

Moondust snorted, shaking his mane, and returned to his grazing, his muzzle close to Moonwind’s.

Not without a direct order from Farinka, eh? said Nemeth. Well, since she’s still asleep, nothing doing. He looked up at the sun, now well past zenith, and then over to the roundhouse where they were sleeping. They should be awake soon.

Nemeth? called Tarke.

Yeah, what?

You can get nearer to dart him if we keep back, she pointed out.

Good thinking. Nemeth quietly sorted out his blowpipe and a thorn dart, and stood, watching Flax out of the corner of his eye. He walked vaguely in Flax’s direction, not directly towards him but on a diagonal line that would take him fairly close. Every now and then he crouched to pretend to look at something in the grass. Flax stopped grazing, his head down, watching Nemeth curiously. Nemeth sat down, still watching the packbeast slantwise through his eyelashes.

He turned his head slowly, the blowpipe to his lips, looking for the soft skin behind Flax’s elbow, and waiting for the beast to take a step forwards to expose it. Flax moved on, rolling his eye backwards to keep Nemeth in sight, but still grazing. It took one fast, hard puff – and seconds later Flax’s legs buckled. He hit the ground heavily, and rolled onto his side. Nemeth was by him in a flash, his hand on the light dun neck, stroking him.

Okay, come on over, he called.

They had Flax haltered swiftly, the nose-loop fixed in a free-running noose that could be tightened and loosened quickly. Jekavi cradled Flax’s head in his lap, one hand full of honey-covered oats, waiting for him to wake up. Tarke checked through Flax’s fur for ticks, removing a couple.

“Do you think he’ll go nuts when he wakes up?” she asked Nemeth.

“No ideas. He might do. But there are enough of us to handle him if he does.”

***

The harmonics of Farinka’s dream brought Sherath slowly awake. He sighed, his eyes still shut, and ran his Awareness lightly through the dream. Farinka woke, and rolled over.

“Oh, rats,” she said under her breath.

“You were dreaming,” said Sherath quietly.

“Yes, I know. It’s not ethical to listen in on other people’s dreams.” She screwed her eyes up and pressed her knuckles against them.

“I was thinking if it was a nightmare I could stop it for you,” he said. “Open your eyes, Domina.”

She opened them and saw him propped up on one elbow, looking at her with a half-smile in his eyes.

“It wasn’t a nightmare,” she said.

“No. Strange feelings, but not unpleasant.”

“No, not unpleasant. Just frustrating.”

“Why?”

“Sherath, you may be three-hundred-odd years old, but believe me you are not old enough to understand that one. And don’t laugh at me, either!”

“Why are you cross with me?” he asked with a grin. “It’s not my fault.”

“No. And I’m not really cross. You just caught me off-balance.” She sat up, running her fingers through her fringe, and looked down at him. His eyes were still full of laughter.

“I do understand,” he said.

“No you don’t.” She shot a bolt of wound-up Awareness at him, almost viciously. He blinked, then lay back, his hands clasped together behind his head, laughing almost silently.

“Sorry. Can’t help.” He opened one eye and looked at her.

“You sod! You wait, sunshine; I’ll get my own back for that one.”

“How?” He was still laughing.

“Wait and see.”

“I can wait.” – and you’ll have to, he added. She threw one of his boots at him. He stopped laughing and sat up. “I really am sorry. Believe me.” He put the boot on and reached for the other one, his sea-coloured eyes looking sympathy at her. There were acres of warmth in his Awareness. “Would if I could, Domina. But I can’t.” He sighed.

“Okay; I forgive you. Let’s go and find out what the world’s been up to while we weren’t looking.”

“Stay here. I’ll bring you some danchic,” Sherath said, ducking out of the doorway.

He jogged over to the fire and filled two mugs, glancing up at where Flax was tied.

“What time do you call this?” asked Tarke, coming over to the fire.

“Not too late, all things considered,” he answered. “I had a hell of a day yesterday.”

She ruffled his hair affectionately, running Awareness through his mind. “I can tell. You’re still not really back together again. Nemeth said it was a cougar.”

“And men,” said Sherath. “Look, I’ll tell you about it later. Okay?”

“Okay. Is Farinka awake?”

“Yes. Just.” He grinned.

“Good. We could do with some help to catch the other packbeasts. Jekavi’s made packs for them; Flax’s seems to be okay but he wants to try all of them.”

“How did you catch Flax?”

“Nemeth darted him,” Tarke replied with a grin.

“Not a bad move. He seems quiet enough now,” Sherath said.

“He wasn’t at first. He tried kicking out, standing up and boxing, threatening to bite – you name it!”

“Anyone get hurt?”

“No. Moondust intervened. Flax quietened down pretty well after that.”

“Why won’t Moondust help you with the others?”

“Not a clue. Perhaps he’ll only do it for Farinka or if he thinks someone’s about to get hurt.”

“Could be. I promised Farinka a drink. I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”

He stood, and took the mugs of danchic back to the cot. Farinka was sorting her hair out, having rolled up the hides and left them by the doorway.

“Here, Domina.” He sat cross-legged by her, handing the mug of danchic over.

“Thanks. Sorry I was cross.”

“‘S okay. Sorry I wound you up.”

“That’s okay too. Just don’t do it too often, right?” She grinned. “What are they doing?”

“Trying packs on beasts. Or to be more accurate, on Flax. Nemeth had to dart him before they could get near.”

“How does he look?”

“Seems sound enough, from what I could see. There’s not many people about this afternoon. I think Sienne’s taken the little ones out gathering goodies. I’m going down to the pool for a swim – yesterday left me a bit sweaty.”

“You’re not the only one. I just wish the pool was warmer. I’m used to hot baths, not cold ones.”

“Wait till we get down to the heatstack cliffs. There are hot pools there.”

“When will we get there?”

“In about a month. Depending on when we leave.”

“When do you want to leave?”

“As soon as the beasts can be fitted with packs and are sound – and sane – enough to travel. Which will be when?”

“Sound enough to travel? Slowly, perhaps, in a couple of days. It depends more on how long it will take them to be dependable – how long they need to get used to packs, and to us.”

“And how long will that take?”

“I really don’t know. If Moondust can get it through to them, it might only take a matter of minutes. Otherwise, it could take days,” Farinka replied.

“Days would be okay. But we can’t afford weeks, Domina.” Sherath finished his danchic and stood up. “Come down to the pool with me?”

“You go ahead. I want to get some warmer clothes than these. And I could ask Moondust to make those beasts co-operate.”

***

Domina! The Voice was Sienne’s, and frightened.

Farinka sprang to her feet, listening.

“What’s up?” asked Nemeth.

“Quiet!” she waved a hand at him.

Sienne? What’s the matter? Farinka called.

It’s a boar. A big one.

Is anyone hurt?

No. But we can’t get away. He’s got us treed, and he’s as mad as fire.

How far away are you?

I could show you where, but it won’t mean anything to you. I can’t make anyone else Hear me.

Don’t worry; I think I can. She opened up her Hearing, trying to project the picture Sienne was showing.

“That’s down in the beeches,” noted Jekavi. “What’s wrong?”

“A boar’s got them treed,” Farinka replied. “I’ll call Moondust.”

“No, don’t,” said Tarke quickly. “A boar’s one of the few things that just might attack a unicorn, if it was mad enough. We’ll go on foot.”

“All of us?” Farinka asked. The others were already on their feet.

“The more the merrier,” said Nemeth. “Come on. It’s not far.”

“We could do with the bacon,” remarked Louka thoughtfully.

“I’m more interested in getting us all home safe,” said Nemeth drily.

“Too right,” agreed Sherath. “Is this too fast for you, Domina?”

“Not a bit. If it’s really not far.”

“Only about half a mile,” said Jekavi. “I hope they really are okay.”

Half a mile was less than three minutes good run. They could hear the boar before they saw him.

How do you want to handle this one, Nemeth? asked Sherath.

Fan out. In a wide circle. We can distract his attention away from the little ones. There are enough of us to confuse him totally.

They spread out between the trees, silently at first, but as the circle widened they began to make noise, hitting at branches, shouting, rattling bushes. The boar turned slowly away from the tree where the little ones sat huddled in the branches. He had gouged raw weals in the trunk with his tusks. He lowered his head, looking first in one direction and then another. Farinka shuddered as she looked at him. His tusks and jaws were covered with froth where he had been champing his jaws, his small eyes mad, a constant low grunty-growling sound coming from him. He trotted round the tree, swinging his head from side to side as he eyed them, making short rushes first in one direction and then in another.

He really is wild, said Nemeth. Be careful, everyone. Wild means very unpredictable.

Can’t you dart him? asked Farinka.

Thorn dart wouldn’t go through that hide, said Nemeth. I tried that game when I was a lot younger. Still got the scar to show for it, too. You need an iron dart at least for a boar. Or a dozewort-tipped arrow. Neither of which we’ve got, unfortunately.

Which way’s he going to break? asked Tarke, rattling a bush loudly about ten yards to Farinka’s right. The boar swung round and charged.

There’s your answer. RUN, TARKE! There was near-panic in Nemeth’s Voice. Oh ye Gods! He’s faster than I am! Run, please run…. his Voice trailed off as he put all his effort into running, flashing past under the trees and trying to cross the boar’s line of sight. He put in a last burst and crossed the track inches in front of the boar, swatting its snout as he passed. The boar swung its head round viciously and sent him flying to land heavily on his back across a tree root; the boar’s sight locked back onto its target. Tarke dodged and weaved between the trees; the boar dodged and weaved behind her. Farinka’s lungs felt close to bursting as she tried Nemeth’s trick, yelling at the boar and swiping at its rump with a branch as it passed her. For a second it hesitated, rolling its eyes back at her.

Oh no … Domina, be careful, PLEASE be careful … Nemeth’s and Sherath’s Voices were mingled in her mind. There was pain in Nemeth’s Voice. Farinka could tell that he still hadn’t got to his feet.

Nemeth, are you okay? Sherath asked, still sprinting.

Yes … okay. Just don’t let him come back to me. And get him off Tarke, please … his Voice trailed off into a faint whisper.

Tarke; bring him back round to me, called Sherath. Ahead of the boar, Tarke was running out of speed; she had already lost the ground that she had gained from the boar’s hesitation earlier.

If I can. Her Voice was tired.

Farinka ground to a halt, spots before her eyes, her legs trembling, her chest heaving. She was vaguely aware, through the dizziness, of Louka, Jevann and Jekavi slowing as the pace got to them. She cast her Awareness forward, seeking Tarke; Tarke was still running, having come round in a wide circle, heading back towards Sherath.

Good girl, bring him here. Farinka could feel the pain in Sherath’s chest and legs as she extended the Awareness to him. Tarke was running on sheer fear alone, oblivious to pain and exhaustion, but she was close to failing. The boar was about twenty yards behind her. – Come past me, Tarke, said Sherath. I’m going to take over. He joined in and ran beside her. Go for that branch. Ready? He reached over and half lifted, half threw her up, then shouted at the boar, zig-zagging across in front of it.

Get treed, all of you, called Sherath. There was a chorus of protest from the others. Don’t argue, just DO IT! There was enough Command in his Voice to make Farinka wince; it was like a slap in the mind.

Sorry, can’t, Nemeth’s Voice whispered.

Oh, shit. Okay. Sherath was tiring; the boar didn’t seem to be.

Farinka ran back to where Nemeth had fallen. He was lying curled up by the tree roots, both hands clasped round his leg. His eyes were shut. Farinka ran Awareness through him, wincing as she felt pain; from the leg, from the ribs, from the head; and world-swirling dizziness. Nemeth was using as much Control as he could muster to stay conscious. She crouched beside him, her own chest heaving, and pulled his hands gently away from the torn trouser-leg. The boar had caught him with a tusk as it threw him; the blood spurted up, splattering her jacket.

Farinka, for Dominn’s sake get yourself into a tree, Nemeth whispered.

Don’t be so bloody daft. That’s an artery that’s gone there. She was stripping her headband off as she spoke, and folding it into a small pad. Nemeth’s headband made a bandage; she wound it and tied it as tightly as she could around the leg, feeling Nemeth’s consciousness wavering, and his Control being pumped up a notch to compensate.

The sounds of crashing through the undergrowth faded as Sherath led the boar away. Farinka felt the last burst of effort from Sherath as he jumped for a branch just feet in front of the boar, pulling his legs up and dragging himself onto it to collapse lying along it, his heart pounding, as the boar raced past underneath him and slowed, confused at the suddenly disappeared quarry.

Farinka sent Awareness over to where Sherath lay on the branch, his eyes closed.

Are you okay, little one?

Bigger than you are, Domina. Yes, okay. It just came a bit soon after yesterday.

She extended Awareness cautiously, feeling for the boar’s mind, and was amazed at the single-minded kill thought in its head. And the total insanity. She looked down at Nemeth’s leg. He had drifted into near-blackout. She covered him with her jacket, shivering against the cold.

I hope to God it’s not rabid, she thought, probing with the Awareness and heaving a sigh of relief. Not sick – just furious. The wind gusted uneasily around, veering to the east.

She was Aware of the instant that the boar caught the scent of blood; Aware of the way its snout swung round tasting the air; Aware of the moment when its puzzled walk broke into a purposeful trot and the kill instinct switched on again; and Aware of Sherath’s plunge into hopeless frustration as he dropped from the branch and tried to catch up.

The boar came crashing back through the undergrowth, the trot turning into a gallop as the scent of Nemeth’s blood filled its nostrils and its brain.

She stood up and turned to face it as it came towards them, feeling the anger and the Power boiling through her like magma through a volcano. She threw Command at it like a bullet.

DIE, YOU BASTARD!

The Power whipped through her mind like a high-voltage current before spinning out to the boar, dropping it in its tracks.

Then there was total blackness.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Sherath was only ten yards behind the boar as it crashed out into the open under the beech trees.

He saw Farinka turn; saw the eerie flicker and glimmer of blue-white light filling the area, centring around Farinka, felt everything around him wheel down into slow motion and felt the crackling and buzzing in the air.

Domina, NO! You can’t do that, it can’t be done … Domina? He was Aware even as he sent the thought across that she couldn’t Hear him. Little ones, hold on, hang on tight.

He felt for Farinka’s mind and flinched away from the roar of the Power that surged through him; tried to switch the kill Command off before she Voiced it, realising almost too late that it was out of his Control as well as out of Farinka’s.

He shut down his Hearing as Farinka looked the boar squarely in the eyes and the light zimmered down into a streak from her pointing finger which drove at the boar’s mind like lightning, then ricocheted and cracked around, bouncing off trees. The reverberations caught him as they caught the others, dropping him to his knees on the earth floor. There were whimpers from the little ones as they clung, dizzy, to the branches; thought-yelps from the older Children, and a semi-conscious howl of pain, realisation and fear from Nemeth’s mind which petered away into nothing as the air around settled.

For almost ten seconds there was an ominous deathly hush; then Sherath, in the process of getting to his feet, was thrown down again as the ground under him trembled and he was pelted with showers of beech-nuts shaken from the branches overhead.

Ooh, free nuts! whispered Sienne.

You’re crazy! replied Jekavi, a bit shaken.

Is everyone okay? Sherath asked when the tremor finished.

The others dropped or climbed down from the trees, looking dazedly at him.

“What the hell happened?” Jevann asked him, rubbing his fingers through his hair.

“It’s called Power,” said Sherath weakly, sitting back on his heels. “Ye Gods, I’m tired. Too much is happening too fast.”

Domina? There was no response. Nemeth? Still nothing.

Sherath got to his feet, trembling, and looked over. Nemeth was curled against the roots of the tree, his hands around his head; Farinka had dropped perhaps three feet away from the tree. As Sherath approached there was a thundering of hooves amongst the trees, and the two unicorns broke through the undergrowth. Moonwind skidded to a halt in front of Sherath, blocking his way; Moondust went to Farinka and stood over her, sniffing gently at her.

Moonwind swung round to head Tarke off as she tried to brush past behind the filly’s tail.

“Look, animal; we need to find out what’s wrong!” snapped Tarke. Moonwind dipped her head and allowed them past, keeping pace with them.

Sherath went to approach Farinka, and was unmistakably warned off by Moondust’s horn and a stamped forefoot.

“Okay. Okay. Let me see Nemeth?” The unicorn dipped his head in assent, and Sherath went past him.

“Why won’t he let us near?” asked Louka quietly.

“I don’t know. But he must have a reason,” said Sherath. He placed one hand on Nemeth’s forehead. “Oh, Nemeth. What have you done to yourself now?” he whispered. He winced as he opened up his Awareness, partly because of the pain of using too much Power in too few days, partly because of the pain he felt from Nemeth. Control could only be used by the conscious mind, and without it the pain was nasty.

Can I help? asked Tarke, joining her Awareness in with Sherath’s. She could feel the strength draining out of her in the instant before Sherath exerted Control to stop it happening.

Sorry, he said.

“Sherath, you’re a wreck,” remarked Tarke. “You need to be a bit more careful with yourself.”

Sherath laughed. “Tell me about it,” he said. “Nemeth’s okay. A couple of cracked ribs and a nasty bump on the head. I can fix that leg up when I get him back home.”

“No way are you going to carry him,” asserted Jevann.

“Okay. Moondust can,” said Sherath, looking at the unicorn.

He stood up and took one step towards Moondust and Farinka. The unicorn threatened him gently with the horn, and then stood still, looking him in the eye.

Big fella, you know I won’t hurt her, said Sherath wearily. Moondust shook his head and sniffed gently at Farinka again. Sherath could feel the unicorn’s own Awareness clearly.

Yes. Okay; I understand. You’re not scared of us hurting her; you’re worried it might hurt us. Right?

Moondust blew out softly into Sherath’s face. The other Children gathered round, at a safe distance. Lekki, Linka, Sharni and Taari were in a small frightened huddle together. Louka went over to them and hugged them, all at once.

Moondust sighed and returned his Awareness to Farinka. He dropped his head down and touched the tip of his horn to her head. There was a brief crackle of bluish light between skin and horn. The unicorn staggered for a moment, jerking his head away as if in pain, then touched her with the horn again.

The crackle had reduced to a tingle.

Tarke had a sudden moment of realisation. “You know what that is?” she said to Sherath.

“What?”

“It’s the same as what happened to me just now, joining Awareness with you. But she’s not conscious, so she can’t Control it. From the way it affects Moondust, it would have killed you, as weak as you are right now.”

Sherath nodded slowly and sat down again.

“He’ll let me near as soon as he thinks it’s safe,” he said.

Behind him, Nemeth stirred. – Sherath?

I’m here. Everyone’s okay – I think.

Tarke?

I’m all right, Nemeth. Still out of breath, but all right.

That was a hell of a run, Tarke, said Nemeth. Well done. There was a smile in his Voice. He sat up slowly. Tarke went to him and put one arm round his shoulders.

“Take it easy, Nemeth.”

“Stop fussing; I’m fine,” he retorted.

“Yes, sure you are,” she said with a grin, ruffling his hair. “I felt your mind while you were out, sunshine; I know just how ‘fine’ you are.”

“Nothing serious,” he replied, feeling gingerly round his ribs. “I can walk home. How’s Farinka?”

“Not conscious,” Sherath answered. “Moondust’s not letting anyone near yet.”

Nemeth looked up sharply. “Like that, eh?”

“Yes. That was a lot of Power.”

“You’re telling me. Full-whack Elf-Power in all its splendour. I just caught it before I blacked out.”

“Full-whack, certainly,” said Tarke drily. “It nearly knocked us all out. Killed the boar stone dead. Which, by the way, means we’ve got our bacon after all. It will need bleeding at least before we take it home.”

“Consider it done,” murmured Jevann. “Louka?”

“Okay, I’m with you,” she answered.

“Anything else spectacular?” asked Nemeth, his eyebrows up.

“Bit of earth tremor,” commented Sherath with a grin.

“Sssheeeh! A bit Shithriesque,” remarked Nemeth.

“Yes. Somewhat.” Sherath caught Nemeth’s eye. “But pretty magnificent stuff, nonetheless.”

“How badly has she burnt out?” Nemeth asked.

“Ask me again when Moondust lets me near,” replied Sherath, looking at the unicorn. – Big fella?

Moondust stepped back carefully. Sherath went over to Farinka, putting a hand on her shoulder. He opened up the Awareness slowly, shivering; also Aware of Tarke’s and Nemeth’s minds supporting him. He tried Controlling the Power drain, but was slapped down gently by Nemeth.

I’m not in such a state I can’t handle that, Brother!

Okay. Thanks. I think she’s okay, don’t you?

Pretty drained, noted Tarke. Much worse than you are.

Moondust’s taken the worst of it off, said Sherath. Can we bring her back out of this, between us? he met the others’ eyes.

We can try, Nemeth answered. Just call. She’ll Hear pretty soon.

Coming out of the blackness was like swimming up from the bottom of a deep pool; full of swirling blues and greens and purples. She hit the surface shivering uncontrollably, aware of breathing, pulse and even blood pressure on a steady upward trend from next to nothing, topping out as she reached something approaching full consciousness. She found herself trying to sit up before her eyes would obey the command to open, and was instantly wrapped in someone’s jacket.

“I’m thirsty,” she said through chattering teeth.

Nemeth untied a hip-flask from his belt and handed it to her.

“Steady with that; it’s quite strong,” he warned.

She took a cautious mouthful, and opened her eyes. “It’s nice. What is it?”

“Rose-hip brandy. Should stop the shivering, if not the thirst. Are you okay, Domina?”

“A bit woozy. And very wobbly. What happened?”

“It’s called Power,” said Sherath, for the second time that afternoon. “Specifically, it’s called too much Power, too fast, through an untrained mind, and much too soon.” He laughed and gave her a brief one-armed hug.

“Saved my skin, though,” said Nemeth. “For which I thank you.”

“Any time, little one.” Farinka took another mouthful of the brandy.

“Who are you calling little?” asked Nemeth with a grin.

Farinka made as if to stand up, but was held back by both Nemeth and Sherath.

“Not yet,” they warned, together.

“Why not? I’m all right.”

“You might feel all right, but you’re not,” Tarke asserted crisply. “Wait until Louka and Jevann have dealt with that boar. And you little ones,” she added, looking up at them, “go and collect together all the stuff you’d got before he interrupted you. Okay?”

“Okay,” agreed Sienne brightly. “We’ve got some good stuff. A whole sack of beechnuts, two backpacks of beefsteak fungi and chanterelles, and one backpack of truffles.” – And a heap more nuts to pick up, she added with a grin.

“It was probably the truffles that brought the boar along,” Jekavi suggested. “They can smell them even through the earth, so uncovered they can probably smell them miles away. I’ll help you. Come on.” He held a hand out to Sienne, and they led the little ones away. There was a lot of excited chattering now that the fear was wearing off, with the smallest Children vying for Jekavi’s attention, and Lekki and Linka doing cartwheels between the trees.

“Funny. It always takes them that way,” mused Tarke.

“What do you mean, ‘them’?” retorted Nemeth. “I can still do cartwheels.”

“Nemeth was a nutcase when he was little,” murmured Tarke to Farinka.

“Was? Still is,” said Sherath. “Only a nutcase would slap a charging boar across the snout like that and expect to get away with it.” He grinned at Nemeth.

“I had my reasons,” said Nemeth softly.

“Can you still do cartwheels?” asked Farinka.

“Yup. And handsprings, and back flips, and somersaults,” he affirmed. “But not with broken ribs. I suspect the others can still do them, too,” he added, looking at Tarke and Sherath.

Sherath grinned. “Yes, actually.”

“Me too,” said Tarke.

“You’re all mad,” Farinka commented.

“It’s fun,” Nemeth responded.

“And useful at times,” added Sherath.

“Like when?” asked Farinka.

“Like when a somersault takes you clear over the back of a charging cougar,” said Sherath drily. “Yesterday, to be precise. Your average cougar doesn’t expect that kind of escape mechanism; it tends to confuse them.”

“I can see that it might,” said Farinka with a chuckle. “You’d better have this brandy back before I finish it,” she added to Nemeth.

“Thanks. I wouldn’t mind some myself.” He took a generous swig before stoppering it and retying it at his belt. “Better now? Warmer?”

“Yes. Still thirsty, though.”

“It takes some people that way,” Sherath observed. “What you need is plenty of tea and a decent meal, and a good night’s sleep. Or several,” he added as an afterthought. “And Nemeth needs a lot of comfrey. In a poultice round those ribs.”

“And willow,” added Nemeth, cautiously feeling the lump on his head. “It hurts.”

“Nemeth also needs thorn-darting and some work doing on that leg,” said Farinka to Sherath. “Fairly soon, too. In fact that bandage ought to be loosened for a couple of minutes.”

“It will bleed like mad again,” said Nemeth.

“It will also let some blood into your foot, where it’s needed,” answered Sherath, loosening the bandage and holding the pad in place gently with his other hand.

“How bad is it?” asked Nemeth.

Sherath lifted the pad. It took a couple of seconds before the blood spurted.

“Only a little artery,” he noted. “I can burn that one shut. Won’t need to be tied.” He pressed the pad down again, and took off Nemeth’s boot, checking his toes. “Toes are warming up. Give it another minute or two, then we’ll tie it up again. You can ride Moondust home. You’re not walking.”

“Whatever you say,” Nemeth acquiesced. “Will Moonwind carry Farinka?”

“She would,” said Farinka, “but I could walk.”

“No,” retorted Sherath, Tarke and Nemeth in unison. Sherath reinforced it with unspoken Command on a very tight wavelength.

You really don’t need to use Command on me. And you shouldn’t be using Power anyway, said Farinka.

***

“Definitely not a wasted day,” observed Nemeth, sipping willow and comfrey tea and stretching his feet towards the fire. “The meat off that boar was well worth getting.”

“Worth getting smashed up for too?” asked Farinka.

“This is nothing,” said Nemeth. “I’ve caught it a lot worse than this before now. Mind you, I’m not going to be fit to travel for a week or so, at least, even if the packbeasts are co-operative.”

“It’ll take that long to salt and smoke the bacon,” Louka remarked. “And we’ve got loads of lovely fat as well. We needed a really good kill like that.”

Are you okay, Domina? asked Nemeth. You’re very quiet.

I’m okay. Just very tired. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so tired. I could sleep for a week.

The next week can be as restful as you like. You can’t travel if you’re not fit. We can let the others do most of the work and lounge around watching them. It’s only basically drying and packing things and sorting out travel kit.

What sort of travel kit?

Round tents. Sherath and I usually carry them, but there’s no earthly reason why one of the beasts can’t do it.

We could do with a wagon really.

On mountain trails? You’re joking.

I was thinking more about the plains.

“What are you two whispering about?” asked Tarke.

“Discussing the merits of a wagon on the plains,” said Nemeth.

“It’s a good idea,” agreed Jevann.

“It would mean going south to Dakesht and trading something,” Sherath said thoughtfully. “Which would mean being very careful. We couldn’t take the little ones too close. Maybe three or four of us could go in. We might get away with it if we were insignificant enough.”

“Trading what sort of thing?” asked Farinka.

“Hides, maybe,” Louka replied. “Except that we’ll need plenty ourselves.”

“What about picking up another couple of packbeasts along the way, training them and then trading them?” asked Farinka.

“That’s a very good idea, Farinka,” affirmed Nemeth. “What do you think, Sherath?”

“We could play that game more than once,” Sherath answered. “Pick up two or three beasts and train them between each town and the next. Child’s play with two unicorns to help.”

“That’s rather what I was thinking,” said Farinka. “And once we’ve got hold of a wagon we could train them all three ways – drive, pack and ride.”

“You could barter for a lot of stuff with beasts that good,” commented Jevann.

“I wouldn’t want to go through any towns except on barter days,” said Sherath.

“Why not?” asked Farinka.

“Two reasons. One, we’re a lot less noticeable if the town’s full of other traders; everyone’s into trading rather than being suspicious of strangers – especially young-looking strangers; and two, the south plains towns are often not healthy places. There’s a lot of overcrowding and a lot of disease in some of those places. Doesn’t pay to sleep there if you can help it. Get in early, stay to trade, leave as soon as you can, and eat and drink only what you take with you – “

“– unless it’s ale,” said Nemeth. “Ale’s pretty safe.”

“Most things are, really,” said Tarke. “You just avoid any cold meat and anything that’s been cooked in their water and isn’t scalding hot. Bread’s okay – the heat you need to cook it kills the bugs. Fruit’s okay. Anything that’s fried is usually okay. Grain is fine to barter for. And cloth.”

“I can’t really remember the last time I wore something made of cloth,” said Louka reflectively. “It would be nice to have something really pretty again.”

“Yes,” agreed Tarke, looking into the fire. “Do you remember that green satin that Rekkya had?”

“Yes. A long time ago, that was.”

“Everything is,” said Nemeth quietly. “I wonder how much of the stuff in the caverns is still useable.”

There was silence from all the Children for a few minutes. Farinka could feel them remembering. She ran her Awareness lightly across the memories, subtly, as a whisper, and caught fleeting glimpses of beauty, of remembered Power, of faces long dead, of gold and silver and coloured stones, of dancing and of music and bright-coloured cloths; memories from when they were all very young, of things gone but never forgotten.

The music is beautiful, she whispered to Sherath, aware of him watching her.

All Elf-music is beautiful, he replied in a whisper. We are a very musical people, Domina. What about Elves on your own world? Are they not also musical?

There are no Elves on my world, Sherath.

And so what are you, then, Domina?

An Elf, apparently, she said. But there are no Elves on my world. Only in stories.

Myths, legends, folklore, he said.

Yes.

And are there unicorns in your legends as well?

Yes. And dwarves, and ogres, and trolls and fairies and dragons and magic … lots of things in folklore, Sherath.

And to the men of this world, Elves and unicorns and dragons and magic only exist in folklore, Domina. Had you thought of that one? Are there also changelings in your world’s folklore?

What are you getting at, Sherath?

Maybe only the fact that your world’s Elves have no more idea of what they are than this world’s Seekers, Domina.

Are you suggesting that I’m an Elf on this world just because I really am an Elf and always have been?

In a word, yes. Domina, we have always known since the beginning of time that Dominn made all worlds which contain Mankind in all its forms the same – all worlds that contain Men also contain Elves and Dwarves and the Little People, and wherever there are Elves there are unicorns, and wherever there are unicorns there is Power – or magic, if you’d rather call it that.

No-one has seen – or rather, no-one has recognised – unicorns on this world since the time of the great sickness because there have been no enabled Elves since that time, and much of the Power has been lost to us because the unicorns have been lost to us. Men have forgotten about unicorns – they only know about white packbeasts and that there is something different about white ones, and that where no-one else can handle a white packbeast a Seeker usually can – but they don’t know why. Maybe not all Elves on all worlds need to Journey or have a hidden valley.

I don’t know about other worlds, Domina – but where the unicorns are lost and the Power is lost then the Elves may well forget what they are – particularly if there has ever been any reason for them to fear Men. And if the Elves forget what they are, then the unicorns may also forget what they are. It doesn’t mean that your world doesn’t have them – in fact the very existence of all these things in the folklore of your world is enough to suggest that your world did and therefore does have its Elves and unicorns; they have just forgotten what they are and lost the Power.

How can a unicorn not know what he is?

How can an Elf not know what she is, Domina? You didn’t know until you met Elves who do know what they are. If the magic is gone or nearly gone from your world, a unicorn would be only a white packbeast, the horn would never grow. It would be a hidden unicorn all its life. Is there no Voice, no Hearing, no Awareness on your world?

Farinka thought for a few minutes.

Sherath, that’s a difficult one. I think there are – though they’re not called that. A lot of people refuse to believe in them; things like telepathy, and real empathy, and a natural gift of healing, and precognition. But there are traditions of precognition – ‘the Sight’, or ‘Second Sight’ – in some groups of people. And our ‘Holy Book’ – the book of Dominn, the Bible, is crammed full of prophets and prophecies. People on my world who claim to be telepaths or precogs or empaths are either laughed at or regarded as some kind of freak; and the people who do believe them are often laughed at as well. Not nearly so much nowadays as they were a while ago, true. More and more people are beginning to believe that these things do exist, and are trying to find out about them. And everyone knows of déja vu.

Re-learning from scratch, mused Sherath. Having to train themselves in the use of Talents that have been forgotten for generations. Very hard, Domina. On this world they stone people or burn them for believing in ‘magic’ in some of the more remote villages. In some of the towns the idea of magic is so ridiculed that nobody takes it seriously enough even to fear it and kill people for believing.

People with strange powers were killed as ‘witches’ on my world too, Sherath. Within the last few centuries. Within your own lifetime, probably, she added thoughtfully. Sherath, nobody lives for a very long time on my world; not like the Elven and half-Elven on this world.

I have no idea how long an Elf would live in the absence of Power, Domina. Maybe not that long. But you’re here now. With us, on this world. And Elves on this world do live that long. I can’t believe that you would be sent here and live only as long as Men. Dominn is not cruel. Hard, sometimes, but never cruel.

So if you were on my world, where would you expect to find Elves?

Where there is music, he said with a smile. Granted, men like music, too. But those who can create music without having to work at it, those that can lose themselves in the music, those whose mind is changed by music; there you may have Elves and half-Elves. And artists, too. Although Dwarves are also good artists, and they have their own kind of music. They don’t have the same appreciation of harmony and melody and counter-melody that Elves have – Dwarf music is often loud without being mind-bending. Elf music can bend your mind without either loudness or words. Dwarf music is very dependent on what they are singing about.

Wherever people are using inherently Elven talents – those who use Voice and Hearing and Awareness; and probably among those who believe in it, too. Look for Elves among your world’s Healers; there you’ll find Elven and half-Elven. And Elves have always had a burning passion for justice. Men have a passion for law and order – do you know, the quickest way to break an Elf’s heart is for him to try and bring justice into the law of Men? The injustice of Men’s law is enough to tear the heart of an Elf to pieces. You will never find an Elf who is happy with injustice. Plenty of Men are – if they can gain enough by it. Where else would I look for Elves? he wondered.

With animals. Those whom animals love. Those who love animals rather than just using them. Most men deal with animals on this world; but for those for whom the loss of an animal leaves a hole in their life and their heart rather than a hole in their trading balance or their status; yes, maybe Elven or half-Elven. Love of animals can be fashionable among men – in Elves it is inherent.

Domina, it may have escaped your attention, but everyone else appears to have gone to bed.

Farinka looked around. – I didn’t see them go, she said. Where did they go?

That house there. Shall we join them?

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Waking up was like walking through chest-deep water. Farinka’s mind struggled to put together more than two rational thoughts at a time, her limbs felt leaden and her mouth was dry, her eyes gritty and disinclined to open. She groaned softly as she turned over; none of the muscles anywhere wanted to do as they were told without complaining heavily about it.

She opened her eyes, rubbing away the sleep from her eyelashes, and looked out at the blurred interior of the house. It was empty apart from herself. It took real will-power to sit up, and she found herself feeling queasy and dizzy. She shivered and pulled her bearskin up to wrap it round her shoulders, but the coldness didn’t go away.

I need a drink, she thought. And a wash. And a pee. She stood up, shakily, looking round for her jacket and hunching herself into it. The light from the doorway was blocked for a moment; Farinka looked up as Nemeth limped in.

Domina, you are swaying on your feet, he observed, looking at her.

She nodded and wrapped the jacket closer round herself, shutting her eyes against the light. He walked towards her and slipped his arms round her, resting his chin on the top of her head.

You are a wreck, he said. I should go back to sleep if I were you. Not that you’ve really woken up. He winced as her arms went round him. Farinka, gently with my ribs. They’re pretty sore, he added.

Sorry. Forgot. Her Voice was hardly there. I need to go out. I need a wash. I need a pee. And I’m thirsty. What time is it?

Around mid-day. Don’t worry about time. Do what you need and come straight back, I’ll get someone to sort something out for you to drink. They’ve just sent me back to rest, and Sherath will get pretty narked if I go back out. They wouldn’t let me out for more than a couple of minutes the day before yesterday, and only let me sit by the fire for a meal yesterday.

She pulled back to arm’s length, trying to bring his face into focus.

The day before yesterday? Nemeth, how long have I been asleep?

Two and a half days. And nights, he added. There was a smile in his Voice.

It doesn’t feel that long, she said, leaning against him again. And it doesn’t feel long enough, either.

She felt the warmth and strength of his Awareness running through her, and felt him suddenly tremble as she unwittingly leached strength from him. She slammed the Control down on the Power drain and nearly blacked out – almost as if the use of Power was a muscle that had been torn. The pain hit her in the mind.

Aiyee! Mind my ribs, please, Nemeth whispered. And don’t try to use Power. Not even Control, Domina. Get yourself sorted out and come back. He patted her gently on the shoulder and steered her in the direction of the doorway, then sat down abruptly on a roll of hides and ran his fingers through tangled hair.

Sherath? he called.

At the other end of the valley, Sherath handed Agouti’s lead-rein to Jevann.

Yes?

Farinka’s back in the land of the living. Almost, Nemeth added with a grin. I doubt if her Voice could reach you if she tried. She’s not really half-way with it, yet.

Is she okay? There was worry in Sherath’s Voice.

Very thirsty. She’s gone for a wash. I told her to come straight back. Can you fix something for her to drink?

Can do. Sherath felt for Farinka’s mind with his Awareness, his brows flicking down into a frown as the giddiness and the pain hit him.

“Farinka’s just about awake,” he told the others. “I’ll be back soon.” He ran over towards the fire, and sorted a selection of herbs into a pot, adding boiling water and honey to them before splitting it between two mugs and carrying one over to Nemeth.

Nemeth was still sitting on the rolled hides. Sherath crouched beside him, touching him gently on one shoulder. Nemeth looked up.

“Oh, thanks,” he said, taking the mug and sipping slowly.

“Get yourself wrapped up and go back to sleep, Nemeth,” said Sherath. “And don’t come out again until you’re called, okay?”

Nemeth grinned up at him. “Whatever you say. You’d better go and check she’s okay.”

“I’ll give her a couple of minutes,” said Sherath.

Farinka was sitting on the rock by the edge of the pool, listening to the trickle of the spring with her eyes closed and her head cradled in her hands. The spring water was very cold and very fresh, but somehow didn’t seem to stop the raging thirst. Her eyes were clean, but still sore, and there was a coldness inside her as if her bones had turned to ice. She shivered, lacking the willpower to stand up again and walk back. She became gradually aware of Sherath, and looked round slowly.

“Domina, you can’t go back to sleep here,” he said gently.

“Can’t I? Try me,” she said, closing her eyes again.

He sat down beside her, wrapping one half of his jacket around her shoulders.

“There’s a drink in the house,” he said. “Hot. And full of things that you need. I don’t suppose the water helped much, did it?” he asked.

“Not really,” she admitted.

“Come on. The longer you sit here, the worse you’ll feel.”

He helped her to her feet, steadying her as she staggered. “You really shouldn’t walk,” he advised. “I’ll carry you.”

“You’re joking; I can walk.”

“Don’t be so stubborn. You hardly weigh anything.” He lifted her up and started back to the house.

“You’re a nut,” she said, indistinctly.

“No, I’m an Elf.”

Farinka laughed.

He sat her down next to where Nemeth lay, wrapped a hide round her, and handed her the mug, then sat cross-legged facing her.

She sipped at the herb tea.

“This is nice. What’s in it?”

“Lots of things. Red clover, feverfew, camomile, yarrow, rose-hips, fennel, nettle, honey, lemon balm, hops, among other things. You’ll feel better next time you wake up. Drink up and curl up with Nemeth. You need to keep warm, both of you. Just be careful of Nemeth’s ribs, Domina.”

“Use my arm for a pillow, then I can keep your back warm,” suggested Nemeth. “You won’t hurt me accidentally that way.” He waited until she finished the tea, then curled an arm round her as she lay down, already half asleep again. Sherath sat with them for a few minutes, until he was satisfied that they were both sleeping, then went back out to join the others.

“Is Farinka okay?” asked Louka as he rejoined them.

“She’ll be all right. They should both sleep for another six or eight hours,” he added with a grin.

“Why?” asked Tarke.

“I put a couple of drops of dozewort juice into the tea with the rest,” he said. The others laughed. “Well,” he said, “they need the sleep. And that’s the only way I’ll ever get Nemeth to rest, by the look of it.”

***

It was the smell of spiced venison fresh out of the steam pit that eventually woke Farinka. She floated out of sleep, aware firstly of thirst and then of hunger. She opened her eyes cautiously, expecting pain, and was pleasantly surprised when there was none.

I was wondering when you’d wake up, Nemeth said.

How long have you been awake?

Not very long. I didn’t have the heart to wake you; you looked very comfortable.

How are your ribs?

They’re not likely to be much better for quite a while. But they’re improving. At least the headache’s gone now.

What about the leg?

No problems. A bit swollen, maybe. Sherath’s a good Healer.

Farinka sat up, reaching out to mind-touch Sherath.

He smiled as he poured hot herb tea into two mugs by the fire. – I timed that well, he said to her. Thought you’d wake about now. Stay there for a minute, I’ll bring this in to you.

He entered with the two mugs, handing them each one and sitting beside them. Farinka sipped cautiously.

“Well at least you haven’t laced this one with dozewort,” she said.

“How did you know?” he asked, grinning.

“Something smug in the way you admitted how well you timed it,” she answered. “Besides which, I could feel what was left of it when I woke.”

“I did wonder,” said Nemeth. “Underhand tactics, Brother.”

“But not unnecessary,” said Sherath. “If you won’t rest when you’re told, I can always make you.” He grinned again. “Do you want to eat first or wash first?”

“Wash,” said Farinka. “Definitely. I might even swim.” She stood up, handing the empty mug to Sherath.

“Don’t get chilled,” he said. “Nemeth?”

“Am I allowed to swim, Healer?” Nemeth asked sardonically.

“If you think you ought to,” said Sherath. “It might ease some of the rib pain. I’ll expect you back within ten minutes – don’t overdo it. Okay?”

“Your wish is my command.” Nemeth laughed. “Grant me the pleasure of your company, Domina.” He held his hand out to her and she made a show of helping him to his feet.

Sherath returned to the fire and was handed a plate of sliced venison by Tarke.

“They look much better,” she said as she watched them walk towards the pool.

“Much,” agreed Sherath, sitting down and helping himself to green hazelnuts. He wrapped several in a slice of venison and surrounded the whole with a vine leaf fried in boar fat.

“Better enough to think about leaving tomorrow, or not?” asked Jevann thoughtfully.

“Possibly. Possibly.” Sherath took another mouthful of his roll.

“Everything else is ready when they are,” Louka pointed out. “Beastpacks packed as full as they can hold, beasts co-operative – “

“ – mostly,” said Tarke.

Louka grinned. “Okay, mostly. But no problems that Farinka can’t get one of the unicorns to explain. Round tents are checked, and mended where necessary. All that’s left to pack are the hides we’re sleeping in, the pots we’re cooking in, and the dishes we’re eating off.”

“It seems a shame the rest of the winter food stores can’t be used,” Tarke sighed.

“They can,” said Sherath. “Not by us, granted. But Piet’s people could make good use of them.”

Several pairs of eyes turned to look at him.

“That human village?” asked Tarke.

“Yes. It would be a good move in more ways than one to offer them the rest of the stores. They’ve got enough packbeasts to move it all in one trip. I was thinking perhaps you and I could ride down there tomorrow, Tarke, and explain to them.”

“If the unicorns let us,” said Tarke.

“Farinka can ask them to,” Sherath answered.

“You think that’s safe?” asked Jevann.

“Piet knows me. As do some of his men. They know the unicorns; and with the unicorns, we’d be safe enough even if there was trouble – which I don’t think there will be.”

“Why not take more of us?” asked Jevann.

“Several reasons.”

“Like what?”

“Like the fact that the unicorns can cover the ground in half the time that the packbeasts can. Like the fact that we don’t want this to look threatening – which is why I’d rather take Tarke or Louka than yourself. We’re a peace envoy, not a scouting party. I’d rather take Tarke than Louka because I’d value her presence as Counsellor on this trip; you already know that the facts point to both Piet and Jaimeh being half-Elven – I want to know if Jaimeh’s woman is, or not – and if she is, then Tarke will need to Counsel her.”

“Because of the children,” agreed Louka. “Yes.”

There were murmurs of agreement from the others.

Nemeth and Farinka came back from the pool at a jog-trot; Nemeth moving unevenly but without much real pain from the leg.

“That was cold,” said Farinka as she sat down. Jevann handed her a plate of venison.

“Oh, for the heatstack cliff pools,” said Nemeth softly.

“What exactly are the heatstack cliffs?” asked Farinka.

“You don’t have heatstacks on your world? No hot pools?” asked Jevann.

“Well, yes. Volcanic springs and things. Some of them are very hot; but smelly, often. Full of sulphur.”

“No, those aren’t heatstacks,” said Sherath. “We have volcanic springs and other hot springs here, too – in the Western mountains, particularly. A true heatstack is the work of a heatstack nodule, which is like a sort of intelligent rock animal. Not an animal that lives among rocks, more an animal that’s made from rock. You can speak to them, if you can speak Petran.”

“What’s Petran?”

“One of the old languages,” said Louka. “Rock trolls speak Petran. Some of the more powerful animals in the cavern system can speak Petran as well as either Old Elvish or the common language.”

“Is Flizz a rock troll?” Farinka asked Nemeth.

He grinned. “No, she’s a cave troll.”

“So what’s the difference?”

“Rock trolls are pretty primitive,” said Sherath. “They don’t have a lot in the way of brains, they have no appreciation of art or music, they can’t be taught to read or write; and they occasionally have trouble distinguishing between friend and foe – with the default assumption being ‘foe’. Fortunately they also don’t go much on weaponry,” he added with a smile.

“Their limit is generally flinging boulders at you,” agreed Nemeth. “And they’re very obvious about it. Not what you’d call subtle.”

“What about cave trolls, then?”

“Cave trolls are quite bright,” said Nemeth. “Not as bright as Elves – about the same as Men, probably. They’re fond of music and like pretty things – jewellery rather than clothes. They don’t really need clothes, even in the caverns, which can be quite cold. They’re quite furry – soft fur, like rabbit-fur but longer, and usually golden or chestnut coloured. Flizz is very pale coloured – somewhere between Flax and Sunshine.”

“Maybe that’s what made Shenwaith notice her,” suggested Tarke, grinning.

“Nuts,” asserted Nemeth. “It was the mushrooms. Cave trolls have tails,” he continued, “rock trolls are tailless and almost hairless. They have very thick dark grey hide. Cave trolls are handy with weapons – most weapons. And the prehensile tail makes them superlative knife-fighters – the likes of you and I are restricted to a maximum of two knives at once, which rather limits our techniques. They’re often a bit more dextrous than Men, and a lot stronger, though not as strong as rock trolls.”

“Is anything as strong as a rock troll?” asked Jevann with a smile.

“Not in my experience,” replied Nemeth.

“What, not even you?” asked Farinka, reaching for an apple.

“ ‘fraid not.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

Sherath laughed. “Nemeth tried a playful wrestling match with a young rock troll in his mad youth. The rock troll won. We had to ‘tice it off him with some food. Rock trolls like truffles, too,” he added.

“Yes, well, enough of the nostalgia,” said Nemeth with a slightly embarrassed grin. “After all, it was a very long time ago. And there are episodes in your past, Brother, which you might not care to have openly discussed,” he added, glancing up sideways at Sherath.

“This sounds good,” said Farinka. “Like what?”

“I think not,” said Sherath, turning away momentarily from the fire to reach for his tobacco pouch and roll a leaf smoke-roll.

“What’s it worth?” asked Nemeth, laughing.

Sherath turned back with a leaf smoke-roll in one hand and his blowpipe in the other.

“You wouldn’t dare,” said Nemeth.

Sherath grinned. “Try me.”

“He would,” said Louka to Nemeth.

Nemeth leaned back against the tree trunk. “He can’t sit there holding that pipe all night, though, can he?” he pointed out.

“Would you care to bet on that one?” asked Sherath.

“I thought you said Dominn doesn’t approve of gambling,” said Sienne.

“Gambling to excess; gambling what can’t be afforded, no,” said Sherath. “But a little wager between friends is quite allowable. Well, Brother? How about it? And remember that the rock troll incident isn’t the only daft thing you’ve done in your time, either.”

“This is true,” said Nemeth. “Okay, pax.”

“Pax?” asked Farinka.

“Old Elvish,” said Louka. “Meaning ‘peace’.”

“We have the same thing on my world. From the Latin – also meaning ‘peace’. Who uses Old Elvish as a language?”

“All that can use Assumed Power can speak Old Elvish,” said Sherath.

“You mean things other than Elves can use Assumed Power?”

“Yes. Dragons can – and do. And the few Great Worms that are left.”

“Dinithu,” said Tarke. “You’ll meet Dinithu, Domina.”

“What’s a Great Worm?”

“Something between snake and dragon,” Tarke responded. “They look like snakes – but much bigger, and with a head like a dragon’s. Around five times as long as Sherath is tall, and at least as big around as that boar was. And they’re intelligent. Very intelligent.”

“More so than Elves?”

“More so than many Elves. On equal terms with the brightest of us,” said Sherath. “And intelligent in ways which we can’t imagine, because we’re so different. Dinithu speaks the common language, and Old Elvish, and Petran, and cave-trollish – which even most cave-trolls don’t speak much, now. And he uses Words of Power.”

“What are they?” asked Farinka.

“Very old. You can’t learn them unless someone who uses them wishes to teach you. You can hear a Word of Power spoken; hear it clearly, and yet be unable to remember what it sounded like as soon as it has been spoken.”

“And you cannot disobey a Word of Power spoken by any creature stronger than yourself,” said Nemeth. “Stronger in mind, that is, not in body. It’s like Command, only much more so.”

“And not only used for Command,” said Sherath. “You can use a Word of Power on an inanimate object in the same way as you can use Command, certainly. But you can also use the teaching Word to give Voice and Hearing, sometimes, to those who don’t have it. Although the effect is limited – they can usually only use it with the person who gave them it, or a few other people. You can use the teaching Word for all sorts of teaching.”

“Does Dinithu know all the Words of Power?” asked Farinka.

“Who knows?” said Nemeth.

“But he uses Assumed Power?”

“Yes.”

“And he could therefore teach me?”

“He could. But I suspect that by the time we get to Dinithu you may have already taught yourself a great deal,” said Sherath. “But do, please, Domina, teach yourself gently. We can’t afford to lose you. Dinithu’s Teaching will be of most use to you in terms of language. Any of us can teach you Old Elvish – although it might be a slow process, and none of us know all of it. It’s used in the oldest calls to Dominn – the oldest prayers whose forms have stayed unchanged and are known to all of us, rather than individual prayers. Many of those older, more formal prayers are sung rather than said; we give to Dominn the music that Dominn has given to us. It would be interesting to know how many words of Old Elvish bear such a similarity to the language that you spoke of on your world.” He looked questioningly at her.

“Latin? I never knew much Latin – just a couple of years of basics at school. But possibly enough to be able to judge how close the relationship is, if I could hear Old Elvish.”

“That can be arranged,” said Tarke. “We spend a lot of time singing when we’re on the move – so long as it’s safe to do so. And many of the songs are in Old Elvish; many of them being prayers of a kind.”

“You’ll have to make do with unaccompanied voices, Domina,” said Jekavi. “We have no instruments with us.”

“I thought you had reed pipes?” said Sienne.

“Yes; but not loud enough to carry a tune while we’re on the move. And pipes by themselves are a bit thin.”

“True,” said Sienne; scooping a handful of blackberries out of a basket and lining them up in order of size in her lap.

“Why do you do that?” said Jekavi. “You’re always doing that.”

“So I can save the biggest one till last,” replied Sienne indistinctly, chewing the smallest berry.

“Supposing someone snaffles it before you get there?” said Jekavi. “Like this.”

“Hey, that was mine! Get your own berries, you thieving lout!” Sienne cuffed him playfully round the head.

“Enough, Children,” said Nemeth. “Where were we, Domina?”

“Discussing languages. So Old Elvish is spoken by anyone who can Assume Power; Elves, dragons, Great Worms; anyone else?”

“Ierreth,” said Sherath. Farinka was suddenly aware of an involuntary mind-smile from all present; a vast wash of affection.

“Who – or what – is Ierreth?”

“Ierreth is – and isn’t – a cat,” said Sherath. “You can’t explain Ierreth, other than to say he is Ierreth. He’s always been there. You’ll only understand Ierreth when you meet him.”

Show me Ierreth? she suggested, extending Awareness through Sherath.

Sherath’s eyes went distant and unfocussed, the half-smile was unconscious and totally sincere.

There was nothing much to see of Ierreth in Sherath’s mind; but an overwhelming sense of love and loyalty and a subconscious recognition of almost infinite Power almost never used. The sense of love was nearly hypnotic – it took Farinka a conscious effort to pull out of what was almost turning into trance. Sherath’s eyes met hers as she looked up at him; the sea-colour softened almost into blue; he refocussed slowly.

“It’s said that an Elf can be joined in spirit more than once – provided that the second spirit is that of Ierreth,” he said. “And Ierreth can happen even to the sons of Shiannath’s line, and even to Children. You need to experience it to understand. His love is immense.”

Sherath’s eyes continued to hold hers for a moment; she was vaguely aware of a half-formed wish before his Control took over and edited it out of what could be Heard.

She held his gaze and his mind for a moment longer, feeling a tingle of Power in the holding, wanting to see more.

He broke the eye contact abruptly, looking down and grinning.

Interesting to note that you’re acquiring the use of Coercion, Domina, he whispered with a half-laugh, but it’s really not ethical to use it for that one.

Why not?

Partly because, not being enabled, I don’t have the Power to resist that, if you pushed it. He was instantly Aware of her mental grin which went with the recognition of temptation, and looked into her eyes again, using all the mind-strength he could muster. Unfair, Domina. Please don’t; as a personal favour, okay?

Okay. You owe me one.

I owe you one.

Sherath, how does a heatstack nodule work?

He looked round; noticed that everyone was watching him, and grinned.

“Children; I’ve just been asked how a heatstack nodule works. Any ideas?”

“Not a clue,” said Nemeth. The sentiment was echoed by the others.

“We don’t know everything about our world, Domina,” said Louka. “The important thing to remember about heatstack nodules is that they do work.”

“I’ve often thought of them as being not unlike bees, but much slower,” Tarke remarked thoughtfully.

“Why bees?” asked Nemeth.

“Think of the heatstack as a hive. When it’s ready, a fresh nodule will be released, which, under the right conditions, in the right place, can create another heatstack. Like a queen bee taking off with a swarm – except there’s no swarm. Think of the whole of the heatstack being gradually turned into nodules which stay joined together until one’s ready to break off. See what I mean?”

“Yes. Not a perfect comparison, but understandable,” admitted Nemeth.

“How long does it take for a nodule to be released?” asked Farinka.

“A couple of centuries, probably,” Sherath told her. “I brought out a nodule from the heatstack cliffs a long time ago. Put it into the wall of a big cave in the barrier mountains. It would be interesting to go across that way and find out if it’s doing anything,” he added thoughtfully.

“We will,” said Jevann, gazing into the fire, almost unaware of having spoken. Farinka mind-touched him quickly, catching an echo of a kind of music slowly fading away. Jevann suddenly rubbed his hand through his hair, and looked up at her, his eyes slightly troubled.

What is it, Jevann? she asked.

I don’t know, Domina. He shivered, and pulled the hood of his jacket up. “Hey, Tarke?” he asked.

“What?”

“Do you reckon any of that fermented apple juice is ready yet?”

“Good idea,” said Nemeth. “Hot, with honey and spices. Yes?” He looked at Tarke with the hopeful air of a dog expecting to be fed. She laughed.

“Yes, quite possibly. Go and check it out. It might keep the frost at bay tonight.”

He was on his feet in a moment.

“Talking of frost,” said Jevann, “it’s going to be a heck of a cold winter. Even the unicorns are growing really heavy coats.”

“And talking of unicorns, Domina,” said Sherath, “I’ve a strong suspicion that the filly’s coming into season. I meant to mention it earlier – but you were asleep.”

“And whose fault was that?” she asked.

Pax? he suggested.

Yes, okay. You were right. I did need the extra sleep. So we could have an extra unicorn this time next year.

Looks like it, he said.

“Talking of sleep,” said Tarke, “if we’re considering going down to that village tomorrow, Sherath, we ought to make an early start.”

“What’s all this about?” asked Nemeth, returning with a large waterskin whose contents he tipped into a big pan, setting it on the trivet in the hearth.

Tarke mind-touched both him and Farinka, briefly explaining the plan.

“Good idea,” said Farinka. “Nice P.R. exercise.”

“What’s P.R?” said Tarke.

“Public relations. Keeping people sweet, generally. Is there any reason why we can’t start moving the rest out tomorrow?”

“Nemeth?” asked Sherath. “Sensibly?”

“Don’t see why not, if we take it slowly. It would be a good idea to break ourselves into travelling slowly, anyway.”

“Okay. But don’t go any farther than that lower alp, and stop for a good break on the upper alp. Give the beasts plenty of grazing time, as well as not pushing it for you and Farinka. I suggest we should meet up in the valley west of the village the following night – don’t travel too close to the village – we don’t want to put the wind up them.”

“And follow the river all the way down to Dakesht?” asked Nemeth. “Nice easy route, plenty of good hunting and gatherable food.”

“And maybe a trader or two,” pointed out Sherath.

“I don’t think we need to worry,” said Nemeth, adding spices to the pan, which was beginning to simmer.

Sherath grinned. – Caution was never your strong point, Brother.

We’ll be okay. We’re going to look pretty much like travellers ourselves, if a bit young. And most traders are solitary types; they’re not likely to give a group our size any trouble.

True.

“An early start requires an early night,” said Louka. “For all of us – not just little ones.”

Nemeth dipped a mug into the pan, and tasted the brew.

“Definitely needs a bit of honey,” he noted. “Not much; just a spoonful. What do you think, Domina?” He handed her the mug, and she sipped.

“Yes. Though it’s quite nice being a bit sharp.” She passed the mug on to Tarke.

“Definitely honey,” Tarke concurred. She dug a spoonful out of the honey jar and stirred it into the pot.

The first mugful was passed round until everyone had had a sip.

“It’s very nice,” said Farinka. “Sort of mulled cider.”

“Cider?” asked Sienne

“It’s what we call fermented apple juice on our world; but it’s not usually quite as nice as this.”

The Children gathered closer round the fire, and Nemeth and Tarke filled all the mugs. There was silence for a few minutes. Eventually Sherath spoke.

“The first mugful of the season is always good,” he reflected. “Louka, you’re right about that early night. Finish the – cider – and then turn in?”

There was a chorus of assent.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Relax, Tarke, said Sherath, running Awareness through her mind. She looked across and grinned at him.

Is it that obvious?

Fairly. Moonwind’s being very cautious about how she moves – she’s afraid of losing you. He patted Moondust’s neck, and straightened out a twist of the unicorn’s mane. Open your mind to mine; feel how I feel. Feel the movement of Moonwind’s back; feel the sequence of her legs; feel the muscles shifting and the way she uses her balance; feel the rhythm – it’s very predictable, she won’t throw anything unexpected at you. Let yourself move with her; absorb her movement and relax.

You’re very expert all of a sudden, Sherath.

Farinka’s a good teacher. You must ride with her sometime; she has a beautiful feel for togetherness with Moondust. I could almost let her mind control my own movements – it’s a quick way to learn.

Probably. But if I let you control me I’m responding to you and him rather than to Moonwind.

Good point. Ride with me? Just until you get the feel of it more? He looked across at her, the question echoed in his eyes.

Yes. Tarke edged the filly closer to Moondust where Sherath had halted him, and slithered over to sit behind Sherath.

As close as you can; it helps him to balance our weight. Shut your eyes, feel his movement; open your mind to mine. With me now?

Yes. Tarke drifted into a sleepy Awareness, allowing her responses to take their cue from Sherath’s consciousness, and feeling the flow of movement from the unicorn to herself and Sherath and back to the unicorn. I feel how he thinks, she said after a while. He’s not using Voice, but I can feel his Awareness of me.

Yes. He knows who you are.

He has enormous strength, she remarked. The Power of his mind is immense. As young as today and as old as forever. How can he have learnt so much wisdom in so short a time?

He’s a unicorn, said Sherath, answering everything. Can you handle moving faster? There’s a lot of ground to cover.

With this kind of link I can manage anything you can. Your abilities become mine; you know that.

Yes. I wondered if you did, though.

If you let me, I can know anything that you know. The Power of your own mind is also quite impressive, Sherath. Not entirely –

Don’t say it, Tarke. Wiser left unsaid.

Why? As Counsellor, I should be the one person you need have no secrets from. She felt his Awareness shifting, and, probing, knew there were parts of his thoughts that he was quite deliberately keeping closed to her. Can you not trust me, Sherath? She shifted the tone of her Awareness and let him feel the hurt of being shut out.

His eyes screwed up for a moment. – That’s unethical, Tarke.

It needed to be said. Trust me. You can, you know. I won’t hurt you. She felt him smile, and let the wash of his affection flow over her.

You’re very wise, for a Child.

It’s in the breeding. My sire was a good Counsellor.

Sherath laughed. – This is very true. I’m going to ask him to canter; it’s a very easy rhythm. Flow with it.

Moondust swung into an easy canter, the filly keeping pace half a length behind him.

Talking of breeding, said Tarke, your own sire was also a good king.

He was Nemeth’s sire, too. A bit uncontrolled, said Sherath.

We’ve discussed that one before, Sherath.

Yes, I know. Okay, insensitive in his use of Control.

Better. But he was younger then than you are now, you realise. You’ve had longer in which to learn Control. In many ways you – and all of us – are as Moondust is. Young and old both.

Except for Farinka, said Sherath, his mind clouding. Tarke’s probe of Awareness lanced through his mind behind the defences before he was able to stop her.

Oh, Sherath. You are going to have to talk about this.

How? There was something approaching anguish in his Voice.

It’s no betrayal. You must realise that you and Nemeth are probably more in need of a Counsellor than anyone else. And always will be. You can’t try and carry all of us all the way – however great the temptation. So give; all of it.

Tarke, you don’t know what you’re asking.

You’re full of confusion and fear and pain; and you’re very tired. I can feel your feelings but I don’t know what’s causing them, Sherath. What are you most afraid of?

Being another Shiannath. The answer came out almost as a whisper.

How can you be?

I told Dominn that I’d take on Shiannath’s quest. Now I don’t know whether I can.

Because you know what it might involve?

Because the temptation to give up on it is too strong. Because I’m afraid for Farinka.

And of her, in some ways.

You see a lot, don’t you?

That tangle with the boar frightened you, Sherath.

I was so scared we were going to lose her. Not to the boar; but to her own Power. She has no idea of the amount of Power she tapped into there, you know. It was massive. Enormous – and very destructive. If that boar had been a bit stronger she would have destroyed her own mind in trying to destroy him. That scares me.

It terrified Nemeth, too. It’s not often he admits publicly to fear. Even when he’s been mashed by something.

He was also scared of losing you. We need you, too.

Nice to know. Without Farinka there is no way to the hidden valley. And no way to take on Shiannath’s quest?

Yes. I think so. But that’s not all of it, Tarke.

Tarke tightened her arms around him. – You need to say it, Sherath. You have to. For yourself.

Okay. We need her. The Elves need her. The unicorns need her – or they’ll be lost one day, too. Our world needs her – alive and in Power. I’m convinced that Shiannath’s quest needs her. I think Dominn sent her here because I said I’d take that on. I think that’s why she’s here now. It’s just too much of a coincidence to be anything else – and where Dominn’s concerned I don’t believe in coincidence.

Nor me.

But she’s so young, Tarke. Seventeen years old; from another world. She doesn’t know our world, she’s had not enough time to grow, to learn, to stabilise in any way. And because of all that happened to her on her own world, she’s dangerous. A lot of her Power is fuelled by anger; and by fear. And not much by love – though it was to protect Nemeth that she used the Power to kill. She’s enabled but not really mature – you realise on our world she wouldn’t have been allowed to Journey until she was twice the age she is? She’s not really adult – I’m more adult than she is. I’m a non-enabled adult; she’s a viable, enabled Child. It’s an explosive mixture – the unleashed anger and fear of a hurt Child combined with the full Power of an enabled adult. And somehow I’ve got to get her through everything, just to do what I’ve promised to do. And the needs of the Elves, of the unicorns, of the world, of the quest – all those greater needs have to take priority over my needs. And in meeting those needs, I might lose her. To the quest; to some greater plan; to death ….

Or to Nemeth? said Tarke. She felt Sherath’s mind flinch, and held him tighter for a second.

Yes. And I need her. Me, Sherath, myself. For myself. I don’t want to lose her to anyone or anything else’s need. That’s why I’m so tempted to back out of that quest. And morally – ethically – I can’t do it.

Sherath, you’re afraid because you’ve already made that decision. You’re already committed to the quest. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be afraid – there’d be nothing to be afraid of, for yourself. You’ll do what Dominn needs, no matter what it costs you personally.

Yes; until I get tested too far. But when I have to protect her, I keep asking myself whether I’m doing it for Dominn, and for everything else – or just for myself.

You question your motives?

Yes. I keep wondering whether I’m doing the right thing for the wrong reason.

There’s no rule that says the reasons are mutually exclusive. Why can’t you accept that you can do the right thing for both reasons? It doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both.

It would be so easy to snap, though. If there ever came a time when the needs pulled in different ways. My own need is very strong – and probably not something you can understand.

Don’t count on it, said Tarke. In all except genetic viability and full Power Assumption you are predominantly adult.

You know too much.

I know enough.

How much do you know?

Like I said: enough. I know about Shiyeth’s leaf.

Oh ye gods, Tarke! How long have you known? And how?

I did say you could trust me, little one. I’ve suspected for ages. Since the sickness. As for how I know … my sire was a good Counsellor, Sherath. And I could always read Teketh like a book; and whatever he suspected, I was aware of.

You get that from your dam. Kayisha was the most perceptive person I’ve ever known – frighteningly so. I was always in more danger from her than from Teketh. You’re very like her – your breeding shows; on both sides. Did he know?

If he did, he never admitted it. Probably not even to himself. He knew you, though. He knew to what lengths you would go to protect Shiyeth, if necessary. And you were always so clever at guarding against Teketh, and Lukann, and everyone – as was Shiyeth. But neither of you ever thought it was necessary to guard against me, did you?

I should have known. You learnt from Shiyeth?

No. From you. After the sickness. Losing Shiyeth knocked your defences; and you almost went, too. I thought I’d lose you – you were desperately ill.

You kept me alive.

Yes. I had to go into the darkness after you and call you back. You didn’t want to live, Sherath.

How far had I gone?

Far enough that you’d have taken me with you if you’d died. I couldn’t pull away. The hold of your mind was too strong. It was that that made me start looking further. But it’s taken until now for me to be absolutely sure of the extent of that leaf’s effect.

Why until now?

I’ve known you can Assume Power for longer than you’ve known; I was watching you start to Assume Power over two hundred years ago – gradually. This past year it’s come a lot faster and a lot stronger. But it’s only in this past week that I’ve been able to see how you react to Farinka.

Sherath laughed. – Yes. I react.

And your reaction is different from Nemeth’s. For only that reason. The reaction itself produces half your confusion, you know. It undermines your rationality.

I don’t entirely like feeling irrational.

Tarke laughed. – Not without some kind of safety valve, anyway.

He grinned. – Tarke, shut up.

Your problem is you want to but you can’t.

The grin turned into a laugh. – Enough, Tarke. Pax. Your capacity as Counsellor doesn’t give you the right to make that kind of observation. However perceptive.

But as your friend, I have that right. Yes?

Yes, okay. You know the extent of the affection.

Likewise, Sherath. Don’t forget that.

I know. I won’t. Let’s let these beasts rest and graze here. You’ll be okay riding on your own afterwards.

Are you chickening out?

Who, me?

***

Nemeth halted at the eastern side of the alp, one hand on Agouti’s muzzle to stop him. He shifted his weight onto his good leg, resting the other one. It ached.

Behind him the other packbeasts and the Children came to a halt, spreading out along the edge of the trees.

All clear? asked Louka.

Safe enough, said Nemeth. “Okay, let’s unpack and set tents up, peoples. This is far enough for today.”

He led Agouti out onto the alp, shrugged his shoulders out of the packstraps and lowered the tentpoles to the ground. Jevann came over to him, dropping his own pack of tentpoles by the others and rubbing his shoulders.

“Want a hand unloading Agouti?”

“Please. We can lift that pack in one move between us.”

Nemeth bent to untie the cinches; Agouti lowered his head and began pulling at the grass.

“Ready?” Nemeth glanced up at Jevann.

“When you are. Okay.”

They lifted the pack by the lower ends of the crossed poles, and Nemeth prodded Agouti with one foot to make him walk away from under it. Louka caught hold of the beast’s halter and inspected his back for sore patches.

“He’s fine,” she said. “No problems. If you and Jevann can do the honours, we’ll unload the others like that as well. It’s much quicker. I think you ought to rest a bit when that’s done; and Farinka. The rest of us can put up the tents without you – there are enough pairs of hands to manage quite easily. Don’t argue, Nemeth.”

“I wasn’t about to.” He grinned. “You might find Farinka less easy to convince.”

“I’ll manage,” Louka said with a wink.

Farinka led Flax over, with Sunshine following close behind.

“This didn’t take as long as I thought it would,” she said, helping Louka untie cinches.

“We can keep up a good pace, even with little ones,” said Jevann. “It’s the pace of the beasts that restricts us.”

“True,” said Nemeth, taking hold of his side of the pack. “Ready? Lift. Mind you, I’m glad we’ve got them. It’s nice to have reserve stores.”

“How much weight is in their packs?” asked Farinka.

“Flax’s is the heaviest because he’s carrying the tent hides, and he has them because he’s by far the strongest of the beasts. About a hundred and forty kilos,” said Jevann. “The others are carrying about ninety kilos each; but as soon as we can catch some more beasts we can reduce that by quite a lot. Extra packs will be quite easy to rig up.”

“Coming fishing, Domina?” asked Nemeth. “I’ll teach you how to tickle trout.”

“Yes, okay. If I’m not needed here, that is.”

“Neither of us is needed here. The little ones are gathering mushrooms, nuts, greens and berries; Sienne will get the fire ready, and the rest of the team will do the tents. By the time we get back, there’ll be a home to get back to. Shall we ride over?”

“Yes. If you can stay on, that is.”

Nemeth laughed. “Try me.”

Farinka grinned at him, and vaulted onto Sunshine’s back, neck-reining him with the lead rein. Sunshine put in a half-hearted buck, and she was conscious of Nemeth’s Awareness drifting through her mind as he assessed the buck and how to sit on it. He grinned again, and jumped, Indian-fashion, onto Flax. “Race you?”

“You’re on.” She swung Sunshine round, leant low over his neck and nudged him into a gallop, her fingers twisted into his white mane, feeling Nemeth’s Awareness twining in her thoughts all the way, leaching knowledge from her and using it himself. Agouti bolted past them with a buck and a squeal, flinging his heels up. Sunshine’s stride lengthened out even more, hardly feeling Farinka’s weight; Flax, despite Nemeth’s urging, dropped behind.

Farinka slowed Sunshine by circling him at the other side of the alp. “What kept you?” she asked as Nemeth brought Flax close.

“Unfair, Domina. I weigh nearly twice what you do, remember.”

“And Flax is stronger than Sunshine.”

“Possibly,” agreed Nemeth, sliding off and putting his arms round Flax’s neck, rubbing the beast’s ears and praising him. “But he’s not got the right build for real speed.”

“He’s a good beast,” said Farinka, dismounting and making much of the palomino.

“They all are.” Nemeth whispered endearments into Flax’s ears, flooding the beast with affection, and fed him a honeycake, then turned him loose. He brought a second honeycake over and shared it between the other two beasts, then patted them and sent them off onto the alp. He put an arm over Farinka’s shoulders and steered her in the direction of the stream.

“So how do you tickle trout?” she asked.

“You find where they’re lying up. This is a good time of day. Use your Awareness to find them – they’ll usually be close to the sides, in amongst tree roots or under rocky overhangs, always facing upstream. Keep your Awareness open and look out for other beasties, too; getting your fingers nipped by a crayfish is unpleasant, and getting them gashed by a lurking pike can leave you with severed tendons – or even without fingers if you’re very unlucky. Be careful.” – And keep quiet – you’d be surprised how much they can hear, he added. We’ll go upstream a bit, there’s a good rocky place up there.

He padded along the trail making little more noise than a cat, keeping a thin screen of undergrowth between himself and the stream. Farinka followed in his tracks, still somewhat surprised that something so big could move so quietly.

I’m an Elf, said Nemeth with a grin, not a human.

Who gave you permission to listen to what I’m thinking?

Your thoughts were wide open; you can deny me any time, Domina. Here we are. Come to the edge quietly. Try and pretend that you’re a shrub, he said, smiling.

Yeah, sure. Spot the leaves.

Nemeth turned his head, his eyes alight with silent laughter. – Believe me, it works. He crouched by the stream. Use the Awareness, Domina. There are two under here. I’ll take the front one – we’ll have to do this both at once if we’re going to get both of them. Think shrub, Domina. Your fingers are the roots, trailing in the water. Trail them along gently, slowly, moving upstream, moving from the tail towards the head. Let your fingers reach forwards and then just touch her flank, moving backwards. Easy, eh? She doesn’t know you’re there. Again, and this time, on the count of three, close your fingers behind her gills and flip her out of the water. Ready?… one, two, three. Don’t drop her!

Well done, Domina. Your first trout.

He turned and knocked both trouts’ heads against the rock, then grinned up at her. “Piece of cake. We’ll gut them here,” he said, slitting one fish open deftly with one flick of his belt knife and hooking the insides out with the ball of his thumb, letting them fall into the water. “With any luck, that could well attract more trout. Cannibalistic little devils. If it’s protein, they’ll eat it – even if it’s their brother’s entrails.” He gutted the second fish, casting his Awareness out along the stream like a net. – Here they come. Another three. And a pike – keep your fingers out, Domina. Let me take that swine.

Careful, Nemeth.

I’m always careful, he answered, making a quick grab and hauling the pike out by its tail, flinging it away onto the other side of the rock. It flipped about, its eyes glinting evilly. Nemeth threw his belt knife, skewering it behind the eyes. I’ll come back to that in a few minutes – they can still nip even when you think they’re dead, he said. Try for another trout or two – on your own. They’ll be too busy fighting over the entrails to notice what you’re doing.

You have such faith in me, Nemeth.

He laughed. – I have, actually; since you mention it. Though I admit you’re not quite the all-Powerful ‘Child of Justice’ that we were expecting. You have sufficient Power; don’t get me wrong; possibly too much Power for your own good. Don’t kill yourself – at least not until you’ve got us to the hidden valley.

Thanks a lot, Nemeth. It’s so nice to feel wanted. Have another trout.

Thanks. Seriously, Domina. She turned and found him looking at her, his amber-hazel eyes worried. I might joke about it – but I’d miss you. Me, personally; Nemeth the Elf, not just Nemeth the son of Shith and the Challenger for my people. His eyes held hers for a long moment. It’s very good to find a new friend – and very bad to lose one. Besides, and he grinned, you haven’t told the little ones all the Winnie-the-Pooh stories yet.

She laughed. – Lots more where those came from. I’ll start them on the poems next. And then Beatrix Potter, and Roald Dahl (I’m sure his Matilda must have been an Elf)…

Whoa! Stop, cease, desist; enough – I rest my case. We need you. Stop making light of me, Domina; I meant it.

You make me wish I’d had a brother. I could have done with one like you.

Thank you.

Any time. How many trout do we need?

Eight or nine would be good. That pike will make up for any shortage in numbers – lots of meat on a pike. Lots of bones, though, too.

Do you want a crayfish?

Is there one there?

There’s something over the other side. Doesn’t feel fishy.

You’re right. I’ll see if I can get him – I’ll cross over farther up and come back down to him – don’t want to scare your trout away. You could start wandering back downstream with these and see if you can flush any more out. I’ll meet you back down by the granite lump.

I’d rather we stayed reasonably together, Nemeth. That cougar hangs about not far from that granite.

Good point. Keep your eyes and ears open, Domina. I’ll be back in a moment.

Three more trout had joined the pile on the rock before Farinka felt Nemeth’s mind-touch from the opposite bank.

Keep clear, Domina; he might make a bolt for your side of the water.

Okay; whatever you say. She drew her fingers out of the water, looking across towards the other bank. It was a moment before she could see Nemeth; his impression of a bush was very convincing. Vaguely reminiscent of an old TV advertisement which she remembered seeing on YouTube, but the outline was there, and apparent when he moved. She stifled a mental smile, and was aware of his reaction.

Why the amusement?

You just reminded me of something.

What?

People pretending to be bushes.

Fair enough. Nemeth looked over at her, his eyes meeting hers in shared laughter. Tell me about it sometime.

Shall do. What is it about you and Shiffih that makes you different from the others, Nemeth?

It’s the breeding. Our mother was a Southern Elf – not the Northern stock. Southern Elves are just a bit different – as are Southern Men and Dwarves.

You remind me of the Native Americans on that other world. Or possibly parts of Northern Africa or the Middle East. Not totally, but somewhat.

Do you know, that’s the first time you’ve called it anything other than ‘my world’?

I didn’t realise. But it’s beginning to feel almost unreal – like a bad dream.

Was it all bad? There was sympathy as well as question in his Voice.

Not all. But I lost almost everything that was good. I don’t really feel as though I knew anyone there at all. As if they weren’t quite real people.

No Awareness. No Voice, no Hearing. It explains a lot. It must be impossible really to know anyone without those things – though Men seem to manage somehow.

You’ve been talking to Sherath.

Yes. We’re very close, my brother and I. Though there’s a lot he keeps hidden from me. Ow!

What?

Got my fingers nipped. Have a crayfish. He threw it over the stream to her. Don’t panic, I’ve killed it already.

Thanks. Do you think we’ve got enough?

Nemeth jumped over the stream, landing catlike on the rock close to her.

It’ll have to do. I don’t feel like catching any more.

How about some watercress?

We can hook that out farther down, on our way back.

He wrapped the gutted fish in a soft hide and tied the bundle across the back of his shoulders. “Fit?”

“When you are. What was your mother’s name?”

“Nehhuare. Youngest daughter of Nuare and Shamin-Ra.”

“Shamin-Ra?”

“Leader of the Southern Elves. Sort of a prince, but not as high-rank as Shithri. They have their own line Rihal.”

“So you’re royalty on both sides, then.”

“Yes. Not that it makes any difference. I am what I am. I am Nemeth. And right now, I’m hungry.” He grinned. “Let’s get back. Sherath’s dam was quite high ranking, as well. From the high Northern line – which explains his colouring, too. The high Northern Elves are usually fair-haired; predominantly Flax-coloured, though some are more like Sunshine. We both take after our mothers in colouring, though Sherath’s skin is darker that Rekkye’s was. Some of the high Northern Elves burn in strong sunlight; Sherath just tans. But he never gets as dark as I do.”

“What was Shith like?”

“Shith? He had the same skin as Sherath, and mid-brown hair. Not as red as yours, though yours isn’t like Jevann’s.”

“Whose is?”

Nemeth laughed. “Good question. Jekavi’s almost is. He’s still a lot redder than you, though. More chestnut than you; the red in your hair is darker.”

“My mother told me my hair was almost white when I was born.”

“Really?” He looked appraisingly at her. “What colour was you mother’s hair?”

“Light brown, slightly reddish.”

“And your father?”

“Almost black. Very like yours, actually. But his mother was auburn – Granny Law – before she went grey. She died when I was quite young.”

“Have you got any family left at all?”

“Not any more. The last of my family were Uncle Paul and Cousin Bobby, and they died when the dragons took me.”

“What were your family? Who were they?”

“Nobody important – although Uncle Paul was very rich. My father was an architect – designed buildings. That’s why we didn’t own the house we lived in – he always said he wanted to design and build his own house one day, and until he could we just rented.”

“Rented?”

“Paid for the use of someone else’s house.”

“Oh. I see. But he never got round to it?”

“No. He died before it happened. My mother just looked after both of us. She’d been a singer – that’s how Daddy met her. Music was one of his hobbies. He heard her in a concert and went backstage to meet her afterwards. They were married three months later.”

“Nice. But they never knew each other before that?”

“No.”

“So if all your family are dead, and your Uncle Paul was rich, if you were still on your own world, you would be pretty rich yourself.”

“I suppose so. Yes. But I’d rather be here, with nothing.”

“You haven’t got nothing – you’ve got us.”

“Quite.”

“Nice one, Domina. Thank you.”

“Any time. I meant it.”

“I know.” He gave her a brief one-armed hug. “Let’s collect that watercress and be off. Where are those beasts?”

“Over there.” Farinka pointed across the alp to where the beasts were grazing about fifty yards away. “Do you think you could call them?”

“I’ll get them while you get the cress.”

“It’s a deal.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Sherath halted Moondust about quarter of a mile east of the village.

“I’m going to see if I can get Piet to Hear me,” he said to Tarke. “There’s just a chance that I might be able to. He Heard me before.”

“You were a lot closer to him,” said Tarke.

“True. But as he’s Heard me once, he’s more likely to again.”

Sherath extended his Awareness down towards the village, feeling for the presence of Piet … who was in the workshop, bringing cherry-red iron from the small beechwood-fired forge, making a fresh link for a broken chain … Sherath watched, almost through Piet’s eyes, admiring the skilled economy of technique which Piet used as he coaxed the bar into shape. The man was a good ironworker. And he was alone.

Piet, he called softly. Piet hesitated, looking around. Sherath smiled. It’s okay, Piet. Don’t panic – it’s me, Sherath. You are Hearing me in your mind; you won’t be able to see me. Don’t speak aloud; answer me in your mind. As if you were talking to me, but silently.

Sherath? Piet’s answer was hesitant; puzzled; but willing to co-operate.

Well done. Good man. Voice and Hearing are easy once you get used to the idea. They are common to all Seekers – but can’t be used unless there is someone to use them with.

Am I a Seeker, then?

Without a doubt. As was your grandsire, and your sire. And as Jaimeh is.

Where are you?

Quite close. Don’t stop working; you can use Voice at the same time as you work – and your people will notice nothing amiss.

I’ve all but finished with this, Sherath.

Okay, so stay inside and spend some time tidying up just in case anyone looks in on you.

Yes, all right. Piet finished fitting the new link into the chain, and quenched it in a wooden pail of cold water.

I’m only a few hundred yards from the village. I’ve brought someone with me – a friend. You haven’t met her. We’ve brought the two unicorns. We need to talk, Piet. About Jaimeh, and Marte – and possibly others as well. Nothing to worry about – just things that you, and they, need to know. May we come down to you?

Yes, of course. I’ll talk to Annse – she’ll trust me even if she doesn’t understand. I’ll meet you where you are. Wait for me.

Shall do, Piet. Thank you for trusting me.

I find it impossible not to trust you, Sherath. Sherath could feel Piet’s mental grin.

Another of the advantages of using Voice and Hearing. It’s impossible to deceive someone or be deceived. Open up your Awareness.

What the blazes is that?

Listen. Feel. Sherath eased Awareness into the link, letting Piet feel his way through the link, seeing much of what made Piet what he was, and knowing that Piet was fascinated by what he himself saw.

I didn’t know, Piet said wonderingly. I didn’t know what you are. But I feel as though I know who you are. I know *you*.

Yes. As for what we are, that’s one of the things that needs to be talked about. Break off now; go and talk to Annse. We’ll see you soon.

Sherath turned to Tarke. “No problem,” he said.

“Well, you don’t have to sound quite so smug,” she answered, smiling at him.

“I like that man,” he said, sitting down beside the track and patting the ground beside him invitingly. “Here, you can share a honeycake with me.”

Tarke slid off Moonwind’s back, patting the filly’s warm shoulder and making much of her. Moonwind whuffled gently in Tarke’s ear.

She Hears you, said Sherath. She knows you.

She’s lovely, said Tarke.

Sherath smiled. – That makes four of us, then, he said.

Tarke laughed and relieved him of half the honeycake.

***

Piet came thoughtfully out of the workshop, heading towards the house he shared with Annse. The big woman was not inside. She must be with Jaimeh, he thought.

She was. Jaimeh was lying on a crude bunk, on a mattress stuffed with hay, and covered over with an alp-ox hide.

“Piet,” said Jaimeh. “I was just thinking about you.”

“Why?” Piet grinned, echoing the question with his eyes and his mind.

“I got the feeling you were talking to someone,” said Jaimeh.

I was, said Piet. But not aloud.

– [_?_]

It’s called Voice. You Hear me, but not with your ears. With your mind. And you can speak to me the same way.

How?

Like that. You just think what you’re Speaking.

You’re excited. What’s going on?

“We’re expecting visitors,” said Piet, more for Annse’s benefit than Jaimeh’s. “Annse, the Healer who worked on Jaimeh is waiting for me just east of the village. He has someone with him. I know I can trust you; you must also trust me in this.”

“Always. You know that. Tell me, Piet.”

It would be a lot easier this way, tried Piet, and was aware even as he tried that it was no good. He sighed.

“They are Seekers. Sherath tells me I am too – like my grandsire. And like Per, although no-one knew he was – probably not even he did. He tells me Seekers have ways of talking to each other that other men can’t use. Mind to mind. It works; I can Hear him, and Jaimeh, and Jaimeh can Hear me. I wish you could – but you can’t, it seems. There’s more to it than hearing as you would with your ears. You feel the other person’s mind; you know them. It’s impossible to explain unless you’ve experienced it, Annse. But because of that I know that Sherath can be trusted. Totally. Not just with healing, but with everything.”

Annse smiled at him. “Well, for someone who took years to make up their mind about me, you’ve come a long way, Piet.”

He bent and kissed her swiftly. “You don’t mind?”

“No; why should I?”

“I can’t get over how lucky I am,” said Piet.

“Go on; you’d better go out to meet them if they’re waiting for you. I’ll tell people to expect them.”

Jaimeh; this is good. There is something very good about this; but I don’t know yet what it will mean. Jaimeh’s response was no more than a sleepy smile, but Piet was fully Aware of it.

***

The two unicorns lifted their heads from their grazing and looked down the track. Piet came up the track swiftly; almost running. Sherath and Tarke stood.

Welcome, Piet, said Tarke, smiling at him.

My heavens, she’s beautiful, thought Piet, taking in the litheness and golden-ness of her, the almond-shaped eyes, and the shine on her dark hair. Sherath and Tarke both laughed.

You will have to learn to guard some of your thoughts, Piet, advised Sherath with a smile.

What can I say but “Thank you”, added Tarke. Don’t be embarrassed, Piet. You’ll just have to get used to it.

I’m sorry. I’ve obviously got a lot to learn.

Don’t be sorry, either, said Tarke. It was very genuine. And much appreciated. She rested one hand on his shoulder. You’d better take us down to your people.

Piet; a thought, said Sherath.

Yes?

Moondust would carry you, if I asked him.

Are you sure?

You’re a Seeker. He’s a unicorn. The two tend to go together.

But he’d never let me touch him when he was with the others, Piet told him, still unsure.

Did you ever try to reach him with your mind? asked Sherath.

I never thought of it. Didn’t know I could.

Try now, suggested Tarke. Use Awareness. Feel his mind.

Piet hesitantly extended Awareness towards the unicorn, amazed as he made the link. He reached his hands out, and Moondust sniffed cautiously at him, then nuzzled at Piet’s hair. A delighted grin spread across Piet’s face.

He’s so strong, he commented. So … I can’t find the words.

He’s a unicorn, said Sherath. You don’t need any more words than that. It is what he is. I’ll help you up, he suggested.

Piet placed a foot onto Sherath’s offered hand and was on the unicorn’s back almost instantly.

You’re pretty strong yourself, he remarked, grinning down at Sherath.

It’s in the breeding, said Tarke with a smile.

***

There was a welcoming committee consisting of the entire village population waiting for them by the hearth. Most were curious; they knew one of these apparent adolescents was the one that had saved Jaimeh’s life; most were excited. Some were wary, after all these were devils … or were they? They were certainly something strange. Bern’s face was openly hostile, but he said nothing, just leaned on his stick and glowered.

Piet slid gently down from Moondust’s back. “People, listen to me. Meet Sherath, and Tarke. They are friends. Our hearth is their hearth, our food is their food. Talking of which, it must be nearly ready,” he suggested with a smile, and turned to Sherath. “Will the unicorns graze with our beasts?”

“They’d probably appreciate the company,” said Sherath. “As I do,” he added, looking round the group of people with a warm smile. He was answered with several smiles in return.

***

It was full dark. The village children had gone to bed some time before; what seemed like a vast quantity of mead and ale had been consumed; the adults were sitting round the fire.

“So what makes a Seeker a Seeker?” asked Piet, eventually, putting a burning twig to his pipe and looking up sideways at Sherath.

“What makes a unicorn different from a packbeast?” asked Sherath in reply.

“It’s in the breeding,” said Gort.

“Yes. As it is with Seekers. Somewhere way, way back among your ancestors, Piet, was someone like myself and Tarke. There’s very little difference between us and Men – but that little difference makes a lot of difference.”

“Like yourself and Tarke?” asked Annse. “What are you – if not men?”

“We’re Elves,” said Tarke, with a slow smile.

There were murmurs of disbelief and astonishment, which slowly subsided into an expectant silence as neither Sherath nor Tarke spoke.

“Elves are only myths,” growled Bern.

“No,” denied Tarke, smiling at him. “We’re not myths. A long time ago – a very long time ago – men and Elves mixed freely together and each knew what the others were. But even when I was a child, that was a long time ago.”

“You’re only a child now,” said Piet.

“In many ways, we are,” said Sherath. “But both of us are over three hundred years old.”

“Prove it!” spat Bern.

“About a hundred years ago, a woman from this village had twin children. They were abandoned; called devils and changelings. Am I right?” said Tarke.

“Yes,” whispered Karinna. “My great-great grandmother had such children. I forget their names.”

“Lekki and Linka,” said Tarke. “We found them. They are still with us; and still children. They’ve probably hardly changed in the past hundred years. They look about five years old.”

“Lekki and Linka,” whispered Karinna. “They were six when she left them in the woods. Just six. And they looked like four-year-olds.”

“Karinna, there is Elf blood in your family. And you are a Healer. A good Healer,” said Sherath, catching her attention and holding her gaze with his eyes. – Are you also a Seeker?

Is this what Piet was talking about? asked Karinna.

Yes, Tarke replied. And it’s also an answer to Sherath’s question. You are a Seeker. Which is probably why you’re a good Healer. Piet, do you Hear?

Yes, I Hear. Welcome, Karinna.

Karinna smiled, and sighed. “I never knew my father,” she said. He left to become a Seeker before I was born. With my mother’s blessing – he was always restless. And his mother was also a Seeker.”

“And you are,” said Tarke. “Your great-great grandfather, who sired those twins, must also have been a Seeker. It’s unlikely that he was a full Elf. A Seeker is usually half-Elven.”

“All Seekers? But surely I must be much less Elf than half?” said Karinna. “It was so many generations ago.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” said Sherath. “It’s not like Dwarvish inheritance. Now Dwarves and men can parent children; the first generation will be half-man, half-Dwarf. If they breed back to Dwarves, their children will be three-quarters Dwarf; if they breed back to men, the children will be three-quarters man. Roughly. There’s a lot that goes into Dwarvishness. How much do you know about breeding animals?”

“Quite a lot,” said Karinna. “As a Healer, I have to understand.”

“That makes it easier to explain. You know that any animal inherits half of what it is from each parent, then; and may or may not pass on those things to its own offspring.”

“Well, obviously,” said Piet. “But go on.”

“Elvishness is simple,” said Tarke. You can inherit it from one parent, which would make you half-Elven, or a Seeker. You can inherit it from both parents, which would make you full-Elven. Or you can inherit it from neither, which makes you not Elven at all. If two half-Elves have children, the children can be half-Elven like their parents, or full man – or full Elves. Changelings. Lekki and Linka.”

“And a half-Elf can pass on that Elven inheritance to his children, and theirs, and theirs?” asked Jaimeh. “So if I’m a half-Elf, my children may be as well?”

“Yes,” said Tarke, looking at Marte. “And that is why we needed to come here. Because I think Marte is also half-Elven.”

“She’s my niece,” said Karinna. – Marte?

Yes. Marte looked over at Tarke. “So ….,”

“Yes,” said Sherath. “You and Jaimeh could have full-Elf children. And those Children will never grow up – properly – without Journeying with other full Elves. They would never be able to have Children of their own. If that happens, it would be wise for them to travel with full Elves for some time. They will be very slow to grow – in size and looks – but never backward in anything else.”

“They’ll also be into everything and insatiably curious,” added Tarke with a grin. “It’s part of being Elven. Elf Children are not all joy! Giving the changelings back to the Elves is a tradition strongly based in common sense. It has to be done – eventually. But it doesn’t have to be done so young. And you and Jaimeh could always come with them, you know. You’d be very welcome.”

“Very welcome,” added Sherath. “Just how many of you are related to everyone else?” he asked Piet.

“In some ways, most of us, if you go back far enough,” said Piet. “If not directly, then through other relationships. Bern is my uncle; my father’s brother. He is also Annse’s cousin – his mother and hers were sisters. Their great-grandmother was Dwarvish. From the iron mines in the far North. So our child will be related to Bern twice.”

“And part-man, part-Dwarf… and possibly half-Elven,” said Sherath, looking at Tarke. – This could be a problem.

What could be a problem? asked Piet, his Voice suddenly sharp with concern.

Piet, some of this may have to wait until a little later. But it must be said before we go.

“Annse, how long have you and Piet been trying for a child?” asked Tarke.

“Years,” said Annse. “It just never seemed to happen.”

Sherath heaved a big sigh. “There’s always been a legend that Elves and Dwarves hate each other. It’s not true – but there’s a reason for the legend. Elves and Dwarves cannot breed together. It doesn’t work. If the proportion of Dwarf in a Dwarf-man cross is too high, it also prevents interbreeding with Elves or half-Elves. The babies die in the womb at a very early stage – usually three to six weeks. Until whichever parent is part-Dwarf passes on just little enough of that Dwarvishness. You may have lost many children before you even knew you were carrying them, because they were just a bit too much Dwarf.”

Tarke turned cautiously to Bern. “Bern.”

“What.” He looked up at her, eyes smouldering. She was Aware of his mistrust and hatred. It was palpable.

Sherath, she whispered.

You could be right. Piet … Bern could be half-Elven. And is part Dwarf. In which case, he’s what would be called a ‘split’. Even though Elves and Dwarves themselves get on well, the inheritance doesn’t. Just little enough Dwarvish blood to allow a half-Elf child to grow is just enough to make them … unstable. The Elf in them fights with the Dwarf in them. As though half of them hates the other half. As though they are two people in one. Split between half-Elf and Dwarf.

“Bern; you too could be half-Elven,” said Tarke gently.

“Not on your life, girl!” – There is no demon-spawn blood in me! His Voice was vicious, like a whiplash in Tarke’s mind. She almost flinched.

…and there is no-one who hates all that is Elven so much as a split does, Piet, added Sherath. The child that Annse carries could be another Bern.

Like Bern? Always? asked Piet.

The split can be prevented. It can even be cured. Tarke and I could ensure that your child will not be a split, even now, while it is within Annse.

How? Without hurting it … or her?

It’s fairly simple. Not easy, but simple. An Elf can suppress the Elf in a half-Elven – or suppress the Dwarf, said Sherath. I’d rather suppress the Dwarf – but then I’m biased in favour of Elves. And seeing that there is so much Elven blood in this small community of yours, it would be better for the child to retain its Elven inheritance. But the same thing may have to happen for its own children, eventually. And possibly even for that child’s grandchildren. Until all the Dwarf was bred out.

… I see. Sherath….

What?

Could you do the same for Bern?

Sherath grinned, his back to Bern. – I could. We could, rather – it would take both of us. But not without his consent – which I don’t see him giving, Piet.

We could dart him, suggested Tarke, half-laughing.

What, in public? He’d never forgive me, said Sherath. Although I have to admit it’s an idea. Karinna, are you listening?

Yes, I Hear you.

Bern’s leg is still troubling him.

Yes, it is.

Could I suggest that you let him have some of the same herb tea that you give to Jaimeh tonight? I want to add something to it. It will just make them both sleep deep and well – it’s not dangerous. And it will help them both to heal faster.

Of course. Karinna smiled at him. You’re devious, Sherath.

But you like me, he said, his eyes projecting acres of warmth at her.

Her own eyes softened in response. – This is true.

I like you, too, Karinna.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The sun, almost at full height, struck Sherath warmly on his shoulders through the jacket. But not quite warmly enough to dispel the cold that ate into his bones. He sat on Moondust’s back, content to be merely a passenger.

Tarke glanced across at him, using Awareness very lightly.

I can feel it, Tarke, he said, smiling. Very subtle, but still there.

That took more out of you than you’re prepared to admit, Sherath.

How can I deny it – to you? You keep wandering into my mind.

If it hadn’t taken so much out of you, you would be shutting me out.

Never.

No? Who do you think you’re kidding? She smiled. Sherath, you’re burning yourself out.

I had to use it all. We would never have got through without it. I had no idea he would fight quite so hard, even asleep.

I’m glad Piet and Karinna were there. It helped to have someone who knew him so well.

In spite of everything, I couldn’t find it in me to hate him, Tarke. Okay, he’s spent all his adult life being mistrustful and hateful…

And violent, Tarke added.

I wonder if that woman he killed was also half-Elven. If that was why he lost control.

He didn’t only kill her, Sherath. It was what went before that was hurting him so much.

And yet he loved her, in his own way. And has never felt the loss – never allowed himself to.

Poor Bern. He has all that yet to come.

Yes. I wish we could have helped more than we did. When he wakes up he’s going to realise what it was that he lost.

You can’t solve everyone’s problems for them. I know you’d like to – but there are things that people have to do for themselves. And if I had let you solve that problem for him as well, Sherath, you would have been in danger of outrunning your own strength. We can’t afford to have you burnt out for three days or more. I know you’re incredibly strong, but you haven’t yet got half the strength that you will have. You have all the Awareness of what you should be able to do as an enabled adult; and all the wish to do it. But with all the will in the world, you are not yet what you will be. One leaf is not enough. She grinned at him. I can see enough of you to know what you will be. Can you?

Sherath laughed. – I will be asleep soon. That is all I know. Piet was sorry to lose the unicorns, wasn’t he?

Yes. I suppose that herd they have has continued to breed unicorns because they knew that there was so much Elvish blood in those people. Even if the people didn’t. The first unicorn probably came there with Karinna’s ancestors. Piet’s line is a much more recent addition.

There are at least two unicorn foals that will be born next year; I felt their Presence. And there will be more. Sherath looked over to Tarke and smiled. It’s good to have unicorns back, Tarke. We have been so long without them.

Beneath him, Moondust whickered softly ….it is also good to have Elves back, Sherath. We have missed you, too. His thought was echoed by the filly.

YES!” Sherath shouted. “Yes, ye gods, yes! Tarke?”

“Yes, I Hear them. Oh, Sherath…. what is happening?”

“Things,” said Sherath. “Things are starting to happen.” He leaned down and hugged Moondust round the neck. – Moondust, I love you, he said.

Likewise, Sherath, came the answer. And always will. There is no end to what we – Elves and Unicorns – can do, together. It is given by Dominn; to safeguard the worlds. Elves and unicorns, together, linked, can hold the Evil One at bay. With Dominn’s help. It is why we were created as we are.

Moondust, said Tarke, hesitantly.

Yes, Little Sister?

If Dominn is all-powerful why is there an Evil One?

Because Dominn gives everything, Little Sister. Even freedom of choice. Dominn does not permit slavery, even in the name of Good. The Evil One might enslave you; Dominn would never. The difference is in love. The Evil One feels no love for you as Dominn does. Those who follow Dominn do so by choice, not by force. Do you understand?

I think so.

I understand, said Sherath. That kind of love. The love that is strong enough to let go, because of the love; not in spite of it. That will give freedom to that which you love even if it means losing that which you love. Anything else is not love. Love is not selfish.

No, said Moondust. Love does not say “You belong to me.” Love says “You belong to you.”

Love may guide, said Moonwind. Love may coax; love may reason; love may teach; love may reprimand in guidance, but never harshly; love may not punish to gain possession; love does not possess. The wish to possess something or someone is not love. Love is not jealous. Love gives. It may ask – it does not demand. Love does not hate. Love bears all things, forgives all things, sees all things, accepts you for what you are – not for what it wants you to be. Love has no desire for ownership. Love wants you to be you – be yourself: be wholly yourself – it does not wish you to be part of that which says it loves.

***

Farinka lay in the grass, letting the warmth of the sunshine wash over her. Louka sat nearby, chewing absentmindedly on a stalk of grass, and looking at the small group of packbeasts which grazed the far side of the meadow. They were curious, glancing up occasionally to watch the three beasts which stayed close to the tents.

“I wonder why our beasts don’t go and join them,” mused Louka.

“Perhaps their stallion hasn’t issued an invite,” suggested Farinka.

“Or perhaps our unicorns told them not to,” offered Nemeth, coming over to join them. “They’re being very co-operative. More so than I would have expected.”

“This is true,” said Farinka, looking over at him. “I didn’t ask Moondust to, though.”

“You didn’t have to,” said Nemeth. “He has no wish to make our lives more difficult than they need to be.”

“In that case, why didn’t he help out with catching them that first time after they were gelded?” asked Louka.

“Because he was there?” suggested Nemeth. “Because he could step in at any time when it looked as though someone might get hurt? Which he did, when it came to it. Because we, too, needed to learn that not everything is that easy? But if he’s not there to help, he may have issued a blanket order for good behaviour. Possible?” he asked Farinka.

“Possible. Nice thinking, Nemeth.”

Nemeth grinned. “I’ve never been unable to think straight,” he answered.

“Yet,” said Farinka, grinning back at him. “There’s always a first time. And remember I told you so, when it happens.”

And I suppose you know so much about that, eh? he asked on a very tight wavelength.

A damn’ sight more than you do, sunshine. You don’t know you’re born, Nemeth. Wait till it hits you.

He laughed. – That’ll be the day. I am always in control of my own brain.

Bullshit. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I do.

So show me?

You don’t have what it takes to be able to understand, Nemeth. Not yet. You’ll find out – and it may not be me who shows you.

It might.

All things are possible.

I could always listen to your dreams, Domina. Even Sherath can be unwary in guarding some of his thoughts.

You and your brother are too bloody in tune with each other for my comfort, Nemeth.

We always have been. Nobody knows me as Sherath does. And vice versa. Although I wonder about Tarke, sometimes….

With regard to knowledge of you, or of him?

Both. She is very … perceptive. Her Awareness is powerfully acute. It is part of what makes her such a good Counsellor. And she has an amazing capacity to guard her own thoughts. And talk of the devil, here they come.

He stood up again.

We are back. The Power behind Moondust’s Voice hit them all, and the strong soft warmth of Moonwind’s was like the sunshine. The ricochet effects of the combined Children’s Awareness of the unicorns reverberated around, almost crackling in the air as the recognition hit them.

Oh, you are back! Nemeth’s thought went winging across to Moonwind as the filly raced towards him, her hooves tearing up ribbons of turf as she skidded to a halt close to him, reaching for him with her muzzle and pulling him close to her. Really back. He extended the Awareness through to Tarke, who slid from the filly’s back, breathless, to land with her arms round his shoulders. Moonwind lipped at Tarke’s hair, enfolding her in a three-way mindlink before letting them both go. How did it happen? Nemeth asked, looking into Moonwind’s eyes.

It was like waking up out of a dream, she answered.

Yes, echoed Moondust, surrounded by Children stroking him. He nuzzled carefully at those within reach of his nose. Little ones, leave room for Sherath to get down. He is tired. The Children retreated just far enough to let Sherath slide from the unicorn’s back before closing in to include him in a multi-Child hug. Sherath’s eyes, laughing, met Farinka’s over their heads.

Domina. He let the Awareness wash over her.

Sherath. It went well?

Yes. Hard, but it went well.

Sherath, there’s a herd of wild packbeasts here … could we get some of them? To trade?

He laughed. – Yes, Domina. Tomorrow, okay? I didn’t sleep last night. I need to rest. Stay with me? he added quietly, his eyes echoing the question. I’d appreciate the company, even asleep. He freed himself from the smaller Children gently. “Little ones, I love you too. But give me room to breathe, yes?”

***

Bern limped over to the packbeast meadow, weary and dispirited. Behind him, the others sat by the hearth. Piet watched him go.

Is he all right? asked Jaimeh.

I hope so. He just needs some time to himself, Piet answered. Give him time. It’s probably all he needs, now.

Bern’s black mare watched him approach, and left the group to walk over to him, whickering softly through her nostrils. He came over to her, and rubbed her forehead, smoothing tangles out of her forelock gently with his big rough hands. She lipped gently at his jacket, searching for titbits. He gave her a handful of oats, and stood beside her, scratching gently at her withers.

Oh, Blackie, he whispered. What have I done? What have I been?

The mare snorted softly, turning her head to rub it against him.

Bern turned to face her, folding his arms on her back and leaning on her. He dropped his head onto his folded arms, and wept, silently.

Blackie’s foal stirred restlessly within her, Aware of Bern’s distress. He felt the Presence of the hidden colt. Not totally alone, he thought to himself. Hello, little fellow.

***

The line of beasts wound its way down the trail towards the plateau below which Dakesht lay sprawled in the autumn drizzle. Moondust led the way, with as much dignity as usual in spite of the unwieldy pack of tent-hides which he had consented to carry. Behind him came Sunshine, Flax and Agouti – each with a burden of two of the smallest Children – then the four new beasts, gelded, docile and laden with packs, and Moonwind bringing up the rear, unburdened, placing her feet delicately between the pebbles which littered the trail. Nemeth walked beside her, occasionally resting a hand on her withers, and keeping his feet out of her way. Moonwind shook the drizzle from her forelock, spraying Nemeth’s face.

Sorry, she said softly.

That’s okay. You can’t make me much wetter than I am. This drizzle gets into everything, he added.

But hopefully not into the packs, said Tarke, walking just in front. Round tents are heavy enough to manage even when they’re not soaked.

True.

The packs are okay, said Sherath, jogging back down the line to walk beside her. Don’t worry so, Tarke, he added, smiling at her and putting an arm round her shoulders.

Where are we stopping? called Jevann. His question was echoed by some of the little ones.

On the plateau, Nemeth replied. I think we’ve all had enough for today. Everyone’s wet and tired, and hungry and cold. We’ll have to build a small fire in one of the tents. We’d never get one alight outside, and we need to eat something hot. And preferably spicy, he added in a mental undertone, with a smile.

Can do, said Louka. We can stock up with as many spices as you like in Dakesht, Nemeth. There’s a yellow-sailed ship on her way in now. She’ll be loaded with spices.

I noticed, he said with a grin.

There’s a lot of your mother in you, Brother, remarked Sherath, turning to look at him.

Half, actually, retorted Nemeth with a grin. But I know what you mean. The ground should be a little drier under those trees, if there’s room there for us, he added.

It took longer than usual to set up camp. Fingers were cold and a little numb, the tent poles and ropes were slippery with rain. Sherath made a small pile of dry kindling from one of the packs in the centre of the larger tent, under the pole-hole.

“It won’t let all the smoke out,” he said, looking up at it. “But we’ve survived worse.” What other wood was collected was damp at best, and steadfastly refused to catch fire. The others went out and left Sherath to his own devices. Eventually he lost his temper with it, standing in the tent and glaring at it. He felt the anger bubble through him.

“Well, burn, curse you!” he half shouted. The Command behind his word took even him by surprise.

The pine log went off like a gunshot, showering the tent and Sherath with wood fragments. He picked himself up off the floor, laughing, as Nemeth looked in through the hide flap.

“Problem?” asked Nemeth with a grin.

“It was only a little explosion,” said Sherath, looking up and wiping laugh-tears from his eyes.

“Very effective,” said Nemeth, looking at the blazing fire. “If a little dramatic. Is it safe to come in now, or do we have to stand out here all evening?”

“Come on in,” said Sherath, sitting down by the fire and feeding it with lumps of wood.

“You will give us adequate warning if you have any other explosions planned, won’t you?” asked Louka, grinning and shaking water out of her hair.

Sherath rested his folded arms across his knees and looked up at her, still laughing. “Didn’t mean it,” he said. She ruffled his hair affectionately.

“Never mind. It worked, that’s the main thing. At least we can cook, now.”

***

“Are you going to have the giggles all evening?” Tarke asked Sherath. The younger children had retreated to the other tent for the night, leaving just eight of them round the fireside.

Sherath looked over at her, his eyes alight with laughter.

“Sorry. The Control’s not what it could be. I’m just tired.”

“And the cider’s getting to your brain,” added Nemeth, grinning.

“Who, me? Never. It’s just that it must have looked so bloody idiotic.”

“It did,” said Nemeth. “Not often these days I see you with your cool shaken. I’d almost forgotten what you used to be like. Have some more cider?”

“Do you think that’s wise?” asked Sherath.

“Unwind a bit,” said Tarke. “You’ve been wound up for far too long. You can get as pissed as a rat if you like – nobody here’s going to mind. We might even join you, you never know.”

Jekavi pulled a set of reed pipes – … Pan pipes … thought Farinka – from his pocket, and began to play softly; tune against counter-tune. Nemeth picked up the rhythm with his hands on a lump of deadwood drying out by the fire; Louka, Jevann and Sienne filled in with a wordless very close harmony. Tarke looked over at Sherath, catching his eye. – All yours, she suggested. Sherath leaned back against Farinka, using her lap as a pillow, and shut his eyes, then began to sing quietly in a velvetty baritone.

[Remember where the barley grows,
And where the dusty tracks run through
Where deep the quiet water flows
Beneath the willows glimmering;
Above, a sky of steely blue,
Aside, a breeze that gently blows
The golden grain to silver hue
In waves of summer-shimmering]

Nemeth’s voice joined Sherath’s, almost imperceptibly at first.

[By night the quiet ways I tread
And walk through darkness softly wrought
With moonlight for its silver thread
That in the dusk lies glistening,
And on the gossamer is caught,
And through the grass is softly spread;
I tread in twilit-flowing thought
That in the dark is listening]

Tarke joined in with an almost whispered descant, flute-like.

[Through the twilight falling dusky,
Where the scent of sun lies musky,
Hear the dog-fox barking, husky,
Through the darkness following;
Padding softly, running lightly
Under trees whose leaves catch nightly
Silver moonshine glowing whitely,
Golden sunlight borrowing]

[Remember where the river bends
Between its winding banks of rye,
Where dreaming holds me, summer sends
Me far in questing reverie;
The summer in whose arms I lie
Will hold me there till summer ends
And still be with me as I fly
On silent wings of fantasy]

The music faded slowly out to nothing. Outside the tent, an owl called with a sudden kee-wick!, breaking the spell.

“Young Tawny,” whispered Sherath, opening his eyes.

“That was beautiful,” said Farinka.

“Joint effort,” said Nemeth quietly, looking across at her. “The words are Sherath’s, the music is mine. The harmonies belong to whomever is singing them. Have some more cider, Domina.” He filled her mug, the amber fluid steaming gently and smelling of ginger and cinnamon. “Mind you, with his name, you’d expect Sherath to create good words.”

“Why’s that?” asked Farinka.

“The name ‘Sherath’ comes from one of this world’s older languages. Not used now, except in names. As does your own name. ‘Sherath’ means both poetry and strength; as ‘Farinka’ means both beauty and justice,” said Nemeth.

Farinka smiled. “So what does ‘Nemeth’ mean?” she asked.

Tarke laughed. “‘The Destiny which Repays’,” she said. “A sort of inevitable vengeance. But we do try to keep him out of trouble,” she added with a grin.

“Thank you, Tarke,” said Nemeth. “I love you too.”

I’ve always known it, she answered.

“How about the rest of you?” asked Farinka.

“Not all the names really mean anything – though most of them have some sort of abstract concept attached,” said Sherath, rolling over onto his side and refilling his mug sleepily. “Tarke means both knowledge and wisdom – which are not the same as each other. Sienne means brightness or light. Louka means ‘she who loves’.” He smiled over at her. “Jevann and Jekavi both stem from the same root word, Jevk, meaning craftsman.” He turned to face Farinka. “Was Farinka always your name?” he asked.

“Not on my world. It was Guinevere. Gwyn, for short. But it meant ‘fair’ – as in fair-haired. But ‘fair’ also means just. So Farinka is as much my name as Gwyn ever was. More so, somehow.”

Sherath smiled. “There’s a high-Northern Elf name, Guinfa, which means ‘little fair one’,” he said. “Though the high-Northern Elves use little of their older language. Not like the Southern Elves,” he added, glancing at Nemeth.

“My mother’s people still speak – or spoke – their old language fluently, as a second language,” said Nemeth.

“Can you?” asked Farinka.

“There’s little point. I have no-one to speak it with.”

“But could you, if you did?”

“Yes. But if the Southern Elves are all gone, then their language will be lost, too.” His eyes glistened in the firelight, and he blinked, looking away. “I may be the only person left alive who can speak that language, Domina.”

Nemeth, can’t you tell if they’re alive or not?

Domina, it’s too far away for Voice or Hearing to work. Too many miles.

Nemeth, whispered Sherath. The sea-Elves would know. And Dakesht is a seaport.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The roads into Dakesht were beginning to fill with people, even at dawn. There were groups of lowing cattle, bleating sheep, noisy geese and equally noisy children; and here and there a fur-trader. Sherath, astride one of the new beasts and leading Sunshine, called the others up to him.

Keep close together, he said. We’ll take the beasts straight down to the market and pen them. They’re better than anything we’ve seen here yet – they should sell early, and well.

Tarke gave a gentle tug on Agouti’s lead rope, and nudged the bay she was riding with her heels to send him forwards abreast of Sherath. – Are we leaving our own beasts in town?

There’ll be a livery stable, said Nemeth, hauling an unwilling Flax up to keep pace with his mount – another bay.

How do we pay them? asked Farinka.

Out of what we get for the beasts, nitwit, said Nemeth, laughing. At least, that’s the general idea.

And how much will we get for the beasts?

No idea, said Sherath. I’ll have to see how some others sell before I think about price. I don’t know what prices beasts go for at all.

The market pens were filling up gradually when they arrived; one of the stallsmen checked the four beasts in.

“Don’t suppose ‘ee wants to sell that goldie, do ‘ee?” he asked Sherath.

Sherath grinned at him. “Not really. He’s a friend.”

“Shame. My missus’d love that ‘un. ‘E’s right pretty.”

“He is that,” said Tarke. “What sort of price would you pay for a goldie – if you could get one?”

“I dunno. Sure you’re not selling?”

“Positive.”

“Well then, seeing as you’re not selling, maybe sixty marks. For a goldie. You could ask fifty for any of your others, and maybe get it, too. None broken-winded? Broken-mouthed?”

“They’re all under five years old,” said Farinka, chivvying the roan into the pen with the other three. “Green, but no vices.” – They haven’t had time to learn any, she added, catching Sherath’s eye. He grinned.

The stallsman winked at Sherath. “Wish you luck,” he said.

“And you,” replied Sherath as the man turned to install the next group of beasts.

Nemeth was suddenly Aware of a tiny hand stealthily approaching his belt, and reached an arm round behind him, catching hold of a ragged little urchin. The little one froze, turning beseeching eyes up at him.

“Over young for that game, aren’t you, little one?” said Nemeth softly, lifting the small scrap of humanity up by its jacket and holding it at eye level.

“Dint mean no ‘arm, sor, onnist,” the scrap replied. “Wuz just looken at they beasts. They’s nice beasts, sor, they is,” he added.

“And you weren’t going to pick my pocket for me, then?” said Nemeth, half smiling.

“No, sor, not ‘tall sor. Onnist?” The urchin tried what a grin would do. It worked. Nemeth burst out laughing.

“Okay, scrap. Go on home to your mother, before someone gets the wrong idea, all right?”

“Got no mam, sor. She’m dead this spring. No dad, neither. Jus’ me and Kehwi.”

“Who’s Kehwi,” asked Tarke gently, looking into the child’s eyes. The urchin reached out a hand towards her, hesitantly. Tarke took the hand in her own. – Nemeth, sit him on the rails, you’ll strangle him with his own jacket in a minute. Nemeth glanced at her, then perched the boy on the rails.

“Me sister, miss. She’m got a bad arm; dog bit’n las’ week.”

“Who looks after you?” asked Tarke, still gazing into the brown eyes.

“Nobody do. Leastways, I do. I picks up stuff, ‘ere and there, like. And sometimes folks gives us stuff.”

“What’s your name?”

“Luk, miss.”

“Well, Luk; can you show us where we can stable our beasts? It’ll earn you a mark, when we sell these.”

Luk’s eyes lit up. “A whole mark? Onnist?”

“Honest,” said Tarke.

Softie, said Nemeth with a smile. He probably gives that story to everyone.

No. He’s telling the truth, Nemeth. And he’s worried about his sister.

“Take us to the stable, Luk,” said Sherath. “I tell you what, you can ride Sunshine.” He picked Luk up off the rails and sat him on Sunshine’s back, giving him a handful of the white mane to hold.

“Dussn’t need that, sor,” said the urchin. “Gi’s ‘is rope.” He grinned. “Me dad useter be a beastmaster afore ‘e took sick. Foller me.”

He flicked Sunshine’s neck expertly with the end of the rope, and neck-reined him between groups of traders.

I’ll stay with the beasts, said Nemeth. See you back here.

Okay. We won’t be long, said Sherath.

The liveryman’s yard was a hundred yards down the main road from the market place. Luk brought Sunshine to a halt by the entrance.

“Tandi!” he called. “Gotten some work for ‘ee, Tandi!”

“Okay, okay! I’m coming,” called a warmly resonant voice from inside the yard. A tall, lean, hawk-nosed, weather-wrinkled man, with deeply tanned skin and grey hair showing traces of its original black, came to the yard doors, looking up at Luk. “Oh, it’s you, is it, trouble?”

“I’s no trouble, Tandi. Lookit what I got ‘ere, then.” Luk patted Sunshine’s warm neck. “‘E’s a right good ‘un, ‘e is, int ‘e, eh, then?” Luk slithered down off Sunshine’s back. Tandi turned to face the Elves as they brought the beasts up.

“We need stabling. Just for the day,” said Sherath. “How much?”

“For the three? A quarter-mark, includes a grain feed, but I can’t groom ‘em for you, mind. Too much work and not enough time or hands. They quiet, like?”

“Very,” said Tarke. “No vices.”

Tandy ran an expert hand down Sunshine’s legs, and peered into his mouth. “He’s nice, he is. Shame he’s been cut. I could do with a goldie colt. Could’ve used him on my mares, got goldie foals.”

He took Sunshine into the yard, beckoning with one finger. “In here with them.” He stabled Sunshine in a loosebox, and indicated two tie-stalls for the others.

“You breed beasts, then?” asked Farinka, tying Flax’s rope to the manger ring.

“Aye. I do.”

“And you want goldie foals?”

Tandi turned and grinned at her, displaying surprisingly good white teeth. His eyes were kind. “Don’t everyone, these days? I just keep getting chestnuts. No goldies.”

“Are your mares chestnut?”

“Aye. All three on ‘em. The first one was carrying a goldie foal when I bought her, so I know she can have ‘em, but she’s not had one since. You know about breeding then, lassie?”

“Yes. A bit.”

“So where am I going wrong, then?”

“If you breed goldies to chestnuts, half the foals will be goldies.”

“Can’t get a goldie colt, though,” Tandi said. “Not for love nor money.”

“Tandi, if you get a pale cream colt with a white mane and tail and blue eyes, and use him on your chestnut mares, every foal you get will be a goldie.”

“Pull the other one; ‘s got bells on,” suggested Tandi with a grin, forking sweet-smelling hay into the racks.

“Serious, Tandi. Every foal.”

“Now where would I get a colt like that, though? Not seen one of those for many a year.” Tandy said, interested.

“If we ever get hold of one, I’ll bring him to you.”

“For a fee, eh? How much?”

Domina, what game are you playing? asked Sherath, on a very tight one-to-one wavelength.

My own game, here, she answered in the same way.

Are you sure about that with the goldie foals?

Positive. I knew someone who bred them, back home. Never failed. She smiled.

“You’re short on time and help, yes?”

“Darn right I am. Nobody wants this job, lassie.”

“Luk could do your work with you,” suggested Farinka, catching Tandi’s gaze and holding it. Tandi met her eyes, appraisingly curious.

Gently with the Coercion, Domina. He just might feel it, whispered Sherath.

Loves the beasts, doesn’t he, Sherath?

Sherath grinned. – Small world, isn’t it?

Sherath touched Tandi’s arm, getting his attention. “Tandi; if you’ll take Luk and Kehwi in, house them, feed them – clothe them; I’ll give you five marks as soon as we’ve sold our beasts. Another ten if Luk and Kehwi are here, happy, and well, next time I come through Dakesht – which may not be for some time. And if we find a blue-eyed cream, we’ll let you have him for thirty marks. Okay? And Luk will work well for you – won’t you, Luk?”

Luk nodded enthusiastically. “Onnist, sor. Really.”

“Well,” said Tandi. “He does know how to handle them, I’ll say that for him. And Kehwi could cook for us, eh, Luk?” He paused, thoughtfully. Then he looked up at Sherath and grinned. “I’ll trust you – though I don’t know why I should. Never saw you before, lad. But I’ll trust you.”

Sherath grinned at him. “We’ll find you that colt, Tandi. Promise.”

“You do that thing.” He ruffled Luk’s hair. “And you, trouble, just remember not to talk to me before breakfast, or you’ll get an earful. Okay?” He turned back to Sherath, who had started to spread straw under the beasts. “Is there anything else you’re needing? You being a stranger round here?” Sherath was suddenly Aware of Tandi’s curiosity – a curiosity with many subtle nuances and overtones – and shut down his own Awareness abruptly. Hopefully before Tandi realised what I was doing, he thought to himself.

“I could do with being shown where I can buy a light wagon,” said Sherath. “And harness for these two beasts.”

“Well, here, lad. I don’t just deal in beasts, you know. Finish off settling these two while I do that goldie of yours, and I’ll show you some stuff.”

“I brought you luck, dint I, Tandi?” asked Luk hopefully.

Tandi grinned his lopsided twinkle-eyed grin at the boy. “Trade, littl’un. Better than luck, any day. You keep doing that, and we’ll get along just fine. You’d better off and fetch that sister of yours here.”

***

Nemeth sat on the pen rails, half an eye on the beasts, and rolled himself a leaf smoke-roll, one-handed. There was a small group of people working their way down the pens, looking at packbeasts. One glanced up at Nemeth as he came to the rails.

“These yours, son?” he asked.

“Yes. You interested in buying, or just looking?”

“I’m buying, if I find the right beasts. Are they trained?”

“To pack and ride,” said Nemeth. “Trained bitless; they’ve never been bitted. They’re green, but biddable and honest.”

“Not to drive, then?” asked the man.

“They’re only young. They’d learn; they’re quiet enough.”

“They’ve been cut?” asked the man, climbing over the rails and pushing one of the bays out of the way, feeling the thickness of coat on it at the same time. “Mountain beasts?”

“Yes. From the alpine meadows. And they’ve been cut.”

“And quiet, you say?”

“As lambs,” said Nemeth, lighting the smoke-roll.

“Good around children?”

“They’re used to Children.”

“What about with dogs?”

“Don’t know. They’ve never met dogs – we don’t have any.”

“No dogs?” the man glanced up, curious. “Well, they seem quiet. What sort of price are you asking, lad?”

“Sixty.”

“Come off it. I’m really looking for a pair to drive, but you say these don’t.”

“I say they’d learn – in the right hands,” said Nemeth with a grin. “The bays make a nice pair.”

The man grinned at him. “That they do. Well matched.” He ran his hands down the bays’ legs, round their heads; peered into their mouths. “Four-year-olds, eh?”

“Yes. They’ll learn. And you can see how quiet they are.”

“True. Tell you what; ninety marks for the pair.”

“Fifty five each?” suggested Nemeth. The man grinned again.

“A hundred for the pair. And no more.”

Nemeth looked thoughtful, considering. He sighed.

“Okay, then. But it’s daylight robbery,” he added with a grin.

“‘Tisn’t. But you’re right; they’ll learn.” The man reached into his belt-purse, counting out a handful of coins. Nemeth counted, as well; then handed him back a half-mark. “For luck,” he said.

“Traveller’s son, eh?” asked the man. “I thought you’d that look about you.” Nemeth helped him with the slip-rails, and he led the two bays away, pausing to exchange a few words with a woman in a deerskin jacket. She looked over; Nemeth caught her eye, and grinned. The grin was returned with interest, and she came over.

“Gan tells me you’ve got something I might like.” Her eyes smiled up at him. “The roan.”

“Take a look. They’re both for sale. Go on in.”

He lifted the top rail aside, and got another smile for that. “Thank you. What are you doing when you’ve sold your beasts?”

“Hiring a boat,” said Nemeth. “For a while.”

“And after that?”

“Finding somewhere to eat and drink,” he answered with a smile.

“I could fix you a meal, if you’re interested,” she suggested.

“What, all four of us?” asked Nemeth, looking down the gangway to where the others were approaching.

“Two of you, perhaps,” said the woman, looking appraisingly at Sherath before turning to the roan beast and examining it. “I like this beast. I’ll give you fifty for it – if you and your friend want to share a meal?”

“How about fifty without the meal? Sorry – but we have to be out of Dakesht tonight,” said Nemeth gently. “Though I’d have enjoyed the company.”

The woman laughed. “So would I. Forty five without the meal, lad.”

“Okay. But only because I like you,” he added with a smile.

“You’re not bad, yourself,” she said, counting coins into his hand and leading the roan out of the pen. Nemeth’s smile turned into a laugh.

“You’ve bought yourself a good beast, there, lady,” he said. She waved at him as she led the roan away.

You’re doing well, said Tarke as she came up. Just the one left? She climbed onto the rails and scratched the brown gelding’s neck affectionately.

How much have you made? asked Farinka.

A hundred and forty four marks so far, said Nemeth. But the man who bought the bays is on his way back.

“Take forty-five for the brown?” asked the man. “For a friend of mine.”

“Fifty-five,” said Sherath.

The man turned to him. “You two drive a hard bargain, you do. Fifty?”

“Done,” said Nemeth, handing him the rope. Sherath pocketed the money.

“Where’s a good clean alehouse?” he asked the man.

“Wagon and Pair. Down by the docks. It’s well-kept, they serve a good dinner and brew their own ale. My brother’s place – his woman’s the best cook in town. You bringing any more beasts to Dakesht?” he asked, glancing up at Sherath.

“Not for a while. We’re moving west.”

“Let me know when you do. Teg at the Wagon can always get word to me. Gan’s the name. I’m always looking for good beasts – and now that I’ve bought them, I’ll say they’re damned good beasts. Well trained, and sound. You know your trade.”

Easy when you’ve got two unicorns to help, said Sherath, and aloud, “We have to. It’s all we’ve got.”

“Know the feeling.” The man grinned up at him.

***

Sherath hefted two sacks of wheat flour into the back of the wagon, dusting his hands off on the seat of his trousers.

“Any more?” he asked Tarke.

“That should be enough until we reach Tashik. How are we doing for marks?”

“Plenty left. Why?”

“I’d like to get Kehwi something pretty to wear. She doesn’t look as though anyone’s loved her for a long time.”

“No, she doesn’t. I hope Tandi will be kind to her.”

“He will. If he were younger…” she left the rest unsaid.

“But he isn’t,” said Sherath. “She’s an attractive girl, when you look through the dirt and the pain.”

“She may keep herself dirty for a reason,” suggested Farinka softly. Sherath glanced over at her.

– [_?_]

No-one’s likely to pester her, in that state.

I’d have thought she was too young, he said.

Don’t you believe it. I was only about five, Sherath. And she must be thirteen or more – even though she’s so small. I’m not surprised she’s wary.

Tandi will make sure she’s not bothered. He may not look tough, but I wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of him, said Sherath.

He’d never be able to take you on, said Tarke.

No; but then I’m an Elf. I wouldn’t give much for a man’s chances in a fight with Tandi. Did you notice those cloth tents back there?

Yes. I was wondering about them. They’re bigger than ours.

They’re the sort the travellers use. And they wouldn’t hold the wet – they’re waxed. They’re lighter than ours. One would be big enough for all of us. And they fold down smaller. What do you think?

Forty marks. Could we?

We could sell the hides to Tandi – he makes harness, as well as selling it.

We could even give the hides to Tandi, suggested Farinka.

We could, agreed Sherath. Or swap them – if he will. Tarke? More hides are easily come by.

I’ll go and talk to him, she said. Sherath, I think you should do something about Kehwi’s arm before we go. It’s not too nasty; but in her place, I’d rather have you treat it than any of Dakesht’s people. How long is Nemeth going to be out in that boat?

I don’t know. He’s trying to contact sea Elves.

Yes, I know. I’d never realised until now how he felt about Nehhuare’s people, Tarke remarked.

They’re also his people – as much as we are, said Sherath. And, as he says, it’s quite possible that he’s the last male Elf alive with Southern blood. The last of Miirshekaar’s line, too, he added, thoughtfully.

Maybe not.

Who was Miirshekaar? asked Farinka, stacking a variety of small items under one of the wagon’s inside ledges.

Miirshekaar was a Southern Elf king, a long time ago. There are a lot of legends surrounding him – even we in the North know some of them. How many are true is another matter, he added with a smile, his sea-coloured eyes laughing. You know how legends grow with time – and Miirshekaar’s exploits have had a lot of time in which to grow to amazing proportions.

Don’t let Nemeth hear you saying that, advised Tarke. The direct descent just might make him resent it.

Nemeth never resents me, Tarke. He knows me too well – and I him.

Never yet, Tarke’s Voice whispered.

***

Tarke and Farinka stood by the docks.

“Shall we find out what spices that ship’s carrying?” asked Tarke. “They haven’t unloaded yet – we might be able to cut out the middle man.”

“Good thinking. Nemeth will be your slave for life.”

“Or at least till the end of the day,” said Tarke with a smile. “Coming?” She walked across the gangway, sidestepping to avoid a pair of sailors involved in a heated discussion. They broke off the argument as the Elves passed them, and, distracted, forgot to continue it.

Tarke looked along the deck, and tapped at someone’s sleeve.

“Yes, what?” snapped the man, then turned and saw her; his eyes opened wide in appreciation, and his jaw dropped. “Oh, lady; my apologies. How can I help you?”

“Are you carrying spices?” she asked.

“Plenty. Look; I’m tied up right now. See Shakir – the cargomaster. In the red shirt, over there.”

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure, lady,” said the man, tugging his fringe. He watched her, wistfully, as she walked away.

From the bows of the ship, a man in loose blue cloth trousers and a white wrap-round shirt watched as Tarke and Farinka approached Shakir.

Farinka felt his eyes looking at her and glanced round. From twenty feet away, his eyes looked almost black – his skin and hair two shades darker than Nemeth’s; the same height, but lighter built. The almost-black eyes gave her the shadow of an appreciative smile before he looked away, out to sea. She caught the glint of sunlight off a blue stone hung on a chain round his neck, where, just for a moment, the shirt had opened enough to allow the light to shine on the stone.

***

The sun was well over half-way down to the sea when they walked in through the door of the Wagon and Pair; the alehouse was beginning to fill. From the noise – and the smell – from the huddle of people near the door, they had been drinking for most of the afternoon.

A stocky man gripped Farinka’s arm as she walked past, swinging her round to face him.

“What have we got here?” he said to the others. “Pretty, ain’t it?”

“I wouldn’t,” said Sherath softly, appearing as if from nowhere. “Really.” His eyes burned coldly down at the other man from his extra six inches of height.

“Beat it, youngster. Unless you’d like to make something of that?” The stocky man leered.

“Would you like to try that?” asked Sherath calmly. There was a shadow of amusement behind the coldness in his eyes. Farinka could feel threat – and promise – seeping almost tangibly from him. The hairs on her neck prickled.

“Hey, lad!” called a voice from the bar. “Your dinner’s ready.”

“One moment, Teg,” answered Sherath, his eyes never leaving the stocky man. “Well?” he asked. The man dropped Farinka’s arm, his hand shifting towards his belt.

Sherath lifted his hand, and with a flick of his wrist a stiletto blade shimmered into his palm. “Bad idea, I think,” he said.

“Kibber, leave the lass alone,” called Teg. “You’re drunk, you old fool. And if you cause trouble I’ll break your thick skull with my bare hands. Knock it off.”

Kibber shot Sherath a surly glance. “She’s not worth it, anyway,” he said.

He’s wrong, Domina, said Sherath, his eyes laughing. Far wrong.

Kibber’s eyes somehow couldn’t unlock themselves from Sherath’s. A dread certainty crept up on him that this pleasant-seeming, fair-haired youth could probably kill him with the same ease with which he was currently smiling at him, no matter what weapon he himself was holding. The dread gradually transformed into a kind of cringing shame that he had ever even considered harming him. He felt his shoulders slump and his mouth gradually drop open. Sherath still smiled, but now there was a kind of question in his eyes.

“You’ve not had a blessed life, have you?” he asked.

“Blessed? Ha!” muttered Kibber. “I’ve had a cursed life! A blessed one would be a welcome change!” He noticed that the stiletto had somehow vanished.

“You’d like to be blessed?” asked Sherath. There was something slightly different about the smile now – a kind of twinkle.

“Wouldn’t anyone?”

Sherath reached across the table and laid a hand on Kibber’s unresisting shoulder.

“Benedico,” he whispered. – You will become more friendly, compassionate and insightful. You will become more effective than you have ever been. You will be beloved, and an example to others less blessed. Your anger will fade away; you will be happy. Benedico, Kibber.

Sherath! said Tarke, shocked. You put a Benediction on him!

Seems that way, doesn’t it? replied Sherath with a grin.

“Don’t mind him, lad,” said one of the other drinkers, turning to Sherath. “He don’t know where he’s to when he’s had a skinful.”

“No hard feelings,” said Sherath with a smile.

He led the way to a long table close to the bar. Four plates of steaming stew were set before him. Teg wiped his hands on his apron. “Ale, lad, or mead?”

“Ale, please. Farinka? Tarke?”

“Ale would be welcome,” agreed Tarke. Farinka nodded.

“Kibber means no harm,” Teg told them. “But his head’s not all together.”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” responded Sherath, grinning at Teg.

“Yes, I noticed. But don’t get that blade out in here again – I don’t like trouble.”

“I won’t. Unless I have to,” promised Sherath. He laid a hand on Teg’s arm. “I don’t like trouble either. But sometimes the best way to stop getting it is to let someone know that you can also give it.”

“True, unfortunately,” acknowledged Teg. “You’re wise for your years. And quick.”

“Runs in the family,” said Sherath, dipping bread into the stew. Teg patted his shoulder.

“I’ll fetch your ale.”

Farinka felt someone’s eyes on her, and glanced quickly round the room.

Tarke; the man from the ship. Over there, by the window. See him?

Yes. I noticed him earlier. Tarke looked over. The white wrap-round shirt was catching the evening sun. He was looking out of the window again, one blue-trousered leg crossed so that the ankle rested on the other knee; his bare feet dusty from the dockside road.

I wonder what he’s looking at, said Sherath.

Or for, suggested Tarke.

The door opened, and Nemeth walked in, his Awareness finding them quickly. He walked over to the table and sat down, reaching for a plate of stew.

Well? asked Sherath.

Well. The sea Elves knew I was coming. They said they had been waiting for me. My mother’s people still live. All Children; and not as many as there were – like us. But they are still there. The sea Elves will take word to them. Soon. They can reach them in a matter of days.

There was a burst of laughter from the table where Kibber sat; one of the men was slapping his thighs, with tears rolling down his face. “He rounded ‘em up, eh?” he said between gasps. “Rounded ‘em up. Thash a goo’ one.”

Nemeth turned his attention to the stew. “This is good,” he said. He turned his head and looked up as the dark man from the ship walked over to the bar, asking for more ale. The man turned, carrying the brimming mug carefully, and sat at their table. The way the shirt opened to show the stone was quite deliberate. Nemeth looked at the stone; then into the man’s eyes.

“Son of my mother’s people,” said the man, raising his mug to Nemeth and then sipping from it. “Well met. I’ve been wanting to find you, Nemeth, son of Nehhuare.”

“Your name?” asked Nemeth softly.

“Mishaar.”

“Mishaar half-Elven.”

“The same. Your friends?”

Sherath’s smile extended slowly into his eyes. He lifted his mug. “Sherath, son of Shithri and Rekkya.”

“Tarke; of Teketh and Kayisha.” She smiled at Mishaar.

Nemeth glanced across at Farinka. “Farinka. Domina.” He smiled.

Mishaar’s eyes met Farinka’s. – Domina. Well met. We’ve been waiting. His Voice was warm, and powerful. And interested.

Kibber’s voice carried across from the other table, and Sherath gestured for quiet. He was smiling.

“A man, a dwarf and an Elf walks into a tavern,” said Kibber. “They orders their ales from the sad, skinny barmaid. The dwarf, he says, he says, ‘This bar is too high, I can only just rest my chin on it!’ An’ the man, the man, he says, ‘Too high, half-pint, it’s too low! I has to bend over to rest my elbows on it!’ An’ the sad, skinny barmaid heaves a big sigh and looks at the Elf. An’ the Elf, the Elf, he looks at the grumpy old dwarf and the sulky man and the sad, skinny barmaid. An’ he drinks a bit of his ale, an’ he says, he says, ‘A blessing on this house.’ An’ suddenly they’re all smiling! Coz the barmaid’s tits have tripled in size, an’ now they’re restin’ on the bar.”

There were more howls of laughter, and a few more men joined Kibber’s table.

“What’s up with Kibber?” asked Mishaar quietly.

“Sherath put a benediction on him,” replied Tarke, grinning.

“Oh, did you now? You mean you’re responsible for this?” Mishaar asked Sherath with a wry smile. Sherath chuckled.

“The benediction came from me,” he said, “but how it works came from him.”

They paused again to listen.

“Shame there’s no real Elves,” Kibber was saying. “We could do with some blessings.”

“Yeh, miffickle, Elves is,” said one of the others.

“Usheter be Elvesh,” said a third, thoughtfully.

Mishaar glanced up. “I know that man,” he said. “Ohey, Rot-hound!” he called over.

The man swivelled around on his stool, almost tipping it over. “Wotcher, Fish-face!” He stood up unsteadily, and came over to their table, giving Mishaar a hearty slap on the shoulder. “Goo’ man, thish,” he said to the others. “Goo’ man.”

Mishaar playfully punched Rot-hound on the upper arm. “You’re drunk,” he said, grinning.

“Yesh, drunkt ash a, drunt ash a, ash a …”

“A very drunk thing?” suggested Tarke.

Rot-hound hiccupped and gazed at her. “Well hello, gorgeoush,” he said. “Yesh, drunkt ash a, ash a, ver’, ver’, drun’ thing.” He faced Mishaar again. “These frien’sh of yours, Fish-face?”

“Friends, yes,” replied Mishaar. He pointed at Nemeth. “And that one’s a cousin of sorts.”

Rot-hound slapped Nemeth on the shoulder. “Any coushin o’ his is a coushin o’ mine,” he remarked. “I gotta go back to them,” he added, and reeled his way back to Kibber’s table, where another burst of laughter was in progress.

Kibber spoke again, “Elves, now. Some says they all died of a pestilence, and some says they’re all hiding.”

Hiding right out in plain sight, commented Nemeth.

“An, they’ll, they’ll all come out of hidin’ an’ shave ush all,” said Rot-hound.

“Shipmate of yours?” Farinka asked Mishaar.

Mishaar took a long pull from his ale. “Not this trip, but we’ve worked together many times. Good man, good shipmate. Very kind man. Never drunk at sea, but makes up for it in port. You’ve spoken to the sea Elves?” he asked Nemeth.

“Just.”

“So you know we’re still there.”

“We?”

“I live with the Elves. For a while, until my face is forgotten among men again.”

Nemeth spoke through a mouthful of bread. “Are any of my mother’s line still alive? The sea Elves couldn’t be specific.”

“One. A daughter. Nishihra.”

“Make that two. I have a sister; Shiffih. A little one.”

Sherath took a mouthful of ale, tasting it thoughtfully. “Mishaar; there is so much to be done. We have a Journey to make.”

“The Southern Children, too. Our paths are also unpassable without help.”

“Yes; I know. Will you take word to them?”

“That is why I’m here, Sherath. We need to be able to make a stronger link; the Southern Elves must not lose touch with you again. I can travel freely by ship – the Children can’t. It’s not safe enough.”

“Stronger links,” mused Nemeth. “Stronger bonds. But we can’t make a strong enough bond to Speak across that amount of sea, Mishaar.”

“It’s not impossible, Nemeth.”

Nemeth grinned. “With Miirshekaar’s sword, it might be possible, Mishaar. Lost in the mists of time, though, son of my mother’s people.”

“The Bondmaker,” said Sherath with a grin.

“The Unnamed Blade,” added Tarke. “You wish, eh, Nemeth?”

Nemeth laughed. “It also broke bonds, so legend says, Tarke. But yes, it would come in useful. Those were the days, Mishaar. Shame. And yes, I wish. What couldn’t I do – with that?” He laughed again. “‘Nemeth the invincible’. And I’d be the only Elf alive with the right to hold that sword.” His eyes met Mishaar’s laughing ones, full of ironic amusement.

Would it make a difference, son of Nehhuare, if I told you I think I know where it is?

Nemeth froze, his eyes locked on Mishaar’s.

“Aiwah,” he whispered. – That could make a difference.

###

Thus ends Book One of The Horns of Elfland.

The story continues in Book Two: The Unnamed Blade

AUTHOR’S COMMENTS

This story has been a long time in the making. Some of my characters were conceived back in the early 1980’s, when I was Tunnel Master in a game of Tunnels and Trolls (some of the Tunnellers of those days will remember their creation). I first began writing them into a story when my older daughter was a newborn; her own teenage daughter is old enough to read about them now!

Book One has had several revisions over the years; sometimes it got stuck, sometimes bits just didn’t read right. A publisher’s reader suggested I scrap the first five paragraphs and rewrite the whole of the beginning – which I did. He/she was right! Book Two just flowed – apart from a few more recent tweaks, it went from start to finish in around a month. The characters more often than not just took over and started writing it themselves, surprising me at times.

Book Three got stuck in the middle for years while I was occupied with other things.

Many thanks to all those who acted as beta readers for me, proofreading, commenting and suggesting. Mostly members of my family.

Especially many thanks to Mark Coker for inventing Shakespir! I gave up searching for a publisher or even an agent when I discovered, after much effort, that rocking-horse poo was easier to find. I almost gave up on the idea of ever getting this story published, despite enthusiasm (and nagging) from people who had read it in its infancy.

As for myself, I was born and bred in Southern England, and live in a fantasy world occupying the same general area as the New Forest. I’m kind of middling: middle height, middle weight, and middle-aged. Over the years I’ve been owned by animals of various species, both domestic and agricultural. Many of my family have been journalists and writers; my younger daughter has started writing her own books, and her son is already showing promise in his wordcrafting. I’m somewhat of a recluse; I like to remain fairly anonymous as far as my writing is concerned; it helps me to keep my fantasy world and The Real World separate.

“Mark Ash” is a pseudonym behind which I hide; it’s actually a local place name.

See my profile on Shakespir: https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/MarkAsh

[A TASTE OF BOOK TWO: THE UNNAMED BLADE
**]

It was dark. It was also raining – again; a fine drizzle that made the fire beneath the smoke-hole sputter occasionally as drips fell into it, and magnified the noises of the beasts outside as they munched on the grass to leeward of the tent.

Mishaar glanced over to where the youngest Children lay curled together under a collection of hides, and smiled.

“The Southern Children sleep like that, too,” he remarked to no-one in particular. “The edges of the desert can be very cold at night.” He refilled his pipe with weed from a small pouch at his belt, pulling a burning twig from the fire to light it, and leaned his back against the centre pole of the tent. “My thanks for your hospitality. I only wish I could stay longer.”

Sherath opened his eyes sleepily and looked at Mishaar. “Our home is yours,” he said. “Whenever you wish to share it. And however temporary it may be. You’re leaving on the dusk tide tomorrow?”

“Yes. All being well. I should be home in about three weeks.”

“They’ll be watching for you,” said Nemeth. “The Sea-Elves will be before you with the news.”

“True,” replied Mishaar sleepily, offering his pipe to Nemeth.

There was quiet for a few minutes.

“What is this?” asked Nemeth eventually, handing the pipe back to Mishaar.

“Southern mountain weed, in part.”

“Hmmm. Reminiscent of Shenwaith’s pipeweed. Better taste, though.” – Any chance of you bringing some more over, son of my mother’s people?

I could get to Tashik by midwinter. And it is also useful medicinally. Sherath?

Yes, I was listening.

You’re not asleep, then, said Nemeth.

All but. How useful medicinally, Mishaar?

More predictable than valerian. Less sleepy. And not addictive.

Very similar to Shenwaith’s pipeweed, then, commented Sherath, his Voice drowsy. Do you have enough to leave some with me? It could prove useful for treating any wound that doesn’t require the total sleep of dozewort. Particularly on the packbeasts.

I have more on the ship. Legend has it that Miirshekaar’s Beastmaster was the first to feed it to animals that didn’t respond to other methods – often when they’d been mishandled earlier. You can keep what I have here.

Thank you. Domina?

She’s out to the wide, Sherath, said Nemeth. As is everyone else. Go to sleep, Brother. There was just a trace of Command in his Voice.

Sherath’s eyebrows lifted momentarily, and he smiled. – Hmm. Don’t try that one too often. Nemeth grinned at him. Sherath’s breathing gradually slowed.

Nemeth lay back, resting his head on one arm and reaching the other out lazily for Mishaar’s pipe.

“So tell me, Mishaar.”

“Miirshekaar’s sword?”

“What else?”

Mishaar grinned. “What else? There’s a host of things I could tell you, Nemeth Nehhuare’s son. Do you remember how beautiful your mother was?”

I remember. Nemeth flashed a mental picture across to Mishaar. You knew her? He handed the pipe back.

Mishaar rummaged in his pack and brought out two pipes. – Here, have a couple of my spares. I did know Nehhuare. Before Shithri came South, I was there. She went with him not long after she Journeyed, you know. She was very like Shiffih, as a young Child. There’s not much of your sire in Shiffih. She’d be nothing unusual in the South – nor you, apart from your eyes. You’re like your grandsire was as a youngster. He had a nose like a hawk, too – but you have the eyes to go with it.

Mishaar; how old are you?

I forget. One does, after a while. I was much as I am now when your grandsire was young.

No-one waiting for you? asked Nemeth.

Other than the Children? No.

No woman, then.

Mishaar grinned. – I’m still waiting.

The archetypal Seeker, Mishaar.

I didn’t say ‘still looking’. Just waiting. Mishaar’s eyes crinkled at the corners.

So you have no Children of your own yet?

Why the assumption? I never said I was celibate.

Nemeth laughed. – True. So?

One living. Half-Elven. His mother was very beautiful.

Was?

She was killed three years ago. I’m told it was an accident – I wasn’t there.

Don’t blame yourself.

You’re perceptive, Nemeth.

It was obvious. And the little one?

Kasha. He was only seven then. I took him to the Children. With Hamia dead, there was nothing to keep me in the city

Nemeth rolled onto his side and added another log to the fire, glancing round the tent.

“I think it’s stopped raining.” He eased himself to his feet and made his way carefully to the tent flap. “Yes, it has.”

The cloud cover was thinning enough to allow some of the moonlight through – enough to show the speed of the clouds scudding along. The wind sighed uneasily in the branches of the trees beneath which the tent was pitched; a scattering of leaves pattered onto the roof of the tent. Nemeth cast Awareness across the plateau; a few rabbits were about, making up for grazing time lost to the rain earlier. He let the Awareness drift over them, then expanded it skywards, feeling the tingle of a sharper mind than theirs intruding on him.

The great grey owl faltered only momentarily in her flight, her mind seeking Nemeth’s and investigating him with an acute and deft Awareness of her own. For a wild minute he saw through her eyes and felt the wind slip by around silent-feathered wings; as one, he and the owl selected one rabbit from the group and as one stooped for the quick kill, his toes clenching briefly as her talons gripped into the soft neck and, twisting, snapped it.

Good hunting, little one, Nemeth whispered.

He turned away from the tent flap, his balance suddenly left him and he felt top-heavy, his talons … no, not talons, you idiot; toes scrabbling for a hold on the floor, distinctly remembering not having landed. Part of his brain tried to order a futile essay into spreading non-existent flight pinions ….what?… His arms and fingers extended, fingers angling downwards as he arched his neck and back against the direction of the flight … above him in the air the owl faltered in her own flight for a minute, almost losing her grip on the rabbit before pulling her Awareness away from him. He recovered his balance, glancing up and catching Mishaar’s eye before doubling up with silent laughter.

It’s okay, I’m okay, he reassured Mishaar. Just disoriented.

Still flying, son of Nehhuare?

How did you know?

No mountain weed has that kind of effect. Besides which, the nose wasn’t your grandsire’s only hawk-like feature. You inherited the gift as well as the beak.

Nemeth seated himself quietly beside Mishaar, Aware that not all had been said.

What are you holding back, Mishaar?

Something that was never said. Thought, but never said.

What?

There were times when Shamin couldn’t be found; no-one saw him go, no-one saw him return. And Awareness – if it found him at all – found only what I Heard in your mind there.

I see.

Do you? I’m not saying it, said Mishaar.

Neither am I. Just wondering. Nemeth found his mind wandering back to Sherath’s experience with the snow-leopard, and wondered some more – shutting his thoughts well away from Mishaar.

You wouldn’t be the first one to wonder, said Mishaar, answering only what he had Heard.

Is that actually possible? Nemeth’s eyes sought and held Mishaar’s, trying to read something – anything – in the almost-black depths. Mishaar grinned.

Enabled? Who knows what is possible with Assumed Power? You – if I’m permitted – have the capacity to become a very dangerous Elf, Nemeth.

So tell me something I don’t know.

I meant even without Miirshekaar’s sword. With it … ?

Nemeth grinned, taking the proffered refilled pipe. – You said only one child living? There were others?

There were. One full-Elven. She’d only just Journeyed when the sickness came on us. Mithra. He flashed a brief picture at Nemeth, and was lost for a moment in remembering. Two others, twins, full-human. That was a long time ago.

And their mother?

Two mothers. Kathra half-Elven, Mithra’s dam, was killed by a human princeling who always got what he wanted. By force if necessary. One day he wanted Kathra. She died hard. He paused. So did he, when I found him. I kept out of sight for quite a long while after that.

And the twins’ dam? asked Nemeth.

Human. Also died before her time. Again at the hand of a man. The Southern country can be cruel to its women. And again, I wasn’t there when I was needed. There have been times when I looked for Death – but he’s never taken me. Only those whom I loved.

You have loved, then.

Mishaar’s eyes met his, somewhat of a laugh in them.

Yes, I have loved. And doubtless will again. It’s not the same without the love. Perhaps – sometimes – you’d call it little more than friendship. But to buy a woman for a night can surely never be the same as to have the gift of a friend – for however long the gift lasts. You have to know that the friendship at least will last till death. There is more than one way of forging bonds – for those of us who don’t have access to Unnamed Blades.

Speaking of which … suggested Nemeth.

Yes. The Nameless One. It was forged in your own Western cave system, you realise?

I didn’t know.

By the dragon Hlammaeth, from the sky-born metal Turgel which can only be shaped or marked by dragon-fire. A formidable weapon even without its Power – the edge will be as keen now as it was when it was first honed. And some legends have it that the Nameless One does have a Name – but the Name itself is hidden. Certainly Miirshekaar never knew it. There is a certain Power in a Name – perhaps Hlammaeth himself, having Named it, hid the Name from Miirshekaar. Another dangerous Elf, by all accounts, he added thoughtfully. Tread carefully, Nemeth.

What can you tell me of the properties of Turgel? he asked.

Mishaar reached into his shirt and took the blue stone on its chain into his hand, looking at it for a moment before slipping it over his head and handing it to Nemeth.

Nemeth caught Mishaar’s eye before taking the stone gently. The Power in his hand was a tangible thing.

What’s the stone?

Sapphire.

Ye Gods! It’s as big as a thrush’s egg. He ran his fingers across the surface of the polished but uncut stone, holding it towards the firelight to inspect the hole pierced in it for the chain … no, not for but by the chain, like piercing an ear with the ring itself…

It takes more strength, said Mishaar. But the principle is the same. And the Power that you feel is inherent in the chain, not the stone. With most such baubles the chain is there as an adjunct to the stone. This stone serves merely to distract attention from the chain.

Quite some distraction, said Nemeth, attempting to put a value on the sapphire. Even though at first glance one would take it for a moonstone. He looked more closely at the chain, searching in vain for imperfections which would show where the links were closed; rippling the chain across his fingers in the firelight. It gleamed with a soft sheen rather than a sparkle, almost wax-like, dark grey with hints of bronze and blue when the firelight caught it right … almost hypnotic, realised Nemeth, dragging his mind forcibly out of its drift and somewhat reluctantly handing the … bauble … – his eyes laughed – back to Mishaar. Where did you come by this? I assume it must also be dragon-forged.

Obviously. As I said, there is no other way, with Turgel. He settled himself more comfortably. Long ago, and far away…

What is this, a Children’s tale? asked Nemeth with a laugh.

It could yet be. Stranger things have happened.

True. I’ll put music to it, one day.

Quite a long time ago, and certainly not close to here, anyway, said Mishaar. After Kathra’s death – you recall I had to disappear for a while? Several years, as it happens. I don’t remember how many. I had need of my own company; losing Kathra was like losing part of myself. In losing bits of yourself, sometimes you find strength to make harder bits to replace them, Nemeth.

The Southern lands are huge, he continued, – and much of them almost untouched by man – or Elf, for that matter. Though if you look hard enough there are signs of peoples long gone, in places that are now wilderness.

What peoples? Man or Elf? Or Dwarf?

What’s left isn’t really adequate to judge from. Whoever they were, they were mighty builders. The kind of stonework you’d expect from Dwarves, but with the beauty and line of Elven work. And the paintings … Nemeth, they painted in stones, coloured stones on the floors and set into the walls; and the stones of the walls are so laid together that the lines of the joints between them form yet more pictures; the longer you look, the more pictures you see. And windows … windows made with coloured panes sliced – would you believe sliced? – in single sheets from coloured rocks, and sliced so fine that the light shines through them when you clean the dust and sand away. Only one thing can slice through stone that way.

Turgel?

Yes. And the metal between the panes, Nemeth – that was Turgel, though I took it for lead at first glance. The coloured windows in some of Mankind’s holy places – have you seen them?

Long ago. In a part-ruin.

They’re a poor shadow of what I saw down South. A poor shadow. Mishaar extended his Voice through Awareness and into memory, taking Nemeth along the paths he had walked. Nemeth let his eyes close, his mind merging with Mishaar’s, seeing as vividly yet as detachedly as in a dream; feeling beneath his own fingers the oily smoothness of the stone-paned windows that Mishaar had run his hands over, and the shimmering tingle of the Power in the Turgel between the panes. He jerked his eyes open suddenly.

Mishaar; the Turgel in the windows … the windows were made by dragons, too.

Yes, dragons certainly had a part in the building of it all. It was there I found the sapphire chain. His mind wandered back again, and Nemeth stood in Awareness with him in the inside of a building whose only entrance was through a massive archway half-hidden by windblown sand, looking at a window whose picture was almost obscured by the darkness of sand against the outside; and then in memory they crawled over the heaped sand on the outside, scooping handfuls of it aside to let the light through, polishing the stone panes. Back inside, Nemeth stood looking in wonder through the eyes of Mishaar’s memory at the picture window with the last light of the westering sun blazing through it, and shining on what had been obscured by the dirt before: the blue stone, its Turgel chain wrapped around the raised hilt of the sword held aloft above the head of the figure in the picture. And also looking at the Southern script inset in the window above the sword: “Malehsh.” “It is written.”

Mishaar eased back slowly from the link, opening his eyes in response to the question in Nemeth’s mind, and meeting Nemeth’s own amber-hazel hawklike eyes glittering with reflected firelight.

– “It is written”? asked Nemeth softly.

The window was made before the sword was forged, Nemeth. A long time before. There was Power in the making of the window, and Power in the stone’s chain, and I climbed up and took the chain from the picture. Strange. Not something I would have done had I thought about it – but the Power in the place seemed almost to destroy thought itself. And with that chain once in my hand, I was drawn to the central Power in the building; massive, enfolding, waiting Power, right there in the building itself.

I had been standing on the source of that power earlier when I looked up and saw the stone. The whole floor was in pictures and in silver flakes that caught the light and threw it around, and the last light of that setting sun came straight through the sword in the window and threw its picture onto a silver-sheeted stone on the floor. There was script around the edges of the silver sheeting, but so worn away that I couldn’t read it, and in the centre of the silver sheet an oval hollow. Into which the sapphire fitted. Exactly.

Like a key into a lock, said Nemeth softly.

Quite. But I hadn’t the Power to unlock it; and if I had the Power, I doubt if I would have the courage. It resisted my attempt to use Power.

You can use Power, half-Elven?

A little; and that only when I have this, he indicated the Turgel chain and sapphire, once again nestled safely against his chest. And I say it resisted me. Enough to know that whatever lies under that stone is not meant for the likes of me – though Miirshekaar’s line is something that we share. If indirectly. But half-Elven only, and without Power of my own – no, Nemeth, I couldn’t handle it, and it knew I couldn’t. I think you could; though I’ll say again that you have all the makings of a dangerous Elf.

You’re quite safe with me, Mishaar, remarked Nemeth with a smile. You mentioned Miirshekaar’s Beastmaster, some time back.

I did?

You did. What – if anything else – do you know about him?

What – if anything – does anyone know about him? I could recite you some of the legends, but how much is legend and how much was fact is anyone’s guess. The Shethis were strangely reticent on the subject when I questioned them.

So what are the legends?

I’m sure you must have heard them. Or most of them, if not all. Mishaar took another slow drag from his pipe.

I’ve not heard much more than anecdote, said Nemeth.

Which is basically all there is, and common knowledge among Elves; if you could call it ‘knowledge’. What do you already know?

Preface everything with the words ‘Legend has it that …’, replied Nemeth with a smile.

Obviously, Mishaar responded.

Okay. He was reputed to be some kind of relation of Miirshekaar, but half-Elven – like yourself. Some say perhaps a half-brother. One of the few half-Elven who spent as much time with Elves as with men, and because of his talents with beasts in demand by both. No records remain of his birth …

… or his death, added Mishaar quietly, and with a smile.

True, said Nemeth, looking at him with sharp curiosity. Although it’s sometimes said that he died, with Miirshekaar, in the battle at Nahrsalk.

It’s also sometimes said that he survived that battle, took the sword and hid it, and having done that died of the wounds he received in the battle. Yet another legend has it that he was carried off by a “massive shining skylizard whose brightness dazzled the Enemy” – even though the dragons were then and have always been in the North. In the South, dragons are no more than legend.

But you know that’s not entirely true. Dragons were involved in the building of that picture window, Nemeth pointed out.

Yes. It’s not often you get the chance to prove that what’s assumed to be common knowledge is wrong. So where does that leave us?

That leaves us with the possibility that the Beastmaster actually was carried away by a dragon. Although I wouldn’t describe the dragons that we know of as ‘shining’, as such.

Poetic licence, suggested Mishaar.

Which version do you prefer? asked Nemeth.

I think he survived the battle. Miirshekaar’s sword was certainly not found on the battle site, and not many people would have been able to remove it with impunity.

Why not? asked Nemeth curiously.

It wouldn’t have let them. Whoever handles it must – again according to legend – have either some blood relationship to Miirshekaar or the permission of the owner. Which, if Miirshekaar was dead, would have been difficult.

Which also suggests that the Beastmaster was a relation. If that bit was true, which it might not be; it might have been just to deter people from trying.

An instant death penalty is generally a fairly effective deterrent, agreed Mishaar, grinning.

Echoes of the Dwarvish Courts of Justice, said Nemeth. But in spite of that, you were prepared to risk it back in that building?

I already told you – we’re related, Nemeth. If the sword ever had to choose between us, it would undoubtedly choose you, as a full Elf – but if you weren’t around, I would be its last option.

Not its last – there would be Kash after you. Just remember that you’ve already told me I could be a very dangerous Elf, suggested Nemeth with a smile.

It isn’t now, and never has been, my intention to take that one on myself. Without full Assumed Power, the sword would be stronger than I am. I’d hate to have a difference of opinion with my own sword – it might happen at a crucial moment. Mishaar grinned.

Is it possible then that the sword took the Beastmaster, rather than the other way around?

And suggested its own hiding place? Possibly. But why not go directly to Miirshekaar’s next heir?

We must assume that it had its reasons.

One could always ask Hlammaeth, suggested Mishaar.

If one could find him. Ymbolc might be easier to speak to.

Ymbolc? He wouldn’t tell me, when I asked.

Wouldn’t? Or couldn’t? asked Nemeth. – And when did you speak to Ymbolc, anyway, half-Elven?

Last year sometime. I went to the cave systems. Incidentally, your hairy nephew sent his regards if I should locate you.

Nemeth grinned. – How was he?

Thriving. I declined the offer of drinking from his flask, though.

Why?

I suspected that whatever was in it might have a different effect on myself to that which it has on a half-troll. I was also unsure how to take his suggestion that it would put hairs on my chest.

Nemeth laughed. – What colour was it?

Blueish.

It’s okay; has its uses. I tried it a couple of times. Shengard just calls it ‘Jungle Juice’.

What does it do?

It reduces other people’s ability to perceive you, answered Nemeth. The effect is cumulative; takes a while to wear off. If you have too much – or too often – it reduces your ability to perceive yourself, which is unnerving. I suspect that he hasn’t yet eliminated whatever addictive principle it contains, although it doesn’t seem to affect him in that way at all.

How do you know it could be addictive?

I was Aware of the possibility. Which was why I was careful with it. Did the Beastmaster have a name? Or was it never recorded?

It’s certainly recorded, but it’s a bit of a mouthful; which is why he’s generally just called the Beastmaster.

Well? asked Nemeth with a smile.

“Miesh’aasht Hahn Diishhuarheth Shahvehnkaeh,” said Mishaar in a whisper.

Not truly a Southern name, commented Nemeth.

The name comes from more than one language, the second of which shares some of its roots with Southern Elvish. However, not enough for me to be able to work out all of what the name itself means. The ”Miesh’aashtgives the clearest indication of all that he was related to Miirshekaar. Very possibly his son, in fact. But not necessarily, he added thoughtfully. The assumption is that his dam was from that other people.

– Which way did you come North last year?

By Cutter into Anster Sumares on the West Coast. They call it ‘Shipton on Sea’ nowadays, though. A lot of the Old Elvish names have virtually disappeared.

Which others?

Vaster is now Kineton; Pontanni on the road east from Anster Sumares is now called Lambridge. And Mons Dei is, inevitably, Godshill, said Mishaar. The locals still know the old names because that’s what’s carved on the waystones – but they might give you some odd looks if you ask for Caprester instead of Shambury-on-the-Hill.

How much travelling do you do?

This past two years I’ve done more than in the previous ten. It’s been easier to find a working passage rather than a paying one; and I’ve found that ship’s masters ask less questions of deckhands than they do of passengers. If you’re paying passage, they seem to want to know how you make your money, just in case they can negotiate overseas trading options with you. I’ve managed to get quite a reputation for being weather-wise, too, which helps.

And are you? asked Nemeth.

No more than most. But the Sea-Elves are, and we communicate reasonably well when I’m aboard.

What cargo’s going south this time?

Salted fish in one hold, ox-hides in the other.

Smelly, commented Nemeth.

Very. But fortunately I’m working as steersman on this one. By the time I’m needed, the cargo will have been loaded and the hatches battened down. Steersman’s a cushy number for me – just an eye on the stars, Awareness of the currents and a hand on the wheel; a good meal twice a day, a sheltered sleeping spot in the wheel cabin, and plenty of opportunity for Speaking with the Sea-Elves. The only bit that requires any thought is making course corrections when I come on after the idiot who has the other watch.

If he’s an idiot, why is he kept on? Asked Nemeth with a grin.

He’s the master’s cousin. And provided there’s a good steersman on the dark watch, he doesn’t cause many problems – which is why the dark-watch steersman is given such a good deal. As company, he’s fine. Good tempered, clean, affable, doesn’t snore; he’s a good friend, but a lousy steersman.

You’re very tolerant.

Not tolerant, particularly; just honest. I don’t let people’s faults blind me to their virtues, or their virtues blind me to their faults. I find it easier that way to come to terms with my own faults and not be too smug about my own virtues. I’ve also found that it takes quite some time to discover enough of what a person is before you can stand back and look at them as a whole. It’s tragic how many people are incapable of doing that – so many lost friendships just because one person or the other didn’t have either the patience or the vision to wait for the whole picture. Life-or-death situations require instant decisions; relationships take much longer.

That’s the Elf in you Speaking, commented Nemeth. What do you make of Farinka?

Apart from the obvious?

What’s obvious? asked Nemeth.

She is totally necessary to the survival of Elves on this world. She is also very young, very unstable, and very Powerful. She reminds me of a wild deer that survived capture once and isn’t about to be snared a second time; or of a packbeast that’s been half-broken by a bad master and will bolt – or kill – if it’s threatened again.

She’s killed already since she’s been here.

Hunting’s different – as you know, said Mishaar.

She wasn’t hunting. Apart from tickling trout, she’s never killed to eat. She dropped a mad boar in his tracks, to protect me, mostly, – using Command. Never laid a finger on it.

Mishaar’s eyebrows went up. “Whew.” – Thanks for telling me. Who taught her that one?

No-one. None of us had ever seen it done – or even attempted – before.

I have. Once. But the killer also died, in that instance, said Mishaar quietly. Having done it successfully once, she’s likely to use the same thing again if she’s pushed too far. Gives the lie to that old story about not being able to use Power for attack, doesn’t it?

I’d say it was more for defence than attack.

It’s a very fine distinction, Nemeth. I’m sure the boar would have seen it as attack.

But the difference is in how the Commander sees it.

And how does Farinka define defence? asked Mishaar.

Good question. I don’t know the answer.

###

The Unnamed Blade will be released soon


The Unknown Quest

The Unknown Quest is the first book of The Horns of Elfland. It is aimed at readers aged 15+ Thousands of years ago, one of Sherath’s distant ancestors refused to take on a quest. The task has to be done – it’s vitally important – but nobody knows exactly what it is. Their race is dying out, and time is running out; and until Sherath comes into his full powers, he can’t do it anyway. They have been waiting three hundred years for the saviour spoken of in an ancient prophecy to lead them on a long journey to adulthood and open the doors for them. But their saviour, and the key to success, turns out to be a volatile teenager from modern-day Earth. Sherath has hundreds of years of education in how to use the Power he will have as an adult, with little access to it as yet. Farinka, on the other hand, has access to vast amounts of Power, but no training in how to use it, what can and can't be done, and what is dangerous to try!

  • ISBN: 9781370113873
  • Author: Mark Ash
  • Published: 2017-04-19 11:05:18
  • Words: 82942
The Unknown Quest The Unknown Quest