/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Valdemar (10): Darian's Tale

Owlsight

Mercedes Lackey

It has been four years since the orphan boy Darian sought sanctuary with the mysterious Tayledras Hawkbrothers when his village was sacked and burned by barbarians. Born a Valdemarian, but now steeped in the mystical ways of the Tayledras, it has become Darian's dream to be their emissary-forgind an alliance and providing a diplomatic link with his own people. Back in Errold's Grove, a young woman, Keisha Alder, has taken over the job formerly held by Darian's old teacher, Wizard Justyn. With no formal education, working with only the natural instincts of her inborn Healing Gift, she has devoted herself to the care of the people of her now bustling community. Yet with the heightened empathy of her Gift, and the inability to sheild herself because of her lack of training, it is becoming harder and harder for Keisha to bear the strains of everyday life. But when Darian returns to Errold's Grove with a small contigent of Hawkbrothers to warn the townsfolk that another tribe of barbarians is approaching their village and advise them to evacuate their homes, Keisha refuses to flee. As a Healer she knows she will be needed if there is bloodshed, and her Gift dictates that she stay, even if it puts her life in jeopardy. Yet how can one small band of Hawkbrothers and two Valdemaran teenagers with partially trained Gifts stand against the destructive might of a barbarian horde?

Mercedes R. Lackey and Larry Dixon

Darian’s Tale/Owl 02

One

“Keisha?” When Keisha didn’t answer, the fluting voice calling her name in the distance grew noticeably impatient. “Keisha!”

Keisha Alder ignored her sister Shandi’s continued calls; she was in the middle of a job she had no intention of cutting short. The sharp smell of vinegar filled Keisha’s workshop, but she was so inured to it that it hardly even stung her nose. Shandi could wait long enough for Keisha to finish decanting her bruise potion, straining out the bits of wormwood with a fine net of cheesecloth. Keisha wrinkled her nose a little as the smell of vinegar intensified; the books said to use wine for the potion, but she had found that vinegar worked just as well, and there was no mistaking it for something drinkable - unless your taste in wine was really wretched. A cloth steeped in this dark-brown liquid and bandaged against a bruise eased the pain and made the bruise itself heal much faster than it would on its own, so despite the odor the potion was much in demand. She needed so much of it that she always had several jugs or bottles of the finished potion in storage, and more jars of it in various states of preparation. It had to steep for six weeks at a minimum, so she tried to empty one jar and start another once a week.

Keisha held her hands steady; she didn’t want to waste any of it in spillage. She even wrung the cheesecloth dry, then reached for a stopper whittled from a birch branch and her pot of warm paraffin. As soon as the last drop was sealed into its special dark-brown pottery jug, and the jug itself placed safely on a high shelf, she knocked the soggy fragments of herb out of the wide-mouthed jar, added two handfuls of freshly crumbled dry wormwood, and poured in vinegar to the top. Footsteps behind her warned her that Shandi had come to the workshop looking for her, so she wasted no time in tying a square of waxed linen over the top of the jar and setting it at the end of the row of nine more identical jars.

She turned to face the door, just as Shandi stepped across the threshold into the cool gloom of the workshop, blinking eyes still dazzled by the bright sun outside. Although not dressed in her festival best, Shandi was, as always, so neat and spotless that Keisha became uncomfortably aware of the state of her own stained brown breeches and far-from-immaculate, too-large tunic. Shandi wore a white apron embroidered with dark blue thread, a neat brown skirt, and a pristine white blouse with the blue embroidery matching the apron, all the work of her own hands. Keisha’s tunic and breeches were hand-me-downs from her brothers, plain as a board, indifferently shortened, and both had seen their best days many years ago.

But what else am I supposed to wear for working with messy potions, dosing sick babies, and sewing up bloody gashes? she asked herself crossly, annoyed at herself for feeling embarrassed. This isn‘t some tale where everyone wears cloth-of-gold and tunics with silk embroidery! Shandi would look pretty sad after a half day of my work!

“Keisha, are we going to the market or not?” Shandi asked impatiently, then screwed up her face in a grimace as a whiff of vinegar reached her.

“We’re going, though I don’t know why you want to go so badly,” Keisha replied, hoping she didn’t sound as irritated as she felt.

“Dye,” Shandi replied promptly.

“No, thank you, I have too much to do right now,” Keisha said impishly, grinning as Shandi first looked puzzled, then mimed a blow at her for the pun.

“You know what I mean!” Shandi giggled. “You never know what the hunters are going to bring in, and I’m still looking for a decent red, one that won’t fade the first time someone looks too long at it.” She smiled. “You know I need to have you along. After all, you know so much more about these things than I do. And you’re better at bargaining; I’d be sure to get cheated, and then you’d be annoyed because you weren’t with me to save me from a sharp trader!”

Keisha’s irritation had vanished, as it always did around Shandi. No one could stay irritated with her sister for long; Shandi’s nature was as sweet as her innocent face, and she played peacemaker to the entire village of Errold’s Grove. Keisha and Shandi were almost the same height, with the same willowy figures, same golden-brown hair and eyes, and almost the same features, but in all other ways they were as different as if they had come from opposite sides of the world. Sometimes I think when the gods gave out tempers, they gave me all of the thorns and her all the rose petals. “You’re right, of course, I would be annoyed.” She rinsed her hands in lemon-balm water to remove the vinegar smell and any lingering trace of wormwood - poison, if ingested - and dried them on a clean rag. “And I should have remembered about the red. How many of the girls have you promised embroidery thread to?”

“Only three - Hydee, Jenna, and Sari. I wouldn’t trust the rest with red. They’d be sure to do something tasteless with it.” Shandi’s bright brown eyes glowed with suppressed laughter. “Ugh! Can’t you imagine it? Roses the size of cabbages all around the hems of their skirts!”

“Or worse,” Keisha said dryly. “Roses the size of cabbages over each breast. Lallis is not exactly subtle.” And she’s always looking for a way to bring attention to her “assets.” Not that anyone needs help in seeing them. You could hide half the village in that cleavage, and a quarter of the village would be oh-so-happy to stay there! “I’m all done for now, let’s go before someone decides they have a bellyache and comes looking for a posset.”

Side by side, Keisha and her sister strolled down a neat, stone-edged path between the houses, heading toward the village square. Once a week, the village of Errold’s Grove held a market day, and those from outside the village and no particular interest in seeking further - and possibly more lucrative - venues took full advantage of it. For some people, it simply wasn’t worth the effort to travel long distances just to make more money from their goods; they’d rather that other folk did the traveling and took the extra profit. As had been the case in the past, there were plenty of traders willing to do just that, so the weekly market was usually visited by at least one far traveler from spring to early winter. And three of the quarterly Faires - Spring Equinox, Midsummer, and Harvest - brought traders in their dozens.

Errold’s Grove was more prosperous now than it had been in its earlier heyday, with dozens of trappers and dye-hunters working the forest and hills. None of them was actually from Errold’s Grove; the villagers were still far too wary of the forest to be tempted by the possibility of profit hidden in its depths. But the Hawkbrothers were here now, and to some people, their presence meant increased safety or, at least, a smaller likelihood of being eaten by misshapen monsters. So the dye-hunters and all the people who supported and profited by them were back, as well as a new class of folk who actually specialized in trapping the strange new creatures created by the Change-Circles. The population of Errold’s Grove had swelled to half again more than the village had ever held before.

They even had their own temple and priest, so now the children of the village got proper lessons in the winter, instead of being home-schooled or taught by one of the old women. For most of the children, that was a mixed blessing, as the priest took his duty seriously and wasn’t as easily distracted as a mother or as prone to doze off as an old granny.

They still didn’t have a fully trained “official” Healer, though, and Keisha served in place of one, wearing her ordinary clothing rather than even the pale-green robes of a Trainee. Healers were in short supply still, and so far, there hadn’t been a real need to have one posted to Errold’s Grove. Lord Breon had a Healer, and according to Healer’s Collegium, he could take care of anything here that Keisha couldn’t.

Though never selected for her Gift by a fully trained Healer in the approved and official manner, Keisha had begun showing her talents at the age of five, by taking care of the ills of the stock on the farm, then moving on to patching up the childhood hurts and illnesses of her brothers and sisters. It got to the point where they came to her instead of their mother, since Keisha’s remedies were far more likely to set things right and taste better than their mother’s book of recipes from her granny.

Things might never have gone any further, but fear of the Changebeasts and longing for other human company together drove Keisha’s parents to resettle in the village. That had happened a few months after the barbarian invasion when one family decided they’d had enough of Errold’s Grove and a house fortuitously fell vacant. Not long after that, once she widened her circle of “patching up” to the rest of the children and their pets, the villagers discovered Keisha’s talent, and a concerted effort began to turn their new citizen into a fully educated, fully stocked, fully prepared Healer.

As she and her sister passed the home that had drawn them here - now silent, with the rest of the family out working the fields and tending the stock - Keisha grinned a little. Maybe if her parents had known what was going to happen, they wouldn’t have been so quick to leave the farmstead! Her mother and father hadn’t stood a chance against the will of the village, and they’d lost Keisha’s labor at the farm before they knew what had happened. They might have tried to fight to keep Keisha (and her two sturdy hands) theirs alone, but the arrival of a Herald on circuit put an end to any thoughts of making the attempt.

That golden moment was a cherished memory, the point when Keisha became something other than “ordinary” in her parents’ eyes. The Herald - oh, he was fine to look at, all white and tall on his silver Companion. . . . He took one look at me that went right down to my bones and declared, in a voice like a trumpet, “ This girl has the Healer’s Gift.” Much to Keisha’s bemusement, before he left for the rest of his circuit, he had arranged for Lord Breon’s Healer, Gil Jarad, to give Keisha instruction. Several weeks later a trader delivered into her hands copies of every book used by the Trainees at Healer’s Collegium, courtesy of that august body, and a polite note reminding everyone that the books were worth, not a small fortune, but a rather large one. Enough to buy half the town, and theft or harm to the books counted as a crime against the Crown! With the books had come three sets of the pale-green robes of a Healer Trainee, lest anyone doubt her acceptance. Keisha still preferred not to wear them, though; it seemed a pity to get them as stained and dirty as they would be if she donned them for her regular work.

No more weeding and mowing for her; the letter that came with this library told her that she was expected to study those books any time that she wasn’t tending the ailments of man or beast, or brewing medicines for same. She already had the skills needed to make most medications and had lacked only the knowledge of what herbs were needed - the books supplied that, with good pictures to guide her when she went hunting for them in the forest and fields, and detailed instructions for each preparation. Along with the books came a box of seeds for those herbs that did well under cultivation, all carefully labeled with planting and growing instructions. It was obvious that she was expected to become self-sufficient, and quickly.

For a while, Keisha had used the kitchen of the family home for her workroom - and her mother had seen that as a possible way to discourage this new career.

Mother should never have complained about my “green messes “ in her kitchen, telling everyone she was afraid I was going to poison the family, Keisha thought, with just a touch of self-satisfaction. I know she thought that the Council would agree that I should stop, but it had the opposite effect!

In fact, the Council didn’t wait for her to complain directly to them; the moment the Village Council got wind of the complaints, they assigned Keisha her own workshop, a sturdy little stone building that had once been the home of the village savior and hero, Wizard Justyn. They even went so far as to make a special day of preparing it for her, organizing a village-wide cleanup and repair of the place, presenting her with a cottage scoured inside and out, roof newly thatched, all the bits and pieces still littering the interior taken out and broken into kindling. She had only to say where she wanted workbenches and shelves, and they appeared; had only to ask for a place to lie down and a fine feather bed and a pile of pillows and quilts showed up in the sleeping-loft. The people of Errold’s Grove had learned their lesson about treating a Healer right, having had to do without a Healer of any kind for so long after Wizard Justyn died.

Heady stuff for a fourteen-year-old youngster, she thought wryly, from her distant vantage of eighteen. I’m surprised my head didn ‘t get too big to fit a hat. She waved at the blacksmith’s oldest apprentice as they passed the forge; he waved absently back, but his eyes - as all the eyes of any male over the age of thirteen - were on Shandi. I suppose the only reason it didn‘t was that I was too busy to get a swelled head.

She had been busy every waking moment, in fact; when she wasn’t studying her books, she was out in the forest gathering medicinal plants, on her knees in her new garden cultivating herbs, or making preparations for Healer Gil to examine. At last, when Gil was satisfied that her skill at producing medicines was the equal of his, he stopped inspecting her results before allowing her to use them and started teaching her how to use the knife and the needle, how to set bones and restore dislocated joints as he did.

Unfortunately, the one thing he can’t teach me is how to use my Gift, and the books are not very useful there either. Healer Gil’s Gift was not very strong, and he relied on his skill with the knife and his truly amazing knowledge of herbalism for most of his cures. Keisha would have been perfectly happy to do the same, but Healer Gil kept insisting that she make use of this Gift that she didn’t understand. . . .

Gradually, though, what with all Gil had to do, his visits had shortened, and the intervals between them lengthened, until now he came to Errold’s Grove no more than once every moon and never stayed longer than half a day. He even trusted her now to experiment with new preparations, something that made her so proud she practically glowed every time she thought about it!

That was why Shandi wanted her to come along on this hunt for the elusive true red dye. Her knowledge of herbs and other plants extended into dyes, and she had a knack for telling which ones would fade, which would need too much mordant to be practical, and which would turn some other, less desirable color with age. Some dyes could even be used as medicine, so Keisha never lost a chance to explore their possibilities. In a village where every person had some specialty, however small, Shandi was the one who supplied everyone else with common embroidery thread the equal of anything a trader could bring in. Her threads, whether spun from wool, linen, or raime, were strong, hair-fine, and even; her colors were true and fast. So even as the villagers gladly paid Keisha for tending their ills (knowing that she had to pay for the medicines and supplies she couldn’t make, grow, or find for herself), they even more gladly told over their copper coins for a hank of Shandi’s thread.

The village square was the site of the weekly market, with the square closed to all but foot traffic, and stalls set up along all four sides. Besides the usual things found in a village market - produce and foodstuffs - Errold’s Grove had specialties of its own to boast of. Along with the dye-hunters had come dye-traders and dye-buyers, who purchased bundles of plants and fungus and things that defied description, then leeched or cooked out the pigments and pressed them into little cakes for sale. The buyers seldom left Errold’s Grove, preferring to act as middlemen and sell their dye-cakes to traders, but they were by no means reluctant to sell a cake or two to their neighbors. The tanner also put some of his unusual furs on offer at this weekly market, giving villagers first choice of what the hunters brought him.

In addition, now Errold’s Grove had its own potter, who was an artist in his own right, using some of the new and strange pigments and foreign earths from the Change-Circles and a variety of modeling and carving techniques to make ordinary clay pots into things almost too beautiful for use. There was, alas, no glass blower as yet, though there were rumors that one might be coming soon; most glass came from the Hawkbrothers or from traders.

The miller’s son had begun experimenting with paper making a year ago, and now his efforts were on sale roughly every other market day, alongside inks Keisha had taught him to make from oak galls and soot, small brushes he made from badger hair, and pens he cut himself from goose quills. So now it was possible for lovers to exchange silent vows, for thrifty wives to keep account books, for those with artistic pretensions to inflict their work on their relatives, and for everyone to write to relatives far and near. That last item alone, that tiny token of civilization, made Errold’s Grove seem less like the end of the universe and more like a part of Valdemar. When it was possible to communicate, however infrequently, with those outside the confines of Lord Breon’s holdings, people didn’t feel forgotten anymore.

Then there was the Fellowship.

Keisha nodded a friendly greeting toward the Fellowship booth, and the soberly clad woman tending it smiled and nodded back, her smile widening as Shandi’s footsteps suddenly (and predictably) lagged and her eyes went to the delicate wisps of fabric draped temptingly over a line at the back of the booth. The Fellowship, a loose amalgamation of a dozen families related only in their religious beliefs and a firm commitment to peace and a life with no violence or anger in it, had arrived in Errold’s Grove two years ago with their herds, their household goods, and their readiness to work and work hard. Within months, they had built an enclave of a dozen stout houses and barns enough for all their animals; within a year, traders were coming especially to buy what they produced.

For what the Fellowship specialized in was producing remarkable textiles: lengths of tapestry-woven fabric; intricate braids and other trims; and a very few simple garments such as shawls and capes - woven, knitted, knotted, and braided of the beautifully spun and dyed wool from their herds.

The creatures providing the wool were no ordinary animals. The Fellowship had goats with coats so long and silky that it was a pleasure to touch them, sheep with wool the texture of the finest thistledown, and a special variety of chirra. They were a little smaller and had a sweeter, more delicate face than those used as winter pack animals, and they possessed a coat of wool that when woven was softer than the finest sueded deerskin: light, dense, and so warm that one had to wear a cloak of it to believe it. These animals all needed more tending than their mundane counterparts, so much so that it was likely that few folk would be willing to put that much work into their care. Nevertheless, it was obviously worth it to the folk of the Fellowship, since traders came from as far away as Haven itself to purchase items such as their chirra-cloaks and blankets, their intricately patterned fabrics, and their “wedding” shawls, wraps of knitted lace so fine and delicate that they could be drawn through a wedding ring. Keisha had heard that it had become the fashion for the highborn of Valdemar to present one of these shawls to daughters of their houses to mark a betrothal, or for a suitor to offer one in token that he intended to ask for a woman’s hand.

Well, what was desirable for the highborn of Valdemar was also the heart’s desire of every girl of marriageable age in Errold’s Grove - and the folk of the Fellowship were pleased to make it possible for these less-than-highborn suitors and parents to grant those yearnings with special prices for the folk of their home village. Small wonder Shandi’s eyes and feet were drawn to the booth; she had three current suitors, all hotly pursuing her (and completely unsuitable in their father’s estimation), any one of whom could give her the reason for selecting such a shawl and pointing her choice decorously out to him.

“Shandi - ” Keisha called her wandering attention back with a touch of exasperation. “Look, let’s see if there’s a red dye first, then you can go look at shawls while I see if anyone’s brought medicines or herbs that I can use.”

“All right,” Shandi agreed, though with an audible sigh. Satisfied that she had her sister’s attention for at least a little while, Keisha and Shandi made the rounds of all three dye-sellers’ booths, looking for that so-elusive red.

Keisha deliberately went to Baden’s booth last; he was - in her opinion - the most honest of the three. As they neared his booth, he twinkled at Shandi and crooked a finger at her. They hurried to his counter.

“I think I may have something for you young ladies,” the cheerful, weather-tanned man said. “I’ve only been waiting for our good Healer’s expert opinion on it.” He nodded at Keisha, who flushed.

He cleared bundles of dried fungus off the counter and reached beneath it, bringing out a cake the size of his hand and as black as dried blood, together with something that looked like a seed pod made of dried leather. He placed hands with nails from beneath which no amount of soap and water would ever remove the traces of dye on the counter. “Here’s the dye, and here’s the thing it comes from; now you tell me if this is going to be as good as I think it is.”

Keisha crumbled a bit off the cake, smelled it, very cautiously tasted it, and tried dissolving it in a cup of water he provided. It didn’t dissolve, and she raised an eyebrow at the dye-merchant, who only grinned.

“Won’t dissolve in water, nor in water and soap,” he said in triumph. “Here - ” He tossed out the water, and poured a bit of clear liquid into the cup from a stoppered bottle It appeared to be thrice-distilled spirits, by the potent smell, and very nearly made her drunk just to sniff it. She dropped a crumb of dye in and was rewarded by a spreading crimson stain.

“Let me add a bit of salt for mordant, and you see for yourself what this stuff does.” He brought out another cup and poured water into that, then obliged her with some scraps and threads to try in the dye.

The samples they dunked in the dye became gratifying shades of scarlet, and no amount of rinsing in the water he’d provided would take the color out. As Shandi sucked in her breath with excitement, Keisha brought the threads up to her nose until she was nearly cross-eyed, examining every crevice and crack to see if the dye was “taking” evenly. Finally, she pronounced judgment.

“I think it will fade eventually, but it will take years as long as you keep the color out of the sun,” she told both the merchant and her sister. “Dyeing with distilled spirits will be tricky, maybe dangerous, what with the fumes being flammable - worse for someone doing large batches of thread and yarn than for you, Shandi - but this is probably the best red I’ve ever seen.” She turned her attention to the “pod,” and picked it up to peer at it. “Just what is this thing?”

“A snail,” the merchant said gleefully. “And no one would ever have noticed what secret this little creature held if Terthorn hadn’t tried to cook them in white wine. I’m the only one he told, and I got him to promise me an exclusive market.”

Shandi had to laugh at that. “So Terthorn’s famous palate and cooking experiments finally have some use! I suppose we should just be glad he didn’t try to cook them in red wine!”

The dye-merchant laughed, “Oh, now he’d never have done that! Haven’t we heard him say a thousand times that no one with any real taste would cook snails in red wine?”

Keisha’s thoughts were more practical. “So exactly how much are you going to part us from for this wonder?” she asked dubiously. She knew it wasn’t going to be cheap; not as strong a red as this, nor one as colorfast. She also knew Shandi would take it at any price, and was just fervently glad that it was this merchant who had the supply, not one of the other two.

“For you, Shandi, I’ll trade it weight-for-weight in silver.” Keisha tried not to wince, but the price was fair. If he had any sense, when he got the stuff into civilized lands, he’d trade it weight-for-weight in gold.

Shandi grimaced, but didn’t argue when Keisha didn’t. “Fair enough,” she said bravely, and dug out four silver coins, placing them on one side of his scales. He crumbled dye into the pan on the other side until they leveled off equal, then winked again, and crumbled a bit more into the pan. He pocketed the coins, then tilted the pan of dye into a paper cone, tapping it to get every crumb into the container. With a little bow, he handed the precious packet to Shandi, who twisted the open end of the cone tight and put it carefully into her pouch.

“I’ll tell you something else, young ladies,” he said, as they were about to move on, “I haven’t looked any further than to get the scarlet. If you can tell me how to get a deep, fast purple as good as the red out of that, I’ll halve the price if you give me an exclusive from here on.”

Keisha’s eyebrows both went up. “Really,” was all she replied, but her mind was already on changing the mordant, adding other possible ingredients, experimenting with double-dyeing with indigo.

Barlen’s look told her that he’d all but seen her thoughts written on her forehead. “If anyone can do it,” he continued with a wave, “you two can. Oh, and Keisha, you ought to go talk to Steelmind; he came to market by himself, and I think he’s got some seeds you might be interested in.”

“Really!” she exclaimed, as Shandi headed straight for the Fellowship booth, one hand protectively cupped over her pouch. “Thanks, Harlen!”

“No problem.” Another villager approached the booth, and Barlen turned his attention to the potential new customer. Keisha moved along to the shaded arbor next to the new Temple that the Hawkbrothers used as a booth when they came to Errold’s Grove.

Normally Hawkbrothers only appeared for the quarterly Faire market days, and when they came, they came in force, with a half-dozen bead-and-feather-bedecked traders and their fierce-looking birds of prey. They took over the arbor and put up a pavilion as well, and traders buzzed around them like bees at a honey pot, for the things they brought, though (aside from a few items) never predictable, were always fantastic. Sometimes it was lengths of silk fabric in impossible colors and patterns, sometimes it was trims and ribbons made of the same silks and silk embroidery thread that girls saved for their wedding dresses. They had been known to bring jewelry, glassware, odd spices and incense, vials of scent and massage oils, rugs sometimes, and, once, simpler variations on their own tunics and robes. Those items that were predictable were always welcome: ropes and cording much stronger than anyone else could make and much lighter, too; hammocks made from that same cord; amazing feathers; furs unlike anyone else brought; leather tanned so that it was as supple and soft as their silks; rare woods; and carvings in stone, ivory, and wood.

But sometimes, one called Steelmind came by himself, bringing strange ornamental or useful plants, herbs, and seeds. Keisha liked him, for all that he never said one word more than he absolutely had to; she also liked his bird, a slow and sleepy buzzard who was perfectly happy to accept a head scratch from her.

Sure enough, Steelmind had tucked himself and his bird into the depths of the arbor, with bare-root plants (roots carefully wrapped in damp moss) and an assortment of well-grown seedlings in small plugs of earth arranged beside him. His blue eyes brightened when he saw Keisha, and he waved - a welcome and an invitation to sit, all in the same gesture.

“Barlen says you have some seeds?” she said, giving the bird his scratch before settling on the turf beneath the arbor, her tunic puddling around her. She bent over to look at the plants he’d brought, and recognized the bare-root ones to be young rose vines.

Roses! She tried to imagine what Hawkbrother-bred rose vines would be like, and failed. She resolved to take at least one of them home with her - maybe more. Mum - would love a climbing rose going over a trellis at the front door - and it would be nice to have one plant in the herb garden that isn ‘t useful for anything!

She felt the same avariciousness that Shandi must have felt over the dye - if there was one weakness she had, it was for her garden. . . .

“It is spring, so mostly I have flower seeds and seedlings and these - ” he gestured at the rose vines, but she sensed he was teasing her.

“Mostly?” she replied.

“Our Healer suggested a few others before I left,” Steelmind said and smiled, an expression that transformed his face and made it obvious that he wasn’t much older than she was. He laughed a little. “Actually, it was stronger than merely suggestion.” He rummaged in a basket at his side and brought out fat little packets of tough silk, sewn at the top to resemble tiny sacks of grain. Each one had a symbol painted on it in a different color. “This stops pain, this stops cough, this is a balm, this stops itching from insect bites and rashes. There are instructions in each packet on growing and use.”

“They work better than what I use now?” she asked skeptically.

He shrugged, and the beads woven into his hair clicked together. “Different, that’s all I know. Better? I don’t know, I’m not a Healer, and we do not know what you have to work with. No worse, certainly. And I have been given orders that if you want them, your price is - nothing. Healer to Healer, is what I was told.”

Nothing? They do trust me to know, what I’m doing! And that these herbs were different from those she had been using - she knew from her own experience that a medication that one person responded well to might not work on another - and might make a third sicker. That was the peril of working with herbs. “I’ll take them, and thank your Healer very sincerely for me,” she replied. “And how much for the rose vines? It will be nice to have something in my garden that isn’t for healing people.”

“And who is to say that a rose cannot heal?” He smiled and named his prices, they haggled amiably, and settled on a price that didn’t leave either of them feeling cheated.

She gathered up her spoils - two rose vines, which would make everyone happy - and gave the bird a second scratch, which he seemed to expect. Then she left the arbor to go find Shandi and tear her away from the Fellowship booth.

Or try, anyway. If she got to talking embroidery and dye with the attendant, nothing less than a miracle would take her away before the sun went down.

Keisha squinted against the bright sunlight, and peered up the street as a flock of crows flew overhead, yelling cheerful insults at the village below. As she had half-expected, Shandi and the Fellowship woman were deep in conversation. Keisha shrugged her shoulders and sighed, wondering if it was going to be worth the trouble to try to pry Shandi away. If so, she had the choice of looking very rude and bossy and actually getting the job done quickly, or spending far more time than she wanted to and looking polite and courteous. If there had only been Shandi to consider, there would just be a few sharp words and it would be done with . . . but she really didn’t want to look boorish in front of a member of the Fellowship.

It was a short internal debate. There’s no point. If she finished her chores, I’ve got no call to tell her how to spend her free time. And if she hasn’t, she can take the consequences herself. Shandi’s one fault was that she tended to “forget” things she had to do when she disliked them. When they were younger, it had been Keisha’s task to supervise her and see to it that the “forgotten” chores were done - because if Shandi didn’t do them, Keisha would have to pitch in later. Mum’s idea of a proper form of incentive for me to be an ogre. But I don’t have time to spare to pitch in now. I’m not her keeper, no matter what Mum thinks, and Shandi’s sixteen and old enough to take the consequences by herself.

She ambled slowly up the street, enjoying the novel sensation of having people around her who were not in discomfort or pain - who were, in fact, entirely contented. Lately, it had become uncomfortable for her to be near people in any sort of distress, as if she shared their feelings. . . . She’d fancied once or twice that it was the sort of Empathy power that she heard told of in stories, but dismissed the thought quickly. Things like that didn’t happen to ordinary people from little towns like Errold’s Grove, and her Gift was an extraordinary enough fluke.

It wouldn’t be too long until Spring Equinox Faire, and the booths of those who sold their goods to the far-ranging traders were stuffed full, while the booths of those who depended on those same traders to bring them goods from outside were getting mighty empty. The dye-sellers, the folk who bought up a great deal of the Hawkbrother trade goods, and the Fellowship would all send most of their stock with the traders when the Faire was over.

The blacksmith needs metals, the baker needs spices and sugar, the girls are craving glass beads, laces, and ribbons, I need things I can’t get here -

Healer Gil Jarad would be just as happy if she didn’t have to rely on those medicines, though. That was one subject on which they didn’t, and probably would never, agree. He couldn’t tell her how to use her Gift - more importantly, he had no way to oversee her and tell her what she was doing right or wrong, the way he could with medicines and the knife. How was she supposed to use this so-called Gift effectively, or even safely?

I suppose it would be quite useful if I could make head or tail out of those texts, she thought glumly, as she neared the Fellowship booth and Shandi. It’s almost as if they were written in a code that is perfectly understandable to everyone but me!

And I am feeling far too sorry for myself! Determined not to spoil what was a perfectly fine spring day, Keisha decided to stop thinking, and simply enjoy.

Alight breeze brought a hint of incense from the Temple, which joined harmoniously with the fresh flowers some of the stallkeepers used as decoration. The sunshine warmed her with the promise of a fine spring to come. The annual village-wide spring cleaning had taken place only a few days earlier in preparation for the Spring Faire, and as a consequence, the entire village was as charming as a highborn child’s toy. Streets had been swept of all the winter accumulation of junk and debris, houses and fences were newly whitewashed, market booths all neatly mended. What a perfect scene this would be for a painter or a tapestry maker to reproduce, she thought, just as she came even with Shandi. This is how the highborn think all our villages look, all the time. Still, she shouldn’t be so cynical. It really is pretty - the red shutters, the pale gold of the thatched roofs, the rainbow colors of the flowers everywhere, the handsome white horse posing right at the end of the street -

 - white horse ? There were no white horses in Errold’s Grove!

Keisha shook her head and looked again, but the vision didn’t go away; instead, it drew nearer. There was a blue-eyed white horse decked out in blue-and-silver riding gear at the end of the street nearest the bridge - and he was coming straight toward the market square. There was purpose in each and every step he took. He had no rider.

And - was he looking at her?

You had to have lived in a. cave all your life not to know what a blue-eyed white horse was, and meant, in this kingdom. This was a Companion, and alone like this, with no urgency in his demeanor, he hadn’t lost his Herald, nor was his Herald in trouble. No, he had to be on Search.

And that meant he was looking for a new Herald-well, Herald-trainee - the person to whom he would be bonded for the rest of both their lives.

It seemed that the entire market saw the Companion at the same time that Keisha did. Everyone stopped talking, and the silence that fell over the square was broken only by the soft chiming of bridle bells and the matching overtones of the Companion’s deliberate steps. He knew very well that all eyes were on him, too - he arched his neck and lifted each hoof so high he might have been on parade.

Keisha froze; out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Shandi had done the same. The Companion was looking neither to the right, nor to the left, and there were only two people of reasonable age for him to Choose from in the direction he was moving. Of course, Companions had been known to Choose full adults in the past, but it wasn’t usual. No, the only two people likely to be Chosen in this village who were present at the moment were Shandi - and Keisha.

For a moment, Keisha was stunned, too shocked to think. This was not supposed to be happening! But as the Companion moved closer, she wrenched herself out of her shock with a grimace, as dismay washed over her.

Don‘t you dare, she thought with annoyance bordering on anger at the Companion. Don‘ tyou dare try to Choose me! Her hands balled into fists as she stared into his eyes, willing him to hear her. Don’t even think about Choosing me! I have responsibilities here, you dolt! People here need me for what I can do, and I can ‘tjust ride out of here and leave them! Listen to me, you fool! Don’t -

Maybe staring into his eyes had been a mistake.

She felt the rest of the world vanishing around her as she fell into those twin pools of sapphire. But before she could drown in them, she bit her lip to bring her back to herself and hurled her denial at him.

I. Am. Not. Expendable! she thought, working up real heat at the thought that anyone, even a Companion, could march into her life and proceed to reorder it for her. I. Am. Not. Going!

She sensed surprise. Pick somebody else!

Now she sensed - amusement? Why amusement?

Her anger evaporated.

The eyes turned away from her, let her go. Had they ever really held her, or had that only been her imagination?

She didn’t get a chance to think about it, because movement beside her caught her attention. The Companion stood quietly, and now it was Shandi who walked with slow, entranced steps toward him.

She looked like a sleepwalker, and Keisha stifled the impulse to grab her arm and keep her where she was. Still. . . I’m not her keeper. If this is what she wants, she should try to make it work. She’s old enough to make up her own mind, just as I am, and live with whatever comes of it.

Although, it looked as if consequences were the last thing on Shandi’s mind right now.

Shandi stopped, just a step away from the Companion’s nose, and slowly reached her hand forward, as if she feared to touch him. Keisha waited, heart pounding, biting her lower lip. The Companion made short work of Shandi’s hesitation, craning his neck forward as his bridle bells chimed, and putting his nose in her hand. Then they just stood there for a long, long time, and Keisha’s breathing seemed very loud in the silence.

Then, as Keisha’s nerves wound tighter and tighter, like an overtuned harpstring, the spell - or whatever it was - finally broke. They both moved, the Companion tossing his head and sidling around so that his stirrup and saddle were in easy reach. Shandi reached for the cantle, then turned to her sister with eyes brimming with wonder.

That snapped everyone else out of their tense silence, and before Shandi could speak, she was surrounded by friends and neighbors, all of them contributing to a conglomerate of babble that sounded like a shouting match between a flock of hens and a gaggle of geese. As far as Keisha could make out, none of them had anything very intelligent to say, but they were all very intent on saying it.

Through a gap in the crowd, Shandi peered entreat-ingly back at her sister; Keisha sighed and pushed her way past everyone else to reach her.

Shandi paid attention to no one else, holding out her free hand entreatingly. “Keisha, I didn’t mean - I mean, I want to go, but I didn’t ask - I mean, I didn’t intend - ” Shandi was doing a good job of babbling herself, and Keisha reached out and gave her shoulders a friendly shake.

“Of course you didn’t mean for this to happen, you ninny,” she half-scolded, half-cajoled. “Choosings aren’t planned, everyone knows that - and it’s not as if you’d gone and made an appointment for this hairy beast to show up! I mean, if you could simply decide to be a Herald, what would be the point? Herald would be like any other job. You get Chosen because you’re the right person to be a Herald, you know that.”

And I, most certainly, am not!

Was it her imagination, or did the Companion swing his head around and wink at her, just as she thought that?

Oh, there’s probably a fly buzzing around his ears.

“But Keisha, I have to go, I mean I have to go now, and - ” Shandi looked at her, pleading with her to understand, tears brimming in her eyes and rolling slowly down one cheek.

“And if you didn’t have to go now, you know that Mum would find a thousand reasons why you couldn’t go, ever. I know that; Havens, probably everybody in town knows that.” Keisha tried to smile, but it was a great deal more difficult than she had thought it would be. “Shandi, that’s why it happens this way - I’ll bet that, otherwise, every single mother in Valdemar would have a thousand reasons why her child couldn’t go haring off into the sunset just on the say-so of a big white horse!”

“But - but - ” Shandi’s expression was painfully easy to read. Fix things for me, her eyes pleaded. This is more important than anything in my life, but I can’t go if you don’t promise to fix things forme!

Keisha closed her eyes for the briefest of moments, no more than a blink, stifled a sigh, and nodded. Just like always - it looked as if she was going to have to “pitch in” after all, and help clean up the mess. . . .

But that’s not being generous, and if it was me - oh, if Shandi could have substituted for me, I’d be at Healer’s Collegium now.

“Go,” she urged her sister, and meant it. “Go, and go now. I’ll take care of everything.”

Shandi believed her; Shandi always believed her. With a sigh of relief and a sudden smile like the sun emerging from a thundercloud, she kissed Keisha, hugged her tight, then fumbled loose the strings holding her belt-pouch to her belt. “Here - ” she said, pressing it into Keisha’s hands. “Take the dye, see what you can do with it, maybe it’ll be good for a medicine.” Then she turned away and mounted the Companion’s saddle with such ease and grace that it looked as if she’d been doing it all her life, never mind that she’d never ridden anything before but their aged pony. The Companion clearly was taking no chances; he gave Shandi no further chances for farewells or regrets. He danced a little, shook his harness, and pivoted in place on his hind feet. That got people to move out of his way, and pretty briskly, too. He moved out at a fast walk, allowing Shandi time enough only to wave good-bye before breaking into a canter at the end of the street. In no time at all, they were over the bridge, then lost to sight as the road was hidden by trees. Keisha let out the sigh she’d been holding in - and the exasperation. While the rest of trie villagers gathered in knots, still babbling with excitement, Keisha felt the weight of yet another burden fall on her shoulders. Let’s see - one hysterical mother, three heartbroken suitors, half a dozen friends left forlorn and a little jealous - I can handle that. I hope,

Keisha stood with her back to the wall in the warm, soup-scented kitchen, and wished she were anywhere else but there. Sidonie Alder had reacted to the news that her youngest daughter had been Chosen as a Herald precisely as she would have if Shandi had been abducted by barbarians. This made no sense, of course, but Keisha hadn’t expected anything else.

She tried not to wince when Sidonie’s voice rose to new and shriller heights. “I can’t believe you just let her go like that! How could you just stand there and let her be carried off?”

This was only about the hundredth time Keisha’s mother had repeated that particular accusation, and it didn’t look as if she were going to stop thinking Keisha was the villainess of the situation any time soon. Each time Sidonie uttered another outburst, before Keisha had a chance to say anything sensible in reply, she broke down into hysterical sobs and cast herself into the arms of her husband or one of her two oldest sons. This time it was her husband’s arms where she sought shelter from her traitorous offspring. He patted her back and said consolingly, “Now, Mother, you know that’s how it is.

Keisha couldn’t have done naught. That’s how they always do these Choosing things, I suppose, so they can make a clean break and all.”

“But she’s only a baby! She can’t take care of herself all alone!” was the inevitable reply, followed by a fresh spate of tears. Keisha wisely kept silent this time, since anything she’d tried to say until how had only brought on another outburst; her brother Garry was injudicious enough to put in his two bits.

“Aw, Mum, she’s not so little as all that!” Garry protested. “She’s old enough to take care of herself, and anyway, you know them Companions see to it the kids they Choose are right and tight. You’d have been losing her pretty soon, anyway. She’s had three beaus, an’ like as not, she’d have been married in a year or two - ”

Oh, no. Now he’s given Mum something else to weep about, Keisha thought with dismay.

She was right. “Now I’ll never see her wed!” came the wail, muffled by her husband’s shoulder. Keisha swallowed, as her stomach roiled. This was beginning to make her sick - literally.

But her father had a thoughtful look on his face, and it was pretty clear that he was thinking there was another side to all this, one that had a lot of advantages besides the obvious. Female Heralds, if they wed, generally married other Heralds; on the rare occasions they married outside the Circle, it was with men who asked nothing more of them than their company outside of duty, usually Healers or Bards. So if Shandi married, there would be no dowry to raise. If she wed, it would be with someone who would live far from Errold’s Grove - so there would be no need to put up with a son-in-law he disliked (and he disliked all three of Shandi’s suitors, each for a different reason).

The obvious reasons for being pleased about the situation were many, and he’d already brought them up to his wife, as had Keisha. Their daughter was going to be a Herald; they’d be the parents of a Herald. People would look up to them, they’d have new importance in the village; people would listen to what they said, even ask their opinions on matters of importance. Oh, of course she was going to be doing work that was often dangerous, but not for years yet, and it still wasn’t all that safe here in Errold’s Grove - after all, what if the barbarians came back?

Keisha could tell that her father had clearly come to the opinion that this was no bad thing; his thoughts might just as well have been written on his face for Keisha to read.

“Mum, she’s going to be fine,” Keisha said, once again, as her mother’s sobs quieted. “When have you ever heard of a newly Chosen Trainee coming to grief on the road? She’s going to be a very important person now, and people will look up to you because she’s your daughter. We might even get invited to Court someday and see the Queen! And if she decides to get married, what ever gave you the idea that she wouldn’t come here to do it?” This time - finally - this attempt at comfort wasn’t met with another outburst, and Keisha continued as soothingly as she could. “Mum, she’s going to be in the safest place in the world for at least four years - you just don’t get any safer than Herald’s Collegium. I mean, think! It’s right inside the Palace grounds! Think about that! Your daughter is going to be living on the Palace grounds, and not as a servant either! She’ll be back every long holiday, you know she will. After all, you couldn’t keep her away. Which one of us always throws herself into the holidays, hmm? Shandi, of course! Just because she’s going to be a Herald, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love her family!”

Oh, but I’m getting very close to not loving my dear family right now. . . . All of this excitement had given Keisha a pounding headache; she felt as if all her nerves were scraped raw and someone was pouring saltwater on them. Her stomach was so sour she probably wouldn’t be able to eat any supper. But Shandi was the baby - my baby sister, the one I looked after and picked up after - and if I didn ‘t have to help calm Mum down, I’d probably be the one bawling like a bereft calf right now. I can’t do that, and make sure Mum gets through this and starts to look on the bright side -

But right now, given the least sign that her mother was getting over her hysterics - or at least that some of her mother’s friends were going to come help console her - Keisha would be only too happy to get out of the house and go somewhere - anywhere - else.

Evidently she had been good enough and patient enough that for once her unspoken prayers were answered. As if the thought had been a summons, relief came bursting through the kitchen door at that very moment.

“Sidonie! Ayver!” Three of the neighbor women came bursting into the kitchen like a force of nature, all three of them managing to squeeze in at the same time, not waiting to be invited inside. “Is it true? A Herald? A Healer and a Herald in the same family, how proud you must be!”

A Healer and a Herald! she thought, startled for a moment by the phrasing. Oh, my - bless them for noticing!

Like the people in the market, they were all talking at once, but since there were only three of them, they didn’t step all over each other’s sentences so much that it all turned into a confused gabble. They surrounded Sidonie and Ayver, faces flushed with excitement at being so close to the great event. “Oh, Sidonie, just think! Our little Shandi is going to be so important!”

Sidonie took her face out of her husband’s shoulder, and though it was tear-streaked and red with weeping, it seemed that the arrival of her friends pulled her the last few steps out of hysteria. She wiped her face with her apron, and began to look more like her normal self.

Keisha deemed it practical at that point to remove herself.

But she hadn’t gotten more than a single step out the door - in fact, she was still standing on the threshold - before she ran into another of the Fellowship women, one whom she knew well. Alys was in charge of the health of all of the herds, and as such, she and Keisha had spent plenty of time together dosing the animals for a variety of illnesses and other problems. This afternoon Alys looked hesitant as she approached the house, and great relief spread over her blunt features when she saw that Keisha was just leaving.

“Oh, Keisha - I’m sure this is a bad time, but that chirra I was worried about has definitely got wet-tail - ” she began; Keisha didn’t give her a chance to say more. She took Alys’s elbow and pointed her toward the workshop, just as she spotted four more women bustling in their direction, heading for the Alder house.

“It’s always a bad time when a beast gets sick, you ought to know that!” she said, making a joke out of it. “They never choose reasonable times to have problems! No worry, I’m going to be the last creature Mum thinks about for a while. Not only will I not be missed, I can make you up what you need in no time; you’ve caught it early, so you should have a cure by tomorrow.”

The more distance she got between herself and the house, the better she felt, and chatting with Alys about the beasts of her herds was such a commonplace matter it could not have been a better antidote for the hysteria she’d just endured. Alys was a calming person to be around anyway; she had to be, as the animals she worked with were quick to sense agitation and become upset themselves. She was older than Sidonie by a year or two, sturdy, brown, and square, with a friendly face and open manner. Like all the women of the Fellowship, her workday clothing was fairly drab, not unlike Keisha’s, except that the tunic and breeches were of a better fit and not hand-me-downs.

The two of them entered the workshop, and Keisha began pulling down the boxes of herbs she needed as Alys went on about the most recent births. The sharp and pungent scents of herbs filled the air as Keisha worked, and the cool of the workshop allowed her headache to ease. It occurred to Keisha that Alys’ arrival provided not one, but two excellent excuses for staying away from home for a while. After all, it was spring, and that meant insect season; in particular, the fleas and ticks that would infest the Fellowship herds, given half a chance. So as soon as she had finished the wet-tail potion Alys needed, but before the woman could pull out her purse to pay for it, Keisha made her an additional offer.

“Look, this year I’d like to get ahead of the bugs instead of trying to catch up with them after your beasts are scratching themselves raw,” she said, trying to be as persuasive as she knew how. “Why don’t I make you up some batches of that repellent dip we talked about last year and a good supply of the kill dip. You can try the repellent right away, and if you see it isn’t working, you’ll be able to dip them all again with the kill before it gets to be a problem.”

Cautious, and frugal as always, Alys wrinkled her forehead and bit her lip cautiously. “That would be very helpful, but - ”

Keisha already knew what she was going to say; at the moment, the Fellowship’s coffers were pretty bare. They wouldn’t have made any major sales to traders since the Harvest Faire two seasons ago. “We’ll just make it a credit against a shawl trade later for one of my brothers - at least one of them is bound to settle on a girl by Harvest. Or if you’d rather, when the traders get done with you at Spring Faire, you can pay me then.” She grinned and held out her hands. “I’d rather have you on credit than have to deal with an infestation like we had three years ago!”

Alys shuddered and nodded agreement. The Fellowship folk normally didn’t much care for credit, but as Keisha had known it would, the mere mention of that horrible flea infestation made the difference. It had taken weeks to clear up, and worse, the poor beasts had yielded inferior fleeces that year. Between the cost of the dips and the loss of quality fleeces, the Fellowship’s steward had been beside himself. Alys had already been beside herself; anything that caused her beasts pain caused her anguish, too.

And since the dips are all made from things I can harvest in the woods right now, rather than things I have to pay for, I can afford to extend them the credit.

No sooner agreed than done; making up the batches of sheep dip ate up enough candlemarks that by the time Alys left, both arms laden down with baskets packed with jugs, the Alder home was full of friends and neighbors to the point where another body could not possibly have squeezed inside. Afternoon sun gilded the kitchen wall as Keisha stood out in the yard and listened for a moment; from the general emotional tenor of the cacophony, Sidonie had gone from grief to pride -

As it should be.

 - and now the gathering had all the signs of turning into an impromptu celebration.

But Keisha still didn’t want to be anywhere near it. And she didn’t want to have to deal with the three heartbroken boys either, for all three suitors would be bound to show up on the doorstep of her workshop, looking for consolation. At least, she didn’t want to deal with them right now.

But since I’m out of flea-wort, lerch buds, tannim bark and elo root now, I have the perfect reason to go harvest some. And, if they think I am sulking because my sister was Chosen and not me, well then, let them think that.

Maybe it will make some of them do something nice to comfort me. That way I can get some reward I can call “appreciation” to make up for the times my generosity was taken advantage of in the past.

With a big basket over one arm and harvesting tools in the pockets of her tunic, she set off to the woods to do just that. She took the long way round, using the path that skirted the edge of the fields rather than cutting straight through. Young plants were just starting to show whether they’d be successful or not; the weak ones were ready to be weeded out, and the strong ready for a bit of manure. She exchanged some sort of greeting with everyone working out there as she passed; it was impossible not to. The good thing was that since she was carrying her gathering basket, it was obvious that she had work to do, and there were only a limited number of candlemarks before dusk fell. No one would delay her when it might be medicine he would need that she’d be gathering.

Self-interest isn ‘t that bad a thing, when it comes down to it. We all tend to do things in self-interest, even - maybe especially - when we can couch it in terms of nobility and self-sacrifice. And look, Shandi gets the pretty white horse and a room at the Collegium while I get Errold’s Grove’s sicknesses and complaints.

The farther she got from the village, the better she felt; she felt her steps growing lighter once she entered the woods proper. Her stomach calmed down, and by the time she reached the lerchbush thicket, she was humming under her breath, and her headache was just about gone.

This probably isn’t the last time I am going to feel like there’s been some kind of injustice over Shandi being Chosen and not me - even if I don’t really want to be Chosen anyway. Besides, I have my own Gift and some appreciation, from some folks anyway. Valdemar wasn’t founded on things being fair in life, it was founded on coping with the unfairness of life. The tradition continues, Herald or not!

The lerchbush was a hardy creature and didn’t react badly to having a few of its buds pruned away. A woodpecker trilled just over her head, and as she carefully held each branch and pared every third bud off with a tiny knife, the rich, green scent of lerch sap spread on the air and she drank it in with pleasure. Each bud went into the hempen bag she had tied to her belt. She dabbed each “wound” with pitch from an unstoppered jar, to seal it and keep insects and fungi from infesting the branches as Steelmind had taught her. Taking care today means plenty tomorrow. That’s what he’d said, then smiled, as if at a joke only he understood.

When her bag was full, she tied it off, put it in the basket, and went in search of flea-wort, a kind of shelf-fungus that grew on the fallen bodies of winter-killed trees. For that, she had to seek out trees that were too rotten to use for firewood, whose deaths were due to insects or rot, and not storm.

When she returned to the village, basket full, it was already dusk and the sky had just begun to blossom with stars in the east. The village itself seemed oddly quiet, the houses dark and deserted. Only the faintest threads of smoke came from chimneys that should have been showing evidence of suppers on the hearth. She was puzzled, though not alarmed, by the quiet, until she got into the vicinity of the Alder home. Then it was quite obvious where the people had all gone!

An enormous party - a kind of extemporaneous Spring Faire in advance of the actual date - had invaded the house and the lawns and gardens of all the neighbors around it. She watched in some bemusement as her normally sober neighbors acted like adolescents on holiday. The house itself must have been packed to the ceiling, since there were people spilling out the door, and the celebration perforce had spread into the yard.

Evidently all of Errold’s Grove rejoiced in the Choosing of one of their own.

Well, she thought, it’s the most important thing to happen around here since the barbarians. That wasn’t exactly pleasant! Afterward, well, even though things came out all right in the end, I imagine no one was in any mood to celebrate anything. What was there to be happy about, after all? That only one relative was killed or that only half the house burned? That Lord Breon or the Hawkbrothers were there at the rescue ? Well, all right, perhaps that, but the circumstances eclipsed such elation. By the time any survivors could think clearly, their rescuers were long gone. This cause for the whole village to celebrate is well-timed.

Controlled campfires burned in the pottery bowls prescribed for fires within the village bounds, warming the folk gathered around them against the growing chill in the air. Some people were toasting sausages and the like on the ends of sticks, just exactly as they would during the Faire. From the wildly varied scents on the breeze and the way everyone seemed to be eating, guzzling, or both, every neighbor had contributed to the impromptu celebration by adding to the provender.

There would be no heartbroken former suitors showing up looking for comfort tonight, at least. A celebration was the last place any of them would want to be. They were probably brooding by the river somewhere, or weeping over one of Shandi’s ribbons -

Or they‘ve given her up completely, and they‘re chatting up one of the other girls at the party right this moment. When it came down to it, that was the likeliest.

Pausing for a moment in the shadows just outside the circles of light cast by the fires, Keisha pondered just exactly what she wanted to do. Did she really want to be engulfed by a party tonight? Was she in any kind of mood for a loud, boisterous celebration? Granted, she was happy for Shandi, but it wasn’t the type of emotion that drove her to go to a party.

No, she told herself immediately. No, I do not want any part of this. Mum, though, is in the best of hands, and a celebration is just what she needs. It ‘ll turn her right around.

Already, her head gave her faint intimations of what would happen if she allowed herself to be drawn into the commotion. A quiet night in her workshop, then a little reading before going to sleep - that sounded much more attractive than being plied with wine, babbled at, and staying up until the dawn. As for trying to find a corner of the house where she might be able to get some sleep, that looked pretty impossible.

So she reversed her steps and went straight to her workshop, closing the thick door firmly behind her. The heavy stone walls closed her in comfortably, effective blocking out noise. She sighed with content and relief, and felt her headache fade completely. It didn’t take long to get the fire going again, and it was the work of a few moments to get the kettle ready and swing it over the fire to boil.

While she waited for her tea, she bundled the herbs and hung them up from hooks in the ceiling to dry, then spread the buds in a drying tray and hung the tray from brackets over the window. By the time she had finished clearing up, the water was ready for tea, and she washed her hands and set to fixing it with a good appetite.

She kept a stock of food at the workshop in case she missed a meal at home, and there was more than enough for a fine dinner. Dinner was toasted bread and cheese, with roasted chick peas, and a satisfying and hearty tea with honey. She read a little while she ate, enjoying the luxury of being able to do so - but most of all, she cherished the quiet.

After she tidied up, she spent another contented candlemark or two putting together more of the common remedies she never seemed to have enough of, with special attention to those for headache and queasy stomach - for there were bound to be plenty of those after tonight’s indulgence.

She changed her mind about reading further, though, after she climbed up into the loft to her cozy feather bed. Instead of reading, she reached over to the shelf beside the bed and picked up her cross-stitch embroidery - at the moment, it was the makings of a fancy blouse. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy pretty things, after all, it was just that they were very impractical for someone in her vocation. . . .

On the other hand, she didn’t always have to be working, and there were enough celebrations to warrant having pretty clothing. Over the winter, with Shandi’s help, she’d picked out a light brown linen for a festival skirt, a lighter beige for a blouse, and had charted out a very pretty pattern in browns and golds for both. The skirt was done; now she was working on the sleeves and neckline of the blouse. It wouldn’t be finished for Spring Faire, but it probably would be for Midsummer. Cross-stitch - regular geometric patterns, that is - was very soothing, she had found. It allowed her mind to drift to other subjects, and sometimes as she worked, she was able to come up with answers to problems she needed to solve.

As she worked her needle through the linen tonight, she found herself wondering where Shandi was, right at the moment.

Would she be at an inn, I wonder? Or would that Companion take her to a waystation instead? In either case, Shandi would make herself at home. No one could resist her smile and her open friendliness, so she would be a welcome guest at an inn - doubly so, as newly Chosen. She’d probably be treated like a person of importance, and wouldn’t have to lift a finger for herself. If, on the other hand, she was at a waystation, she’d have herself tucked up snugly in no time at all. From all that Keisha understood, waystations were well provided for; Shandi was more of a housekeeper and cook than Keisha was. It was not as if Shandi would have to sleep out-of-doors, supperless.

That might be why the Companion was in such a hurry to leave, Keisha realized. They probably had a long way to go before they came to either an inn or a waystation! That would be a good thing to remind her mother of tomorrow, if Sidonie felt slighted that Shandi had left without waiting to say good-bye.

By now, I’ll bet Shandi is probably wishing she waited long enough to gather up her work basket! she thought with a chuckle. I’ve never seen her sitting down without something to work on in her hands. Well, there ought to be at least one trader from Haven here at the Faire; I’ll box up all her handiwork and send it off to her with him. With luck, I may be able to send her some scarlet thread as well.

Would she be lonely, all by herself in a little way-station? Probably not; she’d have the Companion, after all, and everyone knew that Companions and Heralds had a special bond that was as close as anything two humans could have. I wonder if she can Mindspeak to him? I wonder what that would be like? Marvelous, but maybe a little scary; at least, that’s what she thought it might be like for her.

Did Shandi miss Keisha? I certainly miss her already. Brothers just aren‘t the same as sisters. It was hard to think of what things would be like without her. . . .

She found herself nodding over her work, so she folded the blouse pieces carefully, putting them away in her work basket and stowing everything on the shelf beside her bed. She blew out her candle, and curled up -

 - and even as she wondered if Shandi was awake or dreaming, she fell asleep.

Two

Morning broke clear and cool, with shreds of fog drifting above the fields and birds singing with all their hearts in the thatch of Keisha’s roof. The faint hint of wood smoke mingled with fresh air laden with the perfume of spring flowers and the tang of new leaves - normally she woke to the odor of cooking porridge or pancakes. Keisha’s nose, which was all that was peeking out from under the covers, was cold; she preferred to sleep with a window open. The birds woke her, and her cold nose twitched at the unaccustomed aromas; all the rest she saw from the small open window in her loft-bedroom.

She stretched luxuriously and snuggled underneath her down comforter and blankets, enjoying the simple pleasure of lying abed for as long as she cared to. Had she been at home this morning, she’d have been rudely jarred awake before dawn by the noise of five clumsy young men stumbling about the house, getting fed and ready to go to work. They couldn’t seem to accomplish this simple task without a great deal of hunting for boots and clothing, accompanied by shouting questions to each other concerning the location of those articles. Once awake, there was no point in even trying to go back to sleep, since Sidonie would come roust Keisha out to help with household chores before she joined her husband and sons on the farm.

Instead of being jolted awake, Keisha had been serenaded awake, and after dawn, not before. Instead of being hauled off to wash dishes - or, dear gods, pick up after last night’s enormous party - she had enjoyed absolutely undisturbed sleep.

Of course, the penalty for this is that I have to make my own breakfast and heat my own wash water, but I think that’s a fair trade. Given that Shandi was gone, there would have been twice the work to do on a normal morning, and after the celebration last night, well, the amount of cleaning up didn’t bear thinking about. And would Sidonie even consider taking care of the cleanup gradually, say, by putting off things like floor washing and yard cleanup for a few days? Not a chance.

Sidonie would insist that it all be done at once. Well, with neither Shandi nor Keisha there, maybe she’d finally get the boys to do their own share of the work - after all, each one of them made more mess than Shandi and Keisha put together.

It certainly wouldn‘t hurt them to start taking care of themselves. Maybe they’d start being more careful if they had to take care of the consequences of their own laziness.

That was a satisfying thought.

Well, what have I got left here to wear? How long ago did I bring things over? She took a quick mental inventory; since the last time she’d brought in cleaned smocks and breeches, she hadn’t had any major injuries to deal with, so all three outfits were still here. Good.

She always kept at least one spare outfit here in case she got particularly bloodied; Sidonie had an aversion to seeing her daughter come in with bloodstains on her clothing, though she had no such problem with the same stains on her sons. Why was that? Sidonie had no fear of blood; she’d been born and raised on a farm. She was a farmer’s wife, and the spillage of blood was part of farm life. Besides, women weren’t exactly strangers to blood themselves.

She sat up a little more and wrapped one of her blankets around her shoulders. As she propped her knees up, one possibility came to her.

You know, it occurs to me that Mum’s problem is less with bloodstains and more with the notion that it isn‘t ladylike for a girl to do things that would get her hands bloodied on a regular basis. I mean, even at slaughtering time, Mum doesn’t get into the butchering until the carcasses have been bled out and gutted.

That brought up some new things to think about; with Shandi gone, Sidonie would only have one female child to concentrate on rather than two. Now, that meant more than simply having the number of domestic helpers halved. Shandi had been as dainty and ladylike as her mother could have wished, relieving Keisha of the need to be either of those things. Now, though -

Now she’s going to be at me to get a suitor, to act like a proper lady, to start having children. Besides all the chores, she’ll want me to spend my free time doing needlework and making pretty clothes, putting together a dower-chest, not studying my books or making medicines.

She groaned softly. It seemed that Shandi had saved her from more than she ever realized. Just by being there and being what she was, Shandi had kept their mother’s attention fixed on her, leaving Keisha freer than she would be now.

I’d thought my life was complicated before!

It was so hard to balance all the demands that were made on her. If they had their way, her parents wanted her to help with the domestic chores, the farm work, get married, have children. As far as the people of Errold’s Grove were concerned, the villagefolk wanted her to concentrate on nothing but their injuries and ailments, or the hurts and illnesses of their animals.

Not that I don’t prefer the animals, when it comes to that. They don’t spend most of their time complaining! But that was unkind; of course people complained, it kept them from feeling quite so afraid. When they were sick or hurt, they lost control over their very selves, as they perceived them, and had to rely on the skills and tools of someone else - so it was only natural that they would complain. Up to a point, the more they complained, the more frightened they were known to be.

Past that point, they’re too paralyzed with fear to do anything. I guess I should be grateful that they ‘re still complaining. Handling the dead is worse than listening to the living.

Healer Gil, on the other hand, never lost the opportunity to let her know that he still felt she should be at the Collegium; that he had no real confidence in her ability to get beyond herb- and knife-Healing if she didn’t go.

Well, he’s got a good point there. I am making no headway with those books. How I wish that old Wizard Justyn was still around! Surely he could have helped me make sense of those pages!

Perhaps she would have to go, but who would take over for her? Could she train someone like Alys?

Oh, no one would take this on who wasn‘t a volunteer, and if anyone had been willing to volunteer before, they wouldn’t have needed me. As for Alys, she’d made it quite clear that she was in no way willing to extend her services beyond the animals in her charge.

Not that I blame her. She is far more reticent and shy than I am.

Now how was she to reconcile all these differing plans for her future? Obviously, someone was going to be angry with her, no matter what she did.

Something else occurred to her as she worried at her thoughts like a puppy with a bit of rag. This was the first morning in months when she hadn’t woken up with the claustrophobic feeling that her entire family was closing in on her. It always seems as if they’re right beside me, breathing over my shoulder, even when they ‘re in the next room. Now that might have been because the cubby she had shared with Shandi was scarcely bigger than a closet. . . .

But it might not. People are all beginning to irritate me lately. How many times have I gotten away from someone feeling as if they’ve been rubbing my nerves raw? How many times have I wanted to shove them away? For that matter, how many times have I been feeling as sick as the person I was treating until I got away from them?

Not that she was all that comfortable around people; that had always been Shandi’s gift. Shandi could make a friend out of a stranger in the space of a few words; unless Keisha was giving explicit instructions to someone or bargaining with a merchant, she always felt tongue-tied and awkward with strangers and friends alike. She actually preferred to be around the sick and injured, in a way, because then she had complete control over the situation.

For that matter, you couldn‘t really say that I actually have friends, not like Shandi’s. For me, a friend is someone I can get along with, like Alys of the Fellowship - but you don’t see her inviting me to dinner or sharing confidences.

She had to chuckle a little at that, despite the morose turn of her thoughts. Sharing confidences, indeed! And what sort of confidences would Alys be likely to share? Stories about the love lives of the chirrasl

Still and all, maybe that was why she got along better with Alys than her neighbors or her family. Neither of us is very good with people. Animals are simpler, I suppose. Animals certainly have less complicated emotions, and are never upset when you say the wrong thing.

In the thin, clear light of dawn, she saw yet another whole new side of Shandi that she hadn’t really expected; Shandi as her guardian. In retrospect, Shandi had spent a lot of time protecting her from having to deal with other people in day-to-day matters.

A thousand memories came flooding back, of Shandi responding to silent summons or unspoken entreaties as if she heard them, and taking the attention of others off Keisha with a word or a laugh.

And Shandi spent a lot of time keeping Mum and Da from worrying at me.

How had she not noticed, all this time? And now what was she going to do without that protection?

She frowned at herself for being such a coward. Cope, that’s what I’ll do. I’m a big girl.

She would just have to steel herself and learn how to interact socially with other people. She wasn’t stupid, after all, she could learn.

For a moment, though, it almost seemed as if her best option wouldbe to travel to Haven in Shandi’s wake and enroll in Healer’s Collegium!

Oh, yes, and just how am I to do that? I’ve nowhere near enough money to travel that far, and there’s no magic Companion to carry me off and see that I don’t get into trouble along the way -

No, that was a specious argument, and she knew it. Lord Breon would not only give her the money to travel on, he’d probably assign one of his guards and two horses to take her there. And if he wouldn’t - she had only to get as far as the nearest House of Healing, and the Healers there would see to it.

That was the trouble with arguing with herself - she had to be honest. She chuckled sourly and adjusted her blanket. I’m so bad with people I can’t even win an argument with myself.

All right, the obvious problem of leaving her people without someone at least marginally qualified to help them, was an excuse. She had to face it; the real reason she didn’t want to go was -

I don’t want to leave, to go off somewhere among total strangers for at least two years, to some huge city where I would be totally lost.

The very idea made her skin crawl. All those strangers, and nowhere she would know to go where she could escape them! All those strangers. . . oh, gods. No, and it’s no good to say that at least Shandi would be there, because she’s going to be at Herald’s Collegium. She’ll be so busy becoming a Herald that she‘d be just as far from me there as she is now.

She just was not like her sister; she didn’t make friends easily, and she never would. She’d get so tongue-tied with the people at Healer’s Collegium that they’d probably think she was feeble-minded! It could be months before I managed to say anything sensible to strangers. And I’d be so lonely. . . .

The larger the crowd around her, especially of strangers, the more she withdrew and wanted to hide. The only time she didn’t feel that way was when she was on ground familiar to her - actually, or metaphorically. She was able to make desultory conversation with people she knew, with strangers in her own home, or if the topic had to do with things she already knew. At the Faires she invariably hung around the outskirts; at celebrations - well, generally she did exactly what she’d done last night, go to bed early. I’m just no good at social chitchat, I suppose.

She was absolutely certain her own nature would condemn her among the expert teachers at Healer’s Collegium. Until they actually gave me something that I already knew how to do - I’d look like a right idiot, I know it. And worse, I’d sound like one, too. She could just imagine being called on in a class to recite something from a lesson - it would be worse than when she’d had her lessons with the other village children! The old woman who’d taught them had soon learned not to call on Keisha for any recitations; any time she’d wanted to know what Keisha had learned, she’d have Keisha write it out.

But that was here - they wouldn‘t give me that kind of special consideration at the Collegium. How could they? I’d be nothing special there, just another student, not someone they were going to rely on to tend their ills.

Shandi, on the other hand, would be fine in Haven even without the Companion. That’s what Mum doesn’t understand about Shandi; everyone likes Shandi at first sight and goes out of their way to help her. They always have, and probably always will. That’s why she has so many suitors; they all think they’re in love with her just because she smiles at them and they‘re enchanted. They don’t realize that they feel that way because she’s just that way and can’t help being so nice to them that it makes them feel as if she’s nice only to them. Shandi has always assumed the best of everything, everyone, and every situation, and more often than not, they live up to it.

Keisha shook her head, and reckoned that she must have been born somber, or at least, without humor. Without humor, I suppose; I never can see what most jokes are about. Havens, I generally can’t tell when someone is telling a joke! And no one seems able to figure me out, that I don’t really enjoy noise and carrying on like everyone else seems to.

Even her mother complained constantly that Keisha was far too inscrutable, and that she could never tell what Keisha was thinking or feeling, not that Keisha always wanted her to be able to do so. If Mum knew what 1 was thinking - oh, would I ever get in trouble.

But she also complained that Keisha was always taking everything too seriously. So did her brothers. And so, for that matter, did her father, even though he seldom complained about or even commented on anything.

Am I putting people off? I suppose I must be.

Well, just look at the difference between the number of suitors Shandi had and the number - none - that Keisha had. There’s no other reason why. Shandi and I look an awful lot alike - we share similar features, the same hair and eye color, and her figure is no better than mine. Oh, granted, she does generally dress better than I do, but I’ve worn pretty things without getting the attention she gets. It has to be that I’m putting people off.

Now she had to ask herself as she often did - Am I jealous of Shandi?

She thought back over the selection of young men available in Errold’s Grove and shook her head, thought about the sort of things that Shandi and her friends did for amusement and knew she’d be utterly bored. No, I’m absolutely not jealous! There’s only so much discussion of bodices and embroidery patterns that I can stand. And as for coquetting and flirting about - why bother?

No, it was just another sign that she just didn’t fit in with other people. Without Shandi’s vivacity, animation, and sunny smiles, Keisha attracted about as much attention as a piece of furniture. Which is, after all, the way I prefer things. How would I get anything done if I had young men mooning around after me the way they follow Shandi about? What a nuisance!

So she wasn’t entirely unhappy with the situation. Not entirely. It would have been nice to have one friend, or one suitor. Someone sensible, someone she could actually have a conversation with, someone who had an interesting life of his own.

Well, this is wasting time. I’ve been slothful long enough. She threw off the blankets and flung open the lid of the chest that shared the loft with her bed. Quickly she got out clean clothing, and just as quickly scrambled into another oversized tunic and worn pair of breeches, shivering in the chilly air.

She half-climbed, half-slid down the ladder to the main room, ducked her head under the pump at the sink and performed a shivery wash-up, then stirred up the fire. In a reasonable length of time the room was warm, and a decent breakfast of bread and butter and tea was inside her. She put three eggs on to boil, picked out a withered apple to finish her breakfast, and with a grimace of determination, opened the book still on the bench to the last place she’d gotten stuck.

It was time to go to work.

She was interrupted four times before she gave up, still baffled by references to “shields” and “grounds.” Once it was because she had to take the eggs off to cool, three times because children came knocking on her door with injuries. By then she was hungry again, and threw together a salad of young greens from her garden to eat with her eggs.

When she’d washed up afterward, she tidied up the workshop, then looked around and sighed. She couldn’t put it off any longer; she had to go back to the house.

Bother.

Knowing that with all the work last night’s celebration had generated, Sidonie would still be at home, her conscience goaded her into going back to pick up some of the work. I can’t say “my fair share,“ since I wasn ‘t generating any of the mess, but it’s not fair to leave Mum with all of it, I suppose.

With reluctant steps, she made her way back through the village, to be greeted at the door with the expected, “Where have you been?” from her mother at the sink, up to her elbows in soap and water.

“Working, Mum, and studying.” She didn’t feel any guilt over that - after all, that was her job! - and although she didn’t put on a defiant air, she did face her mother’s eyes squarely.

Sidonie sighed. “Well, next time the entire village decides to celebrate something, I hope they choose someone else’s house. I’ve been here all day, and I’m beginning to think we ought to move back to the farm.”

“Well, I’d have to stay here - ” Keisha began, and her mother interrupted her.

“I know, and that’s why I haven’t said anything to your father.” Sidonie rinsed a plate and stacked it with the rest to dry. “Go clean up the yard, would you? I’ve been that busy in the house, I haven’t had time to get to it.”

Since that was a better job than washing dishes by Keisha’s way of thinking, she was perfectly happy to go back outside and take care of the tidying up.

It was rather amazing, the amount of trash people could generate. Portable fireplaces had just been tipped over and the cold coals and ashes dumped before their owners carried the fireplace home, for instance. Sticks used to toast sausages were just littered about, and bits of kindling, the odd kerchief or scarf, and a wooden cup. The village dogs had already taken care of discarded food, and what they hadn’t gobbled up, the crows had - good enough reason to put off clean-up! Keisha worked her way methodically across the yard; coals and kindling went into the Alder’s own kindling stack, ashes were scooped thriftily onto the flower border, and other folks’ belongings placed on a window ledge where the owners would presumably find them. She swept gravel back onto the path, put ornamental stones back along the border, and put the tiny plot of herb garden back to rights. Where markers had been inadvertently knocked over or flattened, she replaced them, where sticky stuff - of unknown origin - had been spilled, she dusted a little ash over it so it wouldn’t attract insects.

She’d just finished when her mother emerged, bearing a basket full of wet clothing. Sidonie thrust it into her hands and bustled back into the house without a word.

Oh, dear. I suppose she’s pretty irritated with me.

Better say nothing, then, and stay out of further trouble. She took the heavy load of clothes and set it down next to the rosemary hedge.

Sidonie had her own order of things, one that was not to be deviated from. Keisha followed that order as faithfully as any medicinal recipe. She spread shirts and underthings on the top of the hedge where the sun would bleach them; since today there was little or no breeze, there was no need to pin each garment to a branch to keep it from flying away. Stockings and breeches she pinned to the clothesline with wooden pegs her brothers carved during long winter nights - but they had to go on the section of line that would be in the sun. Anything embroidered or made with colored cloth went on the line in the shade to preserve those precious colors.

When she did her own laundry, everything went on the line, regardless, but Sidonie felt that the shirts and other white things got more sun if they were laid flat on the hedge.

Not that it would matter all that much with my clothing!

Sidonie came out twice more with baskets full of wet clothing; by the time Keisha was done, there wasn’t a single bud or stem visible on the hedge and clothing on the line had been double-pinned, two garments sharing the same space. When Keisha brought back the third basket empty, Sidonie met her at the door with the Alder’s lone bit of carpet and a brush.

No need to ask what that was for either. Keisha took it downwind of the drying laundry, out to the railings of the neighbor’s fence, and laid it over the top rail. She brushed and beat the bit of rug until no more dirt or mud would come out of it and her arms were tired.

She brought both back, and this time her mother accepted them with a smile. She smiled back, relieved. Evidently she’d performed enough penance.

“Here - go sweep up,” Sidonie told her, handing her the broom. “I seem to have all our dishes and most of our neighbors’ as well - ”

And Sidonie would never return so much as a cup if it was still soiled. Keisha ventured an opinion.

“Mum, why aren’t the boys helping you?” she asked, digging the broom into the cracks of the wooden floor to dislodge crumbs that would attract mice. “They make more than their share of mess, and it wouldn’t hurt them to help.” At Sidonie’s quizzical look, she added slyly, “And they’re stronger; they could really do a good job of scrubbing.”

“Oh, they’re such clumsy louts,” Sidonie began, but she sounded doubtful this time, and Keisha took advantage of that doubt to press her point home.

“I wouldn’t trust them to do dishes, or to wash good clothes, but they can’t hurt anything scrubbing floors and walls or washing sheets and their own clothing. Maybe if they had to scrub their own clothes, they wouldn’t be so quick to get stains all over them.”

Her mother laughed. “Isn’t that the pot saying the kettle’s black?” she asked gently.

Keisha snorted. “At least my stains come from work, not drinking wine and beer with my friends - and what’s more, I do scrub my own, I’ve never asked you to do it, not since I started this Healing business.” She warmed to her subject. “What’s more, I never get stains on my good clothes!”

“You never wear your good clothes,” Sidonie pointed out.

“Because I’d get stains on them,” she countered. “And I do wear them, just not every other day to impress some girl! I just think they’d be more careful if they knew they’d be the ones doing the work.”

This time, instead of dismissing the idea, her mother actually looked as if she was thinking about it - and thinking about the fact that half her work force was gone, and the other half - as she’d discovered this morning - was not always reliably available. “You might have a point, dear,” was all she said, but Keisha was encouraged. “Would you go pack up Shandi’s things for me? Ruven of the Fellowship says that there will be a trader for their shawls and trims coming straight from Haven and going straight back after the Faire, and he’ll take Shandi some packages, probably in exchange for her embroidery threads.”

“Then I’ll give him a little more incentive,” Keisha told her. “Shandi and I had gotten some scarlet dye; I’ll go ahead and make up some thread, you know how hard it is to get scarlet, and that should seal the bargain.”

“Oh, now that would be a help,” Sidonie replied, brightening, since as Keisha knew, the trader would probably ask for a coin or two as well, and this would save the Alder household from having to part with those hard-earned coins. “Just - try not to get your hands all red this time, dear.”

Keisha pretended she hadn’t-heard that last as she went to the back of the house to the little cubby-bedroom she shared with Shandi. After all, it had been ages since the incident when she dyed her hands with red ocher, and how was she supposed to know the stuff had to wear off? It had been her first experiment with dye for Shandi!

Shandi was so neat that it didn’t take long to make her things up into a few tightly packed packages. Keisha left her a generous supply of embroidery threads for her own use but kept out the rest to use to bargain with the trader. Shandi’s friends would just have to find another source for their threads from now on - Or they can spin their own and pay me to dye them.

She also kept all of the undyed spun thread; not only was she going to dye as much of it scarlet as she could tonight, but she intended to make that experiment with overdying in indigo and see if that didn’t make a purple.

I’ll have to dry it in the workshop, though - and without afire. In fact, I’d better dye it before dark so I don’t have to use a candle. The fumes could be dangerous.

She was just as glad that she was the one doing this batch of dye and not Shandi. She wasn’t certain she could have impressed on Shandi just how dangerous those fumes could be in close quarters. None of the dyes Shandi had used until now needed anything but water and a solvent followed by a fixative, and none was poisonous unless you were stupid enough to drink it.

But my medicines can be very poisonous. The bruise potion, for instance, or the joint-ache rub; they could both kill you if you weren‘t careful.

She paused for a moment to admire Shandi’s undyed threads, the wool, the linen, and the special baby chirra-wool that she got from the Fellowship. No one in the village could spin a tighter, smoother thread than Shandi, and no one made thread better suited to embroidery. Shandi’s threads were not inclined to knot, break, or catch; that was why everyone liked them.

But Audi is almost as good - and this will just give her incentive to do better.

When Keisha had finished, there was just enough daylight left to do the dyeing that she’d decided on. She took the hanks of undyed thread, left the packages on Shandi’s bed, and headed out the door at a fast walk before Sidonie could recruit her to help with dinner. “I’ve got something I have to do, Mum!” she called as she went out the door. “I’ll be back for dinner!”

She got herself out of shouting distance by breaking into a run as soon as she let the door slam behind her - thus making it possible to claim that she hadn’t heard Sidonie, if a reproach was to come over dinner.

She closed the door of her workshop behind her and leaned against it for a moment, conscious of a profound feeling that she had reached a sanctuary, and guilty for having that feeling.

Then she dismissed both emotions, caught up in the excitement of having something new to experiment with. The pouch with the dye in it waited in a patch of sunlight on the workbench, and she had the rest of the afternoon before her.

She quit only when it was getting darkish and the fumes from the dyeing thread made her feel as if she’d drunk three glasses of wine and then hit herself in the head with the bottle. By then, the last couple of hanks came out noticeably lighter than the others, which meant that the dye was losing strength.

That’s all right, she thought as she hung them to dry with the rest, along the line where she usually hung bunches of herbs to dry. They‘ll either be a nice rose-pink, or I can use them for that overdying experiment. She had more than enough thread to make the trader willing to seal the bargain, and she’d used up three-quarters of the dye to do it. If Shandi’s friends complained, she had enough dye left to dye their spinning, which wasn’t good enough to tempt a trader. Thar’s a reasonable compromise, I think.

She’d been careful to dye equal amounts of all three kinds of thread, too - linen for embroidering on light fabrics, sheep’s wool for tapestry work on canvas, such as highborn ladies indulged in, or for embroidering woolen clothing and leather, and chirra-wool for work on heavier fabrics than linen.

She made sure all the windows of the workshop were open before she left; by morning the fumes should be gone and the threads dry. Her work was probably not quite as perfect as Shandi’s - for her sister would make certain that every skein in a dye lot matched, and discard the dying solution as soon as the color showed any sign of weakening - but as rare as a good scarlet was, she doubted that would matter. As she left the workshop, she was gratified to see that she had managed not to get any of that scarlet dye on herself.

She’d thought about discarding the dregs, then thought better of it, sealing the bowl with another placed upside-down atop it. If those last skeins came out pink, it might be worth the trouble to keep dying, letting the color grow fainter and fainter, as long as it stayed colorfast. Shandi did that with indigo, and the girls loved being able to do subtle shadings with the results, producing flowers that looked real enough to pick.

Dinner was already on the table when Keisha arrived, and there were no reproaches for her from Sidonie when she pulled up her stool and helped herself to bread and soup.

Her father picked up what was obviously a conversation in progress before she arrived. “Na, then,” he said, looking pointedly at Tell, the middlemost of the five boys. “It’s about time you started helping out your Mum, like. You’re of an age, and you think she’s been put in the world to be your servant? Not likely, then.”

Keisha kept her head and eyes down and ate quickly. The expressions on her brothers’ faces had ranged from astonished to offended, sullen to rebellious. This did not bode well for her.

“What about Keisha?” asked Rondey, the oldest, whose expression had been the offended one. “She’s a girl, and it’s her place - ”

My place? Oh, really? Keisha thought, anger rising.

“Keisha was here doing her share and yours today, for you were lazing about with your friends this afternoon,” Sidonie snapped. “Trish saw you, so you needn’t deny it and say you were working.”

“And as for talk about place, I’d like to know where you got ideas like that,” Ayver said, with some heat of his own. “There’s no places in this family unless I put you in it, and I won’t hear any more nonsense like that, talking about your sister that way! It wasn’t you that was Chosen, was it, and maybe now your mouth has just given us the reason why!”

Keisha risked a glance out of the corner of her eye and saw Rondey redden to the same glorious scarlet hue that she’d dyed into the threads.

“As to places, you might take thought, you boys, as to who’s going to be doing your cooking and cleaning when your Mum is gone and your reputations keep any girl from wanting to take you as a husband, hmm?” Ayver chuckled, and Sidonie continued that line of thought.

“Oh, indeed, let me tell you that there isn’t a girl in this village who’d wed a man who’s likely to treat her as his private servant!” she snapped. “And as for me - I may well stop keeping house before I die - I won’t be spry forever, you know! Your good Da knows how to care for himself, but you lazy louts can count on it that he won’t be waiting hand and foot on you!”

“So there you have it, lads. No choice for you.” Ayver chuckled again, quite heartlessly, and Keisha almost choked on her soup, suppressing a chuckle of her own. “You’ll be doing your own wash and picking up from now on, and each of you will take, a turn at the dishes and cooking supper. If you don’t want to cook, you can buy a meat pie or pasties from the baker, or pay a neighbor to make us soup. If you don’t like having to share the chores, you’re free to find some other household that will take you in, or live in the woods.”

The groans that arose from his words were heartrending, but Ayver’s word was law, and the boys knew it. Keisha finished her portion quickly and took her bowl to the sink; much as she disliked doing dishes, she decided it would be politic to volunteer tonight, and began on the soup pot and cooking utensils already waiting there.

Evidently the boys hadn’t figured out that she was the source of their new chores - or else they were hoping for an ally - because they were decent to her when they brought her their bowls. That was certainly a relief! And Sidonie’s quick hug when she brought the rest of the dishes was a welcome surprise.

“I know you’ve been worked hard, lovey, and you haven’t complained about it till now,” her mother said in her ear. “And it isn‘t fair, not when the town depends so much on you. You’re a bit young to have that on your shoulders, and I keep forgetting that you’re more than just my little girl. And I know you kept getting lost in Shandi’s shadow - that wasn’t fair either.”

Keisha had often wished she could go off into the woods to live as a hermit, but not at that moment. She flushed, and smiled at her mother. “It’s all right – now that the boys are going to pitch in to help,” she said. Then an awful thought occurred to her. “You aren’t really going to make them cook, are you?”

Sidonie laughed. “If they give up one night in the tavern, they’ll have enough to buy us all supper for that night,” she pointed out. “And if they really want to cook, I’ll be overseeing everything to make certain what comes out in the end isn’t going to poison us.”

“Oh, good.” Keisha heaved a sigh of relief and rinsed the last spoon. “Oh - I got you a rose vine from Steelmind yesterday; I’ll plant it tomorrow. Where do you want it?”

Sidonie beamed and gave her another hug. “And I just this afternoon thought about putting up a trellis by the bedroom window, and I was wondering what to train on it! There, please, lovey. Going to study before you go to sleep?”

“Of course,” she replied with wry resignation. “What else?”

“Then you might as well take the kitchen candle with you,” her mother replied, and kissed her on the cheek. “Good night, sweet.”

She took the proffered candle and went to her little cubby, now strangely empty without Shandi, but scented with her favorite herbs. She studied until her eyes grew too heavy to keep open, then blew out the candle and pulled the blankets over her head to block out the snores and grunts of her brothers. Tonight as she fell asleep, her thoughts were not of Shandi, but about the old wizard, Justyn. She’d never seen him; they were too far out in the country for a child to come into town and she’d never been sick enough to need his attentions. She wished that she had known him.

For all that her parents loved her, they still didn’t really understand her. It’s the feeling - the feeling I have that’s so strong, that I have to help people. Like seeing two ends of rope and wanting to tie them, just because they are there, as if they are somehow incomplete until I join them. It’s as strong as needing to breathe or eat, and they just don’t grasp that. I can’t help myself, I never could; when someone is hurt or sick, I have to help them no matter what. She had the feeling that he would have understood her, though, or else why would he have stayed and stayed during all the years when he was disregarded?

He had that feeling, too, he must have. Oh, how I wish he were here now, to teach me all the things I don’t know!

Three

Hooves made very little sound on leaf-littered forest floor, which was a welcome change to everyone from the steady clicking of dyheli hooves on roads packed rock-hard from generations of use. And after four years of so-called “normal” forests and entirely domesticated Valdemaran fields, Darian Firkin was glad to see a forest that looked normal to him.

It’s so good to be on home territory again! Trees so tall you can’t see the tops from the ground, with trunks so big it takes three men to circle them. This is more like it! He didn’t crane his neck and gawk upward the way a “foreigner” would, but all the same he was very aware of how high the trees above him reached, simply by virtue of the fact that he had to look up before he saw any branches springing from the huge trunks standing all around him. Darian had grown up on the edge of the Pelagirs, and what the Valdemarans seemed to think of as proper-sized trees looked like saplings to him. Most of his life had been spent in the forests with his trapper parents, rather than in his home village of Errold’s Grove, and he felt as comfortable among trees as did his adopted Hawkbrother-kin.

Oh, it’s very, very good to be home. Now I don‘t feel as if the sky is going to swallow me up. Despite the pleasure he took in his surroundings, he remained alert. The rest of the team rode ahead of Darian; he usually rode tail-guard, and took his responsibility seriously.

They were all on their way home now - not to Errold’s Grove, at least not immediately, but to k’Vala Vale. This little group of Tayledras - one of many, be it added - had taken on the task of spending four years away from their Vale for the purpose of cleansing some of the northernmost Valdemaran territories of pockets of “trouble” left over from the mage-storms that had swept the entire world a few years ago. Darian had personal experience of the Storms and of their results, most of which were anything but beneficial, and he could see why the Valdemarans needed help with it. “Trouble” could take many forms: bizarre creatures warped and twisted from ordinary animals; dangerous animals “imported” from some other far lands within the area of Change-Circles; even pools of magical energy with the potential to affect anything that fell into it. And while they were at it, they were establishing new ley-lines and nodes, or reestablishing old ones, so that magical energies, just like rainwater, could again flow into and through convenient channels.

He smiled to himself, shrugging the quiver on his back into a more comfortable position; it tended to ride down a little. Not that they wouldn‘t establish their own, eventually, but I rather fear my adoptive kin have a passion for neatness in magic. It was no accident that the ley-lines and nodes established in or near Tayledras territory all fed into Tayledras Heartstones, for instance, instead of messily running this way and that without any consideration for the convenience of the would-be users.

For, as all mages knew to their sorrow, the mage-storms had disrupted everything, spreading magic, much like a fall of freezing rain, evenly across the face of the world. For the most part, magic collected in nodes or stored in objects had been dispersed as effectively as all the rest - some few reservoirs had been shielded and saved (most notably, the Heartstones of the Tayledras Vales), but when the Storms were over, those reservoirs no longer had sources to replenish them. By reestablishing the ley-lines, mages of the level of Master and above would eventually have reliable and powerful sources of energy to tap into.

“Eventually” though - that was the key. It would take time for enough magical energy to trickle into those channels and collect again. For now, as Darian’s very first teacher had told him, the powerful magics that Adepts and even Masters had been able to perform were things of the past - there just wasn’t enough readily available, amassed energy available to perform them. He had heard it spoken of as “fog” by Starfall - sure, there might be enough water in a barn-sized mass of fog, but it did you no good if you wanted a drink of water.

Well - that’s almost true. If three or four mages got together and pooled their personal power, you could do one fairly impressive piece of work. But you couldn‘t hold it for long, and the mages would be useless for a week after. Or worse, they‘d be dead, which is certainly a scandalously wasteful use of mages and one which the mages would probably object to. The faint sound of a twig snapping behind them made him swivel to peer back along their trail, only to see a deer in the far distance stare back at him, then bound away out of sight.

By Adept Starfall’s way of thinking, even leaving mages exhausted and drained was just a little too expensive a price for a temporary achievement. Darian tended to agree, at least in principle, though he could think of a few occasions when it might be worth it. On the whole, he preferred Starfall’s precept that it was better and more effective to use small magics cleverly than big ones clumsily.

:Kuari?: he Mindcalled to his bondbird :Anything back there but deer?:

:Fox. Tree-hare. Was squirrel. Tasty, too.: Kuari’s mind-voice was overlaid with sated pleasure, but it wasn’t as intense as it would have been if he’d stuffed himself.

:Do me a favor and circle a bit, then come back to the line.: Something had caused that deer to come out of cover - it might have been the animal’s own curiosity, but if it wasn’t, Darian wanted to know the cause.

Kuari gave willing assent, and Darian’s thoughts returned to their original track.

After helping to defeat a barbarian army that had decimated the countryside and occupied Errold’s Grove, Darian had been formally adopted by Mage-Scout Snowfire as his younger brother, arid had left the area he’d known all his life to follow his new kindred. The Tayledras as a whole had made a treaty-agreement with Valdemar to cleanse their land in return for payment; each Clan and Vale that sent one or more teams out would decide just what form the payment for their team would take. In the case of k’Vala, it would be in the form of raw materials, such as wool, linen, metals, and the like - especially metals. Tayledras disliked mining, and without the magical means to bring metals to the surface, mining was the only way to get them. As to why it was the Tayledras and not the Valdemarans themselves that were cleansing the land - well, as Darian had learned, the Valdemarans were unaccustomed to magic use in the first place, and in the second place, the Tayledras were uniquely suited to the task. In the first set of mage-storms, in the wake of the Mage-Wars of Urtho and Ma’ar, the Tayledras had taken on the task of cleansing the lands at the behest of their Goddess, and had been given unique traits, skills, and knowledge to enable them to do so. Interesting that they managed to come up with a tradition of running off strangers at knifepoint all by themselves, though, and not at the Goddess’ orders, he thought, casting an amused glance at his adoptive brother’s back. Well, some people take their jobs more seriously than others. I wonder if the Shin‘a‘in are just as bloodthirsty?

The other reason lay in Valdemar itself. In the time of Herald Vanyel, a spell had been set that prevented knowledge of “true” magic from taking hold in the minds of Valdemarans - along with another, guaranteed to send any “true” mage mad if he worked his powers within the borders of Valdemar. Those spells were gone now, of course (they would never have survived the mage-storms, even if they hadn’t been taken down deliberately), but centuries of living without real magic had left the Valdemarans without many mages of their own.

Darian understood that mages were being trained at the capital of Haven, under the auspices of Adept Darkwind and Herald-Mage Elspeth, among others - and like Darian, not all of those were Heralds - or even human. They were taking things slowly, however. There were many pitfalls to avoid, not the least of which was to make very certain that no ally got the impression that Valdemar was trying to build itself an army of mages!

There was talk of establishing a fourth Circle, a Mage Circle, just like the Bardic Circle, Heraldic Circle, and Healer Circle, and a proper and separate Mage’s Collegium. I don’t know how far they’II get with that one, though. Some of the teachers are bound to be mages from established schools; will they be willing to give over students into something like that? Then again, the point was to instill ethics into young mages from the beginning, and what sane mage would argue with that?

Well, that was all complicated political matters, and not of much interest to him at the moment. Right now he was just glad to be riding beneath the shadow of his much-loved trees, with the familiar pine- and fallen-leaf-scent of home all around him. One of the Heralds they had worked with during their task had once been on the circuit that included Errold’s Grove, and had told Darian that the huge trees of the Pelagiris always reminded him of the huge columns of the Great Temple of Vkandis in Karse. It struck Darian, then and now, that this was a particularly apt description; the hush beneath the trees, with the calls of birds so high above, and shafts of golden sunlight piercing the occasional breaks in the foliage always filled him with peace, pleasure, and a touch of awe or wonder. He couldn’t imagine a temple or cathedral of any kind that deserved the name that wouldn’t evoke a similar set of feelings.

The group followed a faint but discernible path in the shadows of those trees, riding not the horses of the Valdemarans, nor the Companions of their Heralds, but dyheli, strong and slender deerlike creatures with twin, curving horns and a formidable intelligence. They were, in fact, not beasts of burden, but allies of the Tayledras and their equals in intelligence. Though they did not bond with a particular person in the way that a Companion would bond with a Herald, they did express preferences in riders, and Darian’s mount was, oddly enough, the king-stag of the herd, Tyrsell.

One would think that the king-stag would be carrying one of the two leaders of the group, either Adept Starfall or Snowfire. . . .

:Now why should I do that,: Tyrsell asked ironically, :when you are so very much lighter than they?:

The dyheli turned his head a little on his long neck, so that one wickedly amused golden eye looked back at Darian. He wasn’t at all surprised that Tyrsell had been following his thoughts; dyheli in general were the strongest Mindspeakers of any creature alive, and the king-stags were the strongest of the strong. Dyheli had no concept of the privacy of thoughts either; so they had no scruples about “eavesdropping.”

Not that Darian cared; in their way, dyheli were so alien in their thinking that having Tyrsell privy to his thoughts was no more embarrassing than sharing them with his owl, Kuari. Certainly he had linked minds so often with Tyrsell that he never really bothered to shield against him. By this time he was so used to sharing his thoughts with dyheli that it came as second nature, as natural as breathing.

:Because it wouldn’t be true?: he suggested. :I’ve been growing, you know. I’m not the skinny little brat you used to carry around like a leaf. I’m almost a match for Snowfire now.:

Tyrsell tossed his head with amusement - down, not up, or he’d have impaled Darian on a horn. :Almost, indeed! You may be his match in height, but not in muscle, youngster, and you by no means weigh as much as he does. But you are right, it would not be the entire truth. What is the duty of the king-stag?:

:To drive the herd from danger, to take the rear and guard, to stand and fight enemies off,: Darian replied promptly.

:You are one of the stronger Mindspeakers, you are light, and you are a fighter. You and I have linked minds many times in battle. If danger comes on us, you are the most comfortable with me, and are the best combination of skills to pair with mine to keep your herd and mine safe.: Tyrsell’s logic was, as usual, impeccable. Darian could combine his mental strength with Tyrsell’s to overcome panic in the herd, he was a match for any bowman in the group but Snowfire, so playing rearguard was a logical choice for him, and he and Tyrsell had proved more than once in close combat that their skills added together made them formidable foes. Darian was still flattered and pleased, because the same could have been said of some of the others, too.

:Your Mindtouch is unobtrusive, and when you are thinking, your Mind-voice is pleasant to listen to,: Tyrsell added. :The others sometimes babble most annoyingly, or obsess over trifles. You only obsess over things of importance.:

That pleased him, too. He took a certain pride in being able to think well; it was a skill Justyn had tried to teach him, and he wanted his abilities to reflect well on his old teacher.

In spite of the fact that I didn’t value him while I had him. But that was a thought and a shame he kept to himself, under shield. It was his grief, and his alone to expiate.

By now Kuari must have circled on both sides of our backtrail - He sent a wordless, soft touch back to his bondbird, who responded immediately.

:Any thing?: he asked.

:Deer, quiet, go from grass to water,: was the reply.

Darian was glad to hear that; anything on the backtrail would have spooked the entire herd, so evidently his group had crossed the deer’s game trail at the time when they were moving purely by coincidence.

But there was someone else who’d like to know about a herd of deer behind them. :Stay with the herd, Kuari. You’ll have company in a bit.: He cast his thoughts upward, changing the “feel” of his Mindsending to that of another friend.

:Kel! Kuari’s got deer in sight, on our backtrail.:

He got an instant response; the young gryphon was in a growth spurt, and always hungry.

:Deer!: Kelvren exulted. :Oh, yes!:

That was all he got, as Kelvren sent his thoughts winging after the owl’s. Kelvren was up ahead of them, and higher in the tree canopy than Kuari. If there was any skill that Kelvren had gained above and beyond any other gryphon, it was the ability to move through the high branches of the great trees with barely a wingbeat. In a moment, though, he would be winging back above the canopy until he came up with Kuari. Then, using the owl’s information, he’d dive blind through the screen of foliage just like a goshawk going for a rabbit in the brush, and with any luck, he’d get a deer before the deer knew he was there. Otherwise, he’d be in for a tail-chase.

Kel could catch a deer in a tail-chase, it just wasn’t his favorite form of pursuit - though the injuries that often resulted from tail-chases gave him plenty of extra attention. He’d much rather make a clean kill, and a quick one; chases were a waste of energy.

Faintly, from behind him, came the noise of something large crashing through the branches, and Kuari’s excited hoots. Kuari loved watching Kel hunt; all bondbirds were far more social than their raptor ancestors, and took pleasure in each others’ company and successes. Breeding that trait into them had been imperative, since without it, Kuari would have happily made a meal off of any of the other birds in the company. Kuari’s talons could easily pierce a cow’s skull; he’d make short work of another bird.

:Two! Two!: Kuari projected excitedly into Darian’s mind. :He got two!:

:Two?: Tyrsell chimed in, impressed. :By the horns of the Moon-Doe, that’s amazing!:

If Kelvren had managed to kill two deer at once, there was no point in letting them go to waste. “Snowfire!” he called ahead. “I sent Kel on the backtrail after a deer, and it seems he’s gotten two instead of one.”

Snowfire turned, stared at him to see if he was serious, then broke into astonished laughter. “I had no idea he was that hungry!” He called ahead to the rest of the team. “Wintersky! Raindance! Peel off and go back until you find Kel, he’s made a kill too big for him to carry.”

A short time later, two of the team rode past Darian with a wave, their mounts at a brisk trot, two riderless does from the herd trotting beside them. While Kelvren stood guard, and their own birds circled above as extra protection, they’d field-dress the two deer, strap each to a rough travois, then rejoin the rest. To make it easier for them to catch up, Snowfire slowed the team to an amble. This wasn’t the first time that Kel had made kills too large to eat at once or carry, but it was the first time he’d made a double-kill.

Nightwind is going to be very proud of him, Darian thought warmly. He’s going to be just as proud of himself! Gryphons, after all, were praise-driven, and what they didn’t receive from others they often enough filled in for themselves.

Roughly a candlemark later Raindance and Wintersky came trotting back, the riderless dyheli now each dragging a travois with the somewhat-mangled carcass of a fine young buck strapped on it. That would slow them all down, of course, but it wasn’t that long until they were going to make camp, so the prospect of fresh meat would more than make up for it. Kel would dine tonight on one deer, the team would have part of the other, then Kel would get the remains for his breakfast. It took a lot of meat to feed a gryphon, though fortunately he usually managed to supply it himself. In lean times, breads were used to supplement the meat, mostly to provide mass, and luckily for everyone who would have had to hear his complaining, Kelvren had acquired a taste for bread anyway. Hungry gryphons were grouchy gryphons.

There were no more breaks in the routine of travel until the light beneath the trees had begun to redden and grow dimmer, a sure sign that the sun was about to set. By then, the advance scouts had found a suitable camping spot and those with lighter burdens and the unburdened dyheli had gone on ahead to prepare the camp, leaving the rest to come in at their own pace.

That, or so Darian thought, was one of the advantages of being the rearguard. By the time he reached camp, it was a camp; the tents were all set up, a latrine pit had been dug, water fetched, and Ayshen, the chief hertasi, had everything ready to make dinner for the entire team. Since the job of rearguard was to make a circuit of the camp before coming in himself, the rearguard never had to do any of the camp chores.

Some nights, in the winter, for instance, when he was frozen from his nose to his toes, or in the pouring rain, that was a hardship. Being the one who had to make certain that all the territory within their perimeter was clear under those circumstances, with dinner scents on the breeze, was assuredly a hardship. Not tonight, though.

He dismounted and let Tyrsell go on into camp, to put himself into the capable hands of the hertasi to have his minimal tack removed. No dyheli would ever subject himself to the indignity of a bit and bridle; however, they did allow a modified hackamore, similar to that worn by Companions, and a saddle-pad to cover their protruding backbones. As Darian knew from painful personal experience, riding a dyheli without that saddle-pad was much like sliding naked down a cliff, but not nearly as comfortable.

He and Kuari made the circuit of the camp without incident, marking good places for sentries with something unobtrusive, natural, but unmistakable to any of the Tayledras - feathers, usually wedged into the bark of a tree.

When he got back into camp, the first set of sentries had eaten a light snack and were ready to go out. They’d get a second meal when they came back in, but, no Tayledras would stand sentry with a full stomach; it was too easy to doze off.

Ayshen had his dinner ready and waiting for him: a savory butterflied venison steak and journey-bread, with some mixed, unidentified shoots and greens. Ayshen and the other hertasi knew the forest and what it could provide as well as they knew the patterns of their own scales; they foraged as the team traveled every day, and Darian never knew what they would come up with. They always had something green and growing in addition to meat and bread, even in the dead of winter, for Ayshen took great care with the diet and health of his “charges.”

Darian knew better than to leave so much as a scrap of that green stuff on his plate, too. Ayshen would show no mercy to anyone who didn’t eat what was given him.

Darian sat down to eat in the blue dusk beneath the trees; he polished off the last scrap in full dark. He was the last to eat, and brought Ayshen his empty plate just as the hertasi cleaned the last of the pans.

“We are not far from the Vale now,” Ayshen told him with a toothy grin. “One day, two at the most. Then you will see! Nothing we passed through in Valdemar compares!”

“Nothing we passed through in Valdemar was bigger than two or three villages put together,” Darian reminded him. “We were not exactly traversing through the height of Valdemaran civilization, you know.”

“Oh, indeed.” Ayshen chuckled. “You will see.”

Darian laughed, and slapped the little lizard-creature on the back. “I’m certain that I will,” he agreed. “But for tonight, all I want to see is my bed.”

He wouldn’t have thought, back when he was Justyn’s apprentice, that simply riding all day long would be tiring. After all, it was your mount that did most of the work, right?

Well, that turned out to be only partially true; riding was more work than Darian would have imagined four years ago. Riding literally from dawn until dusk was enough to tire anyone out - riding as tail-guard was exhausting mentally as well as physically.

So he wasn’t joking when he told Ayshen that all he wanted to see was his bed. He continued to share a tent with young Wintersky; it was a tent made for three, but only the two of them used it now. Snowfire had long since made his union with Nightwind a formal one, which just gave Wintersky and Darian more room.

Wintersky sat beside a small campfire in front of their tent, contentedly toasting a stick. Darian sat down beside his friend and took another dry twig, breaking it into tiny bits and casting each bit into the heart of the fire. “Ayshen says we’ll be at the Vale in the next day or two,” he said, and Wintersky nodded.

“Probably late tomorrow,” he replied. “Everybody’s pretty anxious to get home. My guess is that they’ll roust us out before dawn and tell us to eat in the saddle.”

“Which is why you’re roasting a stick to calm down so you can get to sleep quickly,” Darian finished for him, and yawned. “Believe me, I don’t need that to get me to sleep.” Then he snickered. “Poor Snowfire - he and Nightwind won’t get much chance to cuddle tonight!”

Wintersky snorted and elbowed him; Darian elbowed right back, and both made moon-calf faces at each other so that they both broke into peals of laughter.

As the two youngest members of the team, they spent a great deal of time together, got into a certain amount of mischief together, and despite coming from such different cultures, had far more in common than Darian had found with the boys his age in Errold’s Grove. Darian really felt by now that he was part of a family, with Wintersky the brother he had always wanted.

They chortled themselves breathless, paying no attention to the quizzical looks of some of the other Hawkbrothers; Wintersky tossed his stick into the fire, Darian followed it with the remains of his, and they both went straight to bed. Wintersky’s bird was already asleep on his perch inside the tent, Kuari dozed in the branches of the tree above them. Although most owls were nocturnal, the eagle-owls were comfortable in darkness or daylight; their size gave them a hunting advantage in the daytime, and their night-sight and silent flight the advantage after dark. Kuari could adapt his sleep schedule to suit his bondmate.

As Wintersky had predicted, hertasi rousted them out while it was still as dark as the inside of a cold-drake’s belly in an ice cave. They weren’t given a lot of time to ready themselves, either. Hertasi were efficient under any conditions, but Darian had never seen them work quite so quickly before. The camp was down and packed up by the time he had Tyrsell saddled, and Ayshen must have known last night that this was going to happen, because one of his helpers came by with pastry-wrapped venison that Ayshen must have put to baking in the embers of the cook fire the night before. Darian actually got to eat his without being in the saddle; no one had told him he had a new assignment, so he, was tail-guard again this morning. Tail-guard’s morning duty was to make sure the camp was clear, that all the fires were out, that nothing had been left behind. So he ate his meat-roll and drank his bittersweet, hot kava while everyone else bustled about, getting their riding order straight, then started the day’s trek - still in the dark. Darian was entirely unsurprised to see that Snowfire had lead-duty; with not one, but two owls as bondbirds, he was the only logical choice for a ride in total darkness.

As soon as the last dyheli cleared the camp, Darian summoned up a mage-light and made a thorough inspection of the site. This time he uncovered evidence of the hasty departure in the form of a couple of misplaced small articles of clothing and adornment, a bit of trash that needed burial, and one fire that had not been thoroughly extinguished and still smoked. These small tasks attended to, he mounted Tyrsell, and with Kuari following in the trees, he caught up with the rest.

He banished the light as soon as he drew up with the rearmost rider - Sunleaf, whose forestgyre dozed on a perch incorporated into the saddle-bow in front of him. Riding in the darkness like this, the team now depended on the eyes and ears of only three birds and Kelvren to protect them. Even Daystorm’s flock of crows rode - two on the saddle-bow perch, two on the horns of her dyheli Pyreen, and the rest on the horns of any other dyheli that would let them.

With nothing to look at but the vaguest of shadows, Darian was acutely aware of every calling insect, every time a bird chirped or squawked its sleepy protest at being disturbed, every crackle of dead leaf or rustle of undergrowth. None of this made him at all wary or nervous; he’d grown up in forest like this, and these were all normal night sounds. He’d be alerted only if they stopped, or if a sudden burst of noise betrayed that something had disturbed the sylvan sleepers.

Kuari was perfectly composed - and perfectly full; he’d eaten well last night, and would not need to eat again until tonight. He wasn’t tempted to hunt, not even by the flocks of drowsy birds he passed beneath. What Kuari saw danced like a ghost-image in front of Darian’s eyes, a double-vision that did not disconcert him in the least now, though it had taken him months to get used to it.

The air was very still, not a breath of breeze; it was cold, and smelled of damp, old leaves, and fog. It felt heavy, somehow; morning before dawn almost always felt like that, as if it was just possible that the sun might not rise, after all.

It was difficult to judge the passing of time; Kuari would rise above the treetops once in a while, to take the measure of the dawn, and for what seemed to be the longest time he saw nothing but darkness and stars.

Finally, though, the strange sense of heaviness lifted, ever so slightly. Kuari lofted through the leaves to catch the first brightening in the east, and the first tentative notes of the birds’ dawn chorus drifted down to the travelers below.

Sunleaf’s forestgyre roused all his feathers with a quick shake - still more heard than seen - as those first notes brought him out of his doze. Gradually, faint light filtered down through the trees; at first the light was so very faint that everything seemed painted in shades of black and gray, but as the sun rose, the light brightened to a thin, dusty rose, and color came back into the world.

Up and down the line of riders, birds were shaking out their feathers, stretching their wings, preening and yawning. Then, one by one, they hopped onto their bondmates’ gauntleted arms to be tossed into the air.

The crows were the first, and taunted the others as lazy loafers with their derisive claws as they rowed up into the canopy. Stung by the good-natured insult, the younger birds followed immediately. The older birds were too seasoned to be tempted into flight by a pack of delinquents before they’d warmed up their muscles; there was plenty of stretching and flapping before the rest took to the air.

Two enormous shapes lofted silently toward the line beneath the lowest branches, one from ahead and to the right, one from the left. These were Hweel and Huur, Snowfire’s bondbirds; that meant that Snowfire had dropped back and someone else with a fresher bird had taken over the forward position. There were three dyheli in the herd with peculiar saddles - more of a perch, than a saddle - and no reins. These were for Hweel and Huur, and sometimes Kuari, who were all far too large to sit a perch in front of anyone. It was all Darian could do to carry Kuari on his shoulder or give him a short and temporary ride on his gauntleted arm; the eagle-owls were big, and awfully heavy. On Snowfire’s advice, Darian had built up his arms and shoulders with a great deal of lifting and carrying and wood-chopping in order to be able to support the weight of his friend.

It’s just a good thing that nobody with us has real eagles as a bondbird, Darian thought, as he watched the eagle-owls disappear somewhere up ahead, presumably making a landing on their mounts. Snowfire had once told him that the only person in k’Vala to have a true eagle and not a hawk-eagle as a bondbird was the black-smith! All bondbirds were easily twice, even three times, the mass of their wild counterparts. Darian could hardly imagine how large a true bondbird eagle must be. . . .

The morning passed uneventfully, and so did the afternoon, except that the break for lunch was hardly more than a pause while more pastry-rolls were passed out to the riders and nosebags of grain to the dyheli. They all ate on the move, something that until now had been done only during wretchedly cold weather, to enable the team to get to shelter faster.

It was late in the afternoon that the biggest bird Darian had ever seen in his life swooped down out of the trees and screamed a greeting as it passed over the heads of everyone in the team. The wingspan alone was so wide not even Huur could match it; more than the height of a mounted man, easily.

All the bondbirds set up a deafening chorus of replies, converging on the riders from every direction, and taking to their perches to go into full, wing-spread display. The huge raptor that had triggered the cacophony made another pass over the heads of the team, this time flying from the rear to the frontmost rider, then disappearing into the branches again.

:Darian, you can stand down.: The mind-voice was Snowfire’s; no point in trying to shout, he wouldn’t be heard. :Remember the eagle I told you about, that’s bonded to a blacksmith? That’s her; we’re under k’Vala guard now. You can relax.:

Darian took a deep breath and let it out in a low whistle; the birds were finally quieting down and settling. So that’s a bondbird eagle? If I were dyheli, I think I’d make her walk!:

As dusk fell, there was a distant glow through the trees ahead of them, and just as the last light of day faded from beneath the trees, the next lot of escorts met them.

This was a veritable stampede of dyheli, first an avalanche of young stags and does, then followed by the older does and their fawns, with five king-stags bringing up the rear. They poured around the line of riders, the youngsters frolicking, the older dyheli trotting up to rub noses with friends, and the king-stags making straight for Tyrsell. Judging by all the vigorous head-nodding going on, the king-stags went into an immediate six-way conference, one which would probably last for several days. After all, Tyrsell was an ajnbassasor to Valdemar in his own right, one looking for riew grazing lands for dyheli, and he had negotiated his own set of treaties with various Valdemaran populations through the medium of different Heralds.

Unburdened dyheli separated from the group and joined the massed herds, who all cleared off, heading back to the Vale. That left room for the next lot of greeters, a flood of hertasi. They seemed to appear out of nowhere - as hertasi were wont to do. There were probably a few hundred of them, but it seemed as if there were a couple of thousand at the least. When they had finished swarming the team and disappeared back into the darkness, there was not a single scrap of baggage left anywhere in the line, for they had stripped it from every burdened dyheli, leaving them free to run ahead as well.

Then came the first of the wonders that would leave Darian breathless for most of the evening.

Lights approached the line of riders, lights bounding along just below the level of the first branches. As the manycolored lights neared, Darian identified them as mage-lights, but they were carried - or rather, pulled along - by bondbirds. Mage-lights weighed nothing, of course, but how wonderful to see the bondbirds, each trailing a different colored sphere in its wake!

The birds with the team again set up their greeting display, and the birds from the Vale remained with the team, lighting their way home, perched overhead in the lowest branches. As Darian passed the birds at the rear, they flew ahead to the front of the team and took up new perches.

Then, as the light ahead grew stronger and stronger, they came to the entrance to the Vale itself, and the crowd of friends and relations waiting there for them. A cheer went up as the long-absent team broke through the cover of the forest.

Now, for the first time, Darian saw Hawkbrothers in all their festal glory, and he was, to put it mildly, dazzled. No one on the team had brought any sort of “fancy” garments with them - though Hawkbrother clothing had been exotic enough to Darian’s eyes - so he’d had no idea what he was going to see. No wonder Ayshen had warned him that he’d be surprised!

Men and women alike dressed in spectacular costumes - what one wore seemed to be more a reflection of his or her personality than gender. Long pale hair was beaded, braided, feathered, dyed, and cut in the most amazing styles. They didn’t look real, somehow, yet they surged forward like any group of folk meeting with people they’d been parted from for too long.

But, of course, no one came forward to greet him. . . .

Now, for the first time in years, Darian felt very much the outsider, and painfully alone. A young hertasi skittered up and took his bridle, looking up at him expectantly. Tyrsell lifted his head up, and the small hertasi was lifted off the ground for a moment, squawking at first, then emitting a long burble of laughter as he was lowered back down. Older hertasi appeared on each side, sharing the laughter. He dismounted from Tyrsell’s saddle and let the hertasi strip his friend of tack and carry it off. Then Tyrsell himself stepped away, leaving him even more alone with all of the meetings and greetings swirling around him.

“Dar’ian!” Snowfire pushed his way through the crowd, with an older man and woman in tow, his face alight. “Here - Mother, Father, this is Dar’ian Firkin, k’Valdemar; Dar ‘ian, this lady is my mother, Dawnmist, and this is my father, Heartwood.” He grinned. “Yours, also.”

The two Tayledras smiled warmly and each held out a hand. Darian took them, tentatively at first, then with the dizzying sensation that he was settling into something real and solid and welcoming. His loneliness evaporated, and with a wonder-filled grin he entered k’Vala Vale with the rest of the Tayledras.

From the moment that Dariari passed through the impressive vine-covered entrance td k’Vala Vale to the moment that he fell asleep, he was half afraid to blink lest he miss some new wonder. Now he knew why Ayshen had been so smug!

Just past the faintly visible barrier that protected the Vale from outside weather, he stepped into an entirely new realm.

The barrier distorted some of what lay beyond it, and cloaked the rest, so that from the outside it appeared that there was nothing beyond it except more ordinary forest. But when he passed through it, feeling a faint tingle as he did so, he saw what it had concealed.

Before him lay a softly curving path that wound deep into an exotic garden within only a few paces from the entrance - but it was not at all dark, for light glimmered and gleamed through the foliage. He followed the path to its first turning; mage-lights were supplemented by fantastic lanterns in glowing colors - round, square, oblong, in the shapes of flowers and leaves, stars and the phases of the moon. The lanterns hung from decorated poles crafted of carved wood on either side of the pathway. Some of these poles were carved with vines twining about them, some in the shapes of fantastic animals and birds, some decorated with geometric shapes or abstract curved lines. The path itself, “paved” in tiny pebbles of river gravel, was bordered in larger, water-smoothed rocks and was intersected at frequent intervals by a tiny sparkling stream that danced and laughed over similar stones. Where the path crossed these streams, it led over charmingly carved bridges, no two alike. The stream wasn’t so wide that the bridges were needed, they were simply there because they were attractive.

Unlike the forest outside, where undergrowth was sparse, here plants, bushes, and even smaller trees throve to the point of luxury. Blossoming vines formed screens and curtains, flowering bushes poured scent onto the breeze. More flowers, closed now in the fragrant half-light along the path, gave promise that day would bring even more beauty. It was noticeably warmer here, the same gentle warmth of a summer night rather than the cool of a spring evening. Frogs and crickets sang in little pockets of shadow, and overhead, nightingales poured out melody into the darkness above the lanterns.

But that was only the beginning of the wonders. As Darian followed Snowfire and his parents deeper into the Vale, other sounds overhead made him look into the branches of the huge trees. It was at that point that he realized that the trees were even bigger than the ones outside the Vale - and that they held dwellings cradled in their huge boughs! The branches were as big as the trunks of the trees that he was used to. So high up were these living places that at first he had taken them for more elaborate lanterns.

So these were the famous ekele of the Hawkbrothers! Darian marveled at the highly individual “nests” resting above. Once again, so far as he could tell, no two were alike; some showed lights and movement, some were dark - and lights twinkling further up the trunks suggested that there were still more of these ekele higher up. The mere thought of how high they must be made him dizzy. Staircases spiraled up the trunks, showing how the Hawkbrothers gained access to their homes, and the staircases were just as ornamental as anything else Darian had seen so far.

No wonder everyone is in such good shape - they have to be, just to go to and from their homes!

“We’ve been in this Vale for a very long time, Darian,” Snowfire said over his shoulder. “Longer, I think, than any other Clan has been in one place. Three, four generations at least, I think, and our people are very long-lived; it’s more than enough time to really make this Vale into a work of art - a place none of us wants to leave.”

“I can certainly see why,” Dalian replied, dazed. That was when they passed the last screening of vine and came out into the open.

This was clearly the center of the Vale. There stood the Heartstone, right in the middle -

It was a tall, smooth spire of natural rock, something like an enormous stalagmite, and of the same creamy alabaster color and texture. It glowed warmly, welcomingly, as if it, too, was a kind of lantern. Stepped, fitted stones partially encircled it, and kept it clean of debris.

It also glowed and pulsed to his Mage-Sight, so brightly that he had to block that part of his abilities.

“About three years ago we finally got enough power coming into the Heartstone to put up the Veil again,” Snowfire’s father said with satisfaction, as they all paused for a moment at the edge of the clearing. “There’s still not enough to power nearly as much as we used to do, but we’re the first Clan to get their Veil up.”

Not nearly as much - I almost hate to think what they used to do! was all Darian could think, as the Heartstone seemed to pulse in time with his heart with all the power it held. It was magnificent, awe-full in the strictest sense of the term. He had never in all of his life Seen that kind of power before, and he rather doubted that he would ever See its like again. Certainly not in his own little Vale. It would probably take generations before his own Heartstone ever accumulated this level of power.

Snowfire sighed, lifting his face to the Heartstone as one starved of light would raise his face to the sun. “Oh, it is so good to be back within the reach of a Heartstone again!”

For a very long time Darian simply couldn’t look away from the wonder, though he did not make the mistake of using his Mage-Sight again; when he finally did look away, it was with the realization that this was what his team had been trying to reproduce in a crude form in every long-term camp they’d made.

Here was the source of the little stream they’d followed, and now it was clear that many more little streams took their water from here to run through other parts of the Vale. To his right lay a spring-fed series of cascades that in turn led into a cool, clear pond with colorful fish drifting just beneath the surface. A multitude of water-lilies and other water plants throve there, and a series of steps cut into the side showed that more than just the fish were wont to swim there.

Next to this was an herb garden, as ordered and mathematical in its layout as the rest of the Vale was not, though there wasn’t a straight line to be seen there. It lay in the quarter of this clear area directly in front of Darian, as the pond was in the quarter to his left. He had overlooked it at first in gazing at the Heartstone directly beyond it, perhaps because it was so - ordinary. It looked exactly like every other large herb garden he’d seen over the course of their travels, in the courtyards of all of the larger temples and Healers’ enclaves. Neatly laid out in a curving maze, every herb had its own little patch, each patch’s growth trimmed off in edges as straight as a rule. Nothing grew taller than his waist; most growth lay between his ankle and knee.

To his right was a cluster of low buildings, beautifully integrated with the landscape to the point that they even had hanging plants and flowers growing on their flat roofs. At first glance he had taken them for an unusually regular stone formation, in fact.

“The hot spring and the main soaking and bathing pools are on the other side of the Heartstone,” Snowfire told him, “And I don’t know about you, but after today’s ride, that’s the first place I want to go.”

The mere thought of relaxing in a hot pool made his aching limbs all declare in favor of the idea, so he just nodded and followed Snowfire and his parents around the fascinating Heartstone and past a screening of tall, jointed plants with stalks as thick as his calf and graceful leaves that formed a solid walljhiding all beyond them.

Once past that screen, a cojnplex of interconnected pools on multiple levels stretched out in front of them, some so small they could only hold two or three people at once, some big enough to hold the entire team, hertasi included. It looked, from the amount of steam rising from the water, that the hottest pools were on the highest level, the coolest on the bottom. It also appeared that everyone in the team had the same idea as Snowfire, for they were all up to their chins in hot water - this time actual, instead of metaphorical.

Nightwind waved at them from a middle level, her hair piled high on her head and held there with wooden skewers, her face flushed and damp from the heat. Snowfire waved back at her and climbed the rocks to join her - but Darian had already picked out which of the pools was hottest and headed straight for it, forgetting everything but how good that water would feel.

Of course, after being with Tayledras for four years, he shed his clothing at the edge of the pool as a matter of course and eased himself down into it, knowing that hertasi would gather up the clothing and that towels and replacements would materialize when he needed them. The water was just as hot as he’d hoped it was; too hot to stay in for long, which was probably why he had this small pool to himself, but it was just what his aching muscles wanted.

The polished, sculptured sides of the pool formed seats of varying heights. He shifted around until he found one that allowed him to lean back with just his head above the water and relaxed into the smooth stone, eyes closed, until even he could no longer take the heat.

He didn’t want to leave just yet, though; there were still aches that hadn’t been soaked out. So instead of abandoning the pools altogether, he moved down to another, not so warm. In fact, in contrast to the one he’d just left, this one felt positively tepid. He remained there until it, too, felt too warm, then moved again, joining Nightwind and Snowfire and several more of the team and some strangers in a community soak.

The others were involved in a rambling conversation that seemed to consist of trading stories of what had gone on in the Vale in the team’s absence for stories of what the team had done. Darian simply slid into an unoccupied seat and listened, adding a word or two if he was spoken to directly, but otherwise just listening.

But finally, one of the strangers turned to him. “What think you of all this, new Wingbrother?” the young woman asked him, her eyes sparkling impishly.

He shrugged, at a loss for words. “Amazing. Just - amazing.”

“Well,” another girl drawled lazily, “there are things in other lands that equal or surpass a Vale, but on the whole, this is a fine place to live.”

“So says a former dweller in White Gryphon!” laughed the first. “High praise indeed!”

So this was another of Nightwind’s people, a Kaled’a’in! Darian wanted to ask a hundred questions, but felt too shy and tongue-tied to voice any of them. The first girl saved him from having to make any conversation.

“If you are hungry, Dar’ian, and I think you must be, since the rest of your team ate like famished wolves when hertasi brought them food, there will be more provender over yonder, in the building nearest us.” She pointed with her chin at the group of buildings. “There always is; we often must keep irregular hours, so the her-tasi keep foods out that do not readily spoil or suffer growing cold or warm.”

“Thank you,” he said shyly, relieved that he would not have to ask what he should do about the hunger-beast awakening in his belly - but she was not quite finished.

“You will also find sleeping places there for those who are not used to ekele or who have not built one of their own,” she continued. “Those are our guest houses. Simply look until you find one that no one has taken, and make it yours. The heritasi will bring your things there.”

Grateful that he would not have to interrupt Snowfire and act like a very little brother indeed, he blushed, and thanked her again.

She giggled, as did the other girl. It was the Kaled’a’in who spoke next, poking her friend with her elbow.

“Snowfire’s messages home about the barbarians and his new Wingbrother were so fulsome and interesting that Summerdance here wanted to meet you as soon as you all returned,” said the Kaled’a’in wickedly. “So she thought she could manage to casually be your guide to the Vale!”

That was too much for Summerdance, who whirled, seized her friend’s head in both hands, and shoved her under the water. Her friend came up spluttering, but mostly with laughter.

Summerdance turned to Darian with a flushed face, and he thought quickly, hoping to find a way to salvage the situation. Simple gratitude and politeness seemed the most effective and direct approach.

“That was very kind of you, to think of how a stranger might be so confused here, Summerdance,” he told her. “Especially as I am certain you have many tasks of your own to tend to, and it could be irritating to find yourself saddled with an idiot!”

“Oh, but I already am,” Summerdance replied sweetly, staring pointedly at her friend, “And in contrast to poor, defective Nightbird here, why, even the most imbecilic stra - ”

She didn’t get to finish the statement, for Nightbird returned the favor by dunking her.

As Summerdance came up gasping for air, the situation might have escalated, had not a silver-haired elder called out lazily, “Enough, my children. You know the rules - take your romping to the swimming pools and the waterfall. If you wish to remain here, save your revenge for later.”

That quelled both of them for the moment, though their merry eyes boded mischief to come. Summerdance managed to conquer her blushes, and Darian politely pretended that she had never been embarrassed. “So those buildings there are for guests?” he asked. “I had the impression that Tayledras didn’t particularly encourage ‘guests,’ yet you have many of those buildings.”

“Well, we’ve kept to ourselves, but times do change, you know, and we are not going to lag behind them,” Summerdance replied as she pulled her soaked hair out of her eyes and began braiding it back, with Night-bird’s help.

“The truth of it is that we Kaled’a’in descended on them six years ago, and they had to build us guest houses,” Nightbird added. “Since then, most of us have either made our own dwellings or moved in with congenial Tayledras, so the guest quarters are open again.” She tied the braid she was working on with a bit of cord. “There! Reasonably tidy.”

“And the rest of the truth is that now we have no need to discourage visitors, so when there are those brave enough to dare the fearsome Hawkbrothers in their lair - ” Summerdance bared her teeth in a mock-snarl and crooked both hands into claws, “ - we reward them by giving them a decent bed.”

“It’s only fair,” Nightbird finished, getting in the last word.

Darian looked from one girl to the other and back again. “Are you sure you aren’t sisters?” he finally said. “You certainly sound like it.”

Both girls dissolved in laughter, which spread to the half of the occupants of the pool who’d chanced to overhear the remark.

“So we have been telling them since Nightbird arrived, youngling,” the elder said; still chuckling. “I’d be wary of them if I were you. Whdre these two tread, trouble follows.”

“Us?” Nightbird cried indignantly.

“Never,” Summerdance declared. “We’re harmless.”

“Innocent.”

“Absolutely.”

The elder rolled his eyes, but said only, in the driest voice imaginable, “Indeed.”

Summerdance looked stricken. “But, Father - !”

“Save it for one who did not see you born, when you came into the world with mischief grasped in both hands,” the elder interrupted, closing his eyes and leaning back into the embrace of the hot water. “Now let a poor old man soak his bones in peace.”

Nightbird snatched at a towel, and stood up. “Come on, friends, no one appreciates us here. Let’s just get dressed and show Dar’ian around a little!”

Summerdance was not at all reluctant, so Darian found himself shortly clothed in the loose-fitting, cool garments that the Hawkbrothers favored for lounging, with each arm being held by an extremely attractive young lady as he was steered toward the guest houses.

“Have you actually got weather in the Vale?” he asked curiously, seeing that the strangely built houses had proper roofs under all their foliage.

“Controlled weather,” Summerdance said proudly. “Though before we had enough power back to put the Veil back up, we had regular weather in here for a while. All we really do is keep things warm; if it rains out there, it rains in here - if it snows out there, it rains in here.”

“Why keep rain out?” Nightbird continued from the other side. “The plants still need it, and besides, most of us like rain, as long as it’s warm.”

“And in the summer, we never let it get too warm in here,” Summerdance added. “No droughts either. Though we try not to let any droughts happen outside - with trees the size of the ones in the Pelagiris, an uncontrolled forest fire would not bear thinking about. We arrange for controlled fires of course, to keep the forest healthy, but the forest has to be well-watered before we dare do that. That’s why, when we were doing without, we gave up the Veil so that we could keep doing weather-magic.”

Darian nodded, with a shiver. He and the team had helped to fight a forest fire, the first he’d ever seen, and Summerdance was right. A forest fire loose among the great trees of the Pelagiris would be nothing short of a holocaust.

There were no doors on these buildings, only a living screen of leafy vine, which Summerdance parted so they could all walk inside the first building of the group. The walls were half-structure, half artwork; windows of colored glass gave way to carved panels of wood which in turn gave place to living walls of braided tree trunks and vines, all of it lit by lanterns rather than mage-lights. There, as promised, was a table spread with simple foodstuffs: breads, fruit, cheeses. They all helped themselves, and poured drinks from covered pitchers of cool juices, then took their loot to a grouping of several fat cushions on the floor. There were proper chairs and tables, more groupings of cushions, and even a couch or two, but the girls clearly preferred to sprawl on cushions.

In between mouthfuls they told him about the Vale, saving him from having to make any conversation at all. He made interested sounds from time to time, but otherwise kept his mouth full and closed. He heard more than he could store away in his memory about the Vale itself, who was partnering with whom, who was quarreling with whom, who had designs on whom, what projects were going, stalled, stupid, or planned - in short, it sounded exactly like a village, with all the village gossip. Only with much better scenery and clothing!

Even the strangest people have familiar habits, he thought wryly, and let them chatter on until he was comfortably full.

Then he sat up a little straighter and began to insert some questions of his own.

“Where did the dyheli go?” he asked first, for he hadn’t seen a single one since they’d all disappeared with the massed herds. “The all vanished together when we got here.”

“They have their own big meadow at the far end of the Vale, farthest from the entrance,” Summerdance told him. “I’ve got my ekele in a tree on the edge of the meadow.”

“And Kelvren? Where’s he?”

“With the rest of the gryphons, in the cliffs above the Vale; that’s where I live.” That was Nightbird, of course - and suddenly something clicked in Dalian’s mind.

“You’re Nightwind’s sister!” he exclaimed. “The trondi’irn apprentice - that’s why you got letters from Snowfire!”

For some reason that revelation seemed excruciatingly funny to both girls, as they burst into laughter again. “I told you he’d figure it out all by himself!” Nightbird chortled.

“Well, I never said I doubted you - ” Summerdance retorted.

Darian turned to her, and stared at her in thought for a moment. “You can’t be Snowfire’s sister, because he’s an only child. Are you a cousin?”

She mimed shooting an arrow. “Dead in the black! Oh, it is so nice to know that Snowfire wasn’t exaggerating how smart you were! Not bad, not bad at deduction at all!”

“Not that most people in the Vale aren’t related in some way or other,” Nightbird pointed out. “But they’re very near cousins; Dawnmist’s brother and Heartwood’s sister are her mother and father, so she’s what we call a double-cousin. I hope that’s not too confusing.”

“Not at all, remember, I come from a little village, and practically everyone there is related to everyone else in some way,” Darian smiled. “I think I can keep it all straight.”

Now it was their turn to ask about Errold’s Grove, and his tiny, prosaic little village was at least moderately interesting for them - but what they really enjoyed was hearing about Valdemar in general. Some things he had to answer truthfully with the preface of “I’ve never seen this myself, but I’ve been told that - ” They seemed utterly amazed that people could live without any magic at all for hundreds of years, and were just as fascinated to hear what had taken the place of that magic.

“I feel sorry for people who have to live without weather control,” Summerdance sighed, as he described a four-day blizzard he and the team had endured. “Even though we had it, for a while we had to save the energy for things that were really important, and it was horrible. It was worse being in the Vale without weather protection! I don’t ever want to see snow on my ekele steps again!”

“I know how you feel,” Nightbird agreed. “I thought I would never get warm, the whole winter.”

“People are used to it,” he pointed out. “Not having seasons would seem strange to them. And there’s some enjoyment in it - Errold’s Grove used to have a Winter Faire with all sorts of special snow and ice games and sports, and I met some people who really love the snow. They’d be horrified if they had to do without it.”

“There’s something to be said for a good, rousing thunderstorm,” Nightbird agreed. “Especially when you’re snug inside.”

“Maybe - ” Summerdance sounded doubtful. “I still draw the line at snow, though.”

Darian yawned, covering his mouth hastily with his hand, but Summerdance was instantly all contrition.

“Oh, bother, here we’ve kept you up nattering at you, and you’re probably perishing fp get some sleep!” she exclaimed. “Look, just what kinc| of quarters do you like anyway?”

“Dark,” he said promptly. “No hammocks. I still haven’t gotten used to sleeping in anything that moves. But mostly as dark as possible; one thing I don’t suffer from is fear of being shut in.”

Summerdance glanced at Nightbird, who nodded. “I think I know just the place,” she said, “And no one’s taken it since the Kaled’a’in hertasi all dug their own burrows. Follow me.”

He did; she led him through the building complex - they were all linked together, apparently - to a long, low-ceilinged structure made up entirely of cozy, rounded sets of rooms. There wasn’t a straight line to be seen, and as Nightbird had promised, none of them showed any signs of occupation.

“These give most Hawkbrothers the shivers,” Nightbird told him, as Summerdance lingered just outside the complex. “Doesn’t bother me. White Gryphon is full of lairs and dens like this, and the hertasi and kyree prefer them. This place is actually dug right under the hill, so it’ll be quiet enough.”

“It’s not what I’d choose to live in permanently, but right now . . . this is perfect,” Darian told her with satisfaction. “I could sleep for a week in here.” Again, a huge yawn caught him quite off-guard. “Excuse me! And from the way I feel, I probably will sleep for a week! Do you know, they got us up and in the saddle way before dawn, and we didn’t stop even to eat. I’ve done harder riding on this trip, but nothing that was longer.”

“Better not sleep for a week, though, or you’ll miss the celebration,” Nightbird warned him, and then waved her hand in a shooing motion at him. “Go pick out a set of rooms, then, and I’ll tell the hertasi where you are. Rest well, Dar’ian.”

“And to you, and thanks.” He raised his voice a little so it would carry to the doorway. “Thank you, Summerdance! I hope I’ll see you both tomorrow!”

She laughed, and so did Nightbird. It seemed to be a common response for them. “Just try to avoid us!” Summerdance replied, and the two of them sauntered away, leaving him alone in the building.

He picked a single room at the back of the complex; it was simply furnished. There was a low bed with clean, folded bedding waiting on it, a single lantern on the floor beside the bed, and nothing else. However, the room did have a heavy curtain he could drop down across the entrance to shut out the light. There wasn’t much to shut out, just the two lanterns illuminating the “corridor” connecting all the rooms.

He took one of the dry splinters beside the lantern and got a flame from the lantern nearest “his” room, then lit his own lantern so that he could see to make up his bed. By the time he’d smoothed down the last of the covers, his baggage had appeared on the floor behind him. Hertasi, of course; by now he was used to the way they would make things “appear” and “disappear” in complete silence, including themselves. Those abilities had proved useful in more dangerous contexts, too; hertasi made wicked strike-and-run fighters, for all their small size. The packs looked shrunken; he had no doubt that they’d extracted his dirty laundry, and that by the time he woke up tomorrow, his clothing would be waiting just outside the curtain, cleaned and mended.

Havens, they‘ll probably have put together an entire new wardrobe for me by then, he thought, climbing into bed and stifling another yawn. Ayshen made more than a few remarks about that during our mission. What incredible creatures they are!

Then he blew out the lantern, closed his eyes, and never felt his head touch the pillow.

He woke slowly, and at his own pace - which was a bit more leisurely than he’d been,able to manage when he was with the team. He heard a second creature breathing in the room with him, and by the faint scent of raptor-musk knew that Kuari had found him after his bondbird’s own homecoming. Mindtouch told him that Kuari was deeply asleep and probably would not wake for another few candlemarks.

Which is hardly surprising, considering how hard he worked yesterday. It wasn’t the first time that Kuari had figured out where he was by Mindtouch, then made his way to his bondmate, walking if he had to.

Kuari definitely deserved his rest, and Darian had no intention of disturbing it.

What was it that the girls said about not sleeping a week? That l’d miss the celebration? He chuckled softly, as he had a pretty good notion just what that celebration was going to be about. Not the homecoming; any “celebrations” for that reason would be between and among families and friends. Although Tayledras enjoyed a good festival as much as anyone, successful completion of what was essentially a fairly simple job by Hawkbrother standards would not warrant a Vale-wide party.

But he certainly knew what did.

Starfall warned them, but they wouldn’t believe him.

Nightwind and Snowfire had given in to the inevitable two years ago and become formally mated, much to Kelvren’s delight - deciding that they would much rather have a small, intimate ceremony with the closely bonded team. Starfall, however, had warned them both that neither Snowfire’s parents nor Nightwind’s Kaled’a’in kin were going to be cheated of “their” celebration. He had told them that it would probably signal an excuse to turn out the entire Vale and they had scoffed at the very idea, but it sounded as if Starfall was right.

I bet the Elders even make the two of them pledge all over again! Well, maybe this time Snowfire wouldn’t be so nervous about the whole thing. He’d kept fretting that Nightwind would change her mind at the last moment. After being pledged for two years, by now he ought to be sure of her!

Darian stretched, and consulted his stomach, which informed him that getting breakfast wasn’t going to be an emergency. And for once, he wasn’t waking up with a kink in his neck or a rock imprint in the middle of his back. I think I am really going to enjoy living in a Vale for a while!

He got up quietly, pulling back the curtain just enough so that he could see to dress. And there, next to the curtain, were two evenly stacked piles of clothing; one of his old things, neatly mended, and another of entirely new garments, such as he would never have dared wear in Errold’s Grove. These were genuine Tayledras garments, not the scout clothing in relatively drab colors that they’d all worn in Vademar so as not to startle the natives or betray themselves to the monsters they were hunting.

Darian loved bright colors, and always had. Given a choice, he’d have dressed as gaudily as any mountebank, so he was absolutely delighted to see the second pile of clothing waiting for him. Without hesitation he chose a pair of loose breeches in a dark blue silk, a shirt in a lighter blue, a sash woven in blue and silver-gray, and a knee-length suede vest in a shade between that of the breeches and that of the shirt. Soft, low boots of black deerskin took the place of his riding boots, and he stepped out of the guest rooms and into what he now thought of as the Great Room feeling quite the Hawkbrother dandy.

There was no one there at the moment, so he took a little food with him and went in search of Starfall or Snowfire, munching as he walked. He soon realized, however, that his dress was quite conservative compared with some of his Tayledras kin. For one thing, he didn’t have a single bit of jewelry or so much as one feather braided into his hair - and for another, there wasn’t even a thin edging of embroidery to lys shirt and vest, much less the overall patterns of embroideries some of them sported.

On the other hand, maybe he wasn’t quite ready for all that finery -

Well, maybe just one or two feathers and a bit of trim.

There were two kinds of hertasi living in the Vale, as he well knew; the Tayledras, who were mostly shy and invisible, and the Kaled’a’in, who Were mostly very visible and quite outgoing. When he finally spotted one of the latter - one not in the middle of some other task, for interrupting it would have been very rude - he asked it where Starfall and Snowfire might be found. In that amazing communication all hertasi shared, as if they didn’t merely have Mindspeech but actually shared a single mind, it told him after a moment of contemplation that Snowfire was engaged in private business, but Starfall was available, and where to find him.

“Many thanks,” he told it, as it looked up its long snout at him, its big eyes much graver than Ayshen’s ever were. “And please thank the others for their care of my baggage and wardrobe last night. I really didn’t have anything suitable for the Vale.”

Now the little lizard-creature’s eyes took on a sparkle of merriment. “The things we brought will do for now” it said, deprecatingly, “but when we come to know you, we will have something truly suitable for you later.”

Then it trotted off; Darian knew better than to try to tell it that there was no need to go to any more trouble, because it wouldn’t listen. Hertasi were like adolescent girls when it came to clothing, but with largely better taste and much better execution. Nothing made them happier than to dress humans up, as if their charges were so many oversized dolls. Their nimble fingers fairly flew through embroidery, and what was most remarkable of all, they never had to trace a pattern on the cloth beforehand. They replicated their designs or the patterns that others gave them as perfectly as the original.

Perhaps giant dolls are what we are to them in a way, he thought with amusement. And dressing us up is their hobby. I have the feeling that I’m going to be turned into a Tayledras peacock whether I’m ready for it or not, especially if there’s a celebration coming.

He followed the hertasi’s instructions with care, though it was all too easy to be distracted here. Every turn in the path brought something new: a huge tree trunk with a spiraling stair; boughs loaded with ekele; a tiny, private pool; a miniature water-garden complete with waterfall, lilies, and a colorful fish or two; a sculpture in stone or wood; a living sculpture in plants and flowers. It was all wonderful, and every new sight brought with it the wish that Justyn could have been there to share it with him.

At last he reached his goal - Starfall’s ekele, which was not in one of the huge trees that supported several in its branches, but was situated in a tree of more modest proportions and had only Starfall’s dwelling in it. The base of the tree sheltered a garden planted entirely in flowers of the most subtle and delicate shades of white and the palest of pastels, with a stream and a cascade trickling through it. Starfall himself sat on a low stone bench, enjoying what was either a late breakfast or an early lunch, his falcon in the air above him, playing a game of “tag” with a smaller bird.

This was a game that Darian had seen before, especially between two very agile, swift flyers. Each bird had a streamer of paper attached to one bracelet; the object was to keep your opponent from snatching pieces of it. The bird that lost every bit of its streamer first was the one who lost the game.

Starfall waved Darian over as soon as he emerged from the cover around the path. Darian walked across a lawn of grass as plush as a carpet and as thick, and joined him as Starfall’s bird ripped off a bit of his opponent’s streamer with an outstretched talon.

“I won’t ask you what you think of our home; your eyes said it all last night,” Starfall said, offering Darian a plate of small, savory meat pies. Darian politely took one, but only nibbled at it. “I have got a question for you, though; do you want a few days to settle in, or do you want to get to work right away? You have a great deal to learn in the way of magic, and now that we are in the Vale, it will be much easier to teach you.”

“I’d like a few days first, sir,” Darian replied. “Though if I’m going to have more teachers than just you, I’d like to meet them informally and talk with them a little before we start. I wouldn’t - ” he hesitated, choosing his words with care. “I wouldn’t want to have anyone teaching me who didn’t approve of my being here.”

“Nor any conflicts with personality; that can be disastrous in the teaching of magic.” Starfall nodded. “I think that can be arranged without too much difficulty. I will not be your primary teacher; I have taught you all that I can. You’ll have three temporary teachers, and I can certainly arrange for you to meet with them first. Eventually, though, you are going to need a whole new kind of teacher to match your talents, and I am afraid that you are not going to have much choice on that score. You need to learn from a Healing Adept, and there are not very many of those available to teach you. Healing Adepts, when teaching in their own path, never take on more than one student at a time, and we will have to find one who has not got a student at the moment.”

Darian’s heart sank a little at that, but he resolved that he would manage to get along with whomever Starfall found for him, for it would be poor repayment for all that the Tayledras had done for him to quarrel with the teacher they assigned him.

“I actually have someone in mind,” Starfall went on, watching Darian closely. “And I think this might be the best possible combination of student and teacher if he’s free - but I won’t hear from him for a while.”

“In that case,” Darian said bravely, “I hope that he is free. I trust your judgment.”

In the meantime, his mind buzzed with questions. Just what was a Healing Adept? Was he going to be an Adept when he was finished with his learning? How hard was it to learn? Who was this person that Starfall spoke of with such caution? Wasn’t he in k’Vala Vale?

“In the meantime,” Starfall went on, “we will continue your lessons as best we can. One thing that you can do, even while you are settling in, is simply to observe. One day soon - certainly before the year is out - you will be returning to your new Vale near your old village; what you do with it in the beginning will set the character of the place for all time. You should begin thinking now and planning now, even though many of your plans will not come to fruition in your lifetime.”

Darian nodded, for he had already had some thoughts along those lines. “Yes, sir,” he answered. “Is there anything else I should do?”

“Only that you should get to know the folk about you - and if you see a way to make yourself useful - ” Starfall stopped, and smiled. “Well, I know you, and I know that I needn’t tell you that. Enjoy a bit of a holiday; I think we will resume your studies after the celebration, for if you are going to take a break before you begin, there is going to be no point in starting anything before then.”

Since those words were clearly a dismissal, Darian thanked him, and left him alone again.

But from the twinkle in Starfall’s eyes when he mentioned the “celebration,” it was obvious that Darian’s guess was right.

And just wait until Nightwind and Snowfirefind out!

Four

How can a ceremony be so solemn and so unrestrained at the same time? Darian wondered, though he made very certain that his thought was tightly under shield. It wouldn’t do for anyone to “hear” him; especially not now.

He’d been standing here for what seemed like half the day, though it couldn’t have been even half a candlemark. As Snowfire’s nearest junior male relative, he had found himself drafted for what he could only think of as a High Temple Ceremony, with every bit of ornamentation and trimming a notoriously ornamental people could fabricate for the occasion. He was right up in the center of the circular raised platform that had been erected yesterday in the dyheli meadow, that being the only cleared place big enough to hold everyone. He wasn’t alone, of course; he was one of the “wedding party” along with Snowfire and Nightwind, three k’Vala Elders, Nightbird, and six independent witnesses unrelated to either of the two being joined.

Now, given the length and seriousness of the ceremony, and the importance everyone attached to it, the logical assumption would be that both the participants and the assembled Clans watching it would be as sober as presiding judges and solemn as a Herald in full formal array.

Wrong.

Even though the audience was quiet, so quiet Darian heard the occasional cough or shuffling of feet, they were all grinning from ear to ear, and it was obvious that they were barely repressing their exuberance long enough for the ceremony to conclude. Everyone seemed to consider the whole thing to be a grand joke at the expense of the long-suffering mated pair, and the best reason ever created for a no-effort-spared, Vale-wide festival.

The long-suffering aforementioned pair were not told what was in the offing until well after the preparations were complete, and it was obvious that the thing would take place even if the two main participants had to be carried to the Pledging Circle, bound hand and foot and gagged. There had, in fact, been a suggestion that holding the ceremony under such conditions would be rather amusing, though Snowfire leveled a glare at the person who’d made that suggestion that was so intense he was probably still putting balm on his burns.

One way or another, it was clear that Snowfire and Nightwind were not going to escape k’Vala’s plans for them. So they agreed to go through with it all, with acute embarrassment, but what Darian considered to be astounding good grace.

The wedding garments alone must have taken months to complete; if the hertasi enjoyed dressing up their human charges as if they were big dolls, this time they had dressed their subjects up as if they were a pair of sacred images!

Take Nightwind: part of her hair had been piled up on the top of her head and secured with beaded and bejeweled combs and skewers, while the rest was in braids entwined with more beads, tiny crystals, silver charms and silver chains. At the moment there was only a single feather in her hair - one of Kel’s, set in a silver-and-crystal clasp. Her robes, sky-blue and embroidered with silver gryphons (both realistic and representations of her badge), had a train so long it needed its own attendant to manage it, and sleeves that trailed along the ground nearly as far as the train. She probably wouldn’t have been able to move if Nightbird hadn’t been there to help carry and arrange the train. Around her neck were two necklaces. The first, a slender silver chain that encircled her neck so that its pendant lay in the hollow of her throat, was a simple one and the twin to one that Darian wore. The pendant was a hawk-talon, mounted in silver and accented with a blue moonstone. The second was a huge silver pectoral collar of thin flat strands twisted and twined about each other in a way that had made Darian dizzy when he’d tried to trace their routes earlier; her badge as a Silver Gryphon nestled into the front as if the collar had been made to accept it - which, obviously, it had. Her final ornament was a belt that fitted about her hips and hung to the ground in front, made of more flat silver strands which matched the pectoral collar.

Nor did she outshine Snowfire. His robes, though lacking the overlong train, were otherwise similar. Also in sky-blue and silver, his featured owls embroidered on them, and a silver-ornamented sleeve-glove that extended to his shoulder. He wore a pectoral and belt no less magnificent than Nightwind’s, but differing from hers in that his featured enormous blue moonstones cut to resemble the moon in her several phases instead of Silver Gryphon badges. Both of them wore blue-dyed deerskin boots with silver trimmings - not that anyone could actually see them under all that finery.

To Nightwind’s left stood her sister Nightbird and Kelvren; to Snowfire’s right stood Darian and, on a single enormous stand, Hweel, Huur, and Kuari, side by side. Had their bondbirds been smaller, both Darian and Snowfire would have been carrying them, but the weight of the eagle-owls rendered that impractical.

Nightbird wore a scaled-down version of her sister’s robes; with no train, sleeves that reached only down to the ground instead of trailing out behind her, embroidery only on the hems of the skirt and sleeves, and an embroidered belt instead of a silver one. Her jewelry was limited to her Silver Gryphon badge at her throat and a couple of silver hair sticks with pendants of blue moonstones. Darian, however, wore something entirely different from Snowfire’s outfit, although it was in the wedding colors of silver and blue.

Instead of a long, floor-length robe with hanging sleeves, he had on a blue silk shirt with a sliver-embroidered placket, long sleeves gathered into silvenembroidered cuffs, and a band of silver embroidery at the hem of the shirt. Like Snowfire’s robes, the embroidery on his shirt was of owls. The long shirt was held in at the waist, like a gathered tunic, with a silver belt worked with more owls. Beneath the shirt he wore absolutely plain blue silk breeches and boots similar to Snowfire’s, and over the entire outfit, he wore a blue, floor-length silk-velvet vest.

It was the vest that had touched and pleased him and brought a lump to his throat when he first saw it, for the hertasi had duplicated in silver the embroidery that his mother had done on that cherished but long-outgrown leather vest she had made for him.

Darian carried Snowfire’s weapons, his bow and quiver, climbing stick, and short sword and daggers. Nightbird carried Nightwind’s. This was supposed to show that both were warriors in their own right, and expected to defend each other on an equal basis. A rather nice touch, Darian thought, especially since there were no other weapons anywhere in sight - other than the occasional belt-dagger. Warrior to warrior, man to woman, mage to Healer, it was a good pairing.

The six witnesses were arranged behind all of them in a half-circle; consciously or unconsciously, they had each dressed in a different rainbow color and had arranged themselves in rainbow order - purple, red, orange, yellow, green, blue. The three Elders, one woman and two men, all with silver-white hair, all wore green with gold embroidery - one with a motif of suntail hawks, one with cooperihawks, and the third with peregrine falcons. None of the Elders or witnesses was closely related to either Snowfire or Nightwind; this was according to custom of long standing.

The audience - as much as Darian had been able to see of it - had turned out as splendidly arrayed as the witnesses and the Elders. It wasn’t all humans either, for there were plenty of hertasi in embroidered vests and sashes or curiously cut robes, dyheli bedecked with flower wreaths and ribbons, and gryphons in jeweled harnesses. There were kyree in attendance as well, but they flatly refused to bedeck themselves in anything, and amid the riot of color their gray fur left them blending with the shadows.

The ceremony began with the leftmost of the three Elders speaking first.

“Here stands before us this day, Nightwind k’Leshya, warrior, trondi‘irn of the Silver Gryphons, Healer among the Kaled’a’in,” Elder Leafspear declaimed. “Here stands before us Snowfire k’Vala, warrior and mage, co-leader of the first expedition into Valdemar, well known to all of us. These two wish to join together in sight of our clans, to be as a living bridge between k’Leshya and k’Vala. If there be any here who object to this joining, give tongue that we may hear and consider what you have to say.”

He waited a moment, but of course there was no objection - though Kel looked around so fiercely that anyone who might have considered doing so would instantly have reconsidered the idea as a very bad one. Perhaps that was the idea behind having such firm friends stand on the platform with you. . . .

“For this joining, Nightwind k’Leshya pledges to remain here, far from her birth-home, to bring her skills to k’Vala. For this joining, Snowfire k’Vala pledges to give her home, hearth, and hand, that she never feel the loss of her birth-home and all she has left behind. For this joining, the Elders of k’Vala and k’Leshya have sworn to honor these pledges in their stead, should ill luck befall either.”

He paused again for effect, then continued when virtually everyone nodded in agreement.

“The Vale is more than this place and its Heartstone; if the Heartstone were no more, if we sought another home, where we were would still be k’Vala. There is no k’Vala without the people; there is no Clan without all of us. Our strength is in our bonds to one another, and to make another bond strengthens us all. To make a bond between two so near in heart, yet so different in origin, makes both our clans stronger.”

When he was done, the rightmost Elder, Rainlance, picked up as smoothly as if they were one person and not three.

“This bond, this joining, is not meant to be a fetter. A joining is a partnership, not two people becoming one,” the second Elder said, though not as sternly as Starfall had said it the first time they took their vows. “Two minds cannot fuse, two souls cannot merge, two hearts cannot keep to the same time. If two are foolish enough to try this, one must overwhelm the other, and that is not love, nor is it compassion, nor responsibility. You are two who choose to walk the same path, to bridge the differences between you with love. You must remember and respect those differences and learn to understand them, for they are part of what made you come to love in the first place. Love is patient, love is willing to compromise - love is willing to admit it is wrong. There will be hard times; you must face them as bound warriors do, side by side, not using the weapon of your knowledge to tear at each other. There will be sadness as well as joy, and you must support one another through the grief and sorrow. There will be pain - but pain shared is pain halved, as joy shared is joy doubled, and you each must sacrifice your own comfort to share the pain of the other. And yet, you must do all this and manage to keep each other from wrong actions, for a joining means that you also pledge to help one another at all times. You must lead each other by example. Guide and be willing to be guided. Being joined does not mean that you accept what is truly wrong; being joined means that you must strive that you both remain in the light and the right. You must not pledge yourselves thinking that you can change each other. That is rankest folly, and disrespectful, for no one has the right to change another. You must not pledge yourselves thinking that there will be no strife between you. That is fantasy, for you are two and not one, and there will inevitably come conflict that it will be up to you to resolve. You must not pledge yourselves thinking that all will be well from this moment on. That is a dream, and dreamers must eventually wake. You must come to this joining fully ready, fully committed, and fully respectful of each other.”

Now the third Elder, Silverswan, took up the thread of ceremony - and a silken cord of silver and blue. Night-wind extended her right hand, and Snowfire his left, and the Elder bound them together with the cord.

“Now you will no longer fear the storm,” the Elder said, in ringing tones, “for you find shelter in each other. Now the winter cannot harm you, for you warm each other with love. Now when strength fails, you will be the wind to each other’s wings. Now the darkness holds no danger, for you will be the light to each other’s path. Now you will defy despair, for you will bring hope to each other’s heart. Now there will be no more loneliness, for there will always be a hand reaching out to aid you when all seems darkest. Where there were two paths, there is now one. May your days together be long upon the earth, and each day blessed with joy in each other.”

With their hands still bound together, Snowfire carefully took a silver hair clasp he had been holding in his right hand, one with two feathers hanging from it - one of Hweel’s and one of Huur’s - and clasped it onto the elaborate construction that was Nightwind’s hair. At the same time, she fastened a similar clasp with one of Kel’s smaller feathers into his hair with her left hand. That had been a rather clever touch; Nightwind had no bondbird, of course, but everyone agreed) that her bond with Kel certainly was of the same order: j

Then, the ceremony finally over, they turned to face the crowd and as the witnesses parted so that the audience could see them clearly, raised their bound hands above their heads.

The cheer that erupted literally shook leaves and blossoms out of the trees, showering them both with fragrant petals. More flowers flew at them from the audience and dropped onto their heads from the talons of bondbirds, who seemed to take a great deal of pleasure out of picking a target and hitting it. Flowers were everywhere, the air so thick with them that it looked like a blizzard. Nightwind and Snowfire were exempt from the pelting, but Darian had to put up a hand to fend off all the blossoms intended for his head. Beneath the storm of flowers, the pair paused long enough for a rather heated kiss - a sure sign that though they’d been bonded for two years, they hadn’t become bored with each other!

No one could have possibly enjoyed a party in those cumbersome ceremonial outfits; however, the Tayledras had long since solved that problem. The six witnesses stepped forward and removed the cord holding the pair’s hands together, cutting it into six pieces and each taking one as a physical token that the marriage had been made. Should they ever decide to dissolve the joining, the six pieces would have to be retrieved and burned in another ceremony. Once the ceremonial cord was taken off their hands, Nightwind and Snowfire simply touched hidden clasps and stepped out of their outer ceremonial robes, leaving them in the hands of the witnesses, who had been waiting to take them. They didn’t have to hold the garments for long; in a moment, previously invisible hertasi whisked them away - to be shortly displayed on stands during the celebration for the admiration of anyone who wanted to examine them. From this moment on, the robes became the heirloom works of art they truly were, and would be displayed on the walls of Snowfire’s ekele. Now looking far more comfortable wearing shirts and breeches just like Darian’s, they joined the throng of well-wishers. Meanwhile, more hertasi materialized among the crowd with trays of every kind of finger food and drink imaginable. Ayshen appeared at Darian’s elbow to take Snowfire’s weapons, the three owls flew up into the boughs so that the perch could be removed, and a group of musicians took over the ceremonial platform. Darian was amazed to see that one of the musicians was a creature that could only be a member of the tervardi, the bird-people. He’d never seen one until now, for although the tervardi were traditional allies of the Tayledras, there was no colony of them near k’Vala Vale.

Darian tried to stare without staring; he could not tell if the tervardi was male or female, but if coloration followed the same pattern as in birds, and if the feathers weren’t painted as some of the gryphons’ were, then it was probably male. Its head, covered with scarlet-and-black feathers with a hint of a crest, had a definite beak rather than lips. The arms were feathered as well - wings, but nonfunctional ones, too abbreviated to be of any use even in gliding. There was a broad, feathered tail, and it wore a type of wrapped garment that left the tail free.

The musical group consisted of the tervardi, two hertasi playing drums, and four Tayledras who played harp, gittern, flute, and some sort of horn, respectively. It was soon evident, once they struck up a melody, that the tervardi was their vocalist.

It was also evident why; no human voice could duplicate the haunting sounds that emerged from the tervardi’s fluttering throat as it broke into song.

Havens! Darian thought, listening with his mouth agape. No wonder they never sing for anyone but Hawkbrothers! They‘d be carried off before you could say “soprano “.’

“There was a thriving trade in tervardi entertainment-slaves in the distant past, until the survivors managed to gather under the protection of’the Vales,” a voice said softly behind him. He turned, to’find himself gazing into the eyes of a second tervardi, this one drably plumaged in black and red-brown. Well, “drab” compared with the first one’s black and scarlet; her markings were quite lovely, and if he hadn’t already seen the male, he’d have thought her quite striking.

The enormous eyes, so dark a brown as to seem black, gazed back at him with no expression that he could read. “It was easy for the slavers to get what they wished from us,” the female (the singer’s mate?) continued, her voice a softer version of the singer’s though no less melodious. “After all, what male would not sing, when his captors threatened to torture his mate and female chicks if he refused?”

She saw that I’m not born Tayledras, and she’s testing me - but what should I say? “What song could sound sweet under those conditions?” he countered, after a moment of blankness. “Whoever would order such an atrocity had no heart. The only songs worth hearing are those sung in happiness and freedom.”

He had only thought that he could not read the tervardi; now he realized that she had the same feather-language as the bondbirds. When she first spoke, her feathers had been slicked down with tension; now she relaxed, the feathers around her beak puffed up, and her face looked rounder and softer than it had a moment ago.

“You speak wisely for one so young,” she replied, ith trilling chuckle - or a chuckling trill. “What bird fly you?”

“Kuari, fledged of Huur and Hweel,” he replied promptly, and held out his arm, with a quick Mindtouch to Kuari himself. He braced himself for the weight as Kuari came in, and ducked his head a little to avoid the impact of those huge, silently powerful wings. The only warning that Kuari was near came when the wind his wingstrokes created made a second storm of all the flower petals scattered about.

His arm strained as Kuari settled gently on the guard, and the great talons closed carefully about the leather. The tervardi trilled something at Kuari, who cocked his head to listen, then replied in a series of soft hoots like those made to nestlings. Then he closed his eyes and reached out with his beak to preen a strand of Darian’s hair.

The tervardi chuckled again and relaxed further, her facial feathers puffed up so that her beak nearly disappeared. She held out a four-taloned hand - three long claws and one short and opposed, exactly like a thumb. Darian took it without fear.

“Rrrillia k’Treva,” she said.

“Darian Firkin k’Valdemar k’Vala,” he replied.

“A long name,” she observed. “You have not changed it in Tayledras fashion?”

He shrugged. “I thought about it, but - Tayledras take new use-names when they change, and I haven’t changed, not really. I’m still Darian, with more knowledge and more memories, and a bit more common sense, I hope. I have more skills now, and I’ve got more friends. But when you come down to it, I’m still myself. I’ve grown, but I haven’t changed.”

“Then wear the name you are, Darian Firkin k’Valdemar k’Vala,” she told him firmly. Suddenly, with the lightning change of topic he was to come to associate with tervardi, asked, “And what think you of Sarrrsee’s singing?”

He waved his hands helplessly at that. “Unbelievable!” he finally managed, “Indescribable! I could listen to him all night!”

“Well, with pauses for refreshment, that opportunity you will have, passager,” she said, clearly very pleased with his reaction. “Indeed, on so romantic an occasion, we are to sing courting ballads, we two. And that, for outsiders to hear, is rare.” .

He bowed, hoping that also would please her. “Then I hope you will allow me to than you in place of my brother Snowfire and his mate, who will be enchanted - and overwhelmed - by the honor you do them.”

Now she laughed aloud, a silvery gurgle of sound, and spread her arm pinions. “Oh, you are wasted among the mages, passager,” she crowed. “Such delicate speeches mark you as an Elder afore the time!”

She didn’t give him a chance to reply to that, turning away instead and taking the platform with the other musicians.

Somehow, the group of musicians managed to go from the first song straight into the next without pause to consult one another - although it was entirely possible they were using Mindtouch instead. The second melody must have been one of the “courting songs,” for first the male sang, then the female, trading melodies and replies until the two strains joined in unexpected harmonies. Darian gathered Kuari to his chest and absently scratched the owl’s back and neck - much to Kuari’s pleasure - while he listened with his eyes closed to be able to better concentrate on the music.

This song came to a definite end with a moment of silence followed by applause and cheers. Darian opened his eyes again to see the two tervardi bowing slightly in acknowledgment - and the female looked directly at him and deliberately winked before turning her attention back to the rest.

The musicians launched into a piece that was purely instrumental, and Darian gave Kuari a boost back into the air so that he could rejoin the other bondbirds in the canopy. Then he wandered off, intending to find something a little more substantial than the tiny savories being handed around by the hertasi. He hadn’t eaten since he woke up; Ayshen had kicked him out of bed far too early, and he’d been running errands since. He’d really felt too keyed up to eat anyway, but now that everything was safely over, and nothing disastrous had occurred, he was starving.

And a couple of tiny bites of sausage-stuffed pastry weren’t going to take the edge off his hunger either.

The most logical place to look first was the guest lodge - and going there had the added advantage that he could take off his wedding finery and put on something he wouldn’t have to worry about ruining. Once he made his way to the point where the crowd thinned out a little, he made decent progress to the far side of the Vale - although the temptations to stop were many. Besides the group of musicians from k’Treva Vale that included the two tervardi, there were other musicians from k’Vala scattered here and there, carefully positioned so that no group’s music interfered with the music from another individual or group. Darian passed three individual musicians and two groups on his way to the guest lodges; the groups had set up in spaces big enough to allow for dancing. One group was playing a slow-paced, couples dance, and the second a faster, heavily syncopated group dance.

As he had suspected, the hot pools were in use, though as it was early in the day, they were not heavily crowded. It was a bit of a surprise to see the number of people swimming, though.

That isn’t my idea of what you do at a wedding - well, maybe I’m just being provincial.

Wonderful aromas met his nose before he even reached the door of the guest lodges, and the tempting array of food spread out there made him waver in his resolution to change before he ate. Only the fact that his favorite foods were always the messiest to eat made him stick to it, even though the scents seemed to follow him down the corridors and into his room to taunt him.

He changed quickly, retaining only the new silver belt from his wedding costume, andssprinted back down the corridors, tracking the scents with his nose in the air like a hungry hound.

A short time later, blissfully nibbling on a square of pastry wrapped around a filling of finely chopped nuts and honey, he felt ready to join the rest of the Vale. He strolled out into the open and started back toward the dy-heli meadow.

Darian stopped long enough to listen to one of the solo musicians, then obtained something to drink from a passing hertasi and went on to his destination. Arriving just in time for the tervardi to begin singing again, he sat himself down near the platform on the soft grass and proceeded to lose himself for some undefined length of time while the music created fantasies in his mind.

When he emerged from the spell that the music cast on him, he found that he had company. Beside him, with her blue eyes still filled with the dreams that tervardi singing sent into her mind, was Summerdance.

He had not seen her for the last few days, but that was no great surprise, as they had both been working on the wedding preparations and their errands hadn’t overlapped. In addition, she was apprenticed to Steelmind, the specialist in plants who was the caretaker (among other things) of most of the garden spots in the Vale, including the herb garden. As a consequence, she hadn’t had any free time over the past three or four days.

He was happy to see her at last, and glad that he had hanged into what had been his “best” outfit until he got the one for the wedding. She certainly looked spectacular, gowned in something silken that flowed over her, a waterfall of luminous fabric in several shades of green. She wore as ornaments a collar of braided gold, silver, and copper wire, with strands of crystal beads and feathers braided into her black hair.

She smiled at him, and nodded her head at the platform. “What do you think?” she asked. “This is the fourth time I’ve heard this group; they travel among the Vales, and we try to get them to come once every year or so, but this is the first time they’ve come for a pledging.”

He tried to come up with enough superlatives and failed. “It’s the kind of singing you hear in dreams and know you can’t reproduce when you wake up,” he said finally. “There’s nothing like it.”

“And nothing more beautiful, except when a tervardi flock sings in chorus, and I’ve only heard that once,” she agreed. “I had to go to k’Treva for that, but it was worth the journey. I got to see them dance, besides singing. Do you dance, at all, in Valdemar?”

“Every chance we get,” he laughed. “But if you’re asking if I, personally, dance - I do, and I learned a couple of dances from the team while I was with them, too. Is this an invitation?”

“Well, the group is taking a break, so there isn’t anything going on here for a while,” she pointed out. “And it’s a lot more fun to dance when you have a partner. Round dances are all right for children, but couple dances and group dances are livelier and more interesting.”

“That’s the truth,” he agreed as he stood up, then extended a hand to her to help her to her feet. He took the lead, since he knew where the dancing circles had been set up, and as luck would have it, the first one they came to was just starting a new set as they arrived.

He soon saw how she had gotten her use-name; she as quick, graceful, light on her feet, and evidently untiring. He had no intention of quitting before she was ready, and found himself panting and with a raging thirst by the time the musicians paused for a break themselves. He was half afraid that she’d suggest finding one of the other dancing circles, but she took pity on him. Laughing, she led him to the side of the circle and left him for a moment, only to return with cool drinks for both of them.

He didn’t know any of the people they’d been dancing with, but they all knew who hie was - not so difficult since he was the only outsider in the Clan! With his brown hair and eyes he couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else, not when the only variation on blue eyes, golden skin, and black hair among Tayledras or Kaled’a’in was the blue eyes, golden skin, and white hair of mages who’d worked with Heartstone and node magic.

Oh, not quite true - some scouts, if they had white hair, dyed it in patterns spring through autumn to camouflage themselves. But none of them had plain brown hair.

For the most part, his erstwhile dancing partners were just as winded as he was, and the hertasi circulating among them with more of the refreshing mint-flavored drink soon found themselves emptyhanded. Summerdance was the only one who still had breath to talk; she introduced him to the other dancers, but he promptly forgot most of their names. He had just about caught his breath and cooled down when the musicians began again and she drew him back into the circle for another round.

It wasn’t until after the third round was complete that she professed herself tired, and by that time his legs were getting wobbly. When she suggested a hot soak, he was only too happy to agree.

But when she led him, not in the direction of the communal pools, but down a tiny, vine-shadowed path that threaded between trees away from the sounds of celebration, he started to wonder if she had something more than a soak in mind.

Steady on, he told himself. She just might want some privacy rather than the mob.

But things were certainly promising to be interesting. . . .

She stopped at a place where the path appeared to end, and parted a curtain of flowering vines. On the other side of the vines lay a bubbling pool, one fed, obviously, by the same hot springs that fed the communal pools. Beside the pool on a small stone bench was a thick pile of towels - well, why not? It wasn’t as if they were going to get rained on in the middle of a Vale!

“Here, isn’t this better than jostling for a space with everyone else?” she asked, as she slipped unselfconsciously out of her dress and into the pool without making so much as a splash. He lost no time in following her example; the water was deliciously hot, and all of his tired muscles melted under its influence.

Ah, there is no comparison with Errold’s Grove! he thought blissfully, as he closed his eyes and slumped until his chin touched the surface of the pool. Here I am, entirely alone with Summerdance, no one will care what we do or don’t do - she’s of age, I’m of age, that’s all there is to it. Back home, if anybody found me with a girl like this, her father would be hunting me down with a pack of male relatives and her mother would be making wedding arrangements.

He took a peek out of one eye at Summerdance; apparently she wasn’t as inexhaustible as she’d been at pains to appear, for she was relaxing in the water with the same expression he’d been wearing. Beads of moisture collected on her forehead, and the hair around her face started to curl in the heat and damp.

“Where are we, exactly?” he asked, having only a vague notion of how far they had gone.

“At the farthest end of the Vale. My ekele’s up there.” She pointed straight up, and he followed her pointing finger with his eyes. Squinting upward through the rising team, past vines and foliage obscuring everything, he made out a bit of staircase against a trunk, and what might have been a piece of floor. “I got tired of having to tramp forever to get a hot soak - or to have to tramp forever after I got a hot soak. When we got a reasonable amount of magic back, and I got to pick something I wanted, I picked this.”

“Good choice,” he said, closing his eyes and leaning back again.

But not before he’d managed to find a fresh blossom growing within reach.

Now came the moment for internal debate. So, do I offer her a flower? In Tayledras terms, especially in a situation like this one, offering Summerdance a flower would express without words not just his admiration for her, but that he wanted to share decidedly more than just her platonic company. Chased, rather than chaste, as the saying went. It wasn’t that he was debating whether he wanted to offer her a flower, he was debating the etiquette of it. This was her pool, beneath her ekele; her territory, so to speak. So, did he make the first overture, or would it be polite to wait and see if she did? But what if she was waiting for him to express an interest? What if she would be disappointed and hurt if he didn’t make the offer?

Of course, all this might be innocent, simply companionable. But among the Tayledras, being offered a flower didn’t imply acceptance, and she could always turn him down.

I’m thinking too much. He reached out and picked the flower without opening his eyes, held it for a moment, then turned toward her. “Ah, Summerdance?”

He opened his eyes as he spoke.

Only to stare at her, seeing that she had just turned and was offering him a flower at the same moment.

They stared at each other for a long breath, then broke nto helpless laughter, leaning into each other’s arms for support.

Then, when their laughter faded, they found other things to share.

Sunset, normally all but imperceptible beneath the huge trees, was spectacular from Summerdance’s ekele high in the boughs of a tree on the edge of the clearing - and they were both in a position to appreciate and pay attention to the sight by then. Still, neither Darian nor Summerdance was prepared to end the celebration quite so early, so they collected themselves and their belongings and rejoined the dancing just as dusk fell. Special illuminations had been planned for after dark, effects that required magic, and Darian was happy to see that they appeared on schedule. Even though he wasn’t in charge of the entertainment, he had something of a proprietary interest in it.

The main event was a display of underwater lighting, with constantly changing colors, beneath the cascades of one of the more elaborate waterfall-arrangements. It had three levels of falling water, with each of the three levels subdivided into additional cascades, all plunging into a small, but deep, pool, frequently used for acrobatic play and roughhousing. No one swam there tonight. Mage-lights glowed behind the falling water from within recesses in the rocks, and one in the bottom of the pool turned the foaming water into a froth of light. The clever mage who’d planned this was at hand to control the changing colors, so that no sequence was ever repeated.

“You know,” Summerdance remarked, as they spotted Nightwind and Snowfire among those admiring the cascades, “I think it’s just as well that they already got their real pledging over with while all of you were out there - ” she waved her hand vaguely in the direction of Valdemar. “If this had been their real pledging instead of an excuse for an enormous party, they’d have been missing all of his, or else they’d feel as if they had to pretend to enjoy it when all the while they really just wanted to be alone together. As it is now, this is just a celebration that happened to involve them, but it’s more like an anniversary party. So they can relax and enjoy it along with everyone else.”

He realized at once that she was probably right; once Nightwind and Snowfire had given in to popular demand, they’d really managed to be quite relaxed about the entire occasion, far more relaxed than anyone else was, in fact. “Very perceptive!” he exclaimed. “I wouldn’t have thought of that, but I think you’re right!”

Summerdance shrugged. “I know my cousin,” she pointed out. “Look how utterly calm he’s been since they got out of their robes, and how he’s relaxed and gone along with the fun! They know their pairing is solid and is going to last. They don’t feel as if they have to prove how happy they are together to an audience of well-wishers, and now that the ceremony is over, they know they don’t have to be the center of everything anymore.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was you who was the trondi‘irn in training and not Nightbird,” he teased, as the lights beneath the waterfall cascades changed slowly from blue to purple, en masse. “How did you figure all that out?”

She elbowed him. “Just because I’m apprenticed to Steelmind, that doesn’t mean I think like a plant,” she chided. “How do you think he got the use-name of Steelmind, hmm? He watches everything and everyone, and doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s worth listening to. He’s quite good at figuring people out, after all that observation. I’d like to think I’ve been learning that from him, too.”

“I think you can bet on it,” he told her seriously, and was rewarded with a sparkling smile. “I also think you’ve got to be getting hungry by now.”

“And you’re observant as well, or else you heard my stomach growling; let’s see what new goodies have been put out. There’s bound to be supper dishes by now.”

She dashed off, casting a glance behind to see if he was following, and he responded to the challenge. They raced each other down overgrown, little-used paths to the guest lodges. Summerdance had a distinct advantage because she knew the Vale so well, but he had longer legs, so they burst out of the undergrowth neck-and-neck, and found themselves part of a goodly crowd of equally hungry folk crowding into the entrance to the main hall.

By now Darian’s appetite had returned with a vengeance, and the wonderful aromas nearly drove him to distraction. A real meal had been spread out this time, with hot and cold dishes to choose from, instead of just snacks. Darian motioned Summerdance to go in ahead of him, feeling as if he would make a poor showing if he let hunger overcome manners. They took plates made of flat bread from a stack waiting at the side of the table, and heaped them with their choices; at Summerdance’s urging, Darian took portions of things he didn’t recognize. They stood together for a moment, looking around to see if there was anyone here that they knew, then spotted Nightbird. She sat in the middle of a congenial group of young men and women, most of whom were strangers to him. A few of Nightbird’s companions were younger than Darian was, but most were about the same age.

As soon as they’d spotted her, she noticed them, and waved them over. They found a couple of unused cushions and sat down with the rest of the group.

“Everyone, this is Dar’ian,” Nightbird said, giving his name the Tayledras pronunciation. “Dar’ian, pay attention,” she continued, with a giggle. “I’m only going to introduce people once!”

He paid quite careful attention to their names as Nightbird introduced her friends, and fixed names properly with the faces in his memory.

Meanwhile, he ate, enjoying all the new flavors. It was all quite different, except the thick slices of meat - and even that was spiced in a way he’d never tasted before. Round puffs of pastry proved to be breaded and fried slices of vegetable, a green paste that Summerdance had greeted with enthusiasm was probably from another vegetable of some kind and made a fantastic garnish on just about everything, little red. squares were not sweet, as he’d expected, but crisp and jjeppery. He wished he’d taken more of the flat round bread; it was wonderful when wrapped around the meat.

He spent more time listening than talking; for one thing, it was the first time he’d seen so many of his age in one place. For another, he was interested in what they did, since no one was ever idle in a Vale to his knowledge.

This was where he got some surprises. He had somehow gotten the vague idea that most Hawkbrothers were mages - that Snowfire and the other scouts were the exception. In a few moments, he learned that his perception was backward.

“So what’s your next assignment?” Nightbird asked a group of three sitting close together in a way that suggested close friendship rather than an amatory grouping.

“You’ll laugh,” said one of the two girls. “Mushroom hunting. The morels are coming up now, and the cooks want plenty.”

Nightbird didn’t laugh, she shrugged. “You can’t always be the ones patrolling the border,” she pointed out with inescapable logic. “Especially not with seven scout groups in training at the same time. You were just lucky on your first assignment, and got the exciting one. Besides, the cooks aren’t the only ones who want morels!”

“Exactly so,” agreed an older boy. “As I can tell you from my training last year. We spend more time hunting game and finding fungi than we do in patrols - and much, much more time in boring, uneventful patrols than in actually fighting anything dangerous.” He laughed. “As Whitehawk says, ’six weeks of boredom punctuated by half a candlemark of sheer terror.’ I think I’ll volunteer for the next Valdemar expedition; at least they saw some action.”

“Wouldn’t mushroom hunting be more in the line of hertasi?” Darian asked.

“Not really,” the boy replied. “The hertasi have plenty of work here in the Vale, and we can hunt mushrooms and check up on the territory inside our border at the same time. Despite what they might tell you, they can’t do every thing!”

Darian discovered from the subsequent conversation that a little less than half of them, male and female both, were scouts or scouts-in-training - a generic job that included hunting and gathering foodstuffs found growing wild in the woods outside the Vale as well as patrolling the boundaries of k’Vala territory. Two were mages - farther along in their studies than he was, but since they had begun earlier, and had certainly applied themselves better, that was only to be expected. One was a weaver and worker with textiles, which rather surprised him, as he’d gotten the impression that the hertasi did most of the crafting work.

But when he ventured to ask, he found out that the “trades,” so to speak, were practiced by as many Tayledras as hertasi. “Isn’t that dull compared with being a scout?” he asked tentatively.

The weaver laughed. “You heard the others. Now that we’ve got most of the nasties cleared out, and it’s easy enough to discourage poachers, it’s scouting that’s boring! I love what I do, and my teacher is Silverbird, the weaver who made the wedding robes. How could anybody be bored, learning to weave works of art like that? I even get to spend as much time in the woods outside the Vale as any scout, because I’m also working with Azurehart, the dyer, and we’re always looking for new colors.”

“It’s just as good doing metal work,” added another. “The hertasi haven’t got the strength to make anything large, or anything out of iron or steel. If you want a sword with a proper blade of twelve-folded steel, it has to be one of us who makes it - and who could get tired of that sort of work?”

“The hertasi can’t blow glass either. It’s too dangerous for them to get that close tp.(the furnaces,” said a girl with a profusion of scarlet-anoli-gold glass beads strung on the hair of one side of her head. “The glass work has to be done by humans.”

The others chimed in with similar praise for their professions, and he now learned that most of the Hawkbrothers of k’Vala were actually craftspeople, with only minor abilities at magic. In this little group alone, there were the weaver and smith, both in training, as well as Nightbird who trained to care for the gryphons, Summerdance who was going to be a plant worker, and the girl glassblower and a young man who was already a practicing fletcher. A Vale was truly a largely self-sufficient organism; certainly as self-sufficient as Errold’s Grove had ever been.

After they’d all finished eating, the group somehow stayed together, and went off to virtually take over one of the dancing circles. At that point, Summerdance found a partner with as much energy as she, and relinquished Darian’s company to Nightbird. Since Nightbird had not yet heard the tervardi sing, and Darian’s lessons had not included the complicated couple dances the others were performing, he went with her back to the platform and happily sat through two more sessions of their music.

Finally, though, the long day began to catch up with him, and he caught himself yawning.

“I’m ready for more dancing,” Nightbird declared, when the music group took another break. She glanced over at him, caught him in mid-yawn, and giggled. “You look more like you’d rather be asleep.”

Since she’d carefully said “asleep” and not “in bed,” he took the comment at face value and not as another invitation. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and grinned sheepishly. “Well,” he temporized, “I was up at the break of day, and running from the time my feet hit the ground.”

She laughed. “I’ll tell you what; partner me for one dance set, and then we’ll see how you feel.”

He nodded agreement and helped her to her feet; they wound their way across the Vale until, quite by accident, they came across a third dance circle and joined it. This one, populated by people of Snowfire’s generation, wasn’t quite as rowdy as the one that Summerdance had gravitated to, but it was lively enough for Darian.

Once again, these were dances that Darian had not learned, but they were easy enough to follow. This was a cross between a couple dance and a round dance, with each couple performing the moves of the set in turn while the others kept time, clapping. The dancers put Nightbird and Darian at the end of the line, which gave him seven chances to learn the next move before he had to do it. The dances moved briskly, with some pretty acrobatic moves as the dances grew more complicated with each new tune. There was quite a lot of twirling, turning, and lifting one’s partner, and Darian found himself running out of energy after a while. So did Nightbird, too, evidently; after that one set of dances, she retired from the field, declaring herself defeated by her own lagging energy. “I’m for a swim,” she decided after a moment. “What about you?”

A swim seemed like a good idea; a fine way to cool off after all that dancing. Conveniently enough, the large swimming pond turned out to be just on the other side of the trees and bushes screening the dance circle; Night-bird just led him around the corner, and there it was.

There were other people at the swimming area who’d had the same idea, but the place was quiet and only dimly lit with flickering lanterns with colored paper shades, and no one seemed bothered by two more joining them. Single swimmers drifted across the still surface with leisurely, slow strokes, barely making a splash, or floated on their backs, feathering the water with gentle movements of only their hands.

Nightbird slipped out of her gown while he was still letting his eyes adjust tdjthe relative darkness, and she plunged into the water without a backward look. He peeled off his clothing and followed, taking sensuous enjoyment in the silken feeling of the cool water on his hot skin. He concentrated only on making as little sound and turbulence as possible, to preserve the tranquil atmosphere.

Darian crossed the pond a few times, then the last of his energy ran out completely. Spotting a pile of towels and robes at the side of the pond, he climbed out, dried off, and helped himself to a loose, comfortable robe from the piles beside the pool.

Most of the other swimmers were gone, leaving the quiet pond, the soft light, and the sound of music drifting over from the dancing circle. Darian yawned. I don’t want to go to bed yet - but I’d like to find a place to lie down and rest for a little bit without getting in anyone’s way.

It occurred to him that there should be several lounging places here, tents made of insect netting draped over frames with flat cushions inside, just large enough for one or two to rest in after swimming, or for child watchers to sit in while keeping an eye on little ones playing in the pond. After a moment, he found several, tucked into a curve of foliage. They were all empty, and he parted the netting and settled himself down inside one, feeling luxuriously indolent but no longer sleepy - or so he thought.

The next thing he knew, it was quite light outside his shelter, and there were hertasi moving about, picking up the odd plate, cup, or pair of breeches left beside the water. He felt entirely rested, so he must have slept soundly and well - so soundly that, whatever had gone on around him, it hadn’t disturbed him in the least.

And, as he had expected, Kuari had found him. Apparently baffled by the enshrouding folds of the insect netting, the eagle-owl perched on the frame of the shelter, vaguely visible through the fog of netting.

He found the opening in the net and fought clear of it, shaking the frame just enough to wake Kuari. The bond-bird opened one eye halfway, then roused all his feathers with a pleased expression when he saw that it was Darian and he was awake.

:Hunt?: Kuari asked eagerly, his huge golden eyes staring unblinking at Darian. :Real hunt, not stupid coop birds?:

:Poor Kuari. It has been a while since we went hunting, hasn’t it?: he said with sympathy that was in no small part induced by the fact that he himself felt very good. :Come on, I’ll get changed. You go see if you can get Kel to go along, and we‘ll go for a real hunt :

Kuari hooted with enthusiasm, and shoved off from the frame, which threatened to topple over as he left it. Darian saved it from imminent collapse, then gathered his robe around him, picked up his clothing from where he’d left it, and trotted for his quarters.

When he emerged from the door of the guest lodges, clean and dressed in one of his old sets of scout clothing, with a bow and quiver in his hand and a light pack on his back, Kelvren and Kuari were waiting for him. Kuari was fluffed up and standing on a branch with one foot tucked under his feathers, and Kelvren posed in a beam of sunlight.

The young gryphon had actually grown a bit since Darian had first met him four years ago, adding muscle to his chest and legs. His head had matured as well; definitely aquiline, it no longer had that faintly “unfinished” look that young eagles and adolescent gryphons shared.

Every gleaming, golden-brown feather was neatly in place, from his ear-tufts to the tip of his tail; his talons were freshly honed, and his bright eyes gleamed with sheer delight in living. Obviously, though others might be suffering from a little too much self-indulgence last night, Kel wasn’t one of their number.

“Wind to thy wingsss!” Kelvren saluted him genially, his eyes flashing with good humor and eagerness. “And I hope yourrr courrting wass asss ssssuccesssful asss mine!”

Darian laughed; Kelvren was as much a hedonist at heart as any other gryphon, and as frankly uninhibited. “And if it was?” he asked.

“Then neitherrr of usss will have complaintss about ourrr homecoming,” Kel replied with a wink. “Kuarri sssaid we hunt; that iss a good thought. Nothing much getss done the day afterrr a celebrrrration, even the herrr-tassi do not do much but pick up a bit. No one cookss, mealss will be what wassn’t consssumed yessterday. Sssince I will make my own kill, I will make my own choice, and it would be good to get sssome frrresssh wild meat.”

“That’s essentially what Kuari said, and I’m all for it.” Darian hefted his bow and quiver of arrows by way of confirmation. “Where should we head for?”

“Norrth of the Vale entrance,” Kel replied promptly. “I hearrd good rrreporrtss of the hunting in that dirrrection.”

“I packed up some of the leftovers from the feast for myself, so we don’t have to come back until dark - how do we post word of where we’re going?” When he and Kel had gone out hunting together back in Valdemar, that had been the inflexible rule - post where you are going, and be back no later than a candlemark after dark. That way, if something happened to you, people would know that you were overdue, and what direction you’d been heading when you ran into trouble.

“I alrrready did,” Kel assured him. “With Firrrelance the chief trrrrondi‘irrrn, with Peluverrr, the seniorrr grrryphon, and with both theirrr herrrtasi. Ssso sssince you have prrrovissionsss, we can go!”

He was obviously itching to be on the wing, because as soon as he had finished speaking, he launched himself up into the sky, sending clouds of dust and debris in all directions. Darian was used to his impatience by now, so he sent Kuari up after him with a nudge of his thoughts, then followed both of them afoot, a little eager and impatient himself.

“Ahhhhhh - ” Kelvren spread his wings and legs out in the sun, flattening himself against the soft meadow grass, and started to get the glazed, half-conscious look he always wore when he was seriously sunbathing. He looked drunk, or drugged, or stunned, or -

“You look like a gryphon-rug,” Darian observed, layering meat, cheese, watercress, and sliced peppers between two rounds of the flatbread he’d first tasted last night. He set out more of the honey-and-nut pastries on a broad leaf, and propped his flask of cool spring water beside them. Kelvren turned his head just enough to give him a disgusted look.

“What a vile notion,” the gryphon replied. “Wherrre do you get thossse perrrverrrted ideasss?”

Darian took a hearty mouthful of his meal, and made a point of chewing it thoughtfully before he swallowed it and responded. “Mostly from the fact that you’ve flattened yourself out until that is exactly what you look like. The only other comparisons I could make would be a lot less flattering than that one. The only thing round about you right now is your crop.”

Since an entire young wild pig now resided in that crop, it might well bulge. Kelvren had not only been successful, he’d had just enough of a chase to give him some excitement, followed by a fine, clean kill.

Kuari had been just as successful, snaring an unwary tree-hare, and he drowsed on top of a stump in the shade of a small tree on the edge of this clearing.

The meadow itself, formed when one of the enormous Pelagiris trees toppled over and took several of its brethren with it, made a fine glace for everyone to rest. Darian was going to come home just as much of a mighty hunter as the others, though he had no wish to eat his catch raw. He had four fine young brush-grouse, a delicacy that everyone enjoyed; he intended to present Starfall with one, Snowfire with two, and keep the fourth for himself. There was no reason at all why he couldn’t roast it on a spit for dinner tonight; he knew how to cook, and maybe Summerdance might be interested in sharing his meal. She’d probably want some of the handsome feathers, too, so he’d remember to save them.

He’d hung them to bleed them out; he’d field-dress them before he put them in his now-empty pack. Kel and Kuari would probably clean up after him when he did.

That would be later in the afternoon; for now, they would sunbathe and enjoy their holiday, because tomorrow, Darian’s education in magic would begin in earnest, and he expected to have few holidays for some time to come.

He finished his meal and washed it down with spring water. Off in the distance, birds sang and a couple of crows yelled at each other; in the meadow, crickets and spring-frogs vied to see who could chirp the better mating calls. Darian lay back in the soft grass and shaded his face with a fallen, leaf-covered branch he’d stuck in the earth at his head,

“So you had a lady-friend last night, did you?” he asked lazily. “Do I know her?”

Kel revived from his trance, pulled in wings and legs, and brought his head up. “Do I know yourrrss?” he replied.

“Probably. Summerdance?”

Kel chuckled. “And yourrr courrting wass ssuccessful.” It wasn’t a question. He sounded knowing, and Darian raised his own head to look at his friend with suspicion.

“And just what do you know?” he demanded.

Kel examined his right front foot and daintily preened a talon with the tip of his beak. “Oh, jusst that Nightbirrd and Sssummerrdance arrre besst frriendsss and often nearrrr my lairrr. The otherrr day they werre therre, and both sspeaking - hmm - ssspeculatively about you. Gryphonsss,” he added wickedly, as an afterthought, “have verity keen beaming.”

“And what did they say?” His own ears burned, but he couldn’t help but be interested. Kel wouldn’t be teasing me if it wasn’t good.

Kel’s eyelids drooped lazily. “Who am I to rrreveal a lady’sss sssecretsss?” he demanded. “That would be un-gentlemanly.” As Darian rose, outrage at being led on and impatience warring for supremacy on his face, Kel made haste to add, “I can sssay that they werrre flatterrring, and that Nightbirrd generrrousssly sssuggesssted that, sssince herrr sssisssterr might be a little too interrresssted in the matching of herrrssself and you - given that Snowfirrre issss yourrr elderrr brrrotherrrr - well, ssshe conceded the field to Sssummerrrdance, who hasss no such complicationsss with relationsss.”

Darian subsided, his ears and neck now so hot that he really didn’t want to hear anything more. “We had a good time,” he replied lamely. “What about you?”

Kel chuckled again; if there was a way to embarrass a gryphon on the subject of “courting,” Darian had yet to find it. “Ah, my parrrtnerrr wasss the lovely and lisss-some Arrrkeyla. Trrruly a magical crrreaturrre! Ssshe isss of my yearrrr in the Sssilverrrs, and told me afterrr that ssshe wissshed to make my homecoming trrruly memorrrable.” He sighed, and stretched out his talons, digging them into the grass in blissful happiness. “Sssuchalady! Bright of eye, ssswiftof wing, andsssso ssskilled! We matched each otherrr in the airrr, ssstrroke for ssstrrroke, rrracing againsst the moon in courrrting flight. Once we werrre alone, out of sssight of the otherrsss, ssshe - ”

“Kel, I don’t really need thfe; details!” Darian interrupted, his embarrassment redoubled, if that was possible. “I’m just glad you had a good time together.”

Kel cast an annoyed glance at Darian, and now finally noticed how fierce his friend’s blushes were; Kel’s annoyance melted away under his amusement. “You could sssay that. You could alssso ssssay that the sssummerrr sssun cassstssss reasssonable light, and be asss accurrrate. I tell you - ”

“Kel!” he said forcefully. “I believe you. You don’t have to say anything more!”

Kelvren’s gurgling laugh did nothing to ease his embarrassment, but at least the gryphon was appeased enough to drop the subject.

“I hearrd that you arrre expected to take yourrr Vale sssome time afterrr Midsssummerrr,” he offered, after Darian’s blushes finally cooled a bit.

Darian seized the change of subject gladly. “That’s what they’ve told me,” he confirmed. “Of course, it won’t really be my Vale until I’m a lot older, but everyone seems to take it as written that I’ll eventually be the one in charge there. They want a permanent presence in residence before the first snow falls, so I expect they’ll be sending a group out there as soon as they think I’m ready.” He paused for a moment, then added, “Want to come along? We’ll need a good team, but one that’s committed to permanent residence.”

“I would be affrrrronted if you hadn’t asssked me, and I would have been forrrced to find a way to enssurrre you did!” Kel exclaimed. “I am all but cerrrtain that Nightwind and Sssnowfirrre intend to be parrrt of the grrroup. They ssshould have one grrryphon, at leassst.”

“Well, I was wondering if you’d want to leave here so soon,” he teased, “After all, when your courting is going so well - ”

“And I am harrrrdly rrready to sssettle and nesst build!” Kelvren shot back. “I have no intention of choossssing a mate until asss many ladiesss asss possssible arrre contending forrr the honorrr. Besssidesss, the new Vale at Errrold’ssss Grrrove is not ssso farrr frrrom herrrre that a lady could not fly in forrr a visit - orrr a gentleman rrrre-turrnthefavorrr!”

“Point taken,” Darian conceded. He rubbed at an insect bite and wished that the time for departure had actually been set; then he’d know how much time he had here and could make some plans of his own. “I wonder if this new teacher that Starfall wants for me is expected to come with us? For that matter, I wonder if Starfall’s been able to get him to agree to be my teacher! I haven’t heard a word, so far.”

“Hmm. I have.” There was no mistaking that tone in Kelvren’s voice; he was quite ready to tease Darian all over again. He would have to be coaxed for every revelation.

“So what have you heard?” Darian decided to play along; Kel loved to tease and be teased in return.

“I have hearrrd - that the teacherrr in quessstion wasss reluctant at firrrsst, but agrrreed.” Kel considered a talon with a thoughtful expression that was entirely feigned.

“Why was he reluctant?” Darian did want to know that much; was it because he was essentially an outsider to the Tayledras?

“Becaussse he wissshed a holiday frrrom ssstudentsss. Ssso I hearrrd. Ssstill, Ssstarrfall convinced him.” Kel stretched his neck out and laid his head down in the grass. “I gatherrr that Ssstarrfall hasss sssome connection with him. Rrrelativesss, perrrhapsss. Enough to be of influence.”

“Have you heard anything else about this teacher?” Like his name ? Darian added silently. It would be nice to know his name and clan.’

“That he isss held in high rrrregarrrd. I think hisss clan isss k’Trrrreva.” Kel rumbled something indecipherable in pure contentment.

“How about his name, O gryphon whose hearing is so keen?” Darian countered. “Surely you managed to overhear that!”

“Rrrrr.” Kel lifted his head and looked at Darian sheepishly. “I did - but mussst confesss I cannot rrrremem-berrrit!”

“You forgot his name? Oh, come on, featherhead, you can do better than that!” Darian cried. “You can’t be that forgetful!”

“Well, it wassss in the middle of the celebrrration, and I had otherrr interressstsss,” Kel protested weakly, flattening his ear-tufts in chagrin.

“Oh, so you let a pair of bright eyes and a flirty tail drive everything important to your best friend right out of your memory!” Darian countered, in mock-disgust. “What kind of friend are you anyway?”

“Absssolutely and without apology! I do have my prrriorrritiesss! But I did not forrrget everrrrything imporrrtant!” Kel protested, flattening his ear-tufts down so far they became invisible.

“Only the most important part!” Darian threw up his hands. “Remind me never to ask you to tell a joke, you’ll probably forget the point of it.”

“You would not underrrssstand ssssophisssticated humorrr,” Kel grumbled back.

Darian sighed. That was certainly just his luck - and it wasn’t Kel’s fault, after all. It wouldn’t be all that long before Starfall would tell him the all-important name of his new teacher, and Kel did remember that the reason the teacher had been reluctant had nothing to do with Darian.

“Hey, it’s all right,” he said, his tone softening. “You can’t remember everything, not when there’re a hundred people talking in your ear and a full-blown party going on. At least now I know that this teacher is going to be here, and that Starfall isn’t going to have to find a second choice. That’s the really important part.”

Kel’s head rose, and so did his ear-tufts. “Well, now that thissss teacherrr comesss, what do you plan to do? It isss clearrr that the Elderrrsss of k’Vala intend you to be theirrr ssspokesssman to Valdemarrrr herrrreaboutssss orrr they would not be trrraining you to be Elderrr to a Vale. Ssso it rrreally will be yourrr Vale and you would be wissse to make long-terrrm plansssss forrr it, and yourrrsssself.”

“I know; Starfall has made that pretty clear.” He laughed. “And I’ve been thinking about it off and on for a while - not to mention every night before I go to sleep. If you don’t mind listening, I can tell you what I’ve figured out so far.”

Kel’s ear tufts were jauntily high again, and he nodded. Darian took a deep breath, and began.

“First of all, we should have enough people that we can defend the place until help comes if we have to - but not so many that it’s anywhere near the size of k’Vala.” He brushed a beetle away and continued. “This isn’t going to be so much a Vale as an embassy, as I see it. So I don’t think we should have many more people than our original team - except, of course, if you do decide to nest with some charming thing, and she’s agreeable to joining us.”

Already he spoke of “us” as if he had his little outpost built and settled! He’d have laughed at himself, except that after all his thinking and planning, it really seemed as if it existed.

“Anyway,” he continued, “we don’t want to have so many people that Lord Breon thinks of us as a possible threat, or that we Tayledras have designs on his holding and estate.” He’d spent a lot of time thinking this over, and felt that Kel would understand why that was so important. Breon could become a real stumbling block if he wasn’t treated correctly, and with respect. “There’s another thing - we don’t want to make ourselves into Lord Breon’s social rival either.”

“Do you mean, sssetting up a kind of Courrrt of ourrr own?” Kel asked, cocking his head to the side. “I can ssssee wherrre that could put his nossse out of joint, ssso to ssspeak.”

“Exactly. We want to keep him on our side, completely, because he’s the nearest highborn.” He was glad that Kel saw what he was getting at so quickly.

“I know about touchy highborrrrnsss,” Kel chuckled. “With the Black Kingsss our nearrr neighborrrsss and alliesss, we have ample opporrrtunity to ssstumble unwittingly into offense!”

“I’d also like to establish a real Healer’s enclave at our Vale,” he continued. “That would take some pressure off Lord Breon’s Healer and earn the gratitude of the local Valdemarans without doing anything to compete with Lord Breon. The presence of Healers - well, that basically shows people we’re peaceful and intend to stay that way.”

“Had you any thought to trrraining magesss therrre?” Kel asked curiously.

“Other than our own people?” He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Herald Elspeth and Adept Darkwind have built a Mage Collegium at Haven where they can keep a careful eye on those with Mage-Gift who aren’t also Heralds. They did that for a reason, Kel. I’m not sure that Valdemar trusts mages even now, and to have someone teaching mages in Valdemar without the sanction and the oversight of the Heralds could be trouble.”

“Urrrr. Bessst we not offend therrre eitherrrr. I sssee what you mean.” The gryphon roused all his feathers and shook. “Sssso, assside frrrom not offending anyone, what plansss have you?”

“I want to make our Vale into the place where people come to resolve their differences,” he said, his eyes alight and his voice alive with enthusiasm. “All kinds of people. I want it to become a place where everyone knows they’ll be safe to work things out without any outside influences. I want it to be the place where Hawkbrothers come when they need to work things out with Valdemarans, or where Lord Breon brings people who aren’t comfortable being in his manor. We could do really good things, Kel!”

“I agrrree!” Kel’s enthusiasm rose right along with his. “Urrr, would I be the only grrryphon in this Vale? Unless I should find a lady, of course.”

“Well, you’d certainly be the one with the most experience and seniority,” Darian temporized. “I wouldn’t bring in anyone who wasn’t junior to you.”

“That would incrrreassse my ssstatusss consssid-errrably!” Kel’s beak gaped with delight; Darian had suspected he’d get that sort of reaction.

“I’d like you to be the chief gryphon of the Silvers there,” Darian told him fondly. “Frankly, I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen that way. I suspect that the others may not realize what kind of an opportunity we will have until it is too late.”

“Asss it ssshould be.” Kel chuckled. “Afterrr all, they have had theirrr chancesss, and they ssshould let otherrrsss take risssskss of theirrr own.”

“In other words - if they’re so fond of the comfort of the Vale that they can’t see opportunity hiding behind a little temporary hardship, then they don’t deserve that opportunity.” Darian laughed, and Kel burbled with delight. “Let’s talk about this on the way home,” he added, getting to his feet. “It won’t take me a moment to clean these birds.”

“Anotherrr good plan,” Kel agreed. “We mussst sssee jussst how many morrre we can make!”

Five

Keisha kept her eyes down and bit her lip to keep from giggling as she passed her two youngest brothers. Of all the things that she thought she’d ever see in her lifetime, this was certainly the least likely of them! Here they were, up to their elbows in soap and water, doing their own laundry in the yard in full sight of everyone!

I have to admit they‘re going about it the right way, too, she thought as she opened the gate and hurried off to her workshop. Theirs is a better system than Mum ever had.

Her mother had always washed the clothing in the house, then brought the baskets of wet clothing out to hang on their lines in the sun to dry. The boys, however, had a different system. Instead of using the sinks in the house, they’d had the cooper make them two half-barrels on legs, with stopcocks as in a wine barrel in the bottoms for drain holes. One half-barrel was for washwater, the other for rinsing. They had a fire going in the fire pit with a tripod and a kettle over it, burning trash as well as heating the water for washing. The barrels held easily twice as much as the sink, maybe more, which meant that stubborn stains could soak while they scrubbed other garments. One boy scrubbed, the other rinsed, wrung, and hung, and they traded jobs each time they drained the tubs and refilled them with clean water or water and soap.

From the determined way in which they were scrubbing, they were doing a good job of it, too. I think they’re going to get the clothes done in half the time it takes Mum, Keisha thought with admiration. They‘re faster than she is, and stronger; they‘ll surely get half a day on the farm if they want to. Of course, the fact that their brothers are paying them to do their clothes isn’t hurting their feelings at all! Who knows - maybe they’ll start getting business from people outside the family and have a trade of their own!

Keisha assiduously did her own laundry; it wasn’t that difficult to manage with only the clothing for one person. Just like keeping the workshop clean, it wasn’t a lot of work as long as you kept up with it.

She had underthings that she’d left soaking in the sink overnight as a matter of fact, and she intended to do a batch of tunics as soon as she rinsed out the underthings. That was why she was in a hurry; she wanted to have her laundry out of the way before anyone came to her with a complaint.

She reached the workshop without being intercepted, and shortly had a neat line of white things drying in the garden. The tunics went in to soak in the same bleaching solution that she’d had the underwear soaking in - she’d decided that it wasn’t going to hurt to try to bleach out the old stains, even if it removed all of the old color as well. Now that she was doing a little of the dyework that Shandi used to, she was getting more and more interested in doing something with the same substances that had caused those stains in the first place.

One of them had been a very quiet gray-green; not the same, rather attractive new-mint color that the trainee Healer-tunics had been, but if she could bleach all the stains out and redye the tunics that color -

It wouldn’t be a bad thing to get people used to seeing me in green. I could ease into it. Besides, sooner or later I’ll have to wear the trainee uniforms, and the moment I do, I just know I’ll get them stained, too.

Maybe she could get herself used to being in green at the same time.

Meanwhile, while the tunics soaked and her experiment in bleaching worked - or didn’t - there was the garden to tend.

She left all the windows open as well as the door, even though it was a little nippy, for the bleaching solution gave off fumes she was suspicious of. In her oldest and shabbiest tunic with a canvas smock over it, she went into the herb garden and knelt down beside the rows of seedlings, a bucket beside her.

Immediately, she felt good: calm, happy, and productive. The garden had that effect on her nearly every time she worked in it. These sprouting shapes under cones of cheesecloth loose enough to allow them sun but heavy enough to protect from frost and heavy rain were from the new seeds she’d gotten from Steelmind. Since she hadn’t known what they were going to look like when they came up, she had very carefully dyed handfuls of splinters and stuck one into the ground right next to each seed before she covered it with earth. Now as she worked beside each row, she pulled out anything sprouting that didn’t have a colorful little splinter beside it. Of course, this was far more work than anyone would want to do normally, but it was only for these new plants. Her perennials, of course, were already well-grown, and it was no work to pick out the annuals she knew from the weed sprouts.

I’m just glad these new ones are all perennials, she thought, as she pulled out sprouting weeds that were barely visible and dusted them into her bucket, replacing the cones over her precious new seedlings as she worked. There will only be one season of this kind of care.

She pulled weeds until her back ached, and her hands had grime ground under all the nails. Then she judged that she’d done enough, and called it a done task. She dumped the bucket of weeds onto her compost heap and took the empty bucket into her workshop.

The fumes weren’t as bad as she’d expected, and the experiment in bleaching was a qualified success. Once she’d rinsed out the tunics and wrung them dry enough to dye, she looked them over carefully and judged that the dye she’d prepared would probably cover the faint stains that were left. Even if if didn’t, she wasn’t any worse off than she’d been before.

The dye itself simmered in a big pot over the fireplace; she’d left it there all night to strengthen. Now she built up the fire a bit and dumped the first tunic in, stirring it with a peeled stick until it reached the color she wanted. Shortly after that, a line of gray-green tunics flapped beside the line of white underthings, and Keisha had replaced the pot of dye with one of soup fixings.

That was when she got her first patient of the day.

A knock on the doorframe made her look up, as Ferla Dawkin came in with her five-year-old in her arms, blood splattered liberally all over both of them.

By now, Keisha was a shrewd and instant judge of situations. Ferla wasn’t hysterical, wasn’t running, wasn’t even out of breath. Therefore, the situation wasn’t anywhere near as bad as it looked.

Ferla’s words confirmed that. “If you’re not busy, Keisha, Dib’s gotten into a fight - ”

“Bring him over to the fire and lay him down on the rug,” she said, and his mother put the boy down while Keisha got clean rags and a fresh bucket of water. The boy had been quiet right up until the moment that Keisha sat down on the floor beside him; then he set up a howl like a Pelagir monster before she’d so much as touched him. He was a sorry sight, face red, blood in his hair and oozing from his nose and mouth, angry tears running down his fat cheeks. Keisha ignored the tears and the howling, she was used to them; she went straight to work, gently washing off the blood until she could make an accurate assessment of the damages.

“Well, Ferla, he’s lost a tooth, he’s got a nosebleed, and he’ll have a fine black eye in a bit, so I’d say he was the loser in this battle,” she finally told the anxious mama. “Here, Dib - ” She made him lie down on the floor and pinched a rag over his nose. “You lie there and we’ll see if we can’t get your nose to stop bleeding. Who’d you take on?”

“Maffie Olan,” came the muffled reply. “He called me a dumbhead.”

“Well, that’ll teach you to ignore people who are bigger than you are when they call you names, won’t it?” she asked matter-of-factly as one big brown eye gazed at her around the rag held to his nose. “Do you know what I used to say when my brothers called me a dumbhead?”

“Huh-uh,” the child replied.

“I’d say, ‘It takes one to know one, so what are you, then?’ Try that instead of tearing into a bigger boy next time.” She winked at him. “Maffie’s not so dim that he can’t work that one out for himself, and it’ll make him madder than you. Remember, if he comes after you and hits you first, then he’s a bully picking on you littles, and you can tattle to his mum, for she won’t put up with Maffie turning into a bully. And you know his mum will tan his hide for him.”

“Keisha!” the mother said, half laughing and half aghast. “Is that anything to tell him?”

She cocked an eye at Ferla. “All I know is it worked for me. My brothers stopped calling me names because they got tired of getting a licking from Mum that was worse than anything they dealt out to me. They couldn’t complain either, because they’d started it by name calling.”

Her bit of advice had certainly silenced the child anyway; he seemed to be pondering it as they waited for his nose to stop bleeding. When Keisha judged that it had been long enough, she had him sit up and cautiously took the rag away from his nose. There was no further leakage, so she got up and mixed him a quick potion; chamomile for the ache in his eye and nose, marsh-mallow and mint to counter any tummy upset from swallowing blood, and honey and allspice to make it into a treat.

“Now,” she said, handing him the mug. “Here’s a sweetie for being brave and doing what I told you.” His face lit up, for every child in the village knew that when Keisha told them something was a “sweetie,” it was worth eating or drinking. She never lied to them about the taste of a medicine; if it was bad, she told them, and advised them to get it down fast so they could have a sweet to take away the bad taste.

He seized the mug and happily drank down the contents. She made up a poultice of cress and plantain, and gave it to his mother.

“Have him lie down a bit more with this on his eye, and when he can’t keep still any longer, let him go play. It’s a pity about the tooth, but at least it’s a baby one.” She looked down at Dib, who stared solemnly up at her. “And mind what I said about fighting.”

“Yes, Keisha,” the boy said, with a look as if he was already contemplating mischief, as his mother helped him to his feet. The two left with Dib trotting sturdily along beside his mother, battered but unrepentant.

Keisha went out to check her drying laundry and found it ready to bring in; a distant growl from above made her glance quickly up at the sky to the west, and she frowned when she saw how quickly clouds were building in that direction. Thunder-towers, for certain sure. No telling how long it would last, either; a spring rain could be over before sunset, or linger for days.

She gathered in her clothing without folding it as she usually did; she just unpinned it from the line and dumped everything in the basket, anxious to beat the rain and get her things inside the workshop. She made it inside before anything came down, but the first drops started plopping into the dust just as she closed the door. It was as she was doing the folding inside the workshop that she heard thunder rumble again, much nearer, then heard the rain suddenly strengthen, rattling the thatch and pelting the path outside.

A moment more, and it wasn’t just a few drops, it was a downpour - a downpour without much thunder, just more growling now and again. There wasn’t much wind, which didn’t augur well for the storm blowing past in a hurry. She shut all the windows as some rain splashed inside, then lit her lanterns to ward off growing darkness; when she cracked the door open and peeked out, what she saw confirmed that this was not going to be a simple cloudburst, over quickly.

Not with the amount coming down, the slate-gray of the clouds overhead, and the relative lack of lightning and thunder.

I’m glad the seedlings are up and they’re in drained beds, she thought with a sigh. And I’m glad I put those gauze cones over them to protect them. This is likely to last for the next three days. If she hadn’t put the cones over them, her precious new plants would be flattened before sunset.

With that in mind, she considered going out now and collecting some foodstuffs; she might be spending a lot of time in the workshop or tending flus and colds. I’d better; I can’t just live on vegetable soup.

Getting out her waterproof rain cape, she put the hood up, slipped on a pair of wooden clogs, bowed her head to the storm and plodded out into it. Beneath the hood of the cape, she watched her footing; already the rain had pooled into some deepish puddles - deep enough that her clogs wouldn’t keep her feet dry if she blundered into one. As she came to the hedge around her house, she looked up, wondering if her brothers had the sense to bring the clothing in. The line at her house was empty, so her brothers had saved their laundry from a drenching, but the righthand neighbor hadn’t been so lucky. Tansy Gelcress struggled with wet clothing, flapping rain cape, and a basket she didn’t want to put down - Keisha couldn’t simply go into the house with that going on next door. She stopped long enough to help Tansy gather in her things, then went on up the path to her own house.

Everybody will be coming home - they can’t work in the wet. I’ll get the fire going, so they have a warm house to come back to. She built up the fire in the kitchen, then surveyed the kitchen stocks, deciding what her mother wouldn’t mind her taking. Ham, cheese, eggs, butter, a jug of cider - that‘ll do. I have beans, flour, basic staples at the shop. I have a quarter of a loaf of bread, and I’ll be out enough that I can get more bread from the baker. We’ve plenty more of what I’m taking at the farm; she can send Da after more if she needs to. People will start bringing barter stuff like eggs and milk around here as soon as I start handing out cough potions. That was part of the arrangement with the village, after all; since Keisha wasn’t a single male who needed to be cooked for and looked after, the family got foodstuffs on an irregular basis. Things usually started appearing when Keisha had done a lot of work in a short period of time.

Gathering her spoils up into a basket and covering it with a fold of her cape, she went out into the storm again, only to see the neighbor waving frantically at her from the door of her house.

She splashed across the yard, fearing that someone had already gotten sick.

But Tansy handed her a bundle wrapped in a clean dishcloth. “I made seedcakes, and I thought since you’ll probably be busy in this nasty weather that you might like to take some to your workshop to nibble on in between emergencies,” she said as she patted Keisha’s hand. “There, just a little thanks for being a good neighbor.”

“Thank you,” Keisha replied, touched and pleased, and a little dumbfounded. “Thank you very much. They’ll be appreciated - ”

“Now don’t let me keep you standing here, go!” the woman told her, making a shooing motion. “I don’t want to be the one responsible for drowning you!”

Keisha left, making her way through the growing runnels of water, protecting both sets of provisions under her rain cape. People are noticing! They’re really noticing what I do! It wasn’t just a reward for helping with the laundry; the neighbor had specifically said “I thought you’d probably be busy in this nasty weather.”

Somehow, she felt immensely better than she had a few moments ago and quite ready to meet whatever the weather brought with a steady spirit.

The wind picked up, sending the edges of her cape flapping, and there was a definite edge to it that there hadn’t been before. It was getting colder, and that wasn’t good.

Cold-teas, sore-throat syrups, cough syrups, fever-teas, herb-and-garlic packets for chicken soup - she started cataloging all the things she was going to need as soon as she got through the door. Her workshop seemed doubly cozy after the bitter weather outside; she shook out her cape and hung it up, then slipped her clogs off and padded around in her stockings, knowing that she’d have to put the clogs back on as soon as someone called on her. Quickly stowing her provisions in her food cupboard, she put beans to soak for soup tomorrow; if the rain lasted, tomorrow would be the day when the first colds made their appearance, and she’d be busy all day.

She took long enough to eat her vegetable soup with sliced bread and butter; if things got bad, it might be bedtime before she had another chance to eat. Then she set about inventorying her cold medicines, and putting together batches of whatever she thought she’d need more of.

Her hands flew as her mind worked; was it likely that anyone would get caught by flooding? With the way this rain was coming down, it was a possibility, though people tended to be pretty sensible about rising water this time of year. It was only in the summer that people got lazy, were too busy, or were having too good a time to pay attention to the possibility of flash floods.

Last year had brought a fine honey harvest and she had plenty stocked away for making soothing syrups. With a surplus of extra jugs, she’d gone ahead and made more decoctions of comfrey, lobelia, hyssop, and horehound than she usually did. Now her preparations paid off; it didn’t take long for her to mix those four ingredients, chamomile, and lemon-balm tinctures, plus the honey, for cough syrup. Work didn’t stop just because people got colds; it was up to her to make certain they could do their work even with one.

Late afternoon brought the first of the emergencies; people might be sensible about flooding, but unfortunately, cows were as stubborn and stupid as rocks. Some of the water-meadows started getting knee-deep and several folk had to wade in to lead their cattle out - the floods were too deep for the herd dogs to work in, so each fool cow had to be caught and led to safety by hand. So a handful of people came home chilled to the bone and blue around the lips - and Keisha was there with hot medicinal teas and packets of preventative herbs to go into the evening soup or stew. No harm if the rest of the family got the medicines either; all that would happen was that everyone would get sleepy earlier, and go off to bed. A warm bed was the best place anyone could be on a night like this one.

The cattle had to be treated, too, for the results of their boneheadedness, so out she went to three different farms, making sure each silly cow got her drench.

Keisha had her villagers well-trained; at the first sign of a sniffle, mothers came to the door for syrups and teas for their littles. There was a steady parade of them just after suppertime, as children who’d gone out healthy came home sneezing, because they would play in the puddles and not come in until they were as soaked and blue as the men who’d rescued the cattle.

These weren’t the things she charged for; she’d early come to the conclusion that if she took her “pay” for run-of-the-mill Healing in the things the villagers were already supplying her, it was more likely that they’d come to her early rather than waiting until the illness was truly serious. Doses with enough sleepy-making potential to make people stay abed a candlemark or two longer when they were mildly sick would keep them from getting sicker - keeping a cold at the level of sniffles and coughs in a child kept it from turning into something that could kill. She’d charge the farmers for the cattle-drenches, but only after the rains were over, and only because they had asked her to give the doses herself.

Then again, she thought wearily, after she’d trudged back to the shop from what she hoped would be the last call of the night, I can get the stuff down their throats without themfighting me; when they do it, more of it goes on the cow than in it, poor things.

Absolutely, positively, no point in going home to sleep; everyone knew that in weather like this, she’d be at the shop where everything she might need was at hand. I’m just glad I got the laundry done, she told herself, as she closed the door behind her, and surveyed the wreck of her workshop. I hope they give me some time to get this cleaned up in the morning before they haul me out again.

She followed her own prescription and added a packet of her herbs to the last of the soup before she ate it - as she’d anticipated, she hadn’t had a chance for a meal after that first bowl. The she put the beans, seasoning, and some ham into another pot and put that over the fire to cook all night. She managed to wash up the dishes and the first soup pot, but ran out of energy, and took two seedcakes and a mug of cider up to the loft where she snuggled into her bed, leaving them on the little table beside the bed for a quick bite if someone pulled her out in the middle of the night.

But that night, at least, her sleep was unbroken, and the cakes and cider made a perfectly good breakfast. It was an unexpected luxury to eat breakfast in bed, with the rain drumming down on the roof outside and the savory aroma of bean soup filling the workshop.

She didn’t linger long, though; she was up and washed and clothed quickly, dressing for the weather. No telling when she’d be called out again.

I could do myself a big favor by getting baskets ready to snatch up, she decided, and lined up four on the workbench. Into one went standard remedies for minor human ailments, and into the second the same sorts of things for animals. Into the other two went medicines for more serious complications. She didn’t think she’d have to use the one for people - but the Fellowship beasts were so sensitive -

She’d no sooner finished the fourth basket when someone knocked on the door, then came in without waiting for a reply.

It was Alys, from the Fellowship.

Keisha grabbed the fourth basket without waiting to hear what brought her. “It’s the sheep, right?”

Alys nodded. “Cough,” she said anxiously. “It’s odd, a dry, hacking sort of cough.”

“Hah!” Alys didn’t recognize it, that was clear, but Keisha did. Her own family flock had gotten the illness in a rainy spring like this one. She turned to get a different jar of heavy concentrate down off the top shelf and put it in her basket as well. “No worries, I’ve got what we’ll need; they’ll be fine as long as we get them warm and dry and get my stuff into them. Come on.”

She swung on her rain cape and slipped her feet into her clogs, heading straight out the door. Alys followed, her brow creased anxiously.

“How are we going to get them dry and warm?” she asked. “They’re soaked to the skin!”

Keisha stopped in the doorway and made a mental inventory of the Fellowship buildings, and realized Alys was right, there was no way to get the sheep under cover on Fellowship property. But there was the village threshing barn, empty and unused at this time of year, and with the favors the Fellowship had done the village, they were certainly owed a favor from the village in return.

“Get your dogs and herders and bring all the sheep up to the threshing barn,” she ordered. “We’ll use that until the rain is over. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it’s right. I’ll meet you there.”

Alys took her word as good, and trotted off through the puddles toward the Fellowship holding. Keisha stopped just long enough at the Mayor’s house to confirm the right of the Fellowship to use the octagonal barn until the rains were done - so long as they supplied fodder for the sheep and cleaned up after them.

Keisha hurried to the barn and let down the oiled canvas interior sides that shut out the wind and rain when need be. The canvas hadn’t come cheap, but in the rush of prosperity following the sale of the barbarians’ looted goods, it had been a sound investment. Now the barn could be used for many purposes in all weathers, even in the dead of winter - it became a tight, weatherproof and windproof tent with a fine shingled roof and seven external supporting walls of wood. It was a tight squeeze, but you could even hold a Faire in there.

The eighth wall, the one opposite the door, was of stone and did not have a canvas cover, but that was the very last thing it needed.

By the time she’d done lacing all the canvas panels together, the poor, sodden sheep showed up, bleating and coughing pathetically. No doubt about that cough; Keisha had heard it before, and the illness “felt” the same as soon as she touched her hands to one of the sheep.

“Bring them in, then start squeezing the water out of their fleeces,” she ordered, as Alys and four more Fellowship shepherds hustled their charges into the barn. “When you’ve got them all as dry as you can, bring clean straw in here for them to bed down in. I know it’ll seem like a waste, but trust me, I want it belly-deep for the sheep in here. They have to get warm and stay warm, or you might start losing lambs.”

Nods all around, neither questions, nor arguments. Keisha went outside to start a fire in the big oven built into the eighth - stone - side of the barn.

The door of the oven faced the outside; inconvenient to say the least, but entirely necessary when you realized that the floor of the barn would be covered in flammable things like straw whenever the barn was in use. There was always a huge pile of wood under a cover next to the oven; it would be a while before the stone wall heated up enough for the warmth to build up in the barn, but that was all right. This would solve the problem of getting the delicate sheep warmed clear through.

And if any other animals start looking seedy, they can be brought here, too. She reminded herself to tell the Mayor that on her way back to her workshop. Once the fire was going well, Keisha stacked logs all around it, and went back into the barn.

With the only light coming from a couple of storm lanterns the shepherds had thoughtfully brought with them, it was pretty dim, but Keisha knew the contents of her basket well. Before very long, she had the water skins she generally used to dose animals full, and had the concentrated cough potion mixing with the water inside. As each poor sheep was squeezed relatively dry, she took it from the hands of its helper over to the stone wall where one of the lanterns hung.

There, she looked deeply into its confused, frightened, eyes, and told it without words that it was safe, that she would be helping it, and that if it drank what she gave it, the nasty cough would stop. Then she promised that there would be warmth, dry straw to lie in, and peace for as long as the rain fell. She filled her mind with those images of warmth and safety, until she felt the sheep relax under her hands and saw the eyes lose their fear.

Then she eased the sheep’s mouth open, and slipped the neck of the water skin past the back of the tongue. How she could tell that she’d gotten enough of a dose into each sheep, she couldn’t have said in words; she only knew that something told her when she’d poured exactly the right amount down its throat.

That was when she let the sheep go; it would wander off and join the rest of the dosed flock making beds in the straw that more of the Fellowship folk were spreading”on the floor.

This was tedious work - not hard, except for those drying off the sheep, but tedious. “Talking” to the sheep without words was tiring, too - Keisha wasn’t sure why, but it took something out of her. The good part was that about the time she was half through, the stone wall began radiating warmth, so the second half of her task was accomplished in relative comfort.

When she turned the last of the sheep loose - and now none of them was coughing - she stood up with a little groan and put the now-flat water skins back in her basket. Alys waited patiently to hear what other orders she had.

“You’ll have to keep the oven stoked, and if anyone wants to bake something in it, or put in a casserole or something, let them, that’s part of the bargain,” Keisha told her. “Mayor said you’ll have to supply your own fodder.” She already knew she didn’t have to tell them to clean up after themselves; when the sheep left this barn, you’d be able to eat off the floor. “Now, what your little beauties have got isn’t exactly a sickness, not yet, anyway.”

“It’s not?” Alys said, puzzled.

Keisha shook her head. “It’s some Pelagirfungus, like ergot, but it grows on sheep-sorrel instead of wheat, down near the roots. Heat and freezing kill it, that’s why you won’t see it in summer or winter, and it needs a warm spring with a lot of rain to start. Which we’ve had.”

Alys nodded. “But we’ve had warm springs with lots of rain before.”

“You’re still all right so long as the ground stays dry, not soaked like it’s been. Then what it needs to spread is a cold rain in the middle of the warm spring.” She shrugged. “Here’s where I don’t know why, it just does. Otherwise, it just sits down at the roots of the sheep-sorrel and your sheep will crop right over the top of it and never come to harm. Since this is a lung sickness, maybe they have to breathe something in. All I know for certain is that if you don’t have the fungus in your fields, your sheep will be all right, and if you don’t have a cold, steady rain, your sheep will be all right - and if you bring your sheep off the fields where the fungus is until after it’s been raining for a day or so, you’ll be all right. Our sheep got it a time or two, and it knocked them down hard; I’m afraid yours would be in trouble if I hadn’t got the stuff into them that kills the rot that they breathe in. Now, though, with heat and good food and the medicine, they’ll be strong enough to fight it off and come out fine.”

Alys looked relieved, and nodded. “The chirms all went into their barn and wouldn’t come out as soon as the rain started, and the goats are in their shelter - and none of them are coughing. It was just the sheep that kept grazing in the rain.”

“Then the chirras and goats won’t have any trouble from this, but mind what I told you from now on; either get rid of the sheep-sorrel or the fungus, or keep animals out of those fields as soon as it starts to rain in the spring.” Keisha stretched, easing cramped arm and back muscles.

Alys looked around the barn at her contentedly drowsing charges, and sighed. “I suppose if there’s anybody else that needs the space here, we’re to make room for them?”

“I won’t allow an animal in that has something yours can catch,” Keisha assured her. “It might happen that we need the room, but this place is big enough that you won’t have to vacate.”

Alys and the other shepherds looked satisfied with that. Alys had something of her own to offer. “If someone gets flooded out, remember we have extra beds at the Fellowship, all right? It’s only fair, with us getting to use the barn and all.”

“I’ll tell the Mayor, and thanks in advance,” Keisha replied. “You won’t need me anymore, so I’d better get back to where people can find me.”

She waved good-bye to the other shepherds, as they settled themselves in for as long as the rain lasted, the dogs making nests in the straw around the flock of sheep. It could be worse for them, Keisha thought, as she faced the storm, bowing her head under the frigid deluge. They could have to watch the sheep out in this mess. At least they’ll be warm and dry, even if they do have to feed the oven and haul over fodder and straw.

And in the long run, it was a good thing that the sheep were here and not in the field; only about a quarter of the ewes had lambs at their side, the rest were still all heavily pregnant. Sheep always picked the worst time to lamb, and it was even odds that they’d decide to drop in the middle of the storm. If there were any problems, there wouldn’t be any hunting about on storm-drenched hillsides to find the missing ewe!

They might not lose any this year, if they all decide to drop while they’re in the barn; that would be a blessing.

When she got back to her workshop, there was a patient waiting for her, huddled in the chair by the fire. And it was Piel, one of Shandi’s most romantic and least-sensible suitors, who was, if possible, the very last person she wanted to see. She tried not to let her resignation show.

No need to ask what brought him; his red nose and swollen eyes, steady sneezing and rasping cough told the whole story. “Oh, Piel,” she sighed, putting her hands on her hips and shaking her head. “You are a right mess, aren’t you?”

“I subbose id’s by own fault,” he wheezed miserably, blowing his nose on his handkerchief. “I wad oud on our hill, and when id starded do rain, I wad thinging so hard aboud her thad I didn’ nodise - ”

“I promise you that it’s all your own fault,” she said severely. “You are more than old enough to know better than to play a fool’s trick like that, and Shandi wouldn’t thank you for catching pneumonia and dying! Only idiots in ballads get sick and pine gracefully and painlessly away for love, Piel. I can guarantee that pneumonia takes longer and hurts a lot.”

“Bud - somedimes I thig id wouldn’ be a bad thig - ” he said forlornly, his voice trailing off, as she turned away and got some of her stronger medicines.

“Oh, you don’t, do you?” She was not going to let him wallow in self-indulgent misery, not in her workshop. “And just how would your parents feel about that? How would Shandi, may I ask? Just how do you think I’d explain that to her, that I let you die of a stupid chill? Idiot! It isn’t as if she left you for another suitor! And it isn’t as if she flew off to the moon!”

“Bud she mid as well be on da moon!” he cried plaintively. “Why wadn id you thad wad Chosen instead ob her? Why couldn id hab been you? Nobody’s in lob wid you!”

“I will have none of that nonsense here!” she told him briskly, turning around with a particularly nasty-tasting potion in her hand. She was in no mood for any of this, and he had, by the Havens, earned a good scold. “First off, if I had been Chosen, who would be taking care of you this minute? Second, it’s none of your business, and nobody asked you who should and should not be Chosen; you leave that to the Companions. Third, if you’re so desperately in love with Shandi, you’d do far better by spending your time thinking of a way to make a good livelihood in Haven where she is, than sitting around on hills moping! Showing up in Haven in a good suit of clothing with the money in your pocket to take her to a fine inn for supper would charm her and finally impress my father. Dying stupidly would not, and moon-calfing about on hills in the rain when other folk are working doesnotl”

Not that I expect him to exert himself that much, she thought scornfully, for she shared her father’s opinion of Piel. The fellow was in love with the idea of being in love, and with Bardic notions of romance, not really in love with Shandi. It’s easy to lie around on hills and weep. And it impresses other fools with how deep your feelings are. One month from now, he ‘ll be desperately in love with one of Shandi’s friends, or one of Lord Breon’s maids at the keep.

“Here,” she said abruptly, thrusting the mug at him. “Drink this. All of it. Now.”

He looked from the mug to her face, saw no hope of reprieve, and gagged it down. It was truly awful, and she’d made no effort to sweeten it.

“Now go home, get into bed, and sleep,” she ordered. “When your mother gives you soup and tea, don’t play with them, drink them - I know she’s already got the medicine she needs for you, she came to get it last night.”

Piel gave a long-suffering sigh, and draped himself with his rain cape as if it were his shroud. She saw him to the door, and nobly refrained from slamming it behind him.

The rest of the day was spent in dosing similar illnesses - and in listening to the complaints of the sufferers. Most of the complaints were actually more fretful and pathetic than anything else; neighbor Tansy pretty well summed them up when she came for cough syrup.

“I wish young Darian would get back here and set himself up like he’s supposed to,” she grumbled. “Even if he couldn’t have sent this storm elsewhere, he’d at least have been able to warn us about it, and he’d be able to tell us how long it’s likely to last!”

When darkness fell, she finally made a dinner for herself - a good one, not just the soup but a nice slice of fried ham and some scrambled eggs and toast. The only thing she’d had all day was those seedcakes and a couple of bites of soup in between patients, and she was so hungry she was close to being nauseated.

She didn’t let her irritation with Piel spoil her meal either, though she’d been damned annoyed with his self-indulgent bleating. The sheep didn’t make that much of a complaint, she told herself, as she took careful sips of the hot soup. And as for that business of “why weren’t you Chosen, nobody is in love with you - ” Ooh, I could have strangled him if I weren’t so tolerant, and he weren’t a patient!

The rain still hadn’t let up, though it had lessened a bit. A storm this big will probably get Haven, too. I wonder how Shandi is doing? It was too soon for a letter, but Keisha couldn’t help wishing one would come.

I wish I had someone else I could talk to. She sighed and took her dishes to the sink to wash. If I’d been Chosen, I’d have my Companion -

Fantasy, foolishness. There was never a chance that she’ d have been Chosen; any hesitation on the part of the Companion had been her imagination. Why would any

Companion Choose me ? she thought sourly. Not only is nobody in love with me, nobody even likes me. There wasn’t a chance that Companion would have Chosen me; Mum and Da named me right. “Keisha,” that’s me, the tree all over thorns and no fruit worth anybody’s effort. If people didn’t need me so badly, they’d never come near me.

Uncomfortable thoughts, uncomfortable feelings, and she knew if she didn’t get her mind off them she’d sink into a well of self-pity as deep as Piel’s.

So she picked up one of her Healing texts and put her mind into study, until she was so tired and sore of eye that she practically crawled up the ladder to her bed.

After four days, the rain finally stopped; the sun put in a brilliant appearance in cloudless skies, and a dry, warm breeze made colds - or at least, complaints of colds - disappear. It never failed to amaze and amuse Keisha that a couple of sunny, warm days in spring or fall could make everyone forget about feeling ill. Unless, of course, they were very ill indeed.

Piel did not put in a second appearance, nor was he anywhere in the village when Keisha was about, which either meant he had taken Keisha’s lecture to heart and was actively seeking a way to make his living in the greater world (not likely) or that he so feared another tongue-lashing that he wasn’t going to come anywhere near her (far more likely). The sheep got over their illness, and there were many more to herd out of the barn than went in, for many of the pregnant ewes took the opportunity to drop lambs. The folk from the Fellowship took such good care of the threshing barn that the Mayor declared they could make free use of it whenever they had another such emergency.

In short, everything was back to normal.

Everything but Keisha herself, that is.

Since the onset of the storm, she’d felt edgy most of the time. Whenever she treated a patient, she’d start to reflect the emotional state of that patient herself, and it wasn’t pleasant. The only reason she’d even known that she was being influenced in that way was because she’d been perfectly calm and contented on the third morning of the storm, and had her mood utterly reversed by the first patient to enter the door. Once someone left, she was fine, but while they were in the same area she had to keep a steady head and remind herself that she was not the one feeling rotten. It was worse if she had to touch the patient; that opened her up to all manner of things she didn’t understand and did not in the least like.

This was making things unexpectedly uncomfortable at home. Rain made the trip to and from the farm pure misery, made chores at the farm a burden, and kept all the boys in the house when they weren’t at the farm. Cooped up like that, for lack of any other amusement, they picked fights with each other. When the boys argued, she found herself getting angry for no reason at all; when her mother got upset, her eyes threatened to overflow. She discovered that beneath her father’s calm exterior, he often suffered from a tensely knotted, aching gut, by experiencing these things herself. That, at least, was useful; she took him aside and convinced him he needed her help unless he wanted to start spitting up blood one day. At least he stopped suffering and felt immensely calmer after following her prescriptions, even if she didn’t.

Four days after the storm ended, Lord Breon’s Healer Gil arrived for his monthly visit. He was late by a day, but she’d expected that; he’d probably had the same sorts of patients that she’d had - maybe more serious, since Lord Breon’s men were duty-bound to be outside no matter the weather - and to rescue any of Lord Breon’s folk who’d gotten themselves into difficulties.

She was replacing her depleted stocks of already-prepared medicines when he tapped on the doorframe and walked on in. She knew both the tap and the step, and even if she hadn’t, she’d have known it was him by the feeling of steadiness and patience that he always brought with him. He might be a cranky curmudgeon on the outside, but inside he was the steady rock on which all hysteria drove itself in vain.

At that moment, however, she needed both hands and her eyes to get her comfrey and lobelia concentrate into its jug. “Welcome, Gil,” she greeted him without turning. “Give me a moment, will you? I have both hands full.”

Gil helped himself to one of the two chairs and she heard him sit down. “Am I?” he asked. “Am I welcome, that is?”

Hmm. Is he expecting a fight out of me? If so, why? She put the jug up, then measured her herbs and put the finished mixture into a steeping bag, tying the drawstrings tight. No point in starting a new batch now, but she’d have it ready to go when Gil left. “I haven’t killed anyone this month, directly or indirectly, and I don’t have any plans to do so today, so of course you’re welcome,” she retorted, turning to greet him properly. “Mind you, I was tempted once or twice during the rain, but I managed to contain my feelings.”

Gil was a withered little raisin of a man, whose normal movements were so deliberate that it shocked people when, in an emergency, he moved with the speed of a hummingbird. His hair was an iron-gray, his legs bowed, his eyes small and black and seemingly able to see whatever it was you most wanted to keep secret. He didn’t look like a Healer; he looked like a weatherbeaten old horse tamer, and, in fact, he did tame horses using a Shin’a’in method he’d learned on Lord Ashkevron’s estate of Forst Reach where he’d grown up (where horse tamers were honored and very, truly needed). Children and animals trusted him immediately, and he had the no-nonsense aura of competence and authority to make even Lord Breon’s most battle-hardened fighters listen to and obey him. There couldn’t have been a better Healer for that particular position in the entire Kingdom, even if his Gift was so weak it was negligible.

“I see you’re wearing Greens now - so to speak,” he continued, raising his eyebrows. “Not exactly orthodox color, though.”

She brushed her hand down the front of her tunic selfconsciously. “I thought I’d use some old clothing of my own for a dye experiment before I ruined those nice uniforms the Collegium sent.” She shrugged. “Why use those new uniforms for work when I have plenty of old things that can take a beating?”

“You know, a uniform isn’t there to make you conform, it’s to reassure your patients as a symbol. Heralds know that; that’s why they wear Whites; people wouldn’t take them half so seriously if they didn’t show up in uniforms. I take it that with the rains you had the usual crop?” he asked, looking her up and down, still with that penetrating expression on his face.

“And one young idiot,” she replied with a laugh, and sat down and told him about Piel. He grunted with disgust when she described how Piel had gotten sick and soaked in the first place, and broke into a cackle of unexpected laughter when she told him the lecture she’d read the romantic fool.

“Bright Havens, I wish I’d been here!” he chortled, slapping the arm of the chair with his hand. “Sounds to me as if you’re getting your proper attitude, young lady. If people won’t give you the authority and respect you need to make them listen, then by the gods, take it! You can apologize after they’re better. What good’s a Healer that no one listens to? That was where poor old Justyn got into trouble; he was too soft on people.”

“Well, all I can say is I’m grateful that Piel hasn’t decided he’s lifebonded to Shandi. He’s quite enough of a wet mess as it is, and I swear to you, even if he was shaved bald he’d have more hair than wits. Why Shandi ever encouraged him in the first place, I’ll never know.” She sighed, and ran both hands through the hair at her temples in exasperation. “Maybe it’s just that she was too kind, and afraid to break his heart. Other than young Piel’s crisis, the Fellowship’s sheep got that dry cough I told you about, and the preparation you recommended cleared it up in them as fast as it did my folk’s flock.”

“Just watch that particular medicine in the early stages of pregnancy, it tends to make cattle miscarry, and it might do the same in sheep,” he cautioned. “Late stages, no problem, but the first month - ”

“If it’s a choice between possibly losing the sheep or losing the lamb, I think most people would prefer the latter, but I’ll be sure and give them that option if the situation comes up,” she promised. “But that might be the reason why so many of the pregnant ones decided to drop lambs in the barn - which was a fine thing as far as their keepers were concerned.”

“Heard anything from your sister yet?” he asked, changing the subject so quickly that she immediately suspected an ulterior motive.

She shook her head. “It’s a little too soon, I’d think,” she replied, watching him with care. “I should think they’d have her so busy at first that she’d be going from the moment she got up to the moment her head hit the pillow.”

I wonder why he’s asking ? Is it curiosity or something more?

“And I should think she’d want her sister with her so much that she’d be sending you letters three times a day,” he began. She held up her hand, stopping him at that point.

“Don’t start.” she said shortly. “I won’t listen, and we’ve been through this a hundred times. How would you cope with me gone? You couldn’t, and you know it.”

“But you have the Gift, and I can’t teach you to use it,” he countered stubbornly. “We’ve tried, and I can’t tell you what you need to know, and so far you haven’t made any progress with the texts either.”

“Then we’ll wait until someone with the Gift can come here to teach me for a couple of months,” she retorted, just as stubbornly. “Right now I’m doing as well or better than Justyn did for all of his training at the Collegium, and right now, that’s what this village needs and can’t afford to do without. Whatever happens here, I can at least buy time for a fully trained, fully Gifted Healer to get here. And you have to admit that in some cases that’s all you could do!”

Gil shook his head, but he gave up the argument as a lost cause yet again. He was silent for a space, then scratched his head uneasily. “I’m just afraid that if you keep on like this, your Gift is going to get you into trouble,” he said at last, sounding far more worried than she was used to hearing from him.

“How - how could I get into trouble?” she asked, uncomfortably certain that she already knew the answer.

“I’m not sure - since my own Gift is so trifling, they never went into details,” he said, frowning with concentration, probably as he tried to recall his long-ago training at the Collegium. “I just remember that they told me an untrained Gift has the potential to cause the owner problems.”

She wondered guiltily if she ought to tell him about her strange new sensitivity, and how her nerves always seemed to be raw and open to other people. But if I do, he‘ll probably find a way to pack me off to Haven and then what would happen? No, I can get through this. It can’t be too long now before someone is sent here to show me what to do. Half the Healers in Valdemar aren’t trained at the Collegium, and they do all right! I can manage. I have to.

To keep him from somehow getting the information out of her, she took him around to see those few of her patients who were still abed, and the now-healthy flock of Fellowship sheep. The Fellowship had put them in a pasture along the edge of the river, an easy walk from the village, and quite an enjoyable stroll in the warm spring sunshine. A feeling of laziness crept over her as they came up to the fence and propped their arms up on the top rail, the wood rough and warm under her hand. He leaned over the fence looking as relaxed as she had ever seen him, watching the silly beasts graze and wearing a small but contented smile.

“I have to admit something to you, young Keisha,” he said at last, after they’d both listened to a woodlark sing until it flew off. “I envy you this part of your practice, and I am very glad that you aren’t one of those who thinks herself too valuable to waste time tending animals.”

“If one of those ever gets around me, they’ll get an earful,” she chuckled, totally relaxed now that the only human anywhere around was her mentor. “If our job is to see to our people’s well-being, how can we ignore the well-being of their animals? If their beasties fail, they’ll starve, and how’ve we done our duty then?”

“Good point, and one I’ll remember the next time I need it.” One of the sheep looked up at them, and for some reason known only to it, decided to come over to the fence to see what they were doing there. Gil reached over the fence to the animal, let it sniff his fingers, then buried his hand in its woolly head, scratching around its ears. The sheep went cross-eyed with bliss, and Keisha giggled at its expression.

“The shepherds tell me they’ve always been marvelously tame, but it’s been really pronounced since the rain,” she told the Healer. “I think they were reminded that many of them grew up in boxes next to warm stoves, so now they’re almost like pets - which makes me glad they’re wool-sheep and not mutton-sheep.”

“There is something to that,” he agreed. “Seems like a betrayal to raise a creature as a pet, then eat it. Most chickens being an exception, of course.”

Keisha laughed; she’d been pecked by too many hens and chased by too many mean roosters to disagree with him. “Most chickens can’t be pets; they’ve got less brains than Piel, if that’s possible,” she pointed out. “Since you’ve got your fingers in it, what do you think of the wool in its natural state?”

“Why do you think I’m scratching her? It’s as much for my pleasure as hers; I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything so soft.” He finally stopped his ministrations with a gentle pat on the top of the sheep’s head; just as well, for the ewe looked ready to fall over at any moment. He looked her over with a measuring gaze as she shook her head until her ears flapped, then went back to grazing. “Just about shearing time, isn’t it?”

“Just about. The Fellowship always waits until they’re sure the cold weather is over before they take that protection away. I’ve told you how delicate this lot is.”

“Yes, but obviously worth it. The shawls wouldn’t be half so desirable made out of ordinary fleece. That reminds me; Lord Breon’s son Val plans to pick out a shawl this Midsummer Faire, or so Lord Breon tells me,” Gil offered. He caught Keisha’s interest immediately. If the son and heir of their liege lord was getting married, the whole village would want to know all about it, and as soon as might be.

“For whom?” she asked. “Anyone we know?”

“Some sweet young thing at the keep where he fostered until this spring.” Gil chuckled. “I’ve got the notion that Lord Breon had that in mind when he fostered Val there in the first place. With eight daughters to choose from, there was bound to be something that would take.”

“I’ll tell the Fellowship about the shawl first,” Keisha replied, already deciding who she’d tell first, and in what order, so as not to upset the delicate ranking order in the village. “They’ll probably want to do something special for Val, and they’ll want every moment of time to plan it.”

“Yes, do that - but I won’t tell him they’re making a special shawl for him. He’s got it set in his mind that he has to pick the thing out - as if there’s a special magic to what he’d pick only he and she would appreciate properly or some other romantic nonsense.” Gil shook his head. “He’s been listening to a lot of love ballads lately - he and that lovelorn lad of yours have that much in common. Sometimes I think Bards do more harm than good.”

“Well, they give us all something to dream about, I suppose,” she said doubtfully, then returned to the practical aspects of the courtship. “Meanwhile, I think we can all arrange that he gets his special shawl without knowing it’s his special shawl, if that makes any sense.”

“Complete sense.” He looked up at the sun, and pushed away from the fence. “And if I’m to get back before sundown, I’d best collect my horse and be on my way.”

They parted amiably enough at the pasture, and Keisha returned to the haven of her workshop. She still had plenty more to do while there was a relative lack of illness and injury, and just now nothing would tempt her back into the proximity of people. She felt relaxed, and she wanted to hold onto the feeling as long as she could.

She truly dreaded having to go back home; lately at least one of the boys would have some sort of unpleasant dream each night, and although the dreamer never woke up and never remembered the dream, she did and it woke her up. The workshop was far enough away from the rest of the houses that nothing ever reached her here, and it would be so good to go to sleep knowing that the only thing disturbing her would be her own nightmares, if any.

It would be so nice to have a good night’s sleep again, the way I did during the rains, she thought fretfully. I wish I could just live here and be done with it.

Then - I wonder why I couldn’t just do that ?

She abruptly sat down in the chair Gil had used. All right, I’ll be methodical. The reasons why it would be difficult are -

Mum would object, firstly.

True enough, but she could point out that now no one else would get roused in the middle of the night just because someone needed her. Besides, it wasn’t as if she were going to be living out at the farm, or somewhere else out of sight and alone. She’d still be near at hand, quite near enough to keep an eye on.

I’d have to start doing my own meals.

Yes, but she did that sometimes anyway. The memory of the Fellowship’s communal meals popped into her head, and she realized that she could easily trade some of the routine health care of their flocks for the right to eat with them. Other than that - she could start taking a little more of her fees in food-barter. It could all be worked out.

I’d be by myself. Mum will say that people might talk.

Now, if it had been Shandi who’d wanted to live in the workshop, that would have caused a scandal. Shandi was pretty and had suitors, and people would certainly start to gossip. For this purpose, Keisha’s prickly personality gave her all the protection she needed, for there wasn’t a young man in the entire village who had ever showed any interest in courting her, and they surely wouldn’t start just because she was living alone.

And what’s more, Rafe can move into the cubby Shandi and I shared, and that will break up the quarreling with Torey. For that reason alone, Papa will back me up on this.

But it was easiest to get something done if you didn’t stop to ask permission first - so before anyone came home from the farm, she decided to get all her things and move them over to the workshop. Move now, and argue about it later.

She went straight home, and working quickly, had everything she could truly call hers piled on both beds. Clothing, of course, that was the largest pile; the carved wooden box Papa had made to hold her jewelry was on top of the pile of underthings. She ran her fingers over the smooth wood of the top, following the familiar course of the curls and whorls he’d incised there.

Beside that were her two dolls; all the rest of her toys had been handed down to her brothers as she outgrew them. One was a faceless, battered, and much beloved rag-doll; worn out with loving and much play, but too much adored to be discarded. Beth had been the subject of many an adventure, many a peril, and so much hugging that the stuffing was permanently squeezed out of her middle. She had been rescued by Heralds and Hawkbrothers from every hazard imaginable, from forest fires to slavers- - then, as Keisha’s interest in Healing strengthened and grew, had not only been rescued, but had been cured of every illness and injury possible, and some that would have been the death of any lesser creature. Her embroidered mouth was stained with all the potions that had been pressed to it; her goat-hair braids a little matted from the compresses tied to her head, and every limb had been stitched and restitched with sutures for imagined wounds. Keisha gave her a self-conscious little kiss, and put her down again.

The other doll, an immaculate and beautiful porcelain-headed lady-doll that she and Shandi used to practice on when they were first learning sewing skills, was in near-new condition, for Anestesi had been a gift to a much older Keisha than Beth. In fact, Shandi and Keisha still used this doll to work out a new cut for a gown or the like.

She picked it up and smoothed down the folds of the last gown they’d sewn for it, a dainty creation for Shandi on the occasion of her being chosen Harvest Queen last fall. Of course, the doll’s gown was a patchwork of scraps with a network of chalk lines and other marks on it, which gave the gown a rather odd look - but Shandi had looked like real royalty. . . .

Yes, both dolls would definitely have to come. They could share the loft with her bed; that way no one would see them and tease her about them, and Beth could reassure hurt little ones.

Next, basketful of toiletries. Scent, lotions, the cosmetics she and Shandi had created that Mum would have had a fit over, had she known about them - no doubt there; these had better come too. At least now she’d have some privacy to experiment with those cosmetics without anybody finding out. And if Mum discovered them, I hate to think what a scene it would cause.

All of the extra sheets and blankets came next, but there was really no need to take them.

I’ll leave the bedding, I’ve enough at the workshop, and if I need more, I can barter for it. She stowed it all under the bed where it had been kept before.

Embroidery basket, knitting basket, plain-sewing basket - all of her handicrafts stored in baskets, making them portable enough to take along anywhere. Shandi had come up with that idea, and now Shandi’s baskets were somewhere between here and Haven in a peddler’s wagon.

Yes, yes, and yes. I’m still going to need my baskets. I’ve got all that wool to knit up if I want a new sweater this winter.

A pile of fabric - which had mostly been Shandi’s choices, but which Shandi was hardly going to need now, seeing as how she would spend the next several years wearing Trainee Grays exclusively. Keisha had kept the pile of fabric when she’d sent on Shandi’s clothing and handiwork baskets. Will I have time to do any sewing for myself? Well, probably. And colors that suited Shandi would also suit Keisha. True, the fabrics would do for new shirts for the boys, but when was Mum going to have time to sew them? She hesitated, then added the pile of fabric to the growing list of things she was taking. I have plenty of things that I can wear to work in, but not much else. It might be nice to have a pretty gown or so.

Rag bag -

Definitely. No one can have too many rags.

The big box of odds-and-ends she was always meaning to do something with - brilliant feathers, a cured snakeskin, seeds that looked as if they might make good beads, half finished bits of carving and crafting -

Maybe I’ll get some of that done.

Eventually she had it all sorted through, and decided that three trips would do to get it all to the workshop. On the second, neighbor Tansy came outside with a basket of wet clothing and looked at her with a surprised expression.

“Keisha!” she called, before Keisha could escape out of earshot. “Have you fought with your parents over something? Is something wrong? Why are you moving?”

Keisha paused and peered around her burden, licked her lips nervously, and said, “We haven’t quarreled, but - Tansy, with Shandi gone, the house is just too small to hold all those boys and just me. Besides, I’m in the shop more than I’m here.”

Tansy looked relieved, and nodded. “That’s the truth, and I’ve been saying to my Olek that you must feel like a kickball, in there with all those rowdy boys and no Shandi to make them behave like gentlemen. Well, good, as long as you haven’t gone and had a fight with your Mum or Da. I’ll remember you’re on your own, and bring you over a bite to eat now and again.”

Keisha flushed, and smiled. “Thank you, Tansy. That’s more than I’d expect.”

“Oh, it’s no more than we did - or should have done - for Wizard Justyn, bless his brave soul.” She waved her hand vaguely in the direction of the statue in the square. “I won’t keep you, dear - and I hope you enjoy a night without having to listen to your brothers for a change!”

“Oh, Tansy - ” Keisha laughed,” - they snore so loudly I’ll probably still hear them!”

When she returned for the third load, Tansy was back inside her house, and she brought over the last of her things with a feeling of profound relief.

The relief deepened into pure content as she stowed her belongings away - clothing into the clothes-chest in the loft and the wardrobe-cupboard downstairs, fabric up on a shelf where it wouldn’t get dirty, one workbasket in the window seat, one in the loft, and one beside the fire. The dolls sat side-by-side in state on her bed, and all the rest of her possessions fitted into nooks and corners as if they’d belonged there all along.

Now it looked like a home. Her samplers and embroidered tapestries were on the wall, a lap rug lay over the back of the fireplace chair, embroidered cushions softened seats, and her blue glass vase sat on the tiny table where she ate her meals.

And it was hers, all hers, with the stamp of no other hands on it.

Wizard Justyn would never recognize the place, she thought happily. Not that she had ever seen it when Justyn was in residence, but some of the village women had given very succinct and pungent descriptions. They all boiled down to one word - one which made a world of sense to women, though it baffled men.

Bachelors.

Justyn had been a bachelor, and an old one at that. Bachelors didn’t clean up after themselves, for some unknown reason - nor did they really allow anyone else to clean up after them. The place would have been a right mess when Justyn lived here, with shelves crammed full of dusty oddments, clothing lying about on the floor or draped over a chair where the wizard had left it, and dirty crockery filling the sink.

Now, every perfectly straight and level shelf held its proper contents arrayed sensibly. The big table that had taken up most of the space was gone, replaced by her tiny table, a short stool, and a couple of comfortable chairs. A tall stool stood beside her clean, orderly workbenches, the floor was swept, the hearth clean, and enough firewood to take care of the fire for the entire evening stacked in a log holder beside it. Kindling was in a bucket beside that, not scattered across the hearth. The biggest of the two windows had been deepened, and a window seat built into it. Her embroidered Windrider hung over the hearth, her first and second samplers on either side of it, and her Moonlady up in the loft over the window. Braided rag rugs softened and warmed the floor. All the food was stored out of sight in a closed and mouse-proof cupboard. There wasn’t a crumb to tempt mouse or insect anywhere to be seen.

On the “domestic” side of the cottage, shelves were laden with her personal books, handiwork, linens, and other purely personal belongings. Here, the wardrobe and cupboard resided. On the “Healer” side, shelves were burdened with more books, prepared medicines, raw materials, bandages, the knives and probes, needles and Tayledras silk and catgut of her trade. This was where the workbenches were, and the sink with its pump. The fireplace divided the two “sides,” and beside it was a rolled-up pallet, where she could treat anyone who couldn’t stand, or needed sewing up. That way the victim couldn’t thrash around and fall off a table or bed - and what was more important to her, if he was delirious or uncooperative, she could sit on him to hold him still if she had to.

Acres and acres, and it’s mine, all mine! She giggled, remembering the punchline to a salacious joke she wasn’t supposed to have overheard.

Everything was as neat and clean as soap and water could get it, including the loft where her bed was.

And that, of course, would be another change. I remember when we cleaned this place up. Dirt had actually packed into the corners!

Still, that was a little uncharitable, for Justyn had kept his own treatment areas clean. It was just that -

Well, bachelors don’t seem to realize that dirt gets under things and into corners where you can’t see it. Bachelors think that as long as it’s not gritty underfoot, the floor’s clean.

It was time to think about making supper -

Or going to talk to the Fellowship. I think I’ll be lazy.

As she closed the door behind her, she realized that there was something gone from her - resentment. And another thing - a feeling of being desperately crowded.

It’s because now I don’t have to share anything, that’s what it is. Not the washbasin, not the chores, not a room. Bright Havens! I can choose to share, I don’t have to! I’m going to have privacy! Real, and total, privacy! She couldn’t remember having had complete privacy in her entire life. It was such an astonishing thought that she couldn’t think of anything else right up until the moment that she knocked on the door of the Fellowship’s Hall, their main building.

She recognized the old man who answered the door as the “Eldest” - not really a leader, but the oldest man of the founding family, the grandfather of Alys. As such, he had the authority to make simple bargains for the

Fellowship such as the one she had in mind without putting it to a vote.

“Eldest Safir,” she said, with a half-bow. “I have a proposition I would like to put to you.”

“Then please enter, Healer,” he told her, his expression carefully neutral. She entered and followed him into the communal hall where they all took their meals. At his invitation she sat down on a bench; he sat on one opposite her.

“May I hear your proposition, Healer?” he asked politely. “I cannot say yet if I may consider it alone, or the Fellowship as a whole must debate it.”

“I understand that, Eldest,” she replied, just as soberly. “It is a minor proposal - and simple. The Fellowship currently owes me for certain medicines and treatment for the sheep during the rains - I should like to barter that credit for a certain number of meals taken with you.”

The old man’s brows had furrowed during the first part of her statement, but rose to his hairline in surprise as she finished. “Don’t you have your own family?” he blurted.

“I have irregular hours, and it came to me today that we have far too many people stuffed into a single small house,” she said with a smile. “We all agree that I am fully adult, so I moved into my workshop, to free some space for my brothers. Since I will no longer be contributing to the family income, it seems wrong to take bread from their table.”

“I can see that.” He pondered the proposal while she waited patiently. “And I am certain that you already know of our custom of the hearth kettle.”

“Actually, Eldest,” she smiled, “I was counting on it.”

The “hearth kettle” was a kettle of soup or stew always kept on the kitchen hearth, so that anyone who was hungry could be fed. One of the Fellowship’s customs was that anyone who begged charity was granted three meals and a place to sleep with nothing in return asked of him - and the kettle also served a useful purpose for people whose lives were built around their animals, and who thus, at certain seasons, would also have “irregular hours.” Keisha could always count on getting a bite from the hearth kettle, day or night.

“Well, then - ” Now the old man smiled broadly, and Keisha knew she’d won him over. “What if I say that we will barter unlimited meals in return for all routine care? Not emergencies or unexpected illnesses, like the sheep just had, but all the routine health checks and medicines and tonics and so forth.”

She saw no point in bargaining further; this was exactly what she wanted. “Then I would say that the bargain is set.” She held out her hand.

He took it, and shook it three times to seal the bargain. “Will you stay for tonight’s dinner? We’ve egg-pie.” He raised his eyebrows again. “My wife Alse’s egg-pie.”

She sighed happily at the mere suggestion, and smiled at him. “Eldest,” she said with complete truth, “For your wife’s egg-pie I would arm-wrestle a bear.”

She returned to her cottage - her cottage, not her workshop anymore, and the mere thought filled her with proprietary pride - carrying a basket of warm rolls for breakfast and with the satisfied content of having had a truly fine meal. Alse had a way with spicing and adding chopped bacon and greens to egg-pie that raised the humble dish to something suitable for the table of the Queen herself. There could not have been a better omen for the start of her bargain with the Fellowship than that first meal.

She put the rolls away and lit two of her lamps, then went out into the garden to cut a few blooms for her vase. With lamps shining brightly and flowers on the table, she felt happier than she had for months.

And instead of studying, tonight she gave herself a holiday of sorts. With a small fire to warm the room, she picked up her knitting; with luck, she’d finish the back of the tunic tonight. That would leave the front and both sleeves to do before winter, which was hardly an insurmountable task.

She listened to the songs of crickets and tree-frogs, the murmur of voices in the houses nearest hers, and the distant rushing of the river. There were no shouting boys, no clumping boots - nothing but peaceful quiet.

Why didn’t I do this sooner? I’d have had far fewer headaches!

Perhaps because Shandi had kept peace in the house - or as much peace as anyone could. But surely at some point even Shandi had gotten tired of playing peacekeeper. . . .

Maybe that’s one reason why she was so ready to ride off to Haven. That, and Mum. Mum didn’t really want her to grow up, I think. Poor Mum: like it or not, children do, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

So, it could be that Shandi had done both of them a favor, by making the break clean and quick. Yes, and me, too. IfShandi’s grown up, I’m more than grown.

Was this how Shandi felt now, on her own, making her own decisions, having a place she could truly say was hers and no one else’s? If so, Keisha was glad for her; it was a fine feeling, and one she would be glad to share.

I hope she has a room of her own at that Collegium place. She certainly deserves one at this point.

She’d always been an early riser - more from necessity than virtue, it was true, but a Healer didn’t have much choice in the matter - and it had been a long day. She found herself yawning over her work just as she bound off the knitting, and realized that there were no noisy boys to keep her awake if she tried to go to sleep “early.” She lit a lantern in the loft, blew out the two downstairs, and banked the fire for the morning. As she went back up to the loft to change for bed, she sent a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity had put this notion of moving into her mind. And if it’s the spirit of Wizard Justyn, who didn’t want his cottage to stand empty most of the time, thank you, too!

Once the hurdle of breaking the news to her mother was over and done with, the move was going to make life easier. Much, much easier.

Now if the mysterious Darian would just return to care for the magical needs of Errold’s Grove, life here would be just about perfect.

Six

Once, back when he was enduring his lessons with Justyn, Darian would have been conscious of nothing except how uncomfortable he was at this moment - either too hot or too cold, sitting on a rock or on a sharp branch. He could always find something to distract him from his hated lessons in magic, lessons he considered useless. That was a long time ago, far distant in time and maturity, or so he hoped. Now, none of those possible discomforts mattered, and if you asked him about the temperature or his surroundings, he’d tell you honestly that he hadn’t noticed.

Especially at this moment, a moment of epiphanal breakthrough, when intense new experience overwhelmed every other consideration.

“There!” said Healer-Mage Firefrost in triumph. “Now you see it, you feel it, don’t you?”

Darian “stared” at the slow, smooth flow of energy that was literally all around him; it had taken days of coaching, but now, at last, he was able to do what Starfall had not been able to teach him - was in the over-world of energy, a world overlying the “real” world and a part of it, yet with its own separate life and rules. He used Mage-Sight at a deep enough level to actually watch the passage of life-energy from living creatures to the tiny feeder lines, and from there to the ley-lines, and on to the nodes. Every mage knew that energy flowed in that way; it was one of the first lessons in energy control - but only certain types of mages could actually see it happen at the level of individual blades of grass and insects no bigger than pinheads. Most mages couldn’t actually detect mage-energy until it had collected in the threadlike initial runnels, leaving them with the impression that the energy took the form of a web, rather than an all-pervasive flow. More than that, as Firefrost said, he felt it, a sensation entirely new to him and yet as familiar to him as his own heartbeat - exactly like the faint pressure of sunlight on his skin. Healers saw and felt the same thing according to Starfall; so did minor mages like earth-witches and hedge-wizards - these were the energies that they used, for they were unable to handle anything with more power than a small runnel. This energy was tedious to accumulate and granted them a relatively low level of power, but it was omnipresent. An earth-witch never had to search for a ley-line, and for a while after the mage-storms, hedge-wizards could accomplish more than Adepts, who had never been forced to learn all of the minor magics that needed only the merest whisper of power.

Experimentally, he moved to one of the little runnels collecting the flow - nowhere near large enough to be called a ley-line - and sensed the pressure increase when he interposed himself in the flow.

“It feels good, doesn’t it?” Firefrost said with satisfaction. “I always think it feels like bathing in sun-warmed silk.”

He nodded absently; it both felt and looked good, a warm amber glow the exact color of the light near sunset on a cloudless summer evening, and a sensation of being slowly revitalized.

“If you go somewhere that the energies are distorted or marred, you’ll feel that as well,” Firefrost told him. “It will make you sick, and you’ll learn to tell what’s wrong by how it affects you. Right now you need most to learn to snap in and out of Mage-Sight and Mage-Sense accurately and infallibly, so that if you ever do come across such a place, it won’t entrap you. Now that you have the trick of Seeing this level, your assignment will be to practice exactly that until I think you’re ready for the next step.”

“Can the good magic entrap you, too, with not wanting to leave that feeling?” he asked.

“Not if you’re mentally healthy - no more than you’re entrapped at the feast table,” she replied. “Once you’re ‘full,’ you’ll feel willing to leave.”

The mage did - something. Darian couldn’t quite tell what it was, but it felt a little like a static spark arcing from the mage to himself, more of a shock than pain, but enough to bring him back to the ordinary world with a startled gasp.

“This is why you need a Healing Adept to teach you properly,” Firefrost said, still sitting serenely where she’d been all along, cross-legged in the shade at the edge of the meadow where he and Kel had picnicked. “Starfall is a fine mage, experienced and full of wisdom, but he cannot see and sense the earth-energies in the way a Healer-Mage can, he cannot move about in the realm of pure energy the way we can, so he could not teach you how to access them. I am a Healer-Mage, but I can only take you so far - you have the potential to become a Healing Adept, and your teacher should also be at that level, if you are going to reach that potential.”

Darian nodded; he also sat where he had been all along; his “movement” in the overworld of energies had all been with something other than his physical body. “I think I know why you brought me here, too,” he said shrewdly. “Even though most of the mages have been teaching me in the safety of the Vale, if I’d made the breakthrough there, I’d probably have been blinded.”

Firefrost beamed at him, her young-old face suddenly wreathed in the wrinkles of her proper age - well over seventy. Smile-lines, mostly; Firefrost was a very cheerful person. “Very good! Yes, and I advise you to practice and learn to control this type of Sight in a safe place outside the Vale until you’ve gotten it well in hand. So many ley-lines come into the Heartstone in the Vale that you would be blinded if you can’t dim things down for yourself. And you’d have a headache for a week that would make you wish you were dead!”

Darian was still conscious of that faint pressure of energy; he realized that he always had been, he just hadn’t known what to call it. “So this is why some places in Valdemar made me sick until we cleaned them up!” he said wonderingly. “That’s why Snowfire and Starfall would watch me so closely - they couldn’t feel where things had gone wrong, and they used me to find the places for them!”

Firefrost nodded, and her approval warmed him clear through. “And you understand why they had to do that, don’t you? Or now are you feeling misused?”

That was the last thing on his mind. He shrugged. “They didn’t have much choice, did they? I mean, they did have a kind of choice, they could have used dowsing or some other way to find the bad places, but it was so much quicker to use me - and besides that, it didn’t cost them anything in magical energies of their own. They wouldn’t have risked me if they didn’t think that we could all do what we did without any harm to me.”

He couldn’t resent being “used”; not after the way he’d been vehemently angry with them over using up energies they could ill afford in order to accomplish things that he had been able to do at far less expense. He’d essentially offered himself for whatever need they had at that point, so there was no reason to resent the fact that they’d taken him up on the offer!

“This - this form of the Gift that you have - is very similar to the Earth-Sense of some monarchs,” Firefrost went on in her low, age-roughened voice. “They can’t actually see the energies most of the time - not unless they are also mages - but they feel them. They can also feel what is wrong with the energies of their land at a distance, which can be very useful. The monarchs of Rethwellan have it, the highest of the Priests of Vkandis have it, the Son of the Sun Solaris has it, and the new King of Hardorn has it. In the King of Hardorn’s case, though, it was - imposed on him. With his consent - though I sometimes think he didn’t know what he was consenting to.” She raised an ironic eyebrow. “There is an ancient earth-religion sect of that land that still retains the full knowledge of the Earth-Taking ceremony, and has managed to give Earth-Sense to every monarch of Hardorn except the late and unlamented Ancar.”

“Will I be able - Scratch that. I will be able to do what Starfall did about cleaning places up, but faster and more easily, won’t I.” He made it a statement, but was pleased to see Firefrost nod. “It’ll be like Healing for a Healer; instead of having to figure out what’s gone wrong, I’ll already know by how it affects me, and because of that I’ll know how to fix what’s wrong and get it right the first time, instead of fumbling around using trial and error.”

“It will be quite natural to you - as will some other things, such as moving and acting in the overworld of mage-energies, once you’ve gotten the proper instructor. And you will be able to accomplish things I can only watch and admire, if you ever have access to enough energy.” Firefrost sighed. “Still, we all have our abilities, and - ”

“And anyone who can reverse the effects of frostbite has no reason to feel self-conscious,” he replied, daring to interrupt her. “Any Healer can save what there is left of the damaged tissue, and so could most mages - but anyone who can restore and rebuild all the damage that has already occurred has nothing to be ashamed of!”

That was how Firefrost had gotten her use name at the age of fourteen, when she was newly come into her abilities. While she was scouting the boundaries of k’Vala, a blizzard too huge to be steered away had swept across the forest and everyone who could was out scouting for those who might have been caught in it. She had been the only person anything like a Healer to come upon a family of tervardi taken by surprise by the storm. She had not only saved them from freezing, but had almost completely reversed the effects of the profoundly crippling frostbite (or “firefrost” in the Hawkbrother tongue) that they had suffered. By the time the help she had called for arrived, most of the damage was Healed, and no one suffered anything worse than a little superficial scarring at the extremities.

“I sometimes suspect that the only reason I could was that I didn’t know I couldn’t,” his teacher said, only half in jest. “Still. . .”

“Still, a little magic used with precision and at precisely the right time is better than a great deal of magic used sloppily and clumsily, too late or too early,” he said firmly. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that!”

“Very well! The student rightly rebukes the teacher!” Firefrost laughed, throwing up her hands as if to fend off a blow. “Now, I would like to see if the student can evoke his Mage-Sight in the realm of the overwork without the coaching of his teacher!”

“I hear and obey,” he said, bowing a little at the waist, and sent his mind down that peculiar “twist” that Firefrost had shown him.

Once again, the world around him was overlaid with the overworld of energies. This time he had a kind of double vision, with the real world showing through the flowing energy-fields, and he decided to see if he could narrow his focus -

Even as he thought that, in a dizzying rush that “felt” exactly as if he were diving off a cliff into the river, he found himself contemplating the life-forces of a single blade of grass. Except that he was far, far “smaller” in perception than that blade of grass!

Oh. My. The slender stem loomed “over” him like one of the great trees of the Vale. As he gazed “upward,” his mouth falling open, he tried to take in the immense complexity of this seemingly insignificant bit of flora, and failed.

I think my brain is overflowing! He tried to break free of the fascination and couldn’t - tried again and still couldn’t - and gave a wordless cry for help to his teacher.

With another of those startling shocks, he found himself looking only at the real world again, from his proper perspective, and sighed with relief.

“Next time, ask before you do something like that,” Firefrost told him sternly, crossing her arms over her chest, and giving him a harsh glare. “That was not what I asked you to do, was it?”

“I didn’t know I was doing it until I’d done it,” he admitted shakily.

She shook her head, the fine silver hair escaping from its braids with the movement and floating in fly-away strands about her face. “Now you see why you need a Healing Adept to teach you. It’s entirely possible that you could get yourself into something that I can’t get you out of! In the future, tell me what you think you want to do before you’re in the overworld, all right? With someone of your potential, a wish often becomes fact before you have the least idea what’s going on.”

He felt very tired, all at once, and certainly he and Firefrost had put in more than enough work for one day. It had taken all afternoon before he’d learned that twist that brought him into the overworld. “Can we stop now?” he asked meekly. “I’m getting worn out.”

Firefrost lost her stern glare and smiled ruefully. “And so you should be - and it’s my fault for letting you go back in when I knew you would be getting tired. Just run through those primary exercises I showed you, and we’ll go back to the Vale.”

Now that he knew what they were for, the “primary exercises” in energy manipulation were far easier than they’d been earlier this afternoon, and he ran through them accurately, if not quickly. For the last one, he guided energy from the tree he sat beneath to a particular runnel rather than allowing it to flow into several as it would normally have done, and this time nothing escaped his “herding.”

“Clean,” Firefrost approved. “Very clean. I couldn’t have done it better. Let’s get ourselves back home, shall we?”

He got to his feet and aided Firefrost to hers. She was as much Starfall’s senior as Starfall was Darien’s and, until Darian arrived, the only Healing-Mage that k’Vala had. She had greeted his arrival with relief - and pleasure, when she learned his potential.

She was the kindest and most patient of his three teachers, although Starfall ran a very near second. If his unknown Healing-Adept teacher was half as easy to get along with as Firefrost, Darian thought that he would count himself lucky.

The other teacher, Adept Darkstone, was much more difficult to like. He gave Darian his full attention, true, and was absolutely punctilious in giving Darian the most precise and accurate instructions, but it was all done without any feeling whatsoever. Darian still didn’t know a thing about Darkstone’s background, not even something so minor as which tree his ekele was in, and he’d been getting lessons from the Adept for a week.

The one thing that he did know was the single thing Darkstone made clear at the very beginning; the Adept was entirely against the idea of working with Valdemarans in any way. He did not want outsiders in the Vale, around the Vale, or even aware that the Vale existed. He wanted Hawkbrothers to be a frightening presence in the forest, a glimpse of eyes in a shadow, the warning arrow out of nowhere.

Darkstone wasn’t the only Tayledras who felt that way, though all the ones that Darian had met so far had treated him with distant courtesy at least. There was, after all, a tradition of Tayledras accepting the occasional outsider into their ranks and Clans. The thing that this particular faction opposed was the wholesale “adoption” of Valdemar on the same basis as the Kaled’a’in.

Hard as it was to believe, there was even a faction that didn’t want the Kaled’a’in in k’Vala Vale! Their reasoning was a bit obtuse, along the line that “if the Goddess had wanted k’Leshya back with the Tayledras, the Goddess would have led them to us after the Sundering.”

Useless to argue that this was precisely what had happened - if a bit later than they would have preferred. This lot no more wanted trondi’irn and gryphons in Tayledras Vales than they wanted Shin’a’in and their fighting mares in Tayledras Vales.

Fortunately, Firefrost was as amused by them as they were outraged by her - and she had power and seniority in the Council over most of them.

Even if she didn’t, she could probably reduce them to gibbering just by chuckling at them, tickling them under the chin, and telling them to “run along and learn to play nicely with the new children.” He began to see that there were a lot of advantages to age, some of them enough to provide compensation for losing some of the advantages of youth!

In deference to Firefrost’s age, they’d ridden here on a pair of dyheli rather than hiking on foot. The two does had wandered off somewhere, but Kuari had kept track of one, while Firefrost’s snow-white peregrine had followed the other. Now, without prompting, the birds came winging back, flying under the level of the branches, while the dyheli does sauntered along behind at a brisk walk. Darian offered his linked hands to Firefrost; with a half-bow of her own, she stepped into them, and he boosted her into the well-padded saddle, then hopped onto the other waiting doe. Firefrost avoided the elaborate robes some of the mages - Darkstone for one - liked to wear, and the intricate hairstyles as well. Long, easy-fitting tunics and loose trews of silks in simple colors were what she preferred, and she kept her hair in two braids or a coiled braid at the nape of her neck. Today she wore green, with a necklet of rainbow-moonstones, a single white primary from her bird fastened into her braids.

“The other day someone asked me why I hadn’t changed my name for a use-name,” he told her, as they rode side by side. “I told them it was because I felt like the same person. Does that make sense to you?”

“Perfectly sound, good sense,” she replied with a laugh. “Really, Dar’ian, the reason we change our use-names in the first place is because the ones we’re given as children don’t fit us when we become adults. Think about the use-names for the children you’ve heard - Bluefeather, Littleflower, Honeyfawn, Jumpfrog - who’d want to be saddled with something like that as an adult?”

“Huh - or as an adolescent!” he countered, from the lofty vantage of eighteen. “So how do people get their adult use-names? Yours was given to you, right?”

“Yes, and if you manage to do something notable at about the time you’re ready for an ‘adult’ use-name, that’s usually what you get. Sometimes you get tagged with something notable that happens when you’re ready for a new name.” Her eyes crinkled at the corners with amusement. “That’s how Starfall got his - it was at a Midsummer celebration, and he’d climbed to the top of a cliff overshadowing the main swimming pool at the Vale we had back then. This was on a dare, you see - the usual male foolishness over a girl - and he jumped from the cliff into the pool at precisely the same time as an extremely bright shooting star flashed overhead, mirroring his fall, even to the same angle. So -’starfall’ he became and has remained.” Her eyes crinkled up even more. “And the funniest thing about it is that because he was diving at the time and had all of his attention on the dive so that he wouldn’t break his silly neck, he never saw the falling star that gave him his name!”

“Steelmind?”

“He never forgets anything, and proved it by reciting to one of the Elders a speech he had made that was precisely contradictory to the position he supported at that moment.” She laughed. “Potentially embarrassing, but he didn’t do it in public. Nevertheless, the Elder in question told everyone that the boy had a mind like a steel cage - nothing that got locked into it ever escaped.”

Darian grinned. “What about Darkstone?”

“His personality,” she responded promptly. “Pessimistic, unchanging, and cold as a stone. And believe it or not, he chose it himself. It was an affectation when he was young; he liked that particular aloof image. Now he couldn’t change it without more effort than he’s willing to put in.”

“Wintersky? Raindance? Summerdance?”

“All juvenile names; they haven’t gotten use-names yet, and their childhood names weren’t so silly they were in a hurry to lose them.”

“Hmm. Would anyone label me with a use-name that I don’t like, but am stuck with?” He could think of a number of unpleasant possibilities.

“People can try, but if you refuse to respond to their name for you, it’s considered good manners not to persist. You know the proverb - ’It isn’t what you call me, it’s what I answer to that counts.’ “ She nodded with understanding at his obvious relief. “As long as you feel you are Dar’ian and continue to respond to that name, no one will force you to accept another.”

At this point he certainly couldn’t foresee ever wanting to take a use-name. Not even if I were to do something really impressive.

“Do remember if you do take a use-name that, after you’ve had it for many years, it becomes a great effort to change it again,” she cautioned. “Usually something very dramatic has to happen before the change sticks in people’s minds. I can’t think of more than two or three people who’ve successfully gone to a new use-name later in life.”

By then, they’d reached the entrance to k’Vala, and they discussed when and where they would meet for his next lesson. Once inside the Veil they dismounted and thanked the dyheli for their help; Darian escorted his teacher to her ekele, one that was quite low to the ground, by Tayledras standards. There he left her in the hands of her hertasi helpers, and decided to see if Nightbird or Snowfire and Nightwind had eaten dinner yet, as he was in the mood for some company.

I’ll try Kel’s sunning rock, he decided. That always seemed to be the place one or more of them ended up.

Since he was in a very good mood, it came as an abrupt shock to him to walk straight into the middle of a fight between Snowfire and his beloved. He simply rounded a curve in the path, walked out into the open near the group of boulders that several gryphons liked to use for sunbathing, and there they were -

Oh-oh.

“ - and no one is going to dictate whom I talk to!” Nightwind said, clearly and precisely, just as Darian stopped in his tracks. Her eyes, dark with anger, were the color of a thundercloud and looked just about ready to produce lightning. Her hands were clenched, her knuckles white, and her posture as stiff as an iron rod. For his part, Snowlake was actually white with rage, his eyes had gone to a pale gray, and his jaw was set so hard that Darian expected to hear his teeth splintering at any moment.

It was even more of a shock to Darian since they were arguing in a place so very public. They’d argued before, even in his presence, but never where anyone could just walk into the middle of the spat.

They were both using those sharp-edged, oh-so-civilized tones that meant they were really, really angry. They were both so caught up in their fight that neither of them paid the least attention to what was going on around them; he could have been a leaf, for all the attention they paid to him. Kel, wise young gryphon that he was, must have fled the moment the fight began.

Darian was taken so much by surprise that he froze where he was - and it looked as though he wasn’t the only one who’d been caught off-guard and trapped by the altercation. Nightbird stood with her back to the trunk of a tree, looking very much as if she were bound there and not much caring for it, on the other side of the line-of-battle from Darian.

“Look, I told you what he said - and to my face!” Snowfire said between clenched teeth, his face set, his eyes blazing with white fire. “He’s lucky I didn’t call him out in front of the Elders for it! That’s reason enough for you to avoid him.”

“No, it isn’t. And who are you to choose my friends for me?” Nightwind shot back, matching him glare for glare. “I am not going to give up friends I’ve had all my life, just because you can’t get along with them! He was my scouting partner all the way from White Gryphon, and I’m not going to act as if he’s come down with spots just because you got your precious masculine pride a little bruised! You don’t own me, and the last time I looked, the Tayledras didn’t keep slaves!”

That was more than enough for Darian; he managed to catch Nightbird’s eye and made a little motion with his head in the direction of the path. She nodded violently and edged around her sister until she got clear of the pair, then made a dash for safety. He grabbed her hand as she reached him, and they both beat a quick retreat up the path.

“What was all that about?” he asked as soon as they were out of earshot and felt as if they could slow down to a walk. “And how did you get caught in the middle?”

“Lessons with my sister, with Kel serving as the willing client,” she said, a little out of breath. “Snowfire came charging into the middle of it without so much as an ‘excuse me’ and began ranting about a friend of hers.” She paused, then said carefully, “And if you don’t mind, I’d rather not name names.”

He waved a hand at her. “Don’t worry, I’d rather not know!”

“Well, the fellow in question is pretty well known among the Kaled’a’in for saying stupid things without thinking and regretting it later,” she replied. “I guess that’s probably what he did this time. That, and I think there’s some jealousy there, too, since he used to be Nightwind’s partner, like she said, and the fact that she’d chosen to take someone else as her mate came as a nasty surprise.” Nightbird looked very, very worried, though she didn’t say anything more, and Darian had a fair idea why. She hadn’t seen her sister for four years, and probably thought this represented a truly serious rift between Nightwind and her mate.

“So he’s been brooding about it and maybe today he was out-of-sorts and he said something rude to Snowfire.” Darian nodded. “And I bet Snowfire was out of sorts, too, so Snowfire was in no mood to be forgiving.” He sighed, then smiled reassuringly at her. “Don’t let this worry you. I’ve seen them fight before, you know. They don’t do it often, it’s always when both of them are on edge or feeling sensitive about something, and they always make it up afterward. Truly. Couples do this sort of thing; Nightwind says it’s because you can’t live life so much a part of each other without eventually doing or saying something that’s too irritating to ignore.”

“Really?” Nightbird lost some of that anxious look.

“Truly,” he told her firmly. “I’ve been caught in the middle of explosions just like that one. They’ll make it up. Especially if you can get whoever it was to come apologize. To both of them, if you can manage it.”

“Me?” she squeaked. “Why me?”

“Because you carefully didn’t tell me his name.” Darian was amused to see the expression on her face when she realized she was caught in a trap of her own making. “Besides, I’m not a Kaled’a’in, and I am Snowfire’s little brother. I’m expected to be on his side. You, on the other hand, can go tell this fellow that he’s a blithering idiot and deserves to have Kel drop him into the lake from treetop height, and get away with it.” He put a little coaxing into his voice. “Look, you all but admitted that the fellow deserves it, and you are awfully good at dressing fools down in a way that rubs their noses in it. You’re also awfully good at making them admit that they were idiots.”

“I am, aren’t I. I wonder if that’s an undiscovered power, the Gift of Insult.” She looked thoughtful for a moment, then smirked. “You’re right this time. I’m the logical choice, and what’s more, I can make him feel so guilty about causing a fight at the same time I’m dressing him down that he’ll be begging me to help him make an apology.” She grinned suddenly. “I have every right to be the one to make him feel guilty, too - since I’m the one who got caught in the middle! You know, Sister always says I know how to work people around so well I ought to become a kestra’chern instead of a trondi’irn. I just tell her that it would be no fun if I had to do it professionally.”

“There you go!” he encouraged her. “Tell you what, I’ll arrange some dinner for both of us, you go give him what he’s got coming, and then come meet me at the far end of the lake and tell me what happened. I promise to heap admiration upon you.”

“It’s a bargain.” She strode off, determination making her spine stiff, energy giving spring to her step, without looking back - probably because she was already rehearsing in her mind exactly what she was going to say. He chuckled a little, and went in search of food that would put her in a very good mood.

She liked finger-foods - because what she liked was variety without getting filled up - so he hunted in a couple of the places where hertasi put out dishes for those who preferred to “graze” for dinner. When one of the hertasi learned what he was doing, things became a little easier, and he waited at the appointed spot with a special basket with a warm stone in the bottom of it to keep the steamed dumplings, sausages, and spiced fish-cakes hot, and a second basket with a chilled stone for the sliced vegetables, dipping sauce, and special rolls Nightbird particularly liked, made of boiled grain, thinly sliced fish, vegetables, and spices all rolled in seeds. Sweet spring water in a glass bottle chilled in the same basket, and hot tea in a pottery jug stayed warm in the first basket. And when Nightbird arrived, looking just a little smug, he rewarded her efforts by opening both baskets, handing her a huge leaf to use as a plate, and giving her first choice. Wonderful aromas rose from the first basket, and the contents of the second had been so artfully arranged by the hertasi that she actually paused to admire the creation.

She went straight for the chilled grain-rolls, which was what he had thought might happen. That was perfectly all right with him, for he had no idea how anyone could eat the things; he helped himself to vegetables and steamed dumplings, and did not press her for details until after she’d had her first roll.

“Well?” he asked archly.

“He should be groveling in front of both of them now,” she said with supreme satisfaction. “And since they were already at the kiss-and-apologize stage when I left him with them, it should be even more gratifying for Snowfire. My sister will probably be exasperated with him, but she’ll forgive him, so all will be well.”

“I told you they’d get over it pretty quickly,” he reminded her. “Havens, with any luck, Snowfire and this mysterious fellow will actually become friends out of this.”

She nodded because her mouth was full, swallowed, and said, “That’s what I’m hoping, though it may actually take both of them trying to pound each other to powder before that happens. Why do some men have to be such idiots?”

“Ask Tyrsell,” he suggested. “Seems to me there’s a lot of king-stag stuff going on there.”

She snorted, and tried a dumpling for variety. “Well, I hope I never get caught in the middle of one of their fights again. It was so civilized, but so angry, it gave me chills! How can anyone fight like that?”

“I don’t know; I think it must be something they’ve worked out. It’s pretty astonishing to watch, actually; not pleasant, but astonishing. I’ve never seen anyone argue that way before.”

“Where do they get the self-control?” she asked, her brow wrinkling. “What have you seen them do?”

“It’s what they don’t do. They don’t call names or make personal accusations. They get what’s making them angry out first thing, and you’d swear that they’re a short step away from killing each other! But then, they get into why it made them angry, they actually take turns and try not to interrupt, and then - and I think this must be the important part - go into exactly how bad this made them feel. And at that point, the fire just goes out of the fight! They get things sorted out, then apologize, get things more sorted out - then things are actually better than they were before the fight, I think, because they’ve made another compromise with each other.”

Nightbird’s eyes widened at that. “My! I think maybe I’d better not get joined to anyone, after all. I don’t think I could manage that! It sounds like an awful lot of work to go through just to stay with someone.”

He licked his fingers clean of juice from a dumpling. “Maybe they couldn’t either, at first. I’m sure they had fights before the one I got caught in. I guess . . . if you’re going to get mad about something, it’s better to get it out than let it sit inside and steam.” He laughed wryly. “I tend to steam, and it got me in a lot of trouble, because things would build up and then let go without warning and I would really get it!”

She bit her lower lip. “Uh-huh,” she agreed. “That’s my problem, too. Maybe we’d better make a vow just to stay friends. I have the feeling that we could really do damage to each other, if we started getting really intimate then got angry with each other over something important.”

Oh, hellfires. But she’s right. If we started getting very, very close, that’s exactly what would happen. “Don’t make vows about the future,” he warned. “But you’re right, and we could make a pledge that we’ll try to just stay friends for that reason. Bargain?”

“Bargain,” she replied solemnly. “Besides, we’re practically related, and that feels too much like incest! Want to head over to Summerdance’s ekele and see what she’s doing? Maybe we can get a game-group together - or maybe you can get Firefrost to tell us some juicy old gossip!”

“Good idea,” he agreed, and in a short time they had polished off the last crumb and packed up the baskets to take back to the hertasi at Summerdance’s ekele.

When he returned to his rooms later that evening, it was with some surprise that he found Snowfire waiting there for him, sitting on Darian’s bed and sharpening one of his knives. Snowfire rose as soon as Darian entered and stopped short at seeing him there.

“I hope you’ll forgive my invading your rooms, but I wanted to apologize for making things unpleasant for you this afternoon,” Snowfire began.

“Accepted,” Darian said instantly. “It sounded as if you had plenty of provocation. But - ”

He stopped, not sure he had the right to make the observation that had just occurred to him.

“But?” Snowfire asked.

Darian sat down, feeling awkward. “Is it just me, or are people getting into a lot more quarrels here than we did out in Valdemar?”

“Hmm. Yes, and no.” Snowfire rubbed the side of his nose. “The thing is, the team we had put together - the team you joined - was made up of people who all knew each other well, well enough to make a lot of effort at getting along, but purposefully not so close that personal problems could arise. And we had a great deal to do, so we were often too busy to pick quarrels. Here,” he gestured, palms up. “Here there are a great many more people, and when there are that many people, not all of them get along, not all of them have the same opinions on important matters, and for that matter, not all of them agree about what an important matter is! So there are conflicts, which are going to cause factions and quarreling.” Now he smiled. “And, to my mind the most important factor, we all have a fair amount of free time! That’s time we can use to brood about wrongs, to decide we’ve been insulted - and to pick quarrels for no particular reason. I’m no less prone to that than anyone else.”

Darian had to laugh at that. “I guess that’s something all peoples have in common, then,” he agreed. “When there isn’t a crisis going on, there are going to be some people who want to make one; when things aren’t dramatic enough, they feel impelled to create drama. And the more stress you’re under, the fewer stresses you notice.”

“We’re no different from the people of your village in that way, little brother,” Snowfire admitted. “At least not that much different. At any rate, I am sorry you walked in on our argument, and so is Nightwind. We both owe you and Nightbird apologies and thanks for your constructive plotting. I’m glad you’re picking up the hertasi habit of benevolent conspiracy. So again I apologize, and thank you for deciding to stay involved.”

“I’ll accept both only if you promise to try to remember that whoever it was is an insensitive moron - or at least he is according to Nightbird - and try to keep your temper next time.” Darian tried to look stern and Very Adult, but had a hard time keeping a straight face over this blatant role reversal.

Snowfire saw the joke and managed to act meek. “I will,” he whispered, bowing his head. Then he lost control and started laughing. Darian joined him.

“I will make that promise, but I have an ulterior motive,” Snowfire admitted. “Nightwind swears that if he does something like that again and I’ll just report it to her calmly, she’ll give him the tongue-lashing of a lifetime and I’ll get to watch.”

Darian made his eyes widen. “Oooh, I am impressed. Promise to tell me all about it, if she does! Or better yet, get her to invite me, too!”

“Now who has too much spare time?” Snowfire asked, slapping him on the back as he stood up. “Maybe I ought to ask Starfall to find you a fifth teacher!”

Darian tried to think of a good retort, but his mind went blank, and Snowfire took the opportunity to bid him good night and walk out the door.

The next morning, Darian steeled himself for his usual lesson with Darkstone, but when he arrived at the shielded area where he usually met his teacher, Darkstone was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Starfall, Snowfire, and Firefrost were all waiting for him there.

“What is it?” he asked, searching their faces and finding worrisome traces of concern there.

Firefrost seemed to be spokesperson by mutual consent. “How upset would you be to have to leave the Vale?” she asked, “You’ve made some friends here, perhaps close ones. . . .”

“Not so close that I’d have a broken heart over leaving,” he replied, wondering what was going on. “Have I offended anyone? Darkstone, maybe? Am I being asked to leave?” If that was the case - A chill gripped him, and his stomach clenched.

“No, absolutely not, nothing like that!” Firefrost actually laughed, destroying his fear before it got started. Then she sobered, and gestured to Snowfire. “I think you’d best explain what is going on.”

“We’ve had gryphons on long patrols to the north since that clash with the barbarians,” Snowfire explained. “We - by that, I mean k’Vala - assumed that if one group has found a way through the mountains, others might well, too. That’s what seems to have happened; there’s a barbarian group coming slowly south; very slowly, not much like an army, though. They have women and children, and large wagons - they’ve even got some herd-beasts as well.”

Firefrost chuckled. “I wish you’d had a chance to hear the gryphons go on about those herd-beasts, the greedy things! Apparently these creatures are to ordinary deer what warhorses are to ponies, and there isn’t a one of the scouts but wants a chance to sink his beak into one!”

“The gryphons are more certain that these people are not dangerous than I am, or the other Elders, for that matter,” Starfall amended, with a worried frown. “Yes, they might settle down; yes, they might never reach either Valdemar or k’Vala lands. Nevertheless, they are heavily armed, and they are taking the same general route as that first lot. So the Elders of k’Vala want your Vale in place, fortified, and manned as soon as possible.”

“In fact, we have gyrphons flying hertasi in to get buildings up for us before we even get there,” Snowfire interjected.

Huh! This was moving awfully fast for him. Well, now I’m glad I gave Snowfire that map of ideas for the Vale! “You could do this without me,” he offered tentatively.

“We could; we’d rather not. You are Valdemaran, and you have a perfect right to establish a holding in unclaimed Valdemaran lands, but we don’t,” Firefrost said briskly. “If we’re challenged, you are our answer.”

“You’re also known to the village and to the local Lord,” Snowfire pointed out. “You’re fluent in both our tongues. We are going to alter our plans and have an armed force living in this Vale; you can at least help Starfall explain why we’re bringing in fighters without either causing a panic or arousing suspicion of our motives.”

“You’re not bad with your tongue, boy,” added Firefrost wryly. “I’ve heard you. And you’ve got the benefit of an honest Valdemaran face.”

Darian laughed a little at that. “Well, I suppose that’s some sort of qualification!”

“You’re also a good fighter, if it comes to that, and a scout and trapper,” Starfall said soberly. “If we assume that these barbarians are coming south. On the whole, we would rather find that it’s possible to negotiate with them. Your local Lord may have other ideas. He may want to drive them back. In either case, we can’t do anything without having a strong base to work from.”

Darian nodded, now just as sober as his teacher. “I’d be a poor student if I hadn’t learned that by now. Yes, I want to go now, the sooner the better. It sounds as if we need all the time we can get. I’d be really disappointed if you didn’t take me, danger and all! But I’m going to go hoping that this turns out to be a false alarm.”

Firefrost ruffled his hair in the way only a very elderly woman can get away with. “I thank the Star-Eyed that you have the good sense to know this isn’t an adventure.”

Darian licked his lips, as memories of four years ago flashed through his mind. “Experience, Elder,” he said honestly. “Not necessarily good sense.”

“Experience will do, and don’t misjudge your very real good sense,” Starfall corrected. He looked satisfied, and a bit more relaxed than he had been. “Snowfire, Firefrost, and I will put together the settlers for the new Vale. I’d like you to sit down and see if you can come up with anything you think we would want from a Valdemaran point of view. As you said, the sooner we’re in place, the better. If we can, we’ll be leaving with a pack train within a few days, and your new teacher will just have to catch up with us.”

They sent Darian off to go make his list, and it wasn’t until he was sitting down with pen and paper that he realized he still didn’t know the name of the new teacher, who now would “have to catch up!”

Seven

An entire week went by before anyone in her family even noticed that Keisha wasn’t sleeping in her room at all anymore, a week during which she enjoyed the best stretch of sound sleep she had ever experienced in her life. There weren’t even any midnight emergencies to disturb her, and gradually people who came for treatment figured out that she had made the move a permanent one. In fact, she began to wonder if everyone in the village knew except her family!

Predictably enough, it was her youngest brother, Trey, who first poked his nose into the vacant room and discovered that not only had the bed not been slept in, but that Keisha’s things were all gone. Trey had been the one who had to be threatened with a near-death experience to keep him out of his sisters’ room; he had the curse of insatiable curiosity combined with incredible mischief and the apparent desire to make the lives of his sisters difficult. Such a combination doomed him to a never-ending round of conflict within the family, conflicts from which he always emerged beaten, but uncowed. Keisha suspected he would have played similar tricks on his brothers, except that they’d have boxed his ears for his efforts. At least, when he teased his sisters, he could count on the fact that his worst punishment would come from his mother or father, and probably would only involve physical labor in the form of punitive chores.

This was normal behavior for a boy between the age when he was no longer willing to play with girls and the time when he discovered that girls were fascinating and desirable creatures. Keisha knew that, though it didn’t stop her from chasing him out with a brandished broom more than once. Shandi had been known to mutter from time to time that if she had her way, Trey wouldn’t live to grow out of his pranks.

Somehow, though, Trey did survive, and when he invaded his sisters’ domain, he was careful not to let them find out about it.

At this point in his life, Trey was far more interested in the girls his sisters could get to dance or spend time with him, and he had mostly grown out of his bad habits, but some things, like curiosity, are not the sort of traits that a boy grows out of. Neither is opportunism; instead of going to his parents with his fascinating discovery, Trey came straight to Keisha.

He walked right in through the open door of her cottage with a hint of a swagger; fortunately for him, Keisha had no patients at the time, or he’d have gone right out again on his ear, just on the basis of his smug expression. I know something, his face said, as plainly as if he’d spoken it. And I bet it’s something I can get advantage out of.

As it was, she was amused, rather than annoyed; he thought she wouldn’t want Mum and Da told, and he had no notion that she didn’t give a pin whether he told or not. Still, as first to discover the vacancy, he would benefit, and that would probably satisfy him.

He had taken particular pains with his appearance; his light brown hair was slicked back with water, his shirt neatly tucked into his trews, his face so clean that it was shiny. Evidently he intended to impress her - which meant that he had actually thought things through, for a change.

So Trey is the first to notice. That’s not bad. And he’s been planning to see if I want to buy his silence. You know, if he’s actually started to think before he acts, he may actually survive to adulthood!

“Say, Keisha, all your things are gone from your room,” he said without preamble.

“I know,” she replied calmly, continuing to roll strips of laundered and bleached cloth into bandages, the task she’d been doing when he barged in. “I’ve moved in here; I’m tired of waking Da or Mum up when I get called out in the middle of the night, and I’m very tired of all the noise. You barbarians are bad when you clomp around in the morning, but the worst is the snoring. One of these nights, the house is going to vibrate apart, and the roof will fall down on you all.”

Trey ignored the insult, concentrating on the only important piece of information she had granted him: that the move really was a move, permanent, and not just for the summer. “Does that mean you aren’t coming back?”

“Not only that,” she confirmed, “but I’ve packed everything up that I didn’t take with me and gotten it out of the way, up in the attic. I take it that you want to take possession of the room? Be my guest. I don’t need it, and neither does Shandi. When Shandi comes back for visits, she can sleep over here; I’ve space enough.”

He grinned. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say! You’re sure, now?”

“Very sure.” She kept her expression as placid as a grazing sheep. “It’s about time I set up on my own, anyway. People will give me more respect if I have my own household.”

“And I can have the room?”

“Absolutely.”

He didn’t jump for joy, but he might just as well have, given,the expression on his face. “Thanks, Keisha! You’re a good ‘un!”

“You’re welcome,” she responded, but he hadn’t waited to hear her; he’d pelted out of the cottage and up the path as fast as his feet would carry him, with the obvious intention of having himself in full possession of the precious cubbyhole before any of his brothers knew it was vacant. Possession being nine-tenths of the law, it would be very difficult for them to evict him, and if he worked fast enough, he could even get one of the two beds disassembled and out before anyone came home, thus giving himself a room without anyone sharing it.

The longer he remained in undisputed possession of the room, the less likely it would be that he could be ousted from it, so it was also in his best interest to keep any of his brothers from finding out that Keisha wasn’t going to use it anymore. Eventually, of course, they’d notice the change in occupants, probably within two or three days, but in the meantime, Keisha’s absence would not be mentioned by Trey. By that time, both of them would be too well entrenched in their respective places to move.

That gave her another three days of peace and quiet before Sidonie appeared at the door, time that she used to her advantage. Keisha had already made certain that her reason for setting up in the cottage had been firmly planted in the minds of every gossip in Errold’s Grove. She’d made it clear how much more convenient this arrangement was for everyone, and she had the cottage so clean that not even the most fanatical housekeeper could have found fault with it.

Sidonie walked straight in, just as Trey had, in the early morning just after Keisha had cleaned up after breakfast. This time Keisha sat in her favorite chair with bqth hands full of a sock, a wooden darning egg, a blunt needle, and wool yarn. She was in the middle of mending, which gave her an excuse to stay where she was as her mother strolled around the cottage, not speaking at all, but examining the place minutely, as if she had never seen it before. Sidonie’s expression was closed, arms crossed over her chest, but Keisha knew that her mother could not hold in her feelings for long. “Well,” she said, finally, “you’ve certainly made yourself at home here.”

But her daughter had gotten a week’s grace in which to decide exactly how she was going to handle the inevitable confrontation, and even though her stomach knotted and her head began to throb with tension, she kept her face calm and her manner casual. “I started thinking after Shandi left, thinking that the house could do with a few less people in it. Bright Havens, Mum, the boys would crowd Kelmskeep, much less our place! Then I thought of other things. There was no need to keep disturbing you and Da with my night calls, since I have this place,” she explained, keeping her voice warm and slightly amused. “I haven’t been much help around the house in the last six months, what with all the patients I’ve had, and with Shandi gone, it seemed as if it would be easier on you if I were to take care of myself. Now that the boys are doing their share of the work around the house, you really don’t need my help at all, anymore. This arrangement should be more convenient for everyone.”

“Convenient?” Sidonie’s voice got a bit shrill, and her control over her expression slipped. Strangely enough, she looked a little frightened as well as upset. “Convenient for what? You aren’t old enough to be living by yourself, and right at the edge of the village, too, out where who knows what could happen to you! What will everyone think? Here you are, all alone, no one to chaperone you - people are going to talk! They’re going to say we drove you out, or that you ran away, that we’re wretched parents to let you be on your own in the first place!”

Keisha laughed, startling her mother into silence. The laughter was strained, but Sidonie was too full of her own emotions to notice. “Talk? Good gracious, Mum, what are they going to talk about? No one is going to think that you are bad parents, and if there had been a fight, you know that the neighbors would have overheard it! They didn’t, so obviously there wasn’t one.”

“You can’t be living alone!” Sidonie insisted. “There’s no one to protect you here.”

Keisha shook her head, and wished that she hadn’t. “I doubt that will ever be a problem. No one ever comes here that isn’t sick or hurt. No one would dare hurt me. The rest of the village would have his head on a plate. As for this cottage being on the edge of the village, well, that hardly qualifies as isolation! If I even whispered for help, the neighbors would hear me.”

“Maybe you don’t think that living out here alone is going to cause people to gossip,” Sidonie said darkly, “But - ”

“Mum, there’re no ‘buts’ about it,” Keisha interrupted, wanting to get the unpleasant scene over with. “Not when anyone in the village can come here at any time of day or night, knock on the door, walk straight in, and see that I’m quite alone. You forget what I am - people have every right to come here whenever they need help. I have less privacy here than I did at home! If I were carrying on an illicit love affair, moving here would be the worst thing I could do!”

“Keisha!” Sidonie cried, shocked.

“Well, it wouldr she insisted. “If I’m not here, it’s going to be noticed right away, and people are going to want to know where I am and look until they find me! There is no way that I could go off for a romp in the hay-fields, Mum; sure as I did, someone would get sick or hurt, and the whole secret would be all over the village. And I can’t have a young man here without someone eventually walking in on it! So there you are. Not only am I chaperoned, I have the entire village as my chaperone!” She shrugged. “Besides, as you well know, I haven’t any suitors. I doubt that there’s a boy in the entire village who thinks of me as a girl. I’m the Healer, and for them, I’m about as likely a source of romance as a tree stump.”

“Maybe, but you still aren’t old enough to be on your own like this,” Sidonie replied stubbornly.

“I’m old enough to be married, with a family, and you’ve said as much yourself,” Keisha countered, as her stomach soured and her neck muscles knotted. “So I’m old enough. I have all the proper domestic skills, and I can take care of myself quite neatly. Well, look around you. If you see anything amiss, I’d like to know.”

“But what are people going to say about us, about your father, about me?” Sidonie’s voice was no louder, but there was a definite edge to it. This, then, was probably the source of her anxiety. “They’re going to say that we drove you out, that we were such wretched parents that we fought, that - ”

Again, Keisha interrupted. “They’re going to say what they’ve been saying for the past week, that I am a very considerate daughter to see that not only were night calls disturbing you, but that I was afraid that some folk hesitated to call me out because they didn’t want to wake the rest of the household just to get me. I’ve made a point of telling everyone who noticed that I was actually living here that this was the reason why I moved. They’ll say that only someone who was raised right would be polite enough to want to save her parents from such disturbance, and at the same time make herself more available to the village than she was before.” She chuckled, shocking her mother out of incipient hysteria. “And if you don’t believe me, ask Mandy Lutter; she’s all but taken credit for the idea herself. She’s got half the village convinced that it was a chance remark from her that made me see it would be easier for people if I moved to the cottage.”

“Oh,” Sidonie said weakly, all of her arguments overcome.

Keisha’s own symptoms of stress began to ease, and she felt that she was winning the confrontation.

“Mother, love, I’m hardly living away from you when the house is all but next door,” she pointed out, a little more gently. “How big is the village, after all? If it will make you feel better, I’ll make sure and come home for dinner as often as I can. If you need me to help, you’ve only to ask, and you know that. If I really wanted to leave you all, I’d let Gil arrange for me to go to Healer’s Collegium. I’m here, aren’t I? And haven’t I said all along that I’m not going to the Collegium? I promise you, I haven’t changed my mind.”

She would have said more, pressing home the point, but just then two young men came in, supporting a third, whose arm bent at an entirely unnatural angle at the shoulder joint. Keisha dropped her mending and forgot everything she was about to say, forgot even her mother’s presence, until it was all over and the dislocated shoulder was back in place again. By then, of course, Sidonie was gone.

But she had simply slipped out, so Keisha had won; or at least, her mother had gone off to think about what she had said. Sidonie was perfectly capable of thinking clearly when her emotions didn’t get in the way.

So when she’s thinking dispassionately about what I told her, I will win. Keisha sighed, the last of her tension ebbing. It hadn’t been nearly as bad as she’d thought it would be.

A dislocated shoulder didn’t create nearly the mess of the average wound, and there was very little to clean up after the young man had gone. Keisha put the room to rights again, returned to her chair, and picked up her mending, but her mind was still on her mother.

It would probably be a good thing if I showed up at supper - or before, actually, with some fresh herbs or salad greens. That way I’ll just show that I meant what I said, that I’m not actually leaving the family, I’ve just put a little distance between us.

She finished the mending, took care of several children with insect stings and some ugly thorn scratches, then spent the afternoon dosing some horses for worms. As suppertime neared, she finished that task, returned home, and went into her garden to gather a peace offering.

She entered the kitchen with her basket of clean salad makings, expecting to find her mother there. But Sidonie wasn’t at the house, she’d gone out to the farm, according to Trey, who was in charge of the evening dinner. He welcomed Keisha, her offerings, and her help with pleasure, and the two of them put together a good warm-weather meal of soup, bread, and salad in short order.

Sidonie came back arm-in-arm with her husband, sun-browned and smiling under the rim of her work hat, and greeted Keisha with calm pleasure. That told Keisha something important: that her mother had checked with Mandy Lutter, that most notorious of village gossips, and what she had heard had pleased and reassured her. Mandy was not likely to withhold anything juicy about anyone, not even to the subject’s mother.

So everyone is saying what a good girl I am to be thinking of my family and of the village’s welfare, she thought with conscious irony. Mandy and the rest are all seeing how convenient the arrangement is for them, no doubt. Well, it is convenient for them - and I don’t mind if I get a few more midnight calls than I would if I was still living here. They can say whatever they like about me. As long as it makes Mum and Da feel better about this situation, that’s all that matters to me.

She sat down with the rest to dinner, Sidonie having greeted her bonus of salad with a smile of thanks, and discovered that as of this afternoon, there was another topic entirely to interest everyone in the village. She had taken second place to a much more entertaining subject.

“I saw Mandy Lutter today, while I was on my way out to the farm. For once, there was a good reason to get Mandy’s mouth going,” Sidonie said, once the soup had been ladled out and everyone had started on the meal. “I won’t tease you and make you guess what her news was, though. It’s too exciting for that. Young Darian Firkin is coming back at long last! He’s going to come back, just as he promised Lord Breon, and there’s going to be a mage here again! Can you believe it?”

For a moment, Keisha drew an absolute blank as to who “Darian Firkin” was, but only for a moment. She blinked in surprise; the young boy who had been Wizard Justyn’s apprentice had been gone for at least four years, and she honestly hadn’t expected him ever to return, no matter what he’d promised. Why should he? He’d been adopted by Hawkbrothers, he’d gone out to see the world, what could possibly tempt him to come back here except that old promise? “Back where? Here? Is he going to set up in Errold’s Grove?”

And for one, panicked, admittedly selfish instant, she thought, Ami going to have to give the cottage back? Oh, Havens, no. That can’t be the reason Mum is so pleased!

“No, no, not here, not the village,” Sidonie corrected, waving a chunk of bread vaguely at the window. “He’s going to have a place outside the village, he’s going to have a lot of those Hawkbrothers there, and of course they wouldn’t feel comfortable living right in the village. But he will be within easy fetching distance of Errold’s Grove. If we need his skills, we’ll be able to get him.”

Thank goodness. . . . My refuge is still mine, was Keisha’s relieved thought.

“Most people wouldn’t feel comfortable with those bloody great birds about, staring at their hens,” Ayver pointed out with a laugh. “So it’s just as well he isn’t planning on moving back into Errold’s Grove. Don’t forget, he’s got one of those huge birds himself, so even if his friends didn’t want to stay here, if he did, that bird would be here, too. Poor hens and ducks would likely never lay again for sheer nerves.”

“Where, outside the village?” one of the boys wanted to know. “How far from here?” They glanced at each other, and Keisha thought she knew the notions dancing in their heads. Hawkbrothers - there were all sorts of things the Hawkbrothers knew or could do, and anyone who got friendly with them stood a good chance of picking up some interesting information and skills. If this place they were settling was close by, a fellow had a chance of slipping over there now and again without being missed from his work.

Sidonie shrugged. “Mandy had no idea - just somewhere outside the village, but on this side of the river. Far enough away that it won’t bother us, near enough that he’ll be able to work magic for us when we need it.” Her eyes widened, and she smiled broadly. “Think of that! We’ll have a real mage again! The Hawkbrothers will be mages, too, of course, but they’ll have their own concerns to deal with; Darian will be our mage.”

“A Weather-Watcher,” Ayver said in satisfaction. “Damn, it’ll be good to know when there’s a monster storm on the way! Be even better if he’s gotten to be a Weather-Worker. We won’t have to fret about a lot of things, I reckon.”

Sidonie sighed happily. “I’ll feel safer, that’s for certain sure. Oh - and Mandy says he’s going to have at least