Spirit Gate

Book One of Crossroads

Crossroads (Volume 1)

Kate Elliott

Tor Books

Chapter One

On a hot summer’s day like today Flirt liked to fly straight up along the shoreline of the river, huge wings huffing against the wind. The draft off the running water cooled eagle and reeve, and gave the raptor a chance to get close to any unsuspecting deer come out to drink. This time of day, early afternoon, they didn’t see a single creature along the shore except once a man chopping wood who had flung up a hand at the sound, poised, listening. When he saw them he relaxed and went back to his work as Flirt’s vast shadow shuddered along the rocks. His brindled hound barked, then hushed, ears flat, cowering, as Flirt answered with a piercing cry of her own. She didn’t like challenges.
 
Marit grinned. The man kept chopping and was soon left behind.
 
Woodland spread up on both sides of the Liya Pass, hills covered so thickly with beech that Marit couldn’t see the ground. Here and there a stand of silver birch glimmered on rockier earth, leaves flashing in the wind. The air was smooth today, a steady wind out of the northeast that blew at crosscurrents to their line of flight, but Marit didn’t like the smell. She shifted in the harness and wiped sweat off her brow. There’d been something nasty in the air ever since last winter; she knew it and the other reeves knew it. Anyone knew it, who ever tilted her head back to take a look around; who ever stopped to listen. Probably the woodchopper knew it, which is why he’d been scared for that moment, expecting the worst.
 
Shadows.
 
“Lust and greed and fear,” old Marshal Alard of Copper Hall had said at winter feast. “Mark my words. Blood has been spilled in the wrong places, but we don’t know where, not yet. Keep your eyes open. Don’t turn your backs.”
 
Not that reeves ever turned their backs, or kept their eyes closed. The Hundred was a broad land made prosperous by towns and villages and markets, by cultivated fields, wide pasturelands, rich forests, and treasure buried in the earth. Yet there were as many hidey-holes—and forgotten caves and old ruins and secret glades and ravines where dangerous creatures might lurk—as there were laughing children.
 
Like all reeves, she’d ridden a circuit of the land her first year out of Copper Hall. She knew how wide the land was. She knew how the ocean bounded the Hundred to the north and east and how the Spires and Heaven’s Ridge with its Barrens protected the good folk of her land from their enemies to the south and west.
 
“Our worst enemy has always been the one within, Flirt,” she said to her eagle, but the rushing wind against her face caught her words and flung them into nothing. Not that Flirt could understand her words, only shading and emotion. Smart as pigs, the great eagles were, but no smarter than that no matter what the old legends said.
 
That was the first thing you learned when you were marked out for a reeve: limits. A reeve could do so much and no more, just like her eagle. In the old days, so the story went, the reeves had had more power and been treated with more respect, but not any longer. Shadows had been creeping over the Hundred for a long time but it was only now they seemed to be gathering strength.
 
She shook away these dusty and useless thoughts. Today had been good so far: Just after dawn in the hamlet of Disa Falls she’d successfully mediated a dispute over the stones marking the boundary between two fields. She’d allowed the local arkhon to offer a haunch of sheep as a snack for Flirt, enough to keep her going until a real hunt. So it went, a typical start to a reeve’s day.
 
Flirt banked and shifted position as the air currents altered because of a notch in the higher hills up to the east. Below, the woodland frayed into the patchwork of saplings and underbrush stretching between broad swaths of mature beech that betrayed human hands at work. Soon enough she saw a pretty green valley nestled between the hills. It was mostly trees and meadows, but there was a village with a small boat dock built out into the river and a few houses on the far bank beside new fields cut into the forest. The summit road dipped down from the east to run by the village, which had probably grown up as a wayfaring stop for travelers and merchants.
 
As she flew over, surveying the lay of the land, she was surprised to see a man actually in the act of running a red eagle banner up the message pole set in the village square. She circled Flirt around and with a swell of wings and a thump they landed on the stony beach. She hitched her legs out of the harness and leaped down, absorbing the landing by bending her knees. A dozen villagers and more children had gathered at a prudent distance outside the low stockade that kept woodland predators and pesky deer out of their gardens and homes. She slipped her staff out of the harness and sauntered over. The staff in her hand, the short sword rattling along her right thigh, and the quiver slung over her back weren’t nearly as daunting as Flirt. The eagle’s amber stare, her massive claws, and her sheer, shocking size—bigger than a surly cart horse and twice as mean—were enough to concern anyone. The eagle fluffed up her feathers, whuffed, and settled down to wait.
 
“How can I help you folks?” Marit asked.
 
They weren’t scared of her at any rate. They stared right at her boldly enough, maybe surprised to see a woman.
 
“Go get the reeve some ale, and bread and cheese,” said the man who still stood with the rope in one hand. The banner snapped halfway up the pole.
 
In answer, a girl about ten years of age trotted, backward, toward an inn whose low barracks-like building took up one entire side of the village square. The girl just could not rip her gaze away from the eagle. Naturally, after a few steps, she stumbled and fell flat on her rump.
 
An older girl yelled, “Turn round, you ninny! That beast ain’t going nowhere yet.”
 
Others laughed as the girl got up and dusted off her bright red tunic and pantaloons, then bolted through the open door of the inn. The sign creaking over the porch bore fresh paint and the cheerful visages of a quintet of happy, drinking fellows: three men and two women. One of the painted men had an outlander’s pale hair caught back in a trident braid, but none of the folk who’d come up to greet her had the look of foreigners. These were good, handsome Hundred folk, dark skin, black hair, brown eyes.
 
“I’m called Reeve Marit. What’s the trouble?” She sorted through the map she carried in her mind. “This is Merrivale.”
 
“Indeed it is, Reeve Marit.” The man had a bitter twist to his mouth. Everyone else was looking at him with frowns and whispers. “I’m called Faron. I own the Merrymakers, there.” He gestured toward the inn. “It’s a lad what works for me has caused the trouble.” He coughed. Several folk scuffed their feet on the dirt, looking away. She noted the way their eyes drifted and their fingers twitched. “Stole two bolts of silk I’d had brought in. It come all the way from the Sirniakan Empire.”
 
Marit whistled.
 
“Indeed. Bought it for my new bride and the wedding. I’m getting married again—first wife died three year back,” he added hastily. “I miss her, but life goes on.”
 
“You mourned her longer than was rightful,” said an elderly woman suddenly. She had a wen on her chin and a killing gaze. “That’s what caused the trouble.”
 
The innkeeper flushed. He fussed with the white ribbon tying off the end of his long braid. Everyone turned to look at Marit.
 
“How old is the thief?”
 
Faron blew air out between set lips as he considered. “Born in the Year of the Wolf, he was. Suspicious and hasty. Very selfish, if you ask me.”
 
“You would say so, given the circumstances,” muttered the sarcastic old lady, rolling her eyes in a way most often associated with rash and reckless youth.
 
“So he’s celebrated his fifteenth year. Has he a weapon?”
 
“Of course not! Nothing but his walking stick and a bundle of bread and cheese out of the larder. That’s all else we found missing.”
 
“How long ago?”
 
“Just this morning. We looked around in his usual haunts—”
 
“He’s vanished before?”
 
“Just hiding out, mischief, breaking things. Stealing odds and ends. It’s only noontide that we found the silk missing. That’s serious. That’s theft.”
 
“What would he be wanting with bolts of silk?”
 
“He’s been threatening to run away to make his fortune in Toskala.”
 
“Over the pass and through Iliyat and past the Wild?”
 
“Maybe so,” admitted Faron.
 
The old woman snorted. “More like he’s running up to that temple dedicated to the Merciless One, up at summit. He can buy himself more than a few snogs with that fancy silk.”
 
“Vatta!” Faron’s cheeks flushed purple as anger flooded his expression.
 
“My apologies,” Vatta muttered, rubbing at her wen, which was dry and crusty. She’d known prosperity in her day, or a generous husband. Her well-worn yellow silk tunic, slit on the sides from knees to hips, and the contrasting twilight blue pantaloons beneath were also of expensive Sirniakan weave. “But he threatened to do that more than once, too. A boy his age thinks of the Devourer day and night.”
 
Marit smiled slightly, but she had as little trust for devotees of the Merciless One, the All-Consuming Devourer, mistress of war, death, and desire, as she had for outlanders, although the Merciless One’s followers were her own countryfolk. Although she’d caroused in the Merciless One’s grip often enough, and would do so again. Hopefully tonight.
 
“Anything else I need to know?” she asked instead.
 
Faron shrugged.
 
He was hiding something, certainly, but she had a fair idea of just what he wasn’t willing to tell her. Shame made some men reticent. “I’ll hunt for him, and come back and report come nightfall.”
 
“My thanks.” Faron wiped his brow. “Here’s ale, if you’ll take a drink.”
 
“With thanks.”
 
She drank standing and handed the cup back to the waiting girl. No one moved away, although at least they had manners enough not to stare as she ate. The bread was hearty and the cheese nicely ripe with the tang of dill. With such provender to warm her stomach she walked back to Flirt, fastened herself into the harness, and lifted her bone whistle to her lips. A single sharp skree was the command to fly.
 
Up.
 
The exhilaration never left. Never. Every time was like the first time, when a short, stocky, innocent girl from Farsar sent to hire herself as a laborer in the city—because her family hadn’t the wherewithal to marry her or apprentice her out—found herself chosen and set in the harness of the raptor who had done the choosing. Such was the custom out of time immemorial, the way of the reeves. It was not the marshals who picked which of the young hopefuls and guardsmen would be reeves; it was the eagles themselves. In ancient days, the Four Mothers had bound magic into the great eagles, and the Lady of Beasts had harnessed them to their task, and Marit laughed every day, feeling that magic coursing around her, part of her now as she was part of it.
 
They rose above the tops of the trees. Although Flirt wanted to go back over the river, Marit guided her a short distance east of the river along the lower ridgeline where the road ran, in places carved into the rock itself. The road was older than the Hundred, so it was written in the annals kept by the hierophants who toiled in the service of Sapanasu, the Keeper of Days, the Lantern of the Gods. Who could have built it, back before people came to live here?
 
So many mysteries. Thank the gods she wasn’t the one who had to puzzle them out.
 
She judged time and speed to a nicety—she’d had ten years of experience, after all—and spotted the youth long before he noticed her coming. He was toiling up the road near the summit along a broad escarpment devoid of trees. Fortune favored her. With him so exposed and no trees to hide behind, the catch would be swift. Flirt’s chest muscles rippled as the eagle shifted altitude, narrowing down for the kill. Marit felt the raptor’s excitement; it burned in her blood as well.
 
The two bolts of dazzling green silk were clapped under his right arm as he swung along, left arm pumping with the steady pulse of a highland child accustomed to long hikes up grim inclines. A breath of wind, a whisper from the Lady of Beasts in his ear, good hearing—some hint alerted him. He cast a glance behind, down the road. Flirt huffed and swooped. Too late he looked up. He shrieked and ran, but there was nowhere for him to run because he was stuck out on the road on the rocky flanks of the hills. Flirt loved this; so did Marit. The plunge with the wind rushing, the brief breathless throat-catching sense of abandon as they plummeted.
 
Flirt caught him in her talons and with her incredible strength cut upward just before they slammed into the dirt. He screamed in terror and piss flooded his legs; Marit smelled it.
 
“Drop that silk and I’ll drop you!” she shouted, laughing.
 
Flirt yelped her shrill call in answer: Triumphant!
 
It was harder to turn with the added weight of the boy, who looked like he weighed at least as much as Marit, so they took a long slow sweep south and southwest and northwest and north until they came round eastward and flew back along the river the way they had come. Flirt struggled a bit because of the extra burden, but the eagles weren’t natural creatures, and in any case the raptor had an eagle’s pride. So it wasn’t much past midafternoon when they came within sight of Merrivale, but it seemed like a long trip, what with Flirt tiring and the youth babbling and moaning and cursing and begging and crying the entire time, although he was smart enough not to struggle. Most folk were.
 
At the sight of them, the inhabitants of Merrivale came running. Just before landing, Flirt let the boy go. He tumbled, shrieking again, grunting and howling, rolling along the rocks but no more than bruised and banged up, as Flirt rose to get past him and then dropped to the earth.
 
“Oof,” said Marit, jarred up through her chest. “That was a thump, girl!”
 
She loosened her harness and swung out quickly. Faron, at the front of the village swarm, staggered to a stop a stone’s toss from her and Flirt. The boy crawled forward, cloth clutched to his chest.
 
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he babbled. He stank, poor lad, and there was snot all over his face. He cringed like a dog. “I’m sorry, Pap. I’ll never do it again. It’s just I didn’t want you to marry her, but I know I’m being selfish. It’s not like you didn’t mourn Mam what was fitting. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll never cause you trouble again. Please let me come home.”
 
Marit smiled.
 
Faron wept as he lifted the boy and embraced him. The girl in red grabbed the precious silk bolts and ran them into the safety of the inn.
 
Once the first commotion subsided they tried to press gifts on her. She refused everything but food and drink to carry with her for her evening’s meal. That was the rule. No gifts meant no bribes, and once she made it clear she’d not budge, they respected her wishes.
 
“You’ll not spend the night?” asked Faron. “You can have my best bed. A reeve can take lodging.”
 
“Lodging and food,” agreed Marit. “That’s allowed. But I can’t stay. I’ve a fellow reeve to meet at sunset, up near the summit.”
 
“Beware those Devouring youths,” said an unrepentant Vatta. The old woman had the wicked grin of a soul that hasn’t yet done making mischief. “I should know. I was one of Her hierodules once, before I got married.”
 
Marit laughed. The boy sniveled, chastened and repentant, and Faron wrung her hand gratefully. Maybe there were a few happy endings still to be had.
 
 
Joss was waiting for her at Candle Rock, just as they’d agreed five nights past. The rock was too stony to harbor trees; a few hardy tea willows grew out of deep cracks where water melt pooled, and spiny starflowers straggled along the steep northern slope. Candle Rock provided no cover except the shelter of the craggy overhang where firewood was stowed. No man or woman could reach it without the aid of flying beast, so reeves patrolling over the Liya Pass commonly met here to exchange news and gossip and to haul up wood for the signal fire kept ready in case of emergency.
 
She saw Joss standing beside the smaller fire pit, which was ringed with white stones like drippings of wax. The fire burned merrily and he already had meat roasting on a spit. The young reeve had his back to the setting sun and was looking east up at the ridge of hill whose familiar profile they called Ammadit’s Tit, which despite the name was held by the hierarchs to be sacred to the Lady of Beasts.
 
Showing off, Flirt made a smooth landing on the height. Joss raised a hand in greeting as Marit slipped out of her harness and walked down to the fire.
 
“Mmm,” she said, kissing him. “Eat first, or after?”
 
He grinned, ducking his head in that way that was so fetching; he was still a little shy.
 
She tousled his black hair. “Shame you have to keep it cut.”
 
They kissed a while longer. He was young and tall and slender and a good fit, the best fit she’d ever found in her ten years as a reeve. He wasn’t boastful or cocky. Some reeves, puffed up with the gloat of having been chosen by an eagle and granted the authority to patrol, thought that also meant they could lord it over the populace. He wasn’t a stiff-chinned and tight-rumped bore, either, stuck on trivial niceties of the law. It was true he had a sharp eye and a sharp tongue and a streak of unexpected recklessness, but he was a competent reeve all the same, with a good instinct for people. Like the one he had now, knowing what she wanted.
 
Grease sizzled as it fell into the flames. The sun’s rim touched the western hills.
 
“Best see to Flirt,” he said, pulling back. “I sent Scar out to hunt and there’s no telling when he’ll get back. You know Flirt’s temper.”
 
She laughed softly. “Yes, she’ll not like him moving in where she’s roosting. I’ll make sure she’s settled.”
 
Flirt was cleaning herself. With a resignation born of exhaustion, she accepted her demotion to the hollow where Candle Rock dipped to the southwest to make a natural bowl with some protection from the wind. Marit chained her to one of the rings hammered into the rock, hooded and jessed her. Then she skinned her out of her harness, greased the spot it chafed, and, with an old straw broom she found stuck in a crevice, swept droppings out of the bowl.
 
“You’ll eat tomorrow, girl,” she said, but Flirt had already settled into her resting stupor, head dipped under one wing. It was getting dark. Wind died as the sun set.
 
She hoisted the harness, her pack, her hood, and her rolled-up cloak over her shoulders and trudged up a path cut into the rock, back to the fire. Off to her left the rock face plunged down to where the road cut up toward the summit, seen as a darkening saddle off to the south. Joss was sitting on the white stones, carving up meat onto a wooden platter. She admired the cut of his shoulders and the curve of his neck. The touch of the Devourer teased her, right down to her core. He looked up and grinned again, eyes crinkling tight. She tossed down harness and weapons, pulled the platter out of his hands, set it down, and tumbled him.
 
“Cloaks,” he muttered when he could get in a word.
 
“Oh. Yes.”
 
He’d already spread out his traveling cloak and tossed his blanket down on top of it. It was a warm night without clouds and they really only needed a little padding to protect flesh from stone.
 
“Mmm,” she said later, when they lay tangled together. He was stroking her breasts and belly absently as he stared up at the brilliant spray of stars. She dragged the platter of meat close up and fed him bits and pieces.
 
“Do you ever think—?” he started.
 
“Not when I see you.”
 
He chuckled, but he wasn’t as much in thrall to the Devourer as she was. Sated, he had a tendency to spin out dreams and idle thoughts, which she never minded because she liked the feel of him lying beside her. He had a good smell, clean sweat but also the bracing perfume of juniper from the soaps his mother sent once a year to Copper Hall. “Just thinking about what I did today. There was a knife fight at a woodsmen’s camp east of summit ridge, out into wild country. Both men stabbed, one like to die.”
 
“Sorry,” she said, wincing. “Murders are the worst.”
 
“I wish it were so,” he said, wisely for one so young.
 
“What do you mean?” She speared a chunk of meat with his knife, spun it consideringly, then ate. The meat was almost bitter; a coney, maybe, something stringy and rodent-like. “I’ve got bread and cheese for the morning. Better than this. Got you no provisions for your pains today?”
 
“Not a swallow. They were happy to be rid of me. I was wondering if you’d come back with me. A few of them had the debt scar—” He touched the ridge of his brow just to the left of his left eye, where folk who sold their labor into debt servitude were tattooed with a curving line. “—and hair grown out raggedly to cover it.”
 
“You think some were runaway slaves.”
 
“Maybe so. It’s likely. And then what manner of law-abiding persons would take such men in, I wonder? They made me nervous, like they had knives hidden behind their backs.” He shuddered under her hands.
 
“I’ll come. No use courting trouble. They’ll not kick with two eagles staring them down.”
 
Abruptly he sat up, tilting his head back. “Ah. There he is.”
 
A shadow covered them briefly. The big eagle had a deer in his claws. He released it, and the corpse fell hard to the ground at the eastern edge of the rock, landing with a meaty thunk. Scar landed with a soft scrape and after a silence tore into his prey. Bones cracked. From across the height Flirt screamed a challenge, but Scar kept at his meat, ignoring her. Flirt yelped twice more, irritated, but she wouldn’t be particularly hungry yet. She’d settle and sleep. Marit yawned.
 
Joss wasn’t done worrying over the problem. “I have to go back in two days to see if the man died, and then what’s to do? I’m to conduct a hearing? They’ve no captain, and the arkhon at the nearest village—Sandy Falls—told me he’ll have nothing to do with the matter. Maybe the lord of Iliyat will agree to sit in judgment.”
 
“That’s a long way for Lord Radas’s arm to reach. He’s young in his position, too. His uncle died just two years ago, and he’s still testing his wings. I don’t expect this will fall under his authority. We should be able to handle it. Honestly, sweetheart, no matter how ugly a murder is, it won’t be the first time two drunk men settled their argument with a knife.”
 
“I know,” he said a little more desperately than the situation seemed to call for, “but reeves aren’t meant to judge. It’s the place of the Guardians to hold assizes to settle such grievances and disputes, those that can’t be resolved by local councils.”
 
“True enough,” she agreed. “I had to mediate in a boundary dispute this morning. I’ve shifted a hundred stone markers in the last ten years, and I don’t like it any better now than I did the first time. Half of them don’t like that I’m a woman, but they’ll say nothing with Flirt at my back. Still. No Guardian’s been seen for—oh—since my grandfather was a boy. Maybe longer.”
 
“The Guardians don’t exist. They’re just a story.”
 
She gave him a light shove, because his words disturbed her. “Great Lady! That’s nineteen years’ bad luck for saying such a thing! Anyway, my grandfather remembered the assizes from back when they were held properly. He saw a Guardian once, who came to preside over the court. Do you think he was lying to me?”
 
“He was a boy then, you said so yourself. He listened to, and danced, the tales, as we all do. Stories blend with fragmented memories to make new memories. He came to believe as truth what never really happened. No shame in that.”
 
“Joss! Sheh! For shame! The hierophants preserve in the Lantern’s libraries the old scrolls that record the judgments made in those days. Judgments made by Guardians. How do you answer that evidence?”
 
“What is a name? I could call myself a ‘Guardian’ and my attendance at an assizes court would show in the records that a ‘Guardian’ oversaw that day’s proceedings.”
 
She squeezed him until he grunted, air forced out of his lungs. “Say so if you must! But my grandfather had the best memory of anyone I have ever known. He could remember the time when he was a lad when the first Silver merchant came through the village, with two roan cart horses and a hitch in his stride as if he’d broken a hip and it had healed wrong. He could remember the names of all his clan cousins, even the ones who had died when he was a lad, and the folk they married and which temple their children were apprenticed to. If we see no Guardians now, that doesn’t mean there were never any.”
 
He sighed as sharply as if he’d gotten a fist in the belly. Twisting, he looked eastward, although it was by now too dark to see anything but stars and the dark shadow of the towering spire that gave Candle Rock its name. “Ammadit’s Tit is a Guardian’s altar, it’s said. What’s to stop us flying up there and looking around?”
 
“Joss!” Startled and shocked, she sat up. She went cold, all goose-bumped, although the wind hadn’t gotten any cooler. “It’s forbidden!”
 
“No Guardian’s been seen for seventy winters or more, you said it yourself. What if you’re right, and there were Guardians once? Shouldn’t we try to find out what happened to them? Maybe we could find clues at their altars. Maybe someone needs to find out why they’re gone, and if we can do anything to bring them back. You didn’t see the look of those woodsmen. They scared me, Marit. Even with Scar glaring at them, I knew they’d kill me if I took a step into any corner where they didn’t want my nose poking. They hadn’t even a headman among them, no arkhon, no manner of priest. No Lady’s cauldron. No Lantern. No dagger or key or green-staff or anvil. Not even an offering bowl for the Formless One.”
 
The crawling jitters prickled up and down her back, a sure sign of danger. “Maybe this is what Marshal Alard was warning us about. You’d best not go back there. Fly to Copper Hall and give a report. If there’s trouble brewing . . . men like that . . . men who would run away from their legal obligation . . . they could do anything if there’s nothing to check them.”
 
“Anything,” he muttered at last. He began to speak again, but choked on the words. He was quiet for a long time, arm around her, head still thrown back as he gazed up at the span of stars and the Herald’s Road whose misty path cut across the heavens. “Is this what Marshal Alard meant by a shadow?” he whispered. “It seemed to me there was a shadow in their hearts. Like an illness.”
 
“Hush,” she said, because he was shivering even though it wasn’t cold. “Hush, sweetheart.”
 
 
Marit woke at dawn as the sun’s pale glow nosed up to paint rose along Ammadit’s Tit. Joss still slept, hips and legs covered by her cloak. A blanket was rolled up under his neck, cradling his head. Sleeping, he looked younger than ever, barely more than a child, although he was twenty. A man might hope to celebrate five feasts in his life; Joss was barely six winters past his Youth’s Crown, while in another year she would have to lay aside her Lover’s Wreath for the sober if invigorating responsibilities represented by the Chatelaine’s Belt. Your thoughts changed as you got older. Your hopes and dreams shifted, transmuted, altered into new shapes.
 
He cracked open an eye. The early-morning sunlight crept up to spill light over his smooth chest. She saw him examining her warily.
 
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
 
“If I’m going to have a baby, I have to have it soon. Would you—” She hadn’t known how tightly the wish had knotted up inside her; it unraveled in a rush. “Would you father it, Joss? No need to handfast, if you’ve no mind to. You’re young yet.”
 
“Do you mean to give up patrol?” he asked unexpectedly.
 
The pang struck hard. “Why do you say so?”
 
“It’s unfair,” he mused.
 
“Which part of life?” she said with a grin, but a sour taste burned in her throat.
 
He stroked her arm thoughtfully. “I could father ten children and no one would speak one word about it, or think it made me unfit to patrol. But I’ve seen how reeves who are women are told in so many ways that they’d best be a reeve only and not think of ever bearing children. It’s true that when a baby is nursing, the mother must stick close if she wants to keep her milk running. But after the child is weaned, he’s cared for by his older cousins anyway. That’s how it was in my village. No one would have dared to tell any of my aunties what they could or could not do with their businesses or their labor, and then pretend it was for their own good.”
 
“You say the most unexpected things!”
 
He looked at her, silent, for the longest time, and fear curdled in her stomach as his dark eyes narrowed and with a flick he tossed the blanket aside and gathered up his clothes. “I’m going up to the altar.”
 
“Joss!”
 
His expression was set, almost ugly. He pulled on his trousers while she sat there, still naked, and stared at him. “Who made all those rules? We don’t even know, or why, or when. We just follow them without thinking. We see a fence around our village but we never go out to make sure it’s still in good repair. Maybe that’s why there are shadows. Maybe that’s why the woodsmen live in that camp like beasts. They don’t see the point of mouthing the same words their fathers did, so they’ve cast them aside. And if the fence around your pasture looks sturdy from a distance but is falling down, that’s when wolves come in and kill the lambs. I’ve got to find out.”
 
“Joss!”
 
The sun illuminated the curve of his handsome chest, the taut abdomen, his muscular shoulders made strong by two years controlling an eagle, the handsome, angular tattoos—covering his right arm and ringing both wrists—that marked him as a child of the Fire Mother. His chin had a rebellious tilt. He threw his tunic over his head. As he wrestled it down, she shook herself and leaped up, groping for her clothes. She always tossed everything all this way and that in her haste to get undressed but at some point during the night, while she’d slept, he’d recovered it and folded it neatly and laid it on her pack, off the ground. She’d not even woken. He might have lain there for many watches brooding over this madness and she never knowing.
 
“You’re crazy,” she said. “It’s forbidden.”
 
“You don’t have to come with me. I know the risk.”
 
“Do you?”
 
“Are you going to report me to Marshal Alard?”
 
“He’ll flog you and throw you out of the reeves, no matter what Scar wants.”
 
“Go, if you have to. Report if you must. I won’t blame you. But I’m going up there.”
 
She paused, shading her eyes as she squinted toward Ammadit’s Tit. The black knob thrusting up at the height of the rounded ridge gave away nothing, although—just there—she thought a flash of light or metal winked as the sun rose just off to the southeast behind it. “The Guardians guard their secrets. Marshal Alard won’t have to punish you. They will.”
 
“The Guardians are gone. And if they’re not gone, then maybe it’s time someone kicks them in the butt.” His voice was shaking but his hands were steady as he gathered up his harness. “I didn’t tell you what else, Marit. I couldn’t say it when it was dark out, I just couldn’t. They had a Devouring girl at that woodsmen’s camp. They tried to keep her hidden, but I saw her.” Catching her eye, he held it. His gaze was bleak. “She was chained.”
 
Copyright © 2006 by Katrina Elliott