Rifkind's Challenge

Lynn Abbey

Tor Books

Chapter One

The brilliant orange sun sank toward the broad horizon of the Asheeran steppe. Sensing that another day had passed without a lightstorm, men and women emerged from a cluster of squat, round tents to begin their daily tasks. With shrieks of delight, a knot of children began a vicious game of tag with sticks and a fist-sized leather ball while their elders looked to their chores.

Though winter had ebbed and the snow had melted down to crescents, the air remained cold and dry with a stiff breeze from the south. Dust clouds hung in the near distance both east and west of the tents. In the west, ocher dust hung over the camp of a caravan enjoying Asheeran hospitality on its northward journey. To the east, a larger cloud marked the clan’s near herd, consisting of some seventy mares, yearlings, and two-year-olds. The horses roamed free; the bond between them and the clan was strong enough that they never wandered far.

A smaller cloud marked the location of the sheep, which were equally important to the clan but eternally untreasured. Without the shepherds who braved the dangerous daylight hours to watch over them, sheep would wander to their deaths.

When the sheep had been safely confined in a roped-off pen and dogs set to guard them for the night, the shepherds went their separate ways. Two of them disappeared behind the largest tent. When they reappeared, they each held a stick carved to match the graceful curve of the steppe warriors’ steel swords.

Not yet men and too old to be called children, the boyos strode past the knee-high mound of black stones that marked the clan’s winter well. They walked until they came to a patch where the grass had been worn down to the soil. Without words, they heaped their cloaks and a lamb-sized water skin on the verge and began stretching and preening as young warriors had done since the beginning of time.

One boyo stood a full head taller than his companion. He had reach and muscle to spare, and a mane of ruddy-brown hair that fought free of traditional Asheeran braids. His clothes were mostly leather and garnished with brass studs that glinted in the declining light. He leaned forward slightly as he walked, always in a hurry, always in the lead. He could not bear to follow or absorb an affront.

The clan called him Cho, their word for “rust,” because of his hair, rather than the name his mother had given him that was, at any rate, a foreign name. In a clan that could sing its bloodline back twelve generations, it was better to be called Rust than hailed by a foreign name. Asheerans would tolerate a foreigner, but never completely embrace him.

Cho took his stick in a one-handed grip and gave it a pair of fast swings; then he used his boot knife to improve the curve.

The other boyo watched and smiled. He was the clan chief’s eldest son and his name, which had also belonged to his grandfather and his grandfather’s grandfather, was Tyrokon. Tyrokon had the golden skin, the raven hair, and the anthracite eyes of the true Asheeran. A dozen or more gold beads were woven into his braids. His tunic was embroidered with crimson silk in ancient patterns that invited luck and wisdom. Before he’d learned to talk, he’d sat in his father’s lap, absorbing wisdom as the chief rendered judgment. He rode like a burr on the wind, but his legs were too short for the rest of him and his ankles rolled when he walked. The infirmity didn’t keep Tyrokon from lining up behind his practice sword or holding it in a way that said he had paid attention to his sword masters.

Cho went on the attack without hesitation and, like Tyrokon, his stance showed that he’d learned his lessons well. The rust-haired boyo fought at every opportunity, with sticks or swords, anytime, anywhere, with cause or without. Most of the men within the association of clans they called their Gathering had tested themselves against Cho.

Cho had a memory for warriors and a knack for picking apart their strengths, which he strove to neutralize, and their weaknesses, which he attacked relentlessly. When he sparred against Tyrokon---an everyday occurrence---Cho invariably came at Tyrokon’s left, forcing the shorter boyo to defend from his right leg, his weaker leg.

Tyrokon sometimes delivered the telling blow. He was not without skill, finesse, or deception but, in the long haul, he wound up in the dirt more often than not. And Cho would be there, a heartbeat later, with his hand out, ready to hoist his friend upright for the next round.

This particular afternoon was not one of Tyrokon’s best. He went down three times before driving beneath Cho’s guard to land a blow that dropped the larger boyo, but even that victory was tainted: As Cho went down, he thrust into Tyrokon’s right thigh. Had wood been steel, Tyrokon would have been crippled.

When they began again, Cho saw that Tyrokon was hurting. He could have eased up, could have taken the attack to Tyrokon’s good side, but that wasn’t Cho’s way and it wasn’t their friendship. Cho pounded hard, fully aware that every parry sent a tremor down chronically sore muscles. In the end, though, Tyrokon’s fall resulted not from Cho’s attack but from his leg’s betrayal.

Too proud to massage his aching thigh, Tyrokon closed his eyes and momentarily ignored Cho’s hand.

“Water?” Cho asked.

Tyrokon shook his head. “I’m ready,” he insisted and levered himself to his knees. But his leg begged to differ with his mouth and he went down again.

Cho was as prepared to wait as he was to win. He needed water himself and turned to the heap of cloaks. That was when he realized they weren’t alone.

A woman had joined them, coming from the open steppe rather than camp.

She was tiny---a handspan shorter than Tyrokon---and delicate...delicate the way the best swords were delicate. Her cheek seemed on fire in the sunset light. There was a silver crescent there, the mark of the goddess of the Bright Moon, the only god worshipped in the Asheera and bestowed only on those women she accepted as her healers. Other healers were compassionate souls who comforted as they restored health, but not this woman. Standing still, this woman had the demeanor of a ger-cat on the stalk. Injury and illness were her enemies. She didn’t heal; she conquered.

There was no guessing how long they’d had her for an audience, but while Cho watched, the woman began to clap loudly and slowly.

“No one learns a lesson better than you,” she said when their eyes snagged.

It was not a compliment.

Cho ignored her. He retrieved the waterskin and offered it Tyrokon. The downed youth made another, successful, attempt to rise, but there was no concealing his right leg’s weariness. He leaned against his stick-sword like an old man.

“Good evening,” he said to the woman when she came onto the dirt.

“And good evening to you. Do you need that stick, or can I borrow it?”

Tyrokon steadied himself and surrendered the stick. The woman took it and tossed her heavy cloak aside.

“Your father know where you are?”

Tyrokon nodded.

“Your mothers?”

Tyrokon had two, the sister-wives of Hamarach who cherished their firstborn above all else. That he had not told them of his whereabouts or intentions was plain from the way he silently studied his boots.

“Ah, what do women need to know?” The woman shrugged. “No harm done, I think, but rest it a bit, will you? We accomplished little in that last healing, but I’d rather not see it undone completely.”

“Yes...” he replied, pausing where he might have offered a name or some familiar title.

The woman turned to Cho. “And you? What have you to say for yourself? Would you cross weapons with someone you haven’t beaten a thousand times before?”

Cho’s mouth worked silently. What he finally said---a simple “yes”---was clearly not the first thought that had come through his mind. He checked his grip on the stick and checked it again before retreating across the dirt. “Whenever you’re ready.”

The woman came on guard behind the practice weapon, transforming herself as she did. Despite her calf-length tunic and uncut braids, both women’s custom in the Asheera, she radiated the calm fire of a veteran. Her balance was perfect. Her weapon was centered. Her face gave nothing away.

Cho, who attacked into weakness, didn’t know where to start. He feinted toward her left side---her off-weapon side---hoping to create an opportunity.

The woman moved her wrists, nothing more; the stick canted slightly, enough to block any attack without exposing a flank. Cho feinted to her other side, with the same results. After his second withdrawal, he convinced himself that he had the sheer strength to beat the stick out of her slender hands.

He attacked straight ahead. Wood struck wood and she seemed to give way. Then momentum shifted. The tiny warrior enveloped Cho’s stick and grounded its tip in the dirt. The downward pressure of her weapon stretched Cho’s grip to the breaking point. He bent at the knees to free his stick and, before he knew it, he suffered an unwelcome wooden tap just below his right shoulder.

With steel, she could have sliced his arm off; even with wood, she could have broken it.

“Try again?” she asked.

Cho nodded, resolving, as he came on guard, that this time he’d wait for her attack.

After a long spell of stone-like patience, she twitched.

Cho would go to his grave believing he had seen a sunwise shift to her balance. And he’d swear, too, that he hadn’t overcommitted his response. But---damn---this time the woman dropped low, which for her was very low.

She got beneath him and disarmed him with a wooden wrist slap that left his fingers tingling.

“Careless,” the woman observed. “One more?”

Cho flexed his hand. Everything worked. He picked up the stick and nodded.

In their third go-round, Cho did everything right. He stuck with the basics, no tricks or displays of prowess. He drew upon his strengths---his height, his brawn, his reach---without expecting effortless miracles from them. He took the woman seriously, forgetting her size and her sex.

They traded futile attacks, then he got caught considering, for the smallest moment, what he’d do next before he’d finished what he was doing now.

That was all she needed. The next thing Cho knew, his weapon was spinning end over end into the grass.

“Not bad,” the woman mused aloud as she returned her borrowed stick and collected her cloak. “When you give attention to the fight that is, rather than the fight that might be, or the one that used to be, you show promise.”

Cho reminded her that he wasn’t a wet-eared novice. “I won the red staff and a proven mare at the midwinter Gathering. Twenty bouts and I won them all.”

The woman raised an eyebrow. “And used the same trick to win eighteen of them. That may get you the red staff but it doesn’t get you the experience you need to fight when you’re not fighting your friends.”

She started walking toward the tents and never looked back. Cho watched her a moment before searching out his stick. He gave it a few swings when he found it, beating down a swath of grass.

“I hate her.”

Tyrokon offered an alternative: “You’re angry because she won.”

“She has no right,” Cho countered. “Where does she come off fighting like that? She’s a healer...a healer! Isn’t that enough? Does she have to have men’s honors, too? Who does she think she is?”

“She doesn’t have to think,” Tyrokon said softly. “She is Rifkind. She does what she wants.”

“Bloody damn Bright she does. Whatever. Whenever. I’ve heard the stories that she knows how to use that sword she keeps in her cave. But who believed it? A woman. A healer. I prayed for someone to call her out, but no one challenges Rifkind. Nobody says no to Rifkind. Nobody dares.”

Tyrokon, whose father was chief over the clan’s twelve families and the man with the absolute right to say no to anyone, stiffened slightly. When he spoke again, it was to repeat what he’d already said, “You’re angry because she beat you the way you beat everyone else.”

“And she shouldn’t have! She’s a woman! Have you ever seen her practice? Ever? In all the years of our lives? Look at her! She’s smaller than your mothers! She’s old.”

“And she’s very good. Father says we can learn---”

“No, we can’t!” Cho thundered. “Bloody Bright Moon---you saw her just now. She barely moved and she had me covered like snow on the ground. How did she do that? Where did she learn?” Cho took a ragged breath. “Why didn’t she teach me? Why couldn’t she come out of her bloody Bright cave just once to teach me? Name one time when she was there to teach me anything?”

Tyrokon weighed his words. “She isn’t charged to teach us how to fight. She’s our healer---more than our healer, she’s the Mistress of Healers. The Bright One has chosen her to pass the art to others. When she’s not healing, she’s teaching---”

“Every day? Every damn day? Never once has she thought, I could help Cho---” The boyo caught himself on the edge of an ill-considered rage. He took a breath and continued in a calmer tone: “It’s different with you. When your mothers brought you here, you couldn’t walk and your old healer had given up on you. She didn’t; she stuck with you. But, everyone else? Some fool gets drunk and falls off his horse and the alarm goes out---Summon the healer! And the healer comes. She trained your sister, Amra, to be your father’s healer, but does anyone shout Summon Amra? Bloody Bright no! It’s her they want, and she comes. What about me? What do I have to do?”

Tyrokon made no move to answer Cho’s questions.

“Damn it all---she’s my mother! All my life, I’ve made myself into the best warrior I could be. She’s known that; she’s got to have known that, even her. I’ve learned everything I could, from everyone who’d show me a stroke or parry, and there’s not one of them who could have beaten what just beat me. Bloody Bright---who does she spar with? She’s got to spar. Nobody comes behind a sword like that without sparring every day. I’d spar with her---”

Cho’s voice disappeared. When it returned, rage had taken it.

“Why? Why doesn’t she have time for me? How could she sit there in her cave---as good as every story we’ve heard---knowing my dreams? She has never budged. Answer me that.”

“Well---”

“She’s ashamed of me, that’s why. She took off for the Wet-lands and made a name for herself. Thank you, Rifkind, for saving our world. Then she returns and sets herself up as a healer, as if she’s never stood behind steel. That’s good for you, Tyrokon. She’s there for you. But me---I’m just something she brought back with her, somewhere between a trophy and a scar. She abandoned my father---I know it. And, when I was born, she couldn’t wait to get rid of me.”

“She sent you to my father,” Tyrokon said with just a hint of warning.

Cho hesitated.

The calmer part of him, the smarter part---which was not, just then, in the ascendant---knew there had been no better place to grow than within Hamarach’s tent. And even if Hamarach had not been as tolerant as he was powerful, any tent would have been better than a healer’s cave. Healers---all of them, not just Rifkind---didn’t share their lore with men. Something about a great betrayal generations upon generations in the past. Theirs was a woman-riddled society where sons were unnecessary and unwelcome.

Rifkind should have known that...should have known better than to bear a son.

In the end, Cho always came to the same conclusion: “She hates me.”

“Rifkind doesn’t hate---” Tyrokon corrected, but that was only another way of saying that Rifkind didn’t love, either. She was fierce: fiercely loyal, fiercely protective, fiercely determined. Tyrokon knew those traits from the many times Rifkind had waged a healer’s war on his twisted legs. But love, like hate, found no hold in her.

Rather than finish a statement that would fuel his friend’s despair, Tyrokon changed the subject entirely: “She’s headed to see my father. We could sneak up to the felt and catch their conversation.”

Cho stared at the stick in his hand as if he couldn’t remember why he held it. He gave a pair of half-hearted thwacks at the grass. “Yeah, why not. It’s not like she’d tell me anything.”

Copyright © 2006 by Lynn Abbey