Mara wrung her hands, praying hard as she stood by the barn doors, barely noticing the summer breeze tugging at her curls. Isa, the purebred mare, was almost due. Last time, it had not gone well—they had lost the foal. Now that Mara was Stable Master, the welfare of the horses sat squarely upon her shoulders. She could not even enjoy the sweet fragrance of mock orange blossoms scenting the air, heralding the beginning of summer.
She paced back and forth, frantic with worry. Clay was checking in on Isa. How long had he been in there? Was Isa going to be all right?
A distinctive whinny coming from the back of the barn sent her hurrying to the last stall at the back. Clay was leaning on the stall door, gazing at Isa, chin in hands.
Please let everything be all right!
He glanced over as Mara neared, tossing dark curls out of his eyes. Did the concern clouding his face mirror hers? “I think you’re right, Mara.”
Her heart sank; she was half-certain the horses spoke to Clay in their whinnies and nickers. “Breech again?”
Clay blew his cheeks out. “I think so. Best let the healers know. Better safe than sorry.”
Oh, dear. Only three hundred and ten days, not the usual three forty-five. Isa had been early the last time she foaled. The healers had not been much help, but Clay was right, they had to be told. The farrier wasn’t coming for another fortnight.
Mara hugged herself, rubbing her arms. Who else could she ask for help?
High-pitched chattering in excited voices drifted close, interrupting her thoughts. Clay washed his hands in a bucket of water and stepped out into the yard just as Lady Jess and her cousin, Lord Tyler, appeared at a run.
Oh no, are they by themselves?
Mara was already worried about Isa. She did not want these two causing any distress to the mare. They were good children but excitable and full of boundless energy; it was not something Isa needed right now.
To Mara’s relief, their elder cousin, his lordship Heinregard, strolled into view at the turn in the lane leading from the main compound of the House.
Why were they back? They already had their ride earlier that day, and it was almost suppertime. Mara gave Isa a final pat and went outside, trying to reassure herself that everything would go well this time. She would find a way to make sure both Isa and her foal survived. Lady Vee’s trust in her was not misplaced.
The children had clambered onto the nearest paddock fence and were chattering up a storm in their own language. His lordship Heinregard acknowledged her and Clay with a nod. He stood with his hands behind his back, looking into the distance where the bridle path snaked away towards the main House gates in the distance.
Mara nudged Clay, who stopped swooning long enough to say, “Is. . .is there something we can do for you, milord?”
Still gazing into the distance, his lordship sighed. “Jess claims that Cousin Kye is on his way back.”
Mara pursed her lips. Was this again wishful thinking on the little lady’s part? “Begging your pardon, your lordship. For sure?”
His gaze passed over the empty fields, his young cousins hanging over the paddock fence, and landed on Clay. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. All the same, nice time of day for a stroll.”
Clay looked down with that shy smile of his, and Mara groaned inwardly. Clay was smitten, to be sure, but she could not see how this could possibly end well for him.
The children jumped off the fence and launched themselves at their elder cousin. Babbling in their foreign tongue, they tugged on his lordship’s arms, looking most determined. Perhaps the little lady had it right this time. Surely they would not go hungry for nothing.
“In Grovian, please,” his lordship said, shaking them off.
Jess stamped her foot in that impatient way of hers. “Gate!”
Tyler bounded away and beckoned them. “Let’s go!” .
“If Cousin Kye is already at the gate,” their elder cousin pointed out, “he will be arriving in good time.” He shot his cuffs, revealing the ornate design thereupon. “I,” he said, in his deepest voice, the one that made Mara straighten, and goddess only knew what it was doing to Clay, “am certainly not trekking all that way to receive anyone.”
Jess made a face and exchanged a look with Tyler. They ran off, only to collide into a. . .an invisible barrier, flung up to block their attempt to escape.
The children rubbed their hands together rather gleefully, then proceeded to feel all around the space, as if searching for a way through.
“That,” said his lordship, replacing the fan at his belt, “ought to keep them busy for a while.”
Mara closed her mouth. The last time she saw his lordship use his fan had been a heart-stopping moment, when he had almost killed the previous Head Groom. So, his fan was not necessarily a deadly weapon. Well, that’s a relief.
“Your lordship,” Mara asked, “does Lady Vee know they’re here?” Surely Lady Vee would not approve of them getting so excited so late in the day.
He nodded. “Aunt Viraya said she would check with Grandam. . .Oh, wait.”
He looked distracted for a while, the way the Silverians did when they conversed with one another without speaking.
“Cousin Kye’s at the foot of Mount Saddle.” He glanced over at the children, still busy trying to dismantle the invisible barrier. “Jess got it right this time. It’ll take him a while to get up here, but I doubt they’ll let me take them back for supper.”
“I’ll bring some food,” Clay offered at once.
Mara clucked her tongue. “Ah, forget that.” No sense in Clay running around. She pointed towards the barn. “I have enough here for everyone..”
Giving Isa a pat as she passed, Mara went up into the hayloft and handed down a large basket filled with bread and cheese, fresh fruits, and even a pie.
Clay’s eyes widened. “Why do you keep so much food here, Mara?”
“So I won’t get hungry any time,” she snapped, upending a few empty buckets to serve as seats.
Clay pulled forward a trestle table and she had the food all laid out and was calling for the children when Clay turned over a relatively clean bucket and draped a kerchief over it.
Seriously? Was Clay jesting with her? Did he plan to ask his lordship to sit and share a meal with them here in the barn? She lowered her voice. “You do not expect him to sit with us, do you? This is for the children.” Newly promoted to Stable Master, Mara was still not comfortable speaking to the Silverians, let alone share a meal with one of them.
“Whyever not?” Clay asked, that innocent look on his face.
Truly, sometimes Mara felt like shaking some sense into Clay. She forebore to do it now, but only because the children had run in and were jostling each other at the little table.
“M-may I join you?” His lordship stood at the entrance to the barn, looking in.
Mara was already cutting the bread and cheese. She meant to take a portion of the pie out for him once she had served the children. But Clay indicated the upturned bucket, the one with the kerchief draped over it, and his lordship came over and contemplated the makeshift seat, his lips pursed.
The children nudged one another and giggled, but Clay acted as though this happened all the time, so Mara went along with it and plopped portions of the bread, cheese and pie onto platters for everyone.
A high-pitched neigh coming from the back made Mara hurry to check on Isa. The mare was standing in the middle of her stall, tail tucked, flicking her ears back and forth. Mara petted and made a fuss of her, but Isa did not look reassured.
Sighing, Mara went back to the front and sat down with the others. “The foal Isa’s carrying doesn’t seem to have turned.”
“Foals move around a lot in the last weeks,” said his lordship, his eyes on Mara’s hands as she reached for her plate.
Why was he staring at her hands?
Clay leapt to his feet and snatched up a bucket of water and thrust it at her with a piece of cloth.
Mara washed her hands, making a big show of it in front of the children grinning up at her, their mouths full. It wasn’t like she didn’t know any better; she was just too distracted to think straight.
His lordship visibly relaxed. “Not time to worry yet. The foal could get into position soon.”
Mara was a little surprised. Though a fine horseman, he did not strike her as one who took an interest in breeding. “Well,” she said, “the last time, it didn’t go so well—the foal did not make it.”
“She’s prone to it?” His lordship knit his brows and shook his head. “All the books say it could happen again.”
Well, Mara just about stopped herself from rolling her eyes. She did not need to be able to read to know that. The farrier was unschooled but knew a lot by picking things up over the years. Lady Vee had wanted Mara to learn her letters, but she never could make heads or tails of them, and sang from memory. One time, Lady Vee had sighed and said Mara could have apprenticed with the healers if only she had learned her letters. Mara did not know what to make of that. . .until now, when Isa’s need was great.
“Isa with foal?” Jess piped up.
“Not turned,” said Tyler.. “Ah, Jess, remember Tracer, with pup? What remedy Yanya give to turn pup?”
She twirled a loose strand of hair around one finger, then her eyes lit up. “Puls?”
Her little cousin snapped his fingers. “Pulsatilla! We have in kit.”
The two of them lunged across the trestle-table at their older cousin who snapped, “Attention!” They froze for a moment before starting their chattering again. “Be quiet, I say. It would only work if the timing’s right. How far gone is she, Mara?”
“Three ten, but she was early last year.” She rubbed her arms. “Hasn’t bagged up though.”
“Well, for people, it would work between thirty-two and thirty-seven weeks. For horses, I’m not sure about the timing, but it can’t be that different.” While the children cheered, he delved within his tunic and withdrew a small cloth parcel that opened up to reveal tiny vials packed neatly into rows. “Let me see. Ah, here it is.”
He withdrew one of the vials, held it up to read tiny print that Mara could barely make out. Meanwhile, the children were doing their turn-about, hands clasped high, Karenyan style. Mara took the vial into her hands, wondering how something so small could possibly help.
“Just one pellet, mind,” said his lordship, “in the drinking water, until the foal turns.”
Mara narrowed her eyes at the pellets within the vial, not altogether convinced. “If I might just ask, what exactly is this?”
“A remedy made from a flower.” He brushed back his braid with a graceful, careless gesture. “The wind-flower, to be exact.”
“Oh,” said Clay, with a bright smile, “like Arnica is from the high daisy.”
His lordship returned the smile. “Exactly.”
Mara was taken aback. “You know about this, Clay?”
“I know about the Arnica,” Clay said, looking pleased. “Helped when his lordship fell off Horace.”
The children perked up at mention of the jittery skewbald. Mouths full, they jumped up and re-enacted a scene that showed a horse rearing, its rider falling, and others running away. Much hilarity ensued. His lordship closed his eyes and sighed, while Clay ducked his head and murmured an apology.
“My eldest sister had a breech pregnancy,” said his lordship, ignoring the children. “The remedy helped turn the babe.”
Well, the kit looked organized. Perhaps there was something to these tiny pellets after all.
Feeling a little silly, Mara said with a laugh, “And I thought perhaps you had a babe that needed turning.” She flushed when she realised what she had said. “A foal. I meant, a foal.”
The children hooted, pointing at their elder cousin whose face had turned crimson. Clay gave her an exasperated look, and Mara was still apologising when Jess stopped laughing and sat up straight. “Kye bring someone.” She grinned, fists clenched in excitement. “On beautiful horse.”
His lordship raised a brow. “Who is it?” he asked.
“Not know.” Jess shrugged. “Another horse following, very big.”
Tyler gestured towards Plower, the largest draft horse in the stables. “Big as Plow?”
“Bigger.” Jess spread her hands into an impossible breadth and height.
Tyler scoffed. “You lie.”
“I not lie!” She jumped to her feet and set hands to her hips, most indignant. “Bigger!” She waved her arms. “So much bigger. Hundred time bigger.”
Tyler pointed a finger at her. “Liar!”
His lordship closed his eyes and took a breath. “Tyler, we’ll find out soon enough if Jess is speaking the truth or not.”
“At gate now!” she cried, spinning round to face the barn door, pointing into the distance in a most dramatic manner. “This time true,” she added in a more subdued tone when no-one looked impressed.
“Well,” his lordship pointed out, “if it’s true, it will still take time for them to get here. Finish up. Slowly, please,” he added as they stuffed more cheese into already bulging cheeks.
To Mara’s relief, they managed to finish eating without any further ado, and as soon as the children went outside with his lordship, she and Clay moved a couple of ponies around to free up three stalls. They cleaned them out, put in fresh straw for bedding, and were filling the water troughs when the children started yelling.
She and Clay got to the barn doors in time to see the new arrivals approaching from the distance. Lord Kylan, that fine figure of a man, was on his large blue roan, Roland.
Behind them came the most striking horse that Mara had ever seen—a fine-limbed, coppery red chestnut with a full mane streaked with white. Was it. . .was it a desert horse? Not that she had seen many, but Mara had hazy memories from before she came to the House, of desert nomads and the exotic horses they brought to trade in Rogrovia. This one was extraordinarily beautiful, even for a desert horse.
The rider was not as wide about the shoulders as Lord Kylan, and slimmer in body, but made a tall fine figure all the same. A cloth wrap, desert-style, hid both face and hair against the dust from the climb up Mount Saddle.
Bringing up the rear was a dun pack-horse, quite the largest Mara had ever seen. It outstripped even Plow in size and stature, standing easily seventeen hands tall at the withers.
The children were beside themselves. Before Lord Kylan had slid off his mount, they had flung arms around Roland, the gentle giant. Then his lordship was down, tossing first one and then the other child up into the air as Clay led Roland away. Lady Vee would have something to say about all that excitement late in the day. Mara hastened forward to the stranger’s mount.
It was a foreigner in Karenyan costume, and the patterns on the cloth wrap should have alerted her to the fact that it was a desert nomad even before the wrap was removed. Out tumbled a mass of intricately plaited white braids, shocking in its contrast against the coppery skin.
The sun was low by then, and shining straight into Mara’s eyes as it disappeared over the horizon, so for a moment she was blinded by the light. Then the stranger moved or the sun sank, and Mara realised she was staring up into a most exotic face. The coppery skin matched the sorrel mount, and the brows and lashes fringing dark eyes were liberally streaked with white.
Mara’s breath caught; she had never seen a desert nomad up close before. She stepped back in shock, gaping stupidly.
The children were shouting, “Seng! Seng!”
“Jess, Tyler!” Lord Kylan’s voice was brusque. “Get back here! It’s not Seng.”
Mara caught the little lady just as the stranger slid off the sorrel mount. The little lord was likewise held by Lord Heinregard. But they wriggled and squealed until Lord Kylan waved for them to be released. At once, they flung themselves at the nomad who had turned away to tend to the giant pack-mount. Jess snuck under the stranger’s arm and, to Mara’s surprise, hugged the figure about the waist while her little cousin edged close and tried to do the same. The nomad looked as shocked as Mara was by the children’s fond reception.
Hunkering down, the stranger shook back the mass of white braids. “Who’s Seng? My name is Fang.”
The children exchanged a look but did not release their hold, and the stranger smiled.
Well, of all the. . . It was a young woman, sweet beneath the stern-looking exterior.
Jess took the nomad's hands and guided them to her head. Taken aback, Fang glanced over at Lord Kylan who stood watching with half a smile. When he did not say aught, she lowered her lips close to the top of the little lady’s head and blew. She murmured a string of foreign-sounding words, then spoke in Grovian. “May the winds blow you in the right direction, wherever you need to be.”
She repeated the foreign blessing for Tyler, then looked them in the eye. The two were now as still and quiet as Mara had ever seen them.
“If you want a ride on Arazar and Big Fella on the morrow, give us some space now.” There was a slight drawl to her voice but only a trace of an accent, her Grovian much better than that of the Karenys who had come a moon ago.
The children nodded, good as gold. Mara took the opportunity to shoo them away, and reached to help with a woven basket the nomad was untying from the rump of the large pack-mount.
“It’s alright, I can manage.” Fang spoke and held herself with solemn dignity, quite different from the easy-going Karenyan guardsmen. And yet. . .and yet this was a native desert nomad, a savage by all accounts. “I said, I can manage.”
Mara stood back at once. A female desert nomad, dressed like a Karenyan man, spoke better, and carried herself with the poise and dignity of a warrior. How to reconcile all this?
Lord Kylan was deep in conversation with Lord Heinregard. Introductions had not been made, despite the children’s and Lord Kylan’s seeming ease with this stranger.
Is she a guest or a hired hand, here to help with the horses? Mara’s heart leapt; the nomads were superb horsemen and breeders. Was this one sent in answer to her prayers?
“Fang,” Lord Kylan called out, “how about showing the children what we brought.”
Jess, who had been eyeing the beautiful desert horse, spun around. “What you bring?” She flung herself at her elder cousin. “What, Kye? What?”
“Easy now. Go check that basket Fang’s holding.”
The children ran over and crowded close, jostling one another, so Fang waited till they were quiet and still before prising open the lid. Hearing the children’s gasp, Mara peered over their heads. A pair of kittens with pointed ears nestled within the basket, curled around each other, white whiskers twitching ever so slightly. Their colouring was beautiful—the palest of gold—not like anything Mara had ever seen.
“Sand kittens,” said Lord Kylan, who had come close. “All the way from the Karenyan desert.”
The children turned pleading eyes up at him. “Ours? To keep?”
“Ah no, they’re not pets.” The children made a great show of disappointment, but something else must have shown on Mara’s face because Lord Kylan grunted. “Rogrovians are so superstitious. Not all your folk tales about shifters are true, you know.”
Everyone stared at him and the children looked set to burst with questions, but he stopped them with a raised hand. “Another day, please. These are perfectly harmless sand kittens; I checked them myself. They’re here because your Grandam expressed a wish to get rid of the vipers on Mount Saddle. Fang here is their handler.”
The children looked up at Fang with renewed adulation, and Mara could not help smiling. Even though the mention of shifters made her uneasy, she could not believe that these tiny kittens were anything to be fearful of. They did not look like varmint at all, gossip about desert animals notwithstanding
“Let them sleep,” Mara whispered to the children before turning to their guest who was replacing the woven basket lid. “Have you eaten?”
Fang glanced over, and Mara was struck by the dark eyes under pale brows and lashes. “We ate before we started the climb.”
“You’d want to wash off the dust, no? Clay, go fetch some water. We’ve prepared stalls for your horses, right next to Roland.” Mara did not want to stare like some country bumpkin, but she could not take her eyes off the beautiful desert horse. “Arazar, is it?”
Fang’s mount was truly exquisite. Slender and long-legged, Arazar was a mare with the presence of a stallion. Her large, dark eyes sparkled with intelligence. Mara reached towards her without thinking.
“I’ll take her in.” Fang jerked a thumb back at the giant horse. “You can help with Big Fella.”
Feeling a little miffed, Mara led the giant mount to an empty stall. If she had such a beautiful horse, she wouldn’t want anyone touching it either. Big Fella was no trouble at all. Mara indicated for Fang to guide Arazar into a stall across the way, on the other side of the centre aisle.
By this time, Lord Heinregard had shepherded the children away to the lane leading back to the main compound. Lord Kylan called from the barn doors, “You coming?”
His voice was casual, but something told Mara he was not entirely at ease with this native desert nomad he had brought along.
Fang stood with the basket in her arms. “You go ahead. Get your people ready for me.”
His lordship held out one hand. “I’ll take the kittens.”
Fang’s face was expressionless as she held to the basket.
Lord Kylan scoffed. “You don’t think we can manage to keep them alive? Rogrovian children can be rough—is that what you heard?”
Mara was shocked. Was that what desert nomads believed? The look in the nomad’s eyes was murderous.
Fang jerked her head back towards the horses. “Nice breeds you have here,” she said, with a faint drawl.
Lord Kylan’s smile was cold, nothing like the roguish grin that was the talk of the maids. “If I took you for a horse thief, would you even be here?”
“Well, really,” Mara spoke up, “which of our horses can compare to a desert horse?”
She had spoken out of turn, and her ill-considered words drew a frown from Lord Kylan, but Fang seemed a little eased.
Clay came back with a bucket of water fresh from the well, so Mara said to Clay, when it was Lord Kylan who needed to hear, “Let her wash the dust off first. How long is that going to take? I’ll set up a basin of water at the back so she can wipe her face and hands at least.”
Lord Kylan grunted and went after his departing cousins, shouting to let them know he was to follow. But the children ran back and he was swallowed up in a tangle of short limbs and high voices.
Amid the hubbub, Mara got Clay to pour water into a shallow basin placed on a trestle-table at the back of the barn, by the steps leading up to the hayloft. Then she hustled Clay away, found a clean washcloth, and turned her back on the stranger so she could have some privacy.
Before long, she was done, shaking the water from her hair, plaits flying, washcloth draped over one shoulder. She looked fresh-faced and even younger with the dust and grime wiped off.
Lord Kylan had disentangled himself from the children and was looking in at the barn door. “The kittens are going straight to the Healing Quarters. Come along, I’m hungry. We’ll get you fed too. ‘Evening, Mara.” With a last pointed look at the desert nomad, he turned away, pulled along by the children who kept turning around to grin at Fang.
The nomad handed Mara the washcloth and hefted the basket with the kittens inside. “I suppose I’d better go where the food is.”
Tell her about the food she kept in the barn? But no. No doubt she would be seeing more of this desert nomad in the coming weeks. She watched her go, marvelling at her poise and build. Did all young desert women look like that? Did they all ride beautiful desert horses? Were they truly the wonderful horse experts they were rumoured to be?
Most importantly, had her prayers been answered? Now that Fang was here, surely Isa and the foal she was carrying now stood a better chance?