A sudden clatter and rumble came over the western hills. At once the men of Three Stones rose from amid their waist-high waves of green barley, leaning on their hoes, shielding their eyes against the bright afternoon sun. They strained for some glimpse of what was coming, ready to fight or to flee. Not that the village often suffered cattle-raid or slave-raid, but wise men were always prepared.
A chariot appeared on the shoulder of the last hill, running hell-for-leather along the dirt track that approached from the west. It was a noble’s car, made of wood and light wicker, open to the front and back, drawn by two fast-running ponies. The charioteer was a woman, crouching over the reins, a wild white grin on her face. The warrior was an older man, iron-gray in his beard and long hair, wearing a fine cloak. He stood proud and tall, his legs taking every shock of the chariot’s passage, his arms spread wide to hold up spear and shield. The device on the shield flashed in the sun: a gold lion crouching on a green field.
The villagers set aside fear, waving and cheering. “Derga!” they called. “Derga! Derga the Mighty!”
A second chariot pursued, only a few lengths behind. Here too the charioteer was a woman, laughing with the excitement of the race. Yet her warrior was a younger man, grim of face, more concerned with catching up than with making a brave show. A dozen spearmen followed in pairs, riding fast on the backs of their own ponies.
Derga’s chariot swept down the track, a pair of peasant women scrambling to get out of the way, the second car moments behind. Around a long curve, between two dry-stone fences, and the village itself was just ahead. Derga’s charioteer called to her horses, pulling on the reins, and the team came clattering to a stop just outside an open gate in the village’s stockade. The second chariot followed, and the spearmen on horseback, a sudden avalanche of warriors.
Derga laughed with sheer high spirits, stepping down from his car. “Well done, Krava!”
His charioteer grinned once more, climbing down in turn to care for the horses.
She was a young woman, perhaps of twenty summers, her skin a warm tawny brown. Her hair was long and straight, as black as the raven for which she had been named, tied back in a horse-tail style. She had a strong jaw, an aquiline nose, and sharp dark eyes. Men of the distant cities would not consider her a beauty; she was too tall and lean, too athletic, with little softness about her. Her own people appreciated her well enough: a shield-woman, an archer, and a charioteer, not an object to be kept ignorant and locked away in some man’s household.
The other charioteer called, from where she tended to her own team. “We almost had you there, at the last turn before the rise!”
Krava waved at her. “Yes, you did.”
“She hesitated,” said the other warrior, glaring at his partner. “Derga, when we return home, I insist you permit me to hire a real charioteer.”
At once, the joy of the race vanished. Krava turned and rose to her full height, her fists bunching, as the other woman’s face darkened with humiliation.
“Don’t be a fool, Mársdana,” said Derga calmly. “Dania is as skilled a charioteer as any in the clan. You and she win more races than you lose, is it not so?”
“Not as many as I could win. Shield-women have no skill for it.” Mársdana glanced at Krava, at the anger burning in her face, and hesitated. “I say nothing against your daughter, Derga. At least she is of noble birth . . . but Dania’s father is a carpenter. She is only playing at being a warrior before she settles down with some man. She lacks the blood for it.”
Dania rounded on him, baring her teeth in fury. “If you think I am only playing at being a warrior, Mársdana, I can think of a way for you to test that opinion.”
“Enough!” Derga glared at them both. “You will not shame the Sun-clan before our allies and friends. Mársdana, if you are too proud to work with the charioteer I provided for you, you may ride on horseback with the spearmen for the rest of our journey.”
“What?” Mársdana clenched his fists, looking as if he wanted to attack someone. “You insult me!”
Derga smiled, the spear in his hand turning so its iron head gleamed in the sunlight. “If you are insulted, puppy, you know what to do about that.”
Mársdana found he had nothing to say.
“You have your orders,” said Derga. “We will speak no more about this matter.”
“What about Dania?” Krava asked.
Derga caught his daughter’s eye, reading her face. “Dania will drive my chariot until we return home,” he decided. “You may take the other for yourself, if it pleases you.”
Krava nodded at once in agreement. Dania bowed her head for a moment. “Thank you, karta.”
“That is settled,” said Derga, as Mársdana turned and stalked away, grumbling under his breath. “Come, let us meet our hosts.”
Krava reached out and took Dania’s hand for a moment, and they shared a silent glance. The younger woman smiled wryly and turned away to tend to her horses.
Inside its stockade, Three Stones was much like any Tremara village: a dense cluster of roundhouses surrounding an open yard. The lord’s house stood on the eastern edge of the yard, noticeably larger than the rest, with walls of stone rather than wattle-and-daub. A man strode across the open ground, tall and strong, spear in his hand and sword on his belt, four more spearmen in his wake. The men’s tunics and cloaks were in familiar colors, brown with red trim.
Wolf-clan colors, she thought with excitement. We’ve almost reached the end of our journey, and two days still to go before the solstice. We’re on time.
“Derga the Mighty,” the leader shouted gladly. He tossed his spear to one of his men, then came up to plant himself before Krava’s father and clap him on both shoulders. “The sun shines upon our meeting.”
“Várkora. You’re looking well. How is your father?”
“His beard grows a little longer and whiter every year,” Várkora said, grinning, “but he’s still as stubborn as ever. He hopes for your visit. Who are these with you?”
Derga turned, waving for Krava to step forward. “My daughter, the aregbana Krava, called the Swift. A man could not hope to meet a finer archer or charioteer.”
Krava made the two-handed gesture of greeting, meeting Várkora’s eyes boldly. “My regards, karta.”
Várkora smiled, a quick flicker of his eyes appraising her. “A fine shield-woman indeed. I never met your mother, Krava, but I would expect Derga to raise you with honor as her daughter.”
Krava nodded, pleased. “Thank you, karta. I barely remember her, but I’m often told I bear her some resemblance.”
“My kinsman Mársdana is also with me,” Derga continued. “The aregbana Dania, who also serves as my charioteer. Dórvira, the captain of my spearmen.” Derga went on to name the warriors of his following in order of rank. Each of them nodded and murmured a polite greeting.
“A brave company,” said Várkora. “Be welcome in my village of Three Stones. Unless you intend to continue on?”
Derga glanced over his shoulder at the sun, now low above the western hills. “No, if you have room for us, we will guest with you tonight. We want to reach Tamar Velkari to enjoy the solstice with your father, but there should be time enough for that if we set out in the morning.”
“Aye.” Várkora nodded, running his fingertips through his beard in thought. “I had also planned to leave for my father’s tamar in the morning, so we can all travel together. You, your kinsman, and your shield-women can stay in my own house, we have plenty of room. As for your spearmen, some of the village families are willing to serve guests. I know I can trust any men of yours to be well-behaved.”
Krava immediately found much to do, not least because Mársdana was busy sulking, even less use to her father than usual. She made sure all the party’s horses were groomed, fed, and sheltered. She had the two chariots placed in a shed, so one of Várkora’s craftsmen could perform maintenance on them. She worked with Dórvira to billet all the spearmen in the houses of friendly villagers.
It was twilight, the first stars coming out overhead, before she returned to the central yard of Three Stones. She stretched, wondering whether Várkora had beer on hand, or something to eat. Then she saw the village’s lord standing with Derga and Dania, fists on his hips, scowling down at a peasant lad who appeared to bear unpleasant news. Curious, she moved closer.
“. . . just what is it my brother wants?” Várkora demanded.
“Your pardon, karta, but he says he knows better than to come into the village,” said the boy. “He needs you to come out to him. He says he has something you need to see.”
“What? What does he need me to see?”
“I don’t know, karta, but he said it was important.”
Várkora growled in annoyance.
“Your brother?” Derga asked.
“Drothan. My younger brother. You may not have met him before, Derga, he was too young to travel the last time our father made the journey all the way to Sun-clan lands. Since he’s grown to manhood, he keeps to himself for the most part.”
“I think I heard something about that . . .”
“Whatever you heard is probably true. I suppose I should go speak to him.”
Derga nodded. “I will also come, if you are willing, in case another pair of eyes would be of use. Unless you think this is private business of your clan?”
“No, if that were so, Drothan would have said when he sent word. You’re welcome to come.” Várkora glanced at the women and shook his head. “You may want to leave your shield-women here.”
Krava frowned. “My father does not leave me behind.”
“I go where Krava goes,” said Dania, with a hint of iron in her voice.
Derga looked at them, deep in thought for a moment, and then shrugged. “My daughter and her friend are aregbanai. They fear nothing from any man, unless he is a barbarian or a beast. Surely your brother is not such a one?”
“No,” said Várkora. “He’s honest enough, and he doesn’t look for trouble. Women usually find trouble with him.”
“I trust Krava and Dania. They may come with me.”
Dania glanced at Krava, a hint of a smile on her face.
Várkora’s mysterious brother waited in a grove of trees, out in the village’s grazing-land, perhaps half a mile from the village itself. The sun had almost set by the time the party approached, and dark shadows pooled beneath the trees, so they brought torches to light their way. Várkora led, Derga walked beside him, and Krava and Dania followed at a short distance. Krava had looked for Mársdana, but the man had disappeared.
Probably drowning his sorrows with a mug of beer, Krava thought. Or a village girl. If he could find one willing to put up with his surly mood.
Várkora stopped, just at the edge of the grove. “Drothan?” he called.
A man emerged from the shadows. Dania’s breath caught.
Drothan was a big man, tall and brawny, with powerful arms. He resembled his brother in the face, with the same snubbed nose and strong jaw, the same deep-set brown eyes. His black hair was long and shaggy, and his beard was full. His clothes were rough, hunter’s or tracker’s wear, all wool and leather with beaver-pelt trim. He bore a wide-bladed spear in one hand, a bow and a quiver of arrows on his back.
“I’m here, brother,” he said, his voice a rumbling baritone. Then he noticed the women, and hesitated.
Krava glanced at Dania and felt a small shock of jealous surprise. The younger woman was staring at the newcomer, with something like naked hunger in her face. “What is it, revo?” she asked in a low voice.
Dania shook her head. “Gods above, Krava, that man is delicious.”
Krava glanced back at Drothan, one eyebrow raised, and wondered what her friend was seeing. He’s well-made enough, and if he’s one of Dóvelka’s sons he’s likely to be a decent man. That doesn’t explain why Dania would go weak in the knees at the first sight of him.
“What is it you wanted me to see?” Várkora demanded, his voice sharp with frustration or anger. He made no attempt to introduce his brother to the strangers.
Drothan paused for another moment, his face unreadable, then turned away. “Over this way.”
They followed him as he moved deeper into the shadows of the trees. Krava shivered as she walked, sensing the forest-spirits watching them from close by. Soon they came to a small clearing, where two horses stood tied up by a tree, one of them laden with a tracker’s gear. Drothan stopped, and impatiently waved for the others to come closer with their light.
Krava stepped close, holding up the torch she carried. When the light fell at Drothan’s feet, the breath hissed through her teeth with surprise.
Drothan stood over a corpse.
Not any of the Mighty People, not any kind of foreigner Krava could recognize. Perhaps it was not human at all. In life it had been a massive creature, taller than Drothan, yet stocky and banded with muscle. Its face was something out of nightmare, with a heavy jaw full of strong teeth, a long straight nose, and eyes protected by a solid bony brow-ridge. Its color was fish-belly pale, corpse-from-the-river pale. Its hair was ruddy in the torchlight, but it might have been tow-colored or white in sunlight.
The cause of death was clear enough, a bloody wound in its torso, showing through a rent in its leather jerkin. Krava glanced at Drothan’s spear, but the iron blade shone, as if the tracker had cleaned his gear recently. She looked to Dania for her opinion but found no help there; the woman had eyes for nothing but Drothan.
“What is this thing?” Krava asked aloud.
“I think this is a skatë,” said Drothan. “I caught it skulking about in the woods, a few miles from here. Put up quite a fight before it went down.”
“That makes no sense,” Várkora said, shaking his head in disbelief. “We’re over a hundred miles from the plains where the skatoi wander, two wide rivers and the Men of Iron in between. No one has ever seen the skatoi on Revatheni land.”
“Of course, brother,” said Drothan, his voice heavy with sarcasm. He kicked the body with one foot, producing a solid thump. “It can’t be here. Must be my imagination.”
Várkora muttered in annoyance.
“It is certainly a skatë,” said Derga, in a soothing tone. “They have troubled this land before, although not for many lives of men. The question is, why is this one here now, and was it alone?”
“I didn’t see any others,” said Drothan. “I wouldn’t have seen this one if it hadn’t been careless. There was no one close enough to help it.”
Várkora looked at his brother, searching for signs of injury. “Was it a difficult fight? Are you hurt?”
“A few scratches. Nothing I can’t tend to myself.” Drothan crouched down on his haunches, to examine the body once more. “As for why it was here . . . this was no starveling beast, scurrying from one hiding place to another, looking only to survive. It bore weapons and gear of its own, of fine quality and well cared for. I think it was a spy. There may be others about.”
“Our father needs to know about this.” With clear reluctance, Várkora went on. “Come into the village. You can eat some decent food, at least, and get a night’s rest. You can come with us to Tamar Velkari tomorrow.”
Drothan rose to his feet once more, glancing at the others. “Who are these people? I don’t recognize them.”
“This is Derga, called the Mighty, a chieftain of the Sun-clan. His daughter, the aregbana Krava, called the Swift. Also, the aregbana Dania.” Várkora looked at Derga. “My apologies, karta, I should have made introductions before this. This is my brother, Drothan, called the Silent. Possibly the finest hunter, tracker, and scout in the Wolf-clan.”
“Krava?” Drothan stopped trying to avoid looking at the women, giving her a moment’s intense stare. “I think you and I have a mutual friend. Loka the Clever dwells at my father’s fortress, and he has spoken of you.”
Krava nodded, pleased. “I hope to spend time with him when we get there.”
“Hmm.” Drothan stared at Dania for a long moment, examining her, then turned back to his brother. “Thank you for the offer, brother, but that isn’t a good idea. I’m hale enough. I’ll camp out here for the night, and this skatë and I will make our own way to the tamar tomorrow.”
“What if more of the skatoi find you?”
The big man smiled for the first time, and Krava thought she understood Dania’s reaction. “I hope they do,” he said. “There will be fewer of them to spy on our lands, if that happens.”
Much later, fed and bathed, Krava sought out the place Várkora had set aside for her to sleep. It was a small space, set against the stone wall of the lord’s roundhouse, set off with wooden partitions to either side, a cloth hanging ready to drop over the entrance for privacy. A light burned inside the little cubicle, and shadows told of someone waiting for her.
She stood in the entrance and smiled down at Dania, where the other woman sat cross-legged and nude on the cot, the light from a small tallow lamp making interesting shadows across her face and body. “I half expected you to go find Drothan’s camp and spend the night there,” she said.
“I thought about it,” Dania said, her face coloring in the lamplight. “Then I remembered my oath.”
“Well.” Krava stepped inside the cubicle, letting the cloth hanging fall closed behind her and starting to peel out of her own leggings and tunic. “We’re not completely forbidden to enjoy time with men, when we swear the shield-woman’s oath. Only one thing can too easily lead to another.”
Dania peered up at Krava. “You didn’t like Drothan?”
“I like him well enough. He’s a fine figure of a man. I might enjoy getting to know him better.” Krava paused, looking down at her friend. “I didn’t wish to lie down with him the first moment I met him. You don’t usually react that way, either, even when you meet a man you like. What happened, Dania?”
“I’m not sure.” Dania looked down, staring at her hands. “Some spirit must have whispered in my ear.”
“Not yours alone,” Krava said. “Várkora hinted that his brother has been in some kind of trouble with women before. Enough trouble that Drothan doesn’t dare come to spend the night in the village.”
“So, he spends his time out in the wilderness, scouting and spying for his clan?”
“It would seem so.” Krava bent and stretched out on the cot next to her friend. “Now, if that stupid man is still in your head, revo, I can think of a few ways to chase him away.”
A slow smile spread across Dania’s face. “So can I,” she said, and leaned close for a lingering kiss.