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THE VOW OF THE SLAYER.
The fires in the Eldershall were bright, stoked up with light dry wood.
Every lamp was alight, instead of just the two near the Priest's Seat. When the Elders talked among themselves, they had no need of the brooding dark they cultivated for the young ones at times of Instruction.
The split log seats on which the young had sat, during Instruction, had been pushed aside. The Elders sat around a long table, feasting and drinking. There was beer, the rough dark beer of native hops, and plenty of meat from a wild boar's carcase, spit roasted. The Slayers hacked pieces from it, which they devoured from the blades of their knives. Ognor Bear-Slayer, aging but still dangerous, talked of the legend in which a great warrior turned into a bird of prey. It was he who had told the young ones to heed the Way of the Osprey. His name, which he had changed from the one given him at birth, meant 'hawk'. Predatory birds fascinated him. He glanced at Freng, hoping to hear the Priest assure him that his spirit would become one when he died. Across the table from him, Obershog Bear-Slayer, Ognor's half brother, talked of boars fighting, and the wounds they made with their tusks. That brought the subject back to fighting again, and Chavak described leopard seals taking their prey.
"Nothing is more splendid that a fighting beast," Obershog rumbled, "except a fighting man."
There growls of agreement from all of them. They looked at each other with cruel satisfaction, remembering the savage fight among the youths that afternoon after the session of Instruction. But Freng, the Priest, brooded angrily, showing his teeth when he spoke.
"What's wrong with you?" Vorsheck asked at length, so gruffly that the man next to him glanced warningly at him. Freng was the Chief Servant of the Kirkil, a man to be treated with respect.
Freng spat into the nearest fire. "All is not as it should be," he rasped in a low voice. "And we must act soon to set matters to right."
There was silence while they waited for him to continue, though they still chewed on the gamey meat and swigged from the pottery tankards. Freng stared into space in front of him, letting them wonder for a few heartbeats.
Then he snapped: "The boy Lelden, the weakling son of the peat-digger.
He had been a feeble and blighted child since birth, and a disgrace to his family." The Priest's mouth twisted. "His mother and father did what was right. They put him to the Proving, as they should. He was given his load to carry, and left out in the night when he failed to carry it." The cruel eyes were hooded. Freng looked like a scrawny but vicious hawk that wanted to tear something.
"So what happened?" asked Chavak the Sea-Hunter, killer of big fish.
"In the morning they went to see if the boy had passed the test set for him and drawn his load, of if he must be cast out to die as the weak should." Freng's voice became a snarl. "He was gone!"
"Perhaps the wolves took him," Vorsheck said, grinning. "Let the weak feed them." Vorsheck knew it couldn't be that simple, or the Priest wouldn't be so angry. But Freng expected the Elders to question him, to draw the answers from him. He was cunning in the art of holding an audience.
"From the peat-diggings, right beside the Common Pasture?" Freng snapped angrily. "If the wolves are wandering around down there, the Standguards are not doing their duty."
The smile vanished from Vorsheck's face. Freng gripped the necklace of wolves’ claws on his chest, painted red and black. All the Elders watched the Priest's eyes, glittering in the firelight.
"You know what happened, majestic Freng," said Ognor the Bear-Slayer, "so tell us."
Freng paused. He wanted to anger the Elders, unsettle them so that they would feel moved to action and he could tell them what action was needed.
"The Laws of Skagaray honour you, do they not?" he asked quietly. "Is it not because strength and rage are feared that you are the leaders here?
The greatest fighters and slayers are the greatest of all. And the people of Skagaray need your protection, so you are honoured ones among them. The weak cannot be allowed to live, or strength will no longer be honoured. Is that not so?" He looked at them, mocking, challenging them. "If the weak and gentle were seen to live, would Skagaray have so much fear of you?"
There was no more eating, no more swallowing beer and coarse joking among them. Freng had them.
"We defend them!" rasped Obershog Bear-Slayer. "We keep back the wild beasts that would tear up their petty little crops and break into their houses and take them from their beds!" His voice rose to a shout and others bellowed agreement. The Elders were roused.
Freng clenched his teeth. "I tell you the weak are being allowed to live, and this insults you and it insults the Kirkil!" His voice was like the sound of something tearing.
Apart from the crackle of the fire, and the sound of angry breathing, there was heavy, taut silence. Freng's eyes traversed the group, meeting each pair of glaring eyes.
"The boy Lelden was set to haul a bale of peat to his father's house.
When it proved too heavy, his mother and father both beat him and left him to carry it home or go without food. When morning came, the peat lay where it had fallen, but the boy was gone. No animal had come for him. His footprints could be followed clearly. And there were other prints. Another person led him away."
"So who took in a weakling, and brought burden and disgrace on his own house?" growled Ognor, his eyes reddening.
"I had a hound follow the scent," Freng said. "His father came to me complaining that his child had been succoured by another family, when locked out by his own. The hound followed the scent, and that of this other."
He waited, caressing the wolves' claws at his chest. The Elders waited with him Then Obershog snarled, "Name the ones who succoured him! Let us burn their house and drive them out from among this people."
Freng continued quietly. "The trail went along the cart-road, past the southern farms, and through the woods below your orchard, Vorsheck."
Vorsheck snarled, "I'll have the watchmen flogged for not catching them."
"They went," Freng said quietly, "into the Wild Domain."
Someone hissed, "Madness!"
"It was intriguing," Freng went on, musingly. "There were also footprints coming the other way. It seems that someone had come from the Kirkil's Domain, down the trail below the Kirkil's Throne; and took the brat Lelden back with him."
Obershog said, "The Kirkil came for him!"
With a roar, Freng dashed the table with his fist. "Does the Kirkil walk in ploughman's boots?"
Obershog tugged his beard nervously, but kept his voice even. "I did not see the footprints, Freng," he replied slowly.
Freng's eyes blazed. "It was the youth Tarran, the disgraced son of Eldran Wolf-Slayer and Shuna. The miserable, puling, white livered coward who flinches at watching a bear killed!" He turned gimlet eyes to the bear-skin clad spearman. "You let him live, Vorsheck!"
There was silence as the Elders all looked at Vorsheck. They all feared him as much as Freng. A clash of the two awesome figures would be dreadful, but exciting.
Vorsheck returned the Priest's glare. He was the most dangerous man on Skagaray, and feared no-one. His hand, without seeming to move, had gone to his dagger, but just seemed to rest there.
"I didn't waste a bolt on him," he said, his voice soft but cold and menacing. "When was an Elder, a warrior, ever called on to kill a coward?"
Freng, invisibly, backed off. He had picked on the wrong man. Well he knew that he only kept the power he had over the warriors by very careful manoeuvring.
"That is true, Vorsheck," he said more quietly, "but did you not see fit to beat him, or drown him for the insolence he showed in thwarting your shot?"
Vorsheck smiled thinly. "A snivelling whelp is not fit prey for me. I could send my ploughmen to do that. But why bother? I expected the bears to have his carcass, if the crows didn't get him first." He eyes Freng, lightly, just a little challengingly. "I expected the Kirkil to let him die as unfit."
Freng lifted his face to the roof, and paused dramatically. "I cannot divine all the thoughts of the Kirkil," he intoned, his voice sounding awed.
He let his gaze fall, not quite on Vorsheck. "I know only that we are all his servants. We lead these people in his name. And does it not insult him that any coward should live? And thwart his laws by giving aid to another such coward and weakling? He teaches that those unfit for Skagaray must die."
He had turned the argument back again. Now Vorsheck had to explain himself. Vorsheck parted his lips, in the smile that was not quite a smile.
"It is well that we have your guidance, Venerable Freng," he said politely.
"I am a warrior, not schooled in the ways of religion." His dagger was drawn. He turned the blade so that it caught the light and flickered. He, too, had learnt how to impress people. "I pledge you this. When the time is right, I will bring you Tarran's hide."
Freng nodded slowly. "That is well, Bear-Slayer. Let the time be soon, so that none may think the Kirkil or his servants suffer any challenge to their Laws."
"I don't understand why the Kirkil has let him live," Chavak Sea-Hunter said. He had been drinking heavily, and failed to realize the delicacy of the subject. "And how does a coward keep his spirit in his cringing body in the Kirkil's Domain? The beasts should have devoured him on the first night, and the crows taken what was left."
"Perhaps they scorned such vile meat," muttered Drosnor Wolf-Slayer, hoping to satisfy Chavak before Freng became further angered at having to answer awkward questions. As it was, Freng raged inwardly. Why indeed had the Kirkil not slain Tarran, he wished he knew.
"Why not drag him back alive and give him the Kirkil's Run?" Chavak raved on. He leered, showing jagged teeth. His arena of hunting was the sea, and he exulted at the thought of the fugitive being driven terrified into the realm of leopard seal and orca. There were roars of approval, and coarse laughter. Only Freng was displeased with the suggestion, although only Vorsheck noted the fact.
"No!" the Priest snapped. "He has soiled the Kirkil's Domain, and in the Kirkil's Domain he should die." And quickly, he said to himself. If Tarran had indeed some power so survive in the most dangerous part of Skagaray, if he was some challenge to the Kirkil, let him be killed as swiftly as possible. And the deadliest foe to set upon him was Vorsheck.
"It is the Law that the weak should not live," he intoned, "and the duty of the Kiril's Warriors to see that they don't. And the mightier the Warrior, the greater his duty."
He pronounced the last sentence with a twinge of apprehension at Vorsheck's reaction, because it was Vorsheck he was challenging. But it was Vorsheck, Chief Elder, deadliest Slayer of all Skagaray, he must set on Tarran.
And Vorsheck had every intention of killing Tarran. He had had plans of his own for Eldran's son, betrothed to the Standguard's daughter; and Tarran's disgrace had not changed his overall scheme, just made it a little more difficult.
There was a flicker of movement as Vorsheck's dagger moved. Freng's cruel heart was in his mouth for an eye-blink, but Vorsheck had merely whipped it from its sheath a second time and let it catch the light again. His voice was cold and even when he spoke.
"I tell you one more time," he said, looking at no-one in particular, "When the time is right I shall bring you the whelp Tarran's hide - and that of any who calls him friend."
AMBRAND HAS RETURNED FROM THE SEA
Vorsheck mounted his horse, taking care to hide his uncertainty with the animal. The groom who had led it to the door stood back, and Vorsheck dismissed her with a gesture. The Chief Elder only rode the horse on certain occasions. There were not many horses on Skagaray, and few of them were good saddle mounts. To own one was a mark of standing. Vorsheck had no love of horses, and hardly ever rode, but his plans called for the effect that riding one would have.
He was going to call on Shenoa, and Shanomie.
It was time Shenoa took a new husband, to be the Northern Standguard in place of Kilgriff, or better still married her daughter to such a one. The Elders, pressed by Freng, had agreed on this, and Vorsheck would see that it happened.
And he, Vorsheck, would be the man, he told himself. He urged his mount into a faster walk, The Slayer who acted as groom had exercised the animal to take some of its spirit so that it did not toss its master. Confident that he had the horse under control, Vorsheck let his mind turn to his ambitions.
He would have Shanomie. As Chief Elder, the deadliest Slayer on all Skagaray, he was a man no woman should decline. He smiled arrogantly as he went over the scheme again. Nothing could stop him. A good Skagaray woman who had taken the Instruction to heart would accept the best hunter and fighter who offered her marriage. If she was foolish enough to prefer a lesser man, the warrior could challenge combat and win the woman that way, by killing or frightening off his rival. That had been a Law of Skagaray since the Time of Testing, and Vorsheck, a fighter and a brute all his life, thought that was just as it should be.
So he would have Shanomie, and the farm - and the chair of Northern Standguard.
The Chief Elder had planned his visit with care. He would ride onto Shenoa's farm in the early afternoon; receive her respects and see that she agreed to his marriage with Shanomie; then spend the evening and the night at the Eldershall. And on his way to Shenoa's farm he would receive the polite or frightened salutations of all he passed. It was fitting for one who would soon rule all of Skagaray.
As Vorsheck made his progress round the island, to the north, Shenoa was also on horseback. She rode around the farm, supervising the work, stifling the anxiety that was always inside. She fixed her mind on all that needed to be done. Her horse walked steadily round the edge of the East Field, where the farmhands worked in the vegetable beds in a silent line. The wheat would have to be harvested soon, and then there would be threshing and storing of grain. The hay would have to be cut for winter fodder, and some of the livestock slaughtered and the meat salted to keep through the winter; and all the time the workers grew more and more restless and sullen. They were Wolf-Slayers, every one of them, men and women Kilgriff had hired as his Standguard's Band as well as his farm hands. They were hard and cruel, as he had been, and Shenoa hated the time spent with them. To keep their respect, to keep them at their work, she had to be like Kilgriff had been, cold and hard, and even rebuking and threatening just as a matter of course. Only as long as they remembered Kilgriff as their leader would they obey her. And they grew more and more resentful, wanting to hunt and wanting a Bear-Slayer to lead them. Soon they would have to go, with Iskol the head man leading them, Shenoa knew, or they would break into outright rebellion against her.
She might have led the hunt in Kilgriff's place, but the thought sickened her, and she knew she could never cover her hands in blood the way he had. Glancing again at the Slayers as she skirted the field, Shenoa remembered with revulsion the way Kilgriff led his Slayers in the hunt as he so often had. They would come back from the Wild Domain with the torn and bloodied carcasses of boar and wolf and take them to the Eldershall, from where Freng would take parts of them before the Kirkil in the Ceremony of Offering. Then the Slayers would return to the farm, those who had killed with hides to wear and paws to hang from their belts, or tusks to wear around their necks. Then there was the hunting banquet, with the hunters gorging themselves on meat and drinking until it turned them mad, recalling every cruel detail of the hunt and singing gory ballads of killing. And Iskol, she realized, would lead the banquet as hunt master. In place of Kilgriff, he would offer the toast and acclaim those who had made the kills.
And once he had led the Slayers in the hunt, he would be their leader, as Kilgriff had been - and Shenoa would no longer command their obedience.
She looked back over the field, saw Iskol eyeing her casually, and turned away, her head held high to cover her growing fear for those she loved.
The boy Tarran who Shanomie was to be given to, she thought bitterly; he had been outcast to die because he would not kill a crippled bear cub. And now she, widow of a Standguard, would be Put to the Proving. If she could not lead the Slayers in their lust for blood, she too would be lost. And she could face becoming an outcast, but there were others she had to care for.
The horse walked along the short grass beside the sea's edge and Shenoa turned to look at the blue, white-capped expanse. The Wide Sea that no-one had ever crossed and returned to Skagaray. One she had loved had taken to the sea, once. Ambrand. Would she too, she thought wildly? And those she cared for? More than once, over the summers, she had dreamed of escaping Skagaray, finding the place where the Outlanders had come from. She recalled them landing, appearing as if from nowhere, and speaking of a God who did not demand the death of weak children. She thought of Ambrand, leaving Skagaray, after escaping from the slavery the Elders had condemned him to, who had the courage to refuse to stone the Outlanders. She looked over the dark blue water again. Where did you get to, Ambrand, she thought frantically. Did you find the home of the Outlanders, or did the sea-birds pick your bones clean in the boat?
She urged the horse into a canter, following the shoreline back to the wall that ran from the house to the sea's edge.
Shanomie would be expected to take a husband, unless she were to run a farm on her own or become a Slayer. Her daughter would live long after Shenoa was no longer able to care for her; and Shanomie was strong, but the other they must care for.....she bit her lip.
Somehow they had to keep a home, and a life where others couldn't get too close to them. Could Shanomie take a husband to be the next Standguard, while her mother moved to a smaller house away from the hall and the Slayers' cottages, she thought.
"No! Shanomie, my first born! She must not have to endure marriage to a man like Kilgriff," Shenoa whispered aloud.
She reached the corner of the wall, and halted. Ahead of her was the wheat field, beyond that the West Field, and the Wild Domain. Shanomie had said she knew that Tarran lived out there somewhere. Could it be, Shenoa wondered. Could an Outcast live? She glanced up at the mountain, to where the Kirkil sat on its throne. Then she looked away from it, up into the clear sky.
Is there anything good under the sky, she whispered aloud. God of the Outlanders, are you there?
She turned the horse's head back towards the house, riding slowly along the stone wall, breathing deeply to keep herself calm.
She had nearly reached the house when she saw Vorsheck.
The Chief Elder had ridden straight past the guard at the front gate, rather than waiting to be announced, and his horse ambled lazily towards the house with the same arrogance as Vorsheck himself. He did not look at her, but stared frostily at the boundary with the Wild Domain. He reined in his horse, rested his hand on his dagger and scanned the wall which ran under the hill, curved up beneath the Eldershall, and in the other direction ran down to the sea.
Shenoa turned her horse to face him, and gripped her spear. She knew what was coming. Elder's business. The matter of who was to be Standguard.
She considered asking the Chief Elder why he had come onto her farm without being announced, but changed her mind. He would accuse her of guarding it poorly. Challenge Vorsheck and he would turn on you. And if the Wolf-Slayers had to choose between her and him, she knew what the outcome would be. They wanted a Bear-Slayer to lead them. No, she must use all the cunning she knew. So she greeted him formally. "My compliments, Elder Vorsheck."
"Your boundary with the Wild Domain is long, Shenoa-once-wed-Kilgriff," he returned bluntly. "We must never neglect to guard against the tearing animals of the Wild."
Shenoa gripped her reins and felt cold inside. "Kilgriff's warriors are here."
"They are mere Wolf-Slayers," Vorsheck growled. "The Standguard must be a Bear-Slayer, as the Laws of Skagaray demand." He paused. Shenoa held her head up, unyielding, and boiled with anger that this Slayer could have his way because of his power with weapons.
Vorsheck's voice softened to an insinuating hiss. "Your daughter is seventeen summers of age."
And would I ever let you have her, Shenoa thought furiously. One of the only two people I love, given to a devourer like you! Aloud, she said, "She is too young."
"She is seventeen summers," Vorsheck repeated louldy, "old enough to wed. And a Standguard must be master of this farm which stands on the line between the Settled Lands and the Wild."
Shenoa held his stare, and slowly took in a deep breath. "I am still the holder of the land. If another would be Standguard here, he must wed me." And spare Shanomie, at least for now, she thought desperately.
Vorsheck's eyes were cunning. Then I shall have you, he thought, and in time your daughter as well. He gave Shenoa a snarl, barely meant to be a smile, the tattoos on his face flickering as he did so. "Then we shall be married, Shenoa, and I shall be Standguard on both sides." He ran his gaze over the fields around him. "You shall be the most honoured woman of Skagaray. When I rule all these people as their king, such as men were in the legends, then you shall be queen."
Shenoa stared at him, her eyes like ice. "You cannot!" she whispered, forgetting the need for tact in her horror at the Slayer's plan. "One may not be Standguard on both sides of Skagaray. The Laws do not allow it. And we do not have kings..."
Vorsheck turned back to her, his eyes alive with evil. "Who shall stop me?"
He kicked his mount, and it cantered towards the house, where he dismounted and strode through the front door as if it were his own. Shenoa rode after him, dismounted and followed breathless with fear. It was not for herself. If Vorsheck had taken to her with his dagger, she could have died without begging. But there was another.
"Bring me ale," Vorsheck snapped. Shenoa hesitated on the threshold for a moment, willing him not to step further into the house.
She took a deep breath. "I shall join you, Elder Vorsheck, but grant me a moment to attend to certain things." She almost ran from the room. "Where are you?" she hissed frantically, reaching the kitchen.
"I'm all right," the child whispered. "He didn't see me." She was under the kitchen table. Shenoa stooped and clasped her thankfully.
"Where's Shanomie?" she asked after a heartbeat.
"She's gone to the West Field," the child replied. "She should be back soon."
"Of course," Shenoa said, gritting her teeth to steady herself. "The West Field. Where she should be."
Shanomie had taken the sheep out to pasture in the West Field that morning, as she nearly always did. But it wasn't only the sheep she stood guard for. If Tarran and Lelden ventured near the farm and were seen by a Slayer, she knew they would be hunted. As an Outcast, Tarran was also an outlaw. Any Skagar had the right to kill him if they could. The Slayer who had seen her the day Tarran had fought the wolf had suspected something, Shanomie knew. And to kill an outlaw would bring honour before the Elders. So Shanomie stood watch, for wolf or fox that might be tempted by the easy prey of sheep, or for any Slayer who might go quietly out to hunt in quest of human blood.
That morning she had risen early, and before breakfast fetched an old pair of sheep shears from the barn and sharpened them. She had made two shirts out of thick woollen cloth that would have been used for a work gown for herself. She took a number of bread cakes, and bundled them carefully up before opening the sheep fold and leading the animals out to graze.
It was still early, but the Slayers were all going over to the East Field for work. She watched carefully for half a candle, assuring herself that no-one was watching and that the sheep were settled.
Cautiously, as though scanning for danger to the sheep, she walked slowly towards the corner of the meadow, to the clump of bushes behind which was the boundary cairn.
Out of sight of the house and the fields, she stalked quietly round the cairn and into the Domain. There was no sign of Tarran or Lelden. She would have been surprised to find them there. Only twice since the day Tarran fought the wolf had she seen them. But they would come again, and she could leave the bundle where they would see it, and hope it was not too long for the bread-cakes to be edible.
Once, carefully hidden, she had seen then come stalking through the mist and set a fish net at the same place they had been before.
The second time, further out from the cairn, she had seen them picking berries from a pepperbright tree. She nearly broke cover and warned them that she might have been a Slayer lying in wait for them. But they looked almost past caring, and she feared to make them even more wretched than they were. Tarran was thinner, his face drawn and pallid. Lelden had a large sore on his arm, she could see, the sleeve of his ragged tunic rolled back to leave it uncovered. The boy had moved listlessly and wearily, and then tripped over a boulder and fallen hard. Barely ten armspans away, Shanomie had seen him fight back tears. Tarran ruffled his hair, trying to comfort him, then told him to sit and rest. Lelden pulled something from under his tunic. A single rough bread-cake, she could see, baked crudely over an open fire instead of a proper oven.
Lelden ate it and then crouched miserably on the ground, silent and pale.
After a time, Tarran pulled a similar bundle from a pouch on his belt - another bread-cake, she saw, small and poor looking; and he gave it to Lelden.
Shanomie closed her eyes briefly. The Skagaray Laws, she knew so well, said the weak were not fit to live. A true Skagary man or woman would have dragged Lelden roughly to his feet at best; stolen his bread cake and kicked him aside at worst. Shanomie had learned to seem hard when she had to, since the one person in the world who had shown her any care was her mother, and even that only in private. Now she saw Tarran, with too little himself, give to the thin, miserable child what he did have; just what Shenoa would have done for her child, Shanomie knew. And for that he was an outcast. She opened her eyes again, and angry tears ran down her face.
Her eyes were smarting at the memory, and the thought of her mother. If the Slayers or Elders ever knew how Shenoa was breaking the Laws, she would suffer, Shanomie knew. And how long could it be before someone discovered their secret?
The bundle, she remembered. She must leave it, and go back to the field in sight of the house. She must watch over her mother too, as far as she could.
She stalked nearly a hundred armspans along the vague path; found a place under a bush where the bundle was clearly visible from the direction of the headland but not from the way she had come; laid it down, and glanced round cautiously. She surveyed the dark forest, watching for movement, then turned to retrace her steps, and started, half-raising her spear when she saw Tarran.
He was standing back from the path, almost hidden from view by the bushes. He stepped carefully into view. In one hand he held the wooden pointed spear, in the other three fish. They stared at each other, silently.
He's changing, Shanomie realized. He's taller, not as thin, and he stands like a man. And his face, she saw, was not as haunted or fearful. His eyes were alert, thoughtful, unafraid - but they were not cruel or hard.
"There are a few things in the bundle," she said softly. "Some shears for your sheep and some bread."
Tarran looked straight into her eyes, as if reading her thoughts, and his eyes moved warily to her left, back towards the farm.
"It's not poisoned," Shanomie burst out, mistaking the look for one of mistrust. "Here, look." She pulled open the bundle, tore one of the bread-cakes out and ate a piece. "It's for you. Take it."
Tarran smiled slightly, as if reassuring her. "I know it's not poisoned.
I was afraid for you. You put yourself in danger coming here."
"I do what is right, Tarran," she replied, "just as you do. And I will not be cowed by the Slayers. Will you take this?"
Tarran smiled again. He looked at Shanomie with shining eyes. You, too, he thought, his heart full of joy. You too have slung down the filthy Ways.
He took a step towards her, changing his spear to his left hand in which he also held the fish, and held out the right one to her. Shanomie offered him her own in return, just a fleeting touch. She wanted to take him in her arms the way she did her mother, the way she would a husband if she ever had one she loved; but part of her could not forget her mother, back among the Slayers, and the danger which menaced them both, and she repeated, "Will you take this?"
"We'll take it," Tarran replied. "Thank you, Shanomie. The young ones will be glad of the bread."
"Young ONES?" Shanomie exclaimed, with a fresh sense of desperation. "Are there small children with you?"
"Cleona-begot-Reulla By Abrant Fox-Trapper is with us," Tarran said, giving Cleona her full title name. "And her sister Zealda, is two summers old."
Shanomie gasped. "Two summers old! How did they reach you, out there in the Wild Domain?"
"We found them in the Settled Lands," Tarran replied. "They'd been outcast, like us."
"You will always find more outcasts, Shanomie replied, her voice low with anger. “The Laws will always be making people outcast. Are you going to take them all in?" It hurt her to think of the Outcasts, hurt and angered her, but she could think of no comfort.
"We will never turn anyone away," Tarran said simply. "We know what is to be outcast, but we have each other. We are another people. We are not Skagars. We do not live by their Laws."
"Tarran," Shanomie burst out. "How do you think you can care for them all?" Part of her heart went out to him for what he did, but part of her said, take no more on yourself.
"We don't have any choice, Shanomie," Tarran replied, calmly. "We will not be like the Skagars and leave the hungry and lonely to starve and cry out."
Shanomie looked into his face, her heart bursting. This man was to have been my husband, she thought. He was chosen as a punishment for me. But he's the only man on all Skagaray who I could care for. Aloud, she said, "I'll give you any help I can, Tarran, but it won't be enough."
"Be careful they don't turn on you," Tarran said. "You know what their Laws say about helping the weak." He looked grim.
"They may turn on us anyway," Shanomie exclaimed, before she realized what she was saying.
Tarran looked at her, a question in his eyes.
For a heartbeat, Shanomie was on the verge of revealing the secret, but held back. She clenched her hand on the spear, jabbing it angrily up at the mountain, in the direction of the Eldershall. "You know my father was the Standguard. There will have to be another warrior appointed in his place. When a new Standguard lives on our farm, and decides to prove himself by hunting, and drives his Slayers to prove themselves by deeds of blood, it won't be safe to come near here."
"Don't worry," he replied. For an eyeblink Tarran was going to tell Shanomie about Ambrand, about the one who had come back after leaving Skagaray and travelling over the Wide Sea; and who had rejected the Laws of Skagaray himself, with the authority of one who had shown more courage than any Skagar living; but he held back. He did not see how she could believe it. "We don't have to come to this place. We'll be safe, Shanomie."
"Brave words!" she replied bitterly.
"Truth," he flung back. "Shanomie. There are things you do not understand. I'm not boasting idly. We will live. They will not make us die like stray dogs."
"I hope you're right," Shanomie replied harshly, and the decision to tell all came over her in a rush. "Because I know another who might have to join you." She glanced fearfully back towards the farm. "I might need your help, Tarran the Outcast, more than you need mine. When the new Standguard is chosen, he must wed either my mother, or me. And..."
"NO!" Tarran burst out. The suggestion stung him. He felt wildly, blazingly jealous. "You can't be given to one of them!" He looked into her eyes and took a step towards her. "I was your betrothed. I've turned against Skagaray, and so have you. We can both live without these people."
"Tarran!" Shanomie cried out. "How many people can run away into the Wild and live as you do. Can you act as if there no Elders and Slayers?" "Shanomie," Tarran said, his voice almost a whisper, "does you mother Shenoa hate the Skagaray Laws as much as I do?" He looked right into her heart. "And do you?" She looked back, and hid nothing.
"Yes," she replied. Once again she was on the verge of telling him more, telling him her closest secret.
But Tarran continued. "Then tell her Ambrand has returned. Ambrand, who left Skagaray twenty summers ago. He has come to fight a battle."
He reached out and touched her hand, and slowly, uncertainly, afraid she would reject him, took it in his own. It was a long, silent moment as if the rest of the world had stopped around them.
She did not reject him. She clasped his hand and took a step towards him.
For twenty heartbeats they touched. Shanomie rested her head on his chest and Tarran kissed her gently on the hair. She felt the warmth of him, and the strength in his hand and arm which, like her mother's, was reassuring instead of threatening. And he was a man. For the first time in her life Shanomie wanted the touch of a man.
She raised her head and looked at him. "I must go back to her," she whispered. "I will give her your message. And I will always help when you need it, however I can."
"I'll walk with you to the boundary cairn," Tarran said, "just in case."
"No," Shanomie replied, softly but firmly. "If there are any Slayers in sight, they won't harm me but they will turn on you."
He looked at her, and back towards the farm, frowning. She smiled suddenly. "You want to make sure I'm safe and I want to make sure you are. And we can't agree on what's best." She laughed softly, and after a heartbeat he laughed with her.
"Anything good under the sky," he whispered, "be with you."
"And with you," she returned softly. Then he took up the bundle, the fish, and turned to go. "I'll be here tomorrow, fishing, if you need to hear more. Tell her, Shanomie." And he turned and loped away through the trees.
Shanomie walked stealthily back to the boundary cairn, scanned the surroundings to see that no danger lurked near, and ran back towards the house. Her mind raced. A new Standguard would be chosen to replace Kilgriff. She knew that without being reminded, she had been taught the Laws. And the secret that she and Shenoa had kept from Kilgriff, so arrogant he never imagined it, would be impossible to keep from a younger man, alert and suspicious in his new surroundings.
As she neared her house, her mother ran out through the back door.
Shenoa's face was pale and tight with anxiety. "Shanomie," she gasped, "Vorsheck has been here."
"Vorsheck!" Shanomie gasped. Se recalled the man well, from her father's banquets. Vorsheck, with the tattoos of bears' claws on his face. Vorsheck, the Slayer, cruel as a hunting dog.
Shenoa set her mouth hard. "He is going to make himself Standguard here, and claim me as his wife." She took a deep breath, and before Shanomie could say anything of her horror at the news, continued: "Come inside. We must plan something." They stepped into the kitchen. Shenoa stooped and called gently to the child to come out from under the table. "She had a chance to hide, just before Vorsheck barged into the house." She scooped up and held the child in her arms, fiercely protective.
Velna, her second child, eight summers old. Velna, whose father Kilgriff had ordered she be taken to the edge of the Wild and left there. But they had not. Shenoa and Shanomie had hidden her and cared for her and Kilgriff, arrogant and often drunk, who spent more time at the Eldershall than in his own kitchen, had never realized. But now, with the coming of Vorsheck, Velna would be discovered. Shanomie had wondered desperately if she could be cared for by Tarran.
Shenoa stood like a she-wolf cornered. "They will not take my child and kill her," she vowed. "Shanomie. If there is no other way, I'm going to leave Skagaray in a boat. I knew a man, one I cared for, who did it before. Perhaps he died, but I will not live to see Velna left to die or Put to the Proving." She squeezed Shanomie's hand, then hugged her older daughter to her. "I love you," she said, her voice low and intense. "What will you do, Shanomie, my first-born? Can you live as wife to Vorsheck, or leave this place as unfit to live in and brave the sea?" Her tone was tender, but proud and brave as well.
Shanomie rested her head on her mother's shoulder, struggling to take a grip on the speed of events. In the midst of her confusion, Tarran's message returned to her when Shenoa talked of leaving Skagaray for the sea.
"Mother," she said softly, "I've seen Tarran. He’s living in the Wild. He’s an outcast, but he lives."
Shenoa looked at her, not understanding.
He gave me a message," Shanomie said, slowly. "He told me to tell you. Ambrand has returned from the sea."
For five heartbeats Shenoa was absolutely frozen. Then she lifted Shanomie's face to hers and stared into her daughter's face in amazement. "Ambrand," she whispered. "He said Ambrand has returned?"
Shanomie nodded her head, once. "Tarran said he had come to fight a battle."