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The Outskirter's Quest

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Bel altered her path to dodge around yet another patch of ghost grass and adjusted her pack more comfortably on her shoulders. The ghost grass was spotted everywhere along the tribe's current path, a remnant of the tribes destroyed and cast over the Outskirts by the tornados and storms caused by the wizard's heat spell.

Ahead Chess waved to attract her attention. The old mertutial was standing still, taking an opportunity to rest by letting Bel walk to catch up.

"One of the scouts spotted signs of another tribe ahead," Chess reported, falling into step as Bel came alongside her. "They seem to be moving south and west. Garvin should have made contact by now. We'll be setting camp two miles ahead."

Bel nodded. The tribe had established a standard procedure for contacting other tribes. This was the fourth tribe they had encountered since Rowan returned to the Inner Lands nine months ago. All three tribes they had already spoken to had been near the spell and had lost people and herds to the wizards. They each readily accepted Bel's leadership and supplied a tribe member to learn Bel's poem. One particularly fervent seyoh, who had lost more than half his tribe to the weather, had to be talked out of gathering the tribes and trying to storm the closest wizard's fortress.

"Kammeryn wants Jaffry to teach his poem as well."

Bel raised her eyebrows, pausing to consider the idea. Jaffry's taciturn nature concealed an expressive poet. The poem that he had spoken to the tribe two nights ago told the story of Fletcher, the wizards' minion who had come to the tribe claiming to be from the Inner Lands, killed Jaffry's sister Mai while on walkabout, and then saved the tribe from the heat before being killed in vengeance by Jan, Jaffry's mother. It was intended as a warning to the other tribes, a way to keep them on guard against the other wizards Fletcher had told them were in the Outskirts.

"That's a good idea," she decided.

They ambled along in silence for a while, simply enjoying the cloudless sky and the cool breeze that gave the redgrass the appearance of a red and gold ocean in the light of the slanting sun.

"You'll be leaving us if they'll take you," Chess stated abruptly.

"I will." Bel nodded. "Jaffry knows my poem, and now he has his own; he doesn't need me to contact other tribes anymore. We need more information. Where is Slado? How can we fight him? I can't discover that here." She couldn't discover that at all, but Rowan could, maybe already had. Before her thought could run away down that path, Bel shoved all thoughts of Rowan from her mind, focusing instead on the tribe and veldt around her.

Ahead, the signal relay showed successful contact. The other tribe would make camp ten miles from Kammeryn's planned site and await Bel's visit in the morning.

* * *

Bel and Jaffry set out half an hour after dawn. They jogged in silence, the dew-wet redgrass quickly soaking through their pants. Bel let the rhythm of their jog lull her, vivid dreams of Rowan from the night before slowly fading to a haze. By the time they reached the outer circle half an hour later, the sun was starting to burn off the dew and Bel's mind was clear.

"They have two warriors waiting for you half a mile at two," Kree reported, standing up from her crouched position in the redgrass ahead of them. "Good luck."

And they were past, outside the protection of the tribe into the open veldt.

* * *

The camp was set up like any other, with four-tent blocks making up aisles around the central cooking area. Unusually for a day this warm, all the walls were down on the seyoh's tent off the central square. Bel gave the warrior in front of the tent a cheerful smile as she handed over her sword, belying the unease she always felt at giving it up. At her side, Jaffry showed less restraint, twitching slightly in unease as he handed over his weapon. One of the warriors escorting them had his head in the tent flap and was speaking quietly with someone inside. Finishing his conversation, he withdrew and held open the flap, indicating Bel should enter.

The inside of the tent was already stuffy with the heat of the day, though the walls blocked out most of the light, creating a stifling gloom. Seated around the tent were two mertutials and two warriors. Bel stepped into the tent and to the left to allow Jaffry to enter behind her. The flap fell closed as soon as Jaffry had stepped through, throwing the tent further into darkness. The middle-aged man sitting directly across from the tent entrance, presumably the seyoh, gestured them forward to seats on a blue rug to his left. He was tall even sitting, and stoutly built. The light from the tent flap had fallen briefly on his lap, showing two fingers missing from the hand resting on his right knee.

"I am Semuel, seyoh of this tribe." His voice was low and rough, and slightly accented. Bel cocked her head. Individual tribal accents were not that unusual given how infrequently tribes met peacefully, but his was different from the warriors she had heard speak. And it was quite rare for someone not born to that tribe to become seyoh. But mapping linguistic patterns was a project for a steerswoman, and the origins of the seyoh were not of particular importance at the moment. He did not introduce the other people in the tent. Bel did not expect him to. Sitting up straighter, Bel began her story.

"I am Bel, Margasdotter, Chanly. I came to speak with you to warn you of the wizards, and of what they are doing to the Outskirts."

Everyone listened intently as Bel described how Rowan had found the parts of the Guidestar, how the wizards had come after her before she had even known what it was she was investigating. As she was describing how Rowan deduced that the jewels were part of a fallen Guidestar, Semuel leaned forward in interest. Bel nearly fell silent, losing her train of thought momentarily, and had to make a hasty recovery. Outlined under Semuel's shirt when he leaned forward was a cross. Suddenly all the little bits clicked into place. His accent, now that she thought about it, sounded a lot like a milder version of Fletcher's. There was a complete lack of anything red—clothing, rugs, even jewelry—in the camp. Red and blue were the most easily made Outskirt dyes and therefore usually abundant, but here there was only blue.

Using a wide gesture outlining the arc of the Guidestar falling as camouflage, Bel worked her hand around to where she had hidden a small Inner Lands dagger. No one, not even Rowan, knew she had it. It had been given to her by Artos in Wulfshaven when she had marveled over it, ostensibly to help her protect Rowan. It was small and delicate enough that it was easily concealed, and much smaller than anything the Outskirters could make.

Gripping the knife handle, she used another expansive wave of her arm to propel her toward Semuel. She brought the knife to his neck and jerked the cross from under his shirt with her free hand. Jaffry jumped up as she moved hand grasping to where his sword should have been. The two warriors drew their swords, one pointing towards Bel, the other at Jaffry.

"But you already know all about that, don't you, wizard," Bel growled. "Blue wizard if I'm not mistaken."

Semeul sat still, not struggling and not denying anything, but Bel could feel the tension of his body where it pressed against hers. She ignored the sword pointed at her throat. She could kill Semuel before any of his warriors could kill her.

"Give me one good reason I shouldn't kill you right now." Semuel stayed silent. He didn't need to say anything. If Bel couldn't convince his tribe of his deceit, her life was already forfeit. Looking up, she made eye contact with the other mertutial and each of the warriors. "How about you guys let me finish my story, and then you tell me where he came from." She indicated Semuel with a jerk of her chin.

"How about you let our seyoh go and then we kill you," one of the warriors countered.

Bel shook her head. "No can do. If I die, he dies with me. Did your tribe experience severe weather about a year ago? Rendezvous weather?" This time she looked at the mertutial. The woman nodded.

"There were slugsnakes in the sky. One destroyed most of the 9-side herd and killed the warriors guarding them."

Bel nodded. Fletcher had called them tornadoes.

"That was this wizard called Slado that I told you about. He sent down an invisible heat from the sky that caused the weather. A wizard spy in our tribe told us about it when we caught him. He came to the tribe several years before. He wore a cross and went out to pray alone to his christer god every morning. And he saw things, could spot signs of water or other tribes, long before anyone else, even though his skill was not that great most of the time."

Bel saw recognition in the eyes of the warrior facing her. Semuel had displayed at least some of these characteristics. She went on.

"He told us that there were other wizard spies placed among the tribes for the past fifteen years to spy on us and to report back to the other wizards. If I let this wizards' minion live, then he will be free to report back everything that I have told you. The tribes will be in even greater danger than before, and a danger that we cannot fight."

The warriors hadn't moved, but Bel saw the doubt in their eyes. They were at least considering what she had said. The mertutial woman stepped to face Bel and Semuel.

"Well, Semuel, what do you have to say for yourself? She describes you as a young warrior very well, and you always were more arrogant than your skills accounted for." She pierced him with a hard stare, but he stayed silent. The old mertutial looked up at Bel. "He came to us thirteen years ago, not a child but acting like he had heard about the world from a poem and never seen it for himself. He kept apart from most of the other warriors, seemed to think he was better than the rest of us. He was a decent warrior, generally unremarkable in most things. But he was like you said, uncanny at finding what we most needed, always the first to spot a creek when we were desperately short of water or to see another tribe coming in to attack."

She looked around at all the swords and heaved a dramatic sigh. "I suppose we should gather the council and decide what to do with all three of them." She went to the flap, which had surprisingly stayed closed through the whole ordeal, and spoke to someone outside. Pulling her head back in, she addressed the group. "The council will convene in half an hour, I suggest you make yourselves comfortable."

* * *

Semuel was cast just after noon, and the mertutial from the tent whose name was Erit replaced him as the new seyoh. Bel and Jaffry were each allowed to speak their poems to the gathered tribe before returning to Kammeryn's tribe that afternoon. Erit's tribe would move south in the morning, but Erit had declared Bel too controversial to travel with them. She had, however, volunteered to take a message south to pass along the tribes to Alemeth, where it would be taken by Inner Lands ship to Southport.

That evening, shortly before sunset, Bel gathered her supplies and sat down next to the fire. Carefully she unwrapped the ink stone and pen Rowan had left with her. Taking a shallow bowl she had commandeered from Chess, she added a small amount of water and mixed her ink. Looking up, Bel found several tribe members crowded around in curiosity, as if they had not seen Rowan perform this procedure nearly every evening for the better part of a year. With a flourish for her growing audience, Bel unrolled the goat hide she had saved for this occasion and weighted each of the four corners with small rocks. Dipping her pen, Bel began to painstakingly write out her message for Rowan.