They lost the Baien grey on a world of yellow sand and red-black shale, where the sun was the color of new copper against a cloudless white sky.
The worst part of it was the banality of the accident. Vanye was riding Siptah, following a ridgeline-path that he and the grey stud had traveled half a hundred times before. Morgaine, on the thick-witted gelding that was the youngest of their small herd, had descended the same cut not two breaths before. Vanye let the reins hang loose, trusting Siptah to pick his way down the slope.
Later, Vanye re-played the fall over and over in his mind, questioning his reactions, his instincts, the wisdom of taking the loose-stoned path in the first place. None of it changed events - the warhorse, survivor of half a thousand skirmishes and a hundred true battles, big-hearted Siptah who had carried Vanye and Morgaine both from more dangers than he cared to remember, last of the legendary Baien bloodstock, of a world long gone to dust - the grey put down his left fore wrong, and it slipped from under him on the steep slope.
Vanye, who had sat a saddle before he could walk, did his best with knees and hands and voice to steady the horse, but gravity and momentum were against them both, and he scarcely managed to part the saddle before Siptah went down, tumbling over and over down the rocky hillside.
His rider did little better, with all of his concern on the horse and not enough on his own welfare. When he finally stopped rolling, Vanye scrambled up, his heart in his throat. He knew the foreleg was broken before he found his own feet; the snap of the bone shattering had been felt as much as heard. When he saw Siptah standing at the base of the slide, the dangling leg was confirmation, not surprise. Vanye tried to go to him, and found his own legs would not support him.
Morgaine had already turned back - warned by the sound of the fall or by some outcry either Vanye or Siptah had made. She pulled her mount to a halt beside Siptah, sliding down even before the horse had stopped moving. Vanye pushed himself back to his feet and made his way down the slope. Something was wrong with his left arm, and there would be other bruises, but like Morgaine, he had eyes only for the grey.
"Is thee hurt?" She was not looking at him, only clutched Siptah's reins and headstall. But her words were for Vanye and not the horse. "Is thee hurt?" she said again, an edge of anguish in her voice. Abruptly she slipped from Andur-Kursh into her own language, a rippling run of syllables that he could not follow. Siptah, eyes rolling, understood it no better, Vanye reckoned, but both of them were responding to the despairing tone.
Vanye swallowed, put a hand - barely shaking, on the grey's shoulder. The horse tried to stand on the injured leg again, snorted and jerked it up again. He was not resting square on his hindquarters, either, but that could have been the footing.
"Saa, saa. Oh, Heaven. Vanye, check him. Saaa, saaa."
He did as she bade, beginning with the suspect hind. Siptah would only lift the foot for a moment, standing wavering on one hind and one fore, but it was enough for Vanye to feel the spongy give to the great tendon at the back of the leg. The other hind leg seemed sound. When Vanye touched the right knee, Siptah flinched, leaned back as though to rear and then settled again.
The left foreleg was broken between the knee and ankle. Jagged shards broke the skin in two places.
His face must have said it all. Morgaine's voice was tight when she said. "The Gate - we could -"
He frowned, then caught her meaning. The Gate could heal these wounds, rework the fabric of the horse's body to the pattern stored within the great machinery. But they were at the far side of the great valley from the Gate.
It might be possible, if they had a travois, to drag the grey like a hunt prize, down the long path from the hills to the Road and then another half day to the Gate itself. He closed his eyes, picturing the steep approach to the Gate, and the narrow neck before the portal.
It cannot be done. He opened his eyes. "We need another horse. Another two." A pole, it would take several poles, the moldering canvas he had collected at their encampment, lashings. They had no cart harness, perhaps he could rig -
"It cannot be done." She was looking at Siptah, still, one hand clenched on his bridle, the other brushing his silver forelock, over and over again. The grey was drenched in sweat already, shivering in pain as the foreleg dropped to touch the ground, then jerked up again. The right fore was swelling like a leech.
Morgaine's hand never stopped its steady pattern. "He would not lie in the travois, not all down that way. And he would struggle."
"I could hold him." If they could get the warhorse to go down, he might. Rest all his weight on Siptah's head, repeat over and over the command lie down. If Siptah would heed him, against the pain and the horse instinct to stand.
"He would kill thee, struggling. And I have not the strength."
"Liyo -" he began, in protest. Then he stopped, considered her face.
Morgaine had put on the mask of a liege lord, and the voice. Her gaze was still locked on Siptah. She would not look at Vanye.
She wanted him to be ilin, to speak as the oath-sworn sword that he was. To speak these things, to be the voice of reason. So that she could not say, later, we did not consider this, nor that, fill her memory with regret.
I do not look back.
The silence stretched on, broken only by Siptah's rapid breathing, the jingle of his harness when he threw his head and staggered.
"I will do it." When she would shake her head, and reach for her belt, he stayed her hand. "Liyo, no. It is my place." Hers to decide, his to strike. Her fingers paused in their stroking of the pale forelock, then went on, as she nodded sharply, once.
She held Siptah's head while he stripped the saddle away, the straps long familiar and thank Heaven for that, because his hands were still shaking. He clenched his fingers around the pommel and forced a deep breath, and then another, before setting the saddle in the dust.
"Here." Morgaine held out her hand to him. In it was a small black rod - a weapon more dangerous than his sword. He took it, turned it over in his fist while she unbuckled the headstall. Siptah shook his head, thrust his nose at Morgaine's chest.
"Saa, saa, saaa," she said, smoothing her hands over his muzzle. Vanye stepped close beside her, and when she let her hands drop away, raised his arm and set the rod against the broad forehead and pressed the appropriate knob.
Siptah dropped like a stone. They both stepped back at the sudden collapse, and the brown colt startled, whinnying in surprise. Vanye hesitated, but Morgaine turned and walked away, collecting the colt's reins and speaking to him in a normal voice.
The rod had made a mark like a burn, twice as wide as Vanye's thumb. There was nothing else. He knelt by the body and cut away part of the mane, a thick handful, to tuck into his belt pouch. Rising, he staggered and nearly went down, catching himself on one outstretched arm. The motion made his elbow burn sharply, and he bent over for a moment, teeth clenched against the pain.
"Vanye, is thee hurt?" Morgaine's voice, sharp and angry.
He shook his head, an automatic response, then modified it as the pain in his arm kept on. "Perhaps, a little. My arm..."
Then all her attention was on him, bending his arm this way and that, until she discovered the combination that made bone grate on bone and his vision go white.
"It needs binding." She drew him away from the corpse, and pushed him down to sit against the saddle. He did, equal parts embarrassed and grateful, as his liege lord sorted through his saddlebags and muttered under her breath. "Where is thy kit?" she asked, sitting back on her heels and scowling at him.
As well she might - there were things that hard experience had taught them never to be without, even for a morning's training ride. Vanye craned his neck - the satchel that held their bandages and small store of medicines was not bound to its accustomed place behind his saddle. He had brought it out that morning, he thought.
The fall had shaken his thoughts. He frowned, shifted to look up slope. There was a wide swath of darker ground, beginning far higher than he had thought. A smaller mark showed where Vanye had met the hillside, and begun his separate descent.
"Perhaps, during the fall..."
Morgaine's mouth pinched. "Stay. I will look."
And that was good, because she was very far out of earshot when, nearly at the slide mark, she stumbled over a rock, and went to one knee, and so could not hear Vanye's groan when he abruptly remembered the sickening lurch as Siptah had gone over, knowing the fall was coming, but unable to stop it.
Morgaine was not - and he had no pride in this, it was only a matter of facts - Morgaine was not the horseman he was. No matter that she was long accustomed to Siptah, and no mean rider herself.
Had she been atop Siptah, she would have been under the grey when he rolled.
Vanye closed his eyes and bent his face against his sleeve. He stayed like that until the crunch of boots on gravel told him Morgaine had returned to the level ground.
If she took note of his face, she put it to the pain from his arm, which had begun to truly ache.
"Hold it against thy chest, yes, so." The binding was more painful than the arm, he decided, but when she helped him to his feet, he found it rested easier, without swinging.
She looked at him with a critical eye, and he straightened, trying not to favor that side. From the quirk of her brow, she was not deceived.
What she said, though, was: "Enough. It may be well enough, when thee has rested. Let us go."
"We could raise a cairn." It was as would be done for a comrade, in his homeland. Morgaine looked around at the valley, at the thousands of loose stones, and shook her head.
"No. Thee is injured, and we have only the one horse."
He started to protest - she could ride back, fetch another mount, and he could collect stones one handed, in the interim - but noted how she looked left and right and down at her boots, but never behind her where the body of the grey lay. So he only nodded, and helped her lash Siptah's saddle to her own.
It was a long walk back to the cliffhouse. Twice, along the way, she called a halt, and made him sit, while she peered at his eyes and ran her fingers over his scalp.
"I am well," he protested the second time, mortified at the attention.
"Sit still," she snapped. "Thee cannot see the back of thy own head, let me look." He wanted to protest that he had guarded his head all the way down the slope, that a headache was the least of his worries. But that would mean admitting to the growing throb in his thigh, and the way his elbow still ached, and besides, he thought perhaps she had seen them fall, and if it comforted her to poke at his skull, well, he had done worse for her.
She made him drink, after, and shared her canteen as well. The air was cool, winter had truly passed and the spring rains only weeks away. But the winters on this world were dry, drier than the long summers, and Vanye swallowed the water without protest.
Then it was back on their feet, him walking and her leading the mouse-brown gelding, who knew well that they were nearing the corral, and was growing increasingly difficult to handle. When a pair of runner-birds burst out of the ground nearly under their feet, the horse started, half-reared, and tried to bolt for home.
Morgaine pulled him to a halt with difficulty, at the cost of a rein-burned hand, and cursed the fool roundly in qhal, Kurshin, and her own nameless, lost tongue.
Vanye, caught between laughing and trying to excuse the young horse - it is only because he is alone, and wishes company - swallowed it all down and kept his eyes on his boots as he walked.
Then they were over the crest of the last hill, and the pale stone worked by ancient hands came into view.
Long ago, in lost Andur-Kursh, Vanye had spent his boyhood in Ra-morij, the fortress that looked over the lands claimed by the Nhi clan. That had been a stout keep of stone and beam, that had never fallen in siege and had sheltered nearly a dozen generations, one after the other, within its walls. For all that he had spent his time in the horse-pens, at arms-practice, the walls of Ra-morij had been home.
He had slept in strange halls, in white tents, sheltered in caves and huddled under leaking boughs, in the years since, and had spent more nights out-of-doors than he cared to think on. Even before his oath bound his fate to Morgaine's, Vanye had been a wanderer. The crumbling series of rooms that lay before them was the closest he had come to home in the years since his exile from Andur.
When they reached the three-way split in the path - one track leading up, another along the base of the cliff, to the pole-and-stone corral that kept their seven - now six - horses, and another curving down to the spring, Morgaine pushed him at the third trail.
"Go. Wash. I will see to the horses."
It was a mark of how exhausted he was that he obeyed her without hesitation. That, and climbing another hundred feet to their living quarters was beyond him at the moment.
The bathing pool was only calf-deep, with the rains still to come. Upstream, the water flowed down the bare rock in half-a-hundred seeps, gathering briefly in the basin where they collected their water for drinking and cooking, before creeping along to the sand bottomed bathing pool. At the far side, the water spilled over the side to drain away toward the corral and the grassland beyond.
By early summer the trickle would be a steady stream, and the grass in the canyon would be thick and lush. Late summer would find the water faded back, until even the corral pool was dry and they would have to bring the horses to drink at the bathing pool morning and dusk. But at the worst, the dry lasted only a month, before the fall rain would come and hammer the world with hail and thunder. In nearly ten years, the water had never failed them.
Vanye stripped his clothes away, shivering in the cool shade of the wall, and struggled one handed with the binding Morgaine had made. Released, the arm throbbed worse than before. The skin on both his thigh and arm was darkening already into a series of bruises that promised to be truly spectacular.
The water was as cold as the shaded stones, and Vanye washed quickly as he could, one handed and without soap. He left the arm unbound, and his shirt unfastened, and carried his boots and belt in his left hand.
He went along the corral trail only so far as the lean-to, where he found Siptah's saddle hung in its accustomed place. Vanye laid a finger in the fresh gouges in the leather, that the slide down the hill had carved in the cantle, and turned away again.
The trail up to the rooms was not steep, but he found himself going slowly, taking note of things he had not made particular notice of in months.
The bundles of reeds, from last fall, cut and set to dry. He had meant to re-stuff their mattress for a month now, there was a thin spot that bothered his back.
The oldest section of the walls, that was still stainless and unmarred, while each succeeding expansion showed more and more marks of age and erosion, until the last - hardened brick, that matched the fire pit in their main room - had gaps that Vanye could put a fist into.
Five pots of herbs, made from containers left behind when the building's former inhabitants had departed. Vanye had filled three of them in a fit of enthusiasm the first year, and then abandoned them when the slope below the bathing pool proved better for transplanting the wild onions and mint that were all the savory they had found in this world. Morgaine had added a fourth this last year, but it stood empty, save for a single weed that still struggled on. The fifth was only half-filled with earth.
The worn steps transitioned, between one pace and the next, to the enduring material of the oldest sections. Vanye climbed the last two steps with a sign. Please Heaven, Morgaine had brought his saddlebags up the walk.
He stopped in the doorway to find her standing over his gear, the fistful of mane in one hand, and her face streaked with tears.
"Amar," he said, and dropped his boots beside the door. When he would have come to her, and taken her into his arm, she shook her head and turned her face away.
"It - it is nothing." She wiped the back of her hand across her eyes. The words cut deep - deeper, he thought, than she could have ever intended.
Siptah had been with her for far longer than Vanye. He had always thought she loved the horse more than she did him.
After a moment, she waved a hand at the hearth. "The fire is rebuilt, but there is only the soup from yesterday. I could go back to the storehouse -"
They had meant to find game that morning as well. He had forgotten.
The provisions in the storehouse, like the buildings they lived in, had been sealed unknown years before. The food sustained, but the only bread that remained was unleavened and beyond tasteless. And the thought of the dried greens made his stomach turn. "It will be enough. My head aches, I do not think I will eat much."
She accepted this, only then noticing that he stood on the floor with his bare feet. So he must go and sit at the hearth side, and let her rebind the arm, and bring a cover for his legs. When the soup boiled again, she brought him a bowl, and a horn spoon, before dishing out her own. He shifted, uneasy at the turn-about, but he could not have served her as easily, not with one hand, nor risen at will. And again, if it pleased his liege-lord to deny her own sorrow, or amused her to play the hearth-wife, well.
He had done worse for her than to humor her in this.
He must have dozed then, while she sat quietly and the fire burnt itself to ashes. When he opened his eyes, it seemed as though he were still dreaming. The woman before him might have been made of marble, so hard was her face. The fire lay a flicker of rose over her hair and skin, and when she lifted her face to look at him, it touched her eyes and lit fires there, dark and burning.
It was not until she spoke his name that the dream fled, and Vanye woke, found Morgaine bending over him, her hand firm on his good shoulder.
"I am awake," he said, and it was true enough. He blinked, shifted on his mat, groaning when battered limbs protested. Morgaine sniffed and went back to her seat.
There were papers spread before her, plans and diagrams, some of which he recognized, others that were strange to him. Gate-knowledge.
Gate-magic, his mind whispered, but he had put aside such superstitions a long time since. It was a part of her, the side that left him most uneasy, and which still made his fingers twitch as though to cross himself, or make the sign against evil. Gate-knowledge was qhalur-magic, evil and vile, or so he had be raised to believe.
Morgaine dealt with the Gate-lore as though it were no more than the records kept by a clan-lord's scribe, mundane marks that indicated so many cattle bought, these many fields sown, names of those who were born and who had died. Vanye had learned what she would have him know, the barest necessities to set a Gate to die and yet leave sufficient time for a rider to escape before the Gate closed for forever. What he must know, and no more. He had no curiosity of his own to match Morgaine's patient search through the old archive. That search had been more scattered of late, and Morgaine more inclined to join him in handling the horses than stay indoors and read old lines of runes. He could not, in fact, recall the last day he had seen the Gate papers.
Now, she turned over the topmost page and bent over the next, peering at it in the firelight.
Vanye let his breath out, then gripped the rim of the hearth ledge and carefully came to his feet. "I am for bed, I think," he said. She nodded, set aside another page.
When he did not leave, she looked back up at him. "Rest. I will sit a little while, still." Her smile made it something other than a dismissal. Emboldened, he dared to step closer, brushing the papers with his toe as he carefully dropped to one knee beside her. Her mouth opened under his, and he cupped her neck, pulled her closer to him. She responded with a comforting enthusiasm, until her fingers tightened on his arm, and he released her with a gasp.
She sat back, lips bent into a smile. "Thee is injured. Go, rest. I will not be long." And having been instructed twice, he went.
He was on the edge of dreaming when she slid beneath the covers next to him, a kiss on his neck and a quiet murmur. He tried to turn to her, but she shoved back at him with hand and knee, and he relented. She curled against him, bare thigh behind his, and her breasts soft against his shoulder blades. When she slipped her hand over his side, he captured it and held it against his chest, before dropping back to sleep again, with her breath warm on his neck.
He woke to find the blankets empty. His hand in the cool hollow where Morgaine's body had rested, his gaze went next to the hook where Changeling hung. The dragon that was the sword's hilt looked down on him, red eyes barely visible. When he turned his head, he could see the moonlight on pale hair, half-hidden by the lintel. He settled back into the bed, lying so he could watch her where she sat, staring out at the the valley.
He must have slept, for when he woke again, it was with her head on his shoulder and her arm over his ribs. Vanye ran his hand down her back, feeling the knobs of her spine, the curve between her ribs and hip. She murmured in her sleep and shifted closer to him, breathing out a handful of words before falling silent again.
The words were in her other language, the one she had spoken before she had come to Andur-Kursh, before she had lost the last of her companions, gained a Baien warhorse, and Claimed an outlawed kin-slayer as her ilin. He had never learned that tongue, although he knew the sense of a handful of phrases. They were obscene, he conjured, and his accent must be something remarkable, for the few times he had tried to repeat the words back to her, Morgaine had laughed, short and true.
Morgaine herself had spoken Kurshin with an accent a hundred years older than Vanye, for it was the nature of the Gates to bend time as well as place. He had marveled at that, once upon a time, years past, and wondered that she would not leave aside the old phrasings, and simply speak Kurshin as he did.
That had been years ago. Now he understood why she clung to her old language, to the old accent in his native tongue. I do not look back, she had told him. If thee is to accompany me, thee must understand this..
They rode from Gate to Gate, from world to world, from century to century, and everything was dust behind them. It made the few possessions they carried twice as precious. Even such mundane things as a whet-stone gained significance, if the riverbed that yielded it lay five worlds behind them.
Vanye grieved for the Baien grey as a horseman must - for the speed of his shadow over the earth, for the prick of his ears against the sky, for the foals he might have yet sired. Morgaine's sorrow was at once something different and more profound.
She had owned very little when he met her, and had been Claimed by her, both of them bound by the duties that Chya clan had set upon her when they had granted the stranger lord-rights. The sword Changeling, a set of mail fit for a clan-chief, the look of a qhal and the memories of untold years. Knowledge of the Gates, and a doom to destroy them. And a Baien warhorse, hot-blooded and battle-wise.
He could not remember how many worlds it had been, since. Above a hundred, he reckoned. Nor could he count the days. Seasons shifted from one world to the next, and they had ridden out of a snow storm in the last world into the baking summer of this one. They lived their lives in snatches of hours and days between Gates, and even the days varied, growing shorter and longer out of step with the seasons.
An ilin was Claimed for a year, no more. At the end of that time, the law and Heaven adjudged him absolved of his crime, and severed the bond which made the liyo master.
He could not count the days, but they numbered more than a year, he was certain. Somewhere on that trail of worlds, of summer followed by spring by red leaves and then driving snow, on one of those nameless, unnumbered days, he had passed the end of his time of service.
It had gone unremarked. He still wrapped his helm with a white scarf. Still addressed her as liyo, for formality's sake, when he must challenge her. She would still name him ilin, if she meant to cause him pain, or sought to deflect his argument.
And at night he still lay with her, tempting the anger of Heaven and the damnation of his soul with their coupling. And with the binding that made - forged in whispers and touch and lust - which was both greater and less than the vows of ilin-oath.
They had ridden out of the Gate as they ever did - from one world to the next in the span of a single stride, Morgaine astride the Baien grey, Vanye at her elbow on the white arrhendur mare.
He might live long enough to see a thousand worlds, Vanye thought --
not likely, he assured himself, not in my lady's service
-- and he would never enter one without his heart in his throat and his pulse pounding like a wardrum. In that, this Gate was no different than all the rest.
In all other ways, as all Gates were, it was unique unto itself.
They rode out of the spinning darkness - a swirling mass of darkness and opal light - at full stride, the horses' feet sure on the Road that led from one Gate to another onworld. But on this world, the Road ended twenty paces from the Gate.
Vanye had no more than a heartbeat to recognize the wall looming before them. Then Arrhan and Siptah both were shying wildly, the stud's greater weight carrying him forward even as he all but fell on his haunches in order to stop. He reared up, forefeet climbing the wall, Morgaine clinging to his mane, and then slid back down it, staggering twice his length before coming to a halt, still on his feet.
Arrhan fared better, but only just. Vanye leaned to the right as the mare did, flinging his left leg up and over the saddle bow. Arrhan kept her feet level, but scraped her side along the wall, the stirrup iron screeching against metal as she went.
It was a tense moment, the horses rolling their eyes and bounding to and fro in the narrow space, on the verge of fleeing back into the Gate, which would have led only to disaster. The wall - taller than Vanye's eyes, when he stood in the stirrups - lay across the fused paving stones, neatly blocking the passageway, the Road that lay between all Gates on a world.
More than the Road - the Gate opened not onto the wide plain or mountain slope that he expected, but to the bottom of a deep canyon. Sheer stone rose high on both sides, over reaching the riders and the Gate itself. The shimmering opal surface of the Gate made a third side to the box, and the metallic grey wall before them nearly completed the trap.
Behind him, a ring of iron on steel, as Siptah kicked out, taking exception to being kept so close to the still-active Gate. The barrier across the road was metal, then, and when Vanye pulled his attention back from the walls and the sky long enough to stare at the barrier itself, he could see that it did not completely hem them in - there was a gap on the right side.
"Out!" He urged Arrhan closer to Morgaine, using Arrhan's presence to help steady the warhorse, and repeated the terse word again. "Liyo, this is a trap, we must get clear!" She followed his pointing hand and lifted the reins, but Siptah was already spinning on his heels, darting between right-hand stone face and the grey wall. Arrhan needed no urging to follow.
They rode through a long corridor of stone, open to the sky. Echoes tumbled back on them as the horses ran. Half a thousand paces further on, the stone canyon opened out into a wide valley. The Road went on, past a scattering of grey stone buildings built into the cliff sides. Beyond, Vanye could see a broad stretch of pale sky and golden plains. Morgaine kicked Siptah to a faster pace, and the grey stretched out to comply.
The cliffs were far lower on the horizon when Morgaine pulled Siptah back to a walk. Vanye drew rein beside her, checking the lie of his sword and bow as he did so. Morgaine's hand rested on Changeling's sheath, the sword hilt rising over her shoulder. She stood in the stirrups, looking back the way they had come.
Frowning, she turned Siptah in a circle, the grey still chaffing at the bit. The earth under Siptah's hooves was plain dirt, not the pavement of the Road.
"Vanye, did thee see anyone about the Gate?"
He leaned on the pommel, looked at the cliffs and the buildings - now barely visible - at their base. There was no sign of smoke, no line of dust to mark pursuit.
"Liyo, we passed through at some speed," he admitted. "I saw no one."
She clicked to the grey, put him back into a trot. Back the way they had come. Towards the Gate.
"Lady!" But Morgaine had a certain glint in her eyes, and there was nothing to be done but fall in behind her.
As they approached the Gate, though, he kept a vigilant lookout, his bow out and strung before him, but not yet notching an arrow. Morgaine rode straight on, sunlight gleaming on her pale hair and catching on the ebony stick that kept her clan braid properly pinned against her head.
To those who could read such things, the braid named Morgaine of clan Chya, as did Vanye's own. Adopted clan to her, mother's clan to him. To Vanye's knowledge, there were none on this world who could do so, or could decipher the story told by their collection of gear and armor.
The closer they came to the Gate, the more Vanye doubted there was anyone in the world at all.
Sand lay in long stripes across the Road, and grass struggled up between cracks in the stones. The sand was unmarked by anything save their own horses, and the small tracks of wild things. When they drew close enough to inspect the buildings, Vanye noted the shattered windows, the empty doors, the vines growing over wall and gate.
Vanye watched one building in particular, whose dark entryway and broken windows gave it the look of a monstrous beast, waiting for anyone foolish enough to walk into its maw.
Morgaine circled the closest building, Vanye a little space behind, and the back side showed nothing the front had not. Back on the pavement, she turned resolutely up the Road. The passage through the canyon was no less tense than it had been the first time, for all their speed was less and the heavy Gate-sense of an open portal gone from the air.
This time, though, Morgaine made a surprised sound when she caught sight of the barrier before the Gate. Vanye pulled his gaze from the twisted mass of metal - surely, it had not been made in that shape - to find a look of recognition on her face.
"Liyo, you know this?"
She used a word he had never heard before. "It is a craft, a cart, " she went on. "For traveling through the air."
Magic. Or insanity. Insanity seemed more likely, given the way the cart looked...shattered. Either way, it seemed familiar to Morgaine, and no immediate threat. She circled to the other side, after bidding Vanye wait, and he craned his neck, trying to watch the empty Gate, the road behind them, and the sky above all at the same time. He was more than ready to follow when she came back down around the fallen craft, and trotted Siptah back to the open area between the buildings.
There she went directly across to the largest of the structures, shoved back against the cliff wall until it seemed nearly a part of the stone itself. The outer wall had a gate, but the gate lay in the dust, and the horses picked their way around it without complaint. Inside, the courtyard stood knee high in grass. A flock of birds rose from a thicket against the eastern wall, where a pool of water gleamed.
Vanye eyed it, and considered the horses, but they had left a pasture on the far side of the gate not two hours ago, by their reckoning. Neither horses nor riders need yet risk chancy refreshment. Instead, he took Siptah's reins from Morgaine and followed her across the courtyard to the main doors. One of those lay like the outer gate, but the other hung by a singe rotten hinge. Morgaine put a shoulder to it, and shoved. They all danced back when the door fell with a whooshing thud.
"Light," Morgaine said, and Vanye pulled one of their two prepared torches from her saddlebags. A strike of flint over steel, and the oil-soaked end caught.
With the doors removed, the entry was more than wide enough to allow the horses. Morgaine let slip the catch that held Changeling at her back, and held the sheathed sword with one hand, the torch with another. The yellow light flickered across the unmarked walls, picking out a score of other doors, a scattering of unmarked boxes, a nest left by some animal in the far corner, and a hallway that led straight away from the main doors. At the furthest reach of the torch, a set of stairs led up into the rear of the building.
Morgaine strode straight for the steps.
"Liyo," Vanye said, "No. Not alone."
It was exactly the sort of thing a dai-uyo might say to his lord. Morgaine turned, came back to him, torch waving as she walked.
"Will thee bring the horses with us? The stairs will not hold them."
In fact the stairs seemed more solid than the rest of the building, but that had not been Vanye's intention. One of the boxes served as a tie to bind the reins, and it was the work of a moment to pour out a scant handful of their grain on the bare floor. The horses were long used to being left unattended so, and would remain out of mischief while Vanye watched his liyo's back.
He left his bow with the horses, and carried his sword in his hand, as he followed Morgaine up past two turnings to the next floor. There, she looked left and right before choosing left, stopping just inside the hall. There, at chest level on an average man, a bit of the wall gleamed white in the face of the torch's orange flame.
"Huh," Morgaine said, and brought the torch closer. Then she touched two places on the wall and stepped back. Vanye followed her gaze up, up to the ceiling overhead, so that when the lights flashed on, they were both of them blinded.
"Devils take it," he said, pressing a hand to his face. Morgaine cursed in Kurshin, then in qhalur, but she was laughing by the end of it. Vanye took the torch from her and put it out against the floor, leaving it to smolder while they went on.
Morgaine was even more delighted when they passed into the next corridor, and the first door opened into a room of boxes, a steady amber light glowing from the face of each, so that in the shadows the room had the appearance of a score of one-eyed cats, all black and invisible in the dark. Morgaine's breath sucked in.
"The power is still hot."
He would have shrugged. Of course it was - the Gate still functioned, so the equipment that fed it must yet live. They had dealt with - and destroyed - twice twenty such, if not more. A handful of lights - even though they were sourced from witchcraft, and not honest candles - did not impress him.
Morgaine took a different weight of the matter. Unbuckling her weapons harness, she set Changeling in a corner, and, running her finger along the shelves, selected a volume. Opening it, she flipped page after page, turning frequently to the end to reference some listing before returning to the middle pages. When she finished with that one, she slid it back on the shelf, only to pull out the next in sequence.
Vanye coughed at the dust. "Have you learned aught?"
"The world's name is Touaoc. The most recent entries are some decades old."
He waited, but she said nothing further. He folded himself against the wall, expecting a long wait.
Morgaine was a woman of singular focus. It amused him, on those occasions when she had some item to consider, either corporeal or some mental construct that she brooded upon, to sit quietly and count the hours until she noticed him again. This time, she turned it back on him.
"Go," she said, still bent over the journal. "I may be a time. See to the horses, rest."
Vanye rose to his feet, hesitated. She waved a hand. "Go."
Below, the horses were finished with the grain he had poured out for them, and were standing hipshot and heavy lidded. Vanye unsaddled them both, stacking the gear against the wall, and led them both by their halter ropes down the stone-lined walk to the courtyard.
She came back down, after some hours.
"It is the master Gate. There are none others on this world."
"None at all?" Truly unique then, in his experience.
"Aye. There is more. It is a key Gate. And the archives have not yet failed." She gestured at the building behind her. "It is..." she blew out a sigh. "Phenomenal."
He did not laugh at her. "I saw a pair of hares, just outside the doorway. I will take the bow, go along the walls, and see if I may fetch us a meal."
She nodded, already turning away. "Call me," she said, over her shoulder, "if thee art successful."
He was, and he did, and she came down, eventually, and ate, as daintily as one might eat flame-singed rabbit. With the other hand, she turned page after page in a bound journal, pages thick with runes unfamiliar to him, and sketches that he reckoned were things of the Gates.
When she finished, she wiped her hands, smiled at him, and went back up the steps. He sat in the shade and considered the landscape.
There was grass - tall, thick, and green where there was free water, shorter and golden, but still vigorous, elsewhere. Siptah and Arrhan both had taken a liking to the grazing, nosing along as they went, not yet showing a preference for one type of grass over another. He had found one seep that morning, and was hopeful of others. There was game aplenty - he had seen no deer, or cousins of deer, but there had been, in addition to the rabbits, a covey of small brown quail, a fat-bodied waterfowl, passing high and west, and another sort of animal, neither badger nor rabbit, but having some of the characteristics of them both. Impossible to determine the climate from a single day, but everything - the grass, the pelt on the rabbits, the trees along the cliff walls - all the signs pointed to weather patterns that did not differ remarkably from those he was familiar with.
The horses could thrive here.
So could he and Morgaine.
Morgaine had a pursuit - one that touched her purpose, the ending of the Gates, instead of running counter to it.
Slowly, a plan began to unfold in his mind.
There was no leaping into it, of course. But having conjured the idea, so early on the first day, when Morgaine was still infatuated with the machines, he could only see the increasing benefits of it as the days went on.
He did not neglect his duties to Morgaine - saw to it that she ate and slept. He shifted the firepit from the doorway to a corner with two broken windows, where the air drew better, and set out their pallets as far from the remains of the unknown animal's noxious nest as he could manage. Did not dance attendance on her, nor stand looming as she went from room to room blowing dust off old volumes and finding those few machines that woke to her commands. Amused her, in the evenings, with small tales of the things he had found. A brightly colored bird, another sort of almost-badger. The first sighting of a kind of deer - reddish-toned back, white beneath, and as swift as any falcon when they ran over the grass. A serpent as thick around as his wrist, and as long as Vanye was tall, that had regarded horse and rider from its nest of stones with unblinking eyes as they rode past.
And still he had not found evidence of humans or qhal, save that which was old and forsaken.
Morgaine nodded when he mentioned it, frowned when he went on to propose some war or plague. "No," she said slowly, "I do not think so. The entries are consistent with a planned abandonment, and speak nothing of strife. The world seems healthy enough, save for rare motions of the plates - earthquakes," she added, when he looked up, puzzled. "There is a fault line north and east, but quiet, and under no great tension." She shrugged, reached for another bit of quail. "Be alert, and ride with care. There may be nomads, out on the grasslands."
When he mentioned the cliffs on the far side of the valley, Morgaine rose from her place by the fire and went to the bundle of papers she had brought down with her. Sorting through them, she passed Vanye page with multi-colored marks. When he turned it around in his hands, it resolved itself in a map, of the sort he had seen before, adorning the walls of Gate-keeps.
"We are here," she said, pointing at a glyph he had known even before Morgaine had found him. The Gate symbol was, he thought, constant throughout all the worlds. Her finger moved, touched on another. "Storehouse, and a watchtower." She came off her heels and settled down beside him, one hand on his shoulder. "There are not as many as I expected of either. It is possible the map is inaccurate."
Her free hand she propped on one knee, and put her chin in it, still leaning her side against his. The warmth of her body was familiar, comforting. He kept his eyes on the map, for something in her words had been disquieting.
"Not so many...and you say the maps show nothing beyond this valley. No other Gates, or towns?"
She shook her head, the ends of her hair brushing against his arm. He still wore his mail when he went out, but removed it before they sat to eat. She had been slower to drop her guard, but had taken to leaving the armor off while she was in the confines of the upper levels, where the air was close during the day.
"Nothing else, in all the world. I do not think that much was built here, that they began construction, and then reconsidered." Chin still in the heel of her hand, she tilted her head to look at him, the line easing between her brows. Her other hand was resting lightly on his shoulder.
Gate-travel did queer things to the body, even not considering the precautions Morgaine had taken with the Gate-settings. He and the horses and Morgaine - they each had a pattern, a template, locked in the memory of the gates, and did any of them transit through the Gates, the body that emerged on the far side was rewritten as the template.
Be they starved or exhausted or taken some hurt, it was all wiped away.
Vanye, if he thought on the matter, was left dismayed. The process was near enough to magic, and the result was approaching immortality, and the priests of his boyhood had warned against Men who were tempted by the provenances of angels. Nothing good had ever come of it, in the stories.
In Vanye's experience, it had saved their lives, more than once.
But the wound healing was not its only effect. There were other things the Gates wiped away as well, and not all of them unpleasant. It was no strain on Vanye's part to keep within propriety, and remember an ilin's place, on the days just after they entered another world. He and Morgaine might bathe and dress and sleep side by side, and no duenna in all the worlds might say an unkind world in their attitudes toward each other.
Now, though, it had been four days since they had passed through the Gate. Morgaine sat quite near. And the building's lights had dimmed, and the horses had been seen to, and there was no reason at all for Vanye to not lean closer, to lift a hand to touch the edge of her jaw, to bring his mouth to meet hers.
Her lips smiled under his kiss.
"I thought thee wished to consult the map, for another hour or more. Perhaps measure distances, or calculate the mountain grade."
Fine for her to jest, he had not been the one closed away from the sun and the light breeze and the strangely beautiful sky all day. For an answer, Vanye carefully folded the map again, before turning to take her in his arms.
Far later, lying with her head on his chest, and her hair spilled all about them, he thought back to what she said. Nothing else, in all the world.
It was a lonely thought.
The next morning, after they had eaten, and Morgaine had made her way back up the stairs, Vanye took the folded map and applied himself to exploring.
He came back at sunset and turned Arrhan into the courtyard corral in the last of the light, feeling strangely triumphant. That lasted as long as it took for him to climb the last step and find Morgaine waiting for him, a soup of their provisions slowly bubbling over the fire in the corner. There was also a plate of some strange bread that smelled of dried fruit. He stopped, looking at the dish, the waterfowl dangling from his fist unnoticed.
"Will thee stare at it all night, or shall thee eat?" Morgaine stood with her hands on her hips and her shirt sleeves folded back. Vanye looked from the food to Morgaine and back again, before making haste to wash his hands and beat the dust from his trousers.
He served them both, and found the unfamiliar bread odd, but sweet and pleasant. Morgaine ate in silence, one hand still tracing the pages beside her.
"What is this?" he asked, indicating the sweet bread.
She did not look up from the book. "There is a back room, with some things stored. Much had turned, but there were these, and some others, still sealed."
So he had not been the only one searching things out. "Tomorrow, I have something to show you," he said, greatly daring.
"Oh?" And, yes, thank Heaven, she was in a cheerful mood, and did not demand he explain himself, as was her right. He shrugged.
"A little ways off. We may go early, and come back, and you will still have many hours left in the day."
That made her frown, and he saw the impulse come to her, to demand details, now, but she put it away again.
In the morning, her humor remained, helped in no small part by Siptah's high spirits. Vanye had been riding Siptah and the white mare in turns as he went hunting and patrolling, but the grey was still well rested, and likely bored. Morgaine laughed and let him run, turning in long arcs around Vanye and Arrhan; Siptah curvating and kicking his heels when he took the notion.
He was still bouncing when Vanye pulled up at the base of the cliff, nearly two hours ride from the Gate complex. Tying the horses in the shade at the base of the cliff, he led the way up the rocky path.
It had been made by goats, or the wild deer, for it was far too steep for the horses. A tumbled mass of stone at the base showed where a wider path might have been, years past. When they reached the top of the trail, on a ledge halfway up the cliff, Morgaine looked at him, frowning once more.
Vanye only stepped to the side and bowed her on.
It was a house, of sorts - the marking on the map said watchtower, and the building did hold a commanding view of the valley. There had been five rooms, one after the other in series, but the first had crumbled to dust and the second lacked a roof and two walls, leaving only three. But those three included a fire pit and a water jug, odd embellishments to the smooth walls and floor, and - most significantly - the innermost room had a wall panel to match that of the main building, including a glyph - now dark - for the Gate.
Vanye watched Morgaine explore the small structure, noted how her gaze swept over the wall panel, but also rested a moment on the hearth, and the corner where bundled reeds were rotting into dust. They might, he thought, have been a bed, once.
When she turned back to him, Vanye gestured downhill again. "There is more."
At ground level, he showed her the spring, and the little creek, and the small cut that could easily be fashioned into a corral. There was grazing aplenty, for the valley lay lower here, and the water seemed to last longer than in the area of the Gate.
"What," she said, finally, "Does thee intend with this?"
When he hesitated, she held up a hand. "Nhi Vanye i Chya. Thee has been planning something for days, ever since we came to this world. Speak."
"A foal," he blurted out. When she blinked, clearly taken back, he tried to make sense of it. "We have Siptah, and Arrhan, and the Gates will heal them. But, liyo, we have need of remounts. Horses wise to us, wise to the Gates. You have said it yourself, this is a forgotten world. And there is much to be gained from your study of the archives. Let us take a year, or two, and let Arrhan drop a pair of foals that I might train to carry us."
She folded her arms and stared off across the valley. He held his breath against her next word, expecting refusal out of hand. Instead, she tapped her finger against the mail on her forearm and, "What if the next world has no horses? Or, no need of them? What does another set of remounts gain us?"
Vanye stared at her, befuddled. He had been making a list, in his mind, of all the reasons his plan was a serious and wise one, and not a foolish notion driven by his Nhi heritage, that loved horse stock as most men loved breath. This possibility had never entered his mind. Finally, he said, "If they have no horses, then we need bring our own, for I would rather ride than walk, and if it is a world where men ride cattle, we would be far better mounted than those astride bullocks."
He did not know why that made her laugh, or if it helped his case, but he thought it might.
"Let me think a day on this," she said finally, which was so far from the No, ilin, we cannot that he had been expecting that he nearly whooped in delight. "I have not said yes," she said, her face scowling.
"Aye, liyo, I hear, I hear." But still, it was not no. He jammed his hands in his weapons belt and clenched his fingers about the leather until his knuckles ached. She snorted at him and led the way back to the horses.
He let her be for the day, and then another, keeping his manner somber and restrained whenever in her presence. Brought her meals in the archive room, ignored her short temper, let her brood as long as she fancied. When she sent him away he went without argument, and did not pester her to leave the books when she sat over them into the night.
When she was not there, he drew plans in the dust for a corral and a shelter for the horses and considered improvements to the creek.
By the evening of the third day, he was near beside himself. It had been rabbit, again, for supper, and after she had taken the torch back up the stairs. Vanye sat awake for a time, listening to the horses graze and smelling the sharp scent of the green wood he had used for the fire. Then he had crawled in his blankets and tried to sleep.
She will say no, he told himself, and sighed, resigned to it. The best he could do would be to take the news with a somber face, and refuse to grieve unnecessarily over it. Her task - their task, he firmly told himself - their task was too vital to risk delay or the vagaries of a world abandoned for unknown reasons.
Morgaine refused the concept of witchcraft, and therefore so must he, but her knowledge of the Gates did not equal love. She traveled the Gates only to close them, to destroy the web that had woven together an empire of worlds.
They must be shut. All of creation depended on it, and the lives of millions, human, qhal, others yet unnamed. All their fates ran with Morgaine, and her race to the Last Gate, wherever it might be.
Against that, Vanye had nothing.
He must have slept, for he awoke to Morgaine's fingers, touching his face, and her body, sliding against his beneath the blankets. Blindly, he turned to her, hands tracing her face and sides, pulling her to him.
He had not touched her, not for the last two days. Nor had she come to him. She had finished her consideration, he knew, even without guessing her decision. He wound one hand in her hair, brought her face to his.
"Amar," he whispered, between kisses. She laughed, low and fierce, and kissed him back, nipping hard at the line of his jaw.
Morgaine was a word of fearful power and treacherous magics, in the land of his birth. Morgaine the Undying, the stories had run, a hundred years before his birth. In the twisted channels in which their lives ran, he was younger than her in all senses. Morgaine was not a name he could use to her face, even if she so ordered him. Far less that he could whisper it to her in the darkness, when he held her in his arms. He would far rather name her liyo, for she was still lord of his soul, in that as in all things.
He had used the title once, between the gasps and rough endearments that they used as they coupled, straining against each other. But barely had he done so when she burst into giggles better fitting a blushing goose-maid than the terrible master of Changeling. And that had brought things to a sudden halt, until she had stopped laughing and offered a score of kisses in recompense.
So he had kept to the words he used for the horses, the other beings he loved, and said only, sweet girl and pretty one and beauty. But as poor as they fit the grey warhorse, or bold Arrhan, they matched Morgaine even less.
It wore at him, even as it would make him laugh at his own foolishness. That of all the things which could concern him - the worlds they traveled, the dangers they faced, his liyo's quicksilver moods, the storms and wild things, that he was endangering his already-damned soul by even thinking of his liege-lord in terms of the swell of her breast against his hand - of all of those, the thing he gave thought to was the search for a proper name to address her, when he wanted her attention as his woman, and not his sworn master.
The solution presented itself one sun-soaked afternoon, on a world with wide rolling plains, and a scarcity of folk who knew anything of the Gates. They had been three days out from their entry Gate, and another equal distance to the primary Gate of that world. The Road had been clear, and they had made good time. Early afternoon had found them resting the horses at a rush-lined slough. Blackbirds had risen like a cloud at their approach, but settled again, scolding, when neither the mounts nor their humans seemed inclined to swiftly depart.
They had loosened the cinch straps and picketed the horses, for the grass was thicker and greener there than anywhere they had seen. Vanye had climbed the slope to the crest, to look out over the horizon, and rested there, half-sitting, half-reclining, and after a time Morgaine had joined him.
She was chewing on a grass-stem, as was her occasional habit, and it made him laugh, to see the high-qhal demon with a green blade between her teeth. She had quirked her brows at him and pretended to frown, grass still in her mouth.
He had been toying with the tendril of a vine that wound its way down from the hillcrest, plucking one flower after another, and letting the petals drift away on the breeze. Foolishness, he knew - yet one more trace for any tracker to follow them - but Siptah and Arrhan were down at the water's edge, leaving iron-shod hoof marks, and Vanye had felt oddly light-hearted, as if the wind and sun had left him drunken.
"What is that?" she asked, and put a hand on the fingers he had cupped around the last flower he had plucked.
"Amar," he said, and showed her the blossom. It had been a type of vine, in Andur. A tenacious weed, it thrived on rocky slopes and rough outcroppings, coarse leaves that nothing, not even the sheep, would eat. A pasture of amar and stone, they said, in Andur, and some parts of Kursh. It meant the opposite of riches.
Its flowers, when it bloomed in early spring, were small and pale ivory, and heavy with scent. This was not the same; the flower smelled sweet, for one, and the petals were different - longer, he thought, and there were more of them, but he could not trust his memory - but it might be some cousin of the herb in Andur.
"Amar," he said again, and tucked the flower in the hair behind her ear. She had smiled at him, indulging his folly, and lifted her hand to his face.
Her mouth tasted of the stalk of green grass. When he would have drawn back again, conscious of the miles yet to travel, the unfamiliar world around them, she had drawn him down with her onto the thick grass, arms tightening around him.
Amar, he said, in the midst of her, breathed it over her bare skin and whispered it down the column of her throat. She had caught her breath, at the words or at the touch of his palm, sliding up from her knee.
They had lost an hour of daylight, then, and he called her Amar, thereafter, in all things which were not dependent on liyo and ilin.
He woke again to sunrise, and Morgaine's fingertip tracing his nose. Blinking, he looked at the light beyond the window, and then at her, who had been up and dressed and buried in a book by this hour the last three days running. Morgaine snorted, poked him in the chest with the forefinger.
"Up. There is much to do, if we are to set the watchtower to rights, for civilized people such as ourselves to dwell in. I will not be staying for so long as a year in a place infested with mice."
Vanye nodded, unable to keep from smiling broadly at her, but refraining from mentioning that he had seen nothing of mice in the old building, but, perhaps, a creature or three that might have been a rat.
Arrhan dropped her first foal nearly two years after their arrival on Touaoc - a filly, coat as black as night, and perfect to her delicate whiskers. Vanye had been expecting it, of course - there was no missing Arrhan's great swollen belly, nor the sudden irritation or her disinclination to eat, when she had become a glutton for the last weeks of her term. But when he came down the cliff trail at sunrise, as was his habit, and found Arrhan standing hipshot over an inky shadow - the only such in the corral, with the sun not yet over the cliff wall - Vanye was caught short, staring.
Arrhan, for her part, was as sensible in bearing as she was in all else. When Vanye slipped through the pole fence, she lifted her head and watched him approach. She shifted her feet, and kept between him and the foal, but after he spent some moments reassuring her and praising her beauty, bravery and wisdom, she suffered him to touch the new arrival. The filly awoke, then, and scrambled to her feet - Arrhan had foaled early in the night, then, for she was still clumsy rising, but confident once upright. The foal paid little attention to Vanye, being already focused on finding Arrhan's teat again.
Siptah stared at them all over the wall separating his pen from the mare's, as if unsure what to make of the whole affair.
Morgaine, when she came downhill after Vanye did not return at a reasonable time, seemed less perplexed than the stud, if as amazed.
"I had forgotten," she said, letting Arrhan lip her fingers, "how small they are. And those legs - does she intend to climb the night sky, and walk among the stars?"
Vanye shook his head. "All foals have long legs." His eyes never left the filly.
Morgaine leaned on the wall. "Has thee a name for her?"
That brought Vanye's head around. He honestly had not given it any consideration. Morgaine stared at him, eyebrows quirked.
"Mai?" It had been the name of his first pony. And every horse he had owned, since.
Morgaine dropped her forehead to her crossed arms. "No."
"It is not pleasing?"
Face still in her arms, Morgaine shook her head. Voice muffled, she said, "No. She needs something unique, something of her own."
Vanye cast about, thoughts flailing. Mai had served him well for many years. He had never thought -
Inspiration struck. "You choose."
Morgaine's head came back up, but she shut her mouth on her first words and studied the foal again. "Stelli," she said, finally.
Vanye turned the word over in his mouth. It was not a Kurshin word, nor, he thought, qhalur. One from her own language. "Stelli. Stelli."
"Does it suit?"
Vanye nodded, on the verge of asking her if the word had a meaning. But Morgaine's past could be treacherous, and was not something he forded lightly.
In that way she had sometimes of reading his mind, she said, "It means, 'star'."
"Stelli," Vanye said again. On the other side of Arrhan, Stelli lifted one hind leg to scratch at her ear, and nearly fell over in the attempt.
Morgaine snorted in laughter, then pushed herself off the wall. "There is tea, and bread, when thee has looked thy fill at her."
"I will be but a moment more," he promised.
It was nearly an hour before he could bring himself to leave them, having brought Arrhan water and cut grass, and let Siptah out to gaze. Morgaine indulged him, and brought the tea - a fresh pot, the morning's first having grown already cold - out to the ledge, so that he might eat and look down at the corral.
From the height, he could see the changes they had wrought on the landscape - they, he and Morgaine, for all that her primary impact was the well-trod path that led back toward the far cliffs and the Gate. The horses had a shelter against the winter winds, and the rains that came in torrents in spring and summer. There was also a place to keep their saddles and other gear, including hide buckets for hauling water, so that they need not drag every bit of tack up the cliff every evening.
A set of targets and breastworks, set out the first autumn on a flat piece of ground, where he continued to practice archery and his mounted swordwork. Siptah had been beside himself, rearing and dancing, the first time Vanye had taken him across the practice ground. The autumn rains had been constant, and approaching torrential, and all of them had grown stale, waiting for winter and an end to the grey skies. Arrhan had been as eager, if less skillful. They had raced against each other, Vanye on Arrhan and Morgaine on Siptah, and argued over the scoring of hits. Morgaine's skill was less than Vanye's with plain steel and the grey-fletched arrows, but together she and Siptah were a fearsome thing, so that Vanye was never over-tempted to let her win.
A wider pasture of some few acres extended beyond the wall, an enclosure made of poles drug from the trees along the cliff edges, and re-enforced with stones. That was a task still unfinished, for all the labor he and Siptah had put into it. He had scars on all his knuckles, and there were worn places on the war-horse's shoulders from the pitiful harness Vanye had contrived. The big grey had been less happy with his turn at draft-labor than with playing at war against bundles of willow-withies, but had bent to the work willingly enough.
There had been a time, that first summer, when he had wondered if all his labor would be for naught. They had set about making the watchtower livable with good heart, and after the enthusiasm of the first few days passed, with a steady determination that better suited the task than the frantic efforts they had initiated.
Morgaine consulted a book of charts in the archive, and announced that the winter would be short, but as cold as the middling Kurshin reaches, and the summer long and dry. Between, in both autumn and spring, rain would come, fill the pools and soak the earth. It was a poor place for planting crops, but the grasses loved the sun, and filled the horses well enough. The matter of water was more pressing, and Vanye spent long hours shifting stones to make a channel to bring the cliff-base seep around the scattered remains of the old stair and so down to the corral. So many hours, in fact, that the stone trough was finished before the chimney of the house.
The issue of the fireplace came quickly to a head, combined with an ill-timed laugh from Vanye, when a gust of wind blew back down the chimney and blinded Morgaine with a cloud of smoke, so that she coughed and stumbled and split the pot of water she had been heating for a bath all over herself and the scrap of canvas they were using as a rug. She had not been amused, and the conflict of humors led to the first shouting argument in the house.
The first, but not the last. There were a thousand new things for the two of them to learn - about each other, about the world, about living together in it. For the most part, it was a time of delight, as the house became more comfortable by the day, and the two of them rested, and they learned habits better suited for a permanent camp than the constant travel they had been at for so long.
Vanye re-discovered a talent he once had had for leather working, and fashioned the various hides from their suppers into useful things - leather buckets, a cover for the window, a pallet wide enough for them to both sleep on. Morgaine's skills were less domestic, but she was still a better hand with a needle than he, and the supply houses yield a few scant boxes of cloth. In the evenings, before the light failed, she would sit on the ledge and sew, pausing from time to time to stare over the plains.
One evening, shortly after their move to the watchtower, she called him out on the ledge, and bade him sit by her.
He did, and looked curiously at the silver-edged object she passed to him. "What is this?"
"A glass," she said. "It bends light, brings distant objects closer to the eye." Patiently, she explained the workings of the thing, and helped him adjust it to his vision. When the pair of black birds soaring far out on the plains suddenly appeared close enough to touch, he gasped and jerked backwards, and either he or the glass would have gone down the cliff if she had not been expecting it, and caught them both.
"It was in a drawer, in the archives. An amusement, I think, for one of the builders of the Gate, and forgotten when they left. Take it with thee, out on the rim, and see how far thou may see, then."
It was too precious to take everywhere, but he made a strap for it, and a place to hang it on his saddle. She looked as pleased with that as she had at anything he had done for her. She was less satisfied with her own sewing, but produced, eventually, eventually, an extra shirt for them both.
Along the way there were furious disagreements - the worst, within a week of the smoke and water incident, was over the location of the permanent latrine, and who should construct it. Vanye took the position that Morgaine was not to put her hands to such work, ever, and as such, had no say in where he placed it. Morgaine disagreed - less with the proposed location, perhaps, but certainly with what she called his disagreeable high-handed arrogance and he termed proper respect for station. They had ended bellowing things at each other that Vanye was never sure, after, if the other understood or even heard, and mutually walked off, not to speak to each other for two days.
Their days fell into a pattern - rising with the dawn, drinking tea together as the plains turned to gold, and then to their separate pursuits - Morgaine busying herself with study of the Gate-knowledge, Vanye to some repair or construction. Some days, Morgaine rode to the Gate, to collect more volumes. At first, Vanye insisted on accompanying her, but as time wore on, he took to using those days for hunting, or some noisy repair that left the house in disarray.
Then, too, if Morgaine went to the Gate, she went on horseback, taking either Siptah or Arrhan with her, and separating the horses ran rather counter to Vanye's purpose. Not that it seemed to matter, in the first while. Vanye kept a close watch on Arrhan, noting her behavior alone and around Siptah, and it was with a certain disappointment that the days began to shorten, and the sky grow heavy dark with rain, and the mare had not yet come into season.
He brought the issue up with Morgaine as delicately as he could. Part of it was the subject itself - he could not remember discussing the niceties of covering mares with any woman, nor, tell truth, with many men or boys. His own brothers - ah.
Vanye's brothers had been the sons of his father's wife. Vanye had not been. In another household, the label of bastard might not have mattered. Had their mothers been other than they were, had their father, had the world been different, he might have been a part of his brother's confidences, shared their ribald jokes and their tales of girls and women. But that other world had not come to pass.
If it had, he would not have raised his blade - even a practice sword - against his brothers. Had his brother not died, Vanye would not have been outlawed. If he had not been outlawed, he would not, most likely, have ever met Morgaine. Save, perhaps, for one brief instant, over Changeling's blade. Certainly he would not have been Claimed into her service, and from there into her confidences, nor her heart.
It was not, Vanye thought, as though he had not been entirely outside that experience, of young men and their preoccupation with women, of crude jests and the sight of dogs coupling in the doorway to the great hall. But such things were not discussed in his lord's presence, and surely not in the company of his lord's wife. Morgaine was as neither any other clan lord nor as any other woman, but Vanye found this habit as hard to shed as any other.
And it was not simply moral rectitude - there were some surprising differences between the way the universe worked, as Morgaine seemed to understand it, and as had been taught to him in Andur-Kursh. When Morgaine was in a playful mood, she might tolerate his notions, or simply say, Do not be superstitious! If she were in some darker set of mind, her tongue could be sharp and her words cutting.
To his relief, Morgaine took him seriously. "It could be a plant, in the grass," she said, frowning, sitting in the grass with him and watching Arrhan and Siptah graze. "Or some element in the water. Or, perhaps, some part of the sunlight. All of these might have an effect. I do not think it is the Gate, though. We are far enough from the field itself, and there is no reason the repair process should be permanent. Were that so, well, then we could add no memory, nor learn any skill, after we had passed the Gate but once."
Vanye shook his head, not sure how the cycling of mares and the gaining of memories were related, and more certain he did not wish Morgaine to try to teach him. Caught up in this apprehension, the next words crept out without his attention. "What of you? Is it the same, for human women, when..." He realized then what he asked, and clamped his jaw shut.
There was a snicker. He would not look at her, but bent his head and gripped his hands together.
"Thy ears are red." A touch at his nape, shifting the braid. "And thy neck."
"Oh, Heaven." Perhaps the cliff - no, it was too far away, even if the whole wall fell, the rubble could not reach so far as to bury him. A crevice might open in the earth, though. Or one of the eagles come down to snatch him up.
He dared a glance at her. She rested her chin on an updrawn knee, grinning at him, eyes merry and dancing. He looked away again.
"Vanye, thee has not finished thy question."
He buried his face in his hands. "God, amar, will you make me ask?"
She laughed heartily at that, and relented. "Look here." She rolled up a sleeve, showed him a mark - a dark freckle on the inside of her arm. "It is a medicine. It keeps me from bearing."
He blinked at her, ran a finger over it. There was something under the skin, a small lump, smaller than the end of his finger. He had felt it before, had touched everywhere on her body, knew her scars as well as he knew his own. "From bearing? Ever?"
She shrugged. "It will wear off, eventually, and need replacing. Not soon. Years."
She let the matter drop, then, only counseling him to wait until spring, and what might occur then. As it was Morgaine's restlessness that Vanye most feared, he could only agree.
She proved correct. In the lengthening days before the rains, Arrhan grew coy, and unsettled, and both irresistible and dangerously short to Siptah. The first time, she would not stand for him, but beat him off with both heels, until the warhorse gave up and sulked in the corner. Morgaine made a special effort to daily visit him, and bring him salt, and so kept him from pining. Twenty days later, when Arrhan came back into heat, her manner was much changed, and Siptah far more pleased with the result. By autumn, it was clear that she was bearing. Vanye, belatedly realizing that his herd was going to increase by an untrained steed, threw himself into enclosing the pasture.
The fence was completed that summer, and the black filly beginning to test its bounds when Arrhan foaled again the next spring, this time a colt, with a muddy-brown coat that looked more like a mouse than anything else. Morgaine named him Chan, and her face went strange when she said it. It took Vanye an afternoon's recollection before he remembered where he had heard the name before - Chan had been the one who forged Changeling, one of the four who had come with Morgaine to Andur-Kursh. Dearest of my companions, she had said, once. He wondered at the choice, and the chancy nature of the name. It came to little weight, though, as neither of them ever called the colt anything but Rat - a name the horse lived up to in everything but wits.
The next year, that of their fourth spring, and third foal, tragedy struck in the form of a pair of wild cats, huge beasts with tawny coats, that slipped into the foaling pen when the new filly was less than a day old. Vanye came down the cliff in a rush, shirtless and his boots unlaced, sword naked in his hand, to find Arrhan darting back and forth across the pen, dripping blood into the packed earth and the other corral empty, the gate lying in the dirt.
Siptah came back with the morning, and the yearling colt with him. Siptah's forelegs were dark with blood, and when Vanye rode him back along the trail, he found the new foal's body, throat torn out, and the carcass of a male cat, stomped flat. Stelli was no where to be seen, her hoofprints disappearing into the grass. The pug-marks of another cat followed. For two weeks, Vanye rode out when ever he saw the dark birds circling, but all he ever found were bloated ground owls and the skeletons of ground-squirrels.
It was Arrhan who drew him away from the search for the black filly. At first, he had thought the wound clean, and had washed and bandaged it as though it were a hurt he or Morgaine had taken. But there was a rent behind her foreleg that re-opened every time she moved her leg, and forced air into the wound like a bellows.
"This is not good," Morgaine said, running her hand along the swollen shoulder. When she touched the skin, the flesh popped and crackled from the gas trapped underneath the hide. "It will heal too slowly, and fester before."
So they made their way to the Gate, all of them, Morgaine leading Siptah and Vanye Arrhan, and Rat following along agreeably because he was with the rest of them. It was a long walk, and Arrhan was covered in sweat by the time they arrived, her head bobbing every time she put her foot down, and her whole side and neck swollen as well.
They tied Siptah and Rat in the archive courtyard, and Morgaine went across the way to the building that held the Gate controls. Emerging, she declared herself satisfied with the settings. "So that thee and the mare return here this year, and I am not forced to fetch firewood in the rain." She meant it as a jest, but Vanye could not bring himself to laugh.
The walk up the canyon was made even longer by Arrhan's sad demeanor - so miserable was she with her hurt, and the lost foal, that she did no more than flick her ears at the swirling surface of the Gate. Even when they slid around the metal wall, she only stood there, head low and breath noisy in her throat.
Vanye murmured softly to her as Morgaine paced around the Gate, and then came back to them. "Go on," Morgaine bade him, and Vanye swallowed, squared his shoulders. Clicking to Arrhan, and with a slap on her haunch from Morgaine, he brought her to the Gate at a stumbling run.
It was as it ever was - a horrible, empty darkness, bitterly cold - and then it was over. They came out again the other side - only it was the same side, they faced south now, back down the canyon - to find Morgaine waiting. She looked them both over and laughed. Vanye, caught between staring at his unscarred fingers and at Arrhan, who was not only healed, but had shed the matronly girth she had acquired after three foals. Vanye, for his part, had an ache back in his knee, that he thought had passed. The next day, when he dressed, he found his belt loose again, and the shoulders of his shirt.
Compared to losing the foal, and the black filly, and nearly Arrhan, the muscle in his arms was a small thing, but he mourned it still. Likewise, when the spring wore on and Arrhan never came into heat, Vanye tried to remember the first year, and keep up hope.
He half expected Morgaine to declare the experiment over, and announce plans for their departure. But the spring went on, and the rains eased, and Morgaine's explanations of her studies took a new turn - she thought she had found a way to count the Gates yet unclosed, if she could only manage the controls properly. Vanye understood not a word of it; nor the point, as they would still need to pass the Gates to close them, but it meant Morgaine was in no great hurry to leave, and that was enough. Vanye took Arrhan on long rides down the valley, and up to the rim, and spent his days attempting to teach Rat civilized manners.
It was something of a lost cause. The colt, never as bright as his breeding would have indicated, was stubborn and slow to learn. All neck and cock, little head and less eye, Vanye thought, remembering a saying of his father's old horsemaster. And there was the matter of Arrhan. She was in no wise receptive to either Siptah or her colt, but this did little to improve Siptah's tolerance of the younger male. With the passing days, Rat grew less and less eager to give way, until the day when he did not, and Vanye nearly came to grief between the two of them.
It marked the end of Rat's childhood. Vanye built a second corral, further down the cliff, and put Rat there, away from both the older horses. The corral had no water, so Vanye began his days leading the colt to the bathing pool to drink, and ending them there as well.
It formed a pattern for the next year. Rat came to take the bridle, but still bolted in panic one of four times he saw the saddle blanket. Morgaine rode to the Gate nearly every day over the winter. Vanye made time between cutting wood and hunting to develop a pattern for patrolling what he came to think of as their valley. If it was only partly for defense, and for another part the time out on the far rim, well, Morgaine did not begrudge him that. It was rare, though, that she would join him, so that he rode alone on the line between sky and earth, where the wind blew constant and strong, and the falcons came to race horse and rider.
He tried to tell her of what he saw, as she struggled to find words to describe her study of the archive journals. They neither one could make it plain to the other, but contented themselves with listening to the satisfaction in the other's voice.
When spring came, and Arrhan came back into season, Morgaine put aside her study for a time, and bent back to her sewing. The pallet gained a sheet, for the warmer summer to come. Vanye received a shirt he declared the most handsome he had ever worn, and as the only one to say otherwise was Morgaine, so it was. Morgaine had placed the shirt in his hands with some trepidation, but relaxed when he announced his satisfaction.
It was the first time he had lied to her with success.
But the horses seemed to care not if his shirt hem was ragged or uneven, nor anything about his dress, except that his pockets had bits of salt or sweet bread. Rat certainly did not, but continued to be stubborn, willful, and difficult. The colt's only saving grace was that he failed of having any bit of meanness about him, save when it came to his sire, and so Vanye never felt himself or Morgaine at risk. He kept the colt in the lower corral, and never failed to check him first in the morning, and last at night.
And it was there, in early summer, that he came down the cliff and found Rat trying to climb out of the pen, and two mares - one black as night, the other smaller and slab-sided - leaning their heads over the wall to flirt.
If this astonished him, it was nothing compared to when the black mare threw up her head and came eagerly to him, shoving at his hands as though she expected treats.
It was Stelli.
Morgaine was as amazed as Vanye, and perhaps even more delighted, for all that she had declared herself unmoved at the black filly's disappearance. With some effort, they corralled the two mares with Rat. They were both within a few weeks of foaling, by Vanye's eye, and the colt would have welcomed the company in any case. Whatever pretensions the colt might have had to lording it over the females, however, were put to rest by Stelli, who bullied her younger brother into submission within a day. The skinny mare had less weight to use, but was freer with her teeth, and Rat found himself at the base of the herd hierarchy yet again.
Stelli dropped a foal in the same week as the skinny mare, both of them fillies, brown as hazelnuts and nearly as small, except that the black mare's was a bare finger taller, and had dark stockings. Vanye stared at the scrubby things, and wondered that whatever hill stud had covered the black mare had managed the business at all.
Morgaine put up with his brooding for three days before taking him to task.
"Thee has her back, and no worse for wear. The colt is growing well. Only keep Siptah from killing him, and we shall have our remounts."
She had a point, Vanye was forced to admit. And with the two new mares coming into season, Siptah's temper was at the breaking point. After consultation with Morgaine, and the application of their best ropes, they threw and gelded the colt. It was a bloody affair, and the colt had screamed and struggled, but the ropes held, and all three of them survived. After two days, Rat was much recovered, and after another week, they re-introduced him to the herd. Siptah was suspicious, but Rat too cautious to even appear like a threat, contenting himself with being last to water and graze.
The new mare - brown and unremarkable in every way, but easily startled, so that they called her Rabbit - was quiet enough when with the other horses, especially with Stelli, who remained her particular friend. But she fought the lead and the saddle and any other sort of training, to the point where Vanye declared himself satisfied when she would take the halter and permit herself to be led. Her foal was better, and Vanye concentrated his efforts on handling the foals, and re-accustoming Stelli to harness.
So there were seven - Siptah and Arrhan, Stelli and Rat, the new mare Rabbit, and the two fillies, that they called Hazel and Acorn. Morgaine's investigations came upon a rough patch, so that she spent fewer hours struggling with the books, and more with Vanye as he tended things around the watchtower. This suited Vanye, for the younger horses would need to respond to both humans, if they were to serve their purpose beyond the Gate.
And there was a part of him that delighted in having Morgaine ride with him again, her hair shining in the sun. Their games at the practice yard had grown fewer, with Arrhan bearing or with a new foal at heel much of the year, and Vanye had missed those times. Morgaine smiled more, on horseback, than she ever did afoot. They could spend hours together, riding across the valley, and be content the whole while, whereas if they had spent half the time together in a room, they would have been at each other's throat.
Another blight passed over them in the last part of summer, when Vanye went out to collect the horses and found a group of black ravens squabbling over something pale and pink in the grass. An examination of the mares showed stains down Arrhan's hocks and tail.
"She seems otherwise aright," was Morgaine's doubtful opinion. "I have heard that these things happen. We should rest her over the winter, and if she comes into heat again, she will likely be no worse." And it was as close to Vanye's own thoughts that he smiled, to be walking in the same stride as Morgaine again.
Autumn came, and with it the rains. Stelli and Rabbit grew round again - Stelli did, at least, and Rabbit attained a pot-bellied look that meant the same thing. Over the winter, Vanye redoubled his efforts at schooling Rat, eventually convincing the thick-skulled lump to take Morgaine on his back. They rode further and further out, attempting to work into the young gelding some semblance of domestication. The height of winter passed, and most of the snow.
And so it was, until the day Siptah fell.
Vanye woke late and groaned as he rose, every bone in his body aching. Morgaine was gone, the teapot resting in the coals and the Gate-glyph marked on the hearth beside it. Vanye drank the lukewarm tea and grimaced at the taste. They were nearly out, and Morgaine could not be trusted to remember that they needed more foodstuffs. He would saddle the grey and ride -
The tea soaked the hearthrug when he dropped the teacup. Cursing, Vanye mopped at the tea, wiped his face, and mopped again at the rug.
At least she is not here to see it.
After a thin breakfast, he lay back down on the pallet, and stared at the ceiling for a good hour, before thinking to wonder if Morgaine had let the other horses out, or left them in the corral until he came down the cliff side.
The walk down the trail was not the most painful experience of his life, but he had reason to call to mind the four or five times when he had felt worse, in order to compare, before he reached the corral. Then, for Morgaine had indeed let the herd out, the thought of climbing back up again was too much. Vanye made his way out to the fence line, to a particular flat rock that was in the sun at this early hour, and sat there watching the horses graze.
Rat grazed a bit apart from the mares. The fillies played at tag, racing at full speed across the plains and back again. Hazel was the taller by a good hand now, and looked to gain another inch or more on her half-sister before she was grown. But the smaller yearling had speed and bottom out of match of her shorter legs, and could turn twice as fast. Vanye sighed.
One of the mares might drop a colt. Or, more likely, he would train Hazel to take a rider this year. Morgaine was nearly as tall as he, but still lighter, and if he modified Siptah's saddle, the filly might do by autumn.
He thought of carving the Kurshin saddle, with its high cantle and deep seat, and the thought made his stomach clench, as if he had sliced roasts from Siptah's haunch.
He would be lucky if Morgaine did not take the same opinion of it. Twice lucky, if she went three weeks before she began to blame Vanye for Siptah's fall.
Thrice fortunate, if he did not do the same.
So lost in contemplation, he heard the low groan before he recognized it. Then it was more than sound, the rock under him was shivering. When Vanye leapt to his feet, he all but fell. His eyes went to the watchtower, then back to the pasture.
All the horses were snorting and wheeling and plunging.
And then it was past. His gaze returned to the cliff, where a puff of dust rise in one place - no, three places, along the wall. None by the watchtower.
The horses were still running, slower and with their heads up, but he had a fear of panics and broken legs, now. Wetting his lips, he whistled, then again.
The third time Stelli turned back, and Hazel. Vanye raised his hands, as he did when he was collecting the horses in the evening, and waited. Another moment and Stelli led the way back to Vanye, ears flopping as she walked. The rest followed, still unsettled but moving past their fright. Vanye petted them all as the herd came to him, biting his lip against the impulse to rush them along.
None of the younger horses had been born, the last time the ground had shaken. Vanye, out hunting with Arrhan, had not even felt the tremor, and would not have known it occurred, had it not been for the reaction of the geese he had been stalking. He had returned empty-handed at evening, and Morgaine had told a tale of flickering lights, ripples in a water basin and swaying vines on the archive walls.
Now, Rat came last, as always, but that was because he was grazing along the way. Vanye kept his hand on the colt's mane as they walked back, and the other under Stelli's jaw, scratching her as they went. In the pasture - he dared not lock them so close to the cliff as the corral - he pulled the poles to, and then led Rat to the lean-to, leaving the mares behind.
The Gate was a long ride off. The earthquake might have been even slighter, there. Or might have been far stronger. He buckled the bridle on the gelding and left the saddle, using a stone to mount.
He met Morgaine coming back, Arrhan running fast, but not panicked. Morgaine pulled Arrhan back when she saw him, Vanye did likewise with Rat, so the horses met each other slowly. They circled closely, horses blowing while their riders stared at each other. Finally, Vanye found voice to state the obvious. "You are uninjured."
"Yes. And thee. And the horses?"
He nodded. "I have not checked the watchtower. It did not look much different, from the level."
"There was damage at the Gate - I am not sure how bad. Some buildings fell, and part of the canyon." She drew a breath. "I should go and check."
He nodded and kicked Rat to follow. That the fool gelding would have protested being left behind, now that he was with a fellow horse again, was only the least of it.
More than buildings had fallen. Three of the eight buildings had completely collapsed, and the right side of the archive storehouse was in ruins.
Worse, the canyon had been completely blocked.
"God," Vanye breathed, when he looked at the red-brown stone, shattered into rubble, and spilling across the Road to make a wall more than three times man-height. The Gate was twice blocked now. Morgaine muttered under her breath and led the way south, to a cut they knew led up the rim.
It took more than an hour of careful climbing, the accident of the day before likely fresh in both their minds, but they finally made the top and a place to over look the canyon. There, Morgaine cursed again, at length, and Vanye sat silent, boots dangling on the gelding's sides. Then they turned and rode back down, and along the cliff edge to the watchtower.
The canyon had nearly completely filled in. The great posts of the Gate were untouched, so far as either of them could tell, but rubble lay straight up to the crumpled wall of the cart. Half a thousand paces of tumbled, broken stone, piled twice to three times man-height. And that was not the whole of it - the sides had crumbled, so that even more waited to fall, when the lower most was cleared away.
Back at the watchtower, the only damage was a bit of potshard, reddish and smoke-blackened, that Vanye had thought pretty. He had set it on the ledge beside the hearth; now it lay shattered on the firepit stones. Even the panel in the third room still operated, down to the slowly blinking light that marked some disturbance at the archive.
Vanye stared about the room, wondering at how little it had changed, while so much else had. His toe tapped against something.
It was his gear, his weapons belt and his saddlebags, that had been shaken from their space. One pouch had come open, and a bit of grey hair peeked out.
He picked up the bags and belts and put them away.
"We can clear it," Morgaine said at supper, the first words she had spoken since they had looked into the canyon. It was dark by that time, and the soup Vanye served was twice watered, but neither of them were hungry. "With Changeling. It will not be impossible."
But not easy. Nor quick. Nor - and Vanye thought of the stones balanced on top of each other, so high up the walls - nor would it be safe, to stand at the base of that pile, and pluck away the lower-most stones with the Gate-sword's blade.
Some of those stones had been as large as a horse. Others had been much bigger.
And there was the nature of Changeling itself. If it were unsheathed beside an open Gate, the two powers would merge, or so Morgaine claimed. The devastation that would wreck would be sufficient to end that particular Gate - as well as Changeling, and whoever wielded the sword.
Which would be Morgaine, who knew better than Vanye the limits of the sword. He stared at the fire. My lady, what drives this recklessness?
What he said, though, was, "In the morning, I will go hunting. The ducks will be back, soon. Or I might find another sheep." In the last days of winter, he would find neither, most likely, and would have to content himself with a brace of ground squirrels. "Will you wait, until I return, to go back to the canyon?"
It was as close a demand as he could come, in her black mood and his own grief and dismay. Her gaze left the fire, raked over him, flickered away again. "Thee should make haste. It will be a long task, to clear the way."
"Aye." He rose, collected the bowls, set them aside, went to fetch water from the door-side urn.
"Leave it," she said. "I will see to them, in the morning. Go, rest, thy arm still aches."
It did, of course, and had since that morning, when Rat had jerked his head while Vanye's fingers were still tangled in the headstall. That was why he had left the saddle behind, his arm was throbbing and he did not want to stress it again with the weight. It wanted a poultice, and perhaps binding again. His thigh hurt as well - a day's riding was not the rest he had intended for the bruise. But Morgaine's dismissal struck a nerve, and wiped away any desire he might have had to ask her to address his injury.
She spoke again, just as he was at the door. "We will leave, when I have the Gate clear."
He actually had his mouth open to protest before he turned around and saw her, sitting where he had left her, starring at the embers. He closed his mouth and said nothing.
In the sleeping room, Vanye toed his boots off and laid down on the pallet, taking no care to keep to his side. She may wake me, he thought, with the last clear thought he had before slipping into sleep, if she wishes me to move.
He woke late again, alone, and if anything hurting worse than the day before. When he finally climbed to his feet and staggered into the hearth-room, he found Morgaine sitting propped against the wall, sound asleep. She had pulled a blanket around her shoulders, and cradled Changeling to her.
Vanye looked down at her, then went back to get his boots and make his way to the latrine. He brought an armful of wood with him, and dropped it beside Morgaine with a satisfying clatter.
"I am going to check the horses," he said, and left her there, blinking at the daylight.
That began the worst period of their time on Touaoc.
It could not be said that they fought, for there was never a raised word between them. Nor was she abusive to him, in her position as his liege, and he did not in any way disobey her or fail to hold to the letter of her instructions to him.
They lived in the same rooms, ate from the same pot, slept - when they slept - under the same roof. And that was all. In everything else, they lived separate lives.
She spent her days at the Gate, working at the rubble-choked canyon. At first Vanye rode with her, using the time to hunt, or raid the storehouses for supplies. Twice he was so reckless as to enter structures Morgaine judged on the verge of collapse, and once proved her correct by nearly bringing an entire wing down on his head. That nearly led to shouts, which might have cleared the air. But Vanye only dropped his gaze to glare at Changeling, and Morgaine's teeth snapped shut, and she said no more.
He watched her at work only once, and that was enough.
The last time she had done this, it had been on a world called Azeroth, and they had not yet been lovers. There it had seemed half a mountain had fallen across the roadway, with a cliff on one side and the slope rising steep and high on the other. That one had taken some hours to clear, and gravity had taken her part in that, pulling some of the slide over the edge and away.
Now Morgaine stood on the Road, at what had been the entrance to the canyon, and drew Changeling. The crystal blade gleamed in opal ripples as it slipped free of the sheath, but as soon as the tip cleared the casing, it blossomed into a light whiter than starlight. Vanye crossed his arms, resisting the urge to back away as Gate-sense crawled across his back and shoulders. Morgaine adjusted her grip, and touched the blade to the first boulder.
It was small, as the stones on the pavement went, no more than waist high, and slightly more than that around. Changeling did not so much as touch the rock as wave past it, and the Gate-field snatched up the boulder and took it away to...nowhere. It did the same with the next, and the next, and the one after that.
It was no slight thing, to send boulders weighing more than a yearling steer whirling away into nothingness at a single touch. But it was not because of this quality of Changeling that Morgaine was cursed on every world that knew her name.
It was because men had gone the way of those boulders, live, whole, skilled men - Changeling had taken them and not even left bodies to bury.
At the end of an hour, Morgaine was sweating and her arm trembled. She had to try twice to sheath the blade. Vanye stood back and let her.
The next day, Morgaine announced that she was returning to the canyon. Vanye kept his voice level and spoke of trying to put a halter on Hazel.
And so he did, after spending the morning and afternoon on the ledge, waiting until he saw Arrhan returning.
The rains came late that year, but compensated with ferocity. The rain muted Changeling's Gate-field and made the footing even more uncertain. Morgaine darted glances at Vanye all the first day, as if waiting for him to say something. For once, he managed to outlast her, and Morgaine declared the next morning that she would turn back to the issue of the archives for the duration, and attempt to solve the problem of calculations that had vexed her before.
If it had been the first year, he thought she might have considered trading her quarters back to the archives proper. But over the last five years, she had shifted a tremendous amount of books and loose papers to the watchtower, so that any beginning again, as Morgaine said it, must necessarily begin there.
So she stayed in the watchtower, and nearly drove Vanye mad.
She began by demanding space to work, and so put Vanye and his tasks out onto the ledge, and the dubious shelter of the over hang. Fortunately, he had finished restuffing the pallet before the rains, so that the reeds were still dry. If he had been forced to re-stuff it with rotting reeds, he doubted she would have noticed. When she slept, it was either beside the firepit, or over her books. On the one occasion that a hunt took him away from the watchtower until after dark, he had entered their rooms to find her asleep on the pallet. He had lain down beside her, not even brushing against her as he did, and fallen immediately to sleep. But part way through the night he had woken at some sound, and found the place beside him empty.
In the morning, she was up and folding the blanket when he came out, looking for tea. The next time he was out late, he did not even enter the sleeping room, but stretched out beside the fire. If it made his bones ache the more, he counted the irritation in her eyes as a greater victory.
It was a reversal of their old habits on the road, when each would try to outdo the other by favor and assistance. Now they tried to surpass each other in irritation, and if they did not drive each other to murder it was only because neither truly wished it. But more than once, Vanye thought, Morgaine had come close.
It began when Morgaine pulled out the sewing kit, and the old patterns she had made the previous spring. Never mind that she still had books stacked everywhere, she had to pull out sewing as well.
Vanye, who had taken to doing sword drills out on the ledge to keep his temper, was been called in to help clear a space. His tone, when he asked her purpose, having stepped on a dropped needle in his sock feet, was perhaps harsher than necessary.
"We leave," she said, in the patient terms she used when she considered him at his most dense, "as soon as we may. I will make swift progress when the rains stop. We must be prepared to leave. Have thou a ready bag?"
He was forced to admit that he had not. "But what of these," he asked, indicating the moldering stacks of books that lined each of the rooms, cases and crates open that had not been touched in two years.
"Not all of it can go with us. I must decide what is most essential."
"Will we leave the rest?"
She shook her head, set one shirt aside and reached for another. "It must be destroyed. The knowledge here is scattered, well mixed with legend and rumor, but in the right hands, it would be enough. It must not be left for another to find."
He wanted to ask if she meant the clothes as well, but restrained himself.
She meant weeks, he decided, two days later, when she greeted a patch of blue sky by throwing a shirt and a score of books back into a case and leaving the house, Changeling swinging at her side. Weeks before they would leave. Perhaps longer.
They had been too long on the road, that she said, we must leave, and he had his hand on the reins and his boot in the stirrup before the words had died away. They had tarried too long here, indulged themselves into insensibility.
The rains ended, and summer settled in, finally and in earnest. Morgaine resumed her work at the canyon, taking Arrhan and Rat by turns. The mares dropped their foals, Stelli a dun colt and Rabbit yet another brown filly, this one a match for Acorn. Vanye busied himself schooling Stelli and Hazel, which came to mean schooling the entire herd, a little at a time. It kept him away from the watchtower when Morgaine was there, and gave him a reason to refuse to accompany her to the Gate, save when they were most low on food.
She did not come down to see the foals, but only glanced their way in passing, on her way to collect Arrhan or Rat.
None of this was to say that they were no longer coupling, but what had been a matter for leisure, in the long hours of the evening, or in the bright sun of an afternoon, was now conducted in haste. She had begun it again, shortly after the rains ended. He had come up the cliff at noon, intend to finding somewhat to eat and leave again. She had brushed past him in the doorway, his hand had fallen on her hip.
It was a sort of madness, that left them sprawled on the ledge, both half-undressed and gasping for breath. Looking down at her, he had attempted a smile. She had scowled and shoved at his shoulder, pushing him off her and tugging her clothing to rights. Vanye had sighed and done the same.
A freak event, he had decided by supper. Not likely to happen again, unless they worked through whatever was happening to them, and that was looking less and less likely as day followed day. So it was twice over a surprise the following morning, when she put aside her cup of tea and - with no affection on her face - reached over to him, and jerked his shirt off over his head.
Custom and honor forbade what they did, and always had, but this was not the arrangement they had slipped into together, so many worlds before. In Andur-Kursh there had been rumors of clan-lords who had taken in ilin outcasts and then - inviolate behind the Claiming oath from retribution and censor - used their ilin in manners which most thought unjust. He thought Morgaine knew this, and kept to the same virtues - in this, at least, if in nothing else. But she never spoke to him in Kurshin in those moments, only her own language, words that he could not understand. Vanye thought of her previous companions, the ones who had died at Irien, before Vanye had been born, and wondered if it had been thus between the five of them.
It took him a week of it - of not knowing when he might come around a corner and find her waiting for him, or when he might reach out his hand, and find her seizing it, and him, all but climbing him in her eagerness - to decide he preferred the earlier time, when he and Morgaine touched no more than necessary.
It came to a head, finally, the day it rained.
The summers were long, and hot, and nearly uniformly dry. But each year they had spent on the world there had been at least one out-of-season storm that blew through, shaking the leaves and flooding ground too parched to soak it in. This year was no exception.
He woke feeling the approaching storm in the ache in his elbow. Morgaine was no more short with him at breakfast than she was any other day, but she kept glancing at the sky as well. She had come back early from the Gate two days before, face set and white, but giving no clue what had distressed her.
A stone fell too close, Vanye guessed. Shock must have turned her stomach, by the way she pressed a palm to her belly from time to time, unconsciously. Vanye could remember more than once when fear - battlefield or otherwise - had set him to heaving, and could not but feel a twinge of sympathy. Morgaine burned through that swiftly enough, though, with the edge of her tongue and her ill mood, and by the next afternoon, Vanye was considering suggesting she deal with the fear by going back to work. A disinclination to speak with her was all that held his tongue that evening, and the next morning the storm was on the way.
By midmorning the western horizon was dark. Vanye went down and called the horses back in, but, by experience, left the mares in the pasture, where they might keep the foals on drier ground. Arrhan, the fillies and Rat he watered and brought to the corral. The lean-to would not keep them dry - even the watchtower, facing the coming storm as it did, would be full of damp places by evening. But they could stand together in the mud, and would fare the better for it.
They lipped at him, begging for treats, but he had none for them, only a quick curry apiece. Back up the trail, he checked the roof beams and doubled the lashings on a few he suspected of growing loose, double tied the willow-wand shutters on two of the three doors, and shifted many of the various crates and boxes away from the windows.
All the while, Morgaine sat on the ledge, staring out at the gathering clouds, dragon-hilted sword and its harness in a tangle beside her on the ledge.
When the first drops hit, heralded by a low crack of thunder, he put his head through the door and said, "The storm is coming," before going back to shift another box without watching her rise and come inside.
Except that she did not. Vanye inwardly groaned and sighed. God.
The thunder cracked again, as if in reply. Vanye slid down the wall and looked out the door.
If he slanted his eyes aright, he could see the rubies glinting, set in the eyes of the dragon that was the hilt and guard of Changeling. Morgaine still sat on the ledge. The rain fell harder now, the silvery edge of the torrent fast approaching over the plain.
She did not move, though the rain dampened her hair and ran down her sleeve. She was bent far over, one hand still on the sword, the other gripping the cliff edge.
It was nonsense. If she was dizzy, she might slip straight off, and fall a hundred feet to the next outcropping.
Nothing, not even a wave of dismissal. He clenched his jaw, noted her fingers as they rested loosely on Changeling's hilt, the eating knife at her belt. Stepped close, bent, and jerked Changeling free.
She came up at him, as he thought she might, but he was ready for her. He ducked the blow she threw at his face, had her arms pinned against her side and Changeling locked in the other hand. She was struggling now, and keening, a high, lost sound.
Something gave in his elbow as he half lifted, half threw her back in the room. She came at him, and he switched hands on the sword, warded her off with a stiff arm. She glared at him in astonishment, face a mask of fury. Drew herself up, eyes blazing.
"Thee goes too far, ilin," she spat. When he made no reply, but only leaned aside to set Changeling in its place, she seized his arm and jerked him back around to face her. "Has thou no apology?"
He had thought it might come to this. He had prayed it would not.
"My lady, I beg your pardon." He knelt, made obeisances, touching his head to the floor between his hands. Rose again, first to his knees, so that he might lift his head and stare her in the eyes. Then to his feet, keeping his gaze on her the while. She glared back, and her fingers were trembling. For a moment, he thought she would strike him, and knew, this time, if she did, that he would strike back.
But she only clenched her hand and kept her shaking fist by her side. Vanye bowed once more from the neck, and turned on his heel.
He might have heard her sob as he walked down to the corral, but he was too focused on finding the trail beyond his blurring vision and the driving rain that he could not be sure.
The mares were glad to see him and crowded close, expectant of treats he did not have. Even Rabbit suffered to lean her head against him for an time, and let him scratch her chin. Both of the foals seemed well enough, if as wet as the rest of the world. He lost himself for a time, stroking the horses and letting their huge bodies warm him against the still-falling rain. When true evening came, and with it an end to the downpour, he walked with them in the near-darkness, up to the corral.
Morgaine was standing beside the corral wall, one hand on Arrhan. He half expected her to walk away when she saw him, but she only stayed beside the white mare.
He let the mares and their foals into their corral, slipped through the uprights separating the two pens, and came up on Arrhan's other side.
She had changed her clothes, and was dry. He could not see the expression on her face in the darkness, but the pattern of her breath was deep and even.
"Thee acted aright, ilin," she said at last. "I thank thee for thy care."
He nodded, unsure of what to say. She stood there a moment more, stroking the patient Arrhan, and it was only after Morgaine walked away that Vanye realized she might not have seen his silent reply.
A week later, the peace yet held, although they were still sleeping separately, and speaking no more than needful. Vanye rode with Morgaine to fetch more documents from the ruined archive, and when they returned, walked Rat and Arrhan down to the field.
He stood watching the gelding trot in a circle around his mares, playing impotent court on each of them in turn. Rabbit charged him straight away, ears back and teeth bared, until Rat fled, leaving Rabbit and her foal alone. Then the gelding approached the white mare, as though he had not spent the morning in her company.
Rat sniffed at Arrhan's flank, danced back when she pinned her ears and nipped at him. He tried once more, with no better result, and then went to the black mare. She would in no wise stand for him, but suffered him to nuzzle her side, and to rest his chin on her withers.
Arrhan grazed a little to one side, steadily cropping grass, oblivious to the courting pair.
Vanye sank to his heels and considered them, trying to bring the last few months to mind.
Tell truth, he had not been over-conscious of the horses, beyond noting the necessities of their day to day. He looked closer now - saw the girth Arrhan had, and tried to remember if it had been less at the start of summer. Tried to recall the year previous.
The two fillies were young still, and slight-fleshed - they might show heat by the end of the summer, or they might not. Stelli was solid enough day to day, but leading up to her season, she could be short-tempered and flighty. Rabbit was the same. Vanye could count, easily enough, the number of times both mares had come into season since the rains ceased.
Vanye rubbed his chin, felt the ache in his arm. The elbow had never healed aright. If they went down to the Gate, and passed through the small portal, it would be as it had been.
So would the callouses worn on his hands, the mark on his face, the muscles that stretched over his shoulders. All wiped away.
Late in the day, he found Morgaine bent over the reader, a frown creasing her brows and her finger steadily tracking the lines of runes. He sat quietly until she put the reader down.
In an odd gesture, she turned from laying aside the reader and reached out for his hand. Cupping it in both of hers, she touched his fingers - the battered knuckles, the scar on his left thumb - a thin white crescent, that he had earned his tenth year, the one that always remained, no matter how many times he entered the Gates. Tracing the last finger, with its missing nail and stiff joint, she said, "Thee has some news."
He shrugged, climbed to his feet. At the door, he leaned against the lintel and looked out. The sunset was still fading, but most of the sky had gone to darkness, and a handful of stars scattered across the firmament.
"Arrhan is with foal."
Morgaine sat, waiting.
"The foal, it will be Siptah's, I think."
"Is thee certain?"
He hesitated, shook his head. "No. There is the wild herd, the one Rabbit had before she came here. A stallion might have made his way here, and left again. Perhaps."
The log in the hearth popped. "But thee does not think so." Another pause. "When?"
"Early spring, if I have it aright."
There was something in her face, something close to what he might have called fear. He dropped his gaze, tried to find his train of thought again. But the words to beg her for another year would not come. He would not ask it of her. There were greater things in creation than the last foal of a good stud.
"Very well." He looked up, astonished. "The canyon will take more time to clear, and there are still things I wish to find in the records. Until spring." Her voice was normal, unshaded, and it was he had to look away.
His euphoria lasted for another five weeks, until he came back from a hunting trip - long, fruitless, and frustrating, as many of his summer hunts were - and found her putting clothes in a traveling pack. The rest of her small wardrobe lay beside her, trouser seams let out along the waist and the small razor she used for sewing lying open beside them.
The anger he had kept bottled up since before the rains came breaking through all at once.
"Why are you doing this?"
"What?" And God, he had thought they were past this, that she would not sit there and look at him as if amazed that what she did distressed him. He had thought they had mended that.
"This!" He waved a hand at the clothing she had laid out, at the cut-apart trousers. "You need these, for the winter here! Why must you destroy them? You said, liyo, you promised me that we would wait, that we would give Arrhan time -"
"I am doing that!"
"By packing half your clothing away, and tearing apart the rest?"
Her face was contorted and flushed. He noted for the first time how round her features had become over the last few months. Small wonder, that she was not riding, nor hunting, nor helping much with the horses. Still it was a shock, and further conformation of how strange she had become, and far from the woman he had sworn an oath to.
Strange or not, he could still read her expression, and so was not surprised when her next words came out clipped and furious. "Thee is a small-minded, thick-headed bullock, and incapable of noting the rise and fall of the sun, save that it sheds light on those mangy nags -"
"They at least make some effort to be an assistance to me, as you -"
" - particularly that white bitch -"
"Sweet tempered and warm hearted and sane -"
" - who is not the only female bearing in this region!"
He decided later that it was a measure of his base stupidity that he at first assumed she was talking about Stelli.
When he finally took her meaning, he turned around and walked out. Fortune favored him, and led him through the doorway and down the trail, for left on his own, he would have gone straight through the wall and then over the side.
She found him much later, down by the bathing pool.
"I did not mean what I said of Arrhan. Thou knows I love her well, and wish for a healthy foal."
He nodded. It should not seem like such a large thing.
"If I had known -" he started, stopped again.
"I should have told thee as soon as I suspected. It was false of me, to keep that from thee."
He shook his head. "It is not that. I mean, that if I had known there was to be a child, if it was a possibility..." He trailed off, and had to try again twice before he could continue. "I was raised a bastard in Ra-morij. I intended to never sire any."
To that she said only, "Ah."
Even if they were among other people, he had never met an honest priest - Man or qhal - who would have spoken for Heaven, and blessed a union such as theirs.
They sat together for a long while. She stretched out her legs, let her feet rest in the water. Her ankles were thicker - he remembered one of his father's maids, a mother of some dozen children, and how her legs would swell. He eased forward off the wall, shifted slowly along until he was sitting beside the pool. Slipping his hand over one ankle, he drew her foot into his lap, and slowly worked his thumbs along her instep, trying to gauge her responses by the tension in her leg.
She hissed at first, and tried to pull her foot away, but he held it, gently but firmly, and lightened his grip. Gradually, her leg relaxed, as he worked first on the foot, then her toes, and finally her ankles. When he was finished with that foot, he set it back down, and took the next.
She was leaning back on her elbows by then, head thrown back, breathing slow and deep. When he had worked the first of the strain out of that foot, she sighed and lifted her head to look at him.
"Will thou stay, and do this for me, every night?"
Her voice made it a jest, but her eyes did not. He looked down at his hands, busy rubbing the tight muscle at the back of her heel, and then back up at her face. "Yes," he said, his voice a match for her eyes. She nodded, let her head drop again.
"So long as Arrhan grants thee leave, thou means to say."
And that made him laugh, as she had intended it to.
To say that things were healed between them then would have been a gross exaggeration, but it did stop them from both tearing at the wound, so that it began to close over of itself. Vanye felt a little misused, still, and resented the abruptness of the news for far longer than was in truth warranted. Morgaine at least had been granted time to become accustomed to the idea of an impending child, while he had been hit with it without foreshadowing.
When ever he tried to articulate this, however, he ran up against his own absorption and disregard, and that put an limit on his discontent. He had seen men excuse themselves of ignoring their wives and mistresses before, and retain their good standing. He had never encountered one who neglected his liyo and was still respected, after.
So he put the resentment aside, as much as he could, and found the ill-will dying for lack of cultivation. Morgaine no more became an easy-tempered woman, simply because she carried a child, than she became a broody hen. Nor did her tongue - which retained all its sharpness - cut any less deep when she turned it on him in earnest. Which she did still.
Likely until her dying day, Vanye thought, some weeks later, as Morgaine stomped through the rooms behind him. It was his turn to wash their shirts, but she had used the harsh laundry soap last, and it was not where she swore she had left it. Which led to more swearing. And to Vanye sitting on the ledge, with a pile of noxious clothing beside him, listening to his liege-lord sort through three tiny rooms with no closets nor chests --
yet widely scattered with books and loose papers, something Vanye was going to bring up when he thought the comment would not get him shoved off the cliff
-- which still managed to conceal a fairly large cloth sack wrapped around a sharply scented lump of soap; while he sat on the last of the sun and felt as joyous as he had in two seasons.
When she found the soap at last and came out - still stomping - to drop it on the laundry heap, he reached up to catch her hand.
"Come down with me. You have not seen the new foals in two days." Which was not entirely so - it was late afternoon now, and she had come down at daybreak the previous morning, to see him let the horses out. But she had spent the rest of that day and nearly all of this at her papers. He stood, not leaning on her but not letting go of her hand, either, and gathered up the clothes and soap with the other.
"Come, please." She frowned, but let herself be persuaded.
Rabbit and Stelli both trotted over to check Vanye's hands for treats, and the foals pushed in as well. "Twig," Morgaine said, rubbing Rabbit's filly, and to the colt, "Boy." Which was a milk-name, Vanye thought, as bad as Mai, but neither of them would say his sire's name.
Morgaine had been shocked, when she learned that he had not yet named the foals - they were three months old when the subject came up, and he had only shrugged. "This is what comes of thy wits," she said, looking from him to the foals and back again. "Had it been one, thee would have said, Mai, and been done with it. But there are two, and so thee are caught between, and can not decide." Which had been unkind, if nearly true. And it had given him an opening, to bring up something he had been wondering, ever since that night by the the bathing-pool.
"Amar, in the spring, when - have you considered, for the child..."
"Thee shall not name it Mai," she snapped. "Nothing else is firm." Then she had reached out and pointed at Rabbit's foal. "That one is Twig. The other is Boy." And she had patted Arrhan once more, her hand trailing along the mare's side, before departing.
Now she fussed with both foals, praising both their mothers for wisdom and warning the youngsters against gluttony and sloth. "God in Heaven," she said, turning away and walking with him to the pool. "I am hungry again. Did thee feed them all the bread?" He laughed and produced another piece from his shirt pocket. She examined it critically and picked off a bit of broken leaf before putting it in her mouth, declaring it acceptable but insufficient. Despite this, she did not turn aside and go back up the trail, but stayed with him and sat beside the pool as he worked their shirts into the sand, sluiced water over them, and began again.
He did not look at her as he worked, for he was finding her increasingly a distraction. He had thought her lovely, when she was boy-slim and moderately-breasted. Now, her hips widening and her bosom far more substantial, she posed a far greater threat to his concentration.
"I thought thee would be far angrier. And for far longer."
He risked a glance at her - she was sitting with her knees pulled and her arms folded over them. Her chin was on her elbow, so that one hand covered half her face. It made it very hard to read her expression.
Turning back to the laundry, he shrugged. When she said nothing else, he asked, "Over what?"
This time, it was her turn to be at a loss. "For lying to thee," she said, finally. "For hiding things, for - for trapping thee. With a child."
It was as hard to understand the reasons she imagined assigned to his emotions as it was the feelings themselves. Vanye shrugged again.
"I have done worse, in your service," he said, finally. Meaning, there is nothing you have done, where I have not committed worse. Which was possibly not true, and definitely not so if one were counting simple murder, but he thought the meaning clear. It was only after the words were out that he considered how else they could be taken. He sat back on his heels, then, and looked at her.
"And I would do far worse, still, in an instant, did you require. Liyo," he added so that she would know him serious.
She pressed her lips together, nodded, and turned her head away.
When he had rinsed the last shirt, and set it out to dry on the sand, he stood and went to her, offered a hand to help her rise. She took it, but did not stop moving forward when she had her feet. He kissed her in return, and found himself far more passionate than he had intended.
"Amar," he said. It was not sensible, it was scandalous, it was the behavior of an uncouth, kin-less outcast, to pull his woman to him and run his hands over her, out where any might see them. And it was unmanly, to press his mouth to the swell of her belly, to let his lashes brush against the taunt skin, to want her, so much more, now that she was bearing. Bearing his child.
He filled his hands with her breasts, and brought his mouth to them, one after another, let his fingers run over the curve of her side. She followed him down, onto the sand beside the pool.
One of the clean shirts went into the water, and he had to fetch it out, wring it back to dampness, and lay it on a different patch of sand, while she shook out her clothes and muttered at her trouser fittings.
They made their way up the cliff leaning on each other.
He woke with the light slanting grey through the cut in the wall. The blankets beside him were empty, but still warm. He lay there a moment, trying to recall what had awoken him.
Morgaine's voice, muttering, in the other room - not the hearthroom, the one with the Gate panel.
"Amar?" His voice felt as sleepy and muzzy as his mind. "What is it?"
That woke him fast enough - his pulse hammering at her clipped tone as much as the words themselves.
Their clothes were still scattered on the floor. Vanye pulled his shirt from the pile, tugged it over his head as he walked, still bare legged, into the third room. Morgaine was crouched before the panel, chin on her fist, and wearing nothing but her ivory hair against the chill. He sank down on his heels behind her, wrapped his arms around her to pull her against his chest.
"What is it?" he asked again. She was not ignoring him - her hand clutched his forearm where it curved over the arch of her belly - but her attention was almost completely absorbed by the symbols that were flashing on the wall before her.
"This -" she reached up, tapped one finger against the panel. The Gate glyph, still flashing red. At her touch, a dark square appeared on the wall beside the Gate marker, and script flowed across it. "-- this tells me the Gate opened an hour ago, and again, within the last few moments."
Vanye frowned, rested his chin on Morgaine's shoulder and considered the board. Unease was eating at his gut, and he hugged her the tighter against it. "This happened before, and it was naught that we could determine." But there was no conviction in his voice.
She nodded. "Aye. That we could find. But it was only the once. This is twice."
He dropped a kiss on her shoulder. "I will saddle the horses."
It was not quite so quick as that - there were their hide cloaks to find, and the fire to build again, and tea to brew, and both of them needed to braid their hair. It was far from the rapid departures they had conducted on worlds past, Vanye thought, and tried not to fret. But they drank their tea standing up while it was still scalding, and he had Arrhan and Rat saddled before she came down the cliff with their cloaks and swords.
Their mail was in a case in the hearthroom, buried beneath a pile of books. Vanye took his sword and buckled it on while Morgaine fought with Changeling's harness and let out three buckles before she could make it hang properly. Then he made a stirrup of his hand and helped her onto Arrhan before swinging onto the gelding.
The sun was still behind the cliff wall, but the plains to the west and south were all lit with gold, and the horses' hooves made smeared ovals in the silver-frosted grass as they rode along the trail towards the Gate.
The grass stood thick on the path, having spring up during the rains, and only now dying back again. What hope Vanye had of a false alarm, of some mistake of the Gate machinery, was dashed long before they reached the Gate itself.
Smoke was rising from the complex. No, not smoke, dust, as though from many feet. There was a queer grinding roar, that coughed and whined, and as Vanye watched he realized he could match the dust to the changes in the sound. Morgaine lifted the reins and turned Arrhan without comment into the line of trees along the base of the cliff. Vanye followed, and once they had secured the horses, led the way through the brush and trees at the base of the cliff. He had to help Morgaine when they began to climb the wall itself, but it was with less effort than he had thought possible that they found themselves secreted in a patch of woods with a clear view of the Gate complex, save the Gate itself.
But that was unneeded. Vanye and Morgaine shared a long look - when they had last approached the gate, in the month before the fall rains began, there had still been nearly a hundred feet of rubble and shattered stone blocking the Road, as well as the older wreckage of an air cart before the Gate proper.
By the dozen men in the courtyard, and the equipment they had brought with them - there was a squat building in the middle of the Road, just outside the archive house - the blockage was gone now.
He took out the glass and peered through it at the new arrivals.
There were figures going in and out of the archive storehouse, and a few other buildings. He narrowed his eyes, staring, and then realized that all of the people were dressed alike, or nearly so, and that despite the identical clothes there were a number of different people, and not all the same man.
Not men - qhal.
And no qhal he had ever seen - there were qhal carrying things, and going at directions from those few in recognizably different dress, and in many ways acting quite differently than all the qhal he had seen on other worlds.
These qhal were efficient. Were organized. Were --
He stopped the glass in mid-sweep, focused on one individual. Passed the glass to Morgaine, and breathed in her ear, "The captain, the lord, at the archive gate. The one alone now, on the right..."
Morgaine raised a finger, and he broke off. She stared a moment longer, then shifted the glass abruptly, scanning the cliffside, the whole complex, the mouth to the Gate canyon. Then she snapped the glass back into its case and began to ease back out of the copse. Vanye waited a moment longer, his attention caught by something that passed high over head, a buzzing whine like that of a bee, but moving far faster. He saw a shadow over the complex, like a stooping falcon, but nothing else, and after another breath followed Morgaine.
She was waiting for him at the bottom of the cliff. As soon as he joined her, she headed for the horses. "Liyo?"
"Later," she snapped, and he subsided. A few steps later she said, "I must think. And we must be further away before we speak."
By further away, Vanye gathered, Morgaine meant the last stand of woods before the watchtower. And they could not ride, but must lead the horses as deep into the trees as they could manage. Morgaine was constantly looking overhead, peering at the pale sky through the branches, and near to running. Arrhan jogged at her heels. When they finally stopped, Morgaine's face was flushed, and her breath came hard.
"Are you well?" he asked, pulling his canteen from his saddle.
"I am fine," she said, through gritted teeth. And truth be told, once she was sitting down and had a drink of water, she looked much better.
Vanye sank down on his heels and waited while she drank again, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and passed him the canteen. When he had drunk, he asked, "Was that, was that Skarrin?"
She nodded grimly. "Him, or someone very like. God, I killed him, I know I did. How many bodies can he wear? His mind should be thin as paper, with nothing of substance to it!"
Vanye nodded, taking her meaning, and her distress.
The man - the qhal - at the archive gate had the mannerism and habits of a qhal long dead. Dead in his original body, but living still in the bodies of men and qhal he had taken and worn like a man might wear a coat, and make the arms thereof lift and wave, but without the coat having any conscious thought itself.
Except a hunter would cleanly kill the creature from which a hide coat was made, before putting it on. Skarrin was not so kind.
Vanye jerked his attention back to Morgaine, who was sitting too still for his liking. "Liyo, what is your plan?"
Her eyes flickered at him, and then away. "That is not a scouting party. They have the tank -"
"Tank? What is that?"
She made a slashing motion with her hand. "A vehicle. A cart, that moves of its own. Armored. A machine of war. Thee saw it there, in the Road."
He had seen a squat and oddly rounded building, with the look of metal and painted the same color the buildings of the Gate complex might have had, before they spent years alone under the sun and wind. It had not looked like a cart at all. He shrugged and gestured for Morgaine to go on.
She made a roll of her eyes, as she might when frustrated by his ignorance, but kept talking, her words falling over each other. "The tank and two flitters - no, do not ask me to explain, it will take too long - at least two, and how many men? Twenty-five? Thirty?"
"I counted twenty-eight, but I doubt I saw them all."
She nodded. "So. They mean to hold this Gate. Collect the stored archives, resettle the area, Heaven knows what they intend after. But I do not like the look of these warriors, Vanye, I do not like it at all."
"With such to fight for him, Skarrin might achieve...much." And one of the things Skarrin wanted most was Morgaine Anjhurin - alive, if possible. Vanye did not flatter himself that he rated so high in the qhal's estimation.
"Aye. And even if they never leave this world, they will find us very soon. They have technologies that we can not defend against. We have a very narrow window, while they are ignorant of our presence. We must strike, and then leave."
He sucked in his breath, and she put a hand on his arm. "Vanye. If I have an hour, two at the most, I may be able re-set the Gate, and suspend the templates." She locked her gaze with him. "Does thee hear me? If we stay here, they will find us, and Skarrin's attention will be fatal at least to thee."
He rubbed his face, mind spinning. "Liyo. If you could remove it, before, then why..." She had said, many worlds before, it is a tricky piece of business, to set the template properly, and not have thee better resemble a frog, when thee exits. It was why there were such things as Skarrin.
He could not even find the question to ask, was aware that it was the wrong question to ask, or the wrong hour, or the wrong place, but the threat of Skarrin was hard on his thoughts, and if Skarrin had reason to hate Nhi Vanye i Chya, then Skarrin would love the child swelling Morgaine's belly even less.
She took a breath, then another. "Vanye, I swear to thee, if we all live through this, I will explain it all as often as thee pleases, and in as great a detail."
It was, for her, a mighty admission. And a sign of how distressed she was. "Aye, liyo, later." He rubbed his face again, tried to wipe away confusion. "What shall we do?"
She chewed her lip, and suddenly would not look at him.
"I will go into the complex, announce myself to Skarrin, and when I am in his confidence, destroy the Gate controls."
God, she was as mad as she ever was. "It will not work."
"It shall. They will imagine me no threat." She made a gesture, indicating her rounded belly, her bootless feet.
"They will suspect nothing."
"They are a war-party in a strange world, they will suspect everything. No, liyo, no. You will not do this."
"Thee takes much upon thyself, ilin." The tone was warning, not fury. Vanye took heed, and changed his approach.
"My lady, I beg you. Do not do this."
"Provide for me a better plan."
Dear Heaven, she was the one who had named him thick-headed. But she was still sitting on her heels, waiting. It had been a serious request, liyo of ilin, clan-lord of dai-uyo.
He had not known how much he had missed that, until this moment. He took a deep breath to steady himself.
"Tell me what to do. I will go into the complex, to the controls, by stealth. I will pass, if I may borrow one of their coats, where you would not."
"I like this less. If they catch thee, they will kill thee. Myself, at least, I warrant Skarrin's review. And once I have his ear..."
"Liyo, to get his ear you must be in his hand, and he will not release you this time. You have killed him twice, and he was never the tolerant sort."
The joke made her smile, at least. "So what would thee have me do, besides sit with the horses?"
God, if his plan left Morgaine to her own devices for an hour, he may as well forfeit any scheme he created. "A diversion. Take Arrhan, show yourself, draw some of the qhal a little ways off. It will make things easier for me."
And that was it. There were more details to it than that, and a map drawn in the dust, and Vanye must repeat back Morgaine's instructions for the Gate controls twenty times before she announced herself satisfied. But that was the whole of it.
"Thee knows the pattern to close the Gate, already. But if we only shut the Gate, it will not suffice," Morgaine said, as she sketched the control panel. "So I will show thee a new pattern, one that will put a delayed devastation to the controls, but which I may over-ride, before we go through." She tapped her stick on the ground. "When we are through, I will find another master Gate, and reset the templates for us all. I do not like the thought of losing thee to some fool with a fortunate arrow." She stared at him, hard, and Vanye dropped his eyes. Morgaine went on.
"Skarrin is no hero. Nor, I think, is every one of his men likely to be so. If they know the Gate is closing, they will flee. But." And she straightened. "They must believe it. And we must escape as well."
The first was easy enough. Destruction would speak for itself. As for the second -
"Is he sane, still, do you think?" Vanye had doubted the qhal's mind, from the first, but Morgaine had declared him no more crazed than any other mind-jumper. The slipping from body to body, though, was notorious for destroying minds.
"Skarrin? As sane as any can be. A true madman, I think, would not be tolerated by a people as precise as these."
"Then we lie," Vanye suggested, "and say three hours, and mean four. He will flee, and we can leave there after."
She nodded, and bent again to her drawing. "Look, here..."
Another half an hour, and he could repeat the instructions to her satisfaction.
"How long," he asked at last, "between when I press this -" he pointed at the last key, or, rather, the mark in the dirt that meant the last key, "- and when the Gate closes for true?"
"Five hours. Or six. No more than that. Anyone left on this side of the Gate at that time, shall remain here."
He blew out his breath. "Then, perhaps, we should collect some things."
It was a mad rush, to gather everything of value from three rooms, a lean-to, and six years of stability. Vanye took a moment and let his eyes run over the mis-matched walls, the firepit, the ledge outside where Morgaine liked to sit. Morgaine barely glanced at the building itself.
"Hurry," she said, when she saw him standing empty handed, and went out the door, winding up her hair as she went. A thud of books in the other room told him was she was after - the case he had put their armor into.
She tied on greaves and fore-arm guards, but made no attempt to don the mail itself. He slung his padded jerkin on - it had been part of his typical winter gear, these last few years, and was rather bedragged - and then sat to shrug into his mail shirt. Morgaine finished with her greaves and came to help him.
She was as frightened as he, Vanye thought, but was hiding it well. He was familiar with the pattern from long experience - face closed down, one hand brushing a bit of hair back behind her ear again and again, buckling on Changeling in a certain pattern.
The last thing she collected from the case was his helm. He reached out to take it from her, but she snatched it back, and unwound the white scarf from it, let the cloth fall in the case and dropped the lid.
"Liyo," he began, and stopped, wondering if she would refuse that as well. But she only shook her head, and said, "It will do nothing to help thee hide from the sentries."
Then she was gathering up armfuls of books and papers, far more than would fit into her saddlebags if her armor must go there as well. She juggled the books from hand to hand, discarding one after the other onto the floor.
She was still fighting with the books as they descended the cliff trail, while he held her elbow with one hand and kept them both from going off the side. At the bottom of the wall, she pulled the saddlebags out, dumped them on the earth, and went back for the rest of their gear. Vanye hesitated for a long moment over Stelli before turning her out with Rabbit and the other younger horses and bringing Rat and Arrhan to Morgaine.
They had to drop more of the books there, and Vanye took some and put them into his own bags. Then he tied their bedrolls behind the saddles.
She stood by Arrhan again, waiting for him to help her mount. He did, and paused there, his hand on her belly, and hers leaving the reins to cover it.
A strange notion took him then, and he took her other hand and held it to his forehead. "Amar. My mother's name was Ilen. Among my father's men was a man who taught me horses, San Romen."
Her hands tightened on him, and for a moment he thought she would say something, would be angry with him for speaking chancy things, or for being morose and wasting time. But she only said, lightly, "Ilen. San Romen. Get thee to horse. It will be well, thee will see, only keep thy head about thee."
"Aye, liyo." He released her hands and threw himself into the saddle. It would be. Morgaine had said so.
Three hours later, he was less hopeful. They had secreted the horses among the trees, dodging two of the flitters on the way. Now Vanye knew what they were, or what his mind told him they were, but no amount of explaining by Morgaine was ever going to make sense of qhal who flew through the air as if they were birds. Or devils.
He had put that out of his mind, with difficulty, and bent his attention to sneaking within the perimeter. Morgaine had pointed out the eyes placed along the plains side - not true orbs from a face, but mechanical things, some cousin of Gate-magic that saw the heat cast by bodies. That left the cliff sides, where - again, Morgaine said - the eyes would be of less use, because of the wild creatures there.
Instead of eyes, the qhal had posted guards. And these guards, Heaven help them, were no fools. They moved about, frequently, but with no pattern he might anticipate, and a qhal lord had come out twice, while Vanye watched, to inspect their vigilance.
After the high-qhal had left, Vanye had tried to creep closer. A rabbit had started from the brush, and the qhal guards - two of them - had knelt and pointed their rifles at the rabbit, tracking it across the sand. When the rabbit had reached the archive courtyard, it had darted inside, nearly tripping the qhal striding out. The guards had stood, both of them laughing, and arguing if such a thing as the rabbit would have been worth the high-qhal's displeasure, for firing at the rabbit.
Vanye seethed. The plan had been for him to get into position to sneak across the sand, and then for Morgaine to slip back and create her diversion. It was not going to work. The guards were beyond sensible and well towards uncanny. He was not going to get in this way, and worse, they would both be caught. Vanye forced his breathing to calm, jumped again at Morgaine's touch.
"Vanye. Art thou mine?" Morgaine's voice whispered in his ear, her fingers clenched his arm through the mail. His mind registered the calm tone before the words. "Art thou - my love, my ilin, my heart, art thou?"
He shook his head, not against the question, but against what he knew was coming - she did not do this lightly. He did not want to do whatever it was, that she was preparing to demand of him. He did not. She gripped his arm again, harder, and Vanye found his voice.
"Yes, liyo. Always." He could not keep the misery from his voice.
"Then by thy oath and by thy love, Vanye, on the head of thy child, stay hidden. Whatever happens." And then her weight was gone from his back, and her breath from his ear, and she was slipping away through the brush.
No. Oh, God in Heaven, liyo, no. It was a long, long wait, and Vanye's shoulders ached, expecting the sound of one of the rifles at any time. The sentry before him stayed, maddenly, on post and alert, slowly pacing back and forth and scanning the treeline.
Finally, voices raised in alarm on the far side of the complex. Voices shouting, not firing, and Vanye felt a measure of tension ease away. To his annoyance, the sentry did not abandon his post to join the others, but found a place to wait where he might watch both the outer perimeter and some portion of the inner complex. Vanye spent the time composing elaborate curses maligning the ancestry, upbringing, and personal hygiene of what ever tyrannical war-leader had conducted the training of these men. They were too good.
Eventually, though, one of the warrior-chiefs came to the sentry, and gestured him further down the way. Craning his neck, Vanye saw two other qhal warriors leave their posts at a trot, slinging their weapons as they ran toward the archive house and the squat tank. It was then that he saw one of the qhal attempting to lead Arrhan, who had her ears back and wanted nothing to do with approaching the tank. The mare continued to fuss until Morgaine herself appeared, her manner regal and unconcerned, taking the lead from the stranger and quieting Arrhan with a pat.
Skarrin was there as well, arms folded and unwelcoming. Morgaine waved a hand, shrugging, in the direction of the watchtower, then another, broader, gesture at the whole of the plains. Skarrin nodded, once, and pointed in the direction of the watchtower. Morgaine stood by Arrhan's side, and Vanye gritted his teeth as Skarrin helped her mount.
But Vanye had no time to spend scowling at the qhal lord, because as soon as Morgaine was astride, the squat tank building began to rumble and shake. The sound built higher and higher, making the qhal warriors back away as fast as Arrhan. Then the building lurched into motion, some portion of the lower sides moving so fast as to be a blur, before spinning in place and moving on down the Road in a cloud of dust.
The qhal jogged after, and Morgaine, while Skarrin rode a smaller open box that seemed to float on its own, and was under the direction of its own driver, as if it was a barge on invisible water, pulled by an invisible horse and driven by invisible reins.
Vanye realized he had stuck his head out of cover to watch, and ducked down again. With his cheek against the ground, he could feel the rumble of the tank for a long time.
This, he realized suddenly, with a curious, light-headed sense of panic, this is what Morgaine meant, when she spoke of worlds without horses.
And he had thought she meant oxen.
He lay there for a long time, at first because his mind was still in disarray, and then because the annoyingly proper sentry was back in the worst place for Vanye to conceal any movement. He counseled patience to himself, telling himself that Morgaine would take time to play court to Skarrin, and that the qhal would not take the risk that he could tell Morgaine's truths from her lies on an hour's re-acquaintance. And expecting any moment for the guard to nap, or answer nature, or find a flask or wine jar.
In the end, Vanye had to crawl on his belly to the next building, and risk a sprint across open ground in the fading twilight. Once at the Gate control, he found the building unlocked, but with the latch still sound when closed from the inside. What the first guard to try the door and find it locked would think, Vanye did not know.
He focused on the instruments before him, touched the lighted panels in sequence, checked the result against the paper Morgaine had given him, and pressed the final key. The machinery thought on the instructions a moment, then the panel went blank, and white script appeared on the black curtain. Time, flowing past. He took the black rod, aimed it at the controls, and pressed the stud.
It made a very satisfactory shower of sparks.
Compared to making his way into the control room, it should have been near far more complicated a business entering the archive house. But Heaven smiled on him --
do not mind me, Vanye thought severely at whatever angels might be guarding him, my lady has far more need of you
-- and the guard they had posted at the far side of the archive house was no better than any uyin of Andur-Kursh, and reacted the same to a low whistle and a tossed pebble. Vanye secreted the body behind a rock and boosted himself though a side window into the nearly collapsed rear hall.
Almost, then, he wished he could call his astral guardians back, for it would have amused Hell greatly for Vanye to come so far, and then fail through something so staid as the building collapsing on him. But Vanye's luck held, and he made short work of a stack of volumes before applying flint and steel. Then it was only a matter of leaving the same way he had come, before the smoke drew attention, and sneaking past the guard to the corpse where Rat waited.
The gelding had fretted himself into a lather, having been left alone for so long. Vanye murmured apologies and threw himself into the saddle, pointing the horse out to the plains and letting him run for a good mile before pulling him back and swinging around towards the watchtower.
There was a red glow against the base of the cliff. If there were shouts or alarm, the wind took them away.
He stopped twice, once to let Rat drink, a second time because he imagined he heard one of the flitters pass over head. But the amber light ran closer to the cliff, not so far out as he had ridden. When it was gone, he picked up the reins and urged Rat on again. The gelding ignored the signal, though, and in the starlight, Vanye could see his ears prick and swivel as the gelding stared off to the west.
Vanye sat back in the saddle and drew his sword, waiting to see what would come out of the darkness. Rat's head went further up, and he snorted, then half-reared, letting out a blast of a whinny before Vanye could calm him. When the gelding brought all four feet back down to earth, the sound of approaching hooves was clear. A moment later, and they were surrounded by the rest of the herd - Stelli and the dun colt leading the way, with Rabbit right at the black mare's side and the fillies bringing up the rear.
Vanye laughed and sheathed his sword, spending a few moments reaching to pet every head that thrust itself at him. Rat preened and arched his neck at the female attention, until he tried Stelli's patience, and she nipped back, her cheek grazing Vanye's knee. That was less amusing, if still familiar, and Vanye put his heels to Rat, leading all of them across the plains, until the silhouette of the cliff wall was familiar.
Long before he reached the outer line of the pasture, he could hear the rumble of the tank and see the bright lights that marked Skarrin's encampment. The entourage of mares forced Vanye to tie Rat far further off than he had planned, but it also meant the gelding might be there when he returned.
Finding the posted guards was as simple as deciding where Vanye himself would have put men, if he intended to camp at the base of the cliff, and looking there. Avoiding them was more difficult, but Vanye had the advantage of home ground, and the rumble of the tank, which lay over everything else, and let him move far faster than he had anticipated.
Skarrin - or whatever name he had taken, with his new body - had pushed up close to the cliff, as if expecting some force to try to come at his back. The tank sat in the center of a raised circle, a kind of earthwork wall that looked to provide cover for kneeling men, perhaps as they fired their rifles. There were a handful of qhal warriors within the circle, standing patiently. A group of four left while Vanye watched, towards the watchtower proper. Stumps of trees stood here and there, and it seemed that the trunks had been built into the wall. A trio of bright lights blazed from high poles - like the ghostly lights of the Gate complex in that there was no flame and so far as Vanye could see, no smoke. The lights faced out, not in, and while they shed more than enough light to illuminate the interior of the circle, they were clearly meant to warn of any approaching intruder, and served well to ruin Vanye's night sight.
He had little need of it, though, for he could see all that he wanted within the circle - Arrhan, still bridled and saddled, and standing patiently, Skarrin, consulting with a qhal on a flitter, and waving his hands, and Morgaine, who knelt at the base of one of the lights.
Her hands were bound. However fast he had ridden, it had not been fast enough.
Skarrin stepped back from the flitter and made a gesture at the tank, repeated it, with more enthusiasm when it apparently went unheeded. The tank's rumble abruptly changed, running higher for a moment, before abruptly falling silent. Another moment, and an panel on the side of the tank popped open.
In the circle, Arrhan's tossing head was the only moving thing.
Then Skarrin bent and picked up something from the ground beside the flitter - an oblong, white object, that gleamed dully in the bright lights. The qhal lord held it by the narrowest end, so that it took a moment for Vanye's eyes to understand what he saw - two dark openings at the widest part of the object, and a smaller mark between them. Skarrin studied the white thing for a moment, then, turning, tossed it end for end across the ground, so that it rolled to a stop at Morgaine's knee.
Morgaine was too far away for Vanye to read her expression as Siptah's skull came to rest beside her. But he suspected it was murderous.
"There is no human body," Skarrin shouted, breaking the stillness. "Only the picked bones of that beast! And you wish me to believe it is an accident that you are here, now? Do you think me a fool, Anjhurin?"
Vanye could not hear Morgaine's reply, but he could tell the temper of it from her tone, and smiled as he began to work his way back through the brush. It helped cover the panic that was beginning to build in his throat.
They had guessed wrong. Skarrin was no longer sane. He must know that something had happened to the Gate - the same flitter that had brought Skarrin the news should have told him of the short time remaining. Yet Skarrin - and worse, his warriors - remained here, when by rights they should have been running for the Gate.
He could only trust Morgaine to keep Skarrin talking, and not tempt him into taking his fury out on her, until Vanye could manage a rescue.
Rat was waiting, as were the rest. Vanye hesitated one last time, looking at the foals, then whistled softly, and led the entire herd out to the plains, and around, until he found the trail that Skarrin's tank had made, and followed it back to the cliff. He had his bow in one hand, and three arrows in the other. He would never use so many - Rat had never learned to follow the pressure of a rider's knees as had Siptah and Arrhan.
He clicked at them again when he saw the lights, bringing the herd to a trot, then to a lope. He bent as low as he could over Rat's neck, trying to play the part of an unmounted horse and trusting the discipline of the qhal warriors.
Sure enough, one of them stepped out of cover, trying to wave the horses off, rather than firing. It was then that Vanye sat up in the saddle and let fly his arrow at the closest of the three lights. It exploded much as had the Gate-controls. The second arrow took Skarrin high in the shoulder. Then Vanye dropped the bow and put his heels to Rat's sides. He did not even get a chance to cut at the warrior before Stelli ran him down.
Rat plunged on, his feet true and fast. The rest of them ran at his heels, Hazel stretching her neck to pull even, and Rabbit bringing up the rear. They went over the low wall in a rush, Vanye yelling all the way, "Haaaaaiiiiiiii! Haaaaaiiiiiiii!"
Then they were among the men, and the horses scattered, bowling the dodging figures over and over like so many dolls. Arrhan was rearing and screaming, lashing out with her heels - Vanye bent low over the gelding's neck and slashed at her lead rope as they plunged to a halt beside the mare.
Morgaine came off the ground at a dead run but stumbled as soon as she was clear of the lights. She fell and rolled and was up again, hampered by her still-bound hands and the object she clutched in them. Changeling, Vanye thought, and snatched at Arrhan's lead rope with his free hand. Rat thought it was a signal, and swerved left, but a man was stepping in to grab at Arrhan; Rat slammed into the mare and she staggered over the qhal, so that was all right.
There is not a horseman in this camp, Vanye thought grimly, and dragged the horses back to the center of the camp where Morgaine was bending over a body on the ground. When she stood, it was with the bright gleam of a blade in her hand, and then her hands were free. Vanye threw Arrhan's lead to her as he passed.
The horses were still running about the camp, sticking close to the little wall as though it were the working corral. The shattered light had fallen, and flames were licking at the trampled grasses there. Vanye snatched the torch out of the saddlebags and plunged it into the fire. It caught, hissing, instantly, and Rat reacted just as fast. Fortunately, he shied towards the tank, and not away.
The side opening was still unshuttered. Vanye threw the torch inside and put his heels to Rat. Morgaine was already atop Arrhan, Changeling in her off hand, her shrill whistle calling the rest of the horses after them as Arrhan cleared the low wall and headed for the open plain.
Rat went over the wall and landed with a thump, shaking his head. Vanye kicked him again, aimed him after Arrhan, and by the time they reached the trees the gelding had his neck stretched out to run.
With the torch, Vanye had meant to inconvenience pursuit, thinking that it would take the qhal precious moments to put out the fire and bring the tank after them. He had held wild visions of the cart going up like a thatch-roofed barn in a dry summer, burning bright and merry and beyond the ability of mortals to extinguish.
Never had he imagined the terrible explosion that came just as Rat passed the first tree. The gelding cried out, an ugly bray, and stumbled, but kept his feet for another twenty feet before his hind legs went out from under him and he collapsed in midstride. Vanye, distracted by a heavy blow against his side, caught a glimpse of three qhal - black figures against the flames - rising to run after him, before the gelding hit the ground, rolling.
Changeling's light ripped the night open as Morgaine rode back like a demon, her hair whipping in the wind the blade created and Arrhan's eyes rolling wildly. The mare kept her wits, though, and went past Vanye without touching him or the body of the gelding.
One of the qhal had time to cry out, before Morgaine was upon them. Only one.
Vanye had pulled his leg from under Rat's body by the time she returned. It was, he thought, a mistake, even though the leg seemed whole, because of how his side ached, and seeped blood and other fluid.
He could not see the wound itself, only the bloody smear on his hand when he tried to find the limits of the damage on his back. It did not hurt, overmuch, and that frightened him. It should hurt. Instead, it was only an ache, a cramp that did not let him straighten up once he had come to his knees.
"Up, Vanye, thee must get up, I cannot lift thee, damn thy eyes, ilin, on thy feet!" She was screaming the last, but it worked, Vanye even got his foot in the stirrup and heaved, clung there while she pulled at his shoulder and arm. Arrhan's sides were heaving - she was not heavy with foal, not yet, but sadly out of condition - but she shifted into a trot and then to a lope. Vanye gritted his teeth and held on and held on and held on, until he heard Morgaine's voice saying, "Come down, let go, come down, thee is bleeding, I must bind it."
He had not mean to fall so fast, and she could not catch him. But the ground was far softer than he had imagined. He blinked up at the sky, at all the blazing stars.
"Oh, God." His hearing began to fade, then, so he closed his eyes. That helped. In the darkness he could follow sounds, even if the meaning of words slipped away. He knew he should stay still, though, and he did, while Morgaine wound cloth around his side and did something to his wound that made him think she was stuffing a shirt inside the hole.
"Vanye, can thee sit a saddle? Vanye, answer me!"
Aye, of course. Or that was what he intended to say. Or to nod his head.
Morgaine's voice was harsh. She had to try twice, before she convinced Arrhan to kneel, and set her hands on his weapons belt. The breath grunted out of her with the effort, but when she said, "Arrhan, hup!" the mare scrambled to her feet with Vanye still lying cross-wise on the saddle. Arrhan shook herself, and Vanye could not stop the groan that broke from his teeth.
Dimly, he was aware of Morgaine binding his hands, first together, then to Arrhan's cinch. Then she was pleading with someone, sweeter words than she had ever directed towards him, in a tone he had not heard since Siptah died. Her phrasing ran from qhal through Kurshin and back again, with a curious catch in it. Then the direction of her voice changed, and it gained a sudden firmness.
"Ha!" she said, and Arrhan began moving, slowly at first, and then with speed. The saddle pommel was digging into his side, and he bit his lip against the pain.
There were more hoofbeats around him than could be accounted by Arrhan's feet. The sound stayed with him, louder now, then softer, as they crossed first the hard-packed trail and then went over grass. Or else it was all the same sound, and it was he who faded in and out.
His side hurt a great deal.
The sound of hoofbeats changed, eventually, and became more sedate. He could pick out now at least four horses, all walking. When he turned his head, he could see a flickering glow, like a hearthfire. As they walked on, the fire grew brighter.
They were quite close before he realized he was staring at the world wrong-way around, dangling off the side of Arrhan, and that the hearthfire was the archive, still burning.
At the same moment as he recognized that, it seemed, another voice shouted in surprise. Then another. Morgaine whistled, sharply, and shouted, and the horses were running again. For a little space, the sand under foot muffled their footsteps. Then they were on the Road again, and in the canyon.
The sound was like thunder, building and building, but never breaking. And it never would, because the rains had passed.
"Ha!" Morgaine shouted again. Arrhan stretched out her neck and raced faster.
The Gate was live. He had time to feel the crackle of Gate sense across his skin before they were upon it, Morgaine lashing at Arrhan and Stelli both as they burst through.
There was shouting all around them as soon as they came through. Vanye, still head down, and with his hands bound as well as - he kicked a bit, to be sure - as well as his feet, could not see people shouting, but he could hear them, smell the dust billowing about the horses, taste the dust as well. It tasted of organic matter, as if it were a cattle lot, or a corral, with animals shifting about and throwing sand in the air.
That matched the smell of the place, and, when he listened, the sound. Beyond the shouting, and fast-approaching hooves, there was the lowing of cattle, and something that sounded like sheep.
He was much improved, if he could make such distinctions.
"Liyo -" he began, and coughed on a mouthful of dust. Before he could breathe again, there were strange horses crowding close. Vanye turned his head, as much as he could, trying to peer though the veil of his hair, come straggling out of its braid as it had. All he could see was a booted foot, and the embossed butt of a lance, and the cinch strap of a horse that stood somewhat shorter than Arrhan.
There were other horses and riders beyond. And Morgaine's voice was sharp, and loosing its measured nature. Vanye applied himself to freeing his hands.
The bindings were immediately beyond him, but he could undo the line that held his wrists to Arrhan's saddle. The rider closest to him was evidently a leader of some sort, for it was his voice - high and shrill - raised against Morgaine in some near-qhalur accent that Vanye could not quite follow. It might have been the blood rushing into his ears.
Morgaine, though, was completely understandable, and when she said, "Unhand the horse, and give us leave to go, or you will lose that arm," it was enough.
No one had been paying Vanye any particular attention. When he had seen his clothes, some days later, and could reckon the amount of blood that had stained them, as well as Arrhan's side, he decided it was a reasonable enough error. Most men who had lost that much blood were a danger solely to crows, and only by over-feeding.
So when Vanye reached out and grasped the boot that was so close to hand, and first tugged and then shoved, so that the rider completely over balanced and fell off the other side of his horse, well, they might be excused for being taken by surprise.
Arrhan was already gathering herself to leap away. Vanye felt a sharp grin split his face -- back to the Road, and the next Gate, and that was supposed to grieve him, but he could not, in that instant, recall why -- and then the heavy butt of the lance swung around and caught his temple, and everything went dark.
"They stayed all together, up to the Gate itself. At the last moment, I think, Rabbit shied, and Twig with her. They did not come out the other side." Morgaine's story trickled dry and she sat silently, staring out the hut door at the packed dirt of the compound.
Beside her, Vanye shifted on the woven mat and resettled his head on his arm. The blow had nearly cracked his skull open, and left him as dazed and ill as the wound he had taken from the burning tank. Not as fatal, though, which was fortunate, because the set-to before the Gate at their arrival had left that town in an uproar, and in no way receptive to permitting Morgaine access to the controls.
He had little memory of how they had come to find the shelter they did, having only one image of Morgaine - her face gone stiff and colorless as ice, white rider on a night-black horse - from that time. His recollection of the events before their transit was far better, but left some gaps.
He knew Morgaine had been with child. When he awoke, after two days of delirium, he had not remembered what passing through the Gate would do to her.
So when Morgaine had risen from her place beside him, and reached for the water cup, to let him drink, he had been confused at her slim silhouette. Before she had turned about, though, it had come back - the injury, his hands at the controls, the fast ride to the Gate.
He had lain back on the blankets and pressed a hand to his eyes. He would not weep. He would not. He was ilin. She was his lord. There was no manner in which he might expect that she would consult him, as to his own wishes in the matter.
"Thee know I had no choice. Thee knows." The tears he could not own had been thick in her voice. "Thee knows."
"Aye, liyo." He did not drop the hand from his face. His fingers were cool against his eyelids.
He had not wanted to sire a bastard.
He did not start to weep in earnest until he heard Arrhan whinny, and recalled that she, too, had gone through the Gate.
Had Morgaine mercy, she would have left him, then, and let him weep alone. But she had not, ever, in all the time he had known her, and he had gone back to sleep with her hand clutched in his.
Now they spent the hottest part of the day under shade, waiting for the afternoon heat to ease and the local people to wake from their mid-day drowsing. A woman of the village had tended Vanye's head at first, and suffered Morgaine to stay with him. But the strain had been apparent, and it was with relief on all sides that the healer declared Vanye well enough to need only twice daily visits, rather than a healer's constant care. They had shifted their gear to an empty hut - empty save for a family of rodents, and that had given both of them pause, until Morgaine cursed and went after the vermin with a stick - as soon as Vanye had recovered enough to stand and walk without falling.
They had not spoken of that first hour, since.
He prayed she had put it aside with the rest of his ravings - he seemed to recall speaking of turtles that flew - but could not be certain without asking, which he would not do.
She did not speak of it, at any rate, but instead repeated to him the things the villagers told her.
The woman who tended him was called Itia, and her boy-child was Dai. It was through her, and her extended family - for Itia's aunt was headwoman of the village, and Itia herself a well-spring of gossip - that Morgaine had learned much of the world they were in, and the customs of the people there. Some of this she relayed to Vanye, but other he learned for himself before Morgaine could tell him.
The folk of these hills and dusty glens were sheep-herders and farmers - and, to Vanye's amazement, were a tall people with glossy black skin. The hair on their heads stood as thick and wiry as the wool of their sheep. It was all Vanye could do, not to stare as they came to dicker for bits of gold and the few precious things still left in Morgaine's bags. The language of the sheep-herders was full of long liquid syllables, which he in no wise understood, but they were traders as well, and more than one spoke qhal. They bargained fiercely, with much waving of arms and wailing, protesting that the gold was too little, that their children would go naked in the sun and dust without the leather and cloth that was being stolen from them by the pale strangers. Vanye watched a pair of toddlers at play, adorned with necklaces of ivory and amber, and carefully painted with runes against ill-fortune. They were otherwise as bare as fresh-hulled nuts, as was every child in the village under ten.
Morgaine did not look at the children, but kept her temper and purpose. Being shepherds, the villages had nothing in the way of war gear that was familiar, but a long afternoon of trade-talk yielded enough cord and sheep skin to fashion a saddle of some fashion.
Vanye had been walking by this point, and Morgaine brought him with her to see the tanner's hut, and inspect the hides. Vanye had leaned on a stick as he walked, which bothered him less than using Morgaine's arm, and Morgaine walked beside him, hands tucked behind her.
She had taken one of his belts, used it to bind her trousers tight at the waist. She had re-donned her mail as well, the jerkin hanging straight over her flat belly. He avoided looking at her for long periods of time, but found that glancing over her hurt less than it had.
Listening to her voice, as he had lain with his eyes bandaged and his head throbbing, had been more comforting than any of the bitter teas Itia made him swallow. He had hopes that his vision would improve to match his hearing again.
"They have little iron, and their bronze is very precious," Morgaine said, when Vanye asked after cinch rings. "I can ask again, tomorrow. Perhaps we can go hunting - they speak of a great cat in the hills, whose pelt is highly valued."
"Perhaps." Vanye turned the hides over and over in his hands. He did not ask how long before she planned to move on the Gate.
The Gate they had entered through was not the master of that world - that one lay many days journey to the north and west. The town they had burst into - very early on a post-market-day morning - was named Bronze, and was something of a local center, but of no other importance to Morgaine, once they had quit the boundaries. Itia's aunt - and it was still strange to Vanye, that here the women had the positions of authority, none at all for the men - was in some way standing in ceremonial opposition to the queen who held the territory around Bronze, and so sheltered the strange guests and their mounts without fear that they would be snatched away. So long as they departed the village in a direction away from Bronze, they would be safe, or so Itia claimed. Even Morgaine did not pretend to understand all of the matter.
Another time, he would have made some jest, or she would have, concerning the herders and their strange garb and their night-colored skin. I have seen every thing under Heaven, Vanye might have said, just to see her laugh, and dredge up up some memory, to spin a tale of something yet more exotic.
Just now, he wanted only familiar things, but all of those hurt to look upon, including the horses they had brought with them.
The ponies of the shepherds were short and slab-sided, with thin necks. They rode asses, for a preference, and Vanye could not blame them, with as poor stock as they had.
For their part, the villagers rolled their eyes at the length of leg and curve of haunch on the visitor's horses. Fat horse makes a poor man, they said, or something very like. They kept their sheep on the best grazing, and left the horses and asses to graze the margins.
Having obtained leather, Vanye had proposed that they walk out to the corral, and make measurements of Stelli, so that he could fashion a saddle. They had come to the break in the thorn fence, all five of them - Arrhan fine and fit and slimmer than her daughter, Stelli sensible and solid of foot, the two slighter fillies, whom the villagers praised as being the best looking of their herd, and lastly Boy, still staying close to his mother's side. All of them had shoved at Vanye's chest and hands, and Morgaine had laughed and produced bits of corn and a sort of tuber as Vanye made shift with a bit of leather to mark the length and arch of Stelli's back.
That had been four days before. Now the saddle - a pad stuffed with tree bark, but in the region of a saddle - was nearly finished. They had only a few days still remaining here, Vanye thought, and he was as eager as Morgaine to move on.
Six years had burnt out his inclination to pause in one place. His head was much better, he could sit a horse - having been up on Arrhan the day before, and that had done more good for him than any oceans of tea - and there was no reason to stay.
She had not spoken of Skarrin overmuch, nor of what the qhal might have said to her, in those hours that she had been in his company. "Madder than I had ever thought," was most of what she said. "A madman, with a madman's plans, and possibly the wherewithal to achieve them." She had not answered when he had asked if she thought Skarrin truly dead.
Despite this, Morgaine had not uttered a word of impatience, but Vanye could tell the stillness was beginning to wear on her. To what end he could manage, he intended to have them on the road shortly.
As if in response to that thought, the tanner crossed the open ground before them, yawning and rubbing his face. Catching sight of Morgaine sitting in the doorway, he adjusted his course to halt at their hut, lean his head in and inquire if Vanye had been serious about trading him the colt for a length of cloth and a mountain of provisions.
"Perhaps," Vanye had said, not looking at Morgaine. He made the vague waving gesture he had seen the traders use fifty times a day. "We shall talk at sunset."
The tanner grinned, well pleased at Vanye's grasp of the niceties of trade manners, nodded politely at Morgaine, whom he had completely ignored, as was his place as a married man, and went on his way.
"Thee wishes to leave the colt."
He shrugged. It had seemed sensible, and he was somewhat surprised at the tone Morgaine took. "We could use supplies. We have little enough to trade."
"Itia has promised us gifts."
That was a change - only yesterday she had been considering the contents of her pack, trying to find some present to make to the healer. For mending thy thick skull, she said, and so preserving me my comforts on the road.
He had not known entirely what she had meant by that, until she had blushed. He had not, and had left shortly to check the horses.
Now he ignored her inclination to accept even more charity, and said, "The fillies have grown well. They will serve, as re-mounts." The black mare was not Siptah, but she had much of her sire's temper and heart, and Arrhan would be hard pressed to out-pace her, if Stelli was unburdened. "Four is enough."
"They are used to running all together. And the colt has a sweet temper, for a male."
"The mares will bicker enough, when they are in season. With the colt, they will be even harder to manage."
Morgaine crossed her arms, her mouth gone tight. "Thee wishes to leave the colt."
He shrugged. "One more to find grazing for. Who knows what we will find, on the other side of the gate."
"He will be faster than the black mare, when he is grown."
"Two years. Perhaps more. It is a long time, liyo."
"And there is the matter of foals."
He let the silence stretch on, and speak for him.
She rose and left the hut.
She came back at sunset, and found him down at the creek side. He was watering the horses, while the herd boys darted back and forth, sashaying the sheep out of the water, so that the donkeys and ponies might finally have their turn. While they drank, Vanye checked the horses over - all five of them - bending carefully to pick up their feet, pulling burrs from their tails, keeping them accustomed to his touch.
The dun colt was skittish and the fillies wanted to play, not stand, but at last he finished with them and turned to Arrhan, dark-eyed white Arrhan, lean-legged and high-crested.
He clicked to her, calling her out of the water, and she came without hesitation, her head bobbing as she waded out, water dripping from her muzzle. She had pressed her head to his chest and rubbed it against his jerkin, all but shoving him from his feet. When he had thrown his arms about her head, she had stilled, and let him stand there, holding her.
Now Morgaine found them there, Arrhan's nose at his elbow as he worked at the white mare's feet. He only had one tool - the satchel of brushes and metal picks that he had gathered over fourteen worlds had been in its place on Rat's saddle. But the practice gave his hands an occupation.
He heard her feet scuffing in the dirt. Arrhan snorted in greeting and stretched her neck to sniff Morgaine's fingers. He dropped the hoof and straightened carefully, leaning an arm on the white mare's withers.
Morgaine came close on the other side, her hands sliding under the silky mane. If she found a tear-wet spot on the mane, she did not speak of it. After a while, Morgaine said, "I have spoken to Itia. Her aunt has cousins who keep cattle and horses - racing horses, not herd stock - to the south. Her brother will take thee there, if thee wishes." Another breath.
She meant it as a gift. He did not pretend that he did not know the cause.
He shook his head. "No."
"I think - I think thee could be happy there, Vanye. Itia says the people there are not as here - they are more pale, more like the folk of Andur-Kursh, and live in houses of board and stone." Her eyes were on Arrhan's mane, she was not looking at him and her words tumbled over and over each other. "With Stelli, the colt, and one of the fillies, thee could build a herd, be a wealthy man."
"No, liyo. I do not want this."
"It has been too long for thee to call me that."
"I do not care." They had shattered so many other laws of Heaven, why should this one matter?
"I will never fail of grieving thee."
He would not turn and look at her. Shame enough that his throat shut, would not let him breathe. Shame enough that he did not dare kneel before her, else he would grovel at her boots, begging forgiveness, choking on his anger. He would not turn and face her with tears standing in his eyes.
He blew his breath out. "I have outlived every horse I have favored." And he had outlived Andur-Kursh, and too many other worlds. "I should like to see," he said, finally, "how fast the colt runs, when he grows into his legs."
She nodded. "Bring him, then. Four is a good choice, as Gate-wise as they are, and one more will make little difference."
He rubbed Arrhan's head. "I can manage something of a saddle, by tomorrow, if I have rings. Wood will do - Itia showed me a box made of a very hard wood." But it would have to be carved, and he did not know how long that would take, and Morgaine would be anxious to leave.
She shrugged. "I will find something to trade. Thee shall have thy rings." She turned away, stopped and looked back. "There is bread, and tea, when thee has finished looking thy fill at them."
"A moment only." He did not watch her go, only leaned against the horse, and looked north over the mare's withers, at the road ahead.