What she needed
was a girl-child. Pony felt the pull of destiny urging her toward fecundity. She
trudged in front of First Mare, scuffing her soft leather boots in the hard dirt
of the trail winding through the green of the Wiltshire downs. Her need scratched
at her, just as her flaxen shirt scratched her damp skin in the September afternoon
heat. Summer blazed one last time before it faded. Her leggings, bound up with
leather straps so she could ride, were not cool enough for walking. But her discomfort
was more than sweat and leather. She was the last of her kind. It was her obligation
to produce her successor. How many times had she heard her mother say those words?
She had resisted her obligation for ten long years. Even now it was not destiny
that prodded her. The catastrophe her mother had prophesied was beginning. Like
the summer, her gifu, her Gift, was fading.
Pony ran her hands
through her white-blond hair. She would lose what she most valued if she did not
do the one thing she most feared. It was not fair of the Great Mother to ask it.
After the child would she fade in other ways, as her mother had, until she disappeared
Pony shuddered as though to shake away her thoughts.
She shaded her eyes with her hand from the burning blue sky. Ahead, her own green
hill jutted squarely into the sky, branded with the outline of a giant horse cut
into the chalk soil. Its white beacon was visible for miles down the Vale. To
her left, the mounded earth of Waylan's Barrow hulked over that worthy's ancient
bones. She was almost home. Only one obstacle remained. Perhaps the shepherds
had taken their flock east. She stopped to adjust the packs over First Mare's
dark bay withers. The horse nosed her up and down, breathing on her to exchange
the scent of Herd that they might know they belonged together. She resettled the
pack of wool and bowls and seeds, a new metal spade and tanned leather, a welcome
exchange for the partnership of Young Dapple.
As she and her horse
turned toward home, Pony's fear nipped at her heels. The way to save the Gift
was perilous. Her mother had told her a thousand times that she must not let the
tumult of letting a man plant his seed disturb her calm. Peace was required to
use the Gift.
"Find a man you do not lust after, Epona, good stock,
strong seed, not simple-minded," she could hear her mother say. "Lie with him,
then send him away. Don't let him cut up your calm. Get his seed. That is his
only use." Where would she find such a man?
Pony sensed the sheep
before she heard them. That much of her Gift was left. She resigned herself to
running the final gauntlet. The black faces and huge wool coats of a river of
sheep swirled across the path below, between her and her home. Hunds yapped
at their heels. Carnivores. The three coarse shepherds whistled and pointed directions
to the dogs.
"Look, brothers," one called "Our neighbor, Epona.
Is it female?"
"It doesn't look female," another called. "Where
is your cyrtle, wench?"
Just keep your peace, Pony admonished
herself, even as her mother would have done. The eldest brother pushed his way
through the eddying sheep. The brothers' clothes were torn and dirty. Their father
had kept them in line as long as he had been alive. Now, six months after his
death, mead and sheep made up their lives.
"It has a full pack
on that devil horse's back," the eldest called to his brethren.
we want that pack?" The youngest was less coarsely made but wilder than the others.
"What say we see if it is female while we're at it?" the eldest
grinned. He sent the hunds out around Pony and her companion. First Mare
sidled nervously as the hunds penned her in with their stares. The hunds
would be upon them in an instant if they tried to run, ripping and tearing with
their evil, carnivorous jaws
A shiver of fear cycled up Pony's
spine. "Out of my way," she said, softly.
They laughed. It was
a jarring sound, unconnected to the rightness of the world. The eldest stepped
forward until he towered over her. He breathed rancid butter and onions and mead.
He grabbed her arm. She wanted to shriek her distaste, to struggle against that
iron grip. Instead, she breathed in once and closed her eyes, willing calm into
her center, requiring clarity, begging her Gift to gather its waning strength.
She put her heartbeat away, the better to hear.
When she opened
her eyes, all was clear. The brothers' laughter provided only the bass profundo
of a chorus of sounds. Sheep bleated, hunds barked, a jay called somewhere. Insects
hummed and clicked, wool rasped against wool, cloven hooves thudded in the turf,
water slid by stones in the distant stream. First Mare breathed. The hairs of
her tail swished through the air. The world sang and Pony listened. Her soul vibrated
in tune with the Great Mother.
Into this quivering tension that
stretched between her and her surroundings, she sent a suggestion. Eddying swirls
of wool and black faces engulfed the brothers, shoving, bleating.
eldest craned around, shouting. "What? Damned sheep!" He lost his balance and
went down. Pony could hear his grunts as cloven hooves found his softer parts.
She was the still center of the pushing beasts, untouched. The river of sheep
shoved the other brothers to the side of the path and then parted, revealing the
little trail just like that story about the Red Sea the priest had told her once.
The hunds barked and circled to no avail. Her thoughts could not reach
them, they were carnivores, but the sheep could hear her.
and First Mare walked up the trail, as another brother went down among the hooves.
"Ill-begotten bitch!" the eldest yelled.
The tension of alignment
dissipated into the air, leaving her feeling small and alone as she always did
when the Gift was put away for use another day. She hoped there would be other
days. The old dread and depression sucked the blue out of the sky. Pony didn't
look back. She and First Mare were still two miles from home.
* * * *
"And are we to trust one such as he with the honor of
holding lands for the Danes?" The words snapped into the sparks that rose from
the fire around which the jarls squatted.
Val, known as Valgar
the Beast, raised his chin. The challenge was inevitable from the moment he decided
to return from the exile he had chosen on the banks of the Volga. It came from
a hot-headed youth, Harald, his the lightest beard among the leaders of the Danelaw.
Val's fingers ached for the handle of Blood-Letter, but the Danes wore no swords
when they sat in council. He carried only his bone flute stuck in his boot. That
was not like to convince his fellows of his worthiness. The fact that a warrior
was known to play like a scald was yet another sign that he was unfit to lead
the fierce Danes. He turned his face to the signposts he had followed across half
the world. The stars wheeled above, uncaring, in their black bed.
konungr of all land under Danish law-the Danelaw--, was silent. Now that
rule of law held all the eastern half of the great isle, but that was not enough
for Guthrum. His beard was gray, his eyes old with experience as well as with
years. He could not speak for Valgar. His choice was made. He would appear weak
if he defended it.
Val glanced around the circle at faces hardened
by battle and sea winds, made harder still by the flicker of flames that lighted
them, and pressed his own lips together. Their knowledge of his shame was written
in their eyes. His own words could not be raised in his defense. He understood
their distrust. Why should they feel differently about him than he did himself?
Guthrum's eldest son, Ragnor, second in command, was left to say,
"Has he not fought beside us these many days? Is his sword not strong for the
Danelaw?" No one would mention the tales of his prowess or his nerveless cruelty,
filtering back from the east. Those deeds were not inspired by loyalty for his
countrymen, but sold to the czars of Garthariki .
not know the reason why Guthrum had chosen Val? It was not for his sword-arm.
Around the circle, eyes narrowed, considering Harald's challenge. Val knew why
he had been chosen. Pushing the borders of the Danelaw into Wessex was not a matter
for the sword alone. The Saxon thegns had seen the way it would go. Alfred, the
young king of Wessex could not protect them. The Danes had defeated Saxon armies
many times in the last year, pushing inexorably westward. If the Saxon eorls had
Frankish lands, they decamped across the narrow sea channel. If not, they bowed
to the inevitable. Now the Danes had a task much harder than fighting their way
across the island. As their numbers stretched and thinned, they must control what
they had won with organization and with leadership. They must bring the law of
the Danes to barbarians who did not understand the way of it.
speaks their language better than any of us," the one called Egill said. "He could
speak almost from the first. And he has ruled in Barbary, where he was foreign
to the people but must bend them yet to his will. He knows our way ahead."
understood. The jarl's hard blue eyes examined Val. A scar running down
the line of his jaw gleamed white in the light of the fire. Egill was practical.
His men fought for him like demons. Guthrum, wily fox that he was, trusted him
as much as one like Guthrum could trust any man. Egill pressed Ragnor from behind
for his position as second to Guthrum, even though Ragnor claimed an advantage
as Guthrum's son.
"Ja, how is that?" Harald jabbed his
question into the warm night air. "How does he know the words of our enemies?
And he wears his hair long in back, as they do, like women."
better to seem their natural leader," Egill said. "He is crafty, that one."
Val thought, Egill did not yet trust him, though he saw his fitness for the job
ahead. And he was right. Val had not shaved the nape of his neck when he returned
from the steppes, as other Danes did. Nor did he braid plaits as they did in the
longer locks that hung around their faces. His hair waved down his back and around
his face, free, longer than the Saxons wore theirs, but not so much as to seem
strange. He had worked to learn their language from the day he landed. He had
planned exactly how he would make himself indispensable to Guthrum . He had counted
on Guthrum to see his value, even if the others did not.
Guthrum's gaze around the circle. The others laid their lot not yet with Harald.
But they did not share Guthrum's faith in Val. Guthrum was silent. He did not
command their agreement. He would wait until most had consented or rejected Val.
His rule was based on loyalty, not fear. That was the way of the Danelaw.
that love of loyalty was just Val's problem. How could these jarls trust one who
had committed the ultimate betrayal? Val twisted the leather strips that wrapped
his wrists. Val's gut twisted like the leather. He should never have left Garthariki.
On the shores of the Volga, it was natural to be hated and feared for the mercenary
he was. But now he found that his own people distrusted him even more..
Jarl," he barked into the crackling of the fire and the pointed silence
around the circle. He stood. "Test me." He would prove his worthiness with blood.
Who would Guthrum send against him in the honored tradition? Not Harald. Harald
didn't have a chance. It would honor Val too much to send Ragnor. Val wagered
it would be Egill. They were both strong in battle. Egill was rangier, his shoulders
and arms not quite so thickly muscled as Val's, but he was taller, well over six
feet. He would have the advantage of reach.
The silence stretched.
Val was left to stand awkwardly in the circle, his offer unaccepted. He clenched
his fists, refusing to look at Guthrum. Would Guthrum humiliate him by refusing
a test, when Val was his own choice to hold the Down-land?
Guthrum eased himself to standing, feet apart. He nodded his grizzled head slowly.
"I will test you, Valgar, son of Thorvald." He bent to pick a brand from the fire.
Val blinked against the pain that flickered somewhere inside him
every time his lineage was named. Why did Guthrum remind every jarl around
the circle of Val's shame?
"Let me test his worth," Harald shouted,
leaping to his feet.
Guthrum nodded, arms folded. "You shall be
Val jerked his gaze to Guthrum's face. Muttering broke
out around the circle. What? It was no honor to cleave a stripling. Guthrum signaled
the jarls to widen their circle and beckoned to Val and Harald. Val set
his jaw. This would win him no acceptance. Was he reduced to returning to the
shores of the Volga? His life had been empty there. Would it be worth living in
some other exile? Perhaps he would press from island to island across the great
North Sea until he lost himself in new lands. Bleak ice landscapes echoed the
vacancy in his heart.
Val and Harald moved to stand before their
konungr. He could smell nervous sweat on the younger man, feel his excitement.
This was, no doubt, his first test of honor. And his last. Harald had the same
hair as Val's youngest brother, Gilli, like yellow silk from lands east of the
steppes. Val realized he might fail this test from his own cowardice. He had never
had the stomach for killing the weak, though he was known as "the Beast." Not
that Harald was weak, he told himself sternly. Val would not let it be like the
Ragnor went to get their swords.
Ragnor," Guthrum called. "We have all we need."
Val eyed Guthrum
warily. Guthrum swung up the burning brand between the adversaries. "Roll up the
sleeve on your shield arm, Valgar," he commanded.
Val and Harald
both stared at the brand, blazing into the night, an echoing corona around the
flame. Val's eyes flicked to Guthrum's impassive face. So it was not a test of
combat. Guthrum handed the brand to Harald as Val bared his right forearm.
may test courage," Ragnor protested. "But not loyalty."
as trial by battle," Guthrum grunted. "We ask, is Valgar capable of betrayal?"
Guthrum challenged the circle. "If Valgar passes the test, he is loyal. If he
does not, then Harald is right, and Valgar is capable of betrayal."
jarls nodded, murmuring assent, but surprise flashed across some faces.
Testing through pain had been replaced by trials of combat long ago.
stomach clenched. Harald grasped the torch held out to him in a hand that shook
slightly. His eyes would not meet Val's. Val held out his right fist. At least
it would not be his sword arm charred to a stump. Would any follow a Dane with
one hand? The light curling hairs on his thick forearm gleamed in the torchlight
over the taut cords of muscle.
Guthrum clasped both their wrists.
"You hold the torch, Harald. Press your arm into the flame, Valgar. He who flinches
first, will tell us the truth of the matter."
Val's breath came
hard. It should be the leader who called halt and declared the test over, not
the one who held the torch. What cared Harald to stop the test? Val's arm was
forfeit, sure. If the burn festered, he was a dead man. If he lived, he was a
cripple. He jerked his hand up, his biceps bunching. The jarls were intent, masking
their surprise at Guthrum's rules. The circle thickened with other men, even with
serving women, all drawn to the drama of pain and courage.
eyes were big. Beads of sweat stood among the sparse hairs of his upper lip as
he thrust out the burning brand, its flame licking upward.
steadied his breathing, willing himself to the courage demanded here. He thought
of the time he was wounded and left for dead in the snows above Novograd. He must
go away from himself now, just as he had then, to hoard strength. He laid his
forearm slowly into the flame.
The sear of pain that shot up Val's
arm shocked his brain. He counted on that. Around the circle, men gasped. Harald's
torch flickered with his shaking hand. Val saw his own arm redden as the flame
licked at him. He stared at the flame, willing his arm steadfast. Rock. Your
arm is rock. The pain ate into his mind, raw, searing. He pressed his lips
together. Rock feels no pain. His biceps trembled with the effort of keeping
his arm in the flame. He saw his skin begin to bubble. He gazed into Harald's
eyes. Fear sprouted there. Harald knew he could burn Val's arm into a blackened
stump. Sweat beaded Harald's forehead. Val's sweat dripped into his eyes. He wanted
to howl like an animal. More than anything he wanted to jerk his arm away and
run screaming from the circle. But he did not. That way lay only terrible isolation,
exile from your people, the shame of knowing you had defiled your family's name,
that no woman would wed you, no man call you fraendi. His forearm slowly
blackened. Like rocks blackened in fire, he told himself. Rocks. He
was rock, he sang to himself, rock, rock, rock. A tune beat in his
head. The music carried him away from here and now. Harald began to moan. Did
Val not owe this pain, he wondered, in retribution for his deeds so long ago?
He smelled cooked meat and knew that it was his flesh cooking. His own grunts
of pain echoed in his skull.. Woden, let me not faint, he prayed in time to the
tune crescendoing in his head.
Harald jerked the brand away with
a cry wrenched from his gut. Still Val held his arm steady, so all might see that
he would have held it there forever.
"What is this?" Harald shrieked.
"Should Danir do such a deed to Danir?"
Val gathered in his shaking arm and cradled it against his chest. "It is done,"
he gasped. Was his shield arm forfeit? Would his life fester away as well?
is done," Guthrum agreed. "Valgar holds the Downs while we press south to clutch
the remnants of Alfred's forces in our vise." He turned to the circle.
is done," the hard faces of the circle agreed.
Harald cast the
torch from him and staggered out of the circle. Guthrum motioned Ragnor to go
after the young warrior. Harald had learned a lesson today in the ruthless kinds
of courage that might be demanded of a Dane gone vikingr. Val had been
ruthless with his enemies and the enemies of those who paid him countless times.
Why else was he named Valgar the Beast? He cradled his arm against his leather
jerkin. He was more Valgar the Beast than Valgar Thorvaldsson. In some strange
way, his father had named him beast more surely than he had given him the name
The circle dissolved into the night. Not one
came forward to give Val a kind word. They still did not trust him. Guthrum clapped
Val on a shoulder hunched against the pain. "Tomorrow you start for the Downs."
The old gray eyes examined Val's face as though he looked for more answers than
the test provided.
"I will hold the Downland for you and for the Danelaw,"
Val said. His voice was steady and hard in his own ears. "I am Danir."
He could say no more than that.
Guthrum nodded. "Your proof has
already begun." He strode toward his tent, pitched in the common ground of the
Val's knees went weak. He had gotten what he wanted.
He would hold the Downs for the Danelaw, no matter the price. Then would these
dogs know the meaning of loyalty. Then would his history finally be wiped clean.
* * * * *
Pony rose from her seat by the fire
in the small hut. Something inside her was fluttery. She tried to still her heartbeat
so she could listen, but all she could hear was skipping beats and blood throbbing
in her temples. Outside, one of her Herd gave a shrieking whinny, calling her.
It was White Stallion. She tossed back her mane of white hair and groped for calm.
Breathe in, she commanded herself. Smooth your brow. Breathe out. Relax
There it was! How had she not heard it? Once
she would have heard it clearly, without trying. Now White Stallion had to tell
her when she must listen. She dared not let dread and disappointment poison her
stillness. She put them away for examination later. Now, she just listened. She
heard fear, of course. That was the way of prey. Wariness echoed around her from
a thousand sources. This was more. She moved silently to the open doorway and
peered into the last shadows of twilight. The downs sloped away in dusky green
ahead of her. Night had already claimed her woods beyond the pasturelands to the
South where Herd moved restlessly. Was it they who called her? Again she pressed
the thump of her heart away. This time it faded obediently. Warning. She heard
Slowly she glided out into the gloaming. No wind, only
the last of the summer's heat making her shift cling to her damply. Clouds massing
on the horizon threatened heat lightning. It was not her Herd that called her,
though they had heard the warning too. White Stallion -wheeled, looking for wolves.
She blurred her eyes to erase the Herd's concern and pushed away the sounds of
their hooves and their distant whinnies. She must listen more intently. She stood
Ahhhhhh. She sucked air into her lungs. The danger was
not to her, not to Herd, but to...to one who had traded his freedom for the partnership
she promised him. Young Black. Bonds of trust were broken. Her covenant was violated.
Pony's throat closed around her bile. Rising anger choked off her listening. She
shook her head as though she could shake her anger away. There were things she
must yet know. Her mother would have remained calm. But she would also have heard
the warning immediately. Pony cursed her lack of control and wondered for one
of uncounted times why she was not more like her mother.
moon peeked over the wood in an orange crescent too huge to be real. She breathed
in the scent of ripe grass cooling toward the dew, the acrid smoke from her fire
inside, the aroma of oat cakes on her hearth, and faintly, the musky scent of
Herd. She willed away emotion as her mother had taught her. Breath stilled, heart
The stag stepped out of the trees, his great head
weighted with the forked antlers that branched there, his eyes liquid wariness.
There you are, my pretty, Pony thought, not moving, not breathing, serene.
Tell me. Tell me.
He did. He told her everything. When
he was done, he dipped his nose to touch the long grass at the edge of the wood,
then lifted his head and sprang back into the trees. He disappeared instantly.
He had risked much to come here with his tale, got from a doe who got it from
an ox she grazed with, who got it from a horse who pulled a cart to Chippenham.
Pony breathed. She knew what she had to do. She turned slowly
to the steep, green-clad hill looming behind her hut. The moon limned the chalk
outline of the great horse into a white accusation. She was her mother's daughter,
and her mother's mother's daughter and a thousand mothers before her. She lived
under the white chalk horse on the downs. It was her covenant, her Gift, her obligation
that was violated here. She must take back her own. There would be tumult ahead.
It would be hard to be serene enough to listen. But if she tempted the Goddess
to possess her, she might just win through. It did not matter. She had no choice.
The moon had shrunk to a cold white sliver. Thunderclouds building
in the west began to move. They might not stay ahead of the rain tonight. She
did not discard her night shift in favor of her buff leather breeches and flaxen
shirt. Together with her hair streaming around her, her shift would make her look
ghostly in the moonlight. She counted on that, and on Herd. She owned no weapon.
But she brought a talisman of the old religion, a shining black glass pebble strung
through with a leather thong tied around her neck. Let the Goddess be with her
She strode down to the pastureland in front of her wood.
The herd was perhaps thirty. They lifted their heads at her approach, ears pricked
toward her. Dark bay and chestnut that would gleam red if there were sun, whitening
gray and dapples, roan and dun, they made a moving tapestry bleached by the moonlight.
The great whitish stallion squealed into the night. The mares and younger horses,
the foals, all wheeled in the dewy grass. Pony clicked her tongue to them and
they rounded as one to encircle her. She smiled, letting the quiet creep into
her bones again. They knew what news the stag had brought. Now they needed only
to know what they must do. If she was quiet enough, they could hear her plans.
Her eyes blurred, her breath stilled. She put away the beat of her heart and closed
When she opened them, sixty large, liquid eyes regarded
her. What they would do was dangerous. The wind blowing up ahead of the deluge
ruffled manes and tails. The mares with spring foals moved to the back with their
young. They must stay behind tonight. First Mare stepped forward. Pony smiled
at her. She was delicate, not looking her strength or the stamina Pony knew she
had. The brown dapples of her haunches and belly edged into black on legs and
mane and tail. Pony nodded. First Mare tossed her head and whinnied.
tied up her shift, then placed both hands on the mare's back. With one hop first
for spring, she vaulted astride. The horse sidled, settling Pony's weight. Now
would begin the Language of Touch, the song of weight and balance that bound First
Mare to Pony and bound Pony back again. Pony pushed her weight into her heels
and turned her shoulders to look behind her, shifting the pressure of her hips.
First Mare wheeled in the direction Pony looked. Pony leaned back slightly and
scraped First Mare's sides with her calves. She felt First Mare rise into the
canter and sat into the rhythm, opening her hips into the mare's back with each
stride. She did not have to look to see whether the others followed. Together,
they thundered out across the downs, spurning the great road off to their right,
into the coming rain. They were one, two score horses and one human girl jostling
each other as hooves thudded in the soft earth of the downland. Power surged among
them and between them. Together they belonged to the Goddess. Possess us! Pony
sang, silently. And the Goddess flowed through her veins. Her blood chorused with
the souls around her and the great soul that cascaded from the moon, and the white
chalk horse behind them. They became a single being, Herd.
light found them near the town of Chippenham, soaked with the showers. The song
of the Goddess was an eerie melody inside her not a shrieking chorus. But still,
she could hear it, and her Herd through it. Pony's shift clung to her breasts
damply. Her wild white hair hung in wet strings around her face. Her bare legs
and the horses' legs were splashed with mud. They passed huts on the outskirts
of the town. Pony saw early Christian risers cross themselves when they saw Herd.
Everyone knew Pony, even as far as Chippenham. They knew her as She Who Lived
Under the Sign of the White Horse, as her mothers had before her. Pony spared
them no attention. She was for Osrick.
Herd thundered through
the mired streets, past wooden buildings, thatched roofs, animal pens, the stalls
of wood workers, smiths and weavers, crowded markets with vegetables and the carcasses
of slaughtered animals. The stench threatened to gag Pony. How could these
people eat meat? The aroma of flesh mingled with the close smell of too many
humans gathered together and stifled thought. The unwelcome tumult of revulsion
grasped at Pony's serenity. People shouted after Herd, grabbing children out of
its path. Herd thundered on. Soon, now. Pony could see the huge hall standing
behind its palisades on the rise ahead, shouldering above the litter of the town.
That was where she would find Osrick and Young Black.
the open gates of the palisade, into the yard of the Great Hall galloped Herd,
Pony and First Mare in the lead. Pony listened, pushing down the tumult of the
town, the fear of what Herd must do. Lowing came from a small barn off to her
right. Oxen. She could hear the scratching of the hens, the grunt of pigs, the
snort of horses. All knew her name. Several men shushed slop into the sty. They
looked up in shock. Pony sat back on First Mare. Herd swirled to a stop, milling
and stamping in the yard. Pony scanned the outbuildings. The chickens cackled,
full of the knowledge of where Young Black was imprisoned. Once she would have
heard him on her own. Now she needed help.
Pony urged First Mare
around behind the hall. The horses whinnied to draw her attention. There were
six or seven in the pen. A young stallion, almost black, half-reared in salute.
Pony saw the bloody welts across his hindquarters, evidence of the broken covenant
Her heart contracted. Herd milled nervously. No time for guilt, she told herself.
She took a breath and held it. Then she smiled.
Herd surged toward
the pen. The horses inside backed away. Twenty chests and flanks pressed against
the poles. Squeals filled the air. The pen wall leaned and creaked with strain.
A crack of wood sounded. The gate broke asunder. Shouts behind them seemed distant.
Pony and First Mare spun. Pony beckoned to the captives. Herd swirled slowly into
retreat. Voices of the men multiplied, angry now. The captives flowed through
the broken wood of the pen into Herd. Together they trotted out from behind the
hall. A fringe of Herd took down the sty, freeing the pigs, who grunted their
thanks. A rat-a-tat of hind hooves against the cracking barn door was answered
by the grateful lowing of the oxen. An ox shouldered into the daylight.
stepped from the Great Hall, his shirt hanging outside his breeches, his black
hair shot through with gray and disheveled with sleep. Pony would have recognized
his hard features anywhere. Flat brown eyes, a body hard with fighting for what
he wanted. His face was marked by the ravages of pustules when he was young. His
chin jutted pugnaciously under his beard. He carried a sword that looked like
it had been forged in his hand. Two others stepped out behind him, armed with
swords as well. Pony shivered.
"You!" Osrick accused. He knew
Pony well. She was the only human for two score miles about who did not call him
Lord. "You dare to steal my property?"
Herd sidled nervously around
her. The edge of Osrick's sword glinted in the early sun. Pony clenched her jaw.
Fear or not, she would prevail. "I did not promise Young Black to you."
farmer could not pay his debt to me," Osrick shouted, his lean cheeks flushed.
"My covenants cannot be traded," Pony hissed. "They are made with
those who learn the Language of Touch. I would never make a covenant with you."
"You sell your horses," Osrick sneered. The point of his sword
tipped up, menacing. Herd snorted and First Mare sidled, mincing. "The one you
sold him to owed me his tax. Not a bargain, devil horse that he is, but I will
"You will never have the chance." The two behind Osrick
fumbled with their swords, glancing in apprehension at Herd, swelled now to nearly
thirty stamping beasts. The pigs cried out that several men were flanking Herd.
There was no way but through Osrick. Pony pushed down fear. Fear killed the quiet.
She let her face relax. She took a breath. White Stallion heard her. He squealed
and looped out to the right, followed close on by Dun Mare and Young Dapple. Osrick
turned to meet what he thought was an attack. Herd sprang to the left, haunches
under themselves. Thirty horses leapt into a gallop. Osrick slashed low at White
Stallion, who leaned back on his haunches, hooves flailing. Old Dun Mare and Young
Dapple lunged in, strong square teeth bared. Osrick gave ground. His men cried
out and shrank away, just for an instant.
It was enough. Herd
galloped past Osrick on the left, following First Mare in an equine stream down
the hill and into the town. White Stallion and his seconds whirled and followed.
Osrick's shouts were tiny in her ears. The swell of triumph shut out listening.
Pony didn't care. Herd was meant to run, a force of nature loosed upon the town.
Then they were out on the downs, tails streaming, their newest
members bucking as they ran in celebration. Pony fingered the black glass pebble
at her throat. Gift of my mothers, you are vindicated today. The wind on her face
was already warming with the day. Osrick was not meant for the Language of Touch.
Its magic would never transform him. He did not matter. The covenant was redeemed.