CHAPTER EIGHT

 

On the seventh day they left their valley. Harry felt a little sad, although she thought a bit of her nostalgia was apprehension for the future.

Just before they mounted, Mathin came and stood before her, with a long piece of maroon silk in his hand. Harry was wearing a long side-slashed red tunic over long full trousers of the same color, and a dark blue surcoat; she was accustomed to Hill dress now, and comfortable in it, unlike her first evening in the king's camp.

"Put this on, so," said Mathin. He gestured to his own waist; he wore a dark green sash. She looked down at herself. Mathin tossed the maroon strip over his shoulder, and pushed her hands away from her sides. He untied the brown cord she had used as a belt and dropped it as if it were trash, and wound the maroon silk twice around her waist, and tucked the ends of it away in some invisible fashion. She looked up: Mathin was wearing the fierce grin she was accustomed to seeing when they crossed swords. "One of the Hills must have a sash when she goes to the laprun trials, where it will be proved that she deserves to wear it." He turned away to mount Windrider.

Harry stood where she was a moment longer, feeling where the sash seized her lower ribs as she breathed. Then she put her hands on the pommel and cantle of the saddle and vaulted onto Sungold's back as she could now do easily; she had begun to consider if she could learn Corlath's way of mounting, which did not seem to require the use of the hands.

They jogged along steadily all that day, although the pack horse was inclined to complain. It had had a soft six weeks and was not entirely equal - even with its burdens much lighter than they had been six weeks before - to keeping pace with the flint-hard war-horses. Narknon loped along beside them, dashing off into the bushes occasionally on her private business, reappearing silently ahead of them, waiting by the trail for them to catch her up. They paused for lunch and a cold supper; but they continued on in the twilight. After the sunset was gone, Harry could see a glow in the northeast.

"It is a great bonfire on the plain before the City, to mark the opening of the trials tomorrow at dawn," Mathin told her. Harry wondered if any of the other trials riders were seeing things in the flames.

Her mind wanted to feel nervous and restless that night, but her well-trained body and that extra whatever-it-was sent her off to sleep before she had time to argue. At dawn when the trials were beginning, they were in the saddle again, riding easily and listening to the breeze, Harry half expecting to hear the distant clash and yell of combat. Slowly they rode all that day, that they might not arrive tired. The pack horse had given up complaining, and marched on resignedly.

They rode around the edge of a gaunt grey rockface at sunset and suddenly before her was a vast field, the Hills rising sharply at its perimeter. The plain was speckled with fires, and in the swiftly falling shadows she could make out the many-legged shapes of huddled horses and huddled men, and the angular silhouettes of tents. There were too many of them; her heart jumped out of its usual location and began beating frantically against the base of her throat. She raised her eyes to the watching Hills again: surely this great flat plain was not a natural phenomenon in this rugged land? And yet what labor could have flattened the Hills so?

Mathin was staring across the fires as if he would recognize the owners of the dark featureless tents even from here. She thought with his long eyes he might succeed. "Mathin, do you know how this plain came to be - has it always been here?"

Mathin, still looking out over the plain, said, "There is a story that Tor met the Northerners on this plain, and held them away from the City for nine days, and the heat of that battle melted the rocks of the Hills, which made a pool; and when the pool became hard again, it was this plain."

"What happened on the tenth day?" asked Harry. But Mathin put Windrider into a trot without answering. Sungold trotted obediently behind her, his ears pricked stiffly at the scene before him. He was ready for anything Harry might ask him to do; he gave her a little confidence. But the other riders here had known of the laprun trials perhaps all their lives; perhaps they had been training for them nearly as long.

Mathin glanced back at her. "We are opposite the gate to the City; you cannot see it from here. You will see it after the trials."

"Mathin."

His head turned warily back to her, anticipating a question he would not wish to answer. She saw his eyes glint in a yellow gleam of firelight.

"Are there other women at the trials?"

He grunted; she recognized it as relief that she wasn't going to nag him further about Tor the Just, who probably wasn't that boring if he could hold off the Northerners for nine days and melt a hole in the Hills, and Aerin and her dragons. He said gruffly, "A few. There are always a few. Once there were more." He put Windrider forward again, and in the click of hooves she had to strain to catch his last words: "It would be a great thing for us, and for our daughters - a damalur-sol."

Damalur-sol. Lady Hero.

They set up their own small and travel-stained tents not far in from the ring of Hills they had just left. She felt the drifting shadows of other Hillfolk as she rubbed Tsornin down, and when she came back to the firelight of the small blaze she had - rather efficiently, she thought, with the first of Mathin's three methods of fire-making, which simply involved the correct application of a tinder-box - started in front of their tari, there were four such shadows sitting on their heels around it. Mathin came into the light as she did, carrying his saddle. He joined the four, and after a moment's hesitation, so did she. She walked, pretending to be bold, toward a gap between elbows; and the owners of the elbows made room for her as they would for a comrade.

"How goes it, my brothers?" Mathin said, and she was startled by his voice speaking to someone other than herself.

One shadow shrugged. "As well as a first day ever does." Mathin had told her that the first day was reserved for those less highly trained, who did not seek to win their sashes; she had sighed. Mathin told her, "You would find it dull work, the first day. Believe me." Harry, after a moment, recognized the shadow as Innath, and relaxed slightly.

"And how does our prodigy?"

Harry blinked. It had taken her a second to remember the word prodigy, and then she was alarmed and heartened simultaneously by the our.

"Prodigiously," said Mathin, and he grinned at her. She smiled faintly back.

The shadows nodded and stood up; but each one touched her shoulder and then her head as he passed behind her. The last was Innath, and his hand lingered just long enough on her hair for him to have time to murmur, "Be of good courage, prodigy," and he too was gone.

The camp awoke before dawn; the tents were pulled down, and the fires, after heating the malak and the porridge, and singeing the breakfast bread - Someday, she thought, I will teach these people about toast - were tramped out. She gave Narknon less than her usual percentage of porridge, because she would doubtless need all of her strength, unenthusiastic as her appetite was at present. She mounted and waited to be sent to her fate. All over again she missed bridle and reins, and the scabbard of her sword looked strange to her, slung on the saddle, and the small shield banged awkwardly against her thigh. Mathin, with the pack horse reluctantly following, rode up beside her. "Your way lies there," he said, nodding in the direction of the invisible City gate. "You will find a man dressed all in red, a kysin, riding a black horse with a red saddle. Tell him your name - Harimad-sol," he added, as if she might need prompting. Maybe she did. "He'll know who you are." She surreptitiously hitched the shield an inch or so forward, and wiped her hands on her thighs. The leather felt clammy. Who would the kysin think she was? She couldn't even tie her own sash without help.

Mathin reached out to her, pulled her face toward him, and kissed her on the forehead. "The kiss of luck," he said. "You have no sash-bearing father or mother to give it you. Go as the Daughter of the Riders. Go."

She turned away. Innath was sitting his big grey stallion just behind her. He smiled at her, a friend's smile. "Be of good courage, Daughter of the Riders."

The morning was already hot, and the plain offered no shade; the ring of Hills seemed to hold the heat like water in a bowl. Harry found the man in red, and gave him her name; she thought he looked at her sharply, but perhaps he looked at all the laprun candidates sharply. He nodded and gave her a white rag to tie around her arm, and sent her off toward a milling mob of nervous horseflesh and even more nervous riders. She looked at them critically; there were some fine horses here, but none could outmatch her own mount, and very few could come near him. There was one big dark bay that caught her eye; she was ridden by a boy in blue who carried his shoulders and head well. Harry wondered what the other riders thought of the one in the maroon sash on the big golden chestnut.

There was little conversation. There were those who gave their names to the red man and joined the ever-increasing throng here at the City end of the plain; the rest - the audience, she supposed - crowded behind barriers she could not see, that stretched from the feet of the red man's horse to the far side of the plain. Around Harry, some of the trials riders moved their horses in fidgety circles, just to avoid standing still; some looked down at themselves often, as if checking to make sure they were all still there. Harry twisted strands of Sungold's mane between her damp fingers and tried to keep her teeth from chattering. There was the dull murmur of horses' hooves, and the rush of their breathing, and the squeak of leather, the hush of cloth; and the sun overhead gazing down. To try to take her mind off the trials for a minute, she looked up, searching for some sign of the City, some path to its gate, and saw nothing but rock. It's right before my eyes and I can't see it, she thought, and had a moment of panic. Tsornin, who could read many of her thoughts by this time, flicked one ear back at her: Stop that. She stopped.

Shortly before midmorning the trials began. First their weapons were taken away from them and replaced with flat wooden swords; and Harry discovered that she was much fonder of her own sword than she had previously supposed. Everyone else was settling helms on heads, so she fumbled hers loose from its straps and tied it on. It felt heavier than usual, and she didn't seem able to see around its cheek pieces clearly. Then the riders were divided into twos, threes, fives, eights. In these little groups they galloped hard to the end of that highway between spectators, wheeled, and came back. They met twos, threes, fives, eights rushing to meet them, swerved and collided; riders rolled in the dust, and horses bolted. She was not one of the former, nor Tsornin the latter. Neither was the young man in blue on the bay mare. She had a little trouble holding Tsornin back to the pace of the others; he was not over-pleased with crowds, but he did as she asked since she asked it. Those that remained mounted at each sweep galloped down and back again and again; and with each charge another obstacle had appeared along the highway that must be leaped or climbed over: a wall of rolled-up tents, stacked together; a fence of tentpoles; a banked heap of small stones with scrub piled on top. The first flecks of sweat broke out on Tsornin's shoulders as he gave her the slight heave she needed to hook a boot around a neighboring ankle and toss a rider to the ground.

There was a little troop of twenty left mounted when the last charge ended. Harry looked around her, wondering how many had been thrown or hurt; she guessed there had been several times twenty in the beginning. A few minutes passed while the uneasy twenty walked their horses, and breathed deep, and waited. Then it was the spectators who came toward them, huddled once again at the City end of the plain; some of them were mounted, and all were carrying long wooden poles. What? thought Harry; and then a pole descended on her helmeted head, and the horse in front of her stumbled and fell at Sungold's feet. Sungold leaped over the thrashing legs as carelessly as if they were blades of grass. Harry began laying about with her wooden sword. A pole thrust itself under her knee and attempted to remove her from her saddle. Sungold switched around on his forehand, giving her her balance, and she broke the offending pole with the hilt of her mock sword. She began to feel hot and annoyed. Sweat matted her tunic to her body, and her leather vest squeaked with it. The burning sunlight tried to push her out of the saddle even as the poles in human hands did. What is this nonsense? She used the flat and butt of her silly wooden stick and Tsornin reared and stamped and hurled himself forward. She broke a few more poles. She felt Mathin's grin pulling at her own lips. Someone thumped her sharply in the shoulder with a pole, but once again, as she lurched, Sungold slid sideways to stay under her; and she gave that pole a back-handed chop and saw it spin away from its wielder.

Tsornin leaped over another fallen horse. She saw abruptly that the audience hemmed the trials riders in; if one of them pushed too near the edge of the crush, he was set on with particular ferocity and turned back. She noticed this with interest, and began determinedly to get out; but there were several hundreds to twenty - and only a few of the original twenty were still mounted.

She began to feel that tide of anger she remembered from the day she had unseated Mathin - she caught somebody by the collarbone and knocked him off his horse with his own pole - and she felt that she would escape. Tsornin was backing up, mostly on his hind legs. Then he spun round, came down - one more whack with her wretched wooden blade; the hilt gave an ominous creak, but it didn't matter; she was ... out.

The red man gave a shout. It was over.

The crowd dispersed instantly, as if the red man's shout had broken a cord that tied them all together. There were several loose horses standing clear, looking embarrassed for having behaved so poorly as to lose their riders; and several limping figures separated themselves from the others and went toward them. Harry sat where she was, the hot tide ebbing, leaving just a trace of headache behind, watching the others pass around her like grains of sand sifting around a boulder. She saw Mathin from a distance; he carried a pole across Windrider's withers and there was a shallow cut over one eye that had bled down his cheek. She saw none of the other Riders.

She squinted up at the sky. The Hills were black with shadows, but the sky was hard blue and she could feel the heat beating up again from underfoot. In the quiet - for, as it had been this morning, no one spoke and even the horses seemed to step softly - the heat seemed almost audible. She set Tsornin to walk himself as cool as possible. She patted his neck and dismounted, that they might walk together; he was sweating but not distressed, and he shook his head at her. She reclaimed her sword from the kysin, who saluted her. He had not saluted the laprun rider just before her.

Mathin reappeared and told her she could rest awhile. His cheek was washed clean and a bit of white cloth bound over his eyebrow. "The individual matches will go on all afternoon; you will be called late."

They found a spot of shade at the edge of the plain and pulled the saddles off the horses. Mathin gave her some bread and some wet white tasteless cheese. She sucked it slowly and let it trickle down her dry throat. She felt quite calm, and wondered what was the matter with her. "Mathin, are all the trials the same? Did you gallop and bash people with a wooden stick at your trials?"

"No and yes. They test your horsemanship in different ways; those who watch always have some chance to help - or hinder; and weapons of wood are safer. But the afternoon's matches are always the same, one rider against another, each with his own sword. If a kysin declares that a trials rider did badly in the general trials, he will not be permitted to ride in the individual sets."

They watched the dust clouds from the matches and the bright notches of color spinning in them; but Mathin made no move to return to that end of the plain, and Harry waited beside him, leaning on her elbows in spite of her sore shoulder.

The sun was halfway down the sky when they mounted again. Sungold, for the first time since she'd known him, refused to walk, and jigged along sideways, tossing his head. "Stop that, idiot," she hissed at him in Homelander, and he halted in surprise. Mathin turned his head and looked at her impassively.

They stood at the edge of the crowd now, and watched the combatants. There were five pairs, each the center of a private war; the red man had divided into ten red men on grey or black horses. There were two red men for each pair of fighters, and one man of each pair carried a small brass bell; when the bell rang out, that conflict was ended, and the horses fell apart, and riders and mounts panted the hot air. All the laprun riders were dressed in bright colors; there was very little white and no dreary dun or grey; with the scarlet kysin, it was a very vivid scene.

A bell sang out, a long gay peal, and she looked over at the finished pair. One of the riders held his sword up and shook it so the sunlight nickered on it. The other rider sat quietly, his sword on the ground at his horse's forefeet and, she noticed with a funny feeling in the pit of her stomach, his sash neatly sliced from around his waist and lying, part on his horse's croup and part on the ground.

Mathin said: "It is best to take your opponent's sash. The kysin mark each blow dealt, but to cut off the other rider's sash is best. This you will do."

"Oh," said Harry.

"You may, if you wish, unhorse him first," Mathin added as an afterthought.

"Thanks," said Harry.

"But you must not draw blood, for this is a sign of clumsiness. Baga, we call one who cuts his opponent during the laprun - baga, butcher. It is skill we look for. This is why no armor is allowed in the individual matches."

"Of course," said Harry.

Mathin grinned at her. "Of course. Is this not what I have been teaching you?" He watched the next pair of riders salute each other; and another bell from another pair rang; each of the five bells spoke a different note. "The trials go back many generations - once they were held every year, but there are no longer enough of us in the Hills to make up the number; we have them every three years now, since Corlath's father's day.

"The sash-cutting - churakak - is a duel of honor that is as old as Damar; far older than the laprun trials themselves, although few meet the churakak outside the trials any more.

"Aerin," he added thoughtfully, "met the churakak several times. Her red hair no doubt made her quick-tempered."

"Harimad," barked a kysin; and Tsornin jolted forward before Harry had registered her name. She was set facing a boy in a green robe and yellow sash; the kysin said, "Begin," and Harry feinted Tsornin to the left, back, forward, and the boy's sword fell to the ground, and his yellow sash fluttered down to cover it. A bell rang.

Harry was a bit taken aback. The kysin waved her aside. Tsornin flattened his ears; he was not interested in boys who did not know what they were doing. Next Harry removed a dark orange sash from around a sky-blue robe; and then a white sash from a purple robe. Harry began to feel as irritable as her horse, and with each cry of "Harimad" the two of them turned and stood and attacked and wondered when the real thing would begin. Harry began unhorsing her opponents before lopping off their sashes just to give herself something to do.

The Hills' shadows began to creep toward the feet of the charging dancing horses, and the lowering sun flicked dangerous gleams from the shining sides of swords and into opponents' eyes. Tsornin was dark with sweat, and foam streaked his sides, but he slowed not a whit, and it seemed to Harry that they were galloping down a long hall of statues with swords held stiffly in raised hands, waiting for her to lean languidly over Sungold's neck and knock their loose sashes off.

All five bells rang at once as the green sash fell off the point of Harry's sword to the ground, and she looked around and realized that she and her latest opponent were the last to finish. It was nearly twilight, and she was surprised that they had gone on so long. Now that she stopped to think about it, it was rather hard to see; it was as though dusk had fallen on them as soon as they stood still. Tsornin's nostrils were wide and red as he turned his head. She looked where he was looking. A big dark horse stood as if waiting for them. Harry blinked and stared; the other horse tossed its head. Was he bay or black? There seemed to be something wrong with her eyes; she raised one arm and rubbed them against her grimy sleeve, and looked again, but the horse and rider still shimmered in her sight, a shimmer of darkness instead of light. The tall rider was muffled in a shadowy cloak that fell over his mount's shoulders and past his boot tops; he shrugged it back to show a white tunic and a red sash. The horse fidgeted sideways, and a bay glint showed along its dark flank.

The lapruni and the audience moved to form a ring around them, the shadowy bay and Tsornin. The silence after the pounding hooves, the grunts and thumps and crashes, was unearthly; and the sun sank farther behind the Hills. The first breath of the evening wind crept out of the Hills; its cool finger tapped Harry's cheek, and it felt like fear.

A torch appeared, held aloft by one of the ring, someone on horseback. Then another torch burst into fire, and another, and another. The beaten ground between Harry and the silent rider at the other end of the circle swam in the flickering light. Then the brass bells rang again, like the sound of Outlander cannon in Harry's ears, and Sungold came to life, and neighed, and the bay answered.

Harry did not know if the match lasted a long time or a short time. She knew at once that this swordsman, behind the scarf wrapped around his head and face so that only his eyes showed, could have dismembered her whenever he liked. Instead he drew her to attack him, opening his defense to attract each of the many moves Mathin had taught her, as if he were a schoolmaster hearing her lessons. It was so easy for him that Harry began to feel angry, began to clear a tiny space in her mind to think of some plan of her own; and her anger rose, and gave her a headache till the torchlight was red with it, but she did not care, for she knew by now that it gave her strength. Strength she needed, for she was tired, and her horse was tired, and she could see that the bay was fresh, and could feel up her arm as the swords met that the rider did not exert himself to resist her. But her rising anger lifted her and invigorated Sungold, and she began to harass the bay stallion's rider - if only a little, still a little. She pressed forward and the bay gave way a step or two, and the crowd gasped; and with a quick and merry slash the tip of her sword caught the scarf bound round the rider's face and tore it up from the chin. She misjudged by the fraction of a hair; a single drop of blood welled up from the corner of his mouth. She stared at it, fascinated, as she felt her sash slip down her legs in two pieces and lie huddled on the ground, for the face belonged to Corlath.

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