CHAPTER FOUR

 

She stared out of her bedroom window at the moonlit desert. Shadows drifted across the pale sand, from one shaded hollow to the next clump of dry brush. Almost she could pretend the shadows had direction, intention. It was a game she often played. She ought to be in bed; she heard two o'clock strike. The location and acoustics of the big clock that stood in the front hall were such that it could be heard throughout the large house it presided over - probably even in the servants' quarters, although she had never had occasion to find out and didn't quite dare ask. She had often wondered if it was perversity or accident - and for whatever reason, why wasn't it changed? - that the clock should so be located as to force the knowledge of the passing of time upon everyone in the Residency, every hour of every day. Who would want to know the time when one couldn't sleep?

She had had insomnia badly when she was fresh from Home. It had never occurred to her that she would not be able to sleep without the sound of the wind through the oak trees outside her bedroom at Home; she had slept admirably aboard the ship, when apprehensions about her future should have been thickest. But the sound of the ceaseless desert air kept her awake night after night. There was something about it too like speech, and not at all like the comfortable murmur of oak leaves.

But most of that had worn off in the first few weeks here. She had had only occasional bad nights since then. Bad? she thought. Why bad? I rarely feel much the worse the next day, except for a sort of moral irritability that seems to go with the feeling that I ought to have spent all those silent hours asleep.

But this last week had been quite as bad - as sleepless - as any she had known. The last two nights she had spent curled up in the window-seat of her bedroom; she had come to the point where she couldn't bear even to look at her bed. Yesterday Annie, when she had come to waken her, had found her still at the window, where she had dozed off near dawn; and, like the placid sensible maid that she was, had been scandalized. Apparently she had then had the ill grace to mention the matter to Lady Amelia, who, in spite of all the alarums and excursions of the week past, had still found time to stop at Harry's room just at bedtime, and cluck over her, and abjure her to drink some nice warm milk (Milk! thought Harry with revulsion, who had given it up forever at the age of twelve, with her first grown-up cup of tea), and make her promise to try to sleep - as if that ever had anything to do with it - and ask her if she was sure she was feeling quite well.

"Very well, ma'am," Harry replied.

Lady Amelia looked at her with concern. "You aren't fidgeting yourself about, mmm, last week, are you?"

Harry shook her head, and smiled a little. "No, truly, I am in excellent health." She thought of the end of a conversation she had heard, two days past, as Dedham and Peterson left Sir Charles' study without noticing her presence in the hall behind them. " ... don't like it one bit," Peterson was saying.

Dedham ran his hand over the top of his close-cropped head and remarked, half-humorously, "You know, though, if in a month or a year from now, one of those Hillfolk comes galloping in on a lathered horse and yells, 'The pass! We are overwhelmed!' I'm going to close up the fort and go see about it with as many men as I can find, and worry about reporting it later." The front door had closed behind the two of them, and Harry proceeded thoughtfully on her way.

"I hope you are not sickening for anything, child," said Lady Amelia; "your eyes seem overbright." She paused, and then said in a tone of voice that suggested she was not sure this bit of reassurance was wise, as perhaps it would aggravate a nervous condition instead of soothing it: "You must understand, my dear, that if there is any real danger, you and I will be sent away in time."

Harry looked at her, startled. Lady Amelia misread her look, and patted her hand. "You mustn't distress yourself. Sir Charles and Colonel Dedham will take care of us."

Yesterday Harry had managed to corner Jack when he came again to closet himself with Sir Charles for long mysterious hours. Harry had lurked in the breakfast room till Jack emerged, looking tired. His look lightened when he saw her, and he greeted her, "Good morning, my dear. I see a gleam in your eye; what bit of arcane Damarian lore do you wish to wrest from me today?"

"What was it exactly that you said to Corlath that morning, just as he left?" replied Harry promptly.

Jack laughed. "You don't pull your punches, do you?" He sobered, looking at her quizzically. "I don't know that I should tell you - "

"But - "

"But I will. In the days of Damar's civil wars, a man pledged himself so, to his king, or to the particular claimant he wished to support. It was a particularly dangerous and unsettled time, and so the ritual swearing to one's leader meant rather a lot - more, for example, than our Queen's officers taking an oath to her, as we all must do. The phrase still carries weight in Hill tradition ... but you see, my giving it to Corlath was a trifle, hmm, unprofessional of me, as Homelander protecting the Homelander Border from Corlath. A calculated risk on my part ... " He shrugged. "I hoped to indicate that not all Homelanders are ... unsympathetic to the Free Hillfolk, whatever the official attitude is."

Harry lay down in her detestable bed after Lady Amelia left her, and dozed, after a fashion, till midnight; but then the darkness and peacefulness wakened her, and she came again to her window-seat to watch the night pass.

Two-thirty. How black the sky was around the stars; nearer the horizon were longer flatter glints in the darkness, unsuitable for stars, and these were the mountains; and the desert was shades of grey. Without realizing it, she drifted into sleep.

There was the Residency, stolid and black in the moonlight. Faran and Innath would stay here, with the horses; it was not safe to take them any nearer. He would go the rest of the way on foot. Safe! He grinned sourly behind the safety of the grey hood pulled over his face, and slid into the shadows. The adventure was upon them, for good or ill.

"Sola, not an Outlander," Faran had begged, almost tearfully; and Corlath had flushed under his sun-darkened skin. There had been certain romantic interludes in the past that had included galloping across the desert at night; but he had never abducted any woman whose enthusiastic support for such a plan had not been secured well in advance. Corlath's father had been a notorious lover of women; unsuspected half-brothers and half-sisters of the present king still turned up occasionally, which kept the subject in everyone's mind. Corlath sometimes thought that his own policy of discretion in such matters only made his people nervous because they didn't know what was going on - or if anything was. For some time now there hadn't been, but by the gods, did his own Riders really expect him to break out by making an ass of himself over an Outlander - and now of all times?

But, on the other hand, he could not well explain his reasons - even to himself - although his determination was fixed, as he had unhappily realized the moment the words were out of his mouth. But he hated to see his people unhappy - because he was a good king, not because he was a nervous one - and so, while he could rightfully have told Faran to let it be, he had given as much of an answer as he could.

"This is an affair of state," he said slowly, because he could not quite bring himself to say that his kelar was concerning itself with an Outlander, even to his Riders, who were his dearest friends as well as his most trusted subjects. "The girl will be a prisoner of honor, treated with all honor, by me as well as by you."

No one had understood, but they were a little soothed; and they avoided thinking about the unwritten law of their land that said that a kidnapped woman has been ravished of her honor, whether she has been actually ravished of anything beyond a few uncomfortable hours across somebody's saddlebow or not. It was generally accounted an honor for a Hillman or woman to be seduced by a member of the royal family - which was why kelar, originally a royal Gift, continued to turn up in odd places - if a somewhat uncomfortable honor, for who could be entirely at ease with a lover who must never quite meet one's eyes? And Outlanders were peculiar, as everyone knew, so who did know how they might react?

"Sola," Faran quavered, and Corlath paused and turned a little toward the man to indicate that he would listen. "Sola, what will happen when the Outlanders find her gone?"

"What of it?"

"They will come after her."

"Not if they do not know where she has gone."

"But - how could they not know?"

Corlath smiled grimly. "Because we shall not tell them." Faran, by his own choice, had not been one of those who accompanied his king to the council with the Outlanders; Forloy and Innath and the others who had gone were wearing smiles to match the king's. The Outlanders could not see what happened under their very noses. "You shall leave here at once, and travel, slowly, toward the mountains; and set up camp again where the Leik spring touches the surface. There you will wait for me. I will return the way we came, in secret, in three days' time, so that the girl will not disappear too soon after the Hillfolk were seen in the Outlander station. Then I shall take the girl from her bed as she sleeps in the big house, and ride back to you."

There was a meditative silence; at last Faran said: "I would go with you, Sola. My horse is fast." His voice was still unhappy, but the quaver was gone; and as he looked at the faces of the six Riders who had been with Corlath when he spoke with the Outlander commissioner, he began to feel curious. He had never seen an Outlander, even from a distance; never looked upon an Outlander town.

After three restless days at the deserted campsite, Corlath, Faran, and Innath rode swiftly back toward the Outlander town. Corlath thought: They can't see us even in broad daylight when we gallop toward them with cloaks flapping and horses whinnying. We creep like burglars to an empty house, pretending that it has an owner because we can't quite believe it is this easy.

Faran and Innath knelt down where they were and did not look as their king left them, for they knew they would see no more than he wished them to. The horses waited as silently as the men, but the king's bay stallion watched him go. The only sound was the wind whispering through the low brush and the horses' long manes.

Corlath reached the house without difficulty; he had expected none. Watchdogs ignored him, or mysteriously counted him a friend. There were several black-and-brown furry shapes lying about sullenly snoring in the Residency garden. Outlander dogs did not like the northeast Border of Daria; and Hill dogs, who would have awakened at once and watched him silently, did not get on well with Outlanders. He passed the stables, but the grooms slept as heavily as the dogs. He couldn't see in the dark, but even in the places where the moonlight was no help he knew where things were.

He reached the wall of the house and laid a hand on it. Depending on what sort of a mood the kelar was in, he could occasionally walk through walls, without knocking them down first, or at least see through them. And then again, sometimes he couldn't. It would be tiresome if he had to break in like the common burglar he felt, and wander from room to room looking at faces on pillows. There was even the remote chance he could get caught at it.

No. This wasn't going to be one of those times: the kelar was with him - since it had gotten him into this dilemma, he thought, at least it was going to help to get him out of it - and he knew almost at once where she was. His only bad moment was when that damned clock in the front hall tolled like a call for the dead, and seemed to reach up the stairs after him like cold pale hands. She was curled up, drooping and asleep on a cushioned shelf built out from a curved window; and for a moment pity struck him and he hesitated. What good will pity do me? he thought almost angrily; I'm not here by choice. But he wrapped the cloak around her with unnecessary tenderness as he breathed a few words over her head to make sure she would sleep.

Harry struggled out of some of the oddest dreams she'd ever had into a dim and foggy reality full of bumps and jolts. Was she ill? She couldn't seem to make out what was happening to her, save that it was very uncomfortable, and it was not like her to have difficulty waking up.

She opened her eyes blearily and saw something that looked like dawn behind something that looked like hills, although she was a long way from them ... Where she was, she then realized, was slung sideways across a horse's withers with her feet sliding across his shoulder with every stride - no more comfortable for him than me - and she was held sitting upright by an arm round her middle that clamped her arms to her sides, and her head appeared to be bouncing against a human shoulder.

Her only clear notion, and it wasn't very, was that she was perfectly capable of riding a horse herself, and resented being treated like a bundle or a baby: so she struggled. She raised her head with a gasp and shook her face free of the deep hood pulled over it; tried to sit up a bit farther and turn a bit more to the front.

This caused the rider to rein his horse in abruptly; except she realized there were no reins. The rider seized her a little more firmly and then there were two other men on horseback beside her, and they dismounted and came toward her at once. They were dressed like Hillfolk, with hoods pulled low over their faces; and quite suddenly, still not understanding what had happened to her, she was afraid. The rider who held her handed her down to the men beneath; and she noticed that the shoulder her heels were knocking was bright bay, and the mane long and black. Then as the two men caught her by the arms, her feet touched the ground, and she fainted again.

She woke once again in twilight, but this time the red glow came from the opposite direction. This time she awoke feeling more like herself; or she thought she did, but her surroundings were so unlikely she wasn't sure. She sat up and discovered she could; she was lying on a blanket, still wrapped in a dark hooded cloak that wasn't hers; and underneath she discovered she was still wearing her nightgown, and the dressing-gown over it. She was barefoot; she spent a light-headed minute or two trying to remember if her slippers had disappeared or if she'd never put them on - last night, or whenever it was - caught herself here, and looked around.

She was in a bit of a hollow, with a scrub-covered dune behind her. Over her was a sort of tent roof, pegged out in a square, but with only one side let down. The other three offered her a view of the dune; the sunset, if that was what it was; and three men crouching over a tiny smokeless fire, built against the opposite arm of the same dune. Around its edge she could see the black hills fading in the last light, and three horses. Three lumps that might be saddles lay near them, but the horses - a grey, a chestnut, and a blood bay - were not tethered in any way.

She had only just looked at these things with a first quick glance, and had not yet begun to puzzle over them, when one of the men stood up from the fire and walked over to her. The other two appeared to pay no attention, remaining bent over their knees and staring into the small red heart of the fire. The third man knelt down near her and offered a cup with something in it that steamed, and she took it at once without thinking, for the man's gesture had been a command. Then she held it and looked at it. Whatever it was, it was brown, and it smelled delicious; her stomach woke up at once, and complained.

She looked at the cup, and then at the man; he was wrapped in a cloak and she could not see his face. After a moment he gestured again, at the cup she held, and said, "Drink it."

She licked her lips and wondered how her voice was going to sound. "I would rather not sleep any more." That came out pretty well.

There was another pause, but whether it was because he did not understand her - his accent was curious and heavy, although the Homelander words were readily recognizable - or was choosing his answer carefully, she could not tell. At last he said: "It will not make you sleep."

She realized that she was much too thirsty to care whether or not she believed him; and she drank it all. It tasted as good as it smelled, which, she thought, gave it points over coffee. Then she realized that she was now terribly hungry.

"There is food if you wish it."

She nodded, and at once he brought her a plate of food and some more of the hot brown drink. He sat down again, as if with the intention of watching each mouthful. She looked at him, or rather at the shadow beneath the hood; then she transferred her attention to her plate. On it, beside the steaming hump of what she took to be stew, was an oddly shaped spoon; the handle was very arched, the bowl almost flat. She picked it up.

"Be careful," he said. "The sleep you have had makes some people sick."

So I was drugged, she thought. There was a peculiar relief in this, as if she now had an excuse to remember nothing at all about how she came to be where she was. She ate what she had been given, and felt the better for it, although the meat was unfamiliar to her; but the feeling better brought into unwelcome prominence all her questions about where she was, and why, and - worst - what next. She hesitated, looking at her now-empty plate. It was a dull grey, with a black symbol at its center. I wonder if it means anything, she thought. Health and long life? A charm against getting broken or lost? Or a symbolic representation of Death to Outlanders?

"Is it well?" the man beside her asked.

"I would - er - be more comfortable if I could see your face," she said, trying to strike a clear note among reasonable timidity, dreadful cowardice, and politeness to one's captor.

He threw back his hood, and turned his head so his face was clearly visible against the fading light behind him.

"My God," she said involuntarily: it was Corlath.

"You recognize me, then?" he inquired; and at her startled nod - Yes, Your Majesty, she thought, but her tongue was glued to her teeth - he said, "Good," and stood up. She looked dazed; he wished he might say something to reassure her, but if he couldn't explain to his own people why he was doing what he was doing, he knew he would be able to say nothing to her. He watched her gathering her dignity about her and settling it over her stricken expression. She said nothing further, and he picked up her plate and cup and took them back to the fire, where Innath scrubbed them with sand and put them away.

Harry was too busy with her own thoughts to suspect sympathy from her kidnapper. She saw him as a figure in a cloak, and watched him join his men at the fire; neither of them looked her way. One stamped out the fire and packed the cooking-utensils in a bag; the other saddled the horses. Corlath stood staring at the hills, his arms folded, his cloak shifting in the evening breeze; the light was nearly all gone, and she soon could not discern his still figure against the background of the black hills.

She stood up, a little shakily; her feet were uncertain under her, and her head was uncertain so far from the ground. She walked a few steps; the sand was warm underfoot, but not unbearably so. The two men - still without looking at her - slid past her, one on each side, and dismantled the tent, rolled it up, and stored it away so quickly it seemed almost like magic; and as the last bag was fastened to a saddle strap, Corlath turned, although no word had been spoken. The red bay followed him.

"This is Isfahel," he said to her gravely. "You would say perhaps ... Fireheart." She looked up at the big horse, not sure what response was required; she felt that patting this great beast would be taking a liberty. To do something, she offered him the flat of her hand, and was foolishly gratified when he arched his neck and lowered his nose till his breath tickled her hand. He raised his head again and pricked his ears at Corlath; Harry felt that she had just undergone some rite of initiation, and wondered if she'd passed.

The other two men approached them; the other two horses followed. Am I about to be slung over the saddlebow like a sack of meal again? she thought. Is it more difficult to do the slinging when the sack in question is standing and looking at you?

She turned her head away, whereupon the other two men were found to be looking intently at the sand around their boots. The baggage was all tied behind their saddles, and the hollow they stood in looked as bare and undisturbed as if it had never sheltered a campsite. She turned her head back to Corlath again. "I can ride - at least a little," she said humbly, although she had been considered an excellent horsewoman at Home. "Do you think I might sit ... facing forward, perhaps?"

Corlath nodded and let go the horse's mane. He adjusted the leather-covered roll of fleece at the front of the saddle, then turned back to her. "Can you mount?"

She eyed the height of the horse's back: Eighteen hands if he's an inch, she thought, and that may be conservative. "I'm not sure," she admitted.

Then, to the horror of the other two men, the puzzlement of Fireheart, and the surprise of Harry herself, Corlath knelt in the sand and offered her his cupped hands. She put a sandy foot in the hands, and was tossed up as easily as if she were a butterfly or a flower petal. She found this a bit unnerving. He mounted behind her with the same simple grace she'd seen in the Residency courtyard. The other two horses and their riders came up beside them; they wheeled together to face the hills, and together broke into a canter; Harry could detect no word or gesture of command.

They rode all night - walk and canter and brief swift gallop - and Harry was bitterly tired before the line of hills before them began to emerge from a greying sky. They stopped only once; Harry swung her leg over the horse's withers and slid to the ground before any offer of help could be made; and while she didn't fold up where she stood, there was a nasty moment when she thought she might, and the sand heaved under her like the motion of a horse galloping. She was given bread, and some curious green fruit, and something to drink; and Corlath threw her into the saddle again while his men bit their lips and averted their eyes. She wound her hands in Fireheart's long mane, stiffened her back, and blinked, and willed herself to stay awake. She'd said she could ride, and she didn't want to be carried ... wherever they were going ... but she wasn't going to think about that. Just think about sitting up straight.

Once when they slowed to a walk, Corlath handed her a skin bag and said, "Not much farther now," and the words sounded kindly, not scornful. She wished she could see his face, but it was awkward to twist around to peer at someone who was just behind one's shoulder, so she didn't. The contents of the bag burned her mouth and made her gasp, but she sat up the straighter for it.

Then as she stared at the line of hills, and squeezed her eyes shut and opened them again, and was sure that the sky was turning paler, she was not imagining things, the three horses pulled up to a walk, then halted, ears forward. Corlath pointed; or to Harry it seemed that a disembodied hand and arm materialized by her right cheek. "There." She followed the line his finger indicated, but she saw only waves of sand. The horses leaped forward at a gallop that appalled her with its swiftness at the end of such a journey; the shock of each of Fireheart's hoofs striking the ground rattled her bones. When she raised her eyes from the lift and fall of the black mane over her bands, she saw a glint of white, and of grey shapes too regular to be dunes. The sun broke golden over the hills as the three horses thundered into the camp.

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