CHAPTER THREE

 

Corlath stared at his horses black-tipped ears. The Hillfolk passed through the gate of the Residency and Corlath lifted his gaze to rake angrily across the dusty station street, the little dun-colored houses and shops, the small straggly trees. At a slight shift in his rider's weight the red horse turned off the road. The harsh clatter of hooves on the packed-dirt road changed to the duller sound of struck sand. He could hear his men turning off the road behind him; he shook his head in a futile attempt to clear a little space for thought amid the anger, and leaned back in his saddle, and the horse's pace slowed. There was no sense in charging across the desert at midday; it was hard on the horses.

The six riders closed up behind him; the two who came forward to ride at his side stole quick looks at him as they came near, and looked away again as quickly.

Outlanders! Involuntarily his hands, resting lightly on his thighs, curled into fists. He should have known better than even to try to talk to them. His father had warned him, years ago. But that was before the Northerners had come so near. Corlath blinked. The heat of his own anger was hard to contain when there wasn't some use he could put it to; anger was splendidly useful on the battlefield, but he was not facing any regiments just now that could be tangled in their own feet and knocked over in companies. Much as he would like, for example, to set fire to the big stupid house - an absurd building for the desert: it must be the sort of thing they lived in in their own country - and watch it crash down around the ears of the big soft creature who called himself commissioner ... but spite was for children, and he had been king for thirteen years, and he bit down on his anger and held it.

He remembered when he was young and before the full flowering of his kelar, of the terrible strength known ironically as the "Gift," his father had told him that it would often be like this: "We aren't really much good, except as battle machines, and even there our usefulness is limited. You'll curse it, often enough, far more often than you'll be glad of it, but there you are." He sighed, and looked wryly at his son. "They say that back in the Great Days it was different, that men were made big enough to hold it - and had wit enough to understand it. It was Lady Aerin, the story goes, that first knew her Gift and broke it to her will, but that was long ago, and we're smaller now."

Corlath had said, hesitantly: "They say also that the Gift was once good for other things: healing and calming and taming."

His father nodded sadly. "Yes; perhaps it once was; but no more. Luthe knows, if he will tell you, for he has the old kelar, and who his parents are even he has forgotten; but Luthe is himself. You and I are of duller blood.

"And it is duller blood that has brought us to what we are, what we remain - what remains to us. Avoid the Outlanders, if you can. They can't, or won't, understand us; they don't recognize horses from oxen, and will try to put the yoke on you that they have hung on the rest of our land. But their strength is the strength of numbers and of stubbornness and persistence; do not underestimate it."

He could see his father standing in one of the inner courtyards of the City in the mountains, staring at one of the fountains, water running shining over the colored stones of the Hills, talking half to himself. Then the picture faded, blotted out in another swift sweep of anger; and he found himself looking at the girl again, the girl he had seen standing in front of the Outlander house. What had she to do with anything?

He frowned, and his horse's ears and black mane reappeared before him. He looked up; it was still a long ride to their camp. He had not, somehow, wished to sleep too near the Outlanders; it was not that he suspected deliberate treachery, but that the air that hung over an Outlander station sent bad dreams to Hillfolk.

His anger kicked him again like a spurred heel; he flinched. It had a life of its own, the Gift, damn it. What indecipherable object did it desire of him this time? He knew by now that the idiosyncrasies of kings, and others whose blood carried much kelar, were viewed with more alarm by the victims themselves than by their friends and subjects. Not that the alarm did any good. If one was king, one could not explain away one's more impenetrable actions by saying that one just couldn't help it.

Woven into his anger there was a pattern. Occasionally he understood it. He waited, gritting his teeth; and he saw the girl again. This time, as long as she was there, he looked at her.

When he had seen her first, at the foot of the steps, just a few minutes ago, he had been surprised into looking at her. He knew what his glance could do when he was angry, and tried to be careful about whom it rested on, and for how long. But this girl had, unfortunately for her, somehow caught his attention, and he had looked longer than he meant.

She was tall, as tall as most men, tall even by Outlander standards. Her hair was yellow, the color of sun on sand, and almost as bright. His people, the Hillfolk, were usually smaller than the Outlanders, and dark of skin and hair. But it wasn't her size or her coloring that held him beyond the first startled flick of notice; nor was it her beauty. There was too much strength in that face and in the long bones of the body for beauty. Something about the quietness of her, perhaps? Or her self-contained straightness; something about the way her eyes met his, with more thought behind them than the usual half-hypnotized, half-fearful look he had learned to expect if he held anyone's gaze too long - even when his kelar was quiet. Something, he thought suddenly, like the controlled straightness he himself had learned, knowing well what could happen if he relaxed. But that was nonsense. She was an Outlander. While there were still wild sports among his own people, where a few drops of royal blood from many generations past would suddenly burst into full kelar in the veins of some quiet family's child, there had never yet been an Outlander with any Gift to contain.

This train of thought took him far enough from the center of anger that he had begun to relax a little; his hands uncurled, and the black mane swept against his fingers. He looked ahead; he knew, although he could not yet see it, that his camp lay just beyond this next bit of what looked like flat bare impartial desert and was in fact a little rise in the land, enough of a buffer from sand and storm to allow a small well of sweet water, with a little grass and low scrub, to live behind a protecting shoulder.

As he looked out across his desert, almost calm again, or at least finding the beginnings of calm, the kelar suddenly produced a picture of Sir Charles' foolish white face anxiously saying, "My dear sir - hmm - Your Majesty" and explaining why he could not help him. The picture was thrust before his eyes, and he took his breath in sharply between his teeth. Having caught his attention, the single-minded kelar snatched Sir Charles away and presented him with the girl again.

What about her? he shouted silently, but there was no answer. It was rare that the Gift ever made it easy for him by explaining what it wanted. Sometimes he never did find out, and was left to muddle through like any other mortal - with the added disadvantage of inscrutable messages banging inside his skull.

His patience gave way; he leaned forward in the saddle, and the big stallion leaped into a gallop. The six riders, who knew their king's moods, and hadn't been very happy at their reception at the Outlanders' hands themselves, let him go. He swerved away from the line that would take him directly to the camp.

The man on the golden dun, who had been riding on the king's right, soothed his mount with one hand. "Nay, we do not follow him this time."

The man at his left glanced across at him and nodded briefly. "May the Just and Glorious be with him."

The youngest of the riders snorted with laughter, although it was not pleasant laughter. "May the Just and Glorious be with all of us. Damn the Outlanders!"

The man on the dun frowned and said, "Innath, watch your tongue."

"I am watching it, my friend," replied Innath. "You may be glad you cannot hear what I am thinking."

The king had disappeared in the heat glaze rising from the sand by the time the little group topped the rise and saw the pale tents of their camp before them, and resigned themselves to telling those who awaited them what had occurred during the meeting with the Outlanders.

Harry blinked and recognized the boy at her elbow. "Thank you," she said absently, and he led the pony away, looking anxiously over his shoulder at the way the desert men had gone, and evidently grateful to be leaving himself. She shaded her eyes with her hand a moment, which only served to throw the fire of her headache into greater relief. She looked up at the men on the verandah and saw them moving uncertainly, as if they were waking up, still half under the influence of unpleasant dreams. She felt the same way. Her shoulder creaked when she dropped her arm again. At least it will be a little cooler inside, she thought, and made her way up the steps. Cassie and Beth, their mounts led away after Harry's, followed her.

Luncheon was a quiet meal. All those who had played a part in the morning's performance were there. Rather, Harry thought, as if we can't quite bring ourselves to separate yet, not because we have any particular reason to cling to one another's company. As if we'd just been through ... something ... together, and are afraid of the dark. Her headache began to subside with the second glass of lemonade and she thought suddenly: I don't even remember what the man looks like. I stared at him the entire time, and I can't remember - except the height of him, and the scarlet sash, and those yellow eyes. The yellow eyes reminded her of her headache, and she focused her thoughts on the food on her plate, and her gaze on the glacial paleness of the lemonade pitcher.

It was after the meal had been cleared away - and still no one made any move to go - that Jack Dedham cleared his throat in a businesslike manner and said: "We didn't know what to expect, but by the way we're all sitting around and avoiding one another's eyes - " Harry raised hers, and Jack smiled at her briefly - "we don't have any idea what to do with what we've got."

Sir Charles, still without looking up, said, as if speaking his thoughts aloud: "What was it, Jack, that you said to him - just at the end?"

Harry still had her eyes on Dedham, and while his voice as he answered carried just the right inflection, his face did not match it: "It's an old catch-phrase of sorts, on the let-us-be-friends-and-not-part-in-anger-even-though-we-feel-like-it order. It dates from the days of the civil war, I think - before we arrived, anyway."

"It's in the Old Tongue," said Sir Charles. "I didn't realize you knew it."

Again Dedham's eyes suggested something other than what he said: "I don't. As I said, it's a catch-phrase. A lot of ritual greetings are in the Old Tongue, although almost nobody knows what they mean any more."

Peterson said: "Good for you, Jack. My brain wasn't functioning at all after the morning we'd spent. Perhaps you just deflected him from writing off the Outlanders altogether." Harry, watching, saw the same something in Peterson's face that she had wondered at in Dedham's.

Sir Charles shrugged and the tension was broken. "I hope so. I will clutch at any straw." He paused. "It did not go well at all."

The slow headshakes Dedham and Peterson gave this comment said much louder than words could how great an understatement this was.

"He won't be back," continued Sir Charles.

There was the grim silence of agreement, and then Peterson added: "But I don't think he is going to run to the Northerners to make an alliance, either."

Sir Charles looked up at last. "You think not?"

Peterson shook his head: a quick decided jerk. "No. He would not have listened to Jack at the end, then, if he had meant to go to our enemies."

Jack said, with what Harry recognized as well-controlled impatience, "The Hillfolk will never ally with the Northerners. They consider them inimical by blood, by heritage - by everything they believe in. They would be declaring themselves not of the Hills if they went to the North."

Sir Charles ran his hand through his white hair, sighed, and said: "You know these people better than I, and I will take your word for it, since I can do nothing else." He paused. "I will have to write a report of this meeting, of course; and I do not at all know what I will say."

Beth and Cassie and Harry were all biting their tongues to keep from asking any questions that might call attention to their interested presence and cause the conversation to be adjourned till the men retired to some official inner sanctum where the fascinating subject could be pursued in private. Therefore they were both delighted and alarmed when Lady Amelia asked: "But, Charles, what happened?"

Sir Charles seemed to focus his gaze with some difficulty on the apprehensive face of his wife; then his eyes moved over the table and the girls knew that they had been noticed again. They held their breaths.

"Mmm," said Sir Charles, and there was a silence while the tips of Beth's ears turned pink with not breathing.

"It hurts nothing but our pride to tell you," Dedham said at last. "He was here less than two hours; rode up out of nowhere, as far as we could tell - we thought we were keeping watch so we'd have some warning of his arrival."

The girls' eyes were riveted on Dedham's face, or they might have exchanged glances.

"He strode up to the front door as if he were walking through his own courtyard; fortunately, we had seen them when they entered the gates in front here and were more or less collected to greet him; and your man, Charles, had the sense to throw open the door before we found out whether or not he would have walked right through it.

"I suppose the first calamity was that we understood each other's languages so poorly. Corlath spoke no Homelander at all - although, frankly, I don't guarantee that that means he couldn't."

Peterson grunted.

"You noticed it too, did you? One of the men he had with him did the translating, such as it was; and Peterson and I tried to talk Darian - "

"We did talk Darian," Peterson put in. "I know Darian almost as well as I know Homelander - as do you, Jack, you're just more modest about it - and I've managed to make myself understood to Darians from all sorts of odd corners of this oversized administration - including a few Free Hillfolk."

Harry thought: And the Hill-king stopped dead, as angry as he was, when Dedham addressed him in the Old Tongue?

"In all events," Dedham went on, "we didn't seem able to make ourselves understood too readily to Corlath."

"And his translator translated no faster than he had to, I thought," Peterson put in.

Dedham smiled a little. "Ah, your pride's been bent out of shape. Be fair."

Peterson answered his smile, but said obstinately, "I'm sure of it."

"You may be right." Dedham paused. "It wouldn't surprise me; it gave them time to look at us a little without seeming to."

"A little!" Sir Charles broke out. "Man, they were here less than two hours! How can they - he - conclude anything about us in so little time? He gave us no chance."

The tension returned. Dedham said cautiously: "I daresay he thought he was giving us a chance."

"I am not happy with any man so hasty," said Sir Charles sadly; and the pompous ridiculousness of his words was belied by his tired and worried face. His wife touched his hand where she sat on his right, and he turned to her and smiled. He looked around the table; both Peterson and Dedham avoided his gaze. He said, lightly, almost gaily, "It's simple enough. He wants arms, men, companies, regiments - help to close the mountain passes. He, it would appear, does not like the idea of the Northerners pouring through his country."

"Which is reasonable," said Dedham carefully. "His country would be turned into a battlefield, between the Northerners and ... us. There aren't enough Hillfolk to engage the Northerners for any length of time. His country would be overrun, perhaps destroyed, in the process. Or at least annexed by the victor," he added under his breath.

"We couldn't possibly do as he asked," Sir Charles said, lapsing back to speaking his thoughts aloud. "We aren't even sure what the Northerners mean toward us at present."

Peterson said shortly: "The Hillfolk's attitude toward the North being what it is, I feel certain that Corlath's spy system is a good one."

"We offered cooperation," Sir Charles said.

"Capitulation, you mean," Peterson replied in his blunt way. "His."

Sir Charles frowned. "If he would agree to put himself and his people entirely under our administration - "

"Now, Bob," Dedham said.

"That's what it amounts to," Peterson said. "He should give up his country's freedom - that they've hung on to, despite us, all these years - "

"It is not unusual that a smaller country should put itself under the protection of a larger, when the situation demands it," Sir Charles said stiffly.

Before Peterson had a chance to reply, Dedham put in hastily: "What it comes down to is that he is too proud to hear our terms, and we are - er - we cannot risk giving - lending - him troops on his terms."

"The Queen and Council would be most displeased with us if we precipitated an unnecessary war," said Sir Charles in his best commissioner's voice, and Peterson grunted.

"We know nothing about the man," Sir Charles continued plaintively.

"We know that he wants to keep the Northerners out of Daria," Peterson muttered; but Dedham moved in his chair in a gesture Harry correctly translated as bestowing a swift kick on Peterson's ankle; and Peterson subsided.

"And he would not stay to parley," Dedham finished. "And here we are, feeling as if we'd all been hit in the head."

Corlath paced up and down the length of his tent as his Riders gathered. He paused at one end of the tent and stared at the close-woven horsehair. The wall moved, for the desert wind was never still. There were so few of the Hillfolk left; in spite of the small hidden tribes who had come out of their fastnesses to pledge to Damar's black-and-white banner after generations of isolation. Corlath had worked hard to reunite the Free that remained - but for what, when one thought of the thousands of Northerners, and eventually the thousands of Outlanders who would meet them? - for the Outlanders would learn soon enough about the Northerners' plans for southern conquest. Between them they would tear his country to shreds. His people would fight; he knew with a sad sore pride that they would hold on till the last of them was killed, if it came to that. At best they would be able to continue to live in the Hills: in small secret pockets of their Hills, hiding in caves and gathering food in the darkness, slipping away like mice in the shadows, avoiding those who held their land, claimed it and ruled it. The old Damar, before the civil wars, before the Outlanders, was only a wistful legend to his people now; how much less it would be when there were only a few handfuls of the Free living like beggars or robbers in their own Hills.

But he could not submit them to the Outlanders' ... practical benevolence, he called it after a moment's struggle with himself. For his army to be commanded by Outlander generals ... The corners of his mouth turned up. There was some bitter humor in the idea of the pragmatic Outlanders caught in a storm of kelar from both their allies and their opponents. He sighed. Even if by some miracle the Outlanders had agreed to help him, they would have refused to accept the kelar protection necessary - they didn't believe kelar existed. It was a pity there was no non-fatal way to prove to them otherwise.

He thought of the man who had spoken to him last, the grey-haired man. There had almost been a belief in him - belief in the ways of the Hills, that Corlath had read in his face; they might have been able to speak together. That man spoke the Hill tongue understandably at least - although he may not have known quite what he was offering in his few words of the Old Tongue. Poor Forloy: the only one of his Riders who knew even as much of the Outlander tongue as Corlath did. As an unwelcome envoy in a state far more powerful than his own, he had felt the need of even the few minutes a translator might buy him, to watch the faces of those he wished to convince. Why wasn't there some other way?

For a moment the heavy cloth before him took on a tint of gold; the gold framed what might have been a face, and pale eyes looked at him -

She's nothing to do with this.

He turned away abruptly and found his Riders all seated, watching him, waiting.

"You already know - it is no good." They bowed their heads once in acknowledgment, but there was no surprise on their faces. "There never was much chance - " He broke off as one of his audience dropped his head a little farther than the seriousness of the occasion demanded, and added, "Very well, Faran, there wasn't any chance." Faran looked up, and saw the dawn of a smile on his king's face, the nearest thing to a smile anyone had seen on the king's face for days past. "No chance," Corlath repeated. "But I felt, um, obliged to try." He looked up at the ceiling for a minute. "At least it's all over now," he said. Now that any chance of outside assistance had been eliminated, it was time to turn to how best to guard their mountains alone.

The Northerners had tried to break through the mountains before, for they had always been greedy and fond of war; but while they were cunning, they were also treacherous, and trusted nobody because they knew they themselves were not to be trusted.

For many years this had been a safeguard to the Hillfolk, because the Northerners could not band together long enough or in great enough numbers to be a major threat to their neighbors. But in the last quarter-century a strong man had arisen from the ranks of the petty generals: a strong man with a little non-human blood in him, which granted him a ruthlessness beyond even the common grain of Northern malice; and from whatever source he drew his power, he was also a great magician, with skills enough to bring all the bands that prowled the Northlands, human and non-human alike, under his command. His name was Thurra.

Corlath knew, dispassionately, that Thurra's empire would not last; his son, or at most his son's son, would fail, and the Northerners break up and return to their smaller, nastier internecine quarrels. Corlath's father, and then Corlath, had watched Thurra's rise through their spies, and Corlath knew or could guess something of the cost of the power he chose to wield, and so knew that Thurra would not himself live much longer than an ordinary man. Since the Hill-kings lived long, it might be within Corlath's own lifetime that, even if the Northerners won the coming war, he would be able to lead his people in a successful rebellion; but by then there might not be enough of the country left to rebel, or to live off of after the rebellion was finished. Not much more than five hundred years ago - in Aerin's day - the desert his tent was pitched on had been meadow and forest. The last level arable land his people had left to them was the plain before the great gap in the mountains where the Northern army would come.

Sir Charles might beg off now while the Northerners had not yet attacked any Outlander-held lands. But once they had cut through the Hillfolk they would certainly try to seize what more they could. The entire Darian continent might fall into the mad eager hands of Thurra and his mob, many of them less human than he; and then the Outlanders would know more than they wished of wizardry.

And if the Outlanders won? Corlath did not know how many troops the Outlanders had to throw into the battle, once the battle was engaged; they would learn, terribly, of kelar at Thurra's hands. But even kelar was limited at last; and the Outlanders were stubborn, and, in their stubbornness, courageous; often they were stupid, oftener ineffectual, and they believed nothing they could not see with their eyes. But they did try hard, by their lights, and they were often kind. If the Outlanders won, they would send doctors and farmers and seeds and plows and bricklayers, and within a generation his people would be as faceless as the rest of the Outlander Darians. And the Outlanders were very able administrators, by sheer brute persistence. What they once got their hands on, they held. There would be no rebellion that Corlath would ever see.

It was not pleasant to hope for a Northern victory.

His Riders knew most of this, even if they did not see it with the dire clarity Corlath was forced to; and it provided a background to Corlath's orders now. King's Riders were not given to arguing with their king; but Corlath was an informal man, except occasionally when he was in the grip of his Gift and couldn't listen very well to anything else, and usually encouraged conversation. But this afternoon the Riders were a silent group, and Corlath, when he came to the end of what he had to say, simply stopped speaking.

Corlath's surprise was no less than that of his men as he heard himself say: "One last thing. I'm going back to the Outlander town. The girl - the girl with the yellow hair. She comes with us."

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