The Conqueror's Childby Suzy McKee Charnas
25 years after the landmark publication of Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas has completed her epic tale of the Holdfast.
The Fems were slaves of the men in the Holdfast. When Alldera escaped her slavery, she led a band of rebels to build a world where women rule. Now Sorrel, Alldera's daughter, joins her mother. She brings with her a young/i>
25 years after the landmark publication of Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas has completed her epic tale of the Holdfast.
The Fems were slaves of the men in the Holdfast. When Alldera escaped her slavery, she led a band of rebels to build a world where women rule. Now Sorrel, Alldera's daughter, joins her mother. She brings with her a young boy she has adopted.
The Conqueror's Child completes an epic history of life and love and the war between men and women which will stand for generations to come.
Read an Excerpt
Like many things that are done without planning and alone, it went badly from the start. Veree got tired of riding clinging to my back, was heavy to carry in a leather sling, and cried a lot. The childpack had left him bruised and sore with their rough handling, and I had not brought enough warm clothes for the higher elevations of the mountains. And he was at this time inclined to be weepy and whiny anyway.
But we got through the poisoned barrens and across the lower pass over the mountains, although this took us farther north than I would have liked and more slowly.
Still, one warm and cloudy morning I found myself looking down on a sight I had been told about often enough: the foothills on the eastern side of the mountains. The timbered land fell away toward a broad plateau of scrub woodland out of which the Holdfast had been cleared generations ago by the people from the Refuge.
I sat by my fire on a rocky outcrop in the upland forest, drinking a very thin brew of tea and thinking about what I meant to do down there. I had it in mind to deliver Veree to a place where there were others like him, so that he would not live as a freak all his life in the Grasslands.
But when I looked around for him, Veree was gone. I saw nothing but looming trees, and the upcountry sky which mounted very high and shone intensely blue but which didn't feel big as Grassland skies did.
Over the panic in my heart I began to call, "Veree!"
The Free Fems had always laughed at the men of the Holdfast for believing that the forested mountains were full of evil spirits. Such beliefs seemed less strange now. I had done two turns as a border scout watching for men from the Holdfast, and I had heard tales from other scouts of the deaths of such strays. The Riding Women had ghosts of their own to deal with in the land between the nations.
I scrabbled a hole in the ground for the ashes of my fire and covered them over with dirt. Then I stood turning in a circle, craning my neck and stretching my eyes wide to see into the shadows of the trees. Such shadows! So different from in the Grasslands, which lay everywhere open to the sky.
"Veree!" I screamed. "Where are you? Answer me!"
My voice was swallowed by the trees. Patch, the mare I had saddled for the day's ride, barely turned an ear. All my horses went on quietly grazing among the roots and rocks. They were used to the note of alarm in my voice, having heard it often enough lately. A child is not an easy traveling companion, and I had no shares to help.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to use my breathing to calm my panic, a technique of relaxation I had learned before going to my first stud colt. Having had the training, I might as well get some use out of it.
I couldn't bear to think about what Sheel would say when I told her that the child she had sent us was lost or dead. In truth, I cared very much myself that he was lost: Holdfast-bred but Grassland-born, he was more like me than any other living person. I had become his only mother.
Should I mount up and go looking for him, or would it be better to search more slowly and thoroughly on foot? What if meantime he came back and found me gone?
While I stood dithering, the lead pack mare nickered and was answered with a snort from beyond the clearing. I crouched with my knife clutched in my hand. Two riders burst from among the trees, ready-armed with drawn bows.
They were not Grasslanders, I saw that at once; fems, of course, what else would they be on this side of the mountains? I was so relieved to see them that I simply discounted their arrows that were trained on me and dashed toward them.
"Free people!" I cried, agitated enough by Veree's disappearance that it never occurred to me to present myself properly with my self-song. "Have you seen my companion? A little child has wandered away from me."
The riders looked at each other and lowered their weapons. Their clothes were more fabric than leather and both wore their hair braided. One, a short-waisted brunette with a squinting glance, looked familiar.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" the taller one asked sternly. "With a child, too, wandering on our border?"
She sounded so hostile that I hesitated to answer. The dark one stood in her stirrups, looking anxiously around as if fearing an ambush. Now I recognized her; she had always been a timid soul.
I held out my hands to her: "Don't you know me, Lora?"
Lora-Lanit was she, though her high forehead was now stamped with lines of time and weatherstared at me, her lips parted in amazement. Then she put her head back and laughed the staccato laugh that I remembered so well.
"I'd say you were Sorrel Holdfaster," she said, "but when I was at that person's naming in Holdfaster Tent, she swore to ride only red horses. I don't see a red horse among your stock."
"It's me, it's me," I said, squeezing her hand in my two. She leaned down and kissed me.
The other one said brusquely, "I'm Ebba-Basarr, and I don't know you. There's a runaway stick on the loose. How old is your little girl? How could you let her ride off on her own?"
"Stick," "stickie," and "muck" were all, in the conversation of Free Fems who came over the mountains to trade, terms for men. Hearing now how she said "stick," the depth of her loathing and contempt, I made a decision without even thinking about it.
"I didn't 'let' her do anything," I said. "I just turned around for a second to put out the campfire and she was gone."
"On foot? She can't have gone far then," Lora said.
I said, "If your stick gets to that child before we do, I'll never forgive myself."
"Nobody else will either," the other fem said and reined her horse around.
I mounted Patch and we rode together, leaning from our saddles and searching for sign. After an hour or so we heard crying, and in short order we came upon Veree sitting on the ground among some stunted junipers, wailing.
Could they tell he was a boy by the way he sounded? I rode ahead and scooped him up, rejoicing to feel his thin little arms around my neck.
"You should smack her for wandering off alone," Lora said severely, but she reached out to pat Veree's springy curls.
I hugged him close, put my lips against his wet cheek, and whispered, "Don't ever do that again! This isn't the Grasslands. It's full offull of dangers here, worse than swarming sharu. Do you hear me, Veree?"
He snuggled deeper against my neck. "I couldn't find you, ma," he mourned, hiccuping.
"It's all right," I said. "Now I've found you." I smoothed his sweaty hair and listened to the calming of both our heartbeats.
"Not yours, is she?" said Ebba-Basarr. "We'd have heard of it if Alldera's daughter had had a child."
It amazed me, how much I could dislike somebody I'd never even met before. She was homely, too, with a blunt-featured, concave face. If she'd been a Riding Woman, I would naturally have had to dislike all of her blood kin as well; a big job. Maybe there was something to be said for Holdfast singularity.
But Ebba-Basarr was neither Riding Woman nor one of the Free Fems I had known as a child in Holdfaster Tent. She must be NewFree, as Juya had beena slave freed only a half-dozen years ago by Alldera's army. They could be touchy people.
Since the Conquest, some NewFree had come bartering for Grassland horses to improve their Holdfast herds. I had kept my distance. Sometimes Sheel Torrinor came with them for long talks with influential people about events over the mountains. I had not wanted Sheel to meet me and then ride back and tell my bloodmother all about it.
If Alldera Conqueror wanted firsthand news of her daughter, she could come see for herself.
Gossip was always exchanged, of course. No doubt questions were asked and stories carried back to the Holdfast, so my name and life couldn't be completely unknown here. I thanked the luck of my home tent that I had not sung my self-song, which would have revealed my childlessness. It occurred to me that it might be harder to be Alldera's daughter on this side of the mountains than it had been on the farther side.
However, having told one great roaring great lie I had no choice but to build upon it.
"She's my daughter, yes," I said. Veree wouldn't object. He was used to being called "her" and "she" in a casual way. He even insisted on it if you didn't, as he wanted so badly to be like the other Grassland children (a feeling I knew well).
"The Riding Women asked me to keep her birth a secret," I explained, improvising wildly, "for fear my femmish kin would come and to take her away. Now the childpack has rejected her. I've come to see if Alldera's people will bring her up here."
"What a pity you chose just now," Lora exclaimed. "Alldera's gone to talk with the Bayo-born about pasturage."
Well, that was a shock. I had heard of the people living in the swamps south of Bayo, but had never imagined that Alldera would travel there. I also hadn't realized till that moment how tense I was about seeing my bloodmother after so long. Why else would I feel so relieved to hear that she was away?
Who said I had come all this distance to see her anyway?
"Fedeka hasn't gone, too?" I asked casually, as if the old dye-maker was just as important to me as my bloodmother. Well, in some ways she had been.
"Fedeka's in Midfast," Lora said enthusiastically, "at the Moon's House. She'll be so happy to see you!"
I silently blessed my luck again. Fedeka had once sworn to give me any help I asked if I called on her, making herself oathmother to me even though I was already grown by then. She certainly had more plain sense and sympathy (as I remembered her) than Mighty Alldera anyway, at least when not obsessed by the fems' god, the Lady in the Moon.
I asked about Sheel Torrinor and the Rois cousins who were still living on this side of the mountains. Lora-Lan said they were somewhere north of us in the Wild, investigating the Refuge, an underground fortress from which all presentday Holdfasters' ancestors had emerged after the Wasting.
More good news. Better to deal with Fedeka than with Sheel.
Veree whispered, "We have to go back now, ma."
"Back where, sweetcakes?"
He pointed vaguely, but I knew what he meant: back over the mountains, back home.
"No, not yet."
He rubbed his moist, round cheek against mine. "But we have to. We left Notch-ear; he has nobody to play with him except Nip, and she kicks him too much. We left"
"Yes, we did," I said firmly, trying to forestall sulks or tears. He was already badly rattled by having gotten himself lost. "We're not going back yet so just rest quietly, Vee, while I talk with these friends."
He sighed mightily but subsided. He had become a very grave, self-possessed, and generally obedient child. Too much so, I had sometimes thought, but that can be the effect of a life filled with rejection. Now I was grateful for his meekness.
"What's her name?" Lora asked warmly. "She has your eyes."
"I call her Veree after your Juya, that died." Juya's child didn't have my eyes at all, and I didn't want to encourage closer scrutiny.
Ebba-Basarr said, "I don't think she looks much like you." She might have been one of those abrasive Managena Women, except that they at least had the virtue of beautiful, tawny skin that never seemed to age.
"Look," I said, "we still have your runaway stick to find. I don't feel easy being out here with a child while a man is running loose."
"It's not far to New Forge," Ebba-Basarr said, glancing up at the sun. "We'll set you back on the trail"
"No, no," Lora protested. "She can't travel alone with this pretty kit. She's not used to finding her way in our country." She shook her finger at me, scolding. "Nobody crosses the mountains alone! You're as rash as your blood-mother."
I frownedI always frowned when someone compared me to Allderaand to hide my ill temper I turned to nuzzle the child's hair again. Well, some good came at last out of being bloodchild to Alldera the Great. Lora and Ebba-Basarr wouldn't like having to explain how they had let Alldera's daughter and granddaughter wander off alone into danger.
Ebba said, "All right, then, help us search."
Lora nodded. "I'll haze your horses along with ours. Three of us will find that stickie faster than two anyway, unless another patrol picks him up first."
"But you must keep the little one quiet," Ebba-Basarr warned.
I said, "Oh, she's exhausted, aren't you, little pony? She'll sleep." I gave Veree a sweetgrass twist from my pocket. "Quiet time now, Veree. Remember what I've taught you."
He leaned back in my arms to look at me, nodded solemnly, and began sucking loudly on the sweet. I mounted Patch and pulled Veree up behind me. Using a leather snugger strap, I buckled him tightly to my back for safety.
We didn't talk much, searching that rough upland country. I rode in overlapping arcs with Ebba-Basarr, while Lora trailed us driving the spare mounts. It was much like scouting on the other side of the mountains with a Grassland patrol.
But I had never gone into danger with a child. My nerves were strung tighter than the bow in my hand.
At midmorning, Ebba-Basarr drew rein suddenly. "I smell him!" She got off her horse to search closer to the ground. I stayed in my saddle, casting my gaze more widely about in case our quarry lurked nearby.
We found a flattened swathe of grass where someone had slept by a stream. At that instant we heard a choking yell of alarm behind us. We both rode hard back toward Lora and the spare horses.
Two grappling figures rolled, thrashing and grunting, on the ground. Lora was struggling with a near-naked stranger while our frightened horses jostled away down a brushy defile.
We galloped up, arrows nocked but unable to shoot for fear of hitting Lora. She heaved her torso clear enough to use the strength of her legs, which were locked around the stranger's body. Twisting, she just managed to avoid a vicious blow from a rock clutched in her opponent's fist.
I kept an arrow trained on the enemy as best I could. Ebba-Basarr rode in close, her lance hiked up to stab him to the earth.
The stranger stared wildly up at her, dropped the rock, and clapped his hands to his head.
"Heras," he cried, "spare me, I beg! I am hungry, I am mad, I thought myself attacked by a demon of the Wild!"
Lora, red in the face and panting, scrambled up, angrily slapping dust from her tunic. "Oh, be quiet, Galligan, save it for the Steps. You ran, you're caught, that's all."
Ebba shook her lance menacingly. "Why bother with the Steps?"
What "steps"? But it seemed a poor time to ask.
"Oh, leave it, Ebba," Lora said. "There's no great harm done." Her bruised lips were already beginning to swell.
Ebba-Basarr swore and slipped the lance back into its straps.
My fingers were frozen to the grip of my bow. I rode nearerbut not much nearerand kept my arrowpoint centered on this Galligan while the other two bound him with thongs. Of course they knew himthere were not so many men left alive in the Holdfast now, and the Free had good reason to keep close track of each and every one of their former masters.
At my back, Veree breathed soft, frightened breaths. I had forgotten him. I whispered over my shoulder that there was nothing to fear now, but I knew he could feel the pounding of my heart.
"Was she very bad, that big ma?" he asked me tremulously.
"Very bad," I said. "Like that dun horse that bit my leg, remember? So they have to tie this ma up, to keep her from hurting people."
"Would she hurt me?" he said.
"No," I said. "I won't let her." I sighted down the shaft of my arrow at the fellow, who gaped at me. If the Free knew every one of them, wouldn't he know every one of the Free? He must think I was a Riding Woman, with my daughter.
"I won't let her hurt anybody," Veree echoed. He began to whisper, squirming as he acted out his words, "I can hit her and smack her, I can push her in the squats so she gets all stinky."
And the like, a list of vengeful fancies. I let him talk his fear out to himself.
I had seen one dead man in the mountains, never a live one close up. That corpse (long dead when my patrol found him) had looked like the oddly shrunken carcass of a horse, all disordered bones and rags of skin and small things scuttling about.
This fellow quivered and sweated with life and the desire to keep hold of it. He wore a long, coarse-woven shirt (torn now at the collar), and slung round his neck was a shapeless mess of what looked like haira wig! He must have been passing himself off (or trying to) as one of the Free in his escape.
He said hoarsely, "It's not my fault. I was fed bad manna by a man who hates me"
Ebba-Basarr jammed her headcloth into his open mouth and tied it tightly in place. "None of your lies, muckie."
"Don't look any more at that bad ma," I murmured to Veree, putting up my bow. His dark eyes missed little. I hoped that he couldn't guess that the captive man and he were of the same kind (how could they be?).
But Veree must know it someday.
The spare horses, being unpursued, had gone no great distance. Only two of the packs they carried had to be remade. Then we paused for a bite to eat before descending to New Forge.
Galligan, who had had to trot along at a rope's end behind us, was unceremoniously tied to a tree. I sat with my back against a juniper trunk and held Veree on my lap so that he faced away from the others and from Galligan.
By now all the strains of the morning had put Veree into a drowsy mood. He lay loose and heavy against me, whispering to himself a story that Nenisi had made up for him about a little white horse made of cloud.
I said over the child's head, trying not to sound too critical, "What if your stickie gets loose again? We kill them outright if we find them in the borderlands."
Ebba-Basarr raised her eyebrows. "You do?" She dipped her fingers into a small crockery pot she had taken from her saddlebags. Lora sat shirtless so that Ebba-Basarr could anoint her scrapes, cuts, and at least one bitemark. "You're supposed to send runaways back to us alive."
"That's your rule, not ours," I said. I didn't mean to sound rude. The look Ebba gave me was one of outrage. In fact, it was two years since any of the Riding Women had had occasion to hunt down a male fugitive on the border.
"Oh, Ebba, it's one of those rules that everybody ignores," Lora chided, trying to keep the peace. "The plains people have always considered the mucks dangerous vermin, to be got rid of when the chance offers. They don't mate with men, so why risk living with them? It's different for us, more's the pity."
She caught Veree's eye and waved. He said, "Why is that ma all shiny?"
"That's medicine, Veree," I said, "for her scratches, see?"
"I have scratches," he said, beginning to squirm around to find some, chattering away about the history of each one.
"Did the little white cloud horse have scratches?" I asked. He considered aloud whether it was possible for anything to scratch a cloud. When I said not so far as I knew, he seemed satisfied and returned to the cloud-horse story.
Ebba-Basarr said to me, "As we ride down into New Forge, watch for stacks of stones by the roadside and in the fields. I know of three at least that you'll see on the way."
"Oh, leave it, Ebba," Lora said, making an unhappy face. "What can our cairns mean to someone raised in the Grasslands?"
"Each cairn," Ebba-Basarr pressed on, "shows where someone saw a bond fem they knew, maybe one of their work gang or part of their own master's femhold, killed in slavery or in the war.
"The cairn closest to New Forge, right by the river, is where two teams of Rovers cut a runaway fem to pieces in sight of a labor crew out mending 'Troi dam. That was many years ago, but we don't forget." She raised her voice, for Galligan's benefit no doubt: "We don't forget anything."
I recollected the Free Fems at Stone Dancing Camp telling just such grim tales, and myself as a girl listening avidly. In those days I drank in their stories with a jealous yearning, sad that I myself would never be tested as strongly as they had been.
Now I wondered how hard the Free worked at keeping such memories fresh, and whether it could be a good thing to dwell on so much suffering and rage. My self-song had changed as I'd grown oldereach significant event took less space as new ones were added, although the depth of original feelings stayed the same. Didn't harking back always to ancient wrongs distort perspective, distracting from more recent happenings?
What was memory anyway, in a country where each person must remember for herself alone because she doesn't even know her own mother or her own children, or if she has any kin living?
"Did you ever see such terrible things yourself?" I asked politely.
"More than once," Ebba began, "in the old, bad days"
"But that's over and done," Lora said, probably saving me from hours of gruesome reminiscences by her dour companion. "Your little kit will only know such things from the stories that go with the cairns." She reached over and stroked Veree's bare arm. He shrank against me, turning his face into my shoulder.
Lora sat back again. "Shy little creature. May I hold her?" she asked wistfully. "Just for a minute."
"Maybe later," I said uneasily. He was too old to be dandled by strangers, but then these people naturally regarded children a little differently than we did in the Grasslands. More importantly, a knowing hand might discover Veree's sex through a chance caress. (Did Galligan know just by looking? A terrifying thought that I quickly dismissed for my sanity's sake.)
"So you named your daughter after Juya-Veree," Ebba-Basarr remarked, putting the final touches on Lora's injuries with shiny fingers. "If that fem had stayed here where she belonged, she might still be alive to carry her own name."
Lora said, "We heard that Juya's cub was male. What would the Riding Women have done with it if it had lived?"
I shrugged, keeping my face as blank as I could. This was not a conversation for Veree to hear, but he was now dozing against me and I doubted that our talk was anything but a background droning to his fleeting dreams.
"Poor Juya," Lora said. "We worked together in the old days. She was always impulsive."
"Impulsive?" Ebba-Basarr said, tying the lid back on her ointment pot. "Stupid, to leave her own people at such a time."
Veree squirmed, mumbling, "You're squeezing me, ma!"
"Sshh, now," I murmured to him. "Do you have to pee? We'll be riding for a while. Let's go empty out over by those bushes."
"Don't have to."
"You're sure? We don't want to have to stop once we're up and riding. You're really sure?"
"Then settle down and go back to sleep."
"I'm not tired," he whispered, but he drooped against me.
Veree gave a few tentative moans and then fell quiet; good. I didn't want any more attention drawn to him than was absolutely necessary.
Galligan coughed and spat dust he had inhaled from the bark of the tree he was tied to. He was young, with a sharp profile and very short, dirty hair of indeterminate color. He looked harmless now.
I said, "What happens when you get him back to where he came from?"
Lora said, "He'll have to be punished. They may give him a public death, as a warning to the others." She shook her head. "I won't watch. I hate those things."
"That's why you say 'they' will punish him, instead of 'we' will punish him," Ebba-Basarr said darkly. "What do you think he would have done to you if we hadn't arrived in time to save your neck?"
"Oh, what can you expect?" Lora said. "He's a man, Ebba!"
I said, "Has he hurt anybody else?"
"He did a little damage," Lora said cheerfully. I think she was still lightheaded with the energy charge of the fight. "At least he had the sense not to try to escape on horseback."
Ebba-Basarr spat. "The first rule is, no man rides a horse."
Having seen this Galligan in action, I heartily agreed. The idea of such savagery backed up by the speed, strength, and mobility of horses sent a shiver down my spine.
Or maybe my shiver was for the knowledge that at some point these people must discover that Veree had already lived most of his life on horseback, like any Grassland child his age.
Ebba-Basarr said, turning her head to keep her words from the tender ears of my "daughter," "We should burn him alive, the way they used to burn us for witchery every time something went wrong in their Holdfast. You wouldn't be able to keep me away from that spectacle!"
She wiped her fingers on the grass and tucked the ointment pot into a saddlebag. "Let's go. I don't want to be responsible for him any longer than I have to."
Towing our captive at a rope's end again, we descended toward the smokes and sounds of New Forge, a town rising on a site above the black ruins of old 'Troi which Lora pointed out to me. She rode close to me and reached out now and then to touch Veree's arm or his cheek. He snoozed, unaware.
He was a dead weight at my back. I felt saddle-sore, tired, and filled with trepidation.
"Lovely skin she has," Lora murmured. "She didn't take your color hair, though. I thought, among the Mares"
I had had some time to come up with an answer to the inevitable questions about this. "Nobody knows why she doesn't look just like me," I said, as casually as I could. "Something about the stud milk meeting Holdfast seed instead of Grassland seed, they think. They say she'll grow into a closer resemblance, with time."
Lora looked dubious, but at that moment Ebba-Basarr interjected, "That's the cairn I meant."
Inwardly, I blessed her stubborn nature. She indicated a pile of stones rising alongside the trail some distance away. Four big Holdfast horses grazing near it moved off as we approached.
Ebba-Basarr exclaimed angrily. "Those are Partan Hearth horses running loose again! There'll be hell to pay if they've been through anyone's fields."
"Loose from what?" I asked, puzzled.
"Oh, we keep our horses in fenced pastures here," Lora-Lan said, "so they don't damage the crops."
This was such an odd idea that I couldn't imagine what to reply. Horses wander; horse people follow them. But of course there had been neither horses nor herders in the Holdfast before Alldera's return. I could see that they hadn't the space for great, free-ranging herds, their country being a patchwork of fenced fields and clusters of buildings.
The two fems each added a stone to the lopsided cone of rocks. Lora scooped up a stone for me, saving me having to dismount with the burden of the child on my back. I rode close and tucked the pebble into a gap near the top of the pile.
"What do you do if there are no stones handy?" I asked.
"In any of the Lady's sanctuaries," Lora said, "you'll find a bucket of chips from the quarries. Travelers take some with them to add to the cairns they pass. You won't be expected to do that, being Grassland-raised."
"The cairns at 'Troi," Ebba-Basarr said, giving Galligan's rope a jerk so that he stumbled wide of the cairn as he passed it, "are a hundred strong. When the mucks have finished leveling that place, nothing will be left except our monuments."
I had made a terrible mistake, I told myself as we came out of the trees and descended the trail toward New Forge. I should never have brought Juya's little boy into the Holdfast of the Free Fems.
Copyright © 1999 by Suzy McKee Charnas
Meet the Author
Suzy McKee Charnas is the author of over a dozen works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, including the Holdfast series from Tor Books and the Sorcery Hall series of books for young adults. She is the winner of the Hugo Award (for her short story "Boobs") and has won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award twice, once retrospectively for the first two Holdfast books and then for The Conqueror's Child, final volume of the Holdfast series. Her recent books include My Father's Ghost, a narrative nonfiction work about her father's old age. She adapted her novel, The Vampire Tapestry, for the stage in the late 1990s.
She was born and brought up in New York City, the setting for the Sorcery Hall books, and she currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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