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The dun of Black Morca, War King of the Gets and as much of a ruler as Nestor could boast, lay out of sight behind the rise of two grassy hill shoulders. In this country, in these times, that was dangerously far.
It was a cool day in mid-spring, a Libera's Day that fell in that month when the sun was in the sign of the Wurox, Libera's Beast. It was a few hours after a freshening rain and the sky still held to an even gray. In the long hill grass at the edge of an oak wood, a hunting pig cast back and forth for the scent of a rabbit. Following afoot, arrow nocked on string and eyes alert, was a boy of sixteen named Haldane--nearly a man, but not yet a man--the one son of Black Morca.
He had been warned to stay within sight of the tower as he had been warned not to hunt alone. There were times when he did both, but this was not one. He was empty-handed so far, and he would not be. He was ranging far for a Get on foot, chancing the end of daylight, as vulnerable as any Nestorian cowherd to a meeting with Get baron or Nestorian outlaw. More vulnerable. If he was alert, it was for more than rabbits.
He waved and whistled the pig left, up the hill slope, there where a dolmen stood sentinel, one great rock balanced on another, placed so by men of olden times for purposes that no man of today could name. Slut, the pig, was small, black, and quick. Men of the Western Kingdoms might use dogs for hunting, but the Gets held to the brighter animals they had used since long before they seized this land. On a thong around his neck Haldane wore an amulet, a boar's tooth marvelously graven, which heprized. He had kept the tooth to remember the boar by and paid for the graving. Grunt, an excellent dog killer.
Slut's trotters dug small divots as she coursed the hill, snout to the ground. She was only a pig for small game, but she loved the hunt. The sight of a strung bow delighted her until she fairly wriggled with pleasure. A beautiful black little darling. Ivory tushed.
A light wind toyed with the grass, the young leaves on the oaks, and the boy's brown hair. The light was starting to fail and the wind to quicken, and Haldane was reluctantly thinking of calling the pig in. It would be dark in little more than an hour. If he were back in sight of the stockade before dark, his father would never hear, but if he had to be looked for, Morca would be told and he would have to take his buffets.
Morca was gone now with a raiding party into Chastain, smallest of the Western Kingdoms. Some two weeks past, Morca had gathered barons and fighting men, lean and restless after a long winter, and led them not for the close and easy border with Palsance across the Trenoth River, but south toward the Nails and Chastain.
Haldane had been left. Haldane had been embarrassed. Haldane had been left. He had the size, the skill. He was ready. He could place arrows with half the party and at worst he could handle a sword better than Hemming Paleface, who was half a Nestorian anyway. Since Morca's departure, Haldane had gone hunting alone every day.
Sometimes Haldane hunted on horse, more often on foot with only a single pig for company. Morca had drawn the limits of Haldane's world exactly. On horse he might ride to the forest verge beyond the village in the valley, the farthest point a man could see clearly from the tower. On foot he might walk to the crest of the first hill. Haldane respected the first rule and was careless of the second. He hunted on foot because it made his small world larger.
He had decided to start for home and was raising his fingers to whistle when Slut stopped abruptly and raised her head. Her ears perked. She strained and trembled, testing the air with her flat pink nose. Haldane lowered his left hand to the bowstring again and drew the arrow back.
Haldane waited. The breeze joined him, holding its breath. The leaves on the oaks hushed to listen. There was no sound, no movement except the suspicious craning of Slut's head. Then Slut slowly trotted forward. In an explosion, not a rabbit, but a hen pheasant, plump, brown, and sudden, burst from the grass and rattle-winged toward the oaks.
Fingers tight on familiar leather, string pulled taut, and arrow released. A dart speeding to overtake the bird. A good shot, well aimed. The aspen shaft struck the pheasant like a skewer and brought it to the ground just inside the verge of the forest.
With suspense ended, the tableau over, the watching world went back to its work. The wind blew coolly, raising goose pimples. The leaves whispered privacies to each other. Slut trotted rapidly after the bird, and Haldane followed down the slope. He was pleased with his shot. He did not enjoy returning to the dun with nothing in his bag. He wished to recover the hen and be on his way. The sooner the better.
Slut passed into the twilight wood, her dark shape merging into the shadows. Haldane followed the sound of her eager grunts, but before he reached the trees, she gave a startled squeal and burst out of the brush. When she reached the protection of his heel, she pressed close and bared her tushes at the wood like a true braveheart.
"On, Slut. Fetch," said Haldane, and waved her toward the wood, but she stayed close. She knew where she wanted to be.
Haldane touched his boar's tooth. He took a last look at the hill, and then set a new arrow to his bowstring. He shivered as he passed between the first trees. It was colder under their dark locked arms. Slut followed, grunting rapid little comments to herself.
His arrow was fletched in brown and white. He saw the feather and then the angled shaft. Haldane glanced quickly at Slut, still close at his heel, and then at the pheasant.
It doubled in size and glared at him with eyes like flaring sparks. Haldane drew his bowstring tight. The cat hissed once, leaped sideways, and was gone up a tree like a black mystery.
Haldane continued to hold his arrow ready. His heart was racing and there was a trickle of melting snow in his chest. He walked to the arrow. It stood alone among dead leaves. No pheasant and no remains of one. Haldane loosed the tension on his bowstring. He squatted, laid his bow across his knees, and pulled the grounded arrow free. There was no trace of blood on shaft or point. He smoothed the feathers and flicked away the crumbs of dirt on the arrowhead. He looked at the tree the cat had climbed and then put the arrow into his quiver.
"Well, boy, did you lose something?"
The voice came from behind him. It was old and it spoke in Nestorian, which he had learned from his nurses before he had learned Gettish. He heard only the words, not the language.
Haldane lunged forward, aiming for the cover of the nearest tree. Slut squealed as he half-tripped over her. He lost his balance but kept his forward momentum. He tumbled and rolled, ending behind the tree he had started for. Slut huddled and grunted forgivingly to him.
He scratched her once to calm her fears, but who would do the same for him? He put arrow to string and checked his position. It was only now that he had time to think that he was sure he had been spoken to in Nestorian, the language of cattle, peasants, and outlaws. His heart galloped. He felt his horn, which was his from his grandfather Arngrim, but he would not blow it for help unless he had no other choice. He preferred retreat if it was possible.
The voice laughed. It was old and cracked. He peered cautiously around the tree bole, prepared to jerk his head back. It was no Get-hating Nestorian bandit ready to bury a blade in his back that he saw, but an ancient woman appreciating him and herself.
"Did I frighten you, now?" she asked. "I merely wondered if you had lost something."
He started up with the intent of unstringing his bow and thrashing her out of the forest for her laughter. It is no business of slaves to frighten their masters or to wonder overmuch about their affairs. But her figure, by some trick of the eye, suddenly seemed the person of a giant troll mother. Framed by oak she was, that ancient dolmen rearing high on the hillside behind her like a giant mushroom of stone against the sky, and she leaned heavily on her staff. But when she raised it, thunder threatened. The black cat, smug in its knowledge, sat on its heels by her side. And Haldane was afraid and stopped short.
He recognized her. He had been told of her too often not to know who she was. That was why he was afraid and that was why he stopped short. Since the Battle of Stone Heath, when the unleashed magic of the West had struck the Gets a cruel stroke, lone Gets were wary about thrashing even solitary witches and wizards. They had no wizards of their own and magic was strange and terrifying to them.
The boy was more used to magic than most Gets. He had even learned a small spell, the Pall of Darkness, and had suffered the costs of using it--though all that was behind him now. It did not occur to him to invoke the spell any more than he would have dared to bare a sword in the presence of Black Morca. Indeed, his hand sought the comfort of his boar's tooth, not for the contact with Grunt, but for the securities lent by the gravings, his clan markings.
"That's right," she said, gesturing with the staff. "Come close, boy."
The name of the witch was Jael. She was ugly with her years. Her nose was like a stripped chicken bone, her skin a withered weathered mushroom, and the veins on the back of her hands were as thick and blue as the yarn in Haldane's winter cap. She had been old when Haldane's nurses were virgins, many many years past. But her hair blowing wild about her face and shoulders was blacker than Morca's.
He approached warily. Nestorian though she was, he was ready to be polite. He wanted nothing more than for this moment to be done so that he could be off over the hills, pig at his heels, before light failed. This felt very much like an interview with Morca. His mind was a tortoise, his heart a hare. But he had had practice in hiding his fears.
"Who are you, boy?" she asked.
He lifted his head. With some pride he said, "Haldane, son of Black Morca, King of the Gets."
"Oh," she said. "Yes. I believe idle tongues have wagged somewhat of Morca to me. What do you do here in these woods of mine, walking abroad with only a pig for company?"
"This is Nestor," said Haldane. "The Gets rule in Nestor and Morca rules the Gets. This is Morca's land. Why should I not walk abroad?"
"Morca's land, Getling? There were people in Nestor before the Gets were ever heard of. There are people now in Nestor of whom the Gets have never heard. They remain, living in Nestor, and will in that day when the Gets are only a name."
Jael spoke, not with vehemence, but with a simple mocking assurance that disconcerted Haldane.
"A distant day," he said. "We..."
"A day soon to come," the witch said. "The Goddess is awake and walks again in the West."
Haldane's hand went back to his gravings. The Gets had left all their familiar gods behind when they first circled out of their high home plains of Shagetai. Here they had no gods to stand with them and they were wary.
"I know no Goddess," he said.
"Never fear, the Goddess will know you, and that is all that is necessary. Her passage shakes the land and her portents are everywhere."
Haldane said, "I know of no portents."
"Have you asked the plain folk? You don't know enough to follow sheep, little one, but you will learn. Haldane Hen-Heart. Haldane Left-Behind. Haldane Dribblenose."
"Those are not my names!"
Slut trembled at his passion. But those were not his names. He had no earburner, for good or ill, except sometimes Haldane Hardhead, because he was stubborn and could take a blow. He didn't really mind that one. But he didn't want these as presents.
"The wake of the Goddess is marked by change. Read the changes in your life, Haldane Libera-Liege, and you will see portents in plenty. The Gets will meet a bloody end on Stone Heath, and you will be the instrument of the Goddess."
Haldane was a free Get, and son of Black Morca. He would be no one's instrument. Who was Libera? The name of a day, the name of a wandering star. But this day was one of Libera's. He was frightened.
"I won't be!"
"You will be! When you are ready, when you are ripe, the Goddess will come and snatch the soul from your body. You are hers to take. Libera--"
She raised her gnarly staff in her gnarly hand and gestured widely so that Haldane's eye was compelled to follow, there where she seemed to point, where rock balanced on rock. Her movements were slow and grand. And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, she brought the knobbed end of the staff down with power and precision and rapped Haldane smartly on the noggin. It set him on his heels and flaked a tooth and blurred his vision like wind-ruffled waters.
"I mark you," he heard a distant crabbed voice say. "Libera's Liege. Serve Her well and faithfully.
"And if you wish a portent to chew on, Haldane Eggsucker, your father awaits you now in his dun. He has brought you a foreign bride to wed."
Haldane blinked to clear his vision. When his eyes were clear again the witch and her cat were vanished, stolen away by magic. The forest was empty.
The trees began cool conversation about the approach of night. Slut whuffled anxiously.