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Thora lay belly-down in the dew-beaded grass beneath a screen of brush, her attention all for the open meadow beyond—most of all for the weathered building squatting in the middle of that expanse. The cold arose from the earth into her thin, trail-hardened body which, within its covering of weathered leather, melted into the brown-gray of last season's grass and leaves. Patience was a thing she had learned well since last autumn when the Craigs had been overrun by pirates coming upriver from the coast. Those of her people who had survived scattered, to live and die as best they could. She knew that the walls of a determined spirit must stand as strong as a wall of stone when it was a matter of keeping food in one's stomach, to fight the pinch of clawlike hunger. It was that hunger which had drawn her here.
The hour was mid-morning, and, out on the new-showing grass of those open fields, the wild cattle whose trail she had followed had begun to graze. She let fall from her mouth the spittle-gummed cud she had been chewing since dawn—a hunter's trick to chew upon the food which most attracted the game. Now, almost absently, Thora scratched a small hole in the earth to bury that wad. At present it was more important to consider the building.
The structure was very old, perhaps even dating from the Before Time. Yet it seemed to have stood the passing of seasons better than most of the ruins she had chanced upon. Long and low against the ground, it had windows like slits, into which there was no looking from this distance. Beside it were newer pieces of man's handiwork—corrals of poles well set, the earth within them trampled as if there had recently been animals penned there. Yet no smoke rose from the chimney.
Thora edged farther forward. Beside her a darker form stirred and lifted a prick-eared head, turning to meet her own dark blue eyes with two of yellow-gold. The girl lifted her upper lip as might the animal express a noiseless snarl. Her companion rose to four feet, trotted carefully on through the sheltering brush, downslope toward the building. Keen as her own sight and hearing had become, she lacked the sharpness of Kort's senses.
Danger hung about any shelter. Men, though they were now near ten generations from the Before Time, still had an inbred desire to use such, to loot if they could. In her own belt scabbard rested a knife found in just such a place, its blade much thinned by many sharpenings but still better steel than any Craig Smith might beat out of those bits of metal traders brought. That had been her mother's—and from farther back, a handsome heritage from Foremothers now dim in time.
There were no signs that this country had ever been turned by the plow. Instead the only breakage she could trace in the grass cover was a wide path, so well trodden that it remained bare earth. This must be, Thora decided, some traders' way. Not that the shelter might be any more safe because of that. Some traders were rumored to be hardly better than raiders in their treatment of any loner they chanced upon who had anything worth the stealing. Her hand slipped down her body now to assure herself that what she wore about her under her breeches was still safe.
She watched Kort cross the open below, moving with a flash of speed near to the blink of an eye. Until he reached the wider slit that marked the door of the building.
Thora near jerked upright. Her hand went to her knife's hilt. Within that building there was life! Despite that Kort showed no sign of going on guard. She sought to blink out sight, to allow that feeble other sense of hers to come into better focus. Life—man?
No. What she caught was not the emanation of one of her own species. This was very different. There was trouble, however—great hunger—pain—Kort raised his head in a gesture she knew well. Thora flittered forward with hardly more than a slight stirring of the grass through which her hide boots passed. There was life—and there was trouble.
Prudence warned her to slip away, but something would not allow such a retreat. Thora set spear to her thrower and ran on to the corral and along the wall of that to the door where Kort awaited her.
The doorward was closed by a tight barrier, not too long put in place. But from its latch hole the braided thong dangled—a clear sign that this was to be open to any traveler. Thora nodded to Kort. The huge hound closed his jaws upon that string and gave it a jerk, a second pull bringing the door open. Thora edged along to peer within.
There was a whiff of strong odor, strange odor. Her nose wrinkled, as she realized that part of that stench was born of hurt or illness. Whatever was inside must be helpless for she heard no movement. So she ventured into a much-shadowed long room. It took a moment for her sight to adjust to the very dim light for the lower windows were shuttered, and only the narrow cracks under the eaves were free.
A table, some stools were at the chamber's center. There were two doors, one on either side of the fireplace, both closed, while to her right and left the walls had bunks built along them. On one something moved and Thora tensed, spear coming up.
Whatever it was lay or huddled on the bunk farthest from her on the left, in the gloomiest of corners. So she saw only a heaving mound from which came a hissing cry—
Step by careful step Thora advanced. Behind her Kort stood alert, ready, and the girl knew that she need not fear anything coming at her unseen as she explored. So she reached the side of the bunk.
Here that fetid smell was very strong. What or who lay there had gone untended and befouled of body. That hissing had died away. Thora raised her spear, prodded at the bar of the window shutter just above the bunk— sending that thudding onto the next sleeping shelf. Daylight flooded in.
She gasped. What lay there raised a paw—a hand?—feebly into the full light as if begging for help. But what was it? She had never seen nor heard of such a life-form in all her life. No trader's tale of long wandering had suggested that this might exist in the land.
Skeleton thin—was it a child? No, the body was humanoid in shape, but no man nor woman had ever grown such hair, matted and stinking now, along bone-thin limbs, over the whole starved body. The head, which it tried to raise, was round as a great ball of coarse fur. But the thing's face was covered only by a thin down, where it was not so slicked and dried by mucus and a crust of blood to be visible at all.
The eyes were disproportionately large and appeared to have no pupils. Rather they resembled shining stones of deep red, like the heart of a dying fire. Also, though it had hand-like appendages, those possessed long thin digits which were more claws than fingers. The feet were flat and broad, toeless and spurred at the heel.
One of those feet was twisted, the skin broken. A half-open mouth showed cruelly pointed teeth, the canines extra long, protruding over the thin lips. Above was a flat spread of flesh in which were nostrils.
Thora's tongue wet her own lips. The creature was so strange—so utterly unlike an animal. She felt a faint repulsion, until those red eyes met hers and she staggered. Perhaps she even cried out, for she heard Kort's warning growl. Pain—fear—pain—that fed into her. Knife and spear fell from her hands as she clamped her palms over her ears. Though she was not hearing at all—she was sensing it—as if some force pierced her slim, tough body.
Then the lids dropped over the fiery pits of eyes, the thing going limply still. It must have put into that sending the last of fast-failing strength. Thora knew that she could not leave it here to die—whatever it might be. It was alive and her own service for the Lady would not permit her to turn her back upon it.
It possessed intelligence, of that she was certain. Nor was it any threat to her. Had she been led here? Anything was possible when one was Chosen and thus attuned so closely to the Lady.
Speedily she went to work. Sometime later she had a camp in a small wood, well away from the building which she still distrusted. She had moved the creature near to a spring Kort had nosed out. There, with handfuls of damp grass, she sponged the skeleton-thin body free of filth. A small fire of dried sticks which would give off little smoke had been kindled under a tree, the branches would further break any rising smoke. She had left the comatose creature only long enough to make the kill which had drawn her to this meadowland, a season-old calf which fell to her practised throwing spear. Now a battered pot from the house bubbled with water over the fire. Into that she dropped shavings of meat and added pinches of dried herbs which she carried in her backpack.
The foot of her charge had been badly injured at the ankle; that she had bound up with what healing care she knew. She had already dribbled into the fanged mouth what water she could induce it to swallow. It was a female, plainly so in spite of the wasting of its body.
That body was as small as a child's. Were they both standing, Thora believed, the bushy head of her charge would hardly reach to her own shoulder. The skin beneath the hair she had washed was dark, but the fur hair itself dried into a silver-gray, darker on the back, the outer sides of the arms—while the head mop was entirely black. Lips were purple, as were the gums from which those teeth sprouted. Between those lay a very long dark tongue, which had shown as she struggled to get it to drink, of the same color. The fingers were indeed claws, shining black as were the heel spurs.
When the broth was done Thora lifted the creature's head against her knees and began the task of getting nourishment into it. But the head continued to turn away, the hands' claws arose feebly to push aside what she had to offer. Then Kort joined her, between his jaws a piece of raw meat, dripping blood, which had been part of his portion of their shared kill. One clawed hand flailed out, caught as if by chance at the meat. Then the creature opened eyes, gave a weak cry, and pulled at what the hound held. Against Thora's attempt to stop it, those claws brought the slopping piece of flesh in its mouth—sucked avidly.
The girl battled down her disgust. It was plain that what was needed was raw meat, and, if that would restore the creature, she was willing to provide such. She sliced off gobbets from the portion she had laid ready for broiling, swiftly discovering from small hisses and motions that what it seemed to want the most were those still bloody. It licked at such avidly.
Finally the furred one lapsed into quiet and Thora settled it back on a nest of grass—drinking the herb-seasoned broth herself as that cooled. She threaded portions of flesh on sticks to broil over the fire and planned on smoking what she could of much of the kill. Kort, his middle distended— for, like all his kind, he ate heavily when the occasion offered—lay on the other side of the fire, his head on his forepaws, at rest but not asleep.
Perhaps Kort found the stranger as puzzling as Thora did. Though he had showed no sign of wariness. She had learned to watch his reaction to any situation, beginning on that morning when he had come between her and her return to Craig House, so saving her from the raiders. She valued his companionship very highly, knowing that she could have sought no better trail companion.
Because Thora was Chosen she had no strong house ties among her own people. When she had been born with the Mother's sign so plainly set between her breasts she had been given the training which would lead in time to her being one of the Three. Weapons were hers and trail knowledge, learning concerning beasts and herbs, and the Ritual. She had not yet taken up the Wand and the Cup, and would not, until Malva the Old died or withdrew to the Upper Heights. Then it would be her turn to be the Maid. Not for her any hearthside or the bearing of a child.
Not that the thought of that troubled Thora at all. Her mind was eager for learning, and she had gone most happily into instruction. She had indeed been in a dream vision during the night the raiders struck. That was what had kept her away from Craig House.
Perhaps there were others who had also gotten away. But she had struck first for the High Shrine, knowing that she must save the sacred things if she had time. Breathlessly she had labored, Kort on watch, putting well-wrapped treasures into the crypt below the Mid-stone. All she had brought with her was the girdle of chain against her skin, its pendant smooth and cool hanging just below her navel—the disc of the silver moon at full, set with a milky gem at which she often gazed longingly (wishing that she had the strength of power for the far-seeing, but for that her training was too little advanced).
The pendant shone clearly against her body now as she stripped off her trail clothing to bathe in the rill which trickled off from the spring, and finished her bath by rubbing herself dry with grass into which she twisted some of her herbs so that there was a fresh and pleasant scent to her skin. The clothing she wiped clean as she could and hung to dry on bushes, moving back and forth in the dapple of sun and shade as she busied herself with the preparation of the meat for drying.
Kort raised his head once, pointing nose to the meadow where they had left the remnants of the kill. There sounded a squealing and a growling as the scavengers gathered to this unexpected bounty.
Thora was very carefully putting a fresh edge to the blade of her ancient knife when she became aware she was watched. She glanced over her shoulder. The creature—it—or she—made no effort to move, but those fiery eyes went deliberately from Thora to the meat with which she was working. And desire was so plain the girl raised a strip on knife point and flipped it to her charge.
Claws moved faster than she would have thought possible, seizing upon the morsel. The bite was chewed, swallowed and the hand held out again. Once more Thora supplied a strip. This one was consumed more slowly, as if the creature savored as it ate.
There was not another gesture. Apparently the other was now satisfied. The girl offered a pannikin of water and those claws took it from her, the tongue lapping busily until the cup was held up for more.
Thora dressed herself and settled crosslegged by the fire. There must be some way of communicating with the creature. Body movement meant much to Kort— could that be a way? Or did this oddity have speech—some common tongue with man? She was sure it was not of her species, but it must walk erect, its head was large and well shaped, there was intelligence in the way it watched her, made known its wants.
She cleared her throat. It was so seldom that she spoke these days. Usually she said only the rituals and prayers at the proper times, that she might not forget what was so needful. For it was the sound of such words as well as their meaning which counted in the Rising Up Ceremonies. Now she felt oddly self-conscious as she said, pointing to her own breast:
Though the creature had cried out in its pain and sickness, it had not uttered a sound since it had regained consciousness and the girl was unsure whether it ever did so by nature. Those dark lips now made no movements to shape words—
For a long moment, red eyes studied the girl. Then one of the claw hands arose. Instead of pointing to itself—the direction of that gesture was to the Chosen mark Thora wore in sight, for her jerkin was still unlaced and the crescent mole easy to see against her light body skin. She saw the jaws of the other gap, the tongue, which was over long and must lie normally coiled behind the teeth, flickered out. That strip of dark flesh was arrow-tipped and it fluttered up and down as she had seen the tongues of serpents move.
Still there was nothing reptilian about this stranger. Back and forth moved that tongue as if its owner was struggling with great effort. Then came a hissing with such a guttural distortion the girl barely caught what might be a word—or a name—a name of power!
Thora's hand flew to her birth marking. That this one knew that Name! Truly all things which moved, and breath and life, were children of the Mother. But to hear that name so—She answered with another Name—one of the inner circle—the way of day and not of night:
Excerpted from Moon Called by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1982 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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