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A Maiden Raid
Four Women on foot and lightly laden hid in a dusty dip where sharu came at another season to roll. The Women watched Red Sand Camp, whispering scurrilous comments to each other about the activities of the inhabitants.
Sheel could hardly believe their good fortune. In addition to the well-known raiding and hunting mounts they had come for, a certain Hayscall Woman from Waterwall Camp was visiting. She had brought with her a famous racehorse with which the Hayscalls and their relatives had been making themselves rich in winnings this past year.
Sorrel, with the eagerness of youth, wanted to go in and get the Hayscall Racer immediately. Her friend Gallados Berrig egged her on.
Sheel said, "No, not till dusk."
"But why wait?" Sorrel said. "They may spot us before then! It's such a long time, Mother Sheel!"
The fourth raider, a heavy-faced Chowmer with a dark down of hair on her upper lip, said, "Not so loud."
"Dusk," Sheel said firmly. "So that the Red Sand Women have a chance to mistake usif we carry ourselves properlyfor Torrinors, Chowmers, and Berrigs of their own camp going about their own affairs."
Sorrel said, "Then I can't go into their camp? Have I come on my maiden raid only to hold horses while other people take the risks?"
Sheel had not considered this. Sorrel was, after all, unique, the first child of what the Women hoped would be a new Motherline of descendant daughters. There were no Women of the historic Motherlines for her to be mistaken for.
Tyn Chowmer said doubtfully, "You look a little like a Faller, in bad light."
"I could, I know just how those red-haired Fallers ride and everything about them!" Sorrel said in a rush.
"Oh, let the child go and lift what she can," Tyn said to Sheel. "What's a maiden raid without risk to the maiden? You and your daughter here can do the lifting and holding. This Berrig and I will keep the Red Sand Women entertained."
The two older Women swiftly squelched Gallados Berrig's predictable protests. They turned the talk, as the hot sun sank, to the subject of the Hayscall Racerits parentage, progeny, winnings in past races, how long it might go on winning future ones, its various ownersonly leaving off when a band of Red Sand riders passed dangerously close to their sharu-wallow hide. But no alarm was raised.
The light grew more oblique, the shadows denser. "Time to go," Tyn Chowmer whispered.
They all rose and slipped away through the tall grass, returning to the gully where they had left their own horses ground-tied. While Sorrel kept the spare animals soothed and still, the Chowmer and the Berrig would ride together toward Red Sand on a long curve as if traveling from the south (if they appeared on foot everyone in the camp would ride out to succor the poor strangers who had lost their horses in some no doubt interesting disaster).
Sheel, going in first and on foot while Red Sand Women were distracted by these approaching riders, padded alone toward the camp using every dip, ridge, and tall-grass tuft as cover. Close by Red Sand's squats she lay down and caught her breath, blotting the sweat from her face with her sleeve. It was years since her own maiden raid. She could hear Red Sand Women talking. She could hear time blowing through the air on the wind. Time was much in her mind these days; it had recently dealt her, and Holdfaster Tent, hard blows in its passing.
Abruptly she rose and entered Red Sand Camp as if she had every right to be there, striding boldly through the patches of shadow and the flat, bright washes of late light.
A Woman hailed her by the name of a Torrinor of Red Sand and shouted to her in passing about a necklace of horse teeth that would be ready very soon, payment of some debt. Sheel waved acknowledgement without breaking her stride.
If they caught you and you admitted to coming to steal horses, they could fine your family's herd. If you were stubborn in denial, they might try to beat an admission out of you. A Woman could be crippled during such questioning. With the Hayscall Racer at stake, Red Sand Women would not be gentle with would-be raiders.
The sense of danger spiced her blood.
She heard laughter and comments from people grouped on the farther edge of the camp, and turned that way. Three Women stood admiring a horse tethered beside a large, busy tent. Sheel stepped into shadow and watched.
They felt over the legs and chest of the horse and fed it dried ground-egg strips and grain from their hands. The horse was a ragged-coated beast with a hammer head: the Hayscall Racer, without a doubt. Its early successes had beggared many gamblers. No one had believed that such a scrubby-looking gelding could run so fast.
Sheel reluctantly moved away as the Red Sand Women drifted toward suppertea at their tents. This was Sorrel's maiden raid, not hers.
For herself she chose two spot-rumped horses tied behind the Chief Tent. As soon as the predictable hullabaloo was raised over the approaching strangers, Sheel moved up between the tent and the horses and bent as if to look at the forefoot of one of them. She cut its tether. The smaller horse, its foal no doubt, nuzzled and nipped at her hair.
In one fluid movement she hiked herself up against the older horse's flank, her heel hooked over its spine and one hand wound in its mane. The foal would follow its dam.
She got the mare moving in a desultory way toward the perimeter of the camp, ambling among the tents like some sleepy stray. Always she kept the mare's body between herself and the heart of the camp.
It was growing dark. The sounds of conversation, shouts, and laughter fell behind. Once well past the perimeter, Sheel pulled herself properly astride and moved the mare on, but not so quickly as to leave the foal calling noisily in her wake. Dusk thickened between herself and the outermost tents.
At the gully, Sorrel leaped up to greet her. "Where's the Racer? What are these horses?"
"They belong to the Carrals of Red Sand Camp," Sheel said, dismounting. "It's Wellfinder and her foal, Dainty. The main prize I've left for you." She told Sorrel where to look for the Hayscall Racer. "Go, it's your turn."
Sorrel sprang away, darted back again. She leaned close to Sheel and whispered, "I can feel your heartmother Jesselee looking down on us. She may be dead in the world of Women and horses, but she's watching me on my maiden raid."
She hugged Sheel hard and was gone.
Sheel waited with the horses, calming them with pats and murmurings, but her thoughts wandered. Her own aged heartmother Jesselee had only recently died of the lung fever that killed people sometimes near a change of seasons. Jesselee had always said that Sorrel's maiden raid would prove that the child was more Riding Woman than Free Fem, no matter that her bloodmother was a runaway slave from over the mountains. What a pity Jesselee had not lived to see her faith vindicated.
A Red Sand rider, a Golashamet by her terrible posture in the saddle, trotted past. The rider never turned her way. Sheel took it as an omen.
The Berrig and Tyn Chowmer returned, signaling with soft calls, the first three notes of each one's self-song. Young Gallados, nearly bursting with excitement, led a mare she had snagged somehow from the camp's grazing herd.
Then Sorrel appeared, a dim figure against the somber sky.
"Which horse?" the Berrig hissed.
"Don't you recognize the Hayscall Racer?" Sorrel made her mount rear.
Tyn Chowmer let out a muffled whoop and punched Sheel's leg. At the same moment, shouts erupted from Red Sand Camp.
"Gently," Sheel whispered. "Let them wonder awhile which way we've gone."
The four of them moved off at a rapid walk, ignoring the mounting uproar behind them. Sorrel, riding beside Sheel, constantly turned to look over her shoulder.
"Can't we gallop yet? Shouldn't we go? They're after us, Sheel!" The Racer, fretted by Sorrel's nervous hands and legs, threw foam from its mouth onto Sheel's leg.
"Ease up," Sheel said," or you'll wear him out."
Just then they heard a high, yipping cry of triumph: They were seen or someone had cut their trail.
"Go!" Sheel said.
The spare horses fled ahead of them in a swift stream. The Carral foal, Dainty, was soon left behind, yelling for its mother. Only Sorrel looked back; despite the struggles of Wellfinder to rejoin her abandoned foal, there was no point in trying to take the little one along. It could not possibly keep up.
They raced over rock, over great sweeps of thick grass that would hold no tracks, over blowing sand. They stopped only to give their own last ration of water to the horses, and so avoided wells where their enemies, with fresher remounts along, might have sped ahead to lie in wait for them.
But when they got home to Stone Dancing Camp, tired, hungry, dirty, and triumphant, the news of the lifting of the Hayscall Racer was lost like a drop of rain in a river. The Chief Tent was jammed with Women deep in an uproar of argument and peroration.
The Free Fems who followed Alldera Holdfaster had taken all their own horses and left the camp.
After years of talk and planning and warlike practice, they had done it at last: taken weapons, horses, supplies, and their inexplicable longing for the land of their bondage, and they had ridden east for the mountains and the Holdfast beyond.
In Holdfaster Tent Sorrel's other sharemothers were gathered. Not many were left, with Barvaran dead several years ago and Alldera newly departed. Shayeen was there, and Nenisi Conor sat hugging her long thin legs to her chest and blinking at the fire.
"We should have suspected," Shayeen said, looking up as Sheel entered. "They've been working their horses for weeks, hardening them up for something like this."
"For a late-season raid, people thought," Tyn Chowmer said, broadly hinting, "like the one we've just made with Sorrel."
But nothing could deflect attention to such a minor affair from the major event of the fems' departure. Like everyone else, they sat up late, arguing about the fems. Gallados Berrig, looking tearful and very young, left as quickly as she could. Sorrel herself tethered her prize horse close by the rear of the tent and came back in to lie listening on her bedding, her expression unreadable.
Nenisi took the milk bag from its cradle. "They've been at it two days in the Chief Tent. My ears are sore from listening. My throat would be sore from talking, if I knew what to say. But I don't, so I left."
"Why say anything?" the Chowmer said. "It's simple. The fems' old leader, Green-eyes from the Tea Camp, finally turned them all loose. They felt free to follow Alldera, that's all."
Nenisi shook her head and stirred milk into the teapot. "No, no. Watching our youngsters prepare for this year's Gather upset these fems. They can't conceive to a stud horse as we can, and if they don't get pregnant soon, they never will. They're like a weird, varied Motherline on the brink of dying out. No wonder they're willing to risk a return to their horrible homeland!"
The Chowmer snorted. "So much fuss, you'd think no one had ever ridden to the mountains before. I hope there'll be other things to talk about soon."
Shayeen took over stirring the teapot, firelight gleaming on her copper-red knuckles. "You're dreaming, Tyn. This isn't just anybody, it's Free Fems. Whatever the reason, they'll cross back into their homeland. The men who were their masters will learn about us, and then what?"
Nenisi rubbed her lean hand across her forehead. She looked more elegant than ever these days, with silver netted through her springy black hair. Imagine that fool Alldera, leaving such a person to go back to the men's country, that land of shame! The Free Fems might ride and shoot and even raid for horses as if they were Women of the camps; when you came down to it a person raised in slavery was not the same as a person who had grown up free.
"We've had years to consider this possibility," Nenisi said sadly. "Years."
Tyn Chowmer nodded. "So you have often said, Nenisi Conor, and everyone knows that the Conors are always right."
Shayeen said, "Did you hear what the courier from Steep Cloud Camp said? They want the Gather called early, to talk about sending a force after the fems."
"Good," Sheel said. "Someone has to stop them." She had no appetite for her tea. She smarted for the neglect of Sorrel's achievement, and she missed the wise counsel of her own heartmother Jesselee with an aching bitterness.
"You mean hunt them down like enemies?" Nenisi said, obviously dismayed. She had always been too close to Alldera Holdfaster: lover, friend, defender.
"People in Steep Cloud want to," Shayeen said. She cut her eyes toward Sheel. "And maybe some others. I know some people who may just ride off eastward on their own, if something doesn't happen pretty fast."
"What happens fast in the Grasslands?" Nenisi countered, glancing at Sheel too. "Only flash floods and grass fires, which tells you the good of haste."
Sheel wondered if Alldera had told Nenisi she was going, perhaps even invited her along. Surely not. There would have been too much chance of Nenisi speaking up beforehand, if she'd thought it was right to do so. But Nenisi must have guessed; which would make the fems' departure no easier for her to bear.
Damn the Free Fems, Sheel thought furiously. They should be rejoicing with the Women of Holdfaster Tent over Sorrel's accomplishment. Nenisi should be laughing, giving away her best arrows and trinkets to friends and lovers come to celebrate with her, all the while modestly decrying the cleverness and good luck of her successful sharechild.
But everything was spoiled.
Sorrel got up suddenly and walked out of the tent.
Shayeen pointed after her with a jerk of the chin and said lowly, "Sorrel herself will go, if no one prevents her."
"She can't," Nenisi said firmly. "With her maiden raid behind her, she must begin finding sharemothers to tent with. She should have her first daughter soon, for everyone to see."
"I'll talk to her," Sheel said, rising.
I'll go put a stop to this, she thought as she strode through the camp, if I have to ride all the way to the Holdfast to do it. These Free Fems have slipped their tether and gone to put us all in danger.
But in her heart she felt approval too. She had not thought they would ever really have the nerve to return to the land of their bondage.
Copyright © 1994 by Suzy McKee Charnas