Prophecies speak of the coming of a new leader, a descendent of Ironhand, mightiest of the highland kings. A leader who will throw off the Outlander yoke. But only one highlander carries the blood of Ironhand: Sigarni, a wild and willful teenage girl who cares for nothing save her own concerns. Until a fateful encounter thrusts her onto a path of rebellion. Now, hunted by the baron’s soldiers and stalked by an evil sorcerer, Sigarni will be forced to fulfill her destiny . . . or perish.
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Tovi closed the double doors of his oven, removed his apron, and wiped the flour from his face with a clean towel. The day's bread was laid out on wooden trays, stacked six high, and the smell of the baking filled his nostrils. Even after all these years he still loved that smell. Taking a sample loaf, he cut through the center. It was rich and light, with no pockets of air. Behind him his apprentice, Stalf, breathed a silent sigh of relief. Tovi turned to the boy. "Not bad," he said. Cutting two thick slices, he smeared them with fresh butter and passed one to the boy.
Moving to the rear door, Tovi stepped outside. Above the stone and timber buildings of the village the dawn sun was clearing the peaks and a fresh breeze was blowing from the north. The bakery stood at the center of the village, an old three-story building that once had been the council house. In the days when we were allowed a council, thought Tovi sourly. The buildings surrounding the bakery were sturdily built, and old. Farther down the hill were the simpler timber dwellings of the poorer folk. Tovi stepped out into the road and gazed down the hill to the river. The villagers were stirring and several women were already kneeling by the waterside, washing clothes and blankets, beating them against the white rocks at the water's edge. Tovi saw the black-clad Widow Maffrey making her way to the communal well. He waved and smiled and she nodded as she passed. The smith, Grame, was lighting his forge. Seeing Tovi, he strolled across. Soot had smeared the smith's thick white beard.
"Good day to you, Baker," said Grame.
"And to you. It looks a fine one. Nary a cloud in sight. I see you have the Baron's greys in your stalls. Fine beasts."
"Finer than the man who owns them. One of them has a split hoof, and both carry spur scars. No way to treat good horses. I'll take a loaf, if you please. One with a crust as black as sin and a center as white as a nun's soul."
Tovi shook his head. "You'll take what I give you, man, and be glad of it, for you'll not taste a better piece of bread anywhere in the kingdom. Stalf! Fetch a loaf for the smith."
The boy brought it out, wrapped in muslin. Dipping his huge hand into the pocket of his leather apron, Grame produced two small copper coins that he dropped into Stalf's outstretched palm. The boy bowed and backed away. "It'll be a good summer," said Grame, tearing off a chunk of bread and pushing it into his mouth.
"Let us hope so," said Tovi.
The dwarf Ballistar approached them, laboring up the steep hill. He gave an elaborate bow. "Good morning to you," said Ballistar. "Am I late for breakfast?"
"Not if you have coin, little man," said Tovi, eyes narrowing. The dwarf made him feel uncomfortable, and he found himself growing irritable.
"No coin," the dwarf told him affably, "but I have three hares hanging."
"Caught by Sigarni, no doubt!" snapped the baker. "I don't know why she should be so generous with you."
"Perhaps she likes me," answered Ballistar, no trace of anger in his tone.
Tovi called for another loaf which he gave the dwarf. "Bring me the best hare tonight," he said.
"Why does he anger you so?" asked Grame as the dwarf wandered away.
Tovi shrugged. "He's cursed. He should have been laid aside at birth. What good is he to man or beast? He cannot hunt, cannot work. If not for Sigarni maybe he would leave the village. He could join a circus! Such as he could earn an honest living there, capering and the like."
"You're turning into a sour old man, Tovi."
"And you are getting fat!"
"Aye, that's the truth. But I still remember the wearing of the Red. That's something I'll take to the grave, with pride. As will you."
The baker nodded, and his expression softened. "Bonny days, Grame. They'll not come again."
"We gave them a fight, though, eh?"
Tovi shook his head. "We showed them how brave men die--that's not the same, my friend. Outnumbered and outclassed we were--their knights riding through our ranks, cutting and killing, our sword blades clanging against their armor and causing no damage. Gods, man, it was slaughter that day! I wish to Heaven I had never seen it."
"We were badly led," whispered Grame. "Gandarin did not pass his strength to his sons."
The smith sighed. "Ah, well, enough dismal talk. This is a new day, fresh and untainted." Spinning on his heel, the burly blacksmith strode back to his forge.
The boy, Stalf, said nothing as Tovi reentered the bakery. He could see his master was deep in thought, and he had heard a little of the conversation. It was hard to believe that Fat Tovi had once worn the Red, and had taken part in the Battle of Colden Moor. Stalf had visited the battle site last autumn. A huge plain, dotted with barrows, thirty-four in all. And each barrow held the dead of an entire clan's fighting men.
The wind had howled across Colden Moor and Stalf had been frightened by the power and the haunted wailing of it. His uncle, Mart One-arm, had stood with him, his bony hand on the boy's shoulder. "This is the place where dreams end, boy. This is the resting place of hope."
"How many died, Uncle?"
"Scores of thousands."
"But not the King."
"No, not the King. He fled to a bright land beyond the water. But they found him there, and slew him. There are no Mountain Kings now."
Uncle Mart walked him onto the moor, coming at last to a high barrow. "This is where the Loda men stood, shoulder to shoulder, brothers in arms, brothers in death." Lifting the stump of his left arm, he gave a crooked smile. "Part of me is buried here too, boy. And more than just my arm. My heart lies here, with my brothers, and cousins, and friends."
Stalf dragged his mind back to the present. Tovi was standing by the window, his eyes showing the same faraway look he had seen that day on the face of Mart One-arm.
"Can I take some bread to me mam?" asked Stalf. Tovi nodded.
Stalf chose two loaves and wrapped them. He had reached the door when Tovi's voice stopped him. "What do you want to be, lad, when you're grown?"
"A baker, sir. Skilled like you." Tovi said no more, and the boy hurried from the bakery.
Sigarni loved the mountain lands, the lush valleys nestling between them, and the deep, dark forests that covered their flanks. But mostly she loved High Druin, the lonely peak that towered over the high lands, its summit lost in cloud, its shoulders cloaked in snow. There was, in High Druin, an elemental magnificence that radiated from its sharp, defiant crags, a magic that sang in the whispering of wind-breath before the winter storms. High Druin spoke to the heart. He said: "I am Eternity in stone. I have always been here. I will always be here!"
The huntress let Abby soar into the air and watched her swoop over High Druin's lower flanks. Lady bounded out over the grass, her sleek black body alert, her one good eye scanning for sign of hare or rat. Sigarni sat by the Lake of Tears, watching the brightly colored ducks on the banks of the small island at the center of the lake. Abby circled high above them, also watching the birds. The hawk swooped down, coming to rest in a tree beside the lake. The ducks, suddenly aware of the hawk, took to the water.
Sigarni watched with interest. Roast duck would make a fine contrast to the hare meat she had eaten during the last fortnight. "Here, Lady!" she called. The hound padded alongside and Sigarni pointed to the ducks. "Go!" hissed Sigarni. Instantly the dog leaped into the water, paddling furiously toward the circling flock. Several of the birds took wing, putting flat distance between them and the hound, keeping low to the water. But one took off into the sky and instantly Abby launched herself in pursuit.
The duck was rising fast, and Abby hurtled down toward it with talons extended.
At the last possible moment the duck saw the bird of prey--and dived fast. For a heartbeat only Sigarni thought Abby had her prey, but then the duck hit the water, diving deep, confusing the hawk. Abby circled and returned to her branch.
The huntress gave a low whistle, summoning Lady back to the bank. The sound of a walking horse came to Sigarni then, and she rose and turned.
The horse was a tall chestnut, and upon it rode a black man, his cheeks, head, and shoulders covered in a flowing white burnoose. A cloak of blue-dyed wool hung from his broad shoulders and a curved sword was scabbarded at his waist. He smiled as he saw the mountain woman.
"When hunting duck, it is better for the hawk to take it from below," he said, swinging down from his saddle.
"We're still learning," replied Sigarni affably. "She is wedded to fur now, but it took time--as you said it would, Asmidir."
The tall man sat down at the water's edge. Lady approached him gingerly, and he stroked her head.
"The eye is healing well. Has it affected her hunting?" Sigarni shook her head. "And the bird? Hawks prefer to feed on feather. What is her killing weight?"
"Two pounds two ounces. But she has taken hare at two-four."
"And what do you feed her?"
"No more than three ounces a day."
The black man nodded. "Once in a while you should catch her a rat. Nothing better for cleaning a bird's crop than a good rat."
"Why is that, Asmidir?" asked Sigarni, sitting down beside the man.
"I don't know," he admitted with a broad smile. "My father told me years ago. As you know the hawk swallows its prey--where it can--whole and the carcass is compressed, all the goodness squeezed out of it. It then vomits out the cast, the remnants. There is, I would imagine, something in the rat's pelt or skin that cleans the bird's crop as it exits." Leaning back on his elbows, he narrowed his eyes and watched the distant hawk.
"How many kills so far?"
"Sixty-eight hares, twenty pigeons, and a ferret."
"You hunt ferret?" asked Asmidir, raising a quizzical eyebrow.
"It was a mistake. The ferret bolted a hare and Abby took the ferret."
Asmidir chuckled. "You have done well, Sigarni. I am glad I gave you the hawk."
"Three times I thought I'd lost her. Always in the forest."
"You may lose sight of her, child, but she will never lose sight of you. Come back to the castle, and I will prepare you a meal. And you too," he said, scratching the hound's ears.
"I was told that you were a sorcerer, and that I must beware of you."
"You should always heed the warnings of dwarves," he said. "Or any creature of legend."
"How did you know it was Ballistar?"
"Because I am a sorcerer, my dear. We are expected to know things like that."
"You always pause at my bear," said Asmidir, gazing fondly at the silver-haired girl as Sigarni reached out and touched the fur of the beast's belly. It was a huge creature, its paws outstretched, talons bared, mouth open in a silent roar. "It is wonderful," she said. "How is it done?"
"You do not believe it is a spell then?" he asked, smiling.
"Well," he said slowly, rubbing his chin, "if it is not a spell, then it must be a stuffed bear. There are craftsmen in my land who work on carcasses, stripping away the inner meat, which can rot, and rebuilding the dead beasts with clay before wrapping them once more in their skins or fur. The results are remarkably lifelike."
"And this then is a stuffed bear?"
"I did not say that," he reminded her. "Come, let us eat."
Asmidir led her through the hallway and into the main hall. A log fire was burning merrily in the hearth and two servants were laying platters of meat and bread on the table. Both were tall, dark-skinned men who worked silently, never once looking at their master or his guest. With the table laid, they silently withdrew.
"Your servants are not friendly," commented Sigarni.
"They are efficient," said Asmidir, seating himself at the table and filling a goblet with wine.
"Do they fear you?"
"A little fear is good for a servant."
"Do they love you?"
"I am not a man easy to love. My servants are content. They are free to leave my service whenever it pleases them to do so; they are not slaves." He offered Sigarni some wine, but she refused and he poured water into a glazed goblet that he passed to her. They ate in silence, then Asmidir moved to the fireside, beckoning Sigarni to join him.
"Do you have no fear?" the black man asked as she sat cross-legged before him.
"Of what?" she countered.
"Of life. Of death. Of me."
"Why would I fear you?"
"Why would you not? When we met last year I was a stranger in your land. Black and fearsome," he said, widening his eyes and mimicking a snarl.
She laughed at him. "You were never fearsome," she said. "Dangerous, yes. But never fearsome."
"There is a difference?"
"Of course," she told him, cocking her head to one side. "I like dangerous men."
He shook his head. "You are incorrigible, Sigarni. The body of an angel and the mind of a whore. Usually that is considered a wonderful combination. That is, if you are contemplating the life of a courtesan, a prostitute, or a slut. Is that your ambition?"
Sigarni yawned theatrically. "I think it is time to go home," she said, rising smoothly.
"Ah, I have offended you," he said.
"Not at all," she told him. "But I expected better of you, Asmidir."
"You should expect better of yourself, Sigarni. There are dark days looming. A leader is coming--a leader of noble blood. You will probably be called upon in those days to aid him. For you also boast the blood of Gandarin. Men will follow an angel or a saint, they will follow a despot and a villain. But they will follow a whore only to the bedchamber."
Her face flushed with anger. "I'll take sermons from a priest--not from a man who was happy to cavort with me throughout the spring and summer, and now seeks to belittle me. I am not some milkmaid or tavern wench. I am Sigarni of the Mountains. What I do is my affair. I used you for pleasure, I admit it freely. You are a fine lover; you have strength and finesse. And you used me. That made it a balanced transaction, and neither of us was sullied by it. How dare you attempt to shame me?