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Gabria stood motionless on the hard-packed floor and watched the faces of the clanspeople crowded in front of her in the chieftain's hall at Khulinin Treld. Many she knew had come to the trial, and some of those she loved. Piers Arganosta, the healer of the Khulinin; Cantrell, the great bard; and Lady Tungoli, widow of Lord Savaric and mother of the new chieftain, were seated in the front rows, their faces creased in worry. Sadly, too many other faces in the crowd did not show worry. They wore looks of confusion, hostility, and unhappiness.
To her left, Gabria could see eight men and women seated on benches against the whitewashed walls of the hall. Their expressions were deliberately blank as they attempted to watch the proceedings with open minds. Thalar, priest of the god Surgart, stood before the Khulinin and exhorted the chieftain and the people to reject the foul heresies of magic and to cast the evil sorceress out.
"Sorcery is an abomination!" he shouted. The priest was a short, squat man who made up for the inadequacies of his height with the volume of his voice.
Thalar had been shouting for some time now, and Gabria could sense Lord Athlone's mounting rage and frustration. Unfortunately the chief was behind her on his dais, and she was forbidden by the laws of the getyne to look at him. She must face her accusers and leave the chieftain free to act as an impartial judge.
Gabria sighed and shifted her weight a little to ease her stiff back. The doors of the huge earthen hall were closed, and the heat from the crowdand the fire in the central hearth was growing uncomfortable. The smell of resin from the numerous torches overwhelmed the smells of leather, wood smoke, and sweat that usually permeated the meeting hall. Gabria badly wanted a drink of water, but she was not permitted to speak during the getyne, so she tried to ignore her thirst and concentrate on the faces before her.
This ordeal is all too familiar, she thought. Half a year ago, at the start of spring, her clan had been massacred by followers of Lord Medb. Without family or friends, she had come to Khulinin Treld and stood before the chieftain to ask for acceptance into the clan. Instead of revealing her identity as a woman and risking rejection, she had disguised herself as a boy and brought with her a legendary and rare Hunnuli horse she had rescued from wolves. The Khulinin had reluctantly chosen to take her in on Lord Savaric's recommendation.
Now, months later, the Khulinin had to chose again, but this time they knew the full truth of Gabria's identity and her powers as a sorceress. Under normal circumstances, clan law prescribed death for a woman found guilty of hiding her sex in order to join a werod, the tribes' fighting units. The penalty for practicing the heretical arts of sorcery was also death. Yet in Gabria's case, the circumstances were far from normal. She had been the only person in the eleven clans able to face Lord Medb's sorcery and she had saved them all from annihilation or slavery. In thanks, the council of chieftains had released her from the punishment due a sorceress, but only under the condition that she not use magic again until the laws were revised. However, they did not release her from punishment within her new clan for her other crimes.
The new chieftain of the Khulinin, Lord Athlone, had made his feelings for Gabria known to his clan and had already paid the bride price to the priestess of the goddess, Amara. The Khulinin knew they could not anger their chieftain or ruin in the honor of the clan by putting Gabria to death. Nevertheless, the ancient laws could not be maintained if Gabria was allowed to go unpunished. Some penalty had to be meted out to calm the anger and resentment of the clanspeople. Many of them, incited by Thalar, wanted Gabria exiled. Others wanted her tongue cut out so she could not speak the words needed to cast spells. Still others, though only a minority, felt she deserved a mild sentence. The controversy raged through the Khulinin during their trek home and continued even as they prepared the treld for the coming winter.
The emotions grew so high, Lord Athlone had finally stepped in to put an end to the furor. As chieftain, his powers were bound by the limits of clan law. He could have simply released Gabria from any judgment, but he was the son of a chief and had been wer-tain, commander of warriors, for several years. He knew when it was time to acquiesce to the demands of his people. Reluctantly, he had agreed several days past to hold a getyne, a form of clan trial in which a tyne, or jury, of eight decided the accused's guilt and punishment.
To Priest Thalar's fury, Lady Tungoli had insisted that the tyne be composed of four men and four women. Women did not usually serve on a tyne, but the lady reasoned that, since Gabria's crimes encompassed so many issues, it was only fair that clanswomen should help judge her. Lord Athlone had agreed. And so four mentwo elders, a warrior, and a weaverand four womenthe priestess of Amara, two wives, and a grandmothergathered on a chilly autumn afternoon to decide Gabria's fate.
The sorceress shifted her weight again and pushed a strand of flaxen hair out of her eyes. The heat was growing worse. Beads of perspiration gathered on her forehead, and her long skirts hung on her like a heavy blanket. She wished the people would hurry and get this over.
Particularly Thalar. The priest's voice was still ringing loudly through the hall. With a small frown, Gabria tried to concentrate on what he was saying.
"I do not condemn the council of chieftains for releasing this woman from her justifiable execution," he cried, his voice thick with righteousness. "The chiefs were overcome with joy and relief at their release from the evil ambitions of Lord Medb. But they did not see then that they had only traded one evil for another. This magic-wielder" he pointed a finger at Gabria "still lives! The responsibility of wiping out this heretic has now fallen into our hands. We have a gods-given opportunity to show the clans of the Ramtharin Plains how we deal with magic-wielders. We do not tolerate them!" Thalar's voice rose to a thundering shout. "Khulinin, we must blot out this stain of sorcery before it spreads. Fulfill the penalty of death. Kill the sorceress!"
The words were barely out of the priest's mouth when the healer, Piers, leaped to his feet and demanded the right to speak.
"No! I am not finished," Thalar shouted. He had the crowd's attention and wanted to press home his point.
Lord Athlone, however, had had enough of Thalar's rantings. "We have heard you for some time, Priest. Give the right to someone else. Piers, you may speak."
The healer, ignoring Thalar's infuriated glare, turned to face the tyne. His pale skin and light, graying hair looked almost colorless in the dim light of the hall, but there was nothing lackluster about his speech. The old healer loved Gabria like a daughter and would have done anything to save her. "Khulinin, I realize that I am not a blood member of this or any other clan. I am a foreigner to your ways and laws. Yet in the eleven years that I have been with you, I have never seen you act with anything but honor, courage, and loyalty. This young woman who stands before you has those same qualities in full measure.
"When Medb's men massacred her clan, Gabria did not crawl away in fear to die. She took the only way open to her to seek justice for the murder of her people. When she learned she had the talent to wield magic, she did not hide her power, she used it to save all of us. Gabria's methods were wrong by the strictures of your law, but they were the only methods available to her and she acted on them with courage and honor. The council of chiefs has released her from death for her use of sorcery. Can we now turn our backs on their wisdom and justice and kill her for striking back against an enemy stronger than even the warriors of this clan? She does not deserve death for that, she deserves our respect."
For a moment the healer looked at each member of the tyne as if to seal his words in their thoughts, then he smiled at Gabria and sat down.
The watching clanspeople shifted and murmured among themselves.
Lady Tungoli rose next and claimed the right to speak. As widow of Lord Savaric and the mother of Athlone, Tungoli held one of the highest positions of status and respect among the Khulinin women. Everyone listened quietly as she nodded to the tyne and began to talk. "I would like to speak for myself and for several witnesses who are not in this hall today," she said. She did not raise her voice, yet her firm words were heard clearly throughout the hall. "For myself, I will only note that I agree wholeheartedly with the beliefs of those I am here to represent.
"The first is Lord Savaric. I knew my husband well enough to say with complete confidence that he would never have ordered Gabria's death under these circumstances. He respected her for her courage, her intelligence, and her determination. If he were here today, he would examine her deeds, her motives, and her strength of character, as well. He would want you to do likewise.
"The other witnesses I wish to include are the Corins. Gabria's clan did nothing to earn their fate. They were pieces in Lord Medb's game, pieces he discarded when they would not turn against their fellows. Gabria did not accept that fate. She fought back to redeem her clan's memory and to win justice for the murder of her family. The Corins would not have expected anything less, and neither should we."
"Perhaps there is another witness we should take into account," added a man from the crowd, the Khulinin herdmaster. He looked toward Lady Tungoli, who nodded and relinquished the right to speak. "I mean the Hunnuli mare, Nara. Clanspeople have always loved and revered the ancient Hunnuli breed. We believe that Hunnuli cannot tolerate evil in any form. And yet, if that is true, why does Nara love Gabria and stay with this admitted sorceress? Does the horse know something we do not about the quality of magic? I think the mere fact that a Hunnuli horse trusts and obeys Gabria says more for her heart than any of the guesses we can make." The herd-master quickly sat down.
Finally the bard, Cantrell, stood and turned his sightless eyes toward Gabria. His rich bass voice rang through the hall, capturing everyone's attention. "The herd-master has brought up an interesting incongruity. For years we have been told in song, story, and decree that magic is heretical. We have believed in its ultimate evil and in the despair and grief sorcery can cause. In that we were right: Sorcery is evil." Many of the onlookers gasped and stared at the bard in shock. He smiled, and his fingers lightly touched the strings of the harp at his side. A soft melody lifted on the air and enticed the peoples' imaginations.
"But what we forgot was that magic could also be as beautiful as a Hunnuli horse, as good as a healing stone, as intricate as an ancient riddle, and as strong as true love. Magic is only what people make of it. It has been a part of the plains since the birth of the world, and it was said, before the Destruction of the Sorcerers, that the ability to wield magic was a gift of the gods. It is time we accept our heritage once again. I ask you to accept Gabria. She has a great gift that should be protected, not destroyed." He turned toward the tyne and lifted his harp toward them. "Be fair in your decision, Khulinin. We may need Gabria again some day."
The clanspeople stared at the old bard as he sat down, and his words hung in their thoughts. When no one else moved to speak the members of the tyne huddled together and discussed their problem. Gabria stood alone in the space before the chief's dais and waited. A heavy silence fell on the watching people.
Sweat dripped in beads down Gabria's forehead as she remained still, her head up and her face calm. How would they decide? she wondered. All she really wanted was peace, rest, and time to build a normal life again. This past year she had suffered more than most people would in a lifetime. Gabria wanted fervently to get through this trial so she could put the memories behind her.
She glanced down at the splinter of the Fallen Star gleaming under the skin of her wrist. It was too bad she could not put away her sorcery as easily as her memories. The talent to wield magic was an integral part of her, as natural as breathing. It was not a power she had wanted, but she had learned to use her talent to survive. She knew now she would never be able to ignore or forget the magic. Neither would anyone else in the clans.
At last Gabria heard Athlone stand. The edge of his sword clanged against his stone seat, and the sound rang through the quiet hall. The members of the tyne left their benches and stood.
Athlone, his feet planted on the stone dais and his arms crossed, searched the faces of his people. A golden torque of rank glittered on the chest of his leather shirt, and gold bands encircled both of his arms. He had recently cut his hair, and Gabria thought the shorter, dark brown locks and thick mustache enhanced the clean lines of his features. "What is your decision?" the chief asked without preamble.
The elder, a gaunt, silver-haired man, spoke. "We have heard the accusations against Gabria. We all know the truth of her deeds and her courage. Because she has given us our lives and our freedom to be Khulinin instead of Medb's slaves, it is our decision that she be freed from the penalty of death and exile. She has earned a place among the Khulinin."
Thalar sprang to his feet, his face dark with anger. "Never!" he shouted.
Athlone raised his hand to still the priest's outraged interruption. "Continue."
"However," the man went on. "We feel the laws of the clans cannot be put aside even for this. Therefore, we order that Gabria be pronounced dead for a period of days equaling the time she spent in her disguisea passage of six months, by our reckoning. During banishment, no person may speak to her or acknowledge her in any way, and Gabria must retire to the temple of Amara beyond the treld. There she will serve the goddess in penance. At the end of six months, Gabria may return to the clan and be accepted as a permanent member."
Surprised, Gabria gripped her hands together to still their trembling. The sentence was harsh, for she would be alone and unaided through the winter. Most women would die under such difficult straits. On the other hand, Gabria knewas Athlone mustthat she stood a good chance of surviving the ordeal. Unlike other clan women, she could handle a bow and a sword. She might go hungry now and then, but she would not starve.
Thalar stepped forward, his expression wild, his eyes burning into Gabria with all the hatred of a priest for a heretic. "This is outrageous! That woman is profane! A creature of evil. If she is allowed to enter the holy temple of the Mother Goddess, our whole clan will be cursed!"
At that Piers jumped up to protest. The healer, the herd-master, and several others crowded around Thalar and began to argue. Others joined in until the entire hall was filled with shouting voices. The noise crashed around Gabria like an avalanche. She gritted her teeth and silently watched the uproar.
"Silence!" Athlone bellowed. "Enough!" He crossed his arms as the shouting ceased, and every face turned toward him. "Priest Thalar has a valid argument. Perhaps the members of the tyne could explain their decision and put the clan's mind at rest."
This time the priestess of Amara stepped out of the group. Her long green robes were a bright contrast to the more somber colors of the men. She was an older woman, past forty-five summers, and equal to Lady Tungoli in the honor and respect of her clan. Her gray hair was swept back in a long braid, and her startling green eyes seemed to pierce through Thalar. "It was I who made the suggestion to the tyne to send the sorceress to Amara's temple."
"You!" Thalar exclaimed in surprise.
Gabria, too, was startled and watched the woman as she paced forward in the light of the lamps and torches to face the priest.
"I believe I know more of the goddess's ways than you do, Thalar. A man who follows the god of battle and death cannot begin to comprehend the power of life and birth. It is my belief that Gabria has the favor of Amara. Her survival and her success against overwhelming odds are indications to me that the goddess is watching over her daughter. If this is the case, then Cantrell's arguments for magic are more than the artful words of a skilled bard." She paused as Cantrell chuckled.
"I suggested sending Gabria to the temple," she continued, "to learn the truth of the goddess's will. If the sorceress is blessed with Amara's grace, then she will live and thrive to return to us. If she is not, the mother goddess will punish her as no mortal can imagine."
For a long moment the Khulinin stared at Gabria. No one moved or said a word. At last, Lord Athlone raised his hand. "So be it. Lady Gabria's sentence begins at moonrise tonight. She may return to the clan in six months, marked by the rise of the full moon." He turned on his heel and strode to the chieftain's quarters in the back of the hall. The tapestry fell closed behind him, signaling the end of the getyne.
Thalar snorted in disgust and stamped to the entrance. As the guards pulled the doors open for him a cold gust of wind swirled into the hall. The chilly air seemed to rouse the crowd from their astonishment. In ones and twos they averted their eyes from Gabria and left the hall until only the sorceress and Cantrell remained.
The young woman took a deep breath and stepped away from the fire. She sank down on the dais steps. "We have been back in the treld but ten days and already they are getting rid of me," she said with bitter sadness.
The old bard did not answer her immediately. Instead he gently strummed the strings of his harp. Cantrell had lost his sight the previous summer, when Lord Medb had slashed his face in a fit of rage during an ill-fated clan gathering. The bard had fled the sorcerer's camp and found sanctuary with the Khulinin. Since then, Cantrell's ancient harp had rarely left his hands. His eyes were gone, but the music of his harp and his songs had kept his life full.
He played his instrument now, letting the notes flow into the new ballad he was creating about Gabria. The clans loved heroic tales, and it would not hurt to remind them of the courage in Gabria's deeds. For a while he simply played to her, knowing the music would say more than his voice. He brought the tune to an end with a strong flourish and listened as the notes passed into silence.
Cantrell stood and laid his harp carefully by his stool. "I am pleased you will not be far away. We will be waiting for you to come home."
"Home," Gabria repeated sadly. "I am a sorceress. The only home I had is now a ruin. I doubt I'll ever be allowed to find another." She climbed to her feet and looked miserably at the door through which Athlone had disappeared. She hadn't even been given a chance to say good-bye to him.
Cantrell felt for her arm. He pulled her close and held her tight. "You will survive this, child. And more to come. Be ready."
Gabria smiled into his blind face. "Is this one of your prophecies, Bard?"
"No. It is something I feellike the coming of night. It will be moonrise soon. You had better go."
Gabria picked up her golden clan cloak from the steps, threw it around her shoulders, and walked toward the big double doors. Behind her, the bard resumed his seat and ran his fingers along his harp. The soft music followed her toward the doors. Just as she was about to leave, a familiar voice called to her. Gabria turned and saw Athlone hurrying to her with a bundle in his hands. The emotions of the past few hours swelled within her, and she ran to meet him before the fears and angers could tear apart her flimsy control. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck.
The chieftain hugged her fiercely. "I could not let you go without a word."
As he held her is his arms, she looked up and said forlornly, "Six months is a long time to be away." She dropped her eyes again. "I have never been alone for so long."
"I don't like it either," Athlone replied, "but the law must be upheld or we will never have peace." He looked down into her deep green eyes. "Besides, you will not be totally alone. Nara will be with you, and while I cannot visit, I'll watch and guard you as much as I can."
His face suddenly lit with laughter and he added, "The goddess must look after you, too. I have already paid the bride price. Will you marry me when you come back?"
She looked away. "You may change your mind in six months."
Athlone cupped her chin in his hand and gently turned her head to look at him. "I'd sooner change my clan. I will be waiting for you. In the meantime, take this." He thrust a bundle in her hands, then kissed her deeply. "And take my love." A final hug and he was gone, striding back to his quarters.
The sorceress watched him go, her heart heavy. Finally she stepped past the entrance and looked down through the deepening twilight at the wintering camp of the Khulinin. The chieftain's hall was built into the side of a large, treeless hill overlooking a broad valley in the foothills of the Darkhorn Mountains. To the north, the Goldrine River tumbled out of a deep canyon and spread out to water the fertile valley. Here, in this natural shelter, the Khulinin spent every winter, caring for their herds and gradually losing their nomadic habits.
From the promontory where she stood, Gabria could see the entire encampment of black felt tents, corrals, and scattered permanent buildings that dotted the banks of the river. Beyond the Goldrine, large herds of horses and livestock grazed on the lush grass of the foothills. The Khulinin were a large, wealthy clan, and Gabria had hoped to make a home with them. Now she was not so sure. Two hundred years of hatred and suspicion of sorcery ran too deep in the beliefs of the people to be put aside in a few months. Gabria doubted the clans would ever completely accept magicat least in her lifetime.
Even Lord Athlone could not help her cause. He had admitted at Gabria's trial before the gathered chieftains that he, too, possessed the talent to wield magicbut only because that admission would help sway the council in its deliberation of her crimes. Yet he had never used sorcery before his people, and they seemed content to ignore his talent so long as he never utilized it. Gabria, on the other hand, was not only the sole survivor of a massacred clan, she had the audacity to train as a warrior and the temerity to openly display the forbidden powers of magic. She was too different to be acceptable.
There was but one creature who totally accepted Gabria for everything she was: Nara.
The woman raised her fingers to her lips and blew a piercing whistle. The guards on either side of the doors ignored her, but they could not ignore the magnificent mare that neighed in response to the whistle and came galloping up the main road through the treld.
The mare was a Hunnuli, a rare, wild breed of horse that had once been the steeds of the ancient sorcerers. Like all Hunnuli, Nara was larger and more intelligent than other horses and impervious to magic.
Gabria's sad face slowly broke into a smile as the huge black horse galloped to the hall and slid to a stop. The young woman knew every clansperson nearby was watching the beautiful mare, and her heart warmed with gratitude and joy as the Hunnuli reared before her rider in the timeless obeisance of respect and honor.
Gabria pulled herself onto Nara's broad back.
Are we leaving? Nara asked in Gabria's mind. The Hunnuli's telepathic thoughts were gentle, and full of love.
"I am to go to the temple of Amara. The Khulinin want me out of sight for a few months," Gabria replied irritably.
The mare dipped her head. It is better than death.
Gabria's lips twisted in an ironic smile. "Yes, I guess you're right." She paused to secure Athlone's bundle to her belt, then said, "I must leave by moonrise, but I would like to stop at Piers's tent first. They did not say I had to go empty-handed."
We'd best hurry, then. The moon has already reached the mountaintops.
Nara trotted down the path to the edge of the treld and the spot where Piers kept his shelter. The healer's tent had been home to Gabria for the past six months. Piers had discovered her hidden identity shortly after she had joined the Khulinin, but he had kept her secret despite the danger to himself. He had offered her sanctuary, security, and friendship when she needed them most.
Gabria slid off the mare and walked into Piers's tent. The large, dark shelter was quiet and empty; only a small lamp burned on the table. The girl looked around in relief. Piers was not there. By law, the healer would have to shun her if she came near him, and she knew neither one of them could bear that.
She found her old pack, the one she had salvaged from the ruins of her home at Corin Treld, and began to gather her belongings. There was not very much: a few tunics, a leather jerkin, boots, a blanket, a small wooden box with her precious flint and steel, and a sheath for her father's dagger, though she had lost the weapon itself. She borrowed a cup, a pot, and a few cooking utensils from Piers's hearth. Last of all she collected her bow and sword.
When Lord Medb had fallen at Ab-Chakan, Gabria thought she was through with the pants, the sword, and the skills of a warrior. Now she realized she would need them again to survive her banishment. She took off her full skirts and put on a pair of heavy winter pants, which would be warmer and more practical than a skirt. Then, reluctantly, she belted on her short sword. She would be alone through a long, cold winter, and even though she would be near a treld, wolves, bears, cave lions, and other creatures were known to prowl the valley and the hills. She would feel safer with a weapon at hand.
Gabria was about to leave when she noticed a full leather sack lying near the coals of the hearth fire. A red cloth was fastened to the sackred for Clan Corin. She peered into the bag and smiled. Piers had found a way to say good-bye. The bag was packed with food: dried meat, beans, horsebread, dried fruit, and a flask of Piers's own favorite wine. There was enough food to satisfy her for many days. Gratefully she took the bag and gathered her loose belongings into two bundles.
Outside the tent Nara waited patiently. When Gabria appeared and began arranging the bundles over the mare's withers, Nara nickered softly. The priest watches.
Gabria surreptitiously glanced around Nara's chest and saw Thalar standing in the shadows of a nearby tent. He was watching them with obvious anger and disgust.
"He does not obey Lord Athlone's command," she replied, annoyed.
He is not the only one who watches.
The sorceress sprang onto the horse's back and tightened the golden cloak around her neck. "Then let's show the Khulinin how a Hunnuli and her rider leave camp."
Nara trotted back to the main path. She paused for a moment to sniff the chill evening breeze, then lifted her head and neighed a challenge that rang throughout the camp. The unexpected noise brought people running out to look. The stallions in the far pastures answered with their own clarion cries, and the dogs in the treld barked furiously.
Nara proudly neighed again and reared, her powerful front legs pawing at the pale stars. Gabria felt her own joy soar to meet the Hunnuli's. She drew her sword and answered Nara's call with the Corin's war cry.
The mare leaped forward. Her eyes ignited with a golden-green light as she galloped down the road through the treld. Her hooves pounded the hard ground.
Gabria clung to the mare and raised her sword above her head. "Farewell, Khulinin!" she shouted to the dark tents and the people who stared after her.
From the hall's entrance high on the side of the hill, Lord Athlone smiled as he watched them go. He should have known Gabria would not slink out of the treld. He raised his fist in a silent salute, which he held until the horse disappeared into the deepening night.
It was fully dark by the time Gabria and Nara passed the Khulinin burial mounds and found the tiny stone temple of Amara nestled in a copse of trees atop a hill. Because the temple was used only a few times during the year, it was small and very plain. A rectangular stone altar sat across from the only door, and above the altar a large circular window faced the east and the rising moon.
Gabria left Nara outside to graze, carried her bundles into the temple, and built a small fire in one corner away from the window. Chewing on a piece of dried meat, she curled up in her blanket and cloak. For a long while she stared at the fire and tried not to shiver. A cold draft blew through the window and made the fire dance.
Though Gabria was apprehensive, she was not frightened or worried about Amara's reaction to her presence in the temple. Despite Thalar's warnings, she had always felt secure and accepted by the Mother Goddess. Nothing had changed that, but this temple was so quiet and strange! She could hear Nara grazing among the trees, and she thanked Amara with all her heart for the black mare. Gabria was used to noisy, bustling camps and the constant company of people. This silent solitude was frightening. She could not imagine being alone for a long period of time, and without the Hunnuli for company, Gabria doubted she would be able to bear this banishment for six months.
It would be six very long months without Athlone, too. Gabria cuddled deeper into her blanket and let her thoughts wander to the Khulinin lord. When they'd first met, Gabria had hated Athlone. He was a wer-tain then, commander of the Khulinin warriors, and his father's most trusted adjutant. He, too, had befriended a Hunnuli, a stallion named Boreas who later died at Lord Medb's hand. Gabria quickly learned that Athlone was a forceful, commanding, sometimes impetuous man whose sole loyalty lay with his clan. He had been immediately suspicious of Gabria's disguise, and when he discovered the truth of her identity, he nearly killed h