GIRL WITH A PONY
Each year, at the end of March, a great fair was held in Cría, the capital of Galla. Like thousands of others in the Eastern Lands, Onua Chamtong went there to do business: buying ponies, in her case. This year she had another transaction to make and was having no luck with it. By the end of her fifth day at the fair, it seemed she would never find the assistant she required. The prospect of taking her animals south, with no one to help, was an unpleasant one.
“Excuse me—Trader Onua?” The speaker was a girl, shy and country bred. “I heard you was hiring. I’m”—she paused, then went on—“a fair hand with animals, all kinds.” She waited as Onua looked her over: a girl in a green wool dress, skirts short enough to show leggings and boots. Brown curls tamed by a head-scarf fell to thin shoulders. A soft, full mouth said she was vulnerable; her chin was entirely stubborn. A quiver filled with long arrows hung on her back, a bow rested in her hand, unstrung.
“Is that yours?” the trader asked, pointing.
Blue-gray eyes flashed. “I’d not have the nerve to carry it otherwise.”
“Hmph. String it.” The girl hesitated. “Just what I thought,” Onua jibed. “Whose is it, really?”
The girl brought a coiled string out of her sash. With ease she fitted it to one end of the bow and set it against her foot. Raising the free end of the string, she brought the other end of the bow down, hooking them together neatly. The bow strung and in her grip, she turned sideways to it, caught the string in two fingers, and drew it back to her ear in a smooth, practiced gesture. Now Onua could see she wore an archer’s wrist- and armguards.
“I’d put an arrow up,” the girl said, gently releasing the string, “but I’d hit someone, surely.”
Onua grinned. “I’m impressed. I can’t draw a bow that big.”
The girl took the string off the bow, coiled it, and put it away. “Nor did I, at first. I keep this one limber, or I still couldn’t draw it”
“Crossbow?” The question was out before Onua remembered, I don’t want to hire her—I want to send her home to her mama. She’s a runaway for sure.
“Yes’m. We have—” Something flickered in her eyes. She looked down. “We had bandits at home. I stood watch with the sheep, so I learned crossbow and longbow. And sling”—a half smile appeared—“not that I’m bragging.”
We had, Onua thought. Did she change it ’cause she wants me to think she’s been gone from home awhile? Or hasn’t she got a home?
Something looked around the girl, inspecting Onua with a large brown eye. It was a shaggy mountain pony, a steel gray mare. She was plump and well combed, and bore two packs easily.
“Yours?” The girl nodded. “How much would you ask for her?” Onua motioned to a pen filled with ponies at her back. “I’m in the market.”
“I can’t sell Cloud. She’s family—all the family I got.” Again Onua saw a flash of sorrow that was pushed aside.
“What’s your name?” The K’mir stuck her fingers into a pouch filled with a powder known as “eyebright.”
“Daine, mum,” came the soft reply. “Veralidaine Sarrasri.”
The eyebright made her fingers itch when Onua called on her magical Gift. “How old are you, Daine?”
“Fifteen.” An aura of red fire, visible only to Onua, flared around the girl’s face. The lie was a good one—she must have practiced on the way, the trader thought wryly—but a lie nevertheless. She looked about thirteen.
“Where are you from?”
“Snowsdale, up north. About two weeks’ walk.”
There was no flare of red—she had told the truth. Onua sighed. “Are you a runaway? From home, or a bad master—”
“No, mum.” The soft mouth trembled. “I got no family—just Cloud.”
No red fire this time. Onua dusted the powder from her hand. “I’m Onua Chamtong, of the K’miri Raadeh.”
Daine looked puzzled. “The k-k—the what?”
“The K’mir are a people to the east. Raadeh is the name of one of the K’miri tribes.” Daine looked only slightly less baffled. “Never mind. You say you’re good with animals. C’mere.” She led the girl to her pen. Inside, twenty-seven shaggy ponies in all colors and sizes milled around.
“I buy horses. I had an assistant, but he got offered a better job working for a horse merchant here, and I wasn’t about to hold him back. If you hire on—and I didn’t say I’d hire you—you’ll help me take these south. It’s three weeks’ drive—if we don’t bog down in mud, if we aren’t hit by raiders, and if we go before all these people take the road to the next fair. It’ll be just you and me, and my dog, Tahoi. Why don’t you climb in and look ’em over? I want to see how you manage ’em.”
Daine glanced back at her mare, Cloud. “Stay put, and no biting,” she ordered sternly, and clambered over the fence and into the pen.
Poor thing must have been alone a long time, to be talking to a mare as if she could answer back, Onua thought. She sat on the fence rail to watch.
The ponies watched as Daine passed among them. Ears went back. Those close to her appeared to wonder which would do better: a bite or a kick.
When a yellow stallion, the king of the small herd, minced into place at her back, the girl spun and put both hands under his muzzle, lifting his head to stare into his face. “No, sir,” she told him firmly. “I’ll not stand for any tricks. I may be human, but I’m not stupid.” The stallion tried to rear. She forced him down, then blew gently in his nostrils, to teach him her scent. He shuffled, then fidgeted—then bowed his head in submission.
Horse Lords, Onua thought. She’s establishing domination over him and the entire herd!
In years of managing horses, she’d never seen the like. This particular breed was famous for its fiery nature (one of the reasons she purchased them for her employers). She had achieved peace—of a sort—with them using her strength, her wits, and bribes. All horse folk handled their animals that way. Only this child was different: Daine treated the stallion as if she were a pony herself, a dominant one.
She isn’t lying about her folks or running away—just about her age. If I let her go, she might get into trouble. There are too many predators around, looking for a pretty like this one. The road isn’t too safe—but what is?
She watched the girl move among the ponies, running her hands over each one. She was giving them bits of apple and sugar from her pockets. Onua was glad to see she could deal with the animals in a normal way. One display like that with the stallion was more than enough.
“D’you ride?” she called.
Daine came over to the fence. “Some. Mostly bareback, but I can use a saddle, and I know how to look after tack.”
“What about hunting, fishing, tracking?”
The grin lit a face that was too thin and eyes that were too weary. “I do all that—had to, to get this far. I couldn’t trust folks on the road. Some looked like—bandits.”
As Daine climbed over the rail, the shadow was back in her eyes: grief, Onua decided, but anger too. “Tired of them already?”
The girl shook her head. “I’m getting an oil I have, and a swab. The strawberry has ear mites. They’re not too bad—if I get them now, he won’t spread them to the herd.” She went to the gray mare, who was plainly sulking, and opened one of her packs.
“How do you know you can trust me?”
Daine shrugged. “I don’t. How do you know you can trust me?”
“Was that a joke?” Onua’s voice was stern, but her eyes laughed. Her last two assistants had possessed no sense of humor.
Daine gave her a quick smile and climbed into the pen, a clay bottle and swabs in one hand. Onua watched, amazed, as the strawberry gelding trotted up to the girl. If someone had said that morning she’d see one of her charges willingly submit to an ear cleaning, she would have laughed herself sick.
I shouldn’t do it. She’s a baby. There’re all those rumors—no smoke without fire. Still, my magic will keep us safe at night, and she can handle a bow. “Daine!” she called.
The girl had finished the gelding’s ears. She came over. Yes?
“I’ll tell you right now—I’ve heard a lot of weird stories lately, about monsters in the wild, attacking travelers. Things out of legend, so folk say. I haven’t seen any myself, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. Are you sure you want to hire on?”
Daine shrugged. “I hear tales. I need work, mum. If I see monsters, I see monsters. My family was killed and my home burned by human ones.”
“All right, then—here’s the job,” said the K’mir. “You, me, and my dog take the herd south, like I said. I have the Gift, and I can shield our camp at night. It’s two coppers a day, two silver nobles as a bonus at the end. I pay all expenses, and we share chores. No drinking, no drugs. If you leave me on the trail, you’ll wish you died as a child.” Daine giggled. “At the end of the road—we’ll see. We’re bound for the capital of Tortall—”
The girl’s face lit up. “Where a lady knight is the king’s champion, right? And they let girls in the army? That Tortall?”
“You heard those stories too,” the K’mir murmured. “Well, they don’t let girls in the regular army, mind—just the Queen’s Riders. Why—have you a fancy to be a soldier?”
Daine shook her head. “Not me. But if they take girls for that, maybe they’ll let a girl be a hostler, or work around the camp, or some such.” Her eyes were filled with painful hope.
“As it happens, they do let girls work as hostlers—or at least, they let me. I’m in charge of the horses for the Riders.”
“Oh, glory,” the girl whispered. “I’ll do whatever you want, if you’ll take me on—”
Onua put a hand on Daine’s shoulder, touched by her eagerness. “We’ll see. If we don’t get on, I’ll make sure you have some kind of work. I won’t leave you stranded. Sound fair?”
Daine nodded vigorously. “Yes, Mistress Onua.”
Onua offered a callused hand. “Then shake on it. And stop calling me ‘Mistress.’ My names Onua.”
Daine returned the woman’s firm grip. “Onua Chamtong, of the K’miri Raadeh,” she said. “I remember.”
Onua smiled. “Very good. Now, will your Cloud mix in with the others?”
“No reason not to.” Daine removed packs and saddle from Cloud’s back.
“Stow your things with mine.” Onua pointed to a canvas-covered mound in one corner. “They’ll be safe—these ponies are better than guard dogs.”
Daine ushered Cloud into the pen and stored her packs with Onua’s. She finished in time to stop Cloud from biting the yellow stallion, and then from kicking a blood bay mare. “You behave,” she ordered her pony. “I mean it.”
Cloud flicked an ear back, and lifted a hind foot experimentally. Daine leaned down and whispered in her ear. The mare snorted, then stood on all fours, looking as innocent as a summer sky.
“What did you tell her?” Onua asked, letting the girl out of the pen.
“I said I’d sell her to the man that makes dumplings down the way.”
Onua chuckled. “That’s the threat my mother used on me. Look—I want you to meet my dog, Tahoi.” She put her fingers to her lips and whistled two short notes. A large form surged over the rear wall of the pen and wound through the ponies, ducking hooves and teeth with the ease of long practice. Coming over the fence in another easy jump, he sat panting at Onua’s feet. He was as tall as his owner’s hip, and covered with curling gray fur.
“He’s near big enough to be a pony himself.” Daine offered her open palm. The dog rumbled in displeasure, and warily sniffed her fingers.
“Tahoi means ‘ox’ in K’mir. Careful—he’s a one-woman dog—” Onua shut up. Tahoi’s plumed tail had begun to wave. The wary guardian of her stock turned into an eager-to-please pup that licked Daine’s hand, then stood to sniff her face. “He’s supposed to be a guard dog,” Onua continued, frowning. “Not a pet. Not a dog who believes every human’s his friend.”
“Don’t blame him.” Daine looked up at Onua apologetically. Her fingers scratched Tahoi in a place he couldn’t reach, while his tail thudded in the dust on the ground. “Animals just take to me, is all.”
“Hmph. Can you spare her, Majesty?” the woman said to Tahoi. “I’d like to get some grub, saving your presence. And your new friend is coming with me. Guard!” She steered Daine away from the pen.
At one of the cook tents littering the fair-grounds, Onua ordered a rich meal for them both. When it was over, they explored. After a while Daine’s eyes hurt from staring so much. Coming from a poor mountain village, she couldn’t believe the variety they found at every turn.
“How are you fixed for gear?” her new employer asked. She was eyeing a pair of boots in a leather-worker’s stall.
“I’m fine,” Daine assured her. Meeting the K’mir’s warning look, she insisted, “Really. It was too wet”—she swallowed, trying to speak as if it were someone else’s farm that was attacked—“too wet for our place to burn much, so I saved a lot. Clothes, boots, my sleeping gear. I really don’t need anything.” Seeing the woman’s gray green eyes remained suspicious, she raised a hand. “Swear by the Goddess.”
“All right, then. Just remember, it’s my responsibility to keep you decently clothed and outfitted. I don’t want people saying I’m a skinflint.”
Daine thought of the huge meal she had consumed. “Just point them out to me, and I’ll set them straight,” she offered.
Onua chuckled. “Good enough.”
On their return, the K’mir raised a sleeping platform outside the pen. “We’d best turn in,” she advised. “We leave an hour before dawn.”
Daine laid the bedrolls out, wriggled into hers, and took off everything but her shift under the sheltering blankets. “Onua?”
The woman was nearly asleep already. “Yeah?”
They had a cold breakfast: fruit, cheese, and bread. Onua said little as they ate and packed. She split a pile of lead reins with Daine, indicating she was to connect half of the ponies into a string, while she did the same with the others. They worked quickly as the fair came to life and the air filled with breakfast smells. When the ponies were ready, Onua placed their packs on the first animal in each string.
“Aren’t you going to put her on a lead?” Onua pointed to Cloud, who stood free of the others, wearing only a halter and a cross expression. The mare snorted and shook her head.
“She’ll be fine,” Daine assured the K’mir. “She’s as good as a guard dog, that way.”
“You know best,” Onua said, dubious. “Let’s move ’em out.”
The K’mir led them away from the fairgrounds and the traffic coming in. They had reached open road when she called for a midmorning break. Digging apples out of her pocket, she gave Daine one. “You eat this,” she ordered. “I’ve more in a basket for the ponies. I should’ve warned you, by the way—I’m a real bear in the morning. It’s no good talking to me—I’ll only bite your head off. You didn’t take it personally, did you?”
Daine had begun to wonder if the K’mir regretted hiring her. She smiled her relief. “It’s all right. Ma always says”—her lips tightened—“Ma always said there was no living with me until lunchtime.”
“You miss her,” Onua said gently.
Daine twisted the stem off her apple. “Her, Grandda, our farm—” Her face was grim. “They took my life, those bandits. I saved things, like clothes and food, but all my family was gone except Cloud. They wouldn’t even have left her, except she was with me and we weren’t there.” She got to her feet. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“To speak of it?” asked the K’mir. Daine nodded. “You have to, just to bleed off the poison from the memory.” The girl shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t have to be today.” She peered at the sun. “We’ll be at Coolspring by noon—a village, good-sized. Let’s pass that before we stop again.”
If Onua and Daine were now well awake, so were their charges. They fussed at every turn. Luckily, many who passed them were traders who knew mountain ponies: they kept a respectful distance. Only Cloud, who seemed to realize she would go into a string the moment she misbehaved, walked meekly beside Daine. The only time she offered violence to a bystander was when he, or she, was too interested in how well the strings were tied together.
Daine worked on the ponies one by one, talking, pleading, cajoling. Repeatedly she explained why she wanted them to follow Onua, without making a fuss. One after another the ponies listened as she appealed to their better natures. Some people would have said these creatures had no better nature, but—as Daine told Onua—she had found most animals listened, if things were properly set out for them.
Onua had explained things to ponies and horses for twenty-eight years without the success this thirteen-year-old was having. How does she do it? the K’mir wondered, fascinated. They’re ponies, by all the gods. They’re wonderfully clever animals, but they don’t think, not the way people do.
Past the village of Coolspring lay a rest stop, one of the springs that gave the town its name, sheltered by elms. Picketing the animals, the two women sat down to share a meal of bread and cheese.
“Tell me if you get tired,” the K’mir ordered. “I can go for hours, once I get moving.”
“I’m fine,” Daine said. It was the truth. It was good to be in fresh air, headed away from the city. “It’s easier than it was coming all the way here. The roads were muddy, you know—with the spring floods.”
“Ever been to Cría before?”
Daine shook her head. “Never saw a village bigger than Snowsdale, till yesterday.” She sighed. “How can folk live like that, all mashed together?”
Onua shrugged. “City people. They’re different, is all. They look down their noses if you didn’t grow up penned in.” Getting to her feet, she stretched. “Unless something goes wrong, we’ll make Wishing Hollow by dark—we’ll camp there. We’re making wonderful time, thanks to you.”
Daine looked at her, baffled. “Me?”
“This is the fastest I’ve gotten clear of the fair in six years of trade. That’s your doing. You must have the Gift—though I never heard of it being put to such a use.”
Daine laughed. “Oh, please! I’ve a knack with animals, but no Gift. Ma—” She stopped, then made herself go on. “She tried to teach me, but I never learned. I can’t even start a fire, and Gifted babies manage that. She was so disappointed. Wanted me to follow her path, I s’pose.”
Onua touched the girl’s hair. “Your mother will be proud no matter what path you take, Daine. I don’t know you well, but anyone can see that.”
Daine smiled at her. “Thanks.”
They sat quietly for a few moments, until Onua remembered something. “I saw you draw that bow of yours, but I don’t know what kind of shot you are.”
Daine shrugged. “I’m good.”
“Mind giving me a demonstration?”
Daine got up and took her longbow from her packs. “Name your target.” The wood was warm from the sun and bent willingly for the string. She drew it a couple of times back to her ear, loosening her muscles.
Looking around, Onua spotted a fence that would serve. It lay well within the range of such a powerful bow, but it wasn’t so close that Daine would feel insulted. Walking out to it, she fixed her handkerchief to a post with her belt-knife and returned. “How about three arrows?”
“Fair enough.” Daine had already fitted one arrow to the string, and her quiver was on her back. Carefully she set her feet, and gently she brought the string back as she focused on her target. The arrow, when she loosed, flew straight and true. Two more followed it.
Onua gaped. All three arrows clustered neatly at the center of her handkerchief. Their heads were buried so deeply she had to cut them loose.
“I take it this is something else you have a ‘knack’ for,” she said when Daine came to help.
“Grandda thought so.” The girl shrugged. “It worked out for the best. His bones got to hurting him so bad he couldn’t even string a bow, so I brought in all our game.”
The yellow stallion screamed a challenge to a passing draft horse and reared, pawing the air. “Odd’s bobs!” Daine yelled, exasperated. “Can’t a person take her eye off you for a moment without you acting up?” She ran to the stallion’s head and dragged him back down to all fours, holding him until the draft horse walked calmly past.
Onua came up to them, smiling. “Time to get back to work.”
Well before dark, Onua led them out of sight of the road and into a grassy hollow sheltered by trees. It was plain other travelers stopped here: the fire pit was lined with stones, and a lean-to kept stacks of firewood dry.
“Toss you to give the ponies a going-over,” Onua suggested. “For ticks, stones, whatever. Winner gets to dig the latrine trench and catch fish.”
Daine considered. “I druther check the ponies.”
Onua grinned. “Wonderful—I feel like a bit of fishing just now.”
Smiling, Daine went to work. It made no sense to give the ponies a thorough grooming while they were on the road, but she got rid of the worst tangles and checked the animals’ hooves. The strawberry’s ear mites had to be treated again, and Cloud and Tahoi had picked up ticks in forays off the road.
The girl was finished when Onua returned with two fat trout. “Think this’ll feed us?” the K’mir asked, holding them up.
“More than. I’m so tired I couldn’t eat but a mouthful.” Daine saw that Onua’s hair was wet and her face pink from scrubbing. “It’s safe to wash?”
“If you make it fast.”
“It’s too cold to be slow.” She hesitated. “Need my help with supper?”
Onua waved her away. “Tahoi’ll keep watch for you.”
The water was very cold. Daine scrubbed quickly and jumped out, feeling deep respect for Onua’s courage. Supper—fish and a pot of spiced white cereal grains Onua called “rice”—was hot and filling. They ate without talking, but the silence was a comfortable one.
After the meal, Daine washed up. The fire was banked; their beds lay on the ground, ready for slumber, when she finished. She got into hers with a sigh. It was warm, and the heavy pad underneath eased the day’s aches. As she watched, Onua got several pouches out and tied them to her belt.
“I told you I had the Gift, right? Well, I’m going to place the wards now. Last call for the latrine.”
Daine yawned. “I’m set, thanks.” She watched as Onua drew a circle around the camp, ponies and all, first in salt, then in water. Soft chanting came from the woman as she walked the circle a third time, calling on magic powers to guard its contents. Red fire spilled from her hand to follow the circle and complete it.
“Ma did that,” Daine commented sleepily when Onua finished. “She wasn’t very good with it, though.” It was easier to speak of her mother when she was so tired. “Maybe she’d be alive now if she’d’a been better.”
“Or not,” Onua said, sliding between her blankets. “There’s always somebody with stronger magic. Lots of raiders have their own witch or mage. That’s why every Rider group has at least one member with the Gift.”
“Tell me about the Riders. I only know they take girls. Aren’t they like the regular soldiers?”
“Not exactly. The fancy name is ‘irregulars.’ Tortall has a bad time with bandits, and the army’s too big and too slow. Bandits hit and run. To fight ’em you need to move the same way. The queen, Thayet, she started the Riders seven years back. The groups run six or eight Riders each, male and female, mounted on ponies. Right now there are six groups, posted all over Tortall. They live off the land, protecting the small villages from raiders.”
“Who runs it?”
“Queen Thayet is commander in chief. Her guard, Buri, handles day-to-day affairs, so she has the title ‘Commander.’ A black man, Sarge, comes just under them. The king’s champion you heard of, Alanna, she helps out.” Onua looked over and saw that the girl was fast asleep. Smiling, she pulled up her covers and closed her own eyes.
The badger crawled in with Daine soon after that. Although he was big, he didn’t wake her: she was used to nighttime visitors. Without waking, she caressed the animal’s head. He sighed gratefully and slept too, his muzzle pressed into her palm.
She did notice him when she woke later and was careful as she sat up.
“I tell ye, I saw ‘em. Two strings of ponies—gold on the hoof down in Tortall.” The speaker’s voice was rough and country bred.
Reaching for the crossbow beside her, Daine saw that Onua and Tahoi were also awake. The dog’s hackles were up, his teeth bared in a snarl, but he made no sound. Seeing her, the K’mir put a finger to her lips. Daine nodded, easing the bow onto her lap. Inside her bed her guest shifted nervously, quieting only when she rested a hand on his head.
“If ye saw ’em, then where’d they go?” Leaves rustled as men prowled the hollow around their campsite.
“I’m no witch, to guess such things! It’s like they vanished off the face of the world.”
“Shut up. They prob’ly found a farm, or kept movin’. Let’s get back t’ the rest.” The new voice held authority; the others grumbled, but obeyed.
They had been gone some minutes before Daine relaxed enough to put down her weapon. Tahoi licked Onua’s face, his tail wagging.
“It’s all right,” Onua whispered. “Nobody can hear us if we’re quiet.”
“That’s some protection,” Daine breathed. “With Ma’s circles, you couldn’t get in, but you knew it was there.”
The K’mir grinned. “Now you know how I can take the road with just my assistant and Tahoi.” She curled up in her blankets. “’Night.”
The badger grumbled as Daine settled, and walked in her dreams.
“It’s about time I found you” he said. “Do you know how long I’ve been looking? I actually had to come into the Human Realms to get a scent of you!”
“I don’t wish to seem rude,” she apologized, “but why were you looking for me? I don’t believe we’ve met—have we?”
“Not exactly,” he admitted with an embarrassed snort. “You see, I promised your father I’d keep an eye on you. So I looked in on you when you were a kit, pink and noisy. Then when I looked for you again, you were gone. I forgot time passes differently in the Human Realms.”
If she had been her waking self, his saying he knew her father would have made her unbearably excited. Now, though, her dream self asked—as if it weren’t too important—“Have you met my da, then?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Now, see here—I’m not coming to the Human Realms any more than I have to. If you’re going to wander, we must be connected in some way.” He looked at a paw and sighed. “I know it barely hurts and it grows back and all, but I still hate it. So messy.” He began to chew at the base of one of his claws.
“No, don’t—please!” she protested. “I can’t think—”
The claw came off. He spat it into her lap. “There. Hang on to it no matter what. This way I won’t lose track of time, and I’ll be able to find you. Understand?”
She nodded, then gulped. A silvery mist gathered around his paw, and vanished. A new claw had appeared in the bed of the old one.
“Now go back to sleep.”
Cold air on her feet woke Daine in the morning. Her guest, working earlier to leave the bedroll, had pulled it apart entirely. She sat up with a yawn and a smile. To think she’d dreamed of a badger who knew her father…
Her hand was locked around something—a large animals claw, or a semblance of one. Complete and perfect, it was made of shiny silver.
“Goddess,” she whispered.
“Daine?” Onua was dressed and cooking breakfast. “Let’s go.”
No time to think about it now, she told herself, and scrambled out of her bedroll. Because if I do, I won’t know what to think.
Later that day, she wove a thong to grip the base of the claw tightly, and hung it around her neck. Just because she wasn’t entirely sure of where it came from was no reason not to keep it close by—just in case.