by Dorothy Boyd
It was still dark when Zell awakened Amarra the next morning. The Warden was keeping his promise but was leaving nothing to chance. He intended to take up a position along the road from which Yma could see yet be somewhat removed from the crowds who invariably came to gape at the High Ward's brilliant cavalcade.
Jon had selected a small rise of ground and ringed it with men chosen for their reliability. All three Swordsisters were there and Amarra, as always, followed her mistress like a shadow. Chard and Yma were mounted, ostensibly to allow her a better view, but in reality to keep clutching hands at bay.
The train moved quietly past the yellow tents of the Folusso enclave where yawning servants were just lighting the cook fires and reached the hillock Jon had chosen in the first pale light of dawn. Early as it was, others were there before them. Men and women turned to stare as the group passed. It was a bizzare sight - a girl dressed in pale silks and mounted on a cream- skinned pony and, surrounding her, three black-garbed Swordsisters and a Fardom. She wore a veil but it did nothing to hide her face and a buzz of talk rose in her wake.
Amarra trudged beside Alat hiding amusement under her calm veneer. Chard must be regretting his decision to veil Yma - so far it had only served to draw attention to her. She slid a glance at him and saw that his face was set and grim. The Warden was not enjoying himself.
Once the hillock was reached Jon deployed a guard around the base of the rise and lit a small fire. The dawn wind was cold and Yma was glad of the hot spiced wine Amarra brought her.
Leaning from her saddle to accept the goblet, she said aloud, "Thank you." and added under her breath "Have you got it?"
Amarra nodded and received a radiant smile, "Then use it when you see me touch my hair." Straightening, Yma turned back to Chard leaving the Fardom to finger the long barbed thorn concealed in her wrist band.
By the time the sun was fully up, both sides of the road was crowded with spectators. It was becomming increasingly difficult to keep the circle around Yma clear. The Warden was relieved when a cheer heralded the first of the outriders.
These were the household staff, mounted men guarding the goods wagons with their load of food and silver plate. All wore the blue livery of The Halls - even the plodding drayhorses had blue ribbons plaited into thier manes. Next came the High Ward's escort, rank on rank of warriors, their battle chargers shod in metal, Coran's personal banner borne proudly by the leader. After them followed an endless train of minor nobles and their households, a vivid sight in Hearth colours, the women glittering with jewels. Last of all rode the High Ward himself, accompanied by his son and several of the powerful northern Suzerains.
In the prime of his life, Coran at thirty five was a handsome man. Thick dark hair was held at his nape by a silver clasp and heavy shoulders proclaimed his great physical strength. Together with his ruddy skin and clear brown eyes he seemed very little older than his sixteen year old son.
Yma pinned her gaze on him but Amarra frowned as a scarlet banner emblazoned with a raven caught her notice. It flapped above a dark man, swarthier than many Fardoms, his face set in a sneer as he swept hard eyes over the onlookers. He rode at Coran's right and his hand never left the naked sword at his belt.
The nurse plucked at Yma's skirts and muttered a warning, "Be careful! There is the black bird Palto told us to beware."
"I see him. Don't worry, dear one. The old gods accepted tribute - they will guard me."
An eddy in the crowd jammed round the hillock cut her short. Jon lost his footing and stumbled, leaving a gap for the mob to enter. They surged in and both Chard and the Swordsisters drew daggers. Before that menace the crowd retreated, shouting that the Truce was broken. There was an ugly note in their cries and the Warden paled, his eyes flying to Yma.
She was not watching him, her gaze was fixed on the parade below. He heard her say suddenly, "Amarra!" and saw the nurse push forward against Alat. The pony squealed, rearing in fear, then bolted straight down the rise scattering people from his path.
Coran, waving to the spectators, became aware that something was happening just ahead. People were milling about and he could hear shouting and a woman's scream. Then a cream-skinned pony broke from the melee and came pelting at the cavalcade, a small figure on his back tugging vainly at the reins. The animal was going to cross the road directly in front of Coran and, moved by curiosity, he spurred forward and caught the bridle in an iron grip. The pony reared to a halt, dislodging his rider and Coran instinctively lifted the falling figure to safety. And found himself looking into huge blue eyes wide with shock! Golden hair cascaded over his arm, a torn veil still clinging to one ear. Deliberately his hold tightened. Coran had seen many beauties but seldom one to match this child.
"My Lord!" The voice was lovely, too, warm and sweet as honey- wine. "I thank you. I'm sorry to interrupt your progress but if you will put me down my father is here to help me now."
Chard bowed from his saddle. He was slightly out of breath from his wild dash after Yma. "Min Mount Tor owes service by Law to the High Ward. From this hour it also serves with gratitude for the life of my youngest child." His glance shifted to Yma, "Are you hurt, sweeting?"
"No, father, the High Ward kept me from harm. Again, I thank you, Lord." She made to alight from the horse but Coran would not release her. Instead he seated her more firmly in the crook of one arm and smiled at Chard.
"Warden of Min Mount Tor, are you? Good forest land and your tree pearls are one of the loveliest of jewels . . . althought I think you boast one of even greater beauty!" He looked down at Yma curled against his chest. "Come, ride with me. We'll share a beaker while my Healer examines your daughter."
Chard fell in beside him and the cavalcade moved on again. Above, on the hillock, Amarra watched. Her face was blank but the black eyes glowed hotly as she saw Yma's golden figure recede, held close in the High Ward's arms. Under her breath she whispered, "To the bones of Pansat, all honour! The price was paid, the price is met. May the old gods rule forever!"
A touch on her shoulder roused her from reverie. Zell said rapidly, "We go to the Blue Pavilion. Lady Yma may need us. Coran's household is no different to others. Do you come with us?"
"Of course. You're right." Amarra began to run.
They arrived in time to see an undignified scuffle as two nobles sought to lift Yma from Coran's brown charger. Neither succeeded . . . Dall of Verlin, Lord of the Raven Banner, pushed both aside and swung her down without ceremony. He appeared not to feel the charm which so affected the other men but Amarra saw his teeth clench with the effort to remain calm when the High Ward dismounted and led Yma away. It frightened the nurse - she sensed danger in the leashed passions of this man. Palto had been right to warn them.
Yma's face revealed nothing. She merely thanked Dall with the same sweet smile she bestowed on Coran's young son, Hal, as he offered her a chair.
"My thanks, Lord Hal. Would you do me a favour? I am worried about Alat. Can you find out if he was hurt at all?"
Scarlet with pleasure, the boy hurried off and she turned to Coran, "You have a fine son, Ward of Hellan. He resembles you greatly."
"So they tell me. You, however, are like no one I have ever seen. My old nurse used to tell me stories of they fey women f legend, beautiful past mortal understanding. Are you sure you are quite human?"
Yma laughed softly and cast him a provocative glance from beneath think lashes. "Oh, yes. Touch me, my Lord, I won't melt into air."
Chard watched in stunned amazement. Where was his quiet demure child? This was a minx, using her power for the first time and glorifying in the effect. The High Ward was obviously intrigued and he was not alone. Dall's dark visage was intent, his black eyes devouring Yma. Chard felt a spasm of unease . . . this cold man would make a bad enemy. Coran's voice broke in on his troubled thoughts.
"Warden, the Lady Yma tells me this is her first Gathering. We must not let the occasion go unmarked. With your permission, I shall give a feast to celebrate both your daughter's first visit and our fortunate meeting. "
Reluctantly, Chard agreed. He did not like the idea but one could not gainsay the High Ward. Bowing, he said, "Min Mount Tor is honoured. However, we must return to our own enclave now. My eldest daughter is expected and Yma will wish to meet her sister."
"Yes, I haven't seen Marva for a long time." She turned to smile at Hal who had come to stand beside her, "Is Alat fit to ride?"
"I regret, my Lady, but he has a strained fetlock and my groom tells me he will be lame for some days. Will it please you to use my horse? He's a gentle creature."
Coran glanced at his son, frowning as he saw the open adoration on the boy's face. The strong attraction he himself felt for Yma could not blind him to the need for Hal to make a politic match. A mountain Hearth could not provide the wealth or the strong backing necessesary in a fitting wife for the heir to Hellan. This bewitching girl must be removed from his path as soon as possible.
"You have other duties, Hal." He spoke more sharply than he intended and saw Chard's swift glance. "The Lord of Verlin may escort Lady Yma and her father to their pavilion."
Dall bowed and Amarra hurried to Yma's side with a light cloak which she slipped over the girl's shoulders, managing a quick whisper as she settled the folds. "I've seen Alat. The thorn left no mark."
Small fingers pressed her hand but there was no time for speech as Dall loomed beside Yma. Ignoring Chard's protests he placed her on his saddle and swung up behind. His dark face was rigidly controlled but he held her body tightly, acutely conscious of it's boneless grace as she swayed to the movement of his horse. Desire churned his senses - he wanted this girl as he had never wanted anything before. And, by the gods, he would have her!
Only child of aging parents, Dall had been indulged by his mother and reared by his grim father in the belief that force would win him all he wished. He was possessed of great bodily strength and he was intelligent. When the old Lord died he had no trouble moulding Verlin to his will. His mother still lived and he was aware of her longing to see him wed. But a spartan life suited him and he was reluctant to bring home a wife who would expect constant attention. She must, of course, be of good blood and this in itself meant that time he preferred to spend in the stables would have to be wasted on social amenities. He was a rich man - Verlin contained deposits of iron, though its main wealth came from bloodstones, the deep crimson jewels found nowhere else in Hellan. Because of this he was sought after by many of the Hearths anxious to make a prosperous match for their daughters. None of the offers had interested him but recent uprisings among his labourers had resulted in attacks on his person. Hysterical with fright, his mother had pleaded with him to marry and give Verlin a heir. This he acknowledged to be his duty and now he had found the girl he desired. True, she was not of noble birth but her lineage was respectable and his name would give her standing. It did not occur to him that Yma might refuse. Nothing in his life thus far had thwarted Dall.
He lifted Ymadown when the Min Mount Tor enclave was reached, allowing his hands to linger on her slender waist. Blue eyes, shrouded by dark lashes, glanced hastily at him and he smiled complacently, taking the soft murmur of thanks as shyness. After all, it was not every day a mountain girl was honoured by the attentions of a great lord. Chard hailed him into the main pavilion for a drink of wine and he released her unwillingly, convinced that she wished him to stay.
Amarra caught her lip between her teeth as he strode off to join the warden, "Be careful, little one. That is a dangerous man. Mad as a rabid horse!"
Yma only laughed, a hot glow in her eyes, "Not Verlin himself can stop me now! Who cares about that stuffy fool? I shall be High Lady, my darling nurse! I shall!"
"I believe you. The Bones of Pansat do not lie. Coran is besotted already."
"Not yet ... but he will be!" She broke off as the Swordsisters challenged outside. A familiar voice spoke briskly and Marva came through the door hangings with her arms outstretched.
"Yma! How good to see my baby sister again. But what is all this nonsense of guards? No harm will come to you at a Clan Gathering."
Rostan's lady had changed very little, despite the birth of three children. Her figure showed no sign of thickening and her skin was as white as Yma's. Always an organiser, her manner was assured as she said, "There are the most extraordinary tales circulating about you, sweetheart. tarengo's sudden departure has given fuel to the tounge-waggers ... I cannot think why father permitted it. Never mind, I'm here now and I'll make it my business to stop this ridiculous gossip." She drew breath and embraced Yma warmly, "Let me look at you, little one."
A long survey and she nodded. "I see. Well, I always knew you'd be a beauty. No wonder foolish heads are turned and jealous women spout malice! But that's no reason for you to be prisioned in your tent. I shall talk to the Warden! Shern and the children are with him now - come and meet them."
Arriving at the main pavilion, Marva hugged Chard while Yma looked quickly around. To her relief Dall was gone. Only Marva's husband sat there with a little girl on his knee.
The child gazed with wide eyes and piped, "Is it an elf lady, Mama? Will she bring me a pony of my own if I ask?"
"What rubbish you talk, Enna. This is your aunt, Yma. Shern, stop gaping! Surely you remember my youngest sister?"
The Warden of Rostan got slowly to his feet, holding Enna in his arms, "Certainly I do. But she has grwon into a dazzling beauty. You're a brave man to bring her to the Gathering, Chard. We heard rumours of trouble ... now I see why. Would it not be wiser to return to the mountains?"
Chard said heavily, "That was my intention. But this morning's events have forced me to stay. One does not refuse a request from the High Ward!"
He told them of Coran's invitation, amounting to a command, that Yma be present at a feast in her honour. "But once that's over, we leave. Blondec has offered for Yma and I've a mind to accept. Welf is a good lab and she will be near me still."
Yma said nothing, bending to caress Enna who had left Shern and was now clinging to her aunt's skirts. Marva, however, voiced immediate disapp-roval of the idea.
"Swarren? I have no ill to say of the Hearth but there will certainly be better offers. Take my advice, father, and wait a few days longer."
Chard said grimly, "I have already recieved no less than five requests ... including one from Dall of Verlin! An arrogant man that ... he was not pleased when I told him no decision would be made in haste."
"The Raven?" Marva was horrified, "No, no, that won't do. The tales about him are not pretty! He's only accepted because Coran favours him. Who else has offered?"
Chard told her and they spent the next few hours in argument, something which both enjoyed. Yma quietly amused the children while Shern watched, aware of her charm and its impact on him. So deep was his concern that he later suggested to Marva that they follow Tarengo's example and pull out next morning.
But Marva was not gentle Dree. She said vehemently, "Are you mad, Shern? We expect offers for Nellan. If you do not care about my sister, at least give some thought to your own."
"Try to understand, Marva. Yma is a danger to us all."
"What, because she has a pretty face? Rubbish! She may break a few hearts but that's hardly a crime. Stop fretting! I'll straighten things out ... you know me!" She flatly refused to listen to further arguments and Shern gave way at last, distressed and worried.
Alone with her father, Yma said softly, "I'm sorry to cause you trouble, for I never meant to. Shall I plead sickness to the High Ward?" A sigh escaped her, "It would have been pleasant to attend a feast in my honour, but not if it displeases you."
She had always been Chard's pet and it upset him to see her distress. He put his arm round her drooping shoulders and held her close, "No, sweet-ing. I've no wish to spoil your pleasure. But we go as soon as it's over. Tell me, little one, can you be happy with Welf? I favour the match because it will keep you near me, but if you prefer another I will not stand in your way."
"Truly, I don't know. I feel bewildered - so much has happened in so short a time. If Marva deserts me as Dree did I'll be miserable. I need a sister's love and support just now."
Chard nodded, "I understand. But don't blame Dree too much, she isn't as strong as Marva."
"I know ... but she could have tried harder." Yma bowed her head, "I'm a little tired. May I retire, please?"
"Of course." Chard watched sadly as the small figure trailed away, Amarra at her heels.
"Poor child, her beauty is a curse." Zell's voice from behind him startled the Warden. He had not realised she was so close.
"Very true. It's brought her nothing but trouble. Have you visited your kinfolk yet?"
"No - nor do I see any way to leave yet. Look!" Zell pointed and Chard, shocked and disbelieving, saw that the Min Mount Tor enclave was surround-ed by a large crowd of people.
"Who are they? What do they want? This breaks all rules of courtesy." He was furious.
"They're not dangerous." Zell said soothingly. "There are always ninnychucks at any Gathering who come to gawk at their betters. These wish to see the new beauty who has been honoured by the High Ward. It is a nuis-ance though - they'll hang about for hours. The sooner I can reach my sisters and get help to shift them, the better."
But before she could act word had reached Coran and a detachment of his personal guard arrived. Faced with the threat of metal-shod hooves the mob dispersed rapidly and the young leader of the troop presented himself to Chard.
"I am commanded to ensure your safety, Warden. Lord Coran suggests the Min Mount Tor pavilions be moved within the enclave of The Halls."
Chard stiffened, "Convey my thanks to your master. His courtesy is great but my people are quite able to care for their own. This rabble is hardly a menance."
Jinnar looked at him curiously. The troop leader had heard of the stub-born pride of the mountain clans and now, faced by that unyielding arrogance, he could only bow and remove himself. Privately he admired Chard's tough-ness, contrasting it favourably with other men, some of whom would have crawled through a cesspit to gain the High Ward's interest. He decided then and there to visit the mountains on his next leave. As for the girl who was the cause of all this flurry - she might, or might not, be worth it. Her male kin, however, would certainly repay cultivation. Bowing affably to the Warden he mounted and was already wheeling his horse when Yma emerged from her small tent.
She had discarded her veil and when the sound of arguement reached her, she did not bother to replace it. Jinnar received the full impact of her beauty.
"Gods!" The exclamation was forced from his lips, "Is this your daughter?"
Amused, despite himself, by the look on the young man's face, Chard nodded.
"Then, Warden, with all respect, may I once more urge you to consider the High Ward's offer?"
"No." The flat refusal left the troop leader no choice. Eyes still fixed on Yma, he backed his horse, turning at the last to say, "At least allow me to return when I'm off duty. My service is at the disposal of Min Mount Tor."
Chard thanked him cordially but it was Yma's smile that Jinnar remembered. It was still in his mind when he reported to Coran and he no long-er felt surprise at the High Ward's concern. Such loveliness should indeed be kept guarded and away from intrusive eyes. Some of his feeling crept through the official brevity of his report but Coran showed no surprise at having his aid rejected, merely saying, "Thank you, Jinnar. The mountain Hearths breed strong men. Nevertheless, I want a watch kept on that enclave. Can you do it quietly without the Warden becomming aware of surveillance?"
"It will be my personal task, Lord." The troop leader bowed deeply.
Dall, lounging at Coran's side, sneered, "And a pleasant one too ... eh, captain? The lady is very lovely. But don't let emotion overcome your good sense. She has a high destiny." He cast a glance at the High Ward, "I have offered for her."
There was a quick frown, "And has she accepted?"
"Not yet. The father wishes to display his importance . I must wait while he ponders the matter. Well, if it soothes his pride to keep Verlin on a string I'm willing to indulge him. Yma is worth a little delay."
"Don't be too sure." The High Ward was still frowning. "The mountain Clans value their women greatly. Chard won't force her against her will."
Dall laughed loudly, "My poor friend, it is she who will persuade him when she hears the dowry I propose to settle on her."
Coran said no more but he was annoyed. The man's arrogance grew daily. It was time Verlin remembered just who was ruler in Hellan. The brown eyes fixed on Dall were hard and cold.
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