by Dorothy Boyd
A messenger was despatched to Chard that night. The High Ward requested that he and as many of his men as could be spared should accompany the Court on a lobis hunt. The heavy lumbering beasts were dangerous, capable of sudden bursts of speed. Any horse caught on the wicked spiral horns stood little chance of surviving and his rider even less. But the mountain ponies were fleet and cunning and it pleased Chard to display their skills and those of his men.
He was able to accept without qualms for Marva was with him when the messenger arrived and said at once, "You must go. I'll stay with Yma. We've had little opportunity to talk and, besides, I want her to meet Shern's young sister, Nellan. It's her first Gathering, too, and they are of an age."
"Then," Yma said, dazzling Coran's envoy with a smile, "Will you ask the High Ward if Rostan Hearth may attend the feast he is holding in my honour?"
"Yma!" Marva was shocked, "You are impertinent."
"Why? My Lord Coran wishes me to enjoy myself and if my family is with me it will add greatly to my comfort and pleasure."
"Well ... it is true that a chaperone is customary. And who better than your sister?" Marva looked at the messenger, "Perhaps it would be possible?"
The man started, withdrawing his gaze from Yma with reluctance. "Your request will be passed to the High Ward at once, Lady. I shall bring his answer back with despatch."
He was as good as his word, returning with a cordial invitation to any person the Lady Yma cared to name.
"Hmmm! I'll be interested to see if the Halls can put on a better show than Rostan. I doubt it!" Marva tossed her head, certain of her own skills at entertaining. "That settles it, then. Both Nellan and I must have new dresses. Will you mind if I order the peddlers to return in the morning, Yma?"
"No, of course not. I want a pair of eardrops to match the crystal pendant I bought when Dree was here."
"Good, then I'll be ready at first light and Shern can ride with you, father."
Chard was agreeable and Shern welcomed the chance to escape from Yma's vicinity. He was miserably aware of her effect on him and quite unable to explain his feelings to Marva, who only laughed and refused to listen. Racked alternately by desire and guilt, Shern found his sole solace with children or other men. Some of this he tried to express to Chard as they rode out in the High Ward's train but his voice stumbled and died on the words. How could you tell a man that his own daughter was dangerous? Especially when that daughter was possessed not only of beauty but the sweetest of natures - it was simply not possible.
But Chard seemed to understand, for when Shern trailed into silence he said, "You're a good man, Rostan. Marva is more fortunate than, I think, she realises. Be assured I am aware of the problem - both sides of it. You see Yma as a threat to the safety of those who love her and I cannot deny that. But to me it is clear that she is equally menaced." He sighed heavily, "By Virrow, I wish tonight were over! I've ordered Jon to prepare for immediate departure tomorrow and we go straight to Swarren. The sooner Yma is wed, the better."
There was a shout from further up the line that lobis had been sighted and conversation ceased as the two men galloped in pursuit. But it occured to Shern in the brief moments before they caught up to the hunt that a small hearth such as Swarren stood little chance against the power of, say, Verlin. He did not find it a pleasant thought.
In the Min Mount Tor enclave the main pavilion was a confusion of colour and noise. Yma had expected a morning of boredom but she under-rated her sister. Marva had personally visited the stalls and inststed that all goods be displayed be females. The traders, astonished at first by this unusual request, soon realised that this sharp-tongued lady meant exactly what she said. As a result, startled wives were routed out from their caravans and sent to the green and white tents loaded with merchandise, instructions ringing in their ears.
Relaxed in this feminine atmosphere, Yma enjoyed the hard bargains Marva drove and Nellan's cheerful giggles. Shern's sister was a pretty, good-natured girl, who admired Yma at once, exclaiming over her face and hair and asking her advice on all her purchases. The two became quite friendly and Nellan confided that a betrothal had been arranged for ther the previous night.
"It's made me very happy because Lowrad Hearth is near Rostan and I'll see my family often. You see, Rodal and I grew up together. He trained under my father and I've always been fond of him."
"You're lucky. Duty and inclination don't always go together."
Nellan's soft eyes were concerned, "Why, Yma, surely no one would force you into an unwanted match? Marva said the mountain clans give free choice to their women."
"I won't be forced, but I can't help knowing that my father hopes to wed me to Welf of Swarren."
"He's the heir, isn't he? Don't you like him?"
"Oh, he is kind and he loves me, but ..." Yma bent her head and fell silent.
Distressed, Nellan put an arm around the small drooping figure, "Don't cry, darling. I'm sure Marva can help. Shern says she is capable of anything."
"She was always the family organiser." Yma squeezed Nellan's hand. "Thank you for listening. And now lets look at those lovely things and forget my troubles. Ah!" She swooped on a pair of ridiculously ornate slippers. Bright scarlet, tufted with feathers and ribbon. They were spectacularly ugly. "Just what your new husband will love! how much, trader?"
The woman named a price, wondering what this beauty would do with the hideous objects. At least her man would be pleased that she had managed to get rid of them at last!
Yma insisted on the slippers being prettily wrapped, then presented the gaudy parcel to Nellan as a wedding gift. Giggling, she accepted and promised that if Rodal would not wear them, she would. Marva watched indulgently and Amarra permitted herself a smile. The silly red shoes had won another heart for her nurseling.
The tent was piled high with Marva's purchases and only one vendor remained. Zell beckoned her forward and she kneeled to open a large chest from which emerged tray after tray of jewels. Much of it was ordinary, trinkets of gold and silver and ornaments of grace but little value. But the final tray held an array of gems which caused Marva to catch her breath. A long string of sea pearls glowed in white beauty beside a trembling coronet of glassflowers, faceted crystals blinked in a rainbow of colours next to heavy gold chains from the lands of the Raffini and several amber tree pearls rivalled the sullen glory of the two magnificant bloodstones.
There was a little silence, then Yma bent and lifted a pair of earrings. Cut in thin slivers and hung on silver wire, they glittered in sympathy as she held them against the huge crystal at her throat. The swirl of colours in the big stone found a perfect reflection in the eardrops and Marva nodded in pleasure. "An exact match. Take them, Yma. And what would you like, Nellan?"
Her words broke the spell. A flurry of talk and bargaining began at the enhd of which Nellan sported a necklace od sea pearls and Marva had bought several lesser baubles for herself.
"And that, my dears, is positively all! What Shern will say I shudder to think! The gods be thanked he's a generous man."
The Sword Sisters grinned and Zell gestured to the gem seller to close up her chest. The woman was about to obey when Yma suddenly stopped her. "Just a moment. Showe me that gold chain once more, please."
"This one, lady"? The peddler held up a long dully gleaming length. It was beautifully crafted - intricatelty worked scales of metal joined to form a flexible chain. The ends were dressed with tassles of gold. "The Raffini do this work. My husband goes there yearly to buy. He says their ore has a richer lustre than any in Hellan. Feel it. It's almost as thought the metal is greased." She watched as Yma ran the chain through her fingers. "See? It's smooth to the touch."
Marva said, "It's certainly lovely but it looks too heavy for you, Yma. It would suit a much bigger woman."
"But I don't want it as a necklace, it will make a perfect belt." Yma stood and wound the chain around her tiny waist. It might have been fashioned espressly to fit her - the heavy tassles overlapping in front to keep the scaled length snugly in place.
Nellan clapped, "It looks wonderful! I wish I could do that."
"Well, you can't." Marva said tartly. "You're twice Yam's size. Are you really going to buy it, sister?"
"Yes, I am. Father promised I might chose what I wished."
"He never could deny you. And the gods know you've had little enough joy of the Gathering, confined to this tent. If this gives you pleasure, take it." Marva embraced Yma and swept Nellan out, adjuring Amarra to see that her mistress rested before the feast. "For you must look your best, little one."
"I'll try." Yma answered, and waved as her sister left, followed by a group of Rostan servants who carried the vast heap of Marva's purchases. When they were out of sight she turned to Amarra, "Look my best? I intend to - tonight is MY night!" She broke off ... "What is that noise?"
"The hunters return." Amarra peered through the hangings at the entrance of the tent. "They seem to have done well, the pack animals are loaded."
"I'm glad. Father will be pleased. Order baths for the men, dear one, then come and help me decide what to wear tonight." She gave AMarra a quick hug just as Chard strode in calling loudly for wine.
Yma ran to him, easing the dusty tunic from his body while he recounted the day's sport. The High Ward, it appeared, had shown him great honour, heaping praise on his riding and the skill of his mountain pony. Yma listened, smiling, until he finished and asked, "And you, sweeting? Has Marva looked after you?"
"Yes, we had an amusing morning. She's only just taken Nellan away after buying the stock of every peddler at the Gathering."
"Shern won't mind. Rostan is a wealthy Hearth." He put a hand under her chin, "There's a sparkle in those big eyes of yours. What have you done, little mischief?"
"Spent all the revenues of Min Mount Tor! I bought a pair of crystal earrings to match my pendant and this rope of gold." She held up her purchases.
Chard laughed, "Extravagant child! But I think the Hearth can bear the burden." He peered more closely at the scaled links. "Did the peddler say where this came from?"
"From beyond the mountains ... the land of the Raffini, I think she said. Their gold is supposed to be better than any mined in Hellan. Certainly it feels wonderful."
"Interesting. I'd like to speak with Coran about the Raffini. There's a restlessness ..." Chard stopped abruptly. "But that's of no moment to a young girl. I must bathe - I can smell lobis blood on me."
"Amarra has ordered hot tubs to be readied and food will be waiting when you finish."
"You're a thoughtful child." Chard smiled at Yma with approval. "Go and get some rest. I'll see you later." He strode out, calling for Jon, and she heard him telling the other men of the hunt. Laughing quietly, she thought that by the end of the next hour the tally of kills would have doubled as her father relived the day.
Once in her own tent she went straight to a small chest of scented wood and opened it. There was an unholy glee on her face as she surveyed the contents.
So far Yma had conformed to custom and had worn only the usual long skirts. no one here knew yet of the fashion set in the mountains by the Sword Sister's apparel and the fantastic variations it had undergone as more and more girls adopted the comfortable style and elarorated it with rich cloths and adornments. But Yma meant to startle the gathering by appearing at the High Ward's feast in what many would consider male attire. There would be talk but she didn't care for that. The women would be grinding their teeth in envy when they saw her and the men ... well, tonight Yma intended every man there to be at her feet.
She sat back on her heels as Amarra padded in and lifted her brows at the white silk folds spilling from the chest. The nurse said dubiously. "Is it wise to wear that, little one? You will be the talk of the Gathering."
"How right you are, my darling nurse! Nellan let slip some of the gossip the women are spreading. They call me a huntress who pursues their men. I'm going to prove them wrong ... it's their mem who will try to pursue me! And the joke is that I don't want any of them. Only one man interests me. I'm tired of playing the little quiet daughter - tonight I'll show those shrews what I can do when it pleases me!" Yma's deep blue eyes shone with excitement and triumph.
Amarra sighed. She knew her charge in this mood. And, in her heart, the Fardom agreed with Yma. She was so lovely and until now that beauty had been wasted - hidden behind her own protective shell and the staves of teh Sword Sisters. Why shouldn't she shine for one evening and reduce the gossips to drab nonentities? Briskly the nurse said, "Then let us begin. Zell is bringing your bath."
The Sword Sisters carried in a deep tub and filled it with hot water until the level reached Yma's shoulders. Amarra washed the heavy mass of golden curls and wrapped it in a towel while she rubbed perfumed lotions into Yma's skin. Afterwards her body shone like a sea pearl, lustrous and incredibly smooth. Draped in a loose robe Yma sat on a stool while each strand of hair was dried and polished with silk before being drawn up into a jewelled clasp.
She stood, then, and Amarra produced a flat wooden box filled with small vials and a selection of feathers. Each vial held a different fragrance which would be used in combination to form a pattern on the skin. It was an art peculiar to the Nomad tribes and Amarra was highly skilled in perfecting the intricate melding of scents. Her nimble fingers dipped and painted, the feathers touching lightly on every part of Yma's body from toes to ear lobes. Deep musky notes accented the folds and creases of legs and thighs, lighter scents were brushed on breasts and throat. The end result was startlingly erotic. Every move released a different perfume and the warmth of Yma's flesh brought new depths in the blended fragrances.
It took a long time to complete but Amarra refused to hurry. It was, in it's own way, a masterpiece, and she knew it. When, at last, the pattern was done, the nurse told Yma to sit still until her skin absorbed the pattern. "That will set it firmly. You will walk in sweetness tonight, dear one."
Outside dusk had come and the enclave flared with torchlight. Zell called through the hangings, "The Warden is almost ready, Yma. How long will you be?"
"Not long. Is Marva here yet?"
"No, she hasn't arrived. Chard does not want to displease the High Ward by being late so please hurry."
Yma made no reply for Amarra had lifted the folds of white silk and was preparing to slide it over her body. the leggings clung like a second skin to her shapely thighs and the jacket moulded to her small perfect breasts so closely that every curve was revealed. heavy silver embroidery glinted ay waist and ankles and over all floated a tabard of filmy grey, so fine it was almost translucent. through its soft haze Yma's figure glowed like a sea pearl, the sullen fires of the great crystal blazing at her throat.
Amarra caught her breath, "The Old Ones protect us! You seem ... not quite human ... moondust and shadow instead of living flesh. Coran will never resist you."
"Flatterer!" Yma smiled lovingly, "I pray you are right. Let's go before father has a fit." She swathed a long cloak round her shoulders and walked out to join the Warden.
Shern and Marva had just arrived, bringing and excited Nellan with them. She ran to Yma at once, exclaiming, "What a gorgeous perfume! Where did ..."
Chard interrupted, "You girls talk on the way. I don't wish to be late. It might be construed as an insult to the Halls. Jon?"
"The escort is waiting, Warden." The old warrior ushered them out of the tent and a guard of Sword Sisters fell in about the small group, enclosing them in a protective ring. Zell had enlisted many of her friends from the Havens.
They wound through narrow lanes where the press of people forced the Sword Sisters to clear the way with theri staves and headed for the flat expanse of ground before the High Ward's huge blue and silver pavilion. Here, under colourful awnings, long trestles were set out, backed by cushioned benches. A raised platform accommodated musicians and singers and Nellan whispered to Yma that a troupe of Fardoms would perform later in the evening.
Torches flared everywhere, casting wavering shadows over the grass as crowds converged on the enclosure, some to be passed through the barrier, others, less favoured, to watch from the outskirts.
The appearance of Coran and his son, attended by three of the Northern suzerains, was greeted with cheers. The High Ward was handsome in the blue and silver of the Halls, a foil to young Hal in scarlet. Behind them Dall wore Verlin black, linked bloodstones flaming on his chest. But the magnificant array of the men paled beside the dazzling gowns and jewels of their womenfolk. They shon in crimson and yellow, in blue and green and purple, their dresses embroidered in gold and silver and crusted with gems. Precious stones flashed from slender necks and dainty fingers - the women of the Hearths had heard the rumours and flung down a glittering challenge to the new beauty!
Yma came through the barrier on her father's arm and the hum of talk died as every eye fixed on the small cloaked figure. The hust lasted until a dark-clad maid removed her cloak and the full audacity of her costume sank in. There came a concerted gasp from the packed benhces and Marva said "Yma!" on a rising note of shock.
But Coran, standing between two beautifully gowned women, drew a deep breath of appreciation and hastened across the grass to meet Yma, leaving his companions in mid sentence.
"Is that the little trollop they gossip about?" Chellia of Tulk, a redhead noted as much for her temper as her fiery good looks, was not pleased.
Her friend, Isbel of Sarsnet, was more circumspect. "If you mean is that the girl from Min Mount Tor, yes. Be careful what you say, Chellia. Tulk won't be happy if you start a clan feud here."
"Oh, very well, I'll be careful. But she's so undersized and pale! What do the men see in her?"
Isbel, a sultry brunette, smiled, "Jealous, my dear? You must admit she has a certain charm."
She was right. Yma glowed with an inner flame. There was a faint flush on the white skin and her blue eyes caught and reflected the torch flames. The huge crystal spat fire as she walked, a vision of mist and pearl, at Coran's side. He led her to the high table and placed her in the seat of honour with Chard on his other side. Rostan Hearth was also granted places at the high table, displacing nobles who made no secret of their annoyance.
Dall of Verlin found himself between Marva and Isbel and both women noticed that his eyes seldom left Yma. Several times he excused himself abruptly to offer some unnecessary service to the high Ward, using the occasion to speak to Yma.
In this he was not alone. A constant stream of men sought the high table on the flimsiest of pretexts, leaving their womenfolk to glare in helpless rage. By the twentieth interruption to his meal, Coran had had enough.
"It seems I am not the only one to fall victim to your charms, my lady. Perhaps we should remove to my pavilion?"
Her soft voice soothed his irritation. "Will you permit the Sword Sisters to win us some peace? I'd hate to miss the Fardom performance."
Coran looked at the black-garbed group waiting beyond the railed enclosure and laughed suddenly, "Why not? I doubt my men would be of use in this situation. I'll send for them."
"No need - Amarra will go."
A dark form rose from its crouching position at Yma's feet, startling Coran into an exclaimation.
"Gods, woman, are you always so quiet? It's like having a shadow come to life."
Amarra bowed and hurried off while he gazed after her curiously. "A Fardom, isn't she? A strange choice for a maid."
"She is much more than a servant, my lord." Yma's voice was unexpectedly firm. "When my mother died I grieved terribly. But for Amarra I would have followed her. I owe her my life and she has been my friend and nurse ever since."
"And you spring to her defense at any criticism? Well, I like loyalty in man or woman - especially when it goes with beauty!"
Yma lowered her lashes at the ardent look in his brown eyes but was saved from answering by the arrival of the Sword Sisters. It amused her to watch Coran's surprise as they cleared the area round the table with efficiency and despatch. She was also conscious of Chard's relief as he saw her surrounded by a guard once more. She smiled at his worried face just as the musicians broke into the strains of a Valcoray.
Zell, wise before the event, was on the alert. A swift gesture brought staves crashing down into a rigid cordon about Yma and Coran.
The High Ward raised his brows but already several men were pushing at the barrier and, even as he watched, Dall vaulted the poles and bowed before him.
"With your permission, my lord, I ask for the honour of this dance with the Lady Yma."
Taken aback, Coran nodded, and Verlin led his prize out onto the flat expanse of grass. Almost at once he realised his mistake. Always more interested in sport or the arts of war, he had acquired only a rudimentary knowledge of dancing. It was necessesary for him to concentrate so intently on the music and the complex movements that he was unable to sustain a conversation with his partner. Furthermore, her grace showed up his clumsiness and the more he tried to overcome it the worse it became. Sweating and furious, he missed a step and trod on the toes of an elderly woman who was not slow to voice her opinion.
"Still a fumble-foot, Verlin? I told your mother she allowed you to spend too much time in the stables." She spoke in the loud tones of the slightly deaf and there were smothered laughs among the other dancers. Dall was not popular and they enjoyed his discomfiture.
Teeth gritted, the Lord of Verlin turned back and led Yma into the next movement. It was particularly intricate, a series of sliding crossovers, and halfway through he stumbled, lost his footing and sprawled heavily on the grass. They were almost in front of the table where Coran sat watching and Yma swept a stately curtsey to her fallen partner and cast the High Ward an inviting look.
In a moment he was beside her, grinning down ad Dall. "As a warrior, my friend, you excel - but I've seen the Valcoray performed better! Let us show you how it should be done."
He and Yma rejoined the chain of dancers and it was immediately obvious that Coran was an expert. It was also clear that in the girl from Min Mount Tor he found a worthy match. Her body followed his every move with boneless grace. As one they wove through the maze of music, creating a design of stylised beauty, precise and perfect. As the dance ended the applause was genuine and Coran waved to his people, well pleased.
Only Chard and Amarra noticed the black anger in Dall's face as he stood in the shadows beyond the torches. Both were uneasy for neither trusted the Raven of Verlin.
The musicians began to play the rollicking strains of a new dance and Yma clapped her hands. "A jumjerrick! Are you familiar with it, my lord? In the mountains it's a great favourite."
"Here, too. Will you honour me, sweeting?"
The endearment slipped out involuntarily. Coran was finding it difficult to control his emotions. In the years since his wife's death there had been little time for women. There were many court ladies willing to share his bed and he had enjoyed brief affairs with a few, more as a concession to the needs of his vigorous body than from any lasting affection. But Yma stirred his senses in a way he had not believed possible. It was not just her striking beauty - she drew him by some inner warmth, as though flame burned beneath the white skin. Coran desired her, yet he was cynic enough to think that if only he could slake his passion once it would ease the turmopil of his mind and flesh. But the standards of the mountain calns were strict - there could be no casual liason with Yma. And his own standards forbade alliance with a minor Hearth offering neither power nor great wealth. It was an impasse.
He could, however, dance with her. The High Ward laughed recklessly and closed his hands around Yma's tiny waist. Lifting her with effortless ease, he joined the other spinning couples.
The circle of grass was crowded. the jumjerrick was popular with the younger nobles, giving them the chance to embrace a pretty girl and perhaps steal a kiss during the frenzied leaps and lifts. hidden by swirling bodies, Coran tightened his arms around Yma and she laughed up at him, blue eyes wide with enjoyment.
"Little witch!" Coran was very conscious of her softness as she pressed close, the sweet scent of her body heating his senses. Thickly, he said, "How many have you snared in your pretty net?"
"None. Until today there was no one I wished to 'snare'."
"And now?" he demanded, his mouth almost touching the red lips so tantalisingly close.
She was out of his grasp in one lithe twist, the misty tabbard flaring as she circled, "Now, High Ward of Hellan, I take pleasure in this feast you have given for me. It's a memory I shall treasure when we return to Min Mount Tor."
Coran reached for her again but a girl spun between them, catching his hands and swinging him away from Yma. Her small figure was lost among the dancers and it was not until the jumjerrick ended that he saw her again.
She was the centre of a clapping group. Someone had provided a barrel and Yma balanced, her sliver-shod feet rolling it back and forward with easy grace. As Coran approached she leaped down and a laughing youth took her place. He tried hard but it was not as simple as Yma had made it seem and in moments he lost control and tumbled off amid the jeers of his friends.
Coran led Yma back to the high table where Chard waited, hiding his anxiety under a fixed smile. Amarra stood behind him and as Yma resumed her seat the nurse whispered in her ear, "Be very careful. Look at the Raven!"
Dall had moved from the shadows and the torchlight plainly revealed the anger on his face. He had made a fool of himself and his stiff pride was bitterly hurt. Coran's laughing dismissal had made things worse and it had yet further enraged him to see Yma's response to the High Ward's expert guidance. He literally boiled with rage. Was he not the one who had offered for her? Why, then did she dare show interest in another man? It occured to him suddenly that Chard had not told her of the honour in store for her. The thought soothed his vanity and he was about to go to Yma and make his intentions clear when drums rolled nearby and a troupe of Fardoms ran into the enclosure. He would have to wait until they finished.
Gaudy as a flock of keetah birds, the jugglers and acrobats prarded their skills before the audience. Swift fingers spun balls and plates through the air, balanced knives and daggers in jagged piles and turned rossa fruit into globes of fire. Agile bodies contorted into impossible shapes as the nomads cavorted on the torch-lit grass in a swirling medley of vivid colours. Cheers greeted the finale and as the troupe made its exit the musicians began a wierd haunting melody.
A long line of women filed in, golden bells ringing on their ankles. Dark eyes gleamed in swarthy faces as they circled the enclosure in a swaying rhythm. This was the Askar, the dance of invitation, and the lithe bodies wove a classic pattern of female allure, beckoning the chosen male with every sensuous movement. A man vaulted into the circle with a loud cry and Yma's breath caught sharply. It was the first time she had seen Fylor since they danced the Valcoray in the plains camp.
He was almost unrecognisable. Gone were the bright clothes and the feathered hat - Fylor was stripped to the waist, his naked chest polished with oil and the long muscular legs sheathed in black tights. A heavy gold chain cinched narrow hips and each wrist bore wide bracelets studded with jewels. Savage and barbaric he stalked the ring of women, eying them with blatant lust.
Around the circle the watching men stirred, forgetting all else in the drama unfolding before them. Coran, too, was caught up in the flow of emotion, leaning forward curiously as a girl left her place and postured before Fylor, the bells on her ankles chiming as she advanced and retreated in teasing invitation. Another man whirled in and more followed until each girl was matched with a partner for the climax of the Askar.
Wilder and more insistent grew the music as body pressed against body, closer and closer until at last the whole group stood locked together in a welter of heaving flesh. They stayed so for one long moment, then came a single drum roll and the tableau dissolved as men and women ran across the grass to the startled audience.
A laughing Fardom pulled Marva from her chair and whirled her away from Shern. She looked back to see him with one of the nomad girls and Nellan prancing in the arms of a young noble from the Halls. Near by, Chellia of Tulk leaned against the muscled chest of her partner, greedy hands caressing his bare skin. Two girls tugged at Coran, but he resisted, his eyes on Yma.
She was gazing thoughtfully at the man bowing before her. The High Ward recognised the lead dancer and saw, with a jolting shock, the naked desire on his face as he returned Yma's gaze. Something in Coran came to savage life. rage flooded through him to think of Yma touched by any hands other than his own. Pushing the girls aside, he growled, "Stay off, fellow. She's promised to me. Here, take this lady. She'll be glad to partner you."
Isbel of Sarsnet gaped in astonishment. In her usual detached manner she had been watching Chellia's antics and wondering what the long-suffering Tulk thought of his wife's behaviour. It was hard to guess, he was not a man to show emotion. Then suddenly Coran was pushing her into the arms of some barbaric male who was clearly unappreciative of the honour done him. The wrethched creature couldn't take his eyes from Yma long enough to realise that Lady Isbel of Sarsnet was his new partner. Really, perhaps Chellia was right and the little bitch from Min Mount Tor would bear watching. She tapped Fylor imperiously on the shoulder and they moved into the dance.
A lilting, sensuous tune came from the musicians dais and the crowd roared in approval. The Troth was a ritualised courtship dance as old as Hellan itself. Yma faced Coran in the opening measure, the filmy tabard drifting in the light breeze. Twice the soft folds caught on his dagger and finally she stood for a moment and loosed the clasp at her throat. Amarra darted from the sidelines and removed the robe and Yma turned back to the High Lord. She was, Coran thought fancifully, like a tiny silver statue, lit by the sullen fires of teh crystal between her breasts and by her own beauty. As if obeying some unheard command, the other dancers pressed back, forming a wide circle about the two figures. The Fardoms began to clap rhythmically and the steady beat melded with the music, a pulsing heart beneath the melody.
Yma, eyes alive with excitement, taunted the High Ward with an impudent swing of curved hip and shapely thigh. Snared in the promise her body offered, the man advanced on his prey only to have her avoid his reaching hands with a lithe twist. Again and again Coran pressed his attack but was baffled every time until at last he drove her into a position from which she could not escape. The watchers fell suddenly silent, held in the sensual thrall the two dancers had woven.
Heat from Yma's flesh molded the silken cloth to her limbs, outlining every curve. To the men in the audience she was desire personified and they roared their encouragement to the High Ward as he pursued her. She moved with the grace and sliding sleekness of a streekat but the end came at last. Coran's hands closed brutally around her narrow waist and he lifted her with a wild shout of triumph. Yma's small body arched as he lowered her to stand clasped against him, thigh to thingh, and he bent with arrogant pride to claim her mouth.
All round the enclosure there was silence. Chard, his face a study in conflicting emotions, half rose, but before he could say anything there was a shout of rage and Dall sprang on to the grass. Glaring at the High Ward he spat, "You dishonour Min Mount Tor and Verlin, too. I'll brook no insult to my promised wife."
Coran, his senses inflamed by anger and the erotic dance, scowled furiously but it was Yma who spoke.
"Warden of Verlin, my father told me of your offer. You do me great honour but you must know that no woman of the mountain clans is ever forced to wed against her will. My feelings for you are not those a man has the right to expect in his bride so I refuse your suit. Accept my regrets and my thanks for the compliment paid to my Hearth."
Her soft voice had a clarity which made every word audible and Dall's swarthy skin flushed darkly. A woman snickered among the crowds and he stiffened in fury as Coran said, "For the sake of past friendship I'll forget this episode, my lord, since no slur was intended to either Hearth." He paused a moment, his face still crimson with outrage, then swung to face Chard. "Warden of Min Mount Tor, have I your permission to wed the Lady Yma if she will honour me by consenting?"
Torches flickered as a long sigh went up from the listeners and at the high table Marva clutched her father's hand. Together they watched as Yma laid her head on Coran's chest in a gesture of submission and he lifted her chin to plant a kiss on the red lips. Desire raged in his veins and it was no light peck he bestowed but a savage brusiing embrace that left the audience in no doubt as to his feelings.
Chellia whispered to Isbel, "Why not rape the girl and be done with it? There's going to be trouble, her father is displeased and Verlin is mad with envy. Look at him!"
Isbel shivered. Dall's dark visage was contorted and he gripped a dagger in one hand. Even as she gazed, his control broke and he rapped out a string of filthy curses, lunging for Coran's throat with the naked blade. Instinct, born of long years of battle practice, saved the High Ward. he dodged the blow, an arm taking the thrust meant for his neck. Blood staining his blue tunic as he reeled back and men shouted from the sidelines, leaping to his aid. But Dall did not press the attack. Instead he swung Yma up and ran into the darkness.
A few strides took him to the dappled charger tethered near by. Dall never walked where he could ride and it had become habit to have a horse saddled and waiting. the great beast reared as he mounted it clumsily, Yma's struggling body impeding his actions. But she was no match for him and Dall soon had the horse under control and galloping through the narrow lanes between the enclaves, heading for the trackless aisles of the Dennar Forest. People screamed, scattering before steel-shod hooves, then they were free of the Gathering and the warhorse settled into an easier pace.
Held still in a cruel grip, Yma hid a small cold smile as she saw the road Dall had chosen. As the forest trees closed about their path she began to chant,
"By heartsblood spilt upon the rock The price was truely paid. Now, by the Bones of Pansat, Old gods, I claim your aid."
The first intimation of trouble came when a dead branch crashed to the ground, causing the horse to prop and neigh in panic. Dall spurred him round the obstruction but he balked again. Long shivers rippled the dappled hide and fear sweat was rank in the air. A streekat yowled deep in the forest and Grigar, veteran of many battles, squealed like a frightened foal. He began to back, tossing his head against the reins.
Dall dismounted and tried to lead him forward but it was useless - Grigar refused to move. Finally the terrified animal threw Yma and bolted back toward the Gathering.
Dall swore, "Stupid brute! I'll have him destroyed. Come, girl, to your feet. We must walk since we can't ride." He dragged Yma forward.
They had barely gone two paces when the darkness thickened and a chill wind whipped up leaves and twigs. Stones rolled under the Lord of Verlin's feet and unseen vines clutched greedily at his eyes. Half blind, he blundered into a thicket and felt thorns tear at his clothes and flesh. The cry of the streekat sounded again, very close, and he strained to see through the shadows. Suddenly the clouds opened and bright moonlight drenched the forest. Dall saw, with a sudden jolt of fear, that Yma moved untouched through the chaos around them.
Ahead lay a clearing and he went forward with relief only to sink to knee deep in a pocket of liquid mud. Trapped, he watched in helpless rage as a streekat loped out from the circling trees. The beast saw him and stopped, giving a moaning call. The shadows spawned another two and together the three prowled restlessly, making an occasional dart at Dall but seeming unwilling to press home an attack.
The Lord of Verlin was a man of great physical strength and courage and he would have met them bravely despite the odds against him. But when Yma steped into the clearing and the streekats fawned at her feet he felt a pang of superstitious terror.
The girl regarded him with a faint smile, one hand fondling the largest of the three. Then she spoke, "The way ends here for you, my Lord Raven. This is Mauld, gifted to me by Pansat - she and her sons hunger for your blood."
"Pansat?" Dall spat the name. "I should have guessed. Only a witch could snare me as you did. But be sure of this, Coran may wed you but you will never turn him from the worship of Virrow. That lovely hide of yours will yet burn in the temple fires!"
Yma laughed aloud, "Oh, strong words, my lord. But I'm not worried. the Old Ones watch over those who pay them tribute. Nevertheless, I thank you. Your lust and arrogance have set me on the throne of Hellan. I doubt if Coran would have offered for me had you not pushed your claim and roused his jealousy. I shall name my first son, Dall, in your memory."
Rage gave Dall strength. He pulled free of the sucking mud and lunged for Yma, wanting desperately to get his hands on that dainty taunting figure and smash its perfection to bloody ruin. But the streekats barred the way and the very earth moved, spilling him back. Again and again he tried, foiled by the pitching ground. Silver laughter mocked his efforts and he saw that Yma had moved to stand beneath a huge, thick leafed tree. Mauld stood beside her, snarling hatred at Dall.
The earth stilled at last and, as if freed from an invisible leash, the other streekats attacked. Dall met them with a bellow of glee. Here was something tangible to vent his fury on - he hacked and slashed with a savagery equal to their own.
The brutes fought with cunning and vicious intensity. Risking the menace of his dagger, one leaped for his throat and as Dall swayed off balance the other stole up behind and with two tearing bites, hamstrung the Lord of Verlin. And still he refused to surrender!
Unable to walk, he rose to his knees as the two streekats charged. A knife thrust slid between the ribs of the smaller beast and Mauld howled in rage and agony as her kit died. Dall was defenceless now, his dagger caught fast in bone. Sensing its chance, the second streekat leaped and clung to Dall's shoulders, it's long jaws seeking his neck. Incredibly, the man roared in fury and clutched the beast in his powerful arms. Blood streamed from a dozen bites but the watching Yma saw great muscles tighten. The streekat wailed in pain as it was clamped to Dall's chest. A wildly flailing claw took out Verlin's left eye but he never faltered. Tighter and tighter grew his hold until there was a sudden hideous crack and the beast hung limp, its backbone snapped.
Yma marvelled. She hated Dall, but his courage could not be denied.
Silence fell on the glade broken only by Mauld's whimpering. Yma watched the huddle of bodies intently, a small unpleasant smile on her mouth. She showed no surprise when Dall moved, dragging his battered body across the grass to her feet.
The effort exhausted him and his eyes were glazing, but he saw the white figure bend and heard her soft sweet voice, "Truely a brave fight, Lord of Verlin. The Old Ones will drink deep tonight. Rest, now."
Daintily, with exquisite precision, she slit his throat. Her small dagger was only a toy but it was sharp enough and she made no attempt to avoid the fountain of blood which gushed over her hands and stained her white robes. Mauld whined horribly as the scent reached her nostrils and Yma freed her, laughing as the beast sank her fangs in Dall's mangled flesh, wiping out all trace of the knife wound as she worried and tore.
Suddenly she lifted her head alertly. behind the screening trees flares burned and Coran's voice sounded, calling her name. Thoughtfully she put a hand to the front of her robe and tore the cloth to her waist. There was no need for more - Dall's blood already clotted her hair and stained her clothes.
The High Ward never forgot the carnage which met his eyes as he burst into the clearing. Two dead streekats lay in a pool of gore and beyond them was the mutilated body of Verlin's lord. Yma cowered against the bole of a huge tree menaced by a third beast and he thought at first that she, too, was injured, so spattered with blood were her clothes. Shouting, he surged to the rescue and Mauld lifted a dripping crimson muzzle and snarled. But her task was done - one quick look at Yma and she was gone, melting into the shadows among the trees.
"Gods! Are you hurt, little love?" Coran held Yma with crushing strength.
"No, my lord." She leaned against him. "Dall's bravery saved my life. he died with your name on his lips."
Wise beyond her years, Yma had sensed the pain Coran felt over Dall's betrayal. The High Ward was a simple man in some ways - it had never occured to him that a trusted comrade could be disloyal. Dall had always been arrogant but until he met Yma at the gathering and desiered her he had served Coran well. Her lie soothed the High Ward, implying as it did, that Verlin's lapse had been brief and soon regretted. The cloud left his face and he gave terse orders for the body to be borne in state to Verlin with a cortege of nobles in attendance.
"His mother will be desolate. He was her only child."
Wrapped in Coran's cloak, Yma nestled close to his chest. "To whom, then, do Hearth rights go?"
"It's a problem. There are no legitimate heirs and I know of no blood kin." Coran's voice hardened. "But I'll permit no wrangling over the succession!"
"Surely there's no need for it - let your son take Wardship of Verlin. You have told me he is to wed soon and may well be pleased to have his own Hearth."
The High Ward smiled down at her, "Why, sweeting, that's a brilliant solution. It seems a keen mind goes with your beauty. I am doubly fortunate."
Yma's long lashes fell, "You have asked me to be your wife, my lord. Don't think the mountains neglect to train their womenfolk to care for others. It is my wish to serve your people and it seems to me that is best done by ensuring your happiness." She touched the scarf knotted round his arm with gentle fingers. "This, for instance - does it pain greatly?"
"Very little. Forget it! Your father waits anxiously, my little love, and I mean to ask his permission to wed you tomorrow. It's against custom to make such unseemly haste but I don't care to risk another episode like this. Will you forgo all the fuss you women love and consent?"
Bowing her head to conceal the wild triumph in her eyes, Yma said softly, "Yes, my lord. You do me great honour."
His good arm tight about her, they rode from the glade, leaving the men of Verlin to bear away their master's broken body.
And neither one was aware of the eyes that glared after them from the brances of a huge tree overlooking the clearing.
Return to my home page