Jalav —
Amazon Warrior #5:
To Battle The Gods
by
Sharon Green
Copyright © 1986, 2010 by Sharon Green

Chapter 1
An arrival-and a decision disputed


Mida's light touched me strongly where I sat upon my kan, not so strongly as it had in the lands of Midanna, yet sufficiently warming in what was, in truth, the land of males.

The skies were bright and clear of clouds, the land all about us open and green, and beyond the rise of ground we had halted behind lay the city of Bellinard. I had returned at last to the place where my sister clans awaited me, warriors who would follow me into battle against the coming strangers, and I would have rejoiced at my return - had my humor not been so foul.

"Now comes Ennat," said Chaldrin from where he sat his own kan nearby; the rumble of his words did not intrude upon my thoughts. "As Wedin and Dotil accompany her, the wenches are likely all in their assigned places."

"More quickly than the legions of Sigurr," said S'Heernoh, amused, as he often was. The male who was called Walker sat his kan somewhat behind, his observation exceedingly soft, yet not so soft that I was unable to hear it. Few others would have had the courage to jest in my hearing just then, yet S'Heernoh always faced my displeasure with little more than innocent curiosity.

"Though the Sigurri are warriors, still are they no more than males," said Ilvin to S'Heernoh, amused herself. "Midanna are true warriors, and take the field of battle more swiftly and with greater eagerness."

"Not to speak of the fact that there are more than twice the number of Sigurri than Midanna," said Chaldrin calmly. "The Sword will see them properly deployed, and then he and Aysayn will join us as agreed. They undoubtedly give thanks, as do we, that this journey is done at last."

That this journey is done at last. Chaldrin's words caused me to consider the journey just completed and the manner in which it had begun. I, Jalav, once war leader of the Hosta clan of Midanna, had set out with my Hosta warriors to retrieve the Crystal of our goddess, stolen from us by northern males. First had there been the city of Bellinard, ruled then by males, a place where I and a small number of my warriors had been enslaved.

It was there that Ceralt and Telion had bought me, two males with unspoken purposes of their own; we all ended at last in the city of Ranistard. After much struggle, the lives of my warriors lost at the time of the theft of the Crystal had been avenged, yet had our Crystal, and the one which should have been guarded by the Silla clan, and a previously unknown third, all been irretrievably lost to the males of Ranistard. They had placed the Crystals within a device of evil, a device supposedly of the Ancients, and the device could not again be made to release them.

I sighed at the memory of that doing, for the males had thought to use the device to speak with the gods, yet they had reached beings they had not envisioned. Strangers were they, who claimed kinship with us, who then spoke of coming to "civilize" us in a manner unspecified, yet one which disturbed all who listened. The males had retired to discuss the matter, paying no mind to the Midanna warriors who were about, for the Hosta had been taken as captives by them, to be held and used as mere city slave-women.

And yet Jalav had shown that she was not one to be dismissed! Despite the agony of a lashing, I had escaped over the wall of Ranistard with the burning need to bring others to help free my sister Hosta, had survived, with the aid of the goddess Mida, wounds which should well have been crippling or fatal, had withstood, with great difficulty, the capture of Ceralt and his Belsayah riders, only to be at last brought before the goddess Mida to learn that the Hosta might not be freed. Jalav was meant to be war leader to all nine of the other clans of sister Midanna, and could succeed only if the Hosta remained captives, leaving Jalav as one who would not favor any clan above the others.

I shivered with the memory of my time with Mida. I had been brought to her by Ceralt, High Rider to those village males called Belsayah, he who had attempted to claim and hold me as his own, and had not known he moved to the will of the goddess. Ceralt thought to seek the aid of Sigurr, dark god of males, against the coming strangers, and therefore we had all journeyed to Sigurr's Peak and the altar which lay in the heart of it. Indeed we succeeded in finding the dark god, yet his realm and Mida's lay side by side, and both god and goddess wished me to lead their warriors against the coming strangers.

With heavy heart yet fierce determination, I had led the nine clans of sister Midanna against Bellinard and had taken the city, then had I ridden to the land of the Sigurri, those male warriors who worshipped Sigurr as Midanna did Mida. In Bellinard I freed four Sigurri captives, for I had been told by Sigurr and Mida they might lead me to their city so that I might raise their host to ride and fight beside Mida's.

One of the four had been Mehrayn, a red-haired male of great strength and odd humor, who had proven to be a Prince of the Blood among the Sigurri, called Sigurr's Sword, for he led the dark god's legions into battle. Again there had been difficulty, as well as capture and enslavement, during which Chaldrin had proven himself a true brother to me, yet we succeeded in returning Aysayn, the rightful Sigurr's Shadow, to his proper place where he had gladly obeyed Sigurr’s will and pledged the city's legions to stand against the coming strangers.

It was then that I had learned that all of Mida's terms had not been met, that there was one additional task I must attend to before I might return to my own. I had often called myself war leader to all Midanna, yet at the time that was simply not so. Without the Silla, who lay in capture to the males of Ranistard along with the Hosta, the clans of enemy Midanna also numbered nine. It became my task to assume the leadership of these Midanna as well, yet I could not ride toward their lands alone as I had wished to do.

Each time I had turned about I had found another in my path, among them Mehrayn and Chaldrin and S'Heernoh. Mehrayn desired me as Ceralt had, Chaldrin had pledged himself to stand beside me in battle, and S'Heernoh - S'Heernoh had appeared from out of the forests, had joined our traveling set, and had given more assistance than he, unarmed, should have been able to do.

Also was S'Heernoh a Walker, one who was able to reach the White Land and walk the Snows of what-shall-occur, and therefore had been able to aid those of the enemy clans as well. At last I had accomplished the will of the goddess and had become war leader to those who were no longer enemies, and then had they and I and the Sigurri legions and the males who led them, all made the journey to Bellinard, where the balance of my warriors waited.

The journey had now been completed, though we could not have anticipated the difficulties which would be a part of it.

"Had this journey continued for many feyd more, the numbers to reach this place would have been considerably fewer," said Ilvin. "Never had I envisioned such difficulty as that which arose when Midanna and Sigurri attempted to ride beside one another. They are males, I know, and therefore as strange as all males, yet had I not expected their strangeness to engulf warriors as well."

"It could not have occurred otherwise," said S'Heernoh, with a sigh. "The wenches, never having had men in such numbers available to them, happily sought to avail themselves of the bounty, seeking all about for those who would please them most. The men, eager themselves for the taste of wenches who were also warriors, vied for their attention as though they were boys just become aware of their manhood. That two or more men would come to harsh words over a single wench was inevitable, as inevitable as some men's belief that they might take what wench they wished. That no more than two score were wounded or killed because of those harsh words is truly the thing to be wondered at, for I would surely have expected more. What number were lost to attempts to use force, I have no idea."

"Nearly two hands of males and four warriors," said I in a growl. "All save three of the males were seen to by the warriors they considered no more than city slave-women; the rest ended by Mehrayn and Aysayn when they learned of the harm given the young warrior who was made to serve them.

"Three of the warriors who attempted to force the use of Sigurri were ended by those Sigurri, the fourth I saw to myself when I saw the deep humiliation and fury of the male, and the laughter of the warrior who cared naught that he could not bring himself to raise weapon to her even in vengeance. No other stood with her in her arrogance though she called upon them as sisters, and her efforts to keep my point from her flesh were equally unsuccessful. Go and see what those about the city do now, Ilvin."

"They do as they have done for the past hin," came the voice of Ennat as she drew rein beside me, as calm as Chaldrin. Large was this Ennat, brown-haired and brown eyed and newly come to the position of Keeper of the clans which had so lately been enemies to those whom I led. That I rode in Mida's name was clear to her, as clear as her gladness that her clans now did the same.

Her Keeper's covering, ankle-length as befitted her station and of all the colors of her clans, hiked up high upon her thighs to allow her a seat upon the kan she rode. Ever impatient, Ennat the Keeper did not indulge in the niceties of her new office; rather than allowing herself to be carried about upon a Keeper's seat, she straddled a kan and rode where she willed.

"Are we not yet prepared to ride forth and brace those who lay siege to the city?" asked Ennat, sounding more like a warrior than a Keeper. "For what reason do we delay?"

"We must await the arrival of Aysayn and Mehrayn," said I, calming the dancing of my kan with a stroking hand to his neck. "To advance unnecessarily before all of one's forces are properly placed would be foolish. I will not be delayed in reaching the city because of fearful attack from those we will ride toward."

"The males remain encamped, Jalav," said Ilvin, for she had crept to the crest of the hill to observe those about the city. Her long, pale hair was cinched by war leather, as was mine and each Midanna who rode with us including Ennat, and the blue of her clan colors about her hips was sharp against the green of the grass she lay upon. Her Hitta blue was somewhat different than the Summa blue upon Wedin and Dotil, yet clan differences were forgotten in the face of the unity Midanna now enjoyed.

"A knot of the males seem prepared to approach more closely to the walls of the city," said Ilvin, her light eyes keen. "Should they be foolish enough to attack, they will learn that those within have little need of the force which rides with us. I see forms upon the walls, clearly Midanna, yet am I unable to make out their clan."

"We will learn soon," said S'Heernoh, his words drawing my eyes to his tall, lean, gray-haired form. "The Prince of Sigurr's Sword and Sigurr's Shadow now approach."

His words were truth, for beyond him, to our left, I was able to see Mehrayn and Aysayn riding calmly toward us. The two Sigurri, the first red-haired and green-eyed, the second light-haired and brown-eyed, both large and well made, rode leisurely, which annoyed me. Behind them were the two Sigurri warriors, Gidain and Rinain, who had ridden with my set from their city, all four seeming to ride just to pass the hind of an otherwise idle fey. I felt tempted to berate the males, yet that would only have delayed us further. Though the males had earned the right to be named brother to me, still were they, above all else, male.

"Our legions will not show themselves save at our signal," said Aysayn as he and the others joined our set, his dark eyes filled with satisfaction. "And, as I see by the presence of Ennat, Wedin, and Dotil that the wenches have also been deployed, there is little reason for us to remain behind the shoulder of this rise. Let us advance now, and learn for what reason those men besiege the city and the wenches within it."

"Their reasons may well relate to the coming strangers," said I, frowning thoughtfully. "Yet how knowledge came to them concerning the place the strangers would appear I know not, for Mida spoke of it to me. Much do I doubt that Mida would have spoken to them in the same manner."

"Indeed, your goddess Mida speaks to few beyond her own Midanna," said Mehrayn, seeming amused. "Little does she give others, save perhaps an occasional boon."

My annoyance flared at his amusement, an amusement I had had far too much of in the previous feyd. My humor had grown so foul during the journey just past that I would have welcomed battle of any sort, even beyond a Midanna's ever-present eagerness for it. Had the male been raised properly as a Midanna warrior, he would not have refused my need to bare blades, considering even my vow that no more than first blood would be spilled.

His refusal had remained adamant and his amusement undiminished, and no other had there been among Midanna and Sigurri who might reasonably have faced me with a skill near to my own, save for Aysayn and Chaldrin. Aysayn, he who was called Sigurr's Shadow, might well have been convinced to join what he termed sport, yet had Mehrayn spoken a refusal for him, and he had abided by the wishes of his brother. Chaldrin, unlike the others, truly a brother to me, would have faced me had I asked it of him, yet had I refrained from asking. Despite his undeniable skill I felt I had already taken the measure of Chaldrin, and to do so again would have brought little pleasure.

"They most certainly could not have learned of the thing from the Snows," said S'Heernoh, sounding sour at the thought of the efforts he and I had wasted in attempting to reach the White Land. "Once again does that damnable fog cover the paths of that-which-is-coming-to-be, barring all from looking upon it. I dislike this, lady war leader, for I feel it greatly unwise to continue on in so bold a manner while we are blinded and bound. Perhaps it would be best if we were to bide our time, observing these others unseen the while, and then consider - "

"We ride now," said I, not dissuaded, my eyes fixed only on the path which would take me forward and on toward the meeting with the strangers. This, the coming battle, was the last of the duty demanded of me by the gods, the last I would consider attempting.

Were I to survive the battle, no longer would I be chosen, no longer would there be so great a number of others looking to me for leadership. Jalav would be Jalav's alone, to ride and do as she wished, to concern herself with neither gods nor warriors nor males. No delay to this end would I brook, no words of male-like caution would I allow to slow me, for males were well-known to dither and delay, as true warriors rode boldly ahead.

Rather than await further converse I put heels to my kan and moved ahead, finding that Ennat, Ilvin, Wedin, Dotil, and Chaldrin accompanied me without hesitation. Ilvin had reclaimed her kan and rode beside Chaldrin, her hand going briefly to her sword to loosen it in its scabbard, her position to Chaldrin's left, where she might guard the male were we to abruptly find ourselves in the midst of battle. The male, of a size with Mehrayn and Aysayn, dark of hair and eye and powerfully built as warriors were not, smiled faintly at Ilvin's doing and made no attempt to deny it.

Though he knew as well as I that his blade skill far outstripped that of Ilvin, he would not dismiss the Hitta's concern for him with a mere gesture of amusement. The protection offered by a Midanna warrior would be accepted in the spirit in which it was given, though no other males save Sigurri seemed able to do likewise. To all others Midanna warriors were wenches, a foolish male notion they would soon be abused of.

Before the brow of the rise was topped, our full set rode together. Aysayn and Mehrayn seemed concerned by the disturbance of S'Heernoh, yet not to so great an extent that they spoke of it. All eyes joined mine in looking ahead towards those whose ranks we approached, those males who had camped about the city in demand unknown to us.

To our right were the males from the city of Galiose, the city Ranistard where the Hosta lay captive and unable to free themselves. Thigh-length coverings of cloth in many colors did these males wear, and among them moved those of Galiose's guard who were clad in metal and leather above their coverings. Most of them continued to sit and lie about the camp they had made, inert, no expectation that soon they would be called into battle. They lazed beneath the warmth of Mida's light, some attempting to follow what occurred nearer to the city, most more concerned with feeding.

To our left was the second force which had come to that place uninvited, a force different from the first. Clad in leathers were these males, silver belts glinting and flashing in the light, many bare-chested in the warmth they were surely unaccustomed to. Belsayah riders they were, and perhaps Neelarhi riders as well, those from the villages to the far north, those who followed Ceralt and Lialt.

Those from Ranistard held my sister Hosta in captivity, and had held me as well; those from the villages had looked upon my capture among them as right and fitting, even honorable. Had my humor been sweet and light-hearted to begin with, surely would sight and memory of those males have turned it foul and black as Sigurr's soul.

My left hand closed about the reins I held, forcing the thick leather into my palm and fingers, the distant knowledge of pain aiding me in keeping my right hand from my sword hilt. Were I to attack those males as I so achingly wished to do, the Midanna at my back and those in the city would surely join me, and at the moment I could not allow that. It remained necessary to consider the coming strangers, yet it would not be necessary to do so forever.

A space of surprising size separated the two forces, as though they who camped with a single purpose nevertheless did so as reluctant allies, and it was this space toward which we rode. A good deal of movement was to be found in both camps, some moving about on foot, some riding upon kand or lanthay, few looking about behind themselves, for where would come a force able to threaten them? Males are foolish, most especially in their smug assumption of superiority despite evidence to the contrary; my set was already within the space and riding toward those who led the two forces before most were even aware of our presence.

That we rode briskly and with purpose yet not in attack set them to staring rather than preparing for defense, and their foolishness brought a curl to my lip even as Ennat snorted in scorn. Does one stand behind those one follows, purportedly guarding the back of one's leader, and allow strangers to approach without challenge? Does one assume that a small force is not the vanguard of a larger force without carefully looking about? The males we rode past were, like all males, thoughtless and foolish and completely lacking in all battle knowledge, fit only for standing aside while true warriors saw to the safety of all.

Nearly had we reached the front of the host before any thought to bar our way. Two hands of leather-and-metal-clad males ran from our right, an equal number of village riders appeared to our left, and no longer was there a clear path to those we sought. The males stood with swords drawn, grimly challenging our right to advance farther, mindlessly discounting the fact that we were mounted and they on foot. I considered showing them how badly they would fare against mounted, galloping attackers without the aid of spears, however I had not come to do battle with them. If we were forced to engage them before we faced the strangers, they would learn soon enough.

"Halt!" shouted one of Ranistard, standing somewhat ahead of his set, obviously outraged as he looked at Aysayn and Mehrayn, who rode to my left. "Who are you, and what do you do here?"

"We seek Galiose and Ceralt," said I, drawing the male's eyes as we slowed and halted not far from him, the others making no attempt to respond. "Should you wish to inform them of our presence, you may do so; if not, step from our path so that we may announce ourselves."

"I know you, wench," said the male in a tone of impatient dismissal. "Even if I could not see you, your arrogance would shine forth clearly. The High Seat will deal with you in his own good time, and till then you will remain silent. You there, you men! Who are you, and for what reason do you come here?"

Aysayn and Mehrayn grinned with the amusement of children of the wild before the launching of feral attack. To my right, Ennat growled deep in her throat, keeping herself silent only through warrior strength. Chaldrin sat with his big hand about the arm of Ilvin, lending his calm to ease her fury. Had my Midanna not been warned of the insolent, insulting words which would likely be addressed to me, surely would battle have been joined upon the moment. Such a doing I had refused to them and to those others who rode with us, for there were matters of greater moment than insult before us.

"They come here in company with me," said I to the male, letting him know that I alone would speak for my set. "Will you inform Galiose of our presence, or must the High Seat discover us through his own efforts?"

"The High Seat will find great delight in discovering you, wench," returned the male in a growl, his gaze having once again returned to me. "There is much yet to be given you for the difficulty you caused him, and wise would you have been had you continued fleeing from us. The High Seat is not a man to be denied his due."

With such words did the male address Jalav, war leader of the Hosta and of all the Midanna, chosen of Mida and the dark god Sigurr, she who had raised the legions of Sigurr to ride to battle beside the warriors of Mida. When in capture in Ranistard it had been necessary to swallow such insult for I had been unarmed; no longer was the war leader Jalav unarmed, no longer did she have the patience for swallowing insult. Slowly yet with great deliberation did I allow my yellow and brown kan to dance forward till I stood no more than a pace from the male, and then looked down upon him.

"Jalav has ever been willing to give males their due," said I with great softness, holding his gaze as a frown formed upon his brow. "Have you skill with that weapon you hold in your fist, male, or do you merely wave it about in an attempt to frighten? When one speaks words of insult and challenge, one had best be prepared to stand behind those words with sword in hand."

"I see," said the male with an impatient nod, his fist tightening about the hilt he held. "You now have men upon whom to call, therefore do you feel free to increase your insolence with other men. So you believe a captain of the High Seat's guard would refuse challenge, do you? Learn, then, how greatly you err. Which of you men mean to face me?"

The male had turned his demand toward Mehrayn, Aysayn, and Chaldrin, glaring about at them as though it had been they and not I who had spoken of challenge, leaving me to look upon him with a lack of understanding. The male did not seem prepared to refuse challenge, and yet he looked about at others rather than toward she who had issued that challenge. I had allowed my temper free rein so that I might more quickly win our way through the obstruction in our path, in no manner expecting confusion to ensnare me more strongly than would the presence of eight hands of males rather than four. Behind me Chaldrin's deep chuckle sounded softly, oddly joined by the same from Aysayn and Mehrayn, and curiosity gave voice to my confusion.

"For what reason do you look toward others of my set?" I asked, seeing the male before me also appear confused, seemingly at the amusement of the three Sigurri. "Should you feel that those others would be bested more easily than I, allow me to assure you that you are mistaken. Although they are male they are warriors as well, and easily able to best any who stand before them. You gain naught by seeking to face them rather than this warrior."

"You believe I would face a female?" demanded the male, outrage so thick upon him as he glared at me that those who had chuckled earlier now did so again. "Even were there sufficient females about so that all men might have their own, still would I refuse to face one over a sword! You and your wenches are arrogant and insolent and greatly in need of firm punishment, girl, yet to be sworded is not to be punished. And even were it so, I would not slay the one my woman has such great regard for; such a thing would sit ill between us."

Still did the male glare upon me with anger, now firmed to decision. Within me I felt the surge of anger which ever came at the belief of males that Jalav would fall before them, yet was the anger this time smothered beneath the ache of another thing.

"You - are one of those who hold a Hosta?" I asked, also finding myself startled. I had not thought any save hunters and some few warriors had taken the Hosta, none of those of the metal-and-leather ilk among them. The male gazed deeply into my eyes at the query, and faintly did a smile touch his lips.

"The wench became mine when the hunter who had brought her to our city gave up all claim to her," said he, the memory deepening his amusement. "He had attempted to teach her to obey him, had not succeeded, and had grown weary of hearing his lacks recited by the High Seat. As I had no woman of my own I requested and was granted her, and immediately began teaching her the manner in which a man and a wench might live together with peace between them."

"Aided, no doubt, by a lash," said I, my words turned bitter at memory of my own time in Ranistard, the pain and shame and thought of captivity without end - and Nolthis, he to whom I had been given after Ceralt had been put out of the city, he who had also been called captain of the High Seat's guard.

My kan danced uneasily as my knees tightened about his barrel; so furious was I that the palm of my hand ached to hold a hilt, so great was my need to face that Nolthis again, that it was nearly as great as my need to free the Hosta. That the Hosta must await my victory over the coming strangers before freedom might once again be theirs was demanded by Mida, and likely this facing of Nolthis would be delayed as well. Once the strangers were seen to, however…

"The lashing you were given by command of the High Seat should not have been, wench," said the male, no longer amused. "This was spoken of by Galiose himself, his regret clear to those of us he addressed. He - "

"His regret will not be truly clear till he and I have spoken of the matter," said I, unwilling to hear words of should-not-have-been. There had been full agony for me in my refusal to heed the commands of Galiose, and to speak of that agony as given in error did not remove its memory. I would have his life for the doing or he would have mine, and the knowledge of this was surely in my eyes for the male to see. The swordpoint he had allowed to fall was abruptly before him again, his visage paled somewhat as he backed a step. His lips parted, to speak words of denial of my intent, I think, yet another spoke before him.

"And of what will our converse consist?" asked the voice, strength and calm and ease of command to be heard in it. "Will it be said that the lashing need not have been, had a stubborn she-gando merely retreated a pace or two from that stubbornness? Will such a truth be mentioned, wench?"

Galiose pushed himself through the growing number of males who had gathered and stood before them, others of his metal-and-leather-clad males following behind. Large was the High Seat of Ranistard, dark-eyed and broad with much male strength, his long dark hair bound at the back of his neck in the manner of male warriors of the cities, the blue of his covering and leather marking him as leader to those of his city, the metal upon him and the well-worn hilt of his weapon marking him as one who was no stranger to battle.

His hands rested upon his swordbelt as his eyes held mine, and well did I recall that gaze as he took in the black of my eyes and thigh-length hair, the bareness of my breasts, the breech I wore beneath my swordbelt, the dagger in my leg bands about which was wrapped the leather of my life sign, the lack of a leather city-male seat upon the kan I bestrode. Though the male looked up he clearly looked down as well, seeing naught save the wench he had named me and truly believed me to be. As I thought of the time I would be free to face him, I felt my hand curl to a fist.

"You speak the truth," said I to Galiose, aware that those who accompanied me now moved their kand to where mine stood. "It is true that this Midanna refused your commands and was therefore lashed; yet is it also true that I could not have done otherwise. Did I come to you of my own will, acknowledging you the war leader who held my oath of fealty? Did I fail to offer you the right of challenge, the sole manner in which a war leader might be made to obey another? As you refused the challenge, you also forfeited all right to command, therefore was there no more than deceit in the lashing. One must pay for deceit, Galiose, in the manner in which you shall pay."

"Have you never heard of the rights of capture, girl?" said the male, annoyance in his tone, no notice taken of the balance of my words. "You and yours lay in capture to me and mine, therefore obedience was required of you. In the absence of obedience, punishment - a punishment which might easily have been avoided had you not striven so diligently to show how slight was the respect you afforded me."

"One gives respect to those who do not fear to earn that respect with a sword," said I, seeing the flash of anger in the dark of his eyes. "To give obedience in captivity is to be a slave, and never shall Jalav be a slave. For what reason have you left the safety of your city's walls to visit this place? There are things which must soon be done, and the aid of you and yours is not required."

"The High Seat of Ranistard goes where he wills!" returned Galiose harshly, aware of my attempt to provoke him. Mida might well have been angered if I paused to slay the male, yet were he to attack this Midanna, I must respond in kind. "I scarcely had need of further difficulties in these times of ill, yet did those from the farms hereabout call upon me to free their city from they knew not what. Now that I see you, wench, and other wenches upon the walls, surely do I begin to believe - Had you grown so fond of dwelling in a city, more easily might you have remained in mine."

"Should one be so foolish as to wish to dwell within walls," said I, seeing the depth of the look he gave me, "best is to find walls of one's own. There was little difficulty in taking this place, yet may you set your mind to rest. We mean to remain no more than a short while longer, and then will the city be returned to those who dwell within it. You may now take your males and depart."

"May I indeed," said Galiose with a growl, advancing another step toward me, his dark eyes bright with anger. "And should it be my wish to see this city returned to its own upon the moment? For how long will those within find it possible to remain, should we disallow hunting parties to emerge? In the two feyd we have already been here, none have come forth to hunt, neither have the farm herds been driven in to market. Should the need arise to do battle, how well will your wenches fare on empty bellies? And what number of them hold that city? As many as half the number of those who follow me? Look around you, girl."

Indeed did I allow my gaze to rove about among those who came with Galiose, confirming my previous estimate of the number of those who followed him. The High Seat had perhaps half again the number of those who awaited me within the city, less than the total force of Midanna I led. Many of those males I was able to see more closely were clearly less than those in leather and metal who, I had learned, were little enough themselves.

The males about me seemed more prepared for camping than battle, and small difficulty would I have found in leading those who had once been enemy clans against them. My gaze brushed Ennat, who sat her kan to my right, and amusement shone in the dark of her eyes as she saw my own faint smile. Well she knew any battle would be ours, and eager would be the blades of the warriors of her clans.

"I suggest that you withdraw your wenches immediately, girl," said Galiose, a heavy satisfaction now to be heard from him. "When they emerge from the city they must surrender their weapons, and then we shall see what is to be done with all of you."

"Midanna do not surrender," I remarked, continuing to take note of the doings of the males who were encamped to my right. The small number of spears I was able to see amused me, so male-like was the lack. "Your numbers are scarcely as impressive as you believe, male, scarcely great enough to bring about consideration of dismissal concerning battle."

"And yet his numbers are enhanced by mine," came another voice, disallowing me the opportunity of suggesting that Galiose himself consider surrender. "As my forces are even greater in number than his, you shall indeed dismiss all consideration of battle."

There was little haste in the manner in which I turned back to regard the one who had spoken, the one whose appearance I had known would come. Ceralt had come up to stand not far from Galiose, his large, broad body clad in the leathers of those who followed him, his silvered belt gleaming in Mida's light, a swordbelt clasped about him below it. Firmly were his booted feet planted upon the ground; in his light eyes, the look of command, a lock of dark hair, as ever, falling toward those eyes.

Had I not known he would appear I would surely have shamed myself voicing a sound of pain at sight of him, a sight I had hungered for so often since we had parted in Mida's realm upon this world. While there, I had sent him word that we would not meet again save above the blades of our swords, and although I had since learned what pain he had accepted to keep similar pain from touching me, I had come to the decision that to speak of my knowledge before the battle with the coming strangers was joined and ended would be foolish. Ceralt would not stand in that battle, yet my sword would be well occupied. To speak sooner upon that which might well be ended by an enemy edge would be foolishness indeed.

"Your arrival is most timely, Ceralt," said Galiose, gazing with strong satisfaction not upon the male beside him, but upon me. "The foolish wench again contemplates disobedience, and requires a strong hand to teach her better."

"My thanks are yours for having notified me of her arrival, Galiose," said Ceralt, his eyes, too, only upon me, his arms folded across his chest. "Many feyd gone, Lialt informed me that I would discover her here, yet the Snows are no longer accessible to him. As I now have what I came for, my riders and I will withdraw as quickly as you no longer require our support. When we have discovered the location of the battle to come with those who threaten us, I will be certain that you are informed."

"For that you will have my gratitude, Ceralt," said Galiose, a flicker of grimness briefly darkening his eyes. "We must all stand together in these times, else shall none of us survive. You shall now call your wenches from out of the city, girl, and then you may depart with the man who has made you his. As he means to speak sternly with you concerning the manner in which you disobediently left his side, I shall not find it necessary to do the same concerning the manner in which you departed my city. You will be occupied quite enough with what is given you by him."

The male seemed amused as he spoke, an amusement shared by those who stood with Ceralt. Lialt, Ceralt's brother by blood and Pathfinder for him, and Telion, male warrior from Ranistard who had joined his fate with Ceralt's, stood grinning with their eyes upon me, likely recalling the difficulty given me by them during the journey we had shared. That Ceralt felt more anger than amusement gave them greater amusement still, yet I, too, recalled our journey together and felt no amusement whatsoever.

"Jalav is already well occupied," said I coldly to Galiose, ignoring the others. "There are matters of import to be seen to, and the presence of pretend warriors would be a hindrance, therefore shall you command your males to return from whence they came. You shall do so immediately, for there is little time to be spent upon foolishness of this sort."

"Pretend warriors?" demanded Galiose, furiously. "You dare to speak so to me? I am the High Seat of Ranistard with fifteen hundred men behind me, girl! Beside me is the Belsayah High Rider with nearly two thousand! What number of men do you command?"

"For what reason would I wish to command males?" I asked, with private amusement. "Your greatness turns me humble in your presence, Galiose, for I am no more than war leader to every Midanna who rides. The command of males should be left to other males."

At my earlier nod, Ennat had raised a fisted hand in prearranged signal, bringing to sight those Midanna who waited behind us. Clan after clan rode their gandod to the top of the rise, pausing there in anticipation of the signal to attack, their clan colors bright, their eagerness impossible to dismiss. A mutter went up all about as those before me stared in frowning shock, and when their eyes returned to me another shock awaited them.

"The wench does indeed believe in leaving the command of men to other men," said Aysayn from his place to my left, also amused. "However, as she is the chosen messenger of Sigurr the great, we feel it only fitting that Sigurr's legions stand with her own."

The fist of Mehrayn was already in the air, bringing forth the Sigurri as the Midanna had been done. More than twice the number of Midanna were they, black body cloths wrapped about their loins, kand dancing beneath them, battle-readiness and delight clear in every line of them. Far longer did the Sigurri take the stares of those before us than had the Midanna, and then did Ceralt turn cold and frowning pools of blue upon Aysayn and Mehrayn.

"Who are you?" he demanded, the words nearly a growl, his anger strangely great. "From where do you come?"

"I am Aysayn," said Aysayn, taking no note of Ceralt's displeasure, "he who is Sigurr's Shadow upon this world. We come from our homelands at the behest of Sigurr himself."

"And I am Mehrayn, Sigurr's Sword and Prince of the Blood, he who is privileged to lead our warriors into battle," said Mehrayn, an odd expression holding him as he looked down upon Ceralt. "Your journey has been for naught, High Rider of the Belsayah, therefore would you be wise to depart as quickly as may be."

"Ceralt, they are warriors of Sigurr, the aid we must have against the coming strangers!" said Lialt eagerly to his brother as he looked upon the Sigurri. "Our journey to Sigurr's Altar has borne the fruit we require."

"Such is to be seen," said Ceralt in a mutter, his stance straightened to his full height, his left palm caressing his sword hilt as he held the green gaze sent him by Mehrayn. "For what reason would they appear here, before the gates of a wench-taken city, rather than at the place of appearance of the strangers? How might they - "

His words, spoken half in annoyance, ended abruptly, and then he frowned at Aysayn.

"You come here at the behest of Sigurr himself, were the words you spoke," said he to Aysayn, palm no longer upon sword hilt. "Is this, then, the place where the strangers will appear? Have we all been sent here by the gods to welcome them in the sole manner they must be welcomed?"

"My sister has been informed by her lady Mida that this is indeed the place they will appear," affirmed Aysayn. "As for the gods having brought you others to this spot, that is surely unlikely in the extreme. What need of others, when Sigurri and Midanna ride side by side?"

"You would have wenches do battle beside you?" demanded Galiose, glaring in outrage at Aysayn. "For battle a man requires other men like himself, not wenches with half the force of his own!"

"The city contains the balance of my Midanna," said I. I had not expected the words Aysayn had spoken, and they had warmed me for the insult they returned to those who had given it to me. "In the city is a matching force to that which you see before you, therefore need you be unconcerned with what number of Midanna shall ride. You may have what hind you require to take your followers from here, yet would it be best if you used no more than the hind of this fey. The new fey may well bring the strangers, and little joy shall you find. should you discover yourself between them and the warriors come to slay them."

"You shall not dismiss us!" shouted Galiose in a rage, and, "I care not what number of Midanna ride!" shouted Ceralt upon the words of Galiose, and then was all further sense lost to their shoutings, although in truth there was little sense to begin with. Lialt and Telion shouted as well, as did certain of those with Galiose, and our kand danced in upset at the mindless uproar. Aysayn glanced briefly toward Mehrayn before shaking his head, and then did he lean the nearer to me.

"Agreement is hopeless in surroundings such as these," said he, his voice raised above the deafening din. "We must take them into the city with us, and there convince them to step back from doings which do not concern them."

"Sooner would I leave them here to shout to the skies," said I with a headshake, greatly displeased with so foolishly male a suggestion. "We have not the time to tickle and coax them."

"Would you prefer that they come at us in affronted attack?" Sigurr's Shadow maintained, his tone calm. "No, you need not answer for I know you well enough, and also know that we would have little difficulty in besting them. The point I would have you see, sister, is the question of what number of us will be required to best the strangers. Should we lose even a dozen of those who follow us, in a battle which need not be, will it be the lack of that dozen which gives victory to our enemies rather than to ourselves? May we risk such an outcome when it need not be?"

So earnestly open was Aysayn's gaze upon me, that I knew at once he sought to snare me. I looked at him loweringly, unable to deny the words he spoke - as he had known would be the case - and yet hesitated to give him the agreement he wished. I had been disturbed by the manner in which Ceralt had looked upon me and the words he had uttered, and I had no wish to allow him entrance to the city. It was Bellinard in which he and Telion had traded for me as a slave, and memory of the time disturbed me.

"Should you wish them within, brother, you may take them there yourself," I replied after a moment, the previous foulness of my humor returning two-fold. "I shall have naught to do with them, for I have already had more of their presence than ever I wished. They are city males, not warriors, and know naught of the proper manner in which to address a war leader. I have no desire to treat with them and shall not."

"Do you wish them to believe you fear them?" asked Aysayn in the softest of voices, his hand upon my shoulder keeping me from turning my kan toward the city gates. "They will see your refusal in no other light, wench, and I would not have you appear so before them."

"Indeed do I fear them," said I to Aysayn, looking upon him so sourly that be grinned. "I fear that what assurances of safety are given them will be spat upon by my probable loss of patience with their foolishness, and guest-blood will stain the floors all about. Should it be your wish to see your word broken in such a manner, so be it. The word will not be mine."

"I shall rely upon my sister's honor to see that her brother's word is kept," said he with gentle laughter. "And should you be wise, wench, you will allow Mehrayn to return to your furs. When out of your sight, his humor is as foul as yours. The need of each of you to see to those who follow may now be put aside for a time."

Rather than allowing me opportunity for finding insult in his words, the Mida-forsaken male turned from me and held a hand up, attempting to stem the flow of rantings which continued to pour from Galiose and Ceralt and their ilk. Those before us paid little heed to his attempt, however, therefore was it necessary for him to add to the uproar.

"Hear my words!" said he in a voice which carried over the shouts and rumblings, drawing the eyes of those to whom he wished to speak. Though the shouts abated the rumblings continued, yet was Aysayn able to speak above them.

"The war leader of the Midanna and I have conferred, and now ask you to join us in the city her wenches hold," said he, his eyes going first to Galiose and then to Ceralt. "There we may take our ease the while we discuss the path the gods wish us to tread, with cups of falar to aid our agreement. Each of you may be accompanied by a hand of those who follow you, and you will, of course, have our word as to your safety. How say you?"

"I say I will require more," growled Galiose. "Once I accepted safe conduct from that wench, and discovered only after I had entered her coils that safe conduct failed to include the right to depart when I willed it. Is this instance to be the same?"

"You will not be detained beyond your decision to depart," said Aysayn, a twinkle of amusement in the glance he sent to me. "Do you accept our offer?"

"To confer?" said Galiose, with a belligerent set of his jaw. "Certainly. Beyond that, I foresee little agreement. I will have my kan brought."

"And you?" asked Aysayn of Ceralt, drawing the dark-haired male's gaze from the war leader he continued to stare at. "Is it your decision to join us as well?"

"Oh, indeed," said Ceralt with a judicious nod, folding his arms as he gave the Sigurri his full attention. "I shall certainly join you, if for no other reason than to - confer."

Aysayn nodded, well pleased with the agreement he had received, yet was I considerably less pleased. My head was filled full of the need to consider countless things before the appearance of the strangers, yet was there now a prior need to calm the insult of city males. Sooner would I have faced them in battle, yet Aysayn had spoken sooth and I would not put our victory in jeopardy when it might be avoided.

I therefore sat my kan in silence and awaited the fetching of mounts for the others, at last recalling the need to send word to the clans behind me of my intentions. Wedin and Dotil were returned to their sisters with the command that the clans were to remain alert yet do nothing more unless attacked, and then were Gidain and Rinain returned to the Sigurri by Mehrayn with similar directions. By then were our guests mounted, therefore did I lead them all toward the gates of Bellinard.