by Judith Tarr
The winter field was planted, the seedstones buried to the depth of a woman’s wrist. Any deeper and they might decline to sprout. Any shallower and…
Well. There were tales enough of that. Children stayed up all night for the terror of them.
So did women in this season, taking turn and turn, but not for tales. For the real danger that slept in this walled and barricaded field.
It had been a strange winter, cold and then summer-warm and then properly cold again. Trees budded and flowers tried to bloom, then a new frost withered them. Charis had even seen a bat flittering in the dusk, aimless and confused, roused by the warmth from its long winter’s sleep.
She stood guard on the wall. The spearshaft was light in her hand, the horn disproportionately heavy at her hip.
If she turned, she could see the circles of houses in the village, all dark now, and all within asleep. One of those houses was hers, the children in a pile like puppies, and probably a puppy or three in it too, and Deion their father snoring between them and the door. He had been with her when her turn on watch began, but only for company. Men could not guard this of all the fields. As dangerous as it could be for women, for men it was deadly.
She yawned and stretched, but cautiously. The springlike warmth made her skin prickle. She peered down into the field, scanning the neat furrows.
Nothing stirred. The earth was still. The seeds slept as they should, hoarding their strength for the true spring.
The men liked to think they were the lords of creation–even here, where they should have known better. They sat in their circle while the wind howled outside the Mother’s house and the snow piled high against the walls–where only yesterday the grass had been trying to grow. They were plotting wars, though when Charis passed on her way to the looms, Deion glanced at her and said a little too loudly, “For defense, of course. If the rivermen are hungry for spring lamb. Or the horsemen have run out of grazing lands again.”
“But nobody can touch us,” young Melas said. He was new to the circle, more by courtesy than by right, having handfasted the Mother’s fifth daughter at the autumn feast. “What we grow in the walled garden–it protects us. We don’t need to go out and fight.”
“Strength feeds strength,” said Aias the Bull. “Our strength of mind and will, their strength of–”
“Everything else,” Melas said. “Why do we need to go out at all? We can stay home and be at peace.”
“Do we?” asked Deion. Even knowing she heard. Maybe because she was there. “What if they won’t grow any more? Every year the women range farther in search of the seeds. What if there aren’t any more to be found? What then? Who will defend us?”
“We will,” Aias rumbled. “We are men. We fight. It’s what men do. Peace is for women.”
“But men can’t lead them,” said Melas. “Only women can.”
“That,” said Aias, “as Deion said, could change.”
Charis let her foot slide in the rushes scattered on the floor. They rattled quite satisfactorily.
The men started like the guilty children they were. She smiled and bent her head and left them to wonder what price they would pay for their foolishness.
“Every winter we hear the same nonsense,” the Mother said. She was threading a new loom with spun wool the color of winter branches. She barely paused for Charis’ recounting of the men’s conversation. “Every spring the crop sprouts and they remember their place.”
“What if this time they don’t?” Charis asked. “What if my man is right? What if we go out in summer and there are no seeds to find? What do we do then?”
The other women shook their heads in much the same way as she had shaken hers at the men. So would she, if she had been hearing this from someone else. But the small cold spirit-feet walking down her spine told her this was different.
No one else felt it. Even the Mother, who should have felt it more strongly than she, said, “You know what will happen, if it must. But it will not. Not this year. Not next. Not ever, as long as our strength holds.”
Charis should have bowed to the Mother’s wisdom, but her back was still cold, and her throat had locked shut. The latter kept her from saying what was in her mind, but not from thinking it.
And if it did not?
She reached for her loom with the deep green fabric half finished on it, stretched it out and slipped the spindle from the weaving and went mutely to work.
The baby was off the teat and off the leash but still inclined to wander if her minders were distracted. Which, the day after the great snow, they all were, between digging out the houses and reckoning the casualties among the animals.
Charis found her with the sheep. The flock had been penned near the Mother’s house, but so much snow had fallen that it had buried the fence. They had walked over it to take shelter in the lee of the wall that protected the winter field, and found enough forage there to be comfortable.
The baby had no name yet. She would get one in the spring, now she was her own person and no longer bound to her mother. Charis called her Thistle, because she was prickly and pretty and inclined to catch the wind and drift away.
She had drifted a great distance for a small person in deep snow. Her cheeks were bright red but she was warm, curled up in a nest of drowsing sheep. Charis plucked her out and hauled her unceremoniously back to the house where she belonged.
Only once she had the little monster barricaded in a corner and fetched her a knot of day-old bread to gnaw on did she see what Thistle clutched in her hand.
It was a seedstone. A small one, small enough to conceal in a young child’s fist, but those, like young scorpions, could be the most dangerous.
Thistle howled as her mother pried the stone out of her grip, but Charis could not afford mercy. The stone was warm from Thistle’s hand–but not, please Goddess, too warm.
It looked like the tooth of a great predatory beast, larger than a lion, larger than a bear, but turned to stone. Charis had seen far too many of its like to linger. She plunged back out in the cold, wading through the snow to the stone house where the seeds were kept.
It was true, they were becoming harder to find. When she was Thistle’s age she remembered seeing half a dozen wooden chests in the stone house, and every one full of seeds. Then the hunters only needed to go out in order to replace what had been planted. But even in those days, the older women talked of a dozen chests or more, and only needing to go out every third year, because the seeds were so plentiful.
Now there were three chests, and the one in which she laid Thistle’s seed was more than half empty.
How had Thistle found it, then? The door to the stone house was barred. It had taken a fair amount of strength for Charis to lift the bar, and she was neither a small woman nor a weak one.
Thistle had words, but not enough to answer Charis’ question. All she would say was that the sheep had it–which was not possible. More likely she had found it on the ground where the sheep were. But who would drop a seedstone outside the wall? And why?
All Charis could be sure of was that it portended nothing good.
She kept her troublesome thoughts to herself. Everyone else seemed content, or as much as was possible in winter. They had enough provisions to last until spring, and enough weaving and mending and making and child-minding to do that every day was full.
Charis began to tell herself that it was nothing. The seed had fallen by accident; or it was lifeless, as they sometimes were, and a bird had taken it, found it inedible, and dropped it outside the wall. It was small; it might not have had the power to sprout.
The strange weather continued, now almost summer-warm, now brutally cold and wild with storms. The field slept through it all. No more stray seeds appeared, and Charis made sure that if there had been any, Thistle would not be the one to find it.
At the new moon before the first moon of spring, the storms retreated for long enough that bands of hunters could go out and assure themselves and the people that none of their enemies was stirring. The river was still locked in ice and the plain beyond was empty of horsemen.
When the moon began to swell again, two women would stand guard on the wall at night, and both would carry strung bows as well as spears and the horns that would sound the alarm when the seedstones sprouted. No one expected them to wake so early, but the guard had always doubled after this moon, and therefore it was done.
Tonight, for the last night between now and summer, Charis did her duty alone. It was a fine night, brisk but with a hint of softness in the air. The stars were brilliant overhead.
The field was dark under the glittering vault of the sky. Snow glimmered in the hollows, but had melted from the center and down between the furrows. Along the south side, something stirred in the wind.
There was no wind tonight. Nor did anything grow in that field but what the women had planted there. There was no fog anywhere but in that one place: a thin, curling stream of something rising up out of the ground.
Something else was there with it. Something dark and hunched. It seemed small, but Charis’ years of night watch told her it was the size of a man. A man kneeling, digging in the earth, where no man could ever safely be.
She should run, raise the alarm, fetch the Mother. But something in the shape, the way it moved, sent her toward it rather than away.
She swung down off the wall. The earth rose to meet her. It surged like the river in flood. Life swelled beneath it, growling too deep for the ears to hear; but it rumbled in her bones.
It was too early. The surge was too strong.
The raving fool who had caused it had fallen flat on his face. Darkness sprouted beyond him, springing up out of the ground, unfolding with preternatural speed. It looked at first like a monstrous fern, as thick at the root as a young tree. Then it straightened, until it loomed above the sprawling figure of the man.
Starlight made everything seem larger, but this was half again as tall as a tall man. It stood on two legs and raised two arms, but the face that turned to the stars was closer kin to the lizards that skittered on the walls in summer than to any human creature.
Charis braced both feet on the earth and set the full force of her will on it, to make it stop; to be still. There were words that she should say, rites that she should perform, but there was no time. All she could do was open herself to earth and stars and hope it was enough.
The ground was quieter underfoot. She breathed in, all the way to the core of her, and essayed a step. Then another. And a third.
The child of earth stooped over the idiot who had roused it. Charis trilled as she would to one of the cattle, to catch its attention; to calm it.
Even as doubt struck, the child of earth stopped short of rending the man at its feet and turned.
Its long saurian face could shape no expression, but the eyes were wide and golden, with a fierce light in them, like a hawk’s, or an eagle’s. They were intelligent, those eyes. They met hers.
She spoke to it as to one of her children–willful Thistle, who could have been dangerous if she had not been so small. “It’s too early to be up,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
The child of earth tilted its head. Its clawed hands flexed. Charis well knew what those could do: how they could gut a man in a single stroke and rend him limb from limb. So had the people’s enemies learned, year upon year; and most remembered. But too many forgot, or grew so desperate that they would brave even the dragon warriors to rob the people of their riches.
“In the true spring,” Charis said, almost crooning, “when the air is warm and sweet and the earth grows rich with greenery–then you may wake. Then you may feast to your heart’s content. But not now. Not tonight. Not before the winter ends.”
The great jaws opened. Ivory teeth gleamed. Every grain of sense that Charis had screamed at her to run while she could.
But no human creature was fast enough to escape this terrible hunter. She stood her ground. The earth, she observed distantly, had gone still. Only this one warrior had waked, of all that the women had sown. And that was a man’s fault, as such things tended to be.
“Rest,” she said. “Sleep. Let the earth embrace you, and make you grow and be strong.”
The yellow eyes blinked. The jaws gaped wider. Yawning. The tall feathered crest, so much like the plume of a warrior’s helmet, folded flat.
“Sleep,” Charis crooned. “Sleep, and dream of spring.”
The child of earth sank down on its haunches. Its long tail curled around it; it folded its arms and tucked in its head.
It was purring, a soft melodic sound. Softly, like waves lapping over a stone, the earth covered it up.
Charis stood very, very still. In the field around her, nothing moved. Not even a breath of wind stirred.
For this night at least, the danger was past. The people were safe from their own defenders.
Charis had done her duty, nothing more. But she would be glad never to have to do that part of it again.
She hooked her foot under the body of the man who had nearly destroyed them all, and half kicked, half pulled him onto his back.
She knew the heft of him, the feel, the smell. And yet she stared blankly at the face that turned to the stars. It could not be Deion of all people. Deion was never so complete a fool.
“I should have let the dragon eat you,” she said, though he was not conscious to hear. Her voice was still and cold.
She left him lying there. If the earth woke again while she did what she must, so be it.
The Mother and the elders carried him out of the field and locked him in the springhouse until morning. He was senseless but alive; if he woke, he would have water to drink. If he did not, no one greatly cared.
Charis felt nothing at all. She had children to tend and feed, without the second pair of hands that she was used to. They would want to know where their father was. She had no words to give them.
“I was trying to save us,” he said.
He was damp and bedraggled and blue with cold, but he was not particularly apologetic. They had made him stand in the open, in sight of the wall that he had defied all laws and common sense to climb. And he said, “The seeds are almost all gone. I wanted to see if there was a way to divide the roots instead, so that one can grow into several. Then there would be no need for the women to go hunting for more.”
Even the Mother sat speechless. His clear gaze, his earnest expression, wore the mask of sanity. His wide eyes implored the women who stood in judgment. “What will happen to us when the stones are gone? How will we live?”
“We will live,” the Mother said. “We will build a wall if we must. Our men will turn their vaunts to honest fighting. But that will not happen. We will be safe.”
“How can you say that? You’ve seen how few seeds are left!”
“Yes,” the Mother said. Her calm was unshakable.
Charis wished that hers could be. All the people were there, watching and listening and glancing at one another. Deion spoke for more of them than not. Even Charis, when she lay awake in the dark, had had such thoughts.
The world was changing. Everyone knew it. But what he had tried to do . . .
“Maybe,” Aias said, “it’s time for a new Mother. If the one we have can’t see–”
“I can see,” she said. “It is you who are blind. Maybe we rely too much on our ancient magic. Maybe it is time we looked to ourselves.”
Now that was terrifying.
“We can’t do that,” Deion said. “How will we survive?”
“How have other people survived?” the Mother asked. Oh, she was calm, like a sky full of storm before the wind and the rain came down. “That will be the price you pay. You will go; you will take what you can carry, and walk out into the world, and learn. When you have learned enough, if you still live, you may come back.”
Deion’s face was white with shock. Charis found she pitied him, but more for his stupidity than his plight. If he had stopped at all, if he had taken a moment to think–
“Who else?” Her voice rang out over the song of the wind. “Who put you up to it? Who agreed that it had to be done?”
For the first time since all this awfulness began, he looked at her. “No one,” he said. “I did it all myself.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“No one else was foolish enough,” he said.
“Now that I believe,” she said.
She turned her back on him. As she did it, her eyes raked across the faces of the men who were nearest, his friends. Aias. Melas. The ones who were always saying the things that he had acted on.
She would remember.
He left alone, with head up and shoulders straight. He did not weep or beg for mercy. Charis had not expected that he would.
For one of the people to be sent away was a terrible thing. Charis was too young to remember the last one, and no one ever spoke of that, even in whispers.
No one would speak of this, either. His name and transgression would be forgotten. His memory would be gone from among the people.
She would remember that, too. She was one great painful well of memory.
Charis was not a sacred dreamer. Her dreams were relentlessly ordinary: dreams of the everyday, both joys and fears, from which she woke to a world not terribly different. No one would ever have chosen her to be a shaman for the people, let alone to hold the Mother’s place above and beside them all.
This dream, the night of Deion’s departure, was as ordinary as any other. In it, Charis was standing guard over the winter field, as she did so often. It was neither winter nor spring; the air was cold but there was a hint of softness in the wind. The stars shone brilliant overhead. Somewhere far away, a wolf sang: a sound to bring terror to anyone not safe in walls.
She was safe from wolves here. The field below was still, though in her dream as in waking, she knew it would sprout soon.
There was something about the field that made her stop and look closer. At the same time, because this was a dream, she was lifted up on wings, rising above the dwindling oblong of wall and field.
She had climbed a mountain once when she was young and slender, before the children came. She had seen the world stretched out below as she saw it in this dream.
The village was a rough circle of circles and squares. The winter field barricaded the western side, facing the long roll of land that descended to the river. On the eastern side, a long arc of houses made a wall of sorts, with the twisting lines of paths and alleys in between.
Charis hung in the air, entranced. The wind caressed her face. She breathed deep of it and for a moment closed her eyes.
When she opened them, the world below was the same, but her sight had changed, grown sharper. She saw the bones of the earth under grass and trees and patches of snow. The ridge that rose to the east; the gradual slope toward the west. The knob of rock above the river, that the people called the Mother’s Teat, but the rivermen called the Dragon’s Horn.
The village lay atop something else, something buried: a roughly circular shape, like a bowl made of earth and stone. There were smaller things in it, if small was the size of a house.
Slowly Charis understood what her eyes were telling her. Beneath the village was a nest like that of a vast bird. Its mother slept in the center, under the Mother’s very house, with the flock of her young around her: some barely larger than the shells from which they had emerged, and others large enough to overwhelm the village if they had risen and walked.
Under the winter field lay a clutch of eggs. With the eyes of dream Charis could see through the shells to the forms within. Each tightly curled shape recalled the larger shapes beyond. In each pair of jaws were rows of fiercely curved teeth.
Charis knew those teeth. She had seen one in her daughter’s hand. They were seedstones. The earth beneath the field was full of them.
She slipped from dream to waking, up and out of her cold and lonely bed and into the frosty chill before dawn. She walked between the worlds, with her feet on the earth and her spirit still halfway to the sky. She went down to the winter field, to the place where Deion had been digging.
She could feel the bones beneath her, and the seedstones above them, taking root, preparing to swell and burst and unfurl into the terrible defenders of the people.
She looked up into the Mother’s face. “We could just dig,” she said.
“That would be easy,” said the Mother. She lowered herself slowly to her knees and laid her palms flat on the earth that Deion had disturbed. Maybe it shifted at her touch. Maybe that was the starlight playing tricks with Charis’ sight.
“We have been given a great gift,” the Mother said. “But too much ease makes any creature weak. If we have to struggle, if only a little, that makes us stronger.”
“And when there are no more stones within reach, that we’re allowed to find? What do we do then?”
“Then we find a new way to protect ourselves,” the Mother said.
“I don’t understand,” Charis said.
The Mother sat on her heels. “What happens to the defenders after they go out from the field?”
“They go out,” said Charis. The Mother knew this, of course she did. But this was a lesson. Charis recited it as the Mother wished her to do. “Whatever threatens us, they kill. Sometimes they feed. When the fields and the river are clear, when there is no danger left for us, they sink back into the earth. They become stone again, and sleep the sleep of stone, that nothing can wake.”
“So we are taught,” the Mother said.
“Is that teaching not true?”
“Magic,” said the Mother, “cares little for human whims or fancies. It simply is. What is under us: that is a great thing. We tell ourselves that it is our blessing, and belongs to us; but the truth is that it would be here with us or without us. It’s not our town that the warriors protect.”
“But,” said Charis, “we find the seeds. We plant them. There would be no warriors without us.”
Charis knelt beside the Mother. “My head hurts,” she said.
The Mother’s smile was wry. “It is a great deal for our little minds to hold.”
Indeed it was. But Charis clung to one thing. “Deion was wrong. We will be safe.”
“We will,” said the Mother, “while we stand strong. No weakness. No complacence.”
If that meant that the winter field should come to lie fallow and the people be forced to defend themselves, then so be it. That was clear in the Mother’s face, and her voice that had no yielding in it. She would not use what was beneath, or use it up. She would continue as she and her ancestors always had, to protect and guard, and never to give way.
Charis wished for that: to be like stone, hard and unyielding. Not to wake in the nights, reaching for a body that was not there, and drying tears she had never intended to shed.
That winter was the most tenacious that even the oldest of the people could remember. Having dangled a promise of spring, it set in hard and bitter and cold. The earth withered once more; a deep snow fell just before planting–which was a blessing in its way. A day or two later and all the labor would have been for nothing, and seed lost that they could ill spare.
After the cold and the snow came a powerful thaw, and warmth that spoke more of summer than of early spring. More than the earth stirred then. Horsemen on the plain, boats on the river–“If I were one to gamble,” said Charis’ sister Ione, “I’d be hard put to choose which will fall on us first.”
“Maybe they’ll go past us,” Charis said, not believing it even while she said it. They were the largest village in these parts, and the richest, even at the end of a hard winter. They still had sheep, and the lambs were coming: twins, most of them, which in other years would have been looked on as a great good omen.
This year they were treasure, and rivermen and horsemen both were starving. “You can count every rib,” the scouts said, “on man and beast.”
The men sharpened their spears and their long knives. The women filled their quivers with arrows and restrung their bows. They still watched over the winter field, but all of them agreed without saying a word: maybe this would be the year that the defenders failed them.
Charis did not know what she thought. Now she knew what lay under the earth she walked on, she could see it always, a trove of bones and unripe seedstones that no Mother or seer would dare to touch. It brought her no comfort.
She fletched her arrows with grey doves’ feathers and painted them with her mark: a stripe of ocher, one of indigo, and one of the deep red that came from summer berries and the earth above the dragon’s nest. Her bowstring was spun from her own long hair. She was as ready as she could be.
And the wind blew and the snow flew, and it seemed there would never be a spring.
After the snow came torrents of rain. The river swelled over its banks. The plain was a quagmire. The people’s lands drained quickly, as always; the ancestors had chosen well, even without what lay beneath.
They had enough cropland to plant, at last, and a little green forage for the sheep. The sowers spread the seed under guard, and prayed that this time it would not wash away.
It seemed their prayers were heard. The snow and the wind and the rain had blown far away. The air was soft and mild, the sun pleased to stay for day upon day–with brief intervals of rain for the crops’ sake.
The people welcomed the blessings and kept watch for the price. The winter field lay still. The scouts went out and came back with nothing. No news. Nothing human stirred from her proper place, whether it be river or village or plain.
The calm broke on a warm soft morning, when the fields were green and growing and the plain was in bloom. It came in the form of a man walking out of the east, wolf-lean and footsore. He was much thinner and there were strands of grey in his beard, and his eyes had seen more than most men of the people ever saw. But he was still Deion.
He stood outside the farthest edge of the village, making no move to enter. He lifted his voice so that the whole village could hear, if it had a mind. “They are coming.”
“Horsemen?” Aias had been throwing spears at targets near the place where Deion had stopped. He hefted one in his hand, as if to cast it at the exile.
Deion did not look as if he would have cared if Aias had done it. “Horsemen in hundreds. And women–riding or walking or bundled in wagons with the children and the old. It’s not just the warriors this time, raiding for treasure. It’s their whole world on the move, rolling down on us.”
The world had gone still. The people who had gathered–most of the village by now, drawn by the rumor of the exile’s return–stood mute.
If what he said was true, this was no raid. It was conquest.
“You will take scouts,” the Mother said, “and show them what you have seen.”
No one had heard her coming. She was a large woman, as a Mother should be, but soft on her feet. She held Deion with her gaze, which few could meet.
He met it. She nodded as if he had answered a question. “Show them,” she said again.
Aias stepped forward, and Melas, though his feet faltered. And Charis.
She had not intended to do such a thing at all. Her feet had a will of their own.
It was not for Deion she did it, but for the people.
Maybe for Deion–though whether to reassure him or punish him, she could not have said.
They took a little time to gather weapons and provisions. Long enough for Charis to remember that she had no man to look after the children. But Ione’s man had already thought of that.
“You go,” he said. “We’ll keep them safe.”
Charis hesitated a breath or two longer. They had lost their father already. If they lost her, too . . .
“I’ll only be gone a day or two,” she said.
“Or three,” Ione said. “Go on. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be back.”
Charis half hoped, half feared that Deion would have vanished when she made her way back to the outer field, but he was still there, scrupulously outside the boundary.
All the children had come to stand in a line and stare. Or glare, if they happened to be his. Their eyes, unlike the Mother’s, he could not or would not meet. He squatted on his heels, head down, and endured.
It was no more than he deserved. Charis stepped over the boundary. “Let’s go,” she said.
It had been a long time since Charis went scouting. She was strong enough from working the fields and practicing with weapons, but walking and skulking and sometimes moving at speed needed different muscles. They were not long out of sight of the village before she was sweating and breathing hard, but she would die before she asked anyone to slow down for her.
The thought occurred to her that Deion might be leading them into a trap. Who knew what was in his mind, after all? She certainly did not, who could have sworn that she knew him better than anyone, before she found him digging up the winter field.
He said nothing, simply led them out toward the plain. Aias and Melas fell behind–to guard the rear, Aias made sure to declare, but his face was as red as Charis’ felt. She gritted her teeth and stayed directly behind Deion, with as much of an eye on him as she could spare between scanning the horizon for signs of horsemen.
They knew how to move quietly; to avoid flushing birds in the dead brown grass, and to keep the hawks and the vultures from circling and so betraying them. Where the land rose in ridges, they stayed below the summits.
When the sun set, they camped below one such ridge. Then finally Deion spoke, after Melas asked, “How far away are they?”
“Three days’ walk when I last saw them,” he answered, “but they’ll be closer now.”
Horsemen on raids could run faster than the fastest human, but with women and children on foot or in wagons drawn by oxen, they barely advanced above walking pace. Midmorning of the second day found the scouts flat on their bellies in a mat of last year’s grass with new spring shoots barely hand-high within it, trying to count the horde that filled the plain.
“Hundreds and hundreds,” Melas said. He sounded more awed than afraid.
“And hundreds,” said Charis, “and hundreds beyond that. So it’s true. They’re moving their whole world westward.” She narrowed her eyes and peered past the horde to the eastern horizon. “What’s chasing them, then?”
“Winter,” Deion said.
“Winter comes every year,” she said.
“Not like this one.”
She had to nod, though she hated to agree with anything he said.
“We can’t fight this many even with our defenders,” Melas said.
Now he sounded scared. Charis leveled him with her stare. “We’ll make the village a rock for them to break against.”
“Or flow around, like an island in a flood.” Deion rose to a crouch, still keeping his body below the heads of the grass. “If we start now, the people will have a day’s notice, maybe a little more. Time enough to wake the defenders.”
“If they wake,” Melas muttered. Aias flattened him with a fist, but he had only said what they were all thinking.
Compared to the rapid slog of the journey out to the plain, the journey back was a race. Charis found reserves she had not known she had. Her feet were blistered, her thighs rubbed raw, and there was a white stab of pain in her ribs. But she ran, only stopping to drink briefly from such streams as they passed, or to sip from her waterskin in between.
They slept a little after dark, but rose in the deep night, drank again, ate a little of what was left in their packs, and ran on. Melas wheezed and staggered but somehow kept the pace.
Charis wheezed as little as she could, and stayed more or less steady on her feet. It took all the will she had. Deion ran ahead of her as if he had been a dragon warrior himself: never changing his pace, and never tiring.
When the hills took on shapes that she knew well, she happened to be on her knees, drinking from a stream that tasted of midwinter. The rumbling in the earth felt at first like the pounding of blood in her veins, but it had a different rhythm.
Hoofbeats–many of them. Not as many as the horde she had seen, but these she recognized all too easily. A raiding party was coming down through the valley.
They were as lean as Deion had said, men and horses alike. They had the look of starving wolves: hungry enough to eat anything, or die trying.
A thought was forming inside Charis’ belly. It was born of her dream and her premonitions, and the anger in her that Deion had been an idiot and had been cast out. His coming back had only made her angrier.
There was a clarity in certain sorts of anger, a piercing brightness in the world, as if it were edged and honed like the head of a spear.
Thirty bone-thin men. Thirty horsemen. It was not the smallest raid that had ever descended on the people, or by far the largest. It was what one would expect after a hard winter. The children of earth could dispose of them easily, along with any stragglers who might follow.
If Charis had been a horseman, she would have intended exactly that. She would have sent a few mad boys to lure out the defenders, to run if they could and die if they must, and leave the village with its riches wide open to the horde.
Deion’s glance met hers. For an instant she forgot to be angry at him, as full as she was of anger at the horsemen. He nodded; she nodded back. They understood each other.
Melas grunted. Charis had forgotten him, too, and Aias beside him. He lay flat on his face. Aias was out in the open, running across the raiders’ path, bellowing like a bullcalf with a bee up his tail.
Melas pushed himself up on his elbows, spitting out a mouthful of grass and dirt. “I tried to stop him. I couldn’t–”
Deion pushed him back down. “Be quiet,” he said.
Melas tried to get up again. Charis sat on him.
Aias was managing to stay ahead of the horses, but only just. What he thought he was doing, except getting himself killed, she could not imagine.
She strung her bow and nocked an arrow to the string, but she did not need Deion’s hiss of warning to realize that if she shot either Aias or the horseman nearest him, she would betray the rest of them. All she could do was sit on Melas, who had stopped struggling, and watch while Aias ducked and weaved and darted.
He was trying to lure the raiders away from the village. As if one man could make the slightest difference, or give the horsemen more than a few dozen breaths’ pause.
They were herding him down the valley, letting him run himself into exhaustion while their horses kept on at the same plodding walk as before. They let him go until he was stumbling and gasping, and then a little longer. Where the valley opened onto the plain of the river, just about where they would be able to see the village with its cluster of houses and its wall and its fields, one of the horsemen kicked his mount into a shambling trot.
Aias turned to meet the spear. It was an awkward blow, with little strength behind it, but it caught him in the throat. He went down with his hands around the shaft, thrashing like a speared fish.
The horsemen rode on by. None spared him a glance, though one or two of the horses slanted an ear and sidled.
He was still alive when Charis dropped to her knees beside him. His face was swollen out of recognition; his mouth gaped. His eyes rolled. The spirit had left them already; it was only the body lying there, bleeding out upon the grass.
Deion’s knife was in his hand. Charis plucked it from fingers that only briefly resisted.
She gave Aias the same mercy she gave a lamb at the slaughter. One thrust, swift and unwavering, up below the breastbone into the heart. It surged against the blade, and then burst, taking his life with it.
She would mourn when there was time. Or they would all be dead and together in the Mother’s arms, and there would be no need.
Melas wanted to linger and weep, but Deion pulled him away. Charis paused a few moments to compose Aias’ limbs and close his eyes. When she left him, she took the spear.
It was surprisingly warm in her hand, and more surprisingly, not hostile. It was a living thing, shaped out of a sapling and hung with a red horsetail. Its weight suited her; its balance was perfect. In a different world it might have been made for her.
It gave her strength from the earth that had made it and the blood that had fed it. It lightened her feet, so that she ran side by side with Deion.
He still had Melas by the arm. Melas had enough to do to keep up; there was no room for tears or resistance.
None of them spoke. They all knew where they had to go: slanting away from the horsemen’s trail. It seemed these raiders were new to this country; they did not know how the plain dropped away before it came to the village. They would come to the edge soon enough, and realize that there was no quick way down for men on horses.
If Earth Mother was kind, they would need the rest of the day, and perhaps part of the night, to find the place where the ridge dipped down and the plain rose to meet it. That left more than time enough for three of the people on foot to make their way down the steep narrow track to the outermost sheep-pasture.
It was deserted; the flocks would not come up here until summer was well settled in. They paused to breathe and to drink from the spring, and Deion tried to leave Melas in the shepherd’s hut. But he would not stay.
“Even to keep watch?” Deion said.
“This isn’t where the fight will be,” Melas said.
Charis could hardly blame him. Her belly was on fire, too. She had had enough of waiting and dreading and dreaming.
She found she had a last sprint in her, down out of the pasture and through the fields and into the village. The men puffed and wheezed behind–even Deion, which gratified her more than was seemly.
People were doing what people did on a fine spring morning: tending cookpots, counting lambs, gathering weapons and keeping a calm but wary eye on the plain. Charis did not need to say anything. At sight of her as she wound and wove, circling through the village, all the young men and most of the women left what they were doing.
Other villages had learned to build walls that stood from season to season. The people only walled off the winter field. But they had defenses enough.
The outermost houses were built taller than the rest, and their walls were thick. The paths between them twisted and bent: no straight lines to feed a horseman’s speed. As they wound inward, they narrowed, until they were barely wide enough for a woman walking with a basket on her head, hemmed in with thick-woven hedges.
Every child of the people learned to thread that maze. Charis came through it into the open.
She stopped there. Deion stumbled past her and managed not quite to fall. When he had gone a handful of furrows’ length away from the last of the houses, he sat in the grass, apparently alone. But on the roof of every house were archers with bows strung, waiting. In among the alleys and the hedges, men and women with spears and knives had settled to watch and wait.
Charis sat on her heels. Her bow was light in her hand, an arrow ready for the string.
The sun was warm on her head and shoulders. The air was sweet. For today at least, full spring had come at last.
She had no memory of rising, but she was on her feet. Remembering a promise, and the creature to which she had made it.
If the children of earth woke, the women on watch over the field would do what was necessary. Charis had no need to tear herself in two: to be there instead of here.
If the defenders woke now, they would be done and gone before the invasion itself came down off the ridge. As it would. She could tell herself they would choose an easier way, raid more distant villages, but her bones knew better. The horde was coming here.
No one had ever tried to keep the children of earth from waking when it was their time. Spring came, raiders came, the defenders woke and swept the raiders away. That was the way it had been for as long as the people could remember.
Charis had not known she had any speed left. Desperation swept her forward; made her almost forget the ache in her thighs and the stitch in her side.
Some of the children and a dog or two ran after her, but they dropped away quickly. Their elders either got out of her way or stared as she darted around them.
As Charis passed her own house, she nearly collided with Ione, who was coming out. Charis got a grip on her wrist and kept going. She had no breath to ask after the children, but she might have caught a glimpse of Andros’ bushy beard just inside the door.
Ione dragged and squawked at first, but Charis held on. Soon enough Ione stopped fighting.
She had her bow with her, and a pair of long knives. What good they might be against the defenders’ waking, Charis could not imagine. But she did not tell Ione to drop them. They might be useful. Who knew?
There should have been at least two women on guard over the winter field, but the wall was deserted. Everyone who could fight must be either waiting for the horsemen or guarding the houses and the children, the sick and the old.
Charis wasted no time in climbing up to see if someone was tucked in a corner asleep. She paused by the gate, to breathe and to calm herself.
What she was doing had not been done that she had ever heard of. Always when the defenders woke, the wall was lined with guards, all with spears that served as much to shepherd as to fight.
The earth was still. The signs of sprouting were visible to eyes that knew what to see: low hillocks at intervals along the furrows, and grass and new-sprung weeds beginning to wither over them.
Where Deion had dug up the one defender, the hillock was higher, the growth on it shriveled and dead. Others near it were almost as far gone. To Charis’ eye, it seemed that the signs weakened as they spread outward, with the circle around this one the strongest, which meant they were the most likely to wake.
When she closed her eyes, her dream of dragons was as clear as it she dreamed it all over again. The ground’s solidity thinned until she saw through it to the sleepers beneath.
No old bones, these. They were alive, tightly coiled in their nests of earth. The farther away they were, the more unfinished they seemed. Those directly beneath were fully fledged, their claws sharp and long, and their jaws lined with deadly teeth.
The one under her feet was breathing long and slow. She knelt, but that did not feel like enough. She lay full length, face down, and embraced the earth. “Sleep,” she sang to what was beneath. “Soon you may wake. But not now. Not today.”
She felt the shift of air beside her. She turned her head. Ione was kneeling in the furrow.
“What are we doing?” her sister asked.
Charis liked the we. When they were younger, it had usually meant adventures. “Keeping them in the earth until the horsemen come.”
“Aren’t they coming now?”
“Not all of them,” Charis said.
Ione’s eyes widened slightly. “Deion was telling the truth.”
“If anything, he understated the case.”
Ione lay flat as Charis was doing. “Tell me what to say.”
“Sing them to sleep,” she said.
Ione was a much sweeter singer than Charis. She was a poet, too, and a charmer of birds.
These things beneath, they had feathers, though they had no wings. Maybe they would listen as the birds did, and do as they were told.
Charis did not stop her own singing, though she sounded to herself like a raven croaking, and her words were nothing beautiful or clever. Maybe there was no need for it at all. But she was not going to gamble the lives of the people for a niggle of doubt.
The young fools came to the cooking fires that night full of vaunting and boasting. They made a dance and a song out of it, winding in a skein from house to house.
“We drove off the horsemen, we the mighty, we the beautiful. We shot them with our arrows; we stabbed them with our spears. We drove them all far away.”
“And no dragons!” sang Phryne, who had the strongest voice. “Every hand was a human hand, and every stroke a mortal one.”
Charis had been trying to sleep. No one but Ione knew what other battle had raged while the horsemen were being so magnificently destroyed. No one celebrated that victory; no one sang her name or her praises.
She was wrung completely dry. There was nothing left in her but air and wind and the memory of the dragons under the earth.
The singing crept into her dream, along with the warm and breathing weights around and on top of her. The last was Thistle, who seemed to think that if she held Charis down with her whole body, her mother would never leave her again.
Her father slept outside the village. His coming had saved them, but the Mother had said nothing to revoke his exile. Nor had Charis asked it. Anger was still laired deep in her, wrapped around betrayal.
It was sleeping like the children of earth. What would happen when it woke…
In her dream, the warrior whom Deion had awakened stirred in its nest and opened its eyes.
In all the years that the people had been raising the dragon warriors and wielding them against invaders, none of them had ever thought of the defenders as anything but weapons. Weapons that walked; that could as easily turn against the people as against those who threatened them. They were no more to be reasoned with than a flood on the river or a fire on the plain.
There was more in those eyes than raw hunger for blood. They regarded her calmly, as if to commit her to memory. Not to kill and eat her, she thought. To know her. To understand what she was.
A thought unfolded inside her. A mad, a terrible thought. A thought that could be the end of her. But it would not go away.
This must be the demon that had possessed Deion. It was a subtle spirit. It felt like her own heart, beating in her breast, and her own belly clenching.
She slipped from beneath the children and the odd puppy. They murmured and fretted but closed in together without waking.
Deion was sitting just as he had been when Charis left him, upright with his legs folded. He must have been sleeping, but his eyes in the wan moonlight were clear.
She sat a little distance from him, as she had before the raiders came. Her hands were empty now, her weapons in the house. She regretted leaving the knife, but briefly. No human weapon would be of any use for what she meant to do.
Nor would Deion, but since she would most assuredly be cast out for this, she found his presence comforting.
“They’ll be here by morning,” he said.
Children of Earth? she almost asked.
Of course not. He meant the horsemen. “That soon?”
“If were their chieftain, and my raiders failed to come back, I’d know my diversion worked. I’d want to strike while the people were lazy and full of their victory.”
Tomorrow. Maybe not in the morning, with as many of them as there were, and the land making itself difficult for horses. But they would press hard while they thought themselves safe.
The Mother would know this. So would the elders. They would be doing nothing to rouse the defenders, because no one ever had done anything. The defenders woke when it was time.
The defender under the earth would listen if she spoke. And that was mad, too, and she knew it.
She could feel the horsemen coming. The earth carried the thunder of hooves and the rattle of cartwheels.
The defenders still slept. She had made sure of that yesterday. As deep as their sleep was, even a war might not wake them.
It would be easier if she could do this in the winter field. But that was guarded. She would be caught as Deion had been, and waste precious time with all the consequences.
Here she was, then. Where she sat happened to be directly above the curve of the great mother dragon’s skeletal wing, buried in earth and covered with grass. The mother’s children were not all under the field. They were asleep in their nests everywhere that the village was, and out toward the river.
She did not remember that from her dream.
If this failed–if she proved to be as misguided as Deion had been, but worse, far worse–
It was too late now to stop what had begun. The horsemen rolled toward them with the coming of the light, advancing in their hundreds and thousands.
Now, Charis said in her heart to the one she knew, the child of earth who lay in the heart of the winter field.
It was a she, that one, like the great mother of dragons. She rose up out of the ground as her kind had done for years out of count. Her sisters rose with her, while the guards on the wall sounded the horn and gathered the people and did all the things that they had done since the people’s memory began.
And that was good. The horn had roused the people from their houses, sent the small and the weak and the ill to safety in the heart of the village and brought the strong to the gathering place with all the weapons that they had.
They gathered in the summer field, the open space behind the wall. Only the guards held their places within sight of the children of earth. The one who had drawn black stone from the pot was charged with coming down off the wall, unbarring the gate and flinging it back, and then springing out of the way.
Usually she survived. Sometimes the defenders made their first meal of her before the wailing of horns and the beating of drums drove them down the long aisle of houses, in between the hedges and out onto the plain.
Melaina had drawn the black stone today. She was light and fast and might have escaped if the children of earth had pursued her, but they took no notice of her. They were following the one who had roused first, and she was coming to find Charis.
Charis was two people then. The one sitting in the grass, watching the horizon fill with horsemen and spill toward her, and the one hovering like a hawk above it all. The latter counted the defenders who streamed out of the winter field behind the tall one with the lofty crest.
Twenty, thirty, forty. Of ninety seedstones planted. A poor harvest, the people would be thinking, from a poor and feeble planting.
They were still terrible as they came, moving more quickly than any human or horse. They ran like huge wingless birds, skimming the ground with clawed feet. Their plumes were erect and gleaming in the morning light, red and blue and green and gold.
The first of them emerged upon the plain. The others spread behind her.
Charis stayed where she was, sitting with Deion silent and wide-eyed just out of her reach. She had no weapon but her wits and her empty hands.
The child of earth approached her, stepping delicately. She heard the sharp hiss of Deion’s breath as the creature bent over her. Thank the Goddess he was too shocked or too prudent to move; if he had, she could not have promised that he would live.
She was safe. She should not be thinking that, with those claws so close to her throat. Each one was as long as her hand.
The eyes that met hers were cold and flat and alien, and yet they recognized something in her. Not magic or wisdom or power. Maybe only that she would defend this place and these people with her life.
In some strange way, they were kin. The land made them so, and what lay beneath the land.
She glanced past the plumed head at the wall of horsemen bearing down on them. The child of earth hissed. Its tail lashed. It spun, gape-jawed, and bellowed louder than any bull. It launched itself against the enemy.
Forty dragon warriors were swift and fierce and deadly, but there were a hundred horsemen for every one of them. The people with their spears and arrows took down horses and riders that won their way past the children of earth. And still the horsemen came.
Despair had a taste like bitter herbs. It caught at the throat. Deion had a spear; she had not seen where he got it.
She only had her knife. It would do for slitting throats when the horde came this far–and it would. A dozen children of earth were down and trampled. A dozen more fought through wounds that might not kill them quickly, but every passing moment cost them in blood and pain. The screaming of horses and humans and the roaring of dragon warriors filled air and earth and broke the sky.
Charis straightened. Her knees creaked; her back voiced an objection.
She sat as nearly upright as her body would allow. The horde was well within bowshot. Already a handful of loose horses had stampeded into the village.
All its defenses were barely enough to slow the tide. Well before the sun touched the zenith, the horsemen would overwhelm the village and destroy the people.
“No,” Charis said. She could barely hear herself through the cacophony of battle.
She set her teeth and her will. The earth’s voice was all confused. She could not see what was beneath, not any more. But she could still feel it.
She set the point of her knife to the long vein that ran from her wrist up her arm. Her life pulsed in it. A brief, craven fear of pain made her flinch, but she forced herself through it.
It was not so horrible after all. Childbearing was worse. Bloodier, too, if something went wrong.
Bright blood streamed from the long wound, pouring out on the earth. It was foolish, she knew; people were bleeding everywhere. But this was blood of sacrifice. Blood given freely to the dragon queen under the grass.
The queen’s life was done. She would never rise again. Her children . . .
Old bones turned to stone. Lives lived before the first human thing walked the earth. A world long gone, forgotten everywhere but in this one place.
It was as dead as the dragon queen. The magic of the seedstones was nearly gone; after this year’s harvest, there might never be another. That age of the world was fading fast.
Maybe. Charis was fading, too, as the blood flowed out of her. Horsemen streamed around her, shying away from Deion’s spear.
Stupid man. He would do better to help her bind up her arm before she lost any more blood. She would fight then, as they all would, and die with the rest of the people, but not before she took with her as many horsemen as she could.
She was growing dizzy. She struggled out of her shirt and wrapped it around her arm, clumsily. She should not be this weak, not yet, but there was no denying it. She was not at all sure she could stand if she tried.
The ground lurched. She looked for the horse that must have fallen hard, but all those near her were on their feet–veering, and one screamed.
These were dragons indeed. The children of earth were tiny beside them, like a flock of sparrows before an onslaught of eagles.
One rose up full in front of Charis, all feathers and fangs and talons. It seized the horse that had screamed and swallowed it whole.
Its eye rolled toward Charis. It could swallow her, too. She had no defense against it.
It was even more alien than the child of earth, even colder and even wilder. Her little bit of meat would barely blunt its hunger. And yet it saw in her . . . something. She belonged to this earth, this place from which it also came.
It turned away from her. There were horsemen in hundreds to feed on. Even fleeing, they were no match for its strength or its terrible speed.
She should stand up. There was still fighting to be done, wounded to dispatch, horses to herd into the most convenient enclosure, which happened to be the winter field.
She got her feet under her. Someone had dropped a spear. It made a decent enough support.
So did the hand that gripped her arm. Deion glared at her.
She glared back. He steadied her, firmly, and transformed her shirt in a bandage, wrapping it smooth and tight.
She was still shaky and dizzy, but she was no longer losing blood. She pressed forward.
Deion let her go, but stayed close by. So did Ione. Charis had not seen her come, but she was there, with her strong bow and her deadly speed with knife and spear.
They gave Charis strength. Yes, even Deion. Whom she was forgetting to hate.
The horde’s back was broken. Its chieftains were dead, its strongest warriors gone to feed the dragons. But there were still horsemen in hundreds, and they had nowhere to go. They turned in desperation; they fought for every drop of blood and every scrap of ground.
The dragons had eaten till they were sated. The children of earth, those that survived, for once had enough battle to fight, but even they were flagging.
The sun sank toward a horizon the color of blood. There was no order left, and no division, only flailing and tearing.
Charis was most of the way out of her body. She had dispatched a horseman whom the dragons had torn so badly that there was no healing him, and found herself attached somehow to his horse: a sturdy dun-colored creature that refused to be chased away.
The children of earth were driving the last of the horde into the river. They would go, too, after that, as they always had before, into the water or out upon the plain. No doubt the dragons would do the same. And that would be the end of it–for this year and maybe for years after.
Charis could rest then. She told herself that as she turned back toward the village, with the horse following like an enormous and persistent dog.
It felt wrong. Her feet wanted to take her away from her house rather than toward it. They yearned toward the river and the gnashing jaws and tossing plumes and the great beasts that had risen at her call.
She was doing what her people had always done. She should be content. Which had nothing to do with the fact that she had started walking, and had no power to stop until she was almost to the river.
The children of earth turned at her coming. One of them, the tall one, loosed a shrill cry, like a hawk’s grown large enough to fill the sky. It was a call, and the dragons came to it, striding over the torn and bloodied earth.
They were coming for her. She had roused them; now she would pay. Her blood would complete the spell.
She was ready. She faced them with her head up, too far gone to be afraid.
The horse snorted. No wonder it followed her; it was too stupid to run away from dragons. It flattened its ears and snaked its head and snapped teeth in the face of the tall child of earth.
The child of earth had eaten enough of its kind today that she had no appetite left. She blinked lazily at the horse, and hissed.
The horse lunged. Charis hauled it back.
They stood poised, she and the horse and the child of earth. The horse would kill if she let it, and be killed in return. And that might rid her of the meddlesome thing, but there would still be the rest of it to contend with.
They were all waiting for her to move, to speak–something. “Come home now,” she heard herself say as if they had been her children. “It’s time to sleep.”
That was the maddest thing she had said or done in all this mad season. The earth’s children never came home. They always went away. And that was a good thing, because if they had no horsemen to feed on, then they would turn on the people.
Not if she told them otherwise, the tall one’s gaze said. They would go back into the earth. They would sleep, as she bade them; and wake when she called, too, if the rivermen came. Or more horsemen. Or–
“Why?” she asked. “Why would you do it?”
The golden eyes lidded. The tall crest went flat. It was an answer, but not one her human mind could understand. The closest it could come was a vision, an image behind her eyes: young Thistle objecting strenuously to maternal discipline, but giving in in the end, because Charis was even stronger-willed than she.
“I’m not your mother!” she burst out.
Was that laughter? Could a dragon know such a thing?
Not their mother, no; that great power had never inhabited a frail human body. But she had something that no human had had before. She was not afraid of them.
“No,” she said. “I’m terrified.”
The child of earth opened its jaws and hissed. That was laughter, oh yes. Danger, too; teeth that could rend a horse in half and jaws that could swallow a human whole.
“Home,” she said, which was a surrender of sorts, and a command. If it wavered slightly, the children of earth seemed disinclined to notice. “Home, and sleep.”
The winter field was quiet again, the children of earth asleep beneath it. Where the dragons had come up out of the ground, the grass had already begun to grow.
The plain was empty once more, and as clean as the aftermath of a battle could be. The pyres of the dead had burned for a hand of days, until a storm came out of the east and quenched the flames. The people had a herd of horses now, which some of the more enterprising were already teaching themselves to ride.
The world was changed, but some things were still, in spite of everything, the same. Thistle, who could not be kept off the back of the dun horse that had followed Charis home. Deion, who refused to enter the village even yet. And Charis, who had come back in the dark with the children of earth, and told no one what she had done.
Charis began to think that she might breathe again. Maybe even forget her great transgression, since nothing had been said of it. No one but Deion and Ione appeared to know, and they kept it to themselves.
No one needed to know. The people were safe. Would be safe now for as long as she was alive.
She went out one morning when the heat was already rising, for the summer that year had come early and strong. Deion had a tent now, pitched in a fold of the ground so that the wind off the plain swept over it rather than through it. He had a campfire, and one way and another there was always something cooking over it. Much of it he hunted for himself; and people slipped him whatever they could spare.
He was not so thin now, but the brightness that had gone out of him had never come back. She saw the faintest glimmer of it as he glanced up from tending his fire, before his eyes lidded and his face locked shut.
She had brought a knob of sheep’s cheese and a basket of berries from the summer pasture. They went pleasantly with the rabbit that turned on a spit over the flames.
“You could leave,” she said as they shared the last of the bones, cracking them and sucking out the marrow.
“Is that a command?” he asked.
His voice was as flat as his expression. She had a sudden, powerful urge to slap him silly.
She tossed the last cracked bone into the fire. “Tell me why you stay.”
“Where else would I go?”
“Anywhere in the world,” she said.
“Do you want me to leave?”
“What would you do if I said yes?”
He prodded the embers until they burst into flame. His hand shook ever so slightly. “If you meant it, I would obey.”
“Of course I would mean it!”
“Then say it,” he said.
Her teeth clicked together. She would say it. She was long since finished with him. What he had done–
She had done worse. His sin was to try to save the people, but to fail at it. She had succeeded. Except that no one knew, except this man and her sister.
He paid every day for his transgression. She…
She stood without a word, turned and walked away.
The Mother heard her out in perfect and awful silence. The elders twitched and murmured at parts of the tale she told, but she was not speaking to them. She kept her eyes on the Mother’s face.
It gave her nothing back. Belief, disbelief–nothing.
“And now,” Charis said when she was done, “they sleep again beneath the earth. Even the children of the stones. In spring they’ll wake. Or sooner if there’s need. They promised me.”
“And I will go,” she said. “I know the penalty.”
She was so steeped in the Mother’s silence that the words seemed to come out of the ground, with no lips or tongue to speak them. Her mind focused slowly. “I know what I did.”
Every mother could drive her daughter to distraction; so could Charis. It was an art of mothers.
“Tell me what I don’t understand,” Charis said.
“Most things,” the Mother answered.
Charis could hardly argue with that. She stood in the elders’ circle, with the sun beating down even through the branches of the tree that had shaded their summer councils for time out of mind. People had wandered over, curious, or looking for a respite from the labor of making land and people whole again.
She wondered if any of them could feel the sleepers beneath. Every part of the village now had its defenders. A whole nest of them slept under the winter field, that would need no seedstones planted this autumn, or for many an autumn after.
Charis had done that. She would see to it that the Mother and the elders looked to Ione for the things that Charis would not be there to teach them. Ione knew what to do and say and sing when the time of waking came.
She opened her mouth to speak, but the Mother’s uplifted hand forestalled her. “I am not going to let you go,” she said. “That would be the easy thing, and the simple one. I command you to stay, and see us all through to the end of what you have done.”
“That could be a long sentence,” Charis said.
“Longer than your life,” said the Mother.
Charis shivered. Death was part of life; everyone knew that. But the Mother was binding her to this place as the defenders were–from life into life, down all the long years.
It was a fair price, all things considered. Terrible, but fair.
She bowed to it. There was a moment, a brief flicker of regret, that she would not be faring out into the wide world after all. It vanished quickly.
This was her place. Her people were here. Her kin; her children. The children of earth, who had bound themselves to her, or she to them. She was not entirely clear on the finer points of that.
She would learn. The Mother had made sure of it.
Deion was still sitting where she had left him. She had not been entirely sure he would be. If it had been she, she would have packed up and gone.
He had always been slower at the simmer.
“Take down your tent,” she said, “and cover the fire. You won’t be needing them any more.”
His breath caught: all the sign of shock that he would let her see. “And you?”
“I’m condemned to stay,” she said.
“I’m sure that grieves you.”
“As much as it would you.”
“That’s not my choice, is it?” he said.
“No.” She doused his fire with water from the skin that lay near it, and swept earth over it.
He stood stiff, watching her. She straightened. “Now the tent.”
“You hate me that much,” he said.
“That depends,” she said.
“On what you do with all this,” she said, “once it’s down and packed.”
“What can I do but leave?”
Idiot man. Maybe he should just go.
Then who would make her want to laugh or slap him in equal measure? And who would mind the children when she needed another set of hands?
“You can come back,” she said, and her voice was as steady as it needed to be.
His face went perfectly blank. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Have you tried?”
He opened his mouth. Shut it.
She set her hand to the tent. After a long count of breaths, so did he. When it was down, the poles wrapped in the painted felt and all lashed together, she left him to do what he would do.
She heard him behind her: the grunt as he lifted the bundle of tent and poles and balanced it on his shoulder. She would not slow or turn, but her ears strained. Dreading to hear him walking away.
He kept a steady distance–a few steps behind. Through the maze. Into the village. All the way to the house the two of them had built, not so far from the winter field.
He went past and around it to the lean-to in the back, where he stowed his bundle, along with the rest of the odds and bits that a man and a woman and their assortment of children might find useful. When he came out, he stood straighter, and the light was back in his eye: not so bright yet, but it would grow.
He was home. And so, at last, was she.
Copyright 2014 Judith Tarr
Judith Tarr is the author of numerous novels and short stories including the World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Novel, Lord of the Two Lands, and the Epona Sequence of “prehistorical” novels, which opens with White Mare’s Daughter. She is a member of Book View Cafe, the online authors’ cooperative; she lives near Tucson, Arizona, where she raises and trains Lipizzan horses.