Jalav —
Amazon Warrior #1:
The Crystals of Mida
Sharon Green
Copyright © 1982, 2010 by Sharon Green

Chapter 1
The tower of the Crystal - and a captive is taken

I stood in the center of the cold stone room and gazed down upon the bodies of my warriors. The three of them lay upon the rounded cobbles, grotesque in death as they had not been in life. The clan colors worn by all Midanna, about their hips and thighs, had been torn away and scattered about the room, leaving my warriors completely bared to their attackers. Life signs, worn on leather strips about their necks, had been left on two, but the third no longer wore hers. Perhaps its leather had been severed when the blade of the dagger was brought to her breasts, possibly in an effort to have her cry out in pain. I had known that warrior well in life. She would not have cried out.

Three strong warriors, dead, though not in battle. Their attackers had come with stealth, overwhelming them with surprise and numbers. The Keeper's Attendants, who had also been in the Tower, had been quickly put to the sword, yet my warriors had been kept the while, to be used for the sport of those who had come to steal the Crystal of Mida.

My proud warriors had had their wrists bound tightly with leather behind them, had been thrust to the bare, smooth cobbles of the Tower floor, had had their clan colors ripped from their bodies, had been forced to stare up at the raftered heights of the highest Tower room as their bodies were taken and used by the scum of city thieves. And when their shame had at last given the thieves satisfaction, their throats had been cut where they lay, their wrists still bound, their clan colors no longer upon them.

To take a warrior's clan colors, to cut her throat as though she were an animal to be slaughtered, stealing from her forever the honor of dying in battle - these things were the most unforgivable. Should any of the thieves be taken alive when the Crystal of Mida was recovered, they would pay for their crime many times over, seeing the light of as many hands of feyd as possible before being allowed to die. Only in such a way might the souls of my warriors find rest.

I looked next at the Keeper's Attendant where she lay upon the sleeping leather, her long, graying hair crushed beneath her, her breathing loud and harsh in the silence. She had taken the sword of the thieves as had the others, yet clung to life till they had gone, and still longer yet, awaiting the relieving warriors' arrival. Her clan colors, worn long to the ankles as befitted one of her station, were damp with the red of her blood, yet was she able to relate the coming of the thieves, guessing that they came from the city of Ranistard, far to the north. One had mentioned the city, she thought, and she would have the war leader know. Now I knew.

Slowly, I walked to her where she lay upon the sleeping leather, gazing through the window at the brightening of the fey. Well she knew that she would not see the coming of dark again, and wished to remember the feeling of life upon her body to carry with her to the Realm of Mida, where she would be made young and strong again, where she would again know the pleasures to be had with males of worth and valor equal to hers. Yet would she never again be warrior as she had been in her youth, for she had given up the glory of death in battle to Attend the Keeper of the Crystal of Mida. Now the Crystal had been stolen, and her life as well, and what had been done could not be undone.

"Remad," I said quietly, and she turned to look at me.

"I hear, Jalav," she whispered weakly. "How may I serve the war leader?"

"Already have you served truly and well," I said, stroking my life sign. Hers lay upon her slowly rising breast, a near mate to mine. We shared the sign of the hadat, that fierce, furred, long-toothed, sharp-clawed messenger of death sent by Mida to smite her enemies, though our symbols of that sign were not identical.

Each warrior must, upon reaching her womanhood, carve her life sign from the wood of the tree that has been marked as her own at her birth. Should her tree die before she reaches her womanhood, she is taken to the dwellings of those who follow males and left to be made a slave-woman to them, for should a warrior enter battle without her life sign upon her breast her soul would surely be lost.

"Remad," I said, "I would have you look upon one who was captured a short while ago. Are you able to know if he is one of those who took the Crystal of Mida?"

"I shall know," she whispered. "Long did I gaze upon the faces of each of them as they fouled our warriors with their touch," she rasped. "I shall know."

"Bring him," I ordered, and two warriors ran to do my bidding. The fury I felt at what had been done in the Tower of the Crystal was a terrible thing, and my sword would drink well before my vengeance was fulfilled. I thirsted for blood to pay for blood.

I turned at the sound of struggle and beheld the captive, he who had been taken just as word had reached us of the theft. Six of my warriors surrounded him with spears at his throat, and still he attempted to resist them. Lofty, indeed, was his height, a full head greater even than mine, and his wide, muscled body was encased in the garb of one from the cities, a brown cloth which covered all but his arms from neck to mid-thigh, as though his body would be shown to his shame.

He wore neither clan colors nor life sign, for those of the cities have no souls to be lost, and also his feet were encased in leather, to keep him from the touch of the sweet ground of Mida. His red-gold hair was of a decent length, bound by leather at the back of his neck as though he were prepared for battle. His arms were bound, each wrist to the opposite elbow behind his back, leather stretched between his ankles, leather pulled tight across the cords of his throat, yet still did he struggle. Should he be proven innocent of the crime in the Tower, it would be wise to detain him so that my warriors might be allowed to take his seed for themselves. Not many of the males who travel our land are found fit to mate with a warrior.

The captive fought to free himself as he was drawn forward by the warriors. He shouted to the air the oaths of city males, mistaking my warriors for their pale sisters of the cities, swearing to do upon them things which would never be borne by them. Forward did they draw him with difficulty, till his eyes fell upon my dead warriors, and then his struggles ceased as though he had been touched by the hand of Mida. It was then possible for my warriors to easily throw him to his knees where Remad lay.

"The deed was not mine!" said he harshly to Remad. "To take the lives of mere girls in such a manner - "

"Silence!" I commanded, and struck him full across the face as he knelt before Remad. In fury, he attempted to rise, yet was held in place by my warriors, and I turned to Remad. "Is he one of those who came, Remad?" I asked. "Study his features well and then speak."

"It was not he," she whispered, gazing up at the captive. "Had he been among them, war leader, I would have remembered."

"Look again and be sure," I said to Remad. "The journey north may be shortened, should we find one to speak to us."

"He was not among them, Jalav," Remad whispered as I pressed the point of my dagger to the throat of the captive. Surely he saw in my eyes my need to spill blood, and therefore he remained silent.

"So be it," said I, resheathing my dagger. "The journey to Ranistard must be taken without sight. We shall have the words of the Keeper this darkness, and begin with the light that follows."

"Ranistard?" said the captive, with a frown of displeasure. "No man of Ranistard would perform so senseless a deed. Ranistard was badly touched by the hand of Sigurr with a fever of death, and few are the females now left to tend to the men. Had men of Ranistard been here, the wenches would have been carried off with them."

"Something of greater value was carried off in their stead," said I to the captive, then to my warriors. "Take him to the gandod and have him secured between two of them. We return shortly to the camp."

"Hold!" shouted the captive, standing his full height even against the weight of my warriors. "I have been proven innocent, and demand to be released at once! Order the leather removed from me, girl!"

Once again I gazed upon the captive with approval. His spirit would do well for the warriors of my clan, his large body strong enough to serve many of them. I calmly returned his heated glare.

"I am Jalav, war leader of the clan of the Hosta, foremost among the clans of the Midanna," I informed him. "You have been chosen to serve my warriors the while, and shall be released upon the end of that service. Should you continue in so insolent a manner, however, I shall order the leather applied to you quite differently. I am amused to see a male act the part of warrior, yet have I little patience now to tolerate it. Be warned, sthuvad."

"Warned?" he roared in true fury, struggling against his bonds and my warriors. "By the slaying foot of Sigurr the Terrible, am I to be warned by a black-haired female child who stands with only a wisp of cloth about her hips? No! I am the true warrior here, and shall take my leather to the back of any strutting female I lay hands upon! Scatter quickly, girl children, for now I come to punish!"

He attempted to part the leather which held him captive, and at the same time he threw himself toward my warriors with a pale city battle cry. My warriors laughed in delight at this entertainment, all but one stepping to him quickly to urge him on with a caress, and then dart easily out of his blundering path. The caresses enraged him still more and, still bound, he turned this way and that, not knowing which of my warriors to pursue. His chest rose and fell with his anger, and a magnificent sight indeed was he. I, too, felt the attraction of him, and resolved to have him in my sleeping leather before the journey north.

Red-haired Larid stood herself before the male, laughing lightly and stretching her arms out toward him to lure him to her. With a deep growl, the captive took her lure and began striding toward her in fury, forgetful of the leather stretched between his ankles. Binat, from behind him, did grinningly place the butt of her spear before the leather thong, holding the leather in place and tripping the captive. Down he did go to the cobbles quite heavily, unable to break his fall with his still bound arms, and my warriors were upon him immediately.

He was turned to his back while still dazed from the fall, and Larid applied her knowing hands to his body, bringing immediate response from him, then did she quickly take possession of him. Her face showed great appreciation as his eyes blinked open and he regarded her blurrily, then realization came to him of his possession. He shouted wordlessly and fought to free himself, yet did Larid retain her place with laughter and pleasure. Two of the other of my warriors knelt, one upon each of his shoulders to hold him down, and Larid was able to drain him well before she stood again.

I beheld another of my warriors preparing to take the place of Larid, and therefore stepped forward and spoke.

"The sthuvad may be had again later at our camp," I informed them. "Take him now to the gandod and secure him well. I shall join you shortly."

My warriors were disappointed at my words, yet am I war leader and to be obeyed. The sthuvad was pulled to his feet, where he stood, filled with cold fury, to gaze upon me.

"This insult shall long be remembered, girl," said he to me. "In time you shall know the anger of the warrior Telion of Ranistard, and shall fall to your knees before him! Your body shall be mine as mine was hers, and you shall pay many times over for the shame given me! For this you have my word!"

"My fear of the word of a male of the cities is great," said I, smiling at the laughter of my warriors. "You will forgive me for having you taken to the gandod lest I succumb to so great a fear."

I nodded, and my warriors forced the captive from the Tower room. My eyes fell again upon my dead warriors, and the cold of the room entered me once more. Remad, I saw, lay upon her sleeping leather, a small smile upon her lips, memory strong in her eyes. She, too, had taken captives in her youth, and the memory of them had returned to her in the last of her life.

"Other Attendants have been sent for," I said to Remad, "and will see you safely to the Keeper's Tower. The Keeper shall speak the words to bring you to Mida's Realm, and we shall meet again in Mida's gaze when I, too, am called. Fare you well, Remad."

"I would ask a favor of the war leader," she whispered. "My service to the Crystal of Mida is done, even should it be returned upon the instant. I wish to greet Mida with sword in hand, as the warrior I was in my youth. Will the war leader honor me in such a way?"

"The honor is mine, Remad," said I, smiling at her pale, thin face. "My warriors shall prepare you."

Two warriors raised Remad to her feet. Her pain was truly great, yet not a sound escaped her lips as she was held erect and handed a sword. She faced me then in true warrior fashion as I drew my own blade.

"I salute you, Jalav," she whispered roughly. "Strike quickly lest I go before the thrust!"

I did as she bid, plunging my sword deep within her breast, and she slid to the cobbles quickly, already in the arms of Mida. My warriors and I raised our swords to the memory of a true warrior.

"Have the life signs removed for the Keeper," said I to my warriors, "and the bodies brought to the forest for the children of the wild. I return now to camp."

They nodded in obedience to my word and I left the Tower room. I would be very pleased to find those who had taken the Crystal of Mida, and would remember to send one to Mida's chains in the name of Remad. Too many were the warriors who had been stolen from me that fey.

Outside, I found the captive secured between my gando and that of Larid, and he looked up at me uncomprehendingly. My gando stood quietly, having been reminded of its place by a blow to its snout and, once mounted, I pulled against the long thong of leather about its neck that led to the neck of the captive. It was secure, as was the thong from the gando of Larid, therefore did I direct our departure.

My warriors, eight hands plus two in number, all sat upon gandod of their own. The Midanna use naught save gandod to carry them into battle, for the gando is superior to the soft kand of the city people. The gando is no larger than the kan, yet its scales protect from sword thrust as the hide of the kan does not, and its many sharp teeth, urged on by its unreasoning temper, make its worth in battle far greater than that of the passive kan. The red kan of the captive was held by one of my warriors, drawn along by the leather of the lead reins against its will, fear of the silvery gandod turning its eyes round and wild.

"Why must I walk as a peasant would?" demanded the captive as we left the stones of the Tower clearing for the dirt of the road. "My kan is at hand, and I may be tied to the saddle should you fear my escape."

"You do not care to walk?" asked I, glancing at Larid, who grinned.

"No, pretty black-haired girl, I do not," said the captive, speaking to me as though I were a child. "I have little regard for the need to walk, therefore shall you order those others to -"

"He does not care to walk, Jalav," Larid said with much glee. "May we not assist him in the matter?"

"Indeed, Larid," said I with a laugh. "Let us assist him."

Larid and I struck our mounts, sending them into faster motion. The captive was made to move faster and even yet faster, the thong between his ankles forcing him to take small, rapid steps. The sight caused laughter among all of my warriors.

Shortly did we leave the road for the forest, for we were not far distant from the current camp. It is Mida's fortune that we had not been on the hunt nor in the midst of battle when her Crystal had been taken, else would it have been long before the loss could be reclaimed.

The captive breathed heavily as he ran, looking as though he would have enjoyed much warrior blood upon his hands. He spoke no word, to conserve the breath within him, yet did I feel his pace might be increased. I therefore took a leather strip, flicked it sharply across his shoulders, and called, "Run for the war leader Jalav, sthuvad, run as quickly as you may! Should your movement please me, I will have you brought to my sleeping leather! Run nicely for Jalav!"

I touched him many times with the leather, light touches which caused very little pain, yet which boiled the fury high in him. My warriors laughed, seeing the leather applied so gently to his back and legs, and even higher did he rage at the laughter, though all save running was beyond him. The leather strips were tight to the straining of the cords in his throat, and he had to run to keep from being dragged.

Shortly we came to the outskirts of the camp, the black and green of our clan tents showing clearly through the trees. The sentries that we passed gazed upon the captive with delight, for it had been long since one deemed worthy had been taken. Despite the loss of the Crystal, there would be merry-making in the tents of the Hosta. We drew rein before the largest tent, that of the war leader, mine. The captive pounded to a halt, much of the fight taken out of him, a tall, heaving, quieter male, fit for the use of warriors. I left him and my gando to be seen to by others, and entered my tent.

"Mida's blessing, Jalav," said Fideran, placing himself swiftly upon his knees. "I am pleased to see that you have returned so quickly. Is all to be well now?"

"All shall be well, Fideran," I assured him, gazing upon his fair and lovely face. Fideran had been taken as sthuvad yet had refused release when it had been offered him, choosing instead to remain in my tent and serve my needs upon his knees. Though he disliked being given to those of my warriors who desired him, he heeded my word upon such occasions rather than go his way back to his own people. He had long since professed love for me, a feeling which I, as a warrior, understood naught of. I kept him for my pleasure alone, yet was I faced with a dilemma. Fond as I was of him, it was impossible to take him to the north with me. I would have to leave him with another, one whose arms would soothe his loneliness and pain. That would be a kindness to be smiled upon by Mida.

"Brew a pot of daru, Fideran," I said as I removed my swordbelt, "and see that it is kept fresh against the visit of the Keeper. She shall arrive soon to speak with me of grave matters, and shall likely feel the need for daru."

"At once, Jalav," said he, asking naught of the reason for the Keeper's visit. Well he knew that the matter was one for warriors, and not to be discussed with him.

I settled to the leather of the floor of my tent, and thoughtfully began filling my pipe. It would be to the greater honor of the Hosta should we alone retrieve the Crystal, yet would it be wiser for all Midanna to prepare for the necessity of war. The clans of the Midanna rarely rode as one, yet the retrieval of the Crystal should unite us all. We would ride against the northmen in the rightness of our quest, and bring their dwellings down upon them, should the Crystal not be yielded up. The Crystal was ours to guard with our lives, not a bauble to be handed to the first male a warrior would see smile.

"By Sigurr's claws, have a care!" snarled the captive, he being brought within my tent to be tied to the ground post by the leather about his neck. Playfully had a warrior poked at him with the point of her spear, merely to keep him moving without harming him, yet had she misjudged her aim and come perilously close to an integral part of him. Were such an integral part to be damaged he would be fit only for the pleasure of my warriors, for offspring would then be impossible. However, despite the near catastrophe, I could not help but smile.

"Smirk as you will, girl," he said to me, his chest still rising with the shortness of breath, "yet shall I see the time when I may smirk at the sight of you. That is what I shall live for."

"A worthy life purpose for a city warrior," I laughed, amused by his distress. Fideran, too, had spoken in such a manner when first made captive, yet had not gone his way when given the opportunity. Males are strange creatures indeed, far beyond the understanding of warriors, beyond reason even for Mida.

The captive scowled, then sat upon the black leather of the floor, normal color slowly returning to his face. His scowl deepened when his eyes fell upon Fideran, who sat beside my sleeping leather as he waited for the daru to brew itself to the proper point. Fideran scowled as well, disliking the manner in which the captive's eyes swept the brief clan covering - without clan colors - which he was permitted to wear. There had not been a captive since Fideran had been taken, and Fideran did not seem to care for the clan's newest acquisition.

"This tent is stark indeed," said the captive. "Have you no frills to liven your life, girl?"

"I do not take the meaning of `frills,'" I said, regarding him with some curiosity. He seemed to know less of warriors than had Fideran, who had known little indeed.

"Frills," repeated the captive impatiently. "Such as light-colored silks to brighten this dismal dark leather, sparkling jewels to hang about your throat in place of that bit of wood, tempting scents to make you pleasing to a man and to cover the stink of that burning bit of kan held in your hand. Those are frills."

"For what reason would I desire such?" asked I in amusement. "Other colored silks would betoken other clans, all of which are less than the Hosta. Sparkling stones are to be given to males, to comfort their upset when they are taken, and should be of little use in battle. My life sign guards my soul, so that it may not slip away to naught should the edge of the enemy reach me. As for scents, males must please me, not I them, and strong would be the laughter of all should the war leader of the Hosta appear for battle bedecked with scents. The thought is truly amusing."

"For a wench to know naught of frills is saddening," said the captive in a lowered voice. "Yet more disturbing still is the thought that she wishes to know naught of them. Your life is a cruel one, girl, touched heavily by the twisted hand of Sigurr. That should not be."

"All is as Mida wishes it," I informed him gently. "Do not despair in your lack of understanding, for one without a soul is unable to understand the workings of Mida. You may accept my assurance that all is as it should be."

"Without a soul?" he echoed blankly, and then became angry once again. "You believe I have no soul and therefore pity me? By Sigurr's rotting teeth, I shall not be pitied by a half-naked savage of a girl! Remove these bindings at once!"

Again he struggled against the leather which bound him, and I smiled as I accepted the small pot of daru which Fideran carried to me. The leather of the Hosta of the Midanna is not so poor that it may easily be parted, as the captive was beginning to know. Soon there would be other things for him to know.

His blazing eyes returned to me once more, and his teeth clenched tightly at the sight of the steaming pot of daru which I had brought to my lips. The hearty aroma of daru filled the tent, and made one anxious for the taste of it.

"Am I to be starved and tortured as well as bound?" the captive demanded. "I have had neither food nor drink since I was set upon by those females of yours!"

"A drink shall soon be brought you," I assured him. "We have no desire to see you suffer from lack of sustenance."

"They'd best be quick about it," muttered the captive, somewhat mollified, for he did not see the quiet smile of Fideran. Fideran knew what drink was to be brought, yet he spoke not a word in warning to his fellow male, but stood straight with arms folded firmly across his chest. He had not stood so since he had been taken.

I had sipped only twice at the pot of daru, when Larid and another warrior entered with a pot. No steam arose from this pot which they brought, and the captive looked upon it with interest.

"Fetch it here, girl," directed the male easily. "The dust of that run lies heavy within my throat."

Larid smiled and approached him with the pot, holding it carefully so that its contents did not spill. The captive sniffed cautiously, found its odor inoffensive, then he sipped at it with Larid's aid. The sip pleased him considerably, and he drained the pot with a great deal of gusto. Larid and my other warrior exchanged satisfied glances, then they looked toward me. I nodded with a smile, and my two warriors left with purpose.

"Unusually refreshing," the captive observed, smacking his lips over the lingering taste. "I wager the taverns of the cities would pay much in coin to receive shipments of that. How is it called?"

"It is called, 'a man's downfall,'" Fideran laughed before I was able to reply. "I believe you will find it too refreshing before long."

"Of what does your pet male babble?" asked the captive of me, his broad face creased in a frown. "Have his wits gone away with his manhood?"

"When you are unbound we shall speak of manhood!" said Fideran, approaching the captive to stand above him. "I have not forgotten the use of a sword!"

"Fideran," I said gently to my male, "he has no understanding as yet. In time shall his words be withdrawn."

"Perhaps," Fideran replied rather tightly, much disturbed beneath his unsmiling face. I did not wish to see him disturbed, yet was unable to fathom his distress. Males, as I have said, are beyond a warrior's understanding.

My daru was nearly gone when the captive began to move uncomfortably by the ground post. Fideran had returned to his place beside my sleeping leather, yet his eyes had not left the form of the captive. My eyes, too, studied the captive closely, and the captive reddened beneath the double examination.

"At what do you two goggle?" he demanded quite heatedly, attempting to hold himself still at the post. His attempts were in vain, of course, as the appearance of his garment spoke eloquently of his condition.

"We gaze upon a man who has been refreshed," Fideran replied, glancing at the evidence of this statement. "Know that you shall remain refreshed for many hind to come, and shall not require freshening again until the dark."

"You speak without meaning!" snarled the captive, looking away from a grimly pleased Fideran. "I require naught from savages and slaves!"

"You require naught?" asked Fideran softly. "Look you upon Jalav. You have no need of the softness of her breasts, the comfort of her belly, the heat of her thighs? You have no wish to feel her midnight hair upon your face, her lips upon your body, her hands at your loins? You wish none of the fire burning in her large, dark eyes? You - "

The captive snarled again, but this time as a child of the wild as he looked upon me. Had he been unbound he would have been upon me, the lust born of the drug in his drink firing his blood to the point of madness. He roared and fought his bonds, fought to free himself yet not to escape, but to reach me, and I smiled in satisfaction.

"He responds quickly and well," said I to Fideran, who came to kneel behind me. "We shall have much use from him. Larid!" Larid and a hand of other warriors entered at my summons, gazing eagerly upon the struggling captive. "You may now remove him to the use tent," said I, "yet have a care that he is not damaged through overuse. Although he is larger than many, he is still only male."

"We hear, Jalav," Larid murmured, unable to remove her eyes from the captive. The captive, though, continued to strain toward me, his wildness increasing when Fideran's hands circled my waist to rest at last upon my breasts. Happily I moved at the touch, and the captive was beside himself, causing my warriors to use their spears to remove him from my tent. When they had gone, I turned to a Fideran who also seemed to have partaken of the drug.

He held me to him fiercely, his lips hot upon my throat, and nearly did he forget himself to such an extent that he began to press me flat to the leather of the floor. I regretted the need to put my dagger to his throat, yet there was no help for it. A war leader may not receive from a male, but must take whatever he offers. Fideran withdrew reluctantly, then placed himself so that I might use him. I did so with much pleasure, yet was his response not as it normally was. His need was strong, yet he seemed to receive little of the satisfaction he craved.

When the heat had gone from both of us, Fideran sat himself facing toward the rear wall of my tent in silence. He seemed to be studying my shield and spear, which had come to me when I won the place of war leader. A long, clean oval was the shield of the Hosta war leader, and many a war leader had carried it proudly, never having shamed it in battle through retreat. A war leader stood to the last, never showing her enemy her back, choosing, instead, the glory of death. Many times had the spear and shield been retrieved from a battleground, but never had they been shamed.

"You must not use him," Fideran spoke suddenly, surprising me. He had not turned, but sat in his colorless clan covering, his back rounded at the shoulders.

"Of what do you speak?" I asked, intent upon adjusting the leg bands which held my dagger.

"You must not use the new male!" said he, turning to me with blazing eyes. "Think you I remain here in this tent, clothingless and without pride, serving you as a slave, merely to share you with another? He shall not have you!"

"No," said I, rising to my feet. "He shall not have me. I shall have him. Has his presence disturbed you so deeply that you have forgotten?"

"The point is the same," he insisted, rising also, so that our eyes were level. "It matters not who does the having, only that another shall possess what is mine! You may not use him!"

"May not?" said I very quietly. "Indeed Fideran forgets himself. I belong only to the Hosta of the Midanna, never to a male. You may take your earlier possessions and return to your people."

I began to turn away, yet Fideran fell to his knees, throwing his arms about my legs and pressing his face to my body.

"No!" he cried, the depth of his voice muffled against me. "Do not send me away, Jalav! The stranger desires you, and I have seen his like before! Should he come to know the bliss of your arms, he shall not release you again! I love you, Jalav, and wish to live only for you! Do not send me away!"

I sighed deeply at his pain, and stroked his hair with a gentle hand. His dark hair was not of a length with the captive's red-gold glory, yet it was of a pleasing length, as he had allowed it to go unshorn in the time he had been with me.

"Fideran, hear my words," said I. "Your happiness is a sometime thing among the Midanna, and it would be wise of you to return to your people. I am pleased that you find love for me within you, yet saddened too, that I cannot return your love. Never will it be possible for me to do so."

"Allow me to remain!" he begged, pressing himself yet closer to me. "Perhaps one fey I may be able to give you a child as I have done with others. Then, Jalav, then shall you feel love for me!"

"Perhaps you are correct," I murmured, stroking his hair again, understanding that he knew not why he had not given me a child. A war leader must chew the leaves of the dabla bush, so that she is ever prepared to lead her warriors to battle. A war leader with life in her may not perform such a function, therefore the dabla bush insured against such a happening. It was said that the bush could be countered, yet I had never known it to be done. Perhaps the Keeper would have had such knowledge, but I, as war leader, did not.

"See to the daru, Fideran," I said, "and should the Keeper arrive before my return, see to her comfort as well."

He released me slowly and reluctantly then, moving back to seat himself upon the leather of my tent floor, his head hung in misery. He nodded in silence, obedient to my word once more, and I left him and withdrew from my tent.

The fey was bright, warm with Mida's light, drowsy beneath the leaves of the trees. The black and green home tents of the Hosta were a brave sight to a daughter of Mida. On the hunt and in battle, warriors fetched naught save their weapons and sleeping leather, for it is foolish to tell your quarry or enemy where you take your rest. Only upon our own lands might the home tents be used, and then only with sentries alert all about us. A warrior joys in the sight of her home tent, yet must she sleep lightly when she is within it. Much of the joy would be removed, should she awaken to find the point of her enemy's sword at her throat.

I thought to see many of my warriors about, yet the camp seemed oddly deserted. For a moment I felt puzzled, then heard the laughter from the tent set in the middle of the camp, the tent which lacked our Hosta clan colors. I knew then where my warriors were, and smiled at their interest. The captive was an attractive one, more attractive than any save, possibly, Fideran, yet Fideran had been with us a considerable time, and the captive was new to all.

I walked toward the tent in the center of the camp, hoping that my warriors remembered my words. Despite his robust appearance, a male is often a frail thing, and may easily be overused to the point of worthlessness. The Harra, another clan of the Midanna, held their captives as slaves, often resorting to raids upon small villages to replenish their supply. I had seen the slaves of the Harra, cringing in their fear of being touched and used, and I regretted then that the Harra were sisters to the Hosta, rather than blood enemies.

I stepped just within the entrance of the tent, standing quietly and watching my warriors as they, spread out and crouching down in place, watched the captive. He had been placed upon his back and staked to the ground, the leather about his throat preventing extreme movement of his head. A warrior had just finished with him, yet even as she stood, in possession of his priceless seed, his readiness for another was evident.

The lust was still upon him, as it would be for many a hin yet, but a spark in his eyes showed his fury at being used so, his rage at his inability to control his body's demands. Even as another warrior took her place upon him, even as his hands grasped futilely for her, I knew the captive would not be one to remain with us when his service was done.

Kilin crouched to the left of the captive, laughing with the others as he first attempted to deny the warrior who had him, then acceded to his need and attempted to use her. Neither attempt was successful, yet Kilin urged him on to greater effort with amusement, enjoying the spectacle of the brash city male being taught his place. I made my way to her, and she rose and grinned.

"Soon it shall be my turn, Jalav," she said. "My spear cast was poor, yet was it enough to gain me a time before he is too far drained. I shall enjoy using him."

"That is his purpose, Kilin," I said, amused at her delight. "I would speak with you briefly before you partake of your enjoyment."

"I hear, Jalav," she acknowledged, and began to follow me from the tent. Before leaving, I chanced to glance at the captive and found, to my surprise, that he gazed not upon the warrior who had him, but upon me. His long, red-gold hair had become disarranged, and it hung about his strained, sweat-soaked face, yet still did he gaze upon me with heat. I smiled and left the tent, knowing that when next I saw him, his heat would be considerably diminished.

Kilin and I walked several paces before I spoke to her. Mida's light danced brightly upon the silver ring of a blooded warrior which gleamed from her right ear, showing her as one who had met the enemy in battle and had survived. I, too, wore such a ring, as did all blooded warriors, yet was mine matched by another in my left ear, proclaiming to all that here stood a war leader.

In such a manner did war leaders find one another in battle, searching for the second ring and a suitable match within which to test one's blade. Too, there might be no more than one second ring for each clan, so the ring passed from one bested war leader to new war leader, it being taken from the body, no matter whether she had fallen in battle or during a challenge. A long moment did Kilin and I walk in silence, before I was able to find the words.

"Kilin," I said, "I would ask a deed of you. All know that I ride with the new light to seek the Crystal of Mida and those who came to steal and slay. The warriors of the Hosta ride with me, yet there are those who must stay with the Keeper. You are one of those whose time with the Keeper has long since been appointed.

"Do you wish me to ride with you, Jalav?" she asked, excitement rising in her voice, happiness appearing on her face. "I have already attempted to give my place to one who rides, yet none would agree. At the word of the war leader, however - "

"No, Kilin," I said, shaking my head and placing my hand upon her shoulder. "All must bear burdens in these times, and yours is to remain behind. I would have your sword with mine in the north, yet this may not be."

"I hear, Jalav," she sighed, resigned once again to her fate. "I would ask what deed I may perform for you."

"I have given much thought to Fideran," I said, gazing upon a tree which stood before us. "He has served us all well, and I would not see him hurt. I believe he would attempt to follow me north, and this I shall not allow. I would have you and the others remaining behind hold him once again as captive, using him gently with naught of the drug, till there is no hope of his following successfully. You may then allow him to remain with you, or you may release him to go his way. I have seen in the past that you used him gently; I would have you care for him for me."

"I shall be pleased to do so, Jalav," said she, a tender smile upon her face. Her hair was brown, as were her eyes, a soft brown that showed gentle feeling for much about her. She was a valiant warrior, fearless in the face of the enemy, yet was gentle too, when gentleness was required.

"I have not told him, Kilin," I said, "nor shall I do so. Come to my tent when darkness has fallen, after the meal, and fetch him away with leather."

"I had thought raiding was not permitted to the Hosta of the Midanna," she laughed, greatly amused at the thought. "I now see I am to begin my raiding in the tent of the war leader. Is this the manner in which all Midanna begin?"

"It is the manner in which they cease," said I, laughing too. "Should one come without my permission, she would have little need of that for which she raids. You may return now to the use tent, for I would not see you passed over. With the return of the balance of our warriors at darkness shall come a greater demand for the captive."

"Perhaps they will have seen to their needs in Islat," suggested Kilin. "The trading is often tended to in less time than return is expected."

"It would be well for the captive to hope so," I chuckled, taking a leaf from the tree upon which to chew. "So many more warriors demanding his service would not be pleasant for him, and it may already be seen that he does not care for the service which he performs for us."

"It would be well should Mida send to us one who does not require the drug," she sighed, also taking a leaf upon which to chew. "It is said that once there were males of a strength to see to the needs of Mida herself. I have come to disbelieve such tales, however, I find myself hoping I am wrong."

"How would it be possible for such males to exist?" I asked with reason. "They dwell within their cities, never knowing the true world of Mida, refusing to their slave-women the glory of battle for fear that they will be left unattended. They are able to do naught for themselves, but must ever be sending others to do for them. Is such a life to produce true males?"

"Indeed not," said she with a further sigh. "We are all blessed in that our forebears left the city males to their ruin, and chose to follow Mida else we, too, would be slave-women without hope."

"Yet we are not slave-women," I said. "Therefore we must guard our freedom so that it is not lost to us. Go you now quickly, lest your time with the captive be given to another. I believe he, too, would do well with your gentleness."

"He shall have little gentleness," she laughed, throwing away the leaf as she began to move toward the use tent. "The sight of him stirs my desires, Jalav, and I would feel him beneath my hands and in my possession. He is the finest sthuvad I have ever seen."

She lifted a hand in farewell, then moved quickly toward the use tent, in the gait a warrior uses on the hunt when the quarry is ahead and must be run down. She disappeared within as laughter came again from the tent, and I chewed my leaf, considering returning there myself. I had not cared for the look the captive had given me, nor did I care for the manner in which he had addressed me, yet I had allowed him to go unpunished so that he would be fit for the use of my warriors. Should he be foolish enough to so address me again, he would not again go unpunished.

I had nearly decided to add my laughter to that of my warriors, when I beheld the arrival of the Keeper. Her procession moved slowly into the camp, with all the dignity required by the person of the Keeper. Fully ten hands of warriors accompanied her, clad not only in the colors of the Hosta, but of the Harra, and the Helda, and the Hitta as well. Warriors of each of the ten clans of our sisterhood rode there, guarding our Keeper as would the ten clans of enemy Midanna guard their own.

The Keeper herself sat upon the Seat of office, a seat covered above for the Keeper's comfort, yet open upon all sides to the sight of Mida. Her arms rested easily upon the arms of the Seat, her feet flat upon the Seat's wide platform, which platform was borne along by the strength of four gandod. The platform swayed to the pace of the gandod, yet the Keeper did not seem to mind in the least. A tall, strong woman was our Keeper, pleased with the place Mida had given her, vital yet, in spite of her age. I smiled and walked forward then to greet her, pleased as always to see Rilas the Keeper.

Rilas took note of my approach, and smiled a greeting as her gandod were stopped so that she might descend to the ground. She wore a clan covering to the ankles, one which only the Keeper might possess. All colors of our clans appeared upon her covering, against the black of all Midanna, the green, the red, the blue, the yellow, white and brown, orange and violet, gold and rose. She was the Keeper of our clans of Midanna, and she who did wait most avidly till the Crystal of Mida would speak to us.

"Mida's blessings, Jalav," said she as she was assisted from her Seat. "I am ever pleased to visit the Hosta, yet would I wish for other circumstances. You prepare to ride in search of the Crystal?"

"Aye, Rilas," I said, gazing upon her proud form. Her hair reached nearly as long as her covering, yet no longer was it the gold of her youth. She, too, had been a warrior, for how else may a Keeper show that the love of Mida is with her? Had she refrained from taking part in battle, none would have known that her survival was Mida's demand for further service from a well-loved daughter.

"We shall ride with the new light, Rilas," I continued. "Part of this fey must I spend with Mida, and we may speak of what aid you may give me, at darkness. By the new light, all shall be seen to."

"I am well enough pleased," she said. She looked upon the use tent, and her brows rose. "Have you this soon brought one of them low, Jalav?" she asked.

"No, Rilas." I smiled, looking, too, toward the use tent. "A captive was taken, yet has his innocence been confirmed by the Attendant Remad before she joined Mida. He is merely a sthuvad, and even now amuses my warriors. Should any of them find herself with child from him, I shall send her back to the tents by your Tower. The new lives shall not be wasted."

"Good." Rilas smiled, then grew serious. "Jalav, I visited the Tower of the Crystal before coming here," she said with compassion. "I would be with you when you speak with Mida, and also relate the merits of those who have gone. You need not be alone to speak of she who bore you."

"Your presence will be welcome," I said to her, remembering the look of my warrior, the look of she who had borne me. Her breasts had had a dagger taken to them, perhaps in an effort to make her cry out. I well knew that she had not cried out.

I sent a warrior to my tent for my sword and a pot of daru for Rilas, then she and I entered the woods away from the camp. When the distance was sufficient, I unsheathed my sword and stood straight, Rilas also straight by my side.

"Hear me, Mida," I called softly to the sky, my arms and sword held high. "I would speak with you of those who wish to enter your Realm from the Hosta of the Midanna. They are brave warriors all, and the fault was not theirs that final battle was denied them. I, Jalav, war leader of your Hosta, shall seek out those who took their honor, and avenge the stolen glory. I ask now that they be allowed to enter your Realm, and not be forced to wander the gray place forever."

I resheathed my sword and drew my dagger, then I set the edge of it to the side of my left arm. A line of blood appeared, and I drew two fingers through the blood and held them toward the skies.

"My blood has been spilled, Mida!" I cried. "She who bore me was foully used and senselessly tortured, then robbed of her place in your Realm! Well do I know that those of the cities have been forsaken by you, yet would I ask your aid in my vengeance! Smile upon me, Mida, so that the blood of my enemies may be spilled with mine! Your warrior asks no more of you than your blessing in her quest!"

I withdrew my blood from the eye of Mida, then crouched down where I stood, to bring back memory of she who bore me. The use of sword and dagger, spear and bow had I learned from that kindest of warriors, and her pride at my winning the place of war leader had increased my joy in the deed tenfold. Very young had she been when she bore me, only just into her womanhood when the captive had been taken, and still did she have the appearance of a girl upon her death. Always had she stood in battle upon my left, a sword to be counted on and trusted. Now she was no more.

I crouched in memory for many hind, Rilas beside me, her hand upon my shoulder, her voice raised softly to Mida. She recounted the lives of my warriors who were, then crouched beside me in memory. A Keeper feels the loss of each of the Midanna, having often been present when they first wailed with the pain of new life. Rilas had been Keeper for many kalod and knew each of us well.

The darkness was nearly upon us when Rilas and I returned to my tent. The candles had been lit by Fideran, and he had prepared meat for the Keeper and myself. The Keeper smiled at his efforts, amused that a male saw so carefully to my needs. Other captives had, from time to time, chosen to remain with Midanna who would have released them, yet Rilas told me that Fideran seemed the most zealous. He did not wish to return to his city, and for this he could not be faulted.

The Keeper and I drew our daggers in order to take the meat from the fire, and Fideran cried out and grasped my left arm.

"Jalav, you have been hurt!" he said, holding my arm gently with much pain in his eyes. "I shall fetch cloth immediately to wash and bind it!"

"No, Fideran," I said, taking my arm from his grasp. "It must be left till the new light comes, and then it may be washed. It is our way."

"I … see," he said heavily, knowing it as a matter for warriors alone. The ways of the Midanna disturbed Fideran, for he could not accept them, nor could he change them. He withdrew from the fire and sat by my sleeping leather, his head down. I was pleased that soon Fideran would have another to tend, and my doings would no longer disturb him.

The Keeper and I were about to seat ourselves for our meal, when another joined our presence. The captive, having been removed from the use tent, would be returned to the ground post for a time so that he might regather his strength for further effort. No longer was he enraged. Instead, he leaned heavily upon the supporting arms of my warriors, his arms once again bound behind his back, his step painful and slow.

His red-gold hair was completely unbound, hanging limply with the sweat that had soaked his entire body, the color bright against a face that had gone pale with the passing hind. No sound did he make as he was lowered to his side upon the leather beside the post, yet was the pain in him easily sensed. The thong upon his neck was attached to the post, and my warriors then withdrew.

"A fine specimen," Rilas observed as she tasted the meat upon her blade. "It is fortunate that he was uninvolved in the matter of the theft, else he could not have been used so. A pity the Hosta may not use him longer."

"If ever I regain my freedom," said the captive in a low, exhausted voice, "the Hosta shall be no more. I will see justice done for what has been done to me."

"Perhaps I may give him to the Harra," I mused. "Their warriors number greater than ours, and I am told their needs, too, are greater."

"Jalav, do not torment him," Rilas scolded, yet she also found the need to mask a smile as the captive paled further still. "The Hosta have ever released their captives when the service was done," said she. "Are you to change your ways on the eve of riding to battle?"

"There is little reason to cling to but one manner of behavior," I said, tasting the meat Fideran had prepared. As always, it was too well done, but I said nothing. "The Harra require many captives to replace those who are used too far and are thereby rendered useless," I added. "Think you, Rilas, he would not joy in giving service to warriors till he is no longer able?"

"You, girl!" the captive snarled, struggling to lift his head so that he might glare at me further. "You shall pay the most! You shall one fey feel my leather upon your back, and know the meaning of being well used! This do I swear by all I hold sacred!"

I placed the meat upon the leather of my tent floor, rose to my feet, then stood above the captive. He gazed up at the full height of me, and surely saw my anger.

"I am Jalav, war leader of the Hosta of the Midanna," I said coldly. "Should it be the will of Mida, sthuvad, my life shall end in the coming battle, yet am I still war leader of the Hosta. You have given me insult for the final time."

I then called my warriors and ordered the captive beaten. As they removed him from my home tent, he fought them as best he could, yet he was much spent from his hind of service. He made no outcry as he was removed, nor did I expect one. Had he been fortunate enough to be of the Midanna, he would truly have made a warrior.

Rilas spoke no word, as was only proper, for the Keeper may not interfere in matters of a war leader. Fideran, however, was much disturbed by the course of events. He rose to his feet at my call to my warriors, and stood as though he would keep the captive from his due, making no sound as the sthuvad was removed. His soft eyes gazed upon me in upset, then lowered in misery. Again he folded to the floor by my sleeping leather, and I returned to Rilas and my meat.

Rilas and I fed in silence, savoring the bounty of Mida as do all Midanna. I thought deeply upon the matter of the Crystal, yet spoke no word of it, as it is not proper to discuss battle as one partakes of the bounty of Mida. All things must be kept in their proper place, and one does not taint one's provender with the blood of one's enemies. The captive was returned silently to his place by the post, his mouth and eyes grim, his back well striped by the leather of punishment. Rilas and I continued to feed, taking no notice of his arrival. Fideran did silently turn his face to the back of the tent.

With the meat consumed, Rilas and I filled our pipes from my sack as Fideran brought to us pots of daru. The daru was properly brewed, and I smiled somewhat as I realized that soon I would find the need to brew daru myself. Fideran, who had returned to the fire and knelt before it with his back to us, saw naught of my smile, nor did he see the silent entrance of Kilin and two other warriors. I nodded to Kilin, and she and the others stole up behind Fideran, seizing him quickly, throwing him to the leather of my floor, and binding him fast with thongs. Fideran cried out, in surprise as well as distress, yet the deed was done, and he could not resist the leather.

"Jalav, what is to be done with me?" he cried as Kilin and the others urged him to his feet and from the tent. "I do not wish to be taken from you!"

"Mida's blessings, Fideran," I said, gazing upon his frightened, retreating form. "Perhaps, one fey, we shall meet again in the sight of Mida."

His pleading grew fainter as distance increased, and I put him from my mind and addressed Rilas.

"All clans of our sisterhood must prepare themselves for battle, Rilas," I said. "Should the numbers of the Hosta prove too few when the thieves are discovered, all must ride. I shall appoint couriers to carry the word."

"And I shall visit the clans to instruct them." Rilas nodded, taking the pipe I held out to her. "You ride directly to Ranistard?"

"Aye," I said, lighting her pipe and my own with a flame fetched from the fire. "It lies to the north, and shall not be difficult to find. I shall decide then what is to be done there."

"You and your warriors have never seen nor visited the cities to the north," Rilas mused. "Once, in my youth, I was honored to aid in the death of one such city. The walls were scaled in stealth, Jalav, so that the gates might be opened from within. Weighted lengths of knotted leather were cast to the pointed metal set atop the walls, warriors climbed the knotted leather, then they removed the weight, held the leather about the point, and descended the doubled leather to the ground. The leather was then removed from the metal, leaving no trace, one end simply being pulled, the other released. The wretches of the city were lax in their watchfulness, and so paid the final price of laxity. The walls of remaining cities have ever since been guarded carefully, war leader. This must be considered by you in your thinking."

"Indeed, it is a thing to consider," I said, my sight within rather than without. "The walls of Ranistard, stout or not, must fall before my warriors at some time. Yet, should the fall be too long in coming, those holding what is ours may well seek to destroy it. I must not allow such a thing to occur."

"Perhaps it would be wise to learn of a city's ways before reaching Ranistard," suggested Rilas. "An error made elsewhere would not have the effect of one made in Ranistard."

"An excellent thought," I said. "I have heard tell of the city of Bellinard, more distant from here, perhaps, than from Ranistard. It might well prove profitable to enter Bellinard first, to see what might be seen. Yes, I shall think closely upon this."

I reclined upon the leather of my tent floor, considering the possibility of entering Bellinard. We would have to see the city first to decide how to enter it, therefore was there much to think upon.

I saw, without true sight, the entrance of two of my warriors bearing hot meat for the captive. The meat was cut small and fed to him by both warriors as they gazed upon him with pleasure. The captive accepted the meat from their hands with little gratitude, and had his need not been so great, well might he have refused it. His jaws worked as he chewed the meat placed in his mouth, yet his eyes fastened themselves not to my warriors, but to me. I paid little heed to his unvoiced fury, and thought upon the matter of Bellinard.

As the captive continued to feed, another warrior entered the tent and presented herself to me. She had been one of the warriors in the tower of the Crystal, and she held in her hand the life signs of my warriors who had been, and those of Rilas's Attendants.

"I bring the life signs as you directed, Jalav," she said, handing them to the Keeper with a sign of respect. "Yet were we unable to find the third of our warriors' life signs. It was to be discovered neither in the Tower nor in the stones below the Tower. Do you wish us to seek further?"

I shook my head, dismissing her, knowing full well the whereabouts of the life sign of she who had borne me. It lay with the Crystal of Mida, marking those who were destined to feel the edge of my blade, the heat of my rage. Mida would guide me to the life sign of her daughter, and there I would avenge the theft of glory. Rilas, knowing in some manner the turn of my thoughts, sat silently with her pipe, the life signs given her wrapped carefully about her free hand.

A disturbance by the captive caught my attention. The captive had consumed the meat brought for him, yet refused the drink which followed the meat. My warrior stood before him with the pot in her hands, and he looked at her with contempt.

"Do you take me for a fool, girl?" he demanded of her. "Sooner would I die of thirst than drink again in this camp! Take that from me, and do not return with it!"

"I see no reason for reluctance," the warrior answered. "There is naught in the pot save fresh spring water."

"And I am to believe that!" The captive laughed, shaking his great head at her. "I would indeed receive my due, were I to be so foolish. Be gone, girl child, and allow me my rest."

The warrior, indifferent, left with the pot, the second warrior accompanying her. The captive watched them gone, then gazed silently upon me with amusement, as though to say that he had bested us. I drank my daru and smoked my pipe and did not disabuse him.

The effects of the drug reached him sooner the second time, as is the way with the drug. His amusement left him slowly as he attempted to deny the beginnings of what he felt, and I smiled as I watched the onset of his willingless movement, laughing when full realization at last claimed him.

"The pot contained naught save fresh spring water," I informed him as he again fought the leather which bound him. "The drug was in the meat given you, cooked in to enhance the taste of it. Did you not find it enjoyable?"

"No!" he cried, throwing himself about in his despair. "You cannot force me to endure such treatment again! I am a warrior! A warrior!"

"You are merely a sthuvad," I informed him from where I lay upon the leather of my tent floor. "A sthuvad is for the enjoyment of warriors, not a warrior himself. Is it that you were borne by a warrior and given to those of the cities to raise, that you speak of yourself as a warrior?"

"I am only of the cities," he said, his eyes darting about, seeking escape. "I knew naught of your pack of female vipers before I was taken, yet I shall never forget what was done to me. Never!"

"We have found," Rilas observed calmly, "that those who are taken and thereafter released seldom speak of their capture to others. I have often wondered why this is, yet I feel that in such a manner are the Midanna given further service. Few would travel within our reach should word of our practices be spread about. You, too, I believe, will say naught."

The captive sent her a hate-filled look, proving the truth of her words, then fell back to the leather of the floor, writhing in his need. Larid and a hand of others appeared, laughing lightly, to once again remove him to the use tent. The meal had been taken by my warriors, and now they would seek entertainment.

The Keeper and I sat for some hind, discussing the why of the taking of the Crystal. Had the thing been done by enemy Midanna, the reason would easily be seen, yet for city males to wish to take it was beyond understanding. The Crystals had been given to the Midanna to guard, given by the heralds of Mida many and many kalod earlier, against the fey Mida would once again wish to use them, and city males would have no interest in them.

None knew the proper use of the Crystals, yet was it thought that Mida would in some manner speak through them, informing her warriors of her wishes. The Hosta saw to one Crystal, and the enemy Silla saw to the other, though no word had come that the Crystal guarded by the Silla had been taken or attempted. I saw the need to send warriors to the Silla, to learn of the condition of the Crystal they guarded. I spoke of this to Rilas, and she agreed, insisting that the deed be done by Attendants. Knowing how keenly she and her Attendants felt the loss, I thought it best to accede to her wishes. The Attendants would be sent, and should they learn of something to aid me in my search, I would be quickly informed.

Rilas then retired to her tent. I found Fideran's absence left a loneliness behind, so I went out into the darkness beyond my tent. The darkness was well lit by the presence of the Entry to Mida's Realm, and the glowing, rounded gap in the darkness that ever changed its place made pale the tiny rends to all sides of it. To the despair of all Midanna, the Entry was not always in the skies, yet Mida knew of the needs of her daughters, and at such times allowed a memory of the glory of her Realm to shine through the tiny rends.

My eyes gazed upon the Entry to Mida's Realm, and I knew a sadness that all could not hope to be allowed through to the everlasting days of battle and happiness that were the rewards of the Midanna. I then heard the laughter of my warriors who had found interest in the use tent. I recalled the look of the captive, then smiled and also recalled my earlier resolve. My steps led quickly to the use tent, and I went in.

The use tent was warm with the bodies of my warriors, crouching within, and much did they laugh and compare the captive with others taken before him. A fire had been made for the brewing of daru, and many of my warriors sat upon the leather to one side of the captive, sipping from the pots of daru and calling instructions to the captive or the warrior who possessed him. The instructions were entirely in jest, yet the captive felt the barb of them deeply enough to attempt escape once again. His attempts caused further laughter, so alike were males and their ways; a simple jest often returned life to the most enfeebled of them.

I moved through the press of my warriors till I stood above the captive. He had been used hard, and had he not been of the strength he was, he might not have survived. His wrists and ankles bled from his struggles, his face had lost its color, his covering was stained and twisted about upon him. Only his eyes remained the same, filled with an endless store of fury and hate. I stood beside him quietly, my eyes examining his form with pleasure as my warrior continued to make use of him. His own eyes came to me, and did not leave me again.

My warrior finished with him and arose, and still I remained standing at his side. No warrior stirred in the tent, for though they knew that use of him was at an end, still they wondered if the war leader would honor him. I felt the leather of the tent floor beneath my feet, saw the rise and fall of the captive's chest, smelled the sweat that covered his body and caused his red-gold mane to lie about him in greasy strands.

My eyes moved to his and I smiled at the desire I saw ablaze there, a desire even greater than the fury that had gripped him so many times that fey. The sthuvad found pleasure in the sight of Jalav, war leader of the Hosta of the Midanna, and his desire blazed forth, above the urging of the drug, for all to see. I stood a moment longer, holding his eyes, then spoke to my warriors without turning.

"Secure him through the darkness," said I, "and see that he is well guarded. I would not care to have him stolen from us when he has rendered such faithful service."

The laughter of my warriors, and the sounds of their rising from their places, covered the snarl of the sthuvad as he again writhed in rage. So sure had he been that he would be honored, that his desires would be seen to, that I would use him as my warriors had. Yet was I war leader, and did as I wished. I turned from the captive and strode from the use tent, returning immediately to my own tent. The sight of the shield and spear of the war leader warmed me as always, and I regretted having given Fideran to another. I extinguished the candles, then sought my sleeping leather, my dagger fast in my hand as was proper.