Amazon Warrior #3:
Chosen of Mida
Copyright © 1984, 2010 by Sharon Green
Journey's end-and the blood of enemies
The lanthay moved easily through the trees, pacing itself, taking into its mouth those leaves which came near it in its passage. Unlike much of our journey till then, the land about us was lush and bountiful, warm during the light of each fey, cool and comfortable throughout each darkness. No longer had we snow and chill, empty forests to pass as best we might, and the lanthay, more a beast of the snows and cold, nevertheless seemed to enjoy the warmth as much as I.
We had come a far distance in the hands of feyd we had traveled, a distance so great I no longer knew how many feyd I had been upon the trail. The journey had been long - and solitary - yet my thoughts had used the time well to settle about the explanation of what had occurred, understanding each facet of it so that I might more clearly understand where now I stood.
I sighed as I again considered my position, yet the ever-present anger deep within me stirred. From what point would one consider the beginning of the thing? From the time Mida's Crystals were stolen, from the time my clan-sisters the Hosta were taken by males of Ranistard, from the time I, myself, was claimed by the male Ceralt - or the time I was chosen by Mida and dread Sigurr, dark god of males, to stand in their names and see their will done? Each of these things was a beginning of sorts, a beginning of pain and shame and disaster and loss, a beginning of new, misunderstood occurrences which nevertheless were linked one to the other. My understanding was now complete, yet at what cost?
I reined in the lanthay and dismounted, tethered it to a tree where it might feed, took a cut of meat from its pack for myself, then placed myself where I might watch all about me as I fed. With my return to lands where game was plentiful, it was necessary to recall that predators were also plentiful, children of the wild whose teeth and claws would make short shrift of the unwary.
Not three feyd agone had I slain a large yellow zaran, my spear taking it in the chest as it leaped up to strike at my tethered lanthay. The lanthay had nearly torn loose from its rein, so violent was its fear, yet the leather had held and I had been able to calm it. Surely Mida continued to watch over her warrior, for without the lanthay my journey would have been much longer.
I took a slow bite from the meat held in my hand, raw and bloody nilno, freshly killed, sweet and satisfying, chewing the thought as I chewed the meat. Ever had I been wont to think of myself as beneath Mida's protection, yet now the conviction brought many memories of recent happenings and revelations, few of them pleasant. I, who was Jalav, war leader of the Hosta, greatest clan of all the Midanna, had been chosen by Mida as the sole warrior to do the work she had envisioned for me.
My sisters of the Hosta she had allowed to be taken by the males of Ranistard as mates so that Jalav alone would be left to lead all of the other clans of Midanna, unprejudiced in this leadership through the absence of all other Hosta. My pain remained great that the Hosta might not be freed of their bondage to males till the strangers had been seen to, the strangers who would come from the skies to touch our lives with the power of their wills. I still knew naught of what they wished of us, yet Mida had assured me they were no other thing than evil.
Evil. Had we true need of evil, there was little need to look further for it than he called Sigurr, dark god males were fond of cursing by. Sigurr, too, had that which he wished me to do, the raising of his male warriors the Sigurri and in this Mida had concurred. I was to raise the Sigurri as Sigurr wished, to assist in battle against the strangers, yet when the battle was done, the Midanna were then to turn upon the Sigurri and destroy them, doing them before they might do us so.
Sigurr knew naught of these designs of Mida, also knowing naught of the hatred for males which Mida had sought to breed in me by placing me in the capture of males, theirs to do with as they pleased. Much had such hatred begun to grow in me at the doings of the male Ceralt - till I discovered that the shame and humiliation given me was deliberate, to see that I felt pleasure rather than pain at the death Ceralt was fated to find at journey's end.
Then, for some unknowable reason, the male had changed again, once more becoming the Ceralt whose presence had ever caused me weakness and inner fire, a burning to be held in the strength of his arms, a trembling to feel the touch of his lips, a consuming need to be used by his manhood. At journey's end, with Ceralt's death a certainty and quite near, I had bargained with the dark god for Ceralt's life and health, allowing Sigurr and Mida to believe it was vengeance I sought from the male, a vengeance impossible to claim from one who no longer lived. Sigurr had demanded a price which I had paid and Ceralt's life had been returned to him - yet the price had been so great I no longer was as I had been.
I finished the balance of the nilno between my fingers, sucking up the last of the juices before putting my head back to the tree I leaned upon. My body appeared as it ever had, large of frame, full-breasted, long of leg, the bruises Sigurr had made long gone from my flesh, yet was that flesh now dead to the touch of males. Shortly before my departure from Mida's domain I had sought the truth of the thing, as it had been some time since Sigurr had touched me and I had thought my body recovered.
My quarters contained a number of male slaves, large, broad, well-built males - were one to discount the look of perpetual fear in their eyes. I had removed my leather breech and fur boots and had stood myself before them, demanding that they look upon me and feel the need they were not often allowed to see to. Males find pleasure in the look of Jalav and so had it been with the slaves, their desire showing clearly beneath the short, foolish cloth worn about their waists. Their eyes grew bright and their tongues moved to wet their lips, yet when I lay myself upon the fur before them and commanded them to heat my blood, they were unable to do so.
Much did the males weep with their failure, so badly in need were they, yet they dared not touch me while my desire failed to be a match to theirs. In disgust and anger I returned them to the wall they habitually knelt before, backs to the wall and hands locked behind their necks, so their need might not be seen to in solitary action. Again the males wept, the strain upon their flesh made more evident by the position they had been commanded to, and then had Mida appeared in her golden mists, to laugh with great delight at that which I had done to the males.
She commended the hatred I showed, a hatred she had striven to breed within me, and I said naught of the true motives which moved me to act so. Had there been aught within the males to recall to them their lost strength, surely being shamed and denied so would have brought it forth to battle the fear laid upon them. I sought for a sign in their eyes that they felt a desire for lost freedom of action, yet their continued fear of Mida was as clear as the sign Mida and Sigurr had placed upon me. The males remained slaves, Mida felt pleased, and I - I continued with that which I was destined to do.
The warmth of the lovely fey tugged at me with fingers of drowsiness, seeking to draw me down to slumber amid peace and plenty. It had been nearly two hands of feyd since I had discarded the tent which had kept the life within me in the cold lands, gladly returning to sleeping with naught about me save a lenga pelt. The leathers and furs I had also discarded, retaining no more than the breech about my loins, the leg bands for my dagger, the sword belt for my sword. My legs felt the lighter for the loss of the leg furs called boots, and I gloried in the return of the touch of sweet ground beneath my bare feet. Much had my previously lost freedom been returned to me - should one discount the presence of the sign placed upon me by Mida and Sigurr.
My fingers stole toward the life sign which had hung between my breasts since the time I had first become a warrior, yet memory of what had been done stopped them short of their goal. My life sign was the sign of the hadat, clawed and fanged child of the wild, carved from the tree marked as mine at my birth, stained with the blood of the first enemy I had slain in battle. Ever had it hung upon its leather tie about my neck, yet it, too, was not now what it had been.
Its substance was now much like that of Mida's Crystals, seemingly thin and fragile yet possessing great strength. Within it - within it roiled the black mists of Sigurr, marking me as his, showing the rot he had begun in my soul. My life sign had ever been the guardian of my soul, yet now there was little left for it to guard. The Sigurri would know me as a messenger from their master, the Midanna would know I spoke with Mida's voice - and I would strive to forget that which had made it so.
The lanthay raised its head sharply, sensing the approach of danger, and I, too, found the scent brought upon the changing breeze. Lenga prowled the area thereabouts, hunting for prey, seeking intruders within their domain. Resolutely I rose to my feet, untying the lanthay and then vaulting to its back. The Midanna Mida had told me of would not be far distant, for the city of Bellinard, their goal and mine, lay no more than another fey's travel before me.
When the Midanna were mine, when Bellinard was taken and the plight of the Hosta known to those who would strive for their freedom, when the Sigurri had risen and come to stand with those who fought the strangers, then perhaps would Jalav be free to taunt the lenga in their domain, courting an end to a burdensome existence. Little else had Jalav to seek, little else had Sigurr - and Mida - left to her.
The fey and the darkness beyond it passed easily and swiftly, the new fey growing to a fine semblance of that which had passed. As the forests began to thin I turned south to remain within them, seeking signs of the Midanna warriors I knew to be in the vicinity. Mida had appeared to Rilas, Keeper of our clans of the Midanna, in a dream, speaking to her of the need to bring the Midanna to the land of males, there to do the work which would be given into their hands.
Rilas had no knowledge of who would bring Mida's word to her, yet had we known each other well before the Hosta rode out to seek those who had stolen Mida's Crystal from us. Rilas would know me, and Mida's sign as well, and no more would stand before me than the swords of the war leaders who had led their warriors where Rilas directed.
It took perhaps another three hind before I found the first of the signs left by Midanna warriors to guide other Midanna to them. The signs were composed of little more than twigs bent and broken just so, leaves torn from branches in a particular manner, notches cut in trees above the level of one's eye, and such like, yet to Midanna the trail was clear, the direction unmistakable. Ahead of me lay the warriors I sought, those I had not seen for too long a time. I urged the lanthay forward, eager yet cautious, for to appear too abruptly before Midanna warriors who know themselves surrounded by enemies is hardly wise.
I rode for perhaps five hands of reckid, following trail signs, noting that the forests again began to thin. Had I continued on in the direction I rode, I would have come to the gentle ground slopes which led to the city of Bellinard. My warriors and I had paused behind the last of these slopes before a hand of us had continued on to the city, leaving behind twenty hands of Midanna and four hands of captured males, one of whom had been Ceralt.
I had often wondered how the male fared, for I had left Mida's domain shortly after Ceralt and his people had been released, taking a way shown me by Mida which had sent me through other lands than those which the village folk traveled. Though on the mend, Ceralt had been too weak to sit a lanthay, needing, instead, a litter upon which he might lie as it was drawn forward by a lanthay. Lialt, his brother through blood, and Telion, male warrior and brother through choice, had found it necessary to tie Ceralt to the litter, for Ceralt had not wished to use the device he so obviously had need of.
The thick-headed male would have clung to a lanthay's back had the choice been his, reopening his wounds and wasting whatever strength he had managed to reclaim. My anger at such foolishness had been great, yet Lialt and Telion had seen to the matter without my intervention. I could not have shown my true interest in the males without endangering them all, yet I had watched their departure from a distance, openly in the sight of Mida, my left hand caressing the hilt of the sword she had given me. Much did she believe I longed for the fey I might ride at the males with bared blade; never again, however, would I seek the males out, for whatever reason. Males and warriors were not meant to mix, a thing which had been well proven to me.
"Hold there!" came a voice out of the woods, causing me to draw rein upon my lanthay, and then were there six warriors afoot about me, each clad in Hitta blue. Their life signs swung as they moved about my mount, four with swords held ready, two with bows as yet unbent, but ready.
My hand had moved toward the sword I wore, more in reflex than through desire for defense, yet swords instantly rose higher and arrows held steady in now-taut bows, speaking more clearly than any words. Slowly and deliberately I moved my hand from the sword hilt, then looked upon she who seemed to lead the band.
"I am Jalav, war leader of the Hosta," I informed her, my gaze cool and level, my voice calm. "Take me to the tent of Rilas, for the Keeper awaits what word I bring."
"If you be Hosta, where are your clan colors?" demanded the warrior, eyeing the two silver rings I wore in my ears. She, like the others, wore no more than one, the sign of a blooded warrior. Two rings denote a war leader, as she knew, yet lack of clan colors still made her suspect a stranger.
Each of the Hitta was secure with the blue of her clan about her womanhood, her breasts as free to the air as mine, her feet as bare as those of a child of the wild. Each stood secure with her sisters beside her, yet I had lost the clan which was the source of my pride, the roots of the tree of my life.
"I have put aside my clan colors till the Hosta may be freed from capture," said I, the bleakness in my voice so clear that the warriors before me frowned and withdrew their weapons somewhat. "Now do I ride in Mida's name, doing her bidding, that the Hosta might be succored the sooner. Where is Rilas?"
"Her tent stands deeper in the woods," said the warrior, decision coming to her quickly. She sheathed her sword, surprising the others, then gave free rein to her desire to stare upon the long-haired beast I rode. "What mount do you have, war leader? Never have I seen its like before."
"It is called a lanthay," said I, knowing I had been correct to keep the giant beast. The word I brought would be difficult for many of the Midanna to accept; the lanthay, never having been seen before by Midanna, would do much to awe them into acceptance. By Mida's wishes do all Midanna live, yet many war leaders believe that they alone know the true will of Mida. Then did I dismount and say to the warrior, "Take me to Rilas."
"At once," said she, signing to the others that they were to resume their guard posts. The others obeyed, melting back into the trees, resuming the places they had had before my appearance. The warrior led me through the forest, walking beside me, covertly examining my thigh-length black hair, the matching blackness of my eyes, the loftiness of my height.
She, herself, had hair so light it was well nigh as white as my lanthay's fur, falling to her thighs with naught save war leather to keep it from freedom. Her direct and piercing green eyes rose to a lesser height than my black ones, though this warrior had been the largest of those I had come upon. She and I continued on in silence a moment, then her gaze came to study me directly.
"War leader, I know you," said she, her eyes unfaltering. "The fey the Hitta and Hosta met the Silla and Semma in battle. You slew the Semma war leader, and I took the lives of three of the Silla. There was much glory that fey, and I remember you well. Have the Hosta truly been taken captive?"
"Would that it were not so," said I, my voice no more than a mutter, my eyes no longer upon her. "By males are they held, within an accursed city, fated to remain in captivity till Mida's will is seen to. How many clans has Rilas brought to this land?"
"All of our clans answered the Keeper's call," said the warrior in surprise. "Is there a sister clan among us who would refuse? A full nine clans have come to battle the males, yet Rilas knows not where the battle is to begin. Is this the word you bring?"
I nodded without speaking, seeking lost pleasure in the sight which now appeared before me. Through the trees, suddenly growing as though from another world, arose the sight of the tent of Rilas, Keeper of our clans, comprising all of the colors of all the Midanna. The white of the Hirga, the orange of the Hersa, the violet of the Homma, the brown of the Harra, the yellow of the Helda, the gold of the Hulna, the rose of the Hunda, the blue of the Hitta, the red of the Happa - and the green of the Hosta.
Also was the tent surrounded by warriors draped in these colors, warriors large and proud and eager for battle. Much did I wish that the Hosta might be among them, yet, had the Hosta been there, Jalav would not have been able to lead them all. So said Mida, she to whom every Midanna looked for direction and approval, she who was mother and leader to all. How foolish a warrior would be, to find fault with that which a goddess did.
Many warriors turned to stare as the Hitta warrior and I came through the trees, some exclaiming aloud as they found they knew me. I had made the acquaintance of each war leader of each clan, and many were the warriors beside whom I had fought. The comments grew louder the closer we came, and then was Rilas in the entrance of her tent, a smile upon her aging face, her lean body as straight as ever it had been.
Her hair, falling to her thighs and below, was touched with white, no longer the gold of her youth. Her clan covering fell to her ankles, as befitted her station, and it, too, was of all the colors of our sister clans. I led my lanthay up to her, and quickly did her hands grasp my shoulders.
"Jalav, you have returned!" she laughed, her warmth flowing through her hands to touch my soul. "It has been too long since last we spoke."
"Aye, Rilas." I smiled, placing my own hands upon her slender shoulders. "Much has happened since last we spoke, and you must know of it."
"What of the Hosta?" she asked at once, searching my face with the sharpness of her gaze. "All here have sworn to tear their prison to the ground, can we but find where they are held."
"Their place of capture must continue to stand the while," I answered, withdrawing my hands as the smile left me. "I come from Mida's domain upon this world, and bring her word and will to her warriors. The Hosta may not be freed till Mida's work is done."
"Jalav, I sense a great change in you," said she, withdrawing a step so that she might look more completely upon me. Her eyes fell on my life sign, a frown touched her, and her gaze returned to meet mine. "Come into my tent," said she. "There are many questions long awaiting answers. Who will see to the war leader's mount?"
Her words had been addressed to those about us, and many warriors stepped forward to offer their services. The giant lanthay, with its long silky white hair, had attracted much attention of its own by its unique appearance. Warriors are ever interested in finding superior mounts, for there are times in battle when one's mount can mean the difference between victory and defeat. The lanthay was taken away by a small knot of those who intended examining it thoroughly, and Rilas turned and led the way within her tent.
"Jalav, seat yourself and take your ease," said she, gesturing toward the dark leather of her tent floor. She herself went to the fire which burned below the roof hole, poured two pots of daru, and returned to where I had seated myself. Animal-fat candles stood about the tent in their tall holders, casting shadows about our doings, pointing up the pleasant lack of clutter. My flesh felt the smooth leather beneath it, remembering it from feyd long past, the aroma of daru filled my nostrils, waking the memory of its flavor; all things I had known so well, all things so long denied me.
"Have you no desire for the daru?" asked Rilas, and I returned to a closer awareness of my surroundings to find that she sat before me, offering the pot which had been poured for me. I took the pot with a small shake of my head, then attempted a smile for her hospitality.
"It seems many kalod since I last sat among my own," said I, sipping at the daru so that it might strengthen me. "Daru was given me in Mida's domain, yet the trail from there was long and without it."
"Tell me what befell you, that the journey became one to Mida's domain," said she, sipping at her own pot, her expression hooded. I knew she reserved opinion upon the matter and I smiled faintly, wishing I, too, might have remained skeptical.
"What befell the Hosta were males from the city of Ranistard," said I, leaning at ease upon one elbow. "These males were womanless, and came in stealth to take the Hosta for their own. Much ill was brought to my sisters by such doing, and now they lie as prisoners to the strength of males, used by them, beaten by them, filled with their seed so that nearly all are with child. They cannot stand beside us in battle, therefore does Mida decree that they must be left as they are till victory is ours."
"And you?" said Rilas, watching with pain as I swallowed down the daru in a gulp. "Were you not also taken by a male? How is it you were able to escape their clutches?"
"I?" I snorted. "Jalav was taken by many males, given by some, used by some, fought for by some. The sight of Jalav finds great favor in the eyes of males, yet the doings of Jalav do not find equal favor. Males are fond of a thing termed mercy, and greatly fond of their concept of punishment. Sooner would I have had death."
Finding the pot of daru emptied, I rose to my feet to fetch more of the drink. I seemed to have a great need of it, and Rilas spoke no word till I again sat before her.
"I have not before seen such bitterness within you," said she, giving me the compassion of her eyes. "And yet you were able to escape these males. Were you forced to go without taking some of their blood?"
"I took the blood of none of them," I whispered, closing my eyes against the pain. "It was my blood which was taken, and my strength, and nearly my sanity. Rilas - "
"Jalav, you have returned!" said she, a strength in her voice as her hand came to my shoulder. "No longer are you in their capture, no longer need you be concerned by them!"
"The concern will never be gone!" I cried, throwing my head up to look at her. "Rilas, I have done such a thing - "
I had begun the words, yet I could not finish them. I shuddered at the memory, knowing beforehand the condemnation which would be mine. To do such a thing for the sake of a male, to barter my very soul for his life - I shuddered again, nearly spilling the daru, and Rilas moved the closer to take the pot from me.
"Tell me of this thing," said she, a willingness to understand strong in her voice. "The dishonor may not be as deep as you believe. "
"The matter goes beyond dishonor," I said in a lifeless voice, lowering my head to bury my hands in my hair. "There was a male called Ceralt, he who took me from the Hosta home tents, he who found me after I had escaped over the walls of Ranistard, he who claimed me as his own despite my objections. Rilas, I cannot describe the feelings the male bred within me - hatred and outrage and humiliation and shame - and the deepest concern I have ever felt for another.
"Mida's world was bright when he held me in his arms, brighter still when his lips touched mine, brightest and most complete when our bodies were one. It was he who was used by Mida to bring me to her, to the domain she holds beside a god of the males called Sigurr. Ceralt's life was to be forfeit to this god of males, and this I could not allow. I - paid the price demanded by the dark god, and Ceralt's life was spared."
"This thing termed price," said Rilas very softly, her hand to my hair. "This is a male thing, is it not? Somewhat like trade, a value for a value? You received the life of the male - and gave what in return?"
Nearly did I sob, so deeply was I touched by the memory of what had been done to me. I sat cross-legged upon the leather, head bowed. Sigurr, thrice-damned, putrid god of males, bringer of agony, bottomless evil, defiler of life
"He touched my soul and withered it," I choked, nearly unable to speak of it. "Never have I been used so foully, so - Rilas, I am forevermore marked as his, forever ruined for the pleasures all warriors know. I shall never be the same."
"In time, Mida heals all painful memories," Rilas soothed, her hand yet astroke upon my hair. "The male whose life is now yours - is it your intention to seek him out?"
"I do not wish his life," I said wearily. "Nor do I wish to see him ever again. I shall never be a part of the life which is his, nor is he able to be a part of mine. He is a leader among his males, and I - I must be a leader among Midanna. It is this which Mida wishes, to give her the city beyond the hills."
"We are to take the city?" Rilas breathed, a great gladness in her tone. "This was told to you by Mida? Speak of her domain, Jalav, tell me of the wonders shown you."
I raised my head to see the glow in her eyes, the need to believe that I had indeed seen that which I had spoken of. Rilas would have preferred remaining unbiased in the matter, yet where Mida is concerned, how might a Keeper remain unbiased? Briefly I considered speaking of my thoughts upon Mida's domain, yet the consideration was idle. Had I not yet been shown the truth of the matter, I, too, would have failed to believe.
"There are a few wonders in Mida's earthly domain, Rilas." I shrugged, forgoing any further indulgence in self-pity. What was, was, and might not in future be undone. "Mida keeps those called Midanna by her, yet not Midanna such as we know. They have no enemies within the caverns which are their dwelling place save for Sigurr's males, and these males they are forbidden to raise sword to. Instead, they use sword and shield upon each other in mock battle, a thing which makes them unfit to face even our youngest warriors. Pets, Mida termed them, and pets they are, much in awe of a true warrior. They strut well and boast well - and use males with true eagerness - yet they cannot stand toe to toe with a warrior."
"These - pets - have males for use?" Rilas frowned, displeased to a great degree. No Midanna warrior is permitted the use of a male till she has proven herself in battle. That Mida allowed unproven warriors males was a disturbing note in a tale of wonder.
"They have slaves and captives," I nodded, speaking no more than the truth. "The slaves are at the disposal of all, to be used when need comes upon them. These males are a sorry lot, well made yet spiritless and empty within. The captives are what travelers are taken, such as the males of the set with which I had traveled." I smiled faintly, recalling the difficulty the so-called warriors had had with those captives. "The males were not pleased, nor of a mind to assist in their use. Without recourse to the sthuvad drug, which Mida refused them, they found it necessary to beg Mida's aid before the males might be used."
Rilas snorted in derision, handed me my pot of daru, then drained her own. Well did I recall the dismay of the child females in Mida's domain when the males had refused to provide them with sport. Much had they strutted and pranced and boasted of their prowess with blades, ranging themselves before the naked males, who had been taken to a large chamber and chained by the neck to the wall. All the males had been taken there save Ceralt, who remained too deeply wounded to be used.
The males looked upon those females who postured before them, sent brief glances toward me where I stood by the chamber's entrance, then proceeded to laugh at wenches who presumed to call themselves warriors. Mida's pets grew furious at such ridicule, yet there was little they might do save slay the males. They had no knowledge of rousing a male save through use of the sthuvad drug, and quickly found that the threat of death brings yielding upon a female sooner than upon a male. Should the male truly be in fear of his life, he will most often be rendered entirely incapable of performance.
Throughout the exchange, I found it most difficult to remain sober-faced, and then, when the females were most filled with frustration and venom, the golden mists gathered and Mida appeared. Truly did she seem a goddess in her loveliness, her light, gentle laughter an added spur to the fury of her females. Again they begged for the use of the sthuvad drug, and again Mida denied them, yet the males were not to continue in their amusement. To each of the males did Mida point, one by one, and one by one were they forced to their backs as though chained, their desire touched and quickly begun.
Before no more than a hand of reckid, each male twisted upon the floor of the chamber, as furious as the females had been, as prepared for the taking as helpless children. Quickly then did Mida's wenches fall upon them, to use them slowly or quickly, to toy with their need or deny them altogether, to do them as they had thought only they might do females. I watched till Telion and Lialt, in mid-curse, were taken together, then did I turn and leave the chamber, oddly contented.
Telion and Lialt had used me as they pleased, yet now had they been put to use, as humiliatingly as had I. The experience would do naught for them, for they would remain convinced of their right till life left them, yet had the experience been given them. Perhaps, in the telling of it, other males, possessed of more reason, would see what they did not.
"The caverns of the domain are vast indeed," I continued, watching Rilas rise to refill her pot and then seat herself again before me. "The males of the caverns, Sigurr's males, have a great deal more battle experience than the females, for it is they who challenge intruders. The caverns of the males are somewhat removed from those of Mida's pets, for the two groups view each other with naught save hostility. Before I was given leave to take to the trail, I was made to face one of these males at Sigurr's request."
"It is best to remain at a distance from free males," Rilas observed, nodding in approval. "This male you were made to face - was there difficulty from the others when you slew him?"
"I was not permitted to slay him," I informed her, again feeling annoyance at the thing. "The male was Sigurr's, therefore in the dark god's province, save should he transgress upon that which is Mida's. My sword found the heart within him, yet Sigurr restored his life before the blade had been withdrawn. His strength to face me was no more, yet his life had been returned to him."
"Mida!" Rilas muttered, her eyes widened more than I had ever before seen them. "Truly this male god has been given powers to rival Mida's. Does she propose to allow the thing to continue?"
Briefly I hesitated, for I knew not how the query might best be answered. Rilas had not stood in my steps, nor seen what I had seen.
"Mida is - in contest with Sigurr," I stumbled, well aware of Rilas' gaze sharp upon me. "Sigurr proposes that I raise his legions, the Sigurri, to battle beside our Midanna against the coming strangers, thinking that his Sigurri will best us once the greater battle is done. Mida wishes me to raise his legions as he asks, yet are we to destroy them instead when the strangers have been seen to. This, I assured her, would be done with ease."
"Indeed," nodded Rilas with a gesture of contempt. "These presumptuous males will not stand long before our warriors. Have you been told the whereabouts of these Sigurri?"
"No," said I, a contempt entering me to match Rilas'. "Sigurr fears I will lead our warriors in attack against the city his males dwell in, therefore are we to know naught of the city till I and a small band of our warriors are led there by those Sigurri now held captive within Bellinard. Once Bellinard is ours, the Sigurri may be freed."
"I see there is much set to our hands," Rilas mused, sipping at the daru she held, her gaze distant from the tent. "The city of Bellinard must be taken and held, yet these males termed Sigurri must not be slain. What will occur should the Bellinard males use the Sigurri males to battle against us?"
Rilas seemed vexed at the thought, and it came to me how little she knew of the doings of males.
"The Sigurri will not be used so," I informed her, knowing I spoke the truth. "They are now held as slaves by the Bellinard males, and slaves are not given weapons with which they may free themselves. Do you forget that I, too, was held slave in Bellinard?"
"Indeed had I forgotten," smiled Rilas, a smile of revenge in the offing. "Should those who wronged you survive our attack, their disposition must certainly be yours."
"I shall allow none to deny me the pleasure," I smiled in return, setting the daru pot down so that I might stretch at ease upon the leather. "There are those in Bellinard, both male and female, who shall find my wrath to be no small thing. Should they survive they will regret their survival, for I mean to show them mercy."
Rilas began to reply, then swallowed the words, knowing in some manner that I did not wish to speak of mercy. Mercy was a doing of males, far more cruel than any manner of torture conceived of by Midanna. With the black leather of the tent floor comfortably beneath my back and legs, I allowed the weariness deep within my flesh to flow free. There were many things I had learned among males, yet few would find approval among Midanna. When the city was mine, I would see with what approval the males themselves faced them.
"If you hunger, I would share Mida's bounty with you," said Rilas, and then her finger came to the scar still easily visible upon my thigh. "This mark and the others like it - the thought came earlier that you had perhaps walked the lines for enemies, yet surely this cannot be. You have long been absent from the lands of Midanna, and, most importantly, you continue to live."
My flesh twinged to the touch of her finger, my mind returning to the fey I had acquired the scars. I had escaped over the wall of Ranistard the darkness previous, weak with pain and lack of sustenance, seeking no more than my freedom from the capture of males. Then had I met a small band of Silla, two hands of warriors and one who stood as war leader among them, who had also escaped from the city.
To keep from being struck down like a herd beast, I had walked the lines for them, passing each warrior and her spear in an attempt to reach the sword at the end of the lines. The toll taken by the spears had been too heavy, and I had been unable to reach the sword stood so enticingly before me. Wrapped in pain, covering the ground with streams of lifeblood, I had fallen short of the sword, unable to rise again, unable to avenge myself.
"Indeed did I walk the lines for enemy Midanna," I growled, forcing my eyes to the tent roof to keep from sending my lust for vengeance toward the Keeper. "Had Mida not intervened I would now be naught save picked bones, yellowing in the light of the fey, that or crippled beyond hope. It has long been my wish to one fey meet those falth again."
"May Mida hear your prayer and smile upon you," said Rilas, a soft understanding to her tone. Her hand came to me where I lay and touched my shoulder, then she rose easily to her feet to go to the tent entrance. Clearly did I hear her call for provender so that we might feed, yet I felt no urge to rise from my back in anticipation of what might be brought.
Once again was I among Midanna, once again was it possible for Jalav to rest secure among her own. Rilas returned to seat herself once more, yet my eyes had closed and did not care to open. The air was fresh and clean, the tent was dim, the fey was early, and I had been upon the trail since before the new light. When Rilas did not soon speak again, another spoke in her place and I slept.
When I awoke there was provender awaiting me, that and freshly brewed daru. Rilas had already fed, yet she sat in silence the while I fed, observing the proper manner in which one partakes of Mida's bounty. She sat cross-legged, as did I, finding her long though slit clan covering no hindrance to the position. When at last I had finished the cut of parvan, she watched a moment as I sipped at my daru, then spoke.
"I would now speak of the greatest change about you," said she, her expression carefully hooded. "For many kalod have I seen the carving which was your life sign, hanging upon its leather between your breasts. I believe I know the lines of it as well as I know the lines of my own, yet those self-same lines now comprise other than that which was. What has been done to your life sign, Jalav, and what meaning does it hold?"
Her face, no longer youthful, seemed strained beneath the careful expression which hooded it. Her hand had crept to her own life sign, communing with it as I had often communed with mine, seeking a comfort her eyes denied her. Much did I wish I might give her such comfort, yet comfort was not for Midanna.
"My life sign has been touched by both Mida and Sigurr," said I, finding an acceptance of sorts in the knowledge that naught might be done to change matters once more. "Its substance now resembles Mida's Crystals and within in roils Sigurr's breath, a sign to his Sigurri that I ride in his name. I am to lead the Midanna to victory in Bellinard, then am I to seek out the Sigurri. All has been decided by the gods; you and I, mere mortals, have naught else to do save obey."
Rilas' light eyes came to my face, searching deeply for that which I had no knowledge of, finding naught of that which she sought. Long did she stare in earnest search, then her head shook briefly in negation.
"Truly have you become an instrument of the gods," said she, "yet I find naught of concern within you. Do you not fear Mida's wrath should you fail? Do you not fear disbelief on the part of others whose assistance and obedience you must have? Do you not wish freedom from these tasks so that you might once again take up the life you previously led?"
My laugh was short and nearly bitter, and I rose to my feet to turn from Rilas toward the tent entrance.
"I shall not fail," I informed her, my left hand to the hilt of the sword I wore, "therefore is there naught to fear from Mida. The belief of others is unnecessary to me; I require naught save their obedience. As to the life which once I led, think you one chosen by the gods will be allowed to return to so mundane an existence? Should I somehow find less success than is acceptable, my soul is forfeit; should I succeed in all tasks set to my hand, there will be other things required of me. To believe otherwise would be foolishness."
A sound came, as of Rilas rising to her feet, and a moment later a strong, steady hand came to my shoulder.
"You are no longer the Jalav I once knew," said she, and a pride of sorts was to be heard in her voice. "You show the strength and wisdom of one worthy of Mida's blessing. There will be great glory in your doings before Mida gathers you to her bosom, and I am honored to be allowed to assist you. Will you walk about the camp with me, so that the others might see you?"
I stood a moment reflecting upon the glory Rilas spoke of, yet bitterness was idle under such circumstances. I nodded in reply to her request, feeling her gratitude in the squeeze of her hand before she withdrew it from my shoulder, and then we two left her tent.
The greened sunshine came through the trees, warming the camp through which we walked. Mida's light was past its highest yet strong for all of that, adding to the new strength I felt within me. I had slept no more than two hind, yet the sleep had been a deep one, untroubled by thoughts of predators on the hunt and enemies stalking my trail.
Many and many Midanna were about, each in her own clan color, a large number eager to approach Rilas and myself to ask of what occurred. We walked slowly as I explained that I had forsaken Hosta green till the Hosta might be freed of their bonds, and murmurs of approval came from those who heard my words. For a Midanna to be bereft of her clan colors was a heavy burden, one no warrior took up without good cause.
Many of the Hosta's sister clans were eager to set about freeing them, finding disappointment in my assertion that such an act was not yet to be. That we were to take the city they camped near and then battle strangers from the depths of the unknown was something of a distraction for them, yet Midanna find it difficult abandoning their own, especially when their own are in need of assistance. They would do as Mida wished, yet the Hosta would not be forgotten.
With nine full Midanna clans upon the same quest, the camp was large indeed. Each clan numbered greater than twenty hands of warriors, some walking about with Rilas and myself, some taking their ease where they had set their sleeping leather, some practicing at weapons, others gone about the business of hunting for the camp's provender or standing watch about its perimeter.
After a few reckid of walking, we came upon a clearing which was guarded by many warriors armed with sword and spear, in the midst of which were more than ten hands of males, bound hand and foot with leather, their throats also circled by leather which held them fast to trees.
The captives, city males by the appearance of their cloth body coverings, were for the most part hard used, their cloth coverings slit open to display the sight of male strength, their eyes dull from pain and use of the sthuvad drug. Some moaned in their misery, yet some were recently enough taken that they had not yet learned the proper manner before their captors. They fought the leather which bound them, sweat glistening upon their hard, strong bodies, curses falling in fury from their lips. There were three of those who fought so, and their eyes came to me when I paused to inspect them.
"Hunters from the city we mean to take," said Rilas, indicating the males within the clearing. "We take no others than those who approach our camp too closely, for we do not wish to alert those within. They are far too few for the needs of our warriors, yet must we make do with that which Mida sends us. After the city is ours, our warriors will have the pick of the captives."
"You there!" called one of the three males as I nodded at Rilas' words. "You in the breech!"
"Silence!" snapped one of his guards, a Hirga by the white of her clan covering. "The war leader wishes to hear naught of male prattle!"
"Prattle!" exploded the male, his broad face atwist with anger. "When I speak to a wench, there is naught of prattle about the conversation - for the wench is not allowed speech of her own! By the look of her, that black-haired wench stands high among you, and therefore do I demand that she attend me! She, at least, may comprehend the jeopardy you all stand in!"
The Hirga scowled in insult and raised her spear to attend the male with its haft, yet I stepped forward and stayed the blow. Many males, in supposed superiority, speak freely of that which a warrior wishes to learn, in an attempt to force the warrior to bow to his will. Should this male be as foolish as others, surely would he speak of Bellinard and what changes had occurred since last I had been there.
"You wish to speak with me?" I said, moving farther toward the place where the males lay. The eyes of all three were upon me, their gazes moving from breasts to thighs and back again, finding pleasure in the sight of Jalav. They, among all the others, had coverings which were whole, showing they were as yet untouched.
"I do not speak with females," growled the male who had called to me, his dark eyes attempting to master mine. "I am accustomed to commanding, they to obeying. My men and I are to be released at once, else will it surely go harder for you when the High Seat's guard have captured all of you. I, myself, will buy you when you have been declared slave, and your conduct at this moment will determine what treatment you receive at my hands. Now: have us released, and with speed!"
Closely did the male look upon me, clearly expecting immediate obedience to his will. Easily might it be seen that the pompous oaf knew naught of value, therefore did I turn to the Hirga who stood not far distant.
"I was mistaken in believing this male wished to speak with me," said I to her evident disapproval. "As he commanded, he is to be released at once - in the charge of whichever warriors wish his use. You are to see to it."
"At once, war leader," laughed the Hirga, turning to gaze upon the frothing fury of the male, who had heard my words. I ignored his shouts and demands as I returned to Rilas and the others who awaited me, recalling the hatred which had filled Ceralt and Telion when they thought upon their use as captives. Much had they cursed their time at sthuvad use, recalling naught save humiliation and pain, burning to be avenged against those who had used them so.
And yet, when it had come to the use of Jalav, naught save pleasure did they think they gave her, no bitterness, no humiliation. Males are peculiarly sightless in their doings, knowing no more than their own desires, their own needs and wants. To speak with one was an exercise in frustration; to reason with one an impossibility. Males possess no reason, no more than the children of the wild.
"The males seem angered," Rilas chuckled, walking beside me as I continued on. "Males are ever angered when warriors teach them their place."
"They will soon have little strength for anger," I observed, seeing the number of warriors who came at the Hirga's summons. The males themselves no longer shouted and cursed, for the sthuvad drug was even then being forced upon them. They would be made to serve till the drug's lust left them, rendering them incapable of further service till the drug was given the following time.
In such a way must males be used when many wished to use them, for males were not like females. No drug was needed by Sigurr's males when they took the use of the females of the set accompanying me, their rightful spoils as the males of the set had been for Mida's pets. Much had the females screamed and thrown themselves about in attempted escape, yet the males, in laughing pursuit, had netted them all. They had each been stripped of the leather they wore, forced to stand bare before the males who meant to take them, then one by one were put to their backs and used before the others.
Few had found enjoyment in their use and, as the time passed, true pain was brought to them. The number of Sigurr's males was large, far larger than the number of females to be used, yet each male had taken his full turn before the wretched females were released. I had been made to watch the proceedings by Mida, shown the doings through her golden mists as we sat within her chamber, forbidden to turn and walk from the sight. Shortly thereafter I had been required to face Sigurr's male with blades, and great had been my pleasure when my point had entered his chest. Would that Sigurr had not reclaimed the life of the male.
The walk beneath the trees of the forest continued, Rilas directing our steps to the left of the captives' clearing, toward another small clearing among the greenery. I thought little concerning this new direction, yet once we had neared the place of fewer trees I saw something that captured my attention as a zaran captures its prey. The clan coverings about the bodies of the warriors there appeared to be the red of Silla trash. My head came up as my hand went to my sword hilt, yet Rilas' hand came to cover mine.
"You are not mistaken, Jalav," said she, a hardness having entered her tone. "They are indeed Silla, yet have we agreed upon a temporary truce with them. They have lately escaped capture by males, and have offered their swords in our cause should we allow them opportunity for revenge. I have not yet given my final decision upon the matter for they are, after all, Silla, yet do I feel we must consider their offer carefully before rejecting it."
"There is no more than one thing to be considered," said I, keeping my eyes upon the red-clad forms to be seen through the trees - and my hand upon the sword I wore. "Are they in possession of your word that no harm shall come to them the while they remain here, or are they free to be faced and challenged? This I must know at once, Rilas, for I would not sully your word with my actions. Should the need arise, I will follow them from camp upon their departure."
"For what reason do you ask this, Jalav?" said she, a frown of displeasure in her voice. "Do you have quarrel with them upon other grounds than that they are Silla?"
"Indeed," I nodded, a great, grim pleasure filling me. "It was they for whom I walked the lines, they who took no care to dispatch an enemy before she might fall into the hands of males. I swore they would regret not having taken my life, and now shall they see how Mida rewards the warrior who rides in her name. Speak to me in answer, Rilas, for I will not stand here long in talk."
"The truce was one guaranteed by their actions," said she, her voice filled with anger. "They made no mention of having faced one of our own, an admission of guilt wordlessly put forward. The truce is no more."
"And soon, Mida willing, they will be the same," said I, immediately moving forward toward those hated forms. I strode quickly to the clearing and entered it, drawing no more than a glance from those Silla seated and standing about. What need had they to concern themselves with those who came and went? Did they not have a truce to protect them? She who stood as war leader to them conversed with two others without turning, yet I knew her without having the sight of her face. Her features were graven in my memory, the sound of her voice raised in laughter over my agony clear beside them. Never would I forget her - till she lay lifeless at my feet.
"Helis," said I, astand in the middle of the clearing with none between us. My voice, filled with the venom I had so long choked on, reached her and brought her head about with a frown, her eyes searching for the one who called her by name. When her gaze fell upon me she stared in disbelief, then turned full around to face me with that disbelief clear in the stiffening of her body.
"You!" said she, taking one step forward before halting, her hand stopped just short of the sword she wore. "You were not - How is it possible you - "
"I had no doubt Jalav's charge was true," said Rilas, stepping out to my right as she cut into the Silla's stumbling words, "and now you, yourself, confirm them. You stand accused by your own tongue."
"Accused in what manner?" snapped the Silla, anger all through her. "That this one walked the lines for us was no more than what we would have found at her hands had our positions been reversed! Has a Silla never walked the lines for a Hosta?"
"No Silla has ever been denied individual combat while I stood as war leader," I ground out, returning her furious gaze to me. "When one is a true war leader, one does not fear the outcome of such combat. Nor would I have allowed a warrior who had faced me - with swords or through the lines - to fall into the hands of males. It would have been wiser of you to face me that first time, Silla; I could not then have bested you."
"Nor will you now, Hosta," she returned, quickly drawing her blade. "When my point moves close you will recall the touch of the spears, how sharply they entered your flesh and how thickly your blood flowed. You will find yourself different from what you were, Hosta, and then will you find yourself slain."
The smile upon her lips as she moved forward showed how thoroughly she believed the words she had spoken, yet the murmur among the warriors accompanying Rilas and myself was more important by far. No warrior stood in that forest that fey who did not know of some warrior who had returned from a wound less than she had been than before the wound.
To feel metal in one's flesh and give drink to the ground with one's blood is not a thing easily forgotten, a thing to be dismissed as though of no consequence. If I were to lead our clans against Bellinard as Mida wished, the warriors and war leaders who had accompanied Rilas must be shown I was not less than I had been. Perhaps, had I not been touched by Sigurr and chosen by Mida, the task would have proven itself more difficult.
Without words, I drew my sword as the Silla had done, moving forward to match her advance, doing naught to bring her attention to my blade. The sword given me by Mida was of a pair with the dagger worn in the leg bands upon my right leg, the blades pale gold, the hilts silver-chased black, the weapons odd enough to give one pause. Never before had I seen their like, with strokes put upon the blades which spoke in a tongue I was sure none knew, and I had no wish for sight of them to strike fear in the Silla's heart. That I used Mida's weapon to face the Silla was of no consequence; it would be my skill which bested her, my vengeance which took the blood from her as her commands had taken the blood from me. Her life was mine, and it would be I alone who took it.
The Silla, filled to overflowing with confidence and pleasure, awaited my arrival in the center of the clearing. As I approached her, her blade flashed out, a vicious stroke meant to wound rather than kill, an attempt to drive me back in fear rather than a true beginning of combat. I raised my weapon and slipped the stroke with no effort, showing clearly by my failure to return the stroke in kind that I had no interest in engaging in the play of warriors-to-be.
The smile and pleasure faded from the Silla's face as her gaze met mine, ending the foolishness of play, bringing a grimness upon her to match that which she saw in me. It had been her choice to stand as war leader to her small band of warriors, to take the place of Zolin, true war leader of the Silla, she whom I had previously bested and slain. Now would she learn the meaning of that which she so ardently desired, the glory of being a war leader to Midanna - and the demands of the state.
Helis' weapon slashed toward me in true attack, and as our blades met I felt the thrill of battle flash through me, setting my blood to singing, bringing me truly alive. So long had been my time of capture by the males, so long had I been forced to swallow the bile of insult unchallenged, so long had I been denied the glory and satisfaction of battle! The weapon I held was perfection for a warrior, beautifully balanced, sharp and strong, able to withstand the edge of the Silla's blade without losing its keenness.
Our blades rang again as the Silla's point attempted my flesh, yet was it my edge which gleamed with abrupt crimson as Helis proved herself awkward in guarding after attack. Upon her forearm was a matching line of red which paled her skin with its presence, which shook her body with a brief tremor, which added worry to the look in her eyes. The fear she had hoped for had not found me, yet was there another upon whom such fear might fall. My hand closed more tightly about the hilt of Mida's sword, and then was the battle so eagerly sought by Helis brought to her.
The battle after first blood, which took little time, was much of a disappointment. The Silla brought her sword up to guard against my attack, yet the fury of the assault drove her slowly back across the clearing. Helis was a blooded warrior and therefore hardly one to give over her life before the final sword thrust, yet had she become leader of her sisters through no more than words.
Each warrior who wore the second silver ring of a war leader had taken that second ring from the ear of the war leader she had slain and replaced, proving her worth as a warrior and her superiority to she whom she had slain. It had been I, not Helis, who had bested the Silla war leader, and this fact took great toll from what confidence Helis had been able to generate. Her defense quickly grew fearful and unsure, her sword no longer daring to thrust at me lest I discover another unguarded road to her flesh, her body shuddering when my edge or point reached her despite her efforts at defense.
The Silla bled from nearly as many points as I had bled, yet she made no more outcry or protest than I had made, warming me to her despite the red of her clan covering. I had been so long among city and village slave-females, those who wept and cried out in their pain and fear, those who cringed and begged for mercy at thought of punishment to be given them by their males; the Silla knew herself bested yet continued to face me, thereby earning the right to a speedier end to torment.
I struck hard, with much strength, knocking her blade from before her, then thrust forward to see my blade bury itself in her chest, below and between her breasts. The Silla's eyes widened as her body convulsed, covering my blade with a torrent of red, and then Mida's light was gone from her eyes, showing her soul had already fled. I withdrew from her before her body fell to the sweet ground, then turned with dripping sword to face the others of the Silla.
"Which others among you would stand as war leader?" I demanded, looking from one to the other of them as they stared at the lifeless, untenanted flesh which once had been Helis. "Which of you burn to face me with swords, to prove that I am no longer fit to be called Midanna?"
The Silla stirred at my words, their eyes coming to study me where I stood, feet spread, body and sword readied, head held high. The hands of one or two flexed toward their swords as lips tightened and growls arose in their throats, yet they knew well enough that their skill with swords was not equal to mine.
To face me singly would be sure death for she who made the attempt, yet did the Silla trash stand two hands in number. One among them whispered to the others, another added agreement and encouragement, and then were they all rushing forward, sword in hand, voices raised in battle cry, to face me together as they had not the courage to do separately.
The first moments were a flurry of sword thrusts and raging shouts, attack and defense, madness and more madness. I struck away blades thirsting for my blood, taking small toll in counter-thrusts among the number of swords before me, thanking Mida that not all of them were able to join the line of attack at once.
And then those others who had walked with me had joined the battle, engaging the Silla and drawing away all save two. The blood thrummed through my body in true battle appreciation, though my lip curled in disgust at the actions of the Silla. To die in battle is the right of all Midanna, yet no other than Silla trash would fall upon a single warrior in numbers where their own safety would be assured.
Had they demanded their right to battle, no others save warriors such as they would have come forward to face them, warriors in numbers equal to theirs. Now they faced not one war leader but several, those who had walked with Rilas and myself, those who had no patience with cowardly actions. The Silla were done sooner than they knew, and the doing took little more time than the telling.
The two remaining before me were those who had urged the others to the attack, yet they, themselves, were less than eager to face me. After a moment of hesitation they emboldened themselves to strike together, one high, at my head, one low, at my legs. I jumped quickly to my right as they struck, blocking the blow to my head, avoiding the blow at my legs.
And then another stood beside me, a warrior with hair so pale it seemed nearly white, one whose clan covering was Hitta blue. The Hitta took the Silla to my left, I the one before me, and soon were the two enemy Midanna again one with their sisters, lying upon the ground amid pools of blood. No single Silla had been spared, as was proper, and when all was done, the Hitta turned to me with a grin.
"Since the moment of their arrival have I been praying for such battle," said she, a sparkle in the green of her eyes. "I salute you, war leader, for having rid us of their presence, and for having provided such sport. "
"The doing was not mine," said I, looking about the clearing which had once more regained the peace of battle ended. "The Silla falth brought their own ending upon themselves, choosing death in battle over life in captivity. The choice itself was commendable, yet one does not begin an honorable act with dishonor."
"Silla know naught save dishonor," snorted this light-haired warrior, also looking about herself. "Had they remained behind us when we began our attack upon the city, I would not have known in which direction to point my sword."
"Jalav, how do you fare?" demanded Rilas, reaching me with anger all through her. A Keeper is denied the glory of battle for other glory is hers, yet did Rilas recall the battles of her youth and bitterly regret her loss. She, as Keeper to our clans of Midanna, would not refuse the demands of her position, yet did she feel the bitterness of denial.
"I am revenged, Rilas," I smiled, holding my bloody sword away from her. "The doing provided little of the effort I would have preferred, yet am I revenged."
"The effort was great enough for my liking," said she, frowning as she moved her eyes about me. "How badly do the wounds pain you?"
"Wounds?" I echoed, finding I also matched her frown as I looked upon myself, seeking signs of that of which Rilas spoke. Surely, had I been wounded I would have known it, and yet there, in two places upon my left arm and one place upon my left leg, were signs of where Silla swords had reached me.
The wounds were not serious, yet it took sight of them to bring me the burning throb of their existence, the flare of pain I had not felt when I had received them. Had I been asked as to when they had been given me, I would not have found it possible to answer.
"Mida continues to hold her shield firmly before you," said Rilas, a grim pleasure to her tone. "Not only were you able to keep their points from you till the others had joined you, you were also made to feel no pain which might dangerously distract you. With such aid as that, the city will surely be yours."
"It will not fall of its own," said I, pondering what truth might lie in Rilas' words. Had it been Mida's hand which had kept the pain from me, or was there another, unknowable reason for the happening? Perhaps the vague suspicions I felt were unfounded, yet so much had occurred in my life which began as unexplained confusion that I now felt I saw some pattern to the thing - which this latest occurrence lacked.
"Certainly it will not fall of its own," Rilas laughed, looking about to see more and more warriors come streaming toward the clearing from all about. "It is we who will cause its fall, and you who will lead us. Come and clean your sword and tend your wounds, Jalav, and then speak to us of the manner in which we are to take that place of males. All here will listen, Jalav, and all will follow. "
"Aye, speak to us, war leader!" came from all about, the voices filled full with agreement and a willingness to obey. Shining faces surrounded me, faces filled with respect and support, and I saw at last the role played by those Silla who were no more. My own ascendancy to war leadership of all the clans had been accomplished through the slaying of hated enemies, their attack upon me the spur which caused the other war leaders to move in my cause.
Here, indeed, did I see the hand of Mida, yet little quarrel did I have with the method used. Far better to spill enemy blood to achieve my goal, for each and every one of my sisters would be needed to take Bellinard. Rilas moved off in the direction of her tent, beckoning me with her, and gladly did the throngs of warriors part to let me pass. I would speak and they would listen, I would lead and they would follow, and then, Mida willing, the city would be ours.