14

“Drifter!” Colin called sharply.

Eraeth, standing about twenty paces distant, spun, his sword half drawn before he realized that Colin pointed toward one of the strange rippling distortions. Colin had seen one a few days out onto the plains after leaving the Well to return to Portstown. But that had been distant and looked no larger than a man; it had been far enough away that he could shrug it off as heat haze, although he was certain it wasn’t.

This one was much closer and much larger-big enough to swallow the entire group of Alvritshai with Colin, even with them scattered apart as they were during the rest period.

Eraeth snorted in derision and slipped his sword back into place with a snick. But Colin noticed he didn’t relax.

Neither did any of the other Alvritshai who’d looked up. They all tracked the distortion’s slow, steady progress as it slid by. The grass beneath the translucent ripples bent downward beneath it, pressed flat at the drifter’s base. Waves spread outward from it, as if it were a stone thrown into water.

When it became apparent that it wouldn’t drift close enough to them to be a concern, Eraeth turned back to his horse, lifting up one of the animal’s hooves to check for damage. He slipped a small tool, like a miniature pick, from a pouch and began cleaning.

Colin shifted closer, his own horse still drinking heavily from the stream that bubbled up from the earth near the base of a small hillock. Sources of water were scarce on the plains, since most of it was hidden underground, so when they found a stream aboveground, they always stopped to refill their waterskins. The Alvritshai seemed to know where the streams were located and had hidden caches of food stored at various places on the plains-mostly dried, smoked gaezel, spiced, like what Aeren had offered his father and the rest of the greeting party when they’d first met on the plains. Once, they’d even halted in the middle of a flat and dug down into the earth until water gurgled to the surface and formed a small pool. Eating was formal, almost ritualistic, even here on the plains, as it had been during their meeting over sixty years before. Nearly everything the Alvritshai did was ritualistic, stiff and formal, and yet Colin found himself settling into the rhythms as the days passed.

“What is it?” Colin asked.

Eraeth looked up with a glare. He’d been much more scathing and vicious since they entered the plains; Colin suspected that it was because Aeren refused to tell the Protector where they were going and why, although neither Aeren nor Eraeth had confirmed this. Aeren had barely spoken to either of them, keeping to himself during the breaks, withdrawn and distant, his mood bleak and troubled. The same mood had infected the rest of the Alvritshai, Eraeth in particular.

“What is what?” Eraeth snarled.

“That,” Colin said, exasperated. “The Drifter. What is it? Where does it come from? What does it do?”

Eraeth rolled his eyes, finished cleaning out the collected dirt and grass from his horse’s hoof, then released the horse, murmuring something in the animal’s ear before patting it on the flank. Its ear pricked back, and it snuffled softly before reaching for the grass.

“We call it an occumaen, a ‘breath of heaven.’ They appear on the plains, travel a ways, and then they vanish. And they are extremely dangerous.”

Colin thought about the horses being spooked in the wagon train, before the disastrous attempt to climb the Bluff. “But where do they come from?”

Eraeth’s face twisted into an irritated grimace, ready to shove Colin’s question to one side as unimportant, when someone else spoke.

“The Scripts claim that the occumaen come from Aielan, that they are here to seek out those she wishes to speak to and take them to her. Many people have vanished in the presence of one of the occumaen. There are legends that entire armies have been lost to them.”

Both Colin and Eraeth turned toward Aeren. The Alvritshai lord’s face was still fixed, mouth drawn downward, but it was the first time in the past week that he’d interjected anything into a conversation. Eraeth straightened, a look of hope flashing through his eyes.

“If that’s the case, why don’t the Alvritshai rush toward them? Why do you keep back? You obviously worship Aielan, and her… Light.”

Aeren smiled slightly. “Would you rush to meet this Diermani you pray to?”

Colin frowned, thought about the day of the wagon attack, of the Shadows touching him, of the cold death they’d offered. He’d had a chance to seek out Diermani then, but when the Faelehgre offered him an alternative, he’d taken it. Even though he hadn’t fully understood the consequences of his choice. “No,” he said softly. “No, I wouldn’t. I didn’t.”

Aeren nodded, his ironic smile softening. “Faith is a strange thing. We worship Aeilan, we pray to her Light, hope that in the end we shall find it… but until that end is inevitable, we shun it. At all costs. And yet without faith…” He didn’t finish, turning to face Eraeth. “We must all have faith. In Aielan, in Diermani-” a quick flick of his glance and a respectful bow of his head toward Colin, “-in ourselves, and, most important, in each other. It is all that we have, in the end.”

Eraeth stiffened, as if Aeren had offered up a formal reprimand. Then, he bowed his head.

Aeren moved off. When he was far enough away, Eraeth said in a low voice, “He was once an acolyte in the Order, training to be a follower of Aielan. It was a common calling for second sons of the Houses, and it suited him. He had risen fairly high within the acolytes’ ranks and in the esteem of Lotaern, the Order’s leader, before the death of his father forced him to return to his House.” Eraeth turned toward Colin, a strange mixture of pain, regret, and hostility in his eyes, as if somehow the death of Aeren’s father were Colin’s fault.

And at that moment, Colin’s stomach seized, the heat flaring up his side and into his chest, the pain piercing into his abdomen. He gasped, clutched at his gut, tried to remain standing, but the strength drained out of his legs. He fell, writhing on the grass as the heat expanded until it felt as if it were consuming him from the inside out. Hissing between clenched teeth, he rolled to the side and pressed his face into the earth, breathed in the scent of grain overlaid with the hideously enticing scent of leaves and snow. The sharp tincture of blood flooded the back of his throat, and with a nearly soundless cry he began scrabbling for his satchel. The pain was too great, the heat eating him up inside. He needed the vial, needed the Lifeblood to soothe it. His fingers found the ties, jerked them open as his arm spasmed, and then he rooted through the contents blindly, still curled over the pain in his stomach. Vaguely he heard shouts, but then his hand closed over the cloth containing the vial.

He snatched his hand free of the satchel, let the bag fall, and pulled the vial out of its protective cloth. His entire body trembled now, although the heat had begun to receed. He held the vial up to the sunlight, could practically taste the clear liquid inside already, reached to open it And a hand-a pale-skinned, Alvritshai hand-latched onto his arm and held it. He cried out, his voice cracking with frustrated anger, and glared up at Eraeth, who’d crouched down next to him in the grass.

“Let go.” The words came out in a growl, between clenched teeth.

“What is it?” Eraeth asked, his voice hard.

Colin tried to break Eraeth’s hold, but the Alvritshai was stronger than he looked. He shot a glance toward the nearest of the Phalanx as they gathered around, at Aeren, who stood a few paces back, his brow creased in confusion, but none of them moved forward to help him. So he turned his attention back to Eraeth. “It will help with the seizure. It will stop the pain.”

Confusion flickered across Eraeth’s face, and his grip on Colin’s arm eased.

But then Aeren spoke. He’d moved forward so that he stood behind Eraeth. “Is it from the sarenavriell? Is it from the Well?”

Colin didn’t have to answer. Aeren nodded and frowned, a look of pity crossing his face.

He turned to Eraeth. “Let him have it. He is shaeveran. He knows the consequences of using it.”

Colin shuddered at the weight in Aeren’s words as Eraeth released him. He snatched the vial close to his chest, his body still shaking. Eraeth stared down at him a long moment, his expression unreadable. Then he stood and turned away.

“Wait,” Colin said. He tasted the blood in the back of his throat, swallowed it.

Eraeth paused but didn’t turn. Everyone else hesitated, even Aeren, the lord looking back.

Colin thought about Osserin’s last words as he left the forest. You’ll return.

This was why. He’d taken the Lifeblood with him. He’d felt it every step of the way across the plains, tasted it in the back of his throat after every seizure, yearned for it. Its presence exacerbated the withdrawal symptoms, might even have made them worse. He needed to get rid of it, but he couldn’t. The thought of pouring it out on the ground made his bones ache. And he wasn’t certain he wouldn’t need it eventually. If the Well had claimed him completely, he’d need the Lifeblood to survive. But he needed distance from it. It was too tempting.

“Take it,” he said, the words rough, barely more than a whisper. He held the vial out toward Eraeth, and when the Protector turned but didn’t move, he thrust it toward him and growled, “Take it! Before I change my mind!”

No one moved. Eraeth’s brow furrowed. “Why me?”

“Because you hate me,” Colin spat. “Because you won’t give it back to me if I ask, no matter how much pain I’m in.”

Eraeth’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment he stepped forward and took the vial, staring at it a moment before tucking it into a fold in his shirt near his belt. He looked directly into Colin’s eyes and said, “You are a strange man.”

Before anyone else could speak, one of the Alvritshai guardsmen on watch gave a piercing whistle and cry. He shouted something in Alvritshai, pointing toward the southeast with the tip of his bow.

Eraeth tensed, hand falling to his sword, but Aeren merely sighed.

At Eraeth’s questioning glance-not as harsh as those he’d given his lord the past week-Aeren said, “It’s the dwarren we’ve come here to meet.”

“You should have warned me of whom we were to meet,” Eraeth said tightly in Alvritshai. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword as the dwarren appeared on the flat of the plains below. Dust rose, thrown up by the dwarren’s gaezels, and Eraeth felt sweat break out between his shoulder blades, his lips pressed together. “There are more dwarren than there are of us,” he hissed, his voice low so that the other Alvritshai couldn’t hear. He scanned the hillock where they’d halted and noted how vulnerable it was, and then his eyes flashed over the rest of the Phalanx. Messages were passed in silent hand signals, the others spreading out, clasps on blades loosened. Bows were strung by the few that carried them, but no arrows were drawn. Yet.

Satisfied with the Alvritshai, he caught the look on Colin’s face-a cold and pure hatred, the anger tightening the human’s skin near the eyes. It made the human look… hard and unforgiving. He’d recovered enough from the seizure to join them, his staff angled forward and to one side, feet slightly apart, balanced and ready.

The change startled Eraeth, enough that he took a moment to reevaluate the man Aeren had insisted on bringing along. He’d thought the human was soft and worthless, as well as cursed, but the way he held the staff indicated he knew how to use it. He’d brought down the two assassins in Portstown but had collapsed immediately afterward, so Eraeth had assumed he was weak. Colin’s reliance on the vial of water from the sarenavriell supported that… except that he’d given the vial up, had handed it to Eraeth, not Aeren. And Colin’s presence at the meeting with King Stephan had only antagonized the King. Not that it mattered. The King of the Provinces would never agree to a peace with the Alvritshai, not after the betrayal at the Escarpment and the death of his father.

Eraeth felt a surge of anger and a pang of regret. The Lords of the Evant who had participated in the betrayal that day had deceived more than the humans. They’d defied the will of the Tamaell and the other lords. They’d betrayed the Alvritshai people as a whole.

Yet Tamaell Fedorem had done nothing to punish those Lords. Nothing.

The thought left a bitter taste in Eraeth’s mouth and led to other thoughts that he knew he could not voice, not even to Aeren, even when he could see the same thoughts in Aeren’s eyes. Such as whether or not Fedorem had known of the lords’ intentions before they’d reached the Escarpment. And if he had known, why he’d done nothing to stop them.

The obvious answer-that Fedorem had planned the betrayal all along-nauseated Eraeth with shame.

The dwarren drums rumbled across the distance, and Eraeth tore his gaze away from Colin to see the large contingent of dwarren and gaezels pulling to a halt over a hundred paces distant. The dwarren in the lead glared at them from his position, then motioned to the others beside him, not taking his eyes off Aeren. The rest of the dwarren scattered, a group of warriors spreading out in a thin line. Eraeth watched as scouts slipped from their mounts and took off at a run, vanishing in the grasses in the space of a breath. Another group behind began unloading bundles and packs from an array of baggage animals. Sheets of blue-green cloth were unfolded, and poles were erected, the wood looking freshly cut. There must be a copse or thicket nearby, probably in another area where the water breached the surface. The dwarren knew the plains better than the Alvritshai.

A moment later, Aeren released a pent up breath in a slow, careful sigh. “Look,” he said, nodding toward where the poles had been positioned. The unfurled sheets of cloth were being wound around them in an intricate pattern, numerous lengths folded and woven in and out as the dwarren walked back and forth around the central poles, almost like a dance. “It’s to be a formal meeting. We’ll have to give them time to set up the tent and arrange the interior. Once they’re satisfied, they’ll come to us.”

“How many of the Alvritshai will they allow inside the tent?”

Aeren turned to consider the size of the tent. “Four, no more.”

“I assume you’ll insist that the human join us.” Eraeth tried to keep the derision out of his voice, knew he hadn’t succeeded.

Aeren smiled. “No. Colin will remain in the camp. I’ll want you there, of course, and two others. Dharel, perhaps. And Auvant. They can bring the cattan blades, but no other weapons. And they are not to draw except on my order.”

Eraeth stiffened at his lord’s tone, but nodded.

Aeren must have seen the disagreement in Eraeth’s face. He turned his full attention on him. “After what happened in Corsair, I want nothing to interfere with the possibility of an agreement with the dwarren here. Nothing.”

Eraeth heard the same intensity in Aeren’s voice as in the audience chamber in Corsair, the same driving force. His lord’s voice throbbed with it.

“Very well,” he said, nodding again, without the stiffness of disapproval, without even a trace of it in his voice.

Aeren relaxed imperceptibly, his attention returning to the industrious dwarren. They were tying off the last lengths of the tent, the edges trailing outward from the central spire. After a moment, Eraeth realized it was set up like a reverse whirlpool, the center of the tent the vortex. And like a whirlpool, he felt a sense of power surrounding it, a density of motion, of force.

“Have the others set up a more permanent camp here, near the stream,” Aeren continued. “And set sentries to keep watch.”

“And then what?”

Aeren turned toward him. “And then we wait.”

The dwarren came for them at dusk, the bright orange of the clouds fading when the sentries called out in harsh warning. The rest of the Phalanx came instantly alert, after the tension of the dwarren arrival had eased through hours of boredom. They’d caught glimpses of the dwarren scouts at a distance, but other than that there had been no movement or activity.

Toward evening, Eraeth had watched Colin wander out to where the occumaen had drifted by earlier; the human had knelt down in the grass to inspect it, lifting his head to gaze off into the distance.

When he’d returned, Eraeth had asked, “What did you find?”

Colin had shrugged. “Crushed grass. But the stalks in the center of the path had been sliced off, as if cut with a scythe. I couldn’t find the heads of the grain anywhere.”

Eraeth hadn’t responded.

Now Aeren rose, and Eraeth motioned Dharel and Auvant forward. At the top of the hillock, the sentry stepped back as two dwarren appeared on foot, both at least a foot shorter than Colin, one carrying a ceremonial spear, strings of feathers and beads trailing down from the head. The spear carrier wore the leather armor the dwarren had used before the humans introduced metal armor. Symbols and letters were burned into the armor, reaching all the way around to the back. Thick bands of metal covered both of the dwarren’s forearms in silver. A gold band enclosed his upper right arm. More beads were woven into his gray- streaked beard, and the skin around his eyes was marked with ash.

The other dwarren was younger, dressed in less ceremonial armor. Only one of his forearms had a band encircling it. He regarded the approaching Alvritshai with wariness, his eyes never resting long on one individual.

“A Rider,” Aeren said under this breath, nodding toward the younger dwarren, “sent to protect the clan’s shaman.”

Eraeth nodded, but they were too close to respond.

He could see the shaman’s face now, lit by the fading sun behind them, their shadows falling across the two dwarren. Tanned a dark brown by the sun, wrinkled with age, his eyes were sharp and cold, his mouth set in a slight frown. He kept his attention focused on Aeren after a brief glance at the accompanying Phalanx. Eraeth turned his attention to the Rider, the more dangerous of the two, as Aeren and the shaman began to speak.

In the distance, where darkness had already fallen far out over the plains, a flash of purple lightning lit the sky.

“You summoned the Thousand Springs Clan?” The shaman’s voice was deep and guttural, the Alvritshai words thick with accent, almost incomprehensible. But he did speak Alvritshai.

Aeren nodded his head formally, in the manner of a lord addressing a fellow member of the Evant. “I requested a meeting with Clan Chief Garius, yes.”

The shaman’s eyes narrowed, and the Rider tensed. “You summon the clan chief, you summon the clan.” Both Dharel and Auvant stiffened at his tone of affront.

Aeren hesitated, then nodded again, more carefully, keeping his head down as he spoke. “I intended no insult to the clan.”

The shaman grunted and considered Aeren a long moment; then he turned and gave the Rider a short barked command in dwarren. The Rider frowned, but the shaman had already stepped away and now regarded the occasional flicker of purplish-blue lightning on the horizon as he stumped down the hill, using the spear as a walking stick. The beads rattled against the haft as he moved, and he called back over his shoulder, “Come! Clan Chief Garius awaits!”

The Rider gave them all an unhappy look, then followed the shaman, not waiting for the Alvritshai.

They entered the dwarren camp, passed the sentries, and headed straight for the tent erected earlier. Numerous other tents surrounded it now, smaller, not as complex in construction or as varied in color. Practical tents, made for quick setup and dismantling, but sturdy nonetheless. Even in the deepening darkness, Eraeth could see that. The entire camp itself was practical: central fires, placed so they wouldn’t interfere with the sentries’ night vision, the tents arranged in circles around key locations. Dwarren sat around the fires, eating, drinking, telling stories and laughing. A few were throwing what looked like small bones in some type of intense game, and he counted at least three dwarren men stitching cloth with needle and thread. A dozen Riders in all, which left nearly another dozen on sentry duty, scouting, or watching over the gaezels. He saw no dwarren women, which didn’t surprise him. He’d never seen any dwarren women aboveground.

None of the Riders in the camp seemed concerned about the Alvritshai; Eraeth’s skin prickled at the slight.

The shaman halted at the edge of the tent to allow them to catch up. Eraeth didn’t see an opening and frowned as the shaman removed a rattle-made from the tail of one of the deadly brown plain snakes-shook it once up, down, left, and right, connecting the four imaginary points with a wide circle, then bowed deeply at the waist, arm extended, and said, “Ilacqua and the People of the Thousand Springs welcome you to the meeting hall of Clan Chief Garius. May you drink long from the Sacred Waters and may you find whatever it is that you seek.”

He stayed bent over, as if waiting, and Aeren shot Eraeth a troubled look. No one moved.

The shaman shook the rattle in irritation, without looking up, and Eraeth realized he was pointing with it.

He glanced to the side, and saw that if they followed the sheet of blue-green cloth, it would spiral them into the interior of the tent.

He touched Aeren’s shoulder, motioned to the right, and saw Aeren’s uncertainty fade. His lord stepped forward and entered the curve of the tent’s arm, Eraeth a pace behind, the other two Alvritshai Phalanx following. They came up against a flap of green cloth. Aeren pushed it aside gently and ducked down to enter.

The first thing that struck Eraeth, as the smooth green cloth slid off his back and he stood, was the smoke. It hung in a pungent cloud, sickly sweet-not unpleasant but strong, invading his nostrils and overpowering almost every other sense. He stifled a cough, heard either Dharel or Auvant choke on it. He found if he relaxed and breathed in deeply, he could breathe normally. Eyes watering slightly, he glared around the small chamber and noticed the metal-worked braziers that emitted the smoke at four locations around the circular room, set on low tables made of finely worked wood. Another low, round table sat in the center, surrounded by numerous pillows. A wide, shallow bowl full of fruit sat in the middle of the table, and directly above it, near the apex of the tent, hung a fifth brazier.

Garius sat on the opposite side of the table, near one of three other entrances to the chamber. Another dwarren sat next to him. The clan chief was younger than the shaman and sat cross-legged, his arms crossed over his chest so that the two gold bands on his upper arms were visible in the braziers’ soft light; but like the shaman he wore lighter, more comfortable armor, although with fewer symbols scorched into it.

Garius gave them a moment to adjust, then motioned to the pillows scattered around the table. “Sit.”

Like the shaman, his voice was deep, but smoother, his Alvritshai more fluid.

Aeren sat down opposite Garius, so Eraeth sat opposite the other dwarren. He motioned for Dharel and Auvant to remain standing, backs to the sides of the tent. It gave them a slight advantage if the meeting turned ugly. He could feel the tension in the air, from Garius, but more from his companion. The younger dwarren sat stiffly, his darker eyes glaring at the Alvritshai with undisguised hatred. Letting his gaze flicker back and forth between the two, Eraeth realized that the younger dwarren must be Garius’ son. He could see the resemblance in the rounded face, the hair, but particularly around the eyes. Garius’ were brown, his son’s darker, but the bone structure was the same.

“You wished to speak to the clan?” Garius rumbled.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Aeren drew a deep breath, then let it out slowly. Eraeth thought his lord would be direct, as he’d been with King Stephan. But instead, Aeren asked, “How many of your clan have died this past year? How many in the past five years? The past ten?”

Garius shifted where he sat, the creases in his face deepening as he frowned. He hadn’t expected the questions, had expected something else entirely. “Too many,” he finally answered.

“Too many of the Alvritshai have been lost as well. And for what? The plains?”

Garius’ chin came up. “For our home!” he exclaimed. “You are the ones invading our lands! You and the humans, sending out raiding parties, crossing our borders with your wagon trains, with your Phalanx, stealing our water and our herds, killing the members of the clan when we try to defend ourselves. You are the ones killing us. We were here before you. We have always been here. We are simply protecting what is ours!”

Aeren let him speak, didn’t flinch at the words, didn’t react when Garius’ son bristled, hands falling to his thighs, although not touching the hilts of the two knives sheathed at his waist. He let Garius finish, gave him a moment to catch his breath, then he nodded in agreement. “You’re right.”

Both Garius and his son looked stunned, and Aeren took advantage of the pause.

“We crossed your borders with our parties, with our Phalanx, and we raided your herds and drank of your water. And we’ve killed each other, over and over again, for nearly a hundred years. And I came to ask you a simple question: why?”

Garius frowned.

“Do you know why we crossed your borders, why we came to your plains? Because we had to. The Alvritshai have lived in the northern reaches for generations, in the Hauttaeren Mountains, underground, like you. There and in the surrounding hills and forests. We would have stayed there, except for the ice.”

“Ice?” Garius murmured.

Eraeth shifted uneasily, tried to lock gazes with Aeren, to warn him to be careful, not to reveal too much about the Alvritshai. But Aeren was focused completely on Garius.

“Yes, the ice. The region to the north of the Hauttaeren was once arable land, even though the growing season was short. The Alvritshai farmed there and to the south of the mountains. We worked the land, built cities there. The winters were always harsh, but we could retreat into the halls of the Hauttaeren for the worst months and return after the thaws.

“But in the last two hundred years, the winters have worsened. The growing season in the north has vanished completely, the ground now covered with snow and ice the entire year. It happened slowly, the ground free for six months, then four, then two. Now it is locked solid. We were forced to retreat to the Hauttaeren permanently, abandoning the cities to the north. But the halls couldn’t contain us all, and the forests to the south couldn’t produce enough to support all of us. So we headed south, onto the plains.”

“Onto our lands,” Garius’ son growled. His father shot him a black look. He spoke Alvritshai, but not as smoothly as his father, the words clipped and broken.

“Onto your lands, yes,” Aeren said, unruffled by the boy’s outburst. “We didn’t know that at the time, of course. You live underground. There is little evidence of your existence aboveground, especially here, in the northern reaches of the plains. We didn’t know. And by the time we found out, we were already desperate. We needed the land, needed those crops. If we couldn’t harvest them, we would starve. So when your Riders first appeared, we thought they’d come to steal from us, to take what was ours, and so we fought back.” Aeren’s voice had hardened. “No one stopped to ask whether we had encroached on your lands. No one stopped to talk. I’m not certain it would have mattered then if we had, since we didn’t speak a common language, and because the situation for us was so dire. But we know about each other now, know of each other, know a little of each other’s culture. It’s time to stop.” Aeren sucked in a breath and repeated in the dwarren tongue, leaning slightly forward, “It’s time to stop and talk.”

Garius didn’t move, although his eyes widened slightly as Aeren spoke the thick, guttural dwarren. Eraeth could barely follow it, even though Aeren had forced him to learn it, along with Andovan. Unlike the humans, who seemed more than willing to talk in any given situation, even when words were useless, the dwarren weren’t as open or forthcoming, so the Alvritshai’s grasp of the language was tenuous. But they knew some, and that fact clearly surprised the clan chief and his son.

Garius sighed unexpectedly, shoulders slumping, his arms dropping from their defiant position across his chest. He glanced toward his son, mouth pressed tight as he saw the fixed angry expression there, then bowed his head, eyes closed.

Eraeth swore silently to himself as the clan chief lifted his head, let his hand fall close to the hilt of his cattan.

“The Lands… the plains… are sacred to us. They are a gift of the gods, given to the dwarren to protect, to preserve. We believe the clans were created and left here to guard them and everything that they contain-the sky above, the grass, the earth below, the forests, and the waters that feed them all, the waters that give them life, that give us life. And we have guarded these Lands, protected them, for generation upon generation.”

“How?” Eraeth asked, his voice taut. He saw Aeren tense, but continued. “How have you protected the grassland, when all that the Alvritshai have seen since we came here are the clans warring with each other?”

Garius’ eyes flared with anger. “The clans do not always agree on how the gods intended the Lands to be protected, and so we war. We have seen the same conflicts among the humans and among the Alvritshai. But that is not the point.”

He turned back to Aeren, the anger seeping into his voice, darkening it. “When the Alvritshai came to the Lands, they did not seek out the People and ask for the use of the Lands. They did not honor the gods and their great gift. You did not honor the gods. Instead, you defiled the Lands, built houses and towns and cities upon its earth, plowed its fields and sowed it with grain, all without the gods’ blessing, without the permission of the dwarren left to preserve it.” His breath heaved with indignation, with suppressed fury, but with effort he managed to control himself. “That is why the dwarren have fought against you, why we continue to fight. Your presence here-on this grass, on this earth-is a desecration of the Lands.”

Eraeth drew breath to protest, his own anger rising-at the arrogance of the dwarren, at their self-importance-but Aeren laid a hand on his shoulder to quiet him.

“Does our situation mean nothing to you then? Thousands of Alvritshai would have perished in the winters that followed our abandonment of the northern reaches. Do your gods have no mercy? No patience for the ignorant?”

A troubled look passed over Garius’ angry face, but his son spat something in dwarren, spoken so fast that Eraeth could not catch it, although it was obviously derogatory.

“Hush, Shea, you do not know of what you speak. You are not yet a member of the Gathering, and you are not a shaman. Do not presume to know our will, or the gods.” The words were soft, but the reprimand behind them bit. Shea flinched and bowed his head in angry discontent.

Garius considered Aeren with an intent frown, the smoke from the braziers drifting in heavy tendrils between them. No one moved, and Eraeth felt sweat break out against his skin. The tent had grown hot.

Garius finally spoke.

“Ilacqua is merciful, especially to the ignorant… and the foolhardy.” This last was directed toward Shea, whose head dipped slightly lower. “I cannot say what he or any of the other gods would say regarding what you have revealed. I am not a shaman and would never presume to know the gods’ will. But I am a member of the Gathering, and we have noticed that winter comes earlier every year, that occasionally there is snow on the plains where there was never snow before.” He lifted his chin. “What would you have me say to the Gathering?”

Aeren’s hand fell away from Eraeth’s shoulder. “Tell them what I have said here, about why the Alvritshai are on the plains and why we have fought so hard to retain what we have taken. Tell them that we were ignorant of your ways. And tell them… tell them that if there is a chance for peace between us, the Alvritshai are willing to ask the dwarren for permission to use the Lands, that we will vow to protect them as the dwarren would.”

Garius stirred, his eyes going wide. Even Shea’s head rose. “The Alvritshai would be willing to do this?”

Aeren hesitated, then nodded. “If it will mean peace between us, then yes. I will convince the Tamaell-our chief-that it is necessary for the skirmishes to end.”

Eraeth turned to look at his lord. Aeren had said it as if it would be simple, as if he could simply walk into the halls of the Evant and ask.

Garius’ entire posture changed. The doubt that had tightened his shoulders and back, that lined his face, eased.

“If this is true, if your chief, this Tamaell, would vow to protect the Lands as the gods demand…” He glanced toward Shea, then back toward Aeren. “I cannot say what the Gathering will say, but know this, Lord Aeren of the Alvritshai. I wish my son to grow old, spawn many children, and die on these Lands without the threat of war, no matter that he desires only to prove himself on the battlefield so that his blood may feed the grasses.” A look of scandalized horror crossed Shea’s face, but his father ignored him completely, leaning forward through the haze of smoke. “I have lost many in these battles-friends and family alike, and sons. I’d guess that you have lost as many, if not more. This war is wicked, destroying the plains. The gods are not happy. The shamans know this; that is why the storms have grown worse, and the air itself shimmers and cracks. They are omens.”

The occumaen, Eraeth thought. He’s speaking of the occumaen. And the unnatural lightning.

Garuis sat back, considering Aeren, one hand stroking his beard, tangling in the beads braided there. It was the first relaxed gesture Eraeth had seen the chieftain use since they’d arrived.

He grunted, as if reaching a decision. “I will call a Gathering. I will speak to the other chieftains, to the People of the Lands. If they agree, I will bring them to this flat in one month. This I swear, in blood, before the gods’ eyes.” He pulled a thin knife, all of the Phalanx tensing. But it wasn’t a fighting knife. He placed the short flattened blade against the soft outer pad of his palm and made a small knick, enough to draw blood. With the thumb of the hand holding the knife, he smeared the blood across his palm, spat on it, and held it out to Aeren.

Eraeth saw Aeren still. He could sense the distaste in his lord, but Aeren reached forward and clasped Garius’ hand tightly.

Garius’ grip tightened for a moment, not allowing Aeren to withdraw, and he caught the lord’s eyes. “If your chief would have peace between us, he will be here.”

He released his grip, leaning back, his arms crossed over his chest again. “Now go.”

Eraeth rose with Aeren, the lord bowing toward the chief of the People of the Thousand Springs. A formal bow, one that would be given to another Lord of the Evant. Then they left, passing back through the entrance, around the curved arm of the tent and out into the night.

Darkness shrouded the entire camp, broken by the fires and the stars above. As he came out into the cool night air, Eraeth stumbled, a wave of dizziness sweeping over him, brought on by the heat of the tent and the dense smoke. He gasped, sucked in a cleansing breath, the cold shocking his lungs, heard the others doing the same.

The shaman stood to one side, watching them through narrowed eyes. But when the storm they had seen upon entering the tent flared to the east-closer now, enough that they could hear an answering rumble of thunder-he turned back to study it. The rest of the dwarren ignored them completely.

“That was… interesting,” Aeren said as they began to move through the circles of tents back to their own camp.

Eraeth didn’t hear any sarcasm in his voice. “I did not like his son, Shea.”

Aeren shrugged. “He is young. He does not trust us, and he has yet to learn how to be… diplomatic. You and he are much alike.”

Eraeth snorted. “I am not young.”

Aeren smiled. “No, you are not. And for that you are forgiven much.” They passed through the dwarren sentries and walked up the hillock in silence, turning near the top, where Eraeth gave the sentry on duty there a nod that all was well. The Phalanx guardsman relaxed.

Behind them, the dwarren camp lay among the black grass, the campfires burning in rounded glares of light, the tent where they had met with the chieftain glowing blue-green with the light of the braziers inside. The storm lit the sky to the east with flashes of blue and purple and set Eraeth’s skin tingling with its nearness.

“But we found what we came for,” Aeren said, and as Eraeth turned to look at him, his face was lit with the glow of purple lightning. Eraeth saw weariness there, and pain, along with satisfaction. “Now all we need to do is convince the Tamaell and the Evant.”

“You’re listening to them?” Shea barked as soon as the Alvritshai warriors left the tent. He jumped to his feet, paced the confines of the tent. “You trust them? Remember what was done to our People at the Cut!”

“I will take their words to the Gathering and the rest of the clan chiefs, yes,” Garius said, his voice coming out in a low growl. He watched his son pace, saw the pent up anger in each step, the frustration in his clenched hands. Garius nearly reached out to grab his son’s arm and force him to stop, but he crossed his arms over his chest instead.

He’d been young once himself.

The smoke from the braziers-representing the four gods of the Winds, with the fifth overhead representing Ilacqua, so that he could oversee all that transpired in the tent-hung thick and heavy, swirling around his son’s movements. Garius drew the cleansing yetope smoke deep into his lungs, held it, then exhaled slowly before continuing.

“I do not trust them, Shea. But a decision like this cannot be made by a single clan chief. It may affect all of the clans, so it must go to the Gathering.” He let his voice harden. “You know this. And you know why we must at least listen.”

“Because of the Cut,” Shea sneered.

Garius slammed one fist down on the table in the center of the tent, the bowl of untouched fruit jumping with a rattle. “Yes, because of the Cut! Over two thousand Riders were killed at the Cut, massacred by the Alvritshai and human forces, including your grandfather and three of your uncles-my father and brothers! I would have been there, would have died there, if I’d been old enough to wear my first band. None of the Riders who left the Lands to meet the Alvritshai and the humans survived, not clan chief nor first-banded. It decimated our ranks. Enough Riders remained to keep the human incursions at bay, but barely. If they had come in force within ten years of that day…”

“When they did come we fought them back-”

“ I fought them back,” Garius interrupted. “You were nothing but a kernel of grain in Ilacqua’s eye.”

“We should fight them now!”

Shea halted near one of the braziers, and they glared at each other. Garius’ anger flared in his blood, but staring at his son, at the tension in his shoulders, at the clench of his jaw, he faltered.

Shea looked too much like his older brother, Jasu.

“Jasu,” Garius said tightly, and saw Shea wince. “I don’t fight them because of Jasu.”

“What do you mean? What does my brother have to do with it?”

“Everything!” Garius snapped. He suddenly couldn’t sit anymore. He rose and began to pace, taking Shea’s place. “He has everything to do with it. When he received his first band and became a Rider, I was proud, as any father would be. He could join me, could help me protect the Lands, help drive off the humans and the Alvritshai in Ilacqua’s name. And he did, riding the plains, joined later by your older brothers, arriving back at the Thousand Springs warren victorious, welcomed by your mother and sisters, by the entire clan.” His pacing slowed and he looked toward Shea. “And then he died.”

Shea frowned, but he said nothing, his brow still creased in irritation.

“You weren’t there-you were barely waist-high! You don’t remember. The humans had built an outpost on Silver Grass Clan lands. Thousand Springs joined them in the attack, but the outpost had been fortified with the Legion. Your brother fell in the initial charge, and I brought his body home with me.

“I could barely enter the warren. I knew what this would do to your mother. But when we rode into the city through the tunnels and I saw her waiting at our cleft, I realized she already knew. I don’t know how, but she had already wept; her eyes were red but dry. But the pain on her face, pain that she hid for the sake of the clan, for my sake as clan chief-” Garius broke off, his voice cracking. He held his arms before him, as if he still carried Jasu’s body, as if he were crossing the threshold of the tunnel into the cavernous main room of the warren even now. For a moment, he could see the entrances of the cliffside clefts rising in tiers on all sides, could hear the roar of the river crashing into the central pool of the cavern, all of it lit with a thousand lanterns, decorated with garlands of straw and wheat to celebrate their return…

It threatened to overwhelm him, the grief crushing. He clenched his jaw, forced the emotion down, and glared at Shea, one hand squeezed into a tight fist. He could see that Shea didn’t understand, realized that he’d never understand until he had a wife and sons of his own.

He needed to give Shea a reason he could understand.

He swallowed, lowered his arms, and started again. “There are barely ten thousand dwarren left in the clan, when once there were twice that,” he said gruffly. “Four thousand of us are Riders. The other clans fare no better. All told there are maybe thirty thousand Riders left to protect the Lands, less than a hundred thousand of the People. Once we were a thriving race, but now we are dwindling. Already our numbers approach those of the Alvritshai, who guard their lives and the lives of their children with such reverence. That is why the Alvritshai have not attacked us recently, because their own survival is threatened. They’ve lost too many of their children to the fight. The humans have outnumbered us for years, and they are reckless with their lives, as we once were with our own.

“We cannot be reckless any longer. We cannot throw our lives away on the plains. Your need to fight-and that of your generation-will destroy the People completely.”

Shea regarded him for a long moment in silence, his jaw clenched tight. When he finally spoke, he said, “The need to fight-the urge to avenge those of us who have died, like Jasu-was trained into us by you.”

He left, ducking out through the cloth covering the western entrance.

Garius stood stunned. His gaze fell on his fists, knuckles white, and he forced them to open. The yepote smoke in the tent had dissipated, three of the braziers burned out. He breathed in deeply, then sighed heavily.

When he emerged from the tent, he saw no sign of Shea; the camp was mostly dark. The storm still rumbled off in the distance, and a few cook fires still burned, mostly dampened coals.

“The sky is troubled.”

Garius turned and picked out the figure of the shaman standing with his ceremonial spear, his back to the tent. He moved to the shaman’s side and stared out at the flickers of lightning far distant. “What do you see, Oudan? Should we listen to the Alvritshai?”

Oudan snorted, then waved his spear out toward the darkened plains. “The Land is troubled. We see it in the sky-” he pointed toward the storm “-and feel it in the shimmering air. We taste it in the food we eat, the water we drink. Even the gaezels sense it. We have lived in our warrens for thousands of years, slept in our clefts, and honored and protected the Land and our gods. But the gods are restless.

“Perhaps it is time for the People to change.”

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