In the beginning, I knew her only as Kalomi of the Plains. The name, the simple and only vaguely descriptive sobriquet seemed enough to know. She was my Apprentice in the Sisterhood, bound to my side by chance assignment and solemn oath.
Soon, by shared experience, she became my true and trusted comrade. Inevitably, increasingly I came to know her as my friend. But still—and despite her many evident complexities of heart and spirit—she remained to my mind simply Kalomi of the Plains.
It is truly said that I am drawn to explore the exotic, the unknown. And yet, behold the paradox—I often fail to wonder at the unguessed ingredients in the stew, bubbling in the homey and outwardly familiar pot before my very eyes.
So it was with my Apprentice Sister—with my comrade and friend, Kalomi of the Plains.
It was in the early autumn of our second year together that I first encountered one of my Apprentice Sister’s family. He rode to our quarters in the Great Reserve on a typically sturdy spotted pony. He and his mount were dwarfed by the escort from the outer guard post—a muscular Eastlandic cavalryman on a large brown war-horse of the type these Plainsfolk raise and train so well, yet seldom choose for themselves.
Dwarfed physically, I noted, but in no way outwardly impressed or intimidated.
“Typical Plainsman,” I whispered to myself with mixed dismay and admiration as I put aside the bear grease, the oiling cloth and the double-edged blade I had been preparing for winter storage.
I rose from the mat.
My initial judgment changed as I saw his greying ponytail and beard, interwoven as it was with beads and feathers and intricately carved bits of wood and bone. The arrangement of these ornaments—and the fact they were worn on what was not, in itself, a day of special significance—suggested major news.
“You are the Sister Vendra—Vendra of Lum?” the man asked, polite in tone even as his eyes searched and judged my entire person.
I raised my chin then nodded. “I am she.”
“Good Sister, I would speak with your Apprentice.”
I blinked. “Might I ask who—”
“Pross of the Bright Sun Band of the Northern Owl Tribe,” he interrupted sharply, slapping his chest in introduction. “Kalomi’s Uncle,” he added, abruptly turning apologetic. “Forgive my impatience, Honored Sister. I bear news she would favor hearing—if the Good Sister grants me leave for the telling?”
Something in his small round eyes assured me I ought to agree—unless I wanted Pross’s next change of mood to feature strings of blistering invective, undoubtedly in some obscure Plains dialect but directed squarely and most bitterly at me.
“I’ll get her,” I replied, my voice mild.
I went inside, past the outer rooms and to the point where the wooden structure extended into the hillside to become half earth-lodge. Kalomi was in one of these deep, dark storage rooms—a butter-lamp flickering nearby as she surveyed the sun-dried fruit, berries and roots available for the looming winter season.
“Uncle Pross?” she said, visibly excited once I’d spoken. “Here? With news?”
“And done-up like the Day of the Convert,” I added. Then I smiled. Told her to go.
Kalomi rushed past me. I extinguished the lamp. Locked the storage room. Proceeded back, through our quarters and into the warm afternoon.
Her head turned suddenly at my return. Her ponytail lashed the side of her Uncle’s face. He laughed and his pony nudged him, whinnied as if laughing with the Plainsman. I saw that Pross didn’t even bother to hold the animal’s reins, so confident was he in the pony’s training.
Loyal and dependable as a Royal Black, I thought.
Then I marveled at the open joy on my Apprentice Sister’s usually serious face.
“Tenny is to be married!” she announced.
“Really?” It took me an instant to search my memories of Kalomi’s infrequent mentions of home. “Your eldest cousin—your daughter, Pross of the Bright Suns?”
The man nodded, pale blue eyes alive with pride. “Our band was passing just close enough for me to make the ride here—to inform and invite you both!”
“We both?” I murmured.
“Why, yes! Of course!”
I tilted my head toward my Apprentice.
“Uncle would have us officiate at the wedding.” Kalomi gestured to the north and east. “At our band’s ancestral home-site, just before they settle into Winter Encampment.”
I greeted this news with an expression of thoughtful, if uncommitted interest.
The Thirty Tribes still practice many pre-Conversion rituals—including a two-week Wedding Truce, during which all quarrels are put aside and all of that year’s wedding ceremonies are performed.
“It’s only a four-day ride,” Kalomi hinted, much like a child pleading to attend a distant fair. “Three, if we press hard.”
“I’m sure the Sister-Leader will grant you leave,” I told her.
“But not you also, Good Sister?” Pross screwed his face up. Gestured with emotion. “It would not be proper, surely—to have the Apprentice among us, without the Sister and friend we have heard so much of!”
I was stunned—till that moment utterly unaware that Kalomi kept any contact whatsoever with her nomadic family group of herders and hunters.
“Or—” Pross’s expression and tone now turned crafty, almost menacing. “Is it that the matter of two bands of the Northern Owl being joined together in the Sacred Rite is too unimportant to merit the attentions of a Full Member of the Sisterhood?”
This shocked me speechless. The old bastard was perfectly willing to blackmail a Full Sister of the Dragon Sect—to obliquely threaten a major political and social incident no less, if it served his personal desires!
I looked at Kalomi. She gazed back at me with a faint smile.
“I shall speak of this to the Sister-Leader of the Reserve,” I muttered in defeat. “About immediate leave—for us both.”
“Oh, no need for that.” Just as abruptly, Pross was all sweetness and reason. “We of the Bright Sun and our neighbors, the Great Eastern Band, will not be in our Winter Lands for another five weeks. This gives you time to prepare—and us, as well. It will be a rare honor indeed, to have a full consecrated Sister—a native of the Eastlands itself—take part in our humble affairs!”
He smiled and nodded, almost bowed.
I smiled back. Nodded in return. Then I gave Kalomi a look fit to wither buffalo grass.
My Apprentice Sister shrugged.
The cavalryman, still waiting in the background atop his equally listless charger, looked bored and oblivious.
But Pross saw the silent exchange between his niece and myself. He laughed and his spotted pony joined him with a head-bobbing whinny.
“I never said I did not wish to attend.” I turned, stretched in the saddle. It was our fourth and, I hoped, final day out from the Reserve. “But you know he’ll use my presence as a bragging point—claim that it shows his Band is favored by the Sisterhood. Even so, I’d have been happy to agree if he’d simply invited, rather than attempted to trap me into it.”
“Such methods are in our tradition,” Kalomi replied. “As is the accumulation and use of bragging points.”
“Well,” I softened, “it will be good to preside at a joining. What with our other duties, it’s been some time since I’ve had such a happy duty.”
Kalomi’s face was blank. “Our Scared Ritual differs from what you’re used to.”
“All the better.” I smiled. “The Way of the Goddess and Her Sacred Dragon knows many interesting variations. But your Uncle—to push things like that, with scarcely half-veiled threats—”
“To push you?”
I turned my head. Stared at the side of my Apprentice Sister’s carefully impassive face. “Very well. I have a good dose of Sisterly Pride.”
“Only Sisterly?” Kalomi chuckled—not an entirely pleasant sound.
I held my tongue, scanning the flat expanse of grassland before us. Except for the snorting herd of wild gaur before midday, this had been the least eventful of four uneventful days in the saddle. We now entered a region of the Upper Plains I’d never seen. Yet all about me seemed painfully familiar.
Dull, in other words.
“Very well,” I said at last. “I have pride in myself.”
“In your position.” Kalomi’s probing voice was more arid than the dun-colored grass.
I pursed my lips. “True, I suppose. But it wouldn’t have bothered me as much, if Pross had been some sort of Outlander.”
I shook my head. “Nonsense. He’s your Uncle. And a Convert—same as all the Thirty Tribes.”
“Yes. But we Plainsfolk don’t hold our leaders in such dumbstruck awe as your Eastlandic commoners are apt to.”
“Awe?” My lips curled in distaste. “I don’t want people to be in awe of me!”
She snorted a non-literal Tribal obscenity. Something about the use of only half-dried gaur droppings as a fuel source. Then she leaned over. Spat expressively in the dirt between our mounts. “You know how my people are. Yet you expected Pross to be different—more like folk where you’re from. Why?”
Such questioning by my Apprentice Sister was impertinent. But this was Kalomi—and she had a point. “He’s your Uncle,” I confessed to myself as much as to her. “I thought, having a blood relative so honored as to be accepted into the Holy Sisterhood—it would make him, I don’t know, take the Teachings of the faith more seriously?”
“My Uncle,” Kalomi said sharply, “takes the Goddess Way as seriously as any I know. But which of the teachings say ordinary folk ought to treat Sisters as if they were living embodiments of She-Who-Brings-Forth-All-Life? Perhaps I have not seen that particular Sacred Scroll? Or possibly I was absent from the Academy classes when such a passage was presented? If so, Honored Sister, please cite it for your shockingly ignorant Apprentice Sister’s edification?”
Her mocking tone stung me with barbed truth. I slumped in the saddle, my head down in shame. Under me, Nightmare whickered uneasily. Plodding at her side, Kalomi’s mount answered in kind.
“They don’t like us to quarrel,” my insubordinate friend said, fondness creeping into her voice.
“Don’t your traditions forbid it?” I murmured.
“Not yet. The Wedding Truce is yet to go into effect.”
“Convenient.” I snorted, raised my hand. “So you thought to get in a few final blows, while able?”
“Exactly.” Her eyes twinkled and we shared light, forgiving laughter.
“I’m actually in your debt,” I admitted. “Who else would have the gall to show me my own prideful ignorance like that?”
“Any true friend—if she was also of the Thirty Tribes.”
“Does that mean I ought to seek out friendship with more Plainsfolk, or that I should avoid them like the plague?”
“Your choice, Honored Sister.” Her face was profoundly solemn for an instant. Then we both laughed again.
Under us, the Royal Blacks strode along contentedly.
No more than an hour later, we sighted a fair-sized dust cloud moving to our northwest. “More wild gaur?” I speculated. “Or plains bison, perhaps?”
“This far north?” Kalomi squinted. “This time of year, the wild herds should be verging due south—avoiding the bite of winter as long as possible.” She drew her ceremonial dagger, used it as an extension of her hand. The glinting blade served as a pointer—focusing her mind, projecting the apparent path of the cloud into the future.
“Your folk then? Still out on the trail?”
Kalomi put the dagger away. Nodded. Turned her horse without another word.
I matched her.
Nightmare kept pace with Obsidian Maiden’s flank in a gentle and sustained canter.
Outriders broke off to meet us shortly after the dust cloud resolved itself into a mixed herd of half-wild cattle and larger, somewhat shaggy lowland yak. We speeded toward the approaching men and women for a bit, then slowed to a respectful walking pace—thereby proclaiming both our eagerness and our peaceful intent. Waves, shouts of welcome and finally spoken greetings were exchanged.
One of the outriders was Tenny, though all recognized my Apprentice Sister and spoke excitedly with her in the Northern Owl dialect. I made out perhaps three words to every five, but felt no irritation. Reunions are emotional by nature, especially after many years. And it was good to see Kalomi laugh and banter easily with someone other than myself.
Our warhorses towered over Tenny and her pony, but she stayed at our side as we pushed slowly against the tide of the plodding herd. Behind the yak and cattle came a smaller herd of ponies and full-sized horses. Further back, pairs of donkeys drew the light wagons. Those not in the wagons walked alongside. To the rear, I saw children and dogs and a pair of improbably tame griffins—and the goats all these were driving. Still farther back, a trio of widely spaced and well-armed outriders provided an alert rear-guard.
I turned my eyes inconspicuously to Tenny and noted the flint knife, the leather shield and mid-length lance. All were tucked away, yet positioned as for swift retrieval and nearly instant use thereafter.
My Apprentice Sister was home—back among people truly hers, as none of the other Tribes, or even the other Bands of her Tribe, would ever be. I saw this in a single startled instant as she sprang uncaring from Obsidian Maiden’s back and threw fierce arms about her screeching, joyful Aunt. The Royal Black was left to snort and paw the dirt, as surprised and amused by Kalomi’s impulsive display as I was.
This was Kalomi of the Plains—and yet not, for she was also and perhaps more properly—Kalomi of the Bright Sun Band of the Northern Owls, one Tribe of the Thirty and utterly unique. This Kalomi laughed at a playful barefoot kick in the back from her still-mounted cousin. She pulled her Uncle from his wagon almost before he could bring it to a halt. Kissed the grinning man’s tangle of beard without shame or embarrassment.
“You met no trouble in reaching us?” Tenny asked me, her manner casual as we watched two young boys hurry to greet Kalomi and marvel wide-eyed at the Royal Blacks. “My brothers,” the bride-to-be observed.
“No difficulties,” I responded.
“Forgive the foolish question, Sister. Who would dare attack you? It’s just that, well . . . there was a raid the other evening. We beat them off without losing any mounts, but three cattle were either lost or stolen in the confusion.”
“Such acts are illegal,” I said primly. “Did you contact—?”
A thin smile crossed Tenny’s face. “No Magistrates on the trail—nor Sisters, usually. In any case, we normally punish such offenders ourselves. But father said to let it go.”
“Let it go!” Kalomi gasped. She turned to us then back to Pross.
“We had our Winter Grounds to reach,” Kalomi’s Uncle said, defending his decision. “A wedding to prepare for, as well—no time for a Blood Feud.”
“Whose raiders struck you?” she demanded.
“It was dark. None could be certain of their ident—”
“Muddy Creeks?” Kalomi spat the words.
Pross shrugged. “They were Grey Eagles. We could not be certain of the Band.”
“Uncle! You let Muddy Creeks raid us and escape unpunished!”
“We wounded one,” Tenny spoke up. “Possibly two.”
“And didn’t follow the blood trail?”
“It was my decision as Band Leader,” Pross said gruffly.
“A poor one,” my Apprentice muttered. “Have you grown so old in my absence, Uncle?”
“Kalomi!” I said with shock. All eyes turned toward me and I could only shake my head. A sister should not intrude in the affairs of Plainsfolk—they were to be allowed their independence, as much as possible. It was the standing order and wise.
But she was of these people. Their internal affairs were hers—or they had been, until her Oath of Sisterhood. I found myself on uncertain ground. But then again, so was she.
“The matter is past,” her Aunt said so quietly one had to strain to hear the whisper. “Let us concern ourselves with the present. And the happy future—the Wedding Truce and Tenny’s joining!”
Kalomi pursed her lips. Then she nodded, stroked and kissed her Aunt on the cheek.
My Apprentice joined Tenny and the other outriders in driving the yak and cattle into a pasture watered by the stream that curled among the earth-lodges where her people would pass the brutal winter months. It was a task better suited to nimble and experienced ponies like the one her cousin rode, but Obsidian Maiden did well enough at Kalomi’s direction.
“That big black horse,” Tenny told me later with delight. “One snort, one swing of that proud neck was enough to impress any wayward bovine!”
I nodded, turned my head. The light wagons had already been disassembled, with certain pieces put back together to form a Plains-style corral for the mounts. Tenny’s brothers—one seven, the other almost nine—fed sugar-root to the Royal Blacks.
I sighed. “Watching your people make camp is a breathtaking sight.”
Tenny chuckled. “It’s not half as disorganized as it must seem.”
“No,” I agreed. “It’s frantic and boisterous, but totally organized confusion—if that makes sense?”
The donkeys had been unhitched and taken, tethered together by one long strong rope, to water. The woven brush corrals for the goats and donkeys were ready by the time they finished drinking. Also by that time, the folding wooden frames of the yurts—again, detachable sections of the wagons—had gone up. Their yak-hide covers slid neatly into place, almost of their own accord. Butter-lamps were hung and more than one cook-fire crackled even as the Bright Suns’ namesake began to dip beneath the horizon.
Each family was eating supper by the time the first of that night’s two moons rose into the sky. I watched the second moon rise and eased back, turned my head. Beyond the flicker of the butter-lamps and the eight family cook-fires, all was darkness. I could hear the distant herd of cattle and yak, settling in with periodic moos and grunts. In the distance, at three carefully chosen locations, watch-fires burned with shifts of well-armed Bright Sun warriors tending them.
I looked across the cook-fire at Kalomi, silent as she ate. Livestock raids were still common among the Thirty Tribes. All complained about rivals stealing from them. Yet all did it from time to time. It was ritual of a sort—an informal passage to adulthood for young Plainsfolk.
But Pross had spoken of a Blood Feud, which was far more serious. And Kalomi held particularly bitter feelings for that one Band—the Muddy Creeks of Grey Eagle Tribe.
I pursed my lips, fed a handful of dried serviceberries into my mouth to finish the meal. The tangy purple berries were tasteless to me just then—even as the spiced trail porridge and sun-cured venison that came before. Only the rancid flavor of the butter-tea penetrated my mood. To be polite, I raised the skin when it passed to me and dutifully squirted a bit of the partially fermented yak-milk horror down my throat. I kept it down—with some effort—and passed the skin on.
Kalomi saw me watching as she took her turn and defiantly enjoyed a second squirt. My Apprentice had never named for me the Tribe or Band of the three men responsible for abducting, raping and impregnating her mother. But I’d seen her eyes this day, heard the anger in her voice.
The Muddy Creeks—I ran the name around in my head and sighed.
I looked up at the moons. The following evening, I knew, all three would rise together for the last time before Winter Solstice. That signaled the beginning of the Wedding Truce. It could not come soon enough for me.
The earth-lodges had to be repaired and cleaned out after sitting unattended throughout the Spring, Summer and early Autumn wanderings of the Bright Suns. Only now—in reluctant acknowledgement of the approaching season—did the Tribes return, each band to their ancestral homeland. The stable—the only permanent structure most Plainsfolk ever built—required even more concentrated repair than the underground lodges. Even so, it was only meant for the goats and donkeys and mares with recently born foals—and only used during especially murderous storms. Otherwise, Plainsfolk believed their animals preferred to face the elements head-on—like themselves.
And this year, the Bright Suns had a wedding to host.
“Your future husband will come here?” I asked Tenny.
“He and most of the Great Easterns. Of course a few will stay behind to tend their herds.”
I nodded. “And after?”
“We’ll assemble our wedding yurt together.” Grinning, Tenny pointed. “Far side of the stream—for privacy. By the time of Deep Winter, my folk will have dug a new earth lodge for us. D’Venk will have furnished it with blankets, butter-lamps and other essentials.”
“So he’ll live here? Be adopted into your Band?”
“Of course.” Tenny paused. Her high cheekbones flushed with pride. “The Bright Suns are the more prosperous now, though the Great Easterns are, you understand, quite respectable in their own right.”
“Interesting,” I noted. “It’s all a matter of which Band is wealthier—and therefore better able to afford a new member?”
Tenny put down the donkey yoke, the buckets of water she had been carrying. Hands on hips, she regarded me with mild displeasure. “Good Sister, D’Venk will be a good addition to the Bright Suns—hardly a burden to be afforded!”
I apologized quickly, assured Tenny that that wasn’t my meaning. “I never knew precisely how it was decided. Forgive my ignorance. I’ve been posted to the Great Reserve since being reassigned to the Plains and, as you know, things are different there.”
Tenny looked me in the eyes, seemed to decide I was sincere and nodded. “Yes. Very different—the Wolf-Folk do not wander freely, nor do they marry outside their group.”
They aren’t allowed to, lest their fearful curse spread amongst the remaining Tribes. Tenny did not say that aloud. But the knowledge was in her eyes. Both of us were silenced briefly by this sobering reality.
“My cousin,” Tenny spoke again, “says your curiosity about foreign ways is great. Her letters home remark upon it, frequently.”
“I can imagine.” I forced a wry grin and helped steady the buckets—preventing too much water from sloshing out—as Kalomi’s cousin slipped back into the yoke and straightened.
“She considers it perhaps your most personally endearing characteristic.”
“Kalomi said that?” I blinked and followed Tenny to her family’s yurt.
“Oh, yes. Yet you never asked about our ways?”
I helped Tenny ease the water buckets down beside the smoldering cook-fire and uncouple the ropes binding the buckets to the yoke. Sisterly detachment be damned—it was wrong to just stand around watching everyone else, regardless of rank or circumstance, do equal shares of the needed work.
“Thank you,” she said with surprise as I lifted the yoke from her shoulders and massaged her neck. “You never did ask?”
“I tend to avoid subjects too closely linked to sex or marriage with Kalomi. The subject of her parentage is so painful to her! I’m honestly uncertain what I can or cannot broach with her.”
“Oh.” Kalomi’s cousin’s eyes went sad. “I see. She’s told you about—that.”
“A little.” I drew a breath, raised my chin. “It was three of those Muddy Creeks?”
Tenny nodded. We hunkered down together to patch a goatskin garment’s torn hem. Her eyes flickered up at me—the same pale blue as her cousin’s and as full of controlled emotion, yet with an accepting peace that Kalomi lacked.
“Two of them are known to be dead. Before her death, Yopa—Kalomi’s mother—avenged herself on one. Split his skull open with a flint axe. Another died in a stampede that resulted from a raid against the Muddy Creeks by a Band friendly to our own. That was five summers ago, when Kalomi was still at your Academy in the East.”
“And the third?”
“Uiseann.” Tenny spat the name. “He leads them now—has for almost two years, since illness took his cousin. Unless you believe the whispers—that he poisoned his own kin!”
The look on her face said that Tenny considered that as possible as it was unpleasant to consider.
Three Guardian Moons stood high in the night sky, the Wedding Truce in full effect. It was the one time in all the year that Kalomi’s folk could relax their vigilance somewhat. Only one sentinel per watch-fire was now deployed—and they only against animal predators who knew no Truce.
My Apprentice and I walked together. She paused, stared into the darkness as if unable to believe in even relative safety. What was the time of greatest repose and delight for her people was one of fearful apprehension for Kalomi.
The Great Eastern Band reached Bright Sun Village well before midday. They paused just outside to put on their finest robes and decorate themselves with the intricate facial and hair ornaments of greeting.
Kalomi and I returned with the bounty of a successful morning hunt at one end of the village, even as the Great Easterns entered at the other. Appropriately, they received the more attentive welcome—the Great Easterns brought a husband for Tenny. All we had to offer was a fresh-killed blackbuck. Kalomi and I watched with the rest as her cousin embraced D’Venk.
Tenny had hurried to put on her finest—and most minimal—leather garments.
“So that’s him,” Kalomi murmured.
“So it would seem,” I replied.
“He just better make her happy.”
With everyone else, we followed the two to the stream that was the lifeblood of the Bright Suns’ Wintering Place.
We watched in silence—and I tried not to show my embarrassment—as the affianced couple slowly removed each other’s fine clothing. Nude and dignified, they joined hands and walked into the flowing water as one—signifying their final agreement to be wed later that evening. They knelt carefully at midstream, side by side and with their backs to us. Bright Sun and Great Eastern alike raised a cheer. I joined them. So did Kalomi, though a shade reluctantly.
The ceremony itself was a blend of rites. Ones I knew and treasured from back home, and the more ancient traditions of the Thirty Tribes. Bride and groom wore a matching set of loose robes, composed of geometric shapes of assorted hides—domestic and wild, familiar and exotic creatures alike—all sewn together with plant fibers and dyed a wonderful confusion of colors. They went barefoot, with toenails painted blue. Their ponytails and D’Venk’s beard sparkled with interwoven ornaments that reflected the light of the bonfire behind and the three moons above them.
I was glad to be part of it all and, when the new-made couple knelt before me, proud to touch my hands to their foreheads and intone the Final Blessing. “May the Goddess-of-All keep you in joy and make your union strong, courageous and noble—like Her most honored and blessed creature, the Holy Dragon of the Seas!” I paused the expected seconds, my arms outstretched. Then I concluded quietly, “Arise as one.”
They regained their feet in unison. Each kissed my cheeks reverently—beginning with Tenny, as this was her home village. Kalomi in turn received similar attentions, politely if rather too solemnly, I thought.
An elaborate and predictably raucous feast followed—with much butter-tea, alas.
I was sore and stiff the next morning as Kalomi and I prepared to depart. My travel tent would have been more comfortable and certainly more private than Pross’s family yurt. But he was the Bright Sun leader, to the extent they had one. To refuse his courtesies would’ve been rude—and politically unwise.
I smiled at how the youngsters—including Kalomi’s pair of male cousins—watched our every move. Or to be more exact, how they watched Nightmare and Obsidian Maiden, as the Royal Blacks stood with regal calm while being put to bridle and saddle.
My head turned and I glanced across the rushing stream, to the single yurt on the far side. I smiled, silently speculated that I was not the only one to get little rest in the night. But, in contrast to my situation, D’Venk and Tenny had likely enjoyed their lack of slumber. Such were my thoughts when Kalomi’s Aunt called her back to the family yurt.
Obsidian Maiden stood patiently, untied outside the corral and yet no more likely to wander off than I. The Royal Black even permitted the children to crowd around and stroke her flanks. No, the Plainsfolk are certainly not in awe of the Sisterhood. But our jet-black warhorses—as fearless and intelligent as they are beautiful—are another story.
Bright Sun and Great Eastern alike had turned out to see us away. Affectionate shouts of goodbye rose as Kalomi swung into the saddle, a bulging drink-skin over her shoulder. My heart sank, just a little. “More of your Aunt’s butter-tea?”
Kalomi gave me an evil smirk. She was about to make some comment when a rider on a lathered pony exploded into view. Jonus, leader of the Great Easterns, and Lavelle, D’Venk’s father, held the exhausted animal by the reins. The man—barely out of boyhood, really—slumped in the saddle, bleeding.
“Byelo!” Jonus snapped. “What has happened?”
“Raided.” The young Great Eastern spat crimson. “Tahk is dead. My sister too, I think—took an arrow and her pony ran with her!”
“Infamous!” Jonus glared about him, fists clenched. “To break the Wedding Truce! And our herders—attacked while riding with minimum arms at this Sacred Time! Byelo, who did this? What creatures would commit such infamy?”
“Grey Eagles,” the wounded man gasped. “I saw the patterns on their shields. But which Band, I’m not sure—”
“Muddy Creeks,” Kalomi sneered.
“We don’t know that,” Pross said.
“No?” She turned to me. “Vendra of Lum, have you nothing to say?”
I had plenty. Technically, terms of our leave called for us to return to the Reserve immediately after the wedding—but I had options. “A grave crime has been committed! Of course we shall ride with these folk, see justice is done. But you and I, Apprentice, ride wearing the purple tunics—as Sisters of the Dragon!” Yanking my Talisman from under my tunic, I thrust it into her face as a stern reminder. “Justice is our concern, not Blood Feuds—is this clear?”
Her face hardened even more than usual. But she nodded.
I turned, looked at the angry faces all around. “Be clear—all of you! I speak plainly, so all may understand. This is a terrible and evil thing. It shall be punished! But as Dragon Sisters, my Apprentice and I shall not stand for excess. The guilty and no other shall be punished!”
Jonus nodded grimly. Turned to Pross. “Know me now as Beautiful Clouds Arising,” he said with deadly earnest.
“And I,” Pross responded, “am Bear Tooth. We go to battle the foe together, as brothers, knowing each other’s Old Names.”
This tradition I knew about: Just as Tribes and Bands were known by names of animals or locations or natural phenomenon, once Plainsfolk had taken their names from the same sources. With the Conversion, Eastlandic and other foreign names—like Pross, Jonus or Kalomi—were given out. But each Band continued to give old-style names, to be used only in war or other extreme times.
“I present my niece,” Pross gestured.
“Sour Water,” Kalomi growled.
“No,” I spoke sternly. “This cannot be allowed. She is a Sister-in-Training. She wears the tunic and the Sacred Talisman. I respect your traditions, gentlemen. But they are no longer hers. Kalomi of the Plains—this is her only name.”
She glared at me and I glared back. She drew her sword halfway from its scabbard. Checked its edge with her thumb. Slammed it back into place.
“Very well,” her Uncle, now Bear Tooth, said without rancor. He turned his head. “Bring only your best, metal-tipped weapons—this is no mere hunt for game! We seek criminals and enemies of the good, and must be ready to struggle bravely—even unto death!”
The Great Eastern leader gave his folk similar orders then turned to me. “Honored Sister?”
“Yes, Beautiful Clouds Arising?” I replied, being careful not to smile.
He winced. “Call me Clouds. The others will know to do so.”
“Clouds,” I repeated. “You, Bear Tooth and I have no time to discuss strategy. I suggest we send out trackers immediately and mount an orderly pursuit with our main body, working out the finer points on the move.”
“My thought as well, Honored Sister.”
“I’m glad they left Tenny and her husband behind,” I remarked to Kalomi after my in-the-saddle conference with the Band Leaders. She shot me a hostile look, but I refused to leave her side. “Isn’t that for the best, Apprentice?”
“Newly married persons are not permitted battle,” she informed me. I saw the battle ornaments she’d added to her hair, but said nothing. Except for the sharp bits of metal and multi-colored shell money, these were the same decorations as the ones signaling happier events—only arranged in a different pattern.
I shook my head, adjusted the leather helm on my cropped hair. “You must understand—”
We rode on, silent.
“They took all the untrained horses and spare ponies?” Bear Tooth repeated the scout’s report then spat. “Greedy curs.”
“Foolish ones,” Clouds corrected with a sneer. “They left witnesses and now they burden themselves with too many frightened animals. Even if I were evil and reckless enough to attempt such horror, I would not be fool enough to do it this way!”
Bear Tooth agreed then pointed. “Another scout! One of yours, this time.”
The Great Eastern rode back to the advancing horde, shouting and thrusting his arm to indicate the direction. “Their trail, headed straight for Muddy Creek Village—not even trying to hide their tracks!”
“Pushing that many animals?” another of Cloud’s men commented. “The low things couldn’t obscure such a path with a solid week’s effort!”
“Let’s get them!” yet another said and many nodded. We quickened our pace.
We caught them just past dawn the next morning.
Clouds led most of the Great Easterns in a sweeping attack against the column’s left flank. D’Venk’s parents, now known as Whirlwind and Yellow Wolf, led the remaining Great Easterns in a dash to get in front of the enemy and block his escape. Bear Tooth, with Kalomi and I at his side, led the Bright Suns in an all-out drive against the Muddy Creek rearguard. The running battle that resulted was fierce as any I have been party to.
I clashed with an older Muddy Creek who proved a surprisingly good swordsman. We tied each other up, swords and arms interlocked. It might have gone either way, but for my Royal Black. Nightmare butted his smaller mount at a key moment. The nimble pony recovered his balance, narrowly avoiding a fall. But his distracted rider toppled with a serious wound from my suddenly freed blade.
A Bright Sun sprang from his saddle to finish the wounded man, but my shout and harsh glare had its effect. He merely took the Muddy Creek prisoner.
The three-sided attack eventually drove the raiders into a small ravine, from which there would be no escape. They turned the stolen animals loose in a final, desperate ploy. But both Northern Owl Bands were more interested in battle by that point than in recovering stolen property.
There were only four raiders left by the time Clouds, Bear Tooth and I called a halt. All were wounded, but still capable of doing damage. Like us, they had dismounted to fight on the uneven lip of the ravine. The woman and two of the men were quite young—led into this disaster by the older survivor.
“Uiseann,” Kalomi growled. “Offer the others their freedom, if the leader submits to Justice!”
It sounded like a Sisterly proposal, despite the wild look in her eyes. But I knew that Plainsfolk had a rather different idea of Justice than we Eastlanders. And right then the bloodied figure at my side was more Sour Water than she was Kalomi, more vengeful Plainswoman than Apprentice Sister. But Bear Tooth nodded and Clouds called down the proposal.
Uiseann agreed. The Muddy Creek leader came into the open, knowing no arrow or javelin would strike him down.
Clouds stood ready to descend and meet Uiseann’s war axe with an iron-tipped spear. If he survived Clouds’ attack, it would only earn Uiseann the chance to fight another warrior to the death—possibly Bear Tooth. Then another and another—by Plains’ Justice, he was already doomed.
“No!” Kalomi called out. “I claim the right! My claim to Justice is older than yours, Beautiful Clouds Arising!”
Uiseann squinted. “I don’t even know you, Dragonwoman.”
“No. You knew my Mother, though—Snow Woman of the Bright Suns, known commonly as Yopa.”
Uiseann grinned viciously. “Ah, yes—that one. The cur-bitch murdered my brother’s son.”
“Killed him in fair battle,” Kalomi corrected. “After he and you and other Mud trash carried her off, did evil upon her. And before you murdered her in turn, by cowardly ambush!”
Kalomi raised her sword, started forward.
I had my chance to stop it—I had the authority. I’m not at all sure Kalomi would’ve obeyed, but I doubt the others would’ve defied a Full Sister. At the least, I could have tried . . . yet I did nothing.
I watched them battle and, in my heart, I knew that if Kalomi failed and if Clouds Arising also fell before that bloody war axe, I would move ahead of the aging Bear Tooth and go next. I resolved that, should my Apprentice Sister die that day, I would see her avenged or die myself in the attempt. In that moment, my Oath and all my quaint notions of Sisterly Correctness meant little to me, indeed.
Fortunately, I’d made an expert swordswoman of Kalomi—passing along every trick and subtle skill I’d learned from dear old Akan at the Academy.
It was a short, brutal fight. But it ended as it should: Uiseann’s wide eyes staring sightless at the sky while Kalomi cleaned her blade on his dusty robes. Then the after-battle lethargy so common in the aftermath of victory’s exhilaration overtook her.
I used her moment of seeming inattention to put my Talisman to use, covertly testing the fresh corpse. The resulting truth shook me deeply, though I hid my emotions and dared hope, if only briefly, that my exhausted Apprentice had not noticed.
In any case, I saw Uiseann’s surviving followers freed—including the wounded we captured earlier. When these events became known, the Grey Eagles of course expelled and disbanded the Muddy Creeks for criminal misbehavior. Their outcast remnant scattered as individuals to create new lives.
Kalomi and I rested two nights and another day at bright Sun Village then started back to the Great Reserve.
“We could be back in our quarters now,” Kalomi said as she stared into the campfire, three nights later. “We might have pressed the horses that much more, with no real risk.”
I nodded. An unspoken, unacknowledged tension had been between us since the fight with the Muddy Creeks. Now it had grown to the point where I could no longer pretend ignorance of it. “I wanted one more solitary night on the trail—a last chance to talk, in total privacy.”
“You examined him,” she said tightly, keenly. “Tested his body with the Talisman’s power. So—was Uiseann my father?”
I had fully intended to speak the truth, when the time came. Had rehearsed the words in my mind, over and over again. And now I tried, but found I simply could not. “No. But he could as easily have been. In which case—”
“It would make no difference,” she insisted.
“Perhaps not. Pass me the butter-tea, would you?”
Kalomi grinned. “As what, Vendra? Penance for permitting a Blood Feud to run its ugly, natural course? I know you hate the stuff. Hell, everybody hates it! It’s quite hideous, actually.” She passed me the skin.
I raised it. Squeezed some into my reluctantly open mouth. “I must agree,” I said, passing the skin back. “But why do all you Plainsfolk act like you love it so?”
“Tradition. Oh, and do consider yourself duly honored that—as an outsider—I let you know this.” Kalomi took a squirt of the fermented milk and grimaced. “We have a great many traditions. Most more pleasant than butter-tea. A few as bad, or worse.”
“Like Blood Feuds?” I suggested.
Kalomi nodded. She reached a hand across, well above the low fire.
I took it, held it firmly.