Authors: Mary H. Herbert
by Mary H. Herbert
Lady Gabria rose with the rest of the crowded clanspeople and watched with shining pride as six young warriors entered in single file through the huge double doors of the chieftain's hall. In the ancient tradition of the Khulinin Clan, the men had completed their rites of initiation into the werod, the clan warriors, and now they followed the priest of Surgart, the god of battle and warriors, into the hall to make their final vow of fealty to their chieftain, Lord Athlone. —
Gabria clasped her fingers tightly together, as if to lock in the joy that threatened to burst out. This was supposed to be a solemn moment for these six young men, and she wasn't going to embarrass them by shouting her pleasure out loud.
But it was a difficult effort.
The Warriors' Rites were always a time of celebration for the clan, but this year was especially important, for Savaron, her eldest son, had completed his initiation. She knew, if all went well, Savaron would be wer-tain in a few years and eventually take over as chieftain of the clan. She was very pleased with the succession and by the clan's ready acceptance of her son. Savaron was a capable, courageous, intelligent man, who had already shown the strength of character of both his parents. He had also inherited their talent to wield magic.
Gabria thought about the irony of that as the warriors strode to the foot of the chief's dais and bowed to Lord Athlone. Twenty years ago, before her son was born, this event would never have happened. The clans had despised magic for over two hundred years and put to death anyone who tried to use the natural power. It wasn't until Lord Medb of Clan Wylfling found an ancient book of sorcery and tried to conquer the twelve clans of Valorian that the clanspeople began to realize that they had been mistaken to turn their backs on magic. Only she, Gabria, had dared oppose Lord Medb's evil sorcery with magic of her own. She had defeated him and set in motion within the clans a difficult but gradual reacceptance of the use of sorcery.
With the help of her husband Athlone, the chieftain of the most powerful clan on the Ramtharin Plains and a magicwielder in his own right, she had struggled for twenty years to return sorcery to its respected place within the clans. It hadn't been an easy task. The laws of the clans had been gradual y changed to accommodate the magic-wielders and protect those people who didn't have the inborn talent. But generations of clanspeople had grown up being taught that magic was heretical, evil, corrupting. Even after twenty years, the old prejudices still ran deep in the clans.
Thankfully the Khulinin had grown quite tolerant of magic. After the initial shock of learning their chieftain was a sorcerer, they had come to accept magic much as he did: as a gift and as a blessing of the gods. Now, twenty years after the return of sorcery, the Khulinin were watching as another sorcerer prepared to take his vow of fealty and follow in the footsteps of his father.
The young men knelt before their lord on the dais, their strong, tanned faces bowed before him. A hush fell over the watching crowd as the priest of Surgart withdrew a mask from the folds of his robes and raised it high above his head so that the eyeholes seemed to look down on the kneeling warriors.
The mask was solid gold, brilliantly polished, and lovingly tended. It was the most treasured possession of the Khulinin clan, for it was the death mask of the hero-warrior, Valorian.
A warm, throbbing sense of wonder filled Gabria at the sight of the gleaming mask. Its face was as familiar to her as her husband's and almost as beloved. She had found the old mask many years before in the ruins of the sorcerers' city, Moy Tura, and had brought it home proudly to Khulinin Treld. The man whose face had formed the mold had died over four hundred years earlier, but his legacy still influenced the clans of the Ramtharin Plains. The Khulinin often used the mask to evoke Valorian's presence at special ceremonies, and Gabria knew he would have been pleased by today's ceremony and by her son, who would help pass on the gifts Valorian had given to his people.
Before the eyes of the clan and the enigmatic face of the death mask, the six warriors repeated the ancient vows of loyalty one by one and received their first warriors' gifts from their lord: the traditional bag of salt and a dagger.
When the last one finished his vows, the six men stood together, raised their swords to the raftered ceiling, and shouted the Khulinin war cry.
Their shout had barely begun to fade when Savaron turned quickly to his father and cried, "A boon, my lord! I ask my first boon." Lord Athlone looked slightly startled by his son's request, but he nodded, wondering what the young man was up to.
"It is early yet," Savaron said with a grin. "There is time for a tale before the feasting." The Khulinin cal ed out their agreement. They were always ready to hear one of the wondrous tales told by their bards. But Savaron raised his hand, and the crowd fell silent.
He went to the priest of Surgart and, looking inquiringly at the man's face, reached out to take the death mask into his own hands. The priest nodded once before he passed the precious burden to the warrior.
To everyone's surprise, Savaron winked at the clan bard nearby, then strode through the crowd to his mother, Gabria. "I wish to hear the tale of Valorian," he said loudly and placed the golden mask in her arms.
For a moment, Gabria hugged the heavy mask to her chest, too startled to say a word. Savaron knew of her deep, abiding respect for Valorian, and he knew of her efforts over the years to compile the ancient stories of the hero-warrior's deeds into a single great tale. But why did he want to hear her tale now? Had his own wonder fil ed him when the mask was brought out, or did he simply feel the appropriateness of the story at this time?
She glanced around at the clanspeople and saw the curiosity on their faces. She had never told this tale before, because it had taken nearly twenty years to peel away the myths and fables surrounding Valorian and gather the scattered stories, fragments of histories, and forgotten songs into one cohesive tale. Even now she wasn't certain she wanted to share her tale. . . except for her son.
Taking her silence as acquiescence, Savaron led her to the dais, where Lord Athlone willingly gave up his chair for his wife to sit. The two men found stools and sat by her feet while the other clan members gathered closer.
Gabria hesitated for a long moment, gazing down into the face of the mask on her lap. The eyeholes stared back at her, dark, empty, and bereft of life. She remembered a fleeting minute long ago when those eyes had stared back at her, as blue as an autumn sky, and she held that memory firmly in her mind while she gathered her thoughts.
"May my words please you, my lord Valorian," she whispered, then, raising her voice so all could hear, Gabria said, "The journey began with a dead deer. . . ."
Valorian crouched, poised immobile behind a clump of boulders, his ears trained to the voices in the valley below. He listened intently for a few breathless moments before he slowly lifted his eyes over the edge of the rock and peered down into the narrow, wooded val ey. They were directly below him, making camp as best they could under the dark, wet trees. Several thin horses were tethered nearby, picking at a sparse pile of fodder.
A heavy drizzle obscured the details of the men's faces and dress, but Valorian saw enough to recognize the occupation of the five men. They al wore the black eagle emblem of the XlIth Legion of the Tarnish emperor. Strangely, though, the legion was supposed to be on the other side of the Darkhorn Mountains. What was this small group doing so far from home?
Valorian studied the soldiers for a few more minutes, then slipped down behind the rocks again. He leaned back on his haunches and scratched the four-day stubble on his jaw thoughtful y. The men below posed a real problem to the hunter. Normally he would avoid Tarnish soldiers like lepers. In the many years since the Tarnish armies had invaded his homeland of Chadar, Valorian had never known the soldiers to be anything more than merciless, greedy curs who helped their emperor maintain his conquests with ruthless efficiency. Valorian knew that if he went down among them alone, they were as likely to kill him as to talk to him.
The hunter risked another glance over the boulder. The men were stil grouped together, trying vainly to light a fire.
Valorian curled his lip. The fools were going about it all wrong, and from the appearance of their haggard faces and dirty tunics, things had been going wrong for them for a long while.
Valorian loosed a sigh and looked back up the hill to where his stallion stood out of sight in a copse of trees. On the horse's back was Valorian's prize, the result of four days of difficult tracking and nearly fruitless hunting: one thin, field-dressed deer. The deer would mean fresh meat for his family for the first time in many days.
And yet perhaps those men in the val ey had a greater prize, a prize worth the danger of facing the soldiers alone and unarmed.
Valorian believed the XIIth Legion was garrisoned at the Tarnish stronghold of Ab-Chakan, to the east, on the other side of the Darkhorn Mountains, in a tantalizing land Valorian knew only by the tales he had heard. The land was named the Ramtharin Plains and was described as a vast, empty realm of grass and endlessly rolling hills—a land perfectly suited for his nomadic people and their horses.
Unfortunately the Tarnish Empire had extended its hold over the plains as far as the Sea of Tannis nearly seventy years ago and still held it in the name of the emperor.
Now, however, the empire was beginning to lose its grip on its far-flung provinces. Enemies were plaguing its borders, several tribes far to the west were rebelling, forcing the emperor to send thinly stretched legions to quel the uprisings, and three years of bad weather had played havoc with the crops that fed the great capital city of Tarnow. The Tarns themselves were growing unmanageable. To make matters worse, the old emperor, who had doubled the size of his empire and struck terror in the ranks of his enemies, had died, leaving his throne in the hands of his weaker, less capable son. In just eighteen short years, the empire had lost a fourth of its outlying provinces and had been forced to abandon many of its fortresses. Ab-Chakan was the last Tarnish garrison on the eastern side of the Darkhorn Mountains and the only one left on the Ramtharin Plains.
Perhaps those soldiers down in the chil y, wet clearing knew some news that would be useful.
There had to be an important reason for them to be so far from their garrison, and there was nothing like. a hot meal and a warm fire to loosen a man's reluctance to talk.
Al of these thoughts passed through Valorian's mind while he debated his decision. Then, with a curse of resignation, he slipped out of his hiding place and made his way quickly uphill toward his horse.
The meat would help his family temporarily, but the information he might gain could help his entire Clan for a long time to come.
The stal ion, Hunnul, standing quietly in the gathering shadows of night, nickered softly to the man when he entered the copse. Valorian paused to run his hands down the horse's powerful black shoulder.
The clansman smiled a rueful grimace.
"After all that work, Hunnul, we're going to give our prize away to some Tarnish soldiers."
The big stallion snorted. His dark, liquid eyes watched his master with unusual intelligence and affection.
"Perhaps I'm crazy," Valorian muttered, "but they're from the Ramtharin Plains! I've been trying to learn more about that land for a long time." With brusque movements, the hunter packed his bow and short sword out of sight in his gear, keeping only his hunting knife in his belt. Then he mounted Hunnul's saddle in front of the wrapped body of the deer and drew a deep breath to help stil the faint trembling of his cold hands. "Let's go," he said to the horse. "We have Tarns to feed."
Obediently the stal ion walked out of the trees and began to pick his way down the rock-strewn hillside. Twilight was settling heavily into the valley under a gloomy shroud of drizzle and mist, enabling Valorian to ride almost to the edge of the soldiers' camp before one man saw him and shouted a warning.
The others whirled in surprise. Dirty and disheveled they might be, but Valorian immediately saw the soldiers still maintained the strict training of the crack XlIth Legion. In a blink, the five men had drawn their swords and stood back-to-back in a tight circle, their faces grim and their weapons ready.
"Well met!" Valorian called as cheerfully as he could muster. He slouched his tall frame to look as innocuous as possible and pushed back the hood of his cloak. Hunnul stopped at the edge of the clearing.
The five soldiers didn't move, staring balefully at him.
"Identify yourself," one man ordered.
In answer, Valorian untied the deer from the back of his saddle and dumped it on the ground in front of Hunnul. He allowed the hungry men a moment to eye the meat before he slowly dismounted.
The soldiers didn't budge from their defensive positions.