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It was the end of the summer of my tenth year. I had nearly caught a falcon’s baby, but had let it go to save my own hide; I had bartered chicken eggs for three small red stones that glowed like sun-fire when the day is late; and I had been with my family as far as Helming Side where, the farmers there told me, they could still plough up old boots from the war. A farmer showed me one, loam-eaten, rattling with someone’s foot-bones still in it and the laces grown stiff with dirt.
It had been a good summer. I leaned back on my low rock, digging my toes into the thick mossy carpet of the glen, watching while our piebald destrier Gavrielle splashed her forehooves in the stream and took a deep, long drink. I had already been in: the day’s dust was washed off me and I had mostly dried in the patchy, late light that filtered through the leaves, and now I sat with my trousers and tunic sticking to my hide in uncomfortable places, my soul easy and full within me.
If I turned round I could see, over the top of the glen, through the crooked alder trunks, the smudge of blue on the peregrine-blue sky that was smoke trailing from our cooking-fire. The smell of it hung thinly in the air and tickled my nose. There would be a whole grouse for supper tonight, stuffed with cranberries. My stomach, which had not been filled since morning, tried to get out and roll its way back to the cart-house.
I did not turn round. I lazed in the old summer twilight, one eye on Gavrielle while she had her fun, to be sure she did not go off and have too much fun, and I thought about—I do not know what: odd, lazy things which were each hugely important, like the three red stones and the falcon’s baby. Maybe I would catch one next year and train it, and sell it to some rich lady—or, better yet, barter myself and my fledgling into some land-owner’s mews and make something of myself. I thought about that until it seemed it had really happened and the glen became confused with the rich scenery of a hunt, lazy with the end of summer, full of lords and ladies and the jewelled shadows of their laughter…
I came to with a start. Gavrielle had cried out sharply, smashing my shallow dozing with the power of one of her dish-sized hooves. In a flash I was up, flinging the sleep from my eyes, but before I could see clearly what the matter was, a pain exploded across my face, digging into my right brow and spilling blood in my eye. I went down on one knee, my fist in the moss, stomach clenched as I got a handle on the pain. One thing came clearly to me through the swelter of red and rawness: I needed to get to Gavrielle. Stumbling up, blinking with one blind eye and looking out of the other, I saw a group of boys not much older than myself ringed round my big mare, teasing her with stones. She was a placid, amiable girl, used to taking the rough play of children, but the stones were something new. We had never struck her and rarely ever chided her. She was the throbbing heart and soul of my family. Without her there would be no cart-house, no wandering and bartering, no livelihood at all. She was everything, and as the blood filled one eye and the sight of her being tormented filled the other, a dark, thick shadow fell over my mind and my heart seemed to well up, thick with blood, into my throat.
I hit the boy who had flung the rock at me. I hit him wildly, hard, heedless of the pain that shot jaggedly up my arm. He was big and only staggered back a little, surprised, but already I had hurtled myself at the next, thrusting myself like a spear into the side of their ring, wedging and wrenching them apart. Gavrielle was squealing and wheeking in confusion, kicking out in fits and starts, half-heartedly, not knowing if she should fight for herself or if, even now, it was forbidden to strike a human being.
The boys began to realize that I meant business. Several of them ranged across the stream to keep Gavrielle from running off, but the rest converged on me. I did not see them very clearly. My right brow was beginning to swell and I kept my lid closed lest the blood sting in my eye, and anyway we were all moving so quickly that I am not sure I would have seen them clearly even with two sound eyes in my head. I hit and kicked and swore deliberately, my teeth set, until the biggest boy, some eight years my senior, put me in the stream on my backside with what felt like a broken collar-bone.
The cold water brought me to my senses. Then, before I could feel the pain or think what next to do, a sound ripped through the glen: a falcon’s scream, full and golden and enraged. Falcons never keep so close to humans, brawling or otherwise: we all whirled and looked up.
In the low saddle-top of the glen with the darkening eastern sky breaking through the trees behind them, the late light falling on bridle-bit and signet-ring, were the three young lords of the Mares. I had never seen them before, but that did not matter: they were unmistakable. The eldest was not over twenty years old, the other two ranged close behind him, but already they bore the fierce, cool, supercilious stamp on their faces of undisputable lordship. They sat their horses deftly, easily—I had the impression that they were woven into the fabric of the ground under their feet and that, if they moved, the loam and moss and glen-wall would uproot with them.
Badger’s horse, catching Gavrielle’s distress, flung up its head and snorted.
His falcon-scream dying into the twilight, his eyes full of a gently veiled, latent energy, Goddgofang, the eldest, looked down on us all, gaze landing lightly on us one by one, hesitating, hovering, measuring: when their cold blue shimmer fell on me I felt something ache inside my chest, a sudden longing after the beautiful summer that lay long and broken at my back: it seemed to slip out of my hands so that I would never have it again—it seemed to recede into the young man’s eyes and hide there.
“I mislike the odds of this fight.” His voice was low, gentle, musing, and as yet held no mockery. “What are the stakes?”
No one spoke. I dared not look round nor break my gaze from that terrible face, but I felt as one might feel the laced whispering of tree-leaves how the other boys were worrying among themselves, catching the scent of each other’s distress, hunting for a way to break out of a fight which had suddenly become too hot for them. But I caught a little movement to one side of Goddgofang and found Bruin had turned his head a fraction and looked down on me, a touch of smile on his lips, a fairness and a gentleness about his face which was oddly more like a woman’s than anything else. I realized then that they had been there for the whole thing. They knew who had started what, and Bruin was laughing at me for not stumbling up and blurting out who was at fault.
Goddgofang twisted in the saddle, fetching a look back at his brother. “Nigh on a baker’s dozen boys against a gypsy’s pup and a big old girl-horse. I mislike the odds. You?”
Badger’s face became bright and playful. “I mislike them too. Dost think we even them?”
“Thin them, rather,” replied Goddgofang ominously. With an imperceptible gesture he turned his horse a little and the late light clanged off the polished head of his sword.
I wished I could scrub the blood out of my eye to see better, but I did not dare move. I wished I could go to Gavrielle’s side and hush her, for she was in a bad state and sobbing softly, but I did not dare move.
Bruin spoke up for the first time. His voice was like his face, like his soundless laughter: gentle and light, as mocking as Goddgofang’s was serious. It was weirdly beautiful, like the haunting spell of a dream that you know will shape your life forever. “Nay, we overset the odds. What are stones against gentlemen’s swords? Come down, Goddgofang: give them a fist in the teeth. ‘Twill suit me better.”
And Goddgofang swung down, tossing his horse’s reins back to Badger, who was also laughing in that shining, soundless way. I could look then: the faces of the boys were very white. They had been worried enough before: the sight of Goddgofang, brilliant in the evening light with the dark plumage of his hair made rich with slumbering gold, his pale eyes alight over his aquiline nose and despotic mouth, striding down the slope to meet them while he stripped the glove off his right hand made them realize the man was serious. I was scared too, more scared than I had ever been in my life, but at the same time a ruthless fluttering was beginning where my heart should have been, glad beyond all measure of gladness.
“Sir—” began the biggest boy, starting back and dropping the rock which he had forgotten was in his hand. “Sir, I can’t—we’ll go—we can’t—you’re a land-owner—!”
“ ‘Twill suit me better, too!” cried Goddgofang happily. He flung his glove into the moss. “Art Magnus’ boy? Your brother takes after him better. I rode with him last autumn to the University. I would stake my ring that I would never find him hurling stones at a cart-horse and a gypsy.” His voice dropped and seemed, like a fist, to reach across and take the boy by the throat. “ ‘Tis churlish work, and never a man’s. Yet you are but young: show me your mettle—if you dare.”
I hated that boy, but as I watched him take the full blame for them all and stand up mute and white under Goddgofang’s falcon-gaze, without a single waver, I almost loved him; especially when he said, after a long moment and a swallow, “It’s not my place to strike at you, sir, but yours to strike at me.”
Just in time I caught the look that passed between Badger and Bruin, a little nod, a little flick of approving brow, before I was drawn back to Goddgofang. He, too, stood a moment in silence, then he put out his bare hand, long and lean and scarred already with the fierceness of defending life, and set it heavily on the boy’s shoulder. “There is not room for boyhood in life, young sir,” he said grimly. “Harken to that. Nor is there room in the Mares for men of mean spirit. Harken to that, too, and remember that the gypsies are always welcome to us as spice is welcome to life.”
It seemed the boy could finally look away, for he dropped his eyes and blinked—as if waking from an awful dream—and said, “Yes, sir.”
How easily one forgets how young these young men are! Wordlessly Goddgofang took back his hand and seemed to release them all with a mere thought, with an odd little pulse of his presence, for after murmured obeisance the boys seemed to melt into the dusk. The sounds of their going rustled in the wind and the wood until it was only the stream again, clattering away, and the uneasy churn of Gavrielle’s hooves on the stream-bed.
I actually wished they had forgot me altogether. I knew Bruin would not, but Goddgofang looked, for a moment, as if he had, staring up into the crest of the trees at the foot of the glen, listening with a strange intensity to—something, something just out of my reach. But then he seemed to let it go and he swung round, stabbing his eyes into mine.
“You’re a fool,” he said warmly, coming to the stream-side and putting out a hand to fetch me up, “but a strong-hearted fool with a full-blooded heart.”
His hand closing over mine was a dreadful thing. I felt the roughness of it, the power of it, and under the scored palm I felt a pulse that reminded me of plum-coloured evenings much like this one and the sort of power one only hears about in fire-coloured stories.
I realized I had only just begun to be afraid.
“Ship-ship,” whistled Badger, who had got down and was approaching Gavrielle. “There’s a good girl…”
An inexplicable anguish seemed to break open inside me. “You needn’t have bothered,” I said, hoping I did not sound ungrateful and not fully aware of what I was saying. “I would have managed. I am sorry, for I did not mean to cause a fight. I know that—”
His hand came down on my shoulder. The heaviness of it shocked all through me—but the curious thing was that the grinding pain of my broken collar-bone suddenly, inexplicably, ceased. “What do you know of us?” he asked, and there was no mockery in his voice.
I swallowed. Once again I felt my beautiful summer losing itself in a kind of black misery.
“When the robin can fly as high as the falcon, then he may understand the high winds that tease at his wings. Until then, best let the falcon plot his own course.”
“ ‘Twas not for me?” I asked blindly around a lump in my throat. Then I shook my head, beginning to see a little more clearly through my misery. “But the robin can’t see whole things as the falcon can.”
“No, it can’t. It flies too low. But it was partly for you.” The laughter came back into his voice. “Partly because I can’t stand to see a decent mare scared out of her wits. How is our cousin?”
He turned from me to Badger, who had fished Gavrielle out of the stream and was looking her over thoroughly and gently. I went to her then, dragging Goddgofang’s shadow with me as if his hand still clutched my shoulder; I put my arms around the mare’s muzzle with its old-woman whiskers and snuffled reassuringly into her nostrils. She huffed and sneezed contentedly.
“She seems right as rain,” said Badger, getting up off his heels and stepping away from her bulk. He skritched her flank—just where she liked to be skritched. “She has a few wounds but nothing deep, nothing that needs more than cleaning and bandaging and a few days free of road-dust.” He looked significantly at Goddgofang and Bruin, who was holding all three horses at the foot of the slope.
Goddgofang’s lips curled and the late light caught on his dog-teeth, sparking ivory. “The north pasture would do, I am thinking. It is very quiet up there.”
“I am thinking that, too,” said Badger.
The eldest of the three young lords of the Mares turned to me. “Well, sirrah,” he said mockingly, “are our walls too thick for you, or would you honour us with the shadow of your gaudy cart-wheels for as long as your mare needs rest?”
I could hardly speak, but somehow I managed it. “Yours the honour, sir!” I gasped. “We are the least of your servants.”
“The bloodiest,” he said, “but, I think, not the least.” He nodded to Badger. “Best tell the young master’s family where to find him and bring them hither. Bruin and I will gentle them back home.”
Somehow I found myself walking by Gavrielle through the mellow twilit wood, back across rolling pastureland toward a big old house full of lights, the shadowy shapes of Goddgofang and Bruin of the Mares jinking and drumming before me. One of them—I think it must have been Bruin, judging from the pitch of it—began humming a song as we went. It was a road song. A gypsy song.
It was the end of the summer of my tenth year.
It had been a good summer.