The first rays of the sun silhouetted Rifkind as she sat her war-horse and gazed on the ruin of her clan. Lazy plumes of smoke still rose from the smoldering campsite, still filled the air with the acrid scent of burned flesh. Turin shook his head and snorted nervously as the odors reached him, the golden coins encircling his horns flashing crimson in the sunlight. Rifkind automatically reached down and stroked his neck; they shared an inborn fear of the destructive power of fire.
Woman and steed formed a motionless tableau on the bluff overlooking the camp, ignored by the ever-hungry pi-dogs who had conquered their fear of fire and men for the sake of smoking meat within the ruined tents.
Rifkind's face was hard, her eyes empty, as she studied the carnage. Every tent pole had been broken, every wagon had been stolen or burned-- even the cairn marking the meager well at the center of the encampment had been overthrown. The wooden water bucket, its bottom breached, perched indignantly on the death-stiffened hindquarters of a steppes-boar with which the raiders had defiled the well mouth.
`The clan is destroyed. We had been driven back to our last foul well. Now only the dogs are left alive . . . unless they took my father with them to enliven their victory celebration.'
``By the Lost Gods, I warned them it would come to this!''
Rifkind's voice shattered the silent early morning; the dogs looked up, but having already conquered their fears, they soon resumed their grisly feed. Motivated by the compassionate intelligence the Asheeran nomads had nurtured in his breed, Turin craned his neck to look at her. Since that distant day when he had been separated from the Gathering's herd, his empathic sensibilities had been focused on her alone. Suddenly, turning back to the scene below them, his shrill whistle pierced the air. The dogs slunk back a few paces.
The sun had risen two full handspans above the horizon when finally Rifkind's heels pressed Turin's flanks and they entered the camp.
`I told them yesterday what the dust cloud portended. I warned them. Yet though we quarreled and, furious that they ignored my advice to post guards, I left them to their doom, still my dreamspirit hoped ardently that I was wrong. That the cloud was just a dust devil or a mirage, not my clan's fate.'
`I did not-- do not-- honor you. My blind, crippled, dishonored father, my perfumed, cowardly brother . . . the rest of you . . . but I am a healer. I did not wish you dead. I had come back to you with my knowledge, but you spurned my healing just as you had spurned my sword.'
Rifkind leaned over and wrenched a splintered tent pole from the hard dry ground, used it to probe the smoldering mounds without dismounting. The few loyal warriors formed a sparse ring of corpses around the pavilion wherein her father had lain a cripple-- and her brother had lain with his harem of captive women.
``Halim!'' She shouted her brother's name as she savagely thrust the stake into the felt and mohair of the ruined pavilion. `I know you're here, damn you. You did not fight. They found you cowering behind the silks of your women. There is no knowledge in your entrails; they killed you where they found you.'
The bloody corpse of the blue-eyed slave who had most pleased Halim tumbled down from the pile of debris, revealing the fat, headless, castrated corpse of her brother.
`Fitting: they took your head, which you never used, and your manhood, which Chala died defending. Did you recognize your slayers, or did the other chiefs of the Gathering send faceless assassins to kill one who, living, was a dishonor to them all?
`You were weak and loved luxury like a Wet-Lander. Yet even so when I returned from my years with Muroa, I offered to heal our differences. I would have left you the women-- what use to me? And you never cared for fighting; you would have had to challenge Father. And blind crippled wreck that he was, you loved him . . . Or did you fear that despite everything he would rise from that pallet and wield a sword more effectively than you? I would have lifted that load from you. But no--'
Her arm snapped forward, releasing the tent pole with such force that it drove through the silk-swathed belly and into the ground beneath. Though small, even for an Asheeran, Rifkind had driven her body to a physical perfection that let her claim a warrior's sword in a society that sold its women into marriage once they had proven their womanhood.
The defiled well made it clear to her that the raiding party had been from her own Gathering. She had been a child when the Gathering had last swooped down to annihilate a member clan. They'd burned the clan's blood leaders alive and read their charred entrails at the subsequent feast. Her father had been hetman then, and she'd hidden in her own tent frightened as much by the wild sputtering fires themselves as by the yowls of torment. Her mind filled with the memories of that night-- only now it was her father's sightless eyes that stared out of the flames, whose unbound arms reached out for her.
Rifkind fought the remorse and grief with her bitter hatred.
`You lingered untimely long. When neither Muroa nor I could heal you, you ought to have begged for death, rather than let us all come to this! Who would think that the man who led our Gathering so proudly in his youth would cling to life so piteously!
`Had it not meant fighting every warrior left to the clan, I would have challenged you myself . . . In the end, it has made no difference-- either way, the clan is destroyed. I am alone.'
She dismounted and led Turin to the fringes of the camp where her own tent had stood. An outcast, she had been distrusted by her own clan-- but still clan-blood; they could not send her away, yet the doorway of her small russet tent had always faced the open stepped of the Asheera. And now the dogs were adding their own dishonor to that of the Gathering.
Whirling a scrap of cloth that trailed smoke and ashes, she chased the dogs away and returned to stand in the still-warm ashes of her home. Those boxes and sacks that had survived the burning had been pillaged. Imagining their reactions to the piles of sand and stone they had found, Rifkind gave a short, vindictive bark of laughter. A healer, she had a small secret cave in the barren rocks not too far from the encampment. Distrusting those of her own clan as much as any possible raider, she had kept her possessions of value hidden there.
They had destroyed her clan-- but everything she cherished was safe: her gold, the consecrated objects she'd received from Muroa at her initiation, the moon-stones and her ruby pendant-- suddenly she clutched the neck of her tunic. The evening before, Vernta had taken the necklace to tighten one of the links, and had not returned it before Rifkind had stormed out of her father's tent. Panic-stricken, she plunged into the debris with her bare hands while Turin made anxious noises outside the charred perimeter of her tent.
A weak voice came from the debris. She lifted the heavy felt and found her manservant.
Unable to speak, she touched his shoulder gently.
His eyes opened, but did not focus on her.
``I knew you'd come back . . . Tahrman called for you when they took him. `Rifkind. Avenge me, daughter! Avenge the clan!' He called on you. Then-- the fire!''
The man struggled for breath, his charred face filled with agony and remembered horror. Rifkind took his outstretched hand in her own. She had left them to their deaths.
``Vernta? Where's Vernta?'' His voice was weakening, but his grip was strengthened by impending death.
``Can you see her?''
Rifkind looked about for the man's wife, found her. Her right arm had been slashed off and her skull split open. A dog had claimed the body as its own.
``She's gone. A battle death. You can be proud.''
``She fought to the end . . . The ruby? She had the ruby . . . It was your mother's, you know . . . She always wore it around her neck on a big gold chain . . . Ah, princess, you're so beautiful.''
His grip loosened and he reached out, seeming to find something. Rifkind did not need the intense focus of a healer to know that he had passed form the reality of the living to that of the dead. His last broken words were addressed to the ghost of her mother. His hand dropped a final time, the gurgling in his chest ceased. After a moment, Rifkind pressed the lids down over dead, staring eyes.
The man wore three gold neck chains that somehow the raiders had missed. She broke them off and stuffed them into a tunic pocket. His other ornaments were not valuable. She stepped over his body to squat by the mangled body of his wife. Vernta clutched a bloody dagger in her remaining hand. Rifkind had no doubt that the woman had fought to the end.
``I knew you too well, Vernta. You would never have fought for this clan; you befriended me only because I reminded you of her. There was never any doubt where your loyalty lay.''
Rifkind slipped her own dagger from its sheath and began slitting the corpse's clothing.
``You wouldn't die until that stone was safe.''
When the heavy chain and its ruby pendant did not appear in the cloth folds, Rifkind plunged the knife deep into Vernta's abdomen, making an S-shaped slash. She enlarged the gash until her knife grazed something harder than bone. For reasons of her own, the old woman had pried the thumbnail-sized stone from its setting and swallowed it. Rifkind wondered if her mother's nurse had intended to keep the stone for herself, but that no longer mattered. After wiping the stone free of gore, she slipped it into the suede pouch which held her oracle moon-stones.
Turin thrust his muzzle at her cheek. She looked up and absently scratched his nose.
``Yes, Turin, I see the sun. The dark moon is behind us; the Bright One not yet full. We're not likely to have lightstorms today, but still it's time to get to shelter.''
The dogs were back in the camp before Rifkind's feet had found the stirrups of her saddle. She had seen packs of them follow a raiding party and lingering for a week or more to feast on an unfortunate caravan plundered by her clan. But that had been in the days when they were victors; now the dogs fed on them. It was too much to endure. She dug her heels into Turin's flanks and urged the war-horse to battle frenzy. She drew her sword, and he lowered his horns. They trampled the ruins in their mutual rage, but only old or injured dogs fell to their fury. The rest retreated to the rocks to out-wait her.
Battle frenzy gone, she was drained of her overwrought emotions. She looked down at the grey-muzzled dogs-- both slashed and gored. But there would be other dogs, even if she had slain the whole pack. It was the Asheera's way of reclaiming its own.
Woman and steed turned away, Turin choosing his own path out of the camp and toward her cave. He took them by a devious, circular route, in case raiders might still be nearby, yet made sure they reached the rocks well before the sun reached midheaven. Rifkind dismounted and relieved Turin of his saddle, then left him a peaceful afternoon cropping the bitter greenish-white grass of the Asheera while she crept into the small cave.
The dark shadows of the rocks provided shelter from the heat of the midday sun and from the terrors of lightstorms, which disrupted visible light and the minds of anyone who did not take shelter. The Asheeran nomads traditionally slept the dangerous and uncomfortable days away, conducting their business in the cool safety of the night air.
Rifkind sat, cushioned by a heavy embroidered riding-cloak, in the darkness of her cave, unable to sleep.
Her thoughts ran first toward redeeming her self-preserving cowardice by a daring counterraid. But she would die before a proper vengeance was exacted. In her bleak despair, such an end seemed fitting; but as morning became afternoon, aversion to the ignominy of improper vengeance overcame desire for battle death.
The air seemed warm and stagnant; she crawled to the cave's opening. When the fresh air failed to bring sleep, she removed the suede pouch from the thong around her neck and emptied its contents on the dimly lit cave floor. She fondled the ruby a moment, then replaced it in the pouch. The remaining five intricately carved bone-chips she cast carefully into a cleared area just beyond the shadows.
Rifkind couldn't tell if she'd failed to concentrate properly, of if casting moon-stones in the sunlight affected their oracular powers, but the pattern brought confusion rather than peace of mind. She unrolled the cloak and stretched out full-length in the semidarkness and at last fell into a troubled sleep.
Her sleep was filled with fitful images of the raid, but she did not awaken until after sundown. She rose with an immediate sense of danger, confirmed as her eyes fell upon the silhouette of a strange war-horse at the cave entrance.
Her mind reached out hopefully to the empathic war-horse.
Turin! An intruder!
He was grazing quietly some distance away, and stubbornly certain there was no danger. Rifkind looked again into the twilight darkness. The war-horse was smaller than most; one misshapen horn curved noticeably behind the other.
``Muroa?'' She whispered the name of her tutor in the Ritual Arts.
``You're awake now? Dropped a stone on the roof-- thought it best to wake you slowly, what with last night.''
Only Muroa would think dropping a stone on the roof of a cave was a slow way to wake someone up.
``If I hadn't, your nonsense at the camp this morning would have told me.''
Rifkind crawled out of the cave, pulling the cloak around her against the sudden coolness of the dry night air. She hadn't thought that her emotions had been that intense or uncontrolled, but Muroa was especially sensitive to her pupils.
``Have you made up your mind yet?'' the older woman demanded.
``My father called for vengeance. It is my responsibility. I will do what I can. There are no others left.''
``Your father was a lewd old man. He outlived his life by half. He was his own living vengeance.''
``I claim vengeance for my clan.''
``The clan was no better. You're well rid of them. Turn your back on the Asheera-- your destiny is elsewhere, girl.''
``Amorn was still alive, wounded and burned. He died for me. He died the death I avoided by leaving the camp.''
``Another useless old man. I've always said the Bright One watches you carefully. Without your father's stupidity, your destiny would be far harder to complete. Take your opportunity. The next one may not be so pleasant nor easy. Leave the Asheera''
``I have a duty to the clan. I must claim vengeance.'' Rifkind protested with more determination than she felt.
``You're more than able with a sword, and you've more skill in the Art than I'd got at your age; but girl, you'll get no vengeance riding alone into that nest. Or don't you know? No, I can see in your face that you don't. Your brother-in-law Kerdal rounded up the whole Gathering to make that raid. He could have done it alone, but he shared the glory and honor and now everyone is sitting peacefully at his feet.''
``It will be a vengeance in spirit. My clan has died! I must have vengeance or die with it.''
Rifkind began to pace the ground before her cave.
``You have a destiny to fulfill!'' Muroa's voice rose in anger.
``My clan is my destiny!'' Rifkind answered in kind, turning on her heels, her hand resting lightly, absently, on the sword hilt.
``Your clan lies out there eating the bitter dust it so richly deserved. Your destiny is as your mother's was. Take that stone and leave the Asheera!''
The two women glared at each other. Then Rifkind dropped her stare and looked off at the scattered moon-stones.
``Of all our treasure, that alone remains. Vernta saved the ruby for me.''
``Vernta!'' Muroa spat for emphasis. ``That she-jackal. No doubts of her loyalty. She'd keep the stone-- for eternity, if she could . . . No matter-- you've got it safe?''
``I cut it out of her stomach.''
``Then begone. Finish your destiny-- it's been waiting too long as it is. Search for your own fate. It's no good to have that destiny stalking the Asheera.''
``Where else would I go?''
``You've cast the moon-stones. Go where they tell you.''
Rifkind's gaze returned to the stones. If glorious vengeance was difficult to attain, winning an argument with Muroa was impossible.
``They make no sense.''
The old woman laughed. ``You go too deep, girl. Look at them! All in a line like that. Follow the line and by morning, the Bright One will set at your feet.''
``It's not like the Bright One to move from behind . . . If it's a line, it's a line to moonrise.''
``It leads out of the cave, child, toward moonset.''
``If I followed that I'd wind up in the Death-Wastes, alone, with not extra animals, no food or water. And no tent for protection against the lightstorms! It is not a line to moonset. That isn't the Bright Ones way: the Wet-Lands are only ten nights journey the other way. There are rocks and wells.''
``Go away from the cave. Toward moonset . . . Ah, never matter. You'll leave now-- either way.''
Muroa sprang to the back of her war-horse with an agility which belied her sixty-odd years in the steppes.
``Wait, I'll go with you.''
``Not tonight, Rifkind. I go to Kerdal's camp.'' The old woman saw the questions in Rifkind's eyes and laughed again before digging her heels into the war-horse's flanks. ``Someone has to read your father's entrails; it can't very well be you, can it?''
Muroa's final words seemed to echo in the night air long after the woman had disappeared. Rifkind picked up the moon-stones and leaned against the cave mouth. Memories of the four long years she had spent with Muroa in her isolated camp learning the Ritual Arts rose in her mind. The two had never really liked or fully trusted each other. Rifkind respected Muroa's knowledge and skill. Muroa had never concealed her desire to train the ill-omened child, born in a lightstorm of an already-dead mother, rather than let one of her rivals have the honor. Rifkind had never considered their uneasy truce to be friendship. Now there was an unspoken acknowledgment that their pats would not cross again.
Rifkind returned the stones one by one to their pouch, then carefully sorted her other possessions, packing a few into leather or cloth sacks, burying the rest in the hard dirt beyond the rocks. Turin shied anxiously as she saddled him, uncertain whether her emotional emptiness augured certain death or merely a long journey. She pried a rock loose from the mound which created the roof of her cave retreat, causing the den to collapse on itself.
``Moonrise? Moonset? Either one gives me my freedom. My survival is my vengeance on my own clan-- and on those who would have destroyed it. Moonset? The old crone's never been wrong . . .''
Rifkind turned away from the risen moon, letting it guide her path from behind.
Copyright 1979, Lynn Abbey