A moment ago there had been no choice at all, and even now Dyani could only choose which danger warranted greater fear: the armed brigand on the forest path before her, or the Dyani-sized mountain cat that had suddenly bounded between her and her would-be assailant. The brigand lost no time in making his choice, and crashed through bracken and underbrush as he fled the snarling animal. Something in the back of Dyani’s brain urged her to do likewise—in the opposite direction—but she was too numb with fear to follow that urging. She sank down onto the mossy trail, her legs abruptly incapable of supporting her. The mountain cat turned its amber-eyed gaze on her for a long moment, then disappeared among the shadows and pines.
Dyani remained rooted to the forest floor for a long time, breathing hard. Then she remembered why she had undertaken this journey, and forced herself back to her feet. Gazing warily about, she took a quick drink of water, adjusted her pack, and set off again.
She walked cautiously, stopping at every sound, fear racing up her spine. So it was true—the mountain forests were full of outlaws and fierce wild animals. She had always thought this a mere fright-tale of her father’s, told to keep her gladly cowering behind his stronghold walls. And here she had come alone, with no weapons other than a walking stick and a small fruit knife.
She began to walk faster, with increasing disregard for the rocks studding the trail. Thorns tore at her, branches snagged her hair, vines threatened to trip her, and all the while she felt the golden eyes of the mountain cat burning into her back.
She slipped on a lichen-covered rock, again finding herself sitting in the middle of the path, and yielded to helpless sobs. The sight of an amber glint in the underbrush choked off her tears. She jumped up, holding her walking stick tighter. The glint disappeared, and Dyani realized it was only a ray of the setting sun piercing through the leafy canopy. The setting sun. She sighed, but it was just as well to stop and make camp for the night.
For the first time on this journey she kindled a small fire. She was far enough away now that she didn’t worry about inadvertently signaling any pursuers her father might have sent. She did worry about being devoured while she slept, however, and she had heard that a fire would keep away wild animals. The amber-eyed mountain cat stalked in and out of her dreams, and once in the middle of the moonless night she half awoke, fancying she heard the padding steps of feline feet around the perimeter of her circle of firelight.
The morning brought a misty drizzle. Dyani trudged on along the increasingly ill-marked trail, alert for the feral presence that seemed to be haunting her. As the rain became more insistent, however, the forest’s animal life stilled. Even the usually omnipresent, noisily scurrying ground squirrels seemed to prefer to stay silent and dry in their earthen homes. Dyani began to relax her vigilance and to concentrate more on maintaining her footing on the muddy path, which inclined steeply upward. In the gray afternoon she reached the top of a promontory, from which she gained the view of a mist-filled valley. Directly below her a cluster of lights twinkled feebly—a village! “Thank Rovalani!” she breathed, and began the long descent.
As the grayness of the afternoon intensified, preparing to give way to the dark of night, Dyani stood shivering in the doorway of the village inn. She stepped hesitantly in, even more hesitantly shutting the door behind her. Despite the sooty torches along the walls and the central fire, it seemed darker indoors than out. Dyani found she also preferred the scent of the rain-soaked forest to the stale odors of this place, but the lure of hot food and a warm bed drew her forward.
She expressed her desire for these things to the innkeeper, who approached to greet her with a demeanor of unctuously false courtesy.
“Rooms are scarce on a night like this, m’lady, but if you’ll care to take your meal here in the common room, I’ll go see what I can do,” he oozed, and Dyani reluctantly agreed.
The innkeeper first led her to a bench near the fire, provoking a commotion of jeers and innuendos among the men drinking and gaming there. Cold and wet as she was, she had to agree when her host suggested, “But perhaps you’d be more comfortable at that table in the corner.” Then, leaving her to the care of a serving maid, he ambled off to find her, she hoped, a room for the night.
Only when the men had completely turned their attention away from her did she take off her cloak, making sure that she was well in the shadows before removing the hood. Her braids had loosened, as they always did, and several long strands of fine, silky hair fell about her face. Like her skin, her hair was pale and gleaming with the opalescence of reflected moonlight. However, no one noticed or paid any attention, and Dyani breathed a sigh of relief and bent to her mug of hot cider in secure anonymity.
“Good evening, sister,” rumbled a low, female voice. Dyani looked up and started at seeing the flickering torchlight reflected in a pair of amber eyes. She blinked, and saw below the eyes a wide, white smile. The smile was saying, in the same husky voice, “May I sit with you? We seem to be the only women in this rat hole, other than the serving wenches, I mean. Better women stick together in places like this, eh?”
“Yes, sister, of course,” Dyani managed.
The other woman removed her rather tattered and very grubby cloak. The sleeveless tunic beneath was not in much better state. “I’m called Goldana.”
“Dyani.” She was glad Goldana hadn’t given a family or place name, as that relieved her of the obligation to tell her own surnames.
As Goldana ordered a meal from the serving maid, Dyani watched her with guarded curiosity, wishing she could get a better look at her face. As it was, all she could clearly see of the newcomer in the smoky gloom of the inn were the yellow-gold eyes.
Goldana turned back to Dyani, smiling pleasantly throughout the uncomfortable silence that followed. Dyani finally realized that courtesy demanded Goldana wait for her, as firstcomer, to initiate any conversation.
“Have you traveled far today?” she asked tentatively.
“Yes, and wretched weather for it, too. You?”
“Yes.” She summoned up a little more courage. “Have you ever been here before?”
Goldana shook her head. “But I hope the food’s good. And I hope they bring it soon—I could eat an ox!”
Something about the way Goldana’s teeth gleamed in the pale torchlight made Dyani faintly nervous. She forced herself to continue the conversation.
“The bread is stale, but this vegetable stew is surprisingly good. Although I think any hot food would taste well to me tonight.”
“Vegetable, eh—no meat?”
Dyani shook her head. “I don’t eat it.”
“Well, there are those who don’t, but myself, I’m a hopeless carnivore!” She laughed, then checked herself. “Will it bother you if I eat flesh in front of you?”
Dyani paused managed a weak smile. “I’m used to it.”
The serving maid brought Goldana’s dinner then, temporarily delivering them from the necessity of further talk.
Toward the end of the meal the innkeeper approached their table. He opened his mouth to speak, then stopped, his words arrested by the sight of Dyani’s shimmering hair. His thoughts were plain to her: a Luneyi sorceress, and so far south! She should have been used to such looks, but she flinched under his gaze all the same.
“What is it, host?” Goldana prodded.
He recovered himself, and addressed Dyani. “I have arranged matters so as to provide you with a room tonight, m’lady. It’s on the small side, but it does contain a fireplace and a featherbed. I hope it will do.”
“Nicely, thank you.”
“As for you”—he turned to Goldana, ill-concealed disdain entering his voice—“I’m afraid I can offer you nothing more than space on the common-room floor.”
“That’s ridiculous!” burst out Dyani, surprising herself. “Only the greatest of warrior women would be safe sleeping in this room with such riffraff as are here tonight!”
“And you can see I am no warrior,” added Goldana with a smile, spreading her muscular arms to show she was weaponless.
“You can sleep in here or out there”—he jerked a thumb toward the inn’s door—“it’s all the same to me. I’ve got no room for you.”
“Nonsense!” Dyani exclaimed, surprising herself again. “You’ll stay with me, Goldana.” She looked the innkeeper in the eye. “There’s no problem with us sharing a room, is there, sir?”
The man shrugged and said, “No problem with me, m’lady. But if I was your pa, I might have a few things to say about your choice of roommate. And you might end up none to happy about it yourself.”
He turned and lumbered away before Dyani could respond. “You’re not my ‘pa,’” she muttered after him. “And he doesn’t make my choices for me anymore, anyway.”
She turned back to her companion, and saw Goldana watching her through slitted eyes.
The room was indeed small, just barely big enough for the bed, which was fortunately large. Both women were exhausted and undressed with few words. Dyani got into bed and reached to pinch out the candle.
“Wait,” said Goldana, and checked again to see that the door was securely bolted. Then she went to the window, and peered out into the darkness. With a shrug, she closed the window and fastened the shutters. She stood for a moment, looking perplexed. “Well, perhaps the only robbery they’re planning is to charge us both full price for this closet.” She went to her buckskin boots drying by the fire and pulled a dagger from one. “Still, two unarmed women in an innful of men can’t be too careful.” She lay the knife under her pillow and climbed into bed. “You can put out the light now, sister.”
When Dyani woke in the morning, Goldana was already up, gazing out the window as she worked a comb through her tangled hair, which was the color of honey. Dyani lay still and watched her through half-closed eyes. Goldana was a little taller than average, though she still would reach only Dyani’s shoulder. Her short linen undertunic revealed a body as sturdy and well-muscled as any swordsman’s. Was she a dangerous woman? The innkeeper had as much as said so. But dangerous to whom?
Goldana turned. “It’s still raining. A worse day for travel than yesterday. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes. Did you?”
“Well enough—” She broke off, grimacing as the comb caught a snarl.
Dyani sat up and extended her hand. “Here, let me.” In her father’s stronghold, only a sister or a lover would comb a grown woman’s hair for her, but Dyani suspected that Goldana knew nothing of such customs. As for Dyani, she intended to make a point from now on of not following the customs of her father’s stronghold.
Goldana handed her the comb and sat patiently on the edge of the bed, even allowing Dyani to pull her hair back into a thick braid, then got up and finished dressing, while Dyani carefully combed and rebraided her own hair.
After some thought, Dyani said, “You haven’t said anything about it.”
“It’s pretty.” Goldana wore a faintly bemused expression.
“Thank you, but . . . well, you don’t think my coloring is . . . unusual? In these parts?”
Goldana shrugged. “I’m not from these parts myself.” She turned back to the window in a decided manner, as though to discourage Dyani from pursuing any conversation about Goldana’s home. That suited Dyani fine—she didn’t want to talk about her home, either.
Still looking out the window, Goldana asked, “Will you travel on today?”
“Yes,” Dyani said with such determination that when Goldana faced her again, it was with a sharp, assessing stare.
“Are you rushing to keep an appointment or attend a gathering?”
“You ask many questions.”
Goldana spread her hands apologetically. “Forgive me, sister. Where you go and why is your own business. I just thought you might like to travel in company. For a while. At least until we’re a safe distance from this inn.”
Dyani felt a twinge of suspicion—and realized she’d been feeling a nudging unease ever since Dyani first approached her. “What makes you mistrust this inn so? You said last night you had never been here.”
“Have you done much journeying, Dyani? No? Well, I’ve been wandering for a long time, and I’ve been in inns like this before. I tell you, the place reeks of dishonesty. The stench of it is everywhere.”
“You make it sound as though you can actually smell it”
Goldana only wrinkled her nose and frowned in answer.
“Still, we might not even be traveling in the same direction.”
“I’m headed north.” Something in the way Goldana said this told Dyani that the other woman already knew for certain that she, too, was going north.
Dyani hesitated. Did she really want Goldana as a traveling companion? She kept looking at Dyani in a way that was most unsettling. She was a complete stranger, and probably a dangerous one. But again . . . dangerous to whom?
In any case, though, Dyani couldn’t think of a way to avoid continuing their association for the time being. “I’m heading north. too,” she finally admitted. “But I can’t wait for the rain to let up. I’m traveling on today.” She pulled on her overtunic and belted it, making a great show of brisk determination.
“Fine. Let’s go break our fast.”
“Fine. No—wait.” Dyani pulled a velvet cap out of her pack and tucked her hair into it until not a single wisp escaped.
At last they left the inn. Their host had seemed glad enough to see Goldana on her way, but he’d been most solicitous of Dyani’s well-being and had urged her not to continue her journey in the downpour. His insistence on the subject had had the opposite effect, increasing Dyani’s resolve to leave. Then, true to Goldana’s prediction, he charged them an exorbitant price for their night’s rest, and there was no bargaining him down.
“And good riddance,” Goldana said as she stepped out into the muddy street.
“I didn’t notice that last night.”
“What?” Goldana followed Dyani’s gaze, which rested on the inn sign.
“We spent the night at the sign of the mountain cat!”
“So we did. Let’s get away from here.”
“Wait, Goldana, you don’t understand.”
“I understand that that innkeeper was all too eager to keep you under his roof another night. You were right to be anxious to travel on—let’s go.”
Goldana started down the road without waiting. After a moment Dyani hurried after her. For a time they walked in brisk silence. Now and then someone bustled past, intent on getting to some home or shop as quickly and dryly as possible. A few gray stares followed after them, but for the most part the village seemed still asleep, even though it was well past dawn.
The rain came down harder.
Dyani could not bear the weight of her thoughts any longer. “I have been haunted by a mountain cat,” she blurted.
Goldana kept her gaze on the road. “Haunted? How so?”
“I saw one in the forest two days ago. Ever since, I seem to feel it following me, and I even dream about it. Then that sign—and you, Goldana. Do you know, your eyes—“
“Yes,” Goldana interrupted, “I’ve heard what people say.” Her tone was a little too matter-of-fact.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just . . .” Just what? There were so many things she feared, Dyani felt she could no longer tell the difference between a real danger and an imagined one.
Goldana turned to her with what was probably meant to be a reassuring smile. “Take it from me, encounters with . . . such creatures are rare. You’ve got nothing to worry about, I promise.”
Before Dyani could respond, her companion’s mood shifted again, and she uttered an extraordinarily foul curse.
“Hail!” Goldana exclaimed then, gesturing at the sky. “The rain is turning to hail!”
Dyani by now had observed this for herself. What was more, the hailstones seemed to be steadily increasing in size.
“Perhaps,” she suggested reluctantly, “perhaps we should return to the inn, and wait there for a break in the weather.”
Goldana stopped short and stared at Dyani. “Exactly! That is just what someone wants us to do.” She wrinkled her nose and inhaled deeply. “Yes, I definitely smell magic. Let’s be on our way.”
For the second time that morning Dyani had to hurry to catch up with Goldana.
“Someone is working weather magic to keep us from continuing our journey?” she asked breathlessly. And how could Goldana smell it?
“Yes. To keep you from continuing, anyway. I wonder who it could be, and why?” Goldana shot Dyani a narrow-eyed look.
“I wonder,” Dyani whispered. Was it possible that her father’s household wizard was more than the charlatan she had always believed him—could he have discovered her whereabouts and caused this hailstorm? Or had her father found some other magical means to spy on her and impede her flight?
Dyani’s forehead creased with worry. She dared not meet Goldana’s unsettling gaze. This strange woman seemed determined to accompany her, and Dyani couldn’t imagine why. What if Goldana was some kind of bounty hunter, sent by her father, or maybe by someone else who’d heard about a runaway half-Luneyi girl and thought she’d make a nice addition to his household?
Dyani thought again about going back to the inn, but she was even more suspicious of that innkeeper than she was of Goldana. A little way back they’d passed a house with warmly lit windows; maybe the people there would give her safety and shelter. On the other hand, maybe they wouldn’t. And besides, Dyani realized, she couldn’t possibly run away from Goldana—the other woman was strong and athletic and would catch her easily. She’d have to stay with Goldana, at least a while longer, and hope for the best.
They trudged on doggedly, passing into the fields that surrounded the village. The cobblestone road turned into a muddy cart track. The hail continued unabated, mercilessly bruising them, and the fields stretched on.
“There”—Goldana pointed ahead, quickening her pace—“the village boundary stones!”
They ran, Goldana laughing even though the hailstones pounded down harder than ever. She leapt between the large stones guarding each side of the track, landing in a puddle and sending up a muddy spray. Dyani crossed the village boundary somewhat more sedately, and stood gaping. Outside the village limits, not only was it not hailing, but the rain was letting up.
By midday the rain had ceased completely. The trail, however, was nowhere near drying out. Muddy and slippery, it became even more difficult as it climbed back into the pine-cloaked mountains. When the time finally came to stop for the night, Dyani was too exhausted to even begin worrying about all the dreadful things that could happen to her while she slept.
The night passed uneventfully, even in her dreams. She woke with a sense of relief.
The new day proved the antithesis of the previous two. The sky was brilliant blue and nearly cloudless, the air so warm, even in the forest shade, that around midday they stripped down to their undertunics. The trail was well marked, at some points as broad and level as a road, and although there were some short, steep ascents, it was pleasant, easy walking. Even their conversation was easier today. Still, Dyani had a prickly feeling that they were being followed. She kept it to herself, but strained to catch the sound of unwelcome footfalls behind them, whether human or feline.
Toward nightfall, just as Dyani was about to suggest they stop and make camp, Goldana glanced up at the sky appraisingly and said, “It’s going to be a clear night—why don’t we take advantage of it and travel a little farther?”
Dyani hesitated, not liking this idea at all. Nothing bad had happened to her in Goldana’s company so far, but . . .
Goldana said, “The trail is excellent, and even though the moon is just a little crescent, together with the stars it will give us plenty of light. Besides, I have excellent night vision.”
So Dyani, not wanting to be thought fainthearted, allowed herself to be persuaded. Yet as they journeyed on into the night, Dyani grew more and more uneasy. The sense of being followed pressed on her, and Goldana’s behavior did nothing to allay her fears. The other woman seemed increasingly distracted; her conversation had diminished into single words and then gruff silence. She was walking very fast now, and Dyani was having a hard time keeping up with her.
When they finally camped, Dyani was too exhausted to do anything more than lay out her bedroll. Goldana seemed restless, though, and muttered something about keeping watch. Dyani’s eyes were already closing. As she drifted off to sleep, she heard Goldana softly pacing around their camp.
Tired as she was, Dyani did not sleep well. The apprehensions that had dogged her all day followed her into her dreams. Someone, or something, was on her trail. At first, she looked back over her shoulder every few paces, searching the shadows for the telltale gleam of amber eyes, but then she remembered the magic hailstorm, and it occurred to her that wild animals were the least of her enemies. She remembered the innkeeper’s attempt to persuade her to stay another night at his inn. His face leered up ahead of her on the trail. No, it wasn’t the innkeeper’s face, it was her father’s. He laughed at her, a cruel laugh. “Keep running, Dyani, keep running! Run to the end of the world, but I’ll find you—no girl is going to cheat me out of what’s mine!” Still laughing, he reached out and grabbed her.
Dyani woke, gasping for breath, desperately trying to shake off the nightmare, but the hands gripped tighter.
A voice she had never heard before grunted, “I wouldn’t have thought such a feather of a girl could put up so much fight!”
“Goldana!” she managed to scream before a large, rough hand was clamped over her mouth.
“Rovalani’s brat!” swore another voice. “Calm down, your ladyship, we don’t want to hurt you. We’ve just come to take you home. Your father’s right worried about you, you know.”
She twisted her head away from the hand over her mouth. “Worried! All he cares about is the bride price I’ll fetch him!” she spat, but her captor covered her mouth again before she could say more.
Now that she was fully awake and her eyes had adjusted to the predawn gloom, she could see her captors, two burly men whom she recognized as officers of her father’s guard. Goldana was nowhere in sight.
The first man was saying something about the fabulously rich bride price Dyani was trying to deprive her father of. “Many a lord has already offered a small fortune for you. You’re quite a prize—men are prepared to offer almost anything for a moon-haired bride like you. Your father—”
The rest was lost in a tremendous roar. A golden blur arced over her, and the hands that pinned her down were torn away. One of the men screamed. As Dyani got to her feet, she saw why: a mountain cat was sinking its teeth into the neck of his companion.
The cat tossed the dead man aside as a child would toss a rag doll. With a bloody snarl, it turned to face the other man. He backed slowly and unsteadily away from it. The cat eyed him, gathering itself in preparation for its deadly rush, its tail twitching in expectation. The man’s back hit a wall of rock. The cat seemed to grin, and ran at him.
Dyani fumbled for her walking stick and knife, wondering what she meant to do with them.
The cat sprang for the man’s neck. In the same instant he pulled himself together and drew his sword.
“No!” Dyani cried, but as she started toward them her foot caught in a tree root and she pitched forward.
The cat yowled at the bite of the sword, and the inhuman sound reached the treetops simultaneously with the man’s dying scream.
Dyani lay stunned on the ground. Gradually she became aware of a dull throb and a trickle of blood where her forehead had grazed a rock. Her awareness widened, and she heard something moving near her, something breathing heavily. She forced herself to open her eyes and look at what she was sure would be the agent of her death.
Her vision blurred. She made out a golden shape . . . something on all fours . . . red splashed on gold . . . amber eyes flickering with pain. The shape took a step toward her, groaned, and sank to the ground. The head turned so that the amber gaze met Dyani’s eyes, forcing them to focus. Dyani gasped and scrambled to her feet.
“Goldana!” She ventured nearer. “I—What are you? I had no idea. . . . I didn’t know such creatures existed!”
“This one won’t exist much longer if you don’t get over here and start doing some of that fabled Luneyi healing,” Goldana growled. Her teeth were bloody.
“I—I don’t know Luneyi healing.” Dyani tried to stop herself from shaking. “My mother was Luneyi, but I’ve lived all my life in Kasdan. I didn’t even know my mother. And I don’t know any of the Luneyi arts. That’s where I’m going—to my mother’s people, to learn.”
“A fine time you pick to tell me your life story. And just because you grew up in Kasdan, you’re going to let me bleed to death?”
“No! I don’t know Luneyi healing, but I know how to clean and bind a wound as well as anyone. You—you won’t turn into a cat again, will you?”
“That depends on how quick you stop the bleeding.”
Dyani gathered her courage and set to work. After she had cleaned the wound and ascertained that it was neither mortal nor crippling, she felt able to divert some of her attention to other matters.
As she tore her spare undertunic into bandages, she ventured, “You’re the mountain cat I saw before, aren’t you?”
“And you followed me through the forest and to the inn?”
“But why? You really frightened me, you know.”
“Didn’t mean to. Was trying to protect you.” Goldana closed her eyes and took a long, slow breath. “Just happened to cross your path when that ruffian threatened you. You seemed so helpless. . . . Thought I’d better follow, keep an eye on you. Reminded me of a cub out of the den for the first time.” She sighed and closed her eyes again.
Dyani bandaged the wound in silence, fighting back tears. Despite her efforts, they began to slide down her cheeks. “Yes, I am alone. And helpless,” she whispered.
Goldana looked up at her. “Not anymore.” She reached up and brushed away a tear. Her eyes reflected the rising sun.