The Cloudherd and the Tiger's Boy
Consider Cherne. A diamond adrift in the heavens, it measures eight thousand gallops from north to south and six thousand from east to west. Its single continent is surrounded on all sides by a great ocean whose outer shore, the Worldrim, rises up to cradle that sweet speck of life as a child might cup a drop of water in her hand.
Cherne’s history began with the Pilots, and nearly ended with them as well. Powerful and inhuman, their rule ended in a war that scarred the moon and turned Lake Karaband into a sea of glass. When it was over the Pilots were gone, leaving the surface world to carry on as best it could.
Now look there, in the north, where the Brumoso Mountains rise above the endless squabbles of the Ninety Kingdoms. it is Redsday, the 13th of Peridot, 1272 Years Since, and a girl who is no longer a child but not quite yet a woman is crouched on a cloud, chilled to the bone and desperately hoping that they’re not too late…
“Hold on!” Grappa Gas bellowed as they went into a dive. “It’s going to get bumpy!”
Noxy dropped to one knee, pulled the glove off her left hand, and pressed her palm against the cloud beneath her. She could mind-hear Big Blue’s stubborn determination, but he was old, older even than Grappa Gas, and they were flying straight into a headwind.
Faster! she urged. Please, faster! She shivered despite her camelskin hat and coat, her hand already numbed by the icy mountain air.
Beside her, the tiger snarled as the last of the crows that had attacked them swirled overhead. One dove at his head. He reared up and swiped at it with his paw, cursing in Thindi as the black bird snapped its wings open and let the wind throw it sideways just an instant before the claws would have torn it apart.
Up ahead, a dozen drab gray tents huddled around a small fire on a barren pinnacle of rock that rose like an island out of the forest. Shading her eyes with her free hand, Noxy saw that the soldiers had formed a circle. Their kilts and sturdy boots were spattered with mud or worse, and their battle masks and lacquered leather armor were scarred from fighting. Some had swords in their hands. Others held spears or bows. Big Blue’s mate Pillow floated above them, her sides rippling as she struggled to keep station in the wind, but the soldiers only spared an occasional pleading glance for the two clouds. They were watching the trees that surrounded their makeshift camp, waiting for the forest to attack again.
“You’re coming in too low!” Granna Fee yelled. Noxy’s grandmother lay full length on Big Blue to stay out of the wind. “Level him off!”
“There’s no time!” Grappa Gas yelled back, his red-and-yellow scarf flapping madly behind him. “We’re going to have to bump and scrape!” The old man closed his eyes. His lips moved as he mind-spoke commands to the cloud beneath him. Noxy mind-heard the old bull protest, but even as he grumbled he bunched up and went into a steep dive.
Noxy had just a moment to think, I’d be grounded for a month if I even thought about doing something like this, and then the cloud thudded against the side of the peak like a sack full of wet wool. Nox yelped and sprawled forward to land in an untidy heap beside Granna Fee. “Sorry!” she said, but her grandmother was already up, swaying to keep her balance as the cloud scraped across bare rock, flattened two tents, and came to a halt.
The tiger bounded off with a roar. “What are you waiting for!?” Granna Fee shouted at the soldiers, sliding down Big Blue’s flank and waving her arm as if to sweep them all onto the cloud. “Get on! Get on!”
As Noxy scrambled to her feet, Grappa Gas caught her arm. “I’ll help ‘em up. You stay here and keep Blue together.” Without waiting for her to answer he stumped forward, his peg leg leaving dimples in the cloud. “And keep an eye out for squirrels!” he added over his shoulder.
Noxy glanced back just in time to see something big and brown swing between two trees below them. Another hairy shape followed it, then another, and suddenly the trees were full of them, hooting and shaking the branches.
“Grappa! Grappa, there’s trolls!” she shouted.
“I see ‘em!” the old man shouted back.
“And a bear!” Noxy added as a brown bear charged out of the trees and reared up on its hind legs with a roar. The muscles under its thick fur bunched as it dropped back to all fours to charge forward a few steps, halt, and roar again.
“‘Course there’s a bear,” Grappa Gas grunted as he clasped hands with the nearest soldier and helped him scramble up onto the cloud. A second soldier tossed his spear aside and pulled himself up beside the first. Together, they reached back and hauled up a third man while Grappa Gas reached for a fourth.
But instead of grabbing the cloudherd’s hand, the man on the ground lifted a heavy canvas-wrapped bundle. “Never mind that, get yourself up here!” Grappa Gas ordered.
“We’re not leaving them!” the man on the ground yelled back. One of the soldiers already on the cloud shouldered Grappa Gas aside, grabbed a corner of the canvas, and tried to drag it onto the cloud. His legs sank halfway to his knees with the weight.
Noxy felt Big Blue shudder underneath her. She dropped to her knees and pressed her hand against the cloud again. Just a little longer, she pleaded, trying to squelch her fear so that he couldn’t mind-hear it. Stay bunched up just a little longer. She pictured the cloud pulling itself into a dense blob. Obediently the cloud began to contract.
Even as it did so, Noxy heard a shrill warning whistle from her friends on board the other cloud circling high above them. Cold fear jellied in her gut as the trolls suddenly stopped hooting.
“Grappa—” she started to say.
“Just keep him together!” Grappa Gas snapped. Cursing, he yanked another soldier up onto the cloud. This one was just a boy, Noxy realized, no older than she was with a frightened, determined look on a face marked by four parallel scars that looked like they had only just healed. He took two steps before his feet slipped out from underneath him and sent him sprawling beside one of the half-dozen canvas-wrapped bundles that lay together in a pile.
The tiger scrambled up the cloud behind him. Noxy mind-heard Big Blue’s protest as the great cat’s claws tore wisps off his flank. Just a little longer, she begged. Please, just a little longer.
She glanced at the forest. A brown wave spilled back and forth around the bases of the trees. Above it, the trolls began hooting again. “Now now now!” the Gifted ones shouted, the will of the forest surging through their minds like a raging flood. “Get them get them get them!”
“Spread yourselves out, you numbskulls!” Grappa Gas thundered at the soldiers struggling not to sink into the cloud. “Spread-eagle if you have to. Come on, Fee, we gotta fly!”
Noxy’s grandmother clambered up Big Blue’s flank with a speed born from decades of practice. “Now or never!” she yelled at the soldier who had been lifting up the bundles. He grabbed a handful of cloud just as a swarm of squirrels burst out of the forest and surged up the rocky slope, thousands of them leaping from stone to stone, their tiny eyes fixed on the intruders and just one thought in their minds.
Up! Noxy mind-yelled at Big Blue. The cloud heaved himself into the air. As the soldiers shouted and toppled over she heard Grappa Gas shout, “Hold on!”
The last soldier clung desperately to Big Blue as the cloud’s flank squished between his fingers like soggy dough. The oncoming squirrels jumped at his legs. One managed to catch hold of his boot. It scrambled up the laces and sank its teeth into his calf. The soldier cursed and kicked it off, then cursed again as the cloud slipped through his fingers and he started to fall.
The young soldier with the scarred face flung himself across the cloud and grabbed his comrade’s hand. Without thinking, Noxy threw herself across the soldier’s legs to stop him from being dragged off by his comrade’s weight. Grunting and cursing, they somehow managed to get the last soldier up onto Big Blue’s back.
“You idiot!” Grappa Gas yelled as the soldier stood up shakiliy. “You saints-be-damned idiot! They would have peeled you like an apple! What was so damned important that you couldn’t just leave it?” He kicked one of the bundles at his feet. “Eh? What was so—urp!”
In one smooth motion the soldier had rolled onto his feet and grabbed a handful of Grappa Gas’s collar. “With respect, honored, I’m grateful for the rescue,” he panted, “But that’s one of my men you’re kicking, and I’ll be thanking you to stop.”
He let go of Grappa Gas’s coat. The cloudherd coughed. “Ah. Sorry, lad. I didn’t realize.” He looked down at the bodies lying at his feet. “I’m sorry.”
The soldier nodded. “Me too.” He stared back at the pinnacle of rock, where the squirrels had already torn the tents to pieces. “Me too.”
Earlier that day…
Noxy and Sensy volunteered to collect spiderwebs that morning—or rather, Noxy volunteered them both and Sensy went along with it like she always did. Winter had finally turned to spring; stubborn crusts of snow still lurked in the shadows of the twisted mountain pines, but the sun shone diamond-bright in a clear blue sky, and carding camel wool indoors suddenly seemed unbearable. Besides, getting out of the village would give them a chance for a talk that Noxy thought was long overdue.
“Shoo.” She poked a fat brown spider with a stick. It waved its hairy forelegs at her indignantly before scuttling away to make a new home. Noxy cut its web’s anchor threads with two practiced twists of her knife and began winding it onto a stick.
“Do you think I should put new buttons on my coat?” Sensy asked.
Noxy glanced at her. “Why? Are those ones coming loose?” She had been trying for an hour to think of a way to broach the subject of their mutual friend Rash, who was the only boy their age in the village of Stale.
“No, they’re just kind of plain.” Sensy looked down at her soft brown camelskin coat critically. “Granna Fee has some really nice red ones. She said she’d give them to me if I picked the stones out of her pepper garden.”
“Her whole garden? That would take forever.” Noxy shook the dew off the spider’s web and stuffed it into the loosely-woven bag slung over her shoulder. “Why would you do all that work for buttons you don’t need?”
“Oh, you’re no help,” Sensy pouted. She had spent the winter embroidering red and green patterns on her jacket’s cuffs and collar. All she seemed to want to talk about any more was her clothes, and her hair, and the boys she and Noxy might meet that summer. The only thing she didn’t want to talk about was Rash.
“A lot of girls are like that when they get their changes,” Granna Fee had said when Noxy had complained about the flighty stranger who seemed to have taken her best friend’s place.
“Not me!” Noxy had declared.
Her grandmother had laughed. “No, sweetling, not you.”
The three children had grown up together, done chores together, played tag and make-believe in the forest around Stale together, and learned to mind-speak with clouds together, but something had changed that winter. Sometimes Noxy saw Sensy look at Rash, or Rash look at Sensy, and then look away as if they felt guilty or were afraid they might blurt out a secret. Other times they just sat there not speaking. If her two best friends were mad at one another, Noxy thought it was her job go sort it out.
Noxy slung her bag over her shoulder. “Come on, let’s go look for some more.” She set off without waiting for an answer. A moment later Sensy scrambled to catch up with her.
The path was one of dozens that snaked through the evergreen forest surrounding Stale. Mud made it slippery where it wasn’t slick with ice, but Noxy didn’t slow down until she reached the ridge above her home.
Below her lay the ancient walls of the fortress that held the village of Stale. The centuries had rounded the edges off the Pilots’ stonework, making it look like a snow fort that was just starting to melt, but it was still as solid as the mountains themselves. The villagers’ two-story wooden houses sheltered inside the fortress like ducklings in a nest. Thin licks of smoke rose from their slate chimneys, while camel pens, vegetable plots, and racks laden with drying spiderwebs filled the spaces between them.
To the west, the wall dropped straight into a steep-sided gorge. A net woven from spider thread stretched over its top, as light as a dream but as strong as steel. Another net hung down at the gorge’s mouth to make a gate. Inside, just visible from the ridge, two gray clouds floated half-asleep.
Noxy had spent every moment she could that winter watching the clouds, riding them, and, most importantly, practicing mind-speech with them. Grownups called Big Blue and Pillow slow and lazy, but they and the herd of half-wild clouds grazing on the mountain peaks in the distance were the most exciting things in Noxy’s world.
As Noxy pulled her bag off her shoulder, Sensy grabbed her arm. “Look!” she hissed, pointing into the trees.
At first all Noxy saw was branches. Then a pair of dark eyes blinked, and her mouth went dry. Black fur framed a round face with heavy brows and a gray muzzle. The troll blinked again and pulled a branch aside with one long, hairy arm.
Noxy and Sensy took a step back, then another. A sudden rustling behind them made them freeze. With her breath caught in her throat, Noxy looked over her shoulder. A second troll hung by one hand from a branch behind them, blocking their escape.
“Wh-what are they doing here?” Sensy whispered loudly.
“Ssh!” Noxy said. “Just… don’t… move.”
Branches rustled overhead. Two— three— four trolls swung by, except no, the fourth didn’t swing by. It stopped and looked down at them. Its fur was shot through with gray, and even from five strides below it Noxy could see the long hairless scar that ran up the length of its left leg.
Something twinged in the back of her head like the start of a headache. She felt dizzy, and for a moment it was as if she was in the tree looking down at herself.
A sudden roar broke the moment. The troll hooted and vanished into the forest. Noxy and Sensy each let out a long shaky breath—
—and screamed as a tiger burst out of the trees half a dozen strides in front of them. His fur was yellow-brown with dark brown stripes, not orange and black like the picture in the book that three generations of village children had passed around. A pair of golden earrings hung from his left ear, and his tail twitched slightly as he looked at them, as if their presence reminded him that he had not yet eaten lunch.
“Are you all right?” he rumbled.
“Wh-what?” Noxy stammered.
“Are… you… all… right?” the tiger repeated impatiently. “Did those blasted chimpanzees harm you at all?”
“No, they—I mean, we’re all right. We’re fine, thank you very much. Ouch, Sensy, you’re going to break my fingers!” Noxy pulled her hand free from her friend’s terrified grip.
“Pilots be praised,” he rumbled, settling onto his haunches. “Now, if I may ask a favor, I am looking for the village of, um, Stale Leftovers, I’m told it’s called. If that is in fact its name, would you be so kind as to direct me?” His ear twitched at the sound of a distant hoot. “Or if perchance you are going that way yourselves, I would be honored to accompany you. Those creatures are unlikely to try another attack if you have a protector.”
Noxy hitched her bag up on her shoulder. “They didn’t attack us, honored,” she said. “We—I mean, the village has an arrangement. Stale, I mean. With the trolls. We don’t go too far into the forest, and they don’t come near the village except for when they want to trade, and they leave some stones down by the fish pond to tell us when they want to do that, and—” She stopped herself and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Who are you?”
“I am Kulbinder of Thind,” the tiger said, rising and stretching. “And if you will forgive my impatience, my traveling companions are in a spot of trouble. In dire need of rescue, actually, so I need to reach Stale Leftovers more or less now if I can.”
Noxy shot a look at Sensy. Her friend shook her head slightly and mouthed “no”. That was enough to make up Noxy’s mind.
“It’s this way,” she said, pointing down the path. “Come on!”
It only took them a few minutes to make their way down the mountain path to the clearing that surrounded the ancient fortress and across it to the gap in the wall where an enormous stone door had once hung. A few chunks of its shattered remains lay half-buried in the ground, too big for even a team of sturdy mountain camels to pull free. The wooden gate that Stale’s human inhabitants had put up to take its place was three planks thick, but still looked like a child’s toy set against the Pilots’ ancient work. It was open as always, and beyond it Noxy could hear the endless gentle gentle jangle of the wind chimes that hung beside the door of every house in the village except one.
Grappa Gas was sitting on a stones near the gate whittling a new leg when they came out of the trees. He raised a hand in hello, then swore and clambered to his feet at the sight of the tiger. “Saints and their creations!” He pointed accusingly with his whittling knife. “What in the underhells is this?”
“This is a who, honored, not a what,” Kulbinder replied stiffly.
“We met him up by the spider grove,” Noxy said hurriedly. “There were some trolls, and he scared them off. He says—”
“Trolls?” Grappa Gas interrupted incredulously. “Can’t be. They haven’t come down this far in—”
“Grappa!” Noxy stomped her foot. “Never mind that now! The tiger says people are hurt and need help. At least, I think they’re people,” she added belatedly.
“My companions are as human as you,” the tiger said. “Are you the tralpa here, honored sir?”
Grappa Gas snorted. “Not likely. Come on—I’ll take you to the reeve.”
Ten minutes later, the whole village stood in its single cobbled square—or rather, the whole village minus most of the adults, who had left a week ago for to collect Stale’s clouds from their winter pasture in the high peaks. Three hundred people, from babies to grandparents, stood in a half-circle around the impatient tiger. Some still wore the thick coats and pants they used in winter and when cloudherding. Others, like Noxy and Sensy, had switched to lighter gear that would still seem heavy to anyone unfamiliar with the icy winds of the high mountains. Grappa Gas’s son Aft, who had been splitting logs with an ax to make shingles, was the only one in shirtsleeves, but he wasn’t the only one scowling at the new arrival. At his side, his very pregnant wife Rind whispered at him to be quiet every time he muttered to her.
Noxy’s mother Indy thumped the speaker’s drum three times and stepped up onto the squared-off stone that marked the center of the square. “Friends,” she said loudly, patting the air with her hands to shush everyone. “Friends, please. Thank you all for coming. I know it is early in the year for travelers, but let us all give a true mountain welcome to Kulbinder, a Gifted of Thind.”
“Welcome… welcome… be welcome…” Some voices were hearty, some grudging, and some people didn’t speak at all, but Noxy’s mother took it all in stride like she always did. Even a tiger with the one-in-a-thousand Gift of speech and reason couldn’t throw her off stride.
Someone nudged Noxy out of the way. “Hey,” Rash said, slipping between her and Sensy. “Where’s the tralpa? Is he too afraid of the tiger to come out and say hello? Or has he been up all night studying again?” He mimed someone drinking from a bottle.
“Ssh!” But he was right—the king’s representative, who was also the least useful magician Noxy had ever met, was nowhere to be seen.
Indy thumped the brightly-painted speaker’s drum again. “The Gifted has told me that he and his companions were trying to get through the pass to Chaghan. An avalanche forced them off the road.” She swept her gaze across the assembled villagers. “The forest got angry. Some of them have died, and the rest are trapped. They need our help.”
A murmur ran through the crowd. The Herd of Trees that blanketed the Brumoso Mountains wasn’t mad like the Jungle of Thind, but it guarded its territory as jealously as a mother bear guarded her cubs. All the Gifted creatures who lived within its boundaries did the forest’s biding. People who stayed near the Pilots’ ancient roads never came to harm, and those who ventured deeper were safe as long as they were careful—very careful. Use anything made of metal, make a fire too large, or wander into one of the circles of towering redwoods that Granna Fee cautioned Noxy and her friends to steer clear of on training flights, and the wrath of the trees could be as merciless as a winter storm.
Aft elbowed his way to the front of the small crowd and clapped his hands twice for attention. “Are they smugglers?” he asked loudly without waiting for Indy to call on him.
Noxy saw rather than heard her mother suppress a faint sigh. “Not that the Gifted has said, no.”
“Then why in the saints’ names were they trying to get through the mountains this time of year? It’ll be another month at least before the high back of the pass clears.” He crossed his muscular arms. “Doesn’t seem like something honest folk would do, is all I’m saying.”
“My companions are not ‘honest folk’,” the tiger sniffed haughtily. “They are soldiers.”
The crowd murmured again. “Soldiers?” Aft scoffed. “Why in the underhells would soldiers be trying to through the pass? There aren’t any rebels up here for them to chase, not in the middle of winter.”
At that, the tiger finally deigned to look at him. “It isn’t the middle of winter any longer, honored. And there are actually some rebels up here. It is my companions’ privilege to serve the cause of the Learned Shudarga.”
That brought gasps instead of murmurs. As a brilliant young scholar, Shudarga had written pamphlet after pamphlet arguing that Gandan’s laws should be free for all to use. The kingdom’s nobility had ignored her at first, then mocked her, but when she started organizing peasants and small shopkeepers to pool their money so that they could rent laws together, the nobles’ laughter turned to anger. Arrested, she had escaped the year before and raised her flag in rebellion. Thousands had joined her, some desperate, some idealistic, and some swayed by speeches so powerful that her enemies muttered of dark magic. Then winter had come and news from the lowlands had slowed to a trickle, leaving the cloudherds with nothing to chew on but rumors.
“Well that’s stinking marvelous,” Aft said sarcastically, putting a protective arm around his wife and ignoring Indy as she thumped the drum for order. “Does that mean the king’s army is going to come looking for you? Because if they do, these walls won’t keep ‘em out for long, and neither will we.”
The tiger’s tail twitched. “I did not come to your village for its walls, honored, or to ask you to fight. My companions need help, and you are their only hope. If you fear it will bring more trouble than you have an appetite for, say so and I will be on my way.”
“Nobody is saying we won’t help,” Indy said firmly. “And as long as I’m reeve, nobody is going to say that.” She raised a hand to forestall Aft’s next outburst. “We can argue about politics later. Right now, there’s folk in trouble, and I won’t have it said that the people of this village ever turned their backs on any who needed us.”
Clap clap. Granna Fee waited for Indy to nod at her before speaking. “What about the tralpa?” she asked her daughter. “I expect he’ll have something to say about us flying off to rescue a bunch of rebels.”
Indy’s smile was as cold as the distant peaks. “I’ll be sure to ask him when he wakes up.”
The next five minutes were chaos. Out of the question, Aft growled. The law might forgive them giving shelter to a bunch of strays who wandered in through the fortress gate, but going and rescuing them? “It’s not just us they’ll punish,” he said, glancing meaningfully at the bulk under his wife’s coat.
And what would other cloudherds say if they heard that Stale had left people in the forest to die, Grappa Gas shot back, taking the opposite side as he always did when he and his son were in the same place and both talking. Pilots and saints, what would their own kin say when they got back?
The argument swirled and churned across the cobblestones, punctuated by soft bings and bongs from the village windchimes. Little whirlpools of disagreement came together, swirled about, and flew apart to spawn new ones as people overheard neighbors they disagreed with or turned around to agree with something they had only half-heard and were sucked into yet another “what if?”
“This is going to go on forever,” Noxy said sourly. “They’re all going to do whatever my amma want to do in the end—why don’t they just get on with it?” She, Sensy, and Rash stayed together in a knot on the sidelines, old enough that they hadn’t grown bored and run off like the smaller children, but still young enough to see how useless the kerfuffle was.
Rash ran a finger along the fuzz on his upper lip that he insisted on calling a mustache. It had become a habit over the winter, one that Noxy had told him countless times he ought to break before someone broke his stinking finger. “What I want to know is whether we’re going to get to go, or if we’re going to be stuck here with the littles.”
“Of course we’ll get to go!” Noxy exclaimed.
“Are you sure about that?” Rash drawled, another annoying habit he had cultivated over the winter. “Because your amma’s giving jobs to just about everyone except us.”
Noxy bit off her “of course I’m sure!” when she caught Sensy’s uncertain look. “Wait here,” she said with a scowl.
She strode through the crowd to the speaker’s stone and caught her mother’s eye. Before she could speak, Indy said, “Oh, and I think you’ve met my daughter, Probably Noxious.”
“The honor was mine,” the tiger rumbled, flicking an ear in what might have been the feline equivalent of a very small bow.
“Just call me Noxy,” she told him brusquely, not sure if his ear flick really was a bow and if she was supposed to bow back. “Amma, which cloud do you want me and Sensy and Rash on? We can go and start getting them ready while everyone’s still jawing.”
Indy gave her daughter a look that Noxy knew all too well. “Who said anything about you three going?”
But Noxy knew her mother as well as her mother knew her, and had assembled her arguments as she crossed the square. They were definitely old enough—why, they were all going to be riding real clouds in a few weeks, not just tame old ones like the pair floating in the pen. And they wouldn’t be going far, just a few gallops down the pass, and it was really important for cloudherds to know how to do rescues, wasn’t it? And—
“Stop.” Her mother held up a hand, deliberately ignoring the amused look on Granna Fee’s face. “You can go. But!” she continued, “But you do what you’re told and nothing more, understood?”
Noxy nodded obediently. “Yes, amma.” She had learned long ago not to keep asking for a whole cookie when she’d already talked her mother into half.
It took a few more minutes, but eventually everyone realized that they agreed with Indy’s decision or were so outnumbered that further argument was pointless. Even Aft gave in said he would go, protesting to his wife that someone who hadn’t lost his wits had to be there to keep an eye on things.
After that, the villagers moved quickly. Rockfalls and avalanches were common in the mountains, and they had lifted more than one tinker or trader out of a difficult spot. Coils of hemp rope with spider-silk cores hung ready in the long shed next to the cloud pen, and everyone kept a warm camelskin cap and some heavy gloves handy even on the clearest summer days.
They were the last to arrive at the wooden mounting platform that hung over the edge of the cloud pen. “You look ridiculous,” Sensy told Rash flatly as he came down the steps. He had sewn a pattern that he claimed was an eagle’s wings onto the side flaps of his cap during the winter, and had a bright yellow scarf around his neck that the last of the autumn pack traders had sworn was all the rage in Gandan.
Rash looked her up and down. “Really? Because I think you look amazing. Excuse me.” He winked at her and Noxy and stepped around the speechless pair, whistling.
“Ears all!” Aft said loudly. He had changed into heavy pants, a padded coat, and a pair of soft boots, and his hair was pulled back in a thick club braid tied with a blue ribbon from his wife’s wedding collar. “You know how this is done. I’ll lead on Pillow with the youngers as spotters and the Gifted as a guide. Gas and Fee, you’ve got Blue—you take Noxy with you. In and out, quick and simple, and everyone’s back here for soup before you can sneeze. No adventures, right?” He glared at Noxy, Sensy, and Rash until the three teenagers mumbled, “No adventures.”
“Right!” He walked to the end of the plank that stuck out from the platform and whistled through his fingers. When nothing happened, he muttered something about “soggy” and “lazy” and whistled again more loudly.
A hundred strides away and fifty strides below them, a foggy-edged blue-gray mass rippled and began to pull itself into something dense enough to hold the weight of a person. The second, smaller blob next to it followed suit. Side by side, Big Blue and Pillow drifted toward the villagers and the lone tiger waiting at the edge of the ravine. A clattering noise further along the ravine signalled that whoever Indy had sent to pull back the pen’s spiderweb gate had started hauling in the rope-and-bamboo chain it hung from.
Noxy watched breathlessly as the clouds approached, their leading edges rippling slightly in the wind. When Big Blue bumped against the ravine wall, Aft took three steps and jumped off the end of the plank.
Noxy leaned over the railing. One, two, three… Big Blue dimpled as the burly cloudherd tucked, flipped over, spread-eagled, and landed flat on his back. Gray waves rippled out across the cloud’s back as Aft rolled over onto his knees and pressed his hands down firmly. Noxy couldn’t see his face, but she knew his eyes would be closed in concentration as he mind-spoke to his mount.
“Show off,” Grappa Gas muttered beside her.
Granna Fee elbowed him. “Gets it from his old man.”
Something twinged in the back of Noxy’s head. She blinked. “Did you say something?” she asked Sensy.
“What?” She and Rash were watching Aft just as intently as Noxy.
“Never mind.” Noxy shook her head. “Look, he’s coming up.”
Big Blue rose toward the platform, bunching into an evern firmer mass as he neared them. Aft had risen to one knee, but kept one hand on the cloud’s back so that he could continue to mind-talk to it.
A silver-tipped scaw shot out of its cliffside nest, cawing its displeasure at the sight of a human just a few strides away. Aft looked up and smiled the smile he only ever wore when he was on cloudback or holding hands with his wife. With a whoop he ran across across Big Blue’s back and launched himself into the air again.
Rash whistled. “Nice leap,” he said appreciatively as Aft landed dead center on Pillow. “And blind, too.”
“It’s not such a trick,” Noxy said dismissively, though she was secretly impressed. “He must have got Big Blue to tell him where she was.”
“Sure, but would you trust a cloud’s eyes that much?” Rash challenged her. “Most of the time I can’t make cheese or cherries out of what they say.”
Noxy shrugged. She had realized early in their training that mind-speech was a lot easier for her than it was for Sensy or Rash, or even for some of the olders who were already riding. She had stopped talking about it after a few muttered accusations of showing off. The only person she shared her progress with now was her grandmother, and she didn’t even tell Granna Fee everything.
Grappa Gas made everyone wait until Pillow was only a couple of strides below the mounting platform before he let Sensy and Rash jump. The teenagers had been doing it since they were children, but the brief moment of flight and poof! as they landed still made them whoop just like Aft had.
Aft steered the cow out of the way so that Big Blue could take her place beneath the plank. Grappa Gas landed on him with a soft thud. Granna Fee tossed down two bundles of blankets. “Your turn,” she said to Kulbinder.
The tiger’s ears lay flat against his skull, and his tail whipped from side to side. For a moment Noxy was sure he was going to refuse, but with a sudden burst of speed he charged to the end of the plank and jump. She and Granna Fee leaned over the railing.
“Huh,” Granna Fee said. “I guess they really do always land on their feet.”
Twinge. Noxy winced and put her hand on the back of her head. There it was again, that feeling of, of—of something, but what?
Her grandmother noticed her expression. “Are you all right?”
“Sure,” Noxy lied. One of the grownups’ many rules was that no one should fly if they were sick, and she was not going to be left behind. “Come on, let’s see if you remember your lessons.”
“Cheeky,” her grandmother said. Three quick steps and a little hop and she was gone, leaving Noxy alone on the platform. She took a deep breath, grinned, and sprinted for the end of the plank.
She landed just a stride away from her grandmother, who was still lying flat on her back on the cloud. “Oof,” Granna Fee grunted, rolling over and sitting up. “He’s not as soft as he used to be.” Then she smiled and put her arm around Noxy so that her granddaughter could lean against her as she pressed her hand against Big Blue and closed her eyes. The cloud turned obediently and began drifting toward the mouth of the gorge.
“I’ll take lead,” Aft called back through cupped hands.
“Really? How unusual of you,” Granna Fee said just loudly enough for Noxy to hear. She steered Big Blue into position behind the smaller cow. As she did so, Aft took the ox horn from his belt and blew three loud notes, low high low. Indy blew an answering note as the two clouds passed through the gate and into the wide expanse of the pass.
Cloudherding is cold work, even in the summer. In the spring, in the mountains, when breath still fogs and the wind pokes its fingers through every loose seam and down every collar, it’s freezing. As they passed through the mouth of the ravine, Granna Fee took a camel hair blanket from the nearest bundle and wrapped it around herself and Noxy, leaving only their faces exposed. Up ahead, Noxy saw that Rash and Sensy had done the same—as Sensy said, he might act like a camel sometimes, but at least he was a warm camel.
Only Grappa Gas seemed unaffected. “Saints and their inventions, but I love this,” he sighed. He’d brought a cushion to rest his wooden leg on so that it wouldn’t poke into Big Blue, but a long scarf only slightly less exuberant than the one Rash was wearing was his only concession to the freezing temperature. “Look, the condors are back in their nest! We should invite them them to visit some time.”
“They’re not really the most sociable creatures,” Granna Fee said dryly.
Grappa Gas harrumphed. “You just have to get to know them. I wonder if any of their chicks will be Gifted this year? That would be a thing, wouldn’t it?”
It had taken the tiger a day to hike up the pass to Stale Leftovers. The cloudherds covered the same distance half an hour, even with the headwind. “There,” Granna Fee said, pointing at a thin plume of smoke.
Grappa Gas frowned, then looked at Kulbinder. “I thought you said there were just a few of them.”
“Fewer than we started with,” the tiger growled. He had spent most of the flight crouched down to get out of the wind, his legs and tail tucked underneath his body. Now he stood and padded forward to join Granna Fee at Big Blue’s leading edge.
The soldiers’ makeshift camp sat on a barren pinnacle of rock that rose out of the forest like an island. A dozen drab tents huddled around a small fire. Shading her eyes with her hand, Noxy saw a dozen men moving about, some propped against one another to stay upright.
Grappa Gas gave a low whistle. “The tralpa really isn’t going to like this,” he said.
“Never mind him,” Granna Fee replied. “What do you think my daughter is going to say?”
One of the soldiers spotted them a moment later. They were too far away to hear his shouts, but there was no mistaking the urgency in the way he waved his arms, or in the way his companions hurried to roust their injured comrades.
“Keep your eyes wide,” Grappa Gas ordered Noxy curtly. “Forest might be happy to let us take them, or it might not.”
It wasn’t. An angry voice cawed behind them, then a hundred more, and all at once they were surrounded by a flock of gray-shouldered mountain crows, each one an angry feathered missile with sharp claws and a pecking beak. Noxy screamed as a crow grabbed her hair. Another took hold of her collar and pecked her shoulder. She screamed again, swatting at them as Granna Fee and Grappa Gas yelled and did the same. She could feel their anger coursing through her veins.
The tiger’s roar sent the birds wheeling into the air above them and hurtling away. Noxy slapped at her hair one last time, not quite believing the attack was over.
A faint shout from up ahead told her that it wasn’t. Aft spun the end of a coil of rope over his head to keep them at bay while Sensy and Rash batted at any bird that came too close.
The birds swirled around them for a dozen heartbeats before veering away. Aft handed the rope to Rash and knelt to press his hands against Pillow. A moment later he looked up and shook his head grimly. “She’s terrified,” he bellowed through cupped hands. “Won’t go any closer. We have to leave them!”
“Underhells with that,” Grappa Gas muttered. “Fee—I’ll get Blue down there. You ‘n’ Noxy get scoffing idiots loaded up fast as you can.”
“But—” Granna Fee protested.
“Hold on!” Grappa Gas bellowed as they went into a dive. “It’s going to get bumpy!”
They hardly said a word on the way back to Stale. With her hand on Big Blue’s back, Noxy could feel how unhappy the cloud was. It wasn’t just that he was carrying strangers, or that those strangers were bleeding and miserable. When clouds died, they just spread out into nothing. The thought that something could end but still be there—that it could go from being alive to being like a rock or a log—made the canvas-wrapped corpses on his back frightening in a way that storm winds and lightning would never be.
Sh, sh, sh, Noxy mind-spoke soothingly, stroking the cloud as if he was a skittish newborn camel. Home soon, then rest. At that moment, she wanted it just as much as the cloud.
The soldiers watched the mountains go by, too exhausted to show more than an occasional flicker of interest in the world spread out beneath them. The one who had been the last to get on Big Blue spoke quietly to each of his companions in turn. The young soldier with the scarred face sat beside the tiger with his chin resting on his knees and his brightly-painted battle mask push up on top of his head.
Noxy cleared her throat. “I’m sorry about your friends,” she said hesitantly.
The young soldier and the tiger turned their heads to look at her in unison. The boy nodded. “Thank you, honored,” he said, his lowland accent burring his r’s. “And thank you for coming to our aid.” He put his chin back on his knees, then wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
Grappa Gas brought Big Blue down in front of the fortress gate where he had been contentedly whittling only an hour before. Wearily, the soldiers up slid off the bull’s back to stand among the bright green ferns of spring. The waiting villagers came forward to offer them blankets, then stepped back, unsure what to do next.
Indy didn’t let them stand idle for long—she never did. “Get everyone up into the traders’ hall,” she ordered crisply. “And get a couple of pots of stew going—and tea. Lot of tea. You do drink tea, don’t you?” she asked the nearest soldier.
Rash and Sensy came up the trail from the cloud pen, where Aft had taken Pillow. “Are you all right?” Sensy asked anxiously.
“I’m fine,” Noxy lied. “But those crows—that was horrible. I’ve never seen the forest that angry.”
“I never want to again,” Sensy said, shivering.
Rash nudged her shoulder with his. “Where’s the tiger gone?” he asked Noxy.
A terrified shout from inside the ancient walls was his answer. A heartbeat later the village tralpa stumbled through the gate, tripping over the hem of the flowing lowland-style robe he always wore (and occasionally washed). “There’s— there’s a— Reeve! Reeve! What is that creature doing here?” He snapped his fingers. A tiny spark sputtered and died at their tips.
“Saints give me strength,” Noxy’s mother muttered. She caught her daughter’s eye, sighed faintly, and then put on the smile she always wore when talking to people she didn’t like and turned to face the king’s official representative to the village of Stale Leftovers.
Scholar-Candidate Nangyal—he insisted that the villagers use the title, even though he was a decade past the age at which most candidates removed that qualifier from their titles—looked as though he had slept in his robe and only just woken up, which he probably had. Like the soldiers who straightened up when they caught sight of his official gray scarf, he had a lowlander’s round face and near-black skin. But where they were lean, he sagged, and where the soldiers had only a few days of stubble on their shaved heads, his frizzy hair and failed beard were as unruly as the ferns he trampled as he strode over to Indy and glared at her.
“Reeve, are you aware that there is an animal in the village?” he demanded icily.
“A Gifted, Scholar-Candidate,” she replied. “His name is Kulbinder. He arrived this morning.”
“Well, why was I not informed? And who are these people?” he continued, jabbing a finger at the soldiers. “You! Sergeant! What are you doing here? Just look at your uniform—it’s a disgrace!”
The soldier who had been the last to climb onto Big Blue nodded. “It isn’t quite regimental standard, is it, learned?” he acknowledged ruefully. “Nothing a bar of soap won’t put right, though. I’ll see to it once my men are settled.”
“Settled?” The tralpa looked from the sergeant to his men and back to the sergeant. His sour look brightened to merely displeased. “Well, finally. This is long overdue. Long overdue,” he repeated, nodding agreement with himself. “I’ve been writing letters for months. No offense to His Majesty, of course, but I don’t think people realize just how strategically important this pass is. And the clouds—why, if those upstart peasants were to somehow gain control of them, there’s no telling what might—”
The sergeant cleared his throat. “Actually, learned, it wasn’t His Majesty who sent us.” A lump rose in Noxy’s throat as one of his men very casually positioned himself behind Nangyal, his hand falling to the hilt of his sword.
The whole village held its breath. One heartbeat, two… “You’re—you’re traitors!?” the tralpa spluttered. “Here!?”
His face screwed up as if he was having a particularly difficult visit to the outhouse, and for a moment Noxy thought he might actually manage to cast a spell. He had tried so hard when he first arrived in Stale two years ago, working night and day to master enough of the basics to pass the annual examinations in the capital, “And be posted somewhere with restaurants,” he was heard to mutter more than once. But nothing worked, and nothing worked, and now he spent most of his time alone in the biggest house in the village with his bottles and his broken dreams.
A moment passed in breathless anticipation before the tralpa gave up and pointed at the sergeant imperiously. “Reeve! Arrest these men immediately!” he ordered.
“No.” “No!” Indy and the sergeant said simultaneously. The sergeant shook his head almost imperceptibly at the soldier behind the tralpa. Obediently, the man slid his half-drawn sword back into its sheath.
The sergeant turned to Indy. “Honored? If you don’t want us here, we’ll go, but we won’t suffer arrest.”
“Nobody’s arresting anybody,” she interrupted in exasperation. “Not today, anyway. No—with respect, Scholar-Candidate, these men are travelers, and injured, and more importantly, we need to lay their dead to rest before they ghost. Sergeant—I’m sorry, I don’t know your name?”
“Dorbu, honored—Gandan’s Ninety-Eighth Dorbu” the sergeant replied, dipping his head respectfully.
“Sergeant Dorbu,” Indy continued in a how-it’s-going-to-be voice that left no room for disagreement, “Do you promise that you and your men will take no action against His Majesty while you’re our guests?”
“You have my word, honored,” the sergeant said.
“And mine,” Kulbinder rumbled, “Since I am not, as the tralpa so quickly observed, a man.” Noxy jumped. The tiger had padded up behind them all while they were talking, the boy with the scarred face a pace behind him.
The tralpa stumbled backed a step, tripping over the hem of his robe once again. “What? No! Reeve, I order you to arrest these men! And this creature! They are rebels! They are traitors! You can’t trust them!”
Instead of replying, Sergeant Dorbu unbuckled his sword belt and held it out to Indy. The reeve blinked. “What am I supposed to do with that?”
“Whatever you want,” the soldier said. “And lock me up if it makes anyone feel safer. Just so long as someone looks after my men.”
“As I think I just said, that won’t be necessary,” Indy replied tartly. “Let’s just get everyone warmed up and fed, shall we? Then it will be time for dinner and then we can do right by your dead and then we can all get some sleep and sort this out in the morning.”
The tralpa drew himself up. “That is unacceptable!” he spat. “These men have taken arms against His Majesty! You!” He pointed at Grappa Gas. “In the king’s name, I hereby appoint you acting reeve. Arrest these men and then arrest her!” He swivelled his arm to point accusingly at Indy.
Grappa Gas had been stroking Big Blue’s flank, mind-speaking to the old bull to calm him after their turbulent flight. He looked from the indignant tralpa to the sergeant to the reeve and back to the tralpa. “Can’t do that, honored,” he said cheerfully. “I have to get this old boy back in his pen.”
Sergeant Dorbu’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Thank you, honored,” he said to Indy, buckling his sword back on. With a grunt, he squatted and lifted one of the canvas bundles onto his shoulder. “If there’s somewhere we could…?”
“I’ll show you the way,” Granna Fee said.
The tralpa stormed and raged for a few moments longer, but once he realized that no one was paying attention he wrapped his robe and what was left of his dignity around himself and marched back the house that he shared with his books, his bottles, his failed attempts at magic, and his resentment of everyone and everything outside the distant capital.
Noxy barely noticed his door slam. Once the soldiers who were well enough had picked up their comrades’ bodies, and the rest had been led through the gate to have their injuries tended to, and Rash and Sensy went to find spare blankets for the soldiers, she somehow found herself alone. Feeling somewhat deflated, she went looking for something to do.
Her mother was still organizing people in the square. Yes, the soldiers would use the trading hall, she’d already said that. Yes, the wounded too—where else would they go? And yes, there were more than a few of them, but there was nothing they could do about that now. Oh for the saints’ sakes, of course they would eat beans. And no, she didn’t know what the tiger was planning to eat, but she would find out.
“There you are,” she said when she caught sight of her daughter. “Can you please go home and make some tea? Use all the honey we have left, and tell whoever shows up that I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
The water hadn’t even boiled before Grappa Gas rapped on the door with his knuckles and entered. “Hey there. Where’s your amma?”
“She should be back soon,” Noxy said. She added a handful of dark brown leaves to the cinnamon bark and green cardamom pods already in the pot. It was an extravagance—the pack traders who brought such delicacies to the village wouldn’t start visiting until the last of the snow had melted, which was at least another month away—but Granna Fee had always said that a sweet cup of tea was worth a thousand words.
“Mind if I sit?” Grappa Gas asked as he settled himself on a stool that was at least as old as he was and watched Noxy drizzle the last of the honey into the pot.
“What did you find out?” she asked after a moment.
The old man snorted affectionately. “Just like your amma, aren’t you? And your granna, too. Always thinking one step ahead of everyone else. You know, if your granna hadn’t been so smart, I might’ve wound up being your grappa. I remember once when—”
“Grappa!” Noxy cut in, exasperated and amused by his teasing at the same time. “Tell me what the soldiers said!”
“And how do you know they said anything?” Grappa Gas challenged.
“Because they’re a long way from home, and tired, and frightened even if they don’t let it show, and want us to like them,” Indy answered, closing the door behind her as she came in. “And because I saw you talking the ear off Sergeant Dorbu on your way into the trading hall. Now, what did he say? And how in the saints’ names did a bunch of the king’s soldiers wind up here?” She kissed the old man on his grizzled cheek and sat on the other stool.
For a moment all Grappa Gas could think of was how alike mother and daughter were. Noxy’s hair was brown and wavy like her father’s instead of straight and black like her mother’s, and her nose sharper than was common among the mountain-born, but they had the same strong wills and quick minds. When Indy had turned ten, he had predicted that she would be reeve before she was thirty. Better start telling everyone that Noxy’s going to beat that, he thought.
He slurped his tea, then cradled the warm mug in his hands. “The sergeant said that they were posted over on the border with Lhabde. There’s been heavy snow this winter, so they were stuck in their barracks most of the time and got to talking, and…” He shrugged. “One thing led to another, I guess. By the time the snow had melted enough that they can get on the road, some of ‘em said they weren’t going to fight their own neighbors. Their colonel didn’t take well to that, so he hanged a couple of them, and that helped the rest figure out which side they wanted to be on.”
“So why were they trying to come through the pass?” Indy asked.
Grappa Gas shrugged again. “They were on their way to Gandan-in-Gandan, but the king’s men hit them at the ford near Duck Droppings. They were split cross the two sides of the river when the attack came.” For a moment his years showed on his face. “He doesn’t expect he’ll see many of his friends again.”
Indy glanced at Noxy. “That doesn’t go out of this house,” she ordered. Noxy nodded, turning to the stove as the lid on the kettle began to whistle. She lifted it carefully with a pair of chopsticks to pour the boiling water into the teapot, then put the kettle back on the stove and set the tea on the table to steep.
“It still doesn’t make sense,” Indy mused. “If they wanted to get to the capital, they wouldn’t come north. And if they were trying to rejoin the other rebels…”
Grappa Gas’s shoulders rose and fell for a third time. “One of ‘em said something about connecting with some sort of secret agent up here.”
Indy laughed. “A secret agent? Here?” She held a tea towel across her face like a robber’s mask. “Did they say who it was?”
The front door banged open before he could answer. Aft strode in and glared at Indy. “What in the underhells do you think you’re doing?” he demanded.
“Well, good day to you too, son,” Grappa Gas drawled, leaning back and lacing his fingers behind his head.
Aft stabbed a finger toward him. “Stow that. Indy, this is madness. I don’t like the tralpa any more than anyone else, but as soon as he gets word down the mountain that we’ve gone over to the scoffing rebels—”
“Stop,” Indy said sharply. She stood up and gestured at her stool. “Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. And then take a deep breath before you using language like that in this house again. We have not gone over to anything. We are not taking any side in this, not as long as I’m reeve. Noxy? Go get the peeling stool from out back. Brush it off before you bring it in the house.”
Aft glowered at her and his father a moment longer, then sat, the stool creaking in protest under his weight. Noxy hastily fetched the spare stool from the rear of the house and set it down for her mother, then poured tea as inconspicuously as she could while Aft ticked points off on his fingers. What would the village do if the king sent an army after the rebels? And by “if”, he meant “when”, because the tralpa was sure to be writing another one of his letters while they were sitting there, and this one would surely get an answer. They couldn’t fight, not with most of the adults gone, and even once they were back, there weren’t more than a handful of people in the village who’d ever swung a sword, not that they actually had any swords to swing. They’d be lucky not to wind up in prison, and even if they didn’t, the village would be paying double taxes for the next hundred years.
“So what do think we should do?” Grappa Gas challenged. “Turn them out? They wouldn’t make it more’n a couple of gallops before they froze or the forest tore ‘em apart. I can just hear what folk would say if we did that. Or maybe you think we can take ‘em prisoner?” He mimed swinging a sword.
“Enough.” Indy set her mug down with a thump. “Enough, both of you. We have a stormload of trouble to fly through, and I will not have you two making it worse with your bickering.” She stared into her tea as if hoping the tiny swirling leaves might spell out some answers. “I know it’s a big thing,” she went on quietly. “And I did think about turning them away, but Gas is right—they wouldn’t even make it to Rancid. How would that make us look?”
Aft scowled. “What people think won’t matter much once the king hears about this. No, wait, hear me out. Saving travelers who got caught on the mountain, well, we can explain that if we have to. But letting them stay here—saints and all their gifts, Indy, what’ll they do to us? What’ll they do to her?” He jabbed his finger at Noxy.
“And what about the tiger?” he continued before Indy could reply. “What are we supposed to feed it? Or should I ask ‘who’?”
“Disgusting Aftertaste!” Indy snapped. “I will not have that kind of talk about one of the Gifted. Especially not in front of my daughter.”
“Just saying,” Aft muttered. He swallowed the last of his tea in one gulp and stood up. “Just think about it, all right?” He squeezed his strong hands into impotent fists, then turned and left without saying goodbye.
“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he did eat some of us!” Grappa Gas called after him. “Maybe we’d have some peace and quiet around here!”
He turned back to Indy. “Don’t worry about him. He’s just worried about the baby. Everyone gets wound up their first time.”
“I know,” Indy smiled. With their first baby due in just a few weeks, Aft and his wife Rind had stayed behind when the other adults left for the mountains to gather the village’s herd. The double weight of becoming a father and not being up in his element had made him as fidgety as a young camel in springtime.
Grappa Gas drained the last of his own tea. “It’s good,” he told Noxy appreciatively. “Maybe wants more cinnamon next time, though.”
“I’ll try to remember,” Noxy promised.
Indy stood when Grappa Gas did. “Will you stay for dinner?”
He shook his head. “Thanks, girl, but I promised your mother I’d, um, peel her potatoes.” He winked, ignoring Noxy’s little ‘eww’ of disgust. Indy smiled and kissed him on the cheek again. He was humming as he stumped out the door.
Noxy waited until her mother said down again before saying, “Amma…?”
Noxy hesitated. She didn’t know where to start. “Do you think the king really will send an army after them?”
Indy laughed wearily. “Probably not a whole army. But they won’t be here long enough for us to have to worry about that.”
Mother and daughter sat in silence for a moment. Finally Indy stretched. “So tell me, did you collect any spiderwebs, or did you and Sensy spend the whole day mooning after Rash?”
“Amma! And how can you think about spiderwebs on a day like this? And anyway, nobody’s mooning after Rash.” She sighed. “He and Sensy are hardly talking to each other right now. I think they had some kind of fight, but I haven’t had a chance to sort it out.”
Her mother shook her head. “It isn’t your job to sort them out. Maybe you should just—”
Crash! They jumped as something landed on the roof above their heads, sending loose cedar shingles skittering.
“What in the names…?” Indy crossed the floor in three steps and threw open the door just as a troll landed in the narrow street in front of their house. She yelped and flung herself to the side as the hairy creature lunged past her and scrambled up the stairs on all fours.
With a roar, the tiger burst into the kitchen and skidded to a stop. “Which way did it go?” he demanded, his ears back and his tail lashing.
The sound of a door banging upstairs answered his question before Indy could. “Wait!” she shouted as the tiger took the steps three at a time. “Blast!” they heard him roar. “The blighter’s gone through the window!”
Indy slammed the door shut and stepped in front of it as the tiger raced back down the stairs. “Let me pass!” the tiger snarled.
“What in the saints’ names are you doing?” Indy demanded.
“He was spying on us!” the tiger spat. “Now let… me… pass!”
“No!” The mayor of Stale glared at him. “This is our village, and you will not race around like a madman!”
It was the bravest thing Noxy had ever seen her mother do, and for one horrible moment, she was afraid it would be the last. The muscles in the tiger’s shoulders bunched—and then relaxed. “Hardly a mad man, honored,” he rumbled, as calmly as if he was commenting on her taste in teapots.
Whatever Indy might have said in response was forestalled by a tentative knock on the door at her back. The tiger twitched his whiskers. “Are you going to answer that?”
Indy waited precisely as long as it would take Noxy to count to ten in her head, then turned and opened the door. “Yes?”
The young soldier with the scarred face saluted. “Excuse me, honored,” he panted, “But I’m looking for—oh. There you are. Sorry, honored, I couldn’t keep up. Did you catch him?”
“No,” the tiger growled. “It turns out that these houses have windows. Did you see which way the other one went?”
The young soldier shook his head. He wasn’t much older than she was, Noxy realized. “Sorry, honored, I didn’t.”
The tiger’s tail twitched. “Reeve? Any idea why a mob of chimpanzees would be creeping around the village?”
“We call them trolls here, thank you,” Indy said, her voice full of polite steel. “They’re our neighbors. And I imagine they were doing what any neighbor would do if a bunch of strangers showed up next door—having a look to see what’s going on.”
“There were some trolls up by the spiderweb orchard this morning,” Noxy said, immediately wishing she hadn’t when three heads turned to look at her. “They stopped Sensy and me when we were coming back down.”
“This morning? Why didn’t tell me?” her mother demanded.
“It’s been kind of busy!” Noxy said defensively. “Anyway, they were all bigger than this one. I think,” she amended.
The tiger’s tail twitched. “Big or small, they steer well clear of settlements in Thind.”
“They do here as well,” Indy said, beckoning the young soldier to come in as she spoke. “We’ve had an arrangement with them for, oh, I don’t know how long. They keep to the deep forest, we stay out of it, and every fall a few of their Gifted show up to trade whatever odds and ends they have for some dried fruit or candy.”
“Hrrm.” The tiger’s tail twitched again. “If they saw soldiers on the road, would they tell you? Or us?”
Indy shook her head. “Only if they were in trouble, and even then they wouldn’t do it if the forest was angry. As you discovered,” she added to the soldier, who had come two steps into the kitchen.
On impulse, Noxy stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Probably Noxious, but everyone calls me Noxy.”
The soldier blinked, glanced at the tiger, and then gave her hand a single firm shake. “Private Thokmay, honored. Thank you for rescuing us.”
“I’m glad we could help,” Noxy said. “And—I’m sorry for your loss. Your losses,” she amended.
The soldier dipped his head. “Thank you, honored.” He glanced at the tiger.
“We should see if the sergeant needs any help with preparations,” he said, rising to all fours.
“Of course,” Indy said, her voice warm once again. “Please let him know that we’ll be there at sundown. And if there’s anything we can do to help…”
The tiger’s boy stepped aside to let the great cat pass, then dipped his head to Indy and Noxy once again before following his master. Noxy closed the door behind them and let out her breath in a long whoosh. “Well,” she said, “That wasn’t scary at all.”
Her mother sat back down on her stool and squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Hardly at all,” she agreed. “Are you all right?”
Noxy’s response was somewhere between a snort and a laugh. Her mother squeezed her hand again. “Good. How would you feel about scrambled eggs tonight?” She took down their frying pan without waiting for an answer and set it on the stove beside the kettle.
“Are you going to go and help them…?” Noxy asked as she began to set the table, not knowing quite how to finish the sentence.
Her mother glanced at her. “Help them send off their dead? Yes. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
Noxy shrugged. “I’ll come.”
They had two eggs each atop the grilled parsnips left over from the night before, with stewed snow cabbage and a small onion chopped almost to mush. They talked sporadically while they cooked and ate, leaving sentences half-finished and changing direction like bats chasing bugs on a summer’s evening.
When they were done, Indy pushed her plate away and reached across the table to squeeze her daughter’s hand. “You really can stay here if you want, you know.”
Noxy squeezed back. “I know. But then who will look after you?”
They dressed for the cold. Noxy took the box of candles from the shelf beside the stairs while her mother carefully wound the embroidered gray scarf of her office around her neck. With a brief prayer to the named and nameless saints, Indy lit one of the candles and stood it on the table so that they would come home to light. They closed the door gently behind them, brushed their hands over the windchimes that hung from the eaves to set them ringing, and set off toward the square.
A handful of other villagers joined them on their way, Grappa Gas and Granna Fee among them, but no one spoke—the soft sound of windchimes echoing through the evening said everything that need to be said. Even the woolly mountain camels in their pens were quiet, and the village’s cats and raccoons too. Probably scared of the tiger, Noxy thought. She certainly was.
When they reached the square, they found the soldiers well enough to stand waiting, patient and quiet in the way of people who have met sorrow before and know that they will meet it again. They had cleaned their armor, or nearly, and what bandages were in evidence were fresh. Kulbinder and Private Thokmay stood a little to the side, the young soldier’s hand resting on the nape of the tiger’s neck. He withdrew it when Noxy nodded to him in greeting, but returned her nod. The tiger merely blinked.
In silence, the small crowd made their way through the gate and up the path that led to the village’s worship circle. Sergeant Dorbu and two other soldiers had piled pitch-smeared logs on the heavy gray stone that lay at the circle’s center, then laid the bodies of their fallen friends atop the logs. They stood at attention as people shuffled into a circle, their battle masks raised to show their stony expressions. No one spoke except the smallest children, who were immediately hushed.
Noxy scanned the crowd, hoping to see Rash or Sensy, but neither was there. “Where’s the tralpa?” she whispered to her mother. And where is Aft? she wondered. The big cloudherd often led the villagers’ Purplesday worship, but tonight he was nowhere to be seen.
“Ssh!” As the last corner of the sun disappeared behind the peaks, Indy nodded to the sergeant. Saluting in return, he took a flint from a pouch on his belt, drew his sword, and scraped sparks onto the nearest log.
The crowd held its breath. The first tiny flame hesitated a moment, then began to spread. Everyone exhaled with relief. There would be no unquiet ghosts to trouble the villagers and the dead men’s comrades. The soldiers’ spirits would rest.
As dark smoke wrote its message of loss and grief on the sky, Sergeant Dorbu cleared his throat. “When I die, I shall give back to the world all that I did not do. All that I might have been and wasn’t, all the things I lost and spent and wasted, I shall give them back to the lives that haven’t been lived yet. That will be my thanks to those I loved, and to the world that gave me the life.”
Around him, soldiers and villagers bowed their heads and murmured, “That will be my thanks.” In ones and twos they stepped forward to light candles from the funeral flames, then turned toward home. One of the soldiers wept openly and without shame. Noxy saw Private Thokmay wipe tears from his cheek and then straighten his back and square his shoulders, cupping his candle to shelter it from the wind so that it could in turn be his shield against the darkness.
It was as solemn a moment as she could remember, which is why her heart sank when they rounded the corner and saw the tralpa standing in front of the gate with a dayglass lantern at his feet, his frizzy hair combed and tied back, and his scarf of office folded precisely into place. In one hand he held a book so thick it was almost a cube. Tiny flames danced across the fingertips of the other, and Noxy wondered how many tries it had taken him to make that simple spell work.
“Oh no,” Granna Fee breathed beside her. “Not now. Not now.”
As the villagers approached, Scholar-Candidate Nangyal puffed out his chest. “Literally Indigestible, by election from its inhabitants and with the consent of His Majesty Denpa King Gandan made reeve of the village of Stale Leftovers, come forward!”
Ten strides ahead of Noxy and her grandmother, Indy handed her candle to Sergeant Dorbu with a quiet, “Thank you.” She waited a moment for the soldiers and villagers behind her to come to a halt, and another for the whispers to grow still. “This is not the time or place, Scholar-Candidate,” she said, her voice carrying clearly on the cold evening breeze.
But the tralpa plowed on. “As the king’s voice in this place, I require you, Literally Indigestible, to answer to a charge of insubordination.” He flicked his hand a couple of times to blow out the flames he had summoned and then opened his book, cursing under his breath and stooping to pick up the bookmark that fluttered to the ground. Tucking it under his arm, he raised the book with both hands to show a page that was almost black with dense print.
“I’m sorry, Scholar-Candidate, but that’s a bit difficult to read in this light,” Indy said calmly. “Perhaps we could make some tea and—”
“As the king’s voice in this place,” the tralpa continued loudly, “I require you also to answer to an additional charge of derelection of duty, inasmuch as you have—damn it.” The bookmark slipped out from under his arm and fluttered to the ground again. “Inasmuch as you have neglected a direct order to arrest those who have freely admitted that they are in open rebellion against His Majesty.”
Before Indy could reply, Sergeant Dorbu stepped forward. “Am I going to have to put this down, honored?” he asked gently, raising his candle slightly, its delicate yellow flame protected by his cupped hand.
The tralpa snapped his book shut. “I do not hear the words of traitors,” he said haughtily.
“I see. Honored, could you take this please?” The sergeant handed his candle to Indy, ignoring her startled protest, and in one smooth motion drew his sword and straightened his arm to point its tip at the tralpa’s heart.
The Scholar-Candidate’s eyes widened. Noxy’s heart skipped a beat. She had just enough time to think, He really thought everyone would just do what he said, before someone cleared their throat behind her and said, “Excuse me, learned? If I may?”
Ignoring the tiger’s growl of, “Not now, boy,” Private Thokmay came forward to join the sergeant and the reeve. “Did I hear correctly that you’re the king’s voice here?” he asked, his voice carrying clearly like that of an actor on stage.
The tralpa nodded jerkily, his eyes fixed on the tip of the sergeant’s sword. “So you’re in charge of leases on His Majesty’s laws?” Another jerky nod. “Well, in that case…” The young soldier fished a coin out of his pocket. “There’s a law regarding delays in application of official regulations, isn’t there—somewhere near the end of the section on procedures? I’d like to rent it, please.”
He held out the coin. The pudgy man gaped at him. “What?”
“I’d like to rent that law, learned,” Private Thokmay continued doggedly. “Just for tonight. That will mean the reeve isn’t breaking any of the others if she waits until tomorrow to arrest people, won’t it?”
The tralpa looked from the boy to the sergeant’s sword to the reeve and back. “I—yes, I should think so,” he replied weakly.
“Thank you, learned.” He paused. “You have to actually take the coin for this to be legal, don’t you?”
The tralpa swallowed, then snatched the coin from the private’s hand, picked up his lantern, and scurried through the fortress gate. Behind her, Noxy heard the villagers sigh collectively with relief.
But not the sergeant. He slammed his sword back into its sheath and turned on Private Thokmay. “Don’t. Ever. Do. That. Again,” he said, every word coming out cold, clipped, and clear.
“Sorry, honored,” Private Thokmay, startled. “I just thought—”
“What you did is exactly what we’re fighting against!” the sergeant snapped. “Those laws he was holding? They belong to everyone. Nobody should have to pay to use them—not here, not now, not ever!”
“Sorry, honored,” the young soldier said, standing at attention. “No excuse, honored. It won’t happen again.”
His mouth snapped shut as Indy stepped in front of him and held out her hand to the sergeant. “Give it to me. Now.”
Sergeant Dorbu stared at her for a moment, then unbuckled his sword belt for a second time and held it out. Indy took it from him with an icy, “Thank you.” She handed it to Grappa Gas without looking at him. “I will let your men keep theirs,” she said, her voice colder than the mountain breeze, “But only on the understanding that there will not be another incident like this one. Do we have an understanding?”
Sergeant Dorbu dipped his head. “My apologies, honored, I—”
“I don’t want your apologies,” Indy said in a low voice that sent a shiver up Noxy’s spine. “I want you to say ‘yes, honored’. Now, do we have an understanding?”
The sergeant straightened up. “Yes, honored.”
“Good. Then let’s all get a good night’s sleep and hope that tomorrow is a better day for all of us. Noxy? It’s time for bed.” And with her back as straight as any soldier’s, she marched past the sergeant and the tiger’s boy. Noxy hurryied to keep up with, wondering if her mother had always been this brave and if every sword was as heavy and awkward as the one she was carrying.
Noxy had a dream that night. She often had dreams, or told herself stories in her head while she was waiting to fall asleep that as often as not turned into dreams. Sometimes, when her stories were particularly exciting, she’d mutter bits of dialog out loud until her mother said, “Who are you talking to?” and Noxy would say, “No one,” and roll over and pull the blanket up under her chin and close her eyes and carry on saving the prince from the magician or the magician from the prince or both of them from an avalanche.
But that night’s dream wasn’t one of those. She didn’t swoop down at the last moment on a cloud moments ahead of a roaring wave of snow. She didn’t do battle with an angry pack of lightnings armed only with her courage and a magic sword while Rash and Sensy and the rest of the village cheered her on.
No, this dream wasn’t one of those. This one was troubled and strange. The tiger was in it, as large as a house. The crows were in it too, but they were skeletons decorated with feathers like the toys children made for All Ghosts’ Night and they were pecking chunks out of the people around her who were slowly losing shape like weary clouds.
Standing in the middle of everything was the troll she had seen that morning with same silver-shot fur and the long scar on her leg. Her eyes were as deep as the shadows in the forest where the last of the winter snow could lie unmelted until midsummer. She waited patiently until the last of the crows had flown away and then raised a hand in greeting.
Heart pounding, Noxy raised her own, and woke. She lay in bed and listened to the windchimes outside her window and the soft, rhythmic snuffle of her mother snoring in the room below her. Once her pulse slowed, she fumbled among the lifetime of odds and ends on top of the two-drawer dresser beside her bed. Her hand closed on the little brass lamp her father had given her when she had first started reading. She hadn’t set it out that morning to recharge it, but the thumbnail-sized piece of dayglass inside it still gleamed with trapped sunlight when she opened its cover.
She set it back on the dresser and fished under her pillow to pull out the knit dolls that lay there. Her father had made them when she was little, either to comfort her when she was sick or as a nameday gift or just because he loved her. She and Sensy and Rash had played with them when they were younger—they had been pirates and cloudherds and once even pirate cloudherds, which Noxy had declared ought to be a thing even if it wasn’t.
She tucked them back under her pillow. Her room was still big enough for her to sit and gossip with Sensy or play a game of stones, but the last time Rash had joined them, it had somehow seemed much too small, and having Rash over by himself was—
She sighed. No matter what her mother said, she needed to talk to Sensy and find out why she and Rash were made at each other. Tomorrow, she promised herself, twisting the cover on the dayglass lamp to close it.
She held it in her hand for a second, wondering if the dayglass stopped shining when there was nowhere for the light to go or whether the light bounced around being reabsorbed over and over again. Maybe that’s what dreams were—ideas bouncing around inside her head until they found a way out. She’d have to tell Granna Fee… in… the morning…
Moments later, the syncopated rhythm of two people snoring wafted through the little house.
Noxy woke to the sound of thunder. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and glanced out the window. The sky was dawn-pale, not morning-bright, and the thunder was Grappa Gas knocking on the door downstairs. “Indy? Indy, are y’awake?”
“Just a beat while I get some clothes on,” her mother called from her bedroom. Noxy threw off her blankets, pulled on the trousers and sweater she had dropped on the floor the night before, and hurried downstairs just as her mother opened the door.
“They’re gone,” Grappa Gas said breathlessly. “That idiot son of mine and the tralpa—they’re gone. They’ve taken Big Blue.”
“Oh, names of the saints,” Indy cursed wearily. She dragged a stool out from under the table with her foot and let her weight fall on it. She had bags under her eyes, Noxy realized with a shock—she looked like she hadn’t slept a wink.
Her mother noticed her look. “Get the kettle going, would you, sweetling? Any idea when they left?” she continued to Grappa Gas.
The old man shook his head. “Not long. I stopped in to see if Rind needed anything, and she asked if I’d seen him—said he was gone when she woke up, and she figured he was out getting kindling or the like, but he’d been gone long enough that she was starting to wonder. So I went looking for him and found this.”
He held out a dew-stained sheet of paper. Indy took it and scanned it quickly as Noxy fed a handful of wood shavings to the stove. “That idiot,” the reeve said. “That self-righteous, self-pitying idiot.” She tossed the tralpa’s note onto the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. “The tralpa is going to Duck Droppings to—what did he say?” She picked up the letter. “To denounce us for our complicity in treason,” she recited bitterly. “He must have talked Aft into flying him there. Oh Gas, what have I done?”
Noxy stuffed a last handful of wood shavings into the stove and hugged her mother from behind. “It’ll be all right,” she said, her voice muffled in her mother’s braids.
Indy patted her arm, then took a deep breath and shrugged her off. “Thanks, sweetling. I need you to put your boots on and start waking people up—get them to the square. The soldiers too,” she added bleakly. “And Gas, get Rind here. I want to find out what in the underhells her husband was thinking.”
“What about the tea?” Noxy asked.
Her mother sighed. “I don’t think this is going to be a tea kind of day.”
Noxy woke Rash first, then Sensy. Both were alone in their houses, their parents having gone with the other adults to gather the village’s herd of clouds. She had to thump on Sensy’s front door for so long to wake her that she wound up waking the elders in the houses on either side as well, but Rash yanked his door open almost before her knuckles hit it. It only took her a moment to tell each of them what had happened and send them off to start waking others. That done, she hurried toward the trading hall that took up one entire side of the village square.
The first thing she heard Sergeant Dorbu say when she arrived was, “I’m sorry, honored. I’m so sorry for all of this.” He had bags under his eyes, and Noxy wondered if he hadn’t slept. Whenever a cloudherd died, Aft and some of the other worshipful villagers kept vigil all night—maybe the lowlanders had the same customs.
“Well, if we could unscramble eggs, we’d have more chickens,” Indy said. “But honestly, I don’t know what we can do now. They have at least a couple of hours head start, and even without that, Pillow isn’t as fast as Big Blue.”
“Then our race is run,” Kulbinder rumbled. He was sitting on his haunches beside the sergeant with a tired-looking Private Thokmay at his side. “With respect, honored, the men aren’t fit to march right now.”
“March?” Sergeant Dorbu laughed wearily. “Kulbinder, my friend, I doubt they could walk the length of the Princes’ Parade. And even if they could, I’ve no right to ask them.”
Twinge. Noxy winced. What was wrong with her? And whatever it was, why did it have to happen now?
Then she felt something else, like a breath of wind through distant branches or the first faint whisper of Pillow’s mind-voice two winters past when she had first been trying to mind-speak and had almost been ready to give up because no matter what Granna Fee said about being patient it just wasn’t working and she knew, she just knew, she wasn’t ever going to be able to do it and then suddenly she had heard the old cow, wordless and warm and every bit as patient as Noxy’s grandmother. This felt like that, exactly like that, which made Noxy’s gut go cold because people weren’t supposed to be able to mind-talk with clouds unless they were touching them.
But the whisper in her head was real, and she knew that mind-voice as well as she knew the sound of Grappa Gas’s wooden leg on the cobblestones behind her. She swallowed hard and mumbled, “Excuse me,” then hurried toward the steps nearest the fortress gate.
The steps lay flush against the ancient walls. They had been built for Pilots, not human beings, so each one was as high as Noxy’s knee and took her two strides to cross. Even after hundreds of years, the stones fit together so snugly that it was hard to tell where one ended and the next began.
She was breathing hard by the top. It was wide enough for three people to walk side by side, and the parapets along its outer edges were interrupted every dozen strides by slits, each one a slightly different shape for reasons known only to their makers. Half a dozen sturdy wooden stairs just in front of her brought to a square platform high enough for her to see over the top of the wall’s outer edge. She shaded her eyes with her hand and looked north up the valley, already knowing what she would see.
There, coming around the first bend in the pass, was a faint smudge of white. It was Big Blue. She turned around and ran as fast as she could back to the square.
“Amma! Amma! He’s coming back!” She skidded to a stop on the cobblestones. “Big Blue—he’s coming back.”
A dozen heads turned to look at her. “What?” the tiger snarled, his ears going back.
“It’s Big Blue,” Noxy insisted. “I just saw him from the wall. He’s coming back.” And he only has one person on him, she wanted to add, but there was no way she could pretend that she’d seen that, not from so far away.
Half the village crowded onto the platform overlooking the cloud pen to watch Aft bring Big Blue home. Rind stood next to Indy, stone-faced, with a silent, glowering Grappa Gas on her other side.
The big bull scraped wetly against the side of the ravine. Aft hopped onto the platform and gave the cloud one last comforting pat. “Well,” he said, “This is more of a welcome than I was expecting.”
“Where’s the tralpa?” Indy demanded.
The cloudherd blinked. “How would I know?”
“Don’t play games,” Indy said sharply. “Where did you take him?”
Aft crossed his arms. “I didn’t take him anywhere.”
“Then where in the underhells have you been?” Grappa Gas demanded.
“I went to tell everyone else what’s been going on!” Aft looked from his father to his wife to Indy. “Got as far as the Three Sisters, but there was a pack of lightnings further up the pass tearing up a storm, a big one, so I turned around. What’s happened to the tralpa?”
“He’s gone to Duck Droppings to tell the king’s men about Sergeant Dorbu and his men,” Indy said. “He left a note—we thought you’d taken him.”
Disbelief and anger wrestled briefly on Aft’s face, and anger won. “Me!? Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Why would you go behind my back and fly off to talk to the rest of the village?” Indy retorted hotly.
“Honoreds, forgive me,” Sergeant Dorbu cut in. He, Kulbinder, and Private Thokmay had been standing a few steps back from the line of villagers. Now he stepped forward. “If you didn’t take the tralpa, then where is he?”
Grappa Gas made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “He must be on foot. The idiot must be trying to hike down on his own.”
“Through the forest?” Kulbinder rumbled.
“It’s safe enough if you’re sensible enough to stay on the paths,” Indy said, her tone making it clear exactly how sensible she thought the tralpa was.
“But it’s three days on foot, and I’d be surprised if that pudgy camel has ever gone more than a hundred strides off a paved road in his life,” Grappa Gas growled. “If he trips and breaks his leg, we’ll have the Pilots’ own job explaining what happened to him.”
Indy nodded. “We have to go find him.”
So it was that Noxy found herself picking her way down a side trail a few minutes later with Private Thokmay and the tiger in her wake. “Show them the shortcut to the fishpond,” her mother had instructed her as she sent people in twos and threes to search paths that the tralpa might have taken.
Noxy had nodded, still wondering how she had known that Big Blue was coming back. Two strides away, she’d heard Aft mutter an apology to his wife. “I should’ve told you,” he’d said.
“Yes you should have,” Rind had replied fiercely. “How’re we going to raise this baby if we don’t trust each other?” Noxy had turned away, embarrassed.
The air was cold and damp in the forest gloom. Noxy rubbed her arms to warm herself as she walked, but Private Thokmay seemed not to notice as he studied the greenery around them. The tiger had disappeared into it almost as soon as they left Stale with a growled, “Find what you can—I’ll find you.”
Private Thokmay raised a hand. “There.” He pointed the forest floor in front of them. “See where the bush is trodden down? Someone came through here recently.”
“If you say so,” Noxy said, rubbing her arms more vigorously. Cloudherds learned how to read the sky almost before they learned how to read books, but woodcraft was mystery to her. Truth be told, she had never really liked being in the forest. The trees always seemed to loom over her. It wasn’t too bad when the birds were singing, but when it was silent—
“Why is it so quiet?” she asked, suddenly realizing that she hadn’t heard anything for the last hundred heartbeats except the soft pitter-pat of water dripping from the branches around them.
“What?” Private Thokmay asked, his hand falling to his sword.
Noxy shivered. “It’s not supposed to be this quiet.” She glanced over her shoulder. They were only a few hundred strides from the fortress gate, but it felt like home and sunlight and safety were a world away. The forest didn’t want them there. It didn’t want their voices or their boots or the metal of the sword that was somehow in Private Thokmay’s hand even though she hadn’t seen him draw it.
She pressed the heels of her hands to her temples. What was happening? She couldn’t be mind-hearing the forest—could she? She must be going crazy. It was too much—it couldn’t all fit. Her head was going to burst.
“It’s too big…” Noxy whimpered.
“Sh!” Private Thokmay hissed urgently, his eyes wide.
Noxy put a hand on a nearby tree to steady herself. The bark was cold and damp but reassuringly solid. The little beads of sap under her palm were frozen nearly solid but still sticky. She took a deep, shaky breath. She was not going to throw up. “I’m all right,” she told Private Thokmay, smiling weakly. “Just… just a headache.” Somewhere nearby, a sapsucker chirped uncertainly. A squirrel chattered in response and then she heard a faint, frightened voice calling for help somewhere in the distance.
“Did you hear that?” she whispered to Private Thokmay. He held a fist up beside his ear, his eyes still scanning the trees around them.
“I don’t know what that means!” she whispered angrily. “Did you hear someone?”
“No!” the young soldier whispered back. “Now please, honored, be quiet. I’m sure someone is watching us.”
“I don’t think it’s a someone,” Noxy whispered, too quietly for him to hear. “I think it’s the forest.” But that couldn’t be right. They were on a trail, near the road that from the valley floor up to the village. There were stumps where trees had been taken, and they had passed the remains of a long-ago campfire—they were far away from the depths of the Herd of Trees that human beings were allowed to fly over but not enter.
The voice called again, fainter and more frightened than before. “Come on!” Noxy hurried down the mountain without waiting to see if Private Thokmay was following or not. She ducked low-hanging branches that dripped wetly down her neck whenever she bumped into them and scrambled over fallen logs in varying stages of crumbly moist decay. Shelves of mushrooms grew on the older ones, some as big as a kitchen table, and the ground under her boots was fragrant and spongy with decades of fallen pine needles.
A lightning-blasted tree leaned drunkenly across the path. She ducked under it and pulled up short. “Sorry!” Private Thokmay bumped into her and grabbed the tree to steady himself, and then said, “Whoa.”
The trail in front of them wound through the rough-hewn remains of a rock slide. Ferns, a scattering of salal, and a few dwarf spruce had found purchase among the mossy boulders, and an impatient little stream flung itself from one small pool to the next, each waterfall throwing spray into the air for rainbows to dance on as it splashed its way down to a larger pool below.
“Help me!” the tralpa shouted again. One glance was enough to tell Noxy what had happened. Someone had laid a log across the stream to connect one side of the path with the other. The tralpa must have been halfway across it when one end slipped and rolled away, leaving him perched atop the other end like a crow sitting on a fencepost. If he tried to shift his weight, the log would topple over and send him tumbling down the mountain.
“You—don’t just stand there, help me!” the tralpa shouted angrily. His prized leather satchel hung precariously on a stub of branch sticking out from the log a stride below him. Papers, half a round of cheese, and the bright shards of several broken bottles lay scattered among the stones waiting hungrily below him.
Private Thokmay grabbed Noxy’s arm as she started forward. “Honored, wait. What are you planning to do?”
“Help, of course!” she said angrily, shaking him off.
“How?” Private Thokmay nodded at the log. “One wrong move and we’ll be lighting candles for him.”
“We can’t just leave him there!” Noxy protested. “He’ll freeze!” The Scholar-Candidate was soaked to the skin and shivering, as miserable as he was angry.
“I know, but one slip and—” Like an actor who had been waiting for her cue, the log slipped down the mountain.
The tralpa shrieked in terror, then shrieked again when the log jerked to a stop two paces below where it had been. “Hurry up!” he yelped in a strangled voice. “Get me off this thing right now!”
“We’re trying, learned,” Private Thokmay yelled back, clambering over a boulder half his own height covered in damp-slick moss. “Can you reach the branch on your left?”
The tralpa didn’t even look. “No! You have to come get me!”
“Yes, learned.” The young soldier muttered something under his breath that Noxy couldn’t hear over the gurgling of the waterfall. He rose cautiously to his feet and took a long step onto the next boulder. “Can you get any closer?” he asked over his shoulder as he started to unbutton his uniform jacket.
“Maybe.” Noxy picked her way carefully around the boulders, clutching at a sword fern for balance as a stone rolled away under her boot. She stopped three strides from the terrified lowlander. “I can’t get any closer,” she called to Private Thokmay.
“Understood. Hang on.” A second another long stride put him on top of a smaller boulder half-drowned by the waterfall.
Noxy’s heart went into her throat. “Be careful!”
“Yes, honored,” he muttered, “I’m trying.” He wriggled awkwardly out of his uniform jacket, revealing only a sleeveless vest beneath it. He was skinnier than Noxy had realized, and started shivering as the wind scraped across his skin.
“I’m going to toss this to you, learned,” he told the tralpa. “When you get it, hook it over that branch and then swing yourself over to that big flat rock on your left, all right?”
The tralpa shook his head violently. “You can do it, learned,” the young soldier coaxed him. “I know you can. Ready? One… two… three!” He tossed his balled-up coat into the air.
The tralpa leaned forward and reached for it. As he did so, the log shifted underneath him again. He screamed as it slid and kept sliding. Its bottom end caught on a stone. It tipped forward, and for one long moment stood upright with the tralpa perched on top like a bird sitting on a fencepost.
Without thinking, Noxy grabbed the nearest salal bush with one hand and leaned forward as far as she dared, reaching for the tralpa with the other and shouting, “Jump!” The terrified Scholar-Candidate hesitated for a heartbeat, then lunged for her clumsily as the log slipped one last time and tumbled end over end to crash to a stop against another boulder a few strides below them.
Noxy grabbed the tralpa’s pudgy hand as his boots scrabbled to find purchase on the slippery rocks. He clutched her sleeve with his other hand, and for a moment she was sure his weight was going to pull her over.
“I’ve got you!” Private Thokmay grabbed her collar to steady her. With a sound somewhere between a grunt and an angry yell, she pulled the tralpa toward her—
—and fell to one knee as the rock she was standing on shifted under her feet. The log’s impact on the boulder below them had knocked it loose! Scraping, hesitating, and then scraping again, the rocks around them were starting to slide!
“Honored!” Kulbinder roared as he burst out of the bushes on the other side of the stream. “Let go! You must get clear!”
“Not…yet!” Private Thokmay snarled through gritted teeth. “Come on, come on…” He hauled on Noxy’s collar. Choking, Noxy let go of the salal bush, grabbed the tralpa with both hands, and heaved him up onto the rock beside her even as it tilted beneath her. The tralpa shoved her out of his way and scrambled up the path for safer ground.
“Go!” Private Thokmay let go of her collar. Noxy leaped off the rock just as it tipped over and started sliding down the mountain. Her momentum carried her three steps forward to trip over the tralpa, who was on his knees sobbing in the narrow path. He shrieked and wrapped his arms around the trunk of the nearest dwarf spruce.
Noxy spun around. Private Thokmay was on his feet, arms spread for balance as the boulder beneath him shifted one last time. He looked straight at her, eyes wide, and said something she couldn’t hear as a thousand tons of rock began to slide down the mountain like a blanket off a bed.
There was no way anyone could have stayed on their feet as the rocks slipped and then tumbled around him, but somehow he did it. Somehow he managed to jump from one rock to the next, arms pinwheeling for balance as he jumped or skipped or took a long, almost casual step to the next.
Just as he reached the edge of the slide and took his last leap a rock the size of his head bounced off a boulder and struck him hard in the ribs. Spinning in a half circle, he tripped over a stray branch lying on the path and fell backward into Noxy’s startled arms.
The tiger appeared out of the bushes next to them a heartbeat later and pulled up short. “I presume this means you’re all right,” he rumbled, settling onto his haunches and ignoring the tralpa’s frightened yelp.
Private Thokmay rolled off Noxy and stood up. “Yes, honored, I’m fine,” he panted, his teeth chattering with the cold. He had scars on his arm to match those on his face, Noxy saw, four thin, parallel lines that looked fully healed instead of fresh.
Noxy clambered to her feet. “Here, put this on,” she said, pulling off her coat and thrusting it at him.
He shook his head stubbornly. “I’ll b-b-be fine.”
“Put it on, boy—that’s an order,” the tiger said sharply. With a jerky nod, Thokmay took the heavy quilted coat and wrapped it around himself.
“And you,” the tiger continued, turning his head to the tralpa. “Are you injured?”
“Injured? Injured!?” the tralpa said indignantly. He had streaks of mud on his cheeks where he had wiped away his frightened tears. “I could have died!”
“Well maybe you should have thought of that before you ran away!” Noxy snapped.
The tralpa pulled himself up to his full height. “I didn’t run away,” he said indignantly. “I was trying to do my duty because your mother wasn’t doing hers.” Then his eyes widened. “My satchel! Where is my satchel!” He pushed past Noxy and Private Thokmay to glare at the tumbled pile of rocks beyond them. Trees jutted out of the freshly-rearranged rock slide like the uncombed hair of someone freshly woken from a nap. The stream was already filling new pools and splashing from one to the next in new waterfalls, but there was no sign of the tralpa’s prized leather satchel.
He spun around. “You—tiger! I need that satchel. In the king’s name, I order you to—”
“In whose name?” the tiger growled menacingly, rising off his haunches.
The tralpa gulped and would have taken a step backward into the rock slide if Noxy hadn’t said, “Look out!” He caught himself and looked from her to the tiger to Private Thokmay, and then to Noxy’s astonishment plopped himself down on the path and began to cry.
“I just wanted… I just wanted to do the right thing,” he sniffled, adding another streak of mud to his cheek as he wiped angrily at his tears. “I know you all laugh at me behind my back, but I do try, I really do, and I can’t just sit in that stupid drafty house and pretend nothing is happening when you’re all acting like, like outlaws.”
Noxy’s first thought was, Your house isn’t drafty—it’s the nicest one in the whole village! What came out of her mouth was, “Let’s go home and get cleaned up. I mean it,” she continued as the tralpa opened his mouth. “You’re soaking wet, you don’t have anything to eat, the path is gone, and if we don’t get him in front of a fire, he’s going to freeze to death.” She nodded at Private Thokmay, whose teeth were still chattering.
“Fine,” the tralpa said sulkily. He stood up gave her an exaggerated bow. “I’ll follow you.”
The trail home seemed so long that Noxy started to wonder if they had taken a wrong turn. The tralpa huffed and puffed but said nothing—at least, nothing loud enough for her to make out. The tiger stayed at Private Thokmay’s side, dropping back or slipping in front of him when the path narrowed but always returning to his post. As they passed through the small clearing left by a giant cedar toppling over when Grappa Gas was Noxy’s age, she fell in step on Thokmay’s other side and said, “I’m sorry about your coat. I can go look for it tomorrow if you want.”
The young soldier nodded. His teeth had stopped chattering, but he still looked drawn. “Thank you, honored. Here.” He shrugged out of hers and held it out to her.
“Oh no, it’s all right, I’m—no, please, you need it more than I do.” Which was only half-true—the wind had picked up and Noxy was ready to start shivering herself. But there was only one more uphill stretch of path before the gate would be in sight, and she could imagine what her mother would say if the soldier arrived shivering and she was bundled up and warm.
“Thank you,” Private Thokmay repeated, wrapping her coat around his wiry shoulders once again. “And thank you for…” He nodded at the tralpa trudging up the rise in front of them.
“Thank you for grabbing hold of me,” she replied. “I think they’d be lighting candles for both of us if you hadn’t.”
“You might have to light one for me when we get back to the village,” the young soldier said glumly. He patted his hip. “I lost my sword as well as my uniform jacket. Sergeant Dorbu isn’t going to be happy about that.”
Thud. They both stopped and stared at the sword that had just landed on the path in front of them. Private Thokmay cleared his throat. “Um,” he said uncertainly, “That’s unexpected.”
Noxy looked up, somehow already knowing what she was going to see. A pair of dark eyes looked back at her. It was the troll, the one that had been on the path the previous morning and in her dream that night. She half-raised her hand in an uncertain greeting. The troll studied her a moment longer, then disappeared with only a faint rustle of branches.
Private Thokmay picked up his sword. “That was kind of it,” he said neutrally.
“Her,” Noxy corrected automatically. “She’s a her.”
The soldier nodded. “Her, then. I don’t suppose you could get her to fetch the scabbard as well, could you?”
“Who, me?” Noxy blinked. “What makes you think she’d do anything for me?”
“I see.” Private Thokmay nodded at Kulbinder and the tralpa, who were almost out of sight further up the path. “We should probably catch up.”
“I’m serious!” Noxy protested. “I have no idea why she brought you your sword.”
“Of course, honored,” the soldier agreed. He gestured. “After you?”
Noxy opened her mouth and then closed it again. She really didn’t know why the trolls had brought his sword back, but saying it out loud a second time would just sound foolish.
She pushed herself up the hill after the tiger and the tralpa, annoyed and frustrated and still a little frightened, but slowed and stopped after a few strides. “I’m telling the truth,” she said quietly when Private Thokmay caught up to her. “I don’t know why the troll brought your sword back. The forest really doesn’t like metal, so when they get something like that they either throw it into the nearest underhell or try to trade it back to us for sweets.”
The young soldier thought for a few steps before answering. “Kulbinder told me that people in Thind call them the hands of the jungle,” he said slowly. “Maybe it’s the same here.” He glanced at her. “So I guess the question is, why would the forest want me to have my sword back?”
Noxy shook her head. “I have no idea.”
“Hm. Here.” Private Thokmay stopped and shrugged off her coat. “No, please—I’ve warmed up, honestly.” When Noxy hesitated, he added, “Besides, if the rest of the men see me wearing it, they’ll make jokes for weeks.”
Noxy took it from him half-reluctantly. The inside was damp, but she put it on anyway, grateful for the way it blocked the strengthening wind but very conscious of how warm his body had made it.
“Do they make jokes a lot?” she asked as they started up the path again. “I mean, you’re the youngest, and, you know, the tiger…” She trailed off as she realized that she had no idea how she had meant to finish that sentence.
Private Thokmay didn’t seem to notice. “Sometimes, but they make jokes about each other too, so I don’t mind. Most of them are from the same couple of orphanages, and—”
He pulled up short as his scabbard landed on the path with a soft thud. Noxy looked up at the trees overhead and said, “Seriously?” No one and nothing answered. They walked the rest of the way back to the village in silence beneath branches that jostled each other in the rising wind. The storm that Aft had seen the lightnings knitting was on its way.
Behind them, the tralpa’s prized satchel hung precariously from a slender branch. It might have stayed there until the wind shook it free, but a curious scaw spotted it and landed to investigate. The branch bent and bobbed under the bird’s weight, just enough for the satchel’s strap to slide free. The branch sprung back up, tossing the startled scaw into the air as the satchel dropped into the pond below with a small splash. The current pulled at it, turning it around in a lazy circle. As it slipped over the lip of the pond its strap caught once again on a stick. The satchel’s weight dragged the stick forward until it stuck against the pond’s edge. Safely wrapped in three layers of waxed paper, the tralpa’s letters slipped out just moments before the satchel filled with water and sank to the bottom of the pond, only to be trapped against the stick by the current.
Indy took one look at the bedraggled foursome and ordered them to go straight to the bath house. “Except you, learned,” she said told the tralpa. “It would probably be best if you stayed at home for now. I’ll have someone bring you a couple of buckets of hot water.”
“No need for that,” Kulbinder rumbled before the tralpa could reply. “He can bathe with us—the boy and I will make sure he doesn’t wander off.”
The reeve nodded. Wrapping his robe and whatever was left of his dignity around him, Scholar-Candidate Nangyal squelched across the square toward the village’s communal bath house.
Noxy had never been so happy to see hot water in her life. The women’s half of the bath house was empty, so she stripped down to her underclothes and started to pump the polished handle of the pump that stood in the center of the room. Water gurgled through cured bamboo pipes, then splashed into the stone trough that waited beneath the pump’s spout. Within moments the water began to steam as the spell put on the trough by the village’s previous tralpa heated it up.
One bucket, two buckets, three… By the time Noxy had filled her favorite tub, the work of pumping had driven the chill off her skin. She hung her underclothes over the side of the tub and stepped into bliss. She couldn’t straighten her legs the way she had been able to as a little girl, but it still felt wonderful. She took a deep breath—
—and jumped as the door burst open. “Could you knock next time?” she snapped at Sensy.
Her friend stared at her. “Why? Nobody else does.”
“Well, maybe they should start,” Noxy grumbled.
Sensy rolled her eyes, then pulled up a stool and sat down. “So Granna Fee says you rescued the tralpa. What happened?”
“I’ll tell you if you get me some more hot water.” Sensy pouted but got up and started pumping while Noxy brought her up to date. She left out the part where the troll brought back Private Thokmay’s sword, and how annoyed she had been that he clearly didn’t believe her when she said she didn’t know why.
“Saints,” Sensy breathed when Noxy was done. “You could have been killed!”
Noxy shrugged. “I suppose. Aaah…” she added as her friend poured a fresh bucket of hot water into the wooden tub.
Sensy sat down once again. “So what’s he like? Private Thokmay, I mean, not the tralpa.”
Noxy shrugged again. “I don’t know. He doesn’t say much.”
Sensy leaned forward. “Did he say how he got those scars on his face? Rash said it looked like the tiger had clawed him.”
“Maybe,” Noxy allowed, thinking about the matching scars she had seen on the young soldier’s arm when he fell on her. She was definitely not sharing that part of the story with Sensy.
But the thought led her to another. It was time to figure out why her two best friends were mad at each other. “So what’s going on with you and Rash?” she asked as casually as she could.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sensy freeze. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, please.” Noxy flicked a few drops of water at her. “I’m not blind.”
Sensy squirmed. “I know. I just—I was going to tell you when we were out picking spiderwebs, but then—you know, everything just kind of happened and we haven’t really had a chance to talk since then and—you’re not mad, are you?”
“Me? Why would I be mad?” Noxy asked blankly. What was Sensy talking about? She and Rash were the ones who were mad at each other, weren’t they?
“I don’t know. I thought—I mean, it’s not like he won’t dance with both of us—when they bring the herd in,” Sensy continued in a rush, “He asked me to go to the spring fancy with him and I said yes. I’m really glad you aren’t mad.”
“Of course not,” Noxy said, trying her best to sound as though she meant it. The spring fancy was the biggest celebration of the year in Stale, bigger even than Yearagain Eve. When the adults brought the village’s clouds back to Stale and the first pack traders came through the pass, every family decorated their house with whatever funny or scary ornaments they had spent the winter making, then put on their best clothes and gathered in the village square to tell stories and exchange gifts and above all, to dance. She and Sensy and Rash had gone together ever since they were little, but now…
“Of course not,” Noxy repeated briskly. “Though if you ask me, you ought to tell him that he has to shave that ridiculous mustache he’s trying to go before he tries to kiss you.”
“He’s already kissed me,” Sensy confessed, blushing slightly as she tucked one of her braids back behind her ear. “It tickled, kind of.”
“Oh.” Noxy digested that. She felt stupid for not having figured out what was going on, and also, suddenly, very alone.
“Anyway, what about Private Thokmay? You could ask him to the fancy,” Sensy suggested, then exclaimed, “It was just an idea!” as Noxy flicked more water at her.
“It was a stupid idea,” Noxy grumbled. “I don’t even know if I’m going to go this year.”
“See? I knew you’d be mad,” Sensy sighed.
“I’m not mad!” Noxy said angrily, sinking lower into the tub. In the silence that followed, she heard voices murmuring on the other side of the wall. The petulant tone of the first had to belong to the tralpa, and the deep rumble of the second could only be the tiger. For one moment she wondered what would happen if she invited him to the fancy.
“Anyway,” Sensy broke in, standing and brushing her hands against her trousers, “I should go and see if anyone needs help with anything. Aft says the storm’s going to be a big one. See you later?”
“Sure.” Noxy waited until she heard the door close before pulling her knees to her chest and closing her eyes and wondering why everything suddenly seemed so hard.
Stale was no stranger to storms. When bulls battled each other in the dead of winter, the snow fell so thick and so fast that people had to string ropes between the houses to find their way. And in the summer, when nimbus clouds that had stayed in the north to give birth flew south to rejoin their herds, the sky could darken in the time it took to sing a nursery rhyme. When that happened, the villagers knew it was time to tie their shutters closed and get the camels into their pens, because the rain was going to come down in sheets instead of drops.
“I am from Thind,” Kulbinder growled when Indy told him why she wanted the soldiers to stay in the trading hall. “I have lived through monsoons. This could not possibly be worse.”
“Maybe not, but I bet it’ll be a lot colder,” she said.
Kulbinder sniffed. “Storm or not, someone should be on patrol. But I agree, it would be best if the men stayed warm.”
“How is Thokmay doing?” Noxy asked hesitantly. She had changed into her other shirt and trousers, then hung her muddy clothes over the rack behind the house in the hope that the rain would do at least half the work of washing them clean.
The tiger blinked slowly. “He is well,” he said. “I have set him to watch over the tralpa until some other arrangement can be made.”
The sun had almost disappeared behind the mountains when the first sharp line of lightning lashed the far-off clouds. Granna Fee said a word Noxy wasn’t supposed to know. “Let’s not dawdle,” she said briskly, settling a canvas tarp over her vegetable plot and weighting it down with stones. Children, elders, and everyone else who could walk hurried to ready the village, stepping around soldiers or shooing them out of the way.
When Noxy got home, her mother was chopping onions. “Thanks, sweetling,” she said, blinking away a tear. “Can you do some potatoes? And see if the cheese is still fit to eat. I hope the tiger isn’t too picky.”
Noxy pulled up short. “The tiger?”
Indy sniffled. “Yes, he’s coming for dinner with the sergeant.” She swept a double handful of diced onions into the cooking pot with the back of the knife and started peeling what was probably the last knob of ginger in Stale. “It’s the polite thing to do,” she continued without looking as Noxy opened and then closed her mouth.
“Yes, amma.” Noxy set the loosely-woven bag of potatoes on the potato and began to scrub the skins off them with a piece of pumice.
Sergeant Dorbu knocked on their door just as the rain began to fall. Noxy had been expecting him to be in his uniform, but he had traded in his battle mask for a simple knit cap that any cloudherd might have worn, and had left his sword behind.
Kulbinder padded in behind him while he and Indy were saying their hellos. He flowed up onto the chair across from Noxy and watched impassively as she swept the last scraps of potato off the table. “He sends his greetings,” the tiger said abruptly.
Noxy jumped slightly. “Oh. You mean Thokmay? Um, thank you. I’m glad he’s all right. It’s pretty dangerous, getting frozen like that. It happened to one of the camels a couple of years ago. She got out of their pen and tried to get across the—um. It doesn’t matter. I’m glad he’s all right.” She could feel her cheeks burning under the tiger’s cool stare.
Her cheeks heated up even more when she saw Sergeant Dorbu’s grin. “Don’t worry,” he said cheerfully. “He does that to everyone. Saints, I almost swallowed my fork the first time I met him.”
“It was a spoon,” Kulbinder corrected. “And it was more than ‘almost’.”
And just like that the rhythm of the meal took shape. Sergeant Dorbu had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories about his own foolishness, clumsiness, or bad choices. Indy asked just enough questions to keep the stories coming, while Kulbinder’s dry comments provoked protests of innocence and occasional snorts of laughter. As she table a tray bearing grilled slabs of cheese, fried onions, and boiled potatoes, Noxy realized with a start that she was actually enjoying herself. The mood was only slightly dampened by the tiger sniffing at the cheese and then saying thank you, but it would probably upset his digestion, he would hunt in the forest after the storm was over.
Conversation became more serious after the dishes were cleared. The soldiers had been on the move almost constantly since they had taken Learned Shudarga’s side. “Getting to a fight, or getting away from one, or trying to get enough food in our bellies to keep us fighting—that’s mostly what being a soldier is about, not the fighting itself,” Sergeant Dorbu sighed.
“So why did you chose her side?” Indy asked as she splashed some dark mountain rak into a glass and passed it to him. Catching Noxy’s eye, she poured a thimbleworth into another glass and handed it to her daughter. The pungent fumes tingled in Noxy’s nose as she tasted it gingerly.
Sergeant Dorbu rolled his glass between his hands to warm it. “My family used to have land. Not much—a couple of hundred apple trees and some corn—but it was enough to keep us. Then one of our neighbors decided she wanted to build a mill, and, well, we were on the other side of the river she had her eye on, so she honeyed up the local tralpa, promised him a slice of the takings, and…” He spread his hands. “By the time we got to court, she’d rented all the laws that would have saved us. We had a week to clear out after living their all our lives.”
“That must have been horrible,” Indy said sympathetically.
“It is foolishness,” Kulbinder rumbled. “The law in Thind is not something one rents like a bullock for plowing. There are rules for each station, and that is that.”
“But then how does the king raise money?” Noxy asked.
Kulbinder blinked slowly. “He takes what tradition dictates. It is much simpler.”
“Simpler and fairer,” Sergeant Dorbu added with a quiet intensity that hadn’t been there a moment earlier. “And that’s what we want—something simple and fair. Laws should be there for everyone, all the time, not just for whoever has the most money on the day of a trial. And if that means a bunch of royals have to work for a living instead of renting out laws some king gave their great-great-grands way back when, that’s fine by me.” He drained his glass in one quick gulp. When her mother did the same, Noxy held her breath and swallowed her own rak.
The thick black liquid felt like fiery smoke as it went down her throat. She clenched her jaw, but a strangled cough managed to escape. “And that’s enough for you tonight,” her mother said in mock-disapproval.
“Yes, amma,” Noxy said, gasping for air.
“Here.” Her mother pushed the empty kettle across the table. “How about you refill that and I’ll make tea? It sounds like the worst of the storm has passed, and a bit of air will good for you after that.”
Noxy nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She slipped her feet into her boots without bothering to do up the laces, pulled a poncho over her head, and stumbled out into the night.
Rain was still falling, but Indy had been right—most of the panicked clouds had passed, and the few stragglers trying to catch up were already east of Stale, heading toward the plains. She watched them for a moment, then closed her eyes.
“Camel,” she muttered a moment later. Of course she hadn’t been able to mind-hear anything. What had happened earlier with Big Blue had been a coincidence. She shouldn’t—
Something clattered in the narrow alley between her house and the yarning shed. Noxy opened her mouth to ask who was there, but stopped herself. What if the troll had come back? She set the kettle down quietly on the front step of her house and tiptoed gingerly toward the alley. Holding her breath, she leaned forward and peeked around the corner, just in time to see a hooded figure disappear out the other end. It was definitely a person, not a troll, but who would be out in the rain? Suspicious, she hurried to follow.
“Ow!” Ten steps in, her foot connected with a pile of cobblestones that she and Sensy had put there as part of some long-forgotten game. The stones clattered as they tumbled over. Cursing under her breath, she stepped over them, wishing that she had taken a moment earlier to do up her laces. Some of the broken cobbles had sharp edges, and if she lost a boot now, she’d never catch up.
As she reached the other end of the alley the shadowy figure disappeared around the corner of the shed where the villagers hung sheets of moss to dry for use in the outhouse. She hesitated for only a moment before sprinting after it, her boots splashing in shallow puddles of rainwater. Whoever she was chasing was bound to hear her, but maybe she could catch them first.
When she rounded the corner, though, her quarry was gone. “Rot,” she cursed. Left toward the trading hall, straight on toward the square, or right toward the vegetable patches and the gate?
Crack! She shrieked with surprise as a bolt of lightning split the sky, then stomped her foot, angry at herself, the rain, and the world in general. Whoever it was had gotten away. And by the time she got back, her mother was sure to give her the “what took you so long?” look that she hated so much.
Crack! Another bolt of lightning left a dazzling scar on the night. That one had been close, she realized uneasily—too close. The lightnings must still be nipping at the clouds that had fallen behind their herd. She was suddenly glad that she wasn’t airborne. She had only ever been on one night flight, on her nameday the year before to look at stars with Granna Fee, and never in a storm.
CRACK! BOOM! Noxy shrieked as the third bolt of lightning struck the weather duck that stood next to the fortress gate and shattered its wooden pole. Splinters flew in all directions to clatter off roofs and cobblestones.
One smoking scrap bounced off a chimney and clattered through a window whose shutter had been left untied. As Noxy blinked to clear the after-dazzle of the lightning strike from her eyes, the sheets of dried moss that the wood had landed in began to smolder.
A door banged open. “Saints!” Aft hurried over to Noxy. “Are you all right? What in the underhells are you doing out in this?”
“Amma wanted me to fill the kettle,” Noxy said stupidly. She shook her head. “It—the lightning hit the weather duck.”
“I can see the lightning hit it,” Aft said testily. He took her by the shoulders and peered into her eyes, then relaxed. “You’ll be all right. Just a bit of a scare. Come on, let’s get you back to—wait.” He sniffed. “What’s burning?”
Noxy grabbed his arm and pointed. “There! Upstairs!” A bright lick of flame was suddenly dancing in a window. Another joined it as the herby smell of burning moss caught in Noxy’s nostrils.
“Get your mother!” Aft ordered, then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Fire! Fire! Fire!”
The village was lucky. That’s what everyone told themselves afterward. They were lucky that the rain had made everything so wet, that there had been so little moss left to burn, that Aft had spotted the fire so quickly. They were lucky the soldiers had been there to fill and pass buckets—with most of the adults gone, well, the elders and children would have done the best they could, but things could have been a lot worse.
“But what were you doing there?” Indy demanded as she and her daughter walked home arm in arm. “You were just supposed to refill the kettle!”
“I thought I saw something, like a troll.” Noxy shook her head. “I didn’t get a good look at it.” Which wasn’t exactly a lie, but was an uncomfortable distance from the truth. The hooded figure had definitely been a person, but short for an adult. And as the soldiers had arrived to help with the fire, only one of them had been the height of the figure she had seen. But why would Thokmay have been out in the rain when he could have been at dinner?
In the forest below the village, a small stream splashed and gurgled with new-fallen rain. No one was there to notice it tug at a small packet of letters wrapped in wax paper. The packet came free and slipped over the edge of the pond to resume its journey down the mountain.
Stale woke to the muffled stillness that comes after storms and family arguments. The air was still damp and chill, but the sky was so clear that the peaks around the village almost sparkled. A sharp-edged smell of charred wood hung everywhere, sweetened slightly by the moss that the brief fire had consumed.
It was a day for taking a little longer than usual to get out of bed, for letting the kettle boil a few heartbeats longer than it needed to, and for discussing the day’s chores in more detail than was absolutely necessary rather than getting up from breakfast to start doing them, which was why Noxy was so annoyed that her mother wouldn’t let her do any of those things.
“Oh sweetling, brush your hair!” Indy set her tea down on the table and started to stand.
“I can do it!” Noxy protested. “I’m not a baby.” She dragged the brush she and her mother shared through her hair another couple of times. “There—is that better?”
Her mother sighed, just as her own mother once had. “Yes, I suppose. Honestly, someone would think you’d been possessed by lightning.”
“I’m not the one who’s acting possessed,” Noxy muttered under her breath. She had been half-awake under her blankets when Indy had knocked on her door and informed her that while Noxy had been out not filling the kettle last night, she had promised to give Sergeant Dorbu a tour of the village, and while she was doing that, why didn’t Noxy show the tiger and his boy around? Especially since the two of them seemed to be getting on so well.
“Fine,” Noxy grumbled. She had no idea who had told her mother that she and Private Thokmay had arrived at the fortress gate together the day before, but it didn’t matter. As Granna Fee liked to say, there were more one-eyed talking chickens in a village like Stale than there were secrets, and more gossip than snowflakes.
Dressed and fed, with their faces clean and their hair tied back in matching braided clubs, they walked through the village together, squinting slightly against the sharp-edged morning sun. Their neighbors sat in twos and threes on stools outside their houses wearing camelskin jackets or thick sweaters over sturdy trousers and sturdier boots. The men knit or peeled potatoes while the women picked spiderwebs apart apart and wound the strands onto spools.
Indy had to stop to answer the same questions every dozen strides. How were the soldiers getting on? What did they think of the village? “We’re on our way to ask,” she replied over and over again.
Many of the village’s elders didn’t bother to hide their unhappiness about their guests, but the only really sour face was Aft’s. “Has that tiger eaten anyone yet?” he asked, forcing an awl through a scrap of leather.
By the time they reached the square, Sergeant Dorbu was sitting on the steps of the trading hall with half of the village’s children in front of him. Sensy and Rash looked up as Noxy arrived. Noxy nodded and said hello, pretending not to notice that they had let go of each other’s hands when they saw her.
“And this is called a greave,” the sergeant said, pointing at his armored shin. “It’s to protect me from squirrels. See?” He tapped it with his fingernail, clunk. “They could bite that if they wanted, but all they’d do is blunt their teeth. Oh, hello, reeve.” The sergeant stood up, brushing his hands on his kilt. “Kulbinder and the boy will be out in a heartbeat.”
“Thank you, sergeant,” said Indy. “My daughter is looking forward to showing them around.”
“Thank you,” said the sergeant. “Although I…” He blinked, then sniffed, then started to say, “Excuse me,” but the sneeze came first. Hwah! A couple of children giggled. The sergeant blinked and sniffed again. “Sorry.”
“Too many nights in the cold,” said Indy sympathetically.
The door of the trading hall opened before the sergeant could reply. Some of the children stepped back as the tiger padded out into the sunlight. Private Thokmay slipped out behind him and closed the door. Instead of his armor, he wore a plain brown rain cape over his kilt and boots. It had a hood, Noxy noticed, just like the one the mysterious figure had been wearing the previous night.
Private Thokmay nodded to her politely as the tiger said, “Good morning, honored.”
“Good morning,” Indy replied. “I trust you slept well?”
“Yes, thank you,” Kulbinder rumbled, stretching.
Indy waited a moment to see if he would say anything more. When he didn’t, she smiled and said, “My daughter has volunteerd to show you and your companion the village while the other children do their chores.” Noxy heard Rash mutter something at that. “If you would like to—oh dear.” She stopped mid-sentence as the sergeant took a deep breath and scrunched up his face.
“Nope,” he whooshed a moment later, blinking. “That one’s not ripe yet.”
“Lemon ginger tea for you, I think,” Indy said firmly. “That will set you right in no time.”
“Thang you,” the sergeant said stuffily.
“And thank you on my part for the offer of a tour, but I would do better to explore the forest a little more,” Kulbinder declared. “I’m sure my boy would enjoy seeing more of the village.” Without so much as a glance at Private Thokmay, the tiger stood, stretched, and padded off to the fortress gate.
Indy clapped her hands. “Right. Everyone else, I’m sure there are chores that need doing.”
The children groaned and began to disperse. Private Thokmay dipped his head toward Noxy. “Lead on, honored.”
Noxy and the young soldier walked in step through the bright morning. “That’s the Round Tower,” Noxy said, pointing. “It has a ghost, but nobody’s seen it in years. The short one over there is called the Quick Tower, because it’s the quickest to get up. And that’s the South Tower, The stairs inside fell down a long time ago—you used to be able to get up there by climbing a tree, but they cut it down after Grappa Gas fell out of it for the second time. That was before I was born.”
“It’s a shame it’s been allowed to go to ruin,” Private Thokmay said, studying the South Tower.
“I suppose,” Noxy replied, slightly rankled by the word ‘ruin’. “Oh, and that’s Granna Fee’s house, with the moss green door. She’s my grandmother—you met her when we rescued you. She used to be herdmaster, but now she teaches school. And that’s Grappa Gas’s house, the one with the lavender door. He helped rescue you too—he used to be reeve before my amma. And that’s, um, well, they’re all just different people’s houses.”
Noxy fell silent. Private Thokmay had a politely attentive look on his face that looked just like the one Indy got when Grappa Gas started talking about how things had been in his day. It’s probably not much compared to real castles, she thought glumly. Two-story houses with steep shingled roofs, little vegetable gardens nestled between halved logs, and all around, sharp mountain peaks looming over the ancient gray walls… She wouldn’t have believed how strange it all seemed to the young lowlander beside her.
They walked in silence along the path that lay at the base of the wall. Here and there, ancient cobblestones showed through hard-packed dirt. Noxy scuffed a crust of frost off one absentmindedly, wondering what else she could say.
Private Thokmay pulled up short. “What’s that?” he asked. A heavy wooden grill lay across a shoulder-high opening in the wall ahead of them. Behind it, rough stone steps led down into the mountain.
“That’s just an old tunnel,” Noxy said dismissively. “We’re not allowed to go in it. And anyway, it’s been bricked up since forever.”
Private Thokmay refrained from pointing out the inconsistency between not being allowed in and knowing that it was bricked up were not quite consistent. Instead, he frowned. “Does Sergeant Dorbu know about it?”
“I don’t know.” Noxy shrugged. “There’s another one by Grappa Gas’s house, and one by the tannery. Come on—I’ll show you from the top.”
The stone stairs leading to the top of the wall lay flush against its side. They had been built for the Pilots, not for human beings, so each step was as high as Noxy’s knee and so broad that it took her two strides to cross. She felt a little smug that Thokmay was puffing by the time they reached the top.
The top of the wall was wide enough for three people to walk comfortably side by side. Slits for lookouts and archers interrupted the parapet along its outer edge every dozen strides, no two of them exactly the same shape. “Makes Your Breath Rancid is that way,” Noxy said, pointing. “You can’t see it because the valley bends, but sometimes you can see their clouds coming out of their pen.”
“Why do you call your villages things like that?” Private Thokmay asked.
Noxy shrugged. “They’re called dragon names. They’re supposed to make things sound unappetizing, so that when the dragon’ eggs finally hatch, they won’t want to eat us.”
Private Thokmay snorted. “That seems a bit optimistic.”
Noxy bristled. “Well, where does your name come from??”
“The orphanage gave it to me,” he replied after a heartbeat’s pause. “I’m officially Gandan’s One Hundred and Second Thokmay.”
“Oh.” Noxy digested that. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
The young soldier shook his head. “It’s all right. Most soldiers are orphans—they have to do something to repay the kingdom for raising them, and without land to farm or a family to take them into a trade, signing up is the safest bet. At least, until there’s a war,” he added bleakly, his eyes on the cold and distant peaks.
Before Noxy could ask why he referred to the other soldiers as “they” rather than “us”, Thokmay leaned through an archery slit and pointed into the gorge below. “Are those the clouds we were on?”
Noxy glanced through the neighboring slit. “Yup. The bull is Big Blue, and the cow is Pillow. We’ve had them forever—they’re practically family.”
Thokmay stepped back and wrinkled his nose. “They smell like wet camels.”
“That’s because they haven’t rained for a while,” Noxy explained defensively. “Someone should probably take them out and let them do that.” As she spoke, an idea popped into her head. “Here, come with me.”
Going down the stairs was even harder on her knees than climbing them. Rather than cutting directly through the village, she led Thokmay on a roundabout path past the shed that had caught fire the night before. Her mother hadn’t actually said, “Show him the village and only the village,” but Noxy didn’t see any point giving her a chance to clarify. Besides, she had a question she wanted to ask…
“So,” she said as casually as she could, “That was some storm last night. We were lucky we weren’t out in it.”
Private Thokmay glanced at her. “We were, honored—putting out the fire.”
“Well yes, but I mean, before that,” Noxy floundered.
“Ah. Quite,” the young soldier agreed politely. “I imagine the rain would have been very wet.”
“I imagine,” Noxy echoed, defeated. Her mother and Granna Fee always seemed to be able to ask questions that got people to stick their feet in camel droppings without realizing they were doing it, but she clearly hadn’t mastered it.
She led the young soldier through the fortress gate and down the trail to the cloud pen where Big Blue and Pillow were basking drowsily in the sun. The bull was almost at their height, while the cow drifted further just outside his shadow.
“Can you call them over?” Thokmay asked. “I mean, can you…?”
“Mind-speak?” Noxy filled in, then shook her head. “Only if you’re touching them. But these two will come when you whistle. Sometimes,” she added, thinking about how much time she had spent practicing the piercing sound that Aft used, and how little attention the two clouds paid her when she made it.
Private Thokmay wrinkled his nose. “I still think they smell like wet camels.”
Noxy bit back a sharp retort. They didn’t smell anything like camels, not really, and if he—
Twinge. “Ouch,” she muttered involuntarily, putting her hand on the back of her head. The pain was strong enough this time that she thought some kind of bug must have bitten her, but she couldn’t feel anything.
“Are you all right?” Private Thokmay asked.
“I’m fine,” she snapped, angry that her head was hurting. She had hoped the clouds would be right next to the mounting platform so that he could stroke them. Or even get on, though she knew what her mother would say about that if she found out.
As if on cue, Big Blue turned toward them. Private Thokmay stepped back as the cloud bumped against the mounting platform a few heartbeats later. Even pulled in to his densest, he was as big as half a dozen houses.
“Don’t be scared,” Noxy said, stroking the old bull’s flank. “See? You can pull bits of them this way and that, but it all settles back into a big lump after a while.” She grabbed a handful of Big Blue’s side and pulled as hard as she could. When she let go, the bit she had teased out slowly sank back into the cloud.
The young soldier patted the cloud gingerly. Seized by a sudden reckless impulse, Noxy said, “Here, do this.” She backed up, then ran at the cloud and threw herself onto his back. Poof! “Come on!” she said to Private Thokmay.
He hesitated. “Don’t worry,” she reassured him. “He won’t bite—he’s not a tiger or anything.”
Private Thokmay set his jaw and jumped clumsily onto the cloud. His feet immediately slipped out from underneath him. “Oof!” he grunted as he landed on his backside.
Noxy grinned at him. “See? No biting.” She pressed her hand into Big Blue’s back. Up, she urged the old bull. She couldn’t take him out for a proper flight without opening the gate, and she knew what her mother would say if she did that, but they could still see more than just the walls of the narrow ravine.
Big Blue started to rise toward the spiderweb net above them. The breeze stiffened slightly as the got higher, making Noxy wish that she had thought to pick up gloves and a scarf. She took a deep breath. Being up in the sky on a cloud was like riding on a grownup’s shoulders when you were little, only a thousand times better. You could see everything—woolly mountain camels standing on rocky ledges no wider than the heel of your boot, broad-winged condors making slow circles as they waited for a rabbit to forget to look up, the glint and sparkle of sunlight on fast-running streams beneath the pines and cedars and stately firs that blanketed the mountains’ slopes… On a day like this, when the sky was blue, it felt like the whole world was a story that was about to be told for the very first time.
“We’ll be able to see more down by the gate,” Noxy said, urging the cloud forward as she spoke. Nobody knew how clouds saw without eyes, but through whatever Big Blue used instead, she saw Pillow rising in their wake to join them. She wants to go out and have a good rain, Noxy thought. Maybe after they got back she could talk Granna Fee into taking her and Sensy and Rash—or maybe just her, she corrected, her mood darkening. Her two friends would probably want to spend the time getting their outfits ready for the fancy, or practicing their dancing or something.
With that thought she was reminded of the young man sitting beside her, and of how warm her coat had been the day before after he gave it back to her, and of what the village assumed when two people her age went on a cloud ride together. They really ought to get back…
Whoa, she mind-spoke as they reached the spiderweb curtain hanging down at the mouth of the ravine. The silvery hair-thin strands of spiderweb were spaced half a stride apart—a child could have slipped through without touching them. “They can push themselves through it if they really want to,” Noxy said, “But Granna Fee says it really hurts. I’ve never seen them so much as brush against it, not even when a couple of lightnings came after them the year before last.”
Private Thokmay nodded, his eyes on the valley below. “Can we see where we were, honored?” he asked. “When you rescued us, I mean.”
“Not really. It’s up past the next bend there. Rancid is down that way, and—hey!” She ducked as something swooped over her head.
For one frightened heartbeat she thought it was the crows that had attacked them when they were rescuing the soldiers, but then a voice squawked, “Put out yer arm, ya difty! The poofy won’t have me on’t!”
She straightened up and held out her arm. With a sound like a towel being snapped, a broad-winged condor spread his wings to stop himself and settled onto her forearm.
His head swivelled. “Izzis ‘em?” he demanded. “As come up along fra trouble?”
Private Thokmay dipped his head. “My apologies, gifted—I am indeed a soldier, but I hope no trouble.”
“Ehp,” the bird squawked skeptically. “Mayn’t you, p’raps, but yer friends as is coming? I seed ‘em,” he confided in Noxy, swivelling his featherless gray head back to study her with beady black eyes. “Whole flock of ‘em comin’ along this way.” He squeezed her arm with his talons and leaned toward her. “Figure I tell yer amma, she’ll gimme a rat? I like a good rat, I do.”
“Wait.” Noxy shook her head. “You saw more soldiers?”
The condor bobbed his head. “Down along Rancid. Bunch o’ them was on camels. There’s some as are flyin’ along this way right now on a big poofy.” He preened his chest feathers. “Ain’t never et camel,” he added thoughtfully.
Private Thokmay cleared his throat. “How many did you see, gifted? Soldiers, I mean, not camels.”
“Ehp,” the condor squawked noncommittally. “Bunch of ‘em. You figure that’s worth a rat?”
“That’s worth a whole bunch of rats,” Noxy promised. “But only if you go straight to my amma and tell her.”
The condor cocked his head to one side. “Izzat hufty cat thing still there? Don’t trust cats, ‘specially them’s as gifted,” he added darkly.
“He won’t be any trouble,” Private Thokmay reassured him. “I promise.”
“Ehp,” the condor squawked in a tone that clearly meant “I hope you’re right”. He spread his wings and threw himself into the air, instantly graceful as he flew away.
Noxy look at Private Thokmay. “Do you think they’re yours?”
The young soldier shook his head. “Not likely,” he said bleakly. “But we’d better get back.”
Noxy nodded and knelt to put her hand on Big Blue, but the big bull cloud was already turning back toward the mountaing platform as if it had somehow overheard them. She straightened up and tucked her hands into her coat pockets, wishing that she had brought gloves.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked Private Thokmay.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Yes, honored, but not as cold as I was yesterday, and even that was better than being up on that rock you rescued us from.” He glanced sideways at her. “I can’t remember if I ever thanked you for that.”
Noxy shrugged. “It’s all right—we would have done it even if you hadn’t been rebels.” Private Thokmay dipped his head to acknowledge her feeble joke, but said nothing.
Grappa Gas was in his usual place on the stones in front of the fortress gate when they reached the top of the trail. He took one look at Noxy’s face and tucked the new leg he’d been whittling under his arm. “What’s wrong now?” he asked, slipping his knife into the sheath on his sleeve.
“Cloud coming,” Noxy told him, panting slightly. “One of the condors told us.”
“That one?” The old man pointed at a broad-winged shape just as it disappeared back the way the two teenagers had just come. “I wondered what he was about. Asked me for a rat, then went looking for your amma.” He sighed. “I suppose we’d better go find her too.”
They didn’t have to go far—Stale’s reeve came through the fortress gate with Aft, Sergeant Dorbu, and three soldiers in her wake just as they reached it. “Help get the children indoors,” she ordered Noxy without preamble, still tugging her embroidered gray scarf of office into place. “Grappa, I’ll want you with me.”
“But amma—” Noxy started.
“No buts,” her said sharply. She was worried, Noxy realized. No, she was frightened, except that wasn’t her, it was something else. All at once the pain in her head was back, and somehow she knew that a cloud with half a dozen riders had just turned the last corner in the valley below them and would be at the ravine in minutes. She could practically see it, except that was impossible because she wasn’t touching him and you had to be touching a cloud to mind-speak with it and anyway there wasn’t another cloud there to look at it, there was only the forest and its thousands upon thousands of eyes, deer and a pair of camels who had somehow escaped from their pens and managed to avoid being eaten and scaws and striped jays and a hundred other kinds of birds, a bear up to her knees in a stream looking for a turtle or a mountain squid still sleepy from its winter hibernation, all of them now looking not at the cloud but at her because somehow just as she could see them, they could see her, and it was too much—it couldn’t all fit, her head really was going to burst this time.
“Noxy. Noxy!” Grappa Gas shook her. “What’s wrong?”
“They’re here,” she gasped, not knowing what else to say. “The cloud—it’s here.” But her words were lost in the deep boom of the lookout drum on the Quick Tower calling everyone together.
She straightened and waved Grappa Gas away. “I’m all right,” she lied. “I’ll go help granna.” She stumbled past him and into the village.
Only one child was crying, and that wasn’t because he was afraid, it was because he was angry that he wasn’t allowed to finish the game he’d been playing. His grandmother picked him up and slung him over her shoulder, ignoring his kicks and wails as she dodged around two other children who were trying to catch an escaped chicken while one of Sensy’s grandfathers shouted instructions at them.
“There you are!” Noxy jumped as Rash grabbed her arm. “Come on, we need to—underhells, what happened to you?” He let go of her and took an involuntary step back.
“What? What’s wrong?” Why was he looking at her like that?
Rash swallowed hard. “Your eyes—they’re green.”
She stared at him incredulously. “What? Rash, this is no time to—”
“Your… eyes… are… green,” he said, emphasizing each word. “What happened? Did the tralpa finally get a spell to work?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she snapped angrily. She caught sight of Sensy over his shoulder. “Hey—Sensy! Sensy! Over here!”
Her friend hurried over and stood next to Rash. Noxy saw him reach for her hand but stop himself. No time for that now, she told herself. “Sensy, what color are my eyes?”
“What?” Sensy looked from Noxy to Rash and back. “What do you mean?”
“What color are they?” Noxy demanded.
“They’re brown, just like they’ve always been,” she said defensively.
“Well, they were green just a moment ago,” Rash protested. “All over green, both of them, not just the inside bit. I swear!”
At that moment the lookout drum fell silent, then sounded again, three deep booms that echoed around the suddenly-hushed village. The cloud from Rancid had arrived.
“Noxy, wait! We’re supposed to stay here!” She ignored Sensy’s shout and sprinted back toward the gate. The children were all safe indoors. Whatever was going to happen, she wanted to be there when it did.
But Aft was waiting at the gate, arms crossed and a grim look on his face. A stout length of wood just the right size to swing as a club leaned against the wall beside him. “No,” he said curtly as Noxy opened her mouth. “Whatever it is, no. You’re staying here. Your amma was very clear about that.”
Noxy swallowed her protest. A thought suddenly struck her. “Where’s the tralpa?”
Aft snorted. “Just left with the tiger and his boy. Says he was asleep and didn’t hear the drum.” The sour look on the burly cloudherd’s face said more than words could about what kind of “sleeping” the tralpa had been doing.
So they waited, neither speaking until Noxy said, “Aft? What color are my eyes?”
Aft scowled at her. “What do you mean?”
“Never mind,” Noxy muttered, wishing she hadn’t spoken. It was just a trick of the light, she told herself, knowing in her heart that there had been more to it than that.
Aft straightened up. “Here they come,” he grunted. First the tiger, with Private Thokmay hurrying to keep up, his battle mask in place. Then the three soldiers who had gone with Sergeant Dorbu. Then Noxy’s mother and Sergeant Dorbu and a light-skinned woman in a spotless uniform who was almost as wide as she was tall, all three of them wearing expressions that would have frozen a cup of tea solid.
Behind them Scholar-Candidate Nangyal hurried to keep pace with Rancid’s tralpa in her robes and collar, barefoot despite the cold, who nodded at Nangyal’s stream of complaints while ignoring them. A dark shape with short, broad wings circled overhead before veering off toward the nearest trees. That had to be the tralpa’s companion, Noxy realized, an arrowhawk that was supposed to be Gifted, but which no one had ever heard speak.
Taking up the rear were three soldiers Noxy hadn’t seen before, their uniforms so clean they almost sparkled. And last of all—her heart dropped into her stomach.
“Saints,” Aft cursed. “As if things weren’t bad enough.”
Noxy stepped aside as the unhappy little parade passed through the ancient stone walls of the fortress. Private Thokmay nodded but didn’t say anything. Her mother didn’t even nod. And then, after everyone else, the man at the end of the line stopped, flashed a broad grin at Aft, and pulled Noxy into a hug.
“Hiya, sweetling,” her father said, his voice muffled in her hair.
“Hi, adda,” she replied, wishing she was anywhere but there.
Far below, where the slope of the mountain eased into the valley, a small packet of letters wrapped in wax paper drifted past a moss-covered pillar that had been raised to mark a border whose existence was now forgotten. The stream carrying it met another. Mingling their waters, they carried the packet south.
The trading hall was the largest building in Stale. Its doors were half again as tall as those of any house in the village, and inside, the fire-hardened cedar beams that would have supported an upstairs floor had been left exposed so that the hall felt spacious even when it was full to bursting with pack traders and their wares.
Somehow, though, the group sitting around the sturdy table in its center made it feel crowded. Indy and Grappa Gas sat together on one side. Opposite them was the uniformed woman, who introduced herself as Captain Birgith and then pointedly added, “Been in the king’s service eighteen years, hope to serve as many again.” Rancid’s tralpa was Lhawang; Noxy had seen her before when her mother or grandmother had taken her to Rancid to spend some time with her father before she worked up the courage to tell them that she would really rather not. The Scholar’s arrowhawk companion was nowhere to be seen, but Nangyal sat beside her with an expression so stern and self-important that Noxy wanted to ask him if he needed to visit the outhouse.
Sergeant Dorbu and Kulbinder took up the third side of the table. “Give her a hand,” the tiger ordered Private Thokmay when Indy told Noxy to make tea.
A thick layer of hot coals lay in the bottom of the brick stove in the back of the hall. Noxy set a handful of kindling on top of them and pumped the bellows a few times to bring the fire back to life. “What can I do?” Private Thokmay asked.
“You could take off that stupid mask,” Noxy snapped, then sighed. “Sorry. I know it’s part of your uniform. It’s just…” She trailed off.
“You get used to them,” the young soldier said. He undid the chin strap and slid the mask up on top of his head. “Is that better?”
“Sure,” Noxy said without looking. She jerked her head toward the door of the hall’s oversized kitchen. “What do you think they’re saying?”
Private Thokmay turned his hands palm up then palm down in the lowlander equivalent of a shrug. “Captain Birgith and Scholar Lhawang are telling the reeve she has to hand us over. The reeve is saying that it is not within her power to do that with the adults gone, and that even if they were here, it would put the children in harm’s way. Sergeant Dorbu is offering to leave as soon as the men are well enough to march, but won’t surrender, and Kulbinder is growing impatient and will probably make some comment later about how much monkeys chatter.”
Noxy blinked at him. “You can hear all that?”
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Not a word, but I’d bet a week of bootshine duty that’s how it’s going.”
“Huh.” Noxy set the kettle on top of the stove. She was just about to start looking for some tea leaves when the shouting started outside.
“Say it again! Come on, I dare you!” Aft snarled.
“Really? You mean, just like when we were youngers? Saints, I haven’t had a good dare in ages.” Noxy’s heart sank. From the thrill in her father’s voice, you’d think his secret sweetheart had just asked him to the fancy, and that meant trouble—especially if the person he was goading was Aft.
Two quick steps and she was up on the bench beneath the window, standing on tiptoe to peek through it. The bench shifted slightly as Private Thokmay joined her. Outside, After and her father Cough stood a stride apart, Aft glowering with a strapped bundle of camelskins in each hand and Cough with his hands in his pockets and a sunny smile on his face.
“Stop it, you two,” Granna Fee snapped, a smaller bundle of camelskins in her arms. “The last thing Indy needs right now is you two fighting.”
“Yeah, stop it, Aft,” Cough said mockingly. “You don’t want to get Indy in trouble, do you?”
Aft dropped his camelskins on the cobblestones with a thud. “Don’t you dare!” Granna Fee warned him as he clenched his fists. “As for you,” she said coldly, rounding on Cough, “I think it would be best if you went down and made sure your cloud is settling in all right, don’t you?”
Cough sketched a bow, his ribboned braids falling on either side of his head. “As always, Fee, your wish is my command.” He straightened and smiled at Aft again. “Dare you later, Hombert?”
Noxy gasped. For just one heartbeat she thought Aft might not have heard her father, or might let it go, and then there was another thud as his fist connected with Cough’s chin and sent him sprawling. “Dare that!”
Granna Fee threw herself between the two men. “Stop it! Stop it!” she ordered, shoving her bundle of camelskins at Aft’s chest. Behind her, Cough scrambled to his feet and reached for his belt.
Private Thokmay yanked the window open. “Ware behind!” he yelled.
Granna Fee spun around. Cough froze, then casually let his hand fall away from his knife. “Well,” he said lightly, rubbing his jaw, “Maybe I will go down and look after Tumbles after all. Good to see you, Fee.” He turned put his hands back in his pockets, and walked away whistling a little tune.
Aft handed Granna Fee back her bundle of camelskins. “Sorry about that,” he muttered.
The old lady picked hers up off the cobblestones with a grunt. “Don’t be.” She scowled in the direction Cough had gone. “That boy’s been trouble since—since forever. If he’s mixed up in all of these…” She shook her head and sighed.
As the two grownups went on their way, Noxy stepped off the bench and sat on it, then pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them. “Is there anything I can do, honored?” Private Thokmay asked quietly.
Noxy shook her head without speaking. She was not going to cry, not about her father, not again. She closed her eyes and listened while the young soldier opened doors and jars until a soft, “Ah,” signalled that he had found some tea leaves. The bellows woofed a few times as he pumped them. A spoon clinked and water gurgled.
She sniffled and stood up. “There’s some honey on the top shelf,” she said briskly. “It’s in the jar labelled beets so that no one will take it.”
“That’ll work,” the soldier said, hunting for it with his eyes and then taking it down.
They stood in silence for a moment listening to the rise and fall of indistinct voices coming from the hall. “At least they’re not punching each other,” Noxy eventually said.
Private Thokmay nodded. “Not yet, anyway.” He cleared his throat. “So what’s a hombert?”
“Sh!” Noxy shushed him reflexively. Then she sighed. “It’s not a what, it’s—it’s his real name. Aft’s, I mean. You shouldn’t ever use it unless you’re, you know, really close to someone.”
“Ah,” the soldier said again. “And those two aren’t?”
Noxy snorted and shook her head. “Really not.” She was just about to explain when they heard voices raised in the hall.
Private Thokmay pulled his battle mask down over his face and picked up the wooden serving tray that held the teapot, the honey, and half a dozen mis-matched mugs. “After you?”
Noxy grabbed another couple of mugs just to have something in her hands, then held the door open for Private Thokmay to go through and suppressed a sigh when he didn’t take the hint but instead waited for her to step in front and lead them back to the table in the center of the hall.
Kulbinder was nowhere to be seen. Noxy’s mother had her official smile on, while Grappa Gas looked like he was almost ready to follow his son’s lead and start throwing punches. Sergeant Dorbu’s determined look mirrored that of Captain Birgith’s, while the indignation on Scholar-Candidate Nangyal’s face was a counterpoint to the cold fury on his senior colleague’s.
“Out of the question,” Scholar Lhawang said flatly, ignoring Noxy and Private Thokmay as they placed the tea on the table and began pouring. “You have already broken one oath. We would be fools to trust you not to break another.” Her polished accent made each phrase sound like the scrape of a whetstone along the edge of a sword. She reached for a mug of tea and paused. “Beets?”
“Sorry,” Noxy said, hastily taking off the lid. “It’s honey.”
“Well then it should be in a jar marked honey,” Nangyal said acidly, snatching it from the tray and spooning as much into his tea as Noxy would use in a week. Oblivious to the other tralpa’s annoyed expression, he continued, “You see what I have to deal with here? And you—take that mask off. we’re not about to start swinging swords.”
“My apologies, honored,” Private Thokmay said, his voice slightly muffled by the mask in question. “Orders.”
Stale’s tralpa puffed up like an angry toad. “Well I’m giving you new orders,” he snapped.
“Yes, learned,” the young soldier said. “I just need to speak with the Honored Kulbinder to make sure.”
“Oh, go ahead, private,” Sergeant Dorbu said wearily. “We have to start agreeing on something or we’ll be here all night.”
Private Thokmay hesitated a moment, then undid the chin strap and took the mask off. “Will that be all, honored?” he asked stiffly.
Sergeant Dorbu nodded. “Yes, private. How about you go and see if Kulbinder is done stretching his legs?” At a nod from her mother, Noxy followed him to the door as the adults resumed their squabbling.
The three royalist soldiers who had arrived with Scholar Lhawang stood at attention outside, very carefully not looking at the three rebel soldiers in travel-worn versions of the same uniform standing just as straight on the other side of the door. Private Thokmay walked between them as if it was an everyday thing, his battle mask still in his hand. He and Noxy didn’t get more than a dozen steps before an all-too-familiar voice called, “Hey sweetling—I’ve been looking for you.”
It had been almost five years since she had seen her father. His hair had thinned out a bit, she noticed, and one of his teeth was missing, but his coat and trousers even more richly embroidered than she remembered, and his smile was still warm enough to make the stove in the trading hall jealous. If you didn’t know him, you might naturally believe that he was genuinely glad to see you.
“Hi, adda,” she said as he strode across the cobblestones to join her and Private Thokmay. “How are you?”
“Never better,” he proclaimed. For a moment she was afraid he was going to hug her again, but instead he held out his hand to Private Thokmay. “Hello. I’m Persistent Coughing, but everyone just calls me Cough.”
The young soldier shook his hand. “Gandan’s One Hundred and Second Thokmay, honored. Pleased to meet you.”
Cough’s smile broadened. “I’m glad someone is.” He leaned forward slightly. “I’m not exactly popular with some people here, if you know what I mean,” he added in a stage whisper. “Not exactly welcome.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, honored,” Private Thokmay replied in a normal voice. “We’re very grateful to the village for welcoming us, and very sorry for the trouble we’ve caused.”
Cough waved his words away. “It’s not your fault. I mean, it is, but I’m sure they’d have found some other trouble to get into if you weren’t here.” He winked at Noxy.
“As you say, honored,” the young soldier said politely. “But if you’ll excuse us, the reeve and Sergeant Dorbu have asked us to find my honored master.”
“Mm.” Cough nodded sagely. “Things going that badly in there, are they?”
“I really couldn’t say. Honored?” Private Thokmay gestured for Noxy to lead the way.
“See you later, adda,” she said, falling into step beside the soldier.
“Sure, sweetling—stay out of trouble.” As Cough watched the two teenagers walk away, his smile was replaced by a calculating expression. “Now, where have I seen you before?” he asked himself quietly. Then his eyes widened and his smile returned, not nearly as big as before but as genuine as that of one of the crocodiles that swam in the rivers of the tiger’s homeland.
Noxy waited until they were out of earshot of her father before saying, “Thanks.”
Private Thokmay glanced at her. “For what, honored?”
“For rescuing me.”
The corner of the soldier’s mouth quirked up. “Well, I did owe you one.” He nodded toward the Quick Tower. “I expect he’ll up on the wall.”
He was, and from the way his tail lashed back and forth, he didn’t seem very happy. “I thought I told you to keep your mask on,” he rumbled as Private Thokmay and Noxy approached.
“Sergeant Dorbu’s orders, honored,” the young soldier replied.
The tiger growled deep in his throat. “And they’re still arguing?”
The tiger growled again. “So, what’s your mother’s going to do?” he asked Noxy. “Hand the sergeant and his men over or send the captain packing?”
For a moment all Noxy could think was, How would I know? But then she remembered how Private Thokmay had described the conversation in the trading hall without being able to overhear, and she thought, All right—what will she do?
“Neither,” she said after a moment. The tiger flicked an ear as if to say, go on. “She won’t do either. She’ll wait until the other adults come back with the herd and then take it to a vote. That’s always how we decide really big things, and…” She shrugged uncomfortably. “None of us really know how to fight, but maybe if there’s another fifty of us, nobody will have to.”
“Mm,” the tiger rumbled. “How long will it be until they return?”
“It should only be a couple more days,” Noxy said, hoping fervently that was true.
“Mm,” the tiger rumbled again. Whatever he might have said next was interrupted by shouting from the square below. Noxy was about to make a joke about how it had been a shouting kind of day when steel rang on steel and someone screamed.
The villagers called it the Quick Tower because it was the quickest to get up. Children raced each other sometimes, and the annual fancy wasn’t complete without at least a few of the adults doing the same. But no one had ever come down those steps as fast as Noxy did, and even then, she was three steps behind Private Thokmay and the tiger by the time they reached the bottom.
The three soldiers who had arrived with Captain Birgith and Rancid’s tralpa were standing in a tight knot a few strides in front of the trading hall door with their backs against one another’s and their swords in their hands. Half a dozen of Sergeant Dorbu’s men surrounded them, and more were running or limping to join them, armor half on but weapons ready. Noxy saw Sensy’s grandmother pick up a bewildered child and hurry away as he started to wail, not knowing why he’d been thrown over her shoulder like a sack of wool, and then the door banged open and her mother stormed out into the square.
“What in the names of all the saints do you idiots think you’re doing?” she snapped, her voice cutting like a cold wind. It would have been enough to freeze any of the villagers in their tracks, but the soldiers ignored it.
“Private!” Sergeant Dorbu barked at the nearest of his men as he and the others emerged behind Stale’s reeve. “What’s going on here?”
The soldier straightened up but kept his eyes on the three royalist soldiers. “Sorry, honored. He made a crack about our dead and we got to shouting.”
Captain Birgith shouldered past the sergeant to stand between the rebel and her three men. “Private, put that sword down now,” she ordered flatly.
“With respect, honored, I don’t take orders from you,” he replied.
Moving slowly and deliberately, she lowered her battle mask into place and then put her hand on the pommel of her sword. “Now, private. I won’t say it again.”
“Put it down, private,” Sergeant Dorbu commanded when the soldier still didn’t budge. “This isn’t the place, and today’s not the day.”
One heartbeat, two… “Yes, honored,” the man said woodenly. He straightened, his eyes still locked with Captain Birgith’s, and sheathed his sword.
Noxy’s heart pounded in her chest. She had absolutely no doubt that Captain Birgith would have attacked if the soldier hadn’t obeyed Sergeant Dorbu, and from the looks on the faces of the other soldiers, royalist and rebel alike, it wouldn’t have stopped there.
“Perhaps it would be best if we all took a bit of time to catch up with ourselves,” Indy suggested, her voice steady.
“I agree.” Scholar Lhawang had been watching from the doorway of the trading hall. She glanced at Nangyal, who would probably have said he standing beside her, though an observer might instead have said “sheltering behind”. “Lead the way.”
“Um…” Stale’s tralpa gulped. “Certainly, learned. Where?”
“You do have a house here, do you not?” Scholar Lhawang said impatiently.
“Ah. Yes.” Nangyal gulped again, clearly thinking about the state that house was in, then wilted under his senior colleague’s glare. “Of course. This way, please.”
The rebel soldiers stepped aside, blades lowered but not sheathed, to let Captain Birgith and her men through. The two tralpas joined them, and so, after a few strides, did Cough. Noxy’s father had been leaning against the wall of the trading house with his hands in his pockets and an amused half-smile on his face.
“Have fun with your new friends,” Aft called as he walked past.
Cough glanced at him, then at Private Thokmay, and grinned. “Oh, I’m sure we’ll find lots to talk about.”
Indy sent Noxy up to her room. “I don’t want you outside,” she said when her daughter protested. “It’s too dangerous.”
She might have continued arguing, but the look on Granna Fee’s face stopped her. Together with Aft and Grappa Gas, she had walked home in silence with Indy and Noxy. The three of them sat shoulder to shoulder in silence at the table where Indy and Noxy had eaten dinner with Sergeant Dorbu and Kulbinder the night before, waiting for the kettle to whistle.
Noxy left her bedroom door open and lay on her bed with her fingers laced behind her head while the adults argued in circles. It wasn’t Indy’s fault, Grappa Gas said—he would have done the same thing, and nobody could have known it would turn out like this. That was behind them now, Aft countered. If blood had been shed—if the captain’s blood had been shed, or the tralpa’s, well, they’d all be in it, even the folk that were off gathering the clouds.
So what we he have them do, Granna Fee asked. They couldn’t order the rebels to surrender—well, they could, but they weren’t likely to listen. The best they could hope for was that Sergeant Dorbu would leave if they asked him to, but what then? The forest had made it plain that it wouldn’t let them through, not unless they stayed on the road, and… Noxy pictured her grandmother’s shrug. The only road out of Stale ran straight through Rancid, so they’d just be shuffling the problem onto someone else. And no, they weren’t going to do that, she continued. (Noxy imagined Grappa Gas biting back what he’d been about to suggest at Granna Fee’s words.) All they could do was wait.
But the longer they waited, the more chance there was that the soldiers would come to blows, Indy said wearily, the past few days heavy in her voice. And if blood was shed… It wouldn’t be their fault, Grappa Gas interrupted gently. It wouldn’t be her fault. He would have done the same thing…
After three rounds, Noxy couldn’t stand any more. She slipped out of bed and groped underneath it until her fingers closed on a small bottle. She uncorked it and let a few drops run down a straw onto the hinges on either side of her window. Hiding the bottle once again, she undid the latch and slowly opened the shutters.
She paused for a moment and almost closed them again. Her mother was right: the village that she had grown up in was suddenly a dangerous place. She knew she ought to stay inside, but she couldn’t, she just couldn’t, she needed to do something or talk to someone or—
She unclenched her fists, stepped up onto her stool, and slithered through the window just as she had so many times before. “I think I might be getting a cold,” she told her mother on those mornings when she and Sensy and Rash had been out half the night, watching the stars’ stately dance or seeing who could think of the most ridiculous thing the tralpa had ever done. And with that thought, she knew where she wanted to go.
Roofs in Stale were almost as steep as the mountains. They had to be to shed the snows of winter and the rain that came in the spring and autumn. Years ago, Rash’s older brother had shown him how to walk the ridge of a roof with his toes turned slightly inward so that the edge ran diagonally across the soles of his boots. He in turn had shown Noxy and Sensy, who had shown one of her cousins in Rancid, who had slipped and fallen and broken his leg so badly that his family had gone to the tralpa for a spell to make it heal straight. As she straightened up and took a deep breath, Noxy thought about the thud she would make if she slipped and resolved not to.
Three houses, a drying shed that still smelled of smoke and burned moss, the bath house with its own distinctive smell of damp cedar, and two more roofs after that got her around the square to Sensy’s house. She was just about to rap her knuckles on her friend’s shutters when she heard a low voice followed by a giggle. Noxy froze. “Ssh!” Rash said in the same low voice. “You mustn’t let the tiger hear you or he’ll come… creeping… up… and… eat you!”
“Stop it!” Sensy laughed. Ears burning, Noxy scrambled back up to the peak of the roof and hurried away, not caring if she fell as long as she put as much distance as she could between herself and her best friends.
A few minutes later she found herself in the Round Tower staring out at the moonlit forest and mountains, half wishing the ghost that was supposed to haunt the tower would show up and give her someone to talk to. She and Sensy had covered a block of stone with a bit of gray canvas to make a pretend cloud years ago. It was still there, streaked with bat guano and a circle of thimbleberry juice that some younger children had carefully daubed on for a make-believe of their own. It wasn’t comfortable, and the night air was cold, and she had absolutely no idea why she was there. If Sensy and Rash were happy, she should be happy for them. That would be the grownup thing to do, wouldn’t it?
She stood, sighed, and froze at the sound of voices below her. Cautiously, she slipped over to the nearest arrowslit and peeked through. Nothing. She pulled her head back and tried the next one. There, almost directly below her, stood Scholar-Candidate Nangyal and her father.
“I’m telling you, it’s him,” Cough said in a low voice. “Looks a little worse for wear, but saints and Pilots both, it’s him.”
“Even if you are right, what do you propose I do about it?” the tralpa replied testily. “In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re outnumbered.” He shivered.
“Yes, I know you’re outnumbered, I can count. Wait!” Cough seized the tralpa’s sleeve as the lowlander turned to leave. “Don’t you see? This is your chance. If you get him home, you’ll be able to name your price. Full scholar, whatever post you want—anything.”
The tralpa hesitated. Cough released his sleeve. “Of course, if you’d rather Lhawang got the credit…”
“Fine,” the pudgy man snapped, brushing his sleeve. “I’ll inform Captain Birgith. Now let’s get back inside before any of those grubby traitors wander by and wonder what we’re doing here.”
“You’re courage is an inspiration to us all,” Cough said cheerfully, clapping the tralpa on the back.
Noxy watched them until they rounded the corner, her mind whirling. Who was her father talking about? And why would Captain Birgith care?
Twinge. “Oh, not now,” she muttered. She didn’t have time for another of her strange headaches—she had to get back before her mother noticed she was gone. She turned to go back down the stairs and squeaked at the sight of three trolls blocking her path. Two were males with brawny arms and solemn faces. The third was the female she had seen in the forest and in her dream.
The troll cocked her head. “Is now a bad time?” she asked.
Noxy gaped at her. “Y-you’re Gifted?”
The troll’s lips pulled back from her teeth in what Noxy fervently hoped was a smile. “Yes dear, but it’s rather more complicated than that. Well, I say complicated,” she mused, scratching her belly absent-mindedly. “What I really mean is—no, no, complicated is the best word.” She nodded in agreement with herself. “Quite a good word, actually. So, is now a good time to chat?”
“Noxy? Noxy, where are you?” Indy’s voice rang through the night, faint but clear.
Noxy’s heart sank. “Uh oh.”
“Ah.” The troll made a face. “Not the best time, then. All right—later, perhaps?” She nodded to herself again. “Yes, later. In the forest. We’re much less likely to be interrupted there.” She smiled again. “Sweet dreams!”
With three long-armed reaches, the troll pulled herself up to the top of the wall and disappeared over it with her two companions at her heels. Noxy ran to the nearest arrowslit and looked through just in time to see them vanish into the night-dark trees below.
She turned around and would have slumped down against the wall if she hadn’t heard her mother calling, “Noxy?” again. For a brief heartbeat she wished her life would go back to being boring. Then she took a deep breath and started down the stairs. She was pretty sure that she was in enough trouble already without her mother discovering that she had been rooftopping.
But her mother already knew that she had been sneaking out at night—names of the saints, she wasn’t deaf yet. And anyway, she and her friends had done the same things when they were her age, but not when there were soldiers in the village. What had she been thinking?
“Did you and adda do it?” Noxy asked, avoiding her mother’s question.
Indy scraped the last scraps of dinner off a plate into the camels’ scrap bucket and set the plate on the stack beside their little pottery sink before answering. “A few times. Then Aft had a fall chasing your adda and Gas put his foot down and anyway, that’s not the point. Here.” She poured the last of the hot water from the kettle into the sink and held out a knotted rag. “No, don’t tell me it’s not your turn—just be grateful you’re not grounded for a week. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Noxy set the rag on the edge of the sink and started rolling up her sleeves. “Amma?”
“Why was Aft chasing adda?”
Indy hesitated. For a heartbeat Noxy thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then she said, “Because he asked me to go to the fancy with him and I said yes.” When her daughter turned and looked at she sighed. “Aft was going to ask me, but when Cough found out he did it first. It was all very dramatic.”
“Rash is taking Sensy this year,” Noxy blurted. She turned to the sink and plunged her hands into the water. A moment later her mother’s arms went around her. Noxy tried half-heartedly to wriggle free from the hug, then sagged and turned around so that she could bury her face in her mother’s shoulder and cry.
A few minutes later, with the dishes drying in the fold-up cedar rack Grappa Gas had whittled for them, Noxy trudged upstairs for the second time that night. Leaving her shirt and pants on the floor, she slid under her blankets in her underwear with her socks still on and closed her eyes. You’d better not be in my dreams, she thought fiercely, thinking about the troll. She pulled the blankets tighter around her shoulders and let the world slip away.
She stood on the edge of the forest. Not the shallow forest near the village that allowed people to come and go with their roads and axes, but the deep forest with its giant firs and twisted pines, with lakes that human beings had only ever seen from above and scattered ruins from Pilot times, arches and pillars of dark, seamless stone and an entire bridge made of dayglass hidden in permanent shadow. She stood on the edge and waited for the troll to appear.
“Hello, dear.” The troll didn’t arrive—between one moment and the next she was just there, shoulder to shoulder with Noxy, gazing fondly at the greenery in front of them.
Noxy waited for her to speak again. She’d learned that watching Granna Fee bargain with pack traders—you always let the other person make the first offer. The moment stretched and stretched, until finally Noxy said, “So? You’re the one who wanted to talk.”
The troll turned her head to study her. “Yes I am. I’m also old enough to remember when cloudherds had better manners.”
Noxy crossed her dream-arms. “Well, a lot’s going on right now,” she said defensively.
The troll wrinkled her nose. “None of that matters. Princes and soldiers and their wars—they’re just passing storms. The forest was here before them, and it will here long after they’re forgotten.”
Noxy frowned. “I thought you were the forest.”
“No, dear. As I said, it’s rather more complicated than that.” She turned her gaze back on the forest. “See?”
At first Noxy didn’t understand what the troll was pointing at, but then she saw it. A darkness deeper than shadows lay in pools beneath some of the trees, unnoticeable when she looked straight at it but lurking in the corner of her eye whenever she looked at something else.
“The forest has been having dreams,” the troll said quietly. “Dreams about the future, bad ones. It’s worried. No, that’s not the right word.” She thought for a second. “It’s frightened, and in all my years, I’ve never felt it be frightened beore.”
Noxy swallowed drily. Why couldn’t she have dreams about fluffy clouds and endless cups of hot cholate? “So what do you want me to do?”
The troll wrinkled her nose again. “Nothing, yet.” She turned her head and smile at Noxy. “As you said, you have a lot going on right now.” Her expression became serious again. “But if you were so minded, you could try listening.”
Before Noxy could ask what she meant, she was gone. In her place stood a mound of stones inscribed in an alphabet Noxy had never seen before. They were stories, she knew, in the way that things in dreams are sometimes just known, stories of the troll’s long life and adventures. If she picked one up she would be able to read it, but the thought made her afraid, so she turned to leave, except the forest was all around her now, just out of reach in every direction, and no matter which way she looked, the dark shadows pooled beneath the trees were coming closer.
“Noxy! Noxy!” She sat bolt upright in bed. Her mother wrapped her arms around her. “Sh, sh, sh,” she soothed. “You were having a bad dream.” She squeezed her daughter gently. “You’re all right. You’re all right.”
Noxy let out a long shuddering breath and hugged her mother back, then pushed her away and wiped her nose on the shoulder of her undershirt. “Eww,” Indy said in mock disgust. Noxy laughed shakily.
“Here.” Her mother opened the little dayglass lamp on Noxy’s dresser. A dull gleam spilled out. “Is that good enough? I could get the one from my room.”
“That’s fine, amma,” Noxy said. I must have forgotten to set it out to recharge this morning, she thought muzzily. I’ll have to remember to do that in the morning. She mumbled something incoherent as her mother kissed her forehead and closed her eyes. A few heartbeats later, she was snoring softly. A few heartbeats after that, her mother closed her door and made her way quietly downstairs to sit with a cold cup of tea and worry.
Far away, a small packet of letters wrapped in wax paper continued its journey south. An otter stood on her hind legs for a moment to watch it pass, wondering in her curious otter mind if it was food or maybe something she could play with until the crack of a twig under the foot of something large enough that it might eat otters sent her scurrying back into the log where she nested. The packet floated on.
Greensday dawned bright and clear. Only the keenest of eyes could have seen the faint gray line of a passing school of stratocumulus clouds far to the north, but Noxy’s eyes felt anything but keen. They felt like dirty dishrags, she decided grumpily, staring into her oatmeal. And her mouth tasted like the bottom of a pond.
Indy was already gone. “I’m just going to check on everything,” she had said after shaking Noxy gently until her daughter grunted at her to stop being so mean. “Come find me when you’re awake.”
Once Noxy started eating, she realized she was ravenous. She shovelled the whole bowl of oatmeal into her mouth, then ate the last of the rice from two nights earlier without bothering to heat it up. After scrubbing her face with a damp cloth and re-fixing a couple of braids that were starting to come loose, she remembered that her lamp needed recharging and went back upstairs to set it on her windowsill. On her way out, she picked her favorite scarf up off the floor and wrapped it around her neck as she went downstairs and banged the door behind her.
She could feel the tension as she walked down the narrow street to the square. People sat in twos and threes outside their houses, just like they did every morning that was warm enough to allow it, but today they spoke in lowered voices. The men’s knitting sat forgotten in their laps. The women wound spiderwebs onto spool with an urgency that hadn’t been there the day before. She said hello to a few, and they all said hello back, but no one smiled.
Wings flapped overhead. A heartbeat later, a dark shape settled on a trellis festooned with blackberry brambles, newly-green after the gray-brown of winter. Scholar Lhawang’s arrowhawk tilted its head to regard her with one bright unblinking eye.
“Um, hi,” Noxy said weakly. “Can I help you?”
The arrowhawk shuffled a couple of steps, its claws digging deep into the old cedar spars of the trellis. Without warning it snapped its wings open and took flight.
“I guess not,” Noxy muttered. She wondered if the arrowhawk had met Kulbinder yet, or the condors that nested in the cloudpen, or the troll who had spoken to her last night. She stopped short, suddenly remembering her dream, and swallowed drily. She had to tell her mother—or Granna Fee, or someone.
But fate had other plans. As she entered the square, she saw a pair of rebel soldiers chatting by the village gate. One of them made a joke. The other laughed, but even from fifty strides away it sounded forced in Noxy’s ears. And there—just outside the gate. Was that another pair of soldiers? Her heart sank as she glanced right and left, trying to seem nonchalant. Two more rebel soldiers were sorting blankets into piles next the pepper garden as slowly as anyone possibly could. Three more stood at the foot of the Round Tower, carefully not looking at the three royalist soldiers who had arrived with Captain Birgith and were now very carefully not standing guard by the trading hall door.
She couldn’t see any others, but she had no doubt that the rest of Sergeant Dorbu’s men who were well enough to walk were somewhere nearby. And the tiger and Thokmay, she thought despondently. They can’t be far.
The door of the trading hall burst open. Scholar Lhawang strode down the steps with Captain Birgith two paces behind him. The looks on their faces could have stripped paint off old boards. The three rebel soldiers on the bench stood, their hands falling to the hilts of their sword, but the scholar and the captain ignored them.
“Wait!” Indy hurried down the steps to catch up with them. “Please—I’m sure we can figure something out. We just—”
Scholar Lhawang spun around so abruptly that Stale’s anxious reeve almost plowed into her. “There is nothing to figure out, honored,” she said in a cold, clipped voice. “We cannot allow them to rejoin the rebel army, which means we cannot allow them to leave, no matter what reassurances they give.”
“Then you leave me no choice,” Sergeant Dorbu said. He had followed Indy out of the trading hall, and now stood beside her, his expression impassive. “My apologies, captain, but I must ask you to surrender your sword.”
Captain Birgith looked him up and down. “Like hell.”
For just one moment the world was so still that Noxy could hear the camels grumbling at each other in their pens and a baby crying two streets over, and then everything happened very fast. Sergeant Dorbu and Captain Birgith drew their blades simultaneously. The sergeant shoved Indy out of the way and parried the captain’s first stroke. Metal clashed on metal as a loud whistle split the morning air and the rebel soldiers near the Round Tower charged the royalists at the trading hall door.
Captain Birgith rained blows down on Sergeant Dorbu, grunting with each stroke. The sergeant knocked her blows aside, feinted for her knee, then turned the cut upward at the last moment. As she skipped back and swung for his head, Scholar Lhawang pointed at Sergeant Dorbu’s feet and pulled on the empty air as if he was pulling on a tangle of netting. The sergeant’s feet slid out from underneath him, sending him sprawling onto the cobblestones.
“Stop!” Indy said, stepping in front of him as Captain Birgith raised her sword for a final blow.
Noxy cried out as Captain Birgith’s backhanded blow knocked Indy off her feet. As if to echo her, a rebel soldier yelped with shock and surprise as his royalist opponent knocked his blade aside with a lucky parry and slid the point of his own sword home. The rebel reached for the blade as if to check that it was real, then slid to his knees and toppled over as the royalist withdrew it.
“‘ware all flanks!” the soldier barked, spinning around so that he and his two companions stood with their backs together and their blades raised, surrounded now by twice their number of rebels.
Captain Birgith stepped forward and put the tip of her sword under Sergeant Dorbu’s chin. “Hold!” she commanded.
The rebel soldiers froze. The sergeant looked back at her without flinching, tilting his head back as she lifted the tip of her sword a hair. “Like hell,” he grunted. “You can kill me, but you and your men won’t make it to the gate. Will they, private?” he added, raising his voice.
Boots clattered on a roof behind Noxy. “No, honored,” a voice replied. Noxy looked up to see one of the men she had rescued rise to his feet with a bow in his hands, a nocked arrow aimed squarely at Captain Birgith.
Another soldier stood up on the other side of the roof and took aim at Scholar Lhawang. “No tricks now,” he cautioned the tralpa.
Noxy ran to her mother. “Amma, amma, are you all right?” Indy sat up and wiped her nose on her arm, leaving a bloody streak on her sleeve, and nodded shakily.
Captain Birgith hadn’t moved. The end of her blade still lay flat against the underside of Sergeant Dorbu’s chin. “Learned?” she said to the tralpa without turning her head. “A little help, please?”
Scholar Lhawang raised her hand. There was a flat thwack. The arrow whizzed by her ear and ricocheted off the cobblestones. Thwack! The second arrow missed her as well. She whispered something, struck some kind of bargain that Noxy wouldn’t have wanted to hear even if she could have, and pulled. The two archers cursed in unison, dropping their bows and scrabbling at the shingles as their feet slipped out from under them just as Sergeant Dorbu’s had.
The tralpa turned on the circle of rebels surrounding the three royalists and belched enormously. Her hand flew to her mouth, and then she doubled over and retched, splattering half-digested breakfast and tea on her boots and the ground. “Wha—?” she tried to say, but another spasm sent her to her knees.
“Lower your sword, captain, or I’ll make her tear herself in half.” Scholar-Candidate Nangyal stood on the steps of the trading hall, an eerie darkness dancing across the fingertips of his raised right hand. The scheming, pouting look that the villagers had mocked amongst themselves so often in the past two years was gone. In its place was something as hard and as cold as the fury on Captain Birgith’s face.
“I won’t ask again,” Stale’s tralpa said. He twisted his hand. Scholar Lhwang writhed in agony, the muscles in her gut knotted so tightly that she could only wheeze.
Noxy felt like her head was spinning. “How…?” Indy breathed. But the pudgy tralpa had eyes only for the royalist captain.
Her face twisted with rage, Captain Birgith lowered her sword. When Sergeant Dorbu stood and held out his hand, she threw it on the stones contemptuously. “Blades down,” she ordered. The three soldiers standing back to back hesitated for a moment, then bent down and laid their own swords on the ground.
The tralpa came down the stairs one calm step at a time. The darkness crackled across his fingertips one last time before vanishing. Scholar Lhawang drew a shuddering breath.
“Reeve,” Nangyal said with a brief nod, drawing out the word as he passed Indy and Noxy, an ugly look of triumph on his face.
He stopped two strides away from Sergeant Dorbu. “I believe you’ve been looking for me.”
Sergeant Dorbu stared at him. “I—I’m sorry, learned, I—”
“I shall rise as does the dew,” the tralpa recited. “That is the phrase you were told to expect, isn’t it?”
Sergeant Dorbu’s mouth worked. “You? you’re her agent among the cloudherds?”
Nangyal smirked. “At your service. Though I think you are actually at mine.” The smirk fell off his face. “Now get these royalist scum locked away. And make sure you gag Scholar Lhawang so that she can’t strike any bargains.” He made other tralpa’s title a curse.
Sergeant Dorbu straightened up and saluted. “Yes, honored.” He beckoned to his men.
Indy strode over. “What in the names of the saints is going on?”
Nangyal sketched a small bow. “My apologies for the deception,” he said without even the faintest note of apology in his voice. “As of right now, Stale Leftovers is a Free Law territory. You and your fellow villagers can use whatever law you want without payment or hindrance. All we require in return is your support to help free the rest of Gandan.”
For the first time that Noxy could remember, her mother was speechless. “I thougth you couldn’t do magic,” Noxy blurted.
Nangyal looked at her, then pursed his lips and blew. A gust of wind almost knocked her over. “Oh poor, tubby, unloveable Nangy-poo,” he pouted. “Can’t even light a fire.” He smirked again. “It was the perfect disguise.”
“Traitor,” Captain Birgith spat as Sergeant Dorbu’s soldiers finished tying her hands together behind her back and pulled her to her feet. “Oathbreaker. Your ghost will wail and wander for a thousand years.”
“It’ll be worth it,” Nangyal snarled. “It’ll be worth it just to see the world’s kings and princes and scholars washing their own socks and peeling their own potatoes like the rest of us.”
“And speaking of kings and princes,” he continued, turning back to Sergeant Dorbu, “As soon as this bunch is safely stowed away, I want you to put together a search party. It seems that your tiger knows ours rather well.”
“Ours?” the sergeant repeated blankly. “You have a tiger too?”
Nangyal scowled. “What? No, don’t be daft. Our king. I had an illuminating conversation last night with that cloudherd Captain Birgith caught in Rancid. It seems that your tiger used to be a royal bodyguard. I don’t suppose he mentioned that when he joined your merry little band, did he?”
Sergeant Dorbu shook his head in bewilderment. “Kulbinder? A royal—that’s ridiculous.”
“That’s what I thought,” Nangyal said smugly. “So I did a little this and that last night while the rest of you were asleep. Nothing very challenging—though I’m sure it would have been for some,” he added, glancing at Scholar Lhawang. The gagged magician glowered back. “Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the cloudherd was telling the truth. The tiger has been in the royal palace and has spoken to the king.”
“So what in the saints’ names is he doing fighting with us?” Sergeant Dorbu demanded.
Nangyal scowled. “That’s an excellent question, sergeant, and one that I fully intend to ask once you find him.” He turned to Indy and Noxy. “I trust we can count on your cooperation in that?”
“What!? No!” Indy protested angrily. “We’re not helping anyone with—urrk!” Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her throat.
Nangyal regarded her coolly. “This spell is rather challenging,” he said. “The price is a severe allergy to shellfish, but…” He shrugged. “That’s hardly an issue up here, is it?”
“Stop it!” Noxy burst out. “Whatever you’re doing, stop it!”
Nangyal didn’t so much as twitch a finger, but Indy suddenly drew a long, gasping breath. “You need to understand something,” Nangyal said quietly. “We are willing to give our lives for our cause, and if it’s worth our lives, it’s certainly worth yours. Now find that beast.”
He turned and strode away, muttering under his breath. Noxy watched him go, feeling just as shocked by his transformation as her mother looked.
Sergeant Dorbu cleared his throat. “Reeve, please accept my apologies. That—that wasn’t necessary.”
Indy looked him up and down, then gestured at Captain Birgith and Scholar Lhawang. “Take care of your prisoners, sergeant. I’ll take care of my village. Come on, sweetling.”
Noxy had to hurry to catch up with her. “Amma, what—”
“Not here,” her mother said sharply. “Go find Aft and Grappa Gas and bring them to your granna’s house. And Noxy.” She stopped and took her daughter’s arm. “Not a word of this to anyone, all right? Please?”
“I won’t say anything,” Noxy promised. Her mother nodded once and hurried away up the street.
Aft answered the door on Noxy’s first knock, but only opened it a crack. “What’s going on?” he hissed.
“Amma wants Aft at Granna Fee’s right away,” Noxy told him urgently. Rind was standing just behind her husband, one hand on his shoulder, the other on her round belly, and an anxious look on her face to match the angry one on Aft’s.
The door closed abruptly. She heard the pair argue back and forth for a heartbeat, and then the door reopened. “I’ll be back as soon as I find out,” Aft promised over his shoulder. The door closed behind him for a second time with a bang that made Noxy jump.
Grappa Gas wasn’t at home. “Probably already there,” Aft grunted after Noxy thumped the door drum for the third time. He set off without waiting for answer, leaving her hurrying to catch up once again.
But Granna Fee hadn’t seen Grappa Gas that morning. She and Aft sat side by side as Indy quickly told them what had happened in the square.
“A spy?” Aft said disbelievingly. “That tubby camel?” As if in answer, one of the herd penned up behind Granna Fee’s house bleated.
Indy rubbed her throat. “That ‘tubby camel’ put Scholar Lhawang down without breaking a sweat. And he choked me without so much as a word.”
“But why is he here?” Granna Fee asked. “Why spy on us?”
The reeve shook her head. “And why has he been here for two years? Was Shudarga already planning to rebel that far back?” She sighed heavily. “And what in the names of the saints does Kulbinder have to do with all of this?”
Four heads turned as the door swung open. “He’s a king’s man.” Cough strode in with a scowling Grappa Gas a pace behind him. “Or a king’s Gifted. And he’s the one that’s going to get us out of this.”
Aft stood, bunching his hands into fists. Granna Fee stood as well. “Get out of my house,” she said coldly.
“Wait.” Iffy raised a hand. “What did you tell the tralpa?”
Cough grinned at her insolently, and for a heartbeat Noxy wanted to get up and punch her father in the face. “I was in the capital three summers ago,” he said. “A, um, discrete delivery, if you know what I mean. Anyway, it was Lampwatcher’s Eve and folk were having a celebration and his majesty and the family were out and about and—” He spread his hands. “There he was, big as life, right beside one of the young princes.”
“Really?” Iffy said skeptically. “And you can tell one tiger from another?”
Cough leaned back against the wall. “Tell ‘em,” he said, nodding to Grappa Gas.
The old man’s scowl deepened. “The tiger came and spoke to me in the wee hours last night when I was doing my business in the outhouse—nearly scared me to death. Told me he needed to get away. Offered me a hundred gold bezels if I’d fly him and his boy down to the capital.”
Noxy’s breath caught. A hundred gold bezels? That was more money than she had seen in one place in her entire life—probably more than the whole village spent in a summer on what the pack traders brought through. “So is he a spy too?” she asked.
Grappa Gas shrugged and scratched absent-mindedly at the spot where his real leg and his peg leg met. “Well if he is, I wish I’d known it then,” he said regretfully. “I asked him to show me the bezels, and when he said I’d get paid in the capital, I told him to go play with the other camels. And no, it’s not the smartest thing I’ve ever done,” he added, raising a hand to forestall whatever Indy and Granna Fee had both opened their mouths to say.
“So it’s simple,” Cough said, sliding smoothly into the gap. “All we have to do is get the tiger back to Gandan-in-Gandan, and any, um, missteps that anyone might have made will be forgiven. The king gives us a hundred bezels, we split it fifty-fifty, and poof, this is all behind us.”
“Except for the small matter of not knowing where he is,” Indy said levelly. “Thought I’m sure you have a plan for that.”
“And what do you mean, fifty-fifty?” Aft growled. “I’ll serve you dinner in the underhells before I see you get half a brass sequin out of this.”
Cough smirked. “Well, garlic chicken is still my favorite, if it comes to that. But since I’m the only one who knows where the tiger and his boy have holed up, and I’m the only one he trusts right now, I think half is fair.”
“He trusts you?” Granna Fee snorted. “More fool him.”
Holed up? Noxy thought. “Wait!” She surged to her feet. “I know where they are.”
“What—” her father started.
“They’re in the tunnels,” she told her mother excitedly. “That’s why he said ‘holed up’. Thokmay asked me about them when I was showing him around, and he’s bee taking stuff and hiding it somewhere—I saw him the night the drying shed caught fire.”
Five adults gaped at her. “And anyway, you’re not really going to help him, are you?” Noxy went on bitterly, the pieces coming together in her head as she spoke. “You’re going to turn him over to the rebels. You’re the one who told Nangyal who he was. No, you did, I heard you! You were by the Round Tower last night. You said that if he got the tiger home, they’d make him a full scholar or whatever he wanted. And now that you know he’s a rebel, and they’re in charge, you need to cover your hairy butt.”
“Noxy!” Iffy said, shocked. “Language!”
“Well excuse me,” Noxy said sarcastically. “But it’s true.”
Cough straightened up and uncrossed his arms. “I don’t have to listen to this,” he said haughtily.
“Oh yes you do,” Grappa Gas said, stepping in front of the door as Cough turned to leave.
Aft rose to his feet, his hands still in fists. “How about you take a seat while they go have a look?”
Cough looked from his daughter to Aft to Indy and back to his daughter. His perpetual half-grin slowly returned to his face. “Well,” he said, pulled out a stool and lowered himself onto it slowly. “Maybe I will.”
The other adults argued for a couple of minutes before deciding that they had to tie him up. “I’ll keep an eye on him,” Granna Free promised, making Cough’s smile slip for a moment.
Two rolls of twine later, his ankles were firmly fastened to the stool’s legs and his wrists tied behind his back. Granna Fee set the paring knife she had used to cut the twine on the table in front of her and nodded to Iffy, Aft, and Grappa Gas. “Be careful.”
“Yes, amma,” Iffy said. She leaned forward to kiss the top of Noxy’s head. “You look after her, all right?”
“Sure.” Her protests at being left behind had been dismissed quickly and sharply, much to her secret relief.
She sat in silence with her father and grandmother and listened to the camels bleating in their pen, confused and annoyed that no one had come to scratch their woolly ears or give them their morning carrots. Chickens clucked in their rooftops coops, and a shutter banged in the breeze a handful of times before someone closed it. She had never heard the village so quiet, not even in the middle of winter when every sound was muffled by falling or fallen snow.
Someone shouted in the distance. Another voice answered. Without warning the door burst open. She jumped to her feet as Aft, Grappa Gas, and her mother stomped in, their faces angry, angrier, and angriest in turn.
“I’m sorry, reeve, I really am,” Sergeant Dorbu said, standing in the doorway with two of his men behind him. “But Pupil Nangyal’s orders are clear—you have to stay indoors until we find Kulbinder.”
“Pupil?” Iffy spat. “So you’re his teacher now?”
Sergeant Dorbu’s jaw set. “It’s what we call each other, reeve. We’re all the Learned Shudarga’s pupils.”
“She have anything to teach about tying people up?” Cough asked.
The sergeant glanced at him and did a double take as he noticed the twine around his wrists and ankles. “Not that I recall.” He cocked an eyebrow at Iffy. “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do. And please—please, stay off the streets. Just for now.”
Iffy gave him a look that would have withered a pinecone, but said nothing. After a heartbeat, Sergeant Dorbu gave her a short nod and closed the door. “Thanks for your help!” Cough called out.
“I take it you didn’t find them?” Granna Fee asked in the silence that followed.
“Didn’t get much of a chance to look,” Grappa Gas grunted. “Didn’t see any sign of Lhawang or that royalist captain either. But they’re still looking too, so at least there’s that.”
“What about going out through the back and along past the tannery?” Granna Fee asked after a moment.
Iffy shook her head. “It’s too risky. They have a couple of men up on the walls—they’d spot us the first time we had to cross the street. And anyway, suppose we do find them—what next?”
Noxy took a deep breath. “Well,” she said slowly, “I kind of have a plan.”
The olders said no, of course—in Noxy’s experience, they always said “no” when someone her age came up with a plan that didn’t involve washing more dishes or weeding the garden earlier in the morning. Rather than argue, she waited patiently as one by one they grudgingly came to the conclusion that yes, it might work, and no, they didn’t have any better ideas.
Her father was the only holdout. “Absolutely not,” he said angrily. “Those are soldiers up there, sweetling–trained killers, every one. They’ll feel bad about putting an arrow in you, but make no mistake, they’ll do it.”
“Gee, adda, I didn’t know you cared,” she said coldly. A hurt look flashed across his face and was gone so quickly that she decided she must have been imagining it.
She stood up, suddenly aware that everyone was looking at her. “I’ll be fine,” she promised. “Really.”
Like all of the houses in Stale, Granna Fee’s had only one door, but the shutters in the kitchen could be folded back to let in fresh air (or let out the smell of garlic if she was doing her infamous hundred-bulb roast). Grappa Gas insisted on dripping a few drops of soybean oil onto the shutters’ hinges before opening them so that they wouldn’t squeak. When they did anyway, Granna Fee gave him a look.
Leaving her coat on the hook by the door, Noxy wriggled through the window. It was a tighter fit than she had expected, and the narrow snicket between Granna Fee’s house and the one next door smelled of damp and cold—and chicken droppings. “Eww,” she said disgustedly, glancing up at the coop that overhung the shadowed passage. As if in answer, something made a tiny plop beside her.
She tiptoed toward the rear of the house. A dozen woolly camels bleated excitedly at the sight of her, but she ignored them as she studied the old fortress wall. There and there—two rebel soldiers, neither with a bow that she could see, but both wide awake and paying attention.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. As far as her mother and the other olders knew, her plan was to crawl under the camels to get to the base of the wall, then work her way along it to the tunnel where she thought Kulbinder and Private Thokmay were hiding. She hadn’t explained the rest of it—she wasn’t even sure how she would begin. Now she just hoped it would work.
Hello? she mind-spoke. Can you hear me?
Silence answered. She pushed the sound of the camels’ bleating out of her mind and concentrated. Hello?
Nothing, nothing… There. It wasn’t an answer because there were no words, but suddenly she knew that the forest was paying attention to her. It was like hearing stairs not creak when someone had come halfway up them and then stopped.
She cleared her throat. Can you help me? she mind-asked. I kind of need a favor.
A hundred heartbeats went by, then another. A silver-tipped scaw flitted overhead. A striped jay landed on the fence around the camels’ pen, cocked its head to the side, and flew off again. Two more scaws zipped by, swerving to avoid a crow. Birds and more birds swirled around like leaves caught in a tiny whirlwind.
No no no, she mind-spoke frantically. Not here! Up on the wall! She tried to picture the two soldiers, then gave up and imagined the view from the parapet. The birds should recognize that, shouldn’t they?
They did, or the forest did on their behalf. With a sound like a dozen blankets being shaken out, the motley flock flew away. One of the soldiers swore a startled oath. Noxy took a deep breath and sprinted around the camels’ pen to the base of the wall. She had never felt more exposed in her life, not even when Grappa Gas had taken her up as high as the peak behind Stale and the whole valley had been spread out below her.
Her heart sank when she reached the tunnel mouth. The heavy wooden grill that blocked it was still in place. She was about to turn around when a flicker of motion caught her eye. Had the grill—rippled? She reached out tentatively. Her hand passed through it as if it was nothing more than a cool shadow.
“It’s magic,” she breathed. But who could have cast the spell? Not Nangyal: if he knew about it, the tiger and his boy would already be in chains. And surely not Lhawang, not unless she was—what? Secretly helping the rebels? But that didn’t make any sense either.
Another shout from the wall above her swept the question from her mind. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and stepped into the tunnel.
A brief chill washed over her, making her shiver. She opened her eyes. The tunnel looked exactly the way it had when she and Rash and Sensy had pried open the grill and snuck in a few years ago to try some rak that Rash had brought back from a family trip to Duck Droppings. She wrinkled her nose. It smelled exactly the same too: damp stone, ancient animal droppings, and stale air.
She crept forward as quietly as the tunnel dipped and levelled off. The bricks that had blocked it off the last time she was here were gone. She took another deep breath and fished the little dayglass lamp Granna Fee had given her out of her coat. It wasn’t much light, but it was better than the dark, and much better than thinking about the hundreds of stone blocks over her head.
The tunnel split and split again. She and Rash had come here a second time withou Sensy, partly because it was forbidden, and partly because Rash had said that he wanted to get away from Sensy’s chatter for just a little bit. She had let him kiss her (not quite for the first time) and had been furious the next day when Sensy had confessed that he’d kissed her there too the day before.
She pushed the memory away and edged forward again, placing each foot carefully before putting her weight on it. There was a light up ahead…
Holding her breath, she peeked around the corner. She had just a heartbeat to take in the lantern sitting by itself on the floor before a stern voice snapped, “Halt!” behind her.
Noxy jumped and whirled around. Private Thokmay was standing in the intersection with his sword in his hand and a scowl on his face.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded accusingly. “Why were you trying to sneak up on me?”
“Sneak up on you?!” Noxy replied angrily. “You’re the one who snuck up on me!”
“Only because you were sneaking up first,” he shot back. He slid his sword into its scabbard. “I thought you were one of them.”
“Well, I thought you were too.” Noxy put her hands on her hips and matched the soldier’s glare. “Where’s Kulbinder?”
“In the forest, trying to figure out what to do next.” Private Thokmay crossed his arms. “You really shouldn’t be here.”
“And you should?” she shot back.
Thokmay’s scowl deepened. “Believe me, it wasn’t my first choice,” he muttered.
Noxy crossed her arms to match his. “So are you a spy or something? Or is the tiger? That’s what the scholar-candidate thinks.”
“He’s not a scholar.” Private Thokmay looked like he had accidentally eaten a pickled beet.
Suddenly there was a rumbling sound, then a screech like a thousand fingernails being dragged down a blackboard. The beam above their heads shifted slightly, groaning under the weight of the mountain. They looked at each other in horror. The tunnel was caving in!
Noxy turned to run back toward the entrance. “Look out!” Thokmay shouted. He leaped forward and pushed her out of the way. A block of stone that would have struck her head hit his shoulder instead. He grabbed her arm and yanked her forward as the beam creaked again and gave way. A waterfall of sharp-edged rocks and dust crashed down.
“Run!” he shouted.
“But that’s the wrong way!” Noxy cried.
“Not any more it isn’t!” He snatched up his lantern. “Come on!”
They stumbled away from the cave-in. Dust billowed up, choking them. A stray rock bounced past Noxy’s head.
The cave-in stopped as suddenly as it began. A last handful of pebbles rattled past them. Noxy and Thokmay doubled over to cough, their hearts pounding.
Noxy straightened up and gasped. “Your jacket!” she said. His yellow uniform jacket had torn where the stone struck his shoulder.
Private Thokmay looked at it ruefully. “Well, if that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.” He sighed. “I’m sorry I kicked it. I didn’t think it would cave in.”
“I’m sorry I kicked it too. Do you think we’re trapped?”
“There has to be another way out,” he replied. “Doesn’t there?”
“I don’t know,” Noxy admitted. “I’ve never come in this far.”
thokmay held up his lantern. The spot they had been standing just a few minutes before was now a jumble of fallen roof timber and sharp-edged stones.
“We might be able to squeeze through,” Noxy said tentatively.
He shook his head. “What if we got stuck? Or if we bumped something and it caved in again? I think we should try to find another way out.” He hesitated. “That is, unless you really want to try.”
Noxy took a deep breath and let it out slowly, just like her mother did whenever she had a hard decision to make. “No, I think you’re right. We should try to find another way out. Anyway, if we can’t, we can always come back here and try it then.”
The tunnel ran level for several dozen strides, then started to dip down. It became steeper and steeper until finally it turned into a rough-cut staircase. “I think we’re getting further from the village, not closer,” Noxy said in despair. “Maybe we should turn back.”
“Not yet,” said the soldier. “We haven’t actually come very far, and we can’t have gotten lost because there aren’t any turns. Maybe it’ll level off again soon.”
But the steps ran straight down instead into a dark, still pool of water. There was just enough light for them to see another set of steps rising from its far side. The only sound was the ploop, ploop of condensation dripping off the ceiling.
Noxy shivered. “I wonder how deep it is?” she whispered.
“I wonder what’s in it,” Private Thokmay whispered back. “There are some horrible things in the hell underneath Gandan-in-Gandan. The kind had some of them brought in specially. They’re all teeth and tentacles and—”
“Shh!” hissed Noxy. “I don’t want to know!”
Private Thokmay didn’t reply. Instead, he stared at the dark water then snapped his fingers. “I know!” He unbuckled his sword belt, pulled his sword out of its scabbard, handed the belt to Noxy, then knelt on the last step and pushed the scabbard into the water. A moment later he turned around with a sheepish look on his face. “It’s only about a handspan deep. It won’t even come over the tops of our boots.”
They sloshed through the pool to the other set of steps. As they started up them, Noxy thought she could still hear something slosh a little longer in the water behind them. It’s just your imagination, she told herself firmly, but she shuddered slightly from the chill just the same.
The steps grew shallower and shallower until they melted away into the floor of a tunnel. The tunnel itself slowly became less steep, until Private Thokmay stopped and sniffed the air. “There’s a breeze!” he said. “Come on!”
They raced through the tunnel, around one corner and then another, and then there was daylight. An ancient blackberry bush lay across the tunnel entrance. On its other side Noxy could see the path that led to the cloud pen.
They stared at it.