For Madeleine, who is taking me on the greatest journey of my life.
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 reign 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 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 11th of Peridot, 1272, 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 determination, but the cloud 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 one paw, cursing in Thindi as the black bird snapped its wings open and let the wind throw it sideways just an instant before the tiger's claws would have torn it apart.
Up ahead, a makeshift camp sat on a barren pinnacle of rock that rose like an island out of the forest. A dozen drab gray tents huddled around a small fire. Shading her eyes with her right hand, Noxy saw that the soldiers had formed a circle around it. Their kilts and sturdy boots were travel-stained, and their battle masks and lacquered leather armor were scarred from fighting. Some had swords in their hands, while 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 looking at the trees around them, 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, propped up on her elbows with a pair of binoculars in her hands. "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 once 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 Pillow 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 woulda 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 red 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 Stale Leftovers. 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. We---I mean, the village has an arrangement. 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 to all fours. "And if you will forgive my impatience, my need is rather pressing. My companions are in danger, and in dire need of rescue. I need to reach Stale Leftovers now."
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 reach the gap in the fortress 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 into the Pilots' ancient work. It was open as always, and Noxy could hear the endless gentle tune of the village's wind chimes from behind it.
Grappa Gas was sitting on one of the stones 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, not a what," Kulbinder replied curtly.
"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.
"They are as human as you are," the tiger said. "Are you the tralpa here?"
Grappa Gas snorted. "Not likely, but I can take you to the reeve."
Ten minutes later, the whole village was in the cobbled square---or rather, the whole village minus most of the adults, who had left a week ago for the snowfields to collect Stale's clouds from their winter pasture. Three hundred people, from babies in their parents' arms to those babies' 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 shushed him 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 quiet everyone. "Friends, please. Thank you all for coming. I know it is early in the year for travelers, but please, 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's shoulder with their own. "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 voice and hand of the king in Stale Remainders, 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 and into the forest." 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 and privileges as jealously as a mother bear guarded her cubs. Gifted creatures who lived among the trees all did its 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. Make a fire too large, though, 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 forest's wrath would be as merciless as a winter storm.
Aft elbowed his way to the front of the small crowd and clapped his hands twice. "Are they smugglers?" he asked loudly without waiting for Indy to call on him.
Noxy saw rather than heard her mother's exasperated sigh. "Not that the Gifted has said, no."
"Then why in the saints' names were they trying to get through the pass this time of year? It'll be another month at least before the high trails clear." 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. "They are soldiers."
The crowd murmured again. "Soldiers?" Aft said disbelievingly. "What were you doing trying to get through the pass? There aren't any rebels up here."
At that, the tiger finally deigned to look at him. "There are, actually. 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 merchant-nobles had ignored her at first, then mocked her, but when she started organizing peasants and tradesmen to pool their money so that they could rent laws together, their laughter turned to anger. Arrested, she had escaped the previous summer and raised her flag in rebellion, attracting thousands to her cause. Then winter had come and news from the lowlands had slowed to a trickle, leaving the cloudherds with nothing to chew on but rumors.
"Does that mean the king's army is going to come looking for you?" Aft demanded loudly, putting a protective arm around his wife and ignoring Indy as she thumped the drum for order. "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. You are their only hope---if you fear it will bring more trouble than you can chew, 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 whatever Aft had been about to say. "We can argue about the 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 those that needed help."
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 helping rebels."
Indy's smile was as cold as the distant peaks. "We can 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 stupid enough to anger the forest, but flying off to rescue a bunch of rebels? "It's not just us they'll punish," he said, glancing meaningfully at the bulk under his wife's winter coat.
And what would other cloudherds say if they heard that Stale had left people in the forest to die, Grappa Gas shot back. Pilots and saints, what would their own kin say when they got back from up the mountain?
The argument swirled and churned across the cobblestones, punctuated by soft bings and bongs from the windchimes that hung from the eaves of every house. Little whirlpools of disagreement came together, spun about, and flew apart as people overheard neighbors they disagreed with, or turned around to agree with something they had overheard 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 to play like the younger children, but young enough that the whole thing seemed vaguely ridiculous.
Rash ran a finger along the lip fuzz 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 stupid 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.
"You sure about that?" Rash raised an eyebrow, another annoying habit he had cultivated over the winter. "Because your amma's giving jobs to just about everyone except us."
Noxy puffed an annoyed breath, biting 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 Noxy 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.
Noxy wondered if she was supposed to bow back, and was immediately annoyed at herself. Cloudherds didn't bow---that was a silly lowlander custom. "Just call me Noxy," she told him. "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 the tame old pair floating in the cloud 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, not noticing or just 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 orange when she'd already talked her mother into a half.
Somehow everyone eventually realized that they agreed with Indy's decision or were so outnumbered as to make further argument pointless. Even Aft gave in, grumbling that someone who hadn't lost his wits needed to keep an eye on things.
After that, it only took them a few minutes to gather what they needed. 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 just in case.
"You look ridiculous," Sensy told Rash flatly as he came down the wooden steps to the mounting platform. He had sewn a pattern that he claimed was meant to be eagle's wings onto the side flaps of his cap during the winter, and had wrapped 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 and stepped around the speechless pair of thirteen-year-olds.
They were the last to arrive at the wooden platform that hung over the edge of the cloud pen. "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 younglings 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 be a goof, but at least he was a warm goof.
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 'em 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, and a moment later 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, honored?" 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, honored, 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 Eighteenth 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 supposed to be headed down to the capital, 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.
"Was there anything else?" Indy asked.
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 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 say another word. 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 goofs 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, honored? 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," 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, honored." 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. It---she---had the same silver-shot fur and the same long scar, but her eyes were like those deep 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." His jaw set. "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 have 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 knitting 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 goof 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.
"Sh!" Private Thokmay made a cutting gesture with his hand. "Something's watching us."
Noxy shivered. "Is it the tiger?" she whispered. Private Thokmay shook his head.
Noxy 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, honored," 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, honored." 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, honored," 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, honored," 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. Annoyed, she strode up the hill after the tiger and the tralpa.
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, honored," 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 goofs 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 goofs 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, no more and no less. 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.
"Goof," 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 only ever comes after storms and minor disasters. 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 as well?
Dressed and fed, faces clean, 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 goofskin 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 South Tower," Noxy said, pointing. "It still has a roof, but 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. And that one's the Round Tower, and the short one over there is called the Quick Tower, because it's quickest to get up."
"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. You met her when we rescued you. She's my grandmother. And she teaches school. And that's Grappa Gas's house, the lavender one. 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 polite but absent look on his face 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, honored?" 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," said Noxy. "We're not supposed to go in."
Private Thokmay 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. They don't actually lead anywhere---they're just cellars. 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 evenly. "I'm officially Gandan's Twenty-Ninth Thokmay."
As Noxy was trying to think of something to say to that, 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 goofs."
"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 goof 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 goofs."
Noxy bit back a sharp retort. They didn't smell anything like goofs, 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. She had hoped the clouds would be right next to the mounting platform so that she 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.
"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 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. "Oh, come on," she repeated, a splash of scorn in her tone. "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---mountain goofs 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 really knew how clouds saw, but through whatever Big Blue used for eyes, 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.
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 few wild goofs whose ancestors had strayed away from their pens and somehow 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, ears back, with Private Thokmay hurrying to keep up. Then the three soldiers who had gone with Sergeant Dorbu. Then Noxy's mother and Sergeant Dorbu and a uniformed woman who was almost as wide as she was tall, all three of them wearing expressions that would have frozen a cup of tea in a heartbeat. Behind them came Scholar-Candidate Nangyal, complaining as always, and Rancid's tralpa in her robes and formal collar. And behind them, three more soldiers, their uniforms so clean they almost sparkled, and---
Noxy's 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 do that. And then, after everyone else, the man at the end of the line grinned wickedly at Aft and wrapped his arms around her to give her a hug.
"Hiya, sweetling," Noxy's 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.