"Mother?" K'reeth d'Atran scowled as she stepped into the common room of her family's quarters in the T'bredi enclave. She dropped her pack by the door and swung her cloak off her shoulders.
"Back already?" A'tran teased, looking up from the scrolls spread across the long table that more often than not was used for studying rather than eating. She rubbed her eyes and stroked a few strands of pure white hair behind her ear, which had escaped her elaborate crown of braids.
"We haven't left yet. Tokar lectured me on what to do and not do, as if I haven't taken my students on these overnight trips for the last seven years. Mother, is it too late in the process to cancel the betrothal?" She tugged on the bracelet of fine threads and beads with the emblems of the T'bredi and Tokar's tribe and family line, as if she would snap it off her wrist.
"Cancel?" Her smile softened and she shook her head. "My dear, I can't imagine you want to break off with Tokar over a ridiculous, totally unnecessary lecture."
"That's just the culmination of..." With a loud sigh, she sank down in the chair next to her mother, careful not to disturb the scrolls. "I thought he was gone. He caught up with me while I was flying our birds, and let me know it was extremely undignified for me to take my students on overnight camping trips. He wouldn't actually say he didn't want me to go, of course. For the last month, he's been doing that constantly, pointing out things he doesn't like, but never asking me to stop or to change. Then he acts very cold to me when I don't do what he wants. When I told him that I had promised my students this trip, and as long as I was a mistrada, I would continue to take students on trips, well...I thought for a moment he would tell me to resign as a mistrada." Another sigh. "Then I realized I hoped he would tell me I had to choose between him and my duties."
K'reeth's thoughts shifted, just for a moment, to the man who had haunted her dreams for seemingly years. He never spoke to her, and never came close enough for her to see the tribe insignias on his clothes--she only knew he was a Wind Walker, with a neat, short beard and piercing gray eyes. She always seemed to wake up just before they could speak. In her heart--perhaps just her imagination--she thought he would never make unreasonable demands on her.
"I find such behavior odd for him," her mother said, frowning pensively. "Your uncle approved of Tokar mostly because he was so forthright. No games of subtlety. Oh, no, I'm not saying I don't believe you. In fact, your sister and uncle both have remarked that Tokar's attitude toward you has changed recently. I think they would break the betrothal if they could."
"Even though we haven't fully formalized it, Tokar acts as if he has total authority over me. And he's trying to remake me to suit him."
"It's about time you woke up to that," K'rin said, startling both of them. She crossed her arms and leaned back against the doorframe.
"I've been waking up, as you put it, for a while now," K'reeth retorted to her sister. Ironically, she seemed to be happiest when she roamed through her dreams, hoping the Wind Walker would appear, and maybe this time speak to her.
"Just in case you're interested, he gave me the same lecture he just gave you--first. Then he acted as if it were my fault that he can't tell us apart." Muffling laughter, K'rin strolled into the room and sat down in the chair on their mother's other side. She tugged on the long braid of green-dyed hair that hung loose, when the rest of her long, straight ebony hair had been pulled back in a braid.
K'reeth choked on laughter, and the need to ask if perhaps Tokar were losing his mind. The sisters were roughly the same height and build, but K'reeth's hair was rich, dark brown with touches of red, while K'rin's was pure ebony, to match her pure black eyes. K'reeth's were dark hazel. Her sister had the green streak dyed into her hair while she had blue, mimicking the moonbirds that had provided their names. She had a rounded chin, while her sister's had something of a point. They had very similar sharp cheekbones. When their mother had first adopted them, they had played at being twins. Still, everyone could tell them apart. What was wrong with Tokar, that suddenly he couldn't?
"I believe now Tokar was wearing a mask until he convinced me to agree to marry him." K'reeth fingered her blue-dyed braid.
"Then the question is what he thought he could gain by marrying you." A'tran sat back, resting her elbows on the armrests of her chair and clasping her hands under her chin. "I must admit, I am relieved you wish to be free. Tokar is no longer the man he made us believe him to be for the last five years. As for unweaving the betrothal..."
"It will take twice as long as it took to put it together, walking backwards through the rituals, the questions, the times of contemplation?" K'reeth guessed.
"I will begin the preliminary steps while you are away. Be warned, my dear, the one who instigates the breaking of a betrothal established through the ancient rituals is always examined closely, sometimes with a cruel eye. Everyone will assume that you have acted dishonorably."
"They'll accuse her of immorality? Anyone who knows Ree will laugh," K'rin said.
"It doesn't matter what people know, or think they know," K'reeth said, standing. "All that matters is how I live during the year of purity." She leaned over and hugged her mother, kissing her on the cheek. "I have had no suitors, no temptation, so I can't imagine any arising in the next year. But I need to leave now and take my students on their promised adventure before they come looking for me. Thank you, Mother."
"Be safe, my darling." A'tran waited as her daughters hugged each other, and K'reeth snatched up her pack and cloak and hurried out the door again.
"Well, it looks as if you will be burdened with both of us for a long time to come," K'rin remarked, settling back into her chair. Her lips twitched as she visibly fought not to smile.
"You have never been a burden to me. My only regret is that I did not birth you or your sister. The Winds were kind to bring you to me, to fill my heart and my arms, to bring wholeness out of the pain and terror that tore both of you from your families. But you are wrong, my moonbird." A'tran reached over to briefly cup K'rin's cheek. "I know somewhere out in our swiftly changing world, there are two men who were formed to match with you and your sister, to find completion of mind and heart and soul. We must simply pray Omnistos will move these men to come to you."
Tremors of pain and anger twined through the mental air, interfering with the faint resonance of a soul that Talon had followed into the Spine of the World Mountains from his home in the High Reaches. The smell of blood came to him on tendrils of the warm, late summer breeze. He followed it, through the shadows of the trees, along the thin trickle of stream until it spilled down into the river maybe twenty paces later, and he came out into bright sunlight.
A young woman knelt in the beaten, bare ground on the opposite riverbank, studying the soil. She wore the distinctive long blue and green patchwork vest-coat of a T'bredi scholar. Blood marred the star signs on her right side. Blue and green knots on her shoulders marked her as a mistrada, a teacher. She wobbled slightly as she got to her feet again.
"Mistrada, do you need help?" Talon called. He froze when she turned to face him, and her angular features stiffened to angry alertness rather than fear.
He knew her face.
The face he had seen for two years in the dreamplain, always at a distance, always vanishing when he got close enough to speak with her. It was her resonance he had followed so far from his home territory.
"Wind Walker." She stood straight again, but kept her hand on her knife. "Please, if you can..." She gestured down the bank, and now Talon could see the signs of disturbance in the dirt. "Marauders attacked me and my students. They took the girls." Her voice strained for a moment.
"How long ago?" Talon gestured down the bank and started walking. If he remembered correctly, there was a crossing maybe another ten minutes of walking downstream.
She glanced at the sun. "Less than an hour." She started down the bank as well.
"How badly are you wounded?"
"Most of the blood was Dioni's. He leaped to defend his sister and the brute taking her stabbed him. I bandaged him the best I could and sent all the boys back to the enclave for help."
"But you are wounded?" He frowned, remembering the pain that had shattered the sweet music of her resonance. Physical pain as well as emotional.
"Not enough to make me sit on my backside and shirk my responsibility."
It amused him a little, to realize under his concern for her, he felt nervous. Soon, he would know why she fled the dreamplain whenever he came close enough to speak. Perhaps she had never seen him clearly? Because certainly she should have recognized him by now--but she didn't react at all.
They reached the crossing place, and Talon hurried across the tall stepping-stones piled up in the water to reach her side of the river.
"Thank you for helping," she said, when he was on her side of the river. She stopped, her mouth open with unspoken words, and her eyes widened as she stared at him.
That answered that question--she did recognize him.
"Mistrada." He gave her a bow of head and shoulders. "We have met in the dreamplain."
"It is true. I have come here seeking you."
"But I can't enter the dreamplain." She took a step back. "I'm--I was born Na'huma. How can I have gifts?" She shook her head. "No. Later. The girls are more important."
"Of course." He gestured down the bank, and in moments they were walking rapidly, side-by-side. He could almost smile at how hard she fought not to stare at him.
Close to her now, Talon was intrigued with the blue-dyed hair woven into the braid on the left side of her dark head. She caught him studying her hair and flushed, reaching up to touch the dyed strands.
"I am Talon, Wind Walker to the High Reaches." He pressed his right hand over his heart in salute.
"K'reeth, daughter of High Mistrada A'tran of the T'bredi." A soft bubble of laughter escaped her when he frowned, confused. "Why am I named for one of the moonbirds?" She shrugged, the gesture ending in a wince, and Talon guessed she had irritated her wound. "My sister and I were called the moonbirds even before our mother adopted us. We were both orphans, and we latched onto each other from the day we were brought to the T'bredi for shelter. When we stood up to the bullies, well, the name stuck. Mother thought it appropriate."
"And you are just as fierce protecting your students as the moonbirds protect their chicks."
"Fierce, yes. Successful, well, we shall see." Her mouth flattened in a grim line.
"How many were they?" He gestured at the signs of multiple feet in the damp dirt, little feet and large feet. "I see no sign of horses."
"Thank the Winds for that." K'reeth nodded. "Four men, with four girls, the oldest is eleven, the youngest six. All strong-willed girls." One corner of her mouth quirked up. "All smart. Smart enough to be a handful. Let us hope they give those brutes trouble, but not enough to justify hurting them."
Talon noticed a splotch in the dirt and paused to study it. He touched it, and it was damp. He sniffed his finger. "Blood."
"I managed to wound two of them. One in the arm, the other in the leg. Hopefully that will slow them."
"If they took less time to tend their wounds than you did." This close, he could see the half-dried stain of dark red on the bandage tied around her upper arm, through the long slit in her sleeve. The fact that it was drying encouraged him. If K'reeth was still bleeding, she wouldn't be in any condition to fight to rescue her students when they caught up with the kidnappers. "You'll tell me when you start feeling faint or ill?"
"K'rin is the impetuous one, just like her namesake. Sometimes I'm too cautious and sensible." K'reeth smiled a little more, and Talon thought he caught a sparkle in her eyes.
As they walked, they only talked sporadically, focusing on their surroundings, watching the signs of feet on the bank ahead of them, listening for voices or footsteps. Talon already despised men who would attack a group of children and their teacher. His estimation of them dropped a few more notches as he and K'reeth followed the trail. Anyone with common sense would get away from the soft soil along the riverbank that marked their trail as clearly as if they painted blazes on the rocks and trees along the way. Either they were lazy, or they had a headquarters or camp ahead of them.
"What?" K'reeth asked, and rested her hand on his arm. Talon realized he had inhaled a little too loudly.
"I just realized--if they didn't have horses, and they're staying on the river instead of trying to lose pursuit in the trees--"
"They have boats, a camp waiting up ahead." She nodded, her mouth flattening again. "I thought of that. But Uncle Akuar regularly patrols through here, because we take our students on overnight trips. They can't have an outpost." She looked at the hand she still rested on his arm, and withdrew it. "But that doesn't discount the possibility of boats. Although why they would leave their boats so far down the river and walk all that distance on the off chance of finding someone to attack..."
"Well, when we catch them, we'll have to ask what brought them."
"When we catch them." She nodded.
"K'reeth." He caught hold of her hand, and flinched a little when he felt the faint stickiness of dried blood on her damp skin. "I do swear, as a Wind Walker, and on my own honor, I will stay with you until your students are safe."
"Thank you," she whispered, and squeezed his hand.
It felt right to keep hold of her hand as they continued walking, and Talon realized he was more than a little pleased that she didn't try to free it.
Up ahead, the river bent sharply to the right. A sand bar stuck out into the water, and the opposite bank was a long, gravelly slope. On their side of the river, the ground rose up above their heads and was covered by thick brush. Talon slowed his steps and K'reeth did likewise almost immediately. That pleased him, and he realized with some amusement that he expected a woman of the scholarly clan to be less skilled in woodcraft, less alert to the physical world.
If they had met in the dreamplain--despite her being Na'huma--and had followed that sense of her all the way here, a bond lay between them. Working together would only deepen it.
"If this were a teaching tale," she whispered, tipping her head closer to him, "the kidnappers would be waiting in ambush on the other side of those bushes."
"We have the same teaching tales, I see."
The T'bredi were a scholarly tribe, with members taken from all the Ayanlak, devoted to scholarship, healing, and the preservation of Ayanlak history as a whole. It pleased him to find even little things in common between his clan and hers.
"What should we do? Go to the right and circle around?" she continued, dropping her voice even lower, and gesturing to where the land dropped down again. Talon assumed the land was a ridge here made of rock that resisted the wearing of water and wind, making the river bend around it.
"That depends on how wet the sand bar is." He reluctantly let go of her hand as they approached the place where the bank sloped down to the water. They paused while he took a step out onto the sandbar, testing it with his foot, then bending to touch it. Then Talon saw the scuffed footsteps trail through the sand, heading toward the water. He looked at K'reeth, and from the angle of her head, the direction of her gaze, he knew she had seen the same thing. The kidnappers and the girls had crossed the river here.
"Talon." She pointed, and broke into a run. He followed.
A child stumbled through the thick brush leading down to the shallows on the other side of the river. She was nearly swallowed up by the bushes and river grasses, and Talon estimated they were barely to his hips. All he could make out was a golden-white head of long hair.
His first thought was--Na'huma. He wondered what a Na'huma child was doing this far into Ayanlak territory. Then he remembered with a jolt that K'reeth had named herself Na'huma.
"Neetsa!" K'reeth waved an arm as she ran toward the child.
The little girl let out a shriek and changed direction. Talon passed K'reeth, a flicker of apprehension making him pick up pace. He followed the sense of danger that came to him on the breeze, like a ribbon of foul smoke in the air. Five steps later, he caught a glimpse of movement. Two more steps and it resolved into the head of a man above the tall grasses--and coming closer. Talon bared his teeth in a fierce grin as he realized how far the child had gotten in her flight before her captor came after her.
Neetsa slowed when she saw Talon coming toward her. She turned to look over her shoulder and immediately tripped and stumbled. She caught herself, and swerved away from him, her eyes widening in fear.
"Trust the Wind Walker!" K'reeth called from behind him. Immediately, the child's expression brightened and she turned back to Talon. He reached the girl in a few more steps.
"Keep running!" He gestured behind himself toward K'reeth, and aimed himself at the girl's pursuer.
The man didn't stop, but pulled a knife from his belt and held it out in front of him so the sun glinted off the blade. Talon shook his head at the foolish bravado. A man who ran with an unsheathed knife was asking the Winds to trip him, and risk falling on that blade.
Then they were on each other. Talon feinted to the right and went in low, under the sweep of the knife. He toppled the bandit off his feet with a satisfying thud-oof that knocked the wind out of him. Stunned, the man tried to roll over. Talon whipped out his longer blade and cracked the man across the back of his head with the stone handle. He spasmed and went limp.
Talon turned, looking back the way his opponent had come, expecting the other three men to be on his heels. Then again, marauders had more vanity than common sense. If a big man couldn't handle a little girl, he was no use to their team. There would be no one to back him up.
"But they'll come soon enough," Talon murmured as he went to his knees and searched the man.
"They won't move on without him," K'reeth said, coming up to join him with Neetsa astride her hip. The little girl trembled and hid her face in the woman's collar.
"Two choices." He decided to tie the man with his own bootlaces. If he managed to work free, it would be at the cost of breaking them, which would make travel harder, his boots falling apart with every step he took. "We either tie him and run back the way we came, and know that eventually his friends will be coming after us, and angry."
"Or we attack while they still think they're safe."
"You think like a warrior."
"My uncle commands the enclave's warriors. Knowledge is power and wealth, and must be guarded." K'reeth smiled a little more, and a faint flush of pink touched her cheeks in response to his admiring smile. Then she went pale again, and he knew she had just thought of a third choice and response to their situation--the kidnappers could realize they were being followed, cut their losses, and kill the other three captive girls.
"We attack," Talon offered softly.
"The wisest choice." She nodded, and gestured for him to lead the way.
By this time, he had finished tying the downed man, who still showed no signs of awakening. K'reeth glanced down at him and paused infinitesimally. Talon thought perhaps she wanted to kick him. That amused him, and he admired her restraint and maturity.
They were silent as they followed the trail through the brush. The landscape undulated up and down, and the bushes and tall grasses made it hard to tell until he was almost on top of a downward slope. Talon slid through the growth as quietly as possible, using all the skill of years of training. K'reeth was nearly as silent, only the brushing of her clothes on the branches and grasses giving her away.
The trail of broken branches and trampled grasses turned to the right at the bottom of a long depression in the landscape. By this time they had been moving along for a good ten minutes. Talon was impressed with Neetsa's speed. Under the debris of leaves and moss, he felt pebbles, and guessed that this served as a streambed not too long ago.
Then he heard voices. He raised one hand and K'reeth stopped. Their gazes met. He nodded to the child, then gestured at the ground.
"Neetsa," she whispered, and bent to put her down. "We are going to free the others. You must stay here and be very quiet, and hide."
Neetsa let go of K'reeth with visible reluctance. The solemnity on her round face, the redness and swelling from recent tears in her eyes, pulled at Talon's heart and hardened his resolve. The child looked up at him, questions in her eyes. She leaned in closer to K'reeth and whispered so softly all he heard was the sibilants.
"Of course he will free them. He is a Wind Walker. Omnistos sent him to help us." K'reeth met his gaze momentarily, then raked Neetsa's tangled hair out of her face, kissed the child's forehead, and turned her to face up the slope on their right. "See that hole under that big bush? Curl up in there, and don't come out until I whistle the duku's lullaby."
Talon shook his head in admiration when the child obeyed without hesitation. They waited until Neetsa was completely hidden among the branches and shadows in the gap under the bush. He certainly hadn't seen that hole. Of course, he hadn't been looking for a hiding spot for a child, either.
They continued down the old streambed, listening to the voices. He made out three voices--a good sign. They were all together. No one had taken sentinel duty, meaning they suspected nothing yet. When the voices were clear enough to make out individual words, the trail swerved to the left, up over the bank of the old streambed. Talon made out the breaks in the underbrush where Neetsa and her pursuer had come through.
Together, they crept up the slope to the ridge that was above their heads when standing in the old streambed. Just before they reached the top, they went to their hands and knees, then lay flat to look over the edge and down.