On Darkover the winter nights are long and bitter, and even in Thendara, folk are glad to gather around a good fire. Winter in the Guild House is no exception. Except for those Amazons who may be snowbound elsewhere or off training with the Terrans, everybody comes home. In the long evenings we sit in the music room, embroidering or mending harness leather and catching up on everybody's news. But by the Feast of Uriel, when the celebrations of Midwinter are a memory and both the old tales and the new are growing as bare as the cupboards in the storeroom, it's time for the strange tales, the ones we tell to allay the boredom or perhaps to deny the fear that perhaps this will be the year that spring never comes.
After twenty years as a Renunciate, I thought I'd heard all the stories, and after fourteen years as Caitrin n'ha Laurian's freemate, I would have said that I knew her life as well as my own, but that night she surprised me.
For two weeks it had been storming, and Thendara was cocooned in snow. The wind was flinging itself against the shuttered windows, and even in the music room we felt the chill, despite the paneled walls and thick rugs upon the floor. For some reason the conversation had turned to the oddities of employers. Kyla n'ha Raineach was home on a rare visit, and everyone wanted to hear about her adventures with the Terrans. Doria had given us a long and complicated story about negotiating trade-rights in Caer Donn, and Gilda n'ha Camilla was just finishing an outrageous anecdote about a Dry Towner and an oudrakhi, when Caitrin looked around the circle suddenly and said, "I have a question for you all--"
There was something in her voice that made me look up from the Terran text on genetics that I was trying to read, and Kiera, who had finally escaped her Comyn family and joined us, looked at her oath-mother eagerly.
"Ask it then, sister--" said Kyla in her cool voice. "And we will do our best to answer you."
Caitrin gave her a quick glance, her sandy hair glinting in the light of the fire. "In our oath, we limit allegiance to our employers for the season of our employment..." Everyone nodded. One did not forget one's oath-taking, even after twenty years, and with each new witnessing in our hearts we swore it anew.
"What happens to that oath," Caitrin went on, "if the season of employment never ends?"