Nardo snaked through the high grass, his belly so close to the ground that he would be invisible to any eyes that might be watching from the Norakamo camp. He felt a light tap on his left shoulder, and immediately he passed the signal along to Dane on his other side. In a moment's time the whole raiding party had come to a stop.
Nardo lay perfectly still, the fresh, sweet scent of wet grass and flowers in his nostrils as he watched the first gray light of morning brighten the eastern sky. His reindeer skin clothes were wet with dew and the ground under him was cold, yet he was aware of no discomfort.
At last the red rim of the sun peeked over the horizon. The twelve men in the grass lifted their spirits to the rising god and, in the quiet of their own hearts, recited the dawn prayer. Then, with Nevin in the lead, the entire raiding party began to snake forward once more.
The horse herd also had awakened to greet the morning. As the pearly light of dawn slowly brightened into day, the horses' coats turned from a uniform shadowy gray into varying hues of brown and chestnut. Foals reached up their heads, eager to nurse, while their mothers stretched their thick, short necks downward to graze on the rich valley grass. Nardo and the men of the Kindred were downwind of the herd, so the horses fed peacefully, undisturbed by the scent of strangers.
The raiders assessed the herd with expert eyes. Their aim was simple: each man was to catch a mare and ride her back to the Big Ford, where the rest of the raiding party waited with their remounts. Then the men of the Kindred would be on their way back to their safe summer grazing camp in the high mountains, with the Norakamo mares and foals to add to their herd.
Nardo had just decided to try for a short-backed chestnut with a dark foal nursing at her side when the peaceful morning air was shattered by a shrill, piercing whinny. The chestnut mare Nardo was watching lifted her head, and her nostrils flared in alarm.
Ever impatient, Varic had moved too quickly!
Nardo scowled and leaped forward, grabbing the short, stiff mane as the frightened chestnut mare backed away from him. He vaulted onto her back, not taking the time to use the halter he carried slung over his shoulder. The mare squealed as she felt his weight, then she reared. Her foal, abruptly dislodged from his breakfast, fell to his knees. Nardo dug his knees into the mare's sides and flung his weight forward to bring her down. As her front feet touched the ground, he cast a quick glance around to see how the rest of the raiding party was faring. That was when he saw the band of men galloping toward them out of the hazy morning light.
Dawn was a favorite time for both the Kindred and the Norakamo to stage a raid, since it was usually possible to catch the enemy unaware. Not today, however. Today the Norakamo were horsed and ready. Nardo cursed and raked the horse herd with his eyes, searching for his uncle, the raiding party's leader. They had to get out of here quickly!
The chestnut mare snorted, alarmed by the sound of galloping horses and by the stranger on her back. Her foal, catching his mother's fright, squealed and butted his head against her side. She swung around on her hindquarters, circling nervously. Nardo finally caught sight of his uncle. Nevin had not caught a mare, but was on foot on the outside of the herd, shouting to his men. With horror Nardo saw the horsemen bearing down on the solitary unhorsed figure.
"Nevin!" It was impossible for Nardo to control the frightened mare without a halter, so he slid from her back and began to run.
Nevin was the most famous horse raider of his time. For three handfuls of years he had been stealing horses from the Norakamo, and it seemed this morning as if the Norakamo had determined to put an end to his career. Ignoring the rest of the raiding party, ignoring even the possible loss of their precious horses, they were clearly intent upon capturing Nevin.
The herd's lead mare gave another shrill, piercing whinny and began to gallop away down the valley. The rest of the panicked mares followed immediately. There were shouts from the mounted Kindred raiders, who were being swept along helplessly by the stampeding herd. Only the fact that Nardo was on the outside of the herd saved him from being trampled to death. As it was, one mare knocked into his shoulder, sending him crashing facedown into the wet, aromatic grass.
By the time Nardo leaped to his feet, the Norakamo had his uncle surrounded. Nardo's fingers tightened on his javelin as he assessed the situation. Nevin was turning warily in the midst of the circle of his enemies, his short spear raised, but he was trapped. Nardo ached to go to his uncle's assistance, but he was realistic enough to see that his single javelin would make no difference to the outcome of this encounter.
The Norakamo were going to capture Nevin, and they would demand a great number of horses for his return. If Nardo was captured also, his father would lose half the herd.
Then, as Nardo stood there watching, one of the Norakamo horsemen surged forward into the circle, his javelin raised. One of the other men in the circle bellowed, "Loki, don't!" but the javelin had already buried itself in Nevin's chest. Nevin bent forward at the waist, then slowly collapsed into the knee-high grass.
A rush of color, red as Nevin's blood, suddenly swam before Nardo's eyes. A great roar of fury and anguish erupted from his throat. He leaped forward, swift, graceful and deadly as a cave lion in the morning light, straight for the man who had killed his uncle. He had the satisfaction of feeling his spear bury itself in living flesh before the horses closed in around him.
Alane was bringing the morning's water from the river when her father and the men returned to camp leading three horses with bodies slung across their backs. She rushed forward so quickly that water splashed out of the basket on her head and wet her hair. Her father roared out his wife's name: "Adah! Come quickly! One of these men is injured."
"Aiiiya!" Alane's mother ducked out of her tent and came running. The rest of the women in the camp called to their children, and all stood in breathless silence at the thresholds of their tents, watching as the scene unfolded before them. The tents all formed a large circle, so everyone had a good view of the men as they untied one of the bodies and carefully lowered it to the ground.
In the silence, a flock of geese rose like smoke from the river, their wings hammering the air as they climbed into the sky.
"This is the one who is hurt," Alane heard her father saying. "The other two are dead." The shadow of the flying geese passed over the men and horses, and Tedric added grimly, "One of the dead men is Nevin."
Alane's heart began to hammer. Then she raised her hands to the basket on her head and carefully lowered it to the ground. Her hands were shaking and more water spilled onto the beaten-down grass of the campsite.
"I thought you were only going to capture him," Adah said, her voice sharp with fear.
Tedric gestured to the body that was slung across the third horse. "An evil spirit must have possessed Loki. He ran Nevin through with his spear. The injured man killed Loki in revenge."
A high-pitched scream came from one of the tents as Loki's mother learned of her son's fate. She rushed forward, and the men lifted Loki's body from the horse and laid it gently upon the ground. His mother fell to her knees and began to keen loudly. A few other women joined her.
Alane could feel her heart beating in her throat. She looked at her father's grim face and wondered if he had made any attempt at all to save Loki's life.
"We do not want this one to die, then," Adah said, gesturing to the man who lay stretched unconscious upon the ground. She raised her voice to be heard over the sounds of grief that were pouring from the throat of the bereaved mother and said to the men, "Bring him into the medicine tent and I will tend to him."
One of the keening women looked up and demanded, "Where is the shaman?"
"I am here." The voice was mellow and deep, the voice of a singer. The slim man approaching the center of the campsite was wearing the great horsehair cape that signified he had been engaged in a religious ceremony. His face was thin, almost gaunt, with deep creases down each cheek.
"Hagen!" Loki's mother screamed to her brother, lifting her tear-blurred face. "Loki has been slain!"
The shaman halted and looked at Tedric. His lightless gray eyes bored into the chief's. "How did this happen?" he demanded.
Before he answered, Tedric deliberately gestured to his sons, who bent to lift the injured man under his shoulders and feet. Then two more men stepped forward to support him at the waist, as if his weight were too great for only two to carry. The sun shone brightly on the front of the unconscious man's shirt, which was soaked with blood.
As the procession moved off toward one of the tents, Tedric explained tersely to the shaman what had happened. Without a word Hagen went to examine the body of his dead nephew.
The rest of the men stood nervously by, regarding the dark-haired corpse that was tied by its hands and feet across the chestnut mare's back.
"I am thinking that the Kindred will not return home without Nevin's body," Tedric said to the shaman's back. "They will also wish to learn the fate of this other man."
"Until they come we do not want to keep the body here!" one man said.
"Sa, sa," the others agreed fervently. The Norakamo were always uneasy in the presence of death. The ghosts of the newly dead were yet too close to the body for living men to feel safe.
Hagen rose to his feet. "Put it on the raft and take it to the far side of the river," he ordered. "The water will keep his spirit away from us."
The men nodded and moved with alacrity to do his bidding.
"Alane!" It was Adah, calling from the open doorflap of the medicine tent. "Bring that water in here." As Alane bent to lift the water basket to her head, Adah spoke next to the shaman. "Will you come and look at the injured man, Hagen?"
The shaman stared once more at the body of his sister's son. Then, "I will come and look," he said.
The stranger stirred and sighed, and Alane hastened forward to see if he was finally waking. But after a moment he subsided back into sleep once more.
Both her mother and Hagen had said it was not the spear wound in his shoulder but the great bruise on his temple that was keeping his spirit from returning to the land of the living.
"He came roaring into our midst like an enraged bull," Alane's father had said. "He killed Loki and wounded Oden and Larz before I finally felled him with my spear handle."
Alane thought of this conversation now as she gazed down into the face of the unconscious man. The skin on his temple had been broken by Tedric's blow, and under the jagged tear a huge lump had risen. Her mother had told her to keep putting cool, wet buckskin cloths over the lump, and now Alane dipped a fresh piece of buckskin into the water basket, which was lined and made waterproof by salmon skins. She removed the now-warm cloth from his forehead and replaced it. He did not stir. Alane resumed her post by the injured man's side.
All the Norakamo understood the code of the blood feud, and so they knew that it was in the best interest of the tribe that this man live. Loki's action in killing Nevin had changed the rules by which the tribes played their raiding game, and the Norakamos one hope of avoiding a devastating vendetta lay with this man. Loki had killed Nevin; Loki had been killed by this man. If he lived and could be returned to his tribe in health, then perhaps the Kindred would be satisfied that vengeance had been done.
He was a young man, Alane thought, her eyes on the stranger's face, although the dark stubble of beard indicated that he was not a boy. Alane's gaze moved next to his naked chest and shoulders. Dhu, but he was strong! Surely a man built like that could not be killed by a blow on the head. She reached over and spread her cool fingers on his sound shoulder. His skin was much darker than hers, and it was too hot. She frowned.
He should drink. It was not good to be so hot and not drink.
Alane filled an antelope horn with water and dropped to her knees at his side. Slipping one arm under his head, she raised him, propping his head upon her shoulder. His head was very heavy; his eyelashes were amazingly long and thick against the hard line of his cheeks. Alane lifted the horn to his lips.
"Drink," she commanded. Centuries before, the Norakamo had spoken their own language, but after many years of living in the lands of the Kindred, they had gradually adopted the other tribe's language. They used their original tongue now only in certain prayers.
There was no response and Alane trickled a little water upon his closed lips. It dribbled down his chin, but after a moment his lips moved. "Good," she said softly. "Come now. Drink." She held the cup once more to his lips, pressing its rim upon his bottom lip to encourage him to open. She smiled when she saw him swallow.
A shadow fell upon her. She looked up and saw Hagen standing between her and the light from the open doorflap. Hung around his neck was the feathered stole he wore when he healed.
"You should not be holding that man against you," the shaman said in a cold voice.
Alane could feel her face flush and was angry with herself for such a reaction. She was doing nothing wrong! "My mother said that he must drink," she said.
"Your mother should not leave you alone with a Kindred murderer," the shaman said, his voice even colder.
"He is still wandering in the land of the spirits," Alane replied. "He is no danger to me, Hagen." Carefully she lowered the Kindred man's head until he was lying flat. She looked up once again at Hagen, her face a mask of calm.
Alane was well aware of the long-running power struggle between her father and the shaman. Both were strong, dominant men and each felt that the other was always trying to encroach on his circle of authority. Hagen had recently tried, and failed, to win Alane to wife for one of his nephews, and Tedric's refusal still rankled.
The sound of the chief's voice floated into the tent, and then came the sound of steps approaching. Two young men came rushing over the threshold to drop to their heels beside the man lying on the reindeer skin bedplace.
"Nardo!" the bigger of the two men said urgently, "Nardo, it's Dane! Varic is here, too. Can you hear me?"
"He is in the land of the spirits," Hagen said in the same cold voice he had used earlier to Alane.
"He is so pale," the man called Varic said. His dark brown hair fell forward around his cheeks as he leaned over the unconscious body of his fellow tribesman.
"Obii," said Dane. "If he should die!" There was anguish in his voice.
"He will not die," the shaman said. "His heartbeat is strong. He is gathering power from the spirits to heal his body. When he is powerful enough, he will awaken."
The man called Varic raised his head, and Alane saw that his brown eyes were set very widely apart, giving him a peculiarly childlike look. When he spoke, however, his voice was hard and full of menace. For your sake, shaman, and the sake of your tribe, I hope you speak true."
Her involuntary gesture attracted Varic's attention, and he looked at her for the first time. "You are caring for my cousin?" he asked.
As he spoke, Adah came in the door. Alane's eyes darted to her mother, and Adah responded by answering the stranger for her. "This is the chief's daughter. She has been keeping watch on your kinsman while I attended to other matters."
Varic's widely spaced eyes did not move from Alane's face. "He will like waking up and seeing you," he said, and Alane's eyes fell before the frank admiration in that look.
Adah said, "If you try to move him, man of the Kindred, you will do him harm. It will be best to leave him in our custody until he is healed."
The man who had identified himself as Dane lifted his head and gave Adah a piercing look. Alane's mother responded in a reassuring tone: "We know well it is to our advantage that he recover. You may trust us."
Varic's voice was deeply bitter. "Your treachery killed my father. How can you expect us to trust you?"
Alane regarded him with deep surprise. If Nevin was this Varic's father, she thought, then why had vengeance been done by someone else?
There was a movement by the door, and Tedric came into the tent. Evidently he had heard Varic's last words, for he crossed his arms and said impassively, "My orders were to capture Nevin, not to kill him. Loki acted on his own, and he has paid for it. This man"--Tedric pointed at the recumbent figure--"killed Loki. A life has been given for a life. It is finished."
Involuntarily Alane glanced at Hagen. His face was set like stone. He did not speak.
Slowly Varic rose to his feet. "It is not finished," he said to the Norakamo chief, "until my father's sister's son has been returned in health to his mother's house." He paused, then added with cold deliberation, "And to the house of his father, Rorig the chief."
There was a reverberating silence. It was Adah who finally asked, "This man is the son of your chief?"
"Sa. His name is Nardo and he is the son of our chief."
Tedric said grimly, "I hear you."
Varic looked down once more at his cousin's unconscious face. "I am thinking that you are right when you say it would be ill to move him. Therefore I will leave him with you and take my father's body home." He stood up again, and this time he looked at Alane. "Take good care of him," he commanded.
Alane bowed her head. Dane touched the unconscious man on the cheek with a gentle finger, then rose to follow his fellow tribesman out of the tent.
In grim silence the men of the Kindred loaded Nevin's body onto one of their horses and took the path downriver toward the Great Ford. After the corpse was well out of sight, Hagen, dressed in his great horsehair cape, went around the entire encampment, sprinkling water for purification. Then, chanting the proper incantations, he threw four javelins: one toward the Altas in the south; one toward the plains in the north; one toward the east, where the sun rose; and one toward the west, where the sun set. The javelins, he told the tribe, would drive back Nevin's ghost should it seek to return.
"Now," said Tedric to his wife as he came back into the tent, "this man must get well!"
Adah took over the sick watch, leaving Alane to see to dinner for her father and her brothers. There was deer meat from yesterday's hunt, and Alane seasoned it with wild onions and thyme and cooked it in a stone-lined fire pit. With it she served a salad of sorrel and hawthorn berries.
The men ate hungrily, and Alane moved quietly around the hearth, offering more meat and filling their cups with mint tea. It was not until the men were finished that she took some food for herself. It was always the way of the Norakamo women to eat only after the men had been satisfied.
"Father," she asked after she had finished chewing her first piece of meat, "why did not Nevin's son avenge his death?"
Tedric drained his tea and held out his cup for a refill. "He was probably caught in the herd's stampede." He waited until Alane had filled his cup before he added, "But even if that had not happened, the primary duty of revenge would still have fallen to this Nardo."
"I don't understand," said Stifun, Alane's second brother.
"The Tribe of the Kindred does not count kinship as do we of the Norakamo," Tedric explained. "They make their first prayers to Earth Mother, and to them it is the mother's line that is the important kinship connection. A man of the Kindred belongs to the kin group of his mother, not of his father."
Alane's eldest brother, Rune, ran his fingers through the pale bangs that hung almost to his eyebrows. "We know that, Father, but I still do not understand...."
"Nevin was this man's mother's brother. To the Kindred that is the closest of all male ties," Tedric said.
"Even closer than son to father?" Fenris, the youngest boy, asked incredulously.
"Even closer than son to father" came the reply.
There was silence as Tedric's three sons tried to comprehend such a strange thing. Then Alane said, "He is the son of the chief. Do the Kindred pass the chieftainship from father to son as we do?"
"Sa," said Tedric grimly. "They do."
Alane was clearing away the antelope horns in which she had served the stew when Irek and Piet, the elders for each Half of the tribe, appeared in the open doorflap. Tedric gestured them in. Shortly after they were followed by Hagen, who was accompanied by his nephew Vili. Tedric scowled when he saw Vili, who had no right to attend a chief's council. He did not challenge the shaman's decision, however, but sat in disapproving silence while Alane poured tea for all the men. Then she retired to a corner of the tent with Stifun and Fenris and picked up the basket she was weaving.
Finally Tedric opened the discussion. "So," he said heavily, "it seems we are dealing with the life of the chief's son."
"Are you certain he will recover, Shaman?" Irek asked.
Hagen took a small sip of his tea. "I think so," he said.
"You told the men of the Kindred that he would definitely recover!" Tedric bellowed.
Hagen shrugged, unperturbed by the chief's anger. "He should. But sometimes unforeseen things happen. You all know that."
He is such an eel, Alane thought with exasperation. Her head was bent over her basket, but her ears were attuned to the voices of the men.
Tedric looked from Irek to Piet to Hagen to Rune. Deliberately he did not acknowledge the existence of Vili. The summer sun had not yet set, and the men's faces were easily visible in the light from the open doorflap. Tedric's eyes came back to Hagen. "This man must live," he said, slowly and deliberately. "We do not want a blood feud with the Kindred. They are a much larger tribe than we are."
"We are as good as they at horse raiding!" Vili said furiously. He had not missed Tedric's deliberate insult. Like his uncle, Vili had a narrow, hollow face, but his lips were oddly full. He had been the husband whom the shaman had proposed for Alane, and she had been vastly relieved when her father refused him. There was something about Vili that repulsed her.
Tedric raked his fingers through his thick beard. "Horse raiding is a game," he said shortly. "A blood feud is serious."
Vili jutted out his chin. "I am not afraid of the Kindred."
What a fool Vili is, Alane thought scornfully. Her fingers flew automatically over the basket, their skill so deeply ingrained that they could work without the attention of her brain.
"If the Kindred call for a blood feud, we will not back away," Rune said to Vili. His blue eyes moved to the shaman's face. "But we would be fools if we did not do what we could to avoid a war of vengeance."
Hagen said, "My nephew Loki lies dead and my sister weeps." His face was impassive.
"Loki killed first," Irek said. "I was there and I saw."
"Loki was a Norakamo!" Vili was almost shouting. "His murderer, who lies at our mercy, is a man of the Kindred!"
A fool and a coward, Alane thought, to want to take advantage of a helpless man. She looked up from her basket and her eyes met those of her brother Stifun. He made a disgusted face, and Alane nodded in silent agreement.
"What are your thoughts on this subject, Hagen?" Piet said forthrightly. "Do you think we should slay the son of the Kindred chief?"
Alane smiled. Everyone knew how the shaman hated plain speaking. He preferred to work by innuendo and suggestion. She understood perfectly that he had brought Vili with him to do his dirty work, to say the things Hagen would not want to say himself.
However, no discomfort showed on the shaman's face as he returned Piet's look. "I am a healer, not a murderer," he said. "I have said that this young man will recover, and he will. But I thought it would be well for you to understand the mind of Loki's kin. Loki rid the tribe of its greatest enemy; it is hard to see his death go unavenged."
Vili growled in agreement.
Tedric said, "I understand your grief, but Loki chose to act outside my orders. Under the circumstances he has no right to vengeance."
"I agree," said Irek, leader of the Black Half of the tribe.
"And I," said Piet, leader of the Red Half.
Hagen rose to his feet and Vili hastily followed. "The tribe has spoken," Hagen said. He put his hand on his nephew's arm.
Alane watched the two men depart, and then her eyes went to her father's face. Tedric looked grim.
"Mother is sitting with the Kindred man," Rune said into the silence.
"Tell her to remain there," Irek said. "Just to be sure."