Once Tamron had joined Isontra, the crowd of observers followed Tamron’s cue and began to melt away, leaving a bewildered Trep standing with Collin, Zedic, and his three sentries. Trep sat down on a large log and mumbled, “That went about as smooth as a square wheel.” Hamond, Loren, and Joel turned to watch the musicians set up on the small stage, knowing they were close enough to tackle Trep if he tried to run.
Collin pulled Trep from his thoughts with a roguish grin. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you not to mention leaving. You probably scared the berries out of their biscuits. Give them some time. The Healers will talk.”
“You did mention it. I jess wasn’t listenin’.” Trep shook his head slowly. He was mad at himself for not doing a better job of relating to these people. He watched the Survinees disappear into their little factions. “Doesn’t anybody around here want to know what the rest of the world has to offer?”
“Hey, some of us do.” Collin nudged the older man in the ribs and took a seat on the log next to him. “We have to do things our way, even if it’s a little cumbersome.” He grinned apologetically. “You said something earlier about setting up a trade for the things we might want from the city. What kind of things could we trade?”
Trep was thankful for Collin’s friendship. The young man with the dark hair and green eyes had a way of making him feel welcome that was sorely lacking from the other members of this village. “Well, provided y’all’s Comad doesn’t decide to invoke the Law of Fontus—whatever that is—Naturi does some nice drawin’s and I’ve seen some pretty fancy wood carvings. What do you do?”
Collin motioned for Zedic to sit down. “I don’t do anything, nothing like that. I like to explore things, but I really don’t have much to show for it.” Zedic kicked him, warning him not to say too much. Collin understood. “The only thing I have is this yellow band I found in a cave.” He pulled out the antique ring and showed it to Trep. “I think it’s pretty, but since I don’t know how it was made, I can’t make any more.”
Trep looked at the ring and gasped. “Where did ya say you found this? A cave? Somewhere around here?” He carefully studied the ring. “I’m sure it was made by the Ancient Ones. Look at these fine lines, and here, on the inside, writin’. Yes! Yes! This has to be from the Ancient Ones!”
Collin looked at Zedic, inviting him to pay attention, and then back to Trep. “The Ancient Ones? How did they make it?”
Trep turned the golden band over and over in his rough hands. “There’s lotta things I don’t know about the Ancient Ones. We can do lots with gold ourselves, but this craftsmanship is beyond us. This is a very fine piece. A valuable artifact, if ya can find the right collector.” He held it up and watched the sun glisten off the delicate markings. “The gold is worth quite a bit by itself, but this workmanship is so much more precious.”
Collin was getting excited now. He took back the ring and looked at the script on the inside. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. I’ve seen stone like this before, but it’s much softer than this ring. The Healers like to use it because it is soft enough to make permanent marks in.”
Zedic blanched and made sure Collin felt his foot that time.
Trep choked back surprise. “Really? You say y’all have more gold, and the Healers use it to make marks? What kind of marks? Like designs, pictures, what?”
Standing abruptly and straightening his buckskin vest, Zedic snapped, “The family has needs. It’s private.”
Trep smiled congenially at Zedic and said, “Now don’t get y’all’s saddle twisted. The use isn’t as important as the possibility of findin’ more. Folks down on the plains like gold, and if you have it, y’all are rich.”
Before either of the boys could ask what the word rich meant, Collin’s father, Diakus, walked up. Diakus was a large man, broad in the shoulders like Collin, and about the same height. His gray eyes flashed with anger. He had been drinking wine and was infuriated with Collin for some unknown reason. As annums of practice had taught him, Collin ducked the first blow. This only succeeded to make Diakus angrier. Grabbing Collin by the wrist, he gave a painful twist. “What kind of godless mischief are you up to, boy? What are you doing here with this outsider?” The venom in his voice sent a frigid chill down Trep’s back. “Nor’s piss! You bloody worthless excuse for a son! Your mother’s been looking for you all morning! It’s just like you to go running off when there’s work to be done! She had to carry the pissin’ stew up here herself!”
Collin got up to follow his father, who continued to shout obscenities at him. Every so often Diakus would turn and swing at the boy. Collin was prepared, but a few strikes hit their mark.
Appalled, Trep turned to Zedic. “Cornfeathers! Does that happen often?”
Sitting back down on the log, Zedic let out a painful sigh. “In the early annums, before Collin’s sister and brother were killed, Diakus and Massi were good parents. Now, they spend most of their time drunk on wine.” Trep noticed a disturbing look in Zedic’s gray eyes. “When Collin was five, he saw some outsiders kill his sister, Ellen, and his brother, Cody. Collin was too small to do anything so he hid in the trees. I guess his parents blame him.”
Trep watched Diakus take another swing at Collin and miss. “What happened? Why’d someone want to kill children? And how on earth could that man blame a five-year-old for bein’ the only one to survive?”
Zedic shrugged and stared off toward the fire. “I don’t know. I ask myself the same thing.”
Trep sat quietly, waiting to see if Zedic was going to continue. He was about to bring up a new subject when Zedic spoke, “Collin doesn’t talk about it often. They were all down at Stone Lake—Collin, his sister, and brother. I think they were fishing when two men riding horses, like yours, came up and started chasing Ellen around. She was about fifteen then. They caught her and started tossing her back and forth between them. She fell and tore her dress. Then one of the men started tearing off what was left of her clothes. Cody was only ten, but he tried to get the man to stop. The man pushed away Cody, who hit his head on a rock and never got up. The men did awful things to Ellen, and when they were finished they cut her throat. My father and eight men went in search of the killers, but never found them.”
Trep could feel the bile rise in his throat, unable to say anything, as Zedic continued in a monotone voice. “When Collin told his father what happened, Diakus was so mad, he hit Collin and broke his leg. Collin came to live with us until he was better. Sometimes, I think, when Diakus sees Collin, it reminds him of how he lost his temper that day, and out of some kind of misplaced guilt, Diakus’ anger only seems to get worse.” Trep thought that was pretty insightful for such a young man, but he didn’t interrupt Zedic’s narrative. “His father beats him every time he gets drunk now.” Zedic looked down at his feet. “It’s been that way a long time.”
After another long pause Zedic went on. “Collin’s mother used to try to intervene, but Diakus started hitting her too. After a while, she gave up.”
“That’s too bad. Oh, that’s really too bad. Collin’s a good kid. Shouldn’t have to put up with that. Why doesn’t he leave? I’m sure he could take care of himself.”
Zedic blew out a sigh. “Where could he go? He tries to stay away, but the canyon is only so big.”
“Well, if he wants to go with me when I leave, I’d be glad to take him. He’s pretty sharp, ya know. He’d make a fine partner on the road.”
“The laws forbid anyone to leave the canyon, but, knowing Collin, he would go regardless. I worry that he’ll try going to the city with you, looking for the men who killed Ellen and Cody.”
“Well, he’s certainly welcome. And if I could find those men, well, I’d … I’d … They jess better hope we don’t find ’em, that’s all!”
Zedic shook his head. “The elders won’t let you or anyone else leave.”
Trep swallowed. “Y’all are serious, ain’t ya?”
Zedic stared off at nothing. “Absolutely.”
Trep suddenly realized he hadn’t been out of the canyon without Collin by his side since he’d arrived. It made him think twice about why Collin chose to sleep in his cabin.
Kairma came up to tell Zedic it was time to eat. She was careful to cover the small suede sack that held the crystal with her rabbit cloak. Just as she turned to head back to the fire, she heard Trep ask Zedic if anyone in the Healing family could read the ancient writing. She spun around and looked at Zedic, whose face was as white as her own. He stuttered something about having to go and jumped up to follow her. When they were out of earshot, Kairma turned to Zedic. “What are you telling him about us?”
“I never said anything. I don’t know why he asked that. Collin showed him the ring we found. It has script inside the band, but Collin didn’t say where we found it, or anything about reading script. Collin did mention that we use the gold rocks, but I stopped him before he could tell Trep what they were used for. I honestly don’t know where that last question came from.”
“I don’t think we should trust him. He asks too many questions. And you had better keep close tabs on Collin too.” They walked a bit farther and then Kairma added, “I think we both know he is planning to leave. I couldn’t bear to see something happen to Collin because of some wild dream he has about finding the men who killed his brother and sister.”
They walked the rest of the way to the fire in silence. Zedic didn’t know if he could trust Trep, but he liked him just the same.
Trep found himself alone again. Now he could better understand the colony’s reaction when he rode up that day on his horse, though he would have thought Collin would be more wary of him than the rest. Strange as it was, Collin was the first one to talk to him. Maybe Collin had his own reasons for wanting to go to the city. That didn’t bother Trep as much as why he couldn’t seem to learn anything about the Healing family. Every time he mentioned the community leaders, they acted as if he’d cursed their unborn children.
Trep filled his plate from the selection of foods and made his way back to the log at the edge of the banquet. He sat by himself, watching the social melee that was only beginning to get interesting. Children were chasing each other from tree to tree. Trep thought they were playing some kind of tag-and-run game. Most of the adults were occupied with eating, drinking, and storytelling. As the music became livelier, the younger people initiated a strange kind of snake dance that made Trep chuckle, while the elders moved into their various cliques.
Trep could hear people talking about the karrack and about him. They were asking each other questions that he would have gladly answered.
He saw Hiram sitting with some men and recalled the story Naturi had told him about the burning of the caves. When he overheard Hiram ask about the material used in the karrack, he felt this would be an opportunity to get to know him. Moving closer to the small group of men, he nodded to Hiram. “Couldn’t help but overhear y’all ask about my karrack. I’d love to answer y’all’s questions.”
Hiram and the other men grimaced cautiously at Trep, looked over to the Healing family, and then got up and walked away. Trep went back to sitting on his stump, watching the village celebrate the coming of spring. Frustrated, he mumbled to himself, “Prairie dogs. They all act like a bunch of prairie dogs. Stand up, make a lot of noise, then run an’ hide before ya can approach ’em.”
Kinter was excited when the cooking contest began. This was her first competition and she had high hopes. All the girls who had entered dishes in the competition lined up to the west of the table and crossed their fingers in hopes of first prize. The judges consisted of the three oldest women in the colony.
The apple pastry was first. Addison tore off a small piece and tasted it. “Good flavor, sweet, but not too sweet. The crust is a little tough but definitely a very good entry.”
Hannah and Martena each had a taste and concurred.
A green salad with a tart dressing was next. Martena had a second taste. “I think it must be a mint-based dressing. Very interesting. Is that mustard? Yes, this is very good”
The black bean soup was good, as well as the dried beef strips. Hannah clearly favored the apple preserves and the spice bars.
“Are these blackberry biscuits? I do like good biscuits.” Martena had a nibble and smiled. “Yes, I believe these are about the best blackberry biscuits I’ve ever had.” She passed a bite to Hannah. Kinter could hardly contain herself. If the three judges had turned around, they would have known without a doubt which girl had prepared the biscuits.
The potato soup was very well received and then came the blackberry preserves. Martena had the first taste. She didn’t say anything for a few moments. She nodded to the others to taste. “Interesting. I can’t quite make out that unusual aftertaste.” Addison’s nose crinkled. The judges tasted a few of the dishes a second time and then they were ready to announce the winners.
Starting with third place, the judges walked over to the table and picked up the winning dish. The unusual green salad with the mint dressing took third place, and a very happy Alyssum came up to recite the recipe.
Second place went to the apple preserves. Kinter turned white when Kairma took her place to recite the recipe. She was so upset that the blackberry preserves had been someone else’s entry that she almost didn’t hear the judges when they announced that her own biscuits had taken first place. In a daze, she recited the recipe, all the while wondering who would claim the spoiled preserves at the end of the day. Kinter felt that Kairma had tricked her again and thought bitterly that it was Kairma’s fault. It was always her fault.
Trep walked away and found a seat on a rock outcropping where he could watch the crowd. He pulled out his hemp notebook and started to write. The language wasn’t script, but a crude kind of picture book with symbols for common words. He tried to capture the essence of the celebration and the nature of the Survinees people.
The Healing family interested him most of all. He took note of Toric’s adamant dislike of Kairma, who Naturi obviously liked very much. The royal family seemed to be well-respected in the eyes of the colony, but something was amiss. There was tension when Grimly walked past Jettena on his way to the banquet table, followed by some of the people who had been most vocal about his demonstration. Grimly’s craggy face showed signs of unease as he gathered his supporters about him and Miral Isontra rarely took her eyes off him.
Comad Tamron and Vice Miral Jettena called everyone to the base of the stairs that led to the Gathering Place. Awards were given and announcements made. Dillon grinned broadly as he accepted a beautifully braided leather band that signified first place in the archery competition. He added it to the other bands that adorned the medallion Naturi had passed to him earlier in the day.
Kinter proudly handed out the awards when each winner stepped forward. Trep wasn’t immune to the fact that Kinter was a very pretty girl. She was young, but with a few more years, Kinter would be a real prize. He mused over which of these young men would have the grit and conviction to take on that little ball of fire.
Once the winners accepted their honors, the adults moved over to the altar and took a cup of the peyotel. Collin had warned Trep not to drink the fruit and cactus punch, the effects of which included altered states of perception and feelings. Trep made notes of the ritual but stayed clear of the punch; he needed to keep his wits about him tonight.
Kairma monitored the peyotel. To the side of her, Tamron, Jettena, and Isontra talked silently at a long table on the stairs to the Gathering House. After a while, Isontra moved to take Kairma’s place. “Why don’t you go join the others in a dance.”
Kairma shook her head. “I’m not much for dancing.”
“Go on, you’ll have fun.” She nudged her gently.
Kairma shrugged and got up from the punch. She made her way across the square, looking for Zedic and Collin.
Jettena and Tamron watched the dancing for a while and joined in on a particularly moving number. Their movements were slow and graceful, touching each others palms at about shoulder height. Jettena’s skirt swirled gracefully as they danced by.
She loved to see her parents dance. Her mother was beautiful and her father was the most handsome man she knew, with the possible exception of Naturi.
When she looked over to Naturi she saw, as usual, women surrounding the handsome man. Rose, Alyssum, Ember, Rossi, and Dessa all jockeyed for his attention. Each asked him to dance and Naturi was always accommodating. Kairma smiled and went to join Zedic and Collin, who were trying to see who could put the most food on his plate.
The dancing and music made Trep homesick for the market days in the city, where he was often in the company of many friends. He stared at the gentle Survinees, thinking about how they would fare in the big city. As the sun dropped behind the mountain, the crowd got livelier and quite a bit louder. The musicians were seated on a small stage in the center of the ring of buffet tables. There was plenty of room for dancing outside the ring and most of the young Survinees were dancing and singing along. Hoping it would relax him, Trep decided he would try just one cup of the punch.
Across the square, Trep could see a number of young women around Naturi. The handsome young man danced for a short time with each of the ladies and then retired to the side of Tamron. Jettena obviously enjoyed the young man’s company as well.
Kinter walk up to the stage and, after a brief discussion, she joined the musicians. Pulling out a small pipe, she began to play. The tune made Trep’s blood run cold with the beauty of it. He had never heard an instrument quite like it. Like the sound of a whippoorwill mixed with the loneliness of a mourning dove, it was hauntingly seductive. When she finished the song, everyone clapped and asked her to play another. She played a livelier tune this time and then began to sing. Her voice was as perfect as her pipe and Trep was lost in her music as he sipped on his punch. The next song she dedicated to someone she wouldn’t name, but her eyes were on Naturi. The handsome young man didn’t seem to notice because he was in deep conversation with Tamron.
Soon after the song began, Naturi excused himself from Tamron and walked over to Kairma. He greeted her formally and then asked her to dance.
Kairma felt her cheeks warm and shook her head. “I really don’t dance well, Naturi. I’ll just watch.”
Naturi reached out and put a hand on her waist, pulling her gently into him. “Nonsense. You are a very graceful woman. You cannot do other than dance well.” Kairma knew Naturi was lying. She was as clumsy as a goat, but his dreamy velvet voice had Kairma believing him, if only for a moment. She shyly acquiesced, and he led her away from her friends to the middle of the dance square. The evening was turning cool, but Kairma felt a fire building in her that had nothing to do with the weather.
As they moved around the square, Naturi’s lips brushed past her ear and she felt her heart begin to race. She stumbled, but Naturi caught her and whispered, “I will always be here to catch you, Kairma.”
Pulling back, he looked into her eyes, as round and as pale as the rising moon to the east. “You are a very beautiful girl, Kairma. I wish you could see yourself as other people do.”
Kairma felt her cheeks turn hot and knew she was blushing again. She was sure she knew exactly how others saw her: the colorless girl who resembled a White One. Naturi laughed softly, and she melded to him and put her head in the hollow of his broad shoulder, forgetting for a moment who she was. While they danced, Kairma dreamed of a future where all her questions and fears were abolished.
Naturi laid his cheek against her head and murmured, “You know, I would be good for you, Kairma. You have been the center of my world for many annums now. From the time you were just a babe, I held you in my arms and knew you were meant for me. Everything you do now is of my concern. You need a companion who understands the weight you carry—someone who is strong and knowledgeable. I would be good for you.”
Kairma knew this. She still didn’t understand what Naturi saw in her, but she was sure he would be good for her.
By the stairs, Jettena commented on the young couple’s apparent attraction to each other. “See how well they dance together. They make such a lovely pair.”
Tamron smiled. “Yes, she does seem taken with him, doesn’t she?” He reached over and took Jettena’s hand. “She could do worse, you know.”
Jettena leaned into him. “I really worry that she spends so much time with Zedic and Collin. She’s always coming home covered in grime. It’s all I can do to get her to wear a skirt.”
Tamron kissed her lightly on the top of her head. “I know what you mean. The silly girl still wants to climb rocks and chase after her brother.”
Stirring the punch as she listened to Tamron and Jettena, Isontra came to Kairma’s defense. “She still enjoys the pleasures of being young, but she isn’t foolish. She’ll be prepared for her Seridar come autumn.” She looked over at Collin and Zedic, who were eyeing the dancers. “Collin is her best friend. He’s smart, and he has an ingenuity and strength we rarely see in our people.”
Jettena frowned as she turned toward Isontra. “Don’t tell me you think Collin has the skill to best Naturi at Kairma’s Seridar?”
“Naturi is very well-bred, and Kairma does seem to like him, but I wouldn’t count anyone out just yet. Let’s see what the summer brings.” Isontra pulled her beige shawl around her shoulders and returned to the gentle stirring. “I think everyone has had their fill of punch tonight, and we should head back to the conference room. We have a lot to discuss. That demonstration was interesting.” Isontra got up, and Jettena and Tamron followed.
Kinter had been watching Naturi as he danced with Kairma. She cut the song short and walked off the stage while the musicians did their best to carry the remainder of the tune without her.
Stomping to the table where Ember and Rose sat, Kinter swore, “I hate him!”
Rose looked up at Kinter. “Who?”
“Naturi, that’s who!”
“I thought you really liked him. Wasn’t that the song you wrote for him?”
Ember jabbed Rose in the ribs. “Didn’t you see? Naturi asked Kairma to dance to the song Kinter wrote for him.”
Rose’s eyes grew wide. “Oh! I see!”
Kinter glared at both young girls and walked to Naturi and Kairma. She grabbed his arm, pulling him away from her sister. “You’re a real skunk! I’m never speaking to you again!” She whirled and left the square before he could see her tears.
Naturi was struck dumb. Kairma sighed, “I’ll talk to her. I’ll figure out what you did wrong. I suspect it has something to do with me, anyway.”
Naturi recovered. “She does have quite a temper. I do not believe I have ever seen her that mad.”
“I have. Several times. I’m just surprised it isn’t me she’s mad at this time.”
“Please, let me make it up to her. It is important to me that your entire family is comfortable with me.” Naturi led her to the sidelines.
“I’m sure it will be okay,” Kairma said. Kinter’s in love with you and you can’t see it. She waved to Zedic as they headed in his direction. “Give her some time. I think she’s having growing pains.”
Naturi, Zedic, and Kairma were deep in conversation when a young man Trep hadn’t noticed before began speaking angrily to Naturi. Trep never could contain his curiosity so he moved a little closer to the argument.
“How could you think about going to the city? You have to be crazy.”
“I never said I was going anywhere. I only…”
“So are you going to take the White Witch with you?” He pulled on Kairma’s scarf and it came lose.
Naturi stepped in front of Kairma. “Leave her alone, Efram! She has done nothing to you.”
Tears sprang to Kairma’s eyes as she ran off, and wanting to comfort her, Zedic followed.
Efram’s words were venomous. “Holy Nor! What kind of little bastards will you have? Skinny white weaklings?”
“Kairma is perfectly healthy in every way,” Naturi countered.
Collin walked up and stood behind Naturi, his arms crossed on his chest, feet slightly apart.
“Sure she is. You would know, huh? Been there already like her ma? Ugly little mutant girl probably can’t even have children. If she could, you know, like her mother, we would be swimmi …”
Crack! Collin’s fist hit Efram’s jaw.
Efram went down in a heap and didn’t get up. Collin glared at Naturi coldly for a moment, and then turned and walked away.
As Trep watched, Naturi took a deep breath and picked up the pile that was Efram and haul him to the bonfire. Efram was returning to himself, but Naturi didn’t stick around.
Collin had disappeared and Trep knew he would find him in the extra cot when he got home. Collin had shown up every night in the few weeks that Trep had been staying in the village, and now, after meeting Collin’s parents and his conversation with Zedic, Trep understood why.
The fire had burned low and most of the people had gone home. The temperature was pretty cool on this early spring night. Trep watched as the full moon settled over the tops of the western forest. Not far away from him, sat Hamond, Loren, and Joel.
After a while, Trep wandered back to his temporary dwelling, contemplating the events of the day, with his guards following close behind. Once they reached Trep’s cabin, the Survin men took turns standing watch outside his door.