Rider Bray runs the steppe one stride ahead of her name, racing the wind cross waves of grass glazed in the light of a high cold sun. Heading home, war and longed-for glory at her back, to answer the summons of her warlord queen.
She wants to stay at war. Wants to fight and win, against the enemy şövalye and their black-masked retinues, against her own name and heritage and the weakness it implies. But she answers her queen, the mighty Hau Nidane, the Setless Sun.
Rider breathes the steppe air cold with coming storm and lets her small sedition flow out with it. Runs on.
Her retinue chases her like the chevron autumn geese cut from the sky and among the drum of their footstep she hears, against her will, the ghost of ancient hooves. Down fifteen years of memory her mother tells her: the horses ruled this steppe, this Black Atora, and we ruled the horses, we the Horse People, we of the enamel and the glass.
Then the Walkers came, and killed the herds—
Did they hunt the horses with tribute fire? little ill-remembered Bray asks.
Their secret strength, whispers umi Bray. Unknown to us, to the Horse People: the tribute fire, the given flame.
Oh, umi Bray—if you could see!
Now that tribute sings in Bray’s veins, burns in the sweat upon her brow, alloys her bone and breath. Six years she has been sworn and still this power dizzies her.
Each morning the men and women of her retinue grant her tribute, whispering the words of the ancient Walker rite: our fire, given freely. Each night the tribute bonds break and she diminishes as they fall one by one to sleep. The fire makes her strong, feeds body and soul, grants her might for battle and speed for the steppe.
She has been made şövalye, first of all the Horse People, by the grace and wisdom of the mighty Hau Nidane. And now she has been called home.
She runs on.
The palace of Hau Nidane rises from the steppe ahead, white walls like the bones of the world. Rider Bray shouts to her retinue, voice a mighty drum: “Raise your kites!”
Snail-dye banners dip in answer, codes acknowledged, greetings sent. But no other Nidani şövalye runs out with his retinue to offer escort and guard. Perhaps it is a Walker slight. Perhaps the war has left no şövalye here as guard.
Rider Bray passes through the great stone gates, surrendering her spears and knives, divesting herself of her retinue, and goes down the path of paper lanterns into the henge court of Hau Nidane.
She feels like a stain upon the Walker court, her skin mud against their humus-dark, her jaw narrow and fragile, her teeth gapped and stained. But she has learned to carry herself proud, even under the contempt of the Walker guard, the mathematicians and engineers and concubines that ring the court.
The people who bore her were stains, perhaps. But she is şövalye. She reached up and was lifted.
“My Queen,” she says, and bows her head to the chernozemic earth.
Hau Nidane stands at the pole of the white circled henge, her shoulders broad as the sky, her legs set like the trunks of windbreaking trees. She wears no crown and needs no throne to rest upon. Her open arms circle the span of all that Rider Bray is and will ever be. “My şövalye,” she says. “My sworn and chosen. Welcome.”
“You sent for me.”
Hau Nidane, the Setless Sun, grants her the favor of a smile. “If I ask for word of our war,” she says, “will you be true?”
The Queen lifts a hand: continue.
“We cannot match the King of Emmer Wheat,” Rider Bray says, her brow pressed into the grass, the dark Atora earth, on which she has spilled so much blood. “He gathers tribute from too many. His şövalye are too strong. We have been driven back, nearly to the quarries at Uma Nonya.”
The queen nods. “So it is. You must wonder, then, why I have called you away.”
“I wonder only how I can serve best.”
The Queen beckons for her to rise. “Some say you cannot understand the tribute. That the knowledge of it is not in your blood.”
Rider Bray lifts herself and lifts her chin. “I have ears. I hear what is said.”
“It is not your ears they question.”
Even secondhand, the slight pricks at her temper. “I know the ways of tribute as well as any şövalye,” she says, eyes averted to hide her curled lip, her ill-hidden disquiet: why am I here? “Each day we pledge our fire to you, O queen, by way of your runners and deputies. You in turn choose your şövalye. And as you never sleep, your bond to your şövalye never breaks; and so we are made mighty.”
Hau Nidane considers her şövalye with dark eyes. Sövalye know the rule of eyes: you will see fire only in the eyes of those who burn less bright. Ordinary eyes mean an ordinary woman, or a woman more powerful than Rider Bray. Hau Nidani is not ordinary.
“You carry your name well,” she says. “I chose it to remind you of what you had to prove. And you have proven.”
“You choose well in all things,” Bray says.
“Is that so?” The Queen’s great shoulders cord. “My people starve, Rider Bray. I take their fire and spend it on a war I cannot win, and without that fire, without the strength to heal pox and hoe the earth, they sicken and starve. They say that among the Horse People there are mothers who have given so much they cannot quicken. Does that not trouble you? Do you not doubt me?”
“Never,” Rider Bray says, and smiles within at the truth of it. “You are Queen of the Nidani. Some day your kingdom will mend this shattered steppe and you with all your gathered tribute will be immortal.”
The wind moves among the standing stones and stirs the short strands of Hau Nidane’s hair.
“A traveling sage came to me,” the Queen says. “A man named Marantic Lind. He claims he can teach a band of common tribute to fight with the strength and fire of a great şövalye. He tells me that he can raise an army which will win my war against the King of Emmer Wheat.”
An army. A mob, a herd, an ignoble thing. To hear that bitter word in the mouth of the Queen—
Rider Bray fixes her face and waits.
“Go to him,” Hau Nidane commands. “Learn the truth of his methods.”
“Surely I could do more good—” Bray begins. But the Queen raises a hand to silence her.
“Go to this Marantic Lind,” Hau Nidane repeats. “You are the only Horse Person ever made şövalye. You understand the common tribute. I trust you to be fair in your report.”
Her eyes say all the rest. A Queen cannot speak worry, cannot say fear. Nowhere in the method of Marantic Lind has the Queen made any mention of royal tribute.
I will earn no glory here, Rider Bray wants to shout. I will still be Rider. I will still be a woman with a name that spreads its legs across a horse.
“My Queen,” she says, and lowers her brow to the dark Atora earth.
“We run for the quarries at Uma Nonya,” she tells the chief of her retinue, the albino Suro Bulayo. He is a Walker and her first friend.
“To join the fight again?”
“To serve our Queen.” She gestures impatiently to the gathered retinue, the Horse People who run with her because she shares their blood, the Walkers who run with her because they are deformed or weak or pale of color and no other şövalye will have them. “We go at dawn. Eat and shit while you have the chance. Bulayo—my spears.”
Bray takes their tribute under the sunrise, the fire rich like cream, and blesses each of them with a touch and an oath, for speed and strength in their run. She is trained şövalye. She can do more with their gathered power than they could achieve in concert with all their farflung kin.
This sage Marantic Lind cannot change that truth.
Uma Nonya spills out beneath them at the end of their trail, split by the bent blade of its river, the near bank perilously close to flooding down into the quarries in a broth of sand and sweating flesh.
Bray looks down across the village with eyes made eagle-sharp by tribute fire. Sees an emaciated, pot-belled child working the dry teats of a dying cow. He is a Walker boy with a Walker jaw but naked and filthy as her little brothers. The sod-roofed hut behind him has begun to slump.
The King of Emmer Wheat’s şövalye have never troubled Uma Nonya. No blood has spilled in its white quarries, its clear cold river. But still the war is here.
She turns her eyes to the quarries. Walkers work the walls with ball and chisel and flame, and in the dusted pit beneath them gangs of Horse People labor with cable and lever to drag loose blocks. Everywhere she looks she sees starvation. Tribute fire can sustain a man through drought, but though the rains are late this year, the fire goes to the Queen and the war.
“You’re frowning,” Suro Bulayo says.
At a ramp in the northernmost pit, where a work crew struggles at the ropes of a pale granite block, some peculiarity draws her eye. Rider Bray considers the crew for a moment and points. “Marantic Lind. There.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because he’s a madman,” she says. “And that gang is full of Walkers and Horse People, side by side. No chains. No guards.”
“Like us,” Suro Bulayo says. “Maybe they’re friends.”
“They might have been, before they began to starve. But now?” Bray signs to her retinue, a laconic wave: be ready to move. “I know what Walkers do to Horse People when things go wrong. Someone holds them together. Marantic Lind.”
The granite rides a wooden sledge along the ramp. The men and women of the gang labor downslope against it, hauling at a rope roll, the corded reed lines looped taut around a stanchion upslope so that the gang’s descending labor powers the block’s ascent.
Strange, this: the gang has no caller, no officer to keep time as they labor at the cedar handles. Rider Bray paces the length of the line, breathing their sweat and body stink, her fingers snapping to each perfect synchronized grunt as they step into the ropes like a mother bent to her last labor.
She sees in their eyes the spark of tribute fire, each and every man and woman. They have not passed their tribute to the Queen today.
And they are not starved. Far from fed, surely, but she can smell blood from some of the women. Fat enough for fecundity. Fire enough to cycle.
Among the gang she finds a man, Walker skin and Walker jaw, eyes cast to the earth, narrow shoulders trembling with effort. She knows him by his small bloody hands, hands unaccustomed to work.
“Marantic Lind,” she says. “The Queen sent me.”
“We have stone to pull,” he says. Walker jaw but a foreign accent, touched by the lilt of some other sweep of steppe.
“You’re too weak for this work.”
He looks up and his eyes glimmer with a little measure of tribute fire. “I am weak,” he says. “We are strong.”
She walks past him. Goes to the head of the gang, finds a pair of handles on the rope, sets her boots against the clay-caked ramp, and begins to pull. The rope creaks with her strength, and in her chest and calves she feels the fire swell to answer her.
The beat of labor breaks, and the gang falls apart into confusion. Her pull offsets the rhythm and they begin to slack off the rope, confused, drawn along.
She heaves at the rope, and the stone in its sledge carries on as if they still spent all their strength on it.
“Give me your tribute,” she calls. “I am şövalye. Give me your fire.”
The gathered Walkers and Horse People with their calloused quarry hands look to Marantic Lind. He nods. “Go on,” he says. “Give her your strength.”
One by one they approach with sullen eyes to touch her and whisper: our fire, given freely.
She works the rope and pretends not to hear the lie.
In a cedar cabin between the quarry and the river she wastes the last of the day’s light listening to Marantic Lind.
“We do so many stupid things,” he says, squatted across the fire, steeping the dry leaves of a weak tea. “Quarry by rivers. Till our farmland dry. Waste the fire that could make our people strong.” He sips the tea, grins a curious little grin like a sparrow’s cocked head. “Don’t you think?”
“You have better ways?”
“I have a way to make sixty common Nidani tributes as mighty as any şövalye,” he says.
She lifts her hands to show him the memory of the pull handles. The stone she alone drew up out of the quarry.
“Yes—yes, a powerful demonstration.” He nods like a little bird too, bouncing on his haunches. He has a face not much given to stillness and a tongue uneasy with silence. “One trained şövalye can do so much.”
She finds the mockery in his implication – one trained Horse Person şövalye can labor so well—and stamps on her fury with long weary practice. Maybe he doesn’t mean it.
“But how many şövalye does Hau Nidane command?” Marantic Lind presses. “How many years of training do they each demand from our kingdom? How much gathered tribute?”
She leans forward on her hands, the symbolism conscious: a cat before a bird. “I could kill your gang of sixty in a minute,” she says. “I could snap their bones with my bare hands and run them down as they fled. I could do the same against six hundred. I am invested with the might of so many, Marantic Lind. No number of men lit by one solitary fire can match me.”
“Bray,” Suro Bulayo calls from the door. “People coming.”
Marantic Lind steeples his hands beneath his chin. “I call it the Flock,” he says. “Let me show you.”
They wait outside, the sixty men and women who worked the quarry, Horse People clumped among the Walkers like clots in cream. Marantic Lind opens his arms to them. “Rider Bray,” he says. “I beg you. Give them back their fire.”
She measures him with a sidelong glance. “I wonder,” she says. “What do you get from all this? What is your cause, Marantic Lind?”
“Victory for our Queen Hau Nidane,” he says, his level eyes unblinking. “The unification of the Black Atora under her rule. May it be eternal.”
She considers him a moment more and then reaches within herself to cut their tribute free. Sparks kindle in a hundred eyes before her. “Done,” she says. “Show me, then.”
“Begin,” Marantic Lind says.
The crowd mills with silent intent, pawing at each other, whispering the familiar susurrus: our fire, our fire, our fire. Each groping for the hand of another, for the shoulders of a companion turned away, a communion of grime and common calloused flesh.
Tribute to tribute.
“We pool our fire,” Marantic Lind whispers in her ear. “Every one to every other. It takes discipline, trust, experience—but little training. We have learned to make it work.”
She nods, her curiosity piqued even as her training rebels. “Who leads? Who plays şövalye?”
“A flock has no leader. Only the bird who flies front.”
“I see men, not birds.” She swings to face him, her impatience buried. “A sage should know the uses of the fire, Marantic Lind: to nourish the body, to prolong life, to heal, to quicken, and—in a trained şövalye—to grant speed and might. Sixty weaklings paying tribute to each other are still weaklings.”
“We are the best gang in the quarry,” he says, chin raised. “These were the worst, when I found them. They were all half-dead. Now they labor well.”
This man, she thinks, has never learned his place—and there, in spite of herself, she feels admiration.
“So you feed extra fire to the starving and ill. Take from the strong to coddle the weak. A good and clever trick.” She gives him just the hint of a nod, to prick a drop of hope, as the şövalye who trained her used to do, before the crushing reminder—your name is Rider! Remember who you are!
“You keep your band strong against starvation,” she says. “And deprive the Queen of rightful tribute. Deprive me of strength I need to end this war.”
Marantic Lind raises his hands but she speaks over him.
“You promised my Queen an army. All you have devised is a clever sort of treason.”
“Wait. Wait.” He pushes at the air with his soft hands. “Give us a chance. One chance to show you what we can do.”
“There is more stone in that quarry,” she says.
“In battle!” he pleads. “Let us fight!”
She almost turns away. She almost laughs.
She remembers a Horse Girl, eyes fixed on the cabled calves of a passing şövalye, telling her mother: I will be her.
You can never be her, little Bray.
“The King of Emmer Wheat sweeps the fields north of you with his raiders,” she says. “If your Flock can run, then I will take you out as skirmishers. Is that what you want?”
Marantic Lind nods. The watching Flock whispers to itself.
“Understand,” she says. “We will meet his şövalye and we will cast spears. Some of us will die. I think your Flock will rout. I think the Harvester foe will run you down and murder you. Is that what you want?”
She says this to Marantic Lind, as if he were şövalye of this ragged Flock. He is not, of course; but his Flock still hears.
One of the men among them, a Walker with a broken nose, speaks. “We are dying here,” he says, arm on the shoulder of the man beside him. “I have lost my sons and my husband has lost his wives. We want a chance at a better kind of death.”
“We will need spears, and a chance to learn their use—” Marantic Lind begins.
She signs to Suro Bulayo. “We have spears to spare,” she says. “Eat and say farewell to your families. We leave tonight.”
Of all of them, Marantic Lind looks the most afraid.
“Are you a coward?” she asks him.
They run the blind steppe beneath the infinite stars, north across the grass, through the windbreaker trees and the fields waiting for water to wake the Black Atora’s earth.
“My strengths are hard to see,” Marantic Lind says. He shrugs and grins his sparrow grin. “I was an orphan and a slave. I was carried far from here, to a land of salt and scholars, and told I would never find my way back. But look: here I am!”
He keeps pace with her, and the Flock keeps pace with him, formless but persistent. Not as fast as her retinue, but faster than she expected. Their shared fire, bolstering the weak.
The sliver of moon gives little light and as they run north Rider Bray chews over the possibility of ambush. “Suro Bulayo!” she calls. “We should throw out a screen—”
“No need.” Marantic Lind points to the horizon. “A little starlight multiplied by many eyes, and your night becomes our day. We see clearly.”
A chill takes Rider Bray. “Clever,” she says.
For a moment she glimpses the web of power that binds them all together, these rough and ragged bonds.
“Isn’t it?” Marantic Lind looks giddy. “Isn’t it, though? And only the beginning, only a little trick. Hau Nidane could rule the Black Atora, and with the world’s tribute she could be immortal.”
“It is one thing to see in the dark,” she says. “Another to stand against the mighty. Consider your people, Marantic Lind. They have husbands, wives, children. They may fight so close to home, but they will never go out to war in the name of Hau Nidane.”
“The Nidani are a desperate people,” he says. For a moment he does not look at all like a child or a bird. “Beset by starvation and pestilence and war. Given cause, they will fight.”
“The common tribute cannot fight a war,” she says. “We have our şövalye and our Queen for a reason, Marantic Lind.”
“So that we can spend our fire to feed them, while we starve? So that we can send our strength to the Queen, while we labor at the stone?”
“Consider your position,” she says softly. “Speak with care.”
A cry goes up from the eastern edge of the Flock. “Runners! Runners to the east!”
Rider Bray follows their gestures and sees the glint of moonlight pinned on naked speartips, four minutes distant at a steady pace. The distant runners fly no signal kites. “Harvesters,” she says.
Marantic Lind shouts to his Flock, but already they have begun to unravel. A woman breaks from the eastern file, spear across her shoulders, jaw set, running toward the distant Harvester. “Neida!” someone shouts. “Neida, wait!”
But this woman Neida will not wait. A man named Wick scrambles after her and he draws a whole thread of companions out after him until the whole eastern side of the Flock—Walkers, mostly—has joined their ragged indecisive charge.
“Will you command?” Bray asks Marantic Lind. She knows this pattern, knows how it will play out: eager to charge, eager to break.
He touches his temples, eyes briefly shut. “I have learned many things,” he says. “Not this, though. Not this.”
“I can save your Flock,” she says. “At your word I set myself between you and the enemy, and I screen your retreat. At your word.”
In the distance the Harvester formation opens like a hand and their şövalye steps forth, spear and shield, eyes bright in Bray’s sight. He carries tribute fire, surely, but no great measure. The King of Emmer Wheat leaves him to gather from his own retinue, rather than giving him fire through a sleepless royal bond.
“At your word, Marantic Lind,” she repeats.
For just one instant his eyes beg for servitude, for command. Then he sets his jaw and turns.
“Charge!” he cries. “Forward! Charge!”
And the Flock charges, spilling itself across the steppe, a stumbling cataract of men and women waving spears.
“Bray,” Suro Bulayo says tightly. “Do we help?”
Rider Bray hefts a spear. Considers Marantic Lind, caught up in the tide, roaring his narrow lungs out as if arguing against his own heart.
It will take one bloody moment to break them.
Or one simple intercession to show Marantic Lind his foolishness.
“We wait,” she says.
The other şövalye closes at a bemused trot, and she sees the mantis mask of Ro Kahae, young among the Harvester sworn. He lifts his spear and throws from a great distance. In the stretched sight of battle-ready şövalye Rider Bray watches the shaft arc like dark lightning to take the woman Neida in her stomach. She screams.
The man Wick stops to kneel by her and cry out, and the charge breaks around him. The şövalye Ro Kahae draws from his bundle of spears and kills two men with one cast. Someone throws back at him and he catches the shaft and snaps it as kindling across his knee.
At the spectacle of his might the Flock’s charge slows and spreads. Spears fall short or go wide. Bray loses sight of Marantic Lind in the piling confusion.
“Bray,” Suro Bulayo says. “They have no chance.”
Ro Kahae laughs and draws his blade.
Rider Bray draws breath and speaks as a booming drum. “The flanks!” she shouts. “The left and the right! Go! Go past him! Go for his tribute!”
She leaps forward like a wind across the grass not to join battle with Ro Kahae but to push at the Flock, to add current to their faltering rush. “Kill his tribute!” she roars, bounding down their line. “Take the flanks! You—and you—rally your companions! Hold him!”
Ro Kahae sees her and raises his spear but a mingled bunch of Horse and Walker step forward to cast spears and he must whirl away as all around the Flock streams past like the horns of a bull.
She imagines Ro Kahae’s confusion, beset by this desperate fire-eyed mass, this rabid herd. Sövalye fight şövalye; this is the way of battle on the Black Atora. Retinues do not fight.
She hears Marantic Lind: “Stand by the man beside you! He can only kill one of you at a time!”
The screams of the wounded drown his shout, but then, somehow, it comes from another throat, and another, spreading man to woman, Walker to Horse: “Kill his tribute! Stand by the man beside you!”
The Flock speaks. Ro Kahae hesitates, blade in hand, shield raised against the pressing mass. He roars challenge and his roar is thunder but the Flock’s chant matches him.
Behind Ro Kahae the Flock falls upon his retinue, his spear-carriers and scouts. They have no fire in them for they have given it all to Ro Kahae and so they are no match for the men and women set upon them. When the first man among his retinue dies Ro Kahae feels it.
“Rider!” Ro Kahae roars, name and epithet. “Rider!”
He could kill them all if he stood and fought. But he has never met this kind of war, Rider Bray knows. He knows no way but the Black Atora way, the clash of şövalye.
He draws away. The Flock screams derision at him.
“Run!” Rider Bray roars. “Run, coward! Run!”
He gets halfway to the horizon before the last of his retinue dies behind him, and with his fire so diminished he is only a man again.
The Flock runs him down.
“We won,” Marantic Lind pants. A wounded man shrieks in the grass behind him. “We won. Was it—I couldn’t see, I couldn’t understand what happened—was it you? Did you beat him?”
“I cast no spears,” Rider Bray says. She signs to her retinue: see to the wounded. “You won.”
She is şövalye. She must respect the argument of spears.
Some of the wounded cannot be moved, so the Flock makes camp on the steppe, huddled in the lee of a line of windbreaker trees. “No campfires,” Rider Bray commands. “No light.” She sends a runner back towards Uma Nonya to report, carrying a measure of her fire.
Suro Bulayo and the rest of her retinue bind wounds and guide the Flock in the prevention of sepsis, the setting of bones. “We could use your fire,” Marantic Lind says, flush with his victory, trailing her steps. “You should join them—”
“And if another Harvester şövalye comes?”
He sets a finger to his lips in thought. “Every minute I spend with you,” he says, “I discover new holes in my scholarship.”
Someone screams at a bone set or a surgery begun. Marantic Lind closes his eyes for one guilty moment.
She sits herself against a cedar trunk. “There are no wounded in sövalye war,” she says. “Just victor and vanquished.”
He will not meet her eyes. “Maybe it’s best to let the people earn their victories,” he says. “Maybe we’d rather take our own wounds.”
He folds himself against the trunk. “You saw how they fought,” he says, as if in petition. “You saw what they did against a true şövalye. Imagine a Flock in every village, a horde sweeping the steppe, across every splintered kingdom! Imagine an end to war and hunger and hurt.”
He was a slave, she remembers, and feels as if a small unwise door inside her has come ajar. “It was a good battle,” she says. “Dishonorable and dirty. But good.”
“I’ve never fought before.”
“Let me tell you, then: the good ones are the ones you win.”
He chuckles weakly.
“It’s all right to be shaken.” She takes his shoulder. “Your Flock has power. They fight like idiots—but they can be taught.”
He makes a mindless washing gesture, scrubbing his palms against his thighs. “How did you convince your Queen?” he asks.
“To make me şövalye?”
“Yes. Given that you’re—” He touches his jaw. “Narrow.”
“I told her that we deserved to fight for ourselves,” she says.
“And she listened?”
“She’s a good Queen.” It feels good to say that. It feels good to speak the truth of who and what she is.
But it feels good as well to remember Ro Kahae’s smug Walker face, run down and broken by the mingled mass—
Of course Ro Kahae wore a mask. Of course she never saw his face.
“A good Queen.” Marantic Lind considers the sores he has opened on his hands. “If such a thing exists. If one sleepless sovereign can justly rule so many.”
Angry shouts from among the wounded: Walkers and Horse People shouting over a burial rite. “Whispers only!” Rider Bray shouts at them. “Unless you’re ready for another fight!”
Marantic Lind leans forward with sudden intent. “You used to rule this steppe. Now you labor in our quarries, and all the animals you worshiped and lived with are dead by our hands. How can you serve a Walker queen? How can you accept your place?”
It takes Rider Bray a moment to realize that you means Horse People and not şövalye. “I earned this,” she says, her gaze a challenge he will not meet. “I raised myself up with my own strength. I earned my place.”
“Yes.” Marantic Lind looks across the huddled squabbling Flock. “You earned it. That’s good, isn’t it? That feels right.”
What is your cause, Marantic Lind?
She spits into the grassy humus and when he starts she laughs at him. “You’re a radical, Marantic Lind,” she says. “A dangerous, subversive radical.”
He grins a sly grin.
She gets to her feet. “When we return to Uma Nonya,” she says, “we begin to drill.”
“The sky is so huge here,” he says. His grin has passed and suddenly he seems to have put aside some great part of his life. “I’d forgotten.”
They learn to cast spears, to burn tribute fire on the run and in the push of battle, to answer simple commands and treat basic wounds. They will never be good soldiers; they will never match even one good şövalye.
But Rider Bray watches their progress with a kind of rebellious exultance, watches the shoulder-to-shoulder exertions of the Walkers and the Horse People with dizzy dreamlike want.
Suro Bulayo tells her: “The Flock is spreading. They go home and teach their husbands and wives and friends to tribute each other.”
“I know,” Rider Bray says.
“It is treason,” he chides.
“I know,” she says, and wants to laugh, for even he in all his patient wisdom does not see Marantic Lind’s ultimate design, the purpose that leaves her sweating awake at night, as sleepless as her Queen.
I trust you to be fair in your report—
What is your cause, Marantic Lind?
She should tell the Queen. She must tell the Queen.
She does not tell the Queen.
A Walker woman in the riverside slum gives birth to a son and the Flock gathers when he sickens to pool their fire and make him well again.
The moon fattens and thins like the calf of a running god but still the wet season rains do not come. The Black Atora lies dry and barren.
Rider Bray runs fireless with Marantic Lind to help him build his strength and hears his wild fantasies of lands beyond the place where steppe meets sky and the world ends, lands of crashing salt water and towering stone.
And a şövalye and his retinue come in from ranging patrol to gather new weapons. “We heard you defeated Ro Kahae the Mantis,” he says.
Bray puffs her chest to boast as etiquette demands, but the şövalye spits. “We heard how it was done,” he says. “A true şövalye carries herself in battle. Rider.”
The next day a file of the Flock comes home from a close patrol in frantic fear. Rider Bray listens to their report: six Harvester şövalye and their retinue less than an hour away, their kites red. Challenge to battle.
“They come to take Uma Nonya,” she says. “They will each bear royal bond. Tribute portioned out by the King of Emmer Wheat.”
“So we cannot starve them of fire by taking their retinue,” Marantic Lind says into the hush. “What do we do, then?”
She looks to him and hefts a spear. Holds his gaze for a moment, to say: you know as well as I what you intend to do.
“Bring everyone who knows how to Flock,” she says. “Meet them on the far side of the river, so we have depth for retreat. And kill them.”
“Six,” Marantic Lind says. “Six of them, with royal bond.” He paces the road at the foot of the bridge.
The Flock mills at Rider Bray’s back: the fifty-odd original survivors and great clumps of neophytes, masons and carpenters, laborers and merchants, Horse People packed into nervous stripes among them. They have made their tribute to each other, though it is incomplete; some of the Walkers will not touch the Horse People.
“Surely, in your travels, you have heard of victory against greater odds,” she says.
Suro Bulayo chuckles softly.
Marantic Lind steps close to confide. “We have five hundred at most,” he hisses. “And you, with your retinue and royal bond. Perhaps if we were to tribute the entire Flock to you—”
“And what,” she whispers, “would that mean for you, Marantic Lind? What would it mean for your future, if you turned back now?”
His eyes flicker. “Surely I mistake your meaning,” he says.
“Surely not,” she says, and turns her back on him, to go among the Flock. His eyes follow her, wide with wonder, as she reaches for the closest man, finds his shoulder; utters, without hesitation, the old words: “Our fire—”
Hands reach for her. On the horizon, six red kites soar.
The Flock offers six false şövalye as bait, six men and women full of power that they have never been trained to use. The Harvester şövalye descend on them with a powerful fury and not one of the false survives.
But it is enough to draw the Harvesters in among the mass of the Flock, arrayed along the riverbank. Everywhere around the enemy presses the chanting horde, hundreds in their filth and emaciated fury roaring the commands of Rider Bray, the mantras of Marantic Lind. Limbs swift with shared fire.
Too weak. Too few.
The Harvester champions shatter the Flock, rout the untrained masses back across the river bridges, in among the hovels of the Horse People that squat in the floodplain. Here Rider Bray arrays her trained cadre and her own retinue, to rally the retreating mass, to strike at the glory-hungry şövalye as they fill the winding streets with blood. Here the Flock shows its worth, sluicing its fire from fighter to fighter, throwing its weight behind a single champion and then splintering among a dozen avatars, giving the şövalye no clear target, no single threat to square against.
But it is the voice of Marantic Lind that wins the day. “Rise!” he roars, echo carried down the bloody streets, from a hundred throats, from the riven quarry walls. “Rise and bring the mighty low! Trample them as they have trampled you!”
Uma Nonya, damp quarry of the white Nidani stone, can offer no champions to stop the King of Emmer Wheat; and so, like a wounded hive, it issues forth a mob. They come out of their huddled homes and their desperate prayer circles, calling back the tribute they had given just that morning to the distant Queen, and they paw at each other and say, as the rumors told them to, our fire, our fire, given freely—
Rider Bray, twined for the first time in the web of the Flock, feels the rising flood. Hundreds of new tributes tied into the net, animalistic, desperate, smeared in dust and blood and shit. Desperate to save their homes and themselves. To kill what they hate and fear.
The discipline that Marantic Lind taught his Flock vanishes.
“Rise!” Marantic Lind roars, his voice in a thousand mouths. “You have waited all your lives! Rise and kill şövalye!”
And in the place of discipline the bloodlust and fury of a thousand minds passes through the web of tribute until Rider Bray knows in its entirety this summed thousandfold hate and feels that same summation in a thousand other minds and with that infinity of rage pressing upon her she roars her lungs empty with the need to kill.
Somewhere in the blur of violence she sees fire and a face before her, pleading. She cannot understand mercy, and the face, narrow-jawed and mud-skinned, is too much like her own.
“Sövalye!” the face cries, in the tongue of the Horse People. “Save us!”
She has no time for weakness and need. She turns away to find the enemy.
Afterwards she does not remember what happens down among the mob; only that two of the Harvester şövalye die before the others withdraw, their shattered retinues torn limb from limb, cast into the river or from the quarry walls.
When the mob begins to ebb, when she begins to be something more than howling rage again, she finds herself wandering among the shattered burning hovels of the Horse People slum, her spears cast, her hands bloody to the wrist, her nose and mouth full of the stink of the place as if her years as şövalye had only ever been a dream.
Dead Horse People lie in the streets and smolder in their burning homes. For an instant she has the relief of rage, at the King of Emmer Wheat and his Harvesters. But the Harvester şövalye brought no torches with them. They had no plans to burn.
Some piece of the mob did this. Some part of the panicked mass turned on its own. She remembers the face before her, so like her own. The cry: “Save us!”
She saw this happen and she did nothing. She had no time for Horse People weakness. Horse People need.
She cuts herself free of the Flock. A Walker man with a bloodied chisel stumbles drunkenly past. “We’ve won!” he calls. “It was good! Look at this! It is good!”
Rider Bray stares at him, and perhaps he sees some question in her eyes, for he stops and says: “The good ones are the ones you win!”
“Thirty of the original Flock survived,” Marantic Lind says exultantly. “Thirty who remember your training—thirty skilled in Flock tribute, and bloodied in battle now. Thirty missions we can establish, if the Queen agrees—”
He sits on the bank of the river and rambles on about the possibilities, the village Flocks who will cure their crops of blight and their children of pox, the bands of citizen-fighters that will sweep the steppe in the name of Queen Hau Nidane. “The transfer of power,” he says, “from the disinterested few to the self-interested many—”
Rider Bray wades in the rocky shallows and scrubs her bloody skin. “You’re very convincing,” she says. “Maybe you could’ve fooled someone else. Someone who had never craved what you crave.”
He blinks too rapidly. “But I’m right,” he says. “We can put Flocks in every village. We can win the war for the Nidani, we can—”
“—change the world,” she says for him. She kneels to splash her face. “I see what you see. I see your Flocks conquering the steppe. I see what happens afterward, when you have taught the people of the world this new way.”
He tilts his head birdlike, and just for a moment she thinks he is going to lie. But the affectation passes. The sparrow smile does not come.
“You see what I see, and you know what I know,” he says, as if by speaking it he can make it true. “No one should endure this kind of suffering. No one should be made to sacrifice like this.” He gestures to the horizon, to the quarries and the stillbirths, the dry fields waiting for rain. “Something has to change.”
She scoops water to splash her hair. “How many Horse People will there be in your new Flocks?” she asks.
She waits. Hau Nidane would wait, patient, for an answer. So will she.
He gestures convulsively. “It worked here. Walkers and Horse People together. Comrades—friends.”
“It worked for a band of sixty starving laborers.” She considers the smoke that clouds the dusk. Remembers the burned Horse People hovels, the orgy of violence that swept even her away. Rise. “The Flock needs numbers, Marantic Lind. You know that. Your power depends on consensus, on mass. It does not welcome division.”
He steeples his hands beneath his chin. “You may be right,” he says.
She looks up sharply, startled not by the sentiment but by his poise.
He meets her gaze and perhaps he shrugs. “Something has to change,” he says. “Somehow. If there is a price—well.”
“The Queen Hau Nidane made me şövalye.” She sets her booted feet among the small river stones. “In her wisdom and compassion, she chose me from among the Horse People, against the will of all her advisors.”
“Do you call what you’ve seen compassion?” He speaks softly, as if she were a fellow scholar. “The things these people suffer for your queen?”
That she has no answer for.
“What now, then?” Marantic Lind asks.
“The Queen has summoned me to audience, to discuss the victory at Uma Nonya.” She lifts her chin to match the distant horizon. “To advise her regarding the possibilities of raising more Flocks.”
“Well.” Marantic Lind spreads his hands. “I trust you to tell her the truth, with so much riding on your words.”
She smiles and savors the certainty she feels. “So do I,” she says. “So do I.”
Perhaps history will give her a new name.
“And?” Marantic Lind leans forward, his lips pursed. “And?”
Something booms in the vast distance. Rider Bray looks to the horizon with eyes of tribute fire. Sees, in the orange dusk, the first shadow of the long rain.