This story is of my own making and unashamedly fan fiction. It takes place in High Hallack, a continent on the Witch World, created by Andre Norton. I originally did this story as an exercise for a writing class I took a few years ago. I asked Andre's permission to use her world for educational purposes only and she graciously allowed me to write in her world. I only wish that I could have sent her a copy of the story before she died. I don't know if I've succeeded in mimicking Andre's style, but I hope I haven't mangled her world too badly.
The men, both tall and youth-slender, stood toe to toe. The elder's smooth-cheeked face belied the age buried in his deep-set eyes. His slanted mahogany brows were drawn into a fierce scowl. Lips made thinner by ire were slashes above a jutting chin. His shaggy, red-brown hair melded into the fur trim of his short, leather tunic. He wore breeches and boots of the same material. A fur belt, clasped with glittering red gems the same colour as his eyes, completed his outfit.
The son did not have the same confidently arrogant stance as his elder, nor the same fanatical insanity in his starless black eyes. Except for the brown-black of hair and fur, he was a twin to the other. The gems of his belt clasp were flat black, seeming to devour the light rather than reflect it. They were arguing. Again.
“Toren, you are forbidden to go. I will not have my son forsworn as an Outcast.”
The younger man stiffened with repressed violence. “Father, there is neither cowardice nor shame in honouring a blood debt. Kethan saved my life and you know it. I would be forsworn if I ignored that fact.”
“He and his are Outcast. You will not speak his name in my house.”
“Kethan,” Toren spat defiantly, “Is no more responsible for his father's actions than I am for yours.”
“They are kinless and clanless, so named by the Council,” Halse stated unequivocally. “I will hear no more!”
“No, Halse. You will not hear,” Toren said. He grabbed his bulging saddlebags from their pile by the door and strode out.
Halse followed him. “Leave now and you will be Outcast like the coward you run to,” he shouted.
Toren did not acknowledge that he had heard what all the Grey Towers must have heard.
Toren fumed all the way to the stables. Halse would not listen to reason. His hatred for Kethan's family went beyond the realms of sanity. Years before, Kethan's mother had refused Halse for Herrel, Kethan's father. Halse maintained that Herrel had stolen his mate. Now Halse expected his only son to carry on the blood feud. Toren shook his head in resignation. Halse would never change.
Toren shunted aside his anger upon entering the stables. His horse would be difficult enough to saddle without being goaded by Toren's emotions. It took a few minutes to saddle his mount and he was ready to leave.
A body blocked the stable door. Whip-slender as all the Were-Riders were, this face showed the lines of advanced age. His hair was a deep chestnut, ungrayed, his eyes the blue-brown of his shape-changed self, a stallion. It was Hyron, the Pack Leader.
“You will go to Herrel.” It was not a question.
“I will honour my debt to Kethan,” Toren agreed.
As if he spoke to himself, Hyron muttered. “Again, Herrel disrupts the Grey Towers.”
“Not Herrel,” Toren snarled, angry again. “But you. And Halse. And others like you. You refuse to admit that the Shadow cannot be fought with sword or tooth or claw. So long have you fought among men for petty power, that you cannot see that the Shadow Magic is stronger these days. The Were-Riders were born of the Shadow and there they will remain until they learn.”
“The Were-Riders do not support the Shadow,” Hyron Spluttered indignantly.
“The Were-Riders support nothing but themselves. If a man does not conform to the Were-Riders standards, if he cannot be bent to the Pack standards, he is feared and hated. His is Outcast. Or she.” Toren stared hard at Hyron. Kethan had told Toren his parents' history, of how the Were-Riders had Outcast Herrel and almost killed Gillan because she was a witch from overseas. Toren's remark was a deliberate reference to the Pack's dishonour.
Hyron's face remained hard, not acknowledging the remark.
“By this much do the Were-Riders support the Shadow. It is only lip service you give to the Light.” He mounted his restless horse. “It is not Herrel who is Outcast, but yourselves.” He kneed his horse, brushing roughly past Hyron to the outer gate.
The young woman drove an ancient cart pulled by an even older carthorse. She could not be considered a beauty, but her even features, soft brown eyes and coiled, walnut-shaded hair gave her an air of permanence and security. Her clothes were the well-worn, oft-mended badges of her poverty.
Rani's thoughts were not on her travel but looking ahead to the next harvest. With luck, she would have enough coin put aside to get a good bargain on a cart and animal. “Tanna, you are too old to be plodding up Dale and down. Maybe we can find you a pasture-mate, eh?” she asked the aged gelding.
He nodded his brown head as if in understanding and abruptly halted. Had his speed been any greater than his usual amble, Rani would have been tossed from the wagon.
“What is it, old friend?” Rani searched the trees and bushes along the rough track with wary eyes. The Hounds of Alizon had long been routed, but there were other survivors that preyed on the helpless. This close to the Waste and far from the safety of any large keep, one learned to be prepared.
She drew her bow from under the seat, not taking her eyes off Tanna. He was facing ahead, his ears wobbling from her to the beginning of the game trail that led to the pass called the Throat of the Hawk. It was said that there the Dalesbrides found their Were-Rider grooms and new lives beyond the Waste.
Rani thought little of those tales, having been born too late to witness the Brides' passing. Certainly, she had nothing to fear from a Were-Rider. They were long gone. There was a greater threat in the kinless and clanless bandits that sometimes lurked even this far west. Perhaps...
Her thoughts were broken by a movement from the bushes at the edge of the game trail. Whatever it was, it moved slowly and presented no danger to Tanna, else the beast would have had them home by now.
Rani sniffed the air and her eyes widened. Bear! The stench was unmistakable, but why was Tanna not in a panic?
Rani waited for several long minutes. At last, a large black head poked out. Rani gasped. She should have run when she could! Judging by the amount of blood on the bear's head, it was badly injured and, therefore, unpredictable. Tanna stood still.
The bloody head was followed by an even gorier body. It crept onto the track and collapsed.
Dead? Rani wondered. She trusted Tanna's judgment, that there was nothing to fear from this animal. If it was near death now, it would be kinder to grant mercy than to leave it. Besides, as little as she liked bear meat, it would be a welcome addition to her meagre table.
Slowly, Rani stepped down from the wagon, her bow exchanged for a knife. She walked toward the beast, prepared to run if necessary. As she drew nearer, she could see the vicious slashes and gouges on its head and shoulders. Whatever it fought was not what Rani would be pleased to meet. She had best be quick.
A stone shifted under Rani's foot and she froze. The bear's eyes opened. It moved its gaze to the knife in Rani's hand. She could have sworn that it nodded. The movement was faint. It closed its eyes again as if waiting. Rani did not move.
Then a most astounding thing happened. The beast's fur began to change, its shape to waver. In less time than it takes to tell, Rani looked down upon, not a bear, but a man! A Were-Rider!
Stunned, she automatically reached out to touch him and hesitated. A Were-Rider? Rani felt a stab of pity. He looked so helpless. But a Were-Rider? Fear warred with compassion in her mind.
It was Tanna's impatient snort that broke the spell of surprise. A breath rattled through the man's lungs. He still lived!
“But not for long, if you remain idle,” Rani chided herself. Although not a Wise Woman, she knew enough about healing to get the simpler jobs done. This would be much more difficult for her alone, but the only people more feared of shadows than the nearest Wise Women were the villagers hiding behind them.
Rani could not leave him to die, fierce legend or not. She used her knife to chop her underskirt into crude bandages for the worst of the wounds. She was unsure she could do any good, but she would try.
It did not take long to bring Tanna and the wagon closer. The blankets that had kept her warm during the morning's cold served as a rude bed in the box. But how was she to get him into the wagon? He was easily twice her weight.
Her attempts to rouse the Rider were not entirely successful. She still had to take most of the weight, but he managed to help somewhat as she levered him into the wagon. He fell to the bed with a low moan and lapsed into unconsciousness. Rani scrambled into the seat and slapped Tanna into movement.
It was almost full dark by the time Rani arrived home. Her oldest daughter, Magry, ran to meet her.
“Get my healer's bag, Magry,” Rani demanded as the girl came into hearing range. “Bring it to the horse shed.” There was a small room off the main shed that would have to serve as a sickroom. There was no way she could carry his bulk into the house and up the stairs, even with Magry's help.
Not since her husband had died, had Rani had to tend to a man. Very few men had passed their small farm in the three years since, and none to stay.
Rani tried not to do the Rider further injury as she pulled him from the back of the wagon. She shouldered her way into the small room and settled him on a low couch. Magry came running in with the healer's bag.
“The water is hot as well, Mama,” she panted. “Is there anything else I can do? Is he badly hurt? What happened?”
Rani smiled weakly. “It looks like he was in a fight. Yes, he is badly hurt. Would you take care of Tanna, please?” Rani asked, answering Magry's questions in reverse order.
“Yes, Mama,” and the young girl left Rani to her work.
Magry came twice to bring hot water, and once more to bring more bandages. The Rider did not stir, even when Rani knew she must be causing him pain.
After she finished, Rani collected the bloodied cloths and his torn clothes. There was little that could be done with the clothes. They were too mangled to be re-sewn and very few pieces were even big enough to use as patches. In the meantime, he could wear some of her late husband's things. If he lived.
Rani went back to the house. Magry was waiting up for her. Dona, her youngest daughter, was asleep.
“Will he live, Mama?” Magry asked as her mother settled down to a cold supper.
Rani sighed. “I hope so, dear. I no longer have a voice in the matter.”
“Why not? Will you watch him as you did Papa?”
Rani looked at her daughter, surprised. “Why would you think I would not try to save him?”
“Well, he is a stranger.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“Your grandmother says entirely too much,” Rani interrupted.
“You did tell Krennor the blacksmith that you did not need a man to look after,” came the final logic of ten summers.
Rani laughed, suddenly feeling much better about her unexpected guest. “Magry,” she explained, “do we not have enough to do without adding another mouth to feed, dishes to wash and clothes to mend?”
“But he could help with the chores,” Magry protested. “And you would be able to bake cookies and play with us, just like when Papa was alive.”
“Magry, not all men wish to be fathers to someone else's children. Just because I look after someone who is ill does not mean that he will be my husband.”
“Why not?” the child asked. “We are good girls, Dona and I. And you are a good cook.”
Rani chuckled. “Just because, that's why.”
“You have to fall in love first, right?”
“Right.” Rani did not hide her smile. “But if you want this man to live, I had best go check on him.”
“You will need blankets,” Magry stated and was gone before Rani could say yea or nay.
She shook her head. It looked like she would be spending an uncomfortable night whether she wanted to or not.
When Magry returned with the blankets, Rani gave her a good night kiss and told her to get some sleep herself. “After all, if I am to see to the stranger, I will need you to see to Dona and the house.”
“I can do that, Mama,” Magry agreed quickly.
“I know you can. Now good night, dear.”
“Good night, Mama.”
Rani returned to find the young man's fever had risen. At least, he looked like a young man. Rani was not sure what to expect when she arrived at the horse shed.
She changed the poultices and the bloodiest of the bandages. All that night and the next day, she battled the fever with what healcraft she knew. Magry sat with the patient while Rani did the heaviest of the chores and explained to Dona why she could not stay.
“Pa?” the youngster asked.
“No, not Pa. Another man is sick,” Rani explained.
“Will he die like Pa?”
Rani hugged the child. “I do not know. He might.”
“I want him to live.”
“I think I do, too. I must get back to him now, though, so I can see that he lives. Magry will come and play with you.”
Dona nodded and stood back. She would celebrate her sixth name-day before the end of the summer. She, too, would help where she could.
Later that afternoon, it was Dona who delivered yet another batch of clean bandages. She stood in the doorway, wide-eyed.
Rani motioned her to enter.
“Sleeping?” Dona whispered.
Rani nodded, too tired to speak. She took the pile of cloths from her daughter.
“He is very sick?” Dona asked.
“Yes, dear. He is very sick still.”
Dona watched her mother change another poultice. She moved to the bedside to stare at the man when her mother had finished.
“Nice man get better,” she encouraged in her child's voice, patted his shoulder gently and left in search of better amusement.
Rani stared after her. Never had Dona been that concerned about a stranger. She normally hid from them. Rani shook her head and finished changing the bandages.
He had several long gashes on his back and chest, but the one that worried her the most was the vicious tear that stretched from the hairline, across the bridge of his nose and deep into his cheek. She dared not guarantee his sight with such damage.She leaned back and rubbed her face tiredly. If this fever did not break soon, sight would be moot.
Darkness had fallen when Magry brought her a cup of broth and some bread. “Do you want me to stay while you get some sleep, Mama?”
Rani sighed. “No, thank you, Magry. I will be fine.”
Magry gave her a doubting look but said nothing further on the subject. “I wish you a good night then, Mama. Dona wants a story.”
Rani embraced the girl. “Thank you, Magry. I could not do this without your help.”
Magry put her arms around her mother and laid her head on Rani's shoulder. “I hope he gets better soon.”
“I do, too. Good night, Little One.”
Magry smiled at the nickname. “Good night, Mama.”
Rani busied herself with what small tasks she could do in the limited light of a small candle. Thankfully, the days were getting longer. If the Rider stayed the same for much longer, she would be bartering for candles instead of a draft animal.
Her patient stirred restlessly, the first sign of life in two days. Rani moved to his side and felt his forehead. It was still hot. She sponged him yet again, feeling useless. It was in the hands of... Not Gunnora, no, but whatever god watched over the were-folk, certainly.
She lay her forehead on the side of the bed. “Gunnora,” she prayed. “I am helpless. As you love life, help him, please. I cannot.” It was her last waking thought.
She dreamed that she was back in the shrine of Gunnora, birthing Dona. No. She could not look down, but she did not feel heavy with child. She entered a room that she had never seen before. It had a guesting table laid as if in welcome, but Rani did not sit. At the head of the table stood a woman, apparently not much older than herself.
Rani met her eyes. The woman was far older.
The dream Rani knew what the question meant, but could not answer.
“Why do you wish this one to live?” the woman asked again.
Rani thought of the Were-Rider. Why did she want him to live? He was not ugly, although the scars of his most recent battle would seem unhandsome to some. She was not afraid of him, as some might be. She remembered the softness of his night-dark hair as she brushed a stray lock from his forehead. His brows were slanted, a slant repeated in the line of his jaw and in his high cheekbones. He appeared angular, almost unfinished.
She knew from her ministrations that his muscles, those that were undamaged, were firm and spoke of great strength. Was that what she wanted? A strength on which to lean? Perhaps, she admitted honestly. Was it pity for the scarred being that would emerge from the fever? Again, perhaps. But there was something else. Did she see, as Magry had suggested, a father for her children?
“I do not know,” she finally answered. “I only know that I would be sorry to see his life end.”
“An honest answer, if weak,” a second voice answered, a male voice.
Surprised, Rani looked behind the woman. Standing in shadows that were not there before was a man. His face was shadowed by a crown of deer horns.
He spoke to Rani. “What do you wish of the Were-kin?”
Rani hesitated, not sure of the question.
“Would you have him to mate?”
Rani considered. What was 'mate' to the Were-Riders? For now? For ever? Or some time in between? Was it for the birth of a child? Or the birth of a son? Would it be such a great price to pay for his life? She remembered her husband and shuddered. She spoke.
“Such a choice is not mine alone, Horned One,” she hedged. “The Were-Rider must also have a say in this. I do not know him well enough to say that such an exchange would be to his liking.”
The Horned One laughed cruelly. “There are some things that do not require liking, woman.”
Gunnora's eyes narrowed, but she did not interrupt.
“Then I say no to such a bargain. He may share his shape with a bear, but that does not make him any less a man. He must be granted a man's right to choose. I ask for his life, not his lifetime.”
“You are afraid,” the Horned One pronounced. “Why?”
Rani shrugged. “Everyone is afraid of something,” she answered, knowing that that was not the answer the Horned One wanted.
“Is it because he is a shape-changer?”
Rani snorted in derision. “Had I feared his shape-changing, he would still be on that track,” she said.
“Then you fear the man,” came the rejoinder.
Rani took a deep breath. “I fear neither man nor beast. I ask you to save his life. You ask me to control it. This I cannot... No, will not do. You are asking me to trade not only my life, but that of my children and, perhaps, his. Four lives for one.” Rani shook her head and stepped back as if to leave. “If his life is worth that much to you, you will save him whether I ask or no. I will not bargain my children's lives, their future, or his, on such an uncertainty.”
“Nor will I allow such a bargain,” a voice echoed from behind her.
Rani could not turn, but she knew that the Were-Rider stood behind her. How she knew, having never heard his voice, she could not say.
“No?” the Horned One asked. “You refuse to honour a blood-debt?”
“There is no honour where there is force. What this woman has done has been out of compassion, not duty,” the Rider argued.
There was a loud silence at the end of his words, a waiting silence. Clearly, there was more to the words than Rani understood.
The Were-Rider broke the silence. “There is more to life than duty between a man and a woman. The joy of gratitude will sour to bitterness, and then all the lives are worth less. The cost is too great, Horned One. If my life is worth four to you, then my life is worth nothing. I will not pay that price.”
“Enough!” Gunnora spoke. To the Horned One, she said. “You have interfered in these lives once already. Do not play again with what is not entirely your concern.”
She turned to the other two. “You, too, bargain where you have no power.” More gently, she continued. “I have no power over warriors and hunters. That is the domain of the Horned God.”
Rani bowed her head in defeat. “Then, if it is the Horned God's price that I mate with the Were-Rider to save his life, then I can do so.”
“No!” It was the Were-Rider.
“You give in easily, woman,” the Horned One observed. “Why?”
Rani's head snapped up and she spat, “No, Horned One, I do not. I will not do as you say out of fear of you, but out of respect for Life and Light.”
“You love him?”
“For the value of a life. It is but a small price to pay when only two lives are involved,” Rani countered.
“No, I will not allow it!”
Rani finally turned to face the Rider. He was taller than she had thought. “You do not have the power to allow or deny me anything. You do not own me or mine. This is a price I'm willing to pay. Whether you choose to agree to this is your decision. I have no control over what you choose to do.”
“There will be no price on any life. Not in my house,” Gunnora stated firmly. “Go, child. What can be done, will be done.”
Rani awoke with a start. Not quite daring to believe, she raised a hand to the Were-Rider's forehead. It was cooler and wet. The fever had broken!
“My thanks, Horned One. My gratitude to you, Gunnora. What must be done, will be done,” Rani vowed. She closed her eyes once more and slept.
Rani awoke again to the mid-morning sun. She stretched her cramped muscles and automatically reached to check her patient's temperature. She froze when she saw that he was awake and watching her.
His eyes were a deep brown and clear of any fever. “You know,” he said slowly.
“You bargained.” It was not a question.
Again, Rani nodded.
A flicker of something, was it fear, crossed his face. “You had no right.”
“No, I did not,” Rani admitted.
“Am I that unacceptable?” she asked.
“Are you that desperate for a man?” he countered.
Rani stood. “It is done,” she said with finality. “The final choice, I think, is with you. I have other things to concern me, now. I will be back later to change your bedding.” She left the room.
Rani found Magry cleaning out the fowl shed. “I can finish here,” she told her daughter. Go and get something for our guest to eat. Broth would be best.”
“Is he better then?”
“He is going to live,” Magry was told.
In the time that followed, the stranger was indeed determined to live. Within days, he was sitting up, and soon after, unsteady, but on his feet. Rani attended to his bandages and let Magry attend to his meals. The young girl also brought him some clothes that had belonged to her father. The shirt sleeves and pant legs were too short and the waist too big. Magry, with Rani's help, managed to make two presentable outfits. It was Dona, however, who amused him. She would come down to the horse shed after her morning meal and remain there for most of the day.
“Mama, why are you scared of the Toryman?” she asked one night.
“Toryman?” Rani looked to Magry for an explanation. The girl shook her head, just as confused.
“The man in the shed who tells tories,” Dona explained. The child had problems with some words, a legacy from time with her father, who thought children should be seen and not heard.
Rani was caught off-guard. She stared at Dona.
“You know, tories about things, Mama. Why are you scared of him?”
“Did he say that?” Rani asked.
“Then where did you get the idea that I was afraid of him?” Rani tried to keep her voice gentle.
“You never see him.”
“I see him when I change his bandages, dear.” She kissed the top of Dona's head. “Mothers do not have time to listen to stories, sweetheart. I have chores to do. You know that.”
Dona tipped her head thoughtfully. “Big people scaredy things,” she announced with childish wisdom and began to eat her supper.
“I am not afraid,” Rani said firmly, but the thought teased her all the same.
“What kind of stories does he tell you?” Magry wanted to know.
The conversation of the two children washed over Rani as she ate. Was she afraid? Why would she be afraid? She puzzled over this as she washed the dishes, too. Afraid or ashamed, she wondered, thinking back on the dream.
“I forgot to get the Toryman's dishes, Mama,” Magry said suddenly.
“I will get them,” Rani said. She was going to speak to him about his tales to Dona. She dried her hands on a towel. “Magry, will you get your sister ready for bed, please?”
Rani took her shawl from its hook and opened the door. The night was clear and warm, a reminder that summer was drawing closer. Rani paused to enjoy the quiet.
A figure moved from the shadows. “My thanks to the House for the feast and the care. Good fortune to you, Mistress.”
Rani spoke without thinking. “Running away?”
“I do not run.”
There was a short, uncomfortable silence. “My daughter says that you tell her stories.” He shrugged. “Nursery tales to amuse the young, nothing more.”
“My thanks for keeping her amused. It has been easier to work without her questions.”
His sympathetic chuckle filled the darkness. Dona had been full of questions. Only the threat of his silence kept her quiet for more than a minute or two. “The child kept me amused,” he said.
“It is difficult being ill,” Rani agreed.
They were silent for a long time. Rani thought of the bargain she had made with the Horned One. She had failed to keep her side of it. She wondered why that thought did not sadden her as much as the loss of Toryman. She hugged her shawl closer and began to walk.
“Mistress.” His voice still came from the darkness. “Mistress, I owe you my life.”
“You owe nothing to me or mine,” Rani said, a touch of bitterness in her voice.
A warm hand touched her shoulder. She stiffened.
“Mistress, you made a bargain to save my life. I cannot honour that bargain. I am clanless, kinless and so without honour, but...”
Rani turned. “I made the bargain. Upon me will come the reckoning. I know that. There is a peddler who will come in a few weeks. He will leave with instructions to be sent to the Lord of the Dale. That way, at least the children will be safe.” She drew a deep breath. “I only wish I had the courage to send the children with the peddler.”
“The children?” The hand on her shoulder tightened.
Rani gave him a look of disgust, lost in the darkness. “Did you think I would leave Magry and Dona to fend for themselves? I have no kin who would care for them, nor do my husband's family wish to be burdened with anything to do with me.” She turned away. “I should think that death, or worse, would be the result of breaking faith with one of the Old Ones.” She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to ward off the chill she felt. The hand fell from her shoulder, making her feel more alone.
“The children,” his voice repeated softly. “I will see to their welfare,” he promised after a moment.
Rani was furious. Like the simplest of fools, she had put a stranger's welfare before that of herself and the girls. She had believed him honest and honourable, although the why of that thought was a mystery to her. Instead of making the best of a bad bargain, instead of trying to... Rani skipped that thought. Instead of honouring the bargain, this man, no, this coward chooses to run! “You will never,” she hissed, “have the care of my children. I have no wish for them to learn the ways of a coward.” She trembled with anger.
Hands grasped her shoulders in a cruel grip and turned her to face an enraged stranger. “I am not a coward!” His voice was low and intense.
Rani threw her head back in defiance. “No? Then why do you run? What are you afraid of? Me?”
“I fear no woman,” was the bitter reply.
Rani searched his face. His eyes held no warmth. A sudden though struck her and she lost her anger. He was telling her she was as unacceptable as her husband had often sneered. Her gaze dropped to his throat, eye-level to her and she said softly, “I see. Forgive my harsh words. I did not think.” She tried to back away, but the hands held firm.
The Were-Rider looked down at the woman who had saved his life. Her face was shadowed with hurt. What had he said that had caused her such pain? He mentally reviewed the last few minutes' conversation and then gave up.
“Mistress,” he said, trying to meet her eyes. He tipped her chin up with one thumb. “Mistress, it has nothing to do with you, but I will not bed any woman.”
Rani looked at him, confused and surprised. “Not...?” It was two questions in one, neither of which she could finish.
He chuckled dryly. The common folks' ideas of Were-Riders were familiar to him. “No, it is not that the Riders have different preferences,” he said. “Nor do I find you unfavourable. It is just...” He stopped speaking and his face clouded.
Rani felt his loneliness. It matched her own. “I am Rani,” she said quietly.
He started, and saw her for the first time. Unlike most of the Dalesfolk, she had dark hair and darker eyes. Almost of middle age, she had the lined face of someone who spent a great deal of time both out of doors and worrying. His thoughts bounced between thinking her small and in need of protection and thinking that the strength he could feel in her arms might offer...
No! That way, he could not dream, would not hope. He could not endanger her that way, would not frighten her that way. Unless...
“Why did you stop?” he asked suddenly.
Rani blinked. She had been fascinated by the play of emotions across his face. She frowned. “Stop what?”
“On the road. Why did you stop?”
Rani tried to remember and then smiled ruefully. “It was not my idea. It was Tanna's.”
“Tanna?” The answer was unexpected.
Rani nodded. “Tanna stopped when he heard you on the game trail. I was not expecting to see a bear this far down the valley, and certainly not a wounded one. When you collapsed... I could not just leave you to die.” As she recalled her thoughts that day, her voice faded.
“Why not?” he persisted.
Rani felt drained and defeated. “I cannot pass by when either animal or man is hurt. Perhaps I am as much a fool as I've been told, but there it is.” she said.
“And I was both.”
Rani nodded, silent.
“Most people would have left me, knowing what I am. Or killed me.”
“I am not most people.”
“That is becoming obvious.” There was a strained silence for a few minutes. “You know I must leave.”
“I know you will leave, yes.”
He turned away. “I must leave,” he repeated. He drew a long breath. “I am exiled from the Pack,” he offered in explanation.
Rani was uncertain of the significance of the remark, so she remained silent.
“There is one among the Pack who will not be content to have me exiled. He will not rest until I am dead. He has so sworn.”
“Why?” Rani ventured to ask.
“I took his mate.” The tone was impersonal, devoid of expression.
“There is more,” Rani prompted.
“There is,” he said quietly.
Rani waited. When he did not speak again, she asked, “Will you tell me?”
“Why should I?”
“Because it is what causes you pain,” she began slowly, measuring her words.
“What do you know of pain?” he lashed out, releasing her with a shove.
His voice was so scornful that she flinched. She closed her eyes, knowing that only complete honesty might keep him here. She feared the pain of his going.
She turned away, trying to hide her shame. “My husband was a jealous man.” Her throat closed for a moment. “He did not believe that I was faithful. He did not believe that Magry and Dona were his children. Only his greed for this property kept him here. This farm is Magry's dowry from my parents. They refused to have anything to do with me after I married. They did not approve of my choice of life-mates. He eventually was savaged by a horse he was trying to beat.”
Guilt made her words come faster, and she still could not mention her husband by name. That would lead to a total breakdown and she did not want Tory to see her tears. “I did not want to look for him when I saw the animal running free. I think I knew what had happened. I just did not want to admit it to myself. By the time I went to the barn to find him, it was too late.” She paused to swallow a sob. “He took almost a month to die.”
The words unspoken were clear. “He beat you,” came the terse statement.
“And?” The tense lines of her body spoke of a hurt unsaid.
Rani was silent for a long time, remembering. Finally, “I buried my stillborn son the day my husband was injured. That is the reason I did not go looking for him. I cared more for the dead than I did the living.”
The Were-Rider knew that something had happened on that day, but the enormity of it sucked the breath from his lungs. He felt the rise of a Change. How dare someone do that to this woman? His anger cooled as quickly as it had risen. Now, he thought, he knew the reason for the bargain. “Is that why you agreed to the bargain?” he asked softly, trying to be understanding. “To replace the child you lost?”
The sound of Rani's hand on his cheek echoed in the night stillness. “You... You...,” she spluttered. “Do you think I would bear another child only to lose it again? For you? The bargain was a life for a life,” she spat. “How dare you!” Rani gave up trying to verbalize her shame and hurt. She fled back into the house.
The man stared after her, rubbing the side of his face in puzzlement. If she did not want another child, then why did she make the bargain?
A nightmare-ridden sleep made Rani's temper uncertain the next day. She was surprised when the children reported that Toryman was doing the chores she had set them to do. He was still here? That knowledge did not improve her temper.
As the days passed, there existed an uneasy truce between the two adults. He had not given a name, so the children took to calling him Tory. Rani tried to avoid calling him at all.
He took over the outside chores, seeing to the livestock, getting wood and water. One morning, Rani found four large fish, already cleaned and bundled into a rag, on the dining table. It was the first of many meats that found their way there. Rani didn't ask where they came from and Tory said nothing.
When the ground was thawed completely, Tory took over the fieldwork as well. He lay down plowed rows into which the children sprinkled seed.
The peddler arrived much sooner than Rani had expected. The children were excited, demanding to see all that he had to offer. He only stayed the one night, leaving the next day with Rani's delicate needlework and some carefully hoarded coin in exchange for two bolts of sturdy cloth, a bag of salt and new sewing needles.
Rani had written the letter to the Daleslord as she had promised. The peddler was tying up the last of his packs when she remembered it. She ran to get the letter from the house. Tory blocked her exit.
“No,” he said.
“And why not?” Rani asked. “Have you changed your mind, Were-Rider?”
Rani searched his face for his motive. He did not meet her eyes but something in the way he stood, tensed as if awaiting a blow, made her reconsider refusing his offer.
She lay the letter down on the table. “Very well. The letter can wait.” It was a tacit vow that she would not easily put aside her ideas for the welfare of her children.
“It is a start,” he said, and turned to leave. “I am called Toren. The children have chosen well.”
Rani frowned as the door closed behind Toren, trying to understand his comment. Then it struck her. His name! Toren. Tory. She laughed.
After that, Toren ate with the family. His inclusion elated the girls. It soon became obvious that they would sooner do as he asked than anything their mother requested.
One summer evening, after putting the children to bed, Rani mentioned this to Toren. “What spell have you cast over my children, Were-Rider, that they will obey your slightest whims?” Her tone was light, teasing.
“The Riders do not cast spells,” Toren snapped.
Rani's eyes widened in surprise. “Toren, I only meant to tease you. I apologize,” she said, chastened.
“No, it is I who should apologize,” Toren said. “There was no need to take my anger out on your.”
Rani put her needlework on her lap. She dared to ask, “Does this have something to do with your exile?”
Toren had been working at the dining table. Rani jumped when he slammed down his tools and slid his chair back roughly. “I owe you that much. Yes, it does,” he growled.
“You owe me nothing, Toren. I thought you knew that.”
She watched, fearfully, as Toren pulled on his boots and strode from the house. She stood up, her work falling unheeded to the floor. “Please stay,” she prayed silently. She walked to the door. She had to know if he was leaving.
Once outside, Rani sighed in relief. He was standing a few feet away, shoulders hunched.
Without turning, he said, “I though I loved her. Worse, I thought she loved me. She told me her husband had died in battle.”
Toren spoke before she could finish the question. “The Dales have not seen battle for years, true, but the Were-Riders are not of the Dales. The clans of Arvon are forever fighting among themselves for reasons known only to them. The Riders were bred as warriors. We will sometimes sell our services to one Lord or another. It was during one of those battles that her husband was to have died.”
“He was a Were-Rider?” For some reason, Rani was surprised to hear this.
“You knew her husband?”
“I thought I knew them both.” Toren drew a deep breath. “He is...was... close kin,” he said.
Rani did not know what to say. She was shocked that he would bed the wife of close kin without knowing who she was. She was equally surprised that the woman would allow such a thing to happen. Maybe Were-Riders really were as different as the legends had made them out to be.
Toren spoke again. “I did not know that my kinsman had found another mate. Very few women will stay at the Grey Towers. It can be a cold-spirited place. Once they find out what we are, they run back home. Those that do stay are...” He could not find a polite word to describe the women.
“I think I understand.”
“When I was a child, Halse spoke of a mate that was stolen from him. I asked if he spoke of my mother. In his words, my mother was a low-born village slut. I suspect that the woman who answered his love-spell was exactly that.”
Such a thing to tell a child!
Something niggled at the back of Rani's mind. Slowly, not really believing it, she said, “Your father's mate? You slept with your mother?”
He shook his head. “Not my mother, no, but my father's mate, yes.” He turned to face Rani. “This bothers you?”
Rani lifted one shoulder without speaking. She refused to meet his eyes. Her body felt frozen in time. What she felt was right warred with what she had been told was right.
Rani lifted her head to view Toren. She remembered his kindnesses and his gentleness with the girls. She remembered his honesty and his sense of humour. Rani suddenly remembered something else. “You said you were kinless and clanless.”
“No.” The reply was winter-bleak. After a moment, he continued. “I did know know my father had chosen again. We did not agree on many things. I chose to live with friends rather than carry on an old feud. My father named me kinless for that.”
Rani's heart ached. To be cast out for so small a reason...
But there was more. “It seems that the mother of my friend was the same woman Halse deemed stolen from him. It seemed easier to leave him to his bitterness. I had no contact with anyone from the Grey Towers for many years. Then Kethan and I answered a battle call.” Memories crowded out his ability to speak.
After a time, he went on. “We were late to the battle, coming only at the end of it. We had far to go and very little time to travel. Kethan saw to the injured. His mother is a healer and he learned a great deal from her.”
Rani looked confused.
Toren explained. “The Were-Riders look to their own injured. We do not have healers, as such, but each Rider knows something of the Healing Arts. Mostly, though, we only grant mercy.”
Rani nodded. It made sense in an odd sort of way, survival of the fittest.
“I did not see my father among the injured and so assumed he was alive and heading back to the Towers. When we got to the Towers, he was not among the returning Riders. It was thought that he had crawled off somewhere to die.” Toren's voice was rough with pain. “Like you, I did not look for him. We did not agree on many things, but I would not have wished him dead, even in honourable battle. I did not look for him to grant mercy or bring him back to the Towers.”
Before the thought was fully formed in her mind, Rani stepped up to him and put her arms around his waist. She wanted to take some of his pain.
Toren stiffened, then relaxed. He put his arms around her and she laid her head upon his chest. She closed her eyes.
It suddenly dawned on Rani that she had fallen in love with Toren. She knew that he would not stay. He had made that quite clear to her, but she would deal with that pain when it came. This was enough for now.
The two stood so for many moments, gathering strength from each other.
“How did you meet her,” Rani asked.
Toren's voice hazed with memory. “In the days that followed the battle, I noticed a young woman. She was fair to look at and seemed to favour no one. One afternoon, I found her alone and we talked for a while. I asked her why she chose to live in the Grey Towers. She told me that she only remained to mourn her mate, killed in the last battle, then she would go home.”
Toren snorted in self-mockery. “Like a besotted fool, I did not ask who her mate had been. That night was the first of many spent in my rooms.”
He stopped speaking as Rani's hold tightened momentarily, almost possessively. Jealous? Toren dismissed the thought as fantasy, but a small gleam of contentment threaded his thoughts after that.
“We spent much time together, but we were discrete. Everyone assumed that we were together as family, not as lovers. What I did not know was that she had learned to cast a love-spell. I was the target. She knew me because I resemble my father. Her plan was to have me enthralled enough to make sure she could stay at the Towers forever. It may be a bleak place,” he explained, “but our women are held in highest esteem.”
Rani nodded to show she was listening.
“Late one night, my father returned. Some one was sent to his mate's room and Kethan came to warn me. I was lucky. Had it been anyone else, I would probably be dead now. Kethan smelled the magic she used. As it was, with our appearing together and her rooms being found empty, even a child could have figured out what had happened.”
Rani felt Toren's cheek on her hair. His arms tightened, making it difficult to breathe, but she made no protest.
He continued. “My father threw aside his mate's greetings and demanded Pack Right immediately. Kethan spoke up, even though he is Outcast and the Clan listened to him enough to do a check themselves. My father was contemptuous of my being caught so easily and we were both exiled. When my father found out that Kethan was Gillan's son and that I was leaving with him, he became angry, to say the least. We argued one last time and as he worked himself into a rage, I ran. I thought that if I were to go away long enough, he would be more reasonable. I could expect no help from the Clans of Arvon, so I made my way to the Waste. I remember little of that journey. There were those who were still fired by battle fever, those returning with my father, and they gave chase. They caught me once and left me for dead. I remember laying down, thinking I would not live to see morning. A voice seemed to prod me into getting up and moving on. The last thing I remember is coming out onto a track and someone coming up to me.”
Rani shivered. “Me. I thought... I though you were a gift for my table,” she admitted.
“Instead,” he observed dryly, “I became another mouth to feed.”
“Do you regret it?”
Before she could answer, a low growl sounded nearby. Toren pushed Rani behind him, shielding her. There was silence for a long while, then the sound of a footfall.
“So you have found another to prey upon, cub. Not for long. She will be mine just as you took my mate.” The speaker was as tall as Toren and as lean. His face, his striking resemblance to Toren, told the rest of the story. This was Halse, Toren's sire. To Rani's eyes, they were almost alike in face and form. Only the burning hatred in the newcomer's eyes, a glowing red hatred, was different. Rani blinked. His eyes were red!
Nothing natural broke the tense tableau, not even an insect's chirp. Father and son stared at each other, each waiting for the other to move.
Suddenly, life and time seemed to move again. The newcomer flung sparkling dust at Toren, who tried to avoid them. He was too slow. He slipped and fell to all fours. The dust settled around him.
Rani gasped as the man melted and the black bear of her first meeting appeared.
“Did you not know this, woman?” the newcomer sneered. “Look well upon your mate. Does it suit you to take an animal to bed?”
Toren snarled, but did not move.
Rani shook her head in disbelief and backed away a few steps. She had no fear of the black bear. She knew – she hoped – that there was still a man beneath the fur. Toren would not choose to face his father in this fashion, she was sure. Not in front of her.
Halse did not seem surprised that Toren had Changed. Did he expect it? Was that thrown dust part of some spell? But Toren said that Were-Riders had no dealing with spells other than ones to attract a mate. She was confused and frightened for Toren.
“So, cub. You take to bed another common slut. See how she cringes,” he jeered.
Toren moved between Rani and Halse.
That only made the older man laugh. “You would protect her? What worth is she to you? Or does she carry your child? Is that it? You would spawn more treachery?” His face changed, madness lurking closer to the surface of his expression. “You are no better than that... than Herrel!” That thought chased the last vestiges of sanity from his face.
“I will put an end to this. No more will I tolerate your thieving ways, cub. When I am done with you and your slut, I will deal with Herrel as I should have years ago.” Saliva dripped from his lips as he spoke.
Rani had never seen such insanity. Not even her husband had gone so far. She watched, hands in her mouth to stifle a scream. A second bear, larger than Toren, had appeared where Halse had stood.
“Go. This must be,” a reassuring voice whispered inside her head. It was a voice that shook frozen fear into mindless flight. The roar of an attacking beast followed her into the house.
She stood inside the unbarred door for many long minutes, shaking with terror. A cry from the bedrooms above roused her. The children!
Swiftly, Rani crossed the room and opened the connecting door. The sounds of the battle could be heard faintly. Her own bed was in one corner of the small room. The rest of the space was taken up with bolts of cloth, wool that needed spinning, other things that were not needed on a day-to-day basis and nameless, formless night shadows.
To her right was a narrow staircase leading to a sleeping loft above. It was from there that the new sounds came.
“Mama?” Magry's voice floated down.
“Coming!” Rani lifted her skirts and climbed up the stairs, willing calmness. She had not yet decided what she would tell the children.
“Mama, what is that noise?” Magry asked as her mother's head appeared in the stairwell.
Rani did not speak until she was seated on the bed, one girl tucked under each arm. “Well, it would seem that bears want to live in our house,” she said as lightly as she could.
Dona giggled. “Bears live outside, silly Mama.”
Rani nodded. “I know, but there are two bears outside and I think they are arguing over who is going to live in our house.” It was not exactly a lie.
Dona looked worried. “Are they going to eat us?”
“No, dear. Bears only eat nuts, berries and fish,” Rani soothed.
“Is Toren one of the bears?” Magry asked.
“Why would you think that, Magry?” Rani asked, stalling for time.
The girl shrugged. “Is he?”
Dona answered for Rani. “Of course not! Grandmother says that only Were-Riders turn into animals and they eat bad children for breffat. What is a Were-Rider, Mama, and are we bad children? Would they eat us?”
Rani hugged both girls. “No, you are very good girls,” she complimented, ignoring the rest of her youngest daughter's questions. Rani mentally condemned her mother-in-law's habit of eliciting good behaviour with tales of child-eating monsters.
“Will Toren eat us for breakfast, Mama?”
“No. Toren does not eat little girls at all,” Rani said with finality. She recalled another of her mother-in-law's strictures. “You know that Grandmother says that all strangers are bad people?”
Dona nodded, then added, “Unless they have the money of a Daleslord.”
Rani almost laughed out loud at the girl's imitation of her paternal grandmother. Smothering a smile, she asked, “Well, is Toren bad?”
“But Tory is not a stranger,” Dona protested.
“Not now, but he was once.”
The children grew thoughtful.
Rani continued. “We did not know who he was a first, did we?”
“No,” said Magry after a moment's reflection.
“That made him a stranger.”
“I suppose so.”
“After a while, we knew who he was and he wasn't frightening, was he?”
Both girls shook their heads.
“Some strangers are just people we do not yet know,” Rani said quietly.
“Like the peddler?” Dona asked.
“Exactly like him, yes.”
Magry had come to a decision. “Toren is not bad, Mama. I think he might be a hero.”
Rani's surprised silence let Dona ask another question. “Are heroes bad?”
“No, silly. Heroes are good,” Magry answered.
“Then Tory is a hero. He is nice and not bad at all,” Dona announced with innocent faith.
“Even if he was a Were-Rider who ate bad girls?” Magry had to tease.
“Mama says we are good girls, so he will not want to eat us,” was the swift reply.
Magry looked at her mother. “Are there such things as good Were-Riders?”
Rani nodded. “Just as there are such things as good strangers.”
“Then I guess he can be a Were-Rider,” Magry decreed. “It is cold, Mama.”
“All right then. Into bed with you.” Rani tucked the girls into bed, kissed them and said goodnight.
“Are you going to kiss Toren, Mama?” asked Magry, just before Rani disappeared down the stairs. “That is what Grandmother says that princesses do when a hero rescues them.”
Rani blushed, grateful for the dimness of the stairwell. “Well, if he is a hero, then I guess I must.”
“Can I watch?” Dona asked, sitting bolt upright.
“No,” said Rani firmly. “Good night, girls.”
“Lay down, Dona. You let the cold air in,” Magry complained. “Good night, Mama.”
As she descended the stairs, Rani realized that she could no longer hear the sounds of the ursine battle. She hurried down the steps. At the door to the living quarters, she paused. There were ragged breaths coming from the other room. Was it Toren or Halse?
“So I am a hero, am I?” a welcome voice asked.
Rani rushed into the room. Toren was leaning on the table, blood dripping down one arm. “You are hurt,” she cried, both relieved and concerned.
Toren shook his head. “A scratch, no more.”
“You need tending,” Rani said firmly. “Again.” Suddenly, she felt shy and was unable to meet Toren's eyes. Tending to his hurts would put off the need to answer the original question. How much had he heard? Magry's last question certainly.
“Your father?” Rani asked, sponging the blood from the wound on his shoulder.
“Toren, I am so sorry...”
Toren brushed aside her sympathy. “He has changed. I think his bitterness ate into his reason. It is better this way. It is the Law of the Pack.”
“He is right,” a new voice agreed.
Both Toren and Rani turned to the doorway to see the Horned God standing there. Rani gasped.
“It is better that the Were-Rider's death be from the love of his kin rather than the hate of a stranger. There is no shame in what was done.”
Rani didn't understand the undercurrents of what was said. She remained silent, looking to Toren for explanation.
To Toren, the Horned One said, “It was well struck, Warrior. And swift.”
Toren bowed his head briefly, but his face was sad.
Then the Old One addressed Rani. “Woman, our bargain is ended. You have given a life for a life.” And then he was gone.
“A life for...” She looked up at Toren. “Does he mean your father's? I never intended...” Rani's voice trailed off into guilty silence.
Toren's arms surrounded her. “I think it has nothing to do with my father.” He chuckled deep in his chest. “Even a hero needs a reason to live.”
Rani searched his face. What she saw there made her smile. “And a hero needs payment?”
Toren laughed and drew her closer. “Most assuredly,” he agreed.