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Gillai 22, 1543
Three months after the Dawngate opened

The tent was still dark when he awoke. Last night’s fire had dwindled to a memory of fir-scent. Through the smoke flap in the ceiling, stars swam in an ocean of deep plum.

He moved Rada’s arm off his chest. She murmured and tried to nestle against his side. As he slid from beneath the furs, she curled into the warm spot he’d left, and groped blindly to pull a blanket over her head. The boys were still asleep, Rykan’s chest wheezing faintly in the stillness. He still suffered from the clouds of gold-leaf blooming around the edge of camp.

He gathered his armor and weapons, struggling to muffle their clatter, and ducked out into the cold to dress and arm. When he reached the outskirts of the camp, chewing a hunk of spiced yak jerky, the eastern sky had blued, and the stars in the west had turned wan and pale.

The woman on watch was blowing into her cupped hands. She shot him a look of appeal over her fingertips. “Did you bring any salt tea?”

“I didn’t have any hands free,” he replied, and drove the tip of his spear into the ground.

“Ugh,” she said, yawning hugely. She pulled the strap of the signal horn from her shoulder and passed it to him.

He looked across waves of waist-high, sun-browned grass, shimmering with dew. An early saker falcon arced across the distant sky, alert to the shifting of grass below. “I have the watch. What should I know of?”

She pointed into the north. “That.” He traced his eyes along the line of her arm and squinted into the distance. A pair of figures moved in the direction of the camp, little more than shadows against the sky. One was massive, the other willowy, and both shrouded by cloaks. “I’ve watched them a while now. Before the light rose, the big one was… glowing.”

“Glowing?” he said, dubiously. “It carried a torch?”

“Not fire. Not natural. “She rubbed a palm across a dawn-bleary eye. “It was blue.”

He rubbed his overgrown chin. The southern tribals returning? The memory flitted through his mind; a mountain of a man placing himself between the muttering crowd and the priestess clenching her teeth and fists, fixing the lot of them with a smoldering back-at-you glare.

He warded himself, thumb to palm, fingers splayed. “I’ll watch them.” He laid a hand on her shoulder and steered her towards the camp. “Go get your tea. You’ve done your part.”

“Mm,” she mumbled, pulling her spear and shuffling off with another yawn.

He observed the figures’ approach, scanning the rest of the horizon at intervals. A faint scraping carried over the fields, the sound of a blade held against a whetstone. They seemed to be in no hurry. Or maybe they were some distance off? But they would have to be giants…

When the sun broke over the horizon, sending fingers of light through the rustling leaves of grass, it was clear they were giants. The larger strode across a stone; from beneath its cloak came a short, deep ring, like a struck gong muffled by a hand.

“Hail,” he called across the grass, over a rising storm of birdsong. One hand rested on the haft of his spear, the other on the horn slung under his shoulder.

The larger figure clattered to a halt, a faint blue light pulsing under the shadows of its cavernous hood. It had to be twice the height of a man. An impossible pile of chests and bags was strapped to its back.

The smaller figure strode forward, hunch-backed, slim fingers holding the folds of its robe closed.

“We would speak to the woman Nikal.” A woman’s voice, musically accented. Her dialect was archaic, impossible to place.

“Of the Snowblood?” he asked, cautiously. The woman said nothing. He stared at the fingers that held her cloak. The nails were long and sharp, the flesh ashen. Her fingertips were stained with wine. Or maybe henna?

“Nikal is one of our eldest,” he said, tightening his fingers around the haft of his spear. “Why would you see her?” The cloaked woman held her silence. Her posture suggested impatience. “Then I must call for an escort.”

“We grant you leave,” she said carelessly, waving an imperious hand.

He bit back the retort that sprang to his lips and blew two short blasts on the signal horn. After a pause, he added a single longer note. The clatter of arms rose from the interior of the camp. The woman and her companion did not move. From the distance, the high piping of cranes came through the grass.

He gestured to her giant companion. “Does your…” Porter? Guard? “…Does he want to set his burdens down?”

“It does not tire,” she said. “Do not concern yourself.” He frowned and absently scratched his chin. After a moment she said, “If you bathed more frequently, you would not be itchy.”

He glared at her. “Are you always that rude?”

Her other hand rose, and disappeared into the darkness of her hood. A faint clink and jangle of jewelry issued forth. “Perhaps so,” she said.

He said nothing more. The sounds of slapping sandals, clanging arms, and hooves grew louder. The hem of the woman’s storm-grey cloak snapped in the wind. It was a strange material, the weave tighter than old Annely’s finest work. He looked long and careful into the darkness of her hood. For a moment, he thought he glimpsed cheeks the color of a dead fire.

She twitched, noticing his stare, the fingers holding her robe closed clenching. Pulling the fabric closer, she turned away, muttering to her companion in a foreign tongue. The larger figure shifted its weight slowly, rumbling like an avalanche.

For a moment as she’d turned, a flicker of sunlight had passed across ember-tinted eyes. A childhood memory welled up from the depths of his mind; You will know the Death Spirit by the sunset in her eyes.

Chilled, he shook his head. The Spirits did not speak the tongues of mortals.

The woman at the head of the approaching warriors was still belting on her scimitar, letting it hang jauntily off one hip. She called cheerfully, “What’s this about?” Her dark braids were frayed and unkempt, piled and pinned carelessly on the back of her head. “Who comes to Lhan Getur so early in the morning?”

“Asenka,” he greeted the swordswoman. “She – they want to see your grandmother.”

“Oh?” She ran her eyes up and down the strangers appraisingly, hand on the hilt of her scimitar. “You heard?” she tossed over her shoulder, not taking her eyes off the cloaked figures.

Asenka’s elder sister appeared behind the crowd, on the bare back of a whickering stallion. Her black-pearl eyes locked on the visitors, an arrow tipped to the string of her bow. Sable hair floated free on the wind, a dark river shot with ribbons of deep blue silk.

Juri rarely went about in daylight. He pulled his eyes away from the jagged scar stretching across her copper throat.

Asenka turned and lifted an eyebrow at him, holding her hands to either side of her head and beckoning. He nodded and pressed his forehead to hers, so her black eyes could see the truth in his. “What names have they given?” she murmured into the tiny space between them.

He shook his head slightly, and muttered, “None.”

The fine lines across Asenka’s cheeks were etched with trail dust. She sucked in a cheek, appeared to roll the flesh between her teeth. “I saw no tribal marks.”

“Me neither.”

“We have no tribe,” the woman said, pronouncing the word with the scrupulous precision one might use to name a revolting insect. “We are civilized.” Asenka pulled away to frown at her. “And our ears are quite superior,” the visitor added.

“When people face-talk, you’re not supposed to listen,” Asenka scolded.

The woman was silent a moment, her hand rising up under her hood. “We have been informed that we are rude,” she said, over the clink of unseen jewelry.

“’Civilized,’” Juri said. The hoarse gravel of her scarred throat barely rose above a whisper. “Westerners?”

“Your sister could ask us,” the cloaked woman suggested.

“How do you know we’re sisters?” Asenka demanded, the scimitar sliding free of its scabbard.

The cloaked figure laughed briefly. “The length of your noses. The curve of your chins. The luster of your hair, and the hue of your skin. Blood tells, child. You are more alike than not.” The glow of the rising sun spilt under her hood, and he glimpsed thin scarlet lips, tilted with mirth. The visitor gestured fluidly at the sword that had filled Asenka’s hand. “In appearance, if not in temperament.”

Asenka glared. “Where do you journey from?”

The woman’s hunch-back pulsed slightly, the cloak rustling softly. “Taraysk.”

He swallowed hard. The warriors muttered and fingered their weapons.

“Juri,” Asenka said. “Ride ahead to grandmother. Tell her an Elder is among us.”

Her sister nodded and turned her mount with her knees. With cluck of her tongue she galloped into the maze of tents spread across the steppe.

“I will guide you,” Asenka said briskly, returning her scimitar to its scabbard with a flourish. She turned, hide boots scuffing the dust, and marched off without waiting to see if their guests followed.

The woman barked a sharp foreign word. The mountain bearing her luggage rumbled to life. In the shadows of its cloak, a blue tracery of long-forbidden Shaping glowed.

“Why have you come, Elder?” Asenka said as they walked off.

“We were invited,” the stranger replied. A rustle like a restive bird escaped her rippling cloak.

Continued...

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