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The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore. The storm would be on her soon, and she was hours away from shelter. No matter what she did, she was going to have to spend the night out-of-doors.

“I hate getting wet,” Alanna of Trebond told her mare. “I don’t like being cold, either, and we’ll probably be both.”

The horse whickered in reply, flicking her white tail. Alanna sighed and patted Moonlight’s neck—she also didn’t like exposing her faithful mare to such conditions.

They were on the last leg of an errand in the coastal hills. A forest lay before them; beyond it was the Great Road South and a half a day’s ride to the capital city and home. Alanna shook her head. They could probably find shelter somewhere under the trees, if luck was with them.

Clucking to Moonlight, she picked up their pace. In the distance thunder rolled, and a few drops of rain blew into her face. She shivered and swore again. Checking to make sure the scroll she carried was safe in its waterproof wrapping and tucked between her tunic and shirt, Alanna shrugged into a hooded cloak. Her friend Myles of Olau would be very upset if the three-hundred-year-old document she had been sent to fetch got wet!

Moonlight carried her under the trees, where Alanna peered through the growing darkness. If they rode too much longer, it would be impossible to find dry firewood even in a forest this thick. The rain was falling now in fat drops. It would be nice if she could find an abandoned hut, or even an occupied one, but she knew better than to expect that.

Something hit the back of her gloved hand with a wet smack—a huge, hairy wood-spider. Alanna yelled and threw the thing off her, startling Moonlight. The gold mare pranced nervously until her mistress got her under control once more. For a moment Alanna sat and shook, huddled into her cloak.

I hate spiders, she thought passionately. I just — loathe spiders. She shook her head in disgust and gathered the reins in still-trembling hands. Her fellow squires at the palace would laugh if they knew she feared spiders. They’d say she was behaving like a girl, not knowing she was a girl.

“What do they know about girls anyway?” she asked Moonlight as they moved on. “Maids at the palace handle snakes and kill spiders without acting silly. Why do boys say someone acts like a girl as if it were an insult?”

Alanna shook her head, smiling a little. In the three years she had been disguised as a boy, she had learned that boys know girls as little as girls know boys. It didn’t make sense—people are people, after all, she thought—but that was how things were.

A hill rose sharply to the left of the road. Crowning it was an old willow tree thick with branches. It would take hours for the rain to soak through onto the ground under that tree, if it soaked through at all, and there was room between the limbs and trunk for both Alanna and Moonlight.

Within moments she had Moonlight unsaddled and covered with a blanket. The mare fed on grass under the tree as Alanna gathered dry sticks, branches, and leaves. With some struggle and much swearing—her first teacher in woodcraft, Coram, was a soldier, and she had learned plenty of colorful language from him—she got a fire going. When it was burning well, she gathered large branches that were a little wet, putting them beside the fire to dry. Coram had taught her all this when she was a child at Trebond, planning to be a warrior maiden when she grew up.

There was only one problem with her ambition, Coram had explained when she told him what she wanted to be. The last warrior maiden had died a hundred years ago. Nobly born girls went to convent schools and became ladies. Boys became warriors, particularly their fathers’ heirs, like Alanna’s twin brother Thom, who was often reading, generally books about sorcery. Thom was no warrior, just as Alanna—who had the Gift of magic as well as he did—was no sorceress. She hated and feared her magic; Thom wanted to be the greatest sorcerer living.

Alanna frowned and took food from her saddlebags. She didn’t want to think about Thom now, when she was tired and a little lonely.

She sneezed twice and looked up, sharply scanning the clearing beyond the screen of willow branches. When supernatural things were about to happen her nose itched; she didn’t know why. And now the feel of the clearing had changed. Quickly she shoved the cloak back, freeing her arms. Searching the darkness with wide violet eyes, Alanna loosened her sword, Lightning.

Moonlight whickered, backing against the willow. “Something wrong girl?” Alanna asked. She sneezed again and rubbed her nose.

A sound came from the trees behind her. She spun, unsheathing Lightning in the same movement. The sound was repeated, and Alanna frowned. If she didn’t know better, she would swear something had mewed out there! Then she laughed, sliding Lightning back into its sheath, as a black kitten trotted through the branches sheltering her from the rain. It mewed eagerly when it saw her, its ratlike tail waving like a banner. Staggering over to Alanna, the tiny animal ordered her to pick him up.

The squire obeyed the kitten’s command. Cuddling it against her shoulder, she searched her saddlebags for her blanket.

“How did you get here, little cat?” she asked, gently toweling it dry. “It’s a bad night for anyone to be out of doors.”

The kitten purred noisily, as if it agreed. The poor thing is skin and bones—not someone’s pet, Alanna reflected. Wondering what its eyes looked like, she lifted its chin with a careful finger, and gulped. The black kitten’s large eyes were as purple as her own.

“Great Merciful Mother,” she breathed with reverence. Settling by the fire, she fed her guest as she thought. She had never heard of a cat with purple eyes. Was it supernatural? An immortal, perhaps? If so, she wasn’t sure she wanted anything to do with it. She had troubles enough!

His stomach full, the small animal began to wash vigorously. Alanna laughed. Violet eyes didn’t make a creature supernatural. Weren’t she and Thom proof of that? This cat certainly behaved like a normal animal. Thinking of something, she lifted her new pet’s tail and checked its sex. Satisfied he was a male, and ignoring his protests against the indignity, Alanna settled him on her lap. The kitten grumbled for a few moments, then settled himself. She leaned back against the willow’s broad trunk, listening to the animal’s very loud purr. It’ll be nice to have a pet to talk to, she thought sleepily.

The sneezes hit her, five at once, blinding her momentarily. Swearing like a guardsman, Alanna wiped her watering eyes. When she could see, a tall hooded stranger was standing beside her fire!

Alanna jumped to her feet, her sword unsheathed and ready, spilling the yelling cat to the ground. She stared at the newcomer, fighting to calm herself. She had no right to attack this—man? woman?—simply because she had been surprised.

“May I be of service?” she gasped. The kitten was tugging on her boot, demanding to be held once more. “Hush,” she told it before looking at the stranger again.

“I saw your fire through the trees.” The newcomer’s voice was husky and soft, like the wind blowing through the treetops, and yet somehow Alanna was reminded of a pack of hounds belling in the hunt. “Would you permit me to warm myself?”

Alanna hesitated, then nodded. The stranger threw back the concealing hood, revealing a woman—the tallest woman Alanna had ever seen. Her skin was perfectly white, setting off slanting emerald eyes and full red lips. Her hair was unbound, falling loosely below her shoulders in black, snaky locks. Alanna gulped. The woman’s face was too perfect to be quite real, and she settled before the fire with boneless grace. She watched Alanna as she sat down clumsily again, her amazing green eyes unreadable.

“It is odd to see a youngling alone in this place,” she said at last. Her mouth curved in a tiny smile. “There are strange tales about this tree, and what passes beneath it.”

The kitten jumped back into Alanna’s lap and purred. Alanna stroked it nervously, never taking her eyes away from her visitor.

“I was caught by the storm,” she answered carefully. “This was the first shelter I found.” And now I’m sorry I found it, she added to herself. I don’t like surprises!

The woman looked her over carefully, still smiling that hooded smile. “And so, my daughter, now you are a squire. Within four years you will be a knight. That doesn’t seem so far from now, does it?”

Alanna opened and closed her mouth several times with surprise before biting her lips together. The “squire” part was easy; beneath her cloak she was wearing the royal uniform, as was required when squires went abroad without their masters. But the woman had called her “my daughter”; the stranger knew she was a girl, even though she was dressed as a boy with her breasts bound flat! And her own mother had died years ago, when Alanna was born. Suddenly she remembered that she had heard the woman’s voice before. Where? At last she made the safest answer she could.

“I don’t want to, seem rude, but I’d rather not speak of the Ordeal,” she said flatly. “I’d like not to think of it, if possible.”

“But you must think of it, my daughter,” the woman chided. Alanna frowned. She had almost remembered.…“When you undergo the Ordeal of Knighthood, many things will happen. You will become a knight, the first woman knight in more than a hundred of your years. You will have to reveal your true sex soon after that; your own nature will not let you remain silent for long. I know well how much you hate living a lie before your friends at the palace.”

Alanna stiffened. She had remembered that voice. Jonathan had been a boy, dying of the Sweating Sickness. The palace healers said there was no hope, but Alanna—only a page then—had gotten Sir Myles to convince them to let her use her healing Gift. The sorcery causing the fever was too much for the magic she knew, and in the end she had appealed to the Great Mother Goddess. She had heard a voice that hurt her ears—a woman’s voice that sounded like a pack of hounds in full cry, like the huntress urging them on. And she had heard that voice again, only a year ago, when she and Jon were trapped in the Black City. They had called on the Goddess to help them, and she had told them what to do.

“That’s impossible,” she whispered, her voice shaking. “You—you can’t be—”

“And why not?” the Mother asked. “It is time we talked, you and I. Surely you know that you are one of my Chosen. Is it so strange that I have come to you for a time, my daughter?”

Life is difficult enough with the gods meddling in it, Myles had told her more than once. But they will meddle. All we humans can do is hope they tire of their meddling soon and leave us alone!

Alanna clenched her chin stubbornly. “I never asked to have conversations with the gods,” she informed the immortal on the other side of the fire.