Read An Excerpt

Each year, at the end of March, a great fair was held in Cría, the capital of Galla. Like thousands of others in the Eastern Lands, Onua Chamtong went there to do business: buying ponies, in her case. This year she had another transaction to make and was having no luck with it. By the end of her fifth day at the fair, it seemed she would never find the assistant she required. The prospect of taking her animals south, with no one to help, was an unpleasant one.

“Excuse me—Trader Onua?” The speaker was a girl, shy and country bred. “I heard you was hiring. I’m”—she paused, then went on—“a fair hand with animals, all kinds.” She waited as Onua looked her over: a girl in a green wool dress, skirts short enough to show leggings and boots. Brown curls tamed by a head-scarf fell to thin shoulders. A soft, full mouth said she was vulnerable; her chin was entirely stubborn. A quiver filled with long arrows hung on her back, a bow rested in her hand, unstrung.

“Is that yours?” the trader asked, pointing.

Blue-gray eyes flashed. “I’d not have the nerve to carry it otherwise.”

“Hmph. String it.” The girl hesitated. “Just what I thought,” Onua jibed. “Whose is it, really?”

The girl brought a coiled string out of her sash. With ease she fitted it to one end of the bow and set it against her foot. Raising the free end of the string, she brought the other end of the bow down, hooking them together neatly. The bow strung and in her grip, she turned sideways to it, caught the string in two fingers, and drew it back to her ear in a smooth, practiced gesture. Now Onua could see she wore an archer’s wrist- and armguards.

“I’d put an arrow up,” the girl said, gently releasing the string, “but I’d hit someone, surely.”

Onua grinned. “I’m impressed. I can’t draw a bow that big.”

The girl took the string off the bow, coiled it, and put it away. “Nor did I, at first. I keep this one limber, or I still couldn’t draw it.”

“Crossbow?” The question was out before Onua remembered, I don’t want to hire her—I want to send her home to her mama. She’s a runaway for sure.

“Yes’m. We have—” Something flickered in her eyes. She looked down. “We had bandits at home. I stood watch with the sheep, so I learned crossbow and longbow. And sling”—a half smile appeared—“not that I’m bragging.”

We had, Onua thought. Did she change it ’cause she wants me to think she’s been gone from home awhile? Or hasn’t she got a home?

Something looked around the girl, inspecting Onua with a large brown eye. It was a shaggy mountain pony, a steel gray mare. She was plump and well combed, and bore two packs easily.

“Yours?” The girl nodded. “How much would you ask for her?” Onua motioned to a pen filled with ponies at her back. “I’m in the market.”

“I can’t sell Cloud. She’s family—all the family I got.” Again Onua saw a flash of sorrow that was pushed aside.

“What’s your name?” The K’mir stuck her fingers into a pouch filled with a powder known as “eyebright.”

“Daine, mum,” came the soft reply. “Veralidaine Sarrasri.”

The eyebright made her fingers itch when Onua called on her magical Gift. “How old are you, Daine?”

“Fifteen.” An aura of red fire, visible only to Onua, flared around the girl’s face. The lie was a good one—she must have practiced on the way, the trader thought wryly—but a lie nevertheless. She looked about thirteen.

“Where are you from?”

“Snowsdale, up north. About two weeks’ walk.”

There was no flare of red—she had told the truth. Onua sighed. “Are you a runaway? From home, or a bad master—”

“No, mum.” The soft mouth trembled. “I got no family—just Cloud.”

No red fire this time. Onua dusted the powder from her hand. “I’m Onua Chamtong, of the K’miri Raadeh.”

Daine looked puzzled. “The k-k—the what?”

“The K’mir are a people to the east. Raadeh is the name of one of the K’miri tribes.” Daine looked only slightly less baffled. “Never mind. You say you’re good with animals. C’mere.” She led the girl to her pen. Inside, twenty-seven shaggy ponies in all colors and sizes milled around.

“I buy horses. I had an assistant, but he got offered a better job working for a horse merchant here, and I wasn’t about to hold him back. If you hire on—and I didn’t say I’d hire you—you’ll help me take these south. It’s three weeks’ drive— if we don’t bog down in mud, if we aren’t hit by raiders, and if we go before all these people take the road to the next fair. It’ll be just you and me, and my dog, Tahoi. Why don’t you climb in and look ’em over? I want to see how you manage ’em.”

Daine glanced back at her mare, Cloud. “Stay put, and no biting,” she ordered sternly, and clambered over the fence and into the pen.

Poor thing must have been alone a long time, to be talking to a mare as if she could answer back, Onua thought. She sat on the fence rail to watch.

The ponies watched as Daine passed among them. Ears went back. Those close to her appeared to wonder which would do better: a bite or a kick.