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The transition from exhausted, fitful sleep to fearful consciousness was abrupt. Mitsu blinked up at two sharp-toothed, obviously malign faces looming over her. It was night, she realized, heart pounding, the metallic taste of fear in her mouth. She sprawled outside on the cooling earth, pummeled by a brisk evening wind that carried the smell of sand and acrid vegetation. Several torches had been thrust into the ground nearby and cast shifting, nightmarish shadows. Neither of the two hrinn who had cared for her wounds were present now, and those who were here seemed bristling and angry. She had a flash of that terrifying moment outside the males' house when another hrinn, the same buff color as one of these, had struck her down.
A stream of guttural Hrinnti was being thrown at her; she tried to concentrate, but her head was still fogged and they were speaking so fast she couldn't make sense out of more than one word in every two or three.
"What male do?" The buff-colored beast kicked her ribs. "What do ?"
The blow was restrained, but pain rocketed through her tender side and shoulder, stealing the breath from her lungs. She curled against it, wondering what in the name of the All-Father Above these sodding beasts wanted from her. Racking her brain for a few scraps of Hrinnti, she managed to gasp out, "Slowtalk slow!"
A dark-gray hrinn, scarred and whip-thin, wrapped its fluttering red robes around itself and squatted beside her on the barren, sand-littered earth. "The Black/on/black, what does want?" Its eyes glittered like obsidian ice in the torchlight.
Black/on/black? Mitsu stared up at it. "Notunderstand."
The hrinn reached out and flexed sharp claws through Mitsu's loose robe into the flesh of her arm. "Why Black/on/black back to Anktan?"
Back . . . Black/on/black . . . Flinching from the punishing claws, Mitsu finally connected the questions with Blackeagle. "FindLine." She felt ill and sweat broke out on her forehead despite the cold night air. "Right wordLine?"
The hrinn cast her aside as it resumed its feet. "Levv dead! Does this male who Levv?"
The stars expanded and contracted, as though she floated on the vast rolling surface of some alien sea, borne on a racing current toward an unknowable destination. She'd traveled to those stars. Blackeagle had done his best to convince her to stay there, but she hadn't wanted to, though now she could not remember why.
Another kick connected with her wounded shoulder and shattered her thoughts. Pain knifed through her chest, paralyzing her lungs. Through tearing eyes, she saw the buff-colored hrinn draw back its leg again as she fought to hold onto the last shreds of consciousness.
Claws scrabbled over the sandy ground, accompanied by a low snarl as a furred body, pale against the night sky, appeared over a rise and launched itself at her tormentor. Mitsu shuddered as the two grappled in the shifting torchlight, so close she could have touched them. Sand pelted her face as they roared and tore at each other. The dark-gray hrinn prowled restlessly just out of reach, then finally found an opening to claw the newcomer off the other's back.
Without a pause, the pale-furred hrinn scrambled up and attacked the dark-gray. With a great deal of effort, Mitsu rolled out of the way of the snarling, writhing pair, getting a good look at the newcomer and recognizing the coat patternpale gray spotted with whiteKhea!
The fighting pair slid over the sandy ground, coming toward her again. She tried to crawl out of their way, but the earth swept around her in great dizzying loops. The buff-colored hrinn leaped onto Khea's back and she fell heavily to the ground as it went for her throat. Obviously dazed, she gave a strangled cry, fought the buff-colored one off and limped into the darkness, streaming blood.
Breathing hard, the dark-gray regained its feet and strode stiffly back to where Mitsu lay half-blinded by pain and gasping for breath. Its fur was streaked with dark blood. "What Black/on/black Levv?"
Mitsu flinched. "Talkslow," she whispered, and the guttural words rattled inside her head.
The beast seized Mitsu's robe in both fists and shook her as though it were a cat tormenting a mouse. "What male Vvok?"
Somewhere in her mind there were words to plead ignorance, but they wouldn't come. Mitsu's head rolled loosely as the hrinn raised her closer to its bared teeth. She felt its steaming breath on her face. She didn't understand. What did it want to know? Her fingers fumbled at the hands knotted into her robes. With a snarl, it flung her back to the ground. A soundless blackness reached up to swallow her as her temple struck something sharp and unyielding.
Missa gazed out at her charges as they gathered to hear her nightly story. She was no true Teller, of course, but she had heard the tales in her youth, and what she didn't remember, she could invent. The cave vibrated with the comforting sound of the breathing of the younglings and herself. The earthen floor was cozily dry, insulated by several turnings from the entrance and the fearful buffet of the mountain storms now raging outside. They were safe, she thought, safe. She had to remind herself of that often, even now, after so many seasons. No one knew they were here. No one would sweep through this secluded cave in the night to finish the carnage they had wrought so long ago at Levv.
She began the tale of the First Gathering, studying the circle of waiting faces, the daughters of Levv for whom there would never be any such thing as a true Gathering. She faltered; such thoughts made her feel old and useless, just the remnant from an earlier era of grace and order, as out of place as a fragile pot put to work hauling rock, or a delicately woven festival garment worn to shreds on the trail. The life and customs she remembered had no meaning in this rough, unstructured existence that was all Levv could provide for its children now.
"And then what happened, Line Mother?" Young Nin's eager black eyes were bright with reflected flame.
"Hush, Nin, and you might find out." Missa flicked a tolerant ear at this brash youngster, who was less than half the size of her age-mates. Old Kef, her indomitable Line Mother, would have culled such an undersized cubling at birth, either abandoning her to die on some hillside, or designating her an unnamed servant, but Levv could ill afford to waste any of its precious few births these days. She sighed through her nose, feeling her own inadequacies. A proper Line Mother would have struck Nin to the floor for speaking before being addressed, much less making direct eye contact, but what had such polite standards to do with Levv now?
She tried to remember the next part of the old story as Nin snuggled back against her plains-bred age-mates. "Now, as I was saying, Uwn and"
The yellow flames bent double as damp night air rushed into the cave from the covered entrance several chambers away. Missa lurched to her feet, alarmed. Kei and the others were back from their nightly patrol early. Perhaps, in spite of the weather, they had brought down some game. "You two." She selected several of the larger young females. "Run ahead and see if they need any help." The two younglings leaped up and disappeared around the bend. Missa limped after them as fast as her sore old bones would allow.
Entering the large communal chamber, she caught the scent of sodden fur and something more . . . the unmistakable musk of another Line. Fur prickled along her shoulders and spine and the old fear yammered at her. The last time she had detected the scent of another Line, most of Levv had perished.
Levv's young Leader, Kei, glanced up from where he knelt beside two still, drenched bodies on the stone floor.
"How many more?" she asked fearfully.
"There were only these two," Kei said. "We checked thoroughly."
Gathering her coarse brown robes around her bony body, Missa stepped over several puddles. The strangers were full-grown males, both black-furred, one in the black robes of a servant, the other clad in the tattered green of . . . She tried to remember, but she wasn't sure if green indicated the Mish River Males' House, or the Inner Mountains. A whine rose in her throat. What would a pair from either of those places be doing this high in the mountains? Had they come back to finish Levv? Were there more behind them?
One of the males had the distinctive white throat as well as the scent of far Kendd, but the other . . . She looked closer, then motioned for Kei to turn him over. As far as she could tell, the other was black with no off-color markings at all, and exuded the familiar scent of Levv. She stretched out her hand and made herself check the male's drenched undercoat: black as well.
"Black/on/black," Kei's deep voice said.
"And Levv." The words were only a hoarse whisper in her throat.
Kei raked his dripping mane out of his eyes. His expression was grim and disbelieving. "He looks my age, perhaps a bit younger. Was such a one as this born before the end?"
Missa felt dizzy. Wiping her wet fingers on the rough brown of her robes, she stood up and backed away. Fear surged through her. "I don't know. That was too long ago."
Kei seized her shoulders and gazed down with disrespectful directness. "You can remember all sorts of nonsense to fill the cublings' heads, when they should be learning how to hunt and weave and gather. Now tell mewas one like this ever born?"
Missa whimpered as the memories of that last day tried to force their way back into her consciousnessthe terror . . . the blood . . . cublings torn from her arms and dashed against the rocks as she fled. Her eyes squeezed shut and she hung trembling in his hands.
Kei snarled, then pushed her away. She stumbled back against the cold cavern wall and huddled against the unforgiving rock.
"Bind them." Kei's voice was hoarse with anger. "And then get some sleep. If they survive, we will question them at first light."
Missa kept her eyes closed until Kei stalked out of the chamber, his stride as distinctive to her ears as the stride of any other member of Levv would be. Because they were so few, they knew each other far too well.
She stayed long enough to watch buff-colored Ais and black-furred Bey tie the two unconscious males with tough mountain vines, then fled to her place two rooms back with the other females. Alarmed, the young daughters of Levv looked up from weaving baskets and mats to stare at her frightened face with wide black eyes. "Go to sleep!" she snapped at them, then turned away as they huddled together in a mass of varicolored fur back by the wall in the rough rags that were all that was left to Levv now.
She was a poor substitute for a Line Mother and she knew it, although fortunately these deprived younglings did not. Still . . . Missa picked up a stick and poked the fire back to life, letting the familiar scent of wood smoke soothe her nerves as she watched the fat sparks dance upward. Even an early cull like herself could serve in the Line Mother's place, if she were all that was left, and so Missa had beenthe only adult female left in Levv after the attack so long ago.
Curling up beside the fire, she shivered and closed her eyes. She could feel the blood-soaked dreamsher old enemiesstacked up behind her eyes, waiting to torment her through the night. She shivered. Kei would be furious, if she woke him again, and it distressed the younglings to hear her scream.
Khea hid behind a stand of scrub, dazed, but retaining at least enough presence of mind to remain upwind of her two Vvok elders. The smell of her own blood dripping into the sand was overwhelming, and her mind reeled with the enormity of her actions. She'd had no intention of challenging the Line Mother, yet somehow that was exactly what she had done. It was as though something outside herself had taken over, making her do bizarre things she had never dreamed possible. Was this what it was like to blunder into an emerging pattern/in/progress? Younglings, like herself, heard tales of the great patterns, of course, but were told nothing of their make-up or names. That knowledge was reserved for those of her elders who had the courage, wit, and stamina to pass all their gleanings. Only they had any hope of recognizing the shape of seemingly random events and then riding their crest to attain control.
The Line Mother appeared to have given up questioning Mit-su. The Outsider had lain still and unmoving for quite some time now, despite their efforts to make it talk. Khea's heart pounded. Perhaps it was dead.
Seska's chest heaved with frustration as she stood over the crumpled body. Dark streaks of blood dampened her own tattered robes. She hobbled over to the remaining yirn, mounted laboriously, then clawed it into a frenzied run back toward the outlying buildings of Vvok. Khea watched her go, trembling as she realized she could never return home. Having bared tooth and claw on the Line Mother and lost, her blood was now forfeit.
Fitila snubbed out the last torch, then threw the Outsider across her yirn like a sack of grain and rode off. Khea followed, taking care to stay upwind. Already stiff from the gashes that crossed and recrossed her throat and shoulders, her pace was painfully slow and she had to trail the other by scent. Her hold on consciousness faded in and out. Several times, she came back to herself to find she was wandering aimlessly under the indifferent glare of the stars, her open wounds matted with sand and her mouth tasting of ashes.
The wind picked up, moaning against the rocks and drowning the lesser night sounds, as the trail led toward the southern end of the plateau. Was the scout going to the Outsider hold? A trace of hope formed in Khea's mind. If the Outsider were returned to its own kind, then it might yet survive, despite the beating it had just suffered, and Vexk's efforts would not have been in vain. Her ears sagged as she thought of the Restorer's pale-gray face. Once Vexk learned of her disgrace, she would turn her away, perhaps even kill her, as would any of the Lines. She was outcast now, less than the meanest unnamed servant, meat for anyone's teeth.
She straggled up to the edge of the plateau to find Fitila seated on the ground, her yirn tethered a short distance away, apparently waiting for something, the Outsider dumped at her feet with no more care than if it were a bundle of trade goods. A self-contained, strangely steady light burned before her on the ground, definitely not a torch or any sort of true fire, because it never smoldered, or wavered, despite the erratic wind.
Fitila looked up as the air began to throb. Khea crept along a low stand of stubby gynth bushes as close as she dared while the other raised the light above her head. The throbbing grew louder until she made out a sleek black shape soaring through the air like an oversized jit. It landed with a heavy thump just inside the circle of light and the air quieted. Khea's heart pounded as she caught the now-familiar scent of Outsiders, then saw two of the flat-faced creatures emerge from the thing's maw. Ears trem-bling, she crept closer. Even if she died for it, she had to hear.
The two Outsiders spoke in Hrinnti, but the wind snatched away their words. One set a box down on the ground, opened it, then handed a slim black cylinder up to Fitila. She turned it over as the other seemed to explain something, then pointed it out into the darkness. A line of fierce green fire blazed and a bush burst into flames.
An Outsider weapon! Khea flattened her shaking body to the ground and forced herself to remain still as smoke billowed into the wind, although common sense urged her to flee. She had seen this much; she must see the rest.
Fitila tossed the cylinder back into the box, then mounted her yirn. One of the Outsiders handed both light and box up to her. She extinguished the light, then balancing the box before her, she rode back into the darkness toward Vvok, leaving Mit-su sprawled in the sand.
One of the Outsiders picked up her limp body, then climbed back into the sleek black thing. A few breaths later, the throbbing began again and it leaped into the air. Khea rose from her hiding place, head spinning, and stared down at the scorched bushes. Smoke still curled up palely into the darkness. She crushed a blackened stalk between her fingers, then scrubbed the soot from her skin with clean sand. The shape of this pattern baffled her. What could the Line Mother want with Outsider weapons? And why had Mit-su somehow been the price?
The screen in Sanyha's room beeped insistently again, then subsided for another twenty seconds. Throwing an arm over her face, she turned over and tried to focus on the screen through eyes opened to the merest slits. Damnation, she wasn't on call. What time was it anyway? Two? Three? Her mouth tasted like a toxic waste dump. The pale-blue screen beeped again and she floundered out of bed to grope across the room in its dim light. When she was close enough to read the message though, her irritation dissolved. It wasn't Sickbay beeping her; it was the automatic response she'd keyed into the outside lock.
She snatched up a pair of discarded coveralls from the floor and palmed the doorplate while she hitched them up. Fortunately, the halls were empty at this hour as she ran through the complex so there was no one to ask what was the emergency. Three breathless minutes later, she jogged up to Eldrich and Allenby as they cleared the inner lock, handling a bedraggled, slight body clad in hrinnti robes between them. Bruises and abrasions covered the face of the small-boned woman and her head lolled to one side.
Without speaking, she bent over the unconscious woman and peeled an eyelid back with professional concern. The pupil contracted normally and Sanyha nodded, more to herself than the others. "I've seen worse. Let's get her to Sickbay."
"Are you sure that's really necessary, Dr. Alvarez?" Eldrich's cool gray eyes bored into her.
Sanyha's stomach churned. The undertones of this situation were so damn odd. "You've got to be kidding."
Eldrich smiled thinly. "Of course." He turned to Allenby. "Help the good doctor take Corporal Jensen down to Sickbay."
Allenby nodded, anxiety written across his pale pinched face.
"How soon do you think she'll be able to talk?" Eldrich released the girl as Allenby took her full weight across his own shoulders.
Sanyha frowned and reached for the girl's wrist, then counted silently for ten seconds. "It's hard to say," she lied and released the wrist. "Does it matter?"
"I'm sure you realize Sergeant Blackeagle is still missing." Eldrich's voice was precise, smooth. "I was hoping she might know what had become of him."
"I thought you weren't going to authorize a search party."
The ghost of a smile flashed across his face. "I'm not. Still, I have to report. Keep me posted on her condition." He turned his back and walked down the passageway toward his own quarters.
Sanyha's jaw set as she watched him go. What in the Thirty-eight Systems was that all about? His aloofness sent a chill snaking down her spine. She looped one of the Jensen woman's arms around her shoulder, then motioned with her chin at Allenby. "Come on." Even without looking, she could feel him scuttling along beside her.
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