Yawrab had never been so lost in her life. Oh, she knew where she was: walking along the Renev River. She knew where she was going as well: the Denva estate, where she was employed as chatelaine. In a different sense, however, she was foundering in a sea of disaster and change. She only had one thing to cling to, and that was revenge.
News of her sister had set Yawrab adrift in the first place. Tillna had worked in an inn in Beeikar, and Yawrab had intended to visit her. Instead, she had learned of Tillna’s death. No one at the inn had known anything more than the fact that Lord Aldan had arrived the previous night, announced that Tillna was dead, and left again.
Yawrab had gone to Bindrmon Keep in search of more information. She knew that Tillna had planned on marrying Lord Aldan, the son of Baron Bindrmon. Yawrab hadn’t believed it would ever happen, but the baron’s heir had obviously known something about her sister. However, when Yawrab arrived, she had learned that Lord Aldan had ridden out before dawn after asking about Dargon, the duchy in the north of Baranur.
As Yawrab returned along her morning’s path, she tried to make sense of her vow to chase after the young lord all the way to Dargon itself. Nothing that she had been told linked Lord Aldan with the death of Tillna, and yet somehow she knew that she had to follow him across half the kingdom. Revenge spurred her on, allowing her to contemplate leaving everything she knew behind, but she still didn’t know why she was so sure that Lord Aldan was her target.
She walked into a patch of sunlight that made her blink, seeing strange shapes behind her eyelids as she did so. Interwoven lines were formed by the shadows of the leaves above her, and strange animal shapes as well. She thought she saw a raven, a cat, and a fox in those shadows. The leaves closed in above her and the odd patterns vanished, taking with them her reservations about why she needed to follow Tillna’s murderer.
Yawrab checked the position of the sun in the next clearing she entered, and estimated that it was about seventh bell. Her mind went automatically to what she would normally be doing at that time: checking the stores for tomorrow’s meals while she began to prepare for today’s dinner. So set was she in her daily rounds that she seldom had to check the timing of her tasks. Yawrab had heard her staff of servants at the estate joke that she was more reliable than the sun for marking out the path of the day.
Her reminiscence only served to make her more nervous. How could she contemplate striking off into the complete unknown like this? Riding alone across untold leagues of unfamiliar territory, without the slightest inkling of how to protect herself, or survive in the wilderness, was sheerest folly. Nevertheless, Yawrab found herself unable to grasp any other course of action. Her need for revenge burned away all of her fear, for a little while at least.
She turned her thoughts to safer matters. She needed transportation for her journey, and she had no choice but to take one of the estate’s steeds. She tried to decide which horse was docile enough for her to control, but the stables were not part of her duties and she knew little about her employers’ stock.
Hoofbeats behind her startled Yawrab out of her thoughts. A rush of fear went through her as she abruptly recalled her near-rape that morning, and she backed up against a tree hurriedly before turning to face the noise. The tightness in her chest eased when she saw the trio of horses turning onto the river path; it loosened completely when the wagon they pulled came into view.
Yawrab recognized Ganba and Hiranw sitting on the drivers’ bench; these were two of the three gypsies who had rescued her that morning. She also recognized that they were intent on the trail in front of them. Something about their gazes told her that they were both mournful and angry about something.
Once the wagon had completed its turn, the driver, Hiranw, flicked the reins and called to the team. The horses picked up their pace, drawing the wagon rapidly toward Yawrab. She lifted her hand in greeting, but neither gypsy seemed to notice her until the last moment. Ganba glanced her way as the wagon began to pass her, and as the wooden side with the stylized fox painted on it slid by, she heard Hiranw calling to the team of horses. The wagon rolled to a stop, and Yawrab started toward it. She saw Hiranw climb down from the bench and walk back, smiling broadly. Ganba appeared around the far side, also smiling, though not as brightly. There was still a hint of upset in her eyes.
“Well met, Yawrab,” said Hiranw, genuine warmth in his voice. “How went your visit? Would you like a ride back to your estate?”
Yawrab saw Ganba glance at Hiranw and frown, but before she could answer Hiranw, a voice called out from in front of the wagon. Presently, the other gypsy, Shaiff, appeared behind Ganba. He seemed to be asking a question of his sister, but Yawrab couldn’t understand their tongue.
Ganba answered him in the language they all shared: Baranurian. “We’ve stopped to offer our morning’s passenger another ride, Shaiff,” she said, looking darkly at Hiranw as she did so.
“But –” began Shaiff, but Ganba interrupted him.
“Even though it was Hiranw that made the offer, I think we can spare the time to help our fellow traveler. This estate she hails from is no great divergence.” Turning toward Yawrab, the gypsy said, “That is, if she wishes our help.”
Yawrab considered the advantages of taking the ride, and decided that an extra bell of riding after Lord Aldan would be a fine thing to have. She said, “I would be grateful for the aid. Thank you for the generous offer, again.”
Hiranw led her around to the front of the wagon, and Yawrab tried hard not to flinch at his touch when he helped her up into the seat. As before, Ganba climbed up next, sitting between Hiranw, who mounted last, and herself. Yawrab didn’t know whether Ganba had noticed how nervous she was around both brothers, but was glad of the seating arrangements.
The wagon was soon moving again, Shaiff scouting ahead on his horse. Silence stretched, broken only by the creak of the wheels and the jingling of the harness. Yawrab noticed that Hiranw was staring fixedly at the road ahead, and sadness showed along Ganba’s profile again. She wondered what mission they rode on.
After a while, Hiranw let out an exasperated sigh, which startled Yawrab from her continuous contemplation about the horse she would steal. The young gypsy twitched the reins idly, and finally said, “So, Yawrab, you never answered my first question. How went your visit with your sister?”
For a moment, Yawrab had no idea of how to respond. Should she just tell these strangers her personal tragedy, or should she lie? No, lying wasn’t in her, and if they were strangers, they were kind and caring and deserved an honest answer.
“My sister … T-tillna is dead.”
“What?” cried Hiranw. “How?”
Yawrab gulped past the choking grief, and said, “I don’t know. No one seems to.” She paused, and Ganba squeezed her shoulder. Yawrab turned to her and saw the sympathy in her face. Hiranw reached across his sister to pat Yawrab’s knee; she saw the sympathy there too, but that didn’t stop her from shifting her knee away from his touch after the first pat. She saw Ganba nudge her brother, who settled back into his driving with a hurt look on his face. Yawrab continued, “I heard the news at the inn, and went to the keep to try to learn more. I only learned that Lord Aldan rode out in secret just before dawn today, headed for Dargon.”
Hiranw drew a breath, but Yawrab saw Ganba nudge him again. Instead, the gypsy woman said, “And who is Lord Aldan?”
“Aldan is the son and heir of Baron Chak Bindrmon, the ruler of this area of Welspeare. Tillna was aiming to marry him.” Yawrab paused again, and then pressed on. “I believe that Lord Aldan killed Tillna, and has fled to Dargon. I … I intend to follow him there. Tillna must be avenged.”
Ganba’s hand squeezed her shoulder again, and the wagon continued on its way. Yawrab stared straight ahead, neither leaning into Ganba’s support, nor pulling away from it.
Hiranw again broke the silence, but he spoke in the gypsy language. Ganba answered in kind. Their exchange continued, and Ganba removed her hand from the chatelaine’s shoulder. Yawrab turned to watch the two speak. Hiranw seemed to be arguing, his voice forceful, his handsome face turned forward, intent on the road before them. Ganba’s voice was softer, and Yawrab thought she heard the tones of someone trying to be reasonable about something. The woman gestured at her brother, though with all of Hiranw’s attention focused outward, Yawrab wasn’t sure that the driver saw any of that.
The debate drew to a close, but Yawrab couldn’t tell which participant had won. Hiranw continued to stare at the road; Ganba dropped her gaze to the floor of the wagon. When nothing further happened, Yawrab opened her mouth to ask what that had been all about. Ganba interrupted her before she could say a word.
“How do you expect to get to Dargon?” asked Ganba, still staring at the floorboards.
“I … well,” Yawrab began hesitantly. She debated with herself once more, and decided that it wasn’t going to be a bunch of gypsies who turned her in for stealing. “My thought was to take a horse and provisions from the estate, and ride north.”
Ganba looked up and stared into Yawrab’s eyes. “Do you know where Dargon is?”
Yawrab looked back, and said, “North.”
Hiranw joined Ganba in laughing at the answer. The woman continued her questioning. “And how long will the journey take? Will you be able to make a camp and trap and cook your own game when it becomes necessary?”
Yawrab shook her head Ganba’s queries. She knew she was woefully unprepared to undertake her journey, but she had to go. She wanted to break down and cry, but that wasn’t how a chatelaine acted. Instead, she held on to her resolve, to her need for revenge, and straightened in her seat. She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest, and when the questions stopped, she said, “I will make do. I must. I am going to Dargon after Lord Aldan, and I will do whatever is required to get there.” Her voice never wavered despite the churning fear in her gut.
“Of course you will,” said Ganba. “So, let me offer you aid once again. The three of us are also headed for Dargon, chasing our own obligations. Come with us, Yawrab. With our help you will complete your journey. Without it, you quite frankly don’t stand a chance.”
Yawrab said, “I accept,” so swiftly that she realized she had been expecting the question, and had somehow made up her mind about it long since, perhaps as long ago as when Ganba had first uttered the word ‘help’ behind her wagon.
Yawrab turned and smiled at Ganba, and reiterated, “I accept.” She looked past Ganba and saw that they were driving by Shaiff, who was sitting on his horse by the trail that led to the Denva estate. The young man wore a very puzzled expression as the wagon passed without turning, carrying Yawrab away from her home and everything she still had in the world now that her sister was gone. She was amazed that she wasn’t more afraid, but she knew somehow that she needed to be exactly where she was.
The fear didn’t stay away, but Yawrab now had a new weapon to combat it: the gypsies and their wagon. As the Denva estate disappeared behind them, Yawrab asked where they were headed, since she had enough woodcraft to know that they were traveling east, and not north. She was told that they journeyed to rejoin the bantor, or wagon group, that Ganba belonged to, before heading to Dargon.
Silence returned, and Yawrab was content to let it remain. She had questions still, but she also had caution. She didn’t want to bother her new companions enough to make them reconsider their offer, not while they were close enough to the Denva estate to return her there without significant delay.
Night fell, and Yawrab marveled at how swiftly and easily the three gypsies set up a camp beside the pathway they were on. Soon, a campfire drove back the darkness and the smell of roasting meat made her mouth water. Three tents were draped from the sides of the wagon, and Yawrab wondered which was to be hers. She assumed that she would share with Ganba, since she certainly was not prepared to share with one of the brothers.
After the meal had been shared out, Yawrab decided to ask her questions. She started with, “How long before we reach your bantor?”
Ganba replied, “Another day’s travel. We will arrive by nightfall tomorrow.”
“So, we will head north the day after?”
Ganba shook her head. “We will not be able to begin so swiftly. First I must present the news. We must inform the bantor of the danger, and solicit whatever help we can.”
Yawrab stiffened in alarm. “News? Danger?”
Hiranw said, “Not immediate danger, Yawrab. There is no need to fear.”
Ganba continued, “My brother is right. The danger is only to my people, the Rhydd Pobl, and it does not directly threaten us yet. But it is real, and we need to warn everyone as soon as possible.”
Yawrab saw that all three gypsies were agitated, and she wondered whether she had the right to pry. She had told them of her tragedy; perhaps it would help them to share their news in turn.
She asked again, in a calmer voice, “What news do you bring? What danger lies in wait for your people?”
“Rhonwn is missing!” Hiranw blurted out. “Bobere’s dead. The Bloody Hand –”
Ganba stood up and barked some commands. “Hiranw, go gather more firewood. Shaiff, check on the horses, and then bring some more water. Let me answer Yawrab’s questions without frightening her even more.”
Yawrab calmed herself after Hiranw’s outburst. Another dead person in Beeikar. She wondered how much bad luck one town could have.
The brothers set about their tasks. Ganba started to come closer to Yawrab, but seemed to reconsider and took a seat directly across the fire from her. “Let me try to explain,” she said.
“My uncle Bobere was killed this morning by a leader of a band of troublemakers called the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. This man, Lacsil, learned of the maps that Bobere had made of the secret paths of our people; we never make maps as a rule, but Bobere had a bad memory. His son, Rhonwn, a good friend of Hiranw, was missing from the camp when we arrived, along with the map.”
She fell silent, and Yawrab said, “I’m so sorry, Ganba.” The silence continued, and finally Yawrab had to ask, “What is this Bloody Hand thing, and how can they use the maps against your people?”
Ganba sighed and said, “We Rhydd Pobl, we gypsies, are not well favored by most.”
Yawrab nodded and said, “I know of your reputation.” She looked at Ganba across the fire and continued, “Truth told, had you or another of your people come to the door of my estate before today, and I would have had you turned away.” At Ganba’s nod of acceptance, she continued, “I know better, now.”
Ganba said, “Few get the chance to know us better, by choice on both sides for the most part. Most, like your former self, simply shun us. Others feel that theirs would be a better world without us entirely. The Bloody Hand of Sageeza is a group of such people.”
“Are they many? How do you cope?”
The brothers had finished their tasks by this time and returned to the fireside. Shaiff sat beside his sister, while Hiranw took the stump near Yawrab that Ganba had decided not to sit in. Yawrab saw Ganba frown at Hiranw, but the brother didn’t catch any message that frown might have conveyed.
Ganba said, “They are not many, and are not well organized. They bother us when they have the chance, and we do our best to avoid them. They have no sanction from your crown, and even if a local constable or magistrate turns a blind eye to their activities, there is still a limit to what they can do.
“Under normal circumstances, even having Bobere’s maps would not give the Bloody Hand any real advantage over us. We are as scattered as they, and knowing how we travel wouldn’t make them any more dangerous.”
“Except for the marriage,” said Hiranw. “And the annual gathering.”
“Yes, brother, except for those.”
Feeling stupid, and slightly annoyed at always having to ask the obvious questions, Yawrab said, “Marriage? Gathering?”
This time it was Ganba who drew breath to reply, and Hiranw who interrupted. Leaning closer to her, he said, “We gather annually to celebrate the passage of time and conduct such business as requires a large number of us to complete. Usually, we do so at the turning of the year from spring to summer, but this year we had to rearrange the plans. And that is because it took so long to negotiate the marriage of Maks, one of us, to Syusahn, an outsider. She belongs to another nomadic people called the Gwynt Gyrun, the Wind Riders in your language. This is a rare interlocking of our cultures, and the event will be well attended by both our peoples.”
Ganba took up the tale. “Near the beginning of fall, in what you term Seber, this year’s gathering will take place at Eariaddas Hwl in the northern woods of Dargon. Somehow Lacsil knows of this gathering, and because of the maps, he knows how to get there. He intends to gather together as many of the Bloody Hand as he can and attack the gathering. Should he succeed, he will deal a harsh blow to our people. That’s why he needs to be stopped.”
The usually quiet Shaiff added, “That’s why we’re going to Dargon.”
Hiranw smiled, and leaned even closer. Yawrab jumped to her feet and away from the young gypsy. She said, “Thank you for explaining. So, what are the sleeping arrangements?”
Rhonwn of the Rhydd Pobl was jolted awake when the wagon he was lying in rolled over a bump in the road. A momentary confusion was swiftly dispelled by the reality he was suffering; he was lying on the bed of the wagon with only a blanket between him and the wood, unlike his father’s ban where he slept on a thick mattress in a box-bed. Also, the interior was too bright; this flatbed wagon was covered by a canvas tent, while Bobere’s was enclosed by wood. Then there was the manner in which he was tied hand and foot, his bonds secured to heavy loops fastened to the side of the wagon.
There was another jolt, and suddenly there was a rougher surface than the road under the wheels. Rhonwn knew by the light coming through the canvas that it wasn’t yet time to camp for the night, which meant that this must be the midday meal break. He knew the routine well by now; he had been captive of the madman Lacsil for a dozen days, more or less.
Rhonwn felt the wagon slow to a stop and heard the familiar sounds of horses gathering and men dismounting. The flap at the head of the wagon opened briefly; Rhonwn knew that Lacsil, who always drove the wagon, was checking on his prisoner. Rhonwn resisted looking, and soon he felt the wagon rocking as Lacsil dismounted.
The next expected action was for the flap at the other end of the wagon to be opened as one of the four other men riding with Lacsil took up his position as guard. Then, just before everyone was ready for the trail again, Lacsil would come and sit next to Rhonwn and show him how much progress they had made that morning on the maps that had been stolen from his father.
Rhonwn waited, but the flap never opened. The sounds of his captors faded slightly, and the canvas at the end of the wagon was uniformly lit, showing no guard’s shadow. He counted slowly to one hundred, and then scrambled into action.
Rhonwn had the long-practiced skill of slipping free of ropes knotted around his wrists. He had learned this skill at a young age, and had found it useful in many circumstances. Soon he was kneeling at the back of the wagon and listening very intently. He thought he could account for all five men by the sounds he heard, and none seemed near the wagon. Seizing the opportunity, he burst through the flap and out of the wagon and started running.
He stumbled within his first few steps, but caught himself before he actually fell. Gathering his feet beneath him again, ignoring the weakness he felt in his legs from almost a fortnight of inactivity, he dashed toward the nearest trees.
A shout went up behind him as his escape was spotted, which spurred Rhonwn to greater speed. He concentrated on the forest, planning on how to evade his pursuers as quickly as possible, not sparing a glance behind him. It came as a surprise when he felt a body slam into him from behind and he just had time to bring up his hands to cushion his fall. The trees were still a good ten paces away.
A second weight pressed him harder into the ground, and then both men swiftly grabbed at his arms and wrenched them behind him painfully. They kept him pressed into the grass, muttering curses at him, until Rhonwn heard Lacsil’s hanged-man voice behind him. “Still got spirit, doesn’t he, men? Most times, that would be, well and well, a good thing. Something to be admired, straight? Not now, though, not now. Can’t have our map reading gypsy scum running away and leaving us lost in the middle of nowhere, now can we?
“Right men, here’s what you do. Tie him harder, and wrap the rope around his arms, not just his wrists. Maybe a noose around his neck to keep him from moving around too much. That should keep our pet gypsy well and well in his place.
“Oh, and men? One more thing. He needs to read and talk, not walk. Break his leg.”
Ganba steered her wagon last into the clearing. The decision to stop had not been made happily; the sun wasn’t as near its rest as she would have liked, but the next closest clearing large enough for the wagons was too far along the trail to continue their journey today. There were times when her desire to catch up with Lacsil warred with her trail-sense, but her gypsy upbringing always won.
She scarcely needed to draw back on the reins to stop her wagon; her horses didn’t want to run into the wagon in front of them any more than she did. Ganba hopped down from the driver’s bench and started unhitching her horses from the yokes while keeping an eye on how the camp was beginning to shape up. With a bantor of only four wagons, each was positioned at the edges of the clearing with their long sides rather than their ends toward the center. That way they could still form something of a protective half-circle despite their numbers.
Buckles rattled and straps came free as Ganba worked. Meanwhile, the horses were led away from the yoke of the wagon in front of hers. Once the horses were clear of the wagon, Ganba watched its owner raise the yoke and, helped by his brother, begin to push their wagon into place.
Turning her back on them, she got her three horses free in time to turn them over to Shaiff and another young gypsy to be led to the makeshift corral. She locked her own yokes up against the front of her wagon and turned around again to wait for the brothers from the other wagon, who had been helping her move her wagon over the past four hands of days that the journey had lasted. They seemed almost ready with their own wagon as Anmor, the heavier-set brother, was setting the chocks in place, but Ganba saw that there was a good four-pace gap between that wagon and the one in front of it. That wasn’t the way a bantor was usually set for the night.
“Leedlan!” Ganba called out. “Close that gap up!”
Leedlan, the driver of the wagon, turned, and began, “But Ruthodd …” Suddenly, Ruthodd was there beside Ganba, waving Leedlan back to his tasks.
Ruthodd was the oldest person traveling with the bantor and Ganba had selected him for his experience, both on the trails and in tracking. He was a squat man, as dark and ruddy as most Rhydd Pobl, with a thick beard and bushy hair that left the skin around his piercing blue eyes the only visible part of his face.
He put a companionable arm around Ganba’s shoulders and rumbled, “I told the lad to leave some space there, dear. This clearing has a stream just back in the woods from there, and it will be easier to get to it directly than by going around the end wagon.” He gave her a squeeze as he continued, “And you did leave camp-setting to me, lass.”
“You’ve got the right of it, Ruthodd,” said Ganba. She patted his arm, and then slipped out from under it. “It is your duty, and I should leave you to it. I’ll apologize to Leedlan for questioning his actions.”
“It’s no rain inside either of our bans, I’m sure, but you do as you need to, dear.” Ruthodd smiled at her fondly, and strode off to resume his duties.
Ganba chuckled to herself as she usually did when Ruthodd acted the kindly amdan, or uncle, to her. She didn’t take offense at his condescending references to her; he treated everyone just the same, including those who were his elders. He was a good man who worked hard and had a vast store of knowledge; his foibles could therefore be tolerated.
When Leedlan and his brother came to help Ganba position and secure her wagon, she did apologize to him. Leedlan shrugged it off, but smiled just the same, and Ganba knew that it had been something she had needed to do.
As soon as Ganba’s wagon was positioned and secured in place, Yawrab descended from it and took up her accustomed place on the back step. Ganba asked, “Do you need anything?” of the only passenger in the group, and Yawrab shook her head, following the routine they had fallen into. After the first few nights of trying and, for the most part failing, to instruct Yawrab in how to take part in the camp-setting, it had been decided that the outsider would not be required to participate as an equal part of the bantor. Ganba had worried that this would upset the woman, but Yawrab had settled into the role of passenger without complaint.
It wasn’t long before the camp was well established. All of the wagons were in place and the horses were all on their picket. The fire pit was dug and lined, and a hearty blaze had been kindled to create coals for cooking over. When the coals were ready, they were raked into an offshoot of the pit where a cast iron grill was set up over them. Soon, the evening meal was roasting into readiness, and the main portion of the fire was built up again, but shallowly, for the comfort of its light rather than warmth.
There was still work to be done, however. As the meal was cooked, Ganba and Ruthodd took the time to inspect each wagon for damage, a precaution that found flaws in good time to fix them at leisure, instead of in the middle of the path. The water barrels were filled at the stream, the horses were attended to, and deadfall wood was gathered to supplement that which had been gathered along the way. Of the ten people scattered among the four wagons she had been given, all nine gypsies were busy. Only Yawrab was completely idle, sitting in a folding chair not too close to the fire on this warm summer evening, staring into the flames as the sun finally went down.
Ganba thought back to the meeting where she had presented the danger posed by Lacsil to her full bantor. She had communicated the need to chase him down, preferably before he reached any other groups of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. The leaders of the bantor had conferred, and had given her control of a group of four wagons and as many people as she felt were necessary to chase the man. They had also assigned other groups to spread the word about the danger, so that the gathering at Eariaddas Hwl would not be caught unawares. Ganba had no intention of failing, though. Lacsil would not lead the Hand against her people with her uncle’s maps because Ganba was going to stop him.
When the evening meal was ready, everyone gathered together, seated around unfolded tables between the fire and the wagons. As they ate, dish-washing water heated up in a large pot over the cooking coals. Soon even that task was accomplished and, with the tables folded up and stowed back in their wagons, there were finally no more tasks left to occupy Ganba’s group of travelers aside from the prospect of a good night’s sleep.
No one was ready for that yet. Chairs were drawn up around the fire. Everyone found a place and settled in for some companionable conversation, except for the four who decided to play.
Hiranw, Shaiff, Drost, and Lewro, the youngest of the group, gathered themselves in the now open space between fire and wagons. The three boys had stripped down to breeches, though Hiranw’s were briefer than the others’, and while he had braided his hair to keep it out of his eyes, Ganba knew that the elaborate pattern of the braid had no such utilitarian purpose. Lewro remained dressed much as she had during the day, in deference to the modesty of Yawrab. In other circumstances, she would have been as stripped down as the men.
All four were armed with stiffened leather-bladed knives, and at a signal, they began to fight. Leaping and darting, slashing and dashing, they snarled in mock anger, laughed with glee, shouted in triumph when striking and in pretend pain when struck. The heat of their exertions in the warmth of the night soon had all four glistening with sweat, and they sparkled in the firelight.
Ganba grinned as she watched them play, remembering her own joy at the game that was also a form of training. She would have liked to join in herself, but the worries of being the leader of the group were surprisingly tiring, for all that she mostly just sat and steered her wagon all day. She looked away from the game, her gaze going right for Yawrab across the fire. Ganba had spent the last three sennights trying to fathom the woman, who was as unlike any other of her own kind that Ganba had met as she was from the gypsies themselves. Evidence of that was how she leaned to the side in her chair. It looked as if she was simply trying to get a better view of the game, which she watched avidly, letting Ganba know that her brother’s efforts at grooming were not going to waste. Ganba had learned, from wa tching and asking, that Yawrab found the older, patronizing Ruthodd, sitting on the side she leaned away from, frightening even after having come to terms with the other strangers she traveled with. Yawrab was still wary around the other men, excepting Hiranw, but she didn’t flinch when they spoke to her, and she no longer reacted adversely when they stood or sat next to her. Yawrab had complained to Ganba early on about being addressed as ‘lass’ or ‘dear’ by Ruthodd. Ganba had explained that it was just how he presented himself to the world, and as it was as natural as sunlight or rain, she would just have to come to terms with it. Yawrab hadn’t yet done so.
Two more things troubled Ganba about her passenger. Hiranw seemed to have taken a fancy to Yawrab as far back as the rescue on the riverbank. Yawrab also seemed to fancy Hiranw, if her staring tonight was any sign. Ganba understood Yawrab’s attraction; her brother was, after all, a handsome, strong young man. What she didn’t understand was why all Yawrab did was look. The woman seldom spoke to Hiranw, and although she seemed more at ease in his presence than in anyone else’s, her words were never more than pleasantries, at least as far as Ganba had overheard. Ganba couldn’t understand what would keep those two apart. She wondered if it had something to do with the near-rape the woma n had suffered at the riverbank. Maybe it was some deeper, older injury, something that led her to not only be nervous around all men, but to deeply distrust a man such as Ruthodd who treated her with condescending familiarity.
The second troubling thing involved her own developing attraction to the woman. There was something about Yawrab that enticed Ganba, that made her want to get to know the woman with one brown eye and one green eye better, even intimately. Ganba had lain with women before, and had physically enjoyed the experience. She seldom sought it out herself, but she had never been attracted to a woman the way she found herself attracted to Yawrab. She knew that it had nothing to do with mere physical sensation. It was a deeper attraction: almost like they belonged together.
The oddest part of the attraction, however, was the deep conviction Ganba had that Yawrab wasn’t the way she was supposed to be. It just wasn’t right, the way she seemed closed off from everyone and everything around her. There was something wrong, and Ganba longed to set it right. Even if Yawrab never came to be in her bed, it would satisfy her to see Yawrab finally happy.
She thought about the way Yawrab acted around the men of the group, and wondered whether that was a key to her problem. Perhaps if Yawrab bedded Hiranw, if she could consummate her natural desire, she would be on the path to healing.
That thought occupied her mind long after the players had wiped the sweat from their limbs and joined the others around the fire for conversation and tale-telling, and everyone had eventually gone to their beds.
It was still on Ganba’s mind well into the next day. The midday break had been called, and all four wagons were lined up. The horses had been given their feedbags, and Lewro was grilling some sausages over charcoal. Ganba sat on the driver’s bench of her wagon in the shade of the trees by the side of the road, and decided to do some carving. She hadn’t been moved to work on anything since the day she had watched Bobere die, but today she wanted to feel wood in her hands, to work with chisel and awl, to create something that had never existed before.
She turned in her seat and pushed aside the curtain that led into her wagon. A familiar ticking sound came to her, and she looked inside to see Yawrab sitting in a sling chair knitting by the light of the opened windows. Ever practical, Yawrab had been looking for something to occupy her days during the journey even before they had set out. Ganba had suggested knitting, and had managed to get Entheesa to instruct the woman. Yawrab had put her new skills to good use; she had already begun her second blanket.
“Yawrab,” Ganba called out. “Could you push that chest over here? Thank you.”
Yawrab set aside her work and slipped out of the chair. The chest was small, and Yawrab had no trouble moving it to the doorway. Ganba had tied back the curtain-door in the meantime.
Yawrab asked, “What’s in here?”
Ganba replied, “My carving tools, and some of my finished work. See?” She opened the lid and revealed a shallow tray filled with her tools and several interestingly shaped and colored pieces of wood. She started picking up the bits of wood one after the other, looking for one that inspired her.
Yawrab, who was still standing behind the chest, said softly, “Did you carve those? What are they supposed to be?”
Ganba laughed and said, “No, no, I didn’t carve these! These are my raw materials; I carve things from these.”
Yawrab chuckled in return, and said, “Good, because they didn’t look like much. So, what kind of things do you make?”
Ganba chose a short length of blonde wood with a streak of red heartwood running through it at an angle. She replied, “I carve figurines mostly. Little statues of people and animals and sometimes animals that look like people. Once in a while, I carve more useful objects, like plates or bowls, mugs or spoons. Depends on what I get asked to do, and at times it depends on what the wood wants to be.”
“How can wood want to be something?” Yawrab asked.
“Well,” Ganba said, “mayhap it’s just a fantasy in an artist’s mind, and mayhap not. But I know how it feels to me. One time, I’ll pick up a block of wood and carve something into it or out of it because that’s what I want to carve. The next time, I’ll mull and ponder, touch and feel until a block or stick calls out to become a bowl with a line of ducks walking around the rim, or a tiny statuette of a bird on a branch.
“Take this one now,” she said, holding up the wood she had chosen. “I can see just what this wants to be.” Ganba saw Yawrab stare intently at the wood, and then shake her head. “Look, see this red streak? The way it flows through the wood makes me think of hair, deep auburn hair flowing down a back. And here, where the grain swirls just a bit, that’s a woman’s hip, rounded just right. And there, legs. Here, an arm extended. See?”
Yawrab squinted at the piece of wood again, tilting her head to the side. Her features settled into a disbelieving frown, and she said, “It’s just wood to me.”
Even if Yawrab couldn’t see it, Ganba really could. She knew exactly how this piece would turn out even before she set her first chisel to it. She just smiled knowingly and said, “You’ll see. She’s in there, and I’m going to let her out. A couple of days and you’ll be able to tell. You’ll see.”
As Ganba reached for a chisel, Yawrab asked, “Is there something under this tray?”
Ganba laughed at herself. She had been so intent on carving something that she hadn’t even thought to show Yawrab her finished work. She said, “Yes, that’s storage. Here, let me.” She lifted the tool tray out of the chest and set it on the driver’s bench. She picked up her tools and began to cut shallow curls of wood away while Yawrab examined the contents of the bottom of the chest.
“These are amazing, Ganba!” Yawrab exclaimed. Ganba looked up to see her holding a tiny carving of a squirrel holding an acorn, and in her other hand was one of Ganba’s more fanciful creations, a rabbit with deer antlers. Yawrab was examining each one very closely, and she looked up to say, “These look so real, I would swear they couldn’t possibly be wooden! You … you have so much talent …”
For the first time, Ganba saw real admiration in Yawrab’s eyes. Admiration and perhaps something more. Ganba stared back just as frankly, trying to reveal some of her deeper feelings as she did so. Perhaps she succeeded, since Yawrab’s cheeks reddened slightly and she looked back into the chest.
“What’s this?” Yawrab asked. She set the figurines down and reached into the chest with both hands to lift out the sculpted stone fragment that Ganba had taken possession of in Bobere’s ruined campsite. “Did you carve this as well?”
Ganba shook her head. “No, I didn’t make that. It used to belong to Uncle Bobere; it was one of his favorites. I took it to remember him.” She looked at the carving. It was a fragment of a larger sculpture, about a foot and a half across and consisting of about a third of what had once been a circular, plate-like carving. It had a series of glass, gold, and silver bands interwoven across the inner two thirds of it, while the outer third had a stylized fox facing a stylized cat carved as if they were sitting on the curved outer rim. She reached toward the fox, which had special meaning for her. It looked just like the one painted on the side of her wagon even though she hadn’t seen the sculpture until years after she had chosen that symbol.
Touching the fox this time was unlike any other time Ganba had touched the stone. It seemed to be vibrating, like a gong that had just been struck. That vibration swiftly shot out of the stone and up her arm into her body, but at the same time she could somehow feel that the vibration was also moving into Yawrab, and she was more aware of that than the buzzing in her own body. She looked up at Yawrab’s startled expression and into her wide eyes, knowing her own eyes were just as wide and startled. Ganba felt the vibration move through Yawrab’s body, down her legs and out her feet, and she was aware of the same thing happening in her own body.
They stared at each other in silence, unmoving except to breathe. The stone was still touching both of them, but now it felt normal to Ganba. She wondered, as she stared into Yawrab’s odd-colored eyes, where the fear was. She knew she should be frightened of such a strange happening, and she was sure that Yawrab should have been scared spineless given what she knew of the woman. Wonder was all Ganba saw in the green and brown eyes, and wonder was all she herself felt. She couldn’t explain it, but she knew that it felt right. It felt better than good and it made her feel more whole than she had been before, even though she had never consciously felt a lack within herself. Yawrab and this sculpture were now a part of her. Even as she acknowledged her new completeness, she also understood that the process was not finished. There was more to do, more to gain, eve n though she had no idea of what or how.
“What was that?” Yawrab asked. “Was that supposed to happen?”
“I think it so, don’t you? But I don’t know what it was either. That’s never happened to me before. I know I’ve touched that fragment before when Bobere or maybe even Rhonwn was touching it without anything strange going on. Do you feel … more …?”
“Finished?” suggested Yawrab. “Perfect? Whole?”
“Yes, but not totally, hey?”
“Not totally, no. But … what do we do now?”
Ganba took the stone and set it beside her. Then she set her tool tray back in the chest and set her latest carving and tools back where they belonged. “We wait. What more is there to do? Waiting brings tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrow. Without knowing more, all we can do is let waiting bring us the rest.
“Come, I think that lunch is ready. And I would like to talk to you about Hiranw …”