Clouds rolled towards Wolfstones and Fearn opened his eyes. 'Move back to the distance of a spear-cast. The Sky God approaches. When he is here, stand in the light of the God, true as a pillar of stone. Release your hands.'
Fearn dragged on Sarmatia's fingers before he freed her so that she stood closer to him than the others. Sarmatia put her arms down by her sides. She was vaguely aware of Fearn and Laerimmer. Her mouth was dry, but she was not afraid.
The sky grew darker, a midsummer evening changed into midnight. A spot of water splashed down her cheek and then another. Fearn lifted the axe and smashed the stone head into the earth at his feet. He invoked the Sky God as a storm bringer and thunder cracked. Wind flayed through Sarmatia's hair. The wolf pack howled as the axe fell again. A spill of lightning ran over Wolfstones, bathing the hill in a bluish glare. Fearn was singing, the song lost in the storm. His red hair streamed back, the muscles of his upper arms tightened as he raised the axe right over his head...
Krete, c.1562 BC. Summer.
A dusty path rambled from the palace at Phaistos down to the sea, where ships heavy with oil and wine cut the sparkling water between Krete and the rich lands of Pharaoh's Egypt. Down the path ran a youth in a messenger's tunic, sweating in the heat. When he reached a parched field where a bronze-skinned girl with dark tousled hair leaned on a gate watching a piebald bull, he stopped and called out. 'Sarmatia! Hey, Sarmatia?'
The shout broke the fragile alliance. This time, thought Sarmatia, she could make no spirit bond with the beast that would take part in the ceremony. Perhaps the Goddess was angry. Whatever, it would be skill, not trust, that would keep her youngsters alive. If only the herald had not come then…. Knowing her face would show nothing of her mood, she turned.
'Kutatos!' Delight shattered unease: she and Kutatos had been fellow-initiates. 'How are you? Your family? Your wife?'
Kutatos stammered replies, painfully conscious, it seemed, of the gulf between them. Trainer of the Rite of Passage, she would risk her life through not one initiation but many. Only when he came to the message did his voice deepen into the ringing tones of the herald.
'Lord Luktos sends greeting to you and your family...'
'My gratitude is boundless.' Sarmatia gave the expected response, wishing Luktos' messages were not so long-winded.
At last Kutatos came to the point. 'Where may strangers watch the Bull Rite in safety?'
The answer was 'Nowhere', but she felt too kindly towards Kutatos to give it. Thinking over the Bull Rite, she wondered who Luktos' guests were. Kretans were not eager to witness the Rite of Passage. The courtyard where the bull-riding took place was fenced in by wicker hurdles, yet at any time the bull might charge into the crowd. In the past onlookers had been gored. The death-threat was common to all, binding the people together. Other races had heard of the rite, but few foreigners knew much of the ceremony.
'Who are these strangers, Kutatos?'
'An Egyptian nobleman, Ramose, with his wife and son, and Fearn, the northerner. Ramose and Fearn are tending Minos. I understand that it was Fearn who asked—Luktos sweats to refuse him nothing.'
'I know.' Minos, ruler of Krete, had been ill for over a year and the Kretan healers had despaired of him. They had sent word to the court of Pharaoh in Egypt and to Fearn, the foremost healer of the northern Isle of Stones, begging for help.
Despite her disquiet over Fearn's unusual request, Sarmatia was intrigued. Finally she might meet this man from the edge of the world, who had refused Minos' gold and argued, when the herald first found him, that his own people needed him—he could not leave the many for the sake of one. So matters might have stood had not Minos' herald let slip that the palace healers had begun to desert for fear of contracting the disease. Hearing this, Fearn had decided to set out at once for Krete.
Sarmatia remembered, but hid her curiosity. 'So today,' she remarked dryly, 'I must tell my initiates to perform for Fearn?'
'No, there'll be no impiety,' replied Kutatos, glancing from Sarmatia to the meadow as the bull lifted its head and bellowed. 'Fearn and Ramose know what's fitting.'
'Do they know the risk?'
'They do. My lord Luktos explained it at great length.'
Sarmatia laughed. For Kutatos' sake and their shared initiation, when Kutatos had seen that she kept her feet after tumbling over the bull's horns, she gave her answer.
'Tell Luktos to take his guests to the back of the court, by the pillars. No harm will come to them, I promise.'
Kutatos made his farewells, disappearing behind the long barn of the palace dairy. Sarmatia tried to put the matter from her mind and, wrapping herself in her hooded cloak, she walked back along the side of the meadow to the southern gate of the palace and slipped into the main courtyard.
The heat was so intense it stopped her breath and burned the soles of her bare feet. The sun had been beating down all morning on the stone flags of the court and now the decorated floor—painted with scenes of past bull rites—shimmered, the brightly rendered figures rippling as though alive. Inside the wicker fencing the area was deserted, silent but for the steady pulse of the cicadas.
Here in a few hours' time would be life: the growing of child into adult in those moments that it took to face a charging bull and grasp its horns. The instant the initiate was tossed into the air by the bull he began the Rite of Passage, tumbling through space as through life, without knowledge of the future or his fate. When he landed on earth, it would be away into adult life. Only one such tumble was needed and then the initiate could leave the sacred court. Many, though, elected to stay and help those who were left, sometimes performing the ritual again and 'riding the bull over', as the saying went. Sarmatia had ridden the bull many times but, after six years and rising towards eighteen, she felt herself stiffer than she used to be. Now she was content simply to remain with the initiates and keep an eye on them. Each time the ceremony was performed the bull was a different one.
Sarmatia sighed, thinking again of the piebald bull. He was big and his horns were strong, which was good, yet he was very quick at turning and his mind was closed. She had tried and failed to discover it. Standing in the stuffy bull court, the girl was tempted to join the crowds about the altar and make sacrifice to the gods, but she would almost certainly be recognized. And if word came out that the trainer was worried, how would her youngsters feel? No, the risk of their lives in the rite was sacrifice enough.
She felt suffocated by the cloak and flung it off to carry under her arm. Touching her brow in salutation to the court, Sarmatia turned briskly and went back amongst the people. There were whispers immediately as she was seen for, as was her custom on the day of an initiation, she wore the costume of the Bull Rider. Eyes picked at her linen loincloth, the bronze waist-belt and silver earrings, her naked breasts and scarred sides. All that was missing were the gold ankle bells and the face paint which proclaimed her kin-group. Only a few more steps and the show would be finished. The girl heard a farmer mutter, 'The Passage-Mistress herself, that's a good omen,' and was content.
* * * *
When she next entered the courtyard, Sarmatia was with the initiates and flute players, coming in to music and the greetings of the crowd. Glancing amongst her own family, she noted with relief that her brother Tazaros had kept his promise and stayed away. She always feared that if the bull threatened her, Tazaros would forget he was ten years past the rite and come into the courtyard himself. Breathing more easily, despite the blood heat of the afternoon, she started the seven initiates on their warm-up of somersaults and tumbles, doing a few herself to keep in practice and to ease the slowness out of her spine.
As she tumbled the length of the court, quickening with the music of the flutes, Sarmatia came right side up by the rear of the courtyard. She looked between the pillars and there was the Egyptian, with his wife and son. A child: was it wise to have children here? Sarmatia wondered, though no one else questioned the custom. The boy had his nose pressed against the wicker hurdles, but his father rose above them, straight, like a poplar.
Kutatos had not told her that Ramose was Nubian, dark as a rare pearl. And the man beside him, fully as tall, white as Ramose was black— her breath hissed in her throat when she looked on Fearn for the first time. The healer had red hair, a red-gold beard. He glittered in that fierce Kretan sunlight. A bright stare mirrored hers then Fearn bowed his head.
Sarmatia spun away and was gone, somersaulting over her hands and landing with a soft clash of gold ankle bells. Their meeting of eyes had lasted no more than a breath, yet it kept returning to haunt her as the music shrilled to a climax and the piebald bull was let into the court. Even as the flute players left and the Bull Rite began, her gaze was drawn to the back of the courtyard.
Three of the seven had completed their Passage and two were gone: the fourth initiate should have been ready. As the bull came to a jolting stop at one end of the court, pawed restively and licked the painted flags, Sarmatia motioned to a creamy-skinned, gray-eyed girl. The youngster backed up a step. The bull raised its head, its horn scraping against a pillar. The girl blanched and looked wildly about, ready to run. In three strides Sarmatia made up the space between them and gripped her arm. Unseen by the families, she pressed the flat of her dagger into the initiate's side. Cruel to be kind, she threatened.
'This or the bull if you show your back, Pero!' she whispered, turning the blade for the girl to feel its edge. 'The only way out is through the horns.' Whatever Sarmatia's private disgust and unease, custom and the crowd demanded it. They would not forgive Pero if she failed.
'I can't!' Pero was shaking and near tears. A low murmur ran around the watching crowd like a wind through barley: the mob and the bull would not wait much longer. Pierced by pity, Sarmatia squeezed the girl's thin shoulder. 'Do you want to be a child all your life?' she asked gently.
'Sarmatia, I can't! Those horns, they're like knives, and the bull— Oh, Mother!' Pero's voice cracked. 'It's looking for me!' The bull had trotted out of the shadows at the back of the courtyard.
Sarmatia stepped in front of Pero, shielding the girl. 'Look, it's nothing.' She ran forward, clapping her hands.
The bull halted and its head slewed round towards them, a brown forelock covering one eye. 'To me!' she shouted.
The beast dropped its great horns. She heard the people applaud. With an explosion of dust the bull charged. She felt its hot, closed mind surrounding her. For an instant skill deserted her. She remembered she was too old for the Bull Rite. A blaze of gold spilled from the bull's horns, instinct returned and with it sureness. She caught the horns and let herself rise. Time and the horizon fell back, she could see the blue vault of heaven, the red-mouthed 'O' of the crowd, a flash of red-gold hair as Fearn turned his head, following her descent. Her feet touched the bony rump of the bull, she tucked in her arms and somersaulted off, running forward as she landed.
Behind her the beast gave a sulky grunt, swept this way and that with its horns and lashed its tail. Pero worked her way into its sight, swaying her hips to keep quick and supple. The piebald ambled off in the opposite direction then suddenly spun about and bore down on the girl in another burst of speed. Sarmatia moved to cover Pero's tumble and signalled to the remaining initiates to do the same. She heard the girl seize the bull's horns, with a great smack on each palm, and saw her tossed, arching like a dolphin in mid-air and rising clear of the deadly gilded horns. The time of peril would be when the girl landed. If Pero caught an ankle or winded herself, Sarmatia knew she would have to be in quickly to distract the beast.
There was a shower of dark hair and Pero touched earth to a roar from her family. Sarmatia grabbed her arm and pulled her clear, but was not fast enough: already the bull had skidded round. Too late, Sarmatia realized what the beast had seen. A child had kicked a hole in the fencing and was running out into the turbid afternoon light. No time to draw the bull off— all she could hope for was to reach the boy first.
Sprinting, her insides turning to water, Sarmatia rushed for the child. As her hands closed round his tiny—so tiny!—body and her cheek grazed the stones she thought, with terrible clarity: I promised they would be safe. I've failed.
For a second, a dark breathing shadow hung over her. Then came pain, the slow tearing punch of the horn.
* * * *
She came awake suddenly, crying out. Firm hands kept her flat against the stones.
'Peace, Kretan,' said the man crouched beside her, pressing a cloth onto the spurting wound in her side. 'There's nothing to fear.' In the sun his hair framed his broad-featured face like a nimbus, yet there was darkness behind him. The bull was still free in the courtyard.
Sarmatia wet her lips with her tongue. 'The child?'
Fearn jerked his head to one side. 'Ramose has taken his son. He's safe.' The initiates were also gone, the crowd hanging back, uncertain what to do.
They were alone in the court, except for the bull. Fearn pressed on her side again then withdrew the cloth. A dark spiral of blood pooled under Sarmatia's ribs; blood no longer pumped from the wound. She scarcely felt it as he bound the gash with a bandage made from his tunic. 'You must leave, Sir, the bull—'
She broke off, eyes widening, and Fearn whipped round. Ready to gore, the bull was lowering its huge head, its face so close that its breath stirred the bristles of Fearn's beard. Fearn threw up an arm to fend off the horns and drove a fist into the face of the beast. 'Get back!' He hit the creature a second time. 'Learn your lesson!'
The bull snorted and the healer shifted, covering Sarmatia completely with his body. He stamped the stones and shouted at the beast. ‘Go on! Go on!’
As Fearn's boot hammered the flags, there came the rumble of a distant storm, like the muffled roar of a lion. The beast started back and with a bellow turned tail and ran.
The man's shoulders shook. 'It always works on the cows at home. If you charge them first -' Fearn started to laugh. He had entered the court, driven the bull off its victim, kept it at bay. In her relief, Sarmatia blacked out.
* * * *
Water trickled in a basin, a cool cloth mopped her face.
'Easy there. You're at home. Your brother's just left your bedside to rest.' Fearn grinned at her. Sarmatia smiled back.
'Good,' said Fearn approvingly. He rose from the edge of her bed and stood, his head touching the rafters of her attic chamber. 'Are you in pain?'
Sarmatia shook her head. There was a nagging ache from her ribs to her hips but she could bear that: it was nothing to trouble the healer with. Fearn gazed at her speculatively through thick-lashed eyes—thinking eyes that she'd seen burn like a warrior's—but accepted her response. Sarmatia wondered how long he had sat by her bed, how long she had been lying there. She watched him walk the length of her room, ducking under the beams, turn and come back. Neither spoke.
Fearn repeated his circuit, stopping by her bed. 'Do you know who I am?'
'You're Fearn. You're here to cure Minos.' With her customary brevity of speech, Sarmatia neglected to tell him her name. She guessed he would know it by now.
Fearn smiled at her again. He was quite young, Sarmatia realized, no more than twenty. 'Ah, yes, Minos. Have you ever seen him?' he asked.
'Have you, like me, ever been inside Phaistos palace?'
'No.' Trying to be comfortable, Sarmatia squirmed in her bed. She was hungry, but too shy to mention it. For an instant, although full of questions for this man from the edge of the world, she almost wished her brother Tazaros was with her instead of this tall, bulky stranger, dressed in the long tunic and leggings of a barbarian.
Yet Fearn was comely. His face, with its sturdy features and thick red eyebrows, was pleasing without being handsome and he was taller than most Kretans. There was a big-jointed look about his long limbs, as though he still had some growing out to do. Now he stared at the roof, fingering his beard and chin. Was it possible that he, too, was shy? Gently she touched his arm. 'Will you tell me about the palace?'
Krete, 1562BC. Summer.
Two weeks later, when she was walking but had not yet resumed her part in the Bull Rite, Sarmatia was summoned by the Snake Priestess in the pillar crypt of the temple.
'Go to the Old West Gate,' the priestess said. 'Fearn is waiting there for you. Guide him to the Grey Mountains, help him to gather the herbs he needs. Take care, for Fearn has Minos' cure in mind. There are two days' rations you'll need to collect. The laundress will provide you with clothes.'
Sarmatia prostrated herself before the Priestess then rose. Before she had climbed the stair leading out of the crypt, the Priestess called her back.
'You must find this a strange order.' It was not usual for men skilled in the art of healing to ask for help.
'Yes, Mistress.' Sarmatia was very still, her eyes tracing the faded pools of blood upon the stone floor. She did not look once at the plump, motherly figure of the Priestess. Pergia could have a sharp tongue when she chose and Sarmatia wanted no probing questions about Fearn. She wanted merely to see him again, to talk to him, to have him talk to her.
Black eyes flicked over her. 'Go in joy, girl. Fearn is a good man. Go.'
Dismissed, Sarmatia darted to the palace stores in a whirlwind of happiness. Snatching two unleavened loaves and a supply of olives and figs, she hurriedly filled a battered sheepskin with water and then rushed to the laundry to collect a made-up parcel of clothing. Despite her aching side and newly-healed wounds, she ran all the way to the Old West Gate, never stopping until she saw the redheaded healer. 'Master Fearn!'
Fearn came through the gateway to meet her. He was dressed for the Kretan summer now, with a short tunic and wide-brimmed hat, though his limbs were still pale as a woman's. 'I always thought Kretans lay in their soft beds till long after dawn,' he teased. 'Are you a rarity then?'
'And I chose you, thinking you were! Shall we go, before the sun catches us?' He pointed north, where already the summits of the Snow Mountains gleamed in the approaching sun. In a few hours that sun would have ripened to an eye-aching fullness and another summer's day, dusty and still, but the dawn felt pleasant, cool and fragrant with juniper and honeysuckle. Sarmatia paused before starting out, watching the light flow over the countryside and a hawk rising in the clear skies.
The bird stooped, dropping into tall grasses, and she flinched, the spell broken. She turned, but Fearn had already moved off, carrying both bundles of food and clothing. Catching up, she began to walk with him down the street that led away from the palace of Phaistos. They passed workmen laden with tools, pounding up the long slope to the house of Minos, and a handsome farmer with an easy smile, driving his cattle to the palace dairy. Then they left the paved road for the country tracks and twisting grass paths, where they met no other creature for the rest of the day.
* * * *
As they wove their way round the edge of the cornfields, brushing past emmer wheat and blue iris, Fearn told Sarmatia of his own lands on the Isle of Stones. He told her of summers there, when the rowan flamed in the dark woods and the soft hills burned with color. He told of the bleak winters, when no birds flew and men huddled round fires. He sang her a spring song, a careless tune telling of flowers, bees and the new born wild things.
Sarmatia listened, full of delight. Silent, her brother Tazaros called her at home—sulky, said her sister-in-law—but neither would have recognized their Sarmatia as the nimble girl who chattered and laughed with Fearn. When they stopped by a shallow, slow-running river to drink and rest under the cypress trees, Fearn knew that, as with him, Sarmatia's parents were dead: she lived with her elder brother and his wife. For her part, Sarmatia had learned that the healer had no sisters or brothers but that he did have a dog, a half-crossed terrier. 'Called Puddle—you needn't wonder why. Often as a boy I'd slip off to the woods, go roaring through the undergrowth with Puddle always ahead, tail whisking like a flag. When I set out for Krete I'd to leave him behind—he's gray-muzzled, poor fellow.'
'He'll wait for you,' Sarmatia answered at once, aware that Fearn was taking more pains washing his face in the river than he needed. She was rewarded with a quick smile and, seizing the moment, asked about things which had intrigued her ever since she had heard of the Isle of Stones, questions she had shared with no one until now. 'Who made the Great Stone Circle? Was it giants? Why did they make it? Who was it for?'
Fearn wiped the last drops of water from his downy beard and sat back from the river, watching the blue winged butterflies and bullfinches, brilliant against the cypress. A lark began to sing somewhere in the cloudless skies and Sarmatia, waiting, listened to its pulsing music.
Finally he spoke. 'Why do you ask me this, Sarmatia?'
Sarmatia flushed. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean offence.'
Fearn leaned towards her. This close, Sarmatia saw that his eyes were green, not brown, nor even the rare blue. 'None taken. But you see, I'm curious.'
The healer picked up a handful of pebbles and began tossing them into the water. 'People do question me,' he went on, 'but always on other things. Which crops grow well in my lands, how long are the northern summers, how powerful our kings.' Fearn looked directly at Sarmatia again. 'But somehow you have sensed—'
He stopped, glanced upstream, his mind fired not by stone circles but Sarmatia herself: this little Kretan, who made his heart bang and his thoughts fly the more time they spent together. An active listener, constantly challenging his assumptions, Sarmatia had the quality of sunlight, fertile and hot, illuminating in her pithy questions and thought. And that furry chuckle of hers—he was often tempted to tickle her, simply to hear it, to delight in her laughter. Her skin was taut and sweet-smelling as freshly-baked bread—the same rich color, too: good enough to eat. For the rest, long legs, supple waist, pert breasts, swirling brown hair, charmingly sober mouth, brilliant amber eyes—
'Is it sacred?' persisted Sarmatia, compelled by some spirit to pry, where normally she would have said nothing. 'As the deep cave in the Snow Mountain is to my people?'
Returned to the safely impersonal, Fearn laughed, reminding himself she was still barely eighteen. 'I was right to choose you! Can you keep a secret?'
Trying not to think about the ache in his stiffened groin, Fearn took up another pebble and began to draw in the sand between them. 'Many years ago there was a drought in my lands. All the tribes came together to build the Great Circle, high on a treeless heath where the Sky God would see it, the blue and gray stones painted with the marks for rain.'
The pebble drew the spirals in the sand and Fearn went on, his face quite still. 'The men dug the ditches and the women danced, always in the circle, never breaking step. They set the tallest stones together, working in harness under the dusty sky, like oxen.'
'Did rain fall?'
'It did indeed. When the first stone was raised, the rain began to fall. It poured then till every spring and stream flowed over.'
Sarmatia smiled, though one matter still puzzled her. 'Why must this be secret?'
'Because these things were revealed to me through a vision.' Fearn placed a hand upon his forehead to show that this was sacred. 'Few men, even the shamans, now know the truth of the Circle. To speak of it lightly would be dangerous.' His mouth set hard and his face went grim as he clearly fought his own temper. 'Men have made their own truths now. The place is called the Seat of the Plains-Kings—'
Fearn broke off and Sarmatia dare ask no more. Suddenly she wished she was back at home.
Seeing her disquiet, Fearn strove for the ordinary. 'Look at these, Sarmatia.' He pointed to a clump of tall milky flowers growing near the river's edge. 'What are they called here?'
'Yes.' Fearn noted the formal 'Sir' while he bent and examined the blossoms, 'Yes, the white face and faint blush, and its uses...' He snapped a flower off the body of the plant and turned back to Sarmatia. 'I know this one well! It grows freely in my homelands, thrives at every stream's edge in summer. My people call it cleanse-all. I use it for a skin salve, and in love potions.'
Fearn grinned and walked over to Sarmatia. He tucked the bloom stem behind her ear with a steady hand, touching her hair briefly. Picking up their provisions, he started striding over the rough ground, leaving Sarmatia to trail after him as best she could.
They travelled till long after twilight, coming to the foothills of the Grey Mountains. There, just after moonrise, Sarmatia spied out a cave in a tangle of undergrowth, a place where they might rest. When a fire was burning brightly, she hoped that Fearn would speak more of his homelands, and other countries he had visited. She enjoyed traveller’s tales.
Nor was she disappointed. For part of his training as healer, Fearn had journeyed for several seasons to learn other peoples' ways of dealing with disease. The memories of those earlier, more carefree days were sweet and he was glad to share them. All that evening, as they ate and drank and tended the fire, Fearn drew a web of enchantment about them, filling the night with strange stories.
'Which place do you care for best?' she asked, as Fearn paused to break up a dry log.
Fearn grimaced. 'There you have me!' He rubbed his beard and face— a gesture Sarmatia recognized as shyness, a further bond between them. Even so she almost missed his quiet answer.
'My homelands have my life, my power. But my heart? It might be here, in Krete.' Fearn rose and clambered swiftly to the entrance of the cave. 'The kindling runs low. I must fetch more.' He turned and was lost to the dark, his footfalls softening with distance.
Sarmatia yawned and settled closer to the fire, oblivious to the smarting wood smoke. She pondered on all she had learned, Fearn's voice running on in her mind. 'Custom in my country makes women the heirs, as well as men.' 'They say a tree grows through earth and heaven.' 'My heart? It might be here, in Krete.' Then she slept, a smile on her lips.
* * * *
She woke, still happy. They had reached the Grey Mountains, survived a night in the wilderness, and her bull-riding wounds had given no trouble. Smiling, Sarmatia rolled onto her stomach, feeling the dry cave floor rasp comfortingly against her flesh. She glanced at Fearn who slept, spread-eagled in the center of their small cave, his cloak flung to one side. She watched the bristles of his sparse beard move with every long snoring breath, saw how his nose was scarlet with the sun. Yet these things did not matter.
Absently, Sarmatia plucked the flower Fearn had given her from her hair. Despite a day in the sun its petals were still fresh and its scent sweet. She placed it in their water skin to keep its life a little longer. Then, moving carefully so as not to wake her companion, the girl rolled up her cloak. She padded soundlessly from their resting place up the steep embankment, out of the cave.
Glancing round in the pale sunlight, Sarmatia soon spotted what she was looking for—a wild pear tree, close to a field of cultivated vine, its branches already laden with fruit. Walking along the ancient boundary ridge, Sarmatia made for the tree. After a day of olives and figs, pears would be a welcome change.
'What have you got there, creature-caller?'
Startled, Sarmatia almost dropped the fruit. She glared at Fearn, who had come partway along the ridge to meet her. 'Who told you?'
'No one but you, Sarmatia. Don't look at me like that!'
Sarmatia began to tremble. Her fingers shook as Fearn took a pear from her hands and, crouching down on the path, sank his teeth into the ripe fruit. Finally she could keep silent no longer. 'How do you know?'
'Sit, eat, and I'll tell you.' Fearn spat out a mouthful of seeds. He did not speak again until Sarmatia had done as he'd asked. 'When birds fly over, you see their lives, their feelings, don't you?'
'I see pictures. Empty sky. Strange lands.' Sarmatia knew she was trying to explain a mystery. There were no words for it, this strange state of being, where the lives of animals were one with hers. This kinship had always been with her and was growing, but she wondered how Fearn had recognized it. 'But how—?'
'How do I know? I know because animals are drawn to you. They watch you even now.' Fearn leaned across and caught hold of Sarmatia, pointing over the fields with his free hand. 'Can you not sense them, Sarmatia? Feel their life out there, beyond sight? As a healer I get glimpses of their presence, but you'll know them.'
Alarmed by his knowledge, Sarmatia squirmed from Fearn's grasp. 'We should go, Sir. The sun grows hot.'
Haste betrayed her. She moved too quickly on the ridge and overbalanced, falling heavily on the shaly surface. Before she could rise, arms had wound round her and scooped her up. A long red strand of hair tickled her face as Fearn bent his head.
'Bull-Head! These things aren't to be feared. They're part of you. As you grow, you'll understand, but for now, you'd best pray to your Mother. If you turned your ankle there I'll not be pleased. You're my plant gatherer today.'
Sarmatia giggled at his deliberately contorted face, her fright forgotten. She rested her head in the crook of his arm, secure in the knowledge that this day, like the one before, would be happy.
* * * *
At the end of another month, when Minos was acknowledged as cured and Sarmatia had begun to train again for the Bull Rite, she and Fearn were betrothed.
Hear me! There was once a royal family who did not love their king. Hear their names. Laerimmer, the Kingmaker, and his sister Kere. Fearn the healer, the strange one. Goar and Gygest, the silver-haired royal twins. Briht the shaman. Anoi and Tanek, sister and half-brother. Chalda, proud and haughty despite miscarrying a bastard. And Waroch, King Waroch, a man like a blown apple, sour and sweet by turns and a smile gone mildewed on his face. Waroch had the blunt, bald head of a newt, the newt's rough, warty skin. Because of him, the royal household was in constant uproar. Harsh words were said and blows exchanged. Some took to living elsewhere. I chose another way—a fire.
It was my right to let Waroch burn: he had failed our people. I shall be a ruler of the Atterians and they will praise my name. One day I will recount to them, as I do to you now, how I set flint against copper, spark against thatch and burned the royal house while Waroch slept.
I started the fire in the roof of the house and watched the pouring gray smoke change to leaping prongs of flame. I saw the insides of the house lit by pools of fire, glowing like the blue flares of marsh gas as sparks kindled the packed-down refuse on the floor. I smelt the pungent, woody scent of burning heather thatch, the sweet scent of oak beams charring. It was so splendid, that fire, so swift-growing, like a living creature.
I'd given Waroch drugged wine that night, to make him sleep the heavier, but soon the rest of the family stirred and raised an outcry. Fat Kere and slim Tanek rushed for the fresh air and were stuck together in the doorway in their haste to escape. The royal twins were yelling and Anoi sobbing. Tanek had even run back inside. Everyone was in panic, assuming that the Long-Haired People were raiding again, while Waroch slept.
Fire singed my hair and clothes, ash blackened my arms and face, but I stayed to the end. I know my duty. Waroch must die and no one must help him. Will you be sorry when I tell you no one tried? Between the heat, the choking smoke, and Briht half-crazed with fear, needing to be dragged out by two strong men, there was no time to save the King. Waroch died as he had lived, in sweetness and harshness, a smile upon his lips as a burning stave fell from the ceiling and pierced his heart.
Tanek, Anoi and Goar were among the last out of the house that night, all royal, all fair, all obsessed. I was the final one to leave that cracking, rolling furnace, and when I turned to watch the whole roof of the house cave in with a crash, fat Kere ran to me and spoiled my quiet celebration. Clutching my arm, her brown eyes starting in her round, sooty face, she cried out to me, 'Where is Fearn? Where is he?'
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Can a creature-caller and a storm-bringer ever be together?
She is Sarmatia, a bull-leaper and creature-caller, renowned for her uncanny skills with all animals. He is Fearn, a red-haired healer and storm-bringer from the northern Isle of Stones. They meet on the dusty flagstones of a Kretan palace courtyard, where both save a life, and they fall in love. Will fate allow them to be together or will the unknown enemy who hates Sarmatia prevail?