Marta unbuckled the leather straps of Sidhari's saddle rig. She lifted it onto the crude rack in the corner of the large open stall of the stable in the Talons Inn. One day of flying through Restal left Sidhari and me as tired as any three days of flying across Rashiba and the edge of Toldar. Sidhari had hunted for herself in the afternoon, but Marta asked the boy lingering in the hall, watching her Karda with fascinated eyes, for tubers and seed-heavy hay, and she filled the large manger anyway. She picked up her heavy saddlebags. "Apparently one wild goat wasn't enough for you," she said as Sidhari attacked the food. "I'll see you in the morning. Looks like you're more tired than usual tonight. Rest well."
I talk to her as though she's a person, Marta thought as she walked across the guesthouse courtyard toward her dinner and a bed. When it comes down to it, she's the only one I can trust. Sidhari doesn't know what I'm saying and can't answer back. What a sad way to live my life, connected to nothing and no one. No family, what few friends she'd made left behind, scattered on too many worlds. She curled her fingers as if she could feel her father's hand around hers, anchoring her then shook them out. She'd made her decision. There was no reason to feel sad. She needed to concentrate on doing her job.
She pushed open the heavy wooden door and walked into a room full of villagers. Silent, expectant faces watched as she approached the lanky man at a plank bar in front of a shelf of bottles and a few stacked kegs of beer, ale, and probably cider. An array of initialed ceramic mugs hung from hooks on the wall.
"Good evening to you, Mi'hiru. We be honored to have you. M'name's Willem." He smiled broadly. "Tisn't often we have Karda landing here. I think everyone in the village dropped whatever they were doing to watch you come in. Twas a beautiful sight. Do you have all you'll need for your Karda?"
"Your son took care of us well. She'll be stuffed if she eats all he brought her. If you do half as well by me, I'll be satisfied."
"We've a fat roast hen'll be ready in a bit. Wife put it on the fire special for you soon's we saw you circlin' up there. There's a cherry apple tart with cream for your pleasure after."
"That's not necessary, but I will appreciate it. And if you have a bed to spare, I'll be more than happy." The smell of baking tarts and roast chicken rumbled her stomach and watered her mouth. Her tired muscles relaxed. It felt good to be welcomed so enthusiastically after days of no one to talk to who talked back.
Willem beamed and ushered her to the end of a long table nearest the hearth and put a mug of cider in front of her. "May our table provide you sustenance, may our land provide you work to suit your heart and hands, and may you find safety within our walls in your rest, Mi'hiru."
A row of expectant faces watched her as she sat. The woman next to her, a blush on her fresh young face said hesitantly, "What's her name? Your Karda."
"Sidhari." She asked Sidhari's name before she asked mine. That shows me who's important.
"She was beautiful flying in. Her wings were all gold and glowing in the sunset." Her eyes shone with admiration and envy. The floodgates opened on a rush of questions. What was it like flying on a Karda? Did she get dizzy looking down? Wasn't Sidhari bigger than most Karda? Where was she going? Where was she from? Had she been a Mi'hiru long? How far could a Karda fly in a day? What did it take to be a Mi'hiru?
"Whoa, one question at a time." Marta laughed. "I'm headed for Restal Prime for my first assignment. I just finished my training in Rashiba Prime."
"Ha' you come about the Circles of Disorder?" This question came from a farmer seated with several others at a nearby table, his voice cutting through the others.
The room went silent. Curiosity lifted her inner eyebrow. She knew next to nothing about the strange circles barren of most life, surrounded by wide forests planted in rows. She pulled at the gold ring in her ear. How do I handle this? Drat the engineers who guide the spy bugs. Do they think nothing happens outside the big cities? The Primes?
"No, but I noticed the circles seem to be larger as I get further into Restal. Much larger than in Rashiba or the edge of Toldar we flew over. I thought it was just that fewer trees grow here, so the circles are more visible." No one ever wants to say much about the circles. I wish I knew more. I don't even know who it's safe to ask what questions. They are alien—like they shouldn't be part of this planet at all.
Feet shuffled, and eyes looked elsewhere. No one spoke until the old farmer said, anger lending strength to his voice, "Aye, the one outside our village be growin'. And killin' the trees around it. I ha' lost three goats to it. Found em bloody and slashed up terrible. Tell 'em in Restal Prime they got to do somethin' about that Adalta forsaken place afore it sucks all our talent in. There be no new trees planted for some years now."
Willem put a plate of short green beans, potatoes, and crisp-skinned chicken in front of Marta and took her mug of cider to refill. "Pay no attention to Pargit, there. He's always the doomsayer. Thinks it's his job. His goats probably wandered off and got eaten by a medgeran." He laughed uneasily and glared at the farmer.
Marta took a sip of the cider, trying to ignore the exchange of glares.
"Leave the Mi'hiru to her dinner now." He frowned at the crowd of villagers. "Mayhap she'll answer your questions and tell us some tales of the Karda after."
The rest went back to their beer and ale, though the table of older farmers continued to watch her. They want to ask me more about these circles. I hope they don't. My ignorance might be suspicious. Her hunger roared at the smell of the dinner in front of her, and she attacked the chicken as though it might run away. Adalta was the only world she’d been on where the food was this close to Earth-like—because the original plant life on the planet was decimated. They weren’t close to finished judging by what she’d seen from the ship and what they’d flown over since leaving Rashiba Prime.
When she finished, she excused herself, citing her long flight. She climbed the stairs behind Willem who carried her packs up to a small neat room.
"I sent young Jon up to warm your room for you while you ate. It should last the night."
How? There's no fire in the room, not even a fireplace or stove. Yet it's warm. She sighed. I'll have to leave that puzzle for when I'm not so tired.
The room was scrupulously clean, a colorful quilt on the mattress atop an iron bed. Marta didn't care that the mattress looked lumpy. She’d fall into it on her face if Willem lingered at the door much longer. He scrubbed at his hair till it stood straight up, then fisted his big calloused hands at his sides.
"Pay no mind to Pargit. No need to be tellin' folks in Restal Prime about our problems. We do na' want to cause trouble."
Marta watched the countryside below her and Sidhari grow hilly and rough with washes and deep arroyos. Vegetation became more sparse, rocks more plentiful. This was another of the barren outlying areas not yet reseeded. What growth there was other than spiky bushes and wiry grass, had blown in from other areas or planted around water sources and the strange circles. She learned the land as they flew, its hills, villages, holdings, making a mental map. She'd be doing a lot of flying over this quadrant in the tendays to come. All she had was a few incomplete maps and a detailed picture of Restal Prime from the Guild House library. She'd need more.
A hawk circled below them. She could feel its concentration on the ground and its sharp, hungry intent when it spied a snake sunning on a rock. She broke off her attention as it dove and snatched the snake, piercing its prey with sharp talons. Her makeshift wall slammed back up, cutting off the predatory glee of the hawk, the pain and distress of the snake. The conflict, so immediate, so real seared her mind. She'd let her mental wall drop, enjoying the serenity of Sidhari's flight. A headache spiked, a painful reminder to keep that wall up.
Sparse grass and meager clusters of trees below spread further and further apart. The countryside became gullied, barren, and desolate. They flew wide around three large Circles of Disorder with dead trees bordering their edges. Sidhari tired faster the further they flew into Restal. Her wing beats grew sluggish, too far apart, and they lost altitude. Worried, Marta started looking for a place with water to land and rest. Being on a planet that was mostly water meant she seldom had to look long for a spring or stream, though they seemed to be further apart in this barren countryside.
She nudged Sidhari toward a small copse of trees to the right, but the Karda was already circling to land. Marta noticed a large group of men and horses in among the small trees, and Sidhari abruptly veered away. The men were heavily armed and not in uniform, so they weren't Restal Mounted Patrol. She and Sidhari would find another place for their rest. This wasn't the first group she'd suspected of being raiders. There'd been another the day before. Two too many to suit her in the narrow slice of Restal they flew across. How many other bands like these roamed this quadrant?
By the time they found another place to land, Sidhari almost stumbled as her feet touched the ground. She cantered to a stop next to a fallen cottonwood, its weather-burnished trunk silver in the sun. Marta jumped down. "I think I better take off the saddle and packs. This needs to be a longer rest than usual. We're both tired." Piling the gear against the trunk of the downed tree, she pulled dried meat from a bag meant for emergencies. She could see Sidhari was too tired to hunt.
"We'll stop early tonight whether we find a village or not, girl," she said as she put the meat down next to a muddy spring flowing sluggishly from under a small twisted evergreen, its banks full of tracks of birds and small animals. And one large one. She could smell the remains of that one's yesterday meal, but the odor was faint. Something tickled the edge of her awareness through one of the windows in her mental wall. It made her mind itch.
Sidhari ate too slowly to suit Marta. She checked her over carefully as she learned in training, running hands down the slender legs, picking up each clawed foot, and inspecting the horny growths that formed a hoof-like surface when she curled her long digits for landing. Marta checked the long, cruel talons for cracks or splits. She nudged Sidhari to kneel and stretch out a wing. Feeling along the slender, hollow bones and long spring-steel muscles, she meticulously examined the flight feathers. Both wings were fine. "We'll just eat our lunches and take a long nap. I'll make a hole in the mud of the spring. By the time we're ready to leave, there should be enough clear water for a long drink and to top up our water canvases in case we don't find another later."
By the time she finished her lunch and dug out the spring, Sidhari was dozing. Marta pulled a blanket out of a pack and wrapped it around herself, curling into the hollow left by the fallen tree, tall upstanding roots breaking the cold wind endlessly blowing across the low barren hills, bending the stiff grass low. She breathed in the clean, sharp, sinus-clearing smell of scattered aromatic bushes. As soon as she settled on the bare ground of the hollow, the insistent tickle in her mind increased.
The anxiety of a small birbir scrounging for seeds under a shrub and the impatient hunger of her young intruded into Marta's awareness. Her eyes closed, and she knew there were fifteen antelope gathered over the hill to the East. She jerked up. She knew it. There was no uncertainty. She forced herself to lie back down without going to look.
Almost as tired as Sidhari, Marta tried to sleep. A covey of quail pecked through the short grass twenty feet to her left out of sight across the spring. Their scattered emotions pinged like gravel tossed against the windows in her shields. The itch in the back of her mind expanded into a dull headache. I'm just tired; my imagination's working overtime. Lying on the ground isn't all that comfortable. I don't have that much empathy, and telepathy does not exist.
Resisting the urge to look to confirm the quail were there, she fell asleep; the mental noises softened to a soothing song. One hand worked its way out of the blanket to rest in the grass, fingers digging into the red clay soil. She moved deeper into sound sleep, suffused with a feeling of deep comfort and a subtle hint of connection to something immense and enfolding.
Marta woke to sharp whistles. She opened her eyes, sat up slowly, and watched as the little covey of quail, blue topknots bobbing, came warily out of the grass to drink from the spring. She sensed the hunger and intense concentration of a fox carefully placing its feet, felt the brush of his body low to the ground. It moved closer. How did she know that? She couldn't see it. The alarm of the quail hit her just before they exploded away in a thundering whirr of wings. The fox's frustration was intense, a sharp pain pulsing behind her eyes, making them water. She shut them tight. What was this? Why didn't it stop?
Marta looked up at the sky, rubbing her temples. The round glow of the huge red sun behind the clouds was far to the West. They'd slept the afternoon away. She ignored the frustration of the hungry fox slinking away and pushed up. Sidhari sat, legs tucked under her, head turned almost under one wing, watching her with those deep dark eyes. She senses my confusion. Marta shook her head. Pain flashed. I must be more tired than I realized. Maybe we better quit early and just stay here tonight.
Sidhari continued to get more tired than usual the next day, her graceful ease of flight more labored. Ordinarily, she could glide for miles and miles between thermals, but she seemed to have to work harder. They had to add a long rest stop in the mornings. The closer they got to Restal Prime the larger and more numerous the Circles of Disorder were. The trees in the surrounding forests were mature; too many of those at the edges poked up like skeletons, stark white against the dark, barren ground encroaching on them. Sidhari stayed far away, circling wide, which added time to their journey.
They reached the top of a thermal and started a long glide, searching for another. Marta relaxed. The sensations that invaded her mind were less intense with altitude. Then sudden disorienting loss and desolation flooded her. Dizzy, she grabbed the Karda's mane for balance. Sidhari screamed. A spiral of Karda circled high in the distance. Marta tried to turn Sidhari closer, but the Karda refused her signal and veered away. Dizzy, Marta grabbed the pommel handle for balance. Fifteen Karda circled high, then descended and beat upward again. Their precise flight pattern formed a double helix aerial dance near the largest Circle of Disorder Marta had yet seen. She swallowed, her stomach queasy. Faint, deep tolling rang through the air.
Even from as far away and as high as she and Sidhari soared, she could see the shape of a Karda sprawled at the edge of the circle. What could have killed it? Adaltans revered Karda. No one would have shot it. Is it the circle? Is that why Sidhari always flies around so far from them? The Karda's aerial dance was well away from the dead trees at the circle’s edge.
Sidhari keened a long, deep bell-like tone. Marta felt her grief and desire to join the dance, but she flew on--so high Marta feared she'd pass out from the low oxygen. Then Sidhari slipped into a slow descent, leaving the Circle of Disorder, the dead Karda, and the aerial dancers behind. Cold wind dried the tears on Marta's cheeks.
Marta found a village to stay in each of the following nights of her journey to avoid sleeping on the ground again. In spite of that, she picked up more and more sensations of creatures. The closer they flew to the surface, the more intense the alien feelings. In the guesthouses and inns where she stayed, she shut her walls tight, answered the same excited questions about the Karda, and found the same covert fearful attitudes about the Circles of Disorder and the Quadrant authorities. The closer they got to Restal Prime, the more reticent the villagers became. And the more she noticed the poverty—smaller farms with fewer outbuildings, gaps in the stone fencing, roofs in disrepair visible even at the heights they flew.
There was little farming, mostly livestock, goats, unusual horned longhaired sheep, and not many cattle. Not much to tempt the traders of the consortium, though wool from those sheep might be the source of the unusual tough fabric she'd found at market in Rashiba. Pastureland was poor. At her last stop, the few villagers she'd seen were sullen. They had little to say to her, and there was no mention at all about the circles, though the ones she flew around were larger and the bands of skeletal trees wider. She saw no fresh plantings as there had been around the circles in Rashiba and Toldar.
They flew into the landing area near Restal Guild House late in the afternoon, several Karda flying to greet them as they got close. Sidhari landed smoothly, and they loped to the large mews. No one was there to meet her. From the empty stalls and saddle racks, she figured most of the Mi'hiru were out on patrol. She found several unused stalls, so she picked one and forked clean straw into a corner for Sidhari to rest on. She found the stores of meat, tubers and grains and helped herself, heaping the feed shelf full. Opening the brass tap over the water butt, she filled it brim full from the cistern on the roof. Fifteen minutes later she looked out and watched a Mi'hiru on a small light brown Karda with stark black wing stripes land and canter toward the mews. Nice landing. Three more Karda with riders in Karda Patrol uniforms followed the Mi'hiru.
The quiet mews filled with hungry Karda headed for their stalls, tired riders unsaddling, tossing packs toward the door, and raiding the feed room. A petite, mousy-haired Mi'hiru bounced off her Karda and waved toward Marta. "I'll be with you soon as I get everyone settled," she called. Her delicate brown Karda practically danced to her stall, nudging her rider impatiently toward the food stores. "Stop pushing, Cystra. I'm moving as fast as I can."
Cystra nudged her again, and the Mi'hiru laughed.
"Can I help?" Marta called back.
"That would be good, thanks. I need to check over the Karda as soon as these Patrol guys get out of here. You can help with that. " She carried the food to her Karda's stall. "This is Cystra, by the way. Judging by the height of the head peering out over that stall, she must be half the size of your Karda."
"Sidhari," said Marta. "And she is unusually big."
"I'm Philipa. You must be Marta. We've been expecting you. I'm sorry there was no one here to meet you. I've been on patrol as you can probably tell. The others are either out on patrol themselves or didn't see you come in for some reason."
Marta started going over one of the patrol Karda. Two of the riders watched closely as they straightened and hung their tack. The third threw his saddle down in a tangle of straps and started to leave.
"Ulrik! Get back over here and pick up that saddle. And wait to see if your Karda checks out all right," one of the riders said. Tall, broad shoulders, brown hair tousled from the wind, the man picked up his saddle and carried it to one of the saddle racks lined up against the wall opposite the stalls, arranging the long straps, so they didn't get tangled.
"Readen wanted me to meet him as soon as we got in," Ulrik responded, his tone verging on sour.
"Mi'hiru are not stable hands. Your gear is your responsibility. And if you don't care about your Karda, you should. I don't care who's waiting." The man turned to Marta. "Sorry about that. His bad attitude doesn't extend to most of us. I'm Daryl, Patrol Commander." He extended his arm, his voice warm with welcome, his face solemn. He didn’t look like he smiled often.
Marta grasped it. His grip was firm but polite. "Marta. New Mi'hiru. I'm glad to meet you." She stepped back from the Karda she had examined. "This is your Karda?"
"If he could ever belong to anyone, I guess he belongs to me. Or I belong to him. I'm his chosen, anyway. This is Abala."
The big sorrel Karda with bright copper head and wing tips looked over at Marta and ducked his head. He was every bit as big as Sidhari.
He's greeting me. She smiled and nodded to him, not sure what to think about that.
"We're glad to have you here. Our Mi'hiru are stretched pretty thin, as I'm sure Philipa will tell you. I'll just put my saddle up and get out of your way. I'm on patrol around Restal Prime this tenday, so I'm sure we'll meet again. Often. And I expect to see you soon at the keep for your welcome dinner."
"Oh? The keep?"
He grimaced. "You'd find out sooner or later. I'm unfortunate enough to be the heir. Much as I'd like to, I can't hide it. That's Eddard over there." The other patroller, hands full helping Philipa carry food to his Karda looked over and nodded.
Marta watched Daryl walk out of the mews. Brown, sun-striped hair pulled back in a tail down his broad back, he was certainly good looking. So this was one of the men Kayne wanted her to get close to. His honest, solemn face made the thought dirty. She wiped her hands on her skirt.
Marta and Philipa worked smoothly together after the three Patrollers left. One of the Karda had a bent flight feather. They straightened and pinned it carefully, imping the feather back into place.
"Ulrik is too hard on the Karda. It won't be long before they refuse to carry the man." Philipa's words interrupted her thoughts.
"Does that happen often?" asked Marta, surprised.
"It seems to happen more here, starting at the very top. They won't carry the Guardian's eldest son, Readen, at all. Never have, not even when he was a boy. Maybe because he was born without talent. I'd advise you not to bring that up where he can hear. Now, Daryl, the younger son you just met, they seem to love. Abala chose him, and I'm sure you know Karda rarely single out anyone but Mi'hiru, especially men. Daryl is one of the few I know about. Altan Me'Gerron from Toldar is another." She wiggled her eyebrows and rolled her eyes suggestively. "If I had a chance to choose, I'd choose either one of them."
Marta forced a laugh. Deciding who to choose isn't going to be a problem for me. I don't get to, not permanently. Not unless I find someone shipboard, and the chances of that are slim. I wouldn't want anyone who settled for that kind of life anyway. She shrugged off the pang that gave her and moved to the other wing.