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The Mrem Go West


And the demons held fast to the Lowlands. Brother fought brother. Yet He saw their plight and spoke to Her that was the land.

“Give back to the grasping sea that which you have taken,” Aedonniss asked. “For from that hot land they will enslave the true people.”

“This will lessen me, so you as well,” the goddess of the earth protested.

“So it must then,” the sky god spoke. “Many will be lost, but more will be saved. Better we are less, than every dame and kit a slave.”

And so it was that with a trickle, then torrent, and finally as a great tide Assirra willfully sacrificed much of her domain to the sea.

—The Book of Mrem, verse seven

Rantan Taggah stared north across the arms of the sea—the New Water, the Clan of the Claw called it. His lips narrowed, so that the tips—well, more than the tips—of his fangs showed. Like the rest of his clansmates, the talonmaster called the New Water other things, too: things as foul as he could think of. An angry growl rumbled, down deep in his throat. The New Water was much too likely to mean death, not only for him but for all the Clan of the Claw, which meant for all the Mrem trapped south of it.

A fly landed on the tuft atop one of his upstanding ears. The ear twitched, but the fly didn’t leave. He scratched his ear, shooting just the tips of his claws from their sheaths. The fly buzzed away. His ear twitched again, as if reminding it not to come back.

High above the salt-smelling water, a sea bird circled, hunting. No, not a bird: the long, drooping tail said it was a flying Liskash. The leatherwing folded its wings and plummeted, striking the sea like a spearpoint. A moment later, it flew off again, a fish writhing in its toothy jaws.

Where one hunter had luck, others might hope for more. That was a rule everywhere and for everything and everyone: leatherwings and birds, mammals and meat-eating Liskash, Liskash nobles and Mrem. A second flyer dove at the water, visions of a full belly doubtless dancing in its narrow skull.

Something reared up out of the sea to greet it—something far bigger, far fiercer, far toothier. That enormous mouth opened and closed. Rantan Taggah stood too far away to hear the crunch of breaking bones with his body’s ears, but it was sickeningly loud in the ears of his mind. A leatherwing was far from enough to sate something that size, but snacks were always welcome.

“Aedonniss!” Rantan Taggah muttered. “What were you thinking when you made those horrible things?”

The sky god didn’t answer. Rantan Taggah hadn’t expected him to. Aedonniss looked for his folk to take care of themselves and not waste his time. He was a hard god…but then, it was a hard world, and getting harder all the time.

Mrem who’d lived by the Old Water spoke of the savage reptilian monsters in the sea when they came inland to trade or to raid. Like any other inlander, Rantan Taggah listened to the tales. Why not? They were an entertaining way to make time lope by. Just because you listened to a story didn’t mean you had to believe it. He’d discounted most of what the seaside Mrem claimed.

Now, though, he’d had the chance to see the ocean monsters for himself. The really alarming thing was how little the talespinners exaggerated.

He snarled. No, the really alarming thing was that he’d had the chance to see the ocean monsters for himself. He hadn’t gone traveling. On the contrary—the ocean had come to him.

Some few Mrem priestesses and learned males had always claimed the great depression by whose southern edge the Clan of the Claw dwelt was an ancient seabottom. With a great part of the world’s water tied up in sheets of ice, land advanced while the sea retreated. Now the glaciers were melting, shrinking, as if ensorceled; and, as the world warmed, water in the oceans piled higher and deeper.

Piled higher and deeper…and sometimes spilled. For as long as the Mrem could remember (and, surely, for longer than that), the Quaxo Hills to the east had held against the Old Water, held it out of the Hollow Lands. Rantan Taggah, now a male in his prime, had just been coming out of kithood when the Quaxo Hills held no more.

Now the Hollow Lands were vanished from maps and charts. Now the hunting clans and townsMrem who’d lived there were either fugitives from their homes or, most of them, vanished beneath waters Aedonniss only knew how many bowshots deep.

Rantan Taggah snarled again. Few of the Mrem had much use for water or for travel across it under any circumstances. And that said nothing of the reptilian horrors like the one he’d seen, creatures that preyed on anything they could reach. The Clan of the Claw—and the handful of survivors from the drowned Hollow Lands—would not, could not, rejoin their kind by sailing across the New Water.

The only trouble with that was, the Clan of the Claw couldn’t stay where it was, either. Rantan Taggah turned away from the New Water and toward the south: toward the Warm Lands, the lands where the Liskash flourished best. The pupils in his emerald eyes widened from slits almost to circles, as if he were confronting his folk’s foes in truth, not merely in thought.

His clan was rich, as these things went. Peering south, he saw broad herds of horned bundor and krelprep and shambling hamsticorns. The Clan of the Claw did not lack for meat or milk or leather or hair and wool.

But one clan, alone (or as near as made no difference), could not hope to stand against the Liskash nobles and the weaker but still dangerous reptiles the nobles could gather to fight at their side (or rather, under their feet). Not for nothing did the Mrem picture the demons who opposed Aedonniss as being formed in the image of the Liskash. Maybe it was the other way around: maybe the Liskash looked like demons. Priestesses and savants argued about that, too. Savants, of course, would argue about anything. It was part of what made them savants.

There were times when Rantan Taggah enjoyed arguing as much as anybody else—more than most males. What the Clan of the Claw had to do now, though, was not a matter for argument. He didn’t think so, anyhow. But he was only too certain plenty of other males—and females, too—would be ready, even eager, to argue with him about that.

* * *

Looking at Sassin, you wouldn’t think he was a god. By the standards of the Mrem, the Liskash noble was short and spindly. He looked even scrawnier than he was, because he had no hair to fluff out his silhouette.

Not, of course, that he would have cared even a scrap of shed skin’s worth about the opinions of a swarm of hairy vermin. Like all Liskash with wits above lizard level, he despised, hated, and feared the Mrem. If they had but a single neck, so he could slaughter them all with one great stroke…

But, worse luck, they didn’t. He was a god—if you didn’t believe it, you had only to ask him—but he was not so powerful a god as that. No god so powerful as that had arisen among the Liskash for lo these many years.

He thought that was a shame. A Mrem might have thought that their stupid god’s failure to destroy the Liskash was a pity. All Sassin knew about pity was what he’d heard from captured Mrem he was tormenting. He understood little of the notion. What he did understand, he thought uncommonly foolish. He had trouble believing even the Mrem really believed in the idea. By the way they often acted, so did they.

His tongue flicked out, tasting the air around him. Change was in the wind. Sprung from an ancient race, Sassin did not think well of change. He was not sorry when the barrier of the Quaxo Hills failed and the sea poured over them into the Hollow Lands. He was sorry it hadn’t drowned all the Mrem: that was a change he would have approved of.

Now the ones who had survived were all astir. He knew what they would stir up, too. Trouble. It was all they were good for.

Sassin stared out from the tower topping his castle. He could see a long way, and he was lord of all he surveyed. Were that ever to become untrue, he would find himself enslaved or slain. Such was life among the Liskash nobles. Even now, some powerful young wizard might be sneaking around out there, plotting to lay him low. Until the enemy chose to strike, he would hide himself from Sassin, lest he be struck first. Though only distantly related to poisonous serpents, the Liskash were close spiritual kin.

Herds of meat animals ambled over the sun-baked plains. Some were scaled, others hairy; when it came to meat, Sassin liked variety. Liskash herders and enslaved Mrem kept the animals moving and didn’t let them eat any one stretch of the countryside bare. Some of the Liskash were hardly more clever than the beasts in their charge. The Mrem…

An unhappy hiss escaped from Sassin’s throat. If he was a god, he was not divinely cheerful. He had the mental strength to rob Mrem of their surnames and hold them in thralldom. That was part of what being a god entailed. But it wasn’t easy, effortless, the way it was with most of his own breed. (The nearest Liskash he could not easily subdue, a noble named Hishash, ruled a domain about the size of his own off to the west, and was a god in his own right there.) If he didn’t keep a mental eye on the Mrem he’d enslaved, they were liable to recover some of their own personalities and either try to escape or try to stir up trouble inside his realm.

He hissed again, this time with purpose. “Lorssett!” The summons was mental, not oral.

His steward appeared behind him on the battlement almost at once. Lorssett was a larger, physically stronger Liskash than Sassin. He had bigger jaws, sharper teeth, and longer claws. He was, in his own way, clever—he would have been useless to Sassin if he were not. But his powers of mind were minimal. He would never be anything more than a steward; rising to godhood simply was not in him. Understanding as much (which was part of his cleverness), he made a good steward indeed.

The Mrem had rituals wherein inferiors showed their superiors deference. The Liskash neither had nor needed them. Sassin and Lorssett both knew what their status was. Sassin knew Lorssett knew; he could read it in the steward’s mind. Had Lorssett been able to conceal from his god what he knew and what he felt, he would have been a different male, and an altogether more dangerous one.

“What do you require of me?” Lorssett inquired.

“Fetch me the Mrem called Grumm,” Sassin told him. “I have a new use for the creature.”

“Just as you say, so shall it be,” Lorssett replied.

“Well, of course,” Sassin said complacently. When he said something, it was supposed to happen the way he said it. What privilege of godhood could be more enjoyable?

* * *

Enni Chennitats was irked with her fellow priestesses, irked with the Dancing because it hadn’t gone well, irked with the Quaxo Hills for not being tall enough to hold out what was now the New Water—irked with the world, in other words.

She tried not to let it show. It wasn’t the attitude a priestess of the Mrem should have had. She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself and purify her spirit of the nasty thoughts that stained it. She prayed to Assirra, begging Aedonniss’ wife to persuade the sky god himself to bring her peace.

Nothing seemed to help. Too many things had happened to the Clan of the Claw and around it for anyone to go on with an easy spirit: so it seemed to Enni Chennitats, at any rate. Some males and females had no trouble, though. They were so constituted that they could not feel the lash on someone else’s skin if it happened not to fall on theirs. Even some savants and priestesses were made that way. It disappointed Enni Chennitats, and infuriated her, too.

She walked away from the Dancing that had produced no meld of minds. One of the other priestesses called after her. With a deliberate effort of will, she kept her ears from turning in the direction of the sound. If she pretended she hadn’t heard, she wouldn’t have to answer.

“Where are you going in such a hurry, Enni Chennitats?” Rantan Taggah asked.

She couldn’t ignore the talonmaster the way she had the priestess. If she’d gone on for another couple of steps, she would have run into him. But she didn’t want to unburden herself to him, either. “I don’t know,” she answered. “Anywhere. Nowhere.”

His whiskers twitched. He was too polite to come right out and say he didn’t believe her, but he obviously didn’t. Since she hadn’t been telling more than a quarter of the truth, she couldn’t very well blame him. He pointed back toward the Dancing ground. “Things didn’t go well?”

“No,” she said before she could help herself. Then her eyes narrowed in annoyance—whether at herself or at him she wasn’t sure. The Clan of the Claw needed a clever talonmaster. The New Water and all the trouble it had stirred up meant the clan needed a talonmaster of that stripe more than ever before. But did Rantan Taggah have to go and show off his cleverness?

“Why?” he asked bluntly. “Has Assirra turned her countenance away from us? Will she not speak to Aedonniss on our behalf?”

Enni Chennitats’s claws shot out. Her finger twisted in a gesture that averted evil. A moment later, Rantan Taggah made the same gesture. But he still stood in front of the priestess, waiting for her reply. “Say not so!” she told him. “No, we have no sign of that. But magic is an uncertain business—for us, anyhow.”

He showed his teeth. “Would you rather be a Liskash?”

She made the apotropaic gesture again, more vigorously this time. “You know better than that,” she said, and waited till he dipped his proud head to show he did. Then she went on, “They must be demons. Otherwise, how could one of them hold as much magic as a whole troupe of Dancers?”

Rantan Taggah shrugged. “I don’t know anything about that. I don’t much care, either. All I know is, if you shove a spear into one of them, he’ll die. That’s the only thing I need to know.”

“If he doesn’t spell you into spearing a clansmate instead, thinking it’s him,” Enni Chennitats said.

“Yes. If.” Rantan Taggah scowled. “Well, we’ll have to figure out how to keep that from happening, because we’ll be traveling through Liskash country—through a lot of it, I’m afraid.”

“We are going to travel, then?” The priestess had known it was likely. Hearing it would actually happen still felt like a punch in the belly, though. “We had a good life here.”

“We had one, yes,” Rantan Taggah agreed. “No more, not with the New Water at our backs. We’re cut off from all the other Mrem in the world. The only reason the Scaly Ones didn’t jump on our backs before this is that they’re hatched cowards.”

It was more complicated than that. Enni Chennitats knew as much, and the talonmaster surely did as well. The Liskash rarely hurried in anything they did. She wondered if their being kin to lizards and snakes and other crawling things accounted for that. Lizards and snakes had no will to overcome their natural deliberation. The Liskash did—if Liskash nobles were anything, they were creatures of overwhelming will—but usually stayed slow all the same.

“Some of our clansfolk won’t want to travel into the unknown,” Enni Chennitats said. Liskash nobles weren’t the only ones who kept on doing what they’d always done whenever they got the chance. The Mrem also like to curl up and go to sleep in their old, familiar haunts.

“Well,” the talonmaster said, “we’ll have a clan meeting tomorrow to hash things out. The way I see it, if we don’t move when we want to, we’ll move when the Liskash force us out of here—if we can move then. Better to go on our own terms. That’s how it looks to me, anyhow.”

“What if the clan sees things differently?” Enni Chennitats asked.

He shrugged once more. “Then they’ll have a new talonmaster tomorrow night, that’s all. I won’t be sorry, or not very. If there’s anything more wearing than doing things for males and females who don’t want them done, curse me if I know what it is.”

“But you’ve done a good job,” she said. “I can’t think of any other male who’d be better. I can’t think of anyone else the whole clan would follow, either.”

“To tell you the truth, neither can I.” Rantan Taggah was not a modest male even by the modest standards of the Mrem. He turned to go, then checked himself. “Oh, and a male just came in from the southwest. A runaway Liskash slave, he says. He’ll know more about what’s going on with their nobles than we do now.”

“He says,” the priestess echoed. “How far can you trust him?”

“About as far as I can fling a mammoth,” Rantan Taggah answered cheerfully. “But we’ll want to hear him out any which way. And we’ll want your priestesses somewhere not far off—someplace where you can Dance. If he is under a spell, maybe you can draw him out of it.”

“Maybe.” Enni Chennitats knew she sounded troubled. If the Dancing today went so poorly with nothing at stake, how could she count on it to beat down whatever magic the Liskash had loaded onto this poor “escaped” Mrem? She couldn’t, and neither could Rantan Taggah. Still, it was what they had. Without it, the Liskash would have devoured the Mrem centuries before. With it…

They may devour us yet, she thought miserably. Part of her knew that was a reaction to the failed Dance. The rest knew as much, too, but was not reassured by the knowledge. If the Dances failed, the Scaly Ones triumphed. They might triumph all the same. She had reasons for her misery, sure enough.

* * *

As Rantan Taggah had looked out over the New Water, so he stared out at the sea of Mrem faces at the clan meeting. The males of the war band looked back, some at him, some at the scepter he held. It was the length and thickness of a good mace. Instead of being topped by a head of flanged, sharpened bronze, though, it was surmounted by a Liskash noble’s skull. Those large eye sockets, the domed braincase so much like a Mrem’s, the projecting snout with the sharp teeth all just alike…

Only the male who held the scepter could address the meeting. So said ancient clan custom. Most Mrem wandering clans and city-states had similar rules. Rantan Taggah’s hand tightened on the scepter; the reddish wood was worn smooth by many generations of palm pads.

Off to one side stood males who had joined with the Clan of the Claw but had not joined it. They were refugees from the clans and small towns that had lived down in the Hollow Lands. No more, no more. Some of them had fought alongside the Clan of the Claw’s warriors and shown their own courage. Others would, when and if they got the chance. Rantan Taggah thought they would strengthen the clan if they became part of it. Another thing to decide on one of these days…

He lifted the scepter high. The males of the clan had been talking among themselves, arguing unofficially about what they would soon be arguing about officially. They fell silent when the scepter rose: it marked the shift between the one kind of argument and the other.

“Do you hear me, males?” Rantan Taggah shouted. “Do you accept me as talonmaster of the Clan of the Claw?”

If anyone said no to the second question, the argument about what the clan should do next would be preceded by an argument about under whose leadership the clan should do it. That would not be an argument with words. Rantan Taggah had thrust a spear into the ground behind him. An axe lay beside it. He wore a bronze sword and a broad-bladed gutting dagger on his leather belt. He’d taken special care sharpening his claws. He didn’t particularly expect a challenge, but he believed in being ready even for things he didn’t particularly expect. That was one reason he made a better talonmaster than most.

No one called him out. A few males answered, “We hear you!” Most stood silent, waiting for what would come.

Rantan Taggah raised the scepter again. Eyes and ears not already pointed toward him swung his way. “Warriors!” he said. “Most of you were kits like me when the Old Water finally poured over the Quaxo Hills and started flooding the Hollow Lands. Some of the folk who listen here today fled before the great wave whelmed them. Honor to the memories of the males and females who could not get away.”

“Honor,” the assembled males echoed.

The talonmaster pointed north. “Now the New Water separates us from our fellow Mrem. The Clan of the Claw was always boldest. We were the ones who came out of the Hollow Lands and drove the Liskash before us, even though these warm southern lands suit the Scaly Ones well. We won broad plains for grazing. We won great glory, too.”

He lifted the scepter higher yet. The hollow eye sockets of the Liskash skull that crowned it stared blindly out at the Mrem. The warriors growled approval.

“And we won our own salvation,” Rantan Taggah went on. “Had we stayed down in the Hollow Lands, we likely would have been swept away like so many others. But we were bold. We pushed on. And so we lived.”

He took a deep breath. Now was the time to get down to business. “I know the Clan of the Claw will never be less than bold. Boldness, though, offers us two trails now. We can stay here where we are, cut off from all cousins and kin, and fight the Liskash who surround us on every side but the north for as long as we can. This we have done, and bravely, since the New Water thundered past us.”

“That’s right!” a male called. “And we can go right on doing it, too!”

I hold the scepter, Zhanns Bostofa,” Rantan Taggah said sharply. “Your turn will come, but it is not here yet.”

Zhanns Bostofa glowered but held his peace. No one in the clan denied that he was sly. His bright eyes, his sleek black-and-white coat, and the midsection that was thicker than it might have been all showed he’d done well for himself. That fleshy midsection also said he lacked a certain something as a warrior. Most of the time, he didn’t need to fight to get his way. Most of the time, the clan could go on doing what it had always done. Most of the time, but not always.

Seeing he wouldn’t be interrupted again for the time being, Rantan Taggah went on, “In the end, I think, staying where we are is a losing play. The Liskash nobles hate us as much as we hate them—they hate us even more than they hate one another, which is saying a great deal. They will hurl monsters at us until we are all dead or enslaved—if we let them.

“If we let them,” he repeated. “If we set out to the west, along the shore of the New Water, sooner or later we will come to where it stops. We can go north again then, and join with our own kind once more. The Liskash will not look for this, for they would never think to do it themselves. Like their cousins the serpents, they stay in small spaces and travel little. We will always meet new nobles on our trek—they will not be able to join together against us. It will not be easy, but it can be done. A moving target is harder to hit. I say we should move, as soon as ever we may. Now I have spoken. Who will be next?” He lowered the scepter, showing he had indeed finished.

The prominent males gathered near the front of the assembly all clamored to take hold of it. Rantan Taggah ostentatiously ignored Zhanns Bostofa. It wasn’t so much that he disliked the black-and-white male (though he did)—rather that Zhanns Bostofa had talked out of turn while the talonmaster held the upraised scepter. Instead, Rantan Taggah passed the emblem of authority to a blocky warrior named Ramm Passk’t, a tough, one-eared fellow whose herds grazed lands the Liskash claimed as their own.

“It’s like Rantan Taggah says,” Ramm Passk’t declared in a raspy, carrying voice. “If we stay where we’re at, we sit still so the Liskash can aim whatever they want at us. They always have the edge that way. If we’re on the move, we surprise them instead of the other way round. And they’re slow—you all know that. They don’t like surprises, Aedonniss bedevil their scaly hides with ticks. That’s how it smells to me.” He lowered the scepter.

More shouts from other males who wanted to sway the assembly. Reluctantly, Rantan Taggah pointed toward Zhanns Bostofa. Both sides needed to be heard. Better, he hoped, to get it over with and then turn the heavyset male’s arguments against him. Ramm Passk’t stumped over and handed Zhanns Bostofa the scepter. A greater contrast between two males would have been hard to imagine.

“Thank you,” Zhanns Bostofa said sardonically as his clawed hand folded over the staff. He raised it high. “I have my reasons for thinking your plan is foolish, Rantan Taggah. First is a plain fact: we are still here. The New Water poured into the Hollow Lands years ago now, and we are still here. The Liskash have fought us, and we have fought them, but that is so whenever Mrem and Scaly Ones meet. I daresay we have given them as much as they want, and more besides.”

Rantan Taggah wanted to shout to the world what an idiot Zhanns Bostofa was. But the other male had the scepter. The talonmaster had to hold his peace…for the moment.

“Leave that out of the argument, though,” Zhanns Bostofa said with what he wanted to sound like generosity. “It could be that the Liskash will concentrate more against us as time goes by. I do not believe it, but it could be. What I want to know is, what happens to us if we pack up everything we have and start off on this smerp-brained trek Rantan Taggah is so wild for?”

Of themselves, the talonmaster’s claws shot out. Had Zhanns Bostofa said something like that without upholding the scepter, in short order he would be lying on the ground with his throat bitten and his guts torn out. He had to know it, too. But no male could be challenged for what he said with the scepter in his hand. Most of the time, Rantan Taggah thought that was a good rule. Most of the time, but not always.

“Rantan Taggah says we will surprise the Liskash nobles by moving from our longtime grazing grounds. He might be right—they could be surprised to find us so foolish,” Zhanns Bostofa said. “He might be, and they could be. But he is not, and neither are they. And I can prove it. Grumm, come forward.”

His bulk and the presence of his retainers had concealed the sorry starveling male who now stepped out from behind him. A shudder ran through the assembled warriors as they stared at the runaway slave of the Liskash. When a scaly noble took a male of the Mrem as his own, he sorcerously ate the Mrem’s surname. Even if the poor fellow somehow escaped his master, as Grumm had, he was never the same again. Part of him was gone forever.

Making as if to give Grumm the scepter, Zhanns Bostofa asked Rantan Taggah, “May I?”

“Yes, go ahead,” Rantan Taggah answered harshly. “If, that is, I may have leave to question him along with you.”

The black-and-white male inclined his well-groomed head. “But of course.” He handed Grumm the scepter.

Before raising it, Grumm stared into the eye sockets of the Liskash skull. His lips skinned back from his teeth; it was as if he confronted a live noble, not one long dead. Rantan Taggah was far from sure Grumm’s twiglike arms could lift the scepter. After that anxious moment, though, Grumm did raise the scepter high. He seemed easier once he was no longer eye-to-eye with the skull.

“I am Grumm,” he said in a dusty, defeated voice: the kind of voice no Mrem should ever have used. “I was Sassin’s slave. I am Sassin’s slave, even here among you. Some things do not go away.”

Sassin! Well, of course he would come from Sassin, since he’d fled out of the southwest. Sassin held the lands west of those that belonged to the Clan of the Claw: the lands through which the clan would have to pass as it began its journey, in other words. “And so?” the talonmaster asked Grumm. “What do you say about Sassin? Or what does the Scaly One say through you?” His nose twitched. He imagined he could smell the rank reptilian stink that clung to the Liskash. It was only imagination, of course. Grumm would be clean of that reek by now. But the impression did not want to go away.

“He knows your plan,” Grumm answered. “He knows it, and he laughs at it. He wants you—he wants the Clan of the Claw—to try to cross his lands. He has been readying himself for the fight for years. All manner of scaly monsters await you: everything from snakes on the ground to crocodiles in the rivers to the terrible hunters of the plains to countless thinking Liskash, all moving under a single controlling will: his.”

“There!” Zhanns Bostofa said. “Do you see? Do you hear? Do you smell? Only death and destruction will meet us if we set forth. You said the Scaly Ones would not be ready for us. You said it, but that did not make it true.”

He was more careful of his speech when he wasn’t holding the scepter. More careful, but maybe not careful enough. At another time, Rantan Taggah might have decided he’d bent the rules and call him out. Not now. Now there were more important things to worry about.

The talonmaster pointed a clawed forefinger at Grumm. For an instant, Rantan Taggah seemed, at least to himself, the literal embodiment of his clan. Whether anyone else felt the same way…Again, he had more important things to worry about. “You have heard what you say from Sassin himself, I gather?”

“I have,” Grumm said.

“And you know it is true because…?”

“Talonmaster, he let me—no, he made me—see through his eyes, feel through his hands.” Grumm shivered at the memory. Rantan Taggah wanted to shiver with him. Mrem were not made to be subjected to minds like that. The Liskash were too horribly different. Gathering himself, Grumm added, “He showed me the truth. I saw it as he saw it. I felt it as he felt it. If the Clan of the Claw tries to cross Sassin’s land, the scavenger birds and leatherwings will gorge themselves on our carcasses.”

“There!” Zhanns Bostofa said again. “Who knows more of what this Liskash intends than one who has seen and felt for himself?”

“What the Liskash intends is to put us in fear,” Rantan Taggah replied. “Plainly, he has done what he intends with you, at least.”

“Sometimes being afraid is sensible,” Zhanns Bostofa said. “We have to teach our kits to be careful, or none of us would live to grow up.”

“They don’t need to jump in the air at every passing shadow, though,” Rantan Taggah said. “That is what you…may be doing.” He left it there. He could have said something stronger, but he might have been wrong. Sassin might really be as strong as he claimed.

Or, no matter what Grumm had seen or felt, the Scaly One might not.

“Will you risk the clan on the strength of your whim? Will you risk our hangers-on?” Zhanns Bostofa’s wave took in the males who’d made it out of the Hollow Lands alive. “Will you risk all the Mrem on this side of the New Water? That is what we are—you said so yourself. Is your whim alone so strong?”

“Not my whim alone, by Aedonniss,” Rantan Taggah said. The other male talked too much, and gave him time to think. “Let us test poor Grumm here. Let the Dancers see if they can undo whatever magic Sassin worked against him. If they can, if the Liskash was lying, we go forward as I proposed. If not…If not, let it be as you say, Zhanns Bostofa.” The words tasted like rotten meat in the talonmaster’s mouth.

The plump black-and-white male inclined his head. “Agreed.”

Rantan Taggah would have agreed in his place, too. Zhanns Bostofa had by far the better half of the bargain. If Sassin was telling the truth, the plump male would get what he wanted, and the Clan of the Claw would stay where it was. Even if Sassin was lying, if he was a strong enough sorcerer his spell would prevail against everything the clan’s Dancers could do to oppose it. Only if he was lying and they had the power to beat down his lies would Rantan Taggah get to do what he was convinced needed doing.

Why Aedonniss had made the world so one Liskash noble had at least as much magic at the tips of his scaly fingers as a clan’s Dancers could muster all together, why Assirra hadn’t softened her divine mate so he showed the Mrem more mercy…Rantan Taggah shrugged yet again. Wonder why the gods had done what they’d undoubtedly done and you headed straight down the track to madness.

* * *

Enni Chennitats eyed Grumm with pained sympathy as the escaped slave took his place in the center of the clan’s Dancing ground. The male left with half his name exuded misery just standing there. Even with the Dancers all around him, he looked more alone than anyone else the priestess had ever seen.

He gnawed on a scrap of smoked meat. He seemed to eat all the time. If he kept it up, before too long he wouldn’t be skin and bones any more—he’d get as remarkably fat as Zhanns Bostofa. And then…And then he would be fat and miserable instead of scrawny and miserable. Maybe that was better. More likely—or so it seemed to Enni Chennitats—it was only different. Confusing better with different was likely to make a new misery.

She wondered whether Rantan Taggah’s plan to set the Clan of the Claw on its great trek was better or only different. She wanted to think it was better. Priestesses traveled from clan to clan, bringing news and sharing knowledge (males called it gossiping, but what did males know?). Like most of her sisters here on the Dancing ground, she felt trapped by being confined to a single clan. She craved the trek in a way most of the clansfolk would never understand.

Even so, it might prove a dreadful mistake. There was Grumm, who’d already spent too long under Liskash bondage. Maybe all the Mrem on this side of the New Water were doomed to slavery or death if they persisted in Rantan Taggah’s scheme. Or maybe they were doomed if they clung to these grazing grounds like a snail clinging to its rock.

If the gods were kind, the Clan of the Claw was not doomed at all. If.

The senior priestess was a brindled female named Demm Etter. She raised her hand with the same authority Rantan Taggah used in holding up the clan scepter at a warriors’ assembly. “Are we ready?” she asked. She wasn’t only brindled; she was grizzled as well. But her voice belied her years.

None of the two dozen other priestesses said no. Enni Chennitats would have been astonished if any of them had. If they weren’t prepared for what lay ahead, they would not have come to the Dancing grounds. Still, the question had to be asked. Ritual demanded it, and ritual helped forge in the Dancers the strength the Liskash had straight from Aedonniss.

Demm Etter dipped her head. The priestesses Danced in a circle around Grumm, first sunwise and then, at a signal from Demm Etter, deasil instead. They began slowly; they did not want to—did not dare to—spill out their power before it was fully formed. Grumm watched them circle. His jaws worked as he went on chewing.

At first, Enni Chennitats was aware only of the ground under the pads of her feet, of her rhythmic breathing, of her need to hold her place and to keep in time. This was not magic; this was only motion. But out of motion sprang magic. Sometimes. When magic felt like springing. When the Scaly Ones’ hot, nasty sorcery wasn’t too strong. You could only try. Trying was a magic of its own—so priestesses often said.

Sunwise. Deasil. Faster. Sunwise. Deasil. Faster yet. The world around Enni Chennitats began to blur into unreality. The Dance was the only thing that mattered. Out beyond the edge of the Dancing ground, warriors would be watching, though none would presume to set even a clawtip on the hallowed earth till the Dance was over. Enni Chennitats knew they were there. They faded from her consciousness, too. She knew how much Rantan Taggah had riding on the Dance, and how much she had herself. She knew, but she stopped caring. The Dance was what it was. It would do what it did. And then the clan would decide where to go from there, or whether to go.

At the center of the circle remained Grumm, like a mountain shrouded in fog. Excitement trickled through some small portion of Enni Chennitats that the dominant Dancing part barely noticed. That was the kind of image priestesses needed to form their spells. Now—was it hers alone, or did her fellows feel it with her?

Sunwise again. That was good. That was as it should have been. The sun burned fog away. “Let us see clearly!” Demm Etter said. “Clearly!” Enni Chennitats’s excitement grew. The old priestess sensed what she sensed, too, and pointed the other Dancers towards it.

And it was noon, or near enough. The sun stood high in the southern sky. What better placement for it to burn away fog?

The Dance quickened yet again. “Clearly!” Demm Etter called once more. As she Danced, she focused her gaze on poor Grumm in the same way that a cleverly ground piece of rock crystal brought the sun’s rays to a bright, hot point. The other Dancers, Enni Chennitats among them, followed her lead. Again, she might have been a talonmaster and they the band behind her.

Like a band following its talonmaster, they met resistance. No natural fog could have lingered round a mountain with such fierce sunlight turned on it. And no natural fog was this. It was thick and cold and clinging. Noxious vapors floating above a swamp might have had something of the same feel to them, but in lesser degree. This was fog fueled by malice and and hate: fueled by a Liskash noble, in other words. As Enni Chennitats fought to break through it and see what it concealed, she felt as if she were squelching through slime.

What would happen if she and the rest of the Dancers could not pierce the foul fog? Would they enslave themselves, as Grumm had been enslaved? Better to die quickly; that, at least, was clean. And better by far not to think of such things. Better to believe Demm Etter would lead them all through to victory.

“Clearly!” the senior priestess cried, her voice rising urgently. The fog writhed and seemed to spring forward to choke her. “Clearly! Clearly!”

How strong was this Sassin? Enni Chennitats knew he was dangerous, as any Liskash noble was dangerous. But could a single Scaly One beat back the combined wills of two dozen and one Dancers? She never would have thought so, never till now. But her confidence trembled.

“Once more, friends!” Demm Etter called. “We can do it!” What spurred Enni Chennitats like a pair of krelprep yoked to a chariot was that magical word, friends, and the we that followed it. She could conceive of an immensely powerful, immensely wily Liskash noble. For the life of her, though, she could not imagine such a noble with friends.

The sorcerous fog surrounding Grumm faltered all at once. It was as if the stuff were faced not with Demm Etter and her two dozen retainers and subordinates, but with twenty-five priestesses all alike, all potent. The fog could not attack every one of them at the same time, and did not know against which of them to concentrate. And so, instead, they attacked it.

Enni Chennitats yowled in triumph as it broke before their onslaught. Now she saw what Sassin had wanted Grumm to perceive, and how much of it was real, was true. Some, yes. She had hoped none would be, but that was a faint hope, and she knew as much. Sassin was a Liskash noble, and had no small store of strength in his domain. As much as he pretended? As much as he wanted the Clan of the Claw to believe? No.

Little by little, guided by Demm Etter, the Dance slowed. Enni Chennitats realized she was panting as hard as she could. Sweat dampened her nose, the palms of her hands, and the soles of her feet. Part of her wished she could sweat all over her body, though wet fur would have left her chilled more often than not.

As things chanced, she came to a stop facing Grumm. The escaped slave gravely nodded to her. “He lied to me,” he said. He sounded more…certain than he had before the Dance. He was still broken—he would always be broken—but perhaps not so badly now.

“He did,” Enni Chennitats agreed gravely.

“I will take vengeance,” Grumm declared. “I know not how, but I will.”

“May it be so,” the priestess replied. Maybe the male without a surname was bragging a little, as if to deny as much as he could of what Sassin had done to him. Maybe, though, the Dance had also given him a moment of the extraordinary clarity the two dozen and one used to pierce the mists darkening his spirit. Enni Chennitats did not know which. The power of the Dance no longer held her. She knew only what she hoped.

* * *

Sassin stopped awkwardly, in the middle of a stride. Lorssett almost ran into him from behind, which would have been a fatal breach of etiquette: literally, odds were. But the lesser Liskash was able—just barely—to check himself without touching his god and master.

“What is it?” he asked, doing his best not to sound surprised. He had to assume Sassin had some good reason for stopping. He assumed the noble had some good reason for everything he did. The alternative to assuming that was turning Mrem. Lorssett might not have been the tallest hill in the range, but he was no abomination, either.

As for Sassin, he knew exactly why he’d halted. A sudden pain transfixed him, as if someone had driven a spear through his head. He knew what that meant: knew what it had to mean. One of his spells had just spectacularly fallen into ruin.

His first thought was to wonder which of his enemies—which is to say, his neighbors—had dared to thwart his will. He wouldn’t have believe Fykahtin had the nerve. And Pergossett was hardly stronger than Sassin’s own aide: so it seemed from the Liskash noble’s jaundiced point of view, anyhow.

But the way his magic had failed didn’t feel as it should have if another of his own kind had suppressed it. Which left…For a moment, the pounding ache behind his eyes made him doubt it left anything. But if the Liskash hadn’t defeated a sorcery of his, only the Mrem could have.

His hiss made Lorssett cringe. The idea that those hairy screechers could do anything that seriously impeded his own kind disgusted him. Everything about the Mrem disgusted him, in fact. If only the coming of the New Water had left them all as prey for the scavengers of the deep!

It hadn’t. All he could do about that was deplore it. He’d tried his best to make them think twice about invading his lands. Too much to hope for, no doubt: the Mrem commonly had trouble thinking even once. But if they thought they could despoil what was his, they needed to think again.

And, if he couldn’t frighten them out of coming this way, he would have to beat them. He wished he truly were as mighty as he’d made that slave believe. That made him hiss once more, although this time only in ordinary annoyance. He’d lost a slave and got nothing in exchange—one more reason to despise the Clan of the Claw. Well, he wished them joy of the escapee. Mrem subjected to the will of a Liskash noble were never the same again afterwards.

The sound that came out of him next was more sigh than hiss. It was also an invitation for his aide to speak, and Lorssett did: “What do you require, lord?” The lesser Liskash assumed Sassin would require something, and he was right to do so.

“I think it is likely the Mrem will attack us soon—attack us with all their strength.” Sassin thought it as likely as the sun’s rise tomorrow morning, but he did not say that. It might lead Lorssett to ask embarrassing questions. Sassin did not care to admit to his underling—much less to himself—that his wizardry had gone awry.

As things were, Lorssett let out a small hiss himself: one of admiration for the noble’s sagacity. “You will fight them?” he asked.

“I will fight them,” Sassin agreed. “Am I a smerp, to run under the bushes when hunters fly overhead?” He hated smerps, partly because he hated everything hairy and partly because they really were pests. They gnawed through wood, they gnawed through bones, and sometimes they even gnawed through solid stone. Whenever they weren’t mating, they were eating. They squeezed into cracks you would have thought too narrow to hide even a mite. Their beady black eyes were remarkably ugly. And, while you could eat them, they didn’t taste good.

“You are no smerp. You are the lord here. You are the power here. You are the god here,” Lorssett declared. Pleasure trickled through Sassin; he couldn’t have put that better himself. His aide went on, “When you go to war against the furry beasts, victory is assured.”

That also pleased Sassin. But he remembered that victory was assured only after it was won. “We will need to summon all our strength to beat them,” he said. “Set that in motion at once. See to it. Use my name in all you do.”

“As you say, lord, so shall it be.” Lorssett hesitated. “So it shall be from me, I should say. But what if…certain others…do not care to follow my commands given in your name?”

He was not the only Liskash near-noble through whom Sassin ruled his domain. Very often, it suited Sassin’s purposes to leave his subordinates in doubt about which of them held the greatest part of his favor. Very often—but not today.

“Use my name,” Sassin repeated. “Tell them that, if they doubt, I will visit them mind to mind. After that, they will doubt no more, but they will not be the happier for it.” He would put the fear of their god—of himself—in them.

Lorssett recoiled half a step in fear. “As you say, so shall it be. Our archers, our spearers, our fierce beasts—all shall be in readiness before the accursed Mrem commence to move.”

“See that it is,” Sassin said. “When those hairy creatures move, they move. We cannot act like frogs and turtles and sleep through the cold season at the bottom of a pond. See to it that no one misunderstands or goes slack.”

“In your name, lord, all will be done,” Lorssett said. It was, once more, the right answer. Which meant…how much? Sassin studied his underling. Did Lorssett dream of snapping with Sassin’s teeth one day, despite his sorry lack of sorcery? If he did, he would pay for his presumption.

Again, though, not today. Today, Sassin had to arrange things so the Mrem did the paying.

* * *

The wind blew hot and dry out of the south. Rantan Taggah smelled the dust it carried. The transparent third eyelids flicked across his eyes again and again, clearing them of grit.

Get used to it, he told himself. How much dust would there be when the whole Clan of the Claw got moving? Herdbeasts, chariots, wagons, males, females? The folk at the back would be lucky if they could see the folk at the front when the whole long column started west.

And the folk at the front would be lucky if they could see the folk at the back. “Have to keep the rear guard strong,” Rantan Taggah muttered. So many things for a talonmaster to think about! The Liskash might try to build a wall so the trekking clan couldn’t enter Sassin’s lands at all.

They might, yes—but Rantan Taggah didn’t think they would. Brothers to serpents as they were, the Scaly Ones were more likely to strike where they reckoned the Mrem weakest, and to hit the column from the flank or from behind. Rantan Taggah did more muttering: “We have to be strong everywhere, then.” He growled, down deep in his throat. How was he supposed to manage that? Too much space, and not enough males to cover all of it.

A voice from behind him: “What did you say, Rantan Taggah?”

He spun on his toes. “Oh! Enni Chennitats! I didn’t hear you come up.” Not surprising, that, not when the Mrem were light on their feet—and she especially, being a Dancer. He went on, “I was just trying to figure out everything we’ll have to do once we start moving.”

“You can’t know everything ahead of time,” the priestess said.

His mouth twisted wryly. “That’s something I already do know. But the Liskash can ruin us—will ruin us—if they catch us by surprise. So I have to work out as many ways to keep that from happening as I can.”

“We will know—we may know—some of what they do before they try to do it,” Enni Chennitats said. “Seeing some way into their sorceries is one of the things the Dance is good for.”

“You dragged the truth out of Grumm, sure enough.” Admiration filled the talonmaster’s voice. Admiration for the Dance, or for this Dancer here? Rantan Taggah wondered. Here, at least, he didn’t need to wonder long. For both, and especially for the lithe, comely priestess.

When there was time, he ought to do something about that. But there wasn’t, not right now, and there wouldn’t be for quite a while. The Clan of the Claw bubbled like stew in a clay-daubed basket over a big fire. (The clan females still had a few precious proper pots won in trade with the now-vanished city-states of the Hollow Lands, but only a few. You could be as careful as you pleased, but every now and then a pot would break. None of the nomads had the trick to making real pottery—those baskets were as close as they came. If one of the refugees who’d escaped the inrushing New Water knew the art…Rantan Taggah found yet another thing he needed to check on.)

How was he supposed to remember pots when he didn’t even have the time to think about Enni Chennitats? The clan had carved out this domain south of the Hollow Lands a couple of generations before, grazing their krelprep and other herdbeasts in the flatlands here during the warm season and taking them up into the hills to forage when the weather got cooler and wetter. Now they would have to keep going at all times of the year. The Liskash weren’t likely to let them rest and graze their animals as they pleased. Rantan Taggah swore under his breath. What had Aedonniss been thinking when he made the Scaly Ones?

Here was a priestess standing beside him. He asked her the question. Gravely, she considered it. “There is no sure answer to that,” she said at last. “Dancers have debated it for…for as long as there have been Dancers, I suppose. Some say the sky lord put them on earth to give us a proper challenge, and to keep us from fighting amongst ourselves so much. Some say they are not properly part of creation at all, but only Aedonniss’ waste, which he forgot to cover as he should have because he’d worked so hard making the things he truly wanted.”

Rantan Taggah laughed. “Yes, I’ve heard that. Godshit!” He laughed again, louder. “I like it.”

Enni Chennitats held up a slim hand. She stepped closer to him, which made his heart beat faster. “But there is another possibility. I have never heard that it is forbidden to speak of it with someone who is not a priestess, but I know we hold it close. I will ask you to do the same.”

“Of course,” Rantan Taggah replied at once, intrigued. “What is it?”

“It could be that the Liskash truly aren’t part of Aedonniss’ creation,” Enni Chennitats said in a low, troubled voice. “It could be that some other god, a dark and wicked god, made them for purposes of his own, purposes that stand against everything the sky god stands for. We do not talk about this much, even among ourselves. It frightens us. It makes us think the world may be a larger, stranger, more dangerous place than we care to imagine. But it seems to explain some things the simpler ideas cannot.”

“A dark and wicked god…” Rantan Taggah weighed the notion. After a few heartbeats, he dipped his head to the priestess. “Yes, I can see how that might be so. And he would have made the Scaly Ones in his own fashion, as Aedonniss patterned us, the true people, after himself. That is a very large thought.”

“Which is why we hold it close,” she told him.

A smerp hopped by. When the breeze shifted and brought it the scent of the two Mrem, it squeaked in fright and dove under a thornbush. Rantan Taggah felt a great tug of memory. When he was a kit, how many smerps had he chased while he was learning to hunt? How many of them had got away under thornbushes or between rocks or down holes in the ground? How proud had he been when he finally caught one? And how horrified had he been a moment later, when it bit his hand, jumped free, and fled?

“Are we even smerps to Aedonniss?” he wondered.

“I doubt it, but he does not hunt us for the sport of it,” Enni Chennitats answered, following his chariot of thought perfectly.

That was something. Rantan Taggah wondered if it was enough. The Liskash didn’t hunt Mrem for the sport of it, either, but hunt them they did. And when the Liskash did not hunt Mrem, the Mrem hunted them. What else did being blood enemies mean? Liskash and Mrem even smelled wrong, alien, to each other. Like any kit, Rantan Taggah hadn’t hunted only smerps and other mammals. He’d gone after lizards and small snakes, too. (One of the first lessons kits learned—those who lived to learn it, anyway—was how to tell snakes that squeezed from the ones with poison in their fangs.) He remembered how strange their blood and flesh tasted after he made a kill. They were different from him in a way smerps weren’t.

He hadn’t fully understood the difference then. He did now.

“Someone coming to see you, Talonmaster,” Enni Chennitats said quietly.

It was Zhanns Bostofa. Of course it was. Zhanns Bostofa thought himself important enough to see the talonmaster whenever he chose. And he wouldn’t be happy with the dispositions Rantan Taggah had made for his herds and wagons. No matter when Rantan Taggah placed them, Zhanns Bostofa wouldn’t be happy with it. The talonmaster was morosely certain of that.

And he was right. The heavyset male tore into him as if Zhanns Bostofa led the Clan of the Claw and Rantan Taggah were a lowly herdsmale. Rantan Taggah listened for a little while. Then he said, “That will be enough of that.”

Zhanns Bostofa stared at him as if he were a krelprep that had suddenly opened its mouth to display a daggertooth’s fangs. “How dare you speak to me so?” Zhanns Bostofa demanded. With his deep, resonant voice, he might have made a better talonmaster than Rantan Taggah—or at least a more impressive one. Rantan Taggah was convinced there was a difference between the two. So was the rest of the Clan of the Claw—with the evident exception of Zhanns Bostofa.

“How? Because you’re wasting my time, that’s how. You should be getting your bundor and hamsticorns ready to move. The clan decided that was the better thing to do after the Dancers showed how Sassin had magicked poor, sorry Grumm into believing the lies the son of a serpent hissed in his ears. If you don’t want to come with us, you can stay by yourself—but how long will you last against the Liskash with only the handful of fools who stay with you?” Rantan Taggah enjoyed the rare pleasure of being able to say exactly what he thought.

The snarl of rage on Zhanns Bostofa’s face took in both Rantan Taggah and Enni Chennitats. “The way the two of you seem so friendly, I shouldn’t wonder if the Dance was faked to get the answer you wanted.”

It had never occurred to Rantan Taggah that a Dance might be faked. Zhanns Bostofa had taught him something, but not something he’d wanted to learn. He wanted to walk away from the black-and-white male and find someplace quiet where he could try to wash himself clean.

But, shocked as he was, his reaction was as nothing beside that of Enni Chennitats. Her pupils filled her eyes, as they would just before she sprang for a kill. And behind their blackness flamed raw, red rage.

“Fake…a Dance?” she whispered. “Fake the power we have through Assirra and Aedonniss? Come with me, Zhanns Bostofa. Come tell Demm Etter that you think she told a lie about the word the Dance gave us. Come on. I want to watch while you do that. I want to see how much of you is left afterwards.” She reached out to grab the male’s arm.

He sprang back before she could. He might carry fat around his middle, but he could be nimble when his hide was on the line. And it was. He knew it was. “Here, now! Watch what you’re doing!” he said in some alarm. “I didn’t say anything about Demm Etter.”

“You said the Dance was false,” Enni Chennitats answered implacably. “How could it be false unless the senior priestess made it false?”

Zhanns Bostofa made an unhappy noise down deep in his throat. “I might have been hasty,” he said at last—more of an apology than Rantan Taggah had ever got from him, or ever expected. But Rantan Taggah was a rival, not a priestess.

And, being a rival, he clawed Zhanns Bostofa while the other male was down: “You might have wanted to piss on things so they’d smell more like you. Next time you need to piss, go find a dry patch of dirt, squat, and cover your piddle with dust the way you’re supposed to.”

He wondered if that would provoke Zhanns Bostofa to fight. He hoped so. Tearing some strips off Zhanns Bostofa’s hide might let him forget the idea of a faked Dance…for a little while, anyhow.

Zhanns Bostofa’s ears flattened against the top of his head, as if he were ready to brawl. But the plump male turned and stormed away instead. His brushed-out tail showed the fury he was holding in.

Rantan Taggah let out a sigh. “Well,” he said, “that was fun.”

“Wasn’t it?” The fur on Enni Chennitats’s tail rose up, too. “A faked Dance, a lying Dance…I should have torn out his throat for that.”

“Yes, you should have,” the talonmaster agreed. “When they stood to judge you, I would have sworn he had it coming. By Aedonniss, he did, too.”

“Do you know what he makes me wonder?” Enni Chennitats said.

“No.” Rantan Taggah wasn’t sure he wanted to, either. “But you’re going to tell me, aren’t you?”

She dipped her head. “Remember how I was talking about how there might be another god besides Aedonniss, a god who’s to blame for the Liskash?”

“I’m not likely to forget,” Rantan Taggah answered. “What about it?” He didn’t see the connection.

Since he didn’t, Enni Chennitats made it plain for him: “If that god reached out to touch one of us, what would the Mrem be like afterwards? A lot like Zhanns Bostofa, don’t you think?”

Till she first mentioned the idea, Rantan Taggah hadn’t dreamt there could be any gods but Aedonniss and his gentle mate. Now, watching Zhanns Bostofa’s hunched-over form recede in the distance, the talonmaster found himself a believer—a reluctant believer, perhaps, but a believer all the same.

* * *

The driver checked the harness on the two krelprep hitched to the chariot. Only after he was sure all the leather was sound and all the lashings secure did he incline his head to Enni Chennitats. “You can get in, priestess,” he said.

“Thank you, Tessell Yatt,” she said, and stepped up into the car. The wickerwork of the flooring gave a little under her feet. Everything in the chariot was as light as the Clan of the Claw’s finest shapers could make it. The less weight the krelprep had to pull, the faster and the longer they could run.

Tessell Yatt stroked one of the beasts on its muzzle before he came back to join Enni Chennitats in the car. Keeping herd animals…That, the Mrem had done for a very long time. The priestess still wondered how her folk had got beasts to draw them and their wagons, though. After all, in a krelprep’s nostrils what were the Mrem but predators?

And, perhaps just as much to the point, what were krelprep to the Mrem of ancient days but so much walking meat? Whoever first realized the brown-and-white-patched beasts might be more, might do more, must surely have been a male or female of godlike cleverness.

She looked back over her shoulder. As the trek began, her place was near the front. Behind her, wagon drivers, chariot crews, and warriors on foot snarled at one another. Everyone thought everyone else was getting in his way. Nobody imagined he might be getting in anybody else’s way. Mrem weren’t always right—Enni Chennitats had no doubts on that score. But, right or not, they were almost always sure.

The driver adjusted the broad shield that would protect them both if—no, more likely when—trouble came. The thick, scaly hide of some mindless hunting Liskash, cured and boiled in wax, would help ward Mrem against the javelins and arrows the more clever Liskash used.

At the very head of the column rode Rantan Taggah and his driver. He looked quite splendid, his bronze scalemail gleaming red in the morning sun. He pointed to the standard-bearer in the chariot beside his. The standard-bearer raised the pole on which was mounted a hand-long claw cut ages ago from the carcass of a huge, vicious Scaly One. The trumpeter raised his long copper horn to his lips and blew three blasts from it.

“Forward!” Rantan Taggah shouted in a great voice. “Forward, the Clan of the Claw!”

Enni Chennitats’s cheer went up to the heavens along with those of the other males and females who could hear the talonmaster. At the back of the column, they would probably be wondering what the fuss was about—if they knew there was any fuss at all.

Rantan Taggah touched his driver on the shoulder. The junior male flicked the reins. He called to his krelprep. They leaned forward and began to walk. Enni Chennitats exclaimed in surprise. Someone had ornamented with gold leaf the four-pronged horns they bore above each eye, so they shone even brighter than Rantan Taggah’s polished armor. Now that was swank!

Tessell Yatt also flicked the reins. Enni Chennitats took hold of the rail as the chariot started rolling. A warrior accustomed to the battle cars could stand in one of them without needing to hold on no matter how it jounced. She was no warrior, and didn’t need to make an impression.

Dust flew up at once. The divided hooves of the krelprep dug into the ground and kicked up the small particles. The rumble of hoofbeats and squeal of ungreased axles all around Enni Chennitats filled her head till her ears didn’t know which way to turn.

Something small and frightened dashed away from the chariot in which she rode. A lizard? A smerp? She had no idea. She sensed only the motion down there on the ground, not what had caused it.

Spooked birds flew up from bushes and scattered scrubby trees. Their calls of alarm added to the din. High above them, flying Liskash circled in the sky, riding the columns of warm air that rose from the ground. Enni Chennitats hated being under the leatherwings’ cold, too-clever gaze. Some of those creatures had the native wit to spy for Liskash nobles.

She might hate it, but she couldn’t do anything about it. The creatures glided high above where spears or even arrows could reach. She’d thought what a marvel it was for the Mrem to have chosen to use other animals as tools. It wasn’t a marvel when the Liskash did it—not to her, it wasn’t. It was a horror.

She kept looking up every so often. The leatherwings went right on circling overhead. Then, after a while, she saw something she liked even less. One of the flying Liskash stopped circling and sped off toward the southwest, wide wings beating with what seemed to her to be sinister purpose. On and on it flew, its path through the air straight as a spear’s.

Tessell Yatt spied it, too. “Cursed thing’s heading off to tell Sassin what we’re up to,” he said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Enni Chennitats answered unhappily. “What can we do about it?”

The driver’s tail lashed back and forth. “Not one stinking thing, not that I can see. You’re a wise female, though. Have you got any notions along those lines?”

“I don’t feel so wise, not watching the leatherwing fly where it will,” the priestess said, more unhappily still. “I see the problem, but not how to solve it.”

That made Tessell Yatt shrug. “Sounds like a lot of life, doesn’t it? Well, sooner or later the Scaly Ones’ll try and hit us. Then we’ll give ’em what for. Maybe they know where we’re at, but that doesn’t mean they can do anything about it, right?” He bared his teeth. Whatever lay ahead, he was ready for it—or he thought he was, which amounted to the same thing now.

Sometimes not dwelling on what lay ahead was wiser. Sometimes. Enni Chennitats tried to make herself believe this was one of those times. “Right,” she said, as firmly as she could.

* * *

The axehead perched on the battlement to Sassin’s keep. Its kind nested on cliffsides, so the Liskash noble’s artificial cliff must have seemed a fine landing place to it.

Sassin held a dead smerp by the tail. He swung the ugly, hairy little body back and forth, back and forth. The axehead swayed with the motion, its enormous eyes avidly following the moving hunk of meat. Sassin might not care for the way smerps tasted. Axeheads weren’t so choosy.

Had it been in Sassin to like any other living things, axeheads would have stood high on the list. They were clever enough to be useful, but not nearly clever enough to be rivals. As far as he was concerned, that made them perfect extensions of his own volition. No, it wasn’t liking, but it was as close as he came.

He tossed the smerp into the air. The axehead’s long, toothy jaws opened and closed. For a moment, half a digit’s worth of bare pink tail dangled after they snapped shut. Then the leather-winged flyer swallowed, and the dangling tail disappeared, too. It cocked its head and eyed him, hoping for more.

Instead, he caught its gaze with his own. The axehead twisted on the battlement, trying to break free of his will, but found itself unable. The foolish Mrem said snakes could mentally master their prey and make it stand still to be devoured. For almost all serpents, they were mistaken. But Sassin had that power—that and more.

He reached inside the axehead’s mind. What it had seen was as clear to him as if he’d seen it himself. What it had felt was every bit as clear, but he ignored that. The sensation of flying might have fascinated a hairy Mrem. It left Sassin utterly indifferent. He wanted to know what he wanted to know, and everything else could go hang.

As if from high overhead, he looked down on the outsized smerps—so he thought of them. Oh, Mrem were more clever than smerps, but that only made them more annoying and more dangerous. Sure enough, they were moving west, into his lands. They would pay for that. He would make sure they paid. Yes, indeed!

He studied the formation their leader had chosen. His tongue flicked out, tasting the air as he considered. Reluctantly, he decided that the miserable Mrem had some notion of what he was about. The vermin wouldn’t be easy to attack—unless they could be provoked into making a mistake.

And that probably would not prove so very hard. Mrem weren’t calculators like Liskash nobles. They acted on impulse, like the animals they basically were. Getting them to move the way he wanted them to move shouldn’t be much harder than tricking a hatchling still wet from the juices of its egg.

Somber satisfaction seeped through Sassin. He mentally pulled away from the axehead, leaving it alone again inside its long, narrow skull. It glared at him, as if it could presume to believe he’d had no business violating its privacy so. More often than not, he would have punished it even for such tiny presumption. A god, after all, was not inclined to brook opposition from anyone.

But Sassin found himself in a mood as generous as he was likely to know. So what if the leather-winged flyer resented his mental invasion? It had served him as he needed to be served. That was the only thing that really mattered.

He tossed the axehead another dead smerp. Resentment vanished as it devoured the mammal. As long as he fed it, he could do as he pleased. So it thought afterwards, anyhow. It had had a different view of things while the mental violation was going on. But, again, so what?

* * *

The Mrem had a core territory where they and their herds roamed unchallenged. Beyond that, on all sides (save only the north, lost now and forever to the New Water), was a debatable land. They could hold it and use it if they came forth in strength. Then again, so could the Liskash nobles against whose domains theirs abutted. Beyond the debatable lands lay terrain unquestionably belonging to the Scaly Ones. The Mrem had entered those lands only as raiders…or as slaves.

Now, proudly, Rantan Taggah led the whole of his folk into the lands Sassin had ruled since he overthrew the Liskash noble whose seat they’d been before. At first glance, Sassin’s territory seemed little different from that in which the Clan of the Claw had dwelt since coming up out of the Hollow Lands.

Only at first glance, though. Yes, the grass beginning to yellow under the warm sun was the same here as it had been there. Yes, the same kinds of low, scrubby trees grew in the lowlands and along the banks of the streams cutting across the plain. And yes, the same kinds of birds and leatherwings perched in those trees.

But off in the distance grazed a herd of frillhorns. They were unmistakably Liskash, their bare hides irregularly striped in shades of gold and brown and green. Those stripes broke up their outlines and made them much harder to recognize at any distance than they would have been otherwise.

The wind swung round, bringing their scent to Rantan Taggah. His driver’s nose wrinkled. “Faugh!” exclaimed the junior male, whose name was Munkus Drap. Mrem could eat Liskash flesh if they got hungry enough. They didn’t care for it enough to want to herd frillhorns—which was putting it mildly.

Not only that: Liskash herders directed their beasts by mental command. Mrem lacked that power. Maybe a group of Dancers could make a magic that would reach a frillhorn’s mind, if it was not too alien for such a reaching. But, once more, to what point?

Something ran toward the advancing Mrem from the direction of the herd: not a frillhorn, even a young one, but something that came on two legs rather than four. For a moment, Rantan Taggah thought the Scaly One watching the frillhorns had gone mad and was attacking the Clan of the Claw all by himself.

But no. As the creature got closer, the talonmaster saw it was only a zargan. The Liskash tamed them and used them to help guide the herds and to fight off predators that might harm their meat animals. Zargan were smaller than thinking Liskash, and ran with their bodies more nearly parallel to the ground than did their masters. A long, stiff tail counterbalanced the weight of head and torso.

This zargan hissed out a challenge as it charged. It threw its mouth open, displaying row on row of sharp teeth. Absently, Rantan Taggah wondered whether the Liskash nobles had bred them for great jaws or they’d had them before being tamed.

The krelprep pulling Rantan Taggah’s chariot bugled forth challenges of their own. They would have reared if they weren’t harnessed. A Mrem in another car whirled a sling above his head. The stone hissed through the air. It caught the zargan in the side of the head. The beast swayed, then toppled. Creatures of the Liskash kind had uncommonly thick skulls, and often uncommonly small brains inside them. All the same…The zargan kicked feebly. Rantan Taggah didn’t think it would get up again.

“Well shot!” he called to the slinger.

“I thank you, Talonmaster,” the other male answered.

The standard-bearer’s chariot passed right next to the zargan. In fact, the krelprep would have trampled it if the driver hadn’t steered them to one side. The standard-bearer leaned over the rail and shoved a javelin into the zargan’s belly. It went on thrashing even after that; Scaly Ones were notoriously tenacious of life.

“One more beast we won’t have to kill later,” Munkus Drap remarked.

“True enough, and killing it now cost us nothing,” Rantan Taggah said. “That’s all to the good. We haven’t got the time or the males to go hunting Liskash if they don’t hunt us.”

“We ought to kill them all,” the driver said.

“That would be fine, if only we could. Right now, we can’t.” Rantan Taggah’s head swung toward the right. There was the New Water, holding them away from their own kind. How far west past where they were now did it stretch? Many, many days’ travel. The talonmaster was only too sure of that. Many, many days’ unhindered travel. If they had to stop and fight whenever they entered some new Liskash noble’s domain…

He almost repented of his choice. Maybe it would have been better after all to do as Zhanns Bostofa said, to stay where they were as long as they could. How long would they take to find the place where the Hollow Lands ended, where there was a free way north to others of their own kind? How many of them would be left when they did?


But if they stayed on their old grazing grounds, the Liskash would converge on them from west and east and south. Even with the survivors who’d come up out of the flooded lowlands, there weren’t enough Mrem to hold them off. That had seemed obvious to Rantan Taggah. It still did. What suddenly seemed less clear, as he set out on this great trek, was whether there were enough Mrem to complete it.

His hand closed on the hilt of his sword. If you were going to fail regardless, better to fail doing something, trying your hardest. Waiting in glum resignation for death to come to you was more the Liskash way, not that of his own folk.

And they might win through in spite of everything.

He’d made a face when he caught the frillhorns’ scent. The shifting breeze also took the smells from the Clan of the Claw to the grazing Liskash. They cared for the odors of the Mrem no more than he’d liked theirs. One by one, their heads came up in alarm. They had big, horny beaks and bony crests edged with the spikes that gave them their name. One of the biggest creatures lumbered off toward the south. The rest ambled after it, showing the Mrem their tails.

That did not necessarily mean fear. A swipe from a tail like that could knock a male off his feet and leave him broken and bloody on the ground. Even the biggest hunting Liskash—which dwarfed both their own more clever cousins and the Mrem—approached frillhorns with as much respect as their tiny minds would hold.

“Well, if the Scaly Ones didn’t already know we were on the move, that herd heading off for no reason would give them the news,” Munkus Drap said.

“Don’t worry,” Rantan Taggah said. “They knew.”

* * *

As far as Sassin was concerned, all Mrem looked alike. To him, all hairy creatures seemed pretty much the same. They differed mainly in size. In stink, and in nuisance value, they were all variations on a single nasty theme.

His own kind, by contrast, were individuals to him. They varied in size, in pattern, in color, in length of snout and shape of eye, in whether they had a scaly crest over each eye socket, in how tall the crest was if it was there at all, in the shape and thickness of their throat wattles, in…in all the details that made them individuals rather than hairy—things.

Here and now, they also varied in weaponry and protection. Some had bows, some javelins, some slings. Their leather shields were mostly small. A few wore caps with the fur still on them. Those Liskash had spirit: if the Mrem caught them, they would die right away—or maybe slowly, if the miserable mammals were sufficiently provoked. Others had helmets and breastplates of leather like that of most fighters’ shields. Still others, the captains and commanders, wore bronze in place of leather. Some of the officers decorated their armor with little spikes on helmets and shoulderpieces, so they looked a bit like frillhorns.

Sassin went unarmored. For one thing, he did not intend to get close enough to the front line to expose himself to the slings and arrows of outrageous vermin. For another, he had confidence in the magic that could, and at need would, turn aside the weapons the vermin carried. If you lacked faith in your magic, it was apt to fail you when you needed it most.

Surveying the host before him, he told Lorssett, “You did well in taking my commands to my vassals.”

“My thanks, lord.” Lorssett was also unarmored, which showed his faith in his master. Putting on heavy bronze would have told the world he did not believe Sassin could keep him safe. It would have told Sassin the same thing—and Lorssett would have been sorry immediately thereafter.

For now, the Liskash noble stepped out in front of the fighters his underlings had gathered. They fell silent; their eyes followed his every move. None of them wanted Sassin’s eyes to light on him. The lord’s notice was much too likely to mean the lord’s displeasure. And the lord’s displeasure was bound to mean far worse displeasure for the average fighter.

“Males! Fighters!” Sassin’s voice was not especially loud, but neither did it need to be. His followers heard him not only through their earholes but also inside their minds. They couldn’t not listen to him, no matter how much they might have wanted to. That gave him a certain advantage over Rantan Taggah, but it was not one he understood.

“Lord Sassin!” the fighters cried. He also heard them with his mind and his earholes. When they shouted his name, he knew how much they feared him. Enough to do anything he commanded. That was as much fear as he required: not always as much as he would have liked, but as much as he had to have.

“The Mrem are coming,” he said. “Those stinking, hairy beasts think they can go where they will and do as they please. Are they right? Shall we let them?”

“No, Lord Sassin!” the Liskash answered in what might as well have been a single voice. However much they feared him, they hated the Mrem more. Any Liskash noble could always rely on that.

Sassin knew the upstart mammals loathed his kind every bit as much. He knew, but he didn’t care. All you could do with creatures like that was enslave or kill them.

“Will they drive off our herds?” he asked. “Will they trample our egg-laying grounds with their stinking, sweating feet?” Dry-skinned himself, he could imagine little more disgusting than perspiration…and his imagination traveled widely in the realm of disgust.

His fellow Liskash felt as he did. “No, Lord Sassin!” they shouted once more. The fighters who carried javelins brandished them. They were ready to war against the Mrem, sure enough. He could see it. He could hear it. He could smell it with his tongue. And he could feel it in his mind.

“Forward!” he told them.

“Forward!” they echoed, brandishing their weapons once more. He basked in their approval, the way an axehead might spread its broad, bare wings and bask in the early-morning sun.

And forward they went. The Liskash had better discipline than the Mrem. With their mental powers, captains and commanders were better equipped to enforce it than the hairy creatures’ talonmasters. Logic, then, said the Liskash should usually have got the better of the fighting. So it seemed to Sassin; so, indeed, it seemed to every Liskash noble whose views he knew.

Somehow, logic and the Mrem had but a glancing acquaintance with each other. It wasn’t as if the Liskash couldn’t prevail against the two-legged vermin. They did win their share of victories. But their share always seemed smaller than it should have been, and no noble had ever figured out why.

Lose confidence and you weaken your magic, Sassin reminded himself again. This would be the worst time to do that. He cast his thoughts ahead, toward the enemy. Now they would all be in one place, all bunched together. Now he and his fighters could rid the world—or, at any rate, the world south of the New Water, which was world enough—of them once and for all.

And then there would be peace: peace in which the Liskash nobles could lay and hatch their plots against one another, as they were meant to do.

Sassin could hardly wait.

* * *

Now that the Clan of the Claw had entered lands the Liskash called their own, Enni Chennitats and her fellow priestesses Danced every morning at sunrise, before the Mrem began to travel. They Danced to thank Aedonniss for bringing the light for yet another day, to thank Assirra for letting mercy come into the world, and, more practically, to spy out traps and dangers that might lie ahead.

It was a tricky business. Just as the Liskash’s cheating hides helped conceal them out on the plain, so their cheating hearts often masked their sorcery. Knowing what was nothing and what was a deceptive nothing often took both native skill and long practice.

Often, but not always. On the third morning of the Dance, the priestesses had hardly begun to move before they swung in unison toward the southwest. Demm Etter spoke the name they all sensed: “The Scaly Ones!”

“They are on the move,” another priestess agreed.

“Straight towards us,” yet another said. No one tried to contradict her.

“I had better take the news to Rantan Taggah,” Enni Chennitats said.

“Yes, why don’t you do that?” Demm Etter sounded—amused? Enni Chennitats thought so. Her ears tingled and twitched. Was it so obvious she liked the talonmaster? To ask the question was the same as to answer it: evidently it was.

Rantan Taggah was talking with Grumm when Enni Chennitats found him. That made sense: the escaped slave was likely to know this territory better than any free Mrem did. But how far could the Clan of the Claw count on what he said he knew? The Dancers couldn’t sorcerously test every word that came out of his mouth. If Sassin had set more snares inside him than just the one, he might do a lot of harm.

Without preamble, Enni Chennitats pointed in the direction to which she and the other Dancers had been drawn. “The Liskash are coming. I don’t think they’re very far away,” she said.

When Grumm saw where she was pointing, he shuddered as if in the grip of some strong fever. “Sassin’s castle lies over there,” he said in his ruined voice.

“Sassin lies whether he’s in his castle or outside of it,” Rantan Taggah said, and laughed more than the joke deserved. Of their own accord, the claws on his hands came out. A moment later, they slid back into their sheaths once more. He went on, “But if he’s coming out, he’ll be easier to kill. Easier to get at a turtle after it takes off its shell.”

“Turtles don’t take them off,” Enni Chennitats said.

“Well, if they did,” Rantan Taggah said indulgently.

“What are you going to do about it?” Enni Chennitats demanded when he didn’t seem inclined to say anything more.

“Fight them—what else?” the talonmaster answered. “They aren’t on their way over to play catch-the-string with us. Or if they are, I’ll be surprised.”

“Are we ready?” Enni Chennitats asked.

“We’d better be. One way or the other, we’ll find out pretty soon, won’t we?” Rantan Taggah sounded infuriatingly cheerful. Enni Chennitats realized he wanted a fight with the Liskash. If anything would get the whole clan behind him, a battle against the ancient enemy ought to do it. After a moment, he added, “Are the priestesses ready to Dance away whatever magic Sassin hurls at us?”

“I hope so.” Enni Chennitats spread her hands, palms up. “You never know beforehand. What we can do, we will.”

“Well, you’d better go back and do it, then.” Rantan Taggah pointed in the same direction. The sky was lighter and brighter than it had been even a little while before. Enni Chennitats could see the smudge of dust low on the horizon there. “You’re right—we don’t have long to wait.”

She dipped her head and hurried away. She hadn’t gone far before bugles blared behind her. Warriors yowled and grabbed for their weapons and armor. Not all the krelprep were harnessed to the clan’s chariots. Males rushed to tend to that. Females not burdened with kits went off to tend to the herds. It wasn’t their proper trade, but they could do it for a little while. The more males they freed for fighting, the better.

“Another battle,” Demm Etter said when Enni Chennitats came back to the rest of the priestesses. It wasn’t another question.

“Another battle,” Enni Chennitats agreed. “The talonmaster wants us to stifle the Liskash sorcery—but you’ll already know that.”

“I’ve had news that surprised me less,” the senior priestess replied, which left Enni Chennitats nothing to say. Demm Etter gestured to her. “Go on—take your place in the Dance. If you think we face less danger than the males, you’re liable to be badly mistaken.”

“I serve the clan,” Enni Chennitats said. Whatever happened to her would happen to the other priestesses as well. Remembering that made the fight ahead seem a little less lonely. She wondered whether warriors felt the same way. They fought side by side, but one could be horribly maimed while the male next to him stayed safe.

Then Demm Etter raised her hand. They began to Dance, and Enni Chennitats’s worries fell away in the task at hand.

* * *

“Something tricky,” Grumm said. “Sassin will try something tricky. He won’t come straight at us. He can’t come straight at us. It’s not in him. He has to twist things, the way a snake has to coil to move.”

“Yes, yes.” Rantan Taggah heard the escaped slave with only half an ear. He was concentrating on his own dispositions, not Sassin’s. He dipped his head, satisfied he had things the way he wanted. Most important, he’d posted Zhanns Bostofa and the plump male’s retainers as far out of the way as he could. He didn’t want them holding any vital position against the Liskash.

He might have been doing Zhanns Bostofa an injustice. He knew that. But he couldn’t get Enni Chennitats’s image out of his mind. If there was a dark god, a god responsible for the Liskash, and if that god tried to reach out and get his foul fingers on a Mrem…Yes, the result would be much too much like Zhanns Bostofa, wouldn’t it?

If Zhanns Bostofa was looking at this same question, wouldn’t he think the imaginary dark god’s meddling would produce a Mrem too much like Rantan Taggah? The talonmaster bared his fangs. If Zhanns Bostofa thought anything like that, he proved himself no proper Mrem.

Didn’t he?

“What is it?” Grumm asked.

Rantan Taggah made his lips come down over his teeth once more. “Nothing,” he said, lying without hesitation. He set a hand on Grumm’s shoulder. “Aedonniss give you strength, friend. Your hour of revenge is here.”

“Revenge.” The other male tasted the word. “Well, Talonmaster, it would be better than nothing, but not enough. Nothing is enough. Nothing will give me back my other name.”

“I’m sorry,” Rantan Taggah said, which was true, and which did neither him nor Grumm the least bit of good. Weighted down with weapons, the scales of his bronze armor clattering on their leather backing, he hurried to his chariot.

His driver bounded with excitement. “We’ll kill them all!” Munkus Drap exclaimed. “We’ll kill them, and we’ll tan their hides, and we’ll dig up their eggs and have ourselves the biggest fry the world has ever seen!” Not a whisker’s width of doubt clouded his eager mind.

“That would be good,” Rantan Taggah said. And so it would, if it happened. But how long had Mrem and Liskash hated one another? Forever, or maybe a couple of days longer. Had either ever managed to destroy the other despite that perfect hatred? Rantan Taggah knew too well what the answer was.

Let me win, Aedonniss. Let me drive them back, he thought. Let them not hurt my clan too badly. We have far to go, and many more fights to make. We can’t be crippled right at the start.…Please. The sky god might hearken to him. Then again, Aedonniss might not. The god had his own purposes, and put them ahead of his creatures’.

Looking across the arid plain, Rantan Taggah watched the Liskash deploying from marching column to line of battle. The Scaly Ones all looked alike to him. That was almost as alien as their odor. People—people who really were people—had their differences. The only difference he’d ever been able to find among the Liskash was that some of them were stronger than others, and so caused more trouble.

If Sassin was like the other scaly nobles Rantan Taggah had had the displeasure of meeting, there would be no talonmasters’ duel, as there might well have been when two bands of Mrem collided. The Liskash were too cowardly to lead from the front.

He knew how the fight would go if it went the way Sassin wanted it. The Liskash would get within missile range and then pelt the Mrem with arrows and javelins and slingstones. Once they’d thrown their foes into disorder, they would swarm forward and dispose of the warriors their darts hadn’t disabled.

It could work. Plenty of Mrem forces had gone down to defeat at the Scaly Ones’ hands. But Rantan Taggah didn’t plan to play the game Sassin’s way. He’d told Enni Chennitats the Liskash hadn’t come up to play chase-the-string. He aimed to make them play regardless of whether that was what they had in mind.

“Let’s go,” he told his driver. He waved to the cars behind them. Other leaders would be signaling their groups at the same time. The chariot bounced forward, slowly at first but then faster as the krelprep leaned into their work. Rantan Taggah’s body automatically adjusted to every bump and jolt. Was this like travel on the sea? He didn’t know. Truth to tell, he didn’t really want to find out.

The Liskash went on forming their line. They didn’t advance any father, though, not with several squadrons of chariotry bearing down on them. Mrem seized the initiative whether they should have or not. The Liskash were more inclined to yield it and see what happened after that.

They were closer now, much closer. Their archers and slingers went to work to keep the chariots away from their line. They might do a little harm that way, but they wouldn’t do much. Rantan Taggah didn’t intend to slam into them head-on, anyhow. Just because they made war that way didn’t mean he had to.

He tapped Munkus Drap’s right shoulder, hard enough for the other male to feel it through his armor. The driver steered the chariot off to the right, around the Scaly Ones’ left flank. As often as not, a talonmaster worried only about what was in front of him. What would Sassin do with Mrem chariots rampaging in his rear?

What he would do was make it hard for them to get there. Not all of his fighters were on the front line. He had a good force of flank guards. A slung stone hissed malevolently past Rantan Taggah’s right ear. Another one hit a krelprep pulling a different chariot in the head. The beast crumpled, dead, perhaps, before it hit the ground. The chariot slewed sideways and almost turned turtle.

“Nothing’s going to be as easy as we wish it would be, is it?” Munkus Drap asked.

“When is it ever? Wishes are only dreams—they don’t stand up to the light of day,” Rantan Taggah said. He wished Sassin didn’t have the makings of a talonmaster who knew what he was doing. He’d known the Liskash noble was a strong sorcerer. But the two didn’t always go together. Not always, no, but they did here.

Sometimes Mrem, once they got into a position they fancied, would leap down from their cars and fight the Liskash at close quarters. Sword to sword, claw to claw, fang to fang, Rantan Taggah’s folk had the edge on the Scaly Ones. If they could manage that favorable position…

Rantan Taggah wished he hadn’t thought of Sassin’s wizardry a few moments earlier: one more wish that went a-glimmering. A blast of fear made him shake inside his shirt of bronze and leather. He almost pissed himself on the wickerwork floor, which would have been the ultimate indignity for a fastidious Mrem.

The pair of krelprep pulling his chariot felt it, too. They bugled out their alarm call. The one on the right tried to rear despite its harnessing. “No, curse you, you stupid thing!” Munkus Drap shouted. His voice shook, too. All the same, he kept the presence of mind to crack his whip above the krelprep’s back. That, the beast knew, was something to be afraid of in truth. The imaginary panic that filled its mind paled beside the genuine article.

And then, little by little, Rantan Taggah’s unreasoning fear also fell away. The first relief came from the Dancers. Sassin’s spell might have taken them by surprise, but not for long. The herd animals’ response also lent him strength, although more slowly. Krelprep and big-horned bundor and hamsticorns had to be able to fight off magic—so many Liskash hunters, both those with Mremlike wits and those without, used it to stun or terrify their prey.

Beasts that had hair and nursed their young were far less adept at making magic than the Scaly Ones. But they had the power to push it off, to keep their own wits unclouded. In the pushing, they also helped liberate Rantan Taggah and the rest of the Mrem warriors.

“Ha!” the talonmaster shouted. “Is that all the famous Liskash noble can do? If it is, now we make him pay for thinking he’s a crocodile when he’s nothing but a skittering little lizard.” The males in his squadron raised a cheer. By Aedonniss, it was wonderful to have his own spirit back!

He looked back and to his left to see how the other bands of charioteers were doing. He didn’t see any of them pounding away from the Liskash. That was the first and most important thing. By the noise and by the dust on the other flank, the Mrem there were already mixing it up with the Scaly Ones.

More dust rose, farther away than he would have expected. Maybe some of the hamsticorns had stampeded in spite of everything the females tending them could do. The big, shaggy beasts had come down from the north with the Mrem. They didn’t care for this hot weather, and they really didn’t care for the Liskash and their magics. Rantan Taggah couldn’t blame them. He was panting and sweating, and just now he too had almost been literally scared out of his mind.

The hamsticorns might want to lumber away. Rantan Taggah wanted to get even. “Let’s go get them,” he told the driver.

“Right you are,” Munkus Drap answered. Rantan Taggah didn’t know whether he was right or wrong. He hardly cared. The chariot was thundering toward the Liskash. The krelprep had their heads down. Anyone or anything that stood in the way of a charging krelprep would get eight holes in the front and hoofprints down the back.

Some of the flank guards carried spears. The Liskash could fight the way the Mrem did. They preferred not to, but sometimes they had to. If they thought they could hold off a chariot charge, they were out of their minds. Rantan Taggah readied his axe. Whatever the krelprep didn’t knock over, he would.

And then a shout echoed in his mind: “Rantan Taggah! It’s gone wrong!” It sounded like Enni Chennitats’s voice. It was her voice. He hadn’t known the Dancing could do that, but it was her, all right.

“What’s gone wrong?” he demanded, even as he chopped at one of Sassin’s scaly followers. Blood sprayed; the Liskash reek filled his nostrils. He chopped again, at another hissing horror. This one ducked away from the blow. One more stroke, and the chariot was through the enemy line. Somewhere up ahead, Sassin would be watching his host come to pieces. Rantan Taggah had never set eyes on his opponent. He had the feeling he would recognize him even so. And he knew he would kill him if he could.

Except Sassin wasn’t the only one discovering all his plans falling to pieces around him. “Everything!” Enni Chennitats said urgently. “There were more Liskash—there are more Liskash. They must have masked their dust—masked themselves—with strong magic, because we didn’t spy it. No one spied it—we were all minding the main swarm. We thought that was everything Sassin had. It seemed like enough.”

An arrow darted past Rantan Taggah, so close that the fletching brushed the fur on his arm. He wished it would have pierced him through the heart. Outthought by a Scaly One…! “Tell me the rest of it.” His voice was harsh. There would be a rest of it. And it wouldn’t be good.

“They hit Zhanns Bostofa’s males,” Enni Chennitats said. “Right when the burst of fear came, they hit them. And Zhanns Bostofa’s warriors…They ran away, Rantan Taggah. Everything’s going to the demons around here.”

He’d known it would be bad, yes. He hadn’t dreamt it would be that bad. If he and his warriors destroyed Sassin’s army—no, Sassin’s main army—while the Liskash scattered the females and kits and slaughtered the herdbeasts…Even if he did kill Sassin, the Liskash still won. Plenty of other nobles and uncounted hordes of ordinary Scaly Ones lived south of the New Water. The Clan of the Claw was alone—so alone!—here.

“Pull back,” he told Munkus Drap. He shouted to the rest of his squadron: “Pull back, curse it!”

“What? Why?” the driver asked in furious amazement.

The expression the talonmaster used to answer that wasn’t even remotely military, which was putting things mildly. Nevertheless, it got the idea across. “They can’t do that!” the junior male yowled.

“I didn’t think they could, either,” Rantan Taggah said bleakly. “Which only goes to show I’m not as smart as I thought I was, eh?” Yes, if everything you were fighting for went to ruin while you were winning your splendid victory, at what price did you buy it? Too high, too high.

A javelin scraped his ear as the driver extricated them from the crush. He wished his bronze helm didn’t have holes to let his ears stick out. Better that, Mrem had always judged, than to muffle such an important sense in battle. As the small wound stung and blood ran warm, he wondered how wise his folk were. But then, he had all too many reasons to wonder about the wisdom of his folk right then.

* * *

Enni Chennitats had never dreamt of such wild disorder. Mrem and Liskash and herdbeasts ran every which way, all making as much noise as they could. Thanks to the Dancers, she’d got through to Rantan Taggah. She knew that much, anyhow. She would have been happier had she known it would do any good.

Demm Etter handed her a javelin. The shaft was the wrong thickness to feel comfortable in her hand. Demm Etter inclined her head. “Yes, it’s a Liskash weapon. Better than no weapon at all.” The senior priestess held one of her own.

“What are we going to do? What can we do?” Enni Chennitats wailed.

“Kill them. Kill as many of them as we can. Try not to get killed ourselves—the clan needs us.” Demm Etter, as usual, was severely practical.

A Liskash wounded a bull hamsticorn with a javelin. The hamsticorn ran toward him, not away. Hamsticorns had no horns. Males rammed heads when they fought in the springtime. Their skulls were thicker than those of any Liskash. Thump! The Scaly One went flying. When he hit the ground again—what seemed half a bowshot away—he thrashed like a broken thing that would never be right again. Which, no doubt, he was.

Another Liskash pointed a skinny finger at Enni Chennitats. He seemed astonished when she didn’t fall over dead. She felt something in the bottom of her mind, but this Scaly One would never make a noble. And she had magic of her own. Hefting the javelin, she stalked toward the dismayed Scaly One.

He would never make a hero, either. He turned and ran. She flung the javelin at him, but missed. Then she trotted over and picked it up again. She was much too likely to need it again. If she happened to see Zhanns Bostofa, for instance, she would gladly let the air out of his bluster.

“Here they come,” Demm Etter said, pointing south.

Sure enough, the Mrem chariotry, or most of it, had shaken free of the enemy and was rolling back toward the rest of the clan. And there was Rantan Taggah, waving frantically as he tried to pull some kind of order out of battlefield madness. Enni Chennitats hadn’t tried to touch his mind since her desperate warning; the Dance had fallen into chaos along with everything else. Something inside her unknotted at finding the talonmaster still lived.

Some of the chariots brought warriors up to fight the Liskash who’d hit the column by surprise. Others, Rantan Taggah’s squadron among them, stayed behind to keep Sassin’s larger force from joining up with the rest. If that happened, everything was ruined.

Then again, everything might well be ruined anyhow.

* * *

So much for the gold leaf on the horns of Rantan Taggah’s krelprep. It was splashed—splattered—with blood, and parts of it were peeling loose. As swank so often did, it had proved more expensive than it was worth.

Rantan Taggah’s spear was gone, too. A Liskash had clutched it as it went into his scaly belly, and his dying grasp pulled it out of the talonmaster’s hands as the chariot went past. And he’d broken his axe’s handle. He’d shattered a Scaly One’s shield with the blow, but he still wished he could have it back. A sword was a weapon you used when you had nothing with a longer reach. Rantan Taggah didn’t, not any more. And so—the sword.

He slashed, forehand and backhand, at the Liskash crowding around him. So did the rest of the males in the chariots he’d ordered to stay behind and hold up the swarm of enemies. The Liskash were brave. Though the Mrem had better weapons and better armor for close combat, the Scaly Ones pressed forward as if they didn’t care whether they lived or died. For all Rantan Taggah knew, they didn’t.

Whether or not they valued their own lives, they wanted the Mrem dead. They slew the krelprep, which were not armored, so their foes couldn’t move so fast. That helped them, but perhaps less than they’d hoped. What mattered to Rantan Taggah was keeping the Scaly Ones here from advancing on his vulnerable females and animals. If he had to sell his own life and those of the rest of this rear guard to accomplish that, he would, and he wouldn’t count the cost afterwards. That he might not be in any position to count the cost after the fighting ended was something upon which he carefully did not dwell.

After his krelprep went down, he nodded to Munkus Drap. “It won’t be pretty from here on out, but it’s what we’ve got to do.”

“Oh, yes.” The driver sounded ready. Why not? He carried the big shield. Its leather facing was dented from slingstones. Arrows and the broken shafts of javelins pincushioned it. Munkus Drap had broken the javelins off himself—they made the shield too clumsy to handle.

He had a sword, too. He and Rantan Taggah leaped down from the stalled chariot together. A Liskash ran at Rantan Taggah from the left. The foe was on him before he could slash with his sword. He slashed with his free hand instead. Hissing in anguish, the Scaly One reeled away, clutching at his face. A brief yielding softness under Rantan Taggah’s talons told him he’d torn out an eye.

“Claws!” he roared. “Claws for the Clan of the Claw!”

The other Mrem raised a cheer. As long as the Liskash couldn’t drag them off their feet, their armor and weapons let them take on numbers far greater than their own. Despite courage, the Liskash began to realize they were feeding themselves into a grinder. Their push forward faltered. Even missile attacks flagged. Rantan Taggah wondered why till he realized the Liskash had to be running short of javelins and arrows.

The ferocious warrior called Ramm Passk’t leaped on a Scaly One who thought he could fight like a Mrem. The Liskash had a spear, Ramm Passk’t only the weapons Aedonniss gave him at birth. That turned out not to matter for long—only until the Scaly One hesitantly thrust the first time. Ramm Passk’t knocked the shaft aside and sprang on him. He tore out the Liskash’s throat with his fangs, then sprang to his feet with his muzzle all bloody. He roared out something in the Scaly Ones’ language.

“What does that mean?” Munkus Drap asked.

Rantan Taggah translated for him: “ ‘Who’s next?’ ”

Ramm Passk’t, gore dripping from his chin, made a spectacle to give pause to the hardiest of the Scaly Ones. All at once, they stopped coming forward against the Mrem. Standing in their place, Rantan Taggah would have been none too eager himself. Ramm Passk’t made the very embodiment of ferocity.

“Let’s draw back,” Rantan Taggah called to his surviving warriors. “If they come after us, we’ll charge them and make them stop. But I think they may let us go.”

“Bring them on!” Ramm Passk’t shouted. He gave the Liskash his challenge once more. No one stepped out of their line to answer it.

Step by weary, painful step, Rantan Taggah and his comrades fell back. He was amazed how far across the sky the sun had traveled. Hadn’t the battle started just a few breaths ago? His exhaustion argued against it. So did the clan’s losses. They’d be a long time replacing chariots. Too many warriors they could never replace.

But they were intact, or near enough. They could fight again. They could go on. And maybe they would be able to serve Sassin as he’d served them, only worse.

* * *

Sassin was not literally a cold-blooded creature, even if the Mrem sometimes called the Liskash sons of serpents. All the same, he was, and could afford to be, a more cold-blooded talonmaster than any Mrem. His fighters were not friends and comrades; by the nature of things, they were only subjects. And, by the nature of things, expending subjects was easier than sending friends and comrades out to die on your behalf.

All the same, the dunes and drifts of dead and dying Liskash around the chariots the hairy vermin had abandoned left him dismayed. As he could stop up his earholes and block most sound but not all of it, so his mind could deflect most but not all the agony the wounded projected.

He glanced toward the west. Maybe it was just as well the sun was setting. Were the day longer, the monstrous Mrem might have murdered most of his males. He’d hoped to crush them absolutely, but not everything worked the way you hoped it would. Everyone, even Liskash nobles, got too many unpleasant tastes of that lesson as the years spun by.

Lorssett came up to him. The lesser male would have done better putting on greaves; he had a wounded leg, and clutched a javelin to steady his step. “I did not think you would be rash enough to go where there was fighting,” Sassin remarked acidly.

“I did not go to it. It came to me,” his aide answered. “I hope this heals. I would not care to limp for the rest of my days.”

“I believe you.” Sassin could feel his pain, too, however much he wished he couldn’t.

Lorssett pointed toward the northeast, away from the sinking sun. “Will you send our fighters after them, to finish them off once and for all while they are weak and off balance?” He swayed in spite of his makeshift staff; he was more than a little off balance himself.

That was certainly how Sassin thought of him at this moment. “If I throw any more fighters at them now, I may have none left by this time tomorrow.”

“You will still have some, lord,” Lorssett said. “And the Mrem will be gone—gone! Is that not what you want?”

It was, of course—but, then again, it wasn’t. “If I have no fighters, what will ward me and my domain from the rest of the Liskash nobles?” Sassin said. “Not all my enemies are hairy beasts. Some are scaly beasts instead.”

“You have the magic to make them keep their distance,” Lorssett declared.

“They also have magic—and they would have more fighters than I do,” Sassin said. “Far more fighters, in fact. I have done enough here, I tell you.” Lorssett only let out a weary, resigned sigh. Angrily, Sassin snapped, “Speak. Come on—out with your worthless thought.”

Lorssett did not want to release it, but Sassin’s power pulled it from him: “You may know how to win a victory, lord, but, having won it, you do not know what to do with it.”

“No? One of the things I can do is make those who doubt me sorry,” Sassin replied in a deadly voice. Lorssett’s sigh turned to a tormented hiss. Sassin could make pain worse, much worse. And if the Liskash noble felt a little of that himself, he paid the price without complaint.

* * *

Night. Defeat. Disappointment. Anger. Anguish. Rantan Taggah had all he could do to make sure the Mrem posted enough sentries out far enough to give some sort of warning if the Scaly Ones tried to attack under cover of darkness.

That wasn’t the usual Liskash way. Night was friendlier to the Mrem, whose eyes adjusted to it better. But Rantan Taggah took nothing for granted now, not when Sassin had just beaten him.

He got his wounds salved and bandaged. Nothing seemed bad, or likely to fester. He was luckier than quite a few warriors. All the same, the sting from cuts and ache from bruises left his temper even shorter than it would have been otherwise.

All that meant he went after Zhanns Bostofa as if he were stalking a wild bundor. The only difference was, he would have gone after a wild bundor with more respect than he felt for the plump male. When the talonmaster had trouble finding him, he hoped the Liskash had killed him. That, at least, would have left the other male with some scraps of his honor intact.

But no. There stood Zhanns Bostofa, not far from a fire, with fewer wounds than Rantan Taggah bore himself. The black-and-white male flinched when Rantan Taggah came up to him, but didn’t try to flee. He might have understood how hopeless that was. Seeming to shrink in on himself, he said, “Do what you will to me. You would anyhow.”

“Why shouldn’t I tear your worthless carcass to bloody rags and scatter them around the camp to warn the others?” Rantan Taggah snarled. “You broke. You ran. You came as near as that”—he slashed his claws through the air, a whisker’s breadth in front of Zhanns Bostofa’s nose—“to dooming the whole clan. Was that what you had in mind? Would it have made you happy?”

“No,” Zhanns Bostofa said. “I can’t stand you—as if that’s any secret. But I’m loyal to the clan.”

In a way, the talonmaster believed him. A Mrem might betray his clan to another. He would have his reasons for that, whether they smelled good or bad to an outsider. But, in all the tale of years since the beginning, had any Mrem, no matter how wicked, ever chosen the Liskash over his own kind? Rantan Taggah couldn’t make himself believe it.

“Are you?” he challenged, furious still. “You pick odd ways to show it.”

“Maybe I do.” Zhanns Bostofa hung his head. “The fear struck—and I ran. I couldn’t help myself. None of us could help ourselves. It was…It was Liskash magic. I see that now. I didn’t then. The only thing I could think of then was getting away to somewhere safe as fast as I could.”

“What about later?” Rantan Taggah said. “Even the Dancers picked up javelins and threw them at the Scaly Ones. How about you? Were you hiding under the blankets in a wagon?”

“I—I came out,” Zhanns Bostofa said. Rantan Taggah’s sneer proved even shrewder than he’d guessed. The plump male held out his arm to show off a cut. “I did fight. By Aedonnis, I did! That’s how I got this.”

“A hero,” Rantan Taggah gibed. “Why don’t you go brag to Ramm Passk’t? I’m sure he’d be impressed, too. All he did was slaughter a spear-carrying Scaly One with his teeth and claws.”

“Curse it, you posted my followers and me where you did because you didn’t think we’d fight so well. Why are you so surprised when we didn’t rip the Liskash to pieces?”

That had enough teeth to bring Rantan Taggah up short for a moment. “If you could fight the way you talk, you would be the greatest talonmaster this clan has ever known,” he said wearily. “But you’ll fight the next time—see if you don’t. I’ll put you where I can keep an eye on you. And if the Liskash don’t wound you from the front, I’ll make sure our warriors finish you from behind.”

“I suppose I’ve earned that,” Zhanns Bostofa said. “However you please. I won’t let the clan down.”

Rantan Taggah had to hope he meant even so much. Sassin had certainly known just where the Clan of the Claw’s weak point lay. Yet again, the talonmaster wished Enni Chennitats hadn’t made him think about the dark god, the Liskash god, who might or might not exist. That vision was liable to bother him for years. Only too easy to imagine that god reaching a scaly hand out toward the clan…and closing it on Zhanns Bostofa.

That thought sparked another. Of their own accord, his claws shot out. Seeing them, Zhanns Bostofa fell back half a step. He had to be wondering whether Rantan Taggah aimed to kill him on the spot, the way the mighty Ramm Passk’t had slain the Scaly One.

But Rantan Taggah had forgotten all about him. No, not quite: he was thinking of the plump male in a new and different way. “Maybe,” he said, much more to himself than to Zhanns Bostofa, “just maybe, mind you, I deserve to lead the clan in war after all. I can hope so, anyhow.”

“What do you mean?” Zhanns Bostofa asked.

And Rantan Taggah told him…some of what was in his mind, anyhow.

* * *

Enni Chennitats slept hardly at all through a night that seemed a thousand years long. The priestesses were the clan’s healers as well as Dancers. None of them got much sleep. Their talents and their knowledge were too much in demand. She cleaned and stitched and bandaged till she started to hate the stink of blood.

The hale males in the clan weren’t idle in the darkness, either. They butchered and skinned as many of the herdbeasts the Liskash had killed as they could. They wouldn’t be able to smoke or salt or sun-dry all the meat they cut up; some of the hides would go bad before they could be tanned. But the clan was doing what it could to survive and go on. And males and females and kits all stuffed themselves to the bursting point. Somehow, trouble seemed easier to face if you could meet it with a full belly.

Ahead of the sun, the brilliant star called Assirra’s Tear climbed into the sky. Sometimes it shone in the morning before sunrise, sometimes in the evening after sunset. It never strayed very far from Aedonniss’ sun. Before long, morning twilight turned black to gray in the east.

“Priestesses to the wagons,” Demm Etter called in tones that brooked no argument. “We have to rest. The clan will need us again—and all too soon.”

How Enni Chennitats wished she could quarrel with that! But when she opened her mouth to protest, what came out was an enormous yawn. Demm Etter had a way of being right.

Some of the teams drawing the wagons were makeshifts. Everything was going to be makeshift for a while. That was the least of Enni Chennitats’s worries. Off to the south, carrion birds and scavenging leatherwings glided down from the sky to squabble with four-legged prowlers over the feast on the battlefield. The Scaly Ones didn’t care what happened to their bodies once they were done with them; they were even less likely to care about Mrem corpses. They held the field, so there would be no proper rites for the dead. One more thing to grieve over, Enni Chennitats thought sorrowfully.

Rantan Taggah deployed his remaining chariots to the south of the wagons and herds. He might have been telling Sassin, Well, if you want to go on with the fight, we’re ready for you. He might have been, but he wasn’t. Another battle right then would have torn the Clan of the Claw to pieces.

The only consolation was that Sassin didn’t seem ready to start fighting again right away, either. The males who’d got back from the main battle bragged about how many Liskash they’d slain. For once, their brags must have held some truth.

Yawning again, Enni Chennitats climbed into a wagon and curled up into a ball. What if they need magic? What if they need us to Dance? she wondered. Sleep smote her before she found an answer.

* * *

Sassin was coldly furious. By any standards, he’d won a smashing victory over the furry vermin. They should have run back to their old grazing grounds or stayed where they were to try to recover from the thrashing he’d given them. Instead, they headed west, across his lands, as if they’d triumphed in the fighting.

Lorssett had been rude enough to suggest Sassin didn’t know what to do with a victory. Sassin hissed softly; he’d given his aide what he deserved for his presumption. But the Mrem, plainly, didn’t know what to do after a defeat.

Because they didn’t, Sassin would have to beat them all over again. He wondered whether Lorssett had been right even if rude. Doing it when the hairy, yowling pests were all topsy-turvy might have been easier than taking them on now that they’d pulled themselves together.

But, whether Lorssett had been right or not, Sassin knew he had been, too: even in triumph, his fighters had taken a fearful drubbing. His magic might have made them advance against the Mrem in spite of that. It might have, yes, but he’d also wearied himself yesterday. He needed time to recover his strength. And he always needed to look at his fellow Liskash nobles. As he’d told Lorssett, if they sensed weakness in him they would be quick to take advantage of it. Mercy was a Mrem notion, and, to a Liskash, an extraordinarily stupid one.

Getting axeheads up into the air to shadow the hairy vermin wasn’t easy. Self-centered as any Liskash, the flyers thought only of stuffing themselves with freshly dead meat. They weren’t interested in doing Sassin’s bidding.

He reached out toward the Mrem with a cautious mental probe. More often than not, that would have been blunted. Mrem didn’t have much magic, and needed cumbersome swarms of females to work what they did have, but he wasn’t up to using much himself at the moment. Nothing blocked his spying, though. The magic of the hairy pests was in as much disarray as the rest of their establishment after the battle.

Liskash faces were not made to show expressions. Sassin looked the same whether happy or furious. But if he could have smiled, he would have. There was the escaped slave, and there with him the male whose weakness his fighters had exploited. They were in an even more important place now than the one they’d held before.

What was wrong with the Mrem who led that band? Didn’t he understand how he’d come to grief yesterday? Did he think it was only happenstance that the Liskash fighters went in where the weak male was in charge? He’d fought the main battle well enough. More than well enough, Sassin thought. Had the main battle been the only string in his bow, it would have been a disaster.

Well, what did the Liskash say about the Mrem? That they had no sense of the larger struggle, that they could not see farther than the end of their snouts. Clichés became clichés because they boiled truths down to a handful of words. This one certainly seemed to.

Sassin paused. It seemed to, yes. But what if this Mrem commander was playing a deeper game, trying to lure him into a mistake? That was unlikely, but Sassin supposed it was possible.

He would watch. He would wait. When the time came, he would strike. And, this time, his strike would be altogether deadly. If he sensed trickery, he would change his plans to foil it. But he really didn’t think he would need to. These furry nuisances were fierce, yes. They wouldn’t have caused the Liskash so much trouble if they weren’t. But fierceness and cleverness were far removed from each other. A clever Mrem? The mere idea filled Sassin with cold amusement.

* * *

West. Rantan Taggah had known the Clan of the Claw would have a long journey. Till he began it, though, he hadn’t truly understood what that meant. How many more battles would they have to fight? Would anything be left of them by the time they got to where they were going?

If he was going to ask such questions, he should have asked them of Demm Etter. If she wasn’t the wisest of the Mrem in the Clan of the Claw, he had no idea who was. But the idea never crossed his mind. Instead, he waited for Enni Chennitats to come out of the wagon where she’d rested.

Her fur was rumpled, ungroomed. She yawned enormously, showing off her fangs. Her tongue and the roof of her mouth had dark gray patches on them. Rantan Taggah had never noticed that before. He thought they were charming.

He poured out his troubles to her. When he finished, she yawned again—not boredom but exhaustion. “We could go back,” she said. “We were doing…well enough where we were. We could go on…for a while.”

Her hesitations matched the ones that had made him set the Clan of the Claw in motion. “No,” he said. “They’d crush us in the end. It might not happen till after we were dead and gone, but it would happen.”

“I think so, too,” Enni Chennitats said. “That makes the trek our best chance.”

“But it isn’t very good, either,” Rantan Taggah said mournfully.

“Not very good, but still the best,” Enni Chennitats said. Hearing her say the same thing he believed made him feel better. There was no rational reason it should, but it did. She went on, “And if we give Sassin everything he deserves, some of the other Liskash nobles may think three times before they try to block our path. News travels fast among the Scaly Ones. They’ll know they can’t cross us without paying the price.”

“If,” the talonmaster echoed. “Everything we’re doing now, we’re building on a tower of ifs.”

“Not everything,” Enni Chennitats said. “Sassin will hit us again. Chances are, his fighters will strike at Zhanns Bostofa again. That’s why you’ve got Grumm traveling with Zhanns Bostofa’s warriors for now—just to make it more tempting. And I can touch your mind in the Dance. I’ve already proved that.”

“Well, yes.” Rantan Taggah remembered the intimacy of that touch, even if it had brought bad news. His blood heated. He willed himself to relax—no time for that now. No time for anything but the fight ahead. He forced a laugh. “You’re right. What else could we need?”

“Luck,” Enni Chennitats said seriously. “All the luck we can find, and a little more besides.”

“That’s what I said,” Rantan Taggah replied. “A tower of ifs.”

“It sounds better my way,” Enni Chennitats told him, and he didn’t feel like arguing with her.

* * *

Sassin methodically readied his new attack. This one must not fall short. If he’d pressed the last one…That would have been the same as admitting Lorssett was right. No self-respecting god could have done any such thing. Sassin was more than self-respecting: he was self-worshiping. That being so, he didn’t worry about what might have gone wrong. He did his best to make sure everything would go right this time.

He made sure his borders were protected, too. The other Liskash nobles wouldn’t thank him for delivering them from the trouble these Mrem could cause. As he’d told his steward, they would look at him with grim golden eyes, wondering whether he’d cost himself too dear in the deliverance. And, if they decided he had, they would fall on him and destroy him. Then, no doubt, they would quarrel among themselves over how to divide the spoil.

Yes, I was right all along, Sassin thought: the only conclusion a self-worshiping god could possibly reach.

The weak male and his followers still protected the wagons that housed the hairy females and kits. If the Mrem wanted to hand Sassin the game, he would take it. He made very sure they were not setting a trap. Spying axeheads—he’d got them flying for him again—and his own magic convinced him they weren’t.

Lorssett was still limping from his wound. Sassin thought about sorcerously boosting the pain the lesser Liskash felt once more. Not without regret, he decided against it. He needed the things Lorssett could do.

“We are well supplied?” Sassin asked. “Plenty of meat? Plenty of water? We have enough arrows and javelins?”

“Yes, lord,” Lorssett said. “All is in readiness, just as you have commanded.”

Idly, Sassin flicked a mental probe at his aide. Lorssett was not altogether without magic; he would have been much less useful if he were. But he couldn’t hope to shield himself from Sassin’s far greater power. And Sassin saw he wasn’t lying to please his lord, as aides had been known to do. Things were as ready as anyone could want.

“Come tomorrow, then, we will finish the Mrem,” Sassin said. “And, after that, the New Water will wall us off from them for a long time.” He wanted to say forever, but he didn’t. He knew better. Still, the new sea should keep the hairy pests away till after he was dead. That was as close to forever as would make no difference…not to him, anyhow.

“And we will take all that is theirs.” Lorssett understood what victory meant. “And we will have more slaves.” With a master set above him, he wanted as many slaves below him as he could get. They reminded him he wasn’t so futile a creature as he seemed when viewed from Sassin’s perspective. They did, at any rate, when he wasn’t face-to-face or mind-to-mind with his overlord.

“Just so. And I will eat their names.” Sassin looked forward to that. It was a strange sort of sorcerous pleasure he could not take from his own kind. For whatever reason, Liskash were less intimately connected to their names than were the Mrem. Sassin shrugged. He cared nothing for the whys and wherefores. He only recognized and took advantage of weakness. “When the sun grows hot, when the furry beasts start to sweat”—he packed the word with all the loathing it roused in him—“we will put an end to them.”

“As you say, lord, so shall it be,” Lorssett replied.

“Well, of course,” Sassin said complacently.

* * *

Mrem in chariots were faster than Liskash afoot. Scouts could keep an eye on Sassin’s army and bring word back to the Clan of the Claw with enough time left over for the clan to do something about it. When Enni Chennitats heard shouts of “They’re coming!” she knew what she had to do herself.

Had she forgotten, Demm Etter would have set her straight. “Take your places!” the senior priestess called to the Dancers. “All of you, take your places. Hurry, now! No time to waste—and we have to do it right.”

Enni Chennitats’s place was at the center of one ring of Dancers. She wouldn’t be doing much moving herself, not this time. That felt odd: more than a little unnatural. She would serve as the focus of the other Dancers’ exertions.

Grumm loped over from Zhanns Bostofa’s detachment to stand at the center of another circle, not far from her own. He still had the unhappy, hunched-over stance that had characterized him ever since he made his way back to the Clan of the Claw. Even better than the Dancers, he understood what a desperate gamble they were undertaking. But he did stand there, no matter how miserable he seemed. He too was a focus. From him, though, the Dancers in his circle would take. In a way, that seemed dreadfully unfair to Enni Chennitats. Sassin had already robbed him of so much.

They hoped a little more taking would redeem it all. They hoped, yes, but no one could be sure ahead of time. The only way to find out was to try. And so Grumm…stood there.

A male—one of the warriors who followed Zhanns Bostofa—came hotfooting it back to the Dancers. “You’d better start, if you’re going to do it,” he panted. “Looks like all the Scaly Ones in the world coming down on us.”

“I thank you, Mm Kafftee,” Demm Etter answered calmly. She stood between the two circles. At her gesture, the Dancers surrounding Grumm began to spin sunwise. Those around Enni Chennitats Danced deasil. Demm Etter moved in a rhythm of her own, somehow linking the opposed Dances.

In most Dances, Enni Chennitats would have been so busy concentrating, letting energy flow through her, that she would have paid only scant attention to what was going on around the priestesses. But now she heard the yowls and hisses and crashes and clatters of battle not nearly far enough away. Zhanns Bostofa and his warriors were fighting like males possessed, eager above all else to make up for their earlier failure. The Liskash cared nothing for their eagerness. All the Scaly Ones wanted was to kill.

Enni Chennitats formed Rantan Taggah’s image in her mind, as she’d done when the last battle unexpectedly fell to pieces. “Are you there?” she called. “Can you hear me?”

“I hear you, Enni Chennitats.” The priestess was assuredly hearing the talonmaster with her mind, not her ears. Even so, it was his voice, without the tiniest fragment of doubt. Its very familiarity warmed her. So did his usual directness: “Now—where is the stinking lizard’s get?”

“I don’t know yet. I haven’t heard anything from Grumm.” Heard, again, wasn’t quite the right word, but it was the best one she had. The other circle was trying to get knowledge, direction, out of the escaped slave and give it to her so she could pass it on to Rantan Taggah. Whether they could…

Grumm was what he was—lost and damned, in essence—because Sassin had eaten his surname. But what kept him what he was was the Liskash’s possession and retention of that surname. The link between them remained. Up till now, that had worked altogether to Sassin’s advantage. Still, a rope was a rope. You could tug on it from either end.

So the Dancers hoped. So they prayed. If Assirra was kind, she would hearken to them. Otherwise, the only Mrem left on this side of the New Water would be a few scattered halfname slaves like Grumm. Better to die cleanly.

Enni Chennitats cocked her ears toward Grumm. That couldn’t possibly help, but she did it anyway. She didn’t see how it could hurt. Where was Sassin?

Her ears stayed aimed at Grumm, but her body shifted. She hardly realized she was doing it till she finished the move. “That way!” she exclaimed, as if Rantan Taggah stood beside her.

Which way?” he asked irritably, because he didn’t.

She explained. The mind-to-mind link held more than words alone; she made him feel the direction in which she was facing now. And she could gauge how far away Rantan Taggah was, and also, through Grumm, how far away Sassin was. Little by little, directions and distances converged.

* * *

Rantan Taggah and Ramm Passk’t stole from one bush, one scrubby tree, to the next. “You’d better know where we’re going,” Ramm Passk’t growled.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rantan Taggah answered. “If I don’t, we’ll both end up too dead to care.”

“You know how to make a fellow feel better, all right,” the other warrior said. Rantan Taggah held up a hand: Enni Chennitats was speaking inside his head, and he had trouble paying attention to her voice and to the one from the outside world—the real world? no, one seemed as real as the other—at the same time.

They’d sneaked around the left wing of the Liskash army. Sassin hadn’t set out so many flank guards this time—he realized he’d hurt the Mrem chariotry in the last fight. That a couple of warriors might come on foot? It was such a mad, smerp-brained scheme, it had never occurred to him.

A good thing, too, Rantan Taggah thought. A squadron of archers around the Liskash noble would have pincushioned his comrade and him before they got close enough to do what needed doing. How they would get back again…Rantan Taggah would worry about that later, if there was a later in which to worry about it.

“If Zhanns Bostofa doesn’t hold them out, I’ll do to him what I did to that bad-tasting Scaly One,” Ramm Passk’t said.

“Someone else will have taken care of it,” Rantan Taggah said. “I made sure of that, believe me.”

“Too bad,” the other warrior said. “I’ve always wanted his blood on my tongue.” His broad shoulders went up and down in a shrug. “Ah, well. It’s not like I’m the only one.”

“Oh, indeed. Everybody loves Zhanns Bostofa,” Rantan Taggah said. Ramm Passk’t laughed. The talonmaster couldn’t remember the last time he’d said anything so funny.

“Can you see him yet?” Enni Chennitats asked inside his mind. “You aren’t more than three or four bowshots away.”

Rantan Taggah peered ahead. “There’s a little knot of Scaly Ones off in the distance,” he reported. Three or four bowshots might not seem like much to the priestess, but at the moment it did to him. “I suppose Sassin is one of them.” He almost asked Enni Chennitats to get a picture of what the Liskash noble looked like from Grumm, but he didn’t see the point. In any Mrem’s eyes, a Scaly One was only a Scaly One.

“Yes. He has to be,” Enni Chennitats said. He’d better be, was what she had to mean.

“All right. We’ll do what we can,” the talonmaster said. He pointed at the little group of Liskash. “He’s one of them,” he told Ramm Passk’t.

“Which one?” But Ramm Passk’t shrugged again. “It doesn’t matter. If we kill them all, he won’t get away.”

“There you go,” Rantan Taggah said. Sometimes Ramm Passk’t’s ruthlessness could be unnerving even to another warrior.

They sneaked toward the Scaly Ones. Before long, they were down on their bellies. Rantan Taggah tried not to think about all the burrs and fleas and ticks his fur would pick up. He’d groom himself later. If he had to shave himself bare to get rid of everything, he would do that. Later hardly seemed real to him, anyhow. He would do his best to save the clan, and after that it would go on without him.

A bare thread of whisper from Ramm Passk’t: “Breeze is blowing from them to us. They won’t smell us coming. Aedonniss gave us one break.”

One of the Liskash stepped out ahead of the rest and pointed north with unmistakable anger—and with an unmistakable sense of command. Sassin had identified himself. Rantan Taggah wanted to thank him. Somehow, he doubted the Liskash noble would appreciate the courtesy.

The talonmaster and Ramm Passk’t stalked Sassin like a pair of somo going after a bundor—or maybe even a frillhorn. Somo reminded Mrem uneasily of themselves, though they were easily twice the size of Mrem. They could rise up on their hind legs, but commonly went on all fours. Even the largest Liskash killers thought twice about challenging them.

Closer. Closer still. The rank Liskash scent filled Rantan Taggah’s nostrils. It made him want to be stupid, to charge too soon so he could rend and tear and kill. By himself, he might have done just that. So might Ramm Passk’t, by himself. Stalking together forced hunt discipline on both of them.

“You’re almost there. So close!” Enni Chennitats said. Rantan Taggah froze the beginnings of a start. He was briefly surprised the Liskash couldn’t hear her, then remembered he wasn’t really hearing her himself.

Sassin was saying something. Rantan Taggah understood only bits and pieces of it: as much of the Scaly Ones’ language as any Mrem bothered—or had the stomach—to learn. Something about victory. Something about killing. Something about eating. What else would a Liskash go on about? One of the lesser Liskash turned his head. Rantan Taggah and Ramm Passk’t froze. After a few heartbeats that lasted an eternity, the Scaly One looked away.

Rantan Taggah breathed…just barely. One of Ramm Passk’t’s ears twitched…just barely. The two Mrem glanced towards each other. Ramm Passk’t moved first. It was silently understood that Sassin belonged to Rantan Taggah, and keeping the rest of the Liskash from thwarting him was the other warrior’s task. Only if something went wrong—as something might very well do—would Ramm Passk’t turn his fearsome attention on the chief Liskash noble. When none of Sassin’s hangers-on hissed an alarm, Rantan Taggah wormed closer, too.

He didn’t know how he decided to stop worming and charge. It seemed more beastlike instinct than reasoned choice. One instant, he was calculating talonmaster; the next, with seemingly no time passing between them, he was raging somo.

One of the lesser Liskash had the presence of mind to throw something at him. He never found out what it was; he only knew it missed. Sassin half-turned toward him. Even across lines of race and hatred, Rantan Taggah read the Liskash noble’s horrified astonishment.

The talonmaster felt a tug at his own spirit: magic, hurled his way. But, like the javelin or dagger or whatever it was, the magic missed. Or maybe it hit, but too late. For Rantan Taggah smashed into Sassin, knocked him to the ground, and tore at his belly with hind claws and at his throat with fangs and front talons.

Sassin had claws of his own, and tried to fight back. But one Mrem was commonly worth more than one Liskash in a claw-to-claw fight, and Rantan Taggah was a trained and practiced warrior while Sassin was not. The Liskash noble also tried throwing more magic at his unexpected assailant. Some other Scaly One might possibly have been able to form and hurl a spell in time to keep from getting his throat torn out. Again, Sassin was not. Rantan Taggah felt the charm try to bite him. Then Sassin lost consciousness and died, and the threat died with him.

Rantan Taggah sprang to his feet, ready to help Ramm Passk’t against the Liskash noble’s henchmales. But Ramm Passk’t needed help from no one. He’d already slaughtered two of them, and the rest were running every which way, as fast as they could go. They might not have been eager to stand and die for Sassin even if he still lived. With him down, all they cared about was getting away.

And, with his will no longer driving them, the ordinary Liskash javelineers and archers and slingers up ahead were suddenly much less eager to mix it up with the Mrem. Clouds of dust hid most of what was going on up there from Rantan Taggah’s eyes, but his ears were quick to catch the changed note from the fighting. The talonmaster hadn’t been sure that would happen, but he’d hoped.

Ramm Passk’t lifted his arm and licked at a bite one of the Liskash had given him. Then he said, “I don’t think we ought to stick around here—know what I mean? The Scaly Ones’ll be heading back from the fight up there pretty cursed quick, and they won’t be glad to see us.”

That would do for an understatement till a bigger one—say, one about the size of a frillhorn—came along. “Right,” Rantan Taggah said, not about to admit out loud that the formidable warrior could also be dangerous with words.

They trotted away. As they had before, they could circle around the Liskash army’s flank. Please, Assirra, Rantan Taggah thought. The prayer couldn’t hurt. He’d made this attack not expecting to come back from it. He hadn’t resigned himself to death, but he’d come close. Now that he’d succeeded against the odds, all at once he overwhelmingly wanted to go on living.

Enni Chennitats’s voice exulting in his mind gave him part of the reason why: “He’s dead! He’s dead! Grumm felt him die!”

“Now that you mention it, so did I,” Rantan Taggah answered. Nobody was going to be dryer than he was, not today.

* * *

Enni Chennitats eyed Grumm with a priestess’s curiosity. She sometimes thought that wasn’t so far removed from the curiosity of a kit poking a bug with a stick to see what it would do. Sometimes nothing happened. Sometimes you learned something interesting. Every once in a while, you picked the wrong bug and got stung—which was interesting, too, but not in a way any kit enjoyed.

She’d thought that, since Sassin held Grumm’s surname, it would be released when the Liskash noble perished. That would make Grumm his old self again…wouldn’t it?

Evidently not. The escaped slave had let out a fierce, triumphant yowl when Sassin died, almost as if he’d killed the Scaly One himself. But then he shrank in on himself again. He wasn’t quite so distressed as he had been before, but he wasn’t anything like a normal male Mrem, either.

She almost asked him why he wasn’t. Unlike a poked bug, he could answer. But, no matter how curious she was, she didn’t want to be cruel. She might not worry about a bug’s suffering, or a Liskash’s, but she did when it came to one of her own kind.

And so, instead, she told Demm Etter what she thought. The senior priestess inclined her head. “The name may not lie under Sassin’s tongue any more, but it is not in Grumm’s heart, either, where it belongs.”

“Where is it? Can we get it back?” Enni Chennitats asked.

“I cannot say,” Demm Etter answered. “Now and then, time shows us what we did not know before. It may here. Or”—she lowered her voice so Grumm couldn’t hear—“it may not. I think he has gained something by Sassin’s death. Now his surname is free to wander, free to find him again if it will, not trapped the way it was before. And I know—I am as certain as I have ever been about anything—how much the Clan of the Claw has gained from Sassin’s fall.”

“Aedonniss, yes!” Enni Chennitats exclaimed. “Did you see the Liskash run away after he died? What could be finer than that?”

“Their not attacking us to begin with,” Demm Etter said, which, once Enni Chennitats thought about it, was plainly true. Sighing, the senior priestess went on, “Too much to hope for, I suppose.”

“How many Liskash nobles’ lands will we have to pass through before we find our own kind again?” Enni Chennitats asked, disquieted.

“I don’t know. I don’t believe anyone knows, unless the Scaly Ones should,” Demm Etter said. “I do know this, though: if we win through, when we win through, Mremkind will sing our names and our deeds forevermore.”

Enni Chennitats wished she hadn’t put that if in there, even if she’d amended it right away. The consequences of failure…Well, were they any worse than the consequences of staying on the old grazing grounds? Rantan Taggah didn’t think so, and Enni Chennitats wasn’t inclined to doubt the talonmaster. On the contrary.

“Well, well,” Demm Etter said quietly. Enni Chennitats followed her gaze. Here came Zhanns Bostofa. He was limping. He had a bandage on his right leg and another on his left arm. But he carried himself with pride of a sort different from his usual arrogance.

He bowed, first to Demm Etter and then to Enni Chennitats. “My males and I, we did what was required of us,” he announced, as if he were summarizing a battle for the talonmaster. Rantan Taggah wasn’t here, though. The mental link between him and Enni Chennitats had broken when the Dance ended. She hoped he hadn’t come to grief after his great triumph.

Demm Etter received the report as gravely as he might have. “You did well,” she told Zhanns Bostofa. “You did well—this time—and you were seen to do well. If you and yours had failed, Rantan Taggah’s success would mean far less.”

Zhanns Bostofa took her qualification with more humility than he was in the habit of showing. “I thank you,” he answered. “What is best for the clan is what I want. I have said this again and again.”

“So you have,” Demm Etter said: acknowledgment rather than agreement, if Enni Chennitats was any judge. The plump male’s problem was that his view of what was best for the Clan of the Claw often revolved around what was best for him. This time, those two things truly had matched. Staying alive and keeping a swarm of Liskash from overrunning the wagons was in Zhanns Bostofa’s best interest as well as the clan’s. Too bad only a desperate emergency created the match.

“And now we can go on,” Zhanns Bostofa said grandly. “Since that is the talonmaster’s decision, I will not stand in the way.”

Until the next time you do, Enni Chennitats thought. The black-and-white male would soon forget his humility. He would go back to being himself. And he could no more help acting obstreperous than hamsticorns could help shedding their long pelts in the springtime.

One of these days, he would go too far. Or he might actually turn out to be right, in which case it would be hard to keep him from becoming the clan’s new talonmaster. And what would become of the Mrem then? Enni Chennitats didn’t want to think about that.

And she didn’t have to, because a sentry shouted that he saw Rantan Taggah and Ramm Passk’t coming back from the south. All the Mrem started yowling joyously at the top of their lungs. Enni Chennitats didn’t hold back. Killing a Liskash noble and getting away with it was worth celebrating any day of the month.

* * *

Rantan Taggah had never dreamt he might get tired of males making much of him. He’d really never dreamt he might get tired of females making much of him. Ramm Passk’t hadn’t got tired, except perhaps in the most literal and happy way. Rantan Taggah wouldn’t have been surprised if half of next year’s kits had sandy fur and uncommonly broad shoulders.

After Sassin’s death, the Liskash in what had been his domain stayed away from the Clan of the Claw. Maybe the unexpected triumph of the Mrem intimidated them, at least for the time being. Maybe they realized the clan would soon be gone, and then they wouldn’t have to worry about their hated enemies for a long time. And maybe they were so busy plotting among themselves about what would become of Sassin’s lands that a detail like the Mrem hardly seemed important. Chances were every one of those things held some truth.

Which held the most, Rantan Taggah neither knew nor cared. He rode at the head of the Clan of the Claw, in a chariot Zhanns Bostofa gave him to replace the one he’d lost in battle. He felt uneasy accepting the other male’s gift, which was putting it mildly, but saw no graceful way to refuse. Zhanns Bostofa tried to give him a team of krelprep, too. Those he did decline. He used krelprep from his own herds, and would train them up to the standard of the the pair that had died on the battlefield.

He checked the territory ahead with the same care he would have used to check under flat rocks for scorpions and centipedes before laying his blanket on the ground. The Scaly Ones had a sting worse than any from some crawling thing with too many legs.

The clan was nearing what Rantan Taggah thought to be the western edge of what had been Sassin’s land when Enni Chennitats walked up to him as the Mrem were setting up camp for the night. “Will all the other Liskash nobles fight us the way Sassin did?” she asked.

“By Aedonniss, I hope not!” Rantan Taggah burst out. “I hope they’ll leave us alone. If I’m by myself, without a bow or a sling, I’ll leave a somo alone unless it decides not to leave me alone. I hope the way we served Sassin will make the rest of the Scaly Ones think three times.”

“What if it doesn’t?” Enni Chennitats persisted.

“Then we keep fighting them and keep beating them till they get the idea,” the talonmaster said. “Or they beat us. In that case, you can stand beside Zhanns Bostofa and say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

“I don’t want to stand beside him. Just being near him makes my fur want to twitch,” Enni Chennitats said. She set a hand on his arm. “I’d rather stand beside you.”

Far and away the biggest reason Rantan Taggah hadn’t cut a swath like Ramm Passk’t’s through the clan’s females was that he’d hoped to hear something like that from her—or to work up the nerve to say something like that to her. He hadn’t. Sometimes—often—it was easier to risk his life than rejection from someone he cared about.

“Well,” he said, and then “Well” again. He tried once more: “Where do we go from here?” That was better, but not, he feared, very much.

“West, of course,” Enni Chennitats answered, which startled a laugh out of him. It wasn’t that she was wrong—she was right. “But wherever we go from now on, we go together.”

“Yes,” Rantan Taggah said, and he’d never felt so clever in all his life.

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