Senator Potem had gathered a handful of elders a ways from the Mother’s House, back on dry land. Among them was Senator Gevel Singrat, who had recently returned from East Gate. Brother Hesiud was with them, as was Orvi. Qara Fishmonger was relegated to the shallows nearby, standing almost knee deep in the water, where her father Messid and brother Toma were trying to convince her to stick her finger down her throat.
“It’s that, or let it come out the other end,” Messid insisted, not for the first time. Qara kept gagging and pulling her finger away, failing to vomit up the oily yellow rock with which she had managed to resolve the recent standoff. Toma had once seized her in a headlock and tried to do it himself, but she squirmed out before one of the elders shouted not to handle her too roughly. Neither Toma or Messid had touched her since.
“She didn’t come to burn down the Mother’s House,” said Senator Potem. “She had thought of it, but she held the torch out as a bluff, and drew the Fool’s Fire as a last resort.”
“Unless she had hoped to empty the House first,” Senator Singrat proposed. “She is Ro Kheer’s daughter, but she is not a monster. Perhaps killing the orphans was the last resort, but burning the House had been the plan all along.” They all stroked their beards at that, except Senator Potem and Enjnara Virsid, who had no beards.
Whatever it is,” said Brother Hesiud, “she is after the Mother’s Houses. That much is plain. We should warn the others.”
“We should tell East Gate to send a dispatch to Tsen Ikha as well,” said Senator Singrat. “The Khan must be told of this.
“If he does not already know,” said Brother Hesiud.
Enjnara Virsid shook her head at that. “Even Emperor Adamai sent out declarations of war before he stole our land and pushed us west, a thousand years ago” she countered.
“Ancient history is as good as legend,” Brother Hesiud shrugged. “Who knows what really happened then? And even if that’s so, Divine Commander Ro Kheer is not Emperor Adamai, and neither is Khan Tyamatas.”
“And neither is Behfa her father,” Virsid objected.
Senator Potem waved her hands. “We’re talking in circles. No matter what she intended, we must tell East Gate, and warn the other Houses as well. I will gather my escort and start for the capitol at sunrise. I was heading there soon anyway.”
Senator Singrat sighed deeply, rubbing his face. “I guess I can travel to Mu May.”
“Your influence would be wasted there,” Potem objected. “You should take Cabrid. They may not listen to some Shafinah bumpkin, but a senator they will heed.”
Sangrit groaned, but nodded assent. “Someone at least should take that girl to Mu May,” he added. “Perhaps the wizards can do something about the Fool’s Fire before she breaks wind and kills us all.”
“The wizards are in Gharqah, not Mu May,” said Brother Hesiud, “and it is too far away. The girl must be dealt with tonight. Benhan, your brother knows a little of magic, does he not?”
Benhan Ettisahn waggled his fingers. “He always makes a point to interrogate the wizards when they pass through selling their trinkets, every few years. I expect he injects more of his foolery into them than he absorbs any wisdom. My brother is a bit… touched.”
“We’ll send him to Gharqah then,” Senator Potem insisted. “His enthusiasm should get results. Come, come, this town has almost three-thousand people in it. Surely we can find seven we trust, to send to the other towns.”
Orvi trod over to the shallows. Qara had started pressing against her stomach and belching, much to the consternation of her father and brother. “Orvi!” she called merrily as he approached. “Punch me in the stomach!”
“No!” Messid cried.
“But he’s so much smaller than you or Toma,” Qara said. “Maybe if he punched me, I won’t explode. I’ll just barf out the rock.”
“Just try it,” Toma said. “but let me get a running start first.”
“Orvi!” Brother Hesiud was calling from several yards away. “Come. We must speak.”
“I’m trying to help my friend, Brother,” Orvi called back.
“Don’t shout, Orvi.”
“Forgive me, Brother, but aren’t you shouting too?”
Brother Hesiud blanched for a moment, before very apprehensively stepping closer to the river. “Yes. Well. If memory serves, tomorrow is your confirmation day.”
Orvi’s heart fell into his stomach. “Yes, Sir.”
“Did you have any luck today?”
“You walked the Big Bolt, if I’m not mistook. Looking for salamanders, were you?”
“We found one, buddy!” Qara interjected. “Almost caught it, too.”
“Qara!” Orvi nearly hissed. “Don’t call Brother Hesiud buddy!”
“Why?” she asked, as loud as ever. “Isn’t he your friend?”
“I mean, well I, I don’t…”
“It matters not,” Brother Hesiud interrupted. “Orvi, I want you to accompany me on a brief pilgrimage to Musmahwa, across the Plains of Inish Aiva. You will carry my things and prepare our meals at the end of each day.”
Orvi’s face lit up. “Like a squire!?”
“More or less.”
“Does that make you a paladin, Sir?”
Hesiud smiled despite himself. “It is true, Brothers of the House have been called knights in Satar’s service.”
“Do you have a sword?” Qara broke in.
“No. Liliq’s servants are devoutly pacifistic.”
“Oh…” Qara lost interest and swallowed some river water, presumably hoping to douse the Fool’s Fire in her belly. She burped some more.
Hesiud ignored her. “You have done the Mother’s House a great service today. But acts are no substitute for wisdom. You will contemplate the Mothers on our journey, and when we reach Musmahwa you will pray in the House of Quelizad for wisdom. When we return to Shafinah, we will discuss your confirmation.”
“Yes, Sir,” Orvi agreed. He was disappointed to delay confirmation, but the prospect of going on a holy pilgrimage with the elder of his House was electrifying. “I’ll start gathering our things.”
“My things,” Hesiud corrected. “You will need no worldly wealth for this pilgrimage.”
That only elated him further. “Yes, Sir.”
“Can I come too?”
Everyone stared at Qara.
“Qara,” said Toma, “I know Mom and Dad let you wander around wherever you want, in town, but Musmahwa is over two-hundred miles away.”
“But I’ll be with a holy brother the whole time!”
“Will you?” asked Hesiud.
Messid waved his hands. “Oh, no no, sweetheart, your mother would tear me apart if I let you go tearing off through the Plains Inish Aiva, especially if…” he glanced at the gathered elders speaking. “Especially if… dark times are coming.”
Orvi looked up at Hesiud. “Should we worry, Sir?”
“The Mothers will protect us.”
“They’ll protect me too then, won’t they?” Qara asked.
Toma snorted. “You swallowed an exploding rock. All the Mothers together couldn’t protect you from yourself, never mind the entire Zaljan army.”
Messid half-shrugged, half-nodded. “Your brother’s right, dear. I know you’re a bold girl, but you just don’t think ahead.”
“He does!” She pointed at Orvi. “He can think ahead for me. I’ll be with him the whole time.”
“Will you?” asked Orvi. The question was phrased with a little more enthusiasm than when Hesiud asked.
“Besides,” Messid continued as though she had not said anything, “you’re not going anywhere until we get that Fool’s Fire out of your belly.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, Qara drove her finger as far into her mouth as she could, gagging violently. Orvi winced and turned away. With a sound like a two-ton salamander giving birth, Qara retched her evening meal out into the river. Toma leapt bodily out onto dry land, while a queasy-faced Messid patted her back and kept her braid away from the sick. It was too dark to see clearly, and the closest torches were over by the elders, but Orvi heard a distinctive ‘plop’ of something substantial hitting the water.
“There!” Qara shouted between heaves. “It’s out! It’s out! Can I go now?”
“I don’t see it,” said Toma.
“Of course you don’t; you ran away!”
“I’m right here.”
“I know, I saw you leap out of the river like a bush rat.”
“I did not.”
“You looked like Harrin when dad was telling those hyena stories.”
“I did not!”
“Enough!” Brother Hesiud bellowed, throwing his palms out. He looked abashedly at Messid and dropped his arms. “Excuse me.”
“I’ll take her home,” said Messid. He turned to Orvi and bowed with his hands steepled. “It was nice to meet you, Orvi. I’m sorry Qara can’t go with you, but I wish you luck on your pilgrimage, and with your confirmation.”
Orvi bowed in return. “Thank you, Sir.”
“Sir!” Messid beamed at that. “Sir, he calls me. Would I had a single child with such respect as this! Sir!”
“Well,” Qara hedged dejectedly, “he’s never seen you in your linens, picking cow pie from your toes.”
Messid cleared his throat. “Good night, Brother Hesiud.”
Orvi gave Qara one last look before running back to the Mother’s House, his slippered feet slapping lightly on the Bridge. He stopped at the front door and drew a wooden coin from one of the bowls. He lifted it to his forehead and said, “We thank you,” before kissing it and placing it back in the basin. Then he ran upstairs to the third floor, to prepare for his pilgrimage.
Brother Hesiud nudged him awake before first light. “On our journey,” he said softly, “it will be your job to wake me before first light. See that you start sleeping softly.”
“I will, Sir,” said Orvi, though he had no idea how to make himself wake up earlier. He wondered briefly if the wizards of Gharqah had such a trick, but then he woke up more fully and remembered they were not going to Gharqah.
At the eastern end of the Bridge, two horses were saddled and hobbled to one of the stone pillars. “Gifts from Senator Potem,” Hesiud explained. Orvi sighed with relief. He was excited for his pilgrimage, but he also feared for the other Houses, and horses would mean getting there faster.
One was a huge plow horse of chestnut brown, with a shaggy white mane and more hair above its ankles. Orvi had seen him working the meager wheat fields that grew north of town. The other horse was small, yellow as the wheat of the fields, with a midnight black mane and a strange, knobby bone growth just above its eyes, as though a smooth grey stone had lodged into its forehead.
“That is called a Yaalkese unicorn,” Brother Hesiud explained. “It is small enough for you, extremely fast, and exceedingly valuable. Should anything happen to me, or we encounter the slightest danger, you are to abandon me on this horse and ride back here to the Mother’s House immediately. Do you understand?”
“Orvi. Are you not my pupil?”
“I am, Sir.”
“Did you understand my instructions?”
“I did, Sir.”
“And will you obey them?”
He hesitated, but still answered, “Yes, Sir.”
“Very good. Senator Potem tells me his name is Lightning.”
Orvi smiled as wide as the Big Bolt. “What’s his name?” he asked, pointing at the plow horse.
The Mother’s House was near the southeast end of town, and Musmahwa lay mostly east, so they were already leaving Shafinah behind them by the time the sun rose, scattering its gold into their eyes and all across the lush, green fields.
“Another day,” Hesiud said brightly. “We thank you, Satar.”
“We thank you,” Orvi echoed.
Not much later, a quartet of rainbow herons took flight in the chilled morning air, flying over one of the dozens of tiny patches of woodland that dotted the vast, river-split grasslands of Yena. Long-limbed, long-necked, long-beaked birds of peach-colored plumage and white around their eyes, the wings of the rainbow heron were a shower of blue, indigo, purple, gold, and even green. Many an amorous youth claimed that spying a rainbow heron would bring good fortune to declarations of love.
Brother Hesiud sighed contentedly. “The rainbow heron,” he said, as if that explained all. After the briefest of pauses, he said, “Orvi. Why is this a good sign?”
“Uhhh,” Orvi racked his thoughts, but young love seemed to have little enough to do with their current venture. “Because we… love Shafinah?”
“You disappoint me, boy,” he said lightly, seeming not all that disappointed. “Where are we going?”
“Musmahwa,” he answered at once. He thought to comment on their pace, considering the urgency of their journey, but then again they were ahorse and heading in a straight line. The enemy, if they were headed this way, were on foot and washed several miles downstream.
“Yes, Musmahwa. And Musmahwa is dedicated to whom?”
It was early, and Orvi was not greatly familiar with the other major settlements of Yena, not even East Gate the capitol, but he remembered the previous evening well enough. “Quelizad, Sir.”
“Quelizad, the Mother of…”
Orvi reached forward and rubbed the head of his mount, allowing his fingers to brush against the odd bone nub that protruded from his forehead. The horse seemed to like this, and so he did he.
“Oh. The Mother of…” he watched the brilliantly-plumed herons disappear to the north. “Birds?”
“Clever,” Hesiud nodded, “but not faithful. Quelizad is the Mother of Love. Her avatar is the rainbow heron. Her sign is the broken bow, representing the wings of the bird. She sends these beautiful creatures to guide our way.”
“But aren’t the herons flying north? Sir?”
Brother Hesiud sniffled. “Yes. Well. The Mothers send us signs, but it is up to mortal folk to walk their own paths.”
“But aren’t the horses walking for us? Sir?”
“That girl with the braid has had an effect on you, I see,” he answered darkly. The conversation ended, and Orvi contemplated the Mothers.
There were twenty-seven mothers recorded in the Rolls, though supposedly there were hundreds of lesser Mothers whose names were lost to time. Of the twenty-seven, the eight patron Mothers to whom the major settlements were dedicated, were the ones a novice monk was expected to know. Orvi was not an especially warlike child, but all young boys knew Ilwa Nuq, the Mother of Valor, and her avatar the black lion. Vequa, the Mother of Waves, was always easy to remember, and her Leviathan that kept the krakens of the Undersea from drowning all the fields of Yena, as they had in the Sear Age before the Yenai came south from the Cradle of Yaalk along the Great Bariad River.
The Big Bolt was the greatest vassal stream of the Great Bariad. Thousands of years ago, Satar the All-Mother struck the field with lightning, and the waters of the Great Bariad came out to guide her children south into Yena. In ancient Yenai, Orvi knew that “bariad” meant “thunderbolt,” and “Yenai” simply meant “the people.” This was supposedly a matter of some confusion amongst the Four Great Satari Kingdoms. The people of Yena called themselves the Yenai, and the three other nations called them this as well, but of course all four nations were descended from the ancient Yenai. So in some ceremonies it was not unusual to say “Yenai” instead of “the people,” which supposedly led to such peculiarities as the Archon of Solulan declaring that the Yenai of Zalja had a holy quest to conquer the Yenai of Yena. Such was the muddled nature of the Zaljan Crusade, which had ended when Orvi was only five.
His mind circled back to the eight great Mothers. East Gate was of course dedicated to Satar Herself, the Mother of Humanity and the All-Mother. He knew Hai Mitra, the Mother of Beasts, and Ciri, the Mother of Commerce that ruled the port town of Cabrid to the west. He thought that was all of them, but he was distracted thinking of the rainbow herons. Their wings were a gorgeous display of many colors, but he could not help noting that most of their feathers were the color of peaches. The color of Zalja. That did not seem like such a great omen to him. And they were flying not to Musmahwa, but father north, toward Garqah and the Great Savannah, where vicious hyenas tore the flesh from proud beasts and the souls from humble villagers. Orvi tried to tell himself they were just birds, that it did not mean anything.
As night approached, Brother Hesiud pointed out an especially small woodland in the distance. “We will camp there tonight,” he said.
“In the woods?” Orvi asked. “What if there’s a tiger’s nest?”
“A tiger? Orvi, there’s only a dozen trees there. We’ll be lucky to find a midge mouse making its home in there.”
The gilded sun was retreating behind them as they reached the trees, purpling the sky and laying a dark bluish cast upon the cedar trees, their pink seed-tips growing dark like blood in the gathering night.
They dismounted and led their horses into the little woods. A nest of midge mice scattered as they tromped onto the short, dark grass that was perpetually humbled by the trees towering above it. The waving grass that Orvi new most of his life often grew past his knees, and in some places was supposed to grow over a child’s head. The small patches of silverwave that dotted the grasslands could grow even higher. Orvi had spotted a few such patches during the day, always with a host of sweet bees buzzing over them. Silverwave grew around flower patches, choking and eventually killing them but rendering them sweeter and more attractive to the sweet bee in the meantime.
Brother Hesiud paid little mind to the grey midge mice as they ran from his feet, but he was careful to avoid stepping on their nest. “They will realize we are no threat and be back before the sunrise,” he assured Orvi. Orvi thought he heard a pronounced hiss.
“Is that a snake?” he asked.
“There are no snakes between the Big Bolt and the Lesser Bariad.”
Another hiss sounded. “Do the snakes know that?”
The monk cleared his throat and gestured toward the foot of a cedar. A small creature with orange fur had pounced upon a midge mouse and was batting it around. “A tail cat. Someone has lost their pet. Perhaps we can take her with us when the sun rises and find a home for her in Musmahwa.”
Orvi watched the cat in the deepening darkness. The midge mouse was wounded, dizzied and disarrayed, but still trying to flee as the tail cat hopped on it, battered it around some more, took it into her mouth, spat it out again. Her two tails, the source of the animal’s name, were waving and twisting about in joy. The woods were tiny, but Orvi still cast about looking for tigers.
“Orvi, you should be gathering stones for our fire.” Brother Hesiud sat down in the shortgrass and leaned his back against a large cedar.
“Sir. The cat’s eating that midge mouse.”
“Cats often eat mice.”
“But, Sir, the cat caught the mouse cause it ran from its nest.”
“Mice often run from their nests.”
“But, Sir…” Orvi felt he was saying something he ought not to.
“Speak your thought, Orvi.”
“Well. Sir. The midge mice wouldn’t’ve left their nest if not for us. So, aren’t we a threat to them after all?”
“Did you know the midge mice were there when you entered the wood?”
“Then what could you have done?”
Slept in the field, where the animals were more visible. Orvi could have said that. Instead he said, “The mouse is still dead.”
“Many more mice will die before the night is over. Perhaps in this very wood, tiny though it is, and all over the world. Perhaps one of these mice will flee into the grasslands, far north into Yaalk, and start a new nest there. Perhaps that mouse will mother many more mice, many generations, all born because we stepped near that nest. And those mice will one day die as well, because we stepped near that nest. Contemplate that. But gather stones while you contemplate.”
There were few enough stones to pick from the shortgrass. Orvi had a selection of stones at home that he had gathered over time from the river bed in anticipation of just such a pilgrimage. It was common for novices to take journeys to nearby towns and pray to the different Mothers, and Orvi had learned from Novice Pensaya about stones and fire pits. Unfortunately, Brother Hesiud had told Orvi to bring no worldly possessions with him. The resulting firepit was tiny and underwhelming. There was a flint and strike bar in the monk’s things, however, so Orvi set to work trying to summon some sparks.
“We could use some of that Fool’s Fire about now, eh, Brother?” he remarked casually, trying to mask his frustration with humor.
“There is likely some lesser fire within that flint,” said Hesiud. “The wizards call it rat magic, because it is so common. Its principle use is building fires, and anyone can use it for that purpose. There are many more things a proper wizard could do, but it is enough that we can spark a fire from it. Now contemplate the Mothers.”
Orvi thought of asking if there was a Mother of Fire, but kept that to himself.
The tail cat proved deadly to the midge mice, which were now on their own sort of pilgrimage, but perfectly docile to human folk. Any other dangers that might exist in the little wood were too small to trouble them. It felt like half an age before he finally got some of the tinder to catch, aided with liberal helpings of dry waving grass he had plucked from just outside the wood. It was fully dark by now, and the little fire cast huge shadows on the cedar trees, their red seed-tips flickering in the night. He was elated, proud and pleased, but soon enough the dancing shadows drove his joy away.
“Won’t moon cats be drawn to the fire?” Orvi asked. Or tigers, he thought.
“Moon cats fear fire,” Hesiud murmured, already drowsing against the tree trunk, “and we won’t find them this close to East Gate anyway. Contemplate the Mothers.”
Orvi tried, but he found himself continually contemplating the spaces between the trees, where the night seemed to stretch on forever. It had been a long dull day, but much ground was covered. They were in the far reaches of the Inish Aiva, with not a trace of settlements anywhere. The sounds were eerie and oppressive, but he could not figure them. He heard no bugs, the tail cat had stopped its hissing. It was a long time before he realized: he had never been away from the river before. What he heard was silence. That, and the monk’s gentle snores.
He looked at the horses. Podger the plow horse was leaning against the tree to which he was tied, presumably sleeping. Lightning had actually lied down at the tree’s trunk, by Podger’s hairy hooves. He looked asleep, but every few seconds he would chew the shortgrass in his mouth a single time. Perhaps he was sleep-eating. For some reason, that made Orvi think of Qara Fishmonger, and the yellow stone she had swallowed. He lied down and closed his eyes.
An instant later, his eyes flew open again. It was a while before he remembered where he was, and the shadows leaping across the trees nearly drove him to cry out. He rolled up to a sit and saw that the fire had grown smaller. He poked it with a nearby stick, as Novice Pensaya had instructed him. Nothing happened. There was snap within the fire, a twig breaking apart, and that was when he heard it.
Orvi dropped the stick half into the fire, cupped his ears in his hands, and looked around. The fire had blinded him to the night, and the gaps between the trees had become vast, black portals. He heard it again; a shuffling in the dark, just beyond the trees. Podger’s eyes flicked open. He threw his head and whickered, stamping his feet. Lightning soon woke, shuddered, and stood up. Podger whickered again.
“Shh!” Orvi was deafened by the horses, blinded by the fire, but he knew something was out there. He looked up to the trees and thought of climbing them, and they seemed to shudder in response, but moon cats were supposed to be able to climb trees. “Sir?” he said evenly, too scared to shout. He crept over to the horses, smoothly and quietly, and began to unhobble Lightning from the tree. “Sir?” he repeated.
Brother Hesiud mumbled something that sounded like ‘contemplate,’ and rolled over in his sleep. Another twig snapped in the fire.
Orvi took the reins for both Lightning and Podger and led them over to Brother Hesiud. “Brother?” he said, still fearing to shout. He nudged the monk with his foot. “Brother?”
Hesiud groaned. “Orvi. While I applaud your industry, and it is technically before sunrise, we still have a good three or four hours’ rest ahead of us. Go back to sleep.”
“There’s something out there, Sir.”
“Yes. Black and white antelope, spotted pards, waving deer, field cats, and perhaps our friends the midge mice.”
“No, Sir, there is some thing out there right now.”
“There are many things. Go back to sleep.”
He could see it! A dark shadow, brown or orange with flickers of white, the colors dancing in the darkness. He took a step forward, then another, peering through the natural portal the trees created. The dim figure flickered again. It was making a sound. Humming something, or perhaps growling. It almost sounded… It almost sounded like counting.
“Qara?” he said, still too fearful to shout. “Is that you?” The shape stepped through the trees and resolved into the light. But it was not Qara Fishmonger. It was a tiger.
The beast was enormous. His head was on level with Orvi’s, but easily twice the size. Fiery orange stripes played across black and white, and its open mouth revealed huge, sharp teeth, each one as deadly as the Zaljans’ swords. Its tail flicked about like the twins of the tail cat, which had clearly vanished by now. Orvi looked into the tiger’s deep, golden eyes, and saw no hunger, no anger nor fear, no emotion a person might express. Only purpose.
Orvi’s entire body stiffened. “Brother,” he said. “Brother. Brother. Brother, Brother, Brother…”
“Fish sake, boy!” Hesiud hollered, finally sitting up. “What is it? What matter of life and death demands that we…” He saw the matter, and promptly swallowed his indignation. He slowly got to his feet. “Orvi,” he said very evenly. “When I say so, I want you to get on your horse and ride back to Shafinah.”
“Do you remember my instructions?”
“But… Yes, Sir.”
“Good.” He was slowly moving forward, working to interpose himself between Orvi and the tiger. “I am going to count to three. When I say ‘three,’ you will leap onto Lightning and ride away. Ride whichever direction you must to get away, then turn west come morning and ride home. You understand?”
“Yes, Sir. What will—”
“Don’t worry about anything except getting away. Are you ready?”
He absolutely was not. “Yes, Sir.”
Orvi’s hands felt like they were pouring sweat. He gripped Lightning’s reigns as well as he could.
Brother Hesiud’s voice was quivering. He did not know the monk could be afraid. He wanted to stay. He wanted to stand between the tiger and Brother Hesiud. But he also knew a very big part of him wanted to leap onto the horse and ride away, and that Brother Hesiud’s instructions permitted him to do that. He was ashamed of that part of himself.
The seconds seemed to stretch into eternity. The tiger stared, indifferent to fear.
At long last, Orvi could hear Brother Hesiud drawing breath.
From up in the trees, a dark figure fell and collapsed on the tiger’s back. The great cat whirled about, swatting at its own back, and the figure was flung to the side, hammering into a cedar and shaking its blood-red seeds.
“Run! Now!” Brother Hesiud shouted.
Orvi ran around the firepit, putting it between the tiger and himself. The tiger was shaking its head, adjusting to the novel experience of having had a little girl leap onto its back. Orvi reached down and grabbed the stick he had used to prod the fire mere minutes ago. As he had prayed, much of it was now aflame. He took the brand and put himself between the tiger and the girl. “Are you okay?” he shouted, no longer afraid to do so.
“Oh, I’m dandy,” groaned Qara Fishmonger, “except I think my skull is back in Shafinah.”
“How did you get out here?”
“Run! Both of you! Now!” Brother Hesiud rushed to the fire, but could find no more convenient brands.
Orvi stared into the tiger’s eyes. Flames danced and writhed in gold, and something like apprehension sparked within the beast. It took a slow, fluid step forward. Orvi stepped back. “Qara, where’s your horse?”
“Just over there,” she groaned.
“Unhobble it. Now!” He glanced about. Podger and Lightning were both gone. If only he had not unhobbled them like a fool. If only he had leapt up into the saddle the instant he sensed danger. If only.
“Untie it! We need it to escape!”
There was silence.
“… Untie it?”
“Didn’t you tie your horse to a tree?”
The tiger growled and took another step forward. Suddenly, sparks and ash flew into its face, and it backed away swatting at its own nose. Brother Hesiud had kicked the fire at the beast. It was a temporary victory bought at great cost, for now sparks and embers were burning on the shortgrass, and if the Mothers willed it, the fire could spread for miles in any direction.
“Run!” Hesiud cried again desperately.
The tiger growled again. It crouched down, and ten thousand years of threat seemed to live in that crouch.
Orvi’s bowels had turned to water, and he could feel his teeth chattering against themselves. Even so, he took a step forward and jabbed the tiger in the face with his fiery brand.
The tiger roared, and Inish Aiva shook.
Orvi backed away and started feeling behind him. He eventually found Qara, then her hand. “We have to run, Qara. The horses are gone. Running’s our only chance.”
“I think a tiger can run faster than we can, Orvi.”
Brother Hesiud finally stepped up beside Orvi, steadily and smoothly, and eased the burning brand out of his hand. “Run. Both of you. Now.”
The flames on the woodland floor were starting to spread, but the tiger would not yet flee. Orvi made sure Qara was on her feet. “One. Two…”
And they were off, running easterly as quickly as they could. The flames were crackling behind them, lending a mild orange glow to their retreat. They heard another roar, answered by a shout from Brother Hesiud. Orvi’s vision blurred. He felt like half his body was trying to turn around and go back, but he told himself he had to get Qara somewhere safe. He told himself this, over and over, and it kept him running, even though he knew it was a lie.
In the already dying glow of Hesiud’s fire, they spied another dim shape in the night. “Not again!” Orvi groaned, but even as he started veering right, he saw the pale yellow coat of Lightning. “It’s the unicorn!”
“It’s a kind of horse. Just get on.”
The saddle was not made for two. Qara sat behind Orvi on the small horse’s back, clinging to him with surprising grip. Another roar echoed from behind them, and Orvi turned to look. The little forest was on fire.
“Orvi!” Qara shouted. “Let’s go!”
He kicked his heels into the horse, and they flew east, toward Musmahwa.