The GranMalo towered over them all, more than eight meters tall, and so close that Davin could smell the rotten remains of its past butchery, hear the wind of its nostrils, feel the darkness of this creature in his soul.
For a moment, everyone was transfixed—then one of the defenders made a terrible mistake. He turned and ran.
In a flash, the great lizard dipped its head, the huge jaws opening and closing over the man. There wasn’t even a scream; just the sickening crunch as powerful jaws snapped the body in two. The lower half fell, spurting blood and entrails in all directions.
Which seemed to energize the paralyzed defenders. Suddenly arrows flew, spears were thrust at the body, everyone finding something to wield. The head swung to and fro for an instant, as a diner examining all the delicacies before it.
For an instant more, Davin stood transfixed. Then the elongated snout, which had continued to swing left and right, fastened its four platter-sized eyes on Aliceia and Riala. Riala, beautiful Riala, even nearer than he, staring upward as innocently as a deer cornered by a ravenous cougar, mouth open in amazement and fear as it whispered its bloodlust. She was about to die. She who had shared his life since he took his first awkward steps, who had been his best and truest friend.
Davin swung up his bow in terror, as the great head stopped, centered on the women. He nearly broke his last arrow in setting it, and suddenly his task was clear. He could see the Eye, feel the Eye, and he could feel the arrow beneath his fingertips and the perfect arc it must travel, and he drew his bow and loosed it, and the other, yes, the other arrow went too, not with the perfect beauty of his but with a shuddering spring, like a dying animal’s last clawing. And his shot went deep, through its eye, into the brain, and he felt inside himself that it was dying. And at the last moment, as the GranMalo looked at him with its remaining eyes, for the first time a feeling of fear and wonder seemed to emanate from its core. It looked at him as nothing else ever had, the three good eyes widening in some sort of ghastly recognition. And then it died, falling backward with the sound of thunder, barely missing several of the General’s men in its precipitous drop. At almost the same moment, the HellholeHellport, now shrunken to less than the height of a man, closed with a shriek.
For a moment, there was a complete silence, as if time had halted, and the world ceased to spin. Then a chorus of gasps was followed by a resounding cheer from every living soul.
“Bayn!” the cry went up. “His arrow—I saw. Bayn killed the great beast!” It was one of the General’s men, who had met their guest. He threw his arms around Bayn, and those that had not known Bayn quickly gathered around, pounding his back and shoulders and cheering.
Bayn quickly halted the hubbub by mounting his horse. “Enough, my friends. We have wounded to see to, many hurt badly . . .”
His voice was interrupted by the sound of many hoof beats, as riders rounded the far bend and raced toward them. The General and the rest of the men were returning.
“We must immediately get the wounded to help,” Bayn said, almost to himself. As the General alighted from Lanze and joined him, he spoke quickly. “As you can see, the HellholeHellport you fought reappeared here—or perhaps it was another. But we have many hurt as well as a number of dead. I recommend we go to the Meeting house, as it must be close.”
The General nodded. He surveyed the string of wagons, the piles of malitos, the bodies strewn along the road, and the monstrous body flung back into the trees. “Deos, a GranMalo. How in our Lord’s name did you survive it?”
“Certainly by His grace alone, General Blackthorn. Now let us hurry to load the wounded and travel with all haste. If there are enough healers at the Iglesa, perhaps the survivors may all remain alive.”
The General turned and began to shout orders. Buoyed both by his return, the miraculous death of the GranMalo, and the closing of the HellholeHellport, those remaining able-bodied men sprang into action.
Ignored, Davin replaced his bow in the saddle sleeve and mounted Charger, determined to stay close to Peto as the wagons began to move out. Ignored, that is, by all but Bayn, who stared at him intensely until Davin rode away . . .
“Demos gracies a Deos e Maria, demos gracies.”
Thanks be to God and to his Daughter, thanks.
Words murmured among the crowd in its different tongues, Plains Sudo, Old Sudo, even Nortes, in a frenzy of thankfulness and tears. Rejoicing at the survival of some lives, mourning the loss of others. There were tears of thanksgiving or grief, and in some cases a combination of both. Such had been the case with the Blackthorn wagons—five of the Aldronne’s ranche hands were dead, and several more wounded.
Arrival at Iglesa had brought confusion and chaos. The priests immediately dispatched a frantic message to Cliff entreating help from all available healers. Worshippers arriving from the city were marshaled to convert the sanctuary to a hospital as wounded were unloaded from wagons and set on pallets to be tended. Grief-stricken relatives were consoled as the dead were collected and laid out for blessing and final rites. Davin had assisted in carrying in both wounded and dead and in tending the wounded before healers were available.
By first eleven, nearly a dozen healers were at work, including Gifted priests from some of the Iglesas in Cliff and a healer with a Talent from the University. All the wounded who had survived transit to the church were kept alive, even the most seriously hurt. But seventeen people, including five children, were dead. The bodies were laid in neat rows near the altar, clothing and blankets laid over them to subdue the horror of their deaths. Most of the mothers who had lost children were at their sides, praying and shedding copious tears.
The healer Davin had been assisting, a priest from the city, turned and smiled at him. “My gratitude for your capable help, young man. Please take the time to rest a moment, as this was the last of those that required help.” He stood up and began to walk toward the front of the Iglesa, no doubt to confer with his fellow healers. For a moment, Davin stared down at the patient, a young ranche hand from a spread near Aldronne. His right leg had been nearly severed, but the healer had saved it. He would probably always walk with a limp, but he would walk. Others, several others in fact, would never walk again, having lost one or both legs.
The young man, scarcely older than Davin, was in a deep coma, induced by the healer. Davin knew that the deep sleep would allow him to recover from the considerable shock of a major healing, so Davin could do nothing more. Standing, he moved toward one of the benches near the rear of the Meeting House.
Davin marveled that they were still alive, and he felt sure that had not Bayn been in their company, both to fight and marshal the defense, they would all have died. When the GranMalo appeared . . . No, he would think on that later. For now, he pondered his survival when so many others had died, trying to remember those that now lay in the last sleep as they had been when they lived. It was the best way he could mourn the dead: five of Aldronne’s ranche hands, seven neighbors and friends, among them Peto, and five children, including the two that Davin had seen on their family wagon.
Just as Davin sought to settle quietly into a pew, a disturbance directly in front of him caught his attention. A pretty girl, face distraught, was standing nose-to-nose with one of the young priests of the Iglesa.
“No! Stay away from me! I want nothing from you, least of all your false consolations and mealy-mouthed blessing!” Turning she fled out of the pew and up the aisle past Davin. Near the rear of the sanctuary, her father tried to intercept her, but she threw off his arms and pushed her way out of the Iglesa as any number of mourners turned to watch her leave the building.
Davin couldn’t say what impelled him to follow, but he did. Near the back of the aisle, he encountered Aduyemo Mataro, whom he knew well. It dawned on Davin that the girl must be Donaia, his daughter and Peto’s betrothed. Catching his eye, Mataro shrugged, face red.
“She is very upset. She won’t talk to anyone. With her mother long dead, there is no woman she can talk to.”
Davin nodded. Donaia had only brothers, he knew. No female with whom to commiserate. “Let me find Meara,” he suggested. “Perhaps she can help.”
Mataro nodded, running his hands through sparse black hair. He was relatively short, not much taller than Davin, and he looked rattled and exhausted, as though he had fought malitos as well—and perhaps the effort to comfort a young woman who had lost her betrothed was equal in its effort. Davin went in search of Meara.
He spied her in the corner of the church, her arms around their neighbor, who had lost her two daughters. No disturbing that scene; Davin turned and looked for Aliceia, who was similarly involved.
What to do? Frustrated, Davin moved to the church door and outside—perhaps there was something he could do or say. Outside the Iglesa door, which faced East by tradition, the wind was icy, and Davin realized his coat was still inside. He almost turned back to the warmth and comfort of the sanctuary, not just due to the cold, but because encounters with young women were almost always embarrassing and awkward for him. Finally, he persisted, turning to search for Donaia. Peto had been his best friend; the least he could do was to offer his sympathy and friendship.
Donaia was not in sight. She would be around the corner, in the lee of the wind. As he started to move, Davin could see the tops of the watchtowers at Fort Grenoble, half a kilometer or so east and slightly north. The Iglesa was a plain, rugged, rectangular building, with thick walls, simple furnishings of pine and black walnut, and only a few stained-glass windows. It was built near the Fort, the two sharing a common stockade fence.
The day was darkening even more, the clouds a creamy color foreboding snow. A heavy fall was imminent, and Davin only hoped that they could return home before it began.
Rounding the corner of the Iglesa, Davin found the young woman near the church wall, standing awkwardly in the afternoon chill, her shawl tight around her shoulders, staring off into the western sky. Her fingers grasped the fringed edges of her wrap, tugging spasmodically at the threads. She had not pulled on her long-coat, but simply draped it over her arm, despite the bone-chilling cold. It was as though her anger alone kept her warm.
Not intending to startle her, Davin moved into her field of vision slowly, parallel to her and to her left, although she still did not appear aware of him. Having spent most of her anger on the unfortunate young priest, she brooded silently, gazing toward the west, where the plain below the escarpment was shrouded in low clouds.
“Hello, Davin,” she said, her voice subdued. He was surprised that she remembered him. He had been gone nearly two years, and in that time, Donaia had changed dramatically from a pretty girl to a beautiful young woman.
Her eyes now reflected only a resigned bitterness. “I am sorry I could not save Peto,” he said quietly. “Blame me, not that young priest. Peto died saving my life.” The words rolled off his tongue like acid—he wondered why even an act of comfort had to be an admission of his own shortcoming.
After a moment, she nodded. “I know. That foolish young priest, who has probably never seen more than a painting of a malito, had only the fault to approach me in my anger. I wasn’t even angry at him. Partly, I was angry at our Lord, which I suppose is the height of conceit. Being angry at God, I mean. But, mainly, I was angry at myself. Angry for my stupid hope, angry at my refusal to acknowledge that the future was set, and that Peto’s fate—and my own—were woven far too snugly for any effort on our part to change it. And angry at myself for thinking about you instead of Peto.”
Her lips tightened. “It was useless and cruel to yell, but I did. Regardless, it is done. I am not going back in there.”
There was nothing Davin could say—indeed, he hardly understood much of what she had just told him, especially about himself. He felt foolish, not knowing what to say next.
Finally, Donaia turned to look at him. “You would have saved him if you could. You, at least, were there. They say you were one of those with Peto who defended the women and children.”
Davin nodded. “Peto fought well, nearly as well as Bayn Grenoble. Bayn himself said that if he had not stumbled . . . As for me, I am not a fighter like my father.”
His comment finally wiped the sadness from her face. Her brow wrinkled in disapproval, her mouth twisted like Aliceia’s when she scolded him. “You should not think such of yourself. Peto considered you a great friend. He always said how you cared about your friends, how you were always willing to help them. And that you never seemed to want the kind of power or influence your father has, or your brother. You have always seemed like the townsfolk to me, not part of this.” She waved scornfully at the Meeting house, and he knew her antipathy was for the landowner elite that supported the church, not the building.
Davin digested that. “You know, I rarely felt when I was younger that I merited any sort of regard at all. But Peto was always special. I’m glad he thought I was a good friend.”
A small smile curved her lips. Bittersweet, but a smile, nonetheless. Then it faded and she looked back to the horizon.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Not just to be by myself, but to get as far away as I can from those mealy-mouthed priests, with their pretensions of holiness and their foolish ways.”
Davin’s brow knitted as her tirade proceeded. Away? Other than Cliff, there was not another village for more than twenty kilometers. Besides, Deos only knew how many malitos, though by now surely weakened, still roamed the escarpment.
All he could think to ask was “When?”
“Now. Tonight. My saddle-bags have food for days; I rode my horse to meeting instead of coming in the family coach. We usually had lunch, Peto and I,” her voice caught. “Usually at the home of one of our friends.” She swallowed once, cleared her throat. “I have a little money, and I always bring a change of clothes and a spare long-coat in my pack. Peto and I sometimes spend—spent—Meeting Day afternoon together. Now, there is nothing here for me. I will be a burden to my family in the mourning ritual and then a great deal of trouble for my father as he tries to arrange another match for me. And I . . . I don’t want another match. I cannot have another match. So I am leaving.”
Davin moved a step closer. “Tonight? Donaia, there might be a dozen malitos within a kilometer!”
She stared wistfully at the horizon. “It does not matter. I leave tonight.”
Davin was at a loss on how to stop her. Although physically larger, he was not particularly strong or muscular enough to simply throw her over his shoulder and forcibly take her into the Meeting House. Finally, he said, “You saw what those malitos did today. Do you want them to do that to you?”
She shivered, pulling the wrap tightly around her, but leaving her longcoat over her arm. “No. I saw . . . what they did to my Peto. But they will not harm me. This I know.”
She turned to him, her eyes large and dark. She was very beautiful. Davin found himself thinking how lucky a man Peto had been—until today. She stepped a little closer.
“They will not harm me. I know this. I know. I have never told anyone this, except one of the priests, many years ago. Not even my parents. And I don’t think the priest believed me. He never took any action on what I told him. I have a minor Gift. One that has not often manifested, but a Gift.”
Davin’s eyes widened as she spoke. He realized that she was standing near him, looking up into his eyes, and he was not sure whether he had moved or Donaia had. Her stare was so open and wide that suddenly he knew her mind, whether by premonition or simply by inference. “Sometimes you can see the future.”
She smiled, the first genuine smile he had seen from her this long and terrible day. “You see? Peto said you were more talented than you knew. Yes, sometimes I see. Not clearly, but when I know a thing will happen, it will. I knew from the start that my love for Peto would not end well. I fought it, I ignored it, but you cannot deflect fate. Today proves that.”
She turned away from him, toward the horizon, and Davin realized suddenly that she was leaning against him. Reflexively, he put an arm around her, and she grasped it desperately and hugged it to her bosom. She went on almost as if talking to the sky, or the horizon, rather than him. “I suddenly felt it in the chapel, in the Meeting house. I must go West. It is said that the Chanche have a corps of sages, like our priests, that study God’s Power. They are rumored to have the greatest Gifts of all. Perhaps even greater than our most Talented priests.” She paused, almost as if reluctant to go on. Finally, as though she had to drag out the words, she continued. “I felt it today, as I sat there in the chapel and mourned the death of all that has been dear to me. They wait. Now. They wait for me.”
Suddenly she twisted, facing him and grabbing both his arms. Her gaze into his face was as fierce as that of an eagle.
“And I saw something else, Davin. Something wondrous and terrifying. It’s you. I knew you would follow me out of the Meeting Hall, knew you would talk to me. You have a great future, one so great that I can scarcely believe it. And your future lies to the West as well, with mine.
“I wanted to ask you to come with me, but you won’t. There are things you must do here and, I think, you still have a little fear of telling your father the truth. But you know about yourself, even though you won’t admit it. And you will come. And you will find me there.” Suddenly she blushed. “I must sound like a fool, talking about our futures, when my betrothed lies dead within those walls. But it is true. It will happen. You will come.”
I will come? Davin took one of her hands, holding it tightly, whether to keep her from leaving or simply to feel the softness of her flesh another moment, he was not sure. He held her gaze. “Donaia, you can’t ride to the Montas like an afternoon outing! It’s a thousand kilometers to the valleys of the Chanches and bad weather coming on before dark. Besides, even assuming that an unaccompanied young lady such as yourself could make such a trip, you know the reputation of the Chanches! They would probably turn you away at the gates of Akzo, if it has gates, and then where do you go?”
She smiled. “No, they will welcome me. They will. This I know. And you, when you come, for I will tell them about you.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. I was just expelled from Academy, and now I have to explain to the Gen . . . To my father just how I can justify the life Deos lent me. No, I may not stray off Aldronne property for the next forty years.”
She looked up at him and shook her head slightly, that bittersweet look on her face once more. “So unsure of yourself. Like Peto when he was younger.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “That will change. It will have changed when we meet again.”
She pulled free, walking toward the distant hitching posts, where a coterie of the General’s men tended the horses. After a few steps, she turned back again, and held his eyes, as she struggled into her longcoat. “And one more thing: Your Gift is, maybe, the greatest of all. Not just a Gift, a mighty Talent. I do not know what it is, but it is something the Chanches must train. Only the Chanches. So you will come, whether I ask it or not.” Then she turned and fled.
Her rush took her to the nearby corral. The guards ignored her at first—she could, after all, be coming to retrieve food or medicine from saddle-bags. All the horses had remained saddled, so she merely checked the cinch, unwrapped the reins from the hitching post, and mounted. The men turned and looked at her, too late. In a burst of motion, she spurred her horse out the open gate, pounding down the road before they could react.
Galvanized into motion, Davin followed in time to see Donaia, horse at full gallop, already on the descending trail. In a moment she was out of sight.
In shock, Davin stared after her. The men in the corral, after some discussion, elected not to go after her—let the crazy woman get herself killed if she wanted. Turning, Davin started back into the churchyard, his head awhirl with Donaia’s words, and her actions. First the GranMalo, and now . . . No, he refused to think about that right now. Best to do something, anything, rather than think. Turning, he entered the courtyard, ignoring one of the men who called to him, asking why the young lady had ridden away.
Entering the chapel, Davin found his father at the rear of the church, talking with recently returned scouts. He joined the group quietly. “I don’t like it,” the General was saying, “That’s half a score and more of malitos unaccounted for, and perhaps even more came through the hellhole in the confusion.” Tomas Villerel was beside him, ashen and quiet. He was one of the leaders of the Sudos and a frequent business associate of the General, but his loss had rendered him mute. Several other ranchers and town leaders were also gathered.
Bayn also stood near the General, speaking up as Davin joined the group. “The good news is that hours have passed and the malitos must be greatly weakened. Devilspawn cannot live long in our world and will be dead a day or two hence. If we stay the night here, our return tomorrow should not be troubled.”
That brought a storm of protest from some of those who had accompanied them to Meeting. Besides the fact that a storm was coming, there was much to do on the ranches in the early spring. Many had left their spreads undermanned to attend Meeting.
A commotion behind him caused Davin and the others to turn. A final scout contingent had returned, accompanied by one of the horse guards, who made a beeline for Donaia’s father, sitting in a rear pew with one of his sons and his wife.
Davin decided to follow the guard. Better to get the truth told and let Mataro send men after her if he wished. As he approached Mataro said, “And you just let her ride off?”
Before the guard could answer, Davin spoke. “I’m sorry, sir. I tried to stop her but she wouldn’t listen to me. She said she had to get away for a while.”
Mataro turned to Davin. His voice went up a half-octave. “You let her get on her horse?”
“I thought she was just going to get something from her saddlebags. Then she got on her horse and rode away.”
“Where is she going?”
Davin stuttered. How could he tell Donaia’s father that she might be planning a journey to the Chanches? There wasn’t any way, he decided. “I’m not sure, sir. But she headed west as she left.”
With an oath, Mataro whirled and called to his men nearby. Shouting commands, he rushed out the door of the Meeting House, his men in close pursuit.
Davin returned to his father’s side just as the scouts reported finding and killing five malitos, with another half-dozen found dead from wounds received during the fighting. After more discussion, the group seemed to think that the road would be safe for an afternoon or evening journey home for the ranch community. The General finally nodded agreement.
“Do not attempt to return to the outlying villages tonight. Malitos cannot survive much more than a day, so all roads should be safe tomorrow. The roads to the south and west past Aldronne, towards Hijamia and Bolt Run, should not be traveled after dark, since the smaller parties going home by those routes would be more vulnerable. My home is open to those of you from the more distant communities this evening.”
No one disagreed. Most of the ranches were several kilometers to the west and south of the Aldronne, and travel much past the General’s ranche would have to be made in the dark, not a pleasant prospect with malitos still on the loose. Spending the night at Aldronne and departing at first light would get most ranchers home with the day still before them, assuming that the anticipated snow storm was not too heavy.
The loading of bodies in wagons was tearful once again, if more subdued. Gathering in the Iglesa after that solemn and painful task, the senior priest rose at the front to bless his congregation.
Davin surveyed the crowd with an uncharacteristic lack of reverence as the priest intoned his final prayer. Mind abuzz, he watched as the priest spread blessings as a farmer spreading seed on a divine wind. He wanted to pray, wanted to feel close to Deos, wanted to feel His Holy Presence, to feel blessed and protected as they began their homeward journey. But he didn’t. Instead, he felt only sad and resentful toward a deity that could not or would not protect the innocent. Turning, he ignored the ending of the prayer, and walked into the cold, dim afternoon.