“Are you blind, then?”
The horse’s track was stronger now, the road as deserted as ever. The voice came out of empty air. It was clear and imperious, and it spoke priestly Latin with a distinct southern lilt.
Aymery opened his eyes. He was still under the wind-tossed sky, but there was no city to be seen–and it should have been looming behind him. He stood on a wide and empty heath, an expanse of summer-seared grass and wild thyme that rolled down toward a tumbled sea.
There was a road ahead of him, perfectly straight. Its paving stones were worn but still smooth.
Romans had built this. It stretched behind him, though he did not remember the feel of it under his feet, and it stretched ahead, vanishing into a fold of the hills.
There was no living creature anywhere in sight. Aymery addressed the direction from which the voice had come, civilly, as one was wise to do in the presence of magic. “What should I be seeing?”
“What is in front of your face.” The voice was full of laughter. It had shifted from the side to the front, but there was still nothing to see, not even a ripple in the air.
For lack of greater inspiration, Aymery walked forward. He half expected to collide with an unseen body, but the way was clear.
He decided to find that encouraging. It could be a trap, but he had a nose for that, and it detected only thyme and the sea.
And something else. Something faint, slightly pungent, more pleasant than not. The smell of horse, hanging in the air ahead of him.
He followed it down the straight track into the hills.
The hills opened as he had known they must. The green was somewhat less wild here, the roll of the land divided with walls of unmortared stone. The heart of it was such a place as one saw everywhere that Rome had been: villa and outbuildings, stables and storehouses.
Aymery saw no cattle in the fields and no flocks of sheep in the hills, and no ash-grey stallion grazing in safety near the villa. Everything was still, as if the earth itself forbore to breathe.
The road led straight to the villa’s gate. No bird called, no insect buzzed. He walked through an empty world, into a deep and eerie silence.
And yet he was not afraid. The horse’s scent led him still. In front of the gate was a pile of droppings, so neat it seemed to mock him, and more fresh than not.
The gate opened before him. He paused, remembering tales of traps and dangerous deceptions. But the horse had gone in, and Tencendur was even warier than the run of his kind.
That did not mean Aymery was safe, at all. Still, the horse was inside; that, his bones were sure of. He took a breath and stepped over the threshold.
Chickens clucked and fluttered in the courtyard. Cattle lowed in the byre beyond. Sheep bleated. Life teemed and hummed and buzzed as it did everywhere that humans were.
He was in the world again, but where exactly it was, he could not have said. It was solid under his feet, and the sky was open overhead. And there was a woman coming toward him in the fading daylight.
She looked ordinary enough: a sturdy woman in a plain and practical gown, with a long bony face, and dark hair gone mostly grey. “Good evening,” she said civilly in Latin, with an accent that Aymery had not heard before: low and liquid, with a strong rhythm, almost as if she sang the words rather than spoke them. She was not the one who had addressed him on the heath, but he thought she might be a relative.
“A fair evening to you,” he answered her with equal civility.
“You are welcome in this house,” she said.
He bowed as if she had been a lady of the king’s court.
That seemed to amuse her: her lips twitched and her big dark eyes glinted. She turned with a flourish that took him by surprise, swirling her skirts, and strode before him with her thick long braid swinging to her substantial haunches.
He was gaping like an idiot. He shut his mouth and hastened after her.
The villa had been quite grand once, with a pool in the courtyard and mosaics on the floors. The pool had long since been filled in; a kitchen garden flourished there now, with the chickens keeping the weeds and the insects at bay. The floors were still lovely though faded, especially in the dining room, where the rest of the inhabitants of the house were gathered.
Aymery had little time to appreciate the glory underfoot, though he did manage to notice the number of horses leaping and gamboling and peacefully grazing in fields of malachite and golden glass. There were live and breathing beauties gathered around the table.
They were all kin, or near enough: the same cast of face and the same eyes, and even the same hair: from black flecked lightly with silver to white just touched with black. The faces framed in it were not all old or even middle-aged; one or two seemed hardly more than children.
There were six of them–seven, with the lady who had led him there. The two youngest were round-bellied with child.
Aymery looked for signs of husbands or sons or father, but there were only the women, and a table laden with plates and bowls and cups, and a feast that made his stomach growl appallingly loud.
They all laughed at that, but not in mockery: warmly, with a plate filled for him and a chair set in the midst of them. He found himself surrounded by ladies, feasting on new milk and cream, eggs and early apples and sweet berries, a fine sallet of greens and herbs, and so many different kinds of cheese that he almost failed to notice that there was no meat at all. They plied him with honey mead and something that tasted of herbs and sunlight and made his head spin straight out of the night and into a fierce bright morning.
He lay nursing a noble headache and trying to remember the last thing he saw. One more face, younger than the rest, and slim brown hands pouring that dangerous cordial into a cup of blue-green glass, ancient and precious. He had been terrified of dropping it, he seemed to recall. She had plucked it from his fingers and held it to his lips, and laughed as he choked on the fiery cordial.
It had not been cruel laughter. He told himself that.
He was lying in a soft clean bed, and he was clean, too, and as bare as he was born. He surged up, gasped at the pain that split his skull, but saw his own clothes folded on the chest at the bed’s foot.
They were as clean as the bed, and the seams that had been starting to give way because he was growing again were neatly mended. When he had put them on, he discovered that he was not locked in, either. He was a guest, then, and honored at that.
His head stopped pounding quite so much as he made his way down the passage. There were doors, all shut, and one at the end that opened on the courtyard.
He followed his nose back to the dining room. The table had been cleared, but there was a plate at his former place, with bread of the new day’s baking, and a bowl of pickled onions, and a cup of milk still warm from the cow.
His hosts were nowhere to be seen or heard. The house was silent and seemed to be deserted; the kitchen when he found his way to it was dark, the hearth fire banked.
Someone had fed the cattle and turned them loose in the fields, and milked the cows–none of them was lowing for release. The barns and byres were swept and clean. But he was the only human creature anywhere that he could think to go.
In the field farthest from the house, on the other side of a low hill that dipped down and then swooped upward to the ridge that walled the valley, he found a herd of horses. He might not have known they were there at all, if he had not heard the call of a stallion: the clear and piercing trumpet that declared to all the world that here was a mare, and she was his–and the Goddess of horses help any man or beast who challenged him.
Aymery bolted toward the sound, and so found the pasture. A smallish herd of mares grazed in it, and a stallion whom he recognized.
Tencendur pricked ears at him, tossed his head and snorted. Aymery took the warning, stopping short on the field’s edge and standing scrupulously at ease. Harmless, his posture said. Innocent. No threat at all.
The stallion’s ears flattened. Aymery breathed deep into his belly. He was ready to leap, or strike, or try to swing onto that back if he did not get kicked into the next world.
Or he could stay where he was, while Tencendur danced and caracoled and proclaimed his delight in this small but perfect kingdom.
This was a quandary. Aymery was a guest in this place. And Tencendur, from the look of things, was the lord of it.
It had seemed simple enough when Aymery set out. He would find the king’s horse and take him back to the king. It had not occurred to him that the horse might have gone home to his own kingdom.
The mares took no notice of either of them. There were eight. Some were white with age. Two had dark hairs in their manes still, and round pregnant bellies.
One was young, with a dappled coat and a tangled black mane. She was less preoccupied with grazing than the rest, and more curious: slanting an ear at him, angling toward him, keeping him within her sight.
Aymery’s brows climbed higher as he counted each mare, and took the measure of her, and noticed how dark and soft her eye was. He knew magic, after all. He had learned to look beneath the skin when he wanted to know a person–whatever outward form she wore.
It explained rather a great deal, and left at least as many questions. He sat in the grass, clasping his knees. Apart from a snort or two and a warning stamp, the stallion let him be.
He watched the mares until the sun had risen past noon; until his belly was hollow and his throat was parched and his head was light and spinning from the sun and the heat. He creaked to his feet then and found a stream to drink from, down toward the middle of the field–with an eye on the stallion. But Tencendur was minded to let him live.
He wandered back toward the villa. It was cool inside, and the shade blessed his sun-weary eyes. He foraged in the kitchen and in the garden beyond, filling his belly with the last of the bread and a knob of cheese and a handful of radishes pulled fresh from the good black earth.
Aymery was a fighting man in season, but he had grown up on a farmstead not so different from this. He knew how to bake bread and weed a garden and tend a flock of chickens.
Toward sundown the cows came in, lowing for relief of their swollen udders. He eyed them a little warily, but none of them seemed likely to choose a human form.
He milked them, his fingers clumsy at first, stiff with memory of swordhilt and spearhaft. Then they remembered.
Halfway through, another joined him. He glanced over his shoulder.
The girl from his dream stared back at him. She was no older than he, and her tangled mane was only lightly touched with silver.
He recognized her from another place, too: those narrow feet, much cleaner now, and that quick grace as she leaned against the cow’s side. Here was the horse thief from the king’s camp.
The bucket between his feet was full, foaming with new milk. He eased it out from under the cow and stood with it in his hand.
“Why?” he asked her.
She finished milking the cow before she answered. When she did, it was not in words.
She led him to the spring beneath the cow byre, and set her bucket beside his in the cold clear water. Then she walked out into the long light of evening, down to a paddock where Tencendur dined on sweet grass and barley.
He fluttered his nostrils at her and showed Aymery his teeth.
That was clear enough. Aymery kept a careful distance from the girl, who was also a young mare.
She leaned on the paddock’s wall and folded her arms atop it. She was a lissome thing, but sturdy: she would grow to look much like her elders, he thought, and that was a pleasing prospect.
“Your husband?” Aymery asked.
Her lips twitched. “Sire,” she said.
That was the voice Aymery had heard on the road. What it said…
His eyes widened. He inched even farther away. “He’s…a man? Sometimes?”
She laughed. “Oh, no!” she said. “He’s as mortal as any one-skin you’ll ever see.”
“He belongs to us. And we,” she said, “in our way, to him.”
“Tales are for night and firelight, and for full bellies,” she said. “I can hear your stomach from here. It sounds like a pack of hounds with one bone.”
“You ate grass all day.”
“And I’ll eat the bread you baked tonight, too.” Her eyes slid at him. “I hope you’re a good baker.”
In Part III, Aymery demonstrates his baking prowess. And a few other things.