Skyrel, chieftain of the Araxi Tribe, was the first to see the woman approaching. She descended the barren mountain cliffs, leaping deftly from rock to rock as if she was intimately familiar with the terrain. Anyone who was that comfortable in such dangerous territory was automatically suspicious. The fact that she was female—and alone—made it worse.
“Kibar.” Skyrel snapped his fingers, summoning his second-in-command to his side. Kibar was a tall, grizzled earth wielder, his pockmarked face half-hidden by a dark beard. His hazel eyes roved the slopes until he spotted the problem.
“Think it's an attack?” Kibar rumbled in his deep voice.
“I don't see any others,” said Skyrel.
Kibar squinted at the approaching figure, scratching at his beard in a thoughtful manner. “Looks young. And it's a girl, tiny and thin as a twig. She can't be dangerous.”
“She's heading right for us,” growled Skyrel. “We'll find out soon enough.”
By now the rest of the tribe had noticed what was going on. They fanned out across the pebbly valley in a lopsided defensive formation, rallying around Skyrel and Kibar. Even Skyrel had to admit it was a sorry display. The Araxi people weren't much to look at—they'd fallen on hard times and had recently been ousted from their longtime home by a larger, stronger tribe.
The newcomer didn't falter in her stride when she saw twenty-odd hunters facing off against her. On the contrary, she looked excited. She leapt from a boulder onto level ground and practically skipped over to them.
“Hello,” she called, waving her right hand in the air. Her left hand clutched a crudely-made spear. She wore a raggedy fur toga draped over one shoulder, like a man or a child might. Her left breast remained bare without a thought of modesty. “Do you speak Surdri?”
Her accent was strange, and her manner even stranger—what person in their right mind would just wander up to an unknown, potentially hostile tribe? Skyrel sensed some of his hunters preparing for a fight, but he raised a fist, signaling that they should stand down.
“Some of us do,” he replied. Surdri was his native tongue, but he'd lived in the east for many cycles and had picked up quite a bit of the Sirnese language.
“That's a relief.” The woman came to a stop in front of Skyrel and tilted her chin up to look at him. It was all he could do not to take a step back when he saw the luminous purple color of her eyes and the scars on her cheeks that marked her as a mage. So much for Kibar's assertion that she couldn't be dangerous.
“My name is Beledine Arowey,” she barreled on, not realizing that everyone who'd caught sight of her face had tensed up or backed away in fear. “I don't have a tribe of my own, so I was wondering if I might be able to join yours?”
Skyrel was thrown off-guard by her request. He glanced at Kibar, but the earth wielder looked as unbalanced as he felt, his mouth hanging slightly ajar.
“You . . . don't have a tribe?” Skyrel repeated. “Then how did you get here? How have you survived on your own?”
“I've lived in the mountains for a long time,” she explained. “I know these lands. I know where to find fresh water and where to hunt the best game. I can fish and I can make things—I made my own furs and spear.” She proudly showed off her inappropriate toga and misshapen weapon.
Kibar leaned close and muttered, “What do you think?”
To be honest, Skyrel wasn't sure. His first instinct had been not to trust her, but he wasn't in any position to turn away help. His tribe was unaccustomed to the mountains, and if they didn't adapt they would quickly perish. Plus, they'd lost many of their strongest members during the skirmish with the hunters who'd evicted them from their valley. A mage might very well be useful—and of course, females were always good to have on hand. If she didn't pull her weight, Skyrel could always trade her to another tribe in exchange for supplies.
“You say you know these lands?” he asked, fixing her with a shrewd look. “Do you know a safe route to the western plains?”
“I know three routes you can take,” she said at once, smiling broadly so the scars on her cheeks stretched and gleamed. “One is more difficult terrain, but it stays close to a river most of the way to the flat ground.”
“Hm.” Skyrel weighed his options. The tribe needed a reliable source of fresh water, and this stranger could show him the way. But she was a mage with untold powers . . . and there was also the matter of her eyes.
“You're a rheenar,” he said, pointing at her face. He heard a series of gasps behind him from the tribesmen who hadn't yet glimpsed Beledine's eyes, and sensed a tightening in their ranks. Even Kibar subtly shifted his bulk to stand closer to Skyrel, to protect him if need be.
“Why should we trust you and let you into our midst? I've had dealings with rheenarae in the past. They are violent and unpredictable.”
“As are all humans,” the girl countered. Skyrel frowned, but he could have sworn he saw Kibar's eyebrows rise as the older man fought to smother a laugh. Skyrel had to hand it to her—she had spirit. Spirit in small doses was fine, as it kept demoralized tribes going even when times were hard. Spirit in large doses was problematic. It gave people big ideas and caused problems in the delicate hierarchy of leadership.
“I didn't mean to be rude,” she added, sensing she'd crossed a line with her comment. “It's just . . . an observation I had.”
“It is a fair observation,” Skyrel conceded. He looked her up and down again, his eyes lingering on her half-bared chest. She was small in stature, but she was well-formed and appeared well-fed. She could obviously take care of herself. If she had wanted to attack, surely she would have done so by now.
Then Skyrel did something he'd never done before: he turned his back on his enemy, the rheenar mage, and gestured his most trusted tribesmen forward to take their views on the matter.
Kibar drew close, as did Falme and Saanug, two brown-skinned Sirnese brothers. They were quiet, and Surdri wasn't their native tongue, but they had always supported Skyrel. Mota, a round-faced water wielder, also joined the party, as did Blure. Blure was growing weak in his old age, but he was loyal to a fault.
The last to join was Yalon. Easily the strongest among them, Yalon Monkier had grayish skin and a gaunt look about him. His beady black eyes darted this way and that, bouncing from Skyrel to the other council members to the woman who waited behind them. Skyrel wasn't overly fond of him, but he needed Yalon now more than ever, since the tribe had lost most of the wielders they'd once depended on.
“I know accepting someone like this into the tribe might be an unpopular decision, but she claims she can help us. What are your thoughts?” Skyrel inquired.
The men exchanged glances—it was highly unorthodox for a chieftain to ask for input. Tribes always relied on strong leaders to make tough decisions.
Kibar was the first to speak, breaking the awkward silence. “I'm no expert on this type of thing. But she seems like she has a good head on her shoulders,” he offered, shrugging. “I say let her join. We could use the extra hands.”
“No,” Yalon said immediately, crossing his arms. He forced his face into a pinched expression of distaste, reminding Skyrel of a rat. “I don't trust her and I don't like her. Anyone who lives alone in a place like this is dabbling in dark magic. She might be a witch.”
“Think we can pretty much see her for what she is.” This came from Falme, who had never once volunteered an opinion in all the time he'd traveled with the Araxi Tribe. He'd always struck Skyrel as a simple man—he lived for his brother and his young son, and had never had an original thought before now—but his dark, liquid eyes glinted with uncanny sharpness as he glanced at Beledine. “Woman, mage, rheenar. Not hiding anything. No need for distrust.”
“If she's a rheenar, where's her bondmate?” Yalon argued in a caustic undertone. “I'll tell you about the kind of purple-eyed bloodhunters who have no dragon by their side. Either they're failures, they got their dragon killed and the loss drives them slowly insane; or else they're thieves and murderers, they killed a dragon and drank its blood to steal its power.”
“Nonsense,” scoffed Kibar.
“Those all made up legends,” Mota said in his broken Surdri. He was northerner who'd grown up speaking a different dialect. Skyrel had recruited him because he desperately needed another water wielder in the tribe, but the language barrier had been a problem. It had thus far been a steep learning curve for poor Mota.
“Like you'd know anything about it,” Yalon grumbled.
“Let's not fight,” said Skyrel, intervening before they got into an argument. Mota had a temper, and Yalon's ego was bigger than the mountain they stood on. “We need to decide what is worse: accepting a potentially dangerous enemy, or walking away from a potentially powerful ally.”
“I vote we leave her,” said Yalon.
“I vote she stays,” said Falme.
Skyrel was surprised again. He'd never known Falme to have . . . well, a personality. Beside Falme, Saanug grunted his agreement.
“I think she stay,” Mota said with a curt little nod.
“Stay,” said Blure.
“Seems the ayes have it,” said Kibar.
Yalon retreated from the circle, hunching his shoulders in defeat. His eyes narrowed to angry slits as they settled on the girl, who'd observed the proceedings from a polite distance. Skyrel would have to watch him. It wouldn't do to anger their most powerful wielder . . . although with Beledine in their midst, Yalon was officially no longer the most powerful. Perhaps that would make things better and remove some of the stress from his shoulders.
Or perhaps it will make things worse, Skyrel thought as Yalon bared his teeth in a grimace and spat contemptuously on the ground.
He would work to soothe Yalon's pride and address his attitude, but now was not the time. Skyrel turned to face the mysterious mage and offered her a small, perfunctory smile. “You're in luck. It would appear we have enough space to fit you in.”
Her face lit up, as bright and joyful as the zenith sun, and she clapped her hands together beneath her chin. “Thank you! I won't let you down, I promise.”
Yalon snorted derisively. Beledine didn't notice, or perhaps she just didn't care. She stared around at Skyrel's tribesmen, beaming. Even the men who had voted to accept her couldn't help but draw back from her otherworldly gaze.
“Walk with me,” said Skyrel, “as you show us to the river pass. There's a lot you need to know about the Araxi Tribe, and I don't like repeating myself.”