Chapter Eight

 

Magda woke in the gray dawn, hearing the thin patter of sleet on the roof of the travel-shelter. It was her seventh night on the road, and until now the weather had been fine.

She had till midwinter-night. With anything like reasonable weather, she had ample time. But could anyone expect reasonable weather in the Hellers, at this season?

From the far end of the shelter she could hear the soft stamping and the rustling breaths of her saddle horse and the pack animal, an antlered beast from the Kilghard Hills, better suited to the mountain weather than any horse. She wondered what time it was; it was still too dark to see.

It did not occur to her to regret-or even to think about-her chronometer. Like all Terrans allowed to work undercover on any planet anywhere in the Empire, she had undergone a long and intense conditioning, designed to make it virtually impossible for her to act in any way not consonant with her assigned character; and there was no item, in all her luggage and gear, of off-world manufacture. This was a habit of years; everyone in Intelligence learned the almost hypnotic mechanisms which meant that the moment she left the Trade City, Magdalen Lome of Linguistics was gone, left wholly behind her; even her name was gone, packed away in a very small corner of her unconscious mind. Magdalen had no precise Darkovan equivalent; when she was a small girl in the mountains near Caer Donn, her Darkovan playmates had called her Margali.

She turned over restlessly in her sleeping bag, raising nervous fingers to her shorn head. It felt cold, strange, immodest.

Lady Rohana, in the long briefing session that had preceded her departure, had been sympathetic about that, too.

"I traveled once, in disguise, with a band of Free Amazons," she said, "and I had to cut my hair; I can still remember the shock I felt. I remember that I cried, and how they laughed at me. It was worse for me, probably, than for you: you are accountable to no one, but I knew how angry my husband would be when he knew."

Magda had asked, "And was he angry?" and Rohana smiled, a reminiscent smile. "Terribly. It was already done, so there was nothing he could do about it; but I felt his anger for almost a year, till it had grown to what he called a respectable length."

Magda heard the sleet beginning to abate and crawled out of her sleeping bag. Shivering in the fire-less hut, she dressed quickly in the clothing Lady Rohana had provided: loose trousers, a long-sleeved and high-necked under tunic of embroidered linen, a fur-lined over tunic and riding-cloak. She had even measured Magda's foot and sent a servant to buy boots in the marketplace. Magda laced the high boots and led her animals outside, feeding them from the stacked fodder in the nearby shed and slipping the prescribed amount of coins into the padlocked box there. She led them one by one to the watering trough, breaking the ice there with the small hammer on her saddle. While they munched and drank, she went inside, quickly made a small fire and boiled some water, stirring it into the precooked, powdered mixture of grains and nuts that made a kind of instant porridge. Mixed with a few shreds of dried fruit, it was edible when you were used to it.

The ransom was safely hidden in her saddlebags, converted into the copper bars that were the standard Darkovan currency. In Terran exchange it was no more than a couple of months' salary for a good agent; they probably wouldn't even bother to take it out of Peter's "hazard" pay.

Why am I doing this? Peter's a grown man, able to take his own risks. I'm not his guardian. I'm not even his wife anymore. I don't love him that much, not anymore, not now. So why? But she had no answer, and it nagged at the back of her mind as she set off down the trail. She stopped at the indicator post near the travel-shelter, locating the next three shelters along this trail. One was at a reasonable distance for a large caravan with heavily laden pack animals; a second was located at a good day's ride for a party traveling at an easy pace but without much gear; the third was about at the limit of a long day's hard ride for a solitary traveler. Maybe I can sleep there tonight... She turned from the post and started along the trail, feeling a faint unease she could not identify; then it came to her.

I'm out of character, reading the travel-post. Most

Darkovan women can't read-Literacy even among men on Darkover was by no means universal, though most men could spell out a placard or scrawl their own names; among women it was extremely rare, and her small Darkovan playmates at Caer Donn had been astonished and slightly shocked-and a little envious-when they discovered that Margali could read, that her own father had taught her. Out of character. Damn it, this whole trip is out of character.

Magda clucked to her horse, and started along the trail. Rohana had warned her: "I traveled with the Free Amazons, but not as one of them; I do not deceive myself that I know all of their ways and customs. If I were you, I would avoid any meeting with real Amazon groups; but most of the folk in the hills where you will travel know nothing at all about them. So no one will question your disguise, if you are careful."

And in seven days she had not been challenged, though once she had had to share the travel shelter with two men, traders from the far hills. By law and custom, these shelters, put up centuries ago, and kept inspected and stocked even in wartime by the border patrols, were sacred places of neutrality, and must be shared by all comers; anything else would have condemned other travelers to die of cold and exposure. By law, even blood feuds were suspended in the shelters, as Magda had heard was the custom during forest fires. The men had glanced briefly at Magda's short hair and Amazon clothing, spoken a few formally courteous words, and ignored her entirely after that.

But since then she had met no one; the advanced season had sent most travelers home to their own firesides. The clouds had thinned and gone, and the great red sun of Darkover, which some poet in the Terran Zone had christened The Bloody Sun, was rising between the peaks, flooding the high snowfields with flaming crimson and gold. As she rode up into the pass, it seemed that a sea of flame bathed the high snowcaps, a brilliance of solitude that exhilarated and excited her.

But the sunrise subsided, and there was nothing but the lonely silence of the trail. Silence, and too much time to think, to ask herself again and again: Why am I doing this? Am I still in love with the bastard?

Pride, maybe, that a man who shared my bed-however briefly-should be abandoned and left to die, with no one to help him?

Or maybe, when we were growing up in Caer Donn, just the few of us among all the Darkovan children, we absorbed their codes, their ethics. Loyalty, kinship's dues. To the Empire, Peter is only an employee, expendable. To me, to any Darkovan, that's an outrageous notion, an obscenity.

She crossed the path before the sun was more than an hour high in the sky, her ears aching with the altitude, and began to descend into the next valley. At noon she stopped at a little mountain village and indulged herself by buying a mug of hot soup and a few fried cakes at a food-stall. Some curious children gathered around, and Magda guessed, from their eagerness, that they saw very few outsiders; she gave them some sweets from her saddlebags, and lingered, resting her animals before the climb to the next pass, enjoying her first taste of fresh food since she had left Thendara.

They were all curious as kittens; they asked where she had come from, and when she told them "Thendara," they stared as if she had said "From world's end." She supposed that to these children, never out of their own hills, Thendara was the world's end. But when they asked her business, she smiled and said it was a secret of her patroness. Lady Rohana had given her permission to use her name. "I will give you my safe-conduct, too, under my seal. In the foothills there are many who owe service to Gabriel and to me." She had also cautioned her against any but the most casual contact with genuine Amazons, but had advised her that if she met any by chance, she would be asked for her Guild-house, and for the name of the woman who had received her oath. "In this case, you may say Kindra n'ha Mhari; she is dead these three years"-and a fleeting sadness had touched Rohana's eyes-"but she was my dear friend, and I do not think she would grudge this use of her name. But if the Gods are kind you will get to Sain Scarp, and, hopefully, back again, without using it."

She had finished eating, and was watering her animals at the village trough when she saw a pair of men riding into the square. By the cut of their cloaks she knew they were from the far Hellers; they were bearded, and wore wicked-looking knives in their belts. They looked at Magda and, she fancied, at her laden saddlebags, with a regard that made her uneasy. She cut short the watering, clambered hastily into her saddle, and took the trail out of town. She hoped they would stop there for a good, long rest, and she would not see them again.

For a long time the trail led upward between heavily wooded slopes. The ice and snow were melting in the noon sun and the trail was slushy underfoot; Magda let her horse find its own pace, and when the road grew steepest, dismounted to lead it. She paused at a bend in the trail, where the trees thinned at a giddy height, looking down at the narrow line of road far below. There she saw, with consternation, what looked like the same two men she had seen in the village. Were they following her?

Don't be paranoid. This is the only road northwest into the Hellers; am I the only one who could have legitimate business along it? She stepped to the edge, careful not to slip on the muddy, slushy cliff, and looked down at the men riding the trail. Could she even be sure they were the same two men? Yes, for one man had been riding a roan horse; they were not common at any latitude, and to see two in the mountains in the same day's ride was entirely unlikely. As if to dispel her last doubt, one looked up, apparently saw Magda silhouetted along the edge, and leaned over to speak urgently to his companion; they drew at their horses' reins, edging in toward the cliff where they would not be visible from above.

Magda felt panic grip and drag at her, a physical sensation like a cramp along her leg muscles. She hurried back to her horse, ordering herself sternly to be calm. I'm armed. I've been combat-trained since I was sixteen, and first knew I was going into Intelligence. On any other world, she knew, she would have been expected to take this kind of chance routinely, man or woman. Here she'd been sheltered by Darkovan custom.

If it came to a fight-she laid her hand on her knife for a moment, trying to reassure herself-it would be better to make a stand in the pass. She could defend herself better there than on the down slopes. But need it come to a fight? Terran agents were trained to avoid confrontations when possible. And she would have bet that even Free Amazons didn't go around looking for trouble.

Suddenly she knew that she could not, could not force herself to make a stand here and face them. She commanded herself to stay here and think it through, but even while she tried to form her thoughts clearly she was guiding her horse away down the slope, down the trail, hurrying and urging it more, she knew, than a good rider would ever do (there was a mountain proverb of her childhood, "On a steep road let your horse set the pace"), yet she knew she was almost racing downhill, hearing small stones slip and slide beneath the horse's hooves.

It was not long before she realized she could not go on like this; if one of her animals should fall and break a leg she would be afoot and stranded. She drew the horse to a stop, patting its heaving sides in apology. What's wrong with me, why did I run away like that? Behind her, the road to the pass lay bare and unoccupied. Maybe they weren't following me at all... But she felt the vague unease, the "hunch" she had learned, in years of successful agent work, always to trust; and it said, loud and clear: run, hide, disappear, get lost. The woman who had trained her, far away on another world, had said: "Every good undercover agent is a little psychic. Or they don't survive long in the service."

Now what? She couldn't outrun them, burdened as she was with luggage and pack animal. Sooner or later they would come up with her, and then it would come to a fight.

She looked at the ground, covered with melting snow and mud, an amorphous trampled brownish mess. Lucky. In new snow they'd see my tracks... and see where I left the trail, which would be worse... But in the running, muddy water and slush all tracks vanished as fast as they were made. She turned aside from the road, leading the animals through a small gap in the trees; turned back to obliterate, with a quick hand, the marks in the snow where she had crossed the edge; led them some distance from the road and tethered them in a thick grove of evergreens, where they could not be seen.

Then she slipped back, found a concealed vantage point where she could conceal herself between tress and underbrush, and gnawed nervously on some dried fruit as she waited to see the success of her trick.

It was nearly an hour before the riders she had seen came down the slopes, hurrying their mounts as much as they could in the mushy trail underfoot. But neither of them even glanced in Magda's direction as they hurried past. When they were out of sight, she crawled shakily from her hiding place. She noted peripherally that her knees were weak and trembling, and that the palms of her hands were clammy and wet.

What's the matter with me? I'm not behaving like a trained agent-or even like a Free Amazon! I'm behaving like a-like a bunny rabbit!

And why am I panicking now, anyway? I did the sensible thing. Any of our agents, man or woman, on any world, in that situation, would have done just what I did. Kept out of trouble...

Yet she knew, no matter how she tried to rationalize it, that her flight had not been a considered thing, based on her standing orders to avoid a fight where possible. It had been, quite simply, a rout. I panicked. That's the long and short of it. I panicked, and I ran.

I behaved like... like... Realization flashed over her. Not like a Terran agent. Not like a Free Amazon. Like an ordinary, conventional Darkovan girl.

The kind I've taught myself to be, in Thendara. The kind I was brought up to be, in Caer Donn...

The short winter day was drawing to a close, and she thought, I'll camp here tonight, in the woods; I'll let them get a good, long start. By tomorrow they'll have gone through two or three of those little villages; and with luck they'll think I just found a place to stay in a village, and give up.

Or, possibly, they were respectable traders on their own lawful business and in a hurry to get home to their wives and children, she considered.

She put up her small tent. It was a compromise, the maximum possible protection in bad weather combined with the minimum possible in weight and size; a combination of an undersized tent and an oversized sleeping bag. It was the standard Darkovan traveler's model. She knew already that no sane person ever spent a night outdoors if he could possibly help it, which was why the roads were lined with the travel-shelters and huts and why they were sacred places of neutrality.

But she spent that night in the open anyway. By good fortune the weather kept fine, even the predawn snowfall unusually light; but Magda knew, as she emerged shivering, this was a bad sign. Clouds scudded thick and black, away north, and a high wind had already begun to toss the tips of the evergreens, promising a severe storm on the way.

In the lonely silence of the trail she went over and over her failure. However she rationalized it, it was a failure; she had panicked.

I've taught myself always to behave that way, whenever I step on the Darkovan side. It was the standard Intelligence conditioning: build yourself a persona, a character for whatever planet you're working on, and never step out of it, even for an instant, until you're safely back inside the Terran Zone.

But the personality I built for myself in Thendara won't work here. Because of the particular society on Darkover, and the way women live. It was different for the men. But I was the only woman; and I never realized how jar I had come from ordinary agent's training...

She tried to think it through, to analyze just what basic changes she would have to make in her basic Darkovan persona for this assignment, but the attempt made her so overwhelmingly anxious that she had to give up the effort. The trouble if, I've been trained never to think of Terra outside the Zone. Now she was trying to bring a process as automatic as breathing under voluntary control; and it wasn't working.

I can't be a Free Amazon, I don't know enough about them. Even Lady Rohana said she didn't know enough about them. So I can be only my basic Darkovan persona, pretending to be a Free Amazon. Lady Rohana seemed to think it would be effective enough to fool people who didn't have much to do with Free Amazons; but I'd just better hope I don't meet any real ones!

This caused another of those weird small repercussions which, for years, she had thought of as "hunches" and learned to trust. Oddly, this one iced her blood; she had physically to pull her cloak tighter about her shoulders against the sudden runnel of cold down her spine. It would be just my luck, to meet a couple!

Peter always said I had a talent for bluffing. Better get used to thinking of him by his Darkovan name.

She had a sudden moment of blank terror when the name refused to come to her mind, when she wholly blanked on it. It lasted only a few seconds, and the panic ebbed away as the name came back to her. Piedro. That's in the Hellers. In the lowlands they'd call him Pier...-why did I blank on it like that?

It was an hour past noon when she passed one of the shelter huts; it was empty, and she hesitated, tempted to stay there overnight. But she had already lost half a day, and always, at the back of her mind, was the thought of the midwinter deadline. She must not only be at Sain Scarp by midwinter, but she must leave some leeway for return to Thendara before the winter storms closed the passes. I can't see us camping on Rumal di Scarp's doorstep all winter.

Nor did she particularly want to spend the winter cooped up anywhere, alone with Peter. Once I used to daydream about something that would isolate us, so we had time only to be alone together... Even now, it might be... pleasurable... Exasperated, Magda told herself to snap out of it. She wondered, half annoyed, if Bethany had been right all along; was she still half in love with Peter? I should have taken another lover right away, after we separated. God knows I had enough chances. I wonder why I didn't.

She checked the notice board, and discovered that there was another shelter just about half a day's ride distant. As she turned her back on the shelter she felt again the curious, almost physical prickling of the "hunch," but told herself fiercely not to be superstitious. I'm afraid to go on, so I find reasons, and call it ESP!

The trail steepened and grew rough underfoot; by midafternoon the thickening clouds lay so deep on the mountain that Magda was riding through a thick white blanket of fog. The dim gray world was full of echoes; she could hear her horse's hooves sounding dimly, behind and before her, like invisible, ghostly companions. The valley was gone, and the lower slopes; she rode high and alone, on a narrow trail above the known world. She had never been afraid of heights, but now she began to be afraid of the narrowness of the dim trail, of the white nothingness that hemmed her in on every side and might hide anything-or worse, nothing. Her mind kept returning to the cliffs and crags below, where an animal, putting a foot down wrong, might step off the trail, go plunging down the mountainside to be dashed to death on the invisible rocks far below...

As the darkness deepened, the fog dissolved into fine rain and then into a thick, fast-falling snow, wiping out trail and landmarks. The snow froze as it fell, and the slush underfoot crunched and crackled under her horse's hooves; then the wind began to howl through the trees and, where they thinned, to roar across the trail, driving icy needles of sleet into her face and eyes. She pulled up her cloak's collar and wrapped a fold of her scarf over her nose and chin, but the cold made her nose run, and the water froze on her nose and mouth and turned the scarf to a block of ice. Snow clung to her eyelashes and froze there, making it impossible to see. Her horse began to slip on the icy trail, and Magda dismounted to lead it and the faltering pack animal, glad of the knee-high boots she was wearing; a woman's soft low sandals or ankle-high, tied moccasins would have been soaked in a moment.

I should have stayed in that last shelter. That was what that hunch was all about. Confound it, I ought to listen to myself!

Her feet were freezing, and she was seriously beginning to wonder if her cheeks and nose were frostbitten. Normally cold did not bother her, but she was chilled now to the bone; her thick fur-lined tunic and cloak might have been dancing silks.

She sternly told herself not to be frightened. The woman who had trained her in Intelligence work had told her that human stock was the hardiest known in the Empire. Man's home planet, Terra, had contained extremes of temperature, and, before civilization, ethnic types had developed who could, and did, live in unheated houses made of ice blocks, or on burning deserts sufficient to blister the skin. She could survive outdoors, even in this storm.

But frostbite could delay me, beyond the midwinter deadline.

The light of her saddle-lantern glinted on one of the small arrow-shaped signs of a travel-shelter. Her antlered pack beast threw back its head and whickered. Magda turned off the trail and trudged down the narrow path, leading toward the dark building she could just see. The road crunched with rutted and frozen sleet, much trampled. As she came through the trees, she saw the loom of two buildings; it was one of the large shelters, with a separate building for animals. Then she swore softly to herself: Through the crack of the door a faint light was visible: the shelter was occupied.

Oh, damn. I should go on. Why take chances? But the next shelter might be another half-day's ride away; and she was soaked, chilled and freezing. Her cheeks felt numb beneath her hand, and her eyes smarted. Just to get out of the wind for a minute or two...

While she delayed, her horse and pack animal had made up their own minds; they tugged at the reins, plunging ahead of her inside the dark barn. There was a good, dusty smell of fodder and hay. It seemed warm and pleasant. She set her saddle-lantern in a safe place, and set about unsaddling the horse, off-loading her pack beast. I wouldn't have the heart to take them out in this storm again. Several horses and pack animals were already chomping on fodder and grain; Magda fed her animals, then sat down by the light of the saddle-lantern and pulled off her boot. She drew a sharp breath of dismay as she saw the whitish patches along the reddened flesh under the wet stocking. I need fire, she thought, and something hot to get the circulation going. She had lived oh Darkover much of her life, and knew the danger signs. There could be no question, now, of camping outdoors.

She would simply have to rely on the traditional neutrality of the travel-shelters, and on the disguise she wore. After all it had excited no comment of question from the traders she had met that other night.

She gathered up her saddlebags and started into the main building. Almost automatically she drew up her cloak collar to cover her bare neck; then, self-consciously, put it down where it belonged. Her Amazon's dress and short hair were the best protection in this situation; ordinary female dress and manners would make what she was doing unthinkable.

She pushed the door open and stepped into the light of several lanterns. There were two parties of travelers in the long stone-floored room, one at each end, around the fireplaces. As she saw the men near the door, her heart sank; she almost wished she had taken her chances in the woods. They were a party of big, rough-looking men, wearing strangely cut cloaks, and Magda fancied there was something more than impersonal curiosity in their eyes as they turned to look at the newcomer.

The laws of the road meant it was for Magda to speak first. She spoke the formal, almost ritual words, hearing her voice, light and almost little girlish in the huge echoing room:

"As a late-comer I crave leave from those who have come before to share shelter."

One of the men, huge and burly, with fierce-looking reddish-gold moustaches, spoke the formal greeting, "Be welcome; enter this neutral place in peace, and go in peace." His eyes rested on her with a look that made her skin crawl. It wasn't just that the man was unshaven, and his clothes far from clean; that could be bad weather and traveler's luck. It was something in his eyes. But the laws of the travel-shelter should protect her. She clutched her saddlebags and edged past. Both fireplaces had been preempted, but she could build a small fire near the stone shelving along the center wall. She need not even struggle with tinder; she could borrow a light. (But not, she resolved, from the big man with the moustaches!)

At the far end, five or six figures were gathered; they turned when Magda spoke, and one of them, a tall, thin figure, lean to gauntness, came toward her.

"Be welcome, sister," the figure said,-and Magda heard the voice in astonishment. A woman’s voice, low-pitched and almost husky, but undeniably a female voice. "Come and share our fire."

Zandru's hells, thought Magda, involuntarily calling on a Darkovan God in her dismay, what now?

They're Free Amazons.

Real ones!

The tall gaunt woman did not wait for Magda's acquiescence; she said, "I am Camilla n'ha Kyria, and we are traveling on a mission to Nevarsin. Come, lay your things here." She relieved Magda of her saddlebags, led her to the fire. "You are half frozen, child! You had better get out of those soaked things, if you have dry ones to put on; if not, one of us can lend you something, till your own garments have felt the-fire." She pointed to where the women had strung cords and "hung spare blankets over them for privacy; by the light of the lantern they had hung there, Magda saw the stranger, Camilla, clearly. She was tall and emaciated, her face deeply lined with age-and what looked like knife scars-and her hair all gray. She had taken off outer cloak and tunic, wearing only the embroidered linen under tunic of a Thendara woman; beneath it her body was so spare and flat that Magda knew her for what she was: an emmasca, a woman subjected in adolescence to the illegal neutering operation.

Magda went behind the curtaining blankets, and got out of her wet clothing, slipping into spare trousers and tunic. She was glad of the privacy of the blankets, less because of the rough-looking men at the far end-they could hardly have seen her in the dim shelter-than because of the other women. Had Lady Rohana been right about every detail of her clothing and gear?

A slight woman, with hair the exact color of new-minted copper bars, put her head around the blankets. She said, "I am Jaelle n'ha Melota, elected leader of this band. Are your feet frozen?" She bent down to look carefully at Magda's feet and toes.

"No, I don't think so," Magda said, and Jaelle touched one foot with careful fingers. "No, you were lucky. I was going to say Camilla has some medicine for frostbite, if you need it, but I think even your cheeks are all right; you got out of the wind just in time. Put your stockings on, then, and come to the fire."

Magda gathered up her wet clothes and hung them on the poles the women had rigged there for drying their own garments. On a small grille over a bed of coals, some small birds were roasting, and they had slung a hook and kettle, in which some kind of hot steaming soup was cooking. It smelled so good that Magda's mouth watered.

Jaelle said, "May we know your name and Guild-house, sister?"

Magda gave her alias, and said she was from the Guild-house at Temora; she had purposely chosen the farthest city she knew, hoping that the distance would cover any small differences in dress and manners.

"What a night for travel! I do not think there will be so much as a bush-jumper stirring in these hills between here and Nevarsin," Jaelle said. "Have you journeyed all the way from Temora? Surely your clothes are of Thendara make; that leatherwork and. embroidery is found mostly in the Venza hills."

There was nothing to do but brazen it out. Magda said, "They are indeed; such warm clothing cannot be bought on the seacoast-it is like trying to buy fish in the Dry Towns. My patroness was generous in providing me with clothing for my journey, and well she might be, sending me into the Hellers at this season!"

"Will you share our meal?"

Prudence dictated having as little to do with the strange women as possible. Yet they seemed to take it so much for granted that it might cause comment and arouse suspicion. Besides, the food smelled too good, after days of powdered porridge, to refuse. She made the usual polite reply: "Gladly, if I may be allowed to contribute my share."

Jaelle gave the expected answer, "It is not necessary, but will be welcome," and Magda went to her saddlebags for some confectionery with which she had provided herself for just such an occasion. The woman who was cooking accepted the sweets with a little cry of pleasure. "These, too, are made in the Thendara valley. I have not tasted this sort for years, and I am afraid we shall all be shamefully greedy! Except for Jaelle, who hates sweets like a true Dry-Towner!"

"Shut your silly face," said Jaelle, turning harshly on the cook, and the older woman bridled and looked sullen. Magda could see now that all the women were older than Jaelle, though most of them seemed young, except for Camilla. So young; and their elected leader. She is younger than I, I am sure! And beautiful. I don't think I have ever seen any woman so beautiful! Jaelle, like the rest; wore the shapeless Amazon clothing: loose trousers, tunic; but this did not conceal the slender, feminine body, the delicate poise of the flame-colored head on her shoulders, the features delicate and pale, and so regular that they would have been almost ordinary, except for the eyes, which were very large and framed in thick dark lashes.

"You have met Camilla," Jaelle said. "That is Sherna"-she pointed to the woman who was cooking their meal-"and that is Rayna, and that is Gwennis. And in a few minutes, we will have something to eat. Oh, and there are two latrine closets in this shelter; we have taken this one"-she pointed-"for our own use, so that you need not go down among the men to..." She spoke, with complete insouciance, a word Magda had never, heard a Darkovan woman speak; she had seen it only in textbooks, for no man would have used it before her.

I'd better not talk much. Among themselves, at least, they don't use the euphemisms thought polite for women!

She noticed, too, that a roughly printed sign hung on the outside of the latrine the women had preempted, warning the men away. The trained anthropologist made another assumption at the back of her mind: They expect me to know how to read. And some of them, at least, can write. That, too, was a faint shock.

"Here, come and eat." Sherna ladled hot soup into Magda's own cup; divided one of the roast birds with a knife and handed her a share. Like the others, Magda sat on her unrolled blankets to eat. She told herself not to be nervous; she had eaten in Darkovan company often enough before this.

The Amazon Jaelle had pointed out as Gwennis-Magda thought she must be about thirty, a slender pretty woman in a blue linen under tunic asked, "May we know the nature of your mission, Margali, if it is not secret?"

Magda had begun to suspect that among strange bands of Amazons this kind of polite interrogation was customary. In any case, after accepting the invitation to share their fire and meal, she could not retreat into churlish silence. I was a damn fool. I should have camped in the woods. But outside the walls of the shelter she could still hear the howling of the storm, giving her the lie.

"It is not secret, no; but it is a family matter of my patroness."

Rayna, a tall, slender woman with hair so curly that it frizzled all about her head like a small halo in the firelight, said, "And no doubt you will be proud to name her for us?"

Lady Rohana foresaw this. Bless her; I'd never have dared to name her without her permission. "It is my privilege to serve the Lady Rohana Ardais on a mission to Sain Scarp."

Camilla, who was sitting next to Jaelle on her rolled-out blankets, pursed her lips and glanced quickly at the rough-looking men, now sitting around their fire and talking loudly as they gobbled food from a big kettle.

Magda thought, Can those men be bandits? Is it possible they are from Sain Scarp? The thought set her to prickling with her "hunch" again; she did not hear Jaelle speaking to her and had to ask her to repeat what she had said.

"I said: the Lady Rohana, is she still so very lame from that fall she took from her horse? Poor old woman, and so soon after losing her husband, too; "what a tragedy!"

After an incredulous moment, Magda realized what was happening. Nothing to do but brazen it out boldly. She set down her plate with a good display of offended pride.

"You have had later news than mine, or you are testing me, sister." She spoke the customary address with heavy irony. "When last I saw the Lady Rohana she was hearty and strong, and to call her old would have been grave insult; I do not think she is twenty years older than I. As for her husband"-she rummaged quickly in her mind for his name-"I have not been privileged to meet dom Gabriel, but she spoke of him as alive and well. Or is there another Lady Rohana in the Ardais Domain whom I have not been privileged to know and serve?"

Jaelle's lovely face looked troubled now, and contrite. She said, "You must not be angry with me, Margali; the Lady Rohana is my kinswoman, and the only one of my kin who has been kind to the family disgrace. As you can guess, her honor is dear to me, and I would not hear her name bandied about without her leave. I beg you, give me pardon."

Magda said stiffly, "You had better see the safe-conduct I carry."

"Oh, please"-Jaelle looked very young now-"don't trouble yourself. Sherna, pour her some wine. Drink with us, Margali. Don't be angry!"

Magda accepted the wine, sweat breaking out on her palms; she wiped them furtively on her tunic. Just my luck. But I managed that one. What else are they going to throw at me? She sipped the wine, nibbling at some sweets and the nuts Rayna was passing around; they had been pickled in something tart and highly spiced, and she noticed that Jaelle, who had refused Magda's confectionery, ate the spiced nuts with relish.

She's young. But I'd better not underestimate her!

A burst of noise from the men around the other fire interrupted her, and she twisted around to look at them. They were drinking hard, passing a bottle from hand to hand and laughing uproariously; loud enough to drown out the howling of the storm outside. She strained her ears to listen, thinking, if they are from Sain Scarp, they might know something of Pedro...

Camilla's hand came down on her wrist like a vise; Magda almost cried out with the pain of it. "For shame," said the old Amazon, in a voice that cut like a knife. "Is this how Temora House teaches her daughters to behave, shameless girl, staring at drunken men like some harlot of the streets? Turn your back on them, you ill-mannered brat!"

Magda pulled her hand free of the wiry old fingers. Her eyes filled with tears of outrage and humiliation. She said in a whisper, "I was only wondering if they are bandits...”

"Whatever they are, they are nothing to us." The old woman spoke with firm finality. Magda rubbed her wrist, wondering if there would be a bruise.

I'm doing everything wrong. I'd better keep my mouth shut, and go to bed as soon as I can. She lay back on her unrolled blankets, pretending sleep. The drunken laughing and singing of the bandits went on. Around the women's fire there was a little more soft-voiced conversation, some quiet laughing and joking-they were teasing Sherna about something that had happened at midsummer-feast. Magda understood none of it. The women waterproofed their low suede ankle-boots, tidied saddlebags, cleaned and put away eating utensils and began to ready themselves for bed.

Someone said, "I wish Rafi were here with her harp; we could have a song, better than that noise!" She flicked a quick, oblique glance over her shoulder at the drunken crew at the far end, but, Magda noted, did not turn to look. Amazon etiquette?

Camilla said, "Rafi was with me when we punished those two women in Thendara city. You are new-come to us, Rayna, Sherna, you have not heard? You, Margali, you came here from Thendara; has the tale made the rounds yet in the marketplace?"

"What tale?" Magda did not dare to pretend sleep too deep to answer.

"You have not heard, either? Well, it came to our ears that in the Golden Cage-you know of the Golden Cage?" she asked, waiting, and Magda nodded. The Golden Cage was a notorious brothel not too far from the Terran Zone; she knew that it was patronized by spacemen and Empire tourists sometimes.

"It came to us that there were two entertainers"-she spoke the polite term with irony-"who had cut their hair short and were nightly presenting an exhibition of a particularly indecent sort-I am sure that every one of you can imagine the details-which the old freak running the place announced as 'Love Secrets of the Free Amazons.' So Rafaella and I-"

"Dear aunt,", said Jaelle, yawning, "I have known since my fourteenth year, and so have we all, that there are lovers of women in this world, and that there are pretended lovers of women, and that some men have nothing better to do with their manhood than indulge in naughty fantasies about them. Do you think we are so bored that you must entertain us with dirty stories, Camilla dear?"

"Then you haven't heard how we punished those bitches for pretending to be Amazons, and bringing scandal and disgrace to our name? Can you guess, Margali?"

Magda said "No," not trusting herself to say any more. This is being told for my benefit. Somehow I've given myself away. That old emmasca has eyes like a gimlet.

Camilla said, savoring the words, her eyes lingering on Magda, "Why, Rafi and I went there by night when their leering audience had gone, we dragged those shameless wenches out into the main square, we stripped them naked and shaved their heads bald as an egg, and their private parts, too, and smeared them in pitch, and rolled them in wood shavings."

"I should have been there," said Jaelle, her eyes glistening with savage relish. "I would have put a torch to them and watched them sizzle!"

"Oh, well, we left them there in that state to be found by the guard; somehow I do not think, after being so shamed, that they will pretend to be Amazons for their filthy charades. What do you think, Margali?"

Magda tried to make her voice steady, but there was a lump in her throat, and she knew what caused it: stark fear. She said, "Probably not; but I have always heard that a grezalis follows her trade because she is too stupid to learn any other, so it may have been a lesson wasted."

"You were too hard on them," said Sherna. "It is the foul old pervert who runs the place that I would have treated so. He staged that filthy show; it was not the women's fault."

"On the contrary, I think you were too, easy on them," Jaelle said. "Shaming such women is useless; if they were not dead to shame, they would never have been in such a place."

"All women are not made harlots of their free will," Sherna argued; "they must earn their bread somehow!"

Camilla's voice was harsh, rasping like a file. "There is always an alternative," she said, in a voice that effectively shut off comment.

Magda, watching the grim old face, wondered again, What kind of awful experience could make a woman hate herself so much that even neutering seems preferable to retaining any trace of female function? The neutering operation had been illegal on Darkover for centuries; not even the strictest enforcement of the laws had managed to stamp it out.

Jaelle yawned again, asking Rayna, who was the tallest, to put out the lantern. Another woman banked the fire so it would keep a few coals through the night. Magda pillowed her head on her saddlebags as she saw the others doing, laid the knife from her boots beside her head.

Now that the danger seemed over, and the acute fear of discovery had subsided, she found herself elated. She had learned more about Free Amazons in one evening than twelve years on the Darkovan side had taught all the agents. She knew that because before leaving her post she had read through everything actually known about them, including folklore, rumors and dirty jokes, and it all fitted on a printout she could hold in one palm. If I carry this off, I'll have something to brag about for the rest of my life; that I could spend the night with them and get away undetected.

One after another, the Amazons dropped off to sleep. . Old Camilla snored very softly. Sherna and Gwennis, who lay side by side, talked for a few minutes in whispers, then slept. Magda, in spite of the long day's hard riding, was too tired and tense to sleep.

The noise around the other fire did not subside, but grew louder; Magda wondered if it was deliberate, a way of expressing hostility the men dared not show. There was loud talk, drunken singing, some of the songs of such a bawdy nature Magda knew they would never have been sung directly before any woman with the slightest pretense to respectability.

For a time she listened, then grew bored and irritable. Were there no laws of polite use for the shelters, to determine how late one party might continue to carouse when sharing a shelter with another group of travelers? Damn them, were they going to keep up that racket all night? It was surprising the Amazons put up with it, but then, their code evidently forbade them to take notice of the band of men.

The songs came to an end; there was a brief lull, a minor fight broke out and was settled, and in another lull Magda heard one of the men say loudly “... held at Sain Scarp...”

Magda went tense, straining herself to hear even one more word, but the loud drunken talk started up again. They do know something about Peter! If I could only hear!

Blurred by the conversation she seemed to hear the word Ardais-she was never sure-and her resolve stiffened. She must hear! The Amazons were all sleeping now. She would slip very quietly along the dark wall-She had partially undressed; she sat up and drew on trousers and under tunic in the dark; slid quietly from her blankets and went barefoot along the wall, clinging to the shadows. She could see Jaelle sleeping on her stomach like a child, her face on her bent arm. Magda tiptoed toward the far end of the room, holding her breath; was rewarded by hearing one of the men say “... Ardais cub." and “... send him back at midwinter...”

"And what answer did the lady...”

"You think he tells me all that? All I can..." It was drowned out in a burst of drunken laughter, then one of the men stiffened.

"What's that?"

"Mouse or rat, probably. Pass me the jug, you – "

Magda froze, but the first speaker got up, suddenly strode straight toward where Magda huddled in the shadow; she turned to slip away, missed her footing and fell full length. Above her she heard a great shout of laughter. The next minute hard hands came down on her and she was picked up bodily and carried into the center of the circle of men.

The man holding her set her on her feet, guff awing loudly.

"Some mouse or rat, Jerral!"

Magda saw that her captor was the big burly mustachioed man whose eyes had frightened her when she first came into the shelter. He bent toward her, taking her chin in his ham-sized hand.

"Tired of sleeping alone, chiya?" He used the word for "little girl," which in family intimacy is affectionate; elsewhere, contemptuous. "Which one of us you got the hots for, hey? Bet it's me; saw you looking at me before."

-Magda was wildly trying to get her breath, to think. She would not; she could not struggle and plead with these men!

"Yeah, we've all heard about the Free Amazons," said a big, black-bearded man, digging Magda's captor in the ribs with a wicked leer. "Let's wake up the rest of the girls and get them to join the party! What about it, little rabbit, did you come to ask if there was a drink for you here?"

Oh, God, what have I done? I've been responsible, for breaking the shelter-truce, if I've involved the other women in this, made these men think... Furtively she felt for her knife; realized, in horror, that she had left it lying by her saddlebag.

"What's wrong, chiya? Not a word to say? Well, we'll loosen up your tongue, soon enough," said the big man who had grabbed her, and she felt his fetid, drunken breath hot on her face, the evil, bristling mustachios brush her cheek. He jerked her under tunic down around her shoulders. "Hey, a pretty one, too. Stop shoving, Rannar, you'll have your turn soon enough-I caught this one. You want a girl, go wake up one for yourself!" He ran his hands down her bared body. Magda jerked away, caught him by the arm, tried to wrench him in a judo throw; he sidestepped, with a leering shout. "Hey, pretty, I know a trick worth two of that! So you're a fighter, too? We can really have some fun with this one," he said, leering. Magda's arms felt numb.

What's the matter with me? She felt him take her shoulder, twisting it cruelly; she could not keep back a cry of pain.

"Now let's not have any more nonsense, precious. Just be a good little girl and we won't hurt you, no, we won't hurt you at all," he muttered, running his hot hands down across her breasts. She backhanded him, hard, across the mouth; rearing back in drunken rage, he struck her a blow that flung her, half stunned, to the floor. "Damn it, you bitch, none of that! Hold her, Rannar – "

She fought and struggled, gasping, silent, afraid if she opened her mouth that some word of Terran Standard would escape her. The men clustered around, shouting encouragement to the men who held her. Magda had been trained in unarmed combat since her sixteenth year; she tried to catch her breath, to find the strength to strike effectively, but she found herself held too hard.

Why can't I defend myself? How did I get this far? Suddenly, as a drowning man's whole life is said to flash before his eyes, Magda knew the answer. I've psyched myself, for years, into behaving like a normal Darkovan girl. And they're too timid to fight-they expect men to protect them. I'm conditioned to that, and it canceled out my Terran agent's training...

She hardly knew it when she started to scream...