All of Witch World knows to fear the hated, fire-eyed Keplian horses who lure riders to their deaths. All that is, save for one young Native American girl new to Witch World, who rescues a Keplian mare and her foal and discovers an awesome truth--the Keplians were created to serve light, not darkness, and to ride with humans. This is the first in a new trilogy.
Release date: February 15, 2001
Print pages: 1887
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The Key of the Keplian
He studied her as she crouched beside him. She was too thin for beauty but in his eyes she was not only beautiful, she was beloved: the daughter of his son’s daughter and his only living descendant. The coming of another race had been hard on his people. Too many had died from diseases they had never known as free-rangers. Others had taken as starving coyotes to the firewater offered all too often.
Disease had slain his son, ill fortune the boy’s daughter and her man, leaving this one alone. Other blood had mingled with that of the Nemunuh over the generations: his own mother had been half Navajo, the daughter of a white man by his Indian wife. His eyes watched the girl. Eleeri he had named her, from the ancient tongue used only by those of power. There were few of those nowadays; in too many lines the gift had faltered and died. But in the child it had come again, flowering into the true horse-gift and into ties with other life.
The girl watched him, sorrow in the huge gray eyes. Her long black hair hung past her thin shoulder and she brushed the shining strands back with an impatient hand. As her hand lifted, powerful tendons stood out in the hollow of a wrist. The slenderness was a disguise; here was one who was all wire and whipcord. Long, long ago, women had been warriors and accepted so by the Nemunuh. Far Traveler had trained his great-granddaughter well. In these degenerate days none of the young men could match her in bow or knife skill. Nor could any, man or woman, match her with horse or hunt. He smiled up at her, then spoke, his voice weak but clear.
“I named you Eleeri. Now you must prove my naming.”
The child was puzzled. That her name meant “Walker by Strange Road” she had always known. But what road was she to walk? The old man smiled at the wrinkled brow.
“Go into the high hills, find there the beginning of the road of the gone-before ones. That you shall walk, leaving fear behind you. Walk as a warrior. As the last of my line shall you go forth with all I can give you.” A jerk of his head indicated a small heap in the darkened corner of the room. “At sunhigh let you go with the light, and Ka-dih bless you.” He sighed softly. “Would that you could ride, but I sold the last horse. Nor can you wait too long. The woman who calls on us will come today. You must be well gone before she arrives.”
Eleeri shivered. She must indeed. It had been only her great-grandfather who had saved her six years ago. She remembered the brutalities of her aunt and uncle. Her father had not disdained the Indian blood of the bride he had taken, but his sister and the rancher she had wed had been far otherwise. When Far Traveler died, by white man’s law she would fall back into their hands, being not quite sixteen. If there was a way to flee, she would take it.
A road of the gone-before ones? Her heart leaped. Many were the stories of those ancient people; even in the school she attended the truth was known. Some of it, at least. She had read there of the Anasazi, the books reinforcing the old tales Far Traveler had first heard from his mother. But that there was a road she had never known.
Black eyes twinkled in her great-grandfather’s seamed face. A face like a map of the hills and gullies of his land. Brown as the dust, yet alive as the land itself.
“Bring me my parfleche.” She brought the tanned deerskin war bag and waited. From it he drew out a piece of white deerskin tanned and scraped to perfect suppleness. He spread it on the bed and she gazed down. His hand lifted, wavering a little.
“Here . . .” his fingers touched, “here is our land. Follow the stream high into the hills. Upon the hillside, there is first the white stump of a great tree struck by lightning.” Eleeri nodded; she had seen that. “Farther up, there are the marks of a place where the hills fell long ago. Quartz seams the rocks above.” She nodded again. That, too, she had seen in her hunting. “Leave the stream and follow the map where it shows here.” Once again his fingers rested on the skin. He paused to breathe deeply and in the silence they both heard and recognized the sound that came to their ears.
Far Traveler cursed. “She comes, the meddling one. You must leave me and go.”
“I will not leave you to die alone.” She hurried to the door and peered out. Many miles down the road, the small red car labored to climb the steep grade. Eleeri seized a key from the hook and ran into the yard. Swiftly she locked the gate into the yard, before running back to her great-grandfather.
“She may think we are out if we keep silent.”
The old man chuckled. “That one is like the pack rat; always she pries into every corner. No locked gate will keep her from us long. You know their customs. Once she sees me, she will have you out of here and where you cannot escape. You must run, my child. Run so fast and so far she cannot ever find you again. Only the road will hide you now.”
Eleeri set her face. “I will not leave you to die alone.”
“I do not plan to die alone,” came the low words. “Fetch to me my bow, my knife. Bring the war paint I prepared.”
Eleeri ran, to return with the items. Squatting on her heels, she watched as her kinsman rose from his bed. By the sweat on his forehead, she could tell it was a terrible effort, but she did not speak. He had lived as a warrior; it was fitting he should die as one. She watched as he stripped to breechclout and slowly donned his ceremonial buckskins. Arming himself, painted face set, the old man marched to the doorway. Fierce black eyes gazed up at the sun. On the road below, the red car was closer.
He began to chant then, softly. The death song of his race. He finished the first part of the song and turned to her. A hand gestured, then another song lifted into the clear air. Blessings on a warrior about to ride forth. The Blessing of Ka-dih and of the tribe. Then he turned again to look up into the mountains. The chant rose louder as he listed his deeds, prayed that he might be acceptable as a warrior. His song ended on a last wild cry and then his face changed. His hands lifted in greeting and he took a step forward.
As Eleeri gasped, light seemed to flow about him. She felt as if great winds beat about the house, then she cried out as Far Traveler crumpled slowly. Around her, warmth flowed, welcoming a warrior home, comforting her who was left behind. She bowed her head quietly. It was well. Her kin whom she had loved with all her heart was gone on his final journey. It was for her now to take her own road—the road that had been his last gift to her. The red car was nearing the final bend below her. In ten minutes or so it would be at the locked gate. Eleeri remembered her uncle’s hate, the beatings, the scorn for a quarter-Indian. She would die before she was returned to that. She set her teeth and with a burst of strength those who did not know her would have found hard to believe, lifted her kinsman and carried him into the house. Swiftly she laid him out on the bed, bow and knife at the ready.
Outside, the car was silenced as it reached the gate. A voice called as the gate was rattled. Eleeri seized the pack and other items laid out waiting. She had no time to look them over. She must trust that her great-grandfather had known what she would need. She stooped to kiss the withered cheek, adding the map to her possessions as she did so. Outside, the voice called again, more urgently. The girl smiled bitterly. Far Traveler had been right about that one. She would not leave without something.
Silently the girl drifted to the back door and opened it. Never settle for one exit, her great-grandfather had always said. And better if the other is hidden. A wicked smile lit Eleeri’s face for a moment. She could hear the rattling of the gate as it was climbed, then the voice again, louder, nearer. The front door, too, was locked; that would slow the pack rat. She slipped around the edge of the house using the tumbledown outbuildings as cover. A section of fence lifted aside once two iron pegs were removed. Quietly she replaced it, ramming the pegs home again. That would puzzle the white-eyes. The voice rose urgently, followed soon after by the sounds of a breaking window.
Screams followed, interspersed by cries of Eleeri’s name. Feet ran to and fro, the repetitions of the girl’s name become almost frantic. Eleeri was sorry for the distress; she supposed the woman meant well. But she would not allow herself to be returned to a home where she was despised. If only Far Traveler had not insisted on helping her work about the house the previous day. Not only had he aided her, he had also been in a shed several hours doing something with the door shut against her. She guessed now that he had felt his death close, and it must have been the pack she carried that he was preparing. The social worker came only once a week. Up until then they had managed to hide Far Traveler’s growing weakness from the woman.
They had hoped that his strength would last another few weeks, just until her sixteenth birthday. Then she might have been permitted to live on the few remaining acres in the house the old man had built. She grinned fiercely. Her aunt and uncle would find little of benefit remaining. The land that had once belonged to the Two Feathers family was sold long ago. The personal possessions, the tiny house, and a few acres of waterless land were all that remained. Eleeri could have made a living there. She could hunt, break horses, keep alive a tiny vegetable garden, and thus survive. But to an outsider the inheritance was worthless.
She peered around a tree, eyes searching the yard below her. The figure of the woman emerged, running clumsily from building to building. Eleeri nodded to herself. It would be hours before searchers could arrive. She knew they would come. The social worker was not one to let her go in peace.
She shouldered her pack and checked her weapons. The map hung limply over her belt, ready to hand, as she leaned into the long climb. She moved with a slow confidence. She must not wind herself in the climb. If she was followed, she might have to use all her strength to escape. Better that she did not waste too soon what strength she had. According to the map there was far to go and all of it through rough country. If they had a helicopter out looking, it would be her skill that saved her, not her strength or speed.
Below, the red car was fleeing down the mountain road. The woman who drove it was equally determined. The child must have taken to the hills. She must be found, taken to a place of safety. Her superior had been a fool to allow the girl to live with that old man. She might have known this would happen. Furthermore, typical man, her supervisor was away from the office when things occurred. She bit her lip thoughtfully: it did leave her in charge. He wouldn’t be back for almost a week, and she would have the girl back by then. No matter what he said, the child was under sixteen, and her aunt had always said they would take her back. She ignored the report on file that described the treatment meted out to Eleeri under the guardianship of that same family six years earlier.
So the girl had been punished a time or two. Children needed a firm hand. She drove faster, eager to reach her office and call out those who would find the girl for her. It would take some time, but she was sure she could convince those in authority that the child was in danger. She could lay it on thick: A young girl lost in the mountains, mad with grief. A real suicide risk. If they didn’t find her, it might not look good in the papers. She never looked into her own mind, never knew that she had hated a young girl and an old man for their pride, for the dislike they showed when they faced her intrusions.
There had been something in the poise of the girl that had sent a shiver down the social worker’s spine. In a land where the deaths of settlers were still remembered, she had not been the right woman to work where she did. Her family remembered even as Eleeri’s uncle remembered and recounted the massacre of kin. The woman despised those under her care. That she was despised in turn infuriated her. She would find the girl, give her to a decent civilized family. They’d tame the child.
Far above her now, the “child” climbed beside the stream. Behind her the ancient weathered stump of the tree showed clear in the bright sun. Ahead she could glimpse the scars of the slide that had occurred some one hundred years earlier. They overlay others. For some reason this part of the cliff always slid every century or so. Eleeri gazed up as she neared the base of it. She was still wearing the clothes she had donned on rising. They were her oldest and almost in rags, as she had intended to clean out the rusty iron guttering. She could spare them, and she should rest for a while, too.
She dropped her pack well up the stream, returning toward the landslide to climb higher. Soon she was at the top, surveying the fragile crumbling rock at her feet. She smiled a little. Far Traveler had always said that a trick was worth miles to the pursued. Some time later a long rumbling roar of sound echoed around the nearby hills. A scrap of shirt showed at the edge of the new mounds of scree. If they dug, they would find more scraps deeper in. She had placed them there before she started the slide. From then on she took to the stream itself. Let them try to track in the water; she knew a place she could emerge without leaving scent easily found. She hurried now; the water was freezing.
Farther along her trail, she rested and ate some of the food Far Traveler had provided in the pack. As she did so, she explored the pack’s contents with interest. Clothing, a complete case of stainless steel needles in all sizes, thread, fish hooks, the list appeared endless. But then the pack was no mere rucksack, but one of the large, framed type which could carry a hundred pounds weight of supplies at need—and if the wearer could bear the weight. It appeared to be empty now, and she lifted it to begin the repacking. That was odd, there was still weight. She delved, turning the pack inside out to find that under a layer of cloth, there was a leather belt finely carved with a line of running horses. It bore a bone buckle, engraved with tiny prancing horses, their eyes inlaid in jet. The weight as she held it up explained the still heavy pack which might now be light enough to be truly empty. Fascinated, she turned the belt over, examining the back.
Ah! It was laced with a long sinew. She pulled that out partway and peered inside the overlapping edges. Then she sat back. How long had Far Traveler planned her escape, had he always feared his life would be ended too soon for her safety? Within the belt lay treasure. Gold, melted and cast into thin disks from the pinches of gold dust he had panned for years from this stream. It had never been worth the work to others. A week’s hard labor would produce less than a fifth of one of these disks. A man could work in a better job for far better wages any day. Yet for years her great-grandfather must have toiled to gather the yellow grains and melt them into this.
She lifted the pack but still it felt a fraction too heavy to her balancing hands. She dug under the cloth lining again to come up with a small doeskin pouch. Opening it she spilled the contents onto a palm. Purple fire caught sunlight, blue and softer amber glowing among the color. Ka-dih, but the old man must have been gathering this for long. Amethyst was found in the hills hereabouts, but the pieces were usually flawed. These were not. They were small, but of the finest, clearest color she had ever seen. Even as a semiprecious stone they were worth much money.
She studied the stones that added blue hues. They had to be sapphires. But where had Far Traveler found those? There were none of that stone in her mountains. Not that there were many here—she counted five—but they appeared to be fine stones as well. She also found amber: two pieces carrying burdens within them. Seeds of some plant she had never seen before.
She picked one out curiously. Her fingers seemed to transmit warmth to the amber, and to her surprise, it glowed. She put it down again. Perhaps her great-grandfather had known more than he had said about the road she was to follow. She had a feeling that the amethyst stones were for trade—the gold, too—but the amber might have another purpose. Idly she placed a piece of it in her pocket, then, moved by something, she placed the second piece in a pocket on the other side of her jeans. She carefully repacked her belongings and stood up. By now the woman from social services must have reached the township. The hunt would soon be raised.
In that Eleeri was only partly correct. The law there was reluctant to become involved. It was several hours before they agreed to send out searchers, and by then it was close to darkness. The hunt was held up until morning, and Eleeri gained time. Time she used well, moving along the trails at a steady stride as she kept one eye on the map. She kept moving until dusk on that second day, then made a quick camp. Carefully she rolled a half-buried stone aside and lit her fire within the hollow. She ate, drank, and studied her tiny camp. The gathered firewood would do until dawn. The rocks behind her would reflect the fire’s heat to where she lay, and the plaited grass screen would help to keep the heat in and the drafts out.
She rose at first light to eat, and drink hot tea. Then she rolled the stone back into place, hiding the ashes of her fire. She rubbed the underside of the rock with pungent leaves before she did so. That should baffle any trailing noses.
She trotted down to the trickle of water, carrying her pack. Once there, she stripped and washed. Then she packed her jeans and other clothing, taking out instead her deerskin shirt and pants. She put on the carved belt with its secrets, tucked the pouch into the front, and added the knife in its fringed sheath to the belt. Her bow and quiver were hung within easy reach on the pack corner.
She looked at the map long and hard. From here on she would be in strange country. In her hunting she had ranged far, but never in this particular direction. She must now rely on the map and her good sense. Setting her shoulders, she began to follow a faint deer trail. It went in the right direction and would make for easier walking—for a while, at least. She moved steadily on as the sun rose. At midmorning she halted to drink a little and rest a few minutes. Then she was moving on again. By noon she was deep into unknown mountains on a trail that skirted a drop far down to canyons below. She wondered what the woman from social services was doing now.
Then she turned her mind resolutely. To allow fear of pursuit to overcome one was folly, so Far Traveler had always said. It weakened the pursued, strengthened the pursuer. She was child to this land; it would not give her up lightly. She was warrior; she would not surrender easily. Far down her back trail, men dug frantically in a fresh slide. It would take them all day to be sure no child’s body lay under the weight of rocks and cold earth. But the feeling she had been tricked strengthened the rage and determination of the pursuer. The woman drove back down the road, cold fury in her eyes. She had been promised a helicopter the next morning.
Another night, another camp, and Eleeri slept soundly, but by dawn she was gone, following the map. She was nearing her destination if she had not misread, and her heart was torn. To leave her own land, her own place, never to stand beside Far Traveler again . . . she shrugged that last away. No matter if she stayed or went, her kinsman and her home were gone.
She pushed on through the day. By now she guessed that those who hunted her would have found the slide to be a trick. That would please nobody—to be made a fool of by a young girl. Still, what matter, if it had bought her another day?
It was almost noon when she heard the first sounds of helicopter blades above her. At once she ducked into a crevice. As she stretched along it, her doeskins blended into the dry brown earth. She remained motionless as the helicopter swooped overhead. Nor did she turn her face upward—Far Traveler had warned her against that.
Long ago he had fought in the white man’s war. Planes then had been able to see the shade of an upturned face. They would fly low to encourage movement. She stayed facedown and silent. The sound beat away to the east and she moved then, running lightly along the trail into the cover of brush ahead. From then on, she moved with caution, one ear open always to the sky. Twice more the helicopter swept overhead as it searched. She cursed it savagely. Why were they hunting her in this direction? What had led them to think she would be in this part of the mountains?
Eleeri had no way of knowing that the woman had enlisted the aid of a rancher with dogs. It had taken long enough, but finally they had struck her trail where she had left the stream. Now they followed, the copter ranging ahead. Twice where it could, the machine had landed, airlifting man and dogs over a rougher time-consuming area of the trail.
They were closing in on her, Eleeri thought. Somehow they were moving faster than she could. She halted in cover to stare at the map once more. There! She was to take the right-hand fork of a path that led from a certain rock. If the rock was still standing, if the path still existed. By now she was certain that the map was old, very, very old. The land had changed over the years. She could only press on and pray it had not changed more than she could recognize.
At least the rock was there. She halted to peer at it. Yes, she was sure this was the one. It had the vague outline of a hawk. There was no longer any sign of a path, but if she went to the right, there was footing through a patch of upraised rock spikes. She prayed she was on the correct path.
By now the baying of dogs carried to her ears. The copter was overhead more often, so that she could only advance in short rushes where there was cover as the aircraft swung away. But the depression she followed brought her to the next sign, a cave mouth she passed quickly. She halted for a moment in shadow to listen. The dogs must be a scant hour behind her now. Far less as the crow flew, but with the mountains as they were, only a crow could travel directly. Dark was closing in and the watcher overhead was departing.
She gazed at her map in despair. There were still some miles to go. She sank to the ground, her shoulders aching, her legs leaden. She was hungry. She must rest, eat, and hope for a miracle. She ate and drank swiftly and lay down wrapped in the soft hand-woven blanket that had been in the pack.
For a couple of hours she slept heavily, then something caused her to wake with a start. She sat up to gaze about her. Bright as the last days had been, the nights had clouded over with each dusk. Now above her the stars shone out.
For a moment she bowed her head. The gods were kind to their daughter. Now she had light for her feet: the moonlight would make a path she could follow. She must go more slowly, the shadows could be treacherous, but she could walk—and walk she would. She gathered her pack onto still-weary shoulders. Slowly she trudged down the smoother way that lay before her. This way, or so the map claimed. If she could put enough distance between her and those who followed, she might reach sanctuary before they could take her. She had no idea what she would find at the end of the road. Only that Far Traveler had been ce. . .
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