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The Woman Who Rides Like a Man

Tamora Pierce


  Chapter 1. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man

  Chapter 2. The Bloody Hawk

  Chapter 3. Bazhir Shaman

  Chapter 4. Studies in Sorcery

  Chapter 5. Apprentices

  Chapter 6. Ceremonies

  Chapter 7. The Voice of the Tribes

  Chapter 8. The King of the Thieves

  Chapter 9. At the Sign of the Dancing Dove

  Chapter 10. The Doomed Sorceress

  To Pa, Ma and Kim—

  my own personal pride of lions—

  and particularly to Pa,

  who started me writing in the first place



  ALANNA OF TREBOND, THE SOLE WOMAN KNIGHT IN the realm of Tortall, splashed happily in the waters of an oasis, enjoying her first bath in three days. Hard to believe that it’s winter in the North, she reflected. In the Southern Desert the temperatures were just right, although she objected to so much sand.

  “Best hurry up,” Coram told her. Her burly man-at-arms stood guard on the other side of the bushes that concealed the pool. “If this is a Bazhir waterin’ place, we don’t want to wait and find out if they swear for the king or against him.”

  Alanna stepped out of the water, grabbing her clothes. She had no urge to meet any Bazhir tribesmen, particularly not renegades. She and Coram were bound for Tyra in the south, and coming to battle with the warlike desert men would cut their journey very short.

  Drying off, the young knight pulled on a boy’s blue shirt and breeches. Although her femininity was not the secret it had been when she trained in the royal palace, Alanna still preferred the freedom of men’s clothing. It was odd to remember that the last time she bathed in an oasis, she had been a page and Prince Jonathan had just found out she was a girl. Those days—the days in which she bound her chest flat and never went swimming—were gone. She didn’t miss them.

  Faithful, her pet cat, was yowling a warning. “Alanna!” Coram yelled, seconding the cat. “We’ve got trouble!”

  Grabbing her sword, Alanna raced for Coram and the horses. An approaching cloud of dust indicated tribesmen or robbers, and she grimaced as she threw herself into Moonlight’s saddle. She trotted forward to meet Faithful, a small black streak racing toward her across the sand. The cat leaped, landing squarely in front of his mistress before climbing into the leather cup that was his position on her saddle. Alanna’s gentle mare held steady, used to the cat’s abrupt comings and goings.

  “Let’s try to reach the road!” Alanna told Coram.

  They rode hard, Alanna crouched low over Moonlight’s pale mane. She looked back to see Coram shaking his head. “It’s no good,” he was bellowing. “They’ve spotted us! Ride on—I’ll hold ’em!”

  Alanna wheeled and stopped, Lightning glittering in her hand. “What sort of friend d’you think I am? We’ll wait for them here.”

  Coram swore. “If ye were my daughter, I’d tan yer hide! Go!”

  Alanna shook her head stubbornly. She could see their pursuers now: they were hillmen, the worst of the desert raiders. Reaching behind her, she unbuckled her shield from its straps, slipping it over her left arm. Coram was following suit.

  “Stubborn lass,” he grumbled. “I’d druther tangle with ten Bazhir tribes than any hillmen.”

  Alanna nodded. The Bazhir were deadly fighters, but they had a strict code of honor. Hillmen lived for killing and loot.

  Renewing her grip on Lightning’s hilt, she settled her shield more firmly on her arm. The hillmen closed rapidly, fanning out in a half circle that would close around Alanna and her companion. Grimly the knight clenched her jaw and ordered, “Take them in a charge.”

  “What?” yelped Coram.

  Alanna charged directly at the hillmen. Coram gulped and followed her, letting out a war cry.

  Moonlight reared as they reached the first raiders, striking out with hooves: she had been trained for battle years ago. Alanna slashed about her with Lightning, ignoring her enemies’ yells of fury.

  A one-eyed villain closed in, grabbing her sword arm. With an angry yowl Faithful leaped from his cup with his claws unsheathed. The one-eyed hillman screamed and released Alanna, trying to pull the hissing cat away from his face.

  “Lass! Beware!” Coram bellowed, trying to fend off three at once. He yelled in pain as one of them opened a deep gash on his sword arm. He swore and attacked again, dropping his shield and switching his sword to his good left hand.

  Warned by her companion, Alanna whirled to face a giant hillman, a grinning mountain with red hair and long braided mustaches. He guided his shaggy pony with his knees, leaving his hands free to grip the hilt of a sword with an odd crystal blade. Alanna eyed its razor-sharp length and gulped, ducking beneath the redheaded man’s first swing. He reversed it, and she blocked it with her shield just in time, yelping at the pain of impact. She struck back with Lightning, only to miss as her attacker darted away.

  She refused to follow and fight on his terms. Instead she brought her lioness shield up and waited.

  The giant returned, circling her carefully. His pony lunged forward, and Moonlight reared, warning it back with her flailing hooves. Alanna caught another blow from the crystal blade on her shield, feeling the shock through her entire body.

  I hope my brother put plenty of magic on this shield, she thought grimly. Otherwise it won’t last through its first battle!

  She turned Moonlight as the giant circled her on his nimble pony. With a kick of her heels she urged the gold mare forward, slashing at her opponent. She was a knight of Tortall, and not to be toyed with!

  She used every chance to break through his guard. He blocked her time after time, grinning infuriatingly.

  Alanna drew back, breathing hard and fighting to keep her control. Now the giant returned the attack, and she blinked sweat from her eyes: She could not afford to make a mistake now! His tactics were different from those of the mounted knights she had fought before; she didn’t know what to expect.

  Suddenly the midday sun was directly in her eyes—he had maneuvered her just for this. Only at the last second did she glimpse his sword descending on her. She brought Lightning up hard, slamming her blade hilt-to-hilt with the giant’s sword. There was a ring of clashing metal, and the downward sweep of the crystal edge was stopped.

  Then Lightning broke, sheared off near the hilt.

  Moonlight darted away, taking Alanna out of the hillman’s range. Her mistress stared at the hilt she still gripped. Lightning had been her sword ever since she had been considered fit to carry one. How could she fight without it in her hand?

  Coming out of her daze, Alanna fumbled for her axe. She was trembling with rage; it took all her self-control to keep from losing her temper completely and making a fatal mistake. Axe in hand, she charged the hillman with a yell. She didn’t hear the warning cries of the other hillmen, or Coram’s gleeful whoop; she heard only the wheezing of the giant’s pony and her own choked breath. She swung, swearing as the hillman ducked and pulled out of her range. She was closing with him again when he yelled, seeing something behind her. To her fury, he whirled his pony and fled, calling to the few men he had left. Alanna spurred after him.

  “Come back, coward!” she cried.

  The giant turned to laugh and shake his sword at her. His voice was choked off as a black arrow sprouted in his chest. More arrows struck down the hillmen; only two escaped. They rode for all they were worth, pursued by five white-robed tribesmen.

  A Bazhir, his white burnoose tied with a scarlet cord, rode toward Alanna as she dismounted. She was staring at the body of the hillman who had wielded the crystal sword. The blade lay besi
de him, gleaming against the sand. It glimmered and suddenly flashed, blinding her for a short moment. Alanna stared: against the yellow-orange fire that filled her sight was a picture.

  A dark finger—or was it a pole?—pointed at a crystal-blue sky. Before it stood a man wearing tattered gray; his eyes were mad. She could smell wood smoke.

  Her eyes cleared, and the vision was gone.

  Reaching under her shirt, Alanna drew forth the token given to her by the Great Mother Goddess three years before. It had once been a coal in her campfire; now it was covered in clear stone, its fires still flickering under its surface. Alanna knew that if she held it when magic was present, she could see power as a glowing force in the air. She saw magic now as orange light flickered around the sword, and she scowled. Recently she had dealt with magic of this particular shade, and the memory was not pleasant.

  The Bazhir who had followed her kicked sand over the sword. “It is evil,” he said, his quiet voice slightly raspy. “Let the desert have it.”

  Distracted from the magic, Alanna discovered she was crying. It was as if she had lost a companion, not a weapon.

  A glint of metal caught her eye and she stopped to pick up Ligtning’s sheared-off blade. Sliding the length of metal into its sheath, she strapped the now-useless hilt in place. Unless she tried to draw the blade, no one would know it was not whole.

  Mounting her horse, she settled Faithful before her as Coram brought his gelding to her side. “I’m sorry, lass,” he told her quietly, putting a hand on her arm. “I know what the sword meant to ye. But ye can’t be thinking of that now. These men may be friends or may not be; who knows why they saved our skins. Ye’d best be puttin’ yer mind to talk with ’em.”

  Alanna nodded, trying to collect her thoughts. Their rescuers formed a loose circle around her and Coram as the man who had covered the crystal sword with sand joined them, guiding a large chestnut stallion with ease. The others gave way to him, letting him approach Alanna and Coram. For a while he said nothing, only stared.

  Finally he nodded. “I am Halef Seif, headman of the Bloody Hawk tribe, of the people called the Bazhir,” he said formally. “Those who are dead were trespassers on our sands, riding without leave. You also come here unbidden. Why should we not serve you as we did these others, Woman Who Rides Like a Man?”

  Alanna rubbed her head tiredly. She felt too tired and dazed for the dance of manners that passed for conversation among the Bazhir. Dealing with these desert warriors was bound to be tricky; luckily she had learned their ways from an expert.

  Faithful climbed onto her shoulder, setting up a murmur among the watching tribesmen. Alanna glared up at the cat, knowing he knew he was making the Bazhir nervous. They don’t see black cats with purple eyes often, she thought. “You’re getting too big to sit up there,” she whispered to her pet.

  Never mind that, Faithful told her. His meowing had always made as much sense to Alanna as human speech. Talk to them now.

  Suddenly she felt more confident and alert. “I hope you will deal with us fairly, Halef Seif of the Bloody Hawk,” she replied. “We took nothing. We harmed nothing, my friend and I. We are simply riding south. Would you harm a warrior of the king?”

  Her gamble failed as Halef Seif shrugged. “We know no king.”

  Alanna could hear Coram shifting nervously in his saddle. It might have been easier to deal with men who acknowledged King Roald of Tortall. Renegades would not take kindly to the presence of Roald’s most unusual young knight.

  “You know no king, but others of the Bazhir do. If they knew you held a Knight of the Realm and her companion, they might counsel you to take care,” Alanna warned.

  This produced some amusement among the riders. Only their leader remained grim. “Is your king so weak he uses women for warriors? We cannot think well of such a king. We cannot think well of a woman so immodest that she puts on the clothes of a man and rides with her face bare.”

  Alanna pointed to the bodies of the hillmen she and Coram had slain. “They did not think I was a worthy opponent either. Can you say that my friend and I would be dead at the hillmen’s swords if you had not come? They took my sword from me.” She swallowed hard and said recklessly, “What is a sword? I have my axe, and my dagger, and my spear. I have Coram Smythesson to watch my back, as I watch his.”

  “Big words from a small woman,” Halef Seif remarked. There was no way for Alanna to read his expression.

  One of the riders, a Bazhir head and shoulders taller than most of his companions, brought his horse forward, peering at Alanna’s face intently. Suddenly he nodded with satisfaction. “She is the one!” he exclaimed. “Halef, she is the Burning-Brightly One!”

  “Speak on, Gammal,” Halef ordered.

  The huge warrior was bowing as low to Alanna as his saddle would permit. “Would you remember me?” he asked hopefully. “I was at the smallest west gate in the stone village that northerners call Persopolis. It was six rainy seasons ago. Your master, the Blue-Eyed One, bought my silence with a gold coin.”

  Remembering, Alanna grinned. “Of course! And you spat on the coin and bit it.”

  The big man looked at his chief. “She is the one! She came with the Blue-Eyed Prince, the Night One, and they freed us from the Black City!” He made the Sign against Evil close to his chest. “I let them through the gate that morning!”

  Halef frowned as he watched Alanna. “Is this so?”

  Alanna shrugged. “Prince Jonathan and I went to the Black City, yes,” she admitted. “And we fought with the Ysandir—the Nameless Ones,” she said hurriedly as the men muttered uneasily. “And we beat them. It wasn’t easy.”

  A skinny man wearing the green robes of a Bazhir shaman, or petty wizard, threw back his hood. His scraggly beard thrust forward on a sallow chin. “She lies!” he cried, putting his horse between Alanna and the tribesmen. “The Burning-Brightly One and the Night One rode into the sky in a chariot of fire when the Nameless Ones perished. This all men know!”

  “They rode back to the stone village, on horses,” Gammal replied stubbornly. “And the mare ridden by the Burning-Brightly One was even as this one now—the color of sand, with a mane and tail like the clouds.”

  While the Bazhir argued among themselves, Coram drew near his mistress. “Now what’ve ye gone an’ done?” he asked softly.

  “I think it’s more a question of what Jon and I did,” Alanna whispered back. “I told you about going to the Black City, didn’t I? We fought demons there, and Jon found out I was really a girl. It was six years ago.”

  “If I’d known I’d be ridin’ with a legend, I’d’ve thought twice about comin’ along,” Coram grumbled.

  “Silence!” Halef ordered them all. He looked at Alanna. “For the moment, let us accept that you are a warrior of the Northern king, Woman Who Rides Like a Man. Your shield is proof of that. As headman of the Bloody Hawk, I invite you to share our fire this night.”

  Alanna eyed the tall Bazhir, wondering, Do I have a choice? Finally she bowed. “We are honored by your invitation. Certainly we could not think of refusing.”

  The tent she and Coram were given to share was large and airy, well stocked with comfortable pillows and rugs. Alanna flopped down, thinking of what she had seen of the village itself. A rough count of the tents indicated the Bloody Hawk encompassed at least twenty families. Some of the bachelors would live apart from their parents in a single large tent. The shaman, the man wearing the burnoose tied with a green cord, had vanished into the largest tent in the village; from what her teacher Sir Myles had taught her, his dwelling would double as the tribe’s temple.

  Her reverie was interrupted by three young members of the tribe. Two wore the face veil all Bazhir women put on when they began their women’s cycles of monthly bleeding. The taller girl balanced a tray of food and wine. Carefully she placed it on the ground between Coram and Alanna as the other girl and a tall, handsome boy stared at the guests.

  “We have never seen a woman wi
th light eyes,” the boy said abruptly. “Did the water that falls from the sky in the North wash all the color away?”

  “Of course it didn’t, Ishak,” the smaller girl retorted. “How would her eyes be purple, then?”

  “Ishak! Kourrem! Hush!” the girl who had carried the tray snapped. She bowed very low to Alanna and Coram. “Forgive my friends. They forget that they have been made adults of the tribe.” She glared at her friends. “I let you come with me because you promised not to say anything. You broke your word!”

  “I didn’t swear it by my ancestors,” the boy called Ishak said virtuously.

  “Will your cat let me pet him?” Kourrem, the smaller girl, asked Alanna. “His eyes are purple too. He is very handsome. Is he your brother, who was turned into a cat by great sorcery?”

  Faithful, looking smug over the praise, sauntered over to the visitors, letting them pet and admire him. Alanna smiled at their guess that she and Faithful were related somehow. Many others had wondered about the fact that she and the cat had the same eye color.

  “No,” she replied, pouring wine for Coram and herself. “Faithful is just a cat. My brother is a sorcerer, but he is still shaped as a human—or he was when I saw him last.”

  “I am Kara,” the tall girl announced. “I am to serve you until your fate is decided by the tribe. And now we should go,” she admitted reluctantly. “We weren’t supposed to stay long. Akhnan Ibn Nazzir says you will corrupt us if we are not careful.”

  Alanna and Coram exchanged worried glances. “Who is this—” Coram made a face at his inability to remember the harsh Bazhir name. “The one who says we’ll corrupt ye?”

  “Akhnan Ibn Nazzir,” Ishak said from the doorway. “The shaman. He says you are demons who have come to try our faith.”

  Kourrem crossed her eyes. “Ibn Nazzir is an old stick with a beard like weeds.”

  Shocked, Kara ushered Kourrem and Ishak from the tent. Couram shook his head worriedly. “I don’t like the smell of this,” he admitted. “D’ye think there’s anything we can do?”