Baen January 2000
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Kelyn ducked her head against the wind whipping through the Keturan foothills, unchecked by anything other than a few thin stands of trees fighting to sink roots into the rocky soil. It was a familiar scourge, this wind, and served to dry her tear-touched cheeks, leaving them tight over her bones and tingling with cold.
She closed her arms more securely around her load of precious wood. She thought she'd been ready--she'd certainly seen it coming--but the calm practicality that led her to gather the first of the pyre wood three years before Lytha's death had now utterly vanished.
Kelyn looked back on the summer three years earlier, the summer when the changes started, and shook her head, a minute gesture lost in the hair that lashed around her face, try as she might to keep it tied back. Oh, the summer hunting group had adapted to their fitful advance into maturity, had held together even as they grew to be different. Aside from the loss of Mungo last year, they'd remained successful and safe, and had even taken a handful of younger siblings on their easier forays. And Kelyn had continued to deal with her own clumsiness, overcoming it by hours of practice and strength of concentration, until even Mungo, right before he died, ceased to tease her about those moments she tripped over ruts no one else could even see.
Those changes meant nothing next to this. Up until now her life had revolved around this thin-soiled meager subsistence farm, set on the rocky, deeply rolling hills below the rugged peaks of Ketura. Her mountain summers were for gathering meat and plants to tide herself and Lytha over the winter, although the year had long passed since she had become capable of surviving on her own. The winters were for making the round, rock-walled home more comfortable to live in--and lately something for Kelyn to tend her mother through.
And what was this farm without her mother to center it? Was it even a farm anymore? Was it still her home?
Lytha had come here a lifetime ago--Kelyn's lifetime--to birth her daughter and raise her in her father's land. A land, she'd said, more suited to raising the daughter of the Wolverine--already legendary at that young age--and for keeping her too busy with life and survival to get into the trouble for which any child of the Wolverine would no doubt have a knack. Trouble from which no one parent alone could keep her.
Lytha had never expressed any expectation that Thainn would or should consider staying with her. She never seemed to mind that the burden of raising that daughter had fallen on her shoulders alone.
The early spring wind, cold and biting, lifted the edge of the fur-lined cloak Kelyn wore, and she cursed her laziness for not having slipped her arms through the looping inner straps that would have kept it closed securely around her despite the wood she carried. She trotted quickly to the emerging shape of the pyre--behind the house, where the prevailing wind would carry the flames away from the thatched roof.
Kelyn dumped the wood beneath the pyre frame, ignoring the two long-dried limbs that bounced off her foot, and hastily gathered the cloak around herself, warming her cold fingers in the luxurious fur of the snow panther she'd slain in the highest peaks of the mountains.
Luxury, that is, if she'd tried to buy it in even the rudest of marketplaces, days of travel from here. Here, it was another of the furred skins mounded around the sleeping pallets, all results of Kelyn's skill with staff and knife and sling. This one, with the supple fur of the snow panther at her shoulders and waist supplemented by two rock cat skins to protect her to mid-calf, was just more striking than most.
Despite the cloak's warmth, when the next gust of wind hit, Kelyn stiffened. Wind carried noise along with cold, and now it brought her the faintest of whoops, the louder neighing cry of a horse calling to its companions. Kelyn whirled into the wind, squinting into the tears it brought to her eyes while the cloak flapped fiercely against her grip.
There, just cresting the top of the barren hill opposite the farm. Riders. Three of them, hovering on the ridge itself, their horses plunging against the bit and calling out to the fourth, whose rider galloped it foolishly down the side of the hill. Kelyn sent a curse at him, wishing him the fall he deserved, but the sturdy little horse plunged onward, and after a moment, the other three followed.
Strangers. Ketura! They weren't here to lay offerings on her mother's pyre.