Chapter 1

The Bear in His Strength:

Robre — Robre sunna Jowan, gift-named the Hunter, of the Bear Creek clan of the Cross Plains tribe — grunted as he strode southward past the peeled wands that marked the boundaries of the Dannulsford Fair. There were eleven new heads set on tall stakes in the scrubby pasture outside the stockade, fresh enough with the fall chill that the features could still be seen under the flies. One was of his own people, to judge from the yellow beard and long flaxen hair; that color wasn’t common even among the Seven Tribes and rare as hen’s teeth among outlanders. He thought he recognized Smeyth One-Eye, an outcast from the Panthers who lived a little north and west of here.

Finally caught him lifting the wrong man’s horses, he supposed with idle curiosity. One-Eye had needed shortening for some time, being a bully and a lazy, thieving one at that. Or maybe it was lifting the wrong woman’s skirts.

The other heads were in a clump away from One-eye’s perch, and their features made him look more closely, past the raven-damage — they weren’t as fresh as the outlaw’s. They were darker of skin than his folk, wiry-haired, massively scarred in zig- zag ritual patterns that made them even more hideous in death than they had been in life, several with human finger-bones through the septum of their noses. The lips drawn back in the final rictus showed rotting teeth filed to points.

Man-eaters, Robre thought, and spat.

He waved greeting to the guards at the gate — Alligator clansmen, since Dannulsford was the seat of their Hefe. The Bear Creek families had no feud with the Alligators just at the moment, but he would have been safe within the wands in any case. A Fair was peace-holy; even outright foreigners could come here unmolested along the river or trade roads, when no great war was being waged.

Two of the Alligator warriors stood and leaned on their weapons, a spear and a Mehk musket, wearing hide helmets made from the head-skins of their totem and keeping an eye on the thronging traffic. They wouldn’t interfere unless fights broke out or someone blocked the muddy path, in which case they could call for backup from half a dozen others who crouched and threw dice on a deerhide. Those kept their weapons close to hand, of course, and one had an Imperial breech-loading rifle that the Bear Creek man eyed with raw but well-concealed envy. The Alligators were rich from trade with the coastlands, and inclined to be toplofty.

One of the gamblers looked up and smiled gap-toothed. “Heya, Hunter Robre,” he said in greeting.

“Heya, Hefe’s-man Tomul,” Robre said politely in return, stopping to chat. “A raid?” He jerked his thumb at the stakes with the ten heads. “Wild-men?”

The hunter stood aside from a string of pack-mules that was followed by an oxcart heaped with pumpkins; axles squealed like dying pigs, and the shock-headed youth riding the vehicle popped his whip. The three horses that carried Robre’s pelts were well trained and followed him, bending their heads to crop at weeds when their master stopped.

“Yi-ah, swamp-devils, right enough,” the Alligator chieftain’s guardsman nodded. “Burned a settler’s cabin east of Muskrat Creek — old Stinking Pehte.”

“Not Stinking Pehte the Friendless? Pehte sunna Dubal?”

“Him and none other; made an axe-land claim there and built a cabin two springs ago, set to clearing land for corn. Hefe Carul saw the smoke and called out the neighborhood men in posse. Caught ’em this side of the Black River. Even got a prisoner back alive — a girl.”

Robre’s eyebrows went up. “Surprised they didn’t eat her,” he said.

“They’d just started in to skin her. Ate her kin first. ‘s how we caught ’em — stopped for their fun.”

Stinking Pehte must have been an even bigger fool than everyone thought, to settle that far east, Robre thought, but it wouldn’t do to say it aloud. Men had to resent an insult to one of their own clan and totem, even if they agreed with it in their hearts.

“Where’s ol’ Grippem and Ayzbitah?” the guard asked, looking for the big hounds that usually followed the hunter.

Robre cleared his throat and spat into the mud of the road, turning his head to cover a sudden prickle in his eyes. “Got the dog-sickness, had to put ’em down,” he said.

The guards made sympathetic noises at the hard news. “Good hunting?” Tomul went on, waving towards the rawhide-covered bundles on the Bear Creek man’s pack-saddles.

“Passable — just passable,” Robre replied, with mournful untruth. He pushed back his broad-brimmed, low-crowned hat to scratch meditatively at his raven-black hair. “Mostly last winter’s cure, the second-rate stuff I held back in spring. Hope to do better this year.”

“Hefe Carul killed two cows for God-thanks at sunrise,” Tomul said; it was two hours past dawn now. “Probably some of the beef left if you’ve a hunger.”

Robre snorted and shook his head. Sacrificial beef was free to any man of the Seven Tribes, but also likely to be old and tough. Lord o’ Sky didn’t care about the quality of the cattle, just their number, it being the thought that counted. He wasn’t that short of silver.

Tomul went on: “See you around, then; we’ll drink a mug. Mind you don’t break the Fair’s peace-bans while you’re here, or it’s a whuppin’ from the Hefe.”

“I’m no brawler,” Robre said defensively.

“Then give me these back,” Tomul chuckled in answer, pulling down the corner of his mouth with a little finger to show two missing molars.

The other warriors around the deerskin howled laughter and Robre laughed back, taking up the lead rein of his forward packhorse and leading the beasts under the massive timber gateway, between hulking log blockhouses. The huge black-oak timbers that supported the gate on either side were carved and painted; Coyote on the left grinning with his tongue lolling over his fangs and a stogie in the corner of his mouth, the Corn Lady on the right holding a stalk of maize in one hand and a hoe in the other, and God the Father on the lintel above. Robre bowed his head for an instant as he passed beneath the stern bearded face of the Lord of Sky, murmuring a luck-word.

The pack-horses followed him into the throng within, shying and snorting and rolling their eyes a bit. Robre sympathized; the crowds and stink were enough to gag a buzzard. Nearly a hundred people lived here year-round; Hefe Carul in his two-story fort-mansion of squared timbers, and his wives, his children; his household men and theirwives and children in ordinary cabins of mud-chinked logs; a few slaves and landless, clanless laborers in shacks; plus craftsmen and tinkers and peddlers who found Dannulsford a convenient headquarters, and their dependents.

Now it swarmed with twenty times that number; the Dannulsford Fair got bigger every year, it seemed. This year’s held more people than Robre had ever seen in one place before, until only narrow crowded lanes were left between booths and sheds and tents and more folk still spilled over into camps outside the oak logs of the stockade. The air was thick with woodsmoke, smells of dung and frying food and fresh cornbread, man’s sweat, and the smells of leather, horses, mules and oxen and dogs. The Fair came after the corn and cotton were in but before hard frost and the prime pig-slaughtering season; a time for the Hefe to kill cattle for the Lord o’ Sky and to preside over disputes brought for judgment, and for the assembled free men of the clan to make laws.

And, he thought with a grin, to make marriages and chase girls and swap and dicker and guzzle popskull, boast and tell tales. Robre was a noted tale-teller himself, when the mood was on him. Time to trade with outland men, too.

Dannulsford was head of navigation on the Three Forks river, for anything bigger than a canoe; that meant the Fair of the Alligators was far larger than most. There were Kumanch come down over the Westwall escarpment with strings of horses and buffalo- pelts; Cherokee from the north with fine tobacco, rock-oil to burn in lamps and bars of wrought iron for smiths; Dytchers from the Hill Country with wine and applejack and dried fruits; and black-skinned men from the coast with sugar and rum, rice and cinnamon and nutmeg.

Some from even further away. A Mehk trader rode by, wearing a broad sombrero and tight jacket and tooled-leather chaps over buttoned knee-breeches, his silver-studded saddle glistening. The great wagons behind him were escorted by a brace of leather- jacketed lancers, short stocky men with brown skins and smooth cheeks, bandanas on their heads beneath broad-brimmed hats, gold rings in their ears, machetes at their belts, sitting their horses as if they’d grown there.

Say what you like about Mehk, they can ride for certain sure, Robre thought: or at least their caballeros and fighters could. Among the Seven Tribes every free man was a warrior, but it was different beyond the Wadeyloop River.

The merchant the lancers served was crying up his wares as he went; fine drink distilled from the maguay cactus, silks and silver jewelry and bright painted pots, tools and sundries, dried hot peppers and gaudy feathers and cocoa and coffee in the bean. He had muskets and powder and round lead balls for sale too; Robre’s lip curled.

A smoothbore flintlock didn’t have the range or accuracy of a good bow, and it was a lot slower to use — slower even than the crossbows some favored. A musket was useful for shooting duck with birdshot, or for a woman to keep around the cabin for self- defense, but he didn’t think it was a man’s weapon.

All the foreigners stood out, among his own folk of the Seven Tribes — the fearless free-striding maidens in shifts that showed their calves or even their knees, wives more decorous in long skirts and headscarves, men much like himself in thigh-length hunting shirts of linsey-woolsey or cotton, breechclouts and leggings of deerhide, soft boots cross-laced to the knee, their long hair confined by headbands and topped by broad- brimmed leather hats often decorated by a jaunty feather or two, their beards clipped close to the jaw.

Robre returned waves and calls with a polite heya, but stopped to talk with none, not even the children who followed him calling Hunter! Robre the Hunter! Story, story, story!

Partly that was a wordless shyness he would never confess at the sheer press of people; he was more at home in the woods or prairies, though he knew he cut a striking figure, and had a fitting pride in it, and in the fact that many men knew his deeds. He was tall even for his tall people, his shoulders and arms thick, chest deep, legs long and muscular, a burly blue-eyed, black-haired young man who kept his face shaved in an outland fashion just spreading among some of the younger set. His hunting shirt of homespun cotton was mottled in shades of earth-brown and forest-green; at his waist he bore a long knife and a short sword in beaded leather sheaths, with a smaller blade tucked into his right boot-top. Quiver and bow rode at his shoulder — he preferred the shorter, handier recurved horn-and-sinew Kumanch style to the more usual wooden longbow — and a tomahawk was thrust through a loop at the small of his back.

The man he sought should be down by the levee on the riverbank, where the flatboats and canoes clustered. And where . . .

Yes. That’s it, and no other.

The boat from the coast was huge, for all its shallow draft, like a flat tray fifty feet long and twenty wide. At its rear was an odd contraption like a mill’s wheel, and amidships was a tall thin funnel; a flag fluttered red and white and blue from a slender mast, a thing of diagonal crosses — the Empire’s flag. Somehow a fire made the rear wheel go ’round to drive the boat upstream —

Robre made a covert sign with his fingers at the thought, and whistled a few bars of the Song Against Witches. The steamboat was an Imperial thing. Imperials were city-folk, even more than the Mehk, and so to be despised as weaklings. Yet they were also the masters and makers of all things wonderful, of the best guns, of boats pushed by fire and of writing on paper, of fine steel and fine glassware and of cloth softer than a maiden’s cheek. And they told tales wilder than any Robre had made around the fire of an evening, about lands beyond the eastern seas and a mighty queen who ruled half the world from a city with a thousand thousand dwellers and stone houses taller than old-growth pines.

Robre snorted and spat again. The Imperials also claimed their Queen-Empress ruled all the land here, which was not just a tall tale but a stupid, insulting one. The Seven Tribes knew that they and none other ruled their homes, and they would kill any man among them who dared call himself a king, as if free clansmen were no better than Mehk peons.

I figure the Imperials come from one of the islands in the eastern sea, Robre thought, nodding to himself. Everyone knew there were a mort of islands out there: England, Africa, the Isle of Three Witches. Past Kuba or Baydos, even, maybe. They puff it up big to impress gullible folk down along the coast.

The clansman pushed past an open-fronted smithy full of noise and clamor, where the blacksmith and his apprentices hammered and sweated, and on to a big shack of planks. The shutters on the front were opened wide, and he gave an inward sigh of relief.

He’d have had to turn ’round and go home, if the little Imperial merchant hadn’t been here; he usually stopped first at Dannulsford Fair on his rounds, but not always.

“Heya, Banerjii,” he said.

Banerjii looked up from the gloom inside the store, where he sat cross-legged on a cushion with a plank across his lap holding abacus and account-book.

Namaste, Hunter Robre, sunna Jowan,” he said, and made an odd gesture, like a bow with hands pressed palm-to-palm before his face, which was his folk’s way of saying heya and shaking hands.

“Come in, it being always wery good to see you,” the trader went on, in good Seven Tribes speech but with an odd singsong accent that turned every ‘w’ to a ‘v’.

Odd, Robre thought, as he sat and a few local boys hired by the trader saw to his baggage and beasts.

But then, the merchant was odd in all ways. He looked strange — brown as a Mehk, but fine-boned and plump, sharp-featured and clean-shaven. His clothing was a jacket of lose white cotton, a fore-and-aft cap of the same, and an elaborately folded loincloth he called something like dooty. Even odder was his bodyguard, who was somehow an Imperial too, for all that he looked nothing at all like his employer, being three shades lighter for starters; there were men of the Seven Tribes who were darker of skin. The guard was nearly as tall as Robre, and looked near as strong; and unlike his clean-shaved employer he wore a neat spade-shaped beard. He also tucked his hair up under a wrapped cloth turban, wore pants and tunic and belt, and at that belt carried a single-edged blade as long as a clansman’s shortsword. He looked as if he knew exactly what to do with it, too, while Banerjii was soft enough to spread on a hunk of cornpone.

A young man who looked like a relative of the merchant brought food, a bowl of ham and beans, the luxury of a loaf of wheaten bread, and a big mug of corn beer. All were good of their kind; the cooked dish was full of spices that made his eyes water and mouth burn. He cleared it with a wad of bread and a draught of the cool lumpy beer, which tasted like that from Hefe Carul’s own barrels. Banerjii nibbled politely from a separate tray; another of his oddities was that he’d eat no food that wasn’t prepared by his own kin, and no meat at all. Some thought he feared poison.

They made polite conversation about weather and crops and gossip, until Robre wiped the inside of the bowl with the heel of the bread, belched, and downed the last of the beer. During the talk his eyes had kept flicking to the wall. Not to the shimmering cloth printed with peacock colors and beautiful alien patterns, though he longed to lay a bolt of it before his mother, or to the axes and swords and knives, or to the medicines and herbs, nor to the tools. You could get cloth and cutlery and plowshares, needles and thread anywhere, if none so fine. It was the two rifles that drew his gaze, and the bandoliers of bright brass cartridges. No other folk on earth made those.

“So,” Banerjii said. “Pelts are slow this year, but I might be able to take a few — for friendship’s sake, you understand.”

“Of course,” Robre said. “I have six bearskins — one brown bear, seven feet and not stretched.”

The contents of the packs came out, all but one. They dickered happily, while the shadows grew longer on the rough pine planks of the walls; the prices weren’t much different from the previous season. They never were, for all that Banerjii always complained prices were down, and for all that Robre kept talking of going to the coast and the marts of fabled Galveston on his own — that would be too much trouble and danger, and both men knew it. Robre smiled to himself as the Imperial’s eyes darted once or twice to the last, the unopened, pack.

“Got some big-cat skins,” he said at last.

Banerjii’s sigh was heartfelt, and his big brown eyes were liquid with sincerity. “Alas, my good friend, cougar are a drug on the market.” Sometimes his use of the language was a little strange; that made no sense in Seven Tribes talk. “If you have jaguar, I could move one or two for you. Possibly lion, if they are large and unmarked.”

Robre nodded. Jaguar were still rare this far north, though more often seen than in his father’s time. And there were few lion prides east of the Westwall escarpment. Wordlessly, he undid the pack and rolled it out with a sweeping gesture.

Banerjii said something softly in his own language, then schooled his face to calmness. Robre smiled as the small brown hands caressed the tiger-skins. And not just tiger, he thought happily. Both animals were some sort of sport, their skins a glossy black marked by narrow stripes of yellow-gold. And they were huge as well, each nine feet from the nose to the base of the tail.

“Got ’em far off in the east woods,” he said. That was a prideful thing to say; those lands weren’t safe, what with ague and swamp-devils. “You won’t see the likes of those any time soon.”

“No,” Banerjii said. “And so, how am I to tell what their price should be?”

Robre kept his confident smile, but something sank within his gut. He would never get the price of what he craved. He was an only son, his father dead and his mother a cripple, with no close living kin — and his father had managed to quarrel with all the more distant ones. Most of what he gleaned went to buy his mother’s care and food; oh, the clan would not let her starve even if Robre died, but the lot of a friendless widow was still bitter, doubly so if she could not do a woman’s work. The price of the rifle was three times what he made in a year’s trapping and trading . . . and if he borrowed the money from the merchant, he’d be the merchant’s man for five years at least, probably forever. He’d need ammunition too, not just for use but for practice, if the weapon was to do him any good.

The Imperial smiled. “But perhaps there is another thing you might do, and –” he dipped his head at the rifles. “I think, my good friend, you have put me in the way of something even more valuable than these pelts.”