Chapter 8: Different Strokes

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THE WOMAN IN QUESTION rose from her chair and circled the table to stand before us. I felt Senovo's hand touch my elbow, the faint brush of fingers breaking me free of my shocked immobility. Senovo bowed as Magoldis' eyes moved over him, and I quickly followed suit.

"Varanis said you'd come from Draebard, at old Volya's request," Magoldis said, her attention returning to Andoc. Her voice was low and pleasant, but with an underlying steel.

"That is correct," Andoc said. "Our village was attacked in the dead of night a few days ago. The Alyrion commander who took over an abandoned hill-fort west of Draebard drew the Chief and half of the warriors away from the settlement on the pretense of a parlay, only to send soldiers in to attack while the villagers were vulnerable."

"A cowardly act," Magoldis agreed, though her tone gave away nothing. "I notice that Volya did not think meeting with me was important enough for him to come in person."

Senovo stepped forward. "Leader Magoldis, Chief Volya could not allow the village to appear vulnerable again so soon after the last attack. We have many seriously injured, including the High Priest. Most of the temple priests and acolytes are dead. Our Chief meant no disrespect to you, Leader. However, he had to put the people of Draebard first."

Magoldis raised an eyebrow. "Very pretty words, priest. So, who has Volya sent to speak to me in his stead? A warrior, a priest, and... ?"

The Leader's eyes raked over me, and I froze again, my thoughts still spinning in rapid circles. Andoc rescued me by beginning the introductions.

"I am Andoc, First Among Warriors in Draebard," he said. "This is Senovo, the most senior of the surviving priests excepting the High Priest himself."

"And you said the High Priest was injured?" Magoldis asked.

"Gravely," Senovo answered in a soft voice.

I knew next to nothing of the politics between tribes, beyond the obvious—who was feuding with who, who was allied with who. Nonetheless, I could begin to understand what Volya had done. In his own absence, he had sent his most powerful warrior and likely replacement, the soon-to-be High Priest of the village, and the Horse Master. While two of the three of us might not have come to terms with our new status yet, it was undeniably a dramatic gesture.

Still, the bad blood between Volya and Magoldis—whose society dared to put women in power—was obvious. Looking at Magoldis' stony mien, I wasn't at all sure it would be enough to sway her after years of disagreement and distrust.

The Leader's eyes returned to me. "And this is?" she asked.

The question was directed to Andoc, but before he could answer, I straightened proudly and uttered the nine most reckless words I had ever said in my life.

"Leader Magoldis, I am Carivel, Horse Mistress of Draebard."

The silence on either side of me spoke volumes, and I did not dare look at either of my companions. I could imagine their expressions of shock all too clearly as it was. Indeed, even Magoldis' impassive expression finally slipped, revealing keen interest.

I knew my features were plain and my body, angular and boyish. It was what had allowed me to pass for male these last three years. Still, I could tell from the Leader's face that she was looking past all that and seeing the feminine attributes underneath. It was all I could do not to tremble as the unimaginable consequences of what I had just done began to clamor for my attention.

"Well. That is certainly unexpected," Magoldis said. "I've never met a female Horse Master before. To find one from Draebard, of all places, is a surprise indeed. I can't help noticing that you have taken pains to look like a man, though."

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