I didn't know when I first saw him that he would be what I had been waiting for. From a distance, he looked like just another horseman. There was a lot more traffic on the road than there had been when we first moved there; people were really starting to believe that the Wraith might be gone for good and venturing out to claim long-abandoned lands to ranch or farm. It was only when he got closer that I noticed he was different.
It was his clothes that first caught my eye. Even though it was a hot day, he was wearing all black. His shirt was faded almost to grey, and awkwardly patched in two or three places, but his pants were of a darker, glossier material that I had never seen before. He wasn't wearing a hat against the sun, so I could see his face, which looked grim and wary. He was slouched in the saddle, like he was tired of riding, but his eyes moved constantly, taking in everything nearby with an attention that seemed casual but I suspected meant he picked up every detail. They rested on me for just a second and then moved on.
I felt vaguely disappointed, but as he passed our house, he slowed and looked up. "Could I get a chance at your pump for my horse?" he asked, gazing past me.
I realized he wasn't talking to me and turned my head. Father was standing on the porch, studying him. "Take all you want, stranger."
The man dismounted from his horse and led him to our pump. He watered the horse, then took the cup and filled it for himself, flicking water over his face and hair to get rid of some of the dust. Even while he was scrubbing his hand over his face, though, he never quite relaxed; he always seemed intensely conscious of us, and I was sure he knew every move I made, even though I was behind him. I saw that on top of his saddleroll were tied two long sticks, smooth and polished despite the dust of the road, and I wondered what they were for.
"Thanks again," he said, nodded to me, and turned to go.
"Don't be in such a hurry, stranger," Father said.
The man tensed, and put his hand on one of the sticks. "What do you want?"
"Supper will be ready soon. You're welcome to join us."
Father believed in the old ways, including hospitality to strangers. He used to say that you never knew when the Wraith would come and you'd find yourself the stranger. People were already starting to forget those ways, but not in our house.
"That's nice of you, but I should be going."
"Look up." Father pointed. "There's a storm sweeping down into the valley. I don't think you'd care for the road in half an hour or so, and not everyone on your way has room to shelter a stranger."
The man looked hard at Father, who met his eyes steadily. He was thin, not like Father, who was short and powerfully built, but you could see the bulge of muscles beneath the sleeves of his shirt. His hair was dark and spiky, as if he hadn't tended to it in days, and his eyes were hazel. There were crinkles around them, and a dusting of grey at his temples, but otherwise I couldn't have guessed his age. Whatever he was looking for, he seemed to find it. "All right."
"My name is Anogan," Father said, offering his hand. "This is my daughter, Anjora. Anjie to friends."
The man took it. "Call me John."
Our house wasn't big—just the three rooms—but it was cozy, and everything in it was well-made. Father had laid down every plank himself and fashioned every piece of furniture, plain but sturdy. Mother had sewn cheery yellow curtains for the windows and a dark blue tablecloth for the big table. When we went inside, she was just setting out supper. She raised her eyebrows at Father, but smiled at John. "Good evening."
"Malla, this is John. I thought he might like to stay for supper. John, my wife, Malla."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," he said.
Mother put her hand to her hair, tucking it behind her ear. "Welcome to our home."
John tried the food cautiously at first, but apparently decided he liked it and then ate heartily. During the meal, Mother and Father talked mostly to him, about where he'd been or what he'd seen, but John didn't say much, always changing the subject or asking for another helping. I sat across the table and stared at him. Once he caught me looking, stopped, and smiled at me for a second—just a flash over his serious face, so quick I wasn't even sure I'd really seen it. I blushed all over, but I only glanced away for a heartbeat before my eyes were drawn irresistibly back. I had never seen a man like him before, slim and strong, dark and strange. I wondered if he had come through the Ring of the Ancestors, and whether I dared to ask.
When Mother served the plinberry pie, purplish and tart, John started asking Father about the ranch. That perked the conversation up. Father was always ready to tell anyone about his plans. We had moved here when I was almost too young to remember, as soon as the rumors about the Wraith had started to spread. Practically no one else had lived out here for years—it was too risky, and the soil too poor to attract serious farmers. People had said Father was crazy to believe that the Wraith could ever really be gone, but Father had been determined. He picked out a lot and built our house and started in working alongside Mother, and they had done well. After a little while, other settlers started to follow. A lot of the land out here was technically owned by a man named Krader, but they settled on the edges of his property, and every year there were more of them. Now Father was building up his herd of amyot, and Mother had gotten a patch of lilefir going so that she could spin winters and sell the yarn. Last year, Father had been talking about seeing if he could buy some more land from Krader.
But even I understood that Krader had become a problem now. "He never lived out here," Father told John. "Neither did his father or his grandfather. No one did. The last time anyone even thought about this valley was in his great-grandfather's day. But since other people started to make a go of it out here, he thought he'd try it, too."
"Let me guess. He doesn't like squatters."
"Settlers," Father said. "The law favors them—anyone crazy enough to live out of the main settlements has had his pick of land, for whatever little while he could hold it before the Wraith took it or some roving pack of bandits killed him for his few possessions. There's been noise about changing that ever since the war ended, but for now Krader has had to come out here and use the land to keep his title, and he begrudges even the small lots settlers have already taken. He runs a huge range, lets the cattle roam free. He thinks those of us who keep our herds penned up are just in the way."
"Sounds like there could be trouble."
"There might well be," Father agreed, looking at him thoughtfully.
John didn't respond for a minute, and then he laid down his fork and smiled at Mother. "Thank you for dinner. It's been a long time since I had a home-cooked meal."
"You look it," Mother said, smiling back. "You're much too skinny."
"I like to travel light." Outside, the rain began to rattle the windows. John got up and crossed the room to see. "That's not going to be any fun to be out in."
"No," Father said. "You'd better spend the night."
John's back stiffened, almost invisibly. "I don't think—"
"Come," Mother said, "you won't be any trouble. And I'll make darfa cakes for breakfast."
I realized I was holding my breath. And not just for the darfa cakes.
"Well," he said, "darfa cakes. Who could turn down an offer like that?"
He turned and stepped outside, and Mother and Father glanced at each other. After a few minutes, he came back in, carrying a bucket full of water, his hair damp from the rain. He set it down and then began collecting the dishes.
Mother looked startled. "Isn't washing up women's work where you come from?"
"Where I come from," he said, clearing the scraps from a plate, "if I said there was such a thing as women's work, I wouldn't have lasted very long."
I watched him, even more fascinated. No matter how hard Mother tried, I couldn't seem to learn how to love women's work. I hated washing the dishes, scrubbing the clothes and the floors, carding the lilefir so she could spin. I was much happier when I could help Father out in the fields, but I was more use in the house. Mother would sigh when I did go out with Father, and sometimes I would hear her tell him that he shouldn't let me run so wild. "Really?"
"Now don't go putting ideas in her head," Mother laughed, but I could see her eyes were strange. "She's hard enough to manage as it is."
"There's nothing wrong with a man taking a turn at the washing-up," Father said, and got up to join John over the bucket.
"This is the first I've heard of it from you! But I won't complain if it means I get to sit a little. Thank you, John."
"It's the least I can do. I have darfa cakes coming."
She gave me a pointed look. "Anjora, will you bring me my knitting, please?"
I woke suddenly in my little room, in the middle of the night, to a howling. The storm had been screaming past the windows all evening, but this was something more deliberate and frightening: voices on the road raised threateningly, mingled with the rush of hoofbeats. They sounded like maskers on Wild Night, but Wild Night was more than two months away.
I got out of bed, picked up my pocketknife, and crept into the main room. Father was standing near the doorway to his room, holding his shotgun in his hands, listening, tense. Seeing him like that made me sure that something was wrong, and I shivered.
"Father?" I whispered. "What's going on?"
He didn't look at me. "Go back to bed."
"Is it Krader's men?"
"Probably." He forced a smile. "They're just having a little fun, Anjora. Go back to bed. Or—no—go in with your mother. I'm sure she'd like the company."
"You both should go back to bed," John said. We turned our heads in astonishment as he stirred himself from a deeper shadow by the door. In the darkness of the room, he was little more than the glimmer of dark eyes and the gleam of cheekbones. "I'll keep watch."
"I thought you were in the loft in the barn."
"I was. Accommodations turned out to be a little noisy."
"You don't have a gun."
"No. I don't."
His voice was quiet and cold. I felt a shudder, like I had just seen one of the Wraith-phantoms and death was very close.
"I'll stay with you, then."
"Then I'm staying, too," I declared.
John glanced at Father. They held each other's gaze for a minute, and the house seemed very still despite the screeching going on up and down the road. Then Father nodded at John. "All right, Anjora. Let's go sit with your mother."
Mother's worried voice came the minute we stepped into the room. "What's going on, Anogan?"
"Krader!" I said.
"Just some of his young people trying to put a little scare in us," he said. "Nothing to worry much about. But they woke Anjora up."
"Oh, dear. Come here, sweet," she said, and I crawled into bed next to her. "Are you going back out there, Anogan?"
He sat on the edge of the bed. "John's keeping an eye out."
"John," she said thoughtfully. "Are you sure?"
I didn't understand what she meant, but Father just said, "Yes."
I snuggled down against the pillow. Despite the ruckus outside, I felt oddly safe. Still, it was a long time before I could fall back to sleep, and I dreamed all night of the tall lean figure by the door.
I woke to the holiday smell of darfa cakes and bolted into the main room. Mother was at the stove, and Father and John were already tucking into stacks of cakes. She'd even brought up the azar cream from the cellar. I quickly sat down to get my share, studded thick with sweet kernels and tangy with the cream.
The sun streamed through the front window and the room was full of the familiar clinks and scrapes of breakfast. It was hard to believe that this room had been filled with terror the night before, or that the man across from me working methodically through his cakes was the same man who had stood grim sentinel against the darkness. He seemed tired and wrapped up in his own thoughts; he talked even less than he had at supper.
Finally, he laid down his knife and said, "Well, if the roads have dried a little, I should be going. Thanks again for taking me in."
"Don't you want a rest first?" Mother asked. "You were up all night."
He shook his head. "I don't sleep much."
He started to rise, but Father put out his hand and said, "Hold a minute, John."
John stopped, instantly wary, like he had been expecting trouble here.
"Are you running from something?"
He shut his eyes, and a shadow passed over his face. "Not the way you mean it. No."
"Then I want to offer you work here."
His eyes opened in surprise, but then he shook his head. "I'm not a rancher, Anogan. And I don't know this country."
"But you're strong and you're sharp, and you're old enough to be steady. I could use an extra pair of hands out here. Anjora here"—he winked at me—"does her best, but her mother needs her in the house. It can't be darfa cakes every day, but I could give you room and board and a hand's harvest-share."
"Malla's cooking is enough to tempt anyone, but I just don't think it would work."
"In case you're worried that I'm a poor rancher if I'm only thinking to hire a hand this late in the season, I can clear that up. The reason I need another hand," Father said, "is that the newest one left us a month ago. He didn't care for...local conditions."
John's eyes narrowed. "Krader?"
"He got into a quarrel in town. He didn't share the details with me. It seems to me you're a lot more solid than he was. More able to handle it."
There was a quick twitch of anger in John's face, but then it went smooth again. "Are you sure this is a good idea? You don't even know me."
"I think I know enough." Father took a deep breath. "If you've somewhere better to go, John, don't let me keep you. But there's honest work for you here, at honest wages."
John looked down at the table. He flicked the handle of his knife, and watched it as it spun. I kept very still in my chair, waiting. Finally, he looked up. "Okay."
I looked over at Mother, and she was smiling as broadly as I was.
Over the next few weeks, I discovered John had been telling the truth when he said he wasn't a rancher. Even I could teach him things, lots of things: how to coax a surly amyot when it just wasn't interested in the perfectly good feed you had for it, that the red-and-yellow snakes were poisonous but the blue-and-yellow ones weren't, how you could chew on the spiky bitter infieret weed to clear your head a little when you were tired. He took it all in patiently. Sometimes, though, I caught him pausing at his work and shaking his head, with a bemused smile or an odd little laugh he never explained. I was sure he hadn't been brought up to work on the land, wherever he'd come from.
But Father had been right, too: he was strong and he worked hard and he caught on fast. The work seemed to take him out of himself—he was much more talkative and playful after a few days out in the fields. He obviously liked the smell of the fresh air and the feel of the dirt between his fingers and he always sat out on our little porch to watch the last of the sunset glowing over the distant mountains before supper. When he came in for supper, he'd talk to Mother about her day or tell me stories (scarier ones when Mother wasn't listening), and Father sat back and watched us and looked pleased. He'd even traded his dark clothing for the loose dust-colored lilefir gear that ranchers wore.
The neighbors heard about our new hand and dropped by, in casual little groups, on purpose to meet him, though they didn't say so. John was polite with them, but very quiet. Tense, even, like he couldn't bring himself to trust so many people, but he hid it well. I don't think anyone but Mother and Father and me noticed it. Still, the smarter of our neighbors rode away throwing long, thoughtful looks back over their shoulders, and the valley declared him "worth keeping an eye on." I even overheard two older girls speculating if he would court anyone, and saying it was a great pity he was just a hand.
I was, of course, incredibly curious about him, and the more used I got to having him around, the more I wanted to know. It was strange to have him there every day eating with us, sleeping with us, talking with us, and yet not to really know him at all. Strangers who came to the valley didn't stay strangers long; for all the acres of empty land, and all the loneliness that I already felt in my bones, it was too small a place for that. But John slipped into our home and made himself—and us—comfortable without giving anything of himself up. He was never in any of his own stories.
Mother said the same thing to Father, once when John was off on an errand. "It doesn't trouble you, Anogan?"
"It troubles me to see a man carrying something so heavy it almost sinks him," Father said. "But don't worry. He'll tell us in his own time."
"Which may be never."
"He waters our cattle and fixes up the house and weeds the kitchen garden, Malla. Do you really need more?"
"No." She blushed a little. "No, I guess I don't."
One day, when he and Father were off walking the boundaries of our land, I slipped into the barn and unwrapped his saddle-roll. I wasn't sure what I'd find, but I certainly hadn't expected what was there: a gun, a gun of a kind I had never seen before, long and rectangular and gleaming, of a peculiar metal. Now, every man in the valley wore a gun outside. The hard and desperate men who used to eke out a living picking off stragglers at the edges of settlement had mostly disappeared, but it was better to be safe than sorry, and there were still the scavenger animals, the lototes and the irrivin and so on, to worry about. John, however, hadn't been wearing one when he arrived. Father had asked if he should try to get him one, and John had just shaken his head. Well, he didn't need one of ours if he had this strange thing, which had to be from one of the planets beyond the Ring, but I couldn't imagine why he didn't carry it.
Underneath the gun were other things, and if the gun puzzled me, these baffled me. There was a small rectangular badge, less than the size of my hand, of some rough fabric on one side and a strangely prickly one on the other. It had two bars of red separated by a bar of white, and on the bar of white was a red shape that might have been a leaf, though I'd never seen a leaf like it. Next to it was a necklace with a clear stone, which I could only shake my head over. I couldn't imagine what a man could be doing with a necklace, unless he was going to give it to someone. Finally, there was a leather wrist-cuff, crumpled and salt-stained, some beyond-Ring fashion which I'd never seen John wear.
I sat there looking at these strange collection of items, knowing less than when I had started. They all had to be precious to him, for him to carry them all this way, but I couldn't fathom why. An image came to me of him, holding the necklace in the palm of his hand and rubbing the stone gently with his thumb, and I suddenly felt ashamed. If I trusted him—and I did, passionately—I should trust him to tell us about himself when he was ready. I carefully rewrapped the roll, trying to be as tender about it as he would be, and snuck out of the barn.
The neighbors weren't the only ones curious about John, as we soon found out. One Saturday, he offered to go into town to pick up some wire. I begged for permission to go along, and Father granted it with a twinkle in his eye. I climbed up behind John on his horse and put my arms around his waist, hoping for an adventure.
The town wasn't much to look at, especially not compared to Mother's stories of the settlement where she'd grown up. There wasn't even a school yet, though they were talking about putting one up next year. Mother taught me at home. The most important building was the general store, with the saloon attached, a weathered grey building that listed a little. I had never been allowed to set foot in the saloon, though I was dying to—it represented the world of adult freedom, of men doing the business of men, that even when I was grown and married I might never really know.
As we rode up, John said, turning his head back and smiling, "Let's get this argument over in advance. You're not coming into the saloon with me."
"Believe me, there's nothing much to see in there. Drunk people are actually pretty boring when you're not drunk, too."
"Are you going to get drunk?" I couldn't remember ever seeing Father that way.
He made a slight face. "No. I am not going to get drunk. I may consume one lukewarm and only modestly refreshing adult beverage and think for the millionth time about how I would give my left arm for one lousy ice-cold Bud, but I am not going to get drunk."
He talked like that every once in a while, about things I didn't recognize without offering an explanation, but I didn't mind. It meant he was mostly talking to himself, but he didn't mind me hearing it. I liked that. "I wouldn't tell."
"Stop encouraging the delinquency of an adult, Anjora," he half-laughed. "But I know you wouldn't."
I ducked my head, smiling, as we stopped. We went into the general store, and John spoke to the proprietor, Bayrt, about the wire. Bayrt was an older man, respected by everyone in the valley; he'd been here when the town was nothing more than a place to tie up for the night for the post and the rare traveller to somewhere more interesting. He hadn't met John before, and I could see him sizing him up carefully and nodding with satisfaction.
John paid Bayrt, then winked at me and tossed me a coin from the change. "I'm not going to bail you out if you start a riot, Anjora. Nothing harder than sugar!" He went through the doors into the saloon.
Bayrt followed his movements with his eyes until he was out of sight, then turned and smiled at me. "Hello there, little miss. I declare, you're getting taller and prettier every day. It won't be long before all the boys are courting you."
"Thank you, Mr. Bayrt," I said. Truth to tell, I wasn't sure I wanted to be courted, though I did want my own farm and my own money, and that was the way to get it.
"What'll it be today?"
I weighed the coin in my palm. Mint against sweet remter was always a difficult choice. "What's good?"
"All of my candy is always delicious, Anjora, but I do have something special in from beyond Ring today. It's a very soft candy, sweet and bitter at once."
"Bitter candy?" I grimaced. "Ew!"
"Well, maybe it's for more mature tastes," he said. "It's called chocolade. Your mother might like it better."
"Hmph! I'm mature! Let me try it."
"All right, all right," he raised his hands. "Let me go get it. That and your wire."
Bayrt went into the back of the store. I looked around for a minute, finding some tiny miniature soldiers of a strange clear material to play with. Then I heard raised voices from the saloon. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure that Bayrt wasn't looking, then stepped to the door and cracked it open.
The smell hit me first: a harsh mixture of alcohol and sweat. There wasn't much light—there were no windows, only the swinging doors to the street for ventilation, and the corners of the room receded into a dim brownness. Still, I could see that it was large and much more worn-out-looking than the store, with sawdust scattered on the floor, and tables here and there. John was standing at the bar. One of Krader's men—a new, young one named Stav—was leaning next to him.
"—makes you think a farmer can just walk in here and have a drink?"
"Looks like an open bar to me," John shrugged.
"Well, look again." Stav pointed back. "Every man in here is a real rancher working for a real rancher, not some miserable little dirt-farmer with a few amyot he calls a herd. You're not drinking in here."
"No?" John looked down into his glass. "Because I seem to be."
"No, you're not."
Stav reached out and shoved John's arm, knocking his drink into his shirt, then pushed himself away from the bar and stood there, chest out, eyes challenging. I gasped. The other men in the bar stood up, moving back to give John and Stav a wide berth.
John looked down at the puddle on his shirt, and his face went completely blank. "I see."
"No gunplay and all damages paid for," the barkeeper, Poil, said firmly, lifting his own shotgun and laying it on the bar.
There was a long silence while John touched the damp cloth and looked at his fingertips.
I saw John's free hand clench. He carefully put his glass down on the bar, and I braced myself for the fight. I hoped the other men wouldn't join in. We kids stuck to fair fights, but I wasn't sure those men would. I wanted to help, but I couldn't pretend that I could be much good, and it was too far to run for Father.
John straightened up, and Stav raised his fists. But John didn't hit him. He only turned and walked away, through the doors, back into the store, right past me.
Bayrt had come back with the wire and the chocolade. John took them silently. I could hear the roar of laughter and cheers from the bar as we went outside and got on the horse. We had only gone a little way before I burst into tears. John must have felt them on the back of his shirt, but he said nothing, only poked the chocolade back at me.
I couldn't eat a bite. It all tasted bitter to me.
"—shouldn't even have let her go into town without me, Anogan! John's careful, but he's not from here! You knew something like this could happen!"
I pushed open the door, leaving Mother's voice behind, and circled around back of the house. After John had told Father what had happened, I had gotten a quarter-hour's lecture about sticking my nose into trouble before Mother had tired of me and switched to Father. I could tell she was making so much of a fuss in part so that we wouldn't have to talk about what else had happened, but it was still hard to listen. I couldn't tell what was more disappointing: my glimpse of the ugliness of the saloon, or the way John had backed down from it. I sat down on a rock, folded my arms, and kicked at the dirt.
After a few minutes, John appeared. He went into the barn, then emerged carrying the two sticks he had brought with him. "Hey there. You okay?"
"No," I mumbled.
"Don't worry too much about the yelling. One time, I got in so much trouble, they sent me to Antarctica."
My curiosity got the better of my bad mood. "Where?"
"You don't want to know." He came over and sat down next to me, propping the sticks on the rock. "Were you scared?"
"I wanted to help," I said. "But I couldn't. I'll never be half as big as Stav. Maybe Mother's right after all."
He rubbed his chin. "Your mother's just worried that if you grow up too tough out here, no one will want to marry you. But the prettiest girl I ever knew was also the best fighter."
I leaned towards him, fascinated. "Did you marry her?"
His eyes clouded over. "No." He chewed his lip for a minute, looking as if he were thousands of miles away. Then he shook himself and picked up one of the sticks. "I've got an idea. How about I teach you how to use these?"
"To fight?" I exclaimed.
He smiled crookedly. "Well, as long as you promise not to tell your mother."
"And as long as you promise me that you'll only fight to defend yourself, or to help other people."
"Why?" I could think of plenty of other reasons, starting with teaching those annoying boys down by the river a lesson or two.
"Because every time you hurt someone, Anjie, it takes a piece out of you. Sometimes there's a good reason, but otherwise, it's just—it's not worth it."
"Oh. Is that why you wouldn't fight Stav?"
"Something like that."
"But you would've won, wouldn't you?"
"Maybe, but sometimes..." He hesitated, looking at the stick in his hand. "Sometimes even when you win, it doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to."
I felt a sudden chill, thinking of the things wrapped up in his saddle-roll, but I couldn't ask. Instead, I said, "I promise, John. I mean it," and reached for the other stick.
"Nope." He stopped my hand, but his face had cleared. "You don't just grab these. There's a ritual phrase..."
Chores went by a lot faster when I knew I would be able to escape out back, beyond Mother's watchful eye, to learn how to fight. John said we couldn't call it by its proper name because we only had one stick each, so we just said Ôstick-fighting.' I didn't care what we called it as long as I got to spend all that time with John, learning to strike and block. I wasn't just hitting things, the way any kid could when she was playing; I was hitting things hard and fast and right, the way that worked.
But it was tough, too. He didn't go easy on me, and of course he was much bigger and stronger and faster than I was. I got whacked a lot, and it was a good thing life on the farm was rough enough that Mother didn't think anything of bruises. Sometimes I got really frustrated, and once when I got knocked down for the fourth time in four passes, I yelled a curse word I had learned from Father and flung the stick away.
"Hey! Hey!" John said, jumping after the stick, his brows knitting together and his whole face going grim. For the first time ever, I knew he was angry at me. The rest of the world seemed to come to a stop, and I held my breath as he picked up the stick and wiped it off carefully, his back to me.
"You have to respect your weapons," he said finally, not turning around, raising the stick and looking at it in the sunlight. "That's really important. Do you understand?"
"I'm sorry, John," I said in a small voice. I wished he would look at me.
He rubbed his hand through his hair and I saw his shoulders relax. "It's okay, Anjie." He turned back to me. "I know it's hard. I fell a lot when I was learning, and I'm a lot bigger than you." He offered me the stick with a small smile. "Ready to go again?"
I reached out for it carefully, and he mussed my hair as he passed it to me.
But my happiness in learning from John couldn't blind me to what was going on in the valley that summer. Word of John's walking away from the fight with Stav got around fast. Krader's men got pushier than ever, and our neighbors didn't exactly blame John, it was obvious they thought he'd made matters worse.
They had already met several times at our house to discuss what could be done about Krader. Father, as one of the earliest and stubbornest settlers, was a natural leader of the group. The next time, all the men could talk about was how bold Krader's men had gotten, cutting across other people's property, smashing wagons left unattended, cornering girls walking alone. Unlike some of the others, Palt, one of the most nervous of the latecomers, hadn't actually had any of his property damaged, but he complained that since John had backed down from Stav, he hadn't been able to go into town without being laughed at. John looked out the window while Palt talked and talked, like he didn't even hear. I bristled privately, but said nothing, trying to mind my knitting.
"This Krader situation is terrible. It was almost better when the Wraith were here. At least we didn't have them breathing down our—"
John hit the table. "Don't you ever talk like that," he said through his teeth, and now he was looking at Palt, and his eyes were burning coals. "Not around me."
"Are you going to stop me?" Palt challenged him, rising.
"Now, now," said Bilner, a peaceful older man, trying to divert the conversation, "after all, we don't even know if the Wraith are gone—"
"They're gone," John said shortly, all the fire going out of him at once.
"How can you be so sure?"
"I just am."
"Do you think it's true that the city of the Ancients was destroyed in the war, as well?" Father put in.
"Yes. I do."
"Oh, what would you know about it?" Palt said.
John got up, not even looking at him. "This conversation will go better without me."
There was a moment's silence after he walked out. Finally, Bilner said, "You wouldn't expect a man like that to be scared."
"Ha," Palt said, "I always knew he'd be scared to fight."
"You think he's scared to fight?" Father said.
"Obviously. He backed down from Stav. He's scared of him."
Father shook his head and looked at Palt. "He was scared all right. But not of Stav. He was scared of himself."
Palt laughed. "Of himself? What do you mean?"
I didn't wait to hear the answer. I'd gotten to the end of a row. Dropping my knitting, I ran out after John.
He was standing at the gate, swinging it back and forth a little. "It's not my fight, Teyla," he was saying. "I did what I had to do. You can't ask me—"
"John?" I came to his side, breathless. "Who are you talking to?"
He stopped, and the corner of his mouth twisted up. "No one."
"Don't let Palt bother you. Everyone knows he's all talk. I could take him!"
"He doesn't bother me, Anjie." He reached out and ruffled my hair. "Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay."
"John." Father was standing in the door. "There's some talk of going into town together next Saturday for supplies. I'd be happier if you sat in on the plans with us."
"I'm good out here. Anjie and I are stargazing."
"John, Palt's a fool. You don't have to—"
"I'll do whatever you decide," John said. He pointed up at a constellation. "That one's called the Hunter."
"No, it's not," I said, nestling my chin on my arms on the top of the gate. "It's the Waterfall!"
"Where you come from, maybe, but I..."
I heard Father shut the door behind him.
Father and the others did end up deciding that it was safer to go into town in a group, so the next Saturday he hitched up the wagon and Mother, John, and I climbed in. Mother had put on her prettiest dress, not lilefir but silk, one of the two she had brought out from the settlement when she married Father. She kept up a determinedly cheerful conversation all the way in, and soon drew Father and me in with her, so it was just like the days before Krader had come when we were off to a gathering. I noticed, though, that John was quiet, often turning his head to check the road. Father had his gun, but John didn't even have his sticks.
The families together made a happy day of it at first. We usually only all got together on holidays—Wild Night and Midwinter and the new one, Wraithsfall—and so that's what it felt like. Old Marcal was playing a fiddle in the street. People talked and laughed as they bought their goods from Bayrt, and the kids played outside or sat in the shade and crunched on candy. There was a hot game of pebbletry I longed to get into. Jiana, the sister of those irritating boys by the river, still had my prized shooter from two months ago, and girls much older than us didn't play pebbletry anymore, so I was worried I might never get it back. But it felt more important to keep a close eye on John, who wandered about the store, apparently aimlessly, though sometimes raising an eyebrow at the various strange goods that were heaped up on barrels.
I wasn't fooled. I had learned to spot purpose lurking in his casual glances, and I could feel in my bones that something big was going to happen. I wasn't wrong, either. Father and Mother were engrossed in a discussion with Bayrt about some new kind of soil you added to the dirt that was supposed to help lilefir grow faster and taller when John made a sudden turn in his stroll and disappeared through the doors into the saloon. I gave Mother a wavering glance, then thought of John's fighter friend and crept over to the doors myself.
Stav wasn't there, and I felt mingled relief and disappointment. But I saw two men nudge each other as John went over to the bar, and one of them got up and went outside. Sure enough, just as John was settling in with a glass of tassa-root liquor, Stav ambled in from the street.
"You dirt-farmers sure do learn slow," he said. "But then if you had any brains at all, you would already have cleared out of the valley."
I saw John sigh, and then his mouth tightened. "You talking to me?" he asked.
"I don't see any other clodhoppers in here. They know better."
"I only wanted to buy you a drink," John said. "Since you were so friendly as to get me one last time."
John tilted his head. "Okay, you got me. I'm lying." He threw his drink on Stav's shirt. "I really just wanted to do that."
Stav balled up his fists. "You miserable son-of-a—"
"Now we're even," John said quietly. "How about we let this go?"
Stav didn't answer—he just took a swing. John stepped inside the punch and hit him hard. The other men hastily got to their feet, filling the air with the sound of scraping chairs, and Poil snapped, "Don't forget," from behind the bar, getting out the shotgun.
It wasn't much of a fight, or it wouldn't have been, anyway. Stav was young and tough and not stupid, and he figured out pretty fast that he'd underestimated John even if he was a good bit older. But John was like something not even human, quick and deadly accurate, constantly just out of Stav's reach. It was probably less than three minutes before John slammed Stav's arm against the edge of the bar and everyone could hear the bone snap. Stav went down, face dead white.
But Stav wasn't alone. The two men I'd seen earlier, plus a couple more, moved in as soon as Stav fell, muttering. John turned to face them, eyes cold and dead, and one of them faltered, then broke and bolted out the street door, but the rest of them kept coming. It wasn't a fair fight, couldn't be, and I knew John couldn't take three at once.
I spun and raced back into the store, over to Father.
"Anjie, what's the—"
"John's in a fight! Three against one!" I blurted.
Father laid down the trowel he'd been holding and strode across the room and through the doors. Mother said, "Anjie, don't you dare—" but I broke away from her grip and followed him back, this time going through the doors myself.
It smelled even worse on the inside, but I didn't care. One of the men was down, underneath a smashed table. John was ducking the punches of the second. The third was hanging back a little, and I wished I had my stick to take him on, the coward. When the second charged at John, he moved aside easily, turning to face him. The third seized one of the splintered table legs and came at John from behind, hitting him hard in the head.
John didn't fall, but he staggered, and the second man connected with a punch, knocking him back against the bar. The third man drew back his arm for a mighty swing—but Father caught it. The man turned to look at him, astonished, and Father smashed him in the face with his elbow. He went down just as John braced himself against the bar and lashed out with his boot at the other man, sending him flying.
Father grabbed the table leg. "It's a fair fight now, boys," he said. "Still interested?"
None of them seemed to want to get up.
Poil surveyed the room disgustedly. "Four against one." He spat. "Krader'll cover this."
"In more ways than one." Father went over to John, who had fallen back against the bar again, breathing hard, and was feeling at his head. His hand came away all bloody, and I gasped. Father touched his shoulder. "John?"
John started and gave him a half-wild look, like he wasn't entirely sure who Father was.
"John!" I ran across the room to him. "You won!"
He looked down at me and blinked. "Anjie?" He smiled weakly, hastily putting his hand behind his back. "Boy, you'd take any excuse to get in here, wouldn't you?"
I looked around the room. "Not anymore. I don't like it."
"Good call." He levered himself up from the bar. "Let's get out of here."
The fight put an end to the festivities; even the tougher settlers, quietly jubilant over John's victory, knew it was best to bring the day to its close. Mother bought some cloth and improvised a bandage as we rode home. John didn't look any too good, and he ended up stretching out in the back of the wagon, breathing shallowly. I went back and sat down next to him.
"John? How do you feel?"
"I'm going to be okay, Anjie. You can go sit with your mom."
But I had important questions to ask. "You knew you were going to fight today, didn't you."
He touched his head and winced. "Let's say I had a feeling."
"Then why didn't you bring your sticks?"
"Stav didn't have sticks, Anjie."
"But they didn't fight fair," I pointed out. "Four against one is cheating."
"I know. And I'm not going to lie to you, kiddo, you can't always fight fair. But I wanted—" He sighed. "I wanted to give him a chance. He's hardly more than a kid himself. And none of them deserve..." He trailed off.
I looked at the bandage. Blood was already seeping through it. "I think they deserve whatever they get," I said fiercely.
He laughed, and then reached up and tugged on my braid. "Sorry. It's just...for a minute, you reminded me..." He looked up at the darkening sky. "That's a harsh way of looking at it, Anjie."
I felt harsh, but something in his tone made me uncertain. "Well, at least Krader's men will leave us alone now."
"I hope so," he said, but it didn't sound like he believed it.
We were quiet for a little while, the only sounds the creaking of the wheels and the clop of the horse's hooves. John said drowsily, "Hey, could you complain about having a splinter or something?"
I wondered whether his head injury was worse than Mother thought, but I sat back against the wall of the wagon and told him about the loss of my shooter to Jiana, all the way home.
We did have a few more weeks of peace; Krader's men stayed well away from the farm, and there weren't any incidents in town. It was a good thing, too, as the harvest was almost on us and everyone in the valley had a lot of hard work to do. The heat was baking, the glare in the sky relentless. Mother and I hardly even got to see Father and John, except at meals. I carded lilefir til my fingers bled and lived for the few hours I got to spend practicing with John.
With the fight, he had won back the respect of the neighbors. Palt still gave him scornful looks, but the others listened attentively when he spoke. He seemed to like it even less than before, sliding his chair back into the shadows or stepping outside during visits. We had one meeting after the fight, when everyone agreed to wait and see what would happen. John and Father beating up a few hands couldn't possibly stop Krader forever, but maybe he would decide it was easier to come to an arrangement than to fight us.
He didn't, of course. One evening, John had come in from the fields just in time to catch the last embers of sunset from the porch. I snuck away from the last-minute supper preparations to join him—I was no good with the tricky parts of cooking, anyway, so Mother was usually willing not to notice me going. John was whittling away on a new latch for the front window when he suddenly squinted into the road.
"Company," he said, his lean lines tensing up.
I looked, too. "It's Mr. Bilner."
John nodded and went back to his work, but he seemed uneasy. Bilner rode to our gate and called, "Permission to come in, miss?"
He dismounted and came onto the porch. "You'd better hear this, John," he said over his shoulder as he went inside. John frowned, but followed him, and I did, too.
"Krader's got a new man," Bilner said to Father, nodding to Mother, who started to reach down extra dishes. "He looks like trouble."
"If he's a rancher, I'm an Ancestor. That man has killer written all over him."
"Did you get his name?"
"No. But he's got a gun that's from beyond-Ring, I'm sure of it."
"What does he look like?" John asked sharply, from behind.
Bilner didn't turn around. "He's older—a little older than you, John. Tall, dark hair, dark eyes. Soft face, but not enough to fool anyone. Pockmarks, long dark coat. Maybe handsome once, though, if he wasn't so mean. Looks like he thinks we're all just dust to trample beneath his feet."
"This isn't good, Anogan."
"Do you know him, John?" Father said.
John shrugged. "I don't think so. But it's obvious what Krader's doing."
"Trying to scare us."
"These aren't the days before Wraithsfall," Bilner said. "You can't just gun a man down out here and get away with it."
But John and Father were sharing a worried look. "You should tell everyone," Father said, "to be extra-careful in town. No going alone, no going into the saloon. No going at all unless you have to."
"You think it'll come to that?"
Father hesitated. John said, "I do."
Supper was very quiet, despite the company. After Mother and I had cleared up, I went out to the barn to see if John wanted to practice. I found him kneeling over his saddleroll, studying his gun. As I came in, he quickly folded up his roll and put it back beneath his loft. "Do you need something, Anjie?" His eyes were bright and false.
"No," I said, trying not to be angry. I wanted so badly for him not to hide things from us, from me, but the only way I could think of to show him that he was wrong to do it was to be as serious and grownup as I could. So I made some excuse about finding the cat and backed out.
I was sure John was right about Krader, but I don't think even Father thought he'd be proved right as quickly as he was. Two nights later, when John and I were practicing, we heard wild hoofbeats on the road. I thought of the first night that John had stayed with us, and I ran out of the barn, waving my stick, John hard on my heels. Father burst onto the porch with his shotgun. Shapes emerged from the night—but it was only Bilner on horseback.
He had a terrible story to tell, though. Palt was dead.
"You know how he always thought he had to prove he was five times the man of anyone around here. Damn fool went into town alone, and as if that wasn't enough, decided to finish off the day with a drink in the saloon. Krader's new man was in there. I guess they passed a few friendly remarks back and forth—something to do with you, John—"
"About him being crowded out of his place in the valley by some drifter. Anyway, Palt went for his gun, only Krader's man drilled him before he even cleared the holster. Two shots, clean through him. They're bringing the body back to his farm now."
"It's a warning," Father said. "A warning to all of us. Palt just volunteered himself as the first victim."
"Well, people are heeding it. Huspot and Runder are already packing up. Maybe you should, too."
Father looked tired. "You, too, Bilner?"
"I'm an old man. I guess death will come for me when it's time. But you have a wife and a little girl to think about, Anogan, and you'll be Krader's next target."
"Maybe he's right," John said.
Father raised his eyebrows. "Maybe if you say that fifty more times, you'll start convincing me you believe it, John."
"You're the leader here. Krader will be after you next. And Malla and Anjora—"
"We're not going anywhere," Mother said from the window. "Not on my account."
"And not on mine, either!" I declared.
Father smiled a little. "The people have spoken." His face got serious again. "Listen, Bilner, you ride around tonight and try to get people to hold tight. This is only Krader getting even with us for what happened to Stav. We can't give up before he even gets started."
"I've already stopped by a few farms. Don't worry about me; I'm not going anywhere."
"Good. Then neither are we."
Bilner nodded at me and Mother, then turned and rode hard out of the gate. John turned away, slipping the stick out of my hands as he passed me.
"What are you going to do now, Father?"
"Wait, Anjie. It won't be long."
Palt's funeral was small. He didn't have a family, and a lot of people were afraid to come. I felt a little scared myself—scared and strange. Death was common enough in the valley; there were plenty of little markers scattered through the flat patch of dry land that had become our burying-ground. Kids died of sicknesses and adults died of accidents every season. But it had been a couple of years since the last shooting, and I hadn't understood in the same way. The funeral, with the loose dirt piled next to the hole, the uneven pine box they'd slapped together for him, the ragged sticks they marked the spot with, seemed to be of a piece with the saloon back in town. Another look into the raw adult world, with so many things exposed that, after my first glimpse, I wasn't so sure I wanted to see anymore.
Father and Mother stood close to me through the funeral, each of them with one hand on my shoulder. I looked back when they were lowering the coffin into the earth at John, a few feet away. He was squinting off into the distance, the wind playing with his hair and dashing dust in his face. I wondered if he believed in the words about the Ancestors, that they were waiting to welcome the dead home. I felt he didn't, and wondered what he did believe in. I got no sign during the funeral that he thought that anything was going on beyond putting in the ground something that used to be a person. I shivered. The galaxy was so big to be that empty.
Father stayed after a little, talking quietly to some of the other farmers, so we didn't reach the farm til just past dusk. John spotted the horsemen out front first. "Visitors, Anogan."
"So I see. Malla, you take Anjora right inside."
"That didn't need saying," Mother said.
"But—" I started, but John's hand touched my wrist, and quieted.
As we turned into the gate, I saw that it was just who we had all guessed: Krader. Behind him a little ways was a man I didn't recognize, who had to be the man who'd shot Palt. I heard John take in a sharp breath and felt him go still all over.
"Evening, Anogan," Krader said. "Hope you don't mind I came onto your land to wait."
"Well, since you're here, speak your piece." Father didn't get down from the wagon, but Mother did, pulling me after her. I felt Krader and his man's eyes on us as we walked to the porch, hearts pounding. But we made it inside safely. Mother threw the latch as I ran to the window.
Krader was a tall, grizzled man, like an old rock in a dangerous current. The new man looked just as Bilner had described him, except maybe a little older. Father was bent on Krader, but the new man and John had eyes for no one but each other.
"I came to talk sense with you, Anogan. That killing was a bad business."
"Since the killer works for you, that should settle it."
Krader shook his head. "I mean it was unnecessary. Palt drew on Kolya here. He had no choice."
"So everyone says."
"Nobody else needs to die out here, Anogan. Not over a few scraps of land."
Father tilted his head. "I agree."
"Good," Krader murmured. "You're a good man. This valley would be poorer without you."
"I don't have much time to stand on compliments. What's your point?"
"I want you to come work for me. I'll buy your land and your house—you name the price." He glanced at John. "I'll hire your man, too. I hear he's good with his hands."
John ignored him completely, keeping his eyes fixed on Kolya. Kolya looked bored, letting his horse wander a little, but I noticed he never let John out of his direct line of sight, and his hand stayed close by his side.
Father said slowly, "So that's the way you want to play it."
"The others look to you, Anogan. They'll understand."
"I see." Father rubbed his chin. I was holding the window frame so tightly it was cutting into my hands. "No, thank you. Malla and I built this place, and I believe we'll keep it. John can speak for himself, of course..."
"I've never been any good at taking orders," John said, still not looking at Krader.
A spasm of anger passed over Krader's face, hideously ugly, but it was gone as quickly as it had come. "I'm trying to be reasonable," he said. "You be reasonable, too. Think about it. Come to town tonight with your answer."
He touched spur to his horse, and rode off through the gate. Kolya followed, but he backed his horse out, and only when he was well onto the road did he turn his back on us.
I glanced at Mother, and saw she was holding Father's shotgun tight in her hands.
Catching my eye on her, she quickly went to put it back up and let the men in. "Anogan—" she started, but Father slammed his fist into the wall.
"To come on my land and make threats like that—after killing that poor bastard Palt like a dog—"
It had been a long time since I'd seen Father that angry. Mother's own voice was trembling. "If he had taken one step towards you, Anogan..."
He passed a shaking hand over his forehead and took a deep breath. "I'll have to go there tonight."
Mother went even paler. "But he'll kill you."
"He can try," Father said. "I'm not afraid of the old man. This is it, Malla. If we don't settle this tonight..."
"He's right," John said from behind him. "Back down now, and there's nothing they won't stop at."
"But it won't be Krader he'll be fighting," she said. "Sure as anything, he'll have to deal with Kolya. He's no old man."
"No. But if Anogan backs down tonight, there won't be anyone left in the valley at the end of the week. There won't be anything to fight for."
"Oh—" Mother said. "It's so—!" She turned and went into their room. I thought about following her, but I couldn't. I understood what was coming that night, and even if it was going to be terrible, it would settle everything. I had to see it all.
Father folded his hands on the back of a chair and looked down at them. "Thank you, John."
"I didn't tell her anything she didn't already know," John said, absentmindedly picking up her rolling pin and staring at it. "She just needed to hear it out loud."
"True." Father smiled a distant smile. "I've never regretted marrying her, John, and I never will." He shook himself, took his gun out of its holster, and began checking it. "Anjie," he said. "Whatever happens, I want you to do what your mother and John tell you to do. They'll look out for you."
I couldn't speak. After the long-drawn-out tension of the summer, suddenly time had caught us all up and was rushing us forward. I could see the dirt and the pine box and the sticks, and the future ended there. I bit my lip to keep from crying.
I realized that John was looking at me, and I fought to raise my chin higher, blinking furiously so he couldn't see. "She's brave," he said. "Whatever happens..."
He was still standing behind Father, and there was something odd about his stance. Something I remembered from training with him. I started to open my mouth, but he winked at me. "She can handle it," he finished, and brought the rolling pin down on Father's temple.
I gasped. Father groaned and slumped forward, the gun falling from his hand. Mother burst into the room. "John, what's going on?"
"No one can blame him for not going now." John picked up the gun and ejected the ammunition, flinging it out the window into the night.
"Y-you're going," I choked.
"Looks like it." John felt Father's pulse. "I think he'll be okay, but you'd better brew him some medicine, Malla. He's going to have a hell of a headache when he wakes up."
Mother was still frozen. Then she said, "Oh, John," and flung her arms around him, eyes glistening.
John let her hug him for a second, then straightened up. "I'd better get this over with." He gently clapped Father on the back. "Otherwise he'll be up to stop me."
"Come back to us," Mother said.
"I'm not the suicidal type." He glanced across at me. "Anjie?"
Everything was too big inside me. I couldn't tell whether I loved or hated him more for being who he was, what he was, but I had already promised myself I wouldn't run away, and I stuck to it. I just nodded at him.
He smiled. "See you later."
He went out to the barn, and a couple of minutes later I heard him untie his horse and ride away.
Mother stood there for a moment longer, listening, then she shook herself and began hunting up the various herbs and roots she used to brew a painkiller. I waited until her back was turned, then I slipped out the door. As she bustled in the kitchen, I thought her glance fell on me through the window, but then she looked away.
I stopped in the barn only long enough to confirm that John's saddleroll was gone. I tried to think only of the gun. I had never seen an actual gunfight, but I knew you were supposed to have a second, someone to hold your coat and tell your story if you fell. I looked around—he'd taken the sticks, too. So I resigned myself to my pocketknife and started off, as fast as I could in the dark. At least John wouldn't be able to ride hard, either.
The night was soft and warm, alive with all the little sounds of the valley: animals crawling through brush, nightbirds trilling, the occasional buzz of an insect. The moon was low and ominous on the horizon. I stayed off the road for fear John would look back and spot me, but I knew every inch of this land, and rarely stumbled or fell. It was a long way for a run, but I could hear John's horse ahead of me, and I held onto that when my legs and my lungs started to burn.
Town was deserted. The saloon cast a vague light into the street, but even it was quiet. I watched from a distance as John tied up his horse, then slipped in as close as I dared.
The saloon was empty—even Poil was nowhere to be seen. At the other side of the room, near the entrance to the store, Kolya was leaning against the wall, hardly distinguishable among the shadows.
John had changed back into the dark clothes he had first worn into the valley. He looked a lot like he had that day: casual, tired, but intensely alert underneath it all. His hand hovered near the grip of his strange gun. "Kolya. Never thought I'd see you again."
Kolya smirked. "Life is full of surprises."
"Did you come all this way just for me?"
"I couldn't resist."
"Where's Krader?" John asked.
"Where's Anogan?" Kolya countered.
"You know, I thought it might come to this. You always were one for the stupid heroic gesture, weren't you?" Kolya straightened, and John's hand twitched, but Kolya didn't go for the gun. "How the mighty have fallen. The great Colonel John Sheppard, shoveling cattle manure in some backwater on a planet too poor even to plunder."
I should've been stunned, but I was too focused on the immediate scene to think about anything else.
"I find it a little more personally satisfying than piracy. But then, you always did get off on hurting people, so I suppose that works better for you."
"It's called a power vacuum, Sheppard, one you created. But then, you never really did understand politics." Kolya shook his head. "If only your people could see you now. But—of course—they can't. Funny how you managed to survive when everyone you swore to protect is dead, isn't it?"
John said coldly, "Do we really have to go through the whole ritual-insult process? Because I've had a long day and I just want a drink."
"The bartender had to step into the back," Kolya said. Then his hand dipped and his gun came up, but John had moved, too. I heard a rattle of gunfire, many shots, more than should have been possible with only two guns, and Kolya was slumping, sagging against the wall, still shooting. John ducked down behind a table, waited a minute, then popped up and fired again, and this time Kolya was still.
John got up, cautiously, and crossed the room to him. He lifted his gun and fired again, into his head. It sounded like a ripe fruit being split open, and then Kolya wasn't even recognizable.
"Shoulda done that a long time ago," I heard John murmur, but then he grimaced and his shoulders sagged.
My heart felt like it was going to burst. I always knew John could win, but to see it—I was trembling with awe. I was about to push the doors open all the way and run to him when I felt something warm, like a hand on my shoulder, and a woman's voice said in my ear, "Look!"
I was startled, but glanced across the room. John was still standing over Kolya, his head bent to him. A figure was stepping quietly from the back, and I realized that it was Krader, already bringing a shotgun to his shoulder.
"John, look out!" I cried.
John spun, pulling his own weapon again, and again there was that improbable spatter of bullets. Krader cried out, a harsh roar of anger and pain, fell to his knees, and then dropped out of sight behind the bar. John ran over to check on him, but whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him.
I looked behind me, but there was no one there. I was still staring back into the night when John called to me. "Anjie! What are you doing here?"
He was standing in the center of the room, and his face was strange. "John! You did it!" Now I did run to him, practically colliding with his middle and wrapping my arms around him. I could smell the sweat and feel how fast his heart was going, and, suddenly shy, I let him go. "Let's go home."
"Okay, kiddo. We're out of here."
It was funny, I was so excited—John had saved Father, saved the farm, saved the valley, saved everybody—but it was too much excitement to spill out into words. Neither of us said anything until we were out in the fresh air.
"You're turning into a real barfly," he said. "Am I going to have to do an intervention?"
I burst out, "Are you really Sheppard of Atlantis? The one who destroyed the Wraith?"
He sighed and nodded slowly. "Yes, I am. Or I was. Now, if you tell people that, you'll get a lot of attention, but there will also be a lot of trouble."
At that minute, I would have died to keep his secret, just for the pleasure of having it. "But I won't!" I said indignantly.
"Good. I knew you wouldn't." He squinted out into the night. "You should be getting back now. Your parents will be worried sick about you."
"Aren't you coming, John?"
His eyes were very dark in the dim light. "No, Anjie, I can't."
The rightness of it crashed on me in a wave of feeling, but I didn't understand. I didn't want to understand. "Why not?"
"This kind of town can't live with a killer," he said. "I'd just be a magnet for trouble. Besides...I've been hiding for a long time. Too long. I need to start making myself useful again."
"But don't you want to stay with us?" I didn't want to cry. I wouldn't cry.
He took my hand in his. "Look, Anjie, living with your family, it's been..." He bit his lip, searching for words. "My friends and I, we won the war, but...I couldn't see it. Couldn't feel it. This summer here, that's what made it real for me, and I...I needed that." He squeezed my hand. "But I have to get back out there. We didn't fight the war so that people like Krader could walk all over people like you. I still have a job to do, and I've done it here."
"I—" I was crying, and I hastily hid my face in his shirt. I thought we'd escaped the harsh demands of the real world, that John had saved us, but now I realized that you always, always had to pay somehow, and it was almost too hard to bear.
"Hey, kiddo, hey, it's okay," he said softly, putting his arm around me. "It's going to be all right."
That reminded me. I sniffled and looked up at him, preparing to tell him about the woman's voice I had heard. Then, past his shoulder, I saw her. Not tall, but beautiful, dusky-skinned, with long brown hair, a soft wavering glow around her. I felt a rush of the same warmth that had touched my shoulder during the fight. John, always so aware of his surroundings, seemed completely oblivious to the woman's presence. I realized that she had to be an Ancestor, or one of us who had joined them, like in the old legends. She smiled at me and shook her head, and I knew I wasn't supposed to tell that she had spoken to me. I didn't think John believed in such things, anyway, and I couldn't argue with him, not now.
Now she was looking at John, still smiling as she faded away, her white glow gradually dissipating behind him. When she was gone, I breathed out slowly. "Do you have to go now?"
I frowned as I noticed his shoulder, where a dark stain was spreading slowly. "But you're hurt!"
"Just a scratch." He lifted my chin. "Listen to me, Anjie. You're going to be fine here. It may not always seem like it to you, but this is a good place for a kid to grow up, especially with a mom and dad like yours. Still, it doesn't have to be forever if you don't want it to be. When you're old enough, if you keep working at it, there will be a way."
He stepped back and moved to his horse. I stood and watched as he untied it and mounted. He spoke a soft word, and it turned and started up the road; I couldn't tell if I was imagining the faint glimmer that trailed after him. He quickly became just a silhouette, a lone figure in the night, but I stared after him as long as I could, until he merged indistinguishably with the shadows.
I sat down on the porch and hugged my arms around my knees, staring into the dirt. Some time later—I have no idea how long—Bayrt brought me home.
My parents were sitting up waiting for me, Father with a compress on his head. They didn't scold me; they just looked the question.
"It's over," I said. "He did it."
"He shot Kolya?" Father said.
"Kolya and Krader."
"Oh," Mother said, and began to tremble.
Father almost whispered, "Did he...Anjora, did he...?"
"He made it. But he's not coming back."
Father and Mother just glanced at each other, like they weren't surprised. Mother got up and came to me, putting out her arm. "Are you all right, Anjie?"
I didn't have any tears left to cry. "I guess. I just want to go to bed."
She nodded, and patted my head. "You go on. It's been a big day."
I could hear their low voices behind me, hysterical with relief, as I closed the door. I was suddenly so grateful for them, for the house around me, for the land that would still be ours tomorrow, that whatever anger I had at John for leaving us just melted away. But I wasn't prepared for what I found when I groped my way to the bed and lit a candle.
A pair of sticks. Not Teyla's—new ones, ones John must have scraped together time and strength to make after each long day's work had ended and I had finally gone to bed. They weren't as beautiful as hers, but they were carefully and honestly made, and fit my palms perfectly. I took a few swings, and it was like they were an extension of me.
Underneath the sticks was a note. Well, not properly a note, just a series of symbols, seven in a row each time. They had to be Ring addresses. Had to be. I remembered what John said, about there being a way when I was old enough, and I held the paper in my hands reverently. I slept with it under my pillow that night, and for many nights to come.
The killings and John's departure set off an enormous amount of talk in the valley. Many people speculated wildly about his identity, where he'd come from, and where he was off to. I always listened with a secret smile; it was funny to think that an eleven-year-old girl knew what a whole valley was dying to find out. But the truth is, I was never tempted to tell, not even my parents. Maybe to the galaxy, he was Sheppard of Atlantis, vanished hero of the last war against the Wraith. But to me, he was the man who had ridden into our valley one day and done a brave and kind and terrible thing to save it for us and ridden out again. He would always just be John.