The morning of the battle, before Hasimi's life changed irrevocably.
"I pray it goes well, chieftan." The one-eyed, light-haired man standing closest behind them held the reins of her father's grey steed.
"Let us hope the spirits take your prayers more seriously than mine," Hasimi's father said, reaching down to slip off his leather boots. "We shouldn't even be here." Hasimi watched amused until she saw him chastise with the corner of his eye.
"Sorry," she whispered, reaching down to remove her own.
"You haven't done this with me before, but you'll learn in good time." He dropped the worn treaders to the ground, frowning at the ragged soles.
"Why do we do this again?" Hasimi asked, pulling her own boots off, spreading her toes out into the chill, damp soil.
"The tea ceremony is sacred. It's not just a meeting between two chieftans, but the spirits of the earth and sky are watching, too." Hasimi always found it strangely comforting, the way her father spoke of the spirits with the same tone her friends had spoken of annoying parents when they were younger.
"And the spirits don't like boots?"
"And the spirits don't like boots," father echoed. He dropped the rugged leather to the side, snickering. "I don't much care for their rules either, but the spirits helped us earn our freedom from the settled-folk, so going barefoot doesn't seem too much to ask."
Hasimi nodded, but averted her eyes to the sky. She took in a slow, deep breath.
"Shem is calling us over, let's get this done," her father said. As she looked back down to the field before her, she saw that the three men at the front of the clan opposite them were making towards them. As near dead center between them as one could ask, an elderly woman sat at the head of a short table, and was pouring tea from an old bronze kettle into thick stone cups. A young man standing next to her was doing the beckoning for her, eyes wide, hands trembling as he gestured uncertainly. The soft, wet grass folding beneath each step nearly helped her forget what they were here to do.
"Shem, it's an honor to see you again," her father said, bowing to the woman as they reached the table.
"I doubt that, Narik. You always have complaints about my tea and I've not changed it since last time," she said. Her face was hard, riven as etched stone, her eyes nearly black, her hair nearly white. Though age and disuse had let the body of her youth fade away, Hasimi could still see in her forearms the heavy cords of muscle that had once drawn her bow, could still easily picture her riding into battle.
Meanwhile, the greying man who approached from the opposite side of the table was still every bit the warrior, and so were the two youths at his side. He mirrored Narik's bow to Shem.
"Chieftan Shem, I--"
"Yes, Harrud, all right, sit, the lot of you. This earnest fool here," she said, pointing to the young man by her side, "knows little of long rides and less of making camp, so I'd just as soon be back with my people before the sun has run its course."
Harrud blinked, extended his hand to Narik. The two shook firmly, then sat, Hasimi and the two younger men following suit. The smell of the tea that greeted them carried whatever vestiges of sleep may have lingered in Hasimi's mind away as surely as an avalanche.
"Maybe a bitter tea is best for such discussions," Harrud said, picking up the cup and swirling it about, eying it skeptically.
"I imagine Shem will claim that was the idea all along," Narik said.
"Mind yourself, chieftans. This is a sacred ceremony for a solemn purpose. Do not shame yourselves before the spirits of earth and sky, and most of all do not waste my damned time," Shem said. "Harrud, this is Clan Aydun's grievance, you start."
Harrud nodded and folded his arms over his broad chest.
"About a fortnight ago, two of my kin got drunk and stole five sheep from a shepherd on my clan's land. Sheared them, skinned them, took the mutton. When the shepherd confronted them about it, they killed him and fled. The shepherd's wife came to me about it, said that she spoke to a trader who bought sheep hide and wool off some men heading northwest into Clan Shihiin's land. Come to find those two men have been hiding in a village of yours, and the villagers wouldn't turn them over. We took them back by force, and now we wish to punish the villagers."
Narik leaned back, his weight on his hands.
"This shepherd of yours, is he kin?"
"No. He's one of the settled folk."
"He's not even a rider? And you came all this way to have those men back?"
"They stole from people under my protection. They may be my clansmen, but they're not in my house, they don't ride. They have no right of plunder," Harrud said.
"It's the same as stealing from us," the younger of the two men by his side said, staring straight into Hasimi's eyes.
Daraz, the younger son of the Aydun chieftan; she'd known him since they were barely able to speak. In better times when their clans were closer, there had been some talk about marrying them off to one another. Not the worst idea Hasimi had ever heard in her life, but just now she couldn't help but notice that he looked to have grown much stronger. His stubbled face was marked with many scars, but all shallow--the sorts of grazes that suggested those who'd left them made out much worse. What about her was he studying so intently? She felt a pressure upon her shoulders and noticed Harrud glaring at her.
"Narik, you know I like your daughter, but I won't abide her cursing my son with her stare." His low voice dug under her skin, and she immediately clinched her eyes shut, hiding their pale red until she felt her father's hand upon her back.
"Don't tell me you believe in that now, too? You and Mad Heybal think my daughter's a witch? And here I was thinking we should just marry out children off to each other like we said we would. Then our clans have a blood tie and all this goes away."
Harrud and his elder son Teygan snorted, far too much like each other for Hasimi's liking, but Daraz smiled at her.
"Bride or rival, either way is an honor."
"Keep your clever comments to yourself at this table, boy," Harrud said.
"All right, my fault for joking," Narik said, raising a hand. "But see here, Clan Shihiin has its honor to uphold, too. That village you want grows wheat for my kin, and hay for our horses. They cut wood for our bows. In return, they are owed our protection."
"So you begrudge me seeking justice for the murder of my property and protest yours being held to account?" Harrud said, slamming his tea cup into the table.
"You didn't let me finish," Narik said. "You can have your justice. Your murderers can be sent back to your lands for trial; the villagers can be punished for harboring them, but Aydun men will not do these things. Clan Shihiin will capture your criminals and send them home with you, and we will punish the people who housed them and hid them according to our laws, since they live on our land."
"If I agree to that, my kin will start to say 'Harrud is weak.' I accept this and now every clan that wishes ill upon my kin and I sees that I will let things go if people merely run far enough in the right direction."
"Then let them talk. If anyone raises spears against you, I will bring my clan to your defense," Narik said. Hasimi knew the moment she looked into the older chieftan's face that her father had picked the wrong words. She could see the swelling of a vein in his forehead, the tensing of countless muscles throughout his body, the single grind of his jaw. His sons had less willpower than he, their faces immediately darkening.
"Narik," he said. "All riders owe you a debt for what you did in the uprising, but even you can only insult me and my kin so much before I cannot bear it. You would ask my submission? No. If that is your offer, then there is nothing more to discuss."
Hasimi could swear that the wind had gone still. She caught Daraz studying her, his lips slightly parted; she remembered when they had been thirteen and thought each other beautiful, then saw a vision of his lips stained red, his wheat-colored skin drained white, his eyes turning from his green to her salt-red as their sight faded.
"Narik, Harrud, I urge you both to look to your children at your side. Let them remind you of what is at risk, and make your choices knowing that they may live or die by them."
Hasimi met her father's eyes but only briefly; she saw a hundred arrows pierce his body where he sat, saw him gutted by the spear, carved by the axe. She blinked and there he sat smiling at her, untouched.
"My daughter will not come to harm as long as I am with her; I am Narik Shihiin. Narik Shihiin," he said, standing and pulling her to her feet in one motion. The strength of his arm gave body to his promise, and Hasimi looked back across the table without fear. "But are you sure you want to risk your sons over this?" he asked.
Harrud rose slowly and sighed.
"Clan Shihiin has always lived for its own whims. I admire that in you, Narik, but Clan Aydun lives for its honor and the old laws. We will fight."
Shem, still seated, nodded slowly.
"It is witnessed, then. Go back to your kin and tell them to make ready. I shall withdraw from the field to see the battle. Do honorably before each other, the earth, and the sky." Before she finished speaking, her young kinsman was emptying out the remaining tea and stuffing everything into a pack. Hasimi wondered if he had never witnessed before, never been on a battlefield? She couldn't help but think of her own little brother, back at camp, refusing to ride and fight though he was of age.
Her father and Harrud were already both making their way back to their clans, leaving her with the Aydun chieftan's two sons. The elder, Teygan, scowled.
"You're a witch, aren't you? Use those eyes to hex your father into having some sense. Or better yet, some humility. 'I am Narik Shihiin.'" Hasimi felt little enough at watching him go, but looking at Daraz left her with an ache that surprised her.
"I haven't seen you in two years, and this is how it happens," he said.
"Should have expected it. Our clans have . . ."
The clattering of cups and kettle in a single leather satchel withdrew into the distance, along with Shem muttering at her kinsmen, struggling to stay on her horse. Hasimi had a moment to study Daraz more carefully now; everything about him had left behind the boy in favor of the man. Constant chatter had given way to thoughtful silence, slumped shoulders to proud bearing, constant fidgeting to near stillness. He was still beautiful, after a fashion.
He was worth defeating, and the ache had never been in her heart, but in her hands. Whatever they had once been to each other, today they would meet as warriors, as riders, and they would test spear against spear. What sort of shivers would each strike and parry send up her arms, she wondered?
Daraz smiled, raising his hand out before him and clenching it into a fist.
"I'll find you out there, Hasimi."
Without waiting for a reply, he turned to follow after his father, leaving her alone with the breeze. She took one last deep breath of the pristine morning air, knowing sweat and blood would soon render it foul and intoxicating.