Sally O. Odgers
Amara of Flutewood was twelve years old, and training to be a Valourn. Valourns were the pride of Rargon, athletes who trained long and hard until they could perform the difficult dances called Valours. Amara had been training ever since she was eight. She should have been winning medallions by now, but instead she could see her chances dwindling away.
Her worries had started six moons ago, when Master ShuMar had told her she would never make a Dancing Single like her sister Klovis.
"We are all unique," said Master ShuMar. "Klovis is a perfect Single talent, but you, Amara, must be satisfied dancing Dual. No shame in that. I have danced Dual almost all my life."
Obediently, Amara had taken PenMar as a partner and begun to practise as a Dual. The pairing lasted three days, then PenMar told her their performance didn't blend.
"Of course it blends," said Amara. "We're keeping perfect time."
"Yes," said PenMar, "but it is as if we were dancing Single, and doing so together."
Master ShuMar agreed. "Find another partner, Amara."
So Amara had partnered Brast of Cloudmount. After that, she had partnered Olympi of Threefold and Starset of Sandblow.
She and Starset had competed Dual at the Windwood Valours. The judges had marked them poorly and Starset had refused to partner her again. Amara had danced Single at Lakeswell, and had done no better.
Master ShuMar was right; She wasn't a Dancing Single. And she had just one more medallion chance this year, at the Cragcircle Valours!
Only the best are chosen to train at Shuencamp, thought Amara grimly as she left her hut. Master ShuMar chose me, so I must be one of the best. So, why can I not find the right partner?
The morning sounds swelled about her, but Amara's thoughts turned inward.
Master ShuMar had been a champion Valourn in his youth. His friends Fraeman and Dawkinda were champions as well, so naturally they had sent their two daughters to Shuencamp. Amara's sister Klovis was already a champion, so what was wrong with Amara?
The steps gave her no trouble. Nor did the complicated acrobatic feats, nor even the wordless harmony. She could perform these things to perfection, but what she could not do, it seemed, was to blend her performance with a partner's.
Today, she thought grimly, it must be different. Marcan and I have practised so very hard.
Marcan of the Fifth Castle was the same age as Amara, with the pale skin and light eyes of the northern lands. At first Amara had thought he looked odd and ugly, but now she thought of him as a friend. Marcan had come south two winters before. He had had no gold for a training fee, so instead he had brought a blue reinbeast from the land of Ankoor. Master ShuMar had accepted the creature with pleasure, and now it lived in a stall by the stockade.
Marcan had been training at Shuencamp for two winters, while Amara had been there four, yet already he was a better Valourn than she, a splendid Single, and good at dancing Dual. And Marcan was the son of an Ankoorian minstrel while Amara was the daughter of champion Valourns! It wasn"t fair, but she supposed she must be glad he had agreed to partner her.
I must do better today, thought Amara, but she was afraid. It wouldn't be Marcan's fault if their performances didn't blend. Marcan was a Single, but he had danced Dual with other Valourns and blended with all of them. That was why he was currently matched with Amara.
It wouldn't be Master ShuMar's fault if she failed. Master ShuMar had trained so many champions. And he trained them with such kindness.
I must succeed, thought Amara.
The students had reached the first Valoura, and Master ShuMar stepped into the great turf circle.
"Today I shall work with the Duals for the Cragcircle Valours," said Master ShuMar. "You others may go to the second Valoura to study Rargonian Harmony with Pirry of Midpoint.
"A Dual performance must blend in precision, lightness and joy," continued Master ShuMar when the other Valourns had gone. "Precision of movement is not enough. There must be lightness and joy!"
"Lightness and joy," murmured Amara. Her heart were heavy as stone.
"So," said Master ShuMar. "Find your partners and begin!"
"Lightness and joy," said Amara, as if she were chanting a charm.
She jumped violently as Marcan touched her shoulder. "Time to begin," he said.
"I know!" she snapped, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Marcan, I'm just upset. I try so hard, but I'm just not good enough."
"You are good enough," said Marcan. "So am I. We must try to be good together."
He smiled at her, and after a moment she smiled back. She was just in time, for the piper began to play the beautiful Wintersong music. Amara bowed to Marcan and leapt into the dance. At first she thought the extra practice with Marcan had solved the problem. Their steps never faltered, their leaps were never out of true, their voices soared and curved around the melody. Everything seemed to be perfect, at first. Then her confidence began to fail. Perfect or not, their performances didn't blend.
PenMar's criticism haunted her. It had been true with PenMar, it was true with Marcan. They weren't true Duals, but two people dancing Single.
The routine should have ended with three long, arching bounds, but Amara didn't bother. What was the use? She had failed again, and Marcan had been her last chance. There was no other Valourn available to partner her.
Master ShuMar dismissed the others and gestured for her to remain. "Amara, you failed in the final figure." He didn't seem angry, though some Valourn masters would have had her whipped for that.
"I know," she said stonily.
"Why? A Valourn must always give the best, even in practice. Especially in practice, perhaps."
"Why did I fail you? Because I cannot dance Dual with Marcan any more than I could with the others!" she cried. Then tried to apologize.
Master ShuMar cut her off with a gesture. "Amara, you have not failed me, but you have failed yourself. And perhaps your partner. Not in your lack of success, but in your lack of spirit."
"I must work harder," said Amara. "I must practise more and I must work harder."
"Is that not for your master to say, Amara?"
"Then say it!" she cried. "Say I must work harder. Say I must work to exhaustion if I'm not to do badly at Cragcircle!"
"You would certainly do badly at Cragcircle, if I allowed you to enter," said Master ShuMar.
Amara gasped. "If you allowed me to enter, Master? But surely, it is my right to enter three competitions this winter?"
"That's so, and you have worked hard since Lakeswell. I know you have worked harder than any other Valourn, but it has done you no good. I had high hopes of Marcan, but he is not the right partner for you either."
"Then who is my proper partner?" asked Amara. "I've danced with every Valourn in Shuencamp, Master!"
Master ShuMar smiled. "Not every Valourn, Amara. You have never matched with me."
"Master, I could not! We are ill-matched in size, in strength and in ability."
"Size is nothing, strength can be abated, and ability is not in question. Let us try."
Master ShuMar beckoned to the piper. "Play us the Wintersong," he said, and beckoned Amara to join him on the Valoura. Miserably, Amara did so. They bowed and leapt into the dance.
To dance with a master was an honour, but Amara was too unhappy to appreciate it. Master ShuMar was a wonderful Dual, adjusting his leaps and spins to her more limited range, but even he could not make the performances blend as one.
"You try too hard!" said Master ShuMar. "Remember the lightness and joy!" He smiled, but presently Amara faltered to a stop. She knew she would not be part of the Cragcircle team.
"But I must contest at Cragcircle!" she said numbly. "I must!"
Master ShuMar shook his head, scarcely even breathless. "Try to understand, Amara. With the right partner you could be a champion, but surely you see my dilemma?"
"I do," said Amara miserably. "If I do badly again, I will bring shame on you and on Shuencamp."
"Hardly that, Amara! You are not so bad as that! But what about Marcan? As a Single, he may win a medallion, yet partnering you, he hasn"t a chance."
Amara's eyes were burning, and she drew in a deep breath. "Then if I am not a Single, and cannot find a partner for dancing Dual, I'm finished as a Valourn!"
The Master sighed. "Let's not be hasty, Amara. Perhaps in time we may find the very Valourn to partner you."
"If we do, may I dance at Cragcircle?"
"Certainly, you may. But understand this, Amara. Any partner you find must have a better chance dancing Dual with you than contesting as a Single. Anything else would be most unfair."
"I understand." There was no joy in Amara's voice, and none in Master ShuMar's face. They both knew her chances were small. "Meanwhile, shall I rehearse as a Single again?"
"No, I have another task or you," said Master ShuMar.
"What is that?"
"You know the reinbeast, Gentian? He seems out of sorts and he needs a groom to take him to pasture and keep him company."
Amara nodded, understanding the Master ShuMar was offering her a chance to come to terms with her disappointment, and a chance to avoid the pity of the other Valourns. Head high to avoid the roll of tears, she changed her tunic and then went to the stall where Gentian the reinbeast lived.
Marcan had told her much about Ankoorian reinbeast. The blues were inclined to be stolid and heavy-limbed, but Gentian was small and very fine. He hadn"t the strength to carry Master ShuMar, but Pirry, the Master's lady, rode him sometimes. Pirry was busy training at present, and Gentian had not been ridden for half a moon. He was indeed lonely and bored, and seemed delighted to see Amara.
"Come, Gentian," she said, "I shall take you to pasture."
He was a lovely creature, and if she could have been his groom and a Valourn as well, she would have been well content.
She buckled the riding straps and sprang onto Gentian's back to settle in the soft blue fleece. She had never ridden a reinbeast before, but she had no fear of falling. Years of Valourn training had given her strength, grace and balance. It had given her everything except a suitable partner.
It was pleasant out in the pasture, strange to have time to think. She guided Gentian to the stream, then kept watch while he browsed. Gentian would never stray, but there were plenty of Clansmen who would steal him if they could.
To pass the time, and to forget her misery, Amara took out her flutewood pipes. She played the morning music, then switched into Wintersong.
To her surprise, Gentian lifted his head and trotted towards her, nickering with excitement. Amara put aside the pipes and the reinbeast nudged her urgently until she began to play again. He pranced about, almost as if he were trying to dance.
So reinbeast liked music! Marcan had never mentioned that. Perhaps he didn't know.
She continued to play for a while, switching from tune to tune. The rippling stream was soothing, but the sun was sliding down, and it was almost time for the Valourns to gather at the firecircle. If she stayed away, the others would pity her. She didn't want their pity. She had done nothing wrong, was not to be sent away. She could not perform in public until she had found a suitable partner, that was all. And she might find a partner in the next influx of students. One day she might.
But what if she never did? If she never found a Dual partner, she would have wasted four winters on useless training. That was all.
Tears welled and she could no longer play, so she tucked the pipes away and wiped her cheeks. Gentian objected, nickering, wanting her to entertain him again.
"What ails that reinbeast?"
Amara scrambled up. It was Pirry of Midpoint who had discovered her weeping in the pasture. "Master ShuMar told me to look after him," she said, blinking furiously.
"What have you done to him?" asked Pirry, eyeing the prancing reinbeast. "He seems upset."
Amara smiled a little. "He"s not upset, Pirry. He wants me to play my pipes."
Pirry laughed. She was over thirty winters, now, but she looked like a girl. "Did ShuMar tell you to play your pipes for the beast?" she asked.
"No, Pirry. That was my own idea. I played first for myself, and then for him, since he seemed to like the music."
"Play again," said Pirry. "Music can heal a lonely heart and Gentian must be lonely sometimes."
"I cannot play again." Amara looked into Pirry"s grey eyes. "Have you heard that I may be leaving Shuencamp?"
"A pity," said Pirry. "With the right partner you would be a good Dual."
"I cannot find the right partner," snapped Amara.
"And what will you do, Amara, if you do decide to leave us?"
Amara sighed. What could she do? What was left for her?
"You might become a piper," suggested Pirry. "Good pipers are few."
"I love the Valours so. To pipe for others to perform would be too painful."
"An unruly talent is worse than none," agreed Pirry, watching as Gentian nibbled Amara's black hair. "But don't be in a hurry to leave us, Amara. Stay, and be groom to the reinbeast as ShuMar has said. Who knows? A new Valourn may come to partner you yet."
Amara's spirits were low as she returned Gentian to his stall. He nickered after her, but she scarcely noticed. She was trying to dredge up her courage to face the rest of the Valourns. She went to the firecircle as usual, and if she sat well back from the light of the flames, no-one seemed to notice. And no-one mentioned her misfortune at all.
Now that she was no longer training, Amara had plenty of time for Gentian. Before, she had spent hours in practice with Marcan, now he worked alone.
"I'm sorry you're not to partner me, Amara," he said on the second day after her conversation with Pirry. He sounded kind, but she saw the relief in his eyes.
In a way she was glad to be free of his pity and patience, but she missed his company. She could have continued to train alone, but what was the point? Master ShuMar and Pirry were busy with the Cragcircle team. Why should she waste their time?
One thing she did practise was piping. Amara's flutewood pipes were sweet in tone, and Gentian loved the music. Whenever he saw the pipes he would prance excitedly, so Amara played for him. Why shouldn't he dance if he wanted to? If only she could forget the Valours and dance as the reinbeast did, for simple joy.
Play, she told herself fiercely. She couldn"t play if she cried, so it followed that she couldn"t cry if she played. Play.
She always rode Gentian to the pasture, and she found that she could pipe as she rode along. Sometimes Gentian danced down to the stream with her astride. At first he would prance only a little, and gently, as if afraid of unseating her, but soon he gained confidence and would leap and bound for as long as she cared to play. She became so used to his antics that she could anticipate every bound and pirouette, and never lose her balance.
She played all the tunes she knew, returning often to the Wintersong. She knew it well, for it was the air which accompanied the Dual dance she had rehearsed with Marcan. It began as a grave and stately measure, becoming faster and brighter as it neared its end. Gentian loved it especially, and would jig excitedly when he heard the first few bars.
Amara hated to think of the future when she must leave Shuencamp behind. Not only would she lose the Valours and the Valourns, but Gentian's company as well.
If only she could take him home with her! Perhaps her father might buy him from Master ShuMar, but Amara doubted it. Gentian was worth a great deal, and why should her father reward a daughter who had failed?
Should she do as Pirry had suggested and become a piper? At least she could stay at Shuencamp, and play for practices. At least she could still be part of it all.
"Would you like that, Gentian?" she asked. "Would you like me to be a piper? I would pipe for the Valours but I'd keep on playing for you."
Gentian tossed his head and pranced, then nudged her anxiously.
"I see!" said Amara. "You want me to pipe for you now!" She mounted the reinbeast and began to play, and Gentian danced in the sunlight.
"So! Amara of Flutewood has a new Dual partner!"
Amara dropped her pipes in confusion. She slid down to retrieve them, then turned to see Marcan, hot and sweating from exercise.
"What are you doing here?" she asked. "Why aren"t you training? Master ShuMar will be wondering where you are."
"Master ShuMar knows I'm here. I've finished training and he sent me to swim away the sweat. I'm only obeying his orders!"
Marcan waded into the water and Amara shivered as she watched him splash around. Only an Ankoorian would swim so happily in the middle of winter.
"Is there news of some new Valourn?" she asked hopefully as Marcan returned to sit on the bank. "Is that what you meant when you said I had a new partner?"
Marcan shook his head, and flushed as he saw the disappointment in her face. "It was only a joke," he explained. "I didn't mean to hurt you."
"Why should I be hurt?" she asked. "Even if there were a new Valourn he would be no partner for me. If I cannot match steps with you, or even Master ShuMar, I can probably match with no-one at all."
"I am sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to raise false hope."
"But what did you mean? It wasn't a very good joke if it didn't mean anything at all."
"I meant the reinbeast there," he said gently. "I was watching him dance for you. I lived among reinbeast all my life until I came to Shuencamp, yet I've never seen one dance before. How did you train him so well?"
"It was his own idea," she said. "Hadn't you better hurry back, Marcan?"
He stared at her. "No. How can you consider leaving us, Amara?"
"You left your country to become a Valourn," she pointed out. "How did that come about? Are there no Valourn camps in Ankoor?"
"Most Ankoorians know little about the Valours, though we are renowned as lovers of music. Shall I play for you the Ankoorian way?" He picked up her pipes and began to play a silvery tune.
"What is that melody?" she asked.
"Ankoorian music." He grinned at her. "I am a minstrel's son, remember!"
"Play the Wintersong," she suggested, and vaulted onto Gentian's back.
With her hands free of the pipes, she was able to perfect her balance, her arms finding the gestures of the Valours as she swayed in time to the reinbeast's dance. The motion was like flying, swift with lightness and joy.
Marcan played the final bars of the music, and Gentian came to a halt. Amara slid from his back, more breathless than the reinbeast, and realised Marcan was staring at her.
"What"s wrong with you?" she asked tartly. "Have you seen a ghost?"
Marcan gave a long sigh. "I thought I was joking, but I see now I spoke the truth," he said in an odd voice. "Amara, you have found your perfect partner."
Amara stared. "You can't mean Gentian!" she cried when she found her voice.
"He is only a reinbeast!"
"He isn't only a reinbeast!" said Marcan. "If you dance Dual with Gentian at Cragcircle, Amara, you could be champions. The two of you blend to perfection."
"He is a reinbeast!" she said again, stamping her foot. "A reinbeast is not a Valourn and only Valourns may contest the Valours."
"And who says a reinbeast may not be a Valourn?"
Amara shook her head. Marcan had surely lost his wits.
"What is a Valourn, Amara?" persisted Marcan.
She answered automatically as she had been taught. "A Valourn is one who has trained in the Valours and has reached the standard of formal competition. A Valourn is one who performs the Valours in precision, lightness and joy, free form, or using a learned routine."
"Then Gentian is certainly a Valourn," said Marcan. "I've rarely seen such precision of movement, and never such lightness and joy. He can team with you to dance freeform in Dual... Amara, if you could have seen yourselves!" The admiration in his voice convinced Amara and she sighed wistfully. If only it were possible! But of course, it wasn't.
"You're being foolish, Marcan," she said coolly. "Gentian is a reinbeast, not a Valourn."
"He lives in a registered encampment and has trained with another Valourn. He knows the traditional tunes and so he is as much a Valourn as I," persisted Marcan.
"He is a reinbeast!" said Amara. "A reinbeast has never been a Valourn before!"
"I am Ankoorian. An Ankoorian has never been a Valourn before either! Do you deny my right to be what I am, simply because I'm the first of my kind?"
"You're mad," she said.
Marcan shrugged. "Remain unpartnered then. I thought you had more spirit than this."
Gentian nickered. He wanted to dance again.
"Oh, you!" said Amara. "You are impossible!"
She hardly knew whether she was talking to the Ankoorian or the reinbeast. She sighed, seeing a vision of herself and Gentian, performing Dual at Cragcircle. Perhaps folk would laugh, but Marcan was right. There was nothing in the rules to say a Valourn had to be human. They always had been, but did that mean they always must be?
Amara made up her mind. "Marcan," she said slowly, "have you time to pipe for us again? My partner wishes to practise!" She laughed aloud. "But of course we haven't a hope. Even if Master ShuMar agreed, no Steward would sign the registry for a reinbeast."
The special-entry Steward of Cragcircle glanced at his scroll. There was room for one more registration, either Single or Dual. Just one, and just as well. He had been registering Valourns for hours, and he was exhausted.
"Next and Last!" he said with relief. "Wellmet, Master ShuMar. Have you a special entry?"
"Aye," said the tall Master of Shuencamp, looking him in the eye. "Amara and Gentian of Shuencamp, dancing Dual."
The Steward paused, his stylus poised above the scroll. "Gentian of Shuencamp, Master? That is not a Rargonian name."
"Gentian is from Ankoor, and has been trained by his partner," said Master ShuMar.
The Steward, nodded, made the registration and blotted the scroll.
This pair must be something really special, he thought, as he left the booth and went to watch the Valours. Why else should Master ShuMar sound so proud?
Sally Odgers is the author of over a hundred titles, including children's books, YA and adult. Sally writes in several genres, but her favourites are fantasy, science fiction and historical - all of them laced with romance. Favourite titles include Translations in Celadon and Shadowdancers, both fantasy romances, Trinity Street and Aurora, both sci fi, and Anna's Own, historical romance. More information on these (including availability) can be found at Sally's home page; under Books for Sale.
Upcoming titles include the historical romance Powderflash available May 1999 from New Concepts Publishing, the humorous romance Kissing Cousins a 1999 release from Fiction Works and the SF caper story Shakedown which will be available from DiskUs in July 1999. All three are e-books, an exciting new venture for Sally.
Sally lives in Tasmania with her husband Darrel and their daughter Tegan. Son James has recently joined the Royal Australian Air Force. She is a regular columnist in two e-zines and an occasional contributor to others.
Visit Sally's web site.
Editor's note: Ms. Odgers recently signed a contract with Twilight Times Books for her exciting paranormal suspenseNight Must Always Come, a Sept. '99 release.