The Outskirter’s Secret, Chapter One



His hand shook, and the mark he made with the bit of charcoal wavered as he drew it: a small, lopsided cross, one arm trailing off unevenly. The frail, dark-haired boy looked up at the faces around him. “More than twenty,” he said. His voice cracked.

At the center of the table, one stolid gray man studied the chart with tightened eyes, then shook his head and spoke quietly. “Twenty-four, that’ll be. Two war bands.” A silence filled the room as the implications of the information were grimly considered.

The little farmhouse kitchen was crowded, with some thirty people, men and women, standing and sitting around the battered wooden table. It was only the stillness of the occupants that rendered the room bearable. There was no jostling: Each person present was deeply engaged in thought.

The chart was crude, drawn hurriedly and with much amendment directly on the surface of the broad table. Its scale was large, its compass very small indeed, but to the people in the room it contained everything in the wide world most important.

A small idea floated to the surface of one slow mind. “Now, Dalen,” a voice spoke up, “you’ve got some Outskirter blood in you.”

The crowd murmured approval, and the man addressed replied calmly, “Some and more.”

“Well, then, how will these ones think?”

The steerswoman said, “Blood won’t tell you how people think.” As one, all turned their attention to the person seated at the end of the table.

She was a mild-looking, unremarkable woman of some twenty-four years, with sun-streaked hair and sun-browned skin. She carried no air of command, and had neither the physique nor the manner of a seasoned warrior. But at that moment, every person in the room waited for her to speak, waited to risk his or her individual fate and the fate of their village on whatever she might be able to tell them. She was a steerswoman. A steerswoman might not know everything, but everything that a steerswoman did know was true.

This one, Rowan by name, had come to know a bit about the Outskirters.

She leaned forward and studied the chart, one hand ruffling her hair musingly, repetitively, as she thought; a man seated beside her watched the action with a degree of disapproving puzzlement, as if it were not quite proper for a steerswoman to possess such a thing as an idiosyncrasy of behavior. She ignored him, and sat considering the lay of the land as depicted, testing distance, timing, movement in her thoughts. “With only two war bands,” she began abstractedly, “chances are they’re both from the same tribe. That’s a disadvantage for you, because they’re accustomed to working together. If you manage to kill one leader, his or her replacement will be well known to the other band, and their cooperation won’t falter.” She laid one finger thoughtfully on the cross the boy had made, marking the war bands’ position. “They probably won’t expect resistance, certainly not organized resistance. It’s good that you’re forewarned.” She spared a glance for the nervous boy, whose wit and speed might prove to have saved his town. He blinked at the steerswoman’s approval, and a hint of pride crept past the fear to his wide eyes.

She spoke to him, indicating the area between the town and the Outskirters’ position. “What sort of land is this? Hilly?”

“Some,” the boy said. “Hilly this side the brook, flatter t’other.” She gestured for the charcoal. He relinquished it, and she notated his descriptions. “Forested?”


“How old a forest? Is there much undergrowth?”

Other voices began to supplement the boy’s, at first hesitantly, then more quickly, words overlapping as the steerswoman amended the crude chart: Yes, they told her, undergrowth here, thinning out there, a particularly tall bare hill to the east . . . Rowan expertly placed her mind’s eye atop that hill, looking back at the town, transferring facts from map to imagination, inferring what useful knowledge an Outskirter scout might gain from such a vantage point.

The map grew in detail, and within the overdrawn lines—lines rubbed and shifted, lines that altered the significance of other lines—focus and precision began to emerge. The options for quick and secret movement of twenty-four warriors began to narrow. Soon there were only two possibilities.

“If they attack at dawn,” Rowan said, and in her mind she saw them doing so, as clearly as if she witnessed it, “they’ll have to move into position in darkness. In that case, they must follow the brook.” By starlight, in forest and brush, no strangers could be sure of their path; but the brook led directly into the town itself, a clear unguarded road through the forest.

A young farmer hazarded disagreement. “But look, land’s flat behind these hills, easy way to town from there.” He pointed.

“That’s the other possible route. But if they do come around the back of the hills, they can’t attack at dawn. They’d have to be moving into position now, at night, and it’s too dark for them to find their path.”

“Torches. We’d not see them, from this side . . .”

She shook her head. “Outskirters won’t travel by torchlight.”

An elderly, bent-backed woman seated across from Rowan squinted in thought, her tiny eyes nearly level with the tabletop. “Split,” she grunted.

“Pardon me?”

The old woman reached out to indicate the brook, the hills. “Split. Come at us f’m two sides.” And she nodded with dour satisfaction.

Rowan took her meaning. “They might do that. Or they might all come down the brook. Or all around the hills.” But which possibility would the barbarian raiders prefer, which would be most appealing, what habits of tactic might guide an Outskirter’s choice?

Rowan looked to the side of the room, where her friend and traveling companion stood alone, apart from the townspeople—looked once and just as quickly looked away.

Bel was leaning back against the end of the stone hearth, a bowl of stew in one hand and a biscuit in the other, watching the deliberations with cheerful interest. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, she was small in height, solid in structure, and stood, even in her present lounging pose, with the easy, dynamic balance of a fighter. Anonymously dressed in sandals, felt trousers, and a linen blouse, she might have passed notice but for an eye-catching belt she wore, of flat blue gems set in linked disks of silver, stunning in its rough beauty.

Unseen in her bulky pack were a pair of shaggy goatskin boots and a patchwork fur cloak. No outward clue identified her as an Outskirter.

Rowan did not ask for Bel’s advice.

As a steerswoman, Rowan could ask a question of any person, and that person must answer truthfully. It was the other side of tradition’s contract: anyone might request information from a steerswoman, and it would be provided, truthfully, to the best of the steerswoman’s knowledge. The only enforcement against one side’s breaking of the contract was the canceling of the other: lie or refuse information to a steerswoman, and never again would any steerswoman answer even your most casual question.

Rowan could ask Bel what the attackers might do. And Bel might answer truthfully, to the detriment of her fellow Outskirters, her own kin; or she might refuse to answer at all. On her refusal, Bel would be placed under the steerswoman’s ban—and worse, in this case: her friendship with Rowan would be severed forever.

Rowan declined to place herself or her dearest friend in any such position.

She tapped a location on the table-chart. “This is my best guess—here, where the banks of the brook are steep on one side, and brushy on the other. We can set up an ambush, come down on them from the banks and trap them against the undergrowth. We’d have them completely by surprise. We ought to get into position soon, and we mustn’t travel down the brook itself; we would have to wade sometimes, and we might be heard by a scout already in position. Is there someone here who knows a forest path well enough to lead us there through darkness?” At this, the dark-haired boy’s eyes widened still further, and he nodded mutely.

Rowan heard Bel shift uncomfortably and guessed the reason, but said nothing to her.

The old woman spoke up again. “An’ if that’s wrong? If they’re not there?”

Rowan spoke regretfully. “If we try to ambush them at the brook, and they’ve all taken the hill route, then the town is lost. We can come back and try to fight them in town, but they’ll be here before us. They are excellent fighters, all, and our numbers aren’t superior enough to make up the difference.”

She straightened and addressed the villagers, scanning the room to meet each gaze individually. “Three options, then, and you can weigh them for yourselves.” She named them, choosing a face for each possibility. To Dalen: “Ambush at the brook, with a very good chance of success if that’s their route, disaster if it isn’t.” To the old woman: “Split into two groups, one in ambush, and one waiting near the hill, with a fair chance for one group and a poor one for the other.” To the young farmer: “Or all go to the hills, with less than an even chance if that’s their route, and no chance at all if it isn’t.”

Bel spoke. “There’s another way.”

Some turned toward her, but Rowan did not, not wishing to direct too much attention toward the Outskirter. She said only, “And what’s that?”

“Abandon the town.” Now all heads turned, including Rowan’s.

The Outskirter remained leaning at her ease, sopping stew with her biscuit as she spoke. “They don’t want your lives, they want your property. They’ll take your livestock, all the stored food they can carry, anything pretty and portable, and anything with workable metal. Then they’ll leave.”

“Burning houses as they go?” someone asked.

“That’s right.”

“And our fields?”

At this Bel shrugged.

Rowan brought attention back to herself. “If any fires are started, they’ll be hard to control. You’ll certainly lose some of your fields.”

“But you’ll keep your lives,” Bel pointed out. “You can build again.”

“There is that,” Rowan conceded reluctantly. It was a legitimate option.

The idea was attractive to some, and tentative, murmured discussion began. But when his opinion was requested, Dalen drew himself up carefully, dark eyes growing darker. His reply to the quiet question was delivered in a tone chosen to carry: in effect, an announcement. “That’s the coward’s way.”

“That’s true,” Bel admitted, matter-of-fact.

For an instant, something in her manner attracted him, and he gave her a quick, puzzled glance, a half smile of half-recognized kinship, then turned back to the assemblage. His voice was neither mocking nor scornful, but permitted the saying of the thing to communicate his opinion. “Scattering at the first threat,” he said. “Ants have more honor.”

Rowan felt constrained to point out, “Scattering at mere threat is honorless, true; but scattering in the face of undefeatable force is sensible.”

“And these Outskirters,” he asked her, pointing with his chin to the chart, “they’re undefeatable?”

She sighed. “No. But it will be difficult.”

And on that question, the gathering divided.

One voice raised an opinion; another interrupted and was interrupted by a third. The old woman set to tapping one gnarled finger on the chart, muttering explanations to a girl behind her, who shook a headful of wild red curls, disagreeing in rising tone. Two burly men from the back of the room sidled forward to argue over some feature on the map, someone in a far corner began to complain in a baritone whine—and the crowd deteriorated into clots and pockets of discussion.

Rowan discovered Bel hunkered down beside her chair, and leaned closer to hear her speaking under the noise. “You’re talking as if you plan to fight alongside these people.”

“I do.”

The Outskirter shook her head broadly. “That’s not sensible. If we want to reach your fallen Guidestar, that deep in the Outskirts, we’re going to need to travel with a group.” She glanced about and came closer, speaking into Rowan’s ear. “We could try to join these war bands’ tribe and travel with them for a part of the way. But they won’t accept us if the raiders recognize you as someone who fought against them.”

“I assume that’s the case.”

“Why don’t we just leave, and join the tribe when the fighting’s over? It’s not our battle.”

“It is my battle,” Rowan said, then turned to look her friend directly in the face. “Bel, for the last week these people have fed and sheltered us while we rested, befriended us, and let us replenish our supplies free of charge. They’ve been kind and generous.”

“They’d do those things for any steerswoman.”

“True. And in this case, the steerswoman is myself. I cannot simply abandon them to disaster.”

“It would make our way easier.” Bel jerked her head at the squabbling crowd. “Our mission is more important than these people.”

“No. My mission is for these people, and for others.” Rowan studied the Outskirter’s stubborn expression, then saw it slowly alter, as Bel read on Rowan’s face, as clearly as if it were spoken, the request that the steerswoman was unwilling to make. Rowan had forgotten, again, how easily her own expressions betrayed her thoughts.

She was abruptly ashamed, as if she had undertaken a planned manipulative tactic. The idea was abhorrent. She looked away.

“Bel,” she began, consoling herself with simple statement of fact, “at this moment the village’s situation is precarious. As long as that’s so, as long as I feel that the addition of even one extra fighter might make a difference,” and she turned back, “I will fight.”

Bel glowered at her for a long moment. “Precarious,” she repeated, and with an expression of vast distaste gave herself to thought.

The noise in the room began to lessen. Through some internal process, the villagers were slowly coalescing into a unified group. Their leader was not Dalen, as Rowan had half-expected, but a pale, jittery woman of middle age with smoldering eyes, who spoke fervently, passionately, using short, quick gestures.


Rowan turned back to the Outskirter. “Yes?”

“The war bands will come down the brook.”

Rowan sighed in relief. “I rather thought they might.”

“It leads right into town, and they don’t know they’re expected. The idea of attacking at dawn is too attractive.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me; I want to reach the Guidestar, and I don’t care to watch you die,” Bel said vehemently. “You tell your villagers to use bows, as many as they have. The Outskirters won’t have archers. An ambush with bows, and the village will win easily, and one fighter more or less won’t matter.” She looked up at Rowan and enunciated each word fiercely. “Now will you leave?”

“As soon as I pass this on.”

Bel rose, and brushed her trouser legs as if they were filthy. “You’re lucky that I like you so well.”

“Yes,” Rowan admitted. “Yes, I am.”

Bel stalked back to her position, and Rowan rapped the table to gain the room’s attention. A hush fell instantly, and the villagers turned to her, now a unified force with a commander and a single, all-important purpose. They lacked only strategy. The steerswoman gave it to them.


Copyright 1992 Rosemary Kirstein