Prologue

My birth was a joyous occasion. Everyone came to wish my mother well, who held me proudly and showed me off, a healthy, baby girl. My father stood beside her, beaming with joy, his hand resting on my mother's shoulder. Whenever I asked about my birth, my mother always related to me the story of how I was born at night, not long before midnight. Her cries as she birthed me and my first wails as a newborn kept everyone awake that night. They were all hoping for the best, and stayed up worrying until I was born. My father had paced nervously outside our tent while his wife gave birth, aided by the medicine woman, Calbah. When he had heard my cries, he leaped up and threw open the tent flap to see his first child. As soon as Calbah had cleaned me up and my father had greeted my mother, kissing her lightly in congratulations, he had taken me outside for all to see. Everyone was thrilled, for the birth of the daughter of their leader was an important event.

Yes, my father is the nomad leader. I live in a large camp of travelers that consists of about sixteen or seventeen families. We traverse together, and are one tribe. Everyone knows everyone else, and are ready to give aid, celebrate, or weep with their friends. My father's name is Jacethron, and my mother's name is Elfthryneth, though everyone calls her Ryn, and my father Jace. She was a princess many years ago. Her father, the king of the province of Kitenoth, was going to force her to marry an abysmal man from Tyzander when she was sixteen in order to insure peace with the province. My mother refused, and he beat her. Later, she fled to join her mother in Sohngor, but she ran into a group of nomads. She learned that Sohngor had been attacked my a large army and taken over, therefore having no place to go. She was offered a place in the camp, living with Jace and his grandmother, and she took it.

Eventually, she grew used to the way of nomads, and it was here she found her place. She fell in love with my father, Jace, and they married. A few years later, she gave birth to me. There are no girls my age, the closest ones being six years of age. I am eleven, and find no joy in spending my time with toddlers. The only playmate I have is boy that is two year older than I, the son of my parent's best friends, Kinyla and Coppert. Ever since I was born, the two small families, who still are good friends, brought us together to play, in hopes that we would become companions since there were no girls my age, and no boys his age.

Dartagnon is a showoff. Plain and simple. There are several other words that describe him: daring, jokester, smart, strong, fast, etc. He and I seem to always be competing, for he has always been better at everything than I have, and someday I'm going to prove that I am superior at something. I wished with all my heart that there was a girl my age to play with, but since there wasn't, I would have to make due with one boy who was older than me. We were friends of a sort, yes, but it had never been put into words, and most of the time we just were.

At the moment, we were playing a game of Grino, a popular choice of entertainment throughout the tribe. Dartagnon often won at this, but I suspected he cheated, though I was not sure how; I had not caught him yet. The game was played by flipping over a card from a stack of fifteen and observing the number on it. The opponent did the same. Each player had a pile of smooth, flat stones that were as big as a thumbnail and had a hole bored into them. After flipping over a card from the top of the stack, you gave your adversary the number of stones displayed on the card. It went on until each reached the bottom of the stack. Whoever had the greatest amount of stones at the end was the victor. I always ended up with less than Dartagnon, though I have watched him carefully.

I flipped over my third card and gave Dartagnon four stones. He gave me two. The next card showed a ten; his showed an eight. Two cards later, I got a one and he got an eleven. I smirked happily at my fortune, but the my next card was twelve and his was three. This was not going well. Needless to say, I lost again.

'Good game,' he said, extending his hand to me. I pretended not to notice and gathered the cards in a singles stack, then slid the stones into a small pouch. 'Aw, come on, Vishanti. It's only a game.'

'And you win every time,' I shot back, not looking up.

'Good fortune.'

'But I'm tired of losing.'

'Then don't play me anymore.'

I sighed. It was this way after almost every game. And I almost always ended up playing him again.

'Vishanti.'

I heard my name called and turned to look for my mother. She was standing in the opening of our tent beckoning to me. I sighed again. 'Sewing,' I muttered to myself and stood up.

'I'm glad I don't have to do any of that women's work,' Dartagnon said. I swung the pouch by its drawstrings and hit his shoulder. He grinned and trotted off. I trudged to our tent. A curtain separated my side from my parent's side, but Mother was on their side. A tunic lay on their bed beside a threaded needle. I glanced pleadingly up at her. She smiled but pointed to it. I sat down and picked up the needle.

'You need to sew up the tear in that sleeve, Vishanti. Next time, don't rip your clothing.'

'I'm going to prick my fingers. Prick them and die of blood loss,' I mumbled as I stabbed the cloth with the needle, pretending it was Dartagnon. That made me feel a little better.

'Gently, Daughter, gently,' Mother gently admonished. 'What has you in such a bad mood this afternoon? How did your game go?'

'As it always does. I lost. That is what has me in such a bad mood. Dartagnon always wins.'

'I'm sure you've beat him at one time or another.'

'No. Never. I think he cheats.'

'I doubt that,' she said, smiling down at me.

'I don't.' I was pouting, and I didn't like the feeling it was giving me, but when you start pouting, it is very hard to stop.

Just then, someone opened the tent flap and stepped inside. 'Papa!' I cried and ran to him. He swung me up in his arms and laughed. Putting me down and chucking my chin, he said, 'My girl's getting bigger. I don't think I'll be able to do that much longer. How about helping me with the hinee?'

'Yes!' I said, and ran out of the tent behind him after he kissed Mother. I shot a glance at her discreetly, but she was smiling and shaking her head.

I ran to catch up and Papa put an arm around me, grinning down. 'You're getting taller, Princess. You're going to pass me up one day.'

'No, you're much too tall,' I giggled, then asked, 'Why do you call me Princess? Mother is a princess.'

'No, she's my queen.'

I laughed with him and reached up to stroke Rapscallion's neck, for we had reached the hinee. He was a large, furry animal with wool one or two inches thick. He looked like the animals Mother told me about from her childhood called llamas, or so she tells me. Most of the men in camp have a hinee, and they are the main transportation. I had to help Papa take care of Rapscallion because he had just been out hunting in the forest we had camped at the edge of with some of the other nomad men. He gave me a boost up, and I took the reigns. I kicked the hinee's sides and he took off at a trot, gradually accelerating to a gallop. I skillfully guided him a large arc back to Papa.

'Well done,' he said. 'You're getting better.'

'I'm changing a lot, aren't I?' I asked him, remembering all the things he had just said about me getting taller and bigger.

'You are. I think you're growing up.'

'Yes. And when I'm big, I can beat Dartagnon at Grino. And everything else.'

'Having trouble with that again?' Papa asked. He knew of my difficulties.

'I always do. He's better at everything.'

'No, he's not.'

'Yes, he is!' I insisted.

'No. You just think that. If you practice and encourage yourself, you'll get it. You need to tell yourself you can do it.'

'I can do it,' I whispered to myself as I took his hand and walked with him toward the river with Rapscallion. I would best that old Dartagnon.