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At eighteen, Jaele's life is shattered when her family is murdered by a band of Raiders, members of a long-accursed race. Overwhelmed by rage and grief, alone for the first time in her life, and fuelled by childhood myths of a warrior queen, Jaele sets out on an epic quest for vengeance. Traveling through a kaleidoscope of cultures, some compassionate, some fierce, all remarkably fantastic yet potently real, she sheds her innocence, but none of her experiences prepare her for ...
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At eighteen, Jaele's life is shattered when her family is murdered by a band of Raiders, members of a long-accursed race. Overwhelmed by rage and grief, alone for the first time in her life, and fuelled by childhood myths of a warrior queen, Jaele sets out on an epic quest for vengeance. Traveling through a kaleidoscope of cultures, some compassionate, some fierce, all remarkably fantastic yet potently real, she sheds her innocence, but none of her experiences prepare her for her ultimate confrontation with her enemy.
A Telling of Stars was recommended by the jury panel of the 2004 Sunburst Award and included in Locus Magazine's top 10 first novel recommended reading list in 2003.
Jaele was six years old when she met Dorin. He was nine or ten; she never knew for certain. They met for the first time on the beach below her parents' hut. This beach stretched in a wide crescent around the water, which was so green near the shore that it looked like crystal, or the shine of a serpent's back. Farther out, near the cliffs, the water was blue. Beyond that it was nothing, only a hazy line below the sky.
Jaele was running on the day she met Dorin. She liked to run when the sun was up and blazing on the sand; the soles of her feet burned then, but only if she was slow to lift them. She ran through hot wind and sunlight that was almost white.
She stopped running when she rounded a towering rock. Her father had told her that it was a club, all that remained of the giant whom the Warrior Queen Galha had killed long ago, when there was only sea and no beach. There was a pool of water here—clear, neither green nor blue—and a large collection of snails of all sorts. But today there was also a boy, and Jaele frowned.
He was looking out across the water. A cloth bundle lay on a rock beside him. He was very small—smaller than Jaele—and had light hair, while hers was as black as deepest water. He did not turn round, even when she coughed loudly. She frowned again and moved to stand beside him.
"Who are you?" she said. "Why are you in my private place?"
The boy looked at her and she saw that his eyes were pale—grey or light, light green. His voice was high and measured. "I am Dorin. I have left my home."
"I am Jaele. Why did you leave?" she demanded, and thought that he looked very sad, even though he was not crying.
"The Raiders attacked my town, and the elders wanted all the children to learn fighting. I didn't want to, so I left."
Jaele was suddenly excited. Her words trembled a bit when she said, "Raiders? The Sea Raiders that Queen Galha conquered?"
The boy glanced at her; now he was frowning. "I suppose so."
"Did they have webs between their fingers and toes?" she went on, stretching her own fingers wide as if to show him.
He nodded. "Yes. But there weren't very many of them, and—"
"You didn't fight?" she interrupted, bouncing from foot to foot. "You left?" He turned his head away, and she said, "I would have stayed. I would have protected my land just as Queen Galha did."
Dorin was silent. Jaele almost asked him if he was a coward, but something in his face frightened her a little. She stood quietly beside him. White-and-black seabirds called high above them, and it sounded like weeping.
"So you're alone?" she said at last.
Dorin nodded. "I'm going to see the world. I've heard there are golden sea snakes and trees as tall as the sky."
"This is the Giant's Club," Jaele told him, pointing to the huge stone beside them. "Queen Galha killed him, and the water swept away all but his club, which got stuck in the bottom of the sea. This is it."
Dorin smiled, and his face softened. "I like those stories."
"So do I," said Jaele. "My father tells them to me when he's weaving. Let's race," she said abruptly, wanting him to smile again.
She ran past the rock and along the beach without looking back. At the beaten track that led to her hut, she stopped and turned. Dorin was not behind her, and he was not at the Giant's Club when she ran back to look. She could not see him anywhere along the beach or on the forested hills that rose behind.
She was angry, and later just sad. As the years passed, she forgot what he looked like; sometimes she even forgot that she had ever met him. But even though she did not remember that his eyes were light and his face was sad, she did remember that there were golden sea snakes somewhere, trees as tall as the sky, Sea Raiders who still hunted across the water.
Jaele's father often told her the story of the Sea Raiders, especially when the sky was dark above the sand. "It was long ago," he would begin, leaning close to the single candle so that his shadow leapt and twisted. "The land was beautiful, and those who lived in it were happy, for Queen Galha ruled with wisdom and kindness. But one day," he said, his voice dropping as he bent to catch her eyes, "one day in midsummer, strangers came from across the sea. They killed the people of the coast, who were not expecting such an attack. They pushed on into the desert, where Queen Galha awaited them. She had called together her Queensfolk, the strongest men and women in her realm. These Queensfolk had until that time been explorers, teachers; now Galha gave them bows and swords and named them Queensfighters. And although she was a queen of peace and gentleness, she rode with her warriors to face the Sea Raiders." Jaele huddled deep into her blankets, knowing what was next.
"The Raiders were strong and many in number, but they were also of the sea, descended from the fishfolk who breathe water as if it were air. Queen Galha knew this when she saw their hands and feet, which were webbed like a seabird's. It was obvious that they were able to live in the earth and air for long periods of time, as the fishfolk could, but the Queen guessed that they could not be separated from water forever, so she held them in the desert and filled in all the wells. These Raiders fought and killed many Queensfighters, but slowly they began to sicken, for the water they had brought with them was gone.
"The final battle was fought at the very gates of Luhr, the Queen's City. Queen Galha was strong and proud, sure of a victory—and so she sent her only daughter into the fight, wanting the desert people to see their next ruler." Her father paused and looked into the candle flame; Jaele watched the light shivering in the blackest part of his eyes. "The Princess Ladhra rode proudly, her dark hair shining, and with her own bow she killed many of the enemy. But at the very end of the battle, as the sun set along the sand and the Raiders fell back, one of them crept up to her horse. He gripped her ankle and pulled her down, and her mother, sitting at the head of her victorious army, saw the man thrust his dagger into the young princess's heart." Usually Jaele's mother, Lyalla, was listening now as well, standing in the darkness by the window with baby Elic breathing softly in her arms.
"With that one thrust Queen Galha, whose love was peace, became the Warrior Queen. Leaving her consort at Luhr, she pressed the Sea Raiders back toward the Eastern Sea. She drove them through desert and mountains, plains and hills and finally desert again, following the rising sun. Many died as they fled, and the Queensfighters slew many more who were too weak to keep pace with the main Sea Raider army. Nonetheless, when the Raiders at last reached the river they had been seeking—the great desert river that has since borne the name of the murdered princess—they swam, strong and swift." Jaele would shudder as her father spoke these words, for she almost understood the Sea Raiders' underwater strokes, long with hope and relief.
"Even in the great ships that awaited them, the Queensfighters could not overtake their enemies. When Galha and her army swept downriver with the tall houses of Fane—that glorious port city—on either side of them, she found that the Sea Raiders had already swum from the river into the sea. The Queen and her troops followed in their ships, accompanied by the boats of humble fishers such as ourselves. She pursued them to the edge of their land, which was green and lush and shining with the water of many rivers and lakes. She looked on this beauty of water and growing things, and in her heart was the desert and the blood of her daughter. She ordered the Queensfighters to hack down the trees and fill the lakes and rivers with earth. She herself set fire to the tall grass and tore at the vines that hung thick from the branches of trees.
"At last, when all was scarred and dry, she called upon her mindpowers—mindpowers which could be summoned only in direst need. She cursed the land of the Sea Raiders. Never again, she decreed, would water come to them in lakes and rivers, but only in trickles that would barely sustain them. Never again would green things grow in abundance, but only in small, ragged clumps that would hardly keep them alive. Oh, they could sail across the sea if they wished, and they could gaze at or even swim in the water of other lands—but a taste would bring instant death. They could eat the fruits and grains and meats of other lands—but without water they would inevitably perish. They would live in misery, either in their own seared land or travelling away from it, and their webbed hands and feet would forever remind them of water and green and the girl they had killed."
In the silence that followed, Jaele would hear waves sliding onto the sand outside her hut. The stars would be out, and it would be difficult to tell sky from sea.
"Will they come back?" she whispered each time, and each time her father murmured, "It is said that they often return by night and in silence, to little children who have misbehaved..."
"Reddac!" Jaele's mother would say, coming into the circle of light with a smile in her voice. "Enough! I wish you wouldn't frighten her so," and every time Jaele would cry, lying, "I'm not frightened!" For during the day, as she played Queen Galha under the sun, she was very brave—but at night she was small in her bed, as she listened for the grinding of boats and the hissing of webbed feet on the sand.
Jaele's father told her stories as his loom clacked and his fingers flew over sunlit wood and cloth. Her mother taught her the sea. When Jaele was very small, her feet chubby and unsteady on the earth, Lyalla rowed her out into the bay and showed her the fish that wound like her father's threads beneath them; she showed her green and blue water, and water that prickled sharp stones. She taught her how to swim just below the surface and how to dive until deep-growing plants trailed along her skin. Jaele collected some of these plants to eat while her mother gathered fish in a net Reddac had made. He called Jaele and her mother his Sea Loves, and he always smiled as they pulled the boat onto the sand, their hair glowing dark and wet. The baby would be bouncing on his knees, chortling excitement, and when Lyalla bent to him, she said that he too would be a child of water.
Jaele dove and watched her father's colours twining and taught baby Elic how to paddle. She was not lonely, although after her encounter with the boy Dorin she felt an ache that she did not recognize. Every rising of the full moon she and Reddac, bearing swaths of woven clothes and blankets, rode their donkeys to a nearby town; there was always music at the inn in their honour, and Jaele forgot her solitude as she danced.
She dreamed of Queen Galha and desert-churning horses and swords singing air, but she was not restless. Elic was soon old enough to be her groom or manservant. She trained him to brush her steed's mane and sides, and to bow to her so that his forehead touched his knees.
"If you continue to order him about so much," her father said to her once, "your servant may become annoyed and seek out other employment."
"He will not," Jaele answered firmly. "I am the Queen."
And so she and Elic played and grew, until he said, on a day of sun and silence, "I want to be the Prince."
She turned to him. They were standing throwing pebbles from the rocks that jutted and tumbled into the sea. "No," she said, surprised but unconcerned. "You can't. I am the only ruler."
Elic's pebble danced once, twice, then sank. He did not look at her. "You're always important. I never even have a name."
"I'm ten," she explained, "and you're seven."
"Doesn't matter," he retorted, and then he did turn to her. "We should have a test to see who can be in charge. We should see who's brave enough to open Father's box."
Jaele gaped at him. "The dagger?" she said, and he nodded. Eyes wide and full of sky.
"But we're not to open the box. Father made us promise not to. He said he wouldn't lock it if we promised." She glanced over her shoulder at the hut. Smoke drifting, door open, no sounds of loom or voices.
Elic straightened his shoulders. "I'm not afraid. And if you are, you don't deserve to be Queen." He paused. "And he's in the forest," he said. "And Mother's fishing."
They walked across the sand, Jaele a few paces ahead. When she reached the door, she stopped, and a moment later Elic stood beside her. They gazed at the box, which sat on a shelf above the loom: a box of smooth light wood, with two hinges and a lock that looked like gold (but weren't, Reddac had told them).
"He made us promise," Jaele whispered as her brother stepped toward the loom. She was very still as he climbed onto their father's bench and reached up until his fingers grazed the wood. She was still as he returned, clutching the box against his chest. Only when he passed her did she move, crying out his name. Then they ran, stumbled giddy and terrified to the rocks.
"Put it down," she said, attempting in vain to sound queenly.
"I will," he replied, "but remember it was me who got the box. Me."
"Yes—but I'll open it," she said as he bent and placed it carefully on the sun-warmed stone.
He did not speak. They blinked as the golden metal caught the light. A warm wind rose and stirred the water and their hair and the trees beyond the sand.
"I'll open it," Jaele repeated, and waited for Elic to challenge her. He did not. Shrugged instead, and looked at her, steadily and in silence.
She was breathing very quickly. The box glinted. She knelt before it, traced her fingers over its wood and clasp. Then, because her brother was waiting and everything was too quiet, she threw open the lid and grasped the dagger's hilt and lifted it shining toward the sky.
There was a stillness—a boy and a girl, rocks by the sea, a gentle wind—but only for a moment. Red and blue jewels flashed. Jaele leapt to her feet and cried, "I am the Queen!" and Elic turned and ran. They laughed as they slithered over the stones onto the beach, laughed as she chased him into sprays of water and back to sand. "You cannot escape me!" she shouted, and lunged forward so that he tripped and carried her with him to the ground.
"No, no," he giggled, squirming.
She sat up, declared, "I have won!" and raised the dagger again into the sun. "Give it to me."
The dagger fell, though Jaele did not feel her fingers loosening. Reddac's shadow slid over them as he picked it up. Then he stood, very tall; the light was behind him, and they could not see his face.
"Jaele. Elic." A new voice—not for singing or laughing or even for telling stories in darkness. They did not look at each other, did not look at him. "Never again. Do you understand? Never again."
He turned and strode away from them, following the damp, curving wave-line until he was small, on the bank across the bay. They saw him stop, saw him turn his head toward the open sea. They watched him, and he did not move—not even as the sun tugged shadows long across the sand.
Jaele and Elic stayed on the shore in front of their hut. Elic hollowed out holes with his bare heels; Jaele wrapped her arms around her drawn-up knees and tried not to shake. When their mother's boat appeared at the mouth of the bay, they glanced at each other but still said nothing. Lyalla's boat stroked toward the beach and Reddac began to walk back. Elic and Jaele rose and waited for them both.
"What...?" Lyalla asked after she had waded out of the water, her fishing traps and nets heavy behind her. She looked at Reddac, only paces away. At him and at the dagger in his hand.
"Reddac," she said quietly, "what has happened?"
Let us all go inside," he replied.
Jaele thought he sounded very tired, but not angry. Because he did not seem angry, she ran back to the rocks, picked up the empty box and returned to where they were waiting. She held it up to her father, who took it and smiled at her—tired, sad, his face veined with sun-dried salt.
"Tell your mother what you did," he said when they were in the hut. He and Lyalla sat on the loom bench, Jaele and Elic on the ground.
"We..." Jaele began, staring at the carpet beneath her. "Elic said we should take it—"
"Because you're always the ruler!" She heard his tears before she turned and saw them. "It was part of our game," he went on, struggling, clenching his hands against the tears. "To see who was brave enough to rule. So I...got the box, and Jaele opened it. I never touched the knife."
She leapt to her feet. "But it was your idea!" she cried. "I didn't want to do it." Her own eyes filled, stung, as if the wind had blown sand against her face. "I said I was sorry."
Elic yelled, "You never did! You never said anything until right now!"
She was silent for a moment. "No," she admitted at last, and looked at her parents. "I meant to, though. I did." She paused, then continued in a rush, "But in stories there are Queensfighters and battles, and we were only playing..."
Lyalla shook her head slowly. "Stories, yes. But you two are not Queen or Queensfighter—"
"Yet," interrupted Reddac with a small smile. Jaele felt weak, dizzy with relief.
"Yet," agreed their mother. "For now, you are children who imagine only. You do not need a real knife for that."
"Why do we have it, then?" Jaele demanded, and Reddac turned the dagger over in his palm once, gently.
"Because it belonged to my parents, and it is beautiful...And it would serve to gut a fish, if all of your mother's knives were somehow lost at sea."
Elic giggled and sniffed. Lyalla turned to Reddac with raised brows. He raised his in return, and grinned—an exchange so familiar that Jaele felt her own smile aching on her lips.
He was not smiling when he said, "Both of you promised, before, that you would not open this box. Must I lock it now? Or will you promise again, and truly?"
"We promise," Elic and Jaele said together. Elic added, "Truly," and sniffed again.
"Very well," Lyalla said briskly. She took the dagger from Reddac's hand and placed it back in its box of wood and gold.
Later, Reddac sat between his children's pallets and spoke into the darkness. He did not tell of the Warrior Queen but of the girl Galha. She had lain in her bed, ill and afraid, and listened to the song of an iben seer—a song of gentleness and light and comfort, words of future lulling until she slept. When the story was done, Reddac kissed Jaele and Elic on cheeks and foreheads, and Lyalla came in from the doorway and bent to smooth their hair.
"Jaele," Elic whispered when they were alone.
Jaele shifted and groaned. "Go to sleep."
"No—wait," he hissed. "I wanted to say...that we're both brave."
She rolled onto her side and looked at him, his pale face against the blankets. "Yes, we are," she said. "And," she added after a moment, "I think you can be a Queensfighter from now on." He did not answer, though she knew he was awake.
Jaele heard Elic's breathing and her own, twining, slowing to sleep. She heard the waves against the shore, and the wind against the waves. And she heard her parents' voices, laughing and murmuring, steady as singing or the beating of her heart.
Jaele was eighteen and alone and far, far beneath the cold slate surface of the water when her world shifted.
Fog had gathered over the harbour at dawn that day; by afternoon the air was frigid and thick, the water invisible. Jaele and Elic were arguing and tossing bits of cooking rock at one another. The loom sounded louder in the dimness. As the wood thundered and their voices rose, Lyalla cried, "Jaele, Elic—quiet!" They turned to her. "Elic," she said in a low, dangerous voice, "there are fish to be cleaned. Jaele, we need some seagreen. Go, both of you, and give me some peace!"
"Excellent," Elic muttered as they walked out onto the beach. "Now I'll stink of fish guts and you'll freeze to death."
Jaele snorted. "I will not. And you already stink."
They laughed and parted and did not look back.
Jaele's skin rose in shocked bumps after she had draped her cloak and outer tunic over a rock. When she dove, even the oily paste she had rubbed over herself did not entirely blunt the chill. She swam close to the surface for a time, circling until the water was almost warm. When she was ready, she drew in a chestful of ice-sharp air and sliced down and down, and the grey sky faded into darkness.
She gathered seagreen strands until they billowed behind her, but she did not return immediately to shore. She cut deep, around the black rocks and into the stretch of water that lay outside her own. By now she was warm and effortless, guarding the breath in her lungs more easily. She swam and swam, unwilling to go back to the sullen sky and the noisy hut. And so she was many strokes away when the boats slid silently through the moss-thick fog and cold water of her bay.
She gasped as she surfaced at last and her mouth opened on air. She rubbed a hand over her eyes to clear away black spots, tiny fish that trembled in and out of her vision. As her heart pounded and her muscles relaxed into aching, she looked through the darkening sky toward her home and saw torches.
She swam with her head above the water until she reached the pile of black rocks nearest her hut. As she drew closer—silent strokes, barely a ripple in the sea—she saw two boats, large and strange and resting on the beach like terrible creatures, water-slick and waiting. There were people—not many—some dressed in ragged skins and a few in thick leather armour. Steel glinted in the fog-blurred light. Jaele's fingers wrapped white and sea-tender around the pitted rock when she saw the knife at her mother's brown throat, the arm that held her brother thin and small against a stranger's body. Her father was free: he was standing very still, facing the tallest of the men in armour.
"Please," she heard him say, clearly and without shaking, "do not harm us. We will give you whatever you ask. Please—let my family go."
The big man turned so that she saw the sharp bones of his face and the shadows of his eyes. He spoke to a woman next to him in a rough, halting language. The woman answered him and he looked back at Jaele's father. Jaele watched the man's hand clenching around a dagger handle. He spoke, and her father shook his head.
"I'm sorry—I don't understand you." He held out his hands, palms up and pale. "I have no weapon..."
Jaele sobbed. As she thrust her fist into her mouth, she saw her mother's eyes shift quickly toward the rocks. No one else had noticed. There was no way that Lyalla could see in the stone darkness, yet she looked at her daughter, eyes wide and torchlit and commanding. Don't give yourself away, daughter. Stay. Commanding, Jaele told herself later, over and over, as she remembered how she had huddled against the tumble of rocks and done nothing.
More strangers emerged from the hut, carrying sacks, a pile of Reddac's weaving, cook pots, sleeping mats. They shouted to the leader as they threw their armloads into the boats. Others began to walk toward them, putting daggers back in belts. The tall man smiled and stepped forward. His arm moved, so quickly that metal and armour blurred. Reddac's eyes widened as his throat opened dark beneath the dagger. Lyalla screamed and writhed. The leader called out, and the man holding her stared at him in fear or disgust. After a moment he drew his own dagger across her neck and let her slip to the ground.
Jaele was watching the sand darken in rivulets beneath her parents when Elic moved. Perhaps his captor's grip had loosened; perhaps he, like the other man, had thought to defy his leader; perhaps he had merely underestimated the thin boy in his grasp. Elic twisted free in one fluid motion and lunged silently, reaching for the man who was twice his height and blood-eyed. Jaele saw a flash of blue and red; some breathing part of her remembered an unlocked box and a promise. But Elic gripped the dagger now, and thrust it under the leader's armour, hard and sure below his heart. The man cried out, and his own dagger shone up and into the boy's chest, and both fell limb-twisted to the sand.
Later, Jaele remembered sounds: the yells of the attackers, the pounding of feet and the heavy pull of bodies, and afterward her own screams, ringing white against her skull. She did not remember watching her parents and brother being thrown into the hut; she did not see how the leader was also tossed inside, except for an arm which sprawled out the door. She did not see the man who had cut her mother's throat standing still, shaking his head as the others milled around him and shouted. She did not see him fall, struck hard by a club; did not see his body lying crumpled where waves met shore. What she did see, at last, was torchfire in the thatch, red-gold streaking along the walls and up against the sky; the Raiders leaping into their boats, faces wrenched and hands scrabbling; the boats smaller, smaller and shivering below the first stars. And the torches, graceful wingfishes, falling slowly into the sea.