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The Archons of the Stars
By Alison Baird
Warner AspectCopyright © 2005 Alison Baird
All right reserved.
THE STORM RAGED THROUGH SEA and sky, a winter gale surpassing in fury any that had ever troubled these turbulent latitudes. Its massed thunderheads towered up for leagues upon leagues, black against the stars, and beneath the shadow of their opaque canopy there reared titanic waves, rising almost to mountain height. The spray blown from their rearing crests mingled with the lashing rain. It was as though the very elements of water and air were dissolving and melding one into the other, returning to a primeval unity. Cloud and sea churned together, whipped into fury by the wind that held both in sway.
The lone albatross caught in the midst of this turmoil was no longer attempting to fly, but merely allowing itself to be blown about at the storm's whim. Indeed, had it not been for the winds that buoyed up its great white wings, it would long since have fallen exhausted into the heaving surf. Once it did falter and drop, but at the last moment recovered itself with a frantic flap of its pinions and skimmed over the frothing summit of an oncoming wave. Beyond this the bird's weary eyes saw only slope after slope of slate-dark water, capped with white: the cold pale glimmer of foam was all that could be glimpsed between the lightning flickers. For a time it despaired, fearing that it had been blown altogether off its course. But as it rode the gale higher into the air, a dazzling flash revealed a shoreline only a league distant: steep, rocky, a coast of cliffs sheer and threatening as the walls of a fortress, but land nonetheless. Hope renewed the bird's vigor and it beat its wings in a last desperate effort. The cliffs gave way on the northern side to a long ruinous slope of boulders and jutting columns that broke the force of the surging seas, and sent them tumbling back in confusion. There the albatross spied a low granite shelf, and with the very last of its strength fluttered down upon it. The surf burst around the tall standing rocks, masking them from view, then falling back made fleeting cascades down their jagged sides before crashing up again. One wave, greater than all the rest, dashed over the shelf of stone and covered it and the still white form that lay upon it. When at last the seething foam retreated from the rock, there was no longer a bird lying there, but a woman.
She wore a white cloak, its wide deep hood drawn up over her head, and she lay facedown and motionless. For a moment it seemed that the grasping surf would suck her out to sea, claiming her at last. But then she stirred feebly, and began half to stumble, half to crawl farther up the shelf, out of reach of the waves. By the time she reached the top of the rocky slope beyond, the wind's power was already abating somewhat, and she was able to stand upright, though still bowed with fatigue. Her pale face, its grayish purple eyes deeply shadowed, looked out from the shelter of the white hood on the bleak scene before her.
To this inhospitable shore she had come once before, as a small child. Her sorceress mother had crafted and captained a flying ship to take them both to a place of safety, far from their palace home. But the ship had fallen and foundered here, off the coast of Great Island; her mother had suffered an unknown fate, while the little girl had been taken in by a shipwright and his childless wife to live for the next eighteen years as their own daughter.
This was my home once, thought Ailia.
It seemed impossible to her now. The dark fields stretching before her were barren save for the harsh grasses that grew there, tall wiry stems fused together with frost. Sleet from the diminishing storm pattered down on the frozen dirt road that wound ahead of her. A fresh gust whipped her wet cloak around her slight, shivering form. But the air stung even without a wind. She had forgotten, after her long sojourn in warmer climes, how bitterly cold it was here in winter. How had she ever borne it? And how did the Islanders bear it still? Why did they choose to remain in such a place? It was as if harsh clime and unyielding island worked together as hammer and anvil, hardening the bodies and spirits of those who lived here but also imparting to them a stern resilience, the power to endure adversity.
The Island had not changed; would never change, not though thousands of years should pass. The ceaseless assault of wind and wave made but little difference to its stubborn granite coast, and its people, each generation gaining strength from the stone they trod, would carry on for the centuries to come just as they had in the far distant past. It was Ailia who had been altered, completely and irrevocably. When she had departed Great Island at last, watching from her ship's stern rail as the gray cliffs dwindled and appeared to sink into the sea, she had wondered if she would ever return. It had seemed to her then that the island really had submerged beneath the waves, like an enchanted isle in a faerie tale, never more to be seen by mortal eyes. The passing years further relegated it to the past, until even the desire to see it again faded from her mind.
Yet here she was, standing once more upon its stony soil.
She had been forced to take a bird-form to come here, loath as she was to use her newly emergent gift of shape-shifting. This came from her Loänan side, the legacy of dragon-magi who could transform themselves at will and had taken human shape in order to mate with her ancestors. But she had never called upon it until her greatest adversary, taking advantage of her innocence, awakened the buried talent-all so that he might teach her the love of power. For this reason she feared and mistrusted it, but with no ship available to cross the sea, she had had no recourse but to use it. She was an unskilled flier, however, and she had not reckoned on the storm-if indeed it was a natural storm, and not a sorcerous assault by her enemies. Many of them still lingered in this world, and weather conjuring was well within their power. Clutching the cold, wet cloak tightly about her, she made her way slowly along the road. It was empty of any other passerby. The sensible Island folk would not be out on a night like this. Only the small, shaggy island ponies and a few sheep were to be seen, grazing the frostbitten grass in the meager fields. Not far off a temple stood, humble and towerless, its walls pieced together from fieldstone, the only building here not made out of wood. She knew the temple well, though her family's visits there had been somewhat infrequent. It served all the fishing villages hereabouts, her own included. Bayport was not far away now. She would reach it before midnight.
After she had walked for what felt like an hour, she spied at last the low stony hill that had marked the westernmost boundary of her childhood's territory. She had approached it always from the eastern side, climbing it on mild evenings to watch the sun sink into the sea-for so she then believed it did. The world in those days was not a ball hurtling with dizzying speed through an unfathomable void, but a wide, flat disc of earth and water: stable and stationary, immovable, circled by sun and moon and by the stars and planets that were mere lights in the heavens, not suns and worlds in their own right. How she longed for that smaller and safer cosmos of her childhood! Its very center had been this island-her village-her home. She approached the hill now from the west, and even this simple change of direction seemed to underline the permanent shift in her perception of things, and her estrangement from all that she had once known.
Why did I come back? she wondered, pausing. Was it really to seek out my foster family? Or was it to try and reverse time-to go back to that safe and innocent past? Could I have been so foolish?
She forced herself to still the inner voice and keep walking. As the road wound on, it grew hauntingly familiar in every twist and turn. Here a glacial boulder, and there an ancient crab apple tree with spindly, spidery limbs-the old wayside signposts she had once known as a child. Before her a light burned in the black night, yellow and steady as a star. Her heart gave a slight lift at the sight of these things-almost it seemed she might return to that old life, secure in its ordinariness. There had been another existence for her before her return to Arainia and the awakening of her powers. Even before Damion ...
A tear slipped down her cheek, and was swept away by the rain.
She came presently to the barren point where a short, round tower built of granite boulders stood stalwart, the overreaching spume breaking against its westward face. Through the thick-paned windows at its top the yellow light burned: the old sea beacon, kept lit night and day for the safety of sailors. She pitied any vessel that might be riding those tempestuous waves. As she drew closer to the beacon tower she glimpsed in its western wall the carved figure in a stone niche, one hand raised in a warding gesture. The statue of Elarainia, protector of ships and those who sailed in them: Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, goddess of the planet that some called the Morning Star.
And mother of the Tryna Lia, prophesied savior of the world.
She averted her eyes from the statue and toiled on, until through the gloom she could make out more lights: the houses and harbor of Bayport village, only a short walk away now. Her footsteps quickened, as did her heartbeats. She was, for an instant, that innocent small girl once more, hastening toward home and hearth, toward the warm welcoming comforts she knew ...
And then she stopped dead in her tracks, unsure whether to trust the witness of her weary eyes. The gray granite hillock on the edge of the village was there, standing as it had for time immemorial, rising solid and firm from the midst of the meadow. But there was no longer any house upon its summit. Her home was gone.
Ailia walked slowly, in a daze of exhaustion and disbelief, toward the place where the house had stood. A mass of burnt timbers lay there, rain-wet, black and flaking at the edges. Here and there a shard of glass gleamed faintly up through earth and cinders.
Ailia dropped to her knees. Mandrake said I could never go back to my former life, she thought, feeling numb. He did this-on purpose, to show me I cannot go back.
She realized now that, while her ostensible object had been to find her foster parents and be sure they were safe, she had really been yearning for the sound of Dannor's sensible voice and the security of Nella's capable presence. Where were they now, the two people who had risked their lives, perhaps deliberately, to save hers? She must find them. If indeed they were not dead.
They were not here, at least. If they had perished in the fire the neighbors would have buried them in the little windswept cemetery farther inland. She stood again, scanning the village. Her uncle Nedman's wooden frame house still stood, as did her cousin Jemma's cottage down by the shore, but they were dark where the other houses showed lights in their windows. And it was not yet time to sleep.
She approached her uncle's house and knocked on the door. The sound echoed through the rooms beyond and died without any answering footsteps or voices. She pushed it open-Islanders' doors were never locked-and peered in. She expected broken furnishings and disorder, but the house was merely abandoned. The kitchen table was bare; the hearth had neither wood nor ashes in it. Ailia lit a candle and made a quick search of the home. Each room was the same, from the parents' bedroom to her cousin Jemma's former room, vacated by her on her marriage to Arran and turned into a sewing room, to her cousin Jaimon's room (still kept for him, since as a sea-roving sailor he had no home of his own). Everything was neatly put away-clothes (not many of these), tools, crockery. There was no food of any sort in the kitchen, not even a biscuit or piece of salt fish.
She left the silent house and went down to Jemma and Arran's cottage by the shore. Here it was the same again: vacant yet orderly rooms. The old wooden cradle Jemma had inherited from her mother stood forlorn and empty in the nursery, along with some of her sons' toys. Arran's fishing nets and other tackle lay in the storeroom at the back, and his green-hulled boat was anchored in the bay. But of the owners of all these things there was no sign.
Ailia returned to the main bedroom, took off her sodden cloak, and laid down her candle on the night table. Then she sat on the bed, put her head in her hands, and shook for a moment with silent sobs. Where were they? What had become of them all?
There were soft footsteps in the passage outside, and she looked up, then sprang to her feet. "Jemma? Is that you?" called a woman's voice.
Ailia went to the doorway. "Who is it? Who's there?"
A figure with a lantern stood there. "It's I-Elen. I saw the light, and I thought that Jemma was back. Who are you?"
"Elen-Elen Seaman? It's Ailia. Don't you remember me? Where is my family, Elen?"
"Ailia?" The young woman went up to her and took her by the arm. Ailia recognized the freckled face and the tow-colored hair pulled into a knot at the back. "It's Elen Fisher now, I'm married. But how did you come here-and on such a night?"
Yes-Elen must be nearly seventeen, the age Ailia had been when she left the Island. People here married young. There was a confidence in the girl's voice and manner, a forced early maturity. "Ellie, please! Where are they?" Ailia implored.
"Why, I thought you'd know! When the womenfolk went over to the Continent because of the Zimbourans, my father wouldn't let us go, you recall. And then the Zimbourans didn't come after all, and most of the women returned, but not your mamma and aunt and Jemma. They sent their menfolk a letter, saying how there'd been a misunderstanding and you'd been taken by the authorities or some such, Ailia; and would the men come at once? Dannor and Nedman went first, and then Arran followed. And then none of them returned. It's just as well for Dannor and Nella, for they've little to come back to. Your house burned down-did you see it? A great storm blew up one night out of nowhere, and a lightning bolt struck the roof and set it afire. No other house in the village was hit: I suppose yours was most at risk, sitting up on top of that hillock. We did try to put the fire out, but it was too late. A mercy no one was at home! Anyway, I hope your folks are better off where they are now, though it's a pity about their things."
"If they are on the Continent still then I must go there too." Fatigue throbbed in her limbs at the thought.
"You can't. The Armada's loose they say, and no ship will risk the crossing. The Zimbourans have gotten themselves a brand-new tyrant now, and a civil war at home. Ailia, however did you get here?"
"I found a way. Please, Ellie, I can't say any more just now. I'm fearfully tired."
"You come with me, then. I've my own place now."
Ailia thought of a warm fireside, food and other comforts, the soothing presence of people. But also there would be questions, a steady barrage of questions she could not answer truthfully, and she lacked the strength to field them. How to explain her lack of any luggage-her crossing of the sea-where she had been all these long years? "Thank you," she replied, "but I really am so exhausted at the moment I couldn't stir a step. I think I will just stay here tonight. There's fuel for a fire, I see, and plenty of candles."
Elen rose reluctantly. "Well, if you're sure. It'd be no bother to put you up. But I'll come by in the morning anyway, with some bread and milk and maybe an egg or two. Sleep well."
After Elen had gone Ailia lay down on her cousin's bed, staring up at the one small window. The sky was clearing, and in the dark starry patches between the parting clouds there were comets, at least half a dozen even in this restricted view, their long white tails streaming behind them. They had begun to appear shortly after her arrival in Zimboura. Portents of evil, many people said, but she knew them for something far worse: weapons, wielded with a deliberate malevolence by a ruthless enemy. Eons ago they had been cast out of their normal orbits by a rogue star, and they pursued still the ancient trajectories on which they had been set: the age-old enemy had intended that they strike this world of Mera and its peaceful neighboring planet.
Excerpted from The Archons of the Stars by Alison Baird Copyright © 2005 by Alison Baird. Excerpted by permission.
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