Ashling (The Obernewtyn Chronicles #3)by Isobelle Carmody
As head of Obernewtyn’s Farseeker guild, Elspeth Gordie must travel to the lowlands to seal an alliance between Obernewtyn and the rebel forces that oppose the totalitarian Council. Yet her dreams call to her with an altogether different purpose: Elspeth must destroy what remains of the weapons that brought unimaginable chaos, death, and mutation to her world.… See more details below
As head of Obernewtyn’s Farseeker guild, Elspeth Gordie must travel to the lowlands to seal an alliance between Obernewtyn and the rebel forces that oppose the totalitarian Council. Yet her dreams call to her with an altogether different purpose: Elspeth must destroy what remains of the weapons that brought unimaginable chaos, death, and mutation to her world. Leaving the relative safety of the mountains, Elspeth embarks on a journey that takes her across the sea and into the heart of the mysterious desert region of Sador.
“Blends graceful storytelling with appealing characters.”—Library Journal
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By Carmody, Isobelle
StarscapeCopyright © 2003 Carmody, Isobelle
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At first sight, the gypsy woman appeared to be embracing the stake. Her languid pose and mocking smile made it seem impossible that she was about to be burned. Blood dripped steadily out of slits from elbow to wrist, yet she showed neither pain nor fear.
The gray-gowned Herder lifted his palms to the sky as he chanted the purification prayer. The band sewn on the left sleeve of his gown showed he was a fifth-level priest. Not one of the inner cadre, but powerful nonetheless. He was old, bald-scalped and toothless, but his eyes glowed like live coals as he made the warding-off signs.
"Beware, demon," he hissed. "You have found an easy vessel in this foul gypsy's body. Yet I will drive you out."
Shockingly, the woman laughed aloud.
"You know I am not possessed, Herder. Say the truth and be done with it. Tell them that you burn me because I tried to heal a baby when your own worthless treatments failed."
The villagers, standing in a cluster about the stake, rustled like leaves with the wind passing through them, but no one spoke in the woman's defense, and none met her eyes.
"You used herb lore," the Herder said, with hissing emphasis. "It was such dabbling in forbidden lore that brought Lud's wrath onto the Beforetimers for their conceit. The Herder Faction heals with humility, trusting to Lud's guidance instead of sinful pride. The plagues were Lud's warning that theLandfolk tread the same dangerous and prideful path when they close their ears to the Faction, for Herders are the voices of Lud." He blinked and seemed to rein in his religious fervor. "The woman who allowed you to defile her child will also be burned for heresy."
A woman screamed and fainted, but no one moved to her aid.
"You are a fool," the gypsy's voice rang out. "You will not be allowed to burn her when the Council can have her sweating her life out in one of their stinking farms."
"I am a Herder. Lud and the Faction rules me, not the Council," the priest snapped. There was a sullen mutter from the crowd, but the Herder glared them to silence. "She invoked the black arts. Council lore grants me the right to burn her and any who treat with her."
"What black arts?" the gypsy demanded contemptuously.
The Herder turned back to her. "You told the woman her child would die and one day later it died. You cursed it and thereby revealed the demon within."
"I treated the babe, but saw quickly by its symptoms that it was too late to save it," the woman said. "It could not tolerate the potions you fed it. I told the parents it would die on the morrow, so that they might say their farewells and not waste the child's final hours."
"Do not waste your own final moments with lies," the Herder jeered, pushing a gloating smile into the woman's face.
Her hand snaked out suddenly and the priest wrenched back with a strangled cry. She gave a throaty laugh of triumph. "What are you afraid of, old goat? Do you think my gypsy skin might be catching?"
"Beg, demon! Proclaim your guilt, and the cleansing will be swift," he screamed, almost hysterical with fury.
She laughed again, a humorless bark. "Cease your ranting, old man. Kill me so that I don't have to see your ugly face anymore."
Even from the back of the crowd, I could see the Herder's face mottle with outrage. Then his lips folded into a vindictive smile. "Evil must not be permitted to think itself triumphant," he said silkily, and turned to speak a word to his acolyte, eyes glittering with malice.
The boy proffered a selection of long-handled metal tools.
"Th' bastard's goin' to brand her before he burns her," Matthew hissed into my ear, his highland accent thickened with anger.
"Am I blind?" I snapped. The amount of blood pooled about the woman's feet told me she would be lucky to live long enough to feel the flames of purification, let alone to be rescued, even if we could manage it. In spite of her defiance, her face was as white as smoke.
"We mun do somethin'," Matthew whispered urgently. He gestured to our gypsy disguise, as if it made some point of its own.
"Be silent and let me think." I sent the thought direct to his mind.
The sensible thing to do would be to accept that it was too late to save her, and withdraw before anyone noticed us. I looked at the gypsy again. Her chin lifted in defiance as the Herder approached with the brands.
I cursed under my breath and slid down from Zade's back, mentally asking the horse to stand quiet until I called. I told Matthew to turn the carriage and take himself back to the main road, not trusting his instinct for drama.
"Wait for me out of sight."
"What will you do? An' what about th' wheel rim?" he asked eagerly.
"It will hold," I said shortly. "If not, we'll free the horses and leave the carriage."
As soon as he was gone, I pushed my way through the crowd, at the same time extending a delicate coercive probe. Fortunately the Herder was not mind sensitive, so he was not aware of my intrusion.
"Where is her wagon?" I demanded aloud.
He swung to face me, eyes slitting at the sight of my gypsy attire. "By what right do you question a voice of Lud?" he snarled.
"By right of blood," I said.
It was Council lore that blood kin might speak in defense of their own. In the past, this had not stopped Herders doing what they wished and later making excuses to the Council for excessive zeal. But with the rift between Faction and Council, the priests' power had waned and they were less wont to openly flout Council lore. In any case it was only a stalling tactic, since I had no proof of kinship to the gypsy.
"Her wagon has been burned, as have all her Luddamned utensils and potions," the Herder said grudgingly, but his memory showed him rifling through the wagon and removing this and that piece before the thing was flamed. My probe slid sideways into a memory in which he had tortured to death the gypsy's bondmate and I shuddered inwardly.
"You have proof that you are related?" he demanded.
"All gypsies are brothers and sisters," I answered, not wanting to be caught openly in a lie,
"Do not taint my ears with the practices of your foul breed," he hissed. "I asked for proof of kinship--you have shown me none, therefore be silent."
I saw his mind form a plan to report me to the soldier-guards for Sedition, thereby ridding himself of me in case I was related by blood. He turned back to the gypsy and snorted in annoyance at finding her hanging limply from her bindings.
Alarmed, I reached out a probe, but her body still pulsed with life. She had only fainted.
The Herder cast down the brand and reached for a torch to fire the woodpile at the foot of the stake. A great rage seared me. Throwing off caution, I reached into the bottom of my mind for the darkest of my Misfit Talents to stun him.
But before I could summon it, an arrow hurtled through the air to bed itself in the center of the Herder's sunken chest. He sucked in an agonized breath and clawed at the wooden stave, trying vainly to withdraw it. Then his eyes clouded and he collapsed, blood bubbling obscenely from his lips.
I disengaged my probe with a scream, almost dragged to my own doom by his swift spiral into death. Panting, I stared down at him in astonishment and, for a moment, silence reigned in the village clearing.
"The Herders will kill us all for this," a woman wailed, shattering the stillness, her eyes searching the trees for the archer.
"Not if we kill these gypsies and throw the bodies in the White Valley. We can say we saw nothing of what happened," a man began, but before he could outline his strategy, another arrow whistled through the air, piercing his neck.
He crumpled to the ground with a rattling gurgle.
That was enough for the rest. It was one thing to watch someone else die, and quite another to risk your own life. People scattered in all directions, crying out in terror.
I did not know who had loosed the arrows and there was no time to find out. Situated on the border of the high and lowlands, Guanette was visited regularly by off-duty soldierguards seeking amusement. At any minute a number might ride in and be drawn by the screams to investigate.
I rushed forward to the stake, ripping at the hem of my skirts. Fortunately the cuts on the gypsy's arms were shallow, since the aim of bloodpurging was to exact a full confession, not to kill. Still, the cuts were deep enough to drain her blood slowly. I bound the torn strips around her arms, automatically setting up a barrier to repel the chaotic wave of unconscious thought that flowed from the gypsy as our flesh met, then I cut through her bonds with shaking fingers, staggering as she fell heavily into my arms. A thick pot-metal band around her upper arm grazed my cheek.
All at once my hair was wrenched savagely from behind and I was pulled over backward, dragging die unconscious gypsy on top of me. For a second I lay still, winded, then the acolyte launched himself at me, renewing his attack, raining blows on my head, his eyes alight with fanatical rage.
"Demon gypsy! Holocaust scum! Halfbreed!" he screamed in a reedy voice. "They've killed my master! Soldierguards!"
Fighting free of the gypsy's dead weight, I shoved the boy hard,
toppling him to the ground. He glared up at me, a handprint of the gypsy's
blood on his chest.
"You will die for this," he hissed. "Lud has granted my masters great power to kill their enemies. One day we will destroy all of your kind, even the stinking Twenty-families."
I turned from him in disgust and hauled the woman to her feet. This was no easy task for she was tall and full bodied, her arms and upper body slicked with blood. By the time I had her upright, Zade had responded to my mental summons. From the corner of my eye I saw the acolyte's eyes bulge in astonishment as the horse knelt to receive the woman's body.
I groaned aloud as two soldierguards burst through the trees, wielding short-swords.
One dropped like a stone, pierced by another deadly arrow from my mysterious helper. The other soldierguard gave the dead man a sick look and flung himself behind a cart, scanning the treetops fearfully.
"Quickly, climb/get on my back," Zade sent, rising to stand upright. "Gahltha will be angered if you are harmed in my care."
Obediently, I vaulted onto him and wound my fingers in his mane, clamping my knees around the unconscious gypsy.
"Go!" I shouted and he leapt forward.
Using coercion, I locked my muscles in place, then turned my head, sending a second coercive bolt at the acolyte to erase all that he had seen. The block slammed into the boy's stunned mind, but not swiftly enough to prevent him throwing the bloodpurge knife.
It pinwheeled toward me with uncanny accuracy: blade, hilt, blade...
There was no time to summon the mental energy to deflect it but, instinctively, I threw my head backward.
A split second later the knife hammered into my temple.
I'm dead, I thought, and the world exploded into painful pieces, sending me into the abyss.
Copyright 1995 by Isobelle Carmody
Excerpted from Ashling by Carmody, Isobelle Copyright © 2003 by Carmody, Isobelle. Excerpted by permission.
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