Rebecca Moreland, Teen Reviewer
Circle of the Moonby Barbara Hambly
Faced with an attempt by the land chiefs to oust the King, and with the efforts of her own family to re-enslave her, Raeshaldis must play a deadly guessing-game while an even more terrible threat awaits.
Rebecca Moreland, Teen Reviewer
- Grand Central Publishing
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Circle of the Moon
By Barbara Hambly
Warner AspectCopyright © 2005 Barbara Hambly
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShaldis woke, the sound of that heavy, crashing boom whispering away from her ears.
She sat up on her narrow cot. The full moon's silver light flooded her cell, glimmered on the drifts of sand that were beginning to accumulate in the corners of the Court of the Novices outside. The dozen or more novice Sun Mages whose daily duty had been to keep the sand at bay were gone. Last spring, when the rains had not come for weeks despite all the efforts of the Sun Mages to bring them, the populace of the Yellow City had rioted and attacked their Citadel. Most of the mages, from master down to novice, had departed after that, facing the fact, at last, that no wizard was able to work magic anymore.
Healing, as the woman in the dream had cried, no longer flowed from their hands. Nor did the power to bring the rains, to ward against rats and mosquitoes, to control the hairy silent army of teyn upon whose labor the great grainfields depended. Eventually, after everyone gave up trying, the rains had come. Shaldis didn't know what she and the three remaining Sun Mages were going to do about the rest of it: mosquitoes, rats, teyn.
She rose from her bed, a tall skinny girl whose fair complexion and thick brown hair proclaimed her descent from one of the half-hundred upper-class clans who had settled in the Valley of the Seven Lakes centuries before. The women of these clans went veiled about their womanly duties. Until two years ago, it was as unheard-of for a girl of one of the great merchant families to go unmarried out of her father's house, as it would have been for her to discover in herself the power to work magic like a man.
Her grandfather had cast her out when she had claimed her own power. At the age of sixteen she had been the first female the Sun Mages had taken in to teach.
Now, almost thirty months later, she was still the only female. She and the three remaining masters-plus the Citadel cook and one male novice-continued to dwell in the nearly empty sandstone fortress on its bluff above the Yellow City, subsisting on donations sent them by the king. Back when the mages had been able to sing the rains out of the skies every spring and cast wards to keep rats from the granaries and grasshoppers from the fields, the great landchiefs of the realm had given them the revenues from land and mines, and thousands of teyn laborers. These had largely disappeared.
Shaldis wrapped the sheet around herself and went to fetch her white novice's robe from its peg on the wall. The predawn air held a taste of the desert's nighttime chill. Even the hundred feet or so that the Citadel was raised over the rest of the city made a difference. Down in the twisting canyons of the city's narrow streets, the air, even at this hour, would be like tepid glue. She pulled on her robe and scooped from a painted pottery bowl on the table a hunk of white crystal as long as two of her knuckles and twice as thick. Yanrid the crystalmaster had let her take it from the Citadel's scrying chamber the day before. It was old and powerful, and worked far more reliably than her own.
A Craft woman, the voice in her dreams had called itself- her mind recalled the shape of the meaning, tried to fit it into words she knew. In the Yellow City they called the women in whom the powers of magic had bloomed Ravens, or Raven sisters, from the fact that, alone among the beasts and birds of the earth, the same word was used for both the male and the female of that species and from the legend that ravens could work magic. The nomads of the deep desert called such women witches, a word that originally meant "poisoners of wells." But some in the city were beginning to call the womenwho-did-magic Crafty Ones or Crafty Women, the way northern peasants had called wizards Crafty Men sometimes: "those who have a special skill." The term was beginning to be used interchangeably with "Raven." There were still men in the city who claimed to be Crafty Men.
Fewer and fewer believed them. Carrying the white crystal in her hand, Raeshaldis crossed the Court of the Novices through luminous blue darkness, climbed the rock-cut stairs still higher up the bluff. Well above the rest of the Citadel, she came into the Circle, the open space in which the rites of the Summoning of Rain were worked each spring. It stood empty most of the year, two hundred feet above the dark maze of the city, but the magics that had been raised there every year for six hundred years seemed to rise from its stones and whisper to the overarching stars. She knelt in the Circle's center, closed her eyes.
She centered her mind on the sun, the source of the power for the system followed by her order. The Sun at His Prayers, this hour was called, the time of stillness. Magics worked through the power of the sun changed from hour to hour, and at this hour sun magic was said to be strongest. Lately Shaldis had begun to wonder if the spells of the Sun Mages applied to the magic of women. Spells she wove exactly as she had been taught by them were wildly inconsistent in their effects: sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes crumbling away like wet adobe-only words like children's games. She drew and released her breath, tried to put from her mind her own frustrations with her failure to control her powers. Tried not to think about her fears of what would become of her-what would become of the Realm of the Seven Lakes-if she and the other small handful of Raven Sisters could not learn to use their powers properly by the time next year's rains were due.
In the ivory light of the full moon the Lake of the Sun shimmered faintly, sunk low in its bed but still a hundred and fifty miles from end to end. If the rains did not come, those who lived along its shores still had time.
The woman calling into the dark of her dreams had none. Illness ... fever ... Our children are dying. I'm here. Shaldis opened her eyes, angled the crystal to the moonlight so that its central facet was a tiny slab of pale radiance. Whoever you are, I'm here.
But she saw no one in that slip of light, and no reply came into her mind. I'm here....
For nearly a thousand years, the Sun Mages had spoken through the mirrors, the crystals, the water bowls in the scrying chamber with mages in other parts of the world, places that for the most part no one had ever journeyed to. It was ninety days by camel train to the barren, foggy villages on the edge of the sea to the northwest; and what might lie beyond that sea-or beyond the deserts that stretched in all other directions-no one knew. Even the constellations described by those alien mages were unknown. It was part of the Sun Mages' training to learn the languages spoken by the outlanders, a laborious process: the language Shaldis had heard the woman speak in her dream had sounded like none she'd studied.
And she had never heard Yanrid or anyone else describe that booming sound she had heard.
And it wasn't a dream, she told herself. It was real. A real place, a real woman crying for help.
Our children are dying.... And we are dying, too, thought Shaldis, her mind aching with its efforts to focus on something of the dream that would connect her with that despairing cry.
Unless we learn how to use our powers-among other things, Shaldis had never yet managed to ensorcel either a snake or an insect and neither had any of the women she knew-we shall die. We're on borrowed time as it is, waiting for the time of the rains to come again. Waiting for the next disaster. We need your help, as you need ours.
The sky in the east stained unearthly blue-green above the Citadel bluff. The fat moon turned the lake waters to shimmering silver among shoals black with reeds and crocodiles. Long lines of bucket hoists stretched out from the grainfields, palmeries, and gardens to the now-distant water's edge. The canal that connected the city's southern gate with the lakeside Fishmarket and docks burned like a sword blade. In a thousand courtyards in the city, a thousand mud-built nests in the rock crags around her, birds began to sing.
Shaldis raised her eyes from the crystal, her head throbbing. The mazes of the Yellow City's streets were still pitch-dark, but the darkness was dotted everywhere now with minute lights as women, or slaves, built up the fires in the outdoor kitchens that nearly everyone used in summertime.
In an hour the three remaining Sun Mages-powerless now but still traditionally the order most closely allied with the king-would descend to the House of the Marvelous Tower, to meet with the king and with the four great landchiefs of the realm. Shaldis could see the Marvelous Tower itself, a gaudy miracle of red and gold in daylight, now a dark spike against the moon-drenched waters, its thousand mirrors twinkling wanly like the fading stars. The thought of the meeting rankled her a little, for although none of the Sun Mages possessed the slightest magic anymore, they would be given a place of honor on the council pavilion's divan, while she would probably be asked to sit behind a screen in deference to the sensibilities of the more conservative landchiefs.
On the other hand, she reflected, that would mean she could sit with Summerchild, the king's favorite and the center of the Raven sisterhood-a far more entertaining proposition than minding her manners under the disapproving gaze of the men. The rising light showed her the stone arches of the king's aqueduct, stretching away from the city to the south and east. It would, when finished, reach the deep springs of the Oasis of Koshlar and bring water to the Lake of the Sun and to the farms and villages all along its banks: so far it had reached only a few miles beyond the Dead Hills. If it was finished-the desert beyond those parched brown badlands was a deadly place, the haunt of small bands of wild teyn as savage as animals and of nomads barely more civilized who took ill this trespass of their realm.
Once djinni had haunted the desert, too: deadly, brilliant, seldom entirely visible, creatures entirely of magic.
And being of magic, when magic had changed, they had melted away, their powers to sustain themselves gone. One of them at least, Shaldis knew, had taken refuge in a crystal statue in a ruined temple in the slum district beyond the city's eastern gate; after her single interview with it last spring it had not communicated with another human soul. She had theories about what had become of some of the others, but could prove nothing.
She had a feeling that was one of the things the king would ask her at the council-and that one or more of the landchiefs would try to bribe her for help in getting that djinn on their side. In the mazes of the dark streets more spots of light were appearing. The Dead Hills, with their equally impenetrable mazes of dry wadis and forgotten tombs, lay dark still, save where, for an instant, Shaldis thought she saw a flicker of movement, the passing of a glowing greenish light.
When she blinked and looked again, it was gone. It was really time to go down. She'd need a little time to scrub herself and fix her hair and get some breakfast before leaving for the council.
Yet she turned her eyes back to the white crystal one last time. The whole sky to the east flooded with light, and the crystal seemed to drink it up and throw it back, burning and pale. Shaldis closed her eyes, dipped her mind back toward trance.
I'm here. I'm Raeshaldis, Habnit's Daughter. I can help you. And, please, you help us in turn. We need all the knowledge of magic, all the workers of magic-all the Crafty ones-on our side, if we are to survive.
I am here. Please help us. For a moment she thought she heard, far off like the echoing memory of her dream, that sighing roar, that heavy hammer blow.
Then only stillness and from the city below the crowing of a thousand cocks.
She was definitely late, and nearly ran down the winding stairs from the Circle. Her mind raced ahead of her to what Summerchild would say about her dream, and how they might combine their strengths to scry deeper for its sender. Though she, Shaldis, had the academic training of a Sun Mage, she sensed in the king's graceful concubine a deeper power. The other Raven sisters of the city-a merchant's darkly pretty concubine named Moth, and Pebble, a contractor's big, mousy-haired, good-natured daughter-were newer to their powers and uncertain of them.
Shaldis wished her friend Pomegranate were still in the city. The half-mad beggar woman was another whose powers, she sensed, were as deep as her own. But Pomegranate had gone with the king's former tutor, a onetime Earth Wizard named Soth, to seek among the distant cities on the shores of the other lakes for word of other women who might have power. And the other three Raven sisters she knew were-
She came around the corner into the Court of the Novices, and stopped.
A man stood in the blue shadowy twilight, just outside the door of her room. Not a mage. A tall heavy-shouldered man in a civilian's loose pantaloons and light summer robe, a man whose movement, as he turned uncertainly from her door, was familiar, even before she saw his face.
Then he turned at the sound of her step and said, "Raeshaldis? Old One?"
Recognition hit her like a dagger in her chest. She stood still, unable to move or speak.
"Yes. It's me."
Excerpted from Circle of the Moon by Barbara Hambly Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Hambly.
Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Barbara Hambly (1951) is an American author and screenwriter who works in a variety of genres including fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction. She is most well known for her Benjamin January historical mystery series, about a free person of color in antebellum New Orleans. From 1994 to 1996 she served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of American and won the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel for her 1989 novel Those Who Hunt the Night.
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