The Fall of Neskaya, Chapter One
Coryn Leynier woke from a dream of fire sweeping down from the heights. The dream had begun peacefully enough, but with an unusual vividness, as were so many of his dreams since his body had begun chang-ing with adolescence. At first, his glider hovered beneath Darkover's great Bloody Sun, its silken sails spread wide over fragile wooden struts. Last summer, his eldest brother, Eddard, who was heir to the mountainous Verdanta lands, had shown him how to ride the air currents for short distances. In his dream, Coryn soared freely. He felt no fear of the height, only pleasure in the limitless heavens.
Summer lightning flashed in the distance, across the Hellers. The air crackled with energy. Smoke curled skyward from a grove of resin-trees. Coryn tensed. Since he could remember, he and his brothers had kept watch for forest fires, sometimes competing to be the first to sound the alarm.
In his dream, Coryn struggled to turn the glider, to head back to Verdanta Castle with the news. But the wood and leather apparatus would not respond. It fought him like a living thing, twisting and turning in his grasp.
Coryn noticed the starstone, a chip of brilliance, lashed to the cross-beams. It looked just like any other starstone, bestowed on each child according to family tradition on the Midwinter Festival following their twelfth birthdays, but this one he knew was his own. As he gazed at it, blue light flared within, as if in recognition. He'd heard that with such a stone, a trained laranzu could send a glider wherever he wished, not just where the uncertain winds took it. The idea stirred something in him, a wordless longing.
To go where he chose, not where chance carried him. . . .
Coryn gazed into the starstone and pictured the glider turning back toward home at his command. Blue fire flickered in its depths. His nerves prickled and his stomach clenched, as rebellious as the glider. Still, he kept his eyes fixed on the starstone, trying to go deeper, ever deeper.
The fire shifted, pouring down the hillsides, leaping over the fire-breaks which were strangely overgrown with neglect. In a matter of mo-ments, it enveloped brush and copse, sweeping over everything in its path. Grass went up in puffs of smoke. Resin-trees blazed. As the pockets of flammable sap ignited, the trees exploded, one by one, showering live cinders in every direction. Smoke, dense and acrid, billowed from the forest.
Far in the distance, alarm bells sounded, over and over again as every holding in the Hellers, from Aldaran to the Kadarin River, was roused. In the next heartbeat, he was sitting up in his own bed in Verdanta Castle, shivering as if it were deep snow season and not the height of summer, with alarm bells ringing in his ears.
Coryn scrambled into his boots and bolted headlong down the stairway. Tessa, his oldest sister, hurried along the corridor with a tray of cold meat buns. She wore an old gray dress, several inches too short and patched with scraps of even older garments. She'd tied a white kerchief over her hair, so that she looked more like a scullery maid than her usual demure self, the lord's eldest daughter. Coryn grabbed a bun and stuffed it in his mouth while he pulled on his shirt. For once, she did not object.
In the courtyard outside, dawn cast muted shadows across the bare-raked earth. A fitful breeze carried the hint of the day's heat to come.
The yard seethed with movement. Everyone old enough to walk was here, all hurrying in different directions, carrying shovels and pitchforks, rakes and sacks and buckets, folded blankets and threadbare linens for bandages. Yardfowl squawked and fluttered, raising more dust. One of the castle dogs scampered by, barking. Men struggled to lash shovels and rakes to the saddles of pack chervines. Padraic, the castle coridom, stood on the rim of the largest watering trough, shouting orders.
Coryn paused on the threshold, heart pounding. For an awful moment, the yard seemed to slip sideways. He gulped, tasting bile, and swayed on his feet.
Not again! he stormed inwardly. He could not, would not be sick. Not now, when every able-bodied male over the age of ten, be he family or servant or guest, was needed on the fire-lines.
''You're with me on the firebreaks, lad.'' Eddard stepped into the yard, gesturing for Coryn to follow. ''Get the horses ready!'' Eddard was dressed for riding in supple leather pants and boots, and he carried two message rolls wrapped in oiled silk. ''Petro!''
Coryn's next older brother, Petro, had already mounted the sleek Armida-bred black which was the fastest horse in the stables. His face was flushed and his black hair, so unlike Coryn's bright copper, jutted in all directions, giving him the aspect of both fear and excitement.
Eddard thrust one of the message rolls into Petro's outstretched hand. ''This one is for Lord Lanil Storn, a direct request for his help.''
''Help?'' Petro asked, incredulous. ''From Storn? Are we that desperate?''
''We've asked under fire-truce. This one looks to be the worst within memory,'' Eddard said, clearly uneasy. ''Only a fool would let his neigh-bor's house burn and think his own safe.''
Fire-truce, Coryn repeated silently. But would it hold? Verdanta and Kinnally had been raiding each other's lands for so many years that few recalled the original squabble. He believed it had had something to do with the ownership of a nut-tree grove which had long since died of root blight dusted accidentally over the hills by aircars from Isoldir.
''Father also asks for your passage to the Tower at Tramontana. If Lord Storn grants you leave,'' Eddard said with a twist of the mouth that indicated how unlikely he thought it, ''you are to give this second roll to the Keeper, Kieran. Also give him a kinsman's greeting, for he is Aillard, related to Grandmama's family.''
Petro tucked the rolls into his belt, his eyes stormy. ''If Dom Lanil believes he can gain some advantage over us by waiting while we spend our strength on this fire or by blocking Tramontana's aid, then no mere scroll of parchment will change his mind.''
''Mind you bide your tongue,'' Eddard said with a trace of sharpness, ''and repeat only what you have been given and not one of your everlast-ing speeches. Your mission is to ask the man for help, not to lecture him on the evils of modern society.''
Petro subsided. ''I will do my best. After all, Father says that if you treat a man as honorable, he is more likely to behave that way.''
''Good speed, then, lad, and may Aldones bless your tongue as well as your horse's heels.''
Petro nodded and spurred his horse through the gates at breakneck speed, scattering yardfowl.
Eddard gestured to a man halfway across the yard, struggling with the harness on a chervine. ''No! Not like that!''
Lord Leynier's bay stallion, massive enough to carry even a legendary giant, whinnied and danced sideways, ramming one shoulder into the scullery lad clinging to its bridle. The boy sprawled in the dust as the horse reared, pawing the air.
Coryn grabbed the reins before the beast could trample the boy. White ringed the horse's eye and its body reeked with the smell of fright. He put one hand over its nose, pulling its head down. ''Easy, easy,'' he murmured. The horse snorted, eyes less wild.
''Here, now.'' Lord Beltran Leynier, tall and grizzled, yet still power-ful across the shoulders, took the reins from Coryn and swung up into the saddle. ''First party, with me!'' He galloped for the road, mounted men and pack animals close behind.
Stepping back, Coryn stumbled into the kitchen boy. The boy's cap went flying, to reveal pale red hair, twisted into clumsy braids and wound into a crown. Aldones! It was his baby sister, Kristlin, dressed in some servant's castoffs. She was only eight, too young to be assigned to any-thing more interesting than rolling bandages or chopping onions. From the look she gave him, he'd find spiders in his bed if he said a word to anyone.
''Coryn! Where are those horses?'' Eddard yelled from across the yard.
Within the dusty closeness of the stables, the few remaining horses stamped and nickered. The groom had just finished cinching the saddle on Eddard's raw-boned gray mare. Coryn checked girth, breastplate and crupper strap on his own dun-colored Dancer, for they would be scram-bling over rough terrain and a slip of the saddle could be fatal.
''You be careful out there, you young rascal,'' the groom said. ''I've not seen a fire this bad since Durraman's donkey was foaled.''
In the yard, Coryn scrambled on to Dancer's back and caught the lead line for the pack chervines from Padraic. He and Eddard clattered down the strip of road in the brightening day.
A plume of smoke rose from the forested hills, still many miles off. Coryn sensed the acrid lightning tang, the greasy feel of smoke from half-burned soapbush, ash across his face.
The world reeled, sky and green-gold hills blurred . . . melted. . . . Acid stung his throat. He swayed in the saddle, retching.
With a fistful of sandy mane in one hand and the other clenched on the pommel of his saddle, Coryn struggled to keep his seat. Eddard, riding ahead of him, had not noticed. The spasm of dizziness passed, leaving a sour film in Coryn's mouth.
Coryn's hand went to his neck, where his starstone lay insulated in the pouch of thick silk which he'd stitched himself. He felt its inner light as a wave of heat through his fingers.
He thought miserably that if only he knew how to use starstone and glider, as he'd dreamed, there would be no need to send Petro racing to Tramontana, or be at the mercy of High Kinnally. He, Coryn, could go aloft and drop the precious laran-made fire-fighting chemicals directly on the blaze.
With that thought, he pressed his lips together, dug his heels into Dancer's sides, and galloped on.
From The Fall of Neskaya: Book 1 of the Clingfire Trilogy by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Deborah J. Ross. (c) July 2001, Raw Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Used by permission.