The Golden Hills of Westriaby Diana L. Paxson
A new story and a new generation grows as Diana Paxson returns to Westria, her classic fantasy realm, in the first new novel in that land in more than a decade. Prince Phoenix has always been a bit restless, never quite measuring up to the expectations of his father King Julian. Sombra, Phoenix's childhood friend, believes in him, but she has her own duties as a
A new story and a new generation grows as Diana Paxson returns to Westria, her classic fantasy realm, in the first new novel in that land in more than a decade. Prince Phoenix has always been a bit restless, never quite measuring up to the expectations of his father King Julian. Sombra, Phoenix's childhood friend, believes in him, but she has her own duties as a student of the College of the Wise. Their relationship surpasses friendship, but their responsibilities take precedence over their feelings. Then Phoenix is abducted in a raid and sold to slavers. Eduring pain and humiliation, Phoenix must find a way to survive, even if that means losing his sense of self, and becoming a danger to the people that he loves.
While King Julian searches for his lost son, a growing army of fanatics led by the charismatic Mother Mahalial is conquering land after land, and its final destination is the golden land of Westria. The only person that can sense Phoenix's plight is Sombra, and her attempt to rescue him may decide the fate of the kingdom.
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"Diana L. Paxson skillfully weaves together a page-turner plot, complex characters, compelling and timely social issues, and an unforgettable world based on deeply spiritual values. Fans of her previous "Westria" novels will rejoice at this new, immensely rich addition to that saga, and readers who have not yet sampled Westria's delights are in for a real treat." -Deborah J. Ross, co-author of A Flame in Hali
"Westria is back! Fans of the series will rejoice, and it's sure to win new readers to a wonderful series. Paxson's sense of place in post-apocalypse southwestern North America is exquisite, but even stronger is her characterization. The passions of the new generation ring so true, but not forgotten are the older folk, with their concernsand their perspective. I love this bookcould not put it down." -Sherwood Smith
"A new Paxson and a new Westria: what a treat! A generation later, this is better than ever. The action is intense, but so is the spirituality: the joys and woes of the scions of Westria are epic, but also as real and human as anything the rest of us have to deal with. It rounds off the original saga, but also promises the possibility of a fascinating future." -Kage Baker
- Tom Doherty Associates
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The Golden Hills of Westria
By Diana L. Paxson, David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Diana L. Paxson
All rights reserved.
"Seeker, why have you come here?"
Sunlight blazed suddenly through the moving leaves, overwhelming sight, but the voice of the priest who guarded the Gate carried clearly. Sombra strained to hear the response of the red-headed boy who stood before it.
The late-summer sun released the sweet smell of ripe grass from the golden hills, though there was a brisk bite to the wind. The blue summit of the Lady Mountain rose above the trees, watching over the province of Seagate as she watched over the young people who had come here to seek initiation into Westria's mysteries.
Sombra repeated the words she knew he must be saying now —
"I come to seal myself to the Covenant of Westria."
They had drilled each other on the responses all the way from Seahold to the initiation grounds, using their anxiety to mask deeper fears.
"What is your name?" The voice of the warden came once more. Wind rustled the leaves of the live oaks and firs that grew among the laurel trees as if to whisper an answer.
Since his birth the boy had been called Phoenix, but here they all must leave their milk-names behind them. Beyond those gates, Sombra thought, Phoenix will not be the son of the king of Westria, and I will not be the granddaughter of the sorcerer who tried to destroy him.
But Sombra's other grandfather was Eric of Haven, Lord Commander of Seagate, and her father was King Julian's seneschal.
We carry our histories with us, she thought, even here. She shivered, and told herself her chill came from the fog bank that was rolling in from the sea.
* * *
Phoenix leaned forward to warm his hands at the campfire. They had scarcely had time to stow their bedrolls in the shelters and put on the anonymous tunics of undyed cotton everyone wore here before the teaching began. It would continue for the full month of the Retreat, except for the hours each afternoon that were given over to exercise. For those brought up on outlying holdings, who knew only the rites by which their parents honored the spirits of their own woods and fields, this intensive education might be necessary, but the story of how the sorcerer Caolin stole the Four Jewels of Westria, and King Julian won them back again, were part of his own family history.
"Take up a handful of earth. Hold it, feel its texture, reach out to its energy ...," said the priestess. Her name was Mistress Larissa, and her stocky body had the solid strength of the earth she held.
Obediently he scooped up a little dust, then sat back, shifting in a vain search for comfort. A folded cloak was not much protection from the hard ground, but he had already overheard a few comments about spoiled princes. He was surrounded by girls and boys with whom he had played every summer on the docks of Seahold when Queen Rana brought him to visit her kinfolk there.
They should have sent him to some remote gathering in the Ramparts where no one knew him — but no, his father had been kidnapped by slavers on his Retreat in those hills. Julian would never have risked his only child there. Perhaps the southern part of Las Costas? But that was no good either. King Julian took a personal interest in every corner of his kingdom, and his family had accompanied him on too many of his journeys for his red-headed son to be anonymous in any part of the land. As it was, Phoenix had put off facing this test until he was nearly eighteen, when he could do it the same year as Sombra, who was a year younger than he.
"Live in this moment," said Mistress Larissa. "This earth you hold is the ground of being, just as the radiance beyond all understanding is manifest in the simple light of day. There is no need to turn from the world to search for meaning. The Creator is not separate from her Creation. Look for Spirit here, in the fire, in the wind and water, in a single grain of sand —" She opened her hand and a little wind set the dust swirling to mingle with the smoke from the fire. "Here, with the holy earth of Westria, is where it all begins."
"Do you mean that there is no life beyond this one?" asked a fisherman's son.
"I mean that the Otherworld is in this one, as our spirits are in our bodies, for those who have eyes to see."
"But we die, and our bodies decay," said the boy.
"The tide recedes, but it always returns," said the priestess. "Everything changes, but nothing is lost. When you leave this gathering your names will be changed, though your bodies seem the same. As you grow older, both body and spirit will grow and change, and yet there is something that endures through all the transformations. That is the paradox and the mystery."
Phoenix sighed. Sometimes he felt as if his body were the only thing that did stay the same, while his spirit hid behind the masks that others expected to see.
"Words cannot convey this meaning," she said sharply as someone giggled in the shadows. "It is something you must know. Look into the fire!" The sudden note of command compelled attention. There was no sound but the crackling of the flames.
"Look into the light. ..." The voice of the priestess modulated to a hypnotic murmur. "Listen to the voice of the fire and the wind in the trees. ... Feel your weight supported by the earth. ... Live in this moment, this point of time that is all time. This, this is reality ....
For a moment, then, the light surrounded and consumed him. He was all things; he was nothing; he knew eternity. And then someone gasped and laughed, and he was jerked back to ordinary reality. Heart thudding, he gazed around the circle. Some were stirring and looking about, while others appeared to have gone to sleep. But as the flames flared, he saw Sombra sitting at the edge of the circle, her soft hair a cloud of shadow around a face smoothed to an incandescent purity by trance. Her dark eyes, half concealed by thick lashes, looked at — no, through — the fire.
She is there, he thought. Only a few words were enough for her to reach the place of vision ... and stay. I am going to fail my testing and shame my father. She should have been heir to the Jewels of Westria, not me.
Mistress Larissa had resumed her lecture, but Phoenix did not hear her. He gazed across the fire at Sombra, his spirit straining to get free
* * *
"Sombra! There you are!" Phoenix sounded as if he had been running.
Sombra was already turning. She had felt his presence even before he called. The girls with whom she was sitting giggled, but Sombra frowned. Didn't he know how quickly gossip could grow? Already she had heard her own name linked with his — just because they had been childhood friends. To single her out this way would only add fuel to the fire.
To be sure, he looked like a flame himself in the white tunic the boys wore on this night when they all claimed their status as men and women. As she greeted him, she straightened the folds of her own black gown. We are Fire and Smoke, she thought, Sunlight and Shadow ... but after my vigil I will have another name!
"Maidens, my apologies for taking this fair flower from among you —" Phoenix swept a bow that would have suited his father's court, and Sombra rolled her eyes.
"Fix, be serious!" Deliberately she called him by the nickname that was all she had been able to manage as a child.
"I am serious —" Now she could see the worry in his blue eyes. "I have to talk to you!"
Still scowling, she let him lead her away from the campfire and past the dancers who circled it. Behind her, she could hear the other girls whispering, and then laughter. Drums throbbed like a heartbeat, vibrating through the soil.
"It's what will be wrong if you don't help. Sombra, come with me up onto the hill!"
For a moment she simply stared at him. It was inevitable, when this many young people were thrown so closely together, that some would pair off. The night of the dance was the traditional time for them to consummate their bonding. Some couples had left already, hand in hand.
"Are you mad? It would be like sleeping with my brother!"
"I doubt that." Phoenix grinned. "I'm pretty sure that Lenart likes boys. But I didn't mean that we should actually do anything. That girl from Seahold is after me, and there's one from across the Bay right behind her, and my father will kill me if I get involved."
"I had no idea you were such a stallion!" Sombra said scornfully, but in fact she believed him, having seen how girls fluttered when they realized he was the son of the king.
"They want my seed, not me." He looked over his shoulder at the blond girl who was pushing through the dancers, and seized Sombra's hand. "Come on!"
"Would it be such a chore to make her happy?" she said breathlessly as they halted in the shadow of a fir tree. "You wouldn't have to — you know. ..." The lessons they had just received had included some very explicit instruction on how to achieve pleasure without pregnancy.
"I suppose not —" He tried to hide behind her, not entirely successfully, as his last growth spurt had left him four inches taller than her. "If you must know, I don't want my first time to be with someone who looks at me as if I were a side of beef in the market square!"
Sombra's eyes widened. She had assumed that with all his opportunities, Phoenix would have found someone to initiate him into those other mysteries of adulthood before now; but as she opened her awareness to touch his, she sensed that what he was saying was true.
"Unless — oh, I'm sorry, Sombra — was there someone you were waiting for?"
"No, Fix," she said gently. "Come on, little virgin, you'll be safe with me. ..."
* * *
Sombra leaned back against the rock and felt her heartbeat slow. Above them rose the peak of the mountain; to the west, the young moon was sinking toward the sea. The sky was a field full of stars.
"I suppose I should thank you," she said finally. "This is certainly better than listening to gossip by the fire."
Phoenix snorted. In the starlight his bright hair was a banked flame. "Aside from gossip, has this month taught you what you wanted to know?"
"My father was an adept before he was seneschal, and yours is the Jewel-Lord. I doubt that there was much in the teaching that we have not heard debated over the breakfast table since we were infants. But if we are going to serve ordinary people, we will have to understand what they hope, and fear, and know."
"So you still mean to go to the College of the Wise?"
"Of course. But you'll be there too, won't you, at least for a while?" It was usual for princes to take an ordinary priest's training, to prepare them to bear the Jewels.
"By the time they send me, you will probably be halfway to Awahna. At least you have a goal! What is there for me but to wait for a day I hope will never come?"
"You love your father. ..."
"Of course!" he exclaimed, and then, "I don't know. Do you love this mountain, or the moon? They are there, and you cannot imagine life without them. To imagine trying to be them is even harder. When the king looks at me, we are both wondering if I will ever be fit to fill his shoes. I don't think we can see each other simply as father and son. At least you —"
"On those intervals when she is not running Westria's navy, my mother looks at all her children as if she is not quite sure where we came from," Sombra said abruptly. "My father is kind to me, but Westria has eaten his life too. I have always known that I will have to find my own path, and so will you!"
Phoenix sighed. "No, you don't. You think that going to the College will solve your problems. But some things that don't get talked about over your breakfast table may get discussed at mine. The College was fine when the Master of the Junipers was running it, but they have had two Heads since he went away, and this new man, Master Granite, seems more concerned with codifying rules than nurturing souls."
"If I don't learn from them, I will learn despite them, but I will learn!"
"I envy your certainty. ..."
She glared at him. "Look, Phoenix, nobody gets to choose the life she's born to, but we do choose how we live!"
"Yes, mistress —" He grinned with the swift change of mood she remembered. "So tell me, wise one, what mysteries did they reveal to you girls while we were being taught separately these past few days?"
Sombra laughed. Most Westrians grew up on farms and were well aware of the mechanics of sex by the time they came for initiation. The teaching had focused on the more esoteric means by which man and wife might act as priest and priestess to each other and to their land. But a few of the details had been ... surprising. ... She could not help wondering if what they told the boys about women was the same.
Comparing notes was enough to set both of them to giggling, but presently the conversation slowed. The moon had disappeared into the fog bank that lay over the ocean. It was very still. Rousing, Sombra was about to suggest that they might safely make their way back to the shelters when she realized that Phoenix was asleep, leaning awkwardly against the stone.
"It's time we got you to bed. ..." As she touched him he fell over into her lap, and when she tried to move him he only burrowed more comfortably against her, mumbling incoherently. As children they had joked that once Fix was properly asleep, not even a second Cataclysm would awaken him.
Her own position was not too uncomfortable, even with his weight across her thighs. I suppose I might treat this as the first night of my vigil, she told herself, even though I am not exactly alone. She looked down at him with a smile. Leached of color by the starlight, and with all the swift changes of expression smoothed away, the strong bones of his face showed clearly, and for the first time she could see a resemblance to the king. Was his father's strength hidden there as well?
When they were children she had been able to reach out and touch his dreams. Carefully she stroked a tumbled curl back from his broad brow. At the touch, he stirred a little, and still sleeping, smiled with a piercing sweetness that was entirely his own.
For a moment her heart stilled.
Abruptly she was a child once more. Her brother had been teasing her, and Phoenix had come to her defense like the rising sun chasing the clouds away. At the age of three, her heart had been won by that smile, and now, as it began to beat again, she realized with an intensity that bordered on pain that she loved him still. Her entire body trembled with awareness of his. Instinctively she sought to stifle her emotion, for if he woke, her mind would be open to his, and he would know.
Sleep, my beloved, Sombra thought as the strong curls sprang back beneath her trembling fingers. Be still. Her destiny waited in the sacred valley of Awahna, and though the Masters of the College were free to form liaisons, any relationship must always take second place to the work to which they were called. She had seen her father torn between the demands of the College, his family, and Westria, but her mother had the comfort of a vocation of her own. The king of Westria needed a queen who would be his partner and support in all things. And Phoenix, beloved, brilliant, and vulnerable as she knew him to be, deserved a wife who could love him heart-whole.
But if she never held him again, at least she had been given this moment in which he was all her own. For this one night, she could hold him, memorizing the shape of each limb, the scent of his skin, the warm weight of him in her arms, as the stars wheeled overhead and the land of Westria turned toward dawn.
* * *
Even before they took off the blindfold, Phoenix recognized the powdery scent of redwood. He took a careful breath, trying to hide his fear. The initiates were not supposed to know where they were being taken for their vigils, but as soon as he felt the horse begin to go downhill, Phoenix had suspected that they were carrying him to the Sacred Grove.
It was not fair! he thought, fighting a sneeze. If he ever became king the Trees would have him in the end, as they had received the bones of all the rulers of Westria. Why must he endure the little death of initiation here as well?
Your father was buried in the Wood, and came back to his body again ..., said a voice within. It sounded like his mother, who had told him how they had buried Julian after Caolin struck him down. She had found him walking in the Sacred Wood with the earth of the grave still on his shoulders, eyes dazzled by the first light of Midwinter Day. The boy's mind-voice often sounded like someone else — one of his parents or the many other teachers with whom they had burdened him. Those who called him heedless had no idea how hard it was to ignore them. Sometimes Phoenix got into trouble because it was the only way he could claim a separate existence at all.
Excerpted from The Golden Hills of Westria by Diana L. Paxson, David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2006 Diana L. Paxson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
DIANA PAXSON has spent the last decade and more writing pseudonymously as Marion Zimmer Bradley or "in collaboration with" Marion Zimmer Bradley. She had full author credit on the last one, Ancestors of Avalon, which made the NYT extended list. Paxson is also a founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism, which has spread nationwide since the 1960s. Westria is the setting for her own early fantasy novels, to which she returns now after more than 15 years.
DIANA PAXSON lives in Berkeley, California.
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In Westria Prince Phoenix has doubts that he is a worthy successor to his father especially since King Julian never praises him only criticizes his efforts to be regal. On the other hand his best friend Sombra thinks Phoenix is more than worthy as she feels he will run the country with compassion and strength. However, his misgivings rise when she informs him that she will attend the College of the Wise to improve her adept abilities.----- Slavers abduct Phoenix, who uses the name Johan. While his father desperately searches for him, to survive Johan becomes a gladiator fighting to the death in a traveling circus. As the Red Dragon he enables his berserker rage to turn him into a lethal killing machine. At the same time Mother Mahaliel and an army of fanatics are conquering everyone in their path as they head for Westria. The only hope for the kingdom resides in Phoenix to rise from the ashes to lead the counterattack, but he is nowhere in sight. Sombra senses where he is and begins a quest to rescue the man she loves.----- One generation has past since the epic fantasy THE JEWEL OF FIRE, but the action and deep characterizations, a trademark of Diana L. Paxson remains solid. The story line is a coming of age thriller as Johan must adapt to circumstances in a mature manner or suffer the consequences, perhaps even die. Readers will wonder whether Sombra will be able to rescue him in time so that he can in turn save his people from the invaders. The return to Westria is purely golden. Every book Diana L. Paxson writes is a winner.----- Harriet Klausner