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The Hidden StarsBook One of The Rune of Unmaking
By Madeline Howard
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Madeline Howard
All right reserved.
On the great isle of Thäerie, there is a region north of the Siobhagh River where the barley fields and apple orchards of the south, the prosperous farms and the ancient many-towered cities, gleaming white and gold, give way to bleak dun-colored moorland, sullen hills, and rocky upland valleys. They call this country the Mointeach. Long ago, it was a land much plagued by warlocks, black bards, and cunning-men, but many perished at the Changing of the World, and many more fled at the coming of the High King. His allies were the mighty wizards of Leal, whose powers were far too great for these rustic necromancers and petty spellcasters to withstand -- and there were still, in those days, many wild, uncivilized places in the world where those who made their living raising ghosts and cursing cattle might flourish unmolested. Yet they left a number of strange customs and beliefs behind them on the Mointeach, and there was hardly a house to be found there without a rune-wand or a bundle of bones buried under the doorsill, some half-understood charm scratched upon the hearthstone.
The land remained much as it had always been. Villages were few, and divided by vast tracts of wilderness, whilethe little stormy bays and inlets were treacherous and difficult to navigate. No visitor ever came there traveling for pleasure, and few of any sort came there at all.
Yet it happened, one dreary day on the cusp of winter, in the time of the High King, that a trio of wizards trudged through the Mointeach. They were on their way to witness a birth and (it might be) a death, and a great sense of urgency and dread was on them.
For hours they walked through country wild and trackless, while a lonely wind whistled in the rocky defiles, and hawks and gulls circled overhead. Late in the day, they finally came upon a road. Little more than a footpath it was, and very rough and stony, but quite unmistakable, cut deep into the earth and running on for mile upon mile. They had seen no other signs of human habitation since landing their boat on one of the pebbly beaches to the northeast, and it seemed to the wizard Faolein and his two companions that this road must lead to the town of Cuirglaes. They decided to follow it.
After skirting the hills for an hour or two, the track began to climb. The wizards kilted up their long robes and continued on. The road wound uphill between shadowy stands of pine and spruce. Every now and then the forest grew thinner, and Faolein could see all the way to the top of the hill, could just make out in the failing light a huddle of ancient buildings made of stacked stone.
Could this be Cuirglaes? he asked himself. They had been expecting a town of moderate size, at the very least a great seaside fortress, not this tiny isolated settlement. Sudden panic clutched at his throat. If they had missed their true road, gone somehow astray --
A scattering of big wet snowflakes drifted down, melting as soon as they touched the ground. Faolein tripped over a knotted root, barked his shin on a tree stump, righted himself, and continued on, trying to ignore the sting where his skin had been scraped raw. Clumsy. Clumsy he was and always had been, especially when he allowed his thoughts to wander, when he failed to use all six senses to observe his surroundings.
The forest closed in again. Under the trees the air was damp and cool, heavy with the sharp scent of pine.
He considered the possibility that a mistake had been made. The sky had been overcast since morning, with not a single gleam of sunlight the whole grey day. Nevertheless, his own sense of direction was good, and Éireamhóine's was even better. He thought: If we've gone astray, it is the curse at work. It must be. Mother and child will both die, and with them all our hope.
Another bend in the road brought the village back into view, this time from the west. And now, partly screened from the road by a ragged line of beanpoles and skeletal dried cornstalks, Faolein spotted a cluster of buildings larger and more solidly built than the rest, and in their midst, thrusting upward, a round tower some thirty or forty feet high, with narrow windows set into the thickness of the walls.
"Perhaps Cuirglaes after all," said Éireamhóine. His pale, perfect face was impassive in the gathering gloom, the deep-set dark eyes without expression; only his words betrayed his fear. "May the Fates grant that we come in time to save two lives and foil our enemy's schemes."
Even as he spoke, the wind came up and scattered the clouds. The stone buildings on the summit stood silhouetted against a bloody sunset sky and the immense yellow moon, like a rotten pumpkin, just then rising behind the tor. As one man, the three wizards stopped where they stood, and Curóide flung up his yew-wood staff like a barrier against the ill omen, muttering a béanath, a charm of blessing, under his breath.
Then, carried on the wind, thin but unmistakable, came the anguished cries of a woman suffering a difficult labor ...
Excerpted from The Hidden Stars by Madeline Howard Copyright ©2006 by Madeline Howard. Excerpted by permission.
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