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Hell Forge by Darwin A. Garrison
Marsh waited with his back against a scorched sandstone boulder. His cloak shielded him from the noonday sun, but his nose still wrinkled as the scent of brimstone wafted by with every breeze. He cursed the heat of the day, the brimstone, and the delay, but he had no choice. He had to deal with his pursuer now, in a place of his choosing.
A scrabbling in the loose rock on the trail behind the boulder brought him back from his reverie. He held his breath, and waited to see what would enter the pass.
A figure moved from shadow into light and Marsh' eyes narrowed as he estimated the threat. Could this filthy, shambling wreck possibly be the child he had first seen following him from the ruins of Dunfeld three days ago, or was it some spawn of the Forge sent to hunt him? He kept still, confident in the enchantment of his cloak.
The figure lowered itself to the ground and examined the trail carefully, its ragged clothing flopping forward as it bent down. A portion of the creature's back was bared, revealing fair skin, the welts of burns, and the ridges of its spine.
Then it collapsed on the trail and sobbed.
"Gone ... he's gone..." came a choked girl's voice from the huddled pile of rags. The sobs continued for a handful of seconds before a coughing fit set in.
The Northwatch by Cheryl Peugh
"Tell me, little man, why should I not freeze you where you stand and add you to my collection?"
Kien peered around the edge of her hood, her feet slipping a little on the ice-covered ramp to the barbican. She could see nothing and her heart leaped into her mouth.
"Many creatureshave dared the Northwatch only to be frozen to pillars of ice for their trouble," the voice's elusive owner said. "Why should I spare you?"
"Only you can decide that," Kien said, swaying on her feet. Having won this far, a bone-tired feeling gripped her limbs so that she could not have fled had she desired. The voice sounded powerful and as if it originated in the thin air above her. Male, she thought. The voice sounded male.
Something huge and unseen sighed, frosting the ice in front of Kien, plastering her furs to her and causing her to grip her sword-hilt so tightly her fingers ached.
"A woman. It has been long and long since a woman tried to best me. The last one's frozen corpse lies somewhere to the right of where you stand."
Destiny's Choice by Kate Paulk
"Ow!" Gem slapped at her behind. The biting insects seemed to think she was delicious.
She sighed and rubbed at the sore spot. She was supposed to be in a meditation trance but everything in the glade conspired to distract her. In two days she'd barely managed to slip into a trance, much less keep it up for long enough to call her Companion.
This was Gem's third Companion Quest, and her last. After three failed quests, she would be outcaste, banished from Eilithia. Only if she found her Companion would her adult life begin.
She didn't want to think about Elder Patritson's assertions that she would fail again. He was a dirty old man anyway, pawing every girl he could--and more. His Companion rarely came near him any more. Although it was unseemly for a mere girl to judge an Elder, Gem couldn't help thinking that Patritson's Companion was dying of a broken heart. The Elder was so wrapped up in himself he probably wouldn't even notice poor Torren's death.
Gem's thoughts drifted as they always did when she was supposed to be concentrating. What would it be? The King and Queen were still young, so a lion was unlikely. A dog or cat, for domestic life, would probably be her lot, but... Her stomach tightened and tears burned behind her closed eyes. What if nothing came?
She'd always wanted to explore the world beyond the ordered lands of Eilithia, but not as an outcaste... Not alone. And not with Elder Patritson pretending to be sorry she was outcaste.
"Why don't you just tell the old fool to keep his hands where they belong?"
The Miller's Daughter by Deborah Millitello
The first time I saw her, she was covered in flour from the top of her golden hair to the tip of her dark leather boots. That's when I fell in love with the miller's daughter.
She skipped along the edge of a stream to a pool and a tiny waterfall that tumbled into it. Stripping down to her chemise, she waded into the pool and stood under the cascading water. Flour changed into white mud plastered to her. She rubbed her face, scrubbed her hair until the flour became only a spreading circle of white on the pool.
Her hair shimmered like molten gold. Water splashed over her like liquid diamonds. She moved with the grace of a flowing chain of silver. My heart pounded wildly in my chest.
Suddenly, her eyes looked right at me and grew wide. She gasped and smiled. "Who are you?" she asked.
"Just a friend," I said.
She sloshed through the water until she reached the end of the pool. "I've never seen anyone like you before," she said as she squeezed water from her hair. She sat down beside me and rung out the skirt of her chemise. "You're no bigger than I am."
My mouth felt dry. I had to swallow and lick my lips before I could speak. "I'm a dwarf, a mountain dwarf."
A Dragon's Tale by Fred S. Dubson
The morning sunlight peeked through the thin curtains that hung over the windows of Annasha's bedroom. Small bits of dust floated in the air and danced in the sun's light. She awoke with a deep yawn, and the stretched her tiny arms before getting up to look outside.
From her window, she could see almost the entire small city and the nesting place of the dragon eggs. Overhead she could see the Dragon Riders flying about and wished she could be up there with them and to feel a dragon of her own under her, to command it the way the riders did.
"Soon," she said out loud and then looked to see if anyone was around to hear her.
She heard the other kids out in the courtyard laughing and carrying on and knew that she was going to be late if she didn't hurry and get dressed. Walking over to a small shelf by the bed, she pulled down one of the robes that marked her as an apprentice. The long white and gold garment was far too large for her small body, and she tied a bit of rope around her waist to hold up the hem and pulled back the sleeves so she could help with her chores without them getting in the way.
Annasha was small for her age and the other children picked on her and called her a runt or a squirt. She hated to be called anything but her given name and often got into fights. The headmaster's son, Bauklic, was worse than the others, bullying everyone until they cried. No matter what he did to the other children they would not say a word, for fear they would lose the chance to care for one of the dragon eggs and bond with a hatchling.
Fox Fire by Sarah A. Hoyt
When I was six and just starting to read, my grandmother gave me a book of Chinese fairytales, unearthed somewhere in her endless round of used book stores and rare book stalls at the local flea markets.
It was a faded book, printed at the end of the nineteenth century, illustrated with magnificent color plates that the passing of years and the rubbing of eager little hands had faded and coated in a yellowish patina. For some reason, this made the illustrations all the more alluring, like looking into another, long forgotten world.
My favorite one was a picture of a beautiful, sad-eyed lady, around whose neck a fox tail curled--not like a stole, but like something that was part of her.
The accompanying story told of a fox fairy--a fox who could change form and become an infinitely alluring human girl. Most of these fox girls, so the story said, were cunning devils, feeding from the life force of the men foolish enough to love them. But this one fox spirit was pure and fell in love with a human. Alas, she could not escape her magical nature, and was killed by hunting dogs, leaving her lover to mourn.
The idea of something bad by nature struggling to be good, and the sadness in the face staring at me from the page, fascinated me.
Thirty years later, though I'd long lost the book, I remembered the story, and the other stories in that book--the magical legends of animals who could be humans and then animals again. I think, ridiculous as it may sound, this was what made me grasp the opportunity to go to China as a reporter, as soon as it opened in the late seventies.
Dragon Fire by Marilyn Peake
Stars burned holes in the black cloak of night. The moon, like a thin sliver of glass, carved a crescent shape into the thick, dark fabric. Smoke floated lazily from chimneys, then bled out across the valley. The wind whispered into the night.
Within the huts, most of the villagers slept, though occasionally a baby's cry pierced the silence.
"Move! Move! Move!" Redford quietly ordered as he waved his right hand, motioning for his men to run. "Be careful where you step! Quiet!"
The men traveled swiftly through the forest like rats swarming across riverbanks at night. They came in four groups, raced from one edge of the forest to the other, then slipped seamlessly into a field. They ran with padded feet through long grass. Their boots flattened wildflowers and released puffs of perfume into the cold night air.
Chelsea woke to the sound of her baby son's hunger. She groaned with fatigue, then sat up, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and threw her long, blonde hair over her shoulders. She reached into the cradle next to the bed she shared with her husband and lifted out their tiny, squalling son.
"There, there, little one."
As she nursed her three-week old infant, Chelsea looked around the two-room wooden hut. Her four-year-old twins, Ada and Ashley, slept on mattresses stuffed with straw, their blonde curls tumbling onto their pillows in the shape of haloes. In deep repose, the twins looked like angels. During the day it was not the description of "angels" that came to mind. Chelsea looked at the mantel where her favorite statue had stood for years before Ashley had grabbed it and thrown it against the hearth.
The small flames and burning embers in the fireplace now sparked and crackled. From beneath the logs oozed a soft red glow. Shadows danced throughout the room, jumping up and down the walls and across the ceiling. Chelsea decided that, after she fed baby Hunter, she would next feed more wood to the fire.
The Minstrel by Lee Barwood
The last echoes of harp and voice died away on the still air, drifting as so many motes of dust in the dark, cluttered attic. After a long silence, the singer sighed and brushed the silver strings with an open hand. A ghost of melody whispered into the darkness under the ancient beams, and he thought fleetingly, longingly, of the color and tumult that had filled the royal halls in which he had once sung--the conversations, the camaraderie, the smells of cooking and ale and rushes on the floor and the glow of fire and flash of gems on silk and velvet robes.
Treachery had brought him here, to sing and play alone each night in the deserted attics of Leyden Hall for what might well be eternity. Sometimes, despite his resolve to put it from his mind, Hugh remembered it all.
He had loved Eleanor so; gazing into the shadows, he saw again in his mind's eye her golden hair, her ice-blue eyes--as cold, he learned later, as her heart--her delicate pale hands plying needle and silk. He remembered her laugh--then he had thought it beautiful, but now in his memory it tinkled like shards of broken glass. Odd how hindsight changes things, he thought, not for the first time.
And then there was Richard. Ah, Richard: companion of his journeys, friend of his heart, beloved of the lady he loved--and in the end, betrayer. Richard it was who had taken him to the witch--a white witch only, he said--to cast the spell that would win Eleanor's heart for Hugh. But, Hugh acknowledged, perhaps he had deserved betrayal; he had been so blind that he had seen neither his friend's love for the lady nor the danger lurking in Richard's eyes as he outlined his plan.
The Sword of Power by Carol Hightshoe
The Sword of Power is given to heal and unify--not to hack and divide.
"Have you heard?" a soft, melodic male voice asked, startling Viviane out of her meditations.
The High Priestess of Avalon composed herself then stood and faced the speaker. "I have," she said, studying her visitor. He was an older man dressed in a tattered brown traveling cloak. In the shadows of his hood, his sharp blue eyes sparkled with the strength of his soul. His name was Talisen, but he was more properly called by his title: Merlin. As the Chief Druid of Breton, his position was almost equal to her own.
Viviane gestured to the stone benches that ringed the meditation grove. The Merlin nodded, took a seat on the nearest bench and pushed his hood back revealing his lined face, graying hair and beard. She sat next to him.
"We both knew Uther was not the one. Yet you gave him the sword anyway," Viviane said.
"The land needed a king and the sword accepted Uther. Healing has begun."
"Only to be stopped now; at the time of his death. He has no acknowledged heir --- only a bastard son whom the dukes will probably not accept. If he is able to claim his father's throne, he may be the one. Until that time though, the land is again without a king."
"There is another problem. The sword is missing." The Merlin looked in the direction of the Goddess' Well.
The Gift of the Nile by Lazette Gifford
They had twice brushed the area clean, but Kem could still feel the grit of sand beneath her bare toes. It inevitably drifted into the open areas near the Nile where the breezes carried sand and dust everywhere. It made the work dangerous as she and Femi danced. Leaps could end in slides and twisted limbs if they slipped. The Dance of Isis Mourning was difficult enough without the treacherous sand, and if this hadn't been The Goddess's natal day Kem would have been tempted to perform something less strenuous. However, the days between the year were unlucky enough as the five Gods--whose days they celebrated--watched the festivals so carefully. One didn't dare stint on work before those unforgiving eyes, nor by chary in offerings or prayers.
She listened as Neferu's harp notes slowed toward the end of the dance. She rattled her sistra in counterpoint, slower and slower, to the last mournful notes and difficult movements. Kem dug her toes into the rough surface as best she could and began to lean backward--back and back until the fingers of her left hand brushed against the hard ground while the right hand still held the sistra upward and shook it in time with the notes. Kem felt sand again, but she put her palm down flat, lifted one leg carefully in time to the beat, and then the other--bringing them slowly over as she balanced on one hand. She glimpsed Femi in the same position, their timing as perfect as ever. Slowly down again and her legs spreading in a perfect split so that her left foot reached back and met Femi's right foot with her own right leg stretched out before her, all in a perfect line. She lowered her head, braided hair falling all around her face. A last shake of the sistras, a last note of the harp and her head touched her knee, the timing perfect.