The First Book of the Corean Chronicles
By L. E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell
Tom Doherty Associates, LLC Copyright © 2002 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
All rights reserved.
In the quiet of the early twilight of a late summer day, a woman sat in a rocking chair under the eaves of the porch, facing east, rocking gently. Except for the infant she nursed, she was alone, enjoying the clean evening air, air swept of sand grit and dust by the unseasonal afternoon rain. So clear was the silver-green sky that the still-sunlit Aerlal Plateau stood out above the nearer treeless rise that was Westridge, stood out so forcefully that it appeared yards away rather than tens of vingts to the north and east.
She rocked slowly, looking down at her nursing son, a child already with dark hair, more like deep gray than black. Through the open windows set in the heavy stone walls, she could hear the occasional clatter of platters being replaced in the cupboards, and the squeak of the hand pump.
The glittering and scattered light reflected from the quartz outcroppings on the top edge of the distant and towering plateau died away as the sun dropped farther. Before long, pinlights that were stars appeared, as did the small greenish crescent that was the moon Asterta. The larger moon, Selena, had already set in the west.
She brought the infant to her shoulder and burped him. "There ... there, that's a good boy, Alucius." Then she resettled herself and offered the other breast.
As she began to rock once more, a point of light appeared off the north end of the porch, expanding into a winged feminine figure with iridescent green-tinged silver wings. The nursing mother blinked, then turned her head slowly. For several moments, she looked at the soarer, a graceful feminine figure somewhere in size between an eight-year-old girl and a small young woman—except for the spread wings of coruscating and shimmering light, which fanned yards out from the soarer's body until it bathed both mother and infant.
The woman chanted softly,
"Soarer fair, soarer bright,
only soarer in the night
wish I may, wish I might
have this wish I wish tonight ..."
For a long moment after she had completed her wish, the woman watched. The soarer's wings sparkled, their movement seemingly effortless, as she hung in midair, in turn watching mother and child, less than twenty yards from the pair on the porch. As suddenly as she had appeared, the soarer was gone, as was the green radiance that had emanated from her.
Slowly, the woman murmured the old child's rhyme to herself.
"Londi's child is fair of face.
Duadi's child knows his place.
Tridi's child is wise in years,
but Quattri's must conquer fears.
Quinti's daughter will prove strong,
while Sexdi's knows right from wrong.
Septi's child is free and giving,
but Octdi's will work hard in living.
Novdi's child must watch for woe,
while Decdi's child has far to go.
But the soarer's child praise the most,
for he will rout the sanders' host,
and raise the lost banners high
under the green and silver sky."
She looked beyond the north end of the porch once more, but there was no sign that the soarer had ever been there.
Within moments, the door to the house opened, and a lean man stepped outside, moving near-silently toward the woman in the rocking chair. "I thought I saw a light- torch out here. Did someone ride up?"
"No ..." She shifted the infant and added, "There was a soarer here, Ellus."
"She was out there, just beyond where you put the snow fence last winter. She hovered there and looked at us, and then she left."
"Are you sure, Lucenda?" Ellus's voice was gentle, but not quite believing.
"I'm quite sure. I don't imagine what's not there."
Ellus laughed, warmly. "I've learned that." After a moment, he added, "They're supposed to be good luck for an infant."
"I know. I made a wish."
"What did you wish for."
"I can't say. It won't come true, and I want it to come true for Alucius."
"That's just a superstition."
Lucenda smiled. "Probably it is, but let me have it."
He bent over and kissed her forehead. "For him, as well as for you."
Then he pulled over the bench and sat down beside her as the evening darkened into night.
In the warm sun of a clear harvest morning, five people stood beside the stable door, two men, two women, and a small boy. The child had short-cropped hair that was a dark gray, rather than true black, and he clutched the hand of the younger woman and looked up at the man who wore the black-and-green uniform of the Iron Valley Militia. Tied to the post outside the stable were a roan, saddled, and a gray mare. The gray tied beside the roan had no saddle, but a harness and two leather bags of provisions across its back.
"Father?" offered the boy.
The uniformed man bent down and scooped up the child, holding him against his shoulder so that their faces were but handspans apart. "You'll be a good boy for Mother, won't you, Alucius?"
"Yes, Father." His words were carefully articulated.
"He's always good," offered the older woman who stood back from the couple.
"You'd say that anyway, Veryl," countered the older man.
"I might," Veryl responded with a smile, "but Alucius is good. Lucenda knows that."
"You'll be careful, Ellus," said Lucenda. "You will, won't you?"
"He'll be fine," boomed the older man. "Best officer in all Iron Valley. Just going after brigands, that's all. Not like the border wars with the Lanachronans when I was his age. They had Talent-wielders. Not very good, but they did call out sanders—"
"That was then, Royalt," Veryl pointed out. "You and Ellus can compare stories when he comes back. Reillies, sanders, Talent-wielders ...whatever you want."
The three other adults smiled at the dryness of her tone.
Ellus handed Alucius back to Lucenda, then bent forward and hugged her, kissing her on the cheek. "You two be good. I shouldn't be gone that long."
Alucius squirmed, and Lucenda set him down beside her, and threw her arms around her husband, holding him tightly.
Alucius looked up at the pair, embracing, then to the corral not two yards from where he stood. His eyes met the black-rimmed red orbs of the lead nightram, and he gently let go of his mother's trousers, taking one step, then another toward the black- wooled ram with the red eyes and sharp horns.
"Alucius!" Lucenda cried, lunging toward her son.
"Let him go," came Royalt's voice. "Best we see now. He's protected by the fence. Rams don't hurt children, unless the children hit them, and Alucius won't do that."
Lucenda glanced from Alucius to the fence, and to the nightram on the far side of the four rails. Then she looked to Ellus. His lips were tight, his eyes fixed on their son.
In the silence that had settled across the stead, Alucius took three more steps, until his chest was against the second railing. The nightram stepped forward and lowered his head, until his eyes focused on the child. The curled and knife-pointed black horns glittered, reflecting the sun from their lethal smoothness, standing out from the light- absorbing all-black face, and from the black fleece that was so deep in color that the ram was darker than any night. Even the sharp-edged hoofs were night-black.
The boy smiled at the nightram, then reached out with his left hand and touched the beast's jaw, fingertips from the sharp teeth. "Good! Good ram."
For a long moment, the nightram's eyes took in Alucius. Then the ram slowly lowered himself to the ground, so that his eyes were level with those of the boy.
Alucius smiled. "He's a good ram."
"Yes, he is." Lucenda's voice was strained.
"He likes me."
"I'm sure he does."
Deliberately, slowly, Alucius lifted his hand away from the nightram. "You be good, ram." He stepped away from the railing. The ram slowly rose, lifting his head and sharp horns, but only watched as the boy stepped toward his mother.
"He was a good ram."
Lucenda swept Alucius up into her arms, hanging on tightly. "Yes, he was. But you must be careful with the nightsheep."
"I was careful."
The ram tilted his head, before turning and walking toward the far side of the corral.
"He'll be a herder, for sure, Ellus." The older and broad-shouldered Royalt laughed. "He's already got a way with them. He'll be ready to take the flock with us when you get back."
"That's good to know—and so young, yet." Ellus smiled and straightened the green and black tunic. The smile faded as he looked at Lucenda and Alucius. He stepped over to them and hugged both of them for a moment. Then he looked at Alucius, his face serious. "You'll take care of your mother while I'm gone, won't you?"
"Good." Ellus smiled once more. "I'll be back before long. Sure as there are five seasons, I'll be back."
"I'll be here," Lucenda replied.
Still holding the smile, Ellus untied the roan and mounted, leading the gray as he rode down the lane toward Iron Stem. He turned in the saddle and waved as he passed the end of the outermost section of the southernmost corral.
The older man and woman took several steps back toward the main house, before stopping and watching the rider. The younger woman stood by a fence post, ignoring the nightram on the other side, tears streaming down her face. The fingers holding her son's hand did not loosen as she sobbed.
Alucius looked at the departing rider. "Father ..."
"He'll be back," Lucenda managed. "He will be."
Alucius watched until his father was out of sight. To the south, above the high road that lay beyond vision, an eagle circled upward into the open expanse of silver-green sky, a black dot that also vanished.
Outside, the evening was darkening, with neither moon to offer illumination. Inside the second lambing crib, with only a small, single-crystal light-torch to dispel the blackness, Alucius watched. His mother held a bottle filled with goat's milk, feeding the small nightlamb. The lamb sucked greedily for a short time, then stopped, lowering his head slowly.
"You have to drink more," Lucenda told the lamb gently. "It doesn't taste right, but you have to drink it." She stroked the lamb.
"He doesn't like the sand. I wouldn't like sand in what I drank," Alucius said solemnly.
"It isn't sand. It's quartz. It's powdered as fine as we can make it with the crusher."
"But why?" Alucius gave a small frown.
"The ewes have it in their milk. They get it from the quarasote shoots. So we have to put it in the goat's milk so the lamb will grow strong."
Alucius could sense the doubt in his mother. "He's very sick, isn't he?"
"He isn't as strong as he should be. It's hard for lambs who lose their mothers. The other ewes don't have enough milk for two. Sometimes, they don't have enough for one." Lucenda tendered the bottle, and the lamb sucked for a time, but the amount of milk left in the bottle remained almost the same.
"He doesn't feel good," Alucius said. "He's tired."
"He has to eat, or he won't get well," Lucenda said evenly.
"Will he die?"
Alucius sensed the concern in his mother's words, and the darkness behind them. He looked at the lamb, then sat down on the old horse blanket beside the animal. Slowly, he reached out and drew the small creature to him, his arms around the lamb's neck.
The lamb bleated, then seemed to relax, looking up at Lucenda. Alucius waited.
She offered the bottle once more.
Alucius held the lamb until the bottle was empty.
Lucenda looked to her son. "How is he?"
"He's tired. He'll be better."
"He made a mess of you," Lucenda said.
"I'll ask Grandma'am how to wash it off." Alucius yawned and lay down on the blanket next to the lamb. "I'm staying here. He needs me. He'll be better."
"For a while, dear."
"All night. He'll get well. You'll see. He will."
"If you say so, Alucius."
"I just know he'll get stronger." The child's treble voice held absolute conviction. He yawned again, and then again. Before long, his eyes closed. So did those of the lamb.
Lucenda looked at the sleeping child and the sleeping lamb. A faint smile crossed her lips.
The wind of late fall whistled around the dwelling, but the warmth from the big iron stove in the main room had infused the front parlor as well, as had the heat from the kitchen, with the associated smells of baking apples, biscuits, and mutton. Because it was Decdi, when Royalt did not graze the nightsheep, the older man sat behind the table desk, studying the black leatherbound ledger. He dipped the iron pen into the inkwell and added several figures to the column of figures. Then, with a satisfied half-smile, he swished the pen in the cleaning bowl, wiped it gently with a scrap of cloth and set it in its stand. After closing the ledger, he stood and put it on the top shelf of the bookcase. As he lowered his hand, his sleeve slipped back over his herder's wristguard, a seamless band of silver, with a strip of black crystal in the center.
Alucius watched from the leather hassock by the bookcase, his eyes on the herders' wristguard for a long moment. While chores still had to be done on Decdi, the day ending the week seemed special, perhaps because there was time for the adults to talk, and Alucius could listen, and no one urged him on to the next chore.
"Could I play a game of leschec with you, Grandfather?" asked Alucius. "A short one before supper, if you wouldn't mind?"
"You finished your lessons?"
"Yes, sir." Alucius pointed to the lesson book on the one shelf that was his, and that held his learning books as well. "Do you want to look at them?"
"You say they're done, they're done." Royalt leaned forward and offered a wide smile. "You've been watching us, haven't you?"
"Yes, sir." Alucius did not move from the hassock.
"Supper'll be ready before long." There was a twinkle in Royalt's eyes as he watched his grandson. "We're having an apple pie. You can smell it."
"I know. I helped mother pick the best baskets at market. This afternoon I cored the apples and sliced them."
The herder frowned slightly. "How did you pick the apples?"
"I was careful. I just said some baskets looked good." Alucius put both slippered feet on the polished wooden floor. "You said I had to be careful."
"I did. A good herder has some of the Talent, and most people are not comfortable with it. They especially don't like children with it."
"I was careful," Alucius said again.
"I'm sure you were, boy." Royalt grinned. "You think you can beat me?"
"Probably not yet," Alucius replied. "I can't see far enough ahead."
"None of us can, boy. We'd always like to see farther than we can. That's being human." Royalt took the board from the shelf and set it on the table, followed by the plain lorken box that held the pieces.
Alucius stood and pulled the hassock to the side of the table opposite his grandsire. Then he knelt on the hassock.
"You want black or green?" asked Royalt.
"Don't we choose?"
Royalt laughed. "You pick. I'll choose."
The boy took two of the footwarriors, one green and one black, and then lowered his hands below the table, switching the pieces between hands several times before lifting both hands, backs up, and presenting them to his grandfather. Royalt touched Alucius's right hand. The boy turned his hand over, opening it and showing the black piece. Then he turned his left hand and displayed the green footwarrior.
"Black it is."
Alucius quickly set up the pieces, beginning with the footwarriors in the first row, and ending with the soarer queen and sander king.
"Do you have any questions before we start?" asked Royalt.
"No, sir ... except why is the soarer a woman and the most powerful? Sanders are powerful, too, and they kill nightsheep. The soarers don't." He paused. "Do they?"
"No, the soarers don't." The older man laughed. "I can't tell you why the soarer is the most powerful piece. It's always been that way."
Alucius waited for his grandfather's move. Not surprisingly, it was the fourth footwarrior, two squares forward. Alucius matched the move, so that the two blocked each other. His grandfather moved the pteridon out, and Alucius countered by moving his fifth footwarrior a single square forward.
By several more moves, Royalt was smiling. "You have been watching. You're playing like your mother, but that last move was like Worlin's."
Royalt attacked, taking Alucius's lesser alector, but losing a pteridon, and a footwarrior, before capturing the boy's greater alector, at the cost of the other pteridon. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Legacies by L. E. Modesitt Jr., David G. Hartwell. Copyright © 2002 L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
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