Read an Excerpt
Path of Honor
By Diana Pharaoh Francis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Diana Pharaoh Francis
All rights reserved.
"I don't understand." The sharp complaint in Reisil's voice made Indigo's velvet ears twitch. The dun gelding tossed his head reprovingly as he clopped up the slope.
"Give it time. They will come around." Sodur reached over and patted her knee. Reisil frowned. It certainly wasn't the first time she'd brought up the subject in the last year, but Sodur never seemed worried, always giving her the same answer. The longer it went on, the more stale his reassurances became.
"It's been a year. How long does it take to welcome a new ahalad-kaaslane? Besides, they were fine when I first arrived. And like that" — she snapped her fingers — "things changed. Now I might as well be a ghost for all they look right through me. I can't stand even going to the Lady's Temple anymore. It would be different if Reikon and the others were still around. Or the magilanes. "
Sodur shrugged, his thin, drooping face shadowed beneath the brim of his floppy hat. "Reikon, Bethorn, and Fehra were all there when you destroyed the wizards. They saw your bravery and what it cost to challenge the wizards. They felt the Lady inside you. How could they doubt you? As for the magilanes —" He broke off, shrugging again. "They're a breed apart. No one rules them; no one frightens them. It was enough that Saljane made you one of them."
And it was true. The magilanes, those ahalad-kaaslane who shared a bond with predator birds, had sought her out. But being among them was like being a single bird in a silent flock. They spoke seldom, conveying much by a flick of the fingers, a turn of the wrist, a tip of the head. Reisil hadn't had time to learn this silent language of spies and explorers. So she sat mute, watching, listening, alone but for Saljane. If there had been time —
"You have to be reasonable, Reisil. The stories of what you did in Patverseme are frightening. After Upsakes's betrayal, it's no wonder the rest of the ahalad-kaaslane fear you. Think about it. They thought they knew him. Not one of us doubted him, not even me — and I was his closest friend. And all the while he was plotting with the wizards. How he could imagine killing another ahalad-kaaslane ..." His lips pinched together. "All this from a man we trusted without question. And then you come along and incinerate a hundred wizards without batting a lash...." Sodur sighed. "I was there, and it still curls my hair to remember. The story only grows in the telling. Can you really wonder that you frighten them?"
He glanced over at her. Reisil glared back.
"Because I killed our enemy, I cannot be trusted. Should I have just let the wizards attack us?"
"Of course not. You did exactly what was required." Sodur scratched his jaw. "Try looking at it from their point of view. The wizards were our greatest enemy in the war. There was nothing we could do to defeat them. We had no magic of our own, and they were merciless. The only thing that kept us safe was the Blessed Amiya's prohibition of magic within our borders. And even then, look what they did at Mysane Kosk. The magilanes had managed to kill wizards before, but usually at the cost of their birds. Here you kill a hundred in one blow. You must know how frightening such power is. But then you came to Koduteel and —" He gestured meaningfully.
But Reisil was determined to say the words aloud. "The Lady disappears, and my power drains away. Do they think I chased Her off? That I'm pretending I lost my power?"
"Before you came, the Blessed Amiya was always present, offering guidance, answering prayers, giving us new ahalad-kaaslane. Since your arrival, there have been no new ahalad-kaaslane, and our prayers go unanswered. Is it any wonder they blame you? No," he said, forestalling her reply with a raised hand. "I'm not saying you're responsible. She gave you power, and I think there can be no doubt that She's withdrawn so you could learn to use it. Her very presence suppresses magic; you could not do what She wants you to do if She remained. But the result has been devastating. The other ahalad-kaaslane have become powerless. Those amongst the nobility who have long resented our power in Kodu Riik have begun to move against us, and we have no means to stop them. And all wonder if you have plans of your own...."
"Like Upsakes," Reisil said, her lips twisting.
"Yes. And no one would — or could — challenge you after your annihilation of the wizard circle. And what if you really are the Lady's Chosen? The ahalad-kaaslane dare not go against you either way. So instead they hold their distance. It is unfair, but not unreasonable given all that's happened." Sodur brushed away a deerfly. "Maybe if destroying the wizards had been the end of it, everyone could start healing. But with the loss of the Lady, the plague and the nokulas, not to mention the Mesilasema's death and the Iisand's withdrawal from rule, no one feels safe. They have to blame someone. The main thing to do now is to learn how to control your magic and heal the plague. That will prove your loyalty like nothing else could."
Reisil gritted her teeth. Her chest was tight, and her stomach felt hard as a stone. Even the relief of being out of Koduteel and in the mountains couldn't melt away her bitterness. In those early days when she'd returned to her hometown of Kallas, she'd been able to do so much. She'd spent long days just healing, her instincts guiding her. But now her magic rarely came to her call, and when it did, she didn't know if she would accidentally light the whole world on fire. How would she ever control it enough to heal the plague? Nor did it help that many blamed her for the Mesilasema's death and the Iisand's self-imposed isolation. But that wasn't her fault. The Mesilasema had refused even to let Reisil be in the same room during that awful childbirth.
Reisil thrust the thought away. She was not going to start pitying herself. She drew a deep breath, turning her face up to the afternoon sun and pushing back her hat. The cloudless sky arced like a brilliant ocean above. The morning had dawned cold and frosty, but the autumn day had warmed nicely. The air was redolent with the smell of evergreens and aspen, meadowgrass and damp earth.
Sodur's explanation made sense, but the relentless snubbing from the other ahalad-kaaslane was a wound that never stopped bleeding. Between her own failures and their constant suspicion, she had begun to feel as welcome in Kodu Riik as a Patversemese wizard. Except a wizard would be able to do something with his magic. But this trip was to change all that, she reminded herself. And outside of Koduteel, with Sodur's unfailing, stalwart support, surely she'd find a way to tap into her power and heal the plague.
She pulled her hat back on and straightened her spine. Whether the other ahalad-kaaslane trusted her or not, she still had her duty to do, and whining wasn't going to help.
"Has anyone heard from any of them?" she asked as she pulled the cork on her water bag and drank the sun-warmed water. "Reikon? Fehra? Bethorn?"
Sodur frowned, nudging his liver chestnut with his heels as the gelding dropped his head to snatch a mouthful of grass. A flurry of gnats swirled up around his head, and the beast shook his head vigorously, rubbing his head against his forelegs.
"Not for a while now. Not since late spring. But most ahalad-kaaslane don't send word except in an emergency."
"How long do ahalad-kaaslane usually ride circuit?" Reisil startled herself with the question. It seemed she ought to know after more than a year in Koduteel. But then, how would she have found out? Except for Sodur, none of the ahalad-kaaslane would even speak to her, and Sodur spent most of his time in the palace these days, trying to keep the nobles from revolting against the failing power of the ahalad-kaaslane.
"There's no set length of time. No set place to go. Each ahalad-kaaslane comes and goes as he is called and travels wherever the Lady guides him."
"Juhrnus wasn't called."
"No. But then it is customary for new ahalad-kaaslane to spend time learning about Kodu Riik by traveling its length and breadth. I suggested Juhrnus make such a journey, listening to what calls guided him as he went."
But there wouldn't be any calls. Not since the Lady had withdrawn from Kodu Riik. Reisil didn't say it. "How do you know what to do then? What the Lady wants you to do?"
"For me, being at the palace is the best way I know how to serve Kodu Riik. Without the Iisand on the throne, the Verit Aare jostles for the regency. It would devastate the land. He's hungry for war, and he hates the power of the ahalad-kaaslane more than the other nobles do. He's already developed a substantial network of supporters. If he became regent, the Arkeinik would soon bend to his will — and then we'd be in much worse trouble than we are in now. If the Lady was to speak to me, I believe this is the path She'd choose for me."
"How can you be sure?"
Sodur grimaced. "Who is sure? But what does it matter? We know we must protect Kodu Riik. Even without the Lady to guide us, we must answer our oath to Her. Certainly we cannot sit on our hands, doing nothing. Your path is to find a way to use your power, and mine is to give you the time to do so while keeping the court from tearing itself apart."
Reisil nodded, thinking of her experiences with the court nobles. Most didn't like her any better than the ahalad-kaaslane did, only they didn't mind telling her so. Or they cultivated her for what they thought she could do. On those rare occasions she'd accompanied Sodur to the palace, she couldn't escape a feeling that she was prey and that lions and wolves stalked in the shadows. Sodur had shouldered a staggering task. She slanted a look at him. He looked much as he had when she first met him: clothing patched and threadbare, now covered with the dust and dirt of nearly two weeks' travel. His shoulders were slouched, his thin figure unprepossessing. He felt her eyes on him and glanced up, a smile illuminating his haggard features, his eyes twinkling.
"Not the most impressive-looking diplomat, am I?"
Reisil grinned back, shaking her head. "But I've seen you. You know how to manage people. And you don't make them angry when you do it."
"That's because they don't realize what I'm doing. That's the key, Reisil," he said, sobering. "They are a prickly bunch. They're born to lead, and they know it. They don't take interference well, even well-intentioned efforts. Some would rather burn in the Demonlord's third circle. Better to herd them slowly in the direction you want and teach them to see reason — but never let them know what you're up to."
Reisil fell silent, thinking. Then she asked, "You didn't say — have you heard from Juhrnus?"
"You're not worried anything's happened to him? To any of them?"
Sodur turned his head to look for Lume, his ahalad-kaaslane. The silver lynx wound through the shady grasses along the tree line, leaping after grasshoppers and tree lizards.
"Of course I am," he said at last. "Things have changed in Kodu Riik. People do not welcome the ahalad-kaaslane as they used to. They still haven't recovered from the war, and the drought hasn't helped. Bandits and thieves prowl the land. Nokulas are everywhere, slaughtering entire villages. And then there's the plague." He drew a breath. "As I said, no news is probably good news, but yes, I worry."
There didn't seem to be an answer to that, and so Reisil settled back in her saddle, thinking about the two weeks since they'd departed Koduteel. The people they'd encountered thus far had welcomed them, offering food from their meager stores. They did not seem to blame the ahalad-kaaslane. Not yet. But that didn't mean everyone felt the same. Reisil closed her eyes, sending a prayer to the absent Lady to protect her friends.
She tipped her head back, making an effort to push aside her worries and enjoy the breeze on her face and the smell of the summer grasses. Saljane had disappeared several hours before, and now Reisil could feel the goshawk's happy satiation.
~Fat girl. Are you going to eat all the squirrels in the forest?
~Marmots. Two, came Saljane's smug reply.
~Two? How are you going to fly?
Before Saljane could answer, a sudden prickling ran up Reisil's arms. The hair on her neck stood on end. She jerked around, eyes darting to the trees swathing the hills to the left and the right. Behind and before, the long grassy channel they'd been following snaked away between the rising foothills, the tall, heavy seedheads waving in the breeze. She could see nothing. Dread closed a hard fist around her throat.
"What's that?" she whispered. The birds and insects had ceased their chatter. The only sounds were the creak of the saddles, the thud of the horses' hooves, and the rustle of the wind. Sweat slicked Reisil's palms and she tightened her hands on her reins. Indigo pranced and tossed his head, snorting. "Do you feel it?"
"There's something ...," came Sodur's hushed answer as he slid his sword free. Reisil grimaced. Would that she had any ability to fight, but there'd been no one to teach her in Koduteel. Sodur was the first to admit his own paltry skills. Which left them nearly defenseless now. Stupid, stupid arrogance ... Her hand fell to the hilt of her dagger. It was sharp enough, but in her hand would do little damage against — what?
A fierce yowl sounded from the trees. Lume bounded through the grasses, tufted ears pricked, teeth bared. At the same moment, Sodur's horse squalled, eyes rimmed white. He spun around, crushing Reisil's leg between the two horses. Fire spiked up to her hip as Indigo staggered, his bray echoing through the trees. Reisil lurched against the pommel of her saddle. Pain bit into her stomach, the air gusting from her lungs.
"Run! By the Lady, Reisil, run!"
Sodur's hand cracked down on Indigo's rump. The terrified horse leaped, and Reisil clutched her reins, her left leg dangling loose from its stirrup. Indigo flattened into a thundering gallop. Reisil clutched his mane for balance, wobbling in the saddle. Sodur shouted behind and she twisted to look. Like her, he hunched flat over his gelding's neck, the horse stretched long in panicked flight. Behind them Reisil could see nothing.
They raced up the fold in the hills, slowed by the high, thick grasses. Foam lathered on Indigo's neck, and his ribs bellowed with effort. By the time they crested the hill, Sodur's long-legged chestnut had pulled even. Blood ran from a long slash in the animal's neck and freckled Sodur's pale face.
They plunged down the swell, leaping a trickling creek at the bottom. A narrow game track opened on the other side, and Indigo slotted himself into it, racing up the slope. Sodur fell in behind.
Fury. Fear. Purpose.
The goshawk dropped from the sky, skimming past the galloping duo with another shriek. Reisil twisted around, but could see nothing except Sodur's bloodstained face.
"Go!" he yelled, waving, his sword still clutched in his hand. Reisil faced back around, patting Indigo's sweat-slicked shoulder. Neither horse could keep up this pace much longer. The gelding's breath came in rasping gasps, and his gait was becoming more choppy as exhaustion shortened his stride. Sodur's taller chestnut thumped against Indigo's haunches, and the smaller horse bounded forward only to slow again.
But their pursuers had not given up. Reisil could feel them closing in. Her skin prickled warning, and her blood went cold with sudden certainty.
~Saljane! What do you see?
Reisil's head whirled as she found herself looking out through Saljane's eyes. They were close above the grass, flying behind the fleeing horses, the ground a sweeping blur. Glinting shapes fanned out behind the horses, their bodies alternately silvered and transparent like moonlit water. Saljane winged upward, circling and returning to dive at the foremost of the beasts. It reared up, eerily silent, swiping at the goshawk with ruthless talons longer than Reisil's fingers. Its nose was blunt and full of needle-like teeth, its eyes an uncanny opaque silver.
Even as Saljane twisted away, Reisil snarled, yanking on Indigo's reins. The gelding swerved and stumbled. Sodur's chestnut veered away into the tall grass. Too late, Reisil realized her mistake. The nokulas swarmed through the grasses, surrounding each rider in a ring of gnashing teeth and knife-edged claws.
It was hard to know how many there were. Their shapes flickered and shifted like shadows on water. Reisil caught a glimpse of a head, a paw, a haunch. There a curve of shining starlight, here a distortion in the grass. They sniffed and circled, silent as hunting cats. Reisil's stomach churned, her breath thick in her throat. Beneath her, Indigo tensed. She held him still. Any movement would invite an attack.
Excerpted from Path of Honor by Diana Pharaoh Francis. Copyright © 2004 Diana Pharaoh Francis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.