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The Ring of Five Dragons
By Eric Van Lustbader
Tor Books Copyright © 2002 Eric Van Lustbader
All right reserved.
"Inside us are fifteen Spirit Gates.
They are meant to be open.
If even one is not, a blockage occurs;
a sickness of spirit that, left untreated,
can and will rot the soul from within."
The Five Sacred Books of Miina
Sixteen years--a lifetime--later, Bartta, now a small, dark, hunched figure not unlike a lorg, found herself on the same path. The sky was cloudless, of a blue so achingly rich it bore the appearance of fresh lacquer. The sun was in its waning hours, magnified by the atmosphere, so that its curious purple spot seemed like the pupil of an eye. Miina's Eye, the Ramahan believed, that saw and recorded everything.
Borne upon the air was the scent of the kuello-firs, and when Bartta's sandals crunched the brown needles she felt again that tiny shiver of recognition of things apart. In an instant the afternoon she had killed the lorg came rushing back to her. She paused, looking for the dry gully and the large flat rock of a golden hue under which, years ago, she had found the lorg.
Bartta wore the long, persimmon-colored robes of raw silk reserved for the konara, senior priestesses of the Dea Cretan, the Ramahan High Council. In the old days, before the coming of the V'ornn, the Ramahan were ruled by one woman: Mother. That was her title, which she inherited as a child, when her name was taken from her forever. At that time, the Ramahan had been made up of equal numbers of women and men--if such a thing could be imagined! The men had been purged after their innate greed led to the loss of The Pearl, the sorcerous Rappa had been destroyed, and the Dea Cretan was formed to ensure that the violence that had engulfed the Order would never again occur, that the sorcery that had been inextricably bound into Ramahan society was carefully weeded out, strand by strand.
As Bartta moved along the path she was immersed in a halo of myrrh, oils of clove, and clary-sage, the incense she burned when she prayed. These spices gave her strength of conviction and clarity of thought. She tapped her forefinger against her thin, unpainted lips. Where was that rock? She was close to it, she knew that much.
The passage of time and the vagaries of her memory caused her to walk past it twice. Each time, however, her Ramahan training compelled her to turn around, and at last she recognized the rock, whose golden color flashed only here and there beneath a dull layer of shale dust and kuello-fir needles. Lifting the hem of her robes, she half slid down the slope into the gully, picked her way carefully across the loose shale and the odd tufts of yellow wrygrass that had sprung up. Over the years, a geological eruption had warped and scarred the depression. The rock now lay like a kind of bridge across what appeared to be a fissure in the gully bed.
She bent to touch the cool, rough, golden skin of that rock, stirring even after all this time with images of the lorg. She cursed heartily. That lorg had certainly been an evil omen. Three days after its death Giyan had been captured in a raid, taken to Axis Tyr to be the slave of the V'ornn. That was sixteen years ago, and never a word from her since. She had heard stories, many times, about the regent's Kundalan mistress. Giyan was sharing her bed with a V'ornn. How could she? It was unimaginable! Thinking of the dreaded V'ornn, Bartta shuddered. That is when she heard the sound--tiny, indistinct, echoey. She turned back, looked around the perimeter of the gully. Nothing stirred save the shivering tops of the graceful kuello-firs.
The sound came again, trickling down her spine like a rivulet of ice water. On her knees, she peered into the fissure. Darkness greeted her beyond the sliver of opening between rock and shale bed.
"Hello?" she called in a voice as quavery as if it were underwater. "Hello?"
A sound, neither human nor animal but somewhere in between, came to her. It made her jerk erect, her scalp prickling eerily. She backed up, stumbling a little, righted herself, then turned to flee across the gully. Failing to lift the hem of her robe, she tripped and fell, ripping the robe and skinning a knee. She gave a little cry, regained her footing, and ran on. As she reached the slope at the edge of the gully, she paused to catch her breath, squinting upward into the luminous ultramarine sky. Her pulse hammered, and her mouth was dry.
The soft, eerie moaning of the wind made the boulders and gullies seem alive even as it concealed that other hideous sound. She turned her gaze toward the stands of kuello-firs and breathed deeply to rid herself of the last splinter of fear. She started as the great horned owl emerged from shadowed, needled branches, swooped low on enormous, soundless wings. She called Miina's name, for the owl was the sacred messenger of the Goddess. It seemed to be heading straight for her. She pressed herself against the slope. Too late to run. She was murmuring a prayer when it passed close enough for her to feel the backwash of its mighty grey-blue wings. Then it swooped even lower, and she whirled to follow its flight. The owl passed over the long, flat rock, then again, and a third time, before lifting on powerful pinions, and wheeling away into the dark kuello-fir forest.
A peculiar terror gripped her. The owl was an omen, of course. An extraordinary omen, because an owl in daylight signified imminent death. Her sense of dread escalated, but she knew that she could not ignore an omen from Miina. But that could not be; Miina had passed beyond the rim, or so she had convinced herself. Then what was Miina's messenger doing here? She had to find out.
Reluctantly, she retraced her steps. She fell to her knees beside the stone, grimacing with pain. The sun sat atop the collar of the forest; the shadows in the gully were long, blue, dense.
Bartta grunted. The rock moved with the reluctance of an invalid, its protest in the form of a miniavalanche of shale. The chilling sound came again, and on her belly she stuck her head into the fissure. In the last of the light she could just make out a small figure curled in a corner. It was Kundalan, not animal--and small, certainly not an adult.
Once again, she almost turned away. She had no desire to descend into that dangerous darkness. But her training held her. Miina had spoken; now she must act. How long had it been since Miina had given the Ramahan a sign? Bartta did not know. A long time, anyway. A very long time.
"Hold on!" she called, clambering down. "I'm coming for you!"
Nearly choking in a cloud of dust, she descended, cursing mightily, using her thick, work-hardened hands to grasp small outcroppings to keep her from pitching headlong into the fissure. She needed to be especially careful because the friable shale was all too apt to shear off or crumble beneath her weight. The preponderance of sedimentary rock in this area, she knew, was due to the Chuun River, which flowed from here all the way down to Axis Tyr, the Kundalan city the V'ornn had chosen as their capital. Bartta had heard many stories of Axis Tyr as it had been before the V'ornn invasion, a beautiful city of blue-and-rose stone sitting astride the Chuun River. Now, from all she could glean, the only Kundalan inside the city were miserable prisoners or slaves. Like Giyan.
Bartta's hard heart was wrung out with the terrible sacrifices she had made. It had become a poor shrunken organ no more useful than a stone. Yet she could still hate. Her blood ran cold when she thought of the V'ornn. Such monsters! So nasty to look at; hairless as a rotten clemett and twice as smelly. You could never be certain what the hairless beasts were thinking, though members of the Kundalan resistance had come to know how they would react in certain situations. But the resistance was largely impotent. Of what use was their deaths? One hundred and one years after the occupation and nothing had changed. There was no help for it. One had to learn how to live with the yoke around one's neck.
Miina be praised that Giyan had been taken by the V'ornn and not her. Bartta knew that she would surely have hung herself rather than be made to serve them or touch their rancid flesh. Anyway, she thought sourly, her twin had shown a perverse curiosity about the V'ornn. Now she had her wish.
Bartta had begun to sweat. It was unnaturally hot inside the fissure, and she made her stumbling way around the perimeter to avoid the worst of the heat, which seemed to be rising in sickening waves from the jagged rock floor. A copse of pink calcite stalagmites rose from the periphery of the fissure floor like grasping fingers. The heated air shimmered and burned her lungs so that she hastened to the spot where the figure lay. A girl of perhaps fifteen years, Bartta saw, who was shaking as if with the ague. A cloyingly sweet-smelling sweat rimed her forehead, matted her long, tangled, blond hair. Her beautiful features were clouded, darkened, ravaged. When Bartta scooped her up in her arms, the girl felt as if she were on fire.
The girl cried out as Bartta carried her back to the opening she had made by moving the rock above.
"Stop your sniveling," she snapped. "I will have you out of here in a moment. You're safe now." But judging by the girl's flushed and dry skin, Bartta did not believe that. The Ramahan were great healers as well as mystics. Bartta could well read the signs of duur fever, and she liked not the advanced stage the virus was in. This fever, which came in five-year cycles, had ravaged the Kundalan for a century now. The Ramahan believed that the V'ornn had brought the virus to Kundala; the resistance was certain that the Gyrgon, the mysterious V'ornn caste of technomages, had manufactured it as another weapon in their overwhelming arsenal to bring the Kundalan race to its knees. In any case, the Ramahan had had only limited success in saving the victims of duur fever. If it was caught within forty-eight hours of the onset of symptoms, a poultice of a mixture of the rendered seeds of black loosestrife and the thistle heart of coltsfoot digitalis had proved effective. Otherwise, once the virus reached the lungs it replicated so rapidly that within days the victim drowned as if lost at sea.
With the girl in her arms, Bartta stopped and looked up at the wedge of darkening sky. It looked a long way off, farther by far than the floor of the fissure had looked before she had scrambled down here. The girl was dying, no doubt about it. Of what possible use was she then? Perhaps, if she, Bartta, was able to get her out of here and back to the village she could prolong her life a week, two at the outside. But to what purpose? Already the girl's face was distorted by pain, and her suffering would only grow. Better to leave her here; a quick death would be merciful, a blessing even.
But as Bartta was setting her down, a small earth tremor sent shale scaling down on them. Bartta braced herself against the trembling side of the fissure as the girl cried out. Her eyes focused and she moaned pitifully, clinging to Bartta. Waiting for the tremor to abate, Bartta had cause to recall Miina's sacred owl. Now that the Goddess had at last spoken, She had chosen Bartta! The owl had passed three times over this fissure. Why? Certainly not so that Bartta should leave this girl here to expire. But what then the meaning of Miina's messages? Perhaps the Goddess meant for this girl to become her property. But, again, why? Was she in some way special?
Bartta peered down at the face so ethereally beautiful, so ashen she could plainly see the play of blue veins beneath skin unnaturally taut and shiny with fever. Brushing lank hair back from the girl's forehead, she said: "What is your name?"
"Riane." Her heart was beating as fast as an ice-hare's.
"Hmm. I do not recognize that name. Where are you from?"
The girl's face wrinkled up. "I do not ... I can't remember. Except ..."
"Except what, my dear?"
"I remember skelling."
"Skelling?" Bartta frowned. "I do not believe I know that word. What does it mean?"
"Skelling. You know, climbing up and down sheer rock faces."
"Don't be foolish," Bartta scoffed. "No one I know does that."
"I do," Riane said boldly. "I mean, I did. I distinctly remember coming down Four Whites."
"But that is impossible," Bartta said. Four Whites was the name of a sheer mountain cliff that rose a kilometer above the abbey. It was too steep, rugged, and ice-strewn even for the surefooted mountain goats.
"Not really. I've done it many times."
Bartta's frown deepened. "All right, let's say you did this skelling thing. What happened next?"
"A handhold I had been using sheared off. Maybe the rock had fractured when the earth tremored. Anyway, I fell."
"All right, dear, but how did you wind up here, beneath the gold rock?"
"I ... don't know."
Bartta sighed. "What do you remember? What about your mother? Your father?"
Riane shook her head.
"Think, girl. Think!"
Riane shied away from her, curling up into a ball. With an effort, Bartta softened her voice. "Please try," she said. "It is important."
"Everything else is a blank."
Amnesia, Bartta thought. She must be injured as well as sick.
As if to underscore this, the girl whimpered, "I don't feel good."
"You are going to be all right," Bartta said automatically, though she doubted that very much.
"Don't leave me," the girl blurted suddenly.
Bartta felt as if she had a millstone around her neck. Forcing herself to smile, she said, "We will leave together. Very soon you will see the--"
The girl's startling blue eyes bobbled this way and that as another tremor possessed the fissure. With a hiss and clatter, more shale shook loose, scattering itself across the rock floor. "Will we die here?" the girl asked. She was obviously unaware of her condition.
"We will not die here." Bartta arranged her features in what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I am Bartta of Stone--"
Riane screamed as the third and most violent of the tremors shook the fissure. "No sense in crying," Bartta said sternly over Riane's moaning. "We will be out of here soon enough." Over the girl's head she could see layers of shale sluicing toward the center of the fissure floor, where they vanished into an opening the tremors had pried open in the bedrock. I must get out of here, Bartta thought, or I will die. Again, she considered leaving the girl behind, but the image of Miina's owl remained in her mind's eye, bending her to its imperative.
She stood and, bracing herself against the side of the fissure, hoisted Riane until she was draped over her left shoulder. "All right," she said. "Hold on tight now."
Thus burdened, she began to climb. It was slow going. She was savvy enough to know that a goodly number of the hand- and toeholds she had used on her way down had been compromised by the quakes. The ones she found she tested twice before moving cautiously upward. All the while, Riane's weight bore down on her, bowing her back, spreading an ache through her shoulders and hips that quite soon bloomed into outright pain. Still, she continued her climb, willing herself not to hurry, to test each makeshift rung lest it crumble beneath her, sending her and the girl back to the fissure floor. But always in the back of her mind lurked the spectre of another tremor, which would surely dislodge her. She felt more vulnerable than she had since entering the Ramahan sinecure of Floating White but, most curiously, she also felt a kind of exhilaration as she connected with her body again, using it as she had when she was a little girl. It felt fine to have dirt beneath her nails again, to feel the flex and draw of muscle and sinew as they worked. She was aware of Riane whimpering behind her, and she prayed that in her weakened state she would be able to hold on.
Two-thirds of the way up, Bartta ran out of handholds. Three separate possibilities crumbled under her grip, the third breaking apart only as she put all their combined weight on it. She fell back to her former perch with a jolt that caused a painful percussion up her spine. Riane passed out. Just as well, Bartta thought. The girl is terrified enough for the both of us.
Despite instinct urging her nerve endings to move, Bartta took time to breathe deeply. For the moment, the earth had grown still, but cocking an ear she heard not a single birdsong, and this she interpreted as warning that there was more seismic activity to come. Living all her life in the embrace of the Djenn Marre, she was no stranger to quakes. They were lightest in the lower foothills, increasing in intensity the farther one penetrated the high crags. Once, when she was on her way to deliver the monthly ration of supplies to the Ice Caves, she had been unlucky enough to be caught in a quake that had sheared off a section of cliff face not seven meters from where she had crouched in terror. The Ice Caves were infrequently visited and only by Ramahan acolytes. They were carved out of the granite Djenn Marre like the eyrie of a fantastic mythic raptor five kilometers from the abbey and a kilometer above the waterfalls of Heavenly Rushing, at the headwaters of the Chuun. How the Tchakira lived up there was anyone's guess. But what more did they deserve, these dregs and outcasts--criminals, misfits, madmen who had been expunged from society? Still, they were Kundalan. The Ramahan felt it the sacred duty of Miina to ensure that these poor wretches would not perish in the wind- and ice-swept peaks of the Djenn Marre. Not that any civilized Kundalan had ever seen a Tchakira. But they existed, all right, for when the Ramahan acolyte arrived at the Ice Caves, as Bartta had, the previous month's rations were gone. She, like all the acolytes before her, had paused only long enough to lay down the small, dense packages of food and herb concentrates, consume a gulp or two of cloudy rakkis, and head back down the ice-encrusted, nearly vertical trail.
Now another nearly vertical trail loomed above her. Despite her elevation, the evening sky seemed farther away than ever, a mocking shell, blackened like a burnt offering. A star emerged from the enveloping darkness, crackling blue-white fire, and just to its right one moon, then another poured their reflected light into the fissure. Bartta felt it first in the soles of her feet, and she braced herself, praying furiously for Miina to extend Her protective hand. A clap like thunder broke the low rumbling, echoed painfully in her ears. As the earth lurched, she slipped, desperately hanging on. The fissure all around her seemed to be breaking apart, and she was certain that she was about to breathe her last.
Stillness so absolute it was unnerving enveloped everything. Looking up, she saw that the wall itself had split so that the upper tier now stepped back in a kind of ragged staircase. Instinct drove her upward. In an instant, she had reached the natural steps and, scrambling as quickly as she was able under the circumstances, made her way out of the fissure.
Gaining the floor of the gully, she did not pause even to catch her breath, but half ran with the insensate girl still over her shoulder. Not until she found herself safely on the path that wound through the kuello-firs down to Stone Border did she even dare look back over her shoulder. What she expected to see she could not say, but in the wan moonslight spilling down like milk from a she-goat's udders she saw nothing out of the ordinary. With a grunt, she shifted her burden to a less painful position, then hurried down the path toward home.
Excerpted from The Ring of Five Dragons by Eric Van Lustbader Copyright © 2002 by Eric Van Lustbader. Excerpted by permission.
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