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River of Souls
By Beth Bernobich, Matt Stawicki
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Beth Bernobich
All rights reserved.
When Asa left his home in Ysterien, his family gave him three gifts.
The first was passage on the fastest trade ship sailing between Ysterien's chief port of Karda and its sister in the province of Pommersien — an extravagant gift but a necessary one. Each year, fewer merchants dared the overland routes between Ysterien and the empire over the mountains. The historians claimed the Erythandran Empire had fallen twenty years before, but it was falling still, a slow, erratic, and seemingly endless descent. Like a land besieged by drought, its borders crumbled, its provinces shrank into new and smaller kingdoms with uncertain futures, like dust caught and driven by a hot wind.
The second gift was a cousin to the first, a generous sum of money to account for expenses beyond the ship voyage itself. His family had always been practical, even when indulging him in this most impractical journey. They offered advice, too, but they always had, his mother, his young stepfather, the many brothers, half-brothers, sisters, and cousins employed in the family banking concerns. The money was more than a gift — it was a sign that he belonged to the household.
Once Asa reached the port, he sold his passage to the first taker. He sent all his luggage, except one small trunk, back to his mother. He did not bother with a note. She would guess what he'd done. Then he hired a horse from a stable near the harbor district and repacked the contents of his trunk into saddlebags. His destination had not changed, but he wanted to make this journey on his own terms, not under the watchful eye of the ship's crew, who undoubtedly reported to their guild and house, and from thence to his mother.
"You're mad," the stable owner said.
Asa shrugged. "It's necessary. Do you want the trunk?"
"Of course I want the trunk. I'll give you thirty draqirii for it — silver ones. But you're mad to try the mountain roads. Word came back last month that Hanídos evicted the emperor's soldiers. Things are somewhat unsettled there."
Unsettled, meaning dangerous to foreigners.
"I understand," Asa said mildly. "And I want fifty draqirii. That trunk is made from good, solid cedar wood. My mother commissioned it from House Jawero especially for this journey. Besides, you could sell it back to her for a profit."
The stable master's lips twitched. "You're more like a merchant than a banker's son. But it's true. And she would thank me. Eventually."
In the end, he counted out sixty draqirii. For luck, he told Asa. The goddess Lir always loved a blind man, in honor of her brother, Toc, who had plucked out his own eyes to make the sun and moon. And Asa was as obstinately blind a man as the stable master had ever known.
Asa's family had said much the same to him when he first proposed this journey east. In the end, however, his mother had agreed. "One last indulgence," she'd said with dry humor. Then her expression had turned speculative. "I will be curious to see if it changes you."
The stable boys finished up their work. Asa mounted the horse easily. From the cobblestoned yard of the stables, the land sloped downward toward the harbor, and he had a clear view of the ocean-filled horizon. The day was bright, the spring breezes warm and caressing, and the seas were like a vast blue jewel cupped in invisible hands. Miles away, in his mother's household, his family would be gathered around the table.
His mother's last words, her strange assessing expression, came back to him.
She spoke as if she were certain I will return.
He struggled against the tug of expectation. His mother always spoke that way, he told himself. That was how she often achieved her desires — simply by taking for granted her wishes would be fulfilled.
It was time to go. He checked the balance of his sword against his hip and the ease with which he might reach the knives in either boot. He murmured one of the spells that his oldest cousin had taught him in exchange for Asa's favorite poetry books. He noticed the stable master's faint surprise at these proceedings, as if a banker's son were not capable of dealing with anything but coins and notes of promise.
He was not entirely wrong, Asa thought. Even ten years of sword lessons from the best masters — another indulgence — might not prove enough for this journey.
"I should pay you more," he said to the stable master. "I probably won't bring this horse back."
"I know," the other man said. "That's why I asked so much for the hire." He hesitated a moment, then asked, "Why are you going east?" Because I have too many dreams, Asa thought.
* * *
His dreams followed him over the well-kept roads of Ysterien, which wound upward through the high valleys of the coast and into the foothills. These were dreams of past lives, the memories each soul carried across the void from death into rebirth. In all of them, Asa was a warrior, hand gripping a sword or spear. Sometimes he dreamed of battle. More often, he dreamed of standing guard in an endless night. The most persistent dreams had nothing to do with war, not directly, but with a woman.
She stood at the window, her gaze turned away. It was a brilliant summer's day. Sunlight poured through the glass. Outside, the familiar expanse of crimson roof rose like waves between and around the spires of the palace. Asa knew this room, knew this woman. My beloved, he thought, his heart catching at how the light outlined her cheek. So it had been from the very start, their love as natural as breathing.
Even as he recognized these details, the dream overwhelmed him. He was no longer Asa, a young man from Ysterien, but the soldier Adele.
"When do you go?" the other woman asked.
"We march for the border tomorrow."
"Ah." It was more a breath released than a reply. Then: "I should speak of the Empire, and how it has no borders except the sea, but that would too unnatural. Also, it would be a lie. I ... I would have no lies between us tonight, Adele."
Adele shifted on her feet. "No lies," she said softly. "Never. And when I return —"
But she could not finish that sentence without lying. After all, she was a warrior. And war made such promises impossible to keep.
* * *
The horse died in the western passes, after the bandit attack. Asa fought off his attackers, then fled, but only three weeks had passed since that early spring morning in Karda. Snows made the broken, narrow roads even more difficult, and the bandits' horses were small-foot ponies, well used to these parts. They easily outpaced his gelding, and would have overtaken him, except for the spell from Asa's cousin.
The spell's potency had a limit, however. Three times he used the magic to cast a veil between him and his attackers. Three times the bandits regrouped and tracked him over the frost-limned path. His magic was not enough. He had to break the trail completely.
Asa rode as fast as he dared. Once he was certain of a moment's safety, he leapt from the horse's back. He wrapped the reins around his hand and drew his sword. "Ei rûf ane gotter. Ei rûf ane Lir unde Toc unde der strom."
I call upon the gods. Upon Lir and Toc and the magic current.
The old invocation to the gods, from the days before the Empire, when the tribes of Erythandra rode into the southern plains, conquering.
A strong green scent filled the air, like the aroma of spice boxes from Andelizien, like the herb-laden closet where his mother stored her most precious silken gowns. Asa swallowed against the sudden upsurge of memory, then set the point of his sword to his horse's neck.
The beast started at the first prick, then bucked hard. Asa dragged the horse's head down, braced himself against the mountain, and drove his sword into its neck. Blood poured over his hands in a rush. The horse sank to its knees with a strange high cry that went on and on, until Asa pressed the blade home.
Blood and more blood. He thought he must vomit from the stink. Moving blindly, he unbuckled the smallest and most important saddlebag. He laid that to one side, away from the struggling animal, then set his shoulder against his horse and shoved until he thought his heart might burst from the effort. Ei rûf ane Lir. No, for death he had to call upon Lir's brother, Toc the Blind, Toc the warrior god. Ei rûf ane Toc. Ei rûf ...
The horse gave a shudder and rolled over the side of the cliff. Asa fell against a rock. Eyes closed, heart thrumming, he listened as the still-living body slithered down the mountainside. His hands felt sticky with blood. He wiped them on his trousers, then returned the sword to its sheath, forgetting until too late to clean the blade. His old sword master would tell him exactly how careless that was.
Careless. He nearly laughed, nearly cried.
He might have stood there another hour, but the echo of hoofbeats plucked him from inactivity. The bandits. They had to believe he'd gone over the cliff with his horse. He slung the saddlebag over his shoulder, checked his sword and knives once more, and ran.
* * *
He left the main trail for a crooked footpath that wound upward into the barren heights. Here were the true middle mountains, the stony ridge dividing Ysterien from the dying Erythandran Empire. It was an empty land. He walked alone except for his thoughts and his dreams. At night, the stars were like a carpet of salt in the blackness, like a river of souls, crossing to new lives.
He had almost forgotten about the rest of the living world when he rounded an enormous boulder, only to find himself a few feet away from a spotted lynx, crouched over a hare. The lynx glanced up and stared at him with golden eyes. Its fur was tawny and thick, the ears tufted. Blood stained its muzzle.
The lynx growled. Asa started back and fumbled for his sword. He had it drawn when the lynx seized the hare in its jaws and darted away.
Asa blew out a breath and resheathed his sword with tremulous hands.
After that, he headed down slope, seeking the lower trails, but these ended in rockslides or among the thick pine forests. So he retraced his steps upward and east, over a shoulder of bare rock, along melt streams edged by jagged blue ice, and between fantastical columns etched by wind and cracking cold.
It was among these columns that a late spring snowstorm overtook him.
Within moments he was lost in a blinding cloud of white. He pulled his hood low over his face and struggled forward against the wind. Already snow covered the trail. Asa slipped on a patch of hidden ice and struck an unseen rock, so hard it drove the breath from his body. Numb and blind, he stumbled to his feet, fell again, then crawled through the drifts until he reached a rocky overhang. It was such a relief to be free of the wind that he collapsed into a heap. He had no spells to drive away so much cold. He was shaking too hard to speak the ones he did have for fire. When the storm passed, and a band of trappers came upon him, Asa was curled into a stiff knot, gripping the saddlebag to his chest.
Hands hooked under his elbows and hauled him upright. The frost had sealed his eyes shut. One of the strangers spat and rubbed a gloved hand over the lids until Asa could open them. A dark brown face peered at him, the skin furrowed and scored, the eyes like swift straight lines drawn in ink. The stranger spoke to an unseen companion. Then he (she?) and the other slung Asa's arms over their shoulders. He tried to protest, but his tongue refused to cooperate. The strangers were not unnecessarily rough, but he was a tall young man, and they could not help the bumping and jolting as they dragged him to their own camp and laid him next to the bright blur of a fire.
Someone rested a hand over his forehead.
Ei rûf ane gôtter ... ane Lir unde Toc ...
A cloud of magic bloomed around him — its sharp green scent a hundred times more powerful than the spells learned from his cousin. He gave a sudden gasp. A hand pressed him backward against the hard earth. He slept.
* * *
Once more he dreamed of past lives, of one in particular.
Sleep, Adele. A woman's voice, deep like a murmuring dove. Sleep, my heart.
I sleep, said Asa who was Adele. What is it?
A hand brushed over his chest, her chest. So light, like a feather dancing over her bare skin. Her belly rippled with desire, and she turned toward the woman with a groan. There is but one way I can sleep after this.
The only answer was bright laughter, a brief flutter of lips against Adele's throat, and then the hand pulled Adele close until lips met warm lips.
* * *
Next morning, he woke to an ordinary world.
The sky stretched out gray and endless above. Nearby, the fire burned low. Asa smelled wood smoke, roasting mutton, and a sour sweat-scent he knew was his own. He stirred, flexed his arms, and felt an ache throughout his body.
"So you did not die."
A woman bent over him. He could only tell her sex by her voice. She was dressed in thick wool clothing that obscured her body, and the fur-lined hood was drawn close around her face, but the voice was clearly a woman's, high and sweet. She spoke his own language, with an accent that he now recognized as the mountain dialect.
"Can you talk?" she asked.
He nodded. Swallowed to wet his throat. "Yes, I —"
"Stop. Drink a cup of tea first. You'll find it easier."
She motioned to someone behind her. A man appeared with a tin mug. It was tea, scalding hot and flavored with spices and butter. Asa nearly choked.
"Drink," the woman repeated.
He drank. The tea lit a flame inside his belly. The stiffness eased, and he could almost think about eating.
"Do you need to piss?" the woman asked.
He shook his head.
"All dried out. I thought so. Naran, more tea."
The man returned to fetch Asa's mug. Asa peered at him. No, this was a second man, though he looked much like the first one. Brothers?
The woman's eyes narrowed in laughter, as if she could read his thoughts. "They are brothers, yes, and one cousin. Not mine, of course. That would be ill luck." Something in her expression, the warmth of her voice, gave another meaning to the word luck, but Asa had no strength to be overly curious. He drank his tea and listened as the woman explained more.
Her name was Zayaa. She and her companions had come into the mountains early to trap wolves and lynxes for their pelts. It was by chance and Lir's grace they had discovered him in his inadequate shelter. Asa listened and drank more tea. At her command, the cousin brought a bowl of beef broth. Asa drank that, too.
But after the tea and the broth, Zayaa motioned the others away. The men withdrew from the camp, and Zayaa bent over Asa once more.
"Your hands," she said.
He stared down at his hands. He hardly recognized them — swollen and cracked, the fingers black with frostbite. The palms, though — the palms were stained red.
Like blood. With a shudder, he recalled the lynx crouched over the hare.
Zayaa was studying him with a grave expression. "What did you kill?"
"My horse," he whispered.
It did not occur to him to ask how she knew.
Zayaa said nothing. He wanted to explain about the bandits, but she turned away and called for her men to return.
* * *
They cared for him three more days. Asa slept and ate. He drank whatever Naran gave him. Zayaa ordered the men to strip Asa, then examined his body with impersonal thoroughness. Bruised ribs. Various festering scrapes. Frostbite in three fingers, she reported. The feet too had suffered.
While her men tended to chores, Zayaa used her magic to heal the worst. She managed to save all three fingers. His ribs no longer ached with each breath. When he could finally stand on his own, his feet felt stiff, but she told him that would ease in time.
His hands were another matter. To his eyes, they appeared normal. To be sure, they were tender from the frostbite, and chapped from the cold, but still familiar and ordinary.
Zayaa touched one hand lightly and tilted it from side to side. Asa glimpsed a dark red sheen over the palms. He blinked, and the sheen disappeared. But Zayaa said nothing more, and Asa didn't dare to ask. The morning sun was rising. The woman and her companions were clearly anxious to continue their hunting expedition.
Excerpted from River of Souls by Beth Bernobich, Matt Stawicki. Copyright © 2015 Beth Bernobich. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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