Sisters of the Ravenby Barbara Hambly
The Yellow City is in crisis. The wells are running dry, and the Sun Mages have been unable to call the rains. Frustrated Mages across the land can no longer work the magic that once ran their empire. Now the magic lies solely in the hands of a few women--the first ever to have developed magical powers.
- Grand Central Publishing
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Sisters of the Raven
By Barbara Hambly
Warner AspectCopyright © 2002 Barbara Hambly
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIf the other novice wizards on the row hadn't broken into Raeshaldis's rooms the previous day, pissed on her bed and written WHORE and THIEF on the walls, she probably would have been killed on the night of the full moon.
It was the seventh night of the Summoning of Rain, and magic filled her like a cup brimming with holy light. Her soul rang with it, nearly effacing the memory of her eighteen months in the College of the Mages of the Sun: the petty tricks, the dirty scrawls, the male novices? unrelenting hate. If that was the price she had to pay for the joy of feeling magic flow in her, she thought as she made her way across the moondrenched North Terrace, she was more than willing to pay it. Nothing was too much for this ecstasy, this knowledge that the dreams of all her life had been true.
But yesterday's memory made her wary. The filthy bed and violated walls, the derisive look the Master of Novices had given her when she'd complained to him ... Shouldn't a student of your great abilities be able to guard herself against the jests of boys?
And behind his resentful anger, the unspoken wish that she'd leave the college, as if her departure could make all things as they had once been. So she approached the stair that led down into the darkness of the novices-row with caution, half expecting further mischief.
Between walls of stucco and dressed stone at the bottom of the stair, darkness clotted thick, like blindness cut into slabs. Shaldis's ability to see in darkness was new, it had opened like a flower only a few years ago, almost unremarked in the greater birth of her other powers. After a day in the open ring that crowned the Citadel, pouring her concentration and her power into the Summoning of the vital rains, Shaldis wasn't surprised that her eyes couldn't pierce those shadows.
Still she slowed her steps, braced herself, listened into that silent blackness for the sound of breathing. Moonlight flooded the indigo infinities of sky. From the stony heights to the east and south of the high Citadel bluff, the endless wasteland to the north, the wind carried only the scents of sand and dust. After seven days of Summoning the sky was still clear, but Shaldis understood that the rains took time. They would come. How can they not? she thought, reliving in her flesh the music of the Summoning Song. Magic is here. Magic is alive.
How can people say it is gone?
She smelled her attacker the moment before he struck. As she came down the dark unrailed stair from the terrace into the black seam between the northern wall and the novices, quarters, she felt, she didn't know why as if someone called to her in a language she didn't understand. Then, in the second before hands grabbed her out of the dark, she thought, The boys are here after all....
Her stomach curdled with dread.
But it was no boy who seized her. Hands crushed her arm, twisted the lacquered knot of her hair. Only the merciless hazing she'd endured for a year and a half had her curling her back, tucking her chin, so that she took the impact with the wall on her shoulders and not her skull. In that same instant spells of defeat and confusion smashed at her mind like a blow. Magic that took her breath away: malice, poison, sick despair.
She called a thunderclap of fire in the air between them and of course none came. Tried to remember how to make white light explode to blind this man and couldn't. Her only awareness was breathless terror: She lashed with her feet, ripped with her nails, kicked into swirling masses of heavy wool and screamed.
Will anyone come?
Or are they all in on it?
She got a foot behind her and thrust off the wall, drove her head hard into her attacker's middle. When an iron grip tried to haul her back, she skinned out of her over-robe, plunged up the stairs again in the pitchy dark. Magic reached after her, smoke in her eyes, panic that screamed at her to circle back into that waiting dark. Its strength was terrifying-Not a novice. She stumbled, scraped her palms, rose and fled.
And whoever it was, she knew instinctively she must not let herself be caught.
It wasn't late-a few hours before midnight-and freezing cold. Adepts and masters, numb with exhaustion after the Summoning's daylong fast, had all fallen into their beds; she alone out of all who'd sung today had had enough energy to sneak out to the pantry in quest of honey and bread. Now she fled across the terrace, not daring to look back. Praying someone, anyone, would be abroad, would save her ...
Who, in this place, would care if they heard her scream?
Three years ago, when at fourteen she was too old to be sneaking out to the marketplace in her brother's clothes but was still doing so anyway, she'd been recognized as a girl by a bunch of half-drunk camel drivers. They'd chased her through the tangled alleyways around the Grand Bazaar, herding her with the brutal efficiency of wolves. The terror she'd felt then was as nothing to what she felt now, for even then, she suspected, she'd felt the first stir of power in her, and had known she could get away....
This man was a mage. And he was stronger than she.
She fled up the stairs beyond the terrace. Night cold gashed through the pale wool of her robe. Her pursuer's steps weren't the thudding tread of the camel drivers but the light windtouch of one trained to cross sand without leaving a track. Shadow wouldn't hide her. Magic wouldn't hide her. The Summoning had drained her, taken everything she had. She couldn't make a cloak spell work. The air like broken glass in her lungs, she threw herself up the narrow stairway to the rock tip of the Citadel, the summit, the Ring, her mind reaching to the magic that still clung around the place.
Break his vision, even for an instant, she thought, dodging behind the waist-high wall that set it off from the drop on all sides. Mage-born eyes could see right through the cloaks-the spells of unseeing-and her panic-sickened thoughts couldn't summon the words. She wadded her long legs and skinny body into a ball in the few hand spans of rock between the wall and space: a drop of sixty feet to the pavement of the library court. She hid her face, the lingering magics left from five hundred Spring Summonings flowing away like water from her groping mind. Only the old nonsense spells remained, words she'd made up for herself when she'd hide from her brothers in the kitchen yard of her grandfather's house.
But that childish spell-if it really was a spell-had sent the camel drivers roaring and cursing down another alley and had convinced her-almost convinced her-that the powers she'd begun to dream about might actually be real.
A child's chant, silly and simple: Zin, zin, I am the wind. Zin, zin, blow. Ping, ping, I am the starlight. Ping, ping, shine. Words to focus her mind, to make her body melt into the icy drift of the desert wind that sidewindered across the Ring's bare flagstones. Different words every time. Words to make her shadow melt into the blue moon shadows without appearing to do so. To dislimn her form into the black lines between the blocks of the wall. Whiss, whiss, I am the dust. Whiss, whiss, sneeze.
Don't let him see me, she prayed desperately to Rohar, the braided-haired god of women. Please don't let him see me....
The drop, an inch beyond her feet, turned her sick. The Citadel clung like a succession of swallows, nests to the golden sandstone of the bluff. Below it the Yellow City spread. An intricate jumble of walls and domes, roof tiles and vines, pigeon coops and cisterns and marketplaces no bigger than the Citadel's dining hall, baths and Blossom Houses and dyers, yards and stables. Like a moth pressed to the wall, Raeshaldis saw the topaz speckle of the few lamps still burning far below, the knot of torchlight that would be the Circus district against the flank of the bluffs and the hot clump of jewels that marked the Night Market. Plowed fields lapped the city like dark velvet, north and south along the lake's still darker shores. The lake itself-the Lake of the Sun-burned with the fierce platinum moonlight, stretching out of sight into the west.
I'm going to die.
And yet the lake and the city and the sky are so beautiful....
She smelled, and felt, her pursuer. The smoke in his robes, the revolting halitus of decayed blood filled her nostrils, and beneath those stinks the tingly whiff of ozone. She dared not look up, dared not even think, lest he hear her thought. Then like a shadow the smell winked away, and she found herself thinking, Silly me, I slipped and fell and thought it was someone attacking me. I'd better go back to my room....
Her belly went soft with dread. Not even an adept could call spells of concealment like that. A master wizard.
He hears me, she thought. Hears me breathe. No matter how still I sit, I can't stop breathing.
Zin, zin, I am the wind ...
Please go away. Go away and let me alone.
The other novices were boys. Angry like boys, but like boys, even cruel boys, limited in what they could and would do. That one of the masters who should know better should have this much anger terrified her.
Zin, zin, blow.
She pressed her hands over her mouth and waited. She didn't even dare to reach out with a counterspell to put aside the illusions of safety that came like vagrant wind into her mind.
Shadow gathered at the head of the stair to her left. She tucked her face into her arms so as not to catch the moonlight. Her long brown hair, torn free from its pins, trailed out over the abyss. She felt him seek her, a thin alien jangling in the air, as if her flesh were scourged with a thousand icy chains. Utterly different from the magic of the Summoning, different from any magic she had felt before. She felt him scan the moon-frosted flagstones of the Ring, from which even the tiniest particles of the gypsum, iron dust, and ocher that had made the great power curves of the Song had been meticulously cleaned away. The core of his anger was a column of freezing shadow, the heart of an unimaginable storm.
She felt him cross the Ring, listen for her breath, for the beating of her heart. He stopped near where the Archmage had stood all day in his ceremonial robes of blue silk and gold. His listening touched her, like cold fingers groping. Then he moved on. Soundless as darkness down the marble stair to the outer courts of the college. Shadow passing over the painted dining hall, the tiled scrying chamber, the library where the wisdom of a thousand years dreamed in its cases of pickled oak. The reek of his rage settled like filthy smoke into the dust.
They heard me scream. Trembling so badly she feared she would lose her balance, pitch over the edge, Raeshaldis crept along the wall to the stair that would lead back down to the terrace, then to the walkway to her room. When he seized me, every boy in the novices, three dormitories heard me scream.
And none came.
She had to support herself on the balustrade. Eastward, level with the Ring and the Citadel's uppermost roofs, desert stretched back from the flat-topped bluffs that bounded the Realm of the Seven Lakes. Below her, around her, the rangeland that lay beyond the tilled arable of the lakeshore showed dark patches, herds of cattle and sheep. Their thirsty lowing carried up to her through the stillness. Rangeland thinned to scrub-bounded by the cliffs or merging gradually up the slope between them, range gave way to desert. Stringers of rock marked the low hills surrounding the valley north of the cliffs, where jackals cried among the tombs.
At the bottom of the steps she found her over-robe, novice white and thick against the freezing desert nights. Though the blindness that had covered her eyes had vanished and she could again see clearly in the darkness, she almost feared to stoop and pick it up, expecting someone to jump out of one of the deep-set doorways along the seam between wall and wall.
Secure in the knowledge that she wasn't going to tell.
You could run crying to the masters only so many times: The boys hit me. The boys aren't being nice.
Shouldn't a student of your great abilities....
Fingers fumbling, she touched the secret spots on the door of her own tiny cell. It had once housed the prefect of this corridor, and sometimes she could detect, deep in the wood, the spells some long-ago adept had put on it to warn him if the boys under his charge had broken in. Her own spells to ward away intruders were usually stronger, but on this occasion they hadn't worked. They often didn't. She didn't know why, and the masters weren't able to tell her.
It didn't require a spell to tell her the room had been entered when she'd sneaked out to slake her craving for sweets. The stink that hit her as she opened the door informed her of that. Tears collected in her eyes as she pulled the blankets from the bed, dumped a dead pigeon to the floor and carried it by one wing to the window. Maggots crept confusedly around in the sheets and pillows. Shaldis stripped the bed and found another blanket in the cupboard. It wasn't thick enough to stave off the spring night's bitter cold, but she didn't care.
She bolted the door and the window shutters, laid every spell of ward she could think of on them, rolled up in the blanket on the bare cotton tick and cried herself to sleep.
Corn-Tassel Woman had long ago become adept at gauging the depth of her husband's slumber by his snores. Even before she'd felt the first strange stirrings of power in herself-those terrifying awarenesses that she was unlike any of her friends, unlike any woman she'd ever heard of-she'd taught herself to listen, to walk through her father-in-law's house with mind and ears, identifying the breath of each servant girl in the harem, each child in the nursery, each teyn in the sheds-latterly each mouse in the loft. The house was silent.
Corn-Tassel Woman slipped from the quilts, wrapped her thickest shawl around herself. It had taken her a long time to realize she could see in the dark, for she knew every inch of the house so well she could walk it end to end blindfolded. The night outside was rich with moonlight, but her husband Enak was a deep sleeper. When she cracked the modest bedroom's outside door she didn't even need that little mental hush-abye that she'd learned recently was enough to deepen his dreams. The air was piercing as she descended the pine-pole ladder to the kitchen below. It would have been warmer to go downstairs through the house, but she thought Number Four Flower-the youngest maid in the harem-carried tales to her father-in-law. Her life was difficult enough without that.
Excerpted from Sisters of the Raven by Barbara Hambly Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Hambly. Excerpted by permission.
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