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"... AND THE EVIL DAYS CAME that Queen Eliana had foreseen," Ailia recited, spreading her arms in a wide sweeping gesture. "Modrian, still prisoned in the Pit, commanded his servants to assail the world on his behalf. The evil spirit Azarah obeyed, snatching stars from out of their places in the heavens, and casting them down upon the Earth below. Some lands were burned, and others drowned in the sea, and the moon's face was marred and darkness fell over all the world. Even the blessed isle of Trynisia did not escape the day of destruction. Then those Elei who still lived fled the ruin of their realm: some went to dwell in Eldimia, the land of the goddess of the Morning Star, that lies beyond the world's end; and others went to live in the mortal lands, where in time their race dwindled and died. And so the Elei have all vanished from the world. But their sorceress-queen promised them long ago that the triumph of their enemy would not last forever. The Fairfolk who fled to Eldimia shall return again, and their ancient Commonwealth be restored, when the Tryna Lia comes to rule the Earth."
She and the village children were-or rather, should have been-gathering kindling in the thin belt of woodland that Ailia had named the Enchanted Forest. Most of Great Island's timber had been felled in bygone ages for firewood and lumber, leaving behind only forlorn and isolated copses like this one. Its wind-worn trees bowed inland, and huddled together as if for shelter. Yet as Ailia told the story, the little wood was altered in the eyes of her listeners: its stunted trees seemed to grow taller, the green shade beneath them deeper. And Ailia too was transformed as she spoke, becoming in turn each character she described. Standing straight and regal before them, she seemed, in the dim otherworldly light that was half of her making, to become the Faerie Queen Eliana; and when she spoke of Modrian the Fiend her voice became a hissing whisper, and her audience grew pale and still.
It had been Ailia's intention to ease the tedium of their task by telling stories. But as soon as she began the tale both she and the children completely forgot the kindling. They saw only the Fairfolk and their sacred gem, and the holy city on its mountaintop, and the fiery rain of falling stars. When at last she finished they all sat in silence for a while. The spell was lifted, and the children saw before them only a girl who looked slightly younger than her seventeen years, slender and of medium height. Her clothing was as plain as theirs, a white linen blouse under a tight-laced brown bodice and skirt, with a frayed old apron tied at her waist. Yet still there was something different about Ailia, something that was not quite like other people. Perhaps it was her eyes: they were so very large, with irises that in the shade seemed dark gray but in the sunlight showed a purplish cast, the color of the small pieces of amethyst the children sometimes found lying among the rocks. The hair that fell loose about her back and shoulders was oddly changeful too. Under the trees it was fawn-colored, and seemed dark in contrast with the pallor of her face; but when she stepped out of the shadows, the sun, streaming through the nebulous outer layer of flyaway hairs, made it look almost like spun gold.
The youngest child in the group was the first to find her voice again. "Tell us another story, Ailia! Tell us about the time the Stone was stolen," she begged, fastening doe-brown eyes on the storyteller.
Ailia raised her left arm and pointed to the southeast, where the slate-blue sea showed in narrow panels between the tree trunks. "Once upon a time, in the days when Trynisia still prospered, there was a king in far-off Zimboura whose name was Gurusha, and it was said that his father was an evil demon in mortal guise. He commanded the Zimbouran people to worship a god called Valdur, who demanded terrible sacrifices, and all the while he plotted the end of the Commonwealth. Every new-knighted Paladin in Maurainia had to make a sea voyage to Trynisia, to pray in the Temple of Heaven before the Star Stone; and so Gurusha dispatched a group of warriors to steal the holy gem away. They entered the temple by stealth, disguised as pilgrims, and seized the Stone and slew the knights who guarded it. Fleeing back to Zimboura, they presented the Star Stone to King Gurusha, who placed it on the forehead of the idol of Valdur."
The children had heard this tale many times before. They knew of the holy war waged by the old Commonwealth against Zimboura, with its terrible battles fought far away beyond the sea. They knew the combined forces of Maurainia and Trynisia had won the final victory. Yet still they hung on Ailia's every word.
"King Brannar Andarion of Maurainia went himself to the palace of Gurusha, and called the Demon King forth to do battle. And Gurusha answered his challenge. He was dreadful to look upon, and his immortal sire's dark power was in him. But Andarion too was no common man, for his own father was of the faeries. The two kings met in single combat, and Gurusha mocked Andarion as they fought. Then the Maurainian king waxed wroth-"
"He waxed what?" interjected one of the older girls.
"He got very angry," explained Ailia, "and pierced Gurusha to the heart with his sword." She snatched up a stick from the ground and made a thrust with it. "Then the minions of Valdur were filled with dismay-"
"What's a minion?" the girl asked again.
"Elen Seaman, would you please stop interrupting! It makes me lose my place in the story."
The other children glared, and Elen subsided. "They laid down their arms," Ailia went on, "and sued for peace. The Paladins went to the chief temple of Valdur, and destroyed it; and King Andarion declared that the god of the Zimbourans was in truth an evil fiend, none other than Modrian himself in another guise, and his worship was banned." Ailia let fall her stick-sword. "And so the war was ended, and the Stone returned to its rightful place in Trynisia."
"What a tale!" breathed Lynna, the youngest girl. "It makes you wonder, doesn't it-where the Fairfolk came from, and whether there really was a Star Stone."
"I'll wager there wasn't," Elen Seaman scoffed. "Papa says"-her face took on a lofty and learned expression-"Papa says the Elei just made up those stories to impress our ancestors."
"Where was Trynisia supposed to be?" asked Kevan, the carpenter's son.
"It lay far away, to the north," answered Ailia. As she spoke those words, she felt a little thrill and her heart yearned northward, for a far-off land of jeweled palaces and bright cities surrounded by ice and snow. "Far, far away," she repeated. "No one is sure how far. And Eldimia, the land of the Morning Star, was farther still-beyond the world's end."
"The world hasn't got an end," Elen interrupted again. "It's round like a ball, my papa says. There's no edge you can go beyond, or fall off of. And my papa is a sailor, and he's sailed all around the world, so he should know! And all that rot about gods and goddesses, when you know there's really only one God, and One Faith. None of this is true."
Ailia sighed. "It's only a story, Elen." She would never have confessed it to these children, but deep within she longed to believe in it all: not just the Elei and their ancient wars but the magic, and the flying dragons, and the precious Stone that fell out of Heaven.
"I wish there were knights nowadays," remarked Kevan. "They'd stop King Khalazar and his armies! Ailia, are the Zimbourans going to go to war with us again? Some of the foreigners down by the harbor say so."
Ailia looked again to the far-off horizon behind which Zimboura lay, unseen yet threatening, like the approach of night. She shivered: and for an instant the old stories no longer seemed so remote. "Of course not," she said with an effort. "There hasn't been a war in hundreds of years. Now, you had better get your kindling, you lot, and so had I."
She went back to picking up fallen branches. What, she wondered, would she do without these children to tell stories to? Beyond the little copse the landscape was bleak: fields that grew nothing but hip-high grasses, great whalebacks of granite that thrust up through the thin soil. The little houses of Bayport village clustered together at the sea's edge: with so little arable land available, most of the Islanders had to support themselves by fishing.
This is a terrible place, she thought with a shudder. Why have I never noticed it before now? But in her childhood everything had been different. In those days Great Island was not Great Island at all, but the magic isle of Trynisia, or the faerie-land of Eldimia, or Maurainia in the golden age of Brannar Andarion's reign: whatever she had imagined it to be. And Ailia, together with her cousins Jemma and Jaimon and the other barefoot village children, had lived a long idyll of make-believe: had been kings and queens, knights and wizards, had fought dragons and won wars. There were no myths or legends on the Island. The hardened and bitter exiles who first arrived on these windswept shores were preoccupied with survival, and in its sparse and stony soil romance never took root. At least, it did not until that day when, inspired by a collection of wonder-tales from the Old Country that she had found on her father's bookshelf, Ailia took it upon herself to address the lack. She made up a local mythology in which every tree, knoll, and boulder had its origin in some fabulous feat of yore, and told the tales to her delighted playmates. The great submerged rock outside the harbor that daily endangered the fishing boats was a petrified sea monster, transformed by a hero with a magic talisman; a gnarled old crabapple tree with pure white blossoms had sprung from a magic apple brought from faerie-land; and so on. In her thoughts many features of the surrounding landscape still went by the names she had invented for them-the Mermaid's Rock, the Ogre's Cave, the Enchanted Forest.
At the memory Ailia both smiled and sighed. Those childhood friends had grown up, grown away from her. Jemma was a wife and mother now, Jaimon a sailor on a merchant ship traveling distant seas. Loneliness overwhelmed her suddenly, and with it a feeling akin to desperation. I almost wish that there could be a war. At least it would be a change-
Kevan Carpenter gave a sudden shout. "Sail-sail! The packet's coming!" He jumped up on a tree stump and pointed.
Ailia swung around, the kindling spilling from her apron. Far away on the western sea a mass of white canvas scudded like a cloud. One of the sailing ships that brought Great Island its mail and goods and news of the world was approaching the bay.
With a little cry she darted forward, outrunning even the fleet-footed children in her haste to reach the wharf. Would there be any mail for her? A letter from Cousin Jaimon perhaps, telling of his voyages on the high seas? Or perhaps even the letter-the one from the Royal Academy in Maurainia, stamped with its official seal? Her heart pounded in time with her footsteps as she swept through the little village and on toward the harbor.
THE CROWD AT THE WHARF was a motley one, and as shrilly excited as the gulls that wheeled above it. With refugees pouring in from the Antipodes to seek haven here, Great Island at times was like the world made small. First had come the westerners, Maurainian and Marakite and Rialainish merchants and missionaries, returning in haste to the Continent. Then as summer ripened, native Antipodeans began to flow out of the southeast to Great Island's shores: Zimbourans with their sallow faces and coal-black hair, robed and turbaned Shurkas, even a few dark-skinned Mohara people out of the desert lands; they had all fled to this, the most far-flung of the Commonwealth's colonies, a stepping-stone to freedom. Many of the refugees could not afford to go on to the Continent, however, and had to stop here. They already filled the only inn to capacity.
To this inn Ailia came whenever she was able. Her parents would never permit her to enter its common-room full of rowdy sailors, but she liked to linger outside it on mild summer evenings. Perching on an empty keg or packing-crate, she listened eagerly to scraps of conversation that wafted out of the windows along with the reek of tobacco and the sour yeasty smell of stale beer. There were songs and tales of the sea and alien lands: stories of whales and pirate ships; of the strange pale lights-said to be ghosts of drowned men-that glimmered upon the rigging of ships in southern seas; of wrecks and buried treasure. With the arrival of the refugees, the tales had become more dramatic than ever before. There were harrowing accounts of the civil war in Zimboura, of the legions of the God-king storming cities and of the blasts of cannon fire that sent people screaming and running like panicked beasts. There were tales of perilous flights across the ocean in cramped and wallowing vessels, of tragic partings and families divided. She felt a pang of sympathy for these unlucky people, driven so far from their homes; but she could not help feeling a certain fascination too. What must it be like to live through such times? And the fugitives brought with them an aura of foreignness: tantalizing hints of their exotic homelands were revealed in their faces, their clothing, their accented speech.
Ailia ran up to join the crowd on the wharf, squeezing between the tightly packed bodies as she gazed with hungry eyes at the packet. The ship was a fine new one, square-rigged, with a sea-green hull. The figurehead was a mermaid, wide-tailed and golden-haired, and the ship's name was proudly proclaimed in gilt letters at the bows: Sea Maid. Ailia gave a long sigh of blended envy and rapture. To think that this very vessel had sailed distant reaches of the ocean, visited far-off ports of call! How glorious to be a sailor and roam the world!
And then the sight of a sandy-haired young man striding along the ship's deck made her spring forward with a cry of incredulous delight.
The young sailor turned at her call and waved to her. "Hello there, coz!"
She struggled past the people in front of her and bounded up the gangplank. "Jaim! We've not had a letter from you for so long! When did you sign on with this ship? Are you on shore leave now? Did you get to Maurainia, and the Academy? They hadn't any message for me there, had they?"
"One question at a time." He smiled, swinging his haversack onto his shoulder.
So that was that; had there been any news he would have given it to her right away. Swallowing her disappointment, Ailia continued with her interrogation. "But the books, Jaim? Did you bring me some books? You promised, in your last letter-"
Jaimon grinned. "And here I thought it was myself you were so happy to see." He lowered the sack again and rummaged in it. "Here you are-I couldn't find the complete works of the Bard of Blyssion, but here are his ballads anyway-and the Annals of the Kings-"
With a little squeal Ailia seized the two shabby old volumes, hugging them to her chest. "Oh, thank you, Jaim! You don't know what this means to me. I'd give anything to be a scholar. I'd hoped to hear from the Academy by now, whether I was to be accepted or not."
Jaimon looked troubled at that, and did not meet her eager eyes. "Well, Ailia-you know it's hard to get accepted there, even for men," he said. "And it's fashionable right now among wealthy folk to have an educated daughter. Only the ones with money get in, as a rule."
"But I applied for a scholarship," Ailia replied. "Though lots of people apply for those too, I suppose. It isn't fair, Jaim. I want so much to know all about history, and the poets, and philosophy. I've read all of Papa's books ten times over, and no one else here has any that are worth reading. And reading is as close as I can come to seeing the world." She was silent for a moment, feeling the ship's deck rolling and swaying beneath her feet, moving with the sea's own rhythm. "If only I were a boy, I'd stow away on the Sea Maid, and sail off with you." She spoke in a light tone, but at her own words a fierce longing filled her.
"You wouldn't want to be a boy," said Jaimon, tweaking one of her straggling locks. "There'd be no hair-ribands for you then, no sighing over romantic ballads-"
Excerpted from The Stone of the Stars by Alison Baird Copyright © 2004 by Alison Baird. Excerpted by permission.
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.
Posted May 5, 2008
The first pages were taken up with explaining the fantasy land, etc. Although I suppose that's necessary in a single volume, a trilogy has some leaway and the history can be spread around a bit. It is a really fast read and I found myself leaping over historical information etc to get to the meat of the story which could really have been put in a book half the size.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 14, 2004
I loved this book. The plot was great. The details were so good you can get a very good idea what it looks like. I had all of my friends read it and they loved it, too.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 19, 2010
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Posted October 28, 2010
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