Serroi is unique in her world, and was nearly put to death in infancy as a result. A green-skinned “misborn,” small in stature with an unnatural connection to the natural world, she was nonetheless chosen and exceptionally trained as a meie warrior. As such, she fears nothing, except the cold and inscrutable Nor and their dark magic.
Something in Serroi’s childhood awakened her to a shocking and terrible truth about these malevolent wizards, one of whom both saved and cursed her in her earliest years. It is her deep-seated terror that causes her to betray and abandon her shieldmate, Tayyan, during a rooftop battle with a magic-wielder, a craven act that threatens to haunt Serroi to the end of her days.
However, it is not cowardice that makes her run, but rather her knowledge of a great evil in the offing. In that instant before flight, Serroi recognizes the coming of something monstrous, though she cannot yet put a name to it. Now it is up to the young warrior to somehow prevent the unthinkable: She must alter a grim destiny that is set to occur on the fateful and fearful night known as Moongather, when demons will be free to enter the world.
Richly imaginative and stylistically inventive—told from the alternate viewpoints of the child Serroi just coming of age and of Serroi as a grown woman—author Jo Clayton’s epic fantasy is a magnificent reading experience, evoking wonder and terror in equal measure. Moongather details a complex world of magic and dark political intrigue where divine forces do secret battle, and where the foundations of a matriarchal society and of native life itself are threatened by the twisted desires of a jealous queen and a powerful wizard. Creator of the much loved Diadem Saga and Skeen Trilogy, Clayton’s engrossing, endlessly exciting Duel of Sorcery Trilogy firmly places her among the ranks of revered fantasists Jane Yolen, Mercedes Lackey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
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By Jo Clayton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Jo Clayton
All rights reserved.
AT THE CUSP THEY MEET
Raiki janja looked up from the cards she was shuffling, laying out on the leather in front of her knees, gathering in and reshuffling. In the cruel light of the early morning sun thousands of small wrinkles webbed her face, deeper wrinkles rayed out from eyes made larger and darker by the uneven lines of black painted around them. She sighed and her double dozen gold chains with their pendant coins lifted with the sigh, clanking fitfully. She sat on a huge hide nearly as ancient as she, her small feet tucked neatly under her heavy thighs, her robes billowing about her bulky body. She looked what she was, a minor tribal sorceress — except for her eyes. They were a shadowy, shifting, brownish green like water in a shady tarn, calm and wise and eternal, the only external sign of that which dwelt within her. "No," she said. "Not bored, just greedy."
Haloed by the rising sun, Ser Noris stood on the edge of a cliff, his hands clasped behind him, white hieroglyphs against the stiff black of his robe. He turned and walked toward her, his booted feet soundless on the gritty stone. A ruby like a teardrop with a fine gold ring through the tail hung from his left nostril — a relic from a youth so distant he couldn't remember when he first eased the gold ring through his flesh. He wore it still, since the weight of it against his lip was part of him now, though the blood-red gleam of it ill suited the cool austerity of his face. When he smiled at her, the ruby lifted and rolled, glowing at the touch of the rising sun. "No, janja, I need a challenge. I'm ossifying." He stamped a boot heel against the stone. "Much longer and I'm as responsive as this rock."
Raiki shuffled the cards, squared the pack. "The penalty of your success, Ser Noris."
"A very small success, janja."
"You want too much." Holding the cards low in her lap, she gazed past him at the valley glowing green and beautiful beyond the edge of the cliff. "That's not for you."
"Because I'm of the Nearga Nor? I won't be bound by them, janja. I hold the Norim here." He closed one shapely hand into a fist. "None of them can touch me, singly or in concert. I wield more power than most men dream of, but ..." He waved his hand at the valley. "When I stand here, knowing what lies behind that, I know how small a triumph I can boast. I need more room, janja." He wheeled, bent with liquid ease and took the top card from the deck she held, straightened and stood tapping the card's frayed edge against his thumbnail. "Match me, janja."
Raiki frowned. "A game? Absurd."
"Play the game, janja," He smiled once more, a wide charming smile that warmed his cold face. "Why not?"
She slipped the next card from the deck, held it a moment face down. "I shouldn't warn you, my beautiful wrong-headed Noris, but I've got fond of you a little. Don't do this. The game will destroy you."
His smile turned wry. "I don't think so. Consider this, janja, even if you're right, what choice have I? I can rot alive or live while I live, however short that be. If you were I, what would you choose?"
"So be it. Play your card, Ser Death."
"Order, janja. Control, not death." He placed the card on the hide in front of her knees.
IMAGE: head and torso of a girl child, green blotches spattered across her fair rosy face. A darker green oval in the center of her forehead just above her nose was half concealed by tumbling red-brown curls. The four-year-old gazed from the card with desperate defiance, her orange-amber eyes opened wide.
Raiki smiled down at the image, affection and sorrow mixed on her face. "A misborn of the windrunners." She looked up. "Poor child. Must you?"
Ser Noris waited without speaking, his dark eyes fixed on the card in her hand.
"If you must." Sighing, Raiki laid her card beside his.
IMAGE: The misborn grown older. The green blotches had spread and joined until her skin was a light olive green. The darker blotch on her forehead was more cleanly defined, an oval eye-shape between her brows. Her hair was shorter, a cap of soft russet curls. She wore a time-rubbed leather tunic that hugged the meager curves of her slim torso like a second skin. The tip of a bow rose over one shoulder.
"Think that's clever, Raiki janja?" Ser Noris touched the card with the toe of his boot. "I'll teach the child. After that, try taking the woman."
Raiki gazed at him sadly. "You don't understand. By your nature, you can't understand. Take your next card."
IMAGE: a man in a loose black robe, a silver flame embroidered on the breast. His arms were held out from his sides, elbows bent, palms turned up. A fire burned on the right hand, a scourge was draped over the left.
Raiki shook her head. "Ah my friend, that's bad. The Sons of the Flame. Tschah! you're calling on the worst in man. I'm afraid I've got no place in that world you're shaping. My stomach couldn't take it. I'd be angry all the time and turn sour as an unripe quince." She laid her second card down.
IMAGE: a short pudgy man, surplus flesh veiling the strong, elegant bone structure of his face and body. He looked lazy, sensual, intelligent and arrogant, a man who had everything he wanted without having to ask for it, who was saved from decay by an exuberant enjoyment of life, who yet was so indolent he didn't bother to probe deeply into the things that excited his wonder or prodded his curiosity. A man with much promise, little of it realized.
"Hern of Oras. A flawed weapon, janja."
"Perhaps." She gathered in the cards. "Flaws can be useful." Struggling to her feet, she moved past him to the cliff's edge where she stood gazing down into the Biserica valley. "Ser Noris, my Noris, too many people are going to die from this game of yours."
He crossed to stand behind her. "They die every day in that chaos you call life, janja. What's the difference?" He squeezed her shoulder lightly, an affectionate gesture odd for one of his training — a training which should have killed the capacity for affection in him. That it had not, that he had contrived to ignore the more restricting requirements of the Neärgate and flourish in spite of this, was some slight measure of how far behind he had left his colleagues and how high his ambition could leap.
Raiki patted his hand. "Take care, my Noris. If you discover the answer to that question, I'll have won the game."
THE WOMAN: I
Lightning whited out the street. Slowing her stumbling run, Serroi clapped small square hands over her eyes. That was close. The eye-spot on her brow throbbed danger, danger, danger, giving her a headache, telling her what she didn't need to know. Behind her the shouts of the guards were growing louder; over the scraping of her own boots she could hear the thuds of their feet. She bumped against a wall, pulled her hands down the corners of her wide mouth twitching into a momentary smile at the absurdity of trying to run self-blinded. As she rounded a bend in the twisting street, the lightning flashed again, showing her Tayyan stumbling heavily over the body of a drunk stretched limp against the wall.
The lanky meie got to her feet, wincing as she tried putting her foot down. Serroi stopped beside her. With a last worried glance behind her, she knelt beside the injured leg. "Bad?"
Tayyan shook her head, her short blonde hair shifting about her long face. "Don't think so." She brushed the pale shag out of her eyes. "How close do you think?"
"Couple turns behind us, but closing." Serroi felt the injured ankle, ignoring Tayyan's gasp of pain. "I don't think anything's broken. Can you walk?"
Tayyan lifted her head, squinted as lightning cracked the darkness again, grimaced as a hoarse yell sounded to be swallowed almost immediately by a thunder crash. "I'd better, hadn't I." Her short laugh was harsh, strained. She pushed away from the wall and limped a few steps, sweat beading her forehead, teeth clamped on her lower lip.
"Lean on me." Serroi slid her arm around her shieldmate's waist. "All right?"
Tayyan chuckled, an easier, more natural sound this time. "Fine, little one." She ruffled Serroi's tangled curls, then pressed her hand down on her shoulder, resting enough of her weight on the small woman to enable her to swing along at a fast walk.
Every glare that shattered the stifling blackness of the stormy night showed storehouses sharing sidewalls on each side of the winding street, blank stone faces two stories high locking them into the way that was looking more and more like a trap. A vinat run to the slaughter, Serroi thought. Maiden grant we find a sideway soon. Or we have to fight.
The street twisted again, an abrupt, almost right-angled bend. The two women staggered around the bend and stopped, dismayed, as the lightning showed them a solid stone wall blocking the passage — a warehouse, its massive iron-bound doors the only break into two stories of rough-cut stone. Serroi looked up at Tayyan, touched the coil of rope on her weaponbelt. "You're the climber. What's the best way?"
Tayyan urged her forward, hobbling with her halfway to the end. Then she halted, gave Serroi's shoulder a little push. "The warehouse. You climb, I'll keep them off your neck." She limped to one side of the street, her eyes fixed on the corner they'd just turned.
"But ... Tayyan!"
The taller woman glanced back, grimaced. "Get a move on, will you? You're going to have to haul me up as it is."
Serroi stared down at shaking hands until they steadied, then she ran over the cobbles until she stood before the double doors. She unclipped the line from her weaponbelt, snapped on the small folding grapnel, began swinging the weighted rope in widening circles. She let it go. The rope went streaming upward, butted playfully at an overhanging beam, then fell back to clatter on the cobbles. Serroi's breath whined in her throat as she pulled in the grapnel and swung it again, around and around until it hissed through the heavy air. When she let it go this time, she heard the grapnel clunk solidly home and saw the rope jerking like a thing alive in front of her. She drew her hand across her sweaty forehead, straightened her shoulders and turned.
Tayyan was standing in the middle of the street now, her hand on the hilt of her sword, her body balanced and alert in spite of her injured leg. Serroi breathed a prayer of thanks, then shouted, "Tayyan! Get your skinny self up this rope." She reached for the bow clipped to the wide leather strap that passed diagonally across her back. "I can hold them off better with this."
Tayyan snorted as she limped a few steps closer. "You first, love; you'll have a better angle of fire from the roof."
"Don't you argue or I'll spank you black and blue when we get home, little windrunner." She grinned. "Get!"
"Scrap." Still chuckling, Tayyan turned to face the corner again. Lightning burned the images of four men out of the darkness. Her voice cutting through their shouts of triumph, she cried, "Go!"
Serroi ran at the rope and began hitching her way up it. A quarrel from a guard's crossbow thudded against the stone and skittered off. Curses and the clank of sword on sword sounding behind her drove her faster and faster up the rope, her arms burning with the intensity of her effort. Finally she swung herself over the parapet and collapsed onto the flat roof. A quarrel hummed past. She shifted position hastily and risked a glance over the edge.
Tayyan was down, a quarrel through the thigh of her injured leg. As Serroi watched, she struggled onto her knees, then onto her feet, using her sword as a brace until she was up. She lifted the sword and waited for the guards to attack.
They advanced cautiously; a Biserica trained meie, even one handicapped by a wound in the leg, was to be respected. Her back against the wall of the storehouse, she waited for them, calm, resolute and deadly.
Serroi unsnapped her bow and strung it. The man with the crossbow slapped a quarrel in place and clawed back the bowstring. She nocked an arrow and let it fly, taking him in the throat. Then she methodically dropped the other three as they scrambled for the bend in the street. Bow in hand she leaned over the parapet to call to Tayyan.
Tayyan took one step, slipped in her own blood and crashed onto the cobbles. The quarrel in her leg must have nicked an artery for the blood was pumping out of her, gushing whenever she tried to move. She managed to drag herself a few feet. Her hands slipped and she went down; she raised her head, called hoarsely, "Serroi, help me."
Serroi dropped her bow and started to swing back over the parapet. Three more guards plunged around the corner. She leaped back to the bow, pulled and loosed with the calm sureness trained into her by her years at the Biserica. As the last man toppled, the Norid stepped around the bend. His hands were raised. There was a sharp agony of light flashing between them, a small fireball. Serroi froze. He threw the fireball. It came at her, growing, growing.
Bow clutched forgotten in one hand, whimpering in terror, forgetting everything but her need to get away, Serroi fled over the roofs, sliding, leaping, blind and deaf. Lightning and thunder cracked around her. The wind rose, battered at her. Great drops of rain spatted down. She fled over the rooftops, eyes blind, mind numb, body only animal competent, leaving her shieldmate lying in her own blood, forgetting the oath she swore on sword and bow, caught in an agony of terror touched off by the dark figure of the sorcerer.
She fled until the roofs ended at the city wall, scrambled desperately onto the broad walkway and into an arrow slit then threw herself toward the uneasy water far below, not caring whether she lived or died.
She hit the water feet down, body vertical, slicing into it, going deep then fighting up, mind blank, body struggling to live. With the storm breaking over her, lightning almost continuous, the wind snatching at the water, turning the harbor into treacherous cross-chop, she swam blindly until she slammed into the side of a moored boat. Without hesitation she swung herself over the rail and lay gasping on the deck. As soon as she'd caught her breath, she fought the sail free of its cover and got it raised, slashed the mooring lines, and sent the boat into the heart of the storm, her tears mixing with the sea spray and the rain.
The wind drove the boat far out to sea before the storm dissipated and left her bobbing like a cork between great swells of water with no land in sight and little idea of what direction she was moving in. She unclamped cramped fingers from the tiller, uncleated the sheet and let the sail crumple down, then dropped her head on her knees, trying to summon the remnants of her strength. After a time she sat up, touched her forefinger gently to the soft warm green spot that sat like a third eye in the center of her forehead. With the spot quivering under her touch she desired land, then closed her eyes and moved her head in a slow half circle trying to feel the pull that would tell her where she had to go.
Once the tugging had steadied, she raised sail again and sent the boat after the pull.
It was still dark when she neared a line of chalk cliffs. The clouds were breaking up overhead and the Dancers were visible, the last of the eleven moons to join the Gather, three small glows that always moved together, crescent or gibbous or full. They were close to full now and their light was sufficient to show her the brief interruption in the line of surf beating against the base of the cliffs. She sailed into the short tappata, the finger of water, dropped anchor in the middle of the channel — the tides around Moongather were extravagant. When she was as safe as she could make herself, she collapsed onto the wet deck, too tired to worry about soaked clothing and chill air.
And the nightmares came; over and over she replayed her flight. Over and over she saw Tayyan's face, her pleading, accusing eyes. Over and over she heard, "Help me, Serroi, help me." And saw herself running like an animal. And over and over she saw the Norid's smiling face, the solid line of brow running handsomely over dark warm eyes, the triangular white face with its finely drawn lips, its beaked nose, delicate nostrils, pendant ruby — not the Norid in the street, not the worthless brass imitation, but the other one, the first one, Ser Noris, her Noris.
Serroi woke panting, her heart choking her, terror possessing her — until she saw the sail slapping idly against the mast. The boat rocked under her, blown about by the wind, tugged at by the receding tide. She sat up, groaning and sore, still part lost in nightmare.
The early morning sun was a squashed orange, bit off at the bottom by the mountains called the Earth's Teeth. Last night's stormclouds were crowding around it, sucking up red, gold and purple light. The wind brushed at her hair, plucking loose coils from the sorrel mass and tickling her face with them. She touched the green oval, closed her eyes, stretched out the invisible feelers she always felt went out from her in this kind of search and swept as far as she could reach. No thinking being within her range. She stroked the spot delicately, shivering with pleasure, remembering the caress of other fingers. Tayyan....
Help me, Tayyan called. Serroi looked down at her shieldmate sprawled in her own blood, then she looked past her at the Norid, the Black Man, the terror that ran in her blood. And she ran. Scurried like an animal over roof tiles and walls. Ran with Tayyan's accusing eyes always behind her.
Excerpted from Moongather by Jo Clayton. Copyright © 1982 Jo Clayton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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