World Fantasy and Nebula Award finalist Kate Elliott breaks new ground in a brilliantly original new fantasy set in a unique world of fabled cities, mysterious gods, and terrible dangers. From the first page readers will be swept up in the story of Mai and Captain Anji, as they become unwitting players in a conflict that began many years earlier, and which will shake the foundations of their land.
For hundreds of years the Guardians have ruled the world of the Hundred, but these powerful gods no longer exert their will on the world. Only the reeves, who patrol on enormous eagles, still represent the Guardians' power. And the reeves are losing their authority; for there is a dark shadow across the land that not even the reeves can stop.
A group of fanatics has risen to devour villages, towns, and cities in their drive to annihilate all who oppose them. No one knows who leads them; they seem inhumanly cruel and powerful. Mai and Anji, riding with a company of dedicated warriors and a single reeve who may hold a key to stopping the deadly advance of the devouring horde, must try, or the world will be lost to the carnage. But a young woman sworn to the Goddess may prove more important than them all . . . if they are not too late.
A haunting tale of people swept up by the chaos of war, this is superlative fantasy adventure, rich in texture, filled with color and excitement, masterfully crafted by a brilliantly gifted storyteller.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Kate Elliott is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the Novels of the Jaran and the Crown of Stars fantasy series. King's Dragon, the first novel in that series, was a Nebula Award finalist; The Golden Key (with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson) was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Born in Oregon, she lives in Hawaii.
Kate Elliott has been writing science fiction and fantasy for 30 years, after bursting onto the scene with Jaran. She is best known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series and the New York Times bestselling YA fantasy Court of Fives. Elliot's particular focus is immersive world building¢ering women in epic stories of adventure, amidst transformative cultural change. She lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes&spoils her schnauzer.
Read an Excerpt
Book One of Crossroads
By Kate Elliott, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Katrina Elliott
All rights reserved.
ON A HOT summer's day like today Flirt liked to fly straight up along the shoreline of the river, huge wings huffing against the wind. The draft off the running water cooled eagle and reeve, and gave the raptor a chance to get close to any unsuspecting deer come out to drink. This time of day, early afternoon, they didn't see a single creature along the shore except once a man chopping wood who had flung up a hand at the sound, poised, listening. When he saw them he relaxed and went back to his work as Flirt's vast shadow shuddered along the rocks. His brindled hound barked, then hushed, ears flat, cowering, as Flirt answered with a piercing cry of her own. She didn't like challenges.
Marit grinned. The man kept chopping and was soon left behind.
Woodland spread up on both sides of the Liya Pass, hills covered so thickly with beech that Marit couldn't see the ground. Here and there a stand of silver birch glimmered on rockier earth, leaves flashing in the wind. The air was smooth today, a steady wind out of the northeast that blew at crosscurrents to their line of flight, but Marit didn't like the smell. She shifted in the harness and wiped sweat off her brow. There'd been something nasty in the air ever since last winter; she knew it and the other reeves knew it. Anyone knew it, who ever tilted her head back to take a look around; who ever stopped to listen. Probably the woodchopper knew it, which is why he'd been scared for that moment, expecting the worst.
"Lust and greed and fear," old Marshal Alard of Copper Hall had said at winter feast. "Mark my words. Blood has been spilled in the wrong places, but we don't know where, not yet. Keep your eyes open. Don't turn your backs."
Not that reeves ever turned their backs, or kept their eyes closed. The Hundred was a broad land made prosperous by towns and villages and markets, by cultivated fields, wide pasturelands, rich forests, and treasure buried in the earth. Yet there were as many hidey-holes — and forgotten caves and old ruins and secret glades and ravines where dangerous creatures might lurk — as there were laughing children.
Like all reeves, she'd ridden a circuit of the land her first year out of Copper Hall. She knew how wide the land was. She knew how the ocean bounded the Hundred to the north and east and how the Spires and Heaven's Ridge with its Barrens protected the good folk of her land from their enemies to the south and west.
"Our worst enemy has always been the one within, Flirt," she said to her eagle, but the rushing wind against her face caught her words and flung them into nothing. Not that Flirt could understand her words, only shading and emotion. Smart as pigs, the great eagles were, but no smarter than that no matter what the old legends said.
That was the first thing you learned when you were marked out for a reeve: limits. A reeve could do so much and no more, just like her eagle. In the old days, so the story went, the reeves had had more power and been treated with more respect, but not any longer. Shadows had been creeping over the Hundred for a long time but it was only now they seemed to be gathering strength.
She shook away these dusty and useless thoughts. Today had been good so far: Just after dawn in the hamlet of Disa Falls she'd successfully mediated a dispute over the stones marking the boundary between two fields. She'd allowed the local arkhon to offer a haunch of sheep as a snack for Flirt, enough to keep her going until a real hunt. So it went, a typical start to a reeve's day.
Flirt banked and shifted position as the air currents altered because of a notch in the higher hills up to the east. Below, the woodland frayed into the patchwork of saplings and underbrush stretching between broad swaths of mature beech that betrayed human hands at work. Soon enough she saw a pretty green valley nestled between the hills. It was mostly trees and meadows, but there was a village with a small boat dock built out into the river and a few houses on the far bank beside new fields cut into the forest. The summit road dipped down from the east to run by the village, which had probably grown up as a wayfaring stop for travelers and merchants.
As she flew over, surveying the lay of the land, she was surprised to see a man actually in the act of running a red eagle banner up the message pole set in the village square. She circled Flirt around and with a swell of wings and a thump they landed on the stony beach. She hitched her legs out of the harness and leaped down, absorbing the landing by bending her knees. A dozen villagers and more children had gathered at a prudent distance outside the low stockade that kept woodland predators and pesky deer out of their gardens and homes. She slipped her staff out of the harness and sauntered over. The staff in her hand, the short sword rattling along her right thigh, and the quiver slung over her back weren't nearly as daunting as Flirt. The eagle's amber stare, her massive claws, and her sheer, shocking size — bigger than a surly cart horse and twice as mean — were enough to concern anyone. The eagle fluffed up her feathers, whuffed, and settled down to wait.
"How can I help you folks?" Marit asked.
They weren't scared of her at any rate. They stared right at her boldly enough, maybe surprised to see a woman.
"Go get the reeve some ale, and bread and cheese," said the man who still stood with the rope in one hand. The banner snapped halfway up the pole.
In answer, a girl about ten years of age trotted, backward, toward an inn whose low barracks-like building took up one entire side of the village square. The girl just could not rip her gaze away from the eagle. Naturally, after a few steps, she stumbled and fell flat on her rump.
An older girl yelled, "Turn round, you ninny! That beast ain't going nowhere yet."
Others laughed as the girl got up and dusted off her bright red tunic and pantaloons, then bolted through the open door of the inn. The sign creaking over the porch bore fresh paint and the cheerful visages of a quintet of happy, drinking fellows: three men and two women. One of the painted men had an outlander's pale hair caught back in a trident braid, but none of the folk who'd come up to greet her had the look of foreigners. These were good, handsome Hundred folk, dark skin, black hair, brown eyes.
"I'm called Reeve Marit. What's the trouble?" She sorted through the map she carried in her mind. "This is Merrivale."
"Indeed it is, Reeve Marit." The man had a bitter twist to his mouth. Everyone else was looking at him with frowns and whispers. "I'm called Faron. I own the Merrymakers, there." He gestured toward the inn. "It's a lad what works for me has caused the trouble." He coughed. Several folk scuffed their feet on the dirt, looking away. She noted the way their eyes drifted and their fingers twitched. "Stole two bolts of silk I'd had brought in. It come all the way from the Sirniakan Empire."
"Indeed. Bought it for my new bride and the wedding. I'm getting married again — first wife died three year back," he added hastily. "I miss her, but life goes on."
"You mourned her longer than was rightful," said an elderly woman suddenly. She had a wen on her chin and a killing gaze. "That's what caused the trouble."
The innkeeper flushed. He fussed with the white ribbon tying off the end of his long braid. Everyone turned to look at Marit.
"How old is the thief?"
Faron blew air out between set lips as he considered. "Born in the Year of the Wolf, he was. Suspicious and hasty. Very selfish, if you ask me."
"You would say so, given the circumstances," muttered the sarcastic old lady, rolling her eyes in a way most often associated with rash and reckless youth.
"So he's celebrated his fifteenth year. Has he a weapon?"
"Of course not! Nothing but his walking stick and a bundle of bread and cheese out of the larder. That's all else we found missing."
"How long ago?"
"Just this morning. We looked around in his usual haunts —"
"He's vanished before?"
"Just hiding out, mischief, breaking things. Stealing odds and ends. It's only noontide that we found the silk missing. That's serious. That's theft."
"What would he be wanting with bolts of silk?"
"He's been threatening to run away to make his fortune in Toskala."
"Over the pass and through Iliyat and past the Wild?"
"Maybe so," admitted Faron.
The old woman snorted. "More like he's running up to that temple dedicated to the Merciless One, up at summit. He can buy himself more than a few snogs with that fancy silk."
"Vatta!" Faron's cheeks flushed purple as anger flooded his expression.
"My apologies," Vatta muttered, rubbing at her wen, which was dry and crusty. She'd known prosperity in her day, or a generous husband. Her well-worn yellow silk tunic, slit on the sides from knees to hips, and the contrasting twilight blue pantaloons beneath were also of expensive Sirniakan weave. "But he threatened to do that more than once, too. A boy his age thinks of the Devourer day and night."
Marit smiled slightly, but she had as little trust for devotees of the Merciless One, the All-Consuming Devourer, mistress of war, death, and desire, as she had for outlanders, although the Merciless One's followers were her own countryfolk. Although she'd caroused in the Merciless One's grip often enough, and would do so again. Hopefully tonight.
"Anything else I need to know?" she asked instead.
He was hiding something, certainly, but she had a fair idea of just what he wasn't willing to tell her. Shame made some men reticent. "I'll hunt for him, and come back and report come nightfall."
"My thanks." Faron wiped his brow. "Here's ale, if you'll take a drink."
She drank standing and handed the cup back to the waiting girl. No one moved away, although at least they had manners enough not to stare as she ate. The bread was hearty and the cheese nicely ripe with the tang of dill. With such provender to warm her stomach she walked back to Flirt, fastened herself into the harness, and lifted her bone whistle to her lips. A single sharp skree was the command to fly.
The exhilaration never left. Never. Every time was like the first time, when a short, stocky, innocent girl from Farsar sent to hire herself as a laborer in the city — because her family hadn't the wherewithal to marry her or apprentice her out — found herself chosen and set in the harness of the raptor who had done the choosing. Such was the custom out of time immemorial, the way of the reeves. It was not the marshals who picked which of the young hopefuls and guardsmen would be reeves; it was the eagles themselves. In ancient days, the Four Mothers had bound magic into the great eagles, and the Lady of Beasts had harnessed them to their task, and Marit laughed every day, feeling that magic coursing around her, part of her now as she was part of it.
They rose above the tops of the trees. Although Flirt wanted to go back over the river, Marit guided her a short distance east of the river along the lower ridgeline where the road ran, in places carved into the rock itself. The road was older than the Hundred, so it was written in the annals kept by the hierophants who toiled in the service of Sapanasu, the Keeper of Days, the Lantern of the Gods. Who could have built it, back before people came to live here?
So many mysteries. Thank the gods she wasn't the one who had to puzzle them out.
She judged time and speed to a nicety — she'd had ten years of experience, after all — and spotted the youth long before he noticed her coming. He was toiling up the road near the summit along a broad escarpment devoid of trees. Fortune favored her. With him so exposed and no trees to hide behind, the catch would be swift. Flirt's chest muscles rippled as the eagle shifted altitude, narrowing down for the kill. Marit felt the raptor's excitement; it burned in her blood as well.
The two bolts of dazzling green silk were clapped under his right arm as he swung along, left arm pumping with the steady pulse of a highland child accustomed to long hikes up grim inclines. A breath of wind, a whisper from the Lady of Beasts in his ear, good hearing — some hint alerted him. He cast a glance behind, down the road. Flirt huffed and swooped. Too late he looked up. He shrieked and ran, but there was nowhere for him to run because he was stuck out on the road on the rocky flanks of the hills. Flirt loved this; so did Marit. The plunge with the wind rushing, the brief breathless throat-catching sense of abandon as they plummeted.
Flirt caught him in her talons and with her incredible strength cut upward just before they slammed into the dirt. He screamed in terror and piss flooded his legs; Marit smelled it.
"Drop that silk and I'll drop you!" she shouted, laughing.
Flirt yelped her shrill call in answer: Triumphant!
It was harder to turn with the added weight of the boy, who looked like he weighed at least as much as Marit, so they took a long slow sweep south and southwest and northwest and north until they came round eastward and flew back along the river the way they had come. Flirt struggled a bit because of the extra burden, but the eagles weren't natural creatures, and in any case the raptor had an eagle's pride. So it wasn't much past midafternoon when they came within sight of Merrivale, but it seemed like a long trip, what with Flirt tiring and the youth babbling and moaning and cursing and begging and crying the entire time, although he was smart enough not to struggle. Most folk were.
At the sight of them, the inhabitants of Merrivale came running. Just before landing, Flirt let the boy go. He tumbled, shrieking again, grunting and howling, rolling along the rocks but no more than bruised and banged up, as Flirt rose to get past him and then dropped to the earth.
"Oof," said Marit, jarred up through her chest. "That was a thump, girl!"
She loosened her harness and swung out quickly. Faron, at the front of the village swarm, staggered to a stop a stone's toss from her and Flirt. The boy crawled forward, cloth clutched to his chest.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he babbled. He stank, poor lad, and there was snot all over his face. He cringed like a dog. "I'm sorry, Pap. I'll never do it again. It's just I didn't want you to marry her, but I know I'm being selfish. It's not like you didn't mourn Mam what was fitting. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll never cause you trouble again. Please let me come home."
Faron wept as he lifted the boy and embraced him. The girl in red grabbed the precious silk bolts and ran them into the safety of the inn.
Once the first commotion subsided they tried to press gifts on her. She refused everything but food and drink to carry with her for her evening's meal. That was the rule. No gifts meant no bribes, and once she made it clear she'd not budge, they respected her wishes.
"You'll not spend the night?" asked Faron. "You can have my best bed. A reeve can take lodging."
"Lodging and food," agreed Marit. "That's allowed. But I can't stay. I've a fellow reeve to meet at sunset, up near the summit."
"Beware those Devouring youths," said an unrepentant Vatta. The old woman had the wicked grin of a soul that hasn't yet done making mischief. "I should know. I was one of Her hierodules once, before I got married."
Marit laughed. The boy sniveled, chastened and repentant, and Faron wrung her hand gratefully. Maybe there were a few happy endings still to be had.
JOSS WAS WAITING for her at Candle Rock, just as they'd agreed five nights past. The rock was too stony to harbor trees; a few hardy tea willows grew out of deep cracks where water melt pooled, and spiny starflowers straggled along the steep northern slope. Candle Rock provided no cover except the shelter of the craggy overhang where firewood was stowed. No man or woman could reach it without the aid of flying beast, so reeves patrolling over the Liya Pass commonly met here to exchange news and gossip and to haul up wood for the signal fire kept ready in case of emergency.
She saw Joss standing beside the smaller fire pit, which was ringed with white stones like drippings of wax. The fire burned merrily and he already had meat roasting on a spit. The young reeve had his back to the setting sun and was looking east up at the ridge of hill whose familiar profile they called Ammadit's Tit, which despite the name was held by the hierarchs to be sacred to the Lady of Beasts.
Showing off, Flirt made a smooth landing on the height. Joss raised a hand in greeting as Marit slipped out of her harness and walked down to the fire.
"Mmm," she said, kissing him. "Eat first, or after?"
He grinned, ducking his head in that way that was so fetching; he was still a little shy.
She tousled his black hair. "Shame you have to keep it cut."
They kissed a while longer. He was young and tall and slender and a good fit, the best fit she'd ever found in her ten years as a reeve. He wasn't boastful or cocky. Some reeves, puffed up with the gloat of having been chosen by an eagle and granted the authority to patrol, thought that also meant they could lord it over the populace. He wasn't a stiff-chinned and tight-rumped bore, either, stuck on trivial niceties of the law. It was true he had a sharp eye and a sharp tongue and a streak of unexpected recklessness, but he was a competent reeve all the same, with a good instinct for people. Like the one he had now, knowing what she wanted.
Excerpted from Spirit Gate by Kate Elliott, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2006 Katrina Elliott. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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