The White Serpent returns to the world of Vis nearly a century after the reign of Raldnor, the legendary Storm Lord who brought peace to Dorthar. Despite his efforts, the people are once again divided by conflict, and the goddess Anackire must choose new champions if the realm is to have any hope of preservation....
As a child, Rehger was sold into slavery, torn from his home and family. As a young man, he has proved his martial prowess as a lauded gladiator, fighting in the grand city of Saardsimney. But in the midst of his rise to fame, he meets Aztira, an intriguing woman who wields devastating power. With her magic and knowledge, she could be the person who transforms his life of subservience and leads him to his destiny.
But before he can fully uncover the truth of their connection, a powerful earthquake strikes, devastating the city and forcing Rehger to flee. Haunted by visions of Aztira long after their first encounter, Rehger embarks on a quest to seek out her people, the legendary Amanackire, in a city shrouded in mystery and myth....
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1. The Snow
IN A CONE OF purple dusk, on the white snow, the young woman stood calling in her husband’s dogs. All around, the mountains stared at each other across the valley, colored like the sky and darkening with it, the huge snows caught on them in broad luminous tangles. It was the heart of winter, yet as sometimes happened here in the west, there had been a partial thaw. Panes of ice slipped from the mountain sides and crashed away. A single flower had raised its head against the well—and Tibo plucked it and put it in a crock beside the hearth-fire. Transparent as a ghost it poised there, for Orbin to sneer at. The dog-pack, too, was loosed from its shed and let go up the valley. The dogs might catch a hare or unwary rock-rat out to forage in brief sunshine. By afternoon, however, snow-cloud came down again on the mountain tops and Orbin snarled a command. So Tibo left her pots and went to summon the dogs, with a high-pitched warbling woman’s call used the Iscaian uplands over.
Soon, they came trotting out of the mauveness one by one, two by two. She counted each as it passed her, and spoke kindly to it. All had returned empty-mouthed, though maybe they had found something for themselves. When the eighth dog had run by her and into the shed, Tibo scanned the dusk, and presently called out again. Orhn owned nine dogs and one had not come back, the dark bitch, Blackness.
Sometimes tirr prowled through the mountain valleys, if winter had caught them. A dog did not stand much of a chance against tirr venom. Nor against a fresh snowfall. Blackness was valuable, a clever huntress, whose womb made healthy pups. Tibo was concerned for her, and besides would get the blame if any animal were missing. Orbin badly wanted an excuse to give her a thorough beating.
There was perhaps a quarter hour of the twilight left, and new snow had not yet begun to come down. Tibo shut the dogs in. Then she took a lantern from its hook above the dog-shed door, kindled it, and began to walk out carefully across the pasture, calling as she went.
The ground was treacherous, not yet frozen hard again. Tibo knew from years of experience how unevenly the land lay under its disguise of snow. She knew also that a woman’s life was cheap, that Orbin hated her and that Orhn—well. There was no point in considering Orhn’s opinion on the matter.
She had been wed to him at the age of ten. Her family, a sprawling herd of many rough sons and many slavish daughters, had been no happiness to her, and she was early on acquainted with poverty. Orhn’s farm was spoken of with jealousy, his father had had some standing in the village of Ly; even his sons being given the names of Kings. This father was gone by the time of the marriage but the mother still lived, senile, vaguely demented, and chair-bound, for whose every need Tibo must care. Otherwise there were only the brothers to tend. Orbin’s two wives were both of them dead and a decline in fortune had, it seemed, prevented him from getting others. Orhn meanwhile, as Tibo discovered, was simple. He treated her gently enough, and in their nuptial bed, the garlands of flowers and vine still on their hair, had pawed and drooled upon her, expending his seed in the first minute, without union, or even an embrace. This had been the format of their coition ever after, though in later years the spark of lust had died in him, except now and then at Zastis. All of which meant, additionally, that Tibo had been some nine years a childless wife, apparently barren, which lowered her value further.
Altogether, she was worth very little, and had better find the dog who, undoubtedly, was worth much more.
A low wall of stones bounded the pasture, where in summer Orhn’s blue pigs and whippy-necked fowl rooted and pecked. An open place in the wall, where the dogs had come through, gave on a tumble of rocks, and a few citrus trees, whose leaves the cold had burnt away.
Winter did not always bring snow to the mountains of Iscah, they said, but for as long as she could remember Tibo had seen it. That was the curse of the serpent goddess, they told you.
Tibo called by name now. The light was going suddenly fast, as if the fisted cloud squeezed the sky dry of it.
Then, with an almost terrible relief, Tibo heard the bitch-dog begin to whine and croon to her, from somewhere in the jumble of rocks.
“What is it, lass? What have you found?”
Something plainly Blackness would not leave. Or, Cah prevent it, was she lamed?
Holding the lantern high, Tibo moved forward once more. She did not like this place, even in the late summer days, when she came to pick the fruit. In certain parts the farm was hidden from view by the rocks, all of which were faceless now under the snow. She began to think of banaliks, the vampire-demons indigenous, in myth, to mountains.
The dog barked abruptly, very close, to her left. Tibo turned to the sound, and screamed in horror. Something had her by the leg. Hard and cold it gripped her calf just above the cuff of her boot.
“Be quiet,” a man’s voice said. It was a man’s hand that held her.
Her terror subsided to mere fright, and she swung the lantern over, and saw him. He sat between two of the rocks, grasping the dog’s muzzle in one hand, to keep her from barking till allowed, while he controlled her powerful body with his thighs. His other hand remained on Tibo. He was clearly very strong, and looked capable of maintaining both holds until they all three, man, dog, girl, froze to stone or starved to bone. Tibo considered crashing the lamp down on his skull. Something must happen then—he would lose his grip on the dog, who might go for his throat, or only of Tibo, who could perhaps get to the farm across the slippery snow before he caught her again.
“Don’t,” he said, as if he read her mind, as the Serpent People did. “For sure, both of us would be damaged. I don’t want to hurt you.” No man had ever said such a thing to Tibo. In her experience all men hurt most women, to a greater or lesser degree. Her first memories were of her father’s blows. It was the natural order of things.
“I see you are puzzled,” the man said. His voice was strange to her, with an alien accent not of Iscah, let alone Ly Village. “I don’t mean you any harm. I’ve already met my share of trouble. Friends of yours, maybe. Bandits— then I wandered. The thaw saved my life...So those prayers to Anack weren’t wasted after all. But it’s about to snow again. Then I’m finished. All I want is some generous roof—a night or two. And if you’ve anything to ride—these western snows, poor things, nearly passable. But I suppose a saddle-thoroughbred is too much to dream of. If I could get to Ly Dis, I can reach the capital from there—or somewhere. I’d pay. They didn’t find my coins—or couldn’t use them. Do you even know money was invented, out here?”
Tibo heard his speech through. For one thing, she would never have interrupted while any man spoke, however formlessly. Even an enemy from whom she must defend herself. But she did not properly understand. The yellow lantern burned on his face, while the world gloomed over. He was young, and handsome, but not in any manner she had ever seen before. The brazen Vis skin came paler in Iscah; his flesh was dark, like that of the men of Dorthar or Alisaar, though not like a black Zakorian’s. His hair fell to his shoulders, thick leaden silk—the men of Iscah wore their hair lopped high up the skull, or went shaven in the hot months.
He seemed to be studying her also, with his wide-spaced black eyes.
All at once he let her go, and let go of the dog, too. Blackness turned at once like a snake against him, snapping, and Tibo reached by him to snatch her away.
“See,” he said, “you do like me, despite everything.”
Then he shut his eyes and sighed. His head lolled gracefully.
Tibo saw he had fainted, and in another moment why, for even in the cold he was bleeding busily and had soaked the dog with his blood, her sable coat hiding it.
“Cah,” said Tibo, making a little ritualistic gesture to the goddess of her country. The dog crouched growling at her side, and the first snowflake, descending, fell sizzling in the lantern.
Orbin raised his head, sly-eyed, as the door was opened out of the white night.
“Hoh, Tibo,” he said softly. “Where is your flower gone, eh? I’ll tell you. You were loafing so long out there, we needed another log on the fire. So I put your flower on it instead. Didn’t make much of a blaze.” He watched, as Tibo glanced at the empty crock, and pointlessly, into the hearth. But Tibo always ultimately disappointed Orbin. She never sniveled, or groveled, as the other women had. Even when he clouted her, she only got up again. And he had to clout her often, for Orhn was too stupid to see to it. Orbin had even had to arrange their marriage, although it was not unusual for the closest male relative of the groom to attend to such things. Due to Orbin’s clever management, however, no one had been able to notice just how slow the elder brother was. The farm, and all its stock, belonged to Orhn, who had the name of Alisaarian kings. By law, Orbin belonged to Orhn. That was a fine joke, that. In a practical sense everything actually was Orbin’s, in all but name, kingly or otherwise. As for the slut, Orbin could have had her, too. But he never ordinarily saw much in women. During the Red Moon, when the urge was on him, he knew better than to tamper with his brother’s legal wife. She might get herself pregnant, and then there could be questions, because the village somewhat suspected Orhn’s ability, even while they spoke of Tibo as a barren parasite. Orbin was reverent of Cah and made the goddess regular offerings. He did not want to tell falsehoods before her statue, afraid of what she might then do to him. So he left Tibo alone, and paid to go with the temple’s holy-girls, fat lumps good only for such sticking.
On the other hand there was no law, religious or otherwise, against a man thrashing his brother’s wife.
“All the dogs?” he asked her now.
“Yes, brother-master.” She paused, her eyes lowered respectfully. What else was she waiting to say? Had she lied about the dogs? “Brother-master,” she said, “give leave that I speak?”
“What rubbish have you got to say? All right. Babble on. You women, never quiet.”
“There’s a man. Blackness showed me.”
Orbin was alerted.
“A stranger. Robbers set on him. He’s bleeding, and may die.”
“Then let him,” said Orbin.
He watched her covertly, to see what she would do now, but she only went to the fire, and began to put bits of wood on it. The deed woke up Orhn, who had been slumbering on a bench one side of the hearth. The other side the old woman slept on in her chair, dribbling and twitching her blanket. Orhn smiled at Tibo. He reached out and touched one of her slim black braids. She wore her hair parted into twelve of these, each braid hanging to her waist and ending in a copper ring. But the rings were unpolished, she took no pride in them, although they were the mark of her married status. Her hair, though, glistened. She constantly washed and combed and rebraided it. In the same useless way she picked flowers and herbs, and gossiped to the dogs. These practices annoyed Orbin, but they were no real grounds for a complaint. She did not ever neglect her work.
“This man,” said Orbin now, as Tibo dragged the iron cauldron from the fire, and returned with it to her pot-scouring. “Where is he?”
“In the yard, Orbin-master.”
“The shed— bleeding and dying in Orhn’s shed?” (Stirred by his name, Orhn made a sound of mild outrage, copying Orbin. This mimicry, taught him long ago, had often let him pass as normal in Ly.)
Tibo scoured her pots, humble, apologetic. She had some cause to be, having, with Blackness’ aid, hauled the semiconscious stranger to shelter. Though treacherous, the glassy ground had taken scarcely any imprint, the falling snow had also helped, obliterating every trace of her connivance. All the time, the man had marveled, dizzily amused, swooning and clinging to her, that her frailty could support him. Of course, she was strong. Fourteen years of fetching and carrying, lugging and straining, had made her so. When she left him in the straw with the surprised dogs all around to warm him, she had been sorry to get him go, his body, its frame and texture and scent, an assemblage she had never before experienced. She had torn his shirt to bind the knife-cut in his arm, not daring to use anything of her own, as yet. And she had worshiped at his flesh, as the old song said Cah did with her lovers. There was no denying it.
Never having known such a feeling in her life, Tibo recognized infallibly her desire and hunger.
He should not die. She would not allow it. She knew the properties of herbs. And she had learned in childhood, for self-preservation, how to deceive.