Swords and sorcery fill this fantasy about an outcast girl who teams up with a prince to break a supernatural curse that could destroy their warring kingdoms
In the kingdom of Vashti, a shuntali is an outcast—an unperson. One day, a young warrior gallops into the city astride a magnificent blue stallion. He is Prince Kyrem of Deva, and he has come to Vashti on a mission of peace between the warring kingdoms. En route, he is attacked by brigands only to be rescued by a rag-tag stable boy who seems to have a way with horses. Kyrem names him Seda, unaware that the shuntali is really an orphaned girl who has disguised herself in order to survive. Now Seda, Kyrem—whose people possess mystical powers—and the peace-loving healer and magician King Auron of Vashti must join forces to save their nations from the Nameless One. But deep within a cave atop a steep mountain, the last of a vanished race gathers his demonic forces to unleash his revenge on the kingdoms bound together by the great horse-god Suth.
A lonely girl with no past or future and a prince who wants to use his powers for good must find the love and magic to battle hatred and create a peace that has been a long time coming.
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Wings of Flame
By Nancy Springer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Nancy Springer
All rights reserved.
The title was not a name. It designated an outcast, an unperson, a member of the class that beggars could look down on, could shout at if they chose. The shouter in this instance was the master of the hut that served as hostelry, and the shuntali was a girl who did the unclean work. For this she was allowed scraps and a degree of tolerance, because no one knew she was a girl—she appeared to be a lad of about twelve years of age. She had been a boy for most of those years, so long that she herself had almost forgotten her own secret femininity. If it had been known that she was a female, she would have been driven from the shanty of an inn and put to prostitution.
Far up in the red-budding blackthorn forest of the mountaintop, gathering kindling, she heard him shouting and came running.
The innkeeper was a member of the third class, the caste of merchants, farmers and laborers. One of his several names placed him in that class according to his vocation, which had been his father's also. Another name described the order of his birth in his family, his sex and his rank in his clan, and another invoked his totems as determined by the date of his birth. He wore his lucky color, brown, and the hems of his clothing were edged with protective borders and tassels, and the shoulders crudely embroidered with the emblem of his totem animal, the onager. Being prosperous enough to have purchased it, he wore a pendant of jasper, his lucky stone, carved with the glyph of his planet, Jupiter.
The shuntali, on the other hand, had no names, no birthdate, no emblems, and her faded and colorless clothing served merely to cover her nakedness. Though most Vashtins were fair of face and red or russet of hair, she seemed nearly as colorless as her clothing, earth-dun, hair and eyes and skin, and her face was expressionless, silent. Barefoot, crop-headed, in coarse shirt and hemp trousers, she pattered up to her master and awaited his command.
But before he could speak, she gasped aloud in surprise. "By the old man," she breathed, "Devans!"
The innkeeper cuffed her, but she scarcely felt the blow. She stood rapt. Riders on horseback were filing into the inn yard. Horses! All the bright and solid colors of horses, barley red and golden brown and a splendid blue roan in the lead; the rider sat it in the royal fashion, legs straight, feet pointing past the steed's shoulders. The girl briefly noted him, his own shoulders nearly as broad and muscular as the stallion's, his jet-black hair all in curls under a tall red cap; then her gaze returned to the horses. Travelers from Deva were not so uncommon, for the hostelry lay near a pass of the Kansban Mountains that divided that kingdom from Vashti. That was why the innkeeper needed his shuntali. No proper Vashtin would ride or even touch a horse. The animals were sacred to the supreme god, the horse-god Suth. But the Devans used horses in their own arrogant fashion; they said the steeds were the gift of Suth to men, to make men victorious in war. Their most recent war with Vashti had ended a mere month before.
There might be trouble. But oh, such beautiful horses! "By the old man!" the shuntali whispered again, and the innkeeper cuffed her again, harder.
"Take that wood in," he ordered harshly.
She had forgotten the bundle of kindling, still in her arms. She hurried with it into the single room of the hostelry. Some few men loitered there, as always, and she could hear them grumbling as she stacked her sticks by the hearth.
"Devan devils!" someone quipped.
"Pompous horse-sitting infidels!" another voice joined in with more spleen than seemed usual. "Blasphemers! How dare they show their bodies here so boldly? Has their precious King Kyrillos even signed treaty?"
The shuntali stole a glance at the speaker. He was a weasel-faced man in gray clothing, no one she knew, certainly not one of the villagers from the few huts that huddled along the mountain track by the inn. In fact, there were several strange men in the hostelry, though they all wore the clothing of Vashtins, yellow or red or whatever color their day of birth decreed, with the customary magical stitchings and talismans. Devans wore no such talismans.
"Kyrillos and our good King Auron have come to spoken promise, I understand." The voice was that of an older man of the village. The stranger scoffed.
"Good as the vellum it's written on, is it not? Damned Devan horsebeaters, I wonder what they want here! Likely they're spies."
"Shuntali!" her master roared from the yard. She hurried out.
The care of the horses would fall to her, she knew. It was a task forbidden to all but priests in the service of Suth. She was liable to hell ice for doing it, but a shuntali deserved no more, the reasoning went. She approached the job with guilty pleasure. To rub the silky flanks, all of the seven horse colors and many of the seven times seven horse colors.... So many horses, and no merchant goods in sight. What, indeed, might be the business of these strangers?
There were no halters of soft rope such as a Vashtin might have used on a donkey, no loop of leather around the lower jaw, no harness of any sort at all. Each man in turn led his horse before her and touched her hand to the arch of its neck, giving her charge of it. Then they all strode inside—all except one. The rider of the big blue roan stood tending to his animal himself, taking the thick seat-blanket off its back and scraping at the dark patch of sweat it had left. His short black beard was as curly as his hair. His skin was not as dark as that of most Devans, and, staring at him, the girl thought he might be younger than the beard made him look. An older Devan turned impatiently, waiting for him.
"Kyrem, get within. It will be dark soon."
"Exactly. And you would have me entrust Omber to the care of a little lad with twelve others on his hands and no light to groom them by." He looked up, his tone edging toward arrogance. "Get in yourself if you're so hungry."
The other frowned and came back. "It is not good for you to be out here by yourself," he said in a low voice.
"Then stay." Kyrem stood rubbing at the mark the surcingle had left on his steed. The older man flushed and let go of courtesy.
"Kyrem, your father charged me to get you safely to Avedon, and I'll do it if I have to tie you up! Now get in!"
"Do you think I would fail to honor my father's bond?" The youth turned with threatening suddenness, and the little lad who watched found herself stepping back. The older man stepped back also.
"Go in," said Kyrem, not at all loudly, and the other went. Kyrem sent a black look after him, then abruptly escorted his horse to the meager stabling, left the steed there and followed.
The shuntali had gotten the blankets off of the others while listening. Though they were in no way constrained or confined, the horses made no effort to wander away from her; they stood still and let her tend to them. She did not understand how it was that the Devans trained their horses—infidel magic, some said. If so, she admired that magic. She went for sacking and dried them all off, whistling tunelessly under her breath and wondering. Avedon was the court city of King Auron in the lowlands of Vashti, the city by the Ahara Suth, the hoofprint Suthspring, and the Atar-Vesth, Suth's sacred grove. She knew that. But she wondered, who was this Kyrem who seemed to be both the leader and the led?
The stabling was directly beneath the hostelry itself, no more than a dug cave in the dirt and rock with entry toward the lower side of the sloping terrain. This arrangement was inimical to sweetness of fragrance in the single room above, and the flies buzzed up from the dungheap into the pantry, but it kept the animals close at hand and provided some warmth to both animals and humans in the frigid mountain weather. Even this evening, in springtime, the air was chill and the hearthfire was lit. The shuntali could not share the warmth of that fire. She also lived in the stable, along with the donkey that was used for haulage, two spotted milk cows and several chickens.
As the moon rose above the jagged rim of the Kansban, she sat there, watching from her bed of well-used straw, eating the bread and meat she had stolen from the pantry and listening to the contented movements of the blue roan. Stealing had been easy this evening, the cooks busy with so many guests. She felt contented herself—until lamplight began to creep into her retreat and she stiffened in surprise. It was very late; it had taken her a long time to groom and water and feed and hobble all those horses, and she had thought that everybody else would be in bed. Who could be coming?
It was Kyrem, in nothing but his soft leather sandals and red breeches cut off at the knee, striding into the stable from the yard. The stableboy felt her secret femininity stir at the sight of him, his bare broad shoulders and erect head—he must have crept from his bed, away from his guardian. She shrank into a corner, confused and shamed by the feelings that she, a boy, was not supposed to have. What did she care about him! And what did he want, forsooth?
He set the clay lamp on the dirt floor near his horse and greeted the stallion with the traditional Devan touch to the center of its forehead, rubbing the itchy place there where the hairs made a whorl.
Watching from her shadow, the shuntali felt surprise and a degree of jealousy. Vashtins said that Devans abused their horses to make them so tame, but this Devan hugged his around the neck and the big animal laid its muzzle on his shoulder, whickering. He caressed it, inspecting every inch of its body, running his hands over its black flanks with the frosting of white hairs that gave the blue tinge. The shuntali knew he would find nothing amiss. She had groomed the horse to a high polish in spite of its impatience, the mettlesome steed. Except—
"I could not check the hooves." She spoke up suddenly in a voice scarcely more than a whisper. "He would not lift his feet for me."
Kyrem jerked his head up, startled, and the girl edged forward so that he could see her. He relaxed with a grudging smile.
"You've done wonders with the brute," he said. "Come here, hold the lamp."
He approached the task of checking the hooves first in the traditional way, sliding his hand down the leg and pinching lightly between the shank bones with his fingers. He swore and smacked his animal when it attempted to kick rather than offering the foot. "All right, Omber," he muttered, and he stood at the horse's head, stroking its face and ears, gentling it. Then he closed his eyes.
The shuntali stood watching, openmouthed. Kyrem had not moved, but she saw a concentration in him that affected every muscle of his body, a focusing of power within himself in a way too quiet, too still, to be called force. When he stirred slightly and reached out to touch his horse's shoulder, the movement was tender, a caress. But though he had no more than stroked the swelling of muscle just below the neck, the corresponding foot came up at once and held steady.
Kyrem stepped forward and took the hoof, cleaning out dirt and straw and pebbles with the fire-hardened pointed stick the girl offered him. He moved to the horse's rump, touched the plump rondure of it, and the hind hoof came up. The shuntali watched in astonishment as he finished all four feet, then stepped to the horse's head and gentled it again, rubbing the soft fur at the base of the ears and murmuring. She saw him ease something within himself, letting it go like a sigh, settling into the place where he stood. "Good fellow," he told the horse, and then to the stableboy he said, "Where are the others?"
"Out at grass. There is no room in here." She spoke so softly he could scarcely hear her. "They have had water and a scoop of barley each." Ah, the feel of the warm muzzles in her cupped hands. "This one has had hay as well." She stood watching Kyrem comb a black forelock with his fingers. Omber, the horse's name was. She wondered if all Devans named their mounts. Such a shame to turn the sons of the south wind into beasts of burden. And yet, that closeness, that caress, the silent magic that had passed between the two, beast and master—she felt a sudden, fierce tenderness toward this Devan and his horse.
Shouts sounded above, the hard, angry shouts that men use to incite themselves to warlike deeds. Then a scream, the hoarse, wrenching sound of a man's death scream, and a sort of gurgle. "Devan dogs!" someone roared, and a panicky voice was calling, "Kyrem? Kyrem!" The youth and the girl stood rigid, motionless.
"My men," Kyrem whispered, "they're beset!" He bolted toward the ladder that led up into the inn. It took the girl a moment to realize that he was running toward, not away from, the fray. And he bore no weapon that she could see. "Wait!" she called, perhaps as loudly as she had ever spoken, and she ran after him. He had not gotten far. A dark mass of men blocked the top of the ladder, and in that shadow she could see the glint of long knives.
"There he is!" one of them barked and came down in a single jump to confront Kyrem. The shuntali saw him in the light of the oil lamp she still carried; it was the weasel-faced, rabble-rousing stranger in gray. His knife flashed, already poised to dart at Kyrem's defenseless ribs. The shuntali did not have to think; she hurled her lamp at the attacker with force enough to shatter it against his face. Sparks flew along with shards of clay, hot oil splattered, and the man gave a startled scream as darkness fell. The girl had gone into an instinctive charge. She butted her head full force into the stranger's belly, and he toppled against the ladder, bringing it and his comrades down on top of him. But his knife, flying loose, struck the shuntali above the eye. She fell.
There followed a confusing time. When her head cleared, the girl saw Kyrem battling with three adversaries. He had found a long knife, and two of the others, by way of fate, had lost theirs, so the battle was not as uneven as it seemed. And Kyrem seemed to have that strange power in him again, swelling his muscles.... The others surrounded him but could not hold him, like so many jackals harrying a lion. He surged and swirled amid them as though he were an embodied energy, something elemental.... The shuntali watched, sitting up and blinking, wincing when they made him bleed. They might yet tear and worry him down—and there was a vague rustling noise she could not identify, a menacing hiss behind the panting and scrambling of combat. She could see the man she had felled stirring, that would make it four against one—she could see? By the light of flames. The lamp had set the straw afire.
She scrambled up. Oily smoke stung her eyes and set her to coughing. Among the men there was more blundering than battling now—no one could see. She scarcely could either, but her bare feet knew every inch of the ground she trod. She found Kyrem's arm and tried to tug him away, but he fought her. She was just another enemy in the smoky chaos to him.
"Come on," she urged, as if urging a donkey.
The soft voice, so soft that only he could hear it. He recognized it and followed it into the cramped maze of pens and stalls. The stableboy knew the way quite surely even in the confusion of dark and smoke and flickering shadow. Wild shouts of men behind and screams of animals all around.... There was Omber, plunging in his place, too frightened to flee, panicked as a horse will be by fire. The stableboy slipped off her ragged shirt and tied it over the lurching, struggling beast's eyes, and Kyrem laid his hand on the neck. Omber calmed as soon as he felt that touch, for power still flowed in Kyrem.
"Lead us," he murmured to the girl.
They walked one on either side of Omber's head, coaxing him forward, coughing in the smoke, thinking they would die in the smoke—but in a moment they were outside at last, and the shuntali slipped the blindfold off the steed. Kyrem vaulted onto his mount. The stableboy got back into her shirt, silent and shivering. There was shouting in the darkness all around, pounding of hooves under the trees, and the inn—the inn was going up in flames.
"You can't go back there," said Kyrem. "They'll kill you. Come on." He hauled the youngster up onto the horse behind him. She went without question, even though she had never sat a horse before, for she had nothing to lose, and she was used to doing as she was told.
Excerpted from Wings of Flame by Nancy Springer. Copyright © 1985 Nancy Springer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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