Excerpt from Crown of Stars Vol. 3, The Burning Stone
By Kate Elliott
In any village, a stranger attracts notice -- and distrust. But Eagles weren't strangers, precisely; they were interchangeable, an arm of the king -- his wings, so to speak -- and they might come flying through and, after a meal and a night's sleep, fly away again, never truly at rest.
Liath had discovered that as a King's Eagle her only solitude on any errand she rode for the king came while actually on the road itself, because the roads were lightly traveled. Wherever she stopped to break her fast or for a night's shelter, she had no rest as long as she stayed awake. Villagers, deacons, chatelaines, nuns, even simple day laborers: All of them wanted gossip of the world beyond because few of them had ever ventured more than a day's walk from their home--and even fewer had actually seen the king and his court.
"Did the foreign queen die?" they would ask, surprised, although Queen Sophia had died almost four years ago.
"Lady Sabella rebelled against King Henry's authority?" they would cry, aghast and amazed, although all this had taken place a full year before.
"We heard the Eika sacked the city of Gent and are laying the countryside waste all round," they would confide nervously, and then she would calm their fears by telling them of the second battle of Gent and how Count Lavastine and King Henry had routed the Eika army and restored the ruined city to human hands.
To them, she was an exotic bird, bright, fleeting, quickly come and quickly gone. No doubt they would remember her, and her words, long after she had forgotten them and theirs.
It was a sobering thought.
In the village of Laderne full twenty souls crowded the house of her host, turning her visit into a festive gathering. They entertained her with songs and local gossip while she ate, but as soon as her host brought her a mug of beer after the meal, they turned their questions on her.
"What's your errand, Eagle? Where did you come from? Where are you going?"
She had learned to judge how much to say: when to keep close counsel or when to be more forthcoming. Many people favored her with better food the more she told them, and this old householder clearly thought her visitor important: She hadn't watered down the beer. "I'm riding to the palace at Weraushausen, at the king's order. He left his schola there, many of his clerics and most of the noble children who attend the progress. His own young son, Prince Ekkehard, is among them. I'm to give them word where they are to meet him."
"Weraushausen? Where's that?"
"Beyond the Bretwald," she said. They shook their heads, hemmed and hawed, and advised her to ride carefully and on no account to cut through the old forest itself.
"Young fools have tried it now and again," said Merla, the old householder. She had about six teeth left and was proud of them. "They always vanish. Killed by wolves and bears, no doubt. Or worse things." She nodded with satisfaction, as if pleased at their dreadful fate.
"Nay, I heard at market that foresters was cutting a road through the heart of the Bretwald at the king's order," protested one of the men. He had a face made bright red by many hours working in the sun.
"As if any could do so," retorted the old woman. "But you've said nothing of the king. Has he named an heir yet? This Prince Ekkehard, perhaps?"
"He has an eldest daughter, Princess Sapientia. She's old enough to be named as heir now that she's ridden to battle and borne a child."
"Ach, yes, proven her fertility and led soldiers in war. God have marked her as worthy to rule."
They nodded sagely all round, much struck by this sign of God's favor, all except one thin man in the back. He sipped beer and regarded Liath with pale eyes. He was almost as brown as she was on his face and hands, but where his tunic lay unlaced at his chest -- for it was still warm -- she could see how pale his skin was where the sun didn't reach. "He'd another child, a son, with a Salian name -- sawn-glawnt, or something like that. He was a grand fighter, captain of the King's Dragons. But I heard from a peddler that he and his Dragons died when the Eika took Gent."
She flushed, and was grateful that people who did not know her well could not see any change in her complexion, dark as it was. "Not dead," she said. How on God's earth did she manage to keep her voice from shaking? "He'd been held prisoner, but he was freed by troops under the command of Count Lavastine. He is now safe at the king's side."
They exclaimed over this miracle. She gulped down her beer. But the damage had already been done. That night she slept restlessly and in the morning blushed to recall her dreams.
Ai, Lady. What had he said to her six days ago as the dawn light rose over the king's camp, set up outside Gent?
"Marry me, Liath."
All day the sun shone as Liath rode northwest along the great northern loop of the Ringswaldweg. She passed only a few travelers during the day: two carters hauling coarse sailcloth weighted down by a dozen bars of pig iron, a quiet pack of day laborers seeking a harvest, a peddler pushing a handcart, and a trio of polite fraters walking south with bare feet, calloused hands, and sun-chapped faces. The ancient forest known as the Bretwald loomed to her left, so thick that it was no wonder travelers did not bother to try to hack through it but rather suffered the long journey round its northern fringe. Land broken up by trees, pasture, and the occasional village surrounded by strips of fields marched along on her right. She was used to traveling. She liked the solitude, the changing landscape, the sense of being at one with the cosmos, a small moving particle in the great dance of light.
But now, as the late summer twilight overtook her, the wind began to blow, and for some reason she couldn't shake the feeling that something was following her. She glanced back along the road, but it lay empty.
Never trust the appearance of emptiness.
Clouds brought an early dusk, and she unrolled her cloak and threw it over her shoulders as rain spattered down. Because the summer had been dry, the road did not churn instantly to mud, but even so, the way bogged down and she soon despaired of reaching any kind of shelter for the night.
God knew she did not want to sleep outside on a night of storm and rain, far from any human habitation.
The rain slackened. From ahead, she heard a faint jingling of harness, and for an instant she breathed easier. She had no fear of lawful riders on the king's road.
For an instant.
Out of the darkening sky behind her, she heard a low reverberation, a tolling like that of a church bell. But she had passed no church since midday.
Was that sound the echo of a daimone's passing? Did such a creature pursue her again? She glanced back but saw no hollow-eyed daimone formed into the fair semblance of an angel gliding above the earth, saw no glass-feathered wings. Yet as the rising wind buffeted her, she felt a whisper:
The air shuddered and rippled on the road far behind her, just where it hooked to the right around a bulge in the forest's girth. Columns of mist rose into the air like great tree trunks uprooted from the forest and spun into gauze.
Surely it was only a trick of the light. But claws seemed to sink into her, into her shoulders and deeper yet, right down to her heart, and those claws clutched at her, tugging her back toward the tolling bells. Why not just wait? Why not just slow down and wait?
"Come to me, Liathano. Do not run any longer. Only wait for us and you will find peace."
Her horse snorted nervously and flattened its ears.
"Wait for us. Come to us."
"Run," Da would answer. "Run, Liath."
The compulsion to wait slid from her like rainwater off a good roof. With fear and anger fueling her, she urged her mount forward. It eagerly broke into a canter. She glanced back, and her heart almost died within her. Creatures formed like columns of living oily smoke streamed along the road, chasing her. They had voices, a rustling murmur like countless leaves stirred in a gale, underscored by that terrible dull tolling bell-voice. That they were living creatures she did not doubt.
And they were gaining on her.
She freed her bow from its quiver, readied an arrow. On the wind she smelled a hot stench like that of the forge. Her horse bolted, and she let it run while she turned in the saddle and, drawing, measured the distance between her and her pursuers. She loosed, but the arrow fell harmlessly onto empty road.
The shout came as warning. "Hey, there! Look where you're going!"
Ahead, in the dimness, she saw a small party: two riders and an escort of four men-at-arms. A minor lord, perhaps, or a steward about the business of his lady: She did not recognize the sigil of a deer's head on white that marked the shields. They swung wide to make room for her headlong flight.
But as she drew breath to shout a warning to them in turn, light flashed to her right, and beyond the road where the ground swelled up to make a neat little tumulus, fire flashed and beckoned from a shadowy ring of standing stones.
An owl glided past, so close that her horse shied away rightward, breaking off the road. She needed no more urging than that. With her bow in one hand and the reins in the other, she let the horse have its head. It jumped a low ditch to reach the grassy slope that marked the tumulus. From the road, men shouted after her.
A moment later she heard screaming.
The horse took the slope with the speed of a creature fleeing fire, and yet it was fire that greeted them in the center of the tiny stone circle: seven small stones, two of them fallen, one listing. And in the center stood an eighth stone as tall as a man of middling height: it burned with a blue-white fire that gave off no heat.
The shrieking from the road turned into garbled noises that no human ought to be able to utter. She dared not look behind. Ahead, the owl settled with uncanny grace onto the top of the burning stone, and the horse leaped‹
She shouted with surprise as blue-white flame flared all around her. Her horse landed, shied sideways, and stopped.
With reins held taut and the horse quiet under her, Liath stared around the clearing: beaten earth, a layer of yellowing scrub brush, and thin forest cover made up of small-leafed oak as well as trees she had never seen before. But her voice failed her when the man sitting on a rock rose to examine her with interest. Not a human man, by any measure: with his bronze-tinted skin and beardless face and his person decorated with all manner of beads and feathers and shells and polished stones, he was of another kinship entirely. Humans named his kind Aoi, 'the Lost Ones,' the ancient elvish kin who had long since vanished from the cities and paths trodden by humanity.
But she knew him, and he knew her.
"You have come," he said. "Sooner than I had expected. You must hide until the procession has passed or I cannot speak for what judgement the council will pass on you, and your presence here. Come now, dismount and give me the horse."
He looked no different than in the vision seen through fire, although he was smaller in stature than she expected. The feathers with which he decorated himself shone as boldly as if they had been painted. The flax rope at his thigh was perhaps a finger longer than when she had last seen him, weeks--or was it months?--ago. A tremulous moan sounded from the depths of the forest, and a moment later she recognized it as a horn call. She shaded her eyes, and there along a distant path seen dimly under shadows she saw a procession winding through the trees. At the head of the procession, a brilliant wheel of beaten gold and iridescent green plumes spun, although no wind blew.
"How did I come here?" she asked hoarsely. "The creatures were chasing me, and then I saw an owl . . . and the burning stone." She turned in the saddle to see the stone still blazing, blue-white and cold. No owl flew.
"An owl," he mused, fingering a proud feather of mottled brown and white, one dull plume among the many bright ones that trimmed his forearm sheaths. He smiled briefly, if not kindly. "My old enemy."
"Then the horse leaped, and I was here," she finished haltingly. She felt like a twig borne down a flooding stream. Too much was happening at once.
"Ah." He displayed the rope and the fiber he twined to create it. "Out of one thing, we make another, even if there is no change or addition of substance. Sometimes it is the pattern that matters most. These strands of flax, alone, cannot support me or aid me as this rope can, and yet are they not both the same thing?"
"I don't understand what you're saying."
"The burning stone is a gateway between the worlds. All of the stones are gateways, as we learned to our sorrow, but this one was not fashioned by means of mortal magics but rather is part of the fabric of the universe. To use it, one must understand it."
"I don't know anything," she said bitterly. "So much was kept hidden from me."
"Much is hidden," he agreed. "Yet nevertheless you have come to me. If you are willing, I sense there is a great deal you can learn."
"Ai, God. There's so much I need to know." Yet she hesitated. "But how long will it take? To learn everything I need to know?"
He chuckled. "That depends on what you think you need to know." But his expression became serious. "Once you have decided that, then it will take as long as it must." He glanced toward the procession in the forest, still mostly hidden from them in their small clearing. "But if you mean to ask how long will it take in the world of humankind, that I cannot answer. The measure of days and years moves differently here than there."
"Ai, Lady!" She glanced at the stone. The fire had begun to flicker down, dying.
"Why do you hesitate?" he pressed her. "Was this not the wish of your heart?"
"The wish of my heart." Her voice died on the words as she said them. Of course she must study. It was the only way to protect herself. She wanted the knowledge so badly. She might never have this chance again.
And yet‹she could not help but look back.
"You are still bound to the other world," he said, not dismayed, not irritated, not cheerful. Simply stating what was true. "Give me your hand."
He was not a person one disobeyed. She sheathed her bow and held out a hand, then grunted with surprise and pain as he cut her palm with an obsidian knife. But she held steady as blood welled up, as he cut his hands in a similar fashion and clasped one to hers so their blood flowed together. His free hand he pressed against the stone. Fire flared, so bright she flinched away from it and her horse whickered nervously and shied. But the old sorcerer's grip remained firm.
"Come with me," he said. "What has bound you to the world of human kin?"
The fire opened, and together they saw within.
When he sprawls in the grass under the glorious heat of the sun, he can hear everything and nothing. He shuts his eyes, the better to listen.
A bee drones. A bird's repetitive whistle sounds from the trees. His horse grazes on the edge of the clearing, well out of reach of his other companions: three Eika dogs in iron collars and iron chains bound to an iron stake he has hammered into the ground. Bones crack under their jaws as they feed. These three are all that remain to him of the beasts who formed his warband in Gent's cathedral. He hears their chains scraping each on the others as the dogs growl over the tastiest bits of marrow.
A stream gurgles and chuckles beyond them; he has washed there, although he will never truly wash the filth and the shame of Bloodheart's chains off himself no matter how often he spills water over his skin and cleanses himself with soap or sand or oil. Now he lies half-clothed in the sun to dry in merciful solitude.
Of human activity he hears nothing. He has fled the captivity of the king's court and found this clearing next to the track that leads northwest--in that direction she rode off on the king's errand eight days ago. Here, now, he relishes his freedom, bathing in sun and wind and the feel of good mellow earth and grass beneath his back.
A fly lands on his face and he brushes it away without opening his eyes. The heat melts pleasantly into his skin. Where his other hand lies splayed in the grass he has tossed down the square leather pouch, stiffened with metal plates and trimmed with ivory and gems, in which he shelters the book. He feels its weight just beyond his fingertips, although he does not need to touch it to know that it is still there, and what it means to him: a promise. He keeps it always with him or, when he hunts or bathes, ties it to the collar of one of the dogs. The dogs are the only ones among his new retinue he can trust.
Wind rustles in leaves, indifferent whispers so unlike the ones that follow his every movement among the courtiers--the ones they think he can't hear.
Each day of the king's progress unfurls, flowers, and fades as in a haze. He waits.
Among the dogs, he has learned to be patient.
"That which binds you," said the sorcerer, but whether with surprise or recognition she could not tell.
"I made him a promise." As the vision faded its passing throbbed in her like a new pain.
She knew better, she knew what she ought to do, what Da would tell her to do. But none of that mattered. For a year she had thought him dead.
"I have to go back." Then, hearing the words as if someone else had spoken them, she hurried on. "I'll come back to you. I swear it. I just have to go back--" She trailed off. She knew how foolish she sounded.
He merely let go of her hand and regarded her. He had no expression on his face except the quiescence of great age. "It is ever such with those who are young. But I do not believe your path will be a smooth one."
"Then I can come back?" Now that she had made the choice, she regretted having to go. But not so much that she could bring herself to stay.
"I cannot see into the future. Go then."
"But there are creatures pursuing me--"
"So many mysteries. So much movement afoot. You must make your choice -- there, or here. The gateway is closing."
The flames flickered lower until they rippled like a sheen of water trembling along the surface of the stone. If she waited too long, the choice would be made for her.
She reined the horse around and slapped its rump with the trailing end of her reins. It bolted forward, light surged, and her sight was still hazed with dancing spots and black dots and bright sparks when her shoulder brushed rough stone and they broke out of the ragged circle of stones with a flash of afternoon sun in her eyes.
Disoriented, she shaded her eyes with a hand until she could make out the road below. It was not yet twilight; an unseasonable chill stung the air. The Bretwald lay beyond the road, alive with birds come to feed at the verge. Crows flocked in the treetops. A vulture spiraled down and landed on a heap of rags that littered the roadside.
Of the fell creatures that had stalked her, there was no sign.
What had the old sorcerer said? "The measure of days and years moves differently here than there."
Had she arrived earlier than she had left? Was that even possible, to wait here beside the road when she was herself riding on that same road, not yet having reached this point? She shook herself and urged the horse forward, looking around cautiously. But nothing stirred. The crows flapped away with raucous cries. The vulture at last bestirred itself and flew, but only to a nearby branch, where it watched as she picked her way up to the roadside and dismounted to examine the litter, a jumble of bones scoured clean, damp tabards wilted on the turf or strewn with pebbles as though a wind had blown over them, and weapons left lying every which way. With her boot she turned over a shield: A white deer's head stared blankly at her.
She jumped back, found shelter in the bulk of her horse, who blew noisily into her ear, unimpressed by these remains.
The men at arms she had seen had borne shields marked with a white deer's head. And she had heard screaming. How long could it have been? It would take months for a body to rot to clean bone.
The light changed as a scrap of cloud scudded over the sun, and she shivered in a sudden cold. She mounted and rode on, northward, as she had before. As dusk lowered she studied the heavens with apprehension throbbing in her chest. Stars came out one by one. Above her shone summer's evening sky. Had she lost an entire year?
Ahead, a torch flared, and then a second, and she urged her mount forward, smelling a village ahead. A low square church steeple loomed, cutting off stars. They had not yet closed the palisade gates of the little town, which protected them against wild animals as well as the occasional depredations of what bandits still lurked in the Bretwald. The gatekeeper sent her on to the church, where the deacon kept mats for travelers and a simmering pot of leek stew for the hungry.
Liath was starving. Her hands shook so badly that she could barely gulp down stew and cider as the deacon watched with mild concern.
"What day is it?" Liath asked when at last her hands came back under her control, and the sting of hunger softened.
"Today we celebrated the nativity of St. Theodoret, and tomorrow we will sing the mass celebrating the martyrdom of St. Walaricus."
Today was the nineteenth of Quadrii, then; the day she had fled the creatures had been the eighteenth. For an instant she breathed more easily. Then she remembered the bones, and the party she had almost met on the road.
"An odd question," said the deacon, but she was a young woman and not inclined to question a King's Eagle. "It is the year 729 since the Proclamation of the Divine Logos by the blessed Daisan."
One day later. Only one day. The bones she had seen by the roadside had nothing to do with her, then. They must have lain there for months, picked clean by the crows and the vultures and the small vermin that feed on carrion.
Only later, rolled up in her blanket on a mat laid down in the dark entry hall of the church, did it occur to her that the clothing left behind with the bones on the roadside was damp but not rotted or torn. Had it lain there for months or years it, too, would have begun to rot away.