During a dire battle against the fearsome Skinners, Daine and her mage teacher, Numair, are swept into the Divine Realms. Although they are happy to be alive, they are not where they want to be. They are desperately needed back home where their old enemy, Ozorne, and his army of strange creatures are waging war against Tortall.
While trapped in the perilous realms of the gods, Daine discovers her mysterious parentage. But as the secrets of her past are revealed, so is the treacherous way back to Tortall. And so Daine and Numair embark on an extraordinary journey home, where the fate of all Tortall rests with Daine and her wild magic.
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Realms of the Gods
The Stormwing sat on a low wooden perch like a king on his throne. All around him torches flickered; men spoke quietly as they prepared the evening meal. He was a creature of bad dreams, a giant bird with the head and chest of a man. As he moved, his steel feathers and claws clicked softly. For one of his kind, he was unusually clean. His reddish brown hair had once been dressed in thin braids, but many had unraveled. His face, with its firm mouth and large, amber eyes, had once been attractive, but hate deepened the lines at mouth and eyes. Dangling around his neck was a twisted, glassy lump of rock that shimmered in the torchlight.
Now he stared intently at a puddle of darkness on the ground before him. An image grew in the inky depths. In it, a tall, swarthy man turned the reins of his black-and-white spotted gelding over to a young hostler. Beside him, a girl—a young woman, really—lifted saddlebags from the back of a sturdy gray pony. When the hostler reached for her reins, the mare’s ears went flat; lips curled away from teeth.
“Cloud, leave be,” ordered the girl. She spoke Common, the main language of the Eastern and Southern lands, with only a faint accent, the last trace of her origins in the mountains of Galla. “It’s too late for you to be at your tricks.”
The mare sighed audibly, as if she agreed. The hostler took her reins carefully, and led mare and gelding away. Grinning, the girl slung the bags over her shoulder.
She is lovely, thought the Stormwing who had once been Emperor Ozorne of Carthak. The boys must swarm around her now, seeing the promise of that soft mouth, and ignoring the stubborn chin. Or at least, he amended his own thought, the ones with the courage to approach a girl so different from others. Boys who don’t mind that she converses with passing animals, not caring that only half the conversation can be heard by two-leggers. Such a brave boy—or man—would try to drown himself in those blue-gray eyes, with their extravagant eyelashes.
Ozorne the Stormwing smiled. It was a pity that, unlike most girls of sixteen, she would not make a charm this Midsummer’s Day to attract her true love. On the holiday, two days hence, she—and her lanky companion—would be dead. There would be no lovers, no future husband, for Veralidaine Sarrasri, just as there would be no more arcane discoveries for Numair Salmalín, Ozorne’s one-time friend.
“I want the box,” he said, never looking away from the dark pool.
Two new arrivals entered the image in the pool. One was an immortal, a basilisk. Over seven feet tall, thin and fragile-looking, he resembled a giant lizard who had decided to walk on his hind legs. His eyes were calm and gray, set in beaded skin the color of a thundercloud. In one paw he bore his long tail as a lady might carry the train to her gown.
The other newcomer rode in a pouch made of a fold of skin on the basilisk’s stomach. Alert, she surveyed everything around her, fascination in her large eyes with their slit pupils. A young dragon, she was small—only two feet long, with an extra twelve inches of tail—and bore little resemblance to the adults of her kind. They reached twenty feet in length by midadolescence, after their tenth century of life.
“Numair! Daine! Tkaa, and Kitten—welcome!” A tall, black-haired man with a close-cropped beard, wearing blue linen and white silk, approached the new arrivals, holding out a hand. The swarthy man gripped it in his own with a smile. As the young dragon chirped a greeting, the basilisk and the girl bowed. Jonathan of Conté, king of Tortall, put an arm around mage and girl and led them away, saying, “Can you help us with these wyverns?” Basilisk and dragon brought up the rear.
Something tapped the Stormwing’s side. A ball of shadow was there, invisible in the half-light except where it had wrapped smoky tendrils around a small iron box. The Stormwing brushed the latch with a steel claw; the top flipped back. Inside lay five small, lumpy, flesh-colored balls. They wriggled slightly as he watched.
“Patience,” he said. “It is nearly time. You must try to make your mistress proud.”
Mortals approached from the camp. They stopped on the far edge of the Stormwing’s dark pool; the image in it vanished. Two were Copper Islanders. They were dressed in the soft boots, flowing breeches, and long overtunics worn by their navy, the elder with a copper breastplate showing a jaguar leaping free of a wave, the younger with a plain breastplate. The third man, a Scanran shaman-mage, was as much their opposite as anyone could be. His shaggy blond mane and beard were a rough contrast to the greased, complex loops of the Islanders’ black hair. Hot though it was, he wore a bearskin cape over his stained tunic and leggings, but never sweated. Few people ever looked at his dress: All eyes were drawn to the large ruby set in the empty socket of one eye. The other eye glittered with cold amusement at his companions.
“Still watching Salmalín and the girl?” asked the senior Islander. “My king did not send us for your private revenge. We are here to loot. The central cities of Tortall are far richer prizes than this one.”
“You will have your richer prizes,” Ozorne said coldly, “after Legann falls.”
“It will take all summer to break Legann,” argued the Islander. “I want to reunite my fleet and strike Port Caynn now! Unless your spies have lied —”
“My agents can no more lie than they can unmake themselves,” replied the Stormwing coldly.
“Then an attack from my fleet at full strength will take port and capital! I want to do it now, before help comes from the Yamani Islands!”
Ozorne’s amber eyes glittered coldly. “Your king told you to heed my instructions.”
“My king is not here. He cannot see that you forced us into a fruitless siege only to lure a common-born man and maid into a trap! I—”
The Stormwing reached out a wing to point at the angry Islander. The black pool on the ground hurled itself into the air. Settling over the man’s head and shoulders, it plugged his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. He thrashed, ripping at the pool. It reshaped itself away from his clawing hands, flowing until it pinned his arms against his sides. The onlookers could hear his muffled screams.
When the man’s thrashing ended, Ozorne looked at the remaining Islander. “Have you questions for me?”
The younger man shook his head. Droplets of sweat flew from him.
“Consider yourself promoted. Bury that,” the Stormwing ordered, meaning the dead man. He looked at the Scanran shaman-mage. “What do you say, Inar Hadensra?”
The man grinned. Crimson sparks flashed in his ruby eye. “My masters sent me to see that Tortall is stretched thin,” he said in a cracked voice. “Where our forces go is no matter, so long as this bountiful realm is weak as a kitten in the spring.”
“Wise,” Ozorne remarked with a shrug of contempt.
Fire blazed out of the ruby, searing Ozorne’s eyes. He covered his face with his wings, sweat pouring from his living flesh, but the agony went on, and on. A harsh voice whispered, “Remember that you are no longer emperor of Carthak. Take care how you address me.” The pain twisted and went icy, chilling Ozorne from top to toe. Each place where his flesh mixed with steel burned white-hot with cold. “The power for which I plucked one eye out of my own head is enough to defeat the magic of a Stormwing, even one so tricky as you.”
When Ozorne’s vision cleared, he was alone with the dark pool on the ground, and the shadow next to him. “I’ll gut you for that, Inar,” he whispered, looking at the box. “But not before I settle my score with Veralidaine and the one-time Arram Draper.” Grabbing his iron box in one claw, he took off, flapping clumsily into the night sky.
Two days later, the girl and the man who had drawn Ozorne’s attention hovered over a cot in a guard tower at Port Legann. Their eyes were locked on the small, blue-white form curled up in a tight ball at the cot’s center. The dragon’s immature wings were clenched tight on either side of her backbone. The tall gray basilisk Tkaa was there as well, gazing through a window at the courtyard below.
“I don’t like her color,” Daine said. “She’s never been that shade before. Pale blue, yes, but—going white along with the blue? It’s as if she’s turning into a ghost.”
“She is weary,” replied the basilisk, turning away from his view. “For a dragon as young as Skysong, the effort of will required to send a wyvern about his business is tiring. She will be fine when she awakes.”
“What if the wyverns return before then?” Numair Salmalín showed the effects of the spring’s fighting more than Daine or Tkaa. Too many nights with little or no sleep had etched creases around his full, sensitive mouth and at the corners of his dark eyes. For all that he was only thirty, there were one or two white hairs in his crisp, black mane of hair. “The king was—unpleased—when I attempted to fight them last time.”
Daine smiled. Unpleased described King Jonathan’s reaction to Numair’s use of his magical Gift on wyverns as well as breeze described a hurricane. “You were ordered to keep your strength in reserve,” she reminded him. “Archers can do for wyverns as well as you, and there might come something archers can’t fight. Then he’ll need you.”
“The wyverns should not return for at least a day,” the basilisk added. “They too used up their strength, to defy a dragon’s command for as long as they did.”
“I can’t believe they ran.” Daine pushed her tumble of smoky brown curls away from her face. “She’s not even three years old.” She and Kitten had risen at sunrise to handle the attacking wyverns; there had been no time to pin up her hair, or even to comb it well. With a sigh, she picked up her brush and began to drag it through her curls.
Numair watched her from his position next to the sleeping dragon. He could see weariness in Daine’s blue-gray eyes. The two of them had been in motion since the spring thaws, when Tortall’s foreign enemies—an alliance of Copper Islanders, Carthaki rebels, Scanran raiders, and untold immortals—had struck the northern border, western coast, and a hundred points within the realm. With the wild magic that enabled Daine to ask the animals and birds of Tortall to fight the invaders, Kitten’s dragon power, Tkaa’s ability to turn any who vexed him to stone, and Numair’s own great magical Gift, they had managed time after time in the last twelve weeks to stave off disaster.
Port Legann was their most recent stop; the four had ridden all night to reach the king. Remembering that ride, just two days ago, Numair wondered how much more of this pace they would be able to stand.
The rest of the country was in little better shape. “Our true allies are pressed to the wall,” King Jonathan had told them over supper on the night of their arrival. “Maren, Galla, Tyra—immortals hit them at the same time they hit us. Emperor Kaddar does his best to guard our southern coast, but he’s got a rebellion on his hands. The emperor of the Yamani Islands has promised to send a fleet, but even when it comes, it will be needed to relieve the siege on Port Caynn and on Corus.”
Kitten stirred in her sleep, interrupting Numair’s thoughts. “Shh,” he murmured, stroking her. The dragon twisted so that her belly was half exposed, and quieted again.
A boy stuck his head in the open door. “’Scuze me, m’lord Numair, Lady, um—um—sir.” His confusion over the proper title for a basilisk was brief. “His Majesty needs you now, up on the coast wall, the northwest drum tower. If you’ll follow me?”
Now what? was in the looks Daine and Numair exchanged, before the girl remembered the dragon. “Kitten—”
“I will remain with Skysong,” Tkaa assured her.
Daine stood on tiptoe to pat the immortal’s cheek. “You’re fair wonderful, Tkaa.” She and Numair followed the runner at a brisk walk.
A man, a commoner by his sweat-soaked clothes, knelt at the king’s feet, drinking greedily from a tankard. Beside him was a tray with a pitcher and a plate of sliced bread, meat, and cheese. The king, in tunic and breeches of his favorite blue and a plain white shirt, leaned against the tower wall, reading a grimy sheet of parchment. In direct sunlight, Daine could see that Jonathan had also acquired some white threads in his black hair since the arrival of spring.
“This is Ulmer of Greenhall, a village southeast of here,” the king said when he saw them. “He has ridden hard to reach us, and his news is—unsettling.”
Watching the man eat, Daine realized he didn’t kneel just from reverence to his monarch—gray with exhaustion, he was too weak to stand. It seemed that all he could manage was to chew his food.
“‘Unsettling’? I don’t like the sound of that,” Numair remarked.
“The village headman writes that five things came out of the Coastal Hills near Greenhall the day before yesterday. They kill what they touch—”
“Skin ’em, with magic,” Ulmer interrupted. “Can’t shoot ’em.” He refilled his tankard with trembling hands. “I mean, y’ can, but it does them no hurt. Swords, axes—” He shook his head. Realizing that he’d interrupted the king, he ducked his head. “Beggin’ your pardon, Sire.”
“It’s all right, Ulmer.” To Numair and Daine, Jonathan added, “Sir Hallec of Fief Nenan went to fight them at sunset yesterday. They killed him.” He grimly rolled up the parchment. “Fortunately, the Skinners don’t move after dark, and are slow to start in the morning—they seem to need to warm up. The people of Greenhall have fled, but . . . there are rich fields in this part of the realm, as you know. We will need those crops this winter.” He looked at Numair, then at Daine. “I’m sorry. I know you’re exhausted, but—”
“You need your other mages to deal with the enemy fleet, and the siege,” Numair said. “This is why you’ve kept me in reserve, Your Majesty.”
“The wyverns—” the runner who had brought them said. He blushed when the others looked at him.
Daine understood his worry. The giant, winged, legless dragons breathed a yellow fog that gave humans a dry, long-lasting cough and made the eyes burn and blur. The crew of one of the great catapults, breathless and half blind, had dumped a boulder among their own soldiers. Legann’s only insurance against another wyvern attack was Kitten. Wyverns might resist, but they had to obey an order from one of their dragon cousins.
“Kit stays,” the girl said firmly, looking at the king. “Tkaa knows more about helping her than I do, anyway.”
“She won’t protest?” Jonathan asked. He knew the young dragon well.
Daine shook her head. “She doesn’t like us being apart for long, but she’s gotten used to it since the war began. Sometimes we’re more useful when we’re apart.”
“I’ll guide you to—home.” Ulmer tried to get up, and failed.
“There’s no need,” said Numair gently. “If you do not object, I’ll take the knowledge of the route to your village from your mind. You’re in no condition to ride.”
“I’ll pack for us both, and give the word to Tkaa,” Daine said. “Meet you at the stables soonest.” She turned to go. A hand grabbed her sleeve. Puzzled, she looked at the king. “Be—careful,” he said, giving her the parchment letter. “These Skinners sound like nothing that anyone has encountered before.”
Daine smiled at this man whom she had served with love and respect for the last three years. “Numair will set them to rights, Majesty,” she said. “Just make sure you’re still here when we come back.”
“I think we can manage that much,” the king replied, and released Daine’s sleeve. “Unless they get reinforcements, we can hold them all summer if we must.” He and Daine tapped their own skulls with closed fists, their version of knocking on wood. “Look at the bright side. It’s Midsummer’s Day—maybe the gods will throw some luck at us!”
“Midsummer—do you know, I’d fair forgotten?” Daine smiled wryly. “Maybe I’ll look in a pond along the way and find out who my true love will be.”
Jonathan laughed. Daine grinned, bowed, and trotted off, waiting until she knew he could no longer see her before she let her smile fade. With Numair’s magical Gift to hide their presence, there would be no problem in leaving the city—it was how they’d entered it in the first place. Her concern was for the king—and for the queen, commanding at the embattled capital; for Alanna the Lioness, the King’s Champion, in the far north since the spring; for the many friends she had made all over Tortall.
We need Midsummer luck for fair, she thought, returning to their rooms. All along the enemy’s known what we’re about before we do it. We need luck to counter him, and luck to find his spies. I don’t know where it’s to come from, but we need it soon.
They left Port Legann separately. Numair rode his patient gelding, Spots, carrying his pack and Daine’s. While two of the three roads that led into the city were still open, they were unsafe; he cloaked himself and Spots magically, as he’d done on the way into Legann. Daine herself flew out in the shape of a golden eagle to see if she could find the Skinners and get an idea of what she and Numair were up against.
She soared on columns of warm air that rose from the land. From the upper reaches, the walled city and its surroundings looked much like a wonderfully detailed map. The enemy’s main camp lay a few miles off the north road. On the road itself, a mixed band of enemy soldiers and immortals was camped. On the eastern and southern roads, soldiers in Tortallan colors had dug in to keep the way open for help and supplies. From aloft, she also saw the motley fleet that waited outside Legann, thwarted from entering the harbor by the great chains stretched across its mouth.
In her years in Tortall she had lived among warriors and mages, and could read a battle situation like a book. What she read now gave Daine hope. The enemy army was about equal to Legann’s; if they had any magical surprises, they would have used them before. With armies that were matched, and neither side having the advantage in magic or weapons, the battle on land and at sea was a stalemate. The king was right: Legann might hold all summer, particularly if they could keep at least one road open.
She wheeled, turning her eyes east. Twenty miles from the city, a wide swath of pale brown, black, and gray, naked of greenery, straddled the east road. Trees stripped of leaf and bark thrust into the air like toothpicks. As she approached, she saw, and smelled, corpses—most of them animals—bloated and stinking in the heat. They came in all sizes, from the smallest mice to cows and sheep. The closer Daine came to that dead zone, the fewer animal voices she heard. Most of the Beast-People who could do so had fled.
Gliding over the last bank of living trees, she found the Skinners. There were five in all: wet, flesh-colored, two-legger things. They had no eyes, ears, noses, or mouths, but they didn’t seem to require such niceties. They forged ahead blindly, touching anything that lived. When they did, plants became dull instead of glossy. Tree bark vanished. Within seconds, vegetation went dark, brittle, dead. As the creatures touched things, parts of their own flesh changed color—brown, green, reddish, like bark or leaves in texture. Those patches would grow, shrink, and vanish rapidly.
She had come upon the Skinners as they worked their way through a village. They ignored small obstacles, like tossed-aside buckets or sacks of food that had been left in the street. If the object was big—a well, or an abandoned wagon—they split up, walked around, and rejoined to walk abreast once more.
High overhead, Daine reached into the copper fire of her wild magic. Gripping it, she cast it out like a net, letting her power fall gently onto the Skinners. She didn’t expect it to stop them. Wild magic only helped her shape-shift and talk to the People. Still, if wild magic was something she had in common with these things, perhaps they could talk. Perhaps she could get them to break off their mindless, deadly ramble.
Her net touched something—and suddenly a hole yawned in the center of her magic. She felt the closeness of things she couldn’t name; they shifted and rolled just at the corner of her mind’s eye. Creatures that should not exist wailed in voices that made her ears bleed; dreadful scents reached her nose and tore at the delicate tissues inside. She lost control over her eagle body and dropped.
In losing her form, she broke the magic’s grip. Frantically Daine shifted into the first shape that came to mind. Just before she hit ground, crow wings grabbed air and dragged her aloft. When she was safe in the new form and out of reach, she looked down.
The Skinners had formed a circle. Their eyeless heads were turned up, as if they could see her. She scolded with the excitement of fear, cursing them in a crow’s beautifully nasty vocabulary.
Her foes were not impressed. Spreading out in a line, they began to march forward. Daine shuddered. What had she sensed? What were those things made of? She would have to ask Numair. For now, she slowly made herself an eagle again. A bird of prey was a better glider than a crow, and she needed the eagle’s sharp eyes.
Below, the monsters lumbered on. The leftmost Skinner was about to step over a small hutch when it stopped. Bending down, it grabbed at the small door, yanking it off its hinges. A rabbit streaked by on its way to freedom. Before Daine could even guess what was happening, the Skinner seized its prey and held its prize up by the ears.
The hare convulsed. Its fur and hide vanished, ripped off in an eye-blink. Patches of fur appeared all over the Skinner, dull against the gleaming stickiness that was its own flesh. The hare now dangled, motionless. The thing dropped it, and touched a patch of fur that had appeared on its belly. The patch grew, then shrank, and was gone.
Horrified, Daine called up her magic again while the Skinners walked on. She searched the village for more abandoned animals. There was a chicken coop on the edge of town. Its occupants could sense nearby monsters; they shrieked their alarm. She didn’t stop to remember that she despised chickens for their stupidity and their smell. Once more she dropped, taking on her true shape as soon as she touched the ground.
Fumbling at the rope latch on the coop, she glanced around. More than anything, she wanted to see the Skinners before they saw her. The rope gave. Chickens erupted from the coop, showering Daine with feathers, scratching her and squawking in her ears. “Stop it, you idiotic birds!” she whispered. “Shut up, clear out, and get away from here!”
She used her magic to give them brief wisdom. The chickens raced into the forest, away from the approaching monsters. Daine took eagle shape for the third time, watching the Skinners from high above as she waited for Numair to arrive.
He threw off his cloaking spell when he and Spots reached the dead zone, and Daine glided down to meet him. Taking her pack, she dressed behind a tree as she reported what she had seen. When he dismounted, she unsaddled Spots and sent the gelding into the still living woods, out of the Skinners’ path.
Numair passed her crossbow and quiver to her. “Can we beat them?” he asked.
Daine’s blue-gray eyes met his dark ones. “I don’t know,” she said truthfully. “I’ve never seen the like of these things.” Putting a foot in the crossbow’s stirrup, she drew the bowstring until it hooked over the release.
The man sighed and dropped his cloak over their packs. Black fire that sparkled with bits of white appeared around his body. “Give me that quarrel,” he said, holding out a hand. She obeyed, passing over the bolt that she’d been about to load. He closed long fingers around it, lips moving, then handed it over.
Daine placed the quarrel in the clip, then led him to their quarry. The Skinners had finished with the village of Greenhall and had entered a nearby peach orchard. Half of the trees were stripped of their bark. Even the green fruit had lost its skin.
Numair looked ill. “Is it all like this?” he asked.
“Worse. There’s acres of it, clean back to the hills.” She raised the bow to her shoulder, taking deliberate aim. The Skinners, in the middle of the orchard, turned to stare at them—if they could stare.
Daine shot. The quarrel flew straight, and buried itself in one Skinner’s head. Numair gestured; an explosion tore the air. The Skinner blew apart, showering its companions with pieces of itself. The others looked around in apparent confusion.
Daine started to grin, but stopped. Swiftly each of the Skinner chunks doubled, redoubled, and spread. Each sprouted a pair of stumps to stand on, and stretched. Now there were ten Skinners, five large and five smaller ones. Their attention fixed on her and Numair, they came at a run. Daine slipped another bolt into the clip of the bow.
The mage raised a hand. Black fire jumped away from him and swept over the monsters, pulling them into the air. The Skinners thrashed and broke through his control, hurtling to the ground. Slowly, they got up.
“I hope the owner of this orchard forgives me,” muttered Numair. Stretching out his hands, he shouted a phrase that Daine couldn’t understand. The ground before the advancing Skinners ripped open. They dropped into the crevasse.
Numair trotted toward it, Daine right behind him. “If I can seal them into the earth, that may be the end of it. I certainly hope so.” Halting at the edge of the crack, they peered in. “I hate simply blasting them with raw power like this. There is always a spell to uncreate anything, though the consequences may be—oh, dear.”
The Skinners were climbing the sides. Numair jerked Daine back, shouting a word that made her ears pound. The earth rumbled, knocking them down; the crack sealed.
“Please Goddess, please Mithros, let that stop them,” whispered Numair. Sweat dripped from his face as Daine helped him to stand. “Grant a boon on Midsummer’s Day—”
Daine heard something behind them and whirled. Ten feet away, crude hands erupted through dirt. “Numair!” she cried, and shot the emerging Skinner. Unmagicked, her bolt had no effect. The creature rose from the ground as if it climbed a stair.
Numair cried out in Old Thak. The creature that Daine had shot turned to water. The man whirled to do the same to another Skinner. Half out of the earth, it dissolved.
Five spots near them exploded as Skinners leaped free of the ground. Daine screamed. Numair reached to pull her closer, and discovered that someone else had the same idea. Two pairs of hands clutched the girl by the arms, dragging her into a patch of air that burned silvery white.
“No!” shouted the mage, wrapping both arms around Daine. The phantom hands continued to pull.
Sinking into white pain, Daine heard a man shriek, “Curse you, follow them! Follow, follow, FOLLOW!”
Unseen by her or Numair, an inky shadow leaped free of the grass to wrap itself around her feet. Girl, man, and shadow vanished into bright air.
Every inch of her throbbed. Hands gripped her; she fought. “The Skinners! They’ll kill Numair, they’ll kill the People, they’ll kill the crops! Let me go!”
A female voice, one that she knew, said, “If she doesn’t rest, she won’t heal. He’s just as bad. Both keep fretting about those monsters.”
“I’d best take care of it, then.” The second gravelly voice was even more familiar.
“Why?” The speaker was an unknown male. “Leave mortal affairs to mortals.”
“Nonsense,” barked the gravel voice. Whiskers tickled her face; a musky scent that she knew well filled her nose. “Listen, Daine. Numair is here, with you. He’s safe. I’ll fix those Skinners. I can handle them. Now rest, and stop fussing!”
She sneezed. “All right, Badger.” If her old friend the badger god said that things would be taken care of, she could believe him, even if all this was only a dream.
The woman’s voice was fading. “I’ll tell Numair.”
The next time Daine woke, the pain gnawing at her had turned to a dull, steady ache. Cloth rustled nearby; the faint odor of sweet pea and woods lily filled her nose. Like the female voice she’d heard, she knew that scent well. She opened her eyes.
A blurred face hung over her. Daine squinted, trying to see. The face became clearer: blue eyes, a dimple at the corner of that smiling mouth, creamy skin, straight nose, high cheekbones. The whole was topped with a braided crown of heavy golden hair.
In a second the girl forgot the last four years. She was twelve again, and in her bed in Galla. “Ma?” she croaked. “I dreamed you was dead.” With a frown, she corrected herself—she knew how to speak like cultured folk nowadays! “I dreamed you were dead.”
Sarra Beneksri—Daine’s mother—laughed. “Sweet-ling, it was no dream. I am dead.”
Some of Daine’s confusion faded. “Well, that’s all right, then.” She tried to sit up. “Where am I?”
Sarra moved pillows to help her. “You’re in the realms of the gods.”
Moving dizzied the girl. “How’d I get here? And why do I hurt so?”
“We brought you. Sadly, passage between realms was fair hard for you. Here’s something to drink against the pain.”
“Talk about familiar,” Daine grumbled, taking the offered cup. With each swallow, she felt an improvement; by the time she’d swallowed all of the liquid, her pain was nearly gone. “Your messes have gotten better,” she remarked with a grin.
“It’s the herbs here.” Sarra pinched Daine’s nose gently. “They’re stronger. Open your eyes wide.” She used her fingers to pull back Daine’s eyelids. “Where were you born?”
“Snowsdale, in Galla. Why are you asking?”
“To see if your mind’s unhurt—though it being you, I wonder if I’ll be able to tell.”
“Ma!” squeaked Daine with laughing outrage.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen.” Memory returned in a rush. “Where’s Numair? The Skinners—”
Her mother stopped her from getting up. “Easy. Master Numair is here, and safe. The badger took care of those skinning monsters. He turned them to ice, and they melted. They won’t trouble anyone now.”
“So I didn’t dream that.” Daine sank back against her pillows gratefully, fingering the heavy silver badger’s claw that hung on a chain around her neck. “Where did they come from, do you suppose?”
“You know as much as me,” was the reply. “I’ve never seen the like of them.”
“Sarra?” The voice coming from the next room was deep, male, and unfamiliar.
The woman’s face lit up. “In here, my love. She’s awake.”
The door opened, and a man dressed in a loincloth entered. Although the doorway was unusually large, the crown of antlers firmly rooted in his brown, curly hair forced him to duck to pass through. He was tan and heavily muscled, with emerald eyes. Daine was unsettled to notice that there also were olive streaks in his reddish brown skin.
“So.” He touched his antlers uneasily as she stared at them. “We meet at last.”
“This is your father,” Sarra told Daine. “This is the god Weiryn.”