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Set in an alternate Europe where bloody conflicts rage, the fifth book of the Crown of Stars epic fantasy series continues the world-shaking conflict for the survival of humanity
The long-dreaded cataclysm is about to descend on the world as the lost land of the Aoi returns to the Earth from which it was cast forth millennia ago. And though Liath has at last found her way back to Earth, she knows disaster will soon follow her. Yet just how little time remains to avert humanity’s destruction she discovers to her horror only when she learns that her brief stay in the bespelled land has actually kept her from her family and allies for nearly four years.
In that time, Sanglant has mobilized an army and journeyed to the land of the griffins, intent on forging an alliance to stand against the forces which are determined to rework the spell that originally exiled the Aoi and their lands from the world.
Alain, caught up by Liath as she makes her way back to her own world and time, has been returned to the present bereft of all that matters to him. And though for a while he finds refuge in a monastery, he is soon condemned to a terrible fate. His only hope of rescue lies with the Eika leader Stronghand, who has begun a campaign of conquest into the human lands.
And even as these diverse forces struggle to avert total ruin, the mathematici, led by Anne and Hugh, strive to re-create the original spell which exiled the ancient Aoi, neither knowing nor caring that their magical workings could tear their world apart….
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The Gathering StormVOLUME FIVE of Crown of Stars
By Kate Elliott
DAW BOOKS, INC.Copyright © 2003 Katrina Elliott
All right reserved.
THE air smelled of rain, heavy and unseasonably warm, and the wind blowing in from the east brought with it the smells of the village: woodsmoke, ripe privies, and the stink of offal from the afternoon's slaughter of five pigs. Just yesterday Hanna and the cohort of Lions and sundry milites who were her escort had journeyed through snow flurries. Now it was temperate enough to tuck away gloves and set aside cloaks as they ate a supper of freshly roasted pig as well as cold porridge and a bitter ale commandeered from the village larder. Yet neither the food nor the familiar smells of the Wendish countryside brought her comfort. East lay the object of her hatred, still living, still eating. Her choked fury was like a scab ripped open every single day.
"Come now, Hanna," said Ingo. "You're not eating enough. If this cut of roast won't tempt you, I can surely dig up some worms."
She ate obediently, knowing how her mother would have scolded her for the unthinkable sin of refusing to eat meat when it was available, but her heart was numb. Hate had congealed in her gut, and she could not shake it loose.
"Ai, Lady," said Folquin. "You've got that look on your face again. I told you I would kill him for you. I'd have snuck right into his when he was asleep and stabbed him through the heart."
For months, as a prisoner of the Quman, she had shed no tears. Now every little thing, a stubbed toe, a child's giggle, a friend's helpless grimace, made her cry. "I can't believe Prince Sanglant let live," she said hoarsely. "He should have hanged him!"
"So said Princess Sapientia," commented Leo, "and so she's no doubt continuing to say, I suppose, for all the good it will do her."
"Anything could have happened since we left the army," suggested Stephen quietly. "Prince Sanglant could have changed his mind about killing him. Once the army reaches Handelburg, then the holy biscop might agree with Princess Sapientia and demand his execution. Princess Sapientia is the rightful heir, after all, isn't she? Prince Sanglant is only a bastard, so even though he's the elder, doesn't he have to do what she says?"
Ingo glanced around to make sure none but the five of them were close enough to hear. Other campfires sparked and smoked in the meadow, each with its complement of soldiers eating and chatting in the gray autumn twilight, but certainly far fewer Lions were marching west back into Wendar than had marched east over a year ago.
"You don't understand the way of the world yet, lad. Princes Sapientia can't rule if there's none who will follow her."
"What about God's law?" asked Stephen.
Ingo had a world-weary smirk that he dragged out when dealing with the youngest and most naive members of the Lions. "The one who rules the army rules."
"Hush," said Leo.
Captain Thiadbold walked toward them through the overgrazed meadow, withered grass snapping under his feet. Trees rose behind the clearing, the vanguard of the Thurin Forest.
Ingo rose when Thiadbold halted by the fire's light. "Captain. Is all quiet?" "As quiet as it can be. I thought those villagers would never stop squealing. You'd think they were the pigs being led to the slaughter. They've forgotten that if they want the protection of the king, then they have to feed his army." Thiadbold brushed back his red hair as he looked at Hanna. "I've had a talk with the elders, now that they've calmed down. It seems an Eagle rode through just yesterday. Princess Theophanu's not at Quedlinhame any longer. She's ridden north with her retinue to Gent."
Sometimes it was difficult to remember that the world kept on although she'd been frozen in place.
When she did not speak, Ingo answered. "Will we be turning north to Gent?"
"Quedlinhame is closer," objected Hanna wearily. "We'll be another ten days or more on the road if we turn north to Gent."
Thiadbold frowned, still watching her. "Prince Sanglant charged us to deliver his message, and the king's Lions, to his sister and none other. We must follow Princess Theophanu."
The others murmured agreement, but Hanna, remembering duty, touched the emerald ring on her finger that King Henry himself had given her as a reward for her loyalty. Duty and loyalty were the only things that had kept her alive for so long. "So Prince Sanglant said, but what will serve King Henry best? The king needs to know what has transpired in his kingdom. His sister rules over Quedlinhame convent. We might deliver ourselves to Mother Scholastica with no shame. She will know what to do."
"If Prince Sanglant had wanted us to deliver his message to Mother Scholastica, he could have sent us to her. It seems to me he meant his message, and these Lions, for Theophanu."
"Not for Henry?" Rising, she winced at the painful ache in her hips, still not healed after the bad fall she had taken fourteen days ago during the battle at the Veser River. Pain had worn her right through, but she had to keep going. "Is your loyalty to the king, or to his bastard son?"
"Hanna!" Folquin's whisper came too late.
Thiadbold studied her, a considering frown still curving his lips. She liked Thiadbold better than most; he was a good captain, even-tempered and clever, and unflappable in battle. The Lions under his command trusted him, and Prince Sanglant had brought him into his councils. "I beg pardon for saying so," he said finally, "but it's the chains you stubbornly carry of your own will that weigh you down the most. No use carrying stones in your sack if you've no need to."
"I'll thank you, Captain, to leave me to walk my own road in peace. You didn't see the things I saw."
"Nay, so I did not, nor would I wish any person to see what you saw, nor any to suffer it, but-"
She limped away, unwilling to hear more. He swore and hurried after her.
"Truce, then," he said as he came up beside her. "I'll speak no more on this subject, only I must warn you-"
"I pray you, do not."
He raised his hands in surrender, and his lips twisted in something resembling a smile but concealing unspoken words and a wealth of emotion. A spark of feeling flared in her heart, unbidden and unexpected. She had to concede he was well enough looking, with broad shoulders and that shock of red hair. Was it possible the interest he had taken in her over the last two weeks, after the battle and then once Prince Sanglant had sent them away from the main army to track down Theophanu, was more than comradely? Was he, however mildly, courting her? Did she find him attractive?
But to think of a man at all in that way made her think of Bulkezu, and anger and hatred scoured her clean in a tide of loathing.
Maybe Bulkezu had died of the wound to his face that he had received at the Veser. Maybe it had festered and poisoned him. But her Eagle's Sight told her otherwise.
She halted beside a pile of wood under the spreading branches of an oak tree that stood at the edge of the forest. Acorns slipped under her feet. Most of the wood had been split by the Lions and taken away to feed campfires, but a few unsplit logs remained. Thiadbold crossed his arms, not watching her directly, and said nothing. There was still enough light to distinguish his mutilated ear, the lobe but cleanly away and long since healed in a dimple of white scar tissue He had a new scar on his chin, taken at the Veser.
Ai, God, so many people had died at the hands of Bulkezu.
Rolling a log into place between several rocks, she grabbed the ax and started chopping. Yet not even the gleeful strike of the ax into wood could cut the rage and sorrow out of her.
The wind gusted as a hard rain swept over them. Soldiers scrambled for the shelter of their canvas tents. She retreated under the sheltering canopy of the oak. Out in the open, campfires wavered under the storm's force. One went right out, drowned by the heavy rain and the dozen others flickered and began to die. Distant lightning flashed, and a few heartbeats later, thunder cracked and rumbled.
"That came on fast," remarked Thiadbold. "Usually you can hear them coming."
"I felt it. They should have taken shelter sooner."
"So must we all. Prince Sanglant is a man who hears the tide of battle before the rest of us quite know what is about to hit us. He's like a hound that way, hearing and smelling danger before an ordinary man knows there's a beast ready to pounce. If he fears for the kingdom, if he fears that his father will not listen while black sorcery threatens Wendar, then I, for one, trust his instinct."
"Or his ambition?"
"Do you think so? That all this talk of a sorcerous cabal is only a cloak for vanity and greed? That he is simply a rebel intent on his own gain and glory?"
"What did the great nobles care when the common folk were murdered and enslaved by the Ouman? How many came to the aid of the farmers and cottagers? They only thought to defend themselves and their treasure, to nurse along their own petty quarrels. They left their people behind to suffer at the hands of monsters."
"So that may be. I will hardly be the one to defend the likes of Lord Wichman, though it was God's will that he be born the son of a duchess and set above you and me. Some say that the Quman were a punishment sent from God against the wicked."
"Martyrs now, each one. Yet who can say whom God favor? It was Prince Sanglant who defeated the Quman in the end."
She could think of no answer to this and so fumed as rain pelted down, drumming merrily on the earth. Drenched and shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself. A gust of wind raked the trees while thunder cracked. Branches splintered, torn free by the wind, and crashed to the ground a stone's toss away. Out in the meadow, a tent tore free of the stakes pinning it to the ground, exposing the poor soldiers huddled within. She recognized three wounded men who couldn't yet move well; one had lost a hand, another had a broken leg in a splint, and the third had both his arms up in slings to protect his injured shoulders. The canvas flapped like a great wing in the gale, trying to pull free of the remaining stakes.
Thiadbold swore, laughing, and ran out into the full force of the storm. For a moment she simply stood there in the wind and rain, staring, slack. Then a branch snapped above her, like a warning, and leaves showered down. She bolted after Thiadbold and together, with the belated help of other Lions, they got the tent staked down again while their injured comrades made jokes, humor being their only shield against their helpless condition.
At last Thiadbold insisted she walk over to the village and ask for Eagle's shelter at a hearth fire. There she dried out her clothing and dozed away the night in relative comfort on a sheepskin laid over a sleeping platform near the hearth. She woke periodically to cough or because the ache in her hip felt like the intermittent stabbing of a knife, thrust deep into the joint.
Would she never be rid of the pain?
The next day they chose a lanky youth from the village to take a message to Mother Scholastica at Ouedlinhame. No person among them, none of the Lions and certainly not any of the villagers, could write, so the lad had to be drilled until Hanna was sure he had the words right and could repeat them back at need. He proved quick and eager, learning the message thoroughly although eventually they had to chase away a chorus of onlookers who kept interrupting him to be helpful.
"I'd be an Eagle, if I could," he confided, glancing back to make sure his father could not hear. The old man was complaining to Thiadbold about losing the boy's labor for the week it would take him to walk to Quedlinhame and back at this time of year when the fields were being turned under and mast shaken down for the pigs and wood split. "It must be a good life, being an Eagle and serving the king."
"If you don't mind death and misery." He looked startled, then hurt, and a twinge of guilt made her shrug her shoulders. She hated the way his expression lit hopefully as he waited for her to go on "It's a hard life. I've seen worse things than I can bear to speak of-" She could not go on so stood instead, fighting the agony in her hip as tears came to her eyes.
But he was young and stupid, as she had been once.
"I wouldn't mind it," he said as he followed her to the door of his father's small but neat cottage. "I'm not afraid of cold or bandits. I've got a good memory. I know all the psalms by heart. Everyone says I'm quick. The deacon who comes Ladysday to lead mass sometimes asks me to lead the singing. B-but, I don't know how to ride a horse. I've been on the back of a donkey many a time, so surely that means I can easily learn how to sit a horse."
She wiped tears from her cheeks and swung back to look at him with his work-scarred hands and an undistinguished but good-natured face that made her think of poor Manfred, killed at Gent. She'd salvaged Manfred's Eagle's brooch after Bulkezu had torn it from her cloak, that day the Quman had captured her. She'd clung to that brass brooch and to the emerald ring Henry had given her. Together with her Eagle's oath, these things had allowed her to survive.
The lad seemed so young, yet surely he wasn't any younger than she had been the day Wolfhere had asked her mother if it was her wish that her daughter be invested into the king's service. In times of trouble, Wolfhere had said, there was always a need for suitable young persons to ride messages for the royal family.
"Is it your wish to be invested as an Eagle?" she asked finally.
The boy's strangled gasp and the spasmodic twitch of his shoulders was answer enough. Even the father fell silent as the enormity of her question hit him. His younger sister, left behind when the loitering villagers were chased out, burst into tears.
"Yes," he whispered, and could not choke out more words because his sister flung herself on him and began to wail.
"Ernst! My son! A king's Eagle!" The father's tone was querulous, and Hanna thought he was on the verge of breaking into a rage. But hate had clouded her sight. Overcome by emotion, his complaints forgotten, the old man knelt on the dirt floor of his poor house because his legs would not support him. Tears streaked his face. "It's a great honor for a child of this village to be called to serve the king."
So was it done, although she hadn't really realized she had the authority to deputize a young person so easily.
Excerpted from The Gathering Storm by Kate Elliott Copyright © 2003 by Katrina Elliott
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.