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SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]

Fans of Bahzell and Tomenack come on in! Let's talk about David's fantasy series and our favorite hradani!
SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]
Post by runsforcelery   » Thu Jul 09, 2015 3:29 pm

runsforcelery
First Space Lord

Posts: 1994
Joined: Sun Aug 09, 2009 11:39 am
Location: South Carolina

I am way, way behind on this for a lot of Real Life Issues. A lot of them have to do with production on HFQ, others are family related, then there was the week in Chattanooga for Liberty Con, and still others have to do with the fact that I've started work on the sequel to Shadow of Freedom. All of that is eating up time and, unfortunately that's not going to get a lot better anytime soon. However, I hope to make some amends by providing an even bigger snippet this time. In fact, it's long enough it's going to have to come in two installments to fit the character limit for posts.

Hope you enjoy it.

________________________________________________________

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Cost of Love

Brandark cradled his sextant in a bandaged hand and touched an index finger to the chart under the cabin skylight.

“Right here,” he said confidently. “We’ll raise Cape Banark tomorrow and enter South Banark Bay on the flood.”

“I’ll be relieved to rest my weary bones on something that doesn’t move constantly,” Wencit said.

“Hah!” Bahzell’s derision was majestic. “You’ll change your tune soon enough, I’m betting. If it’s choose between a moving deck underfoot and a moving horse under your backside, there’s no doubt in my mind at all, at all, which you’ll be after preferring in a few days!”

“No one made you come,” Wencit said pointedly, “but now that you have, you might at least show some respect for my old gray hairs.”

“Come now, Wencit!” Brandark grinned and nudged Kenhodan in the ribs. “You really did invite him, you know.”

“I did no such thing,” Wencit said tartly. “In fact, I told him he might get himself killed if he insisted on coming!”

“That’s what I meant. You know champions of Tomanāk are disgraced if they die in bed — especially the feeble-witted hradani ones. Warning Bahzell he could get killed was like sending him an engraved invitation! Don’t begrudge him another chance to earn Scale Balancer’s favor.”

“Aye,” Bahzell rumbled, eyes glinting at the wizard’s discomfiture. “Especially not when I’ll have to be accounting to him for having friends like this namby-pamby ship’s captain. Sure, and it’s a hard thing when a hradani’s after playing dress-up and wasting time on silly, addlepated things like books.”

“You two are remarkable,” Wencit retorted. “You’re the only people I know with such thick skulls you don’t need helmets!”

“Aye? Well then, I’ve no doubt that’s why we’re after being your friends!”

Bahzell chuckled and slapped Brandark’s shoulder in appreciation of his own wit.

“Out! Both of you — out!” Wencit clenched his fist and a blue glow danced on his knuckles. “Out! Or by Isvaria’s Axe, I’ll fry your hairy backsides over a slow fire! We’ll see who doesn’t like saddles then!”

The two hradani beat a hasty retreat, still laughing, and Kenhodan grinned after them. But when he looked back at Wencit his smile died, for the wizard’s wildfire eyes were half-shut, his face wrung with pain, as he unclenched his fist and let the glow float above his seamed palm.

“Wencit? What’s wrong?”

Nothing!

The glow leapt and died as Wencit’s hand chopped the air sharply. His palm slapped down on the chart table with a sharp, explosive sound, and Kenhodan frowned in bafflement. Tension had hovered about the old man for days, screwing tighter and tighter with passing time. Kenhodan had no idea what its source might be, but his own fear of the rage hiding within him made him sensitive to the wizard’s mood, and it felt as if Wencit’s defenses had been eroded in some unfathomable manner. The wizard’s . . . vulnerability worried him, and not knowing its cause only made it worse.

Silence hovered between them, framed in the sounds of a sailing ship underway — the steady creak of timbers, the rush of water, the distant voices of Wave Mistress’ crew, and the even more distant voices of the seagulls who’d swept out from the approaching land to greet them. Then, finally, Wencit sighed, propped his elbows on the chart, and leaned his face into his palms.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you, Kenhodan,” he said into them, his voice weary. “I’ll ask your pardon for that.”

“What’s bothering you, Wencit?” Kenhodan asked gently, his tone an acceptance of the wizard’s apology.

“Many things.” Wencit lowered his hands, leaned back, and stared at the deckhead, his expression bleak, and his voice seemed to come from far away. “When you live a long time, you find too many things to regret, Kenhodan.”

His suddenly desolate tone frightened Kenhodan, as if the sea had admitted an end to its strength. He’d come to share Bahzell’s faith in Wencit’s complete capability, but this strange depression had stripped away the veils of legend and reminded Kenhodan that for all his power, the last white wizard of Kontovar was but a man . . . a very old man.

“What’s brought that on just now?” he asked finally, and Wencit hesitated, then shrugged.

“Bahzell. Brandark. They’re so full of life — and they’re my friends.” The wildfire eyes lowered suddenly, stabbing Kenhodan. “It’s bad enough to lose friends,” he said softly, “but it’s worse to know you won’t be joining them. And worse yet to know your actions, your decisions, will cut their lives still shorter.”

Kenhodan nodded slowly, suddenly aware that he and the wizard were two sides of a single coin. He couldn’t remember . . . but Wencit couldn’t forget, and he wondered, now, which was the heavier burden.

“It’s terrible to be afraid to make friends, to love, because anyone you love will die . . . probably because they got too close to you, and it killed them,” Wencit went on. “You can accept the pattern of the world, of time . . . but not for those you love.”

His voice was old, his face drawn, as he crossed his arms and rocked gently, cradling the memory of all his dead. Kenhodan shivered and strained to catch the last words he whispered to himself.

“Love tears holes in you, and it happens over and over, until — after a time — you can’t even weep . . . .”

* * * * * * * * * *

Night ruled Belhadan like a gentle tyrant. Stars burned bright, moon-silvered clouds drifted gently across a cobalt dome, and cool breeze blew through empty streets. Silence gripped the Iron Axe Tavern, broken only by the even breathing of its inhabitants, and Leeana Hanathafressa slept deeply, her dreams far away with her husband in the south.

Slowly, ever so slowly, a tiny sound crept into those dreams. The sleeping mind tried to ignore it, but the sound persisted, hanging on the very edge of existence. Normal ears wouldn’t have heard it, but Leeana’s hearing was far from normal.

The small sound continued, and her eyes opened. Like Bahzell, she woke fully, completely, with no lingering on the edge of sleep. She sat up and her brow furrowed as she listened intently.

For one moment she sat; then confusion became knowledge . . . and fear. She vaulted up and fled the room, the hem of her gown flying as she sped down the darkened hall like the wind.

She halted outside Gwynna’s room, and her face twisted with a fear no enemy had ever seen as her trembling hand opened the door slowly.

Moonlight washed the bedroom through windows on three sides. It was a pleasant, blue-walled place with a thick rug, and the huge direcat slept on the rug, his black coat a slab of midnight in the moonlight. He lay almost motionless, but his forefeet moved slowly, scrabbling silently at an unseen barrier, and his breathing was quick and shallow. He didn’t even stir at her arrival, and Leeana’s heart quailed. No natural sleep would prevent Blanchrach from rousing at the quiet sound of that opening door.

She glided to the edge of the bed. Gwynna lay very still, huge blue eyes staring blindly into the darkness. Her small fists were clenched at her sides, as if to nail down the coverlet, and her lips moved slowly. Leeana bent fearfully to the tiny, thready whisper which had drawn her here.

“No, Poppa. No. It’s not safe, Poppa. No, Poppa, please . . . .”

“Gwynna?”

Leeana’s cool fingers brushed Gwynna’s forehead, but her daughter’s eyes were fixed and open. She never even blinked, and her lips only whispered their warning again. Leeana’s blood ran cold, and she shook the girl gently.

“Gwynna! It’s Momma, Gwynna! Wake up!” she commanded, and the child rolled under her hand. But when Leeana released her, she lay still, her whispered litany unbroken, and Leeana Flame Hair, wind rider, war maid of the Sothōii, daughter of the House of Bowmaster, victor in a score of battles, wife to a champion of Tomanāk, pressed her knuckles to her mouth and bit them bloody.

“Lillinara, Friend of Women,” she whispered, and her voice was a bitter prayer, “must I lose my child so soon?”

She bent over the bed a moment longer, tears glistening under the moon to splash Gwynna’s face, but the girl slept heedlessly on. Leeana’s finger traced one ivory-knuckled fist. Then she patted the small hand with infinite tenderness, turned, and left the room with a firm tread. Her face was composed, her shoulders squared, but she went down the hall with a deliberate stride unlike her normal gliding grace. She descended a flight of stairs to another door and struck the wood imperatively.

“Farmah!” She pitched her voice low and knocked again. “Farmah!”

After a long moment, someone stirred behind the door. The latch clicked, and the door swung quickly wide. A hradani woman looked out, her eyes bleary, her hair hanging un-braided, and her ears cocked in confusion.

“Lady Leeana! W-What is it?”

“Wake Frolach.” Leeana’s chin rose as if she faced an enemy. “Send him to the Academy. Tell him not to come back without Lentos himself.”

“Lentos?” Farmah blinked away sleep. “It’s the middle of the night, My Lady! Why? What’s hap —” She broke off, eyes flying wide as the last trace of sleep departed, and her hand rose to her mouth. “No, Milady!”

“I can’t wake her,” Leeana said bleakly. “We need Lentos.”

Farmah’s brown eyes were suddenly strained. Her ears flattened and her own lips trembled.

“But perhaps it’s only a dream, Milady! Perhaps —”

“I tried to wake her!” An edge of desperation sharpened Leeana’s voice. “And Blanchrach won’t wake, either. It’s no dream. Send for Lentos now!”

“At once, Milady!” Farmah gasped, bobbing a quick curtsy.

“Good.” Leeana turned and walked away with the same slow, deliberate stride, and Farmah gazed after her in confusion and dread.

“But, Milady, w-what should we do?” she whispered.

“I’m going to my daughter,” Leeana said softly, without turning. “No childhood should die unwatched. Hurry, Farmah.”

And Leeana Hanathafressa passed through the stillness of her home as silently as any ghost.

* * * * * * * * * *

“That’s the mouth of the White Water.”

Brandark pointed across the starboard bow in the morning light, and Kenhodan strained his eyes. The shore was still distant, but he saw a broad, tan stain on the blue bay where silt fanned outward.

“I see it.”

“It’s a wicked channel,” Brandark said idly, eyes on the dwarf perched on the bowsprit with a swinging leadline. “There’s a nasty shifting mud bank that reaches out like an underwater delta. I once saw a ship almost our size go to pieces on it right about here. We’re lucky it still early spring — from the middle of Yienkonto to the beginning of Haniyean water boils out of there like the wrath of Korthrala. It’s the snowpack in the East Walls that does it. It takes a while to reach this far, but when it comes it brings trees the size of houses with it.”

“I can imagine.”

“Not if you haven’t seen it,” Brandark said grimly.

“Perhaps not,” Kenhodan admitted.

“No offense,” Brandark said quickly. “I’m always nervous too near the White Water this time of year — especially with a crew understrength with dead and wounded. I’d rather face corsairs; at least I know they’re trying to kill me!” Then he shook himself and laughed. “Listen to me, will you? Carrying on like an old woman over a trip I’ve made dozens of times!” He clouted Kenhodan’s shoulder. “Come on, then. If it’s ships and the sea you want to learn, there’s no better school than this. Come watch a captain reap the true reward of command while he feels his way blindfolded up yonder creek!”

And the two of them moved aft to the helmsman, laughing in the sunlight.

* * * * * * * * * *

Leeana looked up as Lentos entered the room. The golden scepter of Semkirk gleamed on his blue tunic, and his face — normally smooth and unreasonably young looking for a man of his years — was taut. He was younger than Leeana, but no gods-granted bracelet encircled his wrist, and he’d seen eight decades. Now the weight of all of them seemed to crush his shoulders as he regarded her with compassionate gray eyes.

“Well, Master Lentos?” Her voice was brittle in the sunlight.

“The crisis is approaching, Leeana.”

His voice sounded as if it had been planed down into something which could offer only truth, and he drew out a chair and sat with an almost painful economy of movement.

“‘The crisis is approaching,’” Leeana repeated bitterly, and her hands tightened into fists in her lap. “How much longer?”

“I can’t say. She’s young — very young for this.”

“How well I know it.” Leeana averted her eyes, speaking with quiet difficulty. “All her life we’ve known she’d be ‘young’ for this, and we thought we understood. But I didn’t, Lentos. Not really. Now it’s here, and her father’s far from home. I-I’m not strong enough for this.”

“You are,” Lentos denied gently.

“I’m not!” Leeana thrust herself up, her fingers curved into weapons. “If it were an enemy — that I could fight for her! That I could stand! But this —! I don’t have the courage to face this, Lentos!”

“No one’s ever ready for this moment, Milady,” Lentos said levelly, addressing her with grave, unusual formality. “Waiting. Helplessness. Those are hard to bear, and hardest for those who love her. But at least you woke and summoned us in time, and Trayn is the finest empath we have. We’re as well prepared as we could possibly hope to be.”

“I know.” Her mouth quivered. “But I feel so useless!”

“As we all do,” Lentos said gently. “But remember this, Lady Leeana, Flame Hair of the Sothōii, we of the Academy have let ourselves love her. We wouldn’t have if we’d believed she’d fail and diminish our lives.”

“True.” Leeana’s mouth eased, and she touched his shoulder gently, then spoke more briskly. “But did you leave her just to comfort me?”

“No. I need your permission to give Blanchrach ephinos.”

“Ephinos? But why?” Leeana looked at him blankly.

“He’s linked to her,” Lentos said softly. “If they remain linked when her barriers break, he’ll share her convulsions. We can’t restrain them both.”

“Of course.” Leeana blanched and her voice sank. “You have my permission, Lentos . . . and may Lillinara be with her now.”

She turned away and buried her face in her hands.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wave Mistress shouldered up the river on a favoring wind and an incoming tide. Kenhodan stood out of the way on the quarterdeck, listening to Brandark volley orders to his helmsman, and decided that if this was only a preliminary to the true spring floods he had no desire to see the river in full spate. Away from the bay, the White Water belied its name, for it was dark with mud and flotsam of every sort rode its current. The hull shuddered with glancing blows as Brandark fought the river, and Kenhodan didn’t envy his task.

Trees, logs, rafted jams of branches and timbers — all rolled slowly down the hungry river, mingled with occasional floating barns and other waterlogged structures. And Brandark had assured him the White Water wasn’t a large river by Norfressan standards. It was far smaller than the Geen Leaf, to the north, or the mighty River of the Spear, to the east, but the hradani admitted that the White Water had to accept more snowmelt than the Geen Leaf, and its narrower bed produced a swifter, fiercer current.

Bahzell joined him as they crawled upstream, pointing out spots of interest along the side and banks. It seemed to Kenhodan that there wasn’t a square foot of Norfressa which Bahzell hadn’t trodden, ridden over, or had described to him, and far too many of those anecdotes were punctuated by battle.

“I wish I shared your delight in warfare,” he said finally, shaking his head over the cold fear of his remembered rage. “It would help.”

“Delight?” Bahzell rumbled thoughtfully. “Now there’s a word I’d not use myself, lad.”

“What other word can you use?” Kenhodan asked curiously.

“Whatever it may be you’re thinking,” Bahzell said soberly, turning to face him squarely, “there’s not a sane man as ever lived who’s seen battle, lost folk dear to him, taken too many lives himself, and still thinks it’s anything but ugly, vile, and vicious, lad. It may be you’ll find this hard to believe, but it’s happier I’d be if it happened I’d never see another. Yet whatever it might be would make me happy, it’s not something as is going to happen, for the truth is, there’s things worse — far worse — than they are.”

He turned away to look out over the river.

“It’s a champion of Tomanāk I’ve been these seventy years and more, Kenhodan, and not something as ever crossed my mind might happen when I was a lad. And well it shouldn’t have, for there’d not been a hradani champion — of any god, much less himself — in twelve mortal centuries since the Fall. It wasn’t so very happy I was to discover himself was after wanting me to be one, either, and yet to speak truth, himself had the right of it from the start. Folk call us his Swords, and so we are, for it’s us he sends against those things as are worse. It’s not so many of his champions die in bed, Kenhodan, but this we do have. If die we must, it’s with a sword in our hand, our back to those we love, and our face to anything — anything — as threatens them. And when all’s said and done, that’s not so very bad a way for any man’s life to end.”

“No,” Kenhodan said softly. “No, I can see that.”

“And, to speak another truth,” Bahzell said, turning back to him, “it’s not so bad a thing to be a hradani when swords are out. It’s too many centuries the Rage’s been the curse of my folk, but it’s a weapon ready to hand, as well, one as fits us to battle the way a dwarf fits hammer and anvil. Especially since himself was after telling us the truth about it.”

Kenhodan nodded, but he also hesitated. The Rage was the curse of the hradani, the sudden, often unpredictable eruption of bloodlust and massacre which did so much to explain the wariness with which the other Races of Man regarded them. And since the battle against the corsairs, he’d wondered if what he’d felt then was what so many generations of hradani had felt.

“What ‘truth’?” he asked finally.

“About the Rage?” Bahzell cocked his ears, and Kenhodan nodded again. “Well, as to that, how much is it you remember about it?”

“Not much,” Kenhodan admitted. Practice had made it easier for him to face and admit the yawning gaps in his memory, but it hadn’t become any more pleasant. “I know it’s afflicted your people for a long time, and I know it came out of Kontovar, I don’t really know how it came to be, or why.”

“Ah.”

Bahzell looked over the side at the flooded river for several minutes, clearly considering what Kenhodan had said. Then he turned back to the redhaired man.

“You’ve the right that the Rage’s been the bane of my folk from the Fall itself,” he said quietly. “As to why that might be, why, the answer’s not so very hard to find. In the final Wizards War, after the Dark Lords were after setting up the Council of Carnadosa and turned openly to black sorcery, there weren’t so very many things they’d stop short of doing.

“It’s said the last two emperors of the Empire of Ottovar stood strong for the Light, but by then the rot had set too deep for them to stop it. Toren — him as they call ‘Toren Swordarm’ —was the last emperor, but he’d no hope of holding the Empire together, and he knew it. So he and Wencit were after putting their heads together with Duke Kormak of the Crystal Cave dwarves and hatched a plan to save what little they could, but they couldn’t save my folk.

“It’s often I’ve wished I’d known Toren,” the hradani said softly. “Forty years he was in the field, year after year, with no pause, no summer when there were no armies after marching, no towns and cities after burning. Forty years, Kenhodan, and it was only four battles — four, in all those years — as he lost. Yet for all that, it was too little and it was too late, and he fought all those years knowing as it was. He’d win a battle, lose men, fight another battle, and lose more men, then turn to the next campaign and lose still more men. In the end, he ran out of men — and time — yet he’d held long enough to cover the Long Retreat.”

Bahzell paused again and reached for his pipe. He filled it slowly, and as his words cast a pall over Kenhodan, the redhaired man fancied he smelled the smoke of a burning land when Bahzell lit the tobacco.

“All Wencit and Toren ever hoped for was a rearguard action,” Bahzell said quietly. “Just to hang on long enough to be getting out as many as they might. There’d been coastal colonies in Norfressa for two hundred years before ever Toren named Kormak their governor and put him in charge of sorting out the refugees. And whatever else, he’d the right man in the right place, for Kormak was one as did his job well. It’s no accident the Empire of the Axe is the strongest Norfressan realm even today, Kenhodan. Kormak’s house was one as earned its crown, by the Sword!

“And to my mind —” Bahzell jabbed his pipe stem it Kenhodan “— the fact that Toren was after naming Kormak ‘King of Man Home’ — it was Kormak’s grandson as added ‘Emperor’ to his title — proves as how Toren never planned to leave Kontovar his own self. And I’m thinking I understand that, too. Without his army, the evacuation ports would fall, and the army wouldn’t last a year without him to lead it. But that was an army as would die where it stood if he stood with it, lad. So he and his troops, they were after holding those ports for forty years, and when his army died, he died with it, fighting at its head. He nodded slowly. “That was no easy thing to do, lad, not when every man of them knew how it had to end. Tomanāk’s way can be hard, but Toren was a man as understood why that is, and he served himself well.

“Yet true as that may be, true as death, it was also Toren’s fight as brought the Rage upon my folk. You wonder about it?” Bahzell’s voice hardened. “Well, it’s not so very hard an answer, for the Dark Lords never counted on Toren and his army. And when that army was after refusing to break, refusing to lie down and die, why, they needed something to smash it, and so they found it.

“It was our size, d’you see? Our strength. We make good troops, we hradani, for it’s a mortal lot of killing we take. Many of us were after fighting for Toren, for we were loyal as any. The last three commanders of the Gryphon Guard were hradani, every one of them — but is there anyone today as remembers Forhaiden died holding the imperial standard?” Bahzell spat over the rail and shook his head, ears flat. “All it is they remember is that we were after fighting for the Dark Lords, and that we did. Aye, Kenhodan, that we did.”

He brooded darkly at the river, his nostrils flared.

“The Dark Lords needed an army as could break the Gryphon Guard, and if it happened we wanted no part of treason, why there was always some damned wizard as could encourage us with a little sorcery. Just a little thing. Only a spell as turned us into blood-crazed beasts — that was all.

“We remember, Kenhodan. In our old tales, we remember we were peaceful as any, once. No better, mind you, but no worse. Until that wizardry got into our blood and bone. Until it was after twisting something inside us, and it’s the Rage we’ve carried with us ever since.”

He stood silent for several long seconds, and then he shook himself.

“That’s what the Rage is,” he said softly. “Why we were after betraying our emperor, why it was as armies of hradani looted Trōfrolantha and butchered any as stood in their way. And it’s why my folk have been who we’ve been for thirteen hundred years while no one cared. No one but Wencit.

“And then himself chose me as his champion, for it was time.”

“Time?” Kenhodan’s voice was quiet, shadowed by the way Bahzell’s explanation echoed his own strange, bottomless fury.

“Aye.” Bahzell nodded. “The Rage isn’t something as leaves a folk untouched, and it’s there in our souls, the knowing other folk aren’t far wrong to fear us as little more than beasts when the Rage’s upon us. But the truth is time’s a way of changing almost anything, Kenhodan, even the Rage, for the Rage we have today’s not the one those blackhearted bastards were after giving us. It’s a terrible thing, the Rage, and not least because when it comes on a man, it’s after making him more than he’d ever be in his life entire without it. Even when the blood hunger burns hottest, there’s a . . . splendor to the Rage. Everything he’s after having inside him, every ounce of strength, every breath of passion — all of it — why, it comes together, burning inside him like a Dwarvenhame furnace. There’s some among us as crave that the way a drunkard craves drink, for there’s a power to it no one as never tasted it can truly understand. I’m thinking it must be a bit like Wencit’s descriptions of wizards and wizardry — a thing as some men give themselves to even knowing as how it’s like to destroy them in the end.

“And such the Rage is, for when it comes on a man all unexpected, when it’s after taking him by the throat, all of that focus bends itself to blood and killing, and there’s naught will stop him but his own death. That’s the reason so many of my folk spent so many centuries fighting the Rage, for we’d seen what it did to those as opened the door, let it in and let it take them. But when himself first spoke to me, he told me as how the Rage has changed. The old Rage is with us still, and will be. Still waiting to take us down into the madness and drown us in blood. But when a man as knows what he’s about, as makes the choice himself, summons the Rage, gives himself to it instead of letting it simply take him, why then he commands it. It’s after being his, and not him being its, and all that focus and all that power and passion are after lifting him up, not dragging him down amongst the beasts and worse than beasts. It’s become a tool, another weapon against the Dark,” Bahzell smiled grimly, “and there’s Hirahim’s own joke on the Dark Lords in that!”

Kenhodan looked up into that strong, grim face and tasted the centuries of bloodshed, grief, and horror the Rage had inflicted upon the hradani since the Fall. The parallel between the Rage — the ‘old’ Rage — and the fury which had filled him as the corsairs attacked was terrifying, and he wondered if Bahzell even suspected that there might be at least one human who understood exactly what a hradani felt in that moment of passionate power and carnage. Yet strands of hope wove themselves through the terror, for in the end, hadn’t he done precisely what Bahzell had just described? He’d embraced the fury, used it rather than allowing it to use him.

“Thank you for explaining that to me,” he said finally. “I didn’t know — or else it’s another thing I’ve forgotten — how the Rage came upon your people, Bahzell. But you’re right,” he smiled thinly, thinking about how slowly the corsairs had seemed to move, the way he’d gone through them like a direcat, “it is Hirahim’s own joke against the Dark.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Thousands of leagues from the White Water, a cat-eyed wizard shook with silent mirth. He would never have believed a hradani could be so eloquent!

His cheeks sparkled with tears of laughter as he blanked his crystal. Let the hradani maunder about the woes of his people — he had greater woes in Belhadan, if only he knew. The cat-eyed wizard toyed with the idea of sending Bahzell images of what passed in Belhadan, yet he put it aside. Bahzell might be a hradani, and so, by definition, little more than the beasts of the field, but the cat-eyed wizard was unprepared to estimate him too lightly. The Council of Carnadosa had spent the better part of seven decades in periodic attempts to eliminate him with a deplorable lack of success. Whatever else might be true, Bahzell clearly was a champion of Tomanāk, and Tomanāk had taken excellent care of His tool. Fortunately, there were other gods who were prepared to take excellent care of Their tools, and the tide was setting heavily in Their favor.

Of course, Tomanāk wasn’t the only one who’d taken care for Bahzell and his family, and the cat-eyed wizard frowned slightly as he reflected upon that unpalatable fact. Even after all these years, he was no closer to discovering what Wencit had expected of the hradani, his wife, and their halfbreed daughter. It was clear they were important, for Wencit had been quick to smash every probe directed at Bahzell’s family over the years. Indeed, he’d threatened to reopen the spells which had strafed Kontovar — to unleash that devastation a second time, even at the cost of his own life — if the Council ever again so much as attempted to use the art against Leeana Hanathafressa. No one on the Council had been able to understand why the ancient wild wizard would make that threat on Leeana’s behalf — and only on her behalf — after over twelve hundred years. Until her daughter was born, that was. Precisely what part Wencit had expected Gwynna Bahzelldaughter to play remained unclear — not even the cat-eyed wizard’s divine patrons seemed to have the answer to that — but clearly his threat had been intended to protect the vessel of the girl’s birth.

The Council’s repeated efforts to determine what he’d thought was so important about a single halfbreed brat had met with universal failure, for one dared not thrust too hard where Wencit was concerned. But the manner in which he’d protected them proved they were important.

Not that it mattered. The little bitch was dying, and champion of Tomanāk or not, Bahzell’s only true value could be as a fighting tool. True, he was a dangerous fighting tool, one which had proved its worth in the destruction of demons and even greater devils, and the cat-eyed wizard acknowledged his importance to the Council’s foes as a rallying point and a potential leader of resistance to its plans. Yet in the end, it didn’t matter how good a fighting machine the beast might be; enough warriors, backed by enough of the art, could overwhelm anyone.

No. In the end, Bahzell could be no more than an inconvenience, and it would be unkind to worry him. No one could save his precious daughter now, and the poor beast had little enough time left to worry about anything. It might be pleasant to let him know her plight, but it was a mark of discipline to hold one’s revenge to a manageable level.

* * * * * * * * * *

Leeana stared dry-eyed at the small, twisting body. Her face was drawn with anguish, and her trembling hands rested on Blanchrach’s ruff, feeling his muscles fight the ephinos. Had those muscles been free to answer the tumult in Gwynna’s brain, he would have killed them all. She knew that, and her heart was a frozen, aching lump in her chest, but she’d spent her tears.

Master Trayn bent over the bed. His eyes were distant, but his cheeks quivered under the hurricane of emotions blasting out of the girl. He fought to reach her, to lead her out of the horror, but her barriers were too strong.

Farmah and Lentos knelt on opposite sides of the bed, their jaws bunched with muscle as they fought the convulsions lashing through Gwynna. The straps about her arms and torso wrung Leeana’s frozen heart, but Gwynna had turned her own nails against herself in a frenzied effort to destroy the madness in her head. Her eyes were wild and staring as her struggles wrenched the heavier adults this way and that, her lips were bitten bloody, and her sweat soaked the bedding and glued her hair to her face in streaks.

“Momma! Mommaaaaaaaa!

Gwynna’s screams rose as another peak approached, and Leeana ached to touch her. But Lentos forbade it. Gwynna was desperate for her mother, but the touch of Leeana’s hand might open a direct link, pouring her personality into the child. It was the inflooding of foreign thoughts and minds which had driven Gwynna to this extremity; the closer embrace of any mind, even Leeana’s, would break her sanity forever. Even Master Trayn dared not open his mind to hers fully lest it destroy them both.

“Momma! Poppa! No, Poppa! Don’t go there!!”

Gwynna fought the maelstrom, writhing in exquisite agony as the wash of alien minds ripped through her and she flinched away from the hurtful edges of concepts and images which were not hers. Her selfhood twisted on the edge of dissolution, exposed to too many other selves, too many other perceptions, too much beauty and ugliness, and her heart hammered to destruction, perilously near death. Her agony was mirrored on the magi’s faces, yet their training blocked all but a shadow of the torment she faced alone and terrified.

Trayn Aldarfro relaxed for a moment. He had to, lest he burn out his talent, yet only his trained sensitivity had any chance of breaking through to her. He forced his own heart to slow, and his eyes met Lentos’, filled with fear. Not for himself, but for Gwynna.

Lentos’own face was calm, but his heart ached, for the Academy had been wrong.

Gwynna was dying.

Sorrow twisted him, but he faced it squarely. The girl’s powers were simply too great. They surpassed the mightiest savants of the Academy, and no one had quite believed they could. She’d writhed in isolated madness for over ten hours, and still her barriers stood! She couldn’t screen out the visions driving her to destruction, but she could lock out the guidance which might have led her back to life.

He bent his head. The greatest gift he could give her now would be to stop her heart, yet that was forbidden so long as an ember lingered with the glimmer of a hope that she might survive to inherit the bounty of her talents. But he knew it would be kindest, and not just to the child he loved. How much more of Gwynna’s suffering must Leeana endure before it ended in death? It would be kinder to both to end it, yet he couldn’t.

He drew a deep breath and nodded to Trayn, and the empath closed his eyes, marshaling his strength once more for the hopeless task. He was forty years Lentos’ junior, yet he could no more abandon the battle than Lentos could have, even though continuing might well cost his own sanity when Gwynna finally, mercifully, died.

The girl screamed as fresh visions assailed her — more and worse than the minute-to-minute flow of thoughts about her. Images of past and present flared behind her eyes, brilliant, incomprehensible . . . terrifying. She whimpered and tried to thrust them away, her brain flailing blindly, self-destructively, in her extremity, but there was nowhere she might hide from the madness.

She saw her father surrounded by blades, standing astride her fallen mother. She saw a terrible, glittering storm of wizardry blasting through forgotten caverns. She saw leering yellow eyes, slitted like a cat’s, promising death and worse than death. She saw heaps of dead and carrion crows, saw a tattered standard of gryphon and crown, its staff clutched in the stiff hand of a fallen hradani. She saw —

She didn’t know what she saw. She had no way to comprehend it, and the images stuttered in her thoughts like lightning. They were too close-paced, too violent. They merged and overlapped into a maddening whole she could neither grasp nor endure. Her head went back and her eyes bulged, and behind everything was the glare of the wild magic, scattering its violence as it gouged and fought over twice a thousand years and more of time.

The glittering sorcery terrified her, but it also touched a last strand of her fraying selfness. The wildfire! She knew the wildfire — had always known it!

Her mouth opened and blood flew from her bitten lips as she screamed to the wildfire presence which had always loved and protected her.

Wennncitttttttt!

* * * * * * * * * *

Water chuckled against a wooden hull, and Wencit of Rūm sat in the darkened cabin, its scuttles and quarter windows shuttered against the afternoon light. His haunted face was streaked with sweat in the glow of his wards, and he clutched his sword hilt in trembling hands as his power reached out with all the strength and desperation of his ancient heart.

Belhadan lay seven hundred leagues to the north, and he knew what struggle raged in a cheerful bedroom there. His might hammered at the distance, frantic to smash the resistance which blocked him from that room, and his nerves groaned with the long strain of his effort. Wild magic danced in his blood like fire and his art racked him with agony, yet he dared not blink, could not relent for an instant.

If the moment came, it would be fleeting.

And then, far to the north, Gwynna’s shattering mind turned to the wild wizard. Even as she screamed his name, her terrified thought winged across the miles in an agonized search for safety.

Wencit stiffened. His eyes flared, their glare spangling the bulkheads, and the cabin seemed to rock to the blinding florescence and silent explosion of his effort. Sorcery shaped and honed to fight for a world slammed across the leagues in a reckless race to save one small and precious life. His might smashed into her barriers with the power of a hurricane and the delicacy of a hummingbird, and across the width and breadth of two continents, every soul sensitive to the art winced and hissed for breath before the uncounting prodigality with which he poured out his power like fire and shaped it with his very life.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gwynna shrieked, and Leeana lurched up at the sound of her daughter’s unadulterated agony. Her hands flew out, but Lentos’ warning shout stopped her fingers inches from the twisting body. She went to her knees beside the bed, her lips trembled, and her eyes burned, but she dared not touch her.

Master Trayn’s head snapped back as if he’d been clubbed. He slid to his knees, shrugged aside by the cable of power driving at Gwynna’s crumbling defenses. Lentos gasped in anguish as he caught the backlash of the blow, yet he shook his head, clinging desperately to the jerking body while his brain blazed with wonder and confusion.

Gwynna hung timelessly above an abyss, and the darkness beckoned to her. It promised rest, an end to torment and terror and confusion, and she yearned towards the peace of nonbeing. Its welcoming embrace reached out to her, and her hold on life shattered cleanly.

She began the slide down the slope of death, but streamers of wild magic and something more — something stronger than sorcery, deeper than mage power — clawed at her barriers with desperate delicacy. World-crushing strength compressed them, and a strand suddenly snapped. Her web of thought whipped, unraveling like an overstressed stay, and an alien presence, strong and ancient, thundered into her. It seized her with ruthless love – caught her, like fingers in her hair, dragging her back from the brink of peace inch by agonized inch. She fought it, hurling herself away from it, seeking the dreamless sleep, but it refused to release her.

She hesitated. She had the power to embrace the darkness. Not even that titanic power could stop her from ending her torment. But if she did, that ancient strength would go with her. She would take that other — that warm, fiercely loving other — with her, for it would never surrender her to death . . . and would never let her go alone.

She teetered on the cusp of decision, and it was a choice no child could make. Dim perceptions of endless struggles and subtle plans beat her with mallets of fire, twisted her upon a rack of horrified understanding and the deathless hope of that other. She fought to reject its strength. She fought to retain her childhood, even at the price of death, for if she lived she would never be free of her own power and the ageless torment of her visions. But innocence was a treasure she could keep only if she chose death for that other, as well. And somehow, even in that moment of chaos and anguish, she knew she could no more refuse the love which would not let her go than it could abandon her.

She relinquished childhood, abandoned the quest for peace. She turned once more to the agonizing struggle for life, and steel-strong bands of love locked her close. They raised her out of her torment like powerful arms, and she surrendered her inner self to them, her last barriers crashing into ruin while warm wildfire eyes bore her up through blackness and worse than blackness into sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

Wencit collapsed.

His sword rang on the deck, and his head rolled slackly as he searched for the glow of his wards. If they failed, he died, for he was drained, his power muted by an application far beyond even its limits. The plans and hopes of five millennia hung upon defenses he could strengthen no further, yet he felt no regret. Even a wild wizard was entitled to risk his life for one dearer to him than continents.

His half-blind eyes found the wards. They glowed still, protecting him, and he sighed gratefully as he slid down into the darkness.

* * * * * * * * * *

Lentos rose shakily and bent over Gwynna, feeling the strong, slow pulse in her throat. His face lost its habitual detachment, and he turned radiant eyes to Leeana, lifting her to embrace her gently.

“Is —?”

For all her courage, it was a question Leeana Hanathafressa couldn’t frame, and he shook his head ever so slightly.

“The crisis has passed,” he said simply. “How is more than I can say, yet it’s passed. Gwynna will live, Leeana.”

“Thank you, Lillinara!” Leeana whispered. “Oh, thank you, Friend of Women!”

She clung to Lentos, and the hardihood of the war maid vanished in the tears of a mother.

“Indeed,” Lentos said gently, “we all have much to be thankful for. But now she must come to the Academy. We must start her on the path of self-knowledge. She’ll someday go where none of us can follow, but for now we must teach her to protect herself from the world.”

“I understand,” Leeana said, sobbing in relief. She knelt beside the bed once more to stroke a slack cheek and felt the warmth of life. She laid her head on Gwynna’s chest and gathered her close, cradling her for long minutes before she laid her back with a kiss. “Take her, Master Lentos. Teach her. And, when you can, send her home to me.”

“We will, Milady,” Lentos said formally. Then he nodded to an even shakier Master Trayn, and the two magi lifted the limp body in gentle hands.

Leeana followed them from the bedchamber, followed down the stairs, across the deserted taproom, and watched them place the small form carefully into the scepter-badged carriage. She stood erect, her spine straight, her shoulders squared, green eyes bright as the carriage door closed, and then she watched it out of sight, ignoring the hesitant hand Farmah placed upon her shoulder.

Only when the carriage had vanished did she collapse into the other woman’s arms in tears.



"Oh, bother!" said Pooh, as Piglet came back from the dead.
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Re: SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]
Post by dan92677   » Sat Jul 11, 2015 2:38 pm

dan92677
Commander

Posts: 218
Joined: Thu Apr 18, 2013 10:33 pm
Location: Southern California

five millennia?????


WOW!
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Re: SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]
Post by PeterZ   » Mon Jul 13, 2015 12:41 pm

PeterZ
Fleet Admiral

Posts: 5671
Joined: Fri Apr 01, 2011 1:11 pm
Location: Colorado

dan92677 wrote:five millennia?????


WOW!


Is that his lifetime or simply the length of time someone was planning? If there is a 5 millennia old plan, was Wencit involved in some other capacity that his current incarnation? An avatar perhaps?
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Re: SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]
Post by dan92677   » Mon Jul 13, 2015 2:13 pm

dan92677
Commander

Posts: 218
Joined: Thu Apr 18, 2013 10:33 pm
Location: Southern California

VERY interesting either way, wouldn't you think?
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Re: SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]
Post by Bahzellstudent   » Tue Jul 14, 2015 3:00 pm

Bahzellstudent
Lieutenant (Senior Grade)

Posts: 85
Joined: Wed Jul 09, 2014 4:13 pm
Location: Derbyshire, United Kingdom

wow - what an amazing snippet; well worth the wait.

Thanks RFC - just so glad you have even some time to spare for us here!

And not so long now before we get the whole book - looking forward to it so much
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Re: SotS Official Snippet 18 [?]
Post by Cartref   » Thu Jul 30, 2015 12:56 am

Cartref
Lieutenant (Junior Grade)

Posts: 46
Joined: Thu Apr 18, 2013 10:15 pm

I have read the arc two or three times now, but I still enjoy the snippets.

Thank you RFC


Cheers & beers
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