Since the dawn of consciousness, a secret war has been fought between the forces of magic and religious fanaticism, and the cause of reason, understanding, and technology. On one side are the Old Ones, malign entities that feed on the suffering of mankind. On the other are the Lumina, an ancient order dedicated the liberation of the human spirit.Officer Richard Oort of the Albuquerque Police Department is caught in the middle of this primal battle when he rescues a mysterious teenage girl from a trio of inhuman hunters. Recruited by the Lumina to serve as their latest paladin, Richard ends up fighting beside a handful of unlikely allies, including an adolescent sorceress, an enigmatic philanthropist, a sexy coroner, and a homeless god with multiple personalities.The Old Ones and their mortal pawns are determined to destroy Richard-or subvert him to their cause. And they have all powers of magic and organized religion at their disposal. As the gates between the universes shred apart, it may be up to Richard to save humanity from the endless horror of a new Dark Age.Provocative as The Golden Compass or the Illuminatus! trilogy, The Edge of Reason dramatizes the fundamental conflict behind the hot-button issues of today...and the future of the human race. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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June 01, 2009
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Excerpt from The Edge of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass
A Necklace of MillstonesChapter One
In her misery Rhiana Davinovitch decided she wanted to die. She had been running for three hours now. Her hunters were slow, which meant she kept well ahead, but unlike her human muscles and tendons, they never tired. Eventually they would wear her down and she would die. That time had just about arrived.
Rhiana drew in a shuddering breath across a throat made tight and sore from exhaustion and raked the hair out of her eyes. Despite the chill of the mid-November night, her hair was moist and slick against fingertips aching with cold.
For the first time in an hour she looked up from the sidewalk, where her gaze had been desperately focused, as she tried to place each foot carefully in front of the other without tripping or falling, or without losing the steady rhythm of her half- walk half- run.
She was surprised to find herself in the uptown business plaza set between Albuquerque's two main shopping malls. She stood in the median of Uptown Boulevard, which ran between the Morgan Stanley office on the north and the City Center and Uptown Center buildings on the south.
She had escaped from the trailer in the South Valley in the early evening. They had been keeping her, hoping she'd finish the work, but after her escape they seemed to have decided that silencing her was more important. So they'd summoned the hunters. She'd tried hitchhiking, but no one would stop. Once she reached the populated areas of Albuquerque she had hammered on doors, but no one had answered. She realized that the creatures who hunted her had trapped her in a field of darkness and fear that no human would enter. No one could help her.
She reckoned she had covered somewhere between fifteen and seventeen miles. She could go no further. Without volition her hand went into the pocket of her coat. The metal of the pennies was sharply cold against her skin. If she could feed she might be able to fight, but there were no people nearby for her to use. A wave of cold brushed against the exposed skin of her face and hands. She glanced up at the bare branches of the trees. They stretched motionless toward the cloud-filled sky. Rhiana looked to the west and watched as one streetlight after another blinked out. The exterior lights on the Uptown City building faded and died.
They were coming.
Officer Richard Oort had been following the winding trail of darkness from Rio Bravo in Albuquerque's South Valley. He kept checking with PNM, New Mexico's electric and gas company, who kept assuring him the power was on and running even as he sat in darkness. He was doing that now from his position in the parking lot of the Morgan Stanley building.
"I'm telling you there's a power outage." The plastic of the handheld mike smelled faintly of hamburgers. Richard wrinkled his nose against the stale odor and pulled the mike away from his face.
The voice of the dispatcher came crackling back over the car's radio. "Our computers don't show a problem."
"Well, I've got a news flash for your computers. I'm now up on Louisiana and it's black as sin. No streetlights, no traffic lights, no lights in any of the buildings...." He broke off and peered through the breath- frosted front window of his parked car. It didn't seem possible, but he said it anyway.
"Even my headlights are fading."
"You never . . ." Static obliterated the word. ". . . that before," said the dispatcher.
"It hasn't happened before," Richard replied.
"Having... say... again."
The headlights failed, the engine coughed and the car shuddered as it died. Richard tried the key and nothing happened.
The hinges on the car door creaked as he pushed it open. He stepped out and took a three- sixty look. His breath puffed in white streamers. It seemed that every streetlight within a five- block radius was out.
He picked up his mobile radio from the car seat and keyed APD dispatch. "Hi, Dolores, I'm leaving the vehicle and taking a look around."
A burst of static made him jerk the radio away from his ear. Faintly he heard Dolores ask, "What . . . there?"
He made a guess at what she'd said. "I don't know. Right now there's nothing here but dark. Look, if I don't check back within ten minutes send some backup."
There was another sharp burst of static obliterating her first words. He barely heard her "Be careful."
He slipped the radio into its Velcro holder on his vest. The microphone crackled on his left shoulder. Thrusting his nightstick through the loop on his belt, he grabbed the flashlight and headed off down the sidewalk. The weight of the belt festooned with cuffs, stick and pistol left him feeling awkward.
He flashed the beam from the flashlight from side to side. Spindly trees encased in concrete seemed to jump toward him as the light caught them. The landscaping was professional modern, sand grass and chamisa thrusting through the gravel- filled verges between the sidewalks and the tree coffins.
As he walked a carpet of dry leaves whispered around his shoes and crackled underfoot, releasing a rich musty smell that raised childhood memories of lit fireplaces and warm cider. The light of his flashlight danced and glittered in the windows. Everything seemed fine at the Morgan Stanley building and at the small strip mall which held the bank, offices and a couple of low- end restaurants. They were cheap and convenient which meant he'd eaten in both of them.
He stopped so the crunch of the leaves wouldn't be the predominant sound. To the south he heard the occasional whine of tires and rumble of the motor of a car traveling on I-40. Otherwise there was the leaden quiet that precedes a snowstorm. He crossed the street toward the twin buildings which housed the APS Ser vice Center.
An icy wind came sighing down from Tijeras Canyon. He pulled his coat closer around his body and crossed the street. The beam from his heavy black cop's flashlight washed across the empty parking lot. He walked toward the buildings. The click of his metal toe taps echoed off the glass, steel and concrete looming in front of him. He blinked, trying to focus, and realized that the light from the flashlight was dying.
"Well, drat." A sharp slap of the body of the light against his gloved palm produced no result. The light continued to fade with each step he took toward the building. A few moments later it died.
It was inexplicable, a feeling more than a conscious thought, but Richard found himself thumbing up the holster guard and loosening the Browning high- power pistol where it rested at his side. Immediately he felt like a fool. He had only fired the weapon at the range. Never drawn it in the three years he had served on the force. His rational mind argued with primal fear, but he couldn't quite lift his hand from the pistol's grip.
A sharp cry of pain came from deep between the buildings. Richard jerked upright and keyed the radio. It was as dead as the flashlight. He drew his gun as he ran down the incline between the two buildings.
Now he could hear harsh breaths, and the sound of blows connecting with flesh. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, and he saw three hulking figures surrounding a smaller figure who was fighting hard, throwing kicks and punches that seemed to have no effect on the attackers.
He dropped into the approved two- handed- grip horse stance and drew down on the assailants. "Police! Back off!" There was no reaction from the three attackers. For an instant he dithered. Nothing in the manual or his experience had prepared him for this.
He raised the pistol over his head and snapped off a shot into the air. The report, trapped between the two tall buildings, was deafening, and the muzzle flash allowed him to get a look at the focus of the attack.
It was a girl. Late teens at the most. Long hair swirled darkly about her face. Sweat glistened on her skin, and her features were twisted with pain and terror. A pocket on her leather coat was torn loose. All he could tell about her attackers was that they were enormous and dressed in something dark and formfitting. They were as unimpressed with the gunshot as they had been with his shrill command.
The girl ducked under a ponderous round house blow from one of her attackers. There was no more time for warnings. Richard's palms were wet with sweat and he was grateful he had the gloves to help steady his hold on the Browning. He was breathing in sharp, shallow pants. He forced himself to hold his breath, took careful aim at the back of one of the muggers and double- tapped two rounds.
The first bullet fired but the muzzle flash was substantially reduced and the kick against his palm much gentler than it should have been.
Richard's attention was distracted from his target to his pistol because the second round wasn't firing. Richard had a sense it was lodged in the chamber of the pistol, and he tossed the gun away before it could explode in his face. He looked down the alley to see the results of his one shot and felt the breath stop in the back of his throat because the man was continuing the attack as if he hadn't been hit.
There was a hollow sense in his gut warning him that this was eerie and scary and he ought to run the other way, but he couldn't abandon her. It was like twisting ice-covered rope to force the muscles in his legs to move. He managed to break into a staggering run and headed toward the girl.
"Hang on, I'm coming," Richard yelled. His voice sounded stretched and thin and more soprano than tenor.
"HELP!" She screamed. "Help me! Help . . . me...." She gasped down a breath, and ducked beneath the encircling arms.
Richard felt something under the soles of his shoes, and he realized the ground was littered with pennies.
The eye finds patterns and the mind supplies the expected description. Since he couldn't see the bulk of clothes his mind had provided the explanation of a formfitting jumpsuit. It wasn't until Richard launched himself onto the back of one of the attackers that his brain finally accepted the reality... they weren't wearing clothes. But now he was on the guy's back, and his brain had a whole new series of sensations to process.
There were odd bumps under Richard's knees, and he found himself sliding as if the man were greased. He gripped tighter with his right hand, and punched hard at the man's temple with his left. His fist sunk three inches into the man's head, and something oozed between his fingers.
He yelled in disgust, his legs lost the battle to hang on, and he slid to the ground. Lightning shot up his spine as his tailbone connected hard with the pavement.
One of the other attackers came lumbering around to face Richard. "Oh, God!" he whimpered, because what faced him wasn't a man. It was a monster.
It was constructed of mud and sticks with a featureless blank where its face should have been. It leaned over, slow and ponderous, and reached for Richard. Ice had again encased his muscles and his mind. The only thing filling his head was a little voice frantically yammering the Lord's Prayer, except he couldn't remember any of the words past "Our Father, who art in Heaven." Another voice replaced the panicked, stammered prayer.
"When you're down you gotta roll clear so you gotta chance to get to your feet. Now roll, you motherfuckers."
The gravel voice of Sergeant Jerry Hernandez echoed through his head. Richard rolled frantically away, as a fist the size of a coal scuttle smashed into the asphalt next to his head. The monster got a grip on the back of Richard's coat. There was intense pressure in his armpits before the fabric gave way. He was left wearing the arms while the creature threw aside the body of the coat.
Change went skipping and dancing on the asphalt. The girl flung herself across Richard. Her knee hit him in the diaphragm, and he gulped like a fish as the air went out of him. At first he thought she was trying to shield him, then he realized she was scrambling after the coins.
She grabbed up a penny and balanced it on her outstretched palm. Richard had the sudden and very unpleasant sensation that something cold and wet had just been dragged across the inside of his skull. The girl stared at him with an expression that included confusion, dismay and anger. She shook her head, sucked in a deep breath, and called out in a strange language. The penny began to spin and glow, throwing out copper-colored sparks. The girl tossed the penny into the air. It hung spinning like a tiny firework.
She batted the penny toward one of their attackers. The coin struck the monster in the chest, and there was suddenly a wall of flame. Richard threw an arm over his face as the blast of heat singed his eyebrows. The other monsters reeled away from their companion. The flames died away. The creature didn't move. The girl jumped to her feet, and kicked it hard. The creature shattered.
Richard staggered to his feet. A thread of air was beginning to trickle into his chest. He spotted the round house sweeping toward the girl's head. She didn't.
He wrapped his arms around her waist, and dove sideways. He barked an elbow on the pavement. His shirt tore and his skin with it. The cut on his elbow stung like crazy and blood began trickling down his arm. The girl was on top of him. Her hair, damp with perspiration and smelling of sweat and sandalwood, snaked across his face and mouth. He noticed, distantly, that one ear held a number of earrings stretching from lobe to tip.
Richard got one knee underneath him, shoved himself upright, lifting the girl with him. It wasn't easy because she was taller than he was.
"Come on, let's get out of here!" Richard said.
"They'll just keep coming," she sobbed.
Suddenly the girl jammed her hands into his chest and shoved, hard. Richard went tottering backwards as an enormous fist cut the air in front of him. Goblets of mud spattered against his face. He came up against the side of a building; there was a window to his left. He raised his uninjured elbow, smashed it against the glass, and howled. It always looked easy in the movies. The glass broke, the hero leaped through. In fact the glass remained firmly in place and the hero's elbow hurt like hell. Richard yanked out his nightstick and swung hard. This time the glass shattered.
He felt the words ripping along his throat, and he beckoned frantically to her. She darted between the monsters and ran to him. He was going to boost her through, but she braced a foot high on his thigh, the heel grinding into the muscle, grabbed his shoulder, and climbed him like a stepladder. Her heard her land inside. Which left him outside. With the monsters.
Richard grabbed the windowsill. The edges of the broken glass cut through his gloves and into his palms. He gritted his teeth against the pain, planted a toe of his heavy shoe against the wall and boosted into a handstand flip. He landed on his feet in the office and felt the jar from his shins to the top of his head. It had been a long time since he'd done any serious gymnastics.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow," he groaned as he surveyed their surroundings.
It was some kind of nondescript office space. Computers on metal desks, chairs on casters, and office cubicles formed from carpeted panels. Briefly he wondered why the alarms weren't working, decided it was all part of the lack of light and firepower, then forgot it all as sausage- sized fingers gripped the windowsill, dripping mud from their blunt tips onto the industrial carpet. The monster hauled itself through.
"PENNY!" the girl screamed. Richard dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of change. The girl frantically sorted through and emerged with three pennies.
The second monster was through the window.
The girl huddled over the pennies cupped in the palm of her hands. She muttered in that strange language again. The pennies began to spin and burn. She tossed one into the air, and batted it at the attacker. Flames exploded around the monster. The girl tottered. Richard got an arm around her, and realized they were propping each other up. Then technology decided to work. The automatic sprinkler system kicked to life, and doused the flames.
"Oh... damn," Richard said.
The monsters advanced.
The girl lifted her head. Water ran out of her hair and across her skin. Richard ran forward and head- butted the lead creature. If his fist had been gross, this was disgusting, and he didn't shift the monster by an inch. He lifted his head, shaking mud from his hair, and saw a fist. It connected, snapping his head around. His cheek felt like he was chewing ground glass and his neck became a column of pain. He went staggering across the room, hit the wall and fell down.
The girl held up a penny and began to chant, but she was trembling, forcing the words past chattering teeth. A small section of mud slid off the thigh of a monster carried in water from the sprinklers. A thin thread of hope formed. Richard scanned the walls, and spotted the glass fire box with its extinguisher and coiled fire hose about ten feet to his left.
It was like moving through wet concrete, but Richard got to his feet. He tried to run, and managed a shuffle. Still it carried him to the fire box. He moaned, clenched his teeth, and broke the glass with his less- sore elbow. Icy water ran through his hair, and dripped off the end of his nose. The monsters were a foot from the girl.
He uncoiled the fire hose, turned the spigot, and nearly lost his footing as high- pressure water gushed from the nozzle. Holding hard with both hands, he brought the stream of water onto the chest of one of the monsters. Despite the lack of a mouth, a high- pitched howl emanated from the creature, weird and inhuman. Mud went washing down its chest, carrying twigs and branches with it.
Richard aimed the water at the other creature. It also produced the horrible cry. He alternated the water back and forth between them. Rivulets of filthy water sluiced around their feet as they melted. He had a wild image of the scene at the witch's castle in The Wizard of Oz, and couldn't believe he was doing this. Eventually all that remained was a floor awash with brown water and floating sticks.
Abruptly the alarms began to howl and all the computers sprang to life and began an automatic reboot. Outside the streetlights snapped back on and there was a sharp explosion as the unfired cartridge in the chamber of his gun detonated. Richard began laughing hysterically. Behind him he could hear the girl's choking sobs.
A dark figure lunged through the window. The laughter died as his air choked off in fear and Richard brought the fire hose to bear. The shock of the water elicited a long string of curses in a number of languages, only three of which Richard recognized. He pulled the hose aside, and stared at the face lifting cautiously back over the windowsill. Water plastered the man's long hair to his skull and dripped from his beard. Judging from the patched and dirty coat and the layers of sweaters it was some homeless guy in search of a quick profit.
"Forget it, buddy. There are going to be no free computers to night," Richard croaked, his throat raw from exertion and yelling. Water squelched between the soles of his feet and his shoes and lapped around his ankles. He was losing sensation in his toes. Now that he had stopped exerting himself he felt the sweat trickling down his back and chest like rivulets of ice. He managed to turn the spigot and the gusher of water died to a trickle.
"How the hell did you get in here?" the homeless man asked. The voice was youthful and he spoke in a normal tone of voice. Richard couldn't understand why he was able to hear the man clearly over the din of the alarms. "You should not have been able to walk in darkness...."
The words were oddly ominous and a clattering filled Richard's ears as his teeth began to chatter.
Yea though I walk through the valley of darkness.
He was back in Sunday school at the strict Lutheran church his family attended. At six years old the words were parroted, meaningless and incomprehensible. Today he was twenty-seven and he was afraid.
The man looked closely at Richard. "Oh, I see what you are."
Richard's breath stopped in his throat and his gut clenched down tight. Instinctively Richard wrapped his arms across his chest and belly in defense against this body blow. It was a secret carefully kept, which haunted his nights. It had sent him fleeing from the East Coast to this nondescript city in a poor and obscure state, and into a new career, and now this man had perceived it.
Another sound joined the yammering of the alarms. Police sirens wailing in the distance.
The bum was breaking off the shards of glass sticking up from the frame like jagged teeth in a steel jaw. He ran a hand across the casement to verify it was clear, then leaned his elbows companionably on the windowsill like a neighbor talking across a narrow tenement street.
"We have a decision to make," the man said. "I was sent here for her." A jerk of the chin toward the girl who knelt in the water sobbing softly. "But then I find you, and you're not supposed to be here. I could take her, but I think she'll be safer with you. They can't see her when she's with you."
The sirens were very close now. Headlights and light bars danced white, red and amber through the windows as police cars came wheeling into the parking lot.
"What are you talking about?" Richard asked.
"I'll get back to you on that. Right now I've got to go before your brethren arrive. Remember, don't leave her. She's only safe with you."
The man spun away from the window. Richard lunged after him. "Hey. Wait. What do you mean?" He was yelling after the man's retreating back as the man ran up the alley.
His coats ballooned around his body, giving the effect of wings. "You mean I have to . . . take... her... home?"
Richard turned back to survey the rescued. Her clothes were drenched, her black hair plastered to her cheeks. Despite the bruises and the blood- coated split lip she was the most beautiful woman Richard had ever seen. She had pale, pale skin, and winged eyebrows over green eyes with epicanthic folds.
"I need you to stay quiet. Follow my lead. Okay?" The girl nodded. Richard looked around the room and spotted a copper glow. A penny. Still spinning. Still on fire. He picked it up and deposited it in his pocket.
He couldn't do much about the mud and the sticks. They would have to remain, but in a state where a body found in the trunk of a car, hands tied behind the back and six bullet holes had been ruled a suicide Richard didn't think anyone would inquire too closely. There were reasons he'd selected New Mexico to begin his career with the police; this was one of them.
The alarms cut off. Someone had reached the control box. The abrupt cessation of sound was almost painful. Flashlight beams were playing across the walls opposite the window. Richard pulled off his badge and held it out. The other hand he held prudently over his head. A gun and flashlight were thrust through the window. A head peeked cautiously around.
"Freeze . . . oh," the cop said.
Excerpted from The Edge Of Reason by Melinda Snodgrass.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Melinda Snodgrass.
Published in May 2008 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Durand Col peered up into the vault of Heaven. At long last, the weather had broken, and now was his chance to escape. His heart jumping, Durand plunged into the gloom of the old stable. His gelding stood with mud to its belly but still looked fit to travel. He would talk to Coensar. He would bid the others goodbye. And he would go. Beyond the narrow yard of Burrstone Walls the roads were drying. With a little luck, he could put Deorwen and Lamoric and the whole mess behind him.
He turned back to the castle yard just as the Heavens opened and the rain thundered down.
"Hells," he said.
Luck and the weather were not on his side, and so this would be another day to avoid Deorwen, and another hour to keep from Lord Lamoric's hall. He had a winter's practice at both.
As he stared into the drenching sky, a voice startled him, close and croaking out, "Durand Col, it is the day and hour of the Accounting...."
It might have been the Voice of Doom, but it was only Father Odwy, the manor priest. The dour old man scowled up at Durand, rain streaming from a beard long enough to tuck in his belt. He was already turning before Durand could make an excuse. The old devil loved his rituals.
"Father, I am sure that one knight more or less will make no--"
A piping whistle escaped the man's nose and he set a pair of prodigious fists on his hips. "You are the one called Du-rand, yes? You are part of His Lordship's house hold. A knight, I'm told. And every man of the lord's house hold must attend before we may begin. It is the Custom. Every man if he must be carted or carried. You're meant to have been at supper. We've already prayed the Sunset. You, sir, are wanted in the bloody hall."
As the fearsome priest spun on his heel, Durand shot a glance toward the castle gates. He could make out a glimpse of light and freedom from beyond the walls-- and the guard pacing across it.
Burrstone Walls made a man feel small. The locals said there were giants at the founding of the ancient pile: chill kings who slipped off into the Halls of Silence in the days before the High Kings came east. It certainly had the look of a giant's tomb. Whoever built the place had hollowed a stone hill by the river, and now the gutted heart of the old hill was the castle's long courtyard-- more a quarryman's pit than a yard. Where Durand stood at the bottom of it all, he might have been a worm on the floor of a stone coffin, squinting up through a crack in the lid.
He had spent the winter Moons sleeping on damp rushes in the manor buildings that huddled at the bottom of this stone tomb: the seat of Sir Lamoric, debtor Lord of Burrstone Walls.
Shaking his head, Durand followed the priest.
The feasting hall of Burrstone Walls was a dank cavern of a place. As Durand stepped in, the assembled house hold turned his way: This is what had become of the glamorous knights of last autumn's Red Knight game. Towering Sir Ouen, built like carthorse, with his gilded leer and haystack beard. Stalwart Guthred the shield- bearer, scowling round the thick knuckle of his prodigious nose. One- eyed Sir Berchard, bald and bearded as an innkeeper, with tales of a hundred battles. Sneering Badan, a balding wolf in knight's breeches. And Coensar, Durand's captain-- like a father since Durand left home. These were men who had saved a king in a time of treason dom and caught a rebel in his own trap. All sitting like owls in this dripping barn of a hall, waiting on Father Odwy's Accounting.
At the head of the hall, Lord Lamoric fidgeted, and Coensar raised an amused eyebrow at Durand's entrance.
At least, Durand thought, Lady Deorwen was not there.
Odwy had hauled tables into a horse shoe with Lamoric trapped in the lord's seat at the top and himself standing in the middle of it all. Durand slid onto the heel of one bench by one-eyed Berchard. "Still here, are you?" said the grizzled knight. "Ain't seen you sit down to supper in a fortnight. You--"
Father Odwy twisted and managed a hard look that clapped the old knight's jaw shut as surely as a good slap. Again the priest's nose was whistling. "It is time," he said, smearing the rain from his face with broad fingers. "The men of the house hold are gathered. The bailiff and reeves have been feasted, meat and wine." He turned to three squat men at the opposite table. All three grunted a nod.
For a few moments then, there was silence-- and dripping. As the silence stretched, the priest raked his sheep- yellow beard and, finally, raised a tufted eyebrow at Lamoric.
"Father, don't wag your bristles at me. I've been pacing this old barn since the Paling Moon, and from the first moment--" But Lamoric stopped himself, taking a breath.
"It's my turn, is it?" he said.
"Lordship," croaked the priest.
Lamoric covered his face. "How does it run? What am I to say?"
"By the Silent King of far Heaven..." the priest began.
Lamoric raised his hand, and turned to the three villagers. "By the Silent King of far Heaven, by his Queen, by the Warders at the Bright Gates, by the Champion, by his lance, by the chains of the Chainbreaker, by the Maiden of the Spring this Lambing Moon, reeves and bailiff, you must swear to speak no falsehood on this day of the Accounting."
The priest nodded, turning to the first of the villagers. "Odred the Miller, bailiff to His Lordship's manor of Burr-stone Walls?"
"Aye," the man grunted. "I swear."
"Odric, dock master, reeve of Burrstone Landing?"
"Aye, Father. Lordship," said the next. "I swear it."
"Odmund, formerly quarryman, now reeve of Burrstone Pits?"
"As you say," said the last. "I swear."
"Odred, Odric, and Odmund, Father?" asked Lamoric.
The priest let Lamoric's question pass and pressed on. They kissed a massive Book of Moons to seal their oaths, planting their lips on a patch of the heavy cover burnished to a high shine by a thousand Accounting oaths.
And the muttered account began.
It was the Lambing Moon, the eve of First Waning, and so the reeves and the bailiff numbered the spindly additions to Lamoric's flock and enumerated those that had frozen; they announced that a very few calves were expected; they reported that the winter crop in all fields " 'twixt Pit and the Burrstone Coppice" had flooded, frozen hard, and would need plowing under for reseeding. It went on.
Durand kneaded his face. All winter, Lamoric had been pacing Burrstone Walls like a dog in a kennel. He was trapped and smothered in the backwater fief. They all were.
The year before, the young lord had planned to show the great ones of the kingdom that he was more than the spoiled second son of the Duke of Gireth. Fighting as the nameless "Red Knight," he'd led his hand- picked band of men from tilt to tilt until they were fighting before the king at the cliffs of Tern Gyre. But, at Tern Gyre, there had been more at stake than one man's reputation. In the end, Lamoric and Durand and the others managed to scotch a rebellion. The king kept his crown, and the rebel duke--Radomor of Yrlac--was left to slink home, looking like a fool.
The whole adventure ought to have made their fortunes, but times were hard for kings in Errest, and Lamoric had only kept the Burrstones through weighty loans from his elder brother in Acconel. And with grim winters like these, a hundred years must pass before Lamoric could repay the debt.
The game was over. A pauper lord could not keep a troop of knights. The men must spring from him like fleas from a dead hound.
"And last night," mumbled Odred Miller, bailiff to Burr in a time of treason
stone Walls, "Odwin's lad Gil saw the frogspawn in the quarry
at Burrstone Pit."
Lamoric twisted in his chair. "Frogspawn?"
Odred Miller grunted affirmation.
Lamoric turned to the priest. "Why in Heaven's name would this man-- Odmund Miller?-- report the carnal activities of these creatures to me?" They had ridden to Tern Gyre. They had fought the Duke of Yrlac and saved the Evenstar Crown for the king anointed by the Patriarchs. "Are we keeping a flock of amphibians for--"
"Frogspawn is the customary sign, Lordship. In the pit. Frogspawn being seen, the villagers will make the teams ready for the Plow Chase. The children climb down to look for it. This year the Chase comes later than most, but tomorrow Walls, Pits, and Landing will set their best teams against each other to--"
"And this is Miller Odred. Miller Odmund died in my father's day, buried with his quern and apron in the last years of old King Carondas."
Lamoric mashed his hands over his eyes. "A man to be envied, that Odmund Miller." The reeves and bailiff exchanged glances: a slow matter involving much blinking of dark eyes.
The list went on. "The damp spoiled the seed rye in Burr-stone Walls, the great quarry at Burrstone Pits has flooded to one fathom's depth at the place of deepest delving," said one reeve.
"I find that I cannot breathe some days," said Lamoric. "We dined with princes and patriarchs. It is like the bottom of a well."
But the Burrstone men did not hear him. They pressed on with plowshares bought, dung carted, millstones to be cut, iron bought for mallets and chisels, and willows felled.
"And," said Odwy, "there is the matter of the king's writ, just arrived today."
Lamoric shot upright. "You've had a king's writ waiting on bloody frogs?"
Just then something creaked on the landing high over Lamoric's shoulder. Durand glanced and felt his heart stumble, for Deorwen had stepped from her chambers and stood now above the hall: Deorwen with her dark eyes, her petal lips. Pale as an idol above its shrine she stood. All thought of king's writs flew from Durand's mind as he spun in the flicker of her glance.
Her hair-- the gleaming red weight of it-- was smothered in a married woman's veil. And Durand knew that he was mad, for who but a madman would linger so near his master's wife and hope to be loyal? Every glimpse of her was treason. He could not breathe.
When Durand managed to look away, he found Berchard and Ouen peering at him, gauging his mood for signs of past troubles returning.
"The Writ of the Beacons," the priest was saying. He fumbled among scrolls and catch- pots, finding a scroll. "Here," he said. A red gobbet of sealing wax spun on a bit of ribbon.
Deorwen was about to slip back through the chamber door, vanishing.
"By the Lord of Dooms, man, what are you waiting for?"
Lamoric followed the priest's glance to his wife. "Deorwen!"
She stopped. "I thought I'd--"
"You're better are you?" She must have come up with some excuse to avoid the feast. "Well come and hear! It seems the king knows where we are, after all. The good father is just telling us what orders have come from the palace. And then, Heaven willing, we will learn more about the matter of the frogspawn."
Reluctantly, Deorwen descended into the hall, while Du-rand kept his eyes from the twitch of her skirts.
"Ladyship," said the priest, bobbing.
"Go on, Father. Let's hear it," said Lamoric.
The priest scratched, and then read, " 'To celebrate the anniversary of his coronation, Ragnal, King of Errest, Bearer of the Evenstar Crown, Heir of the Hazelwood Throne, commands that every beacon from the Blackroot Mountains to the Westering Sea, from the Winter Sea to the Bourne of Jade, be lit so that this good news can march from the Mount of Eagles in Eldinor to every corner of the realm, every prominence crowned with fire, the whole kingdom shining like the stars in the Vault of Heaven.' " in a time of treason
Deorwen took up her place at her husband's side, a red wisp curled against the pale skin of her neck.
And Durand shut his eyes. With better weather, he would have been on the road and gone by now. A stronger man might have dared flooded roads and cold nights long ago.
"Father," said Lamoric, straightening, "what do those in the Mount of Eagles wish from us down here in the damp of Burrstone Walls?"
"Every beacon in the kingdom must be put in order for First Sight of the Sowing Moon."
Lamoric dropped into his seat. "Beacon?"
"Should Errest be attacked, a message of fire can stride the high places of the kingdom from the Mount of Eagles to every corner of the realm."
"And so Burrstones is counted among the high places of the kingdom. I confess surprise."
"White Osbald is Watcher of the Beacon Tower," said the priest.
"The pale fellow with the pink eyes?"
"Ten generations have passed since the last invader threatened." The priest scratched his beard with another faint whistle. "It may need seeing to."
Durand opened his eyes-- and found Deorwen looking back at him. Her eyes trembled, brown and shadowed. He could stay no longer.
"I'll go," said Durand.
Curious faces turned his direction.
"I'll see how this beacon looks."
As he made to step from the hall, conscious of what a fool he looked, a crash echoed in the courtyard: a sound full of iron rings and the clatter of an axe handle. Down the long yard, he saw the castle's gatekeeper land on his armored shoulders. Someone was coming.
Durand closed a hand on his sword's grip, and-- along with every armed man in the hall-- braced himself.
"And," conceded the priest, "there is a messenger."
"Lord of Dooms..." Lamoric said. A blade in his hand, he looked to tall Coensar, his captain.
The priest said, "We could not delay the Accounting any further just because some errand boy--"
"Are you mad, priest? You've left him out in this rain? Who is it?"
"He has had the gate house for shelter. But there was no time to ask his name. The Accounting was already--"
A tall figure stalked toward them down the courtyard.