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Destiny : Child of The Sky
by Elizabeth Haydon
Tor, 2001


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At the Edge of the Krevensfield Plain
 
Time was growing short, Meridion knew.
The seven-and-a-half-foot-tall monster in ringed mail threw back his head, bared tusklike fangs and roared. The bellowing howl of rage rang through the darkness that clung to the toothlike, mountainous crags, sending loose shalestone and clods of snow tumbling down into the canyon a mile or more below.
Achmed the Snake, king of the Firbolg, exchanged a glance with Rhapsody and Krinsel, the Bolg midwife who was helping her pack for their journey. He returned to his sorting, hiding a smile behind his face-veil at the shock in the Singer's enormous green eyes.
"What's upsetting Grunthor now?" she asked, handing the midwife a sack of roots. Krinsel sniffed it, then shook her head, and Rhapsody set the sack down again.
"He's apparently displeased with the quartermaster and his regiment," Achmed answered as a stream of Bolgish profanities rumbled over the heath.
"I think he's more perturbed that he can't go with us," Rhapsody said, looking through the gray light of foredawn with sympathy at the terrified soldiers and their leader who were doing their best to stand at attention, withering under the Sergeant-Major's violent dressing-down. The midwife handed her a pouch, and she smiled.
"Undoubtedly, but it can't be helped." Achmed cinched a leather sack and wedged it into his saddlebag. "The Bolglands are not in any state to be left without a leader at the moment. Do you have everything you need for the delivery?"
The Singer's smile vanished. "Thank you, Krinsel. Be well while I'm away, and look in on my grandchildren for me, will you?" The Bolg woman nodded, bowed perfunctorily to the king, and then made a cautious exit, disappearing into one of the Cauldron's many exit tunnels.
"I have no idea what I'm going to need for this delivery," she said in a low voice with a terse edge to it. "I've never delivered a child who is demon-spawn before. Have you?"
Achmed's dark, mismatched eyes stared at her for a moment above the veil, then looked away as he went back to his packing.
Rhapsody brushed back a strand of her golden hair, exhaled and rested a hand gently on the Bolg king's forearm. "I'm sorry for being churlish. I'm nervous about this journey."
Achmed hoisted the snow-encrusted saddle bag over his shoulder. "I know," he said evenly. "You should be. We are still agreed about these children, I take it? You understand the conditions under which my help is given?"
Rhapsody returned his piercing stare with one that was milder but every bit as determined. "Yes."
"Good. Then let's go rescue the quartermaster from Grunthor's wrath."
The newly fallen snow of winter's earliest days crunched below their feet as they tramped over the dark heath. Rhapsody paused for a moment, turning away from the western foothills and the wide Krevensfield Plain to the black eastern horizon beyond the peaks of the Teeth, lightening now at its jagged rim with the paler gray that preceded daybreak.
An hour, maybe less, before sunrise, she thought, trying to gauge when she and Achmed would be departing. It was important to be in a place where she could greet the dawn with the ritual songs that were the morning prayers of the Liringlas, her mother's race. She inhaled the clear, cold air, and watched as it passed back out with her exhalation, frozen clouds in the bitter wind.
"Achmed," she called to the king, twenty or more paces ahead of her. He turned around and waited silently as she caught up with him. "I am grateful for your help in this matter; I really am."
"Don't be, Rhapsody," he said seriously. "I'm not doing this to help you spare the spawn of the F'dor from damnation. My motives are entirely selfish. You should know that by now."
"If your motives were entirely selfish, you would not have agreed to accompany me on this mission to find them, you would have gone alone and hunted them down," she said, untangling the strap of her pack. "Let's strike a bargain: I won't pretend your intentions are altruistic, and you won't pretend they're selfish. Agreed?"
"I'll agree to whatever makes you hurry up and get ready. If we don't leave before full-sun we run the risk of being seen."
She nodded, and the two of them hurried over the remainder of the heath and down to the lower tier of battlements where Grunthor and the quartermaster's troops were waiting.
"You're a disgrace to this regiment, the 'ole lot o' ya," Grunthor was snarling at the trembling Bolg soldiers. "One more missed instruction, Oi'm gonna flay ya, filet ya, and fry ya in fat for my supper, every last one o' ya. And you, Hagraith, you will be dessert."
Achmed cleared his throat. "Are the horses ready, Sergeant-Major?"
"'Bout as ready as can be expected," Grunthor grumbled. "Provisions will be in place momentarily, as soon as Corporal Hagraith 'ere gets 'is 'ead out of 'is arse, cleans the hrekin out of 'is ears, and gets them rolled bandages Oi requested two hours ago." The soldier took off in a dead run.
Rhapsody waited in respectful silence as Grunthor dismissed the rest of the supply troops, then came up behind him and wound her arms around his massive waist, a sensation similar to encircling a full-grown tree trunk.
"I'm going to miss your troops stomping by my chamber and singing me awake," she said jokingly. "Dawn just won't be the same without a few choruses of 'Leave No Limb Unbroken.' "
The giant's leathery features relaxed into a fond grin. "Well, ya could always stay, then," he said, mussing her glistening locks that shone with the brilliance of the sun.
It never failed to amaze him, looking at her thus, how much she resembled the Great Fire they had passed through together, in that journey so long ago. While crawling along the root of Sagia that had wound itself around the centerline of the Earth, he had come to respect this tiny woman, even though his own race had preyed on hers in the old world.
Rhapsody sighed. "How I wish I could." She watched his amber eyes darken sadly. "Will you be all right, Grunthor?"
A sharp sound of annoyance came from over her shoulder. "Safeguarding the mountain is child's play to Grunthor."
"Nope. Oi vaguely recall enjoying child's play. Don' like this a'tall," the Firbolg giant muttered, his fearsome face wreathed in a terrifying scowl. "We almost lost ya once to a bastard child of the demon; Oi don't especially want ya riskin' your life -- and your afterlife -- again, miss. Wish you'd reconsider."
She patted his arm. "I can't. We have to do this; it's the only way to get the blood we need for Achmed to finally track and find the host of the F'dor."
"'E may need to do it, then," Grunthor said. "No need for you to go along, Duchess. 'Is Majesty works best alone, anyway. We already lost Jo; Oi don't see no reason to risk losing you as well."
The reference to the death of the street child she had adopted as her sister made Rhapsody's eyes sting, but outwardly she betrayed no sign of sorrow. She had sung Jo's final dirge a few days before, along with the laments for the others they had lost along the way. She bit back a bitter answer, remembering that Grunthor had loved Jo almost as much as she had.
"Jo was little more than a child. I'm a trained warrior, trained by the best. Between you and Oelendra I believe I am fully capable of defending myself. Besides, since you're 'The Ultimate Authority, to Be Obeyed at All Costs,' you can just command me to live, and I suppose I will have to do so. I wouldn't want to risk your wrath by dying against orders."
Grunthor surrendered to a smile. "All right, consider it a command, then, miss." He encircled her warmly in his massive arms. "Take care o' yourself, Yer Ladyship."
"I shall." Rhapsody glanced over at Achmed, who was securing the saddles of the horses Grunthor had ordered provisioned for them. "Are you ready, Achmed?"
"Before we set out, there's something I want you to see," the king answered, checking the cinches.
"What? I thought you wished to be gone ere full-sun."
"This will only take a few moments, but it should be worth the delay. I want to be in the observatory at dawn."
Delight splashed over her face, making it shine as brightly as the sun soon would. "The observatory? The restoration of the stairway is finished?"
"Yes. And if you hurry we can get an overlook of the Inner Teeth and the Krevensfield Plain before we try to cross it." He turned and gestured to the entrance to the Cauldron, the dark network of tunnels, barracks and rooms of state that was his seat of power in Ylorc.
Rhapsody gave Grunthor a final squeeze, then gently broke loose of his embrace and followed the king through the dismal, windowless hallways, past the ancient statuary that was only now being cleaned and restored by Bolg artisans to its former glory from the Cymrian Age thirteen centuries before, when Ylorc, then known as Canrif, had been built.
They entered the Great Hall through its large double doors wrought in gold and inscribed with intricate symbols, and crossed the enormous expanse of the round throne room, where Bolg masons were carefully cleaning centuries of grime off the blue-black marble of the room's twenty four pillars, one marking each of the hours in the day.
"The renovation is coming along nicely," Rhapsody commented as they hurried through the patches of dusty gray light, filtering down from the glass blocks that had been embedded in the circular ceiling centuries before, affording not only illumination but distorted glimpses of the peaks of the Inner Teeth above them. "This place was a mass of rubble the last time I was here."
Achmed circumvented an enormous, star-shaped mosaic on the floor; the last of a series of celestial representations wrought in multicolored marble, cloudily visible beneath a layer of construction grit. "Mind your step here. If I recall, the last time you were in here you succumbed to a vision on this spot."
Rhapsody shuddered and picked up her pace. The gift of prescience had been hers for as long as she could remember. Nonetheless, each time she was assailed by a memory that was not her own, a vision that related something significant in the Past or, worse, warned of something coming in the Future, it caught her off guard, especially if it caused her to relive the intense emotions that remained behind like the smoky residue of a long-dead forest fire.
Her nightmares had returned to plague her as well, now that Ashe was no longer there to keep them at bay. At the thought, Rhapsody felt her throat go dry, and she struggled to banish the memory of her former lover from her mind by walking even faster. Their time together was over; he had his own responsibilities, chief among them seeking out the First Generation Cymrian woman he planned to marry, to rule with him as Lady, as the Ring of Wisdom had advised. They both had known from the beginning that their romance would only last a short time, but that knowledge had not made its passing any less painful.
Achmed had disappeared through an open doorway behind the dais on which stood the thrones of the Lord and Lady Cymrian, some of the few antiquities that had survived the Bolg rout of Canrif at the end of the Cymrian War intact.
"Hurry up." His voice echoed through the circular room.
"I'm coming as fast as I can," Rhapsody retorted as she hastened through the doorway. "You're a head taller than I am, Achmed; your stride is longer." She fell silent, admiring the beauty of the restored stairway to the observatory, high within one of the peaks of the Teeth.
On one side of the room, a twisting staircase of polished hespera wood, dark and rich with a blue undertone, curved in many spirals up to the opening of the tower high above. On the other, a strange apparatus rested on the floor, apparently still being renovated. It resembled a small, hexagonal room with glass panes.
"It's a form of vertical trolley, a funicular of sorts like we use in the mining tunnels," Achmed explained, reading her mind. "Another of Gwylliam's inventions. He'd written precise plans for its construction and maintenance. Apparently it ferried courtiers and the like who were too sedentary to climb the stairs. Clever design."
"Interesting. I'd prefer to walk, however, even if it were operational. I don't like the idea of riding in a glass room above a stone floor."
Achmed hid a smile. "As you wish."
They climbed the polished stairway, ascending higher and higher within the hollow mountain peak. As they neared the top Achmed reached into his boot and pulled out a large brass key. Rhapsody cast a glance over the railing at the distant floor and shuddered slightly.
"I'm certainly impressed with your renovations, Achmed, but why couldn't this tour wait until our return? Surely the view of the Krevensfield Plain is panoramic enough from the Heath, or from the tower in Grivven Post. Then at least we would be moving westward."
The Firbolg king inserted the key into the lock, and twisted it, causing an audible klink. "You may be able to see something from the observatory that you couldn't from the Heath or Grivven Tower."
The heavy door, bound in long-rusted iron, swung open on recently oiled hinges with a groan, revealing the domed room beyond. Rhapsody caught her breath. The observatory had not been renovated yet; white cloths, frosted with layers of dust, were draped heavily, covering what appeared to be furniture and freestanding equipment. They gleamed in the diffuse light of the room like ghosts in the darkness.
Achmed's strong hand encircled her arm; he drew her into the room and closed the door quickly behind them.
The room itself was square, with a ceiling that arched into a buttressed dome. It had been carved into the peak of the mountain crag itself, the walls burnished smooth as marble. Each of the four walls contained a enormous window, sealed shut, forgotten by Time. Ancient telescopes stood at each of the windows, oddly jointed, with wide eyepieces. Magic and history hung, static, in the air of the long-sealed chamber. It had a bitter taste, the taste of dust from the crypt, of shining hope long abandoned.
Rhapsody surveyed the rest of the room quickly -- shelves of ancient logbooks and maps, intricate frescoes on the quartered ceiling, depicting the four elements of water, air, fire and earth at each directional point, with the fifth, ether, represented by a covered globe suspended from the apex in the center. She would have loved the opportunity to examine the room thoroughly, but Achmed was gesturing impatiently from in front of the western window.
"Here," he said, and pointed at the vast, panoramic horizon stretching in all directions below them. "Have a look."
She came to the window and gazed out at the land coming awake with First-light. The view was more breathtaking than any other she had ever seen; here, in the tower-top pinnacle of the highest crag in the Teeth, she felt suspended in the air itself, perched above the whispering clouds below, with the world quite literally at her feet. Small wonder the Cymrians thought themselves akin to gods, she mused in awe. They stood in the heavens and looked down at the Earth, by the work of their own hands. It must have been a very long fall.
Once this observatory looked out over the realm of Canrif, the marvel of the Age, a kingdom of all the races of men, built from the unforgiving mountains by the sheer will of the Cymrian Lord, Gwylliam, sometimes called the Visionary, known of late by less flattering epithets. Now, centuries after the war in which the Cymrians destroyed themselves and the dominion they had held over the continent, their ancient mountainous cities, their observatories and libraries, vaults and storerooms, palaces and roadways were the domain of the Bolg, the descendants of the marauding tribes that overran Canrif at the end of the bloody Cymrian War.
The gray light of early morning flattened the panorama of the Teeth into thick shards of semi-darkness. As the sun rose it would illuminate the breath-taking sight, glittering on the millions of crags and fissures, the abundance of canyons and high forests, and the ruins of the ancient city of Canrif, the expansive edifice of a civilization that had been carved out of the face of the multicolored mountains. Now, however, with but moments of night remaining, the jagged range appeared flat and stolid, silent and dead in the sight of the world.
Rhapsody watched as the first tentative rays of morning sun cracked the black vault of night, favoring certain mountaintops with its purest light, a light that made the ever-present icecaps on the peaks of the Teeth glisten encouragingly. An interesting metaphor for the Bolg, she mused.
In the minds of the men of the surrounding realms, this primitive culture was considered monstrous, only demi-human, a scattered swarm of cannibalistic predators roving the mountains, preying on all living things. She had believed those myths herself once, long ago, before she had met Grunthor and Achmed, who by birth were half-Bolg.
Now she saw the Bolg as they really were. The tendencies for which they were feared were not totally unfounded -- Firbolg were fierce and warlike, and, without the guiding hand of a strong leader, resorted to whatever means necessary to survive, including the consumption of human flesh. Given that strong leader, however, she had seen and come to admire, and eventually love, this simple race, these primitive survivors, the outcasts of Nature and of man who nonetheless kept their values and legends alive, even in the harshest of realities.
They were a simple people, beautiful and uncomplicated in their interactions, with a disdain for self-pity and a singlemindedness about fostering the continuation of their society. Bloodied warriors could lie on the battlefield and die of non-mortal wounds while medical attention was directed to a laboring woman, in the belief that the infant was the Future, while the soldier was merely the Present. Anything that was the Past did not matter, save for a few stories and the all-encompassing need to survive.
The first long rays of sun crested the horizon, making the thin snow-blanket of the Krevensfield Plain twinkle with the brilliance of a diamond sea. The light reflected off the brightening sky, revealing the many layers of the mountains in all their splendor. Silver streams of artesian water rippled in cascading ribbons down the faces of the crags, pooling into the deep canyon river. Dawn coming to the Teeth was a sight that always took Rhapsody's breath away.
Softly she began her aubade, the morning lovesong to the rising sun that had been chanted at dawn by the Liringlas throughout the ages from the beginning of Time. The melody vibrated against the window, hovering in the frosty air beyond the glass, then dissipated on the wind as if scattered like flax over the wide fields and foothills below her.
When her song came to an end she felt Achmed's hand on her shoulder.
"Close your eyes," he said quietly. Rhapsody obeyed, listening to the silence of the hills and the song of the wind that danced through them. Achmed's hand left her shoulder. She waited for him to speak again, but after a few moments heard nothing more.
"Well?" she said, eyes still closed. When no reply came, her voice took on a note of irritation. "Achmed?"
Hearing nothing still, Rhapsody opened her eyes. The irritation that had flushed her cheeks was swallowed by the horror of the sight in the valley below.
The wide expanse of the Krevensfield Plain, the undulating prairie that led from the feet of the Teeth westward through the province of Bethe Corbair all the way to Bethany, was rolling in waves of blood. The red tide began to surge up the side of the valley below them, splashing like a churning sea of gore against the rocky steppes and foothills that bordered the mountains.
Rhapsody gasped, and her eyes darted to the mountains themselves. The glistening waterfalls that scored the mountainsides were flowing red as well, raining bloody tears onto the Heath and the canyon below. With trembling hands she gripped the sill of the window and closed her eyes again.
It was a vision, she knew; the gift of prescience had been hers even before she and the two Bolg left the old world and came here to this new and mysterious place, where the history was a paean of great aspirations destroyed by wanton foolishness.
What she did not know was what the vision meant; whether she was seeing the Past, or, far more frighteningly, the Future.
Slowly she opened her eyes once more. The valley was no longer crimson, but gray, as if in the aftermath of a devastating fire. But now, rather than the wide-open expanse that had been there a moment before, she saw the hilly farm country half a world away, the wide meadows of Serendair, where she had been born. A place in her youth she had called the Patchworks.
The hayfields and villages of her childhood were scorched, the pastureland smoldering, the farmhouses and outbuildings in ashes. The ground was razed and ash reached from the Teeth to the horizon. This was a sight she had seen in many a dream; nightmares had been a curse as long as prescience had been a gift. Rhapsody began to shake violently. She knew from experience what was coming next.
Around her she could feel intense heat, hear the crackling of flames. The fire was not the warm and pure element through which they had passed on their way here in their trek through the center of the Earth; it was a dark and ravenous inferno, the sign of the F'dor, the demon that they hunted, that was undoubtedly hunting them as well.
The walls and windows of the observatory were gone. Now she stood in a village or encampment consumed by black fire, while soldiers rode through the streets, slaying everyone in sight. A crescendo of screaming filled her ears. In the distance at the edge of the horizon she saw eyes, tinged in red, laughing silently at her amid the wailing chorus of death.
In the thunder of horses' hooves, she turned, as she always had in this dream. He was there as he always was, the bloodstained warrior atop a raging steed, riding down on her, his eyes lifeless.
Rhapsody looked up into the smoke-fouled sky above her. Always in this part of the dream she was lifted up in the air in the claw of a great copper dragon that appeared through the blackening clouds to rescue her.
But now there was nothing above her but the unbroken firmament of rolling black clouds and showers of flaming sparks ripping through the sooty air.
The pounding clamor was louder now. Rhapsody turned back.
The horseman was upon her.
A broken sword, dripping with gore and black flame, was in his hand. He raised it above his head.
With the speed born of her training by Oelendra, the Lirin champion, Rhapsody drew Daystar Clarion, the sword of elemental fire and ethereal light that she wielded as the Iliachenva'ar. It was in her hands as she inhaled; with the release of her breath she slashed the gleaming blade across the warrior's chest, unbalancing him from the warhorse. Blood that smoked like acid splashed her forehead, searing her eyes.
Shakily the warrior rose, steadying his dripping weapon. Time slowed as he hovered over her, striding at her with a great gaping wound bisecting his chest. Within his eye sockets was darkness, and nothing more.
Rhapsody inhaled and willed herself calm again. She calculated the trajectory of his attack, and as it came, with excruciating slowness, she dodged heavily out of his way. Her limbs felt as if they were made of marble. With tremendous effort she raised her arms and brought Daystar Clarion down on the back of the sightless man's neck, aiming her strike at the seam of his cuirass. The flash of light as intense as a star exploding signaled her connection.
A geyser of steaming blood shot skyward, spattering her again and burning hideously. The warrior's neck dangled awkwardly, then his head rolled forward, separated from the broken flesh of his shoulders, before thudding to the ground at her feet. The sightless eyes stared up at her; within them she could see tiny flames of dark fire fizzle, then burn out.
Rhapsody stood, hunched over and panting, her hands resting on her knees. In the light of Daystar Clarion's flames she watched the headless body list to one side, preparing to topple.
Then, as she watched, it righted itself.
The headless corpse turned toward her again, sword in hand, and began to walk toward her once more. As it lifted its sword purposefully, she heard Achmed's voice far away, as though calling from the other side of Time.
Rhapsody.
She turned to see him standing behind her, watching her from inside the observatory tower, then quickly glanced over her shoulder again.
The headless soldier was gone. Nothing remained of the vision.
She exhaled deeply and put a hand to her forehead. A moment later the Firbolg king was beside her.
"What did you see?"
"I'm fine, thank you, really I am," she muttered distantly, too spent to muster much sarcasm.
Achmed took her by the shoulders and gave her a firm shake. "Tell me, by the gods," he hissed. "What did you see?"
Rhapsody's eyes narrowed to emerald slits. "You did this intentionally, didn't you? You brought me up here, into this place heavy with magic and ancient memories, intending to spark a vision, didn't you? That's what you meant when you said I might see something I couldn't from the Heath or Grivven Tower. You unspeakable bastard."
"I need to know what you saw," he said impatiently. "This is the highest vista in the Teeth, the best possible place to see an attack coming. And one is coming, Rhapsody; I know it, and you know it. I need to know where it's coming from." His unnaturally strong hands tightened their grip ever-so-slightly.
She slapped them away and wrested free from his grasp. "I am not your personal vizier. Ask first next time. You have no idea what these visions cost me."
"I know that ultimately without them the cost may be your life, at the very least," Achmed snarled. "That, of course, is if you are lucky. The alternatives are far more likely, and far worse. And far more widespread. Now stop acting the petulant brat and tell me what I need to know. Where is the attack coming from?"
Rhapsody looked back out the window at the glistening plain, the mountains coming to rosy life in the light of dawn. She stood silently for a moment, breathing the frosty air and listening to the silence broken only by the occasional whine of a bitter wind turning ever colder.
"Everywhere," she said. "I think it's coming from everywhere."
 
 
High off, from his vantage point in the Future, hanging between the threads of Time in his glass globe observatory, Meridion stared in dismay at the people he had changed history to bring to this place in the hope that they would avert the fiery death that was now consuming what was left of the Earth.
He put his head down on the instrument panel of the Time Editor and wept.


Excerpted from Destiny : Child of The Sky by Elizabeth Haydon. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Haydon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.









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