Elliott, Kate - Crown of Stars 3

BOOK: Elliott, Kate - Crown of Stars 3
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Book Information

Genre: High/Epic Fantasy

Author: Kate Elliott

Name: The Burning Stone

Series: Volume Three of The Crown of Stars




**VOLUME Three of


The Burning Stone


HE had ran this far without being caught, but he knew his Quman master still followed him. Convulsive shudders shook him where he huddled in the brush that crowded a stream. His robes were still damp. Yesterday he had eluded them by swimming a river, but they hadn't given up. Prince Bulkezu would never allow a slave to taunt him publicly and then run free.

At last he calmed himself enough to listen to the lazy flow of water and to the wind rustling through leaves. Across the stream a pair of thrushes with spotted breasts stepped into view, plump and assertive. Ai, God he was starving.

The birds fluttered away as if they had gleaned his thoughts instead of insects. He dipped a hand in the water, sipped; then, seduced by its cold bite, he gulped down handfuls of it until his skin ached. By his knee a mat of dead leaves made a hummock. He turned it up and with the economy of long practice scooped up a mass of grubs and popped them in his mouth. Briefly he felt their writhing, but he had learned to swallow fast.

He coughed, hacking, wanting to vomit. He was a savage, to eat so. But what had the Quman left him? They had mocked him for his preaching, and therefore had taken his book and his freedom. They had mocked him for his robes, his clean-shaven chin, and his proud defense of Lady and Lord and the Circle of Unity between female and male, and therefore treated him as they did their own female slaves or any man they considered sheath instead of sword—with such indignity that he winced to recall it now. And they had done worse, far far worse, and laughed as they did it; it had been sport to them, to make a man into a woman in truth, an act they considered the second worst insult that could be given to a man. Ai, God! It had not been insult but pain and infection that had almost caused him to die.

But that was all over now. He had run before they took away his tongue, which truly mattered more to him than the other.

Water eddied along the bank. A hawk's piercing cry made him start. He had rested long enough. Cautiously he eased free of the brush, forded the stream, and fell into the steady lope that he used to cover ground. He was so tired. But west lay the land out of which he had walked in pride so many years ago that he had lost count: five or seven or nine. He meant to return there, or die. He would not remain a Quman slave any longer.

Dusk came. The waxing moon gave him enough light to see by as he walked on, a shadow among shadows on the colorless plain. Stars wheeled above, and he kept to a westerly course by keeping the pole star to his right.

Very late, a spark of light wavering on the gloomy landscape caught his attention. He cursed under his breath. Had the warband caught and passed him, and did they now wait as a spider waits for the fly to land? But that was not proud Bulkezu's way. Bulkezu was honorable in the way of his people—if that could be called honor—but he was also like a bull when it came to problems: he had no subtlety at all. Strength and prowess had always served him well enough.

No, this was someone—or something—else.

He circled in, creeping, until in the gray predawn light he saw the hulking shapes of standing stones at the height of a rise, alone out here on the plain as though a giant had once stridden by and placed them there carelessly, a trifle now forgotten. His own people called such stone circles "crowns," and this fire shone from within the crown. He knew then it was no Quman campsite—they were far too superstitious to venture into such a haunted place.

He crept closer on his hands and knees. Grass pricked his hands. The moon set as the first faint wash of light spread along the eastern horizon. The fire blazed higher and yet higher until his eyes stung from its glare. When he came to the nearest stone, he hid behind its bulk and peeked around.

That harsh glare was no campfire.

Within the ring of stones stood a smaller upright stone, no taller or thicker than a man. And it burned.

Stone could not burn.

Reflexively, he touched the wooden Circle of Unity he still wore. He would have prayed, but the Quman had taken his faith together with so much else.

A woman crouched beside . She had the well-rounded curves of a creature that eats as much as it wants, and the sleek power of a predator, muscular and quick. Her hair had the same color as the height of flame that cast a net of fire into the empty air. Her skin, too, wore a golden-bronze gilding, a sheen of flame, and she wore necklaces that glittered and sparked under the light of that unearthly fire.


She swayed, rocking from heel to heel as she chanted in a low voice.

The stone flared so brightly that his eyes teared, but he could not look away. He
through as through a gateway, saw another country,
it, a place more shadow than real, as faint as the spirit world his ancient grandmother had told tales about but with the sudden gleam of color, bright feathers, white shells, a trail of dun-colored earth, a sharp whistle like that of a bird.

Then the vision vanished, and the stone snuffed out as though a blanket of earth thrown on the fire had smothered it.

Stone and fire both were utterly

A moment later the lick and spit of everyday flame flowered into life. The woman fed a common campfire with dried dung and twigs. As soon as it burned briskly, she made a clucking sound with her tongue, stood, and turned to face

Ai, Lord! She wore leather sandals, bound by straps that wound up her calves, and a supple skirt sewn of pale leather that had been sliced off raggedly at knee length. And nothing else, unless one could count as clothing her wealth of necklaces. Made of gold and beads, they draped thickly enough that they almost covered her breasts—until she shifted. A witch, indeed.

She did not look human. In her right hand she held a spear tipped' with an obsidian point.

"Come," she said in the Wendish tongue.

It had been so long since he had heard the language of his own people that at first he did not recognize what he heard.

"Come," she repeated. "Do you understand this tongue?" She tried again, speaking a word he did not know.

His knees ached as he straightened up. He shuffled forward slowly, ready to bolt, but she only watched him. A double stripe of red paint like a savage's tattoo ran from the back of her left hand up around the curve of her elbow, all the way to her shoulder. She wore no curved felt hat on her head, as Quman women did, nor did she cover her hair with a shawl, as Wendish women were accustomed to do. Only leather strips decorated with beads bound her hair back from her face. A single bright feather trailed down behind, half hidden. The plume shone with such a pure, uncanny green that it seemed to be feathered with slivers from an emerald.

"Come forward," she repeated in Wendish. "What are you?"

"I am a man," he said hoarsely, then wondered bitterly if he could name himself such now.

"You are of the Wendish kin."

"I am of the Wendish kin." He was shocked to find how hard; it was to speak out loud the language he had been forbidden to j speak among the Quman. "I am called—" He broke off.
Dog, worm, slave-girl,
were the names given him among the Quman, and there had been little difference in meaning between the four. But he had escaped the Quman. "I—I was once called by the name Zacharias, son of Elseva and Volusianus."

"What are you to be called now?"

He blinked. "My name has not changed."

"All names change, as all things change. But I have seen among the human kin that you are blind to this truth."

To the east, the rim of sun pierced the horizon, and he had to shade his eyes. "What are you?" he whispered.

Wind had risen with the dawning of day.

But it was not wind. It sang in the air like the whirring of wings, and the sound of it tore the breath out of his chest. He tried to make a noise, to warn her, but the cry lodged in his throat. She watched him, unblinking. She was alone, as good as unarmed with only a spear to protect her; he knew with what disrespect the Quman treated women who were not their own kin.

"Run!" he croaked, to make her understand.

He spun, slammed up against stone, and swayed there, stunned. The towering stone block hid him from view. He could still flee, yet wasn't it too late once you could hear their wings spinning and humming in the air? Like the griffins who stalked the deep grass, the Quman warriors took their prey with lightning swiftness and no warning but for that bodiless humming vibrating in the air, the sound of their passage.

He had learned to mark their number by the sound: at least a dozen, not more than twenty. Singing above the rest ran the liquid iron thrum of true griffin wings.

He began, horribly, to weep with fear. The Quman had said, "like a woman"; his own people would say, "like a coward and unbeliever," one afflicted with weakness. But he was so tired, and he
weak. If he had been strong, he would have embraced martyrdom for the greater glory of God, but he was too afraid. He had chosen weakness and life. That was why They had forsaken him.

She shifted to gaze east through the portal made by standing stones and lintel. He was so shocked by her lack of fear that he turned—and saw.

They rode with their wings scattering the light behind them and the whir of their feathers drowning even the pounding of their horses' hooves. Their wings streamed and spun and hummed and vibrated. Once he had thought them real wings, but he knew better now: They were feathers attached by wire to wooden frames riveted to the body of their armored coats. That armor had a scaly gleam, strips of metal sewn onto stiff leather coats. On a standard fixed to a spear they bore the mark of the Pechanek clan: the rake of a snow leopard's claw. The Quman had many tribes. This one he knew well, to his sorrow.

At the fore rode a rider whose wings shone with the hard iron fletching of griffin feathers. Like the others he wore a metal visor shaped and forged into the likeness of a face, blank and intimidating, but Zacharias did not need to see his face to know who it was.


The name struck at his heart like a deathblow.

A band of fifteen riders approached the ring of stones, slowing now, the hum of their wings abating. From a prudent distance they examined the stone circle and split up to scout its perimeter and assess the stone portals, the lay of the ground, and the strength of its defenders. The horses shied at first, made skittish by the great hulking stones or by the shadow of night that still lingered inside the ring, but taking courage from their masters, they settled and agreed to move in closer.

The woman braced herself at the eastern portal with her spear in one hand. She showed no fear as she waited. The riders called out to each other. Their words were torn away on a wind Zacharias could not feel on his skin—audible but so distant that he could make out no meaning to what they shouted to each other, as though the sound came to him through water.

BOOK: Elliott, Kate - Crown of Stars 3
8.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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