Golden Hills of Westria Chapter One


The Golden Hills of Westria

Sample Chapters

To welcome back our old friends, and to encourage those who would be new ones to draw closer (and buy a copy), we are pleased and proud to present the Prologue and Chapters One and Six of The Golden Hills of Westria in simple, readable, HTML. No bizarrely locked files that requires a pet geek and a Sherpa guide… just the content!

We hope you enjoy it–and tell your friends!

— Diana and Lorrie

Chapter One: Initiation

“Seeker, why have you come here?”

Sunlight blazed suddenly through the moving leaves, overwhelming sight, but the voice of the priest who guarded the Gate carried clearly. Sombra strained to hear the response of the red-headed boy who stood before him.

The late-summer sun released the sweet smell of ripe grass from the golden hills, though there was a brisk bite to the wind. The blue summit of the Lady Mountain rose above the trees, watching over the province of Seagate as she watched over the young people who had come here to seek initiation into Westria’s mysteries.

Sombra repeated the words she knew he must be saying now–

“I come to seal myself to the Covenant of Westria.”

They had drilled each other on the responses all the way from Seahold to the Initiation grounds, using their anxiety to mask deeper fears.

“What is your name?” The voice of the Warden came once more. Wind rustled the leaves of the live oaks and firs that grew among the laurel trees as if to whisper an answer.

Since his birth the boy had been called Phoenix, but here they all must leave their milk-names behind them. Beyond those gates, she thought, Phoenix will not be the son of the King of Westria, and I will not be the grand-daughter of the sorcerer who tried to destroy him.

But Sombra’s other grandfather was the Eric of Haven, Lord Commander of Seagate, and her father was King Julian’s seneschal.

We carry our histories with us, she thought, even here. She shivered, and told herself her chill came from the fog bank that was rolling in from the sea

Phoenix leaned forward to warm his hands at the campfire. They had scarcely had time to stow their bedrolls in the shelters and put on the anonymous tunics of undyed cotton everyone wore here before the teaching began. It would continue morning, noon and night, for the full month of the Retreat, except for the hours each afternoon that were given over to exercise. For those brought up on outlying holdings, who knew only the rites by which their parents honored the spirits of their own woods and fields, this intensive education might be necessary, but the story of how the sorcerer Caolin stole the Four Jewels of Westria, and King Julian had won them back again were part of his own family history.

“Take up a handful of earth. Hold it, feel its texture, reach out to its energy…” said the priestess. Her name was Mistress Larissa, and her stocky body had the solid strength of the earth in her hand.

Obediently he scooped up a little dust, then sat back, shifting in a vain search for comfort. A folded cloak was not much protection from the hard ground, but he had already overheard a few comments about spoiled princes. He was surrounded by girls and boys with whom he had played every summer on the docks of Seahold when Queen Rana brought him to visit her kinfolk there.

They should have sent him to some remote gathering in the Ramparts where no one knew him–but no, his father had been kidnapped by slavers on his Retreat in those hills. Julian would never have risked his only child there. Perhaps the southern part of Las Costas? But that was no good either. King Julian took a personal interest in every corner of his kingdom, and his family had accompanied him on too many of his journeys for his red-headed son to be anonymous in any part of the land. As it was, Phoenix had put off facing this test until he was nearly eighteen, when he could do it the same year as Sombra, who was a year younger than he.

“Live in this moment,” said Mistress Larissa. “This earth you hold is the ground of being, just as the radiance beyond all understanding is manifest in the simple light of day. There is no need to turn from the world to search for meaning. The Creator is not separate from her Creation. Look for Spirit here, in the fire, in the wind and water, in a single grain of sand–” She opened her hand and a little wind set the dust swirling to mingle with the smoke from the fire. “Here, with the holy earth of Westria, is where it all begins.”

“Do you mean that there is no life beyond this one?” asked a fisherman’s son.

“I mean that the Otherworld is in this one, as our spirits are in our bodies, for those who have eyes to see.”

“But we die, and our bodies decay–” said the boy.

“The tide recedes, but it always returns,” said the priestess. “Everything changes, but nothing is lost. When you leave this gathering your names will be changed, though your bodies seem the same. As you grow older, both body and spirit will grow and change, and yet there is something that endures through all the transformations. That is the paradox and the mystery.”

Phoenix sighed. Sometimes he felt as if his body were the only thing that did stay the same, while his spirit hid behind the masks that others expected to see.

“Words cannot convey this meaning,” she said sharply as someone giggled in the shadows. “It is something you must know. Look into the fire!” The sudden note of command compelled attention. There was no sound but the crackling of the flames.

“Look into the light…” the voice of the priestess modulated to a hypnotic murmur. “Listen to the voice of the fire and the wind in the trees… Feel your weight supported by the earth… Live in this moment, this point of time that is all time. This, this, is reality…”

For a moment, then, the light surrounded and consumed him. He was all things; he was nothing; he knew eternity. And then someone gasped and laughed, and he was jerked back to ordinary reality. Heart thudding, he gazed around the circle. Some were stirring and looking about, while others appeared to have gone to sleep. But as the flames flared he saw Sombra sitting at the edge of the circle, her soft hair a cloud of shadow around a face smoothed to an incandescent purity by trance. Her dark eyes, half concealed by thick lashes, looked at, no, through the fire.

She is there, he thought. Only a few words were enough for her to reach the place of vision… and stay. I am going to fail my testing and shame my father. She should have been heir to the Jewels of Westria, not me.

Mistress Larissa had resumed her lecture, but Phoenix did not hear her. He gazed across the fire at Sombra, his spirit straining to get free.

“Sombra! There you are!” Phoenix sounded as if he had been running.

Sombra was already turning. She had felt his presence even before he called. The girls with whom she was sitting giggled, but Sombra frowned. Didn’t he know how quickly gossip could grow? Already, she had heard her own name linked with his–just because they had been childhood friends. To single her out this way would only add fuel to the fire.

To be sure, he looked like a flame himself in the white tunic the boys wore on this night when they all claimed their status as men and women. As she greeted him, she straightened the folds of her own black gown. We are Fire and Smoke, she thought, Sunlight and Shadow… but after my vigil I will have another name!

“Maidens, my apologies for taking this fair flower from among you–” Phoenix swept a bow that would have suited his father’s court, and Sombra rolled her eyes.

“Fix, be serious!” Deliberately she called him by the nickname that was all she had been able to manage as a child.

“I am serious–” Now she could see the worry in his blue eyes. “I have to talk to you!”

Still scowling, she let him lead her away from the campfire and past the dancers who circled it. Behind her she could hear the other girls whispering, and then laughter. Drums throbbed like a heart-beat, vibrating through the soil.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s what will be wrong if you don’t help. Sombra, come with me up onto the hill!”

For a moment she simply stared at him. It was inevitable, when this many young people were thrown so closely together, that some would pair off. The night of the dance was the traditional time for them to consummate their bonding. Some couples had left already, hand in hand.

“Are you mad? It would be like sleeping with my brother!”

“I doubt that,” Phoenix grinned. “I’m pretty sure that Lenart likes boys. But I didn’t mean that we should actually do anything. That girl from Seahold is after me, and there’s one from across the Bay right behind her, and my father will kill me if I get involved.”

“I had no idea you were such a stallion!” Sombra said scornfully, but in fact she believed him, having seen how girls fluttered when they realized he was the son of the king.

“They want my seed, not me,” he looked over his shoulder at the blonde girl who was pushing through the dancers, and seized her hand. “Comeon!”

“Would it be such a chore to make her happy?” she said breathlessly as they halted in the shadow of a fir tree. “You wouldn’t have to–you know…” The lessons they had just received had included some very explicit instruction on how to achieve pleasure without pregnancy.

“I suppose not–” he tried to hide behind her, not entirely successfully, as his last growth spurt had left him four inches taller than she. “If you must know, I don’t want my first time to be with someone who looks at me as if I were a side of beef in the market square!”

Sombra’s eyes widened. She had assumed that with all his opportunities, Phoenix would have found someone to initiate him into those other mysteries of adulthood before now, but as she opened her awareness to touch his, she sensed that what he was saying was true.

“Unless–oh, I’m sorry, Sombra–was there someone you were waiting for?”

“No, Fix,” she said gently. “Come on, little virgin, you’ll be safe with me…”

Sombra leaned back against the rock and felt her heartbeat slow. Above them rose the peak of the mountain; to the west the young moon was sinking towards the sea. The sky was a field full of stars.

“I suppose I should thank you,” she said finally. “This is certainly better than listening to gossip by the fire.”

Phoenix snorted. In the starlight his bright hair was a banked flame. “Aside from gossip, has this month taught you what you wanted to know?”

“My father was an adept before he was Seneschal, and yours is the Jewel-Lord. I doubt that there was much in the teaching that we have not heard debated over the breakfast table since we were infants. But if we are going to serve ordinary people, we will have to understand what they hope, and fear, and know.”

“So you still mean to go to the College of the Wise?”

“Of course. But you’ll be there too, won’t you, at least for awhile?” It was usual for princes to take an ordinary priest’s training, to prepare them to bear the Jewels.

“By the time they send me you will probably be halfway to Awahna. At least you have a goal! What is there for me but to wait for a day I hope will never come?”

“You love your father…”

“Of course!” he exclaimed, and then, “I don’t know. Do you love this mountain, or the moon? They are there, and you cannot imagine life without them. To imagine trying to be them is even harder. When the king looks at me, we are both wondering if I will ever be fit to fill his shoes. I don’t think we can see each other simply as father and son. At least you–”

“On those intervals when she is not running Westria’s navy, my mother looks at all her children as if she is not quite sure where we came from,” she said abruptly. “My father is kind to me, but Westria has eaten his life too. I have always known that I will have to find my own path, and so will you!”

Phoenix sighed. “No you don’t. You think that going to the College will solve your problems. But some things that don’t get talked about over your breakfast table may get discusssed at mine. The College was fine when the Master of the Junipers was running it, but they have had two Heads since he went away, and this new man, Master Granite, seems more concerned with codifying rules than nurturing souls.”

“If I don’t learn from them, I will learn despite them, but I will learn!”

“I envy your certainty…”

She glared at him. “Look, Phoenix, nobody gets to choose the life she’s born to, but we do choose how we live!”

“Yes, Mistress–” he grinned with the swift change of mood she remembered. “So tell me, wise one, what mysteries did they reveal to you girls while we were being taught separately these past few days?”

Sombra laughed. Most Westrians grew up on farms and were well aware of the mechanics of sex by the time they came for Initiation. The teaching had focused on the more esoteric means by which man and wife might act as priest and priestess to each other and to their land. But a few of the details had been… surprising… She could not help wondering if what they told the boys about women was the same.

Comparing notes was enough to set both of them to giggling, but presently the conversation slowed. The moon had disappeared into the fog-bank that lay over the ocean. It was very still. Rousing, Sombra was about to suggest that they might safely make their way back to the shelters when she realized that Phoenix was asleep, leaning awkwardly against the stone.

“It’s time we got you to bed…” As she touched him he fell over into her lap, and when she tried to move him he only burrowed more comfortably against her, mumbling incoherently. As children they had joked that once Fix was properly asleep, not even a second Cataclysm would awaken him.

Her own position was not too uncomfortable, even with his weight across her thighs. I suppose I might treat this as the first night of my vigil, she told herself, even though I am not exactly alone. She looked down at him with a smile.

Leached of color by the starlight, and with all the swift changes of expression smoothed away, the strong bones of his face showed clearly, and for the first time she could see a resemblance to the king. Was his father’s strength hidden there as well?

When they were children she had been able to reach out and touch his dreams. Carefully she stroked a tumbled curl back from his broad brow. At the touch he stirred a little, and still sleeping, smiled with a piercing sweetness that was entirely his own.

For a moment her heart stilled.

Abruptly she was a child once more. Her brother had been teasing her, and Phoenix had come to her defense like the rising sun chasing the clouds away. At the age of three, her heart had been won by that smile, and now, as it began to beat again, she realized with an intensity that bordered on pain that she loved him still. Her entire body trembled with awareness of his. Instinctively she sought to stifle her emotion, for if he woke, her mind would be open to his, and he would know.

Sleep, my beloved, Sombra thought as the strong curls sprang back beneath her trembling fingers, be still. Her destiny waited in the sacred valley of Awahna, and though the Masters of the College were free to form liaisons, any relationship must always take second place to the work to which they were called. She had seen her father torn between the demands of the College, his family, and Westria, but her mother had the comfort of a vocation of her own. The king of Westria needed a queen who would be his partner and support in all things. And Phoenix, beloved, brilliant, and vulnerable as she knew him to be, deserved a wife who could love him heart-whole.

But if she never held him again, at least she had been given this moment in which he was all her own. For this one night, she could hold him, memorizing the shape of each limb, the scent of his skin, the warm weight of him in her arms, as the stars wheeled overhead and the land of Westria turned toward dawn.

Even before they took off the blindfold, Phoenix recognized the powdery scent of redwood. He took a careful breath, trying to hide his fear. The initiates were not supposed to know where they were being taken for their vigils, but as soon as he felt the horse begin to go downhill, Phoenix had suspected that they were carrying him to the Sacred Grove.

It was not fair! he thought, fighting a sneeze. If he ever became king the Trees would have him in the end, as they had received the bones of all the rulers of Westria. Why must he endure the little death of initiation here as well?

Your father was buried in the Wood, and came back to his body again… said a voice within. It sounded like his mother, who had told him how they had buried Julian after Caolin struck him down, and how she found him walking in the Sacred Wood with the earth of the grave still on his shoulders, eyes dazzled by the first light of Midwinter Day. The boy’s mind-voice often sounded like someone else–one of his parents or the many other teachers with whom they had burdened him. Those who called him heedless had no idea how hard it was to ignore them. Sometimes Phoenix got into trouble because it was the only way he could claim a separate existence at all.

The forest floor here was deeply covered by fallen needles, and as his escort left him the sound of hooves faded quickly. They had brought him all the way down to the narrow valley where the stream sang a soft accompaniment to the whispering of the trees. Ruddy, soft-barked trunks strained towards the forest canopy, their foliage filtering the sunlight in tones of gold and green. There were trees in this wood that had sprouted before the Cataclysm. Their patience spanned centuries. Phoenix had only to endure three days.

He was not imprisoned here. He could hike uphill to the encampment, or follow the stream to reach the edge of the wood. But the only thing he feared more than the ghosts of his family was facing its living members if he ran away.

For some, to be left in the wilderness, alone and fasting, was enough of an ordeal, but their teachers had spoken truth–the worst dangers were the demons they brought with them. The Initiation Retreat was supposed to be a time of spiritual transformation, but there were always stories, whispered at night in the tents when the teachers had gone, about people who had gone mad on their vision quests, or killed themselves, or simply disappeared.

I will survive this… he promised himself as he picked up his water bottle and his bedroll. I will not give in to my fear…

When Sombra pulled the blindfold from her own eyes she found herself in a small meadow on the western shoulder of the mountain. Below, a tangle of fir and spruce and cedar fell away in waves of dark green to the wrinkled blue of the sea. The fog bank had drawn back enough for her to see the Far Alone islands. Above, a pair of small hawks sported with the wind, half-closing their wings to let the breeze tumble them, feathers suddenly blazing red as they tipped back towards the sun. They called to each other, four cheerful chirps repeating as they chased each other in circles up the sky. The flash of their wings reminded her of Phoenix, and she tried to thrust the memory away.

She had left him at dawn, while he still lay sleeping. Their ways must now lie apart, and whatever challenge this vigil might bring would be faced alone. Setting down her bedroll and water bottle, she began to pace around the meadow, consecrating it to her purpose here.

From his bedroll Phoenix glimpsed parts of constellations winking in and out as branches stirred in the wind. Like my life–he thought, gazing upward, a confusion of fragments. For a moment he entertained an image of the consternation if he should declare himself nameless, unworthy not only of the Jewels, but of citizenship in Westria.

But he knew he would not do it. Initiates were never asked to describe their visions. Most had decided on their adult names years ago. Many took a name that had been handed down in the family, or called themselves after some figure of legend. Julian, still ignorant of his true parentage, had yet dared to claim the name of the first king to wield the four elemental Jewels of Westria, the founder of House Starbairn.

He would just have to think of something. After all, they could not call him “Hey you–” in the unlikely event he ever got a chance to reign.

That prospect was even more terrifying. His father was going to live forever, and if Phoenix was lucky, no one would ever know that no vision had come to the heir of Westria.

He had arranged his gear within the shelter of a redwood whose center had been blasted by some ancient storm. The outer bark had survived, and green branches flourished above. On the side where the trunk was gone, saplings rose from the ashes. It was all very inspirational, he supposed, but he sympathized with the young shoots, fighting for light and space in the shadow of a mighty sire.

His eyelids grew heavy and he turned onto his side. Here among the dry needles there was nothing to attract a night-prowling raccoon or bobcat; aside from a few spiders, even insects took little interest in the trees. The rustle of wind-stirred branches was a lullaby that merged gradually into whispered words.

“So this is the sapling–“ the voice was deep, as if it came from something almost too huge for words.

“He is not much like his father,” the other speaker sounded female, her tones sweet and low.

“He has his grandfather’s eyes,” the first voice replied. “It remains to be seen whether he has his soul.”

Phoenix struggled to open them. There seemed to be more trees around than he remembered, and surely there had been no madrones in the redwood grove. He blinked, sure for a moment that he saw the form of a woman outlined in light instead of a tree. His vision grew clearer; he made out graceful, ruddy-skinned limbs and a garment of leaves. Her head was covered with curls of bark instead of hair. Her eyes were green; deep as forest pools. For a moment they met, then he sank into their depths, sliding back towards sleep.

“The seed does not fall far from the tree,” said the deeper voice as oblivion took the boy once more, “but each sapling must endure different seasons. We cannot yet see how this one will grow…”

Sombra slept deeply, wearied by her vigil the night before. When she opened her eyes, the meadow was filled with golden light. Throughout that day, it was the light that dominated her awareness, glowing through the leaves and in the grass, filling the great bowl of the sky.

The preparation for their initiation had focused on the four elements, the powers on whose interaction depended the life of the land. By means of the four Jewels the rulers of Westria maintained the balance between them. The lore taught at the retreat was all that most people needed to know to live in harmony with the spirits with whom they shared the land. But from her father, Sombra knew that the realms ruled by Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were only the foundation of a greater structure, the trunk and first branches of a Tree that stretched towards infinity.

And the realm above them was ruled by the sun, the life-giving light of the world who represented both sacrifice and sovereignty. Sombra demanded more than a mere balancing of the elements– if she could, in this vigil, banish the shadows from her soul, she might become a vessel for that light, and traverse the realms of the spirit as her mother sailed the trackless seas.

When she was an infant they had called her Sombra–Shadow–because of the cloud of dark hair she had inherited from her Elayan grandmother along with her golden skin. She had always wondered whether they had been thinking of her grandfather as well–whether Caolin’s evil might give another meaning to her name. Perhaps, Sombra told herself, she was foolish to worry. Perhaps everyone found it difficult to believe in their own goodness. But it was not evil that she feared, or at least not evil intent. What haunted her was a fear of her own power.

Light… and dark… were they truly twinned?

She found herself humming and realized it was a song her father had taught her, from one of the rituals at the College of the Wise.

By wandering ways we seek to gaze
upon the Light,
Though shadows fall, still comes the call
and hope burns bright.
The pilgrim path seems endless,
yet we walk the way,
and know the darkness deepens
just before the day.

I am following the Pilgrim Path… she thought then. This vigil is its beginning. I will prove myself worthy to face the Light. She stripped off her robe and lay down in the meadow, seeing the red glow of the sun through her closed eyelids, absorbing that radiance through every pore.

By day, the Sacred Wood was a pleasant place. The great trees shielded Phoenix from the sun. He could wade in the clear stream where the fingerling trout and salmon darted away from his shadow, and watch the deer step delicately from the shadows of the trees. Ravens called higher up on the mountain, and from time to time a buzzard slid across the fragment of blue that was all he could see of the sky. Where sunlight shafted through the forest at times he thought he saw something more; around the most vigorous plants shimmered a luminous shadow. Was it lack of food or his vision of the night before that made him think he was seeing another reality?

When night fell, he was sure of it, as trees that had drowsed through the long summer day, woke, whispering. To his parents, the Guardians of Westria were old familiar friends. He wished he could be as certain of their blessings. Still, if what he had glimpsed the first night had been truth, the Lord of the Trees had now inspected him and might be expected to leave him in peace hereafter.

For what seemed a long time he lay wakeful, while the waxing moon crossed his circle of sky and disappeared. That day he had gone looking for the graves of his ancestors, but the lords of Westria, who in life were honored by all, in death were wrapped in cotton shrouds and laid in unmarked graves. Even now he might be resting above his grandfather’s bones.

He was still wondering when the whisper of wind worked its magic and he moved from musing to dream. At first they were only a confusion of images–he was marching through a dry land, endlessly, it seemed, until another sequence replaced it in which he fought a succession of faceless enemies. People and places flickered by. He recognized none of them, but he knew that he was searching endlessly for something infinitely precious that he had forgotten or lost.

It was almost with relief that he recognized the confused roar in which the clangor of metal on metal mingled with cries of pain as the clamor of a battlefield. The fighting was fiercest in the center, where foes who fought beneath the banner of a serpent-circled sun threatened a man whose shield bore the star of the royal house on a field of blue.

“Westria, to me!” came the cry.

“Father!” Phoenix cried, desperate to go to his aid. And even as he spoke, he realized that he had somehow acquired armor and a sword. But as he battered his way through the enemy he saw that this man lacked the heavy shoulders that marked King Julian. But his small frame was all muscle, and his sword darted in and out like a silver flame.

With a last effort Phoenix reached his side.

“Now that we are together, who can stand against us?” laughed the king. At the sound, Phoenix felt his spirit ignite with the joy of battle, all his fears consumed by that flame.

And presently their foes retreated and they stood victorious upon the field. As the king sighed and pulled off his helm, Phoenix saw that his hair was dark like Julian’s, but his eyes were as deeply blue as the boy’s own.

“You are King Jehan–” Phoenix recognized the doomed ruler he had seen in a portrait in Laurelynn, the grandfather who had died before his own son was born, leaving his pregnant wife alone. “What are you doing here?”

Some of the laughter left the king’s eyes. “Defending Westria, as in life I failed to do–”

“But why have you come to me?” said Phoenix as the figure of the king begin to fade.

“Son of Julian,” came the king’s reply, “redeem my name!”

For Sombra, the third night was the hardest. Her enthusiasm–or perhaps her pride–had betrayed her, and her skin was still hot and tender enough to make the touch of her robe an agony, though her sunburn did not keep her from shivering once the temperature began to fall.

Kept wakeful by her discomfort she started at every night noise. The deer that drifted across the meadow were quiet, but from among the trees came the sound of snarling–raccoons, perhaps, or the grey foxes that haunted the higher slopes. There were other shapes, too, more sensed than seen–the spirits that lived on the peak, moving through their domain.

She listened to her stomach growl and consoled herself with the thought of the many others who had kept vigil here. Queen Faris herself had slept out on this mountain before her wedding and initiation to the Jewels. What must she have felt? What would Phoenix feel when his turn came at last?

The night held clear, and she saw that she had been wrong to worship the sunlight so completely, for the heavens were like a bowl full of stars. Old tales held that each of those twinkling lights was another sun, though how anyone knew for sure she could not tell. And yet it was from the stars, they said, that a spirit had come and lain with the priestess who became the first Mistress of the Jewels. His morning gift to her was the Wind Crystal, and by its power she created the other three. His other gift had been a son, who became the first King Julian and used those Jewels to defeat the sorcerers who were destroying the land.

Perhaps she should seek her name from the stars that shone so sweetly against the darkness. Wavering between sleep and waking, it seemed to her that they were pulsing in time to her heartbeat. Whatever her Name might be, it should hold light. Above the trees she glimpsed the ruddy flicker of the red planet who brings war. Overhead, Jupiter reigned like an orb of gold. But all of them shone. She lay upon the cool grass and gazed up at the white road that crossed the heavens, trying out different words for that radiance until her eyes closed at last.

She was awakened by the damp kiss of the wind. The great slow-motion wave of the fog was rolling in from the sea. Shivering, she watched as it broke against the slope of the Mountain and divided, covering everything below the peak with a pale shroud. She huddled into her blankets, and this time, as sleep took her, she dreamed of burning houses, weeping children, and a horde of white-clad warriors who swept across the land. She reached deeper, and suddenly the power within her blazed forth and she found herself riding a dragon of crystal that surged through the skies. At the sight, the battling hosts, both friend and foe, reeled back, overwhelmed by her light.

Luz–your name is Luz! a clear voice cried.

Phoenix tried to spend most of the last day of his vigil sleeping. If he could watch through the night, perhaps he could avoid more dreams. A little past midnight he glimpsed the first tendrils of the incoming fog as a blurring of the stars. But as the temperature dropped, the mist thickened, settling like a thick grey blanket across the trees. Phoenix fought the temptation to take out the flint and steel they had left him to make an emergency signal and light a fire.

It had always been dark beneath the branches, but now the blackness was absolute, denying even the possibility of light. Fire, sun, stars–all were delusions. Even thought became difficult, deadened by that featureless pall. It was said that his father had learned to see through the dark when he was trapped underground, but his father had had the Earthstone.

I have nothing! he gibbered. You left me alone in the dark! A fragment of awareness wondered where and when he had been so abandoned, but he could only remember the scent of dank earth, cold and slippery beneath his small fingers, and the total lack of light. I am not me…I am not here… his spirit cried, but there was nowhere to go.

Phoenix gripped the leafmold on which he lay until the small needles bit into his skin, seeking in touch to compensate for the lost sense of sight as he had done so long ago, retreating until at last he sensed that someone was with him, and recognized it as the spirit he had encountered the night before.

“Is it you, grandfather? Why are you haunting me?

“Because you need me, and I need you…”

With a sigh of relief, Phoenix retreated into the dream. Growing up in the shadow of his own father’s victories he had never thought much about the father Julian himself had never known. It was a comfort to realize that not all of Westria’s kings had lived up to that impossible standard.

“If I tell you to leave me, will you go?”

“I cannot help you against your will,” the other answered patiently. “You must choose your own allies, but to rule them you need me.”

This was crazy. Other people had visions of animal spirits or the Guardians during their vigils, not dead grandfathers. He could hide this haunting from his parents, but he winced at the thought of the act he would have to put on to keep it from Sombra. He would not trouble her bright spirit with his darkness. And yet, perhaps just because King Jehan had not been perfect, his presence brought comfort

“Very well–” he said at last. “It is a bargain. Watch over me, and I will take your name…”

The sense of approval grew stronger. Was the shadow passing from his spirit? Awareness of his body was returning, and with it his senses. He opened his eyes and saw the mists at last beginning to brighten with the approach of day.

Luz stood blinking in the sunlight, her spirit still resonating with the words of the Covenant of Westria to which she had just sworn and the single syllable that was now her name. All around her those who had gone through the gate of the Retreat as children were being welcomed back by their families as citizens of Westria. From somewhere in the tumult she heard her father calling her new name, but she was looking for the flash of copper hair that would lead her to Johan, or had the priest meant to say “Jehan” ? It had not been clear.

Why had he chosen that name? What visions had come to him? She had tried to speak with him when they were brought back from their vigils, but boys and girls had been hustled off to their separate tents to bathe and dress in new tunics of green. And then they were being taken one by one to the sanctuary to be blessed by each element in turn. It was as close as most of them would ever come to direct experience of the powers focused in the four elemental Jewels that were wielded by the king. Was that what had put the cloud in Johan’s blue eyes?

“Luz! Where are you?”

That bellow surely belonged to her brother Lenart. She turned and saw his fair head bobbing above the crowd–oh Guardians, the whole family was here! Behind Lenart she could see her sister Bera, her frizzy hair sparking with garnet highlights in the sun. And there were her grandparents and her father. Master Frederic’s arm was around a tall woman with skin tanned to a deep brown and hair bleached silver as it always was when the Lady Ardra came home from the sea.

“Mother! I didn’t think you would be back in time!” Luz smiled through sudden tears as they surrounded her.

“You must thank Sea Mother, who sent us kind winds–” Ardra gave her a quick hug and drew back to let the rest of the family in. After three days alone on the Mountain, the babble of congratulation did not seem quite real.

“Where is–the prince?” It would take time to get used to his new name.

Lenart pointed, and she saw another cluster of people, not so numerous as her own, but more richly dressed. There was Rana’s red head, and next to her that of her son.

“Wait for me a moment, I wanted to say goodbye–”

Ignoring her sister’s raised eyebrow, she started toward them, her relations trailing behind her. The queen smiled a welcome and the royal family and her own melded into a single chattering mob.

“I see you survived–” Her smile faded as she realized that the prince was the only one who was silent. She pushed her way to his side. “Are you all right?”

“What could hurt me, protected as I was by my ancestors’ bones?” Johan gave her the same armored smile she had seen him wear at Court functions when he had endured to the point of boredom and beyond. ”

Was something wrong, or was it just that he had finally begun to accept his destiny? She told herself that she should have expected it. He was the heir of Westria, and she was going to the College of the Wise.

“What indeed, my lord,” she answered, summoning up the pride to mirror that smile. Only four days ago he had been as close as her own heartbeat. It was bewildering to recognize the pain of loss at a moment when she had expected to feel only joy.

Julian’s son and Caolin’s granddaughter have long and winding roads ahead of them — not only of the wearing miles upon their bodies, but of trials upon their souls.

In the next few chapters, Johan is captured by raiders and sold as a bedslave. After an attempt to flee his brutish new owner, he is resold to a circus and chooses to become a gladiator. A mysterious man named Garr, the circus’s armsmaster, begins Jo’s harsh tutelage in the ways of the ring. As part of his training, Garr encourages the younger man to subsume his shame and rage into the persona of the Red Dragon, which may only emerge when Jo’s hand holds steel.

Meanwhile, Julian has combed the Ramparts for his missing son by all the means at his disposal. Knowing only that he is nowhere in Westria, he believes the worst, and only the Queen suspects that a weirder fate than death has plucked the Crown Prince into its weaving. There is little time to mourn, though, as letters from Farin Piper, one of the King’s oldest and dearest friends, warn of a terrible migrating army, with its sights set on the fabled Golden Land of the West.

As for Luz, she has made good on her word and has undertaken studies at the College of the Wise, under the implacably stern Master Granite. Here, she begins to face the power–and pride–that she has inherited from her parents… and from Caolin, whose pride and power consumed him.

Would you know more? Read on, then, to Chapter Six: Serpent of Fire