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
There is a land I know–with shining gold
Its gentle hillsides glow. Now as of old
It lies in dreaming peace.
There will I find release,
And all my sorrows cease when there I go…
The singer’s light tenor soared above the confusion of tongues in the dusty little town like a lark in the morning sky, ceased, and was replaced by the pure piping of a flute. It carried the melody to even higher spheres of sound so sweetly that even men fresh off the Plains paused a moment to hear.
Everyone in town, it seemed, had turned out to greet the caravan. There were buckskin clad tribesmen from the high plains who had come to trade buffalo robes, and farmers in faded cotton who scratched a living from the fields beside the river. They would have little coin with which to buy the luxuries the caravan had brought from the Iron Kingdom. It had been a dry year on the Plains. And roistering among them were the drovers from the caravan, drunk with the sights and smells of human habitation after the windy silences of the Sea of Grass.
A man paused to listen, and others, seeing the broad shoulders, the sword in its well-worn scabbard, and the grim, dark-skinned face, swallowed their curses and moved carefully around him. He scarcely noticed, although if he had thought about it, he would have been amused to realize that men still gave him a clear path. For a moment he was a boy again, listening to the birds that played above the rich fields by the great muddy river that was the lifeblood of the Empire of the Sun.
Then he shook his head and moved on. Beyond the wooden facades of the sod buildings he could see only the immensity of sun-bleached sky, as if the world ended at the outskirts of the town. In a way, he supposed, that was true. Except for the shallow meanderings of the Plateau river, edged with willow and the occasional cottonwood tree, there was an awful lot of nothing out there.
He licked dry lips and fingered the pouch at his belt, counting through the coins with which he had been paid off when the caravan arrived. Then he shook his head and continued his circuit of the square. That money had to last him until he found work again, and from the looks of Cottonwood, it might be awhile.
A wind-borne breath of sagebrush off the prairie brought momentary relief from the mingled scents of unswept refuse and unwashed humanity. It would be quiet out there, but no cooler, and at least they did not yet charge for a drink of water in the town.
His steps were already bringing him back towards the singer, who had started a new verse–
There is a land I know, where mountains high,
Forever crowned with snow, against the sky,
Keep watch above the land,
where trees immortal stand,
And waves kiss golden sand, and soft winds blow.
The singer’s clothes were dusty too, but his brown hair curled vigorously, and there was a light in his eyes Maybe his song refreshed him. As he lifted the flute again, the images the song had evoked blossomed in the minds of those who heard.
The singer was surrounded by a circle of quiet, where men and women for a moment closed their eyes and dared to dream of a better place than this.
“He sings of paradise–” The speaker was a woman, strongly built with a broad face reddened by the sun and a mane of golden hair going silver-gilt as she passed middle age. She wore a long robe that had once been white, and leaned on a staff– some kind of visionary preacher, no doubt. Strange new religions were always coming out of the Sea of Grass. It must be the way the land lay open to the sky, with nothing between a man and the Eye of God.
“Nay,” said one of the townsmen. “He comes from somewhere to the west of here and sings of his home. But maybe when one is far away, everyone’s home seems a paradise.”
There is a land I know, by Guardians blessed,
Where the sun dips low, and seeks her rest;
Where man and beast are free
to live in harmony
Beside the peaceful sea, there I would go.
“There I would go…” repeated the woman. “Thus, all men dream.”
“Sometimes we need dreams,” the dark man said bitterly. “The caravaners promised me a way home, but they’ve paid me off with never an apology and left me stranded here. If I knew the way to such a place, I’d seek it. I have nowhere else to go.”
“You have the bearing of a soldier…” The woman’s eyes fixed on his face and he suppressed an impulse to flinch. They were pale hazel, and curiously clear, as if only a lens for a light that burned within. When her gaze was fixed elsewhere, she was only a stout, aging woman, but there was something very compelling about those eyes.
“My name is Tadeo Marsh, and I was a General of the Armies in the Empire of the Sun,” he answered with a remnant of pride.
The woman nodded in understanding. Even here, men had heard about the terms the armored legions of the Iron Kingdom had imposed on the Empire. Defeated commanders made convenient scapegoats, and the general had been lucky to escape with his hide.
“You are a man of courage and honor–” Her gaze kindled. “I am called Mother Mahaliel, and there is a place for you among the Children of the Sun. Come and worship with us. We are humble folk, but you are welcome to share our meal. You will find us camped beneath the banner of the sun and serpent at the edge of town…”
“If you take my advice, you’ll stay away from the Suns, stranger,” muttered the townsman. “They’re a rabble of beggars and thieves who dance with rattlesnakes, and the sooner they’re run out of town the better!”
“Thus do sinners always revile the Faithful!” Mother Mahaliel’s eyes flashed. “The righteous man takes up the Serpent and is not harmed! Who among you will dare do the same? My followers have been wanderers since the Sun first filled me with His light and bade me proclaim His will, but I tell you, we will dwell in our paradise on this earth while you are still eating dust here!”
Her voice had a peculiar resonance that penetrated the babble of the marketplace, and men were turning to listen, beginning to mutter as they saw who it was. Someone spat, and another bent to pick up a stone, but the scorn in the woman’s glance kept them at bay. A dozen white-clad men hurried into the square, the panic in their eyes turning to relief as they saw her, yet it was not their presence, but something in the woman herself kept her foes from following.
Not courage, Tadeo thought as the priestess stalked away, rather, a sublime conviction of invulnerability. He had known men like that in the Army. Most of them were crazy, but some were heroes.
Was Mother Mahaliel a madwoman or a mystic? Perhaps he would go out to the camp of the Children of the Sun and see. For certain he would get no better offer here.
Want more? Read on to Chapter One!