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The young shari'a witch Brierley once thought that she was the last of her kind, powerful witches who lived in peace and harmony, using their powers for good. Only the women of her people had the gift and they ruled wisely and well. Her people had flourished for millennia, guided by the elemental beings who embodied the very forces of nature and who could tame the world.
But then the fierce Allemani people came from beyond the sea. Newly settled in the land, they at first dwelt in peace with the shari'a. But trust turned to hate and the fear that the Allemani had for the witches soon boiled over into genocide. The Allemani decimated the shari'a out of fear of their differences.
And so Briarly hid in the shadows, keeping her healing powers a secret-but she was compelled to use them when necessary, and these actions caused her to be discovered. When she was forced to flee the only home she had ever known, she did not go alone, for she had captured the heart of Duke Melfallan, and though he is Allemani, he vows to attempt to change the Law condemning any shari'a to death because he has come to know that the shari'a are not monsters...and they can bring a great joy to the world.
As she makes her way out into the world to hide while Melfallan fights to save her, Brierley discovers that she is not the last of her kind. That there are many, like her, who managed to stay in the shadows, generations of shari'a who have kept quiet, hid their powers and have waited. And that not all of whom share Brierley's good heart.
The time of reckoning is at hand, the forces that the shari'a once controlled are being summoned once more, and Brierley finds that the hatred that fueled the Allemani ages past is still very much alive.
Will Brierley have to sacrifice her life (and that of her unborn child) to save an entire world and make things right for her people?
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A native of Oregon, Diana Marcellas lives in a small resort town, Pinetop-Lakeside, in northeastern Arizona. Her interests include medieval history, practicing Wicca as a solitary witch, Apache tradition and culture, Zebra finches (she has a flock of fourteen), and needlework.
The Daystar edged above the trees that shaded the narrow ravine where the forest house stood above the tumbling brook, surrounded by everpine. The sun's mellow golden light glanced downward, lighting the upper edges of the ravine and not yet penetrating its shadowed depths. Already the dawn's light was tinged with blues and lavenders as the Companion, the world's second sun, began its own dawning close behind the Daystar. In a few weeks the Companion would complete its steady winter's advance on the Daystar, and the suns would Pass in the sky, worsening the storms of early spring for Mionn's bay shore and mountain plateaus. But today, on this late-winter morning with the air fresh with the tang of winter cold, today the dawn was still and clear.
Ashdla Toldane and her twin brother, Will, sat cross-legged on the house porch, watching the dawn. Yesterday afternoon they had walked the several miles to the cabin from their father's house on the outskirts of Ellestown, the largest of the towns by the Flinders Lakes, and had spent the night in comfortable privacy. Here in this hidden ravine north of the lakes, secure from discovery by the Allemanii townsfolk, it was safe to work their forest magic, the traditional shari'a chants that summoned the power of the forest, the rites that wove the patterns of life and strength for all who lived nearby, both human and four-footed. In the eastern Allemanii earldom of Mionn, on this isolated plateau high in the interior of the mountains, a line of forest witches had handed down the forest gift from daughter to daughter for generations, and, occasionally, to her brother when the daughter was twinned with a son, as Ashdla was twinned with Will. For three centuries, ever since Allemanii butchery had nearly ended the shari'a witch-folk, a forest witch, called shajar in the ancient language, had safe-guarded this cabin and the caverns nearby, waiting for the Finding promised by the shari'a dragon-spirits, the Four, who had guarded the shari'a people since their beginnings.
The Allemanii had once been a sea folk from lands beyond the Western Ocean. War and blight had driven them to voyage in their longships over a thousand miles of ocean to seek a new home. Led by two nobleman brothers, Aidan and Farrar, they had come first as invaders, but had quickly settled peaceably along the coast and rivers of the shari'a lands. Aidan had become their duke, a new principal rank of High Lord not known in their West, and Farrar had become earl of Mionn, the easternmost of their new earldoms and counties. The native shari'a preferred the upland valleys and forested plateaus of the mountains, and so for a time the ancient shari'a lands had room for two peoples, one new, one old, very different from each other but for two generations becoming almost friends. The peace had not lasted: eighty years after the Allemanii's Landing, their third duke, Rahorsum, had suddenly attacked the shari'a fortress of Witchmere and had slaughtered every shari'a he could find. Thereafter Rahorsum and then his son Bram had pursued the shari'a survivors with sword and fire, hunting the shari'a until no more could be found. Bram had then turned on his own Ingal folk, invading the Allemanii villages then dying from the Great Plague loosed by the shari'a, murdering Allemanii women and then their men who had tried to defend them, calling any woman witch for the mere guilt of her sex. And so the Disasters that Rahorsum had loosed on the shari'a had turned back on the Allemanii, decimating Duke Bram's people. In time the earls of Mionn and Yarvannet had intervened, invading Ingal to catch Bram and end him. For four more years the Allemanii lands had been convulsed by civil war, but in time Bram was caught and grimly executed, then a new duke was elected by the High Lords, a better duke, a thoughtful and high-minded lord whose new laws had reestablished the peace. By then, however, the shari'a had vanished, every last one apparently put to the sword or pyre.
But not all had died. Some shari'a had fled into exile across the Eastern Bay into the East; a few others had vanished into hiding in the Allemanii towns and the nearby forests to live under peril of the Allemanii's shari'a laws that proscribed any shari'a witch from living. Those laws still existed, as did the Allemanii legends of the shari'a as a folk to be feared and hated as evil. For three hundred years every shari'a survivor in the Allemanii lands had lived in constant fear of discovery, of when the hunt would begin, the murder accomplished. After so long a time, Ashdla wondered, how many shari'a still survived in these lands? A dozen? Perhaps as many as a hundred? More? Who could say? The Mionn witches did not know. The Four had long promised a gathering of those shari'a who had survived, a Finding of all shari'a folk that would bring the long-awaited renewal. How many would come for that gathering? The dragons would not say; perhaps even they did not know. The shajar of Ashdla's line could only wait, chanting the old chants, making the old rites, preserving what had been for what would come.
On a wide branch of an ever-oak across the stream from the house, the forest dragon, Amina, settled to listen to the chant, as she always came to listen. The dragon's golden eyes flickered in the shadows of the sheltering branches, as gold as the light now glancing downward through green laceries, blending gold with the green-scaled shadow of her sinuous body, a living and shadowed light. Only the shari'a-born could see the Four; since the twins' earliest memories Amina had been their comforter and guide and, since their mother's death five years ago, their teacher, whenever Amina would consent to teach.
Good morning, children. The dragon's mental voice resonated with the rustle of leaves, the quiet movement of cool water, and was underlaid with the warmth of her unswerving affection, with the steady patience of the land that had endured the ages. The dawn approaches.
Yes, it does. Ashdla smiled, happy to see her. Good morning.
Good morning, Amina, Will sent. He glanced inquiringly at his sister. How about the "Call to Spring" for the chant today? It fits the season.
Ashdla nodded. You lead, Will. Will shifted his seat slightly and then relaxed, his hands loose in his lap as he waited, his face lifted toward the suns still hidden behind the forest canopy. The leaves of the surrounding trees stirred in a slight breeze, whispering. The water below the porch laughed softly, slipping over stone and moss in its endless tumble, cool and playful, the never-ending music of water, the sound of renewal. A nearby bird greeted the dawn with a sweet cry. Ashdla sighed softly, yielding to the Patterns of Life that now gathered around them. Leaf and bole, fur and feather: life took shape within the morning, beginning the day, weaving life. As the dawn light strengthened, the Patterns wove around Ashdla and Will like spiderwebs, bringing an easement of night fears, bringing the newness of the day. Birds caroled, leaves whispered, and all was alive, moving, moving, and hope rose again with the morning, lifting the heart. As the Daystar rose above the branches, glancing down in golden shafts of light, Will raised his hands.
"Ta'ala bin kora ishar'at," he sang softly, chanting the ancient shari'a greeting to the season, the first of four seasons that now impended. Raw and cold is icy spring. "Birandi kitir ta'latin ginah, bin naali sahari nadif na'far." The storms come on the eastern wind, the teal on the watery ponds raise their cry.
Ashdla raised her hands, palms lifted toward the dawn, and chanted the response. "Naali shar shimal daray, ta'fria madani, ta'fria timaas." Birds awaken from meadows, out of the wood, out of the green grass.
"Sun climbs to sun, at the zenith soon to Pass," Will sang in the old words, his voice lifting high into the morning, "Turn upon turn, year upon year, / Soren, dragon of air, rises to new life / And the suns dance."
They lowered their hands to their laps again and waited, listening. Beneath the cabin porch, the water tumbling in the stream seemed to chime in softer rhythm; the faint shirring of air through leaves fell to a near-whisper, hushed and stilled. The Patterns wove around them steadily, tracery upon tracery, building new connection and renewal, the promised renewal of the coming spring. Soon these trees that now slept in winter, all naked of their leaves save the everpine, would put out new buds on every branch, followed by a great canopy of new leaves and spring flowers, beginning their cycle to summer, when all was warm and shadowed within the forest: soon, when the spring came, soon now, and with the summer to follow, warm and welcoming. The Daystar's brilliant sunlight glanced more strongly into the ravine, tipping every branch with golden fire, and sparkled upon the lingering snow of late winter.
Slinkfoot nudged Ashdla's hip with her sharp-muzzled nose, wanting attention when Will would not, and Ashdla dropped her hand to the ferret's sleek head for a brief caress. In Ashdla's tunic pocket, the tiny shrew family who lived there squeaked faintly; and above their heads, on a rafter of the porch roof, she heard a mock owl's faint fluffing of feathers as Owree, too, watched the chant. Their animal friends often attended the dawn chants, for what reason Ashdla couldn't say, only that they did, for whatever meaning they found for themselves. Perhaps they liked only to be near Ashdla and Will wherever they might be, and found meaning enough in that. She patted Slinkfoot a second time and then pushed the ferret away. "You know better, Slinkfoot," she chided softly. "Don't interrupt chant." Another push earned Ashdla only a limp-bodied sprawl, a happy show of sharp, white teeth. The ferret waited a moment, just long enough for Ashdla to look away again, then began to edge back, as slow as sludge sinking down a slope, thinking Ashdla wouldn't notice if she did it s-1-o-o-ow. Ashdla tried to ignore her.
The dawn light strengthened, filling the ravine with a golden shimmering light, stronger now. When the time was right, a moment both felt when it came, Will raised his hands again.
"A good season for long journeys is summer," Will sang into the morning. "Quiet is Amina's tall fine wood, / And green the plumage of the canopy. / The light dances on green leaves, moving with the wind."
"In Basoul's autumn," Ashdla answered, chanting the old words they both knew, "Ferrets steal through the high grass, hunting. / The birds cry, soothing, and eddies swirl in the stream. / The waves mount upon the shores, / And good is the warmth of the land."
"A good season for staying is Jain's winter," Will continued, and the suns' light struck down brilliantly, filling the world, "Fire is roused on the rim of the world, / And the stars, cold fire, burn in the True Night. / Memories are gathered and the heart is kindled, / And all is safe."
They lowered their hands to their laps and listened, bound into the forest Patterns, a part of the greater whole, the whole a part of them. Ashdla closed her eyes against the Daystar's dazzle and sighed, then felt Slinkfoot again press closer to her thigh and then the sharp nip of teeth, pricking through the fabric of her trousers and disrupting her mood. She looked down and frowned at the small animal.
"You know better, Slinkfoot," she chided again. "Where are your manners?" Slinkfoot bared her white teeth, undented, then companionably laid her narrow snout on Ashdla's leg, hinting for another caress. Ashdla heard the small sigh of contentment, then the first small snore, more comment than real. Not even Slinkfoot could sleep that fast, whatever the ferret pretended.
"What'd she do?" Will asked, turning his head toward her. The sun made a halo around his head, and his eyes were still distant, lost far away in the depths of the forest. He blinked, then looked at her with more connection to the day.
"Wanted attention, as usual. I guess she gave up wheedling you." Ashdla pushed at the ferret, got another soft snore. "Here, Will, take her. She's your ferret."
"Our ferret," Will corrected mildly. "You keep her."
Ashdla wrinkled her nose, then gave up and pulled Slinkfoot into her lap to cuddle her, which is what the ferret wanted all along, of course. Slinkfoot sniggered softly in triumph, then chewed amiably on Ashdla's fingers as she petted her. Ashdla looked up at her brother and smiled. "That was nice, Will. You're always good at leading dawn chant."
"Dawn's my best time of the day," Will said lazily, uncrossing his legs to stretch his knees. "Maybe I'm a dawn witch."
"There's no such thing as a dawn witch," Ashdla reproved, then shook her head as Will smiled even more lazily, as undaunted as the ferret. Sometimes Will voiced the most amazing ideas, usually to poke at tradition and make Ashdla bristle. "Shari'a gift follows the four elements," she instructed loftily, "not the time of day."
"So you say," Will retorted. "If I want to be a dawn witch, why not? The books say that when the Finding comes, the four shari'a gifts will change to six or seven. We'll be more than air and fire, sea and forest, but something else, too, probably a combination. Maybe the Change is here. Maybe a dawn witch is one of the new gifts."
"Combination of what?" Ashdla asked skeptically, narrowing her eyes.
Will frowned slightly, considering. "Well, dawn fills the air with light, and it's the beginning of the day's cycle, just like the forest has a cycle of life from spring to winter. Maybe a dawn witch combines air and forest." Ashdla snorted, and Will looked at her with open irritation. "Either you believe the books or you don't, Ash," he said. "The books say what they say. You can't pick and choose what to believe. The books say that combination gifts will mark the Change, that the gift would first divide and then combine. You've studied the texts just like I have, and combination gifts are expressly prophesied in the Lists of the Change. So why not a dawn witch?" He stopped himself and looked away from her at the trees, a small muscle working in his jaw. "Amina's gone," he said then, and Ashdla looked, too, and saw that the ever-oak branch was empty. Will sighed heavily. "So is what we made with the chant." She heard the regret in his voice, and bit her lip.
"I'm sorry, Will," she said contritely. Sometimes she knew she pushed too far and ended up hurting Will's feelings, the last thing she wanted to do. Forest twins always tussled, or so the books said, but she liked to talk to her brother. Will always had interesting ideas, even if some of them were uncomfortable for a traditionalist like herself. At least I think I'm a traditionalist, she amended. "I really am sorry, Will," she said, and then saw him relax.
He gave her a wry smile and shrugged his forgiveness. "It's all right. After all this while, I've gotten used to you."
He stood up to stretch, then put his hands on his hips and looked out at the ravine. His face glowed in the suns' light, smooth planed and untroubled. At fifteen Will was often impatient with the world, anxious to finish growing into his manhood, and then to take charge of whatever he should; but in chant Will found a different purpose in living, one more suited to their witch-blood, and perhaps more natural to himself. He was a shari'a witch like Ashdla was, and shared the forest gift with her, as had all the male twins of the cabin witches. His witch-gift was more erratic and not quite the same as hers, although the difference was hard to define; but he heard the forest like Ashdla did, knew what she knew. The day was colored the same for him; the trees spoke in the same voices. He was Ashdla's second se...
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