Crown of stars, p.1
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       Crown of Stars, p.1

           Kate Elliott
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Crown of Stars

  Raves for Kate Elliott’s “Crown of Stars” Series:

  For CROWN OF STARS: “In the fine conclusion … Elliott has a gift for creating grim, dark settings as well as swashbuckling action scenes (both magical and material) worthy of Rafael Sabatini. This is a splendid piece of intelligent entertainment.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  For IN THE RUINS: “Kate Elliott, an excellent fantasist, writes lush and lyrical scenes and uses her characters to scale down cosmic events to a human scale.”

  —The Midwest Book Review

  For THE GATHERING STORM: “There’s enough going on in this one for an entire series of novels … a world with depth and color … once you’re caught up in the story, you’re going to spend many pleasant hours before you reach the conclusion.”

  —SF Chronicle

  For CHILD OF FLAME: “Continuing her epic tale of kings and common folk, warriors and priests, Elliott demonstrates her talent for combining magic and intrigue with grand-scale storytelling.”

  —Library Journal

  For THE BURNING STONE: “Run to the bookstore and pick up … THE BURNING STONE. … Ms. Elliott skillfully navigates a complex, superbly plotted fantasy universe.”

  —Romantic Times

  For PRINCE OF DOGS: “There’s a bone-deep reality to the world. … Elliott has a strong ability to create a sense of other that is nonetheless human and compelling; one of the best arguments for the value of multivolume works.”

  —The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

  For KING’S DRAGON: “… an entirely captivating affair … a resounding narrative revolving around three appealing protagonists. …”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  Other DAW Novels by


  Crown of Stars








  The Novels of the Jaran






  with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson








  Kate Elliott



  375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014




  Copyright © 2006 by Katrina Elliott.

  All Rights Reserved.

  ISBN: 978-1-101-63979-5

  Cover art by Jody A. Lee.

  Map by Patricia Tobin.

  DAW Books Collectors No. 1352.

  DAW Books are distributed by the Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading and distribution via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  First paperback printing, January 2007



  In other volumes I have thanked people whose research or comments have aided me in this endeavor. I would like to thank them all again, seven times over, and mention two I missed: Robert Glaub for the book on cataclysms that turned up unexpectedly in my mail one day and proved quite useful; and Maria, a graduate student in geology, for sitting at length in a coffee shop in State College, Pennsylvania, and discussing geologic cataclysm with me during the developmental stage of this series—I’m sorry I have forgotten your last name and didn’t write it down in a safe place.

  All deviations and errors are my own, managed either consciously or out of ignorance. I have tried at the least to remain internally consistent, although frankly I think next time I ought to hire a fact checker.

  I would also like to thank the enthusiastic community at The Official Kate Elliott Fan Page. The staff’s for you, guys. (that’s the generic “guy”, female and male God made them).

  I must as always thank my wonderful extended family, especially my long-suffering husband (he knows why) and my reasonably patient children.

  Finally, I want to thank my readers. As you know, you’re the best.


  Although I did research the Middle Ages as part of the writing process, these novels do not attempt to re-create our own Western medieval period. Rather, I borrowed what seemed useful and incorporated this into a fantasy world with similarities to but also profound differences from our own. If you are looking to get a glimpse into the Western medieval period, there are a number of good historical and historical fantasy novels available by wonderful authors—but this isn’t it.

  What did I try to do? I tried to give a sense of a working economic system. I did my best with the military aspect, including what may seem to us astoundingly small numbers involved in the great battles of the day but which are consistent with the social organization of such a time. Some of the magic was “stolen” from medieval practices, although I’ve embellished and altered it. Most of the astronomical knowledge is consistent with what was known either in Christian Europe or in the Islamic world of our early Middle Ages. Certain quotes that may seem modern actually come from the writings of medieval churchmen, but I’ll leave it to you to guess which they are.

  The religion is, obviously, not Christianity, although the blessed Daisan and his sayings are in part adapted from The Book of the Laws of the Countries (translation by H.J.W. Drijvers), by the 2nd century Bardaisan, whose popular interpretation of Christianity was later branded heretical. What I tried to do more than anything is get across the sense of how religion and magic are alive to the people who live within it.

  I’ve posted a bibliography on for those interested in such details.



  Part One


  I Travelers

  II Arrows in the Dark

  III Old Friends

  IV Fool’s Errand

  V Old Ghosts

  VI No Going Back

  VII A Change of Direction

  Part Two


  VIII On A Dark Road

  IX Allies and Traitors

  X A Well-Laid Trap

  XI An Unnatural Measure of Luck

  XII The Vita of St. Radegundis

  XIII The Abyss

  XIV The Crown



  BEYOND Gent, moving into the east toward the marchlands, the king’s progress journeyed slowly because of the immense damage caused by the great winds of autumn. Along the roads and in every village they passed through the regnant heard the same desperate complaints: the farmers dared not plant because frost kept coming long past its accustomed time; there was no sun; too little rain fell despite the haze that covered the sky.

  They ate on short rations and collected a meager tithe from the estates and villages they passed through, but none among the king’s progress complained, because they ate every day. Each afternoon when they set camp and gathered wood for fires, folk approached the camp, materializing out of woodland, out of the dusk,
out of the misty night air.

  “I pray you,” a ragged child might whisper, clutching the hand of an emaciated younger child, both barefoot although the ground had a sheen of frost. “Have you bread? Any crust?”

  Haggard young women and youths beckoned from the twilight. “Anything you want, for a bite of food. Anything.”

  Peddlers made the rounds. “Rope. Cloth. Nice carved bowls. For a good price. Very cheap. I’ll take food in trade.”

  Exhausted stewards and villagers begged to see the regnant. Noble lords and ladies grown lean with hardship asked for an audience.

  “A plague of rats, Your Majesty. They ate all of our grain. Even that we had set aside for seed. Gnawed through half the leather we had tanned and worked. They came out of nowhere, a flood of them. Horrible!”

  “It’s this frost. We daren’t plant because it will kill the seedlings. Yet if we wait, there’ll not be enough season for the crops to ripen.”

  “Have you seen the sun on your travels, Your Majesty?”

  “Wolves carried off a child, Your Majesty, and killed two of our milk cows. We hunted them, but they attacked us when we tracked them to their lair. They killed four men. I’m an old man. I’ve never seen them so bold as they are now.”

  “My husband and sons were killed, Your Majesty. They were only walking to market. I have no one to plow the field. My daughters are just now barely old enough to be married. My husband’s cousins claim the land and wish to turn me and the girls out homeless, with nothing.”

  “Bandits, Your Majesty. No one is safe on the roads without an armed escort. I have but a dozen milites in my service. The rest were called to serve King Henry, may he rest in peace in the Chamber of Light. They never returned from Aosta.”

  Their desperation gave Liath a headache, but Sanglant would sit for hours and listen even and especially when there was nothing he could do for them except listen.

  “I have been told,” he might say, “that if you cover the fields with straw it protects seedlings from frost. There lies plenty of deadwood because of the tempest. Set bonfires at night to warm the air along the rows.”

  “Here is a deed to the land, signed by my schola. If you have no nephews or kinsmen who can help with the land, then here are a pair of crippled soldiers in my retinue who agree to marry into your house. They can’t fight, but together they can manage the fieldwork.”

  “Speak to Lady Renate of Spelburg. She is also plagued by bandits, no doubt the same group. Her estate lies only two days’ march east of here. You must pool your resources. If you have lost this much of your population, then for the time being you must consolidate in one place. Offer protection there for the common folk who rely on you. Combine your milites. If you do not cooperate, you will certainly drown.”

  “The sun will return. Be patient. Act prudently until the crisis has passed. Do not abandon those who will turn on you if they have no other way to save themselves.”

  These pronouncements his audience absorbed with an almost pitiable gratitude, but in only one case could he act immediately. A guide led them to the wolves’ lair. Liath called fire down within the warren of caves where the wolf pack laired, and the soldiers killed over a dozen as the beasts tried to escape flames and smoke. The wolves were dangerous predators, but they were beautiful, too, in the way of dangerous things, and she hated to see them slaughtered like sheep. Yet afterward they found the much-gnawed bones of several children in the outer cave. The wolves had grown too bold. Such a pack could not be allowed to keep hunting.

  “A small act in a desperate time,” Sanglant said the next day, when they were riding again. His voice was hoarse with apprehension and the helpless anger of seeing so much trouble that could tear the realm asunder, but then, he always sounded like that. “I am ashamed to have them fall at my feet with such praises. If the weather does not improve, half of them will be dead by next spring.”

  “Eventually I must go to St. Valeria,” she said. “What sorcery raised may possibly be dispelled by sorcery.”

  “Stay with me a while longer, into the marchlands, at least.”

  “I will. But eventually I must go.”

  He nodded, although his expression was grave. “Leaving me with the dogs biting and growling at my heels as I settle once and for all who is regnant in Wendar and Varre. Eventually you must go. But not yet.”







  ALL morning Alain and the hounds walked east and southeast as they had done for many days. Lavas Holding lay far behind them. Their path this day cut along an upland forest, mostly beech although what seedlings had thrust up through the field layer were fir. The view through the woods was open but because of the clouds the vista had a pearly sheen to it, as though he were staring into a lost world just out of reach. Into the past, or into the future.

  Yet the present had an inevitable way of intruding into the finest-spun thoughts. Sorrow barked to alert him. A massive beech had fallen over the path in such a way that although Alain might climb with difficulty over its barrel of a trunk, he could not hoist the hounds up and across. Nor was there room for them to squeeze through the hand’s-width gap below. He beat out a track along the length of the trunk upslope only to find that a score of other huge trees—more beech together with silver fir—had fallen parallel so close that he was fenced in. Returning to the path and the waiting hounds, he ventured the other way, skirting the thicket of branches at the crown, and discovered that here, too, more fallen trees barred his path.

  All had fallen in a northwesterly direction, snapped by a gale out of the southeast, the same tempest, no doubt, that had swept Osna last autumn. That tempest had changed the world, and created a vast trail of debris.

  He pushed through the branches at the crown of the tree—a difficult path to break but one on which, at any rate, the hounds could follow. Dry leaves crackled under his feet and dragged at his hair and skin. Twigs poked him twice in the eye and prodded his limbs and torso. Sorrow whined, ears flat and head down, and Rage picked her way with surprising delicacy for such a huge creature, very dainty as she set down each paw into dying wood rush and the splintered remains of the tree.

  The trunk was crowded with branches, a maze to confound the hounds, but the bole was negotiable at this point, not as big around as the thicker trunk lower down. With his help they scrambled their way through clumsily. Branches rattled. They were as noisy as an army of blundering farmers lost in the woodsman’s domain.

  A sound caught him. A strange croaked cry made his limbs go stiff with apprehension. He heaved Rage by the scruff past the worst of the inner branches, and there the hounds stood frozen within the shelter of the branches. They did not bark. A large creature passed by, but they could not see anything clearly through the screen of leaves and brittle branches, only hear its heavy tread, a snorting under-cough, the uncoiling disturbance as branches were pressed back and either cracked, or sprang back with a rattling roar. A smell like iron made him wince. Unbidden, he recalled Iso, the crippled brother at Hersford Monastery. Had Iso survived the tempest? Did he work there still as a lay brother under Father Ortulfus’ strict but fair rule?

  The noise subsided. Sorrow’s tail beat twice against branches as he lifted his head, eager to get on, but neither hound barked nor made the slightest noise. They struggled out of the branches and Alain beat a way back to the path. About a hundred strides ahead he found the ground disturbed as at the wake of a monster pressing through the forest. He knelt beside a scar freshly cut into the ground by claws as long as his forearm and traced the curve of the imprint.

  “A guivre,” he said to the hounds. What they heard in his voice he did not know, but they whined and, flattening their ears, ducked their heads submissively.

  Sorrow sniffed along the trail left by the creature and padded into the forest, back the way it had come. Rage followed. They vanished quickly, moving fast, and Alain went
after them but soon fell behind. He found them several hundred paces off the path, nosing the carcass of a half eaten deer. Like him, they had eaten sparsely on their journey, dependent on what they could hunt in the woodland and beg in whatever villages and farmsteads they passed through. Now, they tore into the remains. He sat on a fallen tree and gnawed on the last of his bread and cheese. He trimmed mold from the cheese with his knife and contemplated the buds on the standing beech. Frost had coated every surface at dawn, and he still felt its sharp breath on his cheek although it was late spring and late afternoon. The cold chafed his hands. An ache wore at his throat, as if he were always about to succumb to a grippe but never quite managed to. The trees had not yet leafed out, although they ought to be bursting with green at this time of year. A spit of rain brushed over them and was gone. Its whisper moved away through the forest.

  At first hidden by the rustling of branches and forest litter stirred by raindrops, another sound took shape within the trees. The hounds were so hungry that they cracked bones and gulped flesh and took no notice, but at the moment he realized he heard a group of men, they growled and lifted their massive heads to glare down the trail, back the way the monster had come from originally. He walked over to stand beside them with staff in hand, listening.

  “Hush, you fool! What if it hears your nattering?”

  “We thunder like a herd of cattle as it is. We’ll never sneak up on anything.”

  “Ho! Watch that shovel. You almost stove in my head.”

  “You should go in the lead, Atto. You’ve got the good spear.”

  “Won’t! I never wanted to come at all. This is a stupid idea! We’ll all be devoured and to no purpose.”

  “Shut up.”

  He saw the men in the distance past fallen trees and shattered branches. They had not yet noticed him, so he whistled to get their attention and called out before they could react in a reckless way that might cause someone harm.


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