Cold fire the spiritwalk.., p.13
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       Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy), p.13

           Kate Elliott

  “I know a story, a long story. I am no djelimuso to tell it with the proper introductory remarks and blessings. It is the story about how my ancestors the Koumbi Mande came north across the desert out of the Mali Empire to escape the salt plague. So it happens, after many trials, the remnant reached the city of Qart Hadast and did not know where to go next.”

  Bee looked at me, and we didn’t mention that Qart Hadast was the city the Barahal family had originally come from, the city the Romans called Carthage.

  “The mansa’s sister Kolonkan was a powerful sorceress. She stood on the shore of the sea with one foot on the sand and one in the water. She saw beneath the waves smoking mountains which the Romans call Vulcan’s Peaks. In the very fire of one of those peaks, a female dragon had coiled in its nest and laid its eggs, and now she slept. Into the creature’s dreams, Kolonkan walked. ‘Maa, please advise me,’ called Kolonkan. ‘Where shall my people go?’ The serpent answered, ‘One of the daughters you will bear will serve me, and your people will go north, to the ice.’”

  “How can a dragon nest in a volcano?” Bee said. “Wouldn’t the molten fire destroy eggs?”

  “My apologies, Grandmother,” I said hastily, poking Bee. “We are listening.”

  “Mmm.” Fati was clearly a woman not accustomed to being interrupted. “The tale goes on. That is the only mention I know of a creature the Romans would call a dragon or serpent.”

  We walked a while in silence. Grass swished along our legs. Insects buzzed sleepily without massing in a swarm to afflict us. The cursed crows floated above. A jumble of shapes like boulders came into view on the horizon.

  “Grandmother,” I asked at length. “Do you know who my sire is?”

  She looked me up and down. “Why would I know that?”

  “You can’t tell somehow, because you’re an ancestor now?”

  She chuckled. “I have no such power. I am newly born into this place. I know nothing more than what I knew before. I would tell you if I knew. A child ought to know its sire. For if you do not know what ropes hold you, then you might as well be a tethered goat. So it seems you and your cousin have undertaken a journey to discover the heart of your own selves.”

  “I would like to know what it means to walk the dreams of dragons,” said Bee with a look a mule might give its handler. “Did this sorceress Kolonkan’s daughter walk the dreams of dragons? Is that what the story meant?”

  “Mmm. This is knowledge that is not mine.”

  “Not yours to share? Or you just don’t know?”

  “Bee!” I said in an undertone, pinching her arm. “It’s rude to interrupt an elder.”

  “I’m the one fated to be dismembered and my head thrown into a well! I assure you, Aunt, I do not mean to be rude.”

  “Mmm, yes, you are drenched in nyama.”

  “What is that? Energy? Heat? Light? Magic?”

  “It is the foundation stone. It is a thread. It is that which can be shaped. A potter molds nyama like clay. A blacksmith forges nyama into steel. A hunter must know how to protect himself from the dangerous nyama released when he kills an animal, by adding it to his own. Cold mages manipulate nyama. How any of them do this I do not know, for I do not know their secrets.”

  “Cat told me she once met a djeli who called nyama the handle of power. Is that like an axe handle? If you can grip it, then you can wield the axe’s blade?”

  “I would not say so. But those who can shape nyama can shape and change the world.”

  Bee nodded. “With the right connections to power and a strong will, you can shape and change the world! Like Camjiata did, and means to again.”

  “Bee!” I whispered, “we’re supposed to listen to elders, not interrupt them!”

  “How are we supposed to learn if we don’t ask questions?” cried Bee.

  “We are here,” said Fati.

  Slump-shouldered sandstone towers rose before us, marking the four corners of a walled town. The eroded walls looked much as a seashore castle built of sand looks after a wave runs over it: melting ruins soon to be obliterated. No dogs barked. No wagons rolled or voices called. Not even the wind moaned. If anything lived in the dusty, deserted ruins, I could not hear it.

  A road as black and slick as obsidian speared away from the half-collapsed main gate. As straight as a Roman military road, it cut through uninhabited countryside toward distant hills. A shadow raced toward us from those hills.

  “The tide comes,” said Fati. “Get up on the road, for it is warded ground. Hurry.”

  I grabbed Bee’s hand and ran, even though I was suddenly sure that the instant I touched the pavement something terrible and irrevocable would happen. Yet I had to get there. Perhaps that desire was part of the compulsion that had driven me to the well.

  “Aunt, hurry!” called Bee over her shoulder.

  “Onto warded ground I cannot cross,” said Fati. “You must go forward alone. This is your journey. My path is different.”

  The knife of darkness cut over us just as we stumbled up onto the road. Bee flung her arms around me. Fati stood in daylight, surrounded by grass. With me in shadow and her in the bright, I could see clearly how my husband resembled her in the planes of his face, the glow of his complexion, and the clarity of his eyes. A vibration rumbled like drums in the earth. A towering wall of fire washed toward us, scorching the grass to ashes. Fati smiled, lifting her hands in greeting.

  “Blessed Tanit!” I breathed. “Grandmother!”

  Flames obliterated the scene. The town walls rang like a struck bell as the ripple of fire boomed out around the stone.

  The tide passed. Pale daylight, like dawn, rose on a world utterly changed.

  Fati was gone.


  On either side of the road lay fields. Three-horned antelopes grazed on grass as green as emeralds. Fields tilled in spirals marked patterns on the ground that would, I felt sure, create beautiful images if seen from the sky. Thick-leaved vines of sweet potatoes flourished on a field of dirt mounds, the only crops I recognized. Elsewhere, huge stalks were crowned by flowers whose petals blazed with streamers like orange flame; that is, unless they were really burning. Others wept green tears. A vine strung along posts burst pods into a cloud of butterflies. Small winged creatures with faces like bats swooped down, snapping them up, until the air drifted with shimmering scraps.

  Fati was gone. She might have been anywhere or anything. A stone about half the size of my fist lay on a patch of earth beside the road. I scrambled down.

  “Don’t touch that!” said Bee.

  But I did. The stone was waterworn to a smooth finish, deep brown in color, like sard. The veins in its surface flowed like speech against my skin. I felt I knew its voice. “Do you think the tide…turned her into this stone?”

  “And you thought I was the credulous one?”

  “Spirits change, just as the land does.” I touched my father’s locket, the familiar ache in my heart, the one that could never be filled. “So after all, maybe I can’t ever find my parents, not if they were caught in the tide.”

  “Wouldn’t everything be caught in the tide? How could you escape it?”

  “You escape it by sheltering on warded ground, like this road.” I closed my fingers over the stone and, ignoring her protest, tucked it into a pocket sewn on the inside hem of my jacket. “Although that doesn’t explain how we escaped being swept away at the river—”


  A sound like the rushing of river water swelled behind us. I turned. Out of the walled town, human-like creatures rose in a tide of dark wings.

  Bee said, “Blessed Tanit protect us!”

  A mob circled above us. Their vast wingspans half blotted out the sky. They swept down over us, claws gleaming.

  “Down!” I snapped.

  Bee dropped, and I straddled her back, feet braced on either side of her. My sword blazed with an icy light so bright it burned. I slashed and stabbed as they attacked. Where my blade nicked flesh, they shri
eked, scattering in all directions.

  “Cat, what are they?”

  “Don’t move.” I shifted so my skirts belled over her. “They don’t like my sword.”

  The mob resumed its circling above us. One landed out of reach of my blade.

  Tall, broad-shouldered, and powerfully built, she looked much like a human. Her short black hair stuck up in spikes. Her narrow face was as translucently pale as watered-down milk, and she had the stark blue eyes we in the north called “the mark of the ice.” A line of purple-blue tattoos like falling feathers spun down the right side of her face and neck. She wore a sleeveless calf-length tunic covered with amulets sewn onto the fabric much as hunters fixed such talismans onto their clothing to protect them in the bush. Her wings certainly amazed me. But it was the third eye in the center of her forehead that riveted my attention.

  “You are an eru,” I said, choosing offense over defense. “My greetings to you and your people. May we be at peace rather than at odds. I ask for guest rights, if such can be offered to peaceful strangers who have stumbled here by accident.”

  She spoke in a voice like a bell. “You are well come here, Cousin. Our hearth is open to you. All we have is yours. All we are is at your service. But we have to kill the servant of the enemy. That is the law.”

  “Cat,” Bee whispered from under my skirts, “I think they mean me.”

  The eru cried out the same way the great bells of Adurnam cried out the alarm when the city was threatened. “It speaks! Beware!”

  I shifted my sword’s angle; the eru took a step back. “She is not my enemy, and therefore she is not yours.”

  More eru landed out of my reach, ranging in a circle around us. The tall ones had third eyes as bright as gems. The shorter bore marks on their foreheads like a mass of cloudy veins, and I had the oddest feeling they could see with those blinded, blinkered third eyes onto sights invisible to me. It was very disturbing. Worse, it seemed likely these eru could rip us to pieces in short order with their claws. And how could I predict what damage they could do with their magic, for weren’t eru fabled as the masters of storm and wind?

  “Never mind,” I said. “We’ll just go on our way.”

  “She must be sacrificed,” said the eru who had spoken before. “As a courtesy to you, if it is your wish, we will kill her and eat her at the welcoming feast, all except her head. Her head we will cast in the well to give strength to our water. Out of respect for you, our guest, we will show her this honor.”

  Bee’s choked exclamation hit me in a wave of fear. I swept my blade in a slow circle, to mark each eru, ten in all. “I will take as many of you with me as I can, before I let you touch her.”

  A melody like words flowed around the circle, then ceased when the first eru raised an arm. “Do you serve her, who is a servant of the enemy?”

  “Why do you believe her to be your enemy?”

  “Did she not come to seek a serpent’s nest? Do you not feel the enemy turning and turning again? Doesn’t this rising tide aid their servant because it forces us, who would drive her away, to hide within our wards rather than pursue her?”

  “I think you are a servant of the night court,” I said, remembering the eru who had pretended to be a footman in the service of Four Moons House and what she had told me when we had stopped at Brigands’ Beacon so Andevai could make an offering. “Because servants of the night court have to answer questions with questions.”

  She nodded in the manner of an opponent acknowledging a hit. “I am she who speaks for this hearth when the night court commands.”

  Black wings fluttered. Out of the sky dropped a crow. No ordinary crow could cause such a reaction among fearsome eru. They took flight in a cacophony of wings until only the speaker remained. With a self-satisfied air, the crow folded its wings and cocked its head to consider me. A smear of dried blood mottled the tip of its scabrous bill. I was sure the blood was mine.

  I could not resist a jabbing feint at the crow, just to make it hop back. I had feelings, too, even if Bee sometimes called me heartless.

  “Don’t think I’ve forgotten you,” I said as I touched the clotted wound above my right eye.

  With its third eye, the speaker looked at the crow, and then at me with all three eyes. For an instant, I thought I saw a reflection in her third eye: turning wheels flashing along a road.

  “The master comes,” she said. “The enemy’s servant will not escape.”

  Bee had shoved her head out from under my skirts. “Look!”

  She scrambled up, pointing toward the hills. At first all I noticed was eru fanning out like herders. They were shepherding antelopes toward the town walls, or corralling them within sturdy copses of shimmering trees. Beyond, a blur of fog avalanched down the distant slopes. Claws sharpened in my chest as though a foul beast had burrowed inside me and latched on to my heart.

  “I don’t know what else to do, Bee,” I said as the fog grew. “You have to run for it. Take my sword. If I offer it to you freely, you can take it.” I held it out.

  Sparks leaped from the blade, and where they struck her hands and arms, a shower of spitting flames poured like a sheath over her limbs. She yelped and snatched back her hand.

  “Cold steel burns the servants of the enemy, so she cannot wield it,” remarked the speaker with a cruel smile. But her smile vanished as she looked past me. She knelt.

  How the vehicle had bridged the distance so quickly I did not know. An elegant black coach pulled by four white horses rolled to a stop beside us. The horses had a polished sheen, like pearl. The first pair stamped, hooves striking sparks from the obsidian pavement, while the second pair waited patiently in their traces.

  The coachman was a burly man wearing a perfectly ordinary wool greatcoat. He wore his short blond hair in the lime-whitened spikes traditional to Celtic warriors in the ancient days when the Romans with their land empire and the Phoenicians with their sea trade fought to a standstill, and the barbaric Celts shifted allegiance depending on what benefited them the most. Seeing me, he did not smile, but the corners of his eyes crinkled as with an inward chuckle. He tapped two fingers to his forehead in greeting.

  A figure swung down from the back. I recognized the tall, broad-shouldered eru with skin the color of tar, her third eye ablaze with a sapphire brilliance, her wings a swirl of smoke. Power roiled in her like a storm about to burst free. I stepped between her and Bee as if I could fend off the brunt of the blow. My blade shone like a torch, its hilt turned to ice against my palm.

  “Let it be,” said the coachman to the eru. “We are here for Tara Bell’s child, not for the other one.”

  She settled back, wingtips fluttering as if a wind spun off them. I swallowed; my ears popped; the wind died.

  “Greetings, Cousin,” the eru said. “The master has sent us to fetch you.”

  Such a wave of despair washed through me that my strength failed. I stared at the two creatures I had first met in the guise of a humble coachman and a humble footman. Bee grasped my hand. Hers was cold.

  I spoke in pleading whine I did not like but could not help. “We just want to go home.”

  The splendor of her third eye sparked rays of light along the surface of the black road. “The master has summoned you.”

  “Help her return to the other side, and I’ll give you no trouble,” I said desperately.

  The coachman’s lips curved in a wry, weary smile.

  “You will give us no trouble regardless, Cousin,” said the eru, not in anger but in sorrow. “You are bound, as we are bound. Get in the coach. Both you and the serpent. We have a long way to travel. The master is not patient.”

  “Indeed, he is not,” said the coachman with a glance skyward as the crow flew. “We outraced the storm of his anger. Now it is time for you to take shelter.”

  Over the hills boiled a black wrath of clouds. In the cloud’s heart, lightning writhed like so many coiling incandescent snakes. Its power hummed in my bones and my blood like a fever. T
he crow sped toward the storm as if to welcome it.

  A horn wept from the walls as the herding eru chased down the last of their charges, and the kneeling eru broke free and fled.

  My knees were turning to jelly. “Blessed Tanit. If we run, that storm will destroy us. If we go with them, you’ll be killed.”

  “One thing at a time,” said Bee with astonishing calm as her hand tightened on mine. “Right now, our best chance is the coach.”

  The eru opened the door and swung down the steps with the ease of practice. I sheathed my sword, climbed in, and sank onto the forward seat, into the same place I had sat when I traveled in this coach with Andevai.

  Bee sat down opposite, her knees shoved against mine. “Don’t give up hope, Cat.”

  The door closed. With a crack of the whip and a shout of “Ha-roo! Ha-roo!” the coachman got the horses moving. We turned in a sweep, and the coach lurched as the eru jumped on behind. We picked up speed. No coach in the mortal world ever ran so smoothly and so fast.

  A blast of wind shook the coach. The shaking and shuddering pitched us off our seats. The coach bounced up, thudded down, pitched halfway over, righted itself. Like a ship caught in a typhoon, it rolled and yawed. We clung to each other as the gale roared around us with a howl so loud I saw Bee’s lips moving but could not hear a single word, nothing except the frightful mocking caws of a murder of crows flocking around us as if their flight were the wind.

  Unseen claws squeezed my heart. If I did not obey, the master would crush me.

  Terror, like grief, can make you numb. But when the first edge passes, as the storm gusts on and the coach settles, it can also make you angry. For who wishes to be subject to terror?

  We struggled up to sit. After the battering we had taken, I was grateful the cushions were so soft. We caught our breaths.

  “That puts Papa’s temper tantrums into perspective, does it not?” said Bee with a gaunt smile.

  I looked at the two doors, the one to my right which we sat up against, and the other door, closed and shuttered, by which Andevai had sat on the first journey we had made together. He had warned me never to open the other door, but when he had said that, he had meant the door to my right, the one we had just used to enter the coach.

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