The Holden Stone

Reflections of a Fantasy Writer

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Home Novels The Chrysaliad, a trilogy chapter 1 & 2 Chrysaliad

chapter 1 & 2 Chrysaliad

 

THE CHRYSALIAD

  by

Susan Shell Winston 

 

  

 

BOOK ONE

THE EDEVEIL

  

 

Chapter One

The Bridge 

 

 

Treason...

Mouth dry, arms stiff, Sunarin the hunter lowered the torch to the bridge landing and lit the waxed ends of the ropes.

The fire started slowly, seeping up the heavy coils and catching the newly painted rails, turning the bridge at Kairugon Gorge red in the dark. If the visions were wrong, if the Norgons were not coming, Sunarin would pay the price for treason.

But if--if!--the visions were true, the swords, the fighting, the looting, the raping--if this was the beginning of the End--Sunarin could think of nothing else to do now to stop it.

The hunter heaved the torch far to the center of the bridge, its arc trailing fire, marking its spin through the air until it landed on the freshly tarred footplanks. The wind howled through the Gorge; it caught the fire and sent flames soaring in both directions along the ropes.

Time to go. The fire started, there was still time to escape. Sunarin could hear the men in the camp above, their hard laughter and drunken swearing, guardsmen celebrating completion of the bridge--this one bridge that separated the Dominion from the Norgons. Each spring, before the wars started, the Honor Guard came to oversee the Tower Guard rebuild it after a long winter of fierce winds and heavy snows. Work finished today, the Lords of the Honor Guard had invited the Tower Guard to come drink with them. No one in the camp above would miss a hunter yet.

But from the tower across the Gorge, a light shone from an upper window. One of the Tower guardsmen, Captain Agin, Sunarin was told, had not come with his men tonight. If the captain were watching from his tower window and had seen what Sunarin had done, any minute he could sound the bells.

Time to go then...yes. But the fire was growing, spiraling into shapes, closer, hotter, spitting, laughing. Flames coalesced, contorted into faces, some Sunarin recognized. Mouths ripped open, holes inside the flames cried out, called eerily in forgotten languages.

The faces inside the fire blurred, shrank into fire, then blazed again; and Sunarin stood transfixed, believing. Forgetting to run, forgetting to feel the heat burn, to feel the sweat bead and fall like tears down hot cheeks.

Far off in the night, bells sounded. The voices Sunarin heard from inside the fire came closer. They circled the air like demons, called aloud, louder from behind, until they became the shouting of men.

Trapped, but too late realizing it, Sunarin turned to meet them.

At first, with eyes grown white and fire-glazed, Sunarin saw only other fires, circling, small and red, bobbing down the hill in ghostly mockeries of the bridge's fire. Then, from under the torch flames, three men stepped forward.

The tallest one stopped first. The two behind carrying torches spread to either side of the bridge landing, preventing escape. The leader came forward again, then stopped, suddenly.

"You!"

It was more a twisted breath than a word, but it tore as loudly through Sunarin's mind as the roar of the fire behind. Captured, yes, that had been the risk; but why, in all of Goron's breath why, did it have to be by Dannon? The one man, the one friend Sunarin would have never wished to betray.

"You?...  Did this?" The Lord Dannon towered above Sunarin, gesturing at the burning bridge, his face carved, sharpened by the fire's glow, his black hair, black eyes accenting his rage. "What in the Goron's hell have you done?"

Sunarin's mouth opened as if to speak, then shut again, hard.

"You say nothing? By the breath, I could--" The fire roared. Dannon glared past Sunarin. From behind, Sunarin heard the roar crescendo into a great and terrible sigh, the bridge heaving up, breaking in the middle, falling.  

The tall lord's dark eyes swept back down on Sunarin, the fury and confusion in them murderous. Dannon, the most loyal of friends, the most uncompromising of an enemy. He grabbed Sunarin by the neck and shoulders and shook his hunter on the burnt bridge landing. "Why?" 

Sunarin stood unbent in his grasp, staring up at him, saying nothing, finding no words to say.

Dannon glanced towards the edge of the Gorge. They stood less than two feet from it. His fingers dug in tight around Sunarin's neck. "Tell me!" he demanded. "Why?"

He stepped closer, fingers digging in, shoving Sunarin back one foot closer to the edge of the Gorge. He'd be judge and executioner in one small push if Sunarin didn't talk soon.

Sunarin grabbed up at Dannon's arms. "My lord-- My lord, the Norgons are coming."

Dannon's hold slipped loose. His eyes darted past Sunarin, past the Gorge, past the distant dark to the hills and the Midlands beyond. He’d always trusted his hunter's word. Now, as the possibility of what Sunarin said registered on his face--invasion by the Norgons, crossing the Midlands already before the snows melted, the Guard totally unprepared so early in the year to meet them--his expression changed, and his voice became more urgent.

"You've seen them?"

"No," Sunarin admitted.

Dannon's face went blank, confused. "You've talked to someone who has?"

"No, my lord."

Taken aback, more confused, Dannon frowned, his black eyes looking fiercer under his heavy frown. His fingers dug in hard around Sunarin's neck again.

"Then how could you know the Norgons are coming? ...Unless--"

In a world where visions were unknown, where the chantings of magic and prophecies forgotten, there was one other choice, and Sunarin saw Dannon consider it.

Sunarin's hands clenched against the unspoken accusation. "I am not a conspirator, my lord! I have not spoken to anyone, especially not to any Norgon. I know nothing of them, except...except that they may be coming. Believe me."

The lord's eyes went murderous again, betrayed. His fingers dug in tighter.

Sunarin swallowed for breath. "I want a trial, my lord. I ask you to defend me, to stand up as Friend of the Coward for me. I have something to say that must be heard in front of everyone."

Dannon frowned over Sunarin's head at the dark, bridgeless gorge. Confusion, anger, and--a new expression on his face--suspicion deepened the chiseled lines of his jaw and cheekbones. The threat of his ill-contained, unforgotten moment of vengeance, when he could have easily pushed Sunarin off the cliff, was behind his answer.

"Tell me, Sunarin. Whatever it is you have to say. I swear to the bloody Goron I'm listening to you here first. Trial enough--for a traitor. Or," he relented slightly, giving his hunter a one last chance, "a friend."

But Sunarin, wincing, said only quietly, damnably, "In front of the Fire, my lord. It has to be. In front of all the lords. Trust me--"

In disgust, in fury, in sudden, uncontrolled rage, Dannon hurled the prisoner around to the guardsmen behind him. "Take him away!" he ordered. There was no feeling of trust or friendship left in his voice.

* * *

Dannon stood watching them go, stood watching the torches weave up the road to the camp above. The twin lights bounced around, only sporadically falling on the three guardsmen, outlining their red cloaks of honor, and catching on the cap of the one in the middle, the cap Sunarin always wore. Dannon spun around and kicked the stubbed end of a burnt bridge rope down off the side into Kairugon Gorge.

The wind gusted up through the Gorge. He felt its chill fingernailing through his hair. The wind, or perhaps the Gorge, chilling him. Kairugon Gorge. The name itself was an ancient curse. And there was still a feeling here sometimes that there could be something else down there, watching from the cliffs below.

But no; names, like the legends that spawn them, become in time words and echoes, void of meaning. Dannon was no dreamer. And he was certainly not one to believe in legends nor ancient lost curses. He yanked his scarlet guardsman cloak around him against the north wind, and damning Sunarin's name aloud once more to the bridgeless gorge, he whirled around and trudged his way back up to camp.

* * *

On a hill several days' ride away, the queen of the dolmen memorized his carven face; then she ran her fingers through her waters again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

Trial By Fire

 

The crackling of a fire broke an uneasy sleep. Sunarin turned over and dreamed a more peaceful dream.

Leaves fluttered in and out of the dream, like wings beating softly, mostly unheard. A nightlark whistled, two whitbirds raucously answered it. Closer, quieter, as if whispering gossip, a fire spat at fat dripping down from a rabbit turning above it. Overhead, trails of smoke drifted upwards into the canopy above.

Silently, still in slow dreamer's motion, a stag from across the creek lifts its crowned head and stares at the fire. It stands alert, ready to flee; but its nostrils flare only slightly at the faint acrid scent of the lingering smoke, not fearing it yet, not knowing that it should. Its eyes are darkly trusting, free of thought, wild.

Then its ears prick forward, listening, almost seeing. But birds above shriek warning and with a loud whirring of wings take flight. The stag bugles and escapes, crashing backwards through the forest, in panic running away, wild.

Following it, beat by beat thrashing after it, one sound left. Footsteps. Coming closer, kicking a stone, growing louder--

Too loud. The footsteps approaching were no dream.

Sunarin rolled to the sound, slipped a hand to the knife belt.

The knife was gone.

Sunarin's eyes flicked open, and saw Dannon staring down.

Sunarin grunted in recognition and crooked a faint, embarrassed smile.

In response, Dannon stared a second longer, his eyes black, nonforgiving. Strong, tall, the young lord's face looking down could have been carved of stone by a master cutter, flawless and dispassionate. Dannon's four years as a lord of the Honor Guard, his nine years of training before that in the Academy, and his father's discipline most of all, had taught him never to compromise his word of honor and never, by his sworn oath, to forgive anyone who did.

Without a word, Lord Dannon turned from Sunarin and drew his sword stiffly in Dominion salute.

Twisting in the direction of his salute, Sunarin saw an assembly of guardsmen approaching. Two hundred strong, most wore the scarlet and gold of the Honor Guard; the rest, the blue and black of the Tower Guard. Last, heralded by a brief fanfare of trumpets and bright pennons, the five other lords who had come this year to Kairugon Gorge walked to the forefront of their gathering men where three-legged campstools were being set up for them as makeshift council chairs.

And behind Sunarin and Dannon, two guardsmen were lighting a large bed of coals for a Trial Fire.

Last night was no dream. The prisoner stood.

* * *

"Sunarin of the House of Korin," High Lord Ashtin, prince of the Dominion, said dryly.

Sunarin looked at him. High Lord Ashtin was as tall and broadshouldered as his cousin Dannon, but there their similarities stopped. Like two sides of the same five talent piece, where Dannon was dark, stern in looks and personality, Ashtin, a year older, was fair. His blue grey eyes sparked at the thought of anything new to challenge him, and his reddish blond hair fell forward across his brow when he laughed. He laughed often, with the heartiest laugh in the Guard, a laugh that still had something of the wildness, the irrepressibility of his youth in it. But recent years of command and greater ambition had distanced him and matured him. Still, he was a young man always ready to enjoy himself and shrewd enough, usually, to find ways to do so. Appreciating that, his men in the Guard were more loyal to him than they were to his uncle, the king.

Sunarin saluted him.

Lord Ashtin crossed his arms in front of him, careful not to acknowledge the prisoner's salute. "Sunarin," he said. "You were caught burning down the bridge of Kairugon Gorge. It was ...not something we expected you to do."

A few of the men around the circle caught each other's eyes and chuckled. They had seen their high lord question prisoners before, goading them with quietly aimed barbs until the prisoners, red-faced and insulted, blurted out more than they intended. In a society of men as quick to defend their names and reputations as the Honor Guard, Ashtin maintained his control easily, a fox among the wolves.

"You claim, I believe," the High Lord went on, "that the Norgons are coming. Would you happen to have...proof?"

Sunarin's fists clenched.

Noting them, Ashtin crooked a smile. He glanced down, flicked a fly off his silk sleeves, stretched his long legs out leisurely from underneath his campstool--and forced Sunarin to wait until he looked back up, ready for an answer. He cocked an eyebrow.

The waiting disconcerted most prisoners. But Sunarin answered him calmly.

"My lord. If the Norgons are not coming, I'm a traitor."

Ashtin sat forward and rejudged the hunter with a more calculating eye. "And if they are coming and you know that they are, but claim you haven't seen them, you're a conspirator!"

"No, my lord. I know no Norgon nor have I seen any since the wars last summer. Except..."

"Yes?"

"In a vision."

"In a...what?"

"In a vision, my lord."

Ashtin sat back and released his breath slowly. "That's what I thought you said," he muttered. He glanced over at Dannon. Ashtin had had little association with his cousin's hunter in recent years, but if Sunarin truly believed what he'd just said, then the man had gone as mad as an Orliand Islander.

"Do you mean to say, Sunarin, that you burned down the one bridge across Kairugon Gorge because of a dream?"

"I hope it was a dream, my lord. If so, I was misled by it, and I shall die the death of a traitor in the Fire behind me. But I fear it was more than a dream."

Ashtin stared at Sunarin. The men in the circle around them had grown quiet; Dannon, standing stiff as a statue beside his hunter, darkly so. Sunarin's bold answers, calm voice betrayed no emotion, no madness. And, as yet, no lying.

"What else do you call a vision, if not a dream?"

Almost imperceptibly, Sunarin winced. "Prophecy, my lord."

As if a spell had been broken, as if the men in the ranks had started to believe Sunarin's calm strange words and now suddenly knew better, they exploded with laughter. They hooted at the prisoner, a madman in their center.

But the look on Dannon's face, dark betrayal, cold stiff anger as he whirled and stared at his hunter beside him, spoke as loud as any of their laughter, and Ashtin noted it.

The High Lord raised his hand for silence. "Prophecy!" Ashtin suppressed his own grin. "Such a claim might have worked two hundred, three hundred years ago. But no one today--"

"My lord. I know you do not believe me. I knew you would not yesterday. I asked for no help, for no scouting party to go north in time to see if the Norgons are coming. Not without proof. My lord, if the Norgons are coming, they will come tonight and they will be my proof. If the bridge were still up, if we had started back home to Durinbyrne today, we would have had no chance against them in the Pass. Their armies would have swept past the tower, past us, on through the Valley, leaving a bloody path of death and destruction all the way to the throne, until Barl himself seizes the crown by midsummer. That was my vision, my lord. I could think of no other way to stop it, so I burnt the bridge. If the vision isn't true, if it was only a dream, I ask no mercy for what I have done. Except...one thing, that your judgment be delayed until after tonight. I would like to know too if the Norgons are coming."

Sunarin's voice had been quiet, honest. There was no laughter now, only an uncertainty, a deep silence, as if the men were seeing visions too. Ashtin could almost let himself be convinced.

But he was certain now of one thing, the hunter believed his own delusions. Sunarin would not be the first man Ashtin had sent to the Fire in his five years as High Lord of the Honor Guard. But it would be the first time he had sent a madman. He had no taste for it. And what need was there, after all, to rush it? They would still be here tomorrow--rebuilding a damn burnt bridge.

Ashtin conferred quickly with his four lords seated beside him and reached his decision. "You are to stay here at the Fire until sunrise tomorrow. Any attempt to escape will mean your death. You understand, Sunarin, you are still a condemned man. By your own admission, you burnt the bridge."

Sunarin nodded. "One last favor, my lord. As a friend --as a special friend of Lord Dannon," Sunarin said the words in a rush as if not daring to look at him, "I ask you to grant this in his name."

Dannon spun to glare at Sunarin, using his name, his honor, to ask a favor of the court. From the way Dannon looked, Ashtin was certain Sunarin had not asked him first.

"Is this true, Lord Dannon? Are you 'his special friend?'"

It was a cruel question and Ashtin knew it. Dannon and he were cousins, yes, but Ashtin stood first in line for the throne. Yet Dannon's popularity in recent years as High Lord Friend of the Coward, court defender for the people, had grown so great that he was now considered a contender for the throne by many of the people he had helped. This chance to bring Dannon's reputation down by making him declare himself openly a friend of a traitor was too good for Ashtin to miss.

Dannon met Ashtin's eyes. "I have been his friend, yes."

"And now," Ashtin asked, pressing harder, his lips thin, "are you still his friend?"

Dannon glanced at Sunarin, then squared his shoulders, and answered, honestly again, but more carefully than before. "I stand here as Friend of the Coward. I defend the rights of any prisoner to ask favors of me and of any Council which honors me."

Ashtin blew out softly between his teeth. The damage was done, he could almost regret it now. Instead, he held his hand out magnanimously to the prisoner. "As a 'special friend' of the great Lord Dannon, we shall be more than glad to grant you a favor."

Sunarin nodded, then, surprising Ashtin, paused and swallowed visibly, clenching both fists, the first unguarded reactions the hunter had shown throughout the trial.

"My lord..." Sunarin's voice was lower. "All who enter the Fire wear only leggings from the waist down which bear no insignia of Guard or unit."

"True," Ashtin said slowly, frowning at the prisoner, unsure what to expect.

"My lord, if and when I walk the Fire, I ask you to allow me to wear my tunic too."

The stares of two hundred guardsmen answered Sunarin far better than anything Ashtin could have thought to say. He sat back and let his silence take its effect on the prisoner. Dannon's hands, he saw, were clenching hard around the hilt of the sword he held at attention in front of him.

"My lord," Sunarin said, lips tightening, face reddening slightly in the morning sun, "for this, I do have a reason." With a swift hand, Sunarin undid the red Korin orphan's cap always worn clipped close to the head since childhood. The cap came off and the hair came loose. Long and dark, it flowed down past the shoulders to the waist.

"I am not a man," she said.

Dannon, who had stood stiff as a statue beside her throughout the trial, stumbled a step backwards.