New Contemporary Fantasy Novel – ‘Sarabande’ – FREE SAMPLE

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from Sarabande, Vanilla Heart Publishing, August 2011, copyright (c) by Malcolm R. Campbell, all rights reserved

Book Rescription

After her sister, Dryad haunts her from beyond the grave for three long and torturous years, Sarabande undertakes a dangerous journey into the past– to either raise her cruel sister from the dead, ending the torment…or to take her place in the safe darkness of the earth.

Sarabande leaves the mountains of Montana for the cornfields of Illinois on a black horse to seek help from Robert Adams, the once powerful Sun Singer, in spite of Gem’s prophecy of shame.  One man  tries to kill her alongside a deserted prairie road…one tries to save her with ancient wisdom… and Robert tries to send her away.

Even if she persuades Robert to bring the remnants of his magic to Dryad’s shallow grave, the desperate man who follows them desires the Rowan staff for ill intent… and the malicious sister who awaits their arrival desires much more than a mere return to life.               

Chapter One – Dark Dawning

Fiery order of day and exuberant sun, young primroses drenched in the light of a long afternoon await like phantoms seeking night, any shade. She traverses a limestone ledge, hears marmots whistle, smells ferns, close, supported into the sky by rock, feels Bluebird‘s chatter—hypnotic and dear up from the green mountain valley. Whispers scrape her aura overhead. Scoop throw: like a Judo master, dulled light flings her away. She fights for Mother Earth, would sell her heart for her, and hears, is hearing, ―There are numerous ways to live, little girl.‖ Warm blooded, that voice is the sister of chaos.

Sarabande bled on the leading edge of the Angel Wing while the moon was dark. The grey-green rock at the summit accepted her flow without complaint. Yesterday, Gem said sky wasn‘t a fit place of renewal: dark woods and tents served best for bleeding. ―

Tccch,” she said without finesse, “why expose yourself on that strange spur of rock at the high end of the valley? You‘ll catch a cold sitting on unforgiving stone above that cold glacier.”

Indeed, but it suited her.

During the night, Sarabande heard the beating of her heart. She heard the voice of water flowing eastward out of the cirque that hugged the glacier snuggly against the Continental Divide. Water called her attention to a world on the other side of time, a world with a road running truer across the plains into dawn than golden eagles, a world with destiny straighter than cedar arrows, a world called the World of the Dead. There was a dead horse alongside the road. Past the horse, an angry fire gave off black smoke that lifted away from the prairie and the straight road like a prayer.

Water‘s voice distracted her from the discomforts of the joyful dying of a synodic month and the sad birth of another. She sat within her sacred circle at 7,430 feet above the level of oceans she had never seen and evaluated the thirty-six new moons that had come and gone since Osprey, who is also called the Sun Singer, left them for his home on the other side of time. Those who did not believe in the other side of time said the Sun Singer was dead.

Yes, Goddess of the Night, the thought as she ate a handful of roughly ground flax seeds from her leather pouch, the moons are cycles of rebirth—even for creatures of the sun. Sarabande meditated on flax seeds and the potentials of flax seeds from the center of her compact circle while sipping the nettle and stonewort tea she brewed in a tiny kettle over a tiny fire. She placed sacred objects: to the east for air, a hawk owl feather; to the south for fire, a drum; to the west for earth, a red and yellow rattle; to the north for water, the flow of the glacier in a copper cup. She traced her name in blood on a shard of bloodstone, then sheltered it within the cat‘s cradle of her hands.

Though she waved the feather, banged the drum, shook the rattle, and drank the water, her visions were of death rather than life.

Two days before Osprey departed, Yarrow—her husband of a mere two years—was killed in the battle between their resistance group and King Justine‘s soldiers on North Ridge. Two hours before Osprey went home, he was wounded in a skirmish in the forest where the River of Sky flows into Lake Deucalion. When Osprey fell, his powerful avatar‘s staff was split in two by the enemy‘s scimitar.

While Gem tended him as best she could, the wound would soon require a surgeon‘s skill if he were to use his left arm again. In spite of his injury, Osprey had words of comfort for her even though her wound on that night was deeper and—as time would prove—more difficult to heal. Her wound was as invisible as the Mead Moon rising soon today with the sun, but no less potent than the lower aspect of midnight‘s eye. Guilt flowed through her veins, sorrow; too, for killing her sister in the center of the River of Sky beneath the clouds of a gathering storm.

Dryad turned the moon upside-down. Even in death, the pale light of waning crescents gave her a palpable presence and a voice that whispered out of shadows. Dryad whispered often; that whisper brought her power and that power brought her corrupted men.

Dryad sullied Osprey, though incompletely. Initially, Osprey‘s resistance excited her. Then it puzzled her. By the time they reached the River of Sky where all of them fought for their lives, Dryad felt the rage of a woman belittled. She whispered his name, ―Ospreyyyyyyyy.‖ Because her mark was on him, her chant weakened him.

“Sister, must you?” Sarabande asked her then.

“What a widow slut you are,” said Dryad without taking her eyes off the Osprey, who had fallen. “Yarrow‘s not yet cold.”

Sarabande had pushed Dryad into the river. When the cold water broke her concentration, she laughed.

“Lust has dulled your reflexes. It‘s too late,” shouted Dryad. She lunged at Sarabande with her dagger. “Your lovable boy is no match for Caw and his men.”

“Kill him,” shouted Caw. “Save the staff. Kill him.”

“Ospreyyyyyyyy.”

“It‘s always been you.” Sarabande slashed her double-ply bow across Dryad‘s neck. “Conspiring against kin.” She tossed the bow aside, drew her hunting knife and parried Dryad‘s blade before the river spun them into the path of a fallen tree borne on the current.

“Misguided kin,” said Dryad. She flung herself away from the tree and Sarabande stepped aside, safe by inches. “Expertly done, Sara, you‘re the son our dearly departed father always wanted.”

Speak not of Wapiti while acting like a spoilt child.”

She had her mother’s azure blue eyes. Dryad always laughed at the spoilt child reference, for she was a worldly twenty years old then to Sarabande’s adolescent eighteen. While laughing, she lunged again, play acting perhaps, and the gods conspired against them, for her advance ended upon the point of Sarabande’s waiting knife.

Dryad’s last whisper was, “I will never leave you.”

Osprey, Aton, Marten, and Seth saw Dryad die. They called her a traitor and agreed that Sarabande’s actions constitutedself defense. Old Aton, their frail and diplomatic leader in those days, two months dead now, by the Guardian, was the one who used the word “constituted.” It brought her no comfort as she sat in the cold river where Dryad fell, even after the men carried the body away and began scratching out shallow graves beneath the aspen trees across the river.

Now, as the dawn’s alpine glow resolved into sunrise, the voice of the melt water stream called to her as it flowed down the stair-step valley toward Lake Deucalion to meet the water from the River of Sky. Water reminded her she didn’t have the courage to drown herself on that rainy night thirty-six moons ago. Instead, she had prayed to the Guardian to bring the storm’s lightning down off the rough face of Deucalion Point beyond the graves and the aspens and kill her with fire.

Sarabande’s right hand folded around the silver talisman suspended on a chain around her neck. Osprey’s gift, a hallowed miniature of a god singing to the sun. Osprey infused it with sunlight and magic before he draped the chain around her neck. She remembered the idiom he used, one from his world, that she would “freeze her ass off” if she kept sitting in the icy water. Funny now, but puzzling then. Yet, while he touched the talisman, they sat dry and warm within the glow of sunlight.

He taught her to sing magical notes that renewed the miniature Sun Singer’s secret fire. That fire kept Dryad’s ghost away for twenty-one moons, then by degrees, the fire grew weaker and went out. Perhaps Willow and her other students were right in their belief that Osprey died when the talisman’s sunlight went dark. She had asked the Guardian if her protection disappeared because a silver necklace could not contain his sunlight forever. It was so. She had her answer, though she did not know if he still lived east of the mountains in his world on roads called Fifteen and Ninety-four and Fifty-one as he told her when they said their goodbyes. She had kissed him then, thinking he would soon return to her. Who knew she would need a map to search for the one whose power could banish a ghost.

Sarabande stretched into the cool morning, idly watching the mare’s tail clouds flying high over Housetop Mountain and the narrow arête called the Boundary Wall. She was in no hurry to leave the secluded safety of the Angel Wing. The world was precious here above the valley’s turquoise lakes and fir trees. While her friends in the Judith Settlement in the old lambing flats below Lake Deucalion considered the Angel Wing and the Glacier as remote landmarks on their world’s western edge, the seven miles were nothing to a twenty-one year old woman with long legs well-accustomed to walking. Once she stepped through the time portal into Osprey’s world, those legs would have to carry her sixteen hundred and fifty miles to his house. Osprey was remote. The Angel Wing wasn’t. She was excited about those remote miles. She feared them, too, and for more reasons than the dead horse and the fire of her visions. With her talent for projecting some small part of herself into faraway times and places, Sarabande had seen—in the manner of dreamtime—the eighteen-year-old Osprey on whom her sanity, and perhaps her life, depended. No longer was he the gangly, deferential boy who journeyed into the mysterious land of Pyrrha out of love for an ailing grandfather, Thomas Elliott, Gem’s father, three years ago. She sensed great changes in him. Maybe they came from the long-term effects of his shoulder wound or his family’s realization that Pyrrha’s darker magic had reached their household—and might again. Or maybe the changes came from three additional years of schooling and approaching adulthood in a world that stood on a pragmatic foundation of technology and science. Osprey was, she thought, mentally much farther away than the sixteen hundred and fifty physical miles between the newly formed Judith Settlement and a town with a name she did not know in the flat lands east of her morning sun. Though she had committed herself to the journey, she was uncertain about just who or what awaited her at the end of it. Reason enough, she thought as she ate her apples and cheese, to relax within the snug comforts of her sacred circle like a sleeper not yet ready to arise from a long nap.

On the first day of spring when bright yellow fawn lilies lifted their heads up through the snow, Sarabande had told Gem of her decision. She would seek Gem’s nephew Osprey, known in his world as Robert Adams, in the month of the Mead Moon. Her best friend and mentor pushed her chair away from the little wheel where she was spinning flax into yarn for plain-weave linen.

So.”

The word was an invitation and a sigh of resignation.

Dryad’s ghost is dragging me into lunacy. Can you understand?”

I can,” she said. “I see what you must do.”

Sundew and White Rabbit took the news poorly. The boys were more reserved.”

Come, sit,” said Gem, shoving a pile of white fabric remnants off the spare chair with the quick sweep of a hand. “I will look after your students while you’re gone if you desire it.”

Good. As you know, Willow is the most dutiful. She helps the younger children with the lessons.”

Willow is a dear one,” said Gem. Her greying braids framed her exquisitely lined face and welcoming smile. “I will ask our equally dutiful marsh hawk to inform my father. Your choice will please him.”

Oh, will it?”

By the Guardian, Sarabande, why would it not?”

I had thought Thomas Elliott would share your worry.”

He does. But worry does not rule his life, nor mine either.”

Tell me why you worry.”

Gem pulled Sarabande’s hands together and wrapped her larger, rougher hands around them.

I worry that you will be shamed.”

Osprey may have forgotten me, but there’s no shame in that.”

Osprey has not forgotten you in spite of his parents’ hopes that he will forget mountains and magic, and most of all, me.”

They fear for him,” said Sarabande. “Do you think so?”

Yes. My father has spoken of it. He was no longer made welcome in their house after Robert, Osprey as we know him, returned and told his story.”

Sad, Gem, and unnecessary.”

Tccch, much of what people do out of love is sad and unnecessary.”

Gem pulled her hands away and stood up so quickly she knocked over her spinning wheel. She didn’t appear to notice. She walked to the window and leaned out as though making sure no one else would hear her words.

I was shamed by the king.” Gem pulled up her left sleeve to reveal the letters SJ in a bold pink scar that contrasted with her walnut-colored skin.

Your strike brand!”

I bore Justine’s mark as well as his child. Both were conceived in pain in a dark cell covered with urine and rat droppings.”Sarabande went to her, but Gem rolled down the sleeve, covering the ugly mark that signified Sovereign Justine. “No, my friend, I cannot abide your seeing it close at hand. My daughter, though, this doting mother will speak of her at great length if allowed to do so.”

Cinnabar has shown me her brand,” said Sarabande.

Discretion is a lesson I was never able to teach her. But listen: on your journey to Osprey’s house, you won’t walk through the domains of kings.”

Sarabande gasped and sat down, suddenly lightheaded when she understood why Gem showed her the scar.

If there are no kings, what dangers have you seen?”

Gem put her hands on Sarabande’s shoulders and kneaded out the growing knots. Her touch always felt like a touch of power, and she wondered if she shared Osprey’s way with healing magic.

I have seen a dark creek beneath a bridge on a foggy night. I have heard screams and howls outside my comprehension. I don’t understand it,” said Gem, holding their eye contact as though she understood more than she would say. “Sarabande, you know without my lecturing at great length about the ways of the world. A a woman on a lonely road can be a target. Travel with a sharp knife.”

The impromptu massage felt good. The unclear warning did not. Vague predictions were worse than silence. They stirred up what did not need to be stirred up.

Yes, I know that, Gem. I will carry a knife and take care to have it handy.”

With due care, you can avoid your fate, but destiny is the way you’ve already written your life’s story.”

I wanted to walk the sixteen hundred and fifty miles to Osprey’s house long before it occurred to me I would ever do so. If there is to be shame in it, then I will live or die with whatever I find on that lonely road.”

So, the matter is decided.”

Yes.”

Gem pulled the wheel upright, returned to her chair and began spinning the thread that often became Sarabande’s skinny white dresses, as Cinnabar—who was somewhat stocky—always called them. (“Holy bear puke, you’re narrower than a lodgepole sapling. Do you never eat?”) Gem’s hands did not need Gem’s eyes to coordinate the stretch and twist of the damp flax strick on the comb over the guide hooks and through the spindle en route to the wheel.

You’re walking to Decatur and I am making you a skinny dress to wear when you get home,” she said.

Thank you. What manner of name is ‘Decatur’?”

My father has said little about it,” said Gem. “It is in a small kingdom which the residents refer to as a state. There is a river. There are old houses and lovely parks on quiet streets. They grow corn without the need of kings.”

I will look for cornfields after I have walked awhile.”

Those cornfields are closer than you imagine,” said Gem as her right foot worked the treadle on its own accord as one might talk and rock a cradle. “When Eagle, my intended, and I were to marry, my father sent him a letter extolling my virtues to such an extravagant extent, that I blush even now when I think of it. Fortunately, I no longer remember precisely what superlatives he included. What comes to mind now are the words Dad used to explain how he could live far away and also be close at hand should we need his help. ‘All times are equidistant from each other,’ he wrote, ‘and all space rests in the palm of your hand.’”

Do you know what that means, Gem?”

She laughed. “Actually, no. But we were looked after. My father could not alter our destiny—our marriage lasted fifteen years before an unknown sickness took Eagle away. But my father tended to appear when we had joys to celebrate and sorrows to endure. While you are walking toward those cornfields, Thomas Elliott will see to it that you are looked after.”

When I walk, it will be a time of breathing out. I’ll take comfort knowing I’m not isolated from all I know.”

Now, within the safety of her circle beneath the sheltering sky, neither fate nor destiny seemed relevant. When she saw the world from the Angel Wing, the cycles of the sun and moon and seasons were readily apparent. She bled with the moon, as ospreys, eagles, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, Indian Paintbrush and Bog Gentians had their times and places throughout the great wheel of the year. Yet, she wondered if each new moment was ordained at the dawn of time by the Guardian or if timeless weavers spun out people’s lives from mountains above the mare’s tail clouds.

No, engraved destiny was not her belief. She grew cold at the thought of it, and colder still when she remembered that today, her journeying day, was no spontaneous flight of fancy, but a time and place regulated within the dictates of the old story, told thusly:

A man or a woman who claims an enduring link with the dead may, within three years of their dying day, journey into the fetid realm of the underworld and petition the deity of that dark place for a Boon of Returning. If the Dark Goddess finds favor with the petitioner’s words, the dead will rise again in full flower. If the Dark Goddess does not favor the application, she flings a spear through the petitioner’s heart and the cause is ended.

While Dryad dared not step within the sacred circle, she might hold the future of the Sun Singer in the palm of her hand. With that thought, Sarabande fetched up the hawk owl feather, drum, rattle, the copper cup and the blood stone, opened the circle, and climbed down into the saddle between the Angel Wing and Housetop Mountain. The rock and the snowfield above the stream were stable, and due care in negotiating them would suffice.

She crossed the stream where it met the lake, looking forward to a breath-stealing plunge into the cold waters. It was a bath, yes, and badly needed. Even a rogue grizzly would flee from her earthy marigold stink.

Ospreyyyyyyyy.”

There she was, as well proportioned and innocently wanton in death as she had been in life. She wore red and held a black and tan pheasant tail feather in her left hand. Sarabande towered over the apparition even though the close-by feral howl had startled her, causing her to jump back and douse her feet in the center of the stream.

Good morning to you, too, Dryad.”

Sara, you’ve never been good at sarcasm. You don’t have the mouth for it.”

I’ll speak plainly, then. Why do you greet me with a befouled hiss?”

Dryad sat on a boulder at the stream’s edge—to the extent a ghost could actually sit on anything—and shook her tumbling blond hair away from her face.

The world turns on that hiss,” said Dryad.

How so?”

Dryad smiled the way a mother smiles at a pathetic child.

Let us begin with a sixteen hundred and fifty mile stroll.”

My traitorous sister, I am strolling because you couldn’t keep your dress buttoned when you espied a fifteen-year-old young man.”

Even in death, Dryad’s blue eyes were capable of fire. “My mark is on him, yes.” She stood and pulled up her dress and extended her right leg. “Just here,” she said, tracing a small crescent with the feather. “No doubt you will find it when you two are rutting in a corn field.”

Sarabande slapped her, connecting with nothing but cold air.

Must you shamefully befoul everything and everyone?”

You are the woman standing here with blood on your dress,” said Dryad, poking her feather at the large splotches. “I’m sure mother warned you about wearing white when you’re on the rag.”

Standing Cat had little time for me,” said Sarabande. “I’m not a fabric that suits her.”

Alive and dead, we both still part our hair in the middle,” said Dryad.“After that, we part company when it comes to common ground as sisters—or even as females. I hear men’s cries, and you do not. Osprey asked me to do what I did.”

That’s absurd.”

I will tell you what he wished. I remember it as though it were yesterday because in my world, there is no time.”

What wish of his could possibly draw the two of you together?”

Truth be told, there were two,” said Dryad. “I will quote the first exactly: To walk naked through a primeval forest on a night when the moon owns the world and be enslaved by a she-devil who initiates him into the unbridled pleasures of boundless depravity.”

Sarabande fell over backwards into the sharp chill of Lake Dahlia. She-devilwasn’t a word from their world, though she could well enough guess what it meant. Dryad could have contrived the word, but she didn’t think so.

What was the other wish?” she asked, trying to find her breath in water that was colder than she expected.

Dryad’s dress disappeared. She jumped into the lake naked without creating a visible splash. Yet her hair was wet when she surfaced, graced with a larger white dryas flower.

He wished to see me like this in the sacred fountain outside the door where the Society of the Rose once met. He visualized me naked in the everlasting waters, asking him to wash me. He was a man clearly expressing his needs, I thought.”

When Sarabande swam to the center of the small lake, Dryad followed. She looked like a living, breathing woman. To think so was to underestimate her. Neither life nor death imposed limits on her.

You always thought less of me than I was,” said Dryad.

If Osprey’s wishes are as you say, then he was a normal boy with normal fantasies. Yarrow once told me adolescent dreams focus on fictional women until a hot and sexy real woman appears on the scene.”

Hot and sexy is an apt description of me,” said Dryad.

Dryad floated a few feet away without effort. Treading water and quickly tiring, Sarabande was a bit jealous.

Apt or not, Osprey’s wishes or visions or needs came out of the anarchy of puberty, nothing more, unless you wish me to believe his moments with you were his destiny.”

That, I cannot say. Our beloved Aton, ancient patriarch that he was, often told us that thoughts are things. Remember?”

Yes.”

Well then, Osprey was fated to have my mark on him because he did not use due care with his thoughts,” said Dryad as she began to laugh. “You don’t understand such things because you lost much of your fire when you married Yarrow.”

Her laugh had the rare quality of a wolf’s howl. She flung the dryas flower at Sarabande, then swam or somehow moved closer and playfully pushed her sister’s head under water like she did when they were children playing in Turquoise Lake. Then the light or the clouds changed and Dryad vanished.

Sarabande rubbed the water out of her eyes. The mare’s tail clouds were gone along with the sun and—from growing shadows within the spruce and fir forest in lower valleys—most of the day. She waded ashore, cold. There was no time to change. She ran down the valley’s long steps, wishing she could fly. Gem—what must she think?

How had she floated beneath the surface of the lake until the blue hour? She rubbed her shaking hands together. They did not feel like the hands of a drowned woman. She ran, thankful for her long legs. Even Aton said she was more sure-footed than a mountain goat. She smiled, and her mouth did not feel like the mouth of a corpse.

In death, Dryad’s power had grown. This fact clarified exactly what Sarabande was going to ask the Sun Singer to do.

You must forsake our mother if you are to succeed, Sara,” said Dryad.“I say this as I prepare to celebrate our Father’s Journey of the Moon to the City of the Last Returning on the seventh year after his death.”

Dryad’s voice, disembodied and everywhere, followed her as she neared the head end of Lake Gordon. The honey scent of the ghostly grass flowers on the slope above the trail was strong, accentuated by the growing darkness. Her white dress was dead weight, like a binding gown or a cloak made of fresh snow. She wanted to sleep, for moments only, down amongst the pink twin flowers.

She stopped to catch her breath. There in a hanging valley to the south, barely visible in the twilight, the water from Wind Maker Pass dropped down over Lightning Falls, concealing one of the portals into the world on the other side of time. Projecting her thoughts across the lake and up the trail toward the falls, she discovered their leader Seth and two other men hiding amongst the flowers of the Garden of Heaven.

Out of fear, they intended to stop her from reaching the very portal Osprey risked his life to re-open three years ago. Dohver, Dryad’s treacherous mentor, had sealed it shut after stealing the Staff of Wisdom from Thomas Elliott. While nobody had seen Dohver for years, Gem and Aton were certain he wasn’t in Pyrrha.

However, another portal lay hidden within the dark firs along the southern shore of the lake below. The Light Dancer’s magic rendered that doorway invisible. Even Osprey couldn’t find it from either side of the portal without help. Should a seeker manage to find and open that door, she would still have to contend with the fiery guardian of the threshold. If due care was keeping her out of Seth’s clutches, then perhaps destiny would lead her to—and through—the Light Dancer’s Portal.

As she stepped into the gloom of the lower trail that switchbacked down to the lake, a faint, wraithlike light appeared on the upper trail. Like ground fog, it clung silently to the earth at a level lower than a woman’s knee. There was no wind, yet it approached steadily. Sarabande tried to project a casual thought into the light to confirm her suspicion that the eerie creature or phenomenon was Dryad’s latest adventure. She encountered a gentle barrier—like a warm quilt or a winter blanket—that was quite impermeable to the energy of her thoughts.

Holy bear puke,” she hissed. “What manner of spirit are you?”

I’m a spirit with long braids who wonders where you’ve been and why you’re talking like Cinnabar. I’m a spirit accompanied by your mother.”

Hello, Mother.” Even in the dim light, Standing Cat’s habitual bitter pout signified that she had probably not been invited on the hike.“Gem, this is a strange light.”

You have blood on your dress,” snapped Standing Cat, pushing past Gem as the light went out. “Have I not informed you that it’s best not to wear white when you’re on the rag?”

More than once, Mother.”

Are you well?” asked Gem.

Dryad cast an enchantment around me,” said Sarabande. “Early this morning, she appeared with her legendary lies and distorted truths as I was preparing to bathe in Lake Dahlia. Apparently, I slept the day away floating in the lake.”

Blast, your personal haunter has grown bolder,” said Gem. “As for this light …”

All the more reason why you should have spent the day in your house, out of sight and out of mind during your unclean days,” observed Standing Cat in the dictatorial parental tone Sarabande suffered through childhood and adolescence.

Unclean days! You sound like a man,” snapped Sarabande, certain she would lose her patience before she left Pyrrha. “Now, Gem, if you can get a word in edgewise, tell me about the light.”

Gem laughed. “I’ll try.”

I’ll hush if my counsel is not wanted.”

Please do, Standing Cat,” said Gem. “The light comes from my dancing spirit helper. It shows me the trail while remaining hidden to men such as Seth who might be watching the world for young ladies planning on stepping into an alternate universe.”

You’re a Light Dancer, then.”

Hardly.”

Seth and two others lie in wait in the Garden of Heaven,” said Sarabande. “I wonder why. What do they want of me?”

This morning, when I reminded Seth that today was the day of your journey, he shared my concern about it,” Standing Cat said. “He claims, and I believe him, that you extracted his permission for the journey by making the kinds of threats a man makes. The other men laughed at him for his acquiescence. Now he will stop you before you bring down the wrath of the gods upon us. My daughter, once again you demonstrate that you are linsey-woolsey rather than pure linen.”

Hush, old lady, or I will throw you into the lake,” said Gem.

Standing Cat gasped, but held her tongue. Few people dared speak their true thoughts in front of her, much less threaten her.

Seth fears no gods,” said Gem. “He fears Dohver, claiming that he lurks on the other side of the portal waiting for you to open it, Sarabande.”

Can that be so?”

“When Osprey’s magic overwhelmed Dohver’s spell and forced the Staff of Wisdom through the opening into the adjacent world, Dohver would have already returned at his convenience had he found it.”

Hush, old lady, or I will throw you into the lake,” said Gem.

Standing Cat gasped, but held her tongue. Few people dared speak their true thoughts in front of her, much less threaten her.

Seth fears no gods,” said Gem. “He fears Dohver, claiming that he lurks on the other side of the portal waiting for you to open it, Sarabande.”

Can that be so?”

When Osprey’s magic overwhelmed Dohver’s spell and forced the Staff of Wisdom through the opening into the adjacent world, Dohver would have already returned at his convenience had he found it.”

Seth is right, then. Dohver cannot use the Lightning Falls portal without an avatar’s staff.”

Even an old lady was right to be concerned,” said Standing Cat.

We are not going to the doorway behind the falls,” said Gem. “We are using the doorway in the Light Dancer’s invisible cabin.”

Oh Gem, can you can find it?”

I found it for Osprey,” said Gem.

The timing of your Boon of Returning is no secret,” said Standing Cat. “I dare say Dohver’s magic is strong enough to conceal him along the lakeshore in the Light Dancer’s world until the cabin appears.”

True,”said Gem, “but he knows the Guardian will not let him pass.”

Will he let me pass?”

Probably,”said Gem. “The Nunnumbi are a dedicated race of elves and cannot be fooled about the intentions of seekers requesting safe passage.”

You will be killed,” said Standing Cat. “Come back to my house tonight with me and I will fix you porridge and a warm bed. Let’s wait until the men decide what we should do.”

So, is it to be the men who rule us?” Gem looked at Sarabande rather than at Standing Cat when she spoke.

We must go to the cabin before Seth decides to return to Judith Settlement and finds us through fate or happenstance,” said Sarabande.

Gem faced the dark trail that led down to the lake. She hopped forward on her left foot while lifting the right foot, and then she jumped forward onto her right foot. Ah, it was a basic reel step. Even in her well-used buckskin dress, Gem looked like a young girl dancing at an elder’s wedding. As they followed the switchbacks down to the bridge over the stream flowing down from the Glacier, the spirit helper’s light gleamed in front of her like sunlight on a river.

Gem set a fast pace, followed by Standing Cat who walked slower and slower until she appeared more anchored in place than the willow trees along the trail.

Mother, you are walking outside the light,” said Sarabande. “I would rather not trip over roots I can’t see because you want to crawl.”

You’re on a fool’s errand,” chided Standing Cat.

Fools are among the most wise,” said Sarabande. “Besides, Dryad has reminded me that Wapiti will soon make his Journey of the Moon. Perhaps I can say a proper goodbye this time.”

Dohver’s old myths,” scoffed Standing Cat. “They are forbidden in my house.”

We are outside your house, Mother.”

Standing Cat turned around just as the sky overhead began to shimmer with the first pale tendrils of the northern lights, the dancing grandfathers, as Aton used to call the dazzling color across the sky. Sarabande’s mother gave no sign she was aware of the dancing grandfathers among the night’s first stars. She was a dark shape, thin like a stubbornly dying tree with deep roots into the ground it had never questioned since the world was born.

She slapped her daughter’s face, and the blow cut deep, stole Sarabande’s breath away more effectively than her morning plunge into Lake Dahlia, and snapped the last remaining twigs that connected them together in a family tree. Sarabande stepped away from the woman who had, for years, been her mother.

Control yourself, Standing Cat,” said Gem.

In the gathering celestial light, Sarabande saw that Gem had drawn her knife.

Is this where you wish to die?” asked Sarabande. While her question was well measured, her tone was not.

Standing Cat looked over her shoulder, saw Gem’s raised knife, and screamed.

Seth, help me. Seth, my daughter has gone mad.” It was scream that could easily curdle milk.

I’m no daughter of yours,” whispered Sarabande. She grabbed Standing Cat from behind in a fierce hug, one hand firmly over her mouth, the other around her midsection. “Pick up her feet, Gem, will you?”

Standing Cat had more strength hidden away in her seldom-used muscles than Sarabande expected. But it was not enough. The two women lifted her off the ground and wrestled her toward the lake. She was like a fractious house cat resisting a bath. Her teeth tore into Sarabande’s fingers and her finely sharpened finger nails easily slit the damp fabric of Sarabande’s linen dress and drew blood.

Sarabande pulled her hand out of the old woman’s mouth. While she feared she might crack Standing Cat’s ribs, she didn’t care. She squeezed her all the more.

Seth, help me, it’s murder. Help.”

Her banshee’s scream remained unfinished. She became airborne over Lake Gordon. For a small woman, she created a large splash, unsettling the pristine reflection of the reds and greens of the northern lights that filled the valley from the plains of Pyrrha past the leading edge of the Angel Wing into whatever worlds existed on the far side of the arêtes that formed the Boundary Wall.

Standing Cat sat, mercifully without words, and stared at Sarabande with an expression that was difficult to decipher. Later, she would wonder about it. But for the moment, her mother seemed a bit surprised, somewhat in awe, and wholly ashamed of the tall young lady in the torn white dress.

On this night, I have blundered,” Sarabande told her. “Look at me here, torn and bleeding. You have told me a thousand times not to fight in my good clothes.”

Seth?”

He heard the scream.”

Then we must leave her where she lies,” said Gem.

Gem turned and ran like a deer. Sarabande ran like a mountain goat. As they ran, the light became brighter amongst the trees closest to the lakeshore: pure white near the water, with the reds and greens reaching up past the tree canopy to the gleaming mountains like swirling smoke. Did the cabin burn? Had the fiery Guardian stepped through the portal to confront the daughter who had forsaken her mother?

While she ran and speculated about the origin of the light, Sarabande had no reason to guess where Seth was. He was running, following the creek from his ambush point below Lightning Falls. He carried a brightly burning torch and was only a half a mile away, followed closely by Stone Seeker and Wolf. Stone Seeker and Wolf were among the more volatile and foolish elders on the Judith Settlement council urging Seth to distance himself from Aton’s mystical society approach to leadership and embrace a more pragmatic style.

While deer and mountain goats move with grace, neither Gem nor Sarabande looked agile when they stumbled across the rocky beach next to a small log cabin at the center of a maelstrom of multicolored streamers of crackling and popping light. When her eyes adjusted to the glare, Sarabande saw the woman dressed in black standing outside the cabin’s open door. She held a blazing staff in her left hand and a long-stemmed dark red rose in her right hand.

I am Siobhan,” she said.

She spoke her name with an opening shhhhhhhhhhas though it were but a soft-hearted whisper. Her smile told Sarabande that Siobhan was strong, unafraid, and not of their world. Pyrrhan women seldom displayed their feelings openly.

You were expecting us,” said Gem. “I am pleased.”

Your father sent me.”

How well do I fit his description?” asked Gem.

He knows his daughter,” replied Siobhan. Then her brown eyes focused on Sarabande. “It’s my pleasure to welcome you to the universe next door.”

Thank you. Three men from the settlement plan to stop me from stepping through that doorway.”

Within the light of this Sitka rowan staff, you need not fear them,” said Siobhan. Then she laughed, adding, “Or your dripping wet mother either.”

I don’t want Seth to see me here,” said Gem. She hugged Sarabande almost as tightly as Sarabande had grabbed her mother. “Your ribs are fine, dear one. Walk well, and when you find Osprey, convey my fond greetings to him.”

I will.”

Siobhan, you hold the Light Dancer’s Staff of Intelligence,”said Gem. “May I ask if you know what became of the Staff of Wisdom?”

Your father has it.”

How is that possible?”

When Osprey opened the portal at Lightning Falls, the Staff of Wisdom was thrown into our world where Sikimí was waiting to fetch it home.”

By the Guardian, that is the horse that saved Osprey’s life in his fight with Caw at the River of Sky,” said Sarabande.

Stop her,” shouted Seth, bursting into the circle of light.

Seth runs faster than bad news,” said Gem.

If Seth feared the staff or its northern lights, he concealed it well. He charged directly at Sarabande waving his sword just as Stone Seeker and Wolf raised their bows and let two arrows fly. Gem and Sarabande drew their knives, but Siobhan did not react. Twin bolts of lightning leapt from the tip of the staff, destroying the arrows in midflight. A fiery whirlwind, resembling an angry elf, manifested itself out of the void between worlds and unleashed three snake-like arms across the clearing, knocking the men to the ground in a shower of sparks.

Impressive,”said Gem.

If there was ever a time to say ‘Holy bear puke,’ this was it,”shouted Sarabande.

She walked over and poked Seth in the ribs with her foot. He was still breathing.

They’re not dead,” said Siobhan. “They will wake up in several hours with no memories of this moment.”

Good,”said Gem. “Then I expect Sarabande is ready for the next step.”

What about him?” asked Sarabande. She pointed hesitantly at the bluish man of fire hovering in the doorway.

Siobhan pulled the staff in toward herself. The light accentuated the deep red hiding within her dark brown hair and brought an impish sparkle into her eyes.

Mahalonuiloa,”she said, and the fire went out. “I have just thanked the staff for its help this evening. Here, Sarabande, we call this a China rose. Our guardian friend will trust you when you carry it across the threshold. Watch out for the thorns.”

Now?”

Now.”

Gem, by the look of me, I’ll need that new dress when I return.”

Gem waved reassuringly and smiled optimistically before the imploding darkness swallowed her whole. Sarabande was extracted from Pyrrha like flax pulled from the dark earth at harvest into an insubstantial world of light. The elf hurled her through the portal into an author’s study that was cobbled together with rough logs, sagging bookshelves, glass-fronted cabinets of arcane memorabilia, a massive wood desk, a stone fireplace, two harp-backed chairs, an oval table graced by an empty blue vase, and a wall clock with black hands indicating 8:59. Avoiding the thorns, the Nunnumbi plucked the rose from her hand and placed it in the vase where the dew drops on the dark red petals shone like diamonds.

As Sarabande crossed over the partition between Pyrrha and not-Pyrrha, a person without a body or a location spoke to her. “When the light ascends, destiny will show you that there are numerous ways to live, little girl.” Warm blooded, that voice was the sister of chaos.

If you enjoyed this free sample, you can purchase the Kindle edition by clicking on the book cover at the beginning of this post. Sarabande is also available in trade paperback at online booksellers as well as on Nook and at Smashwords in multiple e-book formats.

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2 responses

  1. Malcolm and I have the same publisher. However, even if this were not so, I would rate Sarabande one of the finest fantasy novels I have ever read. Thought-provoking yet fun; philosophical yet understandable to those not into philosophy. Malcolm’s love of Glacier Park, of Central Illinois, come through in his beautiful descriptions of the natural world. I love this book, plain and simple.