Equinox (Excerpt)

Originally published in 1993-96 by Pan Macmillan, Dirk Strasser’s The Books of Ascension went out of print before the final novel was completed. Two decades later, the entire series—including the “lost book”—is availble from Momentum in ebook format! Check out the second book, Equinox, below, and be sure to keep an eye on the site for additional excerpts from the series.

The fate of the Mountain hangs in balance at the time of Equinox, and even the Keep can no longer remain untouched. The Maelir are desperate to defend it, the Faemir to demolish it, the windriders to claim it. But unknown to them all, a dark force has already emerged from the chaos to seize power.

As Atreu and Verlinden strive to decipher the power of the Talisman that has defined Atreu’s Ascent, Teyth and Valkyra are locked in a desperate battle that neither of them can win. At a time when darkness and light are in perfect equilibrium, when Maelir and Faemir must find a way to break the deadlock and avoid annihilation, the world’s fate lies in the Book of Ascension.

 

 

The Second Book

 

The old Reader closed the book and turned to his silent companion.

‘So you see, my young friend, as always the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end.’ He was used to the age-cracked edge in his own voice, and had long ago given up wondering how it sounded to others.

The Reader stood up slowly, his joints groaning like ancient wood, and he shuffled towards the shelves of books which lined the walls of his room. He ran his finger across the lettering embossed on the rich leather cover of the book he had just been reading.

‘As you now know,’ he said, inclining his head slightly in the direction of his silent companion, but without actually looking at him, ‘the last page is always the first and so we begin again.’

There was no reply, but the old man nodded his head wisely as if he had heard a comment he had expected.

‘Yes, of course you are right, my young friend. It is never exactly the same, because we have grown in knowledge in the reading.’

He slowly slid the book back into its place on the shelf. ‘We grow in the telling just as the tale does. How perceptive of you.’

His fingers trembled slightly as he touched the next book on the shelf. He drew a deep breath.

‘It is always the same with a new one. You don’t have to tell me – I know your hand shakes as does mine and your breath quickens as does mine. We just never know how the next one will change us, do we?’ He pulled the book out and stared at the cover for a moment.

‘And I hope, my silent young friend, that you learnt your lesson from the last one. We are all a tale within a tale within a tale. And who knows, at this very moment, someone in some far-distant land may be reading about us.’

The Reader laughed softly to himself as if he had just become aware of a joke. ‘Now, there’s a thought.’

He looked at the title on the cover and the laughter caught in his throat like a fishbone.

‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘the darkness may grow in this one.’ His fingers traced a path along the book’s edge. ‘Although you never can tell, can you? You just never can tell.’

For a moment, it was as if his silent companion was about to speak.

‘No,’ he said quickly, motioning to stop the words, ‘now is not the time. We are about to embark on another journey. Whether this one will be an Ascent or a Descent, I do not yet know. Nor do I want to know. Perhaps, as with the last one, it will be both.’

He opened to the first page. ‘And, my young friend, you must promise me, as you did the last time, not to look.’ He hesitated. ‘Can you promise me that?’

The Reader turned towards his silent companion, but there was no-one there.

He smiled and turned back to the book to begin reading.

 

 

Prologue

 

A lone girl made her way through the maze of giant granite boulders. She was grateful that the eve-wind masked the sound of her footfalls. The deep red ringlets of her hair almost straightened as warm gusts of wind hit her face and shot past. She laughed to herself. This will be easy, she thought, perhaps even easier than the others had been. She knew that the villagers would suspect nothing – they had been too engrossed in their preparations for Harvest Night. The celebrations would, no doubt, be well under way, the wine and ale flowing as swiftly as the River Maelstrom. How fitting that this was to be the night.

Her eyes scanned the ground for signs of impermanence. She knew it was the only thing she wouldn’t be able to control, the only thing beyond anyone’s control. There had been no indication of cracks or fissures, but although few had her eye for the signs, she could never be certain. Still, it would have to be a major upheaval to stop the raid that had been planned.

A knowing smile twisted her otherwise fair young face. The Watching gave her a sense of power over the destinies of the Maelir, and with each of the nine days of Zenith, the power had seemed to grow. Safely hidden from view, she felt it course through her strong, lithe body: the feeling that she could choose who would survive and who would die. Of course, she knew the feeling was still elusive. The heat of battle often brought its own unexpected results, and she had as yet no control over the other members of the coveyn. She did know, however, that despite her tender years, her stature grew with every victory.

As the rocks around her increased to massive heights, the gusts of wind lost much of their force. Although she thought it unlikely that any villager would be this far from the celebrations, her hand never left the handle of her sheathstone knife. She had already learned never to be too certain of anything in life. Her path forked constantly, but she quickened her pace, trusting her uncanny eye for detail to lead her in the right direction. Turning a final corner, she saw the coveyn encampment. It was a mass of frantic activity as her sisters prepared for battle.

‘Valkyra, tell us your news.’ The coveyn leader, Rhea, directed the order at her immediately.

‘The villagers are only going through the motions of having vigils for the night,’ said Valkyra. ‘It won’t be long before the vigils join in the celebrations as well. If we choose the early morning, there won’t be many Maelir in fit a state to resist us.’

‘So you offer battle plans as well, Valkyra? You may be tall for your age, but you are still many years away from the experience needed to give counsel. Stick to your talents as a Watcher.’

Valkyra glared at the coveyn leader. ‘I thought I was stating the obvious, Rhea. Surely the morning is the best time.’

Rhea’s gaze burned back brightly. The young girl’s arrogance was growing daily, and if she was already openly defiant as a nine-year-old, then she would present a real threat to Rhea’s leadership in the future. ‘Your counsel will be treated with the respect it deserves.’ She raised her voice as she gave the command to the others. ‘Make ready for battle! We move under the cover of night, as always.’

Valkyra clenched her teeth and turned away. This was not the time for any stand. She knew Rhea was threatened by her, and the leader was letting it affect her judgement. But it didn’t really matter – Valkyra knew she already had the ear of many of the younger members of the coveyn. Time was on her side.

‘Come, help us with the brimstones. Don’t think your Watching duties spare you from all the other tasks.’ The call came from Ahrai, one of the older girls standing on the small rise in a far corner of the clearing.

Valkyra joined the group of five who were busy removing the top layer of soil from a shallow pit. On her hands and knees she sifted through the dirt until she came upon one of the small deep red stones they were looking for. As always, she marvelled at the coolness that belied its violent red heart. She carefully placed it on the small pile with the others. In the gathering darkness she could see the brimstones burning with a redness that almost matched her hair. ‘How long have these been buried?’ she asked.

‘Since our encampment,’ said one of the others.

‘Nine Zeniths? No wonder their flames are so bright. The village and all its ripe grain is going to burn like a giant torch.’ Valkyra laughed. ‘I hope the Maelir enjoy their celebrations.’

‘Tell us about the Faelen in the village,’ asked Ahrai, still busily sifting for brimstones as she spoke.

Valkyra stopped and directed an icy glare in Ahrai’s direction. ‘Hold your tongue, Ahrai. I don’t want to hear that word.’

‘Valkyra, you talk sometimes as if you lead the coveyn instead of being just a Watcher. I’ll use any word I wish in your presence. I use Faelen to mean what the Faemir have always taken it to mean: the unfree, the fallen ones. There’s nothing wrong with saying the word. It’s being a Faelen that’s the problem.’

Valkyra’s lithe body tensed – Ahrai’s barb had stung her. She had little choice but to suffer humiliation at the hands of Rhea, but this was another matter entirely.

‘Who was your Birthmother?’ continued Ahrai, clearly revelling in the effect she was having on Valkyra. ‘I know mine.’

This was too much for Valkyra. She sprang from her crouched position onto Ahrai, clawing furiously at her tormentor’s face as she pinned her to the ground.

Ahrai writhed underneath her and tried to push her off. Then Valkyra felt a knee in the small of her back, and she winced as Ahrai flung her to the ground. They both jumped to their feet, and Valkyra grimaced slightly as she felt the pain shoot down her back and into her leg.

The two stared at each other silently. Valkyra felt the heat flush her cheeks – she was aware her face now reflected the deep flame colour of her hair. The battle preparations had ceased as the coveyn crowded around the two combatants. Rhea was the only one who could stop the confrontation, but Valkyra was certain she would let it run its course.

Valkyra felt her muscles tense, her chest heaving with each breath. She had never tested her combat skills against a girl so much older. Her instincts told her she was Ahrai’s match in an equal contest, but she had also already learnt that few contests were equal. One thing was certain: neither of them was going to back down. Without warning Ahrai dived, arm outstretched, towards the pile of brimstones.

Valkyra quickly realised her intention and lunged after her. She was a fraction too late – Ahrai already held one of the stones in her hand. Using her considerable strength, Valkyra grasped the older girl’s wrist tightly and tried to shake it to make her release the brimstone. But it was to no avail – Ahrai held the stone firm.

Then a faint smile crossed Valkyra’s lips. Releasing her grip of Ahrai’s wrist, she grasped the fist that enclosed the brimstone and applied all the pressure she could muster. There was a look of confusion on Ahrai’s face, but this soon turned to horrific recognition. She began to struggle furiously to break the hold. With her free arm and feet she battered her opponent – yet Valkyra’s grip did not loosen.

The pressure on the stone soon began to take effect. Ahrai felt its tingling warmth rapidly burgeon into an unbearable fire. A burning ache gnawed at her palm and she screamed. Valkyra could feel Ahrai’s efforts to break free become more frantic, yet she held on. The stench of burning flesh filled the air and Ahrai’s strength was ebbing, but Valkyra clasped even tighter. A foul-smelling smoke began to emerge from between Ahrai’s fingers, and Valkyra sensed that her opponent was about to lose consciousness.

Why doesn’t Rhea order me to stop? thought Valkyra. Then it became clear to her. She wants me to show weakness in front of the others, damn her. We would both be saved if she intervened.

Ahrai’s eyes were no longer focusing.

Damn you, Rhea! With a cry, Valkyra released her hold. She carefully unclenched Ahrai’s fist, turned her hand over, and allowed the brimstone to fall to the ground from the hole in the flesh in which it had embedded itself.

‘Quick, get some salve,’ she called as she examined the deep wound which had been burned into Ahrai’s hand.

There seemed to be a faint look of surprise on Ahrai’s face. ‘You’ll live,’ said Valkyra as she signalled to one of the onlookers to dress the wound.

Valkyra trembled slightly as she turned to face the still-silent Rhea. More weakness, she thought, and they can all see it.

‘On with the preparations,’ ordered Rhea. ‘We will have to fight with even greater valour now that two of our number are no longer fit for battle.’

Valkyra opened her mouth in protest.

‘Don’t speak, Valkyra,’ commanded Rhea. ‘You’ve shown mercy and that makes you unfit for battle. Stay here with the feeble, the sick and the young – it’s where you belong. Perhaps we’ll bring back some Faelen captives to keep you company.’

Valkyra felt the quiver in her voice as she spoke. ‘But …’

I …’

‘Silence. Go tend to the hearth with the old women.’

There were mutterings from many corners, but nothing was said outright. Valkyra knew she had allowed herself to be ensnared by Rhea. The strange fury that had always stood her in such good stead in battle had worked against her this time. Now that her head was clear, she could think of a dozen ways of besting Ahrai without putting herself in the position of having to show mercy. But it was too late. None of her allies or admirers would now speak for her. Perhaps she was weak. Perhaps she had no right to aspire to the coveyn leadership.

As she walked towards where the hearth fires burned, none of the old women spoke. One of them simply motioned her towards some trivial task. Tears of rage and self-pity welled up in her eyes as she watched her sisters prepare for the raid.

She watched the tension in the camp build as the time for battle approached. Many of the Faemir fidgeted nervously, making endless minor adjustments to their battle garb. Others compulsively touched or rubbed their weapons, almost as if they were reassuring themselves of their existence. A few talked incessantly, with only the occasional forced laugh betraying what they were feeling. One or two sat in isolation and stared at the sky.

As the hour approached, a heavy darkness, punctured only by the fires of the hearth, oppressed the encampment.

When the call finally came, the tension broke. ‘We move now!’ ordered Rhea.

There was a collective sigh of relief. Knives and swords were sheathed, axes slung over shoulders, and the water-soaked bags carrying the brimstones were checked one last time.

Valkyra watched, trembling, as Rhea led the hundred-strong band into the narrow passage leading through the steep cliffs.

Damn her! She’ll pay for this humiliation.

Shrugging off one of the toothless old women who tried to comfort her, Valkyra walked away from the hearth. Without the smell of battle, she had nothing. It was all she had ever known in her short lifetime – save for those first few months after birth. Damn. Why hadn’t she been born free? Rhea and Ahrai were both right. She had been born a Faelen, and if it wasn’t for the coveyn raid nine years ago, she would have lived her life as a Faelen, forever under the yoke of the Maelir.

She walked towards a pile of battle swords which had been left behind and crouched down to run her hand along the handle of one. It was cool and hard. It cried out for battle. Suddenly a violent wave of resolve washed over her. She was not quite sure what she would do, but she would not remain behind. Glancing at Ahrai who lay against a rock, Valkyra clenched her teeth. Then she grabbed the sword and dashed towards the passage to follow the others. This was to be her fight.

 

Valkyra’s footfalls were silent and deliberate. Although the band had moved with haste, Valkyra knew that she could easily overtake them if she wanted to. Not only did she have the advantage of travelling alone, but she also had trodden the path many times during her Watching. She knew the way well, however she had no desire to catch up with the others.

Her course of action was only gradually forming in her mind. The rage had dissipated as quickly as it had been born. In its place grew a coldness. There was something inevitable about what she now felt. Rhea was both ruthless and shrewd – she had simply waited for the right opportunity to throw Valkyra into disgrace. Rhea had used Valkyra’s strength, her battle fury, and had turned it against her. Valkyra had destroyed herself. And as usual, Rhea had used others to get what she wanted. Had the barb about Faelen been thrown first by Rhea and not Ahrai, the conflict would have been out in the open. Valkyra was unsure what the outcome would have been, but at least she would have known where she stood. Unfortunately, Rhea was too devious. Valkyra would have to learn from that.

The night seemed strangely silent. Valkyra knew that the eve-wind never blew for long after dark on this part of the Mountain, yet the air was rarely as deathly still as this. The sheer cliff faces on either side were no longer high enough to block out sound but, despite this, nothing reached her ears. She strained to discern a noise – anything that would break the stillness.

Then her heart missed a beat. A faint sound echoed from some indeterminate place, a sound barely audible above the overbearing silence. Where was its source? Surely the band would not be so careless or overconfident that she could hear them? Perhaps the celebrations of the villagers had reached some fever pitch? But that, too, was impossible. There was no way a sound could travel so far, even on a still summer’s night.

Realisation slowly set in. Perhaps that element over which she had no control had suddenly become active again. That was it! She tried to reproduce the sound in her head to confirm it. Yes, she was almost certain. It was the early warning sign of instability in the surface of the Mountain. The outbreak could be days away – or mere moments. No-one could predict it, not even someone of Valkyra’s talent. What she did know, however, was that once the rumblings started, the outbreak was inevitable.

It suddenly struck her that she could use even this to her advantage. No-one would be prepared for the instability. She had only heard it because she had been straining to listen at the precise moment when it occurred. She doubted if any of the band would have thoughts other than those of the imminent battle on their minds. And the villagers would be too engrossed in the spirit of the Harvest Night by now. Valkyra was unsure what her new-found knowledge would mean, but a hint of a smile crossed her lips.

She was now almost out in the open. She sought the path that would lead to the large boulders where she had watched the village for the past seven days. Valkyra knew Rhea would be leading the band to the pocket of forest adjacent to the village. The Watch was well hidden, but it was too far from the village to launch an effective attack. Valkyra grinned wryly at the thought that she had been the one who had identified the forest as the best place from which to launch the onslaught, yet Rhea, as leader, had once again taken the credit.

Valkyra increased her pace as the bright lights of the village started to come into view. A wave of hatred for the Maelir overcame her, as it did every time she saw one of their settlements. Her hand unconsciously stroked the cool hardness of the sword. These accursed men even robbed her people of their will to be free. Valkyra never forgot why the Faemir raided their villages and stole the young Faelen. And she knew the feeling was different for her, more intense. The other coveyn members often seemed to be going through the motions because they knew nothing else. The raids had been etched into the Faemir psyche as a way of life, yet Valkyra wanted it to be more. She knew she could instil her sense of passion into the others, if she had the chance. And it was here that she felt her advantage over Rhea lay. Strong leader though she was, Rhea’s actions were not fuelled by a festering hatred. She would never be able to fan the fury that smouldered in the hearts of the Faemir.

Valkyra reached the Watch and sat down against one of the boulders. The sounds of minstrels and laughing voices echoed up the terraced hillside to her. The clear night air allowed her to distinguish individual voices, many of them unmistakably female – the Faelen, the fallen sisters. A strange mixture of anger and pity welled up inside her. Many Faelen would die along with the Maelir – there was no other way.

It was then that the sky exploded. Had the attack begun so soon? No, the band was still moving into position through the woodland pocket. Valkyra stared into the sky as a series of high-pitched sounds were followed by a splash of riotous colour. Her heart raced as she tried to make sense of what she saw. The answer came to her as another shower of sparks fell from above. Of course. The fabled fireworks. They must be part of the Harvest Night celebrations. She now stared in awe. The burst of sound brought her memories of the violence of battle, yet here, strangely, they were mixed with laughter.

Something awoke within her, a feeling akin to battle euphoria, yet fundamentally different. As the explosions increased, creating pockets of day-like light on the hillside, she was overcome by a breathlessness. She leaned back on her hands. Her gaze followed a shower of red and gold to her left …

She’d almost forgotten. Her sisters were still preparing for battle. Valkyra managed to gain control over herself. These fireworks would not be good for the attack. The unexpected was never welcome, and even from this distance she could sense an air of hesitancy and confusion in the band. Every time the hill lit up, they were in danger of being detected by the villagers below. Rhea’s timing could not have been worse as it turned out, and Valkyra’s own counsel to attack at daybreak was looking increasingly sound.

Valkyra watched as the band was coerced back into order. There was a flurry of activity, and at first it was unclear what was happening. The fireworks still danced in the night sky, and the laughter and cheering continued unabated. But then she realised what Rhea’s course of action was. Several fires were now visible in the mounds of the newly harvested grain that had been ceremoniously placed around the village. Rhea had once again demonstrated just how shrewd she really could be. She was using the unanticipated fireworks to her advantage. She had timed the first volley of brimstones so that they were catapulted into the grain at precisely the moment the sky was alight. The chances were that the villagers would be so engrossed with the display that they would not notice anything until the fires had taken hold.

The first scream was the catalyst. The music stopped abruptly. Valkyra watched in fascination as the scene rapidly transformed from one of joyous merriment to one of tumult. Despite the initial confusion, it quickly became clear that for many of the villagers the drink had not yet dulled their judgement. Small groups were rapidly organised to put out the fires with a combination of large dampeners and buckets of water. It was with disgust that Valkyra noticed many Faelen appeared to be at the front line of the activity. The villagers weren’t quite the rabble she had believed them to be – the band might be in for a real battle.

High above the village, the fireworks still splashed into the sky as the brimstone flames ignited them one by one on the ground. The effect was now a grotesque parody of the celebrations. With a sudden rush, the sky burst into mock daylight. Screams of terror echoed across the hillside as the villagers’ eyes turned upwards to where the approaching band was exposed. Now there will be a contest, thought Valkyra. Rhea always relied on the cover of dark for her battle plans, and for once the element of stealth was denied her.

There was now only one choice for the band, and it came as no surprise to Valkyra when the signal for a full charge was given. Unlike previous charges though, the band still had some distance to run, and the villagers had a little more time to prepare. Already the warning horn was blowing, and the Maelir were dropping their buckets of water and grabbing weapons. A chill tore through Valkyra as the battle wail of the Faemir pierced the night air. Never had she heard that most soul-destroying of cries – she had always been too engrossed by the battle euphoria herself. But now, at this distance, she could feel the wail’s effect.

The time of contact had almost arrived. The Maelir had clearly decided to concentrate their defences in one long formation. It was unusual for villagers to possess such battle sense, thought Valkyra. In all the victories she had been part of, the Maelir had been scattered and confused. Rhea would have to be thinking on the run now. Various strategies sprang to Valkyra’s mind, but she knew that under pressure it wouldn’t be that easy.

The first clash of stone was tumultuous. Rhea herself had led the charge, but was repulsed almost immediately. The villagers’ formation had proved simple but effective. More sparks flashed as the combatants stood toe to toe, swords and axes ringing across the hillside. This was not the way the Faemir were used to fighting. It was not on their terms – with the activity so concentrated, there was little room for them to use their finely honed battle skills.

Rhea had already changed tactics and was directing the warriors to fan out. A clever manoeuvre, thought Valkyra, with a mixture of envy and loathing. Rhea was trying to envelop the formation, searching for the weakness that would cause the breach. The clashes were becoming increasingly furious, yet the Faemir were no closer to victory. The formation was simply too long to encircle fully, and sporadic attacks from the few villagers still fighting the fires made the strategy ineffective.

Both sides were suffering casualties but the balance wasn’t changing. Valkyra could sense it was almost a stalemate. The Faemir would expose themselves if they retreated now. They had no other option except to persist and hopefully wear down the villagers. The Maelir were caught in a similar position. Theirs was a purely defensive formation and any attempt to convert it into attack would clearly leave an unprotected weakness for the Faemir to exploit.

Valkyra’s attention was deflected momentarily. There was a distinct undertone to the battle cries. She shuddered. The sounds of instability were unmistakable. She could feel the impermanence brooding beneath her feet like a caged animal. Tiny surface cracks began to appear not far from where she sat. Her heart beat faster. Strangely, she did not fear for her own safety – a fascination captured her instead. She knew that a new element was about to be introduced into the battle below.

Then the ground began to shake under her. She went to stand up, but before she could get to her feet, a huge wedge of rock emerged and lifted her skyward. She screamed as she struggled to keep her balance.

She glanced around as pillars erupted from the ground all about her. Then the wedge on which she stood started to move down the hillside towards the village, cutting through the ground like a knife. She looked down at the combatants. Both Faemir and Maelir had stopped in mid battle and were staring at her as she raced towards them.

Use the moment, she thought as the air rushed past her ears. Spreading her legs a little wider for balance, she drew her sword and raised it into the air. With a chilling cry that could be heard above the groans of the Mountain, she rode the wedge straight into the battle melee.

Some of the Maelir made a half-hearted attempt to continue the fight, but for most, their spirit was broken. They turned and ran down the hill, deserting their village.

The wedge had sunk further into the ground and Valkyra jumped off. ‘The young Faelen,’ she cried, ‘don’t let them get away.’

Rhea looked around in dismay when she realised the band were quickly following Valkyra’s orders.

‘Get out of my way,’ said Valkyra, as she pushed past the woman who was no longer her leader and joined in the hunt for Faelen.

The ground still shook underfoot as she rounded one of the outer buildings of the village. Suddenly, someone jumped her, pushing her to the ground. With almost ridiculous ease she swung her assailant around and climbed on top.

To her surprise it was a young Faelen of her size and build, her long ringlets covering her face. Valkyra held the sword to her throat.

‘Tell me why you shouldn’t die, Faelen,’ she said.

The girl shook her head violently and the hair fell away to reveal her face.

Valkyra gasped. The face she was looking into was her own.

 


Equinox © Dirk Strasser, 1996
All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the publisher.

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