When Aoleyn loses her parents, she is left to fend for herself among a tribe of vicious barbarians. Bound by rigid traditions, she dreams of escaping to the world beyond her mountain home.
The only hopefor achieving the kind of freedom she searches for is to learn how to wield the mysterious power used by the tribe’s coven known as the Song of Usgar. Thankfully, Aoleyn may be the strongest witch to have ever lived, but magic comes at price. Not only has her abilities caught the eye of the brutish warlord that leads the tribe, but the demon of the mountain hunts all who wield the Coven’s power, and Aoleyn’s talent has made her a beacon in the night.
From R. A. Salvatore, the legendary creator of Drizzt Do’Urden, comes the start of a brand new epic journey. Child of a Mad God, book one in the Coven series, publishes February 6th with Tor Books.
FREEDOM TO FLY
(The last day of the Spring, God’s Year 857)
Aoleyn stood on the high rocky outcropping, the night wind in her face. Far below her, against the dark of the rugged mountain, she saw the low fires of the Usgar encampment, and far, far below that, specks of light marking the villages on the lakeshore.
The woman adjusted the ring she had fashioned, its band a soft white and splattered with blue. A green stone had been set upon it, tied with a gray filament Aoleyn had magically fashioned, and for which she was most proud. She had discovered a great secret here, she believed, one that had given her insight into the magic of Usgar beyond anything the Coven had ever known.
She believed, but she couldn’t know.
She adjusted the ring, moving it so that the end of that gray filament, wedstone, stabbed into her finger.
A simple thought stopped the bleed before it had even really begun, and Aoleyn settled more intensely, hearing the wedstone and using it to connect to the other gems she had taken from shattered crystals to fashion into her ring.
She felt their powers, strongly, an intimate connection indeed.
Aoleyn took a deep breath and stepped off the cliff.
She plummeted, then slowed, then called to that blue band to alter the angle of her fall.
She was flying, soaring down the dark mountainside, gliding above the stones and the ravines and the trees. She clutched a crystal in her other hand, and called upon that one, too, the cat’s-eye, her vision enhanced in the low starlight—and just in time, for she saw one black stony bluff rising before her!
Aoleyn called upon her ring and lifted her arms and swooped upward as easily as any bird, flying fast over that ridge, then dropping fast behind it, turning as she went in her descent to follow the line of trees now.
She roused a deer with her passing, the creature jumping from a bed of pine needles and springing away. She heard the hoot of an owl, and an answering call from the other side.
In the span of a hundred heartbeats, she was already approaching the Usgar summer camp!
She turned sharply to the east then, not wanting to be spotted by any sentries, and called upon the blue stone with all her strength. She felt like she was sliding down a snowy slope, and turned and veered gradually, as if sliding in her fall.
Exhilarated, but gasping for breath, she came up on some trees and, instead of flying over them, lightly touched down on their branches. She took a moment to catch her breath and set off once more, refusing to stop, running, nearly weightless from the green stone, springing from branch to branch, tree to tree, with graceful ease.
The music of the night surrounded her and the music of Usgar filled her, as she ran across the treetops, giggling.
She came to a final rest in one particularly large pine, grasping the trunk, high up from the ground, near the top. Had she not kept herself near weightless by maintaining the magic of the green stone, she was sure she would have bent the thing right over.
She stayed there feeling very self-satisfied with her own cleverness. By manipulating other stones she had taken from the crystals, Aoleyn had fashioned wedstones into wire, and piercing her skin with those magical threads had given her a closeness to Usgar she had never known before, outside of the cave. Even now, so far removed from that crystal cavern, the song hummed loudly inside of her—and the two gems on her ring sang to her much more clearly than those in the crystals she carried.
“Whoo,” an owl said from nearby.
Aoleyn clutched the cat’s-eye crystal more tightly and peered into the darkness, finally spotting the great bird sitting on a nearby tree. She fumbled with some other crystals, finding one that was thick with blue, but a different hue and texture from the moonstone band she wore.
She reached into that crystal, then out to the owl.
The bird tilted its head and ruffled its wings, clearly disturbed as Aoleyn spiritually prodded it. The woman felt a connection, almost like when she had been with Brayth on the battlefield. She seemed to understand the owl’s sensibilities, could sense its trepidation, too.
A sound distracted her, like a deer running—except then she saw through the owl’s eyes, that it was no deer, but a simple mouse.
But its footsteps sounded as though they were made by a raging bear!
Aoleyn’s connection to the owl broke as the bird lifted away toward its prey, and it took the disoriented Aoleyn a few moments to realize that she had heard through the owl’s ears, and her amazement had her leaning on that pine tree for a long while.
She had had no idea of the power of this blue-filled crystal, had never heard of such a thing. It seemed to her like a wedstone, but for animals. Her spirit had been inside the owl!
Aoleyn nodded, giddy at the possibilities that were opening up before her. What might the stones in this crystal allow her to do once she had made a wedstone connection with them, too?
Oh how she wished she could stay out here all the time. Exploring Fireach Speuer in ways she had never imagined, studying the power of Usgar more intimately than she had ever hoped.
But she could not, she reminded herself; she had another task she must finish before returning to camp. She called upon the blue band of her ring once more and leaped away, now flying up the mountainside, then running again, but easily and almost weightless, tree to stone to tree. Up, always up, and when she came to a sheer cliff, she leaped up and flew, and so within a very short while she was again near the summit of the great mountain, but now more to the east than before.
She moved carefully, for the winter plateau was nearby, and she had to take care not to let Elder Raibert see her!
She moved up past the uamhas caves, quiet now with the slaves all far below.
Almost all, at least, for she heard a tap-tapping higher up th’Way, up near the top and the open area that held Craos’a’diad.
Aoleyn set down and walked, soon coming in sight of a man, bent over and working at the stone with a hammer and chisel.
Yes, a man, she told herself pointedly as she looked upon Bahdlahn, nearing his eighteenth birthday. He was tall now, and broad, with his muscles growing thick and tight under endless hours of hard labor.
Only a year before, when Bahdlahn’s adulthood could not be denied any longer, the Usgar were going to put him to death, as they did with all the male slaves, thinking them too great a threat. There had been a great argument, for some thought him too stupid to be trouble, to be anything but docile.
In the end, Mairen had saved the young man, but only because she had convinced the others to work him to death instead, up here, fashioning th’Way so that it would be easier to climb.
It was a good plan, and certainly working this trail would prove beneficial to the Usgar during their winters up here, but there was one thing they had not counted upon in their calculations.
“Why are you working so deep into the night?” asked Aoleyn. “You know that when you finish, they’re going to throw you off the mountain.”
She said it jokingly, despite the weight of the subject and the kernel of truth, except that they both knew it would be many years before Bahdlahn could finish such a monumental task. He was carving stairs into solid stone, building railings and filling small ravines.
“I wanted to finish this one step,” he said proudly, turning about with a grin for his friend.
“I brought you some cooked fowl,” Aoleyn told him, pulling off her pack and tossing it to the ground.
“A wonder that they do not see my belly and gut me,” Bahdlahn replied.
Yes, he could speak, Aoleyn now knew, and there was nothing stupid about him. The woman thought back to that long-ago day when she had heard his mother, Innevah, telling him that he was stupid. She had thought Innevah was insulting him, had wanted to yell at her for being so cruel!
But no. She was saving him. The Usgar thought him dull and so unthreatening, and while he was perhaps the latter, it was not from stupidity. He just possessed a gentle nature that impressed Aoleyn beyond anything else. For all the pain Bahdlahn had suff ed, for all the humiliation, his spirit was not broken. His soul remained full of joy and appreciation—appreciation simply for being alive.
Bahdlahn went at the bird with ravenous delight. “Have you seen my mother?” he asked between bites.
“She is well,” Aoleyn replied. “I try to find some secret moments with her, to tell her about you. It keeps her alive, Bahdlahn, her love for you.”
The young man smiled and nodded, and seemed on the verge of tears.
How different was he from the hardened Usgar warriors!
“Did you build the hidey-hole?” Aoleyn asked him, letting her concern show through clearly.
“You must,” she said in all seriousness. “The Usgar-righinn says that Iseabal might show her red face next month.
“I’ve started one,” said Bahdlahn. “In the big cave, way in the back.”
“Tight and blocked with stone,” Aoleyn reminded.
He nodded, and seemed unconcerned—and why not, Aoleyn thought; he had never seen the fossa, or felt the coldness of its stare, like death itself. There were few large animals up here so high on Fireach Speuer, either. No wolves or bears. Perhaps a snow leopard now and again, but the cats, for all their power, shied from men. He believed he was safe.
Aoleyn, who had faced the demon fossa through the eyes of Brayth, knew better.
“Fashion it,” she ordered him. “Make it tight and block it with stone. Quiet and deep, I beg.”
Bahdlahn stopped smiling so teasingly and painted on a somber face as he nodded his assurance.
“I will try to get them to let me bring you back to the lower camp if Iseabal will visit,” she said. “They don’t want you dead.”
“They thought I would already be dead.”
Aoleyn couldn’t disagree. The Usgar hadn’t given him much in the way of supplies up here, and he had to go to the winter plateau every morning and announce himself to Raibert. He had nowhere to run, little to eat, and should have worked himself near to death by now, and would have, had not Aoleyn found a way to pay him these secret visits. If, on one of the occasional inspections, the Usgar warriors were not satisfied with the simple uamhas, they would throw him from the mountain.
Aoleyn had heard the whispers below. The Usgar were shocked at how well this strong young Usgar was performing, and how well he was surviving.
“Where?” Aoleyn asked, fishing out a different crystal.
“Just my hands tonight,” said Bahdlahn, holding forth his hands, his fingers all bloodied and nicked from hammering all the day on the stones.
Aoleyn took them in her own and fell into the magic of the crystal, and was soon imparting magical warmth into the young man.
She was feeding him, she was healing him, and she was sharing his smiles when both needed them.
“Do not come to me on Lizabeth’s Night,” Bahdlahn said to her as they sat there, holding hands, his voice very serious. “Promise me.”
Aoleyn sighed, but nodded. “Unless they let me fetch you before moonrise, and bring you to the safety of the camp.”
He nodded his agreement, but they both knew she’d never convince the Usgar to do any such thing. They didn’t care if the fossa ate this stupid uamhas, as they didn’t care if he worked himself to death.
They simply didn’t care.
Bahdlahn headed back to the slave caves soon after, and Aoleyn bid him farewell. She didn’t dare follow, for that was too near to Elder Raibert. She wanted to go to Craos’a’diad, which was only up over that one last rise, but she knew that she had been out too long already.
She moved off th’Way, scrambling through some brush to come to a cliff face, then called upon her magical ring once more and leaped away, and flew, joyous and free, down the darkened side of Fireach Speuer.
Too soon after, she set down just outside the Usgar camp, and crept to the back of the tent that she had once shared with Seonagh, but now was hers alone. Glancing around, confident that she hadn’t been seen, Aoleyn went in through a secret flap she had cut in the back of the tent. A light came up as soon as she entered, the hood removed from a burning lantern. The man who had claimed her to become his bride, Tay Aillig, was in there waiting for her, sitting comfortably, staring at her with smug contentment.
Aoleyn sucked in her breath, expecting to be beaten. What was he doing in here? He had claimed her, but they hadn’t been proclaimed in marriage yet and were not sharing this tent. Tay Aillig hadn’t even touched her since making the claim.
Was that about to change?
Aoleyn grew even more uneasy. She had only one sexual encounter with a man, three years before when Brayth had raped her. Looking at Tay Aillig, the Usgar-laoch, the War Leader, so always on the edge of anger, she realized that she would much rather be beaten.
“Oh, but my surprise,” he said. “I had to relieve—”
“Shut up. You’ve been gone the whole of the night.”
Aoleyn swallowed hard. She told herself that she was a woman now, not a girl, and reminded herself that she had power, magical power, and now carried the gemstones to use it if necessary.
“Have you made it your duty to spy on me, then?” she asked, stepping into the room with as much confidence as she could manage. She didn’t want him to see her fear. She understood men like Tay Aillig all too well—they only grew emboldened and meaner when they knew that people were frightened of them.
“Aye,” he answered simply, and that stopped Aoleyn in her tracks.
She stood there, mouth hanging open, staring at him.
“I have claimed you as my wife. Any woman would be glad of that.” Aoleyn nodded, not about to argue. She understood the ways of Usgar, whether she liked them or not. It wasn’t her place to question, and she couldn’t deny that almost every woman in the tribe would be thrilled to have Tay Aillig, perhaps the most powerful man in the tribe, as a husband.
Nor could Aoleyn deny the many jealous looks that had come her way since the War Leader’s surprising claim the previous summer, immediately after the proper mourning period for Brayth had ended. Aoleyn wasn’t considered especially beautiful among the Usgar, and was actually the smallest woman in the tribe. Although there were many whispers that she was next in line to join the Coven, who knew what might happen in the months, years, decades even, between now and the next opening among the thirteen witches of Usgar?
“Where were you?”
“In the camp? With another man?”
“With the uamhas?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Then where?” He leaped up from his seat and stormed over to tower above her, leering down in open threat. “You will tell me.”
“In the forest,” she replied, trying to remain steady. “On the mountainside. I go out all the time—almost every night.”
“Where?” he demanded.
“I would know every valley, every tree, every cave,” she said, improvising. “When I was with Brayth in the battle, I… my spirit, nearly lost its way. Had I known better the area where he fought, perhaps…” She let her voice trail off and looked down at the floor, but took some secret comfort in seeing Tay Aillig’s feet slide back a bit.
Aoleyn looked up quickly, locking his eyes. “I will not fail my man again,” she said.
His face became a mask of confusion, intrigue, pride—all sorts of emotions, but none of them clearly negative. Aoleyn knew she had distracted him.
“To know the mountain is to know Usgar,” she went on, now with confidence. “The god’s song is not steady, but ebbs and flows in different places, like streams of magic. I will know those streams, better than any.”
Tay Aillig didn’t answer, didn’t blink.
“Are any stronger than Tay Aillig?” Aoleyn asked him.
“And so none shall be stronger than his wife in the ways of magic. Anything less would not be acceptable.”
He nodded and seemed to be digesting that, but his demeanor changed suddenly and he came forward, painfully grabbing Aoleyn by the chin and yanking her face in line with his steely gaze. “You are destined for the Coven, and soon to be my wife. Yet you take such chances?”
“No chances,” she insisted. “You could fall in a ravine!”
She brought her hand up, holding the cat’s-eye crystal. “I see as well as in daylight.”
“You threaten your place on the Coven!”
Aoleyn shook her head emphatically, as much as she could against his iron grip. “The Usgar-righinn has no edicts against wandering the mountain in the night!”
“None. Other than good sense.”
“I am not afraid. It makes me stronger. Do you not wish that?”
He was trying to stay angry here, but Aoleyn knew that her appeal and promise of strength had walked around his fury. And the only lie she had told was that she had indeed been with an uamhas, but he never questioned the lie because no one could have gone that far up Fireach Speuer and returned before the night was half through.
The rest of her story had been true. She was going out in order to become stronger, for she had found secrets that not even the Coven, blinded by their old rituals and etiquette with the crystals, could hope to realize. She was indeed getting stronger.
But not for Tay Aillig’s benefit.
“You take care on your paths, we wouldn’t want you to come to harm,” Tay Aillig warned with a toothy grin and a brief tightening of her wrist. “And know that if your foolishness costs you your place in the Coven, you will be shunned by all men. And I will not marry you, but will take you often for my pleasure, and your pain.”
He let go of her chin and reversed his hand, using the back of his fingers to stroke her cheek… but so awkwardly, almost as if he had only heard that that was how lovers touched.
So clearly there was something out of sorts here, but Aoleyn couldn’t quite place it. It was as if there was no desire in the man beyond his hunger for power. Even with the threat he had issued, Aoleyn understood clearly that it was only half true, that he wouldn’t take her for his pleasure.
He would take her to punish her, to satisfy his anger, not any carnal desire.
She was quite relieved when he left, particularly when she realized that she was still wearing the ring she had fashioned of moonstone and malachite, and wound with wedstone threading.
If Mairen found out that Aoleyn had broken sacred crystals to get at the flakes within, it would cost Aoleyn more than a place among the Coven.
She intended to go back into the caverns beneath Craos’a’diad, perhaps the very next night, but not in the way that Mairen would send her there for her heresy.
Excerpted from Child of a Mad God, copyright © 2018 by R.A. Salvatore.