The winds of change are blowing upon Fireach Speur. Aoelyn risked her life to save the trader Talmadge and it cost her everything that is dear to her, but Talmadge survived and can’t forget the amazing woman that killed a god.
Little do they realize, war is coming to the mountain. Far to the west, a fallen empire stirs. One that sees a solar eclipse as a call to war. Their empire once dominated the known world and they want it back.
R.A. Salvatore’s new Coven series continues with Reckoning of Fallen Gods, available January 29th from Tor Books. Read an excerpt below, and check back next week for an additional chapter!
She sat on the ground somewhere within the grove where the Usgar kept their slaves, her arms bound behind her to the trunk of a pine tree. Aoleyn was sure the uamhas, like Bahdlahn’s mother Innevah, could hear her whimpering, and could hear the sharp questions her interrogators were hurling at her—but of course, since uamhas were considered no more than animals, Mairen and Connebragh didn’t likely care.
The poor young woman could barely breathe through the cloth gag they had tied so tightly, let alone answer the questions. But those questions kept coming anyway, fast and sharp, and often followed by a slap or even a knee into her armpit.
“You stole crystals!” Mairen shouted in her face. “From where?”
“Where did you get those wounds?” Connebragh demanded before Mairen had even finished speaking—a tremendous breach in protocol that again reminded Aoleyn that this part of the interrogation wasn’t really about gathering information.
They didn’t want her to answer.
“Where did you get these?” Mairen demanded, holding up the three pieces of jewelry she had taken from Aoleyn. “How did you get these?”
“And where are the others?” Connebragh added. “The wedstone crystal? You were wounded, but now are healed! Do not lie. The tender skin is clear to see.”
She smacked Aoleyn across the face.
It went on and on—to Aoleyn, it seemed like half the day.
They kept coming at her with questions and sneers and threats and slaps. Aoleyn had struggled against her bindings at first, and had tried to work her head and mouth to dislodge the suffocating gag, but to no avail—she had been bound by Usgar warriors, expert in handling slaves. She had even tried to reach out to the crystals and her gemstone jewelry which Mairen held—she could hear the vibrations of the magic, the song of Usgar.
But to no avail. She was battered and exhausted, and the Usgar-righinn held her own magic, too, and would allow no such connection.
It took the poor young woman some time to realize that only Connebragh was now battering her, both with questions and physically. She couldn’t even see Mairen—had the Usgar-righinn left the natural chamber, its walls the drooping branches of the pine to which Aoleyn was tied?
If only she could speak! Connebragh was closer to her age, and she had never known the woman to be hateful. Seonagh had trained Connebragh not long before she had tutored Aoleyn, and had spoken highly of Connebragh’s character. On the night of Aoleyn’s testing in the crystal caverns, she was certain, Connebragh had been hoping for her to succeed. She was certain that the woman, as brutal as she was now being, would truly listen to her side of the tale.
But no, she could not speak, and could not interrupt the continuing verbal and physical barrage. On and on it went, and Aoleyn could hardly keep her head up, and forgot her earlier warnings to herself about why these two were treating her in this manner.
She had anticipated what might come when they exhausted her, but now, exhausted, she had all but forgotten, and so when Mairen was there, so suddenly, Aoleyn was caught completely off her guard.
Because Mairen wasn’t beside her.
Mairen was inside her.
Connebragh’s questions kept coming, and Aoleyn tried to ignore them. But she couldn’t ignore them, not wholly, not in her thoughts, and so images swirled and memories lit up.
And Mairen was in there, exploring.
Aoleyn saw through the eyes of a bear, and sensed the confusion of the intruder. A paw swatted, breaking a man—Ralid—and throwing him. She turned from that thought as quickly as she could, and she was other animals, then, like a bird flying along the mountainside…
She felt Mairen’s delighted disdain.
Aoleyn knew she was doomed.
The warriors who had ventured down the mountain walked back into the Usgar encampment that same night, faces grim, with Egard carrying the body of Ralid over his shoulder.
Gasps and wails and empty stares followed their every step, with many Usgar being swept up in their wake as Egard led them to the tent of the Usgar-laoch.
“Tay Aillig is not here,” one man told Egard. “He left earlier this day.”
“To gather Elder Raibert,” another offered, though there seemed disagreement on that matter.
Egard didn’t really care about the details at that point, as his entire action this day had been orchestrated wholly by Tay Aillig, and neither henor the Usgar-laoch held any surprise as to the fate of Ralid.
“Where is Tay Aillig’s wife?” Egard asked sharply, ending the budding debate.
The gathered Usgar turned their heads as one toward the pine grove off to the side of the encampment, where the uamhas were kept.
“With the Usgar-righinn,” a man said.
“A prisoner of the Usgar-righinn,” another added.
Egard nodded, then looked to his men and motioned for them to stay quiet. He wasn’t sure how to proceed here, but he really didn’t like the idea of showing his evidence against Aoleyn to the Usgar-righinn without Tay Aillig present. The Crystal Maven didn’t particularly like him, he believed—but then again, as far as he could tell, Mairen didn’t particularly like any man.
“We will wait,” he decided, and he squatted down right there, in front of Tay Aillig’s tent, laying Ralid on the ground. He motioned to some women to come and gather the fallen warrior, to prepare him for a proper farewell.
The Mouth of God, Craos’a’diad… high on the mountain, near the peak, looking down on the Usgar winter encampment.
Tents there. Tents? Surely, there could be no tents, with the wind and the cold…
Mairen’s spirit fell back inside her own thoughts for a moment to sort it out. This was a mental construct, a structure of comfort. An odd choice for Aoleyn, she thought, truly so, given that this place was a sacrificial pit more than anything else. A place where heretics were thrown. She understood why Aoleyn might be imagining that place at this time, but as a source of comfort? A place with shelter?
No, not literal tents, of course, Mairen suddenly realized. These were containers, for memories, thoughts, emotions. The Usgar-righinn charged back into her victim, rushed for the tents, tore open a figurative flap.
A needle, dark gray, pressed against the belly of a young woman… blood, but healing immediately…
“How did you get the wedstone from the crystal?” Mairen asked aloud when she realized the composition of the needle itself.
Her verbal prod had her victim looking down at a crystal in her hands, in her memories.
But the tent flap swept shut, and Mairen growled in anger.
Another tent loomed before her… an owl flew silently over the Usgar encampment… a woman rushed out of a tent… uamhas…
A tent… an actual Usgar tent… a tent Mairen knew!
The owl again, watching… a witch, a friend, stumbling from the tent… a serpent… cries of pain… death!
“Caia!” Mairen cried aloud. “You knew!”
The enraged spirit of the Usgar-righinn no longer probed, nay, but attacked, tearing at the tent flaps, ripping and scrambling the pieces. She didn’t want information now, she simply wanted to destroy, to kill.
Her victim fought back, terrifically, but it would not be enough, and Mairen was glad that they had exhausted and weakened this powerful young woman.
This young woman she would now utterly destroy.
Mairen flashed back into her own body, suddenly and violently, and so shockingly that her form went tumbling, losing its grip on Aoleyn and falling to the floor. At first, she thought her victim dead, then, when Aoleyn groaned, considered that the young woman had found the strength to expel her.
No, she realized, when she looked across the way to see Connebragh holding the gray-flecked crystal, the source of Mairen’s spirit-walking and possession.
“You dare?” the Usgar-righinn roared.
Connebragh shrank back, but shook her head in defiance. “Look at her,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “You are killing her.”
“I will kill her!” Mairen shouted.
“No, not like this,” Connebragh argued, her tone uncharacteristically harsh and defiant. She shook her head vigorously and spun to the side, clutching the crystal defensively against her torso as Mairen slowly rose and began to approach. “This is not the will of Usgar. This is not our tradition. The tribe will not accept it. Aoleyn’s husband, the Usgar-laoch, will never accept it.”
That last sentence stopped Mairen in her tracks, for indeed, it rang with truth. Tay Aillig would never forgive her for destroying Aoleyn without his agreement, and privately, which was simply unprecedented and against Usgar tradition. They had a way to execute heretics, after all, and it was one that fed Usgar and so blessed the tribe.
She turned instead to Aoleyn and slapped her across the face, just once, releasing all of her anger with that single blow. Then she bent low and stared into the glazed eyes of the disoriented young woman.
“I know what you did,” she said into Aoleyn’s face. “And I know what the uamhas did to Caia, because you know, and knew, and said nothing.”
Aoleyn seemed to focus on Mairen’s face then, but whether she fully understood or not, the Usgar-righinn could not tell.
“Connebragh, gather the guards,” Mairen ordered.
Mairen continued to stare, even when the two men entered a few moments later.
“Aoleyn’s clothes?” one of the men asked, holding forth a dirty shift.
“None. Let her show herself in all her shame,” Mairen replied. “But you and your partner can go ahead of us, and speckle the way from the trees to the center of the camp with splinters and sharp stones.”
“Usgar-righinn?” the surprised man asked.
But Mairen was talking to Aoleyn then, and focused to the point where she didn’t even hear the question. “You will crawl, dear,” she promised. “All the way to the middle of the camp, naked for all to see. Nowhere to hide, girl. Nowhere to hide. Filthy and bloody, and they will spit on you, every bit of the way, and laugh at your tears of pain and shame. And I’ll tell them to throw small stones, and throw shit, if they so please. Oh, but I will! You deserve every humiliation, and I’ll see you get it.”
To the side, Connebragh gasped at the severity of Mairen’s judgment.
She had sent Connebragh ahead, Aoleyn knew, because she wanted the pleasure of this painful humiliation firsthand.
Mairen untied Aoleyn and pushed her to the ground. Hungry, weak, and beaten, both physically and mentally, the young woman offered no resistance. How could she?
“Crawl,” the Usgar-righinn ordered.
Aoleyn turned her head to look up over her shoulder at the older woman, whose features seemed sharp in the low and harsh light from the diamond-flecked magical crystal. Aoleyn considered that for just a heartbeat—and got a kick in the ribs for her hesitance.
So, she crawled, with Mairen guiding her, prodding her. She pressed through the low-hanging pine branches and out into the open. Night had fallen, but the moon was still nearly full, though silver now and not covered by the bloody face of Iseabal.
A large bonfire roared in the encampment not far away to the west—Connebragh’s doing, Aoleyn knew. Mairen had called for bright light in the camp, because Mairen wanted everyone to witness this.
Aoleyn crawled, now upon the path the sentries had made of sharp stones and splinters. They bit at her knees like angry little bugs, and her hand got especially pinched on one movement, and began to bleed.
But though she grunted a few times, the young woman refused to cry out in pain, and though she knew that all manner of ugliness would befall her, likely even an execution, she was determined that she would not cry, and stifled her sniffles and blinked back her tears.
As she drew closer, she realized that the whole of the tribe was out and about that bonfire, all taunting and cursing at her, and many holding objects. She crossed into the encampment and the rain of missiles began. Most were smelly and disgusting, like rotted mushrooms and wet bulbous weeds, designed to humiliate her. But some threw stones, and not all of those were pebbles.
Aoleyn kept crawling and shielded her face as much as she could, but not with her arms. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing her afraid.
A pair of legs appeared before her. The bare legs of a woman.
“Stop!” she heard Mairen command, and she was surprised that the Usgar-righinn had moved around her without her even knowing it.
She was right beside the blazing bonfire, the heat of it growing uncomfortable very quickly.
Aoleyn heard another voice that she thought she recognized. She started to look up, and did enough to see that it was Tay Aillig’s awful nephew Egard speaking with Mairen. She only got a brief glance, though, as Mairen was quick to smack her in the face for daring to lift her gaze from the ground.
The two were whispering, and Aoleyn probably could have made out their words were it not for the continuing curses shouted around her, and the fact that she really wasn’t sure she cared enough to listen.
It was over. All of it. Every hope, every dream. She had never known love, even physical love, for the one time she had been with a man, she had been raped. She would never know what it was to hold a child of her own, or to see the world beyond this one mountain, which the tribe thought huge, but which she found suffocating and small.
None of that would she know. It was over. Every dream. She took some comfort in that she had stayed true to herself, but in the end, she had lost to the traditions of Usgar.
Strangely, she didn’t feel foolish, though her actions had condemned her, for she believed that she had done right in discerning a newer and better way to utilize the blessed crystals. Usgar could not be mad at her for that, she believed, if he was truly the source of such magic, for he had given it to her, after all.
How, then, could their god tolerate this?
But Mairen was the voice of Usgar in the tribe.
Some beads fell to the ground before Aoleyn. She looked at them curiously for a moment, then realized they were hers, though she hadn’t worn them in a long time. They had been in her tent…
“We found these near the body of Ralid,” Egard claimed, and gasps arose all around. “They’re your own, Aoleyn, are they not? I’ve seen you with them.”
“I do’no… I have not…” she stuttered, trying to sort out this puzzle. They were near Ralid? But how could that be?
“The bear,” Mairen said then, and she laughed as if it had all come clear to her.
Aoleyn looked up, and Mairen did not stop her this time, as if she wanted the young woman to look into her eyes then.
“The bear,” she said again, nodding. “You saw through the eyes of a bear. You possessed the bear.”
“A bear attacked us… Ralid!” Egard cried, and Aoleyn caught the slip up, but if anyone else did, they didn’t respond or show it. “You did it,” he accused her, seeming as if he would leap upon her and throttle her then and there. “You murdered an Usgar warrior, who was my friend!”
The gasps arose again, and the shouts, and calls for Aoleyn to be killed. She had no allies here, she knew, although Connebragh, to the side, seemed more than a little uneasy with all of this.
“Admit it, child,” Mairen demanded. “I was in your thoughts. I saw. You can’no lie here. Speak truly and so make this easier upon all of us.”
Others called out at her, a hundred voices assailing her thoughts, jumbling them as she tried to find a place of calm and sort out some direction here.
The verbal goading continued unrelentingly, and finally, in sheer frustration, Aoleyn shouted out, “I did it!”
The tribe went silent around her, the only sound the hiss and crackle of the fire.
“You admit…” Mairen started.
“Aye,” said Aoleyn. “They were torturing a man—all of them. Ralid, Egard…”
Egard kicked her in the side, blasting out her breath.
“Uamhas,” he told the gathering. “We captured an uamhas. We…”
Mairen put her hand on his arm to silence him. “It does not matter,” the Usgar-righinn told them all, her voice solemn and serious. “Aoleyn has admitted her crime, and it is not the only sin from this one. The Usgar-laoch will return soon and the Usgar-forfach is on his way to us. We know what must be done.”
As she finished, she stared straight at Aoleyn, and the young woman noted the edges of Mairen’s lips curling up in a perfectly wicked smile of grim satisfaction.
Excerpted from Reckoning of Fallen Gods, copyright © 2018 by R. A. Salvatore