Tyrant Moon [Moon, Sun, Star Series Book 1]
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by Elaine Corvidae
Description: Tyrant Moon tells the story of a dying mage who must help a barbarian warrior in her quest to save her people. Thraxis is an Athraskani wizard who created a magic jewel that would gift any mage with enormous power. A rogue wizard stole the jewel, using it to cast a death curse on Thraxis before fleeing to hide among the barbarian tribes. The Arrow that Flies the Farthest is the Champion of her clan--its most skilled warrior, whose ritual combats with other Champions were meant to prevent war among the clans. But war is unleashed nevertheless when her ambitious chieftain joins forces with the rogue Athraskani. Arrow's only hope of stopping the war seems to lie with Thraxis, who alone knows how to destroy the jewel he created. But can a pacifist wizard and a woman born to kill find the common ground needed to work together...before time runs out for them both?
eBook Publisher: Mundania Press LLC/Mundania Press LLC, 2004 2004
eBookwise Release Date: November 2005
57 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [405 KB]
Reading time: 273-383 min.
"The language is bold, clean and spare, getting to the heart of whatever conversation, battle, magic spells, suffering, or joyous occasion is occurring."--Viviane Crystal, Crystal Reviews
"Tyrant Moon is an exciting romantic sword and sorcery tale that hooks the readers from the very beginning".--Harriet Klausner
"5 STARS. W-O-W! Here is an awesome story! You will NOT be disappointed in this book"!--Detra Fitch, Huntress Reviews
* * * * Chapter One--Messenger
"We have a visitor," Vilhardouin said.
Thraxis carefully folded himself onto the small cushion. Voluminous black robes tried to entangle his limbs with yards of extra fabric. The stone floor of the small chamber sent a chill through the thin pillow beneath him. At one time, he would have used magic to warm himself without giving the spell any more thought than he gave to breathing. Conscious of Vilhardouin's sharp eyes, he repressed a shiver.
"I fail to see why you should disturb my studies over a stranger," he said, reaching for the old, easy arrogance.
Vilhardouin watched him like a crow interested in an insect. The soft light from the scrying ball edged her black robes and glittered in the obsidian beads braided into her hair. The braids--the same silver of her eyes--formed an intricate pattern of loops and knots that precisely defined her power and rank to anyone who knew how to read them.
Thraxis self-consciously tugged his hood farther forward. His hair had horribly fallen out in clumps two months back.
"You should be interested," Vilhardouin said, noting the gesture as she noted everything else. "She brings news of Balthazar."
A cold more harsh than the frigid air of the room went through him, but he kept his expression neutral. Vilhardouin passed one age-wrinkled hand over the scrying ball. An image formed within, showing a small waiting room near the entrance to the Sanctum. A woman crouched there, her back braced against the wall, disdaining the comfortable chairs. Her red hair was long and tangled, held back from her face by a few simple braids. Trousers and a sleeveless shirt made of stitched-together leathers snugly outlined a lean, rangy body. The blue lines of tattoos showed on each bare shoulder: a simple spiral and a deer in an oddly contorted position. Another tattoo, a thick horizontal line, bisected her rather ordinary face, centered about her dark eyes. Even a cursory glance revealed that she was heavily armed.
"A barbarian," Thraxis said, surprised.
"Do you know which kind?" Vilhardouin asked. Always pushing, always prodding.
Thraxis pursed his lips in annoyance. "I haven't made barbarians my study," he said defensively. "One of the northeastern tribes, I would guess. A Chok?"
"Close. A Skald."
"What news could a barbarian bring of Balthazar?"
"She has come to ask for our help defeating him. She claims that he has begun a war among her people. That he has used his powers to help some petty chieftain destroy his neighbors." Her shrug was elegant--nothing to do with us. "I would not believe it if I did not know what he had done to you."
Thraxis looked away from the barbarian's image. "He has used the doyan'si again, then?"
"The jewel gives him the power of one who wears the black. Did you expect him to leave it untouched?"
"No." He shrugged. "Even so, this has nothing to do with me."
"It has everything to do with you. I'm sending you with the barbarian."
Thraxis' head snapped up. "What--you cannot be serious!"
Vilhardouin's eyes were utterly dispassionate. "I am completely serious. Balthazar has broken his Vows and gone renegade. To simply allow him to do as he will without any response would reflect badly upon us."
"So you're sending me? What brilliant line of thought led to that? 'Balthazar has stolen the doyan'si and gone renegade. I know--let's send Thraxis! After all, he's dying anyway!'"
"Let me remind you that this entire affair is your responsibility."
"I had nothing to do with it!"
Withered lips flexed in a brittle smile. "You are the only one who thinks so. Truth is a harsh god, Thraxis. That is why the humans don't worship it as we do." She settled back and watched him thoughtfully. "I will offer you a choice, then. You may leave the Sanctum and go with the barbarian. Or you may stay here and sire a child whose powers may some day compensate us for the loss of your own."
He felt as though a noose was tightening around his throat. "I told you, I need time for my studies if I am to find a counterspell for Balthazar's curse."
"So you said twelve months ago. You are no closer to a cure now than you were then." Her lips pursed in annoyance. "And I fail to see your objections in any case. After all, you would be partnered with the Beautiful Melilandra."
"The Bitch Melilandra."
"You aren't being asked to marry her." Now she smiled. "And it is said that none can give pleasure like the Athraskani. It would only have to be once--there are spells to make certain that she would conceive."
He bit back the angry words that humiliation brought to his mouth. Long experience had taught him that Vilhardouin's icy calm always out-maneuvered passion in an argument. Instead, he forced himself to smile back at her. "And there are spells to make certain that she would not."
"True. But are you willing to cut days from your life just to ensure that?"
He closed his eyes and mentally spoke a mantra to calm his racing heart. So this was what it came down to--the great Thraxis, no longer of use even as a tool, reduced to nothing more than a stud that might serve the Black Council's interests one last time. He saw now that the business with the barbarian had been nothing more than a feint. Given such a choice--go out to face Balthazar unable to use his magic, or sleep with the Beautiful Melilandra--he was certain to pick the option that they truly wanted.
He was no Balthazar willing to break his Vow of obedience. Vilhardouin knew that--it was why she had made the show of giving him a choice.
"Very well." He opened his eyes and looked at her steadily. "I will go with the barbarian."
It was the only time in his life that he had ever seen Vilhardouin surprised. * * * *
The Arrow that Flies the Farthest crouched nervously in the stone chamber, her every nerve pulled taut as a bowstring. The tiny room with its cold, ornately carved walls was as different a place as she could have imagined from the felt tents and open plains of her home. Strange smells assaulted her nose, and she fought not to jump at every sound. It was not a trap, she told herself again and again, but her body refused to believe it.
"Can I get you anything?" the Athraskani youth asked from his position near the door. His accent was thick, almost unintelligible, and she suspected that his command of her language was the reason he had been assigned to her. Whether he was meant to be a guard, a servant, or merely a companion, she did not know. Certainly his slight frame would be odd on a guard--but then, the Athraskani had no need of physical force to restrain anyone.
"No." She glanced up briefly, met his golden eyes. They reminded her uncomfortably of Balthazar, and she looked away.
"It ... might be a while," he said uncertainly. "The, um, Black Council sometimes takes days to make a decision."
"I will wait."
"Er, of course." He lapsed back into silence. A moment later, the door swung open behind him on quiet hinges. Startled, he leapt to his feet and bowed to the pair who entered.
Both of them were robed in black--the color of power among the Athraskani. Arrow stood up slowly, careful that her movements betrayed nothing unusual. She couldn't guess their reaction if they discovered the berserker magic that Balthazar had given her.
"They are nothing but hypocrites and liars," he had said once, his words twisted with bitterness. "They claim that they are peaceful, that they do no harm to any living thing. By which they mean that they do not kill.
"But they do harm. By the gods, they do harm."
The first of the black-robes, an old woman whose eyes had faded from gold to silver, looked at Arrow for a long moment. Then with a shake of her head, as if she doubted the wisdom of the proceedings, she reached into her robes and drew out two round stones, each strung on a short cord. She held one out; after a moment, Arrow took it uncertainly. At a gesture from the woman, she slipped the cord over her head. The other stone went to the second black-robe.
"These are translator stones," the old woman said. For a moment, Arrow thought that she spoke Skaldai, before realizing that what her ears heard didn't match what her mind comprehended. "They will allow you to speak and understand one another's languages. Unfortunately, you both must be in earshot of a conversation for it to work."
"Ah," said the second black-robe, a man. "How ... thoughtful of you." He stepped smoothly around the elder and stood looking at Arrow. She stared nervously back. Although she was tall for a woman, he still towered over her, his height further accentuated by a form that verged on gauntness. His features were striking, with prominent cheekbones and a nose long and thin as a knife. Elegant black brows arched over eyes the pale, clear yellow of wine.
"I will also require a traveling robe," he added, turning to address the woman behind him. The motion shifted his hood back a little, revealing a head bald as a rock. "And a staff."
"But staves are for novices!" the guard blurted out. Then he flushed bright red with embarrassment. "I--I'm sorry, Thraxis."
Thraxis gave him a searing look but said nothing. Instead, he returned his attention to Arrow. His expression suggested that he wished she had vanished into the earth while he wasn't looking. "I am Thraxis. The Black Council is sending me to help you."
Relief washed over her. They were going to help after all--her long journey had not been in vain. She folded her arms across her chest, placing her hands on her shoulders in a gesture of gratitude. "I am the Arrow that Flies the Farthest, Champion of the Red Feather Clan."
He arched a quizzical brow at her. Before she could fathom his question, the old woman behind him spoke. "The various Skald clans have warriors called Champions. They settle disputes by having them fight one another. It's all very barbaric."
Her description was not quite accurate, but it would suffice. "It keeps the clans from war and blood feud," Arrow said. Her stomach tightened. "At least, it was supposed to."
"Hmm. We'll put a stop to all that," Thraxis said with a wave of his hand. Now that she was more used to the disorienting effect of the translator stone, Arrow realized that he had a beautiful baritone voice that resonated in the small room like a song. "The Arrow that Flies the Farthest, eh? That's a bit long--if we were to get into trouble on the road, you would be dead before I could finish warning you. What about Arrow?"
She stiffened. Was he implying that he didn't think her able to take care of herself? "Arrow will do. After all, I wouldn't want you to get killed because it took you too long to call for help."
To her surprise, a sudden, self-deprecating smile flashed across his features. "Of course." The smile disappeared too quickly, replaced by arrogance once again. "I see no need to dawdle. We will leave early tomorrow morning."
The old woman gestured to the youth who had waited with Arrow. "Sakarax will take you to a room for the night. Your dinner will be brought to you there. I'm afraid I must ask you to remain within your quarters. Our novices are not allowed contact with outsiders."
She means their children when she speaks of these novices, Arrow realized. It seemed a cold way to refer to offspring, but it matched the picture Balthazar had created for her. "I wish to check on my cousins," she said. "To make certain they have been cared for as well."
Thraxis frowned slightly. "There are more of you?"
"She means her horses," the old woman said with a disapproving sigh. "Very well. Sakarax, show her the stables, then take her to the room that has been prepared."
Sakarax bowed. The two black-robes looked at Arrow as if they expected her to do the same. When she did not, the elder sniffed haughtily and left. Thraxis left also, but before he turned away, Arrow caught sight of an approving smile. * * * *
Thraxis walked slowly down corridors that he had known all his life. For the first time, he felt trepidation at the idea of leaving the Sanctum. True, he had read extensively about the world outside, so he felt certain that he would be well prepared for anything he might meet. But still, the thought of venturing out into the unknown, especially at such a time...
I'll never see these halls again, he realized. If the journey doesn't kill me, confrontation with Balthazar certainly will.
Fear gripped his heart for an instant, and it was all he could do not to run back to Vilhardouin and beg her to let him change his mind. He would submit to anything that the Black Council wanted, if only it meant that he didn't have to die alone, far from everything he had ever known, with only an ignorant barbarian for company.
He swallowed hard and controlled his breathing using a lifetime's worth of meditation techniques. Submitting wasn't even an option, he reminded himself. He couldn't give them what they wanted, even if he had wished to do so. That decision had been made years ago, when he had realized that they would someday demand a child from him. He had known then that he could not abandon an innocent to the Council's embrace, no matter what the personal consequences. It was too horrible to contemplate.
After all, they had raised him.
As he walked down corridors carved straight from the living rock of the cliff, he became aware of eyes on him. Most of them belonged to initiates--adults--although a few of the novices old enough to understand the gossip loitered about also. Their conversations fell silent as he approached, then sprang up again once he was past, a constant, incredulous murmur. Undoubtedly, they all thought that the curse had infected his brain and driven him mad.
Reaching the sanctuary of his cell, he closed the door behind him. There was no lock--anyone but the smallest child could bar a door with magic, so why waste money on mechanical means? Thraxis briefly considered setting the spell, and then realized how foolish it would be to drain himself for something so trivial. Hopefully his reputation was still enough to keep the curious away. And as for friends coming to wish him farewell ... there were none.
Like all Athraskani living quarters, his cell was spartan, containing only a narrow cot, a writing table, a chair, and a shelf for books. A traveling robe already lay folded on the bed, and a staff leaned in the corner like an accusation. A wave of humiliation passed over him for needing a prop normally used only by children and senile elders. But pride was not enough reason to leave it behind, not when he knew that he would need it.
He sighed and sank to the bed, feeling hideously tired. His joints ached, faintly but persistently, and he wondered if the pain came from simple weariness or from some new phase of Balthazar's curse.
Footsteps sounded in the hall outside, coming to a stop on the other side of the heavy door. Thraxis held his breath, as if that would somehow keep the other person from knocking. After a moment, the footsteps resumed, and he sighed in relief. He had not wanted to face a curiosity seeker, but even more he had not wanted to face the Beautiful Melilandra.
Perhaps he was mad, he reflected ruefully. Rather than go to bed with a beautiful woman, he had chosen to undertake a journey certain to end in his death, accompanied by a barbarian who not only smelled like her horses but considered herself related to them. What in the name of truth was he thinking?
Melilandra would not take this well; her Vow to do no harm was probably in serious jeopardy of being broken tonight. Despite the string of broken hearts and shattered egos she left in her wake, most men seemed to find her beauty and power enough of an aphrodisiac to overlook her vicious tongue and loveless nature. She prided herself on being able to do anything, have anyone that she wanted.
No, Melilandra would not be happy. Having hated her for years, Thraxis saw this as the single bright spot in the whole affair.
That, and Vilhardouin's disconcertment. Thraxis frowned, folding his legs tailor-fashion under him on the bed and propping his sharp chin on a fist. The Black Council could have simply ordered him to make a child. He had never told anyone about the spell he had set on himself years ago, torn by the terror that his will would fail, and he would give them the child-tool they wanted. In ignorance of that, they could have commanded him. What did they think he would have done--break his Vow of obedience as Balthazar had?
The thought made him pause. Perhaps that was it, indeed. Perhaps Balthazar's unexpected and violent rebellion had surprised them so much that they feared to back Thraxis into a corner. Crippled or not, he was still wore the black. He could do incalculable damage before his magic ran out and the curse killed him. He never would, of course, but perhaps the Black Council had not felt entirely certain of that, having already failed to predict Balthazar's spectacular disobedience.
So instead they offered him a choice, a choice so ridiculously one-sided that he would probably thank them for their mercy in not forcing him to go with the barbarian after all.
And it had all fallen apart.
Thraxis sighed and bowed his head. He had managed to discomfit the Black Council, yes, and probably wreck any number of future plans centered on potentially powerful offspring. But in the end, the price was likely to be the hastening of his death. If that was a victory, it was a hollow one indeed. * * * *
Arrow stood in the Athraskani stables, quietly brushing Nightwing while her escort waited outside. The horse did not like the building, having never known such enclosure except in the worst of winter storms. Still, the bay gelding was trained well enough to remain anywhere its rider left it.
Arrow sighed, knowing that she couldn't take refuge in the familiar smells and sounds of her horses for the rest of the night. But the narrow halls, stone walls, and often-windowless rooms of Athraskani Sanctum weighed as heavily on her soul as a trap. It would be good to have the wind on her face again tomorrow.
Leaning her forehead against Nightwing's side, she gave silent thanks to the Lady of Beasts. The Athraskani had not turned her away as she had feared they would but had agreed to dispatch one of their most powerful to stop Balthazar. She would have felt a little better if they had decided to send more than one wizard, but perhaps no more were needed. After all, Balthazar by himself had been sufficient to the task of upsetting her entire world. * * * *
Arrow stood in the morning sun, letting the wind raise goose bumps on her arms. A mixture of terror and excitement soured her belly and set adrenaline coursing through her limbs. The wind picked up, shaking the sea of grass that stretched out on every side. High above, a falcon let the breeze carry it arrow-fast across the hard blue sky.
Leaf Dancing emerged from the yurt behind her. Like all Skald men, he kept the hair on the left side of his head trimmed short enough to stand upright. The wind snatched the shoulder-length braids hanging from the right side, clinking together the bones woven into them. He gave her an encouraging smile, which caused a forest of new wrinkles to spring up in his seamed face.
"Nervous?" he asked.
She swallowed hard and shook her head. "Of course not."
Vole Under the Snow heard her as he came out to join them. "It's natural if you are," he said soothingly. "This is your first Challenge. After you've won this one, you'll feel better about the next."
Her mouth twisted wryly. "You seem certain I'm going to win."
"Of course you are." Leaf Dancing put an arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "Have you seen that muscle-bound Champion from the Burning Grass clan? Doesn't have a chance." He sighed theatrically. "It seems a shame, though. He's terribly good-looking."
Vole, Leaf Dancing's husband of more than fifty years, rolled his eyes, as if to imply that there was no accounting for taste. Arrow managed a shaky laugh.
They walked slowly away from the yurt, heading for the meeting-place that had been set halfway between the camps of the two clans. Almost everyone else was already there, and Arrow felt another flutter of fear in her belly as she passed through the crowd. Each clan had gathered in a loose semi-circle, leaving a large open space between them. The Burning Grass chieftain and Champion already waited there. Arrow barely noticed the chief, all her attention caught by the Champion, who was indeed a towering hulk of a man.
As she stepped into the open circle, her own chief, Blood on the Wind, joined her. He was a middle-aged man with a handsome face and hair the color of gold in shadow. His expression was that of a man who has been given a lame horse to ride and knows he must make the best of it. The Red Feather clan had already suffered a recent defeat in a dispute with the Burning Grass clan, a defeat that had cost the old Champion his life. Now the rival clan was trying to claim valuable pasturage that belonged to the Red Feathers.
Arrow glanced at the other clan briefly and saw only smiles. They knew that their Champion would have no trouble defeating a woman. It occurred to her that they would not want this to be a combat to the death, because the Red Feather clan would be an easy target for as long as it was burdened with a female Champion.
The bitter part of it was that her own people were probably hoping she did get killed, so that the Lady of Beasts would appoint someone else to defend them. Preferably a strong, male warrior.
She turned and looked back at Leaf Dancing, who gave her an encouraging smile. She had lived with her granduncle and his husband since her fifth birthday. They were the only members of the clan who hadn't thought that her appointment as a future Champion was some cruel jest played by the gods.
Until now. Because tonight, it would be the Red Feathers laughing while the women of the Burning Grass clan wept.
The Burning Grass clan had issued the Challenge, so Arrow was allowed to choose the method of combat. "Don't ever fight on their terms," Leaf Dancing had told her. It had been her first lesson. "Pick your battles for your strengths, not theirs."
When she declared her choice, there were murmurs from both clans. The murmurs became cries of shock when she added the words "To the death." The Burning Grass Champion only shrugged his massive shoulders, as if to say that there was nothing he could do about her madness. Some of Arrow's people looked at her with sad respect, and she realized that they believed she had chosen to sacrifice her own life to make way for a Champion able to defend them.
The knowledge twisted in her gut. The day of her birth, the priestesses had read the signs declaring her the next Champion. From that moment, everyone except for Leaf Dancing and Vole had simply been waiting for her to die, as if she suffered from some unusually protracted illness.
But no more, she swore to herself. No more.
The two Champions were blindfolded, bound, and put into a cart. Silent men drove them far out onto the grasslands, where they were unloaded and left behind, with only a single knife lying out of reach. Arrow could hear the Burning Grass Champion swearing and muttering angrily as he tried to break the ropes with strength, and she remembered stories of past Challenges that had ended with both Champions dead from animals or dehydration, unable to escape their bonds.
Years of practice with Leaf Dancing's torturous knots had made her flexible, and she had wriggled free of the ropes around her wrists before the creaking of the cart had entirely faded from earshot. Pulling off her blindfold, she saw the bindings around the other Champion's wrists beginning to give way. Without wasting a moment, she fished the knife from the tall grass where it had been hidden.
The other Champion staggered to his feet, snatching off the blindfold. A bellow of surprise and anger escaped him when he saw her already waiting for him, knife in hand. Still, it was a tiny weapon against a man of his size, and the confident arrogance never left his eyes as he rushed her.
If she had allowed him to close with her, the battle would have ended with her death. Instead, she waited patiently, gauging his speed and distance, then whipping away when he was almost upon her. The knife flicked out as he passed, slicing his upper arm to the bone.
He came to a sharp halt, staring at the blood running down his arm as if unable to believe that it belonged to him. His blue eyes lifted slowly to hers, condescension replaced by rage. She exposed her teeth in a feral grin, daring him to come after her again.
He did, of course, not having any choice. The hit she scored on him this time was not so deep, but it was enough to make him think about caution. He stood away from her, eyes narrowed. "Cowardly bitch!" he snarled. "Face me like a true warrior!"
The words hurt, but she clung to the patience that Leaf had taught her in the face of a lifetime of such taunts, forcing her opponent to move first. Unused to waiting games, he gave her what she wanted.
They circled one another for a long time, until the Burning Grass Champion was a mass of shallow, bleeding cuts. Arrow allowed herself to smile, for she was quicker than he and had greater endurance. In time, the battle would be hers.
She forgot to take desperation into account.
With a wild battle cry, the other Champion charged her. She started to side-step, but he anticipated her move and was there before her. One powerful hand closed around her wrist, struggling to force the knife from her grasp. The other hammered towards her face.
Arrow twisted back, pulling hard against the thumb that encircled her wrist, knowing that it was the weak spot in a man's grip. His hold loosened, and she dropped her weight, wrenching herself free. Letting herself fall to the ground, she brought up both legs and punched her feet into his groin as hard as she could. He crumpled, yelling and clutching at his injured parts. The instant he touched the ground, she rolled towards him, grabbed his hair in one hand, jerked back his head, and slit his throat.
She let herself rest for a while, sitting in the grass by his corpse. Reaction made her limbs tremble, but gradually a feeling of pride replaced the aftershock. She had faced a seasoned Champion and won. Singing a song of joy, she scalped her opponent with quick efficiency, and then started back to camp.
That night the Red Feather clan held a celebration. Koumiss flowed freely, and women sang songs of thanks to the Lady of Beasts. Arrow sat in the place of honor at Blood's right hand. Looking around the fire at the glad faces, hearing the praise offered her, her heart swelled with joy. She had waited her entire life for this moment. At last, her people believed that she held some worth, that she was something more than a joke.
Didn't they? Even as she laughed and ate, a seed of doubt crept into her heart. Did they truly believe in her, or did they simply see her victory as a fluke, something that owed more to luck than to any skill on her part?
Bitterness turned the stewed mutton sour in her mouth. They probably did. But she would show them. There would be another Challenge soon, as other clans tried to take advantage of what they perceived as a weakness in the Red Feathers. And then she would show everyone her true value.