The following is what used to be the Prelude of Valor of the Healer, circa its fourth draft, back when it was still called Lament of the Dove. This got cut early on when I was trying very, VERY hard to pull down the word count querying it around to agents, and before it finally made it to Carina Press.
However, I do like this pair of scenes, just because they set up Faanshi’s life story–as well as some of the long-running interactions between Ulima, the Duke of Shalridan, and Ulima’s kinswoman Khamsin. The first scene is Faanshi’s birth, and the second is fourteen years later, when her healing magic first manifests.
A couple of other little tidbits are show here as well. One is that in earlier drafts I’d toyed with an Adalonian slang term “dryan” to designate people of partial elven blood, a term which was meant to derive from the Elvish word for same, drialvar. I ditched that on the grounds that in the society I’d set up, it seemed highly unlikely that an Elvish-derived word would make it into popular usage. And the other thing is that I’d originally named Faanshi’s father Jord ta’Gerres; my editor had me change that, to get rid of the apostrophe.
So here it is, the original prelude to Lament of the Dove!
Kilmerry, AC 1758
Sound echoed oddly in the chill of the storeroom, bouncing from wall to wall without penetrating the mortared stones, the earth that lay beyond on two sides, or the sacks of flour and jars of preserved fruits past the third. At the fourth, Holvirr Kilmerredes, Duke of Shalridan, stood implacable as the limestone walls. Yamineh’s wailing didn’t move him, and neither did Ulima’s stern orders for the young woman to strive harder to push her child into the world. For hours already they’d been at it, but as of yet the baby didn’t seem to want to emerge.
Ulima elif-Jaroun Sarazen could not blame it.
Nine months of confinement had taken their toll upon Yamineh, turning her dusky complexion sallow, her coal-black hair lank, her sloe eyes lifeless. The Duke had allowed her minimal fare, only enough to keep herself and her bastard child alive. She had never been a large woman, and her womb’s demands had almost consumed her substance and strength; aside from the swell of her belly, she was now little more than skin stretched over fragile bone. Yet what awaited the infant without was no better: isolation, hardship, and pain at the hands of the man who loomed like a son of the Crone of Night near the door.
Even before they’d set foot in the cold green land of Adalonia, Ulima had foreseen that a doom would fall upon her sister’s daughter and a child she’d bear. But almighty Djashtet had not sent Her servant the name or face of that doom in time for Ulima to avert it. Any Warlord of their homeland would have beheaded an unfaithful wife–and this barbarian Duke had almost done the same. All that the old priestess had to prevent it was the vision that her child would carry a power worthy of Djashtet Herself, a power that would blaze with cleansing flame across this land that exiled its magic into shadow.
Ulima had seen only flashes, glimpses of golden hands pressed to a bowed black head that jerked back amidst a tide of light. Those same hands staunched the flow of blood from the chest of someone fallen, and then lifted, their incandescence modulating into starlight streaming like water into the air. A hawk coalesced in the radiance, screeching a hunting call as it climbed aloft upon the thermal of stars and then plunged with talons extended. At what, Ulima had not foreseen. And because she did not know when, where, or over whom the power of her kinswoman’s daughter would spring forth, she’d wrestled back her own disapproval and sorrow at Yamineh’s deeds, trusted in the threefold Lady of Time, and done what was needed to make certain that Yamineh’s child would not be slain before she was born.
As the infant finally made her appearance, tapered ears all too visible on each side of her head, Ulima felt no triumph at the deceit she’d woven. It had kept her niece alive while she carried the babe, but no vision had come to show her what would happen next, and she was not assured that Yamineh would live much longer. Not when one of the priests of the infidel Church of Holvirr’s people waited behind the Duke–the Church that, Ulima had learned, preached of the evil of the pointed-eared race called elves.
Yamineh slumped upon her pallet, her face gleaming with sweat, and didn’t stir as her kinswoman cut the cord that bound her to the newborn. Though the child occupied her hands, Ulima paused, shooting the younger woman a troubled glance. She’d tried every hopeful word she could summon to keep a spark alight in the girl’s heart, yet something had shattered behind her eyes when she’d witnessed Jord ta’Gerres’ death. Ulima’s swift, risky attempt to play upon the Duke’s superstitions had averted Yamineh’s execution, but no force on earth or in the Adalonian Heaven could stop him from taking the head of the elf who had sullied the virtue of his young bride.
From the doorway Holvirr spoke at last. “Let me see it.”
With long-practiced skill Ulima schooled her features and shifted her attention to the Duke–and to the third person attending the birthing. The young woman stood behind the priest Shaymis, in apparent deference to the men. Likewise she kept her veiled countenance demurely lowered, but not so much that the priestess could not detect the vindictive light in Khamsin’s eyes. “She has not yet expelled the afterbirth, my lord,” Ulima pointed out, with only the subtlest hint of reproach. “As only my aged hands aid mother and child, surely the akreshi sees the wisdom of permitting me to complete my task. Perhaps if the akresha were to assist me?”
“The Duchess’ hands will remain untainted by her sister’s transgression,” Holvirr sneered. “You bade me to permit the brat to live, so you’ll attend to it. Finish up what you must.” He strode to where Ulima kneeled upon the cushion beside Yamineh’s pallet, where he could see the baby unimpeded. He did not take the infant, nor did he prevent Ulima from bathing it or wrapping it in clean linen. But his gaze tracked each motion of her hands, and as he noted the shape of the little one’s ears, he scowled.
“Shaymis,” he snapped towards the door, “I presume that bauble of yours is awake?”
From beneath the front of his black cassock the other man pulled forth a pendant, a silver oval stamped with a leaf design. As his fingers touched the silver the amulet cast forth a clear, pale illumination, as though a star had burst into being in his hand. “Blessed Anreulag,” Shaymis Enverly breathed, “I’ve never sensed power like this, and the babe’s only just been born! Elven blood in its veins, without a–”
Holvirr snorted, cutting the priest off with one sharp gesture of his hand. “I don’t need that damned trinket to tell me what I can see with my own eyes. Can you tell what kind of power it’ll have?”
“The holy amulets of my Order do not get that specific, my lord. I can sense the infant’s magic, or Cleanse it if that is your command, but no more.”
The Duke smirked, waving backwards in dismissal at the priest while he glared down at the old woman before him. “Tell me again,” he ordered, “why I shouldn’t put this spawn of an elf-devil and a thief to death this instant as it deserves, or let Brother Shaymis take whatever it’s been born with for the glory of the gods.”
Ulima held the infant still so long as Holvirr seemed bent on scrutinizing it. Aside from one brief, near-soundless cough that seemed to be all it needed to begin to draw breath, the girl-child had made no noise whatsoever and lay quietly in her arms. But it was awake. Eyes too large and lucent for a human baby’s face, eyes the verdant shade of summer leaves, stared up at Ulima, and their uncanny focus and shine triggered a memory of a vision of starlight. Shaken and yet resolved, the priestess looked up and did as she had done to first stay the Duke’s wrath from the unfortunate Yamineh and her lover: she lied.
“If you let this child live, akreshi, she will in turn save your own life.”
“You said that before. But you haven’t told me how.” His attention remained upon the infant, and a dangerous light welled into his eyes, a dangerous tone into his voice. “You have not yet told me how this tainted, unholy thing begotten upon my wife will save my life!”
The final few words exploded like gunfire, and as he uttered them, the Duke sprang like a great cat upon its prey and snatched the child up from Ulima’s grasp. The blanket that swaddled the newborn fell away, leaving every detail of the tiny body exposed to his view.
Fear urged Ulima to her feet, as swiftly as age and weariness would allow. “If you break that child’s neck, my lord,” she said, “you will render the question moot.”
“It has the ears of the filth that sired it,” Holvirr murmured, his voice dropping down once more.
“If the child offends the akreshi, I will remove it from his sight–”
Khamsin raised her head just enough to slant the older woman a triumphant glance at odds with the sweet velvet deference of her voice. “My honored kinswoman, blessed in her years, must naturally surpass me in her wisdom. But it seems to me that the akreshi Duke specifically objected to the ears of the creature he holds.”
On the pallet, Yamineh twitched in the grip of the contractions to deliver her infant’s afterbirth. But like her child, she made no sound. With the blank-eyed distraction of one in a dream, she reached for the knife that lay upon the cloth.
Holvirr smiled then, crookedly, without the slightest alteration to the burn of hatred in his tawny eyes. “You continue to impress me with your understanding, my dear Khamsin,” he said, and to Ulima he added, “I will indeed remove what offends me from my sight. Take care… honored kinswoman… that you’re not the next thing that offends me, lest I permit Brother Shaymis to work a Cleansing on you.”
The priest’s gaunt features took on an intrigued smile, while the Duke drew the jeweled dagger that rode in the sheath at his belt and chopped off the tapered tips of the child’s ears, making it issue a high, unearthly shriek–
Just as a cold blast of premonition overtook the priestess, just in time to make her whirl in horror and see Yamineh, rolling onto her back and thrusting the knife her fingers had found into her own heart.
Kilmerry, AC 1772
Today had been one of the good days; her okinya Ulima had let her out of her room.
There weren’t many places Faanshi could go in the akreshi Duke’s vast house. Everywhere she could set foot meant hours of labor: dishes to wash and produce to peel and slice in the kitchens, clothing to scrub and iron in the laundry rooms, ashes to scoop from the hearths in the lesser parlors, floors to polish in the smaller corridors and sitting rooms. Outside there were garden weeds to pull and firewood to convey to the hearths from which the ashes had been removed. The stable’s windows and floors had to be washed, and though such chores belonged in theory to the grooms, there was manure to shovel out of the stalls that housed the horses. She toiled until she was given leave to eat or rest, or until she had to collapse upon her pallet in the storeroom that served as her quarters, unable to work any longer.
The good days left her exhausted, but they were better than the bad ones, when she had to remain locked away. On the good days at least she could move among the akreshi Duke’s people, even if she did not belong among them. She could watch, and she could listen–though never overtly, for that would never do, not if she wished to avoid a beating at the hands of her betters. Faanshi watched instead out of the corner of her eye, or in the surfaces of floors or mirrors or windows she had to wash, while she moved wraith-silent against the currents of speech and laughter and song that filled the hall. The laughter was never for her, but the music–that she could store away for later, for humming to herself in the storeroom’s gloom. Or even, when she had no audience but the moonbeams that strayed down through the half-circle window high in one wall, singing.
Yesterday a great host had come to visit the Duke’s fine house for a ball. Faanshi hadn’t seen them; she’d worked in the kitchens all day, to help prepare the food, and once the ball had started she’d been locked away again. But in the storeroom, she’d caught strains of melody wafting through the darkness. Most of the musicians had remained in the ballroom, in another wing of the house from her meager quarters and far enough away that she’d heard them only as occasional fragments of song borne upon chancy breezes. There had however been a flute player out on the grounds, somewhere close enough that she’d drunk in the sweet high notes for a glorious half hour. Later someone armed with a violin, and singers as well, had joined the unseen flautist. Three singers, two women and a man, had woven their voices together as easily as her okinya wove cloth, and Faanshi had barely dared to breathe for fear that someone might hear her and take the music away. No one had. She’d gone to a sleep filled with dreams of figures with blurred faces, clad in garments the colors of summer and sunshine, singing to one another in voices bright and clear.
Today the music lingered in her thoughts despite the additional work commanded of her. She’d been rousted out of bed before dawn and sent to the stables, for so many visitors to Lomhannor Hall meant many additional horses to tend, and as many stalls to muck. That task was one the young grooms that worked the stables were all too pleased to give her.
“Here now, they’ve sent us the dryan chit, have they?”
“Give her the shovel. High-and-mighty elf blood don’t make you too good for shovelin’ horseshit, does it, girl?”
“Seems to me she looks right at home in the middle of a pile of muck. Like calls to like, they say!”
She was almost grateful for the veil that hid her flush of shame and the submission that kept her eyes averted; silence was wisest when the grooms taunted her, no matter how their words stung. Without complaint she bore them, until the promise of extra wages for extra work far outweighed the marginal sport of haranguing a meek half-breed slave girl. Soon the grooms cried off paying her any more attention than necessary to direct her labor. Soon after that, as the business of tending to so many creatures occupied first one youth and then another and another, Faanshi was left more or less to her own devices–and free to take a secret pleasure in the haven of her isolation.
It wouldn’t last, she knew. But while it did, she could remember the music from the night before. She’d been too far away to catch the words the singers had sung out among the Hall’s sculpted greenery, but the memory of their blended voices remained. The call and response of the flute and violin, audible nowhere but her own recollection, haunted her ears. If she held those threads of song just so in her mind, playing them over and over again, they coaxed her hands into following their rhythm. Her shovel grew slightly lighter to wield, the wheelbarrow slightly easier to maneuver from stall to stall, even with a load of muck. Even the fetid clumps of straw that clung to her ankles and sandal soles were a little more tolerable.
Faanshi made a game of it and let the imagined melody swell each time she took clean, sweet hay to spread in a new stall. Down again for each stall that demanded attention, down to sad wistful notes like the birdcalls she sometimes heard at twilight. Round and round, over and over, another cycle in the interlocking patterns by which she reckoned her existence: day and night, the longer and slower dance of the seasons, the volatile but predictable peaks and valleys of the akresha Duchess Khamsin’s moods. She made up words to replace the ones she lacked, though she kept them in Tantiu rather than Adalonic, and she kept them to herself. Meek she was, but she wasn’t foolish enough to let herself be overheard singing of the stable boys smeared with the offal from their own charges.
So much did the game absorb her that she registered neither the tromping of an approaching stallion nor the curses of his handler–not until something else entirely alerted her that something was dreadfully wrong.
It began with pain along the tops of her ears, thin and sharp, slicing through the scars she’d borne there since her birth. From there it spread, a hundred hot needles poking at her skull from the inside out; with each frenetic pulse of her heart, more pain shot through her chest. When it reached her palms, they blazed with such agony that she almost wondered if she’d impaled them on a pitchfork’s prongs. The sight of the weak golden light that haloed them made the shovel clatter from her hold.
Holy Mother Blessed Daughter what’s happening why do my hands hurt why are they shining great Djashtet Dawnmaiden I can’t breathe help me! Mewling noises gurgled up from her throat, and in her panic she could not bite them back. Nor could she quite focus on the noises just beyond the stall–but even through disjointed prayers flooding her thoughts and the rising heat in her head and limbs, the neighing and pawing of the horse and the breathless bark of the old man eventually reached her.
“I don’t care if you’re the favorite bloody horse of the bloody Bhandreid and if she likes to ride you in the bloody nude! You’re going in the… bloody… stall…”
The akreshi Kennach, Faanshi realized. The head groom. Her panic spiked higher, for when she was beaten for laggardly work in the stables, Kennach struck the blows. Terrified that he might see her glowing hands or the shovel she’d dropped into the manure, she stumbled. But when she saw him, struggling to guide the fractious stallion, the fire writhing through her roared in time with the thunder of her heart–
And his. All at once she knew that his heart boomed at the same frantic rate. That the unhealthy flush of his weathered face and the cold, clammy sweat across his brow came from the pain searing through his chest. That his sudden release of the horse’s bridle, so that his wrinkled right hand could clutch at his other elbow, was because his left arm had just gone numb.
Her body screamed with the old groom’s distress, and all else vanished from her consciousness: the dropped shovel, the skittering, rearing stallion, even the desperate thought that she should shout for help. Nothing remained but the inferno in her palms and the inchoate need to get her hands to the man’s chest so that she could take away the pain in his heart.
“Ach, Holy Father, not now, not now…” Kennach’s reddened features contorted and he staggered towards the stall, only to catch sight of Faanshi. His dark eyes went wide as one last wheeze escaped him. “Good gods, what…”
Then he pitched forward. Faanshi caught him before he hit the hard-packed earthen floor, and when her hands connected with his body, the brilliance around them swept out to inundate them both. Her sight awash in the light, her hearing lost to the storm that raged through her blood and out through her fingertips, she felt her world condense to the faltering muscle in the old man’s chest and the wild sensations surging up to crowd out what was left of her awareness.
He couldn’t breathe, his chest was on fire, he couldn’t move his arm–he’d let go of the damned horse, His Grace was going to be furious if his favorite new stallion got out–he was seeing things, the dryan chit was glowing, she had magic, somebody had to tell the Hawks–he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe!
The fire poured into Kennach’s heart, taking over the rhythm of its beating, meshing and merging it with her own. It burned through the constriction that kept precious blood from flowing where it should. It shot down his arm, seeking the pathways that conveyed life and feeling and for which Faanshi had no name, and filled them with resplendent warmth. The old groom gasped, three times, until the luminescence retreated with force enough that the girl nearly crumpled over him–
But a strong hand seized her by the top of the brown woolen sari that swathed her head, pulling her backwards until she made out, through the spangles of light flashing through her vision, a face staring down at her with thoughtful eyes.
“How very interesting,” Duke Holvirr rumbled, golden brows arched. He loomed over Faanshi, his other hand tight upon the bridle of the stallion. The beast snorted and stamped behind him, steadier now in the presence of his master, yet still visibly distraught. “I owe Shaymis an apology and a considerable bonus. It appears, my girl, that where you’re concerned he did in fact know what he was talking about.”
A second wave of panic rolled through Faanshi. She wasn’t supposed to meet His Grace’s eyes; she was supposed to kneel in his presence. But she could do neither, not when aftershocks of the fire’s eruption through her still tilted her reality in all directions. Hard-learned experience demanded she report the sickness that had struck old Kennach, or offer to send word down to Camden for a physician, or beg forgiveness for the impudence of her position and the interruption of her work. What came out of her was a confused mélange of all of them.
“I’m sorry, akreshi! I didn’t mean to stop working, I didn’t mean to touch him, but something happened to his heart–”
The Duke smiled at her babbling. The smile heightened her confusion, for it made him look handsome and kind, yet it didn’t match the darkly gentle murmur that rasped against her ear as he hoisted her up off the straw. “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t mean it. But alas, that tainted blood of yours has gotten the best of you. Shame about poor old Kennach, coming across you having a fit while he was trying to put Maelstrom away.”
With careless strength he tossed her aside, freeing both his hands to grab onto the stallion’s bridle. Faanshi couldn’t catch the command he gave the horse, for her head struck the stable floor and sent a new bolt of pain lancing behind her eyes. Through tears of nausea and dismay, she could only watch while the Duke hauled Maelstrom into the stall where the groom lay sprawled. She didn’t need to hear the sickening crunch of hooves upon bone and flesh to know when the big black stallion trampled the man whose heart she’d just restarted. She felt it in a blinding explosion in her own body, so massive a fireball of agony that she could not keep from screaming.
From somewhere far outside the pain she heard shouts, the stallion’s frenzied neighing, and the pounding of hastily approaching feet. Rather closer, the Duke leaned over her and flashed another small, incomprehensibly satisfied smile. “Who’d have guessed a stick of a child like you could strike terror into the hearts of man and beast?” he said. “Too bad Kennach was too feeble with age to jump out of Maelstrom’s way, eh?”
That wasn’t the way it happened!
Faanshi wanted to protest, but the words wouldn’t come. They dissolved into ash, lost in the white flame consuming her from within. Yet it was almost as if His Grace had heard her. The last thing she saw before the flame obliterated her consciousness was his smile; the last thing she heard, his soft whisper of laughter.