Here's a sneak peek at Chosen of Azara! This is the first scene or two from each of the book's three parts, with spoilery bits removed. Enjoy!
Juzeva: The Flight
IN THE OCEAN cove at the base of the high cliffs where the Source Azara dwelled, waves crashed and sprayed amongst the red rocks. Juzeva stood on one of the largest rocks, droplets of water sparkling in the spring sun as they fell around her. The wind whipped her black hair across her face and icy-cold water soaked the skirt of her white wool robe, but she paid these things no mind. Must this be? she silently begged, her tears mingling with the ocean spray on her face.
It must, my Daughter, though I wish it did not, Azara answered. Juzeva heard the words clearly in her mind, though the Source did not speak in any human language; Azara’s voice was in the roar and hiss of the surf.
But I am sworn to your service! Juzeva protested.
You are also sworn to serve your land and people through me. If that service requires you to leave me in order to prevent a war that would utterly destroy Savaru, then that is what you must do.
Azara was right, of course. Juzeva tried to push her tears and sorrow away, but she still caught her breath with a sob. I wish I could be certain that this will stop the war.
Not even I can be certain of what the future will bring, Azara said. Too much depends on choices yet to be made. But, as far as I am able to see, this path offers the best chance for peace.
But, Mother, I am your Chosen! I cannot live away from you!
Do not fear, Daughter. Have you brought your vial with you?
Juzeva took a crystal vial the size of her little finger from the pocket of her robe. Yes, I have it with me.
Reach deep into my water and fill it.
Juzeva stooped to lower the vial as far down into the churning water as she could reach. When she brought the vial back out of the sea, its facets sparkled with sunlight and magic. Juzeva inserted the stopper tightly, and added a seal of Source-power to keep the vial from leaking or accidentally opening.
Hear me now, Daughter, the Source said. In that vial is my power in its pure form, enough to sustain your life for many years. There is also a small amount of power which the other Sources of our land have sent to me. If the worst should happen, should Savaru be conquered and its Sources defiled or destroyed, you or a daughter of your blood can use the water in your vial to restore life and magic to our land. Guard the vial well, and share this secret only with those whom you trust absolutely. To everyone else, the vial will simply appear to be the Source-token which you, as my Chosen, will need to survive away from me.
Juzeva looked at the vial in her hand. She recalled being brought to the convent when she was eight years old and drawing Azara’s power into herself for the first time. She had always been a sickly child, but the Source-power had given her a strength and vitality she had never known before, along with a sense of love and comfort that she had never even felt from her own mother. Juzeva had known, that first day, that she had come home. She was Chosen of a Source, one of the rare people born perfectly attuned to the power of a specific Source, who could commune with that Source more closely than anyone else could, who was more receptive to its power, whose life depended on the power of that Source.
The vial held not only her life, but the life of the land of Savaru. The magic of Savaru’s many Sources was woven all through the land, in its green hills, clear waters, rich mines and fertile fields, and in the lives of its people, who were hard-working and practical yet valued magic, music, poetry, and fine craftsmanship; who considered themselves wealthy but never flaunted their wealth; who held self-reliance as an ideal but never allowed anyone, friend or stranger, to go without a meal or a warm bed. This was her land; they were her people. She had been born a princess of the royal family, and was Chosen of Savaru’s most sacred Source. Whatever her own will might be, a life lived without regard for her people, her land, would be devoid of meaning.
Juzeva took a deep breath and let it go. With it, she let go of her own desires and fears. She would do what must be done. At least she had the comfort of knowing that, through her Source-token, Azara would always be with her.
The vial’s crystal stopper had an eyelet formed into it, with a narrow silver chain threaded through the eyelet. Juzeva clasped the chain around her neck and settled the vial beneath her robes. I hadn’t thought to ever have daughters or sons.
You will, Azara said. And perhaps they will be compensation for the sacrifice you are making.
“My lady!” a husky female voice called down from the direction of the cliffs.
Juzeva wiped the salty moisture of tears and sea-spray from her face, and turned to see her servant Ysa making her way down the cliff from the convent. Ysa was tall and heavy, and moved awkwardly on the steep, rocky path. To spare her the rest of the walk, Juzeva waved to her, signaling her to stop and wait. “It’s time, my lady,” Ysa called to her. “They’re all here!”
Juzeva waved to Ysa again, then turned her attention back to Azara. I will try to be brave, Mother.
Fear nothing, my Daughter, as long as you keep that vial safe and remember who you are. Go now, and remember that I go with you.
The Source’s voice fell silent, though the song of the waves continued. Holding her long, sodden skirts out of the way, Juzeva picked her way across the wet rocks, then climbed the steep path up the cliff to where Ysa was waiting. “Hurry, my lady,” Ysa said anxiously. “Your lady mother seemed impatient.”
When they reached the top of the path, Juzeva laid a hand on Ysa’s arm to halt her for a moment. Ysa was breathing hard, even though she had only gone a short distance. Her black braid was thickly threaded with silver; she was no longer young, and Juzeva wondered if she would ever see her dear servant and friend again. In a low voice, she told Ysa everything that Azara had said. “Keep these things secret. If something happens to me, or if something goes wrong, tell the Queen or another member of my family. But do not tell anyone else. Promise me this, my Ysa.”
“I promise, my lady,” Ysa said.
For twelve years, Ysa had been not only Juzeva’s servant but also her closest friend and confidante, after Azara, and had kept her word and fulfilled her duties in all things, even the smallest. Juzeva knew she could trust Ysa in this most important duty of all.
* * *
Sevry: The Vow
SEVROS, THE LAST King of Savaru, crouched in the shadows of the wall around the Convent of Azara. The air was thick with the smells of smoke and death; the light of the dying afternoon grew dimmer as the snowfall started again. He listened to the sound of the approaching army as he tried to steady his breath and gauge the right moment to make the dash across the courtyard and into the convent itself. There were marksmen hidden around the yard and wall with arrows trained on him, as he had discovered the first time he tried to make it to the convent. And the army was getting closer. But he was determined to get to the convent. If he had to die, and it was certain that he would, he wanted to do so fighting to defend the last stronghold in Savaru.
Sevry had been fighting his whole life, it seemed. A year ago, the Madrinans had thought their conquest was at long last complete. But the last two thousand living Savarunans had gathered under the banner of King Nidelv, the oldest of Queen Ilvana’s three surviving grandsons, and launched a final, desperate attempt to drive the Madrinans out of Savaru. Now, after a bloody, brutal fighting retreat back across Savaru and up the Aza Peninsula through the coldest winter Savaru had ever known, Sevry was the only one left. Everyone else, men, women, children, old people too feeble to fight but who had fought anyway, were dead, slaughtered by the Madrinan army or killed by cold, disease, and starvation. Sevry had only survived because of his people’s insistence on defending the last living member of their royal family.
His death was inevitable; Sevry was resigned to this by now. But rather than becoming the last futile death in these fields of carnage, he wanted to make one final stand, hopefully taking a few more Madrinans with him before they destroyed Mother Azara as they had destroyed all the other Sources in Savaru. It would happen anyway, but he wanted to make sure the Madrinans paid dearly for the privilege.
A ballad came into his mind, one of his favorites, a heroic, tragic tale of lovers killed in the wars against invading Madrin clans a thousand years ago. He began to sing it under his breath, knowing that when he was dead, the language and songs of Savaru would be gone too. The tale of Avraz and Irazaja would be forgotten, and there would be no one to sing of his own death. He sang the song all the way through, making of it a lament for his people, his land, and himself. Tears slid down his face as he sang, mingling with the snowflakes that landed on his cheeks. When he was a child, music had been the breath of life to him, and he had dreamed of becoming a bard. That dream was now nothing but ashes in the rubble of war, along with all the other hopes and dreams of the Savarunan people.
When his song was ended, Sevry looked down the long, snow-covered slope below the convent and across the ruined fields and woods where the last mundane battle had taken place the day before. The Madrinans had nearly reached the convent. There wasn’t much time; he would have to risk the hidden archers. Keeping to a crouch, a handful of arrows narrowly missing him, he ran through the falling snow across the courtyard and into the great entry hall of the convent.
There had been another battle here the previous night; a battle of wizards. Sevry had watched the multicolored explosions of light and heard the vast rumbling noises of the battle from a distance. Though the Madrinan wizard-priests were far from their Sources, they had pressed their attack ruthlessly, but the Daughters of Azara, though of a more peaceful nature, had had enough immediately available power from their Source to answer death with death. The floors and stairways of the convent were littered with the bodies of gray-robed golus and white-clad Daughters, drifted with snow that had blown through the holes blasted in the walls.
Sevry walked amidst the death and destruction, looking for the best place to make his final stand, where he could do the most damage before the Madrinans killed him. At the top of the steps leading to the front door seemed a fittingly heroic place, but it was too exposed. An archer could cut him down before the army even entered the courtyard. Somewhere indoors would be better. In the main hall, the lower half of the great staircase had collapsed; perhaps if he climbed onto the upper, intact, part, and fought from there--
He stopped at the sound of a faint moan from behind a pile of rubble near the staircase. Sword in hand, he moved silently towards the place the sound had come from. He heard it again, a low, animal sound, not a call for help but an involuntary groan of pain. Keeping low, alert for signs of a trap, he stepped closer, and saw the crumpled body of a woman wearing the white robe of Azara. The back of the robe was saturated with blood both dried and fresh.
Sevry knelt next to the woman and laid her head on his lap. Between her wounds and his lack of resources, there was nothing he could do for her but try to comfort her for a moment. “You’re not alone,” he whispered, smoothing her long, gray, blood-stiffened hair.
She was large for a Savarunan woman, and something about her size teased at his memory. She opened her eyes, studied him briefly, then smiled. “King Sevros,” she said, her voice barely making its way out of her broken, dying body. “I’m Ysa. I served your Aunt Juzeva.”
Sevry’s hands briefly stilled in surprise. Then he took up the soothing touch again. “Yes, I’m Sevros,” he said.
“Is anyone else left?” Though her voice was hoarse and weak, the urgency in it was clear.
“I’m the only one, Mother Ysa. I’ll die too, but I’ll take as many of them with me as I can.”
“No! You must not die.” She coughed. Sevry raised her head and put his waterskin to her lips. “Listen to me,” Ysa went on, her words coming with greater difficulty. “Juzeva had a secret. A Source-token, a small crystal vial on a silver chain. Into it, Azara put the power to restore all the Sources of Savaru if they were ever destroyed. Azara would have told me if she had died. Find her, and bring her back, so Savaru can live again!”
The last word ended in another rattling cough. Sevry gave Ysa the last few drops from his waterskin. “But how can I find her, Mother Ysa? I’m standing alone at the end of the earth, with an entire army against me.”
“Trust Azara. She will help you bring back…her own…”
Once again her voice trailed off into a harsh fit of coughing, which was quickly drowned out by the sound of dozens of mounted soldiers riding into the courtyard. Sevry started to gather Ysa into his arms, to take her with him, but she pushed him away. “Leave me. Save yourself. Let Savaru live again.”
The first soldiers entered the great hall. Sevry scrambled up onto the pile of rubble that was the lower part of the staircase. He grabbed the broken edge of the upper part and dragged himself up, determined now not to let the soldiers corner him. Sword in hand, he ran upstairs, meaning to find a place to hide, but they came too quickly, clambering up onto the broken staircase after him. He ran through the hallways and up more stairs, trying to lose the Madrinans. It galled him to be running instead of fighting, but now he had a reason to live. He believed Ysa; no one could make up a lie like that so close to death. It almost seemed as if she had deliberately pushed away death so that she could tell her secret to someone who could make use of the knowledge.
The Madrinans drove him upwards through the convent until, on the top floor, he came to a ladder that led through a trapdoor in the ceiling. He climbed the ladder and came out onto the roof, which was bordered by a low stone parapet. The wave-wracked, rocky cove of Azara lay far below. Sevry stood on the roof, trying to catch his breath and gather his courage for what was to come. Trust Azara, Ysa had told him. It was all he could do now.
The first few Madrinan soldiers climbed up through the opening in the roof, grinning and boasting in anticipation of the honors that would come to the man who killed the last Savarunan king. Sevry ran to the parapet, stepped up on it without breaking his stride, and, with a final, defiant cry of “Savaru!”, dove from the wall.
* * *
Lucie: The Homecoming
THE SMOTHERING WARMTH of high summer lay heavy in the woods. There was no breeze, no movement of birds or other forest creatures, just the faint buzzing of insects, which only served to emphasize the day’s stillness. It was on days like this, when the life of the forest faded away into the background, that Lucie could sense the magic in the hills most strongly. Everyone said there were no living Sources in Ceryria—Ceryria’s only Source was at the peak of Mount Vadaerna, and had been extinct for centuries—but Lucie had always known that the forests and hills themselves were one vast, indefinable Source. She didn’t talk about this to anyone else, though; just wandering around the woods unchaperoned was enough to get her labeled as eccentric.
In the hot stillness, Lucie was glad of the light, loose fabric, low neck, and short sleeves of her new dress. This new style from the Independent Kingdoms was a shocking change from the layers of fabric and stays and petticoats that Ceryrian women had worn for centuries, but Lucie liked it. It was so much cooler and more comfortable that she didn’t care what her brothers and Estefan said. They had teased her unmercifully about the new dresses, even after she pointed out that it was Estefan’s mother Alise, her own future mother-in-law, for goodness’ sake, who had given them to her, so how could anything be wrong with them? The only problem Lucie could see with the style was that the low-cut neckline allowed her bosom to freckle. Lady Alise had pointed out, sensibly enough, that if Lucie didn’t spend so much time outside she wouldn’t freckle, but Lucie couldn’t stand to stay indoors all the time. Freckles or no freckles, she would rather be outdoors in the magical air of the hills.
Lucie spotted a small cluster of the herb she was looking for and stooped to examine it. The lacy white flowers had just gone to seed, which was exactly what Ilse, the village healer, wanted. Ilse always said that Lucie was better than any of her apprentices at finding herbs at just the right stage of growth. Even though young ladies of baronial families simply did not go traipsing about the woods by themselves, Lucie’s father tolerated her habit because of Ilse’s approval, and because Lucie had never found it difficult to charm him into letting her have her own way.
Her fiancé Estefan was another matter. Estefan had told her that although Baron Robart might permit such eccentric behavior in his only daughter, he, Estefan Mirenne, a Baron in his own right, expected his future wife to behave in a more conventional and decorous manner. Lucie had placated him by promising she would end her excursions into the hills as soon as they were married, and that if her father ordered it she would stop sooner. The truth, which she didn’t point out to Estefan because she didn’t want to start a quarrel, was that until they were married only her father had the right to expect her to obey him. After they were married, she would have a household to manage, a husband to please, and, eventually, children to rear, and she would be too busy to go walking through the hills and forests. Until then, as long as her father didn’t forbid her, she had no intention of giving up her favorite way of spending her days.
She was lucky, really, Lucie reminded herself, even though her days of walking through the woods would end soon. Estefan was handsome and manly, large and strong with honey-colored hair and warm hazel eyes, a fine tenor voice, and a generally cheerful disposition. He belonged to one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the Lower Districts and had already inherited his father’s barony and the most beautiful manor house in southern Ceryria, Hart’s Leap. He had grown up with her brothers, having been fostered to Pheasant’s Run after his father’s death when he was ten. Lucie had admired the big, handsome boy ever since she was little, and he had always seemed to tolerate her tag-along presence better than her brothers ever did. He had even asked her personally to marry him, after working out the arrangements with her father. She was fortunate that she wasn’t being married off to a stranger or without her consent. Being Estefan’s baroness would be everything a young lady could want. Her life would change, of course, as was only right when young ladies became married women, but she would be too busy and content with her new life to miss the old one.
Lucie broke the stems of the herbs she had found, taking care to leave the roots and lower shoots intact and to not shake the seed-heads. As she gently laid the herbs in her wide, shallow basket, the stillness and heaviness in the woods took on an additional tension, as though the air itself was waiting for something to happen. Lucie also fell still. A warmth, almost as of something living, seemed to radiate from her crystal pendant. She had felt this sense of expectancy and that strange warmth from her pendant four times before in her life, near this very spot, this place where the herbs grew more abundantly and more potent than anywhere else. She stood, turned, and looked up the path.
The man faded into sight. When she was a child he had frightened her, though she was also curious about him. But as she got older, she had become confident enough in her instincts to know that he wasn’t a threat to her.
He stood there, on the path but not on it, seemingly just beyond her arm’s reach. He wore only a loincloth, and was bone-thin except for the stringy muscles of his arms and legs. His black hair hung lank and tangled around his unshaven face. He wasn’t handsome, not in the strong, hearty Ceryrian manner, but there was something about him that made Lucie think of faraway places and long-ago times of tragedy and heroism. Pain and weariness were worn deep into his face, though he was far from being an old man. Scars crisscrossed his chest and lower legs. His ankles and wrists were also scarred, as though from being bound in ropes or manacles for a long time. Not for the first time, Lucie wondered about the meaning of all those scars. What sort of life had he lived, to be so harshly marked by it? Who was he, and why did he appear on this path from time to time?
The gaze of his dark eyes was fixed just below her face, on her crystal pendant. Her mother, Rinata, who had been given the necklace by her own step-grandfather, had given it to Lucie for her fifth birthday. Lucie’s Grandmama Lillia had been furious. Lucie had listened to the heated discussion, carried out in whispers as though her mother and grandmother thought that would keep her from overhearing them.
“You know how I feel about that nonsense being passed down,” Grandmama had said.
“It’s her birthright, Mother, and I want her to have it and to know where it came from before it’s too late for me to pass it on,” Lucie’s mother had replied just as firmly.
Lucie hadn’t understood what the quarrel was about, but she had understood when her mother told her the necklace was an ancient treasure from a faraway land that had belonged to great-grandmother Varena, and that she must treasure it and take the very best care of it. Lucie had done so, all the more since her mother’s death nine years ago; it was one of the things that linked her most closely to her mother. Now, Lucie wondered what interest the man could possibly have in her necklace or if, after all, he was only staring at her breasts.
All at once, a flare of life and hope transformed the man’s face into something unexpectedly, heartbreakingly beautiful. He took a step forward. Startled, Lucie jerked back, but in that instant he disappeared. The path was empty again. The woods were still as warm and drowsy as before, but the tension was gone from the air.
What did you see? she wanted to call out to him, but he was gone.
She would never see him again. He only appeared every three or four years, and this was her last summer of wandering freely through the hills. By next summer she would be married and living far away from this spot, and constrained by her new roles as Estefan’s wife and Lady of Hart’s Leap.
The unknown man had been a part of her life since she was five. He had always been there, in her mind, for her to think about, to wonder when she would see him next and what would happen then. But now she would never have answers to her questions, would never know what had made him look so happy. A lump swelled in her throat and tears welled up in her eyes.
She pushed back the tears and shook herself. Next spring, she would be a baroness. The spring after that, she could very well be a mother. She was too old for fancies about mysterious men in the woods. Still, in spite of her words to herself, her heart felt strangely heavy as she turned away from where she had seen the man and started down the path towards home.
* * *
Copyright 2013 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.