Content edits on "Conspiracy of the Dark" are officially over and it's on to copy edits, en route to publication in September. So in honor of the end of editing, here's a sneak peek of the book. But shhhhh don't tell the publisher! ;)
"The Northmen have breached the wall! Oh gods, they’re coming. They’re coming."
--Last words of Jeldrek Broadsword, Captain of the King’s Guard
"Everything in this world has a price. At some time, in some way, the debt must be paid: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. There is nothing free in this world."
--Raelan Bloodmoon, War Mage
Stories, when told by a skillful storyteller, are perfect circles: they begin, they end, the lights go out, the curtains close, the puppets slump lifelessly. But the lives of real people aren’t neat parables in which the lesson is learned, the villain slain, the hero triumphant. They have no defined shape. They are messy. In real life, no one knows how the story will end. Only the gods know, and they’re not telling.
Everyone has a story; the circle of their life that begins with their birth and ends with their death. My story begins in a small, remote village called Thamir, located on the furthest northwestern border of the kingdom of Ilirya. It is hard to live somewhere and not take on the characteristics of that place. Thamir was frozen, isolated, and fierce. It had to fight every day against the cold threatening to swallow it whole. Like a weed growing tenaciously on the side of a cliff, it defied nature’s attempts to smother it and if it didn’t thrive, at least it didn’t die. But then, that’s how life is: it refuses to give up even when the odds seem hopelessly against it.
Thamir was one of hundreds of small villages that lined the kingdom’s northern border, each a small island unto itself with little contact with the rest of the outside world. This string of villages was called the Ice Crown. Life in the Ice Crown was brutal. Even on the warmest summer night, the temperature could drop low enough to freeze water. In winter, death stalked the living relentlessly, killing remorselessly through cold or starvation. Because of how we lived and the people into which our environment made us, my father, Jax, used to say, “There are two types of people in this world: those from the Ice Crown, and everyone else.”
To my father, a city was an anthill: people swarming over and around each other, fighting for food and space. Therefore, the gift he gave his children was life: the knowledge of how to survive in the Ice Crown and to thereby live on their own terms. He taught me how to set traps, fashion a bow, skin a hare in a matter of seconds, track a deer through the forest, and read the sky for weather. He passed this knowledge as part of an unbroken line from my first ancestors who had arrived, cold and hungry, to the Ice Crown, to me. It was my birthright.
Thamir had no significance to the rest of the kingdom but for its location: it was the first in a string of lookout posts that would alert the rest of Ilirya if our northern neighbors, the Northmen, invaded. The one war we’d fought with Northmen, a hundred years before, had left bitter memories. Although it had been mercifully short, many Ice Crown villages had been snuffed out like candles before the King’s Army had arrived to stop the invaders. No Northman had been seen since the day they had been pushed back across the border, but the danger of another surprise invasion always loomed, and Thamir was the key to Ilirya’s defense.
Twice a year, the military garrison near Thamir rotated, and the soldiers passing through Thamir brought us news of the outside world. They were like the first handful of water after you’ve thirsted for hours. When you live so far from all other villages, any contact you have with other humans is a precious gift. The soldiers were one of the few links that kept us tethered to the rest of the kingdom and reminded us that we did not live alone in the world, surrounded by only snow and trees as neighbors.
The stories the soldiers brought were how I learned about the rest of Ilirya. I learned about farming from soldiers whose families farmed wheat and corn. I learned about deserts and oceans and mountains from soldiers who had seen them with their own eyes. I learned about hundreds of animals I’d never seen and never would. For me, a child full of fantasy and imagination, there could have been no greater gift than tales of this other, dream-like world. I inhabited the soldiers’ stories, expanded upon them, made new worlds with them and then destroyed them. Sometimes I was a lady in waiting to the Queen, sometimes a knight’s page looking across the battlefield at the enemy. I hunted with golden eagles in the southern mountains, and fished for shimmering blue fish longer than I was tall in the great ocean at the kingdom’s farthest eastern edge.
But even children know that dreams are not real. Although I loved the soldiers’ stories, their fanciful worlds were not for me. After all, my future was inevitably rooted in Thamir’s soil: I would become a trapper like the women in my family before me. I would live with my parents until the day I married and moved into a house of my own. This was how it had always been for the women of my village, and how it would surely be for me as well. It was so simple it required no thought, no emotion. Why dream about a future that cannot be? My brothers Kem and Kyan and I were born children of the Ice Crown, and we would die children of the Ice Crown. Or at least, I thought so.