BVC Announces Azkhantian Tales by Deborah J. Ross

Azkhantian Tales by Deborah J. RossFrom the world of The Seven-Petaled Shield.

Across the Azkhantian steppe, warrior women ride to battle against foes both human and supernatural. From the world of The Seven-Petaled Shield come four fantasy tales, originally published in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword & Sorceress.

Prophecy links a mother and daughter in an unbreakable bond.

A young woman defies tradition to become a shaman.

When twins are magically divided, the survivor searches for the other half of her soul.

A warrior woman discovers that to wield a magical blade dishonorably carries a heavy price.

This collection includes a previously-unpublished Introduction and a sneak peek at The Seven-Petaled Shield.

The Spirit Arrow

The rising sun, sullen and gray, cast eerie shadows across the Azkhantian badlands. To the north, jagged hills slashed through the haze. An old woman sat on a solitary crag of black granite, gazing down at the valley where the Gelonian Imperials had set up their encampment. She wore a cloak of black wool over her tight-fitting jacket and horseman’s trousers, so that from a distance, she seemed to be part of the rock itself. Her skin was creased and her almond-shaped eyes faded from looking at the sun. Across her lap lay a short, curved bow, the wood worn into a soft gloss.

She remembered sitting like this with her mother, many years ago, learning to shoot an arrow straight up in the air and catch it in her bare hands as it came down. She remembered teaching her own daughters to do the same. It was not a test of courage, but an act of surrender, of perfect balance and stillness.

At moments, the old woman imagined she caught the noises of the soldiers below. She had heard them in her dreams for so many nights now — the strangely accented speech, the shouted commands, the clanging of bronze swords and buckles. And the smells — the fetor of unwashed men’s bodies crowded together, of leather harness and boiled wheat-meal.

She ran her fingertips over the bow, stroking it as if it were an old friend. It resonated to her touch, as if eager for her to use it again. Beside the bow rested her arrow-case. The leather sides were flat, as if empty. It was not empty. She drew out a single arrow, an arrow without a flaw, straight and smooth, each vane of its feathering perfect.

She had carried it since the day her youngest daughter had gone to war.

o0o

Outside the circle of Azkhantian tents, watchfires of dried camel dung hissed and flickered. The wind, laden with the smells of horse dung, wild herbs, and charred camel meat, burned cold. A dog barked at a passing shadow. Hardy, roach-maned ponies stamped their feet along the tether lines and nickered, as if scenting what lay ahead.

Earlier that day, bonfires of precious ironwood had been lighted, a young camel sacrificed and its entrails examined by the enaree, who pronounced the omens auspicious. Then the animal was roasted whole in a pit dug in the earth and everyone who was to ride against the Gelonian invaders ate the meat to share in the good fortune. The strong young men and women drank k’th, fermented mares’ milk, and danced to the music of drums and reed pipes.

Aimellina Daughter of Oomara, Daughter of Shannivar, watched the dancing, her hands curled into fists. The rhythm of the drums pounded through her body like a fever. Her right breast, bound tightly to her chest to keep it from her bowstring, throbbed. Dancers leaped and spun in front of her, their ebony braids flying, their shadows flickering across her face. They were her friends, her age mates, even the bully she had challenged so many years ago. Now they were all to ride to glory.

All except her.

“The enaree made a prophecy the night you were born,” Aimellina’s mother, Oomara, had said when she forbade her to ride with the others. “The midwives had feared we both might die because a star fell from the sky. The enaree said you would live, but die young and far from your own tent.”

Aimellina went to find the enaree in his tent. She brought a length of fine camel-wool cloth of her own weaving in token of her respect for his powers. Her heart beat unaccountably fast as she waited for his permission to enter.

Ruddy light filled the tent. A brazier of beautifully wrought bronze held a bed of glowing coals upon which cones of sandalwood incense smoldered. Carpets woven in dark, intricate designs symbolizing the Tree-of-Life covered the floor.

“I knew that someday you would come to me, Aimellina Daughter of Oomara Daughter of Shannivar.” The enaree gestured her to sit. “You are grown into a fine strong archer, just as I foresaw.”

“Ar-Dethen-Gelon marches on Azkhantia with his army, and my mother has forbidden me to ride in our defense!” Aimellina burst out. “All because she fears your prophecy.”

“And you fear that your friends will get all the glory while you sit at home milking your camels and making curd-cheese, with no chance to kill a man and earn a husband.”

Aimellina flushed. “I care nothing for a husband!”

“Then why have you come to me? Not to invite me to dance?” The enaree cackled, his voice as hoarse as the cawing of a carrion crow.

Aimellina’s shoulders tensed, but she kept her hands open on her lap. “Surely in all your knowledge, with all your powers, you can give me something that will set my mother’s heart to ease.”

For a long moment, the enaree sat silent. The orange light shadowed every seam and line of the old man’s face, turning his eyes into those of a strange animal, one of demonic aspect. Aimellina tried to imagine what he was thinking, whether he saw how much Oomara loved her, whether he cared, what secret purpose her own life or death might serve. Finally he said, “And that is all you wish? Your mother’s blessing, not the protection of your own life?”

Aimellina’s heart shivered. Then, like all brash young things, she shook it off with a proud toss of her head. “I want to ride, to fight, to serve my people. To win glory. The rest is in the hand of the gods.”

o0o

Later that night, Aimellina came to her mother’s tent. The bonfires had died down. Only a few of the young warriors still danced. The rest had gone off to sleep away the k’th and dream of battles to come.

Oomara noted how her daughter held her head, the lightness of her step and the laughter just below the surface of her voice. She’d heard it before, when the girl had made up her mind to take on the tribal bully, even if he was half again as big as she. Or when her father, Oomara’s third husband, told her that if she could ride the big dun gelding, she could have it.

“I have come once more to ask your blessing,” Aimellina said. “You need have no fear, for the enaree has given me a charm that will guard my life through any peril.” She held out an arrow, perfect in balance and the smoothness of its shaft. Oomara picked it up in both hands and tried its strength. To her surprise, the shaft did not bend in her grasp.

“It cannot be broken or burnt,” Aimellina said. “It must take a life to — to end mine. So you must keep it for me, for as long as it is safe in your care, so am I. The enaree has sworn it so.”

“Why would the enaree do this for you? What price did you pay?”

Aimellina laughed. “For love of you and pity of me, I suppose. Or perhaps he fears what will become of him if the Gelon triumph. They are not overly fond of his sort, or so it is said.”

Oomara closed her eyes, but she could not shut out the vision of her daughter’s face, so filled with the brassy certainty of youth. She had no choice but to give her consent now. If she refused, the enaree would hear and take it as a personal insult.

Yet Oomara mistrusted the enaree, for she knew his ways were devious and his motives were his own. His loyalty was to his hidden gods and the welfare of the entire tribe, not one headstrong woman archer.

She remembered the last part of his prophecy, the part she had never breathed aloud, that Aimellina would die at the hands of one who loved her.

o0o

The Azkhantian clans sent their families and camel herds north, to the summer pastures. Hares, wild boar, and swift-footed gazelle roamed freely over the empty plains. Cloud leopards, emboldened at the retreat of the tribes, came down from the high reaches to hunt. Black-winged hawks soared overhead to dive upon the unwary. The land was broad and wide under the endless sky.

Aimellina rode out with the Azkhantian host, mounted on the same dun pony she had won from her father. She wore a pointed felt cap and jacket of camel-wool, stitched with the stylized lioness of her family totem. The Azkhantian riders sang as they rode, and Aimellina’s voice rose higher and wilder than the rest.

They rested their ponies on a ridge overlooking the flat river valley. Aimellina, near the front, rocked forward on her saddle pad and shaded her eyes with one hand. In the distance, the Gelonian army inched forward, barely moving except for the clouds of dust thrown up at its passage.

“By all the gods of fire and thunder,” one of the men beside her murmured, “there must be thousands of them.”

“Five thousands at least,” someone else said.

“No, ten!”

“Aiee! They are locusts, filling the land beyond counting.”

Aimellina’s heart leapt like a startled gazelle in her chest. The Azkhantian defenders numbered no more than two thousands. Then she calmed, remembering her life was safe in her mother’s strong hands.

She tossed her head, sending her braids swirling. “What have we to fear from locusts? Ten or ten thousands or a hundred thousands? We are the fire in the sky, the hawk that hunts where it wills!” She raised her bow and the dun pony pranced underneath her. “Who rides with me to glory?”

The men beside her lifted their bows and shouted. The one who had likened the Gelon host to locusts hesitated for a moment, then joined them.

They waited all day and then the next as the Gelonian Imperials crept closer and closer. Aimellina wanted to charge them, but Itheryas Warleader, son of the Azkhantian chief, held the young hotheads back.

“There will be glory enough in its own time. If we cannot be a raging lion, we will be a dancing wolf.”

For days, Aimellina thought she would go mad with waiting. She went to camp and offered herself to Itheryas as a scout. By night, she took her dun pony and rode for the Gelonian encampment.

She got closer than she expected before she spotted their sentries. She slipped from her mount and hushed it with a hand over its nose. The Gelon had no horses, only supply carts pulled by onagers. The camp looked well-ordered, with latrine pits dug well away from the living areas. The smell of boiled grain arose from the cookfires. She studied the sentries, their weapons and armor, overlapping plates of metal on leather. As silently as she came, she slipped away.

Itheryas called his swiftest riders, Aimellina among them. “Before we fight the Gelonian invaders, we must know their strengths. You will lead a troop to just beyond the reach of a long arrow’s shot of the foremost. Go no closer. As soon as they answer, head east as fast as your ponies can run.”

“We are not to stay and battle them?” Aimellina protested. She had not yet killed anything more fearsome than a brace of plains-hares.

“There will be glory enough to go around,” he repeated. “For now, let us see how easily we can outrun them.”

Aimellina led her troop as the warleader commanded. The Gelonian Imperials lunged after them, spears and shields upraised. They shouted slogans she could not understand. But laden with armor as they were, their first burst of speed quickly faded. The Azkhantians paused just beyond the reach of the Gelonian arrows. Their ponies jigged and pranced with excitement, their necks arched. Again the Gelon charged and again the plains riders retreated.

“Stand and fight! Cowards!” shouted the Gelon.

Aimellina laughed as she rode away. She presented herself to the warleader with shining eyes and glowing cheeks.

“Pah! They are nothing to fear! They are slow and stupid!”

Itheryas, sitting on his chair of stretched camel-hide, stroked the coils of his beard. “Yet even a slow and stupid beast can turn deadly if it gets you within its claws. We must not underestimate the power of this one. Let us lead him ever onward, farther and farther from his own land. Let us see if the Gelon can eat grass and conjure water from the stones.”

That night, the Azkhantians danced and mocked the stupid, cowardly Gelon. K’th flowed freely. Aimellina danced as wildly as any man, and that night she lay with Itheryas Warleader in his tent.

o0o

Far in the northern hills, along with the families and camel herds, Oomara awoke with a start. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart pounded, and there was a sweet melting ache in her loins. She had not taken joy in a man’s arms since her last husband died of a poisoned wound while hunting wild boar. Yet this was no memory of a tender lover that had come to her in the night. This was something more, tainted with magic . . .

Moving by touch in the velvet darkness of her tent, she found her arrow-case and drew out a single, perfect shaft. The wood, once polished so smooth, was damp, as if with sweat.

__________

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“The Spirit Arrow”
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Azkhantian Tales

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