The climax to the Rise of the Alliance saga begins with Detlev’s boys taking two prisoners as they retreat to their lair on Five, the sister world that has been lifeless for nearly five thousand years. Reviled by both sides, the one thing they can trust is their strength, their training, and each other. Or so it seems.
Meanwhile, unknown to both Norsunder and the Sartoran mages, there are secrets living within that world that will change everything.
The high-stakes hunt continues on two worlds as the surviving allies step into adult roles one by one, just to find themselves with greater challenges as the world hurtles inexorably toward war . . .
Sherwood Smith has published over forty books, one of which was an Anne Lindbergh Honor Book; she’s twice been a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and once a Nebula finalist. She fell in love with Chinese historical dramas and hero tales six years ago, and ever since has immersed in Asian history, literature, and language.
Read a Sample
Before concluding this part of the alliance’s history (or as a particular Chief Archivist would grandly put it, the rise), permit me to reintroduce the four human-inhabited worlds circling the sun Erhal:
The mysterious, cloud-obscured world of Songre Silde.
Sartorias-deles, which most of the Young Allies call home.
Aldau-Rayad, called by Norsunder “Five,” arid and lifeless, where Detlev of Norsunder established a stronghold.
Opposite Sartorias-deles, so that the two worlds are invisible to one another, the sister world Geth-deles, known to its inhabitants simply as Geth.
Geth’s complicated undersea life is far older than the human civilizations on the island archipelagos, largely uninterested in humans and their airborne gibble-gabble—except as food to certain deep-water species. The human settlers on Geth eventually met other world-gate travelers and refugees—including those fleeing the cataclysm Sartorias-Deles calls The Fall, and so their culture evolved in the usual fits and starts.
There has in recent years been sporadic communication between the four worlds. Not nearly what once had been, of course. At the time I’m writing about here, Norsunder was most frequent in shifting between Five, their single base on Geth-deles, and Sartorias-deles.
They had failed in getting a toehold on Songre Silde . . . so far.
This last chapter in the Rise of the Alliance will begin with a brief jaunt ten years back, which on Sartorias-deles was a couple years after Sartor had emerged from its enchantment beyond time and was struggling to catch up with the rest of the world.
Unknown to any of them, the forgotten world Five hosted not only the Norsundrian stronghold, but hidden deep in one of its mountain ranges, survivors of that long-ago Fall.
We’ll begin with those survivors as the last sands slipped from the massive time-measure canister, marking the end of one round and the beginning of a new, “rounds” being the designation for what had once been days, a concept blurred by centuries of cave living. The Elder in charge of swinging the canister upright again and ringing the wake-time bell stood patiently by as five children pattered past him, up the smooth rocky path to the highest cave belonging to the mage Dom Hildi.
Leotay was the first of the ten-year-olds to reach the ledge outside of Dom Hildi’s cave. Several other children joined her there, including Leotay’s friend Satya. Familiar with one another, they knew that there were no other ten-year-olds due, but still Dom Hildi did not open her tapestry.
“Did you call?” asked the last arrival.
“Yes,” Leotay said, for the fifth time.
“We were supposed to be here at Blue,” Satya pointed out.
Everybody had come early, before the start of the new round.
Moonbeam, the tallest of the boys, hopped to the edge of the ledge and peered down into the big cavern. “Elder Amau is waiting for the last of the sands to drop,” he reported.
His words were unnecessary—no one had heard the Change bell ring —but still the others thanked him with somewhat nervous politeness. When Dom Hildi said that they were to be there at the Blue, that meant precisely when the cannister had been swung around and sand began flowing into the lowest level, marked with a blue stripe. No one wanted to find out what happened to latecomers, so they’d all sidled up during the end of the last sleep-stripe.
They knew that they were to hear The Story this round, but anything more than that (though they’d never tired of speculating) was unknown. Adults, and older cousins and siblings had been disgustingly smirky and teasing, but most repeated tiresome variations on, “We waited until we turned ten, and so will you.”
Leotay got up and stared down into the vast bowl of the main cavern, at the familiar glow-globes along the ledge walkways outside the smaller, tapestry-covered caves in which families dwelt. She knew that The Story was supposed to be about the Past, but how was the Past different from the present? She couldn’t imagine anything different than the family caves along the ledges, the big terrace opposite Dom Hildi’s cave with the massive striped double-canister that measured out their awake-times and sleep-times in the continual flow of soft sands, or the people she’d always known.
She turned around, her toes rubbing on the stone smoothed by hundreds of years of ancestors. Hundreds and hundreds. She gazed at Dom Hildi’s beautiful blue-and-gold embroidered tapestry. As befitted the most respected person in the cavern, she had the best tapestry. Somehow the patterns in the weave seemed to indicate mystery: why were the shapes made this way or that way?
They would find out soon. The thought made her wriggle with impatience.
“Blue!” a boy sang out a heartbeat before Elder Amau hauled the rope that turned the canister, then struck the brass bell down in the cavern to announce the last of sleep-time.
“Ah!” a sigh went through the youngsters on the little ledge.
Don Hildi’s tapestry moved aside.
A wrinkled old face peered out, the eyes sharp but the skin around them crinkled in good humor. “Come in, children.”
They walked single file past the familiar figure with her white hair tied back into a thin braid. Her outer chamber was plain, much like anyone else’s: a few mats, a low table made of silk-tree wood, a patterned weaving on the cave wall. Leotay hoped they wouldn’t have to stay there, though this was usually the room where people kept company. Somehow, she expected something different of Dom Hildi.
They weren’t disappointed. The old lady pushed aside another even more fantastically embroidered tapestry, one tattered with age, and they filed inside the inner cave. Their gazes passed indifferently over the two low tables with books on them, to the walls where hung several ancient-looking embroidered cloths, these ones not with patterns, but with pictures. The only things recognizable about the pictures were people, though the clothes they wore were as fantastic as the backgrounds. Who were those brown people in their odd clothes? Why did they cover their feet and heads?
Finally, in a jagged corner between two striated slabs, hung . . . the Black Tapestry. Like The Story, it had been whispered about most by those who had not yet seen it.
“Sit down, children,” Dom Hildi said, smiling. She pointed to where six guest mats had been set in a half-circle on the floor, and she settled onto her thick one, so much easier on old bones.
“So how much have you heard about The Story?” Dom Hildi said, her brows raised.
The youngsters looked at one another. No one was willing to admit how they’d done their best to get hints.
Dom Hildi’s old eyes crinkled with humor. “Thought so. I’ll tell you what I’ve told your older kin—and what we were told when we were small. That is, you don’t talk about The Story, because you’ll probably get it wrong. Truth is, we may have it wrong. This is all we know about the outer world before our people came inside our caves to live. We don’t want to get things even more mixed up.”
She paused and studied each face in turn. Leotay met the fierce old eyes squarely, her interest overcoming her awe. She liked the way Dom Hildi’s eyelids folded into a cheery wink, as if she were on the verge of a laugh.
“Here’s a summary of what we know. The First Age is what we call the time before our ancestors came down into the cavern. The ancestors were part of a great group of people, so numerous that all were not family, cousin-kin, or distant-kin. In fact, everyone couldn’t possibly know one another.”
Satya sucked in her breath, but she pressed her lips tight against making any noise. Dom Hildi’s eyelids crinkled even more.
“They lived up on the surface, all over the world. The surface wasn’t barren rock as it is now, it was covered by things called grass and trees and greens and horses and houses, which grew right out of the ground.”
She paused as a whisper rustled among them.
“They lived in happiness, until some enemies, called Norss-Dar—” (her voice paused between the two words) “—decided they wanted everything the people had. They did their best to destroy our world, and when our people tried to use their magic to be rid of them, they used stronger magic to be rid of us.
“Everyone disappeared, as far as we know, except for a small village high in the mountains. Magic also nearly disappeared. When our records begin, we had only a hundred twenty-eight families, and one mage, named Hildi. These are our ancestors, the people of Al-Athann Valley. When the troubles came, they withdrew into our mountain to hide, destroying their village behind them so that the enemies would think others of their kind had already been there and would not search farther.”
Satya sighed. This story wasn’t fun at all.
“Half a year passed before they dared to go outside again. They found thorough destruction. So the first Hildi sealed the cave behind the villagers, and they settled down to life inside the mountains, moving from time to time deeper underground, until they eventually came to where we live now.”
Leotay bit back an exclamation of dismay. Was that the end?
Dom Hildi smiled. “It was the job of each Hildi to tell The Story to each new generation so that they would not forget who they were, for they all expected that the time would come when they would go forth from the mountain again and reclaim their world.”
“How would they know when?” one of the boys asked.
“When certain signs appeared,” Dom Hildi said. “Signs we are receiving in this generation.”
All five youngsters cooed in amazement.
“It won’t be easy, I expect,” Dom Hildi went on when she had quiet again. “You will each have a job. And one of you will be learning mine.” She paused to look hard at each face in turn. Leotay held her breath when the old eyes met hers, willing the mage to see how much she wanted to be chosen. “Mage is a fine position, but with the responsibility comes constant learning. I haven’t finished yet. My apprentice must face a lifetime of study. You will know who you are, as I did when the Hildi before me, a very old man at the time, chose me.”
She clapped her hands briskly. “Enough of that. Let me now explain some of the things that our ancestors thought important. These books on the table have pictures, which we have recopied as the old books fell apart. As you can see, ‘books’ are bound around squares of silk-paper. In this first, we have ‘weather’—water falling right out of a blue-sky. And this one is a house. . . ”
Leotay stared at the pictures, colored with their silk dyes. She knew she ought to pay attention. But it was hard to do it with the thought of learning magic burning at her like the brightest of glow-globes. Who would Dom Hildi pick? All five thought it should be themselves, and why shouldn’t they? She knew she hadn’t any more right than the others. It was just that she wanted so badly to learn magic.
“And the last thing is Lady Dulcamara, the picture that talks. She was left behind by someone who had visited the Al-Athann Valley. She is very silly, but still even she serves a purpose: it is she who has kept our language from changing.”
“What is a ‘Lady’?” Satya asked.
“We think it is a term of respect, like Dom.”
“How does that work?” Leotay spoke up. “A picture that talks? Is it a person trapped inside the picture?”
“Oh no,” Dom Hildi exclaimed. “It is only a magical spell of great power, a portion of someone’s personality, you could say, set within a frame for someone to talk to.” She smiled. “She might have been made as a reminder to someone dear. But as one might expect from a portion of a once-living person, there is little of interest in what the picture has to say. She’s more a curiosity. Now, before I let you go, any questions?”
One of the boys said, “What kind of glow-globe is the sun?’
“It is a great one, greater even than the world, but at a distance above, which makes it seem smaller.” She pointed upward, and the children nodded. They knew how things looked smaller at the heights of the great caves. “It is hotter than our ovens, its light painful to eyes. It cooks the outer world.”
Another said, “So does the sun-globe make blue-sky and the rest?”
“Blue-sky is not a globe, it is a ceiling made of air,” Dom Hildi said.
“Then who painted it, and what holds it up?” Satya asked.
“It must have been the job of those who existed outside the world,” Dom Hildi said. “Or anyway they knew the answer, because we don’t.”
The youngsters laughed.
Then one boy sidled a look at the others and said, “When does the chosen one get to start?”
“In three rounds,” Dom Hildi said. “Are you all interested?”
All the children murmured assent.
“Then I must hear you sing. Magic requires hearing the proper falls, and not all can, as you well know.”
She sang a rhythm quite unlike any of their normal songs, and one by one the others repeated it. Leotay’s heart squeezed when she heard her friend Satya’s clear, beautiful voice.
“I’m sorry, Ofion,” Dom Hilda said to the smallest boy. “You will eventually have work that you like, but it cannot be magic.”
Ofion hung his head, though he was not surprised. He’d known from an early age, after patient but fruitless repetition, that he couldn’t catch the tone in true.
Dom Hilda said to the remaining four, “If you think you are the one, when you return, have ready an answer to my question: why do you wish to learn magic?”
The youngsters rose, thanked her, and filed silently out. Leotay saw the others exchanging looks.
Sometime during Late Green, Leotay met Satya coming out of Dom Ielem’s cave, which was where Lady Dulcamara was kept.
“Hi,” she said.
“Is she interesting?”
“Not really,” said Satya. “She’s ugly, and all she knows is a lot of grownup talk. Do you want to go back?”
Leotay nodded. Her throat was suddenly too dry for speech.
“Me too,” Satya said, her face a funny combination of reluctant and eager. “Except what if she thinks my reason to learn magic is stupid? What does she want to hear?”
Leotay shook her head.
Satya sighed. “It has to be more fun than moth-tending or silk-spinning or food-growing, you’d think.”
“Harder,” Leotay whispered. “A lot harder.”
Satya’s brows puckered. “You think so?”
“She’s old,” Leotay pointed out. “And she says she is still learning.”
Satya looked thoughtful. She passed on by, and Leotay went inside the plain green tapestry before the cave belonging to the Doms Ielem and Heole.
Dom Heole greeted Leotay with a smile and paused in her silk-weaving. “Go ahead, child,” she said.
Leotay whispered her thanks and knelt before the stone table on which the picture sat. The visiting cave around her was neat and plain, much like any other. As Leotay knelt, she wondered why this family had the picture. But of course it would be passed down through family, or cousin-kin in situations where someone didn’t have children.
Then she turned her attention to the picture. The ‘lady’ in the picture was a woman, that much was plain, though she was different from the people in the cave, her eyes a pale, watery color, and her skin brown. She was odd, but Leotay did not think her ugly. Her clothing, what could be seen of it, was pretty—a bright color, and embroidered with shapes that Leotay recognized from tapestries all over the caves. Perhaps it was her hair that the others thought ugly—it was the color of dirty water, and fashioned upward on top of her head, and secured with a lot of decorative things, making her head look too large. Or her skin, with thicker wrinkles than the older folk in the cavern had.
“Good morning, little girl,” the woman in the picture said.
“Greetings,” Leotay said, wondering what “morning” meant. “I have a question.”
Lady Dulcamara smiled.
“What is the difference between weather and water and rain?”
“When the weather changes, it usually means rain,” Lady Dulcamara said. “The wet ruins silk.”
This was even more confusing than ever, except of course for the word silk, but still Leotay thanked her gravely, and then went outside.
All the next two rounds she eyed her fellow ten-year-olds. One by one the boys made it clear they’d changed their minds; the sleep-time before the third round, Satya whispered to Leotay during Singing that she had also changed her mind. “I hope it’s you,” she said. “I thought about it, and you are the only one who never gets tired of questions.”
Leotay wriggled with the restlessness she could not contain when she thought about magic. “But you sing better than I. That is, I know my tones are true, but not pretty, like yours.”
“My father said that the best singer is usually song leader, not a Hildi. I’d rather choose the songs someday,” Satya said.
“Whereas I, though it might be the wrong answer to her question, I want to know everything,” Leotay whispered back. “And I don’t care how much work it takes to learn it.”
Satya smothered a laugh, and both girls turned their attention back to the song.
The next round at Blue, Dom Hildi was waiting for Leotay, who arrived alone. “Come in, child,” she said in a welcoming tone.
Leotay followed her inside, beyond the Black Tapestry. She sat on the indicated mat, her back straight, and waited in painful expectation.
Hildi started to say speak, then her eyes narrowed. “Something wrong, Leotay?”
“The question,” Leotay said, her mouth dry. “Aren’t you—going to ask?”
Hildi laughed. “That question was for you youngsters to wrestle over. I already know your answer,” she said. She pursed her lips. “But first a command.”
Leotay sat up even straighter.
“Repeat after me. You, Hildi . . .”
“You, Dom Hildi—”
“No. You, Hildi.”
“You . . . Hildi . . .” Leotay faltered at leaving out the honorific.
“Again,” the old woman said.
“You, Hildi,” Leotay said with slightly more conviction.
“. . . are an old bat.”
“Go on. We won’t get anywhere until you say it—and mean it.”
“. . . are. . . an . . . old bat.” The last two words were barely whispered, and Leotay’s face burned.
Hildi laughed. “Child, if we are to work together, you must not be afraid to ask questions, or to argue, if you disagree. Every Hildi taught differently, but this is my way. I know I’m an old bat, what’s more, I’m proud of it. I worked hard to attain this fine status! So let’s hear it!”
“You, Hildi . . . are an old BAT.” Leotay got it out in a rush, but she did it.
Hildi wheezed and rocked. Leotay felt a bubble of laughter behind her ribs. As Dom Hildi whispered “Bat, bat, bat,” it grew until at last she laughed too. Then asked, “What is a bat, anyway? We say it, but what is it?”
“They were wrinkly, thin creatures. Still might be, for all I know. We had them in the caves with us at one time, which is why the word lingers, I think. Whatever they ate is no longer with us, so they went away.” She touched one of her books. “I have drawings of creatures here, though we know little about them anymore. But they are interesting to look at, and to imagine how they lived in the world.”
“I want to look at them all,” Leotay said fervently.
“And you shall,” Hildi said. “But first, the Signs.”
Leotay leaped up, joy suffusing her.
“Through here. That’s why we magicians have always used this cave,” she explained, leading the way through a narrow opening beyond the room. Instead of a sleeping space, there was a single globe set among the rocks in a narrow chamber with a high crack running up into the rocky ceiling.
“We do have certain secrets never told to the other people. Hildis in the past waited, some making their apprentices earn each one, others choosing specific years. I don’t have the patience for that,” she said, and inwardly, or the time.
“Here’s one.” She pointed to a dagger that hung suspended in the middle of the air. The hilt and guard were made of a black, shiny material. One side of the hilt curved up and one down, just like the daggers with plain stone hilts that Leotay was used to seeing.
She stepped closer and saw that the black material was inlaid with fine hairs of gold in a graceful pattern of interlocked shapes. Unlike their black stone knives, the blade of this was so silver it was almost blue. In the middle of the guard was set a gemstone that reflected light.
“Go ahead. Touch it,” Hildi said.
Leotay reached up a tentative hand, but her fingers were stopped by some kind of invisible wall.
“It has magic on it, magic I can’t even begin to understand. It was put there by our ancestors, for us to use when the time was right to fight against those who drove us down into our caves. This is why we really have the knife-practice,” Hildi added.
Leotay nodded solemnly. “I thought it was for duels.”
“The duels are fun to watch, right?”
Leotay shrugged. She sometimes appreciated contests of skill, but in truth her mind often wandered when people put on exhibitions.
“Duels were not always games,” Hildi said. “The touch was actually supposed to be a cut. The sharp edge of the knife was not just a test of skill, it was intended to hurt the opponent.”
Dom Hildi glanced away, then back, her tone rough, as if she knew she talked about impolite things, when politeness was so very important. “You will have to read the histories about when some of our people used them against other people. But it’s been many generations since those rounds: when our people could not agree, or someone had carried out an act that required it, they were driven from the caves and told never to return lest the knives be used to end their lives.”
Leotay shuddered. This was in truth why she had never had the inclination to join the knife-wielders: those sharp edges. Leotay did not like to think about people being lost in the tunnels any more than she did about being able to cut someone open. But it happened to our ancestors, or we wouldn’t be here in the caves. “This knife has been waiting here for someone to be able to grasp it?” she asked.
“For generation, and generations,” Hildi said, from the other side of the knife.
“But will we know—”
Hildi cut in, giving her head a quick shake. “It’s already happened. I’ve also had to test the best of each generation’s knife fighters, and just a year ago, Star’s son Quicksilver reached up and took hold of this as if he’d put it there. Moss has been training him in private to take over as knife leader ever since, as she is nearly my age, and does not feel she could lead in earnest.”
“I didn’t know that,” Leotay whispered.
“No one does. Yet. There are some among the adults who would expect to be chosen leader in the traditional way, but when the time comes, Quicksilver will have to be the one. It is still a secret. And it’s not the only one,” she added. “The Thing-That-Does-Not-Burn is in the care of Elder Springblossom’s son, Jeory. It too was not touchable—until Jeory came here for his ten-round. Which is why you youngsters weren’t even shown it. The ability to touch it is something none of us understand. It is not only what we must use to heal our world, according to the oldest records, it was also a protection one of the early Hildis made, for if the wrong person touched it, it would burn them. From the inside out.”
Leotay backed away, though there was no such object in the chamber. “Truly?”
“The record is one of the oldest, recopied many times, and errors might have come into those copies, but that is our understanding. And so the test, in my day, was the lightest touch with a finger. It raised a blister on me, and everyone else in my group. Jeory felt nothing, even when he put his hand to it. It seems to be safe enough with him, but he promised not to let anyone else touch it. He took it with him to experiment with. I’ll try to remember to have him show it to you.”
“What does it do?” Leotay asked.
Hildi nodded. “Its uses are lost, alas. The first Hildi began writing everything down when our ancestors realized how much they had already lost. But some things were lost anyway. Including the use of the Thing-That-Does-Not-Burn.”
She led the way out into the work cave and put her hands on her scrawny hips. “It could be that our try will be a disaster. Our ancestors might have laid plans for a far different sort of battle than we can envision. We’ll never know, to our sorrow. But from these signs, the time has come to try. It could be that we’d soon be discovered anyway, for within my lifetime the enemy has made a structure out on the plain. We can just see them from out-mountain vantage.”
Leotay gasped. “You’ve been out?”
Dom Hildi nodded soberly. “It is something each Hildi has to do. This is how we get the sun-globes for our moth and growing caves. And I cannot claim it is a pleasant duty, especially as I must leave in secret, and go in the darkness without, carrying each precious crystal separately, or at most two. This structure beyond our mountain is a danger,” she said. “I’ve known that much from my dreams. We have to prepare.”
Leotay rubbed her clammy hands.
Hildi smiled a little. “The third sign—but not the last, which is yet to come—is a personal one. I believe that I am the last Hildi. You will keep your name, because the work of the Hildis is nearly done. And you will begin anew.”
Leotay heard that, her skin ruffling along her arms and her middle tightening with pride and fear.
“You have to be a new person, in their eyes as well as your own. No more Leotay, obedient child. But you are not to be a Hildi, for I think your task will be different. I do not believe you will live your life here, seeking crystal for glowglobes, and preserving the old things. I believe you will be discovering new things, and new ways. You must learn to become Dom Leotay.”
“Dom Leotay,” the girl whispered.
Dom Hildi nodded, and carefully opened one of her old books. “The music of magic is different from our songs, deliberately so. But you have learned to sing, and I know you can sing true. First are the simple note patterns.” She laid a finger on a page with curious markings. “So let us begin.”