Juno Books

An Excerpt From The Strangeling

By Saskia Walker

[ Information on The Strangeling ]


All across the land known as Edren, fear runs through the villages. Time is short, for the armies of Crondor and Yaxlan march upon us. The elders spend every moment communing with the gods, relaying their visions, making ready to face the evil forces that threaten our peaceful land.

Although it was late and his candle burned low, William's quill scratched on across the parchment. His back ached, and he hunched over the bench with effort, swallowing down his own fear in order to complete his task. As the elders' scribe, his duty was to record what they knew and what they foresaw, for those that would follow.

His hand shook and he paused a moment, looking into the candle's flame for strength. The two armies were close. They had traveled far, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake. One hailed from the east, one from the north. Word had reached Edren that the surrounding lands, Gilest and Perigal, had already fallen; the bounty of Edren was likely to be their new goal. The danger that the people of Edren faced was even greater than that of Gilest and Perigal, though, because it was likely that the peaceful land of Edren would become the battleground of these two rival armies. Edren may not survive this. That much had already been foretold.

Footsteps echoing through the settle distracted him. The door flung open and one of the female elders stood there, beckoning to him, her expression troubled. "William, come, hurry," she called, her robes askew, the hem that swung around her ankles damp. "Amelia, she sees."

He stood, gathering his quill and parchment. Amelia's visions were the most powerful amongst the elders, and he hurried to follow the woman down the corridors and out of the ancient settle, to where the elders had gathered outside, beside the trickling pool in the moonlight. The night was cold and damp. Winter was almost upon them and it chilled him quickly as he moved across the courtyard. The crowd of men and women parted to let him move between them, and he nodded as he closed on the frail, elderly figure in their midst.

Amelia clutched her staff in one hand, the fingers of the other trailing in the water of the pool, holding her image until he arrived to make his notes. Her long, white hair hung loose around her pale face as she looked down at the surface of the pool, but her opaque blue eyes were glistening as they saw through the water, beyond, to another time. The moon goddess was surely with them, her light flooding down, reflecting off the visioning pool in a shimmering cascade.

"I am here," he whispered. "Tell us what your vision contains."

He sat at Amelia's side, his breath furling from his lungs, a white mist on the cold air of the night.

She inclined her head, and breathed deep before commencing. After a moment, her head lifted and she stared into the pool again. "Crondor's mercenaries are close now. They will pass through Edren. Many will fall." Her hand went to her heart, where she was visibly pained.

The elders who stood behind her moved, and one of them rested comforting hands upon her shoulders. Her eyes closed for a moment, before she pressed on.

"They will move on, as far as The Strangeling forest, where Yaxlan and his armies are taking hold at this very moment." A whisper of concern went around the assembled group of elders. The distant forest known as The Strangeling was a magical place; a place where winter never seemed to touch with such ferocity as it did the rest of Edren. The happy, fey folk who lived there were at one with the mystical forest and its bountiful gifts. To imagine destruction of such a strange and beautiful place was a terrible thing.

Amelia sucked in her breath, her fingers recoiling from the surface of the pool. They knotted around the moonstone at the crux of her staff, gripping onto it for strength. "The two armies will fight for The Strangeling, and they will meet their death there, but from their death a bloody union and a curse will be born, a curse which will manifest in their rising from the dead, one hundred years hence. Stronger, mightier, a united and deadly army from the underworld." "An army of dead men?" someone whispered.

She nodded. "If they are allowed to rise, they will become invincible." Her eyes were glazed, her expression horrorstruck, her lips pale and bloodless as she saw into the future. "With the putrid blood of the underworld running in their veins, their evil power would become immense, they would be indestructible." Her voice faltered.

William made his notes, trying to stop his hands shaking."Is there more?"

She nodded, her fingers trailing the surface of the pool again. Moonlight spilled across the ripples, echoing into the depths of the water. "Yes, the vision has shown me that one woman alone will hold the power to undo the curse. She will be a daughter of Beltane, born in the village known as Riversbend, and she will come of age at the time when the curse will come to pass."

Glancing up, William saw that Amelia's expression held a more familiar serenity. He breathed easier and hurried on, his notes barely legible.

"She carries the spirit of summer in her every footstep," Amelia continued, "and she has the power to undo the curse of The Strangeling. She will hold the key to its rebirth."

"How?" a voice from the small crowd asked.

She shook her head. "The elders here by Western Tor in her time will attempt to guide her, and they will decide the way, drawing on the powerful magic of our most hidden secrets." She glanced at William, nodding and indicating that he should make a note of that. "But danger will lie in her path at every turn . . . she must ultimately find the way for herself."

As Amelia spoke, William's quill moved on, recording her wise visions, until she grew quiet and her eyes closed. Her thoughts and words became more disjointed, her vision fading.

"Do you see the woman's name?" one of the elders asked, urging her on.

She shook her head. "No, but the elder who is born to be at her side will know her." Her eyelids flickered and she frowned. "Elders, I think perhaps there are two men . . . " Her frown deepened. "I cannot see them clearly." She stared into the depths of the water, and then grew frustrated, her fingers opening and closing as if reaching for the truth. She turned to the scribe. "Note this, scribe. She is the heart of The Strangeling," she whispered. "The daughter of Beltane."

As she spoke, thunder rolled across the horizon and a cold, unwelcome wind whistled in around the settle, lifting Amelia's hair and whipping it across her face, blinding her.

Voices rose and fell with concern. Clouds skittered across the night sky and the moonlight faltered. As it did, lightning struck the distant hills. One of the women cried out. A ripple passed over the surface of the pool and Amelia's breath rasped into her lungs as the last bit of moonlight moved across its surface. She stared down at the water, her eyes filled with apprehension.

William's heart sank to his boots. Even he, who had no vision and no magic, knew that their worst fears were coming to pass.

Amelia stood and stared round at the elders, clutching her staff, the moonstone glowing brightly as she drew on its ancient power. "Go now, hurry to the villages, warn the people. Tell them to leave, to hide in the far hills. Crondor's army is almost upon us."

Around them, the elders scattered. William stood, but Amelia reached out to halt his footsteps with her staff across his chest.

"Run, William, yes. But take all of the scrolls with you and when you have left this place you must write my words down. Hide the scrolls well in the hills, for they will be needed. Our dark hour is upon us, but it is nothing to that which will come one hundred years hence, if we do not arm our descendents."

Her body was frail, but her will and her magic were powerfully strong. The stone at the head of her staff glowed fiercely against his shirt, pulsing into his breastbone. He felt her ancient power travel through the staff and lodge in his chest, just as powerful as the lightning that had struck the far hills, but far more enduring. Her pale eyes bored into him, compelling him to give his word.

His heart was heavy, but he was bound by duty, by faith and love. He nodded and bowed his head. "Mistress sage Amelia, it will be done."

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Copyright © 2007 Saskia Walker. All Rights Reserved.

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