Stellarnet Prince is the second book of the Stellarnet Series by J.L. Hilton, coming from Carina Press in November 2012. The first book, Stellarnet Rebel, was released in January 2012. Buy it here.
FOURTEEN RAIN SEASONS (21 YEARS) EARLIER
They came from rivers, streams, and waterfalls. They came from the distant edge of the Great Ocean. They came to kill the Nidenn, and the fence only strengthened their resolve.
“Even the dark whirlpool of Yaggla has no walls.” Owlg’s face twisted into a sneer as he eyed the poles and the webs of woven ropes, which extended as far as they could see in each direction. The barrier spanned the rivers, too, allowing nothing but water and small fish to pass.
“Yaggla needs no walls.” The oldest among them, Tucloup did not carry a stick for walking—he carried a stick sharpened to a deadly point, because they pursued a deadly mission. His skin hung in wrinkles from his wiry frame and his shoulders hunched, but his arm remained as sure as his wisdom. “The souls of the dead are trapped in Yaggla by the currents of the Great Ocean.”
“Are they trapped forever?” Duin had to know. “Will they never be reborn?”
Tucloup smiled, and his face became a pool of deep emotion. “On the verge of revolt, you stop to ask metaphysical questions?”
Glin emerged from the streams and tall grasses to join them at the fence. Those who came from the west marshes were the color of muddy water, the skin on the back halves of their bodies patterned in brown whorls. Those from the falls bore spotted backs resembling mossy pebbles. A few, like Duin, had the speckled patterns of the watershed Glin.
Glin. The word meant here. It’s what they called their world and themselves.
“This is the most important time to ask questions. I must know, if I kill these tyrants, will they return to build fences in the next life?”
The elder’s voice flowed smooth and strong as a wide river, propelling them forward on a current of certainty. “The Nidenn will swim in Yaggla until they reach the oblivion of exhaustion, and when they have forgotten their evil ways, only then will they be carried back to life.”
“And the young ones. Are they evil?” Several rain seasons older than Duin but not old enough to be an elder, Hup had nursed eight children and that carried its own measure of respect. She also stood taller and wider than Duin, with arms and shoulders made powerful by swimming in the rapids of Tiru Papiru. If she balked now, others might hesitate, as well.
Tucloup bobbed his head. “This is a distasteful thing we do, but the deed must be done, to rid Glin of a plague of kings. They would bring evil to us all, and to generations of our descendants.”
“My cousin is there,” said Baba, one of the few local Glin not living under the control of the self-appointed royal family. Unmarried and barely old enough to hunt, Baba still had the androgynous look of the young who were yet neither male nor female.
“Your cousin will be set free.” Owlg swayed and moved his arms in anxious circles. The mannerism came from living in a swift river, though all Glin had various degrees of restlessness about them. To be still meant sinking, to be stagnant and dead.
“You can’t free a fool imprisoned by his own beliefs,” Baba said. “He chooses to serve them.”
“Give their followers the choice to leave,” said Tucloup. “Don’t harm them unless they resist. We’re here for the Nidenn.”
“How will we tell them apart?” asked Hup.
“They are dark blue,” said Baba. “Or silver, like the lake. That’s why they call themselves Tah Ga’lin. They are like the stars in the sky ocean.”
“Pud! They’re not special. They’re Glin, like any other Glin. And they will die like any other Glin. Fence builders!” Hup pulled a bone knife from the sheath on her thigh and began cutting through the barrier. Others joined her in the task, using their own knives or rending the fence with their webbed hands, until they made a hole large enough to pass through.
Duin wanted to tear down every last piece of the fence and cast them into the river, where they would be swept out to the Great Ocean and to Yaggla, where they belonged. The fence proved how dangerous the Tah Ga’lin really were, not that Duin harbored any doubts. Erecting a border—claiming the land, water and resources that others needed for survival—demonstrated true evil. But there would be time enough to remove this outrage, after its architects were dead.
Past the fence, they fanned out, as they might while pursuing a spry, long-legged labbud. Alone or in groups, Glin were excellent hunters. Their lives depended on the skill. But never before had they hunted their fellow Glin. The abomination of such a course was equaled only by its great necessity. Too many Glin would live in slavery if the Nidenn were not stopped, here and now.
The ground sloped upward and mud no longer sucked at Duin’s webbed feet. Fat shrubs and trees replaced tall grasses. Not the low-hanging gop trees, or the thin, fruit-laden mumya, these trees stretched above their heads on trunks thicker than Duin’s body. What sorts of creatures lived here? And would one leap down upon him? Instead of hearing the comforting sounds of flowing water, Duin heard the trees whispering to the wind with a thousand voices.
Tucloup noticed Duin’s apprehension and touched his protege’s shoulder. “You may see things you’ve never seen before. You should decide now.”
“Decide whether what you see is the work of the Great Rain and the spirit world, or simply a question you have not yet answered.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Not at all,” said Tucloup. “What we fear—or revere—is like mud in the water. Fear and worship prevent us from seeing clearly. But when we seek to understand, we are in maglahem.”
Maglahem. Pure water. Truth.
The clouds broke to reveal a deep, dark, twinkling expanse of sky ocean. Ahead, a lake glimmered silver, as Baba said. Beyond, the ground rose again and stretched away in giant, immobile waves of land. Duin shuddered at the uncanny sight and lowered his eyes.
Glin could hunt with stealth in water or marsh, but forty hunters moving over dry, unfamiliar terrain created a cacophony of crackling twigs, rustling leaves and snapped branches, despite their slow and careful progress. By the time they reached the edge of the lake, another group of Glin had gathered on the opposite shore to greet them.
“Welcome!” The greeter wore a length of bava fabric wrapped around his waist, with one loose end tossed casually over his shoulder, leaving his deep, dark blue back exposed. One of the Nidenn. Duin’s blood roiled with anger.
“I am Tah Ga’lin Rawl of the Silver Lake.” The greeter raised his hand and waved, swaying like one of the tree branches and himself taller than any Glin known to Duin. With a supple gesture, Rawl indicated the others around him. “This is my brother, Tah Ga’lin Jeel. My sister, Tah Ga’lin Diru. My son, Hewel Nidenn. And our attendants.”
Duin heard the growls of disgust from the insurgents behind him. “Slaves,” someone muttered.
Duin’s mentor stepped forward until the water of the lake touched his feet. “I am Tucloup, Elder of the watershed.”
“I see many,” said Rawl. “From distant falls and seas, not just the watershed. Have you come to understand the will of the Great Rain, and carry our truth like ripples across the world?”
“No,” said Tucloup. “We’ve come to kill you.”
Astonishment contorted Rawl’s placid face. The arrogant karak’tukt had not expected that answer. But calm quickly returned to his features.
He laughed and his voice rang like music through the air. “I am the Bright Star of the Sky Ocean. I am the Keeper of Stone Secrets, Master of the Harp of the Wind, eldest living descendant of the first Tah Ga’lin Dennoc who slew the—ugh!”
His words ended in a bloody gag as Tucloup’s spear tore through his throat.
A volley of spears and stones arched over the lake, hitting the Nidenn. Duin grabbed a pebble from the ground. Large, misshapen, and impractical for hunting wapult, but he placed it in the cradle of his sling and hurled. The stone hit Hewel, son of Rawl, in the side of the head with a dangerous thud.
Duin joined Tucloup and the others swimming across the lake. At the other side, the wounded Rawl and Hewel were both dragged into the water. In spite of their injuries, the Tah Ga’lin resisted desperately against the insurgents who sought to rend their arms and legs from their bodies so that they could not swim.
With a spear through his leg and one through his stomach, Tah Ga’lin Jeel put a r’naw horn to his lips and blew an eerie sound over the shrieks of the dying and the wailing of their servants. Jeel continued to blow the horn until Owlg slit his throat. Blood covered half of Tah Ga’lin Diru’s lithe body, but she remained on her feet, fighting amidst a knot of ocean-Glin.
Before he could join one of these furious eddies of rebellion, Hup called to him. “Duin, come hunt Nidenn with me.”
They ran toward a hill out of which streamed more Glin. These were not blue or silver, so Duin ignored them. Some screamed, others ran into the lake to defend their fallen leaders or disappeared amidst the trees. No hill, he realized, but a structure built with the prodigious stones of the region, its doorway framed by the open jaws of a r’naw. In his worst nightmares, Duin could not have imagined the size of that creature, the jaw an arsenal of long, vicious daggers—one hundred teeth like the dagger strapped to Hup’s thigh.
She hopped between the rows of teeth and disappeared within. Duin hesitated before following her. Words dripped down the rocks—carved dots and curves of Glinnish like those Tucloup had taught him with mud and sticks, later with paper and ink.
Some of the rocks resembled faces and creatures, giving Duin a nightmarish feeling. “Bah!” He barked defiantly at the stone faces. This is what the Nidenn do. They control others through amazement and terror. Shaping rock is nothing but a skill—just as weaving bava or curing wallump skin were skills. But they kept their knowledge to themselves instead of sharing it with all Glin. As with their attempts to own the land and water, withholding information made the Nidenn more powerful than other Glin.
He heard a scream, followed by a musical sound. Entering further into the dark interior, he found Hup struggling with a youth who clung to a tall harp. Duin had seen a lap harp before, a small stringed instrument made of bone and sinew. But never one such as this. Carved, like the stones, and made of the bones of a very large r’naw—the same r’naw whose jaws framed the doorway, he guessed.
Still a few rain seasons shy of adulthood, the young Glin offered fierce resistance. Hub managed to tear the harp away and the instrument sang as it hit the floor. She wrapped her fingers around the silver Glin’s throat and bashed the youth’s head against the stone wall. The musician stopped struggling. Hub dragged the body by one foot, past Duin and out to the lake with the rest.
Duin lifted the instrument. The elaborate carvings were inlaid with color, bits of animal scales and stones. The rest was polished to a beautiful luster, like the skin on the front half of a Glin. He knew that the others would break the harp and throw it into the lake. Of course, they had to kill the Nidenn, to spare even one would keep greed and tyranny alive. But he found himself wondering, Couldn’t their treasures be shared with all of Glin?
Other insurgents entered the structure. When they could not find Nidenn, they dragged out the baskets, the rugs and the tools, to toss into the lake. They even tried to dislodge the stones of the structure itself.
“The Harp of the Wind!” Baba identified the object as Owlg snatched the thing from Duin.
Owlg made a gurgle of disgust and hit the instrument against the stone walls. Between Owlg, Baba and several others, they destroyed the harp. Duin understood what it represented, but he felt a surge of regret. The merest suggestion that they keep Nideen objects for themselves or give them to Tucloup, might have ended with Duin dismembered and thrown in the silver lake, as well, so he said nothing.
Duin went further into the stone dwelling, though the walls pressed in on him and his instinctive claustrophobia caused his chest to tighten in panic. He held his breath, as if he were deep underwater. Curiosity—as much as anger or his belief in freedom—propelled him. And the need to get as far away as possible from the broken harp.
Through his body, he could feel as much as hear the distant sounds of killing vibrating through the stones of the structure. His eyes caught a movement ahead, a waver of something a lighter gray than the dark gray shadows. Duin ran forward and seized someone trying to escape through a hole. A stone had been wedged out of the wall, and he felt a wisp of fresh air blow in from outside.
“Who are you?”
The silvery Glin did not reply, just sobbed.
“Who are you? I would know who I send to the whirlpool of Yaggla!”
When the Glin said nothing, he took hold of her thin neck. The bava she wore fell loose from her shoulders, and Duin discovered that he held a young female, clutching an infant to her chest. The baby was so new it didn’t have a colored pattern. Her first child, judging by her small breasts. Blood covered her fingertips, torn raw from moving the stone to try to escape.
“Kill me!” She shook like a pitat leaf in a violent storm. “Kill me now! Please! Before you kill my baby, please! Don’t let me see you kill my baby! I cannot see that!”
Something glittered on the infant’s chest, despite the darkness. A stone, tied to a cord around the child’s neck. Clearer than misty air or flowing water, as clear as maglahem. But the stone’s core seemed to contain all the colors of Glin—the yellow of the frilly della plant, the thready turquoise leewl fish, the iridescent feathers of the dark blue udal, the luminescent purple glow of the weeol bugs, and the rosy pink of the sacred j’ni flower. The baby shifted and the colors flashed. Duin pulled the nagyx from the child’s neck. The baby squirmed and scowled in protest, but didn’t cry.
“No! Don’t take the child’s soul. Cut us in pieces and throw our bodies in the Silver Lake, but let the child keep its stone.”
Duin thought of his wife Ullu in Willup W’Kuay, whose belly swelled with their third child. He would never touch Ullu like this, would never clench his hand around her throat and restrain her. Duin would never hurt anyone he loved. That, and if he ever did, her parents would have beaten him senseless and dropped him in a pool of flesh-eating driznit. If Ullu hadn’t already done so herself.
He demanded again. “Who are you?”
“Vindael Nidenn. Sixth child of Tah Ga’lin Jeel.”
“Your father’s dead.”
Her sob of grief and terror shook Duin’s bones and sympathy washed over him. This was not one of the fiendish Nidenn elders who had fenced in the lake, trees and surrounding marshes and claimed to own land. As if they had any right to say a hungry Glin could not hunt or gather there, a thirsty Glin could not drink, a free Glin could not swim.
Most likely, this female had nothing to do with the Glin who were beaten by the Nidenn if they dared to violate the boundaries. Her father might want others to worship him, to serve and grovel and choose submission over independence, spiritual tyranny over free thought, but perhaps she did not.
Tucloup believed very strongly in the power of choice, and so did Duin. At that moment, he chose to see a mother, a daughter, a wife, and not an enemy. But, ultimately, he would let the choice be hers. “Do you want your child to die a prince, or live a Glin?”
“Live!” She replied without hesitation, and that was enough for him.
He let go. Vindael stared at him. When she realized that she was not about to die, she dove through the hole, out into the trees and the dark, carrying her child away and leaving its nagyx stone dangling from Duin’s hand.
Duin never saw her again.
Copyright (c) 2012 by J. L. Hilton
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
STELLARNET PRINCE will be available in November 2012, wherever ebooks are sold.