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Into the Broken Lands

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Into the Broken Lands

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Author: Tanya Huff
Publisher: DAW Books, 2022
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Shattered by mage wars, the Broken Lands will test the bonds of family and friendship, strength and sanity.

To save their people, the Heirs of Marsan have no choice but to enter, trusting their lives and the lives of everyone they Protect, to someone who shouldn't exist, who can't be controlled, and who will challenge everything they believe about themselves.


Excerpt

NONEE.NOW

"Nonee! Nonee!"

Darny's cry shattered the silence wrapped around Arianna's deathbed. Squatting close beside the bed, cradling the thin hand of her first friend, she raised her head at the call, shifted in place, and winced as her bulk caused the bed to rock. All but one of Gateway's inhabitants called her Nonee, and had for long enough she'd accepted it as her name. It wasn't the name she'd given herself, but other people wore the names they'd been given, why shouldn't she? Only Arianna refused to use it.

"Nonee!" The timbre of Darny's voice changed as he entered the herbarium and grew louder as he approached the private rooms at the back. "Nonee! They're coming!" He rocked to a halt in the open doorway. "Oh. I forgot. Is she dead?"

"No." Barely louder than her labored breathing, Arianna's voice held as much conviction as it ever had. "I'm not."

Not yet. Nonee carefully tightened her grip around loose skin and swollen joints, holding on. Not ever, had there actually been gods who listened.

Darny kicked the threshold. "Sorry, Healer. Sorry, Nonee. But they're coming!" He lowered his voice when Nonee glanced over and frowned, resenting the need to shift her attention from Arianna even for a moment. "They're coming like you said they would."

"Now?" She could hear the anger in her voice.

But Darny had known her for his entire life and merely blew out an annoyed huff of air. "No, I just thought I'd practice running and yelling. Of course now!"

Of course now. When all she wanted to do was be with Arianna, to sit beside her bed and guard her from the inevitable. She needed... She shook her head. She needed to be here, but she also needed information. There'd been four of them the last time. This time... What if they'd come with an army? What if there'd been enough change at the other end of the road that they'd come to try and dig destruction out of the ruins?

This was not the time!

Arianna nodded when Nonee's gaze returned to her face and her slack lips twitched, the closest she could come to a smile. "I'm not... not going anywhere yet."

She searched for a clever response, something Arianna could answer with wit or sarcasm, a moment's banter to delay the inevitable, but Arianna had too few words left to waste any on foolishness. "How many?" she asked Darny without turning.

"Seven riding. Four in leather and scale, two in fancy clothes, with like embroidery and stuff. The seventh isn't in a uniform and he's not so fancy dressed as the rest. And they have two people wearing all blue riding in a wagon. They've got round hats on, sort of like what Mam wears in the sun but not really, and the hats are the very same blue. So," he declared after a moment, "nine I could see."

"A wagon?" That was unexpected. They might have come for trade if they came with a wagon.

"Yeah, hard to miss. And I only saw two people on the wagon, but it's big and covered over so there could be more soldiers hidden inside."

"Guardians."

"What?"

"They call their soldiers guardians. Why do you think they'd hide guardians inside the wagon?" she asked, as Arianna's lips twitched again. Their arrival had given Arianna a chance to smile twice. For that, Nonee might forgive the interruption.

"They could want to sneak more people inside the wall. People that we didn't know about, to take us by surprise. It's a big wagon," he added defensively. "With two big horses!"

Except for the hand cradled in hers, the clever fingers still and damp and so cold it was clear they'd never be warm again, Nonee might have smiled as well.

A long, long time ago, when Arianna's hair crowned her head in a gleaming tangle of chestnut curls, when her eyes were bright, when she could beat all challengers in a footrace, Garrett, Heir of Marsan, had stopped at Gateway on his way to the Broken Lands with his ancille, his best friend, and his best friend's ancille. The ancilles had been barely more than boys, boys from the Five Thousand learning to be men at the side of those older and possibly wiser. "A small party can move fast enough to survive," Garrett, Heir of Marsan, had said. "The smaller the party, the faster it can move." Nonee looked down to see Arianna's eyes dancing and knew, the way she always knew, that Arianna was thinking of the heir as well. The healer had disapproved of Garrett Heir in the beginning, but had come to like him well enough by the end.

Arianna's fingers twitched. "He brought you... here." After so many years together, teaching and being taught, living in each other's head went both ways.

He'd have mocked a party of nine. Maybe he had mocked it. Arianna and he were of an age, he could still be alive.

Garrett Heir hadn't brought a wagon, but he had brought the only one of the six great mage-crafted weapons to survive the war. This new company riding-and rolling-up the Mage Road to the Broken Lands would want to claim it.

She could hear Darny's bare feet scuffing against the worn stone floor. "So, are you coming, Nonee?"

"No."

"But you need to talk to them! You know they're gonna want..."

"Later."

"Not long..." Arianna sighed.

She could feel Arianna's pulse fluttering in her wrist like a small bird throwing itself against the bars of a cage. Would it help if she thought of Arianna's spirit fighting to be free of the cage that age had made of her body?

No.

"Much later," she said.

Arianna managed to find the energy for both a snort and an eye roll.

"Much later," Nonee repeated. Belief wouldn't slow the inevitable. For all her familiarity with death, for all she was, for all Arianna and others had taught her over the years, she couldn't stop time. But she refused to surrender.

"So what do I tell the gate guards if you're not coming?" Darny demanded.

"Has the council been told?"

He snorted dismissively. "Well, yeah. Shalla was hanging around, so they sent her to tell Sa Oryn while I ran for you."

Oryn Archivist would be the easiest of the council to find; some nights he slept at the archive. "Go to Oryn Archivist. Tell him the council should stay clear until we have more information, that they should send Gils Trader to deal with them. He'll know how. Then go to the gate. Tell the guards Gils Trader is on his way and that he has the final word on whether or not they open the gate."

"You mean I should tell Sa Oryn that Nonee says to send Gils? And then tell the guards that Nonee says Gils has the final word? And then run around the walls because I've run out of other places to run to?"

"Darny." She rolled his name out of the depths of her chest, the sound as much a rumble of displeasure as a word.

"Fine. I'll run. I'll tell them." She heard him turn, pause, return. "Nonee? I'm sorry Ari's dying."

She closed her eyes. Heard him turn again and leave. Opened her eyes a long moment later.

"Everyone dies," Arianna murmured. "I shouldn't have to... tell... you that."

Nonee carefully brushed a thin strand of brittle, white hair back off the high arc of Arianna's forehead. "Not you. You don't die."

"Also... me." A shallow breath struggled to lift the sunken chest. "Come... closer. Don't make me..."

A group of children ran past the herbarium, shrieking with laughter.

". . . come up... there and..."

Off to the east, a cow bawled for her calf.

". . . get you. You know I... will."

The remains of Arianna's imperious expression pulled Nonee in until they breathed the same air. The dying woman's breath smelled faintly of vinegar as her body devoured itself. They held the position for what seemed like a year or two, although Nonee knew it couldn't have been more than a moment.

Another labored breath. "Clo... ser."

"Ari."

"Don't be... a... afraid of your... self. I trust... you."

"Yes, but..."

"You can't... refuse it... now... stubborn one. Last re... quest." Fingers twitched within the cage of Nonee's hand, brushing against her palm like the wings of a mayfly. "Closer."

She closed the distance. Felt her heart shatter as the first person to ever care for her gave her one last gift as she died.

RYAN.NOW

"Do you know who I am?" Ryan yelled up at the two archers on the battlements. "Do you?"

"Said you were the Heir of Marsan," replied the taller. She turned and added something quietly to her companion, who laughed.

Ryan stiffened in the saddle. His horse stepped back two paces, dark ears flat. Forcing himself to relax before Slate scaled up his objection, he scratched at a dapple-gray shoulder and reminded himself he was used to laughter. First from his brothers, then while trying to take his brothers' place. But these people were laughing at the Heir of Marsan. At the title, not at him. That wasn't supposed to happen.

It wouldn't have happened to Donal.

"It's like they're not glad to see us." Keetin moved Thorn, his gelding, in close enough for the two horses to bump haunches, the contact calming Slate enough that he stopped shifting in place.

"I don't care how they feel about us," Ryan muttered. "I just want them to open the flaming gate."

The gate should have been opened to the Heir of Marsan.

The gate remained closed.

He lifted his chin and met the archer's gaze. "How long do we wait?"

She glanced to the west and shrugged. "B'in fore dark."

The sun showed red between the trees. Daylight lingered in midsummer, especially this far north, but dusk had crept closer than expected.

"Before duck?" Keetin muttered. "What's duck got to do with it?"

"Dark."

"No, she said duck."

The local accent made shared words sound like another language. Ryan dragged the reins across Slate's neck, wheeled the horse around to the left, and charged back toward the wagon. Slate complained about the sudden start and stop by bucking before he settled, but it was a perfunctory protest at best.

When he became Lord Protector, he'd expand his influence north. Gateway had been a traders' town, according to the Captain's Chronicle, a point of contact between the mages and the greater world, with scholars and artisans and merchants gathered together to create a city of unparalleled beauty and advancements. Most of the Five Thousand who went south with Captain Marsan were from Gateway: five thousand survivors of the Mage War who'd had brains enough to realize they couldn't live in the wreckage.

Those who'd stayed behind, like the ancestors of the archer, had been too stupid to realize their lives had irrevocably changed. They'd clearly bred that stupidity into their descendants.

Slate danced sideways. Ryan forced himself to relax. The guards on the gate were being cautious. It wasn't personal. No matter how it felt.

Lyelee was standing when he reached the wagon, ready to dismount. He'd gotten used to seeing her in regular clothes, but during a quick late afternoon stop, before they'd started out to cover the last bit of road before Gateway, both scholars had dressed in full regalia. Robes. Stoles. Even the ridiculous flat hats. She was no longer his family-the two of them closest in age among the cousins so expected to get along in spite of differences-she was a scholar novitiate.

The scholars didn't answer to the Lord Protector and they certainly didn't answer to the Heir. According to their Charter, they were directed only by scholarship and were above the day-to-day distractions of commerce and politics. They were to be scholars before anything else.

No one had expected the Lord Protector to give them permission to take the Mage Road north. Scholars were revered, venerable, wise, not sent into certain danger. In the end, for that permission to be granted, they'd had to agree that safety would overrule scholarship until they were back in the Scholar's Hall. During their travels, the Heir of Marsan would have the last word.

Ryan hadn't yet tested the strength of the agreement, and he was well aware that Court and the Scholar's Hall had both assumed the last word would actually come from Captain Yansav.

"Lyelee..." He paused as her brows rose and she twitched a fold from her robe: a fabric reminder that she had an audience now. He stifled a sigh. "Scholar Novitiate Marsan, please remain in the wagon."

"Why?"

He glanced at the streaks of orange above the horizon. "We need to be ready to move when they open the gate."

"How long do you think it takes me to get back into the wagon?" she demanded.

Scholars never asked rhetorical questions. If they asked a question, they expected an answer. Over the last twenty-eight days of travel, the non-scholars in the company had learned they could be knocked off the scent with a return question, and on the days the scholars had been particularly scholar-like they'd taken a petty pleasure in winding them up until annoyance turned to affronted silence. "Do you want to have to scramble back on board when the gate opens? With that lot watching?"

Head tipped back to lift the angle of her hat, she glanced past him, up at the archers, and he hoped the need to been seen as in control would outweigh a scholar's need to be right every single time. He breathed a sigh of relief when she sat.

"So." She shot him a narrow-eyed glare from under her hat. "What are we waiting for?"

"Possibly a duck." Keetin reinserted himself at Ryan's side.

Lyelee glanced between them, frown deepening. "A duck?"

"A sacrifice perhaps," Scholar Gearing suggested from the other side of the wagon seat, back straightening, the chance to lecture easing his exhaustion. "Some primitive peoples read entrails when they require..."

"There's no duck!" Ryan snapped. Slate bucked again. He shifted his weight into the movement and used it to turn the horse to the left until they faced Captain Yansav and the three guardians at the rear of the wagon. "Gateway wants us to wait," he announced, pitching his voice to carry over the scholarly discussion on what exactly constituted entrails and why they couldn't be referred to in the singular. "As we haven't much choice in the matter, we wait."

Copyright © 2022 by Tanya Huff


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