In the Region of the Summer Stars: New Excerpt
In the Region of the Summer Stars is a new Celtic fantasy from Stephen R. Lawhead, the critically-acclaimed author of the Pendragon Cycle.
Ravaged by barbarian Scálda forces, the last hope for Eirlandia lies with the island’s warring tribes.
Wrongly cast out of his tribe, Conor, the first-born son of the Celtic king, embarks on a dangerous mission to prove his innocence.
What he discovers will change Eirlandia forever. For the Scálda have captured the mystical Fae to use as an ultimate weapon.
And Conor’s own people have joined in the invasion.
Conor stood easily in the fore rank of the warband, leaning on his spear as he watched the enemy traverse the wide green expanse below. The long grass rippled in waves across the broad valley floor, like an inland emerald sea stirred by the progress of the dark shapes moving swiftly across its surface. ‘Where do they get all those horses, brother?’ he asked the warrior next to him.
‘Their women birth them,’ replied Fergal. He spit into the turf at his feet. ‘That is the only explanation.’
‘The beasts come from Hibernia,’ announced Eamon a few paces away. Tall and lanky, with a long face and massive hands, he was Ardan’s oldest friend and foremost of the king’s hearth companions, and saw himself as a counsellor and guide to the younger warriors; he prided himself on his wide-ranging knowledge. ‘They are wild and free for the taking.’
‘Free or dear, I mean to take one as a prize before the day is done,’ Conor vowed.
‘One only?’ said Fergal. ‘I will have six at least.’
‘Aye,’ agreed Conor amiably, ‘that would be the way of it. You will need six of your horses to rival the one I shall get.’
Those nearby chuckled at this, and even Fergal smiled.
From their vantage point high on the ridge overlooking the plain, the Darini warband waited to receive the decision of their king. Conor dipped his hand into his sparán, the little leather pouch at his belt, pulled out a scrap of bósaill, and tucked it into the side of his cheek. He chewed slowly, savouring the salty flavour of the tough, sun-cured beef as he watched the dark shapes moving across the plain. Then, lifting his face to the clean, cloud-spotted sky, he drew the sweet air deep into his lungs. The sun was warm and bright and the wind was fair from the west. Away to the south, the bright silver-blue band of the sea shimmered and gleamed against the high green hills on the far side of the bay where the Black Ships had landed. Those hateful vessels still filled the southern bays, Conor supposed; the Scálda infested the broad shallow waters of the far southern coast just as their squalid settlements blighted the southern hills and inland meadows of the territories the invaders had claimed for their own.
Conor felt the sun on his back and caught the bright glint of the spear blade in his hand; he tightened his grip as the deep red stain that disfigured the left side of his face began to prickle and throb—as it did when emotion ran high, or something extraordinary was about to happen, but always before a battle. Conor rubbed the strawberry blemish absently, and wondered why the Scálda moved with such speed. What drove them? It seemed to him that they flew with reckless haste, as if being chased, yet he could detect no sign of pursuit. But then, who could fathom the crooked mind of such a race of swarthy, bloody-minded brutes?
Common wisdom held that Scálda could be rash, but stupid they were not; nor were they inclined to allow themselves to be goaded into foolish mistakes. Even so, it appeared to Conor that they streamed headlong and heedless into the pinched gap that formed the only outlet at that end of the valley. Most unusual, Conor decided. ‘See how they run,’ he observed to no one in particular. ‘Did you ever see anyone fly to Toothless Badb’s bleak hall with such ardour?’
Donal, standing with Conor and Fergal, gave a derisive snort. ‘Do you think we should tell them about Red Badb’s fair sisters?’
What could be better just now, thought Conor, than standing with his two best friends on the brink of battle? Here was long-limbed, fair-haired Fergal, always ready with a quip or jest; and dusky Donal, shorter than either of them, but broad of chest and well muscled in shoulders and thighs, never one to miss a cup or a fight. Both men, like Conor and all those of the warrior caste, were clean-shaven, save for extravagant moustaches: Donal’s was long and luxuriant, almost covering his good-natured smile; Fergal’s, like Conor’s, was well-trimmed, drooping down only a little at the sides.
‘Why tell them and spoil the surprise?’ mused Fergal. ‘Ach, nay, let them find out for themselves what delights await them in the halls of the dead.’
It had been a quiet summer—with only one other clash so far—and the raiding season was almost half over. The king and his warband had been out for most of a week and this was the first raiding party they had encountered. Still, the enemy were far north of the borderlands and that could not be allowed to go unpunished.
‘Silence, brothers—hear me.’ It was Liam, the battlechief. He had been talking to the king and the plan of attack was now decided. ‘Two branches—one to remain here, and one at the gap’—he gestured with the point of his spear to indicate the place he meant—‘just there, where the dale narrows between the rocks.’
Liam glanced around, gathering the nods of the warriors before he continued. ‘Second branch will take the gap and fill it. When the enemy have halted to trade blows, branch one will rush in and take them from behind.’ He eyed each warrior in turn to make certain they understood, then said, ‘You here—I give you first choice. Which do you prefer, the first branch or the second?’
A brief discussion ensued. There were merits to either side of the choice, as well as drawbacks. These were duly pointed out and the deliberation began. Liam listened for a moment, then said, ‘Be quick about it, or the dog-eaters will be out of sight before you decide.’
‘If it’s horses we want,’ Eamon pointed out, ‘attacking from the rear offers the best chance.’
‘Done.’ Liam turned and hurried away, saying, ‘You lead the first branch, Eamon. I will lead the second.’
‘Meet you in the middle,’ Conor called out.
‘Ha!’ sneered Liam. ‘Just see you do not kill any of our men by mistake.’
As Liam returned to the king’s side, Fergal observed, ‘Your brother does not think much of you.’
‘He is the king’s battlechief and champion,’ replied Conor with a shrug. ‘Should he treat me better than another now?’
‘That is wide of you,’ said Donal. ‘I would not bear the barb so lightly.’
Conor held his tongue and jabbed the ground with the butt of his spear instead. The spear was a veteran of seventeen battles; a well-made weapon, it had a lethal leaf-shaped blade of heat-tempered iron affixed to a stout shaft of smoothed ash wrapped at the head and middle with straps of rawhide as an aid to grip against the sweat and blood of the fight. Conor called it Bríg—in respect of its strength and valour. The sword at his side he called Gasta, and in Conor’s hands it was indeed an object to be feared.
‘Everybody knows you are the best warrior,’ offered Fergal. ‘Any king worth his torc would welcome your sword above any other.’
Donal saw Conor’s jaw tighten at the glancing allusion to the unsightly blemish and knew it was time to change the subject. ‘Well, if anyone gets a horse today, it will be Conor.’ He gave his friend a slap on the shoulder. ‘There won’t be a better blade on the field today.’
‘And you, brother, are a very head of wisdom,’ Conor replied, happy to step away from a subject that still held the power to cloud his better moments. ‘But it will take more than flattery to pry the bridle from my hand. Let us see if just this once you two can match your skill at words with swordplay.’
‘Watch and be amazed!’ replied Fergal with a grin.
The warriors of the second branch, twenty-seven in all, departed on the run, leaving the fifteen of the first branch to wait and ready their attack when fighting started. Conor and his swordbrothers watched the Scálda racing across the plain, making straight for the valley’s narrow neck. Owing to the speed of their passage, the enemy line was long and staggered. To Conor’s expert eye, the riders did not appear to be wary of any danger; they raced headlong into the trap.
Even as he watched, the first enemy raiders thundered into the gap between the rocks. Conor and the others counted off the enemy as they passed into the narrow gorge. Fergal muttered, ‘What are they waiting for? The dog-eaters will be through the pinch and out before a single blow is struck.’
‘So impatient,’ remarked Eamon. ‘Our battlechief knows well enough how—’
Before he could complete the thought, the ambush began. The first Dé Danann spear flashed out, striking an enemy mount through its outstretched neck. In full stride, the horse’s forelegs collapsed, hurling its startled rider to the ground.
Before the first warrior ceased tumbling, a second missile had taken another horse and rider. A third spear sang through the air—and a fourth, fifth, and sixth—in such swift succession that they struck as one, each taking down a rider and his mount.
‘Ach,’ sighed Fergal, ‘not the horses … please, not the horses.’
‘Worry not, brother,’ said Donal, ‘there are plenty more besides. You’ll have your pick.’
‘Be ready…,’ called Eamon, his voice rising. He pointed with his spear to where the headlong flight of the Scálda was already faltering. The oncoming riders, unable to avoid the animals on the ground, pulled up hard and were immediately ploughed into by the next tranche pounding in behind. Scálda in the trailing ranks, unaware of the danger up front, galloped into the heap. Chaos spread like fire across the grassy plain. ‘Now!’
Up, over the crest, and down the slope the warriors of the first branch flew to the fray. Conor paced himself, keeping a step or two behind Eamon, letting him lead the attack. There was nothing to be gained by showing up a swordbrother, and much to be lost—especially when naked blades were involved.
Dé Danann warriors were not as big or heavily muscled as their Scálda counterparts, but whatever they lacked in stature and bulk, they more than made up in speed and agility. They closed on the foe with uncanny swiftness and half a dozen more riders lay on the ground with spears in their backs before the rest knew they were under attack from the flank. The speed of the second assault sent panic rippling through the already disordered foe and the battle became a rout.
For reasons Conor could not discern, the Scálda seemed more interested in escape than defence. Thus, what might have been a satisfactory contest deteriorated into a slaughter. Most of the raiders simply fled the field, leaving the Dé Danann to claim the victory, and Conor himself clutching the reins of a handsome young stallion with a fine dappled coat of purest white and russet red; the irregular coloured splotches reminded Conor of the blemish on his own skin. That—added to the fact that it was clearly a splendid specimen of its kind: strong and straight of limb, fluid in motion, with a deep chest, powerful hindquarters, and a broad noble forehead—instantly endeared the animal to him.
‘Be easy now, handsome,’ said Conor, taking hold of the bridle strap and stepping close. He stroked the stallion’s forehead and stared into the deep brown eye. ‘I will call you Balla, and we will be the best of friends.’ He had just about succeeded in calming the agitated beast when he heard the rapid thump of hooves on the turf behind him.
He spun around as a lone rider charged: a swarthy brute, with long, matted hanks of thick black hair, his face frozen in a rictus of rage and hate, an expression enhanced by a livid scar that ran from brow to chin—an old wound that rendered him one-eyed and ferociously ugly. He wore no battle cap or helm which the Scálda were sometimes known to do, but his rough leather tunic was tricked out in small triangular iron plates, and he carried a large round shield rimmed in silver with the painted image of a coiled snake—the device of a chieftain, Conor surmised. Leaning out from the saddle to lop off a Dé Danann head as he passed, the Scálda chief made a wide sweep with his ragged blade. Conor was ready and ducked low, raising his sword to parry the next thrust. But it did not come. Instead, the Scálda, intent on joining the retreat, sped on by without a backward glance.
It was then that Conor saw the woman.
She was sitting behind the Scálda chief, and that she was his prize there could be no mistake. Her hands were bound with braided leather and she was secured to her captor by a length of crude iron chain that encircled her slender waist. Conor had never before heard of the Scálda taking hostages, but neither had he ever seen a woman so strange, so beguiling in appearance, and so utterly helpless.
The gleaming lustre of her raven-black hair, the exquisite cast of her pale features, and the crystalline depths of her blue eyes were by no means the first thing he noticed, nor that which made him stop and stare in slack-jawed wonder. Nor, indeed, was the prodigious extravagance of her garments the first thing Conor noticed; his impression was of a flash of scarlet and blue and gold. All these were things Conor would remark on later, and consider at length.
In that first glance, however, it was the stately set of her head, the firm cast of her mouth, and the implacable dignity of her posture—despite the obvious extremity and futility of her position—that caused him to stop and stare. Erect, dignified, defiant, she radiated not only supreme courage, but also absolute hatred for the creature that had captured her. And the look of pleading entreaty that she gave Conor as she swept past pierced him to the quick. Yet … and yet there was something more than an emotional tug of recognition or sympathy, something passing strange and beyond Conor’s ability to comprehend, something alien and other.
For, in that fleeting instant, Conor felt a physical jolt from the woman’s intense glance, a thing he had never experienced before—as if he had slammed headlong into a wall, or taken a hammer blow to the chest. The impact caused his heart to skip and lurch and rocked him back on his heels even as a word formed in his head: Faéry.
The strangeness of the encounter rooted Conor to the spot; before he could move, the Scálda chieftain and his fair captive were gone, leaving Conor flat-footed and staring as they raced away to be lost amidst the turmoil of the retreat.
Copyright © 2018 Stephen R. Lawhead.