Imagine: A faceless man—without giving you an explanation or a hope of escape—takes you from your home on your birthday. Oh, and you’re also a princess.
In Patricia C. Wrede’s Shadow Magic, Princess Alethia is kidnapped on her way to celebrate her 20th birthday by a member of the Lithmern army. Alethia must fend for herself in order to survive, but luckily, she has more than just strong wit on her side. Alethia possesses magical abilities and unique gifts that will prove useful as a war wages on around her.
Ancient, evil magic has come to the nation of Alkyra—a country in which four races have been living separately, but in peace. The wizards of Lithra have awakened the Shadow-Born, who seek to invade Alethia’s home of Brenn. Though Alethia has always been skeptical of the old stories about the forest, filled with whimsical creatures, she will have to come to terms with her own magical gifts if she wants to escape the forest and defeat the Lithmern.
Read on for an excerpt from Shadow Magic, then download the book.
Harsh cries woke Alethia. Her eyes flew open. Green daylight poured through the branches of the trees, making deep shadows on the forest floor; it must be nearly noon. The fire had gone out, and all of the Lithmern raiders except the captain were scattered on the floor of the clearing, sleeping so soundly that they might have been drugged. Even the horses stood with their heads down.
The Lithmern captain was stumbling painfully from one man to another, shouting and shaking them in a futile attempt to arouse them. He turned toward her, and Alethia shut her eyes quickly. Perhaps too quickly; the shouting stopped, and the sound of footsteps drew nearer, then stopped by her side. Despite her fear, Alethia tried to breathe slowly and evenly. After a moment, she heard the captain walk away. When she cautiously raised her eyelids a crack, he had gone back to his men. Eventually, he gave up and reeled toward the horses, where he disappeared from view.
Hardly daring to believe her luck, Alethia raised her bound hands to her mouth, keeping careful watch for the vanished leader. It was slow work, and every minute she expected to see him coming back. Finally, the stubborn knots gave. With her hands free it took only a few moments more to untie her ankles, and she kicked off her remaining shoe and tried to rise.
Her stiff legs would not hold her at first. By the time she gained her feet, she was nearly wild with the thought that the captain would return just in time to prevent her escape. As she reached the edge of the clearing, she stumbled over one of the sleeping guards and fell to the ground beside him.
Terrified that the noise would bring the Lithmern captain, she pulled the dagger from the sleeping man’s belt and twisted to look back at the camp. There was still no sign of the captain, so she risked cutting the swordbelt free and taking it as well. Using the sheathed sword as a walking stick, she started slowly off into the forest.
Twigs and small branches quickly ripped her stockings to shreds, and her bare feet felt every rock and irregularity in the forest floor. She hardly noticed; her one thought was to get as much distance between herself and the Lithmern as she possibly could before the inevitable pursuit began. Whatever had put her captors to sleep, she could not be sure that it would last much longer, and it was always possible that the captain would leave off trying to awaken his men and come after her alone.
Alethia walked for nearly an hour, her stiffened muscles loosening only gradually. Several times the ruffled lace trimming the sleeves of her ball gown caught in bushes, and she wasted precious moments tearing free. Finally she cut the remaining fragments off with the dagger and threw them away. She was so intent on making progress that she did not see the clearing until she was almost on top of it. In the middle of the open area a man in green and blue sat before a fire with his back to her.
Alethia stopped abruptly, but the man had heard her, and he turned. At the sight of her, his eyes widened in recognition. “Lady Alethia of Brenn! How came you to the Wyrwood, and in such a state?”
With relief, she saw that it was the minstrel, Tamsin, who had passed through Brenn a few days previously and sung at her birth eve party. “Lithmern,” she said concisely. Seeing his bemused expression, she added, “I was kidnapped.”
“I take it you have escaped and pursuit is imminent?” the minstrel said calmly, rising from his seat.
“They were all asleep when I left, but as soon as their leader finds a way to wake them, they will follow me.”
Tamsin’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline, but he kept a credible composure. “You need not walk, my lady. Starbrow and I are at your service,” he said.
He sounds like a character out of one of those ballads he sang… was it only three nights ago? Alethia did not voice the comment. At the moment, a hero out of a ballad was just what she needed, and if a wandering minstrel was an unlikely candidate, he was still the only one she had. “Starbrow?” she said instead.
“My horse.” Tamsin whistled, and a moment later a huge chestnut with a white star on his forehead came trotting into the clearing. Tamsin rubbed the horse’s ears, and the animal snorted contentedly.
“A noble animal, and well trained,” Alethia observed politely, feeling, absurdly, as if she too had fallen into the minstrel’s romance.
“Thank you, my lady. If you would mount, we had best be on our way.” He kicked some dirt over the fire. “Pity about lunch, but it cannot be helped. We must make do with cold fare.” Bowing extravagantly, he lifted her onto the saddle, then sprang lightly up behind.
Alethia found the sword she carried a little awkward, and she was quite willing to give it up when Tamsin commented mildly, “I should suggest that for now we place that useful implement in one of my bags; it would be most awkward to decapitate our mount at the beginning of the journey.”
Tamsin accepted the sword and stowed it in one of the saddlebags, a neat trick while riding. From the same bag he produced cold meat and bread, part of which he handed forward to her. Alethia fell to with a will. When she finished, the minstrel passed her a water bottle and asked, “Now, we are under way and we have lunched, in a fashion. If only to pass the time and satisfy a storyteller’s curiosity, will you not tell me how you came to be in such distress?”
Despite her weariness, Alethia told the story of her kidnapping and escape. As she spoke, the minstrel’s face grew grave, and he urged Starbrow to greater speed. When she finished, he was silent for a little, then spoke. “Your captors must indeed have had a pressing need to venture here; these woods do not welcome such creatures as they. And to travel so quickly … It will take us until midday tomorrow to reach Brenn, even if we travel most of the night.”
Alethia’s eyes widened. “You mean that creature was telling the truth? But we only left Brenn last night! I am sure of it. How could they possibly travel so fast?”
“I am more puzzled that they dared to venture into these woods at all,” Tamsin said. “The inhabitants of these woods are dangerous to cross.”
“Inhabitants?” Alethia said. “Outlaws and thieves, you mean.”
“Those to whom this forest belongs,” Tamsin corrected her. “They do not like visitors, but they will sometimes allow travelers to pass through the places they do not hold for their own. But I would not care to guess which is more hazardous: to walk among the beasts or to go uninvited into the places that are protected. It is a narrow path that travelers in these woods must follow.”
“Then what are you doing here?” Alethia asked pointedly.
“Minstrels are an exception to many rules, lady.”
“Alethia laughed and shook her head. “Who are these people, that make such convenient exceptions?”
“Say, rather, beings, for they are not men,” the minstrel replied. “They are the Wyrds, and they are of the older days of Alkyra, when the region was just being settled and magic walked the lands freely.”
“You talk as though you believe the stories you tell,” Alethia laughed.
“The Wyrds are no more stories than the other ‘fey folk’ of Lyra,” Tamsin said. “They were part of Alkyra from the very first, when Kirel was crowned. They are small in stature, but strong in magic. They gave Kirel the Shield of Law at his coronation. Though they have held apart from men for so long, their power at least remains fresh in the minds of men. No one is unaware of the dangers of these woods. The very name of the forest is proof of that.”
“You’ve met them?”
“They are real,” Tamsin said. “But I have not met them. Few men knew them even in the days when Kirel and his line ruled Alkyra; none have seen them since Eirith fell.”
“If no one has seen them for 250 years, how can you be so certain they ever really existed?”
“Can you pass through their forest and doubt it?” Tamsin said. “I think you have run afoul of their magic ere now, when you left your captors sleeping.”
Alethia was silent for a moment. She could not deny that something had put the Lithmern to sleep, but she was not going to attribute it to magic simply because no other explanation presented itself.
“What did you mean by ‘other fey folk’?” she said finally, curious in spite of herself.
“The peoples of Lyra who have magic in their blood and bones. They are the Wyrds, the mountain-dwelling Shee, and the sea-people, the Neira. The Shee are powerful and long-lived, wise in magic and very rich. They live in the Kathkari Mountains; the original settlers of Alkyra found their cities there, and made them friends.”
“I know the tale—the Shee helped found Alkyra,” Alethia said. “But I thought they were another myth, like the firebird that fed Darneel when she was imprisoned on the mountain top.”
“The Shee are no more myth than the Wyrds,” Tamsin said firmly. “They gave the Staff of Order to Kirel as a coronation gift. In return he promised that no men would ever come to the Kathkari to settle.”
“Why would anyone want to? The Kathkari Mountains are even more treacherous than the Wyrwood!”
“Some think the Shee themselves are part of the reason why. They drifted away from the other peoples of Alkyra during the ages of prosperity, and all contact with them was lost when the last of Kire’s line died in the fall of Eirith. But they are a proud people, and perhaps they prefer it that way.”
Alethia nodded absently. “Are we near the river?” she asked abruptly.
“No,” Tamsin replied, puzzled. “We are half a day’s ride north of it, perhaps more. Why?”
“I have never seen mist linger so late in the day, except near water,” Alethia said. She pointed at a dense gray fog which was coiling about Starbrow’s hooves.
Tamsin sucked in his breath. “I fear this is no natural mist, but perhaps we can yet escape it. Come Starbrow! Show your paces!”
The great chestnut leapt forward, but his burst of speed was brief. In a short time the fog had risen up around the travelers, and they were forced to slow to a crawl to avoid running into trees. Alethia could barely make out Starbrow’s ears, so dense was the mist. It was quiet, too; a dead quiet, the quiet of snow falling straight down and muffling the noise of the world, but not so friendly. The birds and smaller animals of the forest no longer sang and rustled the leaves as the travelers passed.
Alethia felt detached. The world receded, melting into the shifting gray clouds around her, muffled in a great gray blanket. She felt herself falling, but even that was far away, outside of the place where she herself was. Then, small and clear, like a picture at the bottom of a deep glass, she saw the Lithmern leader, bending in concentration over a strange symbol wrought in iron, and murmuring unfamiliar words under his breath.
Just for an instant the sight held; then she recoiled and the vision passed. As it faded, she brushed the edge of something dark and greedy, and knew that it sought her. She started in fright, and the physical movement brought her back to herself. Alethia drew a deep breath, shuddered, and opened her eyes to see Tamsin’s concerned face bending over her.
“Here, drink,” he said, holding the water bottle out to her. Gratefully she accepted. After a few swallows, she felt more like herself. Tamsin watched her carefully as she drank, and reached for the bottle as soon as she finished. The gray fog was as thick as ever; Tamsin had wound Starbrow’s rein about his arm to avoid losing the animal. Alethia looked at him inquiringly.
“You slipped off of Starbrow so quietly I almost lost you, and I could not wake you,” the minstrel said, answering her unspoken question. “What happened?”
“I am not sure,” Alethia replied. “Everything was so far away and quiet. Then I saw that Lithmern with the shadow-face, and something was looking for me…” Her voice trailed off, and she shivered. “I do not understand at all,” she said in a strained voice.
Tamsin was watching her with wonder. “Lady of Brenn, I do not know what else you are, but that you are more than you seem I am sure. I think I begin to see why these Lithmern are so anxious to capture you,” he said. “We had better continue, and quickly.” He helped Alethia rise and once more assisted her in mounting.
“As Tamsin swung onto the horse behind her, Alethia said, “You seem remarkably unshaken by these strange happenings.”
“Magic and music are brother and sister,” he replied as Starbrow picked his way through the fog. “The bard’s craft has always been half magic; in times past minstrels and magicians were often one and the same. Perhaps it is because we must sing so frequently of the old days and the magic of them that we do not fear strangeness as do other men.”
Alethia started to reply, then stopped abruptly as the dense fog suddenly dissolved. Starbrow stopped and tossed his head. Tamsin cursed under his breath. They stood at the center of a circle of grinning Lithmern with drawn swords. Facing them, his whole bearing one of triumph, stood the cloaked leader. “Ah, two fish instead of one! I am indebted to you, mistress Alethia.”
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