Gods and Warriors: Eye of the Falcon (Book Three)

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9780141339313: Gods and Warriors: Eye of the Falcon (Book Three)

Winter has been colder than anyone can remember, and there is no spring. The eruption of Thalakrea has shrouded the sky in ash, and blotted out the Sun. Fate brings Hylas to the island of Keftiu. He is desperate to find his friends: Pirra, the daughter of the High Priestess, and Havoc the lion cub. But Keftiu has suffered more than anywhere from the fury of the gods, and the once-prosperous island has been ravaged by cold, famine and plague. As Hylas sets off alone to seek his friends, he is tormented by the fear that Pirra and Havoc may not have survived the winter...

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About the Author:

Michelle Paver was born in Malawi in 1960 and moved to England when she was three. After gaining a degree in biochemistry from Oxford, she became a partner in a City law firm, but gave that up to write full-time. To research her stories about animals and the distant past, she has travelled in the Arctic, the Mediterranean and Egypt, swum with dolphins and killer whales, and encountered bears, boars and wolves. She is the author of the internationally bestselling Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, the final book of which won the 2010 Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

“What happened here?” said Hylas. “Where are all the people?”

“There’s one over there,” said Periphas, “but he’s not going to tell us.” He pointed at a ship that the Sea had flung halfway up a hill. Snagged in its rigging was the skeleton of a man. Shreds of rotten tunic flapped in the wind, and one bony arm swung in a grisly wave.

“Looks like the gods punished Keftiu worst of all,” said Glaukos.

“Smells like it too,” said Medon. The others muttered and gripped their amulets.

Hylas was stunned. Over the winter he’d seen many horrors, but nothing like this. The Sea had smashed huts, boats, trees, animals, people. The shore was eerily silent, and wherever he turned, he saw mounds of rotting wreckage. Dirty gray surf clawed at his boots, and he breathed the throat-catching stink of death. How could Pirra and Havoc have survived this?

With his knife, Periphas turned over the skull of an ox. “This happened months ago. Everything’s covered in ash.”

“But someone must’ve survived,” said Hylas. “Why didn’t they come back and rebuild?”

No one answered.

“This can’t be Keftiu,” said Hylas. “It’s a huge rich island with thousands of people, Pirra told me!”

“I’m sorry, lad,” said Periphas. “You won’t find your friends now. We’ll see if there’s anything worth taking, then we’re off.”

While the others spread out to forage, Hylas spotted a hut farther down the shore and picked his way toward it, desperate to find someone alive.

The icy wind tugged at his sheepskins, and he startled a vulture, which flew off, raising a haze of ash. He hardly noticed. All through the winter the Great Cloud had hidden the Sun, plunging the world into perpetual twilight and shrouding it in ash. He’d grown used to the gloom, and the black grit that got into hair, clothes, food. But this . . .

He thought of his friends as he’d last seen them, seven moons ago on Thalakrea. The Mountain had been spewing fire and there’d been chaos on the shore, people fleeing in whatever boats they could find. Somehow, he’d gotten Havoc and Pirra on a ship: Havoc scrabbling in her cage and yowling at him, Why are you abandoning me, and Pirra white with fury—for the ship was Keftian. “I told you I couldn’t go back!” she’d screamed. “I’ll never forgive you, Hylas! I’ll hate you forever!”

He’d done it to save her. But he’d sent her to this.

The hut was mud-brick and thatch, and someone had crudely repaired it after the Sea’s attack. They’d also marked the wall with a stark white handprint. Hylas didn’t know what that meant, but it felt like a warning. He halted some distance away.

The wind flung more ash in his face. As he brushed it off, he felt an ache in his temple, and from the corner of his eye, he glimpsed two ragged children. They vanished inside, but he saw that they were girls, one about ten, the other younger. Both had bizarrely shaven heads, except for one long lock hanging from the temple, and angry boils on their necks the size of pigeons’ eggs.

“I’m not going to hurt you!” he called.

No answer, but he knew they were listening. And he caught a sense of anger, and hopeless searching.

To reassure them, he turned his back.

Again they appeared at the corner of his vision.

“Are you looking for your parents?” he said without moving his head. “I’m looking for someone too. My friends. Is anyone else alive?”

Still no answer. The anger and loss came at him in waves.

Belatedly, he remembered that he was a foreigner here, so they wouldn’t understand him. “I’m Akean,” he explained. “I can’t speak Keftian!”

Once again when he looked, they vanished inside. After a moment’s hesitation, he followed.

The hut was empty.

Yes, empty—and no way out except for this door. The back of his neck began to prickle, and his hand went to the lion-claw amulet at his throat.

Dim gray light filtered through the thatch, and the air was thick with the stench of death. Then on a cot against the opposite wall, he saw the bodies of two girls.

His heart hammered against his ribs.

One girl looked about ten, the other younger. Both had shaven heads with a single lock of hair at the temple, and terrible boils on their necks. A dark haze seemed to boil and swarm around them, like ash—only this was alive.

With a cry Hylas staggered from the hut.

Farther up the shore, the others were already splashing through the shallows to the ship, and Periphas was hastily untying its line from a boulder. “Where’ve you been!” he yelled at Hylas. “We’re clearing out, we found bodies!”

“So did I!” gasped Hylas.

“Did you touch them?” barked Periphas.

“No, I—no.” He didn’t dare mention the children. His mind shied away from what they might be.

No one sees ghosts, he told himself. And yet I saw them. They were there.

“We found three fresh corpses in a shelter,” muttered Periphas. “Black in the face, and all over with boils.”

“What is it?” said Hylas.

“Plague,” snapped Periphas.

The men within earshot blanched.

Hylas’ mind reeled. “M-maybe it’s only on this part of the coast,” he stammered. “If we go farther—”

“I’m not risking it,” said Periphas.

“Then inland! There are mountains, we can—”

“Let me tell you about the Plague,” Periphas cut in. “It comes with the unburied dead. That’s what happened here. First you get a fever. That’s the Plague making its nests in your flesh. Soon those nests swell into great agonizing boils. They hurt so much you can’t stop screaming, but the Plague doesn’t care, it’s breeding inside you. Now the boils are bursting, and the pain’s so bad you’re going mad.” He chucked the line toward the ship. “It only ends one way.”

The others had stopped what they were doing and were gaping at their leader.

Hylas glanced from Periphas to the ruined shore and the hazy mountains beyond. “I-I have to stay,” he said.

“Then you’re already mad,” retorted Periphas. “I thought you were desperate to reach Messenia and find your sister!”

“I am, but . . . The gods didn’t send us to Messenia. They sent us here. To Keftiu.”

“Look around you, Hylas! Your friends won’t have survived this!”

“But if they did—”

“A girl and a lion cub? There’s no one here but the dead! If you stay, you’ll become one of them!”

Hylas licked his lips. “Pirra and Havoc are my friends. I sent them here. I can’t abandon them.”

“What about us? Aren’t we your friends?”

Hylas glanced at the others on the ship. They were tough men—escaped slaves like him—and used to unimaginable hardship. At nearly fourteen, he was the youngest by far, and yet they’d treated him with rough kindness. For seven moons they’d been trying to get back to Akea, but the Sea was full of huge floating islands of pumice, and they kept losing their way. Once, they’d run aground; it had taken two moons to repair the ship. And now they’d fetched up here, on Keftiu.

Hylas looked at Periphas, with his broken nose and his brown eyes that had seen too many bad things. Periphas had saved his life by hauling him aboard as the ship left Thalakrea. He’d been a warrior once, and over the winter he’d taught Hylas a bit about fighting. In a way, they’d become friends.

But Pirra was different—and so was Havoc.

“They need me, Periphas,” said Hylas. “It’s my fault that they’re here. If there’s a chance they’re still alive . . .”

Periphas gave him a strange, angry look. Then he scratched his beard with one grimy hand. “It’s your choice,” he growled. “A pity. I liked you.”

After that, things happened fast. Hylas already carried his axe, knife, slingshot, and strike-fire, but now Periphas gave him a waterskin, a sack of provisions, and a coil of rope. “That always comes in handy,” he said with a scowl.

Soon afterward, Hylas was watching the ship heading out over the gray Sea. He watched till it was gone, and he was left alone with the vultures and the icy wind: a stranger in a haunted land ravaged by Plague.

What have I done? he wondered.

Then he hoisted his gear on his back and headed off to find his friends.

2

Hylas could see snow on the mountains, and here on the coast the wind was freezing, but the cold didn’t bother the lumpy little creature squatting in front of him. It was about knee height and made of dirty wax, with hair of moldy straw and fierce red pebble eyes.

Periphas had warned him about these as he was leaving. “They’re Plague traps, they draw it away from the living. People call them pus-eaters. Make sure you don’t touch.”

As Hylas edged past the pus-eater, he felt an ache in his temple, and rubbed the scar from the burn he’d received on Thalakrea. The ache faded, but from the corner of his eye, he glimpsed dark specks crawling all over the pus-eater. He’d seen the same black swarm on the ghostly children. Was it Plague? Periphas hadn’t said anything about being able to see it, so how could this be?

And how was it possible that he was seeing ghosts?

There was no one to ask. He hadn’t met anyone all day, either living or dead. To his right, the gray Sea sucked at the shore, and to his left, low gray hills barred the way inland. Halfway up, a dark band of wreckage was a grim reminder of the Sea’s attack.

Periphas had told him that if he followed the coast west for a day or so, then headed inland, he would reach the House of the Goddess, where Pirra’s mother ruled. “Although who knows what you’ll find. There used to be villages and ship-sheds all along this coast. Where we’re standing used to be a town.”

“What’s a town?” Hylas had asked.

“Like a village, but bigger. Thousands of people.”

“ Thousands?”

“Keftiu is vast, Hylas, it takes two days to sail from one end to the other. Even if your friends are still alive, how will you find them?”

That had only been this morning, but already Periphas seemed long gone. Hylas felt lonely, vulnerable, and cold. He wished he had something warmer than a sheepskin jerkin whose sleeves were too short, and leggings with holes in the knees.

Up ahead, he saw smoke rising from behind a spur. Drawing his knife, he crept forward and peered around a boulder.

He blinked in disbelief.

Below him at the head of a bay clustered several makeshift huts with people bustling about in between, oblivious to the desolation. Some stirred huge steaming cauldrons; others bent over stone vats cut into the hillside, or unloaded dripping baskets from boats in the shallows. Even more bizarre, women stood at drying racks, hanging up sodden armfuls of astonishing colored wool. Scarlet, yellow, blue, purple: The brilliant clots of color seemed to throb in the grayness all around.

The wind gusted in Hylas’ face, and he inhaled an eye-watering stench of urine and rotting fish. In astonishment, he realized that these people must be dye-workers. But why would anyone bother to dye wool in a Plague?

He was debating whether to go down and seek shelter or avoid them altogether, when a stone struck the boulder near his head. He spun around—guessed it was a trick—flung himself sideways. Too late. A noose yanked tight around his neck, his knife was kicked from his hand, and spears pinned him front and back.

“I told you, I’m not a thief!” shouted Hylas.

His captors yelled at him in Keftian, brandishing fishing spears and big double axes of tarnished bronze. There were ten of them: squat beardless men in ragged sheepskin tunics baring muscular limbs stained a weird, blotchy purple. Their faces were purple too, and they stank of urine and rotting fish. Hylas had never seen anything like them.

One man hooked Hylas’ axe from his belt, then they hauled and pushed him down to the huts, keeping him at a distance with their spears, for fear of Plague.

Still yelling in their strange bird-like speech, they halted at the largest hut, and an old woman appeared in the doorway: Hylas guessed she was the headwoman of the village. She was enormously fat, and swathed in layers of filthy gray rags. She had a spongy purple face crowned with a few greasy threads of hair. One eye socket was empty, the other eye was a cloudy gray. It skittered about alarmingly, then fastened on Hylas and gave him a hard stare.

One of the men pointed to the tattoo on Hylas’ forearm: the black zigzag that marked him as a slave of the Crows. Over the winter, he’d tattooed a line underneath, to turn it into a longbow. That didn’t seem to fool the old woman.

“What’s a Crow spy doing here?” she rasped in Akean.

“I’m not a Crow,” panted Hylas, “and I’m not a spy, I—”

“We drown Crow spies. We feed them to the sea snails.”

“I hate the Crows! I’m just trying to find my friend! Her name’s Pirra, she’s the daughter of High Priestess Yassassara.”

The woman snorted. “As if she’d be friends with the likes of you.” Barking a command in Keftian, she jerked her head, and the men began to drag Hylas toward the Sea.

“I can prove it!” he shouted. “Pirra grew up in the House of the Goddess, she told me it’s huge and—they do rites with men jumping over charging bulls—”

“Everyone knows that,” sneered the woman.

They were hauling him over stinking mounds of crushed sea snails, past conical baskets baited with rotting fish. Was that how he was going to end up? As bait?

“Pirra hated the House of the Goddess,” he shouted over his shoulder, “she called it her stone prison! Then her mother tried to strike a bargain with the Crows, she was going to seal it by giving Pirra in marriage—but Pirra burned her own face to spoil the match! She—she’s got a scar like a crescent moon on her cheek—”

“Everyone knows that too,” called the woman.

“You can’t do this!” he yelled. “I’m a stranger here, it’s against the law of the gods to kill a stranger!”

“The gods have abandoned Keftiu,” snarled the woman. “Around here, I make the law!”

Now they were dragging him into the freezing shallows and kicking him to his knees. Icy waves stung his face. The tines of a pitchfork enclosed his neck, forcing him toward the water . . .

Something Pirra had said came back to him. “She had a tunic of Keftian purple!” he blurted out. “She said they make the purple from mashed-up sea snails, thousands of them, and it costs more than gold!”

The woman barked a command, and the pressure on his neck lifted. Panting, he lurched to his feet.

“Quite a few people know that too,” the woman called drily. “You’ll have to do better if you want to live.”

“She—um—once she told me there were only two robes like it in all Keftiu,” he gasped, “but nobody’s ever seen the other because it’s Yassassara’s, they made it in secret, she only wears it for secret rites.”

Silence. The gray Sea lapped hungrily at his thighs.

“I dyed that wool myself,” said the woman. “By moonlight. In secret. Now, how’d you know that?”

“Like I said, Pirra told me!”

Another command—and Hylas was hauled back to the shore. The noose was removed, the spears withdrawn. Someone chucked him his axe and his knife.

The old woman hawked and spat a gobbet of purple snot on the stones. Then she turned and lumbered back into her hut. “Yassassara’s dead,” she said over her shoulder.

Hylas flinched. “What about Pirra?”

“You better come inside.”

3

The lion cub heard ravens calling from the ridge and quickened her pace. Ravens meant carcasses, and she was hungry.

The Bright Soft Cold lay deep on the mountain, and by the time she’d struggled onto the ridge, the ravens had left...

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