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Authors: Gael Baudino

Spires of Spirit

 

Spires of Spirit
Early Stories in the World of
Strands of Starlight
Gael Baudino
A ROC BOOK

ROC

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books USA Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane,

London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,

Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,

Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,

Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published by Roc, an imprint of Dutton Signet,

a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

First Printing, February, 1997

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Copyright © Gael Baudino, 1997

All rights reserved

The original version of “The Shadow of Starlight” was published

in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1985.

Cover art by Tom Canty

Map of Adria by Jan Bender

To my readers, the strangers

”It's all been so lovely.”

-Bessie Grahame

Introduction

This book gathers together the six novelettes that form the foundation and background of the four
Strands of Starlight
novels. All six were written between 1981 and 1984, most of them taking shape between the first and second drafts of
Strands of Starlight
itself.

Their history, though—and, therefore, the history of the novels, too—goes back much farther. As much as a decade before the first of the novelettes, when I was making my first attempts at putting words on paper in a coherent form, I was already dealing with the village of Saint Brigid and some of its inhabitants in stories with names like “The Witchmark,” “The West Wind,” and “Edrich Frühr.”

Pounded out, first on an old Royal manual typewriter, then on an IBM Selectric II, and then, finally, on an Apple IIe, these novelettes and their predecessors not only formulated situation, geography, and character, but they also firmly established the themes that would illuminate the books: compassion, redemption, faith, spiritual search, and the paradoxical bitterness of joy. Nor did this influence work solely in one direction: there was, in fact, much cross-fertilization between the novelettes and the novels, and, in the course of the preparation of this manuscript—the last revision of these stories (on a Pentium-driven Windows platform!)—the fully fleshed world of the novels was always available to add clearness, sometimes providing detail not previously present, sometimes demanding that certain phrases or descriptions be altered so as to bring consistency to the saga as a whole.

I do hope you enjoy these novelettes, for they occupy a special place in my regard. It was when I wrote them that I first felt the magic of creating an alternate world to which I could give some semblance of independent existence, in which I could express belief and optimism.

The belief and optimism are, alas, gone, but the stories remain, an embodiment and a fading echo of a happier time. Once the foundation of a long, long tale, they now find themselves in a loftier place: final flourishes, distant spires stretching up into the light, rising from the ruins of a very small, very personal cathedral.

***

Some acknowledgements are in order. Some are, I fear, terribly overdue.

Edward L. Ferman liked “The Shadow of the Starlight” enough to buy it and to publish it in the April 1985 issue of
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
. It was my first meaningful publication. My deepest thanks to him.

Two years later, Cherry Weiner, my agent, read the second draft of
Strands of Starlight
, loved it, and sold it. Christopher Schelling, who was then my editor at NAL/Roc, persuaded me to cut the novel by 37,000 words (and, yes, the cuts made it a much better book) and subsequently shepherded the entire series through the editorial and publishing process. As I am greatly indebted to Ed Ferman, so am I also indebted—immensely, eternally—to Chery and Christopher for their belief in and care of the
Strands
books.

Amy Stout, my subsequent editor at Roc, was gracious enough to be open to the idea of this collection. Moreover, throughout our association, she maintained her equanimity and good humor . . . even when confronted with the haphazard ridiculousness of the
WATER!
trilogy. I do believe she is in line for canonization.

To Tom Canty, who created the breathtaking cover for the original Signet edition of
Strands of Starlight
, who later sent me a signed and remarked print of same, and whose lovely work graces the covers of the other books—and of the present volume—my sincerest appreciation.

My beloved Mirya Rule has kept me going through the last eleven years. She has encouraged me, held me through my sleepless nights, and comforted me through my black depressions. Those of you who have read my other books know that I always mention Mirya in my acknowledgements. Those of you who know Mirya understand why.

I also need to thank you. Yes, you. You have perhaps been patient with my novels. You have perhaps liked them enough to be interested in these stories. Some of you have written to me. Some of you have sent e-mail to me or have posted on my topic in the Science Fiction Round Table of GEnie. Some of you have made me optimistic. Some of you have disturbed me. Regardless, without you, I would not be writing this . . . perhaps I would not be writing at all. Therefore this book bears the dedication that it does.

Englewood, Colorado

November 1995

Then . . .
Charity

There was a black shadow lay on the village street that morning. Andrew, the carpenter, had seen it before, many times in his life, but still he half turned away from it as he worked, turned his shoulder to the old woman who hobbled down the street, her back bent, her stick making small taps as she went.

“Leather,” she called, her voice rasping like a saw on hard wood. “Give me your leather!”

Andrew lifted his head. His tool belt lay on the bench, its straps torn. He had done without it for a week now, and the cry of the old woman made him think of every instance in which he had reached for something at his hip and found it not there.

He looked up through the open shutters of his shop and found that she was already watching him. She knew that he had business for her. She was that way.

The village hated her for it.

Picking up the belt, he swung open the half door and stepped out into the dusty street. The old woman was waiting, and, without a word, he handed it to her and watched while she ran her cold, lake blue eyes over it. Without another glance at him, she put it in her sack. “Day after tomorrow,” she said, and she turned away slowly, as if in pain, her black shadow a pit of darkness on the ground.

Andrew looked after her as she dragged herself up the dusty street. He had never before thought of her as being in pain.

They all called her the Leather-woman. They called her worse things too, though not to her face, for that would have been folly. Folly, too, it would have been to have driven her away from the village, for she knew the ways of revenge well. Svengard the herder had felt her anger most recently, for he had lost the better part of his flock after imitating her crippled walk in the village square one afternoon. He had held a stick to his leg in imitation of the iron brace she wore, and those nearby had laughed . . . until her cold shadow had appeared. She had looked at him—only looked—and a month later the shepherd was all but penniless.

And there were others who had felt her touch. Some of their stories had been told many times over before Andrew had married Elizabeth and had started a family, and some had been told many times over even before Andrew had been born. But the years had passed, and the Leather-woman still lived in her miserable hut at the edge of the village, still hobbled down the street, still supported herself by mending small items of harness and tackle. Her work was good, and she made a meager living. And fear let her remain as she was.

When she returned Andrew's belt two days later, the hide had been patched and mended perfectly and near invisibly, and the material seemed to have a suppleness that it had not possessed before. Andrew paid her well, and she nodded curtly to him before turning back up the street that led to the edge of town.

In the bright, harsh light of the midsummer sun, she looked frail and thin. Too thin, he thought. Her shadow seemed to have more substance than her body, in fact, and the black shawl she wore was tattered and sere, like a dry leaf barely clinging to a stripped branch. Again, the thought struck Andrew that she was in pain, and for a moment, he forgot about Svengard and the others, forgot about the shadow that clung to her house, forgot about her cold, blue eyes.

“Is there anything I can do for you, Mother?” he blurted out suddenly.

The Leather-woman stopped in her tracks. As she turned around slowly, leaning heavily on her stick, Andrew found himself staring at the iron brace that stiffened her right leg. “You say . . . what?” Her voice was desiccated, but it had an edge to it, like black ink on dusty parchment. “You call me
mother
?” There was no humor in her words. “I've never been anybody's mother.”

“Can I . . .” Andrew found himself regretting his words even as he spoke them. “Can I get anything for you? Do you need help?”

She tottered back to him, her eyes fixed on his face, but then she bent and spat on the ground at his feet. “Help?” she rasped. “I needed help eighty years ago, when I was born, when I killed my mother. They gave me this for help.” She tapped her brace with her finger, and the sound was as of bone on metal. “That was all I deserved then, and that's all I deserve now. Don't I frighten you, scrapling?”

Andrew said nothing.

Svengard visited his family that night for dinner. Since he had been paupered by the loss of his flock, the villagers had, as a community, adopted him, making sure he had what he needed. No questions were asked, there was no talk of repayment. Svengard needed help, and he got it.

In the firelight, the old shepherd looked worn. Elizabeth led the blessing on the food, and Andrew found his gaze resting on the ham on the table. What was on the table of the Leather-woman this night? She looked so thin . . .

He felt Elizabeth looking at him, and he met her eyes. “Are you not well, husband?” she said. Her voice was as soft and sweet as it had been when he had married her twelve years ago, and it brought out the shy boy in him. He smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

“I'm thoughtful tonight.”

“Thoughtful!” Svengard snorted as he broke off a piece of bread. “Thoughtful! Leave that to the priests, carpenter. Why, I'm sure that Jaques Alban thinks fully enough for ten men!”

The children laughed and giggled, and Elizabeth shushed them.

The shepherd continued. “It's no good for you and me to be thoughtful. I was thoughtful that day I played the clown in the village square, and you see where it got me! Nearly starved out!”

“Now, Svengard,” said Elizabeth, “it did teach you a few things . . . for instance how not to be a stranger in the village. You did not visit us often before.”

Svengard buttered his bread with short, stabbing motions. “It taught me to stay away from witches,” he said. “And the same should be true for everyone. I noticed your belt, Andrew.”

The table fell silent. Elizabeth, her gray eyes calm, simply looked at Andrew as if to say,
I trust you
. The children, though, were frightened.

Andrew cleared his throat. “It's true,” he said. “I had her do some work on it.”

“Unwise, unwise,” said the shepherd. “Stay away from her.”

“Don't you think,” said Andrew suddenly, “that the more we shun her, the worse she becomes? I got to thinking today—”

“Thinking again!”

“Peace, Sven. I got to thinking about what her life must be like. Can you imagine living in a hut like that? And during the winter? Why, it's said that even the Elves hide in deep caves to stay warm during the cold season, and her house is more full of holes than a beggar's pouch. And she can't eat very well—”

“She's a witch, Father,” said James, the eldest. “She can eat stones.”

“Hush, child,” said Elizabeth. “She is flesh and blood like us all, and must needs eat.”

The shepherd laid down his bread. “Stay away from her, Andrew,” he said, pointing at the carpenter with a knobby finger. “Let her live out her life and then let her go. Her kind's best left alone.”

Andrew was silent.

“Take it from me,” said Svengard. “I'm old, and I know what I'm talking about.”

Elizabeth spoke up. “Sven, you must remember how the Leather-woman came to be. How did it happen?”

Andrew looked across to her, saw the half smile in her eyes. She knew what he was thinking. Bless her, he thought. Bless her as often as there have been moments we have been married.

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