In the age of gods--dwarfs, centaurs, and other Elder Races roamed the lands freely, and the race of mortals was created as a mere plaything for Lord Death.
In the age of wizards--the power games of these immortal children of gods went too far, and so the dragons flew to bring wizards down in flames.
In the age of mortals--the Elder Races have withdrawn almost completely from the world of humans. But one wizard still survives, a master of evil bent upon domination. No mere mortal can stand against him, so the Elder Races have chosen to intervene one final time. Their gift is Crystal, the Child of the Grove, the last-born wizard who will ever walk the world. And thus the final battle is about to begin....
About the author
Tanya Huff may have left Nova Scotia at three, and has lived most of her life since in Ontario, but she still considers herself a Maritimer. On the way to the idyllic rural existence she shares with her partner Fiona Patton, six cats, and a chihuahua, she acquired a degree in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson Polytechnic—an education she was happy to finally use while writing her recent Smoke novels. Of her previous twenty-three books, the five—Blood Price, Blood Trail, Blood Lines, Blood Pact, Blood Debt—featuring Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, romance writer, and vampire are among the most popular.
Excerpt: Wizard of the Grove (by (author) Tanya Huff)
In the Beginning there was Darkness and out of the Darkness came the Mother. From her flesh She formed the Earth. With her tears She filled the seas and lakes and rivers. She walked upon her creation and where She passed grew grasses, trees, and flowers. Her breath became the winds. With her right hand She created all animals that run and swim and fly. With her left hand She created all animals that slither and sting. Her laughter became the song of birds.
When She had walked all the Earth, She sat to rest in a circle of silver birch. As She was lonely, She gave form to the spirit of one of the trees that it might keep her company. And the form was that of a beautiful woman. Her name was Milthra and she was the Eldest of the Elder Races.
When the Mother left the Grove, She gave form also to the other birches that Milthra would never be lonely as She had been. It is said there is form in all trees if the Power is there to call the spirit out.
And as the Mother walked the Earth, She bled four times. From her blood came the other Elder Races, the Centaurs, the Giants, the Dwarves, and the Merfolk. And so She could see what She created, each time She bled She hung a silver light in the night sky.
Then another came out of the Darkness. His name was Chaos and He lay with the Mother and She bore him a son. And the name of the Mother’s son was Death. He was very terrible and very beautiful.
As the Elder races were of the Mother’s body and blood, they could see Death’s beauty but not his terror. Though they could be killed, they did not die; and so they had no fear of him.
Death went to the Mother and begged her to create a people he could rule.
Because She loved him, She did.
But because She loved her newest creations as well, She gave them a gift so they could keep Death in his place. She gave them the power to create. And She gave them a promise that once Death had come to them, they would return to her once more. She called them Humans, but Death called them Mortals which means “to die.”
Humans used the Mother’s gift to create Gods. They worshiped and made sacrifices in the hope that their Gods could keep Death away. But the powers of the Gods, being Human given, were of no use against the Mother’s true son. Soon Humankind abandoned the Gods and learned to face Death. Some even came to see his beauty.
But a God once created cannot be uncreated and so, no longer worshiped, the Gods grew bored. Those given the aspect of men by their creators took to walking the Earth in human form. Eventually, they all lay with mortal women and from those unions the race of Wizards was born.
The Wizards used the powers of the Gods to pervert the Mother’s gift and their first act was to turn on their fathers and destroy them. There would be no new Wizards. They formed a great council and for many centuries ruled the creatures of the Earth. Even the Elder Races feared them, for it appeared the Wizards had conquered Death.
Over the years, as their powers grew, so did their corruption. By forcing the breeding of man and animal, they created the Werfolk in a mockery of the Mother’s work.
And then the Wizards dared to create something using the very Earth itself. They formed mighty Dragons, giant beasts with command of fire and frost, rulers of the air or seas. But the Earth was the Body of the Mother and the Wizards could not control it. They had created their own destruction.
The Dragons turned on the Wizards and in a battle that changed the shape of the land, slew and devoured their would-be masters. The Dragons that survived returned to the Earth from which they were made.
It is said that, at the end of the Age of Wizards, Death smiled.
There was no answer, so the tall young man reached out a slender hand and placed it gently on the bark of the silver birch before him.
“Mother?” he said again.
The tree stirred under his hand, as if, newly awakened, it sighed and stretched. He stepped back and waited. Slowly, very slowly, his mother drew herself out of her tree.
She was tall, with ivory skin, silver hair, and eyes the green of new spring leaves. Her name was Milthra and she was the eldest of the Sisters of the Sacred Grove. She looked barely older than her son.
She opened her arms and he came into them, then she held him at arm’s length and smiled.
“You have grown, Rael. You look more like your father every time I see you.” He looked so much like his father that her heart ached with the memories. Not for many years had Raen, King of Ardhan, come to the Sacred Grove, and Milthra had to be content with seeing the man she loved in the face of their son. Raen would not come to her for reasons of his own. She could not go to him for a hamadryad dies away from her tree.
She hid a sigh from her too perceptive child and brushed a lock of blue-black hair off his face. “Are you well? Are you happy?”
“I’m both well and happy, Mother.” Rael returned her smile, his eyes lit from within by green fires. Immortal eyes in the face of mortal man.
Rael could no longer be content spending whole summers with only his mother, her sisters, and the forest for company—the king’s court held more attractions for a young man of seventeen—but when he had time to spare, he spent it at the Grove. It was peaceful there and, unlike his father, his mother had time to listen. No courtiers or supplicants made demands on her, for no one found the circle of birches without her help.
Until Rael’s birth the Grove had been legend only. But when the King of Ardhan showed his son to the people in the Great Square outside the palace gates, he named Milthra as the child’s mother and placed the Grove firmly in the real world. It was fortunate the king was popular and well-liked, for many disbelieved and not a few muttered of insanity. It was also fortunate that the king was no fool and would not allow the acceptance of his son to rest on his own popularity. He called the six dukes and their households together and had them meet the infant’s eyes.
Milthra had walked with the Mother-creator as She rested after birthing the world. A fraction of that glory she passed on to her child.
It was enough.
“My aunts still won’t wake to greet me?” Rael asked, sprawled on the velvet grass at the foot of his mother’s tree. He dug into his pack for the food he’d cadged from a sympathetic kitchen maid.
Milthra shook her head and accepted a piece of honey cake. She had no need to eat—she drew nourishment from her tree—but did it to please her son as once she had done it to please his father. “It has been a long time since the Mother walked in the forest and we wakened. My sisters are tired and want only to sleep.”
Rael looked around at the trees he knew as beautiful women, women who had coddled him, fussed over him, and been as much a part of his childhood as his mother and father. He hadn’t seen them since . . . his forehead creased as he tried to remember. Had it really been three years? He stretched out a long arm and tugged on a low-hanging branch from a neighboring tree. Leaves rustled but no hamadryad appeared.
“You’re the oldest, can’t you wake them.”
“Perhaps. But I will not try.”
“Why not? Aren’t you lonely?” As much as Rael loved the Grove, he’d hate to be the only creature awake in its circle.
“No, for when you are not here I also sleep. My sisters have no ties to the world of men to wake them, that is the only difference between us.” If she ever regretted the ties that bound her, or acknowledged that they had brought her more sorrow than joy, it could not be heard in the music of her voice.
Rael scooped up his mother’s hands and kissed them. “The only difference?” he teased. “I refuse to listen to such foolishness. What of your beauty? Your grace? Your wisdom? I could continue for hours . . .”
Milthra laughed and Rael laughed with her. He’d always felt his mother laughed too seldom. In later years, Rael would recall that afternoon and her laughter when his spirit needed soothing and the shadows needed lifting from his life. He lay with his head in her lap and told her of the things he’d done since he’d been with her last—well most of the things; she was, after all, his mother—and he even told her of his feelings for the Duke of Belkar’s blue-eyed daughter, something he had confided to no one else . . . particularly not the Duke of Belkar’s blue-eyed daughter.
But he did not speak of why he had come to the Grove.
All too soon the thick, golden sunlight bathing the Grove began to pale. The shadows grew longer and the breezes grew chill. Rael rose lithely to his feet and extended a hand to the hamadryad. When she stood beside him, he kept her hand clasped tightly in his and stared at the ground, unsure of how to begin.
“I . . . I won’t be back for some time.”
“There is to be war.”
He looked up and saw she gazed sadly at him.
“How did you know?”
“The breezes tell me. Even in sleep I hear them; they say men gather on the western border clutching steel in angry hands.”
Rael spread his own hands helplessly. “The King of Melac has a new and powerful counselor and the man plays the king’s weaknesses and desires like, like a shepherd plays his pipes. He’s driving the king to create an empire. Father says they begin with us because Melac hates my father for something that happened when they were young.”
“And my son will go to see they conquer no empire.”
“I have to do what I can.” He tried to keep the anticipation out of his voice and wasn’t entirely successful. This war would be his chance to prove himself. His skill with weapons was his father’s heritage, but he moved with a strength and grace no man born of mere mortal could match. In his mind’s eye he saw himself a hero, returning from battle not only accepted but adulated by the people he was destined to rule. In his heart, he only hoped he would not disgrace his training.
“And your father?”
His voice was gentle. “The king must ride at the head of his armies.”
“Yes.” War had brought the young king to her so many years before. He had staggered, lost and wounded, into the Grove, stinking of steel and violence, Lord Death close by his side. Against the advice of her sisters, for the Elder Races did not involve themselves with mortals, she had saved him. Saved him and loved him, and Rael had come of it.
Full dusk was upon them now.
“I must go, Mother.”
“Yes.” War took her son from her, replaced her loving child with this stern young man, so ready to do violence. If he survived he would be further changed, and who knew if he would return to the Grove where nothing changed at all. She held him. Held him tightly. And then she let him go because it was all she could do.
He turned; half in, half out of the Grove.
“Tell your father, I am always here.”
“He knows, Mother.” He waited but she said nothing more. “Mother?”
She shook her head, the brilliant immortal color of her eyes dimmed by a very mortal sorrow. She was the Eldest. She could not beg for the return of her love.
Accustomed to thinking of the hamadryad as his mother, and mothers as always strong, Rael had never noticed before how young Milthra looked, or how frail. He suddenly wanted to protect her, to take her in his arms and tell her everything would be all right, but as he watched she faded and dissolved back into her tree. Only the breezes remained and he had never learned to hear what they said.
* * * * *
Although dark had fallen over Melac, the building of the counselor’s tower continued. In the flickering light of torches, long lines of naked and sweating men struggled with block and tackle to lift massive slabs of marble into position. As each slab reached its zenith, a slave was removed from the coffle staked at the work site and placed beneath it. Some screamed, some sobbed, some lay limp and resigned, pushed beyond terror. The slab dropped, then the whole process was repeated for the next. The tower was to be the tallest in the city.
If the men who built it felt anything at all, it was, for the most part, relief that they were not beneath the stones themselves.
This night, as most nights, the king’s counselor watched the construction from the wooden dais that gave him an unobstructed view of the work. This night, the king stood beside him, leaning into each death, his tongue protruding slightly, his breathing ragged and quick.
A new slave was unchained; a young man, well formed, who, in spite of lash marks striping his back from neck to knees, fought so viciously that four men were needed to escort him to the stone. He screamed, not in terror but in defiance.
The king started at the sound and actually saw the slave. His eyes widened and he clutched at the blue velvet of his counselor’s sleeve.
“That looks to be Lord Elan’s son.”
“But you can’t . . .”
“He spoke against me, Majesty, and so spoke against you. To speak against the lawful king is treason. The penalty for treason is death.” The golden-haired man smiled and removed the king’s hand from his arm. “At least this way his death serves a purpose. Life makes the strongest mortar.”
On the stone, Lord Elan’s son strained against invisible bonds, muscles standing out in sharp relief. He threw back his head and howled as the slab above him fell.
On the dais, the king swayed and he moaned deep in his throat.