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Song of the Lioness quartet
The Immortals quartet
Protector of the Small quartet
Beka Cooper series
The Circle of Magic quartet
The Circle Opens quartet
THE WILL OF THE EMPRESS novel
MELTING STONES original audiobook and novel
Anthologies, Short Stories, Collections and Articles:
Young Warriors: Stories of Strength anthology, edited by Tamora Pierce & Josepha Sherman
Excerpt from PROTECTOR OF THE SMALL: First Test
Note to readers: Keladry of Mindelan, who has applied to be the first girl to openly enroll as a page at the royal palace training school, has just received a letter from the training master, Lord Wyldon of Cavall. In it she reads that, instead of being accepted immediately as a full-time page, she must first be on probation for a year. At the end of that time, if she has not proved to the training master that she can handle the work, she will be sent home.
Baron Piers and Lady Ilane of Mindelan watched Keladry read the reply from the training master. A Tortallan who did not know them well might have thought the man and woman felt nothing, and that even their ten-year-old daughter was only concerned, not upset. That was far from true. The family had spent the last six years living in the Yamani Islands, where displays of deep emotion were regarded as shameful. To get the Yamanis to respect them, they had all learned to hide their feelings, even Keladry. Home in Mindelan again they still acted as Yamanis, hiding uneasiness and even distress behind still faces.
Kel struggled to reread the letter, afraid to say a word. If she did, her shaking voice would give her away completely. Instead she waited as she tried to control the anger and sense of betrayal that filled her.
"It is not the reply we expected," Baron Piers said at last. He was a short, stocky man. Keladry had his build, delicate nose, and dreamy, long-lashed hazel eyes. Her brown hair was several shades lighter than his. When Kel did not reply he continued, "His declaration of ten years ago was that girls could become pages. Nothing was said of probation then."
"Keladry?" asked her mother. "You can say what you feel. We are no longer among the Yamanis." She was a thin, elegant woman, taller than her husband by nearly a head, with hair that had gone white very early in life, and a deep, musical voice. All Keladry had from her was height. At the age of ten the girl was already five feet tall and still growing.
It took Kel a moment to register what her mother had said. She tried a smile. "But Mama, I don't want to get into bad habits, in case I go back with you." She looked at Lord Wyldon's letter again. She had expected to be a page when her parents returned to the Yamani Islands in eighteen months. From the tone of this letter, perhaps she ought not to count on that.
"It isn't right," she said quietly, even fiercely. "No boys have probation. I'm supposed to be treated the same."
"Don't give your answer yet," Baron Piers said quickly. "Take the letter with you. Think about what it says. You're not hasty, Kel--this is a bad time to start."
"Be as stone," added her mother in Yamani. "Reflect as if you have all of time, even when time is short."
Kel bowed to them as the Yamanis did, palms flat on her thighs. Then she went to find someplace quiet to think.
At first she went to her room beside the nursery. That wasn't a good choice. Two of her brothers' young families lived at Mindelan. With the children and their nursemaids next door, there was enough noise to drown out trumpets. No one had seen her creep into the room, but her oldest nephew saw her leaving it. Nothing would do for him but that she give him a pig-a-back ride around the large room. After that, all of the older children wanted rides of their own. Once that was done, the nursemaids helped Kel to escape.
She tried to hole up by the fountain in the castle garden, but her sisters-in-law were there, sewing and gossiping with their maids. The kitchen garden was her next choice, but two servants were there gathering vegetables. She stared longingly at her favorite childhood spot, the highest tower in the castle, and felt a surge of anger. Before they had gone to the Islands her brother Conal had teasingly held her over the edge of the tower balcony. Until that time she had visited the top of that tower at least once a day. Now the thought of it made her shudder.
There were hundreds of places she might use around the castle, but they were all indoors. She needed to be outside. She was trying to think of a place, when she remembered the broad, shallow river Domin that ran through the woods. No one would be there. She could sit by the water and think in peace.
"Miss?" called a voice as she strode through the inner gate in the castle wall. "Where might you be going?"
Kel turned to face the man-at-arms who had called to her. "I don't know."
The man held out a small horn. "If you're not going to the village, you need one of these." He spoke carefully. The baron and his family had only been home for three months, and the people still were not sure what to make of these strange, Yamani-like nobles. "They told you the rule, surely. Anytime you go outside the castle or village, you take a horn. You never know when one of them monsters, centaurs or giants or whatever, will show its face."
Kel frowned. The legendary creatures that had returned to their world only five scant years before had an unnerving way of showing up when they were least expected. For every one that was harmless or willing to get on with humans, there were fistfuls that weren't. Bands of men-at-arms now roamed throughout the fief, searching for hostile visitors and listen for the horncall that meant someone was in trouble.
I'm not going very far, she wanted to argue, but the Yamanis had taught her to obey a soldier's commands. She accepted the horn with a quiet thank-you and slung it over one shoulder. Checking that Lord Wyldon's letter was tucked securely in the front of her shirt, she left the road which led from the castle gate, and headed through their orchards. Once past the cultivated trees she entered the woods, following a trail down to the water.
By the time she could see a glint of silver through the trees she had worked up a mild sweat. The day was warm, and the walk was longer she had thought it would be. When a rock worked its way into her shoe, she sat on a fallen log to get it out.
"It's not right," she muttered to herself, undoing the laces that held the leather around her ankle. "You're a page for four years. That's how it's been done for hundreds of years. Now they're going to change it?" When she up-ended the shoe and shook it, nothing fell out. She stuffed a hand inside, feeling around for the stone. "And just because I'm a girl? They ought to treat me the same. All I want is the same chance as the boys. No more, no less. That's right, isn't it?" She winced as a sharp edge nipped one of her fingers. Working more carefully, she wriggled the bit of rock out of a fold in the leather. "Probation is not fair, and knighthood training has to be fair."
The stone was out; her mind was made up. If they couldn't treat her the same as they would the boys, then she wasn't going to settle for a half-portion. She would have to become a warrior some other way.
Kel sighed and put her shoe back on. The problem was that now she would have to wait. The Queen's Riders took volunteers when they were fifteen or older. The queen's ladies, those who were expected to ride, handle a bow, and deal with trouble at Queen Thayet's side, went to her in their fifteenth year as well. And who was to say Kel wouldn't be living in the Yamani Islands by then?
One thing she knew: convent school, the normal destination for noble girls her age, was not a choice. Kel had no interest whatever in ladylike arts, and even less interest in the skills needed to attract a husband or manage a castle. Even if she did, who would have her? Once she'd overheard her sisters-in-law comment that no man would be interested in a girl who was built on the lines of a cow.
She'd made the mistake of repeating that comment to her mother, when Kel's plan to be a page had first come up. Her mother had gone white with fury, and put her daughters-in-law to mending years' worth of old linens. It had taken a great deal of persuasion for Kel to convince her mother her quest for knighthood did not mean she wanted to settle for second best, knowing she would never marry. Getting Ilane of Mindelan to agree to her being a page had been a negotiation every bit as complicated as what her father had done to get the Yamanis to sign the treaty.
And see the good that did me, Kel thought with disgust. Lord Wyldon offers me second best anyway, and I won't take it. I could have saved my breath talking Mama around.
She was ready to get to her feet when the sound of bodies crashing through the brush made her look up. Gruff voices reached her ear.
"Hurry up!" a boy growled from near the river. "Do you want us t'get caught?"
"The Cow's at home," replied a second boy's voice. "She stays there all morning."
Kel stood, listening sharply. If they were on the lookout for her, then they were up to something bad. In just three months she had taught the local boys she was someone to respect. Kel grabbed a sturdy fallen branch and ran toward the voices. Racing into open ground between the trees and river, she saw three village boys. They were about to throw a wriggling cloth sack into the Domin.
Her mouth settled into a tight, angry line; her brown-hazel eyes glittered. "Put that down!" she cried.
The boys whirled, startled, dropping their burden on a half-submerged tree limb. One of them punched the smallest in the shoulder. "Home all morning, eh?"
Kel shouted, "I know all of you! And you know the law in Mindelan--no killing of animals without the baron's leave!"
The biggest, taller than she by half a head, advanced, the other two at his back. "Who's to make us stop, Cow?"
The Yamanis had taught her well. She waded into the boys, using her club as an equalizer, whacking them in the belly, so they couldn't breathe, and on the collarbones and biceps, so they couldn't raise their arms. One youth punched her face: he caught her on the outside of one eye. She changed her grip on her branch and swept his feet from under him, then stood on one of his arms.
Another lad grabbed a branch and swung at her: she blocked it with hers, then rammed the length of wood into his belly. He doubled over, gasping. Kel shoved him into the third boy. Down they went in a tumble. When they untangled themselves, they ran. Their comrade also chose to make his escape.
Kel looked around for the sack. The current had tugged the tree limb on which it rested out into the deeper, faster water at the center of the river. She didn't hesitate, but waded into the water. Kel was a good swimmer and the river here was fairly shallow. She doubted that whatever small creatures were struggling in the sack could swim.
Movement on the far bank made her look up. What she saw made her halt, cold water rushing around her thighs. Something black and strange-looking walked out from under the shelter of the trees. It looked like a giant, furred spider nearly five feet tall, with one difference. The thing had a human head. It stared at Kel, then grinned broadly, to reveal sharp teeth.
Her flesh crawled; hairs stood up on her arms and the back of her neck. Spidren, she thought, recognizing it from descriptions. Spidrens in our woods.
Like most of the legendary creatures that now prowled the human realms, they were virtually immortal, immune to disease and old age. They died only when something, or someone, took the very great trouble to kill them. They fed on animals and human blood. No one could get spidrens to make peace with human beings.
The thing reared up on its back legs, revealing a light-colored shaft at the base of its belly. From it the spidren squirted a high-flying gray stream that soared into the air over the river. Kel threw herself to one side, away from the gray stream and the sack she was trying to catch. The stuff was a length of rope--a web, she realized when it fell in a long line across the surface of the water. It had missed her by only a foot. The spidren bent and snipped the rope off from its belly spinneret with a clawed leg. Swiftly it began to wind the length of web around another clawed foot. As it dragged through the water, the sticky thing caught on the cloth sack, and clung. The spidren reeled in the sack as a fisherman might pull in a line.
Kel brought the horn up to her mouth. She blew five hard blasts and might have continued to blow until help came, but the spidren had gathered up the sack. It discarded its web with one clawed foot, held the sack with a second, and reached into it with a third. The beast grinned, its eyes never leaving Kel, as it pulled out a wet and squirming kitten.
The horn fell from the girl's lips as the spidren looked the kitten over. It smacked its lips, then bit the small creature in half and began to chew.
Kel screamed, and groped on the river bottom with both hands for ammunition. Coming up with a stone in each fist, she hurled the first. It soared past the spidren, missing by inches. Her next stone caught it square in the head. It shrieked, and began to climb the bluff that overlooked the river to its left, still holding onto the sack.
In the distance Kel heard the sound of horns. Help was on its way--for her, but not for those kittens. She scrabbled for more stones and plunged across the river, battling the water to get to the same shore as the monster. It continued to climb the rocky face of the bluff, until it reached the summit just as Kel scrambled onto the land.
Once she was on solid ground, she too began to climb the bluff, her soaked feet digging for purchase in soft dirt and rock. Above, the spidren leaned over the edge of the bluff to leer at her. It reached into the sack, dragged out a second kitten and began to eat it.
Kel still had a rock in her right hand. She hurled it as hard as she had ever thrown a ball to knock down a target. It smashed the spidren's nose. The thing shrieked and hissed, dropping the rest of its meal.
Kel's foot slipped. She looked down to find a better place to set it--looked down, and froze. She was only seven feet above the water, but the distance seemed more like seventy feet. A roar filled her ears and her head spun. Cold sweat trickled through her clothes. She clung to the face of the bluff with both arms and legs, sick with fear.
Leaving its sack on the ground, the spidren threw a loop of web around a nearby tree-stump. When it was set, the creature began to lower itself over the side of the bluff. Its hate-filled eyes were locked on the girl whose terror had frozen her in place.
Kel was deaf and blind to the spidren's approach. Later she could not even recall hearing the monster's scream as arrows thudded into its flesh, just as she could not remember the arrival of her brother Anders and his men-at-arms.
With the spidren's death, its web rope snapped. The thing hurtled past Kel to splash into the river.
A man-at-arms climbed up to get her, gently prying her clutching fingers from their holds. Only when Kel was safely on the shore, seated on a flat rock, was she able to speak, and tell them why she had tried to kill a spidren with only stones for weapons. Someone climbed the bluff to retrieve the sack of kittens while Kel stared, shivering, at the spidren's body.
Her brother Anders dismounted stiffly and limped over to her. Reaching into his belt-pouch, he pulled out a handful of fresh mint leaves, crushed them in one gloved hand, and held them under Kel's nose. She breathed their fresh scent in gratefully.
"You're supposed to have real weapons when you go after something that's twice as big as you are," he told her mildly. "Didn't the Yamanis teach you that?" During the years most of their family had been in the Islands, Anders, Inness, and Conal, the three oldest sons of the manor, had served the crown as pages, squires, then knights. All they knew of Kel's experiences there came in their family's letters.
"I had to do something," Kel explained.
"Calling for help and staying put would have been wiser," he pointed out. "Leave the fighting to real warriors. Here we are." A man-at-arms put the recovered sack into his hands. Anders in turn put the bag in Kel's lap.
Nervously she pulled the bag open. Five wet kittens, their eyes barely opened, turned their faces up to her and protested their morning's adventure. "I'll take you to our housekeeper," Kel promised them. "She knows what to do with kittens."
Once the animals were seen to and she had changed into a clean gown and slippers, Kel went to her father's study. With her came a small group of animals: two elderly dogs, three cats, two puppies, a kitten and a three-legged pine marten. Kel gently moved them out of the way and closed the door before they could sneak into the room. Anders was there, leaning on a walking stick as he talked to their parents. All three adults fell silent, and looked at Kel.
"I'll do it," she said quietly. "I want the training, and the right weapons. Anders is right, it was stupid to go after a spidren with stones."
"And if they send you home at the end of a year?" asked Ilane of Mindelan.
Kel took a deep breath. "Then I'll still know more than I do now," she said firmly.
Piers looked at his wife, who nodded. "Then we'd best pack," said Ilane, getting to her feet. "You don't have much time before the fall training stats." Passing Kel on her way to the door, her mother lightly touched the eye the village boy had hit. It was red, blue and puffy--not the worst black eye Kel had ever gotten, but not the mildest, either. "Let's also get a piece of raw meat to put on this," suggested the woman.
Reprinted with permission of Random House Publishers, from FIRST TEST by Tamora Pierce. Copyright (c)1999 Tamora Pierce
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