Amarynth is a spirit singer, gifted–or cursed, as she sometimes thinks–with the ability to lead the spirits of the dead from the Lower World through the Between World to the Gate of the Upper World and the Light that lies beyond it.
While she is still an apprentice her grandfather and tutor dies, slain by a mysterious creature in the Between World that is blocking access to the Upper World’s Gate. Without a spirit singer her village cannot survive, so Amarynth embarks on a hazardous quest to find out what the creature is, how it can be defeated, and how she can become a full-fledged spirit singer — a quest that takes her not only from her tiny seacoast home to the soaring mountains of the south, but across the even more rugged terrain of her own soul.
Cover art by Ronald Chironna
Something woke Amarynth in the small hours of the night.
It was dark as a cave inside her chamber, except for the faint bar of moonlight on the stones of the wall by the open door. For a moment she blinked at that pale oblong, feeling the cool breath of a breeze against her cheek, wondering what had roused her.
Then she heard it again—a moan, from down the hallway. Her grandfather.
Amarynth threw aside the covers and reached for her long blue robe, donning it over the thin shift in which she slept. The moan came again as she stepped into the corridor, the smooth stone floor cold under her bare feet. She hurried its length, passing through pools of moonlight collected under the open skylights like puddles of rain.
Her grandfather’s room was at the far end of the corridor, past the library and the meditation chamber. Amarynth knocked gently. “Grandfather? Are you all right?”
For a moment there was no answer; then she heard him moan again, his voice rising suddenly to a shout. “No! No! Stay away! Stay away!”
Amarynth opened the door and rushed in. Her grandfather was sitting upright in bed, eyes wide and staring, face pale in the darkness. “Leave me alone!” he cried.
She seized his shoulders. “Grandfather, wake up! Wake up! It’s me, Amarynth!”
A shudder ran through his gaunt body, and suddenly his eyes focused on her. “Amarynth…?”
She felt the tension go out of him and gently laid him back on his bed. “You were dreaming again,” she said. “Shouting at someone to stay away.”
“Not someone—some thing.” He closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead with his gnarled hand. “The dreams are getting worse. I’m afraid…” His voice trailed off.
“Of what, grandfather?”
His eyes snapped open. “I’m sorry I disturbed you,” he said. “I’m all right now. Go back to bed.”
“If only you’d tell me what you dream, maybe—”
“A dream is only a dream. It’s not important. Now, go on. You need your sleep.”
She sighed. “Yes, grandfather.” With a backward glance she went out, closing the door behind her, then returned to her room. She draped her robe over the chair once more, but instead of going back to bed went to the window and looked down the hill to the darkened village of Covedrift, two-score huts strung along a curving shingle beach. The cool night air caressed her skin and brought to her the quiet, unceasing murmur of the ocean.
The dreams had been troubling her grandfather for weeks, but she had never heard him cry out like that before, as though trying to drive something away. What did he see in the night? He would never tell her. Nor would he explain why he wouldn’t tell her, almost as if he were protecting her from something. But from what? “I’m not a child anymore,” she murmured to the night. “I don’t have to be protected from bad dreams.”
She crossed to the other window of her corner room and stared out over the ocean, almost calm this night, a gentle swell barely breaking against the rocks at the base of the cliff sixty feet below her. The moon silvered what waves there were, and gave a pale glow to a fine mist far out at sea, making the horizon indistinct, blending the ocean smoothly with the starry sky.
It would be good weather for the First Sailing, Amarynth thought. In just a few hours, as the sun rose over the distant inland mountains, the three young men who had turned seventeen in the past year would ascend to the tower, as their fathers had when they were seventeen, so that her grandfather could forge the Homelink that would draw their spirits back to Covedrift should they be lost at sea. Then they would set out in the boats they and their fathers had fashioned, to sail the deep alone for a day and a night. When they returned they would be considered men, and would take their place in the fishing fleet.
Her mind drifted from her grandfather’s dreams to Davin, one of the boys who would be making that climb to the tower in the morning. She smiled a little. Walking in the village a week ago, she had seen him watching her, as she had seen other boys watch other girls, and when she had come back from the market, arms laden with seaweed-wrapped fish, he had contrived to be in the road.
He hadn’t said much—in fact, he’d seem tongue-tied by his own audacity—but he had carried her fish up the hill to the tower for her, and when she’d smiled her thanks he’d turned as red as the seaweed before stammering, “You’re welcome,” and almost running back to the village.
But at least he’d seen her as someone besides Spirit Singer Nikos’s granddaughter, someday to be a Singer in her own right, as though that made her some kind of witch! Everyone else in Covedrift treated her with oh-so-careful respect.
When Davin and the others returned from their First Sailings, they would be full-fledged members of society.
When I make my solo journey, thought Amarynth, when I become a full-fledged Spirit Singer, I’ll be cut off from society forever.
Suddenly chilled, she turned back to the warmth of her bed; but it was a long time before she slept.
She woke to the sound of trumpets. Outside her window the sky was graying with dawn, and looking out, she saw people already filling the streets of Covedrift, their laughter and shouting echoing up to the tower as they prepared to send off the three boys. The sight and sound of merriment brought back full-force the night’s lonely thoughts.
“Are you up, Amarynth?” her grandfather called from down the hall.
“Yes, grandfather!” she shouted back. Putting away her black mood, she hurriedly grabbed her ceremonial clothes from the rough-carved wardrobe by the door, dropping the long, sleeveless white robe over her head and belting it around her waist with a scarlet sash. Around her neck she placed her Emblem, a tear-shaped black stone the size of her thumb, strung on a golden chain, and on each wrist she clasped three thin, silver bracelets that jingled like bells as she moved. Finally she slipped on her white sandals.
As she straightened the sky suddenly tinged with red, and the cheering died away. She looked out and saw three distant figures beginning the quarter-mile climb from the village to the tower.
Amarynth ran out of her room, not turning right down the hallway this time but instead going straight, down worn stone steps and through a blue velvet hanging into the Spirit Chamber, where her grandfather made ready for the Linking.
The long, narrow chamber had no windows; the only light came from the small fireplace to Amarynth’s left and brass lamps hung on chains from the ceiling’s smoke-stained beams. Blue-and-gold curtains covered the walls above heavy wooden benches. In the center of the room was an oblong dais of black stone, three feet high, between two simple chairs of dark wood. At the head of the dais stood a single bronze candlestick, its unlit white candle at eye level for her grandfather, who sat in one of the chairs, eyes closed and fingertips pressed together.
Amarynth was shocked by how old he looked; the lines in his face seemed deeper, the flesh of his chin more sagging. Even his shoulder-length hair seemed whiter. He wore a golden robe, and around his neck hung his own Emblem; but unlike Amarynth’s, his glowed a deep purple, and at its center was a spark of light.
She crossed to the dais and sat in the opposite chair. After a moment her grandfather’s eyes opened and met hers. “Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning.” Amarynth gestured at the candlestick. “I’m ready to help.”
“I’m sorry, Amarynth. Not this time.”
Amarynth stared at him. “But I’ve been studying for weeks. You said this is one of the most vital tasks of a Spirit Singer¯—¯”
“It is,” said her grandfather. “And you will learn it, I promise. But not today. I will forge the Links alone.”
“But grandfather, you promised last week—”
“I’ve changed my mind.” He closed his eyes again.
Without looking at her, he said, “Please don’t argue, Amarynth. I must concentrate. I suggest you prepare for your class. The children will be here shortly.”
Amarynth, her lips pressed tightly together, rose from her chair and strode out through the curtained arch. There she banged her hand against the wooden banister of the stairs so hard it hurt, and muttered a few words she had learned from the Covedrift fishermen.
Why? she thought angrily. Why had her grandfather changed his mind? She knew she could make the Link—she had read everything in the library on the subject, and they had practiced over and over. Only four days ago her grandfather had told her she was far more prepared than he had been when he had first assisted with a Linking. Now he refused to let her help. What had changed?
The dreams, she realized suddenly. It has to be the dreams. Grandfather is afraid of something—but what? And why should that make him mistrust me?
She had no answers, and at last she went to the classroom as her grandfather had suggested, going by way of the kitchen, where Marta, the village woman whose week it was to help at the Spirit Singer’s tower, hummed as she kneaded dough. Amarynth snagged bread and cheese from the pantry and chewed on them as she crossed the Great Hall, the rising sun casting bars of golden light through the eastern windows, high above the rock-ribbed walls.
The Hall’s main doors of intricately carved black wood stood open, and she passed through them into an antechamber, into which even larger iron-bound doors opened from outside. Those doors, too, stood wide, letting in light—and wind, Amarynth noticed, hearing it howl around the tower’s high walls. The First Sailing won’t be so smooth after all, she thought, and felt perversely pleased that someone else would also have problems this day.
Besides the doors into the Great Hall and outside, there were two other exits from the antechamber, one a curtained arch into the Spirit Chamber and the other a narrow door into a small, square room where Amarynth daily taught the village children reading and writing, history and, most importantly, the teachings of the Master. Marta had already lit the fire and opened the shutters, Amarynth discovered when she looked in; there was really nothing for her to do there until the children arrived, and despite what her grandfather had said, she did not expect that to be for an hour, at least.
She went outside and leaned against the tower wall to finish her bread and cheese, and as she took her last bite the three village boys came over the crown of the hill, Davin lagging behind the other two. Their festival clothing of red, green and blue wool and shining fish leather only emphasized the paleness of their faces. Amarynth straightened quickly and nodded gravely as the first two passed her, bowing slightly and touching their fingers to their chests, then gave Davin a wink that brought a rush of blood to his cheeks but earned her a tentative smile in return.
When the boys had entered the Spirit Chamber she crossed the Great Hall again, went through the kitchen back into the stairwell, and finally peered into the Spirit Chamber through a narrow opening in the curtain covering the arch.
Her grandfather was praying, Emblem clenched in his right hand, his face white and strained. Then he sat in his chair and motioned the three forward, having them sit on the dais in front of him.
Shifting the Emblem to his left hand, he reached out and touched each boy’s forehead. At once their eyes closed. Amarynth’s grandfather took a deep breath and closed his own eyes.
It appeared nothing was happening, but Amarynth knew better. Her grandfather had sent the boys’ spirits to the edge of the Between World, where all souls went at death until guided by a Spirit Singer to the Gate of the Upper World. Then, as was the Gift of Spirit Singers, he had gone fully into the Between World and was binding their spirits to him, taking minute sparks of their beings into his own, sparks that would draw the whole like a lodestone drawing iron when they died. Otherwise, Amarynth knew, the natural ties of spirits to bodies would keep their souls trapped where their bodies lay; and if that were at sea, they would be forced to haunt the empty deep until the End.
Amarynth, too, had the Gift, and many times her grandfather had taken her into the Between World. She had seen the phantom image the Lower World cast into the Between World, had learned the patterns of thought that would allow her to take that precious spark from another living soul and imbed it in her own. She knew how to do it—but she wasn’t being allowed to.
She clenched her fists unconsciously as she watched her grandfather and the three boys sit in silence. Her Gift cut her off from the ordinary world of people, but despite her earlier dark thoughts, she could not wish she did not have it; it was too rare and wonderful a thing to be able to serve the One as her grandfather did—and as she could, if given the chance. But now her grandfather was shutting her out of that service. And without it—
Suddenly her grandfather’s hand tightened on his Emblem, his knuckles whitening. He moaned. Sweat erupted on his furrowed brow and his lips moved silently, and the tear-shaped stone on its golden chain glowed brighter and brighter, until it seemed his whole hand was aflame.
Finally he gasped and his eyes snapped open. “Amarynth, quickly!” he cried hoarsely.
Without wondering how he knew she was there, she rushed into the room. “Bring them out!” he whispered, and then his eyes flickered up behind his lids and he slipped down in his chair, unconscious.
Quickly Amarynth touched each boy on the forehead, exerting the slight mental pressure necessary to return their spirits fully to their bodies. They each gasped in turn, then sat up straighter, blinking and rubbing their eyes.
“The Link is forged,” she said formally, standing stiffly before them. “May the One favor your journeys this day.”
Their faces registered surprise at seeing her, then concern as they looked past her to her grandfather. “The Spirit Singer…” Davin began.
“Go in peace,” said Amarynth, in a tone that forestalled questioning. The youths rose quickly, bowed and touched their fingers to their hearts, and filed out of the Spirit Chamber. Davin lingered a moment, but this time received no encouragement from Amarynth, who stared at him stonily until he followed the others.
Only then did Amarynth turn and drop to her knees beside her grandfather, taking his wrist, feeling the thin pulse racing beneath her fingers. “Oh, Grandfather, what’s happening to you?” she whispered. “What’s gone wrong?”
Within a few minutes of the boys’ departure, Amarynth’s grandfather woke. He covered her hand with his for a moment, breathing deeply, then struggled upright in the chair. “Grandfather…?” Amarynth whispered.
“I’m all right—for now,” he said. “Amarynth, there is something I must tell you. I’d hoped not to worry you…”
“I can’t be any more worried than I am!”
He touched her cheek fondly, then let his hand fall back to the armrest. “You know about my dreams. All of them are the same—something pursues me, something black as night, formless but terrible. It chases me, hunts me, through a gray, empty land. And all the time it calls to me, urging me to join it, to become one with it.” He shuddered, eyes closed, his words coming faster and faster. “I refuse, of course I refuse, and I run, but it comes after me, gaining, gaining all the time, reaching for me, almost touching me—and then I wake up.” His eyes opened suddenly and locked onto Amarynth’s. “But each time it gets a little closer.”
Amarynth swallowed. “A nightmare—” she began, but her grandfather cut her off with a shake of his head.
“This morning, as I prepared to forge the Link, I went into the Between World—and the thing was there. Somewhere. I couldn’t see it, but I could sense it, far off, but coming nearer—coming this way.”
“Some kind of monster? In the Between World?” Amarynth stared at her grandfather. “How is that possible?”
“I would have sworn it is not. But I know what I felt. And that was why I would not let you assist with the Linking. I didn’t want to risk you.”
“But what could happen to me in the Between World?” Amarynth protested. “As long as my body is safe here…”
“When I re-entered the Between World with the boys to forge the Link, I felt the thing’s presence again at once,” her grandfather went on, as though she had not spoken, as if talking to himself. “It was closer, much closer. It knew I was there—and it wanted me. I could feel it. I had to hurry the Linking, and spend far too much energy shielding both myself and the boys, hiding us from the—creature. And even so, I think all that saved us was that we were only on the very fringe of the Between World. The creature searched deeper, somewhere along the Path.”
Amarynth wrapped her arms around herself, feeling a chill despite the fire not a dozen steps away. “What are you going to do now, grandfather?”
“I must consult my books,” he said slowly. “There may be some clue…”
“But what if there isn’t?”
“Whether there is or not, the next time I must Sing, I will have to confront the creature. I’ll have no choice.” He got to his feet, and for a moment clung to the chair, wavering. “There are one or two scrolls that have always been obscure to me. Perhaps…”
Amarynth stood and took his arm. “But grandfather, what about my studies? How can I learn if I can’t enter the Between World? How will I become a Spirit Singer?”
Her grandfather patted her hand. “You have the Gift, child. You will be a Spirit Singer. What else could you be?” Gently he removed her fingers from his arm and smiled through the anxiety and fatigue that clouded his face. “Now, aren’t those children I hear? Your class is coming.”
Amarynth listened, and hearing high-pitched chatter and laughter, frowned. “I’ll send them back.”
“You will not! Sitting and worrying about what you cannot change will not help you or me or the village. But what you teach those children is vital. You, young lady, will do your duty.” His smile took some of the edge off his words.
A little abashed, she looked down. “Yes, grandfather.”
“Good. Now, I think I’ll take some breakfast up to the library…”
As her grandfather went out through the curtained arch into the stairwell, Amarynth turned and slowly went the other way. What if there is no way to deal with this—monster? she thought. What if it keeps us—grandfather—from Singing?
Then the village will die, she answered herself harshly. The people would not remain without Spirit Singers to guide their dead along the Path through the Between World to the Gate of the Upper World. They would go where there were Singers. If they did not, Covedrift would become a village of ghosts, haunted by unSung spirits, pitiful creatures with no power in the Lower World except to bring fear, even to those whom they had loved.
And what would become of her and her grandfather? Her grandfather’s answer to her question about her studies echoed in her mind. Indeed, what else could she be but a Spirit Singer? Her life in the tower was all she had ever known. Her grandfather had travelled far into the mountains, to her home village of Snowvale, somehow knowing she had been born with the Gift, that it had, as was its wont, skipped a generation and emerged in his daughter’s child. She often wondered how her parents had felt, giving her up; had they wailed, and protested, and sworn at her grandfather, or had they handed her to him with pride and sadness? Her grandfather’s silence about her mother, his daughter, made her think the former more likely. But however it had been, tradition and necessity had left her parents no choice; the Gift was rare, and could not be wasted.
And because of that same tradition, she had never had any choice, either; she had never even questioned the course of her life until these last few months, when her isolation from normal society had begun to prey on her more and more as her grandfather seemed to withdraw because of his dreams. Now she knew why he had acted that way, but it didn’t salve her growing loneliness.
She wondered often what her life might have been like had she been born without the Gift. She might well be married, even a mother: or perhaps she would be helping her father farm, or blacksmith, or whatever it was he did, or helping raise her younger brothers and sisters, if she had any—she didn’t even know that.
Yes, she thought, and perhaps you would be like the girls your age you see in the village market, giggling and whispering and flirting with the boys, with no knowledge about or interest in anything else. That image certainly didn’t appeal to her, either. Her life as an apprentice Spirit Singer had developed in her a thirst for knowledge that she could not imagine being quenched in thoughts of bread and babies; but all her learning would do little for her if she could not Sing.
As for her grandfather, he had been a Spirit Singer all his long life, and was too old to farm or fish; they depended for their living upon the food sent them by the villagers. If we were not Singers, she thought, we might very well starve.
She did her best to shake off her black mood, or at least hide it, as she crossed the antechamber to the classroom and welcomed the first of the village children. Soon there were a dozen seated around the child-sized table, chattering happily, ranging in age from five to fifteen. They fell silent as she walked to the front of the room, where there was a podium to which was attached with a golden chain one of her grandfather’s two precious copies of The Master’s Path.
As always Amarynth felt a little tingle of awe as she opened the book, its plain fish-leather binding belying the riches within. She turned the vellum leaves to the place she had marked from the last lesson, and motioned to the child seated nearest. “All right, Mindi,” she said, smiling at the little blonde-haired girl. “Let’s hear you read the story of the Master’s first Singing.”
Mindi looked both scared and proud, and hesitantly stood up and came to the front. Amarynth helped her up on the little step she had built for the smaller children, then moved to one side and gave the girl a reassuring smile.
Mindi began to read in a clear, piping voice. “So the Master became very good at leaving behind the Lower World for the Between World; but he still didn’t know what he was supposed to do once he got there, though he could feel it was something important.
“Then one day a terrible thing happened. A little boy was climbing on the rocks near the Master’s house, and fell and hit his head, and died. Everyone in the village had heard him scream, and they all came running, including the Master.
“And suddenly the Master sensed that the boy was still there, close by, not in the little broken body his mother was holding to her so tightly, but in the Between World. He—”
Amarynth let the familiar words flow around her and reassure her troubled mind. She knew the story, of course: how the Master had gone into the Between World, and felt the longing of the dead boy’s spirit for something else, something further on; and how suddenly he had seen, high overhead in the Between World, a shining golden light. He had reached out for the boy’s spirit, taken it to himself, and then had made that first, awesome step into the unknown lands of the Between World.
He did what he had to, she thought. And because he did, all those hundreds of thousands of lost spirits languishing in the Between World were able to move on, to pass through the Gate into the Upper World and the light of the One.
Mindi was still reading, a little softer now. “But as the Master approached the glowing, golden gate, he had to stop, because the gate was closed, and he didn’t know how to open it…”
Amarynth was startled by how far she had read. “Thank you, Mindi,” she said. “You did very well. Jafis, why don’t you come up next?”
Though Jafis was an older boy, nearly old enough for his First Sailing, he wasn’t as good a reader as Mindi. Sometimes he had to stop and sound out the angular letters, but he was too proud to look to Amarynth for help. Because of that she let him struggle through on his own.
“And as the Master stood there, he rea—realized that behind him was a host of other spirits, wa—waiting in a kind of deep, expe—expec—expectant silence…”
And then came the miracle, Amarynth thought. The Gate opened, and the One Himself welcomed the Master and all the dead who had followed him across the Between World into the Upper World—and then the One sent the Master back…
She shook her head in wonder, as she did every time she thought of it. The Master had entered the Upper World, the Eternal Land, had spoken to the One, the Creator, and then had returned to live out a normal lifespan in the Lower World, finding the many others who were suddenly being born with the Gift and training them to be the first Spirit Singers.
And yet he had left them so little. His teachings were simple; treat others as you wished to be treated. Help those who need help. Live in harmony. The book he had written actually only made up a few pages of the tome out of which Jafis still haltingly read; the rest was a history of the Master’s life in that mysterious, far-away land where the people had lived before coming to Haven.
I wish he had told us how to fight monsters in the Between World, she thought, and her mind turned to her grandfather, upstairs in the library. She let Jafis struggle with the Master’s story far too long before calling on the next child.
So the morning passed; a little earlier than usual she sent the children home, then crossed the Great Hall to the kitchen, entering just as Marta picked up a tray of food for her grandfather. “I’ll take that up to him,” Amarynth said quickly, and Marta thanked her and returned to her baking.
Amarynth’s grandfather didn’t look up as she set the tray on the table beside him, among scattered scrolls and stacked books and next to the half-eaten remains of his breakfast. He was bent low over a faded page, his finger tracing the dim, spidery handwriting of some long-dead man of wisdom. She went out without speaking and closed the door behind her.
With her grandfather absorbed in research, Amarynth was at loose ends for the rest of the day. She removed her ceremonial clothes and dressed herself boyishly in leather leggings and a simple blue tunic, then went out and clambered down the steep path to the ocean, the still-rising wind tossing her long black hair about her face. At the base of the cliff she sat on the rocks and watched the sea pound the shore, feeling flecks of spray like lost raindrops on her face and arms and listening to the lonely calls of the sea-karils circling overhead.
As the day grew older clouds rode in on the wind, and when Amarynth returned to the tower at noon the sunny morning was only a memory, and thunder was beginning along the far horizon.
The storm broke in full fury early in the afternoon, as Amarynth swept the Great Hall. There was a flash, and a crack of thunder like the sky breaking open, and rain suddenly pelted the shutters, long-since closed against the wind.
Amarynth left her broom and went into the kitchen and out into the yard, hugging herself for warmth in the cold rain and looking out over the ocean, gray slate streaked with white. She thought of Davin and his companions, out there somewhere, who had set sail that morning in sunshine, and, shivering, she returned to the tower.
Her grandfather emerged late in the day for supper, which he ate with Amarynth in the kitchen while Marta stood by respectfully. But his thoughts were obviously elsewhere, and though he complimented Marta on the meal before returning to the library, Amarynth doubted he even knew what he’d eaten.
She followed him up the stairs. “Have you learned anything?”
“Maybe, maybe,” he said vaguely. “I’m not sure yet. It was such a long time ago…” His voice trailed off and he hurried on down the corridor, leaving Amarynth standing at the head of the stairs.
What was such a long time ago? she wondered, and shaking her head, returned to the kitchen to help Marta clean up.
“Is something wrong?” the village woman asked as she pumped water.
“No, why?” Amarynth said, instantly alert. It wouldn’t do for rumors to be carried to the village about trouble in the tower.
“The Singer just didn’t seem quite himself,” said Marta, carrying the wash cauldron to the fireplace.
“He’s a bit tired,” Amarynth said brightly. “He hasn’t been sleeping well.” That was certainly true.
“Hmmm.” Marta gave her a sharp look, but asked no more questions.
When Amarynth retired that evening, her grandfather was still in the library, books and scrolls now piled on top of both breakfast and lunch trays, hunched over yet another ancient tome in a pool of yellow candlelight. Rain lashed the shuttered window. “Good night,” Amarynth ventured as she passed.
Her only reply was a grunt.
It seemed to her she had barely dozed when she woke suddenly to find her grandfather bending over her, candlestick in one hand, shaking her arm. “Amarynth, get up,” he said gravely. “I just felt it.”
“Felt what?” She sat up, rubbing her eyes.
“The Link. One of the boys has died.”
Amarynth felt a cold hand on her heart. Which one? she thought. “But that means—”
“I have to Sing him.” Her grandfather suddenly looked very old to her, old and weary. “I have to face the Beast.”