More about this book or series:
Sign up for Addicted to Heaven, Susan’s quarterly email newsletter, for free longer excerpt of Bursts of Fire (available in PDF, EPUB, and Kindle)
Sleeping woods cast a silhouette of branches over the night sky. Early spring rain had shriveled the last of winter’s snow into pale mounds crouching under trees and in sheltered places, and turned the path leading to the village into a churn of frozen mud.
The fugitive tapped on a rough wooden door.
No candlelight seeped from behind the loose flaps of waxed linen in the hut’s windows. The thatched roof, so familiar, was now heavy with lichen.
No greeting, no sound. The home he remembered from his youth had decayed gracelessly into ruin. Ranuat, Goddess of Murderers and Thieves, had turned her back on him and his family.
What to do?
He looked around the small open space before the house. The well’s pulley was missing and stones along one edge of its protective wall were tumbled and moss-covered, but the woodshed, door askew, was half full and an ax had been left against the chopping block. His father’s home and workshop might have been left to deteriorate, but it could not have been abandoned for long.
Where was Mother?
Father, he’d learned from a stranger who’d heard from an acquaintance, had died in the civil war. His sisters would, by now, be married and gone. He’d left them behind—what, twenty? Twenty-five years ago?—on a bright summer morning, riding the sturdy mare, off to make his way in the grand city of Archwood. No longer his father’s apprentice but full journeyman, he’d been hired to work and study with a master jeweler in the capital city of Orumon.
Grand city. He shook his head.
He tried the latch to the house. The door drifted open.
“Hello?” He took a tentative step inside. Food had been cooked here recently.
He closed the door and made his way through the clutter, hands extended before him in the murk. “Hello?”
Someone launched toward him, but reflexively he swiveled and caught–her. “Mother?”
Beneath his hands, his assailant’s arms stiffened, and she snapped her head to peer at him in the dark. “Odryn?”
Relief and joy engulfed him, and laughter bubbled up from his depths. “Mother!” He pulled her sparrow bones to him in a jubilant hug, and she burst into answering laughter and tears. He pushed her back. “How are you? I came as soon as . . .” His words faded. His arrival was too late to be of any good to anyone. He was no kind of son.
She blinked rapidly, then, and pulled herself into him, head against his chest. “Your Uncle Bertran,” she said in her thin, high voice. “He’s gone.”
Dead. Yes. Two days ago, a few villages to the south, a vagabond had told him. The grief of that loss had sent him on this foolish pilgrimage home. Haunted him as he traveled.
Uncle Bertran had sold the remains of Father’s wares–jewels, gold, tools–one by one, to keep Mother fed when her love of dice had robbed her of everything. In the years of quiet drudgery of the High King’s war, Bertran—the vagabond said—was the man to go to with anything of value to be sold, no questions asked. But Bertran could not outdistance Mother’s debts, and the lenders to whom he’d succumbed made an example of him. A permanent example.
Odryn’s mother sagged in his arms, and he found her a chair.
She looked up at him where he sat beside her, holding her hands. “You’re alive,” she marveled. “You’re here.”
“I am.” He smiled, though Ranuat twisted his heart. It was folly to come here, to be seen near his childhood home. He’d been hiding these seven years since the fall of Archwood, knowing despite all hope that the High King’s men would never cease their pursuit of him.
“Everything’s gone.” Her face, bewildered, searched his for answers. “We have no money.”
“Your uncle tried to help, but–”
“–since your father died–”
“Hush.” He held her hands. “What do you need?”
The desperation in her eyes was pitiful. “Can you stay here? Work? Repair your father’s studio?”
No. To work as a jeweler again . . . that was his dream. But it would only call attention, bring the High King’s soldiers. “I think Father’s tools and gold have all been sold,” he said as gently as he could.
“But you could get more,” she cried, life returning to her countenance. “Your work was always so fine, Odryn. Why, you were the personal jeweler to King Ean of Orumon—”
“King Ean is dead, Mother. Archwood–all of Orumon–is under a curse.”
“But you saw the Amber.” Her eyes glittered with fanatical vision, as though she had only to reach out to touch a life of golden ladies in silk robes and gilt ballrooms, eating sweet delicacies, dancing to the trill of flute and harp. A life he’d lived in some small way, at King Ean’s court.
Would that he hadn’t.
“The Amber Prayer Stone . . .” His mother gazed into the darkness, distracted by . . . whatever wishes or memories sustained her now.
The Amber Prayer Stone. Gift from the one God to his worldling mistress, jewel second in magical power only to High King Huwen’s Ruby. The reason the High King had put Archwood under siege, and the reason the city had endured a grueling year and a half of encirclement before the amulet’s protective magic finally faltered with the death of King Ean and his magiel.
“The Amber is magic. It can still save us,” she muttered.
“With no king and no magiel to wield it? No, Mother.” Besides, surely she’d heard the story. Everyone knew all the prayer stones but the Ruby had been crushed. A display of High King Huwen’s power: the last of the rival prayer stones, gone; the people’s hope of communing with the Gods, gone; their hope of obtaining a death token to take them to Heaven when they died, gone.
Odryn had not personally seen the axman smash the Amber. The ceremony had taken place after the capture of Archwood; after the capitulation of the refugees; after the curse had fallen on the city. Odryn had been on the run by then.
But he knew the story of the Amber’s destruction was, in fact, a lie.
Because Odryn had crafted an amber jewel—an exact copy of the Prayer Stone—in secret, at High King Huwen’s command. Because when Archwood fell, the Amber was not found.
King Huwen and his armies had marched home in triumph–fleeing Orumon’s curse–but they did so empty-handed. King Huwen had needed a substitute for his deception. Odryn the Jeweler had seen the original.
He knew what it looked like.
His mother slumped, eyes glazed, fully in the grip of memory and fantasy.
Odryn’s fingers drifted to his tunic, felt the hard outline of the smooth marigold-colored stone that hung from a golden chain around his neck. He’d held it, protected it, for so long, afraid to divulge his secret.
But Mother was destitute. He could protect the gem no longer.
How could he sell this jewel without ending up on High King Huwen’s gallows?
Copyright © 2020 by Susan Forest