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Kate Elliott

Cold Fire

The Spiritwalker books take place on a different Earth, with magic. Almost all the names and words are real, not made up. Although the world may seem like an attempt to write alternate history, it isn’t true alternate history. It’s more like a fantasia of an Earth that might have been had conditions included an extended Ice Age, the intelligent descendants of troodons, nested planes of interleaved worlds, and human access to magical forces that can redirect the normal flow of entropy.

Calendar Notes

The “Roman” days of the week commonly used in this world are Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuriday, Jovesday, Venerday, and Saturnday. The months are close enough to our own that they don’t need translating. From the Celtic tradition, I’ve used the “cross-?quarter days” of Samhain (November 1), Imbolc (February 2), Beltain (May 1), and Lughnasad (August 2), although it’s unlikely Samhain was considered the turn of the year.

Creole

Part of this story takes place in the Antilles, the Caribbean, which has developed within a very different history from the one that shaped our own world. For that reason I decided to create my own creole rather than attempt (badly) to replicate any of the various historical or modern Caribbean dialects or patois.

With the heroic assistance of Dr. Fragano Ledgister and additional advice from Katharine Kerr, I instituted specific linguistic rules common to creoles and applied them with a few nods toward the languages that would have been part of Expedition’s creole, most importantly Taino but secondarily Latin and Bambara. Obviously because I write and think in English I did also borrow heavily from elements of modern creoles as well. Insofar as the three levels of creole (as per Mervyn Alleyne’s definition of a hierolect, mesolect, and basilect in Jamaican English) used in this book sound reasonable to the reader, it is due to the generous advice I received. Any faults and flaws are my own.

Our Caribbean, by the way, has an astonishing and marvelous literary and musical tradition so extensive there is not room here to even begin to discuss it, but I would urge you to explore it on your own.

1

It was a cursed long and struggling walk hauling two heavy carpetbags stuffed with books across the city of Adurnam. That it was night helped only because the darkness hid us. The bitter cold turned our hands to ice even through gloves. A dusting of new snow crunched beneath our boots. My half brother Rory ranged ahead, on the watch for militia patrols.

The prince’s curfew had emptied the streets. In a normal year every intersection would have been lit with a fire in honor of the winter solstice. Inns and taverns would have remained open all night, awash with ale and free oatcakes. But after the riots that had wracked the city, people and businesses had locked their doors and shuttered their windows. It was so quiet I could hear my cousin Beatrice’s breathing as she trudged along beside me with a bag across her shoulders.

“Cat, are we almost there?” she asked.

“I’ll carry both bags,” I offered, even though the one I carried felt like a bag of bricks.

“It’s not the weight. It’s the dark.”

The night was hardest on her. Clouds covered the sky, and we avoided the few main thoroughfares that had gaslight and kept to side streets where it was darkest. With a curfew in force and people fearful they would run out of oil and candles, few night-watch lanterns burned on porches. Both Rory and I could see abnormally well in the dark. That was one of the reasons my family called me Cat instead of Catherine. We led the way, while Bee had the more difficult task: She had to trust us.

Rory loped back. “Patrol coming.”

We shrank into the shadow of an alcove. I set down my bag and slipped my ghost-sword from its loop on my outer skirt. It looked like a black cane, but at night I could twist its hilt and draw a sword. I waited, poised to strike. Rory tensed like a big cat about to spring. Bee sucked in and held a breath. Ahead, a troop of mounted men clattered toward the nearest intersection.

Rory sniffed, then licked his lips. “I hear other people, too. I smell iron and that nasty stuff you call blackpowder.”

In the house nearest us, a shutter shifted as someone inside peeked out. I closed my eyes, tasting the air and listening with senses far sharper than Bee’s. The wind carried the clop of hooves but also a hiss of men whispering, the click of a boot heel on stone, the lick of flame and the sting of burning.

“Stay here,” I whispered, shoving the heavy bag into Rory’s arms. They obeyed.

In the interstices between our world and the spirit world lie threads of magic that bind the worlds together. I drew the threads as shadow around me to conceal myself from ordinary sight. Staying close alongside the buildings, I skulked forward. In the intersection, no one moved, but I heard the jingle of harness grow louder as the soldiers approached. Movement stirred in an alley to my right. A tiny flame flared, lighting the shape of a mustachioed mouth and the gleaming barrel of a gun. After a hissed whisper, the flame was snuffed out.

I stepped back against the wall of the building at the corner just as the first rank of turbaned mage House soldiers rode into view. Sparks flowered. At least ten sharp gunfire reports echoed down the houses. Horses snorted and shied. Two soldiers crumpled forward. One tumbled from his horse. His boot caught in the stirrup, and the panicked horse dragged him sideways. A volley of crossbow bolts loosed by the mounted soldiers clattered against the buildings on either side of the alley. A glass window shattered, and bolts thunked into wood shutters.

“They’re bad shots!” shouted a man from the alley. “We’ve got them, lads! Fire!”

But instead of loud reports, the only sound was a series of deadened clicks.

The mage troop swept forward as a seam of icy white light ripped across the air as if an unseen blade cut through the night to penetrate to daylight behind. A bright, cold fire bubbled out from the rift. The light moved as if pushed, spheres like lamps probing the alley and the stone faces of the buildings to reveal thirty or more men in hiding. The hiding men desperately tried to shoot, but their shiny new rifles simply failed to fire. The presence of an extremely powerful cold mage had killed their combustion.

With my back pressed against the stone, I willed myself to be nothing more than stone, nothing to see except what anyone would expect to see looking at an old, grubby, smoke-stained wall. Even so I dared not move, though I knew cold mages could not see through my concealing threads of shadow. A man dressed not in armor but in flowing robes rode forward from the back of the troop. His was an imposingly dignified figure with his graying black hair plaited into many tiny braids and his black face drawn down in an angry frown. I knew him: He was the mansa, the most powerful cold mage in Four Moons House and therefore its master.

In that knife’s-edge moment before the men in the alley broke and ran, the mansa lifted a hand as he addressed a comment to his companion, a middle-aged blond Celt dressed in the uniform of the prince’s militia. “They are smuggling in rifles despite the ban on new technology. Just as we suspected.”

The temperature dropped so precipitously that my eyes stung and my ears popped as the pressure changed. With a whispering groan, metal strained. Men screamed as the iron stocks of their rifles twisted and, with a sound more terrifying than that of any musket or rifle shot, shattered as easily as if they were glass. Many writhed on the ground, torn and bloodied by the shrapnel. A few staggered away down the alley, trying to escape.

“Capture them all!” shouted the militia captain in a braying tenor.

“I want any who survive,” said the mansa, studying the scene with a brow smoothed by his easy victory.

“You mean to execute them?”

“No. I mean to bind these rebellious plebeians into clientage. They, and their kinfolk, and their descendants

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