Authors: Darren Shan
Copyright © 2006 by Darren Shan
All rights reserved.
Little, Brown and Company
Hachette Book Group
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
First eBook Edition: May 2007
Bas, the priestess of Shanville
OBE’s (Order of the Bloody Entrails) to: Emma “Morrigan” Bradshaw
Geraldine “sarsaparilla” Stroud Mary “Macha” Byrne
Hewn into shape by:
Stella “seanachaidh” Paskins
Fellow questers: the Christopher McLittle clan
CREAMS in the dark.
Mother pushes, and after a long fight I slip out of her body onto a bed of blood-soaked grass. I cry from the shock of cold air as I take my first breath. Mother laughs weakly, picks me up, holds me tight, and feeds me. I drink hungrily, lips fastened to her breast, my tiny hands and feet shivering madly. Rain pelts us, washing blood from my wrinkled, warm skin. Once I’m clean, Mother shields me as best she can. She’s weary but she can’t rest. Must move on. Kissing my forehead, she sighs and struggles to her feet. Stumbles through the rain, tripping often and falling, but protecting me always.
Banba never believed I could remember my birth. She said it was impossible, even for a powerful priestess or druid. She thought I was imagining it.
But I wasn’t. I remember it perfectly, like everything in my life. Coming into this world roughly, in the wilderness, my mother alone and exhausted. Clinging to her as she pushed on through the rain, over unfamiliar land, singing to me, trying to keep me warm.
My thoughts were a jumble. I experienced the world in bewildering fragments and flashes. But even in my newborn state of confusion I could sense my mother’s desperation. Her fear was infectious, and though I was too young to truly know terror, I felt it in my heart and trembled.
After endless, pain-filled hours, she collapsed at the gate of a ringed, wooden fort — the rath where I live now. She didn’t have the strength to call for help. So she lay there, in the water and mud, holding my head up, smiling at me while I scowled and burped. She kissed me one last time, then clutched me to her breast. I drank greedily until the milk stopped. Then, still hungry, I wailed for more. In the damp, gloomy dawn, Goll heard me and investigated. The old warrior found me struggling feebly, crying in the arms of my cold, stiff, lifeless mother.
“If you remember so much, you must remember what she called you,” Banba often teased me. “Surely she named her little girl.”
But if she did give me a name, she never said it aloud. I don’t know her name either, or why she died alone in such miserable distress, far from home. I can remember everything of my own life but I know nothing of hers, where I came from or who I really am. Those are mysteries I don’t think I’ll ever solve.
I often retreat into my early memories, seeking joy in the past, trying to forget the horrors of the present. I go right back to my first day here, Goll carrying me into the rath and joking about the big rat he’d found, the debate over whether I should be left to die outside with my mother or accepted as one of the clan. Banba testing me, telling them I was a child of magic, that she’d rear me to be a priestess. Some of the men were against that, suspicious of me, but Banba said they’d bring a curse down on the rath if they drove me away. In the end she got her way, like she usually did.
Growing up in Banba’s tiny hut. Everybody else in the rath shares living quarters, but a priestess is always given a place of her own. Lying on the warm grass floor. Drinking goat’s milk, which Banba squeezed through a piece of cloth. Staring at a world that was sometimes light, sometimes dark. Hearing sounds when the big people moved their lips, but not sure what the noises meant. Not understanding the words.
Crawling, then walking. Growing in body and mind. Learning more every day, fitting words together to talk, screeching happily when I got them right. Realizing I had a name —
It means “Little One.” It’s what Goll called me when he first found me. I was proud of the name. It was the only thing I owned, something nobody could ever take from me.
As I grew up, Banba trained me, teaching me the ways of magic. I was a fast learner, since I could remember the words of every spell Banba taught me. Of course, there’s more to magic than spells. A priestess needs to soak up the power of the world around her, to draw strength from the land, the wind, the animals and trees. I wasn’t so good at that. I doubted I’d ever make a really strong priestess, but Banba said I’d improve in time, if I worked hard.
I discovered early on that I’d never fit in. The other children were wary of the priestess’s apprentice. Their mothers warned them not to hurt me, in case I turned their eyes into runny pools or their teeth into tiny squares of mud. I was sad that I couldn’t be one of them. I asked Banba where I came from, if there was a place I could go where I’d be more welcome.
“Priestesses are welcome nowhere,” she answered plainly. “Folk are pleased to have us close, so they can call on us when the crops fail or a woman can’t get round with child. But they never truly trust us. They don’t take us into their confidence unless they have to. Better get used to it, Little One. This is our life.”
The life wasn’t so bad. There was always plenty of food for a priestess, from people eager to win her favor and avoid a nasty curse. And there was respect and gifts when I made spells work. People wondered how powerful I’d become and what I could do to make the rath stronger. Banba often laughed about that — she said people were always either too suspicious or expected too much.
A few treated me normally, like Goll of the One Eye. Chief of the rath once, now just an aging warrior. He didn’t care that I was a stranger, from no known background, studying to be a priestess. I was simply a little girl to him. He even spoiled me sometimes, since in a way he felt like my father, as he was the one who found and named me. He often played with me, put me up on his broad shoulders and gave me rides around the rath, grunting like a pig while others laughed or sneered. All the children loved Goll. He was a fierce warrior who’d killed many men in battle, but he was still a child secretly, in his heart.
Those were the best days. Dreaming of the magic I’d work when I grew up. Harvesting the crops. Herding cattle and sheep. I wasn’t supposed to do ordinary work, but if a child was lazy and I offered to help, they usually let me. Some even became my friends over time. They wouldn’t admit it in front of their mothers or fathers, but when nobody was looking they’d talk to me and include me in their games.
Playing... working... learning the ways of magic. Good times. Simple times. Life going on the way it had since the world began, like it was meant to.
Then the demons came.
boy’s screams pierce the silence of the night and the village explodes into life. Warriors are already racing towards him by the time I whirl from my watching point near the gate. Torches are flung into the darkness. I see Ninian, a year younger than me, new to the watch...a two-headed demon, pieced together from the bones and flesh of the dead...
Goll is first on the scene. An old-style warrior, he fights naked, with only a small leather shield, a short sword, and an axe. He hacks at the demon with his axe and buries it deep in one of the monster’s heads. The demon screeches but doesn’t release Ninian. It lashes out at Goll with a fleshless arm and knocks him back, then buries the teeth of its uninjured head in Ninian’s throat. The screams stop with a sickening choking sound.
Conn and three other warriors swarm past Goll and attack the demon. It swings Ninian at them like a club and scythes two of them down. Conn and another keep their feet. Conn jabs one of the monster’s eyes with his spear. The demon squeals like a banshee. The other warrior — Ena — slides in close, grabs the beast’s head, and twists, snapping its neck.
If you break a human’s neck, that person will almost surely die. But demons are made of sturdier stuff. Broken necks just annoy most of them.
With one hand the demon grabs the head that Goll shattered with his axe. Rips it off and batters Ena with it. She doesn’t let go. Snaps the neck again, in the opposite direction. It comes loose and she drops it. She pulls a knife from a scabbard strapped to her back and drives it into the rotting bones of the skull. Making a hole, she wrenches the sides apart with her hands, digs in, and pulls out a fistful of brains. Grabs a torch and sets fire to the gray goo.
The demon howls and grabs blindly for the burning brains. Conn snatches the other head from its hand. He throws it to the ground and mashes it to a pulp with his axe. The demon shudders, then slumps.
comes a call from near the gate. It’s late — later than demons usually attack. Most of the warriors on the main watch had retired for the night, replaced by children like me. Our eyes and ears are normally sharp. But this close to dawn, most of us were sleepy and sluggish. We’ve been caught off guard. The demons have snuck up. They have the advantage.
Bodies spill out of huts. Hands grab spears, swords, axes, knives. Men and women race to the rampart. Most are naked, even those who normally fight in clothes — no time to get dressed.
Demons pound on the gate and scale the banks of earth outside, tearing at the sharpened wooden poles of the fence, clambering over. The two-headed monster might have been a diversion, sent to distract us. Or else it just had a terrible sense of direction, as many corpse-demons do.
Warriors mount ladders or haul themselves up onto the rampart to tackle the demons. It’s hard to tell how many monsters there are. Definitely five or six. And at least two are real demons — Fomorii.
Conn arrives at the gate, shouting orders. He bellows at those on watch who’ve strayed from their posts. “Stay where you are! Call if clear!”
The trembling children return to their positions and peer into the darkness, waving torches over their heads. In turn they yell, “Clear!” “Clear!” “Clear!” One starts to shout “Cle —” then screams, “No! Three of them over here!”
“With me!” Goll roars at Ena and the others who fought the first demon. They held back from the battle at the gate, in case of a second attack like this. Goll leads them against the trio of demons. I see fury in his face — he’s not furious with the demons, but with himself. He made a mistake with the first one and let it knock him down. That won’t happen again.
As the warriors engage the demons, I move to the center of the rath and wait. I don’t normally get involved in fights. I’m too valuable to risk. If the demons break through the barricades, or if an especially powerful Fomorii comes up against us — that’s when
go into action.
To be honest, I doubt I could do much against the stronger Fomorii. Everybody in the rath knows that. But we pretend I’m a great priestess, mistress of all the magics. The lie comforts us and gives us some faint shadow of hope.
The younger children of the rath cluster around me, watching their parents fight to the death against the foul legions of the Otherworld. Their older brothers and sisters are at the foot of the rampart, passing up weapons to the adults, ready to dive into the breach if they fall. But these young ones wouldn’t be of much use.
I hate standing with them. I’d rather be at the rampart. But duty comes at a price. Each of us does what we can do best. My wishes don’t matter. The welfare of the rath and my people comes first. Always.
One of the Fomorii makes it over the fence. Half-human, half-boar. A long jaw. A mix of human teeth and tusks. Demonic yellow eyes. Claws instead of hands. It bellows at the warriors who go up against it, then spits blood at them. The blood hits a woman in the face. She shrieks and topples back off the rampart. Her flesh is bubbling — the demon blood is like fire.
I race to the woman. It’s Scota. We share a hut sometimes (I’m passed around from hut to hut now that Banba’s gone). Her usually pale skin is an ugly red color. Bubbles of flesh burst. The liquid sizzles. Scota screams.