This is an excerpt from The Crown of Light, the newest novel in the Ari Ara Series.
You can get it by supporting our Community Publishing Campaign. Find it here.

“Tell her the first Alaren tale, great-grandmother,” Finn cajoled, tossing a grin in Ari Ara’s direction. “The one about the Paika Huntress.”

“I have told you many times,” The Paika chided Finn, “they are not Alaren tales. They are the stories of how the Paika used the Way Between to survive.”

Ari Ara’s heart thumped loudly in her chest, excited. The old woman’s voice was scarcely louder than the shushing wind beyond the window. She had to listen carefully not to miss a word.

“Please,” Ari Ara pleaded softly. “I would love to hear the tale. Alaren’s book of stories makes no mention of the Paika.”

“We Paika,” the old woman responded curtly, “are all through that book. You will not find our name, but we are the villagers, the bandits, the children, the shepherds, the refugees, and more.”

She turned her gaze to the fire. The Paika had their own versions of these stories, no two quite the same. She cast her memory back across the decades, back to a time when she sat on a different carpet by the same hearth, back to when her ears were younger than the red-haired girl’s, back to when she was wiry as her dark-eyed great-grandson. Back then, she was just Olena, and her great-grandmother was The Paika, old beyond belief. She cackled quietly to herself. She believed now, oh yes. She believed how time could erode one’s face like a mountain, and how each furrow held a decade’s worth of living. She believed how one’s bones could ache from carrying the weight of history and how the vast library of story cracked one’s voice through the telling and retelling of tales to children too young to understand how this story might save their lives.

“Once, long ago,” The Paika began in a tone that bridged the past and present, and stretched into the future yet to come. Her words were her great-grandmother’s. One day, the rhythm of her storytelling would drum in the cadence of Finn’s great-granddaughter’s tales. “In distant times, Alaren was young in these lands, a newcomer, always racing against time, often stumbling around, lost in these mountains.”

She spun out the story, suspended between times, her memory sitting where Ari Ara sat, wide-eyed, leaning forward, eager for the next word. The snow had danced outside the window then, mesmerizing.

“Getting from here to there sounds simple until there’s a mountain in the way. Then, you’ll want a companion who knows these ridges and ravines like their own hand.”

Her great-grandmother had held out her wizened and trembling hand, palm down, and now The Paika did the same. Ari Ara’s eyes traced its contours then fell to her own smooth hand. Her gaze grew distant, thinking of the maps of the area. The rise and fall of the closest five peaks formed a sort of hand, she realized.

“Alaren tried to take a shortcut from here to there, and nearly broke his neck,” the old woman continued. “He got so tangled in thickets and briars that he made his life twice as hard. He floundered and bumbled until a Paika huntress heard him. Well, to be fair, every creature with ears could hear him between this mountain and the next.”

She tapped the knuckles of her fourth and fifth fingers. Ari Ara thought of the map. If that gesture had been handed down accurately over the centuries, this story would have taken place near where the Spires stood.

“The Huntress stepped out of the forest and couldn’t help but laugh. Those briars had Alaren caught in their little snares, sweating and scratching, bleeding and cursing. Where was that man’s Way Between now, eh?”

She chortled. The Huntress had asked Alaren this and the jibe stung him worse than the thorns. But, hung on tiny tenterhooks, tangled to the roots of his hair, snarled by his shirt, Alaren couldn’t deny the truth of her words. He started to laugh, too. It was ridiculous to be in such a predicament, a fellow like him, trained in the Way Between by the Fanten Daughter herself.

“The Huntress,” the old woman went on, “studied him. She looked him up. She looked him down. And, by and large, she liked the look of him. There was a beetle crawling up his cheek and a bird had landed in his hair. When a mouse sat, trembling, on his left foot, she decided: if the animals liked Alaren, he was worthy of helping.”

The Huntress set him a challenge. If Alaren could use his Way Between to get out of that thicket, she’d show him the paths through the mountains. The young man agreed. Slowly, he quieted his heart. He felt the sun gently stroking his face. He noticed the thorns sending him their pinprick warnings: no further, come no closer. Carefully, he eased back, lifting cloth and skin away from their barbs.

Sometimes, he thought, one had to go backward to go forward.

Cautiously, carefully, Alaren slid between the thorns, over, under, around, and through the brambles. He lifted them up between the spines, holding the smooth part of the stalks. He ducked beneath one vine and curled between the next two. It was a tender, peaceful dance, finding the Way Between those thorns.

“Come now,” The Paika told Ari Ara and Finn, “do it with me.”

She lifted her arms and imagined those brambles, mimicking Alaren’s forward and backward motions, lifting and ducking, stepping and bending. Ari Ara joined in. Finn watched, smiling even if he did keep his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest.

“At last,” The Paika finished, growing still again and nodding approvingly at the girl, “Alaren was free. The Huntress gave him balm for his scratches and spring water to slake his thirst. Then she kept her promise. She showed him the ways through the mountains, traveling with him on many adventures, helping his Peace Force vanish and appear, slip away unseen, and follow invisible roads over ridges and ravines.”

The Paika Huntress became a friend for life, the old woman told the two youths, for anyone who could find his way out of a thicket of thorns could find a way to work for peace. Indeed, many times, they felt caught in the sharp briars of violence with the barbs of swords and the pricks of arrows all around. But, backward and forward, forward and backward, over, under, around, and through, Alaren, the Huntress, and the Peace Force found the way out of their troubles.

_______________________

This is an excerpt from The Crown of Light, the newest novel in the Ari Ara Series.
You can get it by supporting our Community Publishing Campaign. Find it here.