This is an excerpt from The Crown of Light, the fourth novel in the award-winning Ari Ara Series.
The Crown of Light, the newest novel in the Ari Ara Series, has completed its Community Publishing Campaign. We will be releasing the book to the wider market, including here on our website, in Spring 2022. Thanks for your patience. Please get on our email list to hear when it’s available.

Note: The Paika are a group of clans that live in the Border Mountains between the two nations of Ari Ara’s world. In this scene, Ari Ara, after being taken hostage by them, agrees to travel with them to their homes to help protect them from attack. The Fanten Grandmother, like all Fanten, has the ability to walk through the dream realms.

Paika routes were legendary in their secretiveness, following elk trails over backsides of mountains, cutting across roadless ravines, and skirting through hidden tunnels. She only knew that they headed south and west . . . and up, always up.  The party numbered eight, including Finn. The first night, they camped under the sheltering boughs of a pine forest then met up with their pack of beasts and the woman who tended them. Ari Ara eyed the huge, curly horned goats and massive elk nervously, but she was told to ride Finn’s shaggy, sturdy pony with him. They climbed trails so steep her neck stiffened and her thighs ached from clinging to the pony’s back. The Paika’s mounts were bold, balking at little and finding footholds in bare rock. They were a breed apart from the desert’s long-legged racers; they bore more resemblance to the wild goats perched on the sheer cliffs overhead.

The air thinned and snow began to fall. At these higher altitudes, autumn storms bit cold and hard. Rain in the valley became snow on these towering ridges. First, a few gentle flakes spiraled down as if bewildered. Then, the storm thickened into white swirls that lifted and plummeted, revealing invisible currents of air that poured like cataracts through the sky. Ari Ara watched the snowfall thicken uneasily. Soon, their tracks filled as swiftly as they passed. If not for the beasts, they could have floundered in the drifts and frozen in the night. The long-legged elk broke the trail. The shaggy goats tramped it down. The short-legged horses brought up the rear. The Paika’s odd steeds weren’t a mismatch after all, but carefully balanced to form a company of varied strengths and abilities.

Twice, they paused to let the goats pick a path across a sheer cliff. On the far side, the animals lowered light, wooden drawbridges when their riders whistled, stepping onto the bases and pushing with their weight. The bridges sprang back as they slipped off onto the opposite embankment, leaving the ravines impassable to all who followed. When they reached a network of well-packed trails, the elk fell to the rear, resting while the horses led the way.

At dusk, they halted. The company built a windbreak shelter out of snow and led the beasts behind it. Then the Paika set to work, piling the snow into another mound and packing it down. Ari Ara watched, mystified, then joined in, doing whatever Finn did. She hadn’t a clue what they were up to, but the motion warmed her blood, beating back the chill that pinched her fingers and toes. When the mound stood as tall as a small shed, the Paika dug out the interior, forming a cave of snow.

The storm started to clear. The clouds parted and the sky opened above them, black and harsh. The temperature plummeted. Grindle Spireson eyed the glinting stars. Snowstorms held back the worst of the deadly cold, but a clear sky threw down the gauntlet of its icy eternity and challenged their mortality to a test of wills. Everyone except for a single lookout would sleep in the snow cave tonight, sharing warmth in the battle against freezing.

Several of the Paika worked together to build a fire and boil up a stew. From the scent, Ari Ara suspected they traded with the Harraken for the powdered beans and vegetables; Tala carried a pouch of this mix. Each Paika carried a small wooden bowl that also doubled as a drinking cup. Most of the men simply passed a flask of burning whiskey around, but Ari Ara had learned her lesson at High Summer. Finn boiled an herbal tea and offered her some in his bowl. It would keep her body temperature up while she slept, he said.

The tea made her drowsy and she curled up gratefully on the heap of sleeping rolls that covered the floor of the cold cave. She didn’t even see Finn pulling more blankets over her, nor notice when the rest of the Paika crawled in like a family of bears, lending their heat to one another as the night shone hard and frigid beyond.

In her dreams, she soared, her dreambody flying through a light snowfall like a messenger hawk. Somewhere, Shulen was worried about her. This knowledge groaned in her bones like a toothache. In the dreamworld, she followed her sense of his worry like a signal tower gleaming in the night. She spun through the storm in a curious dance, moving back to move forward, her motions delicate as wind, light as tiny flakes. There was no earth or sky, just blackness and white snow. She dodged the snowflakes with the Way Between, slipping over, under, around, and through. It slowed her journey, but she sensed that if she touched one cold, crystalline flake, she’d wake. And she had to reach Shulen before she did.

Then she saw him. He spun slowly through the snow, searching for something . . . her.

“Shulen!” she cried.

His head whipped up. A snowflake hit her nose.

She woke.

“No!” she groaned.

A drop of snowmelt from the roof had hit her face. The Paika slumbered on in a chorus of snores and wheezes. Finn curled in a ball like a little fox, one mitten cupped over his nose to keep out the cold.

Ari Ara shut her eyes. She had been so close! Pulling the hood of her cloak over her face to prevent further drips from startling her, she slowed her breathing. If she could just drop back into the dream . . . .

She drifted. All was quiet. Silent. Motionless. Black. She’d slipped into a dreamworld that unfolded smooth as the surface of a still lake before dawn. When Ari Ara pivoted to look for Shulen, silver rippled from her feet. She stood on water-that-was-not-water. Directionless, she hesitated. A shimmer caught her eye, gliding and sliding like an ice skater. It was the Fanten Grandmother. Ari Ara called out to her and suddenly – instantly – the old woman was inches from her nose, frowning as usual.

“How did you get here?” she grumbled.

“I used the Way Between.”

“Huh. Of course, you did,” the Fanten Grandmother said, snorting with sudden understanding. “Why?”

“I’m looking for Shulen,” Ari Ara answered. “I have to tell him something.”

“Can’t it wait until morning?” the Fanten Grandmother questioned her sharply.

“He’s not here. I mean, I’m not there. We’re not in the same place.”

The Fanten Grandmother studied her for a moment as if weighing all the options, none of which she liked. At last, she sighed.

“Tell me your message. I will deliver it.”

Ari Ara scowled, skeptical. She didn’t exactly trust the Fanten Grandmother. There was always a price for a favor . . . and often a trick in the bargain.

“What do you want in return?” she asked warily.

“You will keep our meeting a secret,” Fanten Grandmother said. “No one can know that you dreamwalk, especially Shulen.”

Ari Ara blinked. That was a small thing. Shrugging, she agreed. She had no idea why the Fanten Grandmother wanted her silence about dreaming. The old woman didn’t elaborate.

“Tell Shulen that I am fine,” Ari Ara said, “that I went to visit the Paika, and that I will return.  He shouldn’t worry or send anyone in search of me. I am safe and unharmed.”

“Anything else?” the Fanten Grandmother replied with a yawn, stretching catlike.

“Just make sure he believes the message is true, not just a dream.”

“Oh, he’ll believe,” the old woman answered with a glinting smile that made Ari Ara uneasy. “Now, run along.”

The Fanten Grandmother gave her a nudge. Ari Ara toppled backward and fell through the black water-that-was-not-water. It parted like a pile of featherdown. Silver shimmered in the wake of her passage.

She woke to a beam of dawn light sparkling through the entrance of the snow cave.

After three days’ journey over hidden paths, far from the eyes of anyone, they had reached the Spires. The Paika’s homes were heavily guarded, defensible perches chiseled into huge needles of stone. At the base, each Spire stood round as several buildings before narrowing to a single person’s width at the top. The clan dwellings were carved into the stone two thirds of the way up. Rope bridges linked the eighteen Spires together.

They’d left the beasts in cozy, straw-covered stalls at the base of a perilous set of stairs built into the rock. Some of the near-vertical steps switch-backed up the cliff; others spiraled around the outside, hidden behind outcroppings and chimney ledges, tucked in dark fissures and concealed by walls that looked like eroding stone. If you didn’t know where to find the next twisting step, you’d never make it up. Some stairs were little more than toeholds and ladder rungs hacked into the damp, slick rock. Ari Ara refused to look down. She kept her eyes pinned to Finn’s feet in front of her. She placed her hands where he placed his hands. She put her boots where he put his boots.

When they reached the top, he tossed her a glance of unabashed admiration and offered her a hand up the last step. With his help, she clambered onto a narrow porch that encircled the Spire around the dwelling space. There were easier paths, Finn confessed in a whisper, even a lift lowered with ropes and pulleys. The Paika did not reveal those to newcomers, however. Taking them up the hard way deterred them from returning.

“I’ve seen grown men turn green with fright and refuse to climb,” he told her. “You’ve a stomach like a goat.”

She decided to take that as a compliment.

The door of his home bore a spiral carving like the one she’d traced at the waterfall. Ari Ara followed Finn inside. A crowded entryway, dark and windowless, opened between two doors. Here, they kicked off their damp boots and removed their outer clothes. Finn gestured for her to drop her cloak on the hook beside his, then opened the inner door.

A screech of delight startled her. A small body flung through the air. Finn caught a slight imp of a girl – his sister from the look of her – and whirled her around. Ari Ara ducked the girl’s feet and snatched a felted slipper from the air as it flew off.

“Who’s she?” the girl asked when Finn set her down.

She eyed Ari Ara with a suddenly wary stare. The girl’s attitude was mirrored by the entire room. A tautness crept up Ari Ara’s spine. They’d entered a common area – the Hearthroom, Finn told her – half-kitchen, half-gathering space, centered on a large fireplace carved into the stone. Drying herbs, pots and pans, and storage flasks hung from the rafters of the low ceiling.  A pile of carpets formed a sitting area. A woman stood facing her, arms crossed over her ample chest, her acorn-shaped face hinting at kin relationship to Finn. A passel of children stood frozen like deer, wary at the sight of a stranger. Behind them, a pair of older grandaunts, twins straight down to their wrinkles, set their knitting down.

Finn pulled his kerchief from his neck and wrung it in his hands, looking uneasily from one woman to the next. Even Grindle looked nervous.

“Things being as they are,” Grindle mumbled gruffly, “we thought she ought to stay with us awhile.”

He avoided saying the word hostage, but everyone knew Ari Ara was security against attack.

A stony silence met his words. No one moved. Ari Ara was measuring the distance to the door when Finn’s sister gripped her brother’s arm and shrieked.

“You have a girlfriend!

The room burst into sound. One of older children clapped a hand over the girl’s mouth. Another hissed at her in an unintelligible mountain dialect. The grandaunts cackled merrily. Finn protested.

The tall, broad woman held up her hand and silenced them all. She towered over the rest of the clan. Her head ducked slightly at the rafters. Her mouth drew into a thin line below her narrowed eyes. Ari Ara caught the sharp look she shot at Finn and knew this was his mother.

“Truth?” she asked her son, jerking her chin at Ari Ara.

“Just a friend.”

The woman put her hands on her wide hips, cleared her throat, and eyed him expectantly.

He sighed.

“Ari Ara Marin en Shirar, meet my mother, Tessa Paikalyn, granddaughter of The Paika, first mother of the Spires clans, head among women, healer and midwife.”

He recited his mother’s credentials over the exclamations of the others. Suddenly, Ari Ara found herself surrounded, poked in the ribs, red hair fingered, her clothes lifted at the edges in observation. Only Tessa remained still and unmoved, glaring at her sister’s husband, Grindle.

“And you brought her here? Why?”

The room fell silent at her chilly tone. The hand patting Ari Ara’s head froze.

“These are uncertain times,” Grindle began.

“And you thought stealing the Lost Heir would help? Did you miss the War of Retribution?” she retorted sternly. “We’ll be attacked by all sides.”

“I just thought – “

“No, you didn’t think, fool,” she hissed at him. “That’s the problem.”

“I wanted to come,” Ari Ara blurted out. Every head in the room swiveled back to stare at her. She swallowed. “I’ve wanted to meet the Paika since spring. How can we build peace without you?”

The women around the room exchanged looks. They’d said the very same thing all summer. The Paika had to be part of the peace effort or it would fail. Round and around in circles, the clans had argued, some for making contact with the Peace Force, some against it. The Paika sent her great-grandson to spy on the trainings in Moscam, and, if possible, befriend the Lost Heir. Some, including, Grindle Spireson, thought it a fool’s errand. Better to kidnap the girl and hold her hostage for protection, he’d grumbled.

And now, Tessa thought sourly, the idiot had done just that.

She gestured for Ari Ara to continue.

“Yes, Grindle Spireson knocked me out with some nasty herbs,” Ari Ara admitted. A few chuckles broke out. Tessa silenced them with a sharp glare. “But I agreed to come and will tell my friends that I am here willingly, for your protection and safety.”

“Why?” Tessa asked, eyebrows furrowing.

“Why not?” Ari Ara answered with a shrug. “I’ve heard that if you come in friendship to the Paika, you are met with friendship.”

She’d also heard that the Paika were backstabbing liars, but she didn’t mention that.

“Please allow me the honor of being your guest,” she requested formally. “At least until the Peace Force uncovers who is burning villages and pretending to be you.”

Tessa shot Grindle a scowl of a glare. He matched it with a shaggy glower. No one else breathed or moved.

“Take her to The Paika,” Tessa commanded her son. “If she decides to welcome the Lost Heir, I will too.”

_____________________

The Crown of Light, the newest novel in the Ari Ara Series, has completed its Community Publishing Campaign. We will be releasing the book to the wider market, including here on our website, in Spring 2022. Thanks for your patience. Please get on our email list to hear when it’s available.
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