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The Crystalline Fire
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-356-5
Genre: Romance/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 177 Pages
Published: May 2006

From inside the flap

In The Crystalline Fire, author Jeanine Berry returns to the world of her award-winning Dayspring fantasy series with a whole new cast of characters. Earlier works, also set in the House of Lohenrin, include The Secret Sky, Dayspring Dawning and Dayspring Destiny, which won an Eppie for best fantasy novel in 2004.

Lormere Haleil wants to stay in her home village and nurture her healing gift in peace. Instead, her family’s ambition forces to her to enter the legendary House of Lohenrin for training. There she is plunged into a world of magic, competition and intrigue. The initiates of the House must learn the skills of an adept, but only a few of them will be chosen to become a master of the power. A noble by birth, Brennet Darcon has dreamed all of his life of becoming a master. When Lormere bests him in every competition, his pride drives him to take dangerous risks to regain the upper hand. Using a magical crystal, he enters a forbidden realm and soon Brennet and Lormere are locked in a deadly competition that could destroy the House. Will pride drive them both too far? Or will love find a way to spare them from the crystalline fire?

The Crystalline Fire (Excerpt)

Chapter One

The forest engulfed Lormere in dappled light and shadow as she followed the narrow path between the trees with silent, practiced ease. She loved the solitude of the woods, bathed in the slanting rays of golden light that filtered through the trees. A musky scent rose from the leaves she crushed beneath her sandals. Life burst from the ground all around her, filling her with a clean, pure energy. The healing khi power flowed from her without effort in this quiet refuge. If only she could stay in these woods forever, but the path she followed would lead her out of this hushed, leafy sanctuary. Ahead lay her home.

Her stomach tightened. Once home had been a sanctuary too; then, she?d announced her decision not to enter the House of Lohenrin and the quarrels had started.

Her mother and father were determined that she should become a perceptor. She was just as determined to follow her own path. Now, the bright carpet of fallen leaves littering the forest floor reminded her that autumn neared its peak. Winter would soon follow and snow would close the mountain passes. Her parents were sure to renew their argument tonight. They would want her to leave soon for Chitan. The journey over the mountains would take at least two weeks, and she must reach the House before the change of seasons when the new initiates would begin their classes.

She climbed a steep hill and paused to catch her breath. Here, the path curved near the edge of a cliff. She could see most of the western half of the valley stretched out below her. The forest cascaded down the hillside before it thinned and gave way to fields. Crops and pastures formed a patchwork across the landscape. The maize had turned a ripe gold in the setting sun. Beyond, she saw smoke rising from chimneys in the thatched roofs of Beutemeld. The women of the village had lit their fires to begin the evening meal.

Lormere’s jaw set in a stubborn line. This was her home and she didn?t want to leave it. The village, she suspected, was about equally divided on the question of whether she should go. Some still clung to the old ways and wanted the prestige that Beutemeld would gain by providing a perceptor to the House. Others agreed with her that she already knew enough about the power to heal. The people of Beutemeld relied on her for healing. If she left for the House, she would not return, and what would she learn there that she did not already know? She cared nothing for the more esoteric uses of the khi power.

No, she didn?t want to enter the House, and her parents couldn?t make her. The old ways of Atlaua had died with the departure of the S?hazons. Once society had expected those with a strong khi gift to enter the House, but the world was changing and there were other choices.

A welcome breeze stirred the heavy air. She fanned her face and pushed back the sweat-dampened strands of hair that had fallen free of her thick braid. As she tucked them behind her ears, she heard a soft giggle.

Lormere knew that giggle. She slipped between the trees at the side of the road and moved toward the sound, careful not to make any noise. A few paces farther, she stopped and peeked around a thick trunk. Her sister Shadora and Micent, one of Shadora’s suitors, stood in the road beneath the shadow of a tree. They were locked in an embrace, kissing. Both were absorbed in their love play and did not notice Lormere’s silent approach.

Shadora’s long, honey-brown hair fell down in her back in loose curls and her thick lashes fluttered over sky-blue eyes as she giggled between kisses. She was petite like Lormere, and looked like a doll in Micent’s arms, but even her formless gray shift and the pale blue tunic she wore over it couldn?t hide the womanly curves that had shaped her figure in the past year.

Micent was almost a head taller than Shadora, big and brawny. He had on tight brown pants that emphasized his muscular thighs and a sleeveless jerkin. His curly black hair was tied back in the braid of an apprentice. He caressed Shadora’s face and stared at her with adoring eyes. They kissed again and Shadora said something, laughter in her voice. They broke apart and Micent took her hand as they resumed their walk.

Watching, Lormere swallowed the tight knot that had formed in her throat. She licked dry lips, painfully aware of a dull empty stabbing deep within her as though a knife twisted through her guts. No young man had ever brought her into the woods or courted her in the shadow of a tree. No man had ever kissed her. She was plain, lacking Shadora’s physical attractions, and her khi power made her too different. She knew her chances of ever finding someone to love in Beutemeld were slim.

Withdrawing further into the shadows, Lormere watched the young couple pass by. Her shoulders tensed as she held her body still. Where were they headed? Deeper into the forest for a bit of lovemaking? If Shadora fancied a tryst with Micent, it was none of her business. Shadora might be two years younger, but she was a woman, old enough to make a choice when it came to love. Already she had the young men of the village battling for her favors. Micent was the firstborn son of the village elder-if Shadora married into that family she would have a comfortable life and escape the grinding poverty of their home. Who could deny her that?

"Wait here." Shadora’s voice, low and lilting, drifted back to Lormere.

She stood on tiptoe and whispered something in his ear. Micent’s head jerked around, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the woods. Lormere stiffened. Her heart sank when Shadora turned and walked toward her with a gentle sway of her hips. Somehow, her sister had spotted her.

"Come out," Shadora commanded with a slight upturn of her lips. "It’s obvious your khi powers don?t extend to making you invisible."

Lormere stepped out from the trees and joined her sister on the path. "I was on my way home, but it looked like you two were in search of privacy, so I stepped aside."

She scowled as she spoke. She hadn?t been spying. She?d done nothing wrong. Shadora tilted her head to one side. Her honey-colored hair gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.

"Papa’s been asking for you all day. Where did you go?"

"Into the woods to practice my khi power."

"Well, you?d better hurry home. He has that serious look in his eye."

Lormere bit her lip. She knew what Shadora meant. Their father was a stubborn man who wanted his daughter to enter the House of Lohenrin. That look foretold another night of arguing.

"Well, what a sour face you?re wearing," Shadora observed, putting her hands on her hips. "Anyone would think becoming a perceptor was a punishment instead of a rare privilege."

"I don?t see you volunteering. Would you want to leave your family behind and travel to a distant city where you don?t know a soul? Would you want to be trained in some mystical art that will change you and set you apart forever from everyone you love?"

Shadora gave her head a little toss. "I don?t have any khi power."

"And a good thing, too." Micent had come up behind Shadora. He placed a possessive hand on her waist. "I couldn?t bear it if you left the valley."

"But no one will miss me, I suppose." Lormere couldn?t keep the anger from her voice. She clenched her fists and looked down at the ground, dragging the toe of her sandal in the dirt. Was she so different that even her family wanted to be rid of her?

She didn?t want to become a perceptor. The perceptors were forever set apart from the common people. Oh, some of them were loved-the ones who practiced the gifts of healing-but most of them were feared. They had other powers besides healing, powers that made normal people uneasy in their presence. They controlled the wind and the rain, could scry out hidden secrets, and even read a person’s innermost thoughts.

"Of course we?ll miss you." Shadora sounded exasperated. "But it’s an honor to become a perceptor and serve Atlaua with the power."

"Not the honor it once was," Lormere objected. Once, when the S?hazons had come to teach the power to the perceptors, the House had been the heart of Atlaua, but the demiurges had abandoned their world when they?d mended their long quarrel with the Sky Gods. Together, the S?hazons and Sky Gods had ascended to the Timeless Sphere. Atlaua had lost its gods-and much of its faith in the House-that day.

"Well, even so, there’s the money."

"Oh, let’s not forget the money." Lormere ground her teeth together. The House would send her parents a ?gift? for her in lieu of the dowry she would presumably have earned them if she?d stayed in Beutemeld.

Micent raised a chiding finger at her. "Come, come, Lormere. Your parents deserve a bit of security in their old age."

"Won?t they get that from you when you offer them a huge dowry for Shadora?"

Roses bloomed on Shadora’s fair skin. "Lormere! How rude you are! Your power is making you arrogant."

"What?" Lormere looked at her sister in utter bewilderment.

Shadora stamped her foot. "You think because you?re gifted with khi you?re better than us and don?t need to make sacrifices for your family."

"That’s not so. You don?t understand how much I wish I were the same as everyone else."

"Well, you?re not," Shadora said. "Why don?t you want to face that?" She clutched Micent’s hand as she spoke, and he put a comforting arm around her shoulder.

Lormere turned away from their accusing stares. She wanted to run back into the depths of the forest and hide. Her healing gift did brand her as different, but people needed healing. When someone was sick, they sent for her. When someone in the house fell ill, she was welcome in any home in Beutemeld, even the homes of those who thought they were far above her humble family. She liked that feeling, liked the relief she saw in their eyes when she came through their doors. Did she want to stay in Beutemeld because she sought that sense of power? In the House of Lohenrin she would be one of many. She would have to prove her worth there by competing with those who were wealthy, educated and beautiful; all the things she was not.

"I realize the power is a sacred trust," she said at last, turning back to face them. "But I could make a good living as a healer with what I?ve mastered already. And I?d gladly help support Mama and Papa."

Shadora threw up her hands in a gesture of defeat. "Have it your way. I can?t decide who is more stubborn, you or Papa. I?ll let you fight it out."

"Indeed." Micent took Shadora’s elbow and turned her back the way they?d come. He turned his head for a parting shot at Lormere. "But heed your sister’s words and think more of your family."

"You think more of my family, you big oaf," Lormere muttered to their backs, watching them walk away.

She made a face as the couple vanished around a curve. Talk about arrogance. Who was Shadora to decide how her life should go? She had a plan. She would learn to control her khi power without instruction from the House. In the past few years, ever since the power had bloomed in her at adolescence, she?d worked hard at doing that. She?d concentrated on healing skill, the thing the people feared the least, and practiced with her father’s farm animals. People said it was dangerous to use the khi without proper training, but she?d done just fine. Whenever the power threatened to spiral out of control, she?d pulled back. Nothing terrible had happened. She could learn to use it without going to the House and becoming someone forever alien to her family. She only had to convince her parents and earn their support.

Sighing, she resumed her slow trudge down the narrow dirt lane. She?d gone into the woods early that morning to work with the khi. She?d learned it was wisest to practice summoning that energy far from any watching eyes. Even people without the inner sight sometimes saw the radiant light and felt the awesome crackle of the psychic energy as it built up. The barely-leashed power frightened them and made her seem inhuman. Only when she bent the energy to her will to heal their ills did they relax and accept it.

Well, if she became a great enough healer, they?d put aside their fear of her. She?d build a reputation; soon people would pay her great sums of money. If only her parents would realize that she could make more on her own than the paltry sum they?d get if she entered the House.

Her footsteps quickened when she reached the bottom of the hill and rounded the curve of the road. Here the trees thinned. She left the cool shade of the forest behind and gazed on the thick, golden stalks that filled the maize fields, bright against the dark blue shadow of the unbroken wall of mountains that ringed the valley. She licked her lips and tasted salt. Warm afternoon sunlight had brought a damp sheen of sweat to her face. She stopped to wipe it off where the rutted road from the forest crossed a broader, well-kept road that led to Sinaluck. The valley’s one city was an hour’s ride away on a fast horse.

Lormere gazed down the road and wondered, as she often did, if she should go to Sinaluck and try to earn a living as a healer to its teeming populace. Although it seemed a large city to her, it was small in comparison to the other cities of Atlaua and it lacked a perceptor of its own. The people there might welcome her services, even though she could claim no formal training.

Trabanor Darcon ruled as maerran of Sinaluck, and his only son, Brennet, also possessed the khi gift. Brennet Darcon was noble born, though, with more choices in his life. He could use the khi, or not, go to the House or not, as he wished. All her choices came down to survival. Her family struggled every winter just to have enough to eat. Would the people of Sinaluck accept her as an untrained healer, or would they demand the supposed expertise of someone trained by the House?

The thought of leaving the quiet security of Beutemeld to pursue her own destiny both terrified and excited her. Sinaluck could be her first foray from home. It lay in the rich and fertile southern half of the valley, protected from the winter winds off the sea by the snow-crowned Gabastar range. Chitan and the magnificent cities of Atlaua’s heartland lay even farther south, on the other side of that range.

As she surveyed the blue wall of mountains in the distance, Lormere shivered with a cold pinprick of premonition. The rocky ring around the valley had always hidden the world beyond. No one in her family had ever left this valley. Did she lack the courage to be the first? No. She had a right to stay here with her family. It hurt to think her parents, her sisters and brothers wanted her to leave. Honor. Hunger. Two strong reasons. To win her argument, she?d have to convince them she could establish a healing practice. Could she earn enough to bring comfort to her parents in their old age?

Wiping damp palms against her thighs, she took a breath and marched on. The maize plants grew right up to the edge of the road. Taller than she was, they blocked the view. The sun dipped low filling the sky with a blaze of dazzling light that half blinded her. She kept her gaze on the rutted road, until the sound of hoof beats behind her warned of the approach of a rider. Shielding her eyes against the sun, she turned around to look. Shock jolted through her. The horse was nearly upon her. With a sharp twist, she jumped to the side of the road, but as she did, her foot plunged into a deep rut and she stumbled. Screaming, she crashed to her knees.