Chapter One The Message
Seven words, written in dull black ink on a thin parchment that smelled of oil and fish:
The Crystal dims. The Chooser is summoned. . . .
The sun was gentle on the valley of Rin the day the message came. A faint breeze ruffled the blossoms of the hoopberry trees in the orchard.
Rowan stood by the bukshah pool, breathing in the sweet scent carried to him by the breeze. As the great beasts he tended drank, he gazed up at the snow-capped Mountain that overlooked the valley. He could hear the sounds of the birds, the insects chirruping in the grass, the people working in the vegetable gardens and the fields. He could hear the bubbling of the stream as it rippled through the village and wound away through the dreaming green hills behind him, on its journey to the sea.
For Rowan, this seemed a day like any other. And yet the messenger was already very near. He was no longer just a flicker of shining blue in the distance. Already he was almost in sight of the village as he half ran, half stumbled through the hills, following the stream like a lifeline. Already his small webbed hands were feeling inside his cloak for the parchment he carried.
In just a few moments the bell in the village square would ring, to signal his arrival, to call a meeting.
And after this day, for Rowan, nothing would ever be the same again.
Rowan joined the crowd in the square, standing on tiptoe the better to see the messenger. He had come running, like the others, when he heard the bell ring. Now he watched as Lann, the oldest person in the village, took the parchment from the fainting Maris man and read it aloud.
The Crystal dims. TheChooser is summoned.
Afterward, Rowan remembered it all as though it were a dream. Lann's voice, loud in the square. Her wrinkled hand holding out the parchment. The midday sunlight filtering through the trees. The surprised, murmuring crowd.
The soft breezes and sweet scents of the valley of Rin moved about him. He was surrounded by people he had known all his life. Familiar birds sang in the trees above his head. He felt no prickle of fear, or inner warning. All he felt was interest, and pleasure, because something unexpected had happened to interrupt the routine of the day. A strange visitor, all the way from the coast, from the home of the Maris. And an even stranger message.
The Crystal dims. . . .
"What do you think it means?" Rowan whispered to Jiller, his mother, standing tall and straight beside him.
She didn't answer. But when he looked up at her, to ask her again, the words died on his lips. Jiller's face was drained of color, and her eyes were fixed on the parchment in Lann's hand. Behind her, Strong Jonn of the Orchard moved to put an arm around her shoulders. His mouth was grim.
Rowan realized then that the message was of great importance. But still he had no idea that it was something that was going to affect him.
Feeling a rising thrill of excited curiosity, he looked again at the figure crouching in exhaustion on the hard stones of the village square. It was his first glimpse of a Maris man. And none of the stories told by villagers coming home from journeys to the coast, none of the pictures he had seen in the house of books, had prepared him for the reality. He knew he shouldn't stare, but it was hard to tear his eyes away.
The man wasclothed from wrist to ankle in tight-fitting blue garments that glimmered in the sunlight. Light boots covered his feet. He had cast aside the hood and gloves he had been wearing when he first staggered into the village. Now everyone could see the glistening, hairless, blue-white skin of his head, face, and neck, his flat, glassy-looking eyes, his wide mouth, and his small webbed hands.
He huddled, panting, at Lann's feet. She looked down at him, leaning heavily on her stick.
"What is your name, Maris man?" she asked abruptly.
"Perlain, of the clan Pandellis."
"How long since you left the coast, Perlain?"
"Four suns," gasped the man. His voice was dull and rasping, and he raised his webbed hand to his throat as he spoke, as if the words hurt him.
A murmur of surprise rose from the crowd. It took the people of Rin at least a week to travel between their valley and the coast. This man must have run much of the way and barely slept. No wonder he was exhausted. They looked at him with new respect.
"You have made good time," said Lann. "You have done well, Perlain of Pandellis."
"There is great danger," croaked the Maris man. "The Chooser "
"The Chooser of Rin has heard the summons and will obey it," Lann said calmly. "There has always been danger. But never in three hundred years have we failed to answer the call. The Chooser and the Firstborn will leave for the coast with you at sunset."
Rowan's heart leaped. Danger! Someone was about to go into great danger. Someone from Rin. But what was the danger? What did all this mean? Who was the Chooser? Chooser of what?
Perlain was shaking his head. "No. Not so long. Every hour everyminute is precious!" His throat moved as he swallowed painfully.
"You have been traveling in the sun, as well as under the moon, for too long. You must rest. You must soak. Or you will die, Perlain," said Lann.
"It does not matter." The Maris man wet his dry lips. "The death of one is of no account."
"This is your belief, but not ours," Lann answered firmly. "And besides, our people must prepare for the journey. The Chooser will leave at sunset." She raised her voice. "Is it agreed?"
There was a moment's silence. Rowan looked up curiously into Lann's face. She was frowning, staring at someone in the crowd. Someone very near to Rowan.
He turned his head to see who it was. All around him, other children and most of the adults were doing the same thing. But a few of the adults' faces were serious and intent.
They know, he thought. They know.
"Is it agreed?" Lann repeated. "Does the Chooser agree?"
Rowan felt a movement as someone stepped forward to stand alone in the center of the square.