I've published a new book! As with all of my fiction, there's plenty of magic interspersed with elements of medieval culture. This one is entitled The Sapphire Ring, and it's the third in the "Starlight Raven" series, also known as "Yurt, the Next Generation." It's available as an ebook on Amazon (link here). A paperback version is also available, and ebook versions on other major platforms are coming soon. Here's the cover. Note the badger and the chicken-legged house in the background.
Antonia, daughter of a witch and a wizard, continues trying to find a way to combine men's and women's magic, the heritage of both her parents, which is difficult because male and female magic-workers distrust each other thoroughly. She has been touched by the Starlight Raven, which may mean she is prophesied to save her people, but she doesn't believe in prophecy, and she isn't even sure who "her" people are. Meanwhile, she's just turned 18, too late to be a girl, not quite ready to be a woman.
Here's the opening, to give yourself a taste:
“I know who you are.”
It took me a moment to locate the voice in the middle of a loud and busy market. But then I saw her, an old woman with a face wizened like last year’s apple, but with eyes of piercing blue. At one time I would have called her a witch.
But I was a witch too, a member of the Sisterhood, and we didn’t use that word. It was a word that men attached to us.
“You’re the one they call the Starlight Raven.” She motioned me toward her, where she sat behind a table scattered with herbs tied together with string or twisted into a paper cone.
I turned to look out across the market, to where my Guide in the Sisterhood was negotiating for a new cooking pot. She appeared fully occupied, laughing and gesturing, her long black hair swirling around her. Half the men in the market were staring at her, and no one was looking at me.
I went over and sat down next to the old woman. “My name is Antonia, but I’m afraid I don’t know yours.”
She smiled, flashing a gold tooth, but did not answer. On her knee sat a little girl who gave me a long and serious look. Probably age two or three, I thought. I tried smiling at her, but she did not smile back.
“My granddaughter,” said the old woman, nodding at the girl. “She likes to come to the market with me. Her mother is probably glad to have a chance to be on her own for a few hours.”
For a moment I felt a pang—jealousy? wistfulness? I had never known either of my grandmothers. Had my mother ever wanted to be on her own? If so, she had never said so—and I had never thought to ask.
But if she’d wanted a chance to live her life without a girl’s presence, then she had had her fill the last four years, while I was off with my Guide learning the ways of the Sisterhood or else studying at the wizards’ school.
“We’ve not given her a name yet,” the old woman continued. “But Antonia is a good name. We could name her for you.”
It took me a startled moment to respond. This woman and child suddenly seemed very alien. How could one leave a little girl nameless? It seemed almost to be saying she was not fully human. I had been baptized when just a few days old—unlike most Sisters, who tried to avoid the church and its male priests as much as they avoided wizardry and the male wizards, but who still had the sense to give their babies names.
“But best not to tell her it’s your name,” the old woman added, “the Starlight Raven, the one who either saves her people or who leads them into final destruction.”
I stiffened but tried to hide it. Better cut short any notion of some prophecy. “You can name her Antonia if you like,” I said, trying not quite successfully to chuckle, “but I’m not going to save anyone, much less lead them into destruction. That’s just a story.” A story I had almost believed back when I had first heard it, when the strange giant raven with stars glinting among its feathers had flown to me. But I had only been fourteen at the time.
The old woman reached under her table and pulled out a pack of battered cards. Her piercing blue eyes held mine. “Let’s see what the cards have to say to that,” she said, looking amused, as though knowing far more about me than I did. The voices and clamor of the market were all around us, but here with the old woman, her granddaughter, and her dried herbs, we seemed almost in a little private, quiet island.
She handed me the cards to shuffle. They felt slick from much handling, edges and corners notched and nicked. They were larger than the cards to which I was accustomed, and the deck felt thicker.
Both the old woman and her granddaughter kept their eyes on me as I shuffled. “You’re a woman grown, Antonia,” she commented. “You cannot deny your future much longer.”
She took the deck back and started dealing them out, face down. “Earth, air, fire, and water,” she said in a low voice, dealing onto four piles. “I mind you, I bind you, I call you out, from among the living, from among the dead.”
The hair on the back of my neck rose. For the second time I thought: This is a witch.
“Here is your birth, here is your death,” she intoned, slightly louder. “Here is your loss, here is your love. And here,” slapping down the next card so hard it bent, “are you. Turn it and read your fortune.”
A fortune-teller, I told myself firmly, trying to steady my hand as I reached for the card. Fortune-tellers picked up a few coins at fairs, telling the girls they would meet a handsome stranger, telling the boys they would fall hopelessly in love with someone unattainable, warning both not to trust false friends. This woman was no different. Why would I even think she had some ability to see beyond the world around us?
I turned the card. It showed a young girl, standing in a flowering meadow and smiling. “The Maiden,” said the old woman complacently. “I expected that one to show.”
The Maiden was blonde. I was brunette, chestnut-colored hair my father called it. Good, I thought. I don’t have to believe anything else.
“The Maiden,” she repeated, almost in a sing-song. “A woman grown, yet still a little girl. Eager for her independence, but almost afraid of it too.”
I was not afraid of anything, or at least not of independence, I told myself.
The little girl had been watching the cards with interest. Now she gave a sudden and unexpected grin.
“Choose a card from the first pile,” the old woman continued, pointing with a gnarled finger. Were these supposed to be the cards of Earth? Or of my birth? I had seen a few other fortune-tellers, but they had not told the cards like this. I slipped a card from the middle of the pile and turned it over.
It was hard at first to tell what the card represented. This really was like no deck I had ever seen. There seemed to be all sorts of little symbols, drawn very small, in among swirling lines that might have indicated a wind storm.
But the old woman did not hesitate. “This surrounds you,” she said. “Magic. Wild magic, tamed magic, magic in all its forms. You are brimful of magic, maiden girl.” She paused, then added, not quite as confidently, “I would have expected rather the card of the Sisters, or perhaps the Mother, to indicate our magic.”
She might think I was the Starlight Raven, but she clearly did not know I had been learning men’s magic as well as women’s. Emboldened, I pointed at the second little pile of cards. “So what does Air show?”
“Here we will see what crosses you,” she said, “what forces oppose you. Choose your card.” I took the top one.
This time it was “the Sisters.” I recognized them at once, three young women, nearly identical although wearing different colored dresses, standing and smiling in the same meadow. This time they were brunettes.
I showed the card to the little girl, since she seemed interested. She nodded emphatically.
“I had not expected that card,” said the old woman slowly. This showed there was nothing special about her fortune-telling—or so I told myself. The first card, the Maiden, she would have known from its back, from long familiarity with the deck, but she had no control over which card I pulled from her little piles.
Whatever opposed me, it could not be the Sisterhood. I had spent every summer with my Guide, learning the Sisters’ ways, since I turned fourteen.
And now they were supposed to be my death?
The old woman took a deep breath. “The cards will all become clearer as we continue. Choose from the cards of Fire. This shows what is behind you.”
I hesitated, fingering the cards’ broken edges, then pulled one out from near the bottom of the pile. The woman sighed as I turned it over.
The card showed a flock of crows swooping down into a field of grain. “The Raven!” she pronounced.
Those weren’t ravens. Those were crows. And none of them had stars glinting among their feathers. That she would try to pass off a flock of crows as the great black bird who had once landed on my shoulder showed she had already decided what she wanted to tell me, and she was going to force her cards to say it.
One pile remained. “The full story will be revealed now,” she said. “The card of Water will show what is before you.”
I still didn’t understand entirely how this was supposed to work. Four piles of cards, earth, air, fire, and water, except the cards didn’t seem to have anything to do with the elements. She had said they represented birth, death, loss, and love, but it wasn’t clear if those aspects were associated with the separate piles or the overall reading from all the cards. But apparently the individual cards represented what was around me, against me, behind and before me.
It was going to be interesting to see how she made this into a coherent prophecy. I reached for the final pile.
As I ruffled through the thick and slightly greasy cards, one slid out into my hand. I turned it over.
If I’d had any doubts, now I really knew there was nothing here. The card showed a majestic woman, sitting on a throne, a scepter in her hand and a jeweled crown on her head. Whatever lay before me, it was not becoming a queen.
The old woman tugged at her lip. “Magic, the Sisters, the Crows, and the Queen,” she said, half to herself. I’d known that card was crows. “The Maiden is facing many challenges here, but a future, with the Starlight Raven as the base….”
© C. Dale Brittain 2021