World Fantasy Award for Best Novel
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Book Two of the Great Alta Saga
Jenna was the White Queen.
Skada was the Dark Queen. She is bound to Jenna—the other half of Jenna’s self. Drawn out of a mirror by a rite of magic, a “dark sister” is confined to the dark. She vanishes in daylight. It is in this other world the dark sisters wait for moonlight or lamplight to call them forth again.
This is their story: of myths turned real, ordinary people turned heroes, a land turned inside out by the coming of White Jenna.
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Jane Yolen is one of the most distinguished and successful authors for young readers and adults in the country. She is the author of more than 200 books--including Briar Rose, Sister Light, Sister Dark, Owl Moon, and the immensely popular The Devil's Arithmetic. Her books have won awards including the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the Jewish Book Award, and two Christopher Medals. She lives in Hatfield, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Then Great Alta looked down upon her messengers, those whom she had severed from her so that they might be bound more closely to her. She looked upon the white sister and the dark, the young sister and the old.
"I shall not speak to you that you may hear. I shall not show myself to you that you may see. For a child must be set free to find her own destiny, even if that destiny be the one the mother has foretold."
And then Great Alta made the straight path crooked before them and the crooked path straight. She set traps for them and pits that they might be comforted when they escaped, that they might remember her loving kindness and rejoice in it.
It was in the town of Slipskin, now called New Moulting, soft into the core of the new year's spring, that three young women, and one of them White Jenna, rode out upon a great gray horse.
His back was as broad as a barn door, his withers could not be spanned. Each hoof struck fire from the road. Where his feet paced, there crooked paths were made smooth and mountains laid low, straight paths were pitted and gullies cut from the hills.
There are folk in New Moulting who say it was no horse at all, but a beast sent by Alta herself to carry them over the miles. There are footprints still near the old road into Slipskin, carved right into the stone. And downriver, in the town of Selden, there are three great ribs of the thing set over the church door that all might see them and wonder.
The road was a gray ribbon in the moonlight, threading between trees. Five women stood on the road, listening to a ululating cry behind them.
Two of the women, Catrona and Katri, were clearly middle-aged, with lines like runes across their brows. They had short-cropped hair and wore their swords with a casual authority.
The youngest, Petra, stood with her shoulders squared. There was a defiance in the out-thrust of her chin, but her eyes were softer and her tongue licked her lips nervously.
Jenna was the extremely tall girl, not yet a woman for all that her hair was as white as the moonlight. Whiter, as it had no shadows. The other tall girl, but a hairbreadth smaller, and a bit thinner, and dark, was Skada.
"I will miss the sound of their voices," Jenna said.
"I will not," Skada answered. "Voices have a binding power. It is best for us to look ahead now. We are messengers, not memorizers."
"And we have far to go," Catrona said. "With many Hames to warn." She drew a map from her leather pocket and spread the crackling parchment upon the ground. With Katri's help she smoothed it out and pointed to a dark spot. "We are here, Selden Hame. The swiftest route would be there, down the river road into Selden itself, across the bridge. Then we go along the river with our backs to the Old Hanging Man, never losing sight of these twin peaks." She pointed to the arching lines on the map.
"Alta's Breast," said Skada.
"You learned your lessons well," said Katri.
"What Jenna knows, I know."
Catrona continued moving her finger along the route. "The road goes on and on, with no forks or false trails to this Hame." Her finger tapped the map twice and Katri's did the same.
"Calla's Ford Hame," said Jenna. "Where Selinda and Alna have begun their mission year. It will be good to see them. I have missed them..."
"But not much," murmured Skada.
"Is it the best place to start?" Jenna asked. "Or should we go farther out? Closer to the king's court?"
Catrona smiled. "The Hames are in a great circle. Look here." And she pointed to one after another, calling out the names of the Hames as if in a single long poem. "Selden, Calla's Ford, Wilma's Crossing, Josstown, Calamarie, Carpenter's, Krisston, West Dale, Annsville, Crimerci, Lara's Well, Sammiton, East James, John-o-the-Mill's, Carter's Tracing, North Brook, and Nill's Hame. The king's court is in the center."
"So none will complain if we visit Calla's Ford first," Katri said, her finger resting, as did Catrona's, on the last Hame. "As it is closest."
"And as our own Hame's children are there," added Catrona.
"But we must be quick," Jenna reminded them all.
Catrona and Katri stood simultaneously, Catrona folding the map along its old creases. She put it back in the leather pocket and handed it to Petra.
"Here, child, in case we should be parted from one another," Catrona said.
"But I am the least worthy," Petra said. "Should not Jenna... "
"Now that Jenna has seen the map once, she has it for good. She is warrior -trained in the EyeMind Game and could recite the names and places for you even now. Am I right, Jenna?" Catrona asked.
Jenna hesitated for a moment, seeing again the map as it had lain under Catrona's hands. She began to recite slowly but with complete confidence, outlining as she spoke with her foot in the road's dirt, "Selden, Calla's Ford, Wilma's Crossing, Josstown..."
"I believe you," said Petra, holding out her hand. "I will take the map." She tied the leather pocket's strings around her belt.
They started off down the road, walking steadily, each an arm's length apart. There was little sound in their going and Catrona on the right and Jenna on the far left kept careful watch of the road's perimeter. Only young Petra, in the center, seemed in the least uneasy. Once or twice she turned to look behind them, back toward the place where the long, low cry of the Selden Hame farewell had echoed.
Anna at the Turning
Gray in the moonlight, green in the sun,
Dark in the evening, bright in the dawn,
Ever the meadow goes endlessly on,
And Anna at each turning.
Sweet in the springtide, sour in fall,
Winter casts snow, a white velvet caul.
Passage in summer is swiftest of all,
And Anna at each turning.
Look to the meadows and look to the hills,
Look to the rocks where the swift river spills,
Look to the farmland the farmer still tills
For Anna is returning.
They stopped only once in the woods to sleep under a blackthorn tree by a swift-flowing stream. Taking turns, they kept the night watch, leaving Petra the shortest time, and that near dawn when she would have awakened anyway. Besides, as Catrona reminded them, with the moon they watched in pairs and Petra was alone.
There was nothing to disturb their rest except the mourning of owls back and forth across the stream, and the constant murmur of the water. Once on Jenna and Skada's watch, there was a light crackle of underbrush.
"Hare," Jenna whispered to her dark sister, alert for more.
"Hare," Skada agreed. They both relaxed. Slightly.
By early eve of the next day they had passed the outlying farms of Slipskin, neatly tilled land, well cleared of rocks and roots by generations of farmers. Each acre was gently fuzzed over with green. In one field twenty horses were pastured on blue-green grass.
"There," said Catrona, "a man who sells horses. Probably supplies the king. We could borrow one or two and he would never know the difference."
Petra shook her head. "We had horses and flocks at my Hame. Believe me, our shepherds knew every beast by name."
Catrona snorted. "I know that, child. Just testing."
"I will not ride a horse again," Jenna said. "Once was enough."
"I doubt we could get three off him anyway," Catrona said. "But if we could get one, one of us could ride ahead. We need swiftness whatever the cost."
Unhappily, Jenna had to agree.
"Let me do the talking," Catrona added. "I have spent much time among men and know what to say."
"I have spent no time at all with them," admitted Petra.
Jenna said nothing, but her finger strayed to her lips and she was glad that it was still daylight and Skada not there to remind her just what she had--and had not--said to Carum when he had kissed her. Two men she had known: one she had kissed and one she had killed. She knew as little as Petra. "Yes, you speak," she said to Catrona. "We will wait behind."
"But mind you, look fetching," said Catrona.
"Fetching?" Jenna asked, genuinely puzzled.
"Men like that." Catrona threw back her head, laughing loudly.
Although they weren't sure what Catrona meant by fetching, both Jenna and Petra managed to smile at the farmer when he opened the dark wood door. He stared at them for a moment, as if unsure of what he was seeing, then called over his shoulder, "Marline, Martine, come quick."
"What is it?" a voice called from the room behind him.
He did not speak again until his wife, a rosy giantess, stood next to him, a full head higher than his own balding crown.
"There, the big girl, look at 'er. Look, woman."
She stared as well.
"We are Alta's own," Catrona began, stopping when she saw that they were paying no attention to her but were rather staring at Jenna. She spoke again, loudly. "My name is Catrona, from Selden Hame. My sisters and I..."
"By the blessing, Geo, you are right. Who else could it be," the farmer's wife said, her cheeks bright red. "Except for the hair, she's the spit of my poor dead sister."
Catrona suddenly understood. "You think Jenna a fosterling from your family? Of all houses, that we should have stopped here."
"Naaa, naaa," the farmer said, shaking his head and sounding remarkably like a penned beast. "She has eleven sisters, and all the same. Not fifty years ago the hillsides would've been full of 'em. But we got low on girls 'round here and so now girls is a commodity. You be thinking of staying, I could set you up with good husbands." He shook his head again. "Well, the niece, maybe, and the little one there. We need breeders, you know. That's why Marline's sisters, they all got spoke for early. Good stock. Not a holding this side of the Slip don't house one of 'em. T'would be harder to miss one than find one, as they say of blackbirds in a flock. It would be..."
Martine pushed her husband aside and walked past Catrona to Jenna's side. Together, their relationship was obvious. "She has the Dougal height, the Hiat eyes, remember Geo like you said when we was courtin', my eyes was dark eyes of a spring. And my sister Ardeen went white afore she was fifteen, and my sister Jarden afore she was twenty. Give your aunt a hug, girl."
Jenna did not move, her mind whirling.
"Her mother was bringing her to us to foster, out in the woods when a cat killed her," Catrona said. "My own sisters gave yours a decent grave and said the words you like over her. Her fosterer died, or I would tell her of you."
"Nonsense!" Martine said, turning from Jenna to speak directly to Catrona. "Her mother died at birth. Lay there bleeding like a pig stuck for market while the mid-wife bore the child away. If your sister fostered her, then ... " She stopped a minute and counted on her fingers. "One for my poor dead sister, two for the midwife, and three be your sister. Oh, my Blessed be!" She dropped suddenly to her knees, her hands covering her mouth. "The White One, triple mothered. Of my own flesh and blood. Who could have guessed?"
Her husband went down more slowly, as if he had been pole-axed, and buried his face in his hands.
Jenna rolled her eyes up and sighed. She heard Petra's quick intake of breath and priestess voice behind her.
"Stop that," she hissed back at the girl.
From her knees, Martine heard only the rhyme. She put her hands up, palms together, and cried out, "Yes, yes, that's it. Oh, White One, what can we do? What can we say?"
"As for what you can do," Catrona said quickly, "you can give us three good horses, for we are on a great mission of mercy and it would not do for the White One to walk. And as for what you can say, you can say yes to us and no to any man who asks."
"Yes, yes," Martine cried again, and when her husband did not answer fast enough, she elbowed him.
He rose, still not looking again at Jenna, and mumbled, "Yes, yes, I can give you three. And they will be good. Anyone says Geo Hosfetter gives not good horses is..." He sidled out of the door still talking. They could hear his footsteps going away at a run.
"I will go and help him choose," said Catrona.
"Let the White One stay a moment more," begged Martine. "She is my own flesh, my own blood. Let her tell me her own tale. I have tea. I have cakes." She gestured in toward the neat, well-lit kitchen.
Jenna opened her mouth to accept and Petra whispered by her ear, "Dark sisters will be there. Let me talk." Jenna closed her mouth and looked stern.
"The White One does not break bread with any. She fasts on this mission and has taken a vow of silence until it is done. I am Her priestess and Her mouth."
Jenna rolled her eyes up again, but kept silent.
"Of course, of course," Martine said, wiping her hands on her apron.
"Better that you tell Her all you know so She may weigh its significance."
"Of course, of course," Martine said again. "What shall I tell? That my sister, the White One's mother, was tall and red-haired and made, we all thought, like the rest of us for easy birthing. But something was twisted up there. She died giving the child life. And then that wicked midwife stole the babe away, afore any of us got to see it. We knew the child was a girl because she told her own daughter she was taking it to one of the...you know...Homes."
"Hames," Petra corrected automatically.
"The closest one. Up the road and into the mountains, it was."
"Selden Hame," Petra prompted.
But the woman could only tell the story in her own meandering way. "Selling the babe, most likely. Some midwives be like that, you know." Suddenly afraid she might have offended them, she added quickly, "Not that you Alters buy children. Not that."
"We reap the hillsides; we do not pay the sowers," said Petra.
"I meant that. Yes, I did." Martine's hands wrangled with one another.
"And the father?"
"Died not a year later. Heart broken. Lost wife and child all to once. And crazed. Saw Alter women everywhere, he did. On the farm. At the hearth. In his bed. Two at a time. Double crazed he was." She shook her head. "Poor man."
"Poor man," Petra echoed, her voice soothingly soft.
Jenna bit her lip. Her mother. Her father. She tried to credit it and could not. Her mother had not lived under such a cozy, thatched roof, dying with her thighs covered in blood. Her mothers--and there were many of them--lived in Selden Hame. And they would not die in blood if she could help it. She turned abruptly and left Marline of the wrangling hands to Petra's comforting. Striding quickly across the farmyard, she headed toward the barn.
The sky above was a steely blue, and a bright pink sat on the horizon behind the barn and the fields. Once the sun slipped below the world's rim, there would be another hour before dark. And then there would be a moon. With the moon, the dark sisters Skada and Karri would reappear. Petra had been right to warn her about going into the candle-lit kitchen. Hearthlight and candlelight could also call the sisters out. No need to frighten these poor, silly strangers. Strangers! Jenna tried to force he...
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