The Rival: The Third Book of the Fey

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9780553568967: The Rival: The Third Book of the Fey

Blue Isle, scene of a violent clash between its human native and the magical Fey, has now become the center of attention of the Fey king, Rugad. He is returning to finish the Fey invasion begun years ago but thwarted by the discovery that Blue Islander holy water was fatal to the aggressors. That stalemate has produced a wary coexistence, even intermarriage between royal families of the two races, but Rugad wants only one thing: total domination--and he will stop at nothing to get it

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The mountains rose before him, an impenetrable stone wall.

Rugad clung to the fine strings holding the front part of his harness.  Above him, the strings' ends were looped around the talons of twenty-five Hawk Riders.  The swoop of their magnificent wings sounded like cloaks snapping in the wind.  They bore him hundreds of feet above the raging ocean toward the mountains that lined the southern end of Blue Isle.

He angled toward the sun, but it brought him no warmth.  Instead, its harsh light covered everything with a clarity that was almost eerie.  The mountains themselves seemed to be carved out of the blueness of the sky.

Nothing had prepared him for those mountains.  Not his Visions, not all the talk of the Nyeians, not even a visit to the Eccrasian Mountains, the Fey's ancestral homeland.  These mountains were sheer gray stone, rubbed smooth on the ocean side by centuries of storms, waves, and severe weather.  The ocean slammed into their base as if the water wanted to pound a hole through the rock, and the surf sent white foam cascading into the air.  Even at the birds' height, angling upward to reach the top of those peaks, Rugad could feel the spray pricking his exposed skin like tiny needles.

The higher they climbed, the colder he got.

That was one contingency he hadn't prepared for.  He had ordered the harness chair from the Domestics back on Nye.  They had spelled a dozen different models.  Some of the rope was too thick for the Hawk Riders to hold.  Some had been so thin that it cut into the Riders' talons.  This material supported his weight and didn't put too much of a burden on the Riders above him.

The Riders had two forms.  In their Fey form, they looked nearly human, except for their feathered hair and beaked noses.  In their bird form, they were all bird except for the small human riding on the bird's back.  They looked like tiny Fey riding on a bird, but they were, in truth, part of the bird, their legs and lower torso subsumed into the bird's form.  The only danger they posed in bird form was that they had two brains--and sometimes the bird's instinctual one took over.

Rugad hoped that wouldn't happen here.  He had wanted the Domestics to create a rope that the human part of the bird could hold in its hands.  But the hands were too little.  They couldn't carry anything of substance.

They needed a strong, magicked fiber to lift him from the ship to the top of those peaks.  Rugad swallowed, glad he swung from the harness alone.  He wasn't certain he could mask his nervousness.  His feet dangled over the ocean.  He was flying higher than he had ever been in his life, and he would have to go higher still.

He had sent a scouting party to the top of those mountains.  They had reported a small level landing area, but he couldn't see it from here.  From here, the mountains looked as if they rose to jagged points, sharp as the teeth of a young lion.

The birds changed their angle of flight, and his harness swung backward, making his breath catch in his throat.  He gripped tighter, remembering the Domestics' admonition not to pull on the ropes.  An exhilaration rose in his stomach, a lightness that he almost didn't recognize.

He was frightened.

He hadn't been frightened in over seventy years, not since his first battle as a teenage boy before he came into his Visions, when his youth and lack of magick forced him into the Infantry.

Frightened.

He grinned.  Somehow the feeling relieved him.  He had thought that part of him was dead.  So many other parts were.

Logic conquered fear, he remembered that much.  They had tested the harness, put in a strong wood base and an even stronger back, making it like a sedan chair carried by Hawk Riders.  Above him the ropes looped over a small ring and then attached to the talons of an inner circle of birds.  Another group of ropes ran higher, to a larger ring, and then to a larger circle of birds. Right now, they were angling upward in perfect formation, as if they shared a brain, the tiny Fey riders on their backs laughing and shouting across the air currents.

In all of his campaigns, Rugad had relied on Beast Riders more than any other form of Fey.  He had brought most of his Bird Riders along on this trip, knowing that he would need them to traverse the distance between ship and shore.

The Hawk Riders had a majesty the other bird riders did not.  From this angle he could only see one of his own men on the hawk's back, his lower body vanishing into the hawk's form.  Only the man's torso and head were visible, looking as if he were actually astride the hawk.  The hawk's own head bent forward slightly to accommodate the unusual configuration, but that was the only concession to the difference.  The Rider and the Hawk had been one being since the Rider was a child.

These Hawk Riders had flown him dozens of times before, testing the final harnesses, but never this high, never at such risk.

Landre, head of the Spell Warders, had tried to talk him out of this course. He had suggested that Rugad listen to the Bird Riders, and send a few Scouts, then trust their opinions.  Rugad had discarded that idea before the fleet left Nye.  Then Landre had suggested that Boteen do some sort of Enchanter spell that would enable Rugad to share the Bird Rider's sight.  But he had rejected that as well.

He had to see Blue Isle for himself.

Blue Isle.  It had a reputation as being impenetrable.  The river that ran through the center of the Isle was navigable, if the ships had a current map of the harbor.  The first Fey invasion force, sent almost twenty years ago, had had such a map, but still the Isle had defeated them.

Just as Rugad had known it would.

The Isle would not defeat him.

The Hawk Riders' angle grew steeper.  The harness swung back, making him giddy. The mountains were close now.  Their sides no longer appeared smooth.  They were made of volcanic rock, polished by the elements, with cracks and crevices, and broken edges all along the face.  Nothing grew on the ocean side, no scraggly trees, no windswept bushes struggling to survive.  There was no soil here, and probably hadn't been since the mountains rose out of the sea, thousands of years before.

His grin grew.  The sheer cliff faces of legend were not smooth as tempered glass.  They had flaws.  Imperfections.

Handholds.

Then the Riders pulled him over the top of the mountain, and his breath caught in his throat.  The mountains still rose beside him, but beneath him was a plateau, and through it, a long narrow crevice.  If he squinted, he could see blue sky through that crevice.

The Gull Riders and Scouts had been right.  A concealed landing place that gave the Fey access to the entire valley.

Gently, the Hawk Riders lowered him onto the plateau until his feet brushed the rocky surface.  He pressed a lever as he landed, and the boards of his sedan chair flattened.  The ropes collapsed around him, and he staggered forward before he caught his balance.  The Hawk Riders landed around him, the narrow circle first.  Rugad was surrounded by ten hawks, tiny Fey riders on their backs.  Hawks were not designed to land on flat surfaces, so they had to time their change to the moment their talons touched the stone.

In unison, the tiny Riders straightened their arms and loosened the rope loops around their talons.  The ropes slid open as the Riders grew to Fey size.  As they stretched to their full height, the bird bodies slipped inside their own.

Then they stood around him, in fully human form, taller than he was.  They had a not-Fey quality to them.  Their hair was feathered as it flowed down their backs.  Their fingernails were long, like claws, and their noses were long and narrow, hooking over their mouths like beaks.

They watched as the remaining Hawk Riders landed and went through the same transformation.

Within the space of three heartbeats, Rugad went from being surrounded by hawks to being surrounded by Fey.  They were a small fighting force, standing on the plateau.

The wind blew through the crevice, ice-cold despite the fact that it was summer on Blue Isle.  The Hawk Riders were naked, but they didn't seem to feel the chill.  Rugad did.  He shuddered, and wished that he had brought gloves.

The other peaks towered around him like tall buildings, blocking the sun.  It was as dark as dusk on the plateau.

The leader of the Hawk Riders, Talon, clicked his fingernails together.  The Riders grabbed their lines to prevent the ropes from tangling.  Rugad kept his harness on--it was too difficult to reassemble--and stepped forward until he could see through the crevice.

A valley spread before him, as green and lush as anything he had seen on the Galinas continent.  The air, even at this elevation, had a fertile, marshy smell.  Several villages dotted the valley, looking like insect colonies from this height.

"The mountains are sheer on the valley side," Talon said.  His voice was piercing, and his sibilants whistled through his small mouth.  "But they are only half the height.  Going down will be easier than coming up."

Coming up was the problem.  Thirty thousand troops, most with little or no f...

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