Recommended Reads Saturday: Master of Crows by Grace Draven
I am recommending this book because From the very first chapter, I was hooked. The storyline is compelling and kept me enthralled, but it’s the characters that commanded my attention. Silhara is one of the most interesting heroes I’ve ever read, and Martise’s quiet strength and determination is the perfect complement to such a powerful character. This is a world where treachery and magic go hand-in-hand and where temptation and hard choices are the coin of the realm. Draven’s primary characters are brilliant, but her secondary characters are just as finely drawn. This has become one of my favorite books, and I’ve re-read it more than once.
The following is an excerpt from Master of Crows posted with the approval of Grace Draven. You can find more about http://www.gracedraven.com/
They passed a trio of those travelers near the stairs. Like their unfortunate counterpart outside, the three sprawled on the floor in a tangle of bones and decayed clothing. Broken toys discarded by a vicious child. Protected from the elements, their bodies still bore hints of mummified flesh that stretched parchment-thin over skulls surrounded by matted hair. The shadow of a dying scream was stamped on each withered face.
From outside, the keep was modestly sized, but like the gardens and dale itself, all was an illusion. Inside, it expanded into an endless maze. She lost count of the number of corridors they walked or the stairs they climbed. They passed through spaces either drowning in shadow or bathed in the red light of a setting sun. Silhara never paused, never stopped to check his bearings. He seemed as familiar with Iwehvenn’s labyrinth as he was with Neith’s. Martise was on the verge of asking him how much farther they had to go when he stopped at a partially open door.
She almost barreled into his back. At some point in their wanderings, she had grasped the back of his shirt so as not to lose him. He tugged until she released the death grip she had on his clothing.
“The library,” he whispered. “If our luck holds, the papers are there, and we can leave before nightfall.”
She almost shoved him aside then. Wandering through this cursed crypt during daylight was bad enough. She had no intention of being anywhere near the keep once the sun went down.
Silhara arched an eyebrow. “My apologies, apprentice. I’m in your way.” He bowed in mock apology and gestured that she precede him into the library.
Eager though she was to find the papers and escape Iwehvenn, Martise stepped cautiously over the threshold. The witchfire torch hovering beside her cast an emerald haze on a chamber of dust-covered opulence. She drew in a breath, awed by the sight of towering bookcases crammed with what was surely thousands of years of knowledge.
“Don’t just stand there and gawk, woman. Unless you’ve a mind to spend the night here?”
Silhara’s soft admonishment ended her bewitchment, and she began searching the room. The library was a shambles, with furniture overturned and scrolls spilled onto the floor. Parchment lay scattered in haphazard patterns, tucked into corners, caught between chairs and tables. Surely someone other than Silhara had been here. She didn’t think he’d be so careless with such works. Martise glanced at him, puzzled. He shrugged.
“I’m unlike many of the thieves who’ve ransacked this place. First, I’ve lived through the experience, and second, I know wealth isn’t always measured by coin. Those who usually brave Iwehvenn are only interested in books as a source for their campfire fuel. This was not my doing.”
He set the crossbow against a table, within easy reach, and crouched beside her to shift through the papers. “Just gather them all. I’m certain I left them in here, and from the way this room looks, whoever came after me wasn’t interested in a good book.”
Martise stacked parchments together, her bare hands burning with the taint of the lich’s magic. As soon as they made it back to the stream by the plum trees, she was going to bathe and burn the garments she currently wore. Silhara’s instructions that she bring extra clothing made sense now.
Her satchel was almost full and growing heavy on her shoulder. Silhara stood and helped her rise. “The light fails outside. We need to leave.”
She was on the verge of telling him he’d get no argument from her when an icy fear suddenly poured over her skin, rendering her immobile. The library swam before her eyes, its walls warping and splitting with fissures. Something waited outside. Something malevolent. Ravenous. Martise grasped Silhara’s arm. His austere features, bathed in the green witchlight, were strained. “Something comes,” she whispered.
His nostrils flared, sensual mouth flattening back against his bared teeth. “We’re being hunted.” He hefted the crossbow, grabbed her wrist and raced for the door.
Terror gave her feet wings, and she easily matched his long stride. They stumbled to a halt on the landing. At the far end of the black cloister a phantom mist raced toward them, roiling white and blood-flecked as it climbed the stairs.
Silhara cursed and reversed direction, wrenching Martise’s arm as he ran across the landing to the other stairway. He skidded to a halt as the risers suddenly crumbled, sending a cascade of rotting boards falling to the first floor. Martise, in full charge behind him, twisted sideways at the last moment in a failed bid to keep from hitting him. She lost her balance. A burst of pain radiated along her hip when she struck the floor.
“No!” Silhara bellowed, crashing to the floor with her. Her momentum catapulted her over the balcony’s jagged edge, and her scream echoed in the cavernous dark below. Her knife and Silhara’s crossbow fell, the bow glancing off her shoulder before striking the ground with a clatter.
The ache in her hip was a twinge compared to the agony bursting across her shoulder and back. She dangled midair, tethered only by Silhara’s iron grip on her arm. He sat on the floor, one foot braced against a broken pilaster to keep her from dragging him off the landing with her.
“You don’t look like you weigh this much,” he grunted through clenched teeth.
Martise barely heard him. The darkness below gaped like an open mouth, waiting to swallow her. The ghostly cloud paused on the landing, rolling and turning back on itself. It picked up speed as if sensing its prey’s helplessness. She could feel its hunger, a craving for the very essence of life. Her life and Silhara’s.
Her wrist and forearm burned, chafed by Silhara’s rough palm as she slipped slowly from his grasp. “Let go,” she whispered. “You promised me a clean death.” Shattered bones on the stones below were preferable to what the soul eater planned.
He tightened his grip, hard enough to numb her fingers. “Don’t be tiresome,” he snarled. “You’re holding the papers and the knowledge to translate them.”
Were she not hanging midair and facing imminent death by either a long fall or a lich’s avaricious appetite, she might have laughed. Her rescuer was quick to assert his own motivations for saving her, and they had little to do with nobility.
The lich drew closer, carrying with it the fetid scent of evil. Behind its vaporous form, the walls and landing warped and melted. Silhara cursed and recited a familiar spell, one Martise hoped he’d never use on her again. The incantation flung her upward, hard enough that her stomach dropped to her feet. She flailed in the air. He immediately invoked a descent spell, and she fell toward him in a flutter of tunic, satchel and hair. He caught her neatly, and just as quickly tipped her out of his arms.
His hands skimmed her sides. “The satchel. You have the satchel.” Relief hoarsened his already raspy voice.
Who cares about this bag of papers? She wanted to scream at him. They weren’t going to make it out of Iwehvenn. The soul eater was almost upon them, shrouding them in a mist of cold, putrid air. She yelped when Silhara pulled her close, his arm a tight band around her waist.
“Hang on, and don’t fight me.”
He gave her no time to question him. Agony ripped through her body, and her vision blackened. She arched against him, her fingers clawing his arms as he almost broke her ribs in a crushing vise. Her surroundings faded, going gray and nebulous. An enraged shriek buffeted her ears. When she regained her bearings, it was to find herself still clasped in Silhara’s suffocating embrace, but in another chamber.
“What…” she asked before he cut her off.
“Not safe yet. The lich is right behind us.”
Alerted by a peculiar tone in his voice, Martise looked up. He was ashen beneath the bronze skin, lips leached almost white. Blood trickled in a thin line from his left nostril to bisect his upper lip.
“Again,” he said.
This time she was more prepared, though the pain and crushing weight of the spell was just as torturous. They emerged in an ante-chamber, surrounded by the husks of dead men. More blood streamed from Silhara’s nose, dripping off his chin. He stumbled, holding onto Martise as much for balance as to bring her with him through the spell’s bonding.
“Stop this.” She wiped her sleeve under his nose in an attempt to staunch the crimson flow. Her efforts left a smear across his cheek and a red stain on her shirt. “You’re killing yourself.” She’d read of the spell he used. Half-Death they called it, part of the black arcana and outlawed by Conclave. Complex and very handy in tight spots like these, it was known to kill the mages who used it.
His eyes were sunken in his pale face. “Better dead than enslaved.”
The remark struck her harder than if he’d balled his fist and punched her. Martise knew he referred to the lich, but his short statement encapsulated every motivation, every reason and every justification for why she was here with him in the first place.
He took a long breath that gurgled with blood. “Once more. I can do this once more.”
Martise doubted it, but even weakened by his own incantations, he was far stronger than she. The most she could do was hang on and hold him up when he fell after the third time. For fall he would. Few mages had ever withstood Half-Death multiple times, and none had done so still standing.
The third time made her scream. She might as well have fallen from the keep’s second story, the pain was so sharp. They emerged in the outer courtyard, under a twilight sky. Silhara collapsed against her. Reeling from the shock of the spell, Martise staggered beneath his weight but managed to lower them both to their knees. The mage slid lifeless in her arms, awash in blood and colder than a day-old corpse.
Her own pain forgotten, she laid him gently on the dusty ground. Her fingers traced a palsied pattern over his stained mouth and came away wet when she pressed them to his chest and the scarlet ruin of his shirt. “Don’t you dare die yet, you bastard.”HQN ARE