THE SOUL STONE
by Jamie Marchant
The Crown Princess Samantha and peasant sorcerer, Robrek, struggle to solidify their rule in the aftermath of the king’s murder. They are opposed by those who seek power for themselves and desire to prevent their marriage. As if that wasn’t enough, a deadly curse begins to spread throughout Korthlundia. While Samantha fights against priests, enemies, and her closest advisers, Robrek sets off to discover the source of the curse. He learns the reason the goddess chose him as king: to defeat the Soul Stone, a stone capable of sucking the soul out of its victims. Their archenemy, the Bard Alvabane, awakens the Soul Stone and plans to use its power to reclaim Korthlundia for her people, a people driven out over a thousand years ago by the hero Armunn. Armunn had to sacrifice his life and soul to contain the Soul Stone. Will Robrek have to do the same?
At bedtime, Alvabane sat at her dressing table brushing her long hair. It had once been a bright, rich red, but it had dulled with age and was now mostly grey with only a few strands of color to remind her of what once had been. It seemed a metaphor for her life—small flashes of color to remind her of her once bright purpose.
One of those flashes, Erick, set her nightly goblet of fortified wine next to her hand. She needed the strong alcohol to dull the pain of her joints so she could sleep. Erick had served her for ten years. When her former servant had died, he’d been sent by her people, despite the fact that she’d only been a disappointment to them.
She turned to thank him, but the words died on her lips as she saw the reproach in his eyes. Alvabane turned back to her mirror. Tonight was the night of the new moon. She should have been preparing to perform the rites of the dark gods, not preparing for bed. “They have forgotten us,” Alvabane said. “The Soul Stone does not live.”
In the mirror, she saw Erick’s eyes narrow. He was not yet twenty and still had the optimism of youth. He still believed the Stone would come to life again when the gods willed it. He believed it would again be the weapon it had once been. Created in the far past by magic which had since been lost, it had been used by her people to protect themselves from the barbarians that now ran free over Korth and Lundia.
“I will perform the rites next month,” she promised, but so had she promised last month and the month before that. The stairs to the bottom of the East Tower were agony to her knees. Erick made a mewing sound, reminding her what he’d sacrificed to serve her and the dark gods. She herself had cut his tongue from his mouth when he came to her as a ten-year-old child. He had surrendered it stoically. Only the Bards were allowed to sing the rites of the gods. All others who heard them had to be rendered mute so they couldn’t repeat music not meant for their tongues.
“Do you think you have sacrificed more than I?” She turned to face him. “I submitted to the brutish duke’s bed for years. I gave birth to a child of rape. All so I could remain near the Stone. I performed the rites faithfully every new moon for decades. And for what, I ask you? The power of the Stone remains trapped behind the shield the demon Armunn created from his own soul. That shield can’t be destroyed. I have dedicated my life to trying, but it is impossible. The Soul Stone won’t live again!”
Erick mewed again and looked toward the tapestry on the wall. It showed the map of the desert of Sehra, to the south of Korthlundia, where her people had lived in exile since Armunn and his hordes had trapped the Stone and then driven them from their homeland. Blinking back tears of despair, she turned from him. “Do you think I have forgotten? Every generation fewer of our children are born. Only by returning to the land of our birthright can we be strong again.”
She got up and went to the tapestry, touching it lovingly. “Do you not understand? The dark gods have found me unworthy to be their messenger. I once thought I was the child of the prophecy, the one who would drive the descendants of Armunn’s hordes back across the mountains into Korth and reclaim the land they call Lundia as our own. But I was wrong. I’m an unprofitable servant, an unfit vessel.”
* * *
Erick left the room of his mistress and fetched the two doves he had caged. He descended the East Tower steps. He couldn’t perform the rites of the dark gods, but he could keep their altar bright and their bowls full.
When he reached the bottom, he got the key out he wore under his shirt on a chain and unlocked the door to the small, cold room. Nothing stood in it but the altar: the original altar after which all altars of the exiled were fashioned. It was the size of a banquet table, and set exactly in its center was a large, red stone, one that reached deep beneath the ground to a pool of power—power shut off by Armunn’s curse. On top of the Soul Stone sat a silver knife, which he kept polished and sharp. At one end of the altar sat a statue of Balor, the one-eyed god of death. At the other was Fea, the shadowy goddess of war—the dark gods of his people. Before each statue was a bowl, partly filled with blood. Erick knelt at the altar to pray, to beg the gods to accept the sacrifice he was about to make, even though he was no Bard to sing their songs.
As before, he felt their presence descend and heard their voices in his head. :Armunn’s shield grows weak. The campaign against the Korthian demon priestesses has left them unable to perform the rites to keep it strong.: He’d tried to tell his mistress this, but, without words, he couldn’t make her understand. He knew if he could just get her to this room, she’d discover the truth herself. He knew how the stairs pained her, but the dark gods fed on pain. Had not Alvabane told him this herself as she had cut out his tongue? Was this not the reason the animals were tortured before they were killed on the altar, as he would torture the doves before he filled the bowls with their blood?
But as Erick prayed, he suddenly knew the answer. The sacrifice of mere animals was not enough to break the final bonds of Armunn’s shield. He stood and stripped off his robe, shivering in the cold. Then, taking the silver knife, he climbed onto the large altar. He started cutting at his toes, planning to give himself as much pain as he could tolerate before plunging the knife into his heart. He wouldn’t live to witness his people’s triumphant return. Instead, he’d die to make that return possible.
* * *
A terrifying thunderclap jolted Alvabane awake, and a strange buzzing filled her head. Painfully, she tottered to the window and looked at the night sky. It was the night of the new moon, so little light fell, but there were no clouds and no rain. What could have been the source of the thunderclap, and why did her head still buzz?
The buzzing grew stronger; it had, almost, but not quite, a musical quality to it, as if someone was trying to sing through a muffling gag. What can it be? It sounded familiar, like a once loved song, almost forgotten.
Her heart began to race. No, it couldn’t be. Not after all this time. Ignoring the pain in her joints, she rushed out of her chambers and to the East Tower. Agonizingly, she made her way down the hundreds of steps. The closer she came, the louder the buzzing grew until it was indeed a song, one she could almost, but not quite, understand.
When she reached the bottom, she found the door unlocked. It creaked open at her touch. She gasped when she saw what lay on the altar—an altar stained with blood. “Erick, no!” she cried to the one who’d been more like her child than her servant. But he was beyond hearing. “Why did you do this?”
Beneath Erick, a light suddenly burst forth, bathing the entire room in its glow—a light as red as Erick’s blood. The Stone beneath him pulsed in time to the music. In awe, she fell to her knees. By Erick’s gift of pain and blood, the Soul Stone had broken free at last. She laughed, as she hadn’t laughed since she was a small child. The dark gods hadn’t deserted her. Perhaps she could be a profitable servant after all.
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AN INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE
-What inspired you to become a writer?
The answer has two parts. On one hand, I’ve always known I was meant to be a writer. As a young child, I never remember wanting to be anything else. I started writing stories about the Man from Mars for my older sister when I was about six. I then wrote a fairy tale for her, starring her and her husband. Throughout my adolescence, I continued writing and finished my first novel in high school (not that it was publishable). Still, I had it pounded into me how hard (next to impossible) it is to make a living as a writer, so I decided to get my PhD and teach college English. In doing so, I lost my way and neglected my muse. What I’d begun as a means to support myself while writing became an aim in and of itself. I focused on writing literary criticism in order to further my career as a professor. One day while I was working on a piece of literary criticism on Willa Cather, I realized not only did I have no interest in writing the piece, but also that I hadn’t written fiction in years. I abandoned the piece on Cather and started what was to become my first novel, The Goddess’s Choice. That was about fourteen years ago. I may not be rich, but I’m a much happier person since I returned to my first passion. The Soul Stone is the sequel to The Goddess’s Choice, although it is not necessary to have read the first book to understand the second.
-What draws you to fantasy?
Since I was a small child, it is fantasy that has captured my imagination and helped me to envision a new and different world. I find fantasy both more real and more creative than other genres. The creativity of the setting somehow allows the characters to better reflect real people and real human emotion. The freedom of the fantasy setting allows the writer to delve deep into the human consciousness and truly explore what it means to be human. I think the most important role of literature is to help us understand others who are not like us. Fantasy, when it is well written, does this beautifully.
-Give us a fun or interesting fact you learned researching this book.
Hunting falcons have no affection/attachment to their handler. They hunt for them only because they’ve been taught that the handler is the only source of food. While cats, dogs, and horses may truly want to be with their human companions and may even love them, this is definitely not true of falcons.
-Which of your characters would you go out for drinks and pizza with?
Samantha, the crown princess and then queen of Korthlundia. She is the type of woman I aspire to be. I originally created her in The Goddess’s Choice to combat the gender bias in the fairy tale upon which that novel is based. “The Princess and the Glass Hill” was my favorite fairy tale as a child. (Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. No one else has either.) It didn’t occur to me until I was older just how negligible the princess in the tale is. The hero tames magical horses of bronze, silver, and gold and rides them up the impossible sheer side of the glass hill. It is with him that I always identified as a child. The princess, on the other hand, does practically nothing. She has no name and no role other than being handed off as a prize to the victorious hero. Samantha remedies this defect. She is a strong and powerful heroine who needs no man to complete her. Still, she has her weaknesses and insecurities at being thrust onto the throne at the young age of nineteen. She is my gift to all the girls and women who long for a fairy tale princess who deserves the name of hero.
-For aspiring writers, any tips?
Read a lot, and find yourself a critique group or partner. It’s nearly impossible to see all the weaknesses in your own work.
-Is there a genre you could never write? Which and why?
Romance. Not only do I not personally enjoy romance novels, I believe they are harmful to women. First, they set up unrealistic expectations of men that are bound to leave women disappointed. I call romance porn for women. Just as no real woman looks like a Playboy centerfold, no real man is as perfect as a romance novel hero. Second, and even more harmful in my opinion, romance novels teach women that romance is to be the primary, if not exclusive, focus of their lives and their sole source of happiness. While relationships can certainly add to our lives, if we are not happy with ourselves as a person and with our personal goals and ambitions, we can’t be happy with a partner. A partner cannot fulfill our every need, and the expectation that he can will ultimately lead to unhappiness.
From early childhood, Jamie has been immersed in books. Her mother, an avid reader, read to her, and her older sister filled her head with fairy tales. Taking into consideration her love for literature and the challenges of supporting herself as a writer, she pursued a Ph.D. in American literature, which she received in 1998. She started teaching writing and literature at Auburn University. But in doing so, she put her true passion on the backburner and neglected her muse. Then one day, in the midst of writing a piece of literary criticism, she realized that what she wanted to be doing was writing fantasy novels. Her muse thus revived, she began the book that was to become The Goddess’s Choice, which was published in April 2012. The second volume in the series, The Soul Stone, was released this June.
She lives in Auburn, Alabama, with her husband, son, and four cats, which (or so she’s been told) officially makes her a cat lady. She still teaches writing and literature at Auburn University. Her short fiction has been published on Short-Story.Me, and the story was chosen for inclusion in their annual anthology. My other works have appeared in the anthologies—Urban Fantasy (KY Story, 2013) and Of Dragon and Magic: Tales of the Lost Worlds (Witty Bard Publishing, 2014)—The World of Myth, A Writer’s Haven, and Bards & Sages.
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