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Halfway to the village, a strange sound filled the darkness. Shana Kerr paused and turned about, searching for whatever made such an anguished noise. The strangled groan of an injured animal called out to her. She glanced around again, hoping to find a break in the dense trees that would offer a minimum amount of light to guide her but found none.
Shana ignored the rapid pounding of her heart and listened carefully. To her left, undergrowth rustled as something thrashed about. She stepped from the path, ignored the heavy dew that clung to her cloak and soaked through to wet her gown. She pushed aside a vine of wisteria, shoved away a dew-brightened web of an industrious spider that stuck to her hair and continued through the dense forest.
The trees grew thicker. Darkness closed in around her. She shoved her hands into her cloak pockets and continued, ducking low branches, twisting to avoid thickets and decaying leaves.
She paused in a clearing where the moonlight was sufficient to gather her bearings and listened. She heard only the normal sounds of the forest.
Yet something out there needed her. The healing gifts long nurtured within her awoke. Her fingers tingled. Warmth flowed through her body and centered in the palms of her hands.
Shana drew deep for the inner sense that had guided her through many seasons. She concentrated on the forest and searched for something that might be out of place. She pulled her hands from the pockets of her forest-green cloak and, trusting her instincts to guide her steps, walked forward.
Another deep groan split the silence.
A creature lay enveloped in a white aura ofmoonlight filtering down through the trees.
Shana raised her hand to shield her eyes from the brilliant light. She walked forward slowly to pause less than four steps away from a man lying on the forest floor.
Another step. Two. Shana dropped to her knees.
She reached out to him, hesitated, and then rested her spread fingers on her bent knees as she searched for an injury.
Never had she seen such a man. Even lying on the forest floor, his height surpassed hers by several feet. Shana glanced down his long legs to his booted feet, and then up to study the strange leather leggings that covered his muscular limbs. She paused when she saw the enormous sword encased in a leather scabbard, etched with foreign symbols, belted at his hip.
A rush of apprehension caused by the mysterious weapon shook her. She pushed caution aside and continued her examination of his wide shoulders and strong arms bared by a dark leather vest etched with similar markings open across his abdomen, exposing ripples of muscle beneath his taut flesh.
A deep groan spilled from his lips.
Shana reached out to grasp his hand. The instant her fingers touched his, arcs of white light erupted from his fingertips. Burning her flesh. Repelling her touch.
She jerked her hand away. "What just happened?" she mumbled as she put her fingers into her mouth to soothe the burns blistering her fingertips. "Did I cause that?" Knowing the man must be seriously injured and she might have made matters worse, she struggled to her feet. She turned and ran for help, unmindful of branches that slapped her face, tore her clothing, and prodded up through her slippers.
On the outskirts of her village, she paused to search the darkened cottages for any sign of life. Seeing no light reflected from the draped windows facing the dirt roadway, she pulled her woolen cloak tighter around her body and hurried down the rutted cart path toward home.
She stepped upon the stone stoop and pushed aside the latch on the heavy wooden door. The door opened with a squeal, exposing her adopted mother, Hilda, in the chair before the glowing hearth.
"There's an injured man in the forest."
"Where?" Hilda rose unsteadily from her chair and shuffled to the door to grab her wrap from a nearby peg.
"He's like no one I've ever seen. He could be one of Zandicol's men. We can't--"
"Nonsense. Have your studies taught you nothing? Our duty is to assist those who need our help. Wake several of the village men. Have them accompany us into the forest."
Shana watched Hilda hobble around the cottage, securing the tools of her healing. She wanted to explain what happened when she touched the man, about the strange aura glowing so brightly it lit the forest, but couldn't find the proper words.
"Come, Shana. We are wasting precious time."
Shana fled the cottage. She knocked on several nearby doors, rousing the families within and requesting assistance. When she'd gathered ten men, she joined Hilda and led her back to the spot where she found the downed man.
The aura of moonlight, previously surrounding the stranger, had disappeared as the moon moved behind a passing cloud, leaving nothing more mysterious than a tall man in need of assistance. Voices around her dulled to a murmur as Shana concentrated on his form, wondering again who he was and how he happened to be in the forest of Verdun.
Her fingertips began to tingle in a way she'd never experienced. She studied her hands and found the blisters had miraculously disappeared, but pulses of energy crawled up her arms, reminiscent of the arcs of fire that erupted over her hands. She rubbed her palms over her cloak and stepped back to place a greater distance between herself and the man who, had somehow, created her strange distress.
Several of the village men hurried off, and then returned moments later with a cart. She noted the caution the men used when removing the huge scabbard from the man's side. She heard their grunts and groans of exertion as they lifted his large body into the bed of the cart.
She wondered why the villagers were not affected when they touched him. Could it be her gifts warning of danger? What about Hilda?
She reached forward to warn Hilda not to touch him when her mentor climbed into the back of the cart, but she was too late. Hilda placed her palm against the stranger's forehead.
Confused but cautious, Shana followed behind as the villagers pulled the cart out of the forest and down the dirt roadway between the rows of little cottages. Her footsteps faltered when she realized that Hilda intended to take the man into their home.
Premonition tugged at her mind. This man should be taken far away from Verdun.
Hilda scooted down from the cart. "Be careful when you move him," she instructed. "Place him on the fur mat in front of the fire so I can tend his back and whatever else ails him."
Hilda turned from the men struggling under the stranger's weight. "Yes, Shana?"
"Do you think it wise to bring him here?"
"What is wrong, my dear? Where else would we take him?"
"Nothing important. We'll discuss it later."
Hilda touched her arm. "Are you sure?"
Shana watched as the village men carried the injured man into the cottage and placed him before the hearth. She then followed Hilda into the cottage. She removed her damp cloak, draped it on a peg next to Hilda's, and walked across the plank floor. She watched Hilda bend beside the man before the hearth.
"I need to turn him so I can look at a wound I discovered when he was lifted into the cart."
Several of the men hurried to do Hilda's bidding. Shana watched as they positioned the man on his stomach, slipped the heavy leather vest from his arms, and bared his wounded back. She listened when they asked if they could do anything else.
Hilda told them to go back to their homes.
Shana heard their whispered comments about the man's size and identity as they left the cottage.
She watched Hilda work, using her magic touch and healing herbs to make a poultice for his wounded shoulder, and then as her wrinkled fingers disappeared into his long, dark hair.
"I have done all I can for him this eve. Please find something large enough to cover him."
Shana hurried across the floor and gathered a coverlet from a trunk beside the far wall. She averted her gaze from his exposed flesh as she approached the hearth and bent to spread the coverlet along his body.
"Help me up."
She grasped Hilda's hand and steadied her as she straightened. After Hilda took her favorite chair before the fire, Shana made them both a cup of herbal tea.
She glanced at the stranger sprawled on the floor. "What about him? What if he wakes up during the night?"
Hilda chuckled. "He will sleep for the remainder of this eve."
Shana sat on the stool next to Hilda's chair. "I've been thinking about all you told me of my heritage." Hours before Hilda had explained to Shana that she was not the orphaned daughter of the healer of Napul to the south, taken in by Hilda so she might learn her deceased mother's skills and return one day to treat her village. She was, in truth, the daughter of a queen murdered on the eve of her birthing and stolen away to live in seclusion because, like her mother, Shana carried the power of the Chosen of the Temple of Havenshire.
"What is it you do not understand, my dear?"
"You said you were a guardian for my mother, Dedra of the Chosen, when she traveled from Havenshire to wed my father, Mordith."
"What happened to my father?"
"A few months after your mother's death, Mordith died of a mysterious sickness that rendered him incapable of carrying out his duties as leader of Soras. His younger brother, Larus, took his place on the throne. Throughout the years that have followed your birth and your parents' deaths, Larus has continued to rule Soras, but Zandicol rules Larus."
"I still don't understand. Who is Zandicol? Where did he come from and how did he gain such control?"
Hilda sighed. "No one knows where Zandicol came from, Shana. Some say he is descended from the invaders who threatened our world decades ago. Others whisper he is a castoff of the Chosen, excommunicated from Havenshire."
"The only thing I know for certain is Zandicol thrives off others' weaknesses and possesses a dark magic stronger than any force we know to destroy it."
"Why didn't the Chosen destroy Zandicol before he became so powerful?"
"The Chosen have dwindled in numbers over the passing of time, my dear. Once a great race sharing an immense power, those powers have now weakened until they do little more than preserve the Old Rights and protect the Temple. None remain strong enough to overthrow the evil that eats away at our lands."
Shana glanced around their tiny cottage, at each piece of hand-carved furniture. She remembered the good times she shared with Hilda. She studied her small alcove, the tiny cot where she slept, and the table where she practiced her many lessons. If she heeded Hilda's latest teachings, her life would be in jeopardy, and everything she ever believed in, destroyed.
She turned to study the tall man sleeping before the hearth.
"The Chosen aren't strong enough to stop Zandicol, yet you say it's my destiny to travel to Havenshire, accept the teachings of my ancestors, and then journey to Soras to challenge Zandicol."
"No one can force you to make this journey, Shana. Each of us must choose the crossroads we take carefully, for there is no turning back. No escape to a safer life."
"Why wasn't I told of my heritage sooner? Surely an innocent child could have done nothing to prevent Zandicol's rise to power."
"I can only assume Zandicol suspected Dedra might know of his plans for Soras and would use her magical gifts to prohibit his evil goals. He must have wanted you destroyed because he believed you would carry the same power."
Hilda touched Shana's cheek. "It is very late, my dear. You need rest."
She rose from her stool, bent and kissed Hilda's cheek, and then walked to her alcove to prepare for sleep. Moments later, she watched Hilda take to her own cot for the night.
Shana listened to the popping and hissing of the logs in the hearth and watched the red glow of the flames dance over the stranger's body, still motionless before the fire.
She exhaled in a gush and flopped over to her back to stare at the ceiling of her tiny alcove. After a few moments, she forcibly freed her mind of the tumultuous thoughts that created such uncertainty, but she couldn't keep her gaze from straying to the mysterious man before the hearth.
Frustrated, Shana eased her legs to the side of the cot and dropped her feet to the floor. She stood and walked slowly across the room.
She bent to study the stranger's face in the firelight.
Dark shadows emphasized the strength of his jaw and cheekbones, his square chin. His nose straight and perfectly sized to compliment his angular features. Long lashes dusted darker circles beneath his closed eyes and softened the hard lines of his face. A tiny scar separated the dark hair of his right brow, changing the arch and giving it a sinister appearance.
Shana shivered, knowing she should place as much distance as possible between her and this male, but curiosity formed a stronger bond. She studied the dark hair that fell straight from a part at the center of his bronzed forehead to sweep his wide shoulders.
The strange tingle she felt before in her fingertips, when she was this close to him, reappeared but Shana pushed aside her reaction. She wondered again who he was, and how he happened to be in the forest of Verdun.
Shana jumped back when the man suddenly moved his head and opened his eyes as he attempted to gain a seated position. "Who are you?"
His voice was gravelly, deep, and his words slurred, but she had no trouble understanding his question.
"Who are you?" she responded.
"Are you real?"
"Why would you ask such a ridiculous question? Of course, I'm real."
He reached up to touch her arm, but Shana pulled away.
"Don't touch me."
The mysterious gifts within her awoke, causing every hair on her body to stand on end. "Go back to sleep."
A premonition she couldn't quite grasp slipped through her mind and deepened her apprehension of this man. They knew nothing about him but Hilda had willingly taken him into their home. First thing in the morning she planned to let her feelings be known and beg Hilda to have this stranger taken to another cottage until he recuperated.
She scooted behind Hilda's chair. She used the tall wooden back as a shield as she watched him drop his arm across his chest, turn his head slowly from side to side, then close his eyes.
Shana gripped the chair back hard. His many unanswered questions caused her unease to grow. She raised her hands to rub her forearms.
Memories of the strange aura of moonlight in the forest, the sparks of energy that now tingled over her flesh, reinforced her determination to maintain a safe distance from this stranger.
Closing her eyes, Shana prayed he'd recuperate with all possible haste and make his exit from Verdun before the dangerous force she sensed within him awakened to manifest itself into something evil that would rival Zandicol's threat.