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Britannia was burning.
Artoria Argantel pulled her veil half across her face and took a careful breath, staring at the flames. She told herself that this one buming villa was not the world, but even the sun seemed afire in a molten sky, and blue smoke hazed the hills. Her cousin Maderun coughed painfully, then pulled the mantle that covered her bronze-brown hair down as if to shut out the sight of what had once been a prosperous estate. It was a smoldering ruin now, and another column of smoke beyond the hazel wood bore witness to the fate of the next farm along the road,
"Lady, you must come away -- " Junius Lupercus reached for her bridle rein. The mare danced nervously as Argantel pulled her back.
"Not yet." He was only doing his duty as captain of her escort, but he did not understand why she had to see.
She stared at the bodies that lay sprawled on the trampled ground. The nearest had been an old man. Blood from a great gash in his crown stained his white hair, but he still clutched a legionary spatha and shield. A veteran, she thought, who had settled near the fort he once defended. She nudged the mare forward. Junius reached out once more to stop her, but she was already looking at the thing he had not wanted her to see.
Behind the man a little girl, perhaps his granddaughter, stared sightlessly at the sky. The corpse of a red-haired barbarian lay across her bloodied thighs. At least the old soldier had avenged her before he himself was struck down.
"Who did this?" Maderun asked in a shaking voice, putting back her veil.
"Dalriadan raiders, come over from Hibernia," Junius said grimly, pointing atthe bloodstained length of checkered cloth. "They will have landed at Bremetennacum and raided northward."
"That's where we met your ship -- " said Argantel, her gaze moving from her cousin to the body of the little girl and back again. Maderun nodded, her eyes widening in comprehension.
The captain grimaced. "You were lucky, my lady. Their ships have no comforts, but they are agile and swift. The boat that brought you here would have had no chance if they had caught her at sea." He had evidently given up trying to spare them knowledge of danger.
Maderun grew, if possible, more pale, and Argantel swallowed. At that moment, her cousin's white face and gray eyes must be a mirror of her own. Barbarian raiders, whether from the Scottii or the tribes of Alba who had never come under the yoke of Rome, had been a fact of their lives for as long as they could remember. But for Argantel, learning her lessons among the priestesses of the Isle of Maidens, and for Maderun, safe in her father's court at Maridunum, the attacks had been only a tale of terror.
"They must be punished!" she exclaimed. "They cannot be more than a half day ahead of us! Go after them, Junius!"
"And leave you undefended? I will not betray my oath to protect the Lady of the Lake, even at her command. Come, my lady, let me take you home -- " He gestured northward. "There is nothing we can do here."
Home.... She peered through the smoke as if she could see through its filthy veils to the green mountains that rose beyond. No enemy had ever penetrated those forests and fells. Even the Romans had built no more than a guardpost there, and soon abandoned it. She closed her eyes, remembering the silver lake within its circle of sheltering heights and the tree-clad island it protected. No raider would ever breach the Isle of Maidens' sanctity. Then she looked at Junius once more and shook her head.
"These people trusted us to defend them and we failed. I will not leave them for the wild beasts to devour." Argantel straightened in the saddle, drawing about her the aura of the high, priestess as she held his gaze. "Lay them in the ashes of their home and pile more wood over them. If it can no longer shelter them, let it be their pyre."
She could feel his resistance, but her will compelled him. Even Maderun, watching at her side, eyed her uneasily, as if she could see that invisible mantling of power. It would not be surprising, thought Argantel. Maderun was untrained, but their mothers had been twins, the elder bound to become Lady of the Lake and carry on the family tradition on the druid isle, the younger married off to Carmelidus, the lord of Maridunum. Argantel's hair was more red, and she was seven years older, but they looked enough alike to be sisters. She turned her awareness from the residue of fury and fear that hung like smoke in the air and fixed it on the girl.
"Don't fear," she sent the thought on a wave of reassurance, "the ones who did this are nowhere near. I would know." From Maderun she sensed astonishment, and then relief.
"How could this happen?" her cousin said aloud. "How could God allow it?"
Of course, thought Argantel, Maderun?" had been raised a Christian. But her question went beyond theology.
"God, or the gods?" she said bitterly. "Your clerics say that these disasters are a punishment for our sins. But whatever evils the old man might have done, I cannot believe that little girl deserved such agony. The god of the Christians does not protect his worshippers, and the gods of Rome fled with the legions."
"Then who will you pray to?" exclaimed Maderun. "Who will give us justice now?"
I am sworn to serve the Lady who is the soul of this land," said Argantel slowly. "But I think the time has come to wake a different power. By oath I am a priestess of the Goddess, but by blood I have the right to call on the God in the Sword. It is dangerous, but I will dare it. You have the right as well as 1, Maderun. Will you stand with me?"
Maderun gazed at the flames of the villa where the bodies of the folk who had lived there were burning. The firelight lent color to her cheeks, and glittered in the tears that filled her eyes. After a few moments she shivered and turned to Argantel again.The Hallowed Isle. Copyright © by Diana Paxson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.