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Shadows Of Destiny
By Rachel Lee
LunaCopyright © 2007 Rachel Lee
All right reserved.
"And be ye faithful always, one to the other," the priestess intoned quietly.
"And be we faithful always, one to the other," Tom Downey and Sara Deepwell responded.
"The grace of the gods be with you always," the priestess said. "You are now one before this company, before the gods, in this world, and in every world where you may travel."
Tom and Sara kissed. Cilla Monabi could feel the radiant glow in her sister Ilduin's heart, and her own heart shared Sara's joy. Yet this time of joy would be fleeting. Sara met her eye, just for an instant, and nodded. She, too, knew.
But for tonight, they would celebrate.
The stones of Anahar did not sing in celebration, though Cilla could feel the joy of the gods as she walked through the temple. A precious love was joined, and even in a world fraught with war and the black hatred of Ardred, that precious love was worthy of joy.
The marketplace before the temple was adorned with the trappings of a wedding, for in the wake of the war that had taken so many of their number, the Anari longed for just cause to wear their finest, cook their best, sing and dance beneath the stars. Cilla found Ratha at the edge of the crowd, his iridescent blue-black face impassive, his obsidian eyes unreadable.
"Dance with me, cousin," she said.
"I cannot," he replied quietly, almost with shame. Cilla placed a hand on his strong, muscled, scarred arm.
"Look aroundyou, Ratha. The men and women of Monabi Tel are dancing. Giri was their kin, and my own as well."
"He was my brother," Ratha said. "We had endured so much together. I am not whole without him."
They had endured much, Cilla knew. Ratha and Giri Monabi had been betrayed by Cilla's brother, captured by Bozandari slavers and sold on the block, until Lord Archer Blackcloak had gained their freedom. Their hardships had not ended then, for as they rode with Archer they had found themselves drawn into the lives of warriors. When they had finally returned to Anahar, at the dawn of winter, it had been to kill their betrayer, and then to train and lead the Anari in war.
Ratha had atoned for killing Cilla's brother, for she had witnessed that act, and her brother's confession, and pronounced it justice. Such was her right as an Anari priestess and judge. But Ratha had sojourned in the desert to cleanse his soul, and he had returned a different man. Still a warrior, but no longer with a thirst for blood. He had hoped that Giri, too, would find that redemption. Instead, Cilla knew, Ratha had watched as Giri was cut down in the savage battle of the canyon that had destroyed the Bozandari invaders.
And Ratha had not been whole since. "Dance with me," she said again, softly, insistently. "Dance with me as Giri would have, with joy in his heart and a jest on his lips. That was your brother's magic, Ratha. Do not let it die with him."
He moved as if his limbs were stiff with frost. But he moved. Cilla took his hand and led him to the dance.
Tess Birdsong, too, patiently tried to draw a man to dance. But like Ratha, Archer Blackcloak seemed to find little room for joy in his heart. Guilt weighed upon him like a mantle of lead, and Tess knew it was a guilt neither she nor a wedding could push aside. Yet somehow, she must.
She was no longer the terrified, confused, lost woman who had awakened in a field of blood and death those many months ago. But enlightenment had borne a steep price. Though she had not chosen it, destiny had chosen her, and she was as shackled to its whims as an Anari slave in a Bozandari market.
And still, she did not know who she really was. Amnesia had stolen most of her memory, and while the Temple of Anahar had revealed moments of her past to her, it had failed to fill in all the empty places.
Tonight she had worked to look her finest, her blond hair, longer now than it had been when first she had awakened with a mind as bare as a newborn babe's, was threaded with blue ribbons and golden trinkets Cilla had loaned her. Her dress, blue rather than the white she usually wore, had been made for her from a fine, glistening fabric found among the spoils of the army they had defeated. Golden ribbon wound it about beneath her breasts, across her middle and around her waist. On her feet she wore fine golden slippers.
Dressed, she thought, like a queen, for a moment of joy that carried the shadow of death.
For death would come. She knew that to the core of her being. Too many had already died and too much evil yet remained.
She avoided touching the walls of the temple. Tonight she needed it to yield no secrets to her, and she feared the stones might do just that.
Outside she sought Archer with her eyes. Something about him remained always apart, even from his closest companions. Hence it was no surprise to find he had stationed himself in shadows at the edge of the square. He leaned against the corner of a rainbow-hued building, one arm folded over a broad chest cased in black fabric. Of all the people present this night, only Archer wore black. He was the quiet mourner at the edge of the celebration, the one who knew better than any of them all that lay ahead.
His gray eyes missed little as he watched the dancers, jugglers and musicians. He even smiled as Tom and Sarah emerged from the temple, wed at last.
But it was a smile that didn't reach any further than his face.
Feeling a pang for him, Tess made her way through the crowds to his side, and reached for his tanned and battle-scarred hand.
He looked down at her as she gently squeezed his fingers.
"Tis a fine night for a wedding," he said.
"Aye, but you look less than joyful. Come, dance with me and allow your heart to lighten for just a brief while."
"Is yours lightening?"
After a moment, she looked down, away from his perceptive gaze. "We all know what has passed, Archer," she murmured finally, her words barely audible above the music and laughter. "And we all know what lies ahead."
"I very much doubt anyone knows what lies ahead. "Twill be far worse than what we have so far faced."
"Aye," Tess nodded. "I have dreams, such dreams...." Her face shadowed, but then she looked at him with a determined smile. "However it may be, and whatever looms ahead, the gods have decreed that we must live. So let us live this night."
After a moment, he acquiesced and led her into the square to join the other dancers. She had never, to her memory, danced before, but it wasn't long before Archer had helped her master the simple steps and she was whirling with him in the outer circle of dancers that surrounded an inner circle moving in the opposite direction.
When the feet and body moved to such happy music, it was impossible to remain sad. Before long, Archer smiled and his feet seemed to grow lighter. Tess let go of the pall that always shrouded her heart and let laughter flow freely.
Regardless of what the morrow might bring, life had granted a respite, and she felt it would be wrong, very wrong, not to savor these precious moments of joy.
Topmark Tuzza, the Bozandari commander, could hear the rejoicing in Anahar halfway across the valley where he and his men were imprisoned behind fences, watched by Anari guards. They had been defeated in battle three weeks before by the Anari, and they were still licking their wounds.
The topmark had been invited to the wedding, but had refused the honor. His men were not yet ready for what he was about to ask of them, and he was not about to anger them by attending the wedding as an honored guest. He could not afford to lose his authority over them.
Yet even after all this time, he could still not think of a way to broach the subject. Many of his men, most of his men, thought of the Anari as a slave race. They had set out to conquer a rebellion against the authority of the Bozandar Empire.
How was he to persuade them that there was a greater evil, and a greater cause? That they now must switch allegiance, but yet would not be betraying their own families and people?
Tuzza was no dull man. Sharp wits more than family connections had raised him to the heights. He was related to the emperor, yes. But so were many others. It was only through achievement that Tuzza could stand directly behind his emperor at important events, could offer words of advice directly into his emperor's ear.
He would be seen as a fool and a traitor when his intent became known. Either one would be enough to make his men turn on him.
Closing his eyes, he listened to the distant sound of reveling, and leaned back in his camp chair, seeking yet again the words that would persuade.
His men, of course, had seen the many healings the Ilduin witches had caused. Many of the more severely wounded had benefited greatly from the Ilduins' touch...as had he himself. Some had even outright marveled that after a battle so bitterly fought, the Ilduin, who had fought beside the Anari, had been so willing to heal their enemies.
Perhaps that was the place to start. Perhaps he should speak of the Ilduin and the Lord Annuvil, he who was the First Prince of the Firstborn King, long before Bozandari and Anari had ever walked the face of this world. Perhaps he should remind them of the tales of old, and of the nearly forgotten prophecies that foretold such a time as this.
Of course, if he had not himself seen the Ilduin and their powers, had not seen the Lady Tess lead troops into battle, then with one word from her mouth cause the conflict to cease...Tuzza himself might not have believed the dark man who had come to him and said, "I am Annuvil."
The Firstborn Immortals had vanished so long ago, so many centuries in the past, that it was hard to believe one of them yet survived. Two of them, actually, according to Lord Annuvil.
Yet Tuzza could not deny it. He had seen what he had seen, and he was still alive only because of it.
These times had been foretold. The outcome was unwritten, but the return of the Ilduin and the Firstborn King were writ in more than one prophecy. They were writ on the fabric of every soul, every mountain and stream, every rock and tree, every bird and bear, serpent and snow wolf. They were writ by the gods themselves, and Tuzza knew better than to dispute such a destiny.
His mother had schooled him thus from the time of his birth. His mother and the old Anari woman, each of whom had sat beside his bed and told him stories when he was too ill with fever to rise and run and play. The same two women who had patched his wounds when he fell, ensured that his bedding was clean and that his pillow bore the fresh scent of spring flowers. Looking back, he could hardly remember where his mother left off and the Anari woman had begun, could hardly distinguish which of them had performed which graces in his youth.
They had taught him to respect the old ways, and some-times--when she was sure no one else could hear--the Anari woman would speak in the Old Tongue. Fragments of words floated into his consciousness, and though he knew not their meaning, he felt once again that sense of wonder, of contact with life, with light, with the gods themselves, which had filled his heart in those bygone days.
But in his childhood that wonder had been bright and beautiful, song and light. It was a dark wonder that now filled him. Fear and grief and a bottomless, aching loss for the men who had died under his command, and the many more who would die in the war to come.
It would be Tuzza who would lead those men--the same men who now sulked sullenly under the eyes of their Anari captors--once again into battle. He would lead them into battle with an Anari host at their sides and a Bozandari host before them.
And more would die at his hand.
Excerpted from Shadows Of Destiny by Rachel Lee Copyright © 2007 by Rachel Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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