Read an Excerpt
Giri Monabi crept silently over the sand, his dark eyes focused on the patrol below. Across the steep valley, his brother Ratha moved with equal silence, invisible in the dark night. It was not the homecoming the brothers had imagined.
The Bozandari patrol moved with the casual arrogance born of power, twenty-four men in two columns walked the road, swords sheathed, shields slung over their backs, helmets hanging from sword hilts, equipment clanking with each step. Their voices were loud against the stillness of night, the voices of men who did not anticipate trouble and believed they would be trouble’s master if it arose.
The hatred of three generations of servitude burned in Giri’s heart as he watched the soldiers. Almost without thought, his hand moved to his sword, fingers tightening in anticipation of dealing quick and ugly death. But he knew that, despite their casual manner, these men were skilled soldiers, and easily a match for Giri and his companions. There would be another time to wreak vengeance.
He began to slither backward, knowing that Ratha would be doing likewise at this very moment, having reached the same conclusion. Even an alert guard would have been hard-pressed to see the movement, and these Bozandari were hardly alert. Giri and Ratha had shadowed them for nearly two hours now and knew that the patrol leader had not even taken the most basic of security measures. There were no advance or flank guards to scout the route or surrounding terrain. It was as if they were walking down the streets of Bozandar itself.
Giri had moved perhaps ten yards when he felt the prick of the sword against his side. He froze and heard the almost silent warning.
Tess Birdsong sat beside the fire, staring into the flames as the bitter wind blew down from the north. Three of her fellow travelers, Archer Blackcloak and his two black-skinned Anari companions, had vanished into the desert to keep guard. A strange desert, dotted with strange plants that grew out of sandy soil, creating eerie shapes among the tumbled boulders.
There was much in this world, she thought, to keep guard against -- at least in the weeks since she had awoken in the midst of a slaughtered caravan with no memory of who she was or how she had come to be there. Indeed, she wasn’t sure if the name she was using was truly hers. All she knew was that it had felt right somehow when she had been asked her name.
Other than that, all she knew about herself was that on her ankle there was a tattoo of a white rose. Sometimes she looked at it, wondering what clue to her past it might contain. But tonight it was too cold for such musings, and too much threat had pursued them from Lorense, where they had slain a mage.
Something hooted, echoing in the silent forest. One of her companions? Or some beast that had not fled with all its fellows?
She knew not, and the shiver that passed through her came not only from the bite of the wind.
Across the fire, Tom Downey slept the sleep of untroubled youth. He alone of the party had been spared the need to kill back in Lorense, when they had defeated the mage Lantav Glassidor. Tom had seen many ugly things, but he bore none of them on his conscience.
Unlike herself. Tess looked down at her hand, at the healing scar there. Those were memories best left in the dark recesses of the mind until they were needed.
Nearer to her sat her friend Sara Deepwell, an innkeeper’s daughter who was proving to be one of the legendary magical women known as Ilduin. As was Tess herself, though she still rebelled emotionally at the idea.
Sara slept rarely now. Her mind and heart were too burdened with grief.
With a sigh, Tess stirred the coals of the fire, watching pinpricks of burning ash rise to the darkened sky. They were headed to war, yet she doubted that either she or Sara was ready for such a thing. Horror behind them, horror ahead of them.
Suddenly Tom sat up, instantly awake and alert. "Something is happening," he whispered.
But around them the desert remained silent.
Announce yourself, spoken in the clipped, northern Anari dialect. Giri, still frozen, replied carefully with the formal address of greeting.
"Giri an Monabi-Tel, ahnorren tir al sarlohse il Anari gelehsahnen." Giri of the Monabi Clan, returning of free will to the service of the Anari.
"What have you seen?" the man demanded, prodding Giri with the sword.
"Of you and your companions, I have seen nothing," Giri replied. "Of these men below, I have seen much -- and much to despise."
"How many are you?"
"My brother is across the valley, and my friends await us behind the bend of the road. We are returning to help, to fight for our freedom."
The man let out a satisfied grunt. "Well, a fight there will be. And if you and your friends are true to your words, it shall begin for you tonight."
Giri spread his fingers in the Anari gesture of peace. "May I roll over and know into whose service I have come?"
The sword moved away, and Giri slowly rolled onto his side, looking up into midnight-black eyes. The man was definitely northern Anari, his features slightly rounded, his skin that fraction of a degree paler.
"Jenah of the Gewindi Clan," the man said. "Now rise and lead me to these friends of yours. One ambush would be more than sufficient for this night."
Jenah extended a hand, and Giri grasped it, allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. With a low whistle, Jenah signaled whatever companions might be nearby, then walked at Giri’s side as they made their way back along the road. Within minutes, Giri heard Ratha’s almost silent hiss, echoed a moment later by Archer.
"Be in peace," Giri said, keeping his voice low. "I come with Jenah of the Gewindi Clan."
Archer and Ratha rose from behind rocks, seeming to materialize only an arm’s length away. Archer’s eyes were hard and cold. "By what right do you capture my companion and friend?"
"By the right of a warrior who dislikes surprises in the night," Jenah said. Even in this dim light, Giri could see Jenah’s face harden as he looked at Archer and took in his much lighter skin. "And any companion and friend of your kind is hateful to mine."
Giri didn’t know whether Archer would detect the deadly threat in Jenah’s choice of words. He spoke quickly. "I am grateful that you slew me not, Jenah Gewindi. Now slay not my friends, for you know naught of them, naught of their motives, and I dare say naught of greater forces that placed us in this chance encounter tonight."
Before Jenah could respond, Giri drew his sword and held it by the blade, with an infinitesimal dip of his head. "On pain of Keh-Bal, I place myself and my friends in your service."
"On pain of Keh-Bal shall you serve," Jenah replied, taking the sword by the hilt and turning it around before offering it back to Giri. "Come quickly now. There is dark work to be done."
"I must first let the rest of my company know where we are going," Archer said. "By Giri’s oath, I will return."
"Can he be trusted?" Jenah asked.
"With more than your life," Giri replied. His tone left no room for doubt or argument.
Tom Downey peered into the darkness, trying to make out a shape to go with the approaching sound, a sound that was too deliberately noisy to seem like a threat. "Who goes there?"
"’Tis only me," Archer said, appearing out of the night. "We are discovered."
Behind Tom, Sara Deepwell and Tess Birdsong stiffened.
"Is there trouble?" Sara asked.
"Aye, there will be soon," Archer said. "Giri was met by another Anari, who apparently intends to ambush the Bozandari patrol we’ve been shadowing. He has pledged us to the fight, as well."
Tess looked up with almost hollow eyes. "We knew there would be more fighting. But so soon?"
Archer shook his head. "Milady, I cannot choose the time and manner of the Anari rebellion. Giri and Ratha are committed to its cause, and a noble cause it is. We have already sworn to help them. Apparently that begins tonight."
"We follow you, Archer Blackcloak," Sara said, drawing her sword. "Where you lead, we will go."
Archer’s long black cloak was tossed on the night wind, a fold blowing back over his shoulder to reveal the gleaming hilt of his long sword. For an instant, just an instant, Tess thought she saw a shimmer about him, the ghost of a younger, happier man. Then the shimmer vanished and he was once again the hardened warrior.
"The three of you must stay here," he said flatly. "The horses must be protected, and I need you, Sara and Tom, to guard the Lady Tess. I sense her part in matters to come will be of extreme importance. Regardless, we cannot risk two Ilduin needlessly."
Both Sara and Tom seemed about to voice a protest, but then nodded. "Very well," Sara said, sheathing her sword once more. "Mayhap we can do more as healers this night."
"Of that," Archer said, "I have no doubt. But should we three fall, you three must return to Whitewater."
Tess abruptly rose to her feet. "Don’t fail," she ordered.
A low chuckle escaped Archer, and he bowed. "I shall do my very best, Lady."
Then, this time moving with silent stealth, he disappeared back into the shadows among the rocks, lost to view.
Tom looked at Sara and Tess. "I think we should follow him."
But before anyone could respond, the shadows moved again, and they found themselves looking at the drawn swords of five dark-skinned Anari. They were surrounded.
"You will stay here," one of them announced, "until your companions have proved themselves to be true."
Tess sighed and dropped back down beside the small fire.
"They’re true enough," she muttered. "Truer than this night is cold."
Tom squatted beside her, as did Sara, holding their hands out to the warmth.
"Truer," Tom answered beneath his breath, "than one among our captors, I fear."
Sara nodded. Tess remained motionless, feeling the tingle and burning begin in the palms of her hand. Something built within her, and for the first time she had an inkling of what it was. Slipping her hand within her cloak, she grasped at the bag of twelve colored stones nestled between her breasts.
"Aye," she said presently. "Evil is near."
Archer, Giri and Ratha climbed the ridge alongside the northern Anari. Soon they reached its ragged, bare top and peered over once again at the column of soldiers marching so arrogantly down the darkened road.
Jenah spoke to them. "We will attack in three groups after they enter the defile ahead. One group will attack the column’s head, another its rear. The third group will be archers, firing from above." He eyed Archer’s quiver. "You will be with the third group. Ratha and Giri will divide among the others."
Ratha spoke. "My brother and I always fight together."
Jenah’s face hardened. "Not this time. I do not yet trust you fully."
"A fine way to treat an oath of Keh-Bal."
"The oath is meaningless if the witness to it is dead."
Ratha and Giri both stiffened, but before they could respond to the insult, Archer waved them to silence.
He turned to Jenah. "Have you searched any farther, or have you followed only this column?"
"This column," Jenah said. "As have you."
Archer gave a short nod, acknowledging that the Anari force had been aware of his party for quite some time. "Yes, and since darkfall, their behavior has been troubling."
Jenah frowned. "How so? They are behaving exactly as they did all day."
"That is what concerns me."
Jenah eyed him narrowly. "Why would they be baiting a trap? They know nothing of my group."
"Perhaps not," Archer replied. "But perhaps caution is the order of the evening."
"Gewindi-Tel has committed to this attack," Jenah said. "It was decided among the elders six days ago. I will not shame my Tel by cowardice, and your companion has sworn himself to my side. We attack."
Archer nodded. "The oath is sworn and will be met. However, there is evil afoot in this night. My companions and I have faced much, braved much, endured much. If we are to die this night, let us die together."
After a long, silent stare, Jenah nodded. "Very well. You will join the rear attack force. And Keh-Bal upon you if your deeds match not your words."
As the moon settled on the far mountains, Ratha watched the Bozandari patrol reach the head of the defile through which they had been marching, break ranks and prepare to make camp. "Not long now," he whispered.
"Aye," Archer said. "Jenah is a wise leader. He will wait until they are settled, then fall upon them. I only pray that he has not been led into a trap."
Ratha studied Archer’s eyes for a long moment, then nodded slowly. In the past six years, he had seen much in those eyes. Never had those eyes led him astray, and oft had they kept him from danger. Yet even after all of that, Ratha’s cultural memories were strong, and it seemed odd to be standing beside a white man as his brothers prepared to do battle against white men. The man Ratha had been would not trust a man like Archer in such a battle. The man he had become could not imagine a more worthy companion.
Below him, the Bozandari had settled. Ratha knew that Jenah and his men were moving silently into the valley like a red adder stalking a desert hare, slipping from rock to rock, shadow to shadow, preparing to strike their prey. Even as the thought crossed his mind, he saw the other Anari around him rise into low crouches. He rose with them, moving with patient, deadly purpose to close the rear of the trap.
With a shrill, trilling cry, Jenah signaled the attack, and forty Anari rose from the rocks to fall upon their nearly sleeping enemy. Ratha spotted a wide-eyed Bozandari soldier reaching for a sword. No sooner had his hand closed around the hilt than a blade flickered out of the night and severed his head, sending him into eternity with that same wide-eyed stare.
Now the rear force was upon the enemy, as well, and Ratha, Giri and Archer took up their familiar close battle tactic, blades flashing in synchronized efficiency, parrying and killing in a relentless rhythm of destruction. Archer’s world narrowed to the space immediately in front of him, Bozandari blades flashing in the cold blue moonlight, his breath smooth and even as he matched strides and movements with his companions, the three of them a single entity with but one awful purpose.
Suddenly, in the distance, a sputtering fire arced into the air, lighting the valley in an eerie red hue. Three more flares burst upward, trailing a graceful tail of sparks, before bursting into flame high overhead. Cries of horror told the rest of the tale.
"It’s an ambush," Archer hissed.
"Yes," Ratha replied. "We have been led into a trap."
Dozens of Bozandari seemed to materialize beyond the mouth of the defile, falling upon the Anari with the same sudden savagery that only recently had engulfed the members of their patrol.
Off to Ratha’s right, Jenah screamed commands above the din of battle, trying to reorient his men to the new threat, but too many were still engaged with the Bozandari in the patrol. Blood flowed all but invisible in the red light of the flares, evident only as glistening geysers erupting from throats, bellies and the stumps of freshly hewn limbs. Screams of pain and rage mixed with the clang of metal upon metal, drowning out any attempt to restore order to the shattered Anari.
"Massacre," Ratha muttered, still hacking his way forward with his companions. "They will all die."
"We must echelon right," Archer said. "We will move toward Jenah. He must know that Giri has kept his oath."
"Aye," Ratha said. He glanced over to Giri. "Echelon right, on Lord Archer’s command."
Giri nodded and, at a single word from Archer, the three men pivoted an eighth-turn in perfect unison. Step by step, slain foe by slain foe, they angled across the melee toward the Anari leader. Ratha stepped into the belly of a still-thrashing Bozandari soldier, noticing the dying man only to the extent necessary to keep his own balance and stay with his companions.
Soon they could see Jenah’s back, almost within reach, as the tall, broad man tried in vain to protect two of his wounded brothers from another wave of Bozandari soldiers. The Bozandari fought with patient intensity, shoulder to shoulder, shields nearly overlapped, save only for enough space to deliver a scything thrust with each step. Anari courage and honor stood no chance against such training and discipline. It was only a matter of time.
Ratha and his companions reached Jenah at the same instant as the Bozandari wave.
"Jenah!" Archer cried. "Fall in behind us!"
Copyright © 2005 Rachel Lee