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Katrina Sanecki picked up her pace on the jogging trail. She could hear someone behind her. The person had followed her for a quarter of a mile. Odd, she couldn't hear footfalls, but the heavy breathing was unmistakable. Close. Too close. Somehow, all around her, the hot feel of it prickled her bare neck. And she could feel eyes watching her. Goose bumps slid down her arms and legs.
She shot a quick glance behind her. The full moon loomed over her and
Her breath caught as she saw phantom yellow eyes hovering beyond the thick oaks and hedges. A lot of them. She realized it was the hazy lights of the Washington Zoo, looming in the night. The zoo bordered the south end of Rock Creek Park. She let out a shuddering sigh of relief.
Her imagination was running wild tonight. She shouldn't have come here after dark, but she'd had to work late and finish some reports, then get ready for her hot date. Lately, her guy had turned into an animal in the bedroom, and she liked walking on his wild side. She smiled at the thought of what the night would bring, then her smile died as the rising frantic cry of the animals drifted toward her.
Birds screeched. Monkeys screamed. Lions roared The breathing. Still there. She hadn't imagined it. Oh, God! Where was this pervert hiding? She couldn't see him but, like the zoo animals, sensed him.
She swallowed the lump of fear choking her and sped up. Her legs churned as fast as they could go. Her heart hammered her chest.
The breathing closed in on her.
A rumble split the air, a beast's attacking howl.
The growl tore through her like claws. She screamed as something hit her from behind and knocked her to the ground. This isn't happening. Dear God. She'd never been this afraid in her life. She couldn't struggle, it pinned her to the ground.
No. No. No. She tried to scream, but fear closed off her throat. Then it was too late. Darkness took away the pain.
Fala Rainwater gulped back rising panic and felt the night, alive, teeming, lapping up the campfire flames on the sacred mound. The fire thinned the frigid, damp air, lacing it with cinders and the odor of burning birch.
Birch, the wood of choice for switches. Well, wasn't this a beating? Nah, it was much worse than any spanking she'd ever experienced. She gasped for air and wished she was anywhere but here.
Her pulse thudded in her ears as she looked beyond the fire at the circle of Patomani elders surrounding her. The sacred council of twelve women seemed entranced as they watched the ancient wedding ritual unfolding before them.
Even though it was the dead of winter, beads of perspiration soaked Fala's forehead. A braid corralled the straight black hair, which hung down to her waist. Beads woven into several strands around her face stuck to her temples and cheeks. The weight of the ceremonial wedding robe draping her shoulders felt like cement rather than doeskin. The feather fringe and tassels rippled down around her soft kid boots. She felt one feather's sharp point poking into the back of her knee. Legend had it that the feathers were from a Thunderbird god who plucked one every day for a year and left them by a burning fire for the Patomani women to make the wedding robe. Right now, she wished someone had shot the Thunderbird and roasted it, feathers and all.
Beside her, Akando Chasing Deer, her soon-to-be fiancé, didn't look at all nervous. Firelight glinted along Akando's black-beaded braids, which hung down his back. It wasn't that he was unattractive. A New York ad agency would pay a fortune for the high cheekbones, stubborn square chin, long-lashed dark eyes and muscled male body. The wedding robe he wore, identical to hers, covered his powerfully built body and hid its perfection. A finer male specimen didn't exist, she had to admit.
All the Patomani women on the reservation lusted after himexcept herself, of course. The irony was not lost on her. She'd be married to this man in minutes. Bound to a man she didn't love. Didn't even care for. She saw the self-satisfied, devouring look in his eyes, and she wished she could melt into the fire and disappear into another dimension.
Fala listened to an elder playing the ceremonial flute. The haunting music rose up toward a massive glowing moon that peered down at her. Hands down, the largest moon she'd ever seen in her life. It soared over the tops of the oaks and encased the mound in an oppressive blue brilliance that eclipsed everything, watched everything, gripped everything in its path. Its closeness felt as if it would crush her at any moment.
Meikoda, her grandmother, stepped out of the elder circle, holding the blessing mat. Firelight danced along her ancient face and radiated a gorgeous burnt sienna, the same color as Fala's skin. They also shared a dimple that hollowed the middle of their square, proud chins. Where Fala's brows were jet-black, gray shadowed her grandmother's deep-set eyes.
Meikoda held the mat above her head and glanced toward the full moon. She chanted a spell as she lowered the mat to the ground before the fire. Slowly her gnarled hand unrolled the ancient braided material.
Fala's eyes met her grandmother's. The heavy wrinkles weighing down the elder's eyelids lifted, and the light behind the striking eyes enthralled Fala. They drew her into the unnatural shade of blue, neon, only brighter, wider. They were the strange blue of a dawning sky, alight with the radiance of Mother Sun. They were the eyes of ancient wisdom, portals to eternal magic.
Fala shared the same eye color as her grandmother, and the force of Meikoda's gaze warred with her own. Fala blinked and quickly lost this battle and her concentration.
Meikoda's energy struck Fala, and she rocked back on her knees from the impact and sucked in her breath. Okay, she got the warning: Don't move. Don't give into your fear and run from the sacred mound before the ceremony is complete. She really didn't want to be another disappointment to her grandmother, and it took all of her willpower to stay kneeling.
Meikoda flicked the mat's edge and gently picked up an ancient bowl carved in the form of two bears, their noses touching. White mist spiraled up from the hot potion and flowed over Meikoda's gnarled hands as she raised the bowl heavenward. She closed her eyes and spoke an ancient incantation. "May blessings from the seven stars bind you for all eternity and the light of our Great Bear Maiden seal the union. Drink from the sacred bowl and be one."
Fala knew that Meikoda chanted to the Warrior Bear Maiden, known to humans only as the constellation Ursa Major. Since the Dawning, the Great Bear Maiden had always been the totem of her tribe and the gateway to the source of their white magic and that of the Tsimshian's power.
After a moment of reverent silence, Meikoda handed the bowl to Fala first.
Fala's hand trembled as she drank from the bear on the left. The bitter liquid burned her throat, then she handed the vessel to Akando. Their fingers touched and he allowed the moment to linger until her eyes met his, eyes that glistened with greed and hunger. He grinned at her, then without taking his gaze from her, raised the bowl to his lips and drank.
Heat from the fire tugged at her, and she shook all over. Her vision blurred. Her head fell back and she collapsed on the ground. All she could see was that damn moon. The magnetic pull of it flayed her skin from bone, going deeper and deeper into her. The atoms of her body strained against the sensation of being torn apart. A strange lifting sensation engulfed her, then her spirit departed her physical body. It churned over her in a brilliant orb.
Akando fell next to her. His spirit roared out of him, bursting into an orange glow not as bright as her own. Fala heard the watching crowd gasp in wonder.
Their spirits, attracted by the energy of one another, drew closer. Before they melded, Fala's spirit paused and hovered there.
Rainbow-colored rings surrounded the orbs as they undulated, swelled, surged, receded and waved in an age-old mating dance. Fala's unwilling spirit avoided Akando's thrusts to reach her.
"Fala, let your reluctance go," Meikoda ordered.
I'm trying. Fala squeezed her eyes closed and concentrated on reining in her will.
After what seemed like years, but had to have been minutes, Meikoda said, "Enough." She swept her hands through the air in a quickness that defied her age. A burst of brilliant white light burst from her palms and struck both spirits.
Fala felt her essence rush back into her own body in an electrifying whoosh. It felt as if someone had stepped off her chest and she could breathe freely again. She let the life-giving feeling wash over her, while she caught a whiff of the ionized scent that permeated the air from Meikoda's magic, a smell much like the cleansed smell after a lightning strike. She grew aware of the flutist who stopped playing. Dead silence blanketed the cold air.
Akando, already on his feet, stood before her. He bent and grabbed her hand and jerked her up before she could protest. When they stood nose to nose, he said, "You're delaying this on purpose." The terse words revealed the blow to his ego.
"We'll try again."
He grabbed her arms, his face defiant. "I'll not be made a fool of a second time."
Fala felt his finger bite into her flesh as she pulled away, a warning flaring in her eyes. Now she knew why she had never liked Akando. His male beauty had spoiled him and he didn't take rejection well. In fact, he was all too arrogant for her tastes.
"Enough." Meikoda held up a hand. A bolt of lightning shot out from her fingers, hissing and spitting like a welder's torch.
Fala and Akando backed away, giving Meikoda a wide berth, a lesson Fala had learned within the first hour of having been dumped at Meikoda's doorstep as a child. This was the angriest Fala had ever seen her grandmother.
"No more anger on this holy ground." Meikoda leveled a scathing look at Akando. "We will perform the ceremony again when Fala is ready."
Akando opened his mouth to protest, but when he looked at Meikoda he looked into the face of the high priestess, the Tsimshian, the Guardian of white magic, the most powerful shape-shifter on earth. He clamped his mouth closed. After a withering glance in Fala's direction, he stormed away, his form melting into the darkness.
"All of you leave now." Meikoda motioned to the council, and the women followed in Akando's wake.
Now that they were alone, Meikoda's annoyance melted within the folds of her wrinkled face. "Tell me now, Granddaughter. Will you ever be able to finish the ceremony?"
"I can't force it," Fala whispered back, wishing she could summon more than dislike for Akando. "I need some time."
"You only have a week before the winter solstice and the Warrior Bear Maiden reaches her zenith." Worry pulled at Meikoda's brow as she pointed skyward.
Fala gazed up at the sky to glimpse the Warrior Bear Maiden. But that damn moon blocked the constellation. On a clear night, the seven brightest stars that sliced through the Maiden's belly could be easily seen. Her people called this cluster of stars the Utsi Yonia, or Bear Mother's Womb. It is the Big Dipper. Those seven stars were magical, and on the exact moment of the winter solstice, when Fala had lived four annual cycles of seven, or her twenty-eighth birthday, the Bear Maiden's womb would open and the seven stars would form a conduit between heaven and earth, thus sanctifying her and transferring Meikoda's power to Fala. This cyclic blessing would begin all over again when Fala married Akando and bore a female child. The thought of bearing a child and heaping such an enormous responsibility on her made Fala groan inside. It was an honor being the Tsimshian, but at the same time it was a curse.
As if Meikoda read Fala's mind, she frowned, deepening the wrinkles in her brow. "And you know what will happen if you receive your powers and are not joined to Akando within twenty-four hours."
"I know, I know." Fala squeezed her eyes closed to shut out the world around her. It didn't work. The oppressive heat of the fire and the cold air on the holy mound suddenly collided around her and pressed against her. She felt trapped by it as she said, "He'll die."
"Is that what you want?"
"It's just that.. .he was never my choice."
"Choice. Choice has nothing to do with it, and you know this." She punctuated her next words with an angry poke at the air. "You were both born at the same instant. You know this binds your spirits and preordains your marriage to him. If you do not marry him, another Tsimshian will not be born. Would you reap those consequences upon the earth?"
Fala hated to think what would happen without a Tsimshian on Earth. The balance between good and evil would tip and the underworld would gain control. Innocent humans would suffer the most. "I know my duty," Fala said with a touch of flint in her voice. "And I'll do it, unlike my mother."
At the mention of Fala's mother, Meikoda seemed to age before Fala's eyes. "Your mother always did what pleased her and thought of no one else." She paused and appeared to be reliving something painful, then she spoke more to herself. "We'll speak no more of her."
Fala gulped hard as she stared at the woman whose blood ran in her veins, who had raised her, whom she loved and respected, and whose strength had supported everyone around her. She was the most formidable woman Fala had ever known, but Meikoda's strength hadn't been able to manage her only daughter. After Fala's father had died twenty-three years ago, her mother had dumped Fala and her two younger sisters on Meikoda's doorstep and left the tribe to never return. Fala knew Meikoda was not only experiencing the pain Fala had just given her by not finishing the ceremony, but also the failure of having lost a daughter.
"I'm sorry," Fala said, her voice cracking as she untied the wedding robe and handed it to Meikoda. She wanted to say, Can't you see I'm not like my mother? I've lived my whole life proving I'm nothing like her. I'd never turn my back on responsibility, or hurt those I loved, or leave three daughters in your care. Instead she remained silent.
Meikoda's eyes narrowed on Fala as if she were trying to search inside her, heal that part of Fala that belonged to her mother and wasn't perfect. "If only humbling yourself could take care of this." Meikoda sighed loudly. "But it will not keep you safe. You'll be tested."