For Tess Birdsong and her companions there will be no warm homecoming. The death of one evil exposed the beating, seething heart of another far more dangerous power. Together they must go to Anahar, to help free the Anari people from their enslavers, and purge the darkness in their own hearts. But that ancient city holds more than the key to Anari liberation. In its temple lie the secrets of the Ilduin, women of almost godlike power.
Tess, who remembers nothing of her past, is terrified by the power of her Ilduin blood. But Tess's mind conceals more than fear. There is war, and pain, and death, and anguished grief. And somehow she must face it all again, guided only by the shocking secrets of a temple as old as time itself....
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Shadows Of Prophecy
By Rachel Lee
LunaCopyright © 2005 Rachel Lee
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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 pin-pricks 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."
Excerpted from Shadows Of Prophecy by Rachel Lee Copyright © 2005 by Rachel Lee. Excerpted by permission.
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