Tera, a powerful healer, travels with her beloved warrior, the High Lord Batumar, on a secret mission to forge alliances to stop the bloodthirsty Emperor Drakhar. Surviving vicious pirates, slave traders, and an ancient enemy of dark power is only the beginning. The journey brings Tera unimaginable hardships and loss, testing her spirit and heart as she gathers her own allies and fulfills her destiny. Adding a tiger and a wraith as companions on her journey, Tera struggles to survive with her wits and healing skills while protecting her light from the dark power that seeks to claim her.
“We may lose the ones we love, but we do not leave them behind, Lady Tera,” the Guardian of the Sacred Cave said.
“They are a thread woven irremovably into the fabric of our lives. Because they were, we are.” He patted my hand as the two of us walked the parapets in the dusk, the Kadar fortress city of Karamur spread out below us. “If you miss their voices, listen deep inside your heart.”
My heart hurt. We had lost too many good men and women in the siege.
The smell of wood fires filled the air; locked-up hunting hounds bayed in the night. The hem of my cape swept the worn stones with a soft whoosh as we walked. I drew the cape tighter around me. Fall had barely ended, but halfway up the mountain as we were, the chill of winter was already in the air.
A small shadow on our path caught my gaze and brought me to a halt. A shudder ran through me. I stared down at the dead bird, and said without meaning to, “A journey through darkness.”
The Guardian stopped next to me. He had lost much weight. He might have counseled me in my grief, but he too suffered greatly from our losses. He had aged. His shoulders sloped, the set of his mouth grim, his face drawn, but his eyes radiated endless wisdom and kindness. In the voluminous folds of his robe, he looked like an ancient figure out of myth.
He peered at me. “What did you say, my lady?”
I expelled a small sigh, wishing I had not spoken. I could not tear my eyes away from the slight, broken shadow at my feet. “The Kadar believe a dead blackbird means a journey through darkness for the one who finds it.”
The Kadar had many superstitions. My people the Shahala, who lived on the southern half of the island, believed not in omens. Neither did the Guardians, so the Guardian of the Sacred Cave stepped over the bird without giving it much notice, and continued forward.
I drew a deep breath and pushed away the sense of foreboding that tried to settle on me. No sense in becoming as superstitious as a Kadar kitchen maid. I tore my gaze from the bird and hurried after the Guardian, as the city around us prepared for sleep behind the safety of the walls.
Karamur clung to inhospitable cliffs that protected the city from the back, while the city wall guarded the front, the damage from the siege fully repaired at last. Everything about the fortress city spoke of the warrior nation that had built it: sturdy, stark, battle-ready. The top of the walls we walked were wide enough to drive an oxcart on, no adornments, only sheer, intimidating strength.
But no fortress was impregnable.
“How holds the Gate on the other side of the mountain?” I asked.
“The Gate holds.” The Guardian of the Cave folded his gnarled fingers together over his brown robe that hung on him. He sounded confident, perhaps for my sake.
“Any news of the new Guardian of the Gate?” I held my breath for the answer.
The old man shook his head, looking out over the city as we walked, at the lamplights that blinked to life behind windows. “He has not returned.”
We had repelled the fall siege and triumphed over the Kerghi horde. But sooner than we had expected, new troops broke through the island’s Gate, and the old Guardian of the Gate had bespelled the Gate to seal it, cutting off the larger enemy force from reaching us.
Our island of Dahru was the largest one of the Middle Islands that dotted Mirror Sea where all could safely sail. The Outer Islands edged the sea, also within reach by ship. But surrounding our small corner of the world spread the wild ocean, ruled by hardstorms that allowed no passage.
Island groups like ours dotted the wild ocean, with a bigger stretch of land here and there, one even large enough to be called the mainland. We could reach those kingdoms only through Gates, the portals of an ancient people whose lost knowledge we could not recover. We could use their Gates, but if a Gate was destroyed or damaged, we could not repair it.
Of all the islands of the Mirror Sea, only Dahru had a working Gate—and it was a special one. But that Gate was now sealed, and we were thoroughly cut off from the rest of the world.
“At least we are saved from immediate occupation,” I said, only too aware that we had paid a most high price for the protection. The strong binding spell had required the life of the old Guardian of the Gate.
The three old Guardians—the Guardian of the Gate, the Guardian of the Scrolls, and the Guardian of the Cave—had been like grandfathers to me. Of the three, only the Guardian of the Cave still lived.
When a Guardian dies, his son takes over his duties. But the son of our Guardian of the Gate had been traveling to other Gates, still learning, when his father had died. And with our Gate now sealed, we feared he would not be able to return to us.
I drew my cloak tighter around me against the wind. “Do you think the enemy troops that squeezed through might steal down the mountain and attack when the weather worsens, thinking it is what we would least expect?”
The Guardian considered my question for a long moment before answering. “For now, the strength of our forces is equal. As long as the Kadar warriors remain in the fortress city, the enemy cannot overpower the defenses. The attackers would be disadvantaged out in the open, standing before the city walls.”
And our army could not march to attack them at the Gate on the other side of the mountain. We could not overtake them as they sat behind their makeshift stone and wood-spike fortifications. Our warriors would be disadvantaged there. Several skirmishes had proved this, and now the two forces sat at a stalemate.
The Guardian said, “Likely they are settled in where they are for the winter.”
“Can the enemy reopen our Gate from afar and send more troops through?” Emperor Drakhar, who sought to conquer the world, had a sorcerer in his service, the knowledge of which had me steeped in worry.
“It would be best if our young Guardian of the Gate could return,” the Guardian of the Cave admitted, then stopped. “I should be leaving. I still have a long walk ahead of me tonight.”
He lived even higher up the mountain, in the Forgotten City. For centuries, people believed that the Forgotten City had been lost, their Guardians and their people, the Seela, relegated to myth. Until I had found them…or rather, they had found me.
Our island of Dahru was inhabited by three nations. In the south lived the nine tribes of my people the Shahala, a peaceful nation of healers ruled by their elders. In the north lived the warrior nation of the Kadar, ruled by their warlords and their High Lord. Up the mountain above Karamur hid the Forgotten City, the small enclave of the Seela—the descendants of the First People—protected by their three Guardians.
And around us, the world at war.
“Will you talk with Batumar before you leave?” I asked as we turned around and walked back toward the palace.
The High Lord had spent the evening meal discussing something with Lord Samtis, another powerful warlord whose lands lay to the west of Karamur. The Guardian and Batumar had only had the briefest of exchanges.
But Guardian said, “I have come only to see how the city fares.”
I had the odd sense that his sentence was unfinished, as if he had meant to say more. And that more I could almost hear as: one last time.
Did he feel his own end? Did he wish to follow his friends to the realm of the spirits? Of course, I could not ask such question. But my heart worried.
We reached the spot where the dead blackbird had lain earlier, and I searched the stones in the falling darkness. I could see no trace of the small, broken body.
“A hungry cat,” the Guardian suggested.
A shudder ran through me once again.
We walked on in silence, then took the stairs that led to the bottom of the wall where the Palace Guard waited to escort me back to the High Lord’s palace—four sturdy men dressed in red and gold, the High Lord’s colors.
The premonitions that had assailed me on top of the wall would not leave me, so I asked the Guardian, “Has the Seer seen something?”
But the Guardian only said, “Remember your mother’s words. And hold on to your light.”
Spirit, be strong. Heart, be brave had been my mother’s last message.
The Guardian looked at me with great kindness and the warmest affection, his gnarled hand reaching out to touch my arm in farewell. Then he turned and shuffled away from me, down the cobblestone street.
I watched his progress for some time in the light of the flickering torches before I turned in the opposite direction and hurried off toward the palace.
The Palace Guard escorted me straight to the High Lord’s Pleasure Hall, the concubines’ quarters, a nest of luxury—in the middle of military order and simplicity—as could scarcely be imagined by outsiders.
Had anyone told me of such a place, back when I’d been a sunborn Shahala girl impatiently waiting for her healing powers to manifest, I would have thought the descriptions a tall tale. Never would I have thought that one day I would end up among the Kadar as their High Lord’s favorite concubine.
Only concubine, until recently. My heart gave a painful squeeze as I pushed the door open, hoping against hope that the others would be back in their chambers, settling in for sleep.
Instead, they all waited, gathered in the round center hall, every displeased, suspicious eye on me as I entered.
“You poisoned the High Lord against us.” Lalandra spat the words instead of a greeting.
The slender beauty of amber eyes and full lips stepped forward from among the rest of the concubines, the silk of her emerald gown rustling as she moved. Her golden hair towered in an elaborate design of looped and folded braids, making her look like a carved temple statue of some ancient goddess. Even the look she shot me was as cold and hard as marble.
I winced at hearing the word poison from her lips. In that regard, the High Lord Batumar’s Pleasure Hall had a most unfortunate history.
I squared my shoulders as I stood my ground, between us the sunken pool in the middle of the center hall, its heated water filling the air with the scent of lavender oil that floated in glistening drops on the surface. Fur-covered benches lined the walls; silk wall hangings adding color, depicting couples in loving embraces. Low, octagonal tables offered fruit and drink: mosan berry juice, grapes, apples, pears.
In her lord’s Pleasure Hall, a concubine could find anything she ever desired. Anything but peace. The Kadar saying had it right—a warrior was safer in battle than a concubine on her pillows.
Since merely holding my ground would not do, I took a few steps forward. I had meant to go to my sleeping chamber, and I would do so.
I faced the women head on. “This is nothing but a misunderstanding.”
They had disliked me from the moment of their arrival, but this was the first time they openly challenged me. I had to find a way to turn us back from this road of becoming enemies.
An unhappy concubine dries out a man’s bones like the desert wind; but two unhappy concubines are twisting storms that can blow down a whole castle, according to a Kadar proverb. I did not wish to find out what havoc more than two dozen unhappy concubines could wreak.
“You do not want us here,” Lalandra accused, the light of the oil lamps glinting off the scented morcan oil she used to soften her hair.
Her emerald gown had been made to accentuate her perfect, curvaceous body, the silk high sheen. She practically shimmered as she said, “You used every excuse to keep us from our rightful place. Lord Gilrem died before the siege. Yet mooncrossing after mooncrossing, you found an excuse to keep us away from his brother, the High Lord, to keep him away from his lawfully inherited concubines.”
Even in her anger she was regal, as graceful in posture and movement as a queen. She had ruled Lord Gilrem’s Pleasure Hall, and the other women, for all her adult life. They owed their allegiance to her.
Out of all of them, I had only Arnsha on my side, whose life I once had saved when she’d nearly died in childbirth. But even she was too afraid of Lalandra to support me openly. At least, she stood aside and did not nod at Lalandra’s every word like the others.
I filled my lungs. “I could not have you come sooner. After Lord Gilrem died, the High Lord left to avenge his brother’s death.” And I had gone after him. Shortly after our return, the enemy lay siege to the city, most certainly not the right time for moving the women and children here.
Lalandra scoffed. “The High Lord’s Pleasure Hall stood empty with only you here, and you wished it that way.”
I would not lie by denying her words. I had been the High Lord’s only concubine, and I had foolishly convinced myself that life could remain so forever. Unlike the Kadar, my people, the Shahala bonded for life to a single mate.
I offered Lalandra a firm but friendly smile. As the favorite concubine, I was responsible for keeping Pleasure Hall’s peace, and I would find a way. “After the siege the High Lord gave these chambers to Shahala healers to heal our wounded.”
Room was plentiful here, heat and water readily available, which made healing work much easier.
Of course, Lalandra knew that. Even while concubines did not move outside the palace walls, they tended to know as much about the comings and goings in the city as if they sat all day at the city gate, every bit of news rushed to them by their servant women.
A concubine’s days were long, little to do beyond the endless purification and beautification rituals. In any Pleasure Hall, gossip had more value than jewels.
Lalandra’s voice dripped with venom as she said, “You kept us away as long as you could. And even now… The High Lord has not called for any of us but you.”
I blinked. Batumar had summoned Lady Lalandra just the day before, the knowledge of which was a dagger in my heart. But I could not refute her words. This was not the best time to call her a liar.
Most of the children played in the back, watched by the older girls, but Lalandra’s two were stuck to her side. When she took another step closer to me, so did they. She was reminding me that she had children while I had none.
Her beautiful eyes narrowed to slits. “You deny us even servants.”
The rest of the concubines murmured in agreement, a wall of support behind her. They were mostly daughters of warlords, wrapped in silk and satin, used to the finer things in their fathers’ houses and then in Lord Gilrem’s, used to servants fulfilling their every wish.
I did not like the bustle of servants around me all day, nor did I need assistance to bathe and dress. Lalandra and the others considered my reluctance to order an army of maids to take care of us an insult most grave.
“You were brought to our lands as a lowly slave,” she taunted. “And now you sit beside the High Lord at the nightly feast. He prefers you above all others.” Her gaze grew frostier and hardened even more as she leveled her final accusation. “What else can this be but sorcery?”
The women gasped, reaching for their charm belts.
Lalandra’s words, like ice-tipped fingers, crawled up my spine. I wished Leena, the High Lord’s mother and my friend, was in the palace, but she was on a pilgrimage to the Sacred Pool of the Goddesses. She had gone under heavy guard to thank the goddesses for reuniting her with her son. She would not be back until tomorrow evening.
Of course, that Lalandra would confront me when the High Lord’s mother was absent was no coincidence.
“I am a healer,” I repeated firmly. “All of Karamur knows it.”
Lalandra snapped back with, “All of Karamur knows that you enslaved the High Lord’s attention. Because of you, he has forsaken his duty.”
Those words I could not rebut. Spending time with his concubines was indeed a warlord’s responsibility. The making of sons was required of him. A lord’s sons became warriors, and the realm needed warriors to replace the great many men we had lost during the siege. All men who survived the attack—lords, warriors, and servants alike—had the sacred duty to fill their women’s bellies.
“You are not Kadar.” Lalandra pronounced the words like a judgment. “You wish for Karamur to fall in the next fight.”
“I served the city during the siege with my healing,” I reminded her.
Lalandra lifted her chin, and her cold gaze turned scolding. “Kadar warriors are the best fighters in the world. I do not think they needed help from anybody. I did not see this great deed of healing that you claim.”
Of course, she hadn’t. During the siege, Lalandra and the others had been barricaded in Lord Gilrem’s palace with their children.
“You wish to rule us all,” she accused.
I wished for nothing but peace. A child’s wish, I thought with heavy heart, when the whole world was at war.
She kept her chin up as she demanded, “Where are the High Lord’s other concubines?”
“You well know where they are, Lady Lalandra.” Dead. The most dreadful story I’d ever heard, jealousy leading to the murder of innocents. None of that had anything to do with me.
“Some say you killed them.” Menace hissed in Lalandra’s words.
By some, I was certain she meant herself. I prayed to the spirits for patience.
“Strange how you always manage to live,” Lalandra went on. “During the siege, did you not fall into fire? You protect yourself with an ill-gained power,” she said the words as if she was the High Lord himself, pronouncing judgment.
Clutching their charm belts, the other concubines nodded in agreement, their elaborately arranged braids bobbing up and down like a flock of chiri birds pecking for worms.
Lalandra stepped closer to me yet—we stood but a few steps apart—and pronounced her final judgment loudly enough for her voice to fill the hall. “Sorceress.”
Even as I moved forward too—I would not yield—the small hairs rose at my nape. To be charged with sorcery was the greatest sin among the Kadar.
But before I could defend myself against Lalandra’s charge, the carved doors guarding Pleasure Hall rattled. One of the servant girls, Natta, entered and hurried to me, her twin braids flopping behind her. Her wood-bottom shoes clop-clopped on the stones, then fell silent when she reached the thick carpet.
She nearly tripped on her long linen dress, but caught herself and curtsied smartly. She looked straight into my eyes and smiled, a familiarity for which most other concubines would have slapped her. I smiled back.
Her words echoed off the walls in the sudden silence as she said, “The High Lord requests your presence, my lady.”
Hate filled the room like smoke rising, twisting, reaching every crevice.
For a moment, as Lalandra’s gaze flared with fury, I thought she might reach out to claw my face. I would have to address her burning hatred when I returned. And I would address this budding concubine rebellion with the High Lord in but a moment.
I stood my ground long enough to make sure they understood I was not fleeing, then followed Natta, knowing I was leaving smoldering embers behind me, embers that could at any moment burst into dangerous flames.
We hurried down narrow hallways lit by flickering torches. Shadows danced on the wool tapestries that depicted great Kadar battles.
Natta left me at the High Lord’s quarters with a small bow and a big smile, hurrying on to finish her evening chores. She was a happy girl through and through, quick and smart, proud to be serving in the High Lord’s palace.
Batumar kept no slaves, unlike some of the other warlords. All who served the High Lord served him of their free will.
I had seen little discord within the palace walls until the concubines had arrived. On that thought, I pushed the door open and stepped inside.