Banished from his people for breaking their treaty with the Kahn war lords, Jarad begins a journey across the desert that puts him into the hands of people who challenge his every belief, and a woman called Xenia who reminds him of all he’s lost. But when Xenia’s daughter is taken by Kahns, Jarad is dragged back into the violence and devastation he’d left behind.
Word Count: 110,104
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Available formats: PDF, RTF, Epub, HTML, Mobipocket (.prc)
© Cover Art by Jenny Dixon, August 2004
New Concepts Publishing
Lake Park, GA 31636
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and places are of the author's imagination and not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.
Cheyana sank down beside him on the grass. “Before the Wanderers.”
At whatever she saw in his expression, she said in a sing-song voice, “In ancient times a great leader arose in Syrithia. She and her son, Paixyr, led many to follow her into the uncharted lands where all could live in peace. We are the remnant of that group.” She smiled at him, her dark eyes full of life and happiness. “And now, so are you.”
“There must be hundreds of your people, then,” he said, trying to ignore her last statement. He was not a part of them. He had only one desire, to kill Kahns until he, too, died.
She nodded, her curls bouncing like dark ribbons.
Excited, he asked, “Are they warriors? Trained to fight?” Had Syrith led him here to give him an army? It must be, he thought. Why else did She shun his pleas for death?
“We may fight to defend ourselves – if we want to,” Cheyana said.
“If you want to? What do you mean?”
“You don’t know very much for your age.”
Her blunt statement surprised him so much that he laughed. The sound startled him. He could not remember the last time he’d laughed. Nor did he wish to. He clamped his lips together. “Mayhaps you could be my friend and teach me,” he said.
Another wide smile lit her face. “Jarad of the Water Tribe, I accept your offer of friendship.” She held her palm out toward him. He stared at it, then realized he was supposed to do the same. He hesitated, thinking this resembled the Kahn ritual of clasping hands to signify deep respect. But if he wanted her help, he must appear friendly. Who knew of what use she might be? That thought needled him with guilt. Perhaps he should not involve her. At her expectant expression, however, he pressed his palm to hers, unwilling to disappoint her. She probably had no idea of the similarity between this touching of palms and the Kahn greeting, he thought. Or of the atrocities the Kahns had committed against his people.
Her palm felt warm against his. Her fingertips barely reached his knuckles. For a moment he flashed back in time, saw his daughter seated beside him. Saw their palms pressed together in a game of balance, her silvery hair the same as his, her brown eyes and dusky skin that of his wife, Lilas. “My little flower....”
A sob tore from his throat. He lowered his hand, gripped his body in an effort to stop the gut-wrenching pain surging upward. His insides clenched, but another sob escaped, and another. Dampness trickled down his face as he doubled over, afraid he was scaring the little girl, but unable to stop. He heard her jump to her feet and run away.
Sweet Syrith, he had to get out of here. But he only bent over his knees further, until his head nearly touched the ground. Still the sounds made it past his clenched jaw. My daughter, my daughter, my daughter.... The litany flowed like a river of unending grief through his mind, and he cried out to the Goddess as he’d never cried before in all the days since Leandra’s and Lilas’s deaths. A scream of raw anguish erupted. He dug his fingers into the grass, but still he couldn’t stop.
After a time, the pain eased and the sobs died in his throat. He slowly sat up and raised his eyes to the sky. “Why?” he asked. “I would have gladly died in her place. You could have taken me. You should have taken me.”
No answer. He sucked in a deep breath and slowly exhaled. He realized that it was too quiet. No birds, no sounds of foraging. Were they startled by his screams? But even the wind had stilled.
He scanned the line of strange trees. Their trunks were twisted rather than straight, making strange shapes that intertwined with one another. Once, he had stood proud and straight, he thought, but now he resembled these trees.
Something moved through the thick stand. Xenia. Her eyes tight with concern, she approached him with slow, cautious steps, like one would approach a wounded animal. Perhaps she saw him as such. Perhaps she was right.
He dried his face on his sleeve. “I didn’t mean to scare the child – Cheyana,” he said, adding her name awkwardly. It made him feel responsible, as an adult was responsible for a child. That made him feel vulnerable. He shoved to his feet and managed to stay there. “You shouldn’t have left her alone with me.” The last came out harsh and critical.
Her ebony eyes flashed. “Who are you to judge my actions?” She said it in such a way that he felt in the wrong.
“You don’t know me. I could have hurt her.”
One dark eyebrow rose. “You can barely stand. You were no threat to her.”
He met her gaze. “I give you fair warning. When I am strong, I will avenge my wife’s and daughter’s murders.”
Her eyes remained steadfast, as though staring into his mind and reading his thoughts. “And I give you fair warning. You cannot leave until your debt is paid.”