Friend Ann on Facebook!  
Ann on Tumblr!  
Visit Ann's Blog!  
Ann on Twitter  
Ann on Pinterest  

Virtual Warrior

Perfect Heroes #3
Ellora's Cave
October 2013
ISBN: 978-1419946479

Buy eBook edition:

Order print edition:

The enemy stands at the border...
Ardra needs a strong warrior to save her fortress...
Neil needs a place to lick his wounds and heal...
he wishes he'd gone to Tahoe!

Chapter 2

Ardra separated herself from her escort with orders that they set camp at the base of Hart Fell before full dark descended, and then walked swiftly through the trees. Above lay the hut of Nilrem, the wiseman. At the sun-rising on the morrow, as tradition dictated, she would seek what wisdom he could offer in her quest. She held little hope of much more than kind words and expressions of sympathy.

Honor and duty required she make the journey.

She had a long night of waiting ahead. As she moved to higher ground, she quickened her step. She did not want her party to know she was about to indulge in an ancient ritual, that of the old gods, that practiced by old women.

Her serving women might nod in understanding, but they would also be quick to disdain any belief in the ritual. Men would smile and nudge one another with their elbows. But at this time when she most needed help, she would appeal to any god--ancient or otherwise. The folly of her superstitious belief might result in ridicule and contempt, but follow the way she must.

The ground beneath her feet was cushioned with pine needles, a handful of which she put in her waist pouch along with her flint and eight small candles. The occasional tiny woodland flower gleamed white in the gathering dusk, filling the air with a soft, hopeful fragrance. She gathered dry twigs as she walked along. A snap made her pause. She listened but heard nothing more. No animals stirred. With a shrug, she moved on.

She came out onto a high meadow, her arms full of dry twigs and branches. Despite the windy conditions, she gathered rocks and built a fire, using the dry pine needles as tinder. It was a small fire, stubborn to light. The eight candles she set out within the ring of stones were even more troublesome.

Fearful the flames might die in the capricious breezes before the sun set, but doing as tradition bid, she rose with a handful of dirt and faced the red orb. It sat on top of a distant mountain. It appeared impaled on the peak, its glow like blood oozing down the steep slopes. She shivered. With great impatience, she waited, eyes on the horizon.

Despite the sun's gleam, the sky was an angry purple, the air heavy with expectation. Low murmurs of thunder came across the far plains. Flickers of lightning traced paths between mountain tops.

When the perfect moment came--the moment when the sun was just ready to set--she held her dirt-filled fist over the struggling flames and slowly sifted the dust from her palm. The fire died. Next, she walked around the ring of stones eight times. With each round, she sifted dirt, extinguishing one candle in each circuit.

Breath tight in her chest, she then turned her face to the heavens and awaited the coming of the conjunction--the first in fifty such conjunctions--when all four moons would rise together, already in alignment and coming when the sun had not yet completely disappeared. An ancient augury. Of what, she knew not.

They came. The first of the four moons, blue-green, smaller than the sun, but magnificent in color, cast green into the heavens to mingle its cool color with that of the purple and red.

The rest of the moons rose. Legends said they were sisters, holding hands to kneel before their mother, the sun. A blessing some ancient prophesies said, a warning said others. Some feared seeing both the day orb and the night orbs at the same time, in such a precise row. Others marveled. Ardra felt only empty.

It was time to complete the ritual. She knelt, struck her flint, and nurtured a new spark in a handful of dry needles and shredded cloth, blew into the embers her wishes--prayed to the ancient gods just as women had done since the beginning of time.

When the small coal was glowing, she scooped it up and lifted it reverently to the orbs, then cast it onto the kindling as legend said to do. She held her breath, leaned forward, willed the flames to survive. The small flames crackled, took, ate the twigs, fought the errant gusts of wind. Now, she must light the candles anew.

A sound behind her made her look up.

Three men stood there. Dirty men. Outcasts.

Her throat dried. With unsteady legs, she rose. They held rough sticks loosely in their filthy fists. She stumbled back, the fire between her and them. They came at her slowly, their intent gazes skimming up and down her like touches.

One grinned. His tongue licked along his lower lip. The gesture sent a flood of fear through her.

She glanced over her shoulder, to the trees and the way down to her guards.

The outcasts leapt over her fire.

She whirled around. To run.

A man blocked her way.

A man afire.

She screamed. He stood bathed in the last of the sunlight, rooted in flames of red and gold, his eyes black holes in his white face.

She danced to the left, stumbled on her hem, went down on one knee. The outcasts fell on her from behind. Pain flashed through her shoulder from a harsh blow of a stick.

They tore at her jewels. One grasped her hem and tossed it up.

The flaming man swayed and shimmered.

She fought grasping hands, kicking, clawing with her nails, wordlessly begging the stranger for help.

The red and gold man staggered forward, clasped his hands together, and smashed them with a great swing against the filthy head of the outcast now questing beneath her skirts.

With a howl of anger, the outcast turned to the man. Another outcast, his feral smile a gap-toothed sneer, raised his stick and signaled his friends.

From one moment to the next, the outcasts abandoned her and swarmed the man. Suddenly free, Ardra scrabbled backwards on her hands, then with a sob, forced herself to stand up and run.

The trees seemed so far away, her feet, iron weights. Breath on fire in her chest, she hurled into the shelter of the pines and scrambled up the trunk of a tree.

The vision of the red and gold man still danced in her mind's eye. The sense that he had been conjured from the air made her tremble. Nay, her eyes had deceived her. It was just his scarlet and gold robes aflame in the remaining glow of light and her fear that had made it seem so.

As she gripped the rough bark and pressed her head to her hands, she could not forget his sudden appearance. He had come just at the conjunction to save her. How she wished for some means to fight the outcasts as he had fought for her.

Help. She must find help. Her heart pounded, her breath seared her chest. Her men were at the foot of the mountain. She must pass the outcasts to reach them. Only Nilrem was near, and he but an old man. "Why must I be a paltry woman? Useless," she muttered.

From her perch she could see nothing . . . but she could hear. She wanted to press her hands to her ears and block out the terrible noise, but doing so would deny the man who, bare-handed, had come to her rescue. Finally, she closed her eyes and waited.

Silence came quickly and when it did, she cautiously slipped from the tree branches and crept to the edge of her shelter. The outcasts were like scavengers on prey. They had stripped the man who lay sprawled, his arms and legs outflung as if beseeching the orbs overhead for mercy. Was he dead? Her eyes filled. She lacked words to give voice to her anger with herself.

Her pride may have cost the man his life. A merchant he must be to bear no sword. He was certainly not a warrior trained to fight and defend, yet defend he had.

The three filthy men crouched with their backs to their victim, arguing over his robes, his belt, and his pouch.

One of the men cried out. He shook his hand, flinging something away as if it burned his fingers. The others peered at the object then also backed away, their arms filled with the man's clothing. They darted into the trees with their booty and disappeared.

Her first instinct was to go to the man. Her second to be guarded. Perhaps 'twas just a ruse by the outcasts to draw her out. When the crash of their progress down the mountain grew faint, she tiptoed from the shelter of the trees.

They had left their victim no dignity in death. Drawing off her cloak, she knelt to cover him, tears rising in her eyes. "If I had been a man, I would have killed at least one of them to pay for this." With a hesitant hand, she touched his chest.

His heart beat strongly beneath her palm. He rolled his bloody head from side to side and groaned.

"By the gods, you are alive."

There was hope.

She cast her cloak aside to examine him. How terrible it would be if the man bled to death while she fetched help.

His hair was not bloody. His face was, but 'twas not blood that made his head so dark. She wondered at the deep brown color, but could waste no time on the matter.

Quickly, fearful the outcasts might return, she examined the rest of him. He was young, his battered body as strong as a warrior's. None of his wounds looked mortal.

With a whispered prayer of gratitude to the gods, she stood up and gave him a final look. Blood ran down his inner thigh, a thigh hard with muscle. His stomach was ridged with muscle as well.

Then her glance fell on his right arm. She reached out to assure herself what she saw was real. Aye, 'twas the flesh of a strong man but painted with a serpent. It coiled three times about his arm. She rubbed the tips of her fingers over the paint, then sat back to think. With a glance to the heavens, she saw the third moon had already risen. "This is a terrible omen," she whispered.

Gently, she draped her cloak across the man's body. He was taller than the common man, though not as tall as some of her guards. If she covered his feet her cloak came only to the middle of his chest. She tugged the cloak up far enough to conceal the symbol on his arm, leaving his feet exposed.

His eyes flickered open. "What happened?" he asked. He licked his lips.

Ardra stood and backed away. He tracked her movements and lifted a hand.

Nilrem, she thought. I must fetch Nilrem. He will know what to make of this man and the strange symbol painted on his arm. Something glinted in the dirt. A broken chain. She bent and retrieved it. The outcasts had thrown this away, been fearful of it for some reason.

Then she understood. Dangling from the chain was . . . nay, it was impossible. It looked like glass, but glass could not be shaped in such a manner. The flames of her meager fire flared a moment, illuminating the small object. A rose. The personal emblem of Tolemac's high councilor.

There in the dirt was another rose. She threaded it on the broken chain and knotted it. Two perfect red roses embedded in an impossible material.

She folded her hand into a tight fist about the token and forced herself to go for help, when, in truth, she wished to abandon her savior to the cold night.

Continue to Chapter 3


Return to top