Though this book starts with a prologue, I'm putting up the first chapter here.
Mistress of the Moons
By Janet Lane Walters
Vanilla Heart Press
The Seat of Judgment
Fighting tears, Catherine Wheeler slumped on a bench at the end of the hospital corridor. The smell of disinfectant mingled with the odors of human suffering, fear and death. Ever since the young doctor had come to her husband’s room and pronounced Tommy dead, she’s felt like a ship torn from its moorings. She glanced at the wall where peeling green paint told of age and neglect. Place is old, like me, she thought.
The elevator creaked to a halt and the doors opened. A gurney with high sides and a dark cover emerged. As the grim men pushed the cart past her, the wheels squealed.
Though she’d told the nurse she was leaving, Katherine had needed to wait until her husband left the unit. Pain like the gnawing of a mouse bit into her heart and brought waves of dizziness.
The pain faded. The squeaking gurney returned. She half rose and sank back. Why couldn’t she take this final ride with him?
The rules, she thought. The unfairness of a system that kept people from their dead angered her. She should have been the one to wash his body and to close his eyes. A momentary desire to challenge the roles the way she’d fought other edicts years ago arose. But she was too old, too tired.
She sucked in a shuddering breath and watched the gurney disappear behind the closing elevator doors. Tommy had been four years her senior and she was glad he’d gone before her. He would have been lost without her, just as she would be without him. Sixty-three years of living with the same man made thoughts of being alone frightening. He’d been her life. Together they’d faced problems and found solutions. With a sigh she rose and pressed for the elevator.
Outside the humid air, redolent with exhaust fumes and the stench of garbage made her cough. Pain circled her heart. Before crossing the street to reach the bus stop she paused to catch her breath. When her strength returned she plodded to the other side. There she glanced at a display of bears in a toy store window.
The images wavered. She pressed her hands against the glass. Three dolls formed a tableau against a painted background showing a mountain lake and a pale moon in the dark sky. The central figure caught her attention. The doll wore a deep amber robe and golden brown boots. In her hand she held a staff topped with an amber crystal.
The need to hold the doll burned as hot as the pain in her chest. As she opened the door a bell tinkled. The young woman behind the counter looked up, then began buffing her nails again.
Catherine lifted the doll from the case. Why this urgent wish to possess this doll. She had no child or grandchild. Pain, agonizing and exquisite, exploded in her chest. She crumpled to the floor.
The clerk jumped to her feet. Why had the old biddy wandered in? The young woman knelt beside the old lady. “Hey, are you all right?” When there was no answer she searched for a pulse. Her eyes widened. The woman was dead. She reached for the phone and called for an ambulance. Had the old lady taken something from the display window? A check of the bears showed none were missing.
Moments later, the ambulance arrived.
* * *
A moan of pleasure escaped the lips of the woman named Ashiera. As Sieper found his release his arms tightened around her. He rolled to his side and held her against his chest. His lips brushed her honey-colored hair. He inhaled the fragrance of the herbs she used as a rinse. As always her amber eyes were devoid of expression.
Sunshine streamed through the windows of the sleeping chamber clothing them in colored light. Chips of multi-hued crystals embedded in the headboard of the massive bed splashed bright tints on the sheets.
He stroked her smooth skin. “The Cabal and his mind mages named you as an undead. Thus I claimed you as my reward for their use of my skip for their cargoes.” His jaw clenched for the service hadn’t been a willing gift but one demanded. No man of Keltoi dared refuse the orders of the priests of the Lord of Shadows.
She pressed her lips against his chest. For years he’d carried her image in his heart but he’d never believed she would be his for more than the single night they’d once shared. Since then his life had changed again and again. From deck hand to officer and then to ship owner.
He thought of the day he and the Wind Skimmer had sailed into Zandara. The holds had been filled with exotic goods from the other nomes and he’d had hopes of enough profit to outfit a second ship. Alas, those dreams had come to naught. The priests had seized control of Keltoi. Since the defeat of the Mistress, the gray robes and their minions had ruled the nome. Their taxes had eaten most of his profits and for nearly thirteen years he’d sailed at their bidding.
His hands curled into fists. “I’ve worked hard and dreamed of a flight of ships but these hopes slip further from my grasp.” He stared into Ashiera’s empty amber eyes. “Why do I tell you these things? Do you even hear me?”
For an instant he thought he saw a flicker of awareness in her eyes. A foolish thought. Under the Cabal’s torture her mind had fled.
Gently he stroked her face and traced her lips. Nineteen years ago she’d been his for a night. He’d been the one she’d chosen for her passage from maiden to woman. Their joining, hot and urgent, had created a dream of forever with her.
He caressed her breasts. His nipples tightened and she moved against him. Though her mind had fled, her body remembered the ways of passion. He wanted to hear his name on her lips but since the day he’d claimed her from the pens she hadn’t spoken.
He kissed her. “My love, we must leave soon.” Regret that he’d begun what there wasn’t time to finish filled his voice. “The Wind Skimmer leaves on the evening tide. Until I return you will bide with Maran’s wife.” He pulled her to her feet. “Remember, you are mine.”
Had he seen a flash of denial in her eyes? Her forehead wrinkled and she opened her mouth. A croaking sound emerged. He waited. Would she speak?
After long moments of silence he walked with her to the bathing room where a glass dome filled the room with sunlight to heat the pool. Like a child she played in the water but she uttered no happy sounds, nor did the placid expression on her beautiful face change.
He dressed her in a shimmering spidersilk gown. The iridescent fabric reminded him of the gown she’d worn the night she’d walked in the garden of the Mistress and had taken his hand. He pulled on trousers and a shirt that laced at the sides.
“Come, we must eat.” With his hand at her waist he steered her to the garden room.
A wall of glass bricks let in light and distorted the lush growth outside. The table, set for two, stood near the wide door leading into the yard. A maid checked the clothes hanging on the line. Her spouse leaned against the wall and watched her work. In these days, no woman walked through town unguarded lest she be taken by the priests. Even in their homes, there was little safety. If a priest wanted new women for the pens, he took them.
“Ashiera,” Sieper whispered.
She stared. “Who is Ashiera?”
You and you are mine.”
As though a black curtain had been turned, her expression changed. “No.” She backed away.
He went to her. “What do you remember?”
Her eyes reflected myriad emotions. “Dying, yet I live. Heated winds searing my head. Falling into darkness. I am Ashiera but I don’t remember taking vows with you.”
“Much has changed in Keltoi. The Lord of Shadows has placed his shroud over the people. The Mistress and her servants are gone.”
“Gone! Who protects the land and makes sure the seasons follow their proper courses?” She bowed her head. “Once I sat on the Seat of Judgment. Once I knew the lore, the law and the legends. I solved disputes and made prophecies for those who asked for sight.”
He caressed her shoulders in an attempt to leach the tension from her taut muscles. “Those days are no more.”
She looked up. “All is gone?”
His thumbs brushed her cheeks. “Alas, ‘tis the truth. Since you are now aware I can’t leave you in Zandara. You must come with me for you are mine.”
His words frightened her. She couldn’t be a prisoner. Though his blue-green eyes were kind she couldn’t sail with him. There was a place she must find and she couldn’t let anyone stop her. Yet, she wished she could remain with him.
She touched his face and explored the rugged features. She ran her hands through his honey-hued hair that brushed his broad shoulders. He was a man she could love forever but the compulsion to flee his tender care became unbearable. Her muscles tensed for flight.
His arms closed around her like a cage. “Sail with me.”
She struggled to free herself from his embrace. She couldn’t. She had to leave. A voice sounded in her head. Come. Now!
Ashiera grabbed a heavy crystal salt cellar and smashed it against his head. He staggered and fell, pulling her atop him. Until she caught her breath she listened to the steady beat of his heart. He groaned. She jumped to her feet. As she raced across the garden to the gate she pulled clothes from the line.
* * *
Twilight darkened the sky before Ashiera found a hiding place in a dark alley doorway. The stench of rotting fish and the brine-laden air made her swallow against the burning fluid rising in her throat. Rustling noises brought a prayer that none of the alley’s denizens would attack her. She dozed, woke and dozed again. Memories of the past rose in broken fragments. Each time she woke she found more pieces were joined.
Sieper. Bits of the things she’d heard years ago in the marketplace were remembered. Rumors of his ability to read the weather surfaced. How could he possess such a talent? The Mistress touched women, never men. Did he serve the Lord of Shadows? He’d spoken of ownership and of her as being a reward from the Cabal. Had Sieper been one of the men who had lurked and awaited the arrival of the gray priests? She sighed. Would she ever regain all the memories of the time before her capture?
She rolled the too long trouser legs and used a scrap of cloth torn from her gown as a belt. The sleeves of the shirt hung well below her hands and she pushed them up. How fortunate she had been to find Sieper’s clothes on the line. As she’d fled through the alleys she had peered into the streets. The few women she’d seen had been escorted by one or even several men.
While she waited for true dark she fingered the scar on her wrist. Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle a scream.
An obese man, heat shaved and scalp oiled, faced her. He held a metal rod with a serpent curled around the staff. A globe of swirling mist topped the rod. Her body trembled. The evil in the priest’s thoughts nauseated her. The serpent raised its head. The fangs bit into her wrist and sent molten fire through her veins. An endless scream echoed in her head and she sought darkness as she had before.
When Ashiera emerged from the place where night was eternal a few stars shone in the sky. A pale sliver moon had risen. She struggled to her feet and exercised muscles stiffened by the cramped position.
Flee. Leave the city.
The urgency of the command made her lose all caution. “Who are you?”
The Place of Choosing. You must go there.
“Where is this place?”
In the Shanara Mountains.
As she left the wharf area she slid from shadow to shadow. Now and then she heard footsteps but whoever walked the streets moved with the same caution she employed. Finally the waterfront lay behind her and she strode along a broad avenue where the Seat of Judgment stood behind a high wall. The Seat no longer remained a refuge. The gray priests resided there. Shepas barked warnings. Several times she froze and fought the urge to run and perhaps draw attention to her flight.
At last she reached the market near the north gate. Guards in gray uniforms trimmed with waxy yellow marched two by two in front of the gate. Was she trapped? Was there no way to escape the city?
She slipped between two stalls and slid beneath a peddler’s wagon. The cold of the rough cobbles seeped through her clothes and made her shiver. She leaned against one of the wooden wheels. Despite her discomfort she drifted to sleep.
Voice woke her. She peered around the wheel and saw two men.
“’Tis the first day of the last lunar of the year. An auspicious day to begin our journey.”
“Father, watch your tongue. ‘Tis the first day of Dar. If you plan to remain on the road you must learn the words our new rulers have ordained.”
The first man laughed. “Peto, my son, you will do well. An old man has trouble remembering new ways. Are we set to leave?”
“The wagons are loaded. The cart is stocked. Our permits have been bought and sighed. All we must do is pay the gate tax.”
“You do that. ‘Tis my last trip as master peddler. Time for an old man to sit by the fire and tell his grand children tales of the road.”
“Then harness the bovies while I’m gone.”
Ashiera watched as the younger man left. She crept from her hiding place. Surely one who failed to learn the new ways would help her.
“Months, not lunars,” the old man muttered. “Not allowed to speak about the Mistress.” He led a pair of massive brown beasts to the first wagon and fastened them in the traces. “Blessed be the Mistress. Years ago her seer predicted a son for Sari and me. A miracle for a woman past her fortieth year.”
“Peddler,” Ashiera whispered.
He turned. His dark brown hair was touched with strands of ebony. “A woman in men’s clothes. If the priests find you they’ll drag you to their pens.”
She pushed up the sleeve of her shirt. “I’ve been there.”
He drew closer. “You!” A reverent tone crept into his voice. “You are the one who said I would have a son.”
Ashiera had no memory of his face among the many seekers at the Seat of Judgment. “I pray my prediction brought you joy.”
“He has.” He touched her wrist. “Why did they mark you?”
She shuddered and pushed the dark memories away. “My mind fled under their torture.”
He dropped his cloak around her shoulders. “Tales are told of the ones who resisted and died, and of one who accepted but none of you. How can I help?”
“I must reach the Shanara Mountains by lunar’s end. Is there a way out of the city?”
“’Tis a far way to travel.” He nodded. “Small steps come first.” He harnessed the bovies, then opened the door of a brightly painted wagon. “Years ago my spouse traveled with me. Our son was born on this bed.” He lifted the mattress and the wooden frame. “For storage. A small space but once we’re past the gates I’ll let you out. You must stay in the wagon. We travel with some who fawn on the priests.”
Ashiera traced the sign of the Mistress in the air and took hope from the golden glow. “Blessed be. Have you water? I would drink before I hide.”
He filled a cup. “I’m Penro.”
“Thanks be.” She savored the water and drank a second cup before climbing into the cubby.
When Penro replaced the frame and mattress she fought the urge to scream. Memories of her imprisonment by the Cabal filled her thoughts. Before the snake had marked her she had been kept in a small dark pit for days. The stale air, the cramped position and the absence of light in the hiding place seemed the same.
The cart moved and then stopped for what seemed like hours. Her nails bit into her palms and her heart thudded. If they found her what would she do? Finally the cart rolled forward. The gentle rocking motion lulled her to sleep.
When she woke the cubby was hot and the air flat. Sweat made her clothes cling to her body. She gulped deep breaths until her head spun. Frantically she pushed against the wooden frame. Tears rolled down her face. Then a rush of cool air reached her.
“’Tis night.” Penro helped her from the small space. “You slept through the day. Couldn’t wake you when we stopped at midday. There’s food and drink on the table and some coins I’ve collected from those who won’t betray you. I’ve the names of several inns on your way where the Mistress is honored in secret. My friend, Thamis has clothes for you.”
Ashiera stretched her aching body. “Are there many who oppose the priests?”
He shrugged. “In every village and hamlet there are those who keep Her in their hearts. There are no leaders. The warriors from the Hall of Defense were defeated. Her servants in the nomes across the mountains have refused to join the battle. The taxes for women tear families apart. Few have coins to pay so their daughters can escape the pens.”
Ashiera sat at the table. “Taxes for women?” She dipped a spoon into the bowl of stew. Though she wanted to gulp she took small bites.
He nodded. "Each man of Keltoi can have but one woman of child-bearing age in his house. For all others he must pay a tax.”
“Indeed ‘tis that.” He filled a mug with hot spiced tea. “Where once daughters were a blessing, they’re now a curse. Rumors of hidden places in the forest and the hills spread among the people but what parent would send a child into the wilderness?”
Ashiera considered his words. Always more women than men were born but there had been places among the servants of the Mistress for those who chose not to take a spouse. She shook her head. “Their ways are evil.”
He nodded. “Finish your meal. I’ll return with Thamis.” He slipped from the wagon.
Ashiera felt sadness enshroud her. What happened to those girls who were taken by the priests and put in the pens? A flash of memory shook her. The girls had been auctioned for nights of service with any number of men. Some were sent to serve the priests in their houses. She shuddered. “Mistress, why has this evil come upon us? How did we fail you?”
When Penro returned, a short man with dark brown hair followed him. He dropped a bundle on the bed. “Thamis, she is the one,” Penro said.
“Blessed be.” The symbol Ashiera sketched glowed.
“Thanks for the blessing.” Thamis bowed. “Penro said you were more my size than his. I’m honored to serve one who belongs to the Mistress.”
She opened the bundle. “My thanks to you.”
“Two of my daughters served in a House of Healing. My youngest son died defending them.”
“The priests carried the war even to the healers?”
“Even there,” Penro said. “They slaughtered the ill. ‘Tis said they gain power from pain and death.”
Anger made Ashiera tremble but now wasn’t the time for action. Quickly she changed into Thamis’ clothes. She embraced Penro. “Your house will prosper.”
He bowed. “If you have a need I will come.”
“Listen to the winds for a call.”
She followed Thamis outside. Keeping to the shadows she walked with him to the yard were stolid bovies mingled with fleet equines. He whistled. A shaggy pony trotted to the fence.
Thamis opened the gate. “’Twas a present for my grandson but you have a greater need.” He dropped a blanket over the sturdy beast’s back and hung a pair of panniers over its rump. “Supplies for your journey and goods suited to a journeyman peddler.”
“Thanks be to you and Penro. Your family will grow and fare well but they must take care in the days to come.” She traced the globe and crescent. Then she tugged on the pony’s rope and led him for nearly a kil before mounting.
* * *
Lugal, the Cabal, stared into the globe atop the serpent rod and willed the mists to clear and show the past. He never tired of watching the defeat of those who had served the Mistress of the Moons. The battle had depleted his predecessor’s powers and had allowed Lugal to challenge for the rod that marked him as one of the Triad of rulers. The swirling clouds parted to reveal a woman’s face.
A roar of rage rose from his lips. He knew that one. He’d questioned her and watched the serpent animate and mark her with its fangs. Thus she belonged to the Lord of Shadows. What had gone wrong? Had her flight into darkness nullified the venom? The veins of his neck were engorged by rage. He sought to clear her face from the globe.
“Not so. I won’t have this.”
His jaw clenched and he thought of what he’d seen nearly thirteen years before. The then Cabal and the mind mages had joined the champions of the Gladius and the minions of the Thamaturg. The forces of the Mistress had been defeated. His anger escalated. Something had gone wrong. Now, a second eclipse approached.
The globe darkened. The woman’s face vanished. Lugal’s anger erupted. As though a miniature cyclone entered the room, wind whipped his robe. Papers whirled through the air. The draperies at the windows shredded beneath the storm. The shutters crashed against the wall. Outside the sky darkened. Lightning flashed and crackled. Rain fell in torrents.
Slowly Lugal’s rage subsided. He lumbered down the hall to the audience chamber of the building that had once been the Seat of Justice. Upon his entrance the coterie of first level mind mages rose. He walked to the dais. As he sat his robes swirled around his ankles. “The women. The one who was a seer. Ashiera. Bring her from the pens.” His fleshy fingers tightened around the rod. The snake stirred.
The Right Hand snapped his fingers. Two mages departed the chamber. A short time later they returned. The master of the pens walked between them.
“Where is she?” Lugal asked.
The pen master knelt on the first step. “Two months ago a sea merchant, one Sieper, came to me. He bore an order from you giving him his choice of women. After paying the tax he took her.”
Lugal leaned forward. Why hadn’t the man reported the incident? He curbed the desire to lash the pen master’s mind. He had no time to train another. He turned to the Right Hand. “Send Mages and guards to the sea merchant’s house and bring the pair to me.” If she’d slipped from his grasp his plans for gaining ascendancy were ruined.
Four mages marched from the room. Lugal called for food. Women dressed in diaphanous robes of rainbow hues glided across the gray-tinged yellow marble floor. One bore a flagon of wine. Others held platters of fruit, cheese and sweets. Three women played flutes, two plucked lyres and one tapped a hand drum. A half dozen women danced to the music, contorting their bodies into near impossible positions.
Lugal leaned forward. He ran his tongue over his fleshy lips. While sampling succulent bits of pina, manga and quava, he selected the women who would attend him this night. He reached for the wine cup and signaled the servant to pour. He slid his hand beneath her ankle-length robe and kneaded her hip.
Once his appetite for food had been sated he clasped ring-clad fingers on his obese abdomen. His thoughts centered on his plan to seize control of the priesthood. The Lord of Shadows had no need for swords of fire or noxious poisonous vapors when Lugal and his mind mages could use the wind to control the people. Lugal wondered why he had the share the rule with Sargon and Gamish.
He nodded. His quest for supremacy had been born in poverty. His skills as a thief had brought him to the attention of the priests and his talent had been revealed. Rapidly, he had risen until he’d become the Right Hand of the former Cabal. He would succeed in Keltoi just as he had since entering the service of the Lord of Shadows.
Hours passed before the quartet of mages returned. They bowed and their leader spoke. “The sea merchant’s house is deserted and the servants are gone. His ship sailed on last evening’s tide.
“She must have gone with him.”
Lugal’s hands clenched. “Send the fastest clipper and an octet of mind mages after him. The woman is mine.” He rose and in a swirl of robes lumbered from the audience chamber.