Shandor warmed his hands at the small fire and studied his companions. The priest, Thiasi mid
Chu, leaned against a rock and sipped the chocha he’d brewed to complete their midday meal. The firelight caught auburn glints in the man’s brown hair. Was he from Keltoi? If so, he was a rarity among the priests. Men of that nome seldom had traffic with Midran.
The third member of the party met Shandor’s gaze. Vorgan’s pale hair and deep brown skin marked his heritage from Nilos. The sneer on his face showed his dislike of Shandor. Vorgan counted his blood purer because his father was a priest and his mother a concubine. So often during their years of study, he had called Shandor a half-breed. The reason lay in Shandor’s Healwoman mother and the five years he had lived with her in Bethsada.
“’Twould be best if you work as a team,” mid
Vorgan rested his hands on his knees. “Shandor, do you agree to be my partner in this venture?”
“Why not?” Shandor knew Vorgan had no intention of aiding one he considered a rival. He never had. Why would he change his pattern? Their training in the Gate of the Shadows drew to an end. Upon completion of this task, they would enter the Gate of the Militos, the final step toward entry into the priesthood.
“What should we take?” Vorgan asked.
“The choice is yours. I’ll move the camp. Once you have the object, you must track me. When your find is verified, you will return to the Enclave and present the token and trophy to the guard at the gate. You must arrive before the ending of the lunar of the Frost Moon.”
Shandor looked up. “Have you ever been to the temple?”
“Would you share your knowledge?”
The priest nodded. “Spoken like a true Shadow. What others know is always of value.”
Vorgan glared. “I, too, would hear what you know.”
Shandor studied the diagram until he could see the sketch with his eyes closed.
Healwoman - Heroine - Norna
The soft chiming of the night bells roused Norna. One. Two. She slid to the edge of the cot. She hadn’t meant to sleep. She had to be far from the temple by morning. Once she pulled the brown skirt and tunic over her shift, she reached for her pack. Though her mother had named her a drab, she wouldn’t accept the sentence of eternal servitude.
Norna hugged herself. She must be gone before Ulrica fastened the bonding bracelet on her wrist so the prongs pierced her skin. Removal left scars and anyone she met would know what she had been.
She added the wooden comb and the woolen stockings she’d washed to the pack. Near the door, she paused to examine the row of boots. The soles of hers were thin. She wasn’t sure how far she had to travel. With the winter lunars about to begin, she needed sturdy footwear. One pair was too small. A second, lined with paca fleece, fit perfectly. Her brown cloak hung with the others. The thin wool provided little protection from the icy winds. She snatched the one that matched the purloined boots and carried it over her arm.
Norna slipped through the hall and crept down the stairs. Before leaving the temple, she needed to stop in the chapel and study the map.
When she entered the triangular room, she dropped the cloak and her pack on one of the wooden benches. Flickering lights on the altar did little to brighten the gloom. She saw the mosaic panel on one of the side walls. After lifting a votive lamp, she moved closer. She found Keltoi and traced the road from the megara to the temple. Then she looked for Bethsada, home of the Healwomen and her chosen destination.
She sounded the names of the places on the map. There, she thought. She had to travel south and west to the place of refuge for women. The distance seemed great but she had no other choice.
When she returned the votive lamp to the altar, she saw the testing gems. Each one bore an engraved image from one of the nomes. With a finger, she touched the firelion of Keltoi. The red stone glowed. In turn, she brushed the amber sandcat, the blue water lynx and the white air
For an instant, each gem glowed.
Curious, she thought, but there was no time to search for a meaning. tigre
The silver cup caught her attention. She lifted it and nodded. Bits broken from the cup could be traded for supplies. She tucked the cup in her pack and slipped from the chapel.
Healwoman - Villains - Britha and Vorgan
Vorgan rose from his seat at the fire. As he strode toward the trees where he’d hidden his
pack, he glanced over his shoulder. The priest poured water over the burning wood. Shandor
stirred the ashes with a stick. Vorgan smiled. They hadn’t seen him leave. With luck, he’d
reach the temple before dusk.
Join forces. Be a partner. How foolish of mid Chu to propose such a union. Vorgan
would impose his own brand of partnership on Shandor. Let the other aspirant risk his life by
entering the temple. Vorgan planned to find a hiding place and watch. If Shandor succeeded
and returned with a trophy, Vorgan intended to claim it as his own.
This was his chance to gain a victory over his rival. He was tired of always being second
to Shandor. The muscles of Vorgan’s back tensed with memories of the lashings his father had
meted with his flail. As he completed the training with the Tutors, Scribes and Bursars, he had
been second to Shandor’s first. The Scourge Supreme’s flail had been his reward. Vorgan
sucked in a breath. This time, he would be first no matter what he had to do.
When he saw the walls of the temple, the sun had just slid over the horizon. There would
be no moon tonight. He donned his chameleon cloak and found a hiding place in a stand of firas.
Britha paced across the courtyard of the posada. Two days wasted. Two days of
boredom. Two days of assisting Mabe while she treated the commoners. At least the Militos
had left and taken their laughter and joking about her prudishness. They had no idea who she
was or how experienced she was in love play. She hadn’t been about to waste her talents on
As she peered down the road, she saw a man wearing a gray cloak that changed colors.
He didn’t walk, he swaggered. When he drew closer, she smiled. This man was no commoner
and he wasn’t much older than she was. His ice blond hair hung to his shoulders and his skin
was a deep rich brown, almost the color of chocha. She leaned against the wall.
When he entered the courtyard, his eyes appraised her. She met his gaze and read interest
in his dark eyes. He entered the posada. She followed and stood near the entrance to the
common room. He removed his cloak. Her gaze lingered on his broad shoulders and muscular
“Publican, a room for the night.”
The burly man bowed. “Your name and reason for traveling?”
“Vorgan, aspirant to the priesthood on a quest for the Gate of the Shadows.” He flipped
the man a gold coin. “This should cover my stay and the things I’ll need when I leave.”
“I’ll have a room prepared and make sure the bathing room is available.” The publican
Britha stepped closer to Vorgan. “Don’t you take a risk by traveling alone?”
He turned. “I’ve no fear. Soon I will be Thiasi mid Vor. Healwoman, what is your
The timbre of his deep voice sent shivers along hr spine. “Britha, cousin to Bodlesa,
Keltoi of Keltoi.”
His eyes narrowed with interest. “Have dinner with me.”
“I would enjoy that.”
“Give me an hour to get settled.” He raised her hand to his lips and ran his tongue over
“I’ll be ready...and waiting.” Britha hurried to her room on the woman’s side and opened
her pack. She pulled several vials of skin oil she’d blended. After sniffing each, she chose one
with an earthy spiciness. This Vorgan was delicious. Recalling how her fingers had itched to
stroke his skin brought heat to her lower abdomen. The speculation she’d seen in his eyes when
she had mentioned her cousin made Britha believe she might have found an ally for her own
She returned to the entrance area and sat on a bench. When he arrived, he held out a
hand and tugged her to her feet. His thumb traced circles on her palm and sent heat spiraling
through her and made her nether lips pulse. The aroma of an herbal soap with a hint of musk
teased her. He escorted her to a table for two.
As he held the chair for her, Mabe entered and took a seat at the long table where she
could observe. A scowl twisted her lips.
Britha ignored the other woman’s reaction. She had a right to accept a man’s invitation.
Until she entered the gates of Bethsada, no one could tell her what to do. Even then, she would
obey only when she must.
Britha leaned forward. “Where are you bound?”
“To the Enclave to present the trophy I acquired.” He grinned and his teeth flashed. “At
the end of Frost Moon, I’ll enter the Gate of the Militos.” He signaled the drab. “A flask of
wine and two dinners.”
Britha smiled. “And after the Militos?”
“The priesthood.” He pressed his knee against hers. “I thought your cousin hated
“She does, but she has her reasons for ordering me to join them.”
“I see. And do you have your own plans?”
Britha moistened her lips. She believed she’d found a kindred spirit. “Perhaps.”
He arched a brow. “I believe we have goals that could march in tandem.” He topped her
goblet. “Your aura speaks of great talent.”
She touched her goblet to his. “Why else would I be joining the Healwomen except for
training?” She sipped. A warm glow spread through her body.
“Then after dinner, stroll in the courtyard with me. We can discuss our mutual desires
without an audience.” He glanced toward Mabe. “I must be on the road in the morning. ’Twill
take me more than four sevendays to reach the Enclave.”
Britha glanced at the scowling Mabe. “If I can get away. As you can see, she watches
me.” She lifted her fork. How dare Mabe disapprove? The older woman had spent an evening
with the Militos.
“I’ll assure her there’ll be no more than talk. As an aspirant to the priesthood, I must be
cautious in my dealings with women. An intimate relationship would endanger my chances.”
Britha’s smile faced. His scent, the heat in his eyes had stirred her. She’d been too long
without a man. Who knew how long before she would have another chance?
When they finished the meal, Vorgan rose and went to Mabe. He spoke softly. Mabe
nodded. When he turned and motioned to Britha, his grin was cocky.
As they left the posada, he chuckled. “Your guardian saw no problem with us spending
time together. She is well versed in the customs of the priests. Come, let us explore each other’s
goals and see how we can be of use to each other in the future.” He circled her waist with his
Britha leaned toward him. “And what are your goals?”
“My father is Scourge Supreme. I will follow him and gain control of the Seven Gates of
She laughed. “When I’m Keltoi of Keltoi, we can unite the clans.”
“How can you expect to have the title? You’re Bodlesa’s cousin, not her daughter.”
“She has but one daughter and she named her misbegotten. Bodlesa avoids her spouse’s
bed. Since she denied Norna, she must name the closest of her unwed female relatives as her
heir.” His eyes narrowed. Britha nodded. “I am that relative.”
He swung her into a secluded niche and pressed her against the wall. “This meeting is
fortunate for us.” He caught her lower lip between his teeth.