Release Date: February 1, 2011
New York Times bestselling author Anya Bast spins a spellbinding epic fantasy of a man and woman torn between love and war, magic and mystery, passion and revenge…
Once, Gallus Lucan was in line to inherit the Dragon Throne of Numia—until his future was crushed and his family slain by his malevolent uncle Magnus. Now Lucan has only one ambition: overthrow Magnus and take back what is rightfully his.
Branna ta Cattia is the Raven, a high priestess who has come to Numia to defeat its tyrant. It’s a journey made on the strength of her prophetic dreams, visions of ancient rituals, sacred spells, and of a handsome stranger destined to help her—all in the name of stopping Magnus’s oppression. But Branna’s stranger is more than she expected. For Lucan wants victory his own way. To hell with the consequences.
As the magic of one woman’s love and the brute force of one’s man revenge unfold, Lucan and Branna realize their destiny as spirit mates—and their fears that the ultimate cost of winning freedom could be greater than either imagined.
A cold wind bit at Lucan’s face, promising winter. He dipped his head and followed the path. Fronds of woodland ferns brushed against his thighs, and low-growing blooms of late autumn amberdine crushed under his step, releasing their spicy-sweet fragrance into the air. Thick with undergrowth, the path wound its way through the forest. It led to the abandoned temples of Akal, and to the informant who awaited him there.
His skin prickled. Something about this meeting did not feel right, but it had to be merely his imagination. He knew this informant, had worked with him for years. He would never betray Opposition plans. They paid him too much for that. Greed was one of the few things that kept a man loyal.
He stepped onto the temple grounds and looked around at the crumbling rock of the abandoned structures. When the priests and priestesses of Akal had left, it was as if they’d taken the blood of the buildings with them, leaving only dried-out husks. Every time he came here he was struck anew at how desolate they looked.
They said this ancient place was haunted. Only the most intrepid would venture into this sacred area now. That made it the perfect place to conduct business.
Outside the vine-choked and decaying structure he sought, a crumbling statue of Akal, the God of Air, bowed its head. He knelt and kissed the statue’s foot, then rose and entered the open-sided temple. He surveyed the crumbling pillars at the edge of the building and the low-hanging rafters, which ran the length of the ceiling, searching in the waning light for his informant.
A tall, thin man stepped from the shadows. “Lucan,” he said.
Goten was a politician at Ta’Ror, occupying a high place in what passed for Numian government these days. Like many, he served Emperor Magnus out of a sense of self-preservation. Luckily enough, this politician had aspirations other than serving in Magnus’s puppet government. Goten was gold-hungry and would betray his master to the Opposition for enough of it.
Lucan had not trusted Goten from the beginning and had never revealed his true identity. To Goten, Lucan was simply Lucan . . . a common enough name for a common enough rebel.
“Do you have it?” Lucan asked.
“Yes, but it cost me much more than I thought it would. It must be something of great value. It was heavily guarded. It took me a long time and many bribes to organize a way for a metalworker to recreate it.”
Goten opened his palm, and Lucan stepped forward to look at the object. It was iron and in the shape of an eight-pointed star. The top showed a circle and within the center was another smaller, raised star. Goten flipped it over. The bottom of the object bore rows of ridges. “If only we knew what it was for.”
Yes, if only.
“We’ll find out,” Lucan replied. Anything of great value to Magnus was of great value to the Opposition. He loosened a bag of falcon-head crowns on his belt, ready to make the exchange.
Goten’s palm closed. “I took great risks to obtain a copy of this . . . this . . . whatever this is. I will want more for it.”
Lucan had suspected as much. “I put extra crowns in the bag in anticipation of your needs.” He handed the bag to him and took the object from Goten’s palm.
The politician opened the bag and began to count the coin.
Lucan looked at the object in his hand. It was very important in some way. He just had to find the right information to tell him why.
The sound of coins hitting the cracked marble floor made Lucan look up. Valorian soldiers stood at all sides of the temple. They were surrounded. Lucan slipped the object into the pocket of his trews. “You were followed,” he said sharply under his breath. “Or you betrayed me.”
Goten’s eyes grew wide. “I . . . I did not,” he stammered in alarm.
Lucan pulled his sword from the scabbard strapped crosswise against his back. “Get behind me,” he ordered.
Goten was a policy maker, not a warrior. He stepped behind him before Lucan had finished his sentence, shielding himself from the soldiers.
With his sword in hand, Lucan turned in a wary circle, surveying the soldiers. Some of the Valorian held swords, others long knives, and a handful had arrows notched in their bows. An officer stepped out from behind the soldiers. Lucan recognized the tall, blond man as Armillon, commander of the Northern Valorian Guard.
“Rebel,” Commander Armillon said. “You are surrounded and outnumbered. You will drop your sword at once and come with us.”
Lucan thought not. They had not rushed him. That likely meant they had instructions to take him alive. He was valuable to them because he had important information. He didn’t want to think about how they’d try to get it out of him.
Information . . . He was so weary of it.
He made no move, deciding how to get himself and Goten out of the temple.
Armillon raised an eyebrow. “You delay?” His gaze shifted and he flicked his wrist. “Let fly,” he ordered.
The sound of an arrow released from its bow sliced the air and behind him Goten grunted. Lucan turned and saw him kneeling on the floor, an arrow lodged in his throat. Blood pooled in Goten’s hands as he clutched his throat in shock. He made a gurgling sound and slumped to the floor.
Briefly, Lucan closed his eyes. Goten had been greedy, but not a bad man.
“Dirty traitor to the throne,” Armillon said in a low voice full of loathing. “Now, if you don’t want to end up like him, put your sword down.”
Lucan turned back around. Armillon seemed so confident of himself, so sure there was no escape. Maybe he had a right to be confident. Lucan could not go through the Valorian, or around them. He could not go under them. Glancing skyward, he remembered the wooden rafters that ran the length of the ceiling. But he might be able to go over them. The rafters were probably unstable, but they were his only option.
Slowly, Lucan lowered his sword to the floor, watching as the Valorian loosened their holds on their weapons in anticipation of his surrender. Instead of releasing his blade, he dove toward the floor, sword in hand, and rolled to the left.
“Archers, aim low,” commanded Armillon.
That did not sound good. The last thing he needed now was an arrow in his leg. If they knew who he really was, they wouldn’t be aiming to merely injure, they’d be trying to kill, valuable information or not.
He went for a crumbling pillar to his left and used it to catapult himself onto one of the thick, rotting rafters above. The length of wood creaked under his weight. He hesitated. It could easily break and tumble him down into the Valorian below. An arrow shot past him, and the displaced air brushed his shin. He didn’t consider it any longer and moved quickly across the rafter.
Below him, the Valorian banged on the wooden beam with their swords and tried to stab him in the leg. The archers took careful aim. Lucan hurried across, offering a silent prayer to Akal that there would be good news for him at the end.
However, the end of the rafter offered little to reinforce his faith in the Gods. His heart pounding, he looked around for some way of escape. Then he saw it. Light glinted in from a crumbled section of the ceiling to his right. He would have to cross over to the next rafter to reach it. The wood groaned beneath him under the added weight of pursuing soldiers. It wouldn’t hold much longer.
Lucan judged the distance to the next rafter and then leapt onto it. He balanced precariously for a moment, almost falling into the Valorian below. A loud cracking sound split the air as the rafter he’d just been on finally gave way under the weight of the pursuing soldiers, toppling them to the ground. Taking advantage of the diversion, Lucan scrambled for the hole in the ceiling. He threw his sword up first and then followed it. Rock crumbled under his hands like dried bread as he pulled himself up and out.
Grabbing his sword, Lucan ran to the edge of the roof. The Valorian were beginning to spill out of the temple, searching for him. He caught a glimpse of Armillon.
“Capture him,” the commander bellowed, pointing to the roof.
But it was too late for that and Lucan knew it even if Armillon didn’t. Lucan jumped to the roof of the next building. On the other side was the forest, deepening into darkness now. It meant escape. Using a large statue as a makeshift ladder, he leapt down to the ground. He headed for the secretive forests and disappeared into the thick evening air like one of the supposed phantoms of the Temple of Akal.
Branna stood looking down into the valley below her. The smell of snow hung in the air. She let the harsh wind rip back the hood of her traveling cloak. The wind whipped her hair around her face, but she did not restrain the tendrils that lashed her cheeks and eyes. What lay in front of her held her unwavering attention.
In the valley below stood the gateway to Numia and behind her the wastes of Bah’ra. Their journey to Numia was almost over, but their quest was just beginning.
Behind her, a twig snapped under someone’s tread. She turned to see her protector, Fiall, coming to stand next to her. He looked toward Numia. His face was blank, but his eyes were not. She placed a comforting hand on his arm. “Almost, Fiall.”
“The years of waiting have come to an end. Perhaps, with the will of the Goddess, we’ll finally have balance,” he said.
They had been traveling for the last three weeks through the mountains and wastes of Bah’ra. It had been punishing and untamed terrain. They were both exhausted and more than ready to be back in the comforts of a civilized society.
But Numia could not really be called that now. Perhaps at one time it had been civilized. But when good King Gallus had been usurped by his brother, Magnus, all that had changed. With the might of the Valorian Guard behind him, Magnus had styled himself an emperor and conquered all the lands around Numia, except for magical Ileria. Still Numia tried for that free place, like locust devouring crops.
Tir na Ban, their own homeland, had been the first to fall.
From childhood she’d had recurring dreams of coming to this place, the land of her country’s oppressors. She’d dreamt of a circle of sorceresses. Herself and a priest of Solan stood in the center, powerful magic binding them as they unleashed magic over the land. It would stop Magnus’s tyranny. It was the only thing that could.
Somewhere, beyond that valley below them, within the borders of Numia, the priest awaited her. She trusted the Goddess to lead her to him. In the land of their enemy lived the man who would be her consort . . . and the salvation of Tir na Ban. It was an unlikely place to find such a man, but her dreams did not lie. They had to find the priest and the Book of Draiochta Cothrom.
She sighed and placed her fingertips to her temple. Fatigue caused her head to ache. “Tomorrow we’ll go into the valley and past the border. We’ll stop and rest, gather supplies, and then travel on to the capital, Ta’Ror.”
“You should try to sleep now,” answered Fiall.
She’d always had horrible insomnia, but since she’d left Tir na Ban it had grown insufferable. It had started when she was eight, when the Terror had begun. The closer they drew to Numia the worse it became. “Yes, I’ll try.”
A lock of chestnut-colored hair fell into Fiall’s eye. She reached up and tucked it behind his ear. Raised together by the priestesses of Tir na Ban, they were like brother and sister. Branna would never forget those years of living in fear of the occupying Numian force. The Valorian had been a hated and feared thing. They still were.
Fiall had never been a submissive Tirian, though. He never cast his eyes downward in the presence of a soldier, never submitted to their wishes. Branna still wondered how he’d survived the years of the Terror, when Magnus had first come with his Valorian Guard. Fiall had suffered many beatings during that time. A thin white scar ran from his forehead to his chin—a remnant of one encounter. It marred an otherwise handsome face. His quick temper was the cause of his woes. Fiall would not back down from any man. But that was the very quality that made him an excellent protector.
She turned and offered her hand to him. “Come, we’ll have all day tomorrow to look at the dreaded Numia. Now we need to rest and prepare ourselves.”
Lucan dove off the cliff as arrows created a deadly rain around him. He hit the winter water with enough force to break two of his ribs. The water closed over his head, and every part of his body throbbed with pain.
Despair sucked all his will away. He stayed under, watching arrows shoot into the water around him. The water would kill him and deny his uncle the satisfaction of doing it. He stayed below until his lungs were near bursting. Faces of his family, washed in a flood of blood and tears, swirled in his memories.
Valentina ran into his arms, squealing with delight that her older brother had come home for a visit. His father asked him why he persisted on such a foolish life’s vocation, requested that he stay home and follow in the footsteps of his older brothers. His uncle Magnus . . . the one who’d betrayed them . . . taught him how to use a sword, a long knife, a bow, his bare hands in combat.
Then he remembered the looks on their faces before they’d died under Magnus’s blade . . . tiny, happy Valentina. Sweet Solan! He had to live to make his uncle pay for what he’d done.
Lucan pushed up from the bottom of the river, desperately fighting the current that wanted so much to claim him. He pushed up using his numb muscles and beaten body until he burst through the surface.
Lucan awoke washed in sweat and sucked air into his lungs like a drowning man. Panting, he reoriented himself. He had rejoined his men and they were encamped near Ebru. They were traveling back to Kern. Still a fugitive, still betrayed by his own blood, but no longer was he the young, confused boy he’d been.
His eyes came into focus and he saw his second-in-command, Morgan, staring at him from across the fire.
“The nightmare again?” he asked in his Angelese-accented Numian. Morgan had come from neighboring Angelyn to aid the Opposition.
Lucan pushed the blankets away. “It is always the nightmare.”
Morgan brought Lucan his cup. “Here, it will calm the monsters within.”
“Come, you are no longer an initiate of Solan. You can drink now if you choose.”
Morgan did not have to remind him. A day did not go by when he did not think of his past and yearn for a time when he might have chosen his own path.
Lucan reached out and took the cup. He sniffed at the liquid it contained, Pirian fire-juice. He lifted a brow and then shrugged his shoulders. “Mal’ha,” he said, tipping the cup to Morgan. Then he downed the fiery liquid in one swallow. It burned its way down his throat and into his gullet, leaving a curiously sweet trail behind. The spirits reached out and warmed every part of his body. He leaned back on his blankets, giving into his weariness and strained muscles, and relaxed. It was an escape for the time being.
Ren, one of the youngest members of the rebel force, came running into camp. He stopped short at the edge of Lucan’s blanket, barely catching himself before he tripped and sprawled on the ground.
“What is it?” Lucan asked. Ren was coming off the night watch.
“The Valorian have moved north. I think we’re safe now, and I’ve good news to relay,” said Ren breathlessly.
“I’ve just been told that our friend Armillon will be in Strobia on the morrow. The village has been instructed to honor him with a festival.”
“Really . . .” said Lucan. “Have we the men available to go and honor him ourselves?”
The firelight played across Morgan’s features. He smiled. “Oh yes, we do indeed.”