Golden Hills of Westria Chapter Six

The Golden Hills of Westria

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To welcome back our old friends, and to encourage those who would be new ones to draw closer (and buy a copy), we are pleased and proud to present the Prologue and Chapters One and Six of The Golden Hills of Westria in simple, readable, HTML. No bizarrely locked files that requires a pet geek and a Sherpa guide… just the content!

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— Diana and Lorrie

Six: Serpent of Fire

Six red horses danced around the ring. In the torchlight, their shining coats shone like the chili peppers hanging on the walls of the village whose people cheered them on. Sunlight glowed warm on the stretched canvas of the great tent. Marvel’s Circus had begun its yearly migration through the lands of Aztlan, and the Tohono O’odham tribesmen of Estrella had given them an enthusiastic welcome. Even Jo, watching from behind a screen as he waited for the combats that were the climax of the show, felt his tension overwhelmed by wonder as the horses lifted their hooves with exagerrated grace, swaying and curvetting to the touch of Señor Chigaio’s wand.

Their names had been announced as they pranced in: Serrano and Salsa, Rocotillo, Jalapeño, little Tepin and Habañero, the great stallion who ruled them all. Jo grinned. These days, helping Chigaio and his sister Chiquita with the horses was almost the only human contact he had, and he had learned to call the horses by their stable-names. To him they were Sara and Sally, Rocky and Penny, Tip and Baby–great, curious creatures with hearts as warm as their sorrel hides, quite unaware of their power.

Chiquita opened the flimsy barrier and four of the horses trotted out of the circle, ears pricked and tails swishing as the crowd applauded them, russet coats dimming suddenly as they passed into the shadows outside. Within the ring, Sara and Baby stood and stamped as the two riders cinched their saddles on. Now, as the horses trotted around the circle, they vaulted to their backs, riding with crossed arms, directing their movements by shifts in weight and pressure of leg and heel almost imperceptible to the eye.

Aztlan bred fine horsemen, and the audience was accustomed to see men swing down from the saddle to snatch up a dropped handkerchief, to shoot the bow or throw the lasso while the reins flapped loose on a pony’s neck. But all those were extensions of a horse’s natural inclination to run, to herd, to play. Sara and Baby moved in perfect unison, stallion and mare mirroring each others movements without apparent direction from their riders, their powerful bodies extensions of the humans’ will.

Jo’s breath caught at the harmony of motion, the animal’s natural agility transmuted by the human mind into poetry, human imagination brought into manifestion by the horse’s willing offering of power. It should be that way when I’m fighting, he thought with unexpected pain, I should be riding the Dragon. But when I take up the sword, it is Jo who is the horse and the Dragon who rides…

The sand of the ring absorbed the horses’ hoofbeats so that they seemed to float across the ground. Jo’s heart drummed in his breast; in a few minutes it would be his turn to perform in that ring. Light blinked outside, whitening the canvas, then he heard a roll of thunder from outside. The horses threw up their heads, ears flattening, and Jo sighed, recognizing the galloping beat of spring rain.

Rain drummed on the roof of the great hall of Hightower, but Lady Elen and her maidens had garlanded the beams and decked the tables with April flowers. From its position on the heights above Rivered, Lord Philip’s fortress offered a fine view over the Great Valley, whose marshes and pastures were blooming beneath the veils of rain. Behind it the foothills rose in folds of green, with the mountains no more than a brooding presence beyond. Snow still lay in the high passes, but the season had advanced sufficiently for a few pack trains to get through, and one of them had brought with it Farin Piper, finally home from his wanderings.

Philip’s message had said that Piper was well, but the last push across the Snowy Mountains had been exhausting. It seemed foolish to make the bard travel any further before they welcomed him home. And Julian had other reasons for visiting his cousin now. The kingdom needed to know that he did not blame the Ramparts for Johan’s loss, and the council wanted to know which of Philip’s children might be the best choice to take his place as heir.

They sat now with their own families just below the high table–William, the eldest, was a short, stocky young man whose hair was already beginning to thin though he was only thirty years old. He had two little boys of his own, now tucking enthusiastically into the tarts that had been served at the end of the meal. His sister Jeanne was only two years older than Johan. She had taken Elinor of the Corona as her model and was a regular winner in the tournaments. William was more mature, but he had grown up expecting to rule the province one day, and had close ties to his land. Jeanne, being younger, might find it easier to adjust to the idea of ruling Westria. Best, he supposed, to begin working with both of them. That was assuming that either was willing to take the job. At the moment, Julian could not see why anyone would want it.

He closed his eyes, memory summoning the image of the Lady of Westria who had come to claim him so long ago. “Lady, you chose me. Choose now a new Champion!” For a moment the murmur of conversation around him faded, and he seemed to hear a reply–“When Westria is in need, one of your line will always hear her call. But first must come the testing.”

Julian sighed, and reached for his goblet. At the movement, Osleif leaped forward to refill it with the rosy wine that had been served with the meal, blushing the same color as the wine as he splashed the tablecloth. Wiry and enthusiastic, with a mop of brown curls, he was the thirteen year old son of a former guardsman from the holding of Greyhaven in the Royal Domain. The king had recently taken him as a page. He hoped he could do better by this boy than he had by his own.

“Piper looks older,” said Rana, her gaze on the table just below theirs, where the bard sat with Frederic and Lenart, his faded purple bard’s cloak dulled by the rich red of their seneschal’s robes . “Or perhaps it?s because he is so thin.”

We all look older, thought Julian. His own hair had grown perceptibly more grizzled since last fall. But Farin’s cheekbones stood out above the short brown beard, and there was something haunted about his eyes.

“I had hoped he would play for us. Do you think he is too tired?” he said aloud.

Philip shook his head. “He would be disappointed if you did not ask.” And indeed, with a bard’s instinct for timing, Piper was already swinging his legs over the bench and reaching for the battered harpcase that leaned against the wall behind him.

“Your majesties, and ye lords and ladies of the Ramparts–” he bowed to the high table and to the hall. With an audience before him, his weariness seemed to have fallen away. “The snows of your high country were too chill for my voice, but my fingers have recovered, and if you wish it, I will play for you–”

“Please, Master Farin–we have missed your music!” Rana used his formal title, and held out her hand in greeting as someone brought a stool and set it on the dais before them.

The bard smiled, and for a moment Julian was reminded of the shy boy he had been so long ago. Then he began to play, and the king remembered that he had won the cloak of a Master Bard on his own merits, not in memory of Silverhair, even though it was with Silverhair’s “Wandersong” that he began. Perhaps he would never have his mentor’s magic, but he had been well taught from the beginning, and his technique was seamless.

That tune seemed fitting, since Piper had set out to retrace Silverhair’s wanderings, but the music that followed was new to them–a bouncy, brash piece that Piper had heard in a gaming hall in Arena, slow sad tunes that caravaners sang on the long miles on the trail, and ballads from towns with names they had never heard before. Sometimes he would put down the harp and take one of his flutes from its case; the pure, sweet notes floated through the hall with an aching intensity. But presently the melodies took on a more formal character, the chords building with a compelling intensity. It seemed to Julian that the bard frowned as he played them, his expression easing only as he finished with a rendition of “The Black Swan Rising”, a song of the Ramparts by a legendary bard called Mistress Siobhann, who had lived before the Cataclysm.

We came, strangers to this land,
with nothing but our will,
Our hands were open and deeds were put therein.
Stone surrendered to our will,
Sweat made barrens yield our fill,
We wrought in ice and fire, a home to win.
Blood and spirit bind us to the hills
and to the soil,
Our hands were open to do and not just try
Faint hearts never won the spoil,
Boldness makes the cauldron boil,
We’ll feast with Fate and dare her to reply!
Welcome, stranger, to our home;
the feasting board is laid.
Our hands are open to all who come as friends.
Share our pride in what we’ve made,
But come not with a foeman’s blade,
For what the Swan has built, the Swan defends!

When the feast was over, the boards were cleared for dancing, and Philip led his more notable guests to the privacy of a smaller chamber in the tower. From time to time they could hear the music of the consort drifting up from below.

As the others found seats Julian paused by the western window, looking down over the walls to the tangle of lanes and dwellings in the town. Rivered had been built in that liminal zone where the plain gave way to the foothills, clinging to the high ground south of the river. Long ago the Ancients had built a great city downstream where the Silvershine flowed into the Dorada. But when the dams were destroyed in the Cataclysm, all that was swept away, In a wet year, the spring floods could still be dangerous. But everyone knew there was another reason that the meadows by the river were only used for pasture. Once, it had been the site of a prison, and the place was still haunted ground.

“Well, Master Farin,” said Frederic, “You have lost none of your skill. After such a concert, we hardly need to hear your report. Your music has painted us a picture of those distant lands.”

He sat down, his son, like a taller, solider shadow, standing behind him. Philip’s offspring were there as well, their grave faces suggesting that they knew very well why they had been invited to join this select company.

“Not entirely,” said the bard. He coughed, and Lady Elen handed him a mug of mulled wine. “Sorry–this rheum is my own fault, really. I smelled the storm coming, but I thought I could outrun it.”

“Well, you should have known better!” Rana observed tartly. “After almost two years away, surely you could have waited another two days…”

“Perhaps, but at the time…” he shook his head. “Well, I am glad you liked the music.”

“What were those last pieces you played?” asked Frederic. “I could not decide whether they were meant as marches or hymns.”

“Perhaps they were both–” Julian answered, coming away from the window and sitting down beside Rana. “They made me think of your reports, Piper. Was that the music of the Children of the Sun?”

Some of the tension went out of the bard’s face as he nodded. “I would have been home sooner, but they put me under guard. It was not until November that I escaped them. The Suns had split into six camps by then, each with its own commander, settled in for the winter along one of the rivers that runs through the Sea of Grass.”

“Their numbers have grown, then?” asked Rana, beginning to understand.

“Beyond all imagining–” Piper ran his fingers distractedly through his thick brown hair. “They are too strong now for the cities to destroy them. They descend like locusts, and they strip the countryside of more than food. They open their meetings to all who will come–every Sunday a festival! Rana, do you remember that story you told me about a piper who lured all a town’s children away? After listening to Mother Mahaliel, I begin to think I do not deserve my name. When she preaches, young and old leave their hearths to follow her.”

“That cannot be good for their lands,” observed Frederic thoughtfully.

“It’s not. The Sea of Grass cannot support so many all together, but if Mahaliel’s Children separate, they will be at the mercy of whatever forces the city-states can raise. They might move east, where the country is richer, but the Iron Kingdom would see that as a threat, and their army is strong.”

“Do you really think they will come here?” asked Robert. “They would have to cross both desert and mountains. Could so many make the journey?”

“If spring comes early,” answered Piper. “If they moved fast, by now they could be nearing the borders of Aztlan.” In the silence that followed, the patter of rain on the roof sounded like distant hoofbeats. “There are words to those songs I played for you,” he added then. “They sing of the golden road, the sun road their god has shown to them. They sing of a promised land where the sun sets into the sea.”

The faces of the others showed the beginnings of anxiety, but Robert’s gaze met Julian’s. He did not need to speak aloud. What army could we raise if they should come? Our swords are rusty and our bows cracked with age. It has been twenty-five years since we had to think of war.

“There are many leagues between us, and Aztlan breeds fierce warriors,” Philip said bracingly. “Any enemies the desert spares will fall to their spears.”

No doubt he was right, thought Julian as conversation started once more around him. But he made a mental note to sit down with Robert one day soon and arrange for an inventory of the weapons in the armories of Westria.

Down stabs the trident and and down stabs the spear,
Thumbs stab the air for the man who shows fear!
How the crowd roars as the dust rises high
In the arena, who’ll be first to die?

Jo stepped aside as Chigaio and Chiquita trotted out of the ring, still standing on Baby and Sara’s backs. The stallion snorted and flicked an ear at Jo as he went by.

But he dared not think about the horses now. As he turned back to the arena, the music grew louder and his lips curled in a feral smile. The first time he had heard that tune he had faltered, remembering Lenart and a tavern in Westria, but in adobe towns all the way across Aztlan the song had acquired a new meaning, coming from throats already hoarse with cheering. From the City of the Firebird they had moved south to the lands of the People of the Desert, and then to the east, playing for the Chiricahua and then the Mescaleros before moving northward up the Grand River into territories shared by Chicano and Pueblo tribes. In the south, the brief desert spring was almost done, but with each mile north they had moved higher, and the wind that blew beneath the canvas sides of the tent was cold.

Jo scarcely noticed. The song was his now, a call to battle more certain than any clarion. In war, a man might die, but death was certain when the Red Dragon strode into the ring.

Remote though the town of Ogaponge, nestled against the Blood Mountains, might be, its people understood. The combats were always the final attraction, after the performing animals and the acrobats and the clowns. The animals grew dangerous and unpredictable when they smelled blood on the sand.

In Jo’s first fight in the City of the Firebird, the distraction of so many eyes upon him had nearly made that blood his. A pink scar across one cheek bore witness to his initiation as a gladiator. Only the responses Garr had trained into him had enabled him to kill his man. They said you remembered your first kill as you remembered your first lover. His arm still quivered to the instant of resistance before the force of his blow carried his blade through the man’s neck and a crimson fountain sprayed across the sand, as his skin still twitched from the clammy pressure of Supervisor Lake’s hands.

The memory summoned the familiar red haze to color his vision. Tomorrow, when he saw who was missing at breakfast, he might feel sorrow, but for now, the net and trident fighter who had appeared at the opposite gate was a faceless embodiment of all Jo had learned to hate and fear. As Garr had promised, it was growing easier to unleash the fury. The weight of the sword in his hand had become a key to release the Dragon.

The singing turned to cheers as Jo stepped out from behind the screen. Liza the clown held out the red leather sheath, skittering back with a panic that was only partly feigned as Jo jerked out the blade and stepped forward. The other performers treated their star attraction with a wary care. But they were accustomed to dealing with dangerous animals. The Dragon, Jo thought grimly, was only one more.

He could feel Garr’s gaze upon him and did not know whether to welcome or resent it. He shook his head, feeling a rush of heat despite the lingering winter chill as the monster began to wake within.

Not yet–he tried to rein it in. Let me remain myself for just a little while.

The two combatants halted in the middle of the ring, bowing to the alcalde of the town who sat with his wife and daughters in the gilded box next to Master Marvel, then turning back to salute each other. Jo settled into a fighter’s crouch, the small buckler on his right fist angled forward, longsword poised in his left. A red dragon had been painted on the buckler. From his helmet fluttered a red plume. Beyond a harness of red leather and his clout no clothing hampered him, and he exulted in the free flex of muscle beneath his skin.

He could see the moment of uncertainty as his foe realized he was fighting a left-hander, and his grin broadened. Sand squeaked beneath his bare feet as he dug in, drawing up strength from the soil, and the burning knot in his belly flared through every limb as the Dragon uncoiled within.

The net was a blur, sweeping towards him. He ducked, whipping the buckler up and across to deflect it, catching the trident as the motion continued, whirling, and bringing his sword down and around towards the man’s knees. But his opponent was already leaping backward, pivoting to ready the net for another throw. Some part of Jo’s mind recognized the move as one he had trained against, though he did not remember the man’s name. Next he would leap sideways–the Dragon slid aside to meet him, sword rising to beat the plunging trident aside.

Another flurry of action left a stinging line of red on Jo’s thigh. In the next the net whipped around his swordarm, but he slipped free and responded with an upward cut that slashed his opponent’s arm. As the warriors circled, cheering erupted from the bleachers in waves of sound.

Jo saw an opening but ignored it. They did not like these fights to end too soon. The other man drew breath in harsh gasps as he settled into a crouch, waiting. Sweat glistened, defining the swelling muscles beneath his tan skin. Between the slits of the helmet, eyes gleamed. Take position and outwait him– thought Jo, but the Dragon had other ideas. Straightening, he began to pace around his enemy, arms extended, sword and buckler held high. Preening… thought that part of the mind that was still Jo’s. His enemy turned uneasily in place to face him.

“Red Dragon! Red Dragon!” The earth quivered as the audience shouted his name. And at that call, the Dragon expanded fully, and Jo’s awareness was lost in a haze of flame.

To the watchers, the moment when the prowl became a strike passed too swiftly to see. The net flew high and settled over both men, heaving as they struggled. Dust rose in veiling clouds. And then one fighter rose, flinging the net aside. It was the pale man. His helmet had come off and they could see his flame of red hair. His opponent lay shuddering, blood seeping from a wound in his belly. The point of the Dragon’s sword hovered, then settled to the throat of his foe, and he looked up at the gilded box. The crowd stilled, recognizing something unhuman in his eyes. Throughout the bleachers, thumbs were turning down.

For a moment the alcalde conferred with Master Marvel. Then he rose, extended his arm, and slowly turned his fist so that his thumb pointed toward the sand. The Dragon twisted, his blade whirling back and around once more to slice through the throat of his prey. Then he stepped back, sword raised high, and blood twined like red ribbons down the shining steel as the people of the Pueblo cheered.

Ogaponge was an old town. According to the locals, even at the time of the Cataclysm it had been ancient. From all accounts, it had not changed much in all those years. In the beginning it had been a gathering of flat-roofed adobe buildings grouped around a central square, and that is what it was still, the cross-beams of its shaded walkways festooned with strings of red chiles and hung with bunches of Indian corn.

The rancho of the alcalde sprawled across the rolling piñon-studded grasslands to the south of the town. To celebrate the arrival of the circus he had arranged for a fiesta at which performers from the circus were the featured guests, and Jo found himself the star. But really it was the Red Dragon they were welcoming, he told himself, adjusting the cape of crimson wool over his sleeveless burgundy tunic and breeches sashed with red, and remembering to walk with the swagger they expected. In Westria, this night was also a festival. He thrust aside the memories of Beltane dancing around the fire.

“Ah, Señor Dragón, that was a fine fight!” The alcalde himself took a glass of some cloudy liquor from the tray the servant was holding and offered it. “I have seen all the great fighters, and indeed you have the gift, young man. That final feint and thrust–beautiful!”

“You are gracious, señor.” Jo had learned to deal with such questions in ways that would not reveal how little he actually remembered of what happened on the arena’s sands. The drink had a sharp, fruity flavor. He sipped, then coughed as the initial sweetness kindled explosively in his gullet.

“It is torbellino–” the alcalde explained, smiling. “Worthy of the dragon, no?”

Jo blinked back tears and resolved to drink no more of it as he struggled to hold back a sudden surge of agreement from the dragon within. You do not want him at your party, trust me!

His lips twisted wryly. “Its fire is worthy of this land–”

“Then drink, my young friend! I won a nice stack of reales on you!” Still smiling, the alcalde passed on to his other guests.

Jo eased towards the door and passed his drink to the armsman who guarded him, wondering how much he had won or lost for others in the room. Wagers were taken by those who sold the tickets for the circus. Each time Jo was the victor, a percentage went into the account that was building to buy his freedom. He never asked how much was in the fund, and his guard’s presence was only a formality. What use had he for liberty?

A servant came by with a platter of meats rolled in bits of tortilla. Jo took one, thinking tthe food might absorb the fire in his belly, and looked around desperately as the chili sauce in which the pork had been soaked filled his mouth with new flame. He had thought himself accustomed to Aztlan’s cooking, but the chilis of Ogaponge were of a strength to make even the Dragon quail.

Where were the ubiquitous servants now, when he needed one? Ancient alcaldes glowered at him from old paintings in tarnished gold frames. The sala’s massive beams, dark with age, continued on to shade a balcony that ran the length of the room. Beneath a painting of a large flower two local merchants were arguing about why the spring caravan from the Sea of Grass had been delayed. Near the door, several of the acrobats chattered to a man in the fringed buckskin garb of a trader. Jo started towards them in hopes one might have some water. He sometimes helped them with their chores as he did the trick riders, and they had taught him a few tricks in return. He had found that he could not live without human contact entirely, and at least he would not be asked to face the tumblers in the ring.

A soft hand grasped his arm and he whirled. The woman who had touched him gasped, then laughed and slid her fingers back across the hard muscle of his forearm.

“I should have expected–” she said a little shakily, “that you would be fast, as well as strong… . I am Milagra de Mirabal y Begay, daughter to the alcalde here.”

Jo bowed, willing his pumping heart to slow. After the manner of this country she was beautiful, with dark eyes and sleek black hair coiled and held by filigreed silver pins.

“My apologies, señora. I was intent upon finding a drink–your chilis–” he fanned his face and she laughed.

“Come–” she said then, signalling to a servant. “It is hot here and crowded. We will find you something cool to drink and then go out to the balcony. From there you can see the snow on the mountain tops. In the moonlight it is very beautiful.”

His skin tingled as her nails moved lightly across it, and he felt a tightening at his groin, followed almost immediately by a roiling in his belly. Gently he pulled away. One of the first bits of folklore he had learned at the winter quarters of the circus was that some women were attracted to gladiators. There were fighters who had made more profit from their exploits in the bedchamber than in the ring. But the evening after his first victory Jo had discovered that he would not be one of them.

“You are very beautiful, but the vows on which my power depends require me to abstain from women…” he said quietly, wishing it were true. “But if you still wish it, I will come and look at the moonlight with you.” He took the fine, blackware mug the servant brought in response to the lady’s order and swallowed the tart-sweet liquid gratefully.

The sickness that prevented him from making love to a woman was not dispelled by recognizing its origin in his initiation in Supervisor Lake’s playroom. Knowing that the experience had been even more traumatic for the Supervisor did not help. Killing was the only release he had.

Milagra looked at him from under her lashes. She was older than he had at first thought her, old enough, anyway, not to be flustered by his response. “Then we will look at the moon,” she said, smiling, and led him into the cool night air.

To the north, the town lay quiet, leached of color by the moonlight except where a fire showed sometimes through an open door. To the south and west the land fell away in a patchwork of plowed fields and range land studded with small piñon pines. To the east rose the Blood Mountains, their lower slopes clad in groves of aspen and their tops rich in fir and spruce and pine. The snow that still clung to the highest peaks glowed in the moonwashed sky.

“There is the trail that leads over the pass and east to the Sea of Grass–” Milagra turned him a little to the right, where a pale ribbon of road ran towards the hills.

“Who lives up there?” Jo asked.

“A few hunters–why do you ask?”

“I see lights, like Beltane fires.”

As she turned to see, they both heard a rider approaching at full speed. In the distance behind him, points of brightness pricked against the dark mass of the hills, more and more of them, winding down the road like a serpent of fire.

Luz slapped the taut skin of her drum and felt the vibration in her bones. Light pulsed across her flickering fingers as the dancers stamped around the Beltane fire. At her side, half a dozen hands rose and fell on drums of all sizes in swift syncopation, and the earth quivered in sympathy. At such celebrations the first year students were the drummers, just as it was the privilege of the third-years, who were studying the element of Air, to complete the music with flute and viol. Other “muddies” were responsible for the feast, while the second-year students, working with water, had brewed the mead and ale.

Those who were not busy otherwise were free to join in the dancing, but for the senior students it was an obligation. Part of their training had included kindling the fire of life through ritual dance, and the bonfire did seem to blaze more brightly when one of the crimson-clad dancers passed. Some of them had stripped off their festival robes–their eyes were dilated in trance already, and now and again two bodies would twine together before the dance whirled them apart once more.

Luz found herself staring at the dancers’ tossing hair, the smooth slide and play of trained muscles beneath sweat-sheened skin, lost the beat and forced herself to focus again. Her breath was coming a little faster, and the heat that coursed beneath her own skin was not entirely from the fire. The dancing at her initiation had not aroused her, but this was both more intense and more focused, an ecstatic response to the season’s burgeoning energy.

Some of the masters had joined in the dancing as well, though so far, they all still had their clothes on. Grey robes blurred into the shadow beneath the oak tree. Luz had heard Master Granite say that to allow such license at the College was, not immoral, but unworthy. Rutting in the fields was all very well for farmers, but priests and priestesses should be able to sublimate the sexual energies into power.

“Look at Ginevra–” whispered Radha. “She’s always seemed so quiet, but now she’s beautiful!”

The tall blonde girl was spinning in place, her shining hair raying out like beams of light. Firelight flickered on the smooth curves of breast and thigh. As she turned, Ginevra’s eyes fixed on Luz and she smiled. A pulse of heat surged through the girl’s body, and she fought the compulsion to leap up and join in the dance.

“That’s not Ginevra…” she muttered, “it’s the Lady of Fire… . ”

“Well, whoever it is, she’s looking at you–”

“I don’t want to do anything we’d both regret in the morning when she’s herself again. Ginevra has never said two words to me!”

“What makes you think she’d be sorry?” asked Radha. “A lot of people think you’re pretty, boys and girls too.” She set down her drum and slipped one arm around Luz’s waist.

For a few moments Luz allowed herself to lean into that soft embrace. Then with a sigh she pulled away. “If I lay down with anyone at this festival, it would be you, but–”

“But what?” said Radha crossly. “It’s Beltane–that’s what we’re supposed to do.” Clearly she had not heard Master Granite’s views on the festival.

As if the thought had summoned him, Luz looked up to see the Master of the College watching her from across the fire, but she could not read the expression in his eyes.

“I don’t know what’s stopping me,” she turned to her friend with a defiant smile. “Maybe I’m afraid I would be too distracted from my work if I let myself fall in love with you. Or maybe I am just afraid to lose control.”

“Sweet-talker!” Radha shook her head. “Give me a kiss, then, because I absolutely cannot sit still any more.”

Radha’s lips tasted of cinnamon. Luz was still smiling as she watched her friend leap into the dance. Why, she wondered, had she refused? Did some part of her agree with Master Granite? It seemed unlikely, when Radha’s kiss had set a sweet pulse throbbing between her thighs. She stilled as another thought came to her–would she still be sitting here if it had been Johan, with the firelight gleaming on his naked limbs, summoning her to dance?

I would go to him, she thought bitterly. I should have done it last summer–at least I would have had that memory! And what use had she now for the passion she would have offered him? Perhaps Master Granite was right. If memory barred her from any other lover, she had better take the Way of Renunciation and transmute her love for one man into love for the world.

Phoenix! her heart called. Where are you? Arise and come to me! She rose to her feet, staring into the fire. If Master Granite was still watching she did not see him. The face that appeared before her was Jo’s, his features distorted by the surging flames.

What army comes to Ogaponge as a serpent of fire? What other cities will it swallow in its rage?

And what of the Crown Prince of Westria, and the serpent that has swallowed him?

When Johan returns to Westria–and return he will–will he know it? Will the land know him? Will his parents recognize him?

And what part does Garr play in all of this? Just an old fellow with a wounded eye in grey battered armor, or something more?

The answers to all these questions–and more–can only be found in…

Golden Hills of Westria