Fortress of Astara, Land of Gadiel, Year of the Ancients 952
A frigid wind blew down from the heavens, impaling the bleak winter's day with piercing needles of ice. The sun veiled its rays behind a hazy pall, muting the land in flat, forbidding light. Frost coated the withered brown grasses and skeletal trees, and billowed thickly from the mouths of friend and foe alike.
Danae tugged the thick, dark gray cloak tightly to her, tucked back a recalcitrant lock of pale yellow hair, and hunkered yet further into the hood's relative warmth. Still, as her gaze encompassed the army slowly massing on the plains just below Astara's colossal gates, a sudden, premonitory chill no clothing could contain coursed through her body. Yet how was this day any different from the long months and years of her captivity in Astara? Why would this moment always stand apart from any other she had spent gazing down on the army of her own people, praying for deliverance?
She glanced along the line of tuniced and gowned Astarians crowding the length of the rough, tan-mottled agarat stone battlements, her gaze finally alighting on the somber faces of the royal family Karayan. Horror widened the elegant, silver-haired Queen Takouhi's eyes. Worry darkened the ailing King Haig's face. Fear tightened Prince Hovan's eternally petulant mouth.
It was the stoic resolve stiffening Crown Prince Vartan's shoulders and lifting his strong, proud chin, however, that filled Danae with the greatest foreboding. Though she knew not from whence the presentiment came, somehow, some way, this day his destiny teetered on the sheerest of precipices. She knew, and it tore at her heart.
Amid a deafening blast of trumpets, four battle-clad horsemen rode to the front of the army and drew up before Astara's gates. The two outside riders bore bright red and gold banners on tall, spear-tipped poles. As the wind snapped the silken cloth to and fro, even from this height Danae could make out the emblazoned gold helmet with its horsehair crest --- the symbol of the hereditary rulers of Hylas. The banners of her country, yet banners that filled her with dread.
She shook her head fiercely, as if the act in itself could disperse the crazed tumult of emotions churning within. This was madness. Slowly but surely, her people were winning the battle against Astara, in a siege that had now lasted three long, excruciating years.
It was past time the royal Gadielean city yield. It was past time the Hylean king's wife be surrendered, whether she wished it so or not. Calandra did not belong here with the Gadielean king's troublesome younger son, nor was she deserving of the painful price the city must pay for her presence. Yet as dearly as Danae desired the vain, selfish Queen Calandra to submit to her husband's lawful authority, she feared, oh, how she feared, the price might now come too dear.
Far, far too dear if Prince Vartan lost his life in the doing.
"Hail, King Haig," a voice bellowed suddenly from below.
Danae's gaze narrowed. That voice. She knew that voice . . . Her breath escaped in a horrified gasp. It was Ladon. In spite of the years --- and probably because of long-suppressed memories --- a confused mix of emotions rippled through her.
King Haig shot his eldest son a questioning glance. Danae saw Vartan pause to sweep his wine red cloak edged in gold back from his shoulders, then mouth Ladon's name. His father nodded and stepped forward.
"Aye, what do you wish?" he shouted back.
"I bring you a proposition. A proposition to end the war."
Beneath the horsehair-crested bronze helmet with its ornately scrolled cheek plates and nose-guard, Danae saw Ladon's mouth lift in a feral smile. She looked back to where Vartan stood, off and slightly behind his father's right. A bleak ray of sudden sunlight glinted on shoulder-length, chestnut brown hair and smoothly shaven cheeks, catching the subtle jump of muscle in his tautly clenched jaw.
Danae's heart went out to him. Vartan was no fool. Three years of thwarting King Feodras's commanding general and battle champion had surely taught him much about Ladon's brutally treacherous ways. Nothing good would come of this proposal.
"Aye, and that proposition is?" King Haig roared back, his haggard features reddening with the unaccustomed effort. "Spit it out, man, before I lose what little patience I have with you!"
Instead of angering the Hylean warrior, his enemy's goading appeared only to please Ladon the more. "We weary of this war," he cried. "But honor must be salvaged, yours no less than ours. To that purpose, on the morrow at midday, send down your greatest warrior. Send him to meet me in a fight to the death. If he wins, Feodras gives his word he'll withdraw and take his army back to Hylas. But if I win" --- Ladon's smile grew all the wider --- "Astara must surrender."
King Haig leaned forward and clenched the stone wall until his knuckles whitened. Beneath his crown of costly jewels and hammered gold, his thinning gray hair fluttered dispiritedly in the wind. "S-surrender?" he all but choked out the word. "And what honor is in that? Tell your king --- "
"Feodras gives his word Astara will not be sacked, nor will its citizens be harmed," Ladon cried. "All he desires is Calandra and the satisfaction of knowing he is victor. To gain those, he gives his word, a word he'll honor until his dying breath." With a vicious jerk, the Hylean reined in his nervously prancing horse. "You've two hours to make your decision. Two hours, King Haig, and then the offer is no more."
As if to add a final emphasis to his words, Ladon signaled his mount forward. Once free of the confinement of the other horses, he sharply kneed the animal so that it reared high, pawing the air. Then, with a burst of maniacal laughter, he pivoted his horse and galloped away.
For several tension-laden minutes, the Astarian king regarded the four retreating horsemen. Finally he turned, meeting his eldest son's gaze
Danae could only guess what emotions arced between them. Vartan was Astara's greatest warrior, and Ladon knew it. Vartan, at thirty-two a man in his prime, was graced with keen intelligence and battle-honed strategic abilities. He had always been the one sure obstacle to the Hyleans' overwhelming forces. Without Vartan, Astara was surely doomed.
Yet even as she watched the two men, Danae knew what the answer would be. For the sake of his people, Vartan Karayan would risk his life. To risk was to retain some vestige of hope for a successful outcome. But there was no hope, none whatsoever, in a battle to the death with Ladon.
Years ago, it was said the Hylean champion had traded his limited span of years for immortality. It was said he had given his soul over to Phaon, the Dark Lord. Danae knew the rumors were true.
Vartan hadn't a chance. Ladon was now invincible.
"I would do that, and gladly," she said, "but what could I say, as unschooled as I still am in the ways of Athan, when all your efforts have failed? Especially now, when there's so little time left?"
"We're all instruments in Athan's hands. Some He uses for one task, and some are meant for others. You're called to aid my brother in the hard times to come. I must mouth prophecies no one of House Karayan or of the city of Astara believes."
"Well, I believe them!"
Zagiri smiled. "But then, you aren't of House Karayan or of Astara, are you?"
Danae grinned. "Nay, I'm not."
"Yet, since you do believe, I've one last prophecy to share with you." She paused, closed her eyes for a moment, then turned the full force of her striking sea blue gaze --- eyes Danae had long ago noted were the same shade as her older brother's --- on her. "It's not of my making, mind you, but it's past time you know of whom this Prophecy speaks."
"And what exactly is this prophecy?"
"Listen closely, dear friend," Zagiri said, drawing even nearer and dropping her voice. "I dare not utter it too loudly in these troubled times, for fear some unholy creature might overhear and seek to put an end to it before it can be fulfilled."
"Is that possible?" Danae asked, frowning in puzzlement. "To prevent some divinely inspired, future event?"
"Unfortunately, aye, if the instruments are unwilling or choose the wrong path." She smiled sadly. "It's the one variable in the Divine plan: our right --- one of Athan's greatest and most loving gifts --- to refuse Him."
Zagiri took Danae's hand. "Now, listen . . . and hear with the ears of your heart." She intoned:
Excerpted from GIVER OF ROSES © Copyright 2005 by Kathleen Morgan. Reprinted with permission by Revell, division of Baker Publishing Group. All rights reserved.