Autumn held the promise of a bountiful harvest, and the small village fair was alive with a joyous sense of prosperity and hope. Unmarried couples danced and stole kisses, while young mothers balanced their rosy-cheeked babes on their hips and sang along with the minstrels. Ignoring such lighthearted merriment, the farmers strolled the peddlers' tents in search of a bargain or simply sipped ale in the shade of an ancient oak.
Though hastily constructed, Oriana's booth afforded the privacy necessary for telling fortunes, and, as usual, she was enjoying a profitable, and therefore quite pleasant, day. Then, without warning, she felt an abrupt change in the afternoon, as though the whole world had suddenly taken a deep breath, and a deathly stillness settled around her.
She cast an anxious glance over the head of the young woman seeking her advice and was surprised to find the colorful pennants atop the tent opposite hers still fluttering in the breeze. She would never have left her forest home had her need for a new woolen cloak not been acute, but now she did not care whether she had earned sufficient silver to provide the warm garment.
Ever mindful of her own reputation, however, she attempted to affect a reassuring calm and murmured persuasively, "Love can't be rushed, nor can it be coaxed from an unwilling suitor. You're very pretty; isn't there another man who longs to make you his wife?"
The tearful young woman replied between choked sobs, "Yes, but he isn't nearly as handsome as the one I love. That's why I've come to you. Oh, please, my lady. Isn't there something better in my future?"
Sadly, Oriana knew the poor girl would soon be forced to wed a farmer who was not unkind, but simply too old for her. Then, with her heart overflowing with love for the babe she carried, she would die in childbirth. Oriana would never reveal that heartache, however, for though no one could avoid fate, she would not condemn them to live in deathly fear of it.
Instead, Oriana considerately presented the elegant theatrics she always performed for an audience of one. With a warm smile, she offered a small leather pouch heavily embroidered with golden thread. "Let us consult the Stones of Tomorrow," she invited. "Reach in and choose the first one you touch."
Turning shy, the young woman brushed the moisture from her cheeks and slowly slid a trembling hand into the bag. Just as hesitantly, she withdrew a smooth gray stone and placed it in Oriana's outstretched palm.
"Here. Does this one provide a good omen?" she asked.
Oriana rested the pouch in her lap to free her hands, and then rolled the stone between her palms. She closed her eyes briefly to pretend rapt concentration, and when she looked up, her tone was thoroughly convincing.
"You've made an excellent choice. This pretty stone comes from the Stream of Life. It means there's another man you've not yet considered-he's your true husband. The family you'll create together will bring you great happiness. Now dry your tears, and do not shed another until it springs from boundless joy."
Oriana gestured gracefully. "The ribbon merchant has such lovely wares. Go across the way to his tent and purchase colorful ribbons for your hair so your new man will be sure to notice you."
"Oh, thank you, dear lady," the girl said, her voice catching in her throat. Greatly encouraged, she dropped another silver coin into Oriana's basket and swiftly left the tent to do her bidding.
With no further need to treat the gray stone as precious, Oriana tossed it into her bag and yanked the drawstrings tight. Before she could rise and be on her way, a man's dark shadow fell across the entrance of her tent.
"I'm so sorry, sir," she called out to him, "but I'm finished for the day."
"No. I think not," he replied in a resonant baritone. He bent low to enter Oriana's booth and with the same sure grace, he seated himself upon the cushion facing hers. A slow smile spread across his face as he regarded her with open admiration.
She was a rare beauty with hair the fiery red of a summer sunset. A golden cord encircled her head to tame her wavy tresses, and it allowed him to fully appreciate the perfection of her delicate features. But it was her remarkable eyes that touched his soul. More gold than green, they sparkled with the unmistakable glow of lively intelligence.
Her perfume was an enchanting floral blend with a subtle hint of cloves. He drank it in with every breath, and his compliment was entirely genuine. "Your praises are sung by many, Oriana, but I was not certain you really existed. Now I can truthfully swear you were well worth my lengthy search."
His gray cloak was tattered at the hem, his tunic and leggings were dusty, and his leather shoes were scuffed, but his muscular build and handsome appearance spoke of a heritage far wealthier than that of a careworn peasant. His hair was darker than a moonless night and fell over his shoulders in a wild mane, but a sophisticated humor lit his smoky blue eyes. He was clean-shaven, and his teeth were even and white against his deep tan.
Oriana had never seen a more charming smile, but she was accustomed to leading a solitary life, and was uncomfortable when anyone came near. This man's presence so filled her small tent that, when combined with her earlier need to take flight, she was fast becoming as desperate as a rabbit caught in a snare.
"I'm truly sorry for your trouble, sir, but it doesn't naturally follow that I wished to be found," she replied in a hushed whisper.
Amused, the man shook his head. "No, obviously you did not, but now that I've succeeded in my quest, I refuse to return home without you."
Startled by such an unexpected boast, Oriana drew back as best she could, but there was still far too little space between them. With an effort, she forced herself to breathe in and out in a deep, regular rhythm, for despite the young man's remarkably appealing appearance, she sensed a grave peril that demanded she keep a firm hold on her wits. Surely it had been his arrival that had disrupted the peace of the afternoon, and she regretted not being quick enough to elude him.
"Your home is undoubtedly a fine one, sir, but I go where I choose," she announced proudly, feigning far more confidence than she felt.
Her distress was too obvious to miss, and the man softened his tone. "Forgive me, I did not mean to frighten you, but if you truly possess the ability to see the future, you must already know that I mean you no harm."
A teasing grin tugged at the corner of his well-shaped mouth, but Oriana remained wary. Perhaps he truly believed what he said, but she saw a looming danger wrapped around him as snugly as his ragged cloak. The knowledge that he did not deserve to live under such a dreadful threat came to her just as swiftly.
"If it is merely a fortune you wish, I can tell it now." Oriana pulled open the beautifully decorated pouch and extended it slightly. "I rely upon my Stones of Tomorrow for insight. Simply reach in and withdraw the first one you touch."
The man extended his hand, but as his slender fingers brushed the edge of the bag, he drew back. "Shouldn't you at least ask my name before we begin? Or do you already know it?"
Oriana had never met a man who was more pleasing to the eye, but she was still eager to escape. "Whoever you are, sir, you are in terrible danger. Anything else I might provide will have scant worth compared to that knowledge."
He shrugged off her warning as he would a hasty comment on the weather. "Though you may not be in the least bit curious, should your friends ask, I am Egan, of the Dál Cais, and I have yet to encounter an enemy I could not easily defeat."
His taunting chuckle echoed softly against the folds of the tent as he reached into the embroidered pouch, and then, deliberately allowing his fingertips to caress Oriana's palm, he placed a sparkling amethyst in her hand. His lashes were so long and thick that they cast shadows upon his cheeks but failed to veil the sly sparkle lighting his eyes as he awaited her prediction.
Oriana stared first at the crystal, for it possessed its own inner fire, and then looked up at Egan. "This isn't mine, and if you are half as good with your sword as you are with sleight of hand, you just may have a chance to survive the peril that stalks you."
Egan rested his arms on his crossed knees and sighed with frustration. "I need more than vague warnings, my lady. That pretty crystal, as well as ample gold, is yours if you'll but tell me my fate as quickly as you did the maid before me."
"You have no idea what you ask," Oriana admonished. "Women consult me on matters of the heart and always find comfort. But the last man who sought my advice now wishes me dead simply because it proved true."
Alarmed, Egan sought to reassure her of his own good intentions, but as he drew near, he saw his reflection in the depths of her golden gaze. The image made him so dizzy he had to glance away. "It's said you're the daughter of the god Lugh and a mortal woman. Is it true?"
His profile was as magnificently carved as the rest of him, and Oriana took her time to reply. "You saw the truth in my eyes just now, so you need not question the wisdom of my advice. You must return home with all possible haste. The lives of those you love are at risk, but I fear you are already too late to save them."
Egan's expression darkened as he turned back to meet Oriana's gaze. "Again, I think not."
Oriana anticipated his sudden lunge but had no room to dodge away before he caught her wrist in a bruising grip. "I make far too many enemies with the truth, Egan. Do not beg me for more."
"I never beg," he snarled, and the same teeth that had made his smile so charming flashed with a menacing gleam.
Nearby, a musician sat strumming his lyre, but Oriana could barely hear the melody over the fierce beating of her heart. The distant laughter of children running through the peddlers' tents carried on the gentle breeze, and much closer, there was drunken shout. Oriana yearned for the peace of the forest and viewed Egan's confining hold on her with clear disgust.
"Have you no Druids to advise you, sir? Surely the powerful Dál Cais must have dozens of the learned men."
Finally noticing the delicacy of her bones, Egan relaxed his grip until it was a loop as gentle as her gold bracelet. "Forgive me if I've been too rough. I'm not usually a violent man, but this means too much to me. The only Druid I trust is a boyhood friend, and he is still away mastering their secrets.
"I need someone with your clear view of the future, today. My stepmother constantly plots against me, but I wish to know of dangers from an unexpected source. If I'm really in as much peril as you say, then it's all the more reason for you to accompany me home. I have a fine horse and provisions, so I can promise you a comfortable journey."
Freedom was far more important to Oriana than comfort, and she quickly peeled Egan's fingers off her arm. "Where is your home, sir?"
"West of here, near the mouth of the river Shannon. We have a fine view of the sea, and I miss it terribly."
Oriana had never encountered such a perplexing individual, and she was deeply disturbed by the growing awareness of her lack of insight where he was concerned. Egan's presence, however, brought such a terrifying flutter to her stomach that she had great difficulty fighting him, as well as her own confusion.
The knowing, as her mother had called it, was a gift from Lugh. It was his sign that she was his daughter. She had never seen visions; instead the future opened itself in her mind with a certainty she had come to trust as a child. She simply knew a person's fate, as though Lugh himself were whispering it in her ear. Other than to offer a dire warning, she had no clear messages concerning Egan's future, but she still sensed he had been wise to seek her out.
"How did you find me?" she asked.
Egan laughed as though she had just told an amusing joke. When he noticed Oriana's slight frown, he thoughtfully reined in what he saw as a natural response to such an absurd question, but it was only because he dared not insult her.
"I'll not reveal my methods, dear lady, for if by some chance we're separated, I'll need that same means to find you again. But I'll wager it won't take me half as long the next time."
Oriana valued her privacy far too highly to accept such a self-assured boast calmly. "You, sir, are an arrogant swine," she replied coldly.
Rather than violently disagree, Egan inclined his head slightly. "Aye, you're not the first to have made such an unkind observation, but as I said, you'll be well paid for your prophecies, and my gratitude, should they prove useful, will be endless."
Oriana had been raised to flee at the first sign of trouble, and it was only through a great act of will that she had remained with Egan for as long as she had. He was most definitely cause for alarm because if he had found her, then Duncan could as well.
She needed time to think, but alas, Egan would surely allow her none, and the longer she tarried in the village, the closer Duncan would undoubtedly come to her trail. She closed her eyes, but this time it truly was in serious contemplation, and she was swiftly presented with a plan so desperate she thought it just might succeed.
She needed only the space of two breaths to decide that she and Egan might each profit by serving the other. When viewed in that regard, Egan did not simply pose a thorny new problem; he offered the perfect solution to another.
Oriana was uncertain she actually possessed the courage to suggest such a bold plan, and had to clear her throat to dislodge a painful lump before she was able to speak. "I shall require more than promises of gold and exotic crystals to assist you."
Although elated that she was at last discussing the matter, Egan's brows dipped in a puzzled frown. "More than gold? Just what is it you want from me, Oriana?"
As a suggestive grin slid across his lips, it became plain what he hoped she would ask. But Oriana fully expected to wed one of the splendid gods who dwelt in the Otherworld, and she was not even tempted to conduct more than business with a mortal, no matter how handsome. She did not want to offend him, though, and took the precaution of weighing her words before she answered.
"I mentioned a man who wishes me dead. If you'll serve as my champion and kill him, then I will accompany you home most willingly."
It was now Egan who had to lean back to put more space between them. Oriana was regarding him with a level, faintly curious gaze, and he recognized her ploy for the outrageous dare it was. She expected him to refuse and depart. But now that he had finally found her, he did not want to risk losing her for any reason, even this absurd demand.
"Aye, my lady. I'll be your champion," he vowed, all traces of mirth gone from his expression. He sincerely doubted she could have made an enemy he could not dispatch with a single mighty blow of his sword. "But because I am so eager to risk my life for yours," he countered, "we must visit my home before we attack your enemy."
"No," Oriana said resisting stubbornly, for now that he had agreed to help her, she intended to hold him to his word. "Once we reach your home, you'll have no time to help me. Duncan must be slain first."
"Duncan? I've heard the name, but know him not."
"You do not wish to know him, sir, for he is an evil man who blames me for his misfortune even though I could have done nothing to save his intended bride's life. If you have found me, then he may also be near, and surely you do not wish to slay him where an entire village can witness the deed. Now, help me fold up my tent, and we'll be on our way."
Astonished by the abrupt change in Oriana's attitude, Egan's mouth nearly fell agape. "You intend to give me orders?"
That he had apparently not even considered such a remarkable occurence made Oriana laugh in spite of the seriousness of her mood. "Yes, indeed I do, sir. Why have you gone to the trouble of seeking me out if you plan to disregard what I say?"
Egan was known for his eloquence, but he simply stared at Oriana, and convinced he had gotten the worst of their bargain, he slowly rose and slipped out of her tent. The ends of four long branches had been buried in the ground to support the coarse fabric walls, all of which hung at peculiar angles, and he thought most children could have constructed a more attractive structure.
Excerpted from Dawn of Desire by Phoebe Conn Copyright © 2008 by Phoebe Conn. Excerpted by permission.
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