Mystic Warrior Excerpt
“With its complex characters Rice’s last book in the Mystic Isle series pits a stubborn seasoned warrior with an equally determined young woman. With an overview of the French Revolution, depths of emotion, mysticism and a great love, she ties it all together in one passionate and fiery conclusion.”
“Ms. Rice has created another winning story in this fascinating series. Her characters are captivating, unique and enchanting. Mystic Warrior is a well written tale that readers won't want to miss!”
The cart Lissandra rode in rattled over a barren hill, crossed a ridge, and descended into a forested valley. A smudge of smoke hovered over the treetops below, blocking the scenic view.
Her heart skipped a beat. For the first time in four years, she could feel Murdoch’s presence. He’d been part of her life since childhood. No matter how much her memories hurt, no matter what people told her, she couldn’t stifle this unwarranted longing to see him again. The man Ian had described had lost the laughter in his eyes and become a fountain of hostility. Had he grown worse since Ian had left him nearly two years ago?
“The village is through the forest, near a lake,” the driver told her as he clicked his mule past a tumble of boulders that looked as if the gods had heaved them there in a Herculean tantrum. “It is usually a pretty picture this time of year.”
At the bottom of the hill, the driver rolled the cart off the main road and took a meandering dirt lane through scorched fields, skirting the still-smoldering forest.
“It is a miracle anyone survived the fire,” the driver said. “Lightning struck the woods that terrible day. We’ve had a dry spring, and the sparks set fire to the weeds and spread to the wheat straw that our young men hadn’t been home to plow. It carried across the fields, then leaped to the roofs. They lost only one bedridden old woman. They would have lost more had it not been for the stranger.”
Lissandra sensed the presence that ought to be Murdoch. But his essence seemed to be a mere cinder of the white-hot heat she remembered. Or perhaps, she thought acidly, he’d burned out his rage on a village. That would be typical of the dangerous man he’d become. She had no illusion that the lightning had natural origins, not with Murdoch in the vicinity. Not after the vision she’d had at her mother’s deathbed. Her vague hopes slipped into despair.
“What stranger?” she asked, if only to prove her theory.
“He gives us no name, so the priest calls him Abel. Old women call him a saint, but they are romantic fools. I call a man who is strong and skilled enough to drive off half a dozen thieves a warrior, not a saint. He was only passing through, but those he saved claim he single-handedly fought a troop of deserting thieves before the storm struck. They went on, but he stayed to fight the fire, and now he is helping the village rebuild.”
As the old mule ambled around a bend, Lissandra calmed her growing panic by admiring a row of sunflowers emerging along the edge of a field sprouting new green wheat where smoke still smoldered. How could life return so quickly to the scorched earth?
She’d told the driver that her husband had taken ill along this road, and she required a man to drive her from town to town so she might seek him. If Murdoch was married, a public encounter could prove embarrassing. “Where do those who were burned out live now?” she inquired to prevent her thoughts from straying.
“Most share the cottages that survived the fire. Others live among the ruins.” The driver shrugged. “We are too poor to own land, and these days, who knows who is responsible for repairing the houses? Our landlords have fled France. Our so-called leaders argue in Paris, telling us we must pay tithes to a church that no longer exists and rents to a government that cannot help us. They send deputies from the Tribunal to make certain we do not complain as we pay. Good Bretons rise up in arms against the patriotic Guards, but here, in this village”—he shrugged again—“we simply wish a roof over our heads.”
“Do you know who I might talk to?” She glanced at the two-story inn ahead. The fire hadn’t reached its tall roof, although the whitewash on its lower walls was blackened with soot.
She had exchanged her pearls for a purse of coins at a moneylender’s, as she’d learned to do from Mariel. Using her Empathy to judge the moneylender’s greed had resulted in a fair trade, but avoiding the thieves who had followed her had been daunting. Aelynn law required she not cause harm or display her supernatural abilities in this world. But just thinking that an Olympus of Aelynn was reduced to hiding from miscreants because of an irresponsible bastard like Murdoch deepened her anger and resentment.
The driver nodded curtly. “Do not display more than one. The world is full of thieves.”
Also noticing the soldier, her driver spit on the ground and guided his cart down an alley, out of sight of the main street. “There are committees for everything these days. Here, they send the Committee of Public Safety to conscript our men,” he explained with bitterness. “In the name of the Revolution, they have been licensed with the power of life and death, but they do naught except harass the innocent when they should be fighting for our country. It does not matter who you are—they will ask for your documents. Do not go near them if you’re alone.”
Having no documents to show, Lissandra found it far simpler to travel unobtrusively and pray no one noticed her. It had worked thus far, but it wouldn’t if she stayed in any one place for very long.
Her driver pointed to a row of attached stone houses covered in soot and scorched in places, but relatively intact in comparison with those on the main street. “The widow Girard is a respectable woman with a young son she raises alone. Tell her Luc sent you.”
An Oracle must be cold and harsh to be heeded, she heard her mother say. An Oracle must be superior to those she would lead. And so with discipline and hard work, Lissandra had made herself superior, which had put her on a lonely pedestal. Now that she’d stepped down, it seemed practical to be unassuming—provided she was offered no provocation to act otherwise.
The widow Girard was a small wren of a woman who checked the alley before opening her door. “There are too many prying eyes these days,” she whispered after Lissandra introduced herself. “They seek spies and traitors around every corner. And the elders whisper of witches and demons.”
Lissandra had no understanding of the subject or any interest in it, but she listened politely until she was offered an opportunity to speak. “I seek the stranger that Luc tells me has recently arrived. I had word my husband was ill along this road, and I hope the stranger might tell me of his whereabouts.”
“The stranger is everywhere,” the widow claimed, with a broad sweep of her hand. “He never rests. He is in the fields when we rise, and hauling broom for thatch when we go to bed. He fights the fires that linger in the peat fields.”
The woman shrugged. “No one knows. You might ask at the church. The priest has been staying there to guard the statues from the thieving deserters who hide in the woods.”
When she saw no one at the church, she set out along the back ways into the countryside, following her meager Finding instinct. She’d been warned that wolves and wild boars still roamed this wilderness, but she sensed few creatures of any size except some men in the distance—where her instincts told her she would find Murdoch.
As if a fire-breathing dragon lurked in the shadows under the trees, a cloud of smoke engulfed her, and she coughed harshly. Curse the gods, but this was worse than climbing the volcano’s slope. She could feel the heat through the soles of her shoes.
She dragged her gown up from where it tangled her feet, and held the fabric in her hands, using her Aelynn strength to stride faster. She doubted anyone could see her abnormal speed in this murk, and her lungs would appreciate a hasty departure.
Determined, she marched on, coughing harder in the thickening smoke. She would have this confrontation done with. The setting might be ominous, but it was certainly fitting—
Another fiery geyser spewed into the air on the spot where she’d just been standing.
Refusing to surrender, she locked her mental shields against any emotional assault and shoved at broad—naked—shoulders, with the intent of flinging her assailant into the air with her superior strength. Beneath her palms she encountered the grit of soot and ash and the powerful play of muscles, but no matter how much strength she applied, her attacker merely beat the ground with his fist.
The ground trembled. She opened her eyes in terror.
And watched the geyser of fire die.
Cursing tonelessly in several languages with phrases so vivid they scorched her ears, her attacker trapped her between his bulging arms, glared down at her through the smoke, and, after only a moment’s hesitation, covered her mouth with his.
His mouth tasted of strong wine, his beard bristles chafed her skin, and the heavy desire consuming them erased rational thought. She parted her lips at her assailant’s insistence, drank his breath into her lungs, mated her tongue with his, and almost burst into flames .
The confounded skirts hindered her effectiveness. Before she could emasculate the bastard, he rolled off her. Lying flat on his back, he stared at the leaves above them, loudly repeating his curses of earlier.
Undeterred, Lissandra turned on her side and glared into the piratical unshaven features she knew too well. Rising up on one arm, she smashed her fist into his iron-hewn abdomen. He merely oofed and grabbed her elbow, pulling her off-balance and across his bare torso.
Three more fiery geysers burst from the earth’s floor.
Lissandra had found Murdoch.