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by Lindsay Townsend
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Ancient Krete, 1562 BC. Sarmatia is a trainer for the Bull Rite, the dangerous, glamorous ceremony of bull-leaping that gave a young Kretan entry into adulthood. Fearn is healer from the distant northern Isle of Stones summoned for his skills to the sick-bed of Minos, the Kretan king. They meet on the dusty flagstones of the palace courtyard and both save a life. A year passes. They are betrothed, but Fearn has returned home and is chosen king of his small northern country. As king, master of storms, he cannot return to Krete. Fearn writes to Sarmatia releasing her from her vows--but is this what they really want? Sarmatia leaves Krete to search for Fearn. Many months and life-and-death adventures later, she is reunited with him. She and Fearn are still deeply in love but there is an unknown enemy working against them, one who will stop at nothing, even murder. [Mainstream Historical Romance]
eBook Publisher: Siren-BookStrand, Inc./BookStrand Mainstream Romance, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: October 2009
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [549 KB]
Reading time: 348-487 min.
"4.5 Red Roses: This is a remarkable book in that it takes you back in time. It is well written so that you get a glimpse of the world at that time and it gives you a wonderful mystery as to who is behind the attacks and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next. The many twists and turns keep you engrossed as you try to figure out who is behind all the mishaps that keep happening."--Linda Sole, Red Roses for Authors
"4 Stars: Bronze Lightning transports readers back in time. I felt as though I was watching the ancient rites into adulthood. I felt the fear of the young initiate fear and triumph. Bronze Lightning is beautifully written. Fans of historical romance will enjoy Bronze Lightning."--Debra Gaynor, Review Your Book
Krete, c.1562 BC. Summer.
A dusty path rambled from the palace at Phaistos down to the sea, where ships heavy with oil and wine cut the sparkling water between Krete and the rich lands of Pharaoh's Egypt. Down the path ran a youth in a messenger's tunic, sweating in the heat. When he reached a parched field where a bronze-skinned girl with dark tousled hair leaned on a gate watching a piebald bull, he stopped and called out. 'Sarmatia! Hey, Sarmatia?'
The shout broke the fragile alliance. This time, thought Sarmatia, she could make no spirit bond with the beast that would take part in the ceremony. Perhaps the Goddess was angry. Whatever, it would be skill, not trust, that would keep her youngsters alive. If only the herald had not come then.... Knowing her face would show nothing of her mood, she turned.
'Kutatos!' Delight shattered unease: she and Kutatos had been fellow-initiates. 'How are you? Your family? Your wife?'
Kutatos stammered replies, painfully conscious, it seemed, of the gulf between them. Trainer of the Rite of Passage, she would risk her life through not one initiation but many. Only when he came to the message did his voice deepen into the ringing tones of the herald.
'Lord Luktos sends greeting to you and your family...'
'My gratitude is boundless.' Sarmatia gave the expected response, wishing Luktos' messages were not so long-winded.
At last Kutatos came to the point. 'Where may strangers watch the Bull Rite in safety?'
The answer was 'Nowhere', but she felt too kindly towards Kutatos to give it. Thinking over the Bull Rite, she wondered who Luktos' guests were. Kretans were not eager to witness the Rite of Passage. The courtyard where the bull-riding took place was fenced in by wicker hurdles, yet at any time the bull might charge into the crowd. In the past onlookers had been gored. The death-threat was common to all, binding the people together. Other races had heard of the rite, but few foreigners knew much of the ceremony.
'Who are these strangers, Kutatos?'
'An Egyptian nobleman, Ramose, with his wife and son, and Fearn, the northerner. Ramose and Fearn are tending Minos. I understand that it was Fearn who asked--Luktos sweats to refuse him nothing.'
'I know.' Minos, ruler of Krete, had been ill for over a year and the Kretan healers had despaired of him. They had sent word to the court of Pharaoh in Egypt and to Fearn, the foremost healer of the northern Isle of Stones, begging for help.
Despite her disquiet over Fearn's unusual request, Sarmatia was intrigued. Finally she might meet this man from the edge of the world, who had refused Minos' gold and argued, when the herald first found him, that his own people needed him--he could not leave the many for the sake of one. So matters might have stood had not Minos' herald let slip that the palace healers had begun to desert for fear of contracting the disease. Hearing this, Fearn had decided to set out at once for Krete.
Sarmatia remembered, but hid her curiosity. 'So today,' she remarked dryly, 'I must tell my initiates to perform for Fearn?'
'No, there'll be no impiety,' replied Kutatos, glancing from Sarmatia to the meadow as the bull lifted its head and bellowed. 'Fearn and Ramose know what's fitting.'
'Do they know the risk?'
'They do. My lord Luktos explained it at great length.'
Sarmatia laughed. For Kutatos' sake and their shared initiation, when Kutatos had seen that she kept her feet after tumbling over the bull's horns, she gave her answer.
'Tell Luktos to take his guests to the back of the court, by the pillars. No harm will come to them, I promise.'
Kutatos made his farewells, disappearing behind the long barn of the palace dairy. Sarmatia tried to put the matter from her mind and, wrapping herself in her hooded cloak, she walked back along the side of the meadow to the southern gate of the palace and slipped into the main courtyard.
The heat was so intense it stopped her breath and burned the soles of her bare feet. The sun had been beating down all morning on the stone flags of the court and now the decorated floor--painted with scenes of past bull rites--shimmered, the brightly rendered figures rippling as though alive. Inside the wicker fencing the area was deserted, silent but for the steady pulse of the cicadas.
Here in a few hours' time would be life: the growing of child into adult in those moments that it took to face a charging bull and grasp its horns. The instant the initiate was tossed into the air by the bull he began the Rite of Passage, tumbling through space as through life, without knowledge of the future or his fate. When he landed on earth, it would be away into adult life. Only one such tumble was needed and then the initiate could leave the sacred court. Many, though, elected to stay and help those who were left, sometimes performing the ritual again and 'riding the bull over', as the saying went. Sarmatia had ridden the bull many times but, after six years and rising towards eighteen, she felt herself stiffer than she used to be. Now she was content simply to remain with the initiates and keep an eye on them. Each time the ceremony was performed the bull was a different one.
Sarmatia sighed, thinking again of the piebald bull. He was big and his horns were strong, which was good, yet he was very quick at turning and his mind was closed. She had tried and failed to discover it. Standing in the stuffy bull court, the girl was tempted to join the crowds about the altar and make sacrifice to the gods, but she would almost certainly be recognized. And if word came out that the trainer was worried, how would her youngsters feel? No, the risk of their lives in the rite was sacrifice enough.
She felt suffocated by the cloak and flung it off to carry under her arm. Touching her brow in salutation to the court, Sarmatia turned briskly and went back amongst the people. There were whispers immediately as she was seen for, as was her custom on the day of an initiation, she wore the costume of the Bull Rider. Eyes picked at her linen loincloth, the bronze waist-belt and silver earrings, her naked breasts and scarred sides. All that was missing were the gold ankle bells and the face paint which proclaimed her kin-group. Only a few more steps and the show would be finished. The girl heard a farmer mutter, 'The Passage-Mistress herself, that's a good omen,' and was content. * * * *
When she next entered the courtyard, Sarmatia was with the initiates and flute players, coming in to music and the greetings of the crowd. Glancing amongst her own family, she noted with relief that her brother Tazaros had kept his promise and stayed away. She always feared that if the bull threatened her, Tazaros would forget he was ten years past the rite and come into the courtyard himself. Breathing more easily, despite the blood heat of the afternoon, she started the seven initiates on their warm-up of somersaults and tumbles, doing a few herself to keep in practice and to ease the slowness out of her spine.
As she tumbled the length of the court, quickening with the music of the flutes, Sarmatia came right side up by the rear of the courtyard. She looked between the pillars and there was the Egyptian, with his wife and son. A child: was it wise to have children here? Sarmatia wondered, though no one else questioned the custom. The boy had his nose pressed against the wicker hurdles, but his father rose above them, straight, like a poplar.
Kutatos had not told her that Ramose was Nubian, dark as a rare pearl. And the man beside him, fully as tall, white as Ramose was black--her breath hissed in her throat when she looked on Fearn for the first time. The healer had red hair, a red-gold beard. He glittered in that fierce Kretan sunlight. A bright stare mirrored hers then Fearn bowed his head.
Sarmatia spun away and was gone, somersaulting over her hands and landing with a soft clash of gold ankle bells. Their meeting of eyes had lasted no more than a breath, yet it kept returning to haunt her as the music shrilled to a climax and the piebald bull was let into the court. Even as the flute players left and the Bull Rite began, her gaze was drawn to the back of the courtyard.
Three of the seven had completed their Passage and two were gone: the fourth initiate should have been ready. As the bull came to a jolting stop at one end of the court, pawed restively and licked the painted flags, Sarmatia motioned to a creamy-skinned, gray-eyed girl. The youngster backed up a step. The bull raised its head, its horn scraping against a pillar. The girl blanched and looked wildly about, ready to run. In three strides Sarmatia made up the space between them and gripped her arm. Unseen by the families, she pressed the flat of her dagger into the initiate's side. Cruel to be kind, she threatened.
'This or the bull if you show your back, Pero!' she whispered, turning the blade for the girl to feel its edge. 'The only way out is through the horns.' Whatever Sarmatia's private disgust and unease, custom and the crowd demanded it. They would not forgive Pero if she failed.
'I can't!' Pero was shaking and near tears. A low murmur ran around the watching crowd like a wind through barley: the mob and the bull would not wait much longer. Pierced by pity, Sarmatia squeezed the girl's thin shoulder. 'Do you want to be a child all your life?' she asked gently.
'Sarmatia, I can't! Those horns, they're like knives, and the bull--Oh, Mother!' Pero's voice cracked. 'It's looking for me!' The bull had trotted out of the shadows at the back of the courtyard.
Sarmatia stepped in front of Pero, shielding the girl. 'Look, it's nothing.' She ran forward, clapping her hands.
The bull halted and its head slewed round towards them, a brown forelock covering one eye. 'To me!' she shouted.
The beast dropped its great horns. She heard the people applaud. With an explosion of dust the bull charged. She felt its hot, closed mind surrounding her. For an instant skill deserted her. She remembered she was too old for the Bull Rite. A blaze of gold spilled from the bull's horns, instinct returned and with it sureness. She caught the horns and let herself rise. Time and the horizon fell back, she could see the blue vault of heaven, the red-mouthed 'O' of the crowd, a flash of red-gold hair as Fearn turned his head, following her descent. Her feet touched the bony rump of the bull, she tucked in her arms and somersaulted off, running forward as she landed.
Behind her the beast gave a sulky grunt, swept this way and that with its horns and lashed its tail. Pero worked her way into its sight, swaying her hips to keep quick and supple. The piebald ambled off in the opposite direction then suddenly spun about and bore down on the girl in another burst of speed. Sarmatia moved to cover Pero's tumble and signalled to the remaining initiates to do the same. She heard the girl seize the bull's horns, with a great smack on each palm, and saw her tossed, arching like a dolphin in mid-air and rising clear of the deadly gilded horns. The time of peril would be when the girl landed. If Pero caught an ankle or winded herself, Sarmatia knew she would have to be in quickly to distract the beast.
There was a shower of dark hair and Pero touched earth to a roar from her family. Sarmatia grabbed her arm and pulled her clear, but was not fast enough: already the bull had skidded round. Too late, Sarmatia realized what the beast had seen. A child had kicked a hole in the fencing and was running out into the turbid afternoon light. No time to draw the bull off--all she could hope for was to reach the boy first.
Sprinting, her insides turning to water, Sarmatia rushed for the child. As her hands closed round his tiny--so tiny!--body and her cheek grazed the stones she thought, with terrible clarity: I promised they would be safe. I've failed.
For a second, a dark breathing shadow hung over her. Then came pain, the slow tearing punch of the horn. * * * *
She came awake suddenly, crying out. Firm hands kept her flat against the stones.
'Peace, Kretan,' said the man crouched beside her, pressing a cloth onto the spurting wound in her side. 'There's nothing to fear.' In the sun his hair framed his broad-featured face like a nimbus, yet there was darkness behind him. The bull was still free in the courtyard.
Sarmatia wet her lips with her tongue. 'The child?'
Fearn jerked his head to one side. 'Ramose has taken his son. He's safe.' The initiates were also gone, the crowd hanging back, uncertain what to do.
They were alone in the court, except for the bull. Fearn pressed on her side again then withdrew the cloth. A dark spiral of blood pooled under Sarmatia's ribs; blood no longer pumped from the wound. She scarcely felt it as he bound the gash with a bandage made from his tunic. 'You must leave, Sir, the bull--'
She broke off, eyes widening, and Fearn whipped round. Ready to gore, the bull was lowering its huge head, its face so close that its breath stirred the bristles of Fearn's beard. Fearn threw up an arm to fend off the horns and drove a fist into the face of the beast. 'Get back!' He hit the creature a second time. 'Learn your lesson!'
The bull snorted and the healer shifted, covering Sarmatia completely with his body. He stamped the stones and shouted at the beast. 'Go on! Go on!'
As Fearn's boot hammered the flags, there came the rumble of a distant storm, like the muffled roar of a lion. The beast started back and with a bellow turned tail and ran.
The man's shoulders shook. 'It always works on the cows at home. If you charge them first--' Fearn started to laugh. He had entered the court, driven the bull off its victim, kept it at bay. In her relief, Sarmatia blacked out. * * * *
Water trickled in a basin, a cool cloth mopped her face.
'Easy there. You're at home. Your brother's just left your bedside to rest.' Fearn grinned at her. Sarmatia smiled back.
'Good,' said Fearn approvingly. He rose from the edge of her bed and stood, his head touching the rafters of her attic chamber. 'Are you in pain?'
Sarmatia shook her head. There was a nagging ache from her ribs to her hips but she could bear that: it was nothing to trouble the healer with. Fearn gazed at her speculatively through thick-lashed eyes--thinking eyes that she'd seen burn like a warrior's--but accepted her response. Sarmatia wondered how long he had sat by her bed, how long she had been lying there. She watched him walk the length of her room, ducking under the beams, turn and come back. Neither spoke.
Fearn repeated his circuit, stopping by her bed. 'Do you know who I am?'
'You're Fearn. You're here to cure Minos.' With her customary brevity of speech, Sarmatia neglected to tell him her name. She guessed he would know it by now.
Fearn smiled at her again. He was quite young, Sarmatia realized, no more than twenty. 'Ah, yes, Minos. Have you ever seen him?' he asked.
'Have you, like me, ever been inside Phaistos palace?'
'No.' Trying to be comfortable, Sarmatia squirmed in her bed. She was hungry, but too shy to mention it. For an instant, although full of questions for this man from the edge of the world, she almost wished her brother Tazaros was with her instead of this tall, bulky stranger, dressed in the long tunic and leggings of a barbarian.
Yet Fearn was comely. His face, with its sturdy features and thick red eyebrows, was pleasing without being handsome and he was taller than most Kretans. There was a big-jointed look about his long limbs, as though he still had some growing out to do. Now he stared at the roof, fingering his beard and chin. Was it possible that he, too, was shy? Gently she touched his arm. 'Will you tell me about the palace?'