SPRING EQUINOX, 465 B.C.E.
LADY stood alone in an emerald glade high above Etruria's gentle hills. She held the year's first roses in honor of the peace-loving Goddess she'd been pledged to serve since birth.
Invaders were close. Already across the valley, long lines of warriors now snaked up the slopes of her own Sacred Mountain. Her younger brother hid near the edge of the woods, his mind calling out: Wanassa . . .
Wanassa,the age-old ritual title from which Lady's name derived. She lifted her face above the fragile cloud of roses, turned toward the call, prickly stems biting her short, sturdy arms. The breeze whipped loose strands of coppery curls against her cheeks as she scanned the woods, searching, then meeting the boy's gaze, asking her silent question: The Sacred Kestos?
The boy's response: Buried. Safe. But the people . . . scared.
She frowned, bit down hard on her chapped, lower lip. Lead them far from here. Hurry! Don't return to the Gardens until the warriors tire of pillaging, until the mountain is peaceful again.
The boy's resignation came like a moan: Lady, we love you.
She watched him disappear into the woods, worry for her people gnawing at her mind. A messenger brought the warrior king's proclamations at dawn. The clan's Wanassawould preside at Sacred Mountain no more. The king would be priest. The people must submit to his will. If their priestess surrendered herself, those she loved would suffer less, the women and girls would not be raped. Lady was here to enjoin the king's pledge.
Her clan had known desperate times before, when they'd sailed to this land from their island home far to the east. The people here welcomed the clan, gave honor to the Goddess they served, even took part in Her most sacred celebration each May Eve. This was the clan's home now, this sanctuary almost as hallowed as the one they'd been forced to leave before coming here and the one before that on the vast alluvial plain where their first Wanassa was born so long ago. Lady's mother had told her all this and more, as had her mother's mother and hers, as well. Only once had the chain of transmission been broken, only once after this would it be broken again.
The virgin forest above the glade was dense, but below farmers had thinned the trees, and Lady could see clearly. The soldiers climbed two abreast now. Closer, only minutes away. Their march bruised fields freshly plowed but not yet sown. They hauled a battering ram they wouldn't need. Lady's mountain had no fortress at its crown, only a small outdoor shrine, a simple, holy place consecrated to the Lover of Mortals.
Of the shrine's hidden altar Lady dared not even think with the warriors so near. Its hallowed outer temenos she'd secured only an hour before. She'd sealed off the vortex above the raised ritual dais and pushed the waiting mound of stones, the shrine's sole planned defense, from the rocky cliff above. They smashed down and covered the dais, tumbled over into the sacred spring, crushing ferns and moss, the lilies that seemed always to dance in the basin below.
The heart of the mountain had seemed to quake. Lady's own heart felt dashed by each stone. The memory made her reel, yet to leave the temenos intact to be defiled by strangers was unthinkable, a calamity no Wanassa would ever allow. And these warriors would have defiled it. She sensed their rage, their determination already. She took a deep breath, locked her knees against their trembling, braced herself for the worst.
The daughter in her womb would die with her, but the long-treasured Sacred Kestos was safe, its powers undiluted. Her brother, the only male child in a dozen generations, could not carry the legacy forward, but his seed would bear the gifts of the Goddess until Lady, reborn, could reestablish the sacred lineage. With the legacy suspended, the people would know less beauty, less grace for a time-a generation, two at the most-but the Mysteries would be restored here again, for they were eternal.
Excerpted from The Giuliana Legacy by Alexis Masters. Copyright 2001. Reproduced with the permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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