For nine centuries the Emperor Kostimon has sat upon the Ruby Throne. The dark lord Beloth is responsible for his eternal existence—and what the shadow god has bestowed, he can easily take away . . .
As the aging Kostimon awaits the crowning of his empress, Elandra Albain, forces of evil conspire to destroy the kingdom of Imperia. Whispers of treason come from those closest to the emperor—including his own son.
Pure of spirit, Elandra remains untouched by the shadow god—but she senses his return. With darkness descending, Elandra finds her destiny joined with another’s.
Possessing the magic of a healer and a warrior’s might, Caelan E’non has risen from lowly slave to champion gladiator. And when the dark lord and his minions overtake the castle, he will find Elandra’s life—and the future of the empire—in his hands.
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The fanfare of trumpets came at last, a bugling summons that filled the arena and reached all the way down into the subcaverns below. The milling activity in the preparation rooms, barracks, and passageways briefly ceased as attendants, scrub-boys, healers, trainers, and gladiators lifted their heads to listen. Even a momentary hush fell over the guards at their posts.
Inside his private ready room, Caelan E'non was pacing restlessly back and forth, aware of time passing, his blood raging in anticipation of what lay ahead.
He heard the trumpets, faint at first, then growing louder. They sounded for him.
Caelan stopped pacing in mid-stride. His heart soared toward the sound. For a moment he could not breathe. Swallowing, he tipped back his head and gazed at the ceiling. Even all the way down here he could hear the dull roar of cheering. The stone structure around him absorbed the shouts of acclaim until the walls themselves seemed to vibrate from the force of so much sound.
They were screaming for the champion.
They were screaming for him.
An endless day of waiting came down to this moment, glory and anticipation all tangled together.
Caelan's mouth went dry. He longed for a drink of water, yet did not touch the dipper in the pail. He could swallow nothing.
As three-time champion of the private gladiatorial seasons, Caelan was the star attraction in the final event of today's spectacular display of combat and slaughter. He had come here to the old public arena at dawn, brought in all the pomp of a closed chariot bearing him, his personal trainer, and his slaves, the whole flanked by guards on horseback. He had been fed, massaged, and oiled. An hour past, he had been dressed for the arena in a leather loincloth and fighting harness. The slaves had braided back his long, blond hair. He wore a leather headband across his brow to keep the sweat from his eyes. Now he stood, tall and muscular, his broad shoulders square, his loins narrow.
Orlo, his trainer, had long since dismissed the slaves and cleared the room to allow Caelan his privacy. It was Caelan's habit to wait alone, pulling deep within himself, wrapping himself in concentric rings of mental readiness. He performed drills in his mind, making the moves over and over. He also limbered his secret gifts, first severing himself from all emotion and thought until he stood at the center of a cold, still void, then shifting back to the warmth of sevaisin, the joining of completion and harmony.
Today, however, concentration proved difficult to maintain. It had been well over a year since he'd been in the old public arena. It seemed antiquated and foreign to him now. He was used to private quarters, efficient sluice bath facilities, and his own entry into the ring hung with his ivy crowns and trophies. But here, the subcaverns were cramped, ill lit, and dank. The place reminded him of dark times, of when he'd first been brought to Imperia and sold at the gladiator auction. Ill trained and harshly treated, he had been expected to die in his first combat.
Drawing in deep breaths, Caelan forced the memories away. His thoughts scattered like dry leaves in the winter wind. Despite his efforts to remain calm, his blood was pumping. Even his constant pacing had failed to keep his muscles as loose as he wished. Now he felt the edge, the excitement rising in him with cold chills. His body thrummed with impatience, and he circled the small room to face the door. Time for the guards to open it. The trumpets sounded again, and he wanted to cry out something savage and wordless in response.
Instead nothing happened. No guards came to fetch him. Orlo did not return. It was time, past time. The crowd was calling for him. He walked the edge of readiness, and this delay irked him.
Frowning, he tried to curb his annoyance at the slipshod manner in which this old arena was run. What was behind the delay? Had one of the gates broken? Had one of the fighters gone berserk and broken into the crowd?
Stupid to be here in the first place. This wasn't part of the regular season, which had already ended. The public arena was for the dregs of the fighters, men broken and desperate, prisoners of war, criminals who were condemned to spill their life's blood for the enjoyment of the masses.
Like all privately owned gladiators, Caelan held little but scorn for a ramshackle place like this. It was beneath him to be brought here.
But he had no choice in the matter.
In honor of the coming coronation of his empress, Emperor Kostimon was holding a day's worth of games offered free to the public. All businesses had closed. All workers were dismissed for the day in order to attend the games. This was the biggest arena in the city, and the emperor's personal favorite. As champion, Caelan had to appear in today's contest, unless his owner wanted to cause a riot. Caelan was the citywide betting favorite, known to everyone. There would be thousands of people present today who ordinarily could not afford the entrance fee to see Caelan fight. Through the generosity of the emperor and the graciousness of Prince Tirhin, Caelan's owner, the people would have this single opportunity to come and watch the fighter whose fame was growing across the empire.
According to the guards, the arena was packed to maximum capacity and beyond.
Why did no one come for him? Caelan's frown deepened, and he resumed pacing. It took but five minutes to clear corpses from the arena and rake the sand. Why sound the trumpets if he wasn't going to be let out?
His hands worked at his sides, and he longed to have a weapon in his grip. As champion, he'd earned the privilege of carrying his weapons into the ring. It helped calm him to have his sword in hand ahead of time. But here, the strict rules forbidding such liberties remained, with no exceptions.
Even Orlo hadn't returned, and he should have been back long ago. Caelan reached out and struck the door with his fist as he paced past it. Even as he did so, he knew he should have curbed the urge. He was expected to stay loose, to keep his mind clear and empty.
Instead here he was, making another circle, feeling increasingly grim and impatient. Bad enough to wait all day for the last event. But this delay was an insult.
As champion, his responsibility was to keep nerves of steel. If he let himself look worried or nervous, the odds changed immediately. There were bookmakers' spies everywhere; impossible to keep them out when even the guards were willing to take bribes to turn informer. Banging on the door should give them something to talk about.
It was the mark of an amateur, not a veteran such as himself. Orlo would be furious when he heard about it, but then his trainer should have been here instead of wandering off to spy on Caelan's opponent.
The door burst open. Even as Caelan turned, Orlo — bald, stocky, and swinging his club — came striding inside with a scowl on his face.
"Murdeth and Fury!" he said and kicked shut the door in the faces of onlookers crowding behind him to catch a glimpse of Caelan. "Damned tricksters! No wonder the emperor's entry was kept such a close secret."
Caelan hated to talk just before he went into the arena. It spoiled his mental preparation. However, now he stared at his trainer with a frown of his own. "Who is the challenger?"
"An unknown." Orlo spat in the corner and shook his club as though he wanted to bring it down across someone's shoulders.
Once he used to regularly beat Caelan with it. No longer.
Caelan shrugged. "What does it matter? If he's green —"
"I saw the brute. He's a Madrun."
Caelan's careful edifice of detachment crumbled. "Great Gault!" he said in astonishment. "How did he get one of those?"
"Prisoner of war," Orlo said bitterly. "Brought in chains, with half of his handlers clearly afraid of him. He's not even gentled, by the looks of him. Certainly not trained for the arena. Bah! I hate these political gestures. Why couldn't you be pitted against a decent fighter instead of a barbarian?"
In spite of his alarm, Caelan had to smile. There was a time when Orlo had considered him a barbarian. Still, to go in against a Madrun ... Caelan looked at Orlo and frowned.
Orlo's expression changed at once. "Never mind," he said gruffly. "It makes no difference. I'm just angry at the unfairness of it. Just when you have finally developed some finesse to show off before the lords and ladies, along comes this savage. Bah! What good is all my work?"
Wryly, Caelan nodded. Orlo was a master of understatement when it came to the days and hours of grueling practice drills he'd put Caelan through, simply to learn the extra flourishes that played to the crowd. Even to days when Caelan faced weak, ineffectual opponents, he had to make the contest look good. Moreover, he had learned how to inflict wounds that looked fatal, when in fact often the healers could save the defeated men.
"You can't prance around today," Orlo said. "This isn't an exhibition game. The Madrun will maul you if he can. He's big and solid, a good match. It will be a tremendous spectacle, but you must stand prepared for his speed and strength, which may be close to yours. Business only. Keep well focused. Match his savagery with every dirty trick you know. Understand?"
"No rules in the arena," Caelan quoted softly.
"You've become a cynic."
Old bitterness soured Caelan's mouth. Considering the kind of life he led, how could he be anything less than cynical?
Caelan changed the subject. "What is the delay? I heard the trumpets sound. I should be going up."
Caelan snorted and clenched his fists. He wouldn't complain; it did no good. Usually Orlo would be complaining for him, but the trainer was still scowling into the distance.
"When do I get my sword?" Caelan asked. "I thought you would bring it in with you."
Orlo roused himself from his thoughts. "No chance of that today. With the emperor here and the whole city in the stands, the guards are terrified there will be trouble. Old women, the lot of them. No sword until you enter."
"Fine," Caelan snapped, losing his temper. "And am I to be blindfolded and manacled like the old days? Prince Tirhin could have saved himself the entry fee, because I won't —"
"Silence!" Orlo roared. "You've been insulted little enough, and no one's going to put you in shackles."
Caelan heard the trumpets again, and with them came a roar that seemed to shake the stone walls. The sound fed into Caelan, pulsing through his nerves.
Edgy and tense, he swung away from Orlo. "How long?"
"It's not quite time," Orlo said. "There's some sort of entertainment being staged in the emperor's honor. Find your patience and keep to it."
A knock sounded on the door with unexpected courtesy.
Surprised, Caelan opened his mouth, but Orlo spoke first:
The door opened, and two men stepped inside. One had brown leathery skin and cold eyes that stared intently at Caelan. Robed in a saffron tunic that reached to the floor, a leopard hide across his shoulder, and his sleeves banded with brown stripes of rank, the priest was clearly someone of importance, although Caelan did not know him. He wore a wide collar necklace fitted with the gold emblem of the Vindicants in its center. His long-fingered hands carried a staff tipped with the same emblem at its top.
Gazing at the man, Caelan felt a strange chill tingle at the back of his neck. It took all his innate stubbornness not to step back.
The other man was black-haired and handsome, with a mustache and chin-strap beard. He wore a blue velvet tunic, a snowy linen shirt, and a gold-embroidered cap perched rakishly on his head. It was to this man that Caelan bowed.
Inside, he felt a rush of pride. Prince Tirhin rarely visited him before combat. This was a tremendous honor, a mark of the highest favor. Even so, that cynical inner voice whispered to Caelan that the prince came only to reassure himself that his champion would give his best today. The visit meant nothing more than that.
Squelching such thoughts, Caelan raised himself with a small smile for his master alone. He felt ready now to take on as many entrants as dared to meet him.
Pulling off his gloves in the doorway, the prince glanced back over his shoulder, and Caelan caught a glimpse of the blue-cloaked soldiers of Tirhin's personal bodyguard out in the passageway before the door was closed firmly.
Although Caelan stood tall and straight, Orlo was still bowing. "As you can see, sir, he is ready."
The priest looked Caelan over with open appraisal.
Prince Tirhin barely glanced Caelan's way. "Leave us," he said curtly to the trainer.
Still bowing, keeping his gaze down, Orlo scuttled out in a way unlike him.
Surprised, Caelan stared after his trainer for a moment, then returned his gaze to his master. He was full of curiosity, but questions were not permitted. It was necessary to wait until the prince chose to speak to him.
"He looks fit, even after a grueling season," the priest murmured. He was still studying Caelan in an unpleasant manner.
Caelan kept a wary eye on the man. He had been raised to revile the Vindicants. He would never trust them.
Prince Tirhin turned his gaze full upon Caelan at last and nodded. "Of course. I told you he finished the season without a scratch. He's had two weeks of rest."
"Those two weeks are what worry me," the priest murmured. He circled Caelan. "I know what fighters do between seasons. Drinking, slackness, frolicking with the Haggai."
Caelan frowned in affront while Tirhin raised his hand with a laugh. "None of that," the prince said. "He doesn't care for the witches of ecstasy, do you, Giant?"
Taut with resentment, Caelan found a very thin smile in response and said nothing.
"Our entrant is an ascetic, very strict with his native Traulander ways," Tirhin continued. "He is fit. I depend on his trainer for that."
The priest said nothing.
"You must not worry, Sien," the prince assured him. "I tell you this man will prevail."
The priest shook his head and fixed his gaze intently on Caelan, who stared back with new interest. Lord Sien was the high priest of the Vindicants, a man said to have more power in the empire than anyone save the emperor himself. He outranked even the prince, who had not yet been officially named heir to the empire. What was such a man doing down here below the arena, involving himself in the pitiable life of a gladiator?
"You will fight a Madrun savage," Sien now said directly to Caelan. "The creature understands nothing of the arena, nothing of the rules of combat."
"There are no rules of combat in the arena," Caelan said.
"Silence!" Prince Tirhin said in annoyance. "Listen to Lord Sien."
The rebuke was like a whip crack. Caelan glanced at his master and saw strain in the prince's face. Beneath the handsome looks and the expensive tailoring, his highness was drawn as taut as a bowstring. The corner of his mouth twitched, and there was a certain dark wildness in his gaze, an impatience, an anger that seethed all too near the surface.
Caelan bowed his head in apology and turned his gaze back to Sien.
"The emperor is clever in choosing his entrant," the priest continued. "This prisoner is at his physical prime, very strong and courageous. He fears nothing. He will fight you to the death without a second thought. However, enemies of the empire die well before the people. You will defeat the Madrun. You will prevail until you are victorious."
Puzzlement filled Caelan. Of course he intended to win. He always fought to win.
"There is more," Tirhin said impatiently. "You must fight as you have never fought before. This must be a tremendous spectacle."
Caelan's impatience grew. Any veteran gladiator knew how to play to the crowd. It was a matter of testing the opponent's strengths and weaknesses, then drawing the contest out as long as possible. Why did the rich and powerful think they were authorities in every matter? He didn't need this useless lecture. "I always give the people their money's worth, sir."
"It is more than that!" Tirhin said with a scowl. "You fight my father's choice. The Madrun is an extension of my father, just as you are an extension of me. When you defeat your opponent, in a way you are defeating my father."
Caelan felt alarm. This was treasonous talk. "Sir," he said softly, his voice full of warning, "these walls are honeycombed with listeners."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shadow War"
Copyright © 1997 Deborah Chester.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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