Excerpts for Daughter of the Flames


CHAPTER ONE

I never knew my mother's name.

I knew she was a hero. The first story Surya ever told me was of my mother and her death. How, gravely injured herself, she dragged me from the fire that consumed our home and carried me all the way from Aroha to the House of God in the mountains. How she refused any treatment for herself and died of her injuries, peacefully, only when she knew that I would live.

But she never told anyone her name. Only mine.

Zira.

The story was all I had of my family. Surya said that after the Sedorne came, slaughtering and burning their way across Ruan, so many families were scattered, so many homes destroyed, so many people murdered and abandoned to rot by the roadside, there was no way to trace my identity. I was alone in the world from that day - the day my mother died to save me.

I was lucky. Incredibly lucky. I always knew that. I could have been one of the poor orphan children dying of starvation or disease on the streets of Aroha. I could have been dead myself. Or I could have been living as a slave - in all but name - under some bloated Sedorne lord.

My childhood was not perfect - whose is? But I had a precious gift, one denied to so many children in our troubled country: a home. I cherished it and thanked God for it - until the day it was taken from me.

Sunlight sparked from the curved blade as it slashed downward. I shut my eyes hastily and twisted away, the soft hiss by my cheek telling me that the sword had almost found its target.

Half-blinded by sun shadows, I spun past my opponent and brought the flat of my sword down hard where instinct told me his hand would be. I was rewarded with a snarl and a juddering clash of metal as the blade skittered off his padded gauntlet; then I was turning again, the movement sweeping my short hair across my face.

Keep moving . . . keep moving. . . . I saw the dim shadow of his bulk to my right and feinted left, then snapped toward him, bringing the sword up in the half-crescent move. Metal screeched as our weapons slid together. I threw all my weight into my sword arm with a grunt of effort and wrenched upward. I felt the sudden release as the sword popped from his hand and I leaped back, eyes clearing just in time to see his blade flick up in a jagged arch against the sky, then plunge back into shadow as it landed in the dirt of the practice ring, raising a small puff of dust.

He gaped at his empty hand, then burst out laughing.

"Excellent, Zira!"

I lowered my sword and bowed, tugging my rumpled robe back into place. "Thank you, Deo."

"It was well done. Though I hope you realize that move was a dangerous one. It could just as easily have ended in your losing your own sword."

I shrugged, trying to keep my voice even as I replied. "But if it had been a real fight and you had blinded me, I would have been desperate enough to take the chance."

Deo loved it when I lost my temper. He grinned approvingly. The tattoo that curved over the ridge of his left eye and cheek - a stylized leaping wolf for his warrior status, surrounded by stars that symbolized his commitment to God - gleamed blue against his dark skin.

"It was a dirty trick, yes," he admitted. "Yet you coped, as always. We'll make a fighting namoa of you yet." He turned away to address the small huddle of young people gathered at the edge of the practice circle. "Did you all see that? Yes? Would anyone like to try it themselves?"

Most shook their heads vehemently. My irritation disappeared, and I had to cover my mouth to hide my smile. I didn't blame them.

He continued. "Well, perhaps something simpler then. Don't worry - I won't let her gut you."

As if that's what's worrying them, I thought.

Deo beckoned the children forward, and reluctantly they filed into the circle, arranging themselves in a ragged line before him. He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels as he addressed them. "Now, I know that many of you have never held a sword or a weapon before. But all of you would like to learn to fight. Yes?"

The children - ranging in age from nine to about my own age of fifteen - looked at one another and shuffled uneasily, but stayed silent. They were the latest ragged group to arrive at the temple complex. None of them had been here longer than a month. I examined them closely, though I had seen children like them all my life. They were bony, and quiet, and frightened. But they were proud too - still proud enough to be disdainful of the baggy hand-me-down clothes they wore, of the kindness that the temple people offered, and the lessons the namoa tried to teach.

If they have pride, I can teach them strength. The thought rippled up like a memory, and I frowned. Who had said that? I couldn't remember. Surya, perhaps. With a small shake of my head, I stepped forward to talk to the refugees.

"Most of you are here because the Sedorne stole your homes, hurt your families, and drove you out. Is that not right?"

Several of the children nodded hesitantly, avoiding my eyes. Others only stared at their feet. They knew that Deo was a namoa and therefore a servant of God, to be respected. But I was not even a novice namoa yet - I wasn't tattooed - so despite what they had seen of my skill with the sword, they knew I was only a little older than they were. And then there was my face. The afternoon light was bright and golden and reflected off the stark white of my scar, making it uncomfortable to look at me. So they didn't.

Yes, I had a good idea of what they were thinking. I crossed my arms and waited, drawing out the silence until they began to shuffle again, nervously, and each of them had braved a swift look at me out of curiosity. Deo smiled, but said nothing.

"Is that not right?" I repeated finally.

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