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 Wanassawas 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 temenosshe'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 Wanassawould 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.
The battering ram rumbled and creaked as it lurched over the crest of the hill. It lumbered into the glade, warriors swarming around it. Their cries were gruff, their language guttural and harsh. They pointed at her. Their faces were fierce, contemptuous, but their bravado could not mask their terror of her and the Goddess they knew she served.
The warriors formed a circle and stomped rhythmically, exorcising their fear. Their sweat reeked of terror. One thick-browed warrior ripped boldly at Lady's gown, his frothy spit marking her bared shoulder. Another, wild-eyed, tore the roses from her arms. Pale petals splashed the grass, pearly surrogates for tears Lady wouldn't let herself shed.
Bonding her unborn child's consciousness with her own, she turned her attention inward, beyond this too-brief life and far from Hieron Oros, her beloved Sacred Mountain. Silently, she prayed: Mother, receive us swiftly!
SPRING EQUINOX, 2000 A.D.
JULIA Giardani reached the Berkeley Rose Garden at dusk. She always loved the walk from her hillside condo to her father's house, especially loved the view from here, even tonight, with worry driving her every step.
She paused at the top of the steep, terraced park and juggled her armful of books. A scattering of smoking chimneys across the hills gave a peppery bite to the air. Fanning out beyond the Garden and bordered by the slate-blue mirror of the Bay and the distant purple hills of Marin was Berkeley's north side, crowded, yet charming as ever. Too much so for her taste these days, but her father still loved it.
Her father. He always seemed to know just when she'd arrive. There he was now at the edge of the trees, ambling up the ramp in her direction. He showed no sign of the haunted look that lately had caused her such concern. Still handsome and energetic in his late seventies, he seemed especially chipper this evening. When he reached up and waved, she could tell he was smiling, already turning on the charm to get back in her good graces.
The rascal. His word, but it fit him to a tee, especially lately. He'd shocked her silly two days ago with sudden revelations of old family skeletons. Secret religious traditions--ancient, Pagan ones. And some kind of legacy--her rightful inheritance, he'd called it.
Then he'd clammed up, refused to say another word or answer even one of her questions since. He hadn't returned her calls either, he'd finally explained this morning, because he was still trying to organize his thoughts. Well, she planned to help him. Tonight. Thus the books, which his silence had forced her to buy at a local bookshop other than his, a Bay Area fixture for over thirty years. She wrinkled her nose at the books, an odd assortment of Jungian psychology and early Greek religion-everything she'd found on ancient Goddesses.
"Such a face," her father teased, coming up beside her. "You look as if you're holding a nest of vipers." He reached for the books, raised a bushy eyebrow at the trendy store's bookmark sticking out of the largest. He tapped the only hardcover with his knuckles. "At these prices, it's a good thing you nabbed at least one decent title. The rest are useless."
"You could have told me what to read yourself."
He gave her a tired grin, tucked the books under one arm and started down toward his house. "I truly wish I could have. I already told you that, Lady."
Bristling at the old nickname, trying to ignore the distress in his voice, she fell in behind him and hurried to catch up. "Darnit, Dad, you promised to stop calling me that years ago, but lately-" "Look, you might as well face it. You will always be Lady to me." Meaning he'd always consider her his little girl, too, she supposed. His deep-set, green eyes sparkled as they hadn't in days. He reached out and ruffled her hair as if she were twelve instead of twenty-eight.
"Better watch out. There are worse things I could call you."
"Sure, like witch!"
Arriving at his backyard gate, he gave her the exasperated parent look she'd rarely seen since she'd grown up. "There's nothing shameful about being called a witch." He rested his hand on the gate, above which dangled an old brass plate inscribed with their family name in a flowery script. "Especially when it's true."
"True for Julian 'Tony' Giardani." Scowling, she put her hands on her hips. "You've called yourself a witch for as long as I can remember, you've taught me to respect your Goddess, but you've never tried to push your witch stuff onto me before."
Until recently, he'd never been one for mood swings either, had always seemed steady as a rock. Except for the first year or two after her mother's death, long ago, Julia had rarely seen him down--let alone anxious and vulnerable like this. His eyes looked troubled again, his normally robust complexion much too pale. "I knew the witch element of the family's story would hit you like a bomb." The lines in his face seemed deeper than they had only moments before. "I've wanted to tell you what I've managed to learn about this for years, but couldn't, and I'm not sure what will help you most right now."
She'd never seen him indecisive before, either. It chilled her to the bone. "Is this so-called legacy material, Dad, or just some quaint family customs?"
"The legacy's important, Julia, there's nothing quaint about it. It's genetic, apparently lays dormant until triggered from within." He stared at her in that intense, assessing way he'd developed only lately, then opened the gate and walked under the rose arbor. "As the last female in the Giardani line, the family gifts and their age-old responsibility have finally passed to you."
Frowning, Julia followed him. "Earlier you said you've noticed some change in me. Is that why you were finally able to tell me about this?"
"Yep. Until I noticed that change, I was sworn to silence." His backyard was large for this part of Berkeley, the landscaping old-fashioned and lush, the craggy stone wall built by his own hands. He hesitated on the patio, stared at the bench he'd later added in one corner. "These last few weeks have been great, Lady, with you puttering around here like old times."
There it was again, that new telltale catch in his voice. It had opened the well of her anxiety, forced her to face the fact he wouldn't live forever. She'd curbed her independent streak, spent more time with him, even asked his advice a few times. "I enjoyed myself, too." Beneath the bench, the violets Julia planted the month before had bloomed.
He glanced down at the tiny purple flowers. "It's not the garden I've loved watching blossom," he said gruffly. "It's you. I always knew you would."
"Thanks." The breeze blew a lock of his hair across his cheek. She tucked it behind his ear. "I think."
"Trust me." Still tense but clearly happy again, he led her indoors. Delicious aromas hit her the instant she entered the kitchen.
Her stomach growled.
He chuckled. "We'd best have dinner before we talk."
"Not on your life."
"I have a few presents for you, first."
"You've got to be joking."
"Honestly, Kiddo." He gave her a look her Italian-born grandmother used to say reminded her of folleti, those cute little sprites from Tuscan fairy tales. He put on his glasses, raised an eyebrow as he gave her outfit a penetrating gaze. "You really need those presents."
She glanced down at her soft, faded jeans, tugged at the hem of her baggy and equally faded gold flannel shirt, an old favorite she'd pulled on over a newer beige turtleneck. Her usual style. He knew she worked with homeless kids and their struggling parents. Dressing like a fashion plate was out of the question. "You've never cared how I dressed before."
"I never said anything before. There's a difference. Besides, you're gonna need a new look. For your new life."
"New what?" Her stomach tightened, and she all but choked.
"You heard me."
"I don't want a new life." She'd never fit in with her fast-track generation. Building something that worked for her had not been easy.
"That's what you say now, but believe me, a Giardani Heiress can't run around Tuscany looking like a scruffy tomboy."
Heiress, with a capital H. There was no mistaking that, or the challenge in his eyes. Nudging his glasses down his nose, he glared at her over their rim. There was no mistaking the Tuscany bit, either. She stared into his eyes, her alarm changing to astonishment. "Dream on, Dad. I can't drop everything here-the shelter, my work with the kids-and head for Tuscany. I just can't do it."
"Maybe you can't today, Lady Bug, but soon you must."
Lady Bug? Another silly childhood nickname. He seemed to be dredging them up from some fathomless pit of parental memory. He caught her gaze and held it by the sheer power of his unabashed hopefulness.
How could anyone so thoroughly lovable be so exasperating? She clamped her mouth shut, bit down hard on her lower lip. "I promise you, Julia, your legacy will become your greatest passion. It's immensely valuable-for your life and for the world. You'll understand later, but for now, just imagine a power passed down through the women of our family for three thousand years-think how special that is."
"If it's so special, why haven't I known or felt something before?"
"I know it doesn't make sense. All I can say is, my mother dropped the ball, and now, as the Giardani Heiress, retrieving the legacy and saving it for future generations falls on you."
The Giardani Heiress. Beneath her resistance, Julia was fascinated, had been since his first hints of this. "I'm ready to learn more, but it all sounds so foreign-so bizarre-I'll need your help to sort it out."
He looked away. "I'm afraid I might not be around to help."
Her stomach took a dive. "Why on earth would you say that?" She grabbed his arm, searched his eyes. He seemed at war with himself, wouldn't answer her, but the look on his face sent icy chills down her spine. Squeezing his cold hand in both of her own, she had the distinct impression he was withholding things to protect her, that he knew men who would kill for what he knew. Power-hungry, evil men. "Listen, Dad, if you're in some kind of danger, you can forget about sending me away-to Tuscany or anywhere else."
"Fine. Be stubborn, like the Taurus you are." Seeming undaunted, he pulled his hand away and headed for the living room. "Stubborn runs in the family and will serve you well . . ."
At the doorway, he turned back and beamed her his most enigmatic smile, his eyes dancing with mirth and mystery. "Just as long as you change your mind by May Eve.