Today we are thrilled to launch the debut novella in our brand new Novella Initiative Project: Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn. We’ve got plenty of shenanigans happening today including an excerpt and giveaway here and a Facebook Live Q&A event with the author on Facebook at 5pm EST today. LET’S OPEN THE CHAMPAGNE!
“Come on, we’re going to be late to our own ceremony,” Mir said, her voice stern. The corners of her mouth twitched upwards, as if she was suppressing a grin.
Lai pulled her robes down over her head and hurried after Mir. Somehow her roommate was already at the end of the corridor, skinny arms crossed over her chest.
“Well then I hope you can keep up.”
Lai broke into a run, navigating the temple’s maze of corridors effortlessly. She could have run with her eyes closed if there weren’t so many people crowding the halls, all glaring at her as she passed. Most of the temple servants disapproved of anything resembling fun.
Lai slowed down as she turned into the final corridor. Mir was nowhere to be seen. She resisted the urge to grin as she sauntered into the classroom where the oldest initiates took lessons. Today’s ceremony was a solemn one. Only sixteen of the fifty initiates eligible to take the trials could be chosen. She should have been nervous, even afraid, but she knew her name would be called, like her mother’s and grandmother’s names before her. She felt it as surely as she felt her breath filling her chest.
The usually airy classroom felt strangely stuffy with the initiates from previous years crowding in. Lai frowned. I should have left early. Her class was at the front and she would have to push her way through thirty other initiates to get there.
Someone bumped into her and Lai turned to see Mir, her eyes narrowed dangerously.
“You only got here first because Veronica scolded me for running in the halls,” she muttered, pushing her way into the crowd.
Lai followed her, careful to stay no further than one step behind Mir and keeping her attention on the ceiling to avoid making eye contact with the other initiates. Most of them thought Lai would be chosen, that anyone who competed against her in the trials was cursed to fail. They believed her grandmother would ensure her success, as if the high priestess could actually change the gods’ minds. But when I become priestess it will be based on my own strengths, not hers.
Silence fell as high priestess Ellanora approached the podium where their teacher usually stood, dressed in shimmering silver robes with golden flowers embroidered up the sleeves.
“Today sixteen of you will be chosen to make the pilgrimage to our ancient homeland and participate in the trials. One of you will go on to become priestess,” Ellanora said, her deep voice silky smooth and calm. “But you all deserve congratulations. All of you have completed your training with humility, courage and grace. You are the best daughters the gods could wish for.”
Then why don’t they choose all of us? Lai bit her lip, holding the comment back. It was not her place to question the gods.
“Bell, step forward,” Ellanora said.
The initiates around Lai shifted uncomfortably as a tall girl with black hair hanging down her back in a braid approached the stage. Bell was one of the oldest initiates in the room, having finished her studies almost two years earlier. Today was her last opportunity to be chosen.
“Mir, step forward.”
Mir squeezed Lai’s hand so hard it hurt. “See you up there,” she whispered.
Lai opened her mouth to respond, but Mir was already striding towards the stage as if she had been born for this moment.
Ellanora waited until Mir was beside her to speak again. “Lai, step forward.”
She all but ran up to the stage to join Mir, one hand wrapped around her mother’s silver-framed opal pendant, hanging under the collar of her robes as it always did. I’m going to be just like you, mother.
“Stiel, come forward.”
Lai smiled at the silver haired girl as she emerged from the crowd. Stiel was one of the few kind girls in Lai’s class. Even now she returned Lai’s smile, as if they hadn’t just been pitted against each other in the most important competition of their lives.
Soon all sixteen chosen initiates were on the stage. They bowed as they had been taught to do, together as if they were all one woman instead of sixteen girls. The remaining initiates clapped and cheered, but Lai saw the despair in their eyes, the frustration in their expressions. Some of the oldest initiates didn’t even clap, staring coldly at the girls lined up on the stage.
Ellanora sent away the initiates who hadn’t been chosen and turned to the remaining girls. “We leave tomorrow at dawn. Your families have already been informed. Now, go celebrate this beautiful day. You’ve earned it.”
Lai grinned, bowed farewell, and raced out of the room. She knew exactly who she wanted to celebrate with.
Her brother Kaiden’s house was made of immaculate white stone that shone so brightly in the sun, it hurt to look upon. She let herself into the spacious front hall without knocking.
Kaiden appeared at the top of the curved white staircase. He stiffened when he saw her, so slightly that somebody else might not have noticed.
“Don’t you have a final training session or something?” he asked.
“This may be our last day here. Ellanora gave us permission to spend it however we wished.”
He raised his eyebrows. “So you actually decided to relax?” He bounded down the steps two at a time.
“I wanted to know if you’ll come.” She tried to keep her emotions out of her voice but it shook all the same. She wanted nothing more than to see Kaiden cheering her on in that stadium.
“The baby could arrive any day now. I want to be here.”
Her heart plummeted but she forced her expression to remain neutral, nodding carefully. Kaiden had a right to see his child born.
“Pa is going,” Kaiden said softly, now standing at the bottom of the steps.
She balled her hands into fists. “I want you there, not him.”
“Doesn’t his love count for anything?”
A dozen memories flooded her mind. Memories of Pa smiling at her, hugging her, caring for her when she was sick. But one memory overrode them all: the day he brought Loren home and announced his second marriage. Loren had no respect for their traditions, only for Pa’s wealth.
“Lai? Do you want to stay for the midday meal?” Kaiden’s frown was gone, replaced by his usual carefree expression.
“I’d love to.”
“Great, come on in.”
He turned and strode back out of the hallway without checking if she was behind him. Lai yanked off her boots and followed him into the kitchen. Kaiden’s wife sat beside the single large window, staring out into her tiny herb garden as if willing the plants to grow larger. She didn’t even notice when Lai entered.
Kaiden grabbed a block of cheese from his stores. “I hope you’re all right with something simple.”
“I remember what happened last time you tried to cook something extravagant,” Lai said. She could almost still taste the burnt carrots.
Kaiden didn’t even have the grace to blush as he broke a loaf of bread. “I don’t even remember the last time I saw you cook.”
“I don’t have to,” she said indignantly. “I’m going to be a priestess.”
Kaiden fell silent, piling the bread and cheese onto a platter. “You really should go see Pa,” he said at last. “You have to forgive him for Loren eventually. Or are you still angry about mother’s death? Nobody could have saved her, you know. It happened too fast.”
“He could have at least been around to try.” Or at least he could have found the body on their kitchen floor before Lai did.
Kaiden sighed but didn’t continue, depositing the platter of cheese and bread on the table. It looked delicious but Lai couldn’t bring herself to eat, her stomach filled with too many swirling emotions. She hadn’t even spoken to Pa since the wedding.
“Don’t be so nervous,” Kaiden said. “You’ll make a fantastic priestess.”
That’s not what I’m nervous about. “Thanks,” she said anyway. She ate a single chunk of bread and got up. “I think I’ll have a final training session after all.”
Lai practiced until well after dark, ignoring the call for supper. She tore a massive hole into one of the dummies with a training sword in her rage, but it didn’t make her feel better. She had spent most of her life training for this day, and Kaiden ruined it with a few words about their father.
Eventually she gave up and collapsed in a heap on the ground, pulling her knees up to her chest so she could rest her chin on them. She forced herself to breathe deeply, using all her willpower to push the rage into the ground. Bit by bit it drained into the soil around her, dispersing harmlessly.
She sat like that in the clearing until clouds engulfed the stars and rain started pouring, one of the last rains before the dry weeks of summer. Lifting the hood of her robes to cover her head, she rose and hurried towards the temple.
Her left foot caught on something and Lai flew through the air, losing her grip on her sword and landing face first in a puddle. Her nose shattered when it smashed into the tough ground, and when she grabbed it to feel the damage her hand came away covered in equal parts mud and blood. Her stomach churned as she picked herself back up, her whole body aching.
Something sharp pierced her back, tearing into her skin and muscles like sharp fire. She screamed and fell face first towards the ground. She caught herself on her forearms, avoiding bashing her head on the rocky path.
Lai’s attacker pulled the knife out of her shoulder. She screamed as warm blood flowed freely down her back, mixing with the rain. Fiery agony filled her body, blurring her vision. She gritted her teeth and flipped over to face her attacker.
She froze at the familiar sight of white robes with golden cuffs. Another initiate. Her hood hid her face completely.
Lai gathered her strength with a deep, ragged breath and reached for her training sword. The initiate kicked Lai in the back then stomped on her wrist, grinding bone under her boot, sending sharp waves of pain up Lai’s arm.
“You understand, it has to be me.”
Lai knew that voice, but she couldn’t focus on it through the pain, couldn’t remember who it was.
The initiate seized a clump of Lai’s hair and yanked her head backwards. She knelt and raised her knife towards Lai’s exposed throat.
Something knocked the initiate into Lai’s back. Black spots appeared at the edges of her vision as agony surged outward from her wound. The other initiate didn’t move, suffocating Lai with her weight. Lai tried to lift herself up with her elbows, but a fresh wave of pain knocked the wind out of her. She collapsed onto her stomach and closed her eyes, willing her body to die quickly.
Lai’s attacker was rolled away from her, landing in the mud with a splash. A firm pair of hands grabbed Lai’s shoulders and pulled her halfway to sitting position, turning Lai’s body carefully to keep her body out of the mud. Lai opened her eyes and saw Ellanora.
Ellanora rested a hand on Lai’s back, directly below the wound. Warmth filled Lai’s body, comforting warmth as her muscles and skin began knitting themselves back together, commanded by her grandmother’s magic. Lai leaned into Ellanora’s shoulder and offered the older woman a weak smile. I’ll be safe now.
Lai drifted through an infinite sea of darkness, her body lighter than it ever had been. She felt no pain, no sadness, nothing at all but peace and wonder. Is this death?
“How is she?” a male voice asked.
Lai started at the familiar sound of Pa’s voice. He was not the one she expected to meet in the afterlife.
“She is healing well,” Ellanora said. “Perhaps two more days of sleep.”
Sleep. This didn’t feel like sleep, but why else would she be hearing the voices? Ellanora and Pa couldn’t have both died when Lai did.
“You should not be here when she wakes up,” Ellanora said.
“She is my daughter.”
Lai could almost see the way Pa’s nostrils flared as he spoke.
“She will come to you when she’s ready. Now, you should go.”
Lai wanted to reach through the dark sea of her mind and thank Ellanora, but her consciousness was fading too quickly, engulfed by a nothingness even more infinite than the darkness.
She woke up stiff all over. Ellanora sat in a plush armchair beside her bed, a deep frown spread across her face. They had also brought a massive pitcher of water and a small crystal glass, carefully set on the table beside her bed.
“How are you feeling?” the older woman asked.
Lai’s throat felt as dry as the desert, but when she sat up she felt almost no pain in her back. As if the stabbing had merely been a bad dream.
“Thirsty,” she croaked, flinching at the weak sound of her own voice. “How long has it been?”
“Five days,” Ellanora said. She filled the cup with water and pressed it into Lai’s hands. “Even with the healing, your body needed much rest.”
“What about my attacker?”
Ellanora frowned, her expression growing distant. “She’s dead.”
Lai stared at her. “H-how?”
“One of my throwing knives. I couldn’t let her slit your throat.”
Ellanora brushed some of Lai’s silver hair away from her face. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be worried about anyone except yourself. We leave as soon as you’re better.”
She gulped down her water and cleared her throat. “I’m better now.” Her back still hurt a little bit but she didn’t want to delay the trials any longer. They were already going to miss midsummer.
“You always were a tough one. We’ll leave tomorrow at dawn.” Ellanora kissed her forehead and hurried out of the room.
Sometimes failure is just the beginning
All Lai has ever wanted is to become a priestess, like her mother and grandmother before her, in service to their beloved goddess. That’s before the unthinkable happens, and Lai fails the trials she has trained for her entire life. She makes the only choice she believes she can: she runs away.
From her isolated desert homeland, Lai rides north to the colder, stranger kingdom of Alanum—a land where magic, and female warriors, are not commonplace.
Here, she hears tales about a mountain city of women guardians and steel forgers, worshiping goddesses who sound very similar to Lai’s own. Determined to learn more about these women, these Keepers of the Dawn, Lai travels onward to find their temple. She is determined to make up for her past failure, and will do whatever it takes to join their sacred order.
Falling in love with another initiate was not part of the plan.
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