Ryana, a worthless girl-child, is sold to a mysterious woman who takes her to the home of the Shadow Sisters who are prized for their abilities as spies and assassins. She survives years of training in spite of being unconventional: adopting poisonous bats as familiars–something no one else would dare to do; choosing the blow dart as her weapon of choice–a weapon the Sisters don’t teach; and relying on intuition rather than logic.
As she completes her training, the Shadow Sisters are under attack. The senior Sister selects Ryana to find out who is killing Sisters and why–because her intuitive approach has proved effective, even though her youth and inexperience makes it unlikely she will survive.
As she travels through the kingdom as a member of a gypsy clan, she finds the only way she can protect the Sisters and hope to discover the underlying plot is through ever more violence and killing. As she proceeds through the provinces, her secret enemies come to call her the Sister of Death and become desperate to find and kill her. But in her desperate fight to protect the Sisterhood, the gypsies she’s come to love, and the kingdom, Ryana fears that she has destroyed herself and the only life she ever wanted.
Dunn Pass – Dazel Province
I crouched on the gray, rock-laden ground, chickens squawking and my head throbbing with pain. My father stared down at me, his face twisted in anger, fist clenched inches from my face and nostrils flared as he sucked air to yell again. He was a small, thin man with leathery skin from long days in the sun, brown, scraggly hair, and a haggard face.
In my short life, he had taught me terror. It infested every fiber of my puny body. I wanted to run but lacked the strength. Besides, where would I run? No one in the village would help me. My father was an elder.
The area around Dunn Pass was rocky and the soil poor. The land fought the crops and barely supported the village goats. They would protect the goats but not me.
“Curse you, Ryana. That food’s for the chickens, not to be wasted on a girl-child. We can’t eat you. Work and you can have the scraps; otherwise leave.” His chest expanded as he sucked in air to yell again. I tried to scramble backward to avoid another blow but collapsed after a few feet – tired, hungry, and weak. As he turned and stalked away, mumbling, the chickens returned to me. I could feel their hunger.
No one cared what I did so long as I took care of my chores. My father and brother were gone all day, tending the village herd of goats. In the mornings I swept the floors clean of yesterday’s dirt and droppings, fetched water from the village well, fed our few chickens, and collected their eggs. Afterward, I was free until my mother began preparing the evening meal.
I carefully made my way around the village to a rocky area of shrubs and small trees, nourished by a shallow stream that appeared after a rain, and settled down near a clump of shrubs so I couldn’t be seen. I had just sat when I sensed a rabbit near and felt its hunger. I picked a few small leaves from above my head and mentally coaxed it to me.
It came willingly and nibbled the leaves, grateful for even this small meal. If I had been my brother, I would have killed the rabbit for the dinner table. My father thought him a good son. He thought me worthless. If he knew I hadn’t tried to catch the rabbit, he would have beaten me bloody. I was starving, but I couldn’t kill an animal that had done nothing to me.
A shadow crept over me. Whoever it was had approached as silently as a feather on the wind. The rabbit ran. I shut my eyes and sat trembling, arms around my thin legs and head down, awaiting the first blow.
“What’s your name, child?” a woman’s soft voice asked.
Terrified, I squeezed my eyes partially open and looked up. A scream stuck in my throat. Her head and face were covered in black so that only her gray-green eyes were visible. They pinned me to the ground. A tall and thin woman, compared to the village women, she was dressed in black.
A dead ancestor had come to punish me for not thinking of my family.
I tried to scramble backward but a bush stopped me. Its thorns dug into my back and neck. Although it felt like a thousand needles had pierced my skin through the thin rags I wore, I made no sound. She didn’t move.
“Can you call the rabbit back to you?”
I could but wouldn’t. No matter what she did to me, I wouldn’t hurt it. Feeling no anger from her, I breathed a small sigh of relief. She turned to her horse and got something out of a saddlebag. Reaching down, she handed me a piece of bread.
“I’ll not hurt you or the rabbit. The food’s for you to share. A reward for humoring me. The rabbit’s very hungry.”
Looking at the bread, my mouth watered. I broke off a piece for the rabbit and held the other piece toward her, unsure how much she would let me have. I was hungry, too.
“Yes,” she said. Her voice gentle, but her eyes sad. I mentally searched for the rabbit. When I found it, I coaxed it to me with the promise of food. Trusting me, it came and nibbled the bread from my hand.
“Eat, child,” she said. I stuffed my mouth full and gulped the bread down.
The woman reached down, pulled me to my feet, and, hand in hand, walked me back to the village. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I was in trouble. It seemed to be my destiny. For the thousandth time, I wished I had been born a boy-child. As we entered the village, the people scrambled away or disappeared into their huts.
They were afraid!
“Which is your house?”
I pointed to my father’s small mud and stone house. To my amazement, the men had left the herd and were returning to the village. They maintained a cautious distance from her.
They were afraid of a woman!
“Who owns this girl-child?” Her voice rang loud and clear. She showed no fear.