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Brighid's Quest P.C. Cast When she searched out prey for her Clan, Brighid scented more than the air. She breathed in the spiritual essence, the dark trail left by evil and lies… When she leaves her ultra-strict family, Brighid also strays from her pre-ordained life. Born to be the Chief Shaman and ruler of a herd of centaurs would be tough for any girl – and Brighid wants out. Joining Clan MacCallan as a Huntress and helping broken-hearted Cuchulainn on his mission seems much simpler – if befriending bat-winged creatures and helping them gain acceptance in society can ever be described as simple.As Brighid uncovers more about her heritage (and her true feelings for a certain someone), she realises her powers cannot lie dormant forever. And that she can not escape her destiny. Suddenly the air was filled with the wind-battering sound of heavy wings and a black shape swooped past her to light on the tongue-like rock. Brighid came to an abrupt halt and ground her teeth together. The raven cocked its head and cawed at her. The Huntress frowned. “Begone wretched bird!” she shouted, waving her arms at it. Unruffled, the raven fixed her with its cold, black stare. Then slowly, distinctly, it tapped the side of the rock with its beak three times before unfurling its wings and beating the air neatly, skimming low enough over Brighid’s head that her hair stirred and she had to force herself not to duck. Scowling, the Huntress approached the rock. The bird’s feet had drawn claw-shaped marks in the snow so that the red of the rock was visible in rust-coloured lines against winter’s canvas. She reached out and brushed at the area, unsurprised when Cuchulainn’s trail slash became visible, pointing into the mouth of the tunnel. Brighid shook her head. “I don’t want your help, Mother.” Eerily her voice bounced back to her from the tunnel walls. “The price you place on it has always been too costly.” The GODDESS OF PARTHOLON series by New York Times bestselling author P. C. CAST DIVINE BY MISTAKE DIVINE BY CHOICE DIVINE BY BLOOD ELPHAME’S CHOICE BRIGHID’S QUEST Find out more at www.mirabooks.co.uk Brighid’s Quest P.C. Cast www.mirabooks.co.uk (http://www.mirabooks.co.uk) To my stepmom, Patricia Ann Cast, with much love and appreciation. Thank you for knowing how to heal a shattered soul. PRELUDE “Through the blood of a dying Goddess your people will be saved.” More than one hundred years ago, women began disappearing from a green, prosperous land called Partholon. At first the disappearances were sporadic, seemingly random. It wasn’t until an invading horde attacked MacCallan Castle, slaughtered the Clan’s brave warriors and enslaved their women that the awful truth became known. The Fomorians, a race of winged demons, were using human women to breed a new race of monsters. It meant nothing to the vampiric creatures that birthing the mutant fetuses caused the death of the unwilling mothers. The human women were incubators—their deaths were no more than an evil means to a ghastly end. The Goddess Epona’s rage was terrible, and through her Chosen One, the Goddess Incarnate Rhiannon, and her centaur lifemate, ClanFintan, the peoples of Partholon united to defeat the Fomorians. The demon race was destroyed, but the people of Partholon did not realize that the war’s legacy was more than death and evil. In the Wastelands, far away from the heart of Partholon, winged children were born to human mothers who miraculously survived. Part demon, part human, the small group of hybrid beings struggled to carve a life for themselves out of the Wastelands. They held firm to their humanity, even when refusing the call of their fathers’ dark blood caused them pain…pain that slowly eroded their will until madness became their only respite. “Through the blood of a dying Goddess your people will be saved.” But Epona had not forgotten the women who never lost hope and stayed faithful to their Goddess, though they could not return to Partholon with their winged children. The great Goddess whispered The Prophecy to her deposed children, and the promise of salvation breathed hope into the race of half-demons. A century turned slowly and the winged people waited for the answer to their prayers. Partholon recovered and prospered again, and the Fomorian War became a memory, entombed in history. And then a child was born, part human and part centaur. Touched by Epona’s powerful hand the babe was given the name Elphame. Through dreams she called to Lochlan, the leader of the winged half-demons who waited in the Wastelands. The child grew to adulthood, and Lochlan followed the threads of his dreams to MacCallan Castle where Elphame awakened more than the stones of the ancient ruin. “Through the blood of a dying Goddess your people will be saved.” Out of love for Lochlan and trust in her Goddess, Elphame fulfilled The Prophecy, sacrificing a piece of her own humanity as well as her brother’s heart to save the race of hybrid Fomorians. Now this new breed of beings was finally coming home. But their struggle had just begun. Remember, the Path of the Goddess was not an easy one to tread… Chapter 1 Elphame was exactly where the Huntress had thought she would be—not that it took a centaur Huntress’s skill to track the Clan Chieftain. The MacCallan’s habit of visiting this particular set of cliffside boulders had become well-known. From the vantage point of the highest of the large, weatherworn rocks, Elphame could sit and look northward toward the Trier Mountains, which were just a jagged purple line of peaks jutting into the horizon. She would stare at that distant line, trying to see past it into the Wastelands beyond. Brighid approached Elphame quietly, reluctant to disturb her. Even after living and working closely with Elphame for more than two complete cycles of the moon, Brighid could still be moved by the sight of the unique being who had become her friend as well as her Clan Chieftain. Born eldest daughter of Partholon’s Goddess Incarnate and the centaur Shaman who was her lifemate, Elphame was human only to her waist; her two legs had been fashioned more equine than human. They were powerfully muscled and covered with a fine coat of glossy fur, ending in two ebony hooves. But her physical differences were not all that set Elphame apart. She carried within her the powers given to her by Epona. She communed with the Realm of Spirits through an affinity for Earth Magic. Elphame could hear the spirits in the stones of MacCallan Castle. She also had a special connection with Epona, and Brighid often sensed the presence of the patron Goddess of Partholon when Elphame invoked the morning blessing, or thanked the Goddess at the close of a particularly productive day. And, of course, they had all witnessed Epona’s favor when Elphame had called upon the strength and love of a Goddess to defeat the madness of the Fomorians… Brighid shuddered, not wanting to remember that ghastly day. It was enough to know that her Clan Chieftain was a miraculous mixture of centaur and human, goddess and mortal. “Was the morning hunt successful?” Elphame said without turning to look at the Huntress. “Very.” Brighid wasn’t surprised her Chieftain had sensed her presence. Elphame’s preternatural powers were sharp and accurate. “The forests surrounding MacCallan Castle haven’t been properly hunted in more than one hundred years. The game practically leap before my arrows, begging to be culled.” Elphame’s full lips turned up in the hint of a smile. “Suicidal venison? That sounds like a truly unique dish.” Brighid snorted. “Don’t tell Wynne. That cook will demand I choose the beast’s temperament more carefully so her stews will have a more perfect flavor.” The MacCallan pulled her gaze from the distant mountains and smiled. “Your secret is safe with me.” Looking into Elphame’s eyes, Brighid was struck by the sadness there. Only her lips smiled. The MacCallan didn’t show this haunted face to the general public—it was a rare privilege to be allowed such an intimacy. For a moment, Brighid feared the Fomorian madness lurking deep within her friend’s blood had awakened, but she quickly discounted the thought. Brighid didn’t see hatred or rage within Elphame’s eyes, she saw only deep sadness. She had little doubt as to its source. Elphame was happily mated to Lochlan. The rebuilding of MacCallan Castle was well underway. The Clan was healthy and thriving. Its Chieftain should be content. And Brighid knew Elphame would be, except for one detail. “You’re worried about him.” Brighid studied Elphame’s strong profile as her gaze shifted back to the horizon. “Of course I’m worried about him!” She pressed her lips together in a sharp line. When she spoke again her voice was sad and resigned. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you, but I’ve been worried about him since Brenna’s death. He loved her so much.” “We all loved the little Healer,” Brighid said. Elphame sighed. “It’s because she was special. Her heart was so incredibly big.” “You’re worried that Cuchulainn won’t recover from her loss.” Elphame stared at the distant mountains. “It wouldn’t be so bad if he was here—if I could talk with him and know how he’s doing.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t stop him from leaving, though. He said everything here reminded him of Brenna, and that he’d never learn to live without her here. When he left he was just a ghost of himself. No—” she reconsidered her comparison “—not a ghost of himself. He was more like a shadow of what he used to be…” Elphame’s voice faded. Brighid stayed by her side while the Chieftain struggled silently with worry for her brother, and Brighid’s own thoughts turned in remembrance to the little Healer, Brenna. She had come to MacCallan Castle as had Brighid, looking for a new life and a new beginning, but the scarred Healer had found much more. She had found love within the arms of the Chieftain’s warrior brother, who was able to see past her terrible burn scars to the beauty of her heart. Brighid remembered how spectacularly happy her friend had been—up until the moment of her untimely death. That her death had set into motion the events that led to the salvation of a people did little to salve the wound left by her absence. And now Cuchulainn had gone to the Wastelands to lead back into Partholon the very people who had brought about his lover’s murder. “It was at his insistence,” Elphame said quietly, as if she could sense the path of Brighid’s thoughts. “He did not blame the other Fomorians for Brenna’s death. He understood her murderess had been under the control of the madness they all struggled against.” Brighid nodded. “Cuchulainn blamed only himself. Perhaps bringing the hybrid Fomorians home will serve as an act of closure. Lochlan says many of his people are still children. Maybe they will help Cu to heal.” “Healing without the touch of a Healer is a difficult process,” Elphame murmured. “I just hate to think about him in pain and without—” She broke off with a dry laugh. “What?” Brighid prompted. “I know it sounds silly, Cuchulainn is a warrior renowned for his strength and courage, but I hate to think of him without his family near while he’s hurting.” “Especially his big sister?” Elphame’s lips twisted. “Yes, especially his big sister.” She sighed again. “He’s been gone so long. I really thought he’d be back by now.” “You know the report from Guardian Castle said there was a major spring snowstorm that ravaged the mountains and closed the pass into the Wastelands. Cuchulainn would’ve had to wait for the next thaw, and then he would be traveling slowly, being careful not to overtax the strength of the children. You must be patient,” Brighid said. “Patience has never been one of your virtues, my heart.” The deep voice came from behind them. The Huntress and her Chieftain turned to watch the winged man finish his silent approach. Brighid wondered if she would ever get used to the fact that such a being existed. Part Fomorian, part human, Lochlan had been born an anomaly. More human than demon, he and others like him had been raised by their human mothers in secrecy in the harsh Wastelands north of the Trier Mountains. He was tall and leanly muscular. His features were chiseled and attractively human, but the luminescence of his skin hinted at his dark heritage. And then there were his wings. Right now they were at rest, tucked snugly against his back, with just the storm-colored topside visible. But Brighid had seen them fully spread in terrible magnificence. It was a sight the Huntress would not easily forget. “Good morning, Huntress,” he said warmly as he joined them. “Wynne tells me you returned this morning with a spectacular kill and that we have venison steaks to look forward to at the evening meal.” Brighid inclined her head in a brief bow, acknowledging his praise as she moved aside so Lochlan could greet his wife. “I missed you this morning,” he said, reaching up to take Elphame’s hand and kissing it softly. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to wake you, so I…” She shrugged. “You are impatient for your brother’s return, and it makes you restless,” he said. “I know he’s a warrior, and I know I’m thinking with a sister’s heart instead of a Chieftain’s mind, but I’m worried about him.” “I am a warrior, but if I lost you I would lose my soul. Being a warrior does not prevent a man from feeling pain. Cuchlainn has been in my thoughts lately, too.” Lochlan paused, choosing his words carefully. “Perhaps one of us should go after him.” “I want to. I’ve even thought of it, but I can’t leave.” Elphame’s frustration spilled over into her voice. “The Clan is too new, and there is still so much work to be done rebuilding the castle.” “I will go.” Brighid spoke in a simple matter-of-fact voice. “You will?” Elphame asked. The Huntress nodded and shrugged. “The forest is so lush with game that even the human warriors can easily keep the castle fed—at least for a while,” she added with a smile. “And it will take the skill of a Huntress to follow the path Cuchulainn took through the mountains.” She looked pointedly at Lochlan. “Will it not?” “It is an obscure trail, and though I know Cuchulainn and the others will have marked it, still it would be difficult to find and follow,” he agreed. “Besides, game is scarce in the Wastelands. At least I can ease their burden of hunger as they ready themselves to travel.” Brighid smiled at her Clan Chieftain. “A Huntress is always welcome company, especially when there are hungry young mouths to feed.” “A friend is also always welcome company,” Elphame said, her voice catching with emotion. “Thank you. You have relieved my mind greatly.” “Cuchulainn will probably think me a poor substitute for his sister,” Brighid said roughly to cover up her own emotions. She had come to care for Elphame as she would a member of her own family. No, the Huntress silently amended, it was from my family I escaped by joining Clan MacCallan. Elphame is far easier to care for. “He will think no such thing.” Elphame laughed. “I will sketch a map that will help make your path clear,” Lochlan said. Then he rested his hand lightly on the Huntress’s shoulder. “Thank you for doing this, Brighid.” She looked into the winged man’s eyes and stifled the urge to flinch under his touch. The majority of the Clan was slowly accepting Lochlan as Elphame’s lifemate. He was half Fomorian, but he had proven his loyalty to the Chieftain and their Clan. Yet Brighid could not quell the nagging feeling of unease that being in his presence always evoked. “I will leave first thing in the morning,” the Huntress said resolutely. Brighid hated snow. It wasn’t that it was a physical discomfort. As with all centaurs, her natural body heat effectively insulated her from all but the most drastic weather changes. She hated snow in principle. It shrouded the earth with a blanket of numb dampness. Woodland creatures either burrowed away from it or fled to warmer grounds. She agreed with the animals. It had taken her five days to travel from MacCallan Castle north through the thickening forest to the mouth of the obscure pass Lochlan had sketched in his detailed map. Five days. She snorted in disgust. She might as well have been a human riding a mindless horse in circles. She had expected to have traveled twice the distance in half the time. “Goddess-accursed snow,” she muttered, her voice sounding odd against the walls of the looming mountains. “Surely this must be it.” She studied the uniquely fashioned rock formation for some sign that Cuchulainn’s small party had passed within. Brighid thought he would have marked it, though it was unlikely there was another grouping of red rocks that looked exactly like the open mouth of a giant, complete with distended tongue and jagged teeth. Her hooves made muffled wet clomps as she approached the gaping tunnel. Suddenly the air was filled with the wind-battering sound of heavy wings and a black shape swooped past her to light on the tongue-like rock. Brighid came to an abrupt halt and ground her teeth together. The raven cocked its head and cawed at her. The Huntress frowned. “Begone wretched bird!” she shouted, waving her arms at it. Unruffled, the raven fixed her with its cold, black stare. Then slowly, distinctly, it tapped the side of the rock with its beak three times before unfurling its wings and beating the air neatly, skimming low enough over Brighid’s head that her hair stirred and she had to force herself not to duck. Scowling, the Huntress approached the rock. The bird’s feet had drawn claw-shaped marks in the snow so that the red of the rock was visible in rust-colored lines against winter’s canvas. She reached out and brushed at the area, unsurprised when Cuchulainn’s trail slash became visible, pointing into the mouth of the tunnel. Brighid shook her head. “I don’t want your help, Mother.” Eerily her voice bounced back to her from the tunnel walls. “The price you place on it has always been too costly.” The raven’s cawing drifted down on a wind that suddenly, magically, felt warm, bringing with it the scents and sounds of the Centaur Plains. Brighid closed her eyes against a tide of longing. The green of the waving grasslands was more than a color—it held scent and texture as the warm breeze shushed through it. It was spring on the Centaur Plains, and completely unlike this cold, white world of mountains. The grasses would be midhock high and dotted with the proud show of blue, white and violet wildflowers. She drew a deep breath and tasted home. “Stop it!” She jerked her eyes open. “It’s a sham, Mother. Freedom is the one thing the Centaur Plains does not offer me!” The raven’s call faded and died, taking with it the warm home-touched wind. Brighid shivered. She shouldn’t have been surprised that her mother had sent a spirit guide. The anticipatory sense she had felt all day had been instigated by more than nearing the entrance to the mountain passageway. Brighid should have sensed her mother’s hand. No, Brighid corrected herself, she had sensed it—she should have acknowledged it. I have made my choice. I am Huntress for the Clan MacCallan—an oath-sworn member of the Clan. I do not regret my choice. The Huntress squared her shoulders and entered the tunnel, physically and mentally shaking off the lingering effects of her mother’s presence. She was suddenly glad that the pass was snow-covered enough that it would take all of her concentration and much of her vast physical strength to navigate her way through it. She didn’t want to think about her mother or the familiar beauty of the homeland she had decided to leave forever. The day was still young. According to Lochlan, she should be able to clear the most treacherous parts of the trail before dark. If all went well, tomorrow she would find the Fomorian camp and Cuchulainn. She picked up her pace, careful not to misstep and catch a hoof in a snow-hidden crevice. Brighid focused on the trail. She did not think of her mother or the life from which Brighid had turned. She ignored the guilt and loneliness that shadowed her every decision. She had made the right choice. She was sure of it. But just because she had chosen wisely didn’t mean she had taken the easiest path. As she scrambled around a slick, narrow corner in the treacherous trail, she smiled in grim irony. The physical path she had chosen to travel was quickly proving to be almost as difficult as the life path she had chosen. Distracted by her inner turmoil and her outer challenges, the Huntress’s keen senses only registered the watching eyes deep in her subconscious as a brief feeling of unease. A feeling cast aside as vestiges of irritation at her mother’s interfering spirit emissary. Unhindered within the darkness, the eyes glowed the color of old blood as they continued to watch and to wait. Chapter 2 The damned wind was never-ending. Cuchulainn thought it was the thing he disliked most about the Wastelands. The cold he could bear, at least in limited doses. He could even find the open land and the oddly low-growing plants unusual and interesting. But the Goddess-cursed wind was a constant irritant. It howled incessantly and chafed exposed skin to raw roughness. The warrior shivered and pulled the cowl of his fur-lined cloak over his head. He probably should return to camp. Evening was quickly approaching, and though he had only been in the Wastelands for less than two full cycles of the moon, he had already learned to respect how dangerous it was to get caught in the open after sunset, even for a short time. Cuchulainn paused and squatted to study the sharp hoof indentations in the snow. The tracks were fresh. The whipping wind hadn’t had time to obscure them. The wild bighorn sheep couldn’t be far ahead. The young wolf made a muffled whine as she pressed her cold snout into his side. Absently Cuchulainn stroked the wolf’s ruff. “Cold and hungry, too, are you, Fand?” The wolf whined softly again and nuzzled her wet nose under his chin. Abruptly he stood and tightened the lacings of his cloak. “All the more reason to finish tracking the sheep. Come on, it’s not far ahead of us. Let’s get this business done.” The wolf’s whining stopped as she moved forward at his side. Though not even half-grown she was totally devoted to her surrogate parent. Where he went, she would follow. Cuchulainn stepped up his pace, imagining the happy cries of the children when he brought game back to camp. For the briefest of instants, the warrior’s thoughts softened. The children had certainly been unexpected. Not that he hadn’t known they existed. They had been the impetus for his mission. It had been his task to travel to the Wastelands and guide the children of the hybrid Fomorians, or New Fomorians as they liked to call themselves, to Partholon, the homeland of their long-dead human mothers. But the thinking of a thing and the actual doing of it was often as dissimilar as the stark Wastelands and the green prosperity of Partholon. The New Fomorians, quite simply, had been one surprise after another. When Cuchulainn had thought ahead to the actual meeting with the hybrid Fomorians his warrior’s mind had imagined them as barbarians who were quite likely dangerous. That Lochlan was civilized made no difference. As unlikely as it had seemed at first, Epona had fashioned him to be Cuchulainn’s sister’s lifemate. Of course Lochlan would be different, but Cuchulainn knew only too well that the hybrid Fomorians were capable of great savagery. They had survived in the harshness of the Wastelands for more than a century. And even with the madness recently excised from their blood, they were still the spawn of demons. His sister had insisted they return to Partholon, as the land was part of their heritage. She was his Clan Chieftain and he would obey her, but he was also an experienced warrior. Cuchulainn would not lead enemies into Partholon. So he would be wary and wise. It was one of the reasons he had insisted on traveling with no other human warriors. By himself he could discover the truth, and by himself he could return to warn Partholon if need be. As he and the hybrid Fomorian twins, Curran and Nevin, traveled from MacCallan Castle through the northern forest and into the hidden pass in the Trier Mountains, Cuchulainn had waited, watched the twins, and nursed the raw wound that was his grief. That he woke every morning able to force himself to move through the motions of another day was a small miracle. Looking back, the trip to the Wastelands had been one long, painful blur. Curran and Nevin had been silent traveling companions. They had appeared to show no predilection for violence. They did not complain about the pace he set, nor did they react to his gruff, withdrawn manner. Cuchulainn told himself their benign demeanor meant nothing. When he got to their camp he’d planned to gauge the reaction of the other Fomorians to his news, and then he would do what was best for Partholon. So Cuchulainn had journeyed into the north, battling grief within and imagining demons without. He’d no physical injuries from which to recover, but the wound Brenna’s death had left in his soul was a gaping, invisible hole. The passage of time hadn’t begun to whittle away any of the sharpness of his pain. He would not ever truly recover from it. He would only survive it. There was a distinct difference. His mind skittered away from the pain thinking about Brenna caused. Not that his loss wasn’t always with him. She was never far from his thoughts, but he had learned that if he gave in to despair by dwelling on might-have-beens the pain went quickly from smoldering coals to a hot, flaming need. It was a need that would never be slaked. Brenna was gone. That was unalterable fact. It was far better not to think—not to feel—at all. Just track the sheep. Kill it. Return to camp. He ordered his mind to stop its restless roving. Cuchulainn turned a corner. He and the young wolf quietly worked their way between the snow-covered rocks that nestled against the northern slope of the Trier Mountains. He was pleased that the snow had markedly lessened. Just days ago he couldn’t have followed the sheep to the base of the mountains. If luck held and they didn’t have another unexpected bout of snow, the pass might be clear enough for travel in another few days. Of course he would have to make sure. The children were tough and willing, but they were, for all their eagerness and precocity, still just children. They were unusual, though. He would never forget his first glimpse of them—or their reaction to the first completely human man they had ever seen. It had been an overcast, gloomy afternoon. The sky had been heavy with the spring blizzard that would seal the pass and close them into the Wastelands. He and Curran and Nevin had emerged from the mountains and traveled the short distance from the pass to the small valley that sheltered the New Fomorian camp. It had been a young sentry named Gareth who had glimpsed them, and like any good guard he had rushed to alert his camp. But instead of meeting the small party with drawn weapons and wariness, the New Fomorians had rushed from their encampment with open hands and welcoming smiles. Children! By the Goddess, he hadn’t expected so many children. Laughing and singing a beautiful melody Cuchulainn was shocked to recognize as an ancient Partholonian song of praise to Epona, the hybrids had embraced the twins. Then their attention had quickly turned to him—the lone human rider in their midst. “This is Cuchulainn,” Nevin had said. “He is brother to the Goddess Elphame who has saved us,” Curran finished for him. The joyful singing had instantly been silenced. The cluster of winged people had gazed at him. Cuchulainn remembered thinking they looked like a flock of bright, beautiful birds. Then the crowd parted to let a slender figure emerge. The first thing he noticed was that her skin had the odd luminous paleness of the other hybrid Fomorians, but her hair, wings and eyes were much darker. And then he saw the tears that washed her cheeks. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes were bright with them. Her gaze locked with his and Cuchulainn saw compassion and a terrible sadness. He wanted to look away. He didn’t want her emotions to touch him. His own pain ran too deep, was too fresh. But as he turned his head to break their locked gaze, the winged woman dropped gracefully to her knees. And then, like she was a pebble thrown into a waiting pool, the crowd of winged people, adults and children alike, followed her example and rippled to their knees. “Forgive us. We are responsible for your sister’s death.” The winged woman’s sweet voice was filled with the sadness he’d read within her eyes. “My sister is not dead.” Cuchulainn’s voice was flat and so devoid of emotion that it sounded alien to his own ears. The woman reacted with obvious shock. “But the curse has been lifted. We all feel the absence of the demons in our blood.” “You misinterpreted the prophecy,” Cuchulainn said in his gruff, empty voice. “It did not call for the physical death of my sister. Instead of her life, the prophecy led her to sacrifice a piece of her humanity. She lives. And it is only through the grace of Epona that she is not mad.” Still on her knees, the woman looked from Cuchulainn to Curran and Nevin. “What he says is true,” Curran said. “Elphame drank of Lochlan’s blood, and with it she accepted the madness of our people. Through the power of Epona she has defeated our fathers’ darkness, but it lives within her blood.” “Lochlan? Did he survive?” she asked. “Yes. He is mated to Elphame,” Nevin said. “Keir and Fallon?” “They have chosen another path,” Nevin said quickly. Cuchulainn felt ice slice through him. Fallon had chosen the path of madness and in doing so she had murdered Brenna. But before she could be executed for her crime she’d revealed that she was pregnant. Elphame had imprisoned Fallon at Guardian Castle to await the birth of her child. Keir was her mate, and he had chosen to stay with her. Ciara watched the human warrior’s face carefully. She recognized the numb, hopeless look that was the shadow left behind by tremendous loss. He had not lost his sister, but he had borne terrible sadness. Much had happened that they all needed to know, but not now—not at this moment. Later, she told herself. Later she would discover what could be done to relieve the warrior’s pain, as well as hear the tale of Fallon and Keir. Right now all that was important was that this man was the brother of their savior. For that alone they owed him a debt of gratitude. She smiled, filling her words with the joy that was part of her soul. “Then we will give thanks to Epona that your sister lives, Cuchulainn.” “Do what you feel you must,” he said in his dead voice. “My sister asks that I lead you back to Partholon and to our Clan’s castle. Will your people come with me?” Her hands flew to cover her mouth. All around her she heard gasps of happiness and surprise. She couldn’t speak. Breath-stopping exultation swelled within her. This was it! This was the fulfillment of the dream their mothers and grandmothers had nurtured and kept alive within each of them. Then, bursting through the circle of kneeling adults came a tide of laughter and excitement as a horde of children, no longer able to contain their exuberance, crowded into the empty space that surrounded the warrior and his horse. The adults hurried to their feet and rushed forward, clucking at their young charges and trying in vain to restore some semblance of order and dignity to the warrior’s welcome. The children clambered around Cuchulainn, their eyes large and round. With wings extended they jostled against one another like an overcrowded nest of baby cuckoos. He felt suddenly like a lone, overwhelmed sparrow. “Partholon! We go to Partholon!” “We are to meet the Goddess!” “Is the land really warm and green?” “Do you really not have wings?” “May I touch your horse?” Cuchulainn’s big gelding snorted and took two skittering steps backward, away from a tiny, winged girl who was trying on tiptoe to stroke his muzzle. “Children, enough!” The winged woman’s voice was stern, but her eyes sparkled and she smiled as she spoke. “Cuchulainn will believe that the lessons of courtesy your great-grandmothers taught have been forgotten.” Instantly the young winged beings dropped their heads and muttered soft apologies. The little girl who had been trying to touch his horse bowed her head, too, but Cuchulainn could see that she was sidling forward, one hand half raised, still trying for a covert caress. The gelding snorted again and took another step back. The girl followed. Just like Elphame when she was young, Cuchulainn thought fondly. Always reaching for things she shouldn’t. And for the first time since Brenna’s death, Cuchulainn almost laughed. “Yes, child,” he said to the top of her blond head. “You may touch him. Only go slowly, he is not accustomed to children.” The small head tilted up and the child gifted Cuchulainn with a tremendous smile of gratitude. Sharp canine teeth glittered in odd contrast to her innocent appearance. “Her name is Kyna.” The winged woman moved to the child’s side. She gave Kyna a nod of encouragement and Cuchulainn tightened his grip on the gelding, holding him firmly in place so the girl could carefully pat his slick chest. The rest of the children watched and whispered to each other. “And I am Ciara, granddaughter of the Incarnate Goddess Terpsichore. You are most welcome here, Cuchulainn.” She, too, smiled brilliantly up at the warrior with a sharp-toothed grin. “I believe the children have answered your question for all of us. We have waited for more than one hundred years for this day. Yes, it will be our great pleasure to follow you to Partholon.” Pandemonium greeted her proclamation. The adults cheered and the children danced around as if they had springs as well as wings. Afraid someone would get trampled, Cu had been forced to dismount, which brought on another tirade of questions from the children who wanted to touch his back to make sure he wasn’t hiding wings under his cloak. Ciara and the other adults had quite a job calming the jumping, dancing, laughing group of excited youngsters. Trying to keep his veneer of detached observer in place, Cuchulainn had silently watched the cacophony of jubilation. The winged people obviously looked to Ciara for leadership. She had laughingly apologized for the overenthusiastic welcome while she called for one of the lodges to be made ready and introduced him to several smiling adults. But when he asked her if she had been made leader during Lochlan’s absence, she had only laughed and said she was the same now as she had been when Lochlan was with them—just an ordinary Shaman to her people. Her words had been completely unexpected. Shaman? Where were the barbaric hybrid demons he had expected to watch warily and judge harshly? Cuchulainn remembered how stunned he had felt standing there that first day. Then little Kyna had shrieked. He had lunged, pulling his claymore free from its pommel. Crouched and ready for battle he had followed the child’s pointing finger to discover that Fand had finally crept from a clump of concealing brush and was slinking toward him. Cu had hastily sheathed his sword and knelt down to reassure the nervous wolf cub, while he fielded rapidly fired questions from Kyna. He felt Ciara’s gaze and looked up to find her dark eyes studying him knowingly. “You have no enemies here, Cuchulainn, except those that war within you,” she had said quietly. Before he could respond the sky had opened and huge, wet flakes of snow had begun falling. Fand and the big gelding temporarily forgotten, Kyna had tugged on Cuchulainn’s cloak for his attention. “Watch me catch the snow with my tongue!” Still crouched beside his wolf cub, Cuchulainn had watched the little girl throw her arms wide and spread her dove-colored wings. With the innate innocence of childhood she stuck out her tongue, twirled and jumped, trying to catch the elusive flakes. Soon she was joined by dozens of other children and he was surrounded by the timeless laughter and joy of youth. For an unexpected instant he’d felt the suffocating pain of losing Brenna shift and ease and become almost bearable. Cuchulainn thought he would remember that moment for the rest of his life. Though he didn’t realize it, thinking about the children relaxed the tight sadness that had claimed his handsome face since Brenna’s death. He almost looked like himself again, the Cuchulainn who had been quick to smile and laugh and had been filled with life and hope and the promise of a full and happy future. Now, with a soft woof, Fand slunk low to the earth, pulling Cu’s thoughts back to the present and shifting the focus of his attention to the trail ahead. Silently Cuchulainn moved forward. Readying an arrow, he peered around the next boulder to see the wild, white sheep pawing through the snow at a patch of yellow lichen. Taking a long, slow breath he notched the arrow, but before he could draw and aim, he heard the distinctive twang of a loosed bow and the sheep dropped, a quivering arrow neatly embedded at the base of its neck. Fand’s growl changed to a yip of welcome when the centaur Huntress stepped from behind a concealing ledge. Chapter 3 “You took my shot, Huntress.” Cuchulainn’s words were gruff, but he smiled and grasped the centaur’s forearm in greeting. He was surprised at the pleasure he felt at the sight of Brighid. With her came a vision of MacCallan Castle. Until that moment he hadn’t realized how much he had begun to long for home. And then on the heels of his remembrance came a wave of fresh pain. Brenna would not be there. All that remained of her was a monument carved in her image and a cold grave. “Took your shot?” The Huntress’s unusual violet eyes sparkled. “If I remember correctly the last time we hunted together you hit nothing and chose to bring your prey back alive.” She returned Cuchulainn’s smile, even though his had faded into an odd grimace. She clasped his forearm warmly before frowning down at the young wolf that was leaping around her hocks. “I can see the creature is still alive.” “Fand is an excellent companion.” He motioned for the jubilant cub to leave the Huntress alone. Fand ignored him. “She hasn’t learned any manners.” Brighid kicked a hoof absently at the squirming cub, who decided it was a game and began biting at her hock. Cuchulainn growled low in his throat, sounding remarkably wolflike, and, looking dejected, Fand stopped her mock attack and flopped down on her belly to stare with soulful eyes at the warrior. Brighid lifted a brow. “Seems I have come just in time. You obviously need some civilized company.” “Meaning you?” The Huntress nodded. “There is nothing more civilized than a centaur.” She waited for Cu’s return gibe, which did not come. Instead the warrior tucked his arrow back in its quill and began striding toward the sheep. “My sister sent you, didn’t she?” “I volunteered. I don’t like to see her worried. And—” Cuchulainn whirled around and cut her off. “Elphame is well?” Brighid heard the thinly veiled panic in the warrior’s voice and was quick to reassure him. “She’s quite well. Renovation of the castle moves ahead. The Clan is happy and healthy. The first new MacCallan Clan member has been born within the castle’s walls. And, as I was about to explain, the game in the forest is so thick that even humans can easily hunt it. So I thought I would kill two birds with a single arrow.” She grinned, raising her empty bow. “I’d alleviate my Chieftain’s worry for her errant brother, as well as hunt something more challenging than deer that are practically domesticated.” As she spoke she studied Cuchulainn’s face. The panic had dissipated, leaving him looking tired and relieved, and then, as she watched, even those small emotions fell from his face, until it seemed he was wearing an expressionless mask. He had lost weight. His eyes were shadowed by darkness and new lines feathered from their corners. Was that gray in his sand-colored hair? He bent to pull her arrow from the sheep’s body and she looked down at him. Yes, it was, indeed, gray that glinted around his brow. The man before her looked easily a decade older than he had two moon cycles earlier. “Here,” Brighid said, swiveling at the waist to pull two long leather cords from one of the travel packs slung across her back. “Tie this around its legs. I’ll drag it.” Cuchulainn returned the arrow to her after wiping it clean in the snow. “My gelding isn’t far from here.” Brighid snorted. “I hope your camp isn’t far from here. I’ve seen little of the Wastelands, but I already do not savor the thought of spending the night in the open. Not in this Goddess-be-damned wind.” For an instant she thought she saw amusement flash in his eyes, but all he said as he took the cords was, “The camp is not far, either. But we should hurry. The nights are cold.” Methodically he squatted by the sheep’s rear haunches and began tying its legs. Elphame had been wise to worry. It was obvious that the Cuchulainn his sister knew and loved was disappearing under the weight of grief and guilt. Brighid could only imagine how much the sight would wound her Chieftain. Brighid hated seeing what Brenna’s death had done to him, and he was just her friend. She smiled sadly at the warrior’s back. Theirs had been an unlikely friendship. Cuchulainn had known too well the segregationist beliefs of her family concerning humans and centaurs and he had been leery to trust Brighid. And, quite frankly, the Huntress had thought Cuchulainn an arrogant womanizer. At first they had snapped at and circled one another like restless beasts protecting territory. But as the Huntress had watched the rakish young warrior fall in love with the Clan’s newly appointed Healer, she had seen the real Cuchulainn—the compassionate, loyal man who lived within the skin of the dashing warrior. And she had won his trust in turn. First, by helping him track Elphame after she had taken a nasty fall, and finally, regrettably, by fighting at his side when they captured the hybrid Fomorian Fallon after she murdered Brenna. “Brenna’s death is a heavy burden to bear,” Brighid said solemnly. Cuchulainn’s head was bowed in concentration as he finished securing the cords, and she could see his back stiffen. He stood slowly and met the Huntress’s sharp gaze. “Yes.” He bit out the word. Brighid didn’t flinch from the anger in his voice. She knew from her own experience that anger was part of grief’s healing process. “Your sister planted those blue wildflowers Brenna liked so much all around her grave. The Clan talks about how beautiful the tomb is, and how much Brenna is missed.” “Stop,” Cuchulainn said between clenched teeth. “As long as we remember her, she is not completely gone, Cu.” “Not completely gone!” Cuchulainn laughed humorlessly. He threw the cords he had been holding to the ground and spread his arms, palms up, looking around them. “Then show her to me. I don’t see her. I don’t hear her. I can’t touch her. To me, Huntress, she is completely gone.” “Brenna would hate to see you like this, Cuchulainn.” “Brenna is not here!” “Cu—” the Huntress began, but the warrior’s gruff voice cut her off. “Leave it be, Brighid.” She met his gaze squarely. “I will leave it be for now, but you cannot continue like this. Not forever.” “You are right about that. Nothing continues forever, Huntress.” Abruptly he bent and retrieved the leather cords. Handing one to her he wrapped the other over his shoulder. “This way.” He pointed his chin back the way he had come. “We need to hurry. Night will fall soon.” Mimicking Cuchulainn’s motions, Brighid placed the cord over her shoulder and together they dragged the sheep’s body. As the Huntress glanced at Cu’s haggard profile she thought grief had already caused night to fall within Cuchulainn’s wounded soul. Could anything, even his Goddess-touched sister’s love, ever bring the light of happiness to his life again? They spoke little as they traveled steadily in the direction of the waning sun. Together they had quickly dressed the sheep and folded it into the leather carrier Cuchulainn strapped over the big gelding’s hindquarters. There were several questions Brighid wanted to ask, but the warrior’s manner was so withdrawn, his few words so brusque, that she had learned little more than that he’d easily found the hybrid Fomorian settlement, that there were almost one hundred of them, and that they were eager to return to Partholon. When she asked him what they were like he’d said only, “They’re just people,” and withdrawn again into silence. Brighid had decided that conversing with him was like cuddling a porcupine. Not worth the trouble. She was a Huntress. She would observe the hybrids for herself as she would any other creature of the Wastelands and then form her own opinion. And she would always keep in mind that they had been fathered by a race of demons. “Do you like children?” Brighid raised her brows at the strange question, not sure she had heard Cuchulainn correctly. “Children?” He grunted and nodded. “I don’t know. I don’t particularly like or dislike them. They don’t usually figure into the life of a Huntress, unless you count that I have to consider them as extra mouths to feed. Why do you ask?” “We are almost to the settlement. There are—” he paused and glanced sideways at her “—children there.” “I expect children. Lochlan told all of us about them back at the castle. You know that. You were there.” “Lochlan didn’t exactly tell us everything,” Cuchulainn said cryptically. “That’s no surprise to me.” Brighid snorted. The warrior gave her a lidded look. “You don’t sound like you trust Lochlan.” “Do you?” “He saved my sister’s life,” Cuchulainn said simply. Brighid nodded slowly. “Yes, he did. But it was Lochlan’s coming to Partholon that placed her life in jeopardy in the first place.” Cuchulainn said nothing. He’d already thought over and over again about how Lochlan’s presence had changed all of their lives. But he found it hard to blame his sister’s lifemate, which did not mean he was willing to fully embrace the winged man. It only meant that Cuchulainn was most willing to blame himself for the events that had culminated in his sister’s sacrifice and Brenna’s death. He should have known. He would have known had he listened to the warnings from the spirit realm. But Cuchulainn had always turned from the use of spirits and magic and the mysterious power of the Goddess, even though it was obvious from an early age that he had inherited his Shaman father’s spirit gifts. Cu was a warrior. It was all he’d ever wanted to be. His affinity with the sword was the only gift he desired. His stubbornness had sealed his lover’s doom. “I thought you said we were almost at the camp. I see nothing ahead except more of this empty, dismal land.” Cuchulainn dragged his dark thoughts back to the silvercoated centaur who trotted by his side. “Look more closely, Huntress,” he said. Brighid glowered at him. Friends they may have become, but the warrior still had a knack for getting under her skin. Cuchulainn almost smiled. “Don’t feel bad. I didn’t see it at first, either. If I hadn’t been with Curran and Nevin I would have probably toppled blindly over the edge.” “I don’t…” At first the landscape appeared to be a snowpatched, treeless plain. Red shale, the same color as the great boulders that flanked the Trier Mountains, littered the ground. But then her vision caught an almost imperceptible change. “It’s a gorge. By the Goddess! The land is so bleak and similar that one side matches the other almost perfectly.” “It’s an optical illusion, one the human mothers of the New Fomorians thought to use to their advantage more than one hundred years ago when they were desperate to find a safe place to build their settlement.” “New Fomorians?” “That’s what they call themselves,” Cuchulainn said. Brighid snorted. “The path winds down from there.” He pointed at Fand’s disappearing hind end and clucked his gelding into a gentle canter, pulling him up just before the land dropped away beneath them. Brighid moved to stand beside him and drew in breath sharply at the sight below. The gorge opened as if a giant had taken an ax and hewed an enormous wedge from the cold, rocky earth. The wall on which they stood was taller than the opposite side of the canyon. The sheer drop must have been at least two hundred feet. A small river ran through the middle of the valley. And nestled against the gentler northern wall of the canyon was a cluster of round buildings. Brighid could make out distant figures, and she strained to see wings as the self-proclaimed New Fomorians moved between circularshaped houses and corrals and low, squat structures she thought might be animal shelters. She could feel Cuchulainn watching her. “The human women chose wisely. There’s shelter in the walls of the canyon and a ready water supply. I can even see a few things that might be masquerading as trees,” she said. “If I had been with them, this would have been the site I would have recommended.” In actuality if Brighid had been with them, she would have recommended they slit their monstrous infants’ throats and return to Partholon where the women belonged. But that was a thought the Huntress decided was best kept to herself. “It’s an unforgiving land. I have been surprised at how well they have survived. I expected…” Cuchulainn’s words trailed off as if he was sorry he’d said so much. Brighid was looking at him with open curiosity. Cu cleared his throat and pointed the gelding’s head down the steep trail. “Watch where you step. The shale is slick.” Brighid followed Cuchulainn, wondering at the changes in him. Were they all because of Brenna’s death, or had something happened here in the Wastelands? Even had he not been her friend, the Huntress owed it to her Chieftain to find out. Chapter 4 The first hybrid Brighid saw was doing something totally unexpected. He was laughing. The Huntress heard him before she saw him. His laughter rolled up the trail to meet them, punctuated by mock growls and youthful snarls. “They like Fand,” Cuchulainn muttered in explanation. The warrior and the Huntress finally stepped onto level ground and walked around a rough out-cropping of rock to see a winged man sprawled on his back in the middle of the trail. Tongue lolling and mouth open as if she were smiling, the young wolf cub’s paws were planted squarely on his chest. “Fand rolled me, Cuchulainn. She’s growing so fast that in no time she’ll be a proper wolf,” he said, chuckling and scratching the cub’s scruff. When he glanced up and saw the centaur by Cu’s side, his eyes rounded in shock. “Fand, here!” Cuchulainn ordered. This time the wolf chose to obey, hopping off the hybrid’s chest and loping back to her master. The winged man stood quickly, brushing dirt and snow from his tunic, all the while keeping his large eyes fixed on Brighid. “Gareth, this is—” Gareth’s excited voice cut him off. “The Huntress, Brighid! It is, isn’t it?” “Yes, Gareth. This is MacCallan’s Huntress, Brighid Dhianna.” Gareth executed a quick, awkward bow, and Brighid realized that he was really just a tall, gangly youth who stared at her with open, awestruck delight. “Well met, Brighid!” Gareth gushed, his voice cracking on her name. Brighid could hear Cuchulainn’s sigh and she stifled a smile. “Well met, Gareth,” she returned the greeting. “Wait till I tell the others! They won’t believe it. You’re even more beautiful than Curran and Nevin described.” Gareth started to rush away, then stopped, turned back and bowed sheepishly to Brighid again. The Huntress could have sworn that the youth’s cheeks were reddened with an embarrassed blush. “Pardon me, Huntress. I’ll go tell the others that we have a visitor. Another one!” Then he turned and, with wings spread, all but flew down the path. “Foolish boy,” Cuchulainn muttered. Brighid raised a brow at the warrior. “I’m even more beautiful than Curran and Nevin described?” Cuchulainn lifted his hands in a gesture of quiet frustration. “The twins tell stories in the evenings. You are a favorite subject.” “Me? How can that be? Curran and Nevin hardly know me.” “Apparently they put the short time they spent at MacCallan Castle to excellent use. They listened and observed. A lot. You know how the Clan likes to talk, and the more they talk, the more deeds grow. You didn’t just track Elphame in the night through the forest to find where she had fallen—you did it all in a lashing storm, too,” he said. “I did nothing of the sort. The storm began on our way home. And it wasn’t full dark until after we found Elphame.” Brighid tried to sound annoyed, but she couldn’t help the smile that played at the corner of her lips. “And then there’s the story of Fand,” Cuchulainn said, shifting in the saddle as if he was suddenly uncomfortable. Brighid’s brows went up. “And who told them about that, Cu?” Cuchulainn shrugged and kneed the gelding to follow Gareth’s path. “They asked. And they can be very persistent when they want to know something.” “They being Curran and Nevin?” Brighid asked his broad back. “No. They being the children.” And then a noise drifted to the Huntress’s acute hearing. She thought it sounded like the chattering of many birds. Cuchulainn’s horse’s ears pricked forward. “Remember that I forewarned you about the children,” he called over his shoulder. Brighid frowned severely at the warrior’s back. Forewarned her? He hadn’t forewarned her about anything—he’d just asked if she liked children. What in the darkest realm of the Underworld was going on here? They took another turn in the path and the trail opened up. Brighid moved quickly so that she was beside Cuchulainn. The road widened and led straight into the heart of the neat little settlement, which was currently filled with small winged bodies chattering excitedly. When they caught sight of her, the children’s talking was instantly replaced by a collective gasp that reminded Brighid of the coo of doves. “Oh, great merciful Goddess,” the Huntress murmured. “There are so many of them.” “I tried to tell you,” Cuchulainn said under his breath. “Prepare yourself. They are as energetic as they are small.” “But how can there be so many?” Her eyes were roving the group as she tried to get an accurate count…ten…twenty…forty. There were at least forty young bodies. “I thought you said there were less than one hundred hybrids in total. Do they have multiple births?” “No. Not usually. Most of these children no longer have parents,” the warrior said grimly. “But—” “Later,” Cuchulainn said. “I’ll explain it all later. They won’t stay still much longer.” “What are they going to do?” Brighid asked warily. The warrior gave her the briefest of smiles. “Nothing you can defend yourself against, believe me.” The waiting group rippled and Cuchulainn caught sight of Ciara’s dark head. “Come on. It’s best to face them head-on.” Side by side Cu and Brighid came to a halt before the waiting group just as a lovely winged woman stepped out to greet them. Cuchulainn made hasty introductions. “Ciara, this is MacCallan’s Huntress, Brighid Dhianna. Brighid, Ciara is Shaman for the New Fomorians.” He gestured at the two winged men who had followed Ciara through the children. “And, you will remember Curran and Nevin.” The twins nodded their heads, smiling widely at her. She was instantly struck by how well they looked. The last time she’d seen them their wings had been dreadfully torn. Now they looked whole and healthy, with only pale pink lines scarring the delicate membranes. One of the twins spoke, but Brighid had no idea whether it was Curran or Nevin. “It is good to see you again, Huntress.” “We are all so pleased that you have come, Brighid Dhianna, famed Huntress of the MacCallans,” Ciara said. Brighid tried not to be distracted by the horde of watching children, even though her eyes were drawn to their small faces. All different sizes and shapes, they were beaming sharp-toothed smiles at her as their wings quivered with barely suppressed excitement. Puppies, she thought. They looked like a wriggling mass of healthy, happy, winged puppies. Pulling her gaze from the children she nodded politely first to Ciara and then the twins. “The MacCallan thought you might need a Huntress to ease the burden of feeding your people during your journey. I was glad to be of service to her,” Brighid said. “And now I understand why I have dreamed of a silver hawk with gold-tipped wings these past several nights,” Ciara said, looking from the Huntress’s silver-white hair to the golden gleam of her equine coat. Brighid kept her face carefully neutral, but the mention of the Shaman’s dream was like a fist to her gut. Even here, in the far off Wastelands, she could not escape her childhood. “Oooh, you are even more beautiful than I imagined!” The Huntress’s eyes sought and found the miniature speaker—a small girl child standing near Ciara. Her wings were an unusual silver-gray, like the breast of a dove. Her large eyes were bright with intelligence. “Thank you,” Brighid said. “That is Kyna,” Cuchulainn said. At the mention of her name the child bobbed excitedly on her tiptoes. “Cuchulainn, can I come closer? Please! Pllllease!” Cu looked questioningly at the Huntress. Not knowing what else to do, Brighid shrugged. “Come on then,” Cu said. As the child sprinted forward with several of the other children close behind, Cuchulainn lifted his hand and said sternly, “Remember your manners!” Kyna’s headlong rush instantly slowed and the children jostling behind her almost knocked her over. Brighid had to be careful not to laugh when the girl elbowed one of her friends and ordered, “Remember your manners!” sounding unerringly like Cuchulainn. She folded her little wings and walked much more sedately to stand in front of Brighid. “You’re the famous Huntress Cuchulainn’s told us stories about, aren’t you?” The little girl’s face was bright with more than just the Fomorian’s distinctive luminous skin. She was a beautiful, fey-looking little thing, sparkling with intelligence and curiosity. “Well, I am the Huntress Brighid. I don’t know how famous I am, though,” Brighid said, throwing Cuchulainn a look of mild annoyance. “Oh, we do! We’ve heard all about you!” “Really? You’ll have to share those stories with me,” Brighid said. “Not now,” Cuchulainn said brusquely. “Now there is dinner to prepare.” He dismounted and began unlacing the ties that held the fresh meat behind his saddle. “Did you get another deer, Cuchulainn?” Kyna asked, bouncing up and down. “A wild, white sheep this time, Ky. And you can thank the Huntress for it. She is the one who brought the beast down,” he said, neatly turning the child’s attention back to Brighid. Dozens of sets of round little eyes refocused on the Huntress. Brighid shrugged. “I just beat him to the shot.” “No, you’re special. We already know,” Kyna said. “May…may I touch you?” Brighid looked helplessly at Cu, who was suddenly oh-so-busy handing the wrapped meat to Curran and Nevin. “Please?” the child asked. “I’ve always wanted to meet a centaur.” “Yes, I suppose that would be fine,” the Huntress said helplessly. Kyna walked closer to Brighid and then reverently stretched out her hand and touched the Huntress’s gleaming golden coat. “You’re soft like water. And your hair is so pretty, just like Cuchulainn said. I think he’s right. It’s good that you keep it long even though most Huntresses cut theirs short.” “I—I’ve never felt the need to cut it,” Brighid stuttered, completely take aback by the child’s comment. Cuchulainn talked about her hair? “Good. You shouldn’t.” “I want to be a Huntress when I grow up!” shouted a voice from the throng. Kyna rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You can’t be a Huntress, Liam. You’re not a centaur and you’re not a female.” Brighid watched one of the taller children’s faces fall and she felt a panicky knot within her when his eyes filled with tears. “You could still be a hunter, Liam,” Brighid said. “Some centaurs agree to train humans in the ways of a Huntress.” As soon as she said it she realized her ridiculous error. The little winged male was definitely not human. He’d probably really cry now. What if he started the rest of them crying? But Liam didn’t notice anything wrong with what she’d said. His fanged smile was radiant. “Do you really mean it? Would you teach me?” The boy rushed up to her and soon his small, warm hand was patting her sleek side. Teach him? She had no intention of teaching him or anyone—especially anyone whose head didn’t reach her shoulder. Brighid’s panic expanded. She had just been trying to keep the child from crying. “If she’s going to teach Liam I want her to teach me, too!” Another child disengaged from the group and skipped up to Brighid, hero worship shining in his big blue eyes. “Me, too!” said a little girl with hair the color of daisies. Brighid had no idea how it had happened, but she was surrounded by small, winged beings who were chattering away about their lives as Huntresses. Warm little hands patted her legs and flanks while Kyna asked never-ending questions about how Brighid kept her hair out of her eyes while she hunted, and what she rinsed it with to make it shine so, and did she use the same rinse on the horse part of her, and… Brighid would’ve rather been thrust into a pack of angry wolves, at least she could kick her way clear and escape. “Perhaps we should give the Huntress time to unload her packs and fill her stomach before we ask more of her,” Ciara’s firm voice cut through the high-pitched, childish jabbering. Little hands reluctantly dropped from the centaur’s body. Undaunted, Kyna still chirped with excitement. “Can Brighid stay at our lodge?” To Brighid’s intense relief, Cuchulainn spoke up. “I think it would be best if the Huntress lodged with me. She’s part of my Clan, remember?” “Yes, I remember,” Kyna said softly, kicking at a dirt clod with bare feet that Brighid noticed ended in remarkably sharplooking talons. They are such anomalies, the Huntress thought. Not really human and yet obviously not Fomorian. How will they ever find their place in Partholon? “Cuchulainn, why don’t you show Brighid to your lodge. I’ll send for you when it is time for the evening meal.” Cu surprised Brighid by tossing the reins of his gelding to little Kyna. “Take care of him for me.” “Of course I will, Cu! You know I’m his favorite.” The child giggled. “Bye, Brighid. I’ll see you again at the evening meal,” she said before clucking and tugging fussily at the big gelding’s reins. The horse blew through his nose into the child’s hair and then plodded docilely after her. “Go on now, the rest of you! You have chores to finish before we eat,” Ciara told the children. In clusters of two and three, they rushed off like darting fish, calling goodbyes to Brighid and Cuchulainn. “I think they were better this time,” Ciara said to the warrior. “Well, at least there was a lot less jumping and dancing,” Cu said. “Better than what?” Brighid asked. Ciara smiled. “Better than when they first met Cuchulainn.” Brighid snorted. “You laugh, but we’re serious,” Cu said. “I didn’t laugh. I scoffed disbelievingly. There is a distinct difference,” the Huntress said, wiping at a smudgy handprint that had been left on her golden coat. “You’ll get used to them,” Ciara said. And at the look on the centaur’s face she laughed. Brighid thought she had never heard such a lovely, musical sound. Cuchulainn harrumphed. “Now it’s my turn to scoff.” “Oh, Cuchulainn, you’re getting along with the children just fine. They adore you!” Ciara said. “I’m not interested in their adoration. I just want to be sure they arrive safely at MacCallan Castle,” Cuchulainn said sharply, his face hardening into a blank, emotionless mask. “Of course,” Ciara said, her smile never wavering. It was interesting, Brighid thought, to watch how familiarly the beautiful winged woman spoke to Cu. And how she ignored the way he had turned cold and withdrawn. “I’ll leave you with Cuchulainn. He knows his way around. If there is anything you need, he will know if we can provide it. We do not have much here, Brighid, but what we have we willingly share.” “Thank you,” Brighid said, automatically responding to Ciara’s openness and warmth. “Cuchulainn, the evening meal will be in the longhouse, as usual, after the dusk blessing ceremony. Please bring Brighid. And it would be nice if this time you chose to stay and share the meal with us.” Ciara nodded politely to Brighid before she turned and gracefully walked away. Chapter 5 Cuchulainn motioned for Brighid to enter the small building ahead of him. She ducked through the thick animal skin that served as a doorway and was pleasantly surprised to feel warm, still air instead of constant cold wind. The lodge was circular, and the walls were made of the red shale that was so plentiful in the Wastelands. It was patched snugly together with a mixture of mud and sand. There was a hearth that wrapped around almost half of the curving room. Two small windows were covered, so there was little light, but it was bright enough for Brighid to see that the roof was unusual. It appeared to be mesh, woven of reeds or thin branches. Placed over the matting was a substance Brighid couldn’t identify. It had been firmly pressed into the weave, but now it appeared to be hard and dry. “It’s moss,” Cuchulainn said. “They cut it from the ground and while it’s still pliant they press it into the web of woven tubers. When it dies it hardens until it’s like rock, only lighter. Nothing can get through it.” “What’s this on the floor?” Brighid bent and picked up a handful of short, fragrant grass. “They call it dwarf heather. It only grows to about hockhigh, but there’s a lot of it, especially in canyon areas like this. It makes for good insulation. The ground here is damnably cold and hard.” Cuchulainn motioned to the other side of the room, opposite the stretched animal skin hammock that served as a bed. “You can put your packs there. Ciara will have pelts brought in for you to sleep on. You should be comfortable and warm enough—and anyway we’ll be traveling in just a few days.” “Cuchulainn, what’s going on here?” “I’m preparing to lead the hybrids back to Partholon, of course. The snow has almost thawed enough for the pass to be open again—as you know better than I,” he finished curtly. Brighid shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. I counted at least forty children. I saw only three adults. What is going on here?” she repeated slowly. Cuchulainn pulled off his cloak and ran a hand through his hair, which Brighid noticed was uncharacteristically long and unkempt. “I’m not exactly sure,” he said. “Not sure?” Cuchulainn scowled at her. “That’s right. They’re not what you think. The only thing I know for sure is that the New Fomorians are different.” “Well, of course they’re different!” Brighid wanted to shake Cu. “They’re a mixture of human and Fomorian. There has never been a race like them.” Cuchulainn walked over to the hearth. Stirring the glowing embers to life, he fed them blocks of dried peat from the stack nearby and the coals flamed into a lively, crackling fire. Then he turned and gave Brighid a weary, resigned look. “Take off your packs. Relax. It isn’t much, but I’ll tell you what I know.” As Cuchulainn helped her unload she watched him carefully. Grief and guilt had aged and hardened him, but there was something else about him, something that tickled the edge of her mind but which she couldn’t quite understand. Had the hybrids cast some kind of spell over him? Cuchulainn shunned the spirit realm, and he would have little protection against a magical attack. Though Brighid did not have the training and experience of her mother, she was not a stranger to the powers of the spirit world. Nor was she a stranger to the ways in which powers granted by the Goddess could be twisted and misused. Silently she promised herself that later, when she was free to concentrate, she would see if she could detect any malevolent energy hovering around the settlement. Until then all she could do was what she was best at—finding a trail and following it. “Here,” she said, tossing the warrior a fat skin from her last pack. “Your sister sent you this.” Cuchulainn uncapped the skin, sniffed the liquid within, grunted in pleasure and took a long drink. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and settled onto his cot. “It’s been too long since I’ve tasted wine from Epona’s Temple. My mother would say there is no excuse for living like a barbarian.” “That’s exactly what your sister said.” Cu’s smile looked almost normal for an instant. “I miss her.” “She misses you, too.” He nodded and took another drink of the rich red wine. “Cu, why are there so few adult hybrids?” Brighid asked softly. He met her eyes. “Here’s what I know. I have counted twenty-two full-grown, adult hybrids—twelve females, one of whom has just announced that she is pregnant, and ten males. And there are seventy children ranging in age from infants to young adults. Ciara and the others say that everyone else is dead.” “How?” Brighid’s head reeled at the disparity in numbers. “It was the madness. Ciara says it was more difficult to withstand the older they became. Of the original hybrids born of human mothers only Lochlan, Nevin, Curran, Keir and Fallon remain.” Cuchulainn paused, clenching his jaw. “Of them Fallon is mad.” Brighid nodded. “Her jailors at Guardian Castle say she remains mad. Elphame’s sacrifice didn’t touch her.” “It was too late. She had already accepted the darkness of her father when El drank Lochlan’s blood and took on their madness. Apparently there is no reversing it once it has taken hold.” His stomach tightened as he remembered the horrific scene when Elphame had slit her own wrists, forcing Lochlan to share his blood to save her life. With the hybrid’s blood she had taken within her the madness of a race of demons. “It should have driven El mad, too. It was only through Epona’s power that she remains sane even though the madness lies dormant within her blood.” “But accepting the madness didn’t kill your sister, and it didn’t kill Fallon. How did it kill the other adults?” “Suicide. Ciara says that when a hybrid was no longer able to bear the pain of withstanding the evil within him, he chose suicide rather than a life of violence and hatred.” The Huntress tilted her head and sent him an incredulous look. “So what she’s saying is that someone who has pretty much decided to accept hatred and evil has the capacity to make the ultimate sacrifice of taking his or her own life?” “Yes. As a last act of humanity.” “And you’re believing all of this?” Instead of the anger with which Brighid expected him to respond, Cuchulainn’s expression turned introspective. He took another drink from the wineskin. “At first I didn’t believe any of it. For days I walked around armed, expecting winged demons to jump out at me from behind every rock.” His brows tilted up and some of his old sparkle lit his eyes. “Demons failed to appear. But can you guess what did jump out at me?” Brighid snorted a quick laugh. “If you’d left me to lodge with them I think I would have called them demons. Very small demons, but none the less frightening.” “The children are everywhere. There are so many of them and so few adults that it’s a constant struggle to care for them and keep them fed. Not that they’re helpless—or at least not as helpless as human, or even centaur, children would be at their age. They’re hardy and intelligent. Despite their rather exuberant show when welcoming strangers, they’re incredibly well-behaved.” Cuchulainn met and held Brighid’s sharp gaze. “And they are the happiest beings I’ve ever known.” “There’s nothing new about the young being happy, Cu. Even your silly wolf cub runs and frolics. It is the way of youth before the responsibilities of the world encroach upon their unrealistic dreams for the future.” Cuchulainn heard the bitter undertone in the Huntress’s voice and wondered what had happened in her youth to put it there. “But before Elphame’s sacrifice, the New Fomorian children had no carefree period of innocence. From the day they were born, not only did they have to struggle to survive, but they had to wage a constant war against the dark whisperings within their own blood as they watched their parents succumb to the evil and die around them.” “If that is actually what happened.” “I’m tired, Brighid.” Cuchulainn ran a hand across his brow. “I didn’t come here as a hero who would lead them back to their ancestral homeland. I came here filled with hatred.” Brighid nodded her head slowly. “I know.” “Elphame didn’t. At least I hope she didn’t. I wouldn’t want her to think that I would betray her trust.” He shook his head and held up his hand to stop her when she tried to speak. “No, I don’t mean that I came here with the intention of slaughtering the hybrids. But I was looking to cast blame and to find a battlefield on which to avenge Brenna.” “That wouldn’t bring Brenna back, Cu.” “No, it wouldn’t. And instead of a battlefield or a race of demons I found a people who are imbued with happiness.” He rubbed his brow again. “Happiness is all around me. I’m surrounded by it. But I can feel none of it.” Brighid felt a rush of sympathy for him. Living within a face that was too old for his years, he looked lost and alone. “You need to go home, Cu.” “I need—” Cuchulainn’s words were cut off by a tapping sound against the door flap followed closely by Kyna’s shining head. “Ciara said I should come for you.” She grinned at Cuchulainn. Then her bright eyes and smile flashed at Brighid. “And you, too, Huntress. The evening blessing is about to begin. You don’t want to miss it, do you?” “We’ll be right there, Ky,” Cuchulainn said. The child’s head disappeared. “Evening blessing?” Brighid asked. “They honor Epona every day, both at sunrise and sunset. It’s a little like being back at my mother’s temple.” “Except for the cold, dreary land, the absence of the riches of Partholon, and the presence of hordes of winged children,” Brighid said. Cuchulainn tossed the wineskin back to the Huntress and grabbed his cloak. “Exactly like that.” He paused in front of her on his way out of door. “I am glad you’re here, Brighid.” “So am I, Cu. So am I.” The long, low, rectangular building Brighid had mistaken as a shelter for animals when she’d looked down at the settlement from above was really the general meeting place and, Cu explained, it served as a Great Hall for the hybrids. It was there that Kyna, skipping and dancing, led them, and then, with a parting grin and the promise to sit near them during the meal, she scampered to one of the clusters of waiting children. Although Cuchulainn had prepared Brighid for the number of children, the centaur found herself gaping like an inexperienced foal. There were just so many of them! Winged children were everywhere. It looked as if the entire settlement had gathered in front of the longhouse in a large, loose circle. The children clustered in groups, each surrounding an adult who attentively talked to and kept watch over his or her charges. The sun had almost fallen below the distant western horizon, and the incessant wind had turned even colder and more biting, but not one child cried or complained. They didn’t run around in the undisciplined gamboling typical of youth. They simply stood and waited patiently, even the smallest ones with their tiny wings and wide, bright eyes. Of course they did stare openly at Brighid. But when she met a young one’s gaze, the child returned her look with a wide, sharp-toothed smile. Several of them waved at her. She noticed the boy child, Liam, right away because he made a point to catch her attention by executing a very grown-up bow and sending her a look of total adoration. As if she really was his mentor, she thought with a silent groan. What in the world would she do with a small winged shadow? The door to the longhouse opened and Ciara stepped out. She walked quickly to the center of the circle. The winged woman’s gaze skimmed over the group until it came to rest on Brighid. Her smile turned radiant. “It is a blessed day that is closing!” she proclaimed. The children made small happy sounds while their heads bobbed up and down in vigorous agreement. All eyes turned to the Huntress. “Until today we knew of the noble race of centaurs only from memories of our mothers and our mothers’ mothers, and from the stories we have told. But today we are honored by the presence of the famous MacCallan Huntress, Brighid Dhianna. Let us give thanks to our Goddess for yet another day and the new blessing with which she has gifted us.” Feeling the weight of all of those young eyes, Brighid wanted to fidget or, better yet, escape. Thankfully, when Ciara raised her arms and turned to face the west all the children and adults turned with her, focusing their eyes on the horizon. But as Ciara’s clear voice rang out strong and sweet, evoking the timeless ritual of Epona’s evening blessing, Brighid found curiosity and surprise pulling her eyes from the west to the delicate form of the winged woman. O Epona, Goddess of beauty and of magnificence Goddess of laughter and joyous strength. At this setting day we begin our thanksgiving looking to the west, the way of water, and we are washed in the blessings of another day. Today we thank You for guiding the Huntress to us, she who is born of a noble race. Bound in honor. Rich in tradition. Ciara was standing with her arms raised and her head thrown back. Her dark wings unfurled and lifted around her, rippling smoothly against the cold evening wind. Brighid drew in a surprised breath. The winged woman’s body was outlined by a glittering haze that during the past two moons had become very familiar to Brighid. It was the same shimmering power she had seen countless times when Elphame called upon Epona’s name. “You didn’t expect that, did you?” Cuchulainn whispered. Brighid could only shake her head and continue to stare at the Goddess-touched hybrid. O Goddess of our hearts protectress of things wild and free we thank You for Your bright presence here and for Your power that works through water… Arms still raised, Ciara turned to her right, and the group followed her movements. Through earth… She turned again to the right. Through air… Again, the group followed her in the sacred circle by turning to face the south. And through fire. Then Ciara and the group closed the circle by turning again to the west. At the moment the sun sank into the earth, she lifted her voice joyously, threw wide her arms, and called, Strike, Goddess lights! Brighid gasped as two torches staked just outside the longhouse door flamed into bright, burning light. This is a day of bounty and of joy, worthy to be celebrated, as in times far ancient our mothers taught us to honor You, O Goddess. Your light will ever guide those who have been lost in the dark. All hail Epona! “All hail Epona!” the group shouted and the circle broke as smiling children made their way amidst lots of giggling talk into the longhouse. Brighid felt like her hooves had been rooted to the cold ground. “By the hot holy breath of the Goddess, she has fire magic!” Her words exploded at Cuchulainn. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Over the past two moons I have learned that some things must be seen to be fully appreciated. Come on, Huntress.” Much like he would have his sister, Cu wrapped his arm through Brighid’s and guided the stunned centaur toward the longhouse. “I told you understanding them is not as easy as you might think.” Chapter 6 “You couldn’t have told me about this, either?” Brighid muttered to Cu as she stepped inside the longhouse. “There really wasn’t time,” he said under his breath. “And I don’t think the simple telling of it would have been adequate.” It was a beautiful building. More rectangular than circular the two longest walls supported huge hearths in which fires crackled merrily around enormous, bubbling pots that, from the wonderful smells drifting throughout the room, must be filled with wellspiced stew. Long rows of trestle tables were formed by smoothed wooden planks resting snugly atop stone pillars that had been carved to look like blooming flowers. But what drew Brighid’s eye were the walls of the great building. From the outside they looked like the walls of Cu’s small lodge, but on the inside they had been meticulously smoothed and covered with painted scenes so lovely they rivaled any of the treasured pieces of art gracing the marble walls and hallowed halls of Epona’s Temple. The centermost scene was breathtaking. A silver mare, silhouetted in the golden light of a rising sun, arched her proud neck and presided regally over the room. The mare’s eyes were wise—her gaze benevolent. All around her vignettes of Partholon had been brought to life with a master’s hand. There was the Temple of Epona, glistening with pearlized walls and stately carved columns. The Temple of the Muse’s elegant grounds were filled with silk-clad women, frozen in time, clustered around each of the nine Incarnate Goddesses, listening in rapt attention to their daily lessons. There was even a scene wherein two centaurs raced through wither-deep grass that Brighid easily recognized as the Centaur Plains. Framing each one of the scenes were intricate knots that hid birds and flowers and animals indigenous to a land much more hospitable than the Wastelands. “It’s truly amazing,” Brighid said. “I’m pleased you like it,” Ciara said. With an elegant unfolding of her hand she motioned to a section of one of the tables that had been arranged away from the others. The benchlike sitting area on one side of it had been removed to accommodate Brighid’s equine body. The other side remained fashioned for more diminutive human hindquarters. “I hope this will be comfortable for you. I thought Cuchulainn and I could join you, here apart from the others, so that you would not be deluged with the constant questioning of the young.” Ciara led them to their seats as Liam and Kyna hurried over with trays of steaming food. “Well, with two possible exceptions,” Ciara whispered to the Huntress. Brighid eyed the eagerly waiting children with suspicion. Their inquisitive looks made her more uncomfortable than a pack of starving coyotes. The moment she sat beside the table, Liam rushed forward and ladled for her a generous portion of thick stew filled with chunks of potato, meat and barley, and a side dish of warm greens that smelled a lot like spinach. “The wildgreens are special for you, Brighid.” Liam’s nervous excitement brimmed over and spilled around them. “They’re a real treat so early in the spring. I, um, I mean we hope you like them.” “I’m sure I will. Everything smells wonderful.” Brighid smiled tentatively at the boy. He practically wriggled out of his skin with pleasure. “Can Fand eat at our table, Cu?” Kyna asked the warrior as he helped himself to the wildgreens she offered. “Of course, but be sure she stays under the table. Not on it,” Cu said. “Leave the trays and go eat now,” Ciara prompted when the two children looked as though they would be content to stand all night and watch every move Brighid made as she attempted to eat under their intense scrutiny. They obeyed, but reluctantly, still throwing curious looks over their shoulders at the beautiful centaur. “The children are enamored with you, Huntress,” Ciara said with a smile. Cuchulainn glanced up at Brighid from under his brows. “It’s a relief to have them obsessed with someone else,” he said around bites of stew. Ciara laughed. “Oh, do not think they have forgotten you, Warrior.” Cu scowled and turned his attention back to his bowl. Brighid ate silently, letting her eyes dwell on the incredible scenes that filled the walls. “I sense that you are surprised by our artwork,” Ciara said. Brighid’s gaze shifted to her. “Yes,” she said frankly. “I am.” Ciara’s warm smile didn’t waver. “You wouldn’t be if you knew the story of our birth.” “I know some of it—that your people come from a group of women stolen from Partholon by the Fomorians during the war more than one hundred years ago. When the Fomorians realized they were losing the war, they escaped into the Trier Mountains with as many human women as they could capture. They planned to hide there and grow strong again, replenishing themselves with a new generation of demons born of human women. Eventually they would return to attack Partholon again.” “Yes, that much is true. What else do you know?” Brighid lifted one shoulder. “Only what Lochlan told us. That the Fomorians escaped the Partholonian warriors, but they couldn’t escape the plague brought to them by Epona’s outrage at the violation of her women. The demons grew sick and weakened. Then a group of pregnant women, led by Lochlan’s mother, attacked their captors, killed them, and searched through the mountains, helping the other groups of women rise against their captors, too.” Ciara nodded and took up the thread of the story. “Their plan was to return to Partholon. They knew their pregnancies meant death sentences for them. No human woman had ever survived the birth of a child fathered by a demon. It was their desire to return to their homes where they would die surrounded by their loved ones.” Ciara’s beautiful face glowed with the telling of the tale and Brighid listened, entranced by the Shaman’s singsong voice. “But then the impossible happened. As they began the journey back to Partholon, Morrigan MacCallan went into labor and survived the birth. She brought forth a boy child who had wings as well as the spark of humanity. She looked upon her son with the fierce love of a mother, and named him Lochlan. And then another woman survived the birth of her infant. And another. And another.” Ciara paused, holding Brighid’s eyes with her own. “What were the women to do? Some would say they should have killed or abandoned their children and returned to the lives that waited for them in their beloved Partholon. The infants were, after all, the spawn of demons. But their mothers did not see them as such. They saw their humanity instead. So Epona led the young mothers here, to our canyon, where they built new lives from the dreams of their old world. And here we have stayed for more than one hundred years, waiting to fulfill those mothers’ dreams by returning to the world they loved with a depth of spirit second only to their love for their children.” “And Epona gave Lochlan’s mother The Prophecy, which he fulfilled after dreaming of Elphame and following that dream to Partholon,” Brighid said quickly without looking at Cuchulainn. She didn’t want to speak of the events that had led Fallon to follow Lochlan to MacCallan Castle. She had despaired of Lochlan fulfilling the Prophecy because she knew he had fallen in love with Elphame. So Fallon killed Brenna to lure Elphame away from the safety of her Clan. “That I know, but it doesn’t explain all of this.” The centaur pointed at the lovely paintings. “Oh, but it does. You see, the largest group of pregnant women were captured during the great battle at the Temple of the Muse.” Brighid’s eyes widened in understanding. “So many of you are descended from either Incarnate Goddesses of the Muse, or their acolytes.” “That’s right. You already know that I am granddaughter of the Incarnate Goddess Terpsichore, Muse of the Dance. This room is filled with descendants of all nine of the Goddesses. Our mothers and grandmothers knew the magic of the Muses, and they passed that knowledge along to us. It was their greatest wish that the wonder of Partholon not die in the Wastelands. Does the beauty surrounding you now make sense?” “It does indeed,” Brighid said softly. Throughout Partholon the Temple of the Muse was known for its various schools of learning and the exceptional women who lived and trained there. Epona’s own Chosen was always educated by the Incarnate Goddesses of the Muse. The Huntress considered Ciara’s words. There were many more layers to this situation than she had anticipated. And layers meant things were rarely as they at first seemed. “Your mother was daughter to Terpsichore’s Incarnate Goddess of the Dance, and your father?” Sadness crossed the winged woman’s expressive face. “He was the son of an acolyte devoted to Calliope who was captured by the Fomorians, raped and impregnated when she was thirteen years old. Really just a child herself…” Ciara’s voice trailed off. “Where are your parents now?” Brighid forced herself to ask. Before she answered, Ciara looked at Cuchulainn. The warrior returned her gaze steadily, with eyes that had once more gone flat and expressionless. She turned slowly back to Brighid. When she spoke her voice was shadowed with grief. “More than two decades ago my parents committed suicide. They chose to die in each other’s arms before they succumbed to the evil that was choking the humanity from them. As they wished, I scattered their ashes into the south.” Ciara’s eyes pierced Brighid almost as fully as did her next words. “I am my people’s Shaman. Trained by my mother, who followed the ways of her mother, the Beloved of Terpsichore. I would not lie to you, Huntress. I sense you have knowledge of the Shaman Way. Can you not discern the truth in my words?” Brighid felt more than saw Cuchulainn straighten in his seat. She hadn’t told anyone—not Cu, not even his sister. How did Ciara know? “Shamans can lie,” Brighid said. “I know that from my own experiences.” “Yes, they can.” Ciara’s open, honest face was tinged with sadness. “But I do not.” “They all committed suicide,” Brighid said. “Not all. Most did. The others…” Ciara looked away. She laced the fingers of her hands together. Her knuckles whitened under the pressure with which she held herself together. “The madness claimed the others and shortly afterward they died, too.” “It pains you to speak of it,” Brighid said. “Yes, very much.” Ciara forced her hands apart and pressed her palms into the smooth wood of the table. “You have to understand what happened to us when Elphame fulfilled The Prophecy and took the madness from our blood. All these long years we fought against the evil within us, even though it caused us pain and each battle cost us a piece of our humanity. And then suddenly that great, sucking evil was gone.” Ciara’s breath caught and her eyes glistened as she relived the moment. “What is left within each of us now is what we fought so hard to keep. Our goodness. Our humanity. We want to move forward—to become the people our human mothers believed us to be so long ago. When I remember the horrors of the past and those of us who were defeated before salvation came, it feels like I am deconstructing the fortress of goodness within my mind. Grief and sadness drift into darkened corners. Disillusion moves in until breathing in remembrance does nothing but barricade the doors and seal in pain.” She didn’t turn to look at Cuchulainn, but Brighid felt that Ciara was speaking more to him than to her. “Dwelling on tragedy makes grief become like a dripping icicle that begins as a small, harmless sliver of coldness. But slowly, as the winter of mourning progresses, layer after dripping layer hardens into an unbreakable dagger of pain.” Ciara straightened her back and turned her hands, so that they rested palm up in a gesture of openness and supplication. “Test me, Huntress. I know you have the ability to discern any falseness in my words. I welcome your scrutiny.” Brighid ignored Cuchulainn, who had stopped eating and was staring at her with a mixed expression of surprise and revulsion. She drew in a long breath and focused her keen powers of observation—powers that were, just as Ciara had sensed, enhanced by the rich Shaman heritage that was her birthright—upon the winged woman. As when she searched out prey for her Clan, the Huntress scented more than the air. She breathed in the spiritual essence of that which she sought. And what she sought there in the longhouse was the dark spoor left by evil and lies. Ciara sat still and serene, waiting patiently for the Huntress to search her spirit and see what lived there. “You’re not hiding anything from us,” Brighid finally said. Ciara’s smile was radiant again. “No, Huntress. I am not hiding anything from you. But if it would rest your mind, I invite you to travel with me on a true spirit journey to the Upperworld, and I will pledge before Epona Herself that my words are truth.” Brighid felt a cold fist close around her heart. Using her innate powers to feed her Clan or to know the truth about Ciara and therefore keep the MacCallans safe, was one thing. To her it was no different than piercing the heart of a noble stag with an arrow. It was not pleasant, but it was something she must do in order to fulfill the path she had chosen for her life. But she would not travel on a spirit journey. She knew only too well who she would meet. “No,” she said a little too quickly. “That won’t be necessary, Ciara.” “You have the power within you, but you do not take the Sacred Journey?” “No. I am a Huntress, not a Shaman.” Ciara opened her mouth, and then changed her mind and simply nodded slowly. “We each must find our own path.” Cuchulainn stood so abruptly that he almost knocked aside the bench. “It is time I retire for the night.” Ciara made no attempt to hide her disappointment. “But the storytelling will begin shortly. The children will be asking for you.” “Not tonight,” he said curtly. “I, too, must ask your indulgence that you allow me to retire early. My journey here has been a long and tiring one,” Brighid said, rising gracefully and walking around the table to stand beside Cuchulainn. Ciara’s disappointment turned quickly to a gentle look of understanding. “Of course. Rest well tonight, Brighid.” Before they turned to leave, Cuchulainn said in his terse voice, “Tomorrow I want to explore the pass. I think it might be clear enough that we can begin our journey soon.” “That’s an excellent idea. I’ll make plans to join you,” Ciara said. Cuchulainn grunted. Without waiting for the Huntress, he strode briskly out the door, leaving Brighid to smile and wave apologetic goodbyes to the disappointed children. Torches were lit all over the settlement and it didn’t take long for Brighid’s sharp eyes to pick out his hunched back as he walked briskly between lodges. She caught up with him easily. “You have Shaman powers,” he said without looking at her. “Yes. Though I choose not to, I do have the ability to travel the Sacred Journey and to commune with the spirit realm. It’s in my blood—” she paused and glanced at his stony profile “—from my mother. She is Mairearad Dhianna.” Her words brought him up short. “You are the daughter of the High Shaman of the Dhianna Herd?” “I am.” “Which daughter?” Brighid set her face in carefully neutral lines. “The eldest.” He shook his head in disbelief. “But your herd’s tradition is that you follow your mother as High Shaman.” “I have broken with tradition.” “Yet you carry that power within you,” he said. “Yes! You sound like I just announced that I carry within me a rare plague. Your father is a High Shaman, too. Don’t you know a little of what it’s like to have the power and to choose not to walk the exact path it wishes to lead you down?” Cuchulainn’s jaw clenched and unclenched. “You already know the answer to that, Brighid. I want no traffic with the spirit realm.” The Huntress threw up her hands in frustration. “There are other ways to deal with the powers that touch our lives than to totally reject them.” “Not for me.” He ground out the words between his teeth. “Your sister is the eldest daughter of Epona’s Chosen. Tradition holds that she should follow her mother as The Beloved of Epona, yet all who know her understand that it is her destiny to be The MacCallan. She has not turned from the powers inherent in her blood. She used her affinity for earth magic to bring MacCallan Castle alive. Like her, I have chosen not to follow tradition, but I do not completely reject the gifts of my heritage.” He was silent, staring at her like she was a pariah. Brighid sighed, keeping her growing anger in check by reminding herself it wasn’t her he battled against—it was himself. “My affinity is for the spirits of animals.” His eyes narrowed. “That’s why your abilities as a Huntress are so vast.” Brighid snorted. “I like to think that I use my affinity to enhance rather than to create my abilities.” “I don’t see any difference in the two.” “Be very careful, Cuchulainn. Remember that you speak to your Clan’s Huntress. I will not tolerate your slander.” Brighid’s voice was tightly controlled, but her eyes were bright with anger. Cuchulainn hesitated for only an instant before he nodded slowly. “You are quite right to remind me, Huntress. Please accept my apology.” “Accepted,” she said shortly. “Would you rather lodge elsewhere?” he asked. She snorted again, letting some of the tension relax out of her shoulders. “Is sending me into a lodge filled with children how you plan to torture me for my transgression into the spirit realm?” “No,” he said quickly. “I just thought that you might not—” “Let’s just get some sleep.” “Agreed,” he said. They walked on in silence. Brighid could sense the turmoil within the grim warrior who stalked beside her. He was a notched arrow waiting to explode. When he spoke suddenly, his voice sounded like it came from a tomb. “You would have used your powers to save her, wouldn’t you?” She looked quickly over at him, but he did not meet her eyes. “Of course I would have, but my gift isn’t one of preordination. I already told you I simply have an affinity for…” But her voice faded as she realized what he was really saying. He had been forewarned of Brenna’s death by a premonition of danger. A warning he had rejected just as he had always rejected anything from the spirit realm. She stopped and placed a hand on his shoulder, turning him so that he had to look at her. “No matter how much you punish yourself or me or your sister, Brenna will remain dead.” “I’m not punishing you or Elphame.” She raised one eyebrow. “I—I can’t seem to get away from it!” “It?” she asked. “The pain of her loss.” She felt the tightness of his shoulder muscles under her hand. What could she say to him? She wasn’t good at dealing with raw emotions. It was one reason she had chosen to become a Huntress. She’d wanted to leave the emotional turmoil of her old life behind. Animals were simple. They didn’t agonize or manipulate or lie. Cuchulainn needed to talk to a Shaman, not a Huntress. But the warrior wouldn’t turn to a Shaman. By process of elimination she was all he had. “I don’t know what to tell you, Cu,” she said honestly. “But it seems to me that you can’t run away from that kind of pain. You have to face it. And then you decide if you’re going to heal and go on, or if you’re going to live life as one of the walking wounded. I do know which Brenna would choose for you.” He looked at her with old, tired eyes and tunneled a finger down the center of his forehead. “I know, too. I keep thinking that if I make her angry enough at me she will at least come to my dreams to berate me.” His dry, humorless laugh sounded more like a sob. “She doesn’t come. She won’t. I’ve rejected the spirit realm and that’s where she is.” Helplessly Brighid watched his agony. “You need to rest, Cu.” He nodded and, like a man sleepwalking, he moved forward again along the path to their lodge. He reminded Brighid of a wounded animal. He needed a miracle to heal him, or someone needed to put him out of his misery. Chapter 7 The hearth fire had burned down to glowing coals, but Brighid’s sharp eyes needed very little light. She thought he was finally asleep. From her side of the lodge, she had watched the warrior struggle into sleep. It was as if his body fought against relaxation as another way to punish himself. No wonder he looked so haggard. What he needed was a cup of one of Brenna’s notorious tea concoctions to make him rest. The Huntress let out a long, slow breath. No, what Cuchulainn needed was Brenna. She was tired, too. What she had told Ciara about needing to retire early had been true. She rearranged her folded equine limbs and curled more comfortably on her side, breathing in the light, pleasing fragrance of the dwarf heather that covered the floor of the lodge. Her eyelids felt heavy, but she resisted the urge to sleep. Not yet. She had something she needed to see to first. And now that Cuchulainn was asleep she could begin. Staring into the glowing rust-colored coals she relaxed her body while she deepened and slowed her breathing. She would not take herself into the trance state that led to a Sacred Journey, but she did need the focused concentration of meditation, which was only the first step to the spirit world. Brighid wouldn’t travel further, though. She wouldn’t allow that. She never allowed that. Against the backdrop of the glowing coals, the Huntress pictured herself as she had been earlier that day when she had stood at the edge of the canyon precipice and first glimpsed the hybrid settlement below. She saw the neatly arranged camp and the well-constructed buildings. Then she looked again, but this time she saw with the senses beyond her eyes. The scene rippled, like breath blowing over water, and the colors changed. The dull gray and rust of the Wastelands shifted and was suddenly washed in a bright halo of green—a color that radiated life and health and the promise of spring. Brighid allowed herself to fall deeper into the trance and she expanded her senses. The halo of green intensified and her spirit sight became clearer. The light was actually coming from dozens of shining orbs that flickered brilliantly against the dreary colors of the Wastelands. Before she could focus her concentration more, she Felt something else, but she sensed it wasn’t coming from the settlement. In her vision there came a sudden tingling awareness from behind her. She imagined turning, and the mountains wavered and became red, as if they were bathed in blood. Startled, Brighid’s concentration broke and she was once more staring into the remains of the hearth fire. What did it all mean? She wished she had her mother’s knowledge. Think! she ordered herself. The hybrid camp had been painted in ethereal green. There were no negative connotations with that color. In the spirit realm it represented what it did in the physical world—growth and prosperity and life beginning anew. Had she seen any dark tinges within the verdant halo? No…Brighid sifted through the memory of her meditation. Ciara had been telling the truth. She was hiding no evil—at least no evil that Brighid could discover. Then her thoughts turned to the brief glimpse she’d had of the mountains. Their aura had definitely been scarlet. And the Feeling radiating from them had been different, more complex, tinged in darkness. Her brow furrowed and she restlessly shifted her bent legs. The mountain range had been named Trier, which was the word in the Old Language for the color red, for the red rocks and the small red-leafed plant that carpeted the lower slopes during the warmer months. Was that what her vision had reflected? That the mountains were aptly named and even in spirit they were red. Or did it go deeper than that? In the spirit realm the color red carried complex, conflicting symbolism. It stood for passion, but it also represented hatred. It foretold birth as well as death. She simply wasn’t certain—she glanced at the restlessly sleeping form of Cuchulainn—she wasn’t certain of anything here, except that she would remain alert and guard against anything that threatened her Clan. Brighid closed her eyes, but sleep didn’t come easily. She kept hearing the phantom sound of wings and seeing the horizon drenched in the scarlet color of blood. The morning was still young. The day had dawned bright and breezy, with an almost imperceptible shifting of the ever-present wind from the relentless frigid north to a slightly gentler northwesterly current that brought with it the distinct and enticing scent of the sea. Cu and Brighid had joined Ciara in the morning blessing ceremony, and after breaking their fast the three of them retraced the path Brighid and Cu had taken the day before, all the way to the mouth of the hidden mountain pass. But something wasn’t right. Ciara Felt it deep within her spirit. The closer they got to the mountains the more intensely she Felt the wrongness. It was more than just her lifelong dislike of the rocky barrier that divided them from Partholon and all that was good and green and growing. Today she Felt the warning crawl across her skin and lodge inside of her like the bite of a venomous spider. She wanted to believe it was just her imagination, just the fact that the Trier Mountains symbolized so many negatives. But she wasn’t an ordinary maiden. Ciara was her people’s Shaman; she didn’t need to be on a Sacred Journey to recognize a message from the spirit realm. She needed to get away from the mountains and the unease they seemed to be evoking. Then she could retreat to her lodge and open herself to the Sacred Journey. There Ciara could call upon her spirit guides to help her sort through the warning that had shaken her all the way to her soul. She realized she had been ready to bolt from the shadow of the mountains when Cu’s voice broke through her inner tumult and anchored her back in the physical world. “It’s melted quite a bit. If the weather holds, and all the signs say that it will, the trail should be passable in the next couple days,” Cuchulainn said thoughtfully, nodding his head while he squinted into the still snow-speckled path that led between two sheer edges of red rock and directly into the mountains. “You really think so?” Ciara forced her voice not to betray the fear that his words had sent spiraling through her. “I can’t see why not. It will, of course, be a difficult journey. But you said yourself that winter has broken.” He nodded his head at the narrow path. “At least there won’t be any more snow to block the way.” The Huntress watched Ciara and Cuchulainn as they peered into the dark slash in the ancient walls of rock. She folded her arms across her breast and shook her head at them. “You two must be totally mad.” The warrior frowned, but the winged woman simply shifted her gaze to the Huntress. “What are you talking about?” Cu asked. “What am I talking about? Better ask yourselves that question.” “Explain yourself, Huntress,” Cu growled. Brighid curled her lip at him. “By the Goddess, it’s simple! You cannot take seventy children through that pass. Not in a couple days, nor in a couple turns of the moon.” Cuchulainn opened his mouth to bluster, but Ciara’s calm voice interrupted his rant. “What do you mean, Brighid?” “I mean it’s clearly too dangerous. Maybe it was different when Cu came through it two moons ago, but today it would be a difficult journey for a party of adults. For children it is impossible.” “Our children are special,” Ciara said softly. “They are not normal children.” “Regardless, they are still children. No matter how strong, their legs are only so long. I’ve watched them. Some of them are barely gliding, which means adults, or the older children, would have to carry the littlest ones. That would double the danger and difficulty.” Brighid spoke matter-of-factly, in the logical emotionless voice of a Huntress discussing the tracking of game. “You’re certain? Even if we took them through in small groups?” Cu asked. “Small groups would be better, but still dangerous. Travel would be slow, so they would be forced to spend the night in the pass. And that would be a night without fire.” Brighid glanced at the Shaman who had so easily wielded the power of flame. “Fire would weaken the snow that is already thawing on the walls of the pass.” “Avalanche,” Cu said. The warrior shook his head in selfdisgust. He hadn’t thought of that, and he should have. “But small groups could work?” Brighid lifted one shoulder. “I suppose.” The Shaman’s dark eyes caught hers. “If they were your children, would you chance taking them through the pass, even in small groups?” “No.” “If you would not lead your own children through, I will not lead ours,” Ciara said. Cuchulainn raised his brows at the quickness of the winged woman’s decision, but they were her people and it was her choice to make. “Then we’ll have to wait until late summer to lead the children through, when there is no more snow on the walls of the pass,” he said slowly. He could already feel the weight of the children’s disappointment when they found out that they would not be traveling to the land of their dreams for several more turns of the moon. “Not necessarily,” Brighid said. “But you just said—” Cu said gruffly. “I said this pass was too dangerous for the children. But this is not the only pass into Partholon.” Cuchulainn jerked in surprise. “Guardian Pass!” “Exactly.” The Huntress looked pleased with herself. “I hadn’t even considered it, but you’re right. It does make the most sense. It’s wider, well-marked and well-maintained. Probably even passable today.” “It’s guarded by warriors from Guardian Castle.” Ciara’s soft voice shook only slightly. “Their sole charge is to keep Fomorians from entering Partholon.” “You aren’t our enemies. My sister’s sacrifice promises that,” Cu said gruffly. “But that is where she was taken to be imprisoned.” Cuchulainn’s body jerked as if someone had struck him. The she Ciara spoke of was Fallon, the mad hybrid who had murdered Brenna. After Fallon had been captured, Elphame had sentenced her to death as retribution for the taking of Brenna’s life, but the hybrid had been pregnant, and not even Cuchulainn had been willing to sacrifice an unborn child to pay the debt its mother owed. So Fallon had been taken to Guardian Castle to be imprisoned until the birth of her child. It was there that she would eventually be executed. “Yes,” Cuchulainn clipped the word. “Fallon is jailed there.” “So won’t the people assume we are as she is?” Ciara asked, eyes luminous with feeling. “Won’t they already hate us?” “You aren’t responsible for Fallon’s actions,” Brighid said. “She chose madness and violence. None of the rest of you did.” “The warriors are honorable men and women. They will treat you justly,” Cuchulainn said. Brighid slanted a look at him, considering the irony of the situation. Here was Cu, reassuring Ciara about something that he had struggled with himself. He had been ready to treat the New Fomorians unjustly—he had already admitted that to her. But their goodness had been obvious, even to a grieving warrior. If Cuchulainn could look past their wings and their fathers’ blood, wouldn’t the Guardian Warriors be able to do the same, too? Brighid desperately hoped so. “If they were my children, taking them through Guardian Pass is the only way I would lead them into Partholon,” the Huntress said. Ciara looked from the Huntress to the warrior. “If you believe it is for the best, then it is through Guardian Pass that we will enter Partholon.” Cuchulainn grunted and looked eastward. “What do you think? Is it about a two-day trip?” Brighid asked, following his gaze. “With children? I’d say you better double that.” “I thought you knew the children better than that, Cuchulainn.” Before Cu could answer the winged woman, Brighid snorted. “You’ll have ample opportunity to show us how special your young ones are. How soon can all of you be ready to travel?” “Whenever you say. We have been ready since the snow began melting. And we have been awaiting this journey for more than one hundred years.” “We leave at first light,” Cu said. “First light it is then,” Ciara said firmly. “We should hurry back so I can tell the others.” With those words, Ciara spread her dark wings and moved quickly over the rocky ground in the distinctive gliding run her people had inherited from their fathers. She heard the pounding of hooves as the centaur and Cuchulainn’s gelding galloped behind her. She had Felt the tightness within her loosen when they decided not to take the hidden path and instead chose the way through Guardian Pass, but the suffocating sense of wrongness did not dissipate until they were well out of the shadow of the mountains and back on the rough flat terrain of the Wastelands. The Shaman’s mind whirred as her legs pumped rhythmically. Why had she been sent the warning? The obvious answer was that the spirit realm agreed with the Huntress—the hidden path was too dangerous for the children to navigate. But the answer seemed too simplistic for such an intense reaction. The Huntress had easily recognized the danger, and Ciara already believed the centaur’s judgment was honest and accurate. She would have listened to her, as did Cuchulainn, without any prompting from the spirit realm. It seemed a waste of time for the spirits to compound the warning needlessly. One thing she understood very well from her experience with the world of the spirits was that they never wasted their powers and their warnings should never be discounted as needless. She must find time to take the Sacred Journey and discover what the other realm was trying to tell her. It was always wise to heed the warnings of the spirits. Chapter 8 “I didn’t think they could do it,” Brighid said under her breath as she and Cuchulainn approached the heart of the settlement where every member of the New Fomorians had gathered. From the smallest winged child to the beautiful Ciara, they were all waiting expectantly for the centaur and the warrior who would lead them into the land they only knew from paintings and stories and the dreams of women who were long dead. “It is first light, and we are ready,” Ciara said. “We were just waiting for the two of you.” Brighid noted the very obvious glint of pride in the winged woman’s eyes, but she found it hard to blame her. The children were lined up like little warriors, each with a pack strapped to his or her back. The adults were more heavily burdened, and the Huntress counted five of them who carried leather slings across the front of their bodies in which rested the smallest of the children. The majority of the provisions for the trip were neatly piled onto litters which, Brighid snorted with surprise, were strapped to shaggyhaired goats. They were definitely ready to travel. Cuchulainn found his voice first. “Well done.” He nodded at the grinning children but didn’t return their smiles. “Our way lies first to the east before we turn south and enter Partholon.” He swung astride his gelding and, clucking, trotted off toward the rising sun. Brighid moved to his side and jumped only a little when the group behind them started out with a deafening cheer. Then one small voice began an ancient song sung for generations by the children of Partholon as greeting to Epona’s sun. Greetings to you, sun of Epona as you travel the skies on high, with your strong steps on the wing of the heights you are the happy mother of the stars. Soon another child joined the song and then another and another, until the morning echoed with the happy sound of children’s voices raised in praise to their Goddess. You sink down in the perilous ocean without harm and without hurt. You rise up on the quiet wave like a young chieftain in flower… “It’s going to be a damned long journey,” Brighid said with a sigh. “That it is,” Cuchulainn said. “But it could be worse.” “How?” “They could be riding you.” Brighid couldn’t tell for sure over the blaring noise of seventy singing children, but she thought the warrior might have been chuckling softly. As midday moved toward afternoon and then evening, Brighid decided that without a doubt the Wastelands was the gloomiest place she’d ever had the misfortune to visit. It had only taken them a few hours to reach the mountains. Once within the shadow of the stark red giants, Cuchulainn had turned their group east, and for the remainder of the morning they’d been paralleling the mountain range. Brighid’s gaze slid over the land. Ugly, she thought as she took in the jutting shale and the low, spindly plants that masqueraded as foliage. Besides being damned ugly, the place set her nerves on edge. It appeared flat and easy to navigate, but in truth the land held sudden gorges like wounds slashed into the ground. Shale littered the cold, hard landscape. It would be too easy for a hoof to misstep. One mistake, even at this sedate pace, and it would be a simple thing to snap her leg. The mountains were no better than the land they bordered. Red and intimidating they looked like silent sentinels, which, oddly enough, wasn’t a positive connotation. But maybe mountains were supposed to be intimidating and awe-inspiring. Brighid had little experience with such terrain. The only landmark she could use for comparison was the Blue Tors, the soft, rolling hills that separated the northwestern edge of the Centaur Plains from the rest of Partholon. The Tors didn’t qualify as actual mountains, even though they appeared impressive when compared to the flatness and open freedom of the Centaur Plains. They definitely weren’t anything like the looming red barrier of the Trier range. The Blue Tors were round and so covered with thick, flourishing trees that from a distance they appeared to be a hazy sapphire color. Where the Tors were welcoming and filled with greenery and wildlife, the Trier Mountains were the exact opposite. Brighid eyed the hulking Triers uneasily, once again glad Cu and Ciara had heeded her advice and not tried to take the children through the dangerous hidden pass. From behind her the shared laughter of two young girls drifted on the endlessly restless wind. The Huntress didn’t need to look back to know what she’d see. Little wings unfurled to almost skim the ground, the girls would have their heads together, giggling with delight over…over…Brighid snorted. Over the Goddess only knew what! How those children could find such joy and blatant happiness when all that surrounded them—all that they’d ever known—was the dismal Wastelands and a struggle for life that would have been daunting for an adult centaur was beyond Brighid. And they were mere children! It amazed her as much as it confused her. “You’re looking almost as pensive as the warrior,” Ciara said. Brighid glanced over at the winged woman who had matched her gliding pace with the Huntress’s steady gait. “That can’t be a compliment.” Brighid jerked her head sardonically at the pole-straight back of Cuchulainn. “I can’t imagine a gloomier traveling partner.” The warrior had consistently kept ahead of the group so that, even though he led almost one hundred gregarious travelers, he had spent most of the day alone. He spoke as little as possible, and rarely interacted with them. By midday Brighid had given up trying to engage him in conversation and she had decided—reluctantly—that she preferred to travel on the outskirts of the children’s jubilation rather than in the dark cloud that shrouded Cuchulainn. Ciara’s smile was as warm as her voice. “It was meant as neither compliment nor insult. It was simply an observation, Huntress.” Brighid acknowledged the winged woman’s words with a slight nod. “Actually I wasn’t thinking about Cu. I was thinking about the children. They’re doing well. Much better than I anticipated,” she admitted. Ciara’s smile widened. “I told you they were special.” More happy laughter drifted to them on the wind. Brighid snorted. “They’re aberrations!” Ciara’s bright look instantly faded and Brighid realized her unintentional slur. “Now it’s me who must explain. What I meant was not an insult,” she said quickly. “I admit I have not spent much time around children—a Huntress’s life rarely includes a mate and offspring. But what little I know of them did not lead me to expect such…” She trailed off, searching for the right word before concluding, “Optimism.” Ciara’s face relaxed back into its familiar, open expression. “It would be difficult for them not to be filled with optimism. Their every dream is coming true—our every dream is coming true.” As usual, the Huntress spoke her mind. “You cannot believe that returning to Partholon will be an easy thing.” “Easy is relative, don’t you think?” Brighid raised a questioning eyebrow. “Consider, Huntress, how it would feel if your people had been living for over one hundred years in a barren, dangerous land with demons in your very souls—demons that were slowly, methodically destroying you, as well as those you loved. And then, unbelievably, you survived it. What wouldn’t seem easy after such a life?” “Ciara, Partholon is a beautiful, prosperous land, but you must remember that there are many types of dangers and many ways to destroy a soul.” Ciara met and held her gaze. “With Epona’s aid we will survive this transition.” Brighid studied Cuchulainn’s rigid back. Sometimes survival could be crueler than a quick, painless end. Ciara followed the Huntress’s gaze, and as if reading her mind she said, “The warrior’s soul is shattered.” Brighid’s eyes jerked back to the winged woman, but she said nothing. “May I ask you something, Huntress?” “You may ask. I cannot promise to answer,” Brighid said curtly. Ciara’s lips tilted up. “It is not my intention to pry—or to offend. But as a Shaman it is difficult for me to watch another’s suffering without attempting to…” She hesitated, moving her shoulders restlessly. “He won’t accept your help,” Brighid said bluntly. “I realize that. But there are ways a Shaman can be of aid whether or not the subject is particularly willing.” At Brighid’s narrowed gazed Ciara laughed. “I can assure you that I harbor no ulterior motives, and I would not intrude upon the warrior’s privacy.” Then her expression sobered. “But he is in such pain I cannot stand by without at least attempting to give him some relief.” Brighid felt the truth of Ciara’s words settle deep within her. “Ask your question, Shaman.” “What was Cuchulainn like before the death of his lover?” The Huntress raised her brows, taken aback by the question. She had expected Ciara to ask about Brenna or about her death, or even about how Cuchulainn had reacted to the murder, but Brighid hadn’t expected the winged woman to ask about before. Reacting to Brighid’s obvious surprise, Ciara lowered her voice to be certain none of her words carried on the wind. “Sometimes, when fate has been too harsh and the trauma of life’s personal tragedies, illnesses, or crises are more than can be borne, a person’s soul literally fragments—disintegrates—and pieces of it are lost in the Realm of Spirits, leaving the individual feeling broken…lost…not all there. At first it is a defense mechanism to help us survive that which would otherwise destroy us. But the person is still…” She struggled to put her understanding into words. “Still damaged?” Brighid supplied. “Exactly.” Ciara smiled appreciatively. “You have the instincts of a Shaman, Brighid.” The centaur’s expression flattened and her violet eyes narrowed. “You are mistaken.” Ciara did not falter or flinch under the Huntress’s glare. “You will find that I am rarely mistaken. Perhaps it is because of my affinity with fire, which I have always thought of as a purifier not a destroyer, but my instincts do not fail me. Even before I met you, I dreamed of the coming of a silver hawk, one of the most powerful of the spirit guides.” “I do not have a spirit guide. I am not a Shaman.” Brighid’s voice was steel. “We shall see, Huntress,” Ciara said softly before shifting the subject back to the warrior. “As you said, a shattered soul causes the person damage. And if the pieces of the soul do not rejoin…Imagine an invisible, gaping wound that refuses to close and then begins to fester and putrefy. That is what happens.” “And you can fix that?” Brighid asked sharply, forcing herself to push aside the mixed feelings of irritation and panic Ciara’s comments had evoked. “Not always. Sometimes the soul does not wish to heal.” “What happens then?” “Often suicide. Sometimes the person continues to cling to life, but is only a shell of what once was,” Ciara said sadly. “Knowing about the kind of man Cuchulainn was before he lost Brenna would help you fix him?” Brighid asked, but her instincts, whether she wanted to acknowledge them or not, were already mirroring Ciara’s answer before the winged Shaman spoke. Ciara sighed. “Perhaps. A shattered soul is difficult enough to heal when the patient openly accepts aid. Without Cuchulainn’s cooperation there is little anyone can do except to try to contact that part of him he has lost and to coax his damaged soul into choosing life and healing instead of despair and death.” Brighid nodded, thinking back to her early childhood and the times her mother had been able to salve the sadness of another centaur’s life. Her mother had been healing shattered souls, the Huntress realized, ashamed that she had never thought about it before. There had been a time when Brighid had seen her mother as a shining example of all that was good. But that was before Mairearad had become obsessed with the power her position granted her. Brighid had stopped seeing her mother as a spiritual healer long ago, and that thought unexpectedly washed Brighid in sadness. Cuchulainn, she reminded herself. This is about Cu, not about me and not about the Dhianna herd. She was part of the Clan MacCallan now and Cu was more of a brother to her than her own had been for years. Swallowing past a sudden thickness in her throat, the Huntress spoke. “Cu was a rogue. Elphame often called him incorrigible, and she was right. He was a terrible flirt. You wouldn’t know it now, but a smile looked natural on his face, and he laughed with an openness that I used to think was blatantly boyish and ridiculously endearing—which I will deny ever saying if you repeat that to him.” Ciara’s own smile widened. “Go on, I wouldn’t think of repeating any of this. What else do you remember? Just speak the first thing that comes to your mind.” “Women loved him, and he loved them,” Brighid blurted, and then she snorted, remembering how confused the warrior had been when he had first tried to woo Brenna. “Except Brenna. She openly rejected him when he attempted to court her.” Brighid chuckled. “I remember how he blundered about, trying to win the Healer’s affection. He was remarkably inept. Actually I once compared him to a bull in rut, marking his territory around her with all the finesse of a roaring beast.” Ciara’s burst of laughter caused the warrior’s head to turn briefly in their direction. Both women were innocently silent until he resumed his statuelike pose. Even then, Brighid was careful to keep her voice low when she continued. “He didn’t understand how to woo a woman who told him no and no and no again. Cuchulainn was a man few women refused.” Ciara blinked in surprise. “Brenna rejected him?” “She didn’t trust men. She was only used to being rejected and ostracized.” “Why?” “Brenna had been terribly scarred from an accident in her youth. I assumed you knew. Haven’t Curran and Nevin told stories about her?” “No, not directly. It is too obviously painful for the warrior to hear or to speak of his lost love. I had no idea she was anything but a beautiful, gifted Healer.” “She was—but she was also much more.” “Apparently there is much more to Cuchulainn, too, if the rogue he used to be had the ability to look beyond the physical and find the love that hid beneath.” Ciara’s words sounded like high praise, but her expression had become strained and serious. “Is that a bad thing, Shaman?” “It complicates things.” “Explain,” Brighid said. Ciara brushed a long strand of dark hair from her face and took her time in answering. “Love comes in many forms. For instance, the love we feel for our family—even within that dynamic, love differs. Do you have siblings?” she asked suddenly. Caught off guard by the question Brighid’s voice was strained as she ground out a clipped, “I do” between her narrowed lips. “Then you understand the difference between the love you feel for a brother or a sister, and the love you have for your parents.” The Huntress nodded quickly, hoping Ciara would not follow that line of questioning. She needn’t have worried, the Shaman’s voice had taken on an almost singsong quality as she settled into explaining the nuances of love. “As within our family, the love between a man and a woman can take many forms, too. Some love passionately but rashly, and like a fire that burns too hot their love is consumed quickly, often leaving cold ashes in its wake. Others do not feel the intense passion, their love is like embers smoldering year after year, keeping their lives warm and fulfilled. There is love that is almost exclusively of the mind or of the heart or of the body. It is rare, but sometimes all three mix.” “All three mixed with Cuchulainn and Brenna.” “And that is the most difficult from which to recover.” “Will you still try to help him?” Brighid asked. “Of course, but—” “But what?” Brighid prompted. “But I am not what he needs. Cuchulainn has drawn within himself. He needs the aid of a Shaman who cares for him on a much more personal level.” She sighed softly. “I respect the warrior, and perhaps in time I would be able to become close enough to reach his innermost emotions, but I’m afraid that Cuchulainn’s need is more immediate.” “His father is High Shaman of all Partholon. Couldn’t he help Cu?” Ciara pressed her lips together and shook her head. “Why not? Midhir is a great Shaman.” “Remember the different types of love?” Brighid nodded impatiently. “To heal from the wound of Brenna’s loss, Cuchulainn will need intimacy with a Shaman that is different from that of a parent’s bond to a child. He will need someone who can reach more of the lover and less of the child,” Ciara said. Brighid frowned. “That makes no damned sense at all. The only Shaman Cu would come close to trusting is his father. There is no one else—except for you.” “Is there not?” Ciara smiled cryptically. “I can feel our Goddess’s hand upon the warrior. I do not believe Epona will leave him bereft of aid, but the ways of Epona are often mysterious and difficult for us to fully understand. Until another Shaman comes forth, I will attempt to ease the warrior’s suffering.” Ciara’s words made the hair on the nape of Brighid’s neck prickle, and when she spoke her voice sounded more clipped than she intended. “Waiting for maybes or what-ifs is ridiculous. Do what you can to help Cu. But I wouldn’t say anything to him about it.” Ciara bowed her head in gentle acknowledgment. Chapter 9 That first night’s campsite came to order with amazing efficiency as children worked quickly and skillfully in little groups supervised by the adults and the eldest of the youngsters. The poles from the litters were easily transformed into the skeletons of tents and then covered securely with stretched goatskins. The makeshift shelters grew in a tight circle around a flat, rocky area Ciara had chosen carefully. The front flap of each tent was left open. “I understand the circle formation,” Brighid had murmured to Cuchulainn as he joined her where she was skinning the half dozen hares she had snared while the tents were being erected. “But why leave the front of them open? Seems like it’s just inviting this Goddess-damned cold to freeze them while they sleep.” “Watch,” Cu grunted, taking a rabbit and unsheathing his knife. Before the Huntress could tell Cu just how irritating his uncommunicative company had become, Ciara’s voice rang clearly through the fading day. “It is time! Bring the fire starters.” With squeals of joy and more chattering than Brighid thought was good for anyone’s nerves, the winged children fluttered to the litters. Filling their arms with what looked like large clumps of hard gray dirt, they swirled around their Shaman, who pointed to an area in the middle of the flat rock. Gleefully the children heaped their armloads into a growing pile. When the mound was almost to Ciara’s waist, she motioned for the children to stop, and they fell blissfully silent as they, and the adult New Fomorians, formed a loose circle around their Shaman. The Huntress sent Cuchulainn a questioning look, but he only repeated his earlier command of “Watch.” Brighid frowned at him, but her eyes were drawn back to Ciara, who smiled at her people before turning to the west. Following her lead, the circle rustled and likewise faced the setting sun. Brighid’s hands, which had been efficiently skinning one hare after another, stilled as Ciara spoke. Gentle Epona, blessed Goddess, You close another day, changing the warmth of sky to dark of night. Facing the way of fire, we hearken and pray, shield us from darkness, cold and fright. Ciara’s wings unfurled and the air around her shimmered with the tangible presence of Epona. She lifted her arms, and her voice was magnified and filled with happiness and confidence and the power of a Goddess’s touch. Blazing force of cleansing fire, dancing flames of Epona’s light; hear me, for our need is dire, aid me in this evening rite. Gift of flame, O fiery flower, ever glowing in my sight; fill me with our Goddess’s blessed power, touch me with Her blazing might. Ciara flung her open hands forward, toward the mound. Instantly the pile ignited. Flames blazed cheerfully, casting dancing winged shadows against the tents as the adults called for their children and the circle dispersed. The clatter of pans announced they would soon be ready for the Huntress’s catch, but Brighid could not take her eyes off the Shaman. Ciara remained where she had been at the end of the invocation, standing so close to the fire that Brighid thought it likely her clothing would catch. Her head was bowed and her eyes were closed, and Brighid could see that her lips moved silently. For a long moment Ciara stood there, statuelike in her concentration. Then, slowly, she raised her head and opened her eyes, meeting the Huntress’s curious gaze with her own clear, guileless one. Brighid was the first to look away. “You know, you could tell me more than ‘watch’ or ‘you’ll see’ when I ask you questions about…” Brighid gestured vaguely at the fire and the encampment. “I think you should get the same experience I had,” Cu said. “Which is?” “Surprise. No,” Cu raised a hand smeared with rabbit blood, cutting off the Huntress’s snort of annoyance. “I’m not doing it to be irritating. I want your honest reaction to them—to this.” He met her gaze. “I trust your instincts, Huntress, better than I trust my own.” Brighid opened and then closed her mouth. Cuchulainn was damned hard to talk to. One moment he was distant and evasive, the next he was disarmingly honest and almost like the Cu she used to know. It was as if he had become an incomplete picture of himself. His responses were off, and he knew it. The warrior’s soul is shattered. “Maybe your instincts are still trustworthy. Maybe you just need to call them back to you, and start believing in yourself again,” Brighid said haltingly. She felt out of her element trying to counsel the warrior. She’d rather take him out on a long hunt and have him work himself into exhaustion chasing elusive prey, than try to advise him on matters of his soul. And from his silent response to her words and the lack of expression on his face as he returned to skinning the hare, he’d probably rather she knocked him over the head and be done with it. But she knew that what was wrong with Cu couldn’t be fixed through the physical realm as surely as she knew that if he didn’t find a way to heal he would continue to fade away. That would hurt Elphame, and Brighid didn’t want her Chieftain and friend to know the pain of losing a family member. Brighid knew the pain of that kind of loss all too well. She glanced at the warrior. His face was set into what was becoming its typical expression of stony withdrawal. Perhaps it was the talk she’d had with Ciara, but the contrast between Cuchulainn now and Cuchulainn just two moons ago suddenly made Brighid heartsick. She remembered clearly how he used to laugh and joke easily, and how his very presence could enliven a gathering. Even when she’d first met him and thought him insufferably arrogant she had envied the dynamic aura he radiated. “Stop looking at me like that.” Cuchulainn’s voice was as expressionless as his face. “Cu, I hate it that you—” “Ciara says we’re ready for the rabbits now!” Like a winged whirlwind, Kyna swirled up to them, Liam close on her trail. “Next time could I go with you to hunt? I could help. Really I could. Really.” Liam’s eyes blinked enthusiastically as he hopped from one taloned foot to the other. Brighid told her face not to frown. This was exactly why Huntress’s rarely had offspring. They interrupted when they shouldn’t and made entirely too much noise. “To hunt hare, you must be very quiet, Liam,” she said severely. “Oh, I am! I can be! I will. Just watch and see, I will,” he assured her, still dancing from foot to foot. “You’re never quiet, Liam,” Kyna said with disgust. “I am so!” “You are not!” “I was quiet during the evening blessing,” Liam said. His wings rustled as he fisted his hands and raised his chin defiantly. “Everyone was quiet during the evening blessing.” Kyna rolled her eyes. As the two children bickered, Brighid looked helplessly at Cuchulainn. The warrior met her gaze briefly and Brighid thought for a moment a shadow of good humor flickered through his eyes. “Kyna, I left the gelding tethered with the goats,” he said nonchalantly. Looking a little like a baby bird, the girl instantly swiveled her attention to him. “But he doesn’t really like the goats. They’re too small and they bother him.” Brighid thought she knew exactly how Cu’s gelding felt. “I should check on him,” Kyna said determinedly. Cuchulainn lifted one shoulder. “As you wish.” “Liam, you take the rabbits to Ciara,” Kyna ordered, tossing the basket she had been carrying to the boy before she hurried away. Then she threw over her shoulder, “That’s probably as close as you’ll get to catching a rabbit!” Liam scowled after her. “I can be quiet.” “To trap rabbits, you must be fast, too,” Cu said. “Isn’t that true, Huntress?” “Definitely,” Brighid said. “Then watch me! Just watch me. I can be fast!” And as he scooped up the skinned rabbits and glided quickly away from them, basket clutched to his narrow chest, Brighid had to admit that the boy really did move with amazing speed. He’d never be quiet, but he certainly was fast. “By the hot breath of the Goddess those children are annoying! How have they not driven you crazy?” Brighid asked, staring after the boy. “You learn to tune them out. After a while, it’s like they’re not even here.” Brighid’s gaze snapped back to Cu. He had crouched down and was wiping his blade clean on a small clump of frostdampened moss. His voice was again dead and detached. He stood up and sheathed the blade. Then, without another word, he turned and walked back toward the camp. As Brighid settled herself comfortably near the brightly burning campfire and accepted a bowl of thick stew from an eager young server, she thought that even though Partholon was prosperous and thriving, there were many things Partholonians could learn from the New Fomorians—especially about traveling in comfort. The winged people had little, and their land was stark and harsh, but she had rarely experienced such a cozy, harmonious campsite. The cold, ever-blowing wind had been neatly blocked by the sturdy design of the goatskin tents, which fitted snugly in a warm circle around Ciara’s blazing fire. Every so often someone would feed the fire with another chunk of what one of the winged women had said was a mixture of dried lichen and goat dung. The fodder explained the vague scent that drifted with the smoke, but it was much less offensive than she would have thought—and it accomplished its job. The fire burned hot and steady. Dinner had been put together as quickly and efficiently as had the tents, and in an amazingly short time everyone was sitting near the fire or within the warmth of the open-fronted tents, sharing a robust stew. Brighid chewed thoughtfully on a piece of rabbit and looked around the unusually quiet camp. The children looked tired, the Huntress realized with a jolt. Not long ago they had flitted about, tending the goats and chattering nonstop while they spread soft goatskin rugs within the tents. Now it was as if someone had turned off their youthful exuberance. Without being obvious about it, Brighid cut her eyes to her left, where Liam had insisted he had to sit because he was, after all, her apprentice. When had he quit babbling? she wondered. When had they all stopped babbling? Maybe Cuchulainn wasn’t as far gone as she had thought—it seemed she, too, had the ability to tune out their ceaseless talking. “Here—” Cu tossed a wineskin to her as he joined the circle, sitting cross-legged to her right. “You brought it. You should drink some of it.” He nodded his thanks at the boy who handed him a steaming bowl. “It’s weird when they’re not constantly talking,” Brighid said, lowering her voice so that it didn’t carry over the crackle and pop of the camp fire. “They came a long way today, twice as far as I expected. Any other children would have stopped hours ago.” Cu’s gaze traveled around the silent circle and he almost smiled. “I suspect it has finally caught up with them.” “Thank the Goddess,” Brighid mumbled and took a long pull of the excellent red wine. “I suspect they’ll be ready to go again at first light.” “I suspect you’re right,” Brighid said. The warrior seemed more relaxed than he had been earlier, or perhaps he was just tired, too. Did keeping everyone at a distance take its toll on Cu, especially since he had spent the vast majority of his life drawing people to him? “Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll skip the storytelling,” Cu said between bites of stew. Brighid raised an eyebrow at him. “You mean the infamous tales of a certain Huntress?” Cuchulainn grunted and jerked his chin in the direction of Liam, who had finished eating and was yawning sleepily. “You can’t say you don’t understand how persuasive they can be when they want to know something.” Brighid snorted, but was careful not to look at the boy, afraid any show of attention would cue him to begin prattling once again about how quiet he could be. “Well,” she said softly. “I might admit to knowing something of what you mean…” she began, but a rustling from the opposite side of the circle drew her attention. Brighid hadn’t had time to speak to many of the adult hybrids. Everyone had been too involved with setting up camp, and the adults were kept especially busy with their flocks of children. Other than a passing word or two, she had spent her time in the company of Cuchulainn and Ciara. And, she added silently, the too-exuberant Liam and Kyna. But she easily recognized the two adults, who were now standing, as the twins, Curran and Nevin. “I spoke too soon,” Cuchulainn said caustically. “When those two stand that means there are going to be stories.” Brighid felt him gather himself to leave, and then, before she could stop herself, she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. “Stay,” she said, surprised at the unfamiliarly husky sound of her voice. It was as if her impulse to keep Cu there had come from deep within her, and her voice reflected that well of emotion. Cuchulainn turned his head and met her eyes. “If you leave one of those children might come and take your place. Then I will be completely surrounded,” she whispered, feeling suddenly too exposed and vulnerable. “Harrumph,” he said roughly, but he resettled himself beside her. “Our journey has finally begun,” said Nevin. “We have waited long for this day.” Curran picked up the thread of his twin’s words. “Our mothers in the spirit realm rejoice.” “They smile that their hearts’ desires are coming to fruition,” Nevin said. “Do you feel their presence, children?” The winged man smiled at the small faces turned in his direction and the children nodded sleepily. “Their love is in the wind,” Curran said. “It lifts our wings.” “And our hearts,” Nevin completed. “And as long as the wind blows, we will not forget their love, or their sacrifice.” Brighid couldn’t help but be intrigued by the twins’ performance. They truly were bards. Their voices weren’t simply powerful, but had that indescribable note of magic that so clearly separated a bard from the rest of the populace. She thought she could listen to their rich, emotion-filled voices forever, and she was chagrined that the twins had spent all those days at MacCallan Castle without any of the Clan knowing of their gift. She snorted lightly to herself. That would certainly change when they returned. Bards were always a welcome addition to any Clan. “Tonight we must rest well for the coming day,” Curran said. “So our tale will be a short one.” “But well-loved.” Curran’s smile flashed brilliantly across the campfire at the surprised Huntress. “With your permission, Brighid. We will tell the tale of how you tracked the young Fand and saved her from certain death.” The tired children stirred and Brighid heard delighted murmurs from the youngsters sitting nearest to the wolf cub sprawled by the fire. Beside her Liam came back to life and wriggled happily, staring at the Huntress with wide, adoring eyes. “Glad I stayed,” Cu grunted under his breath to her. “I like this one, too.” Ciara’s musical voice interrupted the scowl Brighid was aiming at the warrior. “Now that we have been blessed with the presence of the Huntress, perhaps Brighid would be so gracious as to tell us her own version of the saving of Fand.” Brighid’s scowl turned instantly from Cuchulainn to Ciara. What was she thinking? Brighid was no bard, and she certainly didn’t want to tell some ridiculous story about herself to a group of already annoyingly infatuated children. And anyway, she hadn’t actually saved the damned cub, she’d just led Cu to the den. It had been Brenna who had made sure that…The Huntress’s eyes met the Shaman’s and Brighid felt a jolt of gutdeep understanding. Ciara was looking at her steadily with a serene, encouraging expression. “Will you tell us the real story, Brighid?” the Shaman asked. Chapter 10 “I’m no bard, but if you want the real story, I’ll tell it.” She was glad her voice didn’t betray the tumult going on within her. Her gut was tight and her heart thumped like she had been running all day after an elusive prey. She could feel Cu’s eyes on her and she allowed herself one fast glance at the warrior. His brows had gone up and surprise curled one side of his lips. She looked hastily away. He probably thought she was going to brag about how hard it had been to track the two-day old trail of the dead mother wolf. Brighid drew a deep breath and hoped that she did have the instincts of a Shaman. Right now she was following those instincts, and it felt a little like following a cold trail through a darkened wood during a thunderstorm. “Well, it seems you already know the story of how Cuchulainn discovered the body of the dead mother wolf while we were hunting, and how Cu challenged me to track the wolf’s trail back to her den to see if any of the cubs could be saved.” Brighid paused and her attentive audience nodded enthusiastically, making little sounds of agreement. “But what you don’t know is why Cu wanted to find the cub, or who really saved Fand.” Brighid ignored the warrior at her side, even though she could feel his slouching body suddenly tense. “It was all about” Cu trying to get a young woman’s attention—a woman who acted like she wasn’t interested in him at all.” Brighid grinned and a few of the children giggled. “Brenna was Clan MacCallan’s Healer. She was also my friend,” Brighid added in a voice she carefully kept free of sadness or regret. She would tell the story, but she would not tell it as a lamentation, mourning Brenna. She would tell it as a joyful tribute to the Healer. The Huntress squared her shoulders and tossed back her hair. “Did I mention that Brenna was smart?” Little heads bobbed up and down. “Well, she was smart enough to say no to a certain arrogant warrior who thought he could snap his fingers and have whatever woman he desired.” Brighid jerked her head at Cuchulainn, careful not to look at him. “So when Cu pulled Fand from the den—and let me tell you, that wolf was in a sorry state—he thought the perfect way to get the Healer to spend time with him would be to bring her a sweet young animal that needed healing.” The Huntress snorted and shook her head in exaggerated disgust. “Not that Fand was very sweet. You should have seen her then. She was pathetic. Tiny, dried-out, and covered with wolf dung.” Brighid did not react to the waves of tension radiating from Cuchulainn. Instead she caught the bright gaze of the children sitting closest to Fand. She rolled her eyes and wrinkled her nose, causing the children to laugh. “So instead of making the very smart Brenna swoon with desire, the appearance of the dirty, half-dead wolf cub only annoyed her, and I think, it also made her question Cuchulainn’s common sense.” More laughter drifted with the fog-colored smoke from the campfire. “But Brenna was as kind as she was smart and beautiful, and she took pity on the little wolf. She showed Cu how to feed Fand, and she kept a careful watch on the two of them, coaxing the warrior into being the perfect wolf parent. I remember how she described what the two of them looked like that first morning after Cu had spent all night trying to keep the cub alive. Brenna had laughed and laughed, saying she’d almost had to hold her nose because of the smell.” Brighid paused again, letting the children’s soft, sleepy laughter fade. “But I supposed Cu’s plan worked, because it wasn’t long after that Brenna accepted his suit, and they were formally betrothed. And that is the real story of how Fand was saved. It was not me, but Cu’s love for Brenna, and the Healer’s kindness, that saved the cub.” The children broke into spontaneous applause. Brighid drew a deep breath and turned to face Cuchulainn. The warrior had gone so pale that the dark smudges under his eyes looked like wounds. He was staring at her and it seemed his face had frozen into a harsh, painful grimace. “That was cruel.” He ground out the words from between his teeth. In one fluid movement, he stood and stalked away into the darkness. “To bed now!” Ciara’s voice hushed the applause and the children obediently started disappearing into the warmth of the tents, calling good-nights to each other and to the Huntress. Brighid jumped in surprise when Liam’s little arms wrapped around her and he squeezed her with unexpected strength. “That was a wonderful story, Brighid! Good night!” He rushed off in a flutter of wings, barely giving the Huntress time to call good-night to his back. “You did the right thing.” Brighid looked up at the Shaman who seemed to materialize from the fringes of the fire. “I don’t think Cu would agree with you,” Brighid said. Ciara went on as if Brighid hadn’t spoken. “Follow him. Don’t let him be alone right now.” “But he’s—” The Shaman’s eyes flashed with a flame-colored light. “He is not whole. If you care for the warrior’s soul, follow him.” Flexing her powerful equine muscles, Brighid rose and left the campfire. Heading in the direction she thought Cu had taken she considered Ciara’s words. Of course she cared about Cuchulainn’s soul. He had been betrothed to her friend, and he was her Chieftain’s brother. She should care about him, just as she should want to help his shattered soul to heal. The centaur stopped short with a sudden realization—that had been it! What she had sensed that first night when she and Cu had discussed the New Fomorians—the tickle at the edge of her mind. She’d known then that something beyond Cu’s grief was affecting him. It had been his shattered soul, and something within her—that elusive, indefinable something she had inherited from her Shaman mother—had recognized the warrior’s loss. By the Goddess, she didn’t want this! She had no experience with it. She had turned from The Way of the Shaman when she’d left the Dhianna herd. But the choices she’d been forced to make weren’t Cuchulainn’s fault, and if there was something, anything, she could do to help him, her problems shouldn’t compromise that help. But beyond all of that, Cuchulainn was in pain, and Brighid had never been able to stand by and watch anything suffer. She wished she hadn’t been made that way. It had caused her more than a little trouble. The centaur snorted in self-mockery. That was the ultimate in understatements. Her sympathy had caused her to leave her beloved Centaur Plains and her family and to break with tradition. It had been the right choice. She was following the right path for her life. Now she would find Cuchulainn, let him know he wasn’t alone, and then do the only thing her Huntress training had prepared her to do. She’d tell him she’d take first watch so he could get some much needed sleep. Simple. Clear. Just as she preferred her life to be. But where was Cu? By the Goddess, it was dark beyond the circle of tents and the campfire’s friendly light. Dark and cold. Brighid shivered as the insatiable wind licked against her skin. She would be damned glad to return to Partholon and the warmth of MacCallan Castle. A muffled sound to her left brought her to an instant halt as she listened with the acute senses of a centaur Huntress. The sound came again, and she angled to her right, almost stumbling over Fand, who growled low in her throat. “Don’t tempt me to kick you,” Brighid told the half-grown cub. Fand slunk off, casting a look at the Huntress that was partially contrite and partially a warning. At least Brighid knew Cuchulainn was near. That cub was never far from him. Of course Fand’s semi-aggressive reaction also told her that Cu must be upset enough to have shaken the wolf into growling at a friend. She almost didn’t see him. If the moon hadn’t cast its wan light through the veil of high clouds at the same moment Cu lifted his tear-streaked face, she would have walked right past him. But his tears had given him away. Damn it! She hadn’t expected him to be crying! She’d expected anger—let him rail at her and get it over with. She understood that. She could handle that. But as he turned toward her something totally unexpected happened. She felt a mirroring of his pain that was caused by more than their shared Clan ties or even their friendship. She was reacting with a Shaman’s empathy and the knowledge almost undid her. Brighid wanted to walk away, to deny the inherited purpose that flowed through her veins, but she could not. That would be cowardly, and Brighid Dhianna, MacCallan’s Huntress, was not a coward. “Cu,” she said softly, reaching to touch his shoulder. He jerked away as if her touch scalded him. “Does it make you happy to cause me pain?” “No.” “Then why?” The warrior didn’t sound angry. He sounded defeated. “You have to go on, Cu. You have to find a way to live without her. And you can’t do that by avoiding all mention of her.” “How do you know?” Anger was beginning to stir the apathy from his voice. “How would you know anything about it?” “You’re not the only man to have ever lost a loved one. Grief isn’t exclusive to you, Cuchulainn!” She quickly considered telling him her own story. But her gut told her not to make this about her. She was decidedly out of her element, so all she could do was follow her gut. “Look around you. How many of the hybrids have lost lovers or parents or children to suicide and madness? How is Brenna’s death more tragic than that? For the passing of two moons you have been surrounded by a people who have overcome losses that would have decimated any other race, yet they have done more than survive. They still find joy in life. You’ve seen it yourself. How has that not reached you? Maybe Brenna was right when she called you self-absorbed.” With the lightning reflexes of a well-trained warrior, Cuchulainn’s dagger was unsheathed and pressed against the centaur’s neck. But she did not flinch from him. She held his wide, pain-filled gaze with her own. “This is not you, Cuchulainn. The man I know would never take arms against a member of his Clan.” Cuchulainn blinked twice, and then stumbled back. “What am I doing?” With a growl he hurled his dagger to the ground and wiped both hands across his thighs as if he were trying to eradicate a stain. “I’ve lost who I am,” he said in an emotionless voice. “Sometimes I think I died with Brenna.” A chill of warning shivered through the centaur’s body. “You aren’t dead, Cu. You’re shattered.” Cu bent wearily and retrieved his dagger. “Aren’t the two really one and the same?” “No, my friend. One involves the body, the other the spirit. And I’m afraid your trouble rests within the spirit realm.” His bark of laughter was humorless. “That is something I’ve known for most of my life.” “This is different.” Brighid sighed in frustration. “Damn, I’m doing a poor job of this!” She rubbed a hand across her brow, wishing her head wasn’t pounding in time with the beat of her heart. “I think you have a shattered soul, Cu. That’s why you don’t feel like yourself and why you’re not able to heal from Brenna’s death.” Cuchulainn narrowed his eyes. “Is this more of that Shaman affinity nonsense you say you inherited from your mother?” “No! Yes…I don’t know!” She rubbed her forehead again. “By the Goddess, you make my head hurt, Cu. The truth is I don’t know much more about Shamanistic dealings than you do! But I do trust my instincts. As a Huntress they have never failed me. Now they’re telling me that Brenna’s death damaged your spirit, so it is your spirit that must be healed if you are to recover.” “What if I don’t want to recover?” he said slowly. “Maybe I should have died with her, Brighid.” Everything within the centaur became still. How she answered Cuchulainn might change whether the warrior lived or died. Epona, help me to say the right thing, she beseeched silently. And, like a candle flaring to light in an unused room, she suddenly understood what to say. “Maybe you should be dead—maybe you shouldn’t. I don’t know, but I do think I know how you can decide for sure.” Brighid was careful to sound calm and matter-of-fact, like she was discussing whether they should hunt deer or boar. “How?” His voice was ragged. “Well, it’s really simple. You’re not yourself. So, as you already admitted, you don’t trust your own judgment. But if you fix your shattered soul, you’ll be able to rely on your own instincts again. Then if you choose death, you’ll know your choice is valid.” “You make it sound simple, but I have no idea how to go about fixing something I didn’t even realize was broken.” “Neither do I. All I know is what I’ve observed from my mother, and that was too many years ago to count.” She didn’t need her Shaman-inherited instinct to know that it was best not to mention that she and Ciara had been discussing the state of his spirit that very day. “But I do remember that she helped those whose souls had been shattered to become whole again.” “I don’t want any Shaman meddling with my spirit, shattered or not.” “Then how about me?” “You?” Brighid shrugged. “As you said, I do have ‘that Shaman affinity nonsense,’ which I inherited from my mother. But I’m decidedly not a Shaman. So how much meddling could I actually do?” A bark of real laughter escaped from him, and for an instant he sounded like the young, rakish warrior she had once known. “Shouldn’t the question be how much fixing could you actually do?” “I think the question should be how much do you trust me?” Brighid retorted. “You’ve proven yourself trustworthy many times, Huntress. If I have made you believe otherwise, it is due to my failing, not your own.” “Then will you trust me to try to fix your soul?” The warrior hesitated. His face was no longer devoid of expression, and Brighid could clearly see the emotions that warred within him. Finally he met her gaze. “Yes.” Brighid didn’t think that hearing any one word had ever made her feel quite so much like she wanted to run in the opposite direction. Instead she jerked her head in a quick, acknowledging nod. “Now what do I do?” Cu asked leerily. “You give me your oath that you won’t do anything to harm yourself until your spirit is whole again.” “What if you can’t fix it?” Brighid drew a tight breath. “If I can’t fix it, then your oath would not be binding. You’d be free to do as you will.” “Then you have my oath.” Cuchulainn held out his arm and Brighid grasped his forearm in the warrior’s way of binding an oath. His grip was strong and he felt so alive. She hoped desperately that her instincts hadn’t just blundered her into a suicide pact with the brother of her best friend. “Where do we go from here?” Cuchulainn asked. “Back to camp. I’ll take the first watch over the fire. You get some sleep. I’ll wake you when the moon is at half point.” “What does that have to do with fixing my shattered soul?” “Not a damn thing,” she muttered. “But it’ll give me time to think about the mess I’ve gotten us into.” As they walked side by side back to the camp, Brighid heard Cu chuckling. She might very well be helping his suicide, but at least she was amusing him. Her family had been right about one thing. Humans certainly were odd creatures. Chapter 11 Brighid fed the fire another compacted log of moss and goat dung and grunted in wordless approval at the heat that radiated from the flame. The night was cold and the wind was brutal, but within the tight circle of tents there was warmth and light and a more than adequate measure of comfort. The Huntress wondered silently whether the strength of the fire was because of Ciara’s affinity for the spirit of flame or the right mixture of goat dung. “A little of both,” Ciara said, joining the Huntress. “Are you practicing Shaman mind reading on me?” The winged woman smiled. “No, of course not, but I have always been good at reading expressions. Your face did not hide the question on your mind.” She gestured at the neat pile of fuel. “It burns well, and it lasts long. But the truth is that my presence intensifies its natural attributes. Were I not with the camp, it would still be good fuel.” Her dark eyes sparkled. “But because I am with the camp it is excellent fuel.” “You’d be good to have along on a cold winter’s hunt,” Brighid said. Ciara’s laughter made the flames leap and crackle. “Bringing fire is the only way I would be helpful on a hunt. I’m hopelessly inept at tracking, and I cannot bear killing of any kind. I even dislike harvesting grain or pulling wild onions from the earth. You would find me a poor hunting companion.” Brighid snorted. “That’s how I feel about attempting to be a Shaman. Inept is an excellent way to describe me. When I spoke to Cuchulainn I felt like a fish attempting to nest in a tree.” Ciara’s expression saddened and she sighed heavily. “If he would not listen to you then he is more lost than I believed.” Brighid glanced sharply at the tent Cu had so recently disappeared into. “Walk with me,” she said, moving away from the warrior’s tent. Still, she lowered her voice. “He listened.” Ciara’s eyes widened with her returning smile. Brighid held up a hand. “Don’t go all happy on me. Yes, he agreed to let me help him. But he only agreed to it so that he could be whole again and decide with a clear mind to kill himself.” “When his soul is no longer shattered the warrior will not choose death.” “How can you be so sure?” “I feel it here.” Ciara placed one slender hand over her heart. “When Cuchulainn is whole, he will love again.” Brighid didn’t want to destroy the Shaman’s optimistic delusion, so she stayed silent. She knew Cu better than Ciara knew him. She could imagine him healed and returning to his life as one of Partholon’s most respected warriors, but loving again? She thought about how he had looked at Brenna and the joy that had blazed from him. Cu’s soul might heal. His heart was a different matter. “But one step should be taken at a time. You must not rush the process and get ahead of yourself,” Ciara said. “And just exactly what is our next step?” “You mean your next step.” “No, I mean our. I’m totally out of my element here. It’s like hunting for you, remember? I’ll do it because I have to, but you have to guide me through the steps.” Children called to the centaur and the Shaman as the two traced their way slowly around the circular camp. Soon they found it impossible to converse without constant cheerful interruptions. “Shouldn’t you check on the outer perimeter?” Ciara asked, smiling wryly as yet another child’s sleepy voice drifted through the night. “This time you did read my mind,” Brighid said, thinking that the wind and the darkness would be less annoying than the exuberance of seventy children. The wind slapped cold and hard against Brighid’s face the moment they left the tight shelter of the tents. The moon’s light was still weak and far away, only illuminating the Wastelands’ bleak emptiness. “By the Goddess, this is a wretched place!” The Huntress shivered and rubbed her arms. “It is true that it is harsh, but there is some warmth and beauty here.” Ciara searched the ground around them until she found a thin, oddly light-colored twig that was barely the length of a centaur’s hock. Ciara crouched and gently screwed it into the hard, rocky soil so that it stood on its own, like an anemic sprout. Then she whispered something Brighid couldn’t hear and blew on the twig. It responded by bursting into a white-hot flame that flickered crazily in the wind but showed no sign of sputtering or dimming. Ciara sat, spreading her wings so that she blocked the worst of the wind and trapped some of the flame’s heat. She motioned for Brighid to sit beside her, and the Huntress folded gracefully to her knees, shaking her head in awe at the purity of the flame that was so white it was almost silver. “What is that? I’ve never seen anything burn that color before.” “It’s from an oak tree. No,” she said before Brighid could finish forming the question in her mind, “it didn’t grow in the Wastelands. The wind brings them here from the south, and something about our rather intemperate climate changes them from green to white.” She smiled at the burning twig. “I like to pretend that the small dried limbs are a gift from Partholon to us. It was through one of them that the spirit of the flame first spoke to me.” “An oak—the most venerated of trees—known for divination, healing and protection,” Brighid said, echoing knowledge she had learned from her mother when she had still been young enough to believe in following family and tradition. “Exactly.” The Shaman’s voice sounded dreamy and very young as she stared into the white light. “A real, living oak is one of the things I most look forward to seeing when we finally enter Partholon.” Ciara’s idealism made Brighid’s gut clench. What would happen to that joy when she was confronted by the truth of Partholon? Did she not understand that her wings alone would be reason enough for her to be hated and feared? “But we’re not here to talk about trees or about Partholon.” Ciara pulled her gaze from the flame. “We’re here to talk about Cuchulainn and how you can help him. First, before I give you any details about soul-retrieval, I’d like to know your thoughts. Tell me—if you didn’t have me to guide you—what would you do?” “Not a damned thing!” Brighid snorted. “I wouldn’t have even known his soul was shattered had you not told me.” Ciara’s brows lifted. “Really? Nothing within you whispered that there was something wrong with the warrior beyond the normal grief of losing his mate?” Brighid frowned. “I don’t know…maybe…I did sense something,” she admitted reluctantly. “And had I not been here, you would’ve ignored the intuition that told you your friend needed your help?” “No. Probably not.” Brighid moved her hands restlessly. “But I wouldn’t have known what to do! Just like I don’t know what to do now.” “You take the first step. Stop, center yourself, and listen for that voice within. That voice of instinct and spirit that was breathed to life by Epona when you were born, and still carries the magic of a Goddess’s touch.” Ciara smiled encouragement. “What does your instinct tell you, Brighid?” “My Huntress instinct tells me Cu needs to be knocked over the head,” Brighid grumbled. “Then you must not think with your Huntress instinct. Listen more carefully. Find the voice of the Shaman that is carried within your blood.” Brighid looked sharply at Ciara. “Why are you so insistent that I have these instincts?” “I already told you, Huntress. I sense it, and I am rarely wrong. Actually my guess is that you do use the Shaman within you, and you use her quite often.” “What do you mean?” “Your gift is an affinity for the spirits of the animals, is it not?” Without waiting for her answer, Ciara continued. “The instincts that help you to be such a successful Huntress are the same that will help you heal Cuchulainn’s soul. If it disturbs you to think of the act as one of a Shaman, can you not simply consider the quest as just another hunt?” The centaur blinked in surprise. “You mean all I need to do is track the pieces of Cu’s soul?” “Perhaps…” She flashed a small, secret smile at Brighid. “Listen carefully within and tell me.” Stifling the urge to shake the winged woman, Brighid took a deep breath and concentrated. Cuchulainn’s soul was shattered. How could that be fixed? Instead of throwing up her hands and shouting that she had no damned idea, she took another breath. Think, she ordered herself. Make it a hunt. The prey would be different—instead of a deer or a wild boar, I would be tracking a spirit,which meant I must go where spirits dwell—into the Otherworld, the Realm of Spirits. The Huntress shivered again, and this time it had nothing to do with the cold or the wind. “I have to track Cu’s broken soul into the Realm of Spirits,” Brighid said with much more confidence than she felt. “And bring it back with me. Somehow.” “Yes,” Ciara agreed, “but you need to understand that your goal differs from that of a hunt. You cannot attack or entrap. A Shaman should never coerce, threaten, or force any soul to return. In doing so, you would be interfering with the free will of the individual.” Brighid sighed and squinted into the silver flame. “So it’s not just a matter of finding the broken pieces of Cu’s spirit?” “No. Think of yourself as a guide, or more accurately as a mediator between the warrior and his retreated soul. That is why it is important that Cuchulainn agree to the retrieval. Without his approval his soul will never become whole.” “Does it matter that the only reason Cu agreed to this is so that he can have a clear conscience when he kills himself?” Brighid asked sardonically. Ciara’s kind smile didn’t waver. “Once his spirit is whole again, the warrior will not kill himself—and part of Cuchulainn already knows that.” “I hope you’re right about that, Shaman.” “Trust me,” Ciara said. Brighid met the Shaman’s steady gaze. Just days ago she would never have imagined trusting any of the hybrids, but wings or no wings, Ciara exuded honesty and goodness. She was trustworthy. Slowly the Huntress bowed her head respectfully to the winged woman, just as Brighid had seen so many centaurs acknowledge their trust in her mother. “I choose to trust you, Shaman,” Brighid said. “Thank you,” Ciara breathed, visibly moved by the centaur’s show of respect. “So, what is my first step on this spirit hunt?” Brighid asked. “You’ve begun the first step. Before soul-retrieval can be attempted there must be a bridge of caring and understanding between the warrior and you. You are his friend. Simply strengthen the bond that is already in place between you.” Brighid snorted. “That’s damn difficult to do when Cu’s as withdrawn and surly as a bobcat.” “Then you must explain to him why he must be open to you. It is your job to do the journeying and to expose yourself to the spiritual rigors of the Otherworld. His part in the process is to allow you access to his spirit—in this world, as well as the other.” “Cu’s not going to like that.” “The warrior is an intelligent man. Like it or not, he’ll understand the necessity of it.” Brighid wanted to say that she didn’t like it either. The idea of trammeling around within another’s spirit felt like an invasion of the worst type. And, unexpectedly, she thought how much easier this would be if she could speak with her mother, but it was a desire she tamped down almost as quickly as she thought it. “So I talk to him. I’m friendly with him. Then what?” “In order to retrieve his soul, you will need to journey deep within the Realm of Spirits, and that is something you cannot safely do while we travel. It would not do to have your body and your spirit both displaced. I am an experienced Shaman, and even I would be reluctant to journey to the Otherworld before we’re settled in Partholon. Instead what you must do now is lay the foundation for your quest.” She paused and flashed Brighid a quick smile. “Or, as you would call it, your hunt. When you return to MacCallan Castle, and your body is safe at your home, then you will take the Shaman’s Path to the Otherworld.” Relieved she wouldn’t be doing any spirit traveling in the near future, Brighid felt the nervous tension in her body relax. “Between here and MacCallan Castle think of Cuchulainn each night before you sleep, for it is during our sleeping hours that we are closest to the Otherworld. Send positive thoughts of him into your dreams. Begin to imagine him as he once was—whole and happy.” Brighid nodded. “I can do that.” “You will also need a soul-catching stone. This stone is always a gift from the spirit realm. Sometimes it comes directly from Epona. Sometimes it is brought to the Shaman from her animal ally.” “But I’m not a Shaman, and I certainly don’t have an animal ally!” Ciara shrugged. “Perhaps you won’t need the gift of a soul-catcher. All I’m suggesting is that you stay open to the possibility.” “Fine. If a stone drops from the sky onto my head I’ll be sure to pick it up and keep it.” Ciara laughed. “Be careful. Too often the spirit realm takes our jests seriously.” More good news, the Huntress thought. “And while you’re watching out for stones, you might also want to keep your eyes open for your animal ally.” “My animal ally?” “It’s just a thought. Even though you are not a Shaman, your affinity for the spirits of animals is strong, so it wouldn’t be beyond belief for you to be gifted with an animal guide from the spirit realm.” Thinking of the raven that was so closely allied with her mother, Brighid frowned. “I hunt animals and then I kill them. That’s not exactly being allied to them,” Brighid said shortly. “You do not slaughter animals for the pleasure of it, or as some vainglorious, self-gratifying act of ego. You do what you must to feed your people. Do you not respect each animal you kill, as well as give thanks to Epona for Her bounty after each hunt?” “Of course,” the Huntress said. “The spirit realm knows this—perhaps even better than you do, Huntress.” Brighid shook her head and rubbed her arms again as another chill worked its way through her body. “Doesn’t it ever make you feel…I don’t know how to put it…violated?” “It?” “It! It!” Brighid gestured at the silent darkness that surrounded them. “The Otherworld—the Realm of Spirits. Isn’t it like having someone, or a group of someones, constantly watching your every move?” The Shaman tilted her head to the side, considering. “It’s not a violation because the Realm of Spirits rarely encroaches where it is not welcome.” “It might not encroach, but I know from experience that when warnings from that realm are ignored or denied, there is usually a high price to pay,” Brighid said solemnly. “Isn’t that how life is? If you’re given a gift, be it an affinity for a part of the spirit realm, or be it a talent to make music or to tool leather, and you ignore it, isn’t there always a price to be paid?” Ciara paused and pressed her lips into a tight line before continuing in a sad, heavy voice. “I had a sister. She was the most gifted artist among our people, but as she grew to adulthood, she refused to use her skill. She said there was too much ugliness around and within her—she refused to find beauty anywhere, not even in the stories from the past. From the day she quit painting, I think her soul began to die. Eventually her body followed it.” “I’m sorry for your loss, Ciara,” Brighid said quietly. “Thank you, Huntress. But I did not share my sister’s story with you to evoke your pity. I’d simply ask that you learn from it.” “Understood.” They sat together silently, each lost in her own thoughts. The silver light between them fluttered with the wind, casting moving shadows against Ciara’s wings. In the light from the flame of her own creation Ciara looked like she belonged more to the Otherworld than to this one. She should be the one doing this soul-retrieval stuff, not Brighid. Ciara looked up from the flame, and Brighid was surprised to see lines of worry furrowing her brow. “Would you allow me to ask you something that has nothing to do with the warrior or his soul?” Ciara asked abruptly. Brighid nodded, hoping that the perceptive winged woman wouldn’t ask any questions about her family. Ciara’s gaze drifted outside their small circle of light toward the silent mountains. “You passed through the mountains. What was your impression of them? What did they make you Feel?” Brighid started to say they didn’t make her Feel anything except a bone-deep cold and an eagerness to end her journey. But then she remembered the visit from the raven, and the sense she had of being watched. “I don’t know that they made me Feel anything in particular, but I will admit that I was distracted as I traveled the hidden pass. The only thing I can tell you with any certainty is that I like them no more or no less than I like this desolate land of yours.” But instead of the soft smile of response she expected, the centaur watched Ciara’s look of worry deepen. “What is it, Shaman?” “I cannot tell. Perhaps it is nothing except that the mountains have always represented a barrier to all that my people have been taught is good, and that I despise them for that. But recently I’ve begun to wonder if it isn’t more…They make me…” She spoke hesitantly, searching for the right words as she stared into the darkness. “Wary. The more I’m around them—the closer I get to them—the more wary and on edge I Feel.” “What does the spirit realm tell you of this Feeling?” Ciara shook her head, causing her wings to move restlessly. “Nothing more than I already logically know. That the Trier Mountains are a cold, harsh place filled with death and lost dreams.” “Death and lost dreams?” Ciara’s eyes caught the Huntress’s gaze again. “Many of my people chose to use the mountains as the place to end their lives.” Brighid grimaced as she remembered navigating steep red ridges and jagged chasms that seemed to open down to another world. The Trier Mountains definitely provided ample opportunities for suicide. “Restless souls…” Brighid didn’t realize she’d spoken the thought aloud until Ciara nodded. “Perhaps that is all I sense—the restless, unsleeping souls of my people.” “Still, I’ll keep a watchful eye turned south. As you have said, your instincts rarely fail you,” Brighid said, not liking the prickling sense of warning Ciara’s words had evoked within her. Finally the Shaman’s face cleared as she smiled. “It’s a good thing you have the sharp eyes of a Huntress—you certainly have a lot to be watchful of…a soul stone, an animal ally, and now a faceless Feeling of unease not even a Shaman can put a name to.” “Well, I do like to keep busy.” “It’s a good thing you do.” Ciara laughed out loud. “One might think so,” the Huntress muttered, wondering what she had managed to get herself into this time. Chapter 12 The day dawned thoroughly miserable. The winter chill might have been absent in the wind that blew constantly from the southwest, but the steady drizzle it carried was cold enough to have the children wrapping themselves in thick, water-resistant cloaks that cowled around their small faces. They quickly repacked the tents, ate a fast breakfast, and were ready to follow Cuchulainn again with an enthusiasm that did not appear to be dampened by the weather. Brighid was just thankful that the hoods muffled their chattering and singing. She was in no mood for gleeful children. She had a headache. She’d awakened with it, and she knew why. It was that damned dream. After she and Ciara had finished talking, Brighid had patrolled the outer perimeter of the camp twice before she’d returned to the warm circle of tents and the fire. Not wanting to wake even a single child, she was careful to be quiet as she fed the fire and then settled herself to keep watch over the sleeping camp. As a Huntress, she was used to dividing her attention. She could easily follow a deer’s trail along a winding stream bank while she planned the next day’s hunt. So while she fed the fire and made occasional circles around the campsite, listening carefully for anything out of the ordinary, her mind chased the trail Ciara had set. The Shaman had said that Brighid needed to imagine Cuchulainn as he once was, whole and happy, and Brighid had assured Ciara that she could do that—and she could. Truthfully it was easier than thinking of the warrior as he was now. The Huntress fed another chunk of fuel into the fire and let her mind wander. The first day she’d met Cuchulainn he’d been working at clearing century-old debris from the heart of MacCallan Castle, and he had instantly bristled when she’d introduced herself as part of the Dhianna Herd. She snorted quietly, remembering the arrogant way he had challenged her motives for joining MacCallan Castle, and how she had met his challenge with her own sarcasm. Elphame had stepped in to mediate on more than one occasion, and still they had snarled at and circled one another like wolves from opposing packs. She shook her head and laughed softly to herself. It had taken her tracking Elphame the night she had gone missing, and then carrying Cu’s wounded sister and the warrior himself on her back during the stormy return to the castle, before he had begun to trust her. Brighid’s full lips tilted up. She shouldn’t have forgiven him so easily for his distrust, but the warrior was damned hard to dislike when he turned on his charm. He was, as his sister had often called him, an incorrigible flirt. Women had been drawn to him like bees to fragrant flowers, although comparing the virile man to a flower was laughable. He was tall, with the athletic build of a warrior approaching his prime. The Huntress didn’t usually consider humans attractive—they were typically too small to catch her interest, even though her beauty guaranteed her attention from males in general, be they human or centaur…or New Fomorian, she added silently, recalling the appreciative glances she’d received from Curran and Nevin. But she had noticed Cu. How could she not? Like his sister, he had an aura that was larger than life. Though, unlike Elphame, his body was completely human, he carried himself with a confidence and pride that said to the world, Bring it on! I can handle anything! And it wasn’t an empty boast. Cuchulainn was an incredibly gifted warrior—stronger, faster, more skilled with a claymore than any warrior she’d ever known, and that included centaurs. But his confidence was tempered by his sense of humor. Cuchulainn knew how to laugh at himself—an attribute that served to keep his arrogance from becoming boorish and unbearable. His laugh…Brighid’s smile widened. He used to laugh with such boyish exuberance! It was the memory of boyish laughter that stayed with Brighid as the night waned—as she awakened the groggy Cuchulainn so he could take his turn watching over the camp—and as she settled herself into the tight confines of the tent she shared with the warrior and quickly drifted to sleep amidst thick bedding that was still warm from Cuchulainn’s body and scent. It began as so many of her dreams did—with her watching the wind roll over the tops of the tall grasses on her beloved Centaur Plains. In her dream it was early spring and the plain was colored with wildflowers in magnificent full bloom. The light green of the prairie was infused with bursts of lavender and aquamarine and saffron. In her sleep she felt the soft breeze caress her face, so different from the obnoxious wind of the frigid Wastelands. On the Centaur Plains the wind soothed, and brought with it the seductive fragrances of verdant grass and wildflowers. She breathed deeply and allowed her dreaming self to soak in the scents and sounds of her homeland. On the wind she heard laughter. It came from behind her and she instinctively turned toward the sound. She smiled, noting that she was dreaming of one of her favorite places, an area of crosstimbers that was not far from her family’s summer settlement. She followed the laughter along the lazy Sand Creek that ran musically through the middle of the shady grove of oak and ash and hackberry trees. Brighid trotted around a gentle curve in the creek and came to an abrupt halt. Sitting on the bank with his bare feet in the clear water, was Cuchulainn. He was laughing. Brighid must have made some unintentional sound of surprise, because he swiveled at the waist and looked over his shoulder at her. “Brighid! I wondered if I might see you here.” He waved for her to come closer. “Join me. The water’s cold, but so clear and sweet that it’s worth the chill.” “Cuchulainn, what are you doing here?” The words tumbled from her mouth as she approached him. He looked up at her and laughed heartily. “I have no idea!” Then he leaped to his feet and flourished a chivalrous bow in her direction, grinning his rakish smile of old. “Will ye come sit beside me, bonny Huntress?” he asked, putting on the thick brogue of western Partholon. She tried to hide her own smile in a snort. “I will if you quit acting like you’ve forgotten that I’m half equine.” “Can’t a man show simple appreciation for female beauty, even if she is part horse?” Brighid made herself glare at him in mock severity. “Centaurs are not horses.” “I stand corrected, my beautiful Huntress!” “Oh, just sit back down. By the Goddess, I’d forgotten how annoying you could be!” Cu chuckled as he flopped down, reclining back on his elbows and sticking a long piece of sweetgrass in his mouth. Warily Brighid settled herself beside him. “Relax, I’m not going to bite you.” He grinned boyishly at her. “Probably won’t kiss you, either, although I’m considering it.” “Cuchulainn!” “You sound exactly like Elphame when you say that,” he said. “Which is not necessarily a compliment. You know how uptight my sister can be.” She shook her head at him. “Act right. It is my dream.” “We’re in your dream, huh? Well, that explains what I’m doing here. You must have been thinking about me before you slept, and, like a Shaman, you’ve conjured me here. What is it you want with me, Brighid? Are your intentions honorable?” He waggled his eyebrows at her. Her shocked expression had him pulling the grass from his mouth, throwing his head back and laughing heartily again. And there it was—that endearing, infectious, totally happy laugh that used to boom through MacCallan Castle regularly, causing women’s heads to turn as they stopped and listened and smiled with secret thoughts, and causing men to eagerly join Cu in whatever renovation Elphame had set him to, no matter how filthy and difficult. By the Goddess, he looked young and relaxed and so very happy. Then, with a little sparklike shock, his words registered. She had conjured him. Just like a damned Shaman. But what had she conjured? Ciara had said that it was during sleep that they were closest to the Otherworld. Could this dream apparition be more than an image created by her own mind? “What?” Cuchulainn asked, still chuckling softly. “Since when have you become so serious you can’t joke with a comrade?” “No, it’s…it’s not that.” Brighid fumbled, not knowing what to say. Then she blurted the first thing that came to her mind. “It’s just so damned good to see you!” “Ah, there, you see? My charms are not totally wasted on you,” he said, chewing the stalk of sweetgrass again. Brighid snorted. “You needn’t be so cocky. I’m surprised that I have missed you—charm and all.” “Harrumph,” he snorted back at her. “Huntress, you are a confusing creature—decidedly beautiful, but confusing.” Brighid raised one eyebrow at him. “Well, it’s you who said you’ve missed me, but how could that be? We’ve been working side by side for days clearing out that wreck my sister calls a castle.” He winked at her. “Or is this your subtle way of telling me you’d like to spend even more time with me?” He made a great show of sighing. “Go easy with me, Huntress, I am only one man.” Brighid’s mild annoyance changed to something that felt almost like fear. “Brighid?” He reached forward and touched her arm gently. “Have I offended you? I thought you knew I only jested.” “No…I…” She floundered. What was she supposed to say? She stared at the man sitting next to her. He was carefree and kind and charismatic—everything that the Cuchulainn who was at that moment watching over the New Fomorian camp was not. And she knew with a feeling as sure as her knowledge of the habits of the animals he wasn’t a figment of her dreaming imagination. He was the part of Cuchulainn that had been shattered at Brenna’s death, and this part of Cu seemed to be caught in a time before the tragic event. Brighid searched desperately within herself. What should she say to him? “Brighid? What is it?” “Cu, you know we’re in my dream?” The warrior nodded. “In the waking world we are no longer at MacCallan Castle,” she said slowly. Cuchulainn sat up straight and took the sweetgrass from between his teeth. “But that’s not possible. Just this evening we worked together to clean out the Chieftain’s quarters as a surprise for El.” His smile faltered only a little. “We can’t be traveling. We’re busy working.” “Who?” she asked quietly. “Who is busy working on El’s chamber, Cuchulainn?” “Have you been overimbibing my sister’s stash of red wine, Brighid?” he asked with humor that was obviously forced. “It’s mostly been the three of us—you, Brenna and me.” Brighid drew a deep breath. “Cu, what you’re remembering…it happened in the past…more than two full cycles of the moon since—” “No!” With a sharp, jerky movement the warrior stood. “No…” He backed away from her. “Cu, wait!” Brighid reached toward him, but all she touched was the darkness of her tent as her eyes opened to the fading night. That was when her headache began. The cold drizzle of the morning had done nothing to dispel it. Brighid had tried to catch Ciara’s eye and pull her aside. She needed to talk to the Shaman about her dream. But the Shaman had been kept busy herding the waterlogged goats. “You’re setting a fast pace for such a miserable day.” Cuchulainn’s gruff voice jolted through her thoughts. She looked around and felt a little like she was waking from another dream. “Sorry,” she said shortly. “I hadn’t realized I’d pulled away from the rest of them.” A grunt was his only reply. She expected him to turn and ride away, but as Brighid slowed her pace Cu’s gelding stayed beside her. His hair was damp and too damned long. He looked like one of the semiwild goats Ciara had spent the morning wrestling. “You need a haircut,” she said. His eyes widened in surprise before they narrowed into the flat, cynical expression that had overtaken his face in the past months. “I do not care about my hair.” Huh, Brighid’s mind whirred. He was visibly shaken by a normal, personal comment. And something suddenly made sense to her. Everyone had been tiptoeing around Cuchulainn since Brenna’s death, treating him like he was a delicate egg that needed to be sheltered. Even the hybrids were careful with him—not expecting him to stay for dinner and most of the storytelling—allowing him to escape to his tent so he could brood alone. No wonder the joyous part of him had retreated. If she had a choice, she wouldn’t want to spend time with the black cloud that had become Cuchulainn, either. “Obviously. Your hair looks awful,” she snapped. “You also need a shave and a change of—” she gestured at the stained kilt that was barely visible beneath the goat’s pelt he’d thrown over his shoulders “—whatever it is you claim to be wearing.” “The more delicate aspects of a gentleman’s toilette have not been foremost on my mind these past cycles of the moon.” His voice was thick with sarcasm. “Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that Goddess-be-damned attitude, boy.” The Huntress purposefully drew out the word. Granted, she was probably only a year or two older, but she drew her seniority around her like a rich cloak and sent the warrior a haughty look. “By this time tomorrow we’ll be entering Guardian Pass. The children, as admittedly annoying as they are, deserve our help greeting Partholon. Our Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/p-c-cast-7/brighid-s-quest/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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