Divine By Choice P.C. Cast “Oh, man! It’s like I’m friggin Wonder Woman or something. ” Suddenly Clint stopped and turned to face me. “Not like a superhero, like a goddess. ” After being mistaken for a goddess in the mythic world of Partholon (easily done), Shannon Parker now adores her new life. Everything – particularly all the goddess worshipping – is going great…until she’s wrenched back to Oklahoma. Desperate to return to the husband and world she loves, she’s got to draw on dormant power from our world to take her back.But Shannon soon realises she’s being followed by an ancient evil… Sometimes being divine by mistake is a lot easier than being divine by choice. Divine by Choice “Bring a goblet too.” I shouted at her back as she (literally) ran across the room to do my bidding. “Of course, my lady!” she shot back over her shoulder before she disappeared through the arched door that led to the kitchens. Sometimes it was just damn nice to be Goddess Incarnate and Beloved of Epona. OK, I’ll admit it – it was more than sometimes nice. Please – I was surrounded by opulence and loved by the populace. I had a veritable herd of eager handmaidens whose sole purpose in living was to see that my every need was met, not to mention wardrobes filled with exquisite clothing and drawers brimming with (be still my beating heart) jewellery. Lots of jewellery. Let’s face it – I was living well beyond the means of an Oklahoma high school teacher’s salary. Big surprise. THE GODDESS OF PARTHOLON series New York Times best-selling author P.C. CAST DIVINE BY MISTAKE DIVINE BY CHOICE DIVINE BY BLOOD And coming in 2010 from MIRA Books: ELPHAME’S CHOICE BRIGHID’S QUEST Find out more at www.mirabooks.co.uk Divine by Choice Book Two of the Goddess of Partholon series P.C. Cast This is another one for my dad, Dick Cast (Mighty Mouse – the Old Coach). With all my love (Bugs). ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Thank you to the wonderful team (especially Mary-Theresa Hussey, Stacy Boyd and Adam Wilson). It’s a pleasure to work with all of you. Much appreciation to my agent and friend, Meredith Bernstein. Thank you, dad, for letting me use your terrible break-through-the-ice-and-almost-die accident, even though seeing it in print gave you the heebie-jeebies. and a special and loving THANK YOU to the Divine by Mistake fans who have been waiting five long years to get this sequel. My fans are the best! Dear Lovely reader, Right now I’m writing my twenty-first novel, and I can tell you without any hesitation that out of all those books the heroine with whom I most easily identify – the heroine I like the very best – is Shannon Parker. I’ve been thinking about why that is and, oddly enough, it isn’t her strengths that endear Shannon to me. She’s certainly funny and smart and honest. That’s nice – but that’s also like a zillion other heroines. What I like best about Shannon are her flaws. She messes up. More than once. She gets pissed off and says things she’s sorry about later. She gets overconfident and stubborn, all of which make her delightfully real. I’d like to have a glass (or twelve) of wine with Shannon. If someone’s made me mad, I’d like to call her and have her get pissed off on my behalf. Shannon would be a loyal friend, and she damn sure would never be boring or spineless. In Divine by Choice Shannon has several very difficult decisions to make, and while she doesn’t always make the perfect choice, she makes the real choice, and she does it with a sense of humour and an exuberance for life and love that I hope you, too, will find endearing. Welcome to Divine by Choice, and another grand adventure in the magical world of Partholon. Cheers! P.C. Cast PART ONE 1 Like ink running down a sheet of black paper, the darkness at the edge of my vision wavered, sending a chill of foreboding shivering across my skin. What the hell? I peered into the shadows. Nothing. Just an empty, starless night that had turned cold and windy. Clearly I was losing my friggin' mind. The Fomorian War had been over for months. No winged demons lurked about waiting to pounce on me. I mean, please, I was in the middle of my own temple, which, despite its beauty, had been built as a fortress. Even had some kind of freaky monster been loose upon the world (and in this world, one never knew), I was more than perfectly safe. Seriously, I was in more danger of being pampered and adored to death than I was being monster-grabbed. Yet I still had the awful “someone just walked over my grave” feeling. And tonight wasn’t the first time I’d felt as if something was wrong. As I followed the marble path that led to the monument I thought about the weird sense of foreboding I seemed to be carrying around with me. Had it been weeks? Damn! Now that I really thought about it I realized that it had been at least two or three weeks that I’d been feeling off. I’d definitely been off my food, which was bizarre in its own right because I seriously love food. But a lingering stomach virus and/or stress could account for that. What was most odd was the way I’d been jumping at shadows. And the shadows seemed dark and thick and filled with something definitely malevolent. Okay, yes, I’d just been through a truly awful war in which the good guys (naturally, the ones on my side) had to battle horrid demonic creatures and save the world from enslavement and annihilation. Literally. And yes, that could make a girl slightly jumpy. Especially if the girl was really a high school English teacher from Oklahoma who had accidentally been exchanged for the Beloved Incarnate of a Goddess in a world that more closely resembled a weird mixture of ancient Scotland and mythological Greece than Broken Arrow, Oklahoma (a lovely suburb of Tulsa). All true. But the war was over. The demons extinguished, and (supposedly) all was right with the world. So why did I feel like the damn booger monster was out there in the darkness waiting to leap on me? Jeesh, I had another headache. When I got to the MacCallan’s memorial I tried to still my roiling thoughts by breathing deeply and savoring the peace and serenity that always blanketed me when I visited it. Tall, graceful columns ringed a three-stepped marble dais, whereon an ornately carved pedestal stood as the resting place for a weighty urn that was kept perpetually filled with sweet-scented, forever-burning oil. Tonight the silver-gray smoke curled lazily up through the circular hole in the domed roof. I walked slowly toward the urn, enjoying the way the brilliant yellow flame contrasted with the backdrop of the starless night’s sky. I had specified that the monument be built with no walls, just columns, a dome and this ever-burning flame. I believe the man memorialized here would have liked the freedom it symbolized. A breeze stirred my hair and I shivered. The cool air was almost moist. I was glad I’d let Alanna bully me into wearing my ermine-lined cloak, even though the memorial was only a short walk from my chambers. “Lady Rhiannon!” A young maiden rushed between the columns on the far side of the edifice. She paused long enough to drop almost to the floor in a fluid curtsy. “May I bring you some warmed wine? The night has become chilly.” “No.” Distracted, I barely glanced at her, quickly searching my memory for her name, “Maura. I don’t need anything. You may go back to bed.” She smiled at me shyly. “Yes, my Lady.” Then she blurted, “But you will call if there is anything you require?” I returned her smile with a tired one of my own. “Yes, I will call.” She bounded away. I looked sardonically at the urn and rolled my eyes. “The annoying exuberance of youth,” I muttered at the smoking flame. “But I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Heck, you’d probably consider me filled with youthful exuberance.” Getting no audible answer, and, of course, expecting none, I climbed to the top level of the dais and sat down with a sigh, tucking the thick folds of my cloak around my knees before I rested my chin in my hand. “But then I don’t really know what you would think. I never actually knew you.” I sighed again, plucking irritably at the escaping curl that was tickling my cheek. I had hoped visiting the monument would lift my spirits as it usually did, but tonight I couldn’t shake the depression that threatened to engulf me. I rubbed my right temple where the needle prick of a headache throbbed with each beat of my heart. Another wisp of breeze ruffled my cloak. Again, the hair on the back of my neck lifted eerily. I turned my head to check the leather tie that knotted my thick tresses back from my face, and my eyes caught the movement of something liquid and dark as it skittered just outside the line of my sight. Forgetting the escaping hair, I sat up straighter, ready to chastise whoever was encroaching upon my privacy. “Who is it?” I demanded imperiously. Silence. I studied my surroundings. The low-hanging clouds curtained the night sky. The only illumination came from the flame burning steadily before me. I could see nothing out of the ordinary—except that the darkness of the night mirrored my mood. Nothing sinister stirred or skulked or crept in the dim non-shadows. Jeesh, Shannon. Get a grip, girl! It was probably just the wind in the nearby trees, mixed with a healthy dose of my always-active imagination. That was probably it. Nothing was really wrong… …Then another movement caught at the edges of my vision. I turned my head quickly, but all I could see was darkness on darkness—more ink running across a page of black paper. I shivered again and my memory stirred. What was it Alanna had told me not long after I’d come to Partholon? Something about dark gods who were better left unnamed. My stomach clenched in an unexplained spasm of fear. What was wrong with me? I definitely didn’t traffic with dark gods. Hell, I didn’t even know anything about them. Why should just the thought of such beings cause me to be afraid? Something was definitely not right. As it had been for weeks, a feeling too deep to call sadness and too thick to call loneliness nagged at the edges of my mind. I put my face in my hands, stifling a sob. “I wish you were alive, Dad. I need to talk to you about what the hell is going on inside of me.” He’s not really your father. My errant thoughts taunted me. And this is not really your world. Interloper. Usurper. Fraud. “It’s my world now!” I yelled before I spiraled down into an endless wash of tears. My voice split the night with its strength. The sound echoed eerily off the columns like a tolling bell, which made me start in response. My unexpected reaction caused me to laugh out loud at my own foolishness. “What the hell am I doing sitting here yelling at myself and imagining the booger man in night shadows?” The humor in my voice helped to ease my morose mood. As I wiped the tears from my eyes and took a deep breath, I watched the almost full moon suddenly break through the misty sky and appear over the trees. I smiled in pleasure at the ethereal beauty of the timeless orb. “I don’t care if I wasn’t born into this world. I love it here. This is where I want to be, and it’s where I belong.” I said resolutely. And, of course, it was true. Rhiannon, the original Incarnate and Beloved of the ancient Celtic horse goddess Epona, had jerked me out of twenty-first century America—Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to be specific—where I had been content to be Shannon Parker, an incredibly attractive, witty and broke high school English teacher. Rhiannon had succeeded in casting a spell that caused us to exchange places. Almost six months ago I had awakened from what I’d thought was a horrible car accident to find myself in Partholon, a parallel world where mythology and magic lived. To add to my initial confusion, some of the people of Partholon mirror those of my old world. In other words, people looked familiar, they even sounded and maybe acted familiar, but in actuality they weren’t. Which is where the monument to the MacCallan (my dad/non-dad) came in. For a moment I felt a wave of sadness, not just because my beloved father was a world away, but because his mirror image in this world, Rhiannon’s father the MacCallan, had been brutally killed not long after I had arrived here. The power of my Goddess had allowed me to witness Rhiannon’s father’s death so that I could warn this world of an encroaching evil. My mind told me that the man whose death I had witnessed, Lord MacCallan, Chieftain of his Clan, was not actually my father, but my heart whispered something else. The MacCallan had been a leader and a warrior. My father, too, was a leader of men—mostly young men. His chosen field of battle was the football field. I couldn’t help feeling unalterably bonded to the dead man who so closely resembled my father. “It’s damn confusing sometimes,” I said as I rose and gave the side of the urn a pat. MacCallan’s body wasn’t entombed here. He lay with his men within the charred ruins of Mac-Callan Castle. I had felt the need to erect this monument to him, to show him the respect I would want accorded to the memory of Richard Parker. There were a lot of things I had learned about Rhiannon that mortified and embarrassed me, but her love for her father was not one of them. Now I enjoyed having the status of Lady Rhiannon, High Priestess of Partholon, Beloved of Epona and Goddess Incarnate in her place. And I supposed that she “enjoyed” being an underpaid Oklahoma public-school teacher. The thought made me laugh as I walked toward the path that would lead me back to Epona’s Temple. “Yeah,” I whispered sarcastically. “It was obvious how much she had been enjoying her change of status when she attempted to re-exchange places with me a few months ago.” The memory of that failed attempt sobered me. Even though I hadn’t been born to this world I had become bound to it. Partholon was my home now; these people my people—Epona my Goddess. I closed my eyes and sent a quick prayer to her. Epona, please help me to stay. My stomach lurched and I swallowed hard. Maybe that was what was wrong with me. Maybe Rhiannon was up to her old tricks and was trying to pull me away from Partholon and back to Oklahoma so that she could return here, and this creepy, bullshit sick feeling was Epona sending me a premonition of trouble so that I’d keep my eyes open. Ugh. Just thinking about losing Partholon—and the husband and people I’d come to love here—was enough to cause another wave of sickness to wash over me. Damnit! I was completely tired of feeling like this! I shivered again as a breath of chilled wind caressed my cheeks and slipped within my cloak. I thought of the weird, running darkness I kept imagining around me. Now it seemed I had started hallucinating. Great—my husband was gone for one month to make sure the land was recovering from battle and I go totally nuts. Squaring my shoulders, I told myself to knock it off. Rhiannon was in Oklahoma. I was here in Partholon, which was how things were going to stay. I’d just be on my guard against unusual weirdness (easier said than done, but still). And about the sick feeling in my stomach…well…I had probably just caught a nasty flu bug, which was adding to a bad case of the I’m-a-newlywed-and-my-husband-went-on-a-trip blues. Anyway, he was due home any day. Things would get back to normal then. At least that’s what I told myself as I ignored the crawling night shadows. The lights of the temple beckoned and I picked up my pace, whistling the theme to The Andy Griffith Show. Loudly. 2 Unfortunately, the next day didn’t get any damn better. “Oh, yuck!” I spit the piece of chocolate-dipped strawberry into my hand. “There’s something wrong with it.” I sniffed suspiciously at the semichewed lump in my palm. It looked disquietingly like a hunk of raw flesh. I grimaced at my friend, who also served as this world’s equivalent to my girl Friday. In other words, Alanna knew about everyone and everything in Partholon, which helped me look less like a fish roosting in a tree and more like a real Goddess Incarnate. “I think it’s rotten.” After spending yet another sleepless night, what I didn’t need was a tragic and messy episode of food poisoning on top of my already weird upset stomach. Alanna chose a different strawberry from the artistically displayed setting, sniffed it, then nibbled carefully. “Mmm…” She licked her lips and threw me a quick, creamfilled kitten smile. “It must have just been that one—this one tastes wonderful.” She popped the rest of it into her mouth. “That figures,” I grumbled. “The one I grab is the only yucky one on the whole damn plate.” I picked around the platter until I found an especially lovely, plump chocolate-dressed berry, then I bit carefully into the delicious-looking end of it. “Ugh!” The half-chewed tip joined the other piece of mush in my hand. “Okay, this is getting ridiculous! This one is nasty, too.” I offered the unchewed part of the offending fruit to Alanna. “Please taste this and tell me I’m not crazy.” Alanna, being a good friend and, coincidentally, the person who was in charge of the upcoming gala celebration, gingerly took the strawberry from me, sniffed it and nibbled a bite from its sun-kissed side. I waited for her expression to change and for her to spit the berry into her own hand (I pulled my yuckfilled hand out of her range of fire). And waited. And waited. She swallowed and looked at me with doe eyes. “Don’t tell me it tastes fine.” “Rhea, it tastes fine.” She offered it back to me. I got one whiff of the rich chocolate/berry smell and cringed. “Uh, no, keep it.” “Obviously you are still unwell.” Alanna’s eyes were filled with concern. “I am pleased that Carolan returns with Clan-Fintan tonight. This stomach sickness of yours has gone on entirely too long.” Yeah, I’d look forward to our “doctor” checking me out—sans penicillin, blood tests, X-rays, etcetera, etcetera. Of course, I couldn’t share my trepidation with Alanna because not only was Carolan this world’s leading doctor, he was also her husband. A little nymphet-servant scampered up to me. “My Lady…” She dipped down in an adorable curtsy. “Please allow me to clean your hand!” “Thank you,” I took the wet linen cloth from her, “but I think I can clean my own hand.” Before she could give me a look that said I had just crushed her little ego, I added, “I would really appreciate it if you could run and get me something to drink.” “Oh, yes, my Lady!” Her face radiated pleasure. “Bring a goblet for Alanna, too.” I shouted at her back as she (literally) ran across the room to do my bidding. “Of course, my Lady!” she shot back over her shoulder before she disappeared through the arched door that led to the kitchens. Sometimes it was just damn nice to be Goddess Incarnate and Beloved of Epona. Okay, I’ll admit it—it was more than sometimes nice. Please—I was surrounded by opulence and loved by the populace. I had a veritable herd of eager handmaidens whose sole purpose in living was to see that my every need was met, not to mention wardrobes filled with exquisite clothing and drawers brimming with (be still my heart) jewelry. Lots of jewelry. Let’s face it—I was living well beyond the means of an Oklahoma high school teacher’s salary. Big surprise. I finished wiping my hand and turned back to the table to find Alanna watching me closely. “What?” My tone said I was exasperated. “You have been looking decidedly pale lately.” “Well, I’ve felt decidedly pale, too.” I realized I sounded grumpy, and attempted a smile and a lighter tone. “Don’t worry about it, I just have a touch of the…the…” (think Shakespeare) “the, um, ague.” I finally finished, pleased with my grasp of the vernacular. “For two seven-days?” I swear she sounded more like a mother than a best friend. “I’ve watched you, Rhea. Your eating habits have changed. And I believe you’ve lost weight.” “So, I’ve had a cold. And this weather hasn’t helped.” “Rhea, winter is almost upon us.” “And to think when I first arrived here I thought that it must never get cold.” I looked pointedly at the wall closest to us, whereon a lovely painting depicted someone who looked exactly like me riding a silver-white mare, breasts bared to the world (mine, not the mare’s), while a dozen scantily clad maidens (or at least they were supposed to be maidens) cavorted around me, indiscriminately strewing flowers. Alanna’s good-natured laughter tinkled. “Rhiannon always chose the frescoes to be painted from scenes of spring and summer rituals. She reveled in the lack of clothing.” “She reveled in more than that,” I muttered. I hadn’t been here long when I realized that even though many of the Partholonian people who mirrored people from my old world were alike in personalities (like Alanna and my best friend, Suzanna), Rhiannon was, quite frankly, not a nice person. Alanna and I surmised that one of the reasons she and I were so different could be because Rhiannon was raised as an indulged, totally spoiled High Priestess, and I was raised to act right by a dad who would have knocked the Oklahoma crap right outta me if I’d acted like a brat. So I’d grown up to have some self-discipline and a pretty decent set of morals. Rhiannon, to put it in twenty-first century terms, had grown up to be a raving bitch. Everyone who knew her either loathed her or feared her, or both. She had been self-indulgent and amoral. And, yes, it had been a mess to step into her friggin ruby slippers (so to speak). There were only three people in Partholon who knew I was not the original Rhiannon: Alanna, her husband, Carolan, and my husband, ClanFintan. Everyone else just thought I’d made an amazing personality change several months ago (about the same time I’d adopted Rhea as the shortened version of my name). I mean, it really wouldn’t do to let the masses know their object of worship had been snatched from the twenty-first century. And not only that, to my utter and complete surprise this world’s Goddess, Epona, had made it clear that I was, indeed, her choice as Beloved of the Goddess. Huh. The delicate clearing of a throat swung my attention back to the present. “The maidens said you spent more than your usual amount of time at MacCallan’s tomb again last night.” Alanna’s voice sounded worried. “I like it there. You know that.” Thinking of the skittering, inky darkness, I couldn’t meet her eyes. “Alanna, do you remember that you told me that Rhiannon’s lackey, uh, I think his name was B-something.” “Bres,” Alanna said distastefully. “Yeah, Bres. Didn’t you say something about him worshipping dark gods?” Alanna’s eyes narrowed with concern. “I do remember. Bres had powers granted him by evil and darkness. What would make you think of him?” I shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant. “I don’t know. I guess something about the cold, cloudy night must have creeped me out.” “Rhea, lately I have been concerned that you—” Thankfully, Alanna was interrupted by the sound of approaching feet pattering against the marble. “Your wine, my Lady.” The nymphet had returned bearing a tray on which rested two crystal goblets filled with what I assumed was my favorite merlot. “Thank you,” I mentally searched for her name as I took one of the goblets and handed the other to Alanna, “Noreen.” “You are most welcome, Epona’s Beloved!” She skipped away—her red hair flying in a breeze of her own making. God, she was perky. “To our husbands returning.” I offered the toast, hopeful that it would change the subject. Alanna clicked her glass to mine as she blushed a sudden, dazzling pink. “To our husbands.” She smiled softly at me over the top of her glass as she took a drink. “Ugh!” I could barely swallow my own sip. “This stuff is awful!” I sniffed at the glass, and cringed as the scent of rancid wine met my nostrils. “Does being Beloved of Epona not mean anything anymore? Why do I keep getting everything that’s rotten?” I realized I sounded uncharacteristically petulant, and somewhere inside my mind I was shocked at my own outburst. Why in the hell did I constantly feel on the verge of tears? “Rhea, let me taste it.” Alanna took my goblet, smelled the wine, then took a long drink. And another. “Well?” My voice reflected my frustration. “It is fine.” Alanna’s eyes met mine. “There is nothing wrong with the wine.” “Oh, shit,” I collapsed onto a chaise that sat near the laden banquet table. “I’m dying. I have cancer or a brain tumor or an aneurysm or something.” There was a burning in the back of my throat that signaled I was close to tears. Again. “Rhea—” Alanna sat next to me and took my hand gently in hers “—perhaps you have become choleric. You have gone through much in the time you have been in our world.” Oh, sure, “choleric.” What the hell was that? Next she’d want to bleed me or drill holes into my skull to let out the “bad humors” or something equally medieval. My mind frantically tried to recall how penicillin was made from bread mold. “Carolan will know what to do to help you.” She patted my hand, trying to comfort me. “Yeah, Carolan will know what’s wrong.” Like hell. There was no technology in this world. That meant no medical schools. He would probably want to chant some kind of offtune song over me and make me drink something made from frog snot. I was friggin doomed. “A long bath always makes you feel better.” She stood, pulling me up with her. “Come, I will help you choose a lovely gown—with matching jewelry.” She paused as I got reluctantly to my feet, then added, “The jeweler was here this morning while you were busy with Epi. I had him leave all of his new pieces. I think I remember seeing a lovely pair of diamond earrings and a gorgeous golden brooch.” “Well, if you insist.” We smiled at each other as we left the banquet room. Alanna knew my weakness for jewelry and knew that it could coax me out of just about any dreary mood, almost as easily as could spending time with my extraordinary mare, Epi, who I had nicknamed after the Goddess, Epona, and rightly so. Epi was the horse equivalent of me. She, too, was Beloved of the Goddess. She and I had a connection that was as magical as it was strong. “Hey!” Inspiration hit me halfway to the bathing chamber. “Maybe I’m having a bizarre reaction to what’s going on with Epi.” The mare was going to be bred on Samhain night, the eve of the first day in November, as was traditional each third year. In Partholon three is a “magic” number, as Alanna had explained to me, and when the third year rolled around, the equine incarnation of Epona was bred to insure the land’s fertility in the coming harvests. November first was in a couple days, and Epi had been acting fretful and uncharacteristically temperamental ever since the arrival of her future mate the week before. “Rhiannon never behaved any differently during Epi’s breeding cycles.” “I wonder if that was the norm for Epona’s Chosen, or was Rhiannon such a selfish hag that she wasn’t sensitive to the mare’s moods?” Before Alanna could answer, I continued, “Or maybe since Rhiannon was always in heat herself, she didn’t notice a difference.” We both laughed and I felt a little of my tension release. The door to the bathing room was guarded by two of my scrumptious warriors. There were several positive things about the Goddess I’d begun to serve; the fact that she was a warrior goddess and had a hundred handsome, virile men “on staff” was just one of the perks of my new job. I noticed that the guards had added leather tunics to their hot-weather uniforms of, well, virtually nothing except well-filled loincloths. I couldn’t help sighing in disappointment at the thought of all of those muscles being covered. Yes, I’m married, but I’m not a corpse. Jeesh. The warm-mineral smell of the candlelit room enveloped me. Steam rose invitingly from the deep, clear bathing pool. The bubbling of the water as it continually filled the bath, and the gentle sound of the waterfall as the overflow left the pool coupled with the moist warmth, beckoning me to relax in its depths and soak away the soreness in my unusually achy body. I ducked my head out of the cowled robe I wore to keep out the prewinter’s damp cold, and winked my thanks at Alanna as she unwound me from my silky underwrap. Slowly, I immersed myself in the warm mineral bath, reclining against the smooth sides of my favorite rocky ledge. I closed my eyes and listened to Alanna send another nymphet for a cup of herbal tea—then felt my face grimace in self-disgust at my sudden unfortunate aversion to wine—until recently, a glass of rich, red wine had been one of my favorite things. Maybe I was getting old. No, thirty-five and a half couldn’t be old, and anyway, I had always planned on being one of those eccentric old ladies who wore lots of big jewelry, had chic, funky hair, drank wine knowingly and died suddenly of an Old White Woman’s Disease (preferably a painless aneurysm after an especially sumptuous dinner). I enjoy practicing for my future golden years. I tried to convince myself for the zillionth time that I just had a stubborn flu. It was making me depressed and making me imagine things. Of course, now that it was daylight, last night’s dark images seemed distant and more than slightly ridiculous. ClanFintan would be home tonight. Just thinking about being with him again made me feel better, or at least that’s what I told myself. He’d been gone almost a month, and this world’s lack of telephones and e-mail had really worn on me. We’d been married less than six months, but with him gone I felt strangely hollow, like a bell without a clacker. Which was a disconcerting feeling for someone who had changed worlds recently. Actually, it made me feel a little like I was trapped in one of the alternative-dimension Star Trek episodes (minus Kirk and whatever alien bimbo he would be boinking). “Try this.” Alanna handed me a thick mug filled with fragrant tea. “It will settle your stomach.” I sniffed at it hesitantly, waiting for it to turn rancid in my hands (kind of a twist on the Midas touch thing), but the soothing scent of herbs and honey thankfully stayed enticing. I sipped at the mixture and let it comfort my rebellious stomach. “Thanks, girlfriend, I feel better already.” If I said it, it would be true…If I said it, it would be true…If— “The maid said the sentries have spotted ClanFintan’s warriors,” Alanna’s chatter was comforting. “They should arrive soon. I knew they would be on time. Carolan said they would return within the days that prelude Samhain—it is two days before and he will be here today.” Her voice was washed with the expectation of a newlywed. I knew exactly how she felt. I let visions of my husband’s strong, sexy torso drift through my mind as I soaked. “Man, I’ve missed him.” “As I have missed Carolan.” We shared girlfriend smiles. “Better hand me that sponge. I want to be sweet smelling and well dressed when they arrive.” Well, for a little while I wanted to be dressed. I poured my favorite vanilla nut–scented soap from its delicate bottle, and started scrubbing with the thick sponge. Alanna began rummaging through one of my overfilled wardrobes. “It’ll be nice to see Victoria again, too.” I had missed the Lead Huntress the past couple months. Her nomadic duties caused her to travel almost constantly, and I was happy to hear (by way of centaur runner—a little like the Pony Express, only with the rider built in) that she had joined with my husband’s band of warriors and would be returning with him. We had become close friends, and I was hoping that Epona’s Temple would be a second home to her. “Perhaps we will see Dougal smile again.” Alanna’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “He’s smiled, you bad thing.” “Is that what that expression was?” Her musical lilt intensified as she teased. “And here I was sure he must have caught part of your stomach upset.” “Poor Dougal, between you and ClanFintan teasing him about his thing with Vic it’s a wonder his face isn’t permanently pink from blushing.” “Which reminds me, what exactly do you think happened between the two of them?” “Well, I thought it was just a crush he had on her, but before she left I noticed they were both absent from the temple quite a bit—at coincidentally the same time. Add that to his misery since she’s been gone, and his pink face whenever Vic is mentioned, and I do believe we have a pair of lovers.” Alanna giggled. “He really is a sweet blusher, isn’t he?” “Oh, look who’s talking!” I splashed some water at her, which she neatly sidestepped. “I do not blush.” “You don’t blush like I don’t cuss.” We giggled at each other. “Toss me that towel, please.” I began drying myself vigorously, determined that tonight, surrounded by my friends and my husband, I would feel well again. “I’m glad ClanFintan had Dougal stay here and take charge of the construction of the new centaur quarters. It’s kept him too busy to do much moping.” Dougal had lost a brother a few months earlier, and then the centaur he had apparently fallen for, Ms. Lead Huntress Victoria, had broken off their budding relationship and left him to go back to her old life. He was definitely a young centaur who desperately needed diversion. “You know, Rhea, perhaps it is not a coincidence that Victoria just happened to meet up with our warriors. Perhaps she was looking for a reason to return here—” she raised her eyebrows suggestively (which made her look like a blond bunny) “—to Dougal.” “I hope so.” I finished drying myself and ran my hands appreciatively over the shining length of fabric Alanna presented to me. “I think they make a great couple, and who cares that he’s younger. Something tells me any centaur who Victoria loves is going to need to be young and highly athletic.” We laughed in agreement. I wrapped the towel around myself and sank down onto the padded seat of my vanity chair, relaxing into Alanna’s expert hands as she tried to tame my wild red hair. “I seriously need a trim.” I mentally calculated…I’d been in this world for almost six months, and I hadn’t had my thick curls trimmed for several weeks before I’d been yanked over here. Man, my hairdresser, Rick, would have an apoplectic attack if he could see me now. Rick always said, “Girlfriend, I don’t know why you’d ever let a woman touch your hair. They’re in competition with you, so they just look for hateful little ways to make y’all look like shit. I don’t mind if you look fabulous. We’re not, shall we say, dipping out of the same punch bowl.” You have to admit he had a point. “Women do not cut their hair.” I snorted, remembering ClanFintan saying something very much like that several months ago. “Let me clue you in, my friend.” I spoke to her reflection in the mirror. “There’s nothing wrong with a little snip-snip once in a while. I swear I’ve seen more split ends in the past six months than I have in the past decade. You’d think we were at a Pentecostal retreat.” Alanna didn’t say anything. She was becoming used to my out-of-this-world babblings. Apparently she enjoyed the excitement now that she trusted me not to bite her head off. And, yes, I mean that literally. I’m telling you, Rhiannon was not a nice girl. I contemplated silently how I was going to go about mass hair trimmings while Alanna finished my hair and makeup. When I had first awakened in this new world, I had felt awkward about Alanna waiting on me. Because she is the mirror image of my best friend (in any world), Suzanna, it felt somehow, I don’t know, blasphemous, to allow her to coif me, clothe me and coddle me. But I have come to the realization that I am Alanna’s job. She’s technically my slave, but that’s ridiculous and I called bullshit on that as soon as she told me about it. So now I tell myself, and everyone else, that she’s my personal assistant and I let her have her way with me. Okay, I admit I like the attention. And Suzanna always was great at everything that had to do with being a Lady. She had to be. She’s Southern Mississippi born and raised, transplanted in adulthood to Oklahoma (which they don’t consider a part of the True South). And being a Lady of the South must be some kind of cross-dimensional genetic imprint, because Alanna definitely did Dixie proud. Alanna squeezed my shoulder, signaling that she was done with my coiffure. I stood and held my arms out while she wound a shimmery piece of golden silk around my body until it hung in beautiful folds, accentuating my deep curves and long legs. “Hold this while I find that new brooch.” I held the slick material together at my left shoulder while Alanna dug through a pile of gold and sparkles that pooled on my vanity. “Here is it…” She held a brooch out for my inspection. “Is it not exquisite?” “Ohmygod, it’s beautiful!” I breathed a long, sincerely jewelry-loving sigh. It was a golden miniature replica of my husband—a plunging, centaur warrior—complete with a diamondhandled claymore, which he held before him in both hands, streaming hair (or mane, whichever way you wanted to look at it) and plenty of muscles (both horse and human). It looked so lifelike that for a moment I thought I felt it quiver. And in this world, you never know. “Wow—” I peered down at the brooch as Alanna pinned it into place “—it even looks like him.” “That is what I thought.” She turned and retrieved a new pair of hoop earrings that were encrusted with diamonds. “And I thought these would lighten your spirits, too.” The earrings flashed with clear fire as they caught the reflection of the candles. “I’ll bet these weren’t cheap.” I put them in my ears, loving their weight. “Of course they were expensive. Only the—” we finished the familiar sentence together “—best for Epona’s Chosen.” Alanna handed me a thin golden coronet, decorated with an ancient piece of polished amber, and I slid it in place on my forehead. It rested comfortably there—like it had been made for me—like I had been born into this position and Chosen by a Goddess for special favors (and responsibilities, my mind reminded me). Little wonder I had grown to love this world. My husband was here; my friends were here; people depended upon and trusted me; and (incidentally), the position of Goddess Incarnate does carry with it a decidedly better salary than Oklahoma public-school teacher (well, let’s face it, a burger-flipper has a better salary than an Oklahoma teacher, as I’m sure the real Rhiannon is finding out). “You look lovely. Pale, but lovely.” “Thanks, Mom.” I pulled a face at her. Two firm knocks sounded against the bathing room door. “Come on in!” I called. The perky little Noreen nymphet rushed into the room. “My Lady! The warriors have been sighted over the western ridge,” she gushed. “Well, let’s go welcome them!” “Rhea, your wrap.” Alanna reminded me of the encroaching cold as she helped me into an ermine-lined cloak (no animal rights activists here). Then she wrapped herself in a similar cloak, and we were ready to roll. I felt my heart pound in expectation as the two women stood aside so that I could lead the way from the room. A quick left turn took me through my private hallway, which led to the main inner courtyard of Epona’s Temple. One of my warriors opened the door, and the three of us spilled out into the crowded courtyard. “Hail, Epona!” “Blessings upon you, Lady Rhiannon!” “Blessed be Epona’s Chosen!” I smiled and waved cheerfully at the throng of maidens and guards who made a path for me through the courtyard, out past the plunging-horse fountain that smoked with bubbling mineral water, to the smooth, ivory-colored marble wall that enclosed the temple. Outside the front entrance I was pleased to see a nice-size crowd of locals had gathered to welcome home the warriors. Epona’s Temple had been built on a plateau, and the raised entrance to the temple faced a westerly direction. I looked up from the crowd that spread before me and felt my already hammering heart leap in response to the magnificent sight. The setting sun had left the sky a watercolor of dramatic violets and pinks, which shaded to deep, sapphire blue near the horizon. Against that amazing backdrop came the warriors. Plunging over the western ridge the army moved as one, a liquid tide of strength tempered by grace. At first they were just darker shadows within shadow, bodies silhouetted by the setting sun, centaurs intermingled with humans on horseback. The closer they came the more individuals emerged. Beading on the centaurs’ leather vests shimmered and glinted with the movement of their long strides. The bridles of the horses ridden by the human men winked brilliant shards of color as the fading evening light caught its reflection in well-adorned headdresses. They galloped in a tight formation, the banner of Partholon, a silver mare rearing against a regal purple background, snapped and curled above them. As they came to the strategically cleared area that surrounded Epona’s Temple, the army executed a neat flanking movement. Rippling like water, they separated into two neat columns that split to surround the group of joyously waiting spectators who cheered their maneuvers appreciatively. Unexpectedly, I was reminded of my father’s football practices. His team had become so successful that a crowd that outnumbered the total fans at most Friday night high school games consistently gathered to watch their practices. He had decided it would be good for morale to entertain his loyal fans, so he had his boys enter the practice field in intricate formations. The football players feinted and moved around each other like they were in a well-choreographed play. The loneliness of having no father in this world with which to share this amazing sight felt especially poignant as I watched my centaur warrior husband break rank and move fluidly toward me. Dad would have liked him. I mentally shook myself free from my morose thoughts, swallowing back a wave of nausea that threatened to overwhelm me. Throwing back my shoulders in an attempt to look Goddess Incarnate–like, I stepped forward to greet my mate. As he approached, the cheering died to an expectant hush. ClanFintan closed the space between us quickly, but time seemed to suspend long enough for my eyes to be filled with the being that was my husband. He moved with a grace and strength that I had come to realize was unique to his species—centaurs. You might imagine that melding horse and human would create a creature that was either a monstrously confused apparition, or a gawky, uncomfortable attempt to mix worlds, but neither was true. Centaurs were, perhaps, the most exquisite creatures I had ever encountered. And my husband was a prince among them. He was tall. His human torso towered above my five-foot-seven frame. His hair was dark and slick, reminiscent of Spanish Conquistadors, and it was tied back into a thick braid, from which a few tendrils escaped to play a teasing game around his well-defined face. Seeing him after a month’s absence with new eyes, I was struck by how much he reminded me of a muscular Cary Grant, complete with chiseled cheekbones and a deep, romantic cleft in his chin. I let my eyes slide down his body, and I felt my lips form an appreciative, welcoming smile as I took in his muscular torso, which the traditional leather vest of the centaur warrior left enticingly semi-bare. As I already knew, centaurs had a body temperature several degrees higher than a human’s. Obviously, the chill in the air wouldn’t bother him. Not for the first time I appreciated the muscular view his hot (in all senses of the word) body afforded me. From his human waist back, his body was that of a wellmuscled stallion. He stood easily sixteen hands tall at the withers. His coat was a rich bay, the color of ripe acorns that had been polished until they gleamed. This glistening bay deepened to black on his legs and tail. With each stride, his muscles rippled and tensed. As he approached me, he looked very powerful and suddenly—unexpectedly—very foreign. He came to a halt directly in front of me, dwarfing me with his physical presence. I had to force myself not to take a nervous step back. My eyes lifted quickly from his body to meet his gaze. ClanFintan’s eyes were large but vaguely slanted, almost Asian in shape. They were the color of a starless night, so black I couldn’t distinguish his pupils. I found myself trapped in their darkness, and the nausea I had felt earlier fluttered to life in the back of my throat. I suddenly remembered my first response to the thought of being intimate with this amazing being. I had been more than a little uneasy at the prospect—even after I had learned he could shapeshift into human form at will. Then he smiled, and the lines at the edges of his eyes crinkled into familiar patterns. In one swift movement, he stepped forward and took my hand. Turning it palm up he raised it to his lips and kissed me softly. While his lips still touched my skin, his eyes again met mine, and he playfully took the meaty part of my palm between his teeth, nipping my hand gently. “Hail, Epona’s Beloved,” he said in a deep voice that carried throughout the crowd. “Your husband and your warriors have returned.” His voice washed over me, reassuring me with its obvious affection. I blinked once, and my trepidation blew away like autumn leaves. This wasn’t some gigantic stranger. This was my husband, my lover, my mate. “Welcome home, ClanFintan.” As any good teacher can, I raised my voice so that it carried. My smile grew as I spoke. “High Shaman, warrior and husband.” Stepping into the warmth of his embrace, I was vaguely aware of the cheer that escaped from the watching crowd. “I have missed you, my love.” His voice resonated throughout my body as he bent to capture my lips. His kiss was brief and hard. Before I could return the kiss as enthusiastically as I’d like, he grasped me around the waist and swung me up onto his broad back. As if responding to a signal, the cheering crowd swept around us as individuals were welcomed by family and friends, and a tide of wellwishers pushed us joyfully toward Epona’s inner courtyard. From the corner of my eye I caught a flash of silver-blond, and turned my head in time to see my friend, Victoria, accepting the restrained greeting of Dougal. They stood close to each other but not touching, letting the crowd swirl around them. To a stranger, it appeared that Victoria’s classically beautiful face was serene and unaffected by Dougal’s presence. In the time I had known her I had come to understand that she masked her emotions well and, as Lead Huntress and provider for her people, that was only proper. But she could not conceal the emotions in her eyes, and right now they blazed with a desire that I hoped Dougal could read as clearly as I could. ClanFintan moved forward with the crowd and Victoria and Dougal were soon blocked from my view. Sighing, I rested one hand lightly on his shoulder while I waved greetings to the warriors I recognized as we moved forward. Still a little shaky from my initial reaction to ClanFintan, I concentrated on being welcoming and goddess-like. This, at least, was a familiar drill. I had become accustomed to playing the benevolent Goddess Incarnate. You are not playing, Beloved. The words whispered into my mind, and I jerked in surprise like I’d brushed against an electric fence (jeesh, I hate those things). ClanFintan glanced back at me in alarm, and I squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. No doubt he could feel the tension transmitted from my body into his. Epona had not spoken to me for months, yet I recognized the Goddess’s voice as surely as I would my own. We entered the courtyard and ClanFintan came to a halt, turning so that we faced the pressing crowd. He glanced briefly over his shoulder at me, covering my hand that rested on his shoulder with his own. Hastily I cleared my throat, trying to regain my scattered thoughts. “Um, I…” The people silenced themselves as I looked out at the crowd, and for an instant it seemed that behind the joyously gathered group I saw something dark. Something that lingered and watched and waited, but when I tried to look directly at it, disappeared. I cleared my throat and mentally shook myself. “I…um…I mean…” My gaze flitted around until it found Alanna. Her arms were wrapped intimately around her husband, but her eyes were on me. A frown hovered on her lips as her confusion at my uncharacteristic hesitance registered. I started again. “We would like to invite you to join us, all of Epona’s servants and their families, for a feast to welcome home our brave warriors.” The strength of my voice grew as I spoke. “Please share with us the joy of their return with food and wine!” The crowd cheered, milling expectantly, eager to follow us to the Great Hall. At the same time, ClanFintan twisted around, pulling me down from his back and setting me gently on the ground beside him. We moved forward through the entrance side by side, his arm resting protectively around my shoulder, his gait slowing to match my much shorter steps. “Are you well, Rhea?” he asked softly. “Yes, I’m fine.” I tried to smile up at him, but a new wave of nausea left me feeling clammy and weak. The warriors who guarded the huge intricately carved doors saluted as I approached. In a move that made them look like muscular shadows of one another, they pulled the doors open and the smells and sights from the Great Hall escaped, spilling over us in a welcome of the senses. ClanFintan led me to our familiar chaises, which to me always evoked the image and opulence of ancient Rome. He folded himself down into one after bowing me toward my own. As was customary, we reclined for our meals as did the ancient Romans (minus the stuffing puking stuffing puking part). The heads of our chaises were almost touching, and a narrow pedestaled table rested within arm’s reach. I smiled at him, feeling slightly uncomfortable with the intense way he was studying me. Then the hall quieted and I cleared my throat before I began the blessing. Taking a deep breath, I felt myself relax. Not only was I used to public speaking/teaching/scolding/whatever, I enjoyed it. “We thank you, Epona, for the safe return of our brave warriors.” I noted a murmur of agreement rustling through the crowd. I closed my eyes and tilted my chin back, raising my arms over my head as if I was focusing my blessing upward and within at the same time. I continued. “I have only to close my eyes and in memory I see the hardships we have overcome this past season.” I had learned early on that in Partholon time wasn’t measured by months, it was measured by seasons and the changing moon. “But our Goddess was near us then, as always. We can hear Her voice in the sounding of the rain, and the trilling of the birds. It is in the rhythm of the moon, the brush of the breeze, the sweet, living scent of the earth. We are reminded by the changing of the seasons that blessings are not to be had singly. Instead, they come to us in a mixture, and sometimes must be discovered as sifting gems from sand. Tonight we are thankful for our gems.” The walls of the Great Hall echoed my closing words, “Hail Epona!” I opened my eyes and smiled at my wonderful audience before I sank gratefully into my chaise. “Please bring me some herbal tea, and take away this wine,” I whispered to an attentive servant. She gave me a confused look, and who could blame her? I was definitely acting out of character, but she complied without question. “What is wrong, Rhea?” Although he kept his voice low, ClanFintan’s worry was obvious enough to cause several of the people and centaurs in chaises near us (which included Alanna and her doctor husband) to send me concerned, questioning looks. “Oh—” I tried to make my voice sound light “—I’ve had some kind of stomach upset that doesn’t want to go away.” I met my husband’s steady gaze with my usual slightly sarcastic grin. “It’s almost as stubborn as I’ve been known to be.” Several of our eavesdroppers chuckled. I noticed that Alanna, Carolan and ClanFintan did not join them. “You look pale…” He hesitated, studying me again. “And thin.” “Well, you can never be too rich or too thin,” I quipped. “Humph,” he snorted through his nose, making a sound that was very horselike. “Alanna,” I called, “I thought some of the maidens were going to play music during the feast.” “Yes, Rhea.” Her smile was tinged with concern, like she thought I was hovering at the edge of a nervous breakdown. “They await your signal, as always.” She pointed to a raised platform in the corner of the hall where six young women sat with various instruments resting against their silken-clad laps. They were all looking expectantly in my direction. “Oh,” I said, feeling doltish. What in the hell was wrong with me? Brain tumor. Had to be. I raised my hands and clapped twice. Immediately the hall was filled with the opening notes of a single harp. When the others joined in, I was enthralled anew with the music, which seemed to me an intoxicating mixture of Gaelic melody and Partholonian magic. Unexpectedly, I felt my eyes tear up at the lilting sadness of the song, and I had to fight the urge to curl up for a good cry. Okay—something was REALLY wrong. I’m not a crier. I mean it. Weak women who dissolve into tears make my ass hurt. The clattering of plates brought my fragmented attention back to the table. Something chicken-like and dripping with a buttery garlic sauce was being placed before me. As the smell wafted over me, I had to press my lips together and swallow hard. I grabbed the arm of a startled servant. “Take this away and bring me…” I spoke through clenched teeth as I struggled to think of something that sounded like it might be palatable. Remembering the BRAT rule (upset stomach = Banana, Rice, Applesauce, Toast) from my college stint as a hospital unit secretary, I brightened and released my viselike grip. “Rice! Bring me some plain white rice.” She blinked in surprise. “Just rice, my Lady?” “Uh, and some warm bread,” I added with an attempt at a smile. “Yes, my Lady.” She hurried off and I looked up to meet my husband’s worried gaze. Before he could begin the interrogation, I began chirping questions, merrily attempting to change the subject. “So, fill me in—I want to hear everything.” I sipped my herbal tea, willing my stomach to stay still. “Are the people all settled into Guardian and Laragon Castles? Did you have any luck tracking the Fomorian survivors?” “Rhea, I sent weekly reports keeping you apprised of our actions.” “I know, love, but they were just the bare facts. I want to hear the details.” I smiled my thanks to the servant who deposited a plate of warm white rice before me. “As you wish,” He took a deep breath and, through bites of his nauseatingly delicious-looking food, he began a summary of the past months. “Because the work crews had already cleaned and repaired both castles, settling the new inhabitants was actually simply accomplished…” While ClanFintan talked, I kept an attentive look on my face as I gingerly forced small spoonfuls of rice into my resisting mouth, sipping tea between chews. “…so the settling of Laragon went smoothly, and we have Thalia and the rest of the Muse Incarnates to thank for that. Many of the students who were near graduation volunteered to stay at Laragon, helping to get the new warriors and their families established.” He smiled. “I believe several of the young disciples of the Muse will not be returning to their Goddess’s temple.” Laragon Castle was situated near the great Temple of the Muse, which was really a Partholonian version of an all-female university. Exceptional young women from all over Partholon were chosen to be educated there by the nine Incarnate Goddesses of the Muse. Women who had been educated at the Muse’s temple were the most highly revered women in Partholon. No wonder the warriors had little trouble settling into Laragon. ClanFintan’s face became troubled as he continued. “But the women who were to settle Guardian Castle, at first, were noticeably uneasy about living there, which is why I decided to delay the departure of our troops for several weeks. It is only natural, after the atrocities committed at Guardian Castle, for the new inhabitants to feel unusually vulnerable.” His words sent a shiver down my spine, and I remembered all too well the atrocities to which he referred. Shortly after my arrival in Partholon, a race of vampire-like humanoids called Fomorians began an attempt to subjugate and destroy the people of this world. Perhaps the most horrible aspect of their invasion was that the male Fomorians were capturing, raping and impregnating human females. The human females, in turn, gave birth to mutated creatures that were more demonic than human. I shuddered as a “birthing” scene I had witnessed, through the power of Epona sending me on a spirit journey, replayed in my head. Suffice it to say that the human mother didn’t survive the birth. Fomorians considered human women as disposable living incubators for their spawn. Though the Fomorians had destroyed Laragon Castle and its inhabitants, the attack had been quick, and the end came suddenly. Worse had happened at Guardian Castle. It was there that the Fomorians had infiltrated Partholon months before we were aware of their invasion. It was at Guardian Castle that they made their headquarters, and there that so many women endured the horrors of repeated rape until impregnation. It was also there that the women were housed until Fomorian young clawed from their swollen bodies. “I am grateful you stayed until the new women of Guardian Castle felt secure.” And, for the zillionth time I sent up silent thanks to Epona that the Fomorians had been defeated, and ironically enough, for the smallpox epidemic that helped weaken them and led to their annihilation. “I knew you would have expected no less.” His eyes were warm pools. “You’re my hero,” I sighed romantically. “As is only fitting,” he verbally sparred with me, relaxing as I acted more like myself. Too bad it was an act. I forced myself to swallow another spoonful of the bitter-tasting rice. ClanFintan continued with his report. “Tracking the surviving Fomorians was more difficult than seeing Guardian Castle settled.” His voice became grim. “During our search, we found many human women. As their captors died, or fled, they left clusters of pregnant women in their wake.” He shook his head grimly. “Some had been infected with the pox, and were so weakened they died quickly. To those who survived and were still within the first months of their pregnancies, Carolan administered his potion. The potion worked every time, causing the women to miscarry, but almost half of those women perished during the ordeal.” His jaw clenched. “There was little Carolan could do for the women we did not find until they were well along in their pregnancies. He could only dull their pain and ease their passing.” ClanFintan’s gaze shifted to find the Healer, and he lowered his voice. “It was hard for him to bear, Rhea, this inability to save so many.” My gaze followed his, and I noticed new lines around Carolan’s expressive eyes, and the way he constantly touched Alanna, almost with desperation, like she might fade away from him if he didn’t stay physically connected to her. “I’ll make sure Alanna has plenty of free time.” I winked suggestively. “That will help him.” His warm eyes locked with mine. “I, too, was hoping my wife would make some free time—” he mimicked my wink “—for me.” “Well, it just so happens that I know your wife.” I tried for a sexy purr, but a wave of nausea threw my timing off. “And, uh, she assured me—Oh, shit!” Leaning over the side of my chaise (fortunately, the opposite side from which ClanFintan faced me), I heaved and like an explosive volcano spewed a mixture of white rice and herbal tea all over the marble floor, and (unfortunately) a young servant who didn’t leap out of the way quickly enough. I knew the hall had gone very still, but I was busy sucking air and wiping my mouth. I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes from my puke. Lots and lots of little white kernels all splattered across the floor (and the maiden). They looked…they looked disturbingly like something familiar…like, oh, no! Maggots! And I projectile vomited all over Victoria and Carolan as they rushed to my side. “Oh! I’m s-so sorry!” I stuttered and shook, trying to blink thick tears from my eyes. For some ridiculous reason I thought I should stand up, and immediately the hall began to gray around the edges; it was almost impossible to breathe. I had no control over my body as my knees gave way. “I have you, Rhea!” Victoria’s voice penetrated the fog and I realized she had somehow beat ClanFintan to my side, because she was laying me gently back onto my chaise. My eyes fluttered open, but I still couldn’t catch my breath. I was dying. Puking myself to death in front of everyone. God, what a tragically unattractive way to die… Then ClanFintan was beside me, reaching down to lift me into his arms, and I was doubly terrified by the pallor of his usually bronze face. “No, wait, I have to tell Vic…” My voice sounded eerie and somehow detached from my body. I reached blindly out, and the centaur huntress grasped my hand with her own puke-spattered one. “Just love him,” I whispered, noting how her eyes widened. “Who cares what people say—who cares about the age thing.” I clung to her hand when she tried to pull away. If I was dying she was damn sure going to listen. The terminally ill have certain inalienable rights. Or, perhaps, death just scares most people shitless, so they listen to the soon-to-be-dearly-departed. Whichever was the case, I was going to get said what needed to be said. Then I could continue puking myself to death in peace. “You need him. Stop running and accept the amazing gift you have been given.” She had grown very quiet, and her expression didn’t change. The only external reaction she showed was that her usually proud, erect shoulders suddenly drooped, like she couldn’t keep them lifted a moment longer. I squeezed her hand before freeing it and then let my sticky head fall onto ClanFintan’s chest. “I feel so sick.” I murmured. “Healer, follow me,” his stone voice ordered as he strode from the silent hall. 3 “She has been like this for more than two seven-days.” Alanna sounded like she was tattling, and I threw her an ugly look, which didn’t stop her. “Except, never before has she been sick in public.” “I’m feeling better already. I just needed to lie down.” Of course, I hadn’t needed to puke in front of my people (and on my friends), have my husband rush to my side, pick me up and practically run (well, gallop) to my bedchamber with Carolan and Alanna following closely behind. I groaned. “I’ve ruined the celebration.” Before she could say anything, I interrupted. “Alanna, you have to go back to the hall and reassure everyone that I just have some kind of…of…” I looked at Carolan for help, but he didn’t offer any medical terminology. “…Of stomach distemper-thing, and now that Carolan and my husband have returned, I’ll be fine.” Alanna opened her mouth to argue, but I played my trump card. “I need you to do this for me. The people will be so worried.” “Of course.” Her tight smile said she knew my tactics. “But I will return as soon as the people have been reassured.” She kissed me quickly on my damp forehead, then patted ClanFintan’s arm in a motherly gesture before kissing Carolan on the lips and whispering, “Please, my darling, find out what is amiss with her.” “I heard that!” I yelled weakly at her departing back. She ignored me. My attention shifted back to the two males who were watching me like I was an egg ready to hatch. “Why did you not send word of your illness?” ClanFintan sounded more hurt than angry. I started to protest that I was really okay, but his expression told me I was definitely done playing that game. “I didn’t want you to worry. And I guess I thought if I didn’t admit something was wrong, nothing would be wrong.” His grunt said he thought I was a moron. “I will need to examine you, Rhea.” Carolan’s voice was soothing. “Ok-k-kay…” My voice shook. “ClanFintan, I will call for you when I have completed my examination.” Now Carolan was the general giving orders as if he expected to be obeyed. “I prefer to stay with Rhea.” My husband sounded stubborn. Before I could chime in, Carolan spoke with the quiet surety of experience. “It would be better for her if she had some privacy. Trust me, my friend.” His hand grasped the centaur’s muscular shoulder and their eyes locked. ClanFintan broke their gaze first. Abruptly, he leaned down and kissed me on my damp forehead. “I will be just outside. Call if you have need of me.” His exit was quick. I tried to smile bravely at Carolan. “Thanks. I love him, but this whole thing is very awkward for me, and, well, you were right about my need for privacy.” He returned my smile as he sat next to me, making the huge down-filled mattress fluff up. “This is an interesting sleeping arrangement you have here.” His gesture took in the enormous mattress that rested directly on the floor of my spacious bedchamber. “Being married to someone who is part horse demands some creative solutions to things you wouldn’t otherwise think about. I mean, really, how the heck does a horse comfortably fit into a traditional bed? And I, the Beloved of Epona, certainly need more than a pile of sawdust or a bale of straw.” I patted the mattress. “This works for us.” “Alanna says you have a unique name for it.” “A marshmallow.” I grinned. “It’s named after a sweet, sticky mound of white fluff from my old world that can be eaten as a dessert.” Carolan, Alanna and ClanFintan knew my true identity. Sometimes it was a relief to be able to relax and make references to my prior life without worrying about betraying myself. Relaxation, I suddenly realized, must have been Carolan’s reason for getting me to chatter. Being on the receiving end of his much renowned bedside manner was a new and not totally unpleasant experience. “So, now that I’m not hyperventilating anymore, what’s next?” “Nothing too horrible,” he reassured me. “Just some questions first, then I will examine you.” The confidence in his voice soothed my puke-frazzled nerves. “Tell me how long you have been feeling ill.” I started to reply with a quip, but he held up his hand, cutting off my words. “You must be honest, Rhea. If you are not totally truthful, I will have a difficult time being of any aid to you.” I sighed. “Almost three weeks, or, as Alanna would say, three seven-days. It’s just been so obvious for the past two weeks that I couldn’t hide it from her.” I shared a pretended long-suffering look with him. “You know how nosy she is.” He rolled his eyes as he began feeling the glands in my neck. “You need not tell me how tenacious she can be when it comes to the welfare of those she loves.” He began taking my pulse. “How long have you been purging yourself?” “Purging?” I was confused. Bulimia had never interested me. I’ve always been strictly an “eat everything in sight and work out like a fiend” girl when it came to weight management. “Relieving yourself of what you’ve eaten. Vomiting,” he clarified. “Well, I certainly haven’t been doing it on purpose.” “Of course you have not!” He paused in his examination, giving me a shocked look. For an instant a sarcastic remark rose to my lips, then I reminded myself that he wasn’t pretending to be shocked at what my twenty-first century peers would consider a norm. I know it sounds hard to believe, but sometimes I forget I’m no longer in a world where beauty is defined by anorexic, strung-out models with boob jobs. “Right, well, I’ve been actually vomiting for a little over a week, but I’ve been feeling like I could puke any second for almost three weeks.” Before he could get confused I added in a teacherly, informative voice, “To puke is to vomit.” “To puke,” he pondered as he opened a huge leather bag that seemed to always be with him. “That is an interesting term.” We smiled at each other. “Have you had any other symptoms besides your stomach upset?” He asked. “Well,” I said hesitantly, “I’ve been feeling kind of weird and depressed and jumpy.” I figured that about covered everything from my emotions being all out of whack to the possible hallucinations last night. He patted my arm reassuringly as he pulled out of the bag a long, funnel-like object that seemed to be made of construction paper. “Please sit up and breathe deeply,” he said, and I complied as he used the funnel as a sort of crude stethoscope. He appeared okay with what he heard, because he put the funnel-scope away and continued with the examination, gently probing, prodding and looking all over (and within) my body as he questioned me. He asked me everything from what kinds of flowers my maidens had been cutting for the daily arrangements that filled my bedchamber with fragrance, to how often I’d been pooping. Finally, he finished. Patting my nervously folded hands, he began, “I am very certain you—” “Have a brain tumor!” My stomach rolled in revolt and I felt my palms dampening. Carolan chucked. “You have no tumor, Rhea, but you certainly have something within your body now that was not there just a few months ago.” His eyes sparkled, and I wanted to choke him until they bulged out of his face. “A friggin aneurysm. I knew it. Somehow I was exposed to something radioactive when Rhiannon the Bitch traded places with me.” I fell back on the pile of pillows, trying unsuccessfully to stop my eyes from filling with tears. “By the Goddess, Rhea, will you not listen!” Carolan’s voice was frustrated but definitely tinged with humor. “You are not dying. You are not ill. You are, quite simply and blessedly, pregnant.” “I’m…I’m…I’m…” “I estimate you will give birth mid-spring.” “A baby?” I realized I sounded like a dolt, but my mind had literally become mush. “That would certainly be my experienced diagnosis.” He smiled as he collected odds and ends and fed them back into the mouth of his doctor’s bag. “A girl,” he added. “A girl? How do you know?” My hands unclasped themselves and crept down to cup my deceptively normal-looking abdomen. “The firstborn of Epona’s Chosen is always a girl child. It is a gift from your Goddess to you and your people.” I felt stunned. Sure, I had missed a period, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I’d chalked it up to stress. A new world in a different dimension where mythology lives. Becoming Goddess Incarnate. Battling demonic hordes. Stufflike that was bound to throw off anyone’s system a little, to say the least. I noticed that Carolan suddenly seemed in a big rush to leave. “What’s your hurry?” I sounded on the verge of a crying jag, which, at least, now made sense. Hormones. “Alanna will want to announce the wonderful news to the people. The celebration will continue all night!” I blanched and he laughed. “No, you will not be required to attend, but there will be many toasts to your health and the health of your child.” He turned to face me one last time before he opened the door. “Congratulation, Rhea. Let me be the first of many to wish your daughter health and happiness!” I could hear him telling ClanFintan he could come in now as he rushed past my still worried-looking husband. The centaur approached me, folding his legs and settling fluidly to the floor by my side. His expression was grim as he studied what I realized must be my glazed, Barbie-exposed-to-math-word-problems expression. “What is it, love? What has happened to you?” “You!” A semi-hysterical giggle escaped from my lips. His brow furrowed in concern. “I? I have injured you?” I reached up and touched his cheek. “You haven’t injured me, you’ve impregnated me.” He blinked twice, his expression blank. Then realization folded over his face. “A child!” His deep voice resonated with joy. “We are to have a child?” “Yes…” I knew I sounded reticent, but I had gone from tumor to baby in just a few heartbeats. ClanFintan took my hands in his, kissing both my palms before leaning down and kissing me softly on my lips. “Ugh.” I pulled away. “I taste like puke.” “I do not care.” “Well, I do.” He pulled back and studied my face. “Rhea, are you not pleased?” “I’m scared.” I blurted out before I took time to think. His face softened and he pulled me into the warmth of his strong embrace. “Do not be afraid. Epona will always care for her own.” I rested my cheek against the butter-soft leather of his vest and murmured my fear. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings or anything, but, well, what am I going to have?” He remained silent, and I bit my lip. I loved ClanFintan, and I didn’t want to cause him pain, but the facts were that he was part horse and he was the father of my child. I couldn’t help but be concerned about the meshing of our two gene pools—especially when I would be the one giving birth—in a world without C-sections or epidurals. “She will have your form, Rhea.” “And what will she have of yours?” I whispered into his chest. He paused for just a moment, then quietly said, “My heart. She will have my heart.” My arms tightened around him while my eyes filled. “Then she will have everything.” His warm lips briefly pressed against the top of my head. Then he shifted his hold on me so that he had me scooped up in his arms. Rising to his feet in one fluid motion he started toward the door. “Oh, please don’t make me go back there with all that food and all those people.” I futilely tried to wipe at speckles that clung to my soggy dress. “No, I am taking you to your bathing chamber. Tonight I will care for you, and our daughter.” He beamed down at me as he shouldered our way through the door and turned down my private hall in the direction of my bathing room. The temple guards leaped out of his way, saluting me and calling, “Blessings on you and your child, Lady Rhiannon!” as they opened the door to the steamy chamber for us. For a world that didn’t have TV or the Internet, it never failed to surprise me how fast news could travel. I grinned mischievously at them over ClanFintan’s shoulder and winked. “Thanks, guys!” I didn’t “know” my guards (yes, I do mean in the biblical sense) as the original Lady Rhiannon had, but I did appreciate them. “Do not encourage them.” ClanFintan chided goodnaturedly. “Soon I’ll be too fat and pregnant to get a second look from them.” “Humph,” he commented eloquently as he deposited me near the edge of the deep pool. One of the many benefits of being Goddess Incarnate was that a veritable plethora of overenthusiastic maidens considered it an honor, as well as a duty, to keep me in the lap of ancient luxury. Which meant I had all the best wine, food, clothes, jewels, horses, warriors…on and on, but no television, telephones, computers or cars. In return I had to care for the spiritual health of Epona’s people: conduct ceremonies (albeit bare-breasted, which took some getting used to, especially as the weather had begun turning cold), serve as figurehead, you know, do whatever it was my Goddess asked of me to the best of my ex–high school English teacher abilities. I was pretty sure I’d gotten the best part of the deal, which included having an opulent bathing chamber that was perpetually kept in a state of ready-for-me-to-use. “Let me help you with that.” ClanFintan’s deft fingers took over for my pukey ones, which were struggling upside down to unclasp my diamond-encrusted brooch. “New brooch?” he asked as he studied the mini replica of himself. “Yes, today is the first time I’ve worn it. Do you like it?” “I like that it rests near your breast.” “Talk like that, if I recall correctly, is how I got into this condition.” I swatted at him playfully. “I have suspected your old world wasn’t as, shall we say, knowledgeable as our world, and if you think talking impregnated you, then we should—” “Oaf!” I swatted at him again, causing the once-lovely, now-crusty fabric of my bodice to slide down, exposing the very bosom to which he had been referring. I watched his expression change as he reached one hand out to gently cup my breast. “You already appear changed. Your breasts are more full, more welcoming.” His voice was hypnotic as he framed my rib cage with both of his hands, softly caressing the sides of my weighty breasts with his palms. Even after being married to him for half of a year, the heat of his body still had the ability to surprise me. A centaur’s natural body temperature is several degrees higher than a human’s body. ClanFintan’s touch was always erotically warm, and, although I knew it was simply the state of his physiology, his heat worked on me like an aphrodisiac. I shivered in anticipation, pleased the queasy feeling in my stomach had subsided. “You are chilled…” His sensuous touch was replaced by a matter-of-fact unwinding of the rest of my soiled dress. “Start soaking,” he ordered. “Not very romantic,” I muttered, trying to bend seductively and slip out of my teeny thong, but he had already turned toward the shelf near my vanity and was searching, opening bottles and sniffing. “The vanilla-almond one is in the gold-colored bottle.” I called to him over my shoulder as I lowered myself slowly into the clear, bubbling mineral water, and made my way to my favorite rock ledge. ClanFintan turned back with a triumphant smile, golden bottle in his hands. “I like the scent of this one.” “I know you do—that’s why I use it.” We grinned at each other. His hooves clicked on the marble floor as he approached the edge directly across from where I was submerged. In one swift movement, he divested himself of his leather vest, and placed it and the bottle of perfumed soap on the floor. “Do I need to remind you that you must not speak?” “Oh!” I blinked in surprise. “No, but, I, uh, didn’t—” “Shh…” He put a finger to his lips. I closed my mouth, preparing myself for what I knew would come next—the Change. As a High Shaman, ClanFintan had the extraordinary ability to shapeshift from his centaur form. I didn’t think it would ever stop amazing me. I watched in awe as his concentration turned within, and I felt a shiver of bittersweet desire. We could only mate as husband and wife if he Changed, thus the fluttering of passion I felt as his chant began. But the Change did not come without cost. He could only maintain a different shape for a temporary amount of time, approximately eight hours, and he was never truly comfortable in any form but his centaur shape. The shapeshifting itself caused him terrible pain, and after he shifted back into his centaur form it left him in a weakened state for hours. Every time he called the Change so that he could shift into human form, he proclaimed the depth of his love and commitment to me. His chanting was becoming louder, and I could distinctly hear the magic in the Gaelic-sounding words ClanFintan’s velvet voice spoke over and over again. He began lifting both arms, until they were directly over his head, which was flung back. His long hair fell free down his human back, which did nothing to obscure his tensed, quivering muscles. Then it seemed that his skin had begun to sparkle and shimmer, as if he was being beamed through a Star Trek transporter. His glowing skin rippled, like it was about to liquefy. I knew I should close my eyes and protect them from the blast of light that would come next, but I couldn’t pull my gaze from my husband’s face. It was set in a grimace of agony. Light burst from him, making my eyes blink and tear even though I closed them in response to the explosion of silver-white brilliance. I could hear his harsh breathing in the quiet darkness that always seemed so complete after the light of his transformation. “ClanFintan?” I couldn’t help the edge of fear in my voice. It wasn’t that I was afraid of his magic, or of his Change. I was afraid of what it cost him, scared that someday he would not recover from the pain. “I have—” his voice was raspy as he struggled to regain his breath “—told you not to worry so.” I rubbed my eyes, trying to blink away the sunspots that kept me from seeing him. “I know, but I hate how much it hurts you.” “It is a price I will never regret paying.” My vision cleared and I could see that he was still on his knees, where the Change had caused him to collapse. With one hand he raked his hair out of his sweat-streaked face, with the other he pushed himself slowly up into a standing position. He stood still for a moment, and I knew he was gathering his energy and accustoming himself to this much smaller, less powerful human shape. Not that he was a small man (in any sense of the word). Actually, he was a beautifully proportioned human male. He was tall and well muscled, and he retained the breadth of shoulder and chest that was so impressive in his true body. His human hips were sleek; his ass and legs were tight and well shaped. As was everything else that protruded from his very naked body. And he did appear quite happy to see me, if you know what I mean. He raised an eyebrow at me, reminding me of a randy, naked Spock (imagine that!). “Is everything—” he glanced down at his body “—where it should be?” I felt my breath catch in shock. “You mean things can get moved around when you Change?” “Of course not.” His laughter reassured me, as did the strong, confident way he began striding toward the edge of the pool. “I was simply—how do you put it—messing at you.” He attempted to mimic my Oklahoma drawl with his deep, lyrical voice. “It’s messing with, not at, you silly thing.” I flicked some water at him while he bent to pick up the bottle of soap. Then, using the stone steps that led down into the water, he joined me. “And you know I’ve been trying to get rid of my Okie accent.” Thankfully, one of the many things being Epona’s Beloved entitled me to was the ability to be eccentric without having the populace question me. Partholon had simply gotten used to the weird way I talked. I’d even heard some servants whispering, “It is more of Epona’s touch,” after I’d y’all-ed and yep-ed them one too many times. “Do not lose your accent. I like the long, lazy way you can make words sound.” “Anythin’ for you, darlin’,” I twanged. And I was serious. A month was a long time, and I was really glad he was home. (And doubly pleased that my stomach had quieted enough for me to contemplate doing more than puking.) “Good.” He reached past me and plucked a thick sponge that was resting close to the edge of the pool. He poured a generous amount of thick soap onto it before setting the bottle back on the floor. “Then what I would like you to do for me is to relax and let me care for you.” He paused and his eyes slid down to where the water obscured, but did not conceal, my reclining body. “Both of you.” His words brought back the reality of my “condition,” which effectively silenced me. I numbly let him begin soaping up my shoulders with a slow, circular motion, while I contemplated the fact that I was carrying another life within my body. ClanFintan stayed silent, letting me think as he brought the soapy sponge down one of my arms, being careful to wash all of the crusty, leftover rice from my hands. Then he followed the same path down my other arm. His touch was soothing, and I felt my numbness dissolve with the last vestiges of the rice. Gently, he slid the slick sponge around my neck and lower, until its softness brushed my sensitized nipples. “Tell me if I do anything that you find uncomfortable.” “Everything you’re doing is just fine.” I sounded out of breath. “Good. Then I will continue.” The sponge followed a path down to my thigh, calf and foot, where he set it aside briefly so that he could massage the bottom of my foot. The heat and strength of his touch made me groan with pleasure. “I have not forgotten how much you love having your feet rubbed.” He exchanged one foot for the other, and continued his soothing ministrations. “Thank you, Goddess,” I whispered, meaning every syllable of it. There are few things a teacher loves more than a great foot rub (a pay raise, perhaps, but a foot rub is easier to come by—at least it is in Oklahoma). Too soon he picked up the sponge and lathered his way back up my other leg. By the time he reached my shoulders again I was feeling excessively clean for a woman who was having such dirty thoughts. Pulling myself up from a reclining to a sitting position, I watched as his eyes caressed my wet, soapy breasts. “You are a beautiful woman.” “And squeaky clean.” I let my body slide forward until my legs were straddling his lap. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I rubbed my breasts against the seductive heat of his chest, loving how my nipples puckered against his skin. “Alanna better watch out. You make one heck of a bathing assistant.” He replied by devouring my mouth with his, pulling me hard against him. My hands explored the curve of his back and hips, and I felt pleasure thrill through my body at the wonderful textures of his muscles. His familiar taste flooded my senses, and my body felt so hot and wet I couldn’t tell where I ended and where he began. “I’ve missed you so much, my love.” His voice was rough with lust, and the sound of it had desire tugging hot and heavy low in my stomach. “How could I have forgotten about your heat?” I moaned, and nipped his shoulder. “Ah, Goddess! I should be gentle with you, but I—” “Don’t be gentle. I promise I won’t break.” With a growl of raw desire his hands cupped my butt. He lifted me and in one smooth motion, plunged himself inside me. I met his thrust with my own. I clung to him, sucking and nipping at his tongue. We came together like we were starved for each other, like the month apart had been a lifetime. Our tempo escalated quickly, and before either of us could think about math problems or taxes my orgasm built and exploded as I felt his release pumping heat into me. Still breathing hard, ClanFintan traded places with me, pulling me onto his lap as he reclined upon my ledge. We clung to each other, allowing our bodies to remember how well we fit together. “I meant for that to happen after I had bathed, dried and returned you to our marshmallow.” I felt his chest vibrate as he spoke. “I love the way you say marshmallow. You make it sound like it’s a magic carpet, something special and mysterious.” “It is special and mysterious to me.” He reached down and tapped the end of my nose with his finger. “I have never seen a real marshmallow.” “I should try and figure out a recipe so that I could explain how to make one to the pastry cook. It would be fun to roast them over an open fire.” His eyes widened in shock. “It would certainly take an enormous fire.” “An eatable marshmallow is smaller than my fist. It’s just our mattress that’s huge.” I started to giggle, but I interrupted myself with a rather large and embarrassing belch right into his face. “Oops!” I covered my mouth with my hand. “Sorry, I didn’t—” And I belched again. “Your stomach?” His concern made me feel somewhat less humiliated. “I think maybe I should dry off and drink some more of that tea Alanna’s been pouring into me.” I was feeling a little queasy again. He easily pulled himself out of the pool, then reached down and lifted me out beside him. We padded wetly over to a pile of thick towels and he began vigorously drying me. “Hey! You’re rubbing off skin!” I squeaked, and grabbed the towel from him. “I thought you might be chilled out of the water.” “I’m fine, really. You just dry yourself.” I was suddenly feeling kind of touchy, like my skin was too sensitive to allow any handling. Hormones were certainly strange things. “The Change will dry me.” His smile said he understood my shift in mood, and that he wasn’t offended. I just hoped his patience would last the rest of the nine months. Who knew what else my body was going to do to me? “Thanks, I—” “Shh,” I hadn’t noticed that he had taken several steps from me, and had begun muttering the words that called the Change to him. I closed my mouth before the “I’m sorry” could escape. Shading my eyes with the end of my towel, I watched as he retransformed. The Change back to his centaur form always seemed to happen more quickly than when he shifted into the alien shape of a human male. His skin glittered and rippled. This time I pressed my eyes closed before the starburst of color. When the light against my closed lids disappeared, I knew it was safe to look (and to talk). “I have really missed you.” The words tumbled from my mouth as I looked up at the magnificent being who was my husband. “And I you. I was born to love you.” He smiled as he came to me, dwarfing me with his size while he encompassed me within the love of his embrace. He held me gently in his massive arms, and looked into my eyes, saying simply, “I am not complete without you. It is good to be home.” I had witnessed enough of this world’s magic to know that he spoke the truth. Through some wondrous twist of fate, my Goddess had fashioned him as my mate, even before I was a part of this world. “Yes,” I repeated his words. “It is good to be home.” “Come!” He swept me off my feet and up into his arms like I weighed no more than a child. (Uh, let me assure you, I weigh more than a child!) “You know, I really can walk.” But my complaint was only halfhearted. I liked the safety I felt in his arms. “Humor me. I have only just returned.” He kicked the huge door, his hoof ringing dully against the oak like a living doorbell. My warriors immediately pulled it open for us. I noticed how they diverted their eyes from my towel-clad form. No doubt they were trying to avoid a scowl from my husband. But I made a point to wave gaily at them over ClanFintan’s shoulder, and was rewarded by their quick grins. “You spoil them.” “They’re adorable. And anyway, you know you have nothing to worry about. It’s that other Rhiannon who felt the need to sleep with all of her warriors, and then some.” “I do not believe she did much sleeping.” “You know what I mean.” I flicked his shoulder. “As you already are very well aware, I am a faithful wife. Shoot, my middle name’s Faithful!” “I thought your middle name was merlot.” His laughter boomed at his own joke. I blanched. “Don’t mention that word.” My new aversion to wine must be Epona’s way of making sure I didn’t pickle my unborn daughter. I supposed I should be grateful—and I would be, as soon as I was purged of this pathetic puking. (Pardon the pun. And the alliteration.) My chamber had obviously been freshened since we had been gone. The down-filled marshmallow mattress that served as our bed had been made, and a small dinner for two had been set on the table in the alcove that sat before the velvet-cur-tained glass doors that led to my private garden. I sniffed the air suspiciously, afraid that any wafting aromas would set off my puke reflex. When I didn’t catch the scent of anything objectionable, I hesitantly approached the table. My husband’s attempt at smothering his chuckle caught my attention. “What are you laughing at?” I asked. “I never thought the day would come when you would approach a table of food with trepidation.” My love of a good meal had been a constant source of amusement to my husband. Actually, more than once he has commented that I have the appetite of a centaur Huntress, which somehow is endearing to him. To me it’s less endearing, and more like the reason I force myself to exercise regularly. “Very funny. Keep in mind I’ve already puked on one centaur tonight.” When I got to the table I breathed a sigh of relief. Alanna’s delicate hand and unerring ability to manage me was evident. There was a steaming tureen filled with an almost clear broth that had a light, vaguely chicken-like aroma. A cloth-covered basket held thin pieces of toasted bread and sliced bananas. A pot of hot herbal tea waited invitingly for me to pour. For ClanFintan she had fixed a platter of cheese and cold chicken. Not a scrap of rice or anything that reeked of fried food, spices or (yeesh) dripping butter. “Alanna is very wise,” ClanFintan said as he settled into his chaise and began to happily dig into his chicken. I ladled myself some broth and nibbled hesitantly at the toast. “Knowing her, she’s probably already making baby clothes.” He and I smiled at each other. I sipped the broth slowly, allowing time for my easy-to-upset stomach to accustom itself to food. “So, you would say the trip was a success?” I asked as I blew at the hot tea. “Laragon Castle was thriving when we departed. In the spring their fields will once again yield the healing crops and flowers they once did. The reinhabiting of Guardian Castle went well after the women settled in. The new warriors are vigilant.” He cleared his throat as if what he was about to say was lodged there uncomfortably. “As we had thought, there were signs that the prior inhabitants had been lax in their duties as watchers and defenders.” It had been a shock when it was discovered that the demonic Fomorians, Partholon’s ancient enemy, had broken though the supposedly impenetrable Guardian Castle, which defended the only pass through the mountains. Much speculation had been gossiped about regarding how the invasion had begun. I gave him a curious raise of my eyebrows, prompting him to continue. “Their weapons were rusted, broken and untended. Tournament fields were overgrown with weeds, proving that no practice in weaponry or those skills needed in warfare had been kept at ready.” His frown deepened. “But there was no shortage of wine and ale, and even before we unpacked the supplies brought with us, we found the kitchens were filled to overflowing with stored delicacies.” “So, they ate and drank and that was about it?” “We also found many disturbing paintings depicting…” His voice trailed off. My curiosity was certainly piqued. My own temple was filled with bigger-than-life-size frescoes of my image clad in not much more than a slip, and that only from the waist down. Not to mention the zillions of cavorting maidens who frolicked seminude (in the paintings and around the temple). I couldn’t image what kind of images had shocked a centaur who was so used to the casual nudity and open sexuality of a clearly matriarchal world. “Okay, give. What was in the pictures?” “They enjoyed inflicting pain upon one another.” I guess my face didn’t register much shock (keep in mind, he’s never been exposed to MTV, as I, unfortunately, have been), so he continued. “They inflicted pain during sexual acts. And there was evidence that they had been dallying with a dark god.” I had the unnerving feeling that maybe my question to Alanna earlier that day had been prompted by more than a random thought. I swallowed, not particularly liking where this might be taking me, but knowing that I had to follow my goddess-touched instincts. “A dark god? What do you mean?” He looked as disgusted as he sounded. “Amidst the paintings of their perversions there were drawings that showed the Triple Face of Darkness.” “Wait, I don’t understand what you mean. What’s a Triple Face of Darkness?” He lowered his voice, which only heightened my feeling of unease. I mean, we were totally alone. Why was he lowering his voice? “I do not like to speak of such things. One should not name a dark god without care—even if he is a High Shaman, or the Chosen of a Great Goddess. But as Epona’s Beloved you have the right to know exactly what the Fomorians, and the decadence of the Guardian Warriors, allowed to enter Partholon.” “Tell me.” I sounded much braver than I felt. “Pryderi is the Triple Face of Darkness. Ancient stories say that he was once a god, like Cernunnos, only he chose the mountains and the Northlands in which to reign. Legends also say that he was Epona’s consort and that she loved him. Then he began to lust for more power—power to subjugate Epona to his will.” I felt the wrongness of Pryderi’s attempt to usurp Epona in the depths of my soul. Partholon was a matriarchal world. There were gods who were worshipped as consorts to the goddesses, but their place was definitely secondary. Men were not bullied or repressed in Partholon. They respected the Goddess as birth-giver and creator; therefore, they respected women. Anything else would ultimately destroy the beautiful balance that made Partholon such an incredible place. “What did Epona do?” I asked, even though my heart already knew the answer. “The Goddess’s anger and hurt were terrible. She cast him from Partholon with such wrath that his aspect fragmented, much like a soul can be shattered if it is too traumatized, which is why the depictions of him show three faces.” Clan-Fintan looked away from me when he said this and I could tell he didn’t want to explain further, but I needed to know, so I prompted, “What do the faces look like?” He sighed deeply. “One face has nothing but eyes. The mouth has been seared closed. The rest of it is featureless. Another has only a gaping, fanged maw, terrible to behold. The eyes of that face are hollow holes. The third is unbelievable in its beauty. That face is said to look exactly as he did before he betrayed Epona.” I sipped my tea, trying not to notice that my hand was shaking. “And there are people in Partholon who worship him?” “No. Or at least if there are they are only in the most obscure parts of the nation.” “But Guardian Castle isn’t an obscure part of Partholon.” “No, it’s not. But the people there had been corrupted, whether by the Fomorians or by greed and sloth before they infiltrated the castle—the sequence of events have never been entirely clear. What is apparent is that Pryderi had been influencing them for some time.” He touched my cheek reassuringly. “Don’t worry, love. People must be open to Pryderi’s poisonous whisperings for him to gain a hold on their souls, and Epona’s Partholon will not so easily open itself again to such darkness. We need not fear that the new Guardian Warriors will forget their duties.” “Good.” Purposefully I shook off the creepy feeling discussing Pryderi had begun to give me. “So, you think my idea is going to work?” He smiled. “Yes, your orders to make Guardian Castle a working school to train warriors resonated with its new inhabitants.” “Vigilance and education—always an excellent mix.” “It is certain that Guardian Castle will not fail Partholon again,” he said soberly. “You don’t think enough Fomorians survived to attack us again, do you?” Those creatures were evil, vampiric beings that belonged in hell. Yes—the thought of them plotting to come back through the mountain pass Guardian Castle had been built to guard definitely made my skin crawl. “I believe the pox and their losses in battle weakened them to the point of annihilation, but we must remain prepared for their resurgence.” “You think they took pregnant women back over the pass with them?” I asked, horrified. “I pray they did not.” Which really didn’t seem like a positive answer to me. “So we stay prepared and keep our eyes open.” “Yes,” he acknowledged. “Okay.” I yawned and his ears pricked (not literally). “When your body tells you to rest, you must rest,” said the father-to-be. “For a change, I won’t argue with you.” I stood, stretching like a cat. Even after the rather morbid dark god subject, the warm broth and tea, and the absence of worrying that I might have a fatal illness, had made me feel more than ready for a long night’s rest. Not to mention the wonderful orgasm. “Perhaps your not arguing with me will be a nice side effect of your pregnancy,” he said as he followed me to our bed. “I wouldn’t count on it,” I retorted through another yawn. He folded himself down onto our mattress first, then I settled into a position curled comfortably against him. I realize it should be an awkward pairing, a being who was half horse, half man, sleeping with a human woman, but it wasn’t. No matter how I lay, one of his hands would find the small of my back, or the curve of my leg, and rub gentle circular patterns over my skin. His warm caress was like a sleeping pill. I loved that his touch could lull me to sleep. My eyes were already closed when his voice interrupted my foggy thoughts. “It surprised me that you did not use the Magic Sleep to visit me.” He paused, then added, “Or did you come to me, and I failed to feel your presence?” “No…” His question brought me fully awake. “I have not had the dream-thing since your battle with Nuada.” Except for a quick grunt of acknowledgement, he stayed silent. I knew we were both thinking back to that terrible last battle when Nuada, the leader of the Fomorians, almost killed ClanFintan. I had been knocked unconscious, and my Goddess had called my spirit free from my body so that I could distract Nuada. ClanFintan had killed the creature, causing the Fomorians to react in confused panic, and the tide of the battle to turn in our favor. Before then, Epona had used my dreams to call me out of my body and send me on what amounted to spiritual reconnaissance trips to spy on our enemies and taunt them into falling into our traps. But since the Fomorians had been vanquished, I had not been called by Epona to go on any nighttime spirit trips, even when I had tried to will myself on one after ClanFintan left. Nor had I heard the whisper of her voice, which I had become strangely accustomed to hearing, until today when she had breathed into my mind the words You are not playing, Beloved. It took hearing her voice again for me to realize how much her silence had bothered me. “I tried to send my spirit out of my body to visit you, but it didn’t happen. I asked Epona to let me visit you. It was such an easy thing before—I even traveled so much that I got really tired of it.” “Yes, I remember.” I felt him nod his head. “And she hasn’t been talking to me, either,” I said in a small voice. “Rhea, your Goddess would not leave you. You must believe that.” “I don’t know, ClanFintan. I don’t really know anything about this Goddess Incarnate stuff. Remember, I’m not Rhiannon.” “Yes, and I thank your Goddess daily that you are not.” His voice was firm. The truth was, no one had liked Rhiannon. Okay, more accurately, most people who had known her had loathed her, which was—at first—an almost constant source of irritation to me. Plus, it was confusing to look like someone who had evolved into such a different kind of person. “Sometimes I wonder if I just imagined that I was meant to be Epona’s Chosen.” “Do you think so little of Epona?” He didn’t sound angry, just questioning. “No.” My answer came easily. “I’ve felt her presence and experienced her power.” “Then it must be yourself of whom you think so little.” I couldn’t answer that. I had always believed I was a strong woman with a healthy ego and excellent self-esteem. But maybe my husband was right. Maybe I needed to look inside myself for doubt and weakness, and not Epona. Could that be part of why Rhiannon and I were so different? I knew self-doubt could be destructive and life altering, but wasn’t some self-reflection healthy? Had Rhiannon become so spoiled and willful that she was immune to any kind of self-questioning? Mix that with the power that went along with being Epona’s Beloved and maybe, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, she had become “as a serpent’s egg which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous.” Had Epona done what Brutus contemplated, and by switching me with Rhiannon, smashed her shell before her hatched evilness could destroy Partholon? Or was I just letting the useless literature that tended to clutter my English teacher brain freak me out? “Rest now.” Once again his hand began a hypnotic caress, and ClanFintan’s familiar touch helped to quiet my jabbering mind. “Your Goddess will answer your doubts.” “I love you,” I murmured as a wave of weariness closed my eyelids and I fell softly into a deep sleep. I was nibbling Godiva dark chocolates while I lounged on a down-filled, violet-colored divan, which was situated in the middle of a field of waving wheat. At the end of the divan sat Sean Connery (dressed in 007-era black tie). My feet were in his lap, and with one strong, firm hand he rubbed erotic swirls across my instep, and with the other he held open a book of poetry entitled Why I Love You. As he read to me in his sexy Scottish burr, he kept glancing at me with looks of undisguised adoration… …And I was suddenly sucked out of my fabulous dream and through the ceiling of Epona’s Temple. “Whoa! Feeling sick!” My spirit voice held a familiar ghostly resonance and I gulped the night air. The rush of exhilaration I felt as I realized my Goddess was once again directing my spirit warred with the revolution in my stomach. My spirit hung over the middle of Epona’s Temple, remaining very still while I got my bearings and reaccustomed myself to the Magic Sleep—which wasn’t actually sleep at all, but the traveling of my soul, and was therefore exceptionally magical. As my vertigo receded, I was able to relax and enjoy the incredible view. The moon was almost full, and its clean silver light kissed the walls of the temple until they seemed to come alive, glowing with an inner blush of illuminated marble. Below me I could see that the feast must be coming to a close. Sleepy shapes moved in groups of twos, threes and fours, and were stumbling a little amidst good-natured jesting and merriment as they emerged from the front entrance of the temple, heading back to their neat homes outside the temple walls. I smiled as several of the pairs seemed to have a hard time moving out of the shadows, and when they did continue on their way home, their arms remained entwined suggestively around one another. I guess my people had been inspired to emulate my condition. As I continued to play spiritual voyeur, I noticed a centaur couple standing apart from the departing crowd, some way from the path taken by the other people. My body drifted in their direction, until I was hovering above the female’s back—far enough above her that my presence was not noticed, but not so far that I could not easily see that the two centaurs below me were my friends,Victoria and Dougal. I could not see Victoria’s face, and I could not hear what was being said, but I could see that Dougal was speaking, and that his words held rapt the Huntress’s attention. (I realize I should not be eaveswatching, but, well, my spirit body wasn’t moving away—which gave me a great excuse to pry.) As I watched,Victoria held up one of her hands and pressed a finger against Dougal’s lips, stopping his speech. Then she stepped forward, and in one graceful movement, she rested her head against his shoulder and nodded once, yes. The radiance in Dougal’s face made the light of the moon appear sallow in comparison as he wrapped his lover within his arms. I grinned, thinking that I couldn’t wait to tell Alanna that whatever had been keeping Dougal and Vic apart appeared to be totally fixed. Slowly, my spirit form began moving forward, leaving my friends their privacy and me a happy knot in my throat. I traveled in the night’s sky toward the road, which led past the western ridge of the temple plateau. Once over the ridge, I picked up speed and began moving with purpose toward a tidy-looking home that was situated north of the road amidst a rolling field of well-tended grapevines. The main house was flanked by a sturdy barn with a matching corral, as well as another large structure, which was probably used for the fermenting and storage of wine (may-the-Goddess-bless-them-and-keep-them-till-I-give-birth-and-regain-my-love-for-the-fruit-of-the-vine). For an instant I hovered directly over the house, then the bottom fell away beneath me and I dropped through the thick thatched roof. “I wish you would warn me before you do that,” I mumbled to my Goddess, but my grumbling stopped as I beheld the sight beneath me. I was floating near the ceiling of a nice-size bedchamber that was lit by what must have been hundreds of brilliant white candles. A large bed sat against a windowed wall, and an intricately carved wardrobe and matching vanity had been pushed against another wall. Small stools and tables hugged the other two walls—all of the furniture was covered with soft, draped material and pools of lighted candles. Women clustered below me, surrounding a naked female, who was standing, but leaning heavily against the top of a cushioned chaise lounge, much like the ones we used at the temple. The naked woman was obviously very pregnant. Her head was bowed, and her eyes were screwed shut in concentration. I watched as her ripe stomach rippled and her breathing became more pronounced. As I observed the scene beneath me, I realized that the other women were a single, focused unit. One woman gently pressed against the laboring woman’s lower back with the palm of her hand. Another woman crouched before her, breathing in concert with each of her panting breaths. Two women fanned the air so that a light breeze continually bathed the laboring woman. The other women either hummed or sang softly. My body drifted closer, and the woman’s contraction ended. Instantly, her head came up, and I was amazed to see a satisfied smile curve her full lips. She wiped a loose strand of damp hair from her face. “It is almost time!” Her voice was joyous, not filled with the pain and strain I had expected. Cheers and laughter greeted her announcement. A tall, handsome woman approached the soon-to-be mother, offering her a sip from a goblet. Another woman, this one a teenager, wiped her brow with a thick cloth. All of the women were smiling, as if they were taking part in an event filled with such wonder that it was impossible to contain within them, and the happiness came spilling out of their bodies. “Help me into position…” The pregnant woman’s voice was soft, but it carried throughout the room. Three of the older women stepped forward. One woman knelt before her. The other two supported her on either side as she moved into a squatting position. The next contraction took hold of her body. I could see her muscles tense as she took a deep breath and began pushing. The women surrounding the group formed a circle, clasping each other’s hands while they hummed a wordless tune, which reminded me of something Loreena McKennitt would sing. “I see the head!” The woman’s bulging belly relaxed for just an instant, then she drew an even deeper breath and bore down again. After another round of concentrated pushing a wet, writhing form slipped from between her legs and was caught deftly by the waiting woman. “Your daughter is born!” the matron cried. And the other women caught up the cheer. “Welcome, young one!” I found my voice somewhere between my tears, and I echoed their joyous cry. Only occasionally can my presence be sensed when I’m on a spirit journey, so I was surprised and delighted when the new mother’s head snapped up in response to the sound of my ethereal voice. Her eyes glistened through tears of happiness and I felt the change in my spirit body that told me my hovering form had become visible to her. “Epona’s Beloved has witnessed my daughter’s birth!” Her tired voice was rapturous. The other women began laughing and clapping—some even started an impromptu dance, twirling and spinning with their hands painting intricate patterns in the air. I found their joy infectious, and as the women cleaned the newborn and the mother, I felt my spirit body moving in time to their song of new life. And a thought struck me. The miracle of birth was and should always be a moment of empowerment for all women—as it had been in the scene below me. Perhaps this ancient world had lessons it could teach the modern one from which I came. C-sections and epidurals should be blessings to women, but I suddenly wondered if they had become a means from which to steal the magic of the power of birth away from a generation of mothers. As this thought formed in my mind, I could feel my spirit body begin rising. The new mother’s head lifted from its resting place and she waved at my departing form. My heart felt full and at peace as I floated contentedly back to the temple, and down through the ceiling of my bedchamber. As my spirit rejoined my body and I fell back into a deep sleep, Rest now, my Beloved, and know that I am always with you…whispered through my mind. 4 Morning peered a bit too intently through a gap in the thick drapes that covered the floor-to-ceiling windows leading to my private flower garden. “Uhf,” I muttered, just about to pull the covers over my head when I noticed a movement and looked across the room to see Alanna and Victoria sitting on my chaise watching me with bright eyes and wide grins. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, hoping they were figments of my not yet awakened imagination. They did not disappear. Actually, their annoyingly wide grins became wider. “What are you two doing?” I grumped, glaring at my guests and running my tongue over my lips. My mouth tasted like the bottom of a birdcage. I am not a morning person. Never have been—never want to be. As a matter of fact, I am vaguely distrustful of people who bound out of bed early like demented puppies. It’s barbaric to wake up before 9:00 a.m. “We are here to wish you joy at the blessed news of your daughter!” Alanna chirped. “Yes, we tried to wait for you to awaken, but it is almost midmorning and we could not wait any longer!” Even Victoria’s lovely voice sounded shrill this morning. “And,” she added shyly, “I have some news I wanted to share with you.” “You and Dougal are getting married,” I said as I reached for a long, silky nightshirt that lay across the bottom of the bed. I pulled it over my head in time to see Victoria’s startledsparrow expression. “How…” Sheepishly, I gave my standard answer, which covered everything. “Epona.” “Ohhh,” the two of them said together, nodding their heads in unison. “I think it’s wonderful, Vic. You two are going to be great for each other.” I winked at Alanna, who giggled in response as I added, “And it’ll be nice to see poor Dougal smile more often. He was one miserable centaur after you dumped him.” It was hard to believe, but Victoria, Ms. Sure of Herself Huntress, actually blushed, which made her look shy and girl-like. “I brought your tea, Rhea.” Alanna offered me a steaming mug of fragrant tea. I took it and perched on the chaise across from them. “Thanks.” I blew at it and sipped. “Your words forced me to listen,” the Huntress explained slowly. “I finally really listened to what he had been trying to get me to hear for quite some time. He does love me. Me.” Her face was radiant. “He does not wish I was younger. He does not want me to change and be a mate who stays close to his hearth. He understands that my position as Lead Huntress is, and will continue to be, my life.” The happiness that suffused her face made my breath catch. “He simply wants me.” “Uh, Vic,” I said. “That’s what Alanna and I have been trying to tell you for ages. I guess I should have tossed my cookies on you sooner.” This obviously reminded Alanna of the original purpose of their visit. “A daughter!” she shouted joyfully. “A child! What a blessing,” Victoria chimed in. “You two can quit grinning at me now. You’re making me nervous.” Two quick knocks sounded against my door. “Come in!” I commanded. Three silken-clad maidens rushed into the room, carrying trays laden with what looked suspiciously like breakfast. All three of them began gushing at once. “Congratulations, my Lady!” “We are so very pleased!” “The news is joyous!” When I had first arrived in this world the general populace had treated me like a person who should be revered and honored, literally placed on a pedestal. The people who were close to me and used to dealing with Rhiannon on a daily basis treated me like I was a live bomb. They handled me carefully, but acted as if they expected me to explode at any moment into a goddess-level tantrum. It had taken a lot of consistent effort to convince the people I came in contact with on a regular basis that I had changed (unfortunately, I couldn’t tell them I was literally a different person). Although it made me happy that over the past six months I had been able to coax my maidens into being at ease around me, this morning their familiar affection was making my head hurt. I felt dizzy as they milled around me, touching me reverentially after they set out my morning meal. “Thanks, girls.” I tried to smile at them. “You may leave now.” “Yes, my Lady!” They melted into graceful curtsies. As they scampered to the door, I heard one of them whisper to the other, “Our Lady is not a morning person.” “They give me a headache,” I said after the door closed. “They adore you,” Alanna corrected me. “They still give me a headache,” I grumped. “Eat something. It will improve your humor,” Alanna said. “We hope,” Victoria added. I wrinkled my nose at her, then shifted my gaze to the food. There was a lovely fresh-fruit salad, some bran muffins that looked like they were still warm from the oven, thin sliced bread that had been toasted to a golden brown, as well as another pot of my herbal tea and pitchers filled with cold water and milk. “I don’t know if I can eat.” My stomach lurched dangerously. “Try the toast first, then eat the bananas that are in the fruit salad. I directed the cook to bake these particular muffins because they are simple and healthful. Many times the key to controlling the sickness in the first months of pregnancy is to discover what soothes the mother’s stomach,” she lectured in her musical voice. I took a deep breath and picked up a piece of toast. After a sniff I started to nibble. My stomach stayed inside my body, which I took to be a good sign. “Actually, the muffins are from a centaur recipe,” Vic said as she grabbed one off the platter and broke it open. “Do centaurs go through this sickness thing when they get pregnant?” I asked Vic. As always my curiosity was piqued by these incredibly interesting beings. “No.” She smiled at me apologetically. “But we carry our young within us through four full seasons.” My eyes flew to Alanna. “That doesn’t mean I’ll have to—does it?” I sounded panicky (because I felt decidedly panicky). “No,” Alanna reassured me, and I let myself breathe again. “ClanFintan only mates with you while he is in his human form.” “Your gestation and birth will follow the same rules as any other human female’s would,” Vic added. Her words reminded me of last night’s spirit journey and I felt a smile spread over my face. “Epona let me witness a birth last night during the Magic Sleep.” I explained to my friends. “It was amazing.” “It is truly a blessing.” Alanna beamed at me. “A wondrous miracle,” Vic said through a mouthful of centaur muffin. “I really am hap—” Without warning my stomach revolted. I turned my head in time to miss my friends and spew semi-chewed toast and herbal tea all over the floor. “Oh, yuck.” I wiped my mouth with a shaky hand, looking desperately at Alanna as she hurried to my side. “Are you sure I’m not dying?” “I am sure,” she said as she poured some water from a pitcher into a goblet and offered it to me. I drank gratefully, rinsing the nasty taste from my mouth. “Come along.” Alanna pulled me to my feet. “You will feel better when you have bathed and dressed.” She handed me a muffin and my mug of tea. “ClanFintan told me that he could be found around the temple grounds overseeing the building of the new centaur quarters, and checking the winter supplies.” “I have business near the new quarters, too.” Vic gave me a quick hug, then she wrinkled her nose. “You smell, Rhea.” “Thanks for mentioning it.” I purposely breathed heavily in her direction, and she retreated hastily to the door. “I will see you after have recovered and returned to your goddess-like self,” she threw over her shoulder. “You may have to wait till spring for that!” I yelled at her hind end. I turned back to catch the surreptitious smile Alanna was trying to cover with a cough. “You know,” she said, “the ill feeling usually only lasts for a small part of a pregnancy. And,” she continued, ignoring my malevolent look, “I have noticed that women who are very ill in the beginning have the healthiest, happiest of babies.” “Well, I suppose that’s something.” I was still grumping, but it did make me feel better. I sniffed at the muffin in my hand, and realized I suddenly felt hungry. Taking a bite, I was happily surprised by the wonderful, nutty taste that suffused my mouth. “Do you think there’s a limit on how often a pregnant woman can puke in one day?” I asked hopefully as we headed down my hall to the bathing chamber. “No,” Alanna replied brightly. 5 “Brr!” I pulled the folds of my ermine-lined cloak closer, glad I had chosen to dress in my riding clothes—butter-smooth leather breeches, lace-up leather shirt and knee-high boots, complete with stars carved into their soles, so that wherever I walked I left behind beautiful footprints. It’s seriously good to be Goddess Incarnate. “It’s really getting cold.” Alanna and I walked side by side through the rear courtyard, which was situated between the stables and the temple proper. The day was misty and damp, which only added to the chill in the air (and the frizz in my hair). “Congratulations to you, Lady Rhiannon!” “Blessings upon you and your daughter, my Lady!” Everyone who passed us shouted well wishes. It was like being wrapped in a thick blanket of care and warmth and love… …It was suffocating, and it was making my headache return. Although Alanna had been right, I did feel better after bathing and dressing (and eating three delicious muffins). The new centaur quarters would be situated on the northern side of the temple, just to the east of the stables, but still well within the temple walls. As I had learned months ago, Epona was a warrior goddess, so her temple was built in a fashion that reflected the priorities of protection and defense. The temple walls were beautiful, but they were also thick and high. The grounds around Epona’s Temple were well manicured and maintained, but they were also kept clear of any obstruction that could aid an attacking army—as was evidenced when the Fomorian army attempted unsuccessfully to overrun the temple, and we had to battle for our lives on the cleared grounds surrounding it. I shook off the unpleasant memory, and looked around at the focused energy before us. Centaurs and humans were hard at work cutting and fitting stone. The skeleton of the new building was already clearly visible, even through the maze of bamboo-rigged scaffolding that seemed to be everywhere. It gave me a feeling of timelessness to watch the construction of this marble edifice, like I was being afforded a glimpse into Caesar’s Rome and the building of the Forum. “It’s amazing how quickly it is taking shape.” I confided to Alanna in a whisper. “Without the help of technology, I would have thought that a structure like this would take decades to build.” “We do not have your old world’s technology—” she struggled over the pronunciation of the alien word “—but we do have those who are linked with stone, as well as the Sidetha.” I gave her a startled look. “What do you mean by linked? And what the hell is a Sidetha?” Alanna laughed. “The Sidetha are a race of miners. They live in the far northeastern part of the Tier Mountains, which is where the most exquisite marble can be found. Epona’s Temple is made of marble that comes from the mines of Sidetha.” “Huh. I had no idea.” “They are a shy, secretive people who rarely leave their caves.” “Huh,” I said again, thinking that except for being shy they sounded a lot like Tolkien’s dwarves. “What did you mean the linked with stone thing? Is that why the Sidetha are such good miners?” “Well, I suppose some of the Sidetha could be linked with stone, but in general I think they are just experienced miners—it’s their life. No, I mean that some people in our world have an affinity for certain animals or spirits or elements. For instance, you have an affinity for horses—especially the mare chosen by Epona as her equine incarnation.” “Okay, I understand that.” Epi and I shared a bond that went beyond normal human–horse relationships. I nodded at her to continue. “It can be the same for spirits. ClanFintan is a great Shaman, which means he has a special link with the spirit world. He can touch the spirit world in a much more intimate fashion than you or I can. It also enables him to transform his physical shape—as you know only too well.” My hand lifted to caress my (relatively) flat stomach, and we shared a knowing girlfriend smile. “Sometimes people are gifted with an affinity for the elements. On the Centaur Plains humans who can hear the call of hidden water are revered. They have an affinity for the water element, and always know the perfect spot in which to dig a well. Our blacksmiths feel a special link with metal. Very often, women who have gifts in music or dance can touch and mold the wind with their spirits and have an affinity for the spirit of flame.” “So some people feel something special for stone?” I asked. “Yes, but usually the people who are linked to stone are also linked to the earth itself. They are attuned to the land and everything that it produces. Some of these earth-linked people have special talents in the carving and shaping of stone. They dedicate their lives to the art of masonry. Through them the shape hiding within the stone lives.” “And we have one of these people working for us?” I squinted at the workers, wondering what a stone-linked person would look like. “Yes, he traveled deep into the mines of the Sidetha to find the perfect stones for the new construction and now he has returned here with it where he will remain for the duration of the building. I would have presented him to you sooner, but you have not been feeling well.” “Tell me about it,” I muttered. “Well, introduce me to him now. I’m curious to meet this stone guy.” As we arrived at the work site, the construction temporarily halted so that the men and centaurs could greet me and shout their congratulations. The shouts caught the attention of a small group emerging from the infrastructure of the building. The tallest of the group was my husband, who was clapped on the back several times and included in the builders’ congratulatory frenzy. Dougal and Victoria were with him. Alanna nudged me and waggled her eyebrows. “‘I have business near the new quarters, too,’” she said, mimicking the Huntress’s throaty voice. “She’s becoming shameless,” I whispered back at Alanna. With ClanFintan, Dougal and Vic was a tall gangly man who I didn’t recognize. As the group approached and he got closer, I realized he was way younger than I’d first thought. His thick brown hair was tied back in a cropped ponytail, which gave him a randomly artsy look that clashed surprisingly with the fact that he was clearly no older than sixteen. “Good morning, love.” ClanFintan took my hand in his, then bent to kiss me softly on the lips. “How are you feeling this morning?” “Better,” I said, my smile warm and meant to reassure him. He squeezed my hand. “Congratulations, my Lady!” Dougal’s face was alight, and I knew it wasn’t just my news that was making him shine. I thought how wonderful it was to see him so happy. I had been worried that his naturally gregarious personality would morph into something dark and sad after his beloved brother had died in his arms several months ago, but now I could see the sweet openness that reflected his love of life mirrored in his expressive face. “Thank you, Dougal. And congratulations yourself on finally talking sense into Victoria’s hard head.” Vic snorted at me, but her arm slid intimately through Dougal’s, and he gave her an adoring smile. “We would like you to perform the handfast ceremony, Lady Rhiannon.” Dougal asked. “It would make us very happy.” Vic smiled softly at me. I felt a rush of emotion and had to blink back tears. Hormones acting up, no doubt. “I can think of nothing I’d like better.” The pair beamed at me. I swallowed the knot in my throat. Alanna sniffed happily. We were disgusting. No wonder I was puking. “Lady Rhiannon,” Alanna said after she finished sniffing. “May I present to you our lead mason, Kai. Kai, the Lady Rhiannon, Incarnate of Epona,” she finished with a flourish. The tall, young man stepped forward and executed a low, respectful bow. “Lady Rhiannon, I am pleased to be in the service of Epona.” His voice was unique—not deep or unusually loud, and way too youthful to be particularly manly, but it had a quality that intrigued me. It made me think that I would enjoy listening to him read. “Perhaps more important are the stones pleased to be in the service of Epona?” I asked, finding it impossible to contain my curiosity (mentally crossing my fingers that I was not committing a faux pas in asking). “Absolutely, my Lady!” His face brightened and became animated with an eagerness that I wish my students could have emulated. Of course, they wouldn’t have known what emulated meant. Sigh. “I searched the mines of the Sidetha until I found the marble vein that spoke the Goddess’s name. It is from that marble that the support columns of the structure are being formed.” “I would love to see that marble,” I answered, intrigued at the notion that stone could have a preference. “Follow me, my Lady. I would be honored to show you.” “Rhea, Dougal and I are through here. We need to see to the winter supply of grain.” ClanFintan lifted my hand to his lips. “Okay, I’m going to check out this stone stuff, then I need to look in on Epi. She’s been restless lately. I’d like to take her out for a ride. Exercise seems to calm her.” I’d known too many Oklahoma women who kept riding through most of their pregnancies to worry about whether it would be safe or not in my supposedly delicate condition. Plus, Epi was not like other horses. I knew she would be extra careful with me. “I will meet you back at the stables.” “Good day, Lady Rhiannon,” Dougal gave me a quick bow, and then he touched Vic’s cheek in a gentle caress before he followed my husband. “If you wait here, my Lady, I will have the workers clear some scaffolding in order to accord you a better view of the main support column.” Kai said, his voice breaking endearingly, as he hurried away, obviously excited at the opportunity to share his love of marble. I nodded at him encouragingly. After he was gone, Alanna elbowed me and jerked her head toward Vic. The Huntress was still standing there, gazing after Dougal’s departing form like a lovesick teenager. I caught Alanna’s eye and we quickly surrounded the Huntress. “Girl, you’ve got it bad,” I teased. Victoria blinked and brought her eyes back into focus. “I have no idea about what you are speaking.” She sounded like Miss Priss, but her cheeks were pink. “All I can say is that it’s a good thing he’s young.” I grinned at Vic. “They do say the young have boundless energy.” Alanna mused. “He is not that young.” Vic tried to sound offended, but I could hear the smile that was lurking behind her proper Lead Huntress facade. “So, tell me,” I leaned into her side and spoke conspiratorially. For months I’d been dying to ask Vic about centaur sex. Now seemed like the perfect opportunity. After all, we were females, and females like to talk about sex. (Try not to be shocked.) “Just what kind, and how much energy, will poor Dougal need?” I nudged her and winked. “On your wedding night.” Vic looked down at me, a little grin pulling at the edges of her full lips. “Yes,” Alanna’s deceptively innocent voice trilled, “tell us.” “Well…” Vic motioned for us to lean even closer to her, which we did (gleefully). “Have you ever seen horses mate?” We nodded. “Then you know they bite and squeal and kick when their passion is ripe?” Her voice suddenly reminded me of Mae West. We nodded enthusiastically. “You know that sometimes their desire is so fierce that the mating is filled with violent, uncontrolled lust?” Her voice shook with intensity. We nodded very enthusiastically. Breathing heavily, she paused. Looking from Alanna to me, her smile widened. “Well, it is nothing like that.” With that, a flippant guffaw burst from her mouth, and she spun away from us, twitching her tail haughtily. “She is not going to tell us, is she?” Alanna sounded wistful. “Doesn’t look like it,” I sighed. “Damn.” Alanna sighed in mirrored frustration. (Note to self: it’s about friggin time I asked ClanFintan to explain centaur sex.) “My Lady, if you will come this way.” Kai had returned and was gesturing for me to follow him into the center of the construction area. As Alannna and I caught up with him I whispered to her, “Is it normal that he’s so damn young? I mean, he’s a friggin teenager. He can’t even be sixteen! Barf.” “The spirit of stone speaks strongly within him. It does not care that he is young, only that he is willing to listen. You will see.” We joined him atop the marble stairs that had already been completed. It was an enormous area that was littered with massive chunks of marble, some of it raw and some already carved and smooth. Around the circumference of the structure were the bottoms of thick columns. These columns weren’t fully formed yet, and they looked like broken teeth in a giant’s mouth, but as we moved farther into the building site I could see that several central columns were already completed. They stood tall and proud, as if they were concentrating on setting a good example for the others. We stopped directly in front of the center-most column, which was so broad there was no way the three of us could touch fingertips if we stood around its base, arms outstretched. The marble was a luminescent, pearlized color with deep, smooth grooves etched into its expansive length. Its top was intricately carved in a circular pattern of interwoven knots framing plunging centaur warriors. “This is the central support piece,” Kai said. His unusual voice had a faraway sound as he looked adoringly at the newly constructed column. “Each individual piece of stone I used to construct it spoke Epona’s name. I brought it home.” “You hear a voice in the marble?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking. He smiled at me. “It is not a sound—not exactly. It is more like a whisper in my mind.” I thought about Epona’s voice and nodded. “It’s a feeling, but you can hear it like it has been spoken.” “Yes!” he said. “Can you still hear its voice?” Alanna asked before I could. “Of course—the marble will always speak to me.” He placed his work-toughened hand, which looked much older than the rest of him, against the column and closed his eyes. As his hand met marble, it seemed the stone quivered. We watched, and he caressed the column. For a moment the massive stone appeared to liquefy under his palm. It looked as if his hand sank into the stone, as if his touch made it claylike and malleable. I studied him, and saw an outline of shimmering radiance surrounding his body, much like the magical illumination that enshrouded ClanFintan as he called the Change to him. Then Kai took his hand from the column and opened his eyes. The glow faded as if it had only been a figment of my imagination. “The marble greets you, Incarnate of Epona.” His voice was wonderfully serene. “Really!” I breathed. “May I touch it?” “Of course, my Lady,” he said, obviously pleased by my request. I stepped close to the column and placed my hands gently against its smooth surface. “Uh-hum…” Nervously I cleared my throat. “Hello,” I offered, feeling very small beside the huge stone. I was surprised by how soft the marble felt beneath my palms. And this close I realized its appearance changed. I could see that it was not one color but a mixture of many different shades and veins, all blending together to create the distinctive pearl hue. While I studied it, I suddenly sensed a sentience, almost a listening presence, and my hands detected warmth that came from within the stone itself. Then I was enclosed in an astonishing swell of feelings, like I had been immersed in a warm pool of emotion, or had been wrapped in a mother’s embrace. My hands shook—not from fear, but from the sheer wonder of it. A line from Shakespeare flitted through my mind and I whispered, “‘Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!’” Then the feeling dispersed, and with a parting caress I pulled my hands from the column and turned to find Alanna and Kai studying me intently. “It spoke to you!” Kai said. “Not really.” I let my eyes linger on the amazing marble. “But I felt something,” I didn’t know how to describe it. “Something wonderful,” I ended lamely. “When is the day of your birth?” He sounded excited. “The last day in April,” Alanna answered before I could—and I was surprised that she answered correctly. A flash of understanding came over Kai’s expressive face. “Ah, a Taurean. Of course! You must be linked to the earth as well as to your goddess.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I mean, I knew I had been born under the sign of the bull, and I’d suffered through pretending to listen to several discarded lovers lecturing me about my stubbornness (who really listens to guys after you fire them?). But I’d never paid much attention to horoscopes and that kind of stuff. Well, up until six months ago I hadn’t. Alanna was nodding happily in agreement. “Well, that’s nice to know,” I said a little lamely. The clatter of hooves announced the arrival of a male centaur I recognized as being one of my husband’s couriers. “My Lady…” He executed a graceful centaur bow. “Clan-Fintan asks that you join him in the stables.” “Is Epi all right?” Concern flashed through me. “She is very restless, and the Shaman believes your presence will soothe her.” “Tell him I’ll be right there.” I turned to Kai. “Thank you for sharing this—” I faltered, not wanting to choose the wrong words “—magic with me.” “It was my pleasure, my Lady.” His smile said I had chosen correctly. I started to turn away, then stopped and reached out to pat the smooth stone in farewell. It still felt warm. “Rhea,” Alanna said as we made our way back through the maze of construction, “I should go see to the preparations for the Samhain feast. There is still much to be done, and I do not think you will want to oversee the choosing of the food.” “Ugh,” I agreed. “Go ahead. Just be sure there are plenty of those centaur muffins and some boiled rice. I’ll see to Epi and meet you and Carolan around midday for lunch.” I grinned at her. “That is, if you’re willing to chance eating around me again.” “I will chance it.” She smiled back. “But I will not sit near you.” “Smart aleck,” I muttered at her. Then I thought to add in a low voice, “Hey, how did you know April 30 is my birthday?” “It is the date of Rhiannon’s birth, too,” she whispered through a wry smile. “Weird coincidence,” I said. “It is only one of many,” she replied thoughtfully. “Huh,” I said succinctly before I turned to the waiting centaur. “Lead on,” I told him, and we headed briskly to the ornate entrance to the stable. The stable of Epona was an incredible building, like nothing I had ever seen before. It, too, was made of luminous marble carved and fitted into place by master masons. With newly educated eyes I gazed at the massive columns that supported the beautiful domed edifice, suddenly wondering if the sense of serenity and acceptance I had felt since the first time I had entered this building had been caused by more than the presence of the wonderful horses. I made a mental note to come back and do some marble feeling after Epi had calmed down. The center aisle was wide and long. On either side of it were situated roomy, immaculate stalls, each tenanted by a mare unique in beauty and temperament. As I hurried down the aisle, I was greeted by throaty whinnies. I called to each of them by name, wishing I had time to stop and caress their shining faces. “Hello, Pasiphae, you wonderful girl.” “Lilith, you sweet thing, stop trying to pull down that hay net.” “Heket, baby girl, you’re much too beautiful to look at me with such sad eyes.” And on and on and on—stall after stall held mares that were examples of the very best of their breed. As I neared the end of the hall, the aisle took an abrupt turn to the left. But before I entered that special area reserved for Epona’s equine incarnation, I could already hear the restless squeals and pawings of the mare that stood out as exceptional, even in this group of the finest horses in Partholon. Taking the left turn I entered an enormous rounded room that held a huge stall to which a private corral was attached. My husband and Dougal were standing in front of the closed stall, as were several rumpled-looking stable maidens. Their attention was focused on the neuroticacting mare who paced from one end of the spacious stall to the other. Epi’s beauty was ethereal. Her coat was a mixture of gray and white, that blended to form an incredible silver color, which glistened like pooled mercury until it shaded to coal around her eyes and down her delicate legs. She was a nice-size mare, probably about fifteen hands high, and her confirmation was beyond perfect. I adored everything about her. As if she had the ability to sense my presence (which, truthfully, she does) she spun around and locked her bottomless eyes on me. A full-throated neigh split the air between us. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/p-c-cast-7/divine-by-choice/?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.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 356.27 руб.