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Elphame's Choice P.C. Cast From the bestselling author of the "House of Night" series comes the award-winning world of Partholon, rich in goddesses, intrigue and magic.Part-human, part-centaur, Elphame has always been different. OK, make that very different. The hundreds of shimmering butterflies sent by the goddess Etain to mark her birth were only the beginning. When Elphame is asked to breathe new life into the remote MacCallan Castle, she goes along with it (well stranger things have happened. . . ) and finally she's found her true calling.But Elphame hadn't banked on her life being threatened when the bizarre Fomorian descendents (bat-like humans - it's a long story) return to MacCallen with their own devastating agenda. Nor the fact that she may have finally found her lifemate. . . at the most inconvenient time! She burst out of the forest and into a small clearing to find herself suddenly shrouded in fog. Breathing hard, Elphame came to a halt. The mist curled around her, thick and grey. She blew on it and suddenly the misty colour changed and it became tinged with a hint of red. The colour beckoned her. It swirled in an unending circular pattern that reminded her of one of Epona’s holly-hedged labyrinths that decorated the temple grounds. In her dream the familiar comparison made her smile and she stretched out her arms, spreading her fingers wide. Slowly, she began to turn and as the mist caressed her body she realised that she was naked. “Elphame…” The disembodied voice floated around her on the mist. It was a man’s voice, but she didn’t recognise it. “Come to me, Elphame…” The GODDESS OF PARTHOLON series by New York Times bestselling author P.C. CASI DIVINE BY MISTAKE DIVINE BY CHOICE DIVINE BY BLOOD ELPHAME’S CHOICE BRIGHID’S QUEST Find out more at www.mirabooks.co.uk Elphame’s Choice P.C. Cast www.mirabooks.co.uk (http://www.mirabooks.co.uk) To my amazing daughter, Kristin Frances, the perfect blending of two and the inspiration for Elphame. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS As always, I thank my agent and friend, Meredith Bernstein. In this particular case you deserve The Big Thank You! I am so appreciative of my editor, Mary-Theresa Hussey. Thank you, M-T, for keeping me on track during the complex task of world building. Thank you to my father, Dick Cast, for his invaluable information about wolves (it’s turned out to be a good thing that you’re a member of a pack!) and about flora and fauna in general. I appreciate my sister-in-law, Carol Cast, RN, BSN, for detailed info pertaining to horrid wounds and dead bodies. Any bodily fluid errors are mine and mine alone. And I would like to express a soul-felt thank-you to my fabulous fans who fell in love with Partholon years ago and kept/keep asking for more and more and more…I truly appreciate you all so very much! PROLOGUE That day had started with deceptive normalcy. The dawn offering to Epona had been particularly moving. The Goddess had filled Etain so completely that afterward she carried the glow of Her presence throughout the morning, and for once she was allowed some time alone—temporarily freed from the duties of Goddess Incarnate. The contractions began as a vague sense of unease. She couldn’t find a comfortable place on her well-cushioned chaise longue. She snapped with uncharacteristic impatience at the enthusiastic servant who checked to make sure her mistress didn’t need a refill of hot water. Not even the thought of a long soak in the mineral springs bathing pool seemed appealing. Etain hoped a stroll through her magnificent flower garden would ease what she thought was just a little difficulty digesting the strawberries from lunch. The walk appeared to be helping—until she paused to sniff a brilliant crimson blossom and her water broke violently all over the Goddess Incarnate’s silk-lined slippers. Normalcy had also been broken. “Isn’t that always the way of it?” She grimaced and clenched her teeth as another wave of pain blanketed her body. Bending at the waist she leaned heavily against the woman whose arm was linked through her own. “Sssh, Etain.” Fiona spoke soothingly in her light, melodic brogue. “Donna speak, my friend. Just concentrate on your breathing.” Etain jerked her head in a sharp imitation of nodding agreement and tried to match her panting gasps to Fiona’s calm, deep breaths. The contraction peaked and receded. A flurry of activity ensued. The Goddess Incarnate’s clothes were changed by her bevy of attendants, who then began notifying the Wise Women who lived in the villages closest to Epona’s Temple. Wrapping her arm around Fiona’s waist, and using her sturdy presence from which to draw strength, Etain continued her stroll through the temple gardens. The Chosen One’s friend and advisor had assured her that walking would aid in the child’s birth. As the day crawled methodically past, the image of Etain’s oasis of tranquility dissipated, but the residue of Epona’s morning possession calmed her—as always, Epona’s Chosen drew upon the familiar thread that bound her to the Goddess and found strength and comfort. Fiona smiled encouragement and the two women turned around, heading back toward the floor-to-ceiling windows that led from Etain’s bedchamber to her private garden. Gauzy curtains the color of liquid gold fluttered from within the open leaded-glass panes that served as door and windows. The Goddess Incarnate breathed deeply, trying to steady the racing of her heart and ready herself for the inevitable next contraction. “I think that really is the worst part.” As always, she spoke her mind aloud to Fiona. ELPHAME’S CHOICE “What?” She looked thoughtfully at her friend and mistress. “The inevitability of what’s happening. I can’t stop it. I can’t pause it. I can’t really affect it at all. The truth is that I’d like to say, ‘This has been interesting, but I’m ready for it to cease now. I want to bathe, eat a lovely meal and get a good night’s rest. We’ll just begin from here tomorrow, shall we?’” Fiona’s expression of polite curiosity changed to bubbling laughter. “That would be nice.” “Nice?” She grimaced in a very ungoddess-like manner. “It would be wonderful.” Etain took another deep breath, appreciating the intoxicating sweetness of the voraciously blooming lilacs that framed that part of the walk. The path curved to the left and the lilacs gave way to a profusion of violet-colored roses, which were in full bloom. The delicate drapes billowed from the entryway, and fluttered like the wings of giant butterflies over the tips of the roses. They paused a few feet from the bedchamber that had housed Partholon’s Beloved of Epona for countless generations. The breeze carried the enchanting sound of women singing praises. “We are the flow of water The ebb and tide The rush of knowing All truth inside” The words were woven together in a harmony of pitch; the underlying beat was hypnotic. It beckoned to Epona’s Chosen and soothed her frayed nerves. Slowly, her swollen body relaxed as she was filled with the women’s greeting song. “We are the sound of growing A Goddess root Stretched strong and knowing An endless shoot” The words propelled Etain forward so that she eagerly entered her bedchamber. The Wise Women filled the room. At the Goddess Incarnate’s appearance, the tempo of the song increased. Spinning gracefully they seemed to float around the room until Etain and Fiona formed the center of their joyous circle. “We are the soul of woman A wondrous gift Both rich and knowing In praise we lift!” With the word lift the women raised their arms to the domed ceiling and spun, humming the melody together. The silky clothing they wore drifted around their bodies like falling leaves, framing them in shimmering rays of changing light. 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. As Fiona helped her mistress settle back into the cushions of the chaise longue they could clearly see formless glitter outlining each dancer like spiritual halos. “Magic,” Etain whispered. “Of course,” Fiona responded in her no-nonsense tone. “Would ye expect less at the birth of a goddess?” “Of course not.” But the truth was that although Etain had been Epona’s Chosen for almost a decade, she still found it easy to be awed by the power of her Goddess. The song ended and the dancers stepped gracefully out of their circle. Some of them approached Etain, each with a smile and a kind word. “Epona has richly blessed you, Chosen One.” “This is a great day for the Goddess, Epona’s Beloved.” Seen separately they lost a little of their magic and once more became what they were—simple human women who were there to support and encourage the birth of a much-awaited child. They ranged in age and beauty, but they were of a single mind. The next contraction started high on Etain’s abdomen. She felt herself tense. The pain peaked. The contraction caught her, trembling through her body. It was a wave in which she was drowning. A young woman cradled Etain’s shoulders with her hands. “Do not fight it, Goddess.” Her voice whispered softly into the laboring woman’s ear. “It is not a battle to be won. Think of it instead as the wind.” Another woman’s voice spoke earnestly when she paused. “Let it fill you, Chosen One.” Yet another woman added, “Yes, fly with it, my Lady.” “And breathe with me, Etain.” Fiona’s reassuring face swam back into view. The Goddess Incarnate struggled to slow her breathing as she was swept into the vortex of the contraction. After a series of endless moments the pain flowed temporarily away. A cool, damp cloth wiped the sweat from Etain’s forehead. Fiona held a goblet of clear, icy water to her friend’s parched lips. “Let me check the progress, my Lady.” Etain opened her eyes to peer up into the calm aquamarine gaze of the Healer. She was a stoutly built, middle-aged blonde who carried with her the unmistakably confident air of a woman who knew her job intimately and performed it well. The Chosen One nodded and obediently raised her knees. She was wearing only a cream-colored cotton chemise so fine it felt like it had been spun from clouds. The Healer pushed it up around Etain’s nonexistent waist. Her touch was gentle and thorough. “It goes well, Beloved of the Goddess.” She smiled encouragingly and patted her thigh before rearranging Etain’s clothing. “How much longer?” she asked wearily. The Healer met the Goddess Incarnate’s gaze, understanding her impatience. “Only the Goddess can tell you that for sure, my Lady, but I do not think it will be too much longer before you will greet your daughter.” Etain smiled and nodded at her before the Healer faded back into the group of women, whom she ordered about with a voice made of velvet steel. Fiona bent to stroke an escaping curl from her friend’s damp face. “He’s not going to be here in time, is he?” Etain couldn’t stop the tremor in her voice. “Of course he will,” Fiona said firmly. “I should have never insisted he go. What was I thinking?” Fiona tried unsuccessfully to stifle her laughter as she answered. “Let me see… Ah, yes! I think I remember what you said. Something about if he didn’t get out from under your feet and stop asking how you were feeling every moment you were going to flay the skin from him.” She mimicked Etain’s tone so exactly that it made several of the nearby women laugh. “I’m a fool,” Etain moaned. “Only a fool would send her husband away when she is so pregnant she could give birth at any moment.” “My friend.” Fiona sat next to Etain and squeezed her hand. “Midhir will be here in time for the birth of his daughter. You know Moira will find him.” And she did. At least the Goddess Incarnate’s mind told her that of course Moira, the Lead Huntress of Partholon, would be able to track and find her husband, whom she had shooed away yesterday in the company of several of his comrades for an all-night (and, she cringed as she remembered the crisp annoyance in her voice when she had told him to make it all day, too) hunting trip. But her heart and her laboring body said that this baby was coming soon. With or without her father’s presence. “I need him here, Fiona.” Tears made her vision shimmer. Before Fiona could reply another contraction began to build, and she tightened her grip on the other woman’s hand. “Oh! This one is bad.” Etain gasped, feeling a little nauseous and panicky. And then the Chosen One was blanketed with the cool, soothing voices of women as they hummed the melody of the birthing song. In harmony with the rhythm, several of them spoke joyously, one at a time. “We are with you, my Lady.” “You are doing well!” “Breathe with Fiona, Chosen One.” “Relax, Goddess. Remember each pain brings your daughter closer to this world.” “We cannot wait to greet her, my Lady!” Their voices became Etain’s rocks and she used them to anchor her concentration as she again matched her breathing with Fiona’s calm breaths. She slid down the bottom side of the contraction and managed to smile her appreciation to the surrounding women. The women laughed with a sweet sound that was infectious. Etain rested one hand on her taut stomach as a giggle slipped from her lips and she closed her eyes, willing her body to relax and rest. Oh, please, please let him arrive in time. Patience, Beloved. The voice tickled within Etain’s mind. Her lips curved upward at the gentle admonishment. The shaman will not miss the birth of his daughter. “Thank you, Epona,” she whispered. Reassured by her Goddess’s promise she felt a new surge of energy. “Fiona! Let us walk again.” “Are you quite sure, Etain?” Fiona’s brow wrinkled in worry. “You said walking would make the child come more quickly.” Etain held out her hands and Fiona helped pull her awkwardly up from the chaise. “And quickly sounds wonderful to me at this moment.” She winked and the concern in Fiona’s face lightened. The Chosen One tossed her head and smiled at the attending group of women. “Ladies, please sing for me while I hurry my daughter’s arrival.” The women clapped their hands happily. Some of them broke into a little celebratory dance that caused magic to sparkle in their wake. Linking her arm through Fiona’s, the two women walked slowly through the diaphanous curtains. Etain inhaled deeply. “This is something I will miss about being pregnant.” Fiona looked at her quizzically. “My incredible sense of smell. All through this pregnancy my sense of smell has been amazingly acute.” She lumbered to the nearest rosebush and gently passed a finger over the velvety petals before continuing down the path. “Yes, this is amaz—” The word ended in a grunt as the next contraction took her by surprise. “Slowly, remember not to fight it, Etain.” Fiona spoke softly in her ear as her friend leaned heavily against her. “Should we go back to the other women?” she asked. Etain shook her head and panted. “No. I feel like I can breathe better out here.” The contraction subsided and she straightened slowly, wiping the sweat from her face with her sleeve. “And I like how their song sounds on the breeze—like the whole world is filled with the magic of this baby’s birth.” Fiona’s eyes sparkled suddenly with tears and she hugged Etain. “It is, my Lady, it is!” The Chosen of the Goddess cleared her mind of pain by focusing on her blessings as they continued their halting trek through the garden. The nation of Partholon honored many gods and goddesses, but Epona would always hold a special place in her peoples’ hearts. Epona breathes life to the morning sky, and Epona’s face is reflected in the fullness of the moon. She is Warrior Goddess of the Horse, as well as Benefactress of the Fruits of the Harvest. And Partholon would always revere her as their protectress. It was Epona’s Chosen, along with her shaman lifemate, who repelled the invasion of demonic Fomorians and saved Partholon from enslavement. That it had been almost one hundred years since the Fomorian war mattered little in the minds and hearts of the Partholonians. Epona’s largess would never be forgotten, and her Beloved would always be honored. She was Beloved of the Goddess, Epona’s Chosen One, Etain reminded herself as she panted through another contraction. And that meant that her firstborn would be a daughter, and that she, too, would be touched by the Goddess. She would be the granddaughter of the legendary Fomorian-slaying Rhiannon. The thought that her child would probably be destined to follow her as Epona’s Chosen was exciting, and it made the tedium of labor somewhat easier to bear. The wave of the next contraction scattered Etain’s thoughts, and she quickly understood that it was different than the others. It was accompanied by a deep burning sensation and a need to push that was so overwhelming it made her gasp. Her knees buckled and Fiona struggled to help her gently to the ground. “I have to push,” she panted. “Wait!” Fiona said sharply, then yelled over her shoulder in the direction of her bedchamber. “Women! Come to me! The Goddess needs you!” Etain couldn’t tell if anyone had heard her because her entire being was focused within. The urge to push was raw and primal, and it took all the strength of the fear for her daughter’s life to struggle against it. Then a sound pierced through The Chosen’s concentration, and her soul leaped with joy as she recognized it. It was the sound of hooves beating against the firm ground of the path. Etain blinked the sweat out of her eyes as the centaur burst around a curve in the path and slid to his knees before her. “Here, love. All will be well now. Put your arms around my shoulders.” Her husband’s deep voice seemed to chase away the pain as the contraction eased and then dissipated completely. Wordlessly she wrapped her arms around his granite-like shoulders and let her head fall against him as he effortlessly lifted her. In a few long strides the bedchamber was in view. Seconds later he was laying his wife gently on the chaise longue. She clutched him, but needn’t have worried. He had no intention of releasing her. “I am so glad you are here,” she said slowly, still trying to catch her breath. “I belong nowhere but here.” He smiled and brushed a limp curl away from his wife’s sweaty face. “I was afraid you wouldn’t make it. I didn’t think Moira would find you in time.” “She didn’t,” he said with a cryptic shrug of his shoulders. “Your Goddess did.” And he kissed her softly. Oh, Epona, thank you for bringing him to me in time—and thank you for fashioning him to be my lifemate. Through eyes filled with tears she watched her handsome centaur husband fuss with the pillows on which she was propped. Even after five years of marriage, the strength and virility of his centaur form still thrilled her. Of course, as High Shaman he had the ability to shape-shift so that they could truly mate, but she loved him completely, and reveled in the fact that her Goddess had crafted such a wondrous being to be her lifemate. Before she could tell him once again how much she loved him, Etain felt the stirrings of the next contraction. Her moan summoned the Healer. “My Lord, help us get her into the birthing position.” She gave deft orders and Midhir’s strong arms once again lifted his wife. This time he stood behind her with his hands linked under her arms and her back pressed firmly against him as he easily supported her weight. Fiona stood on Etain’s right, holding her hand, and another woman took her left hand. The Goddess Incarnate looked down at the Healer who was crouched between her legs and was vaguely surprised to realize that somehow she had become naked. The Healer’s fingers gently probed. “You are fully ready. You must push with the next contraction.” And it enveloped her. Etain became nothing but a push. Brilliant colors exploded against her tightly closed lids. She saw splashes of gold and red and heard a guttural, inhuman sound, and with a strangely detached thought she realized it must be her own voice making that animal-like noise. For a moment she couldn’t breathe. Then a wordless humming registered through the fog of bearing down. Etain could not see the women, but she felt them. Their birthing song filled her and she was able to breathe again. “Once more, Goddess. I see your daughter’s head!” the Healer encouraged. She heard Midhir’s whispered litany of prayer. The words from his old language, which always sounded so magical to his wife, seemed to mirror the rhythm of the birthing song just as the contraction took control of her. Again Etain became nothing but a push. She was being torn in half. Struggling against panic and fear, her mind reached out to tap into the power that surrounded her. She let the enchantment of the birthing circle fill her, and focused on pushing with the combined power of will and magic. With a liquid feeling of release the warm wetness that was her daughter slid from her body. Then time seemed to speed up and things happened very quickly. Etain struggled to catch a glimpse of her daughter, but was only able to see disjointed images of the Healer bundling the wet form against the folds of her robe. The old woman’s hands shook as she cut the cord. Silence. Etain’s knees buckled, and Midhir and Fiona supported her back to the chaise. “Why isn’t she crying?” Etain gasped. Midhir’s eyes narrowed in concern and he turned quickly back to the Healer who was still huddled on the floor over the small bundle. Then the sweet, strong cry of a newborn pierced the air and Etain felt her fear thaw. But it was only a momentary reprieve because almost instantly she registered the look of shock that had immobilized the Healer’s pale face. The women who surrounded them had noticed, too, because their joyous song of welcome had fallen suddenly still. “Midhir?” She sobbed his name as a question. The centaur moved with inhuman speed to stand over the bundle that was his lustily crying daughter. The Healer looked up at him, confusion and dismay glazing her eyes. Swiftly Midhir dropped to his knees and reached out to unwrap the covering that concealed his child. And he froze. His body was shielding the view of the baby from Etain and she fought against exhaustion to sit up so that she could see what was happening. “What is it?” she cried, her stomach clenching with much more than the pains of afterbirth. At her words a quiver ran through Midhir’s muscular body, then he reached forward and scooped the baby from the floor. In one motion he turned to his wife, his eyes alight with joy. “It is our daughter, my love.” His voice was thick with emotion. “And she is a wee goddess!” With those words he strode to Etain and gently handed her the now silent, but still kicking bundle. The Chosen of Epona gazed for the first time at her daughter. Etain’s immediate thought wasn’t shock or surprise, but simply that she had never seen anything as exquisitely beautiful. She was perfect. Even though birth fluids still covered her, the infant’s head was feathered with dark wisps of amber-colored hair. Her skin was a lovely creamy brown, a shade somewhere between bronze and gold. She looked exactly as if someone had poured her skin and Midhir’s skin together, was the abstract thought that drifted through Etain’s mind, which was hazy with wonder. Her gilded skin shaded down to her waist, where her body suddenly became covered with a fine coat of hair, the same color as the hair on her head, but in which speckles were already appearing in drying patches, as if it was the coat of a newborn fawn. She squirmed and kicked her two legs that tapered gracefully down to form two tiny hooves, which still glistened damply. Then she opened her perfect little mouth and let out an indignant cry. “Sssh, my precious one,” Etain cooed, kissing her face and marveling at the amazing softness of her skin. Love for her daughter poured into her, filling Etain more completely than she had ever believed possible. “I am here and all is well.” At the sound of her mother’s voice, the infant’s incredibly dark eyes seemed to widen and her cries instantly quieted. “Elphame.” Midhir’s deep voice was choked with emotion. He knelt beside them. One of his arms went around his wife so that she could rest securely against him, and his other hand reached down to touch his daughter’s body. “Elphame,” he repeated. His deep, wonderful voice added magic to the word, like he had just ushered the Queen of the Fairies into their midst. The name seemed to hang suspended in the air around them. Etain gazed at him through her tears. The name was vaguely familiar, like she had heard it spoken in a dream. “Elphame…What does it mean?” His warm lips first brushed his wife’s forehead and then his daughter’s forehead before he answered. “It is the shamans’ ancient name for the Goddess as a maiden. It is She who is most exquisite, filled with the magic of youth and the wonder of life beginning anew.” “Elphame,” she murmured as she guided her daughter’s hungry mouth to her aching breast. “My precious one.” Yes, Beloved. The Goddess’s voice drifted through her Chosen’s mind. The Shaman has named her truly. She shall be called Elphame—announce to Partholon the name of your newborn, who is also Beloved of Epona. Etain smiled brilliantly and raised her head. In a voice magnified by the power of Epona her words joyously split the air. “Rejoice, Partholon! We have been given a gift worthy of a goddess in the birth of my child.” Her gaze shifted from the staring women who still silently surrounded them to her husband, whose face was wet with tears. “Her name is Elphame. She is truly a wee goddess, most beautiful and exquisite!” At the Goddess Incarnate’s announcement there was a stirring in the air, like a crackle of lightning. Then the breeze that had been pulling the billowing drapes out of the open doorway shifted direction, and the golden gauze blew into the chamber in a rush of fragrant, warm air—and suddenly they were enveloped in a gossamer cloud of delicate wings. Hundreds of shimmering butterflies fluttered around and above the gathering, fanning them with their magic. “Thank you, Epona!” Etain laughed, delighted with the demonstration of her Goddess’s pleasure. Then the women began to hum and twirl. Slowly at first, then more quickly and joyously they took up the ancient ceremony that was the traditional greeting for the birth of a child of Partholon. Etain rested within her husband’s arms as he cradled his family against his strong chest. “The magic of youth and the wonder of life beginning anew,” she whispered to her daughter. Etain touched the infant reverently, unable to look away from her, not wanting to miss one breath or one movement. Her fingers ran down Elphame’s body wonderingly, as she caressed her unique legs and learned the contours of each delicate hoof. Satyr. The name fluttered through her mind. But, no. She wasn’t at all goatlike; she was too delicate and finely formed to resemble Pan. She was simply a perfect blending of human, centaur and goddess. A sense of awe rushed through Etain, and laughter bubbled from her chest. Midhir squeezed his wife’s shoulders in response. “I, too, am filled to overflowing with the wonder of her.” She nodded her head, agreeing with him. Then, through more laughter she added, “Yes, but that’s not why I’m laughing.” He arched an eyebrow questioningly. She grinned and stroked one of Elphame’s little hooves. “I used to think that she must be clothed and wearing boots, as hard as her kicks sometimes felt. Now I see exactly what it was I was feeling.” Midhir’s laughter joined his wife’s as they reveled in the magic of their newborn daughter. Chapter 1 Power. Nothing was that good. Not Partholon’s finest chocolate. Not the beauty of a perfect sunrise. Not even…no, she wouldn’t know about that. She shook her head, purposefully changing the pattern of her thoughts. The wind whistled sharply through her hair, and some of the long strands blew into her face making her wish she had tied it back out of the way. She usually did, but today she had wanted to feel its heavy weight, and she admitted to herself that she liked the way it flowed behind her when she ran, like the flame-colored tail of a shooting star. Her stride faltered as her concentration wavered and Elphame quickly regained control of her stray thoughts. Maintaining speed took focus. The field she ran in was relatively flat and free of most rocks and obstructions, but it wouldn’t be wise to let her thoughts wander. One misstep could snap a leg all too easily; it would be foolish to believe otherwise. For all her life, Elphame had made it a point to shun foolish beliefs and behavior. Foolishness and folly were for people who could afford everyday, normal mistakes. Not for her, for someone whose very design said that she had been touched by the Goddess, and was, therefore, held apart from what was accepted as normal and everyday. Elphame deepened her breathing and forced herself to relax her upper body. Keep the tension in your lower body, she reminded herself. Keep everything else loose and relaxed. Let the most powerful part of your body do the work. Her teeth glinted in an almost feral grin as she felt her body regather and shoot forward. Elphame loved the way the corded muscles in her legs responded. Her arms pumped effortlessly as her hooves bit into the soft green carpet of the young field. She was faster than any human. Much faster. Elphame demanded more of herself, and her body responded with inhuman strength. She may not have been as fast as a centaur over long distances, but few could outdistance her in a sprint, as her brothers liked to frequently boast. With a little more hard work, perhaps none would be able to best her. The thought was almost as satisfying as the wind on her face. When the burning started she ignored it, knowing that she had to push herself beyond the point of simple muscle fatigue, but she did begin to angle her strides so that her run would take her in a huge spherical path. She would end up back where she had begun. But not forever, she promised herself. Not forever. And she pushed herself harder. “Oh, Goddess.” Watching her daughter, Etain whispered reverently, “Will I ever get used to her beauty?” She is special, Beloved. Epona’s voice shimmered familiarly through her Chosen One’s mind. She pulled the horse to a halt well within the stand of trees that flanked one end of the field. The silver mare stopped and twisted her head around, cocking her ears at her rider in the horse’s version of a question. And Etain knew that her mare, the equine incarnation of the Goddess Epona, really was asking a question. “I just want to sit here and watch her.” The Goddess blew imperiously through her nose. “I am not spying!” Etain said indignantly. “I am her mother. It is well within my right to watch her run.” The Goddess tossed her head in a reply that proclaimed she wasn’t so sure. “Behave with the proper respect.” She jangled the mare’s reigns. “Or I shall leave you at the temple next trip.” The Goddess didn’t dignify the comment with so much as a snort. Etain ignored the mare who was now ignoring her, and muttered something about grumpy old creatures, but not loud enough for the mare to hear. Then she squinted her eyes and held her hand up to block the setting sun from interfering with her view. Her daughter was running with a speed that caused her lower body to blur, so that it appeared that she flew above the brilliant green shoots of new wheat. She ran bent forward slightly at the waist, with a grace that always amazed her mother. “She is the prefect blending of centaur and human,” Etain whispered to the mare, who swiveled her ears to catch the words. “Goddess, you are so wise.” Elphame had completed the long loop in her imaginary track, and she was beginning to turn toward the grove in which her mother waited. The setting sun framed her running body, catching the girl’s dark auburn hair on fire. It glowed and snapped around her in long, heavy strands. “She certainly didn’t get that lovely straight hair from me,” Etain told the mare as she tried to tuck one of her ever-escaping curls behind her ear. The mare cocked an ear back attentively. “The red lights that streak her hair, yes, but the rest of it she can thank her father for.” She could also thank him for the color of those amazingly dark eyes. The shape was hers—large and round, resting above high delicate cheekbones that were also copies of her mother’s, but where Etain’s eyes were mossy green, her daughter’s eyes were the entrancing sable of her centaur father’s. Even if Elphame’s physical form hadn’t been completely unique, her beauty would have been unusual—coupled with a body that only the Goddess could have created, the effect was breathtaking. Elphame’s pace began to slow, and she changed direction so that she was heading directly for the stand of trees in which her mother and the mare waited. “We should make ourselves known so that she doesn’t think we were lurking around in the shadows watching her.” They emerged from the tree line, and Etain saw her daughter’s head snap in their direction in an instinctively defensive gesture, but almost immediately Elphame recognized them and raised her arm to wave hello at the same time the mare trumpeted a shrill greeting. “Mama!” Elphame called happily. “Why don’t you two join me for my cooldown?” “Of course, my darling,” Etain shouted back. “But slowly, you know the mare is getting old and—” Before she could finish the sentence the “old mare” in question sprang forward and caught up with the young woman, where she pranced spryly sideways before easily matching her gentle canter with Elphame’s gait. “The two of you will never be old, Mama.” Elphame laughed. “She’s just a putting on a show for you,” Etain told her daughter, but she reached down and affectionately ruffled the mare’s silky mane. “Oh, Mama, please. She’s putting on a show…” Elphame let the sentence trail suggestively off as she quirked her eyebrow and gave her mother a knowing look that took in her glittering jewelry and the seductive wrap of her buttery leather riding outfit that fitted snuggly over her still shapely body. “El, you know wearing jewelry is a spiritual experience for me,” she said in her Beloved of the Goddess voice. “I know, Mama.” Elphame grinned. The mare’s snort was decidedly sarcastic, and Etain’s laughter mingled with her daughter’s as they continued compatibly around the field. “Where did I leave my wrap?” Elphame muttered half to her mother, half to herself as she searched the edge of the tree line. “I thought I put it on this log.” Etain watched her daughter scramble over a fallen limb as she searched for the rest of her clothing. She wore only a sleeveless leather top, which was wrapped tightly around her full breasts, and a small strip of linen that hugged her muscular buttocks, and was cut high up on her hips, before it dipped down to a triangle to cover her in the front. Etain had designed it herself. The problem was that although the girl’s muscular body was covered with a sleek coat of horsehair from the waist down, and she had hooves instead of feet, except for the extraordinary muscles in her lower body she was otherwise built very much like a human female. So she needed a garment that would allow her the freedom to exercise the inhuman speed with which she had been gifted, as well as keep her decently covered. Etain and her daughter had experimented with many different styles before happening upon one that successfully accomplished both needs. The result had worked well, except that it left so much of Elphame’s body visible. It mattered little that the women of Partholon had always been free to proudly display their bodies. Etain regularly bared her breasts during blessing rituals to signify Epona’s love of the female form. When Elphame uncovered her hoofed legs, people stared in outright shock and awe at the sight of the Chosen’s so obviously Goddess-touched body. Elphame loathed being the recipient of the stares. So it had become habit for Elphame to dress conservatively in public, only shedding her flowing robes when she ran, which was almost always alone and well away from the temple. “Oh, I found it!” El cried, and trotted over to a log not far from where they stood. She picked up the length of fine linen that had been dyed the color of emeralds and began winding it around her slim waist. Her breathing had already returned to normal; the fine sheen of sweat that had caused the downy hair on her bare arms to glisten had already dried. She was in spectacular shape. Her body was sleek, athletic and perfectly honed, but there was nothing harsh or masculine about its casing. Her lovely brown skin looked silky and seductively touchable; it was only after actually touching her that the finely wrapped strength of the muscles beneath the skin could be fully realized. But few people dared to touch the young goddess. She was tall, towering several inches over her mother’s five-foot-seven-inch frame. During early puberty she had been thin and a little awkward, but soon the curves and fullness of womanhood had replaced that coltishness. Her lower body was a perfect mixture of human and centaur. She had the beauty and allure of a woman, and the strength and grace of a centaur. Etain smiled at her daughter. As from the moment of her birth, she had embraced Elphame’s uniqueness with a fierce, protective love. “You don’t have to wear that wrap, El.” She hadn’t realized she had spoken her thought aloud until her daughter looked quickly up at her. “I know you do not think I need to.” Her voice, usually so like her mother’s, suddenly hardened with suppressed emotion. “But I have to. It is not the same for me. They do not look upon me as they do you.” “Has someone said something to hurt you? Tell me who it is and he will know the wrath of a goddess!” Green fire flashed in Etain’s eyes. Elphame’s voice lost all expression as she answered her mother. “They do not need to say anything, Mama.” “Precious one—” the anger melted from Etain’s eyes “—you know the people love you.” “No, Mama.” She held up her hand to stop her mother from interrupting. “They love you. They idolize and worship me. It is not the same thing.” “Of course they worship you, El. You are the eldest daughter of the Beloved of Epona, and you have been blessed by the Goddess in a very special way. They should worship you.” The mare moved forward until her muzzle lipped the young woman’s shoulder. Before she answered, El reached around the mare’s head to stroke her gleaming neck. She looked up at her mother and said with a conviction that made her sound older than her years, “I am different. And no matter how badly you want to believe that I fit in, it’s just not the same for me. That is why I must leave.” Etain’s stomach clenched at her daughter’s words, but she forced herself to remain silent and allow her to continue. “I’m treated like I am a thing apart. Not that I’m treated badly,” she added quickly, “just apart. Like I’m something they are afraid to get too close to because I might…” Here she faltered and laid her cheek against the broad forehead of the silver mare. “…I don’t know…might shatter. Or perhaps cause them to shatter. So they treat me like I am a statue that has come miraculously to life right in front of them.” My beautiful, lonely daughter, Etain thought, feeling the familiar ache of not having the solution to end her firstborn’s pain. “But statues aren’t loved, not really. They’re cared for and kept in a place of honor, but they aren’t loved.” “I love you.” Etain’s voice sounded choked. “Oh, I know, Mama!” Her head flew up and her eyes met her mother’s. “You and Da, and Cuchulainn and Finegas and Arianrhod all love me. You have to, you’re my family,” she added with a quick smile. “But even your private guards, who adore you unquestioningly and would give their lives for either of us, believe I am something essentially untouchable.” The mare moved a step forward and El leaned against the side of the horse. Etain ached to take her daughter in her arms, but she knew that the young woman would stiffen and tell her she was no longer a child, so she contented herself with stroking her satin hair, willing Epona’s comfort from her hands into her daughter’s body. “That’s why you came out here today, wasn’t it?” El asked quietly. “Yes,” her mother responded simply. “I wanted to try one more time to talk you out of going.” Etain paused thoughtfully before she spoke again. “Why not stay here and take my place, El?” Her daughter jolted upright and started to shake her head violently from side to side, but Etain doggedly continued. “I have had a long, rich reign. I am ready to retire.” “No!” Elphame’s voice was adamant. Just the thought of taking her mother’s place sent a thread of panic through her. “You are not ready to retire! Look at you. You look decades younger than your age. You love performing the rituals of Epona, and the people need you to continue. And you must remember the most important thing, Mama. The spirit realm is closed to me. I have never heard Epona’s voice or felt the touch of her magic…” The sadness of the truth of her words settled resolutely on Elphame’s face. “I have never felt any magic at all.” “But Epona speaks to me of you often,” Etain said softly, touching her daughter’s cheek. “Her hand has been upon you since before your birth.” “I know. I know the Goddess loves me, but I am not her Chosen One.” “Not yet,” her mother added. Elphame’s only response was to lean against the warm familiarity of the horse’s neck while the mare nuzzled her affectionately. “I still do not understand why you must leave.” “Mama,” Elphame said, turning her head so she could look up at her mother. “You sound like I am traveling to the other side of the world.” She raised one dark eyebrow in exasperation, which her mother always thought made her look so much like her father. Etain’s answering smile was sardonic. From the moment of each of their births, she had been devoted to her children. Even now that they were adults, she preferred that they stay near her. She honestly enjoyed their company and appreciated them for the individuals they were growing into. El spoke slowly, willing her mother to really hear her words. “I don’t know why it upsets you so much that I’m going. It’s not like I’ve never been away from home. I studied at the Temple of the Muse and that didn’t seem to bother you.” “That was different. Of course you had to study with the Muse. It’s where all the most spectacular females of Partholon are educated. Arianrhod is there now.” Etain’s smile was selfsatisfied. “Both of my daughters are spectacular, which is one reason I enjoy having you near me,” Etain said logically. “If I had married, I might have moved to his home.” El’s voice had lost its frustrated edge and she just sounded exhausted. “Don’t talk like you’ll never get married. You’re still young. You have years and years left.” “Mama, please. Let’s not start this old argument again. You know no one will marry me. There’s no one like me, and no one who wants to get that close to a goddess.” “Your father married me.” El smiled sadly at her mother. “But you’re all human, Mama, and besides, the High Shaman of the centaurs is always mated to Epona’s Beloved. He was created to love you—it’s what is normal for him. It is obvious that the Goddess has touched me, but I am not Her Chosen. Epona has not prompted any centaur shaman to come forward as my mate. I don’t think anyone, man or centaur shaman, was created to love me. Not like you and Da.” “Oh, Fawn!” Etain’s voice broke on the childhood nickname. “I don’t believe that. Epona is not cruel. There is someone for you. He just hasn’t found you yet.” “Maybe. And maybe I have to go away to find him.” “But why there? I don’t like to think about you being there.” “It’s just a place, Mama. Actually it’s just an old ruin. I think it is past time that it was rebuilt. Remember the stories you used to tell me at bedtime? You said that once upon a time it was beautiful,” El coaxed. “Yes, until it became home to slaughter and evil.” “That was more than one hundred years ago. The evil is gone, and the dead can’t hurt me.” “You can’t be sure about that,” her mother retorted. “Mama,” El reached up and took her hand. “The MacCallan was my ancestor. Why would his ghost harm me?” “There were more who died at the slaughter of MacCallan Castle than the Clan Chieftain and the noble warriors who gave their lives trying to protect him. And you know the castle is said to be cursed. No one has dared to enter its grounds, let alone live there, for over a century,” Etain said firmly. “But all of my life you have watched over the MacCallan shrine and its ever-burning flame,” she countered. “We have kept alive the memory of The MacCallan, even though the clan was destroyed. Why should my wish to restore his castle surprise you? After all, his blood runs in my veins, too.” Etain didn’t answer her immediately. For an instant she actually toyed with the thought of lying to her daughter, of saying that she had Goddess-given knowledge of the veracity of the castle’s curse. But only for an instant. Mother and daughter had a deep reservoir of trust as well as love between them, and Etain wasn’t willing to damage or take advantage of that—and she would never lie about knowledge given to her by Epona. “I do not truly believe The MacCallan would harm you, though it is quite possible that restless spirits inhabit the old castle. And I admit that the curse is just a tale to frighten errant children. It’s not so much that I fear for your safety—it’s just that I don’t understand why you must go with the workers who will clear out the ruins. Why not wait until the mess has been cleaned away and they have rebuilt it so that it is actually habitable? Then you can oversee the final stages of construction.” Elphame sighed fondly at her mother. The Chosen of Epona was used to living in luxury, surrounded by servants and handmaidens. It wasn’t possible for her to understand her daughter’s desire to get her hands dirty and live rough until the job was done. “I need to be involved in every aspect of this. I’m going to rebuild MacCallan Castle, and I’m going to be mistress of it. As Lady of the Castle and of the surrounding lands I will have something of my own, something I’ve had a hand in creating. If I can’t have my own mate and my own children, then I can at least have my own kingdom. Please understand and give me your blessing, Mama.” Her eyes pleaded with her mother. “I just want you to be happy, my precious Fawn.” “This will make me happy. You have to trust me to know my own mind, Mama.” You must let her go, my Beloved. The Goddess spoke the words gently within Etain’s mind, but still it felt as if the blade of a knife had passed through her soul. Trust her to find her own destiny, and trust me to care for her. Etain closed her eyes, struggling against second thoughts and loss. With a deep breath she opened her eyes, and wiped the wetness from her cheeks. “I do trust you. And you will always have my blessing.” Elphame’s face was transformed, and the lines of worry that so often clouded it dissipated, leaving her looking heart-wrenchingly young. “Thank you, Mama. I believe that I am fated to do this. Just wait until you see MacCallan Castle alive again.” She happily gave the silver mare’s neck an enthusiastic squeeze. “Let’s hurry back so I can finish packing. You know I’m supposed to leave at dawn tomorrow.” Elphame chattered brightly as she kept pace easily with the mare and her mother. Etain made meaningful, attentivesounding noises, but she couldn’t stay focused on her daughter’s words. Instead it seemed that she already felt the weight of Elphame’s absence as if it were a black hole in her soul. And, even though the late spring evening was warm, a chill marked its finger down the back of Goddess Incarnate’s neck. Chapter 2 “Cu, remind me why I agreed to let you come with me.” Elphame looked slantways at her brother and tried to increase her gait without being too obvious. He was singing what seemed like verse five hundred of a semi-raunchy military marching song and the never-ending chorus pounded through her right temple in time with her headache, almost making her wish she had not insisted that the two of them travel separate from the rest of their party. The big buckskin gelding on which Cuchulainn rode automatically picked up his pace to match El’s long strides. Her brother’s infectious laugh rang around them. “I came, sister-mine, to protect you.” Elphame gave an unlady-like snort. “Oh, please, spare me. Protect me? It’s more likely you needed a break from chasing the temple maidens hither and yon.” “Hither and yon?” His handsome face broke into a boyish grin. “Did you really say hither and yon?” He shook his head in mock seriousness. “I knew you were spending too much time reading those tomes in mother’s library. And it’s not the maidens I’d be after.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively at his sister. Elphame tried unsuccessfully to hide a smile as she gave him a fond look. “Next you’ll be reminding me that you don’t have to chase any woman anywhere.” “Now that, sister-mine, is the simple truth…” He let the words trail off and grinned at her. “Hmm, I thought you might be staying at home to welcome the…” Elphame cleared her throat and tossed back her hair, doing a perfect imitation of their mother’s tone of voice as well as her body language. “…lovely and unmarried daughter of the Chieftain of Woulff Castle who will be sojourning at Epona’s Temple on the way to begin her training at the Temple of the Muse.” Cuchulainn’s mouth tightened, and for an instant Elphame regretted her teasing. Then, with his usual good humor he shrugged his shoulders and gave her a long-suffering grin. “Her name is Beatrice, sister-mine. Can you image anyone named Beatrice not having a high forehead and regal carriage?” He spoke the words putting a simper in his deep voice, which made Elphame laugh out loud. “She’s probably a very handsome woman,” El said through giggles. “No doubt fertile, with ample hips and the ability to bear many children.” Brother and sister exchanged looks of complete understanding. “I’ll be glad when Arianrhod and Finegas are old enough for Mama to start matchmaking for them.” El said in a tone that sounded more serious than she had intended. Cuchulainn sighed heavily. “The twins will be eighteen this summer. In three more years Mother will be in her matchmaking glory.” El slanted a look at Cu. “Poor kids. It almost makes me wish we hadn’t picked on them so much when we were children.” “Almost!” Cuchulainn laughed. “At least we’re all in this together—it’s not like Mother singles out one of us.” Elphame just smiled at him and quickened the pace again, forcing herself temporarily ahead of her brother on the narrowing trail. But it’s not the same for me. Thoughts whirred incessantly through her restless mind. Her siblings were humans—attractive, talented, sought-after humans. She didn’t need to glance over her shoulder to picture Cuchulainn. His face was as familiar to her as her own—and very like her own. She smiled wryly. Cu was just a year and a half younger, and from the waist up they, too, could be twins. He had her high, well-defined cheekbones, but where hers were delicate and feminine, his were ruggedly masculine. Her chin was (according to their mother) rather defiant, and his was stubborn and proud (according to his eldest sister), complete with an adorable cleft. Instead of his sister’s sable eyes and dark auburn tresses, he had eyes that were a unique color shaded somewhere between blue and green, and thick, sandycolored hair that refused to give up its childish cowlicks. So he kept it slicked back and cropped short, which made their mother cluck and complain over the waste of not letting it grow like a proper warrior’s. But Cuchulainn, son of Midhir, High Shaman and Centaur Warrior Lord, did not have to be a “proper warrior.” Named after one of Partholon’s ancient heroes, he already looked and acted the part, whether he always behaved properly or not. Tall and well-formed, he excelled at tournaments, was the finest human swordsman in Partholon and had never been bested in archery. Elphame had heard more than one young maiden sigh longingly and say that he must indeed be Cuchulainn reincarnated. No, Cu had never lacked for female companionship. He had just not yet found his lifemate. Elphame’s shapely lips tilted up. “But not for lack of trying,” she muttered to herself. That was one way she was very unlike her brother. He was suave and experienced with the opposite sex. She had never been kissed. Even her youngest siblings, whom she and Cu had nicknamed the Little Scholars, had no trouble finding partners for moon rituals. While Arianrhod and Finegas weren’t as athletic as their older brother and sister, they were certainly growing into intelligent, poised young adults. Looking almost like mirror images of each other, their tall, graceful bodies were completely human—totally normal. And, Elphame admitted to herself, Arianrhod was as pretty as Fin was handsome. The path that cut through the ancient forest curved to the right and widened. Cuchulainn urged his gelding to his sister’s side. “She reminds me of Mama,” El said suddenly. Cu looked around in surprise. “Who?” El rolled her eyes. She always expected her brother to read her mind, and was annoyed the few times he didn’t. “Arianrhod, who else? That’s why the boys already moon over her. Of course it’s not like she cares or even notices—not unless she’s completely changed during her first term at the Temple of the Muse.” Her brother’s turquoise eyes crinkled with his smile. “Arianrhod’s head will always be in the clouds.” “Astronomy and astrology are inexorably linked to the Fates, and as such it is wise to study them carefully.” El mimicked their younger sister. Cu laughed. “That’s one of our Little Scholars, all right. The irony is that young, besotted men will chase her all the harder because of her indifference. You see the maidens are already starting to follow Fin around, and his beard is still like duck’s down.” “Well, for whatever reason they certainly like her a lot.” Cuchulainn looked closely at his sister. “Are you all right?” “Of course,” she answered automatically without meeting his eyes. “It will be different here, Fawn,” he said quietly. “I know.” She glanced quickly over at him, and then just as quickly looked away, afraid that he would see the tears that were beginning to make her eyes too bright. “No, I mean it.” His serious tone caused her to slow her stride so she could listen more carefully. “You will find what you have always desired at MacCallan Castle. I have had a Feeling.” Her brother’s words hung in the fragrant spring air. She knew exactly what he meant. It was a part of the code between them. Just as she was her Goddess Incarnate mother’s firstborn daughter, and therefore had been marked by Epona, Cuchulainn was truly the firstborn son of their shaman father. From an early age he had simply known things. When he was a child he had explained it to his sister by saying it was like he could hear words that were hidden in the wind. Sometimes this “wind” told him where lost items could be found. Sometimes it told him when someone was coming to visit the temple. And sometimes it foretold portentous news, like the untimely death of a beloved child or the breaking of a blood-given oath. The preternatural knowledge had frightened the young Cuchulainn. It wasn’t an enemy he could best with the prowess of his muscles or outwit through his cunning. It was something that made him feel like an aberration; it gave him power he hadn’t asked for and didn’t have any desire to wield. It was a thing his older sister understood all too well. So he had come to Elphame whenever he’d had a Feeling about something or someone. And his sister had empathized with his fear. She had not turned from him—instead she had become his closest confidante, even though Elphame’s attitude toward things of the spirit realm was decidedly different than his. She was, after all, a physical manifestation of the magic of the Goddess. She didn’t understand why her brother would reject gifts from the spirit realm, especially when she longed to feel even a whisper of the power her mother wielded so easily, but she supported his desire to do so with a calm, no-nonsense attitude. As he grew older, Cuchulainn had learned to repress his burgeoning psychic abilities and not allow them to overwhelm him. Now Elphame looked searchingly at her brother. He’d never lied to her before. And his Feeling had never been wrong. “Do you promise?” she asked a little breathlessly, the sudden flush that suffused her cheeks the only outward sign that betrayed her inner excitement. “Yes.” He nodded tightly. Joy surged through Elphame. “I knew restoring MacCallan Castle was the right thing to do!” Then she gave him a sisterly glare, thinking of all the cajoling it had taken to get their mother to agree to let her go. “You couldn’t have shared this knowledge with Mama?” “If I had told Mother that I knew you would meet your destiny at MacCallan Castle do you think there would have been any force on Partholon that could have kept her from accompanying us there?” “Excellent point,” Elphame agreed quickly. Then her thoughts navigated through her rush of emotions and she asked, “But why did you wait to tell me?” Cuchulainn’s forehead furrowed in thought and he answered her slowly. “The Feeling is indistinct.” Then, seeing his sister’s face fall in disappointment he hurried on to try and explain. “No, it doesn’t make it any less certain. I know you’ll meet your destiny at MacCallan Castle. I know that destiny is tied up in your lifemate, but when I try to focus on details about the man I get only fog and confusion.” He shook his head and smiled sheepishly at Elphame. “Maybe that’s because you’re my sister and knowing details about your love life is actually pretty disturbing.” “I know exactly what you mean. When the maidens wax poetic about your various body parts—” she shuddered and made a face “—I cover my ears and run screaming in the opposite direction.” “Hrumph.” He huffed at her succinctly, chuckling in spite of himself, glad his sister had stopped asking specific questions about the Feeling. He had struggled with what to say to El about his vision. He knew it caused his beloved sister pain to believe that she would never find a mate, and he knew that he had to tell her about his Feeling. It was clear to him that she would meet her lifemate and her destiny at MacCallan Castle, but he also knew there was more to it than simply falling in love. A part of his premonition had been vague and ominous. It had been nothing like the typical “love” visions he had received in the past, which were usually glimpses of a friend in a young woman’s arms, followed by a Feeling that the two people belonged together. He had experienced a vision of his sister in a man’s arms, but he had been unable to see the man. Maybe that was because the first thing he had been able to see clearly was the look of tender happiness that radiated from his sister’s usually serious face, and that particular vision had been so surprising that his concentration had been irreparably fractured. Maybe not. And, yes, there had been a definite Feeling that the two were meant to be together. When he tried to refocus the scene and study the man, the vision had been bathed in a blinding scarlet light, as if the scene had been dipped in blood. Then, just as quickly, it had been covered in darkness, like the lovers had been wrapped in a velvet curtain, and the man had faded away, leaving his sister alone. How very like the realm of spirits, to leave him with unanswered questions and a sense of unease. He had always loathed the elusive, slippery nature of the power. It wasn’t like the sure weight of a sword, or the clear aim of an arrow. Cuchulainn swallowed past a suddenly dry throat, glad Elphame had, once again, pulled ahead of him. She read his expressions too easily. He didn’t want her to see that his latest vision had reached into his soul and truly frightened him with its strange, red-tinged whisperings. He flexed his right hand. He could feel the phantom weight of his claymore as in his mind he gripped it and held it at the ready. Yes. Lifemate or not, Cuchulainn was prepared to protect his sister from all who might cause her harm. Chapter 3 “I do not understand why we couldn’t have stayed in Loth Tor with the rest of the workers,” Cuchulainn complained as he fed another dry log into their campfire. “I thought warriors were supposed to be so thick-skinned that they could sleep on beds of thistles without wincing,” Elphame quipped and tossed him the wineskin. “Have a drink. Remember, Mama packed the wine,” she added meaningfully. “Warriors like soft beds just as much as anyone else,” he grumbled, but took the wineskin and drank deeply. “Mother’s love of wine has been a blessing this trip. But it doesn’t make up for the absence of a down-filled bed.” Or a lusty young widow in that bed, he thought. “Cu, you’re just mad because that plump blonde was obviously offering you more than another helping of her excellent stew.” “Being a young widow is a lonely burden to bear.” “Not while you’re around.” She laughed. “Oh, come on. Don’t pout. I want to watch the sun as it rises over my castle, and I don’t want to do it with a group of centaurs and men staring at me while they invent demons lurking in every shadow.” Cuchulainn grunted in response, took another long drink of wine and tossed the skin back to his sister. He poked the fire and quit complaining. He was used to Elphame’s solitary ways, and he understood the reasons behind them. She had spent her life being revered because she had been touched by the Goddess; she was a being that had never before been created. It wasn’t that she was ever treated cruelly—actually it was just the opposite. She awed people, especially people who were not accustomed to the sight of her. Most of the workers who had accompanied them were from the area around Epona’s Temple, so they merely treated her with careful respect and kept their distance. But during the five days of travel from Epona’s Temple to MacCallan Castle, Cuchulainn had noticed how the people would stop whatever they were doing and rush to the road, bowing so low as “the young goddess, Elphame” passed that they practically buried their heads in the grassy meadows surrounding the main road. And as they drew nearer their destination, new people and centaurs had begun joining their party, eager for the opportunities that would surround the reestablishment of MacCallan Castle. Their reaction to his sister was always the same—more awe and staring. Cuchulainn knew that was why Elphame had insisted that the two of them leave the road and follow the smaller, rougher path that ran through the forest. To El, fewer people equated to less chance of being worshipped, and that was a good thing. Brother and sister had camped under the stars and hadn’t stopped in any of the sleepy little villages that dotted the land between vineyards and pastures, until they had come to Loth Tor, the village that nestled at the base of the plateau on which MacCallan Castle stood. That night they had rejoined their party and all of them had dined at the Mare’s Inn, the town’s only tavern, where it seemed the entire populace had paraded through, each reverently bowing to Elphame. Some asked if they could please touch the young goddess, some just stared openmouthed. Cuchulainn had watched his sister nod politely to each one of them, acquiescing graciously to their desire to worship her. Only he seemed to notice the unnatural tension in her shoulders and the rigid way she held herself. To Cu it looked as though if she moved too quickly she might shatter. When the meal was over she had said she felt the need to sleep under the stars and to be alone with her brother and Epona. He knew she added the Goddess’s name so that the town wouldn’t follow her and continue to stare. Wordlessly he had saddled his tired gelding and kicked it into a gallop, scrambling to keep up with Elphame as she retreated from the village. “It will get better after you’ve been here for a while, you know,” he said quietly. She sighed heavily. “You’d think I would get used to it.” She took another sip of the excellent wine before tossing it back to her brother. “I don’t, though.” She raised her brows at him and added, “Hard to believe my destiny is around here.” “Stranger things have happened,” he said lightly, not wanting to talk about his vision or her potential mate. “Such as?” she asked. “Such as the fact that we have the same parents, but I’m human and you’re part-horse,” he replied promptly. She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m part-centaur, not part-horse.” But she didn’t argue further. “Get some sleep,” he told her. “You’ll need all your energy tomorrow. I’ll stay awake and watch over the fire.” And over you, he added silently to himself. His sister’s tension may have lessened with their departure from the town, but his own warrior instincts had him feeling wary and restless. Why couldn’t he get a clear picture of his sister’s future? Why had his vision been so dark and indistinct? And why had it seemed to be drenched in blood? Elphame curled up on her side, looking snug and comfortable in her bedroll. “You can’t fool me, Cuchulainn.” Her eyes were closed and her voice was a whisper, but the gentle night breeze brought her words clearly to him. “This is more of that I-must-protect-my-sister warrior stuff.” “Now that definitely sounds like something Mother would say,” he told her, and then added under his breath, “It’s about time you noticed.” His sister’s lips were lifted in a soft smile as she fell deeply asleep. Elphame dreamed that her lover came to her within a dark mist, which wrapped itself around her as if the night had grown wings, and though she trembled at his touch she wasn’t afraid. Willingly, she offered herself to the mist, and it bent to her and drank of her love as they flew into the velvet blackness of the midnight sky and made their bed together amidst the stars. “I knew it would be amazing.” Elphame sighed happily. “Oh, Cu, look at my castle!” They were standing at the edge of the pine forest that ringed the land side of the plateau on which the MacCallan Castle had been built. The tart, clean smell of pine mixed with the salty scent of ocean and seemed to wash everything in brilliance, making the green of the forest lush and layered, the blue and white of the ocean crystalline and elegant as it crashed against the rocks far below. The castle loomed before them, looking imposing in its rocky perch on the edge of the magnificent coastal cliff. Elphame stared at her new home, letting her eyes drink in the wonder of that first sight. Surrounded by row after row of redbud and dogwood trees in full bloom, as well as overgrown scrub and clumps of blackberry bushes gone wild, the castle looked like it should have been housing a fairy creature who had been sleeping for centuries and was just waiting for the kiss of her true love to awaken her. A little like me. Elphame surprised herself with the blatantly romantic thought. But the sight before her, coupled with her brother’s premonition, had her feeling uncharacteristically romantic. And, she realized with a start, it was a feeling she thought she might enjoy. Was this what she had been missing all those years? she mused silently. This breathless, waiting excitement? Like someone was just about to turn a key within her and unlock something magical? The sun was beginning to climb above the trees. As Elphame watched, the dreamy pink and cream of the early morning sky morphed into the more mature gold and blue of a clear spring day. All at once she was filled with an incredible sense of hope, as if the dawn of that day was a promise of a new beginning for her, as well. A blessing that she had heard her mother offer to Epona many times drifted through her mind and suddenly she heard herself repeating it aloud—though her words were little more than a tentative whisper. “Great Goddess Epona, my Goddess, I stand here at a newborn day, a day filled with Your magic. I stand at a threshold, before Your veil of mysteries, and I ask for Your blessing. May I work for Your glory and the glory of my spirit, also.” Cuchulainn was silent during his sister’s prayer—partially out of respect for Epona, and partially out of surprise. Until then he had never heard his sister evoke Epona’s blessing. Truthfully, Elphame had seemed to prefer to avoid all mention of the Goddess who had so obviously touched her. Until that morning. Then, although Cuchulainn could barely hear the words of her prayer, he could feel the distinct tingle of magic in the air—as he had many times when his mother performed Epona’s rituals. If she had looked at her brother, El would have seen the shock that widened his eyes, but she did not even glance at him. She was mesmerized by the beauty of the morning and the burgeoning feeling within her that she was just beginning to recognize as a sense of belonging. Suddenly the sun broke free of the tall pines and its rays washed the castle’s walls in golden light, causing them to catch fire. “Do you see it, Cu? It’s like the walls are glowing.” “What’s left of them, you mean.” Still surprised by the new power radiating from his sister, his voice sounded gruffer than he had intended. He cleared his throat, squinting to get a better look at the crumbling edifice. To him the castle looked like a ragged old beast crouched precariously on the edge of the seaside cliff. “El, don’t get your hopes up. Even from here I can see that the place is in ruins. We have a lot of work to do.” She punched his arm affectionately. “Stop being Mama. Come on, let’s hurry.” She leaped ahead, and Cuchulainn kneed his big gelding, scrambling to catch up with the lithe form of his sister. They plowed determinedly through the sticky underbrush until they found the road that led to the castle’s front entrance. It was easier going there, but Cuchulainn still muttered under his breath at the rough weeds and smattering of trees that choked the once wide, clear pathway. “Oh, stop grumbling and look at these amazing trees!” Elphame chided her brother as she slowed down and spun in a circle, trying to look everywhere at once. “I had no idea it would be so beautiful.” Even more than a century of neglect could not diminish the breathtaking sight of so many redbuds and wild cherries heavy with blooms. “It’s like walking through a forest of pink clouds.” “Clouds don’t usually have thickets of brambles in them.” He pointed at the thorny plants that clustered amidst the scrub that proliferated between the trees. “They’re not brambles, Cu, they’re blackberries. A little trimming and they’ll be fine. Just think of the wonderful cobbler and pies we can have this summer.” “After you get a kitchen built, you mean,” he muttered. She flashed him a quick smile. “I’ll get it built.” Cuchulainn thought that the determination in her voice was probably stronger than the walls of the castle to which she already seemed so firmly attached. “And you know I’ve always liked the forest.” She twirled again, head thrown back, dark auburn hair flying around her like a cloak. “The pines are wonderful, but I think these flowering trees are even more incredible.” He shook his head at her and spoke with a warrior’s knowledge. “Surely you are not planning on letting this stand? For all your study of history, your memory doesn’t seem very exact. One of the major mistakes of MacCallan Castle was that they allowed their defenses to weaken.” The sweep of his arm took in the profusion of blooming trees. “MacCallan let this grow to his walls. The Fomorian army had no trouble staying undetected until they had breached the castle walls and begun slaughtering its inhabitants.” Elphame opened her mouth to retort that they weren’t at war; there hadn’t been a Fomorian in Partholon for a hundred and twenty-five years. No one would try to breach her walls. But Partholon hadn’t been at war before, either. Not until MacCallan Castle had been taken by surprise. Yes, the Fomorians had been defeated, and what was left of their demonic race had been driven from Partholon through the Trier Mountains and into the Wasteland beyond. If she traveled northeast to the mountains she knew she would find that Guardian Castle still stood grim sentinel, eternally protecting the passageway to Partholon. But one hundred and twenty-five years was a long time, and except for clan skirmishes and occasional raids from the barbaric, seagoing Milesians, Partholon had known a long era of peace and prosperity, and there was no logical reason why that wouldn’t continue. Elphame studied her brother, ready to remind him of the facts she had just ticked off in her head. He seemed tense; his usually clear brow was set in lines and she could see his jaw clench and unclench as he waited for her to speak. “The Milesians, are they what is worrying you?” she asked slowly. He shrugged. “I cannot tell. But your castle does overlook the sea. You would be proving yourself a wise and prudent leader if you made certain that MacCallan was defensible.” As he spoke he didn’t look at her, instead he scanned the forest around them as if he expected a barbaric horde to leap from the flowering trees and slit their throats. Elphame felt a small shiver of unease. Something had obviously shaken her brother’s normally calm center. He may not have experienced a true Feeling, complete with visions and a clear warning, but something was bothering him. Even though he consistently avoided the spirit realm and hated to tap into his psychic powers, he respected them—as did Elphame. She nodded. “You’re right, thank you for reminding me. Most of this must be cut and cleared.” Her voice was sober and thoughtful. “I will, of course, need your advice on how the defenses of the castle should be rebuilt.” She gave the trees one quick look of longing. “Do you think we could keep any of this, though?” “A grove or two far enough away from the castle walls shouldn’t hurt anything.” He relaxed a little and smiled at her, surprised she had given in so easily. “And your blackberries can remain. They hold more thorns than protection for an enemy.” “Good, then we will have blackberry cobbler after all!” She smiled back at him, relieved that he sounded more like his playful self. Cu was probably just being ultracareful and overprotective of her, as usual. The road curved gently to the left. When it straightened they found themselves standing less than fifty feet from the front entrance of the castle. The massive iron doors that legend still remembered as having never been barred to guests were gone. They had rusted and disintegrated. Elphame could see fragments of their remains lying amidst a tangle of weeds and vines. Only the jagged frame of the great entryway remained, giving the break in the thick walls the look of a mouth that was missing its front teeth. The walls themselves were surprisingly intact, or at least what could be seen of them from their frontal view looked fairly sturdy and solid. Some balustrades were crumbling, and there were no archer’s ramps. The parts of the roofing that had been made of wood were gone, but the skeleton of the castle remained standing, strong and proud. “It looks better than I thought it would.” Cuchulainn broke the stillness of the waiting air. “It’s perfect.” Elphame’s voice was filled with barely suppressed excitement. “El, it is in better shape than I expected it to be, but it’s still a ruin!” He was exasperated with her blind optimism. Not only was it a ridiculous attitude in the face of the rundown edifice in front of them, but it was totally unlike the sister he knew. Before he could say more she put out her hand, lightly touching his arm. “Don’t you Feel it?” Her voice was hushed. Cuchulainn started in surprise. Although his sister had been physically touched by the Goddess, she had never exhibited any special link to Epona or the magical realm of spirits. Actually, except for her unique body, Elphame had no powers that attached her to the spirit realm at all. Her brother watched her closely. “What do you mean, El?” Her eyes never left the castle, but her hand still rested on his arm and he could feel the tremor that passed through her body. His horse stood suddenly very still. The gentle breeze had quieted; even the birds were preternaturally silent. “It’s calling me.” His sister’s voice sounded very young. “Not with words, but I can Feel it.” She tore her eyes from the castle to look searchingly at her brother. “It’s like the first time Mama had to perform a moon ritual at another Temple. Remember?” She rushed on before he could answer. “She had never really been away from us before, not for that long, and she was gone five nights. When she finally came home we called her name and rushed to meet her before she could even get to the Temple stairs. She hugged us and kissed us and laughed through her tears. Do you remember?” she asked again. Cu nodded his head and smiled. “I remember.” Elphame’s gaze was drawn back to the castle. “That’s the Feeling it’s giving me,” she whispered. The magic that filled her words traveled up her brother’s spine causing the hair at his nape to stand on end. “It’s been waiting all this time for me to come home.” Chapter 4 “I can’t wait to see the rest of it.” Elphame shook herself from her happy trance and started determinedly forward. “Not without me, you’re not.” Cuchulainn dismounted quickly and looped the gelding’s reins over the nearest tree. He jogged to her side and as they approached the burnt-out doors the sound of his claymore being unsheathed was deadly music in the morning’s stillness. Elphame stopped and frowned at the sword. “Do you really think that is necessary?” “I would rather err on the side of safety than of foolishness.” She planted her hands on her hips and looked down her regal nose at him. “Are you saying I’m foolish?” “No.” He smiled, pleased that she was reacting more like the El he knew. “I’m saying that I’m not going to be.” She wrinkled her nose at him before striding toward the entrance. “You are stubborn and hardheaded,” Cuchulainn yelled, grinning at her when she glared over her shoulder at him. “But that’s part of what I like about you.” “Hush and catch up with me. I’m sure there’s some maniacal squirrel lurking within from which I need to be protected because I’m so very helpless…” She pretended a maidenly swoon, in the middle of which she leaned forward and bunched her powerful leg muscles, purposefully sprinting ahead of her brother so that he was breathing hard and muttering to himself about her being half-horse and definitely not helpless when he finally caught up with her. She was waiting for him, standing silently just outside the castle’s entrance. Weeds and vines had overgrown the space where the great doors had once rested, so that brother and sister had to hack a small path before they could force their way through. Elphame was the first to step within the confines of the walls. Her brother followed closely. The tangle of weeds ended once they were within the castle’s walls. They were in a spacious area between the outer walls and the beginning of the castle proper. Cuchulainn glanced curiously around. To either side were the remains of what was once a sentry walk that must have stretched all along the castle’s massive walls. Cu frowned. Too bad MacCallan hadn’t posted lookouts there. “Look, Cu, I’ll bet there were beautiful wooden doors here once.” Elphame’s voice was hushed, like she’d entered a church. Cuchulainn followed her through another gap in smaller, inner walls and they entered what had obviously been a grand courtyard. The floor was covered with debris and layered with filth and time, but here and there could still be glimpsed patches of the smooth stone that had held the muffled tread of the Clan MacCallan for decades. Huge pillars of carved stone ringed the area, rising up to meet what was once a vaulted ceiling, but was now open to the brilliance of the morning sky. The massive pillars still bore the black scars of the fire that had been the death of the castle. Elphame swallowed past the dryness in her throat. “Do you think we’ll find any—” she paused and met her brother’s gaze “—remains of the warriors?” “I shouldn’t think so. It’s been a long time. What the fire didn’t consume, time and the elements surely would.” Still, just the thought made him peer suspiciously at some of the more obscure mounds of leaves and dirt. “But if we do find any trace of the MacCallan warriors, we must give them a proper burial. They would approve of that.” Elphame spoke with quiet surety. “Can you Feel them, El?” her brother asked. “The warriors?” He nodded. She stood very still, cocking her head as if she were trying to listen for a voice in the wind. “Wait, I cannot be certain.” Slowly she moved to the centermost of the blackened pillars, which was so broad that brother and sister couldn’t have touched fingertips if they had stood around its base, arms outstretched. That close, Elphame could see that the pillar had been intricately carved in a circular pattern of interwoven knots that linked together to form lovely designs filled with birds and flowers and rearing mares. Even through the layers of soot and filth the beauty of the workmanship was obvious. “You must have been something to see,” Elphame whispered to the pillar. Instantly a strange answering hum throbbed through her body. “Oh!” she gasped. “What is it, El?” In two strides Cuchulainn was beside her, claymore gripped tightly in his strong hand. She spared him a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.” Then she refocused her attention on the pillar. “I can Feel something here—in this stone.” While she studied it Elphame suddenly became aware of a sentience. It was a listening presence. It’s where the humming comes from, she thought. Ignoring her brother’s restless watchfulness, Elphame placed her slender hands against the time-worn column. As her flesh met stone it seemed like the surface of the column quivered. In silent wonder, she caressed it. For a moment the massive column appeared to liquefy under her palms, almost as if her touch somehow made the stone claylike and malleable. Then her hands and the section of the column she touched began to shimmer, and the radiance moved up her arms in a rush of warmth to surround her body. She was filled with an astonishing sensation, like she had been immersed in a warm pool of emotion, or had been wrapped securely within her mother’s embrace. Elphame’s hands shook—not from fear, but from the sheer beauty of it. “Oh.” Her breath came out in a rush. “Oh, yes! I can Feel them.” Her face beamed with emotion. “It is not the warriors you Feel, Goddess.” The deep voice came from behind them, splitting the silence like a hot knife through snow. Cuchulainn moved with blurring speed to take a stand between his sister and the intruder, claymore before him held at the ready. “Danann! That is an excellent way to be assured that you do not die quietly in your sleep from old age, Stonemaster.” Cuchulainn’s hand shook from unused adrenaline as he sheathed his sword, but the old centaur paid little attention to the warrior. His gaze was focused on Elphame, as was hers on him. “If I am not Feeling the spirits of the warriors, then what is it that I Feel?” she asked. At the sound of his voice, Elphame had broken contact with the pillar, but her hands still tingled with the residue of the stone’s warmth. Now she waited expectantly for Danann’s answer. All of Partholon knew that Epona had gifted the centaur with a special affinity for the earth. The spirits of nature spoke to him through stone, which was why Elphame had requested that the Stonemaster join the team to rebuild MacCallan Castle, even though at his advanced age he was more inclined to nap in the sun than to erect temple walls. But he remained the most revered stonemason in Partholon. He could hear spirits within stones, so he could literally choose the perfect stone for each building. With the renowned centaur Stonemaster to guide the renovations, she could be sure that what she rebuilt would stand harmoniously for centuries. The centaur approached Elphame and the column that stood behind her with an energetic stride that belied his years. He studied the stone at first without touching it. When he spoke his voice had a dreamy, faraway sound. “This is the great central column of MacCallan Castle. Once it was the strength of the castle.” He smiled at her. “It is the spirit of the stone you Feel—the very heart of the castle itself—not the spirits of dead warriors.” Gently, he raised his hand and placed it against the column. “Touch it again, Goddess. You have nothing to fear.” “I’m not afraid of it,” Elphame said quickly. Without hesitation she placed her smooth, unlined hand beside the centaur’s age-creased one. Danann closed his eyes in concentration. The glow began beneath her palm and it spread quickly to encompass both Elphame and Danann. Again, a surge of Feeling washed through her. She was ready for it and she concentrated, trying to sift through fragments of emotions that were almost spoken. Joy—she caught the word as happiness engulfed her… Peace—Elphame wanted to laugh aloud…An end to waiting—the phrase flitted playfully through her mind. Then the glow faded, leaving Elphame breathless and giddy. “I knew it! I Felt it as I stepped within these walls,” the old Stonemaster shouted. He turned his head so that when he opened his eyes their clear, blue depths reflected her face. “You are attuned to the heart of this castle, Goddess. The stones themselves welcome you. They rejoice that their mistress has arrived.” His smile was rich with warmth. “Like your ancestress, Rhiannon, you have the ability to hear the spirits of the earth.” “Not until now I haven’t! Not until I came here!” she cried joyously. Magic! She had finally been gifted with more than a physical aberration. Impulsively, Elphame placed her hand over the hand Danann still pressed against the column and squeezed gratefully. Almost instantly she was sorry she had followed her impulse. Except for members of her family, she made it a point never to touch others. One of her earliest memories was of an incident involving the daughter of a visiting clan chieftain. The adults had been busy discussing whatever it was adults discussed. Young Elphame had become bored and had taken the opportunity to tap the arm of the Chieftain’s daughter—she’d been trying to get her attention quietly so that the two of them could sneak off and play. The child had shrieked at Elphame’s touch, screaming that the Goddess had marked her and that she was surely going to die. No amount of cajoling could dissuade the little girl from her hysterics. The clan chieftain had left hastily, casting fearful glances at Elphame—even after Etain had assured him that Epona was not interested in the life of her daughter. Earth spirits might speak to her and the stones welcome her, but mortals did not like being touched by a living goddess. With a little gasp, Elphame tried to take her hand from Danann’s before he could shrink from her touch, but instead of allowing her to pull away from him, Danann turned his palm up and clasped her hand within his. “The spirits of the stone tell me that this is where you belong.” Elphame felt her face flush. “For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to bring MacCallan Castle back to life,” she blurted. “Thank you for joining us here, Danann. Your presence means much to me.” “I am honored to be of service to you, Goddess,” he said simply, squeezing her hand before releasing it. He did not pull away from her in fear or bow down before her in stunned reverence. It’s like she was just an ordinary clan chieftain asking for his help. The thought was so unexpected that Elphame blinked in surprise, and turned quickly to her brother to hide her awkwardness. “Cu, can you believe that I can Feel the spirit in the stones?” “Of course I believe it.” He smiled at his sister, glad that she looked so happy and animated—almost glad enough to forget how disconcerting it had been to watch the magical glow of the stone engulf her. He had to remember that it was different for her. He was a warrior; he wanted no traffic with things he couldn’t best with the stroke of a blade, but Elphame had never felt his unease for magic and the spirit realm. Though she spoke little of it, even to him, Cu knew that his sister had always yearned for a spiritual connection to the Goddess who had so obviously fashioned her body. Elphame was the firstborn daughter of the Chosen of Epona. It was never a certainty, but often the Goddess called the eldest daughter of an aging Chosen to follow her mother as spiritual leader of Parthalon. Epona could be grooming Elphame for the day she would take her mother’s place. It was the way of the world, Cu reminded himself. He shook off his trepidation and approached Danann, clasping the old centaur’s hand in a warm greeting. “I believe I am better at hearing spirits than I am at surprising a warrior guarding his sister,” Danann said wryly. “Oh, I would say you did a good job of surprising me,” Cuchulainn said. “Cu has been twitchy since last night. Just ignore him,” Elphame said as she butted her shoulder against her brother’s, grinning at him. Cuchulainn ignored El’s teasing. “Did you come alone, Danann?” The Stonemaster shook his head and gestured toward the weed-strewn entrance. “No, I joined the rest of your party as they left Loth Tor. They chose to wait outside the walls of the castle. They were not overeager to enter.” He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. “The young are often easily frightened by little more than bedtime stories and shadows.” Elphame felt a rush of gratitude for the centaur’s commonsense attitude. “And isn’t it just like young men.” She gave her brother a look of sisterly annoyance, lumping him in the ne’er-do-well category. “Instead of getting busy they stand about waiting to be told what to do.” With practiced flair Danann bowed to her, bending one silver-tipped foreleg, while extending the other. Offering his arm in an old courtly gesture, he said, “Then, Goddess, shall I escort you so that you might give the young some direction before they waste their lives in idleness?” Elphame hesitated. Was she really going to touch someone outside her family twice in one day? She looked from the old centaur’s gallantly offered arm to her brother. Cuchulainn winked at her and nodded. She took a deep breath and rested her hand on the Stonemaster’s forearm. Her fingers trembled only a little. Just like a normal person, she thought, unable to contain her smile. With Cu following close behind, they retraced the path from the ruins of the courtyard back through the gap in the ancient walls to where their party waited. As Danann had noted, they were a youthful group—most of them younger sons who had been willing to embark upon the adventure of restoring MacCallan Castle because they had the desire to carve their own way in the world. There would be land and opportunity if MacCallan Castle lived again—and that had spelled excitement to their hot blood. And then there was the young goddess, Elphame. All of Partholon knew that she had been given to them by Epona as a special blessing, but no one quite understood why. Epona’s ways were often mysterious. She was a benevolent Goddess, but She did not often meddle with the day-to-day activities of Her people; instead She chose one woman—someone with whom She had a special bond, and it was through this Chosen One that Epona led Her people. That Elphame had been marked so obviously by Partholon’s deity, especially while her mother still reigned as Goddess Incarnate, had been a source of awe and speculation since Elphame’s birth. Epona had touched Elphame, and now Elphame was determined to restore MacCallan Castle. Surely the honor of accompanying her in her quest would bring them luck that even rumors of the MacCallan curse couldn’t tarnish. Or at least that was what they had told themselves as they joined her. They had even believed it, until they had come face-to-face with the crumbling walls of the war-torn castle. As Elphame stepped into view the men and centaurs who had been gathered nervously several feet from the entrance fell silent. Most of them were accustomed to the sight of the young goddess, but her appearance still affected them—and that particular morning she looked even more extraordinary than usual. Her face was alight and her skin seemed to glow. Several of the young men and centaurs found themselves thinking how spectacular she was, and when her full, sensuous lips tilted up in a brilliant smile, many of the gathered males felt an answering response in their blood—but only briefly—until they reminded themselves that they could not lust after a goddess come to earth. No matter how tempting she appeared. When Elphame spoke her voice carried through the group like a firebrand. “From the blossoms on the branches, to the singing birds and the whispering breeze, to the pillars of this castle—we are being welcomed. The very stones of MacCallan Castle greet us with joy. It will no longer be a ruin.” Elphame raised her hands over her head and shouted, “Rejoice! It will be our home!” Heat tingled through her arms as it had when she communed with the stone and her body felt deliciously on fire. The group reacted as one, not so much to her words or to the idea of rebuilding MacCallan Castle, instead they responded to her—their spectacular goddess. With one voice they shouted a cheer that caused the ancient walls before them to echo again with the jubilant sounds of the living. From his hiding place within the trees Lochlan watched the group. Men and centaurs—young and proud. He recognized the fire in their blood as they responded to her. And he recognized her, too. How could he not? He had known that he would find her here. Still, the sight of her jolted him. She looked so much more alive than she had in his dreams, and seeing her in person made him realize that he had never really comprehended the depth of her beauty. Her body! It radiated passion and otherworldly power. He felt a surge of desire deep within his loins. His blood pumped hot and strong, and with his arousal he felt his massive wings quiver and begin to become erect. Quickly he forced himself to look away from her so that he could bring his lust under control. Pain spiked in his temples and radiated throughout his body, carried by the blood that pulsed hard and hot within him. His body fought against his desire for control, but, as always, Lochlan pulled from his well of humanity to conquer his darker impulses. The pounding of his blood quieted. His wings shivered once more before refolding neatly against his back. He ignored the familiar pain that continued to echo, phantomlike through his mind. Once more in control, he allowed his eyes to return to her. At that instant she raised her arms over her head and the group shouted in response. He smiled, showing long, dangerous-looking canines. She made him want to shout, too. He had been right to come alone; the others could not possibly understand. But thinking of the others sent a tide of despair through him that threatened to engulf him. He could feel them. He could always feel them—their need, their pain, their belief in him. He shuddered and closed that part of his mind. Not now. He could not think of the others now. Not when everything within him that was honorable and true—everything that was human—wanted to rush to her and tell her that she had filled his dreams and his heart for as long as he could remember. He took a ragged breath and raked his hand across his face. He couldn’t go to her. Not in the open. Not yet. They would only see him as a Fomorian; they would kill him. He could not fight them all for her. No matter how desperately he ached to. Remember your promise. His conscience whispered through his memory in his beloved mother’s voice. Remember the Prophecy. It is your destiny to find a way to heal your people and to bring them back to Partholon. It is you who must fulfill Epona’s Prophecy. Lochlan couldn’t act selfishly. He had to consider the others. He had to end their pain, even if it meant… Struggling against a crushing sense of loss he wrenched his gaze from her and soundlessly disappeared back into the depths of the forest. Chapter 5 “Are you purposefully trying to spoil my fun and sentence me to a life of celibacy?” Cuchulainn grumbled at his sister. Elphame grinned. “I hardly think that assigning you to oversee the outdoors, mostly male workers, while I interview women for staff positions at the castle will in any way affect your overactive love life.” “Come, boy. I’ll join you and choose which of this sorry young lot might make passable stonemasons,” Danann said, clapping him good-naturedly on his shoulder. “Then you can take the rest of them and begin clearing away the mounds of rubble within, as your sister directed.” The old centaur winked at Elphame. “Keep this in mind—women will be more likely to grace your bed when the walls around it are sturdy and clean.” “You mean unlike this wreck,” Cu said. “That is precisely what I mean,” Danann said. “Hrumph.” Cu snorted as he and the Stonemaster headed out of the main courtyard to return to the workers. Elphame shook her head at her brother’s retreating figure. His strong voice drifted back to her through the courtyard as he called to order the group of men and centaurs who were outside the castle walls. After she’d greeted the workers, Cu, Danann and Elphame had made a quick sweep of the castle grounds, and it hadn’t taken long for them to realize that they could do little in the way of restoration before they cleared the debris that had accumulated over the course of the past century. So the first order of business was tedious, but necessary. Cleaning. Hands on her hips, Elphame looked around her. Now that she was alone she relaxed her expression and narrowed her eyes. What a mess. It was true that the basic walls and structures of the castle were still standing, but everything else was a ruin. What The MacCallan’s funeral pyre had missed, time had destroyed. Elphame felt her shoulders slump. It was so much bigger than she had imagined. The castle grounds, ringed by thick stone walls, took up an enormous area. How many people had once lived here? At least as many as currently populated the sleepy little village of Loth Tor. Could she really do it? Could she really restore all of it? Feeling decidedly overwhelmed, Elphame’s eyes were drawn back to the fire-scarred central column. She rubbed her hands together, remembering the warm sensation of communing with the stone. Magic…she had never Felt even a hint of it before, and today she had suddenly been bombarded with the knowledge that she had an affinity for the spirits of the stones. What did that really mean? “Why not stay here and take my place…I have had a long, rich reign. I am ready to retire.” Her mother’s words drifted out of her memory, causing her stomach to tighten with anxiety. She couldn’t take her mother’s place! Whether she Felt the spirits in the stones or not, she wasn’t ready to lead Partholon; she wasn’t her mother. “Stop it!” Elphame told herself severely. Her mother was Epona’s Chosen; she was not. She was just feeling daunted by the enormity of the task before them, which was natural. She glanced at the fire-scarred, crumbling walls. “It’s not like you thought it was going to be easy,” she muttered, shaking herself mentally. She just needed to get started. Take things one step at a time. Stay in control. It was her castle. Her home. “Elphame!” Cuchulainn’s voice boomed back along the empty courtyard. “The women are here!” “This is where I begin,” Elphame whispered. She could not lead Partholon—in truth, she had no desire to—but she could make MacCallan Castle live again. She gave the strong central column a parting smile before hurrying to the entrance of the castle. The women were milling in a small group several feet from the gap in the castle walls. Unnoticed, Elphame watched them from the shadows. They looked young and scared. And they were so few! She quickly counted—just over a dozen. Nearly three times that many men and centaurs had volunteered. And all the women were humans. Not one centaur female had answered her call? Not even a young huntress in training? El allowed herself to feel the disappointment only briefly. She had a job to do and she would simply have to work with what was available to her. Maybe their smaller numbers would give her a chance to get to know them more personally. That would be a nice change. She didn’t allow herself the luxury of hoping that she might actually make a friend—she could hardly imagine such a thing. But maybe this little group of women could learn to interact with her as if she were a clan chieftain, or even a high priestess, instead of treating her like an object to be worshipped—goddess, untouchable and beyond mortal emotions. When Elphame emerged from the ruin, the group curtsied nervously. Elphame cleared her throat and put on her best welcoming smile. “Good morning. I am pleased to see that so many of you are interested in restoring MacCallan Castle and making it your home. The men—” she gestured over their heads at the groups that were already forming and beginning to clear rubble from around the castle walls “—will take care of most of the heavy work, but that doesn’t mean that your jobs will be any less important. I will need cooks and women who are skilled with weaving and needlepoint.” Without realizing it, Elphame’s smile turned dreamy. “As MacCallan comes alive again I want to fill its walls with beautiful tapestries that will make even my mother jealous.” Responding to the goddess’s sweet expression, several of the women smiled tentatively back at her. Bolstered by their positive reaction, Elphame continued in a strong, sure voice. “And I will, of course, need women to help me with the daily care of the castle.” Elphame laughed and looked pointedly at the weeds and refuse that choked the entry to the castle. “Some days it will definitely need more care than others.” One of the women giggled, and then covered her mouth with her hand and blushed furiously. Elphame met her eyes. “Don’t ever be afraid to laugh here. I know it doesn’t look like it now, but the stones sing with happiness at our arrival. MacCallan will be a joyous home.” The girl took her hand from her mouth and smiled shyly at the goddess. “What is your name?” Elphame asked her. “Meara,” she said, her voice breaking nervously. “Meara,” Elphame repeated. “What job is it that you are most skilled at?” “I—I—” she stammered and then finally finished in a rush. “I am good at keeping things tidy.” “Then you have come to the right place. There is much tidying awaiting you.” Her gaze traveled over the rest of the small group. “Those of you who are good at cleaning, please give your names to Meara.” Elphame looked back at the girl she had singled out and saw her eyes widen with pride. “Meara, I will ask you to give me a list of your workers at the end of the day. Now,” Elphame began again, “who are my cooks?” With only a slight hesitation, four young women who had been standing in a little clump close together raised their hands. The one in the middle of the group took a half step forward. She had fiery red hair and lovely jade-colored eyes. “We heard your call and came from McNamara Castle. The head cook there was…” She paused and looked at her friends for support. They nodded encouragement to her. “She was verra grumpy, and she dinna like young cooks. Aye, she especially dinna not like young cooks with new ideas.” The redhead rolled her words with a soft, western brogue. Elphame raised her eyebrows. “Well, I can assure you that I do not mind young cooks, and I especially like new ideas. I do not think I am grumpy, but Cuchulainn would probably disagree with me.” At the mention of her handsome brother’s name, the girls tittered and smiled. “So which among you is the best cook?” Elphame asked. Three pairs of eyes shifted to the woman who had spoken for them. “We are all fine cooks, but I admit to having a special talent in the kitchen. My name is Wynne. The lassies who join me are Ada, Colleen and Ula.” She pointed to each woman in turn as she spoke. “Wynne, I am pleased to announce that you are my new head cook,” Elphame said. “The first order of business for you will be inspecting what is left of the castle’s kitchens. Take note of what must be repaired in order to get it into working order as quickly as possible. You have many hungry mouths to feed.” “Aye, Goddess,” Wynne said, curtseying quickly. Elphame could feel her jaw setting at the title. Goddess. They would never see her as herself—Elphame, a young woman who liked to run and laugh with her family and had a tendency to be a little too fond of long soaks in her mother’s bathing pool—at least they wouldn’t as long as everyone insisted upon seeing her only as a goddess. Perhaps this new beginning could change that. She made the decision quickly. “Ladies,” she said, and the chattering that had begun silenced as all eyes turned to her. “I would like to ask a favor of each of you. We are going to be working closely together, and I would prefer it if you would call me by my name instead of by the title of Goddess.” The women blinked at her, shocked expressions mirrored on each face. Elphame sighed. “Or you could call me my Lady. Anything but Goddess,” she said, feeling a little desperate when no one spoke. “Let’s see,” she continued quickly. “What else? I know. Is there anyone here who is skilled at weaving or needlepoint?” Several hands went up. Elphame caught the eye of one rather plump blonde whose rosy face seemed to have a perpetual glow. “What is your name?” El asked her. “Caitlin.” “Caitlin, can you weave or needlepoint?” “Both, Godde—my Lady.” “Excellent. I have several ideas for the new tapestries. Actually, I would like them to reflect a theme for each major room of the castle, beginning with the Great Hall.” Elphame’s voice lit with excitement. “And the theme for the Great Hall will be the castle itself. I want the tapestries to show MacCallan Castle living again in all of its grandeur and beauty.” Caitlin blinked several times before speaking. “But, Goddess…ur…I mean, my Lady, how will we know what to weave? It—” she pointed helplessly at the hulking structure before them “—it doesn’t look so grand now.” Elphame frowned. She’d forgotten that everyone didn’t have a picture of the restored castle imprinted upon their minds. “I suppose I will have to find an artist…” She trailed off, staring at her beloved, tumbledown castle. “I could sketch it for you, my Lady.” El’s head snapped around and she searched the women, trying unsuccessfully to see who had spoken. “Who spoke?” she asked. The same soft voice answered from the rear of the group. “I am Brenna.” “Come here, I can’t see you,” Elphame said impatiently. The group parted to let a petite brunette woman through. Her head was bowed and her face was obscured. Elphame noticed immediately that the rest of the women averted their eyes from her, as if the sight of her made them uncomfortable. Then the small woman lifted her head. Elphame felt an unexpected jolt run through her body as she looked the woman full in the face, and El had to force her expression to remain impassive. Brenna was young, and had once been pretty, Elphame could tell that from the left side of her face. The right side of her face was a ruin. A terrible burn scar ran from her neck all the way up to cover the entire right side of her face. It was thick and mottled with the shiny pink and white pigments that distinguished the deepest of burns. The right side of her mouth was missing its lip line, which was all the more horrible when compared to the smooth fullness of the unharmed lips on the other side of her face. Her right eye was clear and appeared unharmed. It was the same doe brown as her left eye, but the scars at the corner of it seemed to pull it down, giving it a droopy appearance. She stood very still, letting Elphame study her. She met the goddess’s gaze unflinchingly. “I believe I can draw your castle for you,” she said in a clear, confident voice. “Are you an artist, Brenna?” Elphame asked. “I have a small talent for sketching, especially for sketching things that I imagine in my mind.” She smiled a crooked smile that Elphame was surprised to find endearing. “So I think I might be able to sketch things that you imagine, too, if you can describe them to me.” El nodded enthusiastically, but before she could speak Brenna continued, “But you should know that I do not consider myself an artist. I am a Healer.” Elphame’s face split into a wide smile. “Then you are most welcome, Brenna. With all these workers lugging this and building that, we are bound to have several mishaps that will require a Healer’s touch. I know my own brother, though an accomplished warrior, is uncommonly prone to cuts and scrapes.” For an instant Elphame saw Brenna’s expression change, and it was as if a shadow passed over the young woman’s ravaged face. But she responded with no hesitation. “Of course, my Lady. I am always pleased to be where I am needed.” “Elphame!” Like a masculine tornado, Cuchulainn strode through the group of women. Eyes sparkling, he nodded to several of the prettiest before he reached his sister’s side. “The supply wagons are bottled up in that mess that was once called the main road to the castle. I have dispatched the centaurs to meet them and to hack a path through to the front walls. When the wagons get here I think it best that we set up tents outside the castle walls, at least until we can make that monster inhabitable again.” Elphame raised on arched eyebrow at him and crossed her arms. Cuchulainn laughed. “Okay! Forgive me for calling your palace a monster.” “It is not a palace. It is a castle,” she corrected him. “Well, your castle is not fit for man nor beast.” He winked at the pleasingly plump Caitlin, who blushed a becoming shade of mauve. “Nor lovely lady.” He gestured behind them. “The area of grasslands there, southwest of the castle that runs from the southern wall to the edge of the sea cliff, will be the easiest to clear. In a couple days we should have the tents erected and a camp set up. Until then the people of Loth Tor will be pleased to board us.” Cu grinned at Elphame cheekily. “If that suits you, my Lady.” Elphame restrained herself from boxing his ears. “Yes, yes, that’s fine. But I will need some men to accompany my head cook and her staff. It’s important that the kitchens are restored quickly.” She jabbed at his ribs. “Men need more than dried meat and hard biscuits in their stomachs if they are to work long days.” Cuchulainn chuckled and grabbed his side. He liked seeing his sister so relaxed in public—usually she kept their sibling banter to times when it was just the two of them. Restoring the hulking edifice might just be good for her if it taught her to loosen up. “As much as I am loath to admit it, you are right, sister-mine. I will put several men at your—or rather your cook’s—disposal.” His eyes glinted mischievously. “Which means you will have to introduce me to your cook.” Elphame rolled her eyes at him before calling out her new head cook. “Wynne, this annoying young man is my brother. Cuchulainn, meet my head cook.” Cuchulainn gave her a rakish bow. “Well met, Wynne of the flaming hair.” “And the same to ye, my Lord,” said the new cook, giving him a look of blatantly female appraisal. “Now you know her name, Cu. Have some men come find her. She’ll be inside the castle, as will the rest of us,” she said, pushing him back the way he had come. “Ah, you are forever all work, sister-mine.” Cu backed away from the group, bowing gallantly. “Ladies, until later.” The women curtsied and called goodbyes to him. “My brother is a rogue.” She hadn’t realized she’d said the thought aloud until Wynne, who was still gazing after Cuchulainn’s retreating broad shoulders, spoke up. “Aye, but a devilishly handsome one.” Then, as if she was afraid she’d overstepped an imaginary boundary, her face paled and she muttered a hasty apology. Elphame waved her hand dismissively and said with forced nonchalance, “Just keep the emphasis on devilish and you’ll save yourself a wagonful of heartache.” Would they never be at ease in her presence? Would they always act like she was a holy conduit to be tiptoed around? She was trying her best to behave “normally” around the women. Hadn’t she just teased with Cu in front of them? It will take time to show them that I’m not that different, she told herself firmly. This was her new beginning, but she had to be patient. Years of living one way wouldn’t be erased in one morning. Reining in her frustration she addressed the group. “Let’s get to work. I know each of you has special talents, and I do appreciate that.” She smiled at the women, especially the individuals she’d already been introduced to, and noticed for the first time that Brenna was no longer standing near her. Instead she had disappeared once more into the rear fringes of the group. “But I’m afraid for now we must all emulate Meara—we must get things tidy before we can separate and focus on our individual talents. So, let us begin by clearing the entryway to our new home.” Without waiting for a response, Elphame walked purposefully to the overgrown gap in the castle walls. Grimly, she bent and grabbed a long section of rusted iron that once stood proud and straight as part of MacCallan’s always-opened gate. She tugged, using her powerful leg muscles to give her added strength, and the piece of iron slid reluctantly free of the clinging vines. She looked up to see the women’s eyes flicking back and forth between watching her and peering into the shadows within the castle’s walls. They looked anxious and afraid. No doubt they were thinking of the bedtime stories they’d been told about the curse of MacCallan Castle. Elphame could almost see the reflections of imagined ghosts in their eyes. She knew they needed words of encouragement, but she really wasn’t good at that—the speech she had given to the men earlier that day had been a fluke; she had still been riding high on the magical tide of hearing the spirits in the castle’s stones. Giving inspiring speeches was her mother’s specialty, not hers. But they needed her to reassure them; the nervous way their eyes kept returning to her said that they thought she had all the answers. And an idea came to her. She might not have all the answers, but she was completely sure of one thing. MacCallan Castle was her home. Now it would be their home as well. And suddenly she knew what to say to them. “I think it’s only right that we clear the opening to our new home. It’s women who are the heart of a home, be it a castle, a temple or a modest cottage. Women breathe life into the family, as our Goddess, Epona, breathes life into our world with each dawn. As women of the castle, let’s reopen MacCallan to the living, and, in turn, make it our home.” Elphame could hear the collective sigh as her words seemed to release the tension that had built within the group. Meara hurried forward, grabbed a dead branch and tossed it on the pile Elphame had started. “At least we know we’re needed here,” she said with a tone of satisfaction that made the others smile. “Aye, that is a certainty,” Wynne said as she began to pull at one section of the massive tangle of weeds that filled the opening. Without further hesitation, her three newly named assistant cooks joined her. Then the rest of the group fell to work, chattering and laughing and making slightly off-color jokes about women needing to open the way for men, or else they tended to lose their way. Elphame stepped back and watched them. She could already tell that they were a hardworking group. No one complained about getting her hands dirty; no one whined about needing a break. El thought about what Meara had said: “At least we know we’re needed here.” Maybe that was it. This small group of women all had one thing in common—in their old homes, their old lives, they hadn’t been needed, so they had come in search of the sense of belonging that being needed would provide. They will always have that here with me, a home where they are needed and appreciated. As Elphame made the promise to herself, for just an instant she thought she heard the whisper of a voice on the wind that said, Well done, Beloved. Chapter 6 “It looks really dark and scary.” Caitlin’s soft voice echoed against the empty inner walls of the castle. The women were standing barely a step inside the newly cleared entrance to MacCallan Castle. They’d spent what was left of the morning removing a century’s worth of rubble from the space, now it looked like a giant’s mouth minus its cleanly pulled front teeth. Lunch had been a quick break that consisted of hard biscuits, cheese and dried meat, wolfed down hastily between weeding and chopping—Elphame could imagine her mother’s shudder of disgust at the food and what she would label the barbaric way in which it had been eaten, but she had loved every hurried bite of it. Now it was time for step two—actually entering the castle and beginning the decidedly more complex work of changing ancient destruction into a well-ordered home. But first she’d have to rally her troops. Again. “It’s not really dark,” she said, taking a few steps inside the protective outer walls. She pointed to the empty doorway that led to the interior of the castle through which could just barely be glimpsed the inner courtyard and the massive stone columns. “It looks dark because everything is still covered with soot from the fire. Not to mention dirt from years of standing open to the elements.” She smiled encouragingly at Caitlin. “All it needs is a good scrubbing and some careful attention, and it won’t be dark anymore.” Caitlin, as well as the rest of the women, still looked unconvinced. Well, she thought, she may as well face what all of them were thinking—get it out in the open so that they could deal with it. “And about the curse.” Elphame paused. It seemed to her that even the stones had stopped to listen to her next words. “There is no such thing,” she said slowly and distinctly. “I have that assurance from the Incarnate of Epona herself, as well as my own intuition.” As she spoke, Elphame backed a few more steps until she was standing directly within the inner doorway. She gestured behind her. “There is still much beauty here. You just have to look for it. Please don’t let silly stories told to frighten naughty children taint your trust in your new home.” Or in me. She added the plea silently. She didn’t want her people to skulk around MacCallan, jumping at shadows and being chased by imagined demons. “I have never been afraid of bedtime stories, my Lady.” Elphame recognized the woman’s voice even before she stepped from her habitual place in the shadows at the rear of the group. Brenna had stopped bowing her head and hiding behind a wall of hair—they’d all been too busy that day to care overly much about appearances. But El had noticed that Brenna kept to herself, and that she rarely was included in the easy banter that had already begun to link the rest of the women. Now her sharp gaze held Elphame’s eyes. “But I have found that sometimes fantasies and imaginings can be more powerful than reality. Because of that, it is wise to dispel the ghosts of unreality before they overwhelm that which is truth.” Elphame liked the quiet, confident way Brenna spoke. “What is it you suggest, Brenna?” “A simple cleansing ceremony, one that will clear any negative energy as well as protect and welcome us as the castle’s new inhabitants,” Brenna said. The other women were watching Brenna with expressions of mixed curiosity and relief. “Tell us what you need,” Elphame said. “The ceremony is simple. All we need to complete it is basil and containers with which to hold fresh water.” “It is possible that I might still find basil that has gone wild in the castle’s herb garden,” Wynne said. “Herbs are resilient. Chances are good that you will find basil, if you can find the cook’s garden,” Brenna told her. “I can find a cook’s garden in any castle.” Wynne put a flint edge to her melodic brogue. “And there should be something left in there that can hold water,” Meara added. “It is a place that was once filled with people, and where there are people, there must be housekeeping tools.” “Good ideas, Wynne and Meara. Half of you go with our cook to find the basil, the other half of you search with Meara for crocks or buckets or anything at all that can hold water,” Elphame said briskly. “Then bring your finds back here and we will begin the ceremony.” Elphame really hadn’t expected them to react so readily, but the women quickly divided into two groups and, like domestic warriors, they descended upon the ancient castle. Yes, they were talking and laughing in overly loud voices, as if to scare away anything that might be lurking in the shadows, but they had actually entered the castle itself, without cringing or crying or shrieking in fear. Elphame remembered how earlier that morning the men and centaurs had refused to follow Danann within the castle walls. Now those same walls rang with the sounds of busy women. It was certainly a step in the right direction. “Fear can usually be overcome through common sense and tasks that are familiar and simple,” Brenna said softly. She hadn’t left with the women. She and Elphame were alone near the entrance to the castle. El smiled at her. “It was wise of you to think of the cleansing ceremony. All I could think of was how silly it is to be afraid of a place that holds so much hope for the future. I wanted to yell at them and try to force them to see that the stories aren’t true. Your way was better.” “Not better, my Lady, just easier for them to understand,” Brenna said humbly, but she bowed her head slightly in acknowledgment of Elphame’s compliment. “Are you a shaman?” Elphame asked curiously. Brenna smiled her crooked smile. “It flatters me that you would think so. No, I cannot heal the spirit, as a shaman can, but I do acknowledge that in order to treat the flesh I must have some knowledge of the spirit realm.” Elphame felt her smile widen. “You sound like my father—only he says the opposite. He cannot heal the body, but he must have a working knowledge of it to heal problems of the spirit.” “Midhir is a great shaman. I have only met him once, but that one time he showed me kindness that I will never forget.” “I didn’t know…” Elphame clamped her mouth shut. She almost said that she didn’t know her father had treated anyone who was so severely scarred. How insensitive of her! She coughed and cleared her throat to cover her awkwardness. “…Didn’t know that you knew my father.” “I do not really know him, my Lady. As I said, I have only met him once.” Elphame nodded, still chagrined at herself, and said hurriedly, “Where are you from, Brenna?” “Guardian Castle was my home,” Brenna said. “I’m glad you chose to join us, but I hope Guardian Castle won’t feel the lack of their Healer too keenly.” Brenna looked away from Elphame, but not before she saw the pain that flashed through her mismatched eyes. “It was time for me to leave. It was time for a new beginning,” Brenna said quietly. “I think I understand,” Elphame said. Brenna’s eyes snapped back to her, and she opened her mouth to reply that Elphame, with her perfect, beautiful face, could not begin to understand. But the words would not come, and not because the Healer was afraid of this powerful woman. Slowly her gaze traveled down Elphame’s body. She was dressed much like the rest of the women, in a plain, serviceable linen dress that wrapped across her chest and was held in place over each shoulder by simple brooches. The dress left her arms bare and free for working, and from the bodice it wrapped in soft, intricate folds—much like the kilts the men wore—to end, as was customary in Partholon, just above her knees. There Brenna’s eyes stopped. Elphame was dressed like the rest of the women, but that was where the similarity ended. Instead of slim knees and shapely, feminine calves and ankles tapering down to leather-soled shoes, Elphame had powerful equine legs and hocks that were covered with a slick, lustrous coat of hair the same deep auburn shade as on her head. The incredible legs ended in hooves that glinted like polished ebony. She was not a human, but she was most definitely not a centaur, either. She was something set apart from the rest of Partholon. Brenna’s eyes lifted to meet Elphame’s again. “Yes, I think you might very well understand,” she said slowly. The two unique women smiled tentatively at one another. The women returned much more quickly than Elphame had anticipated. Meara’s group had found two usable containers. One was a chipped crock that had been half buried in filth, and the other was a blackened bucket that had somehow escaped being consumed by the fire. “It’s obvious neither have bathed for years,” Meara said with distaste. “They need a good scrubbing.” Then she added under her breath, “As does this entire castle.” Elphame stifled her grin. Meara was definitely the right choice to lead a formidable force of house-tidiers, and it was better that she was grumbling about the job ahead of her than running in fear from an imagined curse. “There is a stream not far from here that runs from the forest to the cliff and empties into the ocean.” One of the women spoke up. “It’s Arlene, isn’t it?” Elphame asked. The young woman nodded shyly. “Aye, uh, my Lady. I was raised in Loth Tor and I know this area well.” Her voice was rich with western Partholon’s thick brogue. “Wonderful. You can show Meara the stream. Meara, take as many women with you as you need to give those a good scrubbing.” With a satisfied grunt, Meara motioned for several women to join her, and they trudged away, Arlene leading the little group. “And I found plenty of basil.” Wynne opened her skirts and several wide-leafed basil plants tumbled to the ground, filling the air with their distinctive aroma that brought to mind delicious red sauces and long, enjoyable meals. Elphame inhaled deeply and noticed several of the other women did the same. She smiled at them and thought it must be nearing dinnertime if all of them were thinking of food. “I also found the kitchens. They are in quite a shambles.” The cook frowned down at the basil as if the herbs were responsible for the disarray. Elphame’s heart sank. “Can they be repaired, or must they be completely rebuilt?” She had hoped that the kitchens could be put back into working order in a relatively short amount of time. “It willna be easy, but I believe they can be repaired. The foundation is strong, and much of it survived the fire.” For no explainable reason, Wynne’s words brought tears to Elphame’s eyes. She blinked rapidly, not wanting the women to misunderstand her emotional response. When she was sure of her voice, she said, “I think we will find that over and over again in our new home—the foundation is strong, and much of it has survived.” The women made little sounds of agreement, and Elphame felt her eyes well up again. “El! Are you ready for those men yet?” Cuchulainn’s voice boomed from behind them, causing the women to jump. For once Elphame was glad of her brother’s distraction, and she wiped quickly at her eyes. Cu was too busy showing off his white smile to notice his sister’s sudden display of emotions. He winked at Wynne, who was hastily trying to brush the crushed basil and dirt from her skirts. “When I told the men what lovely ladies they would be assisting, I had many willing volunteers.” “Yes, yes, yes Cuchulainn, we get the idea.” Elphame frowned at him. At least he was consistently incorrigible. “We’re almost ready for them. But first we have to perform the cleansing ceremony.” “Cleansing ceremony?” Elphame gave her brother a smug look. Now that she mentioned magic, she had his undivided attention. “That’s right. Our new Healer thought a ceremony of ritual cleansing and protection would be a wise idea before we begin working on the interior of the castle. I agree with her.” It was Cuchulainn’s turn to frown. “It’s just a simple cleansing ceremony, Cu. No one’s going to cast any spells or summon any spirit guides.” El winked at him and he grunted an unintelligible response. “Let me introduce you to our Healer…” She trailed off. A moment before Brenna had been standing beside her, but now her place was empty. El’s eyes quickly searched the group of women and she caught sight of Brenna’s brunette hair. Once again, she had melted silently to the rear of the group. Elphame wanted to groan in frustration. If she was going to be their Healer, she was going to have to stop hiding every time a man came near. What did Brenna think, that her brother was going to shrink from her, or scream in horror? Then El remembered the look in the young woman’s eyes when she had said that she needed a new beginning. Perhaps that was the exact response she did expect, especially from a handsome young man. Well, Brenna didn’t know Cuchulainn as his sister knew him. He might be an incorrigible flirt, but he was a good man with a kind heart. He would never purposely hurt a woman. “Brenna,” she called. “I’d like you to meet my brother.” Slowly, the Healer moved from the rear of the group. Her head was bowed again, and she did not lift it until she was standing beside Elphame. Then, with a sigh, she looked up. Elphame was watching her brother, and she saw his expression go flat at his first glimpse of the young woman’s horrendous scares, but he didn’t cringe and he didn’t look away. “Cuchulainn, this is our new Healer, Brenna.” “Well met, Lady Brenna,” Cu said, bowing his head courteously. “I thought the two of you should be introduced. I already told Brenna how accident prone you are,” Elphame said, smiling warmly at Brenna, who seemed to be totally engrossed in studying her feet. “I would be pleased to give aid wherever it is needed,” Brenna said. Her voice was barely above a whisper, and Elphame had to strain to hear her. “As I said before, it was Brenna’s idea to perform a cleansing ceremony.” Elphame’s eyes swept through the little group of women, including them in her words. “And we thought it an excellent idea.” The women spoke bright, chattering agreement with Elphame, but she noticed that her brother was still looking intently at Brenna. “Are you a shaman, Brenna?” Cuchulainn asked abruptly. Reluctantly, Brenna pulled her eyes up and looked directly at the handsome young warrior. “No, Cuchulainn, I am not,” she said with the same whispering voice. “But I do have some knowledge of the Spirit World, and I am familiar with the rituals which evoke its blessing.” “Good. I think it wise that we call upon the spirit realm to aid my sister in restoring MacCallan Castle,” he said intently. Elphame blinked in surprise. What was he saying? Cu hated any mention of the spirit realm—it always made him uncomfortable. She narrowed her eyes at him. “Cu, are you feeling well?” Before he could answer, Meara and her group of women burst through the entrance. Their arms and skirts were soaked, but they were carrying two freshly cleaned containers that sparkled with water. When they saw Cuchulainn, they stopped and dropped into hasty curtseys, giggling as water sloshed onto the ground. Cu grinned at the women. “How could I not be well, surrounded by such lovely faces?” Now he sounded like himself. Elphame shook her head at him and told him to hush, but she made a mental note to ask him later about his sudden desire for spiritual backup. “You can leave now, Cu.” She shooed him off before turning to the Healer. “Brenna, what do we need to do?” “Take the basil and crush it into the water.” As she explained the ceremony, her voice grew from the halting, whispering tone in which she had spoken to Cuchulainn to the clear, confident voice of the Healer Elphame was already beginning to respect. “Each woman should be a part of this. Each of you take some of the basil leaves and smooth them into the water, and as you do so, concentrate on all of the wonderful things you would like your new home to hold.” Brenna beckoned to Meara, who was standing closest to the containers. A little nervously, the housekeeper picked up a sprig of basil, then she bent and immersed it into the cool, fresh water crushing the lime-colored leaves and gently swirling the water. “Good,” Brenna encouraged. “It’s soft and cool, and it smells wonderful,” Meara told the rest of the women. Without further hesitation, Wynne, Ada and Colleen grabbed pieces of the little plants, and soon the bucket and the crock were surrounded by smiling women up to their elbows in green-tinged water. “Close your eyes,” Brenna told them, “think about your dreams for your new home—your hopes and desires for your future—think of what you wish for…what you long for.” As one, they closed their eyes and Elphame watched the women’s faces grow faraway. Satisfied smiles tilted their lips. “We must join them, my Lady,” Brenna said. Elphame nodded and she and the Healer each chose a sprig of basil. Elphame approached the crock, which was already well crowded with concentrating women. She squeezed in between Meara and Caitlin. No one gasped or shrank away from being in such close proximity with her. The women were so engrossed in their own thoughts that no one even seemed to notice her. It was nice, she thought, really nice to feel just like everyone else—even if it was only for a short time. Elphame closed her eyes and thrust her hand into the water, crushing the basil against her palm. And all at once she could hear the silent desires of the women surrounding her. It was like the water was a conduit for their thoughts and dreams, and all of them emptied into her. Elphame held her breath, savoring each desire as it flooded through her. Please bring my home happiness… Let me know the joy of a good husband… More than anything I want children… Please let me never be hungry… I want to always be safe… I want to be accepted for who I am… Their pleas washed through Elphame in a rush of emotions and she held them close to her heart and cherished them. Then she added her own desire, and almost without even being aware of it, Elphame’s thoughts shifted from her constant plea to fit in and be normal. For the first time the desire that was foremost in her heart was not one that focused solely on herself. Please let all who enter MacCallan Castle find it a safe haven and help me to be a wise and understanding leader. “Now the rest of the ceremony must be completed by you, Goddess,” Brenna said. Her confident voice rippled through the group of women, breaking the spell of thoughts that Elphame had been absorbing. They opened their eyes, blinking as if to reorient themselves after awaking from pleasant dreams, then they stood, wiping green-speckled hands on their skirts and looking expectantly at Elphame. She felt a horrible shiver of trepidation. She had assumed Brenna would lead them in the ceremony, as she had in the preparations. El had never performed any type of ritualistic magic. Even during her education at the Temple of the Muse she had avoided the training that involved spellwork and the invocation of any deities. She knew that the other students had gossiped amongst themselves about her strange avoidance and that they all had assumed it was because she was so powerful that she need not have mortal guidance when she communed with the spirit realm. The people expected that she would follow her mother as Epona’s Chosen—that she, as her mother and great-grandmother before her, would reign as the spiritual leader of Partholon. Just the thought made Elphame feel ill because, unfortunately, the truth was far from what they believed. Though she had longed for it, she had never felt any stirrings of magic—not from spirits, nor from the gods, and especially not from Epona. It would avail her nothing to study magic. She had no magic beyond that of her physical abnormalities. Until she entered MacCallan Castle and the spirits of the stones had welcomed her, she corrected herself. Things were different here. MacCallan Castle was a new beginning for all of them. That did not mean that she would be forced to take up her mother’s mantle; it meant that she had finally found where she belonged. Pushing aside insecurities that had haunted her for years, she met Brenna’s eyes. “What must I do?” Elphame asked. “We will need to carry the containers to the entrance of the castle,” Brenna said, and the task was quickly done. She positioned the containers within the newly cleared gap in the wide walls, and told Elphame to stand between them, facing outward. The other women were to stand just outside the entrance. “Now, you must call on each of the four elements in their turn—air, fire, water and earth. Ask them to cleanse this castle and fill it with protection as you scatter the herb-scented water to each of the four corresponding directions. There are no set words for you to recite, instead speak from your heart. We will follow your lead, Goddess.” Thus saying, Brenna turned her back to Elphame and motioned for the rest of the women to do so, too. All of them were facing the east. East…Elphame thought frantically. East was the beginning direction for all spellwork and for all circle casting. Its element was air—she knew that much, as did any half-grown Partholonian child. And east was the direction the castle faced. She drew in her breath with the realization. It must be a good omen. She closed her eyes, settled her thoughts, and sent up a heartfelt prayer to a real Goddess. Epona, if you can hear me, I don’t ask that you speak to me as you do to my mother—I don’t expect that. I just ask that you help me not to disappoint these women, and help me to honor the spirits I have just today begun to feel. Please give me the right words for the blessing and protection of our new home. She could do this, she promised herself as she opened her eyes and bent to cup the first handful of herb-filled water. Looking out to the east she raised her hands in front of her and let the fragrant, grass-colored water slide from her fingers. “I call upon you, Power of Air, to witness this rite. You are the element we encounter upon birth as we draw our first breaths. I ask that you fill MacCallan Castle as it is reborn and scatter any negative forces from it. Breathe within its walls protection and peace.” Suddenly a breeze ruffled Elphame’s long hair. It twisted playfully around her, catching the falling drops of water and making them appear to dance on the wind, clearly showing Elphame that her words had been heard and accepted. Elphame’s answering smile was filled with stunned joy. After the wind died she took a deep breath and turned to her right so that she was facing south—the direction of the element fire. The group of women followed her, turning to face south, too. She cupped another handful of water and held it out before her. “I call upon you, Power of Fire, to witness this rite. It is from you that we draw warmth, light and energy. Your strength has already purified MacCallan Castle. I ask that you continue to guard it and us as we make it our new home.” As she spoke, she felt the sun’s rays flash on her and it seemed that the magically enhanced warmth of it reached into her very soul. Elphame and the women turned to the right again. She filled her hands with water. “I call upon you, Power of Water, to witness this rite. You are present in our bodies as tears, milk and blood. You fill us and sustain us. Wash MacCallan Castle of the ancient pain of the past. Cleanse it and guard it with the joy of the present as it stands, ever watchful, above your shore.” The sound of the distant waves breaking against the cliff suddenly swelled and echoed with deafening intensity throughout the castle walls. When the sound receded Elphame turned again, facing to the north and the element earth, completing the circle. “I call upon you, Power of Earth, to witness this rite. You stabilize and shelter us. We feel your spirit in the very stones of this castle. I ask that you use your vast power to reject any lingering negative energy, and that you protect MacCallan Castle with the strength of new growth coupled with ancient wisdom.” The grass on which they stood rustled like a giant hand had just passed over it and the air surrounding them was filled with the rich fragrance of a bountiful harvest. Then, acting on impulse, Elphame bent one more time. She cupped her hands and as she tossed the water high into the air directly above her, she said in a clear, joyful voice, “And I call upon you, Epona, to witness this rite and to gift MacCallan Castle, our new home, with your blessing and your protection.” The droplets of water exploded around Elphame like liquid stars and the women erupted into cheers. “Come!” Brenna cried, hurrying to one of the containers of basil water. She dipped her hands and smiled her lopsided smile at the women. “Let us baptize our new home.” So saying, she splashed the handful of water so that it rained against the ancient stones. Soon all the women were laughing and shrieking with joy as handfuls of softly scented water playfully washed away the last of their fears. Hidden within the little grove of trees closest to the castle’s entrance, Cuchulainn watched the women. The cleansing ritual had been powerful—that was easy to see. He could hardly believe that it was his sister who had spoken the words and invoked such an obvious, elemental response. But he had to believe it; he had borne witness to it. And the power within him—the power that he constantly had to repress in order to control—had leaped in response to her magical rite which had clearly been infused with the blessing of Epona. He had felt the cleansing, as well as the invisible walls of protection that Elphame had suddenly erected in a magical circle which encompassed MacCallan Castle. He had thought briefly that perhaps he was feeling the psychic residue of Epona’s anger at the Fomorian invaders. Over a century ago the war had begun with the slaughter of the MacCallan Clan, an act that had so inflamed Epona that the Goddess’s Chosen had rallied the people of Partholon. Centaurs and humans had joined together to defeat the demonic horde. Was that why Epona had touched his sister’s ritual? To show the Goddess’s approval of rebuilding MacCallan Castle? Was it as simple as that? No. He knew that there had been more—something else had been present during his sister’s ritual. And try as he would, he could not understand what it was. It was elusive, but he knew what it reminded him of. It was much like the Feeling he had experienced during his vision of Elphame’s lifemate. It was dark. It was waiting. And it was here. Cuchulainn was here, too, and he would protect his sister from harm. Even if that harm should come from one whose destiny it was to love her. His hand rested on his claymore and his face was grim as he turned from the women and the castle. Ever vigilant, his warrior’s eyes searched the forest that surrounded them, seeking the source of that which he feared would break his sister’s heart. Chapter 7 Elphame thought that they smelled like a basil-filled garden after a spring rain. She brushed a damp strand of hair behind her ear, but not before picking a crushed leaf from it, and smiled to herself. The women—as well as the castle—had been cleansed. It had been a nice break, and a wonderful ritual. Elphame glanced up at the sky. The sun seemed to be sinking awfully fast. She stifled a frustrated sigh. She would be glad when the hearths were filled with brightly burning fires, and dusk would signal the lighting of the castle’s brands—then the coming of evening would not call a halt to their work. But it certainly did now. Quickly she prioritized in her mind. The kitchens needed to be attended to, that should come first. Then a niggling thought brushed at her. Clear the Main Courtyard. Allow the heart of the castle to beat again. Elphame felt a little jolt of surprise. Had that been her own thought? No, thought wasn’t the right word. Her sudden desire to clear the courtyard felt more like a compulsion that beat in time with her blood. “My Lady? What is our next task?” Elphame broke from her inner musings and smiled at Brenna, pleased that the Healer had stopped calling her Goddess. She motioned for the women to gather around her. She searched for and found Wynne. “Let’s get the kitchen in working order. Rebuilding a home is hungry work.” Wynne’s smile was bright agreement. “I know exactly where ‘tis.” Elphame, of course, knew where the kitchen was located, too. She had glimpsed it on the quick walk-through she’d done with her brother and the Stonemaster, but she was content to allow her new cook the pleasure of leading them to what would become Wynne’s personal territory. “Show us,” Elphame said. And just like that the women surged as one into the castle. No hesitation. No trepidation. No nervous laughter. It was as if the air had been cleared of the emotional cobwebs of the past—now all that waited to be done was to clear its physical refuse so that the future could begin. Elphame knew that Cuchulainn would tell her she was being an idealistic fool, but she was so happy that it felt like her heart might burst. The women entered the Main Courtyard as a group, and suddenly their amiable talk was silenced. The great center column of Clan MacCallan stood silent and awe-inspiring, stretching to a majestic height well above their heads. Elphame left the group and approached it. She could still feel the phantom warmth of her commune with the spirits of the stone against her palms. But this time she didn’t rest her hands against the granite surface, instead she faced the group of women. “This is the center column of MacCallan Castle,” she explained to them. “Always remember that this was once the home of the much-honored Clan MacCallan. They were warriors, but they also were poets and artists. Many of Epona’s Chosen have had MacCallan blood pulsing in their veins. They revered beauty and truth, which is why Epona showed such rage at their slaughter.” She pointed up the column’s length. “If you look closely you can see that beneath the layers of grime and soot, it is decorated with symbols that were important to the MacCallans. Creatures and plants of the surrounding forest, as well as the Clan’s symbol of a rearing mare, have all been intricately carved within the interlinking circular pattern.” Several of the women nodded and stepped closer, peering with open curiosity at the mighty pillar. “This should be cleaned so that its original beauty can be seen,” Meara said, with the same no-nonsense tone she had used when she ordered the dirty water containers to be scrubbed. “It will be,” Elphame assured her. “As will this entire courtyard. Look at the floor.” The women’s eyes drifted to their feet. Without stopping to consider that she might be drawing unwanted attention to her unique body, she pawed forward with one sharp hoof, loosening a small trench in the dirt that covered the floor. “See,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Beneath all of this filth there is a thick layer of fine marble. When it is clean it will shine just as brightly as the pearl-colored halls of Epona’s Temple.” The women talked together in excited little bursts of conversation as they studied the hidden treasure that lay beneath them. The heart of the castle… Elphame’s thoughts kept returning to the words that had seemed to resonate throughout her body. The women’s reactions showed that they, too, were moved by it. It must live again. Soon, she promised herself and the time-scarred column. “Lead us to your new kitchens, Wynne,” Elphame said. The cook flushed with pleasure before she strode purposefully from the courtyard through another empty arched doorway which led to an enormous room. There the women paused. In the Great Hall the ceiling had been built of the same dull gray stone as the walls of the castle, so the fire could not consume it, but the walls were blackened and the huge room looked dark and sad. Mounds of burnt wood testified to the fact that long ago tiers of heavy wooden tables had stood in busy rows over-looking the ruined floor-to-ceiling frame that once was a wall of windows which let the castle occupants dine and hold court with a view of the austere Main Courtyard of the castle. Now all that was left of it was rubble, but Elphame could still see the solid bones of the castle through what time had covered—and she could tell by the gleam in many of the women’s eyes that they understood the potential there, too. “There are two entrances to the kitchen from the Great Hall.” Wynne’s voice said she was more than ready to get down to business. “One there, and one there.” She pointed to small arched doorways on opposite sides of the far wall. She talked as she walked toward one of the doorways. “They are connected by a long hall, which opens to the kitchen.” She glanced at her three assistants. “We should designate one door to always be used as an entrance, and one as an exit. There will be fewer accidents that way.” The assistant cooks nodded in thoughtful response. Elphame had to stop herself from shouting with relief. They were beginning to see it as a living, working castle, too! Because the kitchen was a part of the Great Hall, its stone roof was still intact, too. But, as in the rest of the castle, the room was a shambles. Elphame heard the distinctive rustle of birds and the scurrying of other small creatures, and she supposed that a whole tribe of animals had taken up residence in what used to be the castle’s two enormous cooking hearths. Brick ovens lined one wall, and as Wynne peered within one of them a squirrel leaped out and rushed away in a chattering panic, causing the cook to stifle a shriek, which turned into a laugh. “He probably thought I was a verra big, wet piece of basil,” she said, and the rest of the women laughed with her. The remaining wall held a large basin and a rusted pump through which fresh water had been available. To either side of the pump, stone cabinets gaped their open, debris-cluttered mouths. In the center of the room was a great marble island on which were piles of leaves and suspicious-looking droppings. “Well, sister-mine, what’s for dinner?” Cuchulainn’s voice said in her ear. She jumped and swatted at him. “Your hide if you scare me like that again!” “His hide would be too tough to chew, Goddess,” came a response from within the crowd of men who waited expectantly behind him. “Ah, it has been such a short time, but they already appear to know you quite well,” Elphame quipped. Cu put his hands up in mock surrender. “I come in peace!” “I hope you come to work,” Elphame said with some asperity. “That too,” he said. “Command us, my Lady, and your will shall be obeyed.” He bowed dramatically to her, as did the men standing behind him, which made his sister smile. “Actually, it’s not me who is in command in this particular chamber. It is our cook.” Cuchulainn’s eyes sparkled as he changed the direction of his bow so that he was facing the buxom, redheaded Wynne. Elphame noticed that several of the other men shot the young cook appreciative glances, too. Wynne’s attractively flushed cheeks were the only outward sign she showed that the attention pleased her. Straightening her shoulders and planting her hands firmly on her shapely hips she launched into a tirade of orders in her rolling brogue. “You men can start by clearin’ the cooking hearths, as well as the ovens. Several of ye will have to go up on the roof and be sure that the flues are uncluttered and repair any stones that have come free. Also, I’ll need this pump to be in working order, then we’ll be needin’ buckets and soap and rags and such for the general cleanin’.” The room erupted into action. Elphame stepped hastily out of the way. “It’s a good thing that the centaurs cleared the road to the castle and the supply wagons got through. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one to tell your pretty cook that the cleaning supplies were stranded in the forest.” Cuchulainn had joined his sister in watching from the edge of the room. “She may be pretty, but I think she might be more than a little feisty,” El said. “Redheads—they are a temptation,” Cuchulainn observed with the voice of experience. “Come on, Cu,” she said, grabbing his hand. “I want you to help me.” “Where are we going?” “To the Main Courtyard. Something tells me it’s important to restore it as soon as possible.” As they started to leave the room, Elphame noticed the sudden silence. She glanced back to see that the activity had stopped and everyone was looking at her. “Carry on,” she said quickly. “My brother and I are going to begin clearing the courtyard.” Before she could continue walking away, Brenna’s voice stopped her. “May I come with you, my Lady?” The Healer had stepped from a shadowy area at the far end of the room, and Elphame saw several of the men cringe and avert their eyes from her face. “Of course you may, Brenna,” she said quickly. “I, too, would welcome you,” Cu said. “As my sister has already observed, I am often in need of the services of a skilled Healer.” Elphame felt a rush of warmth for her brother. His words had caused the men to reassess the scarred woman by showing them that he, as well as his sister, valued and respected her. Brenna didn’t respond except to bow her head so that her hair concealed most of her face and followed them hurriedly from the room. “El, you’ll need to have these frames measured and then commission new windows,” Cu observed as they walked back through the Great Hall. “Unless you prefer to have this wall rebuilt without the glass.” “No, I like the idea of looking out on the courtyard. I imagine it used to be a spectacular view.” The three of them came to a halt at the edge of the Main Courtyard. They could look up through the burnt ceiling to see that evening was rapidly approaching and the sky was shifting from brilliant blue to oranges and violets. The beauty above them was quite a contrast to the ruin that stood below it. Tree limbs and filth covered the marble floor. Mounds of scorched, rotted roof timbers littered the area, especially the very center of it. As she stood there, Elphame’s eyes felt drawn to that center area. A memory stirred. Something about the central courtyard of the castle… “Cu, Brenna, let’s see if we can clear some of those old timbers from that middle area.” Without waiting for them to respond, she rushed to the largest pile of rubble and set to work. Soon, Elphame pulled free one particularly long piece of wood and the lip of a basin appeared beneath it, looking like the edge of a giant’s dirty bowl that had been discarded a century ago. “Yes! I knew there was something under all of this mess,” Elphame said with satisfaction. They redoubled their efforts until, rising from the midst of rot and ruin, a delicate statue took form. It was a life-sized adolescent girl. She was standing in the middle of the basin, holding a large urn that was tipped up at the end as if she was pouring libations from it. “It’s a fountain!” Brenna exclaimed. “Look at her, El, there’s something about her…” Cu said, stepping within the basin to get a closer look. With a fold of his kilt he scrubbed at the face of the statue, until he exposed a small area of milk-colored marble which appeared luminous and ghostly. Then he drew in his breath sharply in surprise. “She looks like you.” Chapter 8 Elphame stared at the statue. It did look like her. She and the statue shared the same high cheekbones, full lips and fine, arched brows. “Rhiannon,” Brenna said suddenly. “This fountain must be a statue of Rhiannon when she was a girl. I remember now. Before she became Goddess Incarnate of Epona, she lived here, as the only child of The MacCallan, and she was…” “My ancestress,” Elphame finished for her. “She was also a great warrior,” Cu said, still studying the statue carefully. “It was through her leadership that the Fomorians were defeated and driven from Partholon.” “Let us not forget that Rhiannon did have a little help from her lifemate, the centaur High Shaman, ClanFintan.” Elphame looked around in surprise, trying to locate the owner of the strong female voice that carried across the courtyard. From the lengthening shadow of the central column emerged the lithe form of a female centaur. Elphame couldn’t stifle her gasp of surprise. The centaur must be a Huntress to be able to creep up on them so silently; Cuchulainn hadn’t even been aware of her approach. The thought sent a rush of pleasure through Elphame. A centaur Huntress had joined them! “You are right to correct me, Huntress,” Elphame said formally. “My father would have done the same.” “I did not mean to correct you, Goddess, only to remind you.” As she came closer and more fully into the pool of light that illuminated the area surrounding the fountain, Elphame was stunned by her beauty. The equine part of her body was a sleek palomino, shading from cream to a blonde so light that she almost appeared to be silver, and El was suddenly reminded of the bright coat of Epona’s Chosen Mare. She had never seen a centaur with such spectacular coloring. Even her hooves were a unique, snow-white shade. The human part of her body was just as lovely. Her hair matched her coat, and it streamed down her back in a thick, white wave. Her skin was alabaster, and she wore the centaur’s traditional half-open leather vest through which could be glimpsed her full, well-rounded breasts. Her face was a study in classic perfection. Elphame met her eyes, which were an arresting shade of lavender. The centaur stopped before her and executed a deep, graceful bow. “I come to offer my services as Huntress to you, Goddess Elphame, and to MacCallan Castle. I am Brighid Dhianna.” “You are of the Dhianna Herd,” Cu said. His voice was unusually sharp and his expression grim. “I am of that Herd. I am not of that mind-set.” And her words suddenly made sense to Elphame. There was a growing sect amidst centaurs that disdained contact with humans. They rarely left the Centaur Plains and they rejected centaurs that chose to live within human communities as being little better than domesticated animals. She remembered her parents discussing the ramifications of the growth of such an exclusionist belief, and the disgust with which her centaur father viewed the segregationist ideology. And she also remembered him mentioning a particularly militant herd by the name of Dhianna, whose powerful shaman leader was stirring up a disturbing amount of support for her ideology, which explained Cu’s grim expression. “Brighid Dhianna, if it is a new beginning you seek, then I welcome you to MacCallan Castle, a place of new beginnings,” Elphame said solemnly. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/p-c-cast-7/elphame-s-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.
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