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Elphames Choice

P. C. Cast


  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.

  "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 Lad
y, 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, who 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 fa
shioning him to he 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.


  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.