Divine BeginningsP. C. Cast
Rediscover the origins of the Partholon stories in this prequel novella by #1 New York Times bestselling fantasy author P.C. Cast.
Something isn’t right at Guardian Castle, and Aine can’t figure out what. As Healer, she’s supposed to be making things better, but there’s a darkness that can’t be brightened. And then Aine finds an injured Fomorian—winged, dark, blood-thirsty and inherently evil. Or is he? Because there’s something about Tegan that Aine can’t resist...and once they’ve shared blood, Aine realizes that everything she’s always believed is going to be cast aside...
Originally published in 2009
Aine liked the irony of using a funeral urn to draw water for the herbs in her healer’s garden. It was a beautiful urn, large and graceful, with a ridged lip and a curved handle balanced off one side. The scene painted around it was framed in black, as was typical for Epona’s funeral urns, but it seemed to Aine that there was something especially lovely about this one. The Goddess’s Chosen reclined with her outstretched arm motioning regally to the line of supplicants that stretched around the urn before her. A riot of auburn hair cascaded like water down the priestess’s back.
It was ridiculous that something so beautiful be relegated to the dreary job of pouring libations on graves, or worse, holding the ashes of the dead. So Aine had “rescued” it.
Too bad there would be no one to rescue her from the dreary job she’d taken.
“No,” Aine muttered. “It’s not the job that’s dreary. It’s the place.” She sat at the edge of the herb bed and looked around her. She’d been at Guardian Castle for a little over five full turns of the moon, but she still wasn’t used to the overwhelming grayness of everything. The castle was gray. The pass through the mountains the castle had been built within was gray. The autumn sky was gray. Aine sighed. “Epona’s shield! Even the people are gray.”
She understood that the castle had been built for one specific purpose: to keep the pass between the Wastelands and Partholon guarded so that the demonic Fomorians who had been banished to those Wastelands would never enter Partholon again. Even though there hadn’t been a Fomorian sighted in generations, still they needed to be on guard. So beauty and color and the things that made Partholon such a lovely goddess-blessed land weren’t exactly priorities here at the edge of the civilized world. Protection and defense was the focus.
It was just so hard to get used to this stark place after four full seasons of studying the art of healing at the exquisite Temple of the Muse, where Aine had been surrounded by all the most talented, beautiful and brightest women of Partholon.
Camenae, her mentor, had warned her against accepting the austere post, but Aine had known that Guardian Castle was where she belonged. Just as she had known that it was her destiny to be a Healer.
But since Aine had arrived at Guardian Castle she’d felt so uneasy that she’d begun questioning that intuition, that knowing which had served her so well all her life. Restless, Aine picked at a few sprigs of mint, breathing deeply of the distinctive scent of the plant. She had to stop second guessing herself. It wasn’t her intuition that was the problem. The problem was the people here. They felt wrong. They were as colorless, inside and out, as the landscape surrounding them.
Well, the human people that is. Aine had only made one friend since she’d taken up her position as Healer of Guardian Castle. She and the centaur Maev, who had only recently been posted as Huntress for the castle, had instantly clicked.
“Probably because we’re the only bit of color hereabouts. Maybe that’s why I believed so strongly that I needed to come here—to spread some color around.”
Aine picked up a raven-colored curl that had fallen over her shoulder. She smiled as the wan sunlight made her hair shine with flashes of mahogany and a black so dark it almost appeared blue. With her dark hair and startlingly sapphire eyes, and Maev’s blazing copper hair and shining roan equine coat, the two of them definitely stood out amongst the dish soap, milk toast complexions of the stone-faced warriors and their equally boring women.
It was just so odd. She’d had no idea before she’d arrived how washed out everything—everyone would be. But then, why would the rest of Partholon know? Besides families of the warriors and a few traders, people rarely visited Guardian Castle.
Aine couldn’t help but compare the people of Guardian Castle to sleepwalkers. Or worse—they were like the stories told to frighten children about people who had been led astray by darkness and who ended up wandering the earth as soulless husks eternally searching for but unable to ever find the light within them that had been bled away by…
“Aine! There has been an accident. You’re needed!”
* * *
Aine startled at the appearance of the stern warrior she thought was called Edan, but she had been well trained and recovered quickly. She was on her feet and running for her Healer’s basket in an instant. Then instead of heading to the infirmary wing of the castle, the warrior called, “This way!” and began jogging towards the massive rear gate that opened to the Wastelands side of the pass.
She stifled her questions, concentrating instead on keeping up with the silent warrior as they ran out the raised, iron-toothed gate.
The instant Aine passed beyond the walls of the castle she felt the change. It was as if the air had solidified. It pressed down upon her, thick…heavy…cloying…Aine stumbled.
Edan grabbed her arm to steady her. “We only have a short way to go.” He jogged down the narrow, slate-colored pass. Aine rushed after him. The path took a sharp turn. Not far ahead of them Aine could see a warrior standing in front of a pile of something that was lying in the middle of the pass. She caught the scent of fresh blood and centered herself so that she would be calm and able to think clearly in the whirlwind of emotion and activity that accompanied injuries as surely as blood and death accompanied them.
The warrior turned to her and Aine looked beyond him to see—
“Maev!” She gasped and dropped to her knees beside the centaur Huntress, instantly assessing the gaping slash wounds that appeared to cover her body. Her friend was unconscious. Her breath was shallow and her skin, that which was not covered with blood, was so pale it appeared colorless.
“We found her like this. She was hunting wild boar today. One of the beasts must have attacked her,” said the Warrior, pointing at the centaur’s terrible wounds.
Aine glanced up at him. “She’s been unconscious the whole time?”
“She needs to be moved to the infirmary.” Aine snapped the order, the steadiness of her voice completely belying the tumult within her. “Get a stretcher and more men.” Aine was vaguely aware that Edan nodded and rushed off. All of her attention was focused on her fallen friend as she pulled linen strips from her basket. She had to stop the bleeding. But there were so many wounds…so much blood lost.
Aine was leaning over the centaur’s torso, pressing a linen cloth to the ripped flesh of her neck and trying to staunch the flood of her friend’s lifeblood when Maev, eyes still closed, lips barely moving, whispered “Send
Aine drew in a shocked breath, but before she could respond further, Maev’s strained whisper continued. “Do not betray me.”
Used to relying on her instincts, especially during emergencies, Aine made her decision quickly. She turned to the warrior. She didn’t know his name, but she recognized his heavily lined face as one of the senior guards. “I’m going to have to close some of her wounds before we move her. I’ll need everything in my large black surgical box in the infirmary.” When the warrior didn’t move, Aine lifted her chin and said, “Now.”
Expressionless, the warrior hesitated for only a moment more before he turned and sprinted down the path towards the castle.
Maev’s eyes opened instantly. “Must listen to me.” The Huntress was growing weaker by the moment. She struggled to speak as the breath gurgled wetly in her throat.
Aine wanted to soothe her friend—to tell her to save her strength, but she’d already seen the end written in the color of Maev’s skin and the copious amount of blood she’d lost. Even a centaur Huntress couldn’t survive such terrible wounds.
“What is it, Maev?”
The centaur’s eyes widened and she coughed, raining scarlet down her chest. “It—it’s come here. The darkness…the claws and teeth in the darkness.”
“Maev, I don’t understand.”
The Huntress gripped Aine’s wrist. “Don’t let my pyre be built here, or inside the walls of that tainted castle. Send me to Epona from the forest of Partholon.”
“You’re not going to die,” Aine lied. “Rest now.”
“Yes, of course, I promise.” She soothed. “What did this to you, Maev?”
“The warriors know! They know.”
“Fomorians.” Maev spoke the name and then, as if the dreaded word had taken her soul with it, her eyes went wide and blank, and the Huntress died.
“You said a boar did this?” Numbly, Aine watched the warriors put Maev’s body on the stretcher and carry her back to the castle.
Edan nodded. “Urien found the tracks of the beast not far down the pass. He said there were signs of a great battle between it and the Huntress.”
Deep in thought, Aine followed the warriors and their bloody burden. Guardian Castle’s Lord and Chieftain of Clan Monro met them at the rear gate.
“It is the Huntress,” he sighed wearily and shook his head. “She was too young and inexperienced to tangle with a wounded boar.”
“Those gashes don’t look like any boar goring I’ve ever seen,” Aine heard herself saying.
The Monro’s sharp eyes locked on her. “Aine, is it? Our new Healer?”
She nodded. “Yes, my Lord.” Aine had been presented to the Chieftain when she’d arrived, but their paths had rarely crossed since. Actually, this was the first opportunity she’d had to study the Monro closely and she was surprised by how gaunt and unhealthy he appeared. A wasting sickness…The thought had her pitying him. Until he spoke again.
“How many boar wounds have you tended?” His words were thick with sarcasm. “You couldn’t save the centaur, could you?”
“No,” she said softly. “I couldn’t.”
“It appears you’re as young and inexperienced as she was. See that you come to a better end. Perhaps you should begin by leaving the details of hunting and such to those who are older and wiser.” He turned his back on her and spoke to the warriors. “Send a runner to notify her herd, and then build a pyre near the burial mounds within the east wall. We will fire it on the morrow.”
Aine drew a deep, fortifying breath and stepped in front of the Chieftain. “That’s not what she wanted.”
The Monro raised his brows at her. “Indeed?”
“Yes, my Lord, Maev asked that her pyre be built out there.” Aine pointed towards the distant forest that spread south of the castle and marked the beginning of Partholon.
The Monro snorted. “Partholon is also within the walls of this castle.”
Aine countered with, “She was a Huntress. She deserves to be sent to Epona from the forest.”
The Monro shrugged. “It matters naught to me, but if it means so much to you, Healer, then you see to it. I’ll not interfere.”
It took the entire next day for Aine to prepare Maev’s pyre. The Monro had been true to his word. He hadn’t interfered with her. He also hadn’t ordered any of the warriors to help her. At least Edan had aided her in loading and then unloading the cart with boughs for the fire. He’d also gathered enough warriors to carry Maev’s body to the bier.
They hadn’t liked that she’d picked a spot in the middle of a clearing that was quite a ways from the castle. Aine hadn’t cared. She’d known Maev would have wanted to be far enough away so that the gloomy walls wouldn’t be visible above the pines.
It was almost dusk when everything was ready. Aine faced the south—the direction of Partholon and the Centaur Plains beyond. She was nervous. A Shaman should be doing this, but there was no Shaman living at Guardian Castle and the taciturn warriors who stood restlessly beside her certainly weren’t going to evoke the Goddess’s blessing.
“Epona, centaur Huntress Maev of the Hagan Herd, was my friend. We laughed together a lot, even when things felt really grim. She died too soon and I’ll miss her. I ask that you welcome her to your verdant meadows so that her spirit will gallop free by your side for eternity.” She touched the torch to the pyre. With a whoosh the oil-soaked boughs caught fire.
Well done, daughter.
Aine jumped and gasped when the Goddess’s sweet voice drifted through her mind.
And now prepare yourself, my child. I have need of you.
“Aine, won’t you return with us?” Edan asked, hanging back when the other warriors headed back to the castle almost immediately.
“N-no,” she stuttered, running a shaky hand over her forehead. Had she really heard Epona’s voice? “I’m going to stay with Maev for a little while.”
“It’s not safe in the forest after dark, so you don’t have much time. I’ll leave the horse and cart for you,” he said.
Aine nodded absently, paying little attention when he left. All of her concentration was focused internally. “Epona?” she whispered, feeling foolish.
Listen, daughter. One who needs you is near.
Aine’s body trembled with excitement. The Goddess was speaking to her! Holding her breath, she listened.
A low, painful moan seemed to drift on the cool night air, mixing with the scent of death and smoke and pine. Aine turned into the breeze and followed her Goddess’s urging.
The panting sounds of pain weren’t hard to track. Aine was amazed that she and the warriors hadn’t heard them earlier. She’d walked only a few feet into the surrounding pines when she came to the gully. What she saw at the bottom of the trench in the earth had her freezing with shock and disbelief.
The winged creature lay crumpled on the ground, its leg caught gruesomely in an iron trap so large it must have been set for the vicious brown bears that liked to lurk close to the castle.
It is your choice, daughter, whether you aid him or not.
“But he’s a Fomorian!” Aine said.
Epona didn’t respond, and Aine could feel that the Goddess’s presence had left her. At the sound of her voice the creature’s head snapped up. With eyes glassy with shock and pain he stared at her.
“Are you a goddess or a spirit?”
His voice was a surprise. It was deep and beautiful, almost musical in quality. And he sounded frightened.
“I’m neither,” she replied. Then she pressed her lips together, thinking that it was madness that she was speaking to him, to it, instead of running screaming for the warriors.
“You look like a goddess,” he said.
Then he smiled and even as Aine cringed back from his fangs that glistened in the dying light, she felt drawn to the unexpected gentleness in his
eyes that so perfectly matched his expressive voice.
“You’re a Fomorian,” Aine said, as if to remind herself.
“And you’re a goddess.”
“Fomorians are demons!” she blurted. “What could you know about goddesses?”
“Some of us know of Epona. Some of us…” he trailed off, sucking in his breath as a spasm of pain shot through him.
Responding automatically to his pain, Aine was halfway down the gully before she realized she’d moved. The Fomorian had closed his eyes to ride out the wave of agony. His forehead was pressed to the ground and he was breathing in shallow, panting gasps. Just like any man in terrible pain, she thought.
Then his wings, which had been tucked along his back rustled in restless agitation and she stumbled to a halt mere feet from him, eyes riveted on those dark pinions. They weren’t made of feathers, but seemed to be a soft membrane, lighter on bottom than top. They were huge, and they proved what he was—what he must be. A demon.
This was what killed Maev! The knowledge rushed through her mind and she stumbled back.
“My name is Tegan.”
At the sound of his voice she stopped. His eyes were open again, and even though his face was shadowed by pain he tried to smile at her once more.
“What is your name, goddess?”
“Don’t call me that,” she snapped.
“I meant no disrespect. I only—”
“You killed Maev!” she interrupted.
“I have killed no one,” he insisted. Making an involuntary beseeching gesture, his arm lifted and Aine saw the short sword sheathed at his waist.
“I don’t believe you. How could I? You’re a Fomorian. A demon. My enemy.” Aine’s stomach knotted as she looked frantically around. “Where are the rest of your people?”