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Elphames Choice, Page 2

P. C. Cast

Chapter One

  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. In her twenty-five years of 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 twenty-five 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 self-satisfied. "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 only twenty-five. 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 someon
e 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, attentive-sounding 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.