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Goddess of Legend, Page 2

P. C. Cast

Chapter One

  ISABEL decided the morning couldn't be more perfect. Well, possibly better if she was sore from a great night of sex, but that wasn't in the cards. Not today, probably not tomorrow. Probably not in this decade. Nonetheless, a beautiful day.

  She finished adjusting the tripod that held her favorite camera and then straightened, drawing in a deep breath of the sweet Oklahoma air. She didn't peer through the camera lens as would most photographers. Of course she would eventually, but Isabel trusted her naked eye more than any lens, no matter how clear or magnified or uber-telephoto. So she studied the landscape before her as she sipped from her thermos of Vienna roast coffee.

  She caught a glimpse of herself in the silver of her thermos. Distorted as it was, she could tell she was smiling. And her lips, which every lover seemed to comment on, looked like big clown lips. Men seemed to love them. She was always trying to suck them in. She didn't believe for a second that Angelina's were for real. Unfortunately, she knew too well that hers were.

  "'When the young dawn, with fingertips of rose lit up the world,' " she murmured, surprising herself with the Homeric quote. "Appropriate, though . . . " Isabel sighed with pleasure. The light here was absolutely exquisite! Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie had been the right choice to begin her new photography collection, American Heartscapes. It was early spring, but the ridge in front of her was already covered with knee-high grasses, waving oceanlike in the morning breeze. The air had the scent of impending rain, but there were so many more scents that filled her. The grasses, the lake, the occasional odor of a skunk. Nature. What a high.

  The sky was an explosion of pastels washed against a backdrop of cumulus clouds that puffed high into the stratosphere - mute testimony to today's weather forecast of midday thunderstorms. Isabel hardly gave the impending storm a thought - she'd be gone before the first raindrop fell. But even if the weather chased her away, she didn't mind. On the ridge before her, under the frothy cotton candy sky, was a sight Isabel knew would make the perfect cover photo for her collection. The landscape was dotted with bison. Isabel's eyes glistened as she gazed at them, framing pictures - creating art in her mind's eye. The huge beasts looked timeless in the changing light of dawn, especially since they were positioned so that there were no telephone poles or modern houses or even visible roads anywhere around them. It was just the beasts, the land and the amazing sky.

  Isabel took another sip of her coffee before she put the cup down and began focusing her camera and setting up the first shots. As she worked, a sense of peace filled her, and Isabel's skin tingled with happiness.

  "And you thought you'd lost it," she spoke aloud to herself softly, letting her voice fill the empty space around her. "Well, not lost it," she muttered as she sighted through the telephoto lens and focused on a huge bison bull backlit by the rosebud-hued sky. "Just lost the peace in it. "

  Ironic, really, that the collection of photographs USA Today had called Peace? had made her lose her perspective on the subject.

  "Afghanistan will do that. " Isabel clicked off several frames of the bison.

  In retrospect she should have known the assignment was going to be a tough one. But she'd gotten cocky. Hell, she'd been a photojournalist - a successful, award-winning photojournalist - for twenty years now. She wasn't a dewy-eyed twenty-something anymore. She was a fearless forty-two, which was part of her problem. Overconfidence in her ability had blinded her to the realities of what really seeing would do to her.

  Of course, it wasn't like she hadn't been to war zones before - Bosnia, the Falklands and South Africa had all come before her lens. But something had been different in Afghanistan. I'd been different. Somehow I'd lost perspective and darkness and chaos slithered in, Isabel admitted to herself as she changed the angle of the tripod and shot several frames rapidly, catching a young calf frolicking around its grazing mother.

  It had started with the soldier, Curtis Johnson. He'd had kind brown eyes set in a face that was young and more cute than handsome. He couldn't have been older than twenty-five, and he'd flirted outrageously with her as he escorted her to the jeep she'd be riding in - the one smack in the middle of the convoy of supplies they were taking from the U. S. airbase to one of the small native settlements just a few miles down the potholed road.

  Actually, Curtis had been so cute and clever that she'd been daydreaming about loosening up her rule on not having a fling when she was on assignment. She'd been counting the years between them and had decided that, what the hell, if sexy young Curtis didn't care that she was almost twenty years his senior, then why the hell should she care?

  And that was when the roadside bomb detonated. Isabel had switched to photographer autopilot, and in the middle of the smoke and fire, darkness and horror, she'd captured some of the most profound images of her career - images that had included Curtis Johnson, whose strong right leg and well-muscled right arm had been blown completely off. She'd never meant to capture him. She hadn't even realized he'd been part of the blast. She'd meant only to do what was instinctive; capture the truth. And then the truth bombed her in the face, and she nearly fell apart.

  Curtis's eyes had still been kind, even as they'd clouded with shock. Before he'd lost consciousness, he'd been worried about her - been warning her to get down . . . get under cover . . . Then he'd bled out on the cracked desert sand and died in her arms. All hell broke loose around her, and all she remembered after that was screaming to keep her camera. She absolutely had to have the pictures of Curtis in life. For his family. For her.

  Isabel shivered and realized she'd stopped taking pictures and was standing beside her tripod. She lifted a hand to the chill on her cheeks. They were wet.

  "Focus on what you're doing!" Isabel told herself. "This is your chance to regain your center - your normalcy. " And to get over your grief.

  She did the buck-up thing her father had always taught her, got rid of the tears and the memories and focused on her job.

  Shaking her head, she returned to the frame of her camera, her smile feeling sarcastic. Her gang of best friends would agree that an Isabel Cantelli norm wasn't anywhere near most people's norm. She could almost hear her gang chastising her. Meredith would shrug and say the Isabel norm usually worked for her - it had certainly made her successful. Robin would shake her head and say Isabel needed to find a full-time man, not just a string of attractive lovers. Kim would dissect Isabel's psyche and eventually agree with Robin that more permanence in her life would help ground her, and Teresa would chime in that whatever made Isabel happy was what she should go for.

  Until a month ago and that trip to Afghanistan, Isabel would have laughed, rolled her eyes, poured herself more champagne and said her nomadic life, free of entangling man strings, was exactly what made her happy.

  Then Curtis Johnson had happened to her, and Isabel's view of the world had changed, and in this new, tainted viewpoint she'd realized that she'd been fooling herself for quite a while. Or maybe it was more accurate to say that she'd been searching for herself for quite a while, because somewhere in the middle of her successful career and her group of intelligent, articulate friends and her life that was at once exciting and comfortable, she'd lost herself.

  Which is why she was here, on Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie. She was doing the only thing she knew to reground herself - she was viewing life through her camera and searching for her true north again so she could find a way to navigate through the changing landscape of her life. Her plan had seemed to be working, until she'd allowed her mind to wander and her eyes to see the past. And the past had good and bad memories, times of joy and ridiculous fear. If there was an emotion she'd ever not experienced, she wasn't sure what it would be. She needed something to shock her into enjoyment again. If she could only figure out what it would be. But this, this natural Oklahoma beauty was working right now.

  "So focus!" Isabel reminded herself, and was pleased to fall fairly easily back into the zone of framing the
lovely land before her.

  The next time she moved her tripod, she caught sight of the morning light glistening off the surface of what she realized was water winding through a gully to her right. Intrigued as always by varieties in landscape, she headed in that direction, loving the surprising glimpse of sandy bank and a clear, bubbling stream hidden within the section of cross timbers.

  Getting closer to the water, Isabel noticed a single ray of young sunlight had penetrated the green shadows of the trees, so that a small section of the stream was being illuminated, as if by a silver spotlight. That spotlight drew her like a magnet.

  She let her instincts guide her, and moved quietly and quickly down the bank, leaving the tripod temporarily behind. As she settled on the sandy ground, kneeling so that she was just above the water, Isabel focused and began clicking picture after picture, changing the angle and distance from the water as she worked. Mesmerized by the unique quality of the light, she let the magic of the lens wash away the sadness thinking of Afghanistan and the fallen soldier had caused. She'd changed position and was lying prone on her stomach, elbows planted in the sand, when the brush on the opposite side of the bank rustled, and accompanied by a massive snapping of twigs, a bison lumbered into view.

  Hardly daring to breathe, Isabel kept snapping pictures as the huge beast went to the water. He snorted once at her, probably sensing the scent of an intruder, but then ignored her completely, lowered his black muzzle and drank noisily.

  She wondered how she smelled to him. He'd swung his head around until he'd spotted her. She never felt fear, so she didn't believe that's what caught his attention. Did she just smell human? She wasn't wearing perfume, she was lying so still, there was no way he heard her.

  What had made him look directly toward her? And why had his eyes seem so ancient and wise? When he backed away from the lake, he shook his head up and down, gave her one more unfathomable look, and then turned and loped away with an agility she'd never have believed of such a huge, amazing beast.

  A thrill went through Isabel. She clicked back to glance through the pictures she'd captured of him. The bison had stepped directly into the shaft of light. Morning dew speckled the big bull's coat so that through Isabel's lens he appeared to be swathed in diamonds and mist. And he'd nodded at her. As if he were approving the photo shoot. And as he turned and left, her first thought was that every single human male in existence would give anything for that package he was carrying.

  Isabel sat up and laughed aloud with delight, relieved beyond measure that the beauty and peace of this ancient land had begun to do exactly what she'd hoped when she'd discussed this book idea with her agent - it had begun to sooth her soul and help reground her creativity in something more bearable than death and destruction.

  Impulsively Isabel kicked off her hiking boots and pulled off her socks. She rolled up her jeans and, still holding her camera, stepped carefully into the crystalline water. Isabel sucked air and gasped at the initial chill, but after a few slow steps, her feet got used to the temperature of the stream, and she made her way to the shaft of sunlight that had so recently framed the bison. When she got to the light, Isabel turned her face up, bathing in the morning's radiance while the cool water washed over her feet and ankles.

  There was something about this place that touched her. Maybe it was just the drastic contrast between the calm freedom of the prairie - green, lush and clean - and the war-ravaged Middle East, where everything her eyes had focused on had been dry and burned and in a nightmare of conflict. She breathed deeply - inhaling and exhaling, imagining with every breath she was getting rid of all the negatives within herself and letting the water wash away the remnants of death and war that had clung to her for the past month. Without pausing to wonder why or second-guess whether she was making a fool of herself, Isabel spoke her inner most thoughts aloud to the listening stream and the shaft of light.

  "This is just what I need. A new perspective, a new vision. To cleanse myself. That bull was telling me something. He was telling me to go for it. I just wish I knew what 'it' was. Tell me, Lady of the Lake," she said, grinning. "Mrs. Tiger taught us all about you in eighth grade. What is my destiny?"

  Isabel knew it was just her imagination, but it seemed the silver light intensified in response to her words, and she could swear she felt a thrill of something. Laughing with pleasure, she threw her arms wide and kicked up water so that drops of liquid turned crystal by the sunlight rained around her, baptizing her in brilliance.

  VIVIANE couldn't stay away from her oracle. She knew it was too soon for the tendrils of her magic to have found anyone, but she was filled with frustrated energy. So while her naiads milled nervously around her, the goddess sat in front of her oracle, a crystal basin filled with hundreds of pearls, and fretted.

  When a pearl began to glow, she practically pounced on it. Plucking it from the others in the dark, silent batch, she held it up and gazed into its milky depths. The vision cleared to show an old woman sitting beside a large lake, spitting what looked like sunflower seeds into the surf.

  "Younger!" Viviane said in disgust, severing the thread and sending it away from the crone. She tossed the pearl back into the basin and began to pace.

  The next pearl that lit up showed a child playing beside the ocean. Viviane almost screamed in exasperation. "Not that young!" she admonished her oracle.

  The next two visions were utterly unsuitable. Neither were too young or too old, they were just too ordinary. At the end of her already thinly stretched patience, Viviane plucked one long silver strand of silk from the thick fall of hair that hung veil-like around her body. Holding it over the pearl-filled basin, she twirled it in a deceptively lazy circle.

  Not too young, old or plain -

  with those there is no gain.

  Find the perfect woman is my command;

  beauty, grace and spirit is what I demand!

  The goddess released the strand of her hair, and as the gossamer length floated down into the pearl pool, she completed the spell:

  From my own body I lend my oracle power:

  find the right soul within this very hour!

  There was a flash of silver and the strand of the goddess's hair exploded, raining sparks of liquid light, which dissolved into the pearls. Invigorated anew, silver threads rushed out from the realm of the goddess and, following seaways and lakes, rivers and streams, they searched through time and realities until one small, glowing thread shot down a tiny waterway in a faraway place called Oklahoma, in the distant, modern mortal world where, in a flash of morning light, it captured the sound of a woman's joyous laughter as she recommitted herself to the bright possibilities in life.

  Viviane heard the enticing sound and plucked the glowing pearl. Holding her breath, the goddess peered within the milky depth that cleared to reveal a full-bodied blonde, oddly attired, who was dancing within a cascade of a splashing stream. Viviane's heartbeat increased with excitement.

  "Show me her face!" the goddess commanded.

  Her oracle tightened on the woman's face. Well, she was certainly attractive. Viviane squinted and focused on her. Not young, but not too old, or at least she didn't appear to be. And there was a definite benefit to a little age and experience. The woman laughed again, and Viviane unexpectedly found her own lips tilting up in response. The sound was musical and it changed the woman from attractive to alluring.

  "Yes," Viviane murmured. "I believe she will do quite nicely. " The goddess lifted her arms, causing power to swirl around her.

  I claim this mortal as fate decrees in her world she dies.

  When her life there ends, it will be to me her soul has ties.

  My love's sleeping wishes I follow most truly

  so that he might escape the despair that binds him so cruelly.

  I take nothing that is not already decreed lost;

  my purpose is clear - no matter the cost.

  Arthur's dour
fate shall not come to be

  and then my love will return to me!

  Then the great water goddess known as Coventina, Merlin's Viviane, hurled a blazing sphere of divine power through her oracle and out . . . out . . . into another time, another place, altering forever fate's plans for Isabel Cantelli.