Divine by Blood, Page 2P. C. Cast
Yes, her memory was intact, as was her mind. She knew where she was—the sacred grove, in the modern state of Oklahoma. And, as expected, she had been expelled from her prison inside one of the twin oaks. The other stood, unchanged, beside the shallow stream that ran between the trees. It was twilight. The wind whined fretfully around her. The bruised sky rumbled dangerously with thunder, and was answered by shards of lightning.
Lightning…that must have been what freed her.
I am what freed you.
The voice was no longer in her head, but it still had a disembodied, otherworldly tone. It was coming from under the twin tree to her oak, where the shadows were the deepest.
“Pryderi?” Rhiannon’s voice sounded too raspy and weak to be her own.
Of course, Precious One, whom did you expect? The Goddess who betrayed you? His laughter brushed against her skin, and Rhiannon wondered how anything that sounded so beautiful could also feel so cruel.
“I—I cannot see you,” she gasped as another contraction engulfed her.
The god waited until the pain receded again, and then the shadows under the tree stirred. A form moved slightly, so that it could be more easily seen in the fading daylight. Rhiannon felt her breath catch at his beauty. Though his body was not fully materialized in this world and had the transparent look of a spirit, letting her see through it to the shadows beyond, the sight of him made her forget that she was swollen with impending birth. Tall and strongly built, he was imposing even in spirit form. His mane of dark hair framed a face that should have inspired poets and artists, and not the terrible stories whispered about him in Partholon. His eyes smiled at her and his face was suffused with love and warmth.
I greet you, my priestess, my Precious One. Can you see me now?
“Yes,” she whispered in awe. “Yes, I see you, but only as a spirit.” Rhiannon felt dizzied by such an obvious show of the god’s favor. He was absolutely magnificent—everything a god should be. And suddenly she could not believe she had wasted all her life worshipping Epona, when she should have been kneeling in supplication at this wondrous god’s feet.
It is difficult for me to hold corporeal form. In order for me to truly exist in the flesh, I must be worshipped. There must be sacrifices made in my name. I must be loved and obeyed. That is what you and your daughter will do for me—you will lead the people to find me again, and then I will return you to your rightful place in Partholon.
“I understand,” she said, ashamed that her voice was so weak between her panting breaths. “I will—”
But before she could finish her words, two things happened simultaneously, both effectively silencing her. The night was suddenly filled with the sonorous sound of drumbeats. Rhythmically, like a heart pulsing blood through a body, the glade was wrapped in a deep, vibrating pulse. At the same moment Rhiannon was gripped by the overwhelming need to push.
Her back bowed and her legs automatically came up. She gripped the gnarled roots, trying to find something, anything that would anchor her straining body. Her wild eyes searched the shadows where Pryderi had materialized. Faintly, she could see his spectral form.
“Help me,” she moaned.
The beating drums were getting louder. Within the resonant sound, she could now hear chanting, though she could not make out the words. Pryderi’s form flickered and, with a horror that mirrored the pain that threatened to tear apart her body, she watched his beautiful face ripple and re-form. His sensuous mouth was seared shut. His nose became a grotesque hole. His eyes were no longer smiling and kind. They glowed with an inhuman yellow light. Then, before she could take another sobbing breath, the apparition changed again. The eyes became dark, empty caverns and the mouth ripped open to show bloody fangs and a slavering maw.
Rhiannon screamed in fear and rage and pain.
The drumbeat and chanting got louder and closer.
Pryderi’s image shifted and he was, once more, the inhumanly beautiful god, only this time he was barely visible.
I cannot always be beautiful, even for you, Precious One.
“Are you leaving me?” she cried as the terrible pushing urge abated for a moment. Though his changing visage terrified her, she was even more afraid to face birth alone.
Those who approach are forcing me to leave. I cannot battle them tonight. I do not have the strength in this world. Then his eyes blazed into hers and his body almost solidified. Rhiannon MacCallan, I have sought you for decades. I have watched your unhappiness multiply as you were shackled to Epona. You must make your choice now, Rhiannon! You have seen all of my forms. Will you renounce the Goddess and give yourself to me as my priestess, my Chosen and Incarnate?
Rhiannon felt light-headed with pain and fear. Her eyes flicked wildly around the grove, searching for some sign of Epona, but she saw nothing of her divine light. She had been abandoned to the darkness—a darkness that had been pursuing her for years. What choice did she have? She could not imagine existing were she not the Chosen of a deity. How would she live if she did not have the power such status afforded her? But even as she made her decision, Rhiannon could not bring herself to openly renounce Epona. She would accept Pryderi. That would have to be enough for the god.
“Yes. I will still give myself to you,” she said faintly.
And your daughter? Do you pledge your daughter to me, as well?
Rhiannon rejected the warning that whispered through her soul.
Her words were broken off by the high-pitched battle cry of seven tribal Elders as the men entered the grove, tightening a circle around the two oaks. With a roar that made Rhiannon’s heart tremble, Pryderi’s spirit dissolved into the shadows.
Pain bowed her body again and all Rhiannon knew was that she must push. Then strong hands were supporting her. She gasped and opened her eyes. The man was ancient. His face was deeply furrowed and his long hair was white. There was an eagle feather tied within its length. His eyes…Rhiannon focused on the kindness in his brown eyes.
“Help me,” she whispered.
“We are here. The darkness is gone. It is safe for your child to enter the world now.”
Rhiannon gripped the stranger’s hands. She pushed with everything within her pain-racked body. Then to the beat of the ancient drums her daughter slid from her womb.
And as she was born, it was Epona and not Pryderi to whom Rhiannon cried.
The old man used his knife to cut the cord that linked daughter to mother. Then he wrapped the infant in a home-woven blanket and gave her to Rhiannon. When she looked into her daughter’s eyes, it seemed to Rhiannon that the world shifted irrevocably. Deep within her soul she felt the change. She had never seen anything so miraculous. She hadn’t felt like this ever before in her life. Not when she’d first heard Epona’s voice—not when she’d experienced for the first time the power of being a Goddess’s Chosen—and not when she’d seen Pryderi’s terrible beauty.
This, Rhiannon thought with wonder, touching her daughter’s impossibly soft cheek, is true magic.
Another round of contractions wracked her, and Rhiannon gasped. She held her child close to her breast and tried to concentrate on nothing but her while she expelled the afterbirth. Somewhere Rhiannon heard the old man calling orders to another, and understood the urgency in his voice. But the drums continued to beat their ancient rhythm, and her daughter felt so right in her arms…
Rhiannon couldn’t stop staring at her. The child gazed back with wide, dark eyes that continued to touch her mother’s soul.
“I have been so very wrong.”
“Yes,” the old man murmured. “Yes, Rhiannon, you have been wrong.”
Rhiannon looked up from her daughter. With a strangely detached observation she realized that he had knelt beside her and was holding a bundle of cloth firmly between her legs. How odd that she hadn’t felt him do that. Actually, she could feel very little of her body, and was relieved that the pain had stopped. Then her thoughts
focused on what he had said.
“You know my name.”
He nodded. “I was here the day the White Shaman sacrificed his life to entomb you within the sacred tree.”
With a jolt Rhiannon recognized him as the leader of the Natives who had vanquished the demonic Nuada.
“Why are you helping me now?”
“It is never too late for an earth dweller to change their chosen path.” He paused, studying her silently before continuing. “You were broken then, but I believe this child has healed your spirit.” He smiled kindly. “She must be a great force for good if her birth was able to mend so much.”
Rhiannon cradled her daughter, keeping her close to her breast. “Morrigan. Her name is Morrigan, granddaughter of The MacCallan.”
“Morrigan, granddaughter of The MacCallan. I will remember her name and speak it truly.” His eyes held hers and Rhiannon felt a chill of foreboding, even before she heard his next words. “Something within your body is torn. There is too much bleeding, and it does not stop. I have sent someone for my truck, but it will be hours before we can reach a doctor.”
She met his eyes and read the truth there. “I’m dying.”
He nodded. “I believe you are. Your spirit has been healed, but your body is broken beyond repair.”
Rhiannon didn’t feel fear or panic, and she certainly experienced no pain. She only knew a terrible sense of loss. She looked down at her newborn daughter who gazed back at her with such trust, and traced the soft face with her fingertip. She would not see Morrigan grow. She would not be there to watch over her and be sure she was safe and…“Oh, Goddess! What have I done?”
The old man did not attempt to placate her. His eyes were sharp and wise. “Tell me, Rhiannon.”
“I pledged myself to Pryderi. He also wanted me to pledge my daughter to his service, but your presence drove him away before I could give her to him.”
“Pryderi is an evil one? A god of darkness?” he said quickly.
“You must renounce him. For yourself and for Morrigan.”
Rhiannon looked down at Morrigan. If she renounced Pryderi for both of them, in all probability her daughter would be trapped in this world. She might even be unable to tap into the small threads of power Rhiannon had discovered. Morrigan would never return to Partholon.
But if she did not renounce Pryderi, her daughter would be destined to serve the same darkness Rhiannon now recognized had been shadowing her entire life, whispering discontent, echoing anger and selfishness and hatred, and, most destructive of all, twisting love into something unrecognizable.
Rhiannon could not bear the thought that her daughter’s life might be as tainted as her own had become. If Morrigan was trapped in this world, then so be it. At least she would not be trapped by the lies of evil, too.
“I renounce Pryderi, the Triple-Faced God, and I reject his hold on me—and my daughter, Morrigan MacCallan,” Rhiannon said. Then she waited. She had been the priestess and Chosen of a powerful goddess since she was a girl. She knew how serious it was to renounce a deity. There should be a sign, be it internal or external, that would show Destiny had been altered. Gods did not bear rejection well, especially not dark gods.
“The dark one knows you are near death and very close to the realm of spirits. His hold on you is tight. He is not releasing you.”
The old man’s words were softly spoken, but Rhiannon felt them as if he had sliced into her heart. Even though she was growing weaker, she forced her arms to tighten around her daughter’s tiny body.
“I did not pledge Morrigan to him. Pryderi has no hold over her.”
“But you are still bound to him,” the old man said gravely.
Rhiannon was finding it difficult to fight against the exhaustion that was graying the edges of her vision. She was cold. She wished the old shaman would leave her alone and let her stare at her daughter until…
“Rhiannon, you must listen to me!” He shook her. “If you die bound to Pryderi your spirit will never know the presence of your goddess again. You will never know light or joy again. You will spend eternity blanketed in the night of the dark god and the despair that taints all he touches.”
“I know,” she whispered. “But I am finished fighting. It seems all I’ve done for as long as I can remember is fight. I’ve been too selfish, caused too much pain. Done too much harm. Perhaps it is time for me to pay for that.”
“Perhaps it is, but should your daughter pay for your mistakes, too?”
His words jolted her, and she blinked back the encroaching darkness in her eyes. “Of course she shouldn’t. What are you saying, old man?”
“You did not pledge her to him, but Pryderi desires a priestess with the blood of Epona’s Chosen in her veins. With you dead, who do you think will be his next victim?”
“No!” But she knew he was right. Pryderi had admitted to shadowing her for decades. He wouldn’t do any less to her daughter. Rhiannon shuddered. Morrigan would not be haunted by the darkness she had allowed to whisper and beguile her—and twist her love for her goddess into something ugly. “No,” she repeated. “Morrigan will not be his next choice.”
“Then you must call upon your goddess to force Pryderi to relinquish his hold on you.”
Rhiannon felt a surge of despair. “Epona has turned her face from me.”
“But have you renounced your bond to her?”
“I have done things abhorrent to her.” And for the first time in her life Rhiannon admitted that it had been she who had betrayed her goddess’s faith long before Epona had stopped speaking to her. “She no longer hears me.”
“Perhaps the Goddess has been waiting to hear the right words from you.”
Rhiannon stared into the shaman’s eyes. If there was just the slightest possibility that he might be right she would try. She would call upon Epona. She was close to death—perhaps her goddess would take pity on her. She could feel the misty veil already shrouding her body and numbing her to this world. Surely even from Partholon Epona knew what had befallen her. Rhiannon closed her eyes and centered herself.
“Epona, Great Goddess of Partholon—goddess of my youth—goddess of my heart. Please hear me one last time. Forgive me for my selfish mistakes. Forgive me for allowing darkness to taint your light. Forgive me for the pain I caused you and others.” Rhiannon paused, struggling to focus her thoughts and to stave off the cloying numbness that was traveling throughout her body. “I know I do not deserve your favor, but I ask that you stop Pryderi from claiming my soul and my daughter’s.”
The wind picked up her words and rattled and shook them until they sounded like rain sloughing through autumn leaves. Rhiannon opened her eyes. The shadows beneath the giant sacred oak, the twin to the destroyed tree under which she lay, began to stir and her heart fluttered in panic. Had Pryderi returned to claim her, despite the presence of the shaman and the power of their ancient drums? Then a ball of light burst into being, chasing away the darkness. From the center of the light a figure began to form. Rhiannon’s breath caught and tears filled her eyes. The old shaman bowed his head respectfully.
“Welcome, Great Goddess,” he said.
Epona smiled at the old man. John Peace Eagle, know that for your actions tonight you have my gratitude and my blessing.
“Thank you, Goddess,” he said solemnly.
Then Epona turned her gaze to Rhiannon. With a trem-bling hand, she wiped the tears from her eyes so that she could see the Goddess more clearly. In her childhood Epona had materialized for her several times, but as she had entered her rebellious teenage years, and then become a selfish, indulged adult, the Goddess had quit visiting her, quit speaking to her, and eventually, had quit hearing her. Now Rhiannon felt her soul quicken at the sight of her goddess.
“Forgive me, Epona!” she cried.
I forgive you, Rhiannon. I forgave you before you asked it of me. I, too, have been at fault. I saw your weakness and knew your soul was being courted by darkness.
My love for you blinded me to the level of your self-destruction.
Rhiannon bit back the excuses that always so readily came to her tongue. “I was wrong,” was all she said. Then she drew a deep breath, fighting against the numbness that sought to steal away her words. “Epona, I ask that you break the bonds Pryderi has on me. I have renounced him, but as you know, I am near death. His hold on my soul is strong.”
Epona studied her fallen priestess carefully before asking, Why do you ask such a thing of me, Rhiannon? Is it because you fear what will happen to your spirit after death?
“Goddess, I find now that death is near many things in my life have become clear.” She glanced down at the child she still held in her weakening arms. “Or perhaps it is the presence of my daughter that has allowed the scales to fall from my eyes.” She looked up at the Goddess. “The truth is that, yes, I am afraid to spend eternity in despair and darkness, but I would not have called upon you to save me from the fate I know I deserve.” Rhiannon choked, coughed, and took several gasping breaths before she could continue. “I called upon you because I could not bear the thought that my daughter would be claimed by the same darkness that has poisoned so much of my life. If you break the bonds Pryderi has upon my soul I do not ask that I be allowed to enter your meadows. I ask that you allow me to exist in the Otherworld, where I can keep watch on her and try to whisper good when the dark god whispers evil.”
Eternity in the Otherworld is not an easy fate. There is no rest to be found there—no meadows of light and laughter to succor your world-weary soul.
“I do not wish to rest while my daughter is in danger. I do not want her to follow my path.”
The years of your daughter’s life will be only a tiny ripple in the pond of eternity. Do you truly ask an interminable fate for something that is in essence so transient?
Rhiannon leaned her pale cheek against her daughter’s soft head. “I do, Epona.”
The Goddess smiled and, even so near death, Rhiannon was filled with a rush of indescribable joy.