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Brighid's Quest, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  “Begone wretched bird!” she shouted, waving her arms at it.

  Unruffled, the raven fixed her with its cold, black stare. Then slowly, distinctly, it tapped the side of the rock with its beak three times before unfurling its wings and beating the air neatly, skimming low enough over Brighid’s head that her hair stirred and she had to force herself not to duck. Scowling, the Huntress approached the rock. The bird’s feet had drawn claw-shaped marks in the snow so that the red of the rock was visible in rust-colored lines against winter’s canvas. She reached out and brushed at the area, unsurprised when Cuchulainn’s trail slash became visible, pointing into the mouth of the tunnel.

  Brighid shook her head. “I don’t want your help, Mother.” Eerily her voice bounced back to her from the tunnel walls. “The price you place on it has always been too costly.”

  The raven’s cawing drifted down on a wind that suddenly, magically, felt warm, bringing with it the scents and sounds of the Centaur Plains. Brighid closed her eyes against a tide of longing. The green of the waving grasslands was more than a color—it held scent and texture as the warm breeze shushed through it. It was spring on the Centaur Plains, and completely unlike this cold, white world of mountains. The grasses would be midhock high and dotted with the proud show of blue, white and violet wildflowers. She drew a deep breath and tasted home.

  “Stop it!” She jerked her eyes open. “It’s a sham, Mother. Freedom is the one thing the Centaur Plains does not offer me!”

  The raven’s call faded and died, taking with it the warm home-touched wind. Brighid shivered. She shouldn’t have been surprised that her mother had sent a spirit guide. The anticipatory sense she had felt all day had been instigated by more than nearing the entrance to the mountain passageway. Brighid should have sensed her mother’s hand. No, Brighid corrected herself, she had sensed it—she should have acknowledged it.

  I have made my choice. I am Huntress for the Clan MacCallan—an oath-sworn member of the Clan. I do not regret my choice.

  The Huntress squared her shoulders and entered the tunnel, physically and mentally shaking off the lingering effects of her mother’s presence. She was suddenly glad that the pass was snow-covered enough that it would take all of her concentration and much of her vast physical strength to navigate her way through it. She didn’t want to think about her mother or the familiar beauty of the homeland she had decided to leave forever.

  The day was still young. According to Lochlan, she should be able to clear the most treacherous parts of the trail before dark. If all went well, tomorrow she would find the Fomorian camp and Cuchulainn. She picked up her pace, careful not to misstep and catch a hoof in a snow-hidden crevice. Brighid focused on the trail. She did not think of her mother or the life from which Brighid had turned. She ignored the guilt and loneliness that shadowed her every decision. She had made the right choice. She was sure of it. But just because she had chosen wisely didn’t mean she had taken the easiest path.

  As she scrambled around a slick, narrow corner in the treacherous trail, she smiled in grim irony. The physical path she had chosen to travel was quickly proving to be almost as difficult as the life path she had chosen.

  Distracted by her inner turmoil and her outer challenges, the Huntress’s keen senses only registered the watching eyes deep in her subconscious as a brief feeling of unease. A feeling cast aside as vestiges of irritation at her mother’s interfering spirit emissary.

  Unhindered within the darkness, the eyes glowed the color of old blood as they continued to watch and to wait.


  THE DAMNED WIND was never-ending. Cuchulainn thought it was the thing he disliked most about the Wastelands. The cold he could bear, at least in limited doses. He could even find the open land and the oddly low-growing plants unusual and interesting. But the Goddess-cursed wind was a constant irritant. It howled incessantly and chafed exposed skin to raw roughness. The warrior shivered and pulled the cowl of his fur-lined cloak over his head. He probably should return to camp. Evening was quickly approaching, and though he had only been in the Wastelands for less than two full cycles of the moon, he had already learned to respect how dangerous it was to get caught in the open after sunset, even for a short time.

  Cuchulainn paused and squatted to study the sharp hoof indentations in the snow. The tracks were fresh. The whipping wind hadn’t had time to obscure them. The wild bighorn sheep couldn’t be far ahead.

  The young wolf made a muffled whine as she pressed her cold snout into his side. Absently Cuchulainn stroked the wolf’s ruff.

  “Cold and hungry, too, are you, Fand?”

  The wolf whined softly again and nuzzled her wet nose under his chin. Abruptly he stood and tightened the lacings of his cloak. “All the more reason to finish tracking the sheep. Come on, it’s not far ahead of us. Let’s get this business done.”

  The wolf’s whining stopped as she moved forward at his side. Though not even half-grown she was totally devoted to her surrogate parent. Where he went, she would follow.

  Cuchulainn stepped up his pace, imagining the happy cries of the children when he brought game back to camp. For the briefest of instants, the warrior’s thoughts softened. The children had certainly been unexpected. Not that he hadn’t known they existed. They had been the impetus for his mission. It had been his task to travel to the Wastelands and guide the children of the hybrid Fomorians, or New Fomorians as they liked to call themselves, to Partholon, the homeland of their long-dead human mothers. But the thinking of a thing and the actual doing of it was often as dissimilar as the stark Wastelands and the green prosperity of Partholon.

  The New Fomorians, quite simply, had been one surprise after another.

  When Cuchulainn had thought ahead to the actual meeting with the hybrid Fomorians his warrior’s mind had imagined them as barbarians who were quite likely dangerous. That Lochlan was civilized made no difference. As unlikely as it had seemed at first, Epona had fashioned him to be Cuchulainn’s sister’s lifemate. Of course Lochlan would be different, but Cuchulainn knew only too well that the hybrid Fomorians were capable of great savagery.

  They had survived in the harshness of the Wastelands for more than a century. And even with the madness recently excised from their blood, they were still the spawn of demons. His sister had insisted they return to Partholon, as the land was part of their heritage. She was his Clan Chieftain and he would obey her, but he was also an experienced warrior. Cuchulainn would not lead enemies into Partholon. So he would be wary and wise. It was one of the reasons he had insisted on traveling with no other human warriors. By himself he could discover the truth, and by himself he could return to warn Partholon if need be.

  As he and the hybrid Fomorian twins, Curran and Nevin, traveled from MacCallan Castle through the northern forest and into the hidden pass in the Trier Mountains, Cuchulainn had waited, watched the twins, and nursed the raw wound that was his grief. That he woke every morning able to force himself to move through the motions of another day was a small miracle. Looking back, the trip to the Wastelands had been one long, painful blur. Curran and Nevin had been silent traveling companions. They had appeared to show no predilection for violence. They did not complain about the pace he set, nor did they react to his gruff, withdrawn manner. Cuchulainn told himself their benign demeanor meant nothing. When he got to their camp he’d planned to gauge the reaction of the other Fomorians to his news, and then he would do what was best for Partholon.

  So Cuchulainn had journeyed into the north, battling grief within and imagining demons without. He’d no physical injuries from which to recover, but the wound Brenna’s death had left in his soul was a gaping, invisible hole. The passage of time hadn’t begun to whittle away any of the sharpness of his pain. He would not ever truly recover from it. He would only survive it. There was a distinct difference.

  His mind skittered away from the pain thinking about Brenna caused. Not that his loss wasn’t always with him. She was never far from his thought
s, but he had learned that if he gave in to despair by dwelling on might-have-beens the pain went quickly from smoldering coals to a hot, flaming need. It was a need that would never be slaked. Brenna was gone. That was unalterable fact. It was far better not to think—not to feel—at all.

  Just track the sheep. Kill it. Return to camp. He ordered his mind to stop its restless roving.

  Cuchulainn turned a corner. He and the young wolf quietly worked their way between the snow-covered rocks that nestled against the northern slope of the Trier Mountains. He was pleased that the snow had markedly lessened. Just days ago he couldn’t have followed the sheep to the base of the mountains. If luck held and they didn’t have another unexpected bout of snow, the pass might be clear enough for travel in another few days. Of course he would have to make sure. The children were tough and willing, but they were, for all their eagerness and precocity, still just children.

  They were unusual, though. He would never forget his first glimpse of them—or their reaction to the first completely human man they had ever seen. It had been an overcast, gloomy afternoon. The sky had been heavy with the spring blizzard that would seal the pass and close them into the Wastelands. He and Curran and Nevin had emerged from the mountains and traveled the short distance from the pass to the small valley that sheltered the New Fomorian camp. It had been a young sentry named Gareth who had glimpsed them, and like any good guard he had rushed to alert his camp. But instead of meeting the small party with drawn weapons and wariness, the New Fomorians had rushed from their encampment with open hands and welcoming smiles. Children! By the Goddess, he hadn’t expected so many children. Laughing and singing a beautiful melody Cuchulainn was shocked to recognize as an ancient Partholonian song of praise to Epona, the hybrids had embraced the twins. Then their attention had quickly turned to him—the lone human rider in their midst.

  “This is Cuchulainn,” Nevin had said.

  “He is brother to the Goddess Elphame who has saved us,” Curran finished for him.

  The joyful singing had instantly been silenced. The cluster of winged people had gazed at him. Cuchulainn remembered thinking they looked like a flock of bright, beautiful birds. Then the crowd parted to let a slender figure emerge. The first thing he noticed was that her skin had the odd luminous paleness of the other hybrid Fomorians, but her hair, wings and eyes were much darker. And then he saw the tears that washed her cheeks. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes were bright with them. Her gaze locked with his and Cuchulainn saw compassion and a terrible sadness. He wanted to look away. He didn’t want her emotions to touch him. His own pain ran too deep, was too fresh. But as he turned his head to break their locked gaze, the winged woman dropped gracefully to her knees. And then, like she was a pebble thrown into a waiting pool, the crowd of winged people, adults and children alike, followed her example and rippled to their knees.

  “Forgive us. We are responsible for your sister’s death.” The winged woman’s sweet voice was filled with the sadness he’d read within her eyes.

  “My sister is not dead.” Cuchulainn’s voice was flat and so devoid of emotion that it sounded alien to his own ears.

  The woman reacted with obvious shock. “But the curse has been lifted. We all feel the absence of the demons in our blood.”

  “You misinterpreted the prophecy,” Cuchulainn said in his gruff, empty voice. “It did not call for the physical death of my sister. Instead of her life, the prophecy led her to sacrifice a piece of her humanity. She lives. And it is only through the grace of Epona that she is not mad.”

  Still on her knees, the woman looked from Cuchulainn to Curran and Nevin.

  “What he says is true,” Curran said. “Elphame drank of Lochlan’s blood, and with it she accepted the madness of our people. Through the power of Epona she has defeated our fathers’ darkness, but it lives within her blood.”

  “Lochlan? Did he survive?” she asked.

  “Yes. He is mated to Elphame,” Nevin said.

  “Keir and Fallon?”

  “They have chosen another path,” Nevin said quickly.

  Cuchulainn felt ice slice through him. Fallon had chosen the path of madness and in doing so she had murdered Brenna. But before she could be executed for her crime she’d revealed that she was pregnant. Elphame had imprisoned Fallon at Guardian Castle to await the birth of her child. Keir was her mate, and he had chosen to stay with her.

  Ciara watched the human warrior’s face carefully. She recognized the numb, hopeless look that was the shadow left behind by tremendous loss. He had not lost his sister, but he had borne terrible sadness. Much had happened that they all needed to know, but not now—not at this moment. Later, she told herself. Later she would discover what could be done to relieve the warrior’s pain, as well as hear the tale of Fallon and Keir. Right now all that was important was that this man was the brother of their savior. For that alone they owed him a debt of gratitude.

  She smiled, filling her words with the joy that was part of her soul. “Then we will give thanks to Epona that your sister lives, Cuchulainn.”

  “Do what you feel you must,” he said in his dead voice. “My sister asks that I lead you back to Partholon and to our Clan’s castle. Will your people come with me?”

  Her hands flew to cover her mouth. All around her she heard gasps of happiness and surprise. She couldn’t speak. Breath-stopping exultation swelled within her. This was it! This was the fulfillment of the dream their mothers and grandmothers had nurtured and kept alive within each of them. Then, bursting through the circle of kneeling adults came a tide of laughter and excitement as a horde of children, no longer able to contain their exuberance, crowded into the empty space that surrounded the warrior and his horse. The adults hurried to their feet and rushed forward, clucking at their young charges and trying in vain to restore some semblance of order and dignity to the warrior’s welcome.

  The children clambered around Cuchulainn, their eyes large and round. With wings extended they jostled against one another like an overcrowded nest of baby cuckoos. He felt suddenly like a lone, overwhelmed sparrow.

  “Partholon! We go to Partholon!”

  “We are to meet the Goddess!”

  “Is the land really warm and green?”

  “Do you really not have wings?”

  “May I touch your horse?”

  Cuchulainn’s big gelding snorted and took two skittering steps backward, away from a tiny, winged girl who was trying on tiptoe to stroke his muzzle.

  “Children, enough!” The winged woman’s voice was stern, but her eyes sparkled and she smiled as she spoke. “Cuchulainn will believe that the lessons of courtesy your great-grandmothers taught have been forgotten.”

  Instantly the young winged beings dropped their heads and muttered soft apologies. The little girl who had been trying to touch his horse bowed her head, too, but Cuchulainn could see that she was sidling forward, one hand half raised, still trying for a covert caress. The gelding snorted again and took another step back. The girl followed. Just like Elphame when she was young, Cuchulainn thought fondly. Always reaching for things she shouldn’t. And for the first time since Brenna’s death, Cuchulainn almost laughed.

  “Yes, child,” he said to the top of her blond head. “You may touch him. Only go slowly, he is not accustomed to children.”

  The small head tilted up and the child gifted Cuchulainn with a tremendous smile of gratitude. Sharp canine teeth glittered in odd contrast to her innocent appearance.

  “Her name is Kyna.”

  The winged woman moved to the child’s side. She gave Kyna a nod of encouragement and Cuchulainn tightened his grip on the gelding, holding him firmly in place so the girl could carefully pat his slick chest. The rest of the children watched and whispered to each other.

  “And I am Ciara, granddaughter of the Incarnate Goddess Terpsichore. You are most welcome here, Cuchulainn.” She, too, smiled brilliantly up at the warrior with a sharp-toothed grin. “I believe the children have answered y
our question for all of us. We have waited for more than one hundred years for this day. Yes, it will be our great pleasure to follow you to Partholon.”

  Pandemonium greeted her proclamation. The adults cheered and the children danced around as if they had springs as well as wings. Afraid someone would get trampled, Cu had been forced to dismount, which brought on another tirade of questions from the children who wanted to touch his back to make sure he wasn’t hiding wings under his cloak. Ciara and the other adults had quite a job calming the jumping, dancing, laughing group of excited youngsters.

  Trying to keep his veneer of detached observer in place, Cuchulainn had silently watched the cacophony of jubilation. The winged people obviously looked to Ciara for leadership. She had laughingly apologized for the overenthusiastic welcome while she called for one of the lodges to be made ready and introduced him to several smiling adults. But when he asked her if she had been made leader during Lochlan’s absence, she had only laughed and said she was the same now as she had been when Lochlan was with them—just an ordinary Shaman to her people.

  Her words had been completely unexpected. Shaman? Where were the barbaric hybrid demons he had expected to watch warily and judge harshly? Cuchulainn remembered how stunned he had felt standing there that first day. Then little Kyna had shrieked. He had lunged, pulling his claymore free from its pommel. Crouched and ready for battle he had followed the child’s pointing finger to discover that Fand had finally crept from a clump of concealing brush and was slinking toward him. Cu had hastily sheathed his sword and knelt down to reassure the nervous wolf cub, while he fielded rapidly fired questions from Kyna. He felt Ciara’s gaze and looked up to find her dark eyes studying him knowingly.

  “You have no enemies here, Cuchulainn, except those that war within you,” she had said quietly.

  Before he could respond the sky had opened and huge, wet flakes of snow had begun falling.