Divine by Blood, Page 3P. C. Cast
Finally, my Beloved, you have conquered the selfishness in your spirit and followed your heart. The Goddess stretched her arms over her head. Pryderi, god of darkness and lies, I do not relinquish my rightful hold on this priestess! You shall not claim her soul without first vanquishing me! Light shot from the Goddess’s palms, splintering the shadows that had skittered to the edges of the clearing. With a terrible shriek, the unnatural darkness dissipated completely, leaving what Rhiannon now recognized as only the normal and comforting darkness that twilight foretold.
“My spirit feels light,” she whispered to her daughter. That is because for the first time since you were a child your spirit is free of the influence of darkness.
“I should have taken this path long ago,” Rhiannon said faintly.
Epona’s smile was, once again, filled with limitless kindness. It is not too late, my Beloved.
Rhiannon closed her eyes against a wash of emotions that drained her of the last of her waning strength. “Epona, I know this isn’t Partholon, and I am no longer your Chosen One, but would you greet my daughter?” Her voice was almost inaudible.
Yes, Beloved. For the sake of my love for you, I greet Morrigan, granddaughter of The MacCallan, and I bestow upon her my blessing.
Rhiannon opened her eyes at the sound of the whir of wings. Epona had disappeared, but the sacred grove had been filled with thousands upon thousands of fireflies that dipped and dived and soared all around her and the infant who rested in her arms. In the fading light they illuminated the air around them as if the stars had temporarily taken leave of the night sky just to dance about the glade in celebration of the birth of her child.
“The Goddess heard your plea,” the old man said reverently. “She did not forget you. She will not forget your child.”
Rhiannon glanced at him, and had to blink hard to focus on his face. “Shaman, you must take me home.”
His eyes met hers. “I do not have the power to return you to the Otherworld, Rhiannon.”
“I know that,” she said weakly. “Take me back to the only home I have known in this world—to Richard Parker, who is the mirror image of my father, The MacCallan.” Rhiannon grimaced and pushed back the memory of Shannon Parker’s voice telling her that in Partholon her father was dead. “Take my body there and present Morrigan to him as his granddaughter. Tell him…” She hesitated, trying to speak through the numbness that was quickly enclosing her. “Tell him…that I believe in his love and know he will do the right thing.”
The shaman nodded solemnly. “How do I find Richard Parker?”
Rhiannon managed to gasp simple directions to Richard Parker’s small ranch outside Broken Arrow. Thankfully, the old man questioned her little and seemed to understand the words she whispered between gasps.
“I will do this for you, Rhiannon. I will also offer prayers for your spirit in the Otherworld. May you watch over your child and keep her safe.”
“My child…Morrigan MacCallan…blessed by Epona…” Rhiannon whispered. She found that she could not fight against the numbness any longer. Still holding her daughter to her breast, she allowed her head to fall back so that it rested on a gnarled root. And while firefly lights played all around them to the tune of ancient drums, Rhiannon, Priestess of Epona, died.
“Okay, so here’s the absolute friggin truth. If it was fun, they wouldn’t call it labor.” I grimaced and tried to find a more comfortable position on the huge down-filled mattress I’d dubbed the marshmallow, but I was so damn tired and my body was sore in so many intimate places that I gave up and settled for sipping more of the mulled wine a helpful nymphet offered me. “They’d call it something like party,” I continued. “Women would say, ‘Oh, boy! I’m going into party now and having a baby. Yippie!’ Nope. It’s definitely not called party.”
Alanna and her husband, Carolan (who had just delivered my daughter), glanced over their shoulders at me. Both of them laughed, as did several of the nymphlike handmaidens who were clustered around the room, tidying, fussing, basically doing the handmaiden stuff they loved to do (and, quite frankly, I adored their abject adoration).
“I don’t know what you’re laughing at. In a couple months you’re going to know exactly what I’m talking about,” I reminded Alanna.
“And I will count on you to hold my hand through every moment of it,” Alanna told me happily, and then kissed her husband’s cheek.
“That’s fine with me. I’ll look forward to being on the hand-holding end of the childbirth thing.”
“I thought women quickly forgot the pain of the birth.”
I looked up at my husband, the centaur High Shaman ClanFintan, whose strength and stamina surpassed a man’s, but who at that moment appeared uncharacteristically worn and bedraggled, as if he had fought his way through hell and back instead of standing by his wife’s side as she labored (for a friggin day) and gave birth to their daughter.
“Are you going to forget it soon?” I asked him with a knowing smile.
“Not likely,” he said solemnly, and for the seemingly thousandth time in the past day he bent to brush the sweat-damp hair from my face and kiss me softly on the forehead.
“Yeah, me neither. I think that whole ‘women don’t remember the pain of childbirth’ thing is a big lie started by freaked-out husbands.”
Carolan’s deep chuckle rolled across the chamber. “I would have to agree with your theory, Rhea,” he said.
I frowned at his back. “Great. My doctor didn’t think to mention that to me before I went into labor?”
“No, my Lady.” I could hear the thinly veiled humor in his voice. “Little good it would have done then. If I would have mentioned it, it should have been before you bedded the centaur.”
“Hrumph!” I said, purposefully sounding like my husband, which caused Carolan to chuckle again.
“Ah, but Rhea, wasn’t it all worth it?” Finally finished swaddling my newborn daughter, Alanna, smiling like she was Santa Claus, brought the baby back to my waiting arms. I took her eagerly from my best friend and all-around girl Friday, executive assistant and expert on everything-Partholon-that-I-didn’t-know.
“Yes.” I breathed the word, overwhelmed by the not-yet-familiar rush of love and tenderness holding my daughter evoked. “Yes, she is worth every bit.”
ClanFintan knelt beside our mattress with the fluid grace with which centaurs moved. “There is nothing she is not worth,” he said reverently. Then he touched the down of curly auburn hair that capped her perfect head. “What shall we call her, my love?”
I didn’t hesitate. I’d had months to think about this, and during that time only one name kept circling around and around in my mind. I’d asked Alanna about it when I first heard it echoing through my head, and when she told me its meaning, I knew it had to be my daughter’s name.
“Myrna. Her name is Myrna.”
ClanFintan smiled and circled us with his strong arms. “Myrna, the word in the old language for beloved. It is as it should be, for she is truly our beloved.” Then he leaned closer to me and for my ears alone murmured, “I love you, Shannon Parker. Thank you for the gift of our daughter.”
I nestled against him and kissed the strong line of his jaw, holding our sleeping daughter close to us. He rarely used the name I’d been born with—and never when he could be overheard by the general populace. There were only three people who knew I was not Rhiannon, daughter of The MacCallan—ClanFintan, Alanna and Carolan. The rest of Partholon had no idea that almost one year ago I had been “accidentally” exchanged for the real Rhiannon, with whom I looked almost identical. But our physical likeness is where our similarities ended. Rhiannon had been a selfish, hateful bitch who’d abandoned her world. I liked to think that I was just mildly selfish, and only a bitch when absolutely necessary. I knew I would never abandon Partholon, or the people and goddess I had come to love there. I’d fought to stay—and stay I would.
There was no d
oubt that I belonged in Partholon. Epona had made it clear to me that I had become her Chosen, and that it had never been an accident or a mistake that I’d been exchanged for Rhiannon. Epona chose me, and therefore I belonged to this world.
Sublimely happy, I nuzzled the top of my daughter’s soft head, “Happy birthday, Mama’s precious.”
ClanFintan’s arm was warm and strong around me. He squeezed gently, and I could hear the smile in his voice. “Happy birthday to both of my girls.”
I blinked in surprise and laughed. “That’s right! Today’s April thirtieth. It is my birthday. I’d totally forgotten.”
“You’ve been busy,” ClanFintan said.
“I definitely have.” I smiled up at the amazing centaur with whom I was so completely in love. “I think that we should thank Epona for our magical daughter who was born on her mother’s birthday.”
He kissed me gently. “Epona has my eternal thanks for Myrna and for you.” He drew a deep breath, and then in his resonant voice with which he called ancient shamanistic magic to him so that he could shape-shift into human form and make love to me, he shouted, “Hail, Epona!”
“Hail, Epona!” His cry was gladly taken up by Alanna and my handmaidens.
Suddenly the gauzy drapes that covered the floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall of my chamber began to billow up like rolling clouds, and on the fragrant breeze into the room floated hundreds of rose petals. The handmaidens made happy little exclamations and began twirling around with the petals. Then the voice that I had been waiting to hear filled the room as my goddess, Epona, spoke.
My Beloved has given birth to her beloved. It is with great gladness that I welcome Myrna, daughter of my Chosen One, to Partholon. Let us greet her with joy, magic, laughter and the blessings of her goddess!
With a pop and sizzle that reminded me of Fourth of July sparklers, the rose petals exploded into little balls of glitter and became hundreds of butterflies. Then there was another popping sound and the butterflies became jewel-colored hummingbirds that swooped and dived and circled my laughing, dancing maidens.
My eyes filled with tears of happiness and relief. My daughter had been born safely, and my goddess had attended her birth. I relaxed in the warmth of my husband’s arms, thoroughly and utterly content, and gazed down at the miracle that was our daughter, Myrna…
“This is true magic,” I whispered.
A mother’s love is the most sacred magic of all. Epona’s familiar voice drifted through my mind. In the future remember that, Beloved. A mother’s love has the power to heal and to redeem.
I was suddenly chilled. What did Epona mean? Was something going to harm Myrna?
Rest easy, Beloved. Your child is safe.
I felt a wash of relief so strong that it made my body tremble. And then I felt something else and the trembling became a shudder.
“Rhea? Are you well?” ClanFintan asked, instantly sensing the change in me.
“I’m tired,” I prevaricated, surprised at how weak my voice sounded.
“You should rest.” He kissed our daughter’s forehead and then mine before he caught Alanna’s eye. She quit dancing with the hummingbirds and handmaidens, and hurried to our side. “Rhea must rest,” he told her.
“Of course she must,” Alanna said a little breathlessly, her hand rubbing her protruding abdomen. Then she clapped her hands and the frolicking handmaidens looked her way. But before she could announce that it was time for them to depart, the hummingbirds, as a group, circled the air above where I lay and then, in a flurry of wings and glittering colors, they exploded and were once more rose petals, which rained on the floor of my chamber so that the rich marble was carpeted in Epona’s magic. “The Goddess knows her Beloved must now sleep,” Alanna said, smiling in delight at Epona’s show of favor.
“Thank you for being here. Thank you for singing my child into the world.” I somehow made my voice sound normal even though normal was far from what I was feeling.
“It was our honor, Beloved of the Goddess!” several of the handmaidens said together. Then, laughing, clapping and calling blessings to us, they scampered merrily out of my chamber.
I could feel ClanFintan’s gaze and knew better than to try to hide what was going on from him. I looked into his dark, almond-shaped eyes.
“Rhiannon is dead,” I said.
Alanna gasped, but ClanFintan grew very still. His jaw clenched and his classically handsome face seemed to turn to stone. To an outsider, his voice would sound calm, almost gentle. But I knew it for what it was—it was the way he cleared his mind and readied himself for battle.
“How do you know this, Rhea?” he asked.
I tightened my grip on Myrna’s small, perfect body. “I felt her die.”
“But I thought she was killed months ago, when the shaman from your old world entombed her in the sacred tree,” Carolan said.
I swallowed. My lips felt cold and numb. “I thought she was, too. She should have died then, but all this time she hasn’t been dead. All this time she’s been trapped inside the tree…alive.” I shuddered. Rhiannon was a hateful bitch. She’d caused me countless problems. Hell, she’d even tried to kill me. But I’d come to understand that she was just a broken version of myself, and I couldn’t help pitying her. Thinking about her being entombed alive made me feel sick and sad.
Two hard, quick knocks sounded against the door.
“Come!” ClanFintan ordered.
One of my palace guards entered the chamber and saluted me briskly.
“What is it…” I paused, trying to remember which guard he was. I mean, they all looked so much alike. Muscular. Tall. Scantily dressed. Muscular. Something about this one’s very blue eyes jogged my memory. “…Gillean?” I expected he’d come to pay homage to Myrna, but the grim set of his face had my heart beating faster.
“It is the tree in the Sacred Grove, my Lady. The one around which you pour libations every full moon. It has been destroyed.”
My gut wrenched with a pain that had nothing to do with childbirth. “What do you mean destroyed? How?”
“It appears to have been struck by lightning, but the evening is clear. There is no hint of storm in the sky.”
The bitterness of fear filled the back of my throat, making my voice sound rough. “Did anything come out of the tree?”
The guard didn’t as much as blink at my weird question. This was Partholon, where magic was as real as the Goddess who reigned here. Weird was this world’s normal.
“Nothing came out of the tree, my Lady.”
“There were no bodies?” I made myself ask, trying to push away the mental image of Clint’s decomposing corpse.
“No, my Lady. There were no bodies.”
“Are you sure? Did you see for yourself?” ClanFintan fired the questions.
“I am positive, my Lord. And, yes, I examined the tree for myself. I had just been relieved from the northern watch outside the temple grounds. I was returning when I heard a great cracking noise coming from the grove. I wasn’t far from it, and I know the Sacred Grove is important to Lady Rhiannon, so I went there immediately. The tree was still smoldering when I came upon it.”
“You have to go look,” I said to ClanFintan.
His nod was a tense jerk. “Get Dougal,” he told the guard. “Tell him to meet me at the north gate.”
“Yes, my Lord. My Lady.” He bowed formally to me and then hurried out.
“I will come with you,” Carolan said grimly. Then he and Alanna moved across the chamber, obviously allowing me some privacy with ClanFintan.
“If she’s here, she’s dead,” I said, sounding much calmer than I felt.
“Yes, but I wish to be sure that if she brought anything into Partholon with her reentry, it is dead, too.”
I nodded and looked down at Myrna’s sleeping face. Vulnerable. I felt so damn uncharacteristically vulnerable knowing that I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to my daughter…
“I will never allow anyth
ing to harm either of you.” ClanFintan’s voice was low and dangerous.
I met his steady gaze. “I know.” But it was clear in both of our eyes that we were remembering a few months ago. I had been pulled through that very tree and taken to Oklahoma, along with a resurrected evil we had all believed we had vanquished forever. And that had happened while ClanFintan watched, powerless to save me. I had only been able to return to Partholon through the sacrifice of ClanFintan’s human mirror, Clint Freeman, and the power that was in the ancient trees. “Be careful,” I said.
“Always,” he said. He kissed me and then Myrna. “Rest. I will not be gone long.”
He and Carolan rushed out of the chamber. I could hear him calling orders for the guards to double their watch on me and on the palace, which should have made me feel safe, but all it did was send a terrible wash of cold fear through my body. Myrna began to make restless noises, and I whispered reassurance to her.
“She’s probably hungry, Rhea.”
Thankfully, Alanna was at my side helping to arrange my soft nightdress so that Myrna could find my breast. I tried to relax and concentrate on the sublimely intimate act of nursing my daughter, but my thoughts wouldn’t be still. I had known the exact moment of Rhiannon’s death. The sacred tree that had imprisoned her had been destroyed. And then there were the Goddess’s cryptic words about the power of a mother’s love to heal and redeem.
Rhiannon had been pregnant when she’d been entombed.
“All will be well, Rhea.” Alanna lifted the now full and sleeping Myrna from my arms and placed her in the small cradle within reaching distance of my bed.
“I’m scared, Alanna.”
Alanna took the wide soft brush from my vanity and knelt behind me. Gently, she began brushing my hair in long, slow strokes.
“Epona will not allow you or Myrna to come to harm. You are her Chosen One, her Beloved. The Goddess protects her own. Rest now. You are safe here in the heart of Partholon, protected by all of us who love you. You have nothing to fear, my friend…nothing to fear…”