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"Through the blood of a dying Goddess your people will be saved."
More than one hundred years ago, women began disappearing from a green, prosperous land called Partholon. At first the disappearances were sporadic, seemingly random. It wasn’t until an invading horde attacked MacCallan Castle, slaughtered the Clan’s brave warriors and enslaved their women that the awful truth became known. The Fomorians, a race of winged demons, were using human women to breed a new race of monsters. It meant nothing to the vampiric creatures that birthing the mutant fetuses caused the death of the unwilling mothers. The human women were incubators -- their deaths were no more than an evil means to a ghastly end.
The Goddess Epona’s rage was terrible, and through her Chosen One, the Goddess Incarnate Rhiannon, and her centaur lifemate ClanFintan, the peoples of Partholon united to defeat the Fomorians. The demon race was destroyed, but the people of Partholon did not realize that the war’s legacy was more than death and evil. In the Wastelands, far away from the heart of Partholon, winged children were born to human mothers who miraculously survived. Part demon, part human the small group of hybrid beings struggled to carve a life for themselves out of the Wastelands. They held firm to their humanity, even when refusing the call of their fathers’ dark blood caused them pain . . . pain that slowly eroded their will until madness became their only respite.
"Through the blood of a dying Goddess your people will be saved."
But Epona had not forgotten the women who never lost hope and stayed faithful to their Goddess, though they could not return to Partholon with their winged children. The great Goddess whispered The Prophecy to her deposed children, and the promise of salvation breathed hope into the race of half-demons.
A century turned slowly and the winged people waited for the answer to their prayers. Partholon recovered and prospered again, and the Fomorian War became a memory, entombed in history.
And then a child was born, part human and part centaur. Touched by Epona’s powerful hand the babe was given the name Elphame. Through dreams she called to Lochlan, the leader of the winged half-demons who waited in the Wastelands. The child grew to adulthood, and Lochlan followed the threads of his dreams to MacCallan Castle where Elphame awakened more than the stones of the ancient ruin.
"Through the blood of a dying Goddess your people will be saved."
Out of love for Lochlan and trust in her Goddess, Elphame fulfilled The Prophecy, sacrificing a piece of her own humanity as well as her brother’s heart to save the race of hybrid Fomorians. Now this new breed of beings was finally coming home. But their struggle had just begun. Remember, the Path of the Goddess was not an easy one to tread . . .
Elphame was exactly where the Huntress had thought she would be -- not that it took a centaur Huntress’s skill to track the Clan Chieftain. The MacCallan’s habit of visiting this particular set of cliffside boulders had become well-known. From the vantage point of the highest of the large, weatherworn rocks, Elphame could sit and look northward toward the Trier Mountains, which were just a jagged purple line of peaks jutting into the horizon. She would stare at that distant line, trying to see past it into the Wastelands beyond.
Brighid approached Elphame quietly, reluctant to disturb her. Even after living and working closely with Elphame for more than two complete cycles of the moon, Brighid could still be moved by the sight of the unique being who had become her friend as well as her Clan Chieftain. Born eldest daughter of Partholon’s Goddess Incarnate and the centaur Shaman who was her lifemate, Elphame was human only to her waist; her two legs had been fashioned more equine than human. They were powerfully muscled and covered with a fine coat of glossy fur, ending in two ebony hooves.
But her physical differences were not all that set Elphame apart. She carried within her the powers given to her by Epona. She communed with the Realm of Spirits through an affinity for Earth Magic. Elphame could hear the spirits in the stones of MacCallan Castle. She also had a special connection with Epona, and Brighid often sensed the presence of the patron Goddess of Partholon when Elphame invoked the morning blessing, or thanked the Goddess at the close of a particularly productive day. And, of course, they had all witnessed Epona’s favor when Elphame had called upon the strength and love of a Goddess to defeat the madness of the Fomorians . . .
Brighid shuddered, not wanting to remember that ghastly day. It was enough to know that her Clan Chieftain was a miraculous mixture of centaur and human, goddess and mortal.
"Was the morning hunt successful?" Elphame said without turning to look at the Huntress.
"Very." Brighid wasn’t surprised her Chieftain had sensed her presence. Elphame’s preternatural powers were sharp and accurate. "The forests surrounding MacCallan Castle haven’t been properly hunted in more than one hundred years. The game practically leap before my arrows, begging to be culled."
Elphame’s full lips turned up in the hint of a smile. "Suicidal venison? That sounds like a truly unique dish."
Brighid snorted. "Don’t tell Wynne. That cook will demand I choose the beast’s temperament more carefully so her stews will have a more perfect flavor."
The MacCallan pulled her gaze from the distant mountains and smiled. "Your secret is safe with me."
Looking into Elphame’s eyes, Brighid was struck by the sadness there. Only her lips smiled. The MacCallan didn’t show this haunted face to the general public -- it was a rare privilege to be allowed such an intimacy. For a moment, Brighid feared the Fomorian madness lurking deep within her friend’s blood had awakened, but she quickly discounted the thought. Brighid didn’t see hatred or rage within Elphame’s eyes, she saw only deep sadness. She had little doubt as to its source. Elphame was happily mated to Lochlan. The rebuilding of MacCallan Castle was well underway. The Clan was healthy and thriving. Its Chieftain should be content. And Brighid knew Elphame would be, except for one detail.
"You’re worried about him." Brighid studied Elphame’s strong profile as her gaze shifted back to the horizon.
"Of course I’m worried about him!" She pressed her lips together in a sharp line. When she spoke again her voice was sad and resigned. "I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you, but I’ve been worried about him since Brenna’s death. He loved her so much."
"We all loved the little Healer," Brighid said.
Elphame sighed. "It’s because she was special. Her heart was so incredibly big."
"You’re worried that Cuchulainn won’t recover from her loss."
Elphame stared at the distant mountains. "It wouldn’t be so bad if he was here -- if I could talk with him and know how he’s doing." She shook her head. "I couldn’t stop him from leaving, though. He said everything here reminded him of Brenna, and that he’d never learn to live without her here. When he left he was just a ghost of himself. No--" she reconsidered her comparison "--not a ghost of himself. He was more like a shadow of what he used to be . . ."
Elphame’s voice faded. Brighid stayed by her side while the Chieftain struggled silently with worry for her brother, and Brighid’s own thoughts turned in remembrance to the little Healer, Brenna. She had come to MacCallan Castle as had Brighid, looking for a new life and a new beginning, but the scarred Healer had found much more. She had found love within the arms of the Chieftain’s warrior brother, who was able to see past her terrible burn scars to the beauty of her heart. Brighid remembered how spectacularly happy her friend had been -- up until the moment of her untimely death. That her death had set into motion the events that led to the salvation of a people did little to salve the wound left by her absence. And now Cuchulainn had gone to the Wastelands to lead back into Partholon the very people who had brought about his lover’s murder.
"It was at his insistence," Elphame said quietly, as if she could sense the path of Brighid’s thoughts. "He did not blame the other Fomorians for Brenna’s death. He understood her murderess had been under the control of the madness they all struggled against."
Brighid nodded. "Cuchulainn blamed only himself. Perhaps bringing the hybrid Fomorians home will serve as an act of closure. Lochlan says many of his people are still children. Maybe they will help Cu to heal."
"Healing without the touch of a Healer is a difficult process," Elphame murmured. "I just hate to think about him in pain and without--" She broke off with a dry laugh.
"What?" Brighid prompted.
"I know it sounds silly, Cuchulainn is a warrior renowned for his strength and courage, but I hate to think of him without his family near while he’s hurting."
"Especially his big sister?"
Elphame’s lips twisted. "Yes, especially his big sister." She sighed again. "He’s been gone so long. I really thought he’d be back by now."
"You know the report from Guardian Castle said there was a major spring snowstorm that ravaged the mountains and closed the pass into the Wastelands. Cuchulainn would’ve had to wait for the next thaw, and then he would be traveling slowly, being careful not to overtax the strength of the children. You must be patient," Brighid said.
"Patience has never been one of your virtues, my heart."
The deep voice came from behind them. The Huntress and her Chieftain turned to watch the winged man finish his silent approach. Brighid wondered if she would ever get used to the fact that such a being existed. Part Fomorian, part human, Lochlan had been born an anomaly. More human than demon, he and others like him had been raised by their human mothers in secrecy in the harsh Wastelands north of the Trier Mountains. He was tall and leanly muscular. His features were chiseled and attractively human, but the luminescence of his skin hinted at his dark heritage. And then there were his wings. Right now they were at rest, tucked snugly against his back, with just the storm-colored topside visible. But Brighid had seen them fully spread in terrible magnificence. It was a sight the Huntress would not easily forget.
"Good morning, Huntress," he said warmly as he joined them. "Wynne tells me you returned this morning with a spectacular kill and that we have venison steaks to look forward to at the evening meal."
Brighid inclined her head in a brief bow, acknowledging his praise as she moved aside so Lochlan could greet his wife.
"I missed you this morning," he said, reaching up to take Elphame’s hand and kissing it softly.
"I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to wake you, so I . . ." She shrugged.
"You are impatient for your brother’s return, and it makes you restless," he said.
"I know he’s a warrior, and I know I’m thinking with a sister’s heart instead of a Chieftain’s mind, but I’m worried about him."
"I am a warrior, but if I lost you I would lose my soul. Being a warrior does not prevent a man from feeling pain. Cuchulainn has been in my thoughts lately, too." Lochlan paused, choosing his words carefully. "Perhaps one of us should go after him."
"I want to. I’ve even thought of it, but I can’t leave." Elphame’s frustration spilled over into her voice. "The Clan is too new, and there is still so much work to be done rebuilding the castle."
"I will go." Brighid spoke in a simple matter-of-fact voice.
"You will?" Elphame asked.
The Huntress nodded and shrugged. "The forest is so lush with game that even the human warriors can easily keep the castle fed -- at least for a while," she added with a smile. "And it will take the skill of a Huntress to follow the path Cuchulainn took through the mountains." She looked pointedly at Lochlan. "Will it not?"
"It is an obscure trail, and though I know Cuchulainn and the others will have marked it, still it would be difficult to find and follow," he agreed.
"Besides, game is scarce in the Wastelands. At least I can ease their burden of hunger as they ready themselves to travel." Brighid smiled at her Clan Chieftain. "A Huntress is always welcome company, especially when there are hungry young mouths to feed."
"A friend is also always welcome company," Elphame said, her voice catching with emotion. "Thank you. You have relieved my mind greatly."
"Cuchulainn will probably think me a poor substitute for his sister," Brighid said roughly to cover up her own emotions. She had come to care for Elphame as she would a member of her own family. No, the Huntress silently amended, it was from my family I escaped by joining Clan MacCallan. Elphame is far easier to care for.
"He will think no such thing." Elphame laughed.
"I will sketch a map that will help make your path clear," Lochlan said. Then he rested his hand lightly on the Huntress’s shoulder. "Thank you for doing this, Brighid."
She looked into the winged man’s eyes and stifled the urge to flinch under his touch. The majority of the Clan was slowly accepting Lochlan as Elphame’s lifemate. He was half Fomorian, but he had proven his loyalty to the Chieftain and their Clan. Yet Brighid could not quell the nagging feeling of unease that being in his presence always evoked.
"I will leave first thing in the morning," the Huntress said resolutely.
* * *
Brighid hated snow. It wasn’t that it was a physical discomfort. As with all centaurs, her natural body heat effectively insulated her from all but the most drastic weather changes. She hated snow in principle. It shrouded the earth with a blanket of numb dampness. Woodland creatures either burrowed away from it or fled to warmer grounds. She agreed with the animals. It had taken her five days to travel from MacCallan Castle north through the thickening forest to the mouth of the obscure pass Lochlan had sketched in his detailed map. Five days. She snorted in disgust. She might as well have been a human riding a mindless horse in circles. She had expected to have traveled twice the distance in half the time.
"Goddess-accursed snow," she muttered, her voice sounding odd against the walls of the looming mountains. "Surely this must be it." She studied the uniquely fashioned rock formation for some sign that Cuchulainn’s small party had passed within. Brighid thought he would have marked it, though it was unlikely there was another grouping of red rocks that looked exactly like the open mouth of a giant, complete with distended tongue and jagged teeth. Her hooves made muffled wet clomps as she approached the gaping tunnel.
Suddenly the air was filled with the wind-battering sound of heavy wings and a black shape swooped past her to light on the tongue-like rock.
Brighid came to an abrupt halt and ground her teeth together. The raven cocked its head and cawed at her. The Huntress frowned.
"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.