Priestess of Avalon (Avalon Series #4)by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diana L. Paxson
In the long-awaited return to Avalon by the beloved author of The Mists of Avalon and her collaborator, bestselling author Diana L. Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley fuses myth, magic and romance in a spectacular unfolding of one woman's role in the making of history and spirit...See more details below
In the long-awaited return to Avalon by the beloved author of The Mists of Avalon and her collaborator, bestselling author Diana L. Paxson, Marion Zimmer Bradley fuses myth, magic and romance in a spectacular unfolding of one woman's role in the making of history and spirit...
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One: AD 259
"Oh! I can see water gleaming in the sun! Is it the sea?" I dug my heels into the pony's round side to bring it alongside Corinthius's big horse. The beast broke into a rough trot and I clutched at its mane.
"Ah, Helena, your young eyes are better than mine," answered the old man, who had been tutor to my half-brothers before being inherited by me. "A blaze of light is all that I can see. But I think that what lies before us must be the levels of the Summer Country, flooded by the spring rains."
I brushed back a wisp of hair and peered around me. The waters were broken up by hummocks of higher ground like islands and divided by winding rows of trees. Beyond them I could make out a line of hills where Corinthius said there were lead mines, ending in a bright haze that must be the estuary of the Sabrina.
"Then we are almost there?" The pony tossed its head as I squeezed its sides and then pulled back on the rein.
"We are if the rains have not washed out the causeway, and we can locate the village of the Lake folk that my master told me to find."
I looked up at him with swift pity, for he sounded very tired. I could see lines in the thin face beneath the broad straw hat, and he sat slumped in the saddle. My father should not have made the old man come all this way. But when the journey was over, Corinthius, a Greek who had sold himself into slavery as a youth in order to dower his sisters, would have his freedom. He had saved a nice little nest egg over the years, and meant to set up a school in Londinium.
"We will come to the Lake village in the afternoon," said the guide who had joined my escort in Lindinis.
"When we get there, we will rest," I saidbriskly.
"I thought you were eager to come to the Tor," Corinthius said kindly. Perhaps he would be sorry to lose me at that, I thought, smiling up at him. After my two brothers, who cared for nothing but hunting, he had said he enjoyed teaching someone who actually wanted to learn.
"I will have the rest of my life to enjoy Avalon," I answered him. "I can wait a day longer to arrive."
"And start your studies once more-"Corinthius laughed. "They say that the priestesses of Avalon have preserved the old Druid wisdom. It consoles me a little to know that you will not spend your life running some fat magistrate's household and bearing his children."
I smiled. My father's wife had tried to convince me that such a life was a woman's highest hope, but I had always known that sooner or later I would be going to Avalon. That it was sooner was due to the rebellion of a general called Postumus, whose war had cut Britannia off from the Empire. Unprotected, the southeastern coasts were vulnerable to raiders, and Prince Coelius had thought it best to send his little daughter to the safety of Avalon while he and his sons prepared to defend Camulodunum.
For a moment, then, my smile faltered, for I had been the apple of my father's eye, and I hated the thought that he might be in danger. But I knew well enough that while he was away from home my life there would not have been a happy one. To the Romans I was my father's love-child, with no mother's family, for it was forbidden to speak of Avalon. In truth it was Corinthius and old Huctia, who had been my nurse, who had been my family, and Huctia had died the winter before. It was time for me to return to my mother's world.
The road led downward now, winding gently back and forth across the slope of the hill. As we emerged from the shelter of the trees, I shaded my eyes with my hand. Below, the waters lay upon the land like a sheet of gold.
"If you were a faerie horse," I murmured to my pony, "we could gallop along that shining path all the way to Avalon."
But the pony only shook its head and reached for a mouthful of grass, and we continued to clop down the road one step at a time until we came to the slippery logs of the causeway. Now I could see the gray stalks of last summer's grass wavering in the water and beyond them the reedbeds that edged the permanent channels and pools. The deeper water was dark, charged with mystery. What spirits ruled these marshes, where the elements were so confused and mingled that one could not tell where earth ended and the water began? I shivered a little and turned my gaze to the bright day.
As the afternoon drew on towards evening, a mist began to rise from off of the water. We moved more slowly now, letting our mounts choose their own footing on the slippery logs. I had ridden horses since I could walk, but until now, each day's journey had been a short one, appropriate to the strength of a child. Today's ride, the last stage in our journey, had been longer. I could feel the dull ache in my legs and back and knew that I would be glad to get out of the saddle when the day was done.
We came out from beneath the trees and the guide reined in, pointing. Beyond the tangle of marsh and woodland rose a single pointed hill. I had been taken from this place when I was barely a year old, and yet, with a certainty beyond memory, I knew that I was looking at the holy Tor. Touched by the last of the sunlight, it seemed to glow from within.
"The Isle of Glass ..." murmured Corinthius, eyes widening in appreciation.
But not Avalon ... I thought, remembering the stories I had heard. The cluster of beehive huts at the foot of the Tor belonged to the little community of Christians who lived there. Avalon of the Druids lay in the mists between this world and Faerie.
"And there is the village of the Lake people," said our guide, indicating the trails of smoke that rose beyond the willows. He slapped the reins against his pony's neck and all of the horses, sensing the end of their journey, moved forward eagerly.
"We have the barge, but crossing to Avalon needs priestess. She says if you are welcome. Is important to go now? You want that I call?" The headman's words were respectful, but in his posture there was little deference. For nearly there hundred years his people had been the gatekeepers for Avalon.
"Not tonight," answered Corinthius. "The maiden has endured a long journey. Let her have a good night's sleep before she must meet all those people in her new home."
I squeezed his hand gratefully. I was eager to get to Avalon, but now that our journey was over, I was painfully aware that I would not see Corinthius again, and only now did I realize how fond of the old man I really was. I had wept when my nurse died, and I knew that I would weep to lose Corinthius as well.
The Lake people made us welcome in one of the round thatched houses set on poles above the marsh. A long, low boat was tied up beside it, and a creaking bridge connected it to the higher ground. The villagers were a small, lightly built folk, with dark hair and eyes. At ten, I was already as tall as a grown woman among them, though I had their same dusky brown hair. I watched them curiously, for I had heard that my mother had been like them, or perhaps she and they both were like the people of Faerie.
The villagers brought us thin ale and a stew of fish and millet flavored with wild garlic, and flat oaten cakes baked on the stone hearth. When we had eaten of the simple fare, we sat by the fire with bodies too tired to move and minds not yet ready for sleep, watching the flame fade into coals that shone like the vanished sun.
"Corinthius, when you have your school in Londinium, will you remember me?"
"How could I forget my little maiden, bright as one of Apollo's sunbeams, when I am striving to beat Latin hexameters into the thick skulls of a dozen boys?" His worn features creased as he smiled.
"You must call the sun Belenos," said I, "in this northern land."
"It was Apollo of the Hyboreans that I meant, my child, but it is all the same...."
"Do you truly believe that?"
Corinthius lifted one eyebrow. "'A single sun shines here and in the land where I was born, though we call it by different names. In the realm of Idea, the great principles behind the forms that we see are the same."
I frowned, trying to make sense of his words. He had attempted to explain the teachings of the philosopher Plato, but I found them hard to understand. Each place I came to had its own spirit, as distinct as human souls. This land they called the Summer Country, all hill and wood and hidden pools, seemed a world away from the broad flat fields and coppiced woodlands around Camulodunum. Avalon, if the tales I had heard of it were true, would be stranger still. How could their gods be the same?
"I think rather that it is you, little one, with all your life ahead of you, who will be forgetting me," the old man said then. "What is it, child," he added, bending to lift the lock of hair that hid my eyes. "Are you afraid?"
"What-what if they don't like me?"
For a moment Corinthius stroked my hair, then he sat back with a sigh. "I ought to tell you that to the true philosopher, it should not matter, that the virtuous person needs no one's approval. But what comfort is that to a child? Nonetheless it is true. There will be some people who do not like you no matter what you do, and when that happens, you can only try to serve the Truth as you see it. And yet, if you have won my heart, then surely there will be others to love you as well. Look for those who need your love, and they will return the blessing."
His tone was bracing, and I swallowed and managed a smile. I was a princess, and one day would be a priestess as well. I must not let people see me cry.
There was a stirring at the door. The cowhide flap was pushed aside and I glimpsed a child holding a squirming puppy in his arms. The chieftain's wife saw him and said something reproving in the dialect of the Lake. I caught the word for hound and realized he was being told to take the dog away.
"Oh no-I like puppies!" I exclaimed. "Please let me see!"
The woman looked dubious, but Corinthius nodded, and the boy came up to me, grinning, and released the animal into my outstretched hands. As I clutched at the wriggling bundle of fur I began to smile as well. I could see already that this was not one of the graceful sight-hounds who used to lounge in noble dignity about my father's hall. The puppy was too tiny, its creamy fur too thick already, and its tail too curled. But the brown eyes were bright with interest, and the tongue that flicked out below the moist black button of a nose to lick my hand was pink and warm.
"There, there now, and aren't you a darling?" I gathered the little dog to my chest and laughed again as it tried to lick my face as well.
"A creature with neither breeding nor manners," said Corinthius, who was not fond of animals. "And likely carrying fleas-"
"No, lord," answered the boy, "is a Faerie dog."
Corinthius lifted an eloquent eyebrow, and the boy frowned.
"I speak true!" he exclaimed. "It happens before. Mama gets lost, two, three days. Has only one puppy, white like this. Faerie dog lives long, and if not killed, when old it disappears. Dog sees spirits, and knows way to Otherworld!"
Feeling the living warmth of the creature in my arms, I hid my face in the soft fur to hide my own laughter, for the rest of the Lake people were nodding solemnly and I did not wish to insult them.
"She is gift, will guard you," the boy said then.
I suppressed a further spurt of laughter at the idea that this ball of fluff could protect anything, then straightened to smile at the boy.
"Does she have a name?"
The boy shrugged. "Faerie folk know. Maybe she tells you one day."
"I will call her Eldri, until they do, for she is as white and delicate as the flower of the elder tree." I considered her as I said this, then looked back up at the boy. "And you-do you have a name?" I hid my amusement as a blush warmed his sallow skin.
"Is 'Otter,' in your tongue," he said as the others laughed.
A use-name, thought I. At his initiation he would receive another that would only be known within the tribe. And how should I answer him? In my father's world I had been Julia Helena, but that seemed irrelevant here. Better to use the name my mother had given me when I was born.
"I thank you," I said then. "You may call me Eilan."
I woke from a dream of many waters, blinking in the morning light. I had been in a long flat boat that slid silently through swirling mists until they parted to reveal a fair green island. But then the scene had shifted, and I was on a galley approaching endless flat marshlands and a great gray-green river that split into myriad channels as it entered the sea. Then the vision had changed to a land of golden stone and sand washed by a brilliant blue sea. But the green island had been the fairest. A few times in my life I had dreamed things that came true. I wondered if this was one of them. But already the memory was slipping away. I sighed and opened my eyes.
I pushed back he sleeping furs in which I had nested with Eldri curled against me and rubbed the grit from my eyes. Squatting beside the headman's fire and drinking tea from a cup of rough clay was someone I had not seen before. I noticed first the long brown braid and the blue cloak, and then, as she turned, the mark of a priestess tattooed between her brows. The blue crescent was still bright, and the smooth face that of a girl. She had not been an initiated priestess for long. Then, as if she had felt my gaze upon her, the priestess turned, and my eyes fell before that detached and ageless stare.
"Her name is Suona," said Corinthius, patting my shoulder. "She arrived just at dawn."
I wondered how the headman had called her. Did the faerie folk carry the message, or was there some secret spell?
"This is the maiden?" asked Suona.
"The daughter of Prince Coelius of Camulodunum," answered Corinthius. "But her mother was of Avalon."
"She seems old to begin her training here-"
Corinthius shook his head. "She is well-grown for her age, but she has only ten winters. And Helena is not without education. She has been taught to use her mind as well as to do the work of a woman. She can read and write in Latin and knows a little Greek, and has learned her numbers as well."
Suona did not seem very impressed. I lifted my chin and met the dark gaze steadily. For a moment I felt an odd tickling sensation in my head, as if something had touched my mind. Then the priestess nodded a little, and it ceased. For the first time she spoke directly to me.
"Is it your wish, or that of your father, that you come to Avalon?"
I felt my heart thump heavily, but I was relieved when my words came out steadily.
"I want to go to Avalon."
"Let the child break her fast, and then we will be ready-" said Corinthius, but the priestess shook her head.
"Not you, only the maiden. It is forbidden for an outlander to look on Avalon except when the gods call."
For a moment the old man looked stricken, then he bowed his head.
"Corinthius!" I felt tears prick my own eyes.
"Never mind-" he patted my arm. "To the philosopher, all affections are transitory. I must strive for more detachment, that is all."
"But won't you miss me?" I clung to his hand.
For a moment he sat with closed eyes. Then his breath came out in a long sigh.
"I will miss you, heart's daughter," he answered softly, "even if it is against my philosophy. But you will find new friends and learn new things, never fear." For a moment he laid his hand upon my head, and I sensed the words he would not allow himself to say.
I felt Eldri stirring in my lap and the moment of anguish began to fade.
"I will not forget you," I said stoutly, and was rewarded by his smile.
My fingers tightened on the rail of the barge as the boatmen shoved down with their poles and the barge slid away from the shore. Overnight another mist had risen from the water, and the world beyond the village was more sensed than seen. Only once, when we crossed the Tamesis at Londinium, had I ever been on a boat before. I had felt nearly overwhelmed by the river's tremendous, driving purpose, brought close to tears when we reached the other shore because I had not been allowed to follow those waters down to the sea.
On the Lake, what I felt most strongly was depth, which seemed odd, since the bottom was still within reach of the boatmen's poles, and I could see the wavering lines of the reed-stems below the water line.
But the evidence of my eyes seemed to me an illusion. I could feel waters that ran below the lake bottom, and realized that I had begun to sense them as soon as we started to cross the Levels, even when we were on what passed here for dry land. Here, there was little distinction between earth and water, as there was very little separation between the world of men and the Otherworld.
I gazed curiously at the woman who sat at the prow, cloaked and hooded in blue. To be a priestess, was it necessary to become so detached from human feeling? Corinthius preached detachment as well, but I knew he had a heart beneath his philosopher's robes. When I become a priestess, I will not forget what love is! I promised myself then.
I wished very much that they had allowed my old tutor to come with me this last bit of the way. He was still waving to me from the shore, and though he had bade me farewell with the restraint of a true Stoic, it seemed to me that there was a brightness in his eyes that might be tears. I wiped my own eyes and waved back harder, and then, as the first veil of mist blew between us, settled back onto my bench.
At least I still had Eldri, tucked securely into the fold where my tunica bloused over my belt. I could feel the puppy's warmth against my chest and patted her reassuringly through the cloth. So far, the little dog had neither barked nor stirred, as if she understood the need to keep silence. So long as the puppy stayed hidden, no one could forbid me to take her to Avalon.
I pulled open the loose neck of my tunica and grinned at the two bright eyes that gleamed up at me, then draped my cloak loosely around me once more.
The mist was growing thicker, lying in dense skeins across the water as if not only earth but air were dissolving back into the primal watery womb. Of the Pythagorean elements of which Corinthius had told me, that left only fire. I took a deep breath, at once unsettled and oddly reassured, as if something within me recognized this protean admixture and welcomed it.
We were well out upon the Lake by now, and the boatmen were paddling. As the barge moved forward the stilt village faded into the mist behind us. The Tor was disappearing too. For the first time, I felt a quiver of fear. Ahead lay only the village of the monks-where were they taking me?
But Eldri warmed my heart, and in the prow, the young priestess sat quietly, her face serene. Suona was a plain-looking girl, yet for the first time, I understood what my nurse had meant when she told me to sit like a queen.
Though I saw no signal, abruptly the boatmen lifted their paddles and rested them on their laps. The barge floated quietly, the last ripples of its passage widening away to either side. I felt a pressure in my ears and shook my head to relieve it.
Then, at last, the priestess stirred, casting back her hood as she got up. Feet braced, she stood, seeming to grow taller as she lifted her arms in invocation. She drew in her breath, and her ordinary features grew radiant with beauty. The gods look like this ... I thought as Suona gave voice to a string of musical syllables in a language I had never heard before.
Then that too was forgotten, for the mists began to move. The boatmen had covered their eyes, but I kept mine open, staring as the gray clouds began to sparkle with a rainbow of color. The light spun sunwise around them, colors blending, wrenching reality out of time. For an impossible eternity we hung between the worlds. Then, with a final burst of radiance, the mists became a haze of light.
The priestess sank back to her seat, perspiration beading her brow. The boatmen picked up their paddles and began to stroke forward as if this had been no more than a pause to rest their arms. I let out a breath I had not known I was holding. They must be accustomed to this ... I thought numbly, and then, How could anyone get used to this wonder!
For a moment, though the paddles dipped, we did not seem to move. Then the bright mist suddenly wisped away, and the Tor was rushing towards us. I clapped my hands, recognizing the fair green island.
But there was more to it than I had seen in my dream. I had half expected to see the huddle of wooden huts I had glimpsed from the Lake people's village, but they were on Inis Witrin, the isle of the monks. Where they had stood, on the other isle on Avalon there were edifices of stone. I had seen Roman buildings that were larger, but none that were at once so massive and so graceful, columned in smooth shafts of tapered stone. Blessed by the spring sunlight, they seemed to glow from within.
Suddenly I understood. The shape of the isle before me was the same as the one I had glimpsed from the Lake village, but somehow we had passed Elsewhere, as if we had turned a corner into the world of Dream. Once my nurse had whispered a tale of a great priestess who wrested a magic isle out of Time into a Place that was, if not quite Faerie, no longer entirely in the world of men. I wondered if the prayers of the monks were ever troubled by glimpses of the Other Avalon that lay like a bright shadow so close to their own. And in that moment I knew also that Avalon was my destiny.
If I had been capable of speech, I would have begged the men to stop the boat, to tell me what each house was, now while I could comprehend their harmony. But the land was nearing too swiftly. In another moment, the bottom of the barge grated on sand and it slid up onto the shore.
For the first time, the young priestess smiled. She got to her feet and offered me her hand.
"Be welcome to Avalon...."
"Look, it is Rian's daughter-" the whispers ran. I could hear them clearly as I came into the hall.
"It cannot be. She is too tall, and Rian died only ten years ago."
"She must take after her father's people-"
"That will not endear her to the Lady," came the reply, with a little laugh.
I swallowed. It was hard to pretend I did not hear, harder still to walk with the proud carriage of a daughter of a noble house as my nurse had taught me, when I wanted to gawk at the hall of the priestesses like a peasant passing for the first time beneath the great gate of Camulodunum.
The hall was circular, like the houses the British used to build before the Romans came, but this one was built of stone. The outer wall was only the height of a tall man, but a circle of stone pillars supported the sloping ceiling, carved with spirals and triple knots, chevrons and twisted bands of color The beams of the roof did not quite meet, and through the open circle in the center came a flood of light.
The round gallery was in shadow, but the priestesses who stood in the center were radiant. When Suona piloted the barge through the Mists, she had worn a tunic of deerskin. Here, I was surrounded by a sea of priestess-blue. Some of the women wore their hair braided down their backs like Suona, but others had it pinned up or loose upon their shoulders. The sunlight glistened on their bare heads, fair and dark and silver and bronze.
They seemed to be of every age and all sizes, alike only in the blue crescent painted between their brows-that, and something indefinable in their eyes. Upon reflection, I decided it was serenity, and wished I had it, for my stomach was doing flip-flops with anxiety.
Ignore them, I told myself sternly. You will be living with these people for the rest of your life. You will look at this hall so many times you will no longer see it. There is no need to stare now, or to be afraid.
Especially now, my thought continued as the women before me moved aside, and I saw the High Priestess awaiting me. But the uncertain feeling returned as I felt the Faerie dog stir in the bosom of my gown. I knew now that I should have left the puppy in the House of Maidens, where they had taken me when I first arrived, but Eldri had been asleep, and it had seemed to me then that if she woke in strange surroundings she might be frightened and run off. I had not thought about what might happen if the dog woke during my formal welcome to Avalon.
I crossed my arms, pressing the warm furry body against my chest in an attempt at reassurance. Eldri was a magic dog-perhaps she could hear my silent plea to be still.
The murmur of women's voices faded to silence as the High Priestess lifted her hand. The women were arranging themselves in a circle, with the senior priestesses closest to their Lady, and the maidens, stifling their giggles, at the end. I thought there were five of them, but dared not look at them long enough to be sure.
All eyes were upon me. I forced myself to continue moving forward.
Now I could see the Lady clearly. Ganeda was at this time just past her middle years, her body thickened by childbearing. Her hair, which had once been red, was dusted with gray like a dying coal. I came to a halt before her, wondering what kind of bow would be appropriate for the Lady of Avalon. My nurse had taught me the proper obeisance for ranks all the way up to Empress, unlikely though it seemed that any Caesar would ever come so far as Britannia again.
I cannot go wrong if I give her the salute due an imperial lady, I thought then. For truly, she is Empress in her own sphere.
As I straightened, I caught the old woman's eye, and it seemed to me that for a moment Ganeda's scowl was lightened by a gleam of amusement, but perhaps I had imagined it, for in the next moment the High Priestess stood stone-faced once more.
"So-" Ganeda spoke at last. "You have come to Avalon. Why?" The question was spat suddenly, like a spear in the dark.
I stared back at her, suddenly bereft of words.
"You have frightened the poor child," said one of the other priestesses, a motherly-looking woman with fair hair just beginning to fade to gray.
"It was a simple question, Cigfolla," said the High Priestess tartly, "that I am required to put to all who seek the sisterhood of Avalon."
"She means," said Cigfolla, "to ask if you have come here of your own will, and not by any man's coercion. Do you seek the training of a priestess, or only a time of teaching before you return to the world?" She smiled encouragingly.
I frowned, recognizing this as a legitimate question.
"It was by my father's will that I came here at this time, because of the Saxon raids," I said slowly, and saw something like satisfaction flicker in Ganeda's eyes. "But it has always been my destiny to return to Avalon," I continued.
If there had been any doubt, that journey through the Mists would have dispelled it. This was the magic at the heart of things that I had always known must be there. At that moment, I had recognized my heritage.
"To walk the path of a priestess is my truest desire...."
Ganeda sighed. "Beware what you wish for, lest you find it has indeed come to pass.... Still, you have said the words, and in the end it is the Goddess who will decide whether to accept you, not I. So I bid you welcome here."
There was a murmur of comment from the other priestesses at this grudging acceptance. I blinked back tears, understanding that my aunt blamed me for causing her sister's death when I was born. She did not want me here, and no doubt hoped that I would fail.
But I will not fail! I promised myself. I will study harder than any and become a great priestess-so famous they will remember my name for a thousand years!
Ganeda sighed. "Come ..."
With my heart thumping so hard I feared it would wake Eldri, I started toward her. Ganeda opened her arms. She is scarcely bigger than me! I thought in surprise as I moved into the older woman's reluctant embrace. The High Priestess had seemed so tall and stately before.
Then Ganeda gripped my shoulders and drew me hard against her breast. Eldri, crushed between us, woke with a sudden squirm and a yip of surprise. The priestess released me as if I had been a hot coal, and I felt the betraying color flood into my face as the little dog poked her head up through the loose neck of my gown.
Someone stifled a giggle, but my own impulse to laugh died at Ganeda's frown.
"What is this? Do you think to mock us here?" There was an undertone in the voice of the priestess like distant thunder.
"She is a Faerie dog!" I exclaimed, my eyes filling with tears. "The Lake people gave her to me!"
"A rare and wonderful creature," Cigfolla put in before Ganeda could speak again. "Such gifts are not bestowed lightly."
From the other priestesses came a murmur of agreement. For a moment longer Ganeda's mental thunder echoed in the air, then, as it became clear that most of the priestesses were viewing me with sympathy, Ganeda clamped down on her anger and managed a tight smile.
"A fine gift indeed," she said thinly, "but the Hall of the Priestesses is not the place for her."
"I am sorry, my lady," I stammered, "I did not know where-"
"It makes no difference," Ganeda cut me off. "The community is waiting. Go, greet the rest of your sisters now."
With the puppy still peeking out of my tunica, I went gratefully into Cigfolla's arms, breathing in the lavender that scented her gown. The woman who stood next to her had the look of a paler copy of Ganeda. In her arms she held a little daughter whose hair blazed like a fire.
"I have seen your face in vision, little one, and I am glad to make you welcome! I am your cousin Sian, and this is Dierna," she said softly. The little girl grinned toothily, as fair and fat a child as one might hope to find. Next to that flaming hair, her mother seemed even more pallid, as if she had given all her strength to her offspring. Or per-haps, I thought, it was growing up in the shadow of Ganeda that had sapped the strength from her.
"Hello, Dierna-" I squeezed the plump hand.
"I'm two!" proclaimed the little girl. She reached out to Eldri, and laughed as the puppy licked her hand.
"You certainly are!" I answered after a moment's confusion. Apparently that was the right answer, for Sian also smiled.
"You are very welcome to Avalon," she said then, bending to kiss me on the brow.
At least one member of my mother's family was glad to see me, I thought as I turned to the next woman in the line.
As I moved around the circle, some of the women had a pat for the puppy as well, and others a word of praise for my dead mother. The girls who were presently being trained on the holy isle received me with delighted awe, as if I had intended to play a trick on the High Priestess all along. Roud and Gwenna had the ruddy-fair coloring of the royal Celts, and Heron, the dark, narrow build of the people of the Lake. Aelia was almost as tall as I, though her hair was a lighter brown. Tuli, who surveyed them from the eminence of her approaching initiation, and her younger sister, Wren, had fair hair, cut short like that of the others, and gray eyes. When the dog, excited by the attention, yipped, they laughed. This was not the way that I had intended to impress them, but for good or ill, Eldri seemed to be a powerful talisman.
And then the formality of greeting was over, and the solemn row became a crowd of chattering women. But as the girls swept me away to the safety of the House of Maidens, I saw Ganeda watching me and realized that if my aunt had disliked me before, she would hate me now. I had grown up in a prince's court, and I knew that no ruler can afford to be mocked in her own hall.
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