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By P.C. Cast
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThat day had started with deceptive normalcy.
The dawn offering to Epona had been particularly moving. The Goddess had filled Etain so completely that afterward she carried the glow of Her presence throughout the morning, and for once she was allowed some time alone - temporarily freed from the duties of Goddess Incarnate.
The contractions began as a vague sense of unease. She couldn't find a comfortable place on her well-cushioned chaise longue. She snapped with uncharacteristic impatience at the enthusiastic servant who checked to make sure her mistress didn't need a refill of hot water.
Not even the thought of a long soak in the mineral springs bathing pool seemed appealing.
Etain hoped a stroll through her magnificent flower garden would ease what she thought was just a little difficulty digesting the strawberries from lunch. The walk appeared to be helping - until she paused to sniff a brilliant crimson blossom and her water broke violently all over the Goddess Incarnate's silk-lined slippers.
Normalcy had also been broken.
"Isn't that always the way of it?" She grimaced and clenched her teeth as another wave of pain blanketed her body. Bending at the waist she leaned heavily against the woman whose arm was linked through her own.
"Sssh,Etain." Fiona spoke soothingly in her light, melodic brogue. "Donna speak, my friend. Just concentrate on your breathing."
Etain jerked her head in a sharp imitation of nodding agreement and tried to match her panting gasps to Fiona's calm, deep breaths. The contraction peaked and receded.
A flurry of activity ensued. The Goddess Incarnate's clothes were changed by her bevy of attendants, who then began notifying the Wise Women who lived in the villages closest to Epona's Temple. Wrapping her arm around Fiona's waist, and using her sturdy presence from which to draw strength, Etain continued her stroll through the temple gardens. The Chosen One's friend and advisor had assured her that walking would aid in the child's birth.
As the day crawled methodically past, the image of Etain's oasis of tranquility dissipated, but the residue of Epona's morning possession calmed her - as always, Epona's Chosen drew upon the familiar thread that bound her to the Goddess and found strength and comfort.
Fiona smiled encouragement and the two women turned around, heading back toward the floor-to-ceiling windows that led from Etain's bedchamber to her private garden. Gauzy curtains the color of liquid gold fluttered from within the open leaded glass panes that served as door and windows. The Goddess Incarnate breathed deeply, trying to steady the racing of her heart and ready herself for the inevitable next contraction.
"I think that really is the worst part." As always, she spoke her mind aloud to Fiona.
"What?" She looked thoughtfully at her friend and mistress.
"The inevitability of what's happening. I can't stop it. I can't pause it. I can't really affect it at all. The truth is that I'd like to say, 'This has been interesting, but I'm ready for it to cease now. I want to bathe, eat a lovely meal and get a good night's rest. We'll just begin from here tomorrow, shall we?'" Fiona's expression of polite curiosity changed to bubbling laughter.
"That would be nice."
"Nice?" She grimaced in a very ungoddess-like manner. "It would be wonderful."
Etain took another deep breath, appreciating the intoxicating sweetness of the voraciously blooming lilacs that framed that part of the walk. The path curved to the left and the lilacs gave way to a profusion of violet-colored roses, which were in full bloom. The delicate drapes billowed from the entryway, and fluttered like the wings of giant butterflies over the tips of the roses. They paused a few feet from the bedchamber that had housed Partholon's Beloved of Epona for countless generations. The breeze carried the enchanting sound of women singing praises.
"We are the flow of water The ebb and tide The rush of knowing All truth inside"
The words were woven together in a harmony of pitch; the underlying beat was hypnotic. It beckoned to Epona's Chosen and soothed her frayed nerves. Slowly, her swollen body relaxed as she was filled with the women's greeting song.
"We are the sound of growing A Goddess root Stretched strong and knowing An endless shoot"
The words propelled Etain forward so that she eagerly entered her bedchamber. The Wise Women filled the room. At the Goddess Incarnate's appearance, the tempo of the song increased. Spinning gracefully they seemed to float around the room until Etain and Fiona formed the center of their joyous circle.
Excerpted from Elphame's Choice by P.C. Cast Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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