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|Priestess Dreaming(Sisters of the Moon #16) by Yasmine Galenorn|
Trying to rein in the energy I’d gathered, I realized that it was too late to shake it off—I was abuzz with the lightning. I moved back, attempting to focus on keeping my footing and not slipping off the grassy strip between the bog creature and the watery marsh. I turned, Morgaine and Delilah following me, trying to safely navigate over to Morio and the others.
Morio reached out but I shook my head. If he touched me, I’d shock him—I wouldn’t be able to help it, so much static had built up in my body. I needed to release it, needed to send it somewhere, but I was afraid if I just shot off an energy blast in some random direction, it would catch the attention of whatever it was that was barreling toward us.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter—chances are, it knew we were here anyway. But then again, if it was so huge, maybe it would pass us by without blinking. I was beginning to panic, unable to think. My hands began to shake.
Delilah let out a whimper, and before I could do anything, she shifted into her panther form, growling toward the open space in front of us. Morgaine jumped as Delilah transformed, backing away from her with wide eyes. Mordred and Arturo hurried to flank her, but then, they, too, slowly turned toward the vast, open swamp and stared, glassy-eyed.
Tanne tapped me on the shoulder. “Camille, Camille—come here.” He grimaced as a spark from my aura lashed out at him, burning his fingers. “Crap! I’m sorry.”
“Sorry, sorry—can’t help it.” I glanced at Morio. “Watch Delilah.” Morio shifted into his demonic form at that moment, nodding to me.
Tanne and I backed up to stand next to Bran, who was staring ahead without any fear on his face. Wary, yes, but not afraid. I wanted to know why, but Tanne was vying for my attention.
“What is it?” I swung around to the woodland Fae.
“Look!” He pointed toward the marsh. A flurry had sprung up, covering grass and bog alike. The sudden storm was fierce, and it felt driven by whatever force was headed our way.
“Holy hell and snow on a shingle.”
“I should have known. The storm from the east, and it being winter. I know what’s coming our way.” Tanne turned his wide, glacial gaze on me. “It’s Beira. The Cailleach.”
Oh, f**k. He was right. I closed my eyes and reached out. Sure enough, the energy coming toward us was so powerful, so forceful, it could only be a god. Or, in this case, an Elemental Lord. Lady, if you wanted to be gender-specific.
“Beira. Well, this is going to be unpleasant.” Bran swallowed, his expression shifting as the storm grew fiercer. Elementals could go up against the gods and win. The gods were finite. But Bran was a lesser Elemental Lord, while Beira was far more powerful.
Beira was queen of winter, an avatar of the snow and ice, embodied in form and thought. She was also the mother of the bean nighe, the washer-women. She was the original Washer at the Ford. As such, her very appearance was a portent of doom.
I held my breath, hoping she’d pass by. If she stopped to pull out her tartan and washed it in the water where we could see, then one of us was in trouble. Her cloth remained plaid from Imbolc—February second—until she washed it on Samhain Eve—October thirty-first—when it turned white. It was then that Beira ushered in the winter months. But she would also wash it to indicate impending death.
And we’d had quite enough death for the present, thank you very much.
Morio had hold of Delilah’s collar and at his yank, she slunk to his side, still growling, but obeying his subtle order. Morgaine backed up to stand beside me. Arturo and Mordred followed her.
“You know who that is, don’t you?” Her eyes were wide.
I nodded. “Beira, the mother of the bean nighe.”
“Yes. She is wily and dangerous and she bears no mercy, child, so watch your tongue and pray she doesn’t ask you any questions.” And then, Morgaine did something totally out of character: She wrapped her arm around my waist and leaned against me. “Aeval will have my head if you’re hurt or worse on this trip. She threatened to burn me to a crisp if anything happens to you, so be cautious.”
So Aeval had made Morgaine responsible for my safety? That was why she had resisted going in the inn—she’d known that it would be dangerous and didn’t want to risk my neck. Whatever Bran was holding over her had forced her into a difficult situation, for sure.
I resisted smiling, even though the image of Aeval towering over Morgaine, pissed out of her mind, gave me a Schadenfreude sense of glee. I particularly didn’t want to encourage it, since the cause would be my own demise—or according damage. Besides, the fact that Beira was bearing down on us? Not news to smile about.
I simply gave her a nod and tried to ground the energy that, by now, was driving me nuts. It was as bad as being horny. There were days, well, especially before I’d met my men, where I just wanted to jump the next person walking by, regardless of who they were. Only this—this was my entire body, not just certain tasty bits.
Tanne noticed my discomfort. He leaned close enough to whisper, without touching me. “Ground it into your staff. I’ll bet the weapon soaks it right up.”
I stared at him. “That’s a good idea. I’ll try it.”
My staff was sentient, or would be once she fully woke up. Surely she could take a jolt of energy without damage. I clutched the yew between my hands, and focused the energy into the staff. It met the aura of the yew with a bizarre kaleidoscopic mix. A flash blinded me, and then the staff began to siphon off my energy, greedily sucking it in. As I watched, a veil of faerie lights began to shine around it.
What the hell . . . ? But there was no mistaking it. A web of tiny, flickering eye catchers glowed from within my staff.
Relieved, feeling calmer, though by no means safer, I caught a deep breath. Now, I wouldn’t risk the magic backfiring on anybody if I jostled them. Though what my staff was going to do with it, only the gods knew.
A swirl of snow stopped by the bog monster. We were clear of the creature now, but still too close for comfort. The wind beat a steady hail of sleet as snow mixed with the rain. The grassland beyond—marshy as it was—was covered with a thick layer of white.
The air began to shimmer, at the edge of the snow field, and then, slowly, a woman appeared out of the mist.
Beira. She wore a flowing white satin skirt that trailed behind her, the train blending into the snow that followed in her wake. An over-jacket of silver lace with a sweetheart neck—a wide keyhole cutout, fastened at her throat with a sparkling jewel. Over her clothes trailed a fur cloak that flowed along the train of her dress. The fur was silver—fox, perhaps, with a pale bluish tinge to it.
Beira’s hair fell to her knees, pure white—reminding me of Pentangle, the Mistress of Magic. But when she looked at us, her eyes were the black void, with a single sparkling diamond in place of a pupil, and her skin was the color of milk.
A headdress rose from her brow, a complex web of thin ice pearls linking together to form a knotwork that looped and spiraled into the air, with trailing chains that draped like diamonds. The light—that odd color that always precipitates a winter storm—caught Beria. She sparkled like a giant prism, casting rainbows over the now-frozen ground. Everything about her shimmered softly, and she made the cold inviting. I wanted to snuggle at her feet and sleep for a decade.
The Mistress of Winter glanced down at the bog monster and lightly tapped it with her staff—a tall spiral of ice, carved with intricate knotwork. The bog monster let out a thundering moan and froze over. Though I wasn’t close enough to see, I knew she’d just killed it with her chill touch.
Beira looked us up and down, her gaze fastening on Bran for a long moment. Raising her hand, she pointed at him and he suddenly jerked forward, his expression angry and resentful. Even from where I stood, I could tell he was under her control. He stumbled to his knees at her feet, head bowed.
With a pale smirk—her lips were the palest pink they could be—she raised her hand, yanking him to his feet. By her expression, she seemed to be enjoying this little game. Just what kind of Elemental were we dealing with? The Autumn Lord was aloof and frightening, but he seemed fair. Pentangle had been personable, though she left me breathless with her power. But Beira had a calculating and cruel look on her face.
I shifted, wishing we were in the mountains, away from this place.
Bran staggered forward, awkwardly bowing. His eyes smoldered. The son of Raven Mother didn’t like answering to anyone or anything, and according to Morgaine, not even his mother could make him toe the mark. But here was Beira, yanking him around like a puppet on a string.
“Aren’t you going to pay homage?” Her words startled me—everything had been so quiet except for the storm. “Lick my feet? Grovel at my side? I thought the son of Raven Mother played the toad when he was ordered. Or so it runs through the grapevine.”
“Beira, what brings you down from your lofty mountain peaks? You manage to yank those stone spires out of your ass yet?” Bran’s voice was ragged and forced, as if he were struggling to even open his mouth.
I cringed. He was playing a dangerous game, and he was playing it for all of us. And yet, seeing him held there, I felt an odd sympathy. Hyto had controlled me, forced me to grovel at his feet. I knew how much it cost the ego to kneel when the last thing in the world you want to do is show your enemy respect.
Beira seemed oblivious to the rest of us. She closed her hand and he scrabbled, his hands clutching his throat. Another moment and she laughed, then opened her fist. Bran fell to the ground, convulsing.
“You forgot, perhaps, a payment for which you are indebted? Perhaps it merely slipped your mind and you aren’t trying to sneak out of our bet?” The words might have sounded cajoling, like Raven Mother’s, if it weren’t for the icy overtone that made them an outright threat.
“I haven’t forgotten. I just don’t have your payment yet.” He glared at her, still breathing hard.
“You have until the Solstice, O Master of Ravens. Should you fail, winter will descend upon Darkynwyrd with a fierce and cruel nature, and your mother will know what you’ve been up to. I would not want to be in your place should that happen.” With one last thrust of the hand, she sent Bran skidding and rolling over the grass back in our direction.
As he came to a stop, he rolled to his hands and knees and, with a shaky look over his shoulder, scrambled away.
Ignoring him, Beira turned to look at the rest of us. She caught my gaze and I felt as though I were looking into the depths of the ice and snow embodied. But there was no recognition there, no sense of acknowledgment, and she shifted her attention. I watched her. She gazed at every one of us, even Delilah in her panther form. Then she came to Arturo, and there was something there—a flicker. Morgaine saw it, too, and raised her hand to her heart but said nothing.
When she had made the rounds, Beira held up her tartan and walked over to the edge of the marsh, where the grass ceased to grow on solid ground and, instead, covered the dangerous watery swamp. She knelt and plunged her tartan into the icy water, then held it up. The white wool was streaked with blood. Beira stood, shook the cloth in the wind and it dried immediately. She held it up and turned toward us.
I had the impulse to ask her who, but then stopped. It wasn’t fair to the others. I knew it wasn’t me. In fact, I knew exactly who she had predicted—it had been obvious as sin when she held Arturo’s gaze for so long.
Beira folded her cloth, then tucked it beneath her fur cloak once again. She gave Bran one last look. “Winter Solstice. This time, remember, or you will experience a winter you will never forget and your mother will pay for your ineptitude.” And with that, the whirl of snow covered her and she began to walk forward, and vanished into the storm.
Silence descended on us again, except for the howling of the storm.
Morgaine spoke first, her voice shaky. “We head for the mountains now. We must reach there before night.” Saying nothing about Beira, looking neither right nor left, she swept forward. I hurried to her side as Delilah shifted back into her two-legged form. Morio caught up with me. Mordred, Bran, and Arturo resumed their place in the middle of the pack, and Delilah and Tanne stepped in behind them.
It would be tricky going through the marsh now that the snow was covering the grass. It would be harder to stick to the solid areas and avoid taking a nosedive into the water. We’d need to make good use of our staves. As I eyed the narrow strip, it struck me that we’d be lucky to get two abreast, let alone three.
Morgaine must have been reading my thoughts because she spoke up. “We really should travel single file. As much as I dislike the idea, I think it will be far safer in order to avoid the quicksand and bog.”
“You’re right.” Morio didn’t sound happy with the idea, but I was glad he’d been the first to speak up. I felt like I had somehow become Morgaine’s rah-rah girl, and I just didn’t have the cheerleader mentality.
We reorganized. Morgaine took the lead, then, in order: me, Morio, Mordred, Bran, Delilah, Arturo, with Tanne last. Before setting out, we made certain everybody had a stick of wood or long sword with which to prod the ground.
The storm had set in, in earnest. A parting gift from Beira, no doubt. Though the ground had only about an inch of snow so far, with the rate it was falling, we could easily see a foot by morning.
As we marched along, silent among the softly falling flakes, I thought about home and Smoky, and how everybody was doing. It had been a little under a year since my time in the Northlands. The months had flown by. And now, here I was again, off in a different world, once again fighting against the winter.
My thoughts wandered to Trillian. The Shadow Lands were deadly. If I faced the truth, he was in worse danger than we were. I didn’t like thinking about it, because there was nothing I could do to help him. In the silence of our journey, his fate—and Rozurial’s—weighed heavy on my mind.