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|Priestess Dreaming(Sisters of the Moon #16) by Yasmine Galenorn|
I’d followed my conscience in telling him to go. He’d done what he felt necessary. So why did I feel so horrible about making what I knew was the right choice? I whispered a soft prayer to the Moon Mother that my worry was just that, and not a premonition.
The afternoon wore on. The temperature felt like it was hovering around thirty, and though my cloak and my spidersilk skirt and shirt were warm, I still felt the bite of the wind on my face. I’d already pulled out my long gloves and tucked them on, and I took down my ponytail so my hair covered my ears, then draped a scarf over my head and wound it around my neck, covering my mouth and nose. Morgaine had layered up, too, and I didn’t have to turn around to know that everybody else had been digging through their packs.
For some reason, I hadn’t expected it to be snowing here in the realm of Elder Fae. Or even winter, for that matter. When I thought about it, the expectation made no sense but then, not all of my ideas were one-up on the game.
Morgaine prodded the ground with every step she took. Now and then she’d shift direction—swing to the left or the right, and as we passed by where our path would have taken us, I’d look down and see water glistening below the snowy surface. Luckily, as the day wore on, we saw no more creatures. If there were more bog monsters, they were either frozen or dead. Now and then a bird would flutter past, looking for shelter, and once I thought I saw some sort of fox race through the undergrowth, but the plains seemed barren as far as fauna went, and the snow dissuaded the insects from making pests of themselves. Summer would be horrible here, with the bog and marsh—mosquito heaven.
Every hour brought us that much closer to the foothills and by midafternoon, they were looming close, their rocky crags a nerve-racking portent of what the mountains beyond them must be. As the end of the grassland came into sight, leading onto soil and low-growing forest ringing the hill, I leaned forward.
“Have you been here before?”
Morgaine shook her head. “No, as I said, I’ve been searching for an entry into this realm for centuries. When we first met, I told you I was in search of the Merlin. But when we discovered Aeval in the crystal cave, and Titania woke from her drunken slumber, everything changed. The Merlin didn’t seem as important, once I’d met the Queens of Summer and Winter.”
“Well, no longer Summer and Winter. Now they rule the cycle of the day, along with you.” I had to give Morgaine her due, if only to appease the ego that I had begun to suspect was born out of insecurity.
She shrugged. “You and I both know that they keep me around for reasons only they can fathom. I’m very aware that I’m dispensable, from their point of view, which is why I keep my options open. I didn’t survive this long without always putting myself and my loved ones first.”
Darting a quick look over her shoulder—and over mine—she lowered her voice. “Arturo would not survive without me. Surely you can tell that much. And Mordred . . . he is blood kin.”
“Well, he is your nephew . . .” The thought that Arturo might be Morgaine’s half brother hit me like a ton of bricks. For some reason, I’d always thought that she was his aunt on his mother’s side, but surely she hadn’t been Gwenyfar’s sister. If she was Arturo’s sister, that put a whole new spin on the matter, but I didn’t want to pry—and I couldn’t, not without letting on I knew that Arturo was Arthur.
“Blood doesn’t always make for good relations, Camille.”
I let out a sigh. “I know that only too well. Back in Otherworld, Father’s relatives ignored us as best as they could because of our mixed blood. You take care of both of them.”
“I keep them out of trouble, if that’s what you mean. And I keep food in their stomachs and clothes on their back. I do what I must.” She let out a snort. “I know precisely what you and your sisters think of me. And well you should be cautious. I would not value your lives over those of my Mordred and Arturo. However, you’re wrong in thinking that I am jealous of you.” She tapped the ground beside her and nodded for me to move up to walk at her side.
“Then what is it? Why do you look at me like you do when we’re together at Talamh Lonrach Oll?” Maybe she would tell me the truth. Yesterday, I wouldn’t have laid odds on the idea, but today? Maybe. Just . . . maybe.
Morgaine inhaled a long breath and held it, then slowly let it whistle between her teeth. “Girl, you remind me of myself, so long ago I cannot count. I fear for you. You’re being used. You’re being used by Aeval. By Derisa. Asteria used you before her death. You’re a pawn in a game far larger than you believe is under play. Just as I was—though for vastly different reasons.”
I bit my tongue. My initial reaction was to wax on about my duty, about doing what needed to be done even if I didn’t want to. But curiosity got the better of any self-righteous soapboxes onto which I normally climbed.
“What do you mean? How were you used? And who used you?”
Morgaine wiped a light drift of snow off her shoulders. The flakes were thicker, sticking to our cloaks, hair, and scarves. After a moment, she let out a long breath and turned to face me.
“Meher used me to stir up trouble. I was young and had no idea what he was up to. He had goals, you see. He wanted to become the Merlin—the High Priest in all forms. He was only acting for Myrddin, who had long vanished from sight. But until the Hunter gave call, there would be no chance for him to take the antlered crest. The Hunter—like the Moon Mother—decides who his High Priest will be.”
“And the Hunter wasn’t handing him the title.”
“No. So Meher got a bee in his bonnet and he set in motion a series of events that changed history. But plans went awry and Meher hung me out to dry. He used me, he used my heart and then played me for a fool. In the end, I was saddled with a destiny I never would have accepted had I realized what was going on. You see, I was destined to be the Lady of the Lake in Avalon, but when Meher got done with messing with my life, I was lucky they let me leave alive.”
The bitterness in her words hit my heart. There was so much truth in them, so much anger and loss, that my suspicion of her crumbled enough for me to see beyond my preconceptions. The woman beside me had been hurt, seriously wounded in her heart. She had been stripped of the promise of a destiny she had wanted and worked for. And now, she wandered the world, alone with two men as mysterious as the sorceress herself.
“Why have you been searching for the Merlin—the real one? Myrddin? What can he do for you?” I wanted to reach out, to make her understand that I heard her pain. But I knew she wasn’t one for consolation and so kept myself from resting my hand on her arm.
Morgaine paused. We were at the edge of the grassland. She took one last look at the fields behind us—at the marsh and the swamp, and the blowing snow.
“What can he do for me? I don’t know, to be honest. I want my name back. If I can’t have my station back, I want to know the ways of the dark forest. I want to retreat deep into the woodland. I want . . . peace of mind. Do you think that is so much to ask, Camille?”
With a heavy heart, hoping that the Merlin wouldn’t turn out to be like the Great and Powerful Oz—a con artist and huckster—I shook my head. “No, cousin. It’s not too much to ask. And I hope, for your happiness, that he can give you what you seek.”
She smiled sadly. “We shall see. But Camille, be wary. Don’t let yourself end up following in my footsteps. Make sure you know what’s going on. Don’t trade in your heart for illusions. You have three men you love dearly and a family who cares about you. Above all, don’t trade any of them for shiny titles. And make certain you know who the other players in the game really are.”
And with that advice, she turned toward the foothill, and motioned for us to take shelter beneath the nearest outcropping. “We need to stop for food. By tonight, with luck, we will find our way to the Merlin. As to waking him, whether that be good fortune or not remains to be seen.”
As we rested, trying to keep out the of brunt of the storm, I realized we’d finished off most of our supplies. We might not have enough to make it home on. But a day or two of going hungry wouldn’t hurt any of us, and we weren’t that far from the mouth of the portal.
I leaned my head back against the rock wall behind me. We were under a large ledge, but if I peeked around it, the cliff face soared so far into the sky that I couldn’t see the top. The Veiled Mountains were no slackers when it came to the geology department. What Morgaine had called a foothill was a substantial mountain—even compared to the dizzying heights of the Cascades that divided the state of Washington in half.
The mountains here, though, weren’t volcanic. I couldn’t feel the throb of the lava below the surface, like I could at home when we headed out to Mount Rainier, where Smoky’s barrow was. No, these were older, weathered beyond time. They had existed before the dinosaurs. Before any living creature walked on the planet. They were rife with magic, like the Southern Wastes, and yet this magic was natural—innate within the molecules of the rock.
I turned to Morgaine. “This realm . . . it wasn’t created at the same time that the Great Divide took place, was it?”
She licked something off her fingers—it looked like honey—and shook her head. “No. This realm existed long before the Great Divide. The Elder Fae have always been more detached from humans than the Sidhe and the Unseelie have. They are the parents of the twin Courts, and yet, they are as far distanced as . . . as . . .”
“As Yvarr is from Smoky’s kin. They’re our Titans, aren’t they? Our forerunners.” I was beginning to understand. There had been several great races through history, the Elder Fae, the Wyrms, the Titans . . . and from them, the more modern species and races had been born. A thought occurred to me. “Did humans . . . do they have their own version of forebears other than what’s known?”
Morgaine nodded. “Yes, actually. They were known as the giants. But even with humans, there’s so much about history we don’t know. There was a time when the world was vastly different. When the Fae and humans coexisted in a tenuous peace, before recorded history. Then, the humans descended into a dark age and everything from that time is pretty much lost. They emerged again back around Sumer, and then later in Egypt.”
She paused, holding up one hand. “The wind is picking up. We have to move.”
And with that, our break was over. The path leading up into the ravine was narrow and, just as we had wound our way through the marsh-ridden, snow-covered grass, here we spread out single file, in the same order with Morgaine in the lead. I gripped my staff tightly—it still tingled from the magic I’d infused into it earlier.
As we left the shelter of the overhang, the wind hit us full force, channeling down through the ravine. It funneled through the narrow passage, gusting against us as if we were in a wind tunnel. The snow was still falling, and the weather had shifted for the worse with the passage of Beira. At the front, Morgaine was taking the brunt of the storm, but she was sturdier than I’d expected, braving the wind without a flinch.
The passage was narrow—if I stretched my arms out, I could run my hands along both sides of the channel. With a grade that was at least twenty percent, the going was steep and I was grateful for my staff. While we could manage it without too many problems, too long and we’d be off our guard with weariness. The climb was taxing, but the weather on top of it made everything treacherous.
Granite walls hemmed us in as we ascended, and I began to feel a lumbering sense of claustrophobia. The only thing we could see beyond the path in front of us and the walls to either side was the open sky, a churning mass of clouds and falling snow. The world had closed in around us, and as vast as the marshland and plains had been, this felt narrow and funneled and cramped.
I tried to focus on my feet instead of the never-ending trail. After all, we weren’t underground. We weren’t clinging to the side of a ravine, trying not to fall. We were headed toward our destination and we had to come out sometime. I thought about talking to Morio, but the wind was too loud and the howl of it would steal away my voice before my words ever reached him.
Perhaps that was what was the worst of it—the yammering winds. They raged and roared, blustering by, whipping up our cloaks and capes and anything not firmly anchored to our bodies. I had done my best to tie my cloak together in front to keep the wind from tossing my skirt into a frenzy, but that just made it more difficult, cutting down on the aerodynamics of my outfit. I felt like I was wearing a mushroom that billowed around me, making it difficult to walk without getting some layer or other caught between my legs.
On we went, as the day darkened. The snowstorm kept the sky from going pitch-dark. That silvery-green light that accompanied winter storms glimmered against the clouds, providing an eerie illumination. Vague snippets from our fights with zombies and ghouls cropped up—they took on that same eerie color, or they did once they’d been dead for a while before the necromancer reanimated them.
But that line of thought brought to mind too many gory fights, too much stress, and so I did my best to shake away the thoughts. Forcing myself to focus on thoughts of home and of Maggie, and Iris and all things that I loved the best, I brought my attention back to the path, and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other as we marched along the mountain trail.
* * *
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but I suddenly realized it was a great deal darker than it had been last time I’d paid attention, and my calves were beginning to ache. At that moment, Morgaine called a halt to our traveling. She motioned to a turnoff about twenty yards ahead, then pointed behind me to the others. I nodded.