The Empress lay awake in the darkness long after her Consort had fallen asleep, his arm draped over her waist, and wondered what was to become of her.
There was something in her – she could sense it sure as she could hear Caelum’s soft breathing – that was shifting. Changing.
She feared it might break her Vow.
She turned over, carefully so as not to wake him, and lay on her back, head turned to regard her lover.
Lover. She supposed that was what he was now. A laugh echoed in her head and she suppressed it from escaping through her mouth with difficulty.
His sand-coloured hair fell gently across his face, which was peaceful as he slept. Freckles dusted his cheeks and the bridge of his aquiline nose, and his wide, full lips were turned slightly up in the hint of a smile.
Quite an attractive man, she thought.
And for some reason only the Goddess can fathom, that attraction is mutual, she thought, somewhat bitterly.
It wasn’t an act, that much she knew. He didn’t feel revulsion touching her, as others always had. He had to be the only person in Athering who felt that way.
The only human contact she’d received as a child had been pinches and slaps designed to correct her behaviour, ostensibly, although, when very young she’d not been any more naughty than Yarrow. Yet her damnable twin had received all the love and attention that their mother had refused the heir. She could not recall a single time when her mother had kissed her, or hugged her, or even picked her up. The wet nurse had been her only friend at the beginning of her life, and then even she, too, pulled away.
The only person in the castle who had shown her any sort of caring had been her Aunt Zanny – and that had been hardly worthy of the word.
To be fair, her sister had tried, once or twice, to be, well, a sister to the heir-apparent. Zameera’s frank disapproval had curbed the red-head’s behaviour quickly and soundly. Zardria had never forgiven her twin that.
Once, when she had been seven years old, she’d run away from home. She’d packed a bag of clothing, stolen some food from the kitchens and a horse from the stables and escaped the castle. She’d also packed along her favorite toy, a stuffed jackahare named Jared that was well-loved. No one but she knew the toy’s name, for she was afraid she’d be punished for naming it after such a famous historical figure, but no one had cared enough even to ask her the jackahare’s name was; so it hadn’t mattered.
No one had noticed, or cared, that she was gone until the next day’s supper, when she hadn’t appeared. Search parties had been sent out but they didn’t find her. They didn’t look hard enough. By the time she got back, it was too late.
She’d made it to the East Wood by the time the search left town, and her food had run out. Her horse was tired, she was tired, and all she wanted was her bed and a nice meal but some inner stubbornness prevented her from turning back.
The forest was dark and filled with strange noises, and Zardria clung to her horse and Jared, terrified. She wished she’d never left the castle.
There was a creaking in the branches above, and before she could look up to investigate, a treecat leapt to the trail in front of them and roared. Her horse reared, knocking her from the saddle, and turned and bolted out of sight before she could rise.
As Zardria slowly got up, she saw the cat moving towards her with a slow, predatory slink. She froze in terror, and the cat froze too, its movement-based sight impaired. Its tongue stuck out as it tasted the air, searching for her scent. She stood for a long while, watching the cat search for her, her heart beating wildly in her chest, when she noticed something strange. The cat hadn’t blinked in over a minute.
A new terror gripping her, she wondered what devilry was at play in the forest.
Suddenly there was a flash of light that blinded her and made her fall back on her behind. When she opened her eyes again she saw a tall blonde woman walking towards her, smiling with deceptive gentleness.
Zardria wanted to run even more now, faced with a strange woman who was like as not a Goddess and mayhap not so nice as she looked, but the girl was frozen to the spot.
The woman – Goddess – crouched in front of Zardria and opened Her arms, as in entreaty.
“Little Zardria,” She said, Her voice rippling with power and darkness. “Come into My arms.”
Zardria wanted to shake her head no, but instead found herself standing in front of the Goddess and flinging her arms around the blonde’s neck. The Deity embraced the girl then in the first real hug of the princess’ life, making small cooing noises meant to soothe.
“There, there,” She said into Zardria’s ear. “No need to be frightened. Aunt Umbra is here to take care of you.”
Zardria pulled away. “You’re Umbra?” she said in a strangled whisper. “The priestess who instructs me says You’re…bad.” Her voice dropped on the last word, afraid to say it lest the Goddess become angry.
Umbra merely smiled and shook Her head. “Oh, no, Little Zardria. I’m afraid the myths about Me that you learn in school have been greatly…exaggerated. I’m not all that terrible. I just…keep the other Goddesses on Their toes, is all.” Her smile grew wider. “Besides – if I was so bad, would I have Chosen you?”
Zardria’s mouth fell open in wonder. “You…You chose me?” she asked in a squeak, barely daring to believe it.
Umbra nodded solemnly. “Yes, Little Zardria. I have. When you were born I saw greatness in you, and have claimed you for My own. The other Goddesses were quite jealous,” She said with a conspiratorial wink, and Zardria felt her spirits lift considerably, “but I got you first.
“However,” She continued, then stopped, looking down.
“What? However…what?” Zardria was getting worried again.
“Well, Little Zardria, it’s very unfortunate – you see, I was hoping you’d stay in the castle and grow up, and then when you were older you could pledge yourself to Me, and I would guide and support you. But because you ran away…” and Her gaze ambled sidelong to regard the treecat before coming back to rest on Zardria again, “you’re going to die here, tonight.”
“What?” Zardria said, tears springing to her eyes. “No! I don’t want to die!” She flung herself into Umbra’s arms, sobbing.
“I’m sorry, child,” the Goddess whispered into Zardria’s ear. “It’s out of My hands. The Moirae would be very upset if I intervened, you see. Fairly soon you’ll meet My sister Muerta – but Who knows when you’ll be reborn again, if at all? Your family would have to be very diligent with the funerary rites to grant you an Audience….” She trailed off pointedly.
“No,” Zardria wailed, crying harder. “Please, don’t let me die, Umbra! Please! I’ll do anything.” In that moment, so terrified was the young girl of the death that awaited her, she would really do anything – would give her soul to be able to live.
There was a pause before Umbra answered. “There is one thing,” She said thoughtfully, then shook Her head. “No. I can’t let you. You’re far too young – I’m sorry, Little Zardria, but you’ll just have to accept what the Moirae have laid out for you.”
Zardria pulled back to stare at Umbra, unable to believe the Goddess would offer hope and then pull it away again. She sniffled, her tear-stained face shining in the dim moonslight that filtered through the branches of the trees. “What? No, I’m not too young. Tell me, please – what can You do?” Her voice was becoming shrill with desperation now, and she felt lightheaded, like she was about to faint.
Umbra sighed, and a cold breeze blew through the forest. “You’d have to pledge yourself to Me, Little Zardria, and believe Me – it’s no Oath to take lightly. It will bind you to Me for eternity. I’m sorry, but it really is no Oath for a seven-year-old to make.”
Zardria’s face fell, and the reality of her doom settled around her like a cloak made of fog. There was no hope. She was going to die.
And Mom and Yarrow won’t even care, she thought bitterly, wiping at her tears roughly. They won’t even bother to get me an Audience. I’ll wander the earth forever in torment. She shuddered in fear, not wanting to face such a fate. She’d never be reborn!
She stopped her lamenting then as a thought struck her.
“Wait. If we really do get reborn then maybe I already pledged to You in a past life!” she said, looking brightly at the Goddess.
Umbra shook Her head, but there was a ghost of a smile on Her face. “Trust Me. I’d know.”
Not to be discouraged, Zardria pressed on. “Ok, well, maybe I served You loyally in a past life but never got a chance to pledge. Maybe this pledge would just be a lifetime late.”
Umbra looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. “I suppose that could be possible – I have had a lot of followers over the millennia. It can be hard to keep track of them all.”
“So can I pledge?” Zardria pounced on Umbra’s admission, a starving kitten.
Umbra let out a small laugh that sounded like a waterfall of blood running over a succession of bells. “You sure are persistent,” She said with a smile. “I knew I’d chosen well.” Then Her face turned serious. “You must understand, Little Zardria, that you make this pledge to Me for eternity – and you will be giving up a few things.”
Zardria wrinkled her nose, suddenly uncertain. “Such as?”
“You won’t ever get your moontime, for one, and you’ll lose the ability to have children.” Umbra stared at the girl earnestly, and Zardria just smiled.
“I wasn’t looking forward to those things anyway.”
Umbra smiled in return. It looked triumphant. “Okay. You’re sure.”
Zardria gave a big nod and backed up her affirmation verbally, and Umbra placed Her hands on Zardria’s head, cupping it from the back, Her thumbs resting behind Zardria’s earlobes.
A searing, white hot pain entered Zardria from where the Goddess’ thumbs touched her and shot down to her toes and back again, ricocheting off her organs in its passage. She was sure she cried out from it, for it was worse than any pain she’d ever felt – even worse than when she’d broken her arm the previous year while riding her pony. Her insides were being stirred around like the morning’s eggs for her omelette. Then there was a great sucking sensation and she was sure her soul was ripped out and taken through Umbra’s hands. Emptiness filled her, the pain gone, and she felt cold. Then warmth came from the Goddess’ thumbs and poured into Zardria, filling her with a molten comfort that made her feel solid again – but wholly different.
She remembered nothing after that, and waked the next morning in her bed, safe in the castle.
She’d been punished severely for running away, but the blows across her backside no longer hurt. Numbness coated her, and a smug self-assurance that she was destined for greatness.
She supposed she could have convinced herself it was all a dream, a hallucination, over the past two decades, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Umbra had never really left her. She felt the Goddess’ presence with her always. Throughout her adolescence, her Goddess had spoken to her, giving her instructions and comfort when she felt all alone. Umbra always called her ‘Little Zardria’ even after she grew to be as tall as her sister and was seen as little by none – save maybe Caelum, who stood another three inches above her. Throughout her life she began to see Umbra as the mother she felt she’d never had. Umbra gave her love and attention where Zameera had given her the cold shoulder. So Zardria did not resent the things her Goddess asked of her, no matter how difficult they were for her to do; she did not resent being made a full servant of Her, dual-sided and uncontrollable. Nor did she resent the special needs of her new, other half.
A still-beating human heart was not terribly tasty, she knew. And it was hard to come by. She only needed it twice a year; so she didn’t complain.
Not out loud, at least.
Umbra had stayed true to Her word. Zardria had become great. Would continue to be so, for years to come. She could feel it.
She looked at Caelum again in the dim light of her bedroom, and felt a small twinge in her stomach, a small spasm that signalled the beginning of a deeper feeling for him than passion or lust.
Umbra had warned her once, during her infatuation with Isidora, never to let someone into her inner sanctum, behind her walls. Never to let anyone know her, or love her. The only One who loved Zardria was Umbra, anyway. She knew that. To let anyone else in, Umbra warned, would be Zardria’s downfall.
She had pushed aside her feelings for Isidora and turned them to feelings of hate. It had been easy enough.
The twinge in her gut now was insistent, however, and it was with more difficulty that she ignored it, pushed it to the side. She could not turn the feeling to hate, she found. She managed to convince herself that she felt nothing but physical desire for Caelum – strange, true, but not her deathknell.
She wished she could talk to her Goddess about it, but Umbra had been strangely silent since the Ceremony. She didn’t understand – she’d done everything Umbra had asked, continued to make appropriate sacrifices, and had received dead silence in return.
Was Umbra displeased in some way? Had she incurred her Goddess’ wrath? She hoped against hope she had not. It was a worry that plagued her mind every day and night.
A chill brushed against her breasts then, and she realised the quilt was still around her waist. She reached to pull it up and dislodged Caelum’s arm in the process, waking him up.
“Whuzzat?” he said in a voice thick with sleep.
“Cold,” she replied.
“Mmm,” was all he could manage, but to her complete surprise he took the quilt and tucked it tightly around them both before wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close, letting his body heat warm her better than any fire.
“There,” he mumbled, and planted a kiss on her forehead. “All better.” Soon his breathing changed into the steady regular rhythm of sleep.
Zardria lay there, sensing her doom come closer on steps in tune to the rise and fall of his chest.