Excerpt from Brighid's Quest (release date Dec 05)

Okay, for those of you who are fans of Elphame's Choice, I thought I'd start posting excerpts from the sequel, Brighid's Quest. This is the prologue and chapter 1. Uh, guys, keep in mind that this is the un-copy edited, un-line edited version. Which means there my be mistakes in it. Trust me - they've already been corrected. Promise.

BRIGHID’S QUEST

by

P.C. Cast



PRELUDE

“Through the blood of a dying goddess your people will be saved.”

More than one hundred years ago women began disappearing from a green, prosperous land called Partholon. At first the disappearances were sporadic, seemingly random. It wasn’t until an invading horde attacked MacCallan Castle, slaughtered the Clan’s brave warriors and enslaved their women that the awful truth became known. The Fomorians, a race of winged demons, were using human women to breed a new race of monsters. It meant nothing to the vamperic creatures that birthing the mutant fetuses caused the death of their unwilling mothers. The human women were incubators – and their deaths were no more than an evil means to a ghastly end.
The Goddess Epona’s rage was terrible, and through her Chosen One, the Goddess Incarnate Rhiannon, and her centaur lifemate ClanFintan, the peoples of Partholon united to defeat the Fomorians. The demon race was destroyed, but Partholon did not realize that the war had left more than a legacy of death and evil in its wake. In the Wastelands, far away from home, winged children were born to human mothers who miraculously survived their birthing. Part demon, part human the small group of hybrid beings struggled to carve a life for themselves out of the Wastelands. They held firm to their humanity, even when refusing the call of their fathers’ dark blood caused them pain…pain that slowly eroded their will until finally madness became their only respite.
“Through the blood of a dying goddess your people will be saved.”
But Epona had not forgotten the women who never lost hope and stayed faithful to their Goddess, though they could not return to Partholon with their winged children. The great Goddess whispered words of The Prophecy to her deposed children, and the promise of salvation breathed hope into the race of half-demons who were desperate to maintain their humanity.
A century turned slowly and the winged people waited for the answer to their prayers. Partholon recovered and prospered again, and the Fomorian War became a dead memory – not ever forgotten, just entombed in history.
And then a child was born in Partholon, part human and part centaur. Touched by Epona’s powerful hand the babe was given the name Elphame. Through dreams she called to Lochlan, the leader of the winged beings who waited in the Wastelands to fulfill the Goddess’ Prophecy. The child grew to adulthood, and Lochan followed the threads of his dreams to MacCallan Castle where Elphame awakened more than the stones of the ancient ruin.
“Through the blood of a dying goddess your people will be saved.”
Out of love for Lochlan and trust in her Goddess, Elphame fulfilled The Prophecy, sacrificing a piece of her own humanity as well as her brother’s heart, to save the race of hybrid Fomorians. Now this new breed of beings was finally coming home. But their struggle had just begun. It is wise to remember that the Path of the Goddess is not an easy one to tread…






CHAPTER 1

Elphame was exactly where the Huntress had thought she would be – not that it took a centaur Huntress’s skill to track her Clan Chieftain. The MacCallan’s habit of visiting this particular set of cliffside boulders had become well known. From the vantage point of the highest of the large, weather-worn rocks, Elphame could sit and look northward toward the Trier Mountains, which were just a jagged purple line of peaks jutting into the horizon. She would stare at that distant line, trying to see past it into the Wastelands beyond.
Brighid approached Elphame quietly, reluctant to disturb her. Even after living and working closely with Elphame for more than two complete cycles of the moon, Brighid could still be moved by the sight of the unique being who had become her friend as well as her Clan Chieftain. Born eldest daughter of Partholon’s Goddess Incarnate, the High Priestess of Epona and the centaur Shaman who was her lifemate, Elphame was human only to her waist, from there down her two legs had been fashioned more equine than human. They were powerfully muscled and covered with a fine coat of glossy fur, ending in two ebony hooves.
But her physical differences were not all that set Elphame apart. She carried within her the powers gifted to her by Epona. She communed with the Realm of Spirits through an affinity for Earth Magic. Elphame could hear the spirits in the stones of MacCallan Castle. She also had a special connection with Epona, and Brighid often sensed the presence of the patron Goddess of Partholon when Elphame invoked the morning blessing, or thanked the Goddess at the close of a particularly productive day. And, of course, there was the evidence of Epona’s favor that they had all witnessed when Elphame had drawn down the strength and love of a Goddess to defeat the madness of the Fomorians…
Brighid shuddered, not wanting to remember that ghastly day. It was enough to know that her Clan Chieftain was a miraculous mixture of centaur and human, goddess and mortal. Brighid appreciated how unique it was that Elphame was able to inspire awe and devotion as well as friendship.
“Was the morning hunt successful?” Elphame said without turning to look at the Huntress.
“Very,” Brighid wasn’t surprised her Chieftain had sensed her presence. Elphame’s preternatural powers were sharp and accurate. “The forests surrounding MacCallan Castle haven’t been properly hunted in more than one hundred years. The game practically leaps before my arrows, begging to be culled.”
Elphame’s full lips turned up in the hint of a smile. “Suicidal venison? That sounds like a truly unique dish.”
Brighid snorted. “Don’t tell Wynne. That cook will begin demanding I choose the beast’s temperament more carefully so that her stews will have a more perfect flavor.”
The MacCallan pulled her gaze from the distant mountain line and smiled at her centaur friend. “Your secret is safe with me.”
Looking into Elphame’s eyes, Brighid was struck by the sadness that was so evident there. Her lips smiled, but the smile did not touch the rest of her face. Brighid understood suddenly that The MacCallan didn’t show this haunted face to the general public – that it was a rare privilege to be allowed such an intimacy. For a moment, she feared that the Fomorian madness that lurked deep within her friend’s blood had awakened, but she quickly discounted the thought. Brighid didn’t see hatred or rage within Elphame’s eyes, she saw only a deep sadness. She had little doubt as to its source. Elphame was happily and publicly mated to her lifemate, Lochlan. The rebuilding of MacCallan Castle was well underway. The Clan was healthy and thriving, thus its Chieftain should be content. And Brighid knew Elphame would be, except for one detail of her life.
“You’re worried about him,” Brighid studied Elphame’s strong profile as her Clan Chieftain gaze shifted back to the northern horizon.
“Of course I’m worried about him!” she snapped at her friend and then pressed her lips together in a sharp line, instantly regretting the unintentional harshness of her words. When she spoke again her voice was sad and resigned. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you, but I’ve been worried about him since Brenna’s death. He loved her so much.”
“We all loved the little Healer,” Brighid said.
Elphame sighed. “It’s because she was special. Her heart was so incredibly big.”
“You’re worried that Cuchulainn won’t recover from her loss.”
Elphame stared at the distant mountains. “It wouldn’t be so bad if he was here; if I could talk with him and know how he’s doing.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t stop him from leaving, though. He said everything here reminded him of Brenna, and that he’d never learn to live without her here. When he left he was just a ghost of himself. No,” she reconsidered her comparison as she thought about the very vibrant and life-like ghost who haunted her own castle, “not a ghost of himself. He was more like a shadow of what he used to be…”
Elphame’s voice faded. Brighid stayed by her side while her Chieftain struggled silently with worry for her brother, and her own thoughts turned in remembrance to the little Healer, Brenna. She had come to MacCallan Castle as had Brighid, looking for a new life and a new beginning, but the scarred Healer had found much more. She had found love within the arms of the Chieftain’s warrior brother, who was able to see past her terrible burn scars to the beauty of her heart. Brighid remembered how spectacularly happy her friend had been – up until the moment of her untimely death. That her death had set into motion the events that led to the salvation of a people did little to salve the wound that had been left by her absence. And now Cuchulainn had gone to lead back into Partholon the very people who had brought about his lover’s murder.
“It was at his insistence,” Elphame said quietly, as if she could sense the path of her friend’s thoughts. “He did not blame the other Fomorians for Brenna’s death. He understood her murderess had been under the control of the madness they all struggled against.”
Brighid nodded. “Cuchulainn blamed only himself for Brenna’s death. Perhaps bringing the hybrid Fomorians home will serve as an act of closure for him. Lochlan says that many of his people are children. Maybe they will help him to heal.”
“Healing without the touch of a Healer is a difficult process,” Elphame murmured. “I just hate to think about him in pain and without –” She broke off with a dry laugh.
“What?” Brighid prompted.
“I know it sounds silly, Cuchulainn is a warrior renowned for his strength and courage, but I hate to think of him without his family near while he’s hurting.”
“Especially his big sister?”
Elphame’s lips twisted. “Yes, especially his big sister.” She sighed again. “He’s been gone so long. I really thought he’d be back by now.”
“You know the report from Guardian Castle said that there was a major spring snowstorm that ravaged the mountains and closed the pass into the Wastelands. Cuchulainn would have to wait for the next thaw, and then he would be traveling slowly, being careful not to over-tax the strength of the children. You must be patient,” Brighid said.
“Patience has never been one of your virtues, my heart.”
The deep voice came from behind them. The Huntress and her Chieftain turned to watch the winged man finish his silent approach. Brighid wondered if she would ever get completely used to the fact that such a being existed at all. Part Fomorian, part human, Lochlan had been born an anomaly. More human than demon, he and others like him had been raised by their human mothers in secrecy in the harsh Wastelands north of the Trier Mountains. He was tall and leanly muscular. His features were well-chiseled and attractively human, but the luminescence of him skin hinted at his difference. And then there were his wings. Right now they were at rest, tucked snuggly against his back, with just the storm-colored topside visible. But Brighid had seen them fully spread around him in terrible magnificence. It was a sight the Huntress would not easily forget.
“Good morning, Huntress,” he said warmly as he joined them. “Wynne tells me you returned this morning with a spectacular kill and that we have venison steaks to look forward to at the evening meal.”
Brighid inclined her head in a brief bow, acknowledging his praise as she moved aside so that Lochlan could greet his wife.
“I missed you this morning,” he said, reaching up to take the hand she offered him and kissing it softly.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t want to wake you so I…” she shrugged.
“You are impatient for your brother’s return, and it makes you restless,” he said.
“I know he’s a warrior, and I know I’m thinking with a sister’s heart instead of a Chieftain’s mind, but I’m worried about him.”
“I am a warrior, but if I lost you I would lose my soul. Being a warrior does not prevent a man from feeling pain. Cuchulainn has been in my thoughts lately, too,” Lochlan paused, choosing his words carefully. He had begun to be worried at the warrior’s continued absence, but for a different reason than his lifemate. Cuchulainn was leading back to Partholon a people who had caused his lover’s death. Elphame’s brother was an honorable man and a warrior of legendary skills, but he was just a man – a man who had recently lost the love of his life. “Perhaps one of us should go after him.”
“I want to. I’ve even thought of it, but I can’t leave,” Elphame’s frustration spilled over into her voice. “The Clan is too new, and there is still so much work to be done rebuilding the castle.”
“I will go.”
Brighid spoke in such a simple matter-of-fact voice that Elphame wasn’t sure she had heard her correctly.
“You will go?” Elphame asked.
The Huntress nodded and shrugged. “The forest is so lush with game that even the human warriors can easily keep the castle fed – at least for a while,” she added with a smile. “And it will take the skill of a Huntress to follow the path Cuchulainn took through the mountains.” She looked pointedly at Lochlan. “Will it not?”
“It is an obscure trail, and though I know Cuchulainn and the others will have marked it, still it would be difficult to find and follow,” he agreed.
“Besides, game is scarce in the Wastelands. At least I can ease their burden of hunger as they ready themselves to travel.” Brighid smiled at her Clan Chieftain. “A Huntress is always welcome company, especially when there are hungry young mouths to feed.”
“A friend is also always welcome company,” Elphame said, feeling her voice catch at the surge of emotion Brighid’s offer had evoked. “Thank you. You have relieved my mind greatly.”
“Cuchulainn will probably think me a poor substitute for his sister,” Brighid said roughly to cover up her own emotions. She had come to care for Elphame as she would a member of her own family. No, the Huntress silently amended, it was from my own family I escaped by joining Clan MacCallan. Elphame is far easier to care for.
“He will think no such thing,” Elphame laughed.
“I will sketch a map which will help to make your path clear,” Lochlan said. Then he rested his hand lightly on the Huntress’ shoulder. “Thank you for doing this, Brighid.”
She looked into the winged man’s eyes and stifled the urge to flinch under his touch. The majority of the Clan was slowly accepting Lochlan as Elphame’s lifemate. He was half Fomorian, but and he had proven his loyalty to her and their Clan. Yet Brighid could not completely quell the nagging feeling of unease being in his presence always evoked.
“I will leave first thing in the morning,” the Huntress said resolutely.

***

Brighid hated snow. It wasn’t that it was a physical discomfort for her. As with all centaurs, her natural body heat effectively insulated her from all but the most drastic weather changes. She hated snow in principal. It seemed to her that it shrouded the earth with a blanket of numb dampness. Woodland creatures either burrowed from it or fled to warmer grounds. She tended to agree with the animals. It had taken her five days to travel from MacCallan Castle north through the thickening forest to the mouth of the obscure pass Lochlan had sketched in his detailed map. Five days. She snorted in disgust. She might as well have been a human riding a mindless horse aimless around and around in circles. She had expected to have traveled twice the distance in half the time.
“Goddess accursed snow,” she muttered, her own voice sounding odd against the walls of the looming mountains. “Surely this must be it.” She studied the uniquely fashioned rock formation for some sign that Cuchulainn’s small party had passed within. Bright thought that he would have marked it, though it was unlikely there was another grouping of red rocks that formed a tunnel into the mountains that looked exactly like the open mouth of a giant, complete with distended tongue and jagged teeth. Her hooves made muffled wet clomps as she approached the gaping tunnel.
Suddenly the air was filled with the wind-battering sound of heavy wings and a black shape swooped past her to light on the tongue looking piece of red rock.
Brighid came to an abrupt halt and ground her teeth together. The raven cocked its head and cawed at her. The Huntress frowned.
“Begone wretched bird!” she shouted, waving her arms at it.
Unruffled, the raven continued to fix her with its cold, black stare. Then slowly, distinctly, it tapped the side of the rock with its beak three times before unfurling its wings and beating the air neatly, skimming low enough over Brighid’s head that her hair stirred and she had to force herself not to duck away from the dark shape. Scowling, the Huntress approached the rock. The bird’s feet had made claw-shaped marks in the snow so that the red of the rock was visible as if autumn had drawn rust colored lines against winter’s canvas. She reached out and brushed at the area the bird had pecked, unsurprised when Cuchulainn’s trail slash became visible, pointing into the mouth of the tunnel.
Brighid shook her head. “I don’t want your help, Mother.” Eerily, her voice bounced back to her from the tunnel walls. “The price you place on it has always been too costly.
The raven’s cawing drifted down on a wind that suddenly, magically felt warm, bringing with it the scents and sounds of the Centaur Plains. Brighid closed her eyes against a tide of longing. The bird’s call filled her with images of home. The green of the waving grasslands was more than a color – it held scent and texture as the warm breeze shushed through it. The sweet, rolling land beckoned. It was spring on the Centaur Plains, and completely unlike this cold, white world of mountains. The grasses would already be mid-hock high and dotted with wildflowers and their proud shows of blue and white and violet. She drew a deep breath and tasted home. The air pulsed with the freedom of the unshackled land.
“Stop it!” she jerked her eyes open. “It’s a sham, Mother. Freedom is the one thing the Centaur Plains does not offer me!”
The raven’s call faded and died, taking with it the warm home-touched wind. Brighid shivered. She shouldn’t have been surprised that her mother had sent her spirit guide to find her. She realized that the anticipatory sense she had felt all day had been instigated by more than just the fact that she was nearing the entrance to the mountain passageway. She should have sensed her mother’s hand in the day’s events. No, Brighid corrected herself, she had sensed it – she should have acknowledged it. She knew better.
I have made my choice. I am Huntress for the Clan MacCallan – an oath sworn member of the clan. I do not regret my choice.
The Huntress squared her shoulders and entered the tunnel, physically and mentally shaking off the lingering effects of her mother’s presence. She was suddenly glad that the pass was still snow-covered enough that it would take all of her concentration and much of her vast physical strength to navigate her way through it. She didn’t want to think about her mother or the familiar beauty of the homeland she had decided that she must leave forever.
The day was still young. According to Lochlan, she should be able to clear the most treacherous parts of the trail before dark. If all went well, tomorrow she would find the Fomorian camp and Cuchulainn. She picked up her pace, still being careful not to misstep and catch a hoof in a snow-hidden crevice. Brighid focused on the trail. She did not think of her mother and of the life from which she had turned. She ignored the guilt and loneliness that seemed to shadow her every decision. She had made the right choice. She was sure of it. But just because she had chosen wisely didn’t mean she had taken the easiest path.
Her smile was filled with grim self-irony as she scrambled around a slick, narrow corner in the treacherous trail. The physical path she had chosen to travel that day was quickly proving to be almost as difficult as the life path she had chosen.
Distracted by her inner turmoil and outer challenges, the Huntress’s keen senses only registered the watching eyes deep in her subconscious as a brief feeling of unease. A feeling quickly cast aside as vestiges of irritation at her mother’s interfering spirit emissary.
Unhindered, the eyes glowed the color of old blood as from within the darkness they continued to watch and to wait.

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