So Cuchulainn had journeyed into the north, battling grief within and imagining demons without. He’d no physical injuries from which to recover, but the wound Brenna’s death had left in his soul was a gaping, invisible hole. The passage of time hadn’t begun to whittle away any of the sharpness of his pain. He would not ever truly recover from it. He would only survive it. There was a distinct difference.
His mind skittered away from the pain thinking about Brenna caused. Not that his loss wasn’t always with him. She was never far from his thoughts, but he had learned that if he gave in to despair by dwelling on might-have-beens the pain went quickly from smoldering coals to a hot, flaming need. It was a need that would never be slaked. Brenna was gone. That was unalterable fact. It was far better not to think—not to feel—at all.
Just track the sheep. Kill it. Return to camp. He ordered his mind to stop its restless roving.
Cuchulainn turned a corner. He and the young wolf quietly worked their way between the snow-covered rocks that nestled against the northern slope of the Trier Mountains. He was pleased that the snow had markedly lessened. Just days ago he couldn’t have followed the sheep to the base of the mountains. If luck held and they didn’t have another unexpected bout of snow, the pass might be clear enough for travel in another few days. Of course he would have to make sure. The children were tough and willing, but they were, for all their eagerness and precocity, still just children.
They were unusual, though. He would never forget his first glimpse of them—or their reaction to the first completely human man they had ever seen. It had been an overcast, gloomy afternoon. The sky had been heavy with the spring blizzard that would seal the pass and close them into the Wastelands. He and Curran and Nevin had emerged from the mountains and traveled the short distance from the pass to the small valley that sheltered the New Fomorian camp. It had been a young sentry named Gareth who had glimpsed them, and like any good guard he had rushed to alert his camp. But instead of meeting the small party with drawn weapons and wariness, the New Fomorians had rushed from their encampment with open hands and welcoming smiles. Children! By the Goddess, he hadn’t expected so many children. Laughing and singing a beautiful melody Cuchulainn was shocked to recognize as an ancient Partholonian song of praise to Epona, the hybrids had embraced the twins. Then their attention had quickly turned to him—the lone human rider in their midst.
“This is Cuchulainn,” Nevin had said.
“He is brother to the Goddess Elphame who has saved us,” Curran finished for him.
The joyful singing had instantly been silenced. The cluster of winged people had gazed at him. Cuchulainn remembered thinking they looked like a flock of bright, beautiful birds. Then the crowd parted to let a slender figure emerge. The first thing he noticed was that her skin had the odd luminous paleness of the other hybrid Fomorians, but her hair, wings and eyes were much darker. And then he saw the tears that washed her cheeks. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes were bright with them. Her gaze locked with his and Cuchulainn saw compassion and a terrible sadness. He wanted to look away. He didn’t want her emotions to touch him. His own pain ran too deep, was too fresh. But as he turned his head to break their locked gaze, the winged woman dropped gracefully to her knees. And then, like she was a pebble thrown into a waiting pool, the crowd of winged people, adults and children alike, followed her example and rippled to their knees.
“Forgive us. We are responsible for your sister’s death.” The winged woman’s sweet voice was filled with the sadness he’d read within her eyes.
“My sister is not dead.” Cuchulainn’s voice was flat and so devoid of emotion that it sounded alien to his own ears.
The woman reacted with obvious shock. “But the curse has been lifted. We all feel the absence of the demons in our blood.”
“You misinterpreted the prophecy,” Cuchulainn said in his gruff, empty voice. “It did not call for the physical death of my sister. Instead of her life, the prophecy led her to sacrifice a piece of her humanity. She lives. And it is only through the grace of Epona that she is not mad.”
Still on her knees, the woman looked from Cuchulainn to Curran and Nevin.
“What he says is true,” Curran said. “Elphame drank of Lochlan’s blood, and with it she accepted the madness of our people. Through the power of Epona she has defeated our fathers’ darkness, but it lives within her blood.”
“Lochlan? Did he survive?” she asked.
“Yes. He is mated to Elphame,” Nevin said.
“Keir and Fallon?”
“They have chosen another path,” Nevin said quickly.
Cuchulainn felt ice slice through him. Fallon had chosen the path of madness and in doing so she had murdered Brenna. But before she could be executed for her crime she’d revealed that she was pregnant. Elphame had imprisoned Fallon at Guardian Castle to await the birth of her child. Keir was her mate, and he had chosen to stay with her.
Ciara watched the human warrior’s face carefully. She recognized the numb, hopeless look that was the shadow left behind by tremendous loss. He had not lost his sister, but he had borne terrible sadness. Much had happened that they all needed to know, but not now—not at this moment. Later, she told herself. Later she would discover what could be done to relieve the warrior’s pain, as well as hear the tale of Fallon and Keir. Right now all that was important was that this man was the brother of their savior. For that alone they owed him a debt of gratitude.
She smiled, filling her words with the joy that was part of her soul. “Then we will give thanks to Epona that your sister lives, Cuchulainn.”
“Do what you feel you must,” he said in his dead voice. “My sister asks that I lead you back to Partholon and to our Clan’s castle. Will your people come with me?”
Her hands flew to cover her mouth. All around her she heard gasps of happiness and surprise. She couldn’t speak. Breath-stopping exultation swelled within her. This was it! This was the fulfillment of the dream their mothers and grandmothers had nurtured and kept alive within each of them. Then, bursting through the circle of kneeling adults came a tide of laughter and excitement as a horde of children, no longer able to contain their exuberance, crowded into the empty space that surrounded the warrior and his horse. The adults hurried to their feet and rushed forward, clucking at their young charges and trying in vain to restore some semblance of order and dignity to the warrior’s welcome.
The children clambered around Cuchulainn, their eyes large and round. With wings extended they jostled against one another like an overcrowded nest of baby cuckoos. He felt suddenly like a lone, overwhelmed sparrow.
“Partholon! We go to Partholon!”
“We are to meet the Goddess!”
“Is the land really warm and green?”
“Do you really not have wings?”
“May I touch your horse?”
Cuchulainn’s big gelding snorted and took two skittering steps backward, away from a tiny, winged girl who was trying on tiptoe to stroke his muzzle.
“Children, enough!” The winged woman’s voice was stern, but her eyes sparkled and she smiled as she spoke. “Cuchulainn will believe that the lessons of courtesy your great-grandmothers taught have been forgotten.”
Instantly the young winged beings dropped their heads and muttered soft apologies. The little girl who had been trying to touch his horse bowed her head, too, but Cuchulainn could see that she was sidling forward, one hand half raised, still trying for a covert caress. The gelding snorted again and took another step back. The girl followed. Just like Elphame when she was young, Cuchulainn thought fondly. Always reaching for things she shouldn’t. And for the first time since