copyright 2005, Lucynda Storey

available SOON from Aspen Mountain Press

The screams came from the concubine’s chamber and faded as Salmond fled from them down the marble hall toward the balcony overlooking the Ciredan River, the deep blue robes on his shoulders flying behind him. Past his fiftieth season, the birthing process endured by his concubines was not a new experience. But the agonizing labor and subsequent delivery disturbed him none-the-less.

Of all the things a man had to tolerate, the pain-wracked screams were the worst. No man’s position mattered, even if the man involved held the highest office of the temple. Birthing allowed the only time for the High Priestess to outrank him.

Lejeune’s tormented screams drove him to seek solitude. If only the Priestess permitted him to stay by his beloved’s side and offer her what small comforts he could. The High Priestess would not stand for this breach of her duties, and in this matter his wishes held no sway.

Instead, Salmond waited outside the chambers secured by the Priestess’s hand chosen guards, until he could no longer stand looking at their sharpened spears or listen to Lejeune’s excruciating cries of labor.

So, he fled to the balcony and pushed aside the draperies that kept the cold at bay. He inhaled deeply. The sharp, bitter air of the winter night flooded his lungs. Pale moonlight illuminated the frost-covered stubble of the fall harvest.

“Divine One.”

A voice of an unknown initiate, disturbed his thoughts. Salmond turned, weary from the long night, day, and second night he’d spent awaiting the birth of Lejeune’s child. His child. “Yes?”

“The Priestess requests your presence immediately.” Trembling distinctly filled each of the barely uttered words.

The boy twisted around and fled from Salmond.

His escape made Salmond’s stomach tighten in worry and fear. Glancing back at the moonlit balcony, Salmond gasped. A large black raven momentarily blotted out the light. An ominous omen for the birth.

Salmond dropped the aura of aloofness he projected as leader of the priests and priestesses and sprinted back to the concubine chambers and passed the stunned initiate.

The Priestess’s guards, spears crossed, blocked the beaded entrance to Lejeune’s room.

“Move aside,” he impatiently commanded when they didn’t immediately reposition to allow him access. “Let him enter,” replied the high, strong voice of the Priestess.

Salmond shoved through the guards’ protective stance and entered Lejeune’s chambers. The beaded strings of her doorway created a loud clatter in their violent swaying. In all the seasons they’d been together, he’d never violated the sacred space of the concubines.

He approached the raised bed on which Lejeune lay. Crimson stained the linen coverings. Bowls of bloodied water lay on pedestals near the bed. Her dark hair, sweaty from her exertions, lay limp against her too pale skin. The light of her vibrant green eyes dim. Goddess, no. Don’t take her from me.

“Lejeune,” he whispered.

“Divine One,” she weakly responded. “You came to bid me farewell on my journey beyond the stars.”

Salmond looked at the High Priestess, dressed in her white robes, splattered with Lejeune’s blood. The Priestess’s brown eyes held no secrets. Lejeune journeyed to the otherworld tonight.

“My favored one, it is not necessary for you to take this journey,” he said desperately, holding her finely boned hand. “You must not make such a trip alone. One as beautiful and delicate as you needs a companion to see to your comfort and safety. You must delay this trip.” He swallowed hard. He had to convince her to fight for more life. “You’re friendship and advice remain a necessity to me.”

Life sparked in her eyes for a mere moment, then faded again. She was too weakened to fight. The truth of her impending death hit him like the blow of a mighty warrior. Salmond could not allow Lejeune to leave unprotected, to journey to unknown lands.

He turned again to the stately Priestess. “Send the swiftest man and horse to fetch my son. I shall not leave this lady’s side at this hour.”

“Take the babe to your temple. I choose not set eyes upon the child whose birth sends Lejeune from my side.”

“Will you not acknowledge the child as from your loins?”

Salmond pulled a jewel-encrusted dagger from his belt. He dragged the edge of the knife across his forearm. Blood ran down his arm and dripped onto the woven rug next to the bed. “The child is acclaimed by me as my sire, symbolized by this gesture.”

Satisfied, the Priestess snapped her fingers twice. Two young women rushed to hear the High Priestess’ orders. “The Divine One wishes his son to be present. Take the fastest horse from the stable and summon the Captain of the Guard to fetch him.”

The girl nodded but didn’t move.

The High Priest shouted, “We do not possess the luxury of time. Begone!”

The first girl disappeared from the room as fast as her tiny feet carried her.

Near them, Salmond heard a small mewing sound. Fury filled him. How could such a small child take Lejeune from him? “Get the babe away from me!”

The Priestess snapped her fingers again. The small, noisy bundle was handed to the remaining girl. “Take the child to Maline. Tell her to find a wet-nurse for this child of royal blood.”

Salmond glanced at the Priestess. Perhaps she’d had a vision to offer him encouragement. “Can you do nothing?” he pleaded. “Concoct a potion to give her to keep her with me.”

“You know as well as I, Salmond, nothing changes once the will of the Goddess has been cast!”

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