Chapter Eighteen

Cc's stomach let out a very unladylike growl as Isabel finished lacing up her outer gown.

"Forgotten to eat, have you?" Isabel laughed.

"Please tell me there's some of your wonderful stew left."

"For you, yes. After all, you are the one who thought of adding the mint."

"It was good?"

"It was wonderful. I think Bronwyn was so impressed that she may even have saved you a loaf of her excellent bread."

"That sounds great," CC said as they hurried down the hall. "Do you think the monks will still be at evening mass? I'm really tired, and I'd rather not have to make conversation with the abbot and Andras." The hard physical labor of cleaning and scrubbing all day coupled with the ever-present ache for the water had exhausted her, and the last thing CC needed was to spar with the abbot or fend off Andras's attempts at courtship.

CC could feel Isabel's gaze. When she spoke, the old woman's voice sounded wise. "It is obvious that you and the abbot dislike one another, which is certainly no surprise.

Abbot William disapproves of beauty, and you are beauty personified. Even I judged you harshly because of your appearance."

CC started to say something, but Isabel shook her head, not wanting to be interrupted. "No, do not excuse me. I am old enough to recognize when my behavior is foolish. So that explains why you would have hard feelings for the abbot, but I do not understand why you are not pleased by the attentions of Sir Andras. It seemed at first as if you enjoyed his company, but I have been observing the two of you. Of late it appears you are more often annoyed or distracted when you are with him than not."

"I didn't think I was being so obvious."

"It is only apparent when you are very tired." Isabel smiled at her. "And perhaps only then to another woman."

They began walking across the courtyard, and CC chewed her bottom lip, not sure how much she should admit to Isabel. She glanced at the silent well, but it looked like an ordinary pile of stone. Well, she thought, at least she's not asking me about that.

"Forgive me, Undine, if I have asked too personal a question," Isabel said.

"No," CC assured her. "I don't mind that you asked. I was just trying to figure out how best to answer you." She sighed, and decided on telling her the truth—or at least as much of the truth as she could. Liars didn't make good friends, and CC very much wanted to be the old woman's friend. "You're right. At first I thought I might be able to care about him, maybe even love him. He seemed nice, and he's certainly handsome enough."

Isabel made an appreciative noise and nodded.

"But the more time I've spent with him, and the better I've come to know him, the more obvious it is that he's not the man for me. It's not that he's a horrible guy or anything like that. It's not even really his fault. The truth is that he and I are mismatched." CC bent her head to Isabel's and lowered her voice. "And this morning I overheard him talking to the abbot about me. They were discussing whether or not he should marry me and it sounded like they were considering buying a brood mare or a piece of property."

Isabel raised her eyebrows. "And this surprised you, Undine?"

"Not really." CC sighed. "But I would never marry a man who thought of me as his property."

Isabel blinked slowly at her. "You must be from a land far away."

"That's one thing we know for certain," CC said firmly. "Another thing is that I'm sure that not all males think of women as property. Some of them are kind and respectful and consider us partners in life." CC's voice softened as she thought of Dylan.

"So you love another?" The old woman's eyes twinkled, and CC couldn't help but smile in return.

"Whore!" The word hissed through the air behind them.

Both women gasped and spun around to face Andras. The knight was wide-eyed and so unnaturally pale that he looked ghostly. His blond hair was in wild disarray, and his eyes flamed with an ominous silver light.

"Whore!" he hissed. "Do not think you have fooled us. We know what you really are. We know you are not pure. You have whored yourself and you will pay the price for your betrayal! "

CC shivered at the eerie sound of his words. They echoed from his mouth with an otherworldly force. We? Who was he talking about? Her thoughts raced through her mind as she glanced at the well. Hovering above it CC could see inky waves, like heat rising from the top of a sunbaked blacktop road.

"Go get help!" CC whispered frantically to Isabel.

"No! I will not leave you," she whispered back. Then she made a shooing gesture at the knight and spoke sharply in the confident voice of an irritated grandmother, "Go on, Sir Andras, leave the Princess be. If the two of you have had a misunderstanding, there are other ways to solve it. I do not think the abbot would approve of your ungentlemanly words."

The knight's eyes slitted as he answered Isabel. "Yes, we have had a misunderstanding." Snakelike, his glowing eyes shifted to Undine. "One that can only be righted when we

have been joined together. I will have what is mine by right!"

Before CC could move, Andras lunged forward and grabbed her wrist in a vicelike grip.

At his touch, the amulet of the goddess began to radiate heat. CC could feel its power building swiftly.

"Stop this foolish charade," the disembodied voice whispered hot words into her ear. "You can not alter the ending. You will be mine."

She met the silver eyes and spoke directly to the spirit which possessed the knight. "Never! I will never be yours, Sarpedon." CC concentrated on the power of the goddess that burned within the stone hanging between her breasts. She could feel it like she felt the ebb and flow of the tide. The power was fluid, and she knew it was hers to claim. In a blindingly swift motion, CC cast the power of the amulet down her and struck the knight a stinging blow across his cheek.

Andras shrieked as the might of the goddess knocked him away from CC. He doubled over and fell to his knees. From where she stood, CC watched the dark fumes dissolve down into the well.

Except for the sounds of the knight's ragged breathing, the courtyard was silent. CC felt weak, like the blow she had delivered had drained her of all her strength. She stumbled back a little, and Isabel rushed to give her a steadying hand.

"My son! What is it?"

The abbot strode into the courtyard, his red robe flapping behind him like a crimson flag. Several monks hurried after him, looking like confused white mice. The priest closed the space between them and helped Andras to his feet.

"Abbot William, the knight—" Isabel began with a shaking voice, but CC cut her off.

"He must have fainted." CC finished for her, squeezing her hand to keep her quiet. "Isabel was escorting me to dinner, and we found Andras lying here in the courtyard. He wasn't moving. It was quite a shock."

"Yes," Isabel added. "I would have gone immediately for help, but the princess was so distraught that I didn't feel I could leave her."

CC sent her a grateful look.

"Then Andras started to move, which is when you came into the courtyard."

Everyone turned to the knight. The glow in his eyes had completely extinguished, and his features had returned to normal. His expression was dazed. Sweat plastered his hair to his head and darkened wet circles under his tunic.

"I-I remember hearing Undine's voice." He shook his head in an attempt to clear the confusion from his mind. "And the amulet. I remember the amulet." He raked a trembling hand through his wet hair. "Then I remember nothing more until I heard your voice, Father."

"Do not fear, my son. We will discover what it is that has clouded your mind." His voice was gentle and fatherly. "Since its influence fled from my presence, whatever has affected you must be of the darkness because it flees the light of God."

The priest wasn't looking at the knight as he spoke; instead he studied CC. She could feel it when his gaze found the amber teardrop that hung on its long, silver chain. In the evening light it looked darker than its usual golden brown. Automatically, CC touched the amulet. The warmth that still radiated there comforted her. The abbot stepped closer to CC, narrowing his eyes as he peered at the pendant.

"What is this heathen talisman?" His voice lost its gentle charm when he addressed CC. "Take it off and let me examine it."

CC shook her head. "It is not heathen, and I can't take it off. It's a gift from my mother."

The priest's eyes were slits. "Now you have memory of a mother?"

"I remember her love and I remember her gift," CC said defiantly.

"I shall examine this gift," he sneered.

He walked toward her in slow motion, and all CC could think was that she knew the amulet would burn him. It had not failed to turn negative energy away from her, and the priest was one large ball of negative energy. His little piglike eyes glared at her, and she felt like she was going to hyperventilate.

That's it! she thought. And with a sigh that would have made Lynelle, Bronwyn and Gwenyth proud, CC swooned dramatically.

Thankfully, Isabel's strong arms were there to catch her, and both women tumbled to the ground. CC lay half in the servant's lap as Isabel rocked her like a child. Gulping air, she fluttered her eyelashes, pretending partial consciousness.

"Poor thing!" Isabel said. "She has had almost nothing to eat today. The child has been toiling since dawn for the Holy Mother." Out of the corner of her vision, CC could see several of the monks cross themselves reverently at the mention of the statue. "Here!" CC felt a tug as Isabel grasped the amulet firmly in her callused palm. "It does not burn. It is but a gift from a loving mother. Sir Andras has had an unfortunate apoplectic attack. The good knight is not in his right mind. He obviously needs your aid, as the princess needs mine." Isabel spoke with a firmness that appeared to shock the abbot into silence.

"Oh, Isabel, I feel so weak," CC gasped. "What happened?"

Isabel smoothed back CC's hair. "Hush, lamb, all is well. You will recover when you have eaten."

Struggling to her feet, the old woman pulled CC up with her. "Now I beg you to excuse us, Abbot. I will see that the princess is cared for and then retires for the night."

Isabel began limping towards the door to the dining room, one arm wrapped protectively around CC's waist. The sea of silent monks parted for them.

"Until we understand exactly what caused the attack on Sir Andras, I will post one of the Brothers outside the princess's door—to keep her from harm.'" The whiplike sound of the abbot's voice caused the women to pause.

CC kept a tight hold on Isabel as she half-turned to face the priest. He had moved back to the knight's side and his hand was resting protectively on Andras's shoulder.

'Thank you for your concern for my safety," CC said, allowing her voice to sound weak and shaky.

"I have concern for all of the lost…" The abbot's voice drifted after them as the women left the courtyard.

"I don't want to eat in the dining room," CC whispered to Isabel in the hall. Isabel nodded in understanding, and they headed for the servant's entrance to the kitchen.

Lynelle was the first to notice them. Her look of welcome shifted instantly to one of concern.

"Sir Andras attacked her," Isabel said grimly, leading CC over to a roughly carved stool that sat near the center workstation. "She needs food and drink."

The four women went to work like a well-oiled machine, and soon CC was eating a steaming bowl of Isabel's excellent mint-flavored stew and taking turns sipping from a mug of herbal tea and a goblet of rich red wine.

"Drink all of the tea," Bronwyn slurred as she and the other women hovered henlike around CC. "It is chamomile and rosehips. It will help to soothe your stomach upset."

"And drink all of the wine," Lynelle rasped in her grumpy voice. "It will help with everything else."

CC smiled weakly at the old women.

Isabel offered her a second helping of the stew, which CC enthusiastically accepted. As Isabel placed the steaming bowl in front of her, she asked, "Have you recovered enough to explain?"

The other women paused in their chores, their interest piqued. CC nodded slowly.

"The knight was not himself?"

"No, he wasn't," CC answered, meeting Isabel's gaze squarely.

"He seemed to be possessed," Isabel said.

CC heard the shocked gasps from the old women, but she kept her eyes on Isabel.

"Yes. Andras was possessed by a creature named Sarpe-don. I was escaping from him when the knight found me washed up on the shore."

Isabel nodded. "I knew it. I could clearly see the change in the knight, and that was the name you used when you spoke to him." The old woman took a deep breath before she asked her next question. "You did not want the abbot to touch your amulet. Why?"

The room fell silent waiting for the answer.

"Because I didn't know what he would feel if he touched it. What did you feel?"

"Warmth," Isabel said simply.

CC nodded. "Because you don't wish me harm. Sarpe-don did, and the amulet protects me. I think the abbot wishes me harm, too. I didn't know what would happen if he touched it."

"Are you a sorceress?" Isabel asked.

Still meeting her eyes, CC shook her head. "No, I'm not."

"But how do you know?" Gwenyth broke in breathlessly. "You cannot remember your past."

"I remember more about my past than I can admit to you right now, and I'm sorry about that. I can assure you, though, that I am not a sorceress." CC looked at each woman as she spoke. "But I do believe that women have magic. I don't mean anything dark and sinful. I just mean that I think that there is something special inside of us, and it's a part of what makes us women. I don't think you have to be young or beautiful or a princess to have it—you just have to be female and willing to listen within and to believe."

The room was silent as CC continued eating, but the silence didn't feel tense, instead it felt thoughtful.

"I had no idea I would be putting to use what you taught me this afternoon so quickly," CC said, breaking the silence with a smile.

CC was surrounded by looks of confusion until Isabel threw back her head and laughed.

"It was a ruse! The swoon was a ruse," Isabel said gleefully, nudging the two women nearest her. "You should have seen our princess. Like a delicate flower folding, she crumpled into my arms." Isabel did a rough imitation of CC's faint and the women cackled happily.

"Probably not as believable as my swoon," Lynelle grumbled before winking at CC and refilling her wine.

CC drank the last of the wine, grateful for the warm buzz in her stomach that helped offset the ache within her that seemed to be getting stronger by the minute. Now that work or talk wasn't distracting her, desire for the sea rolled through her and coupled with the longing she felt for Dylan, almost caused her to wince with the pain. Tomorrow night, she reminded herself. Then maybe she would never have to leave the water or Dylan again.

"You are tired, Undine. Come, let me take you to your chamber." Isabel said gently.

"Thank you, ladies. I appreciate all of you. Dinner was delicious—almost as good as the company. And thank you for trusting me."

A medley of "Sleep well, Princess" followed CC and Isabel from the room.

In the middle of the dining room, CC paused. "I don't want to walk back through the courtyard. Can we go the other way?"

"Certainly," Isabel said, changing direction for the doorway at the far end of the room through which CC had entered that morning.

"The creature's spirit comes from the well, doesn't it?" Isabel asked in a low voice.

CC glanced at the old woman. Then she nodded. "He is using the well to enter the monastery."

Isabel looked sharply at CC. "Can this thing harm you?"

CC shook her head slowly. "Not directly, but he can cause all kinds of problems for me, like he did this evening. And I worry what would happen if the abbot or even Sir An-dras realize what is happening." CC turned to Isabel and grasped the old woman's gnarled hands. "Thank you so much for not betraying me to the abbot."

Isabel's smile was motherly. "As you have already said, women must stick together."

"And we certainly did stick together."

The women shared a satisfied smile that was decidedly feminine. They continued down the dim hall, swinging their joined hands.

"I am relieved to hear that the evil spirit cannot harm you. But I would also be relieved to know…" Isabel said haltingly.

"No, I don't think he is able to possess you and the other ladies." CC cocked her head to the side and grinned at her.

"That is unless any of you are harboring hidden lusts for my body."

Isabel cackled and it took several moments for her to answer CC. "I feel confident that I speak truly for the other women when I say we feel no such desires for you."

"I'm glad to hear it."

Isabel snorted, and CC laughed.

They walked on a little way before CC spoke again. "I have to stay at the monastery for a little while longer."

Isabel flashed her a look of understanding. "You are safe here."

"Yes, and my family is helping me."

"As is the Holy Mother," Isabel said with certainty.

CC squeezed her hand. "Yes, the Great Mother is helping me."

They turned the corner. A plump little monk knelt near the door to CC's room. He appeared to be deep in prayer.

"Your guard," Isabel whispered.

"More like a jailer," CC whispered back.

The women exchanged grim looks as they entered CC's room, ignoring the kneeling monk.

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