Chapter Twenty-four

Cc wrenched open her door, startling the squire who stood guard outside.

"I want to go to the chapel, and I need help changing my clothes. Get that old servant, whatever her name is."

The squire blinked balefully at her, suddenly reminding her of a calf. She sighed. "Now! I don't have all the rest of the day to waste!" She slammed the door in his face.

"This princess stuff just gets easier and easier," she muttered to herself. His boots clinked smartly against the stone floor as he hurried down the hall, rushing to obey her command.

She paced while she waited for Isabel. She had been back in her room for hours, alone, under guard, with absolutely nothing to do except worry. She couldn't stand it anymore. Maybe if she spent time cleaning the chapel she could work off some of her tension, and if she got really lucky Gaea might even show up. The goddess certainly had been quiet lately, which was making CC more than a little uneasy.

Two theatrically hesitant knocks sounded on her door.

"Come in!" CC didn't have to pretend the frustration in her voice.

"You summoned me, Princess?" Isabel said as she limped with obvious reluctance into the room.

"Yes, yes, yes," CC said. "Hurry up and close the door. I'm going to go work in the chapel, and I need help changing."

CC saw the old woman give the squire a frightened looked before she closed the door.

As soon as they were alone Isabel hurried over to her and the women embraced.

"You were spectacular!" Isabel spoke into CC's ear as she worked loose the intricate set of laces at the back of CC's outer garment.

"You weren't half bad yourself," CC whispered back, and the two women shared a grin. "But I can't sit here any longer. I have to stay busy, and cleaning the chapel will definitely keep me busy."

"I will bring your food to the chapel. It is well past midday." Isabel shook CC's shoulders. "You have missed another meal. How will you stay strong for your lover if you do not eat?"

"You're always so wise," CC said.

"And well it is that you remember it," Isabel scolded her fondly.

"What happened after I left?" CC whispered.

Isabel's hands stilled for a moment as she collected her thoughts. "The abbot wants to destroy you. That has not changed," she spoke grimly. "It is only the knight's influence, and the fear of retribution from the Vikings that keeps him from harming you."

"It seemed like Andras believed my story."

CC could feel the old woman's nod. "He covets King Canute's money, and he still desires you, but he is not a fool. He is sending for reinforcements from Caer Llion. He worries that even if you are returned safely to the Vikings, the king will decide to sack the monastery."

"Doesn't seem that there's much here to sack," CC muttered.

"Oh, you are wrong, Undine. The monks are well known for their fine wool and their fat, tasty lamb. Also, Abbot

William has several ancient manuscripts that Brothers, specially chosen by him, meticulously copy."

"I didn't realize all that," CC said thoughtfully.

"The knight is acting wisely."

"Well, I never thought Andras was stupid, just narrow-minded."

"I agree with you," Isabel said.

"It's about time."

The old woman snorted.

''Do you have to follow me into the chapel, too!" CC asked the guard, who was walking a little behind her, carrying two buckets brimming with clean water. "I'm going to be in there working."

"I must stay with you at all times, Princess," the squire said mechanically.

"While I work I like to pray. Your presence will be interfering with my prayer time." She shot him a knowing look. "Are you married?"

Caught off guard by her question, he was too surprised not to answer. "Yes."

"Do you have any children?"

"Not yet, Princess."

"Well, in my country there is a belief that the Holy Mother can gift couples with children and can make men especially potent." She paused pointedly and let her glance drift briefly down his body before continuing. "If they please her. And, of course, she can do the opposite if they don't. I can't believe that the Holy Mother will be very pleased by you interrupting my prayer time."

"I would never want to interfere with the piety of one so devout. I will await you outside this door." The squire suddenly looked very pale.

"Thank you. I'm sure your sensitivity will be rewarded," CC said sweetly. Taking the buckets from him, she entered the dim sanctuary and breathed a sigh of relief when the door closed firmly behind her.

The laughter of the goddess greeted her.

"Oh, Daughter! Threatening that poor man with impo-tency. Really, I think that was somewhat harsh."

Gaea lounged on the floor in front of her statue, looking radiant in a long gown of sheer, sparkling silk the color of ripe green olives. Her hair curled around her waist and seemed to pool in a glistening carpet all around her.

The enormous sense of relief CC felt at the sight of the goddess didn't stop the sharp edge in her voice.

"I'm tired of being followed and watched and kept under guard."

Instantly, the weight of the buckets disappeared as invisible hands took them from her. They floated inches off the floor until they came to rest just where CC would have placed them herself. She smiled her gratitude at Gaea and felt her mood lighten, too.

"Thank you, Mother. That helps. And I'm sorry I snapped at you."

"It is understandable, young one," Gaea said indulgently. "So the abbot has you under guard? What has happened?"

Quickly, CC brought Gaea up-to-date on the events of the day. By the time she finished speaking the goddess's eyes were glowing with pride.

"You have done well, Daughter. You have found your way by using your own wits. I am pleased with you."

CC felt a wonderful rush of warmth at the goddess's praise.

"And I have news for you. Lir will be in these waters on the third night. There he will hear your petition and render judgment."

"But how did he sound? Did you tell him about Sarpe-don and Dylan?"

"I have not spoken with the God of the Seas." Gaea tossed her hair back in irritation. "He is still embroiled in the problems of the Hawaiian deities."

"Then how do you know he's coming?" CC asked.

"I sent my messenger to him with my request that he come to us. His own messenger brought his reply just this morning." A shadow passed over the goddess's face, clouding her lovely features.

"But something's bothering you. Are you worried about what he'll decide?" CC asked nervously.

"No," Gaea said quickly. "I do not fear his judgment. Lir's wish has always been for Undine to love the waters and for her to choose to live there happily. Now he will have his wish. I do not believe that your rejection of Sarpe-don's suit will change his feelings, especially after he understands that you have my full support."

"So you think Lir will keep Sarpedon from going after Dylan?"

Gaea patted her hand reassuringly. "Lir knows Dylan. He knows that the merman is honorable and kind. I believe that he will honor your choice. It will, undeniably, be an uncomfortable scene when he explains to Sarpedon that you have chosen another, but the word of the God of the Seas will be obeyed—and there are many willing nymphs from which young Sarpedon may choose."

"Then why the worried look?" CC pushed.

"You begin to know me too well, Daughter," Gaea said affectionately. Then she squinted her eyes thoughtfully. "Lir's choice of messenger was unusual. I have never known him to use any messenger but one of his handpicked dolphins or selkies, and this time he chose to send a sea eel. The creature did not even appear to be very intelligent." Gaea shrugged her shoulders. "Perhaps the trouble with those barbarous island gods has been more of a strain on him than I imagined."

"So it wasn't meant as a slight to us or a sign that he's mad or anything?"

"The Lord of the Seas would not slight the Mother of the Earth or her daughter." Gaea's eyes sparkled.

"I should have known better," CC said, giving the goddess a knowing look.

"Yes, you should have." Gaea winked back at her. Then her voice sobered. "In two days this part of your life will be over, and you will forever be a creature of the sea, mated with a merman. I will only ask you once more, Daughter. Are you certain of your choice? You need not think that the only human from which you have to choose is the knight. If you ask me to intercede, I will send forth a call that many men will answer. You could have your pick of them."

CC spoke slowly when she answered the goddess, but her words were firm and her decision was clear. "I know it should seem scary to me to leave the land forever, but the water calls me, Gaea. And, yes, I know that a lot of that is because this body's true form is not human, so it continually longs for the water." CC gazed steadily into Gaea's eyes, willing her to understand. "But I don't want to give that up. I love who and what I am when I'm a mermaid. And I love Dylan. It's like I've finally found the perfect mixture of magic in my life." CC pointed in the direction of the sea. "And it's out there."

The goddess's smile was bittersweet. "I will honor your choice, my daughter, as well as take pride in your strength."

"But, it's not like I'll be gone forever. I'll still get to see you!" CC exclaimed.

"Yes, Daughter. My cove will be waiting to welcome you, and I will always answer your call." She raised one brow and smiled mischievously. "Perhaps one day you will gift me with a land-loving granddaughter."

"How about several of them?" CC laughed.

Before Gaea could answer they were interrupted by Isabel's distinctly gravely voice coming from the entrance of the chapel.

"Yes! If I need your protection from her witchcraft, I shall certainly call. But I must bring her food. If she weakens and dies it will not go well for us when her father, the king, appears." Isabel's gruff voice easily traveled the length of the chapel. She sighed theatrically before the guard closed the door behind her.

CC giggled and winked at Gaea. "She really should have been an actress; she's enjoying this a little too much."

Expecting the goddess to disappear as usual, CC turned to greet the old woman and took several steps toward her, intending to take the heavy tray from her. Isabel was limping down the side aisle, scanning all of the pews to be certain they were alone. When she saw there were no monks lurking around praying, her disgruntled expression shifted into a wide grin.

GODDESS OF THE SEA

"I brought you a new kind of st—" The old woman stopped speaking. She was staring at something behind CC.

Confused, CC glanced over her shoulder to see what had startled Isabel. There stood Gaea, next to the statue of Mary. And yet it wasn't Gaea. The woman was very pretty, but she was most definitely mortal. Delicate wrinkles gave her face a comfortable, lived-in look, and laugh lines betrayed her good humor. She was clothed in simple robes of undyed linen. A brown shawl was draped over her head, hiding most of her coffee-colored hair, but what escaped the shawl was just beginning to show a fine weaving of silver. Despite the evidence of age, her face had a timeless look. She could have been twenty or forty, it was impossible to tell. She smiled at Isabel.

"Excuse me, Princess Undine. I did not realize that you were not alone." Isabel set the tray on a nearby pew and turned hastily to leave.

"Please, there is no need for you to go." Gaea's voice was melodic and accented much like Andras's. "My name is Galena. I came to Caldei to barter ewes for my father's flock. I heard word of the restoration of the Holy Mother, and I could not leave without visiting her shrine."

Isabel was studying Gaea with an intent expression of open curiosity. "Forgive me for saying so, but it is unusual that a father would allow a daughter to tend to his business."

"My father has no sons, and I have no husband. In his old age he is wise enough to trust me."

"See, I told you some men respect women," CC said, recovering her voice.

"You are correct, Princess, some men do," Gaea said with a soft smile. "But no matter the beliefs of men, women will always have a special power within themselves." Her gaze touched the gleaming statue. "I believe Mary would agree with me."

"You sound much like the princess," Isabel said.

Gaea's smile widened. "What a lovely coincidence, as is my visit today."

Isabel's eyes hadn't left Gaea's face. Suddenly, they widened in discovery. "Forgive me for staring, but you bear a striking resemblance to the statue of the Holy Mother."

Gaea's laughter was a musical sound. CC hoped that Isabel wouldn't notice that the flames of the candles surrounding the statue leapt and danced in response.

"Is that so surprising?" the goddess said. "Do you not believe that every woman carries the spark of the Divine Feminine within her?"

"I…" Isabel cleared her throat. "I have never heard it spoken so."

Gaea's voice was filled with compassion. "Come close. I have something to show the two of you."

On unsure feet Isabel let CC lead her to the disguised goddess's side.

Gaea held one hand out in front of her, palm down. "Place your hands beside mine."

Without hesitation, CC put her hand next to Gaea's, and Isabel followed suit.

"Look at how amazing we are, we three, as we reflect the three aspects of the Divine Feminine," Gaea said. She pointed to each of the women's hands in turn, beginning with CC's, which were shapely and unlined. "The maiden, lovely and young, with her life stretching before her, magical and new. She is vibrant and fresh, drawing the power of springtime to her."

Then she pointed at her own hand. It was stronger and the knuckles were already beginning to show lines. It was a hand that could do a full day's work and then comfort a sick child. "The mother, full and ripe, filled with the power of summer and autumn. She is life-giver and nurturer. She is the heart of her hearth and home. Without honoring the mother, the family cannot thrive."

Then, with an infinitely gentle gesture, she touched Isabel's gnarled hand. "And the crone, although I prefer her matriarchal title, the wise woman. She is rich with wisdom and experience, a leader to those who will someday take her place when she is gone, and a comfort to those who are at the end of their life's journey. Her power is of great depth. It is that of the experience of ages forged with the strength of winter." Gaea spoke solemnly, clasping their hands in hers. "Alone, each is important and unique. But joined together, they form a three-fold link that is soldered by the Divine Feminine. We need each other—that is how we are fashioned. To deny this is to live a life less than fulfilled."

"Women need to stick together," CC agreed. "Even if we are different."

"Isn't that what woman is? A magical, complex blending of differences," Gaea said.

"I am ashamed that it has taken me a lifetime to know this," Isabel said.

Gaea's smile was filled with unending love. "So you see, it should be of no surprise when you recognize the reflection of the divine within another woman."

"You are very wise, Galena," Isabel said, still holding Gaea's hand.

"I am a shepherdess who has had long hours of solitude in which to think and pray," she said simply. Then she squeezed Isabel's and CC's hands before slipping loose from them. "And now I can hear my flock calling me. They are impatient for my return. I must bid you good day, ladies."

"May the blessing of the Holy Mother go with you," Isabel said.

"Yes, have a safe journey home," CC added quickly.

Gaea nodded to each of them, then she bowed briefly before the statue of the Holy Virgin. When she raised her head, CC caught the sparkle in her eyes. The disguised goddess called a farewell to them as she walked toward the chapel's exit. The ever-present mist of incense seemed to swallow her as she faded into the shadows.

"A very interesting woman," Isabel said thoughtfully.

"She sure is."

"I will consider her words. They are new thoughts for me, but they touched my heart in a way that I have never before felt…" Her words faded as the squire threw open the door.

"Is all well here?" he asked, blinking quickly like a nervous bird as his eyes became accustomed to the dark. "I heard something odd."

"Everything is fine. I'm just going to keep this old woman in here to help me with the rest of the heavy cleaning. You should probably send word to the kitchen that she's going to be busy for the remainder of the afternoon." CC made a shooing gesture at him.

He looked doubtful, but CC's impotency threat still weighed heavily on his mind. "I am only a short distance away," he told the silent Isabel as he backed out the door.

CC and Isabel looked at each other.

"I thought maybe you'd want to stay here for a while," CC said simply.

"Thank you. I would like nothing more than to aid you in restoring the Mother's chapel. And I do so enjoy spending time with you."

CC grinned. "I like it, too."

Isabel took a deep breath and asked the question that had been haunting her mind. "When must you leave us?"

CC felt a pang of regret. "I must leave on the third night. But it doesn't have to be forever. I'll still be here—I'll just, well, live in the water and look a little different, that is, from my waist down."

Isabel blinked in surprise. "Then we could still visit with one another?"

"If I wouldn't frighten you," CC said slowly.

Isabel touched her cheek in an infinitely tender gesture. "You could never frighten me, my dear friend. Differences do not matter between us."

Relief flooded through CC. "I'm so glad, Isabel."

"As am I, sweet girl." Then she squared her shoulders and began rolling up her sleeves. "If we only have two more days, we had better get to work."

"My thoughts exactly," CC said.

Isabel took the closest broom and began attacking a nest of spider webs in a dark corner. "You know, you may be a wise woman yourself some day," she said.

"Make that a wise mer-woman, and I'll take you up on it."

As they worked together to restore what was rightfully the Mother's, their laughter joined and painted the walls with the joy of women working together in perfect harmony.

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