After Winter

After Winter
by armond
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Owain wanted to die. Everyone he loved was gone, and now he longed to follow. No, more than that, he dreamed of death, hungered for its endless black. On a bitter winter's day, his dream was set to come true ...until the tale went badly off-script. Or maybe, the seasons happen exactly as they should.
 


 
 
 Author's note: This is a story I have posted a storylink to previously, and I apologize for the redundancy. But several of the characters of After Winter will soon enter my current series, Duty and Destiny, (two in the next chapter, in fact), so I wanted to post it here to give readers the context.
 
 
 
 

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After Winter
by armond
 

“Frozen brown. All there is out here, goddammit! Where the hell's spring?”

“Stop bitching. It'll be here, any day now, the rumor is. But not for our good Captain Owain.”

That would be me, my idiot Black Brigade escorts were referring to - Captain Owain. Prince Owain. Owain of the Sorrows. The man who'd lost everything.

My chaperones may be little more than the glorified ass-licks of a tyrant, but they were dead on about spring - for me, it will never come again.

Brown earth and bitter cold.

It’s all I know. All I am.

After we arrived at the Selene compound, the king's crack troop crab-scuttled to the safety of a nearby ridge. Their commander drew a sword and shook it; his retarded way of pushing me on, I supposed. He thought I'd run? Useless shit bag.

I hammered a fist on the wooden gate…

…Once. Twice. A third time.

It ground opened, and a company of warriors, flashing steel, surrounded me. The Selene Guard.

Their green tunics fluttered in the biting winter wind, but they didn't notice, gripping their swords white-knuckle hard. These women meant business.

Let's finish this. I cleared my throat:

“I represent the king of Abirav, and have come for justice.”

Before my echo died, the Black Brigade turned tail and run. The little chickshits were terrified of the Selenes!

A lanky woman, their leader I guessed, jumped in my face. I assumed she was in charge, since sword scars criss-crossed her arms, her silver hair spoke of battles survived, and her face reminded me of a hawk’s. You know, sharp, smart, noble. If she gave me an order, I’d follow.

Her voice hissed through clenched teeth:

“F-o-l-l-o-w.”

How's that for instant wish fulfillment? Speaking of wishes, hawk woman’s were scrawled on her face — she wanted to chop off my head.

Thing is, I hope she gets her wish. I want it too. I'm ready. Can't. wait.

My fear? They'll draw out my death. Make me suffer like their sister.

It was warmer inside their gate, and as we paced down a white stone path, I saw new grass shoots peeking up between the stones. The play of spring green on chalk white mesmerized...

...odd what you think of at the end.

They marched me through a courtyard, where a fountain splashed; a maiden, nude-in-marble, poured healing water from her chalice. Selene the Radiant, I reckoned, for she wore the triple moon crown.

Evening danced in those waters, dusk light sparkled through the falling spray, and glimmered coins on the fountain floor.

Soon we reached a stone doorway, its sides, covered in waxy vines. A silver patchwork covered the oak doors, which, when closed, formed a triple moon. Council room? Temple? Didn't know. Not that it mattered. The doors creaked open.

Women.

Women everywhere. Young, old, all shapes, hues, crowding the chamber walls, leaving a narrow path to a center platform.

Where I was to be judged. And executed.

The crowd's anger branded me in heat waves as the guards hauled me to the platform. When we stopped, the commander -she who hated me- barked:

“Kneel.”

She shoved me to my knees. Looking up, I saw nine robed women, seated in thrones; the famed Selene priestesses. The woman in the center had her hood drawn back, and I saw a silver circlet of crescent moons topped her golden hair.

I knew her.

She’d come to the king's palace months ago, seeking justice. She was high priestess…

…and mother to the one who'd been savaged.

Her voice was soft, yet it traveled to the farthest rafter.

“You are to be our justice?”

“I'm here.”

“You are not the monster who destroyed my Lilly. He who-”

She turned away, and when she looked back, her eyes glistened.

“You are not he.”

I tried to imagine what they were feeling - the hideous crime to their sister, the Selenes’ cry for a reckoning, months of bureaucratic stonewalling, and finally, the earth-shaking admission of guilt by the king. Was he to take his punishment? Would even he be subject to the law?

Then, instead of King Amangons at their gates, enter me.

These women were pissed.

This was what Amangon intended all along. His grotesque joke. I could almost hear the gleeful howls back in his putrid chambers.

There was nothing for it. I read my appointed speech:

“Our priests proclaim that the king, as man, can be guilty, but that the king, as god-on-earth, cannot be. Therefore, I am sent as surrogate for punishment.”

Wails erupted. Shrieks so loud I covered my ears. Did I say they were pissed off? Calling them that is like calling a hurricane ‘breezy.’ They tore their hair, ripped their clothes, and beat their breasts.

My hope for a quick death dissolved. They wanted blood. Mine was handy.

Above the screams I heard their commander's words: “Know this, maggot, not for a moment did we think King Pestilence would come.”

She spat. It hit my face high, and rolled down. Nice shot.

“If left to me, I'd chop you in two, and send your rotting carcass to the Worm in a barrel, with a shiny red bow on top.”

“But it is not left to you, Neasa,” the high priestess said, and a room filled with the voices of a hundred screaming women grew so quiet, I could hear my heart beat.

“She's my daughter, too,” Neasa cried. “My baby too.”

I blinked; they were lovers? I'd heard Selenes life partnered sometimes, but, who knew they raised families?

I tried to figure how they got the male seed for their get, when the high priestess' anguish ripped me from my stupid musing.

“She was OUR baby, she was beloved by all. She was…”

She straightened, and addressed the hall.

“What do we seek, sisters?”

They answered as one. “Selene's justice!”

“What say you to the will of our sisters, man,” Neasa snarled in my ear.

I licked cracked lips. “Kill me. Now. Make my death give you pleasure.”

“How were you chosen as king's surrogate,” the high priestess asked. “You committed some crime? You are an outlaw or brigand?”

“No ma'am, I’m a prince and captain of the Gwenal Brigade.”

“Gwenal? A valiant troop, but lost, I thought, on Mount Caledonia.”

“I alone returned.”

At that, she leaned in, and her eyes dug into me, —I felt them-! I couldn't bear that gaze and looked down.

“Why are you so eager to die?”

Because I didn't deserve to live! Because by living, I betrayed my men. Oisá­n, Fergus, Theron ...my brothers trusted me with their lives and followed me to their doom.

How could I tell her? Yes, she's suffered a heart-wrenching loss, but she hadn't killed her daughter. How could she understand my shame? How could she understand how...

...how I hated myself.

When I answered, all I managed was a whisper:

I returned”

“I see.”

Her voice held sadness again. “But did you? Did you return?”

I didn't know what she asked, so I kept my mouth shut and head lowered.

“Again I say, how were you chosen?”

“By king's decree, we cast lots,” I answered. “I lost.”

Amangons was furious I'd spoken against him at the Arcum war council. It didn't take a scholar to know they’d rigged the drawing.

It didn't matter.

Nothing did, save that I die, and soon.

I raised my eyes to meet hers. I would hear my sentence with dignity.

I saw she weighed some matter, turning it in her mind. Then she looked on me, so long I started to twitch. Her eyes skewered me, pierced my soul. They grew round, dark, and filled my mind. Did she plan to stare me to death?

Because, I thought, maybe she could.

“Captain, do you give your life to me?”

“I don't understand the question.”

I didn't! Look, this wasn't complicated. Amangons destroyed their sister, leaving her in a coma from which she couldn’t wake. These Selenes wanted the head -or the balls- of my mage-king on a pike. Short of an armed attack on his palace, all they would get were mine.

“You alone can give your life. Do you give it freely to me?”

Wouldn't that make me a slave? I'd have died once before saying that.

I'm not stupid; I knew she asked something deeper. But my life was forfeit. They were going to kill me, I mean, isn't that why I’m here?

If the gods were merciful, they'd have taken my life on Caledonia, to let me rest with the bones of my men, beneath a bloodstained meadow. But they are not merciful.

Did it matter if I said her words? I didn't care, not anymore.

“I give you my life.”

Then I felt ...I don't know how to explain it, but somewhere deep in me, a cord snapped.

“Well then.”

She stood. “Sisters! We shall have Selene's judgment.”

When she stepped from her throne, I felt her power building in her, crackling. I don't know much about magic, by when my hair started standing on end, I figured, 'well, this was it, time to die. At last.'

I've imagined it -my death- for so long, and now it's here at last. The forgetting. Endless black sleep.

Bring it, Selene. Bring me it now.

“This one was sent to serve justice, and so he will. Hear my sentence, sisters! See the wonder Selene has shown.”

She loomed before me. “When you live what Lilly lived, learn what she knew and feel what she felt, then will Selene's justice be served.”

What?

From her robe, she pulled an ebony wand, and pointed it at me. Her smile turned ...mischievous?

“That you are ready for death, brave Captain, I have no doubt, but you are ready for this?”

The world turned sun bright, and into that brightness I fell, finding at last, the darkness I so craved.
 

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zzawkzzmmmmzzcptn

A fly was buzzing my head.

I tried to swat it, but I couldn't raise my arms.

“I said, awake, my Captain.”

It wasn't a fly, but a voice and...

I'm not dead?

“Don't panic; you are safe, in my bed.”

That sounded nice, silky and soothing, until a thought tore through my head.

Why am I not dead?!

“I've placed a stasis spell on …hmm, that's a bit technical. I’ve frozen you to lessen injury during your change.”

Every muscle burned. What had she done to me? Soon, the pain faded, which she must have sensed, for she spoke when it was gone.

“You're feeling better, I think.” Then she chanted words I didn't know.

“I've removed the spell, so you can open your eyes.”

I did, to see the high priestess peering down. Whatever she'd done must have taken a lot out of her. She looked spent, like she hadn't slept in a dozen days; her eyes looked redder than a demon's hide and dark circles hung below them.

I cleared my throat. “The pain's gone I-”

Gods! My voice was two octaves too high!

“Take it slow, little one. Sit up.”

Little one?

My body moved not by my will, but by her command. What the hell was happening?

Once up, I knew something was wrong, was off —strange weight hung from my chest, my legs and arms felt short by half, and crimson hair dangled in my eyes.

“What have you done to me?”

“Hush, dear,” she said, in a singsong way, freezing my lips. “Be calm.”

My body relaxed and she took my hand. “Look at me.”

I had no choice. Her dark eyes filled my mind, enthralling me.

“Selene told me what she wanted. You are a true surrogate. Amangons took Lilly, so you will take her place. I’ve changed you into a young woman. A beautiful one.”

WHAT?

Words wouldn't come. Nobody warned me these bitches might not kill me. And to be turned into this? Why was I so serene? Why wasn't I screaming my lungs out? She sensed my thoughts, I guess, for she patted my hand.

“You gave yourself to me. Such an offer is dangerous, for one with power can do with you as she wishes. Selene blessed me with more sorgente than any in Argentia, save Kemia of the Anatol Isles. And with my power, and I’ve taken your will. And changed you …greatly.”

“Watch this,” she said, flashing a wicked grin. “Rub your head in a circle and say blurg blurg blurg.”

My right hand rose to the top of my head and started rubbing; I couldn't stop it.

“Blurg blurg blurg.”

Was I her puppet? Was this some sick revenge to make a clown of me?

“Without screaming, speak your mind.”

I didn't need a second invitation. For the next minutes I told her exactly what I thought of what she'd done, and how I would murder her slowly if she didn't end this and grant me death NOW. I could have gone on longer -I was just warming up- when she hushed me again.

“Well! I know where I stand. Tell me, is it …um …anatomically possible …to do that to me?”

Her face had turned red, but she gave me a shit-eating grin, too. She thought this funny? Let’s see how she laughs when I choke the life out of her!

“No matter. Now that's out of your system, let me tell you how things are. Until I say otherwise, your words will be just 'yes ma'am' or 'no ma'am.' And you will always speak truth. Do you understand?”

I tried to say, 'What I understand, is when I get the chance, I'll reach down your throat, rip out your heart, and let you see it still beating in my hand, as you die.'

All that came out was a sullen, “yes ma'am.”

“Such attitude, this will never do! Let's see …do you have a sister?”

I did, my last living family member. I prayed she was safe in nearby Pavnor. She'd fled the country with her husband at the start of Amangon's gruesome war, and I hadn’t heard from her since. Why did she ask? It's none of her business, but I had to answer.

“Yes, ma'am.” I put tons of hate into it.

“Do you remember how she spoke to you as a young lad, just out of swaddling clothes?”

“Yes ma'am,” I growled. My sister cooed over me. What of it?

“Speak using the tone she used with you.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

Shit shit SHIT! My voice sounded sweet!

“Wonderful,” she said, clapping her slender hands.

She was getting cheap thrills from this. Put a knife in my hands and I'd show her something thrilling.

Her eyebrow raised. “We have work still on the attitude, I see. Come.”

I followed her across the room like chick to mother hen. It was my first look at my surroundings since I awoke. That I was in a bedchamber was apparent, for the gauzy canopy bed I had lain in camped in the center of the room.

A breeze fluttered through a window, stirring blue lace curtains. The scent seemed floral or herbal -I was never good at plants- and a bright sun spoke of morning.

Which meant my disgusting transformation happened through the night. So it was the next day? I was so disoriented; I never thought there'd be a next day.

Along the room's north wall, next to a mahogany dresser, stood a silver mirror. She pulled me to it.

Two women stared back, one was tall, golden-haired, and wrapped in a silken shawl. The other, a frizzy redhead dressed in a white night gown, came to the tall woman’s shoulder.

Wait...I’m her? The short one?

I turned so I wouldn't have to look at this thing that was supposed to be me.

“Look and see.”

My eyes wrenched back to the mirror, to see a red hair explosion, -ringlets, thousands- and dark red lips. I licked them, my new puffy lips. I ran a hand across a cheek that was silk. The eyes blinking at me were a blue that was almost green, and -dammit!-red freckles dotted my nose. Oh crap, I'm -

“-Lovely. I do such good work. So we can't have you scowling about, and blasting everyone with your stares.”

She thought a moment, lowering her head just enough so golden hair fell across her face. Then she flicked it back, and smiled.

“I've got it! You know what the girls of the Anatol Isles are prized for, I expect?”

Hell yes! They breed ‘em shy and submissive. I tried as hard as I could not to speak, but my mouth answered anyway, with syrup. “Yes, ma'am.”

“Act as they do.”

Gods, no, not that!

My eyes lowered, but I saw in the mirror my face changed. My jaw unclenched and my eyes …I looked like a scared doe!

“Purrrfect. Now, don't you feel better?”

“No ma'am,” I answered oh-so-soft. I tried to spot something to brain her with, a candlestick maybe, or a vase.

“I imagine …you want to murder me about now, am I wrong?”

“No ma'am.”

She frowned. “I phrased that poorly. Do you want to kill me?”

“Yes ma'am.”

I lunged for the glass water pitcher I'd spied on a nearby stand. I smashed it, and grabbed a large shard. So, who did I hate most, this twisted bitch of a priestess, or me? In a split second I decided; I turned the shard to my stomach and plunged-

“FREEZE.”

I could feel the tip of the shard just breaking the skin on my stomach …but I couldn’t push it in!

“THAT was stupid of me,” she said, and pried the shard from my fingers.

“You are to harm NO ONE,” she hissed in my ear. “No living thing. Do you understand? Speak freely; I want to hear you say it.”

“If you won't fucking kill me, then at least leave me the dignity to do it myself.”

“NO! Do no harm to yourself!” She wrenched my face so that her eyes bore into mine; her will was smothering.

“DO. YOU. UNDERSTAND?”

I let out a tiny sigh. “Yes ma'am.”

“Excellent.” Her face relaxed and she let go of my face. “You may move again, um …we haven't formally met, have we?”

“No ma'am.”

“I am Cunedda and you are …well you are Rose, of course.”

And so I was.

I couldn't think of myself as anything else - I knew my old name, Owain, Owain of the Sorrows…

Yeah, I remembered my past life, but now …I was Rose.

“Let me show you your new station. Lilly White was our herb woman, and now Rose Red will take her place. Since my daughter’s attack, her garden has grown wild. Your battle skills are needed, my Captain; a war awaits with weeds. Follow me, and I will arm you with a dandelion popper.”

So began my time in the Garden of Selene.
 

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The Selene compound was a study in practicality; rectangular, it ran north-south and housed the council room I was judged in, a sanctuary, craft workshops, an open-air parade ground, kitchen, mess hall, sleeping quarters and other rooms typical to a complex that a hundred sisters called home.

Their garden was the opposite of practical; it was enchanted. I don’t mean that in the flowery way, I mean enchanted.

Though weedy from lack of attention, it teemed with life even this early in the season. From Lilly's magic?

The garden traveled west from the compound, bordered by high granite walls. Its far side had no wall, but opened to the wild woods of dark Elmete Forest.

Near the compound, it was a 'working' garden, with rows of vegetable plots bounded by apple, pear, and peach trees.

In the garden's center, an herb labyrinth wove in dizzying knots, its white marble path spiraling from entrance to center, and out the other way. The Selenes used it as a walking meditation.

At the heart of the labyrinth, on a covered marble dais, rested Lilly White, draped in whitest silk, her pale-gold hair splayed under her head.

She lay unwaking, her life-force preserved by Cunedda's potent sorgente power. If you stood stone still, and stared at her silk-wrapped breasts, after many minutes you might see her breathe - the slightest of movements.

Gods, if I didn't just do that; I couldn’t help but stare.

From her dais, the path traveled west to dark Elmete; with each step the plants grew more chaotic, turning to wild blooms and running vines, brambles and hazel nut trees.

My first tasks in the garden were manual; weeding, pruning, mulching, tilling, and planting. Dressed in a short-sleeved brown cotton tunic that came just above my knees, leather sandals and a wide floppy hat, I worked sunrise to sunset.

I was woefully mistaken in thinking my military days had toughened me for anything. After one day's work, every muscle in my body screamed. It would have been worse in my old male form, I think, for this female flesh I wore was young and limber. At night, I bathed, chewed any scrap of food shoved in front of me, and crawled to my cot.

I thought I'd scraped bottom when, instead of dying, I was transformed into this pathetic little creature. I was wrong - a week or so after I came to the garden, a farmer delivered wagonloads of manure.

All for me to spread.

Two weeks into my sentence, a morning came when, instead of sending me armed with trowel or rake or such, Cunedda held a painting before me, of a green stemmed flower with a bloom of little pinkish orange petals.

“This is Calendula, a healing plant.”

She raised another painting; the plant looked like mint to me.

“This is Lemon Balm. It's used in teas, and when rubbed on the skin, keeps mosquitoes away.”

She held a third painting, of a bush that resembled holly, except its leaves were whitish blue.

“This is Red Orache. It tastes like salty spinach. Go to the garden and fetch bunches of all three.”

My body carried me into Selene’s garden, in search of these herbs. Every morning, before I started my labors, Cunedda would send me so.

At the beginning of my sentence, I couldn't tell parsnip from catnip, but I would, in time, know the name of every twig, sprig and whirligig there.
 

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Hatred, scorn, contempt, disgust...

I didn’t know enough words to capture the inferno in me in those first days.

I fought Cunedda's commands. I didn't understand her magic, but I learned, that by giving myself, I'd given her absolute power over me. Every moment of the day I struggled to refuse to work, or to cry out against my enslavement. I tried to make even one finger do my will instead of hers. Tried, and failed.

I was prisoner in my own body.

Well, this alien flesh I wore, for it was no body of mine. Cunedda didn’t even have to supervise me; this body was my jailer. It executed her orders without question.

I wanted to mangle, to kill!

But no… if a fly landed on my arm I couldn't even slap it. I was as powerless as a babe. No, worse, for a baby can scream. All I could say was 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am' in the sweetest of voices to the Selenes as they strolled the garden path.

On the inside, I was molten lava.

In the end, even lava cools. You rage for so long, and the mind craves other thoughts.

As my fury dulled with the passing days, I started to wonder - what was my fate?

Slave labor couldn't be the justice Selene wanted; if someone destroyed my sister, I'd want to make them scream ...beg for mercy ...eye for an eye.

Cunedda's curse - that I’d 'live what she lived' and 'feel what she felt' had to mean I’d know her pain, right? I tried to remember the details - was she attacked, or had Amangons done worse. Rape? Was that my future? Was that Cunedda's scheme in putting me in this body?

Call me paranoid, but it was then I noticed Commander Neasa watching me, staring, silent, and ...waiting? Why? Would it happen soon?

That made me look over my shoulder, and shy from brush thickets or trees, or anywhere someone might hide.

I'd led men into places where death rained and never hesitated an instant. Yet, in this meek body and under my curse, I was scared of my shadow.

Worse, I had the creepy feeling the garden hated me, or at least was angry at my trespassing in Lilly's realm. From nowhere, tree limbs sprung to scratch me, and vines always tangled my feet.

During this wretched time, I turned as timid inside as I looked on the outside.

The mind wearies of fear too, and after a long first month, my turmoil withered to resigned acceptance.

I was helpless. I could do nothing about this.

Nothing.

It was then, the garden accepted me, or at least it no longer conspired against me - branches stopped ambushing, and vines no longer snaked about my feet.

A funny thing happened next; stripped of my will, I stopped picking at the scabs of my 'what ifs' and 'should have beens'.

Once I accepted I had no say in anything I did, I started to see ...oh a hundred things, for when you can't 'do,' anything, all that's left is 'be.'

Did you know the morning breeze carries the scent of wildflowers as it sweeps through the garden?

Or that bird songs fill the air when you close your eyes and listen? I stopped counting at sixteen.

When I tilled the soil, and dug my fingers in the spongy loam, I felt the earth alive!

One rainy day, as I bent to pick an herb Cunedda had shown me -Lily of the Valley, which was quieting to the heart - a thought smacked my head:

I didn’t hate myself for not dying with my men.

I mean, it’s not like I’m some hardened warrior anymore. I was a girl.

I’m a girl!

A small one, and my body, my life, my every breath, is controlled by another. Since I was helpless to change this, what could I do about the past?

Something stirred in me as I wandered to the compound, with rake on shoulder, and dusk’s gray glow in my eyes.

It felt like a seed, opening in dark moist soil.
 

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“Rose, I'm thinking about wearing my flowery skirt and red silk blouse on my date with my Julian. If you were he, would you, um, be excited?”

I was eating supper with my pals in the dining hall. During my first days, I ate alone. Soon, a gaggle of young Selenes, apprentices to the carpenter, the silversmith, and the painter, conscripted me into their gang.

How thirsty I was for their friendship! My life had become so hollow after I'd lost my family and my brothers-in-arms. These Selene women -who knew who I'd been- took me with no questions asked. It meant so much that they did.

True, my 'sisters' had fun with the ‘new girl’ -making a huge production of my first period- and they loved frustrating me with my simple speech. Then my novelty wore off and they pulled me in their lives as one of their own.

They were keen to know my male perspective. Turns out, women are as mystified by men, as men by women. The difference, I learned from my gang, was women had the good sense to hide it.

I looked at Teresa and imagined her in the outfit. I tried to pump kindness in my answer, but I had to say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and nothing but truth.

“No ma'am.”

She sighed. “Does any part work?”

Teresa was a looker, a busty auburn-haired gal, and a tight shirt would highlight her assets. Her Julian was a ruddy buck from a nearby town, and I knew his eyes would pull to her chest like iron to magnet. Mine were.

“Yes ma'am.”

She reddened when she saw where my eyes were fixed, but she smiled, too.

“So the skirt doesn't do it?”

“No ma'am.”

What can I say? Teresa was a little bottom-heavy and the skirt showed it.

Our silversmith apprentice, the coffee skinned, dark eyed Maggie, swallowed a bite of her salad -spinach courtesy of my labors, thank you very much- and pointed her fork at me.

“You have no idea why, do you Rose?”

“No ma'am.”

“Your are a clueless man in there,” Maggie said, thunking my head. “Listen, you're on our team now, so you need to know these things. The busy floral design of the skirt draws the eye to it, and the pattern spreads out, looking wider than it is. You’d look fine in it, but Teresa already has an ample butt, and…”

I got it. She was right, I was clueless. As a prince, my heraldic colors were royal blue and black, so I threw on a pair of black pants, a blue shirt, and that was it. This was a level of dressing I never dreamed existed.

Maggie turned to Teresa. “You’ll need more of a triangle shaped skirt; narrow at the top, flaring wider at the bottom. It’ll slim you enough to keep him looking where Rose's eyes were glued and not at your butt. I've got a dark one that’ll go with your blouse, if you want to borrow it.”

Teresa looked at me. “Would that do it for Julian?”

I looked down, trying not to show how the picture in my mind of her busty silky top and slimmer bottom affected me. It’s confusing! Instead of an erection, the image of her dressed so made me ...damp.

This body was so odd; I wasn't sure if I'd ever get used to it. When I answered, my voice was huskier than I expected.

“Yes, ma'am.”

Everyone burst into laughter; apparently I'd done a poor job disguising my lust.

When I looked up, I saw a Selene guard marching to us.

“Rose, High Priestess Cunedda and Commander Neasa would see you.”

They wanted to talk with me? Why? Neither had before, only speaking at sunrise when I was ordered to my tasks, or dusk to check my progress.

I followed to where they sat with the other priestesses and stood with lowered head. I didn't give a care to my meekness, nor to the dress I wore. It was what it was.

Stealing a look, I saw Cunedda wore her favorite purple shawl, and when her eyes met mine, they sparkled. Neasa was wrapped in a green robe that matched her eyes, one of which, I swear, winked.

“Are you bitter, Rose? Are you angry?”

Cunedda's questions surprised me.

“Ma'am?”

“When you came here, your soul was dust. After I changed you, you burned with rage. Is your heart filled with bitterness? Do you cry for revenge?”

“No ma'am.”

My answer surprised me. Then Neasa took my hand, surprising me more.

“Are you at peace?”

“Yes ma'am.”

I was? But I must be, for I only spoke truth.

“The vessel has been emptied. She will now …appreciate …what comes next,” said a black-haired priestess to her right, Lydie, I think. “She’s ready, Cunedda.”

“I believe she is. Tomorrow her true lessons begin,” Cunedda said. “Ride at dawn, Neasa, for the time draws near, and we must know Amangons’ strength when he comes.”

Did she mean my curse was now to be fulfilled?

She must have read my worry, for she smiled. “You'll have to see what morning brings, my Rose.”

I didn't sleep much that night.
 

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In the morning, when timid little me stuck her head into Cunedda's study, she held up a white short dress.

“Put this on.”

I did. Then I stood, still and curious, as she sang words I didn’t know, and waved a smoking sage wand around me.

Neasa strode in, dressed in boots, brown pants, and a hooded travel cloak. Cunedda gave her a tight hug and a slow kiss.

“Please be careful in your search, my love. I've grown fond of your snoring, and if he knows you follow, he will kill you …after a fashion.”

“Fear not, you'll not shed me so easily. I'll get within bow shot, no more. Any closer, and I’d puke,” she said, grinning. Then Neasa took my hand and gave a gentle squeeze.

“Luck on your searches too, little Rose.”

I nodded, caught off guard by her affection. She left, with a swoosh of her cloak.

After Cunedda watched her lover ride away, she spoke and her voice held such sadness.

“It was sorrow that brought you to our door, Rose. My sorrow, for the loss of my daughter…” she paused when her voice cracked, “…your sorrow at the loss of your comrades. And Selene's sorrow at the king's inhumanity. Go to the garden and fetch me three sorrows.”

“Ma'am?”

“Bring me three sorrows. Neither eat nor drink nor rest until you do.”

Sorrows, what?

I needed to ask her so much more, but my body had grabbed my basket and floppy hat and was marching outside.

I wandered the labyrinth path for hours, wondering where was sorrow? Where sadness?

To my left was a mass of red poppies, and to the right, a carpet of bluebells. I had just passed a yellow chrysanthemum field, and ahead were explosions of purple and white lilac blooms, dark violet scabriosas, red geraniums and yellow sunflowers and…

…where was sorrow here?

After the sun fled to the west, a funny thought came -I'm prone to these since Cunedda changed me- to sit in the grass, clear my mind …and listen. Cross-legged, I closed my eyes and tried to hear sorrow as I would a birdcall.

For a time, all I heard was my mind bitching about how stupid this was, but then I heard -or did I feel?- a tone.

It sounded like, a bowed instrument, playing lonesome notes. It called to me in that place that held the memories of my brothers.

I rose to follow, but the music vanished the instant I opened my eyes. By experimenting, I figured out that to hear the sound, my eyes must be shut tight.

Fine. I’d follow blind.

And I did, chasing that sweet sad sound, crashing through thorny bushes, bashing into trees, stumbling countless times.

Once, I whacked a tree limb so hard I saw stars, and felt a trickle of something from my scalp.

Like a dog on point, I kept going, yet it was a wonder I didn't knock myself stupid.

When at last I came to where the tone was strongest I halted, and opened my eyes.

They were bleary with tears -when had I started crying?- and jagged cuts covered my arms and legs.

I looked down.

Blue-purple flowers gathered at my feet, on light green bulbs. I knew this flowering herb-

Hyacinth.

I clipped some stalks and dropped them in my basket. I closed my eyes again and listened for more sorrow. This time, I heard a minor tune, so close.

I stumbled a dozen steps and opened my eyes, to see a patch of buttercup yellow flowers. I knew these, too-

Pheasant's Eye.

Once their blooms rested next to the Hyacinth in my basket, I started my search for the third sorrow.

Dusk came and went, and the garden shadows grew long. I was hungry and bleeding, yet I couldn't hear a third sorrow, just the scraping of dried leaves blowing along the path.

'How sad,' a thought bubbled in my brain, 'that dead leaves litter this temple of life.'

I stopped so suddenly, I almost fell over. I titled my head to the sky.

Is it that simple? You're laughing at me, Selene the Radiant, Selene the pain-in-the-ass!

I grabbed some crinkled leaves, and staggered back to the compound.

Cunedda knew when I would return, somehow, for she waited by the garden doorway.

She led me to her chambers and sat me down, giving fretful looks at my condition. She reached in the basket and took out a purple bloom.

“Hyacinth, for sorrow and forgiveness.”

Next, she pulled out a yellow bloom, and pressed it to her nose.

“Mmm, Pheasant's Eye, for sorrowful memories.”

Last, she grabbed a handful of leaves and crunched them.

“Dead leaves, for sadness. Three sorrows.”

She wiped blood and dirt from my face, and kissed my forehead.

“Well done, Rose, though you look half-dead from the chore. Are you in pain?”

“Yes ma'am.” It's hard to play the suffering silent one when you have to tell the truth.

She herded me to her dining nook, where I scarfed down bread, fresh from the oven, and slathered in butter and honey. I guzzled a tall glass of water, too, cool, straight from the well. At that moment, it tasted better than the finest lager.

Next, she walked -well, carried- me to a copper tub in her wash chambers that she'd filled with steamy water. She peeled my once white dress off and motioned me in. My wounds stung a moment and then the water melted all pain away.

“So, my herb woman in training, a pop quiz: what oils do I add to sooth; speak freely.”

I was so relaxed, it barely registered I could say more than 'yes' or 'no'.

“Sandalwood for tension and Bergamot for wounds, ma'am.”

“Excellent, yes,” she nodded, and I watched her pour two oils into the tub. Then she poured a third, that hit me fast, making my mind float and bob as my breasts did in the water.

Breasts, heh! Still hadn't gotten use to ‘em, all bounces and tingles and…

…oops, my mind was on a trip of its own; what had she put in the water?

“Ma'am …um …what oil was that? It feels like I'm …dissolving.”

“Does it now?” She was pouring water on my hair and massaging my scalp; mmmm, sooo niice.

“It's Ylang Ylang, love, from the Anatol Isles, good for shock and pain, and a strong sedative.”

It must have been, for I don’t remember much of her toweling me, rubbing lavender oil into my muscles, and lifting me into her canopy bed.

The last words I heard before sailing to dream land:

“Tomorrow you search for compassion.”
 

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Compassion, wisdom, persistence, serenity, remembrance, humility…

Each morning Cunedda sent me, basket in hand, seeking.

Each day I opened my heart a crack more to the garden's soul, to find the plant that best showed the quality I sought.

My searches grew less painful -they had to, or I'd have died!- in part because I learned the garden pathways by heart.

In part, but that was not the sole reason my injuries lessened. I swear, there were times when I stumbled along blind, that the bushes and trees moved out of my way!

A morning came when Cunedda handed me my basket, kissed my forehead and said:

“Find love.”

The symbolism, the irony, wasn't lost on me: once a bloodied warrior seeking death, now I’m a maid, wandering among flowers, looking for love.

I roamed for hours, trying every trick I'd learned to find an herb or flower that was love.

I sensed it, but I couldn’t pin it down. It seemed everywhere, but just out of reach.

Maddening!

At last, I heard a faraway voice calling:

R-o-s-e”

I raced after it. As I said, I knew the garden well enough now to jog it on a new moon midnight, so I knew where I'd ended before I opened my eyes.

The white dais stood before me.

Lilly!

I laid my cheek on her bosom.

In my first days in the Garden of Selene, I lowered my head when I passed where she lay, feeling guilty to gawk, on the curve of her breast, her lean legs outlined in silk, her golden hair.

Later, I came here to meditate, and …talk. For a reason I didn’t know, I could speak beyond 'yes ma'am/ no ma'am' at her feet, and did I ever. I chatted her up as if she were my oldest friend, reporting daily garden tasks, or rambling about this flower or that herb.

I even dared to pour out the sad tale of Prince Owain of the Sorrows.

So it was this spot that called when I searched the garden for love. How could I find a single plant to express it? It was everywhere. It was…

…the way Lilly sprinkled, a stand of sunflowers here, a strawberry patch there in her children's garden, for little hands to pick and eat.

…in the warmth of the garden she'd planted for the elderly, filling it with flower hues of red, yellow and orange, instead of blue, purple and green.

…or how she chose plants along the labyrinth path to heighten all the senses — with textures, colors, scents, and even sound. She arranged one row of different leafed plants in just such a pattern, that when the westwind blew, it sang.

…it was in me now too, for I think ...I think I must love her.

I guess I lost track of time, for when I looked up, the sun was gone.

With empty basket, I trudged to waiting Cunedda.

“Speak freely. Did you find love?”

“Lilly. But I couldn't bring her back, I couldn't…”

I guess I trembled, for she stroked my hair to calm me.

“Nor could I, even with all my power, I couldn't draw her back from the dark place Amangons cast her. Kemia, Selene's Healer could have, I think, but she is far far away in the southern Anatols."

A look of such sorrow came over her, as she whispered, "my own daughter, I couldn't…”

When I saw her tears, I threw my arms around her in a bear hug. Then I let go and paced, flailing my arms.

“What monster could harm her? Cannot I take her place? I demand ...no, I order you to switch her soul with mine; give her my body, anything to-”

“-Hush, my fiery Rose,” she said, and I did. Her eyes still glistened, but she smiled too, as she drew me to her again.

“Is there nothing I can do,” I murmured into her chest.

“Perhaps one thing, though I am scared to ask it.”

“Why?”

“For it would risk your life too. I've lost one daughter, I would die if I lost another.”
 

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Neasa returned that night, haggard and with a bloodly gash on her arm. I ran to the herb pantry, returning with what I needed to treat it. I drenched it in lavender oil, dabbed it with a comfrey ointment, and bandaged it. Neasa gave a puzzled look.

“Did you tell her to do this, Cunedda?”

Cunedda’s head shook. “Rose doesn’t know it, but I've given her will back.”

She did? When?

“Thanks for your care, little Rose.” Nease said, touching her forehead to mine. Then she turned to Cunedda. “I've confirmed it; the Abomination has left his sty and is on the move. He’s with his Black Brigade. Is she ready?”

“Her training is complete,” Cunedda said.

It was?

“Rose, come with us, please? We've a story to tell you.”

We moved from Cunedda's dining nook to her study. It's a simple room, a polished hardwood floor, a plain wooden desk and chair, and an overstuffed couch. I'm not sure of the color the walls, for they were hidden by the floor-to-ceiling shelves that held Cunedda's magic books.

I’ve spent many nights on that couch lately, pouring over Lilly's garden diaries, while Cunedda toiled at her desk on some spell, or fretted over a piece of Selene business. After she finished we prayed to Selene, in the quiet of the night. I loved this room.

Cunedda and Neasa sat on the couch, and I plunked down at their feet.

“No, here with the adults.” Cunedda patted the cushion next to her.

When I moved to the open cushion, Neasa gave me a look.

“Honey, she doesn't control you anymore.”

“Ma'am?”

“When you sat down, you folded one leg under you and …right now, the way you bite your lower lip between your teeth...”

“Ma'am, I don't understand.”

“What Neasa is saying is how feminine you are,” Cunedda said. “I transformed you, yet even I can’t think of you any other way.”

I didn't know what to say, so I shrugged. “Why did you return my will?”

It’s funny, as much as I raged, I was sad to have it back. Life was carefree without it.

“Because we ask that which must be agreed by a free soul.”

My stomach churned, but I squared my shoulders. “Does this have to do with Lilly and …me suffering her fate? If so, I'm ready.”

“You may suffer her fate; we all may, who can say,” Neasa answered. “Listen to a wonder - on Midsummer Eve, when the sun's rays turn from yellow to pink, a single leaf of the Panax herb can be transformed into Panacea.”

Panacea? I knew plenty about herbs now, and I'd never heard of it. “Panax is a nasty weed. I’d have cleared it from the garden, but Cunedda stopped me.”

“It is a wonder of Selene! From the lowliest of plants comes a cure for ills, injuries, even delaying death for a season,” Cunedda said. “Only a young maid, trained in earth magic, may work the transformation.”

“Think of the good such a cure could do. Why haven't I heard of this?”

“Because, like a miser, Amangons hoards the miracle,” Neasa growled.

“What?”

“How old do you think he is,” Cunedda asked.

I dredged my memories. I was a boy when he came to King Canute's court, arriving in Abirav 'from the east', to become king’s advisor. Old Canute's death soon followed, and the High Lords elected Amangons Steward. He was to step down when a prince of the realm was deemed fit to rule.

Which never happened.

One by one, contenders for the throne died or vanished. One day, after years passed -and many princes passed away- Amangons took the crown, and that was that.

“It's funny, but I've …never gotten a good look at him. He’s always covered in a dark cloak or shadowed or…”

How can that be? All those years, and I'd never seen his face? Some strange magic must have been at work.

“…but my king has to be ancient.”

“Former king, Rose. You're one of us now,” Cunedda said, and I warmed, grateful for her correction.

“The Abomination is far older than you know,” Neasa said. “He was once a demigod of corruption, until the Cup Bearer Kiara Esmeé shattered his power and the Elves of the Eastern Reaches drove him from their lands.”

“That was decades ago,” Cunedda said. “Since then, he cheats death by eating Panacea. No Gray comes to his hair nor wrinkles to his face. Yet he must eat it, or perish. As he lacks the virtue to transform Panax, he uses black arts to divine where the change will be, and travels there to steal it.”

“But your sorgente magic is so powerful, Cunedda,” I said, “I mean, look what you did to me. Can't you fight him?”

She shook her head. “Though broken by the Elves, he is more powerful than any living magician. Know also, my sorgente magic comes from Selene, and She is life. I once used her gift to destroy and unleashed such tragedy and misery that I have vowed never to do so again.”

“I should have tried harder to oppose him.”

“That's not true, and you know it,” Neasa said.

She thought I lied? I'm not sure I can.

Cunedda touched Neasa's arm. “Love, I don't think that came out right.”

“What? No, I wasn’t carping,” she said. “The reason you wouldn’t have tried harder, is you did all you could, and paid the steepest price,” Neasa said. “I was so wrong about you. Forgive me. You stood against him at the War Council, arguing against his hideous war, as all others cowered in silence.”

True enough. He wanted yet another war, and why? This time it was against Arcum, but enemies for him were superfluous. Under Bloody Amangons, war followed war followed war. So I spoke out.

“…Your reward? A suicide charge. When you survived, he sent you here to die.”

Papa died in the Parasia war, both my older brothers fell at Erini, my sister fled the kingdom, and Momma died of loneliness. After my men fell, people dubbed me ‘Owain of the Sorrows.’ I peered out the window at deepening night.

“I should have told the bastard to shove it, but they’d have clamped me in irons, and my men would have charged up that damned mountain anyway. Why was it fair that I lived and all I commanded die?”

“Poor Rose. Haven’t you figured it out,” Cunedda asked, tucking some frizzy hair stand behind my ear, and stroking my face.

“Didn't Captain Owain die too? You were livid when I didn’t kill you. But how could I? How do you kill a dead man?”

What?

“Look within yourself and tell me what you see.”

I stilled my mind as I'd learned in the garden, and looked to my landscape. I saw a field, of gray ashes and burnt tree stumps, like the meadow on Caldonia. Yet, among the ash, I saw green growth - wildflowers, reaching to the sky.

“I …I’m not he.”

“Do you regret this?” Cunedda's voice was halting, and Neasa held her breath.

I was alive where I'd been dead.

I couldn’t explain it, much less express it. But regret it?

No. I didn't. Not one bit.

I tried to be dramatic, to make ‘em sweat a little, but I couldn’t control my traitorous lips; a goofy smile bloomed on my face.

“Thank you for the gift of life, Cunedda. I don’t deserve it, but I’d kick your ass if you tried to take it back.”

An awkward moment happened when they lunged to hug me, and bumped each other. I laughed, and wrapped an arm around each. When they pulled away, their eyes were wet. Mine too.

“This makes what we ask that much harder,” Cunedda said. “Ah irony. Now that you love life again, we ask you to step in harm’s way.”

“Ma'am?”

“Last midsummer's eve, Lilly was helping a mother in labor when the woman started gushing blood. To save her, Lilly raced to the woods, and transformed Panax into Panacea. Amangons came and demanded the herb. When she refused, he attacked and cast a killing spell. My counter spell just sustains her; she lingers between life and death, slipping away day by day.”

I'd never heard the tale in full. “And the mother?”

“Died,” was Neasa's choked answer. “As did her babe.”

How many sins had this parasite committed? Lilly, my men, and legions of others he’d robbed of life. When would it stop?

“You said when I came here, I was to serve as justice. Why?”

“In a vision, Selene told me you could bring justice to King Amangons.”

“How?”

“He must have Panacea every year. If he is denied it, he fades to nothingness.”

“So ban any sister from working the transformation.” An efficient solution. I still had my soldier thinking moments.

“If the transformation doesn't happen here, it does elsewhere; that’s the way it,” Cunedda said, shaking her head. “We can’t rely on chance. You've been trained as Lilly; the garden comes alive for you as it did for her, I've seen it! You can transform Panax into Panacea on midsummer's eve.”

“Which is tomorrow,” Neasa added. “We want you to try.”

“And if I could...” My thoughts speeded as I grasped it, “…he would come?”

“A fly to honey,” Neasa said, showing teeth. “And we'll be waiting.”

“You set a trap!”

Cunedda was sad when she replied,

“With you, as bait.”
 

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He might be anywhere, my former king, using dark magics to scry the place of transformation, from Panax to Panacea.

Was he over the rise to my left, or there, in the shadows of the grove ahead?

I hadn't the luxury of fear; my quest was for the one spiny leaf, that, on instant the sun set, could change to a life-giving miracle.

What if I couldn't find it? What if I couldn't change it?

Then Amangons would find it somewhere else, letting him live on and kill again. And again. And again.

Nothing like some pressure, eh?

Cunedda had anointed me with a battery of sacred oils, mumbled at least a dozen incantations over me, and clothed me in a forest green dress, the traditional garb of a Selene priestess called to earth magic.

I figured, 'thanks for compliment', but wished my dress wasn't so short; it just covered the top of my thighs! She said I looked lovely and ought to show the world, but I didn’t see how this had anything to do with the task at hand.

I stilled those thoughts, and opened my heart to the garden as I had learned, letting it guide me where it would.

My feet traveled to wild Elmete’s edge, to a sea of the prickly Panax plants, shimmering in the pink of the sinking sun.

My heart set too, for how I could I find that one leaf in the millions before me?

I knew the answer - I couldn't.

I threw myself to the ground, touching my face to soil.

“Selene! I can't do this without you! Help me!”

A sudden breeze kissed my face, and I turned with it...

…to see a nearby fluttering leaf, catching the last ray of the midsummer sun.

Holding my breath, I plucked it, and as I cradled it in my palm, it …it…

Goddess! My body was fire!

Sparks jolted in me through me, connecting me to that which I held, so that I changed it, fiber by fiber, green to silver, green to silver, green to silver...

Selene had led me to this moment; as I had been dead when I came to the Her garden, now my body thrummed life.

I had no words.

I held the pulsing silver to the sky in thanks.

…then a man's voice spoke, ripping me from rapture.

“Ah, fair maid, what healing solace have you found for me?”
 

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My father told me bedtime stories, when our hearth fire turned to embers. I loved the scary ones best; I made him tell the Headless Rider, Agraea's Bloody Bones, and the Hookman of Hariel at least a million times.

My favorite -because it was true- was his yarn about a trip he took, to Faylyn Island, the northern most of the Anatol Isles. He and his mates were hunting Anatol Red Bear, prized for their soft pelts, and stumbled into a Nglal nest.

When a half a dozen man-eating serpents sprang from the nest, Papa knew he was a goner, because the Nglals started their death dance.

Flee, when you see that, run as fast as your legs will carry, for a Nglal seduces you with his eyes, drawing you to him for the fatal bite.

Papa said he wanted to run, but those amber slitted eyes beguiled him and -with grin on face- he crawled to his doom. Lucky for Papa he was a slow crawler, for six of his pals beat him to the serpents, and well, Papa lived to tell the tale. Every time he told it, I shivered to my toes.

Looking at King Amangons, I knew how Papa felt that day.

A mist swirled about him, making it seem like he’d stepped from a cloud. His robe shimmered gold, opening at his chest, to show a sculpted chest and abs that looked like they’d been fashioned by the gods .

Did I just think that? What’s wrong with me?

My eyes roamed an angular face that lacked a single blemish, halting at his eyes.

Oh, those eyes! Black pools of sadness, they begged, the cried:

I suffer so. Help me!

I wanted to! Goddess I did, for he was the sun!

How could anything so beautiful be evil? Didn't he, he over all others, deserve the miraculous herb?

I started to fall to my knees and crawl to his feet, to offer it to this god.

Then I remembered-

…my dead comrades,

…Cunedda's grief,

…Lilly,

-and his glamour smoke vanished.

“No.” My voice was a little squeak.

“What?”

He was more surprised than angered; I imagine he'd never heard that word in his court.

“No!” My vocal chords were looser now. “The Goddess' gift is not for you; not this year, not ever, O king.”

His eyes turned amber, slitted. “What is it about you Selene bitches that makes you immune to me? You’ve plagued me too long.”

The mist behind him evaporated, to show his battle ready Black Brigade.

“Here’s what happens next if you don’t give me the Panacea, little slut. My men will take it from you, and burn your miserable Order to the ground. Never fear; I am merciful; I’ll spare you. You’ll have the honor of serving as the Brigade's permanent whore. Unless you give it to me.”

“Now.”
 

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There was a flaw in the plan.

A pretty big one, really. Cunedda, Neasa and the Selene guard had to stay back, lest the warlock sense the trap. So, I was to run when he came, drawing him to them.

I wasn't sure I could outrun the Black Brigade in my old male form at the peak of my training. I didn't stand a chance now. We were doomed.

“Never fear, captain, we stand ready to engage the enemy.”

I jumped at the whisper to my right. Standing beside me, was a heavyset fellow with cheerful face. A face I knew too well.

“Lieutenant Oisá­n! You ...you can't be here because-”

“We await your orders sir!”

I turned to my left, and saw another I thought never to see again; wiry Fergus with his ever-sardonic grin.

“Fergus! How are you ...you died that day on Caledonia, that day we-”

“Beggin' you pardon sir, but you should know by now we’d follow you to hell if you ask us to,” a voice behind me said. I knew by its lilt that square-jawed, by-the-book Sergeant Theron had just weighed in. Behind him I sensed them all, the rest of my Gwenal Brigade.

“Though I must confess, following you in your current form, and in your cute little dress, is much more enjoyable than it used to be.”

That would be Fergus speaking, of course.

My eyes blurred. How could this be? “I led you to your deaths, I’m to blame for-”

“-At the risk of being insubordinate, sir,” Theron said, “the only one who blamed you for our deaths was you. We know how you tried to save us, and we know the real enemy is before us. Sir.”

“I won't stand here forever while you mumble to yourself, girl,” Amangons hissed, his men growing restless. “Bring me the cure, or watch your sisters die.”

I didn't understand that. “What does he mean about my ...mumbling?”

“You alone can see us, Captain,” Lieutenant Oisá­n answered. “May I suggest a tactical course of action?”

“Of-of course.” I had been the strategist for the brigade, and Lieutenant Oisá­n its tactician. So it was natural that he would offer one, except that this was all too weird!

“We’ll engage the Brigade, while you retreat to the Selenes' position with all deliberate speed.”

“What?”

“Lords, Lieutenant, death hasn’t improved your communication skills,” Fergus said. “What he meant to say was, we'll distract 'em, and you run like hell.”

“But …what will happen to you? I can't just leave you to suffer all over again and-”

“Captain Rose,” Fergus said, “perhaps that pretty head of yours has been in the sun a bit too much? We’re already dead! Amangons can’t harm us anymore.”

“But you can give us peace, sir,” Theron added. “We've come back to help you with this. Deny the bastard the miracle you hold in your hand. Send him to the grave, and then we'll rest at last.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. “But ...I ...you're my men and ...you know how I feel about ...I'd die for you if I could. I wanted to die with you and-”

“-We love you too, sir” Oisá­n said. “But you’re alive; you’ve a chance for a wonderful life, and so stop blubbering and live it! Now give the order, sir.”

I did.

Then I ran like hell.
 

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My short legs pumped as fast as they could —fear’s a powerful fuel- but still, when the shrieks started, I turned to see.

My men were visible now, at least their skeleton bodies and glowing eyes ...hence the blood curdling screams.

Woo-hoo! They were mopping up the vaunted Black Brigade!

My grin faded when I saw Amangons thread through the skirmish by floating over it and flying after me, his black robe trailing like a dragon’s tail. A handful of the Black Brigade had also broken free, and charged.

Shit! Though I didn't think it possible, I ran faster.

My finish line was Lilly's dais, where Cunedda, Neasa, and the Selene guard waited. I swear with each step I took, the Malignance that was the king drew closer.

“Did you think some dancing bones could stop me, girl,” he called. “I am death. Look on me and despair.”

No thank you.

I didn't remember wandering so far! My chest was flame, and darkness crept to the edges of my sight.

So easy, it would be easy to yield.

I didn't. I couldn't, for that would mean he wins and life loses. It was impossible, but from a place I never knew existed, I drew energy and ran faster.

Still Corruption drew closer, laughing.

I couldn't keep this up; will or no, I’d collapse soon. Where was Cunedda?

Then, I saw her, robed in purple, standing tall in front of Lilly's dais. Beside her stood Neasa and her troops, looking grimmer than they had that first day.

With my last speck of energy, I dove, scraping to a stop at Cunedda's feet.

“Well done, Rose,” Cunedda said. “Now hurry behind so we can welcome the king.”

On hands and knees, I scrambled behind their line, and grabbed Lilly's dais for support.

“Greetings, High Priestess, on this mid-summer's eve. Your whelp has something that’s mine. Let’s be reasonable. Give it to me, and bloodshed will be avoided.”

“How polite you are, O king. Yet last year you were not so civil, when you attacked my daughter and cast her soul to night.”

“She refused to give me my due, as has the one cowering behind you. Do not provoke a repeat performance. Give me the Panacea, and, perhaps, I’ll restore your daughter.”

“My daughter was alone then; now you face the Selene Order. I think, you haven't the strength to take it from us. I think, this is your last day, O king.”

Amangons turned to face his dozen remaining men. “Take it from them. If they resist, kill them.”

His men charged, but so did Neasa’s warriors, and soon steel clanged in the dusk. The Brigade was better trained, but Neasa had the numbers, and her troops were fresh and motivated. They screamed like banshees. If Amangons thought he could overpower, he was mistaken.

He whirled then, with arms raised. From his hands, a jagged fire arced at Cunedda. She’d be roasted alive, I was sure, for nothing could withstand the hell he unleashed.

Majestic! I was wrong, thank the Goddess. Cunedda was majestic, arms raised, wand in hand, eyes sparkling. His firestorm met a blue wall that sparked as the flames hit it, but did not give way.

“Impressive. You have the strongest sorgente power in a mortal that I've met. Yet, is it enough to stop a god?”

Even the battle between the Selene Guard and the Brigade halted to watch the fireworks display - Amangon's red fury against Cunedda's calm blue.

Inch by inch, I saw red gain, drawing closer to Cunedda. He was too strong!

Cunedda didn’t seem concerned. Indeed, she wore the broadest smile on her face, as if she knew some amusing secret.

“What are you laughing at, witch? You are losing! Yield. Or die.”

“I think, you can't last much longer, Worm. For, as you spit fire, you burn the last of your life energy. Unless you eat the Panacea, you will dissolve.”

Then she spoke to me. “Destroy it, Rose. Let him know despair.”

Destroy the Panacea? How in hell do I do that? A little warning about this might have helped! I had no idea what to do, so, I ...popped it in my mouth ...and chewed.

“Nooooo! I'll skin you all,” Amangons shrieked, and his fire wavered. We'd struck a nerve.

As the Panacea energy sizzled in my mouth, I had the weirdest, strangest notion. I don't know where it came from, Selene I imagine, because it was just that crazy.

I scrabbled onto Lilly's dais, and knelt over her, putting my lips to hers. As I kissed her, I forced the Panacea juice into her mouth, and…

…her eyes opened. They met mine. She smiled.

Gods, she was gorgeous.

At his wounded scream I turned, to see that the king’s fire was no more. His body seemed ...less solid? Transparent?

“You bitches! I'll raze this place! I'll salt the earth so nothing grows here for a thousand years!”

How shrill he sounded, how hollow.

“I think not, King Pestilence,” Neasa said through her hawk grin. She had disposed of the Brigade's captain, and strode to the king.

She was too professional to threaten or gloat. Neasa raised her sword, and with one slice, thwacked off his head. It bounced along like a bloody ball until it came to rest on its side.

“You have won nothing, Cunedda.”

Freaking hell! The Plague lived on! From the ground, the severed head droned:

“I curse you. Hear the death curse of Amangons the god, and trem-”

Before it could finish, the earth cracked open, the head fell in, and soil filled the hole.

And a bush of thorns sprang up.
 

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When they saw Amangons' end, his men dropped their swords and ran. All that remained in Selene's Garden were squealing women.

Cunedda couldn't form words, so great was her joy in holding her daughter again. Neasa too, draped her arms around Lilly and cried.

All did. A hundred Selenes gathered in the garden to celebrate their risen sister.

That’s not all — for something caught my eye at the edge of Elmete. I looked, and saw the shades of my men, Fergus, Oisá­n, Theron, all of them. Goddess, they looked happy! They waved and smiled as they dissolved into forest shadows. Well, all were doing that except Fergus. I think, he was catcall whistling at me before he faded.

Joy. Laughter. Weeping. Elation. Pretty words, but empty. They don't show the emotions unleashed by the defeat of the king and the return of Lilly.

Now, were I to gather the flowers that represented those emotions, what an rainbow of colors you'd see!

I didn’t do that. I didn’t fall to squealing either, because suddenly...

...I felt out of place.

It makes no sense I would; I was loved by the Selenes and I loved them in return. But I’m done here, yes? My purpose here is finished, now my 'curse' had been fulfilled?

Let’s do a quick inventory: deliver justice to the evil king, check. Help my men to rest in peace, check. Bring Lilly back to life, bonus.

Lilly!

I couldn’t get her out of my mind, the look of her eyes as they locked into mine. But she didn’t love me, how could she? She didn’t even know me. No doubt, she had some lord waiting in a nearby castle.

With her alive, the surrogate wasn’t needed. I wasn’t needed. After all, this is her garden, not mine. I’m an extra wheel. My work is done.

I gazed to the wild woods of Elmete. Maybe I could follow my men and fade to nothing?

I should go.

When I raised a foot, I found I couldn’t move. Vines had twined around my ankles, holding me in place. When I reached to untangle them, the vines curled around my wrists, pulling me to the ground.

Crap! What was going on now?

“WHERE do you think you’re going?”

Lilly White stood before me, hand on hip and eyebrow raised.

“I, uh, *ahem* thought with you well, I wasn't needed and I'd ...um, go.”

“-Obviously, this garden doesn't want you to leave.”

“The garden ...wants me?”

“Silly Rose! It is our garden, ours together.”

“How could you think of leaving us,” Cunedda asked. For a moment, she looked ...angrier than when she’d faced Amangons.

Then she kissed my cheek, pulled my frizzy red hair off my face to tuck it behind my ears, and looked at me with twinkling eyes.

“You are rooted in my heart, my Rose. At last I’m happy at Lilly’s return, and you’d throw me back to sadness at your going?”

“No ma’am, I’m sorry I ...didn’t think ...I mean-”

“Commander.” She turned to Neasa. “How shall we respond to little Rose's temerity?”

“I’ve a mind to take her over my knee and...” The tall warrior faced the throng. “Selene women! Speak your hearts, what think we of Rose?”

They answered as one. “She is our sister!”

“What say you to the will of your sisters, daughter,” Neasa cooed in my ear.

“I…” It was hard to speak, with that lump in my throat. “I’ll stay, I guess.”

“You guess?” Lilly asked, her voice turning high. “You damn well better! All those days where your words alone talked me back from the dry roads, and you were going to slink into the night?”

“Well I…”

“And that kiss! I mean, how often does a gal get awakened back to life by the magical kiss of a gorgeous charming prince! And you weren't going to let me return the favor?”

“I, um, don't think the 'prince' title applies any mmm-”

She silenced me, with the wettest best kiss I'd ever had. So good, that when she stopped, I was panting.

“So you know, I’ve got a thing for redheads. Your place is here! With me!”

“I’m …I’m home?”

“Of course you are, love,” Lilly said, “how could think otherwise?”

“I don’t know …it’s just…” I sighed. “I’m so used to being Owain of the Sorrows, I mean …it’s been winter for me for so damned long.”

She wrapped me in her arms and kissed me again.

“Yeah, me too. But accept it, herb sister, this is our happy ending. It’s basic. Gardening 101.”

Through my tears, I kissed her back. She’s right - love, belonging, and happiness have come, and I’d just have to deal with it.

For it’s always so. After winter…

…comes spring.

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