The Necessity of Winter

The Necessity of Winter

by Armond
 

  

I ripped the dagger from her heart...

...and held it, inches from the girl's fur wrapped chest. My hand refused to sheath the blade, pleading instead for release, to plunge it back.

How I longed to; for the first time in my life, I would raise my wishes over duty to my people.

Time stilled, as I fought my nature. The single movement in the room was bright red blood falling from gleaming blade....

…one drop …two

then…

Kiara’s lungs contracted, and her arms shot up, clawing for air.

“Praise Selene! She lives!” Cinnia said. “Aside, my Lord.”

Our lithe herb woman shoved me away, ending my inner battle. Duty wins …for now. Yet if my Fiona has perished from Kiara’s betrayal, she will wail and gnash her teeth that she was denied quick death this day.

“My kit to me, Eamann, hurry!” Cinnia shouted, “We must compote the wound to stanch the bleeding.”

“But see, cuz?” á‰amann answered the redhead, “A miracle! The wound seals itself!”

Cinnia stood still, and I gathered from her furrowed face she sought to unravel this mystery.

“Kiara must have drunk the water of life as Lady Fiona stabbed her! It alone kept her from dying, as sure as Fi’s knife stilled her heart. What a mystery!”

It was so; not even scar remained where dagger once had rested. It is mystery indeed that Selene’s wondrous waters work for this degenerate maggot. Even now, her traitorous eyes flutter and blink at gray winter light, filtering through the farmhouse window.

“Tis a blessing from Selene,” the bushy-headed farmer said from behind us. “Since I found her on yon river bank, she’s been at death’s doorstep, neither living nor dead.”

Kiara's irises were pools of black. They matched her soul. Cinnia clinched her friend in a tight hug, trying to raise the girl’s body temperature. Kiara's flailing ceased. Her hateful mouth opened, and rasped:

“Late for … drop off point …Kounoungo camp …No! Land mine!”

Her arms thrashed anew, and Cinnia tightened her embrace.

“She spews gibberish. Now the deceiver is revived, I will ready the company to ride. She is your friend,” I spat my last word, and slipped Fiona's knife into my belt. “So you shall clothe and tend her, Cinnia.”

Our ruddy-faced host grabbed my arm. “Forgive my forwardness, Lord Arthmael! Now our Cupbearer is awake, can she lift this hell-cursed winter? She must or I lose all! My barley crop is gone and sheep perish by the day. Neighbors are same or worse.”

What comfort words had I? Our foe outmatches us in every way. Men, supplies, and magic too, it seems. My Fiona and the other Cupbearers had been our last hope. After their capture, even the weather dances on Amangons’ command, sending us winter's blizzard in place of summer's rain.

I gripped his hand. “Fight on, friend. We speed her to the High Priestess to cipher what can be done.”

Why Epona believed this treacherous bitch was the key for our survival was beyond my reckoning. Yet, I would do my duty, one last time.

When I turned to young Eamann, I did not bother to disguise my dark mood as I had for the farmer.

“Pay heed, comrade, that my Fiona marked her with her dagger is proof enough for me. Kiara’s betrayal yokes all in cold misery. Even the land itself. When she ceases her babbling, bring her to me …for questioning.”

Duty. I am cursed with it. I will forestall killing this bitch until after I deliver her to Epona. Yet should she fail to answer my questions, her pain will give me some small reward.
 

 

Time is our enemy. Distance is our enemy.

White is our enemy.

One luckless color, from horizon to horizon.

Amangons' magics drown our world in a sea of snow. It is summer, for Selene's sake! The joyous time when maid’s dresses grow short! Yet his base snowstorm besieges our land, freezing bud on tree, and grows stronger day by day.

Each vanishing moment draws Amangons’ forces closer to Ysrial. The farmer's house lies hours behind us, and many more must pass before we halt for cold sleep.

I agreed with m'Lord Arthmael; time wasted on the High Priestess' errand should have been spent shoring Ysrial's defenses for the final battle. Epona's vision must be false; how could Kiara Esmeé, of all the Maids, aid in defeating the twisted demigod?

I shook my head to my cousin riding beside me.

“You cannot believe her!”

“I …do not know what to think,” Cinnia said, pulling her furred robe tighter, and tucking wine colored hair into her hood. “It is perplexing.”

“Try stupefying; her story is pathetic! She says she is not Kiara, but ‘Bryonn’ from a distant world and this is all her dream?”

I pointed a gloved finger at Cinnia. “Our survival is at stake! She quickens your blood, aye; yet allow not desire to cloud good judgment.”

It used to amuse me; Cinnia’s heart burned for the golden-haired lass, yet Kiara had eyes for me alone, and returned Cinnia's arousal with the warmth of a sister.

I delighted in flirting with Kiara in view of my cousin, though never intended I more. As well connected as Kiara was through her parents the Duke and Duchess, other maids -such as sweet Catriona- hailed from families with far vaster holdings.

That was before Kiara betrayed her people to the twisted demigod; right or wrong, she now was a key player, and I would turn my attentions to her.

Cinnia pivoted in her saddle, to glance at her friend, several mounts behind in our long horse train. Like Cinnia, Kiara was wrapped in white fur, gloved hands held her reins, and golden hair peeped from her furry cap.

Cinnia returned her gaze to me. “Her story sounds absurd, yes, but …how strange she acts since her reawakening.”

I shrugged. “Getting stabbed in the heart by our Lady Fiona and lying in death's coma for a week would be hard to waltz away from.”

“But consider,” Cinnia said, “last month when we traveled with her to the temple for her consecration, tears rolled down her cheeks at the mention of riding, and she traveled by cart. Yet now she straddles her mount as well as any cavalryman. Regard also how she often adjusts her breasts, as if they were something …hmm …foreign?”

“Bah! She double-crossed her Cup Maid sisters; this absurd ‘otherworld’ fable is an act! If ever I betrayed our people as she …ah, fair cuz, the west wind could not carry me fast enough to escape Lord Arthmael’s wrath. It is a wonder he has not whipped the truth from her.”

Cinnia glared me. “We know not she betrayed the Maids! All we know-”

“-is prissy Kiara alone escaped, from the wicked demigod and his demons. Right. What were the chances the Least of Bearers would be the one to escape? All in our company speak of it, how she must have panicked and shown him some secret weakness of the Maids. That she was found with Fi’s dagger in her heart shows how our Lady judged her.”

“Yet she also had the water of life in her veins to keep her alive. Tell me what you think of that!”

I had no answer. No one did; it made no sense. But …if I could convince Kiara to tell me what really happened …my standing with Lord Arthmael would rise.

“I think …I would speak with her. Perhaps I can charm her to reveal all.”

After I ran a hand through my hair to straighten it, I saw a smile play on Cinnia’s lips.

“What?”

“Nothing …except, mere weeks ago, you wanted little to do with her when she followed you about like a lovesick puppy; now you primp and preen for her.”

I found no humor in this; I did this act for my people! I would not stoop to answer. Instead, I pulled my steed to a halt, shaking my reins when Kiara’s mount approached. I nudged Bright Star's flanks so he trotted in step with her dapple-gray mare.

“Sir Byronn! A thousand pardons for intruding on your ‘dream’, but I would speak with you.”

“Not Byronn, Brian, BRI-an,” she said, and sighed. “Never mind. I’m sure I’ll wake any minute, and the sooner the better. This dream is freaking cold and …argghh!” She pushed strands of gold hair off her face. “…goddammit, this long hair is driving me crazy! Can you chop it off with your sword or something?”

I shrugged. “And when you awaken from your dream, you will be …where?”

“A hospital bed I think; I must be drugged up, with morphine or some such shit. Last I remember we were coming from Kounoungo where we’d documented some mass graves and we stumbled across an unmarked land mine area …and then I…”

Her mouth stopped mid-sentence, and her bright eyes widened, as if she relived some terror.

“What is it?”

Her voice was soft in answering, “N-nothing. Except, I must have been mangled by the blast and …and …and what the fuck am I doing, explaining this to a figment of my imagination?”

This was getting us nowhere. “Your otherworld stratagem wears thin, Kiara. We will go easier on you if you confess your crimes.”

“Okay! Fine! Ya caught me!” She held her crossed wrists in front of her. “I stole the jewels, or the eye of Horus, or whatever shit it is I’m supposed to have done.”

“You have no idea how serious your situation is. Should Lord Arthmael overhear you jesting this way…”

“He’s the sour-faced dip who slapped me around?”

“He struck you?”

“Yeah, after you dragged me to him. He asked if his Fiona lived, and when I said ‘Fiona who?’ he backhanded me. I wonder what that means?”

Was Kiara as thick-headed as she was deceitful? Lord Arthmael's soul screams in torment from the loss of his Lady; I know not how he resisted the temptation to tie her to a post and lash her.

“You stupid fool! Despair riddles the man that his beloved might be dead …or worse, and you toying with his agony pushed him over the edge.”

“What? No, that’s not what I meant; though that’s interesting exposition,” she said, and leaned out in her saddle to glimpse Arthmael in front of their train.

“What I’m trying to figure out is why my unconscious mind projected me into the body of a young woman and then caused a male authority figure in my dream to abuse me. Do I do the same in real life? Oh, not literally, but figuratively? I’m visiting a shrink ASAP when I wake up.”

“I beg of you,” my teeth were clinched so tight my words almost whistled. “Cease. This. Charade.”

“Don't you think I'd end this fucked up nightmare if I could? I’ve tried everything to wake up!”

An awkward quiet fell on us, and for some moments the sound of our horses’ hoofs padding on crunchy snow filled the silence. Perhaps I needed a different approach; if not stick, then carrot. I leaned close, took her gloved hand, and spoke in a melodious tone.

“Weeks ago, you proclaimed your love for me.” I brought her hand to my lips for a kiss. “If any of those feelings remain, then please, for me, help us combat Amangons’ malevolence.”

Her mouth dropped open. “What?”

She was near speechless; a positive sign, I hoped. I called my most ‘beguiling’ smile to my face, and sought to press my advantage.

“You are so beautiful; I would despair to see you …scarred …by the harsh questioning Arthmael will employ. Ponder this; tell me all, and I will try to protect you. We shall speak later, my love.”

I swooped in for a quick kiss on her lips, before I nudged Bright Star's flanks again. He sprang forth; and I slowed him when we reached Cinnia’s mare.

“Was your gambit successful?”

She had seen me kissing Kiara, and was jealous, no doubt.

“Success I think; she continues to be dazzled by my charm. She will talk tonight for sure. I must report my progress to Lord Arthmael at once.”

I wanted to ignore Cinnia's petty comment as I urged my Bright Star forward, yet I failed to block it from my ears:

“Fair cousin, you have yet to learn the difference between dazzled and dumbfounded.”
 

 

 
“Positively fascinating.”

The gray half-light of a snowy dusk still showed through our tent flap. I had burrowed under my thick bed furs; feeling warmth for the first time this day. Yet if Kiara wished to talk, I would listen; Arthmael ordered me to act as guard and spy.

“What was ‘fascinating,’ hmm,” I asked through a yawn.

“No directional control! How do you women piss your names in the snow,” she asked, as she -thankfully- closed the tent flap.

“‘You women’? Oh, right! As Sir Bree-on you were a man; that is your story, is it not?”

She sighed. “Call me Kiara, okay? Everyone mangles ‘Brian’ so badly, I’ve given up the fight.”

Hmm, that gave me a thought. “As a man, I expect you …romanced many a fair maiden?”

“Don’t mean to brag, but I’ve loved my share of …you know …maids.”

My heart thumped quicker. “Does this mean what you told me last month no longer holds true?”

“Throw me a bone, here …Cinnia is it? I have no idea what I’m supposed to have said.”

“I told you of my desire for you,” I gazed into Kiara’s eyes, so bright in the light of dusk. “And you said —quite clearly- …you …prefer …men.”

Cursed was I to fall in love with a mono-sexual elf. Her narrow-minded preference for males alone was almost …human.

My most beloved and painful memory was of a spring day, when she and I stood beneath a cherry tree grove on her parents' lands. There, as the pink blossoms floated down on us, I brought my lips to hers, and felt her fire as she moaned. Yet then, she pushed me away, and said her heart belonged to á‰amann.

The sting in my heart remains, as does the sweetness of the moment too, her moan, her soft lips…

“Does your heart still belong to Eamann alone?”

“I said that?” Kiara asked, her voice inflecting up to a squeak. “For whatever it’s worth, earlier, when Eamann hit on me, I almost barfed.”

What? Eamann hit you?”

“No, Arthmael hit me, Eamann hit ON me. Made a pass. Kissed my hand.”

Arthmael beat her? I feared this, and cringed for the pain she must have endured.

Yet …how blasé she acted, so detached, when our world was ending. When Amangons threatened to raze Ysrial's marbled towers!

I bit back an angry curse, and breathed in cold night air for calm. She at least was talking to me. Perhaps if I humored her, I might gain her confidence.

“And if I …hit on you,” I licked my lips, “would that also make you want to …what odd word did you use? Barf? Or would you have a different reaction?”

“You mean if a hot girl like you came on to me?” Kiara's voice growled husky in her answer. “I bet in whatever hospital bed my body now lies, something’s stiff.”

In spite of our desperate plight, or the howl of the devil wind, warm tingles spread through my body. For many a season I had longed to hear lust for me in her voice.

“You know, tonight will be bitter cold; maybe we would do better if we slept …under the same furs?”

“Girl-on-girl action? Absolutely!” Kiara was beside me in a flash. “This dream’s been such a freaking nightmare, ‘bout time something excellent happened.”
 

 
How the fates conspire against me!

After planting a few innocent kisses, Kiara fell asleep in my arms before we attempted more. Several hours later, she jolted awake when an icy wind blast smacked our tent.

“C-innia?”

“Mmm, what love?” I untangled from her, and sleep prickles raked my arm from where she had lain on it.

“I fell asleep.”

We would ride in but a few hours to an uncertain future. As much as my arms and legs ached to twine around her, we needed rest.

“I imagine you did, after all that has happened to you. Try to repeat the experience.”

“No, you don’t understand! You’re not supposed to fall asleep in dreams, right, unless you're narcoleptic …I read that somewhere …or caught it on CNN. What if I can’t wake up? What if I’m in a coma or …or …”

Her voice was agitated; her lackadaisical tone had vanished.

“Or what?”

“What if this is...” Her voice grew soft. “…real.”

I snaked a hand through her blouse and tweaked a nipple, eliciting an “ow!”

“I am NOT a figment of your imagination.”

“Then... then ...who am I supposed to be?” .

She sounded so lost! Her fabulous tale cannot be true, but until this moment I think she believed it. My arms wrapped around her and I cooed in her ear.

“Be calm, love, and I will tell you. Your name is Kiara Esmeé, and you were born in the Duchy of Broges. Your parents are Duke Conlan and Duchess Amelinda. You love chocolate pastries, and adore wearing purple ribbons in your hair.”

“Purple …ribbons? Peachy, but I …I don’t even know what I look like!”

That was easy to remedy, for her features are burned in my soul.

“Your golden hair falls as ringlets down your back, your cheeks are rosy, your eyes are sky blue and dewy, and your soft red lips are so…inviting.”

“Fantastic, I sound uber hot. What about these badass pointy ears?”

How coarse, how different her speech was! In the blackness of night, she didn’t sound at all like the woman I loved.

“I do not understand. If not pointed then what would they be? Rounded as humans? Please.”

“So …I’m female AND nonhuman? You’re shitting me. What else? How old am I? Seems like twelve.”

“You turned seventeen several weeks ago. You had just been called to your training as a Cup Bearer when Má³rrá­ghan’s company was ambushed and she was killed in the first volley of arrows. When you were consecrated, you became the youngest Bearer ever.”

Her frustrated mutter knifed through the dark.

“I keep hearing those words ‘bearer’ and ‘cup maid’; am I supposed to be one of those things? Is it some kind of big deal?”

"The highest of honors! All elfin women long to be called as a Cup Bearer!”

I would be lying if I said I was not envious. To possess Selene’s healing power ...only once have I know such joy, when last summer, at midsummer's eve, I transformed the herb panax into panacea and cured a blind woman of her affliction. To have that power the other days of the year ...ah, such an honor. I envy her indeed.

Many of our nobles protested she was too young and thought Catriona was the better choice. After Kiara was consecrated, it stung her when the whispers began, dubbing her the ‘Least of Bearers.’ I defended her to all who spoke so, for Epona consulted her auguries, and Kiara’s name was written in them.

“Got it, it’s like winning Power Ball. Which begs the next question; if I’m so fantastic, why does everyone treat me like I’m radioactive?”

More strange words from her! Perhaps her death coma damaged her brain. Could that explain her memory loss and strange speech?

“Radio-active? Please explain, Kiara.”

“Sorry. Um, it’s like I’ve done something criminal, and now I’ve got the plague.”

Ah! I understood. Perhaps if I tell her of recent events, it will trigger a memory of her time with Amangons and the fate of the Bearers.

“I will tell you. Some months past, the loathsome demigod Amangons arrived from the East with a mighty host to besiege our land. Our forces suffered great losses during the battles, but at last stalled his advance. Then, Amangons requested a parley and made an offer; he said if the Bearers could heal his accursed afflictions, he would leave our land in peace. He swore safe passage for the Nine.”

She was silent; a good sign, I prayed to Selene.

“As our army had been decimated, the High Counsel deemed the offer our best chance to end the war without further bloodshed. So, the Nine Cup Bearers —you included- rode to Amangons’ encampment some seven days ago.”

“Well, hell, I don’t know the subtext around this Amangons guy, but that sounds like an obvious trap, ya know?”

Unthinkable! “He swore an oath!”

“Um …o-kay,” she answered. “Soooo what happened?”

“The worst of news! Word came that eight of the Nine renounced their cups and worshiped Amangons as god; they had become his slaves and playthings. Following that, Amangons unleashed this cursed winter storm. Finally, as Priestess Epona foretold, two days ago you were found, with Fiona’s knife in your heart. Some say you betrayed your sister Bearers, and Fi’s dagger was your payment. This is why people treat you like you are …radio —active.”

“You sent nine women, unguarded, to your enemy? Holy fuck, do you realize how monumentally stupid that was?”

Her thoughts are so alien! Had Amangons twisted her mind? Was she his spy as á‰amann said? Had my desire for her blinded me?

My skin crawled at the thought; I pushed this stranger away.

“You …are not the Kiara I knew!”

“No …wait! If I said something stupid, I’m sorry.” Her voice turned soft, pleading. “Don’t kick me out of your bed; you’re the only one who’s been nice and-”

“-Creature of darkness, I know you not!”

From the black came her whispered answer:

“Me neither. Yesterday, I was Brian Cooper. Yesterday, I was a field photographer for the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Today? I have no fucking clue.”
 

 

 
They paced, my anxious Lords, in the courtyard to the Temple of Selene. Restless were they, as they awaited my divining.

I did not rush to dispel their unease, but waited, behind a wood-leafed panel, unseen. A High Priestess does have her tricks.

I must know the mind of my Lord Arthmael and General áed before I delivered my news. Amangons tested our mettle and our leaders must possess steady minds.

“We came as fast as the cursed conditions allowed,” Arthmael said, as he gazed from a courtyard window, onto our ice locked city. Mere weeks ago, cherry and dogwood trees sprinkled blossoms on fair Ysrial’s streets as spring gave way to summer.

“How far away is his army, General?”

“They arrive within the hour. Or sooner; His advance scouts roam outside our gates as we speak.”

Aed hobbled to the window to join Arthmael, as Eamann and Cinnia flanked his sides, eager to help, but afraid of insulting his dignity. Poor dear áed! Amangons’ pernicious cold stiffened his old war wound.

“Why he bothers to lay siege is beyond me,” Arthmael said. “If he waits but a few weeks, we will all be dead.”

My Lord is wrong; Amangons comes not to receive our surrender; he thinks it already his. No, the twisted one comes to work his revenge on Selene’s children.

“Does his arrival have something to do with the finding of the lass,” Aed asked.

“We will know soon enough when Epona finishes her questioning,” Arthmael said. “Yet if Kiara has worked a blasphemous compromise with the twisted one, I will ensure she is first to die.”

“She has betrayed us? Her own people,” áed asked. “I still find this unthinkable…”

I had heard enough. I used my power to project my voice to echo throughout the chamber.

INDEED, UNTHINKABLE AND UNTRUE.”

I strode forth from my hidden panel. If my people are to keep faith that Selene has not abandoned them, then they must see me strong in my belief.

They saw as I willed; Selene’s High Priestess, with back unbowed, robed in the holy purple. At seventy, I have reached the balance point of our people where I looked neither young nor old; my face held a memory of my youth, yet showed too, my wisdom wrinkles.

I motioned to the priestess who waited by the courtyard entrance for my signal. She led Kiara into the room, whom I had cloaked in priestess robe. The girl’s steps were tentative and her eyes wide; so lost, so lost. Since she was brought to me, a steady fog of bewilderment had descended on the poor thing. How will she defeat the demigod?

Faith, Epona, faith! Dark times indeed, when I must give this admonishment to myself.

The inevitable questions burst from the group:

“Does Fiona live?” Arthmael said.

“Has she revealed all as I told her too?” Eamann said.

“Is …Kiara well?” Cinnia said.

I held up my hand for silence, and regarded the girl again.

“Her tale is wondrous strange, but bears no falseness; I have subjected her to Beli’s Rod. She has led another existence, or at least she believes so …as Brian Cooper? Did I pronounce it correctly?”

At her jerked nod, I continued.

“She lived three and thirty years as a man, the height of you, Lord,” I motioned to Arthmael, “in a place I cannot comprehend. Yet she is Kiara, for I recorded her aura when she was brought here for consecration as Bearer, and I know her.”

“What good does this serve,” Arthmael asked, anger boiling in his voice. “You say she is not the betrayer? Then what of the manner she was found, with Fi’s dagger in her heart?”

“Fiona has given us a riddle for sure,” I bore my eyes into him. Arthmael is a just lord and good man, but must be confronted hard to be made to see other points of view.

“The dagger was driven in the instant she drank the water of life, suspending her between life and death, and giving her soul the space to fly to this other world. Why?”

I let the question hang in the cold air.

“We hoped you could answer this question, and so provide us with a means to defeat Amangons,” Aed said. “Our remaining archers can still inflict some small damage, but his victory is a foregone conclusion.”

Goddess, the man was literal to a fault! “I was speaking rhetorically, General, I mean to discover the answer now. Muireann! Aonghus!”

Two robed figures, male and female, filed in from an antechamber door. Between them on a tray, they carried an antique silver cup. A most amazing cup indeed!

“What wonder is this,” Arthmael asked gazing at the intricate spiraling patterns etched on the Chalice. “Vile Amangons captured the nine Bearer cups. I know not this vessel.”

“Patience, Lord. The nine cups were fashioned after this Cup, given to our people in the dawn time, by Selene's Healer, Kemeia. The Cup was made by the Goddess Herself, so the legends say. ”

“This,” Cinnia asked, staring wide-eyed at the gleaming Chalice, “was made by Selene’s hand?”

I nodded. “ And from it the Nine received their healing power. Certain it is, since Amangons enslaved eight Bearers, and believes the ninth dead, he feels free to move. I reckon he has no knowledge of Her Cup.”

“How will this benefit us,” áed asked, “when the cups of the Maids proved powerless to stop him?”

“Powerless? We shall see, General. Our last Cup Maid remains a consecrated Bearer; she alone among us may grasp Selene’s Chalice and not be consumed by its fires. And sure it is, her strange journey was for a Goddess-sent purpose.”

I clapped her hands.

“Kiara Esmeé!”

The mention of her old name failed to rouse her from her stupor.

“Pick up the cup, Kiara.”

“I’m …to …what?”

I was not penetrating her fog. Selene help me!

Then, an inspiration came.

“Take the cup, Kiara Brian Cooper Esmeé!”

She flinched, grasped the dazzling vessel before her …and reeled. Cinnia leaped to catch her; cradling her in her arms. Kiara gazed at the redhead’s face, her eyes rolling back in her head.

A clatter of boots on stone drew me away from this scene; our soldiers rushed into the chamber.

“General! Amangons has arrived at our gates demanding entrance. He sends word that if we refuse, he will kill all in the city, be they man or dog.”

“Better to fight, I say, but he would kill our women, our children,” answered Aed. “What are we to do?”

Kiara stood again, thank Selene, though Cinnia held her steady. With the Cup in hand, her body was outlined in a blue glow.

“…I …know…”

I ran to her. “You remember your training? The ritual? The miracle of the water?”

“I …remember …all.”

Fool was I to doubt my Goddess, though I knew not her plan. When I turned to Arthmael and Aed, I could not keep the fierce grin from my face.

“Then, by all means, my Lord and General, invite in King Amangons, so he may receive the healing he craves.”
 

 

 
Putrid rotting corrupt …master.

Abominations he has worked on us, turning our blood lusty hot. He devours our torment, for even the frigid air that kills my people gives us no calm, forcing us to shed our clothes in anguish.

He delights in dragging us, collared and naked, before our loved ones. He speaks but a word, and we leap to perform any depravity he wishes. To me, he says he has special acts he will make me do when we are before my love Arthmael.

Cursed am I, a thousand times so, for I led my sister Cupbearers to Amangons’ open arms. We cannot even end our lives, á‰taá­n tried to jump from a tree with rope around her neck. She could not die; the twisted demigod’s commands forbade it.

Little Kiara was blessed to die by my hand. He corrupts even my soul, for I am selfish now; every moment of this hellish week I wished I had not stabbed my blade into her heart. I wished I had buried it in my own.

“Wave to your people, they are overjoyed at your return,” Amangons said.

I rode in Amangons’ lead chariot at the tip of his army, and my sisters, chained and collared, dragged close behind us. Few people lined Ysrial’s icy streets to watch the parade, and those who did hung their heads in shame and what they thought was fear. They would know true fear soon enough.

“I said wave and smile, Lady Fiona. Pray I do not order you to fondle your body as well.”

A smile appeared on my face, and my hand shot up in a mechanical wave.

We arrived at the columned entrance to the Temple of Selene.

“How fitting, that the surrender of the elves comes in a place dedicated to She who cast me down. Where is your false goddess now? I shall take you here, before your husband and Her statue. I am sure you appreciate the symbolism.”

When the temple doors opened, we marched in, to find a waiting delegation. No pomp and ceremony here, Ysrial's forces, already thinned from battle, were decimated by Amangons’ winter siege. How pitiful we were; less than three score soldiers awaited, including General áed, High Priestess Epona, and my love.

I turned so I would not look on his face, his shame at what I’d become. Thankfully, Amangons’ attention turned from me; he had a larger audience to torment. One of his Underlords spoke. I wasn’t sure who; did it matter? They all had their turns with us.

“Tremble and despair, for he who rules all has come!”

His army dropped to knees and so did I, as ordered.

A golden throne was wheeled in behind Amangons; he sat, motioned, and we rose.

“Arthmael, I am prepared to accept your unconditional surrender.” His voice was clear, almost sweet. “Bow to me. As you see, my Lady Fiona has already done so. ”

He motioned to me, and hated words passed my lips. “Truth, Arthmael; he alone is my lord, and husband.”

I could not look on him; my words were daggers in his heart!

“Why say you these words, my love? WHY? It has ever been that the Cupbearers were immune to all magic. How has he done this to you?”

The perverted demigod laughed. “Know you not the one weakness of the Bearers? A Cup Maid has the protection of Selene so long as she serves all who seek healing. He whom a Bearer refuses shall have mastery over the Bearer, until he is healed.”

Arthmael shot an anguished look to Epona, but she nodded in confirmation. “That is so. But no Bearer has refused to give succor, ever.”

“Tell them my pet. Tell them how you failed.”

I cast my eyes to the stone floor. “We could not do it. We tried but…”

“Eight of you and not one would heal poor Amangons. And the ninth, they killed the miserable creature rather than allow her to try.”

“Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.” A voice called. I know that voice!

“Who spoke so?” Amangons’ eyes narrowed as he scanned my elfin people.

A young woman robed as a Selene priestess, stepped from behind Epona. Kiara!

“The ninth Maid? But I saw you dead,” Amangons said, and his voice showed the first uncertainty I had heard from him.

“I’m feeling better now,” Kiara said.

“Impossible!” His voice shrilled. “You were pierced through your heart and thrown to the river.”

Kiara shrugged and brought a gleaming cup from behind her back.

“I possess the nine cups; what chalice is this,” Amangons said.

It is the vessel from which we drink when we are consecrated! My eyes were drawn to it as iron is to magnet.

“This is Kemeia's Gift, the Cup of cups; Selene's Chalice,” Epona answered. “From this you will receive your healing.”

Amangons laughed, and I heard his confidence return. He motioned his head to me.

“Tell her, slave; tell this Least of Bearers the folly of the venture. Spare her the embarrassment of the attempt.”

I slunk to where Kiara stood, and whispered:

“Child! Try not this healing. You were there to see us fail; as bright as his visage is, his soul is inversely foul. It was arrogance that led us to this fate, my reckless belief that nothing could harm a Bearer. Look at me! I am proud no more.”

“But Fi, you’re the one who …um …got Selene’s answer to our prayers…right? I mean, that’s why you …you stabbed me, you know, as you gave me the water from your cup…”

That memory blazed into my mind. How desperate we were; four cup sisters had gone before Amangons and failed! Luck alone prevented all from falling that night; the lateness of the hour stayed the completion of the farce until the following morning.

How frightened Kiara was when I spoke of my vision from Selene, how she —the youngest of us- would be our salvation, after she learned Selene’s lesson. How terrified she was when she discovered how the lesson would begin. Trembling, tears flowing, she nonetheless stepped forward to take the blow.

“…so why are you doubting now?”

Something was different about her. Her words were oddly arranged, and she faltered, as if she recalled some distant memory.

“That was before it was my turn to heal him and look into his soul. Kiara, no words can describe the limitless depth of his corruption. I could not …could not …heal him. We have nothing in our world to match his depravity, nothing to prepare us. You, sweet virginal Kiara, you least of all are prepared. Attempt it not, else he enslave you too.”

I grasped her hand and squeezed as hard as I could. “No hell is worse than being bound forever to him.”

“Fiona, pet you flatter me. I shall reward you in our bedchamber tonight. Again.”

Fool that I am! Though I spoke in whispers, I should have known Amangons would hear all. My love screamed at his words, and his men wrestled him hard to the ground. Ah Arthmael! Ah Love! How have we come to this? Ah Selene! Why have you abandoned us?

“As delicious as this drama is,” Amangons said, “I would know if this ‘Least of Bearers’ will try to heal poor Amangons of his sad afflictions.”

I knew before she opened her lips she would follow the same path as we did to doom. No! No! Foolish girl!

“Run Kiara! Flee! Do not suffer our fate! Do not-”

“-Silence! To the ground, slave, and worship me.”

I fell to the floor, crawled to him and kissed his wretched feet.

From this low station I heard her odd reply:

“Call me a stupid sonofabitch, but I can’t pass up a challenge.”
 

 

 
I'm me and I'm not me.

No, that’s not right…

I’m me and I'm me.

The moment I touched Her Cup, both "mes" slammed together, my life as Kiara Esmeé and as Brian Cooper.

I'm a photojournalist who documents refugee camps for the U.N. -or …was, because I think I …died …and if you asked me what my favorite meal was, I'd say ‘a steaming slice of pepperoni pizza and a mug of Fat Tire Ale’.

I'm also the daughter of Conlan and Amelinda Esmeé, I grew up in the wooded hills of Broges, and I crave chocolate pasties. And love wearing purple ribbons in my hair.

Each reality is true, and my head is splitting trying to reconcile them.

“This one appears ready to faint before me, and she has not yet looked into my mind.” His laugh echoed the temple walls. “You are useless; I see why your sisters sought to dispose of you.”

I was thankful for the danger of the moment; it distracted me from the schizophrenic tearing in my brain. My Cup Bearer instinct kicked in big time —my Kiara mind told me this- and I walked to the golden king, lifting up the shining Cup.

“Let me heal your troubled soul.”

Two of Amangons’ colossal golden guards stepped in front to bar my way, but Amangons waved them off.

“No! Hinder her not! For I will have the complete set of the Bearers as slaves. Selene’s ‘miracle’ shall come no more to my world.”

When I was reawakened in the farmhouse —had I died then too?- and believed this was a dream, I'd figured from all the ‘twisted demigod’ talk, I'd find, you know, some creature out of Night of the Living Dead.

Instead, a tall regal man clad in armor of shimmering gold sat before me on a burnished throne. Equally 'fair' armored warriors surrounded him -hell, they all looked like they'd spent time in the weight room- and if I hadn't had my Kiara memories, I might have wondered if I was on the right side in this drama.

Until he spoke; then the sound of his voice turned my stomach.

“After you fail, I shall mount you and take your maidenhood here, before all. Think of it as your special favor from me.”

“I’m sure it will be a letdown,” I said, as I stepped between his massive guards to stand an arm’s length from him. “Kind of a rule of thumb I’ve learned, is guys flashing the kind of bling you do, are compensating for tiny dicks.”

“What?”

I didn’t have another witty remark to throw at him, because the magic of the Cup ritual was working, and my lips spoke scripted words.

“O seeker, let me gaze into your eyes, so I may feel your ailment and bring you succor.”

“By all means …Look. into. my. eyes.”

When I stared into his hazel gold irises, my consciousness was pulled through a sparkling veil, into blackness.

Urine. Excrement. Vomit. A kaleidoscope of scents assaulted me, knotting my intestines.

I felt movement, and before me, and a glow appeared, of green light.

Someone or some thing was here!

Its skin was covered in lesions, puss filled, crusted, and slick.

Oh God! This is Amangons’ soul!

It reached for me with emaciated arms, twisted hands and yellowed long fingernails.

Help me”

Now I understood my sisters’ failure; this horror, is the opposite of life. His divine eternal nature was anti-life; corruption incarnate.

In the bright light of this young world, they would have encountered nothing like it. How could they heal that?

I yanked away from his soul, from his mind. I was back in the great hall, before the king, bright and golden as before. His outward visage, what a parody! I wanted to run to the nearest body of water and scrub my skin for an hour.

“What? Is there nothing in your cup? Will not you heal me, Bearer? If not, then you are mine.”

That’s the deal, my Kiara mind reminded me, the Bearer looked into the soul of the seeker, and filled the Cup with that which would heal. My eight sisters’ cups remained empty and so they became enslaved. Could I do better?

For more than thirty years, as Brian I’d lived in a world filled with suffering. Even as I …even as I had died …I’d been photographing the atrocities of Dafur. I’d seen the mass graves, the starving homeless, the burning villages, gang-raped girls.

I’d seen that which could not be healed.

Except by death.

Death.

Our enemy, we say, something to fear. Yet I learned that sometimes, when living is suffering without joy or …hope, when to exist is to know unending misery, then …death is our friend.

I knew what he needed.

“You’re a sick fuck for sure, Amangons, but you are not unique. Drink, O king, my cup is full.”

As I thrust it at him, the Cup glowed silver and soft blue light surrounded me.

But inside the Cup, the liquid was black.

“Swallow every drop, you bag of shit.”

“Impossible,” He whispered, trying to pull away. He couldn’t; the magic of the ritual compelled him to drink, and, like a hunter, I brought the Cup to his lips.

“What …fills the Cup?”

“Rest. Stillness. Oblivion.” I said, pouring the dark liquid between his lips.

With a thunderous —CRACK- every soldier of his shining army …vanished, and the howling winter gale quieted.

With a splutter, Amangons stood from his throne.

“No …noooo …cursed woman, my divinity is gone; you have murdered it!”

His feet moved in jagged hitches, and he staggered from the great hall in a ragged running weave. Howls echoed the chamber long after he was gone.

The elfin host stood in silence, from disbelief I supposed. To suffer so much from this creature and to have it end this abruptly must have been …anticlimactic?

Epona broke the quiet, and when she spoke, her voice resonated with …I don’t know …wonder?

“His immortality was his suffering, and you made him mortal! Praise Selene, you did it!”

“Pretty much, but…” Why wasn’t anyone chasing after him? “…the bastard’s getting away, as we stand here with our thumbs up our-”

“-Kiara, love, you saved us all!” Cinnia said. She was first to me and she wrapped her arms around me.”

“Well …yeah …I guess so.”

I had. And all it had taken was one simple lesson.

One painful, soul splitting thirty-three year long lesson. My head throbbed, and my soul was weary.

Yet around me, my sisters lay defiled and broken. My countrymen decimated. Our land, bound in ice.

My Cup Bearer instinct kicked in again. Compelling me.

“More to do. More to heal…”

“Aye, Bearer, for you there is,” Epona took my face in her hands and looked into my eyes. “But not alone. Restore your sisters, then shall the Nine shall ride, throughout our land, to bring Her healing and hope.”

I knew where my first healing must be.

Holding the cup aloft, I walked to where I heard quiet weeping. There, on the stone floor, in Arthmael’s arms, lay Fiona.

I knelt before her.

“O seeker, let me gaze into your eyes, so I may feel your ailment and bring you succor.”
 

 
“Cease your fidgeting,” Cinnia said. “Or you will wrinkle it.”

“I. am not. fidgeting!”

I was, in fact, fidgeting, with this stupid ceremonial Cup Bearer costume Epona insisted I wear. 'Go', she’d said, 'out among our people. Heal them with Her Cup and inspire them by your presence.'

So here I am, in all my inspiring glory, wearing a white gauzy gown that stretches to the ground. A matching cape —a cape, for Christ’s sake!- hangs from my shoulders, and a belt of interlinking silver medallions circles my waist.

We stood in an open pavilion at Ysrial's center, a few blocks from Selene’s temple. The weather had warmed, thank God -or Selene, I guess- or I’d be freezing my ass off. I'd finally been able to set my Cup down after the steady river of Ysrial citizens seeking cures tapered off. I was so exhausted I didn't think I could lift it again.

More to do though; the nine Bearers ride soon, to travel the length of the kingdom, healing as we go. We each take different routes and Epona sends me to the Duchy of Broges, where I’ll reunite with a mother and father I haven’t seen in three weeks.

Or thirty-three years and three weeks, depending on which side of me looked at it.

“Good, alone at last,” Cinnia said. She had been at my side the last few hours. “Now, if you will shut up about how you look like this Princess Leia I have never heard of, I will share a secret with you.”

‘Shut up.’ She’d picked that phrase up from me. I wondered how soon she’d learn my curse words. I shut up.

“Kiara! Brian!” She snapped her fingers in my face. “Both of you.”

“Hmm?”

“You are still unsettled from your ordeal, so pay attention; I have something I wish to share with you. First, I must beg your forgiveness for the way I-”

“-Ho there! Lady Kiara! Cousin! I come to bid farewell!”

Eamann galloped to us on Bright Star, and dismounted in a spectacular vault. He whipped off his bright red beret and bowed to us.

“What is this, cuz? You are not to be in Kiara’s entourage?”

“Alas, no. I ride with the Lady Fiona’s company.”

“As does Lord Arthmael…” she said, flashing me a sly grin.

“True! Eager am I to show him my worth!” Jesus, his chest puffed up!

“And Fiona’s journey passes through Duke Judoc’s estates, I believe?”

“It is so,” he answered, as his lips curled to smile. Too late he realized Cinnia’s trap.

“But I doubt I shall even see Catriona, or if I do, only from afar,” he said to me quickly, his eyes scanning my face.

Catriona was Duke Judoc’s daughter, and my rival in a match for Eamann’s affection, my Kiara memory told me. My memory also said she was winning.

“I count the moments until we meet once more, fair Kiara.” He grabbed my hand and brought it to his lips. Again, words deserted me and my mouth flopped open. He winked, slapped his beret back on his head, and galloped away.

“Your prospects are much improved with my cousin,” Cinnia said, this time her eyes scanned my face.

“Catriona can have the little kiss ass.”

“What a brilliant phrase! I must make a note to use it. Heh! Eamann is a ‘kiss ass.” Her laughter rang in the air. “I take it you no longer pine for my kiss ass cuz.

“Nope.” In this my two sides were in blessed agreement. “Not at all.”

“Wonderful. This makes what I have to ask easier,” she said. “As I was saying before he-”

“-Bearer Kiara Esmeé!”

Lord Arthmael and Lady Fiona approached us. My Kiara side was mortified when they knelt before me, and my Brian side was clueless on what to do.

“I seek your forgiveness, Bearer,” Arthmael began, with bowed head. “I am shamed by my criminal treatment of you.”

“And I, shall forever be in your debt,” Fiona continued, her voice sounding weak still, but steadying.“For releasing me from my bondage to that monster and for healing me.”

I knelt with them.

“This is …bullshit! Quit acting like I'm something special, you two. You,” I took Arthmael’s hand “love her with every fiber in you, and were mad with grief. If I were in your shoes, I’d have done a lot more than swatting me a couple of times. And you…”

I turned to Fiona. “…are not in my debt. I did as you or any of my sister Bearers would. Don’t make me out to be a saint. Now, go away and do, um, Lord and Lady stuff. Please leave before I say something stupid.”

Arthmael furrowed his brow. “Your modesty surpasses your colorful speech. Yet we would do more for you. You sacrificed all, and part of you is lost in another world, I fear. Is there nothing I can do for …Brian Cooper …to ease his stay here?

Wow, he's a sharp one; the Brian in my liked this guy. But what could he offer? Ysrial was the opposite of old my life. I sighed.

“Not unless you know where I can get me some hot pizza and cold beer.”

My Kiara side told me nothing like that existed here, but Arthmael pondered a moment, and then cocked his head.

“Next time we are here together and matters have returned to normal, you and I shall don the guise of ordinary soldiers and visit the Pedlar's Tavern, down by the harbor.”

“Um …yes, m’Lord …but …uh, why would we do that?”

“They make a meat pie so spicy, the fire from it can only be quenched by quaffing the amber ale they sell. Which is the coldest in Ysrial. How sounds that ...Brian Cooper?”

“Fantastic. And if we could talk football, I'd say it would it was perfect.”

“Football … is a ...sport in your other world? Here we play málée. My royal command to you is to learn the game and pick a favorite team. Then shall we drink our ales and debate whose team is worthier into the small hours of the night. Is that an order you will follow?”

“Hell yes ...m'Lord.”

Laughing, they rose, and Fiona took me in her arms.

“When we return from our journeys, come to me, sister, for I would have my time with you. As brave a face as you show, I worry for what this ordeal has done to your soul.”

“I'll be okay, really, I-”

Fiona put a finger to my lips, and glanced to Cinnia “What was the vivid euphemism she just used?”

“Bullshit,” Cinnia said.

“Yes. You speak bullshit, Kiara. What the other Bearers suffered was horror, but you have healed us, and we have one another to lean on. What you endured is unimaginable and happened to you alone. You are split asunder and in need of healing, sister, but who heals the healer?”

She turned to Cinnia. “If you would do as we discussed, you must hurry, for the time is now.”

With that they left, and I eyed Cinnia.

“You two were talking about me?”

“About what you need for your healing.”

“What I need is rest. Which I'll find when I return to my bed in Broges. And speaking of …don't I need to pack for the trip?”

“I packed us this morning while you were healing our people.”

My pulse quickened. “Us? You're coming with me?”

“If it pleases you. Does it?” She moved close to me.

“Yes, it pleases me greatly.” Suddenly the trip was not a chore to be endured.

She gave me her crafty smile again. “Does it please you more than hot pizza and cold beer?”

God, she was a quick study. “Yes. Even more than that.”

She took my hands. “Yet I can think of something more pleasing still.”

I looked up into those big green eyes of hers. My voice turned breathy. “Yeah? What?”

“Do you remember the day we kissed under the cherry blossom trees on your parents’ estate?”

A Kiara memory bubbled up, of pink blossoms falling on her wine red hair. Her soft lips meeting mine…

“Forgive me. I was a moron to push you away, and for something as idiotic as my infatuation for á‰amann, and-”

“-Sshh. What a miracle. After you ended Amangons’ winter, Selene has reset the seasons and spring has come again to Ysrial.”

I was surprised by the sudden topic shift, but it didn't stop the Brian side of me from chiming in.

“That's impossible. The earth's orbit would have to be reversed to the point where the planet's tilt to the sun was at the spring position. Right?”

She shook her head. “I understand not what you said, but Selene must have ignored your impossibility, for once again the flowers bloom and the trees bud.”

I looked around, but since we were in the middle of the city's white-stoned pavilion, I didn't spot any growing things to verify her claim.

She saw my doubt. “Fiona has told me of a wooded park not five blocks from here, where a stand of cherry trees blossom again. Shall we go now to prove my statement and …finish what we started in that earlier grove?”

I bobbed my head, even as my smart ass reply slipped from my lips. “But won't such a venture wrinkle my fabulous gown?”

“Animals have fur for warmth as people have clothes. Yet our wonderful advantage over our furred brothers is when we wish it, we can shed our clothes.”

“Er, you want me to be …naked?”

She nodded. “As will I. Does this please you?”

“Yes,” I whispered, “very much.”

She tilted my chin up so I looked in her eyes again. “Which of you does this please? Brian or Kiara?”

“Both. Or, no, that's not right.” I paused to swim in my rising desires. My desires. “It doesn't please the 'Brian' or 'Kiara' me. It pleases me.”

“Yes. You. Whole. One person. I am your healing, and you are mine, for I have burned to hold you in my arms. Shall we?”

Should we? What did I have to worry about? The Cup? It was fine right where I left it, for who could take it? Anyone but me who touched it would be consumed by 'divine fire.' I mean, it is Her Cup; why not let Selene look after the damned thing for a little while.

“hell yes”

We ran.
 

 

 
“Scandalous!”

“Come in, and tell me, Aonghus,” Epona sighed, looking up from her desk. A map of the kingdom was spread before her, and she double checked the healing routes of the Nine.

“I spotted Kiara rolling naked in the park with that young herb woman! Cinnia whatsername.”

“And this is your business because…”

Aonghus planted himself in the chair before her desk. “There is so much more recovery work to do and Amangons has yet to be apprehended.”

Epona rolled up the map and tucked it into a drawer. Then she brought her hands back to the desktop, interlaced them, and smiled.

“Let us study her transgressions, shall we, my young priest?”

“Yes,” he smiled back. “Her behavior fits with her ‘Least of ‘Bearers’ nickname. I still do not understand why the Goddess chose her for the task.”

“Are there people in the city who go unhealed?”

“No,” Aonghus shook his head. “All have been tended to. Yet should not she be preparing for her journey?”

“This morning, Cinnia Yth'nai and I packed Kiara for her journey. She has no further preparations to make.”

“Oh.” Aonghus frowned. “Yet with the demon still on the loose, is it proper for her to behave so?”

“Hmm,” Epona said, stoking her chin, “General áed's men hunt Amangons as we speak. Would you have Kiara don armor and join the chase?”

“Er, no, of course not.”

“The greater part of Amangons is dead. And my auguries show that while he yet might work suffering in the world again, he will never return to trouble the elves. Do you doubt this?”

“No High Priestess,” he said, slightly dropping his eyes.

“Then what troubles you, m'boy?”

Aonghus crossed his arms. “Decorum, I suppose. Selene defeated Amangons' winter, and I believe a Cup Bearer should behave with more respect, in honor of Her mercy.”

Epona's eyebrow rose. “Is this what you think happened? That Selene defeated Winter?”

Aonghus made a sniffing sound. “And Amangons. Is it not obvious?”

“What is obvious is I have permitted your training to be incomplete, for there are huge gaps in your learning. Winter was not our enemy, but our friend.”

“How can that be? Amangons’ wintry siege almost destroyed us!”

“Aye, and when those who cherish life are killed before their time, it is called tragedy. Yet it is also tragic when those who long for death cannot find it.”

“Those who long for death?”

Epona rose from her chair and walked behind Aonghus, placing her hands on his shoulders.

“Son. Not all that lives should live. In her Crone aspect, Selene is death's face, and chooses that which will be renewed for spring, and that which will not. This is the necessity of winter. This lesson our 'Least of Bearers' learned, and so was able to transform the waters of life into death to heal Amangons of eternal suffering.”

Aonghus gulped. “She …did …that?”

“You had no idea? It amazes me still. I speak of it intellectually, but Kiara died, twice, and journeyed to another world, where she toiled for years to embody this lesson. To save us all. Yet you begrudge her an hour of pleasure?”

“I am sorry. I had no idea,” Aonghus whispered, bowing his head. “I did not think.”

“No, you did not,” Epona said, and thunked Aonghus on the back of his head. Then she looked to the ceiling.

“Forgive him, O Selene; you gave him a brain, yet it sits atop his neck, rested and unused.”

My High Priestess is wise.

I should not have favorites, but I love my 'Least of Bearers' without measure. Kiara’s fierce soul embraced death for my people, and she hunted suffering in both worlds. Though all benefit, it was for her I sent a second spring.

Epona is wise, but she has more to learn, too. For when she called my name, she looked up.

I am in the heavens, yes, but I am also under her feet. I am in the air she breathes, and in the blood pumping through her body. I am…

O seeker.

Do you wish to find me, so I can gaze into your eyes and bring you succor?

Would you seek me, as Kiara, with fierceness in your heart?

If you would know me, come to my Temples, true,
Yet limit not your quest to hallowed walls.
For I suffer too, and drink my healing,
From the cup of the world.

If you would find me, now, this moment,
Then come you to yon cherry tree grove,
Where pink blossoms fall as rain,
On Cinnia and Kiara entwined.

There!
I am there!
In the release of a sigh,
When the lips of lovers meet.
 
 



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