Chapter Fourteen

"Shall I escort you back to your room? You just have time for a refreshing nap before evening vespers and dinner."

Andras turned to face her as they entered the front courtyard. They hadn't spoken on the walk back to the monastery, and the stiffness in the knight's voice matched his body language. CC knew that her behavior must baffle him, and she felt sorry for the tension between them, but her head was throbbing. She wanted relief from the stress of having to continually watch her words and actions around Andras, but she didn't want to be closed up in her little room.

"No, I think I'd rather explore the monastery." Andras opened his mouth and CC hurried on before he could insist on accompanying her. "And I think I need to spend some time alone in, uh, prayerful meditation before evening mass." She blinked innocently up at him.

"Of course. I would not want to intrude upon your need for prayer." His voice was smooth, but his eyes had hardened. CC was unexpectedly reminded of Abbot William.

"Didn't I see another courtyard and some gardens out past the dining room?" she asked.

"Yes. The entrance is through the hall on the other side of the monastery. You may enter it through the dining chamber. I need to take our basket back to the kitchens, so I can escort you to the entrance myself." He smiled at her, satisfied that she could not immediately escape him.

CC tried not to sigh when she took his arm. She knew the knight was well-meaning, but she could feel the pulse in her right temple beat in time with her headache. She truly needed some time alone. As they walked past the well, she was careful to keep Andras between it and her, but nothing unusual happened. She slanted a gaze at the silent rock structure. It looked innocent and mundane. Surely she hadn't imagined the image of Sarpedon?

The dining room was empty and Andras strode across it, leading her into another dimly lit hallway. At the far end of that hall there was an arched exit that opened to a large courtyard-like area. Andras pointed at the exit.

"Through there are the gardens and a pond. At the far end is the chapel." His gaze was searing as he raised her hand and pressed it firmly to his lips. "I look forward to escorting you to evening mass."

She pulled her hand free. "Thank you for lunch. I'm going to attend to my prayers now," she reminded him in case he was having second thoughts about letting her go. Then she beat a hasty retreat.

CC stepped briskly into the garden area and glanced around to make sure there was no one was nearby. Without conscious thought, she wiped Andras's lip print off her hand. She needed to talk to Gaea. Perhaps tonight she should sneak out into the woods. Maybe she would be able to find the goddess there. Absently, she continued to rub the back of her hand. She sighed, wishing she had a couple of Tylenols.

CC began to walk slowly down a little trail that curved and looped through the monastery gardens. Ornamental trees and trellises laced with fragrant flowers dotted the area. Everything was meticulously cared for—not a leaf was out of place or a branch unpruned.

"No wildness, that's for sure," CC mumbled to herself.

Stone benches were arranged strategically amidst the greenery so that one could sit and meditate with the opti-mum of privacy. CC thought it felt wrong—too contrived, too well planned. Somehow its controlled beauty came across as stilted and forced.

A delicate breeze brought the tinkle of running water to her, and automatically she followed the sound, choosing a left-handed fork in the path that turned in the direction of the outer monastery wall. The path brought her all the way to the wall, which was lined with oaks that were decidedly older than those in the rest of the garden. CC smiled up at them. These were obviously too big for the monks to cut and reshape into their idea of proper foliage. Actually, that whole area looked more natural than the rest of the gardens. Wildflowers painted the grasses with splashes of orange, violet and lace, and honeysuckle vines covered the wall, filling the air with sweetness. A little brook ran along the wall, too. It bubbled noisily over smooth rocks, pooling in a rounded area before disappearing under the wall and out into the forest. There was no orchestrated sitting area, so CC brushed off the top of a large rock that rested near the pool and sat down. She watched a frog leap from the bank to a lily pad and let the sound of running water ease away her headache.

"What am I going to do?" she whispered.

"About what, Daughter?"

CC pressed a hand against her chest like she was trying to hold down her leaping heart. The clear, beautiful voice of the goddess came from above her. CC looked up to see Gaea reclining regally along a thick branch of the largest oak. Today her transparent robes were the color of bark, except that the browns and grays in the material shimmered magically like they had been sprinkled with gold dust.

"You're going to give me a heart attack someday," CC said.

Gaea's laughter made the water reeds and grasses sway in response. CC looked around quickly, worry creasing her brow.

"Do not worry, Undine," Gaea reassured her. "I choose who can see and hear me." A brief grimace marred her lovely face. "And none here will be allowed to hear me but you."

"I'm a little surprised to see you." CC gestured around at the monastery. "In here, anyway."

The corners of Gaea's eyes crinkled with her smile. "You might be surprised, Daughter, to learn that even here I have not been completely forgotten. But that is not why I have come." She sat up. The sparkling fabric of her gown drifted sensuously around her. "You look thirsty, Daughter." She clapped her manicured hands together and ordered, "Wine, please!"

Immediately a pewter goblet, decorated with vines and flowers, appeared in her hand. CC blinked in surprise and the goddess pointed to a spot on the ground in front of CC, where an identical goblet had appeared.

"I think you will enjoy the taste. Cernunnos gifted me with this particular vintage during the last fertility festival." She sipped and sighed happily. "He certainly knows wine."

CC took the goblet and lifted it to her lips. The wine was golden in color and so cold it hurt her teeth. As she took a drink the bubbles that broke the surface tickled her nose, and she almost sneezed. Then her eyes opened wide in amazement.

"It's champagne! The most delicious champagne I've ever tasted!" She grinned up at the goddess. "After the day I'm having, I can sure use some of this."

"I thought you would appreciate it. Now, child, tell me what has troubled you."

CC sipped and talked. "Andras can't be the one."

"Andras is that tall, handsome warrior who pulled you from the water?" Gaea inquired with a purr in her voice.

CC nodded and rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but he's not Mr. Hero. As a matter of fact, the more time I spend with him, the more he reminds me of Abbot William."

Gaea's face twisted in a frown. "Abbot William! That silly child. He is terrified of everything he cannot control or understand, which means he is filled with bitterness and rage, especially towards women. He is a eunuch." The goddess looked like she wanted to say more, but instead she took a deep drink from her goblet. Shaking her head as if to free her thoughts, she asked. "Are you certain the warrior and he are the same?"

"Well, I don't think Andras is exactly like him; actually sometimes he can be very charming. And I understand that it's a different world with different beliefs, but he sure doesn't respect women, and I've spent the last seven years working hard at being respected—so that's a major strike against him. The truth is, I'm just not interested in him, even if he is the classic knight in shining armor and I should swoon at the thought of him sweeping me off my feet." CC sighed and took another drink of the delicious champagne. "Is Abbot William really a eunuch?"

Gaea made a scoffing noise in the back of her throat. "Not physically—I refer to the way he has chosen to live his life. He hides behind the robes of priesthood and uses his position for selfish reasons. He is not fit to serve any God. Be wary of him. He is a desperate, lonely man, and he should be pitied, but always remember that unacknowledged despair can make men dangerous."

"I'll be careful. It was pretty easy to see that he didn't like me. And it's not that I think that Andras is the same kind of man as he is, it's just that the knight seems to parrot Abbot William's beliefs without thinking for himself."

Gaea's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "I do not like the sound of that."

"So, does it have to be him?" CC blurted.

"Explain it," the goddess said.

"You know, that whole my true love thing. Does it have to be Andras—or if it does, is it enough for him to love me without me loving him back?"

The goddess tossed back her hair and laughed again, and even though she had assured CC that no one else could hear her, CC's eyes restlessly searched the clearing for listeners.

"Daughter, how you make me laugh! True love is not a potion one person can swallow and another refuse to drink. It happens only when the souls of two join together to form one."

"Well, I don't think I'm going to be joining my soul with Andras's. I don't even like it when he kisses my hand," CC said.

"That does not bode well for true love," the goddess agreed.

They drank together in thoughtful silence.

CC cleared her throat and glanced up at Gaea. "Um, speaking of kissing, do you know anything about a merman named Dylan?"

Gaea studied the young woman who inhabited her daughter's body. She was truly coming to care for this child and not just because she felt obligated to watch over her. She was special, this young one—curious and outspoken and witty. It would be a lovely thing, to have this remarkable child live beside her as her daughter forever. But Gaea recognized the longing the girl was trying hard to mask. The goddess smiled sadly at the irony. She finally had a daughter who could be gifted with the ability to exist on land, and the child was falling in love with the sea. Sometimes life was surprising, even for a goddess.

"I know Dylan well. He was Undine's playmate of old." Gaea raised her delicate eyebrows at the girl. "What is this about kissing?"

CC felt her cheeks warm. "Well, it's just that I feel different when Dylan kisses me." Now her cheeks were practically on fire. She never could talk to her mother about sex—apparently that meant any mother, even if she was a goddess.

"So, the merman has kissed you?"

CC could hear the smile in Gaea's voice, but she didn't look up at the goddess. Instead she busied herself with drinking the last drop of champagne.

"Too bad that's gone," she said, trying to avoid the kissing subject she had bumbled into. "It was delicious."

Gaea snapped her fingers and suddenly the goblet had refilled itself.

"Thank you!" CC took another long drink. This time she did sneeze at the bubbles.

"The merman kissed you?" Gaea repeated insistently.

CC nodded.

"And you found pleasure in his touch?" Gaea asked.

CC nodded again.

Lost in thought, the goddess remained silent until CC couldn't stand it any longer.

"Is that a bad thing?" she blurted, looking desperately up at Gaea.

"No, child," Gaea said. "But you must understand that Dylan is a lesser creature than Sarpedon."

The goddess held up her hand, silencing CC when she would have defended Dylan.

"I do not mean that Sarpedon is more honorable than Dylan—that is obviously not true. What I mean is Sarpedon holds a position of much greater power than Dylan. Sarpe-don's father, as you know, is the great God, Lir. His mother is Morrigan, the Goddess of Battle. Dylan's mother was a simple water nymph named Okynos. Unfortunately, she committed suicide after her human lover, Dylan's father, rejected her." The goddess held her hand out to CC in a sympathetic gesture. "Dylan does not have the protection of a mother, or of a father. He is not helpless, but his gifts are much less than those of Lir's son. Dylan exists peacefully within the waters only because Lir is generous and because Sarpedon ignores him."

"But if Sarpedon thought I loved Dylan, he would destroy him," CC finished the unspoken thought.

Gaea's eyes were sharp. "Do you love him?"

CC considered the question while she stared into the little pond. She had never been in love before. She was technically not a virgin, but it was hard to count that one time, right after basic training when she had come home on leave and her high school boyfriend, Jerry Burton, had groped her in the back seat of his Impala. He had penetrated her. She vividly remembered the flash of pain, but it was over soon and everything had ended up on her inner thigh. The event had been awkward and unsatisfying—not an experience CC had been in a hurry to repeat—so she hadn't.

Since Jerry, she hadn't even come close to having a lover, let alone being in love. She thought about Dylan, and the way he made her smile. He had been so patient with her silly questions. And when he touched her he made the world dissolve into a pool of throbbing feelings.

But did that mean she loved him?

"I don't know," she told the goddess honestly. "I need to spend more time with him. I think I might, but it's just too soon to know for sure."

"A wise answer from one so young."

Gaea's look was tender and motherly, and CC felt a sudden rush of homesickness for her own mom.

"Then spend time with him, Daughter. Find the truth of your feelings," the goddess added. "But be kind to the warrior, too. Allow yourself the luxury of learning more about both males. Do not let lust make decisions of the heart. Do not mistake desire for true love. And remember, right now the seas are only safe for you if you stay near the shore and under my protection. Even if you decide you love the merman, you have to stay in your human body until I find a permanent solution for the problem of Sarpedon. That mer-creature is even more dangerous than the childish priest."

"Sarpedon!" CC slapped her forehead. "How could I have forgotten? I think I saw him, or at least some kind of ghostly vision of him today."

The goddess's eyes widened at CC's words, but a shout kept her from responding.

"Princess Undine!" Isabel sounded out of breath as she limped up to CC. The instant the servant appeared both the goblet of delectable champagne and the goddess disappeared. "Well, there you are! I have been searching and searching these gardens. Sir Andras sent me to find you. Evening mass is beginning; you must come at once."

CC reluctantly allowed the maid to help her to her feet.

"Sir Andras does applaud your piety, but you certainly cannot miss vespers, even for prayerful meditation." Isabel looked sharply at CC. "At least you must not miss it again."

"I suppose I did get carried away with my prayers," CC said, following the old woman as she hurried down the path which would take them through the garden to the chapel that stood at its far end.

"I am sure you were in need of much prayer," Isabel rasped over her shoulder.

"If you only knew," CC muttered under her breath.

Isabel chose the most direct path across the garden area, which led to the wooden doors of a modest chapel. It was made with the same gray rock as was the rest of the monastery, but on this building the stones were carved into intricate renditions. CC squinted at the carvings and then her eyes opened in shock. All of the scenes were horrible. Horned demons were eating naked, writhing people. Stone flames burned full-fleshed women. Men who were half goat whipped human men, who were chained to each other, their tortured mouths open, frozen in eternally silent screams. CC shuddered and was glad that Isabel literally pulled her through the doors and into the dimly lit chapel.

The first thing CC noticed was the incense. It was thick and pungent and it curled in waves over the carved stone pews, which were filled with monks who were already kneeling and chanting in a dirgelike litany. Their cream-colored robes made them appear like spirits hovering in the dim, smoky light.

CC sneezed. At the sound, several of the heads turned briefly in her direction. One tall, blond-headed figure stood and moved quickly down the aisle and to her side. Andras took one look at her and shook his head like she had just flunked some kind of test.

"Why are you not prepared for mass?" he asked in a strained tone, making an obvious effort to keep his voice low.

CC blinked at him in confusion. She was here, wasn't she?

But before she could ask what he meant, Isabel sighed and gave her a severe look. "Princess, I am shocked that you did not think to bring a covering for your head." Clucking and shaking her head, Isabel dug into the depths of her apron pocket. "It is fortuitous that I thought to bring an extra scarf, although it is not so grand as the Princess is accustomed to, I am sure."

Isabel handed CC an ivory-colored scarf made of plain, serviceable linen. Her own head was already covered with a similar cloth.

"Thank you," CC said, draping the fabric over her head.

"It was very kind of you to think of the princess," Andras said formally.

"I only wish to serve. Sometimes those who are very young and very beautiful can also be very forgetful," Isabel said nonchalantly, but CC was sure she heard the hurt that hid in the old woman's gravely voice. Then the servant melted her way silently into a rear pew.

CC watched sadly as she disappeared into the gloom. She certainly wasn't making much headway in her quest to win Isabel over.

"I waited for you and was disturbed that you did not come," Andras whispered fiercely to her.

CC allowed her face to assume a shocked expression. "I was praying, Andras. Time seemed unimportant."

She watched as he brought his anger under control. "Of course. I was just concerned over your absence."

Oh, right, CC thought. That's why he looks like he'd love to shake me to death.

"Come, we are seated near the front. It is a great honor."

With a sigh CC followed him into the heart of the chapel, pausing briefly at the stone edifice that held the shallow pool of holy water. And she'd thought that those Sundays on base when she had mistakenly shown up for Catholic instead of Methodist services had just been pleasant little ceremonies she'd accidentally sat through. Without fear of making a fool of herself, she followed the correct motions of dipping her fingers in the holy water and genuflecting.

She had to hurry to catch up with Andras, who led her to the second row of pews. (The first row was unoccupied.) He motioned for her to go before him, and she slid down the empty pew, trying not to grimace at the coldness of the stone bench.

Evening mass was already under way, and CC was pretty sure that Abbot William had shot her a quick, contemptuous look, but it was so dark in the chapel that it was hard to be certain. His voice droned on and on, soft and rhythmic, in a language that CC decided must be Latin. The priest stood behind an ornately carved wooden table at the chapel's nave. The table was filled with gilded relics that glittered and sparkled, even in the dim light. There was an enormous golden chalice and a matching platter, which held a loaf of bread. Huge candelabrum stood on either end of the table, but even the light of their many candles did little to dispel the gloom of the chapel.

Suspended almost directly over Abbot William's head was a life-sized golden crucifix. CC squinted, trying to get a better look at it. As on the cross in her room, the only sign of Christ were the shards of wooden nails that pierced the cross where his hands and feet would have been. This time drops of blood were painted on the gold, the color of which reminded CC of Abbot William's robes, and she had to suppress a shudder of revulsion.

What had happened to Christ? Why was he conspicuously left off of the crucifix? The omission both saddened and angered CC.

The cross was suspended between two thick gray columns. At the base of each column were lit dozens of tall, white candles. Their soft flames seemed to be swallowed within the cross's shadow.

CC followed Andras's lead, kneeling and genuflecting when appropriate. She even managed to whisper what she thought were correct responses to the small portion of the service that was in an understandable language.

CC had just begun to think that her knees had fallen asleep when Abbot William turned his back to the congregation and raised the chalice to the bleeding cross, asking for the blessing on the wine. As he returned the chalice to the table and lifted the bread to be blessed similarly, a flickering movement to her left caught CC's gaze. The shadows that ringed the pews were thick, but she was sure she saw something in an alcove off to the side of the sanctuary. She concentrated, peering into the murky darkness, and an image formed out of the haze. Her breath caught and her heartbeat quickened.

"We will take communion next," Andras's voice spoke in her ear.

She looked around, startled at his words. The monks who had been seated in the row of pews directly across from them were standing and making their way slowly and reverently to take the blood and the flesh from Abbot William's hands.

CC's decision was quickly made. When Andras stood, she stood with him, but instead of following him like a good little lamb, she patted his hand and whispered, "Please excuse me, Andras. There is something I must do."

As she slipped out from the other side of the pew, the knight's face tightened in anger, but instead of following her, he moved out of the opposite end of their row and stood obediently in line behind the cream-robed monks. She ignored his irritation and headed with unerring certainty to a forgotten alcove in the side of the chapel.

The figure of the Virgin Mary was carved within the chapel wall. An arch made of ivory marble framed her. Intrigued, CC stepped closer. The statue was filthy, completely covered with dirt and spider webs, but an area around the base of the figure was worn smooth, as if hundreds upon hundreds of velvet knees had once rested there. CC's eyes traveled up the exquisite figure. Mary's robes swirled in graceful simplicity around her sandaled feet. Her hands were open and beckoning; CC found something very comforting in the gesture. CC's eyes continued up, and she sucked a breath in shock.

Mary's face! It was ethereal in its serene beauty and astonishingly familiar.

"Gaea!" CC gasped.

The statue had the goddess's face. Gaea's words came back to her: You might be surprised, Daughter, to learn that even here I have not been completely forgotten.

The shuffling of the monks to communion invaded her thoughts, drawing her attention back to the nave. The profusion of candles winked at her. Moving with swift silence, she tiptoed, sneaking through the foglike shadows to grab a lit candle in each hand and carry them back to the statue. She set them at Mary's feet, pleased that the flames seemed to burn suddenly brighter.

On impulse, she sank to her knees, clasped her hands and bowed her head.

"Great Mother," she prayed aloud. "Help me to be wise." She glanced up at the face she knew as that of the goddess, smiled brightly and let her voice drop to a whisper. "Please keep me safe from Sarpedon—I think I can handle the rest of this mess. Him, I'm not too sure about, though."

CC was so surprised when an answer rang in her head that she let out a little yip of shock.

Sarpedon is near and dangerous, but stay close to my realm, Daughter, and the merman cannot possess you. My blessings go with you…

"Undine! What are you—" The warrior's angry voice trailed off as he recognized the statue she was kneeling before.

CC closed her eyes tightly, gritting her teeth. Deliberately ignoring him, she kept her head bowed. Her lips moved silently as she recited to herself as much of the rosary as she knew. What she didn't know she ad-libbed, sending a silent plea for forgiveness to the Virgin/goddess for the unintentional blasphemy. She took her time finishing, before genuflecting deliberately and slowly. Then she glanced up at the knight who was still standing at her side and blinked her eyes in pretended surprise.

"Oh, Andras!" She held out her hand and automatically he helped her to her feet. "I'm sorry. I was so lost in prayer that I didn't even know you were there." She looked around at the empty chapel and painted a concerned frown on her face. "Is mass over? I wish I hadn't missed the end of it, but when I noticed this wonderful statue of the Virgin Mother, I felt compelled to come to her."

Andras's expression said he was torn between his desire to reprimand her for once again doing the unexpected and his pleasure at her decidedly Catholic piety.

"I am just surprised. I have never before noticed this statue of the Virgin."

"No wonder." CC didn't hide the irritation in her voice. "She looks like she's been abandoned!" CC leaned forward and pulled a cobweb from Mary's head. "It is disgraceful that the Blessed Mother is in such a state! I intend to speak with Abbot William about it."

Andras seemed to be having trouble forming his thoughts into words, but he finally cleared his throat and asked, "May I escort you to dinner, Princess?"

CC took his offered arm. "That would be nice. Thank you, Sir Andras."

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