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Authors: Marissa Campbell

Avelynn: The Edge of Faith (9 page)

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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After that wonderful bath, I sat clothed and dignified at the table and opened the lid to the locked chest laid out before me. It appeared a few additions had somehow made it into the crate. Muirgen’s book sat atop the heap, wrapped in red silk; I placed it on the table. Next, I scooped out my divining bones, benign-looking in their white silk pouch. Several packets of herbs had been crammed into the tight space. I removed the ones that Muirgen had given me in her cottage. They contained herbs to stop a babe from clinging to a woman’s womb. The other bundles of herbs I didn’t recognize. I unwrapped several layers of cloth and discovered two long, thin stoppered urns. The stone goddess that had sat upon Muirgen’s table, old as time and worn by generations of hands, squatted at the bottom of the chest. There was also a wood carving of a raven, small enough to fit in my palm. Underneath it all was a letter, Muirgen’s handwriting as crisp and clear as if she had written it only yesterday.

How had they gotten in there? I had never left my chest unlocked. I thought back to my decision to fight in the war against the Vikings, and my subsequent detainment with Halfdan and then Demas. I’d left everything in my cottage—all my keys, my possessions. Bertram knew where to find them. He must have placed these objects inside the box. But why?

I turned the letter over. On the back were instructions on how to prepare the tonic to ensure a woman’s monthly bleed. Muirgen’s note recounted in detail the herbs used and how and when to collect and dry them. Below that were instructions on making a ritual drink for communion with the Goddess. I shuddered, remembering the potion Muirgen had given me at Samhain. Could I do that again? At the time, I’d not known she was giving me anything other than wine, but the effect of the powerful stimulant had been remarkable. I hesitated, uncertain whether I wanted to read the body of the letter. I steadied my resolve and broke the seal.

Avelynn,

A lot has happened, and I know you have questions, but I’m afraid I do not have answers. Bertram and I made choices you may not appreciate or approve of, and I apologize for not being forthcoming with you. We did what we felt was best. One day, when you have grown into your full power, perhaps you will understand.

I know you feel you still have much to learn, but there is no right or wrong way to honor the Goddess. You do not need the book, nor do you need guided rituals and ceremonies. You will find your way, carving a new faith from the old, melding new ideas with ancient ones. You have only to follow your heart.

I do have one request, and I imagine after your last experience with my special wine, you may be reluctant to visit that place again, but you must. There are two bottles of wine laced with ergot. I have included the recipe on the back of this letter. You must drink one of the vials and travel to the Otherworld. I will meet you there.

Yours in faith,
Muirgen

Even in death, the woman was frustrating … and elusive. No answers—only more questions. I set the letter down and rubbed the strain between my eyes.

I read the recipe for the mystical wine. Two ingredients caught my eye and set my gut rolling and my palms sweating: ergot—a fungus that sometimes grows on grains and can afflict entire villages, causing hysteria and killing many—and mandrake, also a deadly and poisonous plant.

It appeared to be a diluted solution. The recipe called for long boiling in multiple batches. Each time, one cup of decoction was added to a fresh cauldron full of water. I reminded myself the potion hadn’t killed me the first time, but I looked at the stoppered urns dubiously, unconvinced.

I set the letter down and unwrapped Muirgen’s book, opening it to Ostara. The spring equinox belonged to a time of new beginnings and rebirth, when day and night were even. Fertility rites and symbolism dominated the ritual—a time to bless seeds and bury loaves of bread in freshly plowed fields. In ancient times, a young, virile man became the offering of choice. His life’s blood darkened the soil, a gift to the gods. Thankfully, Muirgen’s book called for a sacrificial hare instead.

If there were ever a time for new beginnings it was now. Homeless and wandering, I craved direction and guidance.

My ancestors believed in one Goddess with four separate and distinct personalities. I could appeal to a particular aspect when I was praying or celebrating, or I could embrace and entreat the whole. Starting at Samhain on November 1st, there were nine major observances—auspicious times to connect with Her. I leafed through the thick pages. When I was younger, I emulated my mother as she performed the rituals. I recalled only a few formal rules for observing the sacred days. I could hear my mother’s voice. “We must always cast a circle. Invite the Goddess to attend our ceremony by honoring each aspect of her personality at each of the four directions. Weapons are not permitted within the ritual space, and we must always close the circle. Thank the Goddess for her presence.”

My mother used to tell tall tales of ancient rites. Acts that involved animal guides, horned beasts, and blood—lots of sacrificial blood. The ceremonies elicited frenzied ecstatic states amongst the participants. At the time, the surreal images and stories didn’t make any sense to me. I understood now that they involved acts of wild sexual congress. That was how my mother had been conceived. The outcome of Muirgen and Bertram’s union determined the success of the crops, the harvest, and the health and vitality of the people and their livestock.

I grabbed a mug and filled it to the brim with mead. The book was written in code. When Muirgen had first shown me the tome, the scribbles looked like nothing more than gibberish. It had taken me a while to figure out the cipher, but as I looked at the sweeping script now, the words formed in my mind’s eye.

According to the book, there were specific ways to honor each of the sun or moon days. My mother had followed her own path. Sometimes we would drum; other times we would dance. Often we would just sit and hold hands in silence. The world would hum and buzz around me until I floated in the pulse of it all. Muirgen had said there was no right or wrong way of honoring the Goddess. Perhaps I could meld a little bit of everything.

I sat back and swirled the golden liquid in my cup, my gaze flitting across the stoppered urns. I suspected the drink helped the seeker reach a sacred place, creating terrifying and fantastical visions. Under those circumstances, it would give access to the dark carnal places sanctioned by societal norms. I saw things when I drank Muirgen’s potion. I didn’t know what exactly, but I swore the Goddess appeared before me in all her forms: child, young maid, wise woman, and crone. I’d never experienced anything like that before.

I drained the contents of my cup and set it down. It was time to go.

I wrapped Muirgen’s book back in its silk shroud and tucked it away, fingering the terracotta urns, their mysterious and potent contents concealed within. Muirgen had said she would meet me in the Otherworld. What could that possibly mean, and how was the wine supposed to transport me there? I shuddered and tucked one of the jars into my satchel.

I lifted the pouch containing my divining bones. The last time I’d used them they foretold doom. I had asked about my future and if I was to marry the new suitor who had sought my hand. I marveled that I had once considered giving Demas a chance.

The silk was soft and smooth in my palm, pleasant. Did I want to cast the Ogham again? Did I really want to know? Everything predicted had come to pass. I hesitated, hovering over the chest. I wanted to drop them back inside and lock them away.

What was the point of knowing the future if I couldn’t avert my fate? I had asked myself this question over and over again. Once, I had challenged Bertram. He told me little could be done to change the course of events. He questioned whether we were meant to. At the time, I had obstinately refused to listen. I wanted to believe we were in charge of our own destiny, each decision, each choice, creating a new web, a new pattern. Didn’t Muirgen allude to that very possibility by her own actions? By securing her book with me and by agreeing to go to the Witan and stand for my character against Demas’s lies, did she not in fact contribute to a certain outcome? Did she not create or at the very least continue to weave a specific thread, ensuring, up to a point, a future she herself had helped to orchestrate? The thought gave me hope. I locked the chest and tucked the divining bones in my satchel, ready to face my future.

A knock at the door interrupted my ruminations. I released the latch and for a moment merely blinked, uncertain what to say or do. I had expected Alrik to be standing there.

“May I come in?” Marared asked.

I hesitated. Alrik would be waiting, and I wanted to get the journey underway.

“It’s important,” she said.

I stepped aside and let her enter. She took up residence on a chair.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but this matter will not wait.” Marared brushed down the front of her kirtle.

“Can I offer you a drink?” I asked, moving to the pitcher of mead.

“No.”

I tried to assess her mood and suspected this wouldn’t be a jovial visit. I poured myself a good measure, took a fortifying drink, and turned to face my guest. “To what do I owe the honor of your company?” I sat on a bench opposite, the long plank table between us.

She folded her hands on the worn and dented surface. “I’ve come to ask you to leave Wales.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “Alrik has no intention of leaving until this conflict with Rhodri is over.”

“My request has nothing to do with Alrik.”

“I’m afraid I have no intention of leaving him.”

“My uncle is willing to offer you passage. There is no reason for you to stay.”

“Except that Alrik and I are promised.”

“You are not wed. You have time to change your mind.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Why would I change my mind?”

“The two of you do not belong together. Alrik and I are bound by a past, a connection you will never understand. We share the same ancestors, the same future. You’re an outsider, a meaningless fling. He’ll grow bored of you and toss you aside. I’ve seen it countless times. He always comes back to me.”

Her connection to Alrik’s past rankled, but her audacity overshadowed my discomfort. Indignation rose in its stead. “I’m sorry that my announcement hurt you, but I do not mean to leave his side.”

She stood, her hands braced on the table. “Then you’ve left me no choice. If you don’t leave of your own free will, I will force the matter.”

I remained seated and leaned back to look up at her. “You mean to threaten me?”

“My grandmother was a child of the harsh ice lands of the Norse. She could summon demons and force them to bend to her will. She could read and cast the runes, spit curses or grant blessings depending on her whim. She was a powerful völva, and she bestowed upon me the full strength of her power when she died.”

Marared’s grandmother was a witch?

“You will leave Wales immediately, or I will use whatever means necessary to change your mind.”

“You mean to use magic against me?” My tone came across more dubious than I had intended. I’d never witnessed anything magical in my life.

“Yes.”

I reconsidered her. I had personally experienced the strange occurrences after or during a ritual, and I believed in all aspects of the supernatural. Elf shots caused illness. Creatures old and frightening hunted the dark forests. The dead walked amongst us. Fairies and sirens called men to their deaths in bogs and glistening pools. But could a person harness those forces and wield their power to terrifying effects?

She threw a small packet on the table. “A token.”

The last time someone had dropped such a warning at my feet, I discovered my grandmother’s hair scalped right from her head. A tremor shot through me. I remembered my horror and helplessness when I learned Demas had tortured and killed her. I poked the leather bag with a cautious forefinger. “I’m quite certain I don’t want to know.”

“Allow me, then.” She untied the drawstring, turning the woolen pouch upside down. A wax figure slid out, no bigger than my palm. “Do you know what this is?”

“Yes.” My tone was flat.

She picked it up in her hand, rubbing her thumb across its smooth surface. “Good. Then you know what an effigy can do, even a crude one such as this. I plan to make one that’s more representative of my target. This is just to give you an idea of what you’re up against.” She tossed it at me. I caught it.

“I can melt part of the wax with fire, stab it through with needles, twist it, pull it—the possibilities are endless.” Marared strolled across the room and grabbed the door’s latch.

I tucked the thing back inside the pouch.

“Your time is running out, Avelynn. You have exactly three days to leave Wales, or you will find yourself regretting it.”

I found Alrik near the stables, helping two grooms saddle our horses. He took one look at my face and asked, “What is wrong?”

“Marared threatened me.”

He cinched the girth strap and drew me aside. “What do you mean?”

BOOK: Avelynn: The Edge of Faith
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