Authors: Courtney Cole
Tags: #Fiction, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
The breadth of my mother’s vision was astounding.
Gratitude and sadness welled up in me at the same time as I walked numbly to Branywn. I could feel Apollo watching me, could feel his amber eyes boring into my back, but I didn’t care. This moment was all that was important. This moment when I would end my sister’s life to save my own. I had a purpose. I didn’t know what it was yet, but Branwyn must die for me to achieve it. This was
Pulling the limbs away from Branwyn’s face, I murmured to her.
“This won’t hurt. I promise you that. I don’t want to give Apollo the satisfaction of killing you. Your soul will nourish mine and perhaps I’ll live to fulfill whatever purpose there is for me. My mother will provide for you in the Underworld. You will dwell in the Isles of the Blessed. It is the most beautiful place in the world. You’ll be happy there. I promise.”
Branwyn nodded, her eyes clear and tranquil. “Thank you, princess,” she whispered. “I look forward to it.”
Pain gripped my chest, wrapping my heart in cold fingers. “This won’t hurt,” I promised again. “Forgive me, Branwyn.”
She nodded wordlessly. Being so near to her in this state caused her aura to appear to me in an explosion of yellows, golds and reds. Her spirit was strong and true and my mouth watered with the need to take it. I was so weakened at this point that I couldn’t fight the urge for long. My chest shuddered with the restraint that I was already showing.
Branwyn’s purity surrounded us in the air, her strength wrapping around us like a ribbon, tying us tightly together. Loyalty, one of the strongest attributes in existence, flowed through her veins. It was in her blood, in her heart, in every thought that she had.
Bending ever closer, I whispered, “Thank you, Branwyn. Your sacrifice will not go unnoticed.” With one short breath, I started the process. Her lips touched mine and her spirit flowed into my mouth, down my throat and filled me up.
She tasted as beautiful as her spirit actually was. Warm, strong, loyal, proud. Her attributes joined with mine, making me stronger even as her mortal body grew weaker and limp. I continued breathing her in, closing my eyes, until it was finally over.
I opened my eyes and Branwyn was gone, her green eyes staring lifelessly at me. Stepping back, I closed her eyelids gently and then turned to Apollo.
“It is done,” I told him. “You can’t have her now.”
“Foolish girl,” he told me. “I never wanted her. This was a challenge. And much to my disappointment, you have passed it.”
“A challenge?” I repeated shakily. “A challenge?” My voice rose an octave. I couldn’t help it. “My sister was murdered for a
Apollo stared at me in amusement. “If she was murdered, then you are the murderer, darling. Think on that for a moment.”
Red hot anger boiled up in me, so quickly that I lost control for a moment. The anger exploded through me and ripped the weeping willow tree that Branwyn was still attached to apart. The roots erupted from the ground and the limbs flew off, landing erratically around us. When the dust settled, it looked like lightning had struck the tree trunk. And Branwyn was now lying limply at my feet in a heap. I didn’t look at her. I focused instead on Apollo and on controlling my emotions.
“I realize that,” I said calmly, gripping my fists at my sides. “You placed me in that position.”
“Details,” Apollo shrugged. “You made the choice. No one forced you. But you should be happy. You have passed this challenge. You were able to overcome your soft emotions and act as a true goddess. A true goddess must be calculating when need be and not focused on her heart.”
“Why do you not sound more upset?” I asked suspiciously. “I just passed a challenge, which means that we have another point and you do not. Shouldn’t you be upset by that?”
My foot bumped Branwyn’s lifeless body and I cringed, yanking it back. I couldn’t help myself and glanced down. Branwyn stared up at me, her sightless eyes fixated on my face. Her back was twisted unnaturally. I gulped.
“What is going on here?”
Brennan’s voice thundered from across the creek. My head snapped back and I whirled to face him.
“Brennan. It’s fine. Go back to the village. I’m okay here.”
Brennan stood on the edge of the water, his face both confused and determined. I saw a muscle tighten in his jaw as he examined the situation. He glanced at his father.
“Apollo, I presume?” Brennan sounded confident and secure, but I could feel his emotions. He was unsettled, nervous. He looked back to me.
“Empusa, this might be an obvious question, but why are you naked?”
The muscle in his jaw clenched tighter and if the situation had been less serious, I would have laughed at his expression.
“Trust me, you have nothing to worry about,” I assured him drily. “Please, Brennan. Just go back. I’ve got it handled here.”
In an instant, before I could breathe or move, he stood next to me. Quickly, he knelt and felt for a pulse at Branwyn’s neck. Looking up at me in concern, he stood once more.
“Yes, I can see that,” he answered. “Completely handled.”
“It’s not what you think,” I started shakily. “This was a challenge. I passed.”
“You look infinitely better,” Brennan observed. “Branwyn?”
I knew what he was asking…if I had fed on Branwyn to regain my strength. I nodded wordlessly.
“I’m glad you’re here, son,” Apollo said conversationally.
He stepped forward so that we formed our own little circle. It was too intimate to remain naked, so I quickly imagined myself wearing clothing. Instantly, it was so. I was dressed in a knee-length gray shift, belted loosely at the waist with a black leather cord. Neither man noticed. There were each too focused on each other.
“Don’t call me son,” Brennan instructed politely but firmly. “I do not know you. And from what I’ve heard about you recently, I’m not sure that I
to know you.”
“Oh, Brennan,” Apollo replied breezily, seemingly unfazed by his son’s statement. “You don’t truly know what you want. You’re still mortal.”
“Again, from what I’ve seen lately, being mortal is starting to seem like a good thing.” Brennan’s eyes flickered to Branwyn’s body as he spoke and I fought a wave of nausea. I had killed her. It was unavoidable. I had taken her life. And Brennan was right. If I had been mortal, it never would have been necessary.
“You do not know what you speak of,” Apollo answered pleasantly. “Eventually you will learn that all that you currently believe is flawed. Once you are immortal, nothing will seem the same. Trust me.”
“Trust you?” Brennan answered incredulously. “Trust you. That’s funny. I don’t even know you. But I know that somehow you forced Em into a corner here today. She never would have taken Branwyn’s life on her own. I know that you want to send Empusa to the Underworld or even worse, you’d like her dead. And for what? Just so that you can control my abilities. Did it ever occur to you that I won’t be controlled?”
He was adamant, firm and very, very confident. He stood proud and tall, the wind rustling through his honey-colored hair. I had never felt so proud of him and I took his arm. He was afraid, but fear is what makes bravery possible. In overcoming the fear, you make yourself stronger.
“You certainly are my son,” Apollo replied smoothly. “You think just as I do. I would never allow anyone to control me, either, if I could possibly avoid it. You and I are a great deal alike, Brennan.”
“I doubt that I am much like you. If you knew me at all, you would have known that you had a greater chance of winning me to your side if you just come to me and explained your position. Trying to strong arm me by threatening the woman that I love… all that did was turn me away from you,” Brennan spit angrily. “Go back to Olympus. I don’t want anything from you. Empusa just scored a point for us. I daresay that we will win here and this entire conversation will be moot.”
Apollo threw his head back and laughed.
“Oh, Brennan. You still have mortal thoughts and naivety. It is amusing, but you will not win. And even if you do, you’ll have had to gain that victory by doing unthinkable things… as Empusa has just proven. In the unlikely event that you do actually win, I guarantee that you will wish you had not. You aren’t like the gods. Your guilt will weigh you down. You will wish you had never met Empusa at all.”
“Never,” Brennan answered angrily. “That will never happen. Return to Olympus, Apollo. Tell them that we are ready for whatever they want to throw at us.”
“I do like your spirit, son,” Apollo chuckled. “But you should learn to never poke at the gods. You won’t enjoy it when we poke back.”
With that, Apollo disappeared, although we could still hear his laughter for a moment after he left. I stood quietly, facing Brennan while I avoided looking at Branwyn.
“Are you okay?” Brennan asked quietly. I tried to form an answer, but found that I couldn’t, not without breaking down. Instead, I shook my head as tears ran down my cheeks. I felt weak, but I couldn’t help it. What I had just done was suddenly crashing down around me and it was all I could see.
“Come here,” he said quickly, grabbing my hand and pulling me to him. I buried my face against his chest, trying to block out Branwyn.
“You don’t understand,” I sobbed. “I’ve taken souls hundreds of times. But this was different. She was alive and vital and healthy. And worse, she would have just given it to me. I think that’s what she expected. She thought she was born to die for me. And I think she was right…which makes it even worse.”
I cried harder and Brennan stroked my back with strong hands, silently allowing me to cry all of my anguish out. It took awhile, but finally my sobs died off to sniffles and then tapered off completely. Stepping away from him, I wiped at my eyes and smoothed my hair.
“I’m sorry,” I told him. “I didn’t mean to fall apart on you. I have no right to be upset. Someone just sacrificed her life for me. If anyone should be upset, it should be Branwyn- wherever she is at right now. You must be growing so weary of hearing me cry about my wretched curse.”
Brennan smiled at me, a comforting and familiar sight. “Em, I’m here for you- no matter what you want to do with me. If you need to cry on me, so be it. You’re so strong that if you want to use my shoulder for that purpose, it’s almost an honor that you would trust me so much.”
I smiled weakly at him. “You always know what to say.”
He shrugged. “I try. Just remember that the next time I say something stupid. Em, whatever happened here today was not your fault. I hope you realize that. You’ve lived your life the best possible way that you could. Please don’t cry. You’re amazing. We’ll get this sorted out.”
He was so confident, so sure that I almost believed him. I knew that at the very least, we would give it everything we had. And that was all we could do.
“Thank you,” I murmured, standing up on my tip-toes to kiss his chiseled cheek. “I’m very blessed to have you.”
“I’ll remind you of that the next time I tick you off,” he said with a grin. He sobered up quickly though as he stared at the woman at our feet. “We should take Branwyn back to the village. We’ll need to bury her.”
I nodded. “I believe they build funeral pyres here. I don’t know what to tell them. I have no idea how much she told them… whether she shared her belief that she would die for me, whether she kept that to herself….” My voice trailed off and Brennan wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me to him, kissing my forehead.
“It will be fine,” he promised quietly. “We’ll just take their lead and roll with it.”
I nodded and he stepped away. Kneeling, he gently gathered Branwyn into his arms. I picked up her arms and crossed them over her chest as Brennan cradled her to his. Slowly, we made our way back into the village, stepping carefully through the brambles until we made it back to the trail.
No one said a word as we walked through the village. Each woman stopped what she was doing and stared with wide eyes as Brennan and I walked quietly through the center of the village and toward our hut. It was truly Branwyn’s hut and so it just seemed to be the place where we should take her. After one priestess collapsed into tears at the mere sight of us, I focused my attention on Branwyn’s dangling legs. Staring at her bare foot, I avoided the gazes of anyone watching us.
Entering our hut, Brennan carried Branwyn straight to our bed. He laid her down gently and I arranged her dress.
“Thank you,” I murmured to him. He stood to the side and I found Branwyn’s comb. As gently as I could, I ran it through her long, red locks. Her skin was even paler in death and she seemed as white as snow.
The door to the hut opened and without even looking, I knew who it was. The air itself changed as the old witch entered.
“We won another challenge,” I told Circes.
“I know, child,” she answered. Crossing the room to stand at my side, she laid dried herbs around Branwyn, forming a protective circle. I was silently appreciative. Branwyn would have liked that. The druids felt that circles were sacred.
“You knew, didn’t you?” I asked, not looking at her face. “You knew that I would kill her.”
There was no apology, no explanation. I glanced at her and found her cloudy eyes fixed on me, waiting for my reaction. I decided not to give her one and instead returned my attention to readying Branwyn for burial. Circes handed me a bowl of water and I sponged off Branwyn’s arms and face.
“She didn’t deserve this,” I said, to no one in particular.
“No, she didn’t,” Brennan agreed.
Circes said nothing… because there wasn’t anything else to say.
“I told you that you must be on your guard,” Circes creaked a few moments later as she held Branwyn’s arm up for me to wash beneath it. “I warned you, Empusa. As you can see now, I was right. Never let your guard down.”