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THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 7, 8

Perun, god of storms
Nadzia

Nadzia mesmerizes a servant into divulging a curious secret, breakfasts with Perun, and realizes he has his own means of manipulation.

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CHAPTER 7

Nadzia

When she lived at the convent, Nadzia rose at dawn with the novices and Elders to pray. Without a bell to rouse her, she slept hours beyond sunrise, until light streamed through the oculus of Perun’s temple. She stretched luxuriously, reluctant to leave the comfort of her silken sheets.

Birds chattered from nearby oaks. Nadzia took a deep breath. She didn’t quite know what to make of this air, so different from the salty tang of the sea. It was warm with a fresh verdant undertone. Refreshing in its own way. She’d have to explore the grounds soon, familiarize herself with new scents and sounds. Make her forays so common a sight that no one would ever suspect she was searching for clues to topple the god of storms.

She threw off the covers, put on thin slippers and the diaphanous robe draped across the end of her bed, and reached for the bell that would summon her handmaiden. Gods knew she hated the thought of a stranger fussing over her when she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself, but if she wanted to sow the seeds of enchantment, she had to act as if Perun’s desires perfectly matched her own. If he wanted to coddle her, she must oblige.

But first, she had morning devotions to complete. She walked across cool stone floors, passed through the curtains that separated her room from Jūratė’s shrine, and kneeled on a bench before the rows of candles. They illuminated a niche with a portrait of the goddess riding atop a dolphin on foam-flecked waves, a depiction so realistic the sea appeared to ebb and flow. Nadzia sighed wistfully, remembering the thrill of ocean races with these sleek mammals she considered friends. Fates willing, she’d be back with them soon.

She sat back on her heels, gazed at the goddess’s image. Was there any point in praying? Jūratė wasn’t divine anymore; she could neither help nor hinder. And it didn’t make sense to ask for help from some who’d counseled acceptance rather than vengeance.

Yet without the magic of her mesmerizing voice, the goddess’s gift to all her daughters, Nadzia didn’t stand a chance at snaring her prey. That alone merited respect. She bent her head. , Blessed One, help me find the words to tame the beast. Show me the way to make him mine.

A gust of wind whooshed through the temple. Nadzia twisted backward and glimpsed Perun’s ox and chariot landing outside the entrance. He’d left her alone? Of course he had, it was summer. He must have traveled east during the night to water crops, leaving her in the protection of his fire-breathing eagles at the entry.

She scurried back to her room, rang the bell and settled on the bed’s edge, her fingers idly tracing the figure embroidered atop her quilt. Green-blue scales, bronze skin, flowing black hair. The mermaid goddess, Jūratė, immortalized in expert stitches by a seamstress at the top of her trade. Nadzia wondered if the quilter lived nearby, if Perun had sent a sketch of what he wanted. If he would toss the cover in his eternal fire after realizing he’d been betrayed.

The rustle of drapes. A petite girl dressed in pale blue skirts and matching blouse stepped into the room and curtsied. “Good morning, mistress. How may I serve you?”

Nadzia blinked in surprise. She’d expected someone older, not a girl nearly her age. “I’m sorry to bother you, Gabrielle, but I’d like a cup of tea.”

The handmaiden curtsied again. “Ludvika expected as much.”

“Who?”

“The cook. She has a kettle simmering and fireweed tea leaves ready to steep. We’ve readied a bath for you as well.”

“A bath?”

“If that’s what you wish. We thought you might enjoy soaking under the trees.” Gabrielle held her breath, waiting, her eyes fixed on the floor.

“Thank you, that’s quite thoughtful.” Nadzia felt a twinge of annoyance when the maiden sagged with relief. This was absurd. They were both dealing with a monster. They should be allies, companions, friends. “And please, call me Nadzia.”

Gabrielle clapped a hand to her mouth and slowly let it drop. “Gods be praised,” she whispered. “The master’s brought back a kind woman.”

Nadzia swallowed an angry retort, piqued at the idea that outsiders would think the daughters of Jūratė anything but kind. “You expected someone just as fierce?”

“I beg pardon, mistress. I spoke out of turn.” Splotches of color mottled the handmaiden’s cheeks. “We are most gratified that you are here.”

Nadzia took a moment to study the girl. After years of lessons with Sister Dain, she was well acquainted with the nuances of voices. This one was laced with uneasiness, something more than the general discomfort she’d expect from a mortal bound to a turbulent deity. Under her silent perusal, the girl fidgeted, one hand twisting the fabric of her skirt. There was something to be ferreted out here, although it puzzled Nadzia to think a servant would have anything to hide.

Before she could begin framing her questions, Perun’s shadow darkened the curtains. “May I enter?”

She took a seat at the table. “Of course.”

“Did you sleep well?”

“Like a baby.”

Perun motioned toward the trunk at the foot of Nadzia’s bed. “Gabi, help my bride find suitable attire and then bring her to my quarters for breakfast.”

“What should I do about the bath we prepared for her?”

A spasm tweaked the thunder god’s jaw. Anger or something else? Nadzia pushed up from the chair, unsure of his mood, but sensing he needed to be soothed. “What a delight to learn your servants anticipated my needs,” she said brightly. “Don’t you love to begin the day cleansed and refreshed?”

“My storms wash me well enough.”

Nadzia inched closer and ran a finger up Perun’s forearm, relishing the way his skin prickled in response. “It won’t take long. Please?”

Perun tugged at his moustache. “Why don’t I soap you?”

Not yet. Not until I’ve had a chance to spend time alone with this girl. Nadzia softened her voice, infusing it with the dulcet tones she used to tame skittish fawns and wary rabbits. “Waiting will increase our pleasure. Go along now. The sooner I bathe, the sooner I can join you. I’m sure your imagination can keep you company until I return.”

Perun laughed, kissed her cheek, and lumbered to his room. Gabrielle inched back, her eyes dark with fear and awe. “It’s true what they say. The daughters of Jūratė are witches.”

“We are blessed with certain powers, nothing more.” Nadzia rubbed at a small ache in her forehead. The spells she employed with animals never left her this exhausted. Thank the goddess she was heading for a bath. A good soak would revive her.

Outside, the sky was clear and blue as a robin’s egg, the air heavy with the promise of  heat. A portly woman with a braid of white hair waited at the temple’s top step with a basket of bathing supplies resting on her hip. She curtsied gracefully and offered a warm smile that softened the severity of her gaze. “My name is Ludvika. I hope my cooking meets with your satisfaction.”

She paused and looked askance at Nadzia’s nightclothes. “A word of advice if I may, mistress? The wedding and feast day are fast approaching. Men and women of all ages will soon arrive. We don’t want them to think you immodest. Perhaps less revealing garments?”

Nadzia smoothed the gossamer fabric, so transparent that anyone within a few feet could easily detect her body’s peaks and valleys. She’d never considered there might be eyes other than Perun’s assessing her. She sent a silent prayer of gratitude to Jūratė for sending such a wise woman to look out for her. “Thank you. I hope you’ll continue to offer your guidance and counsel. This is all so new to me.”

Ludvika nodded and transferred her basket to the handmaiden. “Call upon me at any time, mistress. I am here to serve.”

The trio walked down a gravel path that snaked toward the river. Ludvika took her leave at the servants’ wattle-and-daub bungalow. Gabrielle guided the two of them onward in silence. They strolled past a small field with bushes of chin-high nettle that sheltered redwings. The birds burst into song, sweetening the air with their friendly chirps. At the path’s end, they entered a grassy clearing under a circle of oaks, where a high-backed bronze tub etched with flames sat on a wooden platform. “This isn’t what I’d call modest,” Nadzia said. “Why worry about my clothes when anyone can barge in here?”

Gabrielle set down her basket. “Rodzenica enchanted the clearing for privacy. Once we’re inside the clearing, a hidden veil descends. Nobody can see or hear us. And the water remains at the perfect warmth while you bathe.”

“Truly?” Nadzia perched on the edge and tested the rosemary-scented contents with her elbow. Satisfied, she slipped out of her clothes and lowered herself into the tub, moaning with pleasure as the soothing liquid caressed her parched skin. This was a luxury she hadn’t expected. At the Order of Bursztyn everyone kept clean with daily swims in the cove. Baths were a weekly ritual, an immersion in heated water from Jūratė’s sacred spring. A daily soaking would be a treat. She could watch the birds circle overhead, learn their songs—there would be species inland that never reached the coast—maybe even add her own.

She’d have to speak to someone about how to prepare the water. Rosemary was a delightful stimulant, a perfect herb to begin the day, but Jūratė’s daughters required sea salts to nurture their skin. She’d have to send for a supply from the convent.

“May I wash you?” Gabrielle asked, dipping a cloth in the water. “I’ve a light touch, or so my mother used to say.”

Now it was Nadzia’s turn to blush. For all her trysts with village boys, to have a strange woman bathe her seemed shockingly intimate. Was she so accustomed to equating touch with sex that she’d forgotten a caress could be warm and innocent? She hoped not. She wanted her children, gods willing, to always feel at ease in their skin.

She smiled at the handmaiden. Even if she didn’t learn Gabi’s personal secret, the girl might yield a few hints about the thunder god’s habits, quirks that could be used against him.  “That’s fine. Let’s start with my hair.”

Nadzia dunked her head and then sat upright with her legs stretched straight as Gabi massaged her hair. The shampoo had an unexpected fragrance that tickled her nose—earthen, with a subtle peppery note. “Mmmm, that’s a scent I don’t know. What is it?”

“Cornflower, mistress. It grows wild among the wheat and rye in the fields around Zuvintos. I brought a bag of dried petals with me when I came to serve the god of storms.”

“Is that where your family lives?”

The hands rubbing her scalp stopped. “There’s none left but me.”

“I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“Fever took them. Weren’t dead but a day when I heard Perun needed a new handmaiden to replace a girl who was leaving to marry her sweetheart. Thought I’d start a new life here.”

“Are you content?”

“There’s plenty of work,” Gabrielle said cheerfully, resuming her task. “Ludvika is a good friend and a wonderful cook. I think you’ll enjoy her meals.”

An evasive answer if ever I heard one. I was right! There’s something she doesn’t want me to know. Nadzia steadied her breath. Time to work a small enchantment. Anything beyond a simple prodding could leave the servant in a daze and arouse suspicion. Thank the goddess the two of them were safe from prying eyes and ears.

“I’m sure there’s a delicious breakfast waiting for me.” Nadzia looked over shoulder. “Do you mind if I sing while you work, Gabrielle?”

“Oh, would you? I’ve heard that the daughters of Jūratė have the sweetest voices in all the land.”

“I should hope so.” Nadzia eased back against the tub and crooned a set of notes as cheerful as a yellow warbler brightening the day. A friendly song laced with the power of a siren’s enchanting persuasion. Soon the girl was humming the same melody.

Nadzia gripped her knees. Go slowly. See how she responds before you strengthen the spell. “I’m glad you like it here. What about Perun? Does he treat you well?”

The girl responded at once. “He’s a stern master, to be sure, yet I expected as much and I am honored to serve him. We all are.”

Hmmm. Not quite there yet. Nadzia modulated her tone, gave it a touch more magic. “But he’s such a passionate a god. And his temper . . . well, everyone knows how easily it flares.”

Gabrielle’s speech took on an unexpectedly playful tone as she reached for a towel to wrap Nadzia’s hair. “You’d think a god wouldn’t be interested in mortal matters, but he loves to listen to the stories I hear whenever I fetch supplies from the dock. We’ve had some good laughs together. He . . . stars above, there’s a mermaid on your neck!”

Nadzia felt for the slightly raised figure at the base of her skull. “All of Jūratė’s daughters bear her mark.”

“What about the boys? Is it true they’re thrown into the sea?”

“Where did you hear such nonsense?” Nadzia bolted up, her spell momentarily forgotten at the mention of a foul rumor she’d thought long dead. “We don’t bear sons, only daughters.”

The handmaiden swallowed heavily. “I meant no offense.”

Nadzia huffed as Gabrielle moved to the side of the tub to soap her arms, her irritation mollified by the realization that the girl had spoken freely, unencumbered by propriety. She resumed her song, waited until the air around them shimmered. “Tell me, at the dock, do you ever talk to traders who’ve been to Palanga?”

Gabrielle’s response, hesitant and slurred, confirmed the spell was taking effect. “They’re always full of news. Why only yesterday I was telling the master about how they said . . . .” She stopped and frowned.

Nadzia deepened the persuasion in her voice. “What did they tell you?” She peered at the handmaiden, nodding with satisfaction at the slightly unfocused eyes, the slackness of the jaw.

A tremor passed through the girl. The words came out slowly, reluctantly, as if speaking them betrayed some sort of trust. “They said the daughters of Jūratė are bewitching. That no one really knows what you do at the convent.”

“Why should they? Our worship is private, our lives as well. There’s nothing magical about that.” Nadzia leaned forward and sighed as the handmaiden kneaded her back. This girl was strong in body and mind. She was holding back, but Nadzia didn’t dare risk more. Perhaps a different approach?

“How long have you served here?”

“Almost nine months, mistress.”

“So short a time and yet you have a most cordial relationship with my betrothed.” Nadzia laced her voice with yearning, fingers crossed that she wasn’t going too far. “I so want to make him happy. Help me, Gabrielle. What can I do?”

“Well .  .  . I heard him at one night at Jūratė’s altar. He was begging for a girl who would truly love him. That she had to genuinely care before they wed.” Gabrielle switched her attention to Nadzia’s legs. “Doesn’t make sense, does it? You’ll be together forever. That’s plenty of time for love to blossom.”

“Curious, that he’d make such an appeal in the presence of a servant.”

Gabrielle dropped the washcloth. She leaned close, her words barely audible. “Please, you mustn’t tell! It wasn’t but the one time, when I was behind on my tasks, dusting your room later than usual. I hid under the bed so he wouldn’t see me. We’re not supposed to be in the temple when he prays.”

“Your secret is safe with me. Is that all?”

“I don’t remember anything else. He just kept repeating that the girl he brought back had to love him before it was too late.”

Nadzia stood and let the handmaiden wrap her in a thick white robe, then stepped onto the platform and slid her feet into a pair of woolen slippers while her hair was combed and woven into a single braid. While it was true she hoped to manipulate Perun’s emotions, she couldn’t imagine why he needed her affection. What would happen if he thought her indifferent? “Too late,” she repeated. “Are you sure that’s what he said?”

“Yes, mistress. Although I can’t imagine why. The gods have all the time in the world, don’t they?”

“So it would seem.” Nadzia’s arms rippled with goosebumps. She pulled the collar of her robe tight and followed the handmaiden back to the temple, so engrossed with trying to figure out what Perun’s words meant that she could only nod and murmur at the girl’s constant chatter.

What was the god of storms hiding?

 

CHAPTER 8

Nadzia

The sun was skirting the treetops by the time the thunder god’s bride and her handmaiden returned to the temple. The cloudiness in Gabrielle’s eyes had cleared, her lively banter reduced to silence. A good sign. Next time, Nadzia would know exactly how to pitch her voice. She tried to ignore the needles of guilt that pricked her conscience at the thought of enchanting the girl again. It might not be entirely fair—Perun was her foe, not the ones in his employ—but she had to learn everything possible to defeat him.

Gabrielle set down her basket and opened the dolphin-engraved chest at the end of Nadzia’s bed. Inside were gowns woven of the finest silk dyed the colors of a rainbow after a storm. Nadzia choose an emerald green chiton that glided across her skin like a whisper. The dress, secured with a matching band of silk, ended just above leather sandals with soles that perfectly fit her feet. Fashioned by supernatural hands, she guessed. No human cobbler created such fine work.

Nadzia retrieved her pendant from the cabinet drawer, dismissed Gabrielle, and examined her reflection in the mirror. The amber shone with its usual golden gleam, but it was the hypnotic pulse of the red heart inside that caught her eye. She stroked the jewel and considered what she’d learned. If for some unknown reason Perun needed a daughter of Jūratė to love him, then it seemed the way to defeat him would be to reject his every advance.

Did she dare show animosity, forgo any thoughts of seduction? There was always the chance that the handmaiden had misheard; a frightened girl hiding under a bed wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses. And what did too late mean—a week, a month, a year? How could she proceed with so little to guide her? Her head ached just thinking about it.

She drummed her fingers on the cabinet top. A god who desired love was more easily snared with honey, not vinegar. Better to leave things as they were. Let him think her smitten and then slowly gain his confidence until she knew more. Because there had to be more. Nothing was simple when Immortals were involved. The convent’s library had shelves devoted to stories of their trickery and collusions.

And what could be sweeter than convincing Perun of her affection only to reveal it as a hoax at the perfect moment? To look in his eyes when he realized she’d fooled him and won. To make him suffer the agony of betrayal.

A fine goal, but don’t harden your heart so completely you forget what it means to truly love. Take care or you’ll become a cynical shrew unable to look at the world with wonder again.

“I won’t,” she whispered. “This is a task, nothing more. I —”

She whirled around as Ludvika drew aside the drapes and curtsied, her face pink and dotted with beads of sweat. “Breakfast is served.”

“Are you well?” Nadzia asked. “You look feverish.”

The old woman wiped her forehead. “Perun is a god of fire and lightning. He radiates a divine heat that can be overwhelming. Don’t give it a thought. I’ll be fine. Please, he’s waiting for you.”

“Won’t you be serving us?”

“Not today. The master insists on personally attending to his bride.”

Nadzia blew out a breath and crossed the corridor, pausing briefly under the oculus as a white stork flew overhead in a brilliant blue sky. Watch and learn. Do nothing differently until you’re sure. Remember, your affection is false. If he wants love, he won’t find it with you.

The thunderbolt-patterned curtains were tied open. Perun leapt up from a giant bed pushed against the wall, his face flushing as he eyed Nadzia’s gown. He greeted her with a long probing kiss that Nadzia returned with gusto, although his fervor left her slightly dazed. His robe was infused with the fresh scent of rain-washed air, his skin pleasantly warm. He released her reluctantly and helped her to a seat at a large oaken table in the center of the room. “I hope you’re hungry.”

Nadzia’s stomach rumbled at the dishes arrayed before her: glistening strawberries; poached eggs topped with herbs; curd cheese; fresh-baked breads. Perun made up a plate for her, poured a cup of tea from a blue pot painted with cranes, and then slid into a chair on the opposite end of the table. She offered a prayer of thanks for the bounty before her and ate heartily while he sipped from a crystal goblet next to a bottle of golden liquid. “Did you sleep well?” he asked again.

“Wonderfully,” she answered, curious as to why her slumber held such importance to him. “I’ve never had such soft sheets.”

“And the servants, you are pleased with their work?”

Nadzia put down her fork and suppressed a burp. Gods, where were her manners? She picked up a white napkin embroidered with golden firebolts and dabbed at her mouth. “Yes, thank you. Gabrielle is attentive and this food is delicious.”

“Ludvika will be happy to hear that.” An unexpected softness tempered Perun’s face. “She came all the way from the eastern highlands to cook for you.”

“I’m surprised she didn’t stay,” Nadzia replied, encouraged by the god’s friendly gaze. Her voice took on a note of teasing. “I’d never have expected you to serve me.”

“It is the first morning of your new life. I wanted to make sure you were comfortable.” Perun guzzled the remains of his drink and refilled his glass.

Nadzia munched a slice of poppy seed bread in silence as he downed the amber-colored draught. She assumed it was nectar, beverage of the gods. What would happen if she tried some? She was half divine, it shouldn’t poison her or drive her mad like the hapless mortals who’d somehow procured a batch and guzzled it in search of divine inspiration. It might even strengthen her voice.

Perun seemed to be reading her mind. He pushed his cup across the table. “Drink. It won’t hurt you, I promise.”

Warnings echoed in Nadzia’s mind. Trust no one. She ran a finger along the rim of the dark vessel. “How can you be sure? I won’t be a goddess until we marry.”

“Don’t be afraid, my love. The blood of the Immortals flows through you.”

“True, but so does human blood. What if it sickens me?”

Perun dragged his chair close and draped one arm around her, his fingers lightly caressing her shoulder. “Believe me. I would never place you in harm’s way.”

Soothing warmth emanated from his touch. Nadzia’s resistance waned. He was right, of course. It made no sense for him to injure his chosen one. Not after centuries of waiting. “Just a swallow,” he whispered, nibbling at her ear, “and you’ll see what awaits you as my queen.”

Jolts of desire shivered down Nadzia’s spine. If nectar heightened her senses, she might find it easier to ferret out the truth without having to spellbind the servants, save her magic for the one she was here to destroy. That was worth any risk. “A taste,” Perun urged, tickling her neck with his breath. “You won’t regret it.”

Nadzia raised the glass to her lips and sniffed. The delicate smell of roses perfumed the air. She swallowed hesitantly, but the drink slid down her throat like the finest mead, a pleasing combination of sweet and tart. In moments, she was delighting in new sensations. Everything was brighter, clearer, the crane on her teapot so vivid she expected the bird to come alive and preen for her. She heard the scuttle of mice beneath the stone floors, sensed the thrum of power emanating from Perun. Her flesh tingled with anticipation. So this is what it feels like to be a god!

And then her throat closed. She dropped the cup and fell to the ground, gasping for air. A thousand streaks of light glittered before her eyes, blinded her to all else. Sweat soaked her gown as fire coursed through her veins, an inferno threatening to consume her. She clung to the table and prayed to Jūratė for release. Take me, Blessed One. Let me rest in your arms.

“Nadzia! Hold fast!” A cooling mist enveloped her, dousing the fever. The lights vanished and she gazed in wonder at Perun as he gently helped her stand—a luminous glow surrounded him from head to toe. She held up her hands and saw the same brilliance radiating from her fingers, although not as bright.

“Did I not tell you?” Perun said, beaming. “The glory of your divine nature has been released. Come, there is something I wish to show you.”

He guided Nadzia to the room adjoining their chambers, eased her into the smaller throne, and then settled into his own chair, its seat worn with the imprint of his bulk.

“There are memories I carry,’ he said. “Fond remembrances of my disciples. Watch and  see what awaits.” He pinched his forehead, extracted a thin line of fire, and tossed it into his eternal flames at the center of the temple. Shadows peeled away from the walls near the entry and became a procession of ghostly pilgrims: men, women, and children of all ages. They fell to their knees before Perun and proclaimed his glory, vowing eternal fealty in gratitude for the life-giving rains that allowed their fields to flourish. His luster increased with every pledge.

Nadzia watched him out of the corner of her eye. This wasn’t the hostile deity she’d grown up fearing, full of rage and murder and all things dark. This god exuded charm, congeniality, not a trace of belligerence. He even thanked a shy young woman who left a bouquet of wildflowers at his feet. If Nadzia hadn’t known of his foul deeds, she might have mistaken him for a benevolent deity, warmhearted and indulgent.

“All this and more will be yours,” he said, turning to her at last. “Listen!”

A group of children dressed in white tunics and leggings formed a circle and skipped around the temple’s fire. The sweet melodies they sang reminded Nadzia of the lullabies crooned to babes in the convent’s nursery. She hummed along, her eyes welling, immersed in the pleasure of their voices and the tender memories they evoked. A time when life was simpler.

And yet something felt wrong. How had the god of storms conjured up a vision with music that came from the Order of Bursztyn? He’d said these were his followers, not devotees of the mermaid goddess, and outsiders never came within the convent except to deliver food for the solstice feast. How could he have learned its private songs?

His voice, husky with longing, interrupted her reverie. “There are those who question the need for gods. But now that you’ve come, I don’t care if the world forgets me, as long as you stay by my side.”

Oh, the yearning in his tone! A rush of tenderness infused Nadzia, so sudden and overwhelming she nearly swooned in her seat. No one had thought to teach her how to battle divine magic. The convent had deemed Perun crude, barbaric, not a god capable of manipulating emotion or using spells of his own. She struggled against his charms as he left his throne and stood before her. “Your new life awaits, my love. Will you be mine?”

Did she dare accept the adulation he offered? The heart in her pendant throbbed with wild abandon, overwhelming her with desire. This was where she belonged. She raised her chin to kiss him, but her braid caught on the necklace’s chain. As she reached back to untangle the golden filigree, her fingers grazed the mark on her neck. The mermaid’s scales turned into barbs and pierced her fingers. She bit back a cry, her true feelings restored in a rush of clarity. Don’t succumb to his wiles. Remember his wrath. Remember Jūratė.

She stepped down and eased into his embrace, allowing one of his arms to linger about her waist as they watched the frolicking youths. This was how he intended to entice her, with glamours. Using nectar and magic to wear down her defenses until he had his heart’s desire. A mockery of love. Wretched, despicable god!

And yet, how could she claim to be any better?

An ache began deep in her chest. Perun might be full of guile, but she was just as devious, seeking his downfall while pretending to be happy. She could never claim innocence again. No matter what happened, no matter where she ended up when all this was settled, one way or the other, her life would never be the same.

Perhaps, she thought grimly, it was for the best. Her world had changed and so must she. From now on, she would continue her pretense of happiness while looking for signs of deceit in every word the thunder god spoke, every action, beginning with this phantom display he’d created to dazzle her. She squeezed his arm, filled her glance with pleasure. “I know this music. It comes from the Order of Bursztyn. Where did you learn it?”

“I spent many years observing.”

“Without being seen? However did you manage that?”

“Your sisters expected to find me in the stars,” he said, grinning. “They did not think to search the trees just outside their walls. I often roosted there in the form of an eagle.”

“That was brave.” Nadzia pressed a hand against her chest and widened her eyes. “A hunter might have felled you.”

“I fear no mortal’s weapons. No arrow can slay me, no cage hold me.”

Nadzia titled her head and frowned, as if puzzled. “When I become immortal will I be invincible too?”

“You will live forever, my love. We both will.”

“And nothing can change that?”

His gaze dropped to the jewel at Nadzia’s breast. The heart inside his stone skipped a beat. He hesitated and then looked up with a strained smile. “Nothing.”

Gods be damned, he’s lying! There was something hidden here, something Nadzia sensed held the answer to her quest. She nodded and smiled, her resolve newly stirred. She would ask Perun to teach her everything about the world of the divine. He’d never suspect that behind her eager innocence there lurked an emissary waiting for the moment when he lowered his guard and divulged the secret that would lead to destruction.

He could keep his throne and his foul jealous love, she’d never be his bride. She wouldn’t be content until she was back in Jūratė’s soothing waters. But first she had to get away, before the hostility roiling inside betrayed her. “Forgive me,” she said, fanning her cheek. “I’m not accustomed to spending so much time indoors. Will you walk with me?”

“An excellent idea. It’s time you met the rest of your servants.”

Nadzia tucked her arm into his and beamed, to all appearances a love-struck girl devoted to the burly god escorting her onto his grounds.

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

 

THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 5, 6

Nadzia
Perun, god of storms

I hope you’re enjoying the story thus far. In these two chapters, Nadzia finally meets the god of storms and Perun relives the day Jūratė died.

If you’ve missed previous posts, click below:

http://kathrynjankowskibooks.com/the-thunder-gods-bride-a-paranormal-romance/

CHAPTER 5

Nadzia

The sun dipped into the sea. Nadzia, dressed in a fresh white gown, waited with the abbess on the beach, the white sands tinged with dusk’s orange light. “I don’t understand. Why send me to Jūratė? You knew she would counsel me to accept the gods’ plan.”

Mother Gintare tucked her arms into the sleeves of her robe and stared at the heavens. “I wanted you to see how far she has fallen. Our beloved goddess, constrained to the land of the dead through no fault of her own, forced to sneak around like a common thief to visit her daughters. Discarded by the very ones who created her.”

“She seemed reconciled to her circumstances.”

“And if she was not? Who would heed her grievances? She has no choice. We do. We always have.” The abbess turned and grabbed Nadzia’s hands so fiercely her knuckles turned white. “If we do not resist, if we do not claim the right to decide the course of our lives, then we are nothing but puppets.”

Nadzia slipped out of the old woman’s grasp and flexed feeling back into her fingers. “You needn’t worry, I haven’t given up. I share your sentiments. Jurate has been wronged and I won’t be the gods’ plaything. I—”

A roar from above cut off her words. The clouds parted and a giant white ox harnessed to a chariot hurtled through the sky toward the beach. Mother hiked up her robe. “I cannot remain. Be safe and know that our prayers are with you each and every moment.”

When the abbess disappeared behind the reeds camouflaging Jūratė’s cave, Nadzia lifted her arms, a welcoming gesture at odds with the malice in her heart. It didn’t matter what she really felt. She had a task to fulfill. Every action, every word, had to further the illusion that she accepted her fate with perfect equanimity. The gods would find nothing to censure in her conduct, no hint of defiance.

The carriage landed a few yards from Nadzia with a gust of wind that billowed her robe, exposing her legs. She smoothed the fabric as Perun stepped down from the helm. Wet sand hissed under his sandals, the heat so intense his footprints left wisps of smoke.

He stood near the ox, as if unsure of how to proceed. A mass of crimson hair fell to his shoulders, framing a ruddy handsome face. Dark eyes flecked with copper gleamed at her with an inner fire. The air around him thrummed with power. Sparks rippled across his bare chest, arms, shoulders, legs, every inch corded with muscles. Nadzia’s thighs clutched. She’d tumbled with young men whose bodies had grown strong from working in fields; they were mewling calves compared to Perun’s bulk and sinew.

A sheep’s pelt hung from his waist to his knees, girded with a leather belt that held a silver ax. According to legend, the blade returned to his hand no matter how far it was thrown. Did he think to intimidate her by flaunting a weapon? Nadzia bit back the accusation simmering in her throat. The god standing before her was infamous for his temper. He would not take kindly to complaints. Let him think all was well.

Perun scooped up a handful of grains and watched them sift through his fingers. “The white sands of Palanga. I remember them well. When my heart grew weary I came here and listened to Jūratė sing. No matter how downcast or sour my mood, she soothed me.”

He sighed, a lonesome sound that rustled the tall clumps of grasses planted atop the dunes. “How I miss her.”

Nadzia forgot herself and glared. This was the jealous god who had slain Jūratė in a fit of jealousy. How dare he talk of sorrow? He should be groveling with shame, begging her forgiveness.

A tern’s cry brought Nadzia back to her senses. She schooled her expression into a placid mask as Perun stirred and motioned for her to approach. Steadying her breath, she waded through the water until she neared the chariot, keeping well away from the ox’s steaming snorts.

Perun gazed at her through hooded eyes. “What shall I call you?”

“Nadzia.”

“A name that means hope. That bodes well for our future together, yes?” Perun trailed a finger down her cheek, her neck, her arm. She shivered with pleasure and fought the urge to lean into his warmth. This wasn’t how things were meant to unfold. He was supposed to yield.

“How like the goddess you are,” he said, his voice low and sultry. “Hair dark as the night. Eyes as gray as the dolphins in the Baltic Sea. Even your flesh is the same, bronzed by the sun.”

Nadzia focused on the blade in his belt. Don’t let him distract you with pretty words. He’s a beast. “I trust you will find me to your liking.”

A shadow crossed the god’s face. Nadzia froze, her heart jolting in a fresh bout of panic. Had she said something wrong? Should she try to alleviate any mistakes with a coy smile? Throw herself into his arms? She waited, unsure, her hand seeking the amber at her breast, as if it might hold the answer.

The jewel flared with heat and light. Perun reached out, his eyes glinting with lust, as if he hungered after the stone more than the woman who wore it. Nadzia remembered her training and covered the pendant with the edge of her robe. “I’m supposed to keep this until your father asks for its return.”

A growl rattled deep in Perun’s chest. And then, so quickly Nadzia wondered if she’d imagined his discontent, he was all smiles and charm. “We will meet with my parents tomorrow. They wish you properly rested and garbed. As do I.” He spoke words foreign to Nadzia—a language known only to the gods, she presumed. A six-petaled, purple rose appeared in his hands. “From my garden,” he said with a disarming grin. “It has a most glorious perfume.”

The rose’s scent was intoxicating, clean and sharp like the air after a storm, with an undertone of clove and apples. Nadzia’s worries faded. She was the one chosen by the Fates. She could do this.

“We are meant to be together,” Perun said as he tucked the stem into the end of her braid. “Imagine the two of us, sovereigns of the sky and sea. I’ll dress you in golden robes and jeweled crowns, elevate you upon a throne in my temple, command my followers to worship at your feet. Queen Nadzia, the goddess reborn. Whatever you wish shall be yours.”

He lifted her into the chariot, whispering soft endearments as he demonstrated how to grip the railing to prevent falls—although Nadzia couldn’t imagine he would allow her to come to harm—and then flicked the reins. The ox reared and charged upward. Nadzia clung to the bar, blinking back tears as the convent shrank into a blotch of white stone atop a tiny hill. When clouds finally obscured her view, she raised the hood of her robe, stood tall, and arranged her face into a mask of joyous serenity.

#

The chariot climbed toward the stars at a dizzying speed. Perun whooped as he lashed the reins. “Is it not glorious? No walls to confine you. Fresh, clean air. The world and its worries far below. When you are immortal, we will soar to the highest heavens and laugh at the cold.”

Nadzia gripped the railing tighter. How little he knew. These chill gusts were as invigorating as the deepest regions of the Baltic Sea. If the situation were different, she might have sung with pure ecstasy. All those times she’d talked with Sister Saule about exploring the heavens and now the reality was more exhilarating than her wildest dreams.

But guilt quashed her delight. How could she savor anything with so fierce a god? He was the enemy, all that he said and did forever tainted by his heinous deed. She kept her gaze fixed ahead. Until her task was done, she wouldn’t allow herself a moment of true pleasure.

Perun gathered the reins in one hand and pulled Nadzia close. Heat poured off him in waves. A surge of longing arose, so intense she feared its power. Gods almighty, she was doomed if a simple caress left her too weak to resist.

Hot breath tickled her ear. “You feel it, do you not?” Perun said. “The heat. The yearning. What a pair we make. This is our destiny. We will set the skies on fire.”

Nadzia’s passion died like a candle snuffed out in the night. Fire had rained from the heavens the day Jūratė died. Balls of flames and sheets of lightning that shattered an amber palace and left a goddess mortally wounded. A divine inferno, inescapable, conjured in rage and jealousy. That was the image Nadzia had to remember. No torrid god would snare her.

Perun gazed down at her, a frown in his eyes. “You’ve grown pale. Are you ill?”

“It’s nothing,” Nadzia said, gratified that he appeared to suspect nothing more than physical discomfort. “I’m not used to these heights, that’s all.”

“Then we shall fly lower and at a more leisurely pace. My parents will not thank me if I present them with a bride as sallow as a corpse.” He took hold of both reins and turned his focus to steering the chariot.

With Perun’s scrutiny directed elsewhere, Nadzia let her mind settle into serene contemplation. He hadn’t sensed her rancor. A small victory, perhaps, but she would relish it as the first of many more to come.

They flew over a landscape tinged with the afterglow of twilight. Nadzia had never been this far from the convent. Everything was new and fresh, an abundance of captivating sights and sounds. A landscape golden with wheat stalks. Farmers raising straw hats in salutation. Wild horses chasing each other across verdant fields. Above them, a phalanx of white storks, their red bills clattering as they glided toward the coast.

A river snaked to the left, its blue sparkle a bittersweet reminder of home. Nadzia hoped it continued to Perun’s temple. She drew energy from water. A local source would keep her strong and vigorous. Not to mention the joy of swimming every day.

The solstice moon peeked over the horizon as the ox veered south. Valleys gave way to forests of pine and birch and oak. Nadzia peered at the treetops and wondered if her new home was somewhere below, even though that didn’t quite make sense. A god of fire wouldn’t live near something so easily kindled.

Perun drew Nadzia’s attention to a village in the distance. “We’re nearly there. Just beyond Kaunas. Watch for the flame of my temple.” Minutes later, a burst of white fire shot upward from the center of an octagonal building set atop a knoll. Nadzia hid a smile. If Perun’s approach always sparked such a response, she’d never have worry about being caught by surprise. She could explore his temple and grounds for clues when he was away—she assumed his duties would give her time alone—and have ample warning of his return. A welcome bit of knowledge.

Other buildings were scattered around the grounds. Perun pointed to the largest cottage. “That one was constructed to accommodate a bed large enough to fit us both after we marry. Until then, I’ve set aside private quarters for you at my temple.” His eyes smoldered. “I will come inside only with your permission.”

Nadzia gave him a flirtatious smile, genuinely pleased at the news. A lover who relied on an invitation? He’d be ravenous with desire by the time she allowed him entry. But she was ready to begin her seduction now. “A courteous offer,” she said, letting her gaze fall to his loincloth. “But I doubt we’d have much privacy there. Perhaps we can check the comfort of our conjugal bed before the wedding.”

She’d barely finished speaking when Perun pulled her into an embrace. “If you weren’t looking so frail,” he said hoarsely, “I would take you there now.”

She clung to him, breathless and surprisingly grateful. As much as she wanted to start wearing down his defenses—although he didn’t seem to harbor any, if the bulge against her thigh was any indication—a night to recover from the day’s excitement and surprises meant time to rejuvenate her mind and body, renew her purpose. And a fresh gown was always a treat.

Perun guided the chariot to a clearing just outside the temple’s front, lifted her down, and nuzzled her brow. “Your new home. I hope it pleases you.”

They walked up a gravel path toward a pair of ruby-eyed granite eagles set on either side of the entrance. Nadzia faltered under their glittering gaze. “Are they alive?”

“They belch fire if an adversary tries to sneak in.” Perun nodded at scorch marks on the pebbles. “Only the wicked are blasted. My disciples are safe.”

Nadzia bit her cheek. Could these magic caretakers sense duplicity? She filled her mind with cheerful images: the glory of the sky at sunset; fawns playing in dappled sunlight; sipping peppermint tea with Sister Saule as they studied the stars.

The giant birds let her pass.

Once inside, she breathed easier and took a moment to survey the temple’s interior. Perun’s eternal flame illuminated the area from a central sunken pit. Straight ahead, beyond the blaze, an elevated platform held two oak thrones. One of those is mine. She shook away the thought, ashamed to have even considered the idea of ruling beside a killer.

To the right, a life-size portrait of the thunder god dominated his sanctum, filled with offerings of food and drink from pilgrims. Jūratė’s painted image, far smaller, glowed above tiers of candles at an altar on the opposite side of the corridor. Nadzia grit her teeth. The Blessed One deserved a far bigger space.

Past the god of storms’ shrine, black curtains embroidered with thunderbolts enclosed a private space Perun identified as his retreat. He led her across the way to an area separated by turquoise drapes, drew back the curtains, and motioned her inside. “Your room. I hope you will find comfort here.”

Nadzia suppressed a cutting reply, remembering to maintain the guise of servility. With a smile more bitter than sweet, she glanced inside, expecting little. Her breath caught. Clearly someone had designed this space to ease the pangs of separation.

A net full of starfish and seashells looped across the ceiling. Tiny golden fish darted about an amber castle in a bowl of water set atop a small central table surrounded by cushions. Nadzia moved to the back wall, grimacing at the image that stared back at her from an oval mirror hung above a cabinet etched with waves. No wonder Perun had asked about her health. Dark shadows limned her eyes. Her cheeks were sunken with fatigue, her jaw tight with tension. Fates be kind, she’d have time for a bath in the morning. If not, she’d make do with the basin, washcloth, and ewer resting on top of the dresser.

A few steps away, a quilt embroidered with mermaids covered a thick mattress. Nightclothes—a diaphanous gown and robe—lay neatly folded across the lid of a chest carved with leaping dolphins. Nadzia sat on its edge and let her fingers drift along the outlines of her swimming companions. How long before she raced with them again?

Perun removed a bronze bell dangling from a hook by the bed. “This has been enchanted to chime in the servants’ cottage whenever you ring. Your handmaiden, Gabrielle, is anxious to wait upon her new mistress. Should I summon her now? She can bring whatever you wish. Wine? Food?”

“That won’t be necessary. I’d prefer to rest.”

“If sleep is what you crave, then sleep you will have.” Perun eyed Nadzia with an intensity that sent prickles down her spine. “May I help you disrobe?”

“No, thank you,” she replied and then prayed he wouldn’t take offense. “I’m tired, truly.”

Perun’s lips quirked. He kissed her forehead, a soft graze warmed by an inner fire. “We will have an eternity to explore each other. Rest well.”

As soon as the curtain closed behind him, Nadzia peeled off her dress, stored it along with her belt and necklace in the cabinet, and rinsed off the day’s grime at the basin. The nightgown set out for her offered little comfort—she felt more exposed than covered—but the quilt was stuffed with downy feathers, the sheets freshly washed and scented with lavender. She eased into bed and hugged a pillow, well aware of the god of storms’ presence mere feet away. Her drapes flickered with a shadow of his burly silhouette, hunched over his throne. Gods didn’t slumber. Would he sit there all night, waiting for her to rouse?

She took down the servants’ bell, careful to hold the clapper still to keep it from ringing. A good night’s sleep, that’s what she needed, but her mind was as busy as a swarm of bees. At the convent, Sister Bronis kept a jarful of valerian herbs for insomnia. Maybe the handmaiden had a supply as well. Surely the servant of so tempestuous a god would take relief wherever she could find it. But as much as Nadzia longed for repose, she didn’t want anyone hovering over her. She studied the bell instead.

Runes representing the elements decorated the outer edges. Nadzia traced the signs for sky and land. The gods of those realms lived together in harmony. Obviously, they intended for fire and water to do likewise. But Dievas hadn’t taken Rodzenica without her consent. The legends told of a long and rocky courtship, but at its end there was no doubt they loved each other. And yet they’d allowed their son to claim a bride who couldn’t refuse.

Bitter tears coursed down her cheeks. They probably expected her to feel honored. Didn’t every girl dream of spending eternity with a hotheaded murderer?

The fire outside her room flared in a sudden gust of wind. Sparks floated out of the opening above the pit. She followed their ascent and spied the Heavenly Scales. In a heartbeat she was on the hill with Sister Saule again, poring over the charts created at her birth. No matter what the gods intended, the stars promised victory.

She returned the bell to its spot by the bed and swiped at her face. Enough. The gods would never make her cry again. Fates be kind, she’d leave them sobbing.

Rule at Perun’s side? Not now, not ever,

 

CHAPTER 6

Perun 

The god of storms had farmlands to water in eastern Lithuania tonight, but he lingered on the throne in his temple, his keen ears detecting the rustle of sheets as his bride tossed and turned in bed. What disturbed her? She’d enjoyed flying—her joy was palpable as they raced through the heavens—and she’d returned his affection so ardently he forgot all else while she clung to him. Perhaps the excitement of a new life kept her awake. He wanted to believe that, but the handmaiden’s warnings lingered in his mind. It might all be a façade meant to lull him into complacency while Nadzia pursued whatever nefarious plan the convent had in mind.

An owl flew over the temple’s open roof, its wings silhouetted by a moon just beginning to wane. Perun’s fingers drummed against his knees. When Nadzia hesitated after he explained how his granite eagles detected dishonesty, he’d steeled himself for the worst. Yet she entered with nary a ruffle from his birds. That should have allayed his suspicions. Yet he couldn’t help but wonder if the daughters of Jūratė could submerge their hatred so deeply even his guardians would fail to detect malice.

He rubbed at the ache in his jaw, the muscles taut and sore from clenching. Why had he been released from penance only to be thrust into a warren of doubt? Were the Fates jesting with him? He was on the verge of charging into Nadzia’s room and demanding answers when he realized her breath was rising and falling in even measure. Asleep at last.

Taking care to move as quietly as possible, Perun stepped away from his throne and parted Nadzia’s curtains, studying her in the firelight. In repose she looked so much like his beloved mermaid he had to restrain himself from taking her now and rousing her to the height of passion, her long, lithe body slick against his. His flesh clamored for release. Did he dare?

She pulled the mermaid quilt over her shoulders and murmured. If only he knew what she dreamed. Mortals might suppress emotions when they were awake, but not in repose. Breksta, goddess of twilight and dreams, often boasted about her powers at the Tree of Life. However humans acted during the day, their secret desires surfaced at night. Nadzia could not hide the truth while she slept.

Perun smothered a curse. Another time, he might have sought out Breksta and begged her help, but his sister hadn’t spoken to him for 500 years. She believed him beyond redemption, unfairly indulged. She’d never probe the depths of his bride’s mind, no matter how fervently he begged.

He let the curtains fall and then strode down the aisle for his nightly vigil at Jūratė’s shrine. Even though the Fates had judged him redeemed, he’d grown so used to the ritual it didn’t feel right to stop. He knelt before the altar, lit a fresh candle with his fingertips and bent his head, eager to lose himself in prayer.

But the flame spewed a cloud of acrid black smoke, plunging him into darkness, back to the day his world forever changed.

Half a century old, the memory was edged in mist. Perun stood on a branch at the Tree of Life, watching his beloved mermaid fly into the night on the back of a giant raven, his heart torn between loathing and longing, How could she have chosen a mortal over a god?

A sob rattled his throat. He growled and let fury crush sorrow. Why did he mewl like a calf who’d lost its mother? He was the mighty god of fire and lightning, maker of tempests. No one abandoned him for some stinking fisherman.

His fingers itched with heat, frustration seeking release. Jūratė had played him for a fool. It didn’t matter that she’d been exiled, her divinity drained and siphoned into a vial kept in his father’s room. Her rejection still stung. There was nothing he could do to alleviate the pain.

Except . . . .

He took to the air, urging his beast toward the coast with guttural cries. Soon the cove of Palanga appeared. The telltale gleam of Jūratė’s undersea palace shimmered in the moonlight. He halted above the water, his mouth twisted with contempt. He’d helped the goddess collect amber to build her castle. Now he would watch it crumble, stone by precious stone.

A man, tall and gaunt, paced the brilliant white sands and watched the sea. Perun smiled sourly at the mortal who’d stolen his lover. “My first strike is for you, Kastytis.” A stream of fire spewed from his hand. He looked on in grim satisfaction as the body below burst into flames and the man shrieked in agony.

His flesh seethed as he summoned black clouds and sent out peals of thunder that roiled the air. Consumed with wrath, he hurled bolt after bolt of jagged lightning, raining destruction until the waters steamed and the castle was a mound of amber shards. When he was satisfied the site had been thoroughly ravaged, he roared in triumph and shouted a command to his ox.

They spiraled upward to the sanctuary of his stars, where he waited for his energy to return—harnessing the power of wind and fire and rain always left him depleted. But the relief he’d sought eluded him. Why had he thought a ruined palace would ease the ache in his heart? Jūratė would never be his. A thousand storms could never compensate for the emptiness she’d left behind.

He returned to Kaunas long after the moon had set, its place in the sky claimed by a roseate sun. He’d barely coasted to a stop on the grasses outside the front of his temple when two of his father’s black-winged guards accosted him with a terse message: “Dievas commands your presence. He waits within.”

Rough hands gripped his arms. He tried to shake them off, but the attendants’ hold was stronger, enhanced by his father’s magic. None had more power than the Creator of All.

They dragged him down the center aisle, deaf to his complaints, and thrust him to the floor after passing his eternal flame. He stumbled to his feet, furious, until he glimpsed Rodzenica, crumpled and weeping against her husband’s shoulder. Dread lanced his throat. “Mother? What’s wrong?”

Dievas turned to him with a look of utter despair and moved aside, revealing a sight that brought Perun to his knees again—Jūratė’s bloodstained body, draped across his throne. Saltwater dripped from her raven tresses. Hazel eyes stared dully, devoid of life. Her skin, once so beautifully brown, was gray with the pallor of death.

He reached out, mute with horror. He’d seen his beloved depart safely. How could she have perished? An unearthly howl escaped him, a mournful cry that shook the rafters of his temple. “No!”

Veles shimmered into view behind the body, his serpentine scales rippling with agitation. When he spied Perun, he bared his fangs and lunged. “Murderer!”

Dievas held him back, although he trembled with the effort. “This is neither the time nor the place to indulge your hatred. Keep away and let me discern the truth.”

He waited until Veles slithered into a corner behind the thrones and then turned a haggard face toward Perun. “My son, I beg you, tell me these claims against you are false. Tell me you are not responsible for Jūratė’s death.”

Perun sank back on his heels and sputtered in disbelief. “Impossible. How? When?”

“Don’t play the innocent with us,” Veles jeered. “I’m the one who brought her spirit to the Underworld. I know exactly what happened. She died in the storm you unleashed.”

“That can’t be.” Perun cast his thoughts back to the cove. “Only the palace was destroyed.”

And then he remembered the man on the shore, watching . . . waiting . . . for Jūratė? Dear gods, no. “Are you saying she was within? But why? You banished her.”

“From what Veles has told us,” Rodzenica answered, her voice a shudder of emotion, “my daughter wanted her crown to help start a new life for her family. She believed herself safe. And why should she not? The Council forbade any of her brethren from contact.”

The goddess paused, steadied her breath, and then raised a trembling finger in accusation. “She named you her killer.”

“Not by me. Never by me.” Perun wheezed, barely able to think or feel beyond the grief threatening to consume him. “I . . . I thought her castle abandoned. I would never—”

“Assassin!” Veles cried, rising up with a hiss. “Did I not tell you so, Father?”

Dievas pulled up the god crouching at his feet until their faces were inches apart. “Jūratė was punished according to our laws,” he said, his tone clipped and biting. “We exiled her from these halls and made her mortal. Such was our judgment, binding upon all. Who granted you permission to act further?”

Perun lowered his eyes. “No one.”

“When has the mighty god of storms ever sought guidance?” Veles sneered. “He expects us all to indulge his wildness because that’s how he was made. Not this time, brother.”

“You have killed one of our own,” Dievas continued, warning the snake-skinned god to keep away with a glance. “She may have been cast out, but she was still divinely born. We cannot allow so grave a transgression to go unpunished. The Council will meet to decide your fate.”

“It was an accident, I swear.” Perun’s voice cracked. “Please, Father, you know how much I loved Jūratė. Her laughter was like a rainbow come alive. When she sang, all else faded. The stars shone more brightly in her presence. I would never wish her gone.”

“Do not try to sway us with reminders of what we have lost.” Rodzenica’s violet eyes glittered with condemnation. “Our daughter is dead and you are to blame.”

Released from his father’s grip, Perun staggered backwards and shook out his arms. “You don’t understand. Jūratė spurned me for a mortal, dismissed me like a pesky fly. It was an insult to all the gods.”

“An affront properly punished,” Dievas snapped. “We did not condemn her to death. That was your doing.”

“But not my intent. Surely you must allow for that.” Perun searched his mind for an argument that would sway his father. “Consider this as well: if it was Jūratė’s fate to die, then whatever happened was meant to be. I cannot be held fully accountable.”

“Coward!” Veles sprang forward, clawed fingers outstretched. “Shall we considerate it divine fortune if I rip you to shreds here and now?”

Perun flexed his hands. “These halls will run slick with your blood, brother, not mine.”

“You think to frighten me with idle threats?” Drops of poison hung from Veles’s fangs. “I am no innocent maiden in the sea. You will not strike me unawares.”

The gods circled each other, one spitting black venom, one sparking red fire, both muttering curses. Deivas shouted for quiet. “Veles, you promised no disruptions. Stand by your vow or I shall have you removed from this chamber.”

The snake-skinned god returned to his father’s side and wiped his mouth as his tail coiled into a ringed seat. “I cannot abide a killer who blames the victim. But then, I’m not surprised. What does Perun know of honor? Nothing.”

“And yet he brings up a point which the Council must discuss with the Fates.” Deivas sighed and shook his head. “Shall I tell them the god of storms has no remorse? That he blames destiny for his actions?”

Perun hesitated. What difference did it make if he hadn’t known Jūratė lingered in her castle? He’d given free rein to the dark urges that compelled him to travel to the Baltic Coast and destroy a palace with no thought to the consequences. Much as he hated to admit it, his brother was right. The crime was his alone and there was no undoing the deed.

He gazed forlornly at the mermaid goddess’s corpse. “Oh, my love,” he moaned. “What have I done? Forgive me.”

The chamber echoed with his anguished cries. When his voice grew hoarse, he approached his parents, a shadow of himself, hunched with anguish. “Censure me as you will. I am ready to die. No one else can expiate my sin.”

Amazement flashed across his father’s face. “Then you regret your deeds?”

“Don’t trust him,” Veles urged, his eyes narrowing. “He fears what you will decide.”

“You are wrong, brother. I would cut out my heart if it would bring Jūratė back.”

“An interesting idea,” Dievas murmured, stroking his beard. “A sacrifice to convince us you are truly contrite.” He held out a hand to his wife. “We will bring your suggestion before the Council. Remain here while we attend to the matter.”

“There is no need. I am willing to stand trial.”

“You have admitted your guilt,” Dievas said crisply. “We must decide on the proper penance.”

Veles folded his arms. “As much as I’d love to tear you apart, I won’t forfeit my seat at the Council’s deliberations. I suggest you retain the guards, Father. Given my brother’s rash behavior, we can’t trust him not to flee the moment our backs are turned.”

“An excellent suggestion.” Dievas beckoned the messengers forward. “Keep him here. Veles, take this body to your realm and then join us.”

They returned when stars began to dot the heavens, their faces worn with fatigue, and settled into the two thrones. “Your actions stirred an intense debate, my son,” Dievas began, rubbing his ivory brow. “Now that the Council has made its decision, you may learn the full truth of what occurred.”

He took a long breath and exhaled slowly. “After your assault, Jūratė escaped her palace and found sanctuary in a cave. When Veles arrived, he discovered twin babes, both girls, clinging to her breasts.”

“Two . . . and they survived.” Perun faltered, his emotions shifting between joy and sorrow. “Then she lives on.”

“Through her daughters, yes.” Rodzenica dabbed away a cold tear. “Mokosh asked to be their guardian and we agreed wholeheartedly—the goddess of life can be trusted to see that they flourish.”

“Their mother should have seen them thrive,” Veles spat. “Because of your jealousy, she never will.”

Perun hung his head. “Has the Council decided on my punishment?”

“We have,” Dievas replied. “While we understand that passion can lead one astray, we cannot accept it as an excuse.”

“Tell me what I must do.” Perun listened mutely while his father explained the choices:  exile, death, or—wonder of wonders—a chance to atone and love again. Heat warmed his face. “You would give me one of Jūratė’s own? Why? I don’t deserve mercy.”

“Because we are convinced this was—as you insist—an unfortunate calamity.” Dievas’s voice hardened. “Our daughter betrayed us. You did not, although your actions weigh heavy on our hearts. This is an opportunity for you to regain our favor.”

Perun put a hand to his chest. Never again would envy rule him. He glanced at the moon shining above, a beacon of hope, and bowed to his parents. “I vow to be a faithful companion, devoted in my affection, asking nothing for myself. Thank the Council for me, Father. I promise you will not regret your kindness.”

“I’ll be watching for any lapses,” Veles said as they departed. “Every day and night.”

At sunrise the next morning, Rodzenica waited beside Perun’s eternal flame. He gulped and kneeled before her, groaning as she reached into his chest, sliced his heart with her fingernail, and pressed the red sliver into a shard of amber.

His discomfort did not go unnoticed. “Be thankful you are here today,” she chided. “Veles argued most heatedly for your demise and several on the Council agreed with him. Your father overruled them. He insisted you be given a chance to make amends.”

Perun massaged the flesh above his heart. The cut was nearly healed, although a nagging ache remained. “How you will know when I am fully redeemed?”

“The Fates gathered sand from Palanga and housed it in an enchanted hourglass we will keep in our private quarters at the Tree of Life. When the last grain drops, your sins will have been purged.”

Rodzenica held out the amber. She looked up at her son—he towered over all the gods save his father—with melancholy eyes. “You cannot force a woman’s affection. That is the lesson you must learn. Return this stone to the cove from whence it came. Create a shrine for Jūratė and apologize. For your arrogance. For your wrath. For depriving us of her sweet company. Promise as well to honor and treasure the one who summons you.”

“Then she’ll be mine?”

“No, then you must court her. Take care with this one, my son,” she said, pressing the stone into his palm. “Treat her badly and I will refuse to make you whole again.” She smiled grimly at Perun’s gasp of horrified understanding—she had just sworn to let him die if his actions failed to meet with her approval. “I see that you grasp the severity of the situation.”

Perun swallowed heavily. The stakes were so immense that he put aside his pride—he never asked for advice—and took his mother’s hand. “Help me.”

She blinked at him as if he was a doddering fool. “Just love her.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“It is.” The lines of sadness in Rodzenica’s face softened. “True esteem and affection grow when properly nurtured.”

“Please,” Perun begged. “Won’t you at least give me a sign?”

“Love is not a game.”

He peered into the depths of his mother’s gaze, hoping for encouragement. But her eyes were bereft of solace. She had no comfort to offer. He pushed down the rage that threatened to erupt and searched for words to appease her. “Am I doomed, then, because I could not control my temper? Will you condemn me to my brother’s savagery?”

His voice broke. “Is that what you wish for me, eternal torment?”

Rodzenica twitched, as if roused from a dream. “No, my son, I wish to see my daughter reborn and cherished.” She breathed upon the jewel. A golden mist descended into the amber. “If the girl has sincere feelings for you, the sliver will beat stronger. Remember, you are more than fire and fury. Look deep within and find the tenderness I impart to all my children. Then you will know how to love.”

Perun gathered his mother in a fierce embrace, startling a huff of surprise out of her. “I’ll make you proud. Wait and see.”

#

The smoke surrounding Perun evaporated as his awareness gradually returned to the present. The candles at Jūratė’s altar had burned down to stubs. He rubbed his eyes and silently cursed. Why hadn’t he thought to check the stone hanging at Nadzia’s throat? He didn’t dare to look now, having promised to stay clear of her room unless she asked him inside. When he’d glimpsed her from the curtains earlier, she’d been wrapped in her quilt, her neck tightly covered. Fool of a god!

Yet all was not lost. Gabi, as loyal as servant as any god could ask for, had promised to report oddities in his bride’s behavior. He hoped she prevailed; she was young and impressionable, an easy target for a woman with a siren’s voice. If this daughter of Jūratė truly meant him harm, it wouldn’t take much to convince a simple farm girl otherwise. He could only wait and see. And patience was not one of his virtues.

He sent a silent prayer of thanks to Rodzenica for her gift, an infallible means of gauging deceit, so skillfully concealed within the sliver of his heart. Nadzia might deceive a god who desperately wanted to believe she was true to her word, but no mortal—even one with a divine heritage—could resist his mother’s enchantment.

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

 

 

THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 3, 4

Perun, god of storms
Nadzia

As the story continues,  Nadzia prepares to leave the convent and meets Jūratė, who offers surprising advice.

All chapters are posted at link below. If you’ve missed any, just click to catch up.

 

http://kathrynjankowskibooks.com/the-thunder-gods-bride-a-paranormal-romance/

 

CHAPTER 3

Nadzia

Mother Gintare’s room faced west, with a window that opened onto the sea. An ocean breeze cooled Nadzia as she waited in the doorway, a brisk wind carrying the distant cries of terns squabbling over fish guts at the docks. Inside, the furnishings were simple: a desk and two chairs, a cot pushed against the wall opposite the window, a bedside altar, a bookcase filled with ledgers.

Mother had one in hand now, a thick leather journal with a mermaid embossed on the cover. She whispered and stroked the aquamarine scales. When the book fell open to a blank page, she motioned for Nadzia to take a seat and then pushed across the book and an ink quill.

“You want me to write?” Nadzia stared in surprise. It was the Elders who cataloged the convent’s business and history, never a novice.

“A simple statement,” Mother replied. “What do you seek?”

“Perun’s destruction.”

“A goal achieved without jeopardizing your sisters or indulging in visions of grandeur.”

Nadzia flinched at the old woman’s words. She hadn’t spoken about the stature she would gain as a goddess, how the idea of divine life secretly thrilled her. It seemed too boastful, and she didn’t have a friend to confide in anyway, even if she yearned to share her deepest desires. She’d kept relations with her sisters cordial but distant. Why grow attached to someone who might be taken from you and never return?

“Do not mistake my meaning,” the abbess said. “We have all wished ourselves Jūratė’s champion. There is no greater honor. Nonetheless, I caution you: do not lose sight of your goal or misjudge your enemy. We thought the gods’ plans perfectly clear, yet see how they have toyed with us, muddled our expectations with this delay. You must proceed with the greatest care.”

“But I’m bound to him. Surely that’s to my favor.” Nadzia’s hand sought the necklace hanging from her neck. The locket tingled at her touch; her heart quivered in response.

Mother’s eyes, leaden as the sea on a winter’s morning, probed unflinchingly. Nadzia pulled herself tight like a crab retreating into its shell. Unbidden, her hand began to stroke the pendant. Reassuring warmth greeted her touch, easing the tension in her shoulders. She let out a long, tremulous breath. “He wants me. I can feel it.”

A muscle in Mother’s cheek twitched. “This divine connection pleases you,” she said, her words laced with scorn. “I see longing etched upon your face.”

Nadzia’s cheeks grew hot. “That’s not true!”

“The god of storms is ruled by passion. Yield to the temptations of the flesh and you will never tame him.” Mother leaned back in her chair and made a steeple with her fingers. “Sister Ramuna tells me you enjoy the pleasures of seduction. Perhaps more than is prudent.”

Nadzia squirmed in her seat. She’d assumed her talks with the librarian were private. “I won’t allow lust to distract me. Not with a killer. ”

“A heartfelt promise can be undone if a more attractive choice arises. You are not immune to our foe’s power. Your response to his jewel reveals as much.”

“You think me weak? This bond works to my advantage, not against it.”

“Do not twist my words,” Mother snapped. “The Fates gave you the power to summon our adversary. Hold fast to your sacred promise and you will yet fulfill your duty.”

Nadzia gripped the thunder god’s stone. Heat flushed her skin. A wisp of smoke drifted from her fingers, although the skin remained pure. Sweat dripped from her brow, pain watered her eyes, yet she didn’t cry out for release. “On . . . my . . . life.”

Mother gave a curt nod, clearly pleased at Nadzia’s demonstration of self-control. “Remember Jūratė and all will be well. Now take a moment to record your thoughts. Briefly, if you please. There are other matters you must attend to.”

Nadzia gripped the pen and pressed her words deep into the parchment. Today I begin a holy battle. May the goddess guide my actions and grant me humility.

She swiveled the book for Mother’s appraisal, allowed herself a brief smile at the satisfaction in old woman’s eyes, and waited for an explanation of the need for haste. She had no bags to pack, although she intended to bring a few books in the pockets of her robe. She’d hoped to take a long swim in the sea and then bask on the serpentine rocks that lined Palanga’s cover. Goddess knew when she’d have another chance. And then maybe a bite to eat. Would it be too much if she asked for cake and wine, a small party to celebrate her success?

The abbess had other ideas.

#

An hour later Nadzia left with a handful of notes sealed with the wax imprint of a water nymph, the Order of Bursztyn’s emblem. She crossed the pentagon-shaped courtyard, passing small groups of novices. Most offered muted congratulations as they stared at her necklace. A few scuttled out of the way, their eyes full of apprehension. She stopped at Jūratė’s fountain, cupped a handful of water, and bathed her neck. Hardly noon and already the air was thick with heat.

Chill drops trickled down her spine. The sickroom door opened and Keslai emerged with a heavily bandaged arm. Her sister wobbled a bit—no doubt due to the effects of herbs she’d been given for pain. Nadzia stiffened as the girl lurched in her direction.

“Still here, I see,” Keslai said, her words thick and halting. She laughed, a low, guttural sound brimming with spite. “Poor little girl. However will you enchant the god of storms when he won’t even come and claim you?”

“I’m so sorry you were hurt.” Nadzia moved closer and took her sister’s arm. “Please let me help you to bed. You need rest.”

Keslai shoved her away with a surprising burst of strength. “I don’t need your charity.” Her breath hissed as she gingerly lowered herself to sit on the fountain’s edge. “You stole my dream. I’m the one who deserves a throne. Don’t expect me to grovel when—ifyou return a goddess. Mother can whip me with her switch until my blood waters these cobblestones . . . I’ll never accept you as my queen.”

She batted away tears coursing down her cheeks. “Go! I can’t bear to look at you.”

A rush of sympathy clogged Nadzia’s throat, but she didn’t know what to say without adding to her sister’s anguish. She bolted toward the garden, slipping hastily through the gate and waving aside a stray bee as she passed rows of herbs and vegetables on her way to the far corner. Sister Bronis rose from a bench shaded by pines and greeted her with a near bone-crunching embrace. Nadzia wriggled free and held out the abbess’s note. After a quick read, Sister tucked the paper into her apron pocket and hustled to the kitchen. “Come along,” she called, waving for Nadzia to follow. “We’ve no time to lose.”

The room was deliciously cool, the air perfumed by sprigs of lavender and rosemary hanging from the beams. Sister edged around a huge table gouged by decades of slicing and dicing—its top filled at the moment with cloth-covered dishes for the evening feast—and headed for the wall of shelves that held a collection of mortars and pestles, pots and pans, tinctures, syrups, and herbal distillations.

She removed the top of a thick earthenware jar and ladled out two cups of hard cider. “To the one chosen for greatness,” she said, raising her mug. “May you do the goddess proud.” Sister grinned and guzzled her drink in one long swig. “A good batch,” she said, pouring herself another. “Go on, then, enjoy.”

Mindful of the butterflies flitting in her stomach, Nadzia sipped while Sister chose a basket from the bottom shelf. “This delay gives us an unexpected opportunity. We meant to send these to you by boat with a trusted courier—there is a dock near Perun’s temple in Kaunas—along with a letter of explanation. Thank the Fates, I can give them to you now.”

Her cheerfulness vanished as she assumed the mien of a brusque teacher. “Go on, then. Take out the stones and tell me what you know of them.”

Hoping this wasn’t some obscure lesson she’d forgotten, Nadzia removed two mottled gray rocks and blew out a breath of relief. “These are bezoars.”

“Their purpose?”

“A bezoar at the bottom of a drinking vessel will nullify any poison.”

“Who would seek your death?”

Nadzia thought back to her lessons. Mokosh, the earth goddess who’d nourished and protected the daughters of Jūratė from the moment they were first born, had warned them to keep alert. The Council’s judgment did not sit well with all the deities in Lithuania’s pantheon. Some resented what they deemed a lax punishment, and it would be all too easy to engineer a fatal accident for his bride, once chosen. “There are those who would deny the god of storms happiness,” she answered, nodding grimly, “no matter the cost.”

“Correct. The gods are masters of artifice. Trust no one until Mokosh advises you it is safe to do so.” Sister pulled out a small clay bottle fitted with a cork stopper. “This holds water from Jūratė’s sacred springs. Be sparing. A drop when your spirits are low will restore you.”

“Why would I be sad?” Nadzia protested. “This is a joyful occasion.”

Sister growled like an animal ready to pounce. “You are walking into the lion’s den. Beware the beast. He cares little for your feelings.”

“I don’t intend to have feelings for him.”

“Perhaps. He’s boisterous and crude, but even cads can be charming. Just remember, if ever you feel smothered or lost, this will help.”

Nadzia cradled the container. “Thank you, it’s a most thoughtful gift.”

“Thank the goddess, dear. Now, do you see the brooch?”

Nadzia reached for the gilded seashell and chirruped with delight. “So pretty! Is this to remind me of Palanga?”

“That is not its purpose.” Sister tugged on the back of the pin; the shell sprang open, revealing a single pearl. Her voice softened. “Should all else fail, you need not endure agony at Perun’s hands. Drop this into your drink. The end will be swift.”

Nadzia gulped her cider, her throat dry as bone. The horror of taking her own life to avoid torment was too dire an end to contemplate before she’d even begun. She pushed the idea to the back of her mind and prayed the decision never came to pass.

Sister murmured and patted her arm. “You’ve grown pale. Shall I keep this and trust you to find another means of escape?”

“If the Fates will it so, I am ready to die. But I hope for victory, not defeat.”

“As do we all.” Sister blinked away the mist in her eyes. “Remember, our prayers go with you.” She stood, motioned for Nadzia to do the same, and then held out a black belt with a silver buckle, along with a matching leather pouch. “This is the last of the lot. Everything goes inside the purse, then you tie it onto the belt, like so.”

She drew Nadzia close, kissed both cheeks, and traced a series of waves in the air—a sign of protection. “May Jūratė watch over you and keep you safe.”

It was a prayer Nadzia would repeat countless times in the weeks that followed.

#

The second note brought her to the library across the courtyard from Mother’s room. North-facing windows illuminated an orderly space centered by a long pine table surrounded by benches. Cushioned chairs were scattered about, offering comfortable spots to curl up with a favorite read. A fireplace with mantel statues and iron sconces occupied the eastern side. Scrolls and books filled shelves built into the remaining walls. Sister Ramuna collected writings from around the world, brought by traders who visited during the warmer months.

If not for other demands on her time, Nadzia would spend every day here, blissfully lost in stories conceived by minds far more clever than hers. She’d once hoped to sneak in a few hours of reading while the convent slumbered—on nights when she wasn’t stargazing, of course—but the doors were locked and bolted from the inside. The librarian slept on a thick bedroll near the hearth, guarding a chamber behind the fireplace, a hidden alcove accessed by pulling on a bronzed figure of the goddess atop the mantel. Inside were five centuries of the convent’s journals along with a collection of graphic texts Sister utilized when instructing novices on the art of seduction.

An outsider might consider educating young ladies in the ways of the flesh unseemly, but Perun was a lusty god. His bride must know a host of ways to please him. Nadzia’s thighs clutched as she recalled several of the more explicit books and the many times she’d employed their techniques. True to her teaching, she always mesmerized her partner afterwards so that none spoke of the carnal pleasures to be found in the woods outside the convent. Now she would learn if her skills worked as well on immortal flesh.

She settled in a chair next to shelves brimming with fantastic stories and chose a book about a poor woodcutter who learned the secret of a thieves’ den. As fanciful as the tale was, Nadzia couldn’t concentrate. She skimmed the pages, flipping past colorful sketches of a cave crammed with jewels and gold, and a dark-skinned man named Ali Baba clothed in billowing pants and a turban.

A click. The fireplace swung outward. Sister Ramuna entered the room, not moving or speaking until the hearth returned to its usual position with a dull thud. Nadzia silently handed her the abbess’s note.

Sister’s lips quirked as she read. “You have been warned about tempering your delight in sensuality?”

“You needn’t worry about me,” Nadzia said, studying the pine floor. “I won’t lose myself in Perun’s arms.”

“Ah, you’re angry.” Sister lifted Nadzia’s chin. Her sapphire eyes held a tinge of sorrow. “Perhaps you feel betrayed?”

“I wouldn’t have shared my feelings if I’d known you’d take them to Mother.”

The Elder folded her arms. “The abbess had a twin sister. Do you remember what happened to her?”

Nadzia frowned. What bring up that sad story? “She ventured too far at sea and was caught in a net cast by a merchant ship of the Hanseatic League. The captain wooed her while she was held prisoner. They married in secret and tried to return to Palanga, but his superiors saw her calm a stormy sea and declared her a witch. They hung her husband while she watched and then stuffed her mouth with kelp and burned her at the stake.”

Sister’s eyes clouded. “Mother became a shell of herself. We feared she might die of grief. When her anguish finally waned, she swore no man would ever again trap a daughter of Jūratė with sweet words and caresses.”

“Then why teach us how to seduce them?”

“Because a man in the throes of passion will agree to near anything, share the very depths of his soul. You can’t be as weak. You must remain in control.”

Nadzia bit her lip. “I’m sorry. Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive. We have more important issues at hand.” Sister opened a carved box on the tabletop. Inside was a letter sealed with forest-green wax and stamped with a wreath of fruit and flowers. She lit the sconces and eased into a rocking chair by the hearth before handing over the missive. “Mokosh sent this an hour ago.”

It was a short message, a mere six words. Nadzia sank into a chair, her breath escaping in one long whoosh. The novices had been warned again and again to act judiciously when venturing beyond the convent. Perun’s servants were loyal, his followers rabid in their devotion. But this . . . this bespoke danger they anticipated. “Is it true? Dievas will test the chosen one?”

“If Mokosh says it is so, you can believe her. He will be watching for discrepancies between manners and words.”

Nadzia tried to speak, but her lips moved noiselessly, like a dying fish. They’d never worried about having to appease the god of creation. Hadn’t he insisted on this arrangement? Face to face, a mere novice couldn’t hope to outwit him, no matter how masterful her deception elsewhere.

Perhaps they were the ones deceived. None escaped the will of the gods. Dievas had created them; surely he could penetrate their minds. Nadzia’s words came out a quivering whisper. “I don’t think I can, not with the mightiest of all the gods.”

“You are Jūratė reborn, else your voice could not have called out Perun’s stone. That is her most precious gift to you. Use it as you have been taught and all will be well.”

Nadzia raised the parchment to a sconce. When flames devoured the edges, she dropped the message into the fireplace, watched the paper shrivel, and hoped she wouldn’t do the same when Dievas examined her.

A bell rang, signaling the afternoon meal, a light repast meant to stave off hunger until the feast. Nadzia had little appetite. She craved solitude, not sustenance, time to consider what lay ahead. But she didn’t know if Perun planned to feed her, and hunger pangs would only become a distraction. A small plate, then, something she could nibble on while delivering her final note.

The courtyard baked with shimmering heat, the air sultry and still. Nadzia kept to the shadows under eaves that shaded the inner perimeter and made her way to the refectory next to the kitchen. She filled a dish with a hazelnuts, slices of apple, some goat’s cheese, and crossed over to the music studio.

Easing inside, she set her empty plate on the nearest chair. This was where she’d honed her voice, practiced supernatural scales, learned the libidinous notes that lured men to the forest. A room with chairs and risers and walls that perfectly echoed the sounds within. At the far end hung a life-sized tapestry of the goddess with her twins.

Nadzia’s heart swelled with awe and reverence as she approached the woven scene. This was why they fought. Because a jealous god had deprived Jūratė of everything she loved. He wasn’t entitled to a loving mate. Fates be kind, he’d never have one.

A firm hand clenched her shoulder. “You have a note for me?”

“Yes.” Nadzia shrugged off Sister Dain’s grasp and presented the last of the abbess’s directives. She hooked a finger over her new belt, tamping down her impatience. Why postpone things? If Dievas was playing games, then let the gods think her an ignorant pawn, oblivious and simple-minded. Once they realized she’d bested them, her victory would be that much sweeter.

Sister Dain crumpled the note and sighed. “You must swear by the bones of the Blessed One to never speak of what I am about to show you. Do I have your word?”

“How can I make a promise when I don’t know what you mean?”

“I will say no more until you pledge silence.”

Nadzia hesitated, torn between curiosity and dread. If an Elder insisted on a vow, whatever followed held the utmost importance. So crucial that it required a sacred promise. She pushed down her apprehension and made the sign of obedience. She’d wanted to be chosen, she had to accept every consequence. “I swear.”

Sister Dain turned to the wall and sang a low haunting melody that shivered the air. She stepped aside and motioned for Nadzia to move closer. “Pull aside the hanging.”

“A door?” Nadzia gasped in surprise. The wood was carved with creatures and symbols of the sea, its handle a bronze mermaid. She ran her fingers over a dolphin. “How long has this been here?”

“Since the convent was built.” Sister fished out a key from her pocket and inserted it into the siren’s mouth. The door swung open, revealing a stone staircase that ended in darkness. She took a lantern that hung near the top and began her descent. “Step carefully. These rocks are old and steep.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the cave where Jūratė gave birth.”

 

CHAPTER 4

Nadzia

The stairs opened up to a tunnel gritty with sand and loose rocks. Nadzia murmured a prayer of thanks to the passageway’s architect as she followed Sister Dain. The tall roof meant she could walk without crouching. Yet even so high a ceiling didn’t compensate for the narrowness of the walls—so close they grazed her shoulders. She was a child of the sea, ill at ease in closed spaces. The air was dank and still, the quiet an eerie change from the constant roar of the ocean that resounded day and night. She kept one hand on her locket; the amber glowed so brightly she could have forged ahead without Sister’s lantern.

They walked in silence, Nadzia mentally calculating their path. As far as she knew, there was only one cave on the convent grounds: a hollow space on the dunes, the spot where the Elders came forth each solstice for the Gathering. Not too long a journey from the music studio. But knowing where they were going didn’t answer why. Was she about to undergo a secret ritual before she left with the god of storms? She gripped her pendant tighter.

Soon the familiar scent of brine tickled her nose. Nadzia breathed in the blessedly cool ocean breeze. “Are we nearly there?”

“Almost.” Sister turned abruptly. The tunnel opened to a large rocky chamber illuminated by torches sunk in brilliant white sand. To the left, light filtered through a loose screen woven from reeds that concealed the cave’s beach entrance. A large chest, its lid open, sat near the opening. Nadzia glanced inside and wondered who used the woolen shawls, pillows, bottles of mead, candles. Did the Elders meditate here the night before the Gathering?

She moved deeper into the cave, drawn to an odd shape jutting out from the back wall. The torches flared at her approach, revealing a mermaid’s skeleton—half human, half fish. Golden plates beneath the figure held nuggets of amber, strips of dried eel, and nubs of candles. Nadzia fell to her knees. “Is that . . . Jūratė?”

“Not quite.” Sister Dain lit fresh candles, placed her hands on the wall, and hummed a note so deep and resonant the rocks shuddered. The bones on the wall stirred. Slowly, the torso filled with dark lustrous flesh, the tail with sea green scales. Fossilized curls gave way to a glossy tumble of coal-black hair. When the figure was fully transformed, the goddess opened her eyes.

“You’re alive!” Nadzia gaped and then made a hasty sign of obedience—hand to forehead, lips, and heart.

Jūratė’s laughter echoed through the cave like a sparkling waterfall. “Death is but a door to another realm, my daughter. We never truly perish.” She nodded at Sister Dain. “Thank you for bringing her to me.”

“I live to serve.” The Elder bowed deeply and turned to Nadzia. “The abbess will come for you when the sun begins to set. Remember your promise. You will not speak of this place. It must be kept secret.”

“I gave my word,” Nadzia said with a hint of anger. “You have no reason to doubt me.”

Sister paused as if she had more to say, seemed to think better of it, and bowed again to the goddess. “I leave her in your care, Blessed One.”

Nadzia returned her attention to the luminous being on the wall. Of all the events she imagined might occur today, meeting her divine ancestor was not among them. It was one thing to pray at an altar, something entirely different to come face-to-face with the goddess you revered. She fumbled for words and finally decided to wait until she was asked to speak.

Jūratė floated down from the rocks, leaving behind a faint impression of her body on the stones. She settled onto the sand and curled her tail into a seat. Nadzia studied the goddess’s face, so like her own she might be looking in a mirror—the same slate eyes, the same raven curls and olive skin. No wonder Perun answered when I called.

The goddess smiled. “Tell me your name.”

“Nadzia, your holiness.”

Jūratė’s sigh was a melancholy exhalation that resonated against the walls and flickered the torches. “My brave, brave daughter. You do me honor with your courage. Perun is a mighty foe. He will test your resolve.”

“I have your voice,” Nadzia said proudly. “Not even the god of storms can resist it.”

“True, but can you resist him?”

Nadzia stammered in surprise. “I would . . . I never . . . how can you think —?”

“Did you never wonder why he was so angry when I chose a human to wed?”

“He was jealous. He wanted you for his own.”

“And why would he believe that possible?”

Nadzia frowned as she recalled the history she’d been taught. Perun was enraged by the mermaid goddess’s disdain for rules, his wrath magnified by what he considered a weak verdict. Surely he didn’t think he had a claim to the Blessed One. Unless . . . .

“You loved him?” she whispered, aghast at the thought.

“He is more than fire and fury,” Jūratė answered. “He longs for affection and gladly returns it. Yes, I loved him, but Kastysis stole my heart with a glance. I did not wish to hurt Perun, but we could not continue as before.”

“He killed you,” Nadzia protested. “He’s a brute. I’ll never want him.”

Jūratė looked at her keenly. “Do not presume to know every secret of seduction,” she warned. “Perun is a skillful lover. And quite persistent.”

“I know how to shield my emotions. I’ll never relent.”

“And yet when you speak of him, your hand seeks the jewel shining at your throat.” The goddess recoiled as Nadzia held out the amber for inspection. “My touch will act as a beacon. We must not alert Perun to my presence here. Or yours.”

“Why am I here?” Nadzia asked. “For a final blessing?”

“I wish to propose an alternative.” Jūratė eyes blazed with a fervor that turned Nadzia’s blood cold. “There is no need for conflict. You can accept what the gods have offered. The lives of your sisters are at stake. I do not wish to see my children dead before their time.”

Nadzia sat back on her heels, astounded. “You don’t you believe in me?”

“I commend your valor and fortitude,” the goddess replied. “But a vow of vengeance puts you and the Order in grave peril. Not only with the god of storms, but the Divine Council as well. Do you believe that Perun’s wrath is all you need fear? Dievas will spare no one if he learns of your scheme.” Jūratė’s voice quivered with bitterness. “He did nothing to stop Perun from killing me or my husband. You can expect no less for the convent.”

Nadzia’s mind reeled. “I don’t understand. If saving everyone is as simple as submitting to Perun, why have the Elders trained me to resist?”

“I have argued against this scheme with every abbess since the talk of insurrection began,” Jūratė said irritably. “They will not listen. They are resolute in their craving to thwart the gods and convinced they can prevail.”

“Then why don’t you protect us?”

Jūratė’s anger subsided. “How I wish I could. But my divinity is gone, I have no power against the gods. My presence here is possible only because Veles created a portal from the Underworld to this cave for me.” She paused to smooth back a stray hair that had fallen across her forehead. “There is a bright spot amidst the darkness: once you are made divine, your powers will forever protect the Order and the waters of Lithuania. Is that not a purpose noble enough to stop this folly?”

She reached out to touch Nadzia’s cheek and then pulled back when Perun’s jewel spit out a flurry of sparks. “Will you battle the gods and wait for the stench of death to fill the cove if you lose, or take what you have been given and live content?”

Nadzia bit back a retort. Give up without a fight? Impossible. The goddess hadn’t lived under a cloud, knowing she might be bound to a killer. She didn’t understand how it felt to have her existence shaped by that knowledge. Every Gatherer who stood on the shore prayed for the chance to outwit the gods. What was she supposed to tell them? That the promise of an immortal throne meant more than their right to revenge?

Her thoughts grew peevish. None of this would be happening if Jūratė had loved Perun as he wished. “This is all your fault!” she cried, hating the childishness of her words yet unable to stop them. “You should have stayed with your own kind.”

“We cannot foresee every consequence of our choices,” Jūratė replied softly. “Blame me if you must, but remember, had I married Perun you would not be here today. Should I regret my daughters, my pride and joy?”

Nadzia’s face flamed. “Forgive me, Blessed One. I spoke in haste.” She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “I understand the danger, truly. We all do. But the fate that Dievas and the Council thrust upon us is exactly why we must resist. We can’t let the gods treat us as pawns.” Her fists clenched. “Where would they be without mortals to worship them? Who would build their temples? We have a right to choose our own destiny, even if that means destruction.”

The goddess held up her hands in defeat. “If I cannot dissuade you, then promise me that you will not be hasty. Your siren’s voice may tame the god of storms, as mine did, but it lacks the full force of divinity. Guard your true thoughts and emotions. Perun must never suspect you are anything but a willing participant in the gods’ designs. Any hint of fraud will stoke his ire. You do not want to face his fury alone.”

Nadzia jutted out her chin. “I have the prayers of my sisters with me always.”

“Mine as well,” Jūratė said stiffly, “but that does not give you permission to act rashly. You will be watched, do nothing to arouse suspicion. At Perun’s temple, with his servants and followers, at court—especially at court. The gods are fickle. They love their games of intrigue and their loyalties are constantly shifting. Do not trust appearances. Learn what lurks behind them. If you need someone to confide in, seek out Veles. You can trust him.”

“Not Dievas and Rodzenica?”

Jūratė’s skin flushed scarlet. “The gods of creation, who directed the Council to rule in Perun’s favor and allowed him to claim one of my precious daughters? Never.”

Nadzia bowed her head. She wondered if the goddess regretted marrying a human. She’d never had a chance to raise a family, didn’t meet her daughters until they died. It couldn’t be an easy existence. She raised her eyes. “Are you content, shut away from the world?”

“I’m not so very isolated. My husband and I are together. And every babe born to the Order is brought to me here.” The goddess laughed at Nadzia’s gasp of surprise. “Did you never wonder why a mermaid is etched on the back of your neck? My breath marks you.”

“There’s so much I don’t know.” A wave of fatigue washed over Nadzia. She yawned and then gulped in dismay. “I’m sorry. I mean no disrespect.”

“And yet you willfully ignore my wishes.” Jūratė waved away Nadzia’s sputtering protests. “You want the freedom to make your own choices, as I did. We won’t speak of it further.” She opened her arms and smiled sadly. “You have a few hours before night falls. Let me hold you until then.”

Nadzia leaned into the mermaid’s cool embrace and closed her eyes. She was about to endure the caresses of a killer, she welcomed a gentle embrace before she left. The goddess stroked her hair and crooned a note sweeter than a nightingale’s chirp. Nadzia snuggled closer and fell asleep to dreams of infants cooing at the goddess’s touch.

Copyright © 2022 by Kathryn Jankowski